Rice Cooker Double Duty

Since November is a busy month for me, I was hoping to multitask using some of my cooking appliances. I’ve always been a fan of steaming some vegetables while I cook rice in the rice cooker, experimented with steaming dumplings, but when I came across some recipes that cooked entire meals in the rice cooker, I was intrigued. This lunch bento is the result of my first (and most likely last attempt).

I’m not going to include the recipes because none of them actually worked. The chicken and bell peppers were marinated in sesame oil with some pepper and salt, wrapped in foil, then tossed into the rice and water and left to steam with them. No matter how long I kept it in the cooker, the chicken remained raw in the middle, so I ended up giving up and tossing it in a skillet . Great end taste, but not worth the time and effort of seal up the chicken in a nice little foil pouch, especially since I ended up having to cook it in a pan anyways.

The savory egg dish was also incredibly delicious, but very ineffective in the rice cooker. It was flavored strongly enough that it tasted good both hot and cold the next day in our lunches. I just had to keep it in my rice cooker for 4+ cycles. It also puffed up to incredible heights while cooking. It might be that my rice cooker just isn’t strong/good enough, but I won’t be using it to cook anything more than rice or steam veggies again anytime soon.

Rice Cooker Multipurpose Attempt

Top Tier: Steamed Rice with Scallions and Kinpira, Bottom Tier: Sesame Chicken and Red Bell Pepper, Carrot Kinpira, Savory Quiche

New Kitchen Toy, New Hobby

Although I’m posting about both at the same time, my new kitchen toy has absolutely nothing to do with my new hobby (go figure).  First up, the new toy:

Berry Strainer from Sur La Table with one can of black beans.

While searching for a copper bowl to give as a present (who knew no one keeps them in stock in stores anymore?), we came across this awesome silicone collapsible berry strainer at Sur La Table for the splurge-worthy price of $4.00.  Considering I had a gift certificate burning a hole in my pocket at that moment, it was fate.  It’s currently my new favorite kitchen toy.  I don’t just use it for washing berries, though I have used it for strawberries and blueberries; it’s real handy trick is helping rinse canned beans and veggies.  This berry strainer is perfectly sized to hold 1-2 cans of whatever you need drained or rinsed.  One of my least favorite parts of cooking with canned beans was always the rinsing; I know how to use the can’s lid to hold in the beans while I fill and dump it with water, but I’m not fond of it.  It’s not worth digging out the colander and using it, but somehow holding a can under the faucet and letting the water run over the not so clean lid and into my food didn’t seem like it was the best way to get the job done. Enter the berry strainer: I dump the contents of the can into the strainer over the sink, run it under water, give it a couple shakes and wait till the water runs clear. End result: perfectly rinsed and rained beans. When making the Black Bean and Quinoa salad, I used the strainer to rinse the black beans, and to help me drain the canned tomatoes so the dish didn’t end up too liquidy. It’s dishwasher safe and collapses thin enough to fit in my gadget drawer so it’s easy to access while cooking.

New Hobby:

Completely unrelated to cooking, I’ve been having some fun lately with my nails.  It’s a bit strange really, since I’ve never been one for long nails and I’m not really into make up.  However, my skin has been acting up lately which doesn’t allow me to wear any jewelry on my hands and I miss having something sparkly or colorful to look at/play with.  Enter nail polish.  I’ve always had fun with random colors of nail polish, usually getting them for a couple bucks at the drug store and dealing with the endless chipping or flaking that comes with these no-name brands. My dad gave me a bottle of OPI nail polish, and I noticed how much smoother it went on, the higher gloss in the color, and how much longer it lasted before chipping.  My husband started encouraging me to stop spending money on the cheapies which just have to be touched up all the time or redone, and start getting the good stuff so I’ve been editing my nail polish stash.  Luckily, I came across a website that was liquidating it’s OPI stock, so I managed to pick up a few bottles at a great discount, and decided to try my hand at some of the nail art I’ve seen displayed on other people’s blogs and websites for the Fourth of July.  Here’s the result:

Fourth of July Nails

Fourth of July Fireworks Nails

The colors in the picture are a bit off (the background was actually a light blue, to give you an idea), but the fireworks actually looked pretty cute in person.

Trying to do a design on both hands proved to be a bit too complicated for me, so my left hand ended up with some fireworks, and some modified french manicure designs. Instead of the white for a traditional french manicure, I used the blue glitter nail polish I had used in the center of the fireworks on the other nails.

Earth Day

As I packed lunch this morning, I realized how much packing bento-style lunches has cut back on my waste.  I no longer use lunch bags, paper or plastic, since my compact little bento boxes fit better inside the fridge at work and are more easily distinguished from other people’s food (an important consideration since some of my coworkers having been taking/eating others’ foods).  When I do need a bag (when I bring multiple small containers), I usually use a reusable, insulated bag I received as a freebie from a hotel.  The little sauce containers, silicone cupcake liners I use as dividers, and eating utensils are all washable and reusable.

Packing lunches so far has proved to be cheaper than buying, healthier than the options I’d pick when buying, and appears to be better for the environment.  Talk about a win-win!  If you’re not already packing lunches for yourself, I highly recommend it.  I don’t manage to pack lunches for both of us every day, but I try to pack as often as I can.

Passover Eats

When I was younger, I loved Passover.  Sure there was envy when the other kids at school would pull out gooey looking brownies or yummy sandwiches and I was stuck with matzah and some fruit or cheese, but there was no other holiday (not even birthdays) when I was allowed to eat cake for breakfast and often lunch.  The boxed mixes of Passover cakes usually provided our main source of sustenance during Passover, supplemented by salads topped with bland kosher-for-Passover salad dressing and an entree of either meat or cheese.  Passover was never the healthiest holiday, but I sure did love the excuse for eating cakes all the time, especially the cakes topped with frosting that amounted to little more than cocoa and butter.

I still love Passover, but for other aspects, and the limited diet and multiple restrictions were frustrating when I was cooking for myself and attempting to eat healthily.  For those of you who don’t know, the restricted diet for Passover says no grains, beans, or legumes during the seven days of Passover.  Corn counts as a grain, so that means no corn syrup or corn starch, which appear in many more products than I ever imagined (I feel a whole new level of sympathy for those with corn allergies), and no soy.

This year, Passover falls during a work week for both my husband and I, so I wanted to make sure we would be able to pack filling and healthy lunches to take with us to work, which meant I had to get beyond the cake-eating, “use matzah as a carrier for either cheese or butter” dependency that got me through college keeping kosher for Passover.  I looked to some of my favorite healthy recipes and was pleasantly surprised to find a few that included no grains at all.  For example, my slow-cooker ratatouille recipe was perfect for Passover and made a great partner for the ubiquitous matzah.  I also checked out some Jewish Cookbooks and found some recipes that I could adapt so they no longer required nuts.  For example, I adapted a recipe for Double Nut Torte from Marlene Sorosky’s  Fast and Festive Meals for the Jewish Holidays by replacing the half cup of toasted almonds and half cup of walnuts with one cup of cocoa nibs from Scharffen Berger Chocolates.  The substitution worked out perfectly and made the recipe nut-free while letting it remain kosher.  I also had to sub in bittersweet chocolate for the semisweet since all of the chocolate available at Safeway, save one type of bittersweet chocolate bar, included soy lecithin as an emulsifier, making it all un-kosher for Passover.   It did not require any additional sugar to balance though, and created a rich, creamy dessert.  I chose not to glaze the cake, instead topping it with fresh rasberries with a berry sauce I made from frozen mixed berries, 2 TB orange juice, 2 TB blueberry juice, 1/4 cup sugar, and some potato starch offered on the side.

So here are my kosher-for-Passover, easy to take to work, meals so far:

Monday:

Breakfast: non-fat Greek yogurt topped with some berry sauce

Lunch: Tuna with diced zucchini, bell pepper and onion and some dried parsley, slice of muenster cheese, matzah, mini-wedge of chocolate torte with sauce.  When it was time for lunch, I nuked the cheese and tuna mixture then used the gooey tuna melt to top my matzah.

Tuesday:

Lunch (actually fit perfectly in my bento container):

Bottom tier: Matzah

Top Tier: Ratatouille

Under the lid: broken pieces from a slice of muenster cheese

Warm weather + shopping = Gardening Time

Costco had three packs of small blueberry plants for sale recently.  With Spring’s warm weather and the promise of fresh picked fruit through the summer beckoning, I could hardly resist.  When we brought the blueberry bushes home, we realized that they were actually three different varieties of blueberry: Sunshine Blue, Jewel, and Emerald.

All three are Southern Highbush variety that will supposedly thrive in warmer weather.  We don’t get much frost in Northern California, so I’ll have to hope that the few cold days we do have are enough to encourage the plant to bear fruit.  Since they prefer acidic soil, I added the fertilizer I use for my gardenia and azalea plants.  Since I don’t have much room for plantings, one blueberry was planted in the empty spot of soil next to the gardenia where we grew zucchini last year (never again!) and the other blueberries are in pots.

Since we bought the blueberries, we had to buy some additional pots this weekend.  While we were pot shopping, I got distracted by the annuals and we ended up buying some plants, necessitating a couple more pots.  By the time we got out of the store, we had a lot of gardening to do.  We spent Sunday workin and have the garden almost set up for the Spring/Summer season now.  This year, we’ve got the following in the garden:

Continuing from last year:

Potted:

– dwarf Meyer Lemon tree

– Two full size roses

– succulents

– mint

– jasmine (finally managed to keep it alive longer than a year!)

– asparagus fern

– some Astilbe bulbs I planted over a year ago that didn’t sprout last year, so I gave up and threw away the tags but now are sprouting like mad

In the Dirt:

– Azalea

– White Bacopa

– Alstroemerias planted from tubers

– Gardenia

New Additions:

– Basil

– Cilantro

– Radishes

– Blueberries

We’ve had an on-going battle to enjoy our backyard/back patio.  First of all, it’s incredibly tiny so if the space isn’t planned well, there is no space to do anything.  I’ve seen what some neighbors did with their similarly minute spots, and their efforts range from leaving it basically empty except for cement and a chair or two, using the space as storage and never going in unless looking for an item or passing through to the back door, to planting so much in there that it is an elaborate jungle into which only the neighborhood cats dare enter or some combination of the three.  One summer, everything in the backyard died because Monkey and I got married, left on a fairly long honeymoon, traveled for a bit, then left again to participate in a friend’s wedding.  By the time the summer was over, almost everything had wilted.  The lone survivor was the white bacopa the previous residents had stuck in the dirt, still in their pots.  If you are ever thinking of trying this: don’t.  While the small white flowers are pretty, the green tentacles the plant will spread out dig themselves back into the ground and spread, making it very difficult to pick up the pot again to move it.  Anyways, cutting back all of the dead and dying plants made me feel horribly guilty and determined to do better the next growing season.  I was going to water my plants, pamper them!

The next summer, we renovated our kitchen, which meant we had to renovate the whole downstairs (small house, open floor plan), which meant a lot of construction occurred on our tiny little patio.  The plants were not only coated with  sawdust and powdered granite, but they received no water.  My only excuse is that I couldn’t get to the plants!  So much stuff was stored out there that I couldn’t see the plants, let alone get to them with a watering can.

Finally, last summer, we realized something had to change.  After spending several hours digging up dead plants and amending the little soil we had, we put in a drip system.   I also came to the realization that I don’t like bacopa that much.  Don’t get me wrong, I like bacopa.  It’s cute and pretty, and so darn hard to kill it was the only thing left alive and growing in my garden at that point.  The problem was that since it was the only thing left alive and so incredibly hardy, it had taken over almost all the available soil and was growing everywhere.  Monkey’s step-mom had some extra alstroemeria tubers on her hands that she had dug up but didn’t want to toss (gotta love recycling plants), so I finally gave myself permission to dig up the one plant I hadn’t already killed.  I did leave some, but I freed up enough space for us to grow mini-tomatoes and zucchini, as well as plant the azalea we received from Monkey’s mom as a gift and a gardenia.  The tomato and zucchini plants loved their spots in their dirt.  The cherry tomato plant, called Sun Sugar, went crazy and grew over 6 feet tall, 8 feet long, 3 feet wide.  I couldn’t reach all of the ripe tomatoes, which fortunately turn a bright orange color when ripe, so we happily shared some with the birds.  If you’re looking for a cherry tomato plant that will produce insane amounts of fruit from only one plant, Sun Sugar is the one for you.  We gifted bowlful after bowlful to everyone around us and still had more than enough for our own consumption.  We’ll be planting another Sun Sugar tomato plant soon.  The zucchini also grew to huge proportions, with leaves that easily could have served as diapers for small children had they had a nicer texture.  Unfortunately, we didn’t like the taste of our home grown zucchini and preferred the taste of those we could buy at the local farmer’s markets or grocery stores.  At that point, why grow it at home?

When planning my garden, I tried to focus on bringing in all of the senses.  I wanted everything I planted to not only be beautiful to look at, but also appeal on some other level.  After all, with such a small garden, I wanted everything to count.  So I picked pots in beautiful shades of dark blue or copper glaze, with a few plain terracotta mixed in.  To keep it light, I also added some pots in a nice shade of teal, an appealing green blue shade, with some interesting glazing techniques.  Some of the plants produce beautiful scents (jasmine, gardenia, roses, meyer lemon), some are lovely to touch (asparagus fern, some fuzzy  succulents), and some are edible (basil, lemon, mint, cilantro).  To bring in sound, I hung a Soleri bell I picked up in Arizona and hope to someday find just the right fountain.  We also enjoy listening to the birds attracted to the flowers and fruit in the yard and plan to put up a bird feeder soon.

I’m looking forward to uploading pictures and watching to see how this summer’s garden grows.

I won!

Being fairly new to the whole blogging thing, I haven’t really had too much interaction with other bloggers beyond lurking on their websites.  One vegan cooking/crafting blog that I follow, A Girl and Her Blog, hosted a giveaway of three adorable rice molds.  I won!  I’m very excited to test them out and love getting new bento accessories.  I’ll post pics of the lunch I make with the molds as soon as I get them, but at least the shipping time will give me the chance to plan out the first lunch. In the meantime, I’ll definitely be looking through Rachel’s past lunches for inspiration since she has posted pics of some very colorful and delicious looking lunches.  Check it out for yourself:

http://rachelkooy.blogspot.com/

Night of Writing Dangerously

Last night I attended NaNoWriMo’s big fundraiser, The Night of Writing Dangerously.  It was spectacular!  If there is anyone out there who was considering going and didn’t, I highly recommend it.  It raises money for a great cause (encouraging kids and adults to write!) and helps in a huge way with your word count.

The Julia Morgan Ballroom was an excellent venue; we had a table with views of the city in two directions and close proximity to the floor to ceiling fireplace and speaker podium where the winners bell was stored.  I was one of the 18 who hit 50k words during the evening and got my moment to ring the loud bell and receive applause.  I also hit an all time personal daily word count high: 11k in less than six hours.  My table mates absolutely rocked, and despite the fact that we were only five people, we managed to win both word wars against the other competitive tables.   Between the candy buffet, the endless array of specialty donuts, the buffet and backup buffet of pizza, and open bar with friendly bartenders willing to keep my table heavily supplied with grenadine heavy shirley temples, there was a pretty impressive amount of calories.  In addition to that, more than 500k words were written during the evening and a large sum of money was raised for the Office of Letters and Light.  Go NaNo!

Hopefully the Office of Letters and Light will be able to meet their fund raising goals for the next 24 hours as well.  If you’d like to donate, go to the following link:

https://store.lettersandlight.org/