Food blogging – Sweet and sour meatballs

I’ve already written about my recent obsession with my Crockpot so I’m sure this post will only cement that statement, but I just have to post yet another delicious slow cooker recipe. I first tried this recipe as an appetizer for last year’s Halloween party and it turned out so well that I’ve made it several times since then, usually served as a main dish over white or brown rice. Here is a photo of the ingredients necessary to make these simple and tasty sweet and sour meatballs (see complete list with amounts below). I forgot to put the bell pepper in this shot, but there’s one of those in the list of ingredients too.

Ingredients inelegantly dumped into the slow cooker in this order – frozen turkey meatballs, sweet and sour sauce, brown sugar, soy sauce, garlic powder, black pepper, cubed bell pepper, and pineapple chunks. In hindsight using a yellow bell pepper wasn’t the best choice because it made the meatball garnishes monochromatic, but the other colors at the grocery store didn’t look so great that day. If you want a more pleasing color palate I would suggest using any color pepper other than yellow.

Stir the ingredients as carefully as possible before turning on the Crockpot. I do my best to make sure that all of the meatballs are covered in sauce and that the ingredients are as combined as I can get them. This isn’t easy, what with the uncooperative nature of frozen meatballs, but it helps everything to cook evenly. I broke the cardinal rule of slow cooking when I made this batch of meatballs – I took the lid off about halfway through cooking to stir the contents. I wanted to make sure that the sauce was evenly distributed throughout, and since the final product wasn’t ruined by this breach in etiquette I guess it was OK.

Don’t these meatballs just look delicious? I started making this batch during a Florida football game a couple of weeks ago and I couldn’t wait for them to be done. I’ve only made a few changes to the Reynolds recipe, but in my opinion they significantly improve the result. The original recipe calls for 3 lbs of meatballs, but I’ve found that 2 lbs works better because it leaves more of the delicious sweet and sour sauce to go around – especially if served over rice. Also, I reduced the cooking time from 4-5 hours to 3-4 hours because in this batch the meatballs near the edges were charred and all of them were a bit overdone. I suspect this cooking time will vary depending on what kind of slow cooker you’re using, but the meatballs will be scrumptious no matter what!

INGREDIENTS:
1 Reynolds Slow Cooker Liner
1 jar (10 oz.) sweet and sour sauce
1/4 c packed brown sugar
3 Tbsp soy sauce
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp pepper
2 lbs frozen meatballs (turkey or beef, either one works)
1 medium bell pepper, cubed
1 can (20 oz.) pineapple chunks in juice or water, drained (pineapple in syrup is too sweet)

DIRECTIONS:
Open slow cooker liner and place it inside a 5- or 6 1/2 -quart slow cooker bowl. Fit liner snugly against the bottom and sides of bowl; pull top of liner over rim of bowl. Place all ingredients in the lined slow cooker; stir gently. Place lid on slow cooker. Cook on high for 3 to 4 hours until done. Carefully remove lid to allow steam to escape. Serve food directly from slow cooker. Cool slow cooker completely; remove liner and toss.

Only slightly modified from Reynolds’s Slow Cooker Sweet and Sour Meatballs recipe.

In-flight post #2 – Holiday baking

I decided not to pay $12.95 for in-flight internet on my flight to DC this morning, but I wrote these posts on my laptop sometime during the coast to coast trip. I just waited until I got to the comfort of my hotel room (with free internet) to publish them. Now if only the guy sitting behind me would stop sticking his feet so far forward that he kicks the back of my legs! I know personal space is nearly nonexistent on planes, but could you keep your feet in their designated area please?

At the airport this morning I bought two magazines to entertain myself before my flight to DC – the latest issues of “Cooking with Paula Deen” and “Cooking Light.” First of all, yes, I did dress up as Paula Deen for Halloween last year, and seeing her with a slice of apple and pear pie on the cover of this month’s issue brought back good memories. It also made me want to make that pie. I’ll add it to the list of potential recipes for Thanksgiving this year. After accumulating way too many cooking magazines a few years ago when I had subscriptions to several Taste of Home publications, I haven’t bought too many more since then, but every year around this time I scour the grocery store magazine rack for anything that features fall baking. (The annual Taste of Home Halloween issue is a must buy for anyone planning a party, by the way. The pumpkin dip recipe I found a few years ago is perfect with fruit, veggies, cookies, or cinnamon sugar tortilla chips.) So when I saw fall baking on the cooking magazine covers at the airport as I was wandering around this morning, I had to buy a couple of them. Paula Deen’s magazine is hit or miss in my experience, but the September/October issue actually has some delicious looking recipes in it. The variations on traditional banana bread and pumpkin bread are definitely something that I have to try. I have yet to make a really good loaf of banana bread (which Dan loves) so I’m looking forward to trying Paula Deen’s version. On the other hand, I already have two tried and true pumpkin bread recipes that I make every year, but I’m always on the lookout for something new and different. Maybe I’ll even put slices of Paula Deen’s pumpkin bread in my family’s holiday care packages this year, but I’ll have to try it myself first to make sure it’s worthy. I hate sending substandard goodies to my family so this is not just an excuse for me to eat homemade baked goods. Or at least that’s what I’m telling myself. “Cooking with Paula Deen” also has a recipe for tea bread which I’ve never made before. The best part about these recipes is that they only call for standard pantry staples. My favorite pumpkin bread recipe (which is actually more like pumpkin cake) requires a certain amount of cook and serve pudding mix that doesn’t come in a single size box that I can find in any store. It’s a pain to buy two boxes and estimate how much of the second box I need to use. The bread has never turned out badly, but I get frustrated when recipes are complicated like that. When I get back from this trip it will be October, which is my green light to kick the holiday preparations into high gear. First is the Halloween party. I’ve already started gathering pieces of my Halloween costume, but I have a long way to go before it’s complete. As far as food goes, I have a few ideas as to what will be on the party buffet. Last year no one ate any of my meticulously decorated pumpkin bundt cake (in hindsight it wasn’t that good anyway so maybe that was for the best) so I think I’ll make something more accessible and maybe bite-sized for dessert this year instead. Pumpkin, cranberries, and apples are some of the staples of fall baking so whatever I make will include one or more of those ingredients. I’m getting hungry just thinking about it. I’m afraid Paula Deen’s delicious looking apple and pear pie would suffer the same fate as last year’s pumpkin cake so that won’t fit the bill. I think cupcakes or cookies are more appropriate for a party. Has anyone heard about cake balls? I was introduced to this internet sensation a few years ago (there’s even a specialized cookbook for them now), but I haven’t made them yet. Maybe this is the perfect time to try something new. Maybe red velvet or pumpkin cake balls would work for Halloween. I’ll have to give them a trial run before the party, though. Another excuse to eat dessert? I love it! I haven’t cracked open my “Cooking Light” issue yet but if I find anything good in there I’ll be sure to let you know.

In-flight post #1 – A really long walk

I decided not to pay $12.95 for in-flight internet on my flight to DC this morning, but I wrote these posts on my laptop sometime during the coast to coast trip. I just waited until I got to the comfort of my hotel room (with free internet) to publish them. Now if only the guy sitting behind me would stop sticking his feet so far forward that he kicks the back of my legs! I know personal space is nearly nonexistent on planes, but could you keep your feet in their designated area please?

Yesterday morning I woke up at 7 AM (pretty crazy for a Saturday, huh?) so that I would have time to take a walk down to the beach and still be able to get home and shower before Dan’s flight arrived from DC around noon. Before Dan suggested that we walk from our house to the beach I thought it was way too far to consider making the trip on foot, but once he convinced me to go the first time I’ve been hooked. When Dan and I go together we usually stop for lunch at Medeteranio, a restaurant near the Hermosa Beach Pier, before walking back home. The walk allows us to spend quality time together and get a little exercise at the same time. I really enjoy it. Since Dan has been out of town for the past two weekends, I’ve been taking this walk by myself once a week, but without the lunch pit stop. The route goes from our house a couple of miles from the coast, almost straight west until it reaches the Pacific Ocean near the Redondo Beach Pier, and then north along The Strand (a bike/walking path that follows the coast) to the Hermosa Beach Pier, and then further north to the Manhattan Beach Pier. Once I turn around and make the reverse trip I’ve been gone for a little more than three hours, only stopping to buy a bottle of water somewhere along the way. Although it’s not as intense as aerobics or spinning, this long walk is still a great workout. There are a couple of steep hills on the way to and from the beach that really get your heart pumping, and my legs are always sore for a couple of days afterwards. If I’m going to keep this up I think I need to get some proper walking shoes, though. If my aching feet are any indication, my running shoes that I wear for aerobics are probably not right for three plus hour walks. Speaking of workout apparel, you’ll know it’s me walking along The Strand because I’ll be the only one in long pants and long sleeves at the beach. It seems silly, but I burn to a crisp after very little sun exposure so I cover up my skin as much as possible. I also slather sunscreen on my face and hands I highly recommend Clarins SPF 40 – it’s fantastic), wear my hair down to cover my neck, and throw a hat on top of all that. I’ve never claimed to be stylish, but I look particularly unfashionable on my walks. Getting home without getting burnt is totally worth it, though. The good news is that tendency for summer mornings to be cloudy and cool along the Southern California cost helps make my chosen outfit more comfortable. Folks wearing a bikini on the beach in Los Angeles are usually shivering because the summer months just don’t feel like summer here. Summer for the coastal cities usually consists of two weeks or less of hot weather in September – as it seems we’re having right now. Just when I thought the hottest days of the year were behind us, it seems a heat wave has engulfed California. My brother in San Francisco said it was in the 90s there yesterday, which is pretty amazing considering it was in the 60s when my parents and I visited him in July. Yesterday was much warmer in LA than it has been lately, but fortunately the house didn’t get too hot because we don’t have air conditioning. Opening the windows over night and running the fans was enough to keep the house comfortable all day. Unfortunately that won’t work too well if it gets much hotter. But I digress. I feel very lucky to live close enough to the beach that I can walk there on the weekend and take in the beauty of the Hermosa Beach and Manhattan Beach communities. I get some exercise and I get to listen to my awesome iPod shuffle workout playlist as I walk. I really enjoy it and I’m looking forward to continuing these walks when I get home from DC next weekend.

Movie reviews – “City of Ember” and “Inkheart”

My webpage is dangerously close to becoming a food blog, so to avoid that slippery slope here are two reviews of movies I’ve seen recently. My parents got Dan and me a Netflix subscription for Christmas and, after a few months of serious underutilization, we have been getting more than our money’s worth out of it ever since. Dan has been out of town quite a bit recently so I took the opportunity to get copies of two movies that I really wanted to see, but missed when they were in theaters. They are both based on books that I read and loved long before they were optioned for the big screen, and even though I was half expecting Hollywood to completely butcher these fantastic stories in the transition, I had to see the movies for myself to find out for sure.

“City of Ember”
If you haven’t read this wonderful book by Jeanne DuPrau you should definitely add it to your library/Amazon/used book store list. (Or download it on your electronic book reader – gotta love instant literary gratification!) I can’t remember where I first heard about this book, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that the four-book Ember series is an island of originality in a never-ending sea of cookie-cutter fiction. You have to go to the kids section of the book store to pick up a copy of “The City of Ember,” which might make some older readers think twice about reading it, but the story definitely takes on subjects and situations far beyond the 9-12 recommended age level. The main characters happen to be kids, but they live in a crumbling society and have to shoulder the burden of saving the world as they know it. And even after they save it, things aren’t all sunshine and butterflies like in a lot of children’s books. Their new life turns out to be much harder than their old one, but that part of the story is chronicled in the follow up books “The People of Sparks” and “The Diamond of Darkhold.” It really is an amazing series. But when the movie was released in October 2008, outside of the traditional summer blockbuster months and holiday movie season, I didn’t have high hopes for it. That’s probably why I didn’t see it in the theater, and in hindsight it’s a good thing I didn’t spend the money. While I enjoyed the movie because it depicted a story that I love, the best part about it were the elaborate sets and costumes. They gave the impression of a civilization that has been hanging by a thread for a long time, just as the book describes in such detail. The ending is oversimplified in the movie, of course, but it still gives the viewers an inkling of the huge obstacles the residents of Ember have ahead them. It’s by no means a simple story with a definite beginning or end, which is why there are both prequel and sequel books in the series. So I guess it won’t be a surprising conclusion after all that pontificating, but my recommendation is to skip the movie and read the book instead.

“Inkheart”
This is another series (a trilogy actually) that I thoroughly enjoyed, although I have to admit that I haven’t finished reading the third book yet. When you work full time it’s hard to set aside more than a few minutes each day for reading, but I won’t risk a diatribe by following that digression any further. Cornelia Funke is a great German author that I discovered when Amazon recommended “The Thief Lord” to me many years ago. That particular book didn’t turn out to be my cup of tea, but her next offering was “Inkheart” which absolutely blew me away. The main character is a girl who loves books – sound like anyone you know? She’s so much like me (at a younger age, of course) that I could relate to her like few fictional characters that I’ve encountered. With most of my favorite books, I create my own character in order to experience the story in a more firsthand way, but with “Inkheart” that wasn’t necessary. It was like I was already there, which made the book seem very personal. It touched me like few books have. You might think my attachment would inevitably spell disaster for any movie that even attempted to put this beloved story on the big screen, but I can’t say that it was all that bad. I love Brendan Frasier and Andy Serkis (of Gollum fame) and they were both excellent in their roles. And Helen Mirren was fantastic as the main character’s great-aunt who has a library that would make any bookworm green with envy. My biggest complaint about the movie was the happy ending that the writers and producers manufactured to tie up all of the loose ends. Obviously, since there are two sequel books, the story isn’t over after “Inkheart” so the movie’s ending seemed trite. And not to give anything away, but when the name of the third book is “Inkdeath” it’s not hard to imagine that there aren’t very many happy endings amongst the characters. The Inkheart trilogy is pretty dark, but that’s one of the qualities that makes it great. But getting back to the movie, I really liked it, despite the ending. The characters were almost exactly like how I pictured them in my mind when I first read the book – a quality that is guaranteed to keep a movie off my hit list. I would still recommend the book over the movie, but I would also recommend watching the movie if it’s on television. It’s still a great story, even in motion picture form.

Food blogging – Ranch mac and cheese

As Dan can attest, I’ve spent a good amount of time trying to find a really good macaroni and cheese recipe, and up until today I have had little success. My first couple of attempts turned out bland and school cafeteria-like (you know, bright orange and rubbery?). Very disappointing. Dan has had good luck with the Truffled Macaroni and Cheese recipe that he found in Esquire Magazine, which is absolutely delicious, but I was searching for something a little more traditional. Then one day I ran across Noble Pig’s Ranch Mac & Cheese recipe and I just had to try it. It’s incredibly simple, but the idea of adding so many spices to the cheese sauce sounded like exactly what my previous attempts were missing – flavor! So tonight (while Dan is out of town and I can do a little experimenting without ruining both our dinners) I made half a batch of this ranch mac and cheese to if it tastes as good as it looks. And the verdict is – it tastes great! It’s not at all what you usually expect from macaroni and cheese, it’s nothing like the yummy soul food version I always order at Johnny Reb’s (along with their amazing fried okra), but I have to say that I love it anyway. The ranch salad dressing mix combined with the garlic, lemon, and pepper seasonings ensure that it is by no means lacking in flavor. I had two helpings for dinner tonight. My plan was to leave some in the fridge for Dan to try when he gets back in town, but now that I know how good it is, I might just eat all of it myself!

What I was thinking – September 19, 2000

“…I am of the opinion that the images you create in your mind from the written word are more tangible than anything projected on a screen. When I read a book my imagination creates visions of the characters and their surroundings that are all the more real because I made them myself. You can’t rely on Hollywood to do all of that work for you. In fact, that ‘work’ is what I like most about books. Don’t misunderstand me – I love movies. I will be one of the first people in line for Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings next year. The difference between me and the person standing next to me, however, may be that I have read the corresponding text and he hasn’t.”
-Excerpt from my 9/19/00 diary entry

Favorite Recipes #15 – Twenty Clove Garlic Chicken

I’ve been obsessed with my Crockpot lately, mostly because of this fantastic website – A Year of Slow Cooking. Dan and I got our Crockpot as a wedding present, and as great an appliance as it is, I haven’t made nearly enough use of it over the past three years. This is mostly because I don’t have many slow cooker recipes – that is, until I discovered A Year of Slow Cooking. Over the past week or so I’ve made three recipes from this amazing site – Turkey Meatballs with Cranberry Barbeque Sauce, Mulligatawny Soup, and 20 to 40 Clove Garlic Chicken Recipe. And the garlic chicken was such a hit that when I made it the first time, Dan requested it again just a couple of days later. That’s when I know I’ve found a winner. So here is that amazing recipe for all to enjoy.

INGREDIENTS:
1 1/2 to 2 lb boneless skinless chicken breasts (pretty much any cut of chicken will work here, though)
1/2 large onion, sliced
20 (or more) cloves of garlic, peeled
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 tsp salt
2 tsp paprika
1 tsp white or black pepper (I use a little of each)

DIRECTIONS:
As with all my Crockpot recipes, first insert a Reynolds Slow Cooker Liner. Place sliced onions at the bottom of the slow cooker. Put chicken and garlic cloves in a large bowl, add olive oil and spices, and mix together until evenly coated. Pour contents of the bowl into the slow cooker, making sure that some of the garlic cloves are under the chicken and the rest are on top. Cook on either high or low until the chicken is fully cooked – I used thin-sliced chicken breasts so they were done after 3 hours on high. Using two forks, shred the chicken and return to the slow cooker. Stir gently to mix the chicken, garlic cloves, and onions, but be careful not to smash the garlic because it will be soft. Spreading one of those delicious cloves on a cracker is almost the best part of this meal so make sure they stay intact as long as possible. I would suggest serving the chicken with rice and our favorite broccoli salad, but Dan and I have also used it in quesadillas and enchiladas with great results. I don’t think you can go wrong no matter how you serve it.

Pretty much duplicated from A Year of Slow Cooking’s 20 to 40 Clove Garlic Chicken Recipe.

Happy birthday Raz

Exactly five years ago today I bought my Honda CR-V. Dan took this photo the next day in the Catalina Express parking lot as we were preparing to take the boat over to Catalina Island for a weekend camping trip. (Our photos from that trip to Two Harbors were amazing, by the way.) While I was excited to have a new car that day, especially after what I went through to get it, I was really missing my old Dodge Neon. But Krypton (his name was derived from the fact that he was green and that Krypton is a noble gas, like Neon – very nerdy, I know) was halfway through his eleventh year and not getting any younger. I had just spent $1500 to replace the head gasket (to stop an oil leak that was causing the engine to smoke) and a few other parts, but as soon as I drove away from the Dodge dealer I discovered that the struts had been broken while other things were being “fixed.” I couldn’t drive over about 50 mph without the car shaking so hard that I thought it was going to fall apart! I was angry, but the dealer quoted me $1000 to fix the struts because they told me that I couldn’t prove that I hadn’t caused the damage myself. But since according to Kelly Blue Book prices poor little Krypton wasn’t really worth too much at that point, I decided that it was just time to buy a new car. It didn’t take me long to decide that I wanted a Honda CR-V LX model with 4WD (something that Dan and I could drive up to the mountains, and something that was more of a “family” car than my Neon), but actually purchasing one turned out to be more difficult. Since it was late in the year and they were eager to unload their 2005 models, I got good online quotes from four local dealers, so I called each one to find out which colors they had in stock. Honda World told me that they had exactly what I was looking for so Dan and I went there one evening after work to check it out. What a strange experience that was. When we got there, the member of the online sales team who I had communicated with wasn’t there and the salesman who greeted us told me that they had sold the car I wanted earlier that day. Bummer. They did, however, conveniently have the more expensive EX model which I really wasn’t interested in at all. Honda World did everything they could to sell it to me, and it would have been a great deal if I had any desire to buy it, but in the end Dan and I left empty handed. They next day, however, I got a call from the online sales department to apologize for the mix-up and to let me know that they did indeed have the CR-V model I wanted in stock. I was a little ticked off at Honda World at this point, but the opportunity to purchase the car I wanted for a great price was too good to pass up. So after work that day I drove my Neon for the last time down to Honda World where I bought my CR-V. His name is Raz because of the letters on his license plate. The name isn’t as creative as my Neon’s was, but Krypton just had more personality. My CR-V been a great car over the past five years (my only complaint is that the sensors on the trunk are flaky and I’ve had to have them realigned four times), but I have to admit that even to this day I still miss my old Neon. Maybe everyone feels that way about their first car. Driving away from it the day I bought my CR-V was difficult, no matter how many scratches it had or how much pain had chipped off around the edges. I drove that car in high school and college. I drove Dan to lunch in that car on the day he asked me out on our first date. That car practically defined me for a decade and I will always remember it fondly. But what car did I drive down to San Diego to get married three years ago? It was Raz, and those were some of the best days of my life. So here’s to making more incredible memories in my CR-V. Happy fifth birthday Raz!

Two months to Hawaii

In exactly two months Dan and I are leaving for Hawaii! We will be spending nine days on the Big Island and I couldn’t be more excited about it. We’ve already got most of the trip planned so we’re just about ready to go. Now I need to stock up on sunscreen and find a big floppy hat for lounging on the beach. Just two months to go!