Thursday, January 31, 2013

Bedroom sets and chicken cacciatore.

Home decorating is a painful thing. Not only because I'm horrible at it, but because it makes me look at my life in deeper ways than I should when considering the purchase of items like a complete five-piece bedroom set. Imagine, if you will, two Jacquis, one on each shoulder. On the right, we have Pinterest Jacqui; on the left, Reality Jack.

Pinterest Jacqui: This is perfect! There is storage underneath, and you get a free dresser when you buy the whole five-piece set! It's the one you been looking for! You can finally spend time in the bedroom without shuddering at the emptiness, the hand-me-down furniture, the clothes all over the floor!
Reality Jack: There are clothes on the floor because you are lazy. New furniture isn't going to change that. Plus, there's a bathroom situation that needs to be addressed ASAP (hello, 20-year-old vanity and weak, pathetic toilet).
Pinterest Jacqui: But it's on sale! What if this is your only chance?
Reality Jack: It's also the price of a vacation. Do you really want to be one of those people who buys furniture instead of goes on vacation?

God, no. And this is what goes on in my head every time I shop for furniture, or picture frames, or pillows, or useless knick-knacks that will just collect dust on the mantle. I have this idea in my head that everything should have a purpose. It has been my mantra during years of living in small spaces, when the thought of filling a home with "stuff" made me feel suffocated and cluttered. It's why I have never been able to justify wrapping a cute belt around a dress -- if it's not holding anything up, what's the point? (This is also the reason I have little to no sense of style. And probably why I have an addiction to scarves and purses: But they keep me warm! And I need something big enough to hold my wallet and my camera and my Kindle!)

I think it's time to take another, closer look at this idea, though. Not because I'm trying to convince myself to buy more furniture and cute belts (at least, not entirely), but because I don't think I should feel guilty for trying to make my home a pretty, happy place. While I'd like to spend more time vacationing, the reality is that most of my time is spent at home. And I'm OK with that.

My friend Shanna recently wrote, "If it’s true that our perspectives are often shaped by what’s right in front of us, perhaps the key to changing our perspectives is changing what we see." When I first read that sentence, I paused, then read it again. Taking it in the most literal sense, our surroundings have a direct effect on how we feel, act and do. There is no reason why my own home shouldn't be a source of inspiration. I'm constantly trying to capture real, everyday life through words and images, but falling short because what I see in front of me doesn't make me stop and catch my breath but, rather, want to change things. And who's to say I can't, or shouldn't?

It's all a balancing act, really. Between Pinterest Jacqui and Reality Jack. Bedroom sets and vacations. And there's time for it all. I'm making that my new mantra.

Meanwhile, Hungry Jacqui is still all about saving time with her latest slow-cooker kick. This recipe surprised me. I had it penciled into the dinner rotation for weeks, but it kept getting pushed back for meals I knew were sure to please -- tacos, pasta, fried rice. I was afraid this one would disappoint, because it just seemed way too easy. The ingredients: chicken, canned tomatoes, green peppers, garlic. All good things, but there was nothing special to indicate this meal was going to be a keeper as is. There was too much room left for bland, flavorless, boring. I had scary visions of too many leftovers that nobody wanted to eat. I told Murdo it wasn't making the cut. He told me to try it, anyway.

So I followed the instructions, using bone-in thighs as the recipe recommends, and letting the whole thing cook on high, uncovered, for the last hour in order to thicken the sauce. When Murdo turned to me during dinner and said, "You should blog about this one," I actually responded with a fist pump and a "Score!" Adding another easy dinner to the list is a small victory in my book. Especially when the dream home and the dream vacation still seem out of reach, at least I can always count on a good dinner to bring me back to ground level and remember these are the simple things -- making a comforting meal, however easy and hands-off, and feeding my family -- that will make me happy no matter what my surroundings. That I will never question.

Slow Cooker Chicken Cacciatore with Garlicky Potatoes (from Skinny Taste)

For the chicken:
1 to 1 1/2 lbs bone-in, skinless chicken thighs (about 8 pieces)
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
28 oz can diced tomatoes in sauce
1 bell pepper, sliced
1 medium onion, sliced
3 to 4 garlic cloves, smashed and minced
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon dried oregano
salt and pepper

Season chicken with salt and pepper. Place in the slow cooker with rosemary on top. Pour tomatoes over chicken. Top with onions, peppers, garlic, bay leaf, oregano, and more salt and pepper. Give it a gentle stir, cover and set on low for 8 hours. When finished, uncover and cook on high for another hour, until it reaches a thickness you're happy with. Discard bay leaf and rosemary sprigs. Serve over pasta or garlicky potatoes (recipe below). 

For the potatoes:
6 to 8 red or gold potatoes, halved
1/2 cup water
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 garlic cloves, smashed and minced
salt and pepper

Combine all ingredients in a saucepan over medium heat. Cover and simmer 20 minutes, stirring occasionally,  until potatoes are glazed and tender. 

Serves 4-6.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Whole slow cooker chicken.

We just bought a new couch. It's one of those massive modular sectionals that screams "My owners live in the suburbs and enjoy watching TV, taking naps and being lazy and comfortable on a regular basis." It allows the whole family -- me, Murdo and the two cats -- to spend an entire evening lounging together without feeling crowded. Murdo can grade papers on one end, while I can type away on my laptop on the other. When we put our work away, I crawl over to his side of the couch and nestle my head into its regular spot on his chest, my legs stretched out to the side while his rest in front of him on the ottoman, and we watch episodes of "The Sopranos" for the fiftieth time. We are really, really good at being lazy.

Further proof of my laziness: Please welcome the third slow cooker recipe I have posted in the past two months! How many times am I going to tell you to throw a bunch of ingredients in the slow cooker and call it a day? I can promise you, this won't be the last.

But I like to think that you're the type of people to appreciate this, because maybe you're not as lazy as I am, but I know that you get busy every once in a while, and there are days when you just want dinner to be ready, with no prep or real thought other than pulling out the plates and wondering what to watch on TV. Plus, it's cold out, and slow cooker meals are so warm and comforting. And there's a new couch downstairs just begging for a nap with you. Please, take this advice from a lazy girl: Buy a whole chicken and put it in your slow cooker.  

This is the ultimate lazy meal. Not only is dinner ready for Sunday night (or Tuesday night, or Friday night, or whenever the laziness decides to take over), but now lunch is ready for the rest of the week, as well. Chicken salads! Chicken pitas! Chicken soup! When eight hours have passed and you manage to pull yourself off the new couch and eat said chicken, there is no sawing away at the bird and trying to pull away every last bit of meat from the bone. The chicken falls apart in perfect pieces: two breasts, legs, thighs and wings, ready for whatever meals you have in store.

Over a couple of years ago, I went on a roast chicken date with Shanna, arriving at her house one Wednesday afternoon to roast chickens and snack on crackers and goat cheese and apricot jam and chat about important things like long hair vs. short hair. (I miss those days.) She taught me how to roast a chicken, and I told you, "This is it! I will be roasting chickens for the rest of my life exactly like this!" Except after that day, I roasted a chicken exactly once more, and that was it. Apparently, sticking a chicken in the oven is way more work to me than sticking a chicken in a slow cooker. But you should know one main difference between an oven-roasted chicken and a slow cooked chicken: the latter will not produce the browned, crispy skin that the former is known for. If you'd like a great recipe for a roasted chicken, I turn your attention to this post.

And for those of you who are still here: Don't be ashamed. Embrace the lazy. You deserve it.

Whole Slow Cooker Chicken with Potatoes and Carrots
The chicken produces its own juices as it cooks, so there's no need to add any liquid to the slow cooker. Feel free to add whatever veggies you like, or skip the veggies altogether.

4 medium Yukon Gold or red potatoes, quartered
1/2 medium onion, chopped
3-4 carrots, cut into large chunks
1 4-pound whole chicken, rinsed and dried
3 garlic cloves, peeled
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
Salt and pepper

Place potatoes, onions and carrots in the slow cooker. Toss with salt and pepper. Season chicken generously with salt and pepper, and insert garlic cloves and rosemary inside the chicken. Place chicken in slow cooker on top of potatoes and onions. Cover and cook on low for 8 hours. Serve with roasted Brussels sprouts (recipe below).

Roasted Brussels Sprouts

1 pound Brussels sprouts, halved
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper
1/2 lemon

Preheat oven to 425 F. Toss Brussels sprouts with olive oil, salt and pepper. Spread in a baking pan and roast for 15 - 20 minutes, until edges are crispy and brown. Squeeze lemon juice over sprouts and serve.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Slow cooker split pea soup.

I don't remember my parents making a lot of non-Filipino food when I was growing up. There was the occasional spaghetti -- a jar of Ragu simmered with finely chopped onions, celery and ground beef. We'd sprinkle buttered toast with garlic powder and bam! Italian night. Or my dad would make steak and  fried rice, or sometimes mashed potatoes. Then there was this dish that my mom made just for me, a  package of frozen meatballs heated in a mixture of barbecue sauce, ketchup and onions, which I'd eat over white rice. I loved that stuff. I'd still eat that stuff. 

But there was no meatloaf, or chicken pot pies, or biscuits and gravy. For me, traditional American comfort food came already prepared in cans, boxes and microwavable containers. Canned soup. Kraft macaroni and cheese. Budget Gourmet frozen dinners: Swedish meatballs, beef stroganoff, Salisbury steak with veggies. I'd eat them on the floor in front of the TV in my parents' room and wonder what it would be like if every meal included a side of peas rather than white rice. If there was ketchup on the table instead of shrimp paste. I wasn't ungrateful for the food my parents made -- I loved Filipino food. Lumpia, pancit, adobo. But when you're young, and all your friends and the people on TV are eating certain kinds of food, you kind of wish you could be like them, too. At least just some of the time.

My favorite canned soup was Campbell's Chunky Split Pea and Ham. I'd heat it up until it was scalding hot, then burn my tongue on the first few bites every time. (To this day, I still eat my soup like this.) But unlike my precious packaged ramen noodles that you could never ever convince me to give up, despite its empty calories and outrageous sodium content and general icky processed food stigma, I haven't had a can of split pea and ham soup in years. In fact, the last time I remember buying it, I was in college, standing in the grocery store aisle with my new boyfriend/future husband, sneaking it into the cart and hoping he wouldn't break up with me out of disgust when he saw it. 

The reason for the end of canned split pea soup in my life is, of course, that homemade is just so much better. Especially when you can get your hands on the ham bone from Christmas or Easter dinner, although good luck with that one if you didn't bake the ham yourself. No one wants to give up that ham bone. Believe me, I've asked. Even my own parents, who always insist I take food home whenever I visit, get very quiet when I ask them for the ham bone. They know what kind of soup it makes, and I don't blame them for refusing to give it up.

So, I get ham shanks from the grocery store. Whole Foods sells especially large, meaty, delicious ham shanks, but they're more expensive than the ones you'd get at your regular market. I've posted a split pea soup recipe here before, but this is the one I've been making for the past year or so, and I'll probably keep making it until the day I die. It's all about the slow cooker. Really incredible slow cooker meals can be hard to come by, especially ones that require no browning of meat but simply throwing everything in and calling it a day, so when you find a really good one, keep it. I'll be making this one for my own kids, along with pancit and meat loaf and fried rice and pasta and adobo and baked mac and cheese and tacos and and and ...

split pea soup

Slow Cooker Split Pea and Ham Soup (from Whole Foods)
This soup gets very thick over time, so when reheating, just add a bit more water until it's the consistency you like. And Speaking of my parents and ham bones, they actually asked me to make this soup over Christmas with the bone they had frozen from Thanksgiving. So if you're willing to share the soup, you might find someone willing to share the ham bone. Also, can you believe that photo up there has been sitting in my Flickr stream for over a year now, just waiting patiently to be posted on the blog? I need to get better at this, clearly.

1 (16 ounce) package dried green split peas, rinsed
1 meaty ham bone or ham shank
1 cup potatoes, chopped
1 cup carrots, chopped
1 cup onion, diced
2 ribs celery, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 bay leaf
Salt and pepper to taste
4 cups chicken broth
2 cups water

Layer ingredients in slow cooker in the order given, adding the broth and water last. Do not stir ingredients. Cover and cook on low 8 to 10 hours, until peas are very soft and ham falls off the bone. Remove bone from slow cooker. Shred ham using a fork, discard bone and return meat to slow cooker. Stir and serve.

Monday, January 7, 2013

This year.

This year, there will be more photos.
More house projects. More paint. More new furniture.
More family.
This year, we will start a garden.
We will go on vacation. Somewhere.
I will drink more water, and read more books, and take more photos.
There will be more meals like this one: a pork shoulder braised in the oven with tomatoes and red wine.
A gathering around the table. A baby bouncing on someone's leg. A board game to end the evening.
There will be more of the same. And every day, so much new.