Congee

The first time I ate congee was when I traveled to Malaysia. The hotel had a breakfast buffet that always served rice soup. I didn’t know it as congee until we traveled to China and I saw it labeled on the hotel breakfast buffet in Xian. I’ve since then seen it on a cruise ship breakfast buffet. I did a little research on this dish and found that congee, also called jook or rice porridge, is a common breakfast item in much of Asia. I decided to try making congee and used my students, who are primarily from Myanmar, as my test tasters. I made an 7 qt slower cooker full of congee and it was all consumed. One boy had 3 helpings and requested that I make it again tomorrow since I am his “school mom.”

INGREDIENTS

  • 2 1/2 cups rice (brown or white, I used a mixture)
  • 3 qts chicken or vegetable broth
  • 3 tablespoons garlic, minced
  • 3 tablespoons ginger, minced
  • 3 tablespoons oyster sauce
  • 3 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 1/2 pounds uncooked chicken

DIRECTIONS

Place all the ingredients in a slow cooker.

Congee Ingredients

Cook on low overnight. Stir and serve.

Congee

Baked Potato

Baked potatoes are a cheap and easy side dish or main meal. However, I especially like a baked potato with the skin slightly crunchy. It was only about five years ago that I figured out how to get the skin crunchy instead of steamed and soggy.

First, clean your baking potato with a vegetable brush. Place the baking potato directly on the oven rack. Bake at 400 degrees Fahrenheit for about an hour.

Baking potato–cleaned and oven ready

It is not necessary to preheat the oven before placing the potato in the oven. I happen to have a husband who indulges me with the best kitchen equipment I’ll use. I refer to my oven as a “magic oven” because I can set the baking temperature, cooking time, and delay the start time. Usually, I will place the potatoes in the oven before I leave for work in the morning. I set the oven to start baking about an hour before I anticipate dinner time.

If I’m home around 30 minutes into the baking time, I turn the potatoes over. If not, I don’t worry about it. Remove your potatoes from the oven after about an hour. They will be be soft if you squeeze them. Load them up with your favorite toppings. I usually top mine with steamed broccoli or asparagus and cheese.

Baked potato with broccoli and queso

My husband likes LOTS of bacon and butter. In reality, the choice of toppings are endless–pulled pork, taco meat, cubed chicken, chili…

Baked potato

Choosing Contentment and Gratitude

Lucy gazing out the window

“Inhale peace; exhale gratitude,” says Julie, the yoga instructor, as we settle in for our yoga practice. Deep breathing is a way to calm yourself if you feel an anxiety attack coming on. Deep breathing is also a way to calm yourself after a hectic day helping your body relax enough to sleep at night. I enjoy repeating Julie’s mantra, “Inhale peace; exhale gratitude,” as I do deep breathing on my own. In Philippians 4:6, Paul tells the church in Philippi not to be anxious. In verse seven, he speaks of the “peace that transcends understanding.” In I Thessalonians 5:18, Paul says to “give thanks in all circumstances,” so the second part of the mantra “Exhale gratitude” also goes along with Paul’s teachings.

Charlie with his ugly monkey

Furthermore, Philippians 4:8 promotes positive thinking to help us let go of our anxiety and find peace. To help me with that, I keep a gratitude journal in my nightstand. After a particularly rough day, I force myself to write down three things for which I am thankful. Admittedly, my dogs often make it to the list. However, since my students come from third-world countries, I often find myself writing down things like indoor plumbing and reliable electricity.

Indoor plumbing

Still, I find that pausing to breathe as I repeat to myself, “Inhale peace; exhale gratitude.”is the best way to slow down my inner turmoil and the negative chatter in my hear. I have to actively choose to follow Paul’s teachings. I choose contentment and gratitude.

Quick and Easy Tortellini

Pasta is one of my favorite foods. I believe the options are endless. Since pasta can be quickly put together, I find it to be my go-to when I need a quick and easy meal. Fresh tortellini takes only 2 minutes to cook once you have the water boiling, so I usually keep a package or two in the refrigerator.

INGREDIENTS:

  • 1 cup spinach-artichoke dip
  • 1 package tortellini
  • 1 cup cooked Italian sausage or other meat you have on hand in the freezer
Quick and Easy Tortellini Ingredients

DIRECTIONS:

Cook the tortellini according to package directions. Heat the spinach-artichoke dip. Defrost and heat the meat.

Stir the spinach-artichoke dip into the cooked tortellini.

Tortellini with Spinach-
Artichoke Dip

Top with meat. Garnish with Parmesan cheese.

Quick and Easy Tortellini

Spinach Artichoke Dip

Who doesn’t love a good warm, creamy dip? This is a dip I love to serve with pita chips.

INGREDIENTS

  • 1/4 cup onions, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1  frozen package of spinach thawed and drained or 1 package of fresh spinach, chopped
  • 1 can artichokes, drained and chopped
  • 8 oz cream cheese, at room temperature
  • 2 Tablespoons sour cream
  • 2 Tablespoons mayonnaise
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1/4 cup Swiss, mozzarella, or provolone cheese
  • 2 teaspoons red pepper flakes

Saute the onions and garlic.

Sauteing garlic and onion

Add the spinach. If you are using fresh spinach, cook until it is wilted.

Cooking the fresh spinach

Add the remaining ingredients.

Adding remaining ingredients for the dip

Add the remaining ingredients and stir until everything is blended together.

Blending and melting the cheeses

Serve warm.

Muffuletta

If you are going to have a sandwich for dinner, you should make it something special. A good muffuletta from Central Grocery in New Orleans is one of my favorite sandwiches. This version certainly brings back memories of my last trip to Central Grocery and makes me long to return to New Orleans where the best food in the world can be found.

INGREDIENTS

  • ciabatta bread
  • mortadella
  • salami
  • ham
  • Swiss cheese slices
  • provolone cheese slices
  • olive salad

Assemble the ingredients for the muffuletta.

Muffuletta ingredients

Bake the ciabatta bread according to the instructions on the package. Spoon olive salad one slice of the bread.

Assembling the muffuletta

Place the meat and cheese on the bread.

Muffuletta–ready to eat

Put the sandwich together and enjoy.

Weathering the Storms

Image may contain: sky, tree, cloud, plant, outdoor and nature
Photo by Tamara Pittman

Mark 4:35-41 New International Version (NIV)

Jesus Calms the Storm

35 That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side.” 36 Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. 37 A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. 38 Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”

39 He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.

40 He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”

41 They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”

When I’m in a stormy part of my life I actually don’t pray for God to calm or remove the storm. Instead, I ask God to stand with me and help me weather the storms of life. Let me explain why I choose this sort of prayer.

  • First, if you notice in the account of the storm on the Sea of Galilee, Jesus was sleeping through the storm. The disciples woke him–not the storm. Also, notice that Jesus asked the disciples why they were so afraid. This indicates that the storm was not upsetting to God who can control the wind and the waves. Therefore, if God is with me in my boat of life, I have no cause for fear. He can control the situation and I should have faith in his ability to calm the winds and the waves when needed.
  • Secondly, I believe God knows how big to allow the storm to get before he intervenes.

1 Corinthians 10:13 New International Version (NIV)

13 No temptation[a] has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted[b] beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted,[c] he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.

In this letter written by Paul, most scholars agree that the word temptation is used in the sense of testing. God knows how much to test us and provides us a means to withstand the storm. Therefore, I try to maintain faith in his judgement when life’s storms rage. The Bible gives us examples of other faithful people being tested–the most extreme example being Job.

  • Thirdly, sometimes, we wonder why we are being tested, but I recall that the disciples asked Jesus that question about a man who had been born blind.

John 9:1-3 New International Version (NIV)

Jesus Heals a Man Born Blind

As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.

I may not understand the purpose of the storm I am enduring, but again I must have faith that God has a purpose.

In conclusion, although the storms of life may rage at times, I remember that Jesus asked his disciples,”Do you still have no faith?” Then, I decide to have faith that God is in control of the storm, provides a way for us to endure the storm, and has a purpose for the storm. Therefore, I ask God to stand with me during the storm. The storm itself may not dissipate. However, I feel a calm and a peace within my heart.

Image may contain: cloud, sky, tree, plant, outdoor and nature
Photo by Tamara Pittman

Kitchen “Must-Have”–Cast Iron Skillet

Let me tell you about one of my favorite kitchen items–my 10 inch cast iron chicken fryer. My grandmother, my mother (and probably all of my aunts) used one on pretty much a daily basis. I think my cousin still owns her mother’s skillet which even survived a house fire. The 10 inch chicken fryer by Lodge is useful, durable, and made in the USA. If you aren’t fortunate enough to have one that has been passed down for generations, you can buy one at Bass Pro (as if you need this as an excuse to make a trip to Bass Pro).

Having a cooking item that will last until your great-grandchildren are adults, may not be enough to convince you to buy one. However, let me explain the versatility of this item. Obviously, you can use it to fry chicken. Since cast iron conducts heat and retains heat well, this skillet is ideal for frying ANYTHING and EVERYTHING–french fries, shrimp, okra, hush-puppies, corn dogs–you name it. In addition to deep frying, you can pan fry, saute, and stir-fry in this skillet.

rolled tacos–pan frying
sauteing onions

Plus, this  skillet is the best option for those one dish meals because it has the depth to keep adding ingredients.

Cooked Italian Sausage

After you saute your onions, and brown your meat (chicken, roast, pork chops, etc.) in the skillet, add your liquid, reduce to a simmer, cover the skillet with a lid and let your meat braise. My mouth is watering just thinking about the herbs infusing into the liquid while the meat turns into tender, juicy bites of deliciousness. Let’s not forget that this skillet can also go in the oven. This means you can continue cooking your one dish meal in the oven. We still have baking to do in the skillet; 10 inch diameter is great for cornbread, rolls, and cake.

dinner rolls–oven ready

The heavy weight of this skillet also makes it a good tool for cracking peppercorns, although I generally use the 8 inch cast iron skillet for this. I do wrap my extra-firm tofu in a dish towel and put the cast-iron skillet on top to press out excess water. As you can see the versatility of this skillet is only limited by your imagination. I do have one disclaimer. You may not use wine to deglaze in a cast iron skillet because you must use a non-reactive pan (e.g., stainless steel) when deglazing.

The durability and versatility of cast-iron should be enough to make you want to start a search for an entire set of cast iron (Academy Sports has a nice selection.). In addition to my favorite 10 chicken fryer, I have a 10 1/2 inch square skillet, 8 inch round skillet, 10 inch round skillet, and 6 1/2 round skillet. My husband, who believes in buying me the best when it comes to kitchen items, bought me a fantastic stove that includes a cast iron griddle in the middle!

Now, let me share the best reason for loving cast-iron– the EASY clean up! No one likes the clean up part of cooking. I’ll confess to having some horrible disasters when things have burned and stuck rather stubbornly to my cookware. With cast-iron skillets, you have no worries and no scrubbing. Just put water in the skillet and boil any stuck-on, burnt-on food loose. Do not put your cast-iron in the dishwasher or you’ll end up with a rusty mess. I just quickly wash out the skillets in the sink and dry them on the burner. This frees up space in the dishwasher for all the other dirty dishes. Since I use my skillets so regularly, I just keep them stacked on my stove top.

Cast Iron Skillets–waiting for use

With the durability, versatility, and easy clean up of cast-iron, you should make sure that all those who love to cook one own at least one cast-iron item in the kitchen. It’s a nice affordable gift for yourself or the one you love. You can even find a Lodge cast-iron skillet at Target and Wal-mart, so no excuses.

Cinnamon Rolls (or Dinner Rolls)

I use the same bread recipe for both cinnamon rolls and dinner rolls because that’s how  my grandmother did it. In fact, I got the recipe from my grandmother who was renowned for her bread baking. I remember, when I was a child, her getting up each morning and starting a batch of bread before breakfast. I especially enjoyed her letting me punch down the dough after it had risen.

INGREDIENTS

  • 2 cups warm water
  • 2 pkgs rapid rise yeast
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 eggs
  •  1 stick of butter (at room temperature)
  • 6-7 cup all-purpose flour

DIRECTIONS

Run the tap water until it is as hot as very hot bathwater on your finger (120-130 degrees Fahrenheit). If you don’t like my finger method of measuring the temperature, use a thermometer. Place the butter sugar, and yeast in a large mixing bow.

butter, sugar, and yeast
butter, sugar, and yeast

Add the warm water to dissolve the yeast. Stir in half the amount of flour. Mix until smooth. Add eggs. Gradually stir in the remaining flour a little at a time. You may need to put the dough on a floured board and knead in the last of the flour. You want to knead the dough until it is stiff.

Oil the bowl and the place the dough in the bowl. Oil the top of the dough. Cover and place in a warm place until it is doubled (about 45 minutes).

Dough that has doubled
Dough

Put the dough on the floured surface again and knead it until it is handleable.

dough ready to knead
dough ready to knead

This redistributes the yeast. I use half of the dough to make rolls and half of the dough to make cinnamon rolls. For the dinner rolls, make dough balls slightly large than golf balls.

Rolls ready for the oven

Place them in a greased pan or cast iron skillet and let rise for about 35-45 minutes in a warm place. Bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 25-30 minutes or until golden brown.

dinner rolls-hot and ready to eat

CINNAMON ROLL FILLING INGREDIENTS

  • 1 stick plus 2 Tablespoons butter (melted)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup flour

ICING INGREDIENTS

  • powdered sugar (maybe 1/2 pound)
  • 1-2 Tablespoons VERY hot water

CINNAMON ROLL DIRECTIONS

Roll out the dough on a floured surface until it is as thin as can be.

rolled out dough
rolled out dough

Spread the melted butter on the dough. Sprinkle with the cinnamon and sugar mixture. Sift the flour over the cinnamon/sugar mixture.

ready to roll
ready to roll

Roll the dough. Cut into pieces about 1 1/4 inches wide.

cinnamon rolls ready for the pan

Place in a grease pan. Let it sit in a warm place for about 45 minutes. Bake in a preheated oven at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 25-30 minutes until golden brown.

Stir a little water into the sifted powdered sugar. Drizzle over the cinnamon rolls. These are always best when eaten warm.

Warm cinnamon roll

Pasta in a Hurry

When I know I’m going to be pressed for time getting dinner on the table (because of a meeting that will undoubtedly last longer than scheduled), I go to the freezer for help. On this occasion, I found a package of tortellini, some pesto and a chicken-feta sausage. I took it out of the freezer the night before.

tortellini, chicken-feta sausage, and pesto
tortellini, chicken-feta sausage, and pesto

Cook the pasta according to the directions on the package. Stick the sausage in a skillet and brown it. Toss the tortellini with the pesto.

Pesto Tortellini with Sausage
Pesto Tortellini with Sausage

Serve with the sausage.