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Archive for the ‘monthly challenge’ Category

As you recall, part of November’s Eat-out challenge was trying four new recipes this month. We’ll call that the Eat-In Challenge for November. To start off the month last week, I tried my hand at a dish Bart and I had at a restaurant in Arlington a few months ago but had never made on my own.

I’d heard of huevos rancheros before, but I had never eaten it. I’m not sure why; I’m a gigantic fan of breakfast and of Mexican food, so it’s an obvious win. At this restaurant, I saw that they had not only huevos rancheros on the menu, but they had huevos rancheros divorciados. I’d never heard of this before, but the waitress explained it as huevos rancheros with both red and green sauce. As I am also a gigantic fan of green sauce, I knew I needed to try it. Despite the ominous name, it was quite delicious, so I knew it was something I wanted to try at home.

I based my red sauce on Jamie Deen’s huevos rancheros recipe; my main modification was using green chilies instead of a jalapeno. I also used diced tomatoes but decided that next time I would go with whole or stewed instead for a deeper flavor.

Base ingredients for the red sauce

Base ingredients for the red sauce

I blended these in a blender, then transferred to a sauce pan to warm while I focused on the green sauce.

For this, I used the green half of this Food Network recipe. This recipe is legit, as it called for roasting the tomatillos, onion, pepper, and garlic before making the sauce. I did this in a cast iron skillet over high heat on my awesome gas cooktop.

Roasting the ingredients for the green sauce.

Roasting the ingredients for the green sauce.

For the record, this is the first time I’ve ever used tomatillos. I have no idea if the were ripe or anything, but it seemed to turn out just fine. Then I blended them all up and transferred to yet another saucepan to warm.

Will it blend? Yes, yes it will.

Will it blend? Yes, yes it will.

I didn’t make any modifications to this recipe except for one that I literally just realized I did on accident: instead of halving the Anaheim pepper, I used a whole one. No wonder I thought it was almost too hot to eat…mystery solved. Bart tells me it was just right and to not change it. We’ll see next time. The only modification I think I’d make in the future is adding some spices like cumin and coriander for a little added depth.

Next, I turned my attention to some refried beans. I always make my own, usually with pintos that I cook myself.  I add the equivalent of one can of beans to a skillet with a little bit of oil of my choice; I used canola oil this time. Just a tablespoon or less did it for me, but definitely suit yourself.

Pre-fried beans.

Pre-fried beans.

To this I added salt, onion and garlic powder, cumin, and coriander. I’m guilty of rarely measuring spices; I’m trying to reform my practices, I promise. I use something like 1/2-1 teaspoon of each.

Spicing up the refried beans.

Spicing up the refried beans.

Add these to the beans and heat them in the skillet for 5-10 minutes. If they get too dry, just add a little water and let that cook down. Once all the flavors are incorporated, mash to the desired consistency; I use the back of a spoon or sometimes a potato masher. Mine were pretty chunky this time, but I usually like it on the creamy side.

Once that was cooking, I toasted up some flour tortillas in the cast iron skillet. Corn is probably more traditional, but I had flour tortillas so there you go.

Heating up the tortillas.

Heating up the tortillas.

Finally, I had my resident fried egg-spert, Bart, cook up a few for us. I’m the scramble master, but he’s got the magic touch for fried eggs and omelets.

Oh, and if anyone ever questions the need to have more than four burners on a cooktop, he should try making huevos rancheros sometime. Have you been counting how many separate pots and pans going on here? Go back and count them.

To assemble, I spread the refried beans on a tortilla, add the egg, then top with both red and green sauce (but this is divorciados-style, so in the immortal words of the Offspring, you’ve got to keep them separated). And a little shredded colby-jack never hurt anyone.

Huevos rancheros divorciados

Huevos rancheros divorciados

You’ll notice one glaring omission to this recipe–any sausage or chorizo. That’s because I’m a dork and I forgot to pick it up at the grocery store. That’s okay; I was running out of burners anyway.

I have no idea what it is, but there’s something about this meal that is utterly delicious. Bart and I gobbled it down and went back for more. It just goes to show that expanding your horizons and trying a new dish could lead to a new favorite to add into the rotation of reliable meals. Plus, it enforces the point that we can eat just as well or better at home than we could at a restaurant and save a bunch of cash doing so. In all regards, the first new recipe for the Eat-In Challenge was successful. I’m due up for recipe #2 any day now, so I’d better start scouting out a delicious prospect. Any suggestions?

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Well, we already blew our first November Eat-Out mini challenge (eating at home for one week straight) by having dinner out with friends last night and this afternoon. The first set volunteered to broaden our horizons by taking us to one of their favorite pho restaurants. We’ve never had any Vietnamese food before, much less pho, but they assured us the simple beef broth soup was not scary, and they were right; it wasn’t bad or weird at all, and we enjoyed sharing a meal with them. The second set was an older couple from church who has befriended us; they said that since we are poor from just buying a house they wanted to feed us. And we let them. 😉 Very sweet of them.

So, in the interest of getting to know our friends better and to experiencing something new, we decided it would be fine to shift our seven-day mini challenge up a couple of days. In the meantime, our overall challenge is going well. I’ve already tried one new recipe that I’ll share soon, but today I wanted to share my initial experience with a new kitchen gadget I got a few weeks ago.

For my birthday, Bart’s mom bought me an Instant Pot. This is something I’ve had on my wishlist for a while. I have a slow cooker and a rice cooker that I use often, and recently I contemplated getting a pressure cooker. However, I wasn’t all that excited about getting yet another bulky appliance for my kitchen, and now that my new kitchen is even smaller, a new appliance is a definitely no-go. However, about a year ago I came across an appliance called the Instant Pot, a multi-tasking device that combines a slow cooker, steamer, rice cooker, and a pressure cooker in one package. Not only would I be gaining functionality, I would be reducing the number of items I had to store in my cabinets. And the reviews were great. I held off on getting one, but now was the perfect time for my mother-in-law to gift one to me.

We’ve been so distracted unpacking that I haven’t had the opportunity to play with it, but we finally got it out today. We started off by testing the slow cooker function with some chili. I just chose the “slow cooker” option on the panel and set the number of hours I wanted.

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Six hours later, we had a hot, delicious chili.

 

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So, our first experience with the Instant Pot was a good one. However, a slow cooker seems like a hard thing to get wrong, so I look forward to testing out the rice cooker and especially the pressure cooker function. It claims you can cook beans in twenty minutes, compared to one or two hours when I usually do it. If that’s true, my whole world is going to get rocked.  I’ll try to share my further experience with the additional functions to let you know how it measures up. In other news, does anybody need a crock pot or rice cooker? I might know where you can find a good deal on some used ones…

As for the chili, it’s one of my staple recipes that I have in my head and not written out, but it’s easy enough to share the basic formula with you. I use a pound of ground beef, two cans of beans, one each of pintos and red beans (or the equivalent home-cooked beans, which I typically do), a can of diced tomatoes, and the appropriate amount of chili seasoning mix, either prepackaged or made from scratch, whatever I have on hand. Then I add tomato juice to make it the desired thickness; we like ours a little juicier, so I add something like two to three cups. Today I shook things up a bit and added a cup or so of frozen corn and a small can of green chilies, which made a nice variation. Chili is a great staple recipe to have–it’s tasty, quick, and very forgiving to make just how you desire.

So the Taylors are off to a good start on their eat-out challenge, despite a few unexpected meals out. Hopefully we can keep the ball rolling through the first full week of November.

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Now that we’re fully moved in and partially settled, Bart and I are trying to return to some semblance of normalcy in our daily routine. One thing that has been unusual and pervasive for us over the last half a year or more is eating out multiple times a week. We enjoy going out for a meal as a fun activity now and again, but we were relying on restaurants for food more than we typically do.

One reason for this increase in eating out was house-hunting; we would be out almost all day on Saturdays and Sundays and need to eat between showings. Another reason was my periodic lack of motivation and inspiration in the kitchen, which happens to us all at some time or another. Then, during the final weeks of packing one kitchen, moving, and unpacking into another one, we were forced to eat out with abandon as we had limited resources to cook our own meals.

Needless to say, this dining schedule begins to add up considerably in cost as well as health. It’s easy to toss a few twenties or your credit card at the check when you finish a meal without thinking, but when I stop to really look at the dollar amount of some meals, I can hardly believe I’m willing to spend that much on one meal, especially when I would balk on spending that much on an item I would use every day at home. Now, obviously we have to eat, and that does cost money, but I can cook so much cheaper at home, and most of the time it’s just as tasty. Also, we are used to eating pretty well when we cook, but when I go out for a meal, I’m definitely not ordering a salad with a side veggies. So, it seemed like November would be the perfect time to get back to our normal routine, but with a kick. To keep us motivated, Bart and I have instituted an Eat-Out Challenge for the month of November.

Here’s how it works for us. We set a budget for eating out the entire month, and we do not exceed that dollar amount by November 30 (with some flexibility for unexpected things, like guests or travel). When we did this previously in Colorado, we were able to meet or beat a goal of $100 most months, which for us translated in about one restaurant or casual dining meal per week. Here, things are pricier, and we think $125 is a good goal to shoot for. If I were brave enough to calculate an estimate of our eating out expenditures for October, I think I might faint over the difference in those two numbers, but it’s totally doable. Plus, all that money saved could be used for something else fun, like fixing up the house.

To kick start our challenge, we are instituting a mini-challenge of not eating out for an entire week. That will be more challenging if we have plans to be out on Saturday, but we can work around it. That will also make our next restaurant outing more special.

I also decided to incorporate one more challenge for myself this month. As we’ll be eating at home more, I’ll need some extra motivation for cooking interesting meals. So I’ve decided to try four new recipes this month, approximately once a week, to keep it interesting in the kitchen. Bonus points if my new recipes put my fancy Wolf oven and gas cooktop through their paces. If I come across a real winner of a recipe, I’ll be sure to share. We’ll also be in Raleigh with friends for Thanksgiving, so that would be a great opportunity to try a new holiday dish.

I’m actually looking forward to this challenge. We’ve been so scattered lately that doing something like a challenge means we’re settled enough to focus on a project other than unpacking. It’s also a nice twist that it naturally involves spending more quality time in our new home.

Do you have any goals for the new month? There’s never a better time to try something new!

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It’s August already? Where has the summer gone? Heck, where has the entire year gone??

The beginning of a new month should bring another Monthly Challenge, but I just haven’t come up with anything specific I was prepared to work on for the next 31 days. “Buying a house” might be a bit beyond the scope of a monthly challenge project. :p Maybe I’ll just work on that and some weekly projects to keep me occupied. But one goal I’ve been waiting on for months may finally happen next week!

Since the day we moved into our rental, there has been a mysterious leak in our fridge. We didn’t know exactly what was going on but assumed it must have something to do with the ice maker, which should be the only source of external water into the fridge. Over the course of months, we’ve tried turning the ice maker on, turning the ice maker off, and turning off the water line to the fridge (which didn’t work, because there’s only a flimsy in-line valve coming off a main water line and it wasn’t water tight) to determine what the problem was, but to no avail. All the while we have two big plastic cups taking up room in the already small fridge to catch as much of the drips as we can. It hasn’t really been that big of a deal, though we don’t always get all the water, causing periodic flooding on our shelves and in drawers. Ew.

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It probably seems silly that we have put up with this for this long, but we’ve had our various reasons. First, it really isn’t a major issue, just a slight inconvenience. Second, our landlord did supply us a home warranty; however, it doesn’t cover the ice maker or any associated parts, which is what we assumed the problem was. We didn’t want to pay the $75 fee just for them to come out and tell us it wasn’t covered. We also didn’t want to bug our landlord in case we find a house and wanted to break our lease early, or if we don’t find a house and want to rent month-to-month for a while. We saved our calls to him for the major stuff (i.e. a gushing fount from the basement wall) and not for little stuff we could deal with. We hope that will make him more accommodating in either situation.

At any rate, we were not being all that inconvenienced with the refrigerator, until a few weeks ago when I thought I noted that stuff didn’t quite seem as cold as I would have expected. I checked that the coolness dial setting on the fridge was turned all the way up and didn’t think any more about it until Saturday, when I poured myself a very tepid glass of juice that should have been crisp and cold. Bart picked up a cheap thermometer from Home Depot, and, what do you know, it was somewhere around 57 degrees inside.

Mystery of unexplained curdling of half a jug of milk last week = solved.

Something definitely needed to be done about this. Our only DIY recourse was to try cleaning the cooling coils, something we did with success to our fridge back in Colorado when it was misbehaving. Once we saw exactly how disgusting the coils were on this fridge (probably never, ever been cleaned before in its life), I was just certain that would do the trick. I think it helped ease the temps down slightly below 50, but not any more. So Bart called the home warranty place–global warming ought to be covered, at least.

Of course, there was some problem with the account, so we still had to bring it up with the landlord to get that straightened out. He was super nice and helpful about it (as he should be) and even volunteered to reimburse us for any food spoilage we may have had. Bart and I agreed that we weren’t too concerned about half a gallon of milk, though.

The repair man came a couple of days ago and diagnosed the issue within two minutes. Evidently, 90 % of his warranty calls are the same problem: there’s some part in the fridge that breaks (it wasn’t clear to me which one) and causes ice to form inside from ambient humidity. Cold air from the freezer is trapped up there, keeping the freezer nice and cold, but the block of ice restricts the flow into the fridge compartment, causing it to get warmer. That also makes the ice block melt into the fridge. So, what do you know–both of our issues are actually the same problem. I bet lower humidity all winter and generally cooler temps this summer helped stave off the issue, but two weeks ago when we had a massive heat wave, it finally just couldn’t keep up anymore, and that’s when I noticed.

So there–both problems solved by one home warranty call. The part should be in next week, but we’re supposed to unplug the fridge for a full day to defrost before they can come fix it. Not only will that be like flooding due to the melting of polar ice caps inside of our fridge, we will have to temporarily relocate all our food. Fortunately, we have a small dorm fridge downstairs to keep a few condiments and things in. I’m also now thankful that we didn’t ditch our stand-up freezer when we moved. I really hated moving the thing; we absolutely used and appreciated it in Colorado, but it is old and inefficient and kind of smells inside. I even had my eye on giving it away on Craigslist just two weeks ago. But boy am I glad we have it now.

So, hopefully our refrigerator saga will soon be over. I’d love to reclaim all the space in my somewhat small fridge and not have to sop up water on the bottom shelf below the crisper drawers anymore. Ew.

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Holy cow. I just realized that yesterday marked one year since my last day at NIST in Boulder, where I worked seven years while competing my graduate research program at CU.

One year ago today, I became unemployed for the first time since high school–and unemployed and and not in school for the first time since kindergarten. For essentially the first time in my life, I was was totally without professional and educational purpose in life. For someone whose whole life was practically defined by learning, it was very emotionally challenging, as what had been a part of myself for so very long was totally gone.

It was made all the more alarming by the fact that at that point the duration of this hiatus was indefinite. I had a few job applications out and I was interviewing a couple of places, but nothing was set in stone. So essentially I was going to be unemployed as long as it took me to find a job. That can be a very terrifying place to be; fortunately we were financially secure, but for a lot of people an unemployment situation is not that way.

Thankfully, on my last day of work, my boss had encouraged me to apply for the job announcement that eventually resulted in my current position. I submitted my application, and just a couple of days into my sabbatical I got an initial call from my now current boss. So God was providing for us and moving us toward where we are today, even if I couldn’t see the end result. That’s the crux of faith, I suppose. And mine was definitely tested during the entire period between graduating and finding a job last year. And to be honest, it continues to be tested every day as we deal with the various aspects of moving here.

Being unemployed wasn’t all bad, though. I got to sleep in a bit. I got to take my time eating breakfast and having my quiet time in the morning. I got to hang out with Bart, who was working at home. I got to have lunch with him every day. I got to stay out of his way while he tried to work from home. I hung out with people and built relationships. I cleaned the house and started getting rid of stuff, just in case we ended up moving (and to lighten our mental load even if we didn’t). Most importantly, I planned our two-week trip to Europe (which ended up being a full time job in itself!).

The date caught me off guard when it came back to mind today. It brought back a lot of interesting memories, and it’s interesting to compare my state of mind and situation in life then and now. While I still feel unsettled here sometimes, I definitely feel more peace about my situation than I did. I’m also just struck by how ridiculously fast life moves these days. I just told Bart it’s almost scary how fast it goes. If anything, I’m learning to not let it slip away without doing anything with it.

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It’s done. It’s finally done. All the squares, all the stitching together, all the weaving in ends, all the border. I’m going to go bury my knitting needles now.

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Oh wait, is that a hole where my woven-in ends have come undone?…. Dang it.

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With two hours to spare, I completed my goal for June around 10:00 last night. I seriously didn’t think it was going to happen, but somehow I made it. Two months and three seasons of streaming “Mad Men” later, all 36 squares of my knit blanket are seamed together.

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This thing is massive. I mean, it’s eating up half of my couch here. I originally thought it could be a baby blanket, but i think it would swallow a child. Maybe, I don’t know, triplets? But boy is it gorgeous, if I do say so myself.

Now all it needs to be done is a border. Just a border. Heaven help me.

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