Thursday, April 30, 2009

Cloth Napkins

As of today we are no longer throwing away paper napkins. Little by little I've transitioned to cloth in the house. It all started with cloth diapers when my oldest was six months old. Then I thought I might as well use cloth wipes. From that point using cloth pads was just the next step. Before you say, "ewww!" let me just mention that my cycle is much less painful and long with this change alone. Ahem.

Then I spotted some bundles of microfiber towels in the car section at BJs and those have become wonderful paper towels for everything kitchen related. Another color of microfiber towel lives in the bathrooms for cleanups. But something kept bugging me and if you've ever seen a child use a paper napkin you'll know. They use one tip of the corner and the napkin is deemed too dirty to continue using. Then for post meal cleanup the paper napkin just didn't do the job. So about three years ago I bought this fabric for making double sided napkins. I got sidetracked. Then I got pregnant and let's just ring the bell that the napkins are finally made and have taken their maiden voyage!

Yes, they are beige flannel with a white on beige floral cotton - more than 40 napkins - just enough to last us about 3-4 days. When I'm making batches of things to use together I tend to go for uniformity - my OCD side I guess. Plus I figured these would be getting washed on hot so often with the kitchen linens that I wasn't about to use any vibrant prints which would look faded in no time. I cut the napkins about 11"x11" and after squaring off, then finishing them off with a rolled hem they're about 10"x10". Being double sided though they work great yet not too big for a child.

Since my napkins are double layered the rolled hem isn't as pronounced as it would have been on a single layer. Below is a mini tutorial on turning square corners using a serger.

First I set down the flannel one layer, then I smooth on the second fabric layer.

Square off the edges because for some reason straight cuts even with a ruler elude me.

On three of the four sides, make a cut about 2" long and 1/4" wide. Later this will be important for turning the corners.

Set your serger for a rolled hem and begin feeding the napkin on the side where you didn't make a slit cut. Yes, my serger is full of fuzz. This weekend I'm going to vacuum and oil her very well.

Continue sewing until you reach the end of the first side. Try to stop right at the edge of the fabric or a stitch past that. You might need to use the handwheel to get that last stitch. It's important to stop with the needle in the raised position.

Lift up the presser foot and remove the fabric from the stitch finger unhooking the stitches from the machine. Then turn the napking 90 degrees to position the second side.

Position the second side directly in front of the needle and the upper looper. Also, before putting down the presser foot, tug on each thread near the cone so that the stitch tightens up and you don't have any loose threads on the corner.

In the previous picture and the next you see why those slit cuts are necessary. When you turn the napkin to do the next side there is a portion of the fabric under the presser foot that is too far back for the serger knife to trim. Now, put down the presser foot and begin serging the second side.

Continue in the same way with the third side and finally with the fourth. When you reach the end of the napkin on the fourth side just serge all the way to the end off the napkin, cutting the beginning thread tail.

Voila! Done. Here's the final corner.

Finally thread a darning needle with the serger tail and tuck it into the rolled hem. Apply a dot of fray block on each corner as well as where the serger tail peeks out of the rolled hem. Clip the serger tail. Fold and use!

Oh my that's a lot of beige! Here's a bit of color for you. Some socks to turn into babylegs for the baby. I just love the orange argyle pair.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Garden update - Houston, we have sprouting

I'm utterly entranced by the stuff growing in my garden. It's nothing a seasoned gardener hasn't seen but to this former black thumb, now brown thumb a teeny sprout of something is cause for celebration!

So what's changed since the last update? I put in a little makeshift gate so I don't have to embarrass myself by hopping over the chicken wire and I can wheel in the kids' wagon to haul my tools, the baby, plants, etc.

I also put together the compost bin and we are officially composting. Everything from fruit/veggie scraps to shredded junk mail, newspapers, grass clippings and pulled weeds. My oldest finds the concept of the compost bin and worms very fascinating.

Blueberries! Hooray for the sweet blue fruit. I can't wait for blueberry buckle, blueberry crisp and the boys just eat pounds of them straight. I know we won't get pounds from just two bushes but the novelty of having our own is too exciting. I did buy bird netting this weekend to be sure that the blueberries and strawberries are not devoured by the birds.

Mint for my oldest. Mint is right up there with licorice on the flavors I like least. Go figure that my oldest son loves mint anything. Mint chocolate chip ice cream, mint candy and now mint the herb. I bought him this little plant and he almost ate all the leaves before I got a chance to transplant it. Thankfully I've heard it grows like a weed.

Now the strawberries I tried to start from seed. They didn't sprout so I bought one strawberry plant from Lowe's and about 20 bareroot strawberry crowns. I wanted to see which method was more successful. The crowns are hard to see in the dirt but they've just been in one day.

The basil has sprouted and we have two little sprouts actually. I'm kind of anxious because while the basil is out the other herbs in that bed haven't sprouted yet. I planted lavender, calendula, echinacea, thyme, oregano, cilantro, italian parsley and chives. I also planted rosemary but as insurance I bought a rosemary plant and split it into two squares. I'd like to replace some awful pampas grass at the front door with two rosemary bushes that I'll keep pruned.

Zuchinni and green beans - the no fail crop for us. It's wonderful to see how quickly these two veggies sprout and grow. I know the sign says eggplant but that's for the square behind the green beans. The boys have loved seeing how the bean splits open to sprout the seedling.

Finally some canteloupe that I bought as a started plant and some onion sets I planted today. I didn't know until this year that you can buy onion sets (they look like bulbs) or you can start onion from seed (I have some that I planted two weeks ago and is just starting to sprout).

I'm anxiously awaiting for the other crops to start sprouting - plum tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, red bell and cubanelle peppers, carrots (which have just started to peek through) as well as eggplant and lettuce (might have planted this one too late in the season).

Here is my little helper who refuses the sun hat I put on her delicate little noggin.

Then I turned around to see what the boys were doing and saw they were playing another made up fire fighter game.

They were having a blast.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

My sister's blondies

This year for my father's birthday I decided instead of racking my brain shopping for a man who doesn't like the typical man stuff and buys himself everything he needs, that I would bake him a cake and mail it. A rich buttery pound cake much like our original Dominican cake studded heavily with soaked raisins which he loves and I don't but hey it's his cake. A few days later I get a call from my sister with not a hello, how are you my dear favorite (okay only) sister but, "What does a person have to do to get cake in the mail?" See, in my family we have our priorities straight.

I told her all she had to do was ask. "You mean I could have been having baked goods for birthdays all these years by just asking? Then let me put in my order now, blondies please." Let's see, I don't have to trek with the kiddos to a store to shop or do my typical OCD scoping online stores for the perfect present. Instead I get to bake? Well twist my arm why don't you. Blondies it is.

This recipe is one of the first few I baked when I was a teenager heck bent on becoming the next Martha. Although the name evokes the dense and chewy blondie/brownie type bar, this is not. It's more of a cake bar with a streusel topping. I hadn't made it in years and this time around found it very sweet. Next time I might leave off the butterscotch chips and add semi sweet or even white chocolate chips. These bars are amazing with walnuts or pecans but alas the epi pen means no nuts in the house. I made a double batch which fits a half sheet pan because baking anything in this house without taking a cut for the family is apparently a crime. I sent my sister two thirds of the pan and she said I still owe her that other third. I love feeling appreciated.

Blondies (cakey version)

2 cups flour
2 cups firmly packed brown sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup milk
1 egg
1 cup butterschotch chips
1 cup chopped walnuts

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour a 13x9x2" pan and line with parchment paper or foil for easy retrieval of the blondies. In a large bowl dump the flour, brown sugar and butter. Cut the butter into the dry ingredients with two knives or a pastry blender. Do yourself a favor though and get a pastry blender with actual blades and not just smooth metal bars. Something like this. Mine is a pampered chef one that I bought out of obligation but it works pretty well and I've had it for years.

Cut the butter until the largest pieces of butter are as big as green peas. Then remove one cup of the mixture (this will be the topping) and set aside.

Add the baking soda and salt to the remaining mix in the large bowl.

Mix the eggs, vanilla and milk. Then add to dry ingredients and mix until mostly smooth but don't overbeat.

Oh and this? No I haven't taken up drinking, it's my homemade vanilla. I finally gave up on trying to find a good vanilla after finding out how easy it is to make. Just slice open 12 vanilla pods, chop into 1" pieces if you'd like then dump into a 750ml bottle of vodka. Shake every couple of weeks and by the next year (or 6 months at the earliest) you have vanilla. Really good vanilla. I used tahitian vanilla beans that resemble the floral Dominican vanilla I'm used to using. This bottle was started in May of '07. Now that I look at it, it looks like an old school homemade bottle of Bay Rum. Anyone remember that stuff?

Back to the blondies. Pour the batter into the prepared pan.

Now sprinkle on the reserved flour/brown sugar/butter, the butterscotch chips and nuts if you choose.

Bake about 40 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. Allow to cool and then cut into bars. Mail to your sister, or brother, or just sit in the kitchen and eat them while the kids are playing. Yum.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Dominican White Rice

So what's the big deal about Dominican white rice? It's very similar to the way rice is cooked in India as well as my Caribbean compatriots - Cuba and Puerto Rico. In Dominican Republic white rice is an integral part of the meal and must be flavorful, each grain separate waiting to absorb our red beans or the thin gravy from a carne guisada (braised meat). There are two camps in the white rice debate - yes debate. Some (like me) who prefer the rice very separate, no mushy grains, good rice definition if you will. Still others like my dad prefer their rice apastado, meaning almost like a paste, a bit mushy, less grain definition. Growing up it was a race to the rice pot to beat my dad who would stick the spoon deep into the heart of the rice pot to dig up the apastado rice at the bottom. Oy! If I made it to the pot first I would gleefully serve myself from those top layers of fluffy rice. If my dad dug in first I'd grumble while digging through the disturbed layers. Now that I'm the sole ruler of my kitchen rice is unabashedly fluffy and there will be no apastado rice in my house.

Aside from the texture Dominican white rice needs salt and oil. Like I mentioned in my earlier post it was a rude awakening to taste white rice outside of my home. Chinese steamed rice looks similar to our white rice but they use no salt. That was an interesting surprise. Not. White rice served in most restaurants and hotels varies from the boil and drain to the converted rice pilaf made with chicken broth. No, as a child I never risked eating white rice outside of my home for fear of disappointment. Measuring the rice was one of my first kitchen duties helping my mom, then I graduated to adding the salt & oil, finally to full fledged putting it on the stove to cook.

But after I married and moved 800+ miles away from my family I was busy working and when I finally had the desire to cook again I forgot how to make white rice! I know, the horror. Thankfully my Mami was only a phone call away to giggle at the thought of me forgetting to cook the dish. Below is my tried and true recipe and if you get it right you'll enjoy it like many a Dominican, with just a drizzle of a good Spanish fruity extra virgin olive oil.

One last thing - concon. Concon, aka pegao is the rice that cooks to a crispy layer at the bottom of the rice pot. No it's not burned. It's crispy, scrapes off in almost a whole layer and quite a coveted item in the Dominican household. It's the treat left after you eat the meal or if you're pushy, what you shove the rest of the rice over for and start scraping to get a crispy addition to the fluffy stuff. The way to get good concon is 1) to make sure and coat the pan well with oil before adding the rice and 2) let the rice cook about 10 minutes more after it's done on low. Concon doesn't keep well past the first night so enjoy it. The white rice keeps and reheats well with the sprinkling of a few drops of water before heating.

Dominican White Rice

1 cup extra long grain white rice - Mahatma, Canilla, etc. those are the brands I grew up with. Jasmine is a good substitute, Basmati works in a pinch.
1 scant teaspoon table salt - I measure with my hand so it's not exact.
1 tablespoon olive oil - I just drizzle out of the bottle. You want enough olive oil to coat all the grains of rice so add more if necessary.
1 1/2 cup water - This is the ratio. For every cup of rice, 1 1/2 cups of water. Just multiply for however many people you're feeding.

First mix the rice, salt and olive oil in a heavy bottomed pan with a well fitting lid. Stir the mixture until all the grains of rice are coated with oil.

Add the water and place over medium high heat until it comes to a pretty brisk boil.

Now cover the pot and reduce the heat to low. That's like a 2 on my 1-10 dial. Cook the rice until the water has evaporated below the top surface, about 20 minutes or so.

The rice is not done yet. Remove the lid and with a fork, fluff the rice from the outside in. Make a well in the middle of the pot to let the rest of the moisture evaporate. Replace the lid and cook for another 10 minutes or so.

Once the rice is done, it will be separate and toothsome but not hard at all. There will be no apparent moisture and it will not be mushy despite my dad's pleading. Here it is with the Chicken Dijon from the other day.

That's part of our flag you're seeing in that picture. The bandera, our flag, is the name for the unofficial Dominican meal. Some type of meat, white rice and beans and what you'll likely be served by any self-respecting Dominican hostess should you be so lucky to snag an invitation to the family table. Buen provecho! (that means enjoy)