Cincinnati Chili

Instead of a generic story about how John and I visited Cincinnati on a trip to see his family, ate chili, and our lives were changed forever, I am going to tell you about the first time I made Cincinnati chili. It was about a month ago, and we returned home from a chilly whale watching adventure in the open waters off South Head. Even though whale watching is not an intense activity, we were both exhausted from our trip. Usually in this situation, we would pick up takeaway from a nearby restaurant, but I was grimly determined to stick with the Paleo Cincinnati chili from the weeks meal plan. Afterwards, I intended relax for the evening, enjoying the satisfaction of homemade dinner and lunch for tomorrow. John laid down on the living room rug and played with Cecilia, while I began prepping for dinner.  I set out boiling the water, cooking the meat, and measuring out all of the spices. I briefly considered sampling the new brand of chili powder, before bypassing my tongue straight for the pot with a 1/4 cup Hoyts’ finest blend. I felt that chili powder is chili powder, and I continued adding ingredients to the pot.

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After simmering for an hour or so, I took the first taste. The chili was quite spicy. I realized that it would be best to make Cecilia something else to eat and not risk a spicy-hand eye rub disaster. About two seconds after my first bite, the heat really kicked me; it was a deep, smokey, burning heat. I thought, “this may be the spiciest thing I have ever eaten”. John and I enjoy a bit of heat to our meals, and he has been known to order an 8/10 in Thai and Indian restaurants even after the waiter gives him the “are you sure, white boy?” look. However, we do not eat spicy foods for sport, until this fateful evening, of course.

The thing about Cincinnati chili is that, traditionally, it is served over spaghetti. The thing about spaghetti is that it leads to a nice, even coat of sauce on the lips. I think this is what took the spiciness of my accidental chili powder for cayenne pepper swap (this is what we assume happened, even though the spice package gave no indication that it was not the spice mixture commonly known as chili powder) into new realms of spicy torture. We sat through dinner with grave determination as the spaghetti noodles playfully splashed the flaming lava sauce on our numb, tingling lips. The spiciness was not the sweat-inducing type, instead our mouths felt like the entry into the burning depths of hell. No water or milk could quench these flames. Pride forced us to continue with dinner as though the pauses between each tortuous bite was to examine the contents of our fork pensively.

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Needless to say, we did not eat the chili for lunch the next day as I had intended. Despite my best efforts to alleviate the guilt of such wastage, that chili headed for the trash (I barely managed a few bites).  It took weeks for us to consider spicy food, and the passing of a month paired with a cold snap before we were willing to revisit the recipe.

The second attempt was thankfully much less dramatic. Although I did omit the 1 tsp of cayenne called for in the recipe because we just were not emotionally ready for it yet. I know this might be blasphemy, but I served this Paleo recipe over spaghetti twice, and have no regrets, well about the pasta anyway.

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Simple Sausage and Cabbage Supper

Sydney (and the rest of Australia) is suffering through some of the coldest winter weather in a decade. While it pales in comparison to some of the subzero North Carolina nights we experienced, during these cool winter evenings, I look for simple comfort foods to satisfy our desire for a warm and filling dinner. Sausage and cabbage are not generally my go-to ingredients, but I occasionally play to John’s German and Eastern European roots. I don’t think he has ever eaten a meal that was too heavy. In contrast, I tend to prefer lighter dishes that feature meat as a flavor enhancer instead of a main component. This sausage and cabbage dish favors some of his preferences, while I am content that the sausage serves to add flavor and augment the vegetables instead of being the substance of the dish.

I use this Cabbage Sausage Supper recipe from Taste of Home. Like the author notes, it is amazing that few ingredients can yield such a flavorful dish. The cabbage is definitely that star in that aspect, it lends a subtlety sweet flavor that contrasts nicely with the smoky sausages. This is also one of the few recipes I cook without any additional herbs or seasonings.

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I love that this dish is one pot and does not require much prep, a combination that can be elusive in good recipes. The recipe serves 12, so I halve it and we have enough leftovers for lunch the next day, but don’t have to eat it all week. The cabbage is easily thinly sliced with a good chef’s knife and I roughly chop the potatoes and carrots. The sausages are sliced into rounds and quartered for perfect bite-sized pieces before going into the pot.  We generally eat it as a one-pot meal, but John would be happy with an additional carby side of a crusty bread loaf. All in all, it is a great warming dinner for our cooler days this week.

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Vegan Tamale Pies

We are on a bit of a polenta kick this week, with the chorizo and spinach polenta squares just finished from the fridge and these vegan tamale pies slated for the oven this evening. In this dish, the polenta is part of a lovely, sweet, and crumbly layer of cornbread over a spicy melange of vegetables and beans. I started making a full cornbread recipe since John always requests extra, and each serving has a thick slab atop the beans and vegetables.

I find this recipe perfect for a no-fuss weeknight dinner. The chili layer can be straight from the pantry and freezer into a saucepan for a half hour simmer. Or if I have planned ahead appropriately, I can use cheaper presoaked beans, saute fresh onion and garlic, and maybe even throw in a chopped red bell pepper. Either way, the vegan chili is filling and flavorful. I double the chili and use this sweeter recipe for the cornbread, and it fills a 9 x 13 casserole dish. I follow the baking instructions for the cornbread since everything else is cooked. For a weeknight dinner, this ticks all the boxes: quick to make, easy clean up, all staple ingredients, and leftovers for the next day.

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Chorizo and Spinach Polenta Squares

The Kitchn is one of my constant sources of recipe inspiration. I love that the site focuses on seasonal ingredients and has a range of recipes from flourless chocolate cake to beautiful salads (even though I don’t make salads). Visiting the site has actually been a bit hard on me since we switched hemispheres (and therefore seasons). Now when The Kitchn is posting “7 Delicious Recipes to Eat Strawberries for Lunch”, the strawberries at my grocery store are $7.99 a pint and looking travel worn. I am making note of promising recipes to include in my spring/summer recipe capsule, and the recipe search function is very comprehensive. Fortunately, I can rely upon this seasonally non-specific recipe for bacon and spinach polenta breakfast squares all year long.

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I found the recipe on a Sunday afternoon, as I was trying to find something to make for dinner that would also last us a few days. I tweaked the ingredients for a more substantial, dinner-worthy, polenta dish that I serve over a bed of greens. To the recipe I add two eggs, most of a package of frozen spinach (squeezing out the water first), and generally crisp up chorizo instead of bacon. The chorizo adds a lot of flavor and salt so I generally only dust the top with cheese instead of mixing some in the casserole as well. I find that these additional ingredients (or maybe just our crazy hot oven) decrease the cook time, so I don’t use boiling water as the instructions suggest. The result is squares that are hearty enough for a main course and perfect hot or cold for lunch.

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Why I Don’t Make Salads Anymore

One of my biggest revelations since creating our unique capsule meal plan is to embrace the food we love to cook and eat, and not to feel guilty about the things that don’t work for us. It has only been in the past six months that I have been able to truly accept my preferences and their uniqueness. Part of this process of self discovery led me to realize that even though I enjoy fresh vegetables, salads don’t work on our weekly menu. In fact, I am much happier to never make salads. This was interesting to me because I love eating salads. I enjoy crisp lettuce mixed with chopped bits of vegetables and fruit, smothering it all in a tangy, or sweet, or creamy dressing.

However, in my kitchen, the salad cycle goes something like this: buy lettuce or salad greens, separate and wash leaves, chop the greens, slice the fruit/veg accessories, chop up more things for the dressing, and whisk up dressing. Just writing all the steps makes me want to stay away from lettuce! Salads are also one of the few dishes that I despise the leftovers. The thought of wilty lettuce -gag. So I spend all this time preparing this masterful salad with creamy avocado, sunflower seeds adding a little crunch factor, but then I have to make something different for dinner? I am not at a point in my life when I want to spend all the night in the kitchen preparing food.

I know this is not a big deal to a lot of people, maybe even most people, which is why there are so many awesome salad recipes. I used to force myself to make salads because they were healthy, and beautiful, and everyone else was making them. But for me, more often than not, my salad plans would get pushed back in the week because I didn’t feel like dealing with the whole ordeal. Then on Friday I would have some sad, close-to-wilting lettuce and a mish-mash of other vegetables leftover from the week. Of course I did not waste the vegetables, but the outcome was so far from my inspiration that it didn’t seem worth the time and effort.

It might sound petty or silly, but I am much happier without the vegetables in the crisper beginning their countdown to uncrispiness. I don’t have that anxious feeling opening the fridge and have my thoughts spiraling from, “oh gosh, I should really make that salad. The lettuce is going to go bad, the tomatoes are getting squishy. I hate squishy tomatoes. If they get squishy I know I am not going to eat them, does it make me a bad person if I give John all the squishy ones? Probably. We will just have to throw them away – again. You are the reason there is so much food waste. Way to cause world hunger.” Dramatic, yes, but also what went on in my sometimes dramatic mind.

I never got the enthusiastic, light, oh yum feeling eating my salads that I did just looking at other peoples salads. It took me a surprisingly long time to realize the incongruence between my feelings looking at other people’s salads, and making my own salads. Once I identified it, I decided to accept my preferences. I still eat loads of vegetables, just not on a bed of greens. When I do make salads, it is conscious decision to set aside some time for washing, chopping, and whisking; no guilt spiral needed.

Homemade Hummus

Hummus is on regular snack rotation in this fall/winter meal capsule, and I suspect we will still be enjoying it come spring. We started making our own hummus regularly after the move because of the shocking prices in Sydney. If we consumed normal amounts of hummus, I might be able to let it slide and call the purchases a “treat”. However, John uses carrots, celery, and bread as a vehicle for a massive glob of hummus; calling it a dip would be inaccurate in our house. I just feel extravagant spending that much on a spread we will eat in two days.

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I tried a few recipes/techniques for hummus making before settling on this recipe by Inspired Taste. The directions include whipping the ingredients in a food processor one-by-one, and I think it makes a noticeable difference in the texture. Getting out the food processor and cleaning it is not an everyday activity for me, so I double the recipe to make my efforts count. We never have a problem finishing off a huge batch in a week and our hummus desires are throughly quenched for a month or so. We like food on the spicier/tangier side, so I up the garlic to four cloves (for a doubled recipe) and add extra lemon to taste. In our house, hummus is served slathered on a piece of toast, carrots, or celery. It is a great substantial snack for in between meal times, or sometimes features in a hummus, fried egg, and avocado sandwich.

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Capsule Meal Planning

I started struggling with meal planning after getting married and needing to adjust my regular meals to John’s preferences. Having a baby and moving to a new country ballooned the issue to the point where I could no longer ignore it. Not only did I lose the luxury of focusing all my attention on preparing dinner in the evenings but I also lost my favorite frozen/packaged foods for quick, “emergency” meals. As much as I love food and healthy eating, meal planning became an unwanted chore. All too often, I opened the pantry or fridge searching for direction on what to cook for dinner that evening. I felt like I was scrambling to get food together and then often was disappointed by the results. It’s not that I lacked inspiration; I had a huge list of recipes to try. It’s just that new recipes required additional time for shopping and following new instructions, so I ended up relying heavily on my favorites. Unfortunately, my favorites list was only 5 or 6 dishes deep, and we would quickly tire of these recipes.

Other times, the week would start out great, I had a plan for all the new meals we would try and the groceries to cook them. But after several days of following through, I would be tired of cooking or uninspired. Attempting so many new recipes exhausted me, I did not like the uncertainty surrounding it’s newness – would it taste good, did I chop the vegetables small enough, would the cook times be accurate in our generally fast-cooking oven, will there really be enough leftovers for lunch. We would end up getting takeaway food at the last minute, and I hated when we had to resort to restaurant food instead of planning and getting something we were really excited to eat. By Saturday I would vow that next week would be better, and I would be more prepared. Sometimes I did manage to make it through a week without succumbing to takeaway, but it felt like such a battle. After a few months of this exhausting cycle, I decided that I needed to invest time and become intentional with meal planning.

In order to properly plan for the week, I had to be honest with myself about what worked for my family. I thought about the characteristics of a good meal for us, and asked myself these questions:

  • What recipes do I keep coming back to?
  • What foods are our staples (always on hand) and our mains (significant part of the meal, bought each week for a recipe)?
  • How can I work the staples and mains into multiple dishes in the same week without getting bored?
  • What foods do we avoid?
  • How many meals do I want to make each week?
  • What is the maximum time I am willing to spend on making dinner on a normal night?
  • When do I want to prep food?
  • How much time do I want to devote to cleaning the kitchen?

I realize that for me to cook five or more nights a week, the meals need to be simple, healthy, with relatively few ingredients. Dinner needs to be assembled and cooked in less than 90 minutes. In addition, I prefer dinners to be large enough to have leftovers for lunch. If I can make enough of one dish so I don’t have to cook the following day, we are okay with one day of repeats. We are pretty active on the weekends, so it is ideal to have some grab-and-go type food ready. I do not want to spend most of Sunday preparing and cooking food; however, I can spend a few hours that evening prepping for the week. Lastly, John and I hate cleaning the kitchen, so I try to use as few dishes as possible during the preparation process.

None of these statements alone were a revelation; however, all of them combined helped me sift through all of my inspiration and pinpoint only those recipes that would actually work for us. Since I love food blogs and food photography, a big part of my process was acknowledging that I could still read those blogs without feeling obligated to make anything. Now I know that if I take the time to chop up six vegetables and herbs to prepare awesome tabboleuh, we will not have anything else to eat for dinner, and if there are no leftovers we will mostly likely be lunch-less as well. However, drooling over the vibrant photographs is not off-limits, this time just cannot be considered research for next week’s recipes. I slowly began trying new recipes and including the ones that meet our criteria into a seasonal capsule of recipes.

I now cook from this capsule of 18 meals for the fall and winter. All of these recipes are easily prepared, and meet my other criteria. I love having a written list of recipes and ingredients that I can refer to throughout the week and month as I think about what we are going to eat. After creating our ideal meal plan, I actually spend way less time thinking about food and more time enjoying other activities. I still experiment with new recipes, but I find that limiting to once a week works best for me. I am interested to see how my thoughts change over the coming months, and am excited to put together a new spread for the spring/summer.

Sweet Potato Quinoa Casserole

Tex-Mex is hands down the cuisine that John and I miss the most since moving to Sydney. We love the spectrum of spicy peppers to refreshing, crisp veggies. On the less healthy side, we love the cheese drenched, tender meat in corn or flour tortillas; we also can’t get enough of the rainbow of peppers, onions, cilantro, and avocado. I didn’t realize it until we left, but we probably ate frozen Trader Joe’s Chicken Tamalitos once week, and loaded nachos were in heavy rotation as well. His parents would send us several jars of El Fenix salsa for almost every occasion – best gift ever, but of course the handmade flour tortillas topped the list for presents from Texas.

We are still trying to find a good Mexican restaurant in Sydney, and I don’t want to spend the time or money trying to source those flavors we crave. My heart hurts when I go to the ethnic aisle and see three bags of tortilla chips and one variety of salsa for twice the price we are used to paying (to be fair, most things are twice the price we are used to). This sweet potato quinoa casserole by Eating Bird Food eases our cravings a bit and provides a good amount of leftovers for lunches. It is very versatile and I add or substitute ingredients based on my pantry at the moment.

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This was actually one of the first new recipes I attempted in Australia and the initial trial ended in a complete failure for multiple reasons, none of which were recipe related. The biggest problem was cooking an ethnic-inspired dish while in a country that is literally the farthest place in the world from the cuisine in question. I had problems finding the ingredients, and then when I did they were so much more expensive than in the States ($2.30 for a can of black beans, really?). Spending so much money on the ingredients added the pressure of having dinner taste better than if we had just eaten out for the same price. Onto the preparation: I cut the sweet potato into large pieces instead of the dice recommended; however, the knife in the rental was impossibly dull and I hacked at that sweet potato for a long time as it was. There was also the issue of the stove labels being completely wore off so I had no idea where to put dial for temperature or setting (there is no “On” switch, you have to choose a setting). I ended up choosing the middle of both dials for no reason other than 350 F seemed middle of the road. It also could have been dehydrator because that casserole baked a solid 2 1/2 hours, but still was underdone. We finally gave up on having tender cooked sweet potatoes and just gnawed on the partially raw chunks. All in all, it was cheesy and a bit burnt on the top with raw vegetables that I spent the better part of an hour trying to cut up. I was very dissapointed with the results, but also knew that the flavors were all there. The preparation and cooking were the only things that held me back.

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I have since made this casserole several times successfully. It does require a bit of prep time to cook the quinoa and chop vegetables, although now I have my knives and cutting a sweet potato is no longer such an arduous task. Salsa prices make me cry so I usually substitute a can of tomatoes and a tablespoon of chopped jarred jalapeños. I also use regular chili powder and salt instead of the packets she suggests; I don’t think McCormick’s exists in Australia. Overall, I find the casserole to be very versatile and filling. It definitely earned its place as one of my key meals for the fall and winter.

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