Know Your Seasonings: Marjoram, and Spaghetti Sauce

I guess if you’re from Philly you can call it gravy. I call it spaghetti sauce. To begin making good on my tour of herbs and spices, I offer you this, my spaghetti sauce recipe. It’s very basic but delicious, and was heavily influenced by my mom’s taste in sauces, which is to say that there’s nothing “weird” about it. I think it originated on a Mueller’s box about 30 years ago as a sauce for lasagna, but it had oregano and since oregano is my kryptonite you will notice there is none in this version. It’s been through various other transformations, too, but I really don’t remember what’s original and what’s not, at this point. And so, before I have to bid farewell to tomatoes (at least for a while), I will be eating this in quantity.

photo courtesy of Jade Craven via flickr

photo courtesy of Jade Craven via flickr

About marjoram: Because oregano is fairly traditional in these Italian-American sorts of recipes, I had to find something that was similar but which did not make me want to avoid the food at all costs. Seriously, I know people hate on cilantro, and I think they must feel the same about it as I do about oregano. But nobody ever believes me when I tell them I think it’s gross. And insidious. Restaurants sprinkle it all. over. everything. Hint: I can smell it a mile away. Keep it off my food. Wait, this was supposed to be about marjoram, not about how I loathe oregano.

As a plant, marjoram (Origanum majorana) resembles… well, a lot of other herbs. It’s got square stems and paired leaves, and looks a whole lot like most mints and the Dread Herb Oregano. You can’t always count on nurseries to properly label potted herbs, so generally I start it from seed and/or divided clumps from known plants. Of course, if you buy it from Penzey’s or a similar source, you probably don’t need to know this.

In truth, its flavor is similar to oregano, but it’s a lot milder and less obnoxious. It’s sort of minty and sort of citrusy, and it does have that pine-like taste but to a far lesser degree than oregano. It’s sweeter and milder and just all around superior, so you should join me in my campaign to eliminate oregano. Please note, here, that when I say oregano, I mean Origanum vulgare. It can get confusing since oregano and marjoram are so closely related. Anyway, give it a try. In my biased opinion, it’s more complex than oregano, and much lovelier.

While oregano holds up well when dried, marjoram loses some of its charm. But dried marjoram works fine for long-cooked sauces, since its subtle nomminess would be overpowered by all the tomatoes anyway. If you have fresh, use it instead; it’s kind of cool to taste the difference.

Just for today, I will assume you have a basic familiarity with basil, because really it deserves to be discussed in the context of pesto and not as an afterthought in some red sauce. So without further ado:

Spaghetti Sauce (with Meat!)

  • 4 medium onions
  • 2 carrots
  • 2 stalks of celery
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 3lb. ground meat (I use half pork, half beef or venison)
  • 1/4c tomato paste
  • 3-28oz. cans of tomatoes (whole, pureed, crushed, whatever you like)
  • water
  • 3T balsamic vinegar
  • salt
  • crushed red pepper
  • two bay leaves
  • 1-2T dried marjoram
  • 1-2T basil, chopped

Mince the onion, carrot, and celery. If you have a food processor, you can use it without feeling bad, because I said so. It’s not like you’re doing delicate work for an amuse bouche at French Laundry. Heat about 3T of olive oil (not extra virgin) in a big, heavy stockpot, over medium-high heat. Add the vegetables and stir, then let them brown just a bit. Meanwhile, mince your garlic cloves.

Once the vegetables are translucent and slightly browned, add the meat. You’ll want to poke at it fairly often with a wooden spoon, to prevent it forming clumps. Or you could just let the clumps go and call them meatballs, maybe. Let the meat brown (not grey! brown!) and then add your tomato paste and minced garlic. Fry those for about a minute, then add your tomatoes and some water. I normally go for about a 1:4 ratio of water to tomatoes. Splash in the vinegar and season liberally! with salt. I use at least 2 teaspoons at this point, but I Really Like Salt. Add a pinch or two of crushed red pepper — the goal isn’t heat, it’s just a little flavor picker-upper, and your dried marjoram. If you’re using fresh, add 1/4 of it now and hold the rest with the basil until the end of cooking. Toss the bay leaves in there as well.

Lower the heat and simmer for as long as you can possibly stand. Stir it at least occasionally, and also it can be helpful to sing songs to your sauce. I suggest the Super Mario Bros. theme. You will want to at least leave it long enough to achieve the texture you want; for me, that’s fairly thick, especially since I add cooked pasta to the sauce which means the pasta water thins it out a bit at serving time. Also, I use it for lasagna, and thicker is better in that case.

About ten minutes before the sauce is done, add your fresh marjoram (if you’re using it) and basil, and stir. Taste the sauce to see if it needs a bit more salt, or red pepper, and tweak accordingly. Now it’s done!

You can use this with pasta, in lasagna, or probably with a spoon. It freezes really well; I tend to portion out 2c into bags or containers and freeze, since that’s about right for dinner for two of us.

If you’ll excuse me, I am starting to want to use words like “redolent” to describe how awesome my house smells right now, with this on the stove, so I think I’ll go check on how it tastes. Yup.

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An Embarrasment of Spices

Like most of us who spend a lot of time online, I participate on several message boards. On one of these (hi Trolls!), someone asked about spices — what would you consider a must-have? I listed a few off the top of my head and then decided that it would be a great idea, today, to actually inventory everything I have. I do it for the freezer, right, so why not the spice pantry?

I’ll tell you why not. Because I ended up with 91 items, and I know I missed a few things that are located elsewhere in the kitchen. And my first reaction was not “what on earth am I doing with all these things” but instead, “hey, I should place a Penzey’s order.”  Before we move away from that link, let me add that I love Penzey’s. They have excellent quality, and you can buy in small quantities for things you don’t use much of or just want to try. And if you know you love something, you can buy it in big bags, which is great — it reduces the amount of packaging you have to deal with and works out cheaper per ounce. In almost all cases, their stuff is cheaper than buying the same thing at the grocery store, and they have a lot more variety and you know it hasn’t been sitting around under bright lights for ages. End testimonial.

Anyway, I shall list, below, all the stuff I tallied up today. I included everything on the two spice shelves in my pantry, so that’s herbs, spices, blends, and miscellaneous stuff. I also keep a few chopped herbs in the freezer, because I think dried basil and cilantro are pretty much a waste. I do, in fact, actually use all these seasonings regularly enough to keep them stocked. Many are in small jars, because I don’t go through a LOT of them. I keep them in a cool, dark cupboard, which helps with the whole freshness thing, as much as I covet a gorgeous spice rack out in plain view. By the way, it’s not really worth freezing dried spices — they lose flavor just as quickly, and the condensation from temperature changes doesn’t do them any favors.

I think, since I have just realized I own a ridiculous quantity of spices, that I will try to do a series of blog posts detailing some uses for many of these. Some are pretty obvious, like, say, seasoning salt (it goes on everything, in case you didn’t know) but some are a little trickier: Epazote? Sumac? What?

In an attempt to keep this entry from making my blog’s front page ridiculously long (because I hate scrolling, I don’t know about you), I will hide my spice list behind the dreaded phrase:

Continue reading

Menu Plan Monday

I really love planning. Oh yes. So I’m going to participate in Menu Plan Mondays, one of those great blog themes where lots of people all post about the same topic on the same day. I don’t know about you, but I enjoy seeing what other folks are doing. Everyday life fascinates me, especially when it’s someone else’s.

First, here’s a weekly menu plan printable you can use to make your refrigerator and/or home management binder just that much more stylish. You’re welcome! Sometime I’ll organize all the printables and add them to the sidebar, but now, with my slow laptop, is sadly not that time.

When I sat down to plan this week’s meals, things were a bit different than they are now. I’d already signed back up with Weight Watchers, which I sort of pshaw-ed for a few years; now that I’m doing it again, I remember why I liked it so much. It just works really well for me. So I tried to plan with that in mind. But today, I had a slew of doctors’ appointments. One of the end results was that I’m meant to try an anti-inflammatory diet, which will involve some fairly radical changes in how I eat. But since the groceries were all bought and the freezer already stocked, this week I will settle for simply recording what I eat and observing what the patterns seem to be. Starting next week, you’ll probably see less wheat and potatoes (sigh) and more whole grains, legumes, and fish. I’m happy about the fish. My husband probably is not.

So what are we eating this week?

Monday

  • Breakfast: SoyJoy bars, good when running out the door in a hurry; also, they were free at CVS a few weeks ago, so.
  • Lunch: Out (all those appointments!)
  • Dinner: Meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and corn (from the freezer).

Tuesday

  • Breakfast: 100% whole wheat toast with low fat cream cheese, raisins, and sunflower seeds.
  • Lunch: Ham and cheese sandwiches; salad.
  • Dinner: Spaghetti! and garlic toast, salad, and green beans. I don’t know why green beans go with spaghetti. You just have to accept that they do.

Wednesday

  • Breakfast: Burritos!
  • Lunch: Bean soup (from a dried mix we have)
  • Dinner: Lasagna, salad, and more garlic bread.

Thursday

  • Breakfast: Toast/cream cheese/fruit/nut bread breakfast, like Tuesday’s.
  • Lunch: Cioppino. Mmm. I’ll post about this later in the week — it makes a great freezer meal.
  • Dinner: Lentils and quinoa with onions, aka mujadarah only sans the rice.

Friday

  • Breakfast: Burritos.
  • Lunch: Lasagna leftovers.
  • Dinner: Chili and cornbread (from the freezer).

Saturday

  • Breakfast: Toast stuff. You  know what I mean by now, right?
  • Lunch: Hummus, pita, and vegetables of some sort.
  • Dinner: Korean-style beef with rice, kimchi, mushrooms, and onions.

Sunday

  • Breakfast: Dutch Baby pancake — I love these; I’ll share a recipe soon.
  • Lunch: Super Bowl coverage and hot spinach dip and potato skins.
  • Dinner: Watching the Steelers win the Super Bowl, bbq sausages (I KNOW), and buffalo chicken sandwiches.

And now you know exactly how much crap we eat! Workin’ on it, though.

Breakfast Burritos, Freezer Style

After my last (depressing) post, I thought my loyal readers (hi you two!) might need something to cheer them up. And so I offer my “recipe” for breakfast burritos. It’s not so much a recipe as it is a general idea, and a damned good one in my opinion.

See, I know I should eat breakfast, but my inclination to prepare anything nutritious in the morning is approximately zero. And what with the salmonella in our peanut butter, my usual waffle with peanut butter seems less appetizing. I’ve tried to enjoy eating yogurt for breakfast, but it turns out I just don’t. Steel cut oats? Delicious, easily made overnight in the crock pot, and sadly a little too high on the carb-o-meter for my goals at present. This is not to say I never eat them, but a girl needs some variety.

Fortunately these are easy to make, easy to freeze, easy to heat up, and my husband likes them. He wants more cheese, but don’t we all? (PS – if you are one of those people who doesn’t like cheese, please don’t tell me about it or I will ever after regard you as some kind of alien arrived just to confound the rest of humanity.) Even if you’re not normally all up in your freezer’s business, trying to stockpile so you never have to eat at Burger King again, these are nice to have around. You never know when you’ll be in a hurry.

Breakfast Burritos, or: Eggs in a Blanket

Ha, ha; I am so clever. Anyway. This recipe, as written, makes approximately 18 burritos. If you add or subtract ingredients, or prefer a different filling-to-tortilla ratio, your outcome will be different. But delicious.

  • 1lb. of breakfast sausage. I like to make my own because I’m Like That, but we’ll talk about it another time.
  • 1 dozen eggs. Size doesn’t really matter much here. We’re not baking rocket science.
  • 8oz. of cheese, shredded. This assumes you are using run-of-the-mill lousy Kraft block cheese. I like Pepper Jack or Cheddar for this application.
  • 1T seasoning salt.
  • Black pepper.
  • Chipotle Tabasco (or other hot sauce, or dried chiles, or whatever).
  • 1/4c milk. Or water, if you don’t have the milk. But milk is better.
  • 18 flour tortillas of average size.

Put the sausage in a large-ish frying pan and brown over medium-low heat. Stir and smoosh with a wooden spoon as it cooks so you end up with crumbles rather than a giant meat cake. If you want to add sauteed vegetables to your burrito, this isn’t a bad time to chop them up. While the sausage is cooking, get a bowl or big measuring cup and crack all the eggs into it. Add the cheese, milk, and seasonings, and… you know, whisk so it looks like about-to-be-scrambled eggs.

Once the sausage is browned, drain some of the grease off. If your sausage is relatively lean (in which case why the hell are you eating lean sausage?) you may skip this step. If you want to saute some veggies, remove the sausage and set it aside, then put the veggies in the pan and saute to your liking. Then put the sausage back in and resume as described below.

Keeping the heat fairly low, pour the egg mixture into the pan with the sausage. I really prefer my scrambled eggs to be cooked slowly over low heat, so that’s how I roll. Cook and stir every so often. Once they’re JUST SET — this is important; if you cook them til they’re super-firm they will be nasty and water-oozy when reheated — JUST SET, OK? take them off the heat.

Take your tortillas and put some of the filling in each one. You may, if you wish, add extra cheese, or salsa, or anything you think might be noms. Roll them up burrito-style (though, honestly, I only ever fold one of the ends in, prefering to leave the other end open) and place on a baking sheet, seam side down.

Once they’re all rolled up, put them in the freezer. Leave them there just until they’re frozen. We don’t want frostburned breakfast. I put them in Ziploc bags in sets of three: Two for my husband, one for me. You do whatever flicks your Bic. Just make sure they’re nicely sealed and the put them back in the freezer.

To reheat one burrito, it takes about one minute in the microwave, on high power, wrapped in a paper towel. Two or three burritos take about two minutes. Congratulate yourself for eating breakfast. Yay!

The Elephant in the Room

First and foremost, let me say how thrilled I was to wake up this morning in an America with a new president. O-ba-ma!

I was, today, going to write about cross stitch and a stitchalong sampler I’m doing. Then I realized that it was just an excuse to avoid talking about how stompy and sad and frustrated I feel this week. And we all know that won’t do. So the sampler will wait. After all, it won’t be done ’til the end of the year.

Part of the reason (rather a large part, really) that I want to make our house more homelike is so that when we have kids they will have a sense of comfort, belonging, and happiness. I love my parents, and my mom tried and tried but I don’t think their house ever really felt home-like or safe. And some of that was the fact that (at least in my memory) there was never a real housekeeping schedule, and nothing that granted personality to the house. It still feels oppressive when I visit. I feel like crap just saying that, but it’s true, and it’s a huge part of my motivation here. I want my kids to feel safe and loved and I think there’s a reason for the nesting instinct. So it seems to make sense to me to have goals and rituals in place before they arrive.

So I’m working on that. And I’m happy to work on it. But we’ve been trying to conceive for sixteen months now. Sixteen. That’s well over a year. I’ve participated on message boards and watched almost everyone I know “graduate” and get pregnant, and it’s been long enough that many of them even have their babies by now. And of course I’m happy when a friend gets pregnant, but it’s also a reminder that I am not. And it just sucks. It makes me angry, sad, irritable, and disappointed. I don’t like being any of those things. More than anything, I just want to be happy.

Before anyone asks: Yes, I am pursuing treatments and therapies intended to result in pregnancy. I use OPKs and charting and it’s not like we’ve just been occasionally going at it and hoping that will work. And if you leave a comment telling me to relax and that it will happen when it’s meant to I will PROBABLY leap through the Interwebs and punch you. I know it’s supposed to be helpful. It’s not. It just makes me think, “Wow, that person doesn’t get it AT ALL.” So don’t go there.

I started this blog to try to consolidate all my various writing-places to one, so it’s fair to assume that infertility and the sadness and trials and all the baggage that come with it will make an appearance from time to time. And even when I don’t overtly mention it, you should probably know that every time I make something, or post a menu plan, or talk about developing good habits, under it there is the thought that I hope someday it will all be part of making a cozy home for my children. When I wash the dishes with a cloth I’ve crocheted, I think, “Someday, my kids will grow up and remember that in their home their mom always used these colorful dishcloths.” There will be a sense of order and routine and belonging and while it’s for my benefit, too (clearly I need these things), it’s really motivated by wanting a wonderful life for my non-existent kids.

Before this turns completely uninteresting and melancholy, I think I should haul myself off and work on some sewing projects. I just don’t feel like it, today.

She’s Crafty

I’m sure this is about the 9000th blog post with that title. Sorry. I’m not feeling especially creative today. Ahem.

I am working on our 2008 taxes, which, while not exciting, sadly constitutes part of being an adult with an income (puny though said income may be). And my small business finances are a trainwreck. I figured, oh, I’ll just file everything in envelopes and add it up at the end of the year. Ha, ha. Let me tell you: Go get some accounting software, because paper receipt-keeping is a Bad Plan. I am battling a giant headache right now and I’m not nearly done.

But it reminded me that I want to treat my Etsy shop as a real business, because to me, it is. And that means… a business checking account. So I looked into that, and found that I need a certificate with the business name. And then I spent two hours on various Michigan web sites trying to figure out how the heck one obtains such a thing. So far I haven’t quite figured it out. I think I may have to actually use the phone and talk to someone  using my voice. Oh noes.

This hardly qualifies as a real update; I know that. I promise something more interesting soon. But right now, all I can see are forms and phone numbers and piles of receipts. I think that means it’s time to go print some stuff with the Gocco, or do some cross-stitch or something not at the computer.