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I love the Pioneer Woman. Who doesn’t? I credit her almost completely with my huge jump in photography and editing skills a couple years ago, when I started reading her tutorials and downloaded her free Photoshop actions.

She does a regular photography assignment contest, and I always find it inspiring. This week’s subject is mobile phone shots, which I’ve almost completely moved toward, ignoring my sad, lonely dSLR. I’ve been playing around with Instagram a lot, so grabbed a recent photo I thought was interesting enough to add to her Flickr group.

Sure enough, she liked it and included it with the first group of photos. Thanks so much, Ree!

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Sometimes a total gut-job is the only thing to do.

Michael and Stacee Sledge bought their 1924 home in Bellingham, Washington, knowing they could spruce up most of the place with paint, elbow grease, and a little DIY creativity — the bones of the neglected bungalow were great.

But the kitchen had to go.

“It had one tiny bank of original cabinets, which were so shallow we couldn’t even fit our plates in them,” says Stacee. “And the only place to put the appliances was smack dab in the walkway between the living room and the rest of the house. It was really awkward.”

The couple bought the house — a dog in an otherwise perfect neighborhood — for a steal, leaving enough budget to hire a local kitchen designer and contractor to re-imagine the culinary space.

At the top of the couple’s wishlist? Keeping the design in line with the home’s history: simple lines, schoolhouse light fixtures, and modest materials, such as maple counter tops and eco-friendly Marmoleum floors. Their kitchen designer was invaluable at making the space both comfortable and efficient.

“Every detail was thought out, from large drawers instead of lower cabinets to a wall of storage that included shelves for our cookbooks. We didn’t spend all that much on the designer’s plans, but by far that was the best decision we made, because everything fell into place perfectly with her input. She changed the placement of the exterior door and windows, which made a huge difference in how everything else flowed — we never would have come up with that.”

Stacee’s favorite part of the new space?

“Besides how great it looks and works? Hands down, the kitchen sink. We ordered the largest, deepest, stainless steel sink we could afford. I never understood the appeal of the double sink. Our behemoth single-basin sink means washing even the largest stock pot is a breeze.”


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Keeping busy

Oh, it is miserable out there today. Lashing rain and gusts of wind that threaten to knock out our power. Earlier it was raining while the sun glanced off the wet pavement; now it’s just gray and grim. And wet. Crazy weather.

But this website is supposed to be about what goes on under my roof, not on top of it. So, here’s an update.

I’ve pulled back almost entirely from the writing I was doing for Examiner because I landed a promising local gig. I’m writing for a new website (brand new, really, and still a bit rough, so I’m not ready to share the URL just yet) that wants to become a local resource for businesses and community events. The technical side of things is strong and the venture is already pulling in revenue, but it really needs polishing on the content side. That’s where I come in.

I’m slowly adding new content to the site: restaurant write-ups, profiles of local folks, that sort of thing. It’s not rocket science and it’s not my dream job, but there is potential and I’m hopeful. It’s fun to be involved in the very beginning of something, to watch it grow and (hopefully) become something much bigger. Time will tell.

I’d nearly forgotten how much I like the process of planning, interviewing, writing, and editing. It’s so satisfying to have something (else) to concentrate on, something that’s all mine. The kids have been great about giving me a little extra time to work here and there while they play nicely together (really!) and come up with intriguing pretend games to keep them busy.

Having said all that, I hope to continue writing about food here, as well as house projects (more painting, a new bed for our master bedroom, a big girl bed for Clare, some decorative touches here and there, and so on…), and maybe more about the day-to-day minutiae of our lives. I know the grandparents, at least, will appreciate that last one.

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I’ve had these for lunch three days this week, and the 1970’s Midwestern girl inside me can hardly believe it.

I was raised on Hy-Vee hamburger seasoned with a sodium-laden packet of pre-mixed spices, spooned into crunchy taco shells from a box, and topped with cheddar and iceberg lettuce. And I loved it.

Truth be told, it was a favorite guilty pleasure meal of mine long after I moved to the Pacific Northwest and widened my culinary curiosity. My husband, on the other hand, happily left this meal behind when we relocated, so I only had it as an occasional treat when he was out of town for work and I had to fend for myself.

(I feel the need to mention here that I love the Midwest and wouldn’t have wanted to grow up anywhere else; also, I fully realize that its grocery stores have exploded with the same options found out here — from more whole foods to gourmet items — over the convening years since my departure.)

But I, like so many others, am trying to eat less meat and very few processed foods. So it was time to try a healthier variation on my childhood favorite.

I made this one night when Michael was gone, unsure what to expect.

Lentil tacos

Ingredients:
1 finely chopped yellow onion
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 cup dried lentils, rinsed
1 Tbsp. chili powder
2 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. dried oregano
2 1/2 cups low-sodium chicken broth

Toppings:
fresh salsa
sour cream
shredded cheddar cheese

Saute the onion and garlic in olive oil until softened. Add lentils, chili powder, cumin and oregano, then cook and stir for a minute or two.

Add broth and bring to a boil. Cover and reduce heat to a simmer. Check lentils for doneness at 35 minutes; mine took about 45 minutes.

Uncover and cook for a few minutes until any remaining moisture dissipates.

Use the taco filling any way you like. It would be great in a burrito or old-fashioned taco shells. We always have tostadas on hand, so I made open-faced tacos.

I swirled a bit of sour cream onto two tostada shells, heaped about a 1/4 cup of the lentil mixture atop that, and then topped with a bit of shredded cheddar and a dollop of salsa. I also had some sliced red onion on hand, which I tossed over the top for a flavorful, colorful garnish.

The kitchen smelled fantastic, the tacos looked gorgeous, but still I was wary. One bite and I was a convert. Goodbye childhood favorite; I’m not going to miss the greasy orange goo that accompanied your nostalgia-inducing, salty goodness.

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Our CSA from the Evergreen Organic Farm overflowed with eggplant and tomatoes this week, so I went in search of inspiration. I found it, as I so often do, with the Pioneer Woman, Ree Drummond.

I substituted my bounty of fresh tomatoes for her canned, though I’ll definitely try this dish again during the off season, and I’m sure canned tomatoes will also be fantastic. After all, the Pioneer Woman has never steered me wrong.

Eggplant and tomato pasta, adapted from the Pioneer Woman

1 pound corkscrew pasta
2 medium eggplants
olive oil
1 large onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
4-6 fresh tomatoes, blanched, peeled, and diced
1-2 Tbsp. butter
fresh basil, chopped
salt And pepper, to taste
Parmesan cheese, grated, to taste

Pre-prep, to be done before you start the pasta:

Bring a pot of water to a simmer and drop in each tomato, cored and with an “X” carved lightly into the bottom of each. Remove from the water after a minute or so, when the peel begins to curl up. Remove skin, cool tomatoes slightly, remove the seeds, then chop into a rough dice.

Slice eggplant and place in single layer on baking sheet. Sprinkle with salt and let set for 20 minutes. Before turning each piece over and repeating with salt on the second side for another 20 minutes, use paper towel to pat slices dry.

Once both sides have been salted and patted dry, rinse well and pat them again. Cube eggplants slices into 1-inch pieces.

(This step may seem unnecessary, but it really does make the eggplant fantastic, with no trace of bitterness.)

Now, onto the noodles. Put a large pot of water on to boil, and then make yourself busy preparing the sauce. Cook pasta according to package directions.

Grab your largest skillet and heat a couple turns of olive oil over medium heat. Add the diced onion and minced garlic, then cook for a few minutes, until soft. Take care not to burn the garlic.

Add diced eggplant and cook until tender and just starting to brown, about 10 minutes. Add freshly diced tomatoes and reduce heat to simmer. Season with salt and pepper, add a tablespoon or two of butter, and then simmer for 5-10 minutes more.

Add chopped basil (save a bit for garnish) right before the cooked and drained pasta takes a dunk in this glorious red sauce. Toss well, stirring in Parmesan cheese to finish.

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Pardon me while I climb up on my soapbox for just a minute…

Photo courtesy of foxypar4

It’s become so commonplace, many American consumers barely take note. Food recalls hit the news with alarming frequency — there’s even a website devoted to keeping tabs on which products might haul illness into your home via the grocery bag. (Recalls directly affecting Washington State can be found here.)

So why aren’t more people up in arms about the frequency of food-production problems? Why do so many potentially life-threatening items continue to creep onto our grocery store shelves?

In 2003, mad cow disease hit hard right here in the Pacific Northwest when an infected cow was discovered at a dairy farm in southeast Yakima County. The resulting uproar meant swift action and new regulations intended to reduce the risk of spreading mad cow disease.

And yet, in 2008, the United States experienced its largest ever beef recall, with more than 143 million pounds pulled from market shelves by the United States Food and Drug Administration. It was estimated that more than 150 school districts received shipments of the recalled meat.

Why? Again, even amidst the more stringent laws, the recall occurred after the cattle in question (Westland/Hallmark frozen beef) were not inspected before slaughter and video showed slaughterhouse employees abusing sick and crippled animals.

Even with stricter laws in place, 143 million pounds of meat almost fell through the cracks. Almost. But how many other companies are cutting corners (or worse), creating products that simply don’t stack up to healthful standards? (And really, our country’s standards aren’t all that high, but that’s a different article for another day.)

A study last year by IBM showed that less than 20 percent of consumers trust food producers to create and market safe products. The study also showed that 60 percent of consumers are concerned about the safety of the foods they buy – as well they should be. But only 60 percent? That means 40 percent of U.S. consumers simply don’t realize that (or care if) the food they consume might cause them serious harm, and that’s disheartening, to say the least.

Reality check: In the past week alone, there have been four food recalls:

June 25, 2010: Select packages of Kellogg Company’s Kellogg’s® Corn Pops®, Kellogg’s® Honey Smacks®, Kellogg’s® Froot Loops® and Kellogg’s® Apple Jacks®

June 24, 2010: Fresh spinach sold by Lancaster Foods, LLC under the brand names Krisp-Pak, Lancaster Fresh, Giant or America’s Choice with “best enjoyed by” dates of 19 JUN 10 through 27 JUN 10

June 18, 2010: Rich Products Corporation recalled its Allen Bavarian Crème Filling because of undeclared allergens in the product

June 18, 2010: Portland Shellfish Company, Inc. expanded a previous recall to include its Meat Without Feet two-pound bags of frozen lobster claws and knuckle meat

That’s just for one week. Did you know? Did you care?

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When Trader Joe’s finally opened its doors in Olympia last summer, crowds swarmed its beach-themed aisles, excited to peruse the store’s one-of-a-kind items. Some foodies might wrinkle their noses at the array of pre-packaged cuisine, but with just a few fresh additions, anyone, from the beginning cook to the most discerning food snob, can create a quick, healthy, delicious — and affordable — family meal.

From French cheeses and scrumptious salamis to organic produce and preservative-free snacks galore for the kids, Trader Joe’s lives up to the hype. But the first visit can cause consternation for the uninitiated.

But Trader Joe’s isn’t a huge labyrinth like your usual super-store. Just a few aisles – chock full of bags, boxes and jars of items exclusive to the retailer – make it easy to wend your way up and down each one, checking out every offering. Study the store closely and you’ll be rewarded.

For a mere $2.29, you can purchase a 15-ounce jar of Trader Joe’s masala simmer sauce, a flavorful Indian base for chicken or vegetables. Simply cube up a couple chicken breasts and toss them in a skillet with the sauce. Use a bit less water than the jar’s directions call for. Cover and simmer for 10 minutes, throw in a pinch of cumin and a handful of fresh peas near the end of the cooking time, pour the sauce over rice, and you have a quick meal with layers of flavor.

Want to sop it all up with a bit of Indian garlic naan bread? Trader Joe’s has packages of that, too –- for less than three dollars.

There are cookbooks and websites devoted to snazzing up nearly everything you can buy at Trader Joe’s. Begin at www.cookingwithtraderjoes.com.

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