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

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

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.


Lately, I’ve been fortunate in a couple of ways.

First of all, I made a fantastic new friend, Mrs. Fresh Scratch. Not only is she a kind, genuine, incredibly sweet person, but we keep discovering a seemingly unending list of things we have in common.

Secondly, my new friend invited me to join her on a trip to Seattle this past Saturday, to sit in on a small cooking class in the (also very small) kitchen of Amy Pennington: gardener, chef, and author of Urban Pantry: Tips and Recipes for a Thrifty, Sustainable and Seasonal Kitchen.

We had so much fun.

Amy’s first cookbook (she told us a second is in the works) is gorgeous and informative and inspirational. I originally heard of it last summer after Gwenyth Paltrow touted it in her GOOP newsletter.

The citrus preserving class we signed up for was for just six people, and took place in Amy’s unassuming Queen Anne apartment, which boasts a stunning water view and an enviable outdoor balcony for her container garden.

I have zero experiencing canning or preserving, but didn’t feel overwhelmed at all by Amy’s casual yet informative instructions. Besides the actual details on how to preserve lemons, concoct delicious Meyer lemon jam, and turn a bubbling cauldron of julienned orange peels into bourbon orange marmalade, I was reminded again — I always seem to forget — that you don’t need a big, high-end kitchen chock-full of gadgets to be a fantastic cook. You need a smidge of counter space, a functioning stove top, a few quality tools, and some knowledge. That’s it.

Amy exudes confidence (culinary and otherwise), but in a totally down to earth, easy to take in way. She’s a pro, no doubt about it, but also an effective, funny, talented teacher.

Learn more about her impressive resume, which includes working with Tom Douglas and founding Urban Garden Share, by listening to this recent KUOW interview.

The mailman was just here

There’s nothing like a few new cookbooks to brighten an otherwise cloudy, ho-hum, Pacific Northwest Monday.

These are three hefty tomes. And this isn’t exactly helping with that little cookbook problem I have…

Food Gawker is one of my new favorite food blogs. Sure, its array of amazing food photos is giving me a complex about my own culinary snapshots, but the site also inspires me to improve my photography skills. That’s an even trade, in my book.

More importantly, Food Gawker is prompting me to try new things. I’ve written about food and cooking for years, but my husband is the real cook in our family. I’m much more likely to read a cookbook like a travel guide, flipping through the pages, taking it all in slowly, dreaming of the possibilities (but knowing I will likely never actually set foot in Iceland).

The site is as simple as can be. The design is sparse, the content made up of food bloggers’ posts and photos from around the world. See a picture that piques your interest? Click on it and find the entire recipe (and maybe a new blog to add to your RSS feed).

I’ve lost so much time to Food Gawker in the past couple of weeks that I’m trying hard to ignore the fact that there’s also a Dwelling Gawker and Craft Gawker.

Homemade pizza made simple

Simple, delicious, homemade cheese pizza is a staple at our house. I hit on the easiest, no-fail way to make and roll out (and transfer — always the trickiest part!) the dough several years ago, and I never looked back.

The first time I attempted homemade pizza…well, let’s just say it didn’t quite work out. And it was years before I tried again. After all, good pizza is just a phone call away, right? Unfortunately, unless you like chain pizza, it’s also at least $20 for great ‘za. Sure, middling pizza can be had for a better price, but making it yourself is both yummy and ultra-affordable.

For me, the essential tools for quick and easy homemade pizza include:

  • a breadmaker
  • a pizza stone
  • a pizza peel
  • and, most importantly, parchment paper

I could certainly make the dough by hand if I didn’t have a breadmaker, but I truly don’t think my sometimes clutzy tendencies would succeed in making palatable pizza without those final three tools.

Homemade cheese pizza

Dough ingredients:

3 cups flour
1 tsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
3 cloves minced garlic
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 tsp. active dry yeast
1 cup lukewarm water


Tomato sauce
Mozzarella cheese
Parmesan cheese
Fresh basil

Add all dough ingredients to breadmaker, select the “dough” setting, and then hit “start.” Done. (See? So simple!) Now, go do something fun for awhile.

Once the dough is done (my machine takes just under 90 minutes), preheat your oven to 500 degrees with a pizza stone sitting directly on the oven’s bottom. My pizza stone lives in our oven, actually; I never bother to remove it no matter what I’m baking.

Tip the dough out of the breadmaker ban and, using a bench scraper, cut the it in half. Form each piece into a rough sphere, and place each on one of two 12-inch square pieces of parchment paper on your counter.

Drizzle a bit of olive oil atop each dough round, and using your fingers (poke the dough all over to get it going) and the flat of your palm, flatten the dough out into a 10- to 12-inch circle. Get it quite thin; you’ll quickly find the thickness you like best.

Next, sprinkle the dough with a bit more salt and pepper, then swirl your favorite canned tomato sauce evenly over the top. Cover with grated mozzarella and a bit of grated parmesan.

Also? Please, please don’t use the pre-grated stuff; it’s much more expensive and also uses an anticaking agent, usually cellulose, to reduce stickiness and mold growth. Sound yummy? No. Take the one extra minute to grate a block of cheese and enjoy a much fresher taste.

I like to trim off the parchment paper corners to avoid having them brown and flake off in the oven.

Using a pizza peel (which you can find cheaply at any home or kitchen supply store), slide the first pizza directly onto the pizza stone in your oven. This is where the parchment paper is key; no sticky pizza dough on to the counter, the peel or the pizza stone.

Set a timer for 8 minutes; the pizza is ready once the cheese starts bubble and turn slightly brown.

Let the first pizza cool while you slide the second one in the oven, and then cut fresh basil into ribbons to sprinkle over both finished pies.

Serve to oohs and ahs, but never let on just how easy it all was.

I also make a variation sans sauce with wild mushrooms, or sometimes add prosciutto under the cheese for a salty kicky.

And if you don’t want two pizzas, simply wrap half the dough in plastic and freeze. Pull it out of the freezer an hour or two before use, and it’s ready to go.

If you’ve ever felt too intimidated to make your own pizza from scratch — or failed at the endeavor altogether — grab the necessary tools and give it a(nother) try. You’ll find yourself reaching for pizza coupons and the telephone a lot less often.

When a friend posted photos of this Christmas craft project to her Flickr stream, I instantly realized it would change my (and my kids’) entire definition of who I am. I would suddenly go from not crafty to crafty.

This, from the woman who failed to make a plaster handprint of her baby as a keepsake (though my mom was helping and we still couldn’t make it happen, so I must come by it naturally), and watched her first gingerbread house crumble like those building on the cliffy shoreline in Inception.

This craft is a winner for three reasons:

1) No need to buy anything. Just grab a stack of magazines that you keep telling yourself you’ll read, but know in your heart that you won’t (I’m looking at you, New Yorkers from 2003).

2) No need for any skill whatsoever, other than being able to fold nicely.

3) Nothing that needs to be dried, or shellacked, or glitter encrusted. Just fold for awhile — and then you’re done!

Oh, you need more detail on the how-to? (Now that I’m feeling all crafty, there might be a smidge of smug in there, too: What, you don’t know how to make a magazine Christmas tree??)

I kid.

Simple open the magazine and fold down the outside corner of the first page into a triangle:

Then fold into another triangle:

There will be a point that goes down below the magazine’s bottom edge. Fold that up, like so:

Now, simply do that for every page in the magazine:

Finally, remove the cover, tape the ends together, and: Voila! Instant Christmas cheer.

Do a few and trail them down your dining room table for a festive centerpiece, or line them up on the mantel for an added holiday touch.

If, unlike me, you’re good with a spray can, experiment with painting the trees for a more finished or unique look. I love them just like this.

I’ve finally created a Christmas decoration I’m not going to tell people my child made. Having said that, let’s just ignore the fact that this project is intended for a 6-year-old. I like this new-found feeling of craftiness, even if it does come with a side of delusion.

It’s the time of year when folks gather in the kitchen to prepare traditional treats that only appear around the holidays.

For my family, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without peanut butter balls. Easy, delicious, and quick-to-vanish, it’s the annual treat we never quite get enough of — so we look forward to making them every December.

Peanut Butter Balls

  • 1 1/2 cups creamy peanut butter
  • 1/2 cup butter, softened
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 4 cups confectioners sugar
  • 1 12-ounce bag semisweet chocolate chips (always keep a second bag on hand, in case I need to melt a smidge more)

Combine peanut butter, butter, and vanilla by hand in a medium bowl, until relatively smooth. Add confectioners sugar, one cup at a time, and stir. As the mixture becomes stiff, switch to combining with your hands. The finished dough will be dry and crumbly, and will take a bit of work to form into small balls.

Shape the dough into balls and line up on wax paper- or parchment-lined baking sheets. My spheres are relatively small; I can fit 40 on one baking sheet, and fill 2 sheets.

Yes, that’s a lot of peanut butter balls. Your friends and family will be thrilled.

Refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Melt chocolate in a microwave safe bowl, watching carefully so chocolate doesn’t scorch.

Remove balls from refrigerator and dip into chocolate, using a spoon to roll and completely cover each peanut butter ball. Some folks prefer using a toothpick and leaving the top of the peanut butter ball bare; hence the often used name “Buckeyes.” Choose your favorite. My family loves chocolate, so the more, erm, the merrier.

Again, place on baking sheet and refrigerate until firm, about 30 minutes.

You can freeze peanut butter balls or store them in the refrigerator. Warning: peanut butter balls left in the fridge tend to disappear faster.

Happy, happy! Merry, merry!