Yesterday was one of my favorite lesser-known holidays…Burns Night! While we don’t celebrate the famed Scottish poet every year, it is always a day we look forward to it when we do celebrate it. Since you can’t really get haggis in America (and I’m not sure I could get everyone here to try it even if you could!), our Burns Night Supper is always cock-a-leekie pie according to the recipe used by The Scottish Arms restaurant in St. Louis, as it appeared in Sauce magazine. I was feeling a little extra fancy this year, so I used cookie cutters to give the puff pastry a wintry twist:
Our traditional Burns Night dessert is always sticky toffee pudding, made according to the Schlafly recipe…with apologizes to Robert Burns, I think this is the “Great Chieftain o’ the Puddin’-race!” The cake is so popular, I’ve also made it for birthdays in the past!
What fun and unusual holidays do you like to celebrate?
I’m no expert on Chinese food, but I do know what kind of fried rice I like, and I’ve been trying to replicate my favorite fried rice for almost two decades now. I’m not claiming it’s authentic, but it is tasty, and it reminds me of the restaurant I used to like to eat at before it closed!
3-4 Tbsp. canola oil
1 onion, diced
Salt and pepper
5 cloves minced garlic
2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and minced
5 green onions, chopped, white and green parts separated
1/2 cup julienne carrots
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
4 cups cold cooked long-grain rice
1 tsp. sesame oil
2 Tbsp. soy sauce (or to taste)
Heat a large heavy-bottomed nonstick skillet over high heat. When hot add 1 tablespoon of canola oil. Add the diced onion to the pan, season with salt and pepper, and cook for 1 to 2 minutes until onion is fragrant Add the garlic, ginger, white part of green onions, and carrots and stir-fry until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Transfer to a large bowl.
Return the pan to the heat and add 1 Tbsp. of oil. Add the eggs and season with salt and pepper. Scramble eggs until almost set, then add to vegetables in bowl. Break the eggs up with a wooden spoon or spatula.
Return the pan to the heat and add 1 Tbsp. oil. Add the rice to the pan and use a spoon to break up any clumps. Season with salt and pepper and stir-fry the rice to coat evenly with oil, adding an additional Tbsp. of oil if necessary. Stop stirring, and then let the rice cook undisturbed until its gets slightly crispy, about 2 minutes. Stir the rice again, breaking up any new clumps. Add the remaining green onions, sesame oil, and soy sauce. Transfer to the bowl. Stir all the ingredients together with the rice, taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper, if necessary. Serve.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my grocery shopping habits, how they’ve changed over the years, and how they’ve influenced how I cook.
When Ryan and I were first married, our number one priority in buying groceries was sticking to a (small) budget. And really, that continued to be the driving force behind how I planned meals and wrote my shopping list for at least a decade. I shopped sale ads and clipped coupons. I was shopping at our local grocery store chain for the most part during that time, because Walmart Supercenters weren’t a thing in St. Louis back then, but if I could have shopped there, I would have. I did whatever I could to spend as little money as possible.
In recent years, while I still have a grocery budget (who doesn’t?!?), it is bigger, and I have more flexibility in what I can buy and where I shop. I do the bulk of our grocery buying at Walmart (now that we have Walmarts with groceries), because it’s both convenient and helps me save money. But I’ve added in some stores that I visit at least semi-regularly, which has really changed how I cook.
One store that you would have thought I would have shopped at during my more budget-conscious days was Aldi. Apparently, that would have made too much sense. I have to confess, I used to be a snob about Aldi. I thought that they sold items of lower quality. But a few years ago, when a new store opened in our area, I decided to give it a try, and I was pleasantly surprised! Now, it’s my go-to store for cuts of meat that I either can’t easily find other places (lamb, I’m looking at you!), or can’t afford at other stores (like the standing rib roast we had at Christmas and the tenderloin I prepared for Ryan’s birthday).
The other store that we’ve been visiting regularly for the last few years is the Asian market. Actually, “Asian” really doesn’t begin to cover it, because they carry other ethnic food items, as well. But we’ve encountered so many new items, some we’d never even heard of before, and that has really broadened our culinary experiences. Now one of our favorite things to do is just wander through the store for a while, looking for new things to try!
Here’s an example of some of the meals we’ve enjoyed in the last week, all influenced by my current grocery shopping habits. There’s gyros (which I’ve made before, but only after Easter with the lamb leftovers we sometimes have, because that was the one time of year I knew I’d be able to find lamb pre-Aldi!) made with lamb from Aldi and served on pita bread from a local bakery that Pan-Asia stocks. A new recipe of Moroccan lamb tagine (again made with Aldi lamb) appears in the center, prepared with some spices with which I don’t usually cook. And finally, beef shawarma, again served on pita bread from Pan-Asia, and also prepared with a marinade and topped with tahini I found the last time we wandered through the store.
I’m so glad I was both able to branch out and try new stores, and that I was finally able to let go of some (wildly incorrect) preconceived notions about where I shop…we’ve definitely benefited from both!
Time for another installment of “A Markel Family Holiday!” St. Nicholas Day has always been one of favorite days in Advent, so I thought I’d share what we do to make it special.
The day always begins with stockings. We keep it simple…chocolate coins, oranges, and a new ornament for each child to hang on the tree. They’ve each received an ornament every year since their births, so they will have a nice collection to start their own trees when they have homes of their own someday!
We always read Saint Nicholas: The Real Story of the Christmas Legend from CPH. It’s a fantastic book!
And of course we do our Jesse Tree reading for the day. This year, the commemoration for St. Nicholas fell on the day we read about Jacob:
In the afternoon, we decorate the tree. I put it up and hung the lights almost a month ago, but we always wait for St. Nicholas Day for the addition of the ornaments.
We enjoy hot wassail while we decorate:
Some years, I make a special dinner. This year, we tried a Turkish fish stew and flat bread, to honor the area of the world from which St. Nicholas comes.
And of course we have evening prayers by the light of the Advent wreath.
I really love this holiday, and the special ways we celebrate it!
Yesterday we celebrated Oktoberfest! This is something we do most years, but not always on the same date, and it definitely doesn’t always look the same (some years, we go pumpkin picking on the day of our Oktoberfest celebration, but it’s still a little too early in the fall for that). Here’s a look at this year’s festivities.
We started the day with a special (but not specifically German), fall-themed breakfast:
We made pretzels from scratch, which is always fun, and they went perfectly with the German fondue I prepared for lunch. We also had pickles and mini bratwurst for dipping (or just for eating, because the boys aren’t big fans of fondue), plus a delicious cheese and artichoke strudel I found at Aldi:
For dinner, I made schnitzel (also from Aldi…they’re the best frozen schnitzel I’ve ever had, probably because they have saltines in the breading), Jäger sauce, spaetzle, red cabbage, and sauerkraut:
And for dessert, our favorite German cake…Black Forest cherry torte:
We spent the day watching The Sound of Music (I know, it’s set in Austria, but Oktoberfest is a chance to celebrate part of our family’s heritage, and my grandfather was from Austria, so I think it works), and every episode of Rick Steves’ Europe set in Germany that we have. We also played Chrono-Trek, which really has nothing to do with Oktoberfest, but is our current favorite game, and so much fun to play. It was a great day!
I promised a closer look at the foods we tried making at home for our Rick Steves’ Europe themed summer school. This was probably the most specialized cooking we’ve ever done for a school unit, and not only did we get to try a lot of new things (plus a few old favorites), we also learned some new cooking techniques and got to use some new kitchen tools!
Our first European meal featured French dishes. We started with a cheese course, the star of which was a famous French cheese, camembert:
We enjoyed boeuf bourguignon and French bread for dinner, and Crème Brûlée for dessert. The main course was delicious, but took a lot of time and effort to make. The dessert, which I assumed would be a challenge, was super easy, and possibly the most delicious thing I made this summer!
For our (European) Christmas in July, we tried two recipes from the Rick Steves’ European Christmas book: Gimmelwald fondue and Norwegian Julekake. Both were excellent, and not too much trouble to make.
I looked forward to making a Spanish dinner of paella all summer, and it was delicious, and quite spicy! The dessert of flan was good, but a total pain to make.
Ladybug begged me to make chicken paprikash for Hungarian night, and it was also delicious. I really liked that instead of using sour cream like I expected, the recipe called for heavy cream plus white wine vinegar. For a side dish, I made nokedli (pretty much just our standard spaetzle). For dessert, I made a chocolate cake called Rigó Jancsi, and it was amazing…the star of the recipe was the chocolate mousse filling.
Our British dinner was a simple (but tasty!) one of bangers and mash, plus a lemon-berry trifle for dessert.
For our “Taste of Italy” I made mushroom risotto for dinner, and Panna Cotta with fresh berries for dessert. The Panna Cotta was sweetened (and flavored) with honey, which was a pleasant surprise.
We almost didn’t have a German meal, but while watching our very last episode of Rick Steves’ Europe for the summer, we saw him eating Black Forest cherry torte, and the children reminded me how much they like it when I make that dessert, so I decided to go full German and make rouladen, spaetzle, and sauerkraut, too.
Our final meal took us away from Europe and into the Middle East, because there are a few episodes of Rick Steves’ Europe that also step into that region. We tried Shakshouka (made with a new-to-us ingredient, harissa paste), plus pita bread and pomegranate juice, and it was also delicious!
The vast majority of these recipes were new to us, and there was nothing that was a total flop (although the flan was temperamental, it came close!). Some things were more work than I would do on a regular basis (the boeuf bourguignon and the rouladen), but some were easier than I was expecting (the Crème Brûlée and Shakshouka). I know for sure that we’ll be making many of these recipes again in the future!
Just like that, another year’s summer school has come to an end. I think our Rick Steves’ Europe themed summer school might be my favorite that we’ve done so far, because even though I didn’t have to do as much work (until it was time to start cooking), and hands-on activities and field trips were a little elusive (although I did make a few things work!), we all learned so much, and had a lot of fun while doing it!
So what did a primarily video-based summer school look like? We watched (if I counted correctly) 72 episodes of Rick Steves’ Europe over the course of two months. While we couldn’t “visit” every place I would have liked, we did get a great overview of Europe with “trips” to Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Belgium, Austria, Switzerland, England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, The Czech Republic, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia, Slovenia, Greece, Turkey, Israel, and Palestine, plus a few other places. We also watched all three regular travel skills specials and the cruising special. We even found time for all three other specials: Christmas, Easter, and Festivals! (We watched The Story of Fascism in Europe last spring, and since it was kind of intense, we didn’t watch it again this summer.) I bought my oldest students travel journals, and Chickadee a sketchbook, and they wrote and/or drew something for every episode we watched. Places they hope to visit someday, interesting facts, travel tips…anything that jumped out at them. I really hope they’ll keep these journals, so that if they ever do have the opportunity to go to Europe, they can look through them, and see what their younger selves thought would be cool to visit, and maybe add some locations to their itinerary.
I mentioned field trips and hands-on activities. Some of them were a bit of a stretch, but I did my best. For example, we visited Frankenmuth, MI, this summer, which is known as “Michigan’s Little Bavaria.” I figured this was as close we could get to visiting a European town, and it really did look like I imagine some German towns do. We also got to eat a lovely German meal while we were there:
Speaking of food, we also tried a new-to-us cuisine this summer when we went to a local Bosnian restaurant. We were all very impressed, both with the dishes and the “slow-food” way of eating there…I’m sure we’ll be going back!
And how could we make it through the day we learned about traveling in Greece without having gyros?
The St. Louis Art Museum is hosting a special exhibit of work by a European artist, Paul Gauguin, which was a nice way to experience a bit of European culture:
Now, on to “other activities.” We played a lot of games this summer: Ticket to Ride Europe, 10 Days in Europe, and Ticket to Ride: My First Journey (European Map). These all gave us a chance to talk about the various cities/countries on the maps, and recall things we had seen watching Rick Steves’ Europe, and talk about the places we’d like to visit. I also gave my students a few special assignments…Chickadee made a poster about her favorite European city, (Paris), Ladybug wrote a 1,500 word essay about hers, (Rome), and my oldest students read Travel as a Political Act, and I have to say, I think our discussions about that book might have been my favorite part of the whole summer. They certainly learned a lot about life in Europe and the importance of travel, and I think their worldview changed a bit because of it! For one hands-on activity everyone could enjoy, we built the only Lego Architecture European skyline set we didn’t already have: Paris. It was a fun little build, and a nice addition to our collection!
And finally…cooking at home! This is always one of my favorite parts of summer school, but I have to confess, I kind of put this off to the end of the summer, and was rushing to cook all the things I had planned. In the end, we tried French, Swiss, Norwegian, Spanish, Hungarian, British, Italian, German, and Middle Eastern cuisines at home (full details on what we tried next week). I think we all have some new favorites, and I definitely learned a few new cooking techniques along the way!
Obviously, traveling to Europe as a large family isn’t a realistic option, at least not for us. But I did my best to give my children a glimpse into European culture and history, and more than that, I really I hope I inspired in them a desire to travel when they’re older and have the opportunity. There are so many interesting places and great people throughout the world, and I am grateful for any chance to explore them, even if we had to do it vicariously for now!
Our summer school adventures usually involve cooking of some kind. Actually, that’s one of my favorite parts of summer school. Trying out ethnic recipes, or recipes from different periods of time, or that have to do with specific events…I love an excuse to try something new that we probably wouldn’t eat otherwise, learn some new cooking techniques, and make some family memories.
Since we’re learning about various European cultures this summer, we’ve been trying foods from various countries on The Continent. Tonight our focus was on Spain, with paella for dinner, and flan for dessert. I set out to make the flan yesterday, and while it boiled over in the oven, making the house smelled like burnt marshmallows, it looked just right in the pan. When I went to invert it onto a platter, however, only half of it came out. It didn’t look pretty at all, and you know how they say you eat with your eyes first…plus, I like these special meals to not only be delicious, but to look pretty, too!
So, the children ate messy flan scraps (it did taste good, at least), for dessert last night, and I made a second flan this morning. More burnt marshmallow scent, and this time, even after loosening it with a knife, jiggling it, and putting it in a warm water bath, the flan wouldn’t come out of the pan at all. Not even a tiny little bit.
So, I reached my frustration point. I wasn’t making a third flan, but I also knew that I wasn’t going to have something even remotely nice-looking to present to my family unless I started thinking outside of the box. And that’s when it hit me…I could try to use a biscuit cutter to free individual portions of the flan that might actually look not just presentable, but adorably delicious!
It worked. For reasons I don’t understand, the individual portions lifted out with no trouble…the caramel sauce even came out with them! Actually, they looked far nicer than if I had managed to get the whole flan on the platter in one piece.
So, we tried a new recipe from a country whose cuisine we don’t normally get to enjoy. But we also had a great life lesson about making lemons from lemonade (or mini flans from flan?) and thinking outside of the box when working in the kitchen! What a summer school win!
I know we put it off until the very last minute, but today we celebrated Christmas in July! And not just any Christmas in July, but (European) Christmas in July, inspired by our Rick Steves’ Europe summer school. Actually, most of my ideas for our celebration came from the Rick Steves’ European Christmas TV special and/or the accompanying book! We enjoyed Gimmelwald fondue (recipe found in the book) and Norwegian Julekake (also found in the book).
We also listened to the Rick Steves’ European Christmas CD, which always makes my spirit bubble up with joy…only 147 day until Christmas!
I don’t cook German food very often, certainly not as much as I should, but when I do, it’s always a popular meal! I fried some pork schnitzels I found at Aldi (my new favorite store!), and made a jaeger sauce to go with them. I also made homemade spaetzle and served it with sauerkraut, also purchased at Aldi.
I do have to admit, it’s not a very interesting plate to look at…Turkey commented on how everything is pretty much the same color…but it certainly was delicious!