Kids

Baked Ziti

I had never made baked ziti. I had only had it when others made it, now and then. The kids had never had casseroles of any kind. Between wanting to try making new things and adding variety to the parade of meals, and thinking that casseroles might be some low cost menu items, I had wanted to spring casseroles on them. Baked ziti seemed like a good, passingly familiar place to start.

Having never made it, I had a misconception of what the dish entailed. My metal image was make meat sauce, make pasta, mix them together, put them in a casserole pan, throw some cheese on top, bake. I found myself thinking that it was pasta, but cooked redundantly.

Wednesday I looked at recipes online. They vary, but I was surprised to learn that many include ricotta cheese. I had never cooked with ricotta. While I happily ate completed lasagna when my sister or mother made it during my latter youth (until my father left, we never had things like that), I always thought the ricotta mix during the process looked disgusting.

I was also surprised it called for mozzarella cheese. Weirdly enough, I had already bought a pound of that. My oldest wanted to try it, since she loves string cheese. I had thought some of it could go on top of the ziti, since I knew I wanted cheese on top. My daughter hated it. I was shocked. It’s delicious! Nothing special; Market Basket store brand whole milk mozzarella. My perception of mozzarella had always been that it’s almost completely bland, and is used on pizza due to its melting properties. Having tasted pre-shredded mozzarella did nothing to change that notion. Having tasted mozzarella cheese sticks, fried and not, didn’t do enough to change that perception, though now I can see why they taste better than I’d have expected.

OK, so Thursday I stopped at Hannaford for ricotta so I could make baked ziti for supper. Bottom line: Success! Main lesson learned: Use less cheese next time.

Per usual, I followed no one recipe. Many of them call for sausage. That would be fantastic, but I had ground beef. I cooked the ground beef, slightly seasoning it, and got rid of most of the excess oil. That was perhaps 1.5 lbs before cooking. I added a jar of Francesco Rinaldi, my favorite sauce as well as the lowest cost name brand in jars. Unfortunately, the one jar left on the shelf was tomato and basil. I’d have preferred meat flavored or original for this. I added a small can of tomato paste to extend it and to modify the flavor of the sauce. A small can of generic tomato sauce would have been better. I adulterated the sauce with seasoning and brown sugar, so it wasn’t much different from what we would normally have on pasta.

Meanwhile, I cooked two boxes of ziti with lines. That was intentionally extra, to save some plain pasta for kids who wouldn’t want the baked ziti. I used something approaching 1.5 boxes in the actual casserole.

In keeping with many but not all of the recipes I had perused, I layered the bottom of a deep stoneware casserole pan (thank goodness for gifts or I’d not own something that nice) with the sauce. Not half. It took well over half to make an acceptable layer. On that I put some chunks of mozzarella and cheddar. The amount of cheddar used was modest. The amount of mozzarella was most of a pound.

Per some of the recipes, but not all, I mixed 16 ounces of ricotta with the ziti. I also mixed in a bunch of small chunks of mozzarella. That went in on top of the meat sauce layer, filling the casserole almost completely.

I dabbed the rest of the sauce onto the top of the ziti, sprinkled a generous amount of parm cheese on it, and completed it with more mozzarella and a lesser amount of cheddar.

It baked at 400 degrees for 20 minutes or so, in keeping with one of the recipes I’d referenced. It looked fantastic, but in retrospect could have used a bit more time for a crispier top.

The two kids who tried it liked it, though one of them picked out the meat. I thought it was great, but it lost a lot of appeal when it cooled down. The wife thought it needed more cooking time and less cheese, but really enjoyed it. As leftovers, the flavor actually improved. It’s tasty cold, and was better nuked hot than it had been fresh.

I’ll definitely make it again, as modified. Now I need to figure out what to make with the leftover ricotta. It was almost as cheap to get 32 oz as it would have been to get 16 oz, and I wasn’t sure just how much I’d actually need.

Poor Kids

Using the other half of a large pack of kielbasa, yesterday I made “kielbasa and cabbage.” This was inspired by my grandmother having served that now and then. It was kind of an alternative to boiled dinner.

I included a cabbage, potatoes, carrots, and seasoning. I loved it. Two of the kids wouldn’t touch it, even though all three kids love kielbasa in the form of sweet & sour, and one of them loves potatoes and carrots. The one who tried it liked it OK, except I gave her just a bite of cabbage and it apparently had a piece of red pepper flake or something else strong in it. Two of the kids have eaten salad at school that included cabbage along with lettuce, so they weren’t as weirded out by cabbage as they might have been. Just by it being cooked.

The wife has yet to try it. She snacked too close to supper, too much to be hungry. She enjoyed the smell, though.

Allergy Update

Allergies became part of the focus of this site because my son, now eight, turned out to have multiple allergies. Even before we knew that, he had sensitivity to salicylates, which he outgrew. Until he did outgrow them, it border on being “allergic to food.” Not good. He still tends to prefer the things he could always eat, like potato, beans, corn and peas. Worse, he was also sensitive to azo dyes, the degree varying depending on the color. Since he could not drink fruit juice, and could not drink things like Kool-Aid that were colored, we relied heavily on clear Kool-Aid, the watermelon kiwi flavor.

Ultimately he tested allergic to tree nuts, peanuts, bananas, egg (whits and yolks), and dairy. Peanut was the only one for which we never saw evidence outside of testing. Bananas were particularly bad, but as much in a digestive way as anything.

He ultimately outgrew everything but the tree nuts, which are just as clear cut as ever…

In June this year, last day of school, we had to use an epi-pen for the first time in all these years. On the way to school, the crossing guard was giving out Munchkins, and he ate a chocolate one. I am not sure of the veracity of this, but he says his mouth itched during school. After coming home, he had mint chocolate chip ice cream. That;s his favorite, which he has had many times. Later still, he had a fudgesicle from a local supermarket chain, store brand. Following that, he got red faced, hives, had trouble swallowing, and may have had a little trouble breathing. It took two of us to overcome his objection to being injected. Then we had an ambulance ride, somewhat greater treatment than normal, and a rapid recovery and return home. I hadn’t known before then that ranitidine is an antihistimine and is used for allergy treatment. He hated it. Also had trouble with the nebulizer.

Anyway, that was kind of weird, since it appeared he’d reacted to the fudgesicles, which were a new thing, but which weren’t even co-processed in a facility where they could have been exposed to allergens. That was a Friday.

The next Monday, he had more mint chocolate chip ice cream and got covered in hives, but nothing some Benadryl couldn’t handle. Still, that was one of the same foods, all three of which had contained chocolate. Smaller amount of chocoalte… smaller reaction?

We took him for allergy testing for chocolate. In practice this included the entire standard panel of sixty tests, so there were some he’d never been tested for before.

He remained allergic to tree nuts, reacting to three of those, rather than merely two as happened the previous three tests. He was back to reacting to peanut and banana. We’d avoided both of those, just because (actually, he refused to try them, but not a bad idea). He did not react to chocolate/cocoa, but he did test positive for peas and soy. That’s funny, as he eats peas regularly and loves them, and he still uses soy milk, soy butter, and soy margarine. The only time he has ever reacted to soy, long past, was from consuming spoiled soy milk. Fascinating, given the test result, but these are two positives we can ignore.

Since he didn’t test positive to chocolate but we wanted to be sure, he then got the blood test. That was fun. His veins are even harder to find than mine, and he screamed a lot. It took three trips to try getting blood drawn before it actually happened.

Chocolate was negative. Yay! This left a mystery, though. The most logical thing, given the clues and that the prime, overwhelming allergy that remains unambiguously is to tree nuts, is that the mint chocolate chip was contaminated. Perhaps it was worse the first day because so was the Munchkin. Or perhaps because the contamination was fresh. In retrospect, I can picture ice cream with nuts getting scooped, then the same scoop getting reused in the other flavor without being fully cleaned. Kitchen things are the gift of choice for Dad, so for my birthday the kids got me the superlative ice cream scoop of their dreams. One, which takes it rapidly out of service. However, it can be rinsed and used in a second container right afterward. And that’s what must have happened.

There have been no further scares. We’re being more careful about cross-contamination. It’s never been that much of a problem before.

Banana and Peanut Butter

Second daughter has become fond of peanut butter and banana sandwiches. Thought they sounded good when I described eating them as a kid. Most people are horrified. I don’t really eat those now, but I love PB and banana together… small gob of PB on each bite of banana. The flavors are completely natural together, in my opinion.

Sadly, peanut butter can give me severe indigestion. Sadly, bananas can give me severe indigestion, only more so. Which makes me wonder if my son gets his banana allergy from me, since the way he reacted to banana was mainly digestive, but over the top. I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s essentially a minor allergic reaction on my part.

Anyway, anyone else out there love peanut butter and banana? How about other unusual combos with peanut butter, on bread or not?

Bean and Ham Soup

The cannellini beans were so good in the white chili, I wanted to use them to make a soup with a ham bone from a spiral half ham. I’d frozen the bone and residual meat for that or a pea soup.

Not much to tell. It was a lot like making pea soup, including my addition of grated carrots and the use of chicken broth and seasonings like celery, thyme, onion and a bay leaf. The big lesson learned was that there was way too much ham, and ham flavor in the broth, for a single bag of beans (16 oz). If I do it again, I will use two bags of beans and/or save some of the ham broth and meat for a pea soup on the side. The wife prefers her pea soup minimally hammy, so I could have made a double of the bean and a single of pea soup out of what I had to work with.

I thought it was delicious, if a bit strong on the ham. Made my gout twitch slightly without actually flaring. I’ll happily make it again, or make a single soup of the beans with a modest amount of ham or other meat.

My second daughter fell in love with the beans as of this soup, so is begging me to make the chili again, as she no more than tasted that. I could see just eating them as a side, or using them as something different in a burrito, or as a twist in a traditional chili.

More Allergies?

As is well known, Henry has allergies to bananas, dairy, eggs, peanuts and tree nuts, and when he was very young was sensitive to salicylates, azo dyes, and some aspect of screen printed ink on many of my T-shirts. He is gradually easing on the egg and milk fronts, in that he can eat foods into which those have been baked or cooked thoroughly, and can eat foods which have been fried in butter, or that contain butter or sour cream cooked into them.

The girls never had evidence worth noting tht they might have allergies. Until now.

Valerie had classic allergy symptoms after eating a peach, skin included, and getting the juice on her skin. She had also drank “peach punch,” a favorite juice we sometimes buy the kids when it’s on sale for a dollar per half gallon, but I discount that as a direct factor, with reason. Turns out that onset of peach allergy can be a symptom of the onset of birch pollen allergy, naturally manifesting in the spring, and common in our neck of the woods. Processed, peaches or peach juice might not trigger that the same way a raw peach, skin and all, could be expected to, or so I gather.

It has been several months since we needed Benadryl for Henry – approaching a year, perhaps. It took a solid dose of it – initially I gave her a lighter dose based on what I remembered giving Henry when he was younger – but that and washing thoroughly cleared it up. A bit slowly. She had hives all over her belly, was extremely itchy, was red around her mouth, and had one eye get red and puff up almost closed.

I called the doctor’s office and they lined up a prompt appointment with the allergist. Early next week will be busy! Sunday there’s a beach get-together the kids and I are going to, centered around a friend visiting from Oregon. Monday Valerie has two sessions of evaluations at the kindergarten, seeing just what help she may need with school and how she should be placed. Then we have a brief get-together with someone I haven’t seen since 1976, visiting from Minnesota.

On Tuesday afternoon it’s Valerie’s allergy testing. Should be interesting, since she’ll get a battery of them, and they are notorious for showing allergies that have never been seen to exist in actual practice. Like my grandniece with the peanut allergy that isn’t. Which I suspect may be true with Henry, since that’s the one thing he never showed signs of at all. In his case we won’t take chances, though.

Henry’s Dairy Allergy Was Partially Eczema

I found this milk elimination to fight eczema to be interesting after our experience with Henry, and how we figured out what his glaringly obvious allergic reactions were from. He reacts to dairy on contact with his skin, and he can get both hives and simply a red, eczema-like reaction from ingesting it.

I can’t speak for eggs, since we’ve been more careful about those. The worst reaction to bananas was digestive though he did get red from them too. That was a good one, when bananas were first or near the first food he ever had and I was immediately suspicious, yet who ever heard of a baby not being able to eat bananas? Then again, Henry was very nearly allergic to food that wasn’t breat milk, until he grew out of sensitivity to azo dyes and salicylates. But that’s another post that needs to be written sometime.

In any event, I’m not surprised, though I am surprised that we don’t see more of this, or have more doctors savvy or imaginitive enough to help with it.

Coconut Milk

With Henry’s allergies to dairy and all nuts, he has to use soy milk. It’s a good thing he likes all things soy! To him, soy butter is as yummy and natural as peanut butter is to most of us. And he hates sunflower butter, which is vastly better. We tried rice milk along the way, but that seems to be little more than water.

Yesterday I noticed for the first time coconut milk in Walmart, in the same case with soy, nut, rice and organic milks. It was a buck more (speaking of which, at the rate milk has gone up, the differential with soy seems less onerous), but I decided it might be worth a try, and could picture it being better in something like cake. When I make a cake free of eggs and dairy, instead of all water, I generally use half soy milk and half water. Not that it matters, since he has developed tolerance enough to eat cake with eggs and/or milk baked into it, just as the allergist suggested. Yet we’ve come to like the special recipe cake better. Though ironically I cannot make it taste good in chocolate, despite chocolate being the original recipe I adapted. But I digress.

I bought one, and this morning it was time to open a fresh milk, as his old soy milk is expired. Presumably, since it’s hard to tell, besides just throwing it away after the recommended 7-10 days. The only way I seem to be able to tell, since it doesn’t develop an odor, is to taste it. If I feel like retching within the next moment or so, it’s definitely bad. My body knows what my nose and taste buds can’t discern.

I offered Henry the choice of coconut milk or soy on his cereal. He picked coconut and there was much excitement. Then as soon as I’d opened it, he said no, he didn’t want it, didn’t like it. He refused to taste it to be sure. If I’d never told him and just opened it, he’d have had no clue it was different, and might have loved it. Duh! I thought he’d be happy to try it, but he’s busily being 3, and some. Most stubborn person I know, too.

I poured a small glass so I could taste it. Man, what an improvement over soy milk! You can taste the coconut flavor, in fact it tastes much like the liquid from the hollow of a coconut, which when I was a kid we got all excited to have, despite it not, in reality, being that good. We called it “coconut milk,” but apparently that’s not the correct term.

Sadie wouldn’t taste it, after championing the new milk to Henry. Maybe that would have helped. He refused, simply declaring he didn’t like it. Valerie drank the whole thing and declared it awesome. When offered more, she opted to try it as chocolate milk. I flavored it heavily, since the coconut flavor came through. She hated it as chocolate milk. I drank it. It was good, but different. Might be better as strawberry. No word on how it would be with lime.

So… I guess I’ll be baking! Or doing something with it, even if I’m the only one who eats it. And I probably won’t buy it again, or if I do, won’t tell Henry what it is before serving it. Why fight to serve him something that costs more?

Growing Herbs

As much as an experiment for the kids as for practical reasons, I bought seeds and attempted to grow rosemary, savory and cilantro. I could barely afford the seeds, and have no place reasonably available outside. When I unearthed an old bag of potting soil from where I’d stored it, I finally planted a few seeds of each in three old tea cups. Not exactly ideal.

The results so far: rosemary never even attempted to sprout. Savory sprouted, but put out shoots so long and sensitive they promptly died back down. Cilantro seems to be coming forth robustly enough to survive, and a handful of plants sprouted. I’ll need better conditions for it to transplant into, obviously.

Anyone have experience growing these or other herbs inside? Or outside?

In reality, I once grew cilantro, before I’d ever heard of cilantro, in the late seventies, outside the kitchen door of the house where I grew up. I grew it as coriander, and learned I found the smell of the coriander seeds disgusting and tenacious on my hands. It, mint, and parsley, if I recall correctly, all grew like weeds, no problems at all. At the time, it was a matter of curiosity. I was into gardening then, but not cooking.

I’m dubious as to the value of doing this for any kind of savings. Not without a yard and an herb garden. And not as compared to dried, bottled, commercial product when comparing just money and effort. Maybe not even compared to fresh, which I have never bought and used.

I had some dried cilantro for a while. It smelled like dried grass and seemed to add nothing to food. I wondered what the fuss was. Until I had some fresh in fish tacos and it was delicious.

I’ll probably keep it to this and not much else, but I’d be intrigued to try growing some others eventually…