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Have you seen this?

I didn’t know anything about Playing for Change until my brother posted this video on Facebook. It turns out that not only is their music awesome (and I mean that – awe inspiring), but they have a pretty important mission too. Read all about it here.

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Last Wednesday, as my husband and I were prepping Thursday night’s meal, I stared at the pile of red potatoes that were sprouting offspring on my counter and reached for my cookbook shelf to come up with a solution to save them.  Ever since we (ok, I) committed to cooking more, we’re trying to be much more intentional about planning and prepping meals so we don’t get home in a flurry and serve a quick all-beige dinner (pasta, bread, milk).  So as I perused my cookbooks, I was immediately drawn to Alice Waters’ The Art of Simple Food, one of the books my mother-in-law gave me for my birthday two weeks ago that I hadn’t yet cracked.

I knew roughly what I was looking for, but when I landed on Alice’s Potato Gratin recipe, I realized I didn’t have the exact ingredients or tools needed (gratin dish? really?), but decided to wing it anyway.  That’s the new kind of confidence this crazy experient has infused in me.  Cook something, using a recipe as inspiration only?  HUGE.  So here’s how it went down.

Spreadable butter (butter/canola oil blend; clearly regular butter would be the better option here, but I had run out — poor planning)

Garlic clove

5 sprouting red potatoes, scrubbed, with eyes removed

Kosher salt and fresh-ground pepper

Fresh thyme (leftover from a pork tenderloin I whipped up over the weekend)

Whole milk

PREHEAT oven to 350 degrees.

BUTTER dish and rub a smushed garlic clove all over the insides.  I used a round shallow casserole.

THINLY SLICE the potatoes, skin and all.  I used a handheld mandoline that my mom gave me for Christmas.  If you don’t own a mandoline, check out this one — inexpensive and does the job perfectly.

OVERLAP potatoes in layers, seasoning each layer with salt, pepper and fresh thyme.

POUR enough milk in dish to touch the bottom of the top layer of potatoes.

PLACE dots of butter (or butter blend in my case) all over the top layer.

BAKE dish until bubbly and top is browned, about an hour and ten minutes for me.

The end result was a dish that I would qualify as “gentle” — not a standout, but a simple, flavorful side that was an excellent accompaniment to the London Broil we grilled the next night.  And certainly better than throwing the potatoes in the disposal.

It seems that birds of a feather do flock together.  Or maybe every 30-something mom in this world is rethinking, retooling and reshaping her life.  Either way, I’m blessed to be surrounded by incredible women — like Christine and Abby — who have taken risks to follow a creative passion that they can’t ignore.  So I couldn’t have been more filled with joy when I raced home today to see my friend Ellen Cross make her national television debut on The Bonnie Hunt Show.  Find Ellen’s performance of “Monday’s Pill” here and check out her site here.

She rocks (and so do her beautiful girls and wonderful husband).

So before I launch into my weekly recipe review, I want to acknowledge that this here blog is starting to look a teency-weency bit like it’s completely focused on food (with a little bit of self-deprication thrown in here and there).  I didn’t plan it this way, but it turns out that of all the areas of creation on which I am focusing this year, cooking is certainly the most accessible and immediate.  I mean, we all have to eat, right?  I might as well try to make it good.

So, just bear with me good readers (all ten of you)…I promise there will be some non-cooking stuff coming before the end of January.  Bon appetit!

This past Monday, I cracked open Family Meals again to look for a good seafood recipe.  We don’t eat nearly enough seafood in our house, and I want to make sure I capitalize on my 5-year-old’s new-found love of shrimp (I’m making a leap here, hoping that if he likes shrimp he’ll like other things from the sea).  After a couple of minutes perusing the seafood chapter, I started to salivate when I landed on the recipe for Panfried Sole with Lemon-Caper Sauce.  My grocery store didn’t have any sole in stock, so I substituted tilapia (as recommended by author Maria Helm Sinskey).

Serves 4-6

1/2 cup all-purpose flour (I had attempted to make bread earlier in the day and had some leftover white flour/wheat flour blend, so as not to waste, that’s what I used)  

6 sole or tilapia fillets (I bought 3 large fillets)

Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

1/2 cup unsalted butter

1 tablespoon minced shallot

1 heaping tablespoon drained capers

1/4 cup dry white wine (I realized halfway through cooking that our bottle of dry white wine had been polished off during the weekend, so I substituted chicken stock)

1/2 teaspoon grated lemon zest

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

{I served this dish with avocado slices drizzled with lemon juice and seasoned with salt and pepper}

PUT the flour in a shallow bowl or pie pan.  Season a piece of fish on both sides with salt and pepper, and then coat on both sides with the flour, tapping off the excess.  Set aside on a plate and repeat with the remaining fish.

HEAT a large sauté pan over medium-high heat and add 2 tablespoons of the butter.  When the butter begins to brown, add the fish and cook, turning once, until golden brown on both sides and opaque throughout, 2-3 minutes on each side.  If the flour begins to burn, reduce the heat slightly.  Transfer to a platter and keep warm.

ADD 1 tablespoon of the butter to the pan over medium-high heat.  When it begins to brown, add the shallot and capers and saute until the shallot is lightly browned, 1-2 minutes.  Add the wine and the lemon zest and juice and bring to a boil, stirring to dislodge any browned bits from the bottom.  Boil until reduced by half, about 2 minutes.  Remove from the heat and whisk in the remaining 5 tablespoons butter.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.  Spoon the sauce over the fish and serve right away.

This dish was AMAZING.  It was so easy to make and totally delectable.  In fact, the reason there are no pictures (once again), is that we downed the whole thing in five minutes flat.

When it comes to the sweet/salty debate, I fall wholly on the side of Sodium Chloride. So last week when I tried making the Turkey Saltimbocca from Family Meals (a gorgeous cookbook I got for Christmas from my wonderful godsister Jen), I knew I was going to like it.  With prosciutto as a main ingredient, what’s not to love?

Serves 4-6

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

6 turkey cutlets, about 1/4 pound each and no more than 1/2-inch thick

kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 pound thinly sliced prosciutto, cut into narrow strips

2 tablespoons chopped fresh sage

1/2 cup dry white wine

{I served the dish with easy-peasy roasted petite brussel sprouts}

PREHEAT the oven to 350 degrees. Put the flour in a shallow bowl. Season the cutlets on both sides with salt and pepper, and then coat both sides with the flour and tap off the excess.  Place on a plate.

HEAT a large ovenproof sauté pan over medium-high heat and add 1 tablespoon of the butter. When it begins to brown, add the oil and then add the cutlets. Cook, turning once, until golden on both sides, 3-4 minutes on each side. Transfer the pan to the oven to finish cooking, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a warmed platter. (I did this step twice — only four cutlets fit in my pan at one time.)

PLACE the pan over medium-high heat and add 1 tablespoon of the butter. When the butter begins to brown, add the prosciutto and chopped sage and sauté until the prosciutto is puckered and golden, about 2 minutes.  Add the wine, bring to a boil, stir, and boil for 1-2 minutes to reduce slightly. Swirl in the remaining 2 tablespoons butter off the heat and season to taste with salt and pepper. Spoon the sauce over the cutlets and serve right away.

The verdict for this dish lies squarely in the reaction from our 5-year-old picky eater (who loves bacon, doesn’t eat chicken unless we call it turkey, and hasn’t eaten anything green except for pesto pasta since he was 12 months old): upon his first bite, he proclaimed “OH MOMMY!  This is SOOOO good!”

Made this non-chef smile ear-to-ear.

When my husband Dave and I started dating, it was pretty clear, pretty quickly that we were coming to the table with different philosophophies and working knowledge about money.  For starters, his family talked extensively about saving, investing and budgeting.  Mine?  Not so much.  Even our work pattern through college was evidence of our differences.  My husband spent every summer roasting in the sun running a bonafide – and lucrative – landscaping business, saving every penny and then using it to fund his beer on M Street from September through May.  I, on the other hand, slogged away as a retail maven during the summer and pizza shop girl during the school year, spending every penny as I went along.  Often, Dave would stop by Acropolis Pizza around 2 a.m. before heading to an after-party, knowing I still had an hour and a half to go before shutting down for the night. 

Who was smarter about their money?  I think it’s clear. 

All this to say that my husband has a long history with me and my ways when it comes to cash management.  In our 17 years of togetherhood, he’s heard some pretty grand statements about how we should spend or save money, not one based on data or reality. 

“Let’s just use cash for a month, I bet we’ll spend less!” (not so practical or safe)

 “Let’s just buy gas and groceries, nothing else!” (really? we’re a dual-income, 2 child-care family that has a ton of expenses)

“Let’s buy AMEX gift cards as a way to track our discretionary spending!” (huh?)

Finally, last year, we put a great system in place for spending.  Without going into the gory details, let’s just say that the system allows each of us to be in control of spending money without feeling guilty or going vastly over budget each month. 

But there was still a problem.

All my big talk followed me.

So now we had this beautiful system that gave us each control of some spending money, but I created budgets for myself that were, again, not based in reality (see above).   So last weekend, when I had a lot of alone time on my hands (Dave was away with our oldest skiing), I had a little talk with myself…a little cometojesus one might say.  I basically said, “Self, if you’re going to get serious about this whole Make More, Buy Less business, you need to craft yourself a serious, honest, trackable budget, pronto.”

And so I did.

I spent four freakin’ hours stumbling my way through Excel and developing a realistic budget for spending that takes realities into account like haircuts (for me and the boys, so none of us looks like a shaggy dog), the occassional mani (because well-kept hands make me feel pretty great and I just found an awesome local place), and quarterly clothing allowances.

And after three days, I’m doing really well.  Here’s hoping for the next 362.