Homemade Chai Tea

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I have been saving this recipe to post until I could get my photos from my trip to India out to incorporate into this recipe. Today Zenie slept an hour longer than normal and so I had time to dig out my hard-drive where my pictures have been stored for years.  After lots of clicks and frustration I had to face reality. Those pictures were stuck on the hard drive and my computer was not interested in reading them.  So though we are lacking many amazing pics I decided to post this anyway.

I spent a month in west/central India during graduate school.  I was there during graduate school studying at the Comprehensive Rural Healthcare Project. I have a very distinct memory of my first Indian Chai. I had just arrived in Mumbai, where from the runway of the plane you get a good view of slums and shacks as far as you can see.  I me the rest of my group and we were traveling by van 8 hours into rural India where I would spend the next month learning about community based public health.

About four hours into the drive, the driver announced “Chai.” He pulled over into a little tarp covered kitchen where people were gathered. The smells of cows and hard labor were strong, my stomach already churning from the windy drive and the curry I had eaten for lunch. We were directed to sit down at a table and as the driver pointed to it he brushed his hand across and stirred up at least 100 flies that had been settled down there.

I had traveled some at this point in my life, I’d been to Europe, Morocco and Mexico. I was an avid hiker and camper and usually adapted well to any circumstance.   But India was challenging me. It felt more foreign than anywhere I had been. The smell, the color, the noises, it was all wonderful but strange.

The poverty too was a challenge. I’d seen the poor in America, bag ladies living on the streets, their pockets stuffed with cigarette butts. And I’d seen the poor in Mexico, dirt floors and the smell of campfire. and greasy hair.  But India was different, with every stop children surrounded the van, wiping the rain away, begging for money. I saw a child in a cage, I saw toddlers everywhere naked, covered with mud. People living in tents propped up in the median between highways, or along the gates of big hotels. And there were animals everywhere, mud and manure covered everything.

To say I was overwhelmed would be putting it mildly.

But there was no going back, I had a month ahead of me. I sat down with my little group that had gathered from all over the world and joined in the swatting of flies that buzzed around our heads.

And then something amazing happened. We were served these tiny little cups of hot, sweet, spicy delicious tea. The smell itself was so satisfying I wanted to bottle it take it home. Each sip was a delight. It was the reassurance that I needed. That is often what tea is I guess, a warm cup of comfort and nothing beats Chai.

There are a variety of Chai options in the US. I’ve tried most of them especially after I stopped (for the most part) drinking coffee. Yet with all my attempts at purchasing Chai at cafe’s (always too sweet), in tea bags (always too mild) I never quite found what I wanted.

Finally I got to really looking into it and found this recipe at Keeperofthehome.org This recipe has been revolutionary.

It turns out that it is easy to mix your own spices and have a ready made Chai tea seasoning that tastes just like the tea in India. Duh? Why hadn’t I thought of this!

This looks like more work than it is. Yes you dirty a pan, but it is worth it. This is the real deal.

Chai Tea Spice Mix

Combine

1/2 cup black pepper

1/2 cup cinnamon

1/2 cup cardamom pods (technically you should crack them if they are whole though I didn’t, you can also buy powder or pre-shelled, if you do this reduce amount by half.)

1/2 cup dried ginger or omit and use one inch of fresh ginger (this is what I do)

1/4 cup whole cloves

You can add nutmeg, anise or other spices you would like. Store in an air tight container.

How to make Chai Tea

This is enough to make two standard mugs. I adjust the amounts depending on how much I want to make.

1. Place 1 cup of water in pan, add two black tea bags or two heaping teaspoons of loose tea and 1/2 teaspoon of your spice mix, stir and heat over medium high heat, bring to a boil.

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2. Add 1 cup milk and fresh ginger if you are using it ( I use fresh and just chop it a few times, I never peel it). I also add my sweetener here. I use a big squirt of honey but you can use whatever you would like.  About two teaspoons of sugar is usually good. Remember the tea is strong and spicy so you want some sweet to balance it. If you want to adjust sweetness you can add your sweetener at the end but I like it well dissolved. Though I think you do loose some of the health benefits of honey by boiling it.

3. Bring milk and tea back to a boil. Whisk if desired to create some froth.

4. Shut off heat and let sit for 1 minute.

5. Strain and pour into cups. (I don’t have a tea stainer, so improvise with my big strainer and my wide funnel)_MG_3814

Enjoy!

 

Better than Oatmeal Cookies

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This is a brand new recipe for me. I made them for the first time on a whim this morning. I was getting ready to go to my Moms of Preschoolers meeting and was waiting for my cinnamon bread to rise. I guess I had too much time on my hands because it occurred to me that I needed to try this cookie recipe. I barely had enough flour, in fact I had to substitute some of my all purpose flour with Bread flour because it was all I had. I also forgot the baking soda. But even with that the cookies turned out great and are a new favorite. I had several requests for the recipe at my meeting.

This recipe is from Bread and Wine by Shauna Niequist. She calls them Gaia Cookies, after the store and bakery where she first tried them. Since I don’t know how to pronounce Gaia I am calling them Better than Oatmeal Cookies. They have a lot of the perks of oatmeal cookies but have a lot more going on than a traditional oatmeal cookie. They are tasty and hearty. These would make a great cookie to take to a new mom or for a road trip, or anytime you want a cookie but also want something with just a bit more substance.

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Better than Oatmeal Cookies

Ingredients

1/2 pound of butter (I used unsalted,) softened

1 and 1/2 cup of brown sugar

2 eggs

2 tablespoons of vanilla

1 and 1/2 cups of flour

1 and 1/2 cups of oats

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup coconut (unsweetened)

1 cup walnuts, chopped (I was almost out so substituted with pecans)

1 cup chocolate chips

1 cup chopped dates, raisins, dried cherries, or cranberries or any combination ( I left out the raisins but did a combo of the other three)

Directions

1. Cream together butter and sugar.

2. Add eggs and vanilla. Mix well.

3. Add dry ingredients. Mix just until dry ingredients are incorporated.

4. Spoon onto parchment covered baking sheets. I like small cookies, so  I do about a teaspoon and a half,  spoon more for bigger cookies.

5. Chill baking sheet in the fridge for ten minutes,  (this keeps them from spreading out as much when they bake) then remove and bake until slightly browned on the bottom, 10 minutes or so, longer for bigger cookies.

Note: I made two dozen and then spooned out the rest of the dough into cookie sized balls and placed them onto a baking sheet. I stuck the sheet in the freezer over night. Tomorrow I will remove it and divide the cookie dough into bags, 10-12 cookies per bag. Then i have cookie dough that is ready to bake, if company stops by I can just remove however many I want and bake (or I can take two or three and bake them just for me). This works for most basic cookie recipes.

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Croutons (aka how to turn stale bread into an irresistible treat)

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Once I started baking my own bread I began to get very sentimental about the slice or two that got stale before it was eaten.  I would try my best to use it up, which resulted in a freezer full of French Toast pieces that still haven’t been eaten.

Recently I was making a family recipe for Italian Wedding Soup (recipe to come) which is our traditional meal for Christmas eve.  As I was putting the finishing touches on I remembered that my aunt would always serve it with homemade croutons.

An hour before dinner was to be served I called my Yiayia to get the recipe and twenty five minutes later the croutons were done. In fact they smelled so good and were so tasty that half of them were eaten up by family walking through the kitchen before I could serve them.

I find store bought croutons to be too hard and crumbly.  When you make your own you control the texture.  You can take them out of the oven while they are still a little chewy (my favorite) or you can bake them until they are good and crunchy (my husbands preference).  Croutons hot from the oven smell and taste great. They are a favorite finger food of my daughter and we often take them with us as a snack in place of crackers or other savory snacks.  When served along with a bowl of olives and a few cheese slices they can make for a quick and delicious appetizer. And they can turn a simple soup into a heartier meal.  All this with an end of bread that was about to be thrown away.

So here is what you do according to my Yiayia.

Start with bread. Here I have several different types of bread, and baked them all together.  I tried left over beer bread, sandwich bread and a light wheat bread that I make. This was sort of an experiment for me and if it is your first time you may want to start with one kind of bread as the cook time can vary depending on the bread that yo start with.

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Set oven to 400 degrees.

Slice and dice the bread. Keep in mind that smaller croutons will bake faster and get crunchier more quickly.  Larger ones will stay chewy longer and take longer to bake.

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Season.  I usually use a garlic powder and Italian seasoning. I’ve also added grated Romano Cheese. I season pretty heavily (as in I hand my daughter the bottle and let her shake and pour for a few minutes).  You can make them as flavorful or as mild as you like and there is a big range of what tastes good here so experiment to see what tastes good.

Pour seasoning over diced bread and mix with a spoon or with your hands.

Melt butter. You can use olive oil alone but I usually start with butter and then add some olive oil if they still feel dry.

Recipes I get from my Yiayia are always a bit vague.  When I asked her how much oil or butter to add she says simply “You just go by the feel.” And though this is a bit intimidating,  I followed her advice and was able to do this successfully. So I’ll give the same advice to you. Slowly pour butter or oil over diced bread. Stir with a spoon or with your hands. You want the bread to feel coated with butter or oil but not soaking. Sort of like buttering popcorn.  For this batch I used a whole stick of butter plus a few splashes of olive oil.  Experiment to see what you like.

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Spread evenly on parchment and bake. I stir and turn them two or three times throughout baking. This large batch took about 40 minutes, smaller batches with smaller croutons will take less time.  Test one every few minutes and see if you are happy with the texture, if you want them crunchier then keep baking.

 

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Remove them from the oven, let cool a minute so you don’t burn your fingers and then enjoy.

Of the varieties I made here the beer bread croutons turned out chewy with a great texture. The wheat bread was also good with a heartier and crunchier result.  The sandwich bread in this batch was quite thin, I over cooked it and it became too dry. The lesson here was, try to keep your croutons equal in size or some will be over done.

 

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If for some reason you don’t use them all up smash or grind them and keep as bread crumbs.

 

Baked Croutons

Ingredients:

Bread

Olive Oil or Butter (melted)

Seasoning (Italian Seasoning, garlic powder, grated cheese, or anything else you like)

Directions:

1. Set oven to 400 degrees.

2. Dice bread into crouton size of your choice.

3. Mix in seasoning

4. Stir in melted butter or oil until coated.

5. Bake on parchment paper until desired texture usually between 20-40 minutes.

6. Cool and enjoy.

 

 

 

 

Marinated Beets

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As a kid beets were one of the only foods I didn’t eat. My family was Greek and Italian and there were lots of other cultural pockets in Canton,  Ohio, a mid-sized, industrial town outside of Cleveland, where I grew up.  My mom would often send me to school with a lunch box filled with domathes (stuffed grape leaves), Feta Cheese and other strong smelling, strange looking foods. I didn’t get many offers to trade at lunch time, but I  did have the opportunity to develop a palate for a wide variety of foods.

However, my mom didn’t like beets. Because she seemed to like everything else, including liver (something I still can’t get into), I assumed they must be pretty nasty.

I actually had my first one while traveling. I was in India, working on a public health project in graduate school.  I was served beets, fresh from the garden, and they were delicious.  Of course, I assumed it was a fluke. Maybe because I was out of the country? I figured there was no way this was something that anyone didn’t like and that the ones in the US must be totally different.

After another year or two went by I began to get curious about beets again.  They were always so bright red sitting there at the salad bar. I started sampling them and to my surprise, every time, they were good.

One day Michael’s brother (he is often the inspiration for my cooking endeavors) brings over a jar of pickled beets. He says it is a new favorite of his. Admittedly, even after all my recent good experiences, I was still skeptical and so was my husband.

But he was right. They were great.

He instructed me on how to roast them and the rest is history. I make this recipe  just about every week and there is almost always a dish of marinated beets in my fridge.
This is one of the easiest and most versatile dishes. It keeps for at least a week in the fridge and goes with everything. My family’s favorite is on fish tacos or other Mexican food. But it makes a great side with a roast and other root veggies, on top of a salad, really with anything.

Beets have a beautiful color that brings energy and pizazz to any plate.  You can eat the greens. You can use them to dye your clothes or lipstick. They are really good for you with lots of vitamins like  folate, manganese, potassium and high in fiber.  (Plus they often turn your pee pink, which is a great incentive to get your three year old to eat up, my daughter loves to check the potty after eating them!)  Beets can be grown year round, so getting fresh in season beets is much easier than almost any other vegetable.

First buy some beets, preferably, fresh and organic. I usually do 2-3 large beets or 5-6 small ones at a time.  There are all sorts of varieties (red, Chiogga, golden and white) but keep in mind that red ones will dye the lighter beets if you mix them together.

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Trim the greens to about 1/2 inch from the beet and trim the little root tip off.  Then wash, until you remove the dirt.

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There are several different ways you can cook the beets. I sprinkle my beets with salt and rub with olive oil. Then wrap each in foil.

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Place on a baking sheet and bake at 400 degrees for about 1 hour. You will probably need less time for smaller beets and often up to an hour and a half for larger ones.

Check by stabbing one with a sharp knife ( I just go straight through the foil rather than trying to unwrap). When they are soft and the beet is pierced easily all the way through, it is done.

Remove beets from oven and let cool.

I usually start this recipe early in the day, or the day before I plan on eating them so there is plenty of time for them to cool. But in a pinch you can carefully unwrap them to speed cooling.

Once cool, unwrap. Then peel with a pairing knife. The skins should be soft now and almost slip off.

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Now cut them up.  Beets have a great texture, they are soft but won’t crumble which makes them very easy to cut. I usually just dice them, but wedges look nice too.

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Place them in a bowl or serving dish and add a sprinkle of salt and a few splashes of either red wine or apple cider vinegar.

That is it.

These are great served warm, at room temperature or cold.

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There are lots of variations you can try. I often chop a tablespoon or two of onion to add a crunch.  You can also add herbs or ginger. I have read that Walnut oil is really good with beets, though I have never tried it.  Also, most other recipes call for olive oil, to be added a few minutes after you add the vinegar (if added too soon they don’t absorb the vinegar flavor as well).  I skip this step because I usually keep this in the fridge for a week at a time and I don’t like how the oil solidifies.

Enjoy!
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Marinated Beets

5-6 small beets or 2-3 large beets
olive oil
salt
apple cider or red wine vinegar

1. Set oven to 400
2. Trim the root and leaves if they are still on your beet
3. Rinse well
4. Rub beets with a splash of olive oil and a dash of salt
5. Wrap each beet in foil and place on a baking sheet
6. Bake until soft usually 45 minutes for small beets, 60-90 minutes for large ones, test by poking through the foil with a sharp knife, if soft it is done.
7. Remove from oven and let cool
8. Once cool unwrap beet and peel.
9. Chop beet
10. Toss with vinegar and a dash of salt.
11. Serve warm or refrigerate