The Mess Hall

Rants and ramblings on all things edible, wearable, doable, or usable with a focus on Home and Health. Home is fun, easy on the wallet, and “gool” for the greatest game of tag ever (Life). Welcome to my home, the Mess Hall. Get in the Mess!

27 Mar

Get Squash’d

Posted in Makin' Food, Substitutes on 27.03.11 by Octopi

All right, I assume most of you know how to cook pasta, so I’m forcing you to move outside the carb box and get your fill another way….spaghetti squash!  I suspect a part of the reason I’ve kept on extra weight in the past is because I’ve eaten too many carbs.  So I’m trying to shift my diet over a bit with the following general goals:

  • Make carbs a smaller proportion of my overall diet than before.  So if I make pasta with veggies, I’m making sure there are way more veggies than pasta in the dish than there used to be.
  • Try to use some alternatives to carbs.  Using zuchinni instead of lasagna noodles is one example (see previous post on how to go about that).  Spaghetti squash is another such option.  You can use it as a base instead of regular pasta noodles!  Or if you’re not ready to take the full plunge, substitute half the pasta with the spaghetti squash. This is actually what I did because I was trying to eat up some pasta in the house.  There is no set rule on how to go about this….a little change at a time is totally awesome, and probably a more sustainable lifestyle/diet to maintain over the long run.


So here’s a little 411 on how to on how to cook spaghetti squash.

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26 Mar

Veggie Lasagna – and Bechamel Basics

Posted in Makin' Food, Substitutes on 26.03.11 by Octopi

My friend T posted on FB a delic-sounding dinner she had whipped up that included bechamel sauce.  Bechamel is a white sauce that includes the roux (a fat like butter or olive oil combined with flour, stired over medium heat for about five minutes until the mixture has a texture resembling wet sand, according to this NY Times article) and a liquid like milk.  The following bechamel recipe is from the same article – the writer (Martha Rose Shulman) does a great job of explaining….



  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped shallot or onion (optional)
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 2 cups low-fat (1 percent) milk (I had some cream to use up so I used 1 1/2 cups milk and 1/2 cup cream)
  • Salt to taste
  • Freshly ground white or black pepper
  • Optional:  mushrooms, etc.


Makin it Happen

  • Heat the oil over medium heat in a heavy medium saucepan. Add the shallot or onion, and cook, stirring, until softened, about three minutes. Stir in flour, and cook, stirring, for about three minutes until smooth and bubbling but not browned.
  • The paste should have the texture of wet sand. Whisk in the milk all at once, and bring to a simmer, whisking all the while, until the mixture begins to thicken.
  • Turn the heat to very low, and simmer, stirring often with a whisk and scraping the bottom and edges of the pan with a rubber spatula, for 10 minutes, until the sauce has thickened and lost its raw flour taste.
  • Optional: I also added some chopped, cooked canadian bacon (I added just four- five slices that I needed to use up) as well as a couple cups of sliced mushrooms
  • Variation: Substitute vegetable stock for the milk for a vegan version of this sauce


Veggie Lasagna

Well, it’d be veggie-only lasagna if I didn’t put the chopped canadian bacon in the bechamel – it was only a few slices so mainly for flavoring (I’m trying to use meats as more of a flavor enhancer rather than a main ingredient).  Close enough.  Here’s a lasagna that uses strips of zucchini instead of lasagna noodles.


  • 3 small-medium sized zucchini, cut into strips (so they look like small lasagna noodles)
  • 1 can peeled, stewed tomatoes (sliced)
  • 1 bag of spinach
  • cheese, shredded (I used asiago)
  • 8 fingerling or small red potatoes, sliced
  • olive oil
  • bechamel (see above)


Makin it Happen

  • Heat oven to 350 degrees.  Cut potatoes into slices.  Drizzle olive oil over a cookie pan, place potato slices on the pan, and bake for 30 minutes.
  • While the potatoes are baking, get the bechamel going.  Once that’s been cooked up properly, you can turn your attention to the spinach (or if you’re really got a handle on the bechamel, slice up the zucchini between stirs.  Don’t burn the bechamel on the bottom of the pan though, or you’re screwed). 
  • If you get the spinach that can be steamed in the bag, do so as per directions on the bag.  Otherwise, steam until wilted.
  • Brush the sides of the casserole dish with olive oil.
  • Once the potatoes are out, pour about 1/3 of the bechamel sauce into a casserole dish.  Start layering your veggies, starting with a layer of zucchini, followed by a layer of potatoes, repeat.  Add the can of stewed tomatoes (the whole thing) in the second layer.  Be sure to have enough zucchini slices left for the top.  Pour some more sauce over the dish (get those mushrooms in there!).
  • Keep going until you’ve used everything up.  At the end pour the last of the sauce on top and top with shredded cheese.
  • What I did: Cover and bake for 30 minutes at 350 degrees.  Then uncover and bake another 20 minutes.  What I’ll try next time: Because I used zuchinni instead of lasagna noodles, the final product ended up being a bit runny.  I think next time I’ll bake uncovered the whole time (waiting to put the cheese on until after the first half hour of baking) so the oven can dry up some of the juices as the zucchini cooks.  I’ll let you know how that goes.

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19 Mar

Mo’ Grow! Garden time.

Posted in General, Urban Farming / Gardening on 19.03.11 by Octopi

Yo yo peeps! It’s that time of year!  Whether you’ve never grown food before or are looking to tweak your growing plan for the season, now’s the time to be thinking about it.  I was at the Family Farmed Expo yesterday and got totally psyched to grow some stuff. 

Why grow?  Because it’s fun, you learn cool stuff when you do something you haven’t done before, it’s satisfying to eat something YOU grew, it tastes better than store-bought stuff, and it’s economical once you have the hardware in place (the physical garden space created is more of a one-time capital expense – the annual upkeep isn’t all that much).

I attended some workshops led by some inspiring folks and thought I’d share some thoughts with you for the “Plan” mode of your gardening scheme.  Consider these in conjunction with some stuff posted on The Mess Hall last year.

1) Why Grow – what’s your goal?  Is just to see a seed turn into something big?  Is it to create a fun experience for some family/friend quality time?  Are you trying to maximize the amount of food you get out of your gardening space?  Are you an heirloom nerd?  Think through what you REALLY want to get out of the experience.  I’ll share my goals: 

  • Have fun!  A and I had a blast last year watching our peas grow, bitching about the broccoli plants, and enjoying the fruits of our labor.
  • Try something new.  While the broccoli was a pain in our asses, I had never grown broccoli before and was eager to see what it looked like through the stages. I have a greater appreciation for what I see in the grocery store now.  This year I want to create some self-watering containers because it sounds like something busy girls would appreciate.  I mean, who has time to do ALL that watering?!  So keep your eyes peeled (what a gross expression) for a how-to post on making self-watering containers!  Also, we’re going to try carrots this year too.  Stay tuned!
  • Get more food out of the space and harvest it at the right time.  We let the arugula grow too long last year, didn’t start early enough to maximize the already short season, etc.  Trying to improve on some of that.


2) Where to Grow: hola urban gardeners.  I feel your pain. I really do.  But there’s GOTTA be a way to grow.  Even if you’ve got a shit-ton of space, why do more work than is necessary?  I’m still an advocate of square foot gardening to use the smallest space in maximum efficiency.  Also, remembering the hours of weeding our row garden growing up, I’m all about options that cut down on weeding.  The University of Illinois-Extension Hort Center has some great ideas for home gardening, including space considerations and plant selection / garden planning ideas.  Here are some basic considerations.

  • Sun: do you have any places with at least 6-8 hours of sunlight?  That’s your sweet spot.
  • Soil prep: at minimum, you need aerated soil, compost, and organic granulated fertilizer.  In keeping with square foot gardening, we used a combination of peat, compost, and vermiculite.  The vermiculite helps with aeration and keeping the mix lighter.  You’ll want to consider weight if you’re growing on your roof or other elevated area.  If you’re planning to shove seeds straight into your backyard, make sure your soil doesn’t have any nasty things like lead or arsenic in it.  If you live in the city, that may well be the case.  You can send in a sample of soil to UMASS – Amherst and get your soil tested for pH, heavy metals, etc. for only $10 or so.  Also, leefy plants will be more likely to suck up nasty stuff like lead than fruiting plants.
  • Paths: if your garden is large enough and at grade, consider paths through your garden space so you can easily get to plants (within arm’s reach).  Consider wood chips, etc.  This is also something to consider if you are creating a garden that is part of a greater ornamental scheme.  Don’t go hide your garden.  Make it accessible, embrace it and show it off to others!
  • Irrigation: Got hose?  If not, how much are you willing/able to haul from your bathtub (which we do for our porch plants).  You may want to create an irrigation system for at-grade gardens or self-watering containers.  Also consider a rain barrel to collect water for your garden.  For example, if you’ve got sun on the side of your garage, throw a barrel there and collect the water from the roof of your garage. 
  • Protect your assets:  Got critters?  Squirrels and bunnies can be pretty ruthless.  Consider how to protect your plants so the critters don’t benefit from your bounty before you do.  Chicken wire can do the trick to keep the bun buns out, but you may have to consider other ways as well.  One guy at the expo mentioned that you can just get dog hair from the local vet clinic and sprinkle it around the perimeter of your stuff.  Who knew?  If anybody tries that out, let me know. 
  • What defines a gardener or a garden?  There was a guy on the small-space gardening panel discussion whose name I didn’t catch, but had a great point.  What’s a gardener?  Do you have to plant, maintain, AND harvest in your own space?  If you don’t have space, perhaps your neighbor does and you can offer to help plant and maintain a garden for use of their space in exchange and share the bounty.  Also, what’s a garden?  Do you have to have it at home?  Perhaps your work location has some space that you (and your colleagues) could jump on for a gardening project.  Or perhaps there’s a nearby community garden to share space in.  This guy helped organize the creation of a community above-ground garden in a freakin empty asphalt parking lot.  Lesson learned: be creative and rallying as a group can be very rewarding!


3) What to Grow: I know, it’s a bit overwhelming.  I suggest cheating.  No, really.  Just use the experience of others.  For example,

  • Did you have any nearby friends or family that grew anything last year?  What worked really well for them?  What was a fail?  Then ask key questions:  What did they plant in, when did they plant, did they plant seed or did they plant seedlings (already started somewhere else).  What kind of soil did they plant in and when were they able to start harvesting?
  • What are some of your favorite things to eat?  Pick one or two things and google up or read up on the back of seed packets, etc.
  • What are the experts doing?  Some CSAs have pretty good lists of what you’d get out of your share.  For example, Tomato Mountain has a listing by month of what you’d typically see.  So take a look at what a local CSA is doing – if you see that you’d be getting lettuce pretty much every month of the season from them, it’s a good bet you can grow something similar at home.  The Local Beet co-produces a guidebook of Chicago-area CSAs with links to websites.  Check it out! 
  • Sometimes it helps to work backwards: be realistic about what you CAN’T grow.  Not to be all glass-half-empty and stuff, but we’re not growing fruit trees on our porch.  Nor will we be growing space hogs like pumpkins, squash, and broccoli (lesson learned).  Know the amount of sun you’re going to be working with, how deep of soil/mix you’re using, etc.  And, realistically, how often you’ll be watering.  If you think you’ll miss a day here or there, pick some heartier varieties and consider self-watering containers.


That should be enough to get the brainstorming going.  Keep on keepin on!

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19 Mar

More blender! I mean, more cowbell. No, more blender. With cowbell? Anyway, hummus.

Posted in General on 19.03.11 by Octopi

Spring fever is upon us, and apparently that means I crave all things made by blender.  Smoothies and chocolate malts have been on my mind (and in my belly!) but I feel the need to expand the horizons.  I’ve never made homemade hummus before but it seems super-simple and way cheaper than buying hummus at the store.  So here goes: homemade hummus!


  • 1 15-ounce can (about 2 cups) of drained well-cooked or canned chickpeas, liquid reserved
  • 1/2 cup tahini, optional, with some of its oil (I didn’t have any tahini nor could I find it in the hood, so I mixed up 3 parts peanut butter with 1 part sesame oil – 3 tbl of peanut butter and 1 tbl of sesame oil, about 1/4 cup in total- half the amount as if you used tahini)
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, plus oil for drizzling
  • 2-4 garlic cloves, peeled and minced, or to taste (I minced mine up and roasted it in olive oil before putting in)
  • Salt and black pepper to taste
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin or paprika, or to taste (I used 2 tspns of cumin and 1 tsp of paprika)
  • Juice of 1 lemon, plus more as needed
  • a dash of cayenne pepper (optional)


Makin it Happen

  • Dump everything in the blender.  Blend.  Add more seasoning at will. 
  • Note: you can always add more liquid but you can’t really subtract it so so start slow.  I put about half the olive oil in at first and slowly kept adding until it was the consistency desired.  I also added a bit more lemon juice in a similar manner.

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13 Mar

Crockpot Curried Chicken (also, curdled curry: learn from me people)

Posted in Makin' Food on 13.03.11 by Octopi

I love my crockpot. LOVE it.  I respect the multi-tasking opportunities crockpots present.  Thing is, it becomes this seasonal thing where I don’t really use it except wintertime b/c I make typically make soup or stew or soup stew (is that a thing?).  So I’m on a mission to find some things I can probably enjoy when it’s not 30 below zero with two feet of snow on the ground.  First up… Crockpot Curried Chicken (with ginger and yogurt).  Be sure to look below the recipe for an important after-school message about cooking with yogurt (and potential curdling).


  • 1/3 cup tomato paste
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 tbl curry powder
  • 1 tbl fresh ginger, grated (OK, I may have put in more like 2 tbl)
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 1/2 to 2 lbs chicken
  • 1 1/2 cups rice
  • 1/3 cup plain Greek yogurt (mix in a teaspoon of flour to it before adding in to the mix)
  • 2 scallions, thinly sliced (I chopped up the whole bunch cuz otherwise I’d probably waste the rest)
  • a couple bell peppers (gotta got those veggies in there!)

Makin It Happen

  • Dump all the veggies and onion in the crockpot.  In a separate bowl, whisk tomato paste, garlic, curry powder, Ginger, cumin, and 1 cup water (maybe less water if you don’t put a lot of veggies in with the chicken).  Place chicken on top and pour the tomato paste mix over the sop.  Season with salt and pepper.
  • Cook on low 7-8 hours or high 3-4 hours. (I had it on high for 4 hours)
  • Cook rice before serving
  • Just before serving add yogurt and more salt to taste to chicken and stir to combine. 


Curries with Yogurt: Warning

  •  The yogurt curdled when I added it, which I was greatly annoyed by, but the curry was probably annoyed at me for being stupid and putting the yogurt in when the concoction was still piping hot. 
  • The interwebs offer several suggestions to avoid this.  1) Add a teaspoon of flour or cornstarch to the yogurt before putting it in and that should help avoid the curdling from occurring.  2) Use a higher fat yogurt (I was using Greek yogurt, but it was a low-fat kind). 3) Let the curry cool off a bit before you put the yogurt in.  I was impatient and put it in right away. 
  • If it does curdle, it’s still OK to eat (all the curds are is small bits of yogurt cheese) so just suck it up and eat it rather than let it go to waste and remember to try one of the above suggestions next time!

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06 Mar

The Great Mango Massacre….

Posted in Makin' Food on 06.03.11 by Octopi

The Great Mango Massacre….or how to cut a mango.

Mangos are in season (well, not locally, but world-wide) right now and all over grocery stores.  I bought a couple and made two rather pathetic attempts at cutting them up.  I used a potato peeler to peel the skin away since the skin is kind of toxic and disgusting.  Well, that left me working with a slimy mess to try to cut up.  Then I couldn’t figure out how to deal with the seed in the middle.  The experience left both me and the mangos in a sad state of affairs.  Alas, the interwebs to the rescue! (I did some extensive research – a couple of You Tube videos).  Thinking the world could surely use even MORE “how to cut a mango” You Tube videos, I present the following.  So read on….or watch on, as the case may be.


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