Circus Life: Outside the recipe box

“Wow, will you get me the recipe for that?”

How I dread that question!  Not because I’m a really mean person and my mother never taught me to share, but because I rarely have a recipe!  Really!  And truth be told, frugal, healthy, cooking and baking is all about getting outside the recipe box anyway.  You have to know how ingredients function and taste in a finished product (does it provide lift? moisture? make it more or less dense?).  You also have to know possible substitutions that provide the same or similar taste or functions, whether that’s to make the finished product more healthy, or more economical, or simply because that’s what you have one hand. (And if you’re like me, you can’t run into the store for “just one thing.”  So you can use what you have, keep yourself out of that store, and your budget stays happy!)

I think one of the easiest ways to start getting out of the recipe box is, ironically, with a great base recipe.  With a little creativity, you can begin to alter your base recipe turning a fantastic banana bread recipe, into an apple cinnamon bread, or even a cinnamon coffee cake with a crumb topping (Yum!  This morning’s breakfast…).  You’ll start to see what the core players are (what are the sweeteners, what makes it rise (does it need to rise?) what adds the protein, where is the acid to interact with the leavening agent, what’s the bready foundation (you know, the flour, the oats, whatever….no, I don’t know the technical term.  Enlighten me if you do.)  A little experimenting, and before you know it, you’ll be whipping up pumpkin muffins (because you bought that entire case of canned pumpkin when it was on sale in October and all but 3 cans are still sitting in our pantry) without a “recipe” in no time.

To get you started, here’s a base for a simple quick bread.  Make this super easy for yourself by dumping all the ingredients into your bread machine and setting it on the dough setting (because that is the setting that starts stirring immediately).  Once its mixed (you may need to help it out with a rubber spatula if you’re worried about over mixing), pull out the paddle, close the machine and set it on “bake only” for about 45-55min.  (Note: My bread machine won’t let me turn it back on once the timer turns off because it senses the unit is too hot.  Out smart the machine by setting on a later time (maybe 60 min) and then setting another timer to remind yourself to check it at 45 minutes, that way you can easily keep it in for a few more minutes).

Quick bread:

2 cups of flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

3/4 cup sugar

2 1/2 tablespoons oil

2 eggs

something fruity/moist- a cup’s worth or so


Oh my word!  3/4 cup of sugar!  How can you feed your children that for breakfast?!  I thought you were a super healthy food, oats and berries, organic, kale at every meal, crunchy granola kinda mommy?

Yes, I know.  Ah, how stereo-types turn around and bite us in the rear…  But since we’re being all honest here, how much sugar is in that breakfast cereal that was on the table this morning?  And lets not forget, this is a BASE recipe.  Don’t like the sugar?  Leave it out!  You’re the cook, its up to you!

Personally, I’ve never added that much sugar, and its plenty sweet for us.  If I’m using apple sauce in the recipe, I’m probably going to use very little, if any sugar (and I’d probably omit the oil , too!).  And I’m probably not going to use 2 cups of all purpose flour, either.  I’m probably going to use about 3/4 of all purpose, a half cup of rolled oats and about 1/4 whole wheat flour.  (Yes, I know this does not add up to 2 cups, but I also know that the oats and the whole wheat tend to make my finished products too dense and dry, so I use a little less of them.)  I might use some yogurt for some extra moisture if it looks dry, or some milk if I don’t have yogurt.  I’m probably going to add in about 1/4 cup of flax, because, well, flax just tastes good.  Plus, it has a whole bunch of healthy omega 3 fats (you know the ones they tell you to eat fish to get) and fiber. Yes, I said fiber.  ::Hangs head::  I am getting old.

I might use two of the bananas that are getting mushy on the counter, or I might use those frozen blueberries from last summer.  Whatever I use, you can bet I’m not going out to the store to get something special for it (again, I’m frugal.  Its also 10pm and I’m in my pajamas.)

Yes, its 10pm and I’m tired.  The only thing I’m even taking the time to measure are the flour type ingredients.  I’m only using the 1 cup scoop and estimating about where the ingredients should fall in the scoop.  A quick flick of the wrist with the open baking powder container, should be close enough. (Oh how my middle school Home Ec. teacher would cringe!)  Because at the end of the day, does it really matter if I get a teaspoon of baking powder or a teaspoon and  quarter?  I need to get it done, so I can get to the 20 something other things I have to do, so I can get a few hours of sleep before the clowns and monkeys wake up.

To quote one of my husband’s favorite movies:

“Look, Robin, you don’t have to do this.  I mean, this ain’t exaclty the Mississippi.  I’m on one side, I’m on the other side.  I’m on the east bank, I’m on the west bank. It’s not that critical.” -Dave Chappelle as Ahchoo in Robin Hood: Men in Tights, 1993.

And its not.  Critical, I mean.  Its always edible, and its more healthy than those cocoa balls and marshmallow horse shoes for sure. And worse comes to worst, you throw some sprinkles on top.  The kids will eat it up just fine…

Happy ingredient experimenting!

(Oh, and pureed kale actually does go well in an apple bread….just sayin’.)


Circus Grapes

Oh the directions a post entitled “Circus Grapes” could go…but alas, entertaining though it may be, I’m not talking about the adult juice variety of grapes.  Just plain ‘ole grapes; grapes with a lot of seeds and tough skin, to be exact. 

We bought them at the farmers market and man, they sure looked good.  They were indeed tasty, but basically not edible with all the seeds and thick skins.  So they sat, cold, lonely and essentially untouched in my refrigerator.  Every time the door opened to retrieve a sippy cup, or tasty snack they shouted “What are you going to do with us?  Please don’t throw us away, don’t let us rot here and get soft and moldy!  HELP US!!” 

I had to use up those poor grapes.  I had to give them a greater purpose than their destined addition to the compost bin.  What to do?  Also in the crisper were some baby eggplants and orange peppers that had no future prospects. 

……Yucky grapes, eggplant, peppers…..yucky grapes, eggplant, peppers…..Hm………


Sweet and Sour Meatballs! 

How does one go from yucky grapes to sweet and sour meatballs?  Like this:

IHF (I Had it in the Fridge) Meatballs


Grapes (about 3-4 bunches)

3 tablespoons corn starch

1/2 cup granulated sugar

4 tablespoons ketchup

3 tablespoons rice wine vinegar

3 tablespoons soy sauce

garlic powder (a couple shakes)

2 orange bell peppers

2 hot banana peppers (or other slightly spicy pepper)

1/2  onion

10 baby eggplant (give or take a couple)

olive oil

2lbs ground beef

breadcrumbs (4 heels of bread worth)

2 eggs


1)   Make the “jelly”.  Wash your grapes, put them in a sauce pan on medium high heat.  Cover.  Cook until soft and then press with potato masher.  Carefully pour into strainer positioned over another sauce pan.  Allow to drain for a few minutes, and it won’t hurt to press the pulp the masher a little more to get as much juice out as you can.  Discard the pulp.  Add sugar and cornstarch to the juice, bring to a boil, while stirring.  Remove from heat.

2) Sauce.  In a crock pot combine ketchup, soy sauce, vinegar, your grape “jelly”, and garlic powder.  Taste and adjust flavor by adding more of the above ingredients to taste.

3) Add chopped peppers and onions to the crock pot.  Cook on high.

4) Throw your bread heels in the food processor.  Pulse until coarse crumbs. 

5) Place breadcrumbs, ground beef, and eggs in a bowl. Mix with hands.  Roll into small meatballs. 

6) Brown meatballs on the stove.  They don’t have to be all the way cooked through, just browned (I like them a little crispy, I get the pan very hot and sort of sear the outsides). 

7) Add meatballs to the sauce.  Make sure they are in the crock pot long enough to cook through (an hour or so on high should do it).

8) Chop eggplant into small cubes.  Sprinkle with salt and allow to sit on paper towels for 10 min or so.  Place eggplant in a small baking dish with a little olive oil.  Bake for about 10 min at 425 degrees.  Add to the crock pot.  When meatballs are cooked and veggies are soft enough for your liking, turn crock pot to warm.  It’ll be ready when you are.

Serve over rice.







Just Peachey

Yesterday was one of those mornings when everything took about 10 times longer than it should.

You know, you’re just about ready to get out the door for church when one child starts whining that his shoes hurt, you’re pretty sure he’s just being difficult, but you oblige with a different pair.  Those don’t work either.  Meanwhile another child refuses to wear his socks.  The diaper bag falls over, spilling its contents.

Fine!  Back to the original shoes, no more whining.  Get the socks on!  At which time you smell someone’s diaper.  You change the diaper, get everyone in the car.  You’re about 20 minutes late for church.

Then on the way out of church, you experience miscommunication with your spouse as to the location and collection  of items (diaper bag, baby’s shoes, bible and notebooks) and perhaps a child.  Several back tracking trips, and one cell phone call later, you’re back in the car, with all children and about 90% of the belongings you started with.  Close enough.

You get home, feed the children, begin to get them down for naps.  You’re tired.  You’re a little hungry and a bit grumpy.  A nap would be so nice.  So naturally you decide, why not can some peaches!?!

Why do you choose this?  I don’t know, we’ll go with temporary insanity.


In all seriousness, we bought the peaches yesterday at the farmer’s market, and we really had to can them today.  So, we did!

I’m often asked why I would ta001ke on such tasks as canning.  They take time, lots of time.  You could just buy canned peaches in the store.  Is it really that much cheaper?  Healthier?

Yes!  And its easier to decide to do, because Mr. Ringmaster is willing to help!  He took over the cutting/peeling halfway through, and did most of the clean-up.  So, it really wasn’t too bad at all.  Its rather nice to do projects like that together.  Even if they are punctured with “DADDY! DADDY!” or “Mommy, I want…..” or “Can somebody WIPE ME!!??” every 30 seconds.

I only had a peck (minus those used in peach cobbler) to do.  Start to finish it was about 2 hours.

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Circus Eats: “Oh, KALE, my favorite!”

Has your 5 year-old ever uttered those words? 

As the farmer dropped off our weekly CSA share yesterday, that’s exactly what my five year-old said.  And he meant it!  He ate quite the helping, no complaining.

I think one of the biggest reasons I hear people give when they knowingly are not eating “healthy” (and remember, there are drastically differing opinions about what “healthy” means) is that their children won’t eat it.  Here’s my secret, they will eat it if that’s what you give them.  Most especially if that is all they know.  Not only that, they will develop a distaste for some of those not so healthy items out there.  Example: My kids like lolly pops, what kid doesn’t?  When I buy them, I get the lollypops with natural coloring and flavors.  They’re not real sticky and they don’t have any funny aftertastes or turn your mouth funny colors.  Occasionally, the boys bring home candy from school when they have parties and such.  Some of this they will eat, much of it they will excitedly take a few bites (or licks) and proclaim it “really not very good,” and throw it away.  Not that this happens with all the junky food they are exposed to, but you get the idea. 

Here’s what arrived at our house yesterday:   Plum tomatoes, plums, kale, carrots, potatoes, half Imagedozen eggs, peppers, zucchini and a cucumber. 

So for dinner we had chicken and kale in the crockpot.  It goes like this:  Clean and chop kale (cut out stems in the leaf, that’s the bitter part).  Place in the bottom of a crock pot.  Unwrap thawed, whole chicken.  I buy from a local farm and sometimes I have to brush away a feather or two at this stage.  I just rinse it off and pull out the neck.  Plop the chicken on top of the kale.  This time I poured a can of organic mandarin oranges (in orange juice, not syrup) over the chicken.  Put the lid on and turn on the crock pot.  How much time, you ask?  That depends, how much time do you have?  Cook at least to 160, for me its 2-3 hours on high, maybe 5ish hours on low.  Cooked too early?  Put the crock pot on warm until you’re ready.  The orange juice will keep it moist and delicious.  (I’ve also done this with cranberry sauce instead of oranges, added chopped carrots or potatoes or apples…whatever I have.) 

Easy? yes, Quick? doesn’t require much time in the kitchen? Cheap? if you buy whole chickens on sale, you bet.  Periodically you’ll see organic whole chickens on sale as low as $1.99lb.  I buy the maximum I can and stock up my upright freezer. 

Use the leftovers for chicken and black bean enchiladas, or in chicken salad.  Stick the bones and neck in a pot, add water, bring to a low boil with lid for an hour or so…chicken broth!  Add to rice for more flavor, make your own cream sauces with a little flour and milk, or just make soup.  One chicken- 3 meals. 

Tonight we’ll have pasta with diced tomatoes and zucchini, sauteed in garlic (from last week’s CSA)  and whatever cheese happens to be in the fridge.  Yum!



Circus Cobbler

I am a superhero.  Yup.  I can nurse a 15lb baby held in one arm, and mix up peach cobbler from scratch with the other arm, INCLUDING cutting in the butter with a pastry blender.  I can do this with 3 boys running around.  I’ll admit I’m not entirely sure what they were up to, but no one was screaming, bickering, or hitting anyone over the head with Heatwave the Rescue Bot, so I’ll take it.  Why would I want to do such a thing?  Its dessert, its optional!  I don’t know.  I like stress?  I’m still trying to prove I’m super mom?  Circus Boy #3 LOVES cobbler?  I don’t know. Maybe I just really wanted good dessert (I make up a pretty good cobbler).  Point is, I did it.  Ha, man are my boys going to be surprised when they go off to college and select some peach cobbler of the buffet bar in the dining hall at school, maybe then they’ll realize how good they had it.

Anyway, you know how I feel about recipes.  But here’s what I do:

You need:


  • 6 peaches
  • 1/4 sugar
  • 2 teaspoons corn starch (or other thickening agent)


  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 6 tablespoons butter ( I used salted)
  • 1/4 sugar
  • ground flax seed (like a handful?)
  • 1/2 cup boiling water
  • cinnamon/sugar (for sprinkling)
  • rolled oats (for sprinkling)

Pre heat oven to 425.  6 peaches- peel them, slice them, put them in a square baking pan (I use Pyrex, oh do I have some Pyrex stories for you, right Mr. Ringmaster?  I’ll save those for another day.  Someone remind me…)  Mix them with the other filling ingredients- bake at 425 for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, mix flour, baking powder, sugar and flax.  Cut butter into small pieces and add to flour mixture.  Using a pastry blender (or two forks) cut butter into flour mixture until you have a gravely texture.  Add boiling water, stir.  Mixture will be dough like.  Press dough over hot peaches (remove from oven first, obviously….).  Sprinkle with cinnamon/sugar and press in rolled oats.  Why rolled oats?  Because everything is better with flax and rolled oats.  Well, everything baked.

Bake for about 25-30 min.


Now carry a 15lb weight in one arm and make it.  Good luck.  And if you decide to mix it up while nursing a baby, watch the hot stuff near those sweet little toes.  I always get nervous and extra careful when cooking with those little toes and fingers and knees sticking out….


New Circus Skills: The Fire Extinguisher

I love a good spinach roll.  Yesterday the veggie CSA arrived with a whole bunch of beautiful plum tomatoes.  I thought of the lovely spinach growing in my garden and mozzerella cheese in my fridge.  I lovingly made bread dough out of an organic whole wheat and oat flour blend.  It was a bit dry, so I kneaded in plenty of extra olive oil to make it soft.  Meanwhile, the children were NOT napping, so my cooking was punctured by frequent trips up the stairs with comments such as “get out from under your bed.”  At any rate, I went out to the garden and carefully plucked the outside leaves of spinach so the plants would keep producing.  I chopped up that lovely produce, rolled out my crust, and seasoned with some basil and paprika.  I spread out the cheese and veggies and rolled them all up, pinched the edges, brushed on some olive oil (I’m out of garlic, or I would have sprinkled it on top).  Turned on that oven and popped those beautiful rolls of spinach-y goodness into the oven.

Ten minutes pass. (“Can we get up yet?!”  “Mommy?  Mommy? Mommy? MMMMOOOOOOOMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMYYYYYYYYYY?’  “He’s out of bed!  Mommy!  He’s got a toy! Mommy!)  End nap time.

Hm…what is that coming out of the top of the oven?  Smoke.  Its ok, I know I have a dirty oven.  That happens from time to time…..though usually only at high temperatures…huh?  Open oven.  Wow.  That is a lot of smoke.  Close oven.  Well, Mr. Ringmaster reheated those hamburgers in the oven last night and I see some cheese that somehow got on the bottom of the oven, that must be it.

Start setting the table, playing with the kids….open all the windows, can’t believe there’s still smoke.  Open oven ::WHOOSSHH::  Fire.  Close oven.  With surprising calmness, I plop the baby in the excer-saucer and pull it to other side of the kitchen and pull out the fire extinguisher from under sink. I vaguely remember calling for the boys to go outside.

I haven an argument with my brain, “leave the door closed, it will go out,” “then why hasn’t it gone out yet?”  It feels like I’m standing there for an eternity watching it.  I just want it out.  I pick up the fire extinguisher.  A piece of my brain cheers “Mommy will save the day!!”  The rest is going “how do I spray this thing?”

I rip apart the plastic thingy on the top and I’m still not sure how but I got a “PFSHHH” of white fire extinguisher stuff out.  Probably should have opened the oven first.  Open the oven, struggle for a moment to duplicate the “PFSHHH” (man it sprays out fast).  The dust clears and the fire is out. I look outside where I told the boys to go, and they are standing there, still, quiet, just waiting.  Yes!  Score one for school fire drills.  I must remember to tell their teachers about that.  I revel for a moment in the sight of my older boys standing still.  Then I turn back to the kitchen, and this is what my dinner looks like.


Well that’s depressing.  I call Mr. RIngmaster.  He claims responsibility as he reheated those burgers right on the rack instead of on a sheet pan and did not clean out the oven.  The smoke and flame was from the grease left behind.  I may have, at this point, cried.  Mostly because those lovely spinach rolls were now expensive garbage (hey, cheese is expensive).  Also because my kitchen was a mess.  Though I will admit at the same time I was thinking “Woohoo!  Take a picture, this will make a great blog post!”  (Like I ever have a shortage of things to write about.)  Mr. RIngmaster brought home a couple pizzas.  There was a beer left in the fridge.  It worked out.


Ringmaster Woes: The Sweet Potato

For all the moms who frequently bite off a bit more than they can chew….


We belong to a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) through a local, family farm.  Every Monday a member of that wonderful family delivers a box full of fresh, organic vegetables, fruit and eggs.  We love the variety, the convenience, and supporting our local economy.  I love having fresh ingredients to cook with, and I love the mystery of what will be in the box and the challenge of turning those ingredients into meals.

In this week’s box there was a lovely mix of lettuces and greens, some squash, fruit, and 3 beautiful sweet potatoes.  Sweet potatoes!  Quite possibly the simplest side dish to prepare.  Wash them, open the oven door, chuck them in, and turn it on.  It doesn’t even matter what temperature.  Keep them in there for an hour, or two.  Whatever. They just get mushier, the better to mix with a bit of butter and plop on a plate.  No cutting, no stirring, no bowl, pan or spoon!  Far healthier than your average baking potato.  For a busy mom, they are precious dinner gift like few others!

So, this morning I had on my counter these 3 fabulous chunks of easy dinner goodness, and what does my mind say?  You know what would be great?  A sweet potato pie!!  So instead of taking advantage of a lovely easy dinner side, I decided to make a homemade sweet potato pie.  Because, you know, I have all the time in the world for that.  Really.  I even found a crock pot recipe for the filling.  Awesome!  Throw some ingredients in the pot, whip up a pie crust, dump the filling in the crust.  No problem.  Unless you live in a circus.

So I peel and chop up those sweet potatoes, and circus boy #3 drags over the stool and climbs up with a big ol’ grin on his sweet two year-old face.  He “helps” me add all the ingredients by trying to mix them all with the 1/2 cup measuring cup, and scoop and pour the mixture throughout the kitchen.  After multiple acrobatics to keep the bowl on the counter, the child on the stool, and also fetch and return ingredients, the mixture is in the crock pot. (And the child is screaming because I took his dripping measuring cup.)

Fast forward through a violin lesson and the drive to pick up the big boys from pre-school.  Time to make the crust.  You know, while the big boys eat lunch and the baby nurses.  And circus boy #2 demands a grilled cheese sandwich, after he’s already eaten his PBJ, apple sauce, yogurt, and graham crackers.  Apparently that was his friend at school eats.  I decline.  Screaming ensues.  Nap time. Time to get to it.

Or not. Baby is fussing.  Ask nearly 5 year-old circus boy #1 for help playing with the baby so I can finally get to that crust, an hour later.  His response, “Um, I think I’m too tired.  And you always tell me not to get up during rest time.”  You know those cartoons where the characters get furious and turn red from their toes on up until steam erupts from their ears? Insert that image here.  Boy #1 decided it would be in his best interest to help.

And there you have it.  The easiest thing to cook ever.


(No comments about my dirty oven unless yours is cleaner and you also intend to come clean mine.)

Now, what am I going to cook for dinner?  Wait, did I ever eat lunch?  Huh…