Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Project #269 - Jasmine Iced Tea

Every once in a while I'll learn that I've been doing something completely wrong my whole life, completely unaware. Luckily, when I make such a surprising discovery, I usually learn what I did wrong. Thankfully, those instances get rarer and rarer as I age, but I guess that's what makes them more disorienting.

Case in point, I have never, ever made a cup of Jasmine tea correctly in my entire life. I've been in love with Jasmine tea ever since drinking it every day for breakfast during a trip to Thailand. With just a little cream and sugar it is a cup full of happiness.

When I returned from my trip, I was determined to continue my ritual. I purchased some mid-grade loose Jasmine tea and proceeded to make the world's most bitter, face-scrunching cup of tea. I purchased better leaves and got the same result. I tried giving the leaves an initial soak before letting them steep, just like what one would do for nicer green teas. Then I tried experimenting with water temperature. Then I resorted to covering the awful taste with loads of sugar.

Finally, I gave up, blaming American water for...uh...not agreeing with Jasmine Tea? Or something. I resigned myself to only having delicious tea during trips to the far east.

However, I had it in me to try to suffer through one more awful cup of tea. I decided to check the internet to see if there were any good ideas for iced Jasmine tea. At least, through the magic of the interweb, I learned what I was doing wrong: I hadn't removed the leaves after steeping for only five minutes. The leaves themselves will start leeching bitter oils if given enough time in hot water.

So, I made a batch and filtered out the leaves. Finally, I had my perfect cup back.

It's stupid, but at least I figured it out after four years of bad tea.

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posted by Alison 10/27/2009 08:21:00 PM : (0) comments : splink

Monday, October 26, 2009

Project #267 - Tuna Lunch Bowl

Clark's job moved locations and now he is in the position to drive home for lunch once or twice a week. It's been good for me as my day has been divided in a way that is a lot more healthy. I'll usually work without stopping to eat until 3 or 4 o'clock if left on my own, meaning that I eat only two small meals a day. Not good.

Still, we're both short on time, so it's nice to eat things that can be prepared in less than 5 minutes. Today, I put rice in the rice cooker early in the morning. Then when Clark arrived I mixed up a quick batch of tuna with a little low-fat mayo and served that on a piece of seaweed on top of the rice. For garnish I sprinkled the whole thing with roasted sesame seeds.

For those of you who are a little weirded out by seaweed, I say just give it a try. It's like eating potato chips that don't make you feel bad and give you a full serving of green vegetables. I like eating by itself for a snack; the salty-umami flavor is divine, but it's wonderful in a lot of dishes. Plus, it doesn't need to be cooked or prepared in any way. Just apply it and enjoy.

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posted by Alison 10/26/2009 02:26:00 PM : (0) comments : splink

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Project #260 - Canned Effin' Peaches

Deadwood is my favorite show of all time. I think I've seen each foul-mouthed episode at least five times over. While Deadwood was never a place known fine cuisine, but it did have its moments. For example, Al Swearengen's take on hospitality whenever hosting a meeting of the important men of the camp. "Open the f***ing canned peaches!"

Now that the domestic peach crop is coming to a close for the year it's time for me to make my own f***ing canned peaches in the true old-timey tradition.

So, my mother was one of 18 children, and I feel like a lot of information that was held by my grandparent's generation didn't have a chance to get passed to the people in my mother's generation, and, in turn, didn't make it to my generation. I don't blame anyone for that, and I feel lucky that my grandmother's intense sewing skills made it down to me, but I still wonder how much information was lost because my grandparents were so busy raising baby after baby that there was no time to teach the older ones the kind of skills that go from parent to child.

In summary, I have no idea what I'm doing. I've never canned anything before, and I've never even seen anyone can anything. Luckily, I have the internet to make up for this gap in domestic knowledge. I have resources to learn this new skill and hopefully I'll have the wherewithal to pass it on to the people will come after me. Still, mistakes will be made, lots of them.


    Ripe Peaches (more than four, as I found out)
  • 1 part sugar
  • 1 part water
  • 1 canning jar

First, I removed the skins from the peaches. I placed each in a pot of boiling water for 30 seconds and then placed them in ice water. The skins popped right off. I had no idea how many would fill a jar, so I skinned four large, ripe ones.

Next, I made a simple syrup solution of half sugar and half water, heating until the sugar completely dissolved, not letting the liquid boil.

I then cooked my peaches in the sugar syrup for about five minutes, still keeping the solution from boiling.

I then put spooned my peaches into a canning jar and used a funnel to fill it up to the top with syrup. My peaches only filled half of the jar, so next time I'll need to cut up more than four.

Finally, I boiled the jar to seal it. I learned a few hours later from a friend that the water should be over the lid of the jar or the jar should be boiled upside down. Still, it sealed and seemed intact. I guess I'll find out whether I really screwed up in a week.

**Update** I let the peaches sit in the cupboard for a week before trying them. They were super tender tasty! I think I'll cut down on the sugar in the syrup next time because it was way to sweet, but I'll probably use the leftover liquid to make peach sweet tea.

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posted by Alison 10/20/2009 05:22:00 PM : (0) comments : splink

Monday, October 19, 2009

Project #259 - Oven Roasted Pumpkin Seeds

Well, I had about three big salad bowls of pumpkin guts leftover from yesterday and it's a shame to let that all go to waste. I spent a good chunk of my day slimed up to my elbows pulling out the seeds one-by-one. It's not my favorite activity, but my frugal nature dictates that if there is something good to eat somewhere in a bucket of goo, I should find some way to get that good thing out and edible.

So after straining pulp for about 45 minutes I ended up with wrinkly hands and a strainer full of seeds. I rinsed all of the remaining guts off and spread as many as I could on a greased cookie sheet in one layer. They're really sticky after rinsing, so be prepared to have a few cling to your hands no matter what you do. Luckily, they come right off in the sink.

Using this recipe I baked them at 375 for 25 minutes. I shook the baking sheet about 15 into baking to keep the seeds from cooking together.

I ended up with more roasted seeds than we could ever eat. Luckily, pumpkin seeds are good for chickens. They're supposed to be a natural de-wormer.

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posted by Alison 10/19/2009 05:15:00 PM : (0) comments : splink

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Project #257 - Sukiyaki

Sukiyaki is a meal Clark and I like to cook for friends. It's a good example of a regular meal Japanese people actually eat at home, unlike teriyaki chicken or California rolls.

It's also one of those meals that guests cook themselves, like fondue, although Sukiyaki is less likely to be a source of high cholesterol. It's also kosher non-dairy, gluten-free, and not too hard to make vegan, so it's a good meal if you're entertaining in a pinch and you don't know what dietary needs are going to come out of left field.

The most time-consuming part of preparing the food is all the chopping. Our typical version will have cubed tofu, chopped cabbage, mushrooms, sliced carrots, thin wedges of Kabocha (Japanese pumpkin), and chunks of green onion. We'll buy additional ingredients like yam noodles, sukiyaki sauce, mochi and thinly sliced meat from the Japanese food store, but they don't need much preparation. The meat is even pretty cheap because it's in such small slices, so it doesn't take much money to feed 8-10 people.

We use a camp stove in the middle of the dining room table to cook the food. First we pour in the Sukiyaki sauce* and let it simmer. Then we add veggies and let them start cooking. The meat is so thin that it cooks almost instantly. When things are done cooking, people just grab what they like, adding more from the veggies or meat as needed. After the stock boils down we add the yam noodles and enjoy the rest as a thick soup.

Traditionally, morsels taken from the pot are dipped into individual bowls of raw egg and eaten over rice. It's optional and often Clark and I are the only ones at the table to eat our Sukiyaki that way, but despite the fear about salmonella, it adds an extra level of tasty.

It's soooo, good, especially the gooey chunks of mochi and the kabocha once it gets soft. I love eating this dish during the fall and winter. The windows usually fog up from the steam and the temperature in the house rises 5 degrees. It's just a cozy, friendly meal.

*You can make your own out of 1 cup of soy sauce, 1.5 cups of water, 2 tablespoons of sugar and 3 tablespoons of mirin

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posted by Alison 10/17/2009 05:16:00 PM : (0) comments : splink

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Project #254 - Roasted Chestnuts

We had a chestnut tree in my childhood backyard. It was by far out best climbing tree as long as you managed not to fall out of it and land on the spiky carpet of dried-out seed-casings. The burrs always had a way of splintering into the skin of our hands and causing all kinds of agony. The family dog gave the tree a wide berth.

Most of the nuts, ~95%, were no good and filled with fuzz. The remaining ones could be collected, but only if you got there before the squirrels. One fall, with a eye towards finally trying our own chestnuts I went out daily and steadily collected an entire bucket-full. Unfortunately, I didn't know what to do with them and neither did my family. They stayed in the garage for months until they were finally redeposited in the backyard.

I'd never tasted a chestnut until I moved to Japan where they are a common train-station snack. The nuts have a natural slightly sweet taste. In fact, they have little fat compared to other nuts and are considered to be a good diet food for nut lovers.

I found cartons of chestnuts for sale last week at the farmer's market for cheap. Now, I will finally know what to do with my very own chestnuts.

It turns out that making them edible is a pretty easy task.

Heat an oven to 400 degrees. Slice the tip of each nut with a sharp knife to let steam out while baking and keep it from exploding. Bake the nuts for 10 minutes in a single layer on a cookie sheet. Shake and let them bake for another 10 mintues. Larger nuts will need a little longer, so test one before taking them all out.

The shell should have split further from your knife cut and it should be easy to remove. Fully cooked nuts will be soft and warm all the way through. If the texture resembles a crisp apple when you bit into it, put it back in and bake for a little longer. You can eat them as-is or incorporate them into your favorite nut-meat recipe.

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posted by Alison 10/14/2009 05:09:00 PM : (0) comments : splink

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Project #247 - Cookies as Evidence of Good Wifery

Being a good spouse is kind of like being a good driver. Almost everyone thinks they are one.

However, I think I can present concrete evidence that I am, indeed, a wife of a higher caliber.

Exhibit #1: Reeses Pieces Chocolate Chip Cookies
It is nearly midnight and my husband is watching the Steelers game. Out of the blue, someone brings up the idea of fresh-baked cookies and now he can't get the idea out of his head. I was considering going to bed, but instead made a fresh batch of cookies from scratch.

Yes. Praise me. I was tired but I still made some awesome cookies.

Okay, that is my only photographic piece of evidence for now, but I'm telling you that I'm going the eventually build up enough to make my case for the Nobel Prize of Wifery. I just need to document more and then learn how to cook a really good steak.

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posted by Alison 10/04/2009 11:10:00 PM : (1) comments : splink

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Project #240 - Reese's Caramel Bars

Clark doesn't like sweet things very much, but Reese's Pieces have a magical property that suddenly renders any dessert into his favorite thing ev-AH. I don't know if it's the weird peanut butter or the candy shell, but if I made artichokes with Reese's Pieces he would probably eat them all and then ask me to make more for tomorrow.

So, now I have the perfect ingredient to reverse a past cooking failure. My so-so popcorn toffee bars will now be rendered as the caramel bars they were supposed to be and then elevated to the next level with peanut buttery goodness. (Woooo!) I now have a proper candy thermometer to guarantee success (Yeah yeah, I talk about it a lot, but I love it so much that I can't stop talking about it. [Woooo!]).

So, I popped a pot full popcorn the same as I did here, and let it cool. I lined a 9" by 13" rectangular glass pan with greased wax paper (bad idea*) and poured my popcorn in to form a 1 - 1.5 inch deep layer. I then sprinkled about a cup of Reese's Pieces on top.

Lastly, I made my third batch of caramel this month (recipe here) and poured it over my popcorn, coating uniformly. It will sink through and form a chewy bottom layer. Just let the bars cool for an hour and then slice and enjoy.

Sharing is recommended because each bar has enough fat and sugar to take 30 minutes off of your lifespan.

*If you don't like eating paper, don't do what I did. The wax paper, despite the layer of grease did not peel off the bars without leaving half of itself behind. Instead, use thicker parchment paper. Luckily, I have a husband who doesn't mind eating anything attached to something containing Reese's Pieces, but I don't recommend it.

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posted by Alison 9/27/2009 07:05:00 PM : (0) comments : splink

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Project #238 - Sea Salt Caramels

I had a stroke of good luck this week: I found an unused gift card for Bed, Bath & Beyond and I remembered to take it with the store with me for once. We finally have a real candy thermometer, so I am no longer obligated to use our meat thermometer at temperatures it was never built to withstand. It's nice to have good tools.

That means that I can finally make caramel candies and be sure that I won't end up with something that will pull my fillings out. Caramels are my favorite candies and it's wonderful to get a batch with the perfect buttery, chewy texture.

I used this sea salt caramel recipe from epicurious.com once again, although with my shiny new candy thermometer managed to turn out caramels instead of a big batch of toffee (again).

I really like the trend towards mixing sweet with salty for candies. The above recipe, despite its name, isn't really salty at all, so I added a pinch of salt on top to get it to that next level. Just that little bit really adds another dimension to the taste of these candies. There's something about that briny flavor that makes my mouth water in ways that sweetness alone does not. Still, I love to make batches that are half-salted and half-traditional caramel and alternate between the two tastes when I'm having a treat.

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posted by Alison 9/24/2009 07:04:00 PM : (0) comments : splink

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Project #228 - Stovetop Popcorn Toffee Bars

I've grown a little sick of salty, fake-butter microwave popcorn, so I went back to basics and learned how to pop popcorn on the stovetop, something I've never done until this week. It's so easy that I might give up the microwave kind forever. Just take a medium sized pot and pour enough vegetable oil in it to cover the bottom. Heat it until it starts to smoke. Throw in 2-3 tablespoons of kernels, depending on the size of the pot. You want enough to cover the bottom of the pot without any sitting on top of one another, but not so few that there is extra oil and you end up with a greasy bottom layer of kernels.

Cover the pot and shake it gently on the burner. Popping will start after only a few seconds and probably last only a minute. Keep shaking. Wait until the popping dies down and remove the pot from the flame. You should have a pot full of popcorn and no lingering oil. Almost every time I end up with every kernel popped and no yucky burnt ones, which would be a miracle with microwave popcorn.

It's overall much, much cheaper than buying the bagged kind. Also, I love buying anything where the ingredients list contains only one item. It even says 'ingredient' instead of 'ingredients'. I love it!

Of course, I can never eat all of my popcorn. Coating the popcorn in something keeps it from getting stale, so I opted to cover mine in toffee. Actually, I wanted to coat them in caramel, but I don't have a thermometer that goes high enough to distinguish between frim-ball and hard-crack, so I ended up with hard crack popcorn. All things considered, it was a tasty way to go, but not the best idea if you have dental work.

I used this recipe for fleur de sel caramels for the coating. Despite the name, this recipe is not salty at all. If you want toffee follow the recipe, but cook the caramel mixture to 258°F.

Line a baking pan with wax paper and grease the hell out of it. Add a layer of popcorn. Make the caramel/toffee mixture and pour it over the popcorn. Don't stir. Let it cool for an hour. Slice and then gorge.

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posted by Alison 9/10/2009 10:54:00 PM : (1) comments : splink

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Project #226 - Forest Edibles Hike

Hello! Come into the woods with me today where we shall dine on the dew and fairies of the hills of West Virgina. I'm told that fairies are quite tasty when dipped in honey-mustard.

Continuing my decade-long quest to uncover new sources of free food, we now turn to the forest, specifically the fungus-covered part of the forest. I've been researching wild mushrooms and sometime yesterday I convinced myself that I had enough just enough knowledge to find some of the easier to identify ones without getting us killed.

We used a remote state park in West Virgina to test my mushroom hunting skills. We neither saw nor heard one other person during our entire hike. I pulled up some mushroom identification web pages on my mini-laptop while we were still at the B&B so we could use them as a reference guide on the path.

Of course, the laptop restarted on its own and we were suddenly left without any external guidance. I think these could be chanterelles (tasty!) or they could be false chanterelles (blech!). It's almost like every edible mushroom has an evil twin! Mushrooms are jerks.

These bracket mushrooms were one of the first big mushroom specimens we ran across. I'm pretty sure that these are oyster mushrooms, and luckily, there are no poisonous look-alikes in North America. However, after researching at home it seems that there are some untasty imitators out in the woods. I have a small sample of this mushroom in my fridge, but I'm a little scared to try it out. They do smell really, really tasty, though.

Okay, I am positive that these are turkey tails, as they have no look-alikes. Aren't they lovely? They smell heavenly, just like the oyster mushrooms (?). They are a little too tough to be eaten, so they are usually consumed by steeping them to make tea. I'm told that they are good for fighting off cancer.

I found them after wandering off of the path and down a slight slope to investigate some fallen logs. We took just a little so that the patch would have a chance to continue growing.

I found these little puff balls growing on the same log. We left them as they were, but it looks like something has been nibbling on them.

I also found this adorable moss patch on the same log. It was about the size of a quarter. Most people probably don't think it is possible for moss to be cute. Those people are wrong.

We also found wild blackberries on the trail. They were so ripe and perfect that we couldn't resist having a few.

Later that day, we took a trip over to the Dolly Sods, mostly because I heard a rumor that there were still blueberries and huckleberries growing over there. We found neither, but the environment was so unique it was still worth the ride up some scary, blind dirt roads.

The Dolly Sods covers a plateau on top of a mountain. Over the last century, the area was extensively logged, ranched nearly to death and then set on fire for nearly a decade. After that, only ferns and lichen could handle the soil, so the cattle moved on. Now the land was only good for one thing, blowing it up with mortar shells by troops in training for World War II. Today it is part of the Monongahela National Forest.

Still, despite the abusive history it's a pretty place and home to plant and animal life that is not found anywhere else in the area.

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posted by Alison 9/08/2009 02:31:00 AM : (1) comments : splink

Friday, September 04, 2009

Project #223 - Strawberry Shortcake Cookies

Oh, Martha. Usually I can depend on you to publish recipes that turn out exactly like the picture. I've even made all of your candy recipes from last December's issue without breaking a sweat. How could it be that the one recipe that would throw me off would be one for a simple cookie. Your cookies look like fruity delights and mine look like...biscuits with dried fruit bits.

Still, thank goodness I have a husband who isn't picky about snacks.

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posted by Alison 9/04/2009 03:39:00 PM : (2) comments : splink

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Project #220 - Homemade Noodles

Here is something I will never, ever do again. I will never make handmade pasta during a dinner party where I am expected to feed 10 people again. Ever.

Pasta sounds like something that would be so easy to make. It's just two ingredients: eggs and flour. The recipe I used called for three eggs for every two cups of flour. Mistake #1: deciding to make three batches of pasta, each out of a different kind of flour. We were going to make wheat flour pasta, semolina four pasta and bread flour pasta. If we had taken the, oh I don't know, 12 hours to roll out all of the dough it would have made enough pasta to feed 60 people.

And really, making the dough is misleadingly simple. Just pour out the flour into a bowl and make a divot. Crack three eggs into the divot and scramble them without disturbing the flour. Then mix the eggs and flour together, finally kneading to form a stiff dough.

I was smart enough to make some of the dough in advance. Mistake #2: not making all of the dough in advance. I wanted to give my guests a chance to make their own pasta because it sounded fun. The pasta dough making wasn't too bad for everyone, however, dough needs time to rest (~15-30 minutes) so there was a little while where I couldn't work on the pasta at all.

Here is the heart of the problem. I stupidly thought that running the dough through the pasta press would be one simple step. Mistake #3: stupidly thinking that running the dough through the pasta press would be one simple step. Actually, it's six steps. You have to feed the dough first through the sheet pasta press, starting with the widest setting. Then you feed the sheet through again and again, setting the press one degree narrower each time. After doing that five times only then can the pasta be run through the noodle cutter.

But how hard could that be? It's just turning a crank, right? Well, first, you need two people, one to turn the crank and the other to feed in the dough. By the last run through the little ball of dough we started with has grown into a sheet more than a yard long. The good news: that sheet will be enough to feed one person. The bad news: it took almost 10 minutes to make. Multiply that by 10 people...and you start to see the problem.

To compound that some of the party guests took too much and a few people didn't get any. Between Clark and myself we made about 7-8 dishes besides the pasta, so there was plenty to eat, but some people were still disappointed that they didn't get to try the dish of the evening. I was far to worn out to continue cranking, so those people are just going to have to be satisfied with rain checks.

Despite the trouble, fresh pasta is really, really good. I'll just make it far in advance next time.

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posted by Alison 9/02/2009 03:11:00 PM : (2) comments : splink

Monday, August 31, 2009

Project #218 - Chocolate Milk Mix

The local fancy-schmancy grocery store is only good for one thing: really, really good chocolate milk. Even Mormon missionaries can't resist when I offer them some*. However, today I made a special trip only to find that the store only had regular milk and regular milk sucks. I prefer to get my calcium only with added flavorings.

However, it is possible that I can do my own flavor magic and step up the chocolate milk to butter-rum chocolate milk. I could have just used real butter and rum, but I have these flavorings and they're going to get used for something, dammit.

Here is the secret to hot chocolate mixes: they are essentially half sugar and half cocoa. That is all you need to know. *If anyone knocks on my door in order to evangelize, it is always my policy to offer them something to drink, no matter what religion they are selling. No one has ever taken me up on my offer unless chocolate milk was on the table. BONUS: people tend to leave faster for some reason, hopefully not because they think I'm going to poison them and put them on top of the stack of Jehovah's Witnesses in the basement.

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posted by Alison 8/31/2009 08:46:00 PM : (0) comments : splink

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Project #213 - Japanese-Style Beet Salad

Clark and I stayed with a friend in Tochigi Prefecture, Japan last fall. She served us the beet salad every morning for breakfast during our stay. While it might sound to some people that beet salad would make for a pretty miserable breakfast, it was actually one of the culinary highlights of our trip. The beets themselves were even grown with love in her own rooftop garden.

Stupidly, I forgot all about that wonderful treat until I purchased a carton of beets from the farmer's market yesterday. Clark and I had to scrape our respective memories in order to reconstruct the recipe, but I think we did a reasonable job.


  • 1-2 pounds of beets (~10 small ones)
  • 2 tbsp dried wakame
  • 1/8 cup chopped chives
  • 3 tbsp sesame seeds
  • 3 tbsp Ponzu

I scrubbed the dirt off of each beet, chopped them into smaller pieces and placed them on a cookie sheet. I baked them at 400 degrees for 40 minutes or until they were nice and soft and then let them cool enough to be handled. Finally, I rubbed off the remaining skin on each beet slice and then diced them into even smaller pieces.

I then added about 1/2 of water to the wakame in a separate bowl and gave it 15 minutes to hydrate.

While waiting on the seaweed I roasted my sesame seeds. I placed them in a thin layer at the bottom of a small pan and ran it over my stove flame on high until the seeds started to turn brown and crackle. You'll want to keep the pan covered, because the seeds will pop just like pop corn and get all over the kitchen. Shake the pan so that everything cooks uniformly; it will only take about 20-30 seconds to roast them to a golden brown.

I then crushed the roasted seeds into a powder using my mortar and pestle.

The beet salad can be made in a big bowl and dished out in individual portions if you're feeding more than one person. Otherwise, I like to keep the ingredients separate until I want a bowl for a snack or with dinner. They'll keep by themselves, covered, for up to a week. Just mix them together at the desired proportions and enjoy.

This is one of the tastiest 'healthy' dishes I've ever eaten. It's one of Clark's favorites and I've been giving him stern warnings not to eat it all.

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posted by Alison 8/26/2009 09:49:00 PM : (0) comments : splink


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