Sunday, March 28, 2010

How I get it done

I don't consider myself the world's most organized person or the kind of mom that "has it all together" but since this is a blog about food and since I get asked this now and then, I thought I'd share a little bit about how I get meals on the table and keep my kitchen a somewhat sane place on a regular basis.

My major goals are to cook dinner at least 5 nights a week (other nights might be eating out, going to a friend's house, cold cereal etc.), not to overspend on groceries or waste food, and have time to spend with my daughter in the evenings. Here are the things I find help me to meet these goals:

1. Planning a menu at the beginning of the week and choosing dishes that use up food that might go to waste
2. Not going grocery shopping more than twice a week
3. Avoiding processed foods and packaged meals.
4. Prepping dinner in the afternoon
5. Cleaning the kitchen every night

On a typical week, I make a menu on Saturday or Sunday for the week to come. Then, on Sunday or Monday, I shop for groceries for the meals we will eat for the next 4 days. On Wednesday or Thursday, I grocery shop one more time for the end of the week and weekend.

This weekend, I made a menu on Saturday for Sunday through Wednesday nights and went to farmer's market to get produce. Then, on Sunday, I went to the grocery store for the non-produce. The following menu is for this week. Typically, I try to have at least one vegetarian entree, beef once (or less), and not have chicken 2 nights in a row. When I make the menu, I also take into consideration what I have on hand and what I need to use up before it goes bad and goes to waste.
Sunday - Curry grilled chicken, lemon green bean pasta salad (recipe coming soon!), fruit
Monday - Pan seared lamb chops, cous cous
Tuesday - dinner meeting for church at someone's house (taking a dessert)
Wednesday - Pasta with buttternut squash, chard, and sausage, salad

After my grocery shopping, at the beginning of the week, I make a batch of granola or muesli and make sure we have healthful snacks (I make my own trail mix, clean and chop up raw veggies, stock fresh fruit).

On a daily basis, a big part of my strategy is to not make the whole dinner at 6:00. My toughest part of the day is between my daughter's nap and supper time. I'm tired and not as patient, my daughter usually wakes up grumpy, the house isn't as neat as I'd like it to be, and I have a meal to put on the table. To make this better, I try to prep part of the dinner in the afternoon and do whatever dishes and cleaning up that I can do while my daughter is napping.

Some days, this means putting dinner in the crock pot or making a meal that I'll bake at dinner time (lasagna, enchiladas, casseroles). I don't like to cook and reheat (no microwave, takes twice as long) but I like things that can be assembled ahead of time. I also will do things like wash and chop up vegetables, or measure out ingredients. After that, I fill the dishwasher with any of the prep dishes and pick up around the kitchen or set the table. Then, in that hour or so before dinner, I can get things started (put something in the oven, put a salad together, start something on the stove) and play with my daughter in her room or outside. For example, today I marinated the chicken, made the pasta salad, and chopped up the fruit in the afternoon. At supper time, my husband grilled, I put the finishing touches on the pasta, and dinner was ready.

It doesn't always work this way but the nights where it takes me more than a half hour (of hands on time to make the meal at supper time), I seem to end up stressed by the time my husband gets home from work. I work 2 days a week and I save easy meals (or Dream Dinners or leftover nights) for those days when I know I'll be tired.

After dinner, I always clear the table and rinse all the dishes. If my daughter is occupied and happy, I go ahead and fill the dishwasher, clean the counters, empty the trash and wash the big pots and pans. If she needs my attention, I wait until her bathtime or right after she goes to bed and do that part. Going to bed with a clean kitchen makes my mornings less stressful - I don't like waking up to a big mess. Usually the dishwasher is full and I run it while we're in bed at night and unload it in the morning while I have my coffee (or OJ these days).

Okay, I know that's only dinners. I make hot breakfast 2-3 times a week and the other mornings we have yogurt & granola, cold cereal, toast and fruit, etc. My husband rarely eats lunch at home but my daughter and I eat leftovers, canned soup, sandwiches, or other easy stuff like that most days.

None of this is earth-shattering or very creative but it's what works for me now. I do well with routine. I don't like to eat the same food every week but if I keep this sort of pattern in my schedule, it helps our weeks go much smoother. I know it'll probably all change when we add another little girl to our household in August. What are the things that work for you or your best tips for the planning & cleaning parts of cooking?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Maple Oatmeal Scones

I'm often struck by the irony of watching the Food Network while I work out at the gym, but that's about the only time I catch any food shows these days. The other day I was on the elliptical salivating over these scones that Ina Garten was making. And, she made it look so easy! I don't think I've ever made scones from scratch before and I went right out to get the ingredients. It was one of my spring break plans to bake these (you have to aim high and be productive on time off, right?) and this morning I did.

I'll start by saying that they taste good - a little more dense than I had hoped but moist and flavorful. They're not the best homemade scones I've ever had (my friend Vanessa makes awesome scones) and they don't compete with my favorite store bought scones (Il Fornaio or Euro Pane), but they came out of my oven all warm this morning.

When Ina turned out her dough, she could cut it with a biscuit cutter. My dough was a soupy, wet mess. I double checked the ingredients and my work and I'm pretty positive I had the right amounts of stuff. I formed it into a big rectangle on my baking sheet and scored the scones and then cut them when they had cooled a little bit. The maple glaze was awesome - if you try these, don't skip that part.

I'm having a little trouble getting over the ONE POUND of butter in the recipe and the yield was way too much for us . . . if you live nearby, stop by and have one. I'd halve the recipe next time.

Maple Oatmeal Scones (makes 14 large scones)
From Ina Garten / Food Network


For the Scones
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup whole-wheat flour
1 cup quick-cooking oats, plus additional for sprinkling
2 tablespoons baking powder
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 teaspoons salt
1 pound cold unsalted butter, diced
1/2 cup cold buttermilk
1/2 cup pure maple syrup
4 extra-large eggs, lightly beaten
1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon milk or water, for egg wash

For the Glaze
1 1/4 cups confectioners' sugar
1/2 cup pure maple syrup

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, combine the flours, oats, baking powder, sugar and salt. Blend the cold butter in at the lowest speed and mix until the butter is in pea-size pieces. Combine the buttermilk, maple syrup and eggs and add quickly to the flour-and-butter mixture. Mix until just blended. The dough may be sticky.

Dump the dough out onto a well-floured surface and be sure it is combined. Flour your hands and a rolling pin and roll the dough 3/4 to 1 inch thick. You should see lumps of butter in the dough. Cut into 3-inch rounds with a plain or fluted cutter and place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.

Brush the tops with egg wash. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until the tops are crisp and the insides are done.

To make the glaze, combine the confectioners' sugar, maple syrup and vanilla. When the scones are done, cool for 5 minutes and drizzle each scone with 1 tablespoon of the glaze. I like to sprinkle some uncooked oats on the top, for garnish. The warmer the scones are when you glaze them, the thinner the glaze will be.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Puff Pastry Pinwheels

I've admitted before that I'm not great at appetizers when I'm entertaining but I had fun making these for the St. Patrick's Day party. When you don't have to worry about the main dish, it's fun to be a little more creative. I had extra puff pastry in my freezer from when I made the chicken pot pies and I looked at a couple of recipes for inspiration before putting these together.

The recipe is not exact but should be enough to get you started!

Puff Pastry Pinwheels (makes 3-4 dozen)

1 sheet of puff pastry dough
4 oz goat cheese, room temperature (or warm enough to easily spread)
8-10 slices of hard salami
4-6 slices of proscuitto
1/4 cup of freshly grated parmesan cheese
a small jar of whole grain mustard

Bring puff pastry to room temperature. Then, preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cut one sheet of puff pastry in half and roll each half out until it's a larger rectangle (maybe like 9x12?). One one half, spread the goat cheese and top with a layer of salami. On the other half, top with proscuitto and then sprinkle the proscuitto with the parmesan cheese.

Roll each half up from the long side so you have a long log. With a sharp knife, slice them into 1/2 inch rounds and lay them on a non-stick baking sheet. Bake for 10-15 minutes or until the pastry looks cooked through and is golden brown. Serve with the mustard.

Monday, March 15, 2010

St. Patrick's Day

On Saturday night, my friend Amber hosted her annual St. Patrick's Day party. While I was sitting there eating her amazing corned beef with cabbage, potatoes, and carrots, I commented that I've never made corned beef. The main reason is that I've never had to - Amber has made it for me for the last eleven or twelve years. In fact, the first time I ever had corned beef, she made it. Aside from the food, which is delicious, her parties are always fun with St. Patty's decorations, games, cute place cards, kids, desserts made by friends, drinks (I enjoyed green lemonade this year . . . no Guinness for me).

So, if you don't have an Amber in your life to cook you delicious food for St. Patrick's Day, here is what she does:

Purchase a mid-range (quality and price) corned beef (ours was from Vons this year). The amount will depend on how many people you're cooking for. Add the meat and the juice and spices from the package to a pot and cover with water. Cook on low for at least 3 1/2 hours (Amber cooked hers for 6 hours this year). You can also use a crockpot. Occasionally skim the fat off the top as it's cooking. Take the meat out of the pot to rest and heat the oven to 350 degrees.

Strain the broth that the beef cooked in and add large chunks of carrots, potatoes and onions and simmer until tender. Add sliced cabbage the last few minutes. Drain.

Make a glaze of yellow mustard and brown sugar - I asked Amber the proportions and she says that she does it by look - until it's carmel colored. Trim the fat off the meat, slice, and brush with the glaze. Put it on a baking sheet and cook about 10 minutes. Serve with the vegetables & cabbage and enjoy!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Toddler Food

Anyone have great advice on how to get a 2 1/2 year old to eat? Specifically, more than one meal a day and something nutritious? My daughter goes through these phases where she will barely eat. On these days, she'll still tell me something she wants to eat and I will make it (usually scrambled eggs, quesadilla, yogurt and granola), but then she gets too distracted or something, tells me she's full and won't take a bite. Sometimes, not even the first bite.

Here are some things I've already tried: Reading to her while she eats (works on a good days - not so convenient when we're all trying to have supper together), withholding her milk, juice, water, fruit, etc. until after she's eaten something else, bribing her with dessert (a cookie or a couple of m&ms), not cooking something new at the next meal until she's eaten what I made her at the last meal (sort of gross and not really an incentive for her to eat it).

Usually for breakfast she asks for cereal, takes a few sips of the milk out of bowl without eating any of the cereal and is all done. Yesterday, I came up with this idea and she ate 2 pancakes. I got the cutest cookie cutters for my birthday and I told her she could help me make butterfly pancakes. I just used a pancake mix and sprayed the cookie cutter with nonstick spray. They turned out cute and I got something (okay, not the most nutritious thing) in her belly.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Easy Stuffed Shells

Lately I think it's so weird that I can't find manicotti shells or large shells in some grocery stores (Gelsons, Whole Foods, Ralphs). Manicotti was a favorite homemade dish of mine growing up and I remember asking my mom to make it on my birthday. When I finally found these larger shells (Barilla), I bought a couple of boxes and we've been eating these pretty often lately. It's an easy dinner to make ahead of time and refrigerate before baking or to throw together at the last minute, especially if you use canned sauce, and ricotta cheese usually has an expiration date of a couple months away so you can buy a bunch and keep it in the refrigerator. I think now that I'm pregnant, I'm making up for all the months last year that I didn't eat pasta.

This is a really basic recipe - you can add spinach or other veggies to the filling. I had leftover spicy turkey sausage (browned) from the chili rellenos so I put it in the ricotta cheese mixture this time. You can also use your favorite homemade marinara or meat sauce if you don't want to go the jarred route (I made a killer sauce the other night and will post it soon). Sometimes I drizzle a little pesto over the shells before the rest of the tomato sauce.

Stuffed Shells (serves 4)

1 jar of pasta sauce
1/2 box of large shells
16 oz ricotta cheese
3-4 cups of mozzarella cheese, grated
1 egg
1/2 c. grated parmesan cheese
some seasonings

Cook half the box of shells according to the package directions. Drain. Put a thin layer of sauce on the bottom of an 8x8 pan. Mix together the ricotta, 2 c. of mozzarella cheese, the egg, and the parmesan cheese. Add some seasonings - I usually do red pepper flakes, a little salt, and dried basil. If you want to, this is where you can add spinach, fresh basil, sauteed onion, browned meat, etc.

Individually stuff each shell with 1-2 T of the ricotta mixture and put them on top of the sauce in the pan (I put the stuffing side facing up). Fill the pan with as many shells as you can. Pour more sauce over the shells and top with the rest of the mozzarella cheese. Baked uncovered for 30-45 minutes or until hot, bubbly and golden brown.

*For a full 9x13, you might need more than 1 jar of sauce, you can use the whole box of shells, and probably 3 cups of ricotta cheese.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Chile Relleno Casserole

It sounded like a good idea. Homemade chili rellenos but not individually fried or anything. I liked the stuffing ingredients and although I knew it would take a little bit of time, it was going to be doable. Not so much. I started these last Sunday afternoon while my daughter slept and I was going to whip up the egg mixture and pop them in the oven after church. My husband came in the kitchen at this point:

and asked me what I was doing. "Making a mess and a recipe I'll never, ever make again."

The problem was not Elise's recipe, which I'll link to below. I think it was that I didn't properly char the chiles and I had a real problem getting the skins off and the seeds out without totally demolishing the chile. The idea is to be able to stuff them with filling after roasting them and that part took me a good 45 minutes. I was also trying to be really careful not to make my hands an unbearable, stinging, fiery mess which I did the last time I stuffed chiles but I didn't follow my sister's advice and buy disposable gloves. I was using plastic baggies, trying to not touch them with my fingers, only with forks and knives, and just getting mad.

The outcome was pretty good. I would have quit for sure if I was making a full batch (8 chiles). Here's what they looked like stuffed and ready for the egg mixture (check out the water spots on my dish - we have super hard water):

And, here's the final product. As I served them up to my husband, I told him that I hoped he didn't like them too much because they were a pain in the neck and I was never making them again. He liked them a lot. Maybe Will can make real chile rellenos for us sometime because these won't be repeated soon. Here's the full recipe. I used spicy turkey sausage instead of chorizo and halved it for an 8x8 pan but otherwise followed it exactly.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Lentil Chili

I've been talking about this recipe to friends for awhile but I haven't made it in at least a year (probably more if it hasn't made it to the blog). I make my other lentil soup a lot and this is a little different - heartier, thicker, and different spices. When you're making lentils, you have a plan a little ahead. I always want them to get softer faster but it takes a good hour. Adding the salt and acid at the end helps (don't salt until they're tender and that's why the tomato sauce goes in later). Has anyone had luck with lentils in the slow cooker? I haven't tried it but I bet this recipe would be easy to adapt. The leftovers were even better than the first go around!

Lentil Chili (makes about 8 cups or 4-6 servings)

In a large, heavy bottomed pot saute the following in a tablespoon of olive oil for 5-10 minutes:
1 c. onion, chopped
1 c. celery, chopped
1/2 red bell pepper, chopped
1 garlic clove, minced

Then add:
3 cups water
1 (14 1/2 oz) can diced tomatoes
1 1/2 T chili powder
1/2 tsp. ground cumin
1/4 tsp. ground allspice
3/4 c. dried lentils

Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer for 40 minutes or until lentils are nearly tender. Then, add:
1 c. tomato sauce
1 (15 oz) can corn, drained
1 c. canned kidney beans, rinsed and drained

Stir to mix, cover, and simmer for 10-15 more minutes.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

My belly

This isn't about food - it's about my baby! My friend Nicole gave me that cool countdown calendar and right now it represents the weeks I have left until my due date. Today I felt the baby move for the first time and it hasn't stopped kicking in about 3 hours. I've been wondering if child #2 will be less, um, active and intense than my daughter and based on this morning, I'm guessing not.

I'm supposed to find out next week if it's a boy or a girl so I can stop saying "it." My daughter was modest and sneaky and we couldn't find out for another eleven weeks or so that she was a girl so I'm trying not to get my hopes up too much that this ultrasound will reveal the sex (not the gender - look that one up).

On a food note, I've been craving spicy food, guacamole, and sour citrusy stuff. Remember those mini tabasco bottles in the prize for my giveaway? They're for my purse and frankly, not spicy enough. I also carry decaf tea bags and granola bars these days . . . if anyone snatches my purse, I hope they're hungry!

Monday, March 1, 2010

Chicken Pot Pie

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When it rained again all day Saturday, this seemed like the perfect comfort food. I've never made pot pie before and I thought the ingredients in this recipe looked reasonable. When my brother in law turned down our dinner invitation, my husband's comment was "you really missed out." I have to admit, they turned out pretty great!

The original recipe calls for a whole chicken and making your own stock when you cook it but I took a short cut and bought a rotisserie chicken. It also has the recipe for making your own dough topping but I'm a big fan of puff pastry and used that instead. Just remember to thaw the puff pastry ahead of time! Check out Elise's recipe on Simply Recipes - the first food blog I ever regularly read.

If you don't have big enough ramekins, look around for what else you can use. I have these 2 cup (16oz) pyrex glass storage dishes (with lids) that are oven safe and used those. I only made two but we had a little extra filling (for the little girl) and you can easily double it for 4 or look at Elise's proportions (double and smaller ramekins) for 6. And, here's a bonus: If your husband is 45 minutes later than he said he'd be for dinner, the filling will still be very warm and the crust won't be soggy yet.

Chicken Pot Pie (2 servings)

For the filling:
3 Tbsp unsalted butter
1/2 c. diced onion
1 1/2 carrots, thinly sliced on the diagonal
1 1/2 celery stalks, thinly sliced on the diagonal
1/2 baking potato, diced
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/4 c. chicken stock or broth
3/4 cups milk
1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme leaves
2 T dry sherry
1/3 cup green peas, frozen or fresh
1 1/2 c. cooked chopped chicken
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

For the crust:
1/2 package (1 sheet) frozen puff pastry, thawed
1 egg, whisked with 1 T water

Preheat oven to 400°F. In a large skillet, melt butter on medium heat. Add the onions, carrots, celery and potato, and cook until the onions are translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the flour and cook, stirring, one minute more. Whisk in 1 1/4 cups of the chicken stock. Whisk in the milk. Add the chicken meat, thyme, sherry, peas, salt and pepper and stir well.

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Decrease the heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring often. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. Divide the filling among 2 ramekins, leaving about 1/2 inch of space at the top of the dish. Cut two rounds from the puff pastry, just bigger than your dishes, and cut a 1 inch vent in the top. Put it on the top of the ramekin and use fork tines to press it against the edge. Brush with your egg/water mixture.

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Place the ramekins on a baking sheet (one of mine leaked a little) and bake for 30 minutes or until bubbly and the crust is golden brown. Cool 10 minutes before eating.