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Friday, May 31, 2013

Spring II is in the Freezer

There's a new month of meals in my freezer and a smile on my face.

Wednesday - print the menu and review the grocery list  (30 minutes)
Thursday - shop for the food (Sam's Club, Costco, Target) (2 1/2 hours)
Friday - quick trip to Vons for final ingredients; cook (10 minutes; 4 hours)
Friday night - relax with 32 meals labeled, stacked and ready to go!

And so went my week.  As I sit here writing I realize that once again, I spent way more time concerning myself with how and when to cook than I actually did cooking or preparing a month's worth of dinners.

I heard financial wizard, Dave Ramsey, this week talk about his plan to get out of debt and he recommends starting with the smallest bill first to build momentum for paying down the total.  Well, that is just how I approach my once-a-month cooking as well.  I always start with the easiest items to prepare and build endurance for the more difficult recipes as I see the meals filling up my freezer.  Here's what I did today:

Freeze beef and pork roasts, French rolls, hamburger patties, and Jimmy Dean sausage.
Clean the two chickens and re-bag in Ziplocs before freezing.
Attack the ground beef or ground turkey.
          Make the meatloaf and freeze.
          Brown 2 packages of meat, one at a time, for tacos and taco salad.
          Brown one package for pasta sauce.
          Brown one package for Cowboy Casserole.  Then finish the casserole.  Freeze.
Cool meats and then freeze.
Next is chicken.  Boil 6 large breasts for white chili and chicken noodle casserole.
Cut remaining 8 breasts in half.  Put 8 pieces in a Ziploc bag with teriyaki sauce for bar-b-quing.  Use remaining 8 pieces for Chicken in Mushroom Sauce.  Prepare and freeze.
When the chicken that is boiling is cooked, prepare White Chili and Casserole.  Cool and freeze.
Make cheese enchiladas.
Save quiches to make on the day of for best flavor using fresh mushrooms.
Prepare Orange-Cranberry glaze for pork roast and freeze.

The new menu is on display in my kitchen with notes.  In the bottom right corner I put a green dot when the meal is completed and in the freezer or panty.  For meals that will be cooked fresh from scratch, I write "fresh" in red over the menu item.  Of course,  I cross off each meal as we eat it.   If I purchase something pre-packaged during the month I will add it to the end of the menu plan, as I did here with Garlic Chicken.

With summer coming it's a great opportunity to try some long-range planning.  Meats for the bar-b-que freeze well and can marinate while defrosting if you store them in Ziploc bags and pour in the marinade.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Not so Perfect Week

Weeks like this are my least favorite.  They can best be described as being in limbo which is never a comfy spot for planners and control freaks.  Why limbo?  All of the meals on the monthly calendar have been eaten and what is left is an assortment of half-meals.  There are several containers of red sauce, a bag  of meatballs, some turkey burgers, the remnants of a tub of sherbet (who bought that?), hot dogs, and veggies.  I thought we'd have meatball sandwiches but there are no French rolls because I used them for garlic bread for another meal.  There is a tub of raviolli, but one can only eat so much pasta. We are overdone on the turkey burgers from our Memorial Day bar-b-que, and so it goes. 

The upside is that this is the perfect week to try new recipes or to indulge in trying a new prepared meal from the warehouse store.  During our weekly shopping trip we take our coupons to Costco and often buy a prepared meal in the freezer section that is on sale.  I put them in the freezer for weeks such as these. 

I can hardly wait for cooking day tomorrow so that my freezer will be full once again.  I try to avoid these lags between menus, but sometimes it just can't be helped.  It is good to be reminded of why I do what I do and to know that it continues to be a valuable process for our family.  And so, Spring II menu, here I come!

Friday, May 24, 2013

Alfredo Sauce from Scratch

We use a lot of alfredo sauce at our house, and I guess I could count myself lucky that my kids actually like Ragu's Alfredo Sauce.  I do, too.  It's so easy and very inexpensive.  Kept in the pantry next to dried pastas, it makes for a quick meal when "extras" are here at dinner time or to spread over a pizza crust for a white pizza or our favorite Chicken Cordon Bleu Pizza. 

I first had fettecini alfredo prepared by my brother-in-law, and it was addicting.  I later learned the reason was that it was overflowing with garlic.  From then on I became a garlic lover and that is huge for a Dutch girl!  I've tried many times to duplicate that meal, but alas, it cannot be done.  Meals always taste better prepared by another.

In my search for the perfect alfredo recipe, I discovered that another "secret" ingredient is cream cheese and have been experimenting with various combinations ever since.

This summer we will be traveling to Honduras once again.  As I prepared our menu for this work-trip, I chose to include Fettecini Alfredo for it's mild flavor and typically, universal appeal.  Then I realized that I may not find it in jars on shelves in Honduras so I was forced once again to create a recipe from scratch.  After much thought and several batches of pasta, I am very happy with the recipe below.  My family is also happy to have the experimentation come to an end successfully.  :)

Measure and set aside 4 C milk.  I use fat-free.
In a large frying pan, melt 1/2 C butter.

Add 1/4 C flour and stir quickly using a whisk.  Add the milk slowly, stirring constantly.  Allow this to simmer until just before a boil.  The mixture will thicken.

While it is simmering add the following spices:
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. pepper
3/4 tsp. oregano, dried
3/4 tsp. basil, dried, ground
1 1/2 tsp. minced garlic
1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper

Once the mixture has thickened, add the cheese and stir until completely melted and smooth.
8 oz. cream cheese, cubed
1 C parmesan cheese, finely grated

Pour over a fresh-cooked pot of pasta (about 1 lb) and enjoy tonight!

Optional ideas:  Add some steamed veggies for color and variety, or even chunked chicken for extra protein.

This recipe is best made fresh.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

A Variation on Pupusas

I've written before about this favorite food of mine from Honduras, the pupusa, but what I didn't include was the pupusa with meat.  It becomes a heartier entree especially when paired with beans and rice.

Lightly grease the griddle with oil and lay corn tortillas down covering them with cheese.  Top the cheese with meat and cover with a second tortilla.  Cook until lightly browned on both sides.  Cool slightly and enjoy!

Meat filling
Boil 2-3 chicken breasts (about 1 lb.) and shred.
Add 1/4 C taco seasoning mix and 1/2 C water.  Mix well. 

The chicken could be substituted with ground beef or ground turkey or even pork.

Pupusas make a great summer lunch for those home from school especially when served with fresh summer fruits.  They are best made fresh as cheese can be frozen but often crumbles upon defrosting.  That is okay for this recipe or others calling for shredded cheese.


Monday, May 20, 2013

Caramel Apple Cookies, I Dare You Not to Make Them a Meal!

At a recent potluck hosted at our home, a guest brought a container of Caramel Apple Cookies from a local grocery store.  They were completely flat with "mountains" of butterscotch chips, and they were addictingly delicious.  My son and I set out to come up with our own recipe.  After his internet search we learned that the caramel comes from only using brown sugar.  The recipes were as varied as can be from that point on, so I decided to take my favorite cookie recipe and tweak it.  We LOVED these cookies!  Even the family member who is the hardest to please with sweets LOVED these cookies, which are not flat thanks to melting the butter and adding a bit of extra flour.  All of that is compensated for in the recipe.

Caramel Apple Cookies

In a large mixing bowl combine until smooth:

1 C butter completely melted
2 C brown sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla

Add the following dry ingredients and mix well:
3 1/4 C flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt

Gently fold into dough:
1 Granny Smith apple, diced or equivalent of dried
1 12 oz. bag of butterscotch chips

Drop by 1 oz. balls onto ungreased cookie sheet.  Bake at 350 degrees F for 11 minutes.  Cool and enjoy!  These are best fresh.  The fresh apple will cause the cookies to become more moist as time goes on, so enjoy them within a few days.  If that won't happen I'd recommend dried apples.

This recipe yields about 3-4 dozen cookies.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

What Kind of Pasta, Mom?

Kid: "What's for dinner?"
Mom: "Pasta."
Kid: "What kind of pasta?"

Such a conversation is often a veil for their true thought of  "maybe I should eat somewhere else tonight."  So I had to answer carefully if I wanted their company.

Mom: "How about Tortellini with white sauce?"
Kid: "Can you add some red sauce and some cooked spinach just like at Campus by the Sea?"
Mom: "I can do that."
Kid:  "Okay.  When?"
Mom: "Now, I guess."

So into the kitchen I went.  I gathered the supplies: red sauce, spinach, and tortellini from the freezer and white sauce from the pantry. 

Red sauce - into the microwave for defrosting.
A pot of water onto the stove for tortellini and follow package directions.
After the red sauce, defrost and cook the spinach.
Warm the white sauce in a pan on the stove.

Once all the parts are ready serve up this colorful meal by placing a scoop of tortellini in shallow soup bowls.  Ladle white sauce over the pasta followed by a small spoonful of red sauce and top with cooked spinach.

Meanwhile, throw together a quick salad even make some garlic bread if desired.  A quick and tasty meal with great presentation!  And, a very happy kid who stayed home for dinner tonight.  :)

Ham and Corn Chowder in Bread Bowls

Yum, yum, yum! One of my daughters thinks bread bowls are amazing especially when filled with a hot, creamy soup.  I purchase the round loaves of bread, but make my own soup for filling.  Here's my favorite Corn Chowder.  It's doubled in an attempt to feed my entire family.

Put the following into a medium sized sauce pan.

8 slices of ready-to-serve bacon or about a 1/2 C of crumbled bacon
2 cans of Cream of Potato soup
2 cans of milk (use the soup cans to measure this)
2 cans of corn (15oz.)

Add several slices of American cheese (it melts the best) for a potato cheese soup.

Bring soup to an almost-boil.  Cut the top off of the bread loaves.  Scoop out the inside of the bread loaf and fill with soup.  Sprinkle shredded cheese on the top.

To enjoy later:  I assemble this one on the day-of-eating.  You can mark the items in your pantry so that they are saved for this recipe.  Bacon can be frozen in a small container or Ziploc-style bag. 


Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Spring Cleaning and Cilantro Sauce

I did a bit of my own spring cleaning with my magazines.  One of my favorites is Taste of Home.  Sure enough there were dog-eared pages waiting to join my recipe files.  As I pulled them out of the magazine, one recipe in particular caught my eye - Grilled Steaks with Cilantro Sauce. As I read the recipe I discovered it to be one in which the meat is prepared separately from the sauce and so it looked promising for the tastes of my family.

I was also intrigued by the cilantro sauce. You see, when I've gone to Honduras we usually eat one or two of our meals at nicer restaurants and order the Plato Tipico which is served with a platter of bar-b-qued chicken, pork and beef.  On the side are little portion cups of a cilantro-garlic sauce that is absolutely delicious with the meat.  I've wanted to learn how to make it.  This recipe gave me the opportunity to come very close to replicating it.

Now, true confessions.  I did not take the recipe with me to the store, nor did I write a grocery list.  I just happened to be at a market and knew that I needed lots of cilantro.  Had I been more prepared I would have also purchased the fresh parsley and mint also called for in the recipe.  So, I improvised and was very happy with the results.

In a food processor or Vita-Mix, place the following:
1 large bunch of cilantro, without most of the stems
3/4 C dried parsley
1 tsp. Kosher salt
1/2 tsp. pepper
4 1/2 tsp. minced garlic

Puree and then gradually add:
1 1/2 C Olive oil
1/2 C red wine vinegar
2 T lemon juice
1/2 - 3/4 tsp crushed red pepper flakes

Continue processing until blended.  Serve in small portion cups for double-dipping.

Prepare steaks to liking.  I used Kosher salt and pepper and "woked" the meat because I "stole" the meat from another recipe to try this one.  It's probably better to buy some nice steaks.  However, keep the seasonings simple and enjoy the sauce for flavor.

We are enjoying the leftovers with quesadillas, pupusas and omelettes.  Yum!

(Thank you to Lynne Keast for the original recipe.)

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Easy Wine Sauce for Chicken

I was scrolling through my Facebook news feed and someone posted how glad they are that's it's already Friday even though it is technically 6 hours away by the clock.  I was thinking how glad I am that I had a headstart on dinner by pulling something out of my freezer this morning.  I guess both of us are anxious for the next "thing" or maybe a moment to relax and catch up with the fervent pace of life.

Tonight I made a simple Wine Sauce for chicken which I served with a fresh pot of brown rice and steamed veggies.  Thanks to Margie Klimmick for sharing this idea oh so many years ago.  I love the flavor that the wine gives this dish and by reducing it in the pan, the alcohol burns off.

Earlier in the month I'd precooked about 6-8 chicken breasts with lemon pepper and then froze them.  They have defrosted all day.

In a large frying pan, melt one stick of real butter.  Add about 2/3 C white wine or sherry.  Cook until bubbly which is just a few minutes.  Add 1 can of cream of chicken soup and reduce to a simmer.  Stir with a whisk until smooth.  To this sauce add the chicken.  Simmer until chicken is warmed all the way through.

In a separate pot, prepare the rice.
Steam the veggies.

Wahlah!  Dinner is served.  Now we'll see if my guest likes it, too!

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

A Little Spring Cleaning

Spring cleaning feels good.  That is, when it's done.  Everything is back in it's place or maybe a new place has been found.  Things get moved around and generally freshened up.  This year, mine included painting all of the moulding in my house.  After six years it shows some wear and tear.  The same is true for my recipes.

Do you find yourself collecting recipes and stuffing them in a cupboard or drawer or even in the recipe box?  Perhaps there are some recipes you'd rather not make again or a stack of cooking magazines.  Take some time to spring clean your recipe files and books, too.  Here are some of the steps I take to accomplish this task.

Magazines:  I go through each magazine looking for the corners I've turned down.  That's my indicator that I like something on that page.  If there are no corners turned down then I quickly scan the magazine for any recipe or photo that catches my eye.  When I'm done with the magazine I set it aside to recycle by giving away to someone or just the recycle bin.

The Cupboard:  Yes, that's my place to stash recipes.  As I use a new recipe I'll jot a note or two on it and put it in the cupboard to wait for spring cleaning and it's formal addition to my recipe collection.  Gather all of these recipes into a pile along with those from the magazines.

Recipe files:  I use notebooks for most of my recipes although I still have a small recipe box for those written on index/recipe cards.  I bring these out, too, so that I can add to each of them.

By now I usually have quite a stack of recipes on my table.  I go through these and start separating them into piles: desserts, dinners, veggies and appetizers, etc.

I start with the dinner recipes and take a really good look at them.  Is it something my family would like?  How involved is the recipe?  I sort these into seasons of the year when it would best be served.  From here, I incorporate them into a menu from my once-a month cooking recipe book.  I will pull out recipes that didn't go over so well with my family.  In this way, my menus are constantly changing and being refined to the tastes of our family.

If I'm near the end of a month of meals, I may take a week and just try new recipes, also, before adding them to a specific rotation.  This also helps stretch a menu if I don't have a day to cook as early as I need it.

I will throw away recipes that I choose not to try.  Recipes other than dinner entrees get filed into my notebooks which are divided into categories, but that's another blog to write!