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March 2015
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A Change In Perspective

Sometimes that’s all it takes.

My son Zander is very slowly emerging from being a picky eater to a gourmand.  If I tell him something is loaded with garlic, he is far more likely to want to eat it than not.  He’s also become somewhat fond of raw onions on things like burgers and subs.  He really likes scallions, now that I think about it.  There’s still plenty he’d rather not eat, and we’re working on a whole lot of cooked vegetable things now that I think about it.

One of the foods that he is not particularly a fan of is a bowl of chili.  He doesn’t care much for beans anyway, but a bowl of chili usually leaves him picking and mostly eating the cornbread served on the side.

Well, last week before heading out for a dance competition weekend, I made a pot of chili for Andy to have while we were gone.  Since I knew Zander would not be excited about a bowl of chili, I changed things up and cooked up a few pans of steak fries, shredded some cheese, and we had chili-cheese fries.  Zander LOVED it and almost cleaned his plate.  Same old chili, but presented in a whole new way got him to eat it as fast as he could.

Fast forward past our weekend, and Andy did not eat the chili over the weekend after all.  This worked out, as I didn’t need to prepare dinner yesterday when we were all exhausted and recovering.  However, I was back at the problem of having a son who would not eat the chili, and if anyone needed the nutrients hiding in that bowl, it was him.  I debated what I was going to serve on the side of that chili when it came to me.  One of Zander’s favorite food groups is pasta.  Sometimes I’ll cook up some macaroni to float in the chili, but I decided this time to serve this chili Cincinnati style.

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A pile of cooked spaghetti, followed by a few ladles of chili and a mountain of shredded cheese, and Zander was in heaven.  He loved dinner last night, and I found yet another way to get that delicious chili into him.  The more I can get him to appreciate it out of the bowl, the closer he will be to eating it when served inside the bowl.   Since my chili is packed with tomatoes, beans, pumpkin and peppers, it’s a nutrient loaded powerhouse.  Getting all of that packed into my children?  Worth a change in perspective.

 

Make Your Own: Seasoning Salt

I may have a bit of an obsession with seasoned salt.  I know you know the stuff- it’s an orange colored salt that you can get from many companies, of which the most popular is probably Lawry’s brand seasoning salt.  It’s just a full shaker bottle of goodness that perks up any meat or fish that is going to be thrown on the grill.  I also really like a bit sprinkled into homemade chicken salad, egg salad, and deviled eggs.  It never really occurred to me to make my own until I saw someone else make their own.  It’s not expensive to purchase, and in fact, I have been known to buy the institutional sized bottle at Sam’s Club for just a few dollars.  If you want to spring for a more expensive version, Penzey’s 4/S salts are also delicious.

But after making my own, I may never go back to buying it again.  Is there a flavor difference?  I don’t think so, in fact, I think my blend is pretty spot on to commercial varieties.  But what is missing is any doubts as to whether or not there might be something unsavory lurking in that bottle of seasoning salt.  I know absolutely every ingredient that went into my seasoning salt.  This is fabulous for anyone dealing with any kind of food allergies or intolerances, because you can simply leave out the offending ingredients.  You can also feel free to play around with the blend.  That paprika in the ingredient list would easily be swapped out for smoked paprika, giving you a smoky version of your seasoning salt.   Like things on the spicy side?  Add a half teaspoon or so of cayenne pepper for a hot version.  Trying to reduce your salt intake?  Use the recommended amount of salt, but double all the other ingredients for a reduced salt variety.  Oh, it’ll taste different, no doubt, but it will still be delicious. Trying to increase your turmeric intake for the health benefits?  Increase that a bit- tasting as you go to make sure you don’t use too much.

The cornstarch added keeps the salt from firming up and becoming a solid mass- I find this is pretty important with homemade spice blends.  If you cannot have cornstarch, you could certainly use arrowroot in it’s place, and I suspect potato starch would work as well.  I don’t think I would go without the starch at all, unless you plan on using your seasoning salt up quickly.

My list of spice blends that I make here at home for myself is growing.  It’s great fun to look in the pantry and see a row of mason jars filled with blends that are just the way I like them, and then come up with clever new uses for them. I will definitely be sharing more soon, along with some ideas that you maybe never thought of.

One note about the salt.  Do not use an iodized salt for this- it will alter the taste dramatically.  I use an iodized sea salt for baking and putting in a shaker, but for everyday cooking, my preferred salt is Alessi brand fine sea salt.  It has a pure salt flavor and dissolves nicely.  That’s what you want to use for this seasoning salt.

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Homemade Seasoning Salt

1/4 cup fine sea salt
1 teaspoon light brown sugar
1 Tablespoon paprika (smoked paprika would be a fabulous alternative)
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon onion powder
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon cornstarch (or arrowroot)

Combine all the ingredients in a small mason jar and shake well to evenly distribute.   This will make about 1/3 cup of seasoning salt.   To store, put in a half-pint mason jar with a tight sealing lid and store in a dark cupboard or pantry.

Pyrex Elimination

I have long been a fan of using glass bake ware in my kitchen.  I have always found it sturdy, it cleans easily no matter how burned on something is, and it’s relatively inexpensive.   Well, last fall we experienced something that caused me to stop using almost all of my Pyrex immediately.  I had been making dinner and set a 9 x 13 dish on my stove after it came out of the oven.   I walked away from the stove to put something in the garbage when the sound of gunfire exploded through our tiny house.  I turned around slowly, the kids leaned around from the living room slowly, and we were all rewarded with the sight of thousands of tiny pieces of Pyrex ALL. OVER. the kitchen.  That pan exploded, my friends. All we could do was stare for a few minutes- how one pan generated so much debris, I’ll never know, but we all realized how much more serious this situation could have been.  Had I still been standing at the stove, or had one of the kids chosen that moment to walk through the kitchen to the bathroom… I don’t think there was enough force to pierce skin deeply, but there surely was enough force to severely damage an eye.

I set my rectangular Pyrex baking dishes aside immediately.  A quick internet search revealed that this is actually a fairly common problem with glass baking dishes.  All it takes is one sudden change in temperature to cause that glass to shatter in an explosive manner.  I’ve read all sorts of stories about how simply taking a dish out of the oven caused one to break, or how one casserole was set on a table in front of an open window, and that was enough of a shock to cause breakage.  I was convinced I did not want to use this bake ware anymore.   We decided to continue using the Pyrex storage dishes that we store leftovers in, and I decided to keep my stack of pie plates for now.  I have ten of those, and it’s going to take a bit of time to seek out the perfect replacement for those.

At roughly the same time, it seemed that every one of my beloved Pampered Chef stoneware pieces also decided to give up the ghost.  One small, round baking dish simply broke into pieces as it sat in the drawer where I store it.  My perfect pizza pan was ruined when I set it on a stove burner that was cooling, but apparently wasn’t cool enough.  That broke into three pieces.  And then one day as I baked a beef roast in my oval roasting pan, we were sitting at the table playing a game when we heard an ominous noise come from the stove.  I didn’t even need to open the oven up- I knew exactly what it was.  Sure enough, the baker was cracked clean in half.  At least it was stoneware, I was able to take the roast and put it on a metal baking sheet to finish it’s cooking.

This all happened in a matter of a few weeks.  I want to say all the Pampered Chef pieces were all between 12 and 14 years old.   It’s been a long time since I ordered stoneware from PC.  Between the Pyrex and the stoneware, I was suddenly in serious need of replacements.   It’s been slow going, because I think I’m finally at the point in life where “something cheap” just isn’t going to cut it.  I’m not just going to reach for a less-than-excellent product because it’s affordable.  Christmas brought me some wonderful replacements from family.  My mom gave me a spectacular steel 9 x 13 pan that works fabulous for cakes, brownies and cinnamon rolls.  It’s a USA pan- which can be found on Amazon.  I’m eagerly looking at getting a few more sizes of that bake ware, as it’s made from a safe material, AND made right here in our country.

Andy also rose to the occasion.  He gave me my first piece of Le Creuset- an enameled stoneware 9 x 13 baking dish that has been absolutely wonderful for every casserole and lasagna I’ve thrown in it.  You’ve seen it in my recent pictures.

It cleans so easily and so far I’m more than pleased with it.  I already knew I wanted some Le Creuset enameled cast iron, but have been surprised at how great the enameled stoneware is.  I definitely wouldn’t mind another piece or two.

But the piece I really popped on today to praise the virtues of is my new pizza stone.  For Christmas I also received a generous gift card to King Arthur Flour, and I went back and forth for several days on what to use that card for.  I love so many of their products, but the fact is that I can actually buy a lot of their flours and baking ingredients locally at a few grocery stores, so I decided I should use the gift card towards my need for new bake ware.   After reading review after review and searching all over the internet, I settled on this gorgeous Emile Henry baking stone.

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First of all, when it arrived, I was completely blown away by the packaging.  It was clear there was care put into the packaging- short of being run over by a dump truck, I don’t think there was ever a danger of this stoneware piece being damaged in transit.   When I opened it up though, I could not believe how heavy and sturdy this stone was.  I had to slide it into the oven right away to see if it would even fit! It did- but barely.  According to the directions, this stone was durable to temperatures beyond what I am capable of- it’s acceptable to use it in a wood-fired pizza oven or over a fire- neither of which I intend to do, but I could.

I really like the raised handles on the sides for getting it in and out of the oven.  Flat pizza stones can be very difficult to slide around because they are so heavy.  The handles make it easy to take it from the oven and move to a cooling rack.

It also happens to make spectacular pizza.  The crust ends up crispy and delightful, and evenly baked all the way across.  This stone is large enough that it makes plenty of pizza for my family in one pan.  I used to have to make two pizzas when making homemade pizza, but this stone makes one massive pizza.

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I have also used it for a few other baked goods.  It worked well for biscuits and calzones, although I had issues with a calzone leaking, and because there is no lip on the stone, the dribbles went right to the bottom of the oven.  It worked very well for a loaf of artisan bread also.

If I have one complaint about this stone it is that the color has changed from use.  Where it was once a vibrant red, it is getting darker and darker the more I use it.  It’s still nice to look at, and the color change is such a minor thing in the grand scheme of things, but still, I liked the bright cherry red.

Overall, I absolutely love it, and am considering Emile Henry for replacing my pie plates.   Emile Henry has dozens of pieces that I’d like to try- the dutch ovens almost captured my gift card use before I found the pizza stone.  My only word of warning would be that this piece is extremely heavy.  Think cast iron heavy.  I know people who have trouble cooking with cast iron because of it’s weight, and to those people I would suggest they avoid the Emile Henry as well.  But other than that, it really seems like it’s durably made and well worth the expense.

Old Favorites

We’ve been revisiting some old favorites in our home this winter.  It’s been really fun pulling out a recipe that I haven’t made in a very long time and seeing what we think of it now.  In many cases, the reason I stopped making certain dishes is because of the kids- if they’re not going to eat something, I’m not likely to make it very often.  I do try hard to please everyone if I can.   It’s been really fun to see how tastes have changed or improved, and there have been times I’ve also added little tweaks to my old recipes that make them even better.

Last weekend I made an old breakfast-for-dinner favorite, Overnight French Toast.  I haven’t made that in ages, and it was just as delicious as I remembered.  Abigail and Andy both helped themselves to multiple servings, but alas, Zander still wasn’t a fan.  Seriously, if I could only get this kid to appreciate eggs and egg dishes… Anyway, it made three of the four of us happy, so that means it will likely not be made very often yet, but it still was fun to revisit.

As I wasn’t feeling well this weekend, dinners were simple affairs- things I could put together early in the day while I had a small amount of energy, then pop in the oven and not think about it again for a while.  One of these dishes was our old favorite Barbecued Kielbasa.  I used to make that dish quite often, as sausage is an inexpensive meat to prepare, and while the kids may not be the biggest fan of beans, I usually could get them to eat a few if they were attached to sausage.  I couldn’t tell you the last time I made this dish though.  Saturday as I tried not to think too hard, I simply grabbed two cups of dried navy beans and got them pre-cooking on the stove.  Then I opened the freezer door and found that I had a nice supply of some sausages from Sam’s Club.  In this case, they are a BBQ and White Cheddar Chicken Sausage that I had gotten on closeout a while back.  Just a touch spicy, I thought the BBQ and cheddar flavors would be awesome in a BBQ bean sauce.

One of the things that I remembered about this dish is that sometimes the onions don’t seem quite cooked through enough, so I decided to get a little radical and precook my onions and garlic.  I didn’t do this for long, but I did saute them in olive oil for just a few minutes until translucent.  I also added two stalks of celery as well. I really wanted to add some grated carrot, but decided in the end to skip that because I thought that might contribute more sweetness the dish didn’t need.

More and more tweaks piled on.  Once the beans were cooked through I put them in a bowl and added my can of diced tomatoes, then I dumped in my lightly cooked vegetables.  I looked at the brown sugar and molasses in the recipe and thought about that for a minute.  Half a cup of sugar PLUS 1/3 a cup of molasses seemed like a lot of sweetener for the quantity of beans in my bowl.  So I only filled my 1/3 cup measure with half that amount of molasses, and then opted for dark brown sugar as my sugar option.  I also did not pack the brown sugar.  I added a pinch of salt and a grind of pepper, and then slid my slices sausages in before stirring the whole mess together and pouring into my baking dish.

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Honestly, had I had cooked beans on hand, this whole thing would have come together in about five minutes time.  Granted, the bean cooking was mostly inattentive cooking time, but just one look at my pan and I suddenly couldn’t wait for dinner time.  I covered it with foil, set it aside and waited for my oven to heat up so I could let the oven work some magic.

Magic, indeed.  It really had been a long time since I made this, and my tweaks just elevated this humble dish in such a delicious way.  It was so good.  I made this on Saturday, and on Monday night Abigail made it a point to tell me that she was still thinking about those delicious beans from Saturday and how she wished there had been leftovers.  That is definitely what I would call high praise!  I’m seriously considering making them again this weekend, though I’ll use a little less sausage, as it would be a side dish for something on the grill.

This was bumped right back up into regular rotation.  With the right quantity of sausage it makes a perfect main dish with a simple veggie or salad on the side.  It also makes a great side dish, and could probably be made without sausage completely if one were so inclined.  In that case, I would probably add a little chopped bell pepper for a different flavor.  Zander still wasn’t a huge fan, but I think I’ll get him swayed to the bean side before I get him to like eggs.  He loved the sausage and ate some of the beans… He’ll come around eventually.

Here is my re-named and updated recipe.  For a vegetarian version, just leave the sausage out- if you use the sausage, just use whatever you have on hand.

Barbecued Sausage and Beans

1 pound sausage, cut into coins
1 15 oz. can diced tomatoes in juice
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 whole medium onion, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons  molasses
4 cups cooked white beans (canned or cooked from dried, if using canned, you’ll need three 15 ounce cans)
salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 350ºF.

In a saute pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat.  Add the onion and celery and cook for two minutes.  Add the garlic and cook for two more minutes.  Remove from heat.

Combine all the ingredients in a mixing  bowl, combine well, and pour into a greased 9 x 13 baking dish. Cover with foil and bake for 1 hour.

This could also be cooked in a slow cooker on low for 4-6 hours.

Thankful For Home Canned Soup

When I decided to break into the world of pressure canning, I was very nervous about doing so.  After canning my salsas, jams and fruits for years, I just couldn’t ignore the appeal of having other kinds of home-canned foods on the shelf, ready to eat.  So after much research, I took the plunge and bought a large pressure canner and taught myself how to use it properly.  The thing with low-acid foods is that you absolutely must, 100% stick to a tried and true, approved recipe for food safety purposes.  That’s the scary part of pressure canning- not the pressure in the pot and danger of explosion, but the fact that if that jar of soup has not been properly prepared, it can be harboring deadly botulism.

But it was totally worth realizing that fear and taking the plunge.  It has been so wonderful having all my homemade stocks on the shelf in the pantry.  I go through a lot of chicken and turkey broth, which are interchangeable, but I also have ham broth and beef broth on hand as well.  It’s SO much better for my family to have my homemade, nutrient rich bone broths on hand vs. the store bought chemical versions.  Now, to be fair, these can certainly be frozen, and I did that just yesterday when I had a vat of turkey stock and not enough time to put the pressure canner to use.  But then you have to plan ahead and thaw said stock before using it.  With shelf-stable jars, they are right there at the ready whenever I need them.

Last year sometime I had purchased some pricey organic whole chickens, and decided I had better make stock from the broth, and then took it a step further and decided this would be the time that I try making my own home-canned chicken soup.  Soup is one of my favorite foods, I could eat it every day for lunch and be very happy, so having my own on the shelf was very appealing.  I’d made bean soup already, but as I canned that in quart jars, it’s not conducive to heating up for a quick lunch.  (Though, it was excellent in the cold winter to pull two quarts off the shelf and have dinner made for the family.)

The trick when canning soups (and any pressure canning) is that fat is the enemy.  Fat harbors air and botulinum spores, and that’s what we need to eliminate as much as possible with home canning.  So I started with my homemade stock, which I let cool so I could skim the fat off the top.  Then it was a simple matter of adding vegetables and already cooked chicken to the stock, along with some salt and dried herbs.  No starch should be added to home-canned soups.  No noodles, no rice, no thickeners, and very light on potatoes if using them.   This was a no-frills basic chicken and vegetable soup.  According to the National Center For Home Preservation, when canning homemade soup, first you fill your jar halfway with soup solids, and then the rest of the way with the liquid.  This ensures that your jar will be able to expel all the air inside during the canning process.

By the way, that National Center For Home Preservation?  Absolutely the perfect resource for home canning and safety.  I took their self-study course and came away feeling so much more confident with my canning abilities.  Plus I got to print out a groovy certificate of completion.   Any recipe on their website you can feel completely secure about using as long as you follow the directions to a tee.

Anyway, I made my chicken soup, and while I’ve enjoyed it here and there, it finally proved it’s value this last week as three of the four of us brought a lovely cold home from our weekend away.   It was pure pleasure to pull a few jars of chicken soup off the shelf, add a handful of noodles (and extra garlic for antiviral properties) and have lunch ready with little effort on my part.  Which was important because I had no effort to give.  No one had to run to the store to pick up a can or two of soup- though I do confess considering for just a moment my favorite restaurant for an amazing bowl of Pho.  It was just so convenient, and so very delicious as well.  Even my soup hater gobbled it up, aware that the nourishment in that bowl was going to do him a world of good.

For my recipe, I followed the recipe in my Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving, which is my Bible when it comes to canning.  It lines up with the soup guidelines at the NCFHP, and is my number one recommendation for anyone wanting to get into home canning.

We’re finally feeling better here, which is perfect as spring arrived over the weekend while I slept, and my garden dreams for this new season are about to come to fruition.   I also have several recipes to share now that I’m back to the land of the living, but I just had to share how wonderful having the home-canned soup on hand was.

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Amazing Chicken Bacon Ranch Pitas

So yesterday’s Ranch Dressing Mix?  I mixed it with some sour cream, mayonnaise and milk and used it as the base for an absolutely delicious chicken salad.

I started with a package of chicken thighs, which I simply baked sprinkled with seasoned salt (homemade- recipe coming) and black pepper.  Once the chicken was cooked through, I let it cool so I could handle it, and then pulled the meat off the bones.

Half a pound of bacon was chopped up and cooked stove-top until crispy.

Then I mixed the chicken with the bacon and added a good portion of my dressing, and then I tossed.

For the pita wrap, I started with some nice fresh pita breads that I bought, added lettuce, cucumbers and sliced cherry tomatoes to the pita, and then piled the chicken salad on that.  I finished the whole thing with a generous sprinkle of Asiago cheese.

It was the Asiago cheese that put these pitas over the edge.  These were wickedly delicious, and one of the easiest meals I’ve made in a long time.

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So good, and tonight I’m experimenting by using leftover Chicken Bacon Salad as a pizza topping…

 

DIY Ranch Dressing Mix

Sometime last fall I placed an order with a website for some cookbooks.  I had a nice coupon to use, found several books I’d like to have and placed my order.  And then I waited.  And waited, and waited.  Finally, a month went by and I finally e-mailed customer service to inquire about my order.  They apologized for not e-mailing me my tracking information and then forwarded me all the shipping info.  According to that, all items had been shipped and delivered… to our old address.  As this had happened weeks before, there was no real recourse other than to file a complaint with Paypal.  I was easily given my money back that I’d paid for the order because it was clear the website was in the wrong in using an old address, versus the one that I’d both updated, and the one I paid through when I used my Paypal account.  I thought that was the end of things, and was just happy to have the funds back in my bank account, though part of me wished I had still gotten the books.

Well, lo and behold, literally MONTHS later, a mysterious package shows up at our door.  The day it showed up happened to be Christmas Eve.  I stared at that box, at the return address, and honestly, I was struck speechless.  I certainly had not place another order with this company.  Could this box actually be holding the cookbooks I’d ordered three months ago and never received?  I tucked the box under the Christmas tree and opened it up Christmas morning with the rest of the gifts.  Indeed, it was my missing books- minus one, as it was no longer available.  It was so fun to go through these cookbooks one by one.  In the end, the company really did the right thing and tried to make things right.  I suspect my e-mails got lost somewhere along the line, and when they were found again, the person in charge decided to send me the books anyway.  I appreciate that, especially since I’d been refunded- this stack of books were now completely free to me.

ANYWAY, long story there to share how I came to be in possession of a cookbook called DIY Pantry by Kresha Faber.  I love making as much as possible from scratch, so this book sounded like a good resource to have on hand.  Some of the things in it don’t make sense for me- homemade butter, for example.  As I don’t have a cow, and cream is pricey, it’s certainly not worth making my own butter when I live in the dairy state and have my choice of excellent local butters all around. But there are some good recipes in this book so far.  The ones I’ve tried have been lovely, and today the recipe I’m sharing is for homemade Ranch Dressing Mix.

I know we’ve all done it- bought a packet of ranch dressing mix to use as a seasoning for something other than dressing.  I’ve seen it used in dips, crumb coatings, meatloaves, salmon patties, and so many other things!  But there are things in that packet that are really not good for you, so making my own seems like a good idea.  Alas, the best Ranch Dressing I’ve ever had is made from fresh herbs in the middle of summer.  I can’t replicate that in a shelf-stable version to be pulled out as needed.  But my own dry mix on hand to do what I want?  That I can do!  Simple dried herbs mixed together and stored in a canning jar can be used to make dressing, dip, or be used anywhere that packet of mix is called for.

The dill called for in this recipe is definitely not traditional to a ranch mix, but I have to tell you that we love the addition.  The batch I made up today I used some dried celery in place of the dill as I discovered I was out, and I’m finding that a lovely addition as well.  Feel free to play with other additions, but the key ingredients are the garlic powder, onion powder, dried parsley and salt and pepper.  Beyond that, whatever tickles your fancy would be a great addition to the mix.

This is a shelf-stable mixture that is very nice to have on hand!

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Ranch Dressing Mix

1/2 cup dried parsley flakes
2 tablespoons garlic powder
2 tablespoons onion powder
2 tablespoons dried dill (or other herb of your choice)
2 teaspoons salt
pinch of freshly ground black pepper

Directions:

Mix ingredients well and store in a sealed container for 6-12 months.  Shake well before each use.

For Ranch Dip: Mix 1 tablespoon of the mix with 1/2 cup mayonnaise and 1/4 cup sour cream.

For Ranch Dressing: Mix 1 tablespoon of the mix with 1/2 cup mayonnaise and 1/3 cup buttermilk.

 

Spinach and Tortellini Skillet Dinner

This past weekend was our first dance competition of the season for our veteran dancers.  Both kids did spectacular with their dances, and we all had a wonderful weekend.  Monday was a different story.  We all were tired, crabby, and two of the three of us felt like we were at the beginning stages of some kind of cold bug.  I suppose when you’re crammed into a theatre with thousands of people for three days straight, the petri dish effect takes place, and it is possible to bring home more than just your trophies and awards.

Anyway, Monday.  We always skip school the Monday after a competition- I just know better than to try and do anything, it’s a free-for-all day for the kids, with the exception of their regularly scheduled dance classes in the evening.  The entire problem with Monday is that I’m tired, and this week I desperately needed to make a grocery run and come up with some dinner ideas.  It sure would have been nice to just pick up a pizza or something, but dance weekends see us eating so poorly that when we come home we need to boost our nutrition for a few days to undo some of the damage we’d done.

One of the blogs I follow on facebook posted a picture yesterday of some tortellini, and that set my wheels turning.  I decided to do a really easy and quick skillet dinner utilizing some frozen tortellini.  It just sounded delicious- even better, I could pair it with a crunchy salad (some much needed vegetables), AND I thought I could get a few handfuls of spinach into the kids bellies if I mixed it with the tortellini.

As I expected, this dish came together so easily.  Here is my cast of characters.

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The only thing missing is the red wine that I added spur of the moment.  Skip the red wine if you are averse, but even though I only added a small splash, I thought it really contributed to the depth of the sauce, without adding that wine taste that my kids would really dislike.  You can see that my package of Italian sausage had five links in it- I ended up using only three, and put the remaining two away to be used for pizza another time.  I also opted to use frozen tortellini, which meant that this wasn’t really a skillet dinner, as I had to use another pot to cook up my tortellini in.  But the bonus there was that then I had some pasta cooking water to also add to my skillet, and I thought that was a great addition as well.  If you choose to use a refrigerated pasta that doesn’t need the boiling in salted water, you’ll need to add a cup of liquid to your skillet for the pasta- either water or a stock will work nicely.

The end result was delicious and everyone enjoyed it topped with either Asiago cheese or a dollop of ricotta.  Even better, because I served this with a salad and garlic bread, I had plenty leftover.  The leftovers will become today’s Italian Sausage and Tortellini soup by adding 1 quart of home-canned tomatoes and 2 cups of chicken stock.  I may also cook up a handful of small white beans as well.  I do love it when a dinner can be tweaked in the smallest way to produce a whole new meal the next day.

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Quick Spinach and Tortellini Skillet Dinner

2 teaspoons olive oil
3 links of Italian sausage, casing removed
1 small to medium onion, sliced
1-3 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons red wine
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 (5 oz) package baby spinach leaves
1 (15 oz) can petite diced tomatoes
1 (15 oz) can tomato sauce
1/2 cup water used to rinse the tomato sauce can
1 pound frozen cheese tortellini cooked according to package directions, with 1/2 cup of the cooking water reserved.
Asiago, Parmesan, Ricotta cheeses for topping

Directions:

In a large skillet over medium heat, add the olive oil and the sausage.  Break up the sausages with a cooking spoon as they cook.   Once the sausage is no longer pink, add the onions to the pan.  Cook for 2 minutes, then add the minced garlic.  Cook and stir for a minute, and then add the dried basil, salt and pepper.  Stir it all around and let the seasonings toast in the pan for just a minute or two, and then add the splash of red wine.  (If omitting the red wine, just use a bit of water or broth.)  Cook for another minute, and then add the whole container of spinach to the pan.

Stir the spinach into the mixure, and keep stirring until it is mostly wilted.  Add the diced tomatoes, tomato sauce, and the bit of water used to rinse out the tomato sauce can.  Stir it all together, turn the heat down to low, and cover the pan.  Cook for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Meanwhile, prepare the tortellini according to the package directions.  Before you drain the tortellini from the cooking water, take out 1/2 cup of the cooking water and set aside.  Drain the tortellini.

Remove the lid and add the tortellini to your tomato/spinach/sausage mixture, along with the 1/2 cup of cooking water.  Taste for seasoning- adding more salt if necessary.  Stir everything together and serve immediately with cheese to top with.

Makes 4-6 servings, depending on appetites.

 

My Big Fat Mexican Lasagna

Friends, this turned out to be the best tasting Mexican Lasagna I’ve ever had.  I have had many over the years- made a few different ones myself, but it always seemed to me that something could have been better.   Well, yesterday’s lasagna started out as a pan of enchiladas.  I have some shredded turkey from the weekend in the fridge and I started thinking about how to combine that with either the corn or flour tortillas I had on hand.  I had a quart jar in the freezer of homemade Texas Enchilada Sauce which had about 3 cups of sauce in it… I had some Colby-Jack cheese on hand… And THEN I found a container of leftover ground beef taco meat- just a cup left, so not enough to do much with.  Rummaging through the fridge I pulled out some cream cheese, various jars of salsa, sour cream, cottage cheese, half a cup of pumpkin puree and some plain tomato sauce.

Then I thought of some pinto beans and put them on to cook, pulled a can of corn from the pantry, added some taco seasoning to my pile, and it was clear I had WAY too many things on hand to just make a pan of enchiladas with.  I suppose I could have made multiple pans of different kinds of enchiladas, but I did only have 3 cups of good enchilada sauce.  So instead I set out to kill multiple birds with one stone.  Honestly, the biggest thing I was excited to accomplish here was using up all these little bits of random leftovers that were at the point of needing to be used or tossed. I started musing about what I would like to layer into my lasagna and started assembling my ingredients.

And while I don’t have a specific recipe in the end here, what I do have is a procedure that you can use yourself sometime when you find you have all these mystery bits of leftovers on hand.

First, the beans.  I had cooked up two cups of dried beans, which amounted to about 5 cups of cooked beans.  I put 3 cups of the pinto beans on a pie plate and mashed them up with a fork.  To this I added my one cup of ground beef taco meat and the 1/2 cup of pumpkin puree.  The seasoned taco meat wasn’t enough to season everything else, so then I added a generous sprinkle of taco seasoning and a bit of salt.  The pumpkin contributed a small bit of sweetness, but it also lightened up the texture of the mashed beans significantly, and in the end, you certainly couldn’t taste that there was pumpkin in that mixture. The beans would be one of my lasagna layers.

Next I looked at my shredded turkey.   I took about 2 cups of the turkey and chopped it up a little more finely than what it was.  I added one can of corn to the turkey, and then added 1/2 cup of sour cream.  Next it needed seasoning, so I used 1/2 a teaspoon of smoked paprika, as well as some salt and pepper.  A splash of salsa finished that mixture up.  In retrospect, I think the smoked paprika was fabulous, but a bit of chipotle would have been even better.  Turkey/Corn mixture was another layer.

Now, with regular lasagna there is always that layer of cheese, and this was going to follow along those lines as well.  I took a block of cream cheese and softened it in the microwave for a minute.  Then I stirred in another 1/2 cup of sour cream, my cottage cheese (about 3/4 of a cup), one egg, and a generous sprinkle of Garlic Pepper, along with a touch of salt.  Creamy white component done.

I shredded up my Colby Jack cheese until I had about 4 cups of shredded cheese, and then I gave some attention to my enchilada sauce.  I wanted it a bit thinner for the lasagna, so I added the 3/4 cup of plain tomato sauce as well as a cup of my homemade salsa.   So here we have the entire cast of characters together and waiting for assembly.

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Other than the dried beans and the can of corn… this pretty much is a fridge full of leftovers, with a few things also pulled from the freezer.   Way too often I find myself forgetting those random bits of things in the fridge, and this is a great way to put them to use!  Because this worked so well, I have made a mental note to actually tuck some of these things into the freezer- like that bit of pumpkin puree and small amount of taco meat.

After going back and forth several times, I finally decided to go with the flour tortillas over the corn tortillas.  I thought the corn would have given a great flavor, but I thought the flour would behave more like lasagna noodles- they would suck up some of the liquids in the lasagna and get all sorts of delicious as it baked up.  I started by lightly rubbing my 9×13 pan with olive oil, and then took one cup of my sauce and spread that around the bottom of the pan as well.  For the tortillas, I placed two side by side in the middle, and then ripped a few tortillas in half to get nice clean edges and fill in the gaps.  Here is what that looks like:

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I did that for two layers of the tortillas.  With the third layer I added a third tortilla to the middle of the pan because there was a little more room to do so.

From there it was a simple matter of layering everything.  I started with half of the bean mixture onto the tortillas-spreading the beans all the way to the edges.  On top of the beans I poured half of my cheese sauce and spread that around as well.  Next came the turkey/corn mixture, followed by a light sprinkling of one cup of the shredded cheese.  On top of that I spread another layer of the red sauce, and then added my  next layer of tortillas.  I repeated those layers in the exact same way.  After the third layer of tortillas had been added, I poured the remainder of the red sauce on, and then sprinkled the top with the remaining two cups of shredded cheese.

I covered the whole thing with non-stick foil and popped it into a 350º oven for an hour.  On the rack below the lasagna I also put in an empty baking sheet to catch drips, since I really filled the pan!  I removed the foil after the first hour and baked it for another 30 minutes.  As anyone knows, a lasagna also needs rest time when it comes out of the oven, so at that point, I took it out, put it on a baking rack to cool, and covered it back up loosely with foil.  I waited 20 minutes before cutting into it.  I probably could have waited a full 30 minutes, but the kids were home from dance and no one wanted to wait anymore.

The lasagna was spectacular.  As I was making it, I found myself wishing I had tomatillos and cilantro on hand- as I would have added a layer of green to the lasagna, but that may have been overkill.  Every bite of this lasagna was spectacular- Andy actually debated going back for thirds, but resisted when I let him know that leftovers were going to be available to him later in the week.

Lesson learned.  Lasagna for me (whether Mexican or Italian) always starts with a trip to the store to get the original ingredients.  Turns out that combining a whole pile of leftovers into one dish is even better.  And it didn’t taste like leftovers, it just lasted like an incredibly cheesy and delicious Mexican Lasagna.

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Pad Thai At Home

I was going through my pictures this morning when I found  this picture and was instantly experiencing a craving.  This was some very delicious Pad Thai, and I have yet to make it again, but now that I’ve found this picture and the recipe that went with it, I will have to remedy that very soon.

The key to making this at home is to prep everything ahead of time.  Have your mise en place ready, because once the chicken is cooked, everything else cooks very quickly and it comes together in no time at all.   As I’m looking at the ingredient list, there are some scary things in it- fish sauce, dried shrimp, Thai chili sauce specifically.  Don’t skip the dried shrimp or the fish sauce.  Oh, they smell something fierce when you open up the package, but the flavor they add to the finished product cannot be replicated any other way.  For the Thai chili sauce, use a hot sauce you like.  In our case we used just a smidge because we were serving this to children.  I recall it could have used more.   You’ll need to make a trip to an ethnic grocery store or a grocery store with a well-stocked Asian aisle, but it will be worth it to have the necessary ingredients.  And then once you have everything on hand, you can make this several times and only need to pick up a few fresh ingredients from time to time.

This recipe is adapted from a recipe for Big Bowl’s Chicken Pad Thai.  The directions in the original recipe were pretty indiscernible, so I took the liberty of adjusting it for the home cook.    The only big change we made, really was to eliminate the peanuts and use cashews instead, due to a peanut allergy in the home.

In addition to having everything chopped, prepped and ready to go ahead of time, read through the recipe ahead of time so you can be thinking ahead.  I’ve put a note in the directions as to where everything comes together very quickly.

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Chicken Pad Thai

1/3 of a package of dried Pad Thai rice noodles
4-6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs (or 2-3 breasts), cut into bite sizes pieces
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sesame oil
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground chili powder (we used Ancho, I believe)
1/2 teaspoon paprika
2 tablespoons Thai chili sauce
2 tablespoons fish sauce 
1 cup peanut oil
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/2 cup thinly sliced scallions
2 tablespoons Thai basil, chopped (regular basil will work, but it does need to be fresh)
2 tablespoons cilantro
1 tablespoon dried shrimp (if the shrimp are whole, you’ll want to crush them and then measure out a tablespoon of the bits)
3 tablespoons chopped roasted peanuts
1 cup fresh bean sprouts
lime wedges for garnish

Directions:

Pour very hot tap water over the rice noodles to cover them.  let sit for 30 minutes.  Drain thoroughly, rinse with cold water and set aside until needed.

Combine the chicken with the cornstarch, salt and sesame oil.

In a small, separate bowl, combine the lime juice, brown sugar, chili powder, paprika, Thai chili sauce and fish sauce.  Set aside.

In a wok (or other large saute pan) heat the 1 cup of peanut oil over medium heat.  When hot, but not smoking, add the chicken. ( If your pan is not large enough to accommodate all the chicken at once, cook half at a time.)  Stir to separate the pieces and cook them evenly.  Once they have changed color and cooked through (4 to 5 minutes) remove from the pan to drain.

Here is where the cooking gets fast and furious.

You need to leave about 3 tablespoons or so of oil in the wok, so carefully use a ladle to remove the excess.  Put it in a measuring cup in case you need to add an extra drizzle as we go.

Add the beaten egg to the hot oil and stir.  It will quickly cook and scramble.  Once cooked through, push the egg to the perimeter of the wok and add the scallions to the hot oil. Give them a quick stir, and then we’re going to add our drained rice noodles.

Add the noodles, and toss them around a few times to incorporate the egg and the scallions.  Next, we’re going to add the chicken back to the pan.  Continue tossing everything around in the pan.  The noodles will change texture and soften- if you need to add a little extra oil, definitely do so here, the noodles should be coated lightly with oil and the chicken, egg and scallion evenly distributed.  This maybe takes 2-3 minutes depending on the size of your pan.  It may take longer if you’ve really filled your pan/wok up.

Once everything is nicely combined and piping hot, add your lime juice/brown sugar/fish sauce mixture to the pan.  Give it a quick toss and pull the pan off the heat.  Add most of the basil and cilantro (leaving a small pinch for garnish), as well as the dried shrimp, peanuts and fresh bean sprouts.  Toss, toss, toss.  Stir everything together well so it is all evenly distributed.

Transfer everything to a serving platter.  Garnish with the reserved basil and cilantro leaves, as well as lime wedges for serving.  This is excellent with a fresh squeeze of lime added to each plate.

 

Cauliflower Will Never Be Potatoes

Every year, after the holiday season the cauliflower recipes start showing up all over facebook.  Everyone is making their dietary changes for the new year, and for some unexplained reason, the no-carb contingency thinks that pretending cauliflower tastes like potatoes is a good thing.  I happen to be a huge fan of cauliflower, but I think it’s time we all admitted that cauliflower will never be the same as potatoes.   A while back I made some cauliflower pancake/fritter like things.  I think they were trying to be like potato pancakes.  It didn’t even come close, and while we ate them, they will not ever be repeated.  I far prefer recipes where cauliflower is allowed to be cauliflower and not used as a stand in for potatoes.

Because when you’re expecting potatoes and you get cauliflower, no one is going to be tricked.

One of my Christmas gifts this year was a new immersion blender, which I wasted no time in using on a pot of  Potato-Leek Soup.   The soup was delicious.  So tasty, and the texture was luxurious- like liquid velvet in a bowl.   Surprise, surprise, because my son who dislikes both soup AND potatoes scarfed down that soup and proclaimed it the best ever.  He LOVED it.  He’s asked for it again in recent weeks and I was only to happy to acquiesce to his request.

It was only a matter of time before I utilized that immersion blender to pulverize other vegetables into creamy versions of themselves in an attempt to get him to like even more vegetables.

Alas, he was not fooled by the cauliflower.   He picked at it, as usual, and said it tasted too much like cauliflower.  I don’t know who was more disappointed, him or me.

But the good news is, if you are not my picky soup hating son, this Creamy Roasted Cauliflower Soup is absolutely delicious.  It does take a few steps with the roasting of the cauliflower and garlic, but other than that, it has very few ingredients, and it was SO much better than the sum of its parts.

It started with the largest cauliflower head I’ve seen at my grocery store.  So creamy white and large, I knew it was going to become a pot of soup.

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I started by cutting up the head of cauliflower into large florets.  Then I tossed that with a light drizzle of olive oil and some salt and pepper, and popped it in the oven to get caramelized and delicious.  I also added three cloves of unpeeled garlic to the baking sheet before putting it in the oven.  Keeping the garlic in its peel prevents it from getting too toasty and bitter.

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While that roasted, I dice an onion and sauteed it in a little more olive oil.  After a few minutes, I added two sprigs of thyme and one small sprig of rosemary to the onions and let them all cook together.

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Finally, I added a bay leaf, the roasted cauliflower, and some chicken broth to my pot.   I let this simmer for about 15-20 minutes or so, and once the cauliflower was soft, I removed the herbs and grabbed my immersion blender.  It blended up so creamy, and the flavor was so delicious! I served it up with shredded cheese and chopped, cooked Canadian bacon on top.

Yes, it tasted like roasted cauliflower, but a decadently creamy version of it.  If you wanted you could certainly add a swirl of cream or sour cream for some added richness, but I really liked it just the way it was- and also preferred the bites without the bacon and cheese.  It just was nice and clean, and a great way to use that cauliflower.  Honestly, as I ate it, I felt that if anything, it needed a fresh herb as a garnish to introduce a bit of freshness.  Of all things, I really think that some fresh celery leaves would have complemented the roasted flavors here in the bowl.  Since I am out of celery, I didn’t have a way to confirm that, but I plan to do so next time.

If you don’t have the fresh thyme and rosemary available, feel free to use dried, but add them with the onions at the beginning of their cooking stages to give them time to release their fragrance into the soup. You want just a small amount of each- maybe 1/4 teaspoon of dried thyme and a good pinch of rosemary.

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Creamy Roasted Cauliflower Soup

1 large head of cauliflower, broken into florets
3 cloves garlic, still in it’s peel
3 teaspoons olive oil, divided
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
2 medium onions, chopped
2 stems of fresh thyme
1 small stem of fresh rosemary
1 bay leaf
5 cups broth (chicken or veggie)
salt and pepper to taste
cheddar cheese, croutons, bacon for garnish

Directions:

Preheat oven to 425ºF.  Put the cauliflower florets in a large bowl, drizzle with half of the olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Spread the cauliflower out on a large rimmed baking sheet.  Add the three whole cloves of garlic (still in their peel).  Pop in the oven and roast for about 30-35 minutes, stirring twice while roasting.   The cauliflower should have a nice golden brown color on the edges when it is roasted enough.

Meanwhile,  add the remaining olive oil to a soup pot over medium-low heat.  Add the onion.  Cook for about five minutes, stirring occasionally.  Add the sprigs of thyme, rosemary, and the bay leaf.  Add a small sprinkle of salt and pepper.  Cook for an additional three minutes.

Remove the garlic cloves from the baking sheet and take the peelings off the garlic.  Add the whole cloves and the cauliflower to the onions.  Add the broth and stir to combine and evenly distribute everything.  Turn up the heat just a bit until you bring the broth to a boil.  Add the lid to the pot and turn it down to a low simmer.  Simmer for about 15 minutes, or until the cauliflower is very tender.

Remove the herb stems and the bay leaf from the pot and discard.   Using your choice of an immersion blender or a stand-alone blender, puree the cauliflower into the broth to the fineness of your choice.  I prefer a smooth soup, so I blended my soup completely with an immersion blender.  If you prefer some chunks in your soup, use a stand-alone blender, removing about half of the cauliflower and broth to the blender and leaving the rest intact.  As always, use extreme caution when blending hot soup, only filling the blender half full, and covering the top well with a thick towel while you blend.

Serve the soup with your choice of toppings.  Some suggestions would be toasted croutons, shredded cheddar cheese, bacon bits, fresh herbs, etc.

Makes about 6 servings.

 

Delicious Pumpkin Muffins with Dried Cranberries

If you are anything like I am, back in November when all the holiday baking items were on sale, you picked up a half dozen or so cans of pumpkin puree to tuck away in the pantry.  I was remembering how a couple of years ago there was actually a shortage of canned pumpkin, and as I like to use pumpkin in baked goods and in my chili, it seemed wise to pick up a few extra cans- especially since they were about half off their original price.

Well, that canned pumpkin has been hiding away ever since.  I usually do add pumpkin to my red chili, but do you know I haven’t made a red chili in a while?  I’ve made a few different (delicious) green chilis, and a white bean chili, but the pumpkin has just been kind of waiting for it’s turn in the chili pot.   So while I do have thoughts of making a red chili sometime soon before warm weather arrives, chilly temperatures this week have also had me desiring to turn on the oven and do some baking.   We’re back hovering around the zero mark here in Wisconsin,  and while this home is far less drafty than the more recent homes we’ve been in, there still is that sense of chill in the air that happens when the temperatures outside get so frigid.

There’s nothing like enticing my children away from their schoolwork via the scent of baking muffins.  It made me smile yesterday when Abigail meandered down from her room and her very last chapter of Algebra to bring a scrap of debris to the garbage- and to find out what that glorious smell was.  Even bacon doesn’t always bring her down with that dreamy look on her face.  But these muffins worked their magic, and as usual, are delicious and the perfect antidote to a cold winter morning.

I always think chopped pecans would be a lovely addition to these muffins- as would a sprinkle of demerara sugar before baking, but they’re just so good as they are that when it comes to extra additions, I just never decide to be bothered with them.

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Pumpkin Muffins with Dried Cranberries

2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup dark brown sugar, packed
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 cup canned unsweetened pumpkin puree
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 cup butter, melted and slightly cooled
1/4 cup buttermilk or yogurt
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup dried cranberries

Directions:

Preheat oven to 400ºF.  Grease or place paper cups in a 12 cup muffin tin.

In a bowl, combine the flour, brown sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, ginger, cloves and nutmeg.  Mix well.

In a separate bowl, beat the canned pumpkin, eggs, butter, buttermilk and vanilla together.  Add the wet mixture to the dry mixture and mix just until combined.  Fold the dried cranberries in.

Divide evenly among the 12 muffin cups- they will be very full.

Bake in preheated oven until a toothpick inserted near the middle comes out clean- 20 to 25 minutes.  Allow to cool 5 minutes in the pan before turning out to a wire rack to cool completely.