Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Drunk Green Beans

OK, that's not really their name.

Except that it is for the sake of the recipe.

In my family, from the time I was born until now, these have always just been referred to as "green beans". But I needed a way to differentiate mine from the people who just open a can of green beans, boil them in the can water, and throw in a pat of butter to finish them off. These are on a whole other level. They needed a cool name.

I have no idea where the idea came from, but they became a staple in my family. My very first memory of green beans, and every green bean that my mom or grandmother ever cooked after that was drunk. I always assumed my grandmother brought the idea over with her from England. Maybe she had a friend here in the states cook them that way, and she stole the idea. Maybe she just invented it one day. Maybe my mom came up with the idea. I have no idea. Maybe I should ask.

The drunk part comes from sherry. If you don't know what sherry is, it is wine fortified with brandy. It's fabulous! I adore sherry, especially in cooking. Please go out and get yourself a bottle of GOOD dry sherry. I've seen really good sherry for less than $5 a bottle at liquor outlets. Don't be afraid if all you are ever going to use it for is green beans. It lasts forever in your cabinet or pantry. Just don't use that cooking sherry stuff. Or if you do, don't tell me about it. Just like with wine, if it's not good enough to drink from a glass, you shouldn't cook with it.

As with most of my recipes, this truly is a method. It can truly be a clean-out-the-fridge side dish, or it can be a well planned Thanksgiving dish that will become a tradition in your family for years to come. As for the onions.....I don't care if you use white, yellow, red or green. I don't care if you use Vidalias or pearls. Go fancy and use shallots. Heck, use chives. Just get the onion flavor in there. Typical week nights meals, I use yellow or green since those are what I always have on hand. Holiday meals I usually use shallot. Just cause it sounds fancier.

And of course, (as my best friend in the entire world will be happy to hear), the water chestnuts are optional. Leave them out if you hate them as much as she does. Put them in if you want a unique crunch. Or if you want to make the meal look more complicated that it actually is. ;)

All that really matters is that you get the green beans drunk.

Well drunk, then cook the alcohol out. Unless you want the kids to sleep well!

Drunk Green Beans

2 pounds of green beans, stem removed & snapped (or whole if you like!)
3 strips of bacon
1/2 cup of chopped onion (or scallion, shallot!)
2-3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1 cup mushrooms, thinly sliced
1 can of sliced water chestnuts
2 tbsp of butter or olive oil (optional, you can use the bacon grease!)
1/2 cup of sherry
salt & pepper to taste

Steam the green beans (steaming retains nutrients, you can boil them if you like) 5-6 minutes. You want them completely cooked, as they will continue to cook as you cook everything together. While the beans are steaming, fry your bacon to the crispiness of your liking. Drain bacon well on paper towels.

Here is where you have a decision to make. If you want the bacon flavor absorbed into your mushrooms, use the bacon grease. As heavenly as bacon-soaked mushrooms are, I prefer more caramelization on my mushrooms than you will get if there is any salt in the pan, so saute' mine in a separate pan in a mixture of unsalted butter & olive oil. This takes patience and time, but I cook them slowly over medium heat until they are well caramelized. You can cook the garlic & onions with the mushrooms, or be cooking them in the bacon grease in your other pan (this is my favorite option as it maximizes the flavor of both the onions AND the mushrooms!).

Combine green beans, onions, garlic, mushrooms & water chestnuts in one pan (either the one with the bacon grease or the one with the butter....which ever is larger!). Heat together over medium high heat til everything is hot and coated in the grease/butter. Holding pan off of an open flame, add the sherry. Scrape the pan well to deglaze. Continue to cook until the sherry cooks down. You don't want it completely dry, but you want a thicker sherry/butter/bacon grease sauce that just lightly coats everything. Salt & pepper to taste. Add crumbled bacon. And most importantly......ENJOY!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Harvest Oatmeal

Well, I supposed I should start with (yet again) another apology for slacking on this thing. Life has been incredibly busy. Cooking all these yummy meals takes up what little spare time I have, leaving me zero time to write about it. I know I still owe many of you recipes and I promise to really, really try to get caught up as soon as possible. How's that for open-ended? :)

Oatmeal. It's one of those things that I have a hard time thinking of as good food. My mom is not a fan of oatmeal, so as a kid, oatmeal came out of those little packets. And you added boiling water. As much as I loved those little packets, when I grew up, I still tended to think of oatmeal as a quick & easy breakfast for kids. Good quality, whole-grain oatmeal was an ingredient to make really yummy apple crisp and add a unique texture to muffins. It really wasn't a stand alone breakfast.

I still made it from time to time when I needed a quick, easy, HOT breakfast. However, I always just mimicked my favorite brown sugar-cinnamon flavor from childhood. I'd follow package directions, add a clump of brown sugar, a dash of cinnamon, a pat of butter, and a splash of milk. Stir and eat. Good? Yes. But I still didn't really think of it as a quality breakfast.

Then I had kids. As a baby just starting to eat solids, my oldest got that baby oatmeal and some homemade fruit baby food. Then he got a little older and liked more flavor and texture. So I would make my standard oatmeal and mix it with a little homemade chunky applesauce or some finely diced apples. My thinking: cinnamon-apple is one of the flavors in the little packets that kids love so much. And over time when my family was having oatmeal for breakfast, it became a healthy version of those little packets.....lots of cinnamon, fresh apples and raisins mixed in.

Then one day we walked into a bakery in a suburb of Dallas that we'd never been to. On the breakfast menu was "Swiss Oatmeal". Since I'd never really thought of oatmeal as something fancy that anyone would really order out, I'd always ignored it on the rare occasion I'd actually seen it on a menu. But this sounded different. Along the lines of what had become my standard homemade oatmeal at home, but better. A combination of all my favorites fall goodness, but things that had never really occurred to me to add to my oatmeal at home. It was chalked full of apples, craisins, raisins, and nuts and served.......are you ready for this??.......COLD. That part made me squeem a little bit. Cold oatmeal? Um, not.

But I tried it any way. Everyone in line ahead of us was ordering it and it looked so good. And it was. The granny smith apples were tart. The raisins sweet. The craisins sweet-tart. The nuts crunchy. And the brown sugar, spices, and milk just make it sweet, creamy and warming. Even if it was cold.

Now I knew that I'd never make it ahead of time at home so it would have time to get cold. Who really makes oatmeal the night before, unless you're cooking it all night in a crockpot? But I still decided to make a mock version of it at home, even if it was hot. After all, it really wasn't that much different than what I'd been making for years.

Over time I've created my own version and called it "Harvest Oatmeal". It always involves my favorite fall flavors, even if it isn't exactly the same every time. This oatmeal really is more of a method than a recipe. I don't ever make a special trip to the store to make sure that I have the exact ingredients to recreate the restaurant version. After all, when you have a gala apple at home to use up, are you really going to miss the tartness of the granny smith? Well maybe, but you decide if it's worth running out in the cold.

Harvest Oatmeal

4 servings of prepared oatmeal (make your favorite according to package directions)
1 large granny smith apple, cut into bite-sized pieces
1 pear, cut into bite-sized pieces
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 cup craisins
1/2 cup walnut pieces
3/4 cup dark brown sugar (more or less to taste)
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ginger
1/2 tsp allspice
1/4 tsp cardamon
milk, half & half, heavy cream

Easiest directions ever - stir all ingredients, except the milk (H&H or cream) together in the pot you cooked the oatmeal in. Spoon into dishes. Serve with a splash (or two) of the milk of your choice (I say the creamier the better!!) You can always chill for later if you want to try the restaurant version. :) And remember, use your favorite apple/pear combination (or whatever you have on hand!) and omit anything you don't like.

Monday, May 2, 2011

The whole enchilada!

Enchilada sauce....It's something that almost everyone is guilty of just opening a can or mixing up a packet of spices to use in their "homemade" enchiladas.

Yeah, me too. I always took the short cut. It just always seemed like an "ingredient" you buy at the store to me. After all, the enchiladas are homemade. The sauce doesn't need to be, right?

Then I tried my hand at homemade sauce. I'm not even sure where the inspiration came from. Probably an episode of a cooking a show. Perhaps a recipe I came across on a blog or in a cookbook. Who knows. But I decided it had to be better with fresh ingredients and not dehydrated, powdered, and reconstituted spices and a little preservatives mixed in. Yeah it tastes good.......but, ICK!

I mentioned on FB that I was making my own homemade enchilada sauce, and the requests started pouring in. I apologize that it took this long, but my life went crazy right after that. I was in charge of the school's jog-a-thon, my son was turning 6, Spring cleaning time arrived, and the usual end-of-the-school-year madness started. Not trying to make excuses (yeah, ok, I am), just stating why time for writing is hard to come by.

And as I mentioned in my last blog post, I decided that a series of posts using my homemade stock would be a great idea. That way you've got all the recipes close together. Make the stock, then use the stock & the chicken for some really yummy meals. I also thought that would make it easier to whip out a blog post every day, or at least every other day. Easier said than done.

So in this post, you technically get 2 recipes. Or 20 depending on how you look at it (remember, I'm all for you taking my ideas and substituting ingredients til you come up with your own perfect recipe!). The enchilada sauce recipe can be used for any enchiladas you like. And I'll give you my "sneaky mommy" version of enchiladas you can be proud to serve -- chalked full of veggies and super healthy!

Ancho-Chile Enchilada Sauce

-4 dried ancho chiles (I usually use one entire 1 oz package)
-1/2 cup water
-1 small red onion, chopped
-2 cloves of garlic, chopped
-2 tsp canola or vegetable oil
-2 cups chicken stock (I use my homemade stock)
-1 14.5 oz can fire roasted tomatoes
-1/2 tsp dried oregano
-1 tsp cumin
-1 tsp coriander
-1 tsp smoked paprika
-1 tsp salt
-1 tsp sugar

Reconstitute the ancho chiles in 1/2 cup of water for approximately one hour. Carmelize onion and garlic in oil. Add the reconstituted chiles (reserve water), sugar and spices and saute about 10 minutes longer. Add the water from the chiles and tomatoes to the pan. Allow to cool (or be very careful, adding only small amounts at a time to the blender!) Transfer to blender and blend til smooth. Pour back into pan and add chicken stock. Cook on low until heated through.

Now mind you, don't go looking for authentic enchiladas here. Yes, I know how to make them. And yes, I make them a lot. But, I'm super proud of there cause they deliver authentic taste while giving the kids (and the adults) plenty of veggies. So often with Mexican food (at least in the restaurants) you walk away hardly haven't had any veggies (unless you consider a small glob of guacamole and a little lettuce a serving of veggies!). But these deliver!

Over all, these pack a medium heat punch. I love spicy, but this about as hot as the kids can handle for their actual meal. And as a mom, I have to put their tummies over my taste buds. But with my enchilada sauce, these definitely have that authentic flavor I grew up with in California.

This recipe calls for "mild" chiles. And like I've always said......consider my recipes a method and not bible. You can substitute jalapeños or habaneros for all I care. If you want to go the easy route (and don't mind a few preservatives and occasionally tinned can flavor), feel free to use canned chiles. It's your meal! :) I'll never have my feelings hurt if you change things up, or in this case, omit all the extra veggies so you have something much more authentic. It's all good. And if you make a change and create something fantastic - let me know. I may like your version better.

Chicken (and lots of veggies for the kids!) Enchiladas

-Tortillas (I typically make 8 big enchiladas, but you could always make 10-12 smaller ones)
-1 cooked chicken, shredded (from your homemade stock, baked with Mexican spices, or store bought rotisserie - it's all good!)
-1 package frozen chopped spinach, thawed
-2 red bell peppers
-1/2 cup mild chili peppers (or a can of fire-roasted mild chiles or up the heat if you like!)
-1 small red onion, diced
-2 cloves of garlic, minced
-1 tsp oil
-1 tsp cumin
-1 tsp smoked paprika
-1 tsp coriander
-1 tsp salt
-4-5 grinds fresh cracked black pepper
-1/2 cup cilantro, chopped
-1 batch of ancho-chili sauce (from above)
-1 1/2 lb (or more!) of shredded cheese (of your choice - I prefer 1/2 sharp cheddar and 1/2 pepper jack)

Blister/roast the bell peppers & chiles on the grill. Remove skin and finely chop. Saute' peppers, chiles, onion & garlic in oil for about 10 minutes. Add spinach & spices and cook for another 10 minutes. Add chicken and stir together well.

Spray a 9x13 casserole dish with cooking spray. Put about 3/4 cup of enchilada sauce in the bottom of the dish. Smooth it around to form a thin layer of sauce over the entire dish. Dip 1 tortilla in enchilada sauce (here's where you get nice & messy!). Place about about 1/2 cup of filling and spread it lengthwise in your hand thru the tortilla. Cover with a handful of the shredded cheese. Roll the tortilla over the filling, place in dish seam side down. Repeat until your dish is completely full of enchiladas. Pour remaining sauce over the enchiladas (using a spoon to help get it to go down in between them). Cover the entire dish with shredded cheese.
Bake at 350 for 20-25 minutes, til the cheese is completely melted and the enchiladas are completely warmed through.

Serve with salsa, fresh cilantro, sour cream, guacamole, shredded lettuce, additional sauce, sliced green onions, or anything else your heart desires.

NOTE: I will edit this later with some pictures. I just wanted to type it all out while the measurements & ingredients were fresh in my head and make sure it got posted on Cinco de Mayo :)

Monday, April 11, 2011

Taking stock.....

How often do you use chicken stock? Think about it. You add a 1/2 cup here and there. Maybe a full can from time to time. You've probably even converted to the boxes of stock so you can keep the leftover in your fridge without having to dirty up any tupperware.

Now think about how great your meals come out with a good stock. So much better than when you just use water right? Now imagine if the stock you were using was a lot more flavorful. Chocked full of fresh (preferably organic) veggies that you hand picked. Imagine that chicken stock being cheaper than you can even buy it on sale with a coupon at the store. Imagine being able to use the chicken that simmered away with all those veggies.

Stock is so easy to make, yet so many people I know don't make their own. Why, when it's so easy to just grab a box at the store, right? Believe me, I'm guilty of that too. It's so easy to be out and about and decide that a big pot of soup sounds good. So, you hit the store and buy some stock. Easy. But believe me, anything you make will be so much better with a good, flavorful stock that you made at home.

And the best thing about stock is it's hard to screw up. I know it may seem difficult. And believe me, for the longest time I was certain it would surely taste better if someone else was being paid to make it for me. Or there had to be some magic trick to getting it to turn out right. But I was amazed at how easy it was to make. Literally by the second time I made it, I didn't even need to look up any tips or tricks. It was that simple. Chicken bones. Veggies. Seasoning. Cover it all with water. Cook it til the water doesn't taste like water anymore, but like a really good soup. That's it folks.

I know so many people want me to hand them a recipe for everything. And I promise, at the end of this post, I will. But believe me when I say that once you get the basics down, feel free to change it up as much as you like. There really isn't a veggie you can't put it in it. If you have veggies you want to use up, they'll only add more flavor to the stock. Stock starts with the basic mirepoix (onion, carrots & celery), but the possibilities really are endless.

And I want to present a challenge to each of you. Whether you follow my recipe or someone else's.....make you some stock. Or, fine, take the easy road and go buy yourself some from the store. But have some really good stock on hand. And have yourself a cooked chicken on hand too (a rotisserie chicken from the grocery store will work if you choose not to make my stock). Know why? Because my next few blog posts will be a series on what to do with your yummy homemade (yes, I'm still encouraging you to make you own!) stock. Like -- my enchiladas from the other night. You know that ancho-chile enchilada sauce so many of you have asked me for the recipe? And how does chicken & dumplings sound? Maybe some yummy soups? Many of those recipes I've talked about on facebook that so many of you have asked me for, but I just never got around to typing it out ----- they'll be showing up shortly.

Basic Chicken Stock

1 whole chicken, rinsed
1 large onion, peeled & quartered
4 carrots, cut into 2 inch pieces
4 celery stalks, cut into 2 inch pieces
1 whole bulb of garlic, cloves peeled and smashed
10-12 peppercorns
2 bay leaves
1 tsp of dried thyme
water (amount will vary)

Place all ingredients in a large stock pot or dutch oven. Add enough water to completely cover the chicken & veggies. Bring to a boil on medium-high heat. Turn the heat down to low, and keep at a simmer. Use a stainer to skim the "scum" that rises to the top every 10 minutes or so for the first hour. Cover the pot. Add water as necessary to keep the chicken and veggies covered. Skim any additional scum. Let cook another 2-3 hours.

Strain stock through a mesh strainer into another container. I usually use large tupperware bowls & containers and put the lids on after they are full. Put in fridge overnight. Remove the solidified fat from the surface. Can be stored in the fridge for a couple days or frozen for up to 3 months.

At this point in time I usually carefully measure the stock into freezer bags. I freeze it in 1 cup, 2 cup, and 4 cup portions. That way I have 1 cup if I just need it for a quick pan sauce, 2 cups for making rice, and 4 cups for a big pot of soup.

Let the chicken cool and remove the meat from the bones. You now have a bunch of cooked chicken ready for any recipe!

And other one of my "never waste anything" tricks.......you can save the veggies. I often take the carrots, celery, onions and garlic and put it in a freezer safe tupperware dish. These can be ran through the blender or food processor and added to your next spaghetti sauce, tomato soup, or any other recipe you desire. It's quick and easy flavor and hidden veggies!

And like I said, from there, the possibilities are endless. I often add bell pepper or leeks to my stock. Or anything else I may have on hand that I want to use up. And another trick I like to use for an even richer stock: next time you buy a rotisserie chicken at the store, freeze the carcass. You can use it AND your whole chicken in your pot of stock. All that rotisserie flavor makes your stock even better. And if you ever want to make stock but don't have a whole chicken on hand, you can follow the above recipe using just the carcass instead. Works like a charm.

So there you have it. A simply way to take a been-sitting-on-the-shelf-for-a-really-long-time pantry staple and turn it into a made-by-your-own-two-hands, fresh, healthy freezer staple that you can be proud to add to your next recipe.

And don't forget....stay tuned for several recipes to use up all that great stock!

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

An easy & healthy way to do fish!

In my house, I'm always looking for ways to make my kids healthy food that they love. The healthier the better. The more fruits & veggies I can sneak in the better. And as I've said before, I'm lucky that my kids aren't really picky. I hope that comes from me changing up the menu as much as I do. I take flavors they like and mix it up to where they are happy, but I don't get bored.

And you're always hearing about how we're supposed to eat more fish. But a lot of people think of fish as fried or covered in sauce. Now, while I love me some good ole fashioned English fish 'n chips, I do like to get lots of healthy fish into our diet. And let's face it, the healthiest way to eat fish is to simply grill or bake it......no added oils or sauces. But a lot of people consider that boring.

So I've discovered a way to make a really healthy, really tasty fish dinner that my kids love. One that I can feel really good about serving. And the best thing is this works with any fish you like. However you like to cook it. I prefer salmon or mahi-mahi (I'm not a huge fish eater, but both of those go so good with this meal). And I cook it as simple and healthy as I can......baked at 400 with just a little sea salt & fresh cracked black pepper until the fish is done. And well honestly, I probably cook mine a hair beyond "done" cause to me that kills off any fishy flavor.

And then comes the magic: My two weapons that can kick up just salt & peppered-no oil added-no sauce-having fish. These two secret weapons can turn any fish into an awesome meal that is fresh tasting, easy on the waist, and kid friendly. What more could you ask for?

What are they?

Cilantro-lime rice. Yes, cilantro-lime rice is the stuff at the bottom of your Chipotle burrito. The first time I tasted it I thought it was pure brilliance.......and SO easy. Easy enough that the recipe is in the name. And it takes rice, which a lot of people think of as fill-you-up, stick-to-your-ribs, "heavy" food and transforms it to something light and fresh tasting.

And mango salsa. We're all mango freaks in my family. I actually created this stuff YEARS ago. Long before it was popular. Long before you started seeing it on store shelves everywhere. Long before (at least I ever noticed) it became a popular item on restaurant menus.

Trust me, these two secret weapons can make a fish dish awesome. And easy. It can be a 20 minute meal from start to finish if you're having a really busy day. Or you can make the salsa ahead and give it a chance to get even better (and make it even easier to fix come dinner time!) And if you don't think you like fish......try these two out with grilled chicken breasts. Or shrimp. Then work yourself up to a fish you kinda sorta like. Or trust me on the salmon or mahi-mahi. Just make sure they don't smell fishy at the store!

Cilantro-Lime Rice
4 servings
(I usually double the recipe so I have plenty!)

1 cup basmati rice
Juice of 2 limes
1 tsp butter or oil
4 tbsp chopped cilantro
salt to taste

Melt butter in large skillet (that has a lid) or a dutch oven. Add rice. Coat rice in melted butter and continue to cook over medium-low heat until the rice starts to smell nutty and turn light brown. Add 2 cups of water and about 1 tsp of salt. Stir well and cover. Let simmer on low, 15-20 minutes until the water has been absorbed by the rice. Remove from heat. Add the lime juice and the cilantro. Lightly stir & fluff rice.

Mango Salsa

2 ripe mangos, diced
1 red bell pepper, diced
1/2 cup red onion, diced
1 jalapeño, finely diced
1 cup cilantro, chopped
3 tbsp apple cider vinegar
Juice of 2 limes
4 tbsp honey
1/2 tsp corriander
1/2 tsp cumin
1 tsp smoked paprika
salt & fresh cracked black pepper to taste

Mix all ingredients in a bowl. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use. Note: if you have someone who doesn't like spicy, leave the jalapeño out. Mix all other ingredients in a large bowl. Divide the salsa into two bowls and just add the jalapeño to the other bowl. Then you have mild & medium (you can always add more peppers or hotter peppers if you like a lot of heat!). And to make the salsa even healthier, use unfiltered, organic apple cider vinegar!

There you have it! The perfect (in my opinion!) fish dinner. Especially when you want a light meal in the summer. Serve with a salad or any veggie of your choice and you have a complete meal!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Waste not......

I can spend quite a bit of money on food. Like most people trying to raise a family on one income in this economy, I try to buy everything when it's on sale. But even limited funds don't stop me from buying an expensive cut of meat.....just because it sounds good. I'm a well rounded foodie - expensive or cheap, I make the best of every ingredient.

But truth be known, I am extremely frugal by nature. I hate throwing anything away that can be used. Almost to a fault. I have a hard time throwing ANYTHING away. But I'm the worst when it comes to food. Yes, I throw away the stuff that's gone bad. But I never toss something just because there really isn't enough left in the bottom of the box/bag/jar/what have you. I always assume there is something I could do with it.

The one thing that I really have a hard time throwing away is all the broken bits of cereal at the bottom of the package. You know the stuff that looks like this:

I mean seriously......think of all the "corn flake coated chicken" recipes out there that call for you to put perfectly good cornflakes in a bag and beat them to a pulp with a rolling pin! Surely, there is a use for all those crumbs left in the bottom of the bag, right?

I remember using the broken cornflakes to coat chicken & french fries with my mom as a kid. I remember using various cereal crumbs in muffins & streusel toppings. But it wasn't til one time I had bought a box of shredded wheat with my own money and saw that literally HALF the package was reduced to tiny little crumbs in the bottom of the bag, that I realized how wasteful it would be to throw it away. And no, eating it in a bowl with honey & milk like I do the big shredded wheat was not an option. That is way too mushy for my tastes. :)

So I decided to use those crumbs as the "flour" in some muffins. They were so yummy & healthier than using all-purpose flour. And it made me feel like I wasn't throwing away a lot of money simply because the cereal wasn't useable in it's intended form.

I've made these muffins a variety of ways. My absolute favorite is cranberry orange. Those flavors just go really well with the the texture of the shredded wheat. But feel free to take this recipe and use your own add-in choices (believe me, I've probably made them all from blueberries to blackberries to apple cinnamon to chocolate chip........the possibilities are endless!) I've even made just the base recipe without any "flavor" and served it along side a big bowl of fruit salad in the summer.

And bare with me......I actually planned ahead and took a couple pics. This is my first experiment with prettying up the recipe! I hope to get better & more creative as time goes on!

Cranberry-Orange Shredded Wheat Muffins

1 cup flour
3/4 cup of broken shredded wheat (frosted or not)
1 Tbsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1/2 cup brown sugar (possibly a little less if using frosted shredded wheat)
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla
3/4 cup of milk
1/4 cup applesauce or canola oil
1 cup chopped fresh or frozen cranberries
zest & juice of one orange
1-2 Tbsp sugar

Preheat oven to 375. Mix all ingredients just until moistened. Spoon into muffin cups, about 2/3 full. Sprinkle the top of each muffin with a little sugar (I used my homemade vanilla sugar - recipe to follow!). Bake for 20-25 minutes.

Vanilla Sugar

1 vanilla bean, scraped (or whole if you desire!)
2 cups of sugar

And what better time to include my vanilla sugar recipe than a blog about not wasting anything. Next time you use a vanilla bean for a recipe, don't throw away the bean after you scrape out the seeds. Put it in an airtight container with 2 cups of granulated sugar. Shake the container from time to time. Can be used right away, but is better after a week or so. That simple! I keep it in my spice cabinet and use it in my coffee, cereal, or for sprinkling desserts & muffins. Enjoy!

To make another variety of muffin omit the cranberries, orange juice, and zest. The muffins are great by only using the first 9 ingredients, or you can use your imagination for other varieties. These muffins can get very crumbly, so you may need to adjust the wet ingredients if using whole wheat flour, or adding a lot of wheat germ, oat bran, flax seed, and other healthy stuff.

I hope this recipe inspires you the next time you start to throw away something that can be used in a different way! :)

Monday, March 14, 2011

Changing just one ingredient.....

Sometimes a great recipe is as easy as playing around with a recipe that you already love. Or changing up a new recipe that you saw on a cooking show but didn't like one of the ingredients on the list. Cooking is a fun way to try something that takes your favorite ingredients and makes it great.

Yesterday, my mom was coming over for dinner. I make way too many desserts as it is, but I always make a dessert when I'm having company for Sunday dinner. It completes the meal. I had asked the kids if they had a preference for dessert for Gramma. All 3 wanted cheesecake, which I found funny since it had been a really long time since we'd had cheesecake of any kind.

Well, it was a bit late in the day to make a real cheesecake, and I really wasn't in the mood for a frozen one. So I started thinking about various no-bake cheesecakes that I had made before. And the more I thought about it, the more I started to crave peanut butter pie.

For those of you who don't know what peanut butter pie is --- it's basically peanut butter, cream cheese & cool whip whipped up together and thrown in a graham cracker crust. Of course, there are numerous recipes out there, and you can make it a lot more complicated than that (I usually make my own whipped cream or use Dream Whip instead of cool whip). I rarely eat make peanut butter pie, so I have no idea where the craving came from. But I figured since it is mostly cream cheese, I could call it a "cheesecake" to make the kids happy.

But then I saw the Nutella in the pantry. And I decided that sounded even better. I'm notorious for making up a batch of brownies and icing them with Nutella when I want my chocolate-hazelnut fix. But Nutella is the same consistency as peanut butter. And it is basically the same thing -- only better.

Now, had I had more time I could have made this better, I'm sure. I could have taken the time to make a homemade toasted hazelnut crust (or chocolate graham cracker crust). I could have made my own whipped cream. I could have made it two layered or who knows what else. But by keeping it simple -- taking a very easy recipe that is probably in everybody's family cookbook (or at the very least can be googled to yield 8000 various recipes) - and changing up just one ingredient, I made something great that I could call my own. Maybe another day I will fancy this up and repost. But for now, my intention was to show you how easy it is to make something super simple, super fabulous!

Nutella No-Bake Cheesecake

1 8oz package cream cheese, room temperature
1/2 cup of powdered sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup Nutella, microwaved for about 10 seconds
6oz Cool Whip
1 store bought chocolate pie crust

Whip cream cheese, powdered sugar & vanilla together until smooth. With a spatula, combine cream cheese with the Nutella until well blended. Carefully fold in the cool whip. Pour into pie crust. Freeze for about 2 hours. Slice & enjoy!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Taking the ridiculously simple and kicking it up a notch....

I'm all about REALLY easy. I've been a working mom. I've had one of THOSE days where I wasn't home long enough to take something out of the freezer to thaw, let alone figure out what I wanted to cook. I've had those days where I didn't feel like cooking. I get why so many of you don't cook. Or don't enjoy it. Or can't be bothered. I really do.

One dinner that I was notorious for back before kids (heck, probably even when my oldest was a baby and I was still working full time with an hour and half commute each way to work) was store bought refrigerated tortellini and a jar of sauce. It always tasted good. It was impossible to screw up. Even if the tortellini burst and I bought a different sauce that wasn't quite up to par with the sauce I normally bought, it still tasted good. It was still hearty, filling, and fairly nutritious (doesn't Ragu even claim to give you a full serving of veggies in every serving?)

One of my favorite sauces for pasta is pesto. I LOVE the stuff. There is something ridiculously fabulous about the combination of basil, pine nuts & garlic. I've never come across a store bought brand that wasn't edible, and as long as you don't way too much garlic in it, homemade is fantabulous. And let's face it, some refrigerated/frozen tortellini and some store bought pesto is simple & delicious.

Now, I have made my own tortellini in the past. But for a quick weeknight meal, that ain't happening. So yes, I do buy the refrigerated or frozen ones to help keep me sane. And since nowadays you can even find whole wheat pasta pre-made, it's even better.

I came up with a fantastic homemade pesto, so I don't bother with store bought anymore. If you haven't made your own, you must. It's so easy and SO much better. It's even a much prettier color green than the stuff you buy at the store. Feel free to adjust the amounts to suit your own tastes, but I've received many compliments from this recipe:


2 cups fresh basil leaves (tightly packed)
1/2 cup parmesan cheese (I usually buy the block and just cut off chunks for this)
2-3 garlic cloves (2 large is usually perfect, remember smaller cloves are stronger)
1/3 cup toasted pine nuts (toast in pan or oven until lightly brown)
salt & freshly cracked black pepper to taste
Extra virgin olive oil til the right consistency (usually about 1/3 of a cup)


Allow pine nuts to cool slightly once they are toasted. Pulse pine nuts, garlic & parmesan in food processor until it's the consistency of peanut butter. Add basil, pepper and salt (You may want to skip the salt until you see how salty the end result is. The cheese will add quite a bit of saltiness.) and process until well blended. Stream in olive oil until the pesto is the consistency you desire.

I use this pesto in many dishes. It is great on salmon or chicken. It's really good mixed with cooked penne & roasted chicken. I've mixed it with cream cheese for a dip. I've added it to hummus. The possibilities are endless. And if you omit the cheese, you can make large amounts of this pesto and freeze it in 1 cup servings. Then you always have pesto ready to use. You can either add fresh grated cheese to it after it thaws, or just put lots of fresh grated cheese on your pasta after you mix it with the pesto.

Now you can just add that sauce the the pasta of your choice. Add a grilled chicken breast and a side of veggies and call it a meal. But last night I decided to raise the bar on flavor and nutritional value.

I've always searching for ways to get good veggies into my family without always having a side of veggies on the plate. I'm blessed with kids that aren't really picky and will typically eventually clean their plate. But the veggies are often last to go. Often take some coercing to get into their tummies. And let's face it, when you want dinner to be really quick, you don't always have time to fix them in a way that would wow the masses. Quite often you don't get enough salt on them. Or they are over-boiled. Or something goes horribly wrong. So I love it when I get a great idea of a way to sneak in a veggie, without really affecting the flavor (at least not negatively) or appearance.

I spent a large chunk of the day thinking of flavors that would go well with pesto tortellini. Cause let's face it -- pesto tortellini rocks all on it's own. I've seen numerous times on Food Network where someone makes a pesto that isn't pine nut-basil pesto. I've seen spinach-walnut pestos and arugula pestos. The limits are endless. But I rarely venture into creating a new pesto (or even trying one of their recipes) cause I'm a fanatic for plain ole tried and true pesto. But I figured since chopped spinach is often used in those other pestos and it sort of resembles pesto, it would blend into the dish well to boost the nutritional value.

And I love bacon & onions with my spinach. And with my pasta and my cheese. And the final result was devoured by my children. All 3 kids asked for seconds. And my poor husband, who had to work late, said it was great even after having to warm it up in the microwave. And for an added bonus, I decided to wait to post this recipe until after we warmed up the leftovers for dinner. Yes, this is a meal you will not dread having leftovers of. It is that good. It heats up that good. I rarely cook the same thing very often. I just don't. But this may become one of those recipes that the kids request on a regular basis.

Bacon-Mozzarella-Pesto Tortellini

2 (2.5 serving size) packages of whole-wheat cheese tortellini
Pesto sauce from above
3 slices of bacon, cut into small cubes
1 small yellow onion, diced
1 package of frozen, chopped spinach - thawed
1 cup fresh mozzerella (I used the tiny balls, or you could cut a large piece into cubes)
salt & fresh cracked black pepper to taste

Cook the tortellini according to package directions. Drain well.

In a dutch oven, fry the bacon & onions over medium heat. Once the onions are translucent, add the spinach. Continue to cook until the water from the spinach has cooked out. Add the tortellini and pesto sauce to the pot. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally (gently so you don't break up the tortellini) until the pesto is coating everything evenly. Add the fresh mozzarella, and additional salt & pepper if you desire. Keep on heat until the cheese starts to melt.

I think this dish would have been great with a pinch of red pepper flakes, but I omit it as to not get things too spicy for the kids. But as much as I love my spicy food, I'm such a pesto fanatic, I didn't miss it. :)

It's that simple. So without much effort at all, you have improved upon a simple pasta dish.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Pumpkin Take 2

OK, we've already established that I'm a pumpkin freak. And way back in one of my first posts on this blog we established my love of Yorkshire pudding that I inherited from my grandmother. I discovered a way to combine the two.

I love Dutch babies. They are basically a light, fluffy, baked pancake. They are NOT anything I invented. Sometimes I follow a tried & true Dutch baby recipe because I'm craving their Yorkshire pudding like texture. I've also been known to have my regular pancake batter all mixed up and literally just throw it in the oven so I don't have to stand there flipping pancakes (you know those mornings where you can't even find time for THAT!)

I've been making Dutch babies a lot recently and changing them up each time. Sometimes I throw a couple handfuls of fresh or frozen blackberries or blueberries (or both!) into the pan right before I cook them. I've also mixed applesauce and cinnamon into the batter. Sometimes I make a plain one and then use homemade sauteed cinnamon apples as the "syrup". I've even been known to throw in a few chocolate chips. Once I did a bananas foster Dutch baby. Yeah, all it needed was a scoop of ice cream to make a fabulous dessert! Like with most of my inventions, I just take a recipe that sounds good and make it my own. And as I've said before, I never miss an opportunity to add fruits or veggies to something my kids like to up the nutritional value.

But I have discovered my new favorite breakfast.......PUMPKIN SPICE DUTCH BABIES! Yum. I had opened a big can of pumpkin (yeah, shoot me, I'm out of my stash that I roasted and froze back in the fall!) the day before to make pumpkin spice muffins. I had quite a bit left and didn't want to forget about it, so I was thinking of what else I could do with it for Sunday breakfast. I was craving a Dutch baby, but I really wanted to use up the pumpkin. So I decided to try my hand at a pumpkin one. I still can't believe how incredible it came out!

If you've ever been tempted to have a slice of pumpkin pie for breakfast, but just couldn't bring yourself to do it, this is the perfect breakfast recipe for you!

Pumpkin Spice Dutch Babies

2 eggs
1/2 cup of milk
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup pumpkin puree
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp cinnamon
1 1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp nutmeg (fresh grated preferably!)
1/4 tsp cloves
Pinch of salt
2 tbsp butter
1/4 cup maple syrup


1) Spray oven safe skillet (cast iron or stainless) with cooking spray.

2) Put the butter in skillet. Place pan in oven and preheat to 375.

3) Mix all ingredients together in a blender. Let sit for about 10 minutes while the butter melts and your pan gets good and hot.

4) Remove skillet from oven (careful, it will be HOT!) and pour batter into the pan. Return
skillet to the oven.

5) Bake for 30-35 minutes until a toothpick comes out clean.

6) Remove pan, slice and serve warm.

7) Serve with hot maple syrup (or what I did was pour the maple syrup over the whole thing
before slicing, and let it sit for about 10 minutes before a cut into it.)

Note: This recipe has more flour in it than a traditional dutch baby recipe. I've used less, but I like the consistency that the extra flour and the pumpkin gives it (not to mention I'm feeding 5 mouths that LOVE Dutch Babies!) Feel free to use less flour if you want a more traditional, lighter result.

My only regret is that I didn't think to take pictures! I promise one of these days I'll plan ahead and start taking pics of my food! And maybe even throw in a few of my kids helping! :)


Friday, January 28, 2011

Life, excuses, and bread!

I know, I know. I keep saying I won't slack on this blog. I keep posting statuses on Facebook to discuss what I'm cooking, then fail to share the recipe. That's what happens when you get busy. I keep my phone charging next to the stove. So I can spare a minute to let you know what I'm cooking, while I wait for water to boil or butter to melt or for my daughter to dump a cup of flour into a bowl. I can't always spare the time to come share some heartfelt back story to how or why I came up with the recipe that sounds good in my status, but may have actually end up burnt or lacking salt because I was actually too busy to keep an eye on the food.

So, yes, I'm busy. For those of you who don't know, we just spent the last 2/3 of a year building a brand new house. We moved in a week before Christmas. Let me state for the record, moving into a house the week before Christmas when you LOVE a decorated house and have 3 little kids is a task. It barely leaves time to breathe, let alone find time to share the recipe for the awesome rib roast you pull off for Christmas dinner or the Christmas cookies that surprising turned out really well at an altitude of 7000 feet.

We had enough time to move about 85% of our belongings and get the tree up. Then I spent hours unpacking so I could find the necessities to live life and have a nice Christmas. Once Christmas was over, we had 6 days --- 6 very short, very busy days --- to get everything out of our rent house and get it cleaned up so we could surrender the keys by the 31st. Unaddressed Christmas cards sat on the desk (where they still sit......so yes, if you didn't get a card from me and were expecting one, I haven't forgotten you!!) and my new house got stacked floor to ceiling with boxes that I had no desire to unpack since I had just spent countless hours taping them up. My cooking slacked.......as least the the point where I didn't feel anything I made was special enough to share the recipe. (Of course, now I need to go back and rethink that since in my intro post I told you that one reason I wanted to do this blog was to share all my quick & easy meals for those of you who think you don't have time to cook!)

Then the new year hit. I realized I hadn't actually sat down except to drive between the new house & the rent house, or to eat a meal with my family. My body longed to just sit, but my brain was too sleepy to form coherent sentences. In fact, it was still too sleepy to come up with fancy recipes. School was back in session and it was time to get used to our new schedule. Our schedule that actually allowed me 3 extra hours a day to think about what to cook. And blogging about what I cooked. But more importantly, time to unpack, organize and think about paint colors. Three things I'm still doing and obviously, by the look of my house, not doing enough of. Because those were also 3 hours a day that I could allow myself time to do the stuff that I needed to be doing in my life the last 5 months but didn't have time. Like sit down and do puzzles with my 5 year old. And plan & make healthy after-school snacks instead of grabbing fries in the McD's drive-thru since school doesn't get out til almost 4 and we still had the long car ride back to the rent house. And write......

Yes, I've been cheating on this blog......errrrr....writing something else. A story. No clue if it will become a novel, or a movie, or simply just my random thoughts on paper where I can sit down and re-read them when I'm 80. But hopefully someday I'll have something more than recipes to share with you all. Maybe. We'll see. But that's a tangent I'm not ready to discuss.

Back to food. I've statused (is that a real verb yet? LOL) about my honey-oatmeal-flaxseed bread quite a bit recently. I LOVE fresh bread. And I really love it when I come up with a good bread that is both good broken into pieces and either covered in butter or dipped in a good soup AND also works as a good sandwich bread. And I have found it in this bread.

Several of you (and yes, I still know who each of you are!) have asked for the recipe. I apologize for not immediately taking time to just comment on my status with it, but I knew it would work as a good recipe for this blog.....when I found the time. And hopefully, I will finally get back to blogging regularly! So without further delay.......

Honey-Oatmeal-Flaxseed Bread
(Bread Machine Recipe)

1 1/4 cups lukewarm water
1/2 cup honey
2 tbsp canola oil
2 cups bread flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1 cup oats
1/2 cup wheat germ
3/4 cup whole, dry roasted flax seeds
1 1/2 tsp salt
2 1/4 tsp active dry yeast

Place ingredients in order into your bread machine pan. Back on basic (or regular) setting.

Please note, getting the dough right at this altitude and/or dry climate has proven difficult. I've tried following a few exact recipes and have needed a good 1/2 cup extra liquid. I'm posting this one because I have now had it work out perfectly several times and the quantities are still somewhat close to other recipes I have success with at normal altitudes. Hopefully it works for you. But please remember to check the dough after 5 minutes for consistency. You may need an extra teaspoon of flour or water.