Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Something Simple

Today as I prepped the dishes for tomorrow's Thanksgiving feast, I realized that sometimes simple really is better. I am working on a meal to really impress the in-laws. Turkey Roulade with Wild mushroom stuffing, corn and wild rice pudding, Sweet potato souffle and chocolate pecan pie with caramel sauce are all on the menu. While I was doing the prep work, my 9 year old daughter was working diligently on her contribution to the meal - Thanksgiving Hats. She learned to make these on Saturday while doing a Girl Scout project. They are simply marshmallows rolled in melted chocolate and placed on chocolate striped cookies. They are the cutest little treats and so easy to make, but WOW are they good. This is our third batch of them since Saturday. I am sure that these little treats will be the crowd pleaser tomorrow. Sometimes, something simple really steals the show.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Johnny Appleseed Day

September 26th was Johnny Appleseed Day! We decided to celebrate by squeezing as many apples into dinner as we could. We had Pork Medallions with Goat Cheese and Apple Raisin Cinnamon Compote, sweet peas, green salad with apple vinaigrette and Appletinis! The pork dish was amazing, but the Appletinis were way to strong for me. If anyone has a good appletini recipe that doesn't taste like lighter fluid, please let me know!
The pork dish is one of those meals that sounds really hard and is impressive, but really is very easy to make. In a nutshell, you pan sear the pork then set it aside while you simmer the apple and raisins in the same pan with some stock. Once the the apples are cooked and the sauce has thickened, you plate it up and sprinkle the goat cheese on top. One pan dish and easy! I found the recipe on the Foodnetwork website and will definitely be making it again. Let me know if you try it and what you think.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Big Batch Cooking- Part 2

Well after our first adventure in batch cooking, we had several more people want to join in. For this round we prepared about half of the meals beforehand and then gathered to make the rest. Since this only our second time at this we made a few mistakes, but we are learning for next time. The big grocery trip is really a huge undertaking and more than one person should go. Also because there is so much food purchased, everyone needs to throw in a beginning amount of money for the shopping trip. The rest was settled up on cooking day.

Our menu included :

breakfast cookies - a dozen

pancakes - double batch of about 20

ham and cheese croissanwiches - 8 sandwiches

Crunchy Ranch Chicken tenders- 2 lbs

Pepper steak - gallon bag

Sicilian Meat Roll - 2 pounds

Chicken and Spinach stuffed shells - 9*13 pan

Enchilada casserole - 9*13 pan

Chicken Spaghetti - 9*13 pan

Chicken Tetrazinni - 9*13 pan

The total bill was $653, so for 65 dollars each we got ten different item. The breakfast cookies and pancakes covered a couple of meals for all of us and the other meals were split into 2 smaller pans by some of our participants with smaller families. It was easily 13-15 meals for most of us. That is $4-$5 per meal!!!

The breakfast cookies obviously had to be made ahead for the sake of the oven usage. The pancakes were also made ahead on a large griddle, but could have been made that day.

The Ham and cheese croissanwiches were an easy day of assemble. They consisted of thinly sliced ham and swiss cheese on a croissant with a poppy seed mayo dressing. These were a big hit with my family.

The Crunchy Ranch Chicken Tenders were assembled at the batch cooking day. It really helped that our host has double ovens. In the future, this might need to be made ahead of time when we have so many participants, but the assembly is really easy. The chicken was dipped in buttermilk and ranch seasonings then rolled in crushed ranch chips. The chicken was then baked for 18 minutes. When it is time to eat this dish, just heat it in the oven or microwave until hot.

The Pepper Steak was also assembled on the batch cooking day. All the ingredients were put in a gallon freezer bag, so it was a really easy assembly. When it came time to cook, the contents are just put in the crock pot for several hours - super easy.

My personal favorite from this batch session has been the Sicilian Meat Roll. It was super easy to assemble on location and tasted wonderful. Plus, it was South Beach friendly - always a bonus. This recipe is basically seasoned lean ground beef rolled around ham and cheese. The roll is then frozen uncooked. When you are ready to eat, you just thaw and bake. REALLY GOOD batch style recipe.

The last four dishes were basic casseroles. We opted for the lighter version of the ingredients called for to try to make them healthier. A couple of the dishes required that the sauces be reduced on the stove. This took a really long time to bring such a huge pot of sauce up to a boil then reduce to a simmer. Next time- these will be make ahead dishes. Also, the pans were so large that the took a very long time to thaw. We decided that for the next batch session the participants have the option of dividing the meal into 2 smaller pans versus the one large pans.

So lessons learned :

Get $$ from each participant for the big shopping trip
Take 2 people shopping
Meals that require baking or simmering need to cooked beforehand
Casseroles need a 2 day fridge thaw or to be divided into smaller pans

Oh and most important - have wine and snacks for cooking day. It makes it all go smoother.

Super Soups

These are some great lunch time soup recipes! They are always nice when the weather turns a bit chilly.

Chili Verde
1 15oz can pinto beans drained
1 lb of cooked chicken - I usually use a rotisserie chicken for this type of thing
1 4oz can chopped green chilies - I diced them up a bit further in the food processor
1 tsp ground cumin
3/4 tsp dried oregano
pinch of cayenne
3 cups water or chicken broth
1 tsp minced garlic
1 tsp salt
1 cup finely chopped onion

Put all ingredients in a pot and simmer until the beans are soft. Very easy and yummy!

Mexican Chicken Soup

1 cup finely chopped onion
1 jalapeno - seeded and chopped
2 tsp minced garlic
5 cups water or broth
1 1/2 cups cooked diced chicken
2 cup refrigerated fresh salsa

Saute onion and jalapeno until tender. Add garlic and saute another 30 seconds. Add broth, chicken and salsa and simmer for for 15 minutes.

Chicken and Mushroom Soup
1 medium leek, light green and white parts only
4 cups lower sodium chicken broth
1 cup water
½ tsp dried thyme
6 ozs white mushrooms
1 pound boneless skinless chicken breast or cooked chicken
8 oz Brussels sprouts, halved
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Trim leek, keeping root intact. Slice in half lengthwise, submerge in cold water and rinse thoroughly to remove any dirt. Slice into ¼ inch pieces.

Bring broth water and thyme to a low boil in a large saucepan. Add leek and mushrooms: reduce heat and simmer until leek is softened, about 5 minutes. Add chicken and Brussels sprouts. Simmer until chicken is cooked through, about 6 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste and serve hot.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Big Batch Cooking - our adventures Part 1

A couple of months ago a friend decided that we should get together and make a ton of stuff to fill our freezers. She was expecting a baby and REALLY wanted something easy to have for dinner when the new little got here. Little did we know how the idea would grow.

4 of us got together on a Sunday and we each picked one recipe, made 4 batches of it and split the grocery bill 4 ways. After buying in bulk and having a couple extras, ingredients we ended up 6-8 meals for $35. The next month we were up to 10 participants. Cooking day was long and there were a few glitches, but we ended up with around 15 meals for $65. This month we are looking at 12. The planning process for these batch sessions is time consuming and some of the meals are not as healthy than I would like, but they are all better than a bag of burgers and fries on a busy night. Even on crazy evening when we have to jam dinner in between choir and Girl Scouts, I can have a no fuss meal ready for my family. I can't rave enough about how good this has been for us!!! I am really looking forward to having a full freezer during the crazy holiday season. It doesn't hurt at all that buying in bulk is saving us all major $$$ that will come in handy for presents. I am all for anything that gives me more money to feed my Target addiction.

They way we work it is that everyone send me their recipes. I multiply the measurements by the number of participants we have and add up all the similar ingredients so we can buy as much in bulk as possible. Several days before the planned cooking day, I go shopping and buy all the ingredients that we will need. Some recipes have to be made ahead, so the people making those items come and pick up their chunk of ingredients and go home to get to cooking. I try to prechop, slice and saute as much as possible before the cooking day. It really helps to keep things going smoothly if all we have to do is assemble the meals and drink wine on cooking day.

You may be asking yourself "What kind of meals are you guys eating? Are they full of fat and cream sauces?". Well we testing out a variety of meals and some are full of fat and cream. BUT, we are trying to branch away from eating a bunch church social type casseroles. My family tries to stick to a South Beach style diet plan and eat fairly low carb meals. I do have to admit the occasional fatty casserole sure does taste good though!

The first month, we had Spinach and Sausage Quiche, Pasta Fagioli, Sausage Lasagna and Chicken Sopa. Quiches freeze extremely well and are a great quick breakfast item. I would just pull one out of the freezer the night before and pop it in microwave for a fast weekday breakfast. The only problem with a quiche and batch cooking is that they HAVE to be baked before freezing. Otherwise,you would have a really big nasty mess. When you have 10 quiches to bake it can get time consuming, especially with 9 other people around, so from now on the quiches will be a make ahead item.

The Pasta Fagioli made a huge amount of soup because each batch serves 8. I had precooked the beef and vegetables, so all that needed to be done was put it all together in the pot and simmer. The pots were huge and took awhile, but the soup was great and it was well worth it. In the future though, huge batches of soup are a make ahead item. With more than 4 participants it would have been impossible to make the soup in a reasonable amount of time. Don't get me wrong I love my friends and spending time in the kitchen with them is wonderful, but there is a limit. We would all be sick of each other or completely drunk on wine by the time 10 batches of soup came together. So lesson learned, soups are a make ahead item for big groups.

The Sausage Lasagna was amazing and a great batch meal. Next time, I will make sure that the ground sausage is browned beforehand to save time, but other than that it was an ideal meal. The noodles did not have to be boiled, so it was a really easy assemble and tasted wonderful! Definitely a big batch hit.

Chicken Sopa was a our one cream sauce meal, but we did use the reduced fat varieties of cream of mushroom soup and 2% milk cheese. We used store purchased rotisserie chickens for the cooked chicken meat and it was an easy assemble and tasty meal.

So for our first big batch cooking adventure we ended up with 2 quiches, 2 8*8 lasagnas, 2 8*8 pans of Chicken Sopa and 2 gallon freezer bags of soup for $35. So for less and $5 a meal, I didn't have to do anything other than thaw and reheat. Much healthier than takeout and best of all - GOOD - FAST - CHEAP

Low carb Soups

In an effort to try to keep to a relatively low- carb diet, I have been making soups for lunch. A mexican chicken soup recipe that I love has been a favorite for awhile now. It is basically chicken, fresh salsa and chicken broth with some herbs and spices. Very easy to make and really satisfying. Recently I tried a new recipe though that may recipe my old standby. Chili Verde. It is simple, but full of flavor. It has pinto beans and chicken, so it has alot of fiber and protein to keep you full and green chiles, onions and garlic for lots of flavor. This is definitely a new fav for me and its GOOD - FAST - CHEAP !! At about $5 for a big pot of soup you can't go wrong.

Tonights dinner is going to be Crunchy Ranch chicken tenders with sweet potato fries and peas. It is from a batch cooking session I did with some friends, but more on that later. Happy cooking!

Monday-Pork Night

When planning out the meals for my family, I usually try to plan a month at a time. It really makes sticking to budget easier and helps with the never ending question of " What's for Dinner?" . I figure Monday is pork day, Tuesday is chicken, Wednesday is beef, Thursday's I try to do seafood or vegetarian, Friday is soup night and the weekends are just a mess. I REALLY need to get better on planning our weekend meals. That is where we blow our budgets ( and diets) and eat out or grab something fast.

So, last night was pork night. I am almost embarrassed to post this because it was so easy and feels like a "cheat". At the beginning of the month, I went to the local food warehouse and picked up some pork tenderloins. There were 4 loins in the bags for about $14 and that will make 4 meals for my family of 5. When I got home I divided up the package of loins into 4 freezer bags and put a different marinade in with each loin. Then I just had to grab a bag on Sunday night, thaw the meat and throw it all into a pan.

Last nights meal was a pork tenderloin marinated in Weber Grillers White Wine and Herb marinade. Normally I don't go for the seasoning packets, but this one was really good. You just add water and olive oil and pour it over the meat. I quickly seared the tenderloin on the stove top and then put it in the oven for 20 minutes on 350. I served it with steamed fresh green beans tossed with a little olive oil and crushed garlic and a green salad.
The kids LOVED it, it was finished in less than 30 minutes and it only cost $7 for the entire meal to feed 5. GOOD - FAST - CHEAP - my three criteria for an awesome meal!!! Plus it looked pretty good too. I am working on my plating to make things more appealing to the eye as well as the belly. Let me know what you think.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

It begins

Starting a blog is always a weird and awkward thing to do, so I guess I will just get started. I love to cook. I cook for my family, my friends, pretty much anyone that will eat what I put down near them. Sometimes what I make is really good and occasionally it will make my kids gag. On this blog I plan to chronicle and review my adventures as a busy cooking mom. Hopefully someone will enjoy reading it!