Minivan-Friendly Munchies, Part 1

I am now, officially, a ‘soccer mom’. Just a little bit, though–one kid, one practice, one game a week.  But darned if they don’t have that one practice smack in the middle of dinnertime. In this house, you don’t mess with dinner! About the time I started to think about how we’re going to handle this midweek inconvenience, my sister called me looking for inspiration and ideas because she’s looking at more like FOUR nights a week of practices, games and activities! So, big sis, and all you other crazed moms running taxi services….this is for you  ;  )

Fall (Back) in Love with Your Crockpot
Now, I love the idea of a crockpot. Dump it all in and go, then you’ve got dinner waiting when all’s done (or even if you’ve got time for just a quick pit stop at home in between activities). What I could never reconcile, though, was compromising my good-eating sensibilities by pouring in a can of gloppy condensed soup or some high-sodium seasoning packet as most recipes call for. That’s OK here and there, but if I was going to really take advantage of my crock pot then that meant consuming that stuff regularly, and that doesn’t fly when my goal is to eat and enjoy good, whole foods with my family. So I started re-inventing…

What you’ve got to do is take a fresh look at that old friend. The basic concept is combining your meat and/or vegetables with seasoning and some moisture. So…your seasoning doesn’t have to come from a packet. You’ve got spices and dried herbs in your cabinet. You’ve got rich flavored veggies like sweet potatoes and bell peppers in your fridge. You’ve got things like lemon juice and balsamic vinegar and peanut butter that all provide flavor. And, really, that condensed soup was just short-cutting the seasoning and the moisture step. But how hard is it to pour in some low-sodium chicken broth, or some diced tomatoes instead? With just a little effort, you can find recipes to slip into your repertoire that are just as quick and easy, but with the added bonus of knowing you’re eating real ingredients that are nourishing your little sports stars at the same time!

Start by taking a look at some of the crock pot recipes you already make and love and look at how you can replace the processed ingredients with the fresh versions and spices of your own. Another way is to (yikes!) search for some vegetarian crock pot recipes online. Find some where you like the flavors. Hang with me here a minute! These recipes tend to call for natural, healthy ingredients anyway, so that’s a head start to your recipe. Then, if you’d like, go ahead and either add meat to it at the beginning (browning it first and adding a little extra liquid than called for) or; at the very end, turn the crockpot to “high” and slice up some leftover chicken breasts, or steak, and add them in there to heat through. Either way, look for the leanest cuts of meat you can, trimming off visible fat before hand (make up for it with more flavorful ingredients!) and try to add in more veggies wherever you can that pack a punch nutritionally, like tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, sweet potatoes or butternut squash. Fresh spinach can always be stirred in at the very end of the cooking time. And remember, too, crock pots tend to “mellow out” flavors over the day so be sure to keep the quantities of spices a little more aggressive than you might normally do, or add some in towards the end before serving.

Right here on my blog, check out Asian Crock Pot Pork or Turkey Meatloaf with BBQ/Cranberry Sauce (which can be done in the crockpot as well–you can even throw in the sweet potatoes!) for a few ideas.

Presto Chango

I love for things to be fun. Even the simplest things, I’m happy as long as I find a way to make them fun. For instance, putting on really great music, nice and loud, while I clean the house does wonders for me! So playing with flavors and “What if’s” when I’m cooking keeps me from ever getting bored with the weeknight dinner routine.

Take this recipe for a verrrrry simple vegetable “ragu”–a sort of stewed, cooked down mixture of veggies that can be used lots of ways. The basic idea is to dice your veg, in this case yellow onion, orange bell pepper and tomatoes (use “Petite Diced” ones, it’s quick!) and saute them in a little olive oil over a medium-low heat so they cook down and mellow out nicely, for about 20 minutes. Then…use them for an appetizer: a dollop on top of toasted crusty bread spread with cream cheese! Or; make it a meal and toss the mixture with pasta, or serve it as a sauce over some grilled chicken. Get the idea? Be open to what you might use it for and you’ve got lots of new options. But that’s not all….! (just like an infomercial, right?!)

Now, let’s play with flavors and that same easy ragu can go in lots of directions:

–As it’s cooking, sprinkle in some Italian flavors like Basil, Garlic & Oregano (or use my Italian blend from the shop, called Vinnie the Knuckles! http://www.spicetravelerprescott.com )

–Or go Middle Eastern: Add Cinnamon, Smoked Paprika, Curry powder and Mint! Start with a little of each and adjust from there to your taste. In this case, a little cinnamon mixed in the cream cheese for your appetizer would be awesome, then top with mint.

–How about Latin American? Add a touch of Cocoa powder, Cumin and Chili powder, then some fresh Lime zest at the end.

Same three veggies, but…Abracadabra!…it’s something new  :  )

Keep cookin’ and have FUN!

From Wallflower to “Wow!”

After a bit of hiatus–life got in the way!–I’m back. Still cookin’ away and finding inspiration everywhere…

Recently, on a trip back East, I had lunch at this cute little diner in Philadelphia. Hubby had a “Homemade Meatloaf Pressed Sandwich”, which he said was quite good. Little Missy had a grilled cheese. I was all excited to order a salad that just could not have been more up my hippie-leaning alley: Greens & Grains with Roasted Vegetables. My mouth was waiting impatiently for it to arrive.

Well. Let’s just say the concept was awesome, but they just didn’t pull it off well. I’m not usually a ‘returner’, but when the server asked how I was enjoying my salad, I just had to be honest. There was pale iceberg lettuce, beige grains of some kind, mushy over-roasted veggies (I actually couldn’t tell what kind of veggies they used to be!), and it was all tossed together when it arrived, looking very unappetizing. I thought: This idea deserves way better than this.
So when we got back, I gave it a shot. We now have a new star in the lineup at home and I’m happy to say it’s a doozy: good for you and good lookin’, too!  Hope you like it, too:

G  R  E  E  N  S     &      G  R  A  I  N  S
w/   R  O  A  S  T  E  D    V  E  G  E  T  A  B  L  E  S

Start by cooking whatever grains you want to use. You can even cook them the day before. I used lentils and a Trader Joe’s grain mixture that had quinoa, garbanzo beans and cous cous. Anything you like will do: brown rice, wheat berries, whatever, just be sure to cook them according to the package directions and start them ahead so you’re not waiting on them.

Then, preheat the oven to 350° and start cutting up veggies. I was looking for a visual punch so I used red bell peppers, yellow squash, zucchini and mushrooms. Cut them all approx. the same size, around 1″ pieces or slightly larger. Put them on a cookie sheet and season them nicely with olive oil, garlic, salt & pepper. Pop ’em in to roast.
They should only need about 20 minutes–roasted but still a little “al dente”. Too much and you’re back to mushy veggies.

I found it was nice with both the grains and the veggies just warm, not hot, and certainly not refrigerator-cold (if you’ve done them ahead). So while those are cooling down or warming up, depending on what you did, make a quick dressing: 3 parts olive oil to 1 part vinegar (I used balsamic for some sweetness), salt, pepper, garlic and some dried thyme. Whisk it all together. It could be any kind of dressing, but I would keep it light, not a creamy dressing.

Now, you’re done! Fix the plate with a bed of spinach mixed with spring mix–really nice and colorful (and way more nutrition than iceberg lettuce!). Spoon some grains onto the middle. Then spoon some of the veggies across the top. Drizzle a little dressing and there you go!

When you serve it, it’s a feast for your eyes! And–I’m even guilty myself–usually a salad-as-my-dinner doesn’t satisfy me and I’m looking for something more in an hour, but this one is different. The grains do the job and it’s really a wonderful thing :  )  Enjoy!

The Freshiest Fresh Fresh Salad Ever

..is ‘freshiest’ even a word? I don’t know. But I do know this is a fantastic salad that just screams…you guessed it: FRESH! It goes great with anything you’re grilling for a light summer dinner. And leftovers make a great lunch all on their own or with some cold grilled chicken added in. There’s not much to it, mostly beans and grains. But that leaves lots of room for improvisation! Plain rice is fine to use, but this is a great time to investigate using other kinds of grains. Think wheat berries, barley, quinoa. They have various cooking times so adjust accordingly. Just get your grains cooked and cooled off ahead of time and then combine all the ingredients when you’re ready for the salad. This looks so pretty and appetizing when it’s all put together you’ll want to keep it all for yourself, but trust me–show it off at your next BBQ, it’ll be a surprise hit!

“F  R  E  S  H  I  E  S  T”    B  E  A  N    S  A  L  A  D
1 cup of cooked grains, cooled in the fridge.
Use all one kind like wheat berries (crazy good for you!), or I used a mixture I found at Trader Joe’s of brown rice, barley and spelt. Anything goes…
1 can of black beans, rinsed and drained
1 cup of edamame beans, shelled. Use fresh or frozen, just thaw them first.
1 cup chopped tomato
1/2 cup finely chopped red onion
3 T extra virgin olive oil
2 T red wine vinegar
1 (yes, only one this time!) clove of garlic, finely chopped.
1 big handful of fresh herbs, mint & italian parsley, chopped
salt & fresh ground black pepper to taste
Optional: a squeeze of fresh lemon juice and about 1/2 teaspoon of the lemon zest, finely chopped.

HERE’S A SIMPLE VARIATION:
A quick version of a similar salad is this:
1 can of white canneloni beans, rinsed & drained
1 cup of edamame beans, same as above
1 clove of garlic, finely chopped
1 good handful of fresh italian parsley, chopped
Approx. 3T extra virgin olive oil (just enough to moisten everything)
salt & fresh ground black pepper.

Mix all these together. The contrast between the creamy white beans and the fresh edamame, along with the sharp taste of the parsley is just…heavenly  :  )

Summer in a Bowl

I could pretty much eat this dish all summer long, I love it so much! It’s basically an Italian dish somewhat like a dish called “cioppino” and it’s full of “fresh” goodness! You can go fancy with it, adding crab legs, lobster, scallops, etc…Or; you can go on my (budget) side of the tracks and use salmon or tilapia, plus a few clams and shrimp to “special” it up! Either way, it’s one of the fastest, most satisfying meals you’ll ever make. A nice cold glass of white wine–something “crisp” not sweet, along with it really makes this sing. Serves 4 as I’ve written it, but feel free to expand.

S  U  M  M  E  R  T  I  M  E      C  I  O  P  P  I  N  O

Prepare enough fish and/or seafood for each person (cut fillets of fish into servings, wash & prep clams or shrimp, etc.)
8 Roma tomatoes
Olive Oil
4 cloves of garlic, chopped
Red Chili pepper flakes, or fresh chilies, sliced fine
1 zucchini (or yellow squash, or mix the two) sliced into 1/4″ slices
2 good-size glasses of dry white wine (the rest of the bottle is for later!)
Salt & fresh ground pepper
2 good handfuls of mixed FRESH herbs like basil, italian parsley, fennel (in this case I would only use fresh herbs), chopped
1/2 Lemon

First, slice some nice crusty Italian bread into 1/2 inch slices. Place on a cookie sheet and toast them a little in the oven (you could do this in the toaster, or even on the grill, but keep an eye on them!). Set them aside when they’re done.

Then, put a pot of water on to boil (you’re going to blanch some tomatoes) When it boils, pop your Roma tomatoes in for about 1 minute. Drain the water, let them cool enough to touch, then make an “x” in the top. The skin should mostly slide right off. Take the core out and then roughly chop them into fours. They’ll be ready when you need them.

Next, get a nice big saute pan because the whole dish will be done in it and you can even serve in it. Over medium-high heat, drizzle in some olive oil to just cover the bottom of the pan and sauté your garlic for about a minute. Add the red pepper flakes or chili’s, and the zucchini slices. Keep stirring so your garlic doesn’t burn and after another minute pour in the wine. Once that gets going, put in your chopped tomatoes. As they heat up, start pushing down on them with your spoon (this’ll start to make a light sauce).

Now, depending on what seafood you chose, you’ll start to put it in the pan in the order you need it to cook. For instance, a very thick fillet of fish might need an extra couple of minutes before you put shrimp in, which cooks quickly. So, now start putting in your seafood on top of all that’s in the pan. Turn the heat down to medium-low, add a lid and let it simmer for about 5 minutes.
Right at the end of that, add a few fresh lemon slices and your yummy fresh herbs. Once your shellfish are open (like clams or mussels) you’re done. Get rid of any that didn’t open, and season it  all with a little salt, pepper and a squeeze of that lemon.

To serve it I like to bring it right to the table with the lid still on. Once everyone’s ready–give them the show when you take off the lid..it looks SO pretty and SO appetizing you’ll feel like a famous chef (for a minute or so anyway!). Put a piece of toasted bread in the bottom of a bowl and spoon some broth and seafood on top. That’s it!

Mmm…now I’ve done it.  I’ll just have to make this soon myself!

UPDATE: Yep…I didn’t last the week…I made this on Saturday! Delicious, as usual  :  )

Sláinte!

(which mean’s “good health to you” or “Cheers!” in Irish)…
and a Happy St. Pat’s to all you fellow Irish souls out there today :  )

Nothin’ else to do but post my family’s Irish Soda Bread recipe. It goes at least as far back as my Dad’s Aunt Annie. She was a character, for sure…!

I  R  I  S  H     S  O  D  A    B  R  E  A  D
4C flour
1t salt
1t baking soda
4T baking powder
1/4C sugar
1C raisins (softened in water & drained)
1 egg, beaten
2C buttermilk
2T Caraway seeds

Preheat the oven to 350°. Prepare two round cake pans by greasing them with butter and a dusting of flour.

In bowl, using a fork, mix together the flour, salt, baking soda, baking powder and sugar. Combine the Caraway seeds with the raisins you drained and add them to the flour mixture. Add the egg and the buttermilk. Combine it all with a fork until all of the dry ingredients are moistened. Don’t overmix it. Split the dough into the two cake pans, forming a round loaf. (It’s a very sticky dough, so I moisten my hands slightly with water when I do this, it helps it come off and also makes the surface of the bread smoother).

Bake for 40-45 minutes until they’re golden brown. Turn out of the pans immediately to cool.

These are absolutely wonderful sliced with some butter and after a day or so (if there’s any left!), I toast the slices.
The loaves freeze well also.

A New Twist on a Classic

A familiar dish growing up was good ‘ol Stuffed Peppers. It was the 70’s (60’s?) version…green bell peppers, stuffing made from ground beef and white rice, topped with tomato sauce–pretty standard, but mom’s was always pretty tasty.

I don’t know what Hubby’s childhood experience was with them, but I knew it probably wasn’t a favorite, so I decided to give them a “makeover” and reintroduce them as a whole new creation. Gone were the ‘scary’ green peppers (those are his words!) and I tweaked the stuffing to A) be a little more healthful and B) make it  a dish that’s versatile enough to use up all sorts of bits of leftover veggies and such. So, as long as you’ve got some yellow, red or orange peppers (or, honestly, green is just fine if you happen to like them!) you can pull this together almost anytime.

I’ll give you the basic concept, but keep in mind—and this is a good thing–this is really a ‘seat of your pants’ kind of recipe for me. The stuffing can really be anything and any combination. You can keep it all veggie, or you can add very small (1/4″ cubes) of tofu for protein, or make it ground turkey. The trick is adding flavor and keeping it moist. I’ve left the quantities loose because you just need to gauge how much stuffing you’ll make depending on what you’re using, the size of the peppers (why not use those little tiny bells and make this an appetizer??) and how many people you’re feeding.

N  E  W  –  T   O  –   Y  O  U
S  T  U  F  F  E  D     P  E  P  P  E  R  S

First things first–start water boiling to cook some pasta. Any type of small pasta works great, like an orzo, or I used little circles. Get it going and the pasta cooking.

Next, chop very small… fresh garlic, some mushrooms, asparagus etc. The only requirement here is the garlic. Beyond that, use what you like or what you’ve got. Bits of carrot, onion, some of the peppers, spinach, tofu–almost anything, keeping in mind how the flavors might go together. And keep the pieces small so you can stuff your peppers easily.

Sauté all your veggies, etc. in a little olive oil ’til they’re starting to get tender. Season with salt & pepper. Sprinkle about 1 T of flour over the mixture and stir it in. Add 1/2 C of chicken broth (this is for a batch that’ll stuff about 6 pepper halves, adjust accordingly). You’re looking for a moist mixture, not ‘soupy’, but still staying together a little. Drain your pasta well and add it in. Fold in some fresh shaved parmesan–nice little slices about 1/4″ long add little shots of flavor.

While you’re waiting for your veggies to get tender, preheat your oven to 400°‚ then wash and slice your bell peppers in half from the stem down to the bottom (leave the stem on ‘cuz it looks nice, but cut out the seed part inside) As I said, you can use any colors–and actually a combination of a few colors looks great when you serve the whole platter! Drizzle a little olive oil in the bottom of a baking dish and arrange the pepper halves. When your stuffing is ready, fill each little pepper ‘cup’, pressing the stuffing in to fill any spaces and overfilling them so they heap a little. Sprinkle some breadcrumbs over the top (Panko bread crumbs are great if you have them). Cover loosely with foil and bake for 30-40 minutes.

Serve them with a salad on the side, or some fresh, crunchy Italian bread.

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