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Archive for the ‘For the Kitchen’ Category

cranberry-applesauce

Isn’t it a pretty color?

I don’t remember when I first made this pretty side dish, but it became an instant hit. Sweet and tart, and it makes the kitchen smell so good while it is cooking. It wasn’t long before I was bringing it to Thanksgiving every year, and I make it occasionally in the off-season and have more than once made a huge batch and canned it.

It is a bit labor intensive; there’s lots of standing over the stove and stirring. I tried roasting it in the oven once (which is how I make my regular applesauce when I’m making a big batch for canning) and the results were not nearly as good.

I almost always double, and sometimes triple or quadruple this batch. Because fresh cranberries are often only available in October and/or November, I grab several bags and throw them in the freezer to have on hand all year.

Some people prefer this warm; I will eat it warm, but prefer it cold from the frig.

Cranberry Applesauce

  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 Tbsps. water
  • 4 cups chopped apples
  • 1-1/2 cups fresh or frozen cranberries
  • 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp. ground ginger
  • 1/2 tsp grated lemon peel (I rarely have this, and often just dash in some lemon juice)

In a large saucepan, heat sugar and water over medium heat until sugar is dissolved, stirring occasionally. Stir in apples, cover and cook for 5 minutes, stirring several times. Stir in cranberries; cook and stir for about 8 minutes or until cranberries begin to pop. Cover and cook 5 minutes more or until apples are tender, stirring several times.

Add cinnamon, ginger and lemon peel. Cook and stir about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat; mash until texture reaches desired consistency.

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Anyone who dinks around on Facebook and Pinterest knows that a simple “hack” to make life easier isn’t always as simple as it seems. But I have one you can do with just a twist-tie, and I learned it from my beloved grandfather.

Grandpa with camera

Grandpa Ed with his beloved camera.

Grandpa Ed was a gardener and a dedicated tinkerer. He earned his living fixing air conditioners, furnaces, and other odds and ends. Tinkering extended into every part of his life. He tinkered in the garden, trying new varieties of onions, peppers and other veggies. He tinkered with his camera, earning himself the nickname “Grandpa Flash.” He tinkered in the kitchen, making his own fruit leather, using a bread machine, and tweaking recipes. He tinkered with computers, learning new programs, creating greeting cards, and even writing his and Grandma’s life stories and desktop publishing them with photos.

After he passed away, I somehow inherited his bread machine and his food dehydrator. When they arrived in my home, they had a tiny touch of Grandpa Ed’s brilliant tinkering attached to them. When I went to plug one in for the first time, I found the cord wrapped around the appliance and secured by a twist-tie. Didn’t look like much until I untwisted the tie. After unwinding the cord, I found the twist-tie attached to the plug end of the cord by a simple twist, leaving the ends free to secure the rest of the cord.

plug hack

Keep your twist tie handy by attaching it to your cord.

This touch of genius means you never have to go searching for a new twistie, nor do you have to deal with loose cords flying around in your cabinets every time you pull out an appliance.

plug hack2

Use the tie to secure the plug end to the rest of the cord after wrapping around the appliance.

While I no longer have either of Grandpa’s appliances (sometimes regret getting rid of the bread machine) several of my small appliances, from my blender to my food processor, sport a twist-tie on their plug end.

Today, I added a new tie to a new-to-me appliance. And I thought of Grandpa Ed.

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love my deep freeze. I freeze all sorts of things to have on hand to make cooking and prep work easy. Here are a few of my favorite tips and tricks for making your freezer work like a second pantry.

Chopped bell peppers

Chopped bell peppers ready to be frozen on a cookie sheet. Freezing in this method prevents clumping.

Chop veggies and freeze on cookie sheets. Peppers, onions, sweet potatoes, mushrooms and more can be chopped, frozen on cookie sheets, and then stored in freezer containers in this method. When a recipe calls for 1/2 cup chopped onion or bell pepper, (like Pineapple Chicken Fajitas) you’ve got them ready to go. (Note: these veggies are best used in recipes where they will be cooked, and not left raw. If your recipe calls for raw onion/pepper, buy what you need for the raw portion, and chop up and freeze the rest!)

Freeze sauces, juices, and broths in ice cube trays. Pesto (like for my turkey burgers) freezes great in ice cube trays. Pineapple juice, tomato paste, and chicken broth are also handy to have frozen in 1 or 2 tablespoon measurements. Freeze in ice cube trays, then pop into freezer containers. (Pineapple juice, prune juice, and a few other juices don’t freeze super solid, so a lidded ice cube tray can be nice for these.)

Freeze shredded cheese. I keep shredded cheddar and shredded mozzarella on hand at all times. Then we are ready to go for pasta, pizza, and taco nights.

Rectangular freezer containers

Rectangular freezer containers. You can see the top one labeled with a dry erase marker. It is full of shredded carrot.

Square plastic freezer containers are AMAZING. They use all the space you have, stack and nest well, and prevent crushing. And they are reusable!!! They come in 1-pint, 2-pint, quart, and 4-quart sizes. One pint size is just right for a pound of ground beef, so I buy it in 10 lb. tubes, slice it with a knife and put in a container. They stack neatly in the bottom of my deep freeze.

Label plastic freezer containers with dry erase marker. Yes! It works. No more searching for masking tape and a pen to label things. (I still do that sometimes too.) But for the reusable containers, the dry erase will stay put until you are ready to wash the container.

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stuffing for pineapple chicken fajitas

Pineapple chicken fajitas

In my weekly search for recipes, I ran across this one, in which I had written a note in the margin, “Good. Use more seasoning.”

I encourage you to make notes in your cookbooks. How else are you to know if you’ve already tried a recipe and hated it, or found it good, but not quite to your taste?  I always appreciate finding a frowny face or a “Yum!” next to a recipe I’d forgotten I’d tried. So get over your fear of breaking your teachers’ rule of not writing in your books. It took me years, but I finally did. (Here’s the book that did it.)

Making notes in your cookbooks allows you to rediscover and refashion recipes to your own liking. This fajita recipe is a perfect example. My notes said to use more seasoning than the 2 tablespoons originally indicated, and to use pineapple tidbits instead of chunks.

I was afraid the kids would reject it, the oldest always saying, “I don’t like cooked fruit! I don’t like peppers.”

girl eating fajita

Pineapple chicken fajitas

I made it anyway, and said daughter proclaimed it, “The best dinner ever!” much to my absolute amazement.

So here you go:

The Best Dinner Ever! Pineapple Chicken Fajitas

  • 2 pounds boneless skinless chicken breasts, cut into strips
  • 1 Tbsp. olive oil
  • each medium green, red, and yellow bell peppers, julienned. (I used 1/2 of each because I only had 1.5 pounds chicken, and I chopped finely so my girls would be less likely to notice them.)
  • 1 medium onion, cut into thin wedges (Again, I cut very small.)
  • 5 Tbsps. fajita seasoning (Original recipe called for two tablespoons. My note said to use more seasoning, so I used a whole packet!)
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 2 Tbsps. honey
  • 1 Tbsp. dried parsley flakes
  • 1 tsp. garlic powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 (8-ounce) can pineapple tidbits, drained
  • flour tortillas
  • Optional toppings: shredded lettuce, sour cream, shredded cheddar cheese

In a large nonstick skillet, cook the chicken in oil for 4-5 minutes. Add peppers and onion; cook and stir 4-5 minutes longer. In a bowl, combine the seasoning mix and water; stir in the honey, parsley, garlic powder and salt. Stir into skillet.

Add pineapple. cook and stir for 1-2 minutes or until chicken juices run clear and vegetables are tender. Place chicken mixture in tortillas and fold or roll up, topping with desired toppings.

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Before I start actually sharing my weekly meal plans, I think it is important for everyone to know that I think you should use whatever meal-planning process works for you. This is what works for me, and achieves the goals I have for why I do this.(See Part 1.)

How my planning process works:

  • Have a regular weekly shopping day. For me, it is a day I’m downtown near the grocery store anyway for a kid’s activity. My day changes as needed: during the school year, it was Wednesday; now it is Tuesday because the activity has shifted. But knowing when I’m going tells me when I need to have a list ready.

 

  • The day before I go shopping, I look at the calendar. I’m a consultant with Usborne Books & More, and if I have an evening party, or there is a special activity in the late afternoon/early evening, then I might select a super simple meal (like eggs) or a slow-cooker meal, or a meal that can be prepped ahead and just reheated. Or I might know we’re going out of town and don’t need to cook a meal on a certain day. Or there is a special picnic/potluck for which I need to cook something appropriate.

 

  • Plan one meal (usually supper) for every day a meal is needed during the week. If we’re expected to be home all seven days, I plan seven meals. If we’re only home four, I plan four meals. If I’m inspired, sometimes I’ll plan an extra. They come in handy. 

     

  • Try for variety. For example: Beef one night. Chicken the next. All-in-one casserole or pasta, and/or stand-alone meat with side dishes. Plan side dishes as necessary. (I’m bad at side dishes.)

 

  • Check my list of favorite meals. Thumb through cookbooks and magazine clippings. I usually pick at least one new recipe every one or two weeks. I’m always looking for the next family favorite.

 

  • Write my menu on my frig whiteboard.Dry Erase Calendar

 

  • Make my grocery list. Look at the recipes, then look at what I have in the pantry/frig/freezer. What am I missing? Write it on my ongoing list. Do I want to double something so we have leftovers, or so I can make a freezer meal? Plan appropriately. Then go shopping and buy it all.

That’s it. That’s my planning process in a nutshell.

What I don’t do: strictly stick to eating a specific meal on a certain day. If I plan vanilla pork chops for Wednesday, and then realize I forgot to brine them, I’ll make Thursday’s Sweet Potato Sausage Hash instead. Some meals won’t move because of specific dates. (See Look at the calendar.) The point is, I have ALL the ingredients to make everything on the plan and I don’t have to go shopping again.  Sometimes, we have so many leftovers in the frig we decide we don’t need to cook a day, and I’ve got an extra meal to jump-start the next week’s planning.

And I love it when that happens. 🙂

What do you like about my process? What won’t work for you? How does your process work? I’d love to hear it!

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Since starting this blog, I’ve had a few friends say, “I can’t make a weekly meal plan. I just can’t be that strict, to make X on Monday, and Y on Tuesday.” Guess what, folks? I’m not.

Nope. My weekly meal plan is not about knowing exactly what I’ll make and eat when. It’s about trying to simplify my life a little bit. And it starts with knowing what I want out of making a menu plan.

My Meal Planning Goals

First and foremost, I don’t want to make four trips to the store. Ugh. Grocery shopping with a three-year-old is NOT my favorite part of my life, and now that summer is here, having the seven-year-old along for the ride makes grocery shopping, well, SUCK.  (Example: This week, when the meat counter employee asked if I needed help while I was wrestling with both my kids, I answered that I needed a babysitter.) I want to go to the store with a list of everything I need to get through the week. I want to walk in, find what I need, pay, and get out. I don’t want to go back for things I missed or forgot. This requires a list. It is absolutely mandatory to have a list! And a good grocery list requires a list of meals that I’m making.

I want meals (or at least parts of meals) that my kids won’t complain about. This, right here, is why I HATE menu-planning day. Picky kids make the list of foods I can cook keep dwindling. But I keep making many of them anyway. Tough for them. I refuse to live off of only macaroni and cheese, hot dogs, and the turkey burgers they love so much. So I keep trying new things and tweaking, but I keep a list of favorites so I don’t have to hear whining all the time.

I want leftovers. Two to three meals that make enough leftovers for my husband to take to work for lunch, and if at all possible, leave enough for lunches at home so I only have to really cook at suppertime.

I want meals that take life into account. Is it going to be terribly hot? Maybe not the best day for the oven to be on for an hour or to stand over the stove for 30 minutes. Do we have activities on the calendar that cut into meal prep or actual meal time? Might be time to pull out a slow-cooker or freezer meal. Are we out of town, and don’t have to cook? (WIN!)

I want nutrition. Now, I’m not perfect. We eat boxed macaroni and cheese, hot dogs, and other convenience foods. Sometimes, there are no vegetables on the table at all. And sometimes there are, but my kids won’t touch them.  But I try. And that’s what matters. I figure if I get it right at least part of the time, then I’m doing okay. So planning helps me think ahead and not grab something easy, like fast food.

Parents, hear me: it is okay NOT to be perfect. I wouldn’t touch spinach or salads of any kind when I was a kid. Did my parents fail me by not making me eat it? I don’t think so. They let me come into my own and discover my own likes after I left the nest. Remember that your children have many more than their first 18 years to realize that food can go beyond chicken nuggets. Keep trying, but don’t push too hard. They’ll get there. (At least, we hope.)

And even with my meal-planning, I forget things at the store; I get distracted by children and then forget the eggs and have to go back. Or I *think* I have spaghetti noodles when I actually don’t, or I do but don’t have enough. Or something crazy comes up unexpectedly (a bargain on a new desk for my husband! That we have to go pick up, and also take apart his old desk, put his new desk together…all of which eats into meal prep.) But I try! And that’s what matters. (See a theme here?)

So I ask: What are your menu-planning goals? What can you try that would make your life easier?

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