Friday, May 8, 2015

Use-It-Up Vinaigrette

Don't throw that last bit of mustard away!

Sometimes I'm frugal to a fault. I know this. I don't like to throw away still good or even languishing food without giving it a chance. This forces me to be creative but also makes me a little nuts.

But I know this and I'm comfortable with it.

Take mustard, for example. This bottle of grainy mustard cost me $1.

There's about a tablespoon left in the jar and I was about to throw it away. I mean what is that like $0.02 worth of mustard left in there? (Plus a perfectly good squirt bottle.) I just couldn't bring myself to toss it, not when I know a great way to stretch it out into... Salad dressing!

I had a teensy bit of balsamic vinegar and olive oil left and used those up too.

This makes a simple dressing with a bright, sharp, slightly sweet flavor that compliments mixed greens particularly well.

I would not recommend using the bright yellow mustard for this dressing... or for any other. As for the other ingredients, there's some flexibility because the purpose is to use up what you've got on hand. I use a lot of honey because the sweetness helps me get the kids to eat their veggies. I had less vinegar and oil than the following recipe calls for, but may add more later to stretch the dressing.

Use-it-up Vinaigrette
The dregs of one bottle of spicy mustard
1-2 tablespoons of honey
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup balsamic, red, or cider vinegar

Pour honey, olive oil, and vinegar into the mustard bottle. Close the lid tightly. Shake vigorously.

Keeps in the fridge practically forever.

You can do something like this with the last bit of mayonnaise too, and pickle juice, but that's another post...

Monday, April 20, 2015

Make-Ahead-Monday-Coconut Curry Chicken

In this post I made a bunch of freezer meals to get me through the busy work-week, assembling sautéed onions, meat, and seasonings in freezer bags to be tossed into the slow cooker before work and doctored upon arrival home.
The key, as I said to keeping these meals from over-cooking is to start it from frozen and to wait until the evening to add vegetables. The trick to making them actually taste good was to add sautéed onions (instead of raw) and brown the meat beforehand (except chicken). 

This morning I started the dish I'd been looking forward to the most: coconut curry chicken. I love curry, and by some sort of miracle my kids like it too!
A little about the ingredients: there's some flexibility in this recipe.  For example the coconut milk I buy comes from the local Asian grocery store and they sell it in many non-standardized sizes. 
Whatever size can you pick up will be fine- dump in the entire can if you want to use it or use half the can if you want to reserve the rest for another recipe. 
The same applies to the pineapple salsa I used. I had it on hand, needed a tomato-sauce element, and wasn't crazy about eating the salsa straight up so it went into the dish rather than languishing in the back of the fridge. You can use tomato sauce, crushed tomatoes, tomato paste, whatever you have on hand and the final product will still taste good. 
If it seems like a ton of curry powder went into this, remember that the long cooking time can really weaken the flavors of spices. 
Lastly, as I've said before, lean meats don't belong in the crock pot. I find boneless skinless thighs to be the best chicken available for these dishes, but the Asian store sells "boneless chicken legs" which are essentially the same thing except it's the leg and thigh, still connected, de-boned and skinned. I don't know how they do that but I do know it's a great price! 

grated ginger
Ingredients (serves 4, with leftovers for 2 adult lunches)
The freezer bag contained: 
2 lbs boneless skinless dark meat chicken, cut into big chunks 
4 tablespoons of curry powder 
1 cup sautéed onion/celery mixture
1  7-oz container of coconut milk
1/4 cup pineapple salsa
2 inch knob of fresh ginger, grated
1 clove garlic, smashed

For after cooking:
1 bag frozen peas & carrots
2 cups cooked brown rice

The whole lot went into a freezer bag, which was sealed, massaged to combine thoroughly, and laid flat in the freezer until I needed it. 
bag o'curry, ready for the freezer

This morning I thawed the bag just enough to break it up and fit into the crock pot. The curry cooked on low all day while I was at work and the kids were at school. Meanwhile I loaded the rice-cooker with brown rice and water. Brown rice actually cooks up quickly and nicely tender after a good soak. 

On the way home from work I called and had someone start the rice. When I got there, I emptied a bag of frozen peas and carrots into the pot, and gave it a good stir. After a taste I thought it might be a bit too spicy for my kids so I added more coconut milk to take the edge off. 

So how did it turn out? 

It was still pretty spicy! My kids ate it all up, but I've gradually built up a tolerance for spice in them. They don't like burning mouths and the youngest had milk. But it wasn't too hot for my kids, when served over rice. It might be too hot for yours, if you have them. 

For my family, I wouldn't change a thing, and plan on making it again! For yours, if you want to take the spicy down a notch, don't use the salsa and cut back on the curry. 
Try it! And tell me how you liked it in the comments. 

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Italian Pot Roast from the Freezer to the Slow Cooker

Today was the day to try out one of those freezer meals I prepared and stockpiled for busy or tired evenings.  I knew what kind of shift it was going to be at work and that I wasn't going to have the energy to cook. 

I pulled the bag labeled "Italian" Pot Roast from the freezer.  Italian is in quotes because, although I used some Italian inspired ingredients, I'm not sure that they make pot roast in Italy and if they do it probably looks nothing like this.  The use of spaghetti sauce and oregano are what make it "Italian."
Let's see how many times we can use the word Italian in this article.
You'll want to refer to my prep day post linked several times in this post for more detailed directions.

Here's how to make it: 

1. Do your prep work: brown the meat, sweat the onions, and brown some mushrooms.

2. To your freezer bag add:
  • One browned chuck roast
  • One scoop (approximately 1/2 cup) cooked onions and celery
  • Two carrots, chopped into large pieces (no shorter than 1 inch)
  • A pinch of red pepper flakes
  • 2 cloves chopped garlic
  • Leaves stripped from 2-3 stems of thyme
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1/4 cup of jar spaghetti sauce
  • 1 cup beef broth or water
  • Splash of wine

Freeze the contents until you want to cook the meal.  When it's time, empty the contents into the slow cooker.  This can be made easier by running the bag under lukewarm water for a few minutes and cutting a slit in the side of the bag.  Cook on low 7-9 hours. 

About 15-20 minutes before serving, add the contents of one bag of frozen vegetables.  I used an Italian blend.  See what I did there?  But peas and carrots would be good too.  The blend I used contained Cauliflower, lima beans, zucchini, bell peppers, carrots, and Italian Green beans. 

I swear I'm not using the word Italian repeatedly just to show up on search engines! Italian green beans are really just flat green beans and I'm still trying to figure out what exacly makes them Italian. 

Here's what I learned from testing this slow-cooker freezer meal:
  • Overall this was a successful recipe!  I will make it again because it was very tasty.  The onions and wine gave it a subtle sweetness and the tomato sauce did not become bitter.  Quartered chunks of mushrooms stood up to being frozen and reheated, to which I credit the initial browning on the stovetop on prep day. 
  • Make the pinch of red pepper flakes a small one.  I overdid it and it was unpleasantly spicy, although still very tasty.  I have a high tolerance for spice and my lips burned, so I can only imagine how my kids would have reacted had they been here to try it!
  • Cut the roast in half before freezing.  It won't fit in the pot otherwise.  Fortunately frozen meat is pretty easy to chop in half, but I'll do it in advance next time, since the name of this game is EASY!
  • Vermouth is an acceptable substitute for wine if that's all you have.
Tune in next time when I test the chili I made ahead on prep day!

More Make-Ahead Mondays:

Strawberry Shortcut Icebox Cake

Slow Cooker Chicken Stock, Shredded Chicken, and Schmaltz

Meatballs and Marinara

Monday, April 13, 2015

Make-Ahead Monday-- Crock Pot Freezer Meal Tips for Success

I'm not the first blogger to post about make-ahead freezer meals.  After reading many recipes online I long ago decided that this sort of cooking was not for me. Having lots of experience with my crock pot I could see just from reading these that simply dumping and heating a pile of assembled meats, vegetables, and sauces wouldn't produce something we'd want to eat. 

Two things made me eventually change my mind. 
First: A friend of mine who is also expecting a baby, as in any-day-now expecting, made herself a nice stockpile of crockpot freezer meals. This seemed like a great idea for making the first few weeks easier; being able to throw dinner into the crockpot when you have a newborn in the house is a no-brainer. I, too have one on the way, but I have all summer I test recipes. 
Additionally, many days a week when I work a long hard shift and come home exhausted, what sounded like a good idea in the morning feels like a chore at 6 PM. As much as I love cooking, I'm only human and get tired! I've often found myself wishing I had tossed something into the crockpot that morning.  
By the time I am in full nesting mode I'll be setting aside tested, ready–to–cook meals for that very busy time that's coming. 

Prep Day
What stands out to me in many freezer meals and recipes is a general lack of real prep beforehand, as well as feedback on how the recipe turned out. I love the idea of dumping a bunch of food in the zip-top bags and later  into the crockpot and having it just cook. However, almost a decade of experience using slow cookers has told me that most of those dump-and-pour recipes do not turn out, and that the key to making a recipe delicious from the crockpot includes a couple of very simple steps. It may seem like a lot of work for one meal but it can be streamlined when you are making several dishes at once. 
Once you know these steps you can adapt any "crock pot freezer meals" recipe you've Pinned or bookmarked or torn from a magazine into something that actually tastes good. 

The Meat

Chuck Roasts ready to be broiled
The first step so often skipped is browning the meat beforehand. Sure, it may involve dirtying another pan if you don't use the broiler method.  You can brown 2 to 3 pot roasts and even chunks of stew meat under the broiler in way less time causing way less mess if you stick them under the broiler versus doing them on the stovetop. Browning the meat before hand is an important step dismissed by many people who love the ease of the crockpot. It's not as easy as dumping a hunk of meat into a bag, but the flavor payoff is worth it. 
Simply turn on the broiler to heat, season the meat (salt and pepper is easiest), line the broiler pan with foil, and lay the meat along the center of the pan (unless you're lucky enough to have a broiler with more than one heating element.  Ours has one that runs down the center.)
Broil 3-5 minutes on each side until the meat has a nice flavorful crust. 
onions sweating out their liquid
The second flaw in most prepared freezer meals for the crockpot is when raw onions are thrown in. I discussed this in my pot roast article as well. I haven't been as good about stockpiling caramelized onions in the freezer as I used to be, so for freezer meals prep-day I took the time to chop up approximately 5 yellow onions caramelize them in the pan in which I'd cooked the morning's bacon so I wouldn't have to use any additional cooking oil. I threw the roughly chopped onions in with a bit of salt to help draw out the water and let those cook down on medium-low flame for about 30 minutes while I handled everything else. This process cooks excess water out, concentrating their flavor. In my opinion if you skip this step you might as well omit onions altogether. They impart a funky flavor on whatever crockpot dish and add excess water as well. Not good.  
I highly recommend doing this for stews, curries, and pot roasts, so if you are making a bunch of dishes ahead it is worthwhile to sweat quite a few onions so you can easily them to everything. You could also do onions, celery, and carrots in one batch. This is called a mirepoix and is an excellent flavor base for many dishes. 

Overcooked Vegetables
That brings me to the third "fatal flaw" I find in all crockpot recipes that I worked around for my own. Throwing raw vegetables in with the meat . 
There is no vegetable (besides what we mentioned above) that benefits from 8+ hours in the slow cooker. Bell peppers turn bitter, peas, broccoli, et cetera all become disgusting mush after such a long cooking time. That being said, no meal is nutritious without them. I chose to exclude veggies from the zipper bags in which I put the aromatics and the meat. Instead, I stocked up on frozen veggies, that cost about $1 per bag. 
For most of the dishes I made, a simple blend of tri-color peppers would do nicely. Obviously we like more variety of produce in our diets but these meals are supposed to be easy. The contents of one bag should be stirred into the pot 15-20 minutes before serving. Peas need even less time than that... If adding peas alone then 5 minutes should be the maximum cooking time. 

Choose Your Meat Wisely
The last item I wish to discuss is types of meat. There's no place for lean meats in the slow cooker. It's perfect for pork shoulder, beef chuck, chicken thighs. Pork loin, tenderloin, boneless skinless chicken breasts are not invited. 

In summary, choose your meats carefully when following a freezer meals recipe. If it calls for boneless skinless breasts, substitute boneless skinless thighs. Freeze your vegetables separately or buy already frozen veggies to add at the end of cooking. And since you're probably making several meals at once, take the time to sweat the onions and brown the meat. 

While the meat is getting a nice sear and the excess water is cooking out of your onions, you can get your zippered bags ready and add all the other ingredients to them. You will find that the whole preparation process takes about two hours, and leaves the rest of the week free to do as little cooking as possible!  Next time, I'll share some recipes that use these carefully-prepared ingredients.  Then, as I have opportunities to use these prepared meals, I will share honestly what worked and what didn't so you don't waste precious ingredients trying them out yourself. 

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Stuffed Bell Peppers in the Slow Cooker

Last night's menu helped me use up a lot of leftovers. Meals that clean out the fridge make me a more frugal and creative cook. I wanted to try something I've never made before: stuffed bell peppers. I followed no recipe because I already knew the basics. You stuff a seasoned meat/rice mixture into some bell peppers and braise the peppers in a bit of liquid, typically tomato sauce. 

I haven't had these since I was a kid and I have to admit I did not like them back then. Mostly because I went through a phase where I didn't like rice. Also because I loathed green bell peppers. Well that hasn't changed, I know they are much less expensive than the delicious red and yellow ones but I simply can't stand their bitter flavor. 

Well the great thing about being an adult is, barring allergies, you can eat whatever you wish. So I picked up some lovely red, yellow, and orange peppers from the local dollar store (yep, they have produce, yes it's good, yes I'm as surprised as you are) and got started.  

minced aromatics
leftover rice
Leftover bits of carrots and celery from a recent veggie platter I made along with half an onion languishing in my crisper drawer made up the aromatics. A package of ground turkey I'd bought with no particular intentions was the meat. A bit of Spanish rice I'd made about a week ago was still good, if a bit dried out. With that, I had my filling. 

On to the recipe! 

Stuffed Bell Peppers (serves 4) 

1.25 lbs ground turkey 
1/2 purple onion, chopped
1 celery stalk, minced
1 carrot, minced
5-6 bell peppers, any color you like
1/2 cup tomato sauce or juice 
1 cup leftover rice (Spanish if you've got it but plain is good too)
Salt and seasoning blend
3 tablespoons Oil/butter/rendered fat of your choice 

schmaltz is rendered chicken fat
In a large skillet, add your fat (I used schmaltz) and heat over a medium flame. 
While the pan heats up, chop the tops off your peppers and cut any flesh off around the stems, chopping finely. Add this to your minced onion/carrot/celery and toss it all into the pan. Add a pinch of salt to draw liquid from the vegetables and cook them over medium heat 5-7 minutes, stirring occasionally.
sweating the vegetables

While the vegetables cook, core your peppers and arrange them cut-side-up in a 9x9 casserole dish or in a crock pot. 
Once the vegetables are soft and have given up most of their liquid, remove from the pan. (Use the bowl containing the rice--one fewer dish to wash.)  

seasoning blend
Heat the pan back up to high and add the turkey, letting it sit and brown before  breaking up with a spatula. Season with salt and spices. Oregano/thyme would be going here, or paprika/cumin, but I used a spice blend I received as a gift. It has paprika, pepper, rosemary, thyme, and chipotle. 
Note: I do typically blend my own spices in a dedicated coffee grinder but this is a great blend and it made everything much easier. 
Break up the turkey in the pan and add the cooked vegetables with rice into the pan. Stir to combine it thoroughly. 
Once the mixture is cooked completely, taste it for seasoning and adjust if necessary. Take it off the heat and scoop into the vacant peppers. 

filling the peppers
I was elated that the filling completely filled each pepper with none left over! This was too perfect and you should probably not expect these results since peppers vary so widely in size. 

use what you have
I remembered at this stage that stuffed peppers are usually bathed in tomato sauce. I did not have any, but I was drinking a Spicy V-8. So guess what I used? 

At this point you could freeze or refrigerate these to cook later. 

When you're ready to cook, if you are using the crock pot cook on high for 2.5 hours. If using a casserole dish, double up on tomato sauce and bake at 350 for 35 minutes. 
Extend cooking time if you like your peppers really soft, because ours were just cooked enough to be tender but stiff enough that they held their shape and flavor. 

I would make this again, and I would probably not change a thing. I loved how I didn't have to make a side because these were packed with vegetables. I loved how my kids devoured the sweet peppers, which I doubt they would have done had I used green. I loved the way the flavors in the filling melded perfectly. 

I planned on writing up this recipe whether it was a flop or a hit. It was a home run! I urge you to try it especially if you're trying to eat healthier. Thanks for reading! 

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Lunch for One: Tortellini Soup

I love days off when I can make myself anything I want for lunch, not restricted by what can fit into plastic containers and warmed in the break room microwave. 

Tortellini soup is one of these lunches, because I need to boil broth to cook the pasta, which can't be then transported in the broth (well it can but it will certainly deteriorate in quality) but rather served immediately.
 The chicken stock, also known as bone broth, contains the nutrients such as gelatin extracted from chicken bones, while a fistful of spinach added at the very end brings vitamins, phytonutrients, and minerals to the party. 

This simple soup is nutritious and easy to prepare. Make sure you wait till the very end to add the spinach to retain its bright color and flavor. 


2 cups homemade stock
1 cup tortellini 
1 small carrot, thinly sliced
Handful of spinach

Bring stock to a gentle boil, and add carrot slices. Simmer for one minute. 
Add tortellini and cook until tender. 
Add the spinach and stir in until it wilts. The spinach should only take 10-15 seconds. 
Take the pot off the heat and serve immediately. 
I hope you enjoy this soup as much as I do. Thanks for reading. 

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Homemade Hummus

Don't you just love hummus? As much as I truly enjoy traditional hummus with good olive oil drizzled on top and served with soft pita or oily pita chips, I also like many of the interesting flavors it's available in nowadays, like sun-dried tomatoes, jalapeño, and pesto.

Whenever I see prepared foods like this at the grocery store, I stop myself from spending the extra money by reminding myself, "Dom, you have all these ingredients at home. If you really want it, you'll make some from scratch and it will be cheaper and taste much better." 

This serves me pretty well except the fact that I don't get to eat said processed food in the car on the way home. 

This week I wanted to do what I kept promising myself I'd do: make hummus. The finished product would be great for snacking, or taken in my lunch. 

Meet the ingredients:

Garbanzo Beans (1 pound for this recipe) aka chickpeas, are nutritious legumes that look nothing like beans. Fortunately, they cook just like other beans, you can soak them overnight and then boil them until tender, or you can skip the soak and cook them 4-6 hours in the slow cooker. This is how I cooked mine, then drained them and allowed to cool. 
Canned beans work fine for this, so if that's what's in your pantry, go for it. 

Tahini is a paste made of sesame seeds. They sell it at most grocery stores nowadays, if not among the nut butters then with the international foods. Don't worry about having a jar left over: tahini paste is great in salad dressings, baba ganouj, and keeps for quite a while in the fridge. 

Olive Oil is a star ingredient here, so spring for some good quality extra virgin. 

Garlic, 3-5 cloves, peeled and smashed with the broad side of the knife. 

Lemon Juice 
From 2 lemons. Please, no bottled swill.
Optional ingredients to add for variation: pesto, minced jalapeño, olives, roasted peppers, or whatever sounds good to you! 

You need a food processor for this. You can use a small chopper like I did but you will have to make the hummus in batches. This worked out perfectly for me because I wanted to make a few different flavors. 
You'll also need a spatula, containers to store the finished product, a reamer for the lemon, and a knife.

I do this a little backwards from the way the recipes I've read, which advise drizzling olive oil into the spinning hummus last. 
The only reason I didn't do it this way is because this particular chopper doesn't have a feed tube. The finished product was delicious and completely emulsified. 

In the bowl of a food processor pour in about 5 tablespoons of olive oil and 2-3 cloves smashed garlic  and pulverize that garlic. 

Next add your cooked, drained, cooled beans till they fill the bowl about three quarters of the way. If you cooked your beans from scratch, add a pinch of salt here, or your hummus will be bland.  Squeeze in about half of the lemons you have for this, and blend again. 

Then, add your tahini paste. Since I made this on the fly, I didn't measure the quantity of tahini, just scooped out two big globs with a butter knife.  I'd call it three tablespoons.  Blend again, then taste.  At my first taste test, I thought it needed more lemon juice and a bit more tahini, so I added those and chopped again until it was smooth.  Perfect. 

For my second batch, I grabbed this jar of "olive medley" from the fridge.  I wasn't a huge fan of this medley because, being stuck in a jar together, the olives all tasted the same.  They did have variations in texture that I enjoyed, but I decided they'd shine as an ingredient in my hummus.  So after packaging my first batch in a re-used plastic container and labeling it "plain hummus" (nobody likes to encounter unexpected hummus when opening a container of yogurt) I made another miniature batch in the same chopper, then when I had the taste just right, added my olives, pulsing until they were chopped but not pureed. 

This batch was as delicious as the first.  I taste-tested it right out of the mixing bowl with a crunchy pita chip and was delighted.  The olives added a great flavor and some texture without tasting entirely of olives.  The briny olive juice blended itself with the other flavors and for the rest of the afternoon I found it difficult to be productive between stealing bites. 

The third flavor I tried was curry.  I have some very nice Penzey's spice blends and I took out the "curry" box and, no kidding, sniffed them all.  I wanted to carefully choose the next flavor that would compliment but not overpower the hummus.  Fortunately, it's pretty hard to overpower all that raw garlic.  I settled on "masala" and sprinkled in about a half teaspoon when I added the tahini.  This one turned out great.  It tasted especially good on pieces of red bell pepper. 
This was so easy to make that I'll make it again and again.  Because it's to taste, I did not include exact measurements, but I think that's what makes this dish so easy to make, and fun.  Of the three varieties I made, I like the plain the best, although they're all quite good.  I think I'd make a few kinds for a party or gathering, but for everyday snacking plain is the winner. 

What would you add to your homemade hummus?