Monday, July 13, 2015

Breakfast for One: Chili Omelette

I was never much of a breakfast person, until I got a job at a furniture store.  Since then, I've learned that those early calories are crucial.  Without them I find myself weak and cranky after just a few hours' work, and after that I find myself willing to eat just about everything, like an entire bag of peanut m&ms.  Most days I have to force myself to eat a substantial breakfast before leaving the house. 

On this particular morning I found myself with a bit of time before leaving for work and a very respectable appetite.  On a whim I decided to make an omelet from a gigantic batch of chili I'd made and stored.  I'd never had a chili omelet before although I've pondered it on diner menus several times.  Now that I've had my own homemade version, I may never be able to order it at even the best greasy spoon.  Perfectly spicy and cheesy, this breakfast dish not only satisfied my hunger but set my standards unreasonably high. 

Chili Omelet

Three Eggs

1/4 cup leftover chili

1/2 cup shredded jack or cheddar cheese. 

A bit of bacon grease or butter

To make the omelet:

I recommend learning this technique from the same instructor I did- Alton Brown. This is the most comprehensive and helpful guide to making an omelet, but disregard the bit about "filling."  This is not a fancy, delicate French omelet.  This is a fluffy, fat, American stuffed-to-overflowing diner-style omelet. 

That said, I think I can explain this well enough.  Gently beat the eggs in a small bowl until homogenous.  Heat a small (about 6') non-stick pan over medium flame and melt the fat or butter in the pan. 

Swirling the eggs

When the pan is hot, pour the eggs in and, with a rubber spatula, swirl with small circular movements until the eggs are about 10% set.  allow the eggs to sit for just a few moments.  Then, again with the spatula, gently lift one edge of the cooked portion of the egg and tip the pan toward it, allowing the still-raw parts of the egg to spill underneath the edge. Do this all around the pan till very little egg is left uncooked.

Lift up the edge slowly, then tilt the pan toward the spatula.

Sprinkle half of the shredded cheese into the egg and gently spoon the chili into one.

With the spatula, gently fold the omelette over the chili side, take the pan off the heat, and slide it off the pan onto a plate. Top with the remaining cheese. The egg will continue cooking especially with the addition of hot chili as your pour yourself some nice cold OJ.

Serve immediately.

To yourself. 

Because you're worth it.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Easy As Meat Pies

This dish was a fun experiment and, like the title said, easy!  "Easy as Pie" is a deceptive term, but my title is not.  This dish was easy to make, thanks to a few shortcuts and some make-ahead savvy.  I've made meat pies before and these are by far less hassle and I think even a little tastier. 
This post nearly qualifies as a make-ahead Monday since I used something from the freezer, and assembled the ingredients before work.  If you don't make the filling ahead of time, the recipe takes much longer since it needs time to cool.  That said, I think many leftovers could be used in these pies such as pot roast, shredded chicken, taco meat, sloppy joes meat, et cetera, as long as it's not too liquidy.  Below is a record of my experiment and the results, then a recipe. 

meaty filling
The Filling

On one of my recent make-ahead cooking marathons, I'd procured a tremendous amount of ground chuck at a fantastic discount.  After assembling two pounds of taco filling (from which we made three meals) and a truckload of chili, I was left with a half pound of this meat and some mirepoix (carrots, celery, onions). 
I browned the beef with salt, pepper, paprika, and a tiny bit of Jamaican Jerk seasoning.  When it was cooked I removed the beef with a slotted spatula, then sautéed the mirepoix in the remaining fat. 

I combined the beef and vegetables in a quart-sized freezer bag and stared at it for a minute.  Then a lightbulb lit in my mind, and I labeled the bag "meat pie filling" before storing it in the freezer. 

The Crust
tube dough
Fast forward to a recent night, knowing I'd have to make something for dinner the following night and not knowing what it should be.  I recalled my beef filling in the freezer as well as some pre-made biscuit dough, the kind that comes in a cardboard tube that pops when you open it.  I had two tubes, one "flaky" and one "buttermilk." 

Yes, it's artificial.  I bought it in a moment of weakness and it languished in the back of my fridge for a couple of miserably hot weeks.  It was time for this dough to fulfill its destiny. 

The Pies
The previous night, I moved the frozen bag of meat filling to the fridge to thaw.  By morning it was loose and thawed but still quite cold. 
Before leaving for work, I popped open the tube of biscuits.  The sound make me excited and confident in my cooking experiment.  I began gently loosening the biscuits from one another, then I split one open easily, leaving it attached on one side. 

It was simple to take a generous pinch of the meat filling and stuff it into this biscuit dough "sandwich."  After a few trials I discovered it's easier to add a little filling, then pinch the sides
closed, add a bit more, pinch it shut a little more, and repeat until there's about 1/4 cup of filling inside and the pie is sealed shut all around. 


Well, I'm not allowed to use the oven this time of year because it's beastly hot in my home.  So I cooked these in the pan, on the grill, but I'm not going to go into that further because I don't recommend it.  It's hard to control the heat and keep the bottoms from scorching, and although I was successful, it has no place in my recipe.  Heat your oven to 375 and be glad that you can. 

I arranged the pies on a sheet pan with space between them to allow hot air
to circulate, baked them at 400-450 for 15 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through.  They browned up nicely, and then... most of them popped open. 

I told you this was an experiment.  I tried the recipe again the following day, crimping the edges with a fork and they came out much more like pies in appearance. 

The pies made from "flaky" dough were better tasting in my opinion with a textre more like meat pies I've tasted mae by professionals, although the "buttermilk" variety stayed shut much better. 

We served these with a salad, and everyone loved them!

the Recipe: 

  • 1/2 lb ground beef, seasoned, browned, and cooled.   (or the same amount of leftover meat)
  • 1/4 cup mirepoix, sautéed and cooled
  • 2 tubes of premade biscuit dough

Preheat oven to 375.
Separate one biscuit at a time from the tube, then split it in half, leaving it stuck together on one side. 
Gently stuff meat/vegetable mixture into dough, forming a pocket as you go.  Carefully crimp the edges of each pie with a fork
Arrange on a sheet pan with at least an inch in between. 
Bake 13-15 minutes, rotating halfway through the cooking time.  Remove from oven when tops are golden brown. 
Serve with a fresh salad or steamed vegetables. 

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 27, 2015

Make-Ahead Monday: Bean and Cheese Stuffed Anaheim Peppers

Many of my cooking experiments come from inspiration I get from the Ugly Produce Section at my local grocery store, which consists of misshapen or otherwise unattractive fruits and vegetables, assembled in 3lb mesh bags and sold for $1. Sometimes a bag makes sense: several pounds of apples, oranges, or pears in various combinations, all of which may have a bird bite or bruise or just be oddly shaped. Sometimes it will be an entire cantaloupe. Other times the mix is something very random, like an onion, potato, a mango, and some leeks.  I scored several pounds of mushrooms once and used them to make freezer meals

I love the ugly produce section.

Really, there is nothing wrong with the produce that is found here. It is not even on the verge of going bad, it just wasn't pretty enough to sell. This is such a strange occurrence to me, I mean it's not like fruits and vegetables are mass produced and supposed to be identical. They grow from trees and vines and from the ground and each one is unique just like people. But the prevailing mindset is to look for perfectly shaped fruits and vegetables and reject the "ugly" ones. 
Odd as it is, it works to my advantage because sometimes I find produce that I wouldn't ordinarily buy because of cost. Sometimes it just inspires me, like the bag I found the other night while shopping with my friend. I found a bag of Anaheim chili peppers, with one random poblano pepper in the mix. Eureka! I knew right away I had to stuff them with cheese.
I have made chile rellenos in the past, the kind that is stuffed with cheese, coated in fluffy egg batter and fried. While delicious,  they are quite labor-intensive and not what I had in mind for these beauties. I wanted something easy that I could throw together like... a casserole, and cook after work the following day. That's why this post falls under Make-Ahead Monday.

Knowing I had plenty of cheese at home, I picked up a jar of enchilada sauce and a can of black beans, along with a tube of chorizo, a crumbly Mexican sausage that would add a nice smoky, salty flavor to this recipe.  If it were left out this could be a great vegetarian recipe.
On Sunday afternoon I prepared the pepper casserole to be cooked the following evening after work. The recipe below is exactly as I made this dish, however I will not be trying them until this evening after which time I will return with my opinions on how this turned out and what I would do differently. 

6 Anaheim chili peppers
1 14-ounce can black beans
1 jar enchilada sauce
10 or 15 slices of Monterey Jack or another melting cheese
1/2 cup shredded cheese or crumbled cojota cheese
(optional) 1/2 cup Mexican chorizo
Put the chorizo in a small sauté pan over medium-low heat.  After it has had about two minutes to cook, begin breaking it up with a spatula and turning to cook evenly.
While the sausage is cooking, split the Anaheims up one side and remove the seeds and cores with a paring knife.  [If you are sensitive to capsaicin, wear gloves for this step!  In the past, jalapenos juices have really irritated my skin, making my hands and fingers burn for hours.  This time, I figured these milder peppers wouldn't be a problem. After numerous washings my fingers remained "spicy" and the knuckles did start to burn slightly.  Vinyl or latex gloves are great!]

Take the finished chorizo off the heat and allow to cool.  Meanwhile, slice up some Monterey Jack or other cheeses.  I used pepper jack for flavor and some muenster because it melts so nicely. 

Holding each pepper open with your fingertips, insert slices of cheese into each pepper.  Scoop some chorizo and beans into each pepper trying to distribute evenly, and squeeze in as many more cheese slices as will fit among the other fillings.  The idea is to have the cheese melt to hold everything together.  Since filling these peppers I've come to realize I should have added sour cream since I have it on hand.

Arrange the stuffed peppers, open-side-up, in a casserole dish.  They should all wedge in there tightly, depending on the size of your chiles.  Pour the jar of enchilada sauce over the whole thing, then add a bit of water to the jar, swoosh it around, and pour the remaining diluted sauce evenly over the dish. 

Cover the casserole tightly with foil and place in the fridge or bake right away. 
The plan is to heat the oven to 350, then bake the dish, still covered, for 45 minutes.  After that the foil will be removed and shredded cheese will be sprinkled on top.  Then the casserole will go back into the oven for ten minutes or possibly it will go under the broiler, depending on the doneness of the peppers after 45 minutes. 

I can't wait to report back on how these turned out! Stay tuned!

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.