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Menu Plan Monday ~ Week of April 12

Menu Plan Monday LogoThis week is another travel week for me so the family will be on their own for the better part of the week. I had a great race yesterday but was a little tired so menu planning and packing for my trip almost got the better of me. I’m happy to report that I manage to get everything together, but I relied on some easy filler like tacos and hot dogs because they were easy to plan and are easy for my family to make. When we used to have them every week they dropped off of our favorites list, but now that they only show up every once in a while, they are fun treats when mom is out of town. I’m short on time, so without further adieu, here is this week’s menu plan:

  • Monday: Tacos with fixin’s, rice, and beans
    Tacos are easy to make and everyone can build their own at the “taco bar”. This communal dinner is a great way to get the family together on the first night of the week.
  • Tuesday: Lemon Thyme Chicken Tenders with pasta and steamed Brussels sprouts
    While there’s a bit of chopping and marinating involved, this recipe is very simple and they can manage well while I’m gone. Leftovers will be great for lunches during the week.
  • Wednesday: Hot Dogs and fries
    Who does love a good hot dog dinner now and again? I’ve suggested that the family eat on the porch or throw a picnic on the living room floor to make the evening even more fun.
  • Thursday: Make your own pizza night
    Yet another favorite for everyone involved, pizza night is easy and everyone can have just what they want on their own personal crusts.
  • Friday: Blue Cheese Strip Steaks With Seasoned Grilled Potatoes and artichokes
    To celebrate my first night back in town, we’ll have a lovely steak dinner with some beautiful artichokes I picked up at the farmers market this past weekend.
  • Saturday: Lamb Chops with Balsamic Reduction with asparagus and long grain and wild rice
    Lamb is a family favorite and I always put it on the menu when it’s on sale. This Saturday evening we’ll share our meal with friends and celebrate the continued coming of spring.
  • Sunday: Honey Pork Tenderloin Kabobs with soba noodles and sautéed green beans
    I’m bringing back the ever-popular food on a stick to end the week. I’ll make extra and we can have it for lunch next week as I settle back into the grove of work.
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April 12, 2010 at 3:06 pm Leave a comment

Frugal Friday: Feeding a Crowd

I love to entertain, but the cost of a good party can add up quickly if I don’t plan carefully. I have a few tactics that I use to throw great parties on a budget that don’t feel like they are on a budget:

  • Mix inexpensive bulk foods with a few special treats. A couple of loaves of bread served with butter, chips and interesting styles of salsa, flavored popcorn, and homemade party mix made with store-brand ingredients will fill out a table without breaking the bank. When I put together a party menu, I always include two or three of these filler foods and I find it really helps keep me within my budget.
  • Shop in season. A veggie platter can get expensive quickly if the ingredients are coming from all over the world. When I choose vegetables that are in season, they aren’t just less expensive, they taste better too. Epicurious has a great interactive map for finding out what is in season in your area of the country.
  • Buy in bulk. While I don’t regularly buy a lot of food items in bulk because I worry about both storage and using them up in a reasonable amount of time, my local warehouse club is my first stop when I’m shopping for a party. In particular, I’ve found that cheese, bread, meats, and wine are all much less expensive. My local SAMs Club has a great selection of cheeses that go beyond the typical cheddar, including creamy brie and a mellow manchego. They also carry a nicely priced prosciutto which I wrap around breadsticks for a fun appetizer, and their six-packs of bread are great with olive oil as a bulk menu item. Before I started shopping at SAMs for parties, I made a special scouting trip to see what they had to offer and to jot down the prices so I would be able to compare them to prices at my local grocery store.
  • Plan the menu in advance and shop the sales. Unless I’m throwing a small dinner party or impromptu get-together, I try to plan the menus for my parties at least 3 weeks in advance. This not only helps me spread my prep work out over several days, but I can create a master grocery list and shop for ingredients on sale in the couple of weeks before the party. This works particularly well for more expensive ingredients that hold well like meats and even specialty crackers. By shopping over a few weeks, I can also spread out the impact of the party on my budget.
  • Ask for contributions. Without fail, every time I throw a party, most if not all of the guests ask me if they can bring something. I used to say no because I really love putting all of the food together myself, but I realized that it also meant I was carrying the full burden of the party’s cost myself. Now I decide which menu items I really want to make myself and which I can assign to those who volunteer. I’ve found that people like a bit of direction because they want their contribution to fit with the rest of the party. I’m not afraid to ask someone to bring a specific type of dish, like a green vegetable or a chocolate dessert, and I’ve even asked friends who don’t like to cook to pick up bread and oil or a bottle of wine. When I know I’m going to ask for help, I try to create a food theme so it’s easy for guests to find a dish. One of my favorite themes is the Italian-Style Big Night party. I make a couple or three pans of lasagna and ask friends to bring salad, dessert, wine, and bread. If I’m making several pans I buy all of the ingredients in bulk. I particularly like my lasagna recipe because it freezes beautifully so I can make it in advance. It also cooks wonderfully in a crockpot and pepperoni is a real surprise for guests.

What are your favorite tips for entertaining on a budget? I’d love to hear them in the comments.

Recipe: Fast or Slow Pizza Lasagna

Details

  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Serves: 8
  • Prep Time: 15 minutes
  • Cook Time: 30 minutes or all day

Ingredients

  • 1 box no-boil lasagna noodles
  • 2 jars of your favorite red pasta sauce
  • 1 8 oz. bag mozzarella or Italian blended shredded cheese
  • 1 package pepperoni slices
  • 1 8 oz. tub ricotta cheese

Instructions

FAST

  • Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
  • Pour ½ cup of the pasta sauce into a 9 x 13 baking dish and spread evenly.
  • Evenly layer ¼ of the pepperoni slices on top of the sauce, leaving some space between each one.
  • Lay out lasagna noodles so that they are completely covering the bottom of the dish in a slightly overlapping single layer, breaking the noodles to make them fit if necessary.
  • Pour another ¼ to ½ cup of pasta sauce over the noodles and spread evenly with a spatula.
  • Smear in a 1/3 of the ricotta in an even layer on top of the sauce.
  • Spread another ¼ of the bag of pepperoni evenly atop the cheese and top with a 1/3 of the bag of shredded mozzarella.
  • Pour another ¼ to ½ cup of pasta sauce and spread with a spatula.
  • Top the sauce with the noodles, the noodles with the ricotta, the ricotta with the pepperoni, and the pepperoni with the mozzarella. Repeat until you are out of your ingredients, or out of room in the pan, finishing with a final layer of red pasta sauce and shredded mozzarella cheese.
  • Bake for 20-30 minutes, or until the noodles are soft and the cheese is golden brown.
  • Let rest 2-5 minutes before cutting to let the sauce stop boiling and soak back into the noodles. You can also cool the lasagna completely, cut into portions, wrap tightly in foil, and freeze.

SLOW

  • Follow the same directions as above, but instead of stacking everything into a 9 x 13 pan, layer the entire dish into your crock pot.
  • Cook on low with the lid on for 3-4 hours and enjoy.

Tips, Tricks and Tweaks

  • You can reduce calories in this dish by using the low-fat versions of the cheese and pepperoni ingredients, and even add more fiber with whole wheat pasta. I use the turkey pepperoni and a chunky garden style pasta sauce to slip some veggies in there.
  • You can mix some cooked Italian sausage (sliced or crumbled) in with the pepperoni for another take on pizza lasagna.
  • If you are planning on freezing the dish to reheat later, make the lasagna a little wetter by upping the amount of sauce you put into the layers. Most reheating methods rob the food of its moisture, so if you make it saucier when you start, it will be perfect when you reheat it!

March 19, 2010 at 2:07 pm Leave a comment

Irish Beef Stew with Guinness and Chestnuts

It has come to my attention after spending time dining with friends from all over the Emerald Isle over the years that corned beef and cabbage is not all they eat. Neither are spuds or sprouts for that matter (although these two are more often consumed than the corned beef). A strange hybrid created here in the States, the ubiquitous meal of corned beef and cabbage that several people share on St. Pat’s isn’t precisely what those who wish to get their Irish on would choose. Instead, they would opt for more traditional –and tastier – dishes like this beef stew that features the oh-so-Irish Guinness beer. This year, give this Irish dish a try. It doesn’t take any longer than corned beef and cabbage and I promise you’ll make it again before March 17, 2011.

Recipe: Irish Beef Stew with Guinness and Chestnuts

Details

  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Serves: 4-6
  • Prep Time: 10 minutes
  • Cook Time: 2 1/2 hours

Ingredients

  • 2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
  • 2 lb. lean stew meat, cubed
  • 3 large onions, sliced
  • ¼ c. all-purpose flour
  • 1 Tbsp. tomato paste
  • 8 c. beef stock, divided
  • 8 carrots, peeled and thickly sliced
  • 1 bunch celery, thickly sliced
  • 1 tsp. caraway seeds
  • 1 Tbsp. raisins
  • 1 c. Guinness Stout
  • 18 to 20 whole cooked chestnuts, sliced
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 Tbsp. chopped parsley

Instructions

  1. Heat the oil in a large, heavy skillet over high heat until it ripples. Add the meat and cook in batches, stirring constantly, until the meat is lightly browned on all sides, about 5 minutes per batch.
  2. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the meat to a large pot or Dutch oven.
  3. Lower the temperature on the skillet to medium, add the onions to the pan, and sauté for about 2 minutes or until beginning to soften. Add the flour and stir to coat the onions, cooking 2 minutes more.
  4. Add the tomato paste and cook it with the flour and onions until it darkens slightly and loses the metallic taste of raw tomato paste, about 2 minutes.
  5. Pour in 1 cup of the beef stock and whisk up all of the brown bits off the bottom of the pan. Pour the mixture into a large, heavy pot or Dutch oven.
  6. Add the remaining beef stock, carrots, celery, caraway seeds, and raisins to the Dutch oven. Bring to a boil then cover and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the meat is almost tender, about 2 hours.
  7. Add the chestnuts and the Guinness and cook for 30 minutes more. Taste, add salt and pepper if needed, the sprinkle with the parsley.
  8. Serve over boiled potatoes.

Tips, Tricks and Tweaks

  • Use a Dutch oven with a tight-fitting lid if you have one. This helps the liquids evaporate more slowly.
  • Adding the Guinness toward the end of the cooking times keeps it from mellowing. If you want a milder flavor, add it with the rest remaining beef broth, vegetables, and spices. If you prefer your stew without it you can leave it out entirely.
  • The raisins may seem strange, but their sweetness really does add a lot to the finished product.

March 17, 2010 at 8:25 am Leave a comment

Menu Plan Monday ~ March 15

Menu Plan Monday LogoI’m sitting in the blogger lounge at the South by Southwest Interactive conference trying to create my menu plans for the week. Talk about switching contexts. I’ve had three great days learning and networking, but tomorrow night life has to return to normal. This week is also Spring Break, and the grandparents are in charge, so it’s just us adults eating dinner until Saturday night. After a few meals last week that were very adult-friendly, this week I’ll be focusing on easy and fun meals so I can maximize our kid-free time. This week’s menu plan looks like this:

  • Monday: Dinner downtown after SXSW sessions
    After being so busy at the conference it will be nice to sit down to a quite dinner prepared by someone else. Now that we don’t eat out as much, a dinner out is a true treat.
  • Tuesday: Grilled Crab Legs with Provencal Butter with grilled veggies and potatoes
    Crab legs are a true grown-up treat, and with the beautiful weather, the grill is a perfect place to cook them. We’ll have dinner for two outside on the porch.
  • Wednesday: Steak Fajitas with rice and beans
    Fajitas are a fun and easy mid-week meal that we can enjoy on the porch (again) if weather permits. We’ll use the leftovers for lunches for the rest of the week.
  • Thursday: Italian Sausages and Zucchini with egg noddles
    This quick sauté hints of spring and summer, and is very easy to put together. We’ll enjoy our last dinner alone with a bottle of wine and a bit of fruit and cheese.
  • Friday: Easy Chicken Satay with steamed rice and edamame
    We’ll be having some friends over for an easy dinner and drinks on Friday night, and everyone loves meat on a stick. I’ll marinade the chicken in the morning before I go to work so putting dinner together will be easy.
  • Saturday: On the way home from the airport
    We’ll continue our tradition of grabbing dinner out after someone comes home from a trip.
  • Sunday: Chicken fried rice
    As the family settles back into the school routine an easy and satisfying dinner perfect. I’ll use leftover chicken satay along with some peas and carrots to whip up a quick fried rice.

March 15, 2010 at 4:27 pm 1 comment

Frugal Friday: The Magical Roast Chicken

Whole chickens are about the least expensive meat per pound that you can buy, particularly when they are on sale. When whole chicken shows up on sale my store circular, I stock up! Not only does my family enjoy a roast chicken on a Sunday, roasted chicken meat has so many applications throughout the week:

  • Tossed with cooked pasta, steamed veggies, and a little parmesan cheese for a quick lunch or dinner.
  • In homemade chicken salad. My favorite light recipe includes Greek yogurt, grapes, and walnuts.
  • With some cheese in a tortilla for a tasty quesadilla.
  • In a pita or wrap with blue cheese, a chopped apple, and some greens.

Many weeks I’ll roast a couple of chickens at the same time so that I have plenty of leftover meat.

Of course a dry, flavorless chicken isn’t useful in any application, so I think it’s worthwhile to spend a little bit of time prepping the chicken so it’s juice and full of flavor when it comes out of the oven. I also make a tasty gravy to serve with the whole roast chicken. For a really tasty and frugal leftover lunch, top a piece of toast with some warm chicken and gravy.

Recipe: Whole Roast Chicken

Details

  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Serves: 4
  • Prep Time: 20 minutes
  • Cook Time: 40-50 minutes

Ingredients

  • 1 whole roasting chicken
  • 1 clove garlic, peeled and minced
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 1 medium carrot, chopped
  • 1 rib celery, chopped
  • ½ cup white wine
  • 2 thyme sprigs
  • 1 cup chicken stock
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Butcher’s twine (optional)

Instructions

  1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
  2. Season the chicken evenly outside and in the cavity with salt and pepper then spread the garlic evenly over the chicken.
  3. Put the bay leaf, onion, carrot and celery into the bottom of a roasting pan.
  4. Put a rack in a roasting pan on top of the vegetables to keep the chicken out of its own drippings.
  5. Place the bird breast-side down and place the pan in the oven.
  6. Roast for 20 minutes and then flip the chicken over for the rest of the cooking time. The chicken is done with an instant-read thermometer inserted into the deepest part of the thigh registers 165 degrees.
  7. Remove the rack with the bird still on it from the roasting pan and set it over a cutting board or shallow dish to catch any stray drippings. Let the chicken rest while you make the natural gravy.
  8. Drain excess fat from the roasting pan and pour the white wine over the vegetables. Use a wooden spoon to scrape up all of the brown bits from the bottom of the pan.
  9. Turn two of your stove burners on medium-high and place the roasting pan so it covers both burners. Bring the liquid in the pan to a boil, reduce the heat to medium, reduce the liquids until they are thickened, about 5 minutes.
  10. Add the chicken stock and thyme sprigs to the pan and reduce for a few more minutes until thickened. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper as needed.
  11. Pour the liquid and vegetables from the pan into a strainer set over a medium mixing bowl to remove the solids from the gravy.
  12. Serve the chicken with the strained gravy.

Tips, Tricks and Tweaks

  • If you want, you can truss the bird to so it cooks more evenly. To truss the chicken:
    • Cut about a 3-foot length of heatproof butcher’s twine.
    • Lay the chicken on a clean surface with the breast facing up.
    • Hold one end of the string in each hand, and loop the center of the string underneath the chicken’s tail.
    • Catch the ends of the legs inside the string, then cross the string over the chicken’s breast, making an X. Loop the string under and around the wings, and then tie the string snugly in a knot across the middle of the breast.
    • Make sure that the ends of the wings are tucked in.
    • This video outlines the trussing process nicely.
  • Invest in a meat thermometer to be sure that you are cooking your poultry thoroughly. Cook chicken to an internal temperature of 165 degrees, tested by inserting the thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh.
  • Even if you don’t make the gravy, be sure to let the chicken rest for at least 15 minutes before cutting into it. This break between oven and plate lets the juices in the chicken redistribute throughout the chicken.

February 26, 2010 at 8:00 am Leave a comment

Simple and Tasty Trout Meuniere

I’ve been on a steady campaign to get more fish dishes into my menus and onto our table. In a perfect world we’d have fish twice a week, but for now I’ll settle for once every couple of weeks until I find a collection of recipes that my family truly enjoys. This recipe is a classic French preparation for fish and while it’s very simple, it’s also very tasty. Of course, anything with lots of butter is always tasty. One of the points of adding fish dishes to the menu is to lighten our plates, but first I have to get my family over the fish hurdle, so I’ll settle for the healthy fish plus the decadence of butter as a starting point.

Recipe: Trout Meuniere

Details

  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Serves: 4
  • Prep Time: 20 minutes
  • Cook Time: 6 minutes

Ingredients

  • 1 stick unsalted butter
  • 4 large trout fillets
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 4 oz. all purpose flour
  • 4 oz. clarified butter, canola, or safflower oil
  • 2 lemons, sliced in half
  • 2 Tbsp. fresh chopped parsley

Instructions

  1. In a small pot over low heat, melt the stick of butter until melted. Stir occasionally and keep warm over low heat.
  2. Sprinkle the fish with salt and pepper.
  3. Put the flour in a shallow dish or plate and dredge the fillets on both sides until lightly coated.
  4. Heat the clarified butter or oil in a large skillet over medium heat.
  5. Place the fillets skin side down (if your fillets still have the skin) into the oil. Sauté for about three minutes, ladling the oil over the fillets continuously to help cook the fish through.
  6. When the fish no longer sticks to the pan, flip the fish. Increase the temperature on the pot of butter to medium-high and heat until it begins to brown and smell nutty, about 5 minutes.
  7. When the fish is golden brown on both sides, remove it from the pan and drain quickly on paper towels.
  8. To serve, put the fish on the plate (a bed of rice is a perfect accompaniment) and squeeze the juice one of the lemon halves down the length of the fillet. Sprinkle a generous amount of parsley on the fish, followed immediately by the boiling hot browned butter.

Tips, Tricks and Tweaks

  • Clarified butter is butter that has been melted and had the milk solids and water removed so only the butter fat remains. The main benefit of clarified butter in this recipe is that it has a higher smoke point which is necessary to sauté the fish. If you don’t want to go to the trouble of making your own clarified butter, check the ethnic food section of your grocery store dairy case for ghee. It’s the same thing and you don’t have to do anything other than scoop it out of the jar.
  • Depending on the size of your fish and the size of your skillet, you may have to sauté the fish in two batches. Be careful not to over-crowd the pan or you won’t get a good crust on the fish.
  • Be ready to serve this fish as soon as it’s cooked, so choose a no-fuss side dish like steamed broccoli so you can focus on finishing the fish.
  • For the adults on a special evening, a nice white wine without too much oak is a nice pairing with this fish.

February 23, 2010 at 7:22 pm Leave a comment

Tips for Organizing and Saving Money on Spices

Spice tins in a box

Herbs and spices have always presented a challenge for me for two reasons:

  1. They are expensive. It’s hard at times to justify spending five or even 8 dollars on a small bottle of any ingredient.
  2. They are difficult to store and organize. Lots of little bottles don’t lend themselves to any sort of reasonable organizing scheme that doesn’t also take up a lot of space in my cabinets or pantry.

And, if these two issues aren’t enough, to a person, every chef I’ve ever talked to or taken a cooking class from has said that spices go bad quickly because oxygen degrades their flavor. In the last couple of years though I’ve solved my herb and spice challenges using two tactics:

  1. I buy my spices in bulk.
  2. I store my spices in small square tins.

These two approaches combined help me spend less on herbs and spices, keep them fresh, and store them in a reasonably sized space. My hope is that my trial and error in developing this system might be helpful to anyone still trying to overcome the same challenges I’ve face. If you have a great system for storing herbs and spices, I’d love to hear about it in the comments – I’m always looking for new ideas.

Buying Spices in Bulk

I buy spices in bulk for three reasons:

  • I can buy as much (or as little) as I need. If I only need a few teaspoons of a spice I don’t regularly use, I can buy just that much and not let the rest go to waste in my pantry. I can also buy seasonal spices like pumpkin pie spice or poultry seasoning only at the time of year I need them. I’m also more likely to experiment with a new spice if I don’t have to spend a ton of money to try it.
  • Like other bulk foods, spices tend to be less expensive because there is less packaging involved. Ounce-for-ounce, bulk spices are less expensive than their pre-packaged spice aisle equivalents.
  • I can completely replenish my entire spice collection every three months for less than $25 so I always have fresh spices on hand. Because I paid so little for my spices in the first place, it doesn’t bother me to toss ¼ of a 89 cent bag of chili powder.

My local Central Market has an extensive bulk spice department with Whole Foods coming in a close second. If you don’t have access to a good bulk spice collection, there are several online spice retailers including:

I buy many of my spices whole and grind them when I need them. Whole spices last longer because their outer shell protects them from oxygen, and an inexpensive coffee grinder makes grinding them easy. If you’ve never had freshly ground nutmeg you’re really missing out on the true nutmeg flavor. The same is true for freshly ground pepper.

Spice Storage Made Easy

I struggled for years with the best way to store spices. I’ve looked at every spice storage system imaginable, but the problem is I like to keep a healthy collection of spices on hand – typically between 30 and 40 different varieties. Many spice bottle organizers are great for 12 or even 20 bottles, but once you get past a couple of dozen spices, they simply take up too much space. Also, because I buy in bulk, my spices come in little plastic bags instead of bottles which makes them even more difficult to corral. After some experimentation I landed on square food safe tin containers in two sizes: 4 oz. and 8 oz. I like these for a few reasons:

  • Square containers make the most of available storage space. Round containers always create unused empty space when you set them side-by-side.
  • The clear lid makes it easy to see how much of any spice I have left.
  • The lids fit tightly to keep as much air out as possible.
  • They are inexpensive. A 4 oz. container is $.72 and an 8 oz. container is $.91. It cost me less than $30 to set up my entire system, even with my rather large collection.

A collection of tins will fit nicely in a drawer or even in a small basket on a shelf. My tins will even fit in an existing spice rack that’s already installed in a pantry. I was a little short on storage space, so I recycled a wide and shallow plastic storage box I purchased a few years ago. It’s translucent to help filter out the light – another enemy of spices right there with oxygen and heat – and it fits neatly in a cabinet within easy reach.

I do organize my spices alphabetically to make them easier to find.

Group of spice tins organized alphabetically

I use a two-tiered approach that utilizes mostly 4 oz. tins with a few 8 oz. tins for the spices I use most regularly.

Spice box with two layers of tins

Finally, I use my Brother P-touch to make labels for the tins so anyone in the family can easily find a tin. If I decide I don’t need to store a particular spice any longer, I remove the label, wash the tin, and set it aside for future use.

 Ground cumin in a tin with a label

Finding Your System

My approach to spice storage is based on the number of spices I regularly keep on hand, easy access to bulk spices, and my kitchen’s storage space. As you think about how best to store your spices, you’ll need to consider similar issues. If you can only get spices in bottles, then dark, air-tight bottles that block the light may be your highest priority. If you only keep a dozen or so spices on hand, a pretty counter-top storage rack may be just right for you. No one system is right for everyone, but hopefully the ideas I’ve shared here will jump start your spice organizing fun.

January 27, 2010 at 8:00 am 9 comments


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