Menu Plan Monday ~ Week of April 5

Menu Plan Monday LogoAustin’s annual Capitol 10k race is one of the largest 10ks in the country and I’m running in it this year for the first time in five year. I had a great 7 mile run this morning and think I’m in a good place to have a great race. I enjoy 5k and 10k races as fun adventures, but I’m certainly not a competitor for any awards. Even so, I like to set myself up for the best possible run the week before the race. A big part of that preparation is eating right including getting plenty of carbs starting mid-week. This week’s meal plan is crafted around the race on Sunday. There will be plenty of lean proteins to go with my carbs, and we’ll end the week with steak sandwiches, a family favorite.

  • Monday: Dijon-Crusted Halibut with artichokes and long grain and wild rice
    The breadcrumb crust on this halibut makes it an easy fish dish for everyone to enjoy.
  • Tuesday: Grilled Pork Tenderloin with Balsamic Vinegar with steamed broccoli and fettuccini Alfredo
    I’ll be visiting my freezer stash this week on the evening of my last long run before the race on Sunday. I’ll have able to have a healthy dinner even with an extra hour given over to training.
  • Wednesday: Spicy Broiled Steak with Garlic with Brussels sprouts and baked potatoes
    Carb loading begins in earnest mid-week and there’s no better way to do that than with baked potatoes. The whole family will enjoy a steak dinner along the way. Leftover steak will become sandwiches on Sunday evening.
  • Thursday: Spicy Asian Grilled Shrimp with edamame and steamed rice
    As I get closer to race day I like to eat lean and easy to digest proteins, along with the necessary carbs. Shrimp are easy and the rice will be great with lunch on Friday.
  • Friday: Orange-Scented Grilled Lobster Tails with grilled vegetables and soba noodles
    I was excited to see lobster tails on sale for race week. They will be a fun treat for the whole family and help me continue with my lean proteins.
  • Saturday: Pre-race dinner at a local pasta house
    The whole family will enjoy my final pre-race carb loading fest at a favorite local restaurant.
  • Sunday: Steak Sandwiches with salad
    I’ll be tired the evening of the race but will still want to have a healthy meal. Steak sandwiches will be easy and fun.
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April 3, 2010 at 4:09 pm Leave a comment

Frugal Friday: Bakery-Style Breakfast from the Freezer

Lemon Blueberry Muffins

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been obsessed with building menus that will help me stock my freezer with quick meals when I don’t have time to cook. And while I’ve been largely focused on main dishes for dinners, I’ve also been taking the time to fill the freezer with easy and healthy breakfasts. Breakfast is sometimes our Achilles heel because:

  • It can get lost in the weekday morning fray. I love (and I mean love with a passion) to sleep, so I tend to want to stay in bed as long as possible on any given day. During the week this means there isn’t a lot of wiggle room in our morning routine. One little thing like a too-long shower, a forgotten homework crisis, or a missing favorite shirt can mean I barely get everyone out the door on time.
  • We get tired of the same old options. Toast and cereal only go so far, and if those are our main choices for too many mornings running everyone gets tired of them. I try to mix it up a bit with bagels and English muffins, but in the end those can get old as well. Even when there is time for breakfast (but not enough for me to cook eggs, bacon, or pancakes) the options aren’t always appealing.

When we don’t eat breakfast at home, some or all of us sacrifice a healthy breakfast. From a kid perspective that means grabbing breakfast at school, which can be fun every now and again. For the adults, it means grabbing fast food or a muffin at the local bakery. The costs (and calories) can add up quickly. While there are plenty of frozen breakfast options at the grocery store, they aren’t inexpensive and the ingredient lists aren’t necessarily inspiring.

As part of my freezer filling fun, I’ve been stocking up on breakfast foods as well. Waffles are a family favorite. I make extras on the weekends and freeze them individually. A quick toss into the toaster and they are ready. It’s much less expensive than buying Eggo or even store brand waffles, and I know exactly what is in them.And while waffles are great, my favorite freezer-friendly breakfast is muffins.

I used to make muffins from a boxed mix, but I became concerned about the processed ingredients and the cost. Also, when I make muffins at home, I can use fresh fruit and even sneak in a bit of whole wheat flour or wheat germ to up the nutritional count. I’ve tried a variety of muffins and some freeze better than others. After much experimentation, a Lemon Blueberry Muffin recipe from My Recipes has proven to be the best option. The muffins are low in calories and fat, and the recipe is a great base for many variations on a theme. I’ve made the muffins with orange and blackberry and even lime and raspberry. When peaches are in season I’m going to try those as well. To make these freezer-friendly I:

  • Double or even triple the recipe.
  • Skip the glaze because it doesn’t freeze well.
  • Use my food processor to cut the butter into the flour to speed up the mixing process.
  • Make the muffins with whatever berries are in season so the price is lower and the fruit is sweeter.
  • Wrap them individually in sheets of aluminum foil (I buy the pre-cut boxes of foil at SAMs) and freeze them in a zip-top bag.

To warm a muffin, heat it still wrapped in foil in a 425 degree oven for 20 minutes. Sometimes I’ll toss a muffin into the oven right when I turn it on and then heat it for 25 minutes or so. Muffins are imminently portable, so I can set them to reheat in the midst of our morning routine and everyone can take them to go as they are on their way to work or school.

April 2, 2010 at 6:07 pm Leave a comment

Classic Easter Dinner: Lamb Shank with Orange and Mint

If you are anything like me, you’ve probably had a scary lamb experience: tough as shoe leather legs of lamb, gamey mutton, or unknown lamb parts covered in a “not found in nature” green mint jelly. I’m here to tell you that lamb can be not just good, but great, and you don’t have to be a professional chef to make it great. Lamb is one of the most forgiving meats out there and can be very affordable when you catch cuts like leg and shank on sale. So, I am asking you to give lamb a chance this Spring. For a fool-proof way to get your feet wet, start with a slowly braised lamb shank. While this recipe is a bit more involved than a typical weeknight dinner recipe, it’s not particularly difficult and you can get other things done while the shanks braise.

And while mint really does go very well with lamb, put the jelly down. Seriously. Put it down. As this recipe shows, there are many better ways to pair lamb with its familiar partner.

Recipe: Lamb Shank with Orange & Mint

Details

  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Serves: 4
  • Prep Time: 20 minutes
  • Cook Time: 2 hours

Ingredients

  • 1 oz. canola oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 whole lamb shank, trimmed
  • 1 small onion, diced large
  • 5 baby carrots, cut into thirds
  • 1 rib celery, diced large
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 1 Tbsp. tomato paste
  • 3 oz. white wine
  • 1 sprig of fresh thyme
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 c. beef or lamb stock
  • 1 orange
  • 3 sprigs of fresh mint
  • ¼ c. orange juice
  • 1 Tbsp. butter

Instructions

  1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Add the oil to large, deep oven-safe skillet (preferably one with a lid) and heat to medium high. Salt and pepper the lamb shank generously and sear it on all sides. Remove the lamb from the skillet and set it aside.
  3. Reduce the heat to medium and add the onions, carrots and celery. Sauté the vegetables for about 5 minutes or until they begin to soften.
  4. Add the garlic and the tomato paste and cook until the tomato paste is cooked and no longer raw tasting, about 3 minutes. Add the white wine to the pan and stir, scraping up all of the brown bits off of the bottom. Bring to a boil and cook until the wine is reduced by half.
  5. Add the thyme, bay leaf, and the stock to the pan, stirring everything together to combine. Return the seared lamb to the pan and bring the liquid to a simmer. Cover the pan with a lid or aluminum foil and then move it to the oven. Cook until the lamb is fork tender (around 2 hours), adding more stock if necessary to keep it from drying out.
  6. While the lamb braises, fill a small saucepan with water and bring to a boil. Zest the orange and add the zest to the boiling water for 1 minute, then remove and strain.
  7. Slice the peel off of the orange, cut the slices of orange out from between the white skin, and set aside.
  8. Pull the mint leaves from the sprigs and set them aside.
  9. When the lamb is fork tender, remove the skillet from the oven and move the lamb to a serving platter to rest.
  10. Remove the thyme stems and bay leaves from the sauce and put the skillet back on the stove over medium heat.
  11. Put the mint stems and the zest into the liquid in the pan and bring to a boil. Reduce the liquid to about a cup and then strain it into a clean pot (the one you boiled the zest in is fine).
  12. While the liquid is reducing, mince mint leaves very finely.
  13. Add the orange juice to the reduced liquid, place it over medium heat, and reduce the sauce again by half. Taste the sauce and add additional salt and pepper if needed. Add the butter, the finely minced mint leaves, and the skinless orange slices. Stir until the butter is melted then pour onto the serving plate around the lamb shank.

Tips, Tricks and Tweaks

  • Use an oven-safe skillet or Dutch oven with a fitted lid if you have one. This will prevent the liquid from evaporating too quickly during the braise. If you don’t have a lid for your pan, use a double thickness of foil and seal it tightly around the edge of the pan.
  • You can use dried herbs for this if you prefer, but use the fresh ones if you have access to them. The flavors will be brighter.
  • Make sure you remove the thyme sprig and the bay leaf before serving; no one wants to chew on twiggy stems or inedible leaves.
  • Serve this over polenta or mashed potatoes for a hearty Easter dinner.

March 31, 2010 at 12:05 pm Leave a comment

Menu Plan Monday ~ Week of March 29

Menu Plan Monday LogoLast week’s freezer restocking effort was a success! I’m starting to feel like I’m better prepared for weeks when schedules are hectic or I’m out of town. It’s also nice to be able to plan a “Mom’s night off” evening from cooking so I can spend more time with my family after work. To keep feeding the freezer karma, I’m going to devote most of this week to filling the freezer. Grilling season is approaching, so I’ll be making recipes that are grill-friendly and perfect for eating on the porch. I continue to use the Food on the Table site to help make menu planning and grocery shopping easy. It’s particularly helpful when I’m buying extra of most ingredients to fill the freezer because I base all of my main menu items on what’s on sale. Between the grocery store savings and the fact that we don’t eat out as much, particularly when the freezer is full, we’re really seeing an impact on our bottom line budget.

Now, without further adieu, here’s this week’s menu.

  • Monday: Sweet-and-Sour Skewered Shrimp with soba noodles
    I made these for the first time a few weeks ago and cooked them on a grill pan inside because it was a little too chilly to be grilling. Now that the weather is better I’ll toss them on the grill and we’ll enjoy dinner on the patio. I’ll make extra skewers and have the vegetables for lunch later in the week and the extra shrimp in the fried rice on Wednesday.
  • Tuesday: Lemon-Lime Soda Marinated Chicken Breasts
    with white rice and sautéed broccoli
    This dish continues to be a hit in our house and the chicken breasts freeze beautifully in the marinade. I’ll triple this recipe and freeze two batches. I’ll also make extra rice for Wednesday’s fried rice.
  • Wednesday: Shrimp Fried Rice
    The leftovers from dinner on Monday and Tuesday, along with a bag of frozen edamame will come together quickly for a fried rice this week. I keep thinking my family will get tired of my go-to fried rice, but because I mix it up each week (no pun intended) they seem to enjoy it as a regular menu item. It’s just like the Chinese take-out we used to have every week only less expensive and better for us.
  • Thursday: Coffee-Marinated Steak with Alfredo pasta and artichokes
    This is another great recipe for the grill. I’ll make a quadruple batch, cook two batches and freeze the other two. The leftover cooked steak will be perfect for steak sandwiches this weekend.
  • Friday: White Chili with Ground Turkey with cornbread
    This chili doesn’t have to cook all day so it’s practical on a weeknight. I’ll quadruple this recipe as well and put two batches in the freezer. Leftovers will be the topping for Frio pies on Sunday night.
  • Saturday: Steak Sandwiches with bean dip, corn chips, and fresh veggies
    Saturday night is movie night and there’s nothing more fun that settling in with trays of sandwiches and munchies. Bean dip is surprisingly healthy and adds a little more protein to our world. Fresh veggies are always a hit as finger foods with ranch dressing and we’ll much on them throughout the movie.
  • Easter Sunday: Frito Pies
    This is another menu staple that my family truly enjoys. I’ll be able to use the extra corn chips from Saturday night so they don’t go to waste but we’re not snacking on this special treat all week either. We’re enjoying Easter with friends so our mid-day meal will be filling. Frito pies are a great way to have a light and easy dinner after a long day.

March 29, 2010 at 6:56 am 5 comments

Quick and Easy Chicken and Sausage Jambalaya

This classic Louisiana dish has a thousand varieties, and everyone says theirs is the best and most authentic. While I won’t say that, I will say this recipe is easier than most of the cryptic ones I’ve found, and yields a delicious result which is what I’m after during a busy week. The leftovers reheat beautifully and are great for lunches.

Recipe: Chicken and Sausage Jambalaya

Details

  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Serves: 4-6
  • Prep Time: 20 minutes
  • Cook Time: 35 minutes

Ingredients

  • 1 3 lb. broiler chicken, cut up
  • 1 Tbsp paprika
  • 3 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 c. chopped onion
  • 1 c. chopped green bell pepper
  • 2 ribs celery, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • ½ lb. smoked sausage, thinly sliced
  • 2 cans (14.5 ounces each) stewed tomatoes
  • 2 c. chicken broth
  • 1 c. long-grain rice
  • 2 tsp. leaf thyme, crumbled
  • 1 ½ tsp. salt, or to taste
  • ¼ tsp. pepper
  • ¼ tsp. hot pepper sauce such as Tabasco
  • 1 lb. shrimp, shelled and deveined

Instructions

  1. Wash the chicken and pat it dry. Sprinkle the paprika over both sides of the chicken pieces and rub it in to distribute it evenly.
  2. Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat until it just shimmers. Add chicken and brown on all sides. Remove chicken from skillet and reserve.
  3. Add the onion, green bell pepper, celery, and garlic to the skillet. Reduce the heat to low and Sauté the mixture until the onion is tender, about 10 minutes.
  4. Stir in the sausage, tomatoes, chicken broth, rice, thyme, salt, pepper, and hot sauce. Add chicken and turn to coat with sauce. Increase the heat to medium and bring to a boil.
  5. Reduce the heat, cover, and simmer for 30 minutes, or until the chicken is tender and the rice is fluffy.
  6. Stir in the shrimp and cook about 3 minutes longer, or just until the shrimp turn pink.

Tips, Tricks and Tweaks

  • If you don’t want to have to debone a chicken, you can shorten the cooking time on this recipe to about 20 minutes by just using 4 chicken breasts or chicken thighs.

March 24, 2010 at 9:04 am Leave a comment

Menu Plan Monday ~ Week of March 22

Menu Plan Monday LogoSpring Break is over and spring is in the air here in Texas. We’re prepping for the final sprint to summer and even though it seems like 10 weeks is a long ways away, I know June will be here before we know it. Over the last few weeks I’ve completely decimated my freezer stash so now it’s time to restock. This week’s menu includes four recipes that I can make in big batches to replenish the freezer. I’ll do the same next week and we’ll be nicely squared away for the rest of spring. This week I’m making three different kinds of freezer-friendly dishes:

  • Casseroles that only need to be thawed and heated. These are perfect for nights when I’m home later or not home at all because the family doesn’t need me to put a pan in the oven and set a timer. Throw in a quick back of steamed veggies and dinner is done.
  • Meats that I freeze in their marinades so they are ready to toss on the grill or in the oven after they thaw. Storing the meat in the marinade helps protect it from freezer burn and it absorbs the flavor from the marinade as it thaws on the counter.
  • Meatballs that have 101 uses in the kitchen. From pizza toppers to sandwich filling to appetizers on a skewer, meatballs are a versatile freezer friend that I like to keep on hand. While I prefer to make my own because I know exactly what’s in them, and can take advantage of grocery store sales on ground meat of all kinds, I have been known to buy a bag or two at SAMs club when I don’t have time to make them myself.

What I like best about making extras of my freezer-friendly main dishes is that it takes hardly any extra effort at all. While I do have to use large containers and take the time to properly freeze and label the food, it still takes less time to make four batches of any recipe at once than it would be total time to make those same four batches four different times. With all of that said, this week’s menu is shaping up nicely.

  • Monday: Grilled Pork Tenderloin with Balsamic Vinegar with long grain and wild rice and steamed broccoli
    I love “the other white meat” because it gives us a break from chicken but is still very healthy. I’ll make 2 extra tenderloins and freeze them in their marinade.
    Tuesday: Greek Pasta with Bison with cucumber and tomato salad
    As I’ve mentioned before, I buy bison when I can instead of hamburger because it’s healthier all around. This pasta casserole will reheat nicely and is a fun twist on the traditional ground beef and pasta dinner. I’ll make two extra casseroles for my freezer stash.
  • Wednesday: Pineapple Chicken Tenders with lo mein noodles and grilled vegetables
    Who doesn’t love food in a stick? My family certainly does. I’ll make four batches of this recipe, freeze two, and cook two. I’ll use the leftover cooked chicken in a fried rice on Saturday night.
  • Thursday: Mexican Style Meatballs with cilantro rice and black beans
    Meatballs in a Mexican-inspired sauce over rice are fun and unexpected. I’ll make four batches of the meatballs without the sauce, freeze two, and cook two. I’ll use the extra cooked but un-sauced meatballs in meatball sandwiches on Sunday night.
  • Friday: Make your own pizza night
    I was inspired by last week’s Life as Mom Frugal Friday post to have a pizza night this week. This is a fun family activity for a Friday night because everyone gets in on the fun making their own pizza. If the weather is good we’ll probably grill our pizzas and eat them al fresco on the porch.
  • Saturday: Chicken fried rice
    Wednesdays chicken becomes quick fried rice with leftover rice from Thursday, a can of pineapple tidbits, and a bag of frozen peas and carrots. Add a few dashes of soy sauce and dinner is done.
  • Sunday: Meatball sandwiches with a tossed green salad
    To bring the Italian restaurant home, I reheat the meatballs I made on Thursday night in some jarred pasta sauce. I line sub sandwich rolls with fresh mozzarella, spoon on the meatballs, and run the whole thing under the broiler for 5 minutes or until the rolls are heated through. A nice salad plus a nice glass of wine for the grownups rounds out dinner nicely.

March 21, 2010 at 6:18 pm 1 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

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