Friday, July 1, 2011

July Meal Plan

Hey, remember me? No? I'm not surprised.  Things have been a little crazy around here recently.  I often didn't have the opportunity to post and when I did have the opportunity, I didn't seem to have the inclination.  It's a good thing this is just a hobby and not a job or I'd have been booted a long time ago.

I think that a large part of the reason I've been absent is that since we eliminated wheat from our diet I've been a little bummed.  I love how much better I feel and do not miss the effects that wheat was having on my system, but it doesn't make a baker happy to find out that 95% (or more!) of their recipes are now off limits.  So...I moped.  And I got a bit cranky about all the meals that I've made previously who are just waiting to jump to the head of the line and appear here and now I don't want to post them because I'm in a tiff.

I'm sure that I will eventually post them, just like I will eventually post the new wheat free recipes I've been creating to replace them.  The problem with my replacement recipes is that they aren't fully tested and I don't feel right posting something I created off the top of my head until I'm certain that it works more than once, several times would be better.  As I work out the kinks I'll try to be better about posting the results, but until then things are going to be slim pickings.

As you will be able to see below, this month is pretty much ALL about grilling.  I have no desire to heat up my kitchen so we are taking it all outdoors to appreciate the summer. Also, you might notice that most of the sides are rather up in the air.  I am hoping to be able to fill in those blanks with various fresh veggies from my garden, but at the moment I have NO idea was they will be (and no promise that they will produce!)  Enjoy!

Mon. Tues. Wed. Thur. Fri. Sat. Sun.

Slow Cooker Red Beans & Rice Chicken Spiedies, Grilled Veggies Hamburgers, Baked Beans, Salad
Hot Dogs, Baked Beans
Greek Chicken Kebabs
Grilled Lemon Pepper Salmon
Tex-Mex Dry Rub- Steak
Bean Burritoes
BBQ Rub- Pork
Salad w/Deviled Eggs
Hamburgers, Beans, Salad
Ham & Pineapple Kebabs
Grilled Salmon Patties, Grilled Sweet Potatoes
Chicken & Spicy Wing Sauce
Black Bean Salad, Chips?
Kefta & Zucchini Kebab
Chicken Caesar Salad
Indian Dry Rub- Chicken
Steak & Pepper Kebab
Grilled Mustard Salmon
Hot Dogs & Baked Beans
Grilled Turkey Breast
Taco Salad
Grilled Steak, Grilled Veggies
Teriyaki Chicken & Pineapple Kebab
Grilled Salmon Patties, Grilled Sweet Potatoes
Pancakes (Wheat Free!)
Zucchini Parm
Cajun Rub- Chicken
Cobb Salad

Thursday, June 2, 2011

June Meal Plan

May was an interesting month.  We got our garden planted in the beginning, the middle hit us up with some birthdays, a graduation, and Mothers Day and then the last weekend had us missing Hey, Babe as he went to Texas for his first (and can I hope last?) business trip which happened to coincide with our sixth anniversary.  I'm still recovering from May, which is partly why I'm a bit tardy posting our menu. 

The other reason is because I was rather hard pressed to plan a wheat free menu that I'd be interested in cooking and eating in this weather. In our un-air conditioned house I want to do as much of our cooking outside.  That should be simple except for the fact that most things want to be slapped on a bun after you grill them.  I have discovered that it is very possible that I should not eat wheat for health reasons and so I'm trying harder to stick to that.  Here is what we have come up with, our wheat free (the hot dogs and hamburgers will be bunless), hot weather friendly dinner plan. Enjoy!

Mon. Tues. Wed. Thur. Fri. Sat. Sun.

Lemon Chicken, Potato Salad Potluck Game Night
Waldorf Chicken Salad
Hot Dogs & Beans
BBQ Chicken, Grilled Sweet Potatoes
Taco Salad
Dry Rub Steak, Grilled Potatoes, Peas
Bean Burritos

Grill Roasted Turkey Breast, Asparagus
Salmon Patties, Spinach Salad
Chicken Scampi over Veggies
Chicken Caesar Salad
Pepper Steak, Brown Rice
Greek Chicken Kebabs, Tzatziki Party
Black Bean Salad
Grilled Sausages & Potato Hobo Packs
Grilled Rosemary Chicken w/Fresh Greens
Cobb Salad
Kefta and Zucchini Kebabs
Taco Dip
Barbecue Ribs, Corn, Cole Slaw
Huli Huli Chicken, Broccoli Salad
Cream Cheese & Parmesan Grilled Tilapia, Spinach
Dry Rub Chicken, Grilled Summer Squash
Chef Salad
Hamburgers, Baked Beans, Salad

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

How To Make a Monthly Meal Plan, part 5

Yesterday I wrote about the first three problems I thought of that can interfere with successful meal planning, today I follow up with the last three.

-I don’t like cooking or I don’t have time for it and with this plan I’m finding myself chained to the kitchen all the time and I can’t take it!

So plan differently.  No one said you have to make a gourmet meal every night, or even that you have to make a from scratch meal every night.  You are the one who is deciding what kind of meals your are making and how complicated they are, and how often you need to make them.  One woman I know cooks three nights a week and makes enough for two meals each time.  After eating those three meals once, they eat them a second time and then either go out or order pizza on Saturdays.  This works wonderfully for their family and might be something that would work for yours. 

If your family (or you!) don’t care for leftovers then just plan simpler things. It is your plan.  No one is grading it and critiquing it.  I don’t eat or buy most processed foods (often) but that is how my family works.  Your family eats and likes different things than mine and each of our menus will reflect that.

Another tip to cut down on prep is to do some things ahead.  Chop all your peppers/onions/etc. for the week on Monday and put them in containers.  Each night you will use only what you need for the day and you won’t be pulling out the knife and cutting board every night.  If you rely on convenience foods, eating at restaurants and ordering takeout for 95% of your family’s dinners it might be better to start small and gradually increase your nights of cooking.  Who knows? You might discover that having a plan in place with all of the necessary groceries eliminates the part of making dinner that you truly hate and actually cooking doesn’t bother you at all!

If possible enlist help.  If your spouse isn’t home to be any use preparing dinner on a week night, try preparing a few meals in advance on a weekend, or after the kids go to bed one night.  If your kids are old enough to be of any use in the kitchen, use dinner prep as a teachable moment.  I was taken aback when I got to college and discovered how many students were there who had no idea how to do things like cook for themselves or do laundry.  When/if your kids are old enough maybe they can be in charge of planning and cooking dinner one night a week.

-blah! We all got hit with the stomach bug!  We have a house full of food but none of us are well enough to prepare it OR to go and get anything else to replace it with that we might be able to keep down:

This happened to us a few months ago and I learned a very valuable lesson.  Keep sick people food on hand at all times and put it in an emergency place so that you don’t just dip into it when you are feeling lazy.  We now have in a crate in the garage a few cans of chicken noodle soup, a box of saltines, a few boxes of jello, a six pack of little bottles of ginger ale, a few serving size bottles (not the big ones) of pedialyte, and a container of Gatorade powder.  And we aren’t going to touch it.  Most of that stuff can keep for a looong time, but we are going to replace it at the beginning of flu season every year just to make sure none of it is ever expired.

Keep a couple of emergency, totally from the pantry meals on hand so that you won’t feel forced to order pizza when life doesn’t go your way because it is going to happen.  Rather than always keep the same emergency meal on hand in the pantry I sometimes try to plan a couple of new ones for the end of the month.  If I need to use them earlier in the month it is not as big of a deal and I can back cycle whatever meal I’ve skipped.

-I thought this was supposed to save money, why is my grocery bill so much higher?
Well, first off I’d like to ask if you are including your takeout/restaurant spending (including tips!) in that total.  I’m going to pull some random numbers out of the air here but if you used to spend $75 a week at the grocery store and then another $125 a week eating out, then your grocery bill all of a sudden doubling to $150 is not too surprising, as long as your eating out bill is either equally reduced or completely eliminated.  Double check but you are probably spending less. 

However, if you aren’t then what the heck are you making for dinner?  Really, I’d like to know because it is probably fabulous and I’d like to invite myself over.  Are you still buying a lot of convenience items (pre-made pizza crusts instead of a bag of flour and jar of yeast)?  By making some things from scratch instead of buying them premade you will save a little money and usually be eating a little healthier. 

Another option is to surround a spendy item will cheaper items.  Make a nice piece of salmon and serve it with a pile of cheap bulk rice or frozen green beans instead of the costlier asparagus (which you can serve instead with a cheaper cut of beef or some chicken).  It helps to spread out your “gourmet” without making you feel like you are depriving yourself by rotating between rice & beans and beans & rice. 

You are the one making the plan, so if you are choosing expensive things it will understandably cost more.  Think about what your family was already eating on a regular basis. Was it costing you less when you were scrambling around? That's okay because you can still throw some of those options back into the mix (or options in a similar cost bracket) but this time do it without the scramble. 

Also, keep in mind the sales.  If you planned on making steaks and got to the store to discover the price was astronomically more than you had expected, check to see what kind of substitutions you can make.  If there isn’t anything in a similar vein then scrap the meal for a different idea entirely or be prepared to shell out for the steaks.  I find that this is why it sometimes helps to bring your meal plan along with your grocery list to the store, it can help you remember why you put certain items on the list and whether or not they are crucial to any given dish.

If you missed the beginning of this meal planning series, please start here.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

How To Make A Monthly Meal Plan, part 4

For some people, making a monthly meal plan (or even a weekly one) is fraught with peril.  There are several pitfalls that people come across when they attempt meal planning on a larger scale for the first time.  There are six big ones that I can think of and I'll share with you, half today and half tomorrow, how they can be addressed or avoided.


So now you have spent valuable time and planned out your meals, written your grocery lists, bought your food and gotten it all put away.  You are all set for a week/month of stress free dinner prep, except:
- Someone (your kids, your husband, perhaps even yourself) always says they don’t want that for dinner.  Can’t we have/go to _____ instead?
Sure you can.  Sometimes things just don’t go as planned and you have to roll with the punches and consider that the important thing is that everyone was fed a relatively healthy (hopefully) meal.  However, if it is happening often perhaps you might think about why this isn’t working to see if there is a theme. 

Does it happen regularly on specific days?  For me it happened every Monday.  After having Hey, Babe home during dinner prep on Sat and Sun, I dreaded starting it up again solo on Monday nights.  Now I make sure I’m planning things that I will look forward to eating and be more willing to prep like my favorite homemade pizza.   Another option is to plan something that can be totally assembled earlier in the day while the kids are napping that just needs to be popped into the oven at the correct time. 

Does it happen for specific meals?  Tell it to me straight, you don’t like my chili do you?  You never feel like eating it, though you have before said you like it, and now when it comes up on the rotation we always seem to waffle around it and eat something else.  Since you never actually eat it, stop planning on eating it.  It is a waste in more ways then one.  Maybe leaving it off the rotation for a while will make it more appealing in the future.  Or maybe you can plan it for the night that whoever it is that hates it is not going to be home for dinner. 

Is it always the same person?  I have two separate suggestions here.  First off, maybe they just need to learn to live with it.  Pickiness, especially when it comes to food, is never welcome.  You are allowed to have things you prefer to eat and prefer not to eat, but if a meal is made for you, you eat it or you go hungry (ESPECIALLY if you are an adult/teenager).  I’m sure that as with any rule, there are exceptions (allergies, intolerances, etc.) but generally speaking this should hold true.  For some households there is always an alternate option to have (pb sandwich, hummus, etc.) for other households that just means you say, “Okay, the next time we are eating is at __ o’clock, see you then.”  It is up to you to decide which method will work better for your family.

Another solution would be to have the unsatisfied person contribute more to the meal plan.  If they are asking for blueberry pancakes for dinner instead of the spaghetti and meatballs you are making tell them “Ooh, what a great idea! Why don’t we write that down and have that ___ (tomorrow for breakfast/lunch, next week for dinner, etc.).  When you are making the next meal plan, have them come up with a list of foods that they want to eat and maybe make them a part of the preparation process for “their” meals.  You might want to make a note of which of the meals were their ideas so you can point out to them that they are the reason it is tonight’s dinner if their pickiness comes into play anyway.

In our household, I know that I am the most likely reason that dinner isn’t following the menu.  Not the kids, not Hey, Babe, not any other factor.  Just me.  I need to remember to suck it up and just make whatever is on the plan because I KNOW that when I don’t it makes the last few days of the month rather hairy and takes away the peace that meal planning is supposed to bring me.  I have to keep in mind when I am meal planning that what I have planned may not be exactly what I am in the mood food, but it is still tasty, nutritious food.  If I am going to tell my kids, “tough, that’s what is for dinner,” than I have to do the same for myself. 

-I just bought AAAAALLLLLL this stuff to make ONE MEAL, and it costs so much money, and now whatever isn't used in that one meal is either going to spoil or get pushed to the back of the cupboard and lost forever:
You may need to tweak how you are planning slightly.  There are four things I can think of to fix this: 
1.      Choose less complicated meals, or at least do so for some of them.
2.      Freeze leftover ingredients (granted, some things don’t freeze well.)
3.      Make twice as much of whatever the meal is and freeze half for a bonus meal next week/month! (yeah, some things still don’t freeze well).
4.      Plan another, different meal that will incorporate those extra ingredients for a night or two later.  Leftover ricotta cheese? Make some lasagna, stuffed shells, or cheese blintzes.  Use it up somehow.  Some of my tastiest creations came from adding odds and ends together so that none of them went to waste.

- Similar to the last complaint, I made dinner every night this week and we have a ton of totally prepared food in the fridge and yet another new meal planned for tonight:
I had this trouble a lot myself and started planning fewer meals for a while until Little Man started eating more.  You can go a few routes with this one:
1.      Eat leftovers for lunch and stop buying so many other lunch options.
2.      Plan fewer meals for the week, make one night leftover night and free up some time where you would have otherwise been in the kitchen.  Maybe make a nice dessert on leftover night since you didn’t have to cook dinner.
3.      Make smaller quantities so that there aren’t leftovers.  Scale recipes down, cut portion sizes in half, and have some extra salad to fill people up instead.
4.      Reinvent leftovers.  Make a roast on Sunday and plan on using the leftover meat on Monday for Pulled Pork Sandwiches or soup or a casserole.  Or if you think your picky family might catch on to the fact that it is similar to yesterday’s dinner, plan on using it Wednesday or pop it in the freezer and use it next week.
5.      Intentionally make enough that there is a whole second meal and freeze one of them for a bonus meal!

If you missed the beginning of this meal planning series please start here.  Tomorrow, three more pitfalls with suggestions how to resolve them.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Daring Cooks Make Gumbo

I am interrupting the series on monthly meal planning to bring you this month's Daring Cook's challenge!  The series will resume once again next week.  Our May hostess, Denise, of There’s a Newf in My Soup!, challenged The Daring Cooks to make Gumbo! She provided us with all the recipes we’d need, from creole spices, homemade stock, and Louisiana white rice, to Drew’s Chicken & Smoked Sausage Gumbo and Seafood Gumbo from My New Orleans: The Cookbook, by John Besh.

I can't even begin to tell you how utterly unenthusiastic I was about this month's challenge.  Really.  After reading the challenge I immediately sighed and decided that I was going to make it to bring to potluck game night at the church so that I might not be stuck with so much in the way of leftovers.  I wasn't going to shrug off the challenge just because I didn't think I'd like the food, but I didn't have to be happy about it either.  Lovely attitude, don't you agree?

Now, so far I had only seen the subject line, not the recipe or any of the example photos, and I had already done a mental shrug and eye roll over this challenge.  However, after reading some of the ingredient options and seeing the absolutely stunning pictures in the example, I was feeling a little more charitably inclined toward this Gumbo.  I can't even understand where my prejudice towards Gumbo came from since I've never actually tasted it but it was slowly starting to melt away.  Not enough, however, for me to reassign it on the menu away from the game night.  It might have seemed a little more appealing, but I still wasn't inclined to want a ton of leftovers.

Considering those things, I find it quite ironic that I fell a little more in love with this dish nearly every time I tasted it throughout the cooking process.  And I couldn't have it all to myself since I had already told people what I was bringing to the potluck.  Drat!  It serves me right after forming opinions based on absolutely nothing.  Really, nothing.  I have no idea why in my mind Gumbo = Gross.  Perhaps it was simply the name?  Or the fact that it usually (maybe always?) has Okra, which I dislike intensely.  I have no clue.

While I was making this I made quite a few changes, omissions, and alterations, both accidentally and intentionally.  I knew that I didn't want to make it too spicy, so I left out the spicy sausage called for (not realizing that smoked Andouille Sausage is also spicy!) and I didn't want to have a lot of extra seasoning bottles gathering dust in the cabinet never to be used again so I assembled my own Creole spices but it a much smaller quantity than provided in the given recipe, this also lead me to omit the File Powder.

I dislike okra (I won't even describe what it reminds me of) but I had planned on putting it in anyway because Hey, Babe likes it.  The Okra was eventually omitted when we couldn't find any after checking in three stores.  Another minor change I made was to add half chicken thighs and half boneless breasts instead a a whole cut up chicken.  After the first 45 minute simmer I took all the chicken out and de-boned and skinned it so that I could shred the meat and add it back to the pot, thus making it easier to serve at a potluck dinner.

The last two changes came about after a little...mishap, shall we say, in the kitchen.  According to the recipe you are supposed to cook the roux for 15 minutes, constantly whisking.  Due to either distractions from the kids or the fact that I chose to use some of the leftover bacon oil from breakfast, I am pretty sure that I burned my roux.  The house was slowly filling with smoke, and it was not smelling tasty at all, but the recipe said I was supposed to keep cooking.  I wanted to stop, but according to recipe I wasn't supposed to!

(grossly separating roux)

I should have gone with my gut.  I added the onions and ended up with a weird pot of separated oil and charred...stuff.  It didn't look right and it tasted even worse.  But I couldn't help but wonder if this was actually the result we were looking for?  Who knows, although if any of you think that I was actually on the right track, let me know.  Maybe I'll sacrifice a small experimental pot of it next time.  At any rate, after a little deliberation I decided to start over and cook it less along with no bacon fat this time and with a movie playing for Little Man.  The only problem with starting over was that I only had one onion left.  Oh well!

(the top spoon is the charred version, in case you couldn't tell)

It was the most exquisite form of torture.  Riding in a car for half an hour with the pot of bubbling hot Gumbo sitting in my lap was almost more than I could handle as we went on our merry way to Game Night.  If it hadn't been so very hot I'd have been even more tempted by the intoxicating fragrance to start drinking it up right there in the car.  The general consensus seemed to be that it was delicious, with a caveat from a few who thought that it was a tad too spicy for them.  Next time, and oh, there will definitely be a next time, I'm not too proud to admit when I was wrong!  Next time I will ease back on the cayenne, maybe add a little sweet sausage along with the spicy, and serve it with Tabasco Sauce at the table for anyone who wants to kick up the heat. 

Because I made many alterations to the given recipe, I will post my version below.  To use the recipe without my adaptations, or to check out the recipes for Seafood Gumbo click here.

Drew’s Chicken & Smoked Sausage Gumbo
adapted from My New Orleans: The Cookbook, by John Besh
Serves 10-12

1/2 tablespoons celery seed
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon onion powder
1/2 teaspoons cayenne pepper (or less if you don't like spicy)
1/8 teaspoon ground allspice

1 chicken (3 ½ to 4 lbs.), cut into 10 pieces
2 large onions, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
2 green bell peppers, seeded and diced
1 tomato, seeded and chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup (240 ml) (230 gm) oil
1 cup (240 ml) (140 gm) (5 oz) flour
Leaves from 2 sprigs of fresh thyme
2 quarts Chicken Stock
2 bay leaves
14 ounces andouille sausage, chopped
1 tablespoon (15 ml) Worcestershire sauce
Salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
4-6 cups cooked Rice (I used brown, but I might try mashed potatoes next time, not traditional maybe but I think it would be delicious!)

Combine the seasonings together and sprinkle them over the chicken pieces while you prepare the vegetables.

Make sure all of your vegetables are cut, diced, chopped, minced and ready to go before beginning the roux. You must stand at the stove and stir the roux continuously to prevent it from burning.

In a large cast-iron or heavy-bottomed pan, heat the oil over high heat. Whisk the flour into the hot oil – it will start to sizzle. Reduce the heat to moderate, and continue whisking until the roux becomes deep brown in color, about 15 minutes (the second time I only cooked if for about 10).

Add the onions. Switch to a wooden spoon and stir the onions into the roux. Reduce the heat to medium-low. Continue stirring until the roux becomes a glossy dark brown, about 10 minutes (again, the second time I did this for around 7-8).

Add the chicken to the pot; raise the heat to moderate, and cook, turning the pieces until slightly browned, about 10 minutes.  Add the rest of the vegetables and continue stirring for about 3 minutes.

Add the thyme, chicken stock, and bay leaves. Bring the gumbo to a boil, stirring occasionally.  Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, for 45 minutes. Stir occasionally, skimming off the fat from the surface of the gumbo every so often.  (I got a lot of oil off of this, more than 1 cup.  Can anyone explain why we add it just to take it out?  Can't we just toast the flour without the oil?)

Remove all the pieces of chicken to a plate.  Add the chopped andouille and Worcestershire. Season with salt and pepper to taste.  Start to simmer for another 45 minutes, while you are removing the skin and bones from the chicken pieces.  Shred the meat and return it along with any accumulated juices back to the pot.  Continue to skim the fat from the surface of the gumbo. Remove the bay leaves and serve in bowls over rice

Thursday, May 12, 2011

How To Make A Monthly Meal Plan, part 3

Making a monthly meal plan is such a valuable way to gain control of what for many people is the most stressful part of their day, the pre-dinner chaos that leads to fast food (and tears!).  Many people have heard of the Flylady who discusses getting your homes in order and keeping them that way.  I like what she has to say about meal planning:

"You can't eat what you don't have in the house. Just the simple act of sitting down and thinking about what to fix for the next week then going to the grocery store and purchasing the food will give you more freedom than almost anything. This will save you time and money and put good food in your pantry. When you have nutritious food in your home you will feel better about what you and your family are eating." Flylady

I happen to like cooking and experimenting with new recipes so we have a new plan for every month but that doesn't mean you have to.  If you are the opposite of me or if your family is less adventurous you could make one 30 day plan and just repeat it over and over again.  After all, that means you would only be repeating things a dozen times a year (providing of course that there were no repeats already scheduled).  The beauty of a set monthly plan is that once it and the accompanying grocery list are written, you will spend a lot of time each month not thinking about dinner.  When making your plan you can keep any number of days either "set" or "changeable".  You can keep one day a week or a month free for changes, or maybe you will keep only one meal the same each month.  It is completely up to you!

Your meal plan does not have to be gourmet or complicated or expensive.  It is not supposed to make your life more complicated.  For some people, making out a plan might make them over ambitious and I'd just like to remind you to be realistic.  If giving up takeout and restaurants will be tough, schedule some nights that allow for it.  If you don't like being in the kitchen, plan for quick and simple foods like hot dogs or macaroni and cheese.  Or perhaps you will only plan on cooking only three or four nights a week, either because you know you don't want to do more than that ever or just to start as you are easing into a new concept.  If a month seems daunting, plan for a week or two.  You can always use those meal ideas again if they work and scrap the ideas that don't.  I included the following steps in my handout at the meeting but for those of you who weren't there or didn't get one here is a good way to create your first monthly meal plan.

1. Get a calendar, paper for list making, a pen and some recipe sources (magazines, internet, cookbooks- by the way, most public libraries have a surprisingly large cooking section). I use a computer spreadsheet, but you can use an actual paper calendar if you’d rather.

2. Compile your family’s complete schedule for the upcoming menu period (week, weeks, month). Include information such as the nights people won’t be home, known crazy busy days, holidays, special events, entertaining, etc.

3. Write a list of your family’s favorite meals or even just foods they eat often and willingly. Perhaps even ask for input to see if there specific things they’d like to eat in the near future.

4. Check your pantry, fridge and freezer to see what ingredients you have that should be incorporated into the upcoming plan and add those meals to your list.

5. Start plugging the meals into appropriate days. By appropriate I mean days where you will be able (physically or mentally) to prepare that meal. If you aren’t going to be home all day you will want to plan a crock pot type of meal or maybe that will be your pizza night for the week instead of having a hands on intensive dinner.

6. See what you have left. Are most of the unfilled days busy days? Flip through your recipes to find some crock pot meals or make ahead dinners.  At the meeting, one mom suggested getting a menu to a favorite restaurant or two and looking for inspiration there.  You can often find copycat recipes for popular restaurant dishes online.

7. While you are filling in your weeks keep in mind that you probably don’t want to schedule too much of the same thing in a row, like three Mexican dinners, or three nights where the main ingredient is lentils. Look for recipes you’d like to try and maybe add one new thing for each week (more than that and you might start overwhelming yourself.)

8. Leave room for changes and have a plan for leftovers. Planning a new meal for each night often times means too much food. For us it means that we have lunch for the next day. If there is enough of certain types of meals leftover I will freeze it and have a ready meal waiting in the freezer for a busy night.

9. Going through each meal and the corresponding recipe, make sure you right down all the ingredients you will need, including those for any side dishes or desserts you plan on serving with them. I like to put my ingredients into five columns: dairy/cold, freezer, meat, dry goods, produce. This makes it easier later when you are shopping. Make sure you cross check this with your pantry.

10. Finally, post the menu in a prominent place where you and the rest of the house can refer easily to it. This makes it harder to forget to take out the roast to thaw for tomorrow’s dinner, and eliminates a lot of questions of, “What’s for dinner?” once your family gets used to the idea of the meal plan.

If you missed them earlier, read parts one and two.  Please feel free to ask in the comments if there is anything in particular you would like to know.  Also, I have in mind to address some pitfalls.  In your experience, what have been some you've encountered?

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

How To Make A Monthly Meal Plan, part 2

If you missed it yesterday, read part 1 here.

In the days before the first monthly trip I had come up with our menu. Our menu is a simple one, listing only the dinners that we will be having since Little Man and I eat leftovers for lunch and breakfast is either cold or hot cereal. After compiling the selections, going through all the recipes, and writing a comprehensive list of ingredients needed, I then checked the list against the contents of our fridge, freezer, and pantry. Various items were adjusted and the list was divided into two parts. After taking stock, I added to my portion of the list any household items that might run out in the next four weeks. We were ready.

While writing out my lists I tried to keep it as organized as possible by grouping like items together. The cold section (Dairy, Meats, and Freezer) I gave to Hey, Babe. It is a shorter list, covering a much smaller portion of the store, but it is nearly as time consuming since you need to check a lot of dates. I took the dry and canned goods as well as the household products. Starting at the farthest aisle first and working my was toward the registers, I got all the things on our list. The cart was very full, and quite heavy. I had strategically placed everything in to make sure it would all fit.

When I was done, I realized that it hadn’t taken me any more time than it normally would have. I still needed to walk down nearly every aisle, but while I was there I was taking several items, or several of the same item, rather than just one. Checkout took a little longer, (understandably so) but even that didn’t take nearly as much time as I had suspected it would. The whole trip (not including traveling, but including loading up the car) had taken about 45 minutes to an hour.

Upon arriving home again we found ourselves faced with the task of storing all the groceries. If it weren’t for our second fridge in the garage, this would have been much trickier. As it is our freezers ended up very full because we had to stow three 1-gallon jugs of milk and four loaves of bread in one (yes, we freeze our milk and bread). Everything else we tucked into place in our cabinets in as organized a fashion as possible and we were then done. For the next four weeks we had everything that we were going to need with the exception of produce.

We have been doing it since. We just shopped for our twentieth month’s plan and while there have been some forgotten items, extra items, nights we didn’t feel like any of the options on the plan, etc. it has made our lives so much easier. At 6 o’clock on any given night we have a fully loaded kitchen, ready to make any number of meals. It even has a convenient list of meal options still available clipped to the fridge.

It has gone so well that once after having written out the menu and corresponding grocery list we arrived at the store to discover we had forgotten the list at home. If we turned around and went home to get it, that meant a 40 minute round trip and losing our window of opportunity for shopping during a low traffic time, so we did our best to get what we thought we needed. We only forgot 5 things (though I think we had some extras of some others).

Are there nights we don’t want to eat the menu? Absolutely. Are there nights I don’t want to cook? Yup. Do we sometimes toss the plan to the side and order takeout? Don’t tell anyone, but yeah. Life happens. Kids interfere with your timetable and it becomes too late to start what had been on the plan, or you forget to defrost the roast that was supposed to be for dinner, or maybe you remembered to pull it out but the darn thing is for some reason still frozen solid. It happens, but because we know that it happens, I try to make sure that there are a couple of easy standbys in every month. Things like breakfast for dinner, or even just holding onto a couple of cans of soup for something quick and hot.

We don’t stick to our menu verbatim. If we are suppose to have Chicken Tacos on Tuesday, but I decide to make Thursday’s Beef Stew instead, it isn’t going to be the end of the world. I do, however, try to stick to the current week but that for the sake of the weekly produce more than anything else. For some families that kind of flexibility might backfire. I don’t have readers (yet) but if my kids were older and looked at the menu to see their favorite Spaghetti with Meatballs as tonight’s dinner they might balk at discovering we are instead having Vegetable Soup and no longer want dinner. It isn’t something I have experienced yet, but it is something to keep in mind for the future. Maybe by then I’ll be better at sticking exactly to the plan, but don’t hold your breath!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

How To Make a Monthly Meal Plan, part 1

Earlier today I spoke on a panel with three other people at my church's MOPS group.  The subjects presented included juicing and smoothies, couponing, organizing your recipes, and meal planning.  I feel that I was a little scattered in my presentation and am certain I didn't touch on everything I wanted to say.  Since I mentioned that my monthly meal plans could be seen as an example here and some of you lovely ladies I met today might be visiting (Hi!) to get a better idea of what I was talking about, I thought that I would try again. Hopefully more clearly.  First, a little back story:

I am an accomplished list maker. I like writing them, (it helps stall for time so I don’t actually have to cross things off the list). I also like to cook, especially for an appreciative (or sometimes captive) audience. When I was in college and cooking for myself I wasn’t so enthusiastic about cooking because there wasn’t anyone to share it with and I didn’t like the huge mess it made just for myself. After we got married I was the one who was home and available to do the dinner planning and prep so Hey, Babe and I made an agreement that whoever made dinner, the other of us would clean up. Both of my issues with cooking vanished. I started planning out our meals, usually for a week at a time, and doing the shopping once every week or so. I hate shopping (of all the kinds of shopping I’m actually most fond of going for groceries) and so I planned for a week at a time so that I wouldn’t have to go more often than that.

It worked well for a few years, then I got pregnant and two things changed. My sense of smell was such that I could smell our grocery store’s olive bar from the parking lot which made me quite ill and I developed a slew of constantly changing aversions. I didn’t know what I could eat even hours before dinner, let alone days. Hey, Babe started stopping at the store on his way home every night and calling me as he walked up and down the aisles suggesting things. We ate a lot of convenience foods and junk (the opposite of what you really should do when pregnant) and spent at least twice as much (if not more) on our groceries.

It got a little better after I had Little Man. I started planning weekly menus again, selecting meals that were easy to make with only one hand since I had to prep dinner with a baby on my hip. I probably would have stuck with doing the planning and shopping weekly if it weren’t for a few things. One of which had to do with the way I planned our meals. Since Hey, Babe, contrary to his mother’s belief, is not a picky eater and will eat pretty much anything I make, I only had my own tastes to apply to. I would sit with some cookbooks, magazines or websites, and browse for what was appealing. As I browsed through all my recipe sources, I would come up with numerous possibilities which I then had to whittle down to only seven. It wasn’t at all stressful, but it took up a lot of time and as a mother time wasn’t really something I could call my own anymore.

Still, if that were the only factor we would probably still be planning and shopping weekly, and be quite content doing so. The major cause in our change to monthly planning was the simple fact that we moved. The grocery store we liked to frequent was now a half hour ride away. We started shopping at a new and closer store, however, we quickly discovered that we easily spent over $20 more at the new, closer store, than we did at the old one. Now, $20 a week may not be a huge amount of money, but it will quickly add up. On top of that, we could no longer buy certain store-brand items that we preferred if we shopped at the closer store.

After considering the circumstances, we wanted to see if we could go less frequently. Hey, Babe passes a farmer’s market on his way home from work so fresh produce is picked up weekly rather than in the monthly trip. Even without getting any produce, we use two carts. Hey, Babe works Monday through Saturday so we decided to go really early the first Sunday of every month. I knew from experience that we needed to go early enough that we would beat the weekend crowd. At around 7am on that first Sunday morning back in September we headed out, learning that going early meant we wouldn’t just avoid traffic in the store, it also meant that we would have a much shorter ride getting there.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

May Meal Plan

As I was scrolling through my recipe box looking for dinner ideas I was dismayed to find that less than one percent of the recipes in there were wheat-less. Yikes!  Nearly everything was pastas, breads, had breading, etc.  Using less wheat and avoiding processed foods is going to require more thinking outside the box than I had first thought.  We have become such a bread centered society it is hard to avoid it.  There are still some bread-type recipes (like all the pizzas on Mondays, I love pizza) but there are a lot less of them this month than there were for previous months.  Enjoy!

Mon. Tues. Wed. Thur. Fri. Sat. Sun.

Zucchini Parmesan
3 Cheese Spinach & Broccoli Pizza Corn Chowder Garlic-Mustard Glazed Chicken Kebobs Swedish Meatballs, Mashed Potatoes Game Night Pan Fried Falafel, Tzatziki, Greek Salad Mother's Day
Spinach & Broccoli Calzones Baked Salmon w/Tomato Mayo BBQ Chicken stuffed in a loaded Baked Sweet Potato Beef Stir Fry w/Snap Peas

Eggplant Balls w/Marinara
Black Beans with Homemade Tortillas

Rosemary Balsamic Chicken over Salad
Sicilian Pizza Sweet Potato & Pecan Burgers with Caramelized Onions Grilled Herb Chicken, Grilled Summer Squash Kefta and Zucchini Kebabs Sausage-Stuffed Potatoes, Spinach Salmon Patties Cranberry Orange Chicken, Rice
Grilled Pizza Cream Cheese & Parmesan Baked Salmon, Baked Potato, Spinach Sweet & Spicy Wings, Sweet Potato Fries Stuffed Cabbage Chinese Barbecued Pork, Fried Rice Anniversary Pollo Rosa Maria, Mashed Parsnips
Memorial Day Cobb Salad

Friday, April 29, 2011

Canned Salmon Burgers

Sometimes when I read the title of a recipe I kind of cringe wondering how in the world someone thought that was a good idea.  And then I look at the accompanying photo and think, "Hmm, actually that doesn't look too bad.  In fact, it looks rather tasty.  Actually, why don't I go see if we have the necessary ingredients, Hey, Babe? Dinner is going off schedule tonight."  This was one of those times.  Except, since we didn't have the ingredients, it got added to the upcoming menu instead of cutting in line.

In our house we eat Salmon Salad Sandwiches the way that most people eat Tuna.  With a little mayo, some spices, and hopefully some finely diced celery and onions all mixed together and spread on a piece of toasted rye or a nice hard roll.  In that application it is delicious, cravable even.  Unfortunately all I could picture was a scoop of that dolloped onto a hot greased skillet and fried into a gooey, gross mess.  Blech!

Upon seeing that the recipe called for a slightly different and much more effective approach than the one in my wild imagination, I decided to see if it was a satisfactory way for Hey, Babe (the fish hater) to enjoy eating a fishy-fish (his opinion) like Salmon.  Does it tell you anything if I mention that he requested it be added to next month's menu?  Delicious! 

Since we aren't eating much wheat at the moment, and the instances we are eating it are reserved for such delicacies as pizza (yum, yum, and yum!), the next time we have these Salmon Patties we will be eating them over a bed of salad instead of rolls.  But these patties?  They will still be delicious, breadless or otherwise.  Enjoy!

Salmon Patties
adapted from Dana
1 (14 3/4 ounce) canned salmon, drained and fluffed with a fork
1/4 cup onion, minced
1/4 cup parsley, minced
2 garlic cloves, crushed/minced
1/4 cup cornmeal
1/4 cup flour (next time I'm trying Parmesan here, I'll let you know how it goes!)
1 egg, beaten
2 Tablespoons mayonnaise
1 tsp lemon juice

dash salt
dash pepper
dash Tabasco Sauce
Oil for frying

To a medium bowl add all the ingredients and mix to combine well.  Divide the mixture into four even portions and then use your hands to press each portion into an even patty, around 1/2 - 1 inch thick.

Heat a heavy skillet over medium high and add some oil to coat the bottom of the pan (1-2 tablespoons).  When the pan and oil are hot, fry the Salmon Patties until they are golden on each side.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Salisbury Steak and Potatoes

Growing up, every once in a while we would be allowed to have tv dinners as a special treat.  There was something special about getting to pick your own entree without a concern for who else liked it, and to have your own personal tray of perfectly portioned out dinner and your own dessert too. None of which you had to share! 

Most often the way I chose which dinner I wanted was based on the dessert included.  I remember wanting to go with Mom to the store to pick out my dinner instead of just placing my order, so to speak.  That way I could see what was available and make sure I got a good combination.  Cell phones would have come in quite useful at the time, I'm sure.

Unfortunately, sometimes the dessert I wanted was accompanying a meal I didn't.  When that happened I still got the dessert it just meant I had to eat something gross first, Salisbury Steak for example.  I never really cared for it, and since the only time I had tasted it was in a prepackaged dinner that isn't very surprising.  What is surprising is that when I saw a recipe for Salisbury Steak, I got a weird nostalgic craving for it, a food I'd never liked. 

After reading the recipe and seeing all that Salisbury Steak could have been I was tempted to try it, and eventually gave in.  The tender and moist beefy patties weren't spongy like a remembered.  The rich and hearty mushroom sauce wasn't nearly as salty and was missing a distinct chemical aftertaste.  In other words, it was delicious and beyond surpassed my childhood memories.  Enjoy!

Salisbury Steak
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup instant potato flakes (not granules or buds, they won't work here)
1 pound lean ground beef
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
4 tablespoons butter/oil
1 large onion halved and sliced thin
1 pound white mushrooms sliced thin
1/2 tsp salt
2 tablespoon tomato paste
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups beef broth

In a large bowl combine the milk and potato flakes.  Add the beef, salt and pepper and using your hands mix it until it is thoroughly combined (you don't want pockets of mashed potatoes!).  Shape into 6 patties, about 1/2-inch-thick each.  Refrigerate for 1-4 hours to allow them to set up a bit..

In a large skillet set over medium high, heat 1 TB oil and cook the patties 5 minutes or so per side until they are well browned.  Remove the patties from the pan to a plate.  To the empty pan add the remaining oil and cook the onions for 5 minutes until they are soft.  Add mushrooms and salt and cook until their liquid is gone, about 6 minutes.

Mix in the tomato paste and flour and cook, stirring, about 2 minutes.  Stir in the broth and bring to a simmer before returning the patties to the pan.  Reduce heat to medium low and cover, cooking the patties for 12 minutes or so until they are cooked through.  Season to taste with more salt and pepper if needed.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Daring Bakers Make Mousse in an Edible Container

The April 2011 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Evelyne of the blog Cheap Ethnic Eatz. Evelyne chose to challenge everyone to make a maple mousse in an edible container. Prizes are being awarded to the most creative edible container and filling, so vote on your favorite from April 27th to May 27th at!

So, can I tell you a secret?  I'm not writing this at the last minute.  It always seems that real life craziness gets in the way of my ability to complete the Daring Challenges until the very last minute (like the day it is due to be posted) and then I find myself up late after the kids are in bed trying to get the post finished.  Not this time!  I have more than a week to go before this post will publish.  It feels kind of...strange actually.  But I think I like it.

When I first read this challenge, I only skimmed over it assuming that it was the same as the Daring Cooks edible container challenge, except sweet instead of savory.  I missed one key detail in reading the instructions where it said, "There are 2 mandatory components to this challenge. You must make one of the 2 maple mousse recipes listed below and you must make an edible container in which to place your mousse for presentation."  They even put them in bold.  Somehow I thought I could make any filling and it wasn't until the other day that I realized I was suppose to make a maple mousse.

When I realized the filling had already been selected for me I didn't really mind, but I wasn't able to get back to the store to get the real maple syrup that was required.  Not seeing any time in the near future that would be convenient to pick some up and wanting to get started filling the bowls I had already made, I decided to go with Honey, which had been presented as an alternative.  The dried pineapple bowls were inspired by the dried pineapple flowers on Martha Stewart's site, which I saw quite some time ago.  Her recipe says you only need to dry them for around an hour which I found not nearly sufficient.  Perhaps if you can manage to get your pineapple slices paper thin that will be fine, otherwise expect to check it every half hour or so until it is nice and dry and tacky. 

I'm wondering if it would have helped to dried them flat for the first half hour or so before trying to flip them over and place them in my silicone muffin cups.  Trying to fit the stiff, fresh pieces of pineapple was a little tricky because they wanted to tear and break but I noticed when I was checking on them that they had become much more pliable after a little time in the oven.  Be sure that you dry your pineapple on some parchment paper, or a silpat, or something else that it won't stick to otherwise you will end up rather aggravated later.  The muffin cups I used were a gift from one of my brothers (hmm, I seem to get a lot of cooking paraphernalia from those guys) and I don't get to use them often but they worked marvelously for this.  I might make some individual sized fruit leathers in them soon.

Here I am rambling on and I haven't yet told you how wonderful the pineapple and honey went together!  The mousse on it's own was incredibly sweet and I can't really see myself eating much of it that way.  After I paired it with the dried pineapple I was surprised how much less sweet it seemed.  Even though pineapples are a sweet fruit the acidity from the citrus really seemed to mute the sweetness of the mousse.  The pineapple cups were a little chewy and I loved that next to the melting smoothness of the mousse. 

Don't forget that this month's challenge is a competition!  Browse around and see what some other creative souls from the Daring Bakers have come up with and make sure that you vote for your favorite from April 27th to May 27th at!  And if you'd like to try it, find the challenge recipe here!

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Coffee Cake (not Coffeecake) With Chocolate Icing

For Hey, Babe's birthday we were planning on having a party with his family that, due to various illnesses that bounced between households, never actually happened.  Because of that, I am really glad that I decided last minute on his actual birthday to whip together a cake for an intimate family celebration after dinner.  Plus, even though Hey, Babe isn't a dessert person I know that Little Man was looking forward to singing to Daddy and eating some CAKE!

When I was scanning through some recipes I knew I didn't have a lot of time, which meant that the recipe had to be very simple.  It also couldn't be a chocolate or a vanilla cake since I already had two layers of chocolate cake in the freezer for the coming weekend party and he doesn't care for vanilla.  After flipping through some books I decided to Frankenstein a few recipes and came up with this one.  I  used the recipe for Boiled Milk Frosting that you can find here, choosing to make the chocolate version (add 1/4 cup cocoa powder) that was given as an alternate option.

The cake came together quickly and easily.  It was a very tasty cake, and had it not been for the added icing it would have been a very simple, every day sort of snack cake.  It isn't often that I have a coffee flavored cake and for that reason alone I'd have made it again, but for a cake that was cobbled together from several recipes (mostly Dorie Greenspans Cinnamon Squares) I was quite pleased with how it turned out.

Quick Coffee Cake
1 3/4 cups Flour
1 cup Sugar
2 teaspoons Baking Powder
1/4 teaspoon Salt
3/4 cup Whole Milk
1 tablespoon Instant Coffee Granules
2 Eggs
1/2 teaspoon Vanilla Extract
10 tablespoons Butter, melted and cooled
1 recipe Boiled Milk Frosting (your choice of flavor) optional

Preheat the oven to 350°F and grease and flour either an 8-inch square or 9-inch round cake pan.

In a large bowl combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt.  In a large Pyrex measuring cup measure out 3/4 cup of milk and add 1 tablespoon (or more if you'd like it a bit stronger flavored) of coffee granules.  Stir to dissolve.  Whisk in the eggs and vanilla.

Working quickly but gently, stir the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients just until they are combined.  Use a spatula to carefully fold in the cooled melted butter until you have a smooth batter.

Pour batter into prepared pan and bake 35 minutes or so until a knife or toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.  Allow to cool at least 10-15 minutes before removing from pan.  If you plan on icing it be sure to cool the cake completely first.  Enjoy!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Pizza Hut Style Pepperoni Pan Pizzas

Wow, that's a lot of P's.  The salad pizza I showed you last time would be considered rather healthy by most standards, make it with a whole wheat crust and low fat dressing and you'd be golden.  Especially when you look at that pizza in comparison to this pan of greasy, salty goodness.  Now, just like with my children (or my appliances) I don't love one more than the other, I just love them differently.  A nice slice of pizza is welcome any time in my book, be it breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacktime, or even sometimes in the middle of the night.  If I am hungry I'll never turn my nose up at pizza.  To Hey, Babe's amazement I'll eat it cold from the fridge just as happily as hot from the oven.

All that being said, there is something wonderful about getting your own personal pan of pizza that you are not going to be expected to share and you can top however you wish.  Hey, Babe and I are nearly always in agreement over pizza toppings (thank goodness!) and if the topping in question is pepperoni Little Man is on board as well.  These all ended up being the same but still, we each had our own.  When we make these pizzas Little Man loves that he gets to smoosh out his own pizza dough and I just love how soft and tender the thick crust is.

We haven't reached the stage where we need two batches of this dough to feed us, so instead of just making 2 9" pizzas and splitting them up, I make the two it calls for plus a smaller third one for Little Man which results in slightly thinner (but still incredibly tasty!) pizzas.  Honestly, a whole 9" pizza is a bit much and we end up with leftovers for lunch (yay!).  This could easily serve 4-5 people, especially if accompanied by a salad.  When I am making Little Man's pizza, I use one of my Pyrex Storage Bowls in either the 7 cup or 4 cup size depending on how hungry he has been recently.  (Have I ever mentioned how much I love these bowls? They are awesome.  I had to get a second set because I am always using them and could probably use a third set. Good-bye plastic!)

This recipe was originally from a Cook's Country magazine, and in light of Hey, Babe's refusal to bring home "normal" pizza from work I tried it right away.  I had high expectations and was thrilled to have them met.  Since I don't quite have the sauce right I can only recommend that you use your favorite homemade or jarred tomato sauce, and feel free to mix up the toppings.  Keep in mind that this is a greasier pizza than one cooked on a pizza stone and so is is a bit less healthy.  Knowing that, I comfort myself with the fact that all the ingredients are relatively wholesome and that there are no chemicals or soy.  Go ahead and try it.  You know you want to.

Pan Pizzas
2 tablespoons oil, plus more for the pans
1 cup milk, warmed to 110 degrees
2 teaspoons sugar
2 2/3 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for counter
2 1/4 teaspoons instant yeast
1/2 teaspoon table salt
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

1 1/3 cups for favorite prepared pizza sauce
3 cups shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese
Toppings of your choice (pepperoni, sausage, chopped veggies, etc.)

1. Evenly coat each of two 9-inch cake pans with a generous portion of oil, about 1-2 Tablespoons a piece.

2. In a large glass measuring cup, combine the warmed milk with the sugar and 2 TB of oil.  To the bowl of your mixer add flour, yeast, and salt, mix just to combine.  Attach your dough hook and on low speed slowly start adding the wet ingredients.  Increase the speed to medium-low and keep mixing the dough for about 5-6 minutes until is is smooth (if you are doing this by hand you will need to knead around 10 minutes or so).  Shaped the dough into a ball and leave it covered in a warm place until it has doubled.  This should take about 30 minutes depending on how warm a place you leave it.  I often allow my oven to preheat to around 100°F and then turn it off to let it rise in there, or I put it in my laundry/boiler room which is around 80°F at any given time, it takes a little longer to rise in the boiler room.

3. Lightly flour your counter and taking half of the dough, roll it into a ball.  Flatten it into a largish disk and then transfer it to the oiled pan, using your fingers to gently press it evenly to the edges.  If at any point the dough you are working with starts to get tough and uncooperative, switch to the other piece and allow the first to rest a little.  Cover the pans with plastic wrap and let them rise in a warm place about 20 minutes.  Don't use your oven this time because you are going to need to start preheating it to 400°F. 

4. After the dough has risen, start assembling.  Divide the sauce, cheese, and toppings evenly over the tops of the pizzas to within a half inch or so of the edge.  Bake until the cheese is melted and your pepperoni (if you used any) is browning around edges, about 20 minutes. Let the pizzas rest in pans for 1 minute after removing them from the oven before taking them out of the pan and serving them.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Salad Pizza

During the first few years of our marriage, Hey, Babe worked as a manager for a fast food pizzeria.  Considering that it was the same place he had worked for all through high school and had returned to it for a few years after college while we were waiting for me to graduate and get married, it is no wonder that he had long since tired of their food.   I found this rather frustrating since it would have been quite convenient if he had been able to bring dinner home on the nights I didn't feel like cooking.  Especially considering Pizza is one of the foods I love and can eat over and over again in nearly any configuration.

One of the only ways Hey, Babe was willing to accommodate me was to on rare occasions bring home a not-from-the-menu salad pizza.  He and his brother had worked at the pizzeria together through high school, and upon tiring of all the heavy, greasy, salty pizzas readily available, they began instead to create various versions of this salad pizza when hunger struck them.  The salad bar and various pizza toppings available made it quite easy both to assemble and to switch up the ingredients by making it spicy, or with chicken, or bacon, etc.  It wasn't always the same exact ingredients, but it was always good.

I know this is another pizza recipe and I have posted several already, but since pizza is so awesome can you really blame me?  It really is one of my favorite things and because you can change up the toppings so drastically you never have to eat it the same way twice.  Coming up soon...Pepperoni Personal Pan Pizzas.

Salad Pizza
1 lb or so of your favorite pizza dough (I've even used this No Knead Dough)
4 oz. Cheddar Cheese
4 oz. Mozzarella Cheese
1/4 - 1/2 cup Creamy Dressing (we use Ranch, but Italian or Caesar could work too)
1 Red Onion, diced
4 cups Romain Lettuce, thinly sliced (you could also do spinach, iceberg lettuce, etc.)
2 small Tomatoes, chopped
2 Carrots, thinly sliced or grated
1 Bell Pepper, chopped
1 Cucumber, chopped

Optional Ingredients
Cooked Chicken
Bacon, Chopped
Hot Peppers
Sausage, Chopped

Preheat oven (and pizza stone if you have one) to 450ºF.

On a piece of parchment paper, roll out your pizza dough into a circle of your desired thickness.  Sprinkle cheddar over the dough followed by mozzarella both to within an inch or so of the edge.  The mozzarella is less likely to burn and should go on top of the cheddar.  Place on preheated pizza stone and bake 12-14 minutes or until crust is golden brown and the cheeses are melty and starting to turn golden.

There are now two ways you can assemble this.  The first is to mix all the remaining ingredients, including dressing and your selection of optional ingredients into a bowl, toss them together and then spread them evenly on the pizza.  This works fine but then you get a big bowl dirty and you chance there being an uneven distribution of ingredients.  Instead, I usually spread some of the dressing on the top of the cooked pizza and then start layering the ingredients on, scattering them evenly over the top sometimes finishing with a little more derssing.  It's your choice.  Either way, slice with a pizza cutter and serve it warm.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Baking Tips Part 1: Cookie Shaping

When I first started baking I learned the hard way that you should read through a recipe and make sure you are certain of two things: first, that you have all the ingredients, and second, that you understand all the instructions.  The worst time to realize you aren't sure of either of those items is when you are halfway into making a recipe.  Along the way I have picked up some various other tips and tweaks that I regularly apply to my baking and for this half I'd like to touch on shaping the cookie dough.

Something else I learned early on is that I am a lazy cook when it comes to certain steps, especially when it comes to shaping cookies.  Here are a few things I routinely do to make my cookie baking easier, faster, or less messy than the instructions call for.  There are several ways of shaping cookies and I find that they fall under two tiers, the first tier being the simpler. If I were to list them in order of preference based on ease of assembly they would be:

   First Tier-
  • Bar Cookies- By far the easiest and least fussy method.  Plop the dough into your prepared pan and smooth it out using a spatula, your wet/greased hands, or a piece of wax paper.  Wonderful in that you do not have to babysit the oven, turning trays and switching trays and putting a new tray in, but it will take a bit longer to cook so your instant gratification is reduced.

  • Drop Cookies-  One of the more common methods, perhaps even the most common.  I bought three sizes of cookie scoops (1 tablespoon, 2 tablespoons, and 3 tablespoons) and no longer dread gooey fingers or uneven sized cookies that lead to overdone and underdone cookies on the same tray.  Easy to assemble but you need to babysit the oven, filling trays and switching them around. (Along these same lines are thumbprint cookies which are drop cookies that have been indented, usually with your thumb, and then filled.)

  • Rolled into a ball and flattened-  This is where you divide the dough into even little balls of a determined size or number before using your wet/greased/floured hand or the bottom of a floured/sugared glass to press them into thinner flat disks.  Previous to buying my cookies scoops I didn't like this method much as it sorely tested my patience when it came to getting all the balls to be even.  Now I use my cookie scoops to plop them out all the same size without a bit of hassle.

   Second Tier-
  • Slice and Bake- Here you take the entire portion of dough and shape it into a long log using parchment paper, wax paper, or plastic wrap.  It is then chilled before slicing off even thicknesses of dough and baking them.  My dough often does not cooperate.  The pitfalls of this method include: round logs turning square, square logs turning round, dough sticking to the wrapper, slices getting squashed or cut unevenly.  This works well for a nice thick dough that is well chilled but as the dough softens you run into trouble.

  • Rolled Out and Cut- Using a floured or greased surface and rolling pin the dough is rolled out to a prescribed thickness and shape before being cut into smaller portions with a knife, pastry cutter, pizza wheel, cookie cutters, etc.  Unless you cut the dough into squares you are left with scraps and the procedure must be repeated.  Each time it is repeated with subsequent scraps the uncooked dough gets a little warmer/softer resulting in a tougher finished product.  Also, you may run into dough that wishes to stick to either the rolling surface or the rolling pin and after doing so, tears when you try to move it to the baking sheet.

  • Rolled, Filled and Shaped- Like the previous method, this dough is rolled out flat and cut into smaller portions.  Those portions are then filled with some concoction and then the dough is wrapped to hold the filling in some way.  This is by far the most fastidious method and the one I am least likely to do.

About that lazy cook thing that I mentioned before.  When I am making any cookie in the second tier, 99% of the time I will switch it for a first tier method.  It makes my life simpler and makes me happy while I'm baking.  The final products are not usually drastically different from the original intent and sometimes I even prefer them.  Although I must admit, since I have never made some of the second tier cookies in their original presentation, I am only making an assumed comparison.  Sometimes I will even turn first tier cookies into the simplest form, that of the bar cookie.  It really depends on my mood and my time constraints.

I know that there are other methods of shaping cookies, and even variations on the above methods.  Cookie guns or cookies presses for example aren't anywhere on my list, but since I have never used one I can't comment.  I won't pretend that the above list is by any means complete, it is, however, complete according to the methods I typically come across.  So, what have I missed?  Would you agree with that order of ease or do you switch some around?  Are you a baker (lazy or otherwise) with any tips to share?

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