Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Eating more meals at home: Tips for busy families

I'm often asked how to get in the habit of cooking more meals at home. Five O'Clock chaos seems unavoidable: arriving home to hungry kids with an ensuing chauffeur service to practice, lessons and other errands. The drive through or local pizza joint is so convenient....just not satisfying or nourishing.

While it may be a challenge to cook every night, several nights a week is accomplishable and you'll find that the more you do it, the easier it becomes. These tips will help you build the habit.

1. Plan ahead
Meal planning is the best way to make sure you have meals every night. But that means I have to set aside weekend time to plan. And if our plans change mid week (work dinner, late evenings, forgotten meetings) it means I'll have extra food which could mean food waste. And I hate waste. Instead, I try to make a couple sides early in the week that will hold in the fridge for several days. I might make vegetable or bean salads, slaws, pickles or vegetable casseroles I can heat up quick. Even if I don't have a dinner plan, I can pull burgers, pork chops, chicken breasts etc, from the freezer, thaw in the microwave, grill or saute and serve with a pre-made side from the fridge.

A stocked pantry makes meal prep easy. Some of my favorite ingredients are
olive oil, a variety of vinegars and whole wheat pasta.

Spices will keep for a year. Start out with a few favorites
and add to your collection based on your tastes.

2. Maintain a stocked pantry and freezer
With a few freezer or shelf stable ingredients, you can prepare a quick meal even if you didn't plan ahead. These items won't spoil, and having them on hand will encourage you to cook.

Pantry Staples

  • Dried herbs & spices: oregano, basil, cinnamon, cumin, garlic
  • Granulated sugar
  • All purpose flour
  • Canned beans - I like black, cannellini and chick peas
  • Tomato sauce
  • Pasta and rice
  • Cooking and olive oils
  • Balsamic and white vinegars
  • Chicken and beef broth
  • Panko bread crumbs
  • Oatmeal
  • Fresh potatoes or sweet potatoes
  • Onions
  • Bread, buns or tortillas
  • BBQ sauce
Freezer Staples
  • Ground meat: beef, sausage, chicken or turkey
  • Pork or beef roasts
  • Boneless chicken breasts
  • Pork chops
  • Pizza dough
  • Blueberries or raspberries
  • Green beans or peas
  • Corn
  • Butter
You may have to defrost a few items in the microwave, but in about 30 minutes with your pantry ingredients you could make:
  • Pasta with red sauce
  • Pizza Pasta
  • Crispy chicken sandwiches (breaded with flour and panko and pan sauteed)
  • Enchiladas with rice
  • Tacos
  • Salad dressings
  • Chicken rice soup
  • Minestrone soup
  • Fruit crisp
  • Oven french fries or sweet potato fries
  • Pan sauteed or grilled pork chops or chicken over rice
  • Pork or chicken kabobs
  • Quick veggie sides: sauteed green beans with onions, rice pilaf, pasta salad, bean salad, corn & black bean salad, mashed potatoes or sweet potatoes
  • Meatballs
  • BBQ chicken or pork chops
  • Pizza or strombolis
  • Start roast beef in a slow cooker: meat, beef stock, basil, garlic, pepper and quartered onion. Cook on low 10-12 hours. For pork roast, add chicken stock, BBQ sauce, cumin, garlic and quartered onion.
  • Burgers or sausage sandwiches

3. Master a cooking technique
When I'm feeling rushed, I don't want to search for recipes. Instead, I rely on a few cooking techniques I use frequently. One technique can produce different flavors depending on ingredients. Fast cooking methods include pan sauteing, pressure cooking and poaching/boiling. In our house, the go-to technique is roasting. I can have a delicious, crispy vegetable side ready in 30 minutes or less. We roast lots of root vegetables (beets are a fave), but also roast cauliflower, broccoli, asparagus, Brussels sprouts and cabbage. To prepare, cut veg into bite size pieces and toss with olive oil, salt and pepper. Place on a rimmed baking sheet and roast in a 400 degree oven for 30 minutes, stirring once (potatoes and beets should be roasted at 425 degrees, cauliflower, broccoli and asparagus will be done in 10-12 minutes). Remove from oven and top with herbs or spices of your choice, a squeeze of lemon juice or hot sauce.

Roasted vegetables are easy, crispy and satisfying. These roasted red and golden beets
are tossed with olive oil, salt and pepper and roasted at 425 degrees for 25-30 minutes.

My goal is to curb my desire to call the pizza joint for dinner. While takeout may seem easier, I know I can make a tastier and more nutritious meal in the same (or even less) time. What are your tricks to fast and delicious dinners?

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Savory Beef Stew

Beef stew is a winter staple in our house. The one-pot meal is easy, filling and so satisfying. Because we preserve our own tomato juice and freeze green beans and corn, we usually have all the ingredients on hand. I sometimes substitute peas for the green beans - feel free to change up the vegetable mix to suit your tastes. I serve the stew with crusty bread, focaccia or popovers for dipping.

Toss the meat with flour to coat.
Brown meat on all sides in hot oil. Cook meat in batches. When all meat
is browned, add all ingredients except potatoes, beans,
corn and carrots to the pot. Simmer for one hour.

I use our home canned juice. Commercially canned juice can be substituted.
Add vegetables and continue to cook for an additional 30 minutes.

The finished stew has a thick, rich broth with tender meat.
I top with a chopped fresh parsley. Hearty & delish!

Savory Beef Stew

Adapted from Better Homes & Gardens New Cookbook
3 Tbsp flour
1 lb beef stew meat, cut into 3/4 inch cubes
2 Tbsp cooking oil
4 cups (1 quart) tomato juice
1 medium onion, chopped
1 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1 1/2 tsp beef bouillon granules
1 tsp dried oregano
1/2 tsp dried marjoram
1/4 tsp black pepper
1 bay leaf
3 cups cubed potato
1 1/2 cup green beans
1 cup frozen corn
1 cup chopped carrot

Toss meat cubes with flour to coat. In a large saucepan or Dutch oven brown meat in batches in hot oil. Stir in tomato juice, onion, Worcestershire sauce, bouillon granules, oregano, marjoram, pepper, and bay leaf. Bring to boiling; reduce heat. Simmer, covered, for 1 hour. Stir in potato, green beans, corn, and carrot. Return to boiling; reduce heat. Simmer, covered, about 30 minutes more or until meat and vegetables are tender. Discard bay leaf before serving. Makes 6 servings.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Homemade Baked Beans from Dried Beans

"Best baked beans I've ever had," said the chief gardener after eating beans that we grew (var. Kenearly Yellow Eyes) soaked overnight and baked in a sweet/savory sauce with bacon ends (compliments of Six Buckets Farm), molasses, onions and brown sugar. These beans take a little extra time but are easy and super tasty! Don't worry about the volume - you'll enjoy the leftovers!

We grew and dried these white beans. Pretty and delicious!

In a large saucepot, Soak beans overnight. Add 1/2 tsp salt, bring beans to a boil,
reduce heat and simmer for 1 1/4 hours.

Drain beans reserving liquid.

Place beans in a casserole. Add remaining ingredients.
Cover and bake in a 300 degree oven for 2 1/2 hours.
Sweet, savory, smoky. Amazing!

New England Baked Beans
Adapted from The Better Homes & Gardens New Cookbook (1987 edition)

1 lb dried beans (navy or great northern)
1/4 lb salt pork or bacon, chopped
1 large onion chopped
1/2 cup molasses
1/3 c packed brown sugar
1 tsp dried mustard
1/2 tsp salt
1/8 tsp pepper

Rinse beans. In a large heavy saucepot soak beans in 8 cups water overnight. Add 1/2 tsp salt to pot, bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer 1 1/4 hours. Drain beans, reserving liquid. In a 2 1/2 quart casserole combine beans, pork or bacon and onions. Stir in 1 cup reserved liquid, molasses, brown sugar, mustard, salt and pepper. Cover and bake in a preheated 300 degree oven for 2 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally. Add more of the reserved liquid if necessary. Makes 6-8 servings.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

My Favorite Cookbooks

I love collecting and reading cookbooks. I enjoy sitting in the book nook browsing selections for dinner inspiration, but often find myself revisiting a handful of favorites. These are the books that include a big variety of vetted recipes and the finished product tastes good and looks like the picture. Food stained pages and cracked bindings are testament to their frequent use.

The nook. I need another shelf.

Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book
I've owned an edition of this book since I began cooking and baking. It's an all-purpose cookbook that covers all the bases: appetizers, main courses, breads and desserts. The recipes are easy and perfect for the novice or not-so-confident cook.

The King Arthur Baker's Companion
King Arthur has been in the flour business for over 200 years and while their cookbooks are a  more recent addition, the recipes are just as reliable. Their team of world class bakers develop solid recipes including illustrations detailing shaping techniques. This is a must-have for bakers.

Ball Blue Book Guide To Preserving
Anyone who preserves food probably has a few Ball jars in their cupboard. But their cookbook is the real star,  providing safe, tested recipes to novice and experienced canners for years. At $8, it's the most affordable cookbook in my collection - well worth my peace of mind, knowing I'm safely preserving food.

Madhur Jaffrey's World Vegetarian
For a period of about two years, my husband was a vegetarian (after we'd been married 10 years). We'd always enjoyed lots of produce in our diet, but I'd never really put much thought into preparing meals without meat. This book gave me lots of ideas, including international recipes. Although we're both currently meat eaters, I still use this cookbook.

I'm always on the hunt for new cookbooks. Leave a comment below with your cookbook recommendations.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Dry Rubs and Seasonings

We had a great pepper season and I was able to dry lots of cayenne peppers which I later ground into a powder. With plenty of cayenne, I made a couple of spice blends to keep in the pantry. I like to pass all the ingredients through a fine mesh sieve to eliminate spice clumps. Store seasonings in an airtight container and use within six months.

I add taco seasoning to enchiladas, soups and dips (and tacos, of course).
Feel free to add more or less cayenne, depending on how much heat
you prefer. I also added some of our dried cilantro. 

Taco Seasoning
2 tablespoons chili powder
1 tablespoon ground cumin
2 teaspoons cornstarch
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 ½ teaspoons paprika
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4-1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper (to taste)
1 Tbsp dried cilantro
Combine all the ingredients and store in an airtight container. To season taco meat, add 2 Tbsp spice blend and 1/2 cup water to 1 pound ground meat. Simmer for 5 minutes.

Made with brown sugar, this BBQ rub pairs well with pork. I especially like to
rub on a rack of ribs and place in the fridge overnight before grilling.

1/2 cup brown sugar
2 Tbsp paprika
1 Tbsp salt
1 Tbsp chili powder
1 Tbsp garlic powder
1 Tbsp onion powder
1 tsp cayenne
Combine all ingredients and place in an airtight container.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Fancy Cookies: Cream Horns

Cream horns are a special cookie I usually only bust out around the holidays, but have also made them for baby & bridal showers, birthdays and other occasions. They're not hard to make but do require a bit of patience and practice to create the shells. They're worth the effort: a crispy shell holds a sweet, fluffy filling.

If I have time, I'll make the puff pastry. However, store bought works just fine and reduces the prep time significantly. This makes about 5 dozen and the finished cookies freeze well - just wrap tightly and consume within three months.

I use two different forms. Both were purchased online but
can be found at most bakery supply stores.

Before wrapping the forms, I grease and flour. You may need to reapply
grease and flour throughout baking to prevent sticking.

I started with one sheet of puff pastry from a 1lb package. Roll pastry to
10 inches x 15 inches. Cut into thirds to produce three 10 inch x 5
inch pieces. Cut each third into ten 1 inch x 5 inch pieces. 

Wrap each piece around the form, beginning at the bottom. Overlap the dough
slightly on the edge of the previous tier. Secure both ends by wetting the dough with water
(I use a small bowl of water to dip my finger and rub into the ends).
This will keep the dough from pulling away from the form.

Place the wrapped forms on a lined baking sheet and bake at 400 degrees for 7-8 minutes.

Remove from the oven and let cool for one minute. Carefully slide the cookie off the form.

Let the cookies cool completely before filling.

Prepare filling. A piping bag makes filling quick and pretty.

Fancy! These look great displayed on cookie platters. 

Cream Horns
1 lb puff pastry, homemade or store bought
metal pastry forms
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Grease and flour forms. Using one pastry sheet (or half if using homemade), roll to 15 inch x 10 inch rectangle. Cut dough into thirds, each measuring 5 inches x 10 inches. Cut each third into ten 5 inch x 1 inch strips. Wrap dough around forms, sealing both ends with water. Place on a silpat or parchment lined baking sheet and bake for 7-8 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool for one minute. Remove forms from cookies. Repeat with remaining dough. Makes about 5 dozen cookies.

1/2 cup milk
2 Tbsp flour
1/2 cup butter
1 cup shortening
5 cups confectioners sugar
1 cup marshmallow creme
1 tsp vanilla
In a small saucepan  heat milk and flour until boiling, stirring constantly. Chill mixture thoroughly. In a mixing bowl, cream butter, shortening and confectioners sugar. Add marshmallow creme and vanilla. Add cooled flour mixture and beat well. Use a piping bag to fill cookies.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Fancy Cookies: Cream Wafers

I'm not sure where I found the recipe for cream wafers. It's not in any of my cookbooks and my only copy exists on a faded recipe card. Old fashioned or not, these favorite melt-in-your-mouth cookies pair a creamy filling with tender wafer cookies.

I use a small 1 1/2 inch round cutter which yields about 4 dozen finished, filled cookies ( I prefer smaller cookies). Using a larger cutter will decrease yield. Feel free to use cutters of different shapes and tint the icing according to your preference.

These cookies freeze well. Just place in an airtight container and consume within three months.

I keep several varieties of cookies on hand for special occasions 
and holidays. The cream wafers are the pink filled cookies in the center.

Cream Wafers
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
1/3 cup whipping cream
2 cup flour
Place all ingredients in a large bowl. Mix until well combined. Wrap dough tightly and chill at least three hours or overnight. Roll dough to 1/8 inch thickness. Cut with 1 1/2 inch cookie cutter. Place on a cookie sheet and using a fork, prick each cookie 3-4 times. Bake at 375 degrees for 7-8 minutes. When cool, place scant tsp of filling on cookie and top with a second cookie. Makes about 4 dozen sandwich cookies.

1/4 cup butter softened
1 egg yolk
1 tsp vanilla
3/4 cup powdered sugar
Food coloring
Combine butter, yolk, vanilla and powdered sugar, mixing until well combined. Tint with food coloring. Fill cookies.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Homemade Ginger Ale

My grandmother was a big fan of ginger ale. I imbibed only when I was at her house so it became a special treat I associated with fun days at grandma's house. When I recently found myself with a bunch of ginger left over from a food shoot, I thought I'd make homemade ginger ale.

Some homemade soda recipes rely on fermentation for carbonation. This recipe offers a shortcut, substituting carbonated water for the bubbles. You can add more or less syrup to each glass depending on your taste.

The flavor is more gingery and brighter than commercial ginger ale. I'm sure mixologists will have fun coming up with spirits to pair with both the syrup and soda.

Fresh ginger root.

No need to peel - just rinse and thinly slice.

Add sliced ginger, water and sugar. Bring to a boil, reduce heat
and simmer 10 minutes. Cool and strain.

Combine 3 Tbsp syrup with 1 cup carbonated water in a glass. Top with ice and enjoy!

Homemade Ginger Ale
From Sara Moulton

1/2 cup sliced unpeeled rinsed fresh ginger root
1 1/3 cup water
2/3 cup granulated sugar
Bottled carbonated water, chilled

Combine ginger, water and sugar in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer gently for 10 minutes. Let cool, strain and discard ginger. In a rock glass combine 3 Tbsp ginger syrup and one cup seltzer. Top with ice. Makes 8 servings.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Drying and Processing Cayenne Peppers

We grow several varieties of peppers but cayennes are probably the easiest and most prolific. The bushes are about 2 ft. tall and loaded with fruit. We use a few fresh then preserve the rest by roasting and grinding into powder.

Homemade cayenne powder is HOT. If you prefer a tamer chili powder, cut the ground peppers with salt, garlic, oregano and cumin. Cayenne powder can be added to meat rubs, BBQ seasonings, and any dish that needs a kick of heat.

Once ground, store the powder in an airtight container and use within a year.

Cayennes are easy to dry - just lay them in the sun or a warm room for a few weeks.
No need to string. We leave a few whole to use throughout the year.

Before grinding, place the air dried peppers on a sheet tray and roast at
350 degrees for 4-5 minutes. The extra blast of heat will make for easier grinding
and add a smoky flavor. Be sure to keep an eye on the peppers to prevent burning.
Remove from the oven just when you begin to notice a peppery, smoky aroma.
Roasted peppers will take on a dark reddish brown color (right).

Remove stems from peppers and place pods and seeds in a food processor,
blender or mortar and pestle. Grind to desired texture (ours still has some seeds visible).
Place in an airtight container and consume within one year.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Fancy Cookies: Decorated Cut-Outs

During the holiday season I make several varieties of cookies to share with friends, family and co-workers. I love having a ready made dessert/gift in the freezer and while I add a few new kinds each year, most are old standbys. My goal is 10-12 varieties in the freezer by the first week of December. Sometimes I even make it.

An annual favorite, decorated cut-outs provide a colorful addition to the cookie plate. The base is a soft, tender sugar cookie but the real star is the frosting. I use a traditional piping icing, but feel free to substitute a flooding or buttercream icing. This makes about 5 dozen, depending on the thickness of the dough and size of the cookie cutters. While the pictures feature Christmas cookies, I use the same recipe for cookies celebrating Valentine's Day, Halloween, birthdays and other celebrations.

After the dough is mixed, wrap tightly and place in refrigerator for at least 2 hours.

Roll dough on a lightly floured surface. I roll a quarter at a time.

Roll to 1/8 inch thick. Cut with cookie cutters.

After baking, cool completely before icing.

While cookies cool, make icing and tint with desired colors. I frost by
spreading the icing with a knife and using a piping bag. 

Cut-Out Cookies
1 cup butter
1 1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla
3 eggs
1/2 tsp salt
3 tsp baking powder
4 cups flour

Cream butter and sugar until fluffy. Add vanilla, eggs and salt incorporating well. Mix in baking powder and flour. Wrap dough tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 2 hours or overnight. Dust surface with flour and roll dough to 1/8 inch thick. Cut into shapes. Bake at 350 degrees for 6-8 minutes. Cool and frost.

Piping Icing
2 cups shortening
1 Tbsp vanilla extract
1 tsp lemon extract (optional)
8 cups powdered sugar
8 Tbsp milk

Beat shortening and extracts. Add half of powdered sugar and 4 Tbsp milk. Gradually beat in remaining powdered sugar and milk. This icing is stiffer than traditional icing to facilitate piping.