Thursday, August 27, 2009

Good News, Bad News

The good news. JD naturally throws a spiral when he throws a football.

The bad news: he also throws books, cars, cups, balls in the house, puzzle pieces . . .

He'd better become a professional athlete of some kind.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The In-A-Pinch Meal

I was planning on making my Mexican meal of the week tonight when Wife called to tell me she's so sorry but her meeting was catered with Mexican food. Of course, she didn't find this out until after I'd gone shopping, so now I have to come up with dinner with the food in the house.

This happens all the time, but not her fault.

These days, I'm trying to use fresh food while still maintaining a budget. I found that I can get ground beef at just above the Costco price and in small quantities from the butcher counter at Jewel (the price fluctuates . . .) and at Strack and Van Til. So I bought some ground beef Friday for burgers on Saturday but ended up at Uncle Julio's Hacienda for lunch (soooo good.)

What to do with the ground beef?

So I was planning on making beef enchiladas tonight but that was foiled.

My next thought was meat lasagna. I looked up recipes on the Food Network website but they all required a couple of ingredients that I didn't have and a prep/cook time that wouldn't work.

The problem with having championship sleepers is that once I'm home from shopping, there's no going back. I'm not complaining, I'm just saying.

Well, I had also defrosted chicken for half the enchiladas. Marinaded, grilled chicken.

There were potatoes in the pantry that I've been neglecting. That would be the complex item on the menu - twice baked potatoes.

Finally, I'll steam some broccoli in the microwave and add a small side salad.

When cooking, remember to start with a clean kitchen. Then start with the items that have the longest cooking duration. In this case, the potatoes required the longest cook time. In a pinch, I do make baked potatoes in the microwave. And I've heard that the microwave is more energy efficient than the oven. Wash and pierce the potatoes and put them on the microwave-safe plate and into the box. My microwave has an automatic potato baking setting, but you can probably do around 8 minutes on high, adding 2-3 minutes for each additional potato. They're done when they're pierced with a fork without resistance.

Pound the breasts to an even thickness, around 1/4 inch, and marinade in balsamic vinaigrette (or dressing of your choice). When pounding chicken, I first rinse the chicken, then dry in paper towel. Having put a sheet of plastic wrap on the counter, place chicken with the smooth side up. Then another sheet of plastic wrap over the chicken. Easy cleanup, no salmonella. Use tongs for handling the chicken and the dirty plastic wrap. Chicken into a Ziploc bag. Pour marinade over till just covering chicken. Get as much air out of the bag as possible upon sealing, swish around to spread marinade, put into a plastic bowl to protect accidental leakage, and into the fridge.

Chop up lettuce, rinse and dry with a salad spinner, put into a bowl. Garnish with other veggies you like. Wife likes carrots, and I had a bag of baby carrots that I've been using slowly but surely. Combine in a salad bowl, cover with plastic wrap, into the fridge.

The potatoes were done in the microwave, tested for tenderness with a fork (should go in and out easily when pierced through the middle.) Cut lengthwise through the short side. Scoop the insides into a bowl, leaving a nice border to maintain the skin as a bowl. Today for 2 potatoes, I used about 1/4c caramelized onions chopped, 2-3T plain yogurt, 1T unsalted butter, 2T grated parmasiano reggiano, about 1/4t kosher salt, 1/4t black pepper (all measurements are estimated, as they were done by sight). Stir till smooth. Adjust seasonings to taste; add yogurt for a smoother texture. Fill the skins with the creamy potatoes. (I didn't do this, but you could probably use this trick to make the potatoes look fancy: make the potato mixture extra creamy, cool down, put into a baggie and cut off the tip to make like an icing dispenser to squeeze into the skins. Fancy!) Skins onto a broiler pan, cover loosely with foil, and let them sit. Considering the ingredients, I would be comfortable with their room-temp exposure for 60-90 minutes.

The chicken takes about 20 minutes total to cook. 5-10 minutes to preheat the GAS grill, 5-6 minutes on the front side, 4-5 minutes on the back side. Because you've pounded them, they'll cook evenly.

While the grill is heating, go to the oven and put the top oven grate to the second from the top slot and preheat the broiler, take the salad out of the fridge, and the frozen veggies out of the freezer. Put the veggies into your microwave steam dish and the remaining veggies from the bag back into the freezer. Toss the salad with dressing then divide onto plates or just divide the dry salad.

By this time, the grill will be ready. Adjust the heat from high to medium high. Put the chicken on, smooth side down, and close the lid. Go inside and put the potatoes on the broiler pan into the oven. Then set the table.

After flipping the chicken, turn on the microwave to steam the veggies. Check the potatoes. You want them golden, not burned! Check the chicken. Plate the salad.

After taking the chicken off the grill, allow the chicken to rest for five minutes before serving. Drain the veggies and plate. Plate the potato. Plate the chicken. Dinner time!

Keys to the In-A-Pinch Meal. Make sure things that take the longest time go first. This includes cooking time as well as marinading. If something will take 2 hours to marinade, you don't want to first put something in the oven that only takes an hour. Salad can be made any time that day. Marinading can be done overnight. If you do marinade overnight and you don't use the meat the next day, just pour out the marinade and put back into the same bag. Otherwise, you run the risk of over-marinading. In a pinch, being creative can be fun, but may not make sense. I could have (and probably should have) made baked potatoes. But they sure were yummy!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Taco Night

Taco night - Tuesday night.

The tip I'll focus on in this blog entry is how and what to make in advance.

Wife usually comes home around 6:00 these days, so I'd like to have dinner on the table, ideally, around 6:10 or 6:15. Though I'm not perfect at that, I'm getting better. The major barriers to that are having the kids awake. Fortunately, yesterday they took rock-star naps, so I was able to have almost everything ready to go.

To successfully make food well in advance of the meal, you have to think about what you're making, even if it means making a list. You have to consider if things have to go into the oven and what things will keep well versus having to serve right from the stove/oven/grill.

Sauces, side dishes, and garnish are usually the best to make in advance. For taco night, my side dishes included Rice-a-Roni Mexican Rice and homemade refried beans. I would also prepare the garnish: chopped lettuce, tomatoes, cheese, sour cream, cebollas y cilantro (onions with cilantro and jalapenos), and salsa.

The garnish is almost all out-of-the-jar, so it can be done intermittently while cooking the beans and the rice.

Since I'd never made refried beans before, I decided to tackle that first. It turns out, it was very easy. The recipe used was out of Mexican family favorites Cook Book by Maria Teresa Bermudez (2004 Golden West Publishers). I used a 16oz can of pinto beans, 1 T vegetable oil, 1 clove of garlic, 1 T chopped onion, and 1 pinch of salt, while keeping a reserve of water in a measuring cup to put into the beans in small doses to thin and puree the beans. Overall, about 5 minutes of prep (10 if you don't have onion chopped in your refrigerator already), 10 minutes of hands-on cooking, and 5 minutes hands-off cooking.

The Mexican Rice was easy, as it was Rice-a-Roni. Nothing complicated about that. 2 minutes of prep, 5 minutes hands-on cooking, 15-20 minutes hands-off cooking. I added about 1/4 c. each of frozen corn and frozen peas after 15 minutes of covered simmering (I know that 1/4 c. is a palmfull.)

While the rice was cooking, I made the cebollas y cilantro by taking about 1/4 c. chopped onion, about a 1T pinch of fresh cilantro, and about 1 t. diced japalenos out of the jar. (By the way, I bought Mt. Olive jalapenos and was pissed to find that they'd put Yellow #5 in there. I mean, really, do they need to enhance the color of jalapenos? Hopefully, my liver won't hate me...) Chopped the onion into finer pieces, minced the cilantro, and combined them with the jalapenos in a small serving dish.
Then I chopped, rinsed, and salad-spun iceberg lettuce.
Next was dicing the 1/4 tomato I had left over from the other day. (By the way, if you don't know the RIGHT way to dice an onion - and most other round fruit and vegetables - you must learn. It will save you time and make you more confident as a cook. And, yes, there is a RIGHT WAY.)
Put about 1/4 c. shredded cheddar and sour cream in serving dishes. Put back into the fridge.

I did all of that at around 3pm. When the beans and rice were done, I just left them on the stove with the stove off. They're not meat or dairy, so they won't go bad after just a couple of hours. Covering them is not a bad idea to keep them moist and ease re-heating.

At 5:30, Wife called to say she was leaving. I started the meat. Today, just ground beef, though getting skirt steak from the Mexican grocery store would be preferred. The ground beef took about 15 minutes to make. Unfortunately, Toodles woke up during the most delicate time, simmering the meat in water and seasoning. It was on a couple of minutes long resulting in dryness. Still edible.

When I could, I reheated the rice, beans, and beef. Then I set the table. Having already plated the garnish made everything easier - rather than having to scoop things into dishes, then put them on the table, I just set everything on to the table. Tortillas were placed into a tortilla warmer and into the microwave on High for 1 minute. The reheated main dishes and sides were put on serving dishes and onto the table.

What could have been done better? When Toodles woke up, I should have turned the heat under the meat waaaay down and that would have slowed the cooking process. I also should have used more water in the beans. Otherwise, pretty good all around.

Remember, the key to this was knowing what could be done ahead of time. Say your kids aren't rock-star nappers like mine and there's no way you'll have 2-3 hours in one shot. You can do the rice in the morning during nap. Remember: you only have about 5 minutes of actual work for that, then it simmers covered on low heat for 15-20 minutes, then you take it off the heat to let it cool, stir it up, put it in the fridge. The beans only took about 15 minutes and I'm sure there's a cartoon that the kid(s) watch at some point. You can put sour cream, cheese, and whatever other garnishes on a plate while making lunch, throw some plastic wrap over and back into the fridge. The meat takes all of 10 minutes, about 5 of which are letting it cook by itself and that can be done just before serving. Planning is the key to success.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Chicken, pita, hummus, etc

Tonight was Greek night. I made:
-Greek viniagrette (homemade - Food Network, Ina Garten)
-b/s chicken breasts marinaded in greek vinagrette (b/s chicken breasts $2.49 @ Jewel till 8/12)
-hummus (homemade - Joy of Cooking)
-tzatziki (homemade - Joy)
-salad w/ Greek viniagrette
-Garnish - Thomas' Sahara whole wheat pita, diced: tomatoes, cucumbers, fresh mozzarella.

Overall, it was tasty.
The highlights:

Greek Viniagrette. Red wine, oregano, salt, pepper, garlic, salt, pepper, olive oil. A key to making any type of viniagrette (a solution of vinegar and oil) is to wisk the vinegar and seasonings first, then add the oil s-l-o-w-l-y from a measuring cub while whisking. Make two batches. You'll notice a difference. Wife said that it needed a stronger vinegar presence and less oregano, though it was good.

Greek Chicken.
The chicken was pounded to appx 1/2" and marinaded for about 2 hours. Grilled out doors.
Pounding the chicken does 2 things:
1) makes it more tender
2) makes the thickness consistent, allowing for consistent doneness throughout the meat.
Chicken can be marinaded as long as 2 days or as soon as 5 minutes. The type of marinade you use and the desired taste will vary the time. Ex. A salty marinade is best done in less time. To allow longer time, add water or another liquid filler to dilute.
Preheated the grill on high till it was appx 475 degrees. DON'T GREASE THE GRATES!
Put the chicken on SMOOTH SIDE DOWN.
Close the grill, turn down to MED-HIGH. Cook appx 4-7 minutes per side. DON'T TOUCH THE CHICKEN AFTER PUTTING IT ON! You'll know it's ready to turn when some white, fatty liquid appears on top of the chicken and it easily separates from the grates. ONLY TURN ONCE.

Here are some things that need some work.
Hummus. Needs to be made 1-2 days earlier than I want to use it. When I've just made it, the tahini and lemon flavors overwhelm the dish. Perhaps I could use less of both. While Joy's recipe says to use 1-16oz can of chick peas, 1/3 c. lemon juice, 3 T tahini, I should first blend the beans, then add some salt and garlic, then add the lemon juice and tahini 1 T at a time and then taste. The Jewish-Egyptian mother of a neighbor suggested using some olive oil. That might add some good flavor as well as smooth it out.

Tzatziki. The recipe calls for diced cucumber. I think it would be better grated, as in dill sauce. Also, it called for 1 T. ea of dill and mint. Probably could have gone 1-2 t. of mint, though I like dill. More garlic.

Pita. I used the tortilla warmer lined with waxed paper to warm the pitas in the microwave. While it made them and kept them warm, it also made the top and bottom ones a bit gummy on the exposed sides. Next time I'll warm them in the oven or on the grill, then put them in linen in the warmer.

Feta cheese. Needed it.

Overall, a good and healthy meal.

This week's menu

Monday: mediterranean night
Tuesday: tacos
Wednesday: tri-salads
Thursday: at Aunt Debi's
Friday: who knows?

Mediterranean night. Chicken marinaded in greek vinagrette. Pita. Hummus. Garnish.

Taco night. Ground beef tacos seasoned with McCormick taco seasoning (purchased in bulk @ Costco.) Rice-a-Roni Mexican rice. La Preferida refried beans. Corn tortillas. Garnish.

Tri-salads. Tuna salad, chicken salad, bow-tie pasta salad.

I'll let you know how it goes.

Thursday, August 6, 2009


I just sold most of my old Avent baby bottles on Ebay. We purchased the new, BPA-free bottles for Toodles, so we had no need for the old ones.

What do I care if some other kid gets sick? At least I got $19 back on my investment!

Does sarcasm come through over blog?