Waiter, There is Too Much Pepper on My Paprikash {Chicken Paprikash}

This scene from When Harry Met Sally always makes me smile. It also gets stuck in my head at the weirdest moments, and the word paprikash goes round and round in my brain until something else equally as annoying gets lodged in there.

The thing about that movie that strikes me today, in particular, is Sally’s need for control in her life.  She likes everything to be “just so.”  It’s what makes scenes like the one above (and the infamous diner scene) so noteworthy.  Sally steps out of her buttoned-up facade for a moment and does something so unexpected, so out of character, that we’re pleasantly surprised.

Life is like that – we go along blissfully thinking we are in control of our day (or our destiny). Then, something comes along to remind us that really, no, we are, indeed, not in control.  As much as we plan, schedule and organize, inevitably we discover that we don’t live in a vacuum or a bubble and forces beyond our control can throw our carefully laid plans into chaos.

I’m learning to roll with it.  Like Sally Albright, I often find myself outside my neatly planned comfort zone.  Sometimes it’s because I push myself, but most of the time it’s because someone else has pushed me there (either deliberately, or by accident).  It’s nerve-wracking.  But, it can also be a catalyst for growth.

The fact that I haven’t posted a recipe here since February is testament to my inability to control everything.  Happily, this recipe for Chicken Paprikash lends itself to a chaotic lifestyle.  It uses ingredients you probably have in your kitchen and pantry, and it can either be done on the stovetop and in the oven on a lazy Sunday afternoon, or in the crockpot on a busy weekday.  And the result is something deeply satisfying.  And not too peppery.  Because no-one wants too much pepper on their paprikash.

chicken paprikash

Chicken Paprikash | prep time: 3 minutes | cook time: 2 hours (for stovetop/oven version; 4-6 hours if cooking in crockpot on low). | yields: 6 servings

Ingredients

  • 2 lbs. boneless, skinless chicken thighs, seasoned with salt and black pepper
  • 2 Tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 large yellow onion, thinly sliced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/4 cup sweet paprika
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 cup chicken broth
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 tsp. black pepper
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 1 lb. egg noodles, prepared according to package instructions

Cooking Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 300F
  2. Heat olive oil in an oven-safe saute pan on the stove top
  3. Place seasoned chicken thighs in a single layer in the saute pan, browning on both sides.  You may have to work in batches in order to avoid over-crowding the pan.  Remove from the pan and set aside.
  4. Place sliced onions in the saute pan and reduce heat slightly.  Cook onions until softened and translucent in color, about 10 minutes.
  5. Add garlic and paprika and stir through.
  6. Add chicken broth and whisk to pick up any browned bits on the bottom of the pan.
  7. Add chicken back to the pan along with the bay leaf
  8. Cover pan and place in preheated oven.  Allow to braise for one and half hours.
  9. Prepare egg noodles according to package directions
  10. Remove the saute pan from the oven and place back on the stove top
  11. Remove chicken from pan and set aside
  12. Turn on burner under saute pan and allow to come to a boil.  Boil until sauce thickens and reduces by half.
  13. Remove sauce from heat and add 1 cup sour cream, whisking to combine.
  14. Add chicken back to pan.
  15. Serve chicken with sauce over prepared egg noodles.
  16. Enjoy!

To prepare in crock pot – follow cooking instructions up to step 6, then put all ingredients, including chicken and bay leaf, into crock pot and set for 4-6 hours.  Then pick back up with steps 11-16.

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Sockeye Salmon with Whole Wheat Pasta

I feel like I’ve been terribly negligent in keeping you all updated on my Whole Foods Pantry Challenge.  Because I know you’ve all been waiting with baited breath to see just what I’ve been cooking with all of those pantry staples – right?  Like you have nothing better to do than sit around wondering about my meal-planning abilities.

Mostly you’re probably just wondering when I’m going to get around to choosing a winner for that awesome $50 Whole Foods gift card.  Don’t ask me why I decided to make that contest go the whole month of January.  In retrospect that seems like an awfully long time.  However, the good news is you still have a week left to enter, so get on it if you haven’t already.  Just follow the link above, or tweet: I want to win a $50 Whole Foods Gift card from @HFM_Alpharetta and @lifeinrecipes: http://bit.ly/AsEio7.  If you’ve already done both of those things, then yay! you’re entered (don’t do it again, though, because you can only enter twice – once in the comments and once on twitter).

Today, I’m talking about salmon.  Which I always want to pronounce saL-man (as in Salman Rushdie).  It’s annoying.  However, it tastes good, and it’s good for you, so I eat it despite the fact that I practically embarrass myself every time I have to ask for it at the fish counter.

I don’t buy salmon (rushdie) often, because I like to buy wild-caught, preferably Alaskan (because their fisheries are reputed to be some of the most sustainable) and that can be expensive.  Luckily, every so often Whole Foods will run a sale, and you can get whole salmon filets for $7.99 a pound (normally it costs $14.99 a pound).  When that happens, like it did this past Friday, I like to stock up.

Today was one of those days where I just didn’t want to do much of anything.  Last night I helped a friend out by catering a dinner for 50 people at her church, so I was tired.  Exhausted really.  And the last thing I wanted to do was spend a lot of time in the kitchen.  It was a lazy, rainy Sunday, is what it was.

At almost 5:00 this afternoon, I remembered that I was supposed to do the Week 4, Day 3 workout in my Couch to 5K program (I bet you thought I’d given up on that, since I haven’t really talked about it in the last three weeks.  But I didn’t – I’ve been very good.  In fact, today I did something I never thought I’d be able to do – I ran for 20 minutes straight without stopping.  I realize that for some people that is a small feat, but for me (who could barely run for one minute when all of this started), it’s huge).  Despite the fact that the last thing I wanted to do was get on the treadmill and run, I made myself put on my workout clothes, lace up my running shoes, and do it.

The point of all that (aside from giving myself a huge pat on the back) is to say that I usually try to have dinner on the table by 6:00.  If I didn’t start my workout until almost 5:00, that means I didn’t get finished with the workout until almost 5:30, and that means I had fewer than 30 minutes to get dinner ready.  Luckily, fish is fast.

Seared Sockeye Salmon over Whole Wheat Pasta in a Saffron Cream Sauce

adapted from this recipe from Cooking in Sens

prep time: 5 minutes

cook time: 20 minutes

serves: 6-8

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 pounds wild-caught sockeye salmon, cut into 4-oz. portions
  • 1 pound whole wheat pasta (I used the spaghetti I bought at the beginning of the month, for the pantry challenge)
  • 2 Tablespoons butter
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 1/2 cup dry white whine
  • 1/4 teaspoon saffron
  • 1 teaspoon prepared mustard
  • 4 oz. mascarpone cheese
  • 1/4 cup sundried tomatoes, reconstituted in boiling water (also from the pantry challenge)
  • parsley for garnish
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • salt and pepper
  1. Put a large pot of well salted water on to boil. Cook pasta.
  2. Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat.
  3. Add the diced onion and cook until traslucent.
  4. Add the wine and saffron, stir in the mustard and mascarpone.  Cook to thicken a bit.
  5. Add the sundried tomatoes.  Taste for seasoning – add salt and pepper as needed.
  6. When the pasta is al dente, add it to the the cream sauce and stir to combine.
  7. Heat a large iron skillet over high heat.  Add the olive oil
  8. Season the salmon filets with salt and pepper.  Place them in the skillet, skin side down.  Cook for 5 minutes on each side, or until cooked through.
  9. Serve  salmon over the pasta, garnish with some chopped parsley.

This was a hit with the entire family.  The youngest asked for seconds, and the oldest barely complained (which in my book is a huge accomplishment).  My husband, who isn’t a huge fan of salmon (he prefers the milder, whiter fishes), even liked it.  The sauce was light and mildly floral from the saffron.  The pasta had a nice bite to it, and the salmon was delicious – crispy skin, nice sear, tender and flaky on the inside (please don’t chastise me for the layer of albumin sneaking out in that picture above.  I realize it’s not cooked to Top Chef perfection, but it was good enough for us).  If you’re looking for a quick, flavorful and relatively healthy meal, this is a a good one.

A Celebration, a Goal, and a Gift For You

As I sat down to write this post, I realized that it has been exactly two years since I first started this blog.  Two years.  I can’t really believe I’ve stuck with it for that long.  I’m notorious for starting things and then giving them up before I’ve gotten very far.

Speaking of sticking with things (or not), I have a confession to make.  I started 2011 with a goal to eat healthier and to exercise more.  In January of 2011, I was about 10 lbs. heavier than I wanted to be. I blamed it on “baby weight” that I’d never lost (the “baby” was a year old at that time).  I thought if I introduced more whole foods, cut back on the meat and dairy, and introduced some moderate exercise I would easily drop that 10 lbs. in no time.

Now we’re in January of 2012

(2012!!)

and instead of having lost that extra 10 lbs. I’ve put on 20 more.  There, I said it.  I’m 30 lbs. overweight, and I hate it.  I guess those 2011 goals didn’t really work out so well.

This year, I’m bound and determined to stick with it.  I know – everyone is setting goals and making resolutions right now.  It’s the thing to do. My most popular posts over the last few days have had to do with kale and greens and whole grains.  People are looking to eat better and get healthy in the new year.

I’m doing a couple of things to help me along on my goals.  First, I joined the Couch to 5k training program.  I’ve never been a runner.  In fact, I’ve kind of always hated running.  In high school I would do whatever was necessary to avoid running in PE.  I’m now almost done with week two of the nine week training program, and I can honestly say that I still hate running.  BUT, I’m sticking with it.  I suck at it, but I’m doing it.  And I can tell I’m getting better at it, in teeny-tiny minute increments.  So that’s something.

The second thing I’m doing is partnering with my local Harry’s Farmers Market to give my pantry a healthy makeover.  Whole Foods, in their Whole Story blog, issued a $50 pantry makeover challenge.  Their claim is that you can buy a list of pantry staples at Whole Foods (which I realize some people refer to as “whole paycheck”) for about $50.  The items on the list are:

  • 1 lb black beans
  • 1 lb lentils
  • 1 lb quinoa
  • 2 lbs brown rice
  • 3 (32-oz) boxes vegetable broth
  • 1 (32-oz) box chicken broth
  • 1 lb rolled oats
  • 2 cans cannellini beans
  • 1 lb orechiette pasta
  • 1 lb pasta, your favorite kind
  • 1 can black beans
  • 1 jar unsweetened applesauce
  • 1 (32-oz) box unsweetened soymilk
  • 1 (32-oz) box unsweetened almondmilk
  • 1 (5-oz) can tuna
  • 3 (15-oz) cans diced tomatoes
  • 1 package no-oil sundried tomatoes
  • 1 jar pasta sauce

Whole Foods is running a contest through the end of January to give away five grand-prize packages of a year’s worth of pantry staples and a pantry makeover.  They’re also giving away 31 pantry stock-ups valued at $50 each.  All you have to do is leave a comment on the post on the blog.

Harry’s contacted me to see if I wanted to participate in the challenge.  They offered to either provide me with a $50 gift card that I could personally use for the challenge, or that I could give away to one of my readers.  I decided to take the challenge on my own, just to see if I could really buy everything on the list for around $50, and to save the gift card for one of you.

Today I went to Harry’s armed with my list and a few coupons that I’d printed off of their website.  My shopping trip took a little over an hour (mostly because I had a hard time finding canned-tuna and sundried tomatoes), but in the end I wound up spending less than $45 for the items on the list.

I had four coupons for $1 off various items, and I got two $.10 bag credits.  Even if I hadn’t had the coupons and the bags, my total would have been right around $50.  I did make a couple of substitutions: I got two cartons of almond milk instead of one almond and one soy (I don’t do soy milk), and I purchased two 28-oz. cans of tomatoes instead of three 15-oz. cans. I also accidentally got an extra bag of rice that added $1.99 to my total.

That’s a lot of food.  I’m not sure it will last us the whole month, but we’ll certainly try.  I plan to keep you all updated on our progress here on the blog, and to include recipes for things that we make with these ingredients.  I figure that all of these pantry staples paired with the produce I get from the Rockin’ S Farms CSA I recently joined and the meat I get from Riverview Farms should get us pretty far.

For lunch today, I made this recipe for Tuscan Tuna Salad from the Whole Foods website.  I served mine on a bed of mixed greens that I got in this week’s CSA bag (spicy mustard greens were a very nice addition) with some whole-grain crackers on the side.  I highly recommend it.

For dinner, I chose this recipe for Orecchiette with Broccoli Rabe, Sundried Tomatoes and White Beans.  I subbed broccoli from our garden for the broccoli rabe, but otherwise I followed the recipe to the letter.  Even my kids liked it.  My husband and I ate ours with a mixed-green salad on the side and there was plenty left over for lunch tomorrow. The key (in my opinion) is adding the water from the reconstituted tomatoes along with the pasta water at the end.  So good.

Okay, here’s the part you’ve all been waiting for.  Because the blog is two, because I’m determined to stick with my goals this year, and mostly just because I appreciate you all so much, I’m teaming up with Harry’s Farmers Market to give one of you a $50 Whole Foods Gift card that you can use to make over your own pantry (the gift card can be used at any Whole Foods store).  Here’s how you can enter to win:

Tell me in the comments what your New Years resolution was this year.  Are you going to stick to a budget for the first time ever? Are you going to get a pedicure every two weeks? Is your goal to read the Harry Potter series from start to finish before 2013?  Whatever the goal, let me know and you’ll be entered to win.

You can also tweet the following: I want to win a $50 Whole Foods Gift card from @HFM_Alpharetta and @lifeinrecipes: http://bit.ly/AsEio7.

Do either of those things between now and 12:00 PM Eastern time on January 30, 2012 and you’ll be entered to win.  Do both to be entered twice.  Limited to two entries (one here, one on twitter) per person, please.  I’ll announce a winner on January 31.

Creamy Roasted Vegetable Soup

And so my first week of work has begun.  I’ve jumped in with both feet, welcoming the adult interaction and the intellectual stimulation.  I’ve already got projects to work on and I’m being challenged beyond what I thought I’d be.  It’s nice.

At home, we’re busy decorating and planning.  The tree has been lit and decorated and the lights have been strung about the outside of the house.  The children are all atwitter with the anticipation of Santa’s arrival, and the ornaments dangling from the fragile branches of the tree are almost too much for the youngest to resist.  He’s just so curious and excited all of the time, eager to touch and explore everything.

We’re talking about the meaning of Christmas. We have a small wooden nativity that the children are allowed to touch and manipulate.  We talk about the different members in the scene, and my oldest takes care to gather all of them around the tiny baby in the manger.  He wants them all arranged just so – in a tight circle, gazing down at the swaddled infant.  He’s very particular, and gets quite agitated when his brother decides that the various figures need to be scattered about the house.  I spend  a good amount of time fishing them out from under the sofa and from between the cushions.  At least they’re interacting with them and curious about them – right?  It gives us ample opportunities to share the Christmas story.

Amidst the joy and the lights, and the work obligations, I’ve been a little bit remiss in my cooking duties.  Luckily, my work schedule is only part-time, so I do still have some time available during the week to focus on food.

As I sat home on Tuesday, thinking about dinner and dreading the inevitable battle of wills that has become the standard with my two-year-old at the dinner table, I decided soup would be my best bet.  It has been unseasonably warm over the last few days, but the dreary, rainy  weather welcomed the idea of warm, nourishing soup.  I’d been to lunch with a friend over the weekend (she’s hilarious, and she writes about food – of course we’re friends) and we’d both ordered soup and salad.  I chose a wild mushroom number and she went with an onion soup.  Both soups were cream based  (much to my friend’s surprise), and they were both hearty and flavorful.  I really wanted to replicate that same rich creamy texture and deep flavor at home.

This isn’t really a recipe per-se.  It’s more of a bunch of stuff I had in the fridge that I threw together on a whim.  Sometimes, those are the best meals, though – for some reason the stars align and the seas part and you’re left with a perfectly satisfying meal that took very little effort and actually helped you clean out the fridge a little bit.  This is one of those meals.  I imagine you could use just about any vegetable here – just roast the heck out of it, and then whir it up with some broth and half-and-half.  I’m trying to think of a vegetable that wouldn’t work here, and I’m drawing a blank.

In this case, I had a pound of mushrooms in the crisper, along with about two cups of broccoli florets and a bunch of asparagus that our neighbors gave us before they left for a cruise (lucky ducks!).  I decided to roast them all at 400F until they got good and brown and toasty.  I just tossed them with some olive oil and salt and pepper and spread them out on a parchment-paper-lined baking sheet.  They roasted for about 35 minutes.

While that was going on, I caramelized a thinly sliced onion in some butter in an enameled stock pot on the stove.  Once they were nice and golden brown and sweet and buttery-delicious, I added about 1 1/2 quarts of turkey stock (because I had some left over from Thanksgiving.  You could also use vegetable broth or chicken stock).  To this I added the roasted veggies, and I pureed it all using my stick blender.  I topped it all off with about a cup of half-and-half, and added half a cup of parmesan cheese.  Then I tasted it for seasoning and added salt and pepper.

I loved this soup.  And what’s better, my kids actually liked it.  No complaining, no moaning and groaning about how many more bites they had to take before they could be done.  Just quietly eating and cleaning their plates.  Broccoli and asparagus soup.  Who’d have thought?  It’s not the prettiest thing I’ve ever made, but it sure did taste good.  And I guess, at the end of the day, that’s what really matters.

While it’s not really a recipe, here’s my estimation of the amounts I used and how long it took:

Creamy Roasted Vegetable Soup
prep time: 5 minutes
cook time: 45 minutes
serves: 6-8

Ingredients

  • 1 lb mushrooms
  • 2 cups broccoli florets
  • 1 lb. asparagus, woody ends trimmed
  • 2 Tbs. olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 Tbs. butter
  • 1 yellow onion, sliced
  • 1 1/2 quarts stock
  • 1 cup half and half
  • 1/2 cup parmesan cheese

I think this one might become part of our regular repertoire.  What are some of your favorite autumn and winter soups?

>Eating Healthfully on a Budget

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I was home with a sick child today, so I took the opportunity to update our monthly budget during one of his naps.  Our intention is to stick to a pretty strict budget every month, but we’re not always disciplined about sitting down and updating the spreadsheet on a regular basis.  This often leads to overspending, which leads to stress, which leads to arguments, which leads to dissatisfaction and distress.  Lack of discipline is not a good thing.  
It’s definitely better to keep up with it on a regular basis, especially when you are pleasantly surprised by your spending (or lack thereof).
A month or so ago, I mentioned the possibility of hosting a Hunger Awareness Blog Challenge during the month of January.  After speaking with representatives at the Atlanta Community Food Bank, we decided it might be better to wait until the spring to do something like this in our area.  There is an agency in Maryland that is currently doing a similar challenge, so if you’d like to get an idea of how it works, you can check them out.
When I got done entering all of our expenditures into the budget spreadsheet today, I looked at the total in the grocery column.  This column includes all of our food, including the bi-weekly produce delivery we receive from Nature’s Garden Delivered; diapers and wipes for the baby; toiletries, paper goods (toilet paper, paper towels), etc.  For a family of four, our total grocery spending for the month of January came to roughly $400.  Granted, there’s a week left in the month, but I just went to the store yesterday for a few supplemental vegetables (we ate everything from last week’s box already), and we have two almost-full gallons of milk, so we’re good for the rest of the week as far as I can tell.
If you break that down, that’s $100 per person for the month, which equates to just over $3 per person per day.  Or about $25 per person per week.  
It seems we’ve inadvertently participated in our own “food stamp challenge”.  Granted, I was also in the midst of a pantry clean-out during the month of January, so I’m sure that had something to do with it, but that mostly accounted for beans and pasta, which are relatively inexpensive items.  
And we ate well.  Here are a few of the things we enjoyed this month:

There was this bean soup with flatbread pizzas
A creamy pasta primavera        
Some healthy blueberry oat muffins
A tasty and hearty pot roast
This re-purposed pot roast hash with creamy grits and poached eggs
This tasty homemade pizza
This fabulous grass-fed, locally pastured steak (which was a total splurge, but also totally worth it)
We made falafel, hummus and Greek potatoes one night.  This, by the way, is probably one of the least expensive and most flavorful meals you can make.  It deserves its own post detailing just how inexpensive it really is (coming soon, I hope).
This flounder and quinoa – the first of my Eat Right America-themed meals.
A wonderful butterbean and kale soup, with quinoa and tomatoes.
And tonight’s white chili – navy beans and chicken in a smoky cumin-scented broth.  Yum.
You probably noticed the number of bean-centric soups in there.  Dried legumes really are the key to eating healthfully on a restricted budget.  A hearty soup with lots of beans is not only filling, but you’ll have leftovers for days.  You kind of have to resign yourself to eating it until it’s gone, or freezing some of it for later (the bean soup from the beginning of the month will probably make a reappearance sometime this week, since I’ve got a couple of pints of it in the freezer as I type). 
I noticed someone in one of the Eat Right America forums the other day asking if anyone thought they could do the challenge on a tight budget.  They were worried that all of the fresh fruits and veg were going to break their bank.
We receive a delivery of produce every other week.  This is what might come in a typical box.  We pay about $45 every two weeks for this service, and I usually have to go once during the off week to purchase supplemental produce (usually just bananas and maybe some extra greens or broccoli).  This is obviously for a family of four, so for a single person or a couple, your costs would be lower.  
Eating healthfully doesn’t have to be expensive.  And you don’t have to be resigned to eating overly processed junk food if you find yourself living on a restricted budget. 
Next month, I’ll share our grocery lists and give more detail on how we’re making it work for our family.
As for the Atlanta Hunger Awareness Blog Challenge, I hope to have more details in the coming months.  If you are interested in participating in something like this, and you haven’t already let me know, please do so.  You can email me at lifeinrecipes [at] gmail [dot] com.  Just put “Hunger Awareness Blog Challenge” in the subject line. 

>Snow Day Musings

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I think I’ve mentioned before that I live in Georgia.  If I haven’t, well then now you know.  I live in Georgia. 
Well, I live in an idyllic little suburb of Atlanta to be exact.  Where we currently have 5 or 6 inches of snow on the ground, accompanied by about 1/2 to 1 inch of ice.  According to the local news, driving conditions are “treacherous.”
We’re southerners.  We (and by we, I mean the state department of transportation) don’t really have the equipment to handle this sort of thing.  So, we hunker down and make the best of it. 
School and work have been canceled for three days now, and we have been hesitant to get out in our cars.  The kids have enjoyed the impromptu vacation, and I have to admit that my husband and I haven’t been complaining too much, either.  Cabin fever hasn’t really gotten to us.  Not yet, anyway.  

Although we don’t have sleds and snow equipment, we made do with a trash can lid and the top to the kids’ sandbox.  It doesn’t seem to bother our 5-year-old.  He just loves the thrill of flying down the hill in our backyard and crashing feet-first into the fence. 
And our 11-year-old dog is like a puppy again.  He loves running full-tilt around the yard, kicking up snow behind him, burying his nose in snow drifts and finally flopping sideways onto the ground in a heap.  I think he’d stay out there all day if we’d let him.
Even the baby got in on the sledding action.  Sort of.  He seems content just to be outside with us, watching the action.
At one point yesterday we bundled everyone up and took a little walk to check out the neighborhood.  The streets were a little slushy and icy, so we didn’t go far. 
This one seems happy enough to just eat the snow.  It’s relatively clean, I suppose.  And he knows now to look out for the yellow snow.  Important life skills every child must learn.

While I did go to the store over the weekend for milk and eggs, I was determined to stick to my pantry clean-out plan.  As such, I’ve gotten pretty creative over the last couple of days while we’ve been snowbound.  Some of my experiments have been successful, while others have been less so.  For instance, making dulce de leche with fat-free sweetened condensed milk?  Success.  Making cheese with powdered milk?  Less so.  I mean, you can do it, but you really shouldn’t. 

Like every good southern girl, I had some stone-ground grits in the pantry.  So, on night one of “Snowpocalypse 2011”, we had pot-roast hash over creamy grits with poached eggs and raw kale chips (more on those later).  Not bad for a pantry/leftover meal.
Night two brought pizza (and yes, I did use the powdered milk cheese-like substance, but I also used some provolone slices and goat cheese I had in the fridge).  The mushrooms and peppers were from my produce box, and the tomato sauce was made from some canned tomatoes I had in the pantry.  Pizza crust recipe here. (I used half whole-wheat and half AP, and I subbed whey for the water that the recipe calls for).
My friend Rachel, who writes Time for Good Food, shared yesterday that as a child, snow days always meant her mama would make something decadent and fudgy.  Her homage to this tradition was to make these boiled peanut-butter cookies. My decadent indulgence was these fudgy brownies topped with dulce de leche caramel (recipe at the bottom of this post).
So, the moral of this story is that being stuck inside on snow days doesn’t have to mean subsisting on white bread and hot-dogs (as the scenes of empty grocery store bread shelves would have you believe).  So what if the pizza guy isn’t delivering (and thank goodness he’s not – these roads are TREACHEROUS I tell you) – you can make your own pizza.  And while snow ice cream is a special treat for some, you can also make some delightful chocolate treats to go along with it.
 Dulce de Leche Caramel
prep time: 2 seconds
cook time: 20 minutes
yields: enough to frost this pan of brownies
Ingredients
2 cans sweetened condensed milk
  1. Empty cans into a heavy-bottomed saucepan
  2. Place pan over medium-low heat
  3. Cook, stirring constantly (for real – keep stirring, or it will burn) and scraping the corners of the pan periodically, until it becomes a light caramel color and has thickened significantly.
  4. Remove from heat and pour over brownie recipe of your choice.

>Pantry Cleanse: Brown Rice Beet Risotto Edition

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Are you a lover or a hater of beets?  I used to be the latter, but when I discovered the wonders of roasted beets, I quickly converted to the lover category.
There’s something about that earthy, sweet flavor that makes them irresistible.  Roasting them brings that out even more, converting them from mere root vegetable to true delicacy.  And don’t forget that beets are considered one of those “super foods” that are all the rage right now – full of antioxidant properties and vitamins and minerals that are said to ward off disease.  Just what we all need here in the height of cold and flu season.
In my efforts to clean out my pantry, I came across a half-used bag of short-grain brown rice.  You could liken it to arborio, or carnaroli, but the package simply said “short grain”. Paired with the three small beets that I’d received in my produce box, along with some boxes of chicken stock I’d found in the back of the pantry, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to make a bright-red beet risotto (you could also use vegetable stock or water for this recipe). 
During this process, I discovered that my youngest child, who is 13 months old, is also a beet lover.  He enjoys playing at my feet while I’m cooking, and often looks up longingly at me while I’m in the process of putting dinner together.  Because I’m a pushover, I tend to hand him little bits of whatever I happen to be working on – in this case dicing roasted beets for inclusion in the risotto.  If it’s something he truly enjoys, he will proceed to pull on my pant leg and grunt at me, sometimes signing “more”.  
This particular afternoon resulted in my strapping him into his feeding chair and giving him a snack of roasted beets and cheddar cheese.  It also resulted in there being one less beet to include in the risotto.  He really liked the beets. 

Topped with some crumbled chevre and served alongside some house-made chicken sausage (made with chicken thighs, apples, pears, sage and a bit of maple syrup), this was a nice light meal for the new year. Even my oldest, who loved beets as a baby but has since become skeptical of them, was intrigued by this jewel-toned dish. He tentatively tasted the first grain of rice (yes, one single grain), and deemed it worthy of his praise.  He was a member of the clean-plate club for dinner that night.
Brown Rice Beet Risotto
prep time: 40 minutes
cook time: 40 minutes
serves: 4 as a side
Ingredients
2 beets, roasted at 375F for 40 minutes and cut into small dice
2 Tablespoons butter
1 cup short-grained brown rice
2 quarts low-sodium chicken stock
salt and pepper to taste
  1. Melt butter in a saute pan over medium heat
  2. Add rice and saute until the grains begin to become opaque in places.  This is harder to see in the brown rice because the grains are already so dark.
  3. Add two cups of the chicken stock and stir to combine. Allow to cook until the rice has soaked up most of the liquid before adding more stock.
  4. Continue adding chicken stock, one cup at the time, until rice becomes al dente.  This will take a while with the brown rice – I was shocked by how much liquid it took to get the rice tender.
  5. Halfway through the process of adding the liquid, add the beets.  The mix will immediately turn bright red.  It will take a while for the rice to soak up the color, though.  At this point, taste for seasoning.  Add salt and pepper to taste.
  6. Once the rice reaches the al dente point (soft, but still slightly toothy in the center of the grain), add one more cup of stock and allow the rice to continue cooking until the liquid is almost fully incorporated, but the mixture is still a bit loose (it will continue to tighten up after you remove it from the heat).  You just don’t want it to be too dry.
  7. Crumble some goat cheese over the top and serve warm.
Enjoy!

>Pantry Cleanse: Bean Soup Edition

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I really don’t like making resolutions at the turn of the year.  It’s kind of like going on a diet.  People tend to stick to their resolutions or diets for a time but then they fall off the wagon.  
Having resolve, or being resolved, carries weight.  It conveys purpose and conviction.  And somehow it seems like a nice way to start this new year and new chapter in my life.  With resolve.  With new-found strength.  With dedication to my family, our health, our fiscal security and our happiness.
On a very practical level, I’ve resolved to clean out my pantry and freezer before going grocery shopping this year.  I know this seems mundane, but it will be a true test of my ability to maintain this mindset.  We will continue to receive our produce box every two weeks, and I’ll have to purchase milk for the boys, but otherwise I’m determined to use up what we have before going out and buying more. 

I tend to keep a fairly well stocked pantry and freezer (especially considering the fact that I have two refrigerators with freezers and a deep freezer), so this could take a while.  When I took inventory yesterday, I was a little embarrassed by the amount of food I found.  I won’t go into all the sordid details, but I will share this picture:
A: Don’t judge me by the giant vat of fake maple-flavored syrup on the bottom shelf.  It’s my husband’s.  B: Don’t ask me why I have two giant boxes of cling film.  It’s a mystery.  
What you can’t see in this photo is the top shelf of the pantry, which is full of booze (don’t worry, that’s not part of my plan – although it might make things more interesting), or the side walls, which also have wire basket-shelves full of sauces, herbs and spices and dried beans, rice, quinoa, canned tomatoes and a variety of baking products.  The point is, there’s a lot of food to go through.

The first meal I made based on these pantry/freezer/fridge ingredients was a big pot of bean soup and some individual flatbread pizzas.  I found two or three partial bags of dried beans (black, cranberry and navy) buried in the pantry, along with a small sample bag of pink beans that Marx Foods sent me a while ago.  I also had a ham bone in the freezer leftover from Christmas dinner.

 Bean Soup
prep time: 5 minutes
cook time: 4-8 hours
yields: A LOT of soup
Ingredients
(all measurements are approximate)
1/2 lb. dried cranberry beans
1/4 lb.dried black beans
1 lb. dried navy beans
1/4 cup dried pink beans
1 ham bone
4 gallons water
2 bay leaves
salt and pepper to taste
1 28-oz. can diced tomatoes with juice
2 cups cooked blackeyed peas
1 teaspoon dried thyme
  1. Combine beans, ham bone, water and bay leaves.  Cook over low heat for at least 4 hours, or until beans are relatively tender.  Don’t be tempted to turn the heat up – the beans can fall apart and get mushy if they boil. 
  2. Add salt, pepper, tomatoes, blackeyed peas and thyme.  Cook for another couple of hours over medium-low heat, or until beans are tender, soup is thickened and flavors have combined.
Individual pizzas
prep time: 20 minutes
cook time: 10 minutes
serves: 2 as a side, 1 as a meal

Ingredients:
1 recipe whole-wheat pizza dough, divided into 6 portions (rather than 2) and par-baked (I used two of the crusts for this meal and froze the other four for a future meal).
Your favorite tomato sauce
Cheese and toppings of your choice (I used some fresh mozzarella, Parmigiano Reggiano, fresh basil, goat cheese and some Prosciutto di Parma that I had leftover from New Year’s Eve).

  1. Preheat oven to 425F
  2. Top your par-baked crust with sauce, mozzarella and grated parmesan cheese.
  3. Bake for 10 minutes, or until cheese is brown and bubbly and crust is crispy and brown on the bottom
  4. Top with crumbled goat cheese, thinly sliced prosciutto and basil chiffonade.
The soup is hearty and flavorful.  The ham bone had just enough meat left on it so that little tender bits of ham were left behind during the slow-cooking process.  The flavor that it imparts is just meaty enough to let you know it’s there without being overpowering.  This is bean soup with a little bit of ham flavor, not ham soup. And the pizza/flatbread was a nice accompaniment – light and crispy, with just enough toppings to make it interesting. 
This was a nice way to start our pantry cleanse.  I managed to use up quite a few lingering pantry items along with a few things from the fridge and freezer that were going to go bad if I didn’t do something with them soon.  And we’ve got lots of leftovers (I froze about a gallon of the soup, gave some to my mom and kept a few servings in the fridge to take for lunch this week). 
If you live in the Roswell/Alpharetta, Georgia area and are looking for some good ideas for healthier living in 2011, or you just need some new recipe ideas, check out the Harry’s Farmers Market Calendar of Events.  They’ve got some great back to basics classes coming up – there’s even one this Friday on beans.  You can also enter to win a pantry makeover (which I may need after I use up all the stuff in my own pantry).
Happy New Year!

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>Chock Full O’ Veggies Sockarooni Pasta

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As a busy working mom (well, okay, I only work part-time, but I’m still pretty busy with the other parts of my life that most people probably don’t consider “work”, but still require a lot of time and effort), it’s important to find healthy weeknight meals that don’t take a lot of time (or thought) to prepare.
One thing that makes this a surmountable task is finding good, quality prepared ingredients that can be easily enhanced to create healthy flavorful meals. 
For instance, I like to take a jarred pasta sauce, such as Newman’s Own Sockarooni, which contains ingredients that you might actually use to make a pasta sauce from scratch (like peppers, onions, mushrooms, tomatoes, garlic, and other various herbs and spices), and put my own spin on it to make a complete meal.  The sauce itself is super flavorful, and it already contains a lot of vegetables on it’s own, but I like to add a bunch more veggies and some browned ground beef to it to really punch it up.

 Chock Full O’ Veggies Sockarooni Pasta
serves 4 with leftovers
For this meal, you’ll need one jar of Newman’s Own All Natural Sockarooni pasta sauce.  
 One large zucchini, and about 2 or 3 cups of raw baby spinach.
About a pound of good quality ground beef (I usually use a leaner mix than this, but this is what my husband brought home from the store, so it’s what I used.  Just drain the fat off the browned meat if there’s too much).
Additionally, you’ll need about half a pound of cooked spaghetti, fettuccine, or other long, thin noodles.
Begin by browning your ground beef in a skillet or saute pan over medium heat.
Grate the zucchini on a box grater or in a food processor.  Squeeze out any excess liquid.
Add the grated zucchini to the browned beef and stir to combine.  Open the jar of sauce, and pour it over the meat and zucchini mixture.  Taste for seasoning.  I think I added a pinch of salt at this point.  Add the spinach at the end, and just stir it through to wilt it.  You want it to retain its lovely green color, so don’t overcook it.
Serve it over cooked noodles with some shaved Parmesan reggiano on top.
What’s great about this meal is that even your kids will like it, and they don’t have to know just how many veggies you snuck in there.  My little guy even said he “liked the green things” that were in there.  Granted, my kid likes lots of “green things”, but the flavor of this sauce is such that I bet kids who don’t normally like their veggies will enjoy it.
Finding affordable prepared ingredients that are nearly as good as what you might make yourself is certainly a challenge.  I encourage you to read labels and know what goes into the prepared foods you buy.  Try to buy products that contain fewer than 10 individual ingredients (I don’t count herbs and spices in that number), and make sure you can pronounce the 10 that are there.  Once you identify these quality brands that are conscientious about the ingredients that they use, they become a lifesaver when it comes to weeknight meal prep.
Enjoy!

>Pantry Chicken & Dumplings

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I’m working on an article for Foodwhirl about cooking on a budget and keeping a well-stocked pantry.  As I’m looking around for things to make during this last week of the month (when I’ve already maxed out my grocery budget for the month), I realize that I really don’t have a lot of easily discernible meal options.  I mean, what’s a girl to do when she opens the fridge to discover this?

Enter the pantry and freezer.  Looking through the freezer, I find the 4 chicken thighs left over from when I made Coq au Vin last month, and 3 chicken breasts stashed in the back.  I also see some frozen peas.  Hmmmmm…what can I make with that?

I’m really craving something warm and hearty, since it’s kind of cold and rainy outside. My mind immediately turns to chicken and dumplings.  But I don’t have any chicken stock in the pantry.  Hmmmm….what can I do about that?

Well, in my crisper I have part of a wilted bunch of celery and a few wilted green onions.  I also have an old yellow onion in dry storage.  Those are aromatics.  The chicken thighs are bone-in.  Well, there you go, the makings of an impromptu chicken stock.

I roasted the thighs and breasts and then pulled the meat off the bones.  Added the bones, along with the aromatics (plus a bay leaf, some salt and a few peppercorns) to a pot of water and set it to simmer for a few hours.  It won’t be the richest stock I’ve ever made, but it will do the trick in a pinch.

After the stock was done simmering, I removed all the veg and bones and in a separate pot made a light roux with 2 tablespoons flour and 2 tablespoons oil.  Whisked that together for a few minutes, then added the stock by ladles-full until I’d emptied the stock pot by half (I’m guessing it was about 6 cups of stock).  I added the shredded chicken and frozen peas (2 cups) to this slightly thickened broth and checked for seasoning.  Let that simmer for a bit while I mixed up the dumpling dough.

For the dumplings I turn to my favorite quick-drop biscuit recipe.  I’m using whole-wheat flour and adding some spinach I whirred up in the food processor to the dough to increase the health benefits.The end result was a light, fluffy dumpling with beautiful flecks of green, which nicely complemented the  frozen peas I put in the broth.  This pantry meal actually turned out better than a lot of the well-planned and carefully executed meals I’ve made in the past.  It just goes to show you that with some ingenuity and handy ingredients, you can make just about anything.

Pantry Chicken & Dumplings
measurements are approximations
6 cups chicken stock (you can use store-bought or make your own)
2 T flour (for roux)
2 T oil (for roux)
3 cups shredded chicken meat
2 cups frozen peas
For the Dumplings
1 cup whole wheat flour
3/4 T baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup frozen, drained spinach, 
or 2 cups fresh spinach, whirred in food processor
1/2 cup milk
1/4 cup oil
1. Make a roux in a large heavy-bottomed pot
2. Add stock, whisking to avoid lumps
3. Add chicken and peas – taste for seasoning
4. Whisk dry ingredients for dumplings together in a mixing bowl
5. Add wet ingredients, stirring to combine
6. Drop dumplings by teaspoons into simmering broth.
7. Cover and let simmer for 15 minutes, or until dumplings are cooked through (will be biscuit-like in the center)
8.  Enjoy!