Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Chicken Soup for the Soul

Is there anything more comforting than homemade chicken soup? I think not. Whether you are under the weather, or coming in from the weather, nothing warms and soothes you like chicken soup. It really is "for the Soul".

Chicken soup can be as simple or as complex as you want to make it. All you need is some basics. So, put down that can opener and pick up your knife; because soup's on!

You can do this in either a slow cooker (my preference) or large stock pot.

First you want to start with you aromatic vegetables: onion, celery and carrot. You want roughly the same amount of each, but I tend to be light on the onion and heavy on the celery. You want to cook them slightly in a little oil. Once the onions have softened, add a clove or two of minced garlic. Cook the garlic a little and stir to keep from burning.

Next you add your chicken stock, about 1 litre (4 cups). Stock in a box is fine. I use the low sodium so I can control the amount of salt I put in. And add some herbs, whatever you like, really. Bay leaf is traditional, but parlsey, basil, oregano, marjorum, sage will all work too. You also want to check for salt and pepper. Now would be the time to add some other harder vegetables, like parsnips or even cabbage. Don't forget the chicken! About 2 cups cooked chicken should do. Dice it, shred it - whatever you want.

Bring the soup to a boil and let it simmer. In a slow cooker, turn on low and let it go.

Once the carrots and other hard vegetables are cooked you can add the rest, that is; softer vegetables: bell peppers, zucchini etc and your grain or noodle. You can use a short cut pasta, egg noodles, rice or barley. Don't add too much, especially with rice or barley. You'll end up with stew. 1/2 cup should be plenty. Noodles you can add a bit more.

Now that the grain or noodles are cooked, you are ready to serve. Finish off with some fresh herbs and a squeeze of lemon juice and voila. A healthly bowl of chicken soup that feeds you, body and soul.

Experiment with chicken soup - you may never open a can again.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Creative Lunch Ideas

I had a friend ask me if I had any creative lunch ideas. Lunch is usually not my thing. I don't know why, but I usually don't venture far from the sandwich-yogourt-fruit combo.

Now, I was on holidays for the last little bit, and I don't want to go grocery shopping until tomorrow when the boys are in school, especially since we now have a blanket of snow on the ground. So using up what I had on hand, I came up with a creative solution that could also pass as a light dinner when paired with a salad. In fact, this dish is so versatile, you can make it as an appetizer for the big game.

Answer: Quesadillas

A couple years ago, I came up with pizza quesadilla (tortillas, pizza sauce, mozza and pepperoni) but today I came up with a couple more combinations.

Ham and Cheese Quesadillas:
tortilla, diced ham, diced green peppers, shredded cheese, honey mustard sauce

On one half of the tortilla, place ham, peppers and cheese. On the other half spread the honey mustard sauce. Fold in half and place in a hot pan. Turn when tortilla starts to brown.

Texas Chicken Quesadillas:
tortilla, bbq sauce, diced cooked chicken, diced cooked bacon, diced red peppers, diced green peppers, diced jalapeno peppers, diced tomatoes, shredded cheese.

Spread bbq sauce over the whole tortilla. On half place the remaining ingredients. Fold and place in a pan. Turn when tortilla starts to brown.

This week my oldest son, Danny is staying of lunch for his choir practice, which also happens to be the day his class has access to a microwave. Place the cooked quesadilla in a microwave safe container and at lunch heat it for about 30 seconds.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Cook Once, Eat Twice

There can be more to leftovers than reheating last night's fare in the microwave. Being efficient in the kitchen is more than heating up a frozen pizza. Learning to cook once and eat twice is not about leftovers, it's about planning ahead.

When planning your weekly menu, think of some ways to prepare a step or two ahead of the day you need it. When baking or preparing for a dinner party, I call this "cooking in stages". I found this particularly useful when there are small kids running around. Who has time to make a whole batch of cookies? When baking something like cookies, one day I would make the batter. It would probably end up in the fridge while cleaned up, I picked up the kids from school, and did a couple loads of laundry. When I had another 8-10 minutes, I could scoop up enough cookie dough for what I wanted at the time, maybe a dozen. The rest goes in the freezer until the next cookie craving. To freeze the cookie dough, there are several options. You can scoop them into balls, freeze them on a cookie sheet lined with parchment and place the frozen cookie dough balls into a freezer bag. You can put all the cookie dough into a tub or freezer bag, or lastly, roll into a roll and slice off what you need when you need it.

You can apply this "cooking in stages" method to everyday cooking as well. You can prepare a step or two in advance to make dinner a piece of cake... or cookie.

For example, today is pasta Thursday. (Not all pasta is on Thursdays and not all Thursdays have pasta, it just worked out that way this week) The package of ground beef I used was almost 2 pounds. That is more than my family needs in one meal. I could have cooked half and frozen the rest, or wrapped it tightly for the next day, but I opted to cook the whole thing. Once the ground beef was cooked, I removed half of it and placed it in a container in the fridge, labelled "Taco Friday". So, tomorrow's dinner starts with the ground beef already cooked.

So, what's for dinner tonight?

Spaghetti with Meat Sauce

This is pretty standard I think. Everyone has their own version; but before I give you mine let me say this... all tomato sauce is NOT created equal. Read your labels, people!! Pick up a jar labelled "Pasta Sauce" verses one that sauce "Tomato Sauce". The one labelled "Pasta Sauce" has sugar and salt and who knows what else. "Tomato Sauce" is just that. Tomatoes.. maybe some water. So, if you are watching sodium and/or sugar make sure you are getting the real thing.

Spaghetti with Meat Sauce

1 onion, minced
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
2-3 tbsp olive oil
1 lb ground beef (I use lean or extra lean)
1 large jar tomato sauce
1 small jar tomato paste
1/4 - 1/2 C wine (I use marsala, but any will do)
2 tbsp dried oregano
2 tbsp dried basil
2 tbsp dried parsley
1 tsp dried marjorum
red pepper flakes to taste
salt and pepper to taste

1 package spaghetti - whole wheat

Heat the oil in a large pot, add onions and garlic. When they have softened, add the beef. Ass it cooks, break it into small pieces with a spoon or spatula. Once the beef is cooked, add everything else. Give it a stir. Bring it to a boil and reduce the heat. Let it simmer for as long as you can. (This can also be done in a slow cooker)

Prepare pasta according to package directions.

Drain pasta and serve with sauce.

By the way, if you have any extra sauce put it in the (you guessed it) freezer. Place it in a resealable freezer bag, remove the air and lay it flat in the freezer. Next week, your sauce is already done. (Don't forget to label it)

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Sunday Dinner

It's another Sunday night. My husband just informed me that he will not be home for dinner tonight. As usual, I will save him a plate for when he does get home. That doesn't however, change what the rest of us will have for dinner.

I decided to do my grocery shopping today will Jack, my youngest was at a birthday party. That way I could also take advantage of the bonus points offered for the weekend only. I prefer not to shop on the weekend, as I do have an option. It's alot busier Sunday afternoon that it is Monday morning. So, last night I took my calendar and store flyers to decide on my week of dinners. Football season is now over that's two nights a week that have temporarily freed up.

Another thing to account for when making a mealplan division of labour. What time do you and your partner get home. Can someone start dinner before the other gets home? If one person cooks, does the other clean up? Are their older children that can participate? All of this is more specific to each family. In my case, my children are too small to cook, but will help set the table and will usually clear their plates. My husband's schedule is variable. He will usually tell me on a day-to-day basis whether or not he will be home. Sometimes that changes what's for dinner, sometimes it doesn't. He will always have a plate to heat up when he gets home, and leftovers make it into his lunch for the next day. If I have more leftovers than that, I will freeze them in lunch size portions and label them. I pull them out of the freezer the night before he needs them for lunch.

So, what's for dinner tonight?

Slow cooker roast chicken, rice and salad.

I wanted to make another whole chicken for two reasons. One: I like the idea of having a Sunday Dinner. A roast or whole chicken where the leftovers can be used for sandwiches and such. And two: I'm planning a homemade soup later in the week, and I wanted the leftover chicken. Hmmm, maybe that's the same reason.

Regardless, I place the chicken in the slow cooker and turned it on high. I added a little water, lemon juice and Greek seasoning. I let it go for 4-6 hours. I'll them put it in the oven for 20 minutes or so to crisp the skin. I used the same Ginseng fed chicken I did last week. Ginseng is an antioxidant believed to help metabolize carbohydrates.

Now that shoulf get us on the right foot for another busy week.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Pumpkin Penne

It's almost time to pick Danny up at school. Tonight, we have a parent/teacher interview with his teacher just before dinner, so I am preparing what I can now so when we get back, it will be a short wait to get to the table. I have the salad made, the table set and all my ingredients out and ready to go.

You may recall in the last post that I made pumpkin puree out of our Jack-o-lanterns. Tonight we are including that in dinner. I had 3 carved pumpkins this year, (two were quite small) which gave me about 3 1/2 cups of puree. What I don't use tonight, I will place in freezer bags and freeze them for a later purpose. Lay them flat in the freezer so they will thaw faster later.

My shortcut tip for today is about bacon - and who doesn't love bacon. I started doing this at Christmas time, because our tradition is that everyone comes to our house for brunch on Christmas Morning. I would precook the bacon a few days before and place in the fridge. I reheat it in the microwave for brunch. Now, I can take it a little bit further and put it in the freezer. I placed pieces of wax paper between each layer (about 6 pieces) of bacon. This is along the same lines as the precooked bacon you can buy in the store, but at a fraction of the price. With my container of cooked bacon in the freezer, I can take out what I need for a recipe or a quick breakfast. Just reheat it in the microwave for about 1 minutes. (Depends on the microwave)

So, what's for dinner?

Tonight's dinner is brought to us by Rachael Ray can be found in her Yum-O Cookbook and

Penne-Wise Pumpkin Pasta

1 pound whole-wheat penne
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 shallots, finely chopped
3 to 4 cloves garlic, grated
2 cups chicken stock
1 (15-ounce) can pumpkin puree
1/2 cup cream
1 teaspoon hot sauce, to taste
Freshly grated nutmeg, to taste
2 pinches ground cinnamon
Salt and black pepper
7 to 8 leaves fresh sage, thinly sliced plus more, for garnish
Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Heat water for pasta, salt it and cook penne to al dente.
Heat the oil, 2 turns of the pan, over medium heat. Add shallots and garlic to the pan, saute 3 minutes. Stir in chicken stock and combine with pumpkin, stir in cream then season sauce with hot sauce, nutmeg, cinnamon, salt and pepper. Reduce heat to medium low and simmer 5 to 6 minutes more to thicken. Stir in sage, toss with pasta with grated cheese, to taste.

As a note, when using the fresh pumpkin puree, you may require less chicken stock. The fresh stuff has a lot more liquid in it.

This is the first time I'm attempting this, but expect great things. But what will make it so great? Why not sprinkle some of that chopped bacon on the top? Now that's YUM-O.

Pumpkin Pasta: It's easy, delicious and inexpensive. It's a dinner trifecta!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Waste Not Want Not

Yesterday was Halloween and as a mother of 2 youngsters prepared to walk the neighbourhood streets to collect candy from strangers. Quite an odd tradition if you ask me. Nonetheless, we survived the October prairie evening which was unseasonably warm. A far cry from the snow and sleet we usually get on Halloween.

For dinner, I planned something I could make earlier in the day (or could be night before, for those working folks). I made something I call "Taco Pie". Which is a baked crescent roll crust with seasoned ground chicken and cheese, baked and topped with lettuce, tomatoes and hot sauce. A favourite in our house.

Now, if you're like me, you hate to waste things. So what to do with that Jack-o-lantern? If it hasn't been carved for too long, it is perfectly edible! Don't waste it. Use it for your pies, cakes and breads. Ther is lots of fibre and antioxidants in pumpkin.

Pumpkin Puree

1. Cut the pumkpin into big chunks. Trim any part that was exposed to air for a long period of time. (like where the scary face was)

2. Line a baking sheet with foil. Place pumkpin on the baking sheet and place another sheet of foil on top.

3. Bake at 325 for 45 - 60 minutes, until fresh of the pumpkin in soft.

4. Remove the fresh from the skin of the pumpkin and mash with a fork, or place in a food processor.

5. Drain excess liquid. Keep in the fridge (in a resealable container) or in the freezer.

I've tried a few different ways in the past, but this was the easiest and least messy.

Of course, you can roast the pumpkin seeds as well. Rinse them first and let them dry for at least 24 hours. Drizzle with a little oil and whatever seasoning you like. (We like chipotle) Bake at 350F until done (maybe 20 minutes or so)

The lesson in this week's mealplan is about cost. This is the next consideration when making a mealplan, at least for me. Look at the store flyers to check out any sales and match with any coupons I may have. I go to the freezer to see what I already have.

So this week, we have Halloween, football practice, football games and swimming lessons. I have the turkey meatballs in the freezer I made last week, and I have a fresh batch of pumpkin puree.

So, what's for dinner tonight?

Slow Cooker turkey meatballs

This is like Thanksgiving dinner with out the fuss, and the good china. I made the meatballs last week when the ground turkey was on sale and place them in the slow cooker with carrots, onion, and potatoes. Add a packet of turkey gravy and some chicken broth and let it go. Half an hour before serving add some green peas. That's it.