Sunday, January 30, 2011

Cheesy goodness, made from scratch

So many people rely on packaged foods that some children have never had real, honest-to-goodness macaroni and cheese. Once you learn to make this dish from scratch, eating powdered, orangey cheese powder will never again be an option.

I had never eaten macaroni and cheese from a box until I went to college. Same for canned spaghetti sauce and corn dogs. My mother was a “from scratch” person and did not include pre-packaged or mix items in our pantry or fridge. Today, she will use canned spaghetti sauce, but she still shuns macaroni and cheese from a box.

And here’s why: Making your own tastes better. Powdered cheese mix is not cheese. Making food for your family gives you a sense of pride and accomplishment.

Don’t get me wrong; macaroni and cheese is not health food. Eat it in moderation. You can use reduced fat milk in the sauce. But do take the time to try this recipe; it is better than anything you will ever get out of a box.

Homemade macaroni and cheese

1 cup uncooked macaroni noodles
2 tablespoons butter or margarine
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 ½ cups milk
1 cup grated Cheddar cheese; reserve about ¼ cup to sprinkle on top
6-8 saltine crackers, crushed

Cook the macaroni noodles in boiling, salted water for about 7-8 minutes. Drain and place in a greased 2-quart casserole dish. In a sauce pan, over medium heat, melt the butter or margarine. Add the flour and blend thoroughly. Cook 1-2 minutes. Using a whisk, add about half the milk. Blend thoroughly; as the mixture thickens, add the remaining milk. Cook 2-3 minutes. Add ¾ cup cheese; stir until melted completely. Pour the cheese sauce over the macaroni noodles, then stir to combine. Top with the reserved cheese and crushed crackers. Bake in a 350 degree over until top is browned and bubbly; about 20 minutes. Serves 6.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Spectacular stir-fry

I’ve been making variations of this dish for more than 20 years, after first finding a flexible recipe in a “women’s” magazine. It’s delicious, fast and nearly foolproof. The real trick here is to prepare all the ingredients before starting to cook; the chopping and prep will take about as long as the actual cooking.

This recipe can be modified to use any protein (or none at all), but my favorites are chicken breast or lean pork. The original recipe called for broccoli and carrots; I have tried sugar snap peas, green peas, onions and bell pepper, as well. All are delicious; use whatever combination your family likes as a way to eat more veggies.

The steps are basic. You need a large skillet or wok, all your prep done and hungry people to eat the finished product.

Spectacular stir-fry

1 pound raw chicken or pork, diced in 1-inch pieces
3 cups broccoli, chopped into flowerets (use the stems, also, just slice thinly)
2 carrots, peeled and cut in matchstick pieces
1 cup sugar snap peas (fresh or frozen)
8 ounces spaghetti or linguine noodles, cooked and drained
3 tablespoons cornstarch, divided
4 tablespoons soy sauce, divided
2 teaspoons chopped garlic, divided
2 cups water
8 ounce can water chestnuts, sliced
½ cup roasted peanuts
½ teaspoons red pepper flakes

Chop broccoli and carrots and set them aside. Remove the sugar snap peas from the freezer. Chop the chicken or pork and place in a medium bowl. To the meat, add 1 tablespoon cornstarch and 2 tablespoons soy sauce. Mix well and set aside. In a medium bowl, mix remaining 2 tablespoons soy sauce, 2 tablespoons cornstarch and 2 cups of cool water. Mix thoroughly and set aside. Drain and slice water chestnuts.

To a large skillet or wok, add 1 tablespoon of oil. Heat over medium high heat, then add the broccoli and carrots. Cook, stirring for 3-5 minutes.

Add one cup of sugar snap peas and cook vegetables for 3 more minutes.

Remove vegetables from the pan with a slotted spoon and set aside. If needed, add more oil to the pan, then add the chicken or pork.

Cook the meat for 7-8 minutes, until it is browned and cooked through. Stir the bowl of the cornstarch, soy and water mixture, then add it to the pan.

Then add the vegetables back to the pan and mix thoroughly.

Add the red pepper flakes, drained, sliced water chestnuts and the roasted peanuts.

Add the cooked spaghetti noodles and blend completely.

Serves 8 and reheats beautifully the next day.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Turning leftovers into lasagna

I love making spaghetti for dinner, but I always seem to wind up with more leftover sauce (tons) than noodles (none). The extra sauce often makes its way into the freezer, until space demands I do something with it. I’ve added the sauce to stews and soups and just reheated it for later meals. But last week, when I noticed I had three small containers in the freezer, I decided to fashion a lasagna meal from it.

I had about 3 cups of sauce total in two containers; one that included chicken meatballs and one with kielbasa (two favorites from different nights). The ingredients were a surprise to me, too. I just aimed to clean out the freezer and the mixing of flavors was delicious. If you save extra sauce like I do, try this method to repurpose it.

“Leftovers” lasagna

3 cups sauce, thawed
12-15 lasagna noodles, uncooked
16 ounce container cottage cheese
2 cups mozzarella cheese, shredded
1 teaspoon chopped garlic
½ teaspoon dried oregano
¼ cup grated parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper

Don’t bother to cook the noodles. If you layer them with sauce and cook for 45 minutes to an hour, they will cook completely. To the cottage cheese, add the garlic, oregano, parmesan cheese and salt and pepper to taste; mix thoroughly. In a 9x13x2-in baking pan, spread about ¼ cup of thawed sauce. Add a layer of 3-4 lasagna noodles, breaking to fit the pan if needed. Top with another layer of sauce, a layer of cottage cheese, a layer of mozzarella cheese. Repeat layers, topping the dish with sauce and mozzarella cheese. Cover with foil and bake in a 350 degree oven for 45 minutes. Remove foil and cook another 10-15 minutes to brown the top. Lasagna will cut more smoothly if it cools about 15 minutes. Serves 6-12.

Lasagna cooks beautifully in a slow cooker also. Spray the inside of a 6-quart cooker with non-stick cooking spray. Layer the ingredients as above, cover with lid and cook 4 hours on high or 7-8 hours on low. Again, no need to pre-cook the noodles; skip that step in either method and save extra time.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Culinary gold from the freezer

A ham bone in the freezer truly is culinary gold, an investment tucked away for the future that can turn a humble meal into something spectacular. I prepared a spiral cut ham at New Years, complete with black-eyed peas for luck, and then tucked the meaty ham bone in a freezer bag for the future. On Saturday, when snow kept us from a planned trip to visit relatives in Lake City, Tenn., and made going to the store a less than pleasant proposition, I pulled out my little package and set to work.

I put a cup of navy beans in a large stockpot and covered them with cold water. Always sort dried beans because they often contain small pebbles. I brought the pot to a boil, cut it off and left the beans to soak in the hot water and on the burner for about an hour.

I drained the beans in a colander and sorted them again.

I added the ham bone, a quart of water, three bay leaves, and a teaspoon of chopped garlic and set the beans back on the stove to cook.

When the pot came to a boil, I lowered the heat to low and let the whole thing simmer, covered, for about an hour.

Then I removed the ham bone and the large chunks of ham that had become so tender they were literally falling off the bone. I put them on a cutting board to cool (and I took a few nibbles, of course!)

I added about 3 more cups of water to the pot, chopped the meat in large chunks, then added the meat back to the simmering beans.

Because the ham is inherently salty and because dried beans often toughen with added salt, I did not add any salt to this recipe. I did add a liberal amount of black pepper and some coarse ground cayenne.

I fished out the bay leaves and dished up our meal. We also enjoyed some green grapes and bacon-wrapped sandwiches.

I added a bit of parsley for color…

And the soup bowls quickly looked like this:

Navy bean soup

1 cup dried navy beans, sorted
1 meaty ham bone
3 bay leaves
1 teaspoon chopped garlic
Black pepper

Soak the beans in water to cover overnight or cover the beans in water, bring to a boil and let sit in the hot water for about an hour. Drain and rinse. Place in a large stockpot; add one quart of water, meaty ham bone, garlic and bay leaves. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer, covered for about an hour. Remove ham bone from beans; place on a cutting board until cool enough to handle. Chop meat into bite-sized pieces, removing fat or gristle. Return ham to the pot. Remove bay leaves. Add more water, if necessary. Add black pepper and cayenne. Simmer another 30 minutes and serve. Serves 6-8.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Brown rice adventures

The real difference between brown rice and white rice is the hulling process. Whole grain rice has multiple layers; when only the outermost hull is removed, the result is brown rice. When rice is milled more, removing the layers of germ and bran, the result is a whiter rice. After those grains are further polished, that is the white rice we are used to seeing in grocery stores. The commercial benefit? Milling away the hulls (and their associated essential fats) makes a product less susceptible to spoilage. Of course, all that milling removes much of the rice’s nutritional content and leaves the rice as a refined starch.

This week I read an article that said the milling process to make white rice removes 67 percent of Vitamin B3, 80 percent of Vitamin B1, 90 percent of Vitamin B6 and 60 percent of iron. It also removes all of the natural dietary fiber and the natural essential fatty acids.

With those facts in mind, I aim to eat more brown rice in 2011 and beyond. It is rich in fiber, helps control cholesterol and helps control blood sugar. And I am trying to get away from more processed foods and feed myself, and my family, “real food.”

My husband can be resistant to dietary changes. He allegedly hated a variety of foods and dishes until I modified their recipes, or just had him try the product again. Same story with the brown rice. Didn’t want it. Wouldn’t eat it. I ignored him and bought a large bag last week.
I made a pilaf-style recipe with it and (of course) he loved it. My 9-year-old son was skeptical of the carrots in this dish. There are a plethora of brown rice recipes; I'll keep trying new ones until I hit on one he enjoys.

This recipe is easy and versatile; I used chicken stock as the primary liquid to give more flavor. Substitute beef stock, vegetable stock or water.

Brown rice pilaf
½ cup brown rice
1 cup chicken stock
½ cup water
2 carrots, diced
½ onion, diced
1 tablespoon oil
Salt and pepper
Parsley to garnish

Place the oil in a medium saucepan with a lid; warm over medium heat. Add the carrots and onions and cook 3 minutes until golden. Add the raw brown rice and stir to coat with the oil and vegetables; cook another 3 minutes until rice smells nutty and is golden. Season with salt and pepper. Add the chicken stock, stir well, cover and lower the heat to low. Total cooking time will be about 45 minutes. Check the rice every 15 minutes; stir and check for dryness. If additional liquid is needed, add up to ½ cup water. Once all liquid is absorbed, check seasoning and add parsley. Brown rice never gets as tender as white rice, but I love the chewier texture. Serves 4.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Donna's Potatoes

This recipe is a go-to favorite from my personal recipe book and one I love to make around the holidays. It comes from Donna Sandstrom of St. Paul, Va., and was shared with me by my former sister-in-law, who first had the pleasure of eating this simple, delicious potato dish.
I pulled it out again when I made Christmas dinner, but I modified it slightly to make it in the slow cooker. Many home cooks struggle with oven space at the holidays and I thought this recipe would be ideal for moving to the slow cooker. The results were terrific and the potatoes were soon a delicious memory.

Here are both versions, the original recipe and how I modified it for the slow cooker.

Donna's Potatoes

One bag frozen hashbrowns, Southern style (diced); recipe calls for Ore-Ida brand
16 ounce container sour cream
1 can cream of mushroom soup
1 can cream of chicken soup
10 ounces grated cheddar cheese

Combine all in a baking dish sprayed with Pam. Bake at 350 degrees for one hour to one hour, 15 minutes.

Donna's Potatoes for the slow cooker

One bag frozen hashbrowns, Southern style (diced); I used store brand
16 ounce container sour cream; I used low-fat
1 can cream of mushroom soup
1 can cream of chicken soup
1/2 cup grated cheese (I used a combination of cheddar and monterrey jack)
1/2 cup milk
Parsley flakes

Mix all ingredients except cheese and parsley and pour into a 6 quart slow cooker that has been sprayed with non-stick cooking spray. I added the extra milk to help combine the ingredients and get the cooking process started. Top with cheese and sprinkle with parsley flakes.

Cook on high for 4-5 hours. This recipe developed a slight crust on the top and sides, like it would in the oven.

This is delicious comfort food that is easy to make and frees up space in your oven. It is a perfect accompaniment to ham -- try this one and let me know what you think.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Cinnamon pork roast

I was trolling for a new recipe last week, or at least something relatively inspiring, to serve while my parents visited Bristol. They were here for a three-day stay over the New Year and I had meals planned for most of their visit. But I had a hole in the menu and a lowly pork loin that I aimed to fill it. But I was tired of nearly everything I saw. I was ready to give up (or go back to the store) when I came across this recipe.

Cinnamon pork roast

One 1.5 pound pork roast
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 apples, cored and sliced
2 tablespoons dried cranberries or raisins

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place pork in a roasting dish. Combine the remaining ingredients and spoon them around the meat. Cover and bake 30 minutes. Remove lid, spoon sauce over pork, then cook uncovered for 15-20 minutes more. (Pork should register 150 degrees internally, will rise to 160 while resting). Let the meat rest 10 minutes, slice and serve with sauce. Serve 6.

O.K. Maybe this is the point where I should confess that I struggle following recipes and rarely have the resolve or kitchen ingredients to do it. When I read this recipe, I immediately starting thinking about what I already had in the fridge and pantry and how I could use it. Here is my version:

Cinnamon pork roast with red wine and sweet potatoes

One 1.5 pound pork roast (to be technical, mine was 1.77 pounds)
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 tablespoons white sugar (I didn’t have any brown sugar on hand)
1 apple, cored and sliced (red delicious; don't judge, I explain later)
½ onion, quartered
2 tablespoons dried cranberries and pecans (from salad topping mix)
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
3 sweet potatoes, peeled and diced
1 cup water
½ cup red wine
Salt and pepper

I preheated my oven to 400 degrees, but I did not put the roast in the baking pan first. I heated about a teaspoon of vegetable oil in a large skillet, then browned the pork roast on all sides. To a 9x13 baking pan, I added the diced sweet potatoes, onions and the sprigs of rosemary.

Once the roast was browned, I added it to the baking pan with the vegetables. Then I mixed the cornstarch, cinnamon, sugar, cranberries and pecans together and sprinkled the mixture over the vegetables and the roast. I mixed it in well with the vegetables, added about a half-cup of water, covered the pan with foil and let it bake for 30 minutes.

When I checked the dish, I added a 1/2 cup of red wine, another ½ cup of water and the apple, cored and sliced. I was using a red delicious (I know, I know, I should have used a cooking apple. I used what I had on hand and I added it late in the cooking since it is much softer.) I let the dish go another 15 minutes, then pulled the roast out to rest.

I served the vegetables in a dish alongside the sliced roast; and the brown sauce I served with rice and green beans. The dish was beautiful and delicious – a bit sweet from the cinnamon and sugar, but savory from the wine and rosemary. And my husband loves sweet potatoes. They were a terrific addition that can take the heat with the roast without falling apart. My family ate every bite of this one, and I looked like I had planned the whole thing. Thank goodness!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

We love Brussels sprouts!

Well chosen and cooked properly, Brussels sprouts have a mild flavor and gorgeous green color. And when you can get your hands on some still on the stalk they make a great conversation piece, as well as a delicious dish. My parents brought two stalks from Trader Joe’s in Virginia Beach to my home in Bristol as a New Year’s gift. They know we love them and who can resist these cute green balls on the plate?

In my excitement to prepare the sprouts, I badly cut the index finger on my left hand. I am pleased to report that the sprouts were unharmed and the blood washed right off. My finger is nearly healed now and the sprouts are a delicious memory. For people who still have bad childhood memories of overcooked sprouts that started from frozen, I urge you to look for the fresh ones. It is harder to find ones on the stalk, but some local stores carry fresh Brussels sprouts in the winter. They are high in fiber, folic acid and vitamins C and K.

Here’s one of my favorite ways to fix them, and how we quickly dispatched two large stalks over two days:

Brussels sprouts with bacon and mushrooms

One pound sprouts trimmed, washed; cut largest ones in half
2-3 slices bacon
Small can sliced mushrooms, drained
Salt and pepper
1 cup water or chicken stock
Fresh parsley

Cook the bacon over medium heat in a 5-quart stock pot with a lid. When bacon is crispy, remove and drain on paper towels. Add the sprouts to the pan and cook for 3-5 minutes, allowing the sprouts to brown slightly. Add the water or chicken stock, salt and pepper, mushrooms; stir thoroughly to combine. Cover and cook about 5-7 minutes more. Sprinkle with parsley and serve. Serves about 6.