Friday, April 29, 2011

Pork quesedillas 2.0

On a recent afternoon I was unsure what to make for dinner and bored with just about everything, so I pulled package of boneless pork ribs from the freezer. I had tortillas, salsa, rice and cheese on hand, so I aimed to go Mexican for our meal. That is always a winner with my family and the tortillas were large ones – big enough for quesadillas or burritos.

I thawed the pork in the microwave and then put it in a 2-quart casserole dish. I sprinkled the meat with salt, pepper, crushed red pepper and about a teaspoon of sugar. I covered the dish in foil and slipped it in the oven at 300 degrees. This was around 3:30 p.m., just before my son gets home from school.

I let the pork cook for about an hour or 90 minutes, when it looked like this:

I drained off the excess fat, then added about 2/3 cup of salsa.

Again, I covered the pan with foil and put it back in the oven. I let the meat cook for another hour or so. Around 6 p.m., the meat was tender and shredded easily.

I warmed some tortillas in a pan, added the shredded pork and made quesadillas with some shredded cheese. And yes, they were gone in a flash. I used about ¾ pound of pork to make this dish – it produced four large quesadillas.

Normally I would make a dish like this in the slow cooker, but I wasn't thinking about dinner (whoops) until the afternoon. Slow heat in the oven gave great results.

Salsa beef bake

Every bit of this recipe is appealing – it’s simple, inexpensive and yummy. I came up with it recently when I was at a loss for what to make for dinner. Don’t you feel that way, sometimes? I had some individual packs of Bisquick in the pantry, some leftover salsa, some cheese and some ground beef. I tried entering the ingredients in one of those recipe finder sites, but had trouble making it work. The site kept trying to take me in involved directions. So then, I came up with this:

Salsa beef bake

One 15.5 ounce package baking mix (I used Bisquick)
½ cup salsa
1 cup grated cheese (I actually used sliced Muenster)
1 pound ground beef

In a medium bowl, mix baking mix, one egg and two tablespoons water. Press the crust ingredients in a 8x8-inch pan that has been coated with non-stick spray. Top with half the cheese. In a large skillet, brown the ground beef and drain off excess fat. Add the salsa to the meat and mix well. Top the crust and cheese with the ground beef mixture. Top with the remaining cheese. Bake at 400 for 20-25 minutes. Let the dish sit for about 10 minutes before cutting. Six servings.

Here's the recipe, step by step:

Prepare a single package of baking mix (15.5 ounces) according to package directions – mix it with an egg and two tablespoons of water. Spread the mix in an 8x8-inch pan, then top with cheese.

Brown a pound of ground beef, drain excess fat and add about ½ cup salsa. Mix well and top the crust with the ground beef mixture.

Top the dish with the remaining cheese, then bake at 400 degree for 20-25 minutes.

This was an easy dinner, made with ingredients that I had on hand. Serve it with sliced fruit.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Best Chocolate Cake Ever

My older son, Nelson, had a birthday this week, so I wanted to post a recipe for his all-time favorite birthday cake. (This year, he got yellow cupcakes with chocolate icing, but this recipe is his true favorite.) I got this gem from Janette Rodrigues, who I worked with at the Virginian-Pilot. This was her signature cake for special occasions and we were fortunate to enjoy it many times at our office in Chesapeake. Janette actually got the recipe from a Houston Chronicle reader, Casandra Yazdanpanah, of Katy, Texas. It's title really is Best Chocolate Cake Ever, and I think you will agree.

The recipe is rich beyond description; it’s full of sour cream, eggs and real butter. I never frost this cake. All it needs is a sprinkling of powdered sugar. This cake freezes well and I have even made mini Bundt cakes, frozen them and pulled them out for various occasions. If you have mini Bundt pans, this recipe will make six.

1 package devil’s food cake mix (chocolate)
4 ounce package instant chocolate pudding mix
2 cups sour cream
2 sticks butter, at room temperature
5 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups semisweet chocolate minichips
Powdered sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 10-inch Bundt pan. Stir together cake mix and pudding mix. Add sour cream, butter, eggs and vanilla. Beat on low speed. Fold in chocolate chips. Batter will be very thick. Pour into Bundt pan and bake for 60-70 minutes. Let cool in pan 10 minutes, then cool completely on a wire rack. Sprinkle with powdered sugar.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Orchid update 2.0: It's blooming

Three blooms after three years! It seems a long time to wait, but this orchid was apparently testing me. For those who have been paying attention, I have been excited to see my orchid finally produce a shoot and blooms, after years of nothing. I was wrong about the color of the blooms. I recalled them being primarily white, when in fact they are overwhelmingly pink.

I was thrilled to see this plant start blooming on April 19 and I hope it will continue for a month, or more.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Fresh asparagus makes me happy

As we approach Easter on Sunday, my thoughts have turned to favorite spring produce. Asparagus and green peas are two of my favorites. These tender vegetables do not hold up well to high heat needed for canning. Choose them fresh in season, or frozen year-round.

Asparagus is a terrific food – it provides a variety of nutrients and is a leading supplier of folic acid (which helps prevent neural tube birth defects, like spina bifida, and facial deformities like cleft palate). Many breads, cereals and other grain products are fortified with folic acid to reduce these birth defects – get the folic acid naturally by eating your asparagus!

The Michigan Asparagus Advisory Board, which works to promotes asparagus, notes that the vegetable is low in calories (4 calories per spear), contains no fat or cholesterol, is low in sodium and is a good source of B vitamins. And, in my humble opinion, it is a delicious vegetable that is ideal for grilling, sautéing or blanching.

But my favorite way to eat asparagus is simple: Wash asparagus and pat dry. Break off any woody stems. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and blanch the asparagus for about 4 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and drop the asparagus into a large pan of ice water (to stop the cooking). Drain and dry the asparagus, then put it in a large resealable bag (I use a gallon). Pour about a ½ cup of Italian dressing over the asparagus. Seal the bag and refrigerate several hours or overnight.

I love asparagus in soups, casseroles, grilled and steamed, but marinating it and eating it cold is my hands-down favorite. I hope you try it.

Banana pudding

Banana pudding is a favorite with my children, and something I remember fondly from my own childhood. My aunt, Terry White, always made a huge bowl of the stuff for my brother and me when we came to visit the farm where my dad was raised in Sampson County, N.C. It was always special because it was a treat we never got at home. I thought it must have been quite exotic or difficult – until my aunt let me help her whip up a batch. I assume now that my parents weren’t fans, since it is one of the easiest desserts to make and an ideal recipe for making with children.

My children love the stuff, so I have been making banana pudding more recently. I have made it with cooked pudding, but prefer the easier preparation of instant pudding. I also love that you can make this with skim milk. My children get something sweet, without a ton of sugar or fat.

Banana pudding

4 ounce instant vanilla pudding mix
2 cups milk (I use skim or 1 percent)
20-25 vanilla wafers
2-3 bananas

In a medium bowl, mix the pudding mix and milk until fully blended. I use a whisk to eliminate lumps. After about 3 minutes of stirring, the pudding will thicken. In a medium bowl, place a layer of 8-10 vanilla wafers, then a layer of sliced bananas. Add half the pudding. Add another layer of 8-10 vanilla wafers and another layer of sliced bananas. Add the remaining pudding, then top with 4 or 5 wafers. Chill completely. This version makes about 4 servings. You can easily double it for a crowd. Don't top it with sliced bananas, unless you are going to eat it promptly -- they will brown.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Spring bulb show

In 2010, my husband and I bought a house in Bristol, Tenn. Many years ago, it had been a family home, but more recently it had been a rental. Needless to say, little had been done in the yard for years, except for an occasional mow. Last fall, my husband and sons worked like Trojans to help me clear out the flowerbeds, cut the shrubs and plant some spring bulbs. It was a fun exercise in gardening and we are enjoying the benefits now.

The boys planted about 30 tulip bulbs in a corner flower bed. The squirrels dug up plenty of the plantings, but the ones that remained are putting on quite a show.

My sons have been so pleased with the results that they want to plant more bulbs this fall. Isn’t that great how gardening works? Our cucumbers are coming along and will taste even better because we are doing it ourselves.

Happy Tuesday, friends!

Monday, April 18, 2011

Peapod potholders

I lingered in the kitchen gadgets aisle at Walmart this weekend and came home with several "toys" I thought I needed. I grabbed a new turkey baster, a spatula and some tongs.

We were in desperate need of some new potholders, so when I saw these I snatched them up. They are Canopy brand, are super thick and have silicone lines to help hold a pan or pot. A small thing, but sometimes small things can make a real difference!

Room for rent

We recently completed a second home at our home, but this one is for the birds. It is made from a kit that snapped together (a bit more difficult than the packaging claimed, but still pretty simple) and included some bright paints for inspiration. Miles and I tackled the assembly and he decided the paint colors.

When we first removed all the pieces, his look said it all: How is this thing really going together?

There were no instructions, so I figured it couldn’t be that hard, right? He set to work lining up the roof and the sides, and slipping them into place.

After a while, we needed a break for a drink…

…then he set to work painting some roof tiles…

…and the peak of the roof. We added some duct tape here because the seal was not tight and Miles was worried that any birds inside might get wet.

The finished bird house is hanging near the driveway and has dryer lint inside to keep any residents warm and snug.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Sprouting seeds

Several weeks ago, I felt full of gardening optimism and went out and bought several planting flats, potting soil and a variety of seeds. With the help of my husband and youngest son, we decided on parsley, cilantro, thyme, oregano, cucumbers and zinnias. All are reasonably easy to grow and I wanted my son to see the process.

We made a glorious mess planting two flats.

My son was thrilled to see the seeds sprout, many within a week.

I have already transplanted most of the plants outdoors (our frost date in Bristol is April 15!). The process has been a partial success. My son loved planting the seeds and was eager to see them grow. But some shot up quickly, then withered. I have a third flat and plenty more seeds to start indoors. And we aim to start more zinnias outside this weekend, now that the weather is warmer. If our seed attempts falter, I’ll buy some herb plants and try again.

Happy gardening!

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Orchid update 1.0

I wrote about my budding orchid last month, since I was excited by the prospect of seeing the beautiful blooms again. It has been nearly three years, folks. Typically I have a pretty green thumb, but orchids can be tough customers and this one was neglected for quite a while.

I am pleased to report that the buds are nearly ready to pop now.

I repotted the orchid because it seemed to need it. I know I was taking a risk to do it as the plant was preparing to bloom, but a bit of water, some orchid fertilizer, a sunny window and a large container all seem to be working wonders for it. There are three blooms obvious in this photo; there is a fourth smaller one coming along also. Look for more photos once it starts blooming (and keep your fingers crossed!)

Happy Saturday, everyone.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Cinnamon, apples and oats

My mother has made apple crisp countless times; it was a recipe she did by sight and feel, over any real measurements. The ease of this recipe, and the fact it is made from common ingredients most cooks have on hand, makes it a good go-to dessert. I changed it up a bit by adding pears. My youngest son doesn’t like apples (I have no idea) so I mixed in some chopped pears hoping he would eat the whole thing. The joke was on me: He ate the pears and left the apples behind. (No, I am not sure how he could tell in the finished dish, but he did.)

Apple and pear crisp

1 large baking apple, like Granny Smith
1 large Bosc pear
½ cup quick oats
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon butter

Chop the apples and pears and place in a medium casserole dish that has been sprayed with non-stick spray. I used a beautiful glazed dish from Williams-Sonoma; it makes everything taste better! I do not peel the fruit.

In a small bowl, combine the oats, sugar and cinnamon. Blend in butter with a fork until it is combined.

Put the oatmeal mixture over the fruit…

Then bake in a 350 degree oven for 20-30 minutes. Whip this up and put it in the oven as you sit down to eat. Dessert will be ready once dinner is over.

My husband loves his with vanilla ice cream, a classic:

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Cranberry pork roast

I came up with this recipe earlier this week in an effort to use some cranberry sauce I had on hand. I had seen recipes that used cranberry sauce as a glaze for pork, so I decided to make my own. I blended some vinegar with the cranberry sauce, but thought it was too sour. A bit of honey did the trick – to sweeten slightly without overpowering the dish. This was so easy and delicious! I work from home and the smell of this dish was so distracting that I ran some work errands to get out of the house (and keep from nibbling on it!)

Cranberry pork roast

3 pound pork sirloin roast, boneless
15 ounce can jellied cranberry sauce
¼ cup white vinegar
2 teaspoons chopped garlic
2 tablespoons honey
Salt and pepper, to taste

Season the roast with salt and pepper and in a large skillet, brown the roast on all sides. Place it in a 5-6 quart slow cooker that has been sprayed with non-stick cooking spray.

Mix the cranberry sauce, vinegar and garlic; pour over roast. I added the honey to the sauce during the last hour of cooking.

Cook on low for 5-6 hours, then add the honey. Cook on low for another hour. Remove the roast to a plate. It has a beautiful rosy color from the cranberry sauce.

Slice or shred the roast and serve.

This recipe was both sweet and sour and a big hit with my husband and youngest son. I paired it with rice and green beans. Try it!

Monday, April 4, 2011

Pork fried rice

One of my favorite Asian dishes, fried rice, is really just a way for families to make use of leftovers. I tried my hand at this at home, with excellent results. With some leftover cooked rice, a bit of meat and vegetables and a couple of eggs, you can make something wonderful and inexpensive. If you are a vegetarian, this is a great way to use up a variety of veggies.

Pork fried rice

1 cup cooked pork, diced
1 cup carrots, diced
¼ cup green onions, diced
2 eggs
3 cups cooked rice, cooled (best if from an earlier meal and refrigerated until cold)
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon fish sauce

Get everything organized before you begin:

In a wok or large skillet heat 1 tablespoon of oil. Add the pork and carrots and stir fry for 3-4 minutes.

In a small bowl, beat the eggs with a tablespoon of water and the green onion; reserve about a tablespoon of onion to garnish. Pour the eggs into the pan, with the carrots and pork. Scramble the eggs into the vegetables and meat.

Add the rice, soy sauce and fish sauce; blend well and heat the rice through. Remove to a serving platter and garnish with remaining green onions. I served this dish with prepared spring rolls from the grocery store.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

It really is ‘great on everything’

My husband loves sauces and seasonings – literally the door of our fridge is full of hot sauces, barbecue sauces, marinades and dressings. But his favorite seasoning is Tony Chachere’s Original Creole Seasoning. The container says “great on everything” and my husband happily obliges. He uses it on meat, pasta, rice, vegetables – just about anything he puts in his mouth. The Creole seasoning is a blend of salt, red pepper, garlic and “other spices.” And he loves it.

I recently made a chicken and sausage stew that featured this Creole seasoning. The grownups loved it, but my youngest son thought it was too spicy. You could cut back on the seasonings, use plain diced tomatoes or use a milder flavored sausage. If you like things hotter, add crushed red pepper or hot sauce.

Creole Chicken and Sausage Stew

1 pound chicken, cut in 1-inch pieces (I used chicken breasts)
½ pound Creole sausage, sliced in rounds
1 teaspoon oil
½ onion, diced
15 ounce can diced tomatoes with chipotle peppers
15 ounce can corn, drained
2 teaspoons Creole spice (I used Tony Chachere’s Original Creole Seasoning)
Hot cooked rice, to serve

In a large skillet or stock pan, heat the oil. Add the chicken breast and sausage. Add the creole spice and onions. Cook 7-10 minutes, until the chicken and sausage are browned.

Add the diced tomatoes with chipotle peppers and the can of corn.

Simmer for 20 minutes. To serve, scoop hot cooked rice into bowls, then top with the stew.