Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Once-a-Month Cooking

There's a movement afoot that I've enthusiastically joined--the Once-a-Month Cooking approach to meal management. And I get asked frequently, "It sounds overwhelming--HOW do you do that?" I explain that I studied this for quite awhile before I ever got the nerve to try it. One of the best little books I found was To Busy to Cook: The Busy Person's Approach to Cooking, by Lori Rogers. (It's her information I am sharing here.) But I know there are lots of other good books out there on the subject. When I finally got the gumption to attempt it, I was really glad I did, and I found it wasn't as difficult or exhausting as I had assumed.

So I thought, in the case any of you are interested in this time-, energy- and money-saving method of making family dinner hour possible, I'd explain what a once-a-month cooking day looks like.

I start first with some advance preparation (cupboards, pantry, fridge and freezer cleaned out; enough freezer containers accumulated for all the food that will be prepared). Then it all boils down to a routine that includes:
  • choosing the day (I try to make it the same day each month) and getting it on the calendar
  • choosing menus
  • creating a grocery list off the menus
  • shopping for the ingredients
I've found it's best to make sure I'm rested and mentally ready to tackle the job--this doesn't work well if I'm in a big hurry and try to squeeze it in amongst a dozen other things I need to do that day. In other words, once I've chosen the day, I'm sure to keep it as the priority of that day. Here are the 5 steps to basic once-a-month cooking:

Step 1: I start the night before cooking day. For instance, I boil all the chickens and refrigerate the broth (this makes skimming the fat from the broth much quicker). While the chickens are still warm, I peel the meat from the bones and cut it into bite-sized pieces. I also put a brisket in the crock pot to cook overnight.

Step 2: I  begin the cooking day by performing all the chopping, grating, shredding, slicing, and draining that needs to be done. When I have finished this step I have bowls of green chilies, onions, mushrooms, cheeses, carrots, celery, olives, water chestnuts, and green peppers ready to be assembled into main dishes.

Step 3: Next I prepare the meat/poultry. I start with ground beef, preparing what doesn't need to be browned, such as meat loaf and meatballs. My chicken is already in a workable form from the night before, so I prepare the rest of my meats. I brown the remaining ground beef and drain it. I do the same with the Italian sausage. Finally, I cube the ham. I then put the brisket in the freezer and begin my spaghetti sauce in the crockpot.

Step 4: Then I assemble the ham dishes--sausage dishes, chicken dishes, ground beef dishes, and the vegetarian dishes. Because I want to serve less meat and more veggies, I am doing two things: I'm minimizing the amounts of meats that are going into the meat dishes, and I am minimizing the number of meat dishes I'm serving--compensating with more veggie meals.

Step 5: I label all these dishes and freeze. This approach to my meal management has saved me a LOT of money (due to buying bulk when things are on sale) and time over the long run. And you can see how much more convenient this makes getting a meal on the table. I love how I can comfortably delegate a dinner when most everything is already prepared.

Now here's one last bit of information (again, from the Lori Rogers book) that I found to be extremely helpful that you'll want to save should you decide to tackle once-a-month cooking yourself. These equivalents will help you implement your favorite recipes into this method of cooking:
  • 1 lb of cheese grated = 4 cups
  • 1 lb of lean ground beef = 3 cups
  • 1 lb of ground sausage = 3 cups
  • 1 lb of cubed ham = 2 1/2 cups
  • 1 cooked whole chicken = 4 cups
  • 1 chopped yellow onion = 1 cup
  • 1 chopped sauteed onion - 1/2 cup
  • 1 chopped carrot = 1 cup
  • 2 stalks celery = 1 cup
And one last point: Not only can we once-a-month cook, we can once-a-month bake. It's so nice to have batches of cookies, quick breads, muffins, cakes, etc. already prepared ahead of time. I have friends who get together on a regular basis to cook and bake for the month. They share the food costs, the work, the mess and the clean-up. They really have fun with it. 

So I'm wondering, do YOU once-a-month cook? Please share YOUR tips, ideas, experiences, even recipes. Take a minute to either email me or leave a comment. We're all in this together, so let's help each other out--there's no need for any of us to reinvent the wheel when we have each other. And until next time, here's getting it done ahead of time as we make family dinner hour possible!

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Cast Iron Care

Let's talk "cast iron." Why? Because a properly seasoned cast iron skillet is a superb substitute for those non-stick skillets so many recipes are created in. Oops, maybe we should first talk "non-stick" so you can understand why I'm even suggesting the idea of a substitution for a non-stick skillet:

Although the technology has improved dramatically, the essential nonstick ingredient is the same as it was when a DuPont Co. chemist discovered it in 1938. The waxy substance he scraped out of a freon cylinder turned out to be the most slippery substance in the world. Called polytetraflyorethylene, or PTFE, it consists of a chain of carbon atoms that are surround by fluorine atoms. DuPont began manufacturing PTFE, trademarking it Teflon.

The Environmental Working Group (an organization in Washington D.C. that compiles data on toxicity) has collected data from several industry, government and academic studies that have been done on off-gassing of PTFE--coated pans heated to various temperatures. The tests revealed that more than a dozen types of potentially toxic particulates--including hexafluoropropene, hydorgen fluoride and difluoroacetic acid--are released. But there's controversy as to whether the fumes are actually harmful to humans.

That there's controversy over this issue should be no surprise to us. The sale of Teflon-coated cookware is a multi-million dollar business, so we can be sure that DuPont fights hard and consistently to protect its territory--meaning there's a chance a lot of the "poo-pooing" that goes on in the media around the concerns about Teflon could be part of DuPont's marketing efforts.

I don't put a lot of stock in the "Teflon is Now Safe" reports--I'm the cautious type, so I've decide to opt out of the non-stick cookware club. And that brings me back to my opening--properly seasoned cast iron is a great substitute for a non-stick skillet. NOW, let's talk cast iron:

Seasoned cast iron is considered the "grandfather" to today's "non-stick" cookware. If it is "seasoned" properly, the skillet and the seasoned coating will last a lifetime. (My husband still uses his grandmother's cast iron skillets on a regular basis, and they must be at least 60-70+ years old now.)

So here's how you "season" a new cast iron pan:
  1. Heat oven to 250-300 degrees
  2. Coat the pan insides (bottom and sides) with lard or bacon grease. DON'T use a liquid vegetable oil because it will leave a sticky surface and the pan will not be properly seasoned.
  3. Put the coated pan in the oven. In 15 minutes, remove the pan and pour out any excess grease. Place the pan back in the oven and bake for 2 hours.

Repeating this process several times is recommended, as this will help create a stronger "seasoning" bond. Also, when you put the pan into service, it is recommended to use it initially for foods high in fat, such as bacon or foods cooked with fat, because the grease from these foods will help strengthen the seasoning.

Here's how to re-season cast iron:

If the pan was not seasoned properly, or a portion of the seasoning wore off and food sticks to the surface or there is any rust, then it should be properly cleaned and re-seasoned:
  1. Remove any food reside by cleaning the pan thoroughly with hot water and a scouring pad. I understand that heating the pan first to a temperature that is still safe to touch helps open the pores the metal and makes it easier to clean.
  2. Dry the pan immediately with a dish towel or paper towel.
  3. Season the pan as outlined above.

 Here's how to care for cast iron cookware:

Seasoning a cast iron pan is a natural way of creating non-stick cookware. And, like we cook and clean the modern non-stick cookware with special care to avoid scratching the surface, our cast iron cookware needs special attention as well:

  • Clean the cookware while it is still hot by rinsing with hot water and scraping when necessary. Do NOT use a scouring pad or soap (detergent) as they will bread down the pan's seasoning.
  • Never store food in the cast iron pan as the acid in the food will break down the seasoning and the food will take on a metallic flavor.
  • Store cast iron cookware with the lids off, especially in humid weather, because if covered, moisture can build up and cause rust. If rust appears, the pan should be re-seasoned.

When purchasing new cast iron cookware, it is medium gray in color. But after usage, it starts turning darker (our pans are vary black). This is normal and should be expected. While the best-of-the-best (Lodge, hands down),  is on the pricey side, take heart--it shows up a lot at garage sales and in thrift stores, so don't hesitate to snag any you see. 

And it's really user-friendly, so start experimenting with it. Whether frying our eggs on the stove, or doing the Dutch-oven cooking thing, it's fun to use and the results can be amazing. Here's my favorite pineapple upside down cake I make in our cast iron skillet all the time. And as always, here's my request for YOUR comments: Do you have any cast iron tips or recipes you could share? Please do--we're all in this together, remember! So until next time, here's to ditching that potentially toxic non-stick stuff and creating our own non-stick cookware, via cast iron, and of course, here's to making family dinner hour possible!

(Courtesy: Lodge Cast Iron Cookware)
Upside-down cake is a classic cast-iron dish that, while baking, caramelizes in the skillet to create gooey, tasty topping that, when inverted, oozes down the sides, moistening every bite. This dish combines the traditional pineapple with coconut, rum, and the unique flavor of cardamom. Inspired by island cooking, these flavors are tropical in approach and mouthwatering in taste.

For the Topping:
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
¾ cup packed dark brown sugar
1 can sliced pineapple (I place any leftover pineapple rings gently atop the batter prior to baking)

And for the Batter:
½ cup butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon coconut extract
1½ cups all-purpose flour
1½ teaspoons ground cardamom
2 teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup unsweetened pineapple juice
½ cup shredded coconut, plus ¼ cup toasted for garnish

Preheat oven to 350° F. For the Topping: Melt butter in a well seasoned 9” cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Add brown sugar and melt, stirring constantly, until bubbling, about 6 minutes. Remove from heat, add pineapple rings in one even layer, and set aside.

For the Batter: Beat butter in a large bowl with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Add sugar and beat until creamy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.

Beat in vanilla and coconut extract. In a separate bowl, combine flour, cardamom, baking powder, and salt. Add half of the flour mixture to egg mixture and beat on low speed just until blended. Add pineapple juice and beat on low to incorporate, add remaining flour mixture, beating until just incorporated.

Spoon batter over pineapple, smoothing the top evenly. Bake on center rack of oven until golden brown and a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean, 45 minutes to 1 hour. Remove from oven and let stand for 5 minutes. To remove from skillet, run a sharp knife around the edge to release the sides. Invert a cake plate or service platter over the skillet and invert cake onto the plate, keeping pan and plate firmly pressed together. The cake should drop from the skillet onto the plate.

Drizzle cake with any remaining liquid in pan, top with toasted coconut flakes, and serve (with sweetened whipped cream or vanilla ice cream would be my choice!).

Monday, March 29, 2010

10 Things I Learned in Mom's Kitchen

Sometimes I feel like time is slipping through my fingers like honey through a sieve. Can you relate to that? And life gets so rat-racy that it can be easy to miss the "wonderfulness" of the moments we're in. For instance, when I was a young girl, I didn't appreciate how wonderful it was that I had a mother interested in teaching me (and allowing me) to cook and bake.

As I was thinking about those early experiences, I created a list--one I want to share with you. I title it "10 Things I Learned in Mom's Kitchen." I wonder what YOUR list would be, and if you would share it with us? Here's mine:
  1. Mom taught me, first and foremost, that creating good food, especially a daily meal, should be a priority of the day--at the top of the TO-DO list.
  2. Mom taught me that kitchen work is easier if your kitchen is clean and organized.
  3. Mom taught me how to read a recipe (what the Tbsp, tsp, C, etc. meant).
  4. Mom taught me to check the cupboards and pantry to be sure we had all the ingredients to a recipe BEFORE I started making anything.
  5. Mom taught me to clean up after myself; that no one should have to deal with my messes (EVER, no matter the circumstances).
  6. Mom taught me, as part of cleaning up after myself, to keep the tools and appliances I used, clean and shiny. "Appliances are more fun to use, and serve us better, if they are kept clean. Wipe the mixer really well after you use it so it doesn't get caked with batter, etc. Wipe down the stove top after one meal, and it'll take you just a minute. Wipe it after five meals and it'll take you fifty minutes," was what I consistently heard.
  7. Mom taught me how to use a mixer--how to keep my fingers out of the way. My Aunt Toots had caught her fingers in a mixer once, and Mom didn't want me suffering the same pain (and embarrassment).
  8. Mom taught me to set a nice able as part of the meal preparations. We always served our food "boarding house" style--all food in serving dishes and passed from person to person. I can't remember one meal where the food was dished out of pots and pans at the stove. (Not to say this approach is bad, Mom just wanted us to have the experience of serving each other, and she thought that would happen as we put down our forks long enough to pass a bowl of something to someone.)
  9. Mom taught me to properly tend to left-overs. We didn't have much in the way of material things, but she made sure she had nice leftovers-containers (they were glass, with glass lids--you see them now in antique stores--the old Pyrex dishes in a variety of colors and sizes). She felt food should even look attractive in the fridge. Her reasoning was that if it looked attractive coming out of the fridge, it would be tasty for the next meal. She thought it was important that food looked as good as it tasted. 
  10. Mom taught me to share what I made as often as possible. "You're not the only one that loves a good cookie, so be sure to make enough to share with someone," was her mantra. She practiced what she preached. She was always taking a bowl of this or a plate of that to work, to share with her co-workers. (I'm embarrassed to tell you that at the time, I didn't realize how kind and wonderful this gesture was.)
Decades later, I now realize how blessed I was to have had such wonderful teaching from my mom. Her lessons "stuck," because I instinctively tried to teach these things to my own children when I became a mom. I hope they'll one day think back on our teaching moments and sense that those were wonderful experiences as well. 

Although we can't stop time (it'll keep slipping through our fingers), we can make sure we're passing on important things to those we love, all the while. I hope you'll talk to us about the things you learned in YOUR mom's kitchen, or maybe tell us about the things you're teaching your children right now. There's lots of wisdom and great ideas out there, so please do share (we're all in this together, remember). So until next time, here's to passing on this wisdom to those we love as we make family dinner hour possible!

Friday, March 26, 2010

A Fun "Together-Time" Idea and Left-Over Pot Roast

As we continue to look for ways to spend less, yet enjoy life more, I'm always searching for fun things to do as a family (I call this "Together-Time" Ideas) that cost little to nothing. And of course, the hunt for great left-overs recipes is always ongoing. 

Not long ago, my friend and co-worker, Barbara, gave me ideas for both issues. First, her "Together-Time" Idea:

Make it an "eat-in" night! Bag up an individual meal for each family member to "drive through" and pick up. Use paper money and include a math lesson with this, your own brand of Happy Meal. Sounds fun, huh? 

Now, do YOU have ideas for cost-free fun we can have with our families? Please share--since we're all in this together, there's no need to reinvent the wheel. Let's help each other. If you're having trouble leaving comments (I've heard from some of you that this is the case), then just email me and I'll be sure to let everyone know of your suggestions (

Now for a yummy use of left-overs--roast beef to be precise. This recipe could make an excellent "drive-through" meal for this clever "Time-Together" Idea. And the same invitation exists for recipes: Please share if you have a tip for a good "drive-through" meal. I love the synergy that results as we support one another in this important goal of eating together. So here's to some affordable family fun as we make family dinner hour possible!

RANCH BEEF PITAS (make 4 pita halves)
2 pita breads (8-inches in diameter)
4 C romaine and leaf lettuce (from 10 oz bag)
1 1/3 C cubed cooked roast beef
4 roma (plum) tomatoes, cut lengthwise in half, then sliced
1/2 C ranch dressing
1/4 C sliced red onion, if desired
(And any other additions you might like: sprouts, sliced black olives, diced celery, etc.)

Cut pita breads in half; open to form pockets. Toss lettuce, beef, tomatoes (etc.) and dressing in large bowl. Divide among pita bread halves. Top with onion, if desired. Serve immediately, or wrap in plastic wrap and serve as part of a "drive-through" meal. This sandwich is perfect for picnics, tailgate parties, or to take along on a road trip. Just be sure they're kept cool until eaten.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Time- , Money-, and Energy-Saving Mixes

For the last few days we've been talking about recipes that are kid-friendly--those that are fairly easy for them to cook and that they like to cook. I'd like to continue that theme today with homemade mixes. Having them on hand saves time, money, and energy, for sure. They'll also be flavored just the way you like them. Prepare them ahead, store in airtight containers, and you'll be all set for that busy day when you need to put dinner on the table in a hurry. And because your children made them, they'll enjoy using them later on as they help you prepare the meal.

Creating mixes is good exercise for future cooks, as well. There's minimal stress--no stove or oven is involved (so no worries over anyone getting burned), and no deadline to meet ("we have to hurry--dinner's gotta be ready in 45 minutes!", etc.). And mix-making gives kids the opportunity to practice:
  •  reading a recipe
  •  carefully measuring ingredients
  •  neatly mixing ingredients
  • efficiently cleaning up when finished
 So let's start with one they can make dessert from, one they can make muffins with, and one they can make side-dishes from. And in closing, do YOU have a mix recipe you've used that we should know about? Please share--we're all in this together, so let's help each other out as we train our kiddos in the kitchen. Until next time then, here's to an easier time of making family dinner hour possible!

CORNSTARCH PUDDING MIX (makes about 3 1/2 cups)
2 C nonfat dry milk
1 C sugar
3/4 C cornstarch
3/4 tsp salt

Mix all ingredients thoroughly and store in an airtight container in cool, dry place.

Put 1 C + 2 Tbsp pudding mix in heavy saucepan and add 2 C water. Bring to boil and gently boil 2-3 min., stirring constantly so mixture doesn't scorch. Remove from heat and stir in 2 Tbsp butter and 1 1/2 tsp vanilla. Let stand about 15 min., then stir and chill. This is so good with sliced peaches, fresh raspberries, chocolate sauce, or toasted coconut!


MUFFIN MIX (makes 8 1/2 cups)
7 C flour
1 1/3 C nonfat dry milk (instant is what I use)
3/4 C sugar
1/4 C baking powder (I prefer non-aluminum, such as Rumford's)
1 Tbsp salt

Mix all ingredients well in large bowl with fork. Store in airtight container in cool, dry place.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Put 2 C muffin mix in bowl. In separate bowl, beat 1 egg slightly; combine with 1 C water and 3 Tbsp melted butter. Add all at once to mix and stir only until dry ingredients are moistened. Can also fold in fresh or frozen blueberries, raisins, craisins, etc. Fill greased muffin cups two-thirds full and bake for 20-25 min., or until golden and inserted toothpick comes out clean.


2 C uncooked rice
1 envelope (1 3/4 oz) onion soup mix
1 tsp parsley flakes
1/2 tsp salt

Mix all ingredients, divide in half and store in tightly closed plastic bags or jars, with about 1 C + 3 Tbsp mix in each container.

DINNER TIME RICE (serves 4) 
Combine rice mixture, 2 C cold water and 1 Tbsp butter in heavy saucepan. Can embellish with vegetables, etc. Bring to boil over high heat, cover tightly and cook over very low heat 14 min., or until liquid is absorbed.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

What Makes a Kid-Friendly Recipe

Do you have a good selection of recipes kids like to cook? When I started collecting them, I wanted to be sure I was clear as to what it is kids like to cook. Here’s what makes a good kid-friendly recipe:
·         Not too many ingredients
·         Not too complicated an assembly process
·         Not too many tools or appliances needed
·         High chance of success (foolproof is a good way to put this)
·         It has to taste good!

This said, I found a great website ( that specializes in these sorts of recipes. And now is a good time to start collecting them, because with summer vacation headed our way, it’s a smart idea to have some plans for our kiddos. Teaching them to cook and bake, as well as providing ample opportunity to practice, is a super good use of the extra time children have during the summer. And with long term perspective in mind, just think of how nice it will be next Fall when you can turn some of the meal prep. over to them!

Take a look at these recipes and perhaps try them out with your children at your side. And please let me know what you think of them. We’re all in this together, so let’s help each other out. And until next time, here’s to training that next generation of cooks as we make family dinner hour possible!

1 (8oz.) package cream cheese
1 (15oz). can of chili (with or without beans)
shredded cheddar cheese
Spread cream cheese out evenly in the bottom of a glass pie plate. Spread chili on top of that. Then, sprinkle lots of cheddar cheese. Microwave until cheese is melted and ingredients are nice and hot. Very good and very easy.
2 cups potato chip crumbs
1/4 teaspoon garlic salt
Pepper to taste
1 3-pound chicken, cut up                                                           
1/2 cup melted butter
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Combine potato chip crumbs, garlic salt and pepper in shallow dish. Dip chicken pieces 1 at a time into melted margarine; roll in potato chip crumbs until coated. Arrange chicken pieces skin side up in 9x13-inch baking pan. Bake for 1 hour or until chicken is brown and crispy.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Encouraging Words--Maybe More Important Than a Nourishing Meal at Times

I teach reading comprehension and basic writing at Stevens-Henager College. My job is to help an older population of students develop some concrete skills that will carry them through to completion of their college program. No small task.

Let me tell you about Louella. This adorable, 40-something Native American mother of five children, is determined to get an education. Here's what she told me yesterday: "All my life I was told I was stupid and retarded. I sat in these "Special Education" classes all through school and never understood why. I finally did graduate from high school. On my own I got training in how to drive heavy equipment and I earned all my certifications. But my family kept telling me I was stupid and retarded and no one would hire me. But if I was stupid and retarded, HOW was I able to learn how to drive this complicated equipment? I think I can learn." 

It was all I could do to hold back my tears as I reassured Louella she is NOT stupid or retarded, she absolutely CAN learn, and all she needed was the right support!

Now here's why I share this poignant story: Let's understand the power of words--especially those spoken by family. Children believe what the most influential people in their lives (family, teachers, friends), tell them. (Forty years later Louella is struggling to climb out from under the rocks of unkind words her family and teachers piled upon her. That is so stinkin' unfair!) So we have to make sure the conversations in our homes are encouraging, inspiring, uplifting, and loving. NO ONE has the right to diminish another human being, but that's often what happens as the result of careless and thoughtless comments.

You all know this--I'm preaching to the choir here, and thank you for listening. We get it--encouraging words are often more important than a nourishing meal at times. And this is one of the aspects of family dinner hour that I just love: it's the perfect opportunity to build one another up in the presence of others. It's one thing to praise someone in private--that's good. But it's another thing to praise someone in public--that's even better. When siblings hear of one another's goodnesses, they internalize this information and tend to treat each other with more respect and kindness. There's also a feeling of security that's fostered from knowing "we all really like each other, and we care about each other." Louella didn't get this, but OUR kids can!

Now, on another different, but very related note: One more thing we can do to solidify the message that our kids are the best and we just adore 'em, is to set a fun table for them from time to time. This simple gesture brings so much pleasure to children--it boosts the level of delight and encourages a more enjoyable meal.  

On a website for "work at home moms," I found these suggestions: Include colorful napkins, inviting candles, fun silverware choices, decorative tablecloths, new cups and glasses, or beautiful spreads of flowers and plants.  Allow your children to decorate paper place mats or make a fun centerpiece.  Or get inexpensive plastic mats that can be brightened up with markers or embellishments. 

And here's my own tip for place mats: Have your children draw with crayons on light-colored cotton or cotton-blend fabric that's been cut to the size of place mats. Lay paper towels on top of each mat, and with an iron set on high, iron off the wax. The color becomes permanent. Hem each mat, and voila! Personalized place mats that'll add a lot of personality and fun to your table. (The same principle can be applied to larger blocks of fabric--I did this for curtains for the kids' bedrooms. And wouldn't these place mats make nice Christmas presents for Grandma and Grandpa?)

Back to the website advice: If there is a special occasion, such as a birthday or someone having done particularly well in school or sports, give them a personalized place setting. (I also think this would be especially nice when someone achieves a goal or triumphs over a particular challenge.) Let them use a special plate for dinner.  Give them a colorful glass to drink out of.  There are many little things that can be celebrated and doing this will turn an average dinner into a fun evening feast.

These ideas aren't revolutionary, by any means. You may already incorporate them in your meal routine. But I share them as a validation of sorts--we're all in this together, and isn't it comforting to know there are lots of folks out there spreading the same message? "Family is precious, they deserve our very best--in deeds and words." So here's to doing all WE can to see that there are "no Louella experiences" in OUR families, and here's to making family dinner hour possible!

Monday, March 22, 2010

A Quick Dinner and a "Time Together" Idea

Life can be a real rat race sometimes, and that's when we tend to pull into the drive-through and haul home the family's favorite fast  food. But what if we could come up with some alternatives to that approach? We'd save money for sure, and in the process, demonstrate to our children that we don't have to be dependent on some outside entity (i.e. Jack-in-the-Box, etc.) for our evening dinner!

It's with this idea in mind that I've been scouring cookbooks and websites looking for these very types of meal ideas. My friend and co-worker, Barbara, handed me a page she copied from a Betty Crocker cookbook (I apologize for not knowing which one) with a recipe that could very well be a start to our "Fast Food Substitutions." I won't promote it for any nutritional  value (and anyway, when was fast food all that healthy?), but I do offer it for its yumminess, ease of preparation, and as a start to getting us out of the drive-through mindset.

And while we're enjoying this fast meal, let's have some fun at the same time. Try this "Time Together" Idea: get into the groove with Name That Tune. During dinner or cleanup, take turns humming or singing a few words or a line from a song and letting other family members guess what the song is. This game can be the source of not just a lot of laughs, but some great information as well.

Now, do YOU have a"fast food" substitution idea we ought to know about? Or a fun activity we can engage in during our time together? Please share--we're all in this together, so let's help each other out! And in the meantime, here's to avoiding the drive-throughs while we make family dinner hour possible!

12 slices French bread, 1/2-inch thick (any bread you have will work fine though)
6 Tbsp soft cream cheese
1/4 C fruit preserves or jam (any flavor is great)
2 eggs
1/2 C milk
2 Tbsp sugar

Spread one side of 6 slices bread with 1 Tbsp cream cheese. Spread one side of remaining slices with 2 tsp of the preserves. Make 6 cream cheese and jelly sandwiches. Beat eggs, milk and sugar with a fork or wire whisk until smooth. Pour into shallow bowl. Spray griddle or skillet with cooking spray; heat griddle to 324 degrees or heat skillet over medium-low heat. Dip sandwiches into egg mixture. Cook sandwiches 2-3 min. on each side or until golden brown. This meal takes about 15 prep time and 6 min. cook time.

Friday, March 19, 2010

I Need Your Help and Here's a Fun Recipe!

I LABOR over this blog; I think about what I should write next, all the time. I'm sincere and serious about wanting to help us be more efficient and consistent in getting family dinner on. I worry as to whether what I'm writing about is of any value. And so I need your help.

I know I need your help because of an online tool called Google Analytics. It tells me how many readers per day this blog gets, what they're reading, and even for how long. I know how long (on average) you're on the site and can tell what you're not interested in. So far, this blog is pretty hit and miss as to zeroing in on your needs and interests. And that's where I need your help. When you have a minute, PLEASE talk to me (to us, really). 

I know I don't know all that much--I bring a little expertise (clutter management, organization skills, time management ability), but I don't pretend to be the fount of all knowledge. But if we were to pool the years of our experience, training, and insights, WOW--then we'd have a fount of maybe not ALL, but a WHOLE LOT of knowledge!

I always close the blog by saying "Please share--we're all in this together, so let's help each other." and I mean that with all my heart. I started the blog with the intention of it becoming a community effort, and that's still my hope and desire. So what d'ya say? Will you help me make this one of the best blogs out there--a compelling tool that really does some daily good? Together we can make family dinner hour possible! 

NOW, I want to share a recipe my Aunt Annie and Aunt Toots used to make to welcome Spring. It has a cute name--giving dishes cute or funny names adds some whimsy to family dinner hour, don't you think? "What's for dinner tonight, mom?" "Oh, we're having Kick-a-Poo Joy Juice and Head-hunter Stew." Everybody laughs and shows up for dinner to see just what this stuff is! 

Anyway, this recipe uses one of the traditional harbingers of the new season--RHUBARB. This often maligned fruit is loaded with anti-oxidants, fiber, and vitamins--it deserves more respect and attention. So try this out, and when the family says, "What's for dessert tonight, mom?" you can say (with a big grin):

2 3/4 C sugar, divided
1/4 C flour
3/4 tsp salt
1 C whipping cream
6 eggs, separated
5 C cut-up rhubarb
Shortbread Crust
2 tsp vanilla

Combine 2 C sugar, flour and salt; gradually stir in cream. Beat egg yolks until very light. Blend into sugar mixture. Add rhubarb. Spoon over warm Shortbread Crust. Bake at 350 degrees for 60 min. 

Beat egg whites until they form soft peaks. Add remaining 3/4 C sugar, gradually beating until stiff and sugar is dissolved. Stir in vanilla. Spread over rhubarb layer, starting at edges and working toward center. Carefully seal meringue to outer edges of pan. Continue baking for 15 min. or until golden.

1 C butter
2 C sifted flour
2 Tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla

Combine and mix until crumbly. Press into bottom of 9x13-inch pa. Bake at 350 degrees for 10 min.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Nourishing More Than the Body

I teach at Stevens-Henager College. I teach the folks that for one reason or another, got sidetracked from school when they were young. But they see the value of education now, and are almost desperate to improve themselves and their situation in life. I see my opportunity to help them learn how to REALLY read and write (so they can pass the GED and gain entrance into college) as a privilege, one I take very seriously. 

It doesn't take long to get attached to these students, and I'm always wondering what more I can do for them--how I can help them see the potential they have, for instance. So in thinking about this, I've been remembering the things I would call out to my kids as they'd leave the house for school each morning--"Remember who you are! Act accordingly!" or "Be kind to everyone and learn something new today." or "Return with honor!" etc. etc. And then there were the things we'd chat about at the end of the day around the dinner table. I liked to serve up not just a good meal, but a little inspiration as well (we all know we're nourishing more than the body). I would share something I read that day, something I noticed, or something I'd been thinking about.

So I think I'm going to do the same with "my new batch" of kids. I want to talk to them about being the salt of the earth--that they're here for more than earning a buck, paying a bill, and just spending the rest. I want to help them see that they can make a difference with their lives--as I tried to help my own kids understand that important concept. "Remember who you are!" belongs in the classroom as much as in the home, don't you think? Well, thanks for listening--I think I have a plan...

Now let's look at a delicious and easy dish that kids can cook and can be made ahead. This make-ahead casserole is named for the mountain locale of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. It was created for brunch, but we all know that brunch knows no limits--have it for dinner too! This comfort food will set the stage for a great meal as well as some inspiring table talk. 

If you have a good recipe to share, a story about your family meals, or anything else that's on your mind, please share. I keep saying we're all in this together--I know it's true. I'm who I am today because of others, so let's help each other out! And until next time, here's to nourishing more than the body as we make family dinner hour possible!

TETON BRUNCH (serves 12; would be perfect for Easter breakfast, also)
12 slices firm white bread, crusts removed
3 Tbsp + 1/2 C butter, softened
2 C thinly sliced onions
1/2 lb thinly sliced mushrooms
1 1/2 lb Italian or breakfast sausage, cooked and cut into 1/2-inch pieces (cubed ham or crisp-cooked bacon pieces are a good substitute for the sausage)
3/4 lb medium Cheddar cheese, shredded
5 large eggs
2 1/2 C milk
1 Tbsp Dijon-style prepared mustard
1 tsp salt
1 tsp dry mustard
1 tsp ground nutmeg
1/8 tsp pepper
2 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley leaves

The day before serving, prepare casserole: Grease a 13x9-inch baking dish. Spread one side of each bread slice using 3 Tbsp butter in all. Set aside.

In large skillet, melt remaining 1/2 cup butter over medium heat. Add onions and saute 5 minutes. Add mushrooms and saute until all liquid evaporates--5-10 min. In greased baking dish, layer half of bread, onion-mushroom mixture, sausage, and cheese. Repeat layers, ending with cheese.

In medium bowl, using a fork, beat eggs, milk, prepared mustard, salt, dry mustard, nutmeg, and pepper. Pour over mixture in baking dish. Cover and refrigerate overnight. Next day, preheat oven to 350. Remove cover from baking dish and sprinkle mixture with fresh chopped parsley. Bake uncovered, 45-60 min or until set in center. Let stand 10 min. before cutting into 12 rectangles.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Homemade Egg-Dying & a Hot Tip!

Happy St. Patrick's Day! I hope you're having fun with the "green theme." My kids loved waking up to a green breakfast--green milk, green toast, green eggs. They got a kick out of taking green sandwiches to school and then seeing a green dinner on the table that evening. 

(I wished I'd taken advantage of holidays more and put greater effort into doing more fun things with my kids. It seems I was usually too busy--laundry, cleaning, tending babies, weeding the vegetable garden, etc. etc. etc. Maybe you know what I mean? My advice to young mommas--and I sure hope some are reading this blog--is to simplify your life so you have more time to spend on what matters most--your family.)

Well, moving on: Let's enjoy today to the fullest--I don't want to distract from it in any way. But I thought since Easter will be here before we know it, looking at some fun things to do with egg dying might be a good idea, as some of this will take a little planning.

So with thought in mind, I ask the question, "Why buy packaged egg coloring kits when you probably already have everything you need right in your pantry?" Just look at what we can do with our kids with what we already have:

To make a rainbow of hues, use either liquid or paste food coloring (using paste gives extra bright and, depending upon how large a dab of paste you use, more intense color). You'll need a separate cup for each color, large enough to hold an egg and the liquid. Dissolve a dab of paste food color, or about 6-8 drops of regular liquid food color, in 1 cup hot water. Stir in 1/4 cup distilled white vinegar and your egg dye is ready to go!

General Egg Dying Hints

  • Covering your work area with plenty of newspaper or other paper makes clean up afterward a snap—just gather up the mess and toss it out in one fell swoop
  • An empty egg carton makes a good drying rack (see photo), but liquid tends to collect at the bottom so use caution when lifting eggs out of the drying rack and blot the bottoms carefully with a dry paper towel so the color doesn't run
  • Making sure eggs are completely dry between color coats is probably the one most important tip for great Easter eggs - absorbent paper towels, used to carefully blot the eggs, can help finish the process
  • Wearing rubber gloves will help your fingers avoid getting stained with food coloring -- and they will regardless of how careful you are
  • If you don't want to color boiled eggs, you can also use hollow egg shells in which the contents have been "blown" out.
  • Don't forget egg-dying tricks such as using crayons for a batik effect or rubber bands for a tie-dye look.
  • If you like a glossy egg, rub the dyed eggs with vegetable oil when they are dry.

And if you're interested in going the truly "natural" route, take a look at what we can do with what's in the fridge and cupboards:

  • Red eggs:
          Red onion skins, use a lot (boil with eggs)
          Pomegranate juice
  • Orange eggs:
          Yellow onion skins (boil with eggs)
  • Yellow eggs:
          Lemon or orange peel (boil with eggs)
          Carrot tops (boil with eggs)
          Celery seed (boil with eggs)
          Ground cumin (boil with eggs)
          Ground turmeric (boil with eggs)
  • Yellow Brown eggs:
          Dill seeds (boil with eggs)
  • Brown
          Strong coffee
          Instant coffee
          Black walnut shells (boil with eggs)
  • Yellow Green eggs:
          Bright green apple peels (boil with eggs)
  • Green eggs:
          Spinach leaves (boil with eggs)
  • Blue eggs:
          Canned blueberries and their juice
          Red cabbage leaves (boil with eggs)
          Purple grape juice
  • Violet Blue eggs:
          Violet blossoms
          Red onion skins, less amount than you need to make red (boil with eggs)
  • Lavender eggs:
          Diluted purple grape juice
          Violet blossoms plus squeeze of lemon (boil with eggs)
  • Pink eggs:
          Beets, fresh or canned
          Cranberries or cranberry juice
          Red grape juice

And one final hot egg-related tip: Since eggs are always on sale during Easter time, buy LOTS. They can be frozen. Just gather up all your ice cube trays and crack an egg into each section of the tray. Freeze until solid, then pop out the eggs into freezer containers or zippered freezer bags. These eggs will keep for about 3 months or so. Unthaw the amount you'll need in the fridge.
Do YOU have fond memories of holiday traditions with your kids? Do YOU have any egg-dying tips or anything else you would like to share? Please do. As I always say, we're all in this together, so let's help each other out. Until next time then, here's to having St. Patrick's Day and Easter fun with the family, and of course, to making family dinner hour possible!