Friday, December 30, 2011

3 EASY Steps to a Healthy 2012!

"Family dinner made easy" has a lot of pieces to it. One that we like to talk about is simple ways to healthify our meals.

As we get ready to move into 2012, how about considering 3 EASY steps to helping our families eat better? These steps are small, but over the long haul, taking them would have a big impact on overall health. Think about:


1) never using margarine again. Replace it with real butter (and use that in moderation). On the website truthorfiction.com, we found that margarine increases total cholesterol and LDL (this is the bad cholesterol) and lowers HDL cholesterol, (the good cholesterol). Consumption of margarine affects the quality of mothers' breast milk because of the trans fats it contains. Dr. Mary Enig says that consuming trans fatty acids "Affects immune response by lowering effeciency of B cell response and increasing proliferation of T cells." Trans fats can increase blood insulin levels, which increases the risk for diabetes. 

2) using REAL SALT or Himalayan salt rather than typical table salt (Morton's, Western Family, etc.). What remains after typical salt is "chemically cleaned" is sodium chloride -- an unnatural chemical form of salt that your body recognizes as something completely foreign. And this form of salt is in almost every preserved product that we eat. Therefore, when you add more salt to your already salted food, your body receives more salt than it can dispose of. Eating common table salt causes excess fluid in your body tissue, which can contribute to cellulite, arthritis and gout, and kidney and gall bladder stones. 
 
3) using cold pressed coconut oil or butter when baking and cooking rather than shortening. The reason for this hearkens back to the same reasons we want to avoid margarine--the trans fat issues.

So with these 3 EASY and really painless adjustments to how we cook, we'll be boosting the nutrition factor of our meals and thus fostering better health in our families. Small and simple can have a big impact over time! Now do YOU have any ideas for simple steps to take this new year for cooking healthier? Please share--we'd love to hear what you are doing. In the meantime, here's to family dinner made easy as we choose to cook with butter, REAL salt, and coconut oil!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Vinegar's for Flavor and Health

Every pantry needs at least 2 or 3 types of vinegar. Vinegars are called for in many of the sauce recipes and they can add a punch to some of the bland soups and vegetables. Most vinaigrettes, marinades and salad dressings have vinegar in their recipe's as well. Many types of vinegar are interchangeable for instance: cider, red or white wine vinegars are similar enough to be used in each other’s place in most recipes. Let’s talk about a few kinds of vinegars and why they are a must for your pantry.

Cider vinegar or apple cider vinegar has a fruity, tart flavor that can be used in just about any recipe calling for vinegar. If you buy the raw apple cider vinegar you will notice some “floaties” in the bottle, they are called the “mother.” Raw vinegar is not as pretty as processed vinegar but the taste and health benefits make it so much better. Check out this website for health benefits. http://www.globalhealingcenter.com/natural-health/the-benefits-of-apple-cider-vineg

Balsamic vinegar is a sophisticated vinegar with a reddish brown color and a mellow flavor. This vinegar is not only great for sauces but makes a great dip for artisan breads. It’s also delicious over fresh tomatoes and basil.
 
Distilled vinegar is used for pickling and can also be used for cleaning purposes. If you haven’t, you should try making your own homemade cleaners. They are cheaper and less toxic. http://organizedhome.com/clean-house/pantry-recipes-homemade-cleaning-products

Rice vinegar is almost sweet in flavor and is great in Asian salads. We like to sprinkle it on cooked cabbage, spinach and green beans.

Red wine and white wine vinegars are what we use most often in our kitchen. They seem to work well in any recipe. These two vinegars are delicious in anything from marinades and soups to salad dressings. Red and white wine vinegar are exchangeable and work great as a flavor enhancer to chowders and bean soups.

White wine vinegar is what you would use if you were going to make your own fruit or herb vinegar. This is how it is done;

1.      Combine vinegar with the fruit, garlic or herb of choice and simmer in a pan for just a couple of minutes.
2.       Pour into sterile jars for 2 to 4 weeks.
3.      Drain off the vinegar and pour into bottle for storage.

 Vinegar's enhance so many dishes. Try using them on vegetables and in soups and tell your family to make dinner a priority because you have!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Cold and Flu Relief From the Kitchen

Have you and your family been able to dodge the cold and flu bugs so far? This past week we've been fighting them in our families. Alice was even in bed for a couple days. 

 
(And here's an observation for ya! Life goes on just fine--including Christmas--when mom's laid low. Alice said it was a little humbling, yet freeing, to see how folks can manage just fine without her micro-management of stuff!)

Anyway, experiencing some winter sickness prompted us to think about simpler times--a time when moms couldn't rush their kiddies off to a doctor's office or neighborhood health clinic. What did they do then when they got ill? They relied on the wisdom handed down from generation to generation--all sorts of home remedies that could be created in their kitchens.

And we happen to have just such a remedy that we've used over and over as we raised our kids: the 1st Aid Mustard Plaster. This is a miracle-worker when it comes to chest colds. It feels cold when first applied, but heats up quickly and does a super job of breaking up any congestion in the chest. It's a terrific way to stave off potential pneumonia or bronchitis. Here's the recipe:



1st AID MUSTARD PLASTER

1 egg
2 Tbsp shortening
1 Tbsp camphor oil
1 Tbsp dry mustard
Flour (to thicken with)
Water (to make a spreadable consistency)


Mix ingredients well and spread on a clean flannel cloth. Apply to chest. Check periodically as this can burn the skin.

We hope you and your families are staying warm, healthy, and happy and getting ready to welcome in a wonderful new year. While you're at it, though, won't you share with everyone what YOUR kitchen health remedies are? How do YOU fight colds and flu? What are YOUR preventative measures? We're all in this together, so let's help each other. Meanwhile, here's to family dinner made easy as we pull out our kitchen remedies when the cold and flu bugs get the best of us!



Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Big Oops: What NOT to DO When Making Homemade Cocoa!

At the beginning of the month we talked about all the cool things you can do to enhance your cup of cocoa. Well this morning we have to report in on what NOT to do when making cocoa--especially homemade cocoa!

[Alice talking] "Our family spent the day tubing at Soldier Hollow resort yesterday. We brought up a picnic-type dinner that we ate in the lodge after we were finished playing. There was a slow cooker of chili dogs (hotdogs cooked in with the chili--really good), lots of snackies, and a slow cooker of homemade cocoa (amazing recipe, but bungled). My adorable son-in-law teased me that it was kind of fun to have drinkable pudding--a new experience for him."

So the "big oops?" (And you probably already know this, but for those that don't--we gotta share.) I cooked the recipe in my slow cooker. It didn't need cooking, it just needed a warming. Any recipe with dairy in it--white sauces, gravies, chowders, cheese soups, etc. should NOT NOT NOT have the dairy added early on and cooked for a long period because the prolonged heating causes everything to separate and curdle. Once it does this, there's no reclamation. It just can't be stirred back into a smooth consistency. The trick when making cheesy broccoli or cauliflower soup, for instance, is to start with steamed veggies, add boiling hot liquids (the milk, cream, etc.), and then just warm the soup until serving.


Thus because Alice cooked it rather than warmed it, the cocoa ended up as a curdley, drinkable chocolate pudding concoction. It tasted OK, it was just a little odd. Needless to say, there's leftovers. Anyway, let's look at what to do so this never happens to you (or her again). When making homemade cocoa:


1) Mix your dry ingredients together. 

2) Add boiling hot liquids a little at a time and stir well. You start off with a thick paste, and eventually end up with a smooth and thin consistency. 

3) Pour this into your slow cooker. Whether transporting or serving at home, don't turn on the heat (meaning--WARM) until about 45 minutes to an hour before serving. Because you started off with boiling hot liquids, your cocoa will be hot enough by just sitting on warm. Cocoa does not need to be cooked--only warmed.


We like to make our cocoa with cream and powdered milk. We add extra cocoa powder--no matter how much the recipe calls for. And we always add pure vanilla. Your cocoa recipe probably calls for something similar. Just remember--boil your liquids initially, then simply keep things warm. Oh, and always add the vanilla as the very last thing you do. That way you retain its flavor.


Have you had any cocoa fiascos? Do you have any cocoa-making tips or good recipes to share? We're all in this together, so please comment--there's no reason we all gotta go through the "big oops." And until next time, here's to family dinner made easier--especially if we know what NOT to do when making homemade cocoa or any other dairy-based dish!





 

Monday, December 26, 2011

Ice Cream Snowballs

1/2 gallon vanilla ice cream
10 ounces flaked coconut
Using a round ice cream scoop form ice cream into balls. Place on a cookie sheet and freeze. Roll in coconut and serve. For added color and taste, add a few raspberries or mint leaves.


We hope you all had a very Merry Christmas! We are still enjoying our families and that means that the celebrating is not over. Tonight is game night and tomorrow we have more family coming. If you are looking for something fast and easy for a dessert, this is a good one. This yummy dessert with it's festive flair will  keep them running to the dinner table.

Friday, December 23, 2011

A Healthy Alternative to Cold Cereal That's a Neat Christmas Gift As Well!

We're finishing up our gifts--the last being food gifts. Today we're making "Pauper's Granola." Here's a little background:

Back in the old days when Alice was feeding her family of 9 on less than $10 a month, she needed a money-saving alternative to cold cereal (folks can only take so much cooked oatmeal and cracked wheat mush!). They were living in Portland, OR, and her friend, Shirley Smith, gave her a recipe for homemade granola. 

As you know, most granolas are fairly expensive, this recipe included, so Alice massaged and tweaked it until it was just the money-saver she needed--hence the name, "Pauper's Granola." 

It was so good and such a hit, that she ended up making it at Christmas time to sell at bazaars and to give to family and friends. So today we pass this recipe on to you--whether you want to save a little on your grocery bill or just want another idea for a great last-minute gift. You might like this:

PAUPER'S GRANOLA

10 C old fashioned oats
1 C whole wheat flour
1 C powdered milk (instant is fine also)
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 C honey
1/2-3/4 C brown sugar
1 C healthy oil (grapeseed, coconut, walnut, sesame, or extra virgin olive oil)
1 C old fashioned peanut butter
2-3 Tbsp pure vanilla
Raisins
In large roasting pan, mix dry ingredients. Heat honey, brown sugar, oil, and peanut butter until melted and blended well. Remove from stove and add vanilla. Pour over dry ingredients. Bake at 225 degrees for 1/2 to 1 hour, continually checking and turning the mix so it all roasts evenly. Add raisins. Let cool before packaging into containers.

NOTES:

1) There's nothing sacred or scarey about any granola recipe, so tweak it to your needs and preferences. For instance, if you can't eat wheat, omit the wheat flour and substitute millet, amaranth, teff, etc. The flour acts as a binder for the liquid ingredients--it helps coat the oats. Also, if you can't eat peanuts, then substitute almond butter for the peanut butter. And if you don't like raisins, substitute dried cranberries or diced dried apricots, or... Play around with this.

2) This is pretty much a bare bones recipe, but if saving $$ isn't an issue and you really want to jazz this up to increase the "WOW!" factor, then add black sesame seeds (to increase the lignans), raw sunflower seeds, unsweetened coconut, walnuts (or cashews, or hazelnuts, or...), pumpkin seeds, etc. You get the idea.

3) This is so versatile--you can use it in cookies (we put it in our "Cowboy Cookie" recipe) and you can make granola BARS with it. Before roasting, press the granola onto a cookie sheet with a raised edge and roast until golden brown. Upon removing from oven, use your chef's knife to cut into bars. Let rest and cool before removing from pan. If you want a chewy bar, add a little extra honey and oil to the mix before pressing onto the cookie sheet. (HEY! Homemade granola bars--now there's another good Christmas present idea! Put  each bar in its own baggie, and put the number you want to give in a nice, reusable container and tie with a pretty bow. We're doin' this!)

Don't you just love serving foods that are not only good, but good FOR you? This is really one of those foods, and we hope if you don't give it a try now, you eventually will. And then drop us a comment as to what you think of it, what changes (if any) you made to the recipe, etc. And so until next time, here's to family dinner made easy as we serve up a healthy alternative to cold, store-bought cereals. Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Delicious (and EASY) Treat to Add to Your Crowd-Feeding Buffet Table!

Is the week getting away from you? Us, too. But we're having fun planning Sunday's dinner, and we have another EASY idea to add to yesterday's tips on feeding your crowd:

First a little background on it: [Alice talking] 
I was in the bulk-foods section of our local whole foods store, Good Earth. A lady next to me was filling a bag with medjool dates. Wondering what she was going to do with so many dates, I asked her. And here's where the idea comes from:


[Nice lady in the bulk-foods section talking]: "This is one of our favorite holiday treats. I slice each date in half, remove the pit, fill each half with cream cheese, and top with a few toasted, slivered almonds. They are to die for!" 

I asked if she adds anything to the cream cheese and she said no--there's no need because the sugar in the date melds almost instantly with the cream cheese, so it's truly sweet enough. Plus the date flavor enhances the whole thing.


So I bought a bunch and tried one at home. Oh my! She was absolutely right. These little babies are dessert in and of themselves. Boy was I glad I had the wherewithal to ask her about her date bag, and I'm very grateful she graciously shared! It's like we always say: We're all in this together, so let's help each other out.

We hope you like this idea for such an unusual (at least we think it's unusual--maybe we just don't get out much) and amazingly delicious treat to add to your crowd-feeding buffet table this Sunday. Until next time then, here's to family dinner made easy as we prepare yet another wonderful and EASY dish for our Christmas celebration!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Six Tricks for Feeding a Crowd!

When you have a large group coming to your home for dinner there a few things that can help you become a better prepared hostess. The first thing to do is don’t panic! You will be amazed at the solutions you already have in your head, if you take some time to plan and think about serving items you already have on hand.

When planning dinner for a large group of people, definitely go buffet style. It may be simplistic, but by way of definition, a buffet is where all the food is placed on a separate table or tables and the guest picks up plates from the head of the table and dishes up their own choice of foods. Then they carry their plate to the tables set up for eating.  A buffet works well with a formal or casual meal.

You should ask yourself, “How can I feed everyone with the dishes and utensils I already have?” There are three answers to this question. Don’t be afraid to mix and match your plates.  Everyone will think that is part of your creative plan. If you want to use washable plates and don’t have enough, check out your local second hand store. (We have found a couple of sets of beautiful plates and serving dishes at our local thrift store.) You can also ask a friend or family member to loan you some of their dishes. It is a good idea to coordinate the colors the best you can; stacking them so they are mixed in together lets your guests know this was all part of the plan. If you don’t want to use washable plates, go for a high quality plastic or paper plate.

Wrapping the silverware into packets or a nice little bundle will make food pick-up easier on the guests. Have the packets located at the head or end of the table. This keeps people from running back to the line and asking “Where are the forks, etc….?” Securing the silverware with a tie around the napkin keeps them intact and is a fancy addition. Kids love to wrap and tie the utensils, so this is a good place to put them to work! When you are finished wrapping, place them in a pretty basket or box.

Decorations are nice on the buffet table but not necessary. We personally think garnishing the food is the best way to go. If you do use decorations, keep them in a place that doesn’t interfere with the serving of the food.  I would keep the table decorations for the dining area.

Plan the menu and prepare as much of the food, as possible, ahead of time. One thing to remember on a buffet table is that hot dishes should be kept hot and cold dishes should be kept cold. Heating trays are wonderful and packing cold foods on ice is a good idea. It will ensure your guests feel more comfortable, as no one wants to get sick, which could happen if the foods are not kept at the right temperature.

Here are some ideas that will help with buffet set-up:
  • Set up tables. Cover with a nice cloth that will compliment your color scheme.
  • Set the plates on both sides of the table, at the end of the table where you want your guests to start serving themselves. Place utensil bundles at the end of the food — it should be the last thing people pick up.
  • The main course should be the first item, followed by side dishes.
  • Salads and breads are next, unless they are already on the guest tables.
  • Salt and pepper shakers should be at each table, as well as butter.
  • Have a separate table for desserts.

We love a dessert table that has a beautiful presentation, assembled in a way that really shows off the food. This can be nicely done by changing the height of some of the dessert platters. For example, you can create various heights by placing books, upside down dishes, or boxes underneath your tablecloth. Then arrange your dessert platters.

A buffet that is set up correctly will help everyone feel comfortable. The questions will be minimal and you will be assured everyone is getting just what they want. If you have a very unruly bunch, bring a large whistle and a big stick! Just kidding! Everyone will get the hang of it.  After you formally welcome everyone to your home, you can explain the buffet setup and process. This will help everyone know the routine you have planned for the meal.

So don’t panic, this isn’t hard. You will in fact have an amazing time and your guests will be astonished at your terrific entertaining skills.

These ideas might be helpful in getting dinner hour to happen at your home when the crowd comes.

Old Fashion Sugar Cookies

Nothing smells more like Christmas than sugar cookies baking in the oven. Years ago we found a recipe that makes soft, fat sugar cookies. If you have ever had a “pink cookie” and you know how good they are. Now imagine a fresh one straight from the oven. This recipe is so close to that thick pink cookie it is unbelievable! We have been making and enjoying these cookies for years. So put on some Christmas music, bake some sugar cookies and shabam! The family will be gathered in the kitchen before you can say Merry Christmas!  Oh, we have to tell you that these cookies turn out best if you use a large cookie cutter, one that doesn’t have too much detail - like a circle, star or outline of a snowflake.

Good old fashioned sugar cookies definitely gets us in the Christmas spirit. We hope you get a chance to try this recipe and that you enjoy it as much as we do. Time in the kitchen with your family will create memories that will never be forgotten.

OLD FASHIONED SUGAR COOKIES
4 1/2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 1/4 cups butter or margarine
2 cups sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla


1/2 teaspoon lemon extract
1 cup buttermilk

In a large bowl, mix together all dry ingredients. In a mixer bowl, add butter and sugar. Beat until fluffy. Add eggs, vanilla and lemon extract and beat well. Add flour mixture and buttermilk alternately to shortening mixture. Cover and chill for about 3 hours. These cookies are easier to handle if cold.

Roll dough 1/2 inch thick. Cut into 3 inch shapes with a cookie cutter. Place 3 inches apart on an ungreased cookie sheet. If you don't plan on frosting them, sprinkle extra sugar on the top. Bake at 375 degrees for 10-12 minutes or until done. This recipe makes about 24 large cookies.

Tip: If you don't have buttermilk, combine 1 Tablespoon of lemon juice or vinegar to a cup of milk and let set for 15 minutes.

Enjoy your family or a friend and keep them coming to the dinner table with these yummy sugar cookies. Take sometime to talk about life and your many blessings. Oops! Don't forget the hot chocolate.

Monday, December 19, 2011

An EASY and Very Thoughtful Christmas Gift!

We hope your Christmas plans and doings are going well for you and you're especially enjoying all that comes with this wonderful holiday.

Two things this morning: First reader "Chris and Kristy" commented on yesterday's post, and her idea is such a good one, we want to repeat it here, in case you don't read the comments. This is really worth repeating, and we want to publicly thank her for taking the time to share:

"I cook lots of chicken in one batch and shred it. Then I put it in bags (1 pound) and freeze it. Makes it super easy to add to any dish. Also, my favorite method for shredding chicken is to use my electric hand mixer. When the chicken is hot, you don't have to burn your hands to shred it and it comes out SO nice! Plus it's super quick." 

Second:  Here's a very easy and very thoughtful Christmas gift that's perfect for taking to your favorite neighbor, sister-in-law, etc. We can't take credit for it--good friend Daphne Budge is the creator of this clever poem and idea:

Throughout the year she buys paper goods (plates, cups, bowls, napkins and plastic utensils) when she finds them on sale. At Christmas time she packages sets in Christmasy bags with handles, inserts tissue paper, and attaches this cute note:

              
                "Everyone deserves a break from the dishes.
                So we're sharing this,
                Along with our Christmas wishes!"

Darling, huh? Don't you just love the creativity and resourcefulness people come up with? We like to say "We're all in this together" (meaning Life 101) and it makes us so happy that we are, because of the good things you share and the good example you are. We wanna be on YOUR team!

This said, it's not too late to let us all know about any last-minute or time-saving holiday ideas you may have. We'd love to know how you keep the joy in the holiday as you so effectively get your TO DO list done. Until then, here's to family dinner made easy as we share our gifts with those around us.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

6 Tasty Ways You Can Turn Boxed & Canned Stuff Into Homemade-Like Dinners

Alice's Aunt Annie cooked mostly from scratch. But every once in awhile she'd have to resort to convenience foods for dinner due to an extra busy day - we can all probably relate. She was such a creative cook - she knew how to jazz up store-bought foods (pantry items) with her special touches that made them taste very "homemade."

Besides being a creative cook that could turn ho-hum pantry items into truly noteworthy dishes, she was very modest. We'd ooh and aaahh over something we thought was amazing and she'd always reply with "Oh, this is something I found in my Better Homes and Garden Cookbook," or "This is Cousin Ruby's recipe," or "This is straight out of Taste of Home Magazine," or... She never took credit for any of the meal magic she worked. But we all knew better - the most fantastic recipe in the world can flop in the hands of a so-so cook. Nope - Aunt Annie was a true dinner diva and we were in awe.

And two of her favorite pantry items that she could do wonders with, were canned soups and boxed macaroni and cheese. Here are some of her family-tested answers to "What's for dinner on this super busy day?":
1. For extra pizzazz, add an envelope of onion soup mix to canned split pea soup. The flavor is terrific.

2. Stir in 1/4 teaspoon of garlic powder to canned cream of mushroom soup, then add any veggie leftovers you might have on hand. Leftover rice gives this dish extra character as well.

3. To dried chicken noodle soup mix, add about 1 1/2 cups of frozen peas and carrots plus a can of vegetable soup. This is a hearty soup that goes really well with sandwiches.

4. Give your standard boxed macaroni and cheese a new life. Make it according to the directions on the box, then add a can of Italian-style stewed tomatoes and any leftover cooked sausage or ground beef. Aunt Annie would also top the whole thing with about a cup of grated Cheddar cheese.
5. Adding a dollop of sour cream to your boxed mac & cheese when finished putting it together. This makes it even creamier and gives it a little zip.

6. Finally, prepare boxed macaroni and cheese according to directions, and when it's done, stir in a small can of chunky ham, or add any leftover ham (diced) you have. This is an effortless entree!

What do YOU do to get a dinner together when it's been a super-busy day? Having a few tricks up our sleeve will always help--please share yours--we're all in this together! Until next time then, here's to family dinner made easy, even on a super-busy day!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Dessert on the Run: No-Fuss Angel Food Cake

We're so excited to announce the winners of our PURE VANILLA GIVE-AWAY! First of all, thank you to all of you for commenting. We know life is busy--exceptionally so at this time of year, so we truly appreciate you reading, commenting, and supporting our efforts to get our families back to the dinner table.

SO here you are: ELLEN GREENAWAY. Ellen suggested vanilla be added to children's playdough--the smell is soothing. JIM ERLANDSON. Jim suggested soaking cottonballs in vanilla and using them as bait in mousetraps. He says it's a no-fail approach to ridding yourself of unwanted pests! Wonderful ideas!

We'll be shipping the vanilla off immediately, as soon as we get our lucky winner's addresses.

NOW: Today's topic: Since we've been talking about last-minutes dinner fixes, here's a great idea for a super quick and easy dessert. And it can be a real money-saver as well if you go the day-old bakery basket as well. Here are the 4 basic steps to create Angel Food Cake Deluxe!

1) Buy an un-iced angel food cake

2) Ice it with your favorite homemade frosting or from a can of store-bought.

3) Crush peppermint candies and sprinkle all over the iced cake. OR, depending on your icing flavor, you can chop up a candy bar and sprinkle it atop the cake.

4) Call it good!

If you're looking for a terrific icing recipe, look no more:

CREAM CHEESE HEATH BAR FROSTING

8 oz cream cheese, softened
2/3 C packed brown sugar
1 tsp pure vanilla (and of course, we like to add a little more)
1/8 tsp salt
2 C whipped cream
1 Heath candy bar

Blend first four ingredients well then fold in whipped cream. Loosely chop Heath bar. Ice cake, cookies and sprinkle the chopped candy bar over the icing for extra taste and a pretty garnish (or as Alice would do, drop a huge glob into hot cocoa. Oink.).

We hope this dessert on the run is your answer for getting your family to the dinner table.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Cool Things to Do With Vanilla

There are some very cool things we can do with pure vanilla besides bake:

1. It eliminates stubborn bad odors in the refrigerator--just wipe down the inside with it. Then to prolong the fresh vanilla scent, soak a cotton ball or small piece of new sponge with vanilla and leave it in your refrigerator. We do this to counteract the lingering smell of cut onion.

2. It deodorizes the microwave also. Just pour a little vanilla extract in a bowl and microwave on High for one minute.

3. It neutralizes the smell of fresh paint. We like that aroma, but for those that don't, mix 1 tablespoon vanilla extract into the paint can when you open it. The vanilla doesn't affect the paint and the house will smell delicious!

4. It sweetens the overall smell of the home. It's an old Realtor's trick (along with baking a batch of chocolate chip cookies). Put a drop or two of vanilla extract on a light bulb, turn on the light, and your house will be filled with the lovely scent of things baking in the oven.

5. It sweetens the smell of the car. Soak a few cotton balls in pure vanilla extract and place them discreetly under the front seat. This is a non-toxic way to enhance your ride!

6. It perfumes or slightly flavors granulated sugar. Just store your vanilla beans in your sugar in an airtight container. Both the beans and the sugar benefit.

7. It relieves minor burns. When you've just experienced a kitchen burn (grabbing a hot pan handle or being splattered by hot grease, for instance), quickly dab on some vanilla extract. The evaporation of the alcohol in the vanilla cools and soothes the burn.

8. It is a skin saver and soother, thanks to its antioxidants. Because it can prevent damage from environmental pollutants and toxins, you might want to try this delicious reviving scrub recipe:

VANILLA SCRUB
1 lemon
5 vanilla beans
3 Tbsp brown sugar
3 drops vanilla essential oil
3 drops vanilla extract

Squeeze lemon into a bowl; discard seeds. Slice open vanilla beans lengthwise; scrape out seeds with spoon. Add vanilla seeds, brown sugar, vanilla oil and extract to lemon juice. Mix well. Apply scrub to face (avoiding eyes) and massage in for a few minutes. Rinse with warm water, then splash with cold.

9. It is a hunger buster. Smelling a satisfyingly rich scent such as vanilla can trick your brain into thinking you've eaten more than you actually have, says researchers. This cues the body to feel content sooner, thus you'll eat less. Hmmm, who knew?

10. It's a soothing bath additive. Alice adds it to her bath water (about 1 tablespoon) along with 2 cups of epsome salts.

11. It repels bugs--they don't like this smell. Dilute 1 tablespoon vanilla extract with 1 cup water and wipe the mixture on your exposed skin to discourage mosquitoes, black flies, and ticks.

12. It makes a natural and delicious perfume. While bugs don't like the smell, people do. Once in awhile, dab a little extract behind your ears and on your pulse points. Notice all the extra hugs and snuggles you get! (Alice's hubby, Rich, likes eau de vanilla almost as much as he likes eau de bacon and eau de gravy!)

Finally, food-wise, beyond baking: Add it to your milk for a nice flavor snap. We like to add it to the egg mixture when making French toast. It's also a nice addition to the pancake and waffle batter, and Alice adds it to her morning green smoothies and when making homemade cocoa.

The uses go on and on. What do YOU do with vanilla? Please take a minute and pass on your ideas. We have a beautiful bottle of PURE vanilla extract we will be giving away to the best idea that's shared--so don't be shy. Just comment with your idea (here on the blog, not on Facebook) and email us with your address and we'll ship it off to you! How cool is that?

While these ideas may not necessarily make it easier to get family dinner on, they certainly enhance the atmosphere. So until next time, here's to family dinner made easy while we do some cool things with vanilla!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

One Skillet Meal Appeal

Did you know that some of your family's favorite meals can be prepared with the ease of using just one pan? Not only is this a quick way to prepare a meal, but it no doubt makes for a trouble-free clean up. Another constructive reason for making a one-skillet dinner is the simplicity of being able to serve the meal directly from the pan to the plate.

Don't wig-out on us here! Although serving from the skillet creates a casual setting, it also gives the warm feeling of a casual family dinner. Skillet meals are very much like making a casserole only without having to use so many pans and bowls. Cooking in one pan unquestionably makes for a shorter preparation time. If you haven't tried one skillet dinners, we highly endorse them, especially during this busy season.

First, you need to have a large skillet. This can be cast iron or stainless steel. An electric skillet will also work well. After you find
a few recipes that you think your family will enjoy, a skillet dinner will become another source of being able to get dinner on the table quickly, and without much fuss.

Here are just a couple of recipes that we thought you might enjoy trying. Chop your vegetables ahead of time and have them ready to go, this will also cut down on prep time.

TEX-MEX ONE SKILLET DINNER
1/2 cup chopped onion
16 ounces canned pinto beans
1 cup water
1 pound lean ground beef
1/2 cup white rice
1 teaspoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon chili powder

2 - 10 ounce cans diced tomatoes with green chilies
3/4 cup shredded cheddar cheese
1 cup frozen corn

In a large skillet, cook the ground beef and o
nion. Drain off any oils. Stir in a can of undrained tomatoes with chilies, pinto beans, water, rice, chili powder, cumin, corn and bring
to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 20-30 minutes until the rice is cooked. Sprinkle with cheese and serve.

RAMEN NOODLE CHICKEN LO MEIN

2 packages Ramen noodle soup mix
1 green pepper (sliced)
2 skinless chicken breast (sliced)
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 Tablespoons soy sauce
3 cloves of minced garlic
1 1/2 cups snow peas
2 cups mushrooms
3 cups boiling water
2 cups chicken broth
2 Tablespoons corn starch
1 red pepper (sliced)

Break noodles in a large bowl and sprinkle with 1 seasoning packet and cover with 3 cups boiling water, set aside. In a bowl, combine the broth and corn starch. In a large skillet, heat oil and stir fry all vegetables until tender. Remove from skillet and set aside. Add remaining 1 Tablespoon oil into the skillet; bring to a boil and add vegetables. Drain noodles from bowl and add to skillet along with soy sauce. Continue cooking until the mixture is heated through and sauce is thick.

Now that was easy, making dinner hour happen once again in your home.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Perfect Christmas Gift: GOOD LUCK Foods!

If you're wondering what to give to someone that seems to already have "everything," how about the gift of good luck? It seems almost every country has it's New Years Day tradition of serving a "lucky food" as part of the holiday meal, so why not give that food for Christmas, to be used later, on New Year's Day?

We especially like this idea because it's meaningful and consumable (Alice loves the idea of gifts that don't turn in to clutter!). AND there's the extra attraction that the gift could come in a container that could be used after the fact.

If you like the idea, too, then here are a few New Years Day good luck food traditions:

Vasilopita is a New Year’s Day bread or cake in Greece. It contains a hidden coin or trinket which gives good luck to the receiver. It is made of a variety of doughs, depending on regional and family tradition. Alice's future son-in-law, Alex, is Greek and last year he brought her some of his mom's vasilopita--they all loved it and thought it was the perfect gift. Here's a good recipe:

1
C butter
1 Tbsp butter for greasing pan

2 C sugar
2 Tbsp sugar for sprinkling
3 C flour
6 eggs
2 tsp baking powder (we recommend non-aluminum, such as Rumford's)
1 C warm milk
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
1/4 C blanched slivered almonds
CLEAN coin wrapped in aluminum foil (a quarter works well)

Preheat oven to 350°. Grease a 10 inch round cake pan with 1 Tbs butter. In medium bowl, cream the cup of butter and 2 cups of sugar together. Stir in flour and mix until batter resembles coarse breadcrumbs. Add eggs one at a time, blending each one in well.

In small bowl combine baking powder and milk; add to cake batter and mix well. Finally, combine lemon juice and baking soda in small bowl; add to cake batter and mix well. Pour cake batter into greased cake pan; insert the foil-wrapped coin; bake for 20 minutes.

Remove cake from oven; sprinkle nuts and 2 Tbs sugar over cake, then return it to oven and bake for 20-30 minutes until the cake springs to the touch. Allow to cool on a rack for 10 min.; invert pan onto a cake plate. Serve warm (serve the most senior member first). Alice added sweetened whippped cream to each piece--to her, whipped cream is the universal symbol of good luck!

Pomegranates: Long associated with abundance and fertility, they're eaten in Turkey and other Mediterranean countries for luck in the New Year. Why not give several in a pretty drawstring bag? There are lots of great recipes calling for pomegranate (see our blog in November on pomegranate know-how), and they're especially wonderful added to a morning smoothie!

Lentils: Thought to resemble coins, they are eaten throughout Italy for good fortune in the New Year. Here's a wonderful soup using lentils:

LENTIL, KIELBASA, VEGETABLE STEW

2
tablespoon(s) olive oil
2
pound(s) turkey kielbasa, cut into 1/2-inch slices
1
large onion, chopped
1
pound(s) carrots, cut into 1/2-inch half-moons
4
medium stalks celery, sliced
5
clove(s) garlic, crushed with press
6
cup(s) water
2
can(s) (14- to 14 1/2-ounce) chicken broth
2
can(s) (14 1/2-ounce) diced tomatoes
1 1/2
bag(s) (16-ounce) lentils, picked over and rinsed
Celery leaves for garnish

In 8-quart saucepot, heat 2 teaspoons oil on medium until hot. Add half of kielbasa and cook 4 to 5 minutes or until browned. Transfer to medium bowl. Repeat with remaining kielbasa and 2 teaspoons oil.

In same pot, heat remaining 2 teaspoons oil on medium. Add onion, carrots, and celery; cook 15 minutes or until vegetables are golden, stirring often. Stir in garlic; cook 1 minute. Add water, broth, tomatoes, and lentils to pot; heat to boiling on high. Reduce heat to medium-low; simmer, uncovered, 40 minutes or until lentils are tender. Stir in kielbasa; heat through. Spoon half of stew into serving bowls; garnish with celery leaves. Spoon remaining into freezer-safe containers.

Black-eyed peas: A common good luck food in the southern United States, black-eyed peas are thought to bring prosperity, especially when served with collard greens.

Hoppin' John

This moist and delicious rice/pea mixture, traditionally served on New Years Day, is said to bring good luck. This is a simple recipe--no presoaking necessary! On the day of your dinner, make rice, then reheat peas and stir together before serving.

1 tablespoons cold pressed extra virgin olive oil
2
stalks celery, chopped
1
large onion, chopped
1
medium red pepper, chopped
2
cloves garlic, minced
1
packages (16-oz) dry black-eyed peas
1
large (about 3/4 pound) smoked ham hock
2
cans (14 1/2 oz each) chicken broth
1/4
teaspoon red pepper, crushed
1
bay leaf
2
teaspoon salt
2
cups brown rice
parsley
, chopped, for garnish

In 4-qt saucepan, heat olive oil over medium-high heat. Add celery, onion, and red pepper; cook 10 min. until golden. Add garlic; cook 2 min. longer. Rinse peas with running cold
water; discard any stones or shriveled peas. Add peas, ham hock, chicken broth, crushed red pepper, bay leaf, 1 teaspoon salt, and 4 cups water to celery mixture; heat to boiling. Reduce heat to low; cover and simmer 40 min. or until peas are tender.

Meanwhile, prepare rice as package label directs, but use 1 teaspoon salt and do not add butter. In large bowl, gently mix pea mixture and rice. Serve hot. Garnish with chopped parsley if you like.


So with these two dishes in mind, here's our final gift suggestion, with the idea in mind that you could add black-eyed peas to the Lentil Kielbasa Soup (no taste difference and you have DOUBLE the luck!), or add lentils to the Hoppin' John (again, no taste difference and again, you'll have DOUBLE the luck!). In a quart canning jar, create layers of black-eyed peas and the colored lentils. Add some pretty cloth and twine plus the two recipes to the jar with your wishes for New Years Luck, and there you have an easy, inexpensive, and meaningful gift! And not only will you be giving the gift of
good luck, you'll also be giving the gift of family dinner made easy!


Monday, December 12, 2011

Make Ahead Comfort Food

We've been thinking this morning about easy comfort foods since yesterday we talked about piggy-backing. With that idea, two recipes popped into our minds that work well with this principle. Meatloaf and meatballs! Our good friend Shauna Hooper shared these two recipes with us and she is an excellent cook!

It's been our experience that not all meatloaf recipes are created equal. Once you find a delicious recipe, it will become one of your favorites. It's easy to make an extra meatloaf and freeze it. When it comes to meatballs, make a boatload, freeze them and use them throughout the month.

Since you probably bought the hamburger in bulk, go ahead and cook some of the meat with taco seasoning for tacos and freeze. You can see where we are going with this. This principle of planning ahead can make your life so much easier, especially when you get busier than a one armed paper hanger!

FYI- to make uniform sized meatballs try using a cookie scoop.

AMAZING MEATLOAF
3 pounds ground beef
1 envelope of dried onion soup mix
1 (8 ounce) can tomato sauce
1 Tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1/8 teaspoon pepper
1 (8 ounce) Stove Top dressing
1 clove garlic (minced)
1 pint sour cream
1 teaspoon oregano
1 egg (beaten)

Mix together. Divide into two loaf pans. Bake uncovered at 350 degrees for about 1 hour. While the meat loaf is baking, mix the following ingredients together to make a sauce for the top of the meatloaf.

SAUCE

Heat together in a small sauce pan;
2/3 cup ketchup
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoon mustard

After putting the sauce on the loaf, bake another 20 minutes.
If you are only using one meatloaf, freeze the other before baking.

MEATBALL MAGIC
1 pound ground beef
2-3 carrots (shredded)
1 large raw potato (shredded)
1 yellow onion (grated)
1 egg
1/2 cup bread crumbs
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper

SAUCE

1 can cream of chicken soup
1 can cream of mushroom soup
1/2 cup sour cream
1 cup milk
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Mix meatball ingredients together. Roll into fairly large meatballs (1 1/2 to 2 inches) and place in a lightly greased 9x13 inch pan. It's alright if the meatballs are close together. Bake for 25-30 minutes. Mix sauce ingredients in a medium sized bowl and whisk until creamy. After meatballs are browned, pour sauce evenly over meatballs and place back in the oven for another 15-20 minutes (or until the sides are hot and bubbly). Serve over rice or noodles.

If you freeze the meatballs do not add the sauce. This sauce is just one example of what you can put over the meatballs. These recipes are family favorites and easy to do. This is just another example of how to make dinner hour happen in your home!