Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Cloth Napkins a Nicety with Impact!

First of all, thanks so much for your enthusiasm and well wishes regarding our new cooking magazine. We'll keep you posted as to exactly when it hits the stands, so stay tuned. But as we're waiting, please do take a look at yesterday's list of topics and see if you don't have a favorite recipe to submit. We'd love to try it out.

Yesterday we were in the test kitchen experimenting with doughnuts--maple bars, chocolate cake, and maple glazed raised. We discovered that the leftover doughnut dough made excellent cinnamon rolls! While it's lots of fun pouring through recipe books looking for "just the right recipe," we're certain it'll be much more fun pouring through YOUR recipes and giving THEM a try. So, let's work together and make this the best cooking magazine out there!

Now just a quick thought for today:

We know that paper towels and napkins are a real convenience and are here to stay. They sure have their place in our kitchens. But we'd like to suggest that once in awhile we use cloth napkins at the table. They are a unique nicety today, and they silently tell the family "You are special and I'm glad to go to the extra effort to make things extra nice for you."

We've never gone to much expense for our napkins--we make our own out of sale fabric from the fabric stores or from snazzy fabrics we find at the thrift stores. And for those that don't sew, this still works. We just cut the fabric the size we want and then fringe the edges by pulling strings. This pleasant and mindless work is what we do when we're watching our favorite TV show or a good DVD.

So if you're not already using cloth napkins, think about adding this extra nice touch to your dinner table sometime soon. You've probably noticed how little things like this can really dress up the plainest of menus. And do you have other ideas for fancying up the table and sending that "You're so special!" message? Please share--we're all in this together!  In the meantime, then, here's to family dinner made easy as we set the table with cloth napkins and submit a favorite recipe to Cook'n!  :-) 

Monday, January 30, 2012

Calling All Cooks!

Guess what, guess what! We have been hired as the editors of the new international cooking magazine, Cook'n. Gorgeous, glossy, and loaded with drool-worthy photography, Cook'n will be in all major bookstores and online, six times a year. The first issue appears in May.

Part of our excitement is that Cook'n is totally focused on reader contributions--over 80% of all recipes coming from amazing cooks like you! We try them out in the  Cook'n test kitchen, looking for the best-of-the-best to spotlight.

And each issue will be studded with exceptional photographs of our cooks' creations as well as step-by-step instructions on how to prepare these reader- and editor-tested recipes. (Go to www.northridgepublishing.com to see the quality of the magazines Cook'n will model.)

We'll always be looking for healthy recipes for you health-conscious readers. And each issue includes a question we ask you to answer. Our first question: "What is one thing your mother taught you about cooking?" awaits your comment. In Jul/Aug we're asking "What is one thing no good picnic should go without?" This is truly YOUR magazine--Cook'n with YOU in mind!

We talk about the best tools/equipment and wonderful cooking-oriented websites/blogs out there as well.
Most (if not all) cooking magazines and books are about the authors, but Cook'n is about YOU--what you're cooking, what successes you've had, what you want to know, and so on. And we're excited to send our readers YOUR way--if you have a favorite cooking/foodie website (or have your own!), we believe people should know about it and we will help them find out! Cook'n is all about "sharing the good stuff!"

So Cook'n invites YOU to contribute! Wouldn't you love to have one of your family-favorite recipes in a magazine that will be worthy of not just saving, but savoring throughout the years?

The May/Jun issue wants any of YOUR recipe that are focused on:
1. Fresh spring greens
2. Quick and easy meals
3. Strawberries and all their possibilities
4. Doughnuts
5. Ice Cream sandwiches and cakes

We'll be watching for your contribution(s) and are excited to include the best-of-the-best submissions in upcoming issues. Meanwhile, here's to family dinner made easy as you search and contribute from your favorite family recipes. 

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Some Quick and Hugely Helpful Organizing this Weekend!

The weekend can be a good time to do a little organizing. One good place to start for a quick little bit of tidying up and rearranging is in the kitchen herb and spice cupboard, drawer, or rack. Here's why:

1. Herbs and spices go bland and stale fairly easily--they don't store well for long periods of time. It's best to toss any you've had for over a year. The old saying, "A cook is only as good as his tools." is especially applicable to herbs and spices--those of you that have cooked with FRESH know the amazing difference this makes to the overall taste of whatever you're making. So to have the freshest packaged herbs and spices is the next best thing to live herbs and spices (growing in the garden or kitchen windowsill).

2. And speaking of rearranging--packaged herbs and spices need a cool (and preferably dark) storage spot. For years we stored ours in the little cupboard above the hood of the stove. It made sense, arrangement-wise. After all, they were close to where they were used the most--the stove. But a big OOOPS here--the rising heat zapped their flavor within weeks. We were young, inexperienced, innocent cooks--we didn't know!

So go through yours with a fine tooth comb, toss the old stuff, and make a list of the new that you need. Then do yourself a favor and separate the herbs from the spices. This is a huge time-saving tip. Who has the time to paw through the herbs when they need a spice, and vice versus?

And besides separating them out and moving them to a better spot (where it's cooler and darker), we now use those round white double-decker Rubbermaid turntables. One holds herbs, the other holds spices. Cooking and baking life is SO much easier when we can find quickly and easily just the herb or spice we need!

The beauty of this organizing tip is how little time it takes, and the major impact it can have on your kitchen operations overnight!

Now in closing, we want to ask your help with something: We're in the process of planning a revamping of the look and content of MAKING FAMILY DINNER HOUR POSSIBLE. We want to change the title to FAMILY DINNER MADE EASY, first of all. And then we'd like to know what you are wanting to read--time's short, and none of us have it to waste on stuff we're not that interested in. So what are you interested in? What would you like to know more about, what do you need help with, what are your fancies that you just love reading about? Would you take a minute to comment with your answers?

In appreciation for your help, we're prepared to thank you with a copy of Alice's book, It's Here...Somewhere (Alice Fulton Osborne and Pauline Hatch), so take a minute if you will, and let us know what you think. Meanwhile, here's to family dinner made easy as we freshen up and organize our herbs and spices!

Friday, January 27, 2012

And STILL Two Things: Recipe Contest and FREE & EASY Placemat Idea

1st thing: Red Alert: This is the last day to enter our "All Things Asparagus Contest." Take just a few minutes to send us your favorite recipe featuring asparagus and you'll be eligible to win a $99 package of the best recipe organizer ever created. Cook'n Recipe Organizer Version 10 can be yours! Read Monday's post for all the features this product has--it's impressive. We'll announce the winners on Monday, so get your recipe to us.

2nd thing: Here's an idea for making some fun placemats, for FREE. Decor, upholstery, and furniture stores have upholstery sample books they regularly get rid of. Sometimes they'll charge a small fee, but usually they'll give them away for FREE.

While these books vary in size, often times the books we've gotten contain samples the size of a typical placemat. The neat thing about them is that they're arranged in color families--all the blues are together, all the reds are together, all the greens are together, and so on. Although the prints aren't the same, the fact that you have color families is enough of a unifier to make for a darling set of placemats.

We find the color families we like and want to work with and cut the fabrics out as close to the spine of the book as possible. Then we just fold the cut side under and stitch it down. The other three sides are already stitched! And voila--we now have FREE and really pretty placemats. And the beauty of this is, any beginning sewer in the family can help make them.

While you don't want to put these in the washing machine, they do wipe clean easily. However, the other beauty of upholstery placemats is, because they are free, it's no big deal if they get stained beyond help--just toss them and get another sample book for making more placemats!

As always, we invite your input: Do YOU have ideas for affordably adding to your table linens--placemats, runners, napkins, tablecloths? Please be sure to comment if you do--we love hearing from you. And in closing, we hope you will send us your favorite asparagus recipe, find an upholstery book and make some darling FREE placemats, and have a great weekend. Until Monday then, here's to family dinner made easy!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

STILL Two Things: Recipe Contest & Hot Tip for Hot Cocoa

THING # 1: Wonderful readers, just another reminder about the recipe contest going on: Thanks to all those that have sent your favorite recipe featuring asparagus, and to those that mean to, but haven't as yet, hustle hustle. Get it in. We'll be announcing the two lucky winners of the Cook'n Recipe Organizer Software Version 10 on Monday. This product lists for $99 and sells for $79 on the Cook'n website (www.dvo.com), so you know this prize is a screamin' cool deal!

THING # 2: We have a hot tip for your hot cocoa: Whenever you have any extra hot cocoa (or make extra so you can do this), or whenever you have any leftover chocolate milk (or buy a quart so you can do this), freeze it in an ice cube tray(s).

Then the next time you serve up this wonderful wintertime treat, and it's scalding hot, just pop a couple chocolate ice cubes in the mug. The cocoa will cool down enough to start drinking right away. AND, as the cubes melt, they'll add to (rather than dilute) the flavor.

Another thing we've done, cocoa-wise, is to melt chocolate chips and thin them with milk, and then pour that chocolatey goodness into ice cube trays. You can see where we're going with this. You can freeze all sorts of things that would add a nice flavor to your cocoa:
  • Marshmallow creme
  • Melted and thinned WHITE chocolate chips
  • Peppermint-flavored cream (you add drops of peppermint to a quart of cream--to your taste)
  • Almond-flavored cream (same deal--add drops of almond extract to a quart of cream--top your taste)
  • Etc.? What would YOU add?
The beauty and fun of cocoa is how easy it is to make and how adaptable to your creativity it is. Bring the kiddies into this and see what they come up with as well.

SO, let's join the contest and enjoy a delicious hot mug of cocoa while we're making family dinner possible!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012


Chili is one of those foods that actually taste better the next day. If you make chili and discover you have leftovers, plan a Navajo taco night. Add some green salad fixin’s and fry bread to the equation and you are ready for a favorite of ours.

Navajo Fry Bread

2 cups of flour
2 Tablespoons oil
½ teaspoon baking powder
¾ to 1 cup warm water
1 teaspoon salt

This dough should not be sticky

Combine all ingredients together with mixer. Roll flat and fry in canola oil over medium high heat. Drain on paper towels and they are ready to serve.

Fry bread is easy to make. You can use any bread recipe and fry a thin slice in oil just like you do American scones.

Scoop up a nice big spoon full of hot chili and spread it on the fry bread. Then layer on some of those salad fixin’s you have left from last night such as shredded cheese, lettuce, tomato, olives, etc… Serve with salsa and sour cream.

This is so tasty. The only trouble is that you maybe be hungry again in a couple of days. Kids love Navajo tacos, it will for sure keep them coming to the dinner table.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

2 Things: Spice Tips and Asparagus Recipe Contest!

Let's talk about 2 things today:

SPICES--what an important difference they make to our cooking and baking. And we have four tips for you:

1. Whole spices are better than ground. Ground spices often contain additives to prevent caking and to ensure they'll actually shake or pour out of their containers. When you use whole spices, you know exactly what you have!

2. Whole spices should be toasted for maximum flavor before grinding. Professional chefs say this brings out the earthy undertones of the spice. Who knew?

3. We should buy the best spices we can afford because there's a reason cheap spices are cheap. The American Spice Trade Association (ASTA) has very low standards for what they deem "acceptable," which means that up to 20% of a bottle of spices can contain mold, exctreta (yep, that’s poo), dead insects, rat hairs, wire, string and a list of other ‘foreign matter.’ The ASTA claims the percentage is usually lower, but still...GROSS and BARF!

4. We should buy our spices in small quantity. A no-brainer in a way, since quality spices are a bit expensive. But also because we always want the freshest spices in our cupboards. Ethnic markets are often a good source of quality whole spices. And there are four good online sources we can turn to: 

Penzey’s Spices (USA): http://www.penzeys.com Phone 800-741-7787.

Mountain Rose Herbshttp://www.mountainroseherbs.com/ (USA): USA Toll-Free 800-879-3337, outside USA 541-741-7307, Email: customerservice@mountainroseherbs.com 

NOW, the Asparagus Recipe Contest: Please see yesterday's post for details. But as a reminder, and in a nutshell: We're giving away some wonderful recipe organizer software, Cook'n Recipe Organizer Version 10, to two lucky people. All we ask is that you share your favorite recipe featuring asparagus! We'll announce the winners on Monday, so don't delay--go through your files now and share, share, share. Meanwhile, here's to family dinner made easy as we use the best spices we possible can!

Monday, January 23, 2012

We're Giving Away the Best Electonic Recipe Organizer Ever!

Oh are we late with our post today. We've been in the kitchen cooking--testing recipes all day! We started early and didn't finish until 5:30 pm-ish. We made:

1) Deviled Egg Potato Salad
2) Farm House Breakfast Casserole
3) The Juiciest Burgers Ever
4) Chocolate Fudge Dream Cake

We'll be sharing these recipes, so stay tuned. But meanwhile, we're running a new contest. We need recipes that feature that amazing spring vegetable, asparagus ('cuz spring's just around the corner--smile and nod...). 

And so to motivate you to share your favorite, we thought we'd offer the WONDERFUL Cook'n Recipe Organizer, Version 10, software. The list price is $99.95, on the company's website (www.dvo.com), you can get it for $79.95, and we are giving 2 copies away this week! 

Just look at all the features this software provides (in other words, WHY YOU WANT TO SHARE AN ASPARAGUS RECIPE!!!):
  • It's the easiest way to find the best recipes on the Internet
  • With this software you can Capture and Save Internet recipes
  • You can enter your own personal recipes
  • You can sync recipes with iPhone, iPad, & Android
  • You can scale recipes automatically
  • You can share recipes with friends
  • You can print a family cookbook
  • You can plan meals & menus
  • You can create shopping lists
  • You can analyze nutritional values, thus seeing immediately if a recipe will be food for you or not
So hunt through your collections, find your favorite tried-and-true recipe featuring asparagus, and share it with us. We'll be announcing our two winners next Monday. Meanwhile, here's to family dinner made easy, as we cook for the ones we love!

Saturday, January 21, 2012

One Pot Meals Mean More Time & Energy for You!

It's good meal-management practice to master the art of ONE-POT Cooking. One-pot recipes are another way to reduce effort and energy, particularly during clean-up. And they can be enticing to the newbie cooks in your family because of their ease. So this weekend, take a look at your next week's menu and see what meals could be combined into one pot.

For starters, here's a recipe we found a long time ago on the Martha Stewart website for a very simple one-pot dinner:


12 oz penne pasta
2 C broccoli florets
2 cloves garlic, crushed or minced
3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Zest and juice of one lemon
Salt and pepper to taste
2 C grated Paremesan cheese
1 C pine nuts (we never seem to have these on hand; we substitute chopped walnuts instead)

Boil penne 6 minutes less than al dente; add broccoli florets, and cook until penne is al dente. Drain; return to the pot, and toss with a couple of crushed garlic cloves, some olive oil, the zest and juice of a lemon, salt and pepper, and Parmesan. Fold in nuts. This can be embellished with fresh chopped basil, diced fresh tomato, etc. Your imagination is your only limit on this tasty recipe. It's one meal that's sure to call the gang to the table in no time.

This is what we'll have tonight--it's a typically busy Saturday, so a one-pot meal will meet our needs. What recipes do you have for one-pot meals, and do you have any special tips to share regarding one-pot cooking?
We hope you have a great weekend, and until Monday, here's to family dinner made easy as we cook it up in one pot!

Friday, January 20, 2012

Make Your Own Brown Sugar for MORE Independence From the Grocery Store!

Yesterday we talked about making your own powdered sugar. Have you tried this? Let us know what you think. There's something comforting about not having to run to the grocery store every time we run out of something, don't you think?

This said, here's another idea for MORE independence from the grocery store: make your own brown sugar. Did you know you could do this? It's easy. All brown sugar is, is white sugar that's had molasses mixed into it. Who knew?

And the quality and taste is so much better--it's so much fresher. Another reason we enjoy making our own brown sugar is that we no longer have this sugar going hard as nails in our canister. Because it's so easy to make, we only make it in small amounts--perhaps enough for a week's-worth of recipes.

So to make your own brown sugar, measure white sugar according to how much brown sugar you want on hand. The basic recipe is:


1 Cup white granulated sugar
1 Tbsp unsulphured molasses

In a bowl mix together the sugar and molasses. That's it. We almost fee obligated to say more--to somehow make it sound more complicated. But we can't. This is ALL you do. There'll be a point where the mixture seems a little sticky or gooey at first, but press on. Keep mixing. We promise, the sugar absorbs all the molasses and all stickiness or gooiness disappears.

We hope you enjoy this additional independence from the grocery store. So going forward--together we can laugh in the face of being out of powdered or brown sugars! As long as we have plenty of white sugar in our pantries, we're still in charge!

In closing, do you have any tricks of your own to staying out of the store? Please share, we love hearing from you and so appreciate your experiences and expertise. We're all in this together, and we can't think of better people to be "in it" with. Until next time, then, here's to family dinner made easy as we practice a little independence from the 'ol grocery store!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

A Treat or Dessert From Next to Nothing? You Bet!

Is it possible to whip up a treat or dessert when there's next to nothing (groceries-wise) in the house? Absolutely! And in keeping with the theme of "Skinny Pickins'" that we've been dallying with this week, we thought we'd pass on this idea as well.

The answer to "What's for dessert?" (when you hardly know what is for dinner), can be an old Scottish tradition--SHORTBREAD. This delicious, melt-in-your-mouth cookie that's been around for 200 years, is a real tribute to the ingenuity and frugality the Scotts are famous for.

With butter, a little powdered sugar, a bit of cornstarch, and some flour, you can present your family with a delightful treat at the end of one of those "we gotta make do tonight" dinners.

And like yesterday's suggestions, this recipe was also found on allrecipes.com. We've tried lots of shortbread recipes over the years, and this is without doubt one of our favorites. Notice how simple it is:


1 C butter, softened
1/2 C powdered sugar
SCANT 1/4 C cornstarch
1 1/2 C flour

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Whip butter until fluffy. Slowly add dry ingredients, mixing carefully so they don't fly out of your bowl. Don't panic, you DO NOT need to add any liquid. The fat globules eventually expand to absorb all the dry ingredients. At first the contents look like little crumbles, similar to pie crust dough. But keep mixing--it'll come together nicely.

Grease a baking pan (8 inch square works well if you don't have the traditional shortbread pan), then sprinkle greased pan well with granulated sugar. Plop the blob of dough onto the middle of the pan and with wet fingers, spread it out to the edges, trying to smooth the top as much as possible. That's it. Bake for about 15 minutes, but watch this closely, as oven temperatures vary. You don't want to over-bake it, you just want it lightly browned.

Turn off oven, and after removing from oven, place a cutting board on top of the pan and quickly turn it upside down so the shortbread falls onto the cutting board. While the shortbread is still warm, prick it evenly with fork tines (see pictures) then use a long knife or pizza cutter to cut even squares. We do three cuts one way and three cuts the other way to end up with 16 square cookies. Return shortbread (on cutting board) to the oven; prop the oven door open and let shortbread sit for about 10 minutes. This allows moisture to escape the cookies. Store cookies in an airtight container when completely cooled.

We know this isn't a glamorous dessert, but it's sure yummy. Serve 2 or 3 cookies placed nicely on a napkin alongside a glass of milk and voila, a dessert from next to nothing that will be a nice surprise and tasty ending to your evening meal.

Now before closing, here's another tip: If you're even out of powdered sugar, you can still make this cookie. Just make your own powdered sugar: Put a cup of sugar in your blender and blend on high until "powder" appears. (You'll end up with more than 1/2 cup.) Keep the lid on tight--this stuff likes to escape. It won't be the exact texture of the store-bought stuff, but it'll be close enough to work just fine in this recipe.

And as always, we'd like to know if you've ever made shortbread and if you have a favorite recipe for it? Also, do you have your own tricks for pulling dessert off when there's next to nothing in the house? And of course, thanks for sharing and helping us all make family dinner hour possible!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Let's Not Cook Tonight!

Sometimes it's nice to not have to cook and still be able to have a quick, healthy meal with your family. We like to find a few recipes that cater to those busy days.  Is it possible to have a quick dinner with minimal assembly, that is healthy for you? More importantly, that your family will eat? We say "Yes, Yes you can!" We found this recipe on allrecipes.com . It's what our family is having for dinner tonight.

If you don't want a sandwich, we think this tuna recipe would also be great served on a bed of lettuce. We like this recipe  because it took out the mayo and uses oil and vinegar, making for a healthier choice. Also, with the use of beans and tuna together this recipe is loaded with protein.


1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 (15 ounce) can small white beans, rinsed and drained
1 (6 ounce) can solid white albacore tuna packed in water, drained
1/3 cup finely chopped red onion
4 Pepperidge Farm Plain Ciabatta Rolls, split and toasted
2 cups packed fresh baby spinach

Beat the oil and vinegar in a small bowl with a fork or whisk. Coarsely mash the beans and tuna in a medium bowl with a fork. Stir in onion and half of the vinegar mixture. Brush the rolls with the remaining vinegar mixture, lightly toast in oven or grill. Divide the spinach among the bottom roll halves. Top with the tuna mixture and remaining roll halves.

This recipe uses Albacore tuna which is all white meat. May we also suggest that you buy it packed in water instead of oil. Our favorite is the Albacore tuna that comes in the foil packet. As we looked at this recipe we thought, why not add a piece of cheese or a slice of tomato, use a regular hamburger bun, or wrap the sandwich in foil and heat in the oven. 

We want to get you thinking about recipes that give you a night off from cooking that are healthy. Do you have a recipe you can share with all of us that gives you a night off from cooking and is healthy?  These kinds of recipes help us have more time to relax, sit down together, to listen and share the events of the day with people we care about.  It's not easy to find time for dinner but we know it's important for families to eat together as often as possible. Here's to a healthy dinner made easy!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Breakfast for Dinner? Why Not!

Let's talk about when we're out of groceries and unable to get any until payday. Relate to this scenario? So what's for dinner?

In answer to this question, and in continuing our theme on breakfast ideas, we'd like to suggest we have breakfast for dinner.  While it wasn't something we did all the time, it was a fun change from the usual pattern of meals and it was a reasonable solution to how to deal with putting dinner on the table when there's was next to nothing to fix.

Waffles and pancakes were always popular. We'd up the nutrition factor a bit by topping them with nut butter (peanut or almond) along with the syrup. And then there was the omelete bar. We'd dice or chop up whatever we had in the fridge--tomato, green onion, ham, even leftover cooked broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, etc. If we were lucky and had any cheese around, we'd shred it and add that to the assortment of add-ins as well. Then there's those breakfast burritos we talked about yesterday if we wanted a new twist to an old theme.

One thing we were always sure to do, no matter how plain and simple the dinner, we always set a full table--even with candles. We might have been having breakfast for dinner, but we still wanted everyone to know how special they were and that just having dinner with them was the highlight of the day. That's the point, isn't it? This lovely tradition is meant to be based on those at the table, not what's on the table.

Have you had breakfast for dinner? What did you serve and how did your family feel about this? Please share your thoughts--we love hearing from you. And until next time, here's to family dinner made easy, even if it's breakfast!

Monday, January 16, 2012

Breakfast Burritos Are a Quick, Healthy Way to Start the Day

Breakfast Burrito
Here we are harping on breakfast again. Breakfast is the best way to keep you from eating lots of junk food throughout the day. Mornings can be hectic, especially when you’re trying to get the family out the door for school and work.  We think having a homemade microwaveable breakfast burrito is a great alternative to cold cereal. This type of breakfast can help keep those teenagers from stopping by a fast food establishment on their way to school.  Jeanne has some grandsons that love these and often snatch them at other times of the day. Like before a sport activity, piano lessons etc. There seems to be no filling those growing kids up! This idea really helps fill the bill and the belly! 

Scramble eggs with, green chilies and cheese or whatever your family likes, wrap them in a flour tortilla.  Fold all sides together and wrap in plastic wrap, then pile them into a gallon freezer bag and pop them into the freezer for another time.  When you want one or two, take them out of the bag and plastic wrap and microwave for 1-2 minute and off you go.

Other quick ideas for breakfast include:  Yogurt and a piece of fruit, cheese and tomato on an English muffin, a bran muffin and a banana or apple slices on cinnamon toast.

It is important to try and make sure your breakfast consists of some protein, a carbohydrate and some fiber to stave off the hunger monster before lunch.

A healthy breakfast can be prepared quickly, and gives the family time to sit down and have breakfast together. If you don’t have that luxury, have a grab-and-go.  There is still dinner as a family,  to look forward to.  

What tips do you have for making breakfast happen in your home? We would love your ideas. We are all in this together and a breakfast burrito is just one more way to help keep everyone full, happy and ready for the day!   

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Let's Think About Someone Besides Ourselves and Do Some Listening!

A quote by the late journalist, Brenda Ueland, got us to thinking about something important:

"Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. When we really listen to people, there is an alternating current and this recharges us so that we never get tired of each other. We are constantly being re-created."

How many of us know any TRUE listeners? If you're lucky enough to know someone who is more interested in you than him- or herself, then you've had that sweet experience that Ueland talks about--leaving their company feeling so good about yourself--like you, and what you have to say, matters. And that, by the way, is one of the informal definitions of a good listener--they care more about listening to YOU than they do you listening to them.

And what about when you've had the opposite experience--talking to someone who only wants to talk about themselves and/or their own family? They go on and on as though we're breathless to hear whatever it is they have to say, and never once think to ask you about YOU or YOUR kids, YOUR job, YOUR... Research says this is the more common experience, and a pretty disheartening one, at that. Researchers say folks tend to leave such encounters feeling a little sad, for all sorts of reasons.

And this ties to another quote we just read: "We have an obligation to leave the world a happier place for our having been in it." (Not sure who said this.) Isn't it amazing that something as simple as really listening to people can leave them happier--hence leaving a little spot of the world happier?

OK, so what does all this have to do with family dinner? Dinnertime is the perfect time to talk about listening, teach listening, and model listening. The research also says that this is a skill and attribute that doesn't come by osmosis. It must be taught and modeled to our children if they're to be the exception to the rule, as mentioned above.

So, during dinner we can discuss the politeness and graciousness listening shows (it's a class act). We can engage our children in thought-provoking questions such as "Who brightened your day today and what did they do for you?" or "What's something you wish had gone differently today, and why?" or "If you could live anywhere in the world where would you live, and why?" or "I've noticed you really like _______(fill in name of person). Why are you so fond of them?" or ... you get the idea. And then everyone can enjoy the chance to answer and maybe more importantly, to really listen to each other.

We think this is one of the most important pieces of the family dinner--aside from the opportunity to nourish the body, the heart and soul are nourished as we engage one another in good conversation and truly listen to what's being said. Everyone leaves the gathering knowing more about each other and feeling good about themselves. It's an easy and profound way to leave the world (in this case, home) a little happier. And after enough time and practice in the fine art of listening, who knows? We may just turn out some children who get it--that it's just smart AND nice to listen more and talk less. They'll be the ones who care more about listening to YOU than you listening to them! Now that's a real service we've done the world.

In closing, we need to thank YOU for listening. And we look forward to any comments you might have on this topic. Do you have a favorite listener in your life? How do you teach your children to listen and care about the other guy? Please share--we're all in this together. In the meantime, here's to family dinner made easy, while we actually listen to one another!

Friday, January 13, 2012

Dinner Doesn't Have to Be PERFECT to Be Dinner!

It was a crazy busy day yesterday and upon running in the door around 5:00 pm, the question was "Oops, what's for dinner?" We bet you've been there, done that, have the T-shirt? So here's how Alice handled things:

[Alice talking] "To top things off, I didn't have much of anything, grocery-wise, in the house. So I got creative. I invented a dish I now call "Chicken and Noodles in Thyme." Get it? In Thyme? Kinda cute I thought.

"Anyway, it was fast, hearty, and delicious (is it OK to do our own bragging sometimes?). I paired it with some freshly ground whole wheat baking powder biscuits and there was dinner. The meal would've been even better had I had salad fixin's in the fridge, but I didn't, so we went with what we had. And sometimes that's what we gotta do. We know you get this--dinner doesn't have to be PERFECT to be dinner."

Now here's the recipe. Let us know what you think if you try it. And if you have any thoughts on how to improve it, we'd love to hear about that too. And finally, don't you just love the bloggy thing--this amazing, efficient, and fun way to connect with one another? We're all in it together, and together we can help each other be our best and do our best! So here's to family dinner made easy, even if it isn't always perfect! 

CHICKEN AND NOODLES IN THYME (serves 2 to 4, depending on how hungry people are!) 

1 boneless, skinless chicken breast, diced
1 32 oz container chicken broth
1 small onion, finely chopped
3 Tbsp cornstarch
2 cloves garlic, minced
4 C noodles
Thyme (to taste)
4 to 5 Tbsp olive oil

In large skillet, cook onion and garlic in olive oil until clear. Add diced chicken and Thyme to taste. [Alice talking] "The more the better actually. I used a combination of fresh and dried--about 2 Tbsp all totaled." Whisk cornstarch in a little of the chicken broth until smooth. Add container of chicken broth to skillet along with the cornstarched broth. Bring to a boil and stir until everything thickens a bit. Add noodles and stir well until everything is coated with broth. Boil for 1 or 2 minutes. Place lid on skillet and turn off heat. Let this all sit until noodles absorb liquid and are to the al dente stage. Watch closely--you don't want mushy noodles.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Good Routines Help Make Dinner Happen!

We've been thinking about something: A year of family cooking and family dinners will be a lot easier and much more inclined to happen if some good routines are in place. (We're talking in terms of cooking and after-dinner clean-up.) It's all a matter of making some decisions beforehand. For instance:

1) Have you thought about delegating parts of the cooking? Or the table-setting? We always had a stool in our kitchens so the little folks could help with the stirring, mixing, etc. We had our dishes in an underneath cupboard so our children could easily access them to set the table and empty the dishwasher. (Kinderlocks protected our dishes from the busy hands of the toddlers in the house.) And on any given day, the table-setter knew exactly who he or she was and reported for duty while the meal was being prepared.

2) Have you thought about the process you want to use for clean-up after dinner? We had our children carry their own place settings to the counter, rinse their dishes, and place them in the dishwasher (AFTER we'd taught the crew how we wanted the dishwasher loaded). Even the younger kids, thanks to the stool, could rinse their dishes and then place them in the dishwasher. Yes, it's true, sometimes something got broken. But since our glass tableware came from the thrift store, cost wasn't an issue, so we as the moms didn't feel the need to hover over the process. And If something got broken (which was actually rare), everyone knew only a "big person" should clean it up--little fingers stayed safe.

3) Do you have an efficient "leftovers" center established that makes clearing the table a smooth process? And is your fridge organized in such a way that putting the leftovers away is easy, and accessing them for another meal totally possible (before they go green and fuzzy)? Whether you use plastic or glass, be sure you have enough of these keepers and store them with their lids ON. This habit saves lots of time when cleaning up--there are few things more irritating than scrounging through a drawer or cupboard trying to find a lid that fits a certain container. Who has time for that? And children don't have the patience for it.

The bottom line to all of the above is this: Smart mamas work their way out of a job! In other words, if you do less FOR them (your children), you can do more WITH them (playing, reading, talking, exploring on outings, etc.). Our motto was, "Since we all live here, we can all work here." And when we all work together, it's fun, and an efficient way to make things happen!

Taking the time to think through the results you want and how you want things executed is the first step. Training and modeling the behavior you want is the next step. If consistently practiced, this investment of your time and energy will pay BIG dividends. Research says we do our children a huge favor when we teach them how to work--self esteem and confidence increases exponentially in direct proportion to how capable and skilled children are. Home's the best place for them to learn skills and dinner time is the perfect setting for teaching them important skills that will bless them throughout their lives.

Finally, do YOU have advice on how to organize and mobilize your family dinner hour? What are some things you do with your children that help make your evening meal happen? Please leave your comments so we can all benefit from your expertise and wisdom. Meanwhile, here's to family dinner made easy as we get clear on the habits we want to establish, and organized in how to establish them!


Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Make Ahead Tin Foil dinners

Tin foil dinners always remind us of camping. We use the foil to make the infamous hamburger, onion and carrot tin foil dinner that is so common during the summer camping season. Many of you have probably used foil to line a pan or crock pot to keep the clean up mess minimal. Tin foil dinners aren’t just for camping or for only hamburger. Foil packets are a great way to steam your meat and vegetables, thereby cutting back on the amount of fat you might use. Chicken breast is a wonderful example of how to make a sophisticated meal with none of the mess.

Steaming in a foil pouch is a healthy and fast way to enjoy a meal. Foil dinners are an easy make-ahead-meal. These meals are juicy and delicious and the chicken comes out nicely browned. Another little tip for having evenly cooked chicken is to pound the chicken breast so that it is the same thickness. Foil dinners are also practical if you want to keep your servings at 2 to 3 ounces per person. Load on the vegetables and spices and you have a healthy meal with easy clean up.

Foil dinners can be made ahead of time and refrigerated for several hours. When using chicken, it is a good idea to pat the chicken dry with paper towels and then drizzle a bit of olive oil over it. Seasoning is also an important part of the meal. We like to use lemon pepper, sea salt and a little garlic powder but you can use anything you like. Since onion is usually part of my vegetable choices, I don’t add onion salt.

It is a highly flavorful option to marinate the meat first. These dinners, besides being easy to make, can be cooked on the grill or in an oven on medium heat.
Now let’s talk about making the foil packet and then I will give you some high-class, tin foil dinner recipes. It is best to use 3 or 4 sheets of tin foil per packet layer. For most meals, 12 inch square sheets are about the right size but you may want to experiment. Using multiple layers of foil helps to keep the juices in and not leak. Fold the foil packets in to the shape of an envelope and fold the edges to seal the packet. Or, if you’re making a larger meal, use the full 12 inch squares on the top and bottom. Just make sure you fold all the sides well. After cooking the tinfoil meal, let the packet sit for about 5 minutes. And, be careful when opening packets – allow the steam to escape!

Orange Fennel Chicken
3 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon minced fresh tarragon
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
2 oranges, peeled and cut into 1/4 inch pieces
2 carrots, peeled and shredded
1 fennel bulb (about 12 ounces) tops discarded, halved, cored, and sliced thin
4 (6 ounce) boneless, skinless chicken breast, trimmed, pounded if necessary
2 green onions, sliced thin
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

Combine the oil, green onions, tarragon, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and 1/8 teaspoon pepper in a bowl. Toss the mixture with the oranges in a bowl. Pat the chicken dry with paper towels and season with salt and pepper.

Arrange the carrot fennel mixture in the center of 3 or 4 pieces of foil. Lay the chicken over the vegetables, then spoon the orange mixture over the top.

Place the remaining pieces of foil on top and fold the edges over several times to seal. Place the packets on a rimmed baking sheet and cook for about 25 minutes. (To test the doneness of the chicken, you will need to open one of the packets. The juices from the chicken will run clear or 160-165 degrees.)

Baked Chicken and Garden Vegetables
2 small zucchini
2 yellow crookneck squash
1/2 red pepper
1/2 green pepper
2 Tablespoon olive oil
1 Teaspoon minced oregano
1/4 cup fresh basil
4 plum tomatoes seeded
3 garlic cloves (minced)
4 skinless, boneless chicken breasts (pounded)

Pat chicken dry. Add olive oil and spices together in a bowl and lay vegetables on the lower layers of foil. Top with chicken and sprinkle the oil and spices over the top. Add the remaining layers of foil, making sure you seal edges together well. Bake on grill on medium heat for about 30 minutes or until juices run clear, or bake in oven at 400 degrees for about 40 minutes.

Marinade Chicken Breast
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1/2 cup soy sauce
2 Tablespoons brown sugar
3 finely chopped green onions
1/4 teaspoon finely grated ginger
1 Tablespoon olive oil

Mix soy sauce, brown sugar, onions and ginger together in a bowl. Marinade pounded chicken breasts in a shallow dish. Place chicken in foil packet and cook on medium heat on the grill for 30 to 40 minutes or cook in oven at 375 degrees for 30 to 35 minutes or until juices run clear.

These recipes are tender and full of flavor and can be made in the morning or the night before. 

We would love to have you share your time saving tips with us. We are all in this together, trying to make dinner happen.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Morning Sandwich Cookies

We thought after the holidays life would would slow down a bit. If you are like us, we are still on the run. Some days getting breakfast means grab-and-go! We ran across this interesting recipe for a morning cookie that might spark your interest as it did ours.

You can see that this recipe has some really healthy ingredients, making these healthy cookies. These cookies take 30 minutes from start to finish. So this is a good make-ahead item that you can grab-and-go on  those busy days.

1 cup whole-wheat flour
2 tablespoons Honey
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 tablespoon canola oil
1/4 cup sliced almonds
1/4 cup instant oatmeal
1 cup grated apple
1/4 cup chopped prunes
1 cup shredded carrots
1/3 cup egg whites
1/4 cup fat free milk

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Coat a 13x9 inch pan with non-stick cooking spray; set aside. Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon and nutmeg in a bowl and set aside.
Melt butter in a pan over medium heat. Add almonds and oatmeal. Cook and stir for about  3 minutes; remove from heat and cool.

In a blender or food processor, blend oatmeal mixture, apple, prunes, carrots, honey and flour. Blend or pulse until doughy. Press evenly into a prepared pan. Bake 20 minutes. Remove from oven; cool in the pan. 

Cut into bars. Spread with peanut butter and jelly. Top with remaining bar. This recipe should make 12 bars.

As you know, we believe in having family dinner hour. In fact, we believe families should eat meals together as often as possible. We also know that sometimes it doesn't happen. Life gets busy and time runs away from us. Healthy and quick recipes keep us from running into the store to buy doughnuts etc. This recipe gives your family an on-the-run breakfast or snack when you are all dashing out the door. This is a good time to remind your family how much you love them and that you are looking forward to spending the dinner hour with them. 

What are some of your ideas for a quick and healthy breakfast or snack when your day get over booked? We would love to hear from you! How do you make meals happen on your busy days? 

Monday, January 9, 2012

Let's Master This New Year!

We LOVE this time of year--a new beginning! And because of the cold weather and next to no yard and garden work, we have a little extra time to devote to getting organized. One of the ways we get the year organized is by spending time on a chart we call "MASTERING _______ (you add the year, in this case 2012).

It's nothing more than a piece of 8x10 paper divided into boxes with their own headings (shown in no particular order); after thoughtful pondering, we fill in each box with 2 or 3 hopes (or goals):

What I want MOST in 2012:

Things I want to learn to do:

Habits I want to develop:
Habits I want to overcome:

Books I want to read:

Places I want to go:

Projects I want to finish:

Major purchases I want to make:

Things I want to do for others:

People I want to visit:

Classes I want to take:

Improvements I want to make in our home:

Improvements I want to make in our yard:

Music I want to buy:

Civic service I want to get involved in: 

You can see this isn't a page you can fill out in an hour or two. We usually take the last week of December or first week of January to lay out these plans. What we've noticed over the years of doing this is that while we have never accomplished ALL of our desires (goals, etc.), because of this roadmap, we've accomplished a lot more than we would have, had we not had it to refer to all the time.

And refer to it all the time we do! We keep ours in our day-planners and look at them almost every day-it keeps us on track. For instance, we noticed that we would forget about what we were saving our money for and succumb to impulse shopping often, if we weren't looking at our Year Mastering Charts on a regular basis.

This brings us to one of our favorite reasons for creating and using this page: we now have a central holding place for all the random good information that comes our way. For instance, have you noticed that when someone mentions a book you just gotta read, or a CD you just need to listen to, or a recipe you just must try, etc., you jot the information down on a scrap of paper, or on the back of a bag, etc., and then you end up losing that hot tip? Not anymore--this stuff now has a safe place to land, and shopping isn't from impulse anymore--it's now well planned.

But how does this all relate to our goal to bring the family to the dinner table most nights of the week? Well, we've added another box to the page: Meals or foods I want to perfect. We list general categories of food, or specific dishes, etc. and this becomes our guide in our recipe hunts, our meal planning, and our grocery shopping.

And throughout the year, as we accomplish what we've listed, we just run a line through the item. So you can see, at the end of a year that was handled with a YEAR MASTERING CHART, you can look back and actually see your growth and accomplishments. This is one of the most effective and motivating ways we've found to approach the old New Year's Resolutions schtik. 

Now how about YOU--how do you get organized for a new year--what are your tips and tricks to setting and achieving goals? Please comment. We're all in this together, so let's help each other along the way. And meanwhile, here's to family dinner made easy as we plan well and execute those plans!

Friday, January 6, 2012

Make Your Own Fabric Softener

Ever thought about making your own fabric softener? We thought we would share with you today our home made version of fabric softener. The main ingredient is hair conditioner. Hey! If it’s good enough for your hair, it ought to be good enough for your clothes. We buy the cheapest and best smelling hair conditioner. Suave Ocean Spray is a good choice.

When cheap hair conditioners, that are thick and creamy go on sale we buy up a few extra. The cost is between .69 cents and 1.00 dollar. Distilled vinegar is not expensive and can be used in other homemade cleansers. The essential oil is to add that really nice smell that you get when you buy the expensive fabric softener and of course is optional. 

Fabric Softener

2 cups (cheap) hair conditioner (15 ounce bottle)
3 cups water
1 cup white distilled vinegar
A few drops of essential oil (optional)

We use an empty fabric softener bottle, add the above items and shake it to mix.
The ingredients will mix together better after they set for a day or two. Sometimes we add a few drops of an essential oil just to change the smell.

This little tip will help you save money and that means more money for those necessities that you need to keep dinner hour happening at your home. Give it a try and let us know what you think?

Thursday, January 5, 2012

"Legal" Sweet Breads (Make 'Em Healthier)

For us, winter is the time we pull out the frozen shredded zucchini, mash up the over-ripe bananas, or open that extra can of pumpkin and whip up a batch of sweet quick bread. Do you do this too? But we're getting more and more interested in healthifying our foods, so we wondered what we could do to improve these family favorites. Here's what we found:
It's worth the effort to tweak our quick bread recipes because according to nutritionists, a slice of a traditional sweet bread will have more calories, fat, and sugar than a chocolate chip cookie. And we've never stopped at just one slice. Who does? But with a few adjustments, we can fix a quick bread recipe so that more than one slice will be no big deal.

1. Lots of people know to use applesauce in place of all the fat (the oil, butter, or shortening) in their baking. This technique works really well in sweet breads. For instance, if the recipe calls for 1 C fat, substitute 1 C applesauce.

2. Use whole grain flour instead of the refined white flour. You can even mix in ground flax seed or wheat germ to bump up the nutrition factor.

3. We are learning how to substitute stevia for sugar, also. The bread's texture and flavor are the same, but the sugars are no longer an issue (calorie-wise or insulin-resistance-wise). Some folks say they find an after-taste when using stevia, and we have too, with all except the Sweetleaf brand. If you're interested in trying stevia: 1/8 tsp = 1 tsp sugar; 2 Tbsp stevia = 1 C sugar.

Taking these simple steps will cut the fat, add an important fiber boost, and minimize the sugar load--all important pieces to healthier eating. However, if you wanna leave your recipe alone and just make your bread as usual, then consider treating each slice as a dessert, not a bread. Good luck with that one--as Alice says, she's got the will-power of a three-year-old!

In closing, what do YOU do to healthify your quick bread recipes? Do you have a good recipe to share? The start of a new year is a great time to make some commitments to improving the food we serve, so let our readers know what you do. Meanwhile, here's to family dinner made easy, AND healthier in 2012!