Sunday, November 4, 2012

Insta-recap

As the holidays approach, I find myself wishing for finished food in my freezer again. This summer I was busy and careless and always cooking and if I didn't feel like it, we went out. Maybe this is why Deputy Handsome has to work so much - to pay for our restaurant meals. Time to get back to cooking ahead and stocking up ... but until I get that planned out, here is a recap of the last eight months through instagram highlights:

















First Dinner at 8: Lessons in Expectations

last night we finally got to have our first "dinner at 8." I've had a date dinner slot on my weekly schedule since I first started using it at the end of the summer, but this is the first Saturday night (Deputy Handsome's current Friday) that we have been home without any plans and with enough notice for me to make an effort to do something for us. We just put in a new bar off our kitchen and I was anxious to enjoy it for something more than just standing to write a grocery list. I also wanted to use some of the produce from our CSA delivery this week so I decided to just do a simple dinner of pasta (to use up the fennel) and salad (to use some radishes) and suggested we play a game after dinner. I also wanted to meal to be completely made-ahead so that we wouldn't have to worry about dishes - my plan was to have the kitchen cleaned up completely before he even came home from work.

To let Deputy Handsome know what was on my mind, I typed up a simple invitation letting him know the menu, attire and activity for the evening. I folded it up and snuck it into his truck after he went to bed the night before so that he would find it when he left for work. Then in the morning, I walked the kids to the library (even Mister Man can walk almost the whole way himself now!) to tire them out so I could cook and set up the dinner during naptime. The plan worked in that I got everything done - pasta prepared and put away in the fridge, cake baked and fruit topping chopped, bar cleared off and set for dinner with candles and I even did my hair (a monumental task) and yes, I did all the dishes. But the kids were so tired out from their busy morning that they slept late and were not tired at bed time even though we went to the park after their dinner. I had prepped so well at naptime that there was very little for me to do while Deputy Handsome handled bedtime, so I found myself becoming a little frustrated with Little Miss because she is the queen of stall tactics and her daddy is her most loyal subject.


By the time she was finally down, I had reheated the plates of pasta a couple times and they were a little dried out. The bread in the oven was also really hard and I was quiet as we sat down to eat (at 8:23), not because I was mad but because I was disappointed. The past few months have been hard on our marriage (nothing major, just day-to-day business with not enough time for each other) and I was so excited to finally be putting into practice something that I had put so much thought and effort into. Though it is impractical to expect anything to be perfect (especially with kids involved), I had high hopes for the evening to begin at precisely 8pm with no interruptions. I tried not to be upset but then I only got down on myself for letting myself get disappointed in the first place. But, after a few bites of the yummy dinner, a sip of wine and an intriguing story about Deputy Handsome's day at work, I felt more like myself and was a much better companion for the rest of the evening.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Book Review: The Kitchen Counter Cooking School

Every once in a while I stumble across something that is so in line with my own thinking, it's almost like reading my own mind. This article is a great example of that for me. Another great example of this phenomenon is "The Kitchen Counter Cooking School" by Kathleen Flinn, but in this case, I flipped between nodding along and silently shouting out "yes! it really CAN be this easy!" to nodding along in a more contemplative way as I took in new ideas and silently filed away information in the cooking section of my brain. This is a book I recommend to anyone who is bored, frustrated or overwhelmed by the process of making dinner for her family each night; to anyone who relies on fast food or boxed dinners more than she would like to admit; to anyone who likes the idea of the day-to-day ease of being a make-ahead mommy, but isn't ready to cook that much food all at once.
The Kitchen Counter Cooking School does not advocate make-ahead, especially not to the extreme that I have learned to embrace, and in fact, the main takeaway from this book is to shop often and cook daily, so it may be surprising that I rave so highly about this book on a blog that is dedicated to the exact opposite. Cooking ahead is a fairly new venture for me. Prior to the birth of my second child, other than leftovers, I did no kind of cooking ahead (though I have menu planned around what's on sale since I was a newlywed). As much as I love and appreciate the ease of pulling a mostly-cooked meal out of the fridge or freezer on a fairly regular basis, there are still the occasional issues of leftover ingredients, a recipe that doesn't come out quite right or the monotony of boneless, skinless chicken breasts. All of these issues and more are addressed and resolved in The Kitchen Counter Cooking School through case studies of nine volunteer students and a weekly recap of lesson plans complete with recipes at the end of most chapters. I was already enjoying this book, and then I cooked the Rustic Italian Farmhouse Zucchini "Sauce" with Penne - a recipe found at the end of the chapter on knife skills on page 73 - and served it to my entire family, even Mister Man, to enthusiastic response. This pasta meal contained only three ingredients (not counting water, salt or pepper), was so delicious and was just as easy as any made-ahead meal I could have pulled out of the freezer, save for the pre-sliced and seasoned crock-pot dinners. So, I guess I'm still hanging in the middle of the road where I found myself at the end of my last post where most nights I am thankful to have mostly-finished meals ready to pull out of the freezer, but I still enjoy the flexibility of being able to cook fresh, quick dinners for my family if I feel like it. 
If you've been reading along as I attempt to blog my make-ahead dinners for my family over the past few months and you're not quite ready to get on board, but you need some sort of motivation and knowledge about how to pull together quick meals with fresh ingredients, I urge you to find this book at your bookstore or library (I currently have the only copy from the local branch, but I'll be returning it later this week) and make time to sit down and read it and get cooking! And let me know if you do; I'd like to know if I am reading anyone else's mind ... 

Monday, January 30, 2012

Smoothies

... I almost forgot, my other favorite thing in my freezer right now: pre-measured smoothies! Pictured above are two separate kinds of smoothies:

  • Almond butter, kale, banana with a dash of cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg to be blended with almond milk (one of my favorite post-run snacks!)
  • fruit with frozen discs of plain yogurt (previously frozen in a mini-muffin tray) to be blended with whatever fruit juice we have in the house at the time
I am constantly seeing coupons for frozen smoothies from yoplait and jamba juice that you can buy at the grocery store and blend at home and have even tried them when I could get a good price, but I wasn't that impressed. If I want Jamba Juice, I will go to Jamba Juice. It's worth the extra money to get a smoothie that tastes like Jamba Juice instead of making a smoothie at home that is supposed to taste like Jamba Juice, but actually just tastes like apple juice because I had to pour more juice in than recommended to get it to blend right. So after some not-so-good at-home smoothie experiences, I decided to just make my own smoothie bags for a lot less money and these turned out fantastic. But a quick disclaimer: the first time I tried blending the almond/banana smoothie it was straight from the freezer right after an 11-mile run and I about passed out before I could get it blended through (for real. I had to go lay down on the couch and take a power nap before I could try again). The second time, I put the bag of ingredients in the fridge just before heading out for a shorter distance and when I got home, the banana was still frozen in the middle but the kale and butter had thawed a bit so that it was much quicker and easier to blend. The fruit/yogurt smoothies haven't given me any trouble, probably because the fruit is sliced up fairly small and blends easily. If there were large pieces of strawberry or something in with it, there may need to be a small thawing window. 

What We're Eating This Month

a week or two ago, I did another big cookday similar to what I did in September where I cooked large amounts of a few basic foods, packaged them in single-meal portions and stuck them in the freezer. (Here is the link again to the whole plan.) Despite that, I have only dug into my freezer stash a few times since then and have been cooking a lot more one-offs as I call them (meals that I cook the same day we plan to eat it, how novel). But the food in the freezer is more of a security that if I don't make it to the grocery store or just plain don't feel creative enough to come up with a meal, I can easily reach into the freezer and find something delicious and quick to eat.
my freezer full of one- and two-cup
portions of meat, rice, roasted veggies
and simple tomato sauce.
Having meal-sized portions of pulled pork or baked chicken strips already cooked and ready in the freezer is much easier than having a full, uncooked pork loin in the freezer (which I also have) because of the amount of time it takes, or doesn't take, to have dinner on the table. On Saturday I made Brunswick Stew with Mister Man on my hip in the amount of time it took Deputy Handsome and Little Miss to run to the grocery store for a fresh loaf of artisan sourdough.
So now that I have cooked for the month a few times, doing both full make-ahead meals and building blocks, I'd say that my favorite way to have my freezer stocked is with a little bit of both! To have a blank canvas of cooked meat and sauce for some meals, but on other days when I can't even manage that, it's great to be able to pull out pre-made burrito filling, or dump a pre-measured bag of ingredients into the crockpot.

Friday, January 27, 2012

December Recap

here in the last week of January, is a recap of our December dinners (if I can remember it all!). For the most part, all of the made-ahead dinners were amazing and it definitely helped keep the chaos of December to a minimum by having dinners ready to go each night. The only thing that wasn't perfect was the pizza pasta bake for the crockpot. Since everything in that dish was already cooked and it just needed reheating in the crockpot, four hours was plenty. The day I left the crockpot on all day for close to eight hours while I was away from home, the parts of the casserole that were touching the sides of the crockpot got burned. While the flavor was delicious, it wasn't a dish that you could leave unattended all day. But I would still recommend it for a night that you're planning to be home, but just don't feel like standing over the stove.

With that out of the way, here is an abbreviated recap of the fun month we had getting ready for Christmas without having to worry about where dinner was coming from:

Mister Man and his one front tooth

bundled up to see the elaborate
residential light displays in our city

Little Miss showing us what the monster from
Rudolph says, "ahh! rarrrrrr!"

Gift tags with photos to make it easy for
Little Miss to help distribute them

all together on Christmas Eve

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Last dish of the day

December dinners are cooked and ready! Whoo!!! This was the last dish on my list: Yummy beef filling for lettuce wraps.

Meatballs

One night when I was pregnant with Little Miss, Deputy Handsome asked for spaghetti and meatballs for dinner. Just the thought of touching raw meat made my stomach turn, so I taught him how to make meatballs himself. Since then, he has taken on the task often, even though I don't have the constant nausea anymore. Today I recruited him to help me whip up two different batches of turkey meatballs for our month of make-ahead.
The end is in sight! Good thing too, I'm not sure how much more food my fridge and freezer can hold!

Two skillets on the stove

Back: BBQ-spiced edemame; front:barley risotto. Both require just occasional stirring so it's easy to cook them at the same time.

Break time

Sitting down for the first time since breakfast to cuddle with Mister Man. I am over halfway done with my meal prep for today and after lunch I'll have a handsome helper in the kitchen with me while the kiddos nap :)

A lot at once

All the veggies for the day are chopped! In the freezer bags, two BBQ chicken dinners. On the stove, cooked ground beef - half to go into the pot also on the stove (pizza bake!) and the other half ready for taco soup. Four meals just about completed!

Kicking off cook day

Yummy start to a full day of cooking: Apple Pie Oatmeal for me and Deputy Handsome

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

What We're Eating This Month

yes, that says Month up there! This week I'm cooking for the entire month of December. Last time I cooked for a month, I had a specific plan to make five building blocks that could be turned into 20 separate meals with the addition of some fresh ingredients. This time I wanted to make my own menu for dinners, plus include some lunches, breakfast and snacks into my cookday. Here are the dinners I plan to cook on Thursday:

  • BBQ Turkey Meatballs and Turkey Parmesan Meatballs
    • I have made both of these meals before and I am recruiting Deputy Handsome to roll the meatballs for me this time around
    • we'll eat the Parmesan ones on rolls with marinara and melted provolone
    • BBQ Meatballs will be served with potatoes and veggies
  • Sesame Chicken and filling for Korean Beef Lettuce Wraps
    • both from the Flat Belly Diet cookbook
    • will be fully cooked and stored, ready to reheat
  • plus five ready-to-cook crockpot meals
    • three from the mama and baby love blog (look under the bulk/freezer tab)
      • BBQ Chicken, Chicken and Cherries, Orange Chicken
    • two from the six sisters blog (look under freezer meals)
      • Taco Soup, Pizza Bake
These meals will be supplemented by pasta bolognese that I already have in my freezer. 

Here's the plan for the other food I plan to make for meals other than dinner:
  • smoothies
    • chop all the fruit so it's super easy to just throw everything in a blender
  • Barley Risotto
    • Deputy Handsome wouldn't touch this if I made it for dinner, but I think it sounds good so I'll eat it for lunches when he's at work
  • Romesco Sauce
    • From the Flat Belly Diet cookbook
    • Last time I made this, I served it over chicken. Deputy Handsome didn't like it, but I thought it was so good. In the recipe notes, it says this makes a good dip for veggies, and I need to eat more veggies as afternoon snacks instead of chips/cookies/other crap. Having this dip already made will be yummy motivation.
  • BBQ spiced Edamame
    • never have eaten soybeans any way other than straight out of the pod, so this should be interesting!
  • Cheesey Breakfast Muffins
    • to grab and go on our way out the door to church, park playdates, etc.

Monday, November 28, 2011

What We Ate Tonight: Turkey leftovers

tonight I finished off the last of our turkey and cranberry relish in this delicious take on a pot pie with polenta topping covered in cheese. The bottom part was typical pot-pie filling: veggies and turkey in a thickened broth/sauce. The topping was polenta with cranberry relish stirred in for extra flavor and a little sweet-tartness and then the whole thing is covered in extra sharp cheddar and broiled. Check out the bubbly deliciousness:


It was so so so good. I used my leftover Apple-Cranberry Relish and the apples went so well with the cheese for an unexpected twist on an old favorite. Only downside was the texture - it was pretty much all mushy, but a crisp side salad would have helped with that. And actually, when I went back for seconds, the polenta had firmed up a bit after a few minutes out of the oven. I could have eaten half the pan. Yum yum yum.

I'm trying hard to finish up all the food in my fridge before my next big cookday on Thursday where I'll be cooking ahead for the entire month of December since it is a crazy month that can go from the fun kind of celebratory crazy to chaotic and cranky crazy really fast. Hopefully having a fridge and freezer full of healthy ready-to-go meals will alleviate some of the chaos. Tomorrow I'll finalize my menu plan once the grocery sale papers come in the mail.