Jan 13, 2011

Planning Meals

I started this blog almost a year ago, with the intent of sharing some recipes that are delicious and easy. I feel like I haven't really met this mark. How has this blog been beneficial, aside from making my sister hungry once in a while?

It is the new year, so I suppose this is a resolution of sorts. Be more helpful.

I think the concept of "meal planning" is a good place to start. I'll level with you: I'm good at it. I am an organized person. I have a good memory, and a sense of creativity that is strictly reserved for food. I'm also modest.

My approach to meal planning is this: make foods that my husband and I enjoy eating, are somewhere on the "healthy food" continuum, and do it cheaply. Whatever we save on our budget line for food goes straight to school loans. Trust me, I'd much rather have my loans paid off than eat a steak. Unless someone else is buying. Then I'll take it medium rare.

So down to business. I plan meals on Thursday nights, and I grocery shop on Friday night after work, or on Saturday mornings. The flyer for the grocery store usually comes on Thursdays so I can scope out the deals, and by then I also have a good idea of what leftovers need to be eaten and how that factors into how much we buy.

I get my planner, flip it to the upcoming week, and decide on 4 dinners (Monday through Thursday). Breakfasts consist of oatmeal, waffles, english muffins, or easy things of that sort. Lunches are either sandwiches or leftovers. Snacks are things such as granola bars, fruit, yogurt, and occassionally pretzels, popcorn, or chips.

When planning my 4 meals, I open up my "meal ideas" list in Word and look through it to remind myself of what I make. I like to pick things that we 1. have ingredients for, and 2. haven't eaten too recently.

Why 4 meals? Here's how I see it. On Monday through Thursday nights, we have traditional sit-down-at-the-table meals. I intentionally make too much food for these meals, so we have leftovers to take for lunches. The weekend is less predictable, so I don't buy food that we may end up not using.

I'll leave you with an example. Tonight we made our last planned meal for the week, the Piggly Wiggly flyer came, and off I went. I asked the husband for meal suggestions, then used sales and the pantry to make it all work.
Monday: Chicken noodle soup
Tuesday: Mexican hashbrowns
Wednesday: Italian chicken and veggies
Thursday: Steak and veggies

To make these 4 meals, I only need to buy 3 ingredients: carrots, celery, and chorizo. It pays to plan ahead and keep the pantry stocked with items you use for a variety of dishes. Oh, and before you get all up-in-arms about us having steak after my cheap food rant: these steaks were given to us. Ha!

For next time...my favorite meal-planning shortcut.

Dec 14, 2010

Because It's Cold

I'm basically a soup nut. Anyone in my family will vouch for this, seeing as my favorite food growing up was my Grandma Jo's homemade vegetable soup (strangely containing beef...). There is just something so cozy and comforting to me about sitting down with a steaming bowl of soup and a small spoon (another quirk, I hate soup spoons. We'll leave that for another time). But aside from this love of soup, I am also cold. Always. Well, aside from two weeks ago when I was on a Caribbean cruise. So needless to say, between my fond childhood memories and the desire for warmth, soup is a big hit in this house.

On the way home tonight, I heard that the "feels like" temperature for tomorrow morning is -4 degrees F. Yikes. That settles it. Time for soup.

This one is so easy that I had to post it. It's one of those "one dish wonders" as I like to say, where you barely have any dishes to take care of once dinner is prepared. The prep is minimal so it isn't a huge time constraint, which is always a plus. I don't usually go for the open-can-make-recipe types, but this tastes good. Period.

Santa Fe Soup

1 lb hamburger
1 medium onion, chopped
1 can of diced tomatoes (my recipe suggests Rotel, but I just use regular Hunt's, better yet the fire roasted if I can get my hands on them)
1 can chili beans (your desired spiciness)
1 can whole kernel corn
1 tbsp chili powder
1/4 to 1/3 lb velveeta mexican cheese ("cheese" used loosely...)
1/2 c ketchup
1/2 c water
1 tsp garlic powder
Cayenne to taste
Salt and pepper to taste

Brown beef with onion, season with salt and pepper; drain fat (this will cause your house to smell like a diner, which isn't the worst thing). Add tomatoes, corn, and chili beans (with liquid) to pot. Also add chili powder, garlic powder, cayenne as desired, ketchup, and water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes. While simmering, add cubes of velveeta cheese until the desired consistency and flavor is achieved.

A few notes: cook all of this in the same pot and save yourself a few dishes. Remember that "spicy" seasonings tend to grow as you simmer, so taste and adjust the flavor after the soup has been simmering a while. Also, the original recipe calls for a pound of velveeta which I find to be overkill. I used 1/4 lb cut in small cubes (melts faster) and it gave the soup good flavor, color, and consistency. I normally object to velveeta but it works well here. Use your judgement.

Nov 12, 2010

It's Time

I am one of those crazy holiday people. It's easier if I just shoot straight with you. In 2009, I started listening to Christmas music in August. This year, I restrained myself a bit and waited until the beginning of October.

While I tend to pull the holiday music into summer and fall, food is a different matter. I wait until the weather and changing seasons dictate certain recipes. It just feels wrong to make them at inappropriate times. Keeping that in mind, it was a relief for me when the leaves started to change colors and drift to the ground. It was autumn. Well, almost. We made gingerbread waffles and the seasons officially progressed.

These gingerbread waffles are something to look forward to for most of the year. I really only make them in late fall and winter, so we enjoy them while we can. They are thick and substantial, with almost the denseness of a large cookie. If you aren't a fan of molasses or gingerbread, I still think you should give them a fair shake. I usually call them pumpkin waffles by mistake, just because that seems to be the predominant flavor. All the traditional autumn spices come together with the pumpkin and give a very "thanksgivingish" feel to the morning. Or evening. Who doesn't love waffles for brinner?

Gingerbread Waffles
adapted from Rachael Ray (makes 6 waffles in my belgian waffle iron, although we usually cut the recipe in half)

3 cups all-purpose flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 large eggs
2/3 cup packed brown sugar
1 can pumpkin puree
1 1/2 cups milk
1/2 cup molasses
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, melted
Waffle toppings...if any at all!

Preheat your waffle iron, and be sure to use non-stick spray before loading in the batter.

In a large bowl, mix flour, baking powder, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and salt.

In a medium bowl, beat eggs and brown sugar until a bit frothy. Then add pumpkin, milk, molasses and melted butter (making sure the butter isn't too hot to scramble your eggs).

Stir the wet into the dry ingredients until moist, taking care not to overstir. Fill the waffle iron and bake until lightly brown.

Oct 7, 2010

"The Rest of the Story"

It's been swirling around in my mind for quite a while now. To be honest, it's been since the beginning of this blog about 9 months ago.

What exactly is the purpose of this? Is food something to be dwelled on as an attempt to distract us from some unpleasantries in our lives? Perhaps a connection can be made. A place where food, smells, methods, and traditions can take us that few other things can.

Memories. Distinct, treasured, wonderful.

The way I approach specific ingredients, smells, dishes, and preparation methods links me to something that I couldn't bear to do without. Memories of my grandparents.

This lucky girl was blessed with 3 sets of grandparents. My mom's parents divorced and remarried long before I was born, so I knew all six as nothing less than full-fledged grandmas and grandpas. This post isn't about all six of them, though I love them all dearly. It's only about two of them. My dad's parents: Grandpa Floyd and Grandma Jo.

Grandpa Floyd and Grandma Jo lived on a nice-sized plot of land. Just small enough so they could always call the grandkids in for lunch with the big metal bell which hung just outside the back door. Just large enough to provide a variety of excellent hiding places for hide-n-seek, bloody mary, and seven steps around the house. This land also included a large vegetable garden, which was my grandpa's project all summer. I spent some of my summer days helping Grandpa Floyd in the garden, and I owe him for all the garden knowledge I have. More precious than this knowledge are the memories that gardening brings to me. When I go to the local greenhouse, I remember our trips there to pick out seeds. When I taste a fresh carrot, I remember us digging them out of the garden, rinsing them off in a bucket of water and enjoying them right then and there.

Luckily, the brain does well with memories--especially those linked to smell. For this very reason, I grow tomatoes. Have you noticed that tomato plants themselves have a smell? It is fresh, light, and yet a bit humid. Every single time I got into my garden and smelled the tomato plants, I was taken back to my childhood and all the great things that went with it. I did more work with the tomatoes than any other plants in my grandpa's garden, mostly because he was color-blind and couldn't distinguish red from green. This not only provides difficulty for traffic lights, but also picking tomatoes. He and I were always happy to work together to pick all the ripe tomatoes and bring them in to Grandma. And if it was around lunch time, Paul Harvey would be playing on their kitchen radio. And Paul would agree with me, that this indeed is "the rest of the story".

The Process

Let's just skip over the part where I acknowledge how long it's taken me to finally finish this topic. Here is how I turned my san marzanos into sauce.

Step one, you find the first tomato of the season and celebrate a little bit. Come on, that's one cute tomato.

Next, you gather your batch of tomatoes. Remove the stems and wash them. (Note to self: remove the PGA championship parking pass from the picture next time)

Gather whatever seasonings you'd like to use. For some batches, I used fresh basil and oregano from my front porch. Other times, I did straight-up tomatoes. Both were great.

Next, bring a pot of water to a simmer. Place 7-8 tomatoes in the water at a time, and wait for the skins to "pop", like this one. Place on a cookie sheet until the tomato cools down. Peel the skin off and discard.

Run the tomatoes and seasonings through a food processor until the desired consistency is reached. Some batches I opted for chunky, others super smooth.

Add the pureed tomatoes to a pot (my dutch oven worked great for this!) and simmer on med-low heat for several hours or until desired thickness is reached. For most of my batches, I reduced the sauce by half to really concentrate the flavors.

Lastly, admire your sauce.

I made quite a bit of this, and now my freezer is full to the brim with san marzano sauce to use in late fall and winter. I've only sampled it once on pasta and it was delightfully simple. This weekend there are plans in the works to turn it into pizza sauce with the help of some carrots, onion, and celery finely pureed and sauteed.

Well, that is mostly all I have on this topic. I'm sure you are well-aware of my strange obsession with a local pizza place that honors these tomatoes. That obsession played a large part in my decision to grow these plants. For the final decision factor...you'll just have to wait.

Aug 26, 2010


Eek, has it really been a month since I posted about my tomatoes?

Well, it's been busy around here. And while I wait for my husband to upload some of the newest and greatest pictures, here's what's been going on:

Sauce has been made!

It is quite something to take a plastic grocery bag outside with me and fill it halfway with tomatoes every time I go out to pick them. Sure makes all the prior effort worth it. But, it isn't all fairies and lollipops in the garden. To be sure, there has been some rot. Apparently there is a fungus or bacteria around this area that makes it difficult for san marzanos to grow. I've probably lost about 30% of my tomato crop to this. Invetiably, there will be a multitude of tomato plants growing in our swamp next year as I just toss the rotten ones in that direction. Another negative is that some animal has been taking large bites out of the low-hanging tomatoes (which are usually the big beautiful ones!). My hope is that said animal wonders over to the ripening habeneros and takes a bite.

Negatives aside, I really am having a blast. I've made 2 batches of sauce, and this weekend should mark the 3rd. I took picturs of the whole process and will share soon. For now, here's the summary.

Batch one:
2 quarts of sauce, made simply from tomatoes with fresh basil and oregano

Batch two:
1 quart of sauce, simply tomatoes. I simmered this much longer than the first batch so it got very thick and rich. I wanted a batch of san marzanos in their purest state. The samples I snuck were delicious.

Why nothing but plain 'ol tomato sauce? Because I have a hard time committing, ok? Truth is, I wanted to leave it as a blank slate as much as possible. Then, when we have a craving for san marzano sauce this winter, we can pull it out of the freezer and do what we want with it. Marinara, pizza sauce, pasta sauce, pomodoro, vodka sauce, etc.

We did make some fresh salsa with several of the tomatoes, just to use up some peppers we had (japalenos, serranos, habeneros). A quick pulse of onion, tomato, and peppers and we were good to go.

Jul 20, 2010

My Precious

No, I haven't turned into Gollum (Smeagol). I'm not delicately passing an engraved ring through my wiry fingers. But, I am hovering over my precious treasures.

26 tomato plants.

Wait...26 thriving tomato plants.

OK...26 thriving San Marzano tomato plants!

Maybe you are wondering...what the heck lady, it is the end of July. Why are you first posting about your garden NOW?

It was entirely intentional. You see, I am selfish. I didn't want you to get any good ideas from mine, and start your own San Marzano plants. Ha!

The timeframe for garden planting around here is typically Memorial Day weekend. Counting backwards per the directions on the seed packets, I started my San Marzanos about 7 weeks before they would need to make the move outdoors.

Having never started any plants indoors before, I went a little overboard. I thought "I'm sure some won't come up, so I'll just start with 30 and see where that goes. At least I will end up with a few plants to put outside." Turns out I was wrong as all 30 plants came up. Well, actually 60(ish) came up, as 2 seeds were in each mini-pot. I then had the not-so-fun job of playing Sophie's Choice with my tomatoes...which should survive? After snipping the weakest links, I committed myself to making these tomatoes the best they could be. (In case you are doing the math, I did say 26 plants, not 30, at the beginning of the post. I gave 4 to my dad :-)

I had more of an investment than just an average girl with her little plants. These babies are the star of the show at Il Ritrovo, a restaurant I posted about here. This is hands-down my favorite restaurant for many reasons, one of which is the sauce that goes on their pizza. Granted, they use DOP certified San Marzanos from Campania itself, so mine will be lacking in some respects. They don't have the soil of Mt. Vesuvius to nourish them, but instead a swampy backyard in rural Wisconsin. Regardless, I am sure proud of these plants. They are thriving and are now more of a tomato "hedge" than anything else, as I planted them much too close together and harvesting them is going to be a beast.
If the world were my oyster and I could do anything I wanted, I'd probably tear up my entire back yard for these babies. Then, I'd start a sauce company and make large vats of the delicious red sauce. I'd can it and sell it to local organic stores, and make some sweet sun-dried tomatoes for myself. But in all seriousness, I am going to make sauce with it. I've never canned before, so I will probably freeze my product and maybe sell some to people I know. We'll see what happens. Either way, don't get between this girl and her San Marzanos!

Note the above picture...the plants are now as tall as the stakes. Still flowering. They are UNSTOPPABLE!