Looking forward to the New Year..

Well, some things have been on hiatus around here lately and sadly one of them has been my adventures in cooking.  It seems that no matter how hard I fight it, pregnancy has had a serious impact on my productivity and exploration in the area of food stuffs.  So instead of pulling out a tried and true recipe from my arsenal to share with you all today, I thought I would share some of my hopes and goals instead.  (Just because I haven't been able to produce much doesn't mean I haven't been longing after it!)  Let's see where the New Year takes us, and just how many of these I can accomplish with the first 4-5 months spent in pregnancy and the remaining 7-8 months with a new little one in our lives.  *fingers crossed*


  • Bottom line - I need to learn more make ahead recipes with minimal cost.  I don't have any specific ideas yet, but I am searching...

Main Dishes

  • My goal is to get back on track with make ahead meals.  This may be put on hold until my pregnancy based food aversions calm down, but I really miss having slow cooker dump recipes and individual serving recipes on hand for busy days.  It really helps us to eat healthier and cheaper when we have it available.
  • This is currently my favorite website for this purpose, I have many things I have yet to explore on it: http://onceamonthmom.com/



  • I'd like to venture further into the world of veggies and try out some new recipes for Summer Squash, Winter Squash, and to seek out some earlier season veggies for home canning options.  I will be happily scouting out canning books and sites for the latter and longing for Summer.
  • I'd also like to try some new recipes for veggies I traditionally avoid, such as cauliflower: http://bigflavors.blogspot.com/2011/01/cavolfiore-impanato-fried-cauliflower.html




Homemade with Help Calzone Rolls

or fake it 'till you make Italian food at home.

Ok, so these days between having a million things to do for the holidays and a general state of exhaustion my homemade meals have dissipated.  What has recently replaced them are largely significant contributions from my eternally patient husband along with semi-homemade meals.  It isn't quite the satisfaction that I get from making dinner for my wonderful husband and myself, but when I am able to at least pull something together I feel a pretty reasonable sense of accomplishment.  This week, relief came in the form of pre-made pizza dough.  

Ready made dough is a wonderful thing.  It provides the ease necessary to approach dinner when you feel that it is quite possible that you will collapse halfway through the process, and the rewarding experience of your own additions to the homemade fillings and/or toppings depending on how you use it.  The recipe below is a good base for a calzone type roll.  You can add other ingredients to the filling if you like (i.e. vegetables, cooked meats, etc) but I do not find it necessary since I like mine pretty straightforward.  The inclusion of the egg in the cheese mixture helps bind it together, you can use an egg substitute instead if you prefer, and it makes reheating an easier and less messy process.  This recipe is really a breeze, less than 30 min from start to finish.  Check it out:

pre-made pizza dough (from the store, your local pizzeria, or made from scratch if you have more energy than I do right now)
8-10 oz reduced fat ricotta
1 egg
1/2 cup shredded mozzarella
1/4 cup parmesan cheese 
Italian spice blend & garlic powder
Melted butter (about 2 tbsp) if desired
Marinara or pizza sauce for dipping

1. Mix together all of the cheeses and the egg until well blended.

2.  Roll out the pizza dough into a large rectangle and slice into thirds.  In the center lengthwise of each third, create a line of one third of the filling.  Then fold over lengthwise so that the long sides meet and seal the edges all around with a fork.  Roll over so that the long seam side is down.  Poke a couple holes in the top with a fork to let steam escape and line up on parchment paper on a cookie sheet. 

3. Seasoned the top with Italian spice blend and garlic powder. 

4. Bake at 400 for 15 min.  Drizzle melted butter over top after baking if desired and serve with marinara sauce for dipping.


Bacon Makes it Better Pasta Salad

or a simple and salty salad for all to love.

Let's face it, bacon kind of makes everything better.  My husband, apparently born somehow with the pasta-salad-aversion-gene, was willing to give this recipe a shot due to the inclusion of the illustrious bacon and the mixed olives (though he remained a bit skeptical of the green ones at first).  We first brought this with us when we went to the beach with friends a couple Summers ago and it was a big hit all around.  The saltiness of the bacon and olives balances well with the sugar so it is not overwhelming.  A little kick from the cider vinegar and mustard give it a bit of flair, more or less depending on the type of mustard you choose to use.  It is a nice balance of flavors without being to intrusive for those that are cautious of pasta salads in general, a reasonable compromise in the world of food, and that makes it a nice addition to a pot luck style event.  I personally could toss in some whole cherry tomatoes, to lean more towards a BLT pasta salad, but my husband is not a tomato fan so they don't make it in very often.  You could even set up some addition prepped veggies in bowls alongside it so that guests can dress it up as they like.  It is, in general, a good base to draw from to create your own flavors with additions of different vegetables, diced hard boiled eggs, and the like.  Check it out:

Pasta - 8 oz (spirals or shells)
Bacon - 1/2 lb
Mayonnaise, reduced fat or olive oil - 1/2 cup
Sour Cream, reduced fat - 1/4 cup
Yellow Mustard - 1 tbsp
Sugar - 1/8 cup
Cider Vinegar - 1/8 cup
Green Olives - 1/4 cup
Black Olives - 1/4 cup
Nature’s Seasoning Blend or House Spices
Salt & Pepper - to taste
1. Cook bacon over medium high heat until evenly brown. Drain, crumble and set aside.

2. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook pasta according to directions. Drain and rinse with cold water.

3. Whisk the mayonnaise, sour cream, mustard, sugar, vinegar, salt, and pepper in a large bowl until the sugar has dissolved. Add the bacon, olives and pasta, folding in carefully until the salad is evenly covered with the dressing.

4. Store in refrigerator or cooler until served.


Simply Sweet Sugar Cream Pie

or heaven in a pie crust.

First with a disclaimer - there are practically no recipes for sugar cream pie out there that can claim to be completely original.  There are simply not enough ingredients to account for the individualization.  What I present here is simply, and humbly, my version of this delightful dessert.  It isn't terribly different than the base recipes that I have found, but I think the adjustments that I made add to the flavor and texture a bit.

I have often wondered, over the past couple years, where this amazing dessert has been my whole life!  It was brought to my attention by a friend of ours in Chicago and after seeing his success I set out to find the perfect recipe myself.  I can't call what I resulted in the "perfect" sugar cream pie recipe, but it works pretty darn well for us.  Switching out some of the heavy cream for milk makes this rich dessert just a tad lighter in regards to texture, and I like to think health-wise as well but there is no proof of that really - it just makes me feel better.  It is incredibly easy to make, but don't tell your guests that, and it can be made in advance so that dessert is taken care of long before dinner needs to be on the table.

I have made both full sized pies and individual pies from this recipe and both turned out great since the main batch amount for the filling doesn't change.  You can even dress it up more by doing a brulee on the top with coarse sugar instead of the traditional broiler style topping of cinnamon and butter.  So simple, so sweet, and so easily dressed up or down for any occasion - what more could you ask for from a dessert?  Check it out:

1 pie crust, 9 inch cooked (I prefer a shortbread or graham cracker style myself)
4 tbsp cornstarch
3/4 cup sugar
4 tbsp butter, melted
1 1/2 cups whipping cream
1 cup low fat milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 tbsp butter, melted
1/2 tsp cinnamon
Preheat broiler to high.

1. In a medium pot mix the cornstarch and sugar. Add 4 tablespoons butter, cream, and milk.

2. Cook, stirring constantly preferably with a wooden spoon, over medium heat until thick and creamy. This will happen quickly when it changes but may take some time to get to that point. It's kind of magical, really, so don't get discouraged and worry that you missed it - you really can't, it goes from liquid to gel-like very clearly.  You will know it is coming when you start to feel a little resistance in the bottom that seems almost gooey when you are stirring.  Once it does change completely, remove from heat immediately and stir in the vanilla.

3. Pour the mixture into the pie crust. Drizzle 2 tablespoons melted butter over top and sprinkle with cinnamon.

4. Put under broiler until the butter bubbles--watch it carefully as it doesn’t take long, maybe 30-45 seconds.

5. Refrigerate at least an hour, until set.


Stove-top Applesauce

or a better than store-bought can be a breeze, homemade treat

This little recipe is popping up now because I first made it a couple years back for the Thanksgiving holiday.  Every year we have this wonderful, well now that I am grown it seems more wonderful, tradition of making dutch apple pies with my parents the night before Thanksgiving.  My mom always makes between ten and twenty pies depending on the year and how many friends and relatives we are sharing with.  The memories of this event range from exciting and then exhausting as a child, exasperating as a teenager, and a sense of happy nostalgia and appreciation as an adult.  I can't wait to share all these emotions with our own child as we continue the tradition throughout the years, even though they may not truly appreciate it until they are my age themselves.

Well, to get back on track, this recipe originated during one of these annual events.  We finished up all the pies and still had a fair amount of apples remaining (both cut and uncut).  I was struggling with what to bring to our family gathering the next day and my mom suggested making applesauce.  I thought she was crazy, but as it turns out she was not!  It is surprisingly easy to make, results in the house smelling amazing, and is easily customizable to your own desired sweetness, thickness, and supplemental flavors.  And now on top of the delicious homemade applesauce flavor, I also get that small amount of emotional warmth that comes from happy nostalgia when I make it.  I highly recommend making this in happy moments while creating memories of your own because that feeling is priceless.  If you use all sweeter apples you may find no need for sugar, but a little extra sweetness doesn't hurt.  I like to cook everything down until it dissolves itself, but as you will see in the directions there are other options for those with time constraints.  It's so easy you'll wonder why you haven't tried it before, check it out:

Apples - 7 MacIntosh, 3 Gala
Sugar - 1/3 cup 
Vanilla - 1/2 tsp
Cinnamon - 1/4 tsp

1. Peel and core apples. Cut into small pieces, the thinner the chunks the quicker they will cook.

2. Pour into a deep pot and add enough water to just cover the apples.

3. Bring to a simmer and cook for 2-4 hours stirring occasionally (ever 30-45 min).

4. If cooking for 2 hours, mash the apples with a potato masher and then run through a food mill or potato ricer. If cooking for 4 hours, mash after three hours and again after the last hour (the apples should break down enough to not need the other step).

5. In the pot with the apples stir in the sugar, vanilla, and cinnamon. Cook gently for at least 5 minutes. Add more cinnamon or sugar to taste.

(all dressed up with a little cinnamon sugar sprinkled over top and a dollop of whipped cream)

This is a great base recipe to customize your own flavors, I hear that crystalized ginger is pretty good if tossed in at the beginning with the apples.  And I have used this for everything from family gatherings to home canning, both for personal use and as part of holiday gift baskets.  The only thing I can say is be sure to cook it down to the consistency that you like.  It may take an extra half hour, but it will definitely be worth the effort!


Holiday Leftovers Hearty Turkey Soup

or all your comfort foods in one over-sized bowl

Soon it will be my favorite holiday of the year - the only one that seems to truly revolve around food and family - Thanksgiving.  I love feeding people.  Well, that may be an understatement.  So, as it stands, there is no better holiday for me to host then one where I can show everyone how much I love and appreciate them by providing a buffet of enticing dishes.  And of course left overs are a must, it may be assumed that part of the reason of the excessive spread of food this holiday is to ensure leftovers exist after everyone has had their fill and are then comfortably reclined in the living room.  The other reason is that I somehow still have absolutely no concept of how much people will eat.  But that is beside the point.

I love finding new ways to use leftovers from big family meals.  In college, I was mildly  obsessed with a "Thanksgiving" sandwich at the restaurant chain Friendly's.  It consisted of texas toast, turkey, gravy, stuffing, and cranberry sauce (which I omitted).  It was delicious.  It was all the wonderful parts of comfort food in an easy, handheld format.  Well, obviously I can't just copy that.  So I thought about what other forms of comfort food I love, and it came to me - soup!  I am a sucker for good soup.  A few years ago I decided that we needed to consume all of the leftovers before they went bad and started throwing things together in a pot, what resulted was beyond delicious.  My husband likes this so much that for the first two years I had to make a roasted turkey breast a couple times each year, in addition to Thanksgiving, just so he could have the soup.  Here's how it is done:

2 turkey legs or half breast & bone
celery - 1/2 cup diced
orzo - 1 cup
cream of chicken soup - 1 can condensed
turkey gravy - 1 cup prepared
processed cheese - 3/4 pound cubed
carrots - 1/2 cup diced
onion - 1/2 cup finely diced or minced
peas - 1 can or leftovers
chicken stock - 1 quart
Spices: celery salt, pepper, thyme, parsley

1. Place bone from turkey in a large stock pot. Add the stock and fill with water so that the pot is 3/4 full. If using a deep pot additional chicken stock may be added to reduce the dilution in water.

2. Heat until boiling and keep at a low boil for 1 hour to prep the stock.

3. Cut the turkey meat into bite sized cubes or pull apart to taste. Finely dice carrots and celery, mince the onion.

4. Remove the bones and skim off any fat when the stock is ready. Keep the pot half full, the extra stock can be removed and stored either in the refrigerator or freezer for future use.

5. Add the turkey to the pot of stock. Remove any extra meat from the bones and add into the soup as desired.

6. Add spices and onion; allow to come to a low boil for 10 minutes.

7. Then add the carrots and celery, keep at a boil for 5 minutes.

8. Add in the peas and orzo, continue to boil for 10 minutes.

9. Stir in cream of chicken soup, gravy, and cubed cheese. Cook over medium-low heat until cheese melts, stirring often.

This can be adjusted to your tastes and leftover options, but this is where I started.  The processed cheese, aka Velveeta, was actually a leftover for us because we use it in a chili cheese dip that is generally among our appetizers and we don't use the whole "brick."  It isn't something I often cook with, but it smooths out nicely in soups so it does make it in once in a while.  Keep an open mind about it, it won't bite.  You can also omit the orzo if you want when pouring it over mashed potatoes or stuffing, though leaving it in does create a "turkey stew" feel that is quite a yummy take on the dish.  As always, give it a try, make its tastes your own, and enjoy!


Dark Chocolate Chip Blonde Brownies

or pour and go cookie bar treats

I love cookies.  I am not normally a huge fan of traditional candy type treats and sweets, but when it comes to cookies - I am a pushover.  And when you get that craving for cookies, you want them now - not in an hour, or after the next shopping trip, but right now - fresh out out of the oven.  The great thing about these is that they are not only fast and easy to make, but they use mostly what you already have on hand.  I use dark chocolate chips because my husband loves them, but in the picture below I also tossed in a couple handfuls of butterscotch morsels for the holidays.  I've also tried cinnamon chips, white chocolate chips, and chocolate mint bits.  All have been delicious!  One batch makes one square dish or one round pan dish of cookie bars, so you don't have an excessive amount laying around the house after to tempt you, just enough to satisfy that craving when you have it.  Check it out:

1/2 cup Butter
1 cup Brown Sugar
1 Egg
1 cup Flour
1/4 tsp Baking Powder
1/8 tsp Baking Soda
A pinch Salt
1 cup Dark Chocolate Chips

1. Cream together the butter and brown sugar; then beat in the egg.

2. Add the flour, baking powder, and salt mixing well. Stir in chocolate chips until well blended.

3. Pour into a greased 8x8-inch pan and gently pat even with a greased spatula (greasing the bottom of the spatula makes all the difference here, that way there is no cookie dough sticking to it while you try to flatten).

4. Bake at 350 degrees for 20 to 25 minutes. Check at 20 min (done when toothpick comes out clean when pierced in center).


Two Easy, Cheesy Appetizers

or the one mix way to a make ahead appetizer that is sure to please.

Just a quick post for you today to go along with the quickness of this recipe.  It only takes about 15 min to prepare, though it does take some time to chill in the refrigerator, and is pretty cheap to make overall.  With the holiday season quickly approaching it is always good to have a couple simple recipes in your pocket to fill in the gaps in your menu or bring along to a gathering with family and friends.  I have brought this to both family and work events and it has been a hit in both areas.  Even my husband likes this, and he is adamantly against the whole "cheese ball" concept on principle as much as on taste.  I like it because it can be made in advance and just pulled out of the fridge to serve when guests arrive, combined with the short prep time it doesn't get much more stress-free than that.  If you split the recipe between the different options here it gives a pretty nice variety, serve with your favorite crackers and you are all set!  Check it out:

Cream cheese – low fat, 2 (8 oz) packages
Parmesan Romano Cheese – 1 cup
Colby Jack Cheese – shredded, 1 cup
Worcestershire sauce – 2 tsp
Onion – 1 tbsp dried, minced
Garlic powder - 1/2 tsp
House spice blend - 1 tsp

Individual Bite Sized Balls
1. Combine cream cheese, shredded cheese, and 1/2 cup of the Parmesan Romano.
2. Mix in Worcestershire sauce, onion, spices, and garlic powder. Ensure that the ingredients are evenly distributed.
3. Separate into bite sized balls and roll in the remaining Parmesan Romano cheese.
4. Chill for a minimum of 1 hour before serving

Ham or Provolone Rolls
1. Prepare cheese blend as indicated above, stop before rolling into balls.
2. Lay out individual slices of thinly cut, cooked ham or provolone cheese. Spread a thin layer over slices and roll into a tube shape.
3. Chill for a minimum of 1 hour
4. Slice rolls into 1/4 to 1/2 inch circles and serve


Dump Chicken Delight - Slow Cooker Bound

or from the freezer to your table, in one easy pour.

I have now completed month two of my freezer cooking experiment and I have to tell you - I am hooked!  I have ventured into a couple different types of freezer prep and discovered that I am truly a lazy cook at heart. There are endless recipes out there that involve actual cooking on freezer prep day, and they are delicious I am sure, but I have decided to limit myself to one of those for every three no cook prep recipes I make.  This saves me precious sanity and time on the designated Sunday, and since these make ahead meals are designed to do just that when they are used during the week I see no need to sacrifice it in advance.

I like to use chicken because it is one of the most versatile meats for freezer preparations, but I have had some good experience with pork and beef recipes too.  Personally, I like to go to our local butcher because the meat is cheaper than the chain stores and I can be sure that it hasn't been frozen yet but if you don't have one I'm sure your local grocery will do just fine.  I have found that having one freezer meal a week not only helps with busy schedules but it also takes out the stress of figuring out just what we have left in the house for dinner at the end of the week.  I would highly recommend having a couple on reserve each month, you'll be amazed what a difference it makes on your stress level.  This recipe was one of my favorites from round one of my experiments and will most likely be on the list every month because of its universal appeal.  Check it out:

1 cup white wine
2/3 cup vegetable oil
2 tsp crushed garlic
1 tbsp dried minced onion
2 tbsp minced parsley
1 tsp thyme
1 tsp basil
1 dash sage
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/4 tsp fresh ground pepper
3 large boneless, skinless chicken breasts (fat trimmed)

Freezer Day:

1. Open up a large freezer bag, using a deep bowl to keep it upright.  Pour in the wine and vegetable oil.  Add all of the spices and then seal the bag and mix thoroughly from the outside by massaging the contents with your hands.

2. Open the bag after ensuring that the majority of the contents are drained back down to the bottom and secure again in the bowl.  Add in the chicken breasts and re-seal.  Massage the contents again to ensure even distribution over the chicken.

3. Open a small corner of the bag and carefully squeeze all the air out.  Lay the bag flat in the freezer so that the chicken is in a single layer and fold half the bag over to push the liquid back over the chicken when it freezes (this also makes the bag more compact for storage).

Cooking Day:

1. Remove the bag from the freezer the night before and allow to thaw in the refrigerator 

2. Dump the contents of the bag into your slow cooker and cook on low for 6-8 hours or on high for 3-4 hours.  I found the amount of liquid to be perfect, but if you are concerned about it need more you can add 1/2 cup of chicken stock.

This has a taste reminiscent of traditional roast chicken so any side that you usually accompany it with would work great, I personally recommend potatoes cooked on time bake in the oven so they are ready when you are for dinner.  I find that the sage gives it a bit of that warm, family holiday feel to it but if sage isn't your cup of tea go ahead and leave it out or substitute it with a different complimentary herb.  As always - give it a try, give the flavors a chance, but in the end make it your own.  Enjoy!


Banana Cake with Light Almond Butter Cream Frosting

or a little for me, a little for you, a sweet treat for all

Some may say that the least stressful way to celebrate a birthday is with a store bought cake, and in some cases that may be true, but in my family not so much.  When you are dealing with a myriad of food allergies and restrictions, including a (heaven forbid) chocolate allergy, sometimes it really is just easier to make it yourself.  So this cake was inspired by necessity for my sister's birthday, that and a couple ripe bananas that were about to go bad.  I personally find butter cream frosting a bit too sweet as a pure flavor sometimes so I used a bit of almond extract to give it a little more depth.  And not too shabby a result if you ask me.

I used a separate pan and made a "mini cake" in order to test it and make sure it was good since it was my first try with this recipe, and my husband agreed that this could be a valuable tool on a regular basis even on tried and true recipes, you can never be too sure!  Needless to say, he was quite pleased with how it turned out.  You can, of course, put it all in the round cake pan and cook it a bit longer, but why would you?  No one even missed it...  It's good to treat yourself once in a while.

2 cups flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup butter, room temp
1 cup sugar
2 lg ripe bananas
2 eggs, or egg substitute equivalent
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup 2% milk

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and use crisco to grease a round cake pan and a bread loaf pan.

1. Mix together flour, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl.
2. Cream butter and sugar in a mixer for about four minutes. Add eggs and beat for 2 min.  Add the bananas and vanilla and mix until combined.  .
3. Add half the dry mix alternating with milk in two separate additions. Pour into the two pans so they are about equal thickness, though the round can be a bit thicker if you are feeling generous.
4. Bake for about 25-35 minutes or until done (a toothpick comes out clean). Cool completely before frosting

2+ cups confectioners' sugar

1/2 cup light butter
½ tsp almond extract
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 to 2 tbsp heavy cream

1. In a standing mixer fitted with a whisk, mix together sugar and softened butter. Mix on low speed until well blended and then increase speed to medium and beat for another 3 minutes.

2. Add vanilla, almond extract, and heavy cream and continue to beat on medium speed for 1 minute more, adding more cream if needed for spreading consistency.


Slow and Easy Homemade Chili

or delicious warmth for the body and soul

Fall is finally here!  And what better way to welcome it than with a big bowl of chili?  Personally I can not believe that I haven't shared my slow cooker chili on here yet, it is a staple in our house in just about every season.  This is comfort food fit for a rainy day, football Sunday, or a gathering with friends - and the leftovers are fantastic if you manage to have any.

The original recipe was purely a meat packed bowl of deliciousness with a slightly spicy savory sauce but it has come a little ways since then with the addition most recently of chili beans and the periodic inclusion of pasta for "chili-mac" (both of which significantly increase the resulting volume).  I also like to dress it up quite a bit in the end as you can see in the picture below.  Some of my friends have taken this as a base recipe and added some browned stew beef to it to beef it up even more, I can only guess that this resulted in further deliciousness.  But you'll have to try some personal variations of your own to see where it can really take you.

It seems like a lot of ingredients but it's so easy it won't even feel like work.  I like to prep the meat mixture separately from the sauce the night before then toss it all together in the slow cooker in the morning.  But you could even prep it all and store it in a gallon freezer bag if you prefer to just dump once and go.  You can leave the beans out if you have picky eaters, like myself, it took me quite a few years to come around to accepting them in my bowl of chili so I can understand the hesitation.  But who, really, can resist a big hot bowl of chili on a brisk Fall day?  I certainly can't....  Check it out

1½ lbs ground beef
8 oz ground sausage (no casing)
1 tsp fresh minced garlic
4 tbsp fresh minced onion
1 can (14.5 oz) petite diced tomatoes
1 can (16 oz) tomato sauce
1 small can (6 oz) tomato paste
1 can mild chili beans (optional)
½ teaspoon white sugar
2 tsp brown sugar
½ teaspoon dried oregano
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon salt
1½ teaspoons ground cumin
3 tbsp chili powder

1. Place ground beef and sausage in a large, deep skillet. Cook over medium-high heat with onion and garlic until beginning to brown. Season with cumin and chili powder, once around the pan each. Continue to cook until evenly browned. Drain and crumble.

2. In the slow cooker - combine diced tomatoes, half of the tomato sauce, the tomato paste, white sugar, spices, and brown sugar until well blended.

3. Add the ground meat to the slow cooker and then pour the remaining tomato sauce over top. Stir until thoroughly mixed. Stir in a little additional water, if needed, and chili beans. Cover and cook on low for 8-10 hours.

4. Taste and add spices to taste. If there is too much liquid, turn the slow cooker to high and leave the lid off until desired consistency.


Italian Stuffed Shells: freezer friendly or table ready

or a make ahead meal to make you smile, a true comfort food delight

So, I have recently dived head first into the world of make ahead meals.  I decided after a particularly stressful week that resulted in one too many instant dinners or carry out meals that I needed some quick options for healthier meals, I can only take so much grease and powdered cheese base.  Not that I wasn't grateful, I truly appreciated all of the support my husband put in on the road and in the ready made meal realm, I just knew I couldn't take much more so I sought out an alternative solution that would ease things up on both of us.  The first thing that happened was that I fell in love with the Once a Month Mom website   The second thing that happened was that I found inspiration to convert some of my own favorite recipes into freezer meals.  And then here we are!

Freezer meals are an amazing stress reducer.  I spent 4 hours prepping 5 different dishes on Sunday afternoon and have effectively eased 4 weeks of my life knowing that I have at least one meal ready and waiting (and if I use three in one week no one will know, I won't tell if you won't...).  Add to that my weekly slow cooker meal and we are down to 3 meals a week that actually have to be prepared after work.  Not too shabby!  I feel significantly less guilty on days when I am exhausted after work and our healthy-ish eating habits are not harmed in the least.  Now, today's recipe is one of my all time favorites, large pasta shells stuffed with a delicious blend of Italian cheeses and herbs.  It works just as well the day of, two days later, or two weeks later (as long as you store it right) and the leftovers are always delicious.  It may seem like a bit of work at first, but once you find a rhythm it really is a breeze.  I make a full box of pasta with this because I like to be able to toss out the ones that don't fold the way I'd like but you can certainly get by with about half a box if you are more determined to make them work.  Give it a shot, if you love Italian comfort food as I do you won't be disappointed!

1 package jumbo pasta shells (about 16 oz of pasta)

1 (15 ounce) container low fat ricotta cheese
2 cups shredded reduced fat mozzarella cheese
1/2 cup grated reduced fat Parmesan cheese
1 tsp dried parsley
½ tsp dried basil
½ tsp dried oregano
1 tsp salt
ground black pepper
¼ cup egg beaters or 1 egg

1 jar pasta sauce, homemade or store bought
1 can diced tomatoes
1 lg can (12 oz) tomato paste
½ tsp each - basil, parsley, oregano
1 tsp minced garlic
2+ cups water

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F

1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook pasta according to package for al dente, you want them to be a little firm still so it will be about 2/3 of the standard cooking time then drain.

2. While the pasta is cooking mix ricotta, mozzarella, Parmesan, filling spices, egg beaters, salt and pepper in a large bowl until well combined. Pour mixture into a freezer bag and press down towards one tip. Refrigerate for about 10 minutes to set.

3. Snip the tip off the one corner of the freezer bag and use to fill shells by gently pushing the mixture down from the other end. Then press the edges in to hug the filling and place seam side down in a baking dish.  You will have the urge to really stuff a lot of cheese in there, but you need to show a touch of restraint with this, it takes a bit less than you may think to fill  and still be able to seal the shells closed.  If the shells do not close, the cheese will escape, consider yourself warned.

4. If using pre-made sauce, pour over the prepared shells at this time. If not:, in a medium sauce pan stir together tomato paste, diced tomatoes, and sauce spices. Gradually add water until desired consistency. Heat until simmering, allow to cool to room temperature, and then pour over stuffed shells.

At this point the shells can be refrigerated or frozen as a make ahead meal*

5. Top with shredded mozzarella if desired. Bake in preheated oven 45 to 60 minutes, until edges are bubbly and shells are slightly set.

* If using within the next couple days refrigerating is fine, if reserving for a later date freezing is necessary. If freezing, remove the pasta from the freezer the night before and allow to defrost in the refrigerator.

Note: Be careful and follow manufacturer guidelines for freezer containers and reheating in the same container, you may need to transfer to a different dish depending on the product.


Home Grown Gazpacho

or my garden in a bowl

I love my garden, I love my garden, I love my garden.... With that being said, I was completely taken aback by the sheer amount of produce that I have been able to harvest from my little 4 ft x 4 ft garden bed already this year.  Every week I have had at least 3-4 banana peppers, an occasional mini chocolate bell pepper, 1-2 regular sized bell peppers, 2-3 cucumbers, a couple handfuls of bush beans, and a relatively plentiful supply of tomatoes thanks to my upside down tomato planter (the jury is still out on how I feel about this particular garden invention).  Add to that the endless supply of oregano, chives, basil, rosemary, and renegade flat leaf parsley and I scarcely know what to do with it all!  It doesn't help that I can't resist supplementing it each weekend at the local Farmers' Market, but that's another issue all in itself.  

So when my garden started mocking me every day last week when I returned from work and taunted me in the mornings with the vegetables I hesitated to harvest and add to my growing stockpile in the house, I knew it was time to take action.  So what did I do?  I pureed those suckers, that'll teach them!  Well I pureed some of them, just as an example to the others, maybe they'll grow a little slower this week... Now that is a tension reducer!  But anyway, as a result I enjoyed several days worth of a light and delicious chilled soup that I liken to gazpacho.  I do not include dried bread, though I know it is traditional, because I like how fresh the flavors taste on their own and I find the layered garden flavors with a dollop of light sour cream is really just delightful for a light lunch.  Here's what i did, check it out:

Not the prettiest picture, but you get the idea....

4 large tomatoes or 8+ roma
1 each small green, yellow, and orange bell peppers
3 sweet banana peppers
2 medium sized cucumbers, or 4 pickling cucumbers
3 tbsp dried minced onion
1 tsp garlic powder
1 tbsp fresh parsely, chopped
1 tsp fresh basil, chopped
1 tsp kosher salt
½ tsp paprika
3 tbsp olive oil
½ cup water, more if desired for thinner soup
¼ cup white wine vinegar

Hardware: food processor or blender

1. Dice up the tomatoes and add to the bowl of the food processor. Remove the seeds from the peppers and peel the cucumbers then dice have of them roughly and add to the food processor, then the other half more finely and set aside.

2. Add all of the remaining ingredients, except the reserved vegetables, to the food processor. Pulse or run on low until smooth. If you prefer a thinner base feel free to add water during this step. Taste the broth and adjust seasoning as desired, I like to add some cilantro but my husband is not a fan so adjustments with that you will have to decide for yourself.

3. Pour out the liquid into a large bowl and add the remaining vegetables. Stir well to combine, cover, and refrigerate for at least 2 hours. Stir again before serving.

So easy, no heating, and you won't believe the flavors you get from such simple basic. I suggest serving with crostini and, as I mentioned above, a dollop of sour cream. But, you may find a combination that suits your tastes a bit better. As always - give it a chance, let it into your home, change as you like, and make it your own. Enjoy!


Simple & Savory Baked Pattypan Squash

or a fresh take on a playful Summer squash

Our Farmers Market is currently filled with fresh flavors of late Summer.  Last Summer I first explored the world of pattypan squash thanks to both the community gardens that our local group initiated at the time and the wonderful farmers that contribute to our Farmers Market.  I was first drawn to the squash because of how beautifully it photographed, but it only started there.

My first experiments in preparing this little cutie was to boil, seed, and stuff it.  I loved this dish, but my husband was still on the fence so this year I continued to experiment and have found one that he truly likes.  An added bonus - takes only a handful of ingredients and utilizes fresh herbs from my home garden.  So in summary - fresh local ingredients, a light and simple side, quick and easy to make, minimal financial investment, and overall a just plain delicious dish that suits our Summer months to a tee.  Check it out:

2 medium to large pattypans
4 tbsp melted butter
4 tbsp parmesan cheese
6 leaves fresh basil, chopped
1-2 tsp fresh rosemary, chopped
Kosher salt

1. Slice pattypan squash into ¼ inch thick sections and remove any tough parts, i.e. stem area and base.

2. Brush the bottom of a baking dish with a coating of melted butter then layer in the following order one quarter of each of the ingredients: slices of squash, brush a layer of butter, salt, basil, rosemary, and parmesan cheese.  Repeat with 3 more layers.  Pour any remaining butter over top.

3. Bake at 400 F for 20-25 min or until the squash is tender throughout. Remove from oven, scoop, serve, enjoy!


Stress Prevention Sicilian Spaghetti Sauce: Revisited in Honor of "Can you can it?"

Can you can it?  I can!  I'm very excited to enter this in the contest on Garden of Eating's blog!!!  Wish me luck  :)  Check it out here

or It's Home Canning and I Helped!  An instant homemade meal.

Now, before you go running off at the thought of canning your own food let me lay it out for you.  This isn't your grandmother's canning.  Now I'm sure what she did was great, and the hard hours she put into it made it delicious, but much of that has gone by the wayside.  There are many tools that make it easy for you to preserve jars of delicious foods with only a few extra tools and your stock pot.  So never fear, modern home canning* is here!

Ok, I admit it, I am biased.  I love canning.  I only began canning on my own over the past year and it is already a mild obsession.  This recipe was one I created when I first started canning last Fall to make gift baskets for the holidays but my husband loved it so much that I soon had to make more.  To be honest, it was surprising how nice it was to be able able to pour out the slow simmered, homemade sauce over pasta and have such a delicious meal in the same time it takes to make a box of macaroni and cheese.  It does take some time to lovingly cook all those flavors into the sauce but just think of how many meals you'll have at your fingertips in the cupboard and it will all seem worth it again.  It took some adjusting, but I made a close replica of my Sicilian grandmother's spaghetti sauce base that is hot water bath canning safe.  And really, who doesn't want easy access to the grandmother's comfort foods?  Let the idea marinate as you read on, and maybe - just maybe - you'll find your inner strength to give it a try.

Beef bullion granules – 4 tbsp
Tomatoes - 1 can crushed, 28 oz
Diced tomatoes – 1 can, with basil & oregano
Onion – 1 large, minced
Garlic – 3 tsp fresh minced garlic
Seasoning salt
Parsley, Oregano, and Basil - 1-2 tsp each, dried
Garlic powder – 2 tsp
Tomato paste – 1 can, 12 oz
Wine – red, ½ a cup (perhaps an extra glass for the cook)
Parmesan cheese – ¼ cup, to taste

1. Get a big pot and sauté garlic and onions with some seasoning salt.  As they start to sizzle and brown soak in those savory aromas.  Once the onions begin to turn translucent it is time to move on.

2. Stir in the crushed and diced tomatoes until well blended. Bring to a simmer.

3. Now it is time to add the tomato paste, 2 cups of water, and wine. Stir until the tomato paste is incorporated in the sauce and the aroma of the red wine mixes almost seamlessly into that of the tomatoes and garlic.  Keep the pot at a simmer and add the beef bullion granules, stir until completely dissolved and start to cook down.

4. Mix in the remaining spices, adding additional amounts to taste. If you love garlic as much as I do use a more generous amount of garlic powder.

5. Bring to a boil and simmer, stirring whenever you happen to be in the kitchen to prevent neglect induced bottom burning. Remember to add water as needed, and season with salt and pepper. Keep cooking down and attending to the sauce lovingly generally for about 2 hours or so.

6. Taste throughout and add more herbs or salt and pepper as needed. Separate out any that will not be canned and during the last 30 min add Parmesan cheese, stirring well. Heat all the way through.

7. If canning, prepare jars and lids according to guidelines below and complete while sauce is hot.

You did it!  Your first canning experiment is now complete, and believe me it will be worth it.  After a long stressful day at work, chasing kids around, fixing other people's problems, or just about anything else that gets under your skin, just crack open a jar, boild some noodles, and enjoy!  I love to use this in my slow cooker lasagna recipe (coming soon to a blog near you) and also adding some browned ground beef or crumbled Italian sausage for a quick meat sauce.  If you are having guests or just want to dress it up a bit, toss it wiith pasta after adding the ground meat and then throw in the oven topped with mozzerella for a quick baked dish that will taste like it took hours to make.  And of course, you can't forget the garlic bread.  With so many options, and a great back up supply, this can be a perfect go to dish for instant stress relief, but maybe that's just the Italian me.  Either way, I hope you enjoy!

Canning tomato sauce:
1.) Prepare boiling water canner or stock pot. Heat jars and lids separately in simmering water until ready for use. Do not boil. Set bands aside.
2.) Ladle the hot sauce into hot jars leaving 1/2 inch headspace. Remove air bubbles with a non-metal utensil if needed by sliding it gently down the side. Wipe rim. Center hot lid on jar. Apply band and adjust until fit is fingertip tight.
4.) Place the filled jars in a boiling water canner or stock pot for 35 minutes, adjusting for altitude. Remove jars and cool. Check lids for seal after 24 hours. Lid should not flex up and down when center is pressed.

* You have to be careful to use tried and true recipe ingredients for hot water canning or it may go bad (some ingredients can only be pressure canned, a bit more expensive process).   As long as you stick to safe ingredient combinations, the options are endless!  So let loose and let those creative juices flow; just keep in mind a touch of restraint to keep from crossing over into forbidden ingredient land.


Oh So Easy, Stuffed Zucchini

or a "hands on" approach to summer squash season

Getting vegetables into our meals isn't always easy.  You can only steam or roast them so many times before you are just sick and tired of the same thing, and the family starts to murmur of potential revolts and runs to the local burger joint.  So, to keep things a bit more lively and maintain a minimal effort I started combining meal components.  In short, yes - this recipe is a result of meal time laziness.  But, be honest now, aren't we all a little lazy at meal time once in a while? Or a few times a week... But that's not the point, what I'm getting at is this - I finally have a stuffed zucchini recipe my husband likes!  And it is relatively healthy to boot!  Double win, with a bonus of meal simplicity.  

This is quick and easy to throw together and works just as well for a casual meal main dish (just cut in half width-wise and pick up to eat) as a side to a more elaborate sit down event (cut in half width-wise into thirds and estimate 2 per adult serving). I even diced everything up and reheated the leftovers for lunch to satisfactory success, at this point you could even toss it in a pocket pita for a handheld meal.  So many options..  Just check it out:

3 medium whole zucchini
1 lb ground beef or turkey
1/4 cut sliced leeks
1 tsp chopped garlic
1 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp paprika
2 tbsp olive oil
4 oz low fat or fat free cream cheese, softened
Parmesan cheese, reduced fat
Italian breadcrumbs

Preheat oven to 350 F

1. Brown the meat in a large pan. Once cooked, drain and season with paprika and salt.

2. Add the cream cheese to the bottom of a medium sized bowl and pour the drained meat over top. The cream cheese will start to melt into the meat from the existing heat while you cook the leeks.

3. Add the olive oil to the pan and heat. Saute the leeks and garlic until they start to crisp slightly and caramelize. Then drain and stir into the mixture in the bowl. Continue to stir the contents until it has an even consistency throughout, you may need to throw it back in the drained pan to add some more heat if using full fat cream cheese.

4. Cut the zucchini in half lengthwise and use a spoon to scoop out the seeds and some of the flesh, leaving about ¼ - ½ inch wall around the outside. Lightly salt the zucchini halves and fill with equal amounts of the stuffing mixture.  Top each with a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese and Italian breadcrumbs.

5. Bake for about 20 min or until the zucchini is fork tender.


Healthier than Most Honey Lemon Cookies

or a reduced fat, sans cream, sweet solution to daily snacking

I don't crave sweets too often, but when I do - look out!  All I have wanted lately has been sweets, and I attribute this mostly to the fact that my sweet of choice for the past few weeks has been frozen yogurt and since I have had problems with breathing and a persistent cough I have had to reduce my "creamy food" intake significantly.  You always want what you can't have...  So it was time to come up with a "healthy-ish" non-creamy treat, but my lack of breathing has significantly limited my cooking explorations so I decided to do some research.

I found some cookie recipes that used egg beaters, or another egg substitute, to reduce fat and calories and thought - well, it's a start.  There were also many that used alternative artificial sweeteners, but I'm not really on board for that, so those were out.  There were then a number that utilized honey, both as a flavor enhancer and as a natural sweetener to cut back on sugar - ok, I thought, that's not so bad.  Add in the fact that I've mostly switched to a light butter (containing about half the fat of regular) whenever possible and I had a great place to start.  I had no idea what would happen to the texture of a cookie when I took that much fat out of the recipe, but I figured it was worth a shot.

Turns out - it worked great!  Cooking time is more sensitive because the chewyness factor of under-cooked cookies with less fat seems to be higher, but when they are cooked long enough - hot out of the oven - you'd never know they lacked that extra fat.  I was sure to taste test these later in the evening as well, just to make sure they were still good when room temperature of course, and I can assure you they are just as delicious once cooled.  I think the only addition I may make next time is to include a little lemon zest for a bit more punch of flavor.  Check it out:

2 tbsp lemon juice
1 ½ tbsp honey
1 cup sugar
4 tbsp light butter
¼ cup egg beaters
2 cups flour
½ tsp cream of tartar
½ tsp baking soda
Granulated sugar for topping

1. Cream together sugar and butter until blended and slightly fluffy. Add in egg beaters, lemon juice, and honey and blend to combine.

2. In a separate container combine flour, cream of tartar, and baking soda.

3. Stir dry ingredients into the wet until well combined. Cover and refrigerate for 30 min.

4. Roll into balls about 1-2 tsp in size. Place parchment paper on a cookie sheet, add the cookie balls, cover with a second sheet of parchment and flatten each cookie only about halfway with the bottom of a cup.

5. Remove the top layer of parchment, lightly dust with granulated sugar, and bake at 375 F for 8-9 min

Nutritional information below is based on making 30 cookies from the batter (the amount that I made), but it could vary depending on how many cookies you get depending on size.

The nutritional information is from the recipe calculator on the Live Strong website in the My Plate area. I love this website and use it on a regular basis for monitoring my meals, if you enter the ingredients and portions for a recipe it gives you a nifty readout like the one below and allows you to use it to track on your My Plate page very easily.

Nutrition Facts

Serving Size: 3 cookies
Amount per Serving
Calories 193
Calories from Fat 18.0
% Daily Value *
Total Fat 2g
Saturated Fat 0.6g
Cholesterol 0mg
Sodium 47.12mg
Total Carbohydrate 39.61g
Dietary Fiber 0g
Sugars 21.65g
Protein 3.8g

Est. Percent of Calories from:

* Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Your daily values may be higher or lower depending on your calories needs.

Read more: http://www.livestrong.com/recipes/honey-lemon-cookies/#ixzz1TmTmJLPJ