Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Good Coffee, Bad Coffee, Chicken Parm and Chicken Dumpling Soup

Yeah, it's been that kind of day and, no, I didn't have all of them at the same time (ok - there was some slight overlapping of good coffee and bad coffee).

This morning was spent doing Word 2007 homework and waiting for word on my landlord who underwent surgery this morning for a hernia (today actually being yesterday since it's already past midnight). When Tom texted me to let me know his dad (my landlord) was out of surgery and would be coming home today, I texted back that it sure would be nice if someone brought me some coffee and a sausage, egg and cheese croissant from Dunkin Donuts. Lo and behold, in walks Thomas with said hot coffee and hot sandwich just as I was relaxing from having completed four of five assignments. It was wonderful!!

Later in the day, he asked me to drive him to the train station so he could go into the city and do some bar hopping with friends. I could keep the car. I agreed if he promised to not get soused and not wait until 1 AM to come home like he did the last time (big fight, lots of yelling, all by him, not ever to be repeated). Dropped him off at the station and came home just in time for his brother to call. I assumed he was calling about his money (my daughter bought a car from him and pays him each month), but he was also interested in going to eat. I took him up on it because the breakfast sandwich was losing its steam. (Made sure he was paying, too, since I didn't really have any disposable cash lying about.)

So, dinner was at Olive Garden where I enjoyed a bowl of Pasta Fagiole and a plate of chicken Parmesan. They seem to have cut back on how much pasta they put on the plate (which is odd since it's the cheapest thing on the plate), but there were two nice sized pieces of chicken. I ate one with the pasta and brought the second one home. After dinner, brother dearest (yes, I am making that subtle connection to the infamous movie) wanted to go for coffee at Starbucks. Since that's usually what Tom and I do, it annoyed me, but I said OK as long as we didn't go to the same one Tom and I go to. We went to the one in Barnes and Noble which was across the street from Olive Garden. Big mistake!!

First of all, the coffee I got, which I get regularly at another location, was the absolute worst coffee I've ever had from Starbucks!! It tasted like someone had left it in the pot all day and it had cooked down to sludge after which they added some water and ice and then some milk to sell as iced coffee. ICK!!! How can a chain coffee shop selling the same coffee made by the same company have coffee that tastes so different in each location??? I've had some in malls that tasted pretty much like iced milk with sweet n low. What I get where Tom and I go is wonderful and consistent, regardless of who's behind the counter. But, this stuff was just plain nasty! I couldn't wait to get the taste out of my mouth.

Secondly, I spent money there. I bought another cookbook (shhhhh - do NOT tell my daughter. She hates that I have so many!) Yes, I know - I didn't have disposable cash for dinner, but books last forever! (That's my excuse and I'm sticking to it.)

Finally, we left and he took me home.where I did a few things online and watched a little TV. Tom finally contacted me to let me know he'd be taking the 11:42 train back to Jersey. I left to go to the station around 11:38 and got to the station just as his train was arriving. Don't ask me to do that again because it was a total accident!! LOL

We pulled out to come home and Tom wanted to go get something to eat, presumably to absorb some of the five or so cocktails he'd had since going to Philly, so we went to a local diner where he ordered a chicken croquette and Brussels sprouts with Chicken Dumpling soup. That sounded good to me, so I also ordered soup along with a chicken bacon ranch wrap and fries (knowing I'd be taking most of it home). I also ordered some decaf coffee. The soup was delicious! The wrap was OK, but should have had the ranch dressing ON it instead of along side it. It was very dry. The fries were actually pretty nice. They looked hand cut and still had skins. The coffee was also very good and succeeded in removing that bitter burnt taste I was suffering from since Starbucks. I packed my fries and just over half of the wrap to bring home, dropped Tom off at his house and came home. While I was gone, my daughter ate the piece of chicken Parm I had brought her from Olive Garden. Now she has a bacon chicken wrap she can take to work tomorrow. This was a huge wrap!!

So, that's how today's food went. It's just been too hot to want to really get down to cooking, but now that the nights are getting cooler (for a while), I might get back into it. Besides, it's cheaper (unless I can again get someone else to pay for my meal.) 

Saturday, July 23, 2011

It's Never Too Hot for Chili

Restaurant Widow's chili 
Yes, I said it. Despite it being the hottest summer season we've ever experienced here in South Jersey, my daughter wanted chili and set out to make a pot full using some of the fresh ground beef I had just bought. Chili is one of her favorite foods. She loved it when my mother would make chili. And, she liked my chili (which was a bit different from my mother's). But, once she began making it herself, she swears by her own. 

Of course, it is good, I have to admit. But, I don't quite know where she got her taste for adding hot sauce since that's never been part of my cooking or my mother's cooking. Even her father, of Mexican heritage, isn't too fond of spicy foods. But, my daughter likes to kick it up a notch, as Emeril might say. I don't even know which of the several hot sauces she's brought into the house she uses because I don't use it, although I might consider Tabasco sometime now that I'm familiar with it on spicy Hawaiian Pizza (thank you, Dominos!! You ROCK!)

Anyway, this time she decided to add corn to the mix. Corn is her favorite vegetable - well, second favorite. I'd have to give potatoes the edge. In a very close third position for her would be either French style green beans or broccoli (cooked beyond all recommendations). Neither of us has put corn in chili before, but I've seen some recipes call for it and I've even considered it in the past.

Deb wanted tater tots to go along with the chili, so that was my job. Toss them on a cookie sheet and pop them in the oven. Can't get much easier than that.

What made this even more interesting is that this was all taking place between 12:30 and 1 a.m. What can I say? We were hungry and it was a bit cooler by then (although temps never dropped below 80° all night). We both really like chili and can eat it any time of the year. We still have over a quart left over and that includes eating more today and her taking some to share with a friend. One of these times, though, I'm going to have to  make some of my somewhat less spicy chili. I like mine as much as she likes hers, although the basics of both are the same (ground beef, diced onions, diced green peppers, kidney beans, tomatoes and tomato sauce, chili powder).

I have included an image from The Restaurant Widow. She makes her chili differently than we do, but the image looks very much like what my daughter made.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Chocolate Pancakes

If you've read my blogs along the way, you may have seen me mention how I'm not big on chocolate. My father was the ultimate chocoholic. His dream (he wouldn't have called it that) was to go to a food show all about chocolate. He loved chocolate cake, chocolate ice cream, Hershey's syrup in milk, Hershey's syrup over chocolate ice cream, Reese's peanut butter cups, ad infinitum. I didn't inherit that love. That's not to say that I didn't have the occasional craving, but for the most part, I could live without chocolate.

Now, I do like chocolate cereal. I especially like Cocoa Krispies or Cocoa Pebbles. I love how the milk is so chocolate-y when you're done. But, as much as I love it, I still have to drink water or something else afterwards to get the chocolate-y taste out of my mouth. I'm that way with most sweets - I don't like that leftover syrupy taste that lingers, even if I've enjoyed every bite.

Another chocolate cereal I love is Chocolate Malt-o-Meal. Basically, it's like cream of wheat with cocoa added. Oh my goodness! It smells so wonderful when it's cooked and then with butter and sugar added, it's most excellent. (I grew up with all hot cereals eaten with butter and sugar.)

Anyway, I'm not overly fond of sweet breakfasts, which is why the butter makes the hot cereal more palatable for me. The same is true for pancakes. The butter adds a savory flavor that cuts the syrup (which for me is usually low or no sugar). But, lately, I've been trying to keep pancakes from being just plain pancakes. Plain pancakes for me are like eating spoonsful of sugar. The carbs process so quickly and I end up just dragging even as my blood sugar skyrockets. It's like taking a sleeping pill. So, I've been adding whole grains to my pancakes - until recently, that grain has been oats along with some cinnamon for added flavor.

Maybe it's not a perfect solution, but when you're low income, you use what you have. What I have is generic complete pancake mix that I combine with a whole grain before adding water. The end result has actually been quite good. The oatmeal pancakes turned out wonderfully light and fluffy without any real evidence of the oats that I had added, despite the fact that they were so obvious in the batter itself. And, I didn't have the sugar slump after I ate them like I did with plain pancakes. The whole grains seemed to make a difference in how my body processed them.

So, after several days of eating Chocolate Malt-o-Meal for breakfast, I was in the mood for pancakes again. I decided to try mixing the malt-o-meal with the pancake mix and see how that turned out. First of all, I've always thought the idea of chocolate pancakes was disgusting. Pancakes are sweet enough without adding chocolate to them. Yet, I knew that the chocolate flavoring in the hot cereal wasn't that strong and it was, after all, a whole grain cereal; so, I decided to try it.

I have to say, I wasn't disappointed. Although they were somewhat heavier than the oatmeal pancakes (whether that is because of the cereal or because I changed pancake mixes at the same time, I don't yet know, although I suspect it's the cereal), they turned out amazingly well. The chocolate flavoring was minimal, yet I could smell its essence while they baked in the pan. As with the oats, the cereal grains cooked through while the cakes were baking because of, I assume, the intensity of the steam factor in the cooking process. I still eat them the same way - with butter and low-sugar syrup, although I really only put syrup on the top pancake to run down the sides.

I personally think it's a great way to sneak whole grains and fiber into the pancakes your family keeps requesting. The kids will be intrigued by the chocolate factor and you'll know they're getting something better in their bodies than a pancake usually is. Try adding oatmeal, applesauce and cinnamon. Or, slices of banana once the oatmeal batter is in the pan before you flip them. I know I've noticed a difference in how my body responds to the pancakes since I began adding the hot cereals, so I'm sure these additions will benefit your family as well. And, they won't even realize it!!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Fast and Easy Burritos

I decided to make burritos tonight using the tortillas and cheese I had bought at Dollar Tree (it's actually a cheese substitute, but for a buck, I can handle using it for cooking). I just haven't felt up to cooking these days, although I have cooked more this last week than I have in a while. Whether it's the heat or something else, I don't know.

Anyway, I was sure I had refried beans in the pantry, so I thawed the ground beef and went to get the ingredients out. Uh oh! The meat is browning, but there are no refried beans to be found. So, I took the two cans of pinto beans I also had and used them, mashing the beans with the potato masher I also use to break up the ground beef in the pan. I then poured a cup of salsa in and about a cup of Mexican cheese shreds. I use mild salsa, but you can up the ante with medium or hot if you prefer. You can also add leftover rice (Spanish rice would work well) if your family enjoys rice. I stick to the tried and true when I'm feeding my daughter. It's just easier that way.

I put the tortillas in the microwave and heated them for about 45 seconds, but it's probably best to put them on a flat griddle to heat. As soon as they start to puff, they're ready. Don't let them get crispy. You just want them soft.

Now, I didn't prepare anything else to go with this. My daughter likes shredded lettuce and diced tomatoes, but we didn't have lettuce and I don't like tomatoes, so she can dice her own tomato. I like them just as they are - hot, cheesy beans and meat slathered on a soft flour tortilla and rolled. It's a wonderful and filling dish.

You can also use this mix as a hot dip if you want - keep it in a small slow cooker to stay warm and soft. Adjust the ingredients to make it more "dippy", to your taste. In fact, that's how I discovered this burrito filling. I was at a party where it was served as a dip. I found out what was in it and tried my hand at home. It was a success with my kids and their friends (whenever I had it, I also had Court and Tara on hand, too.)

As I was saying, though, this is a very flexible recipe. Some add corn or rice or diced green chilis. Some have more meat than beans. Some use beans only. Others keep the beans separate from the meat. I might try corn one day since that's a family favorite, but I prefer the one pan concept, so I'll stick with the mixture rather than separate the ingredients.

A dip that looks very much like my burrito filling - found at Recipe Girl.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

No Boil Baked Ziti (actually, Rotini) DELICIOUS!!!!!

I recently tried a recipe for No Boil Macaroni and Cheese that turned out pretty well other than it was a bit too al dente. It's still worth it because I'll just add more liquid the next time I make it.

But, I had a box of tri-color rotini in my pantry I wanted to use along with some ricotta, shredded mozzarella and spaghetti sauce. I went looking for a recipe for no-boil rotini, but wasn't successful. However, I did find a recipe for no-boil baked ziti that I decided to try figuring my pasta would replace the ziti approximately one-for-one.

My problem was that my box of rotini was 12 oz and the recipe called for eight ounces. Plus, my rotini seemed smaller in diameter than ziti would be, so I wanted to be sure what came out of the oven wasn't too runny or too thick and that the pasta was cooked all the way through.

Holy cow! What I got turned out to be the BEST baked pasta I'd ever had!! I've had some that the ricotta seems to dominate and the pasta sauce gets lost. I've had others that add nutmeg to such a degree that it isn't just an accent, but a primary flavor. I was hoping to avoid either one of those extremes. 

One of the ways I tried to do that was to add some additional spices to the mixture to keep it from being too cheesy. Fortunately, I was successful. 

Now, I'll share with you the recipe I used with notes showing what changes I made and where. I really think you'll be pleased with this recipe. It takes only five minutes to prepare!

The thing I liked best was that it didn't heat up the whole house. There was heat from the oven, but if I had done both boiling water and the oven, it would have been very uncomfortable. Since we don't eat in the kitchen, this worked well for a summer meal.

No Boil Baked Ziti

Prep Time: 5 minutes
Bake Time: 60 minutes
Serves: 8

1 26 oz jar pasta sauce (I used a can of Hunt's meat flavored)
1 1/2 cups water (I added more water, maybe 1/2 cup or so)
15 oz ricotta 
1/4 cup grated parmesan (I left this out - just sprinkled some on top near the end)
2 cups shredded mozzerella
8 oz uncooked ziti (I used 12 oz of tri-colored rotini which is why I added more water)

Preheat oven to 400 F.
Combine sauce and water.
Stir in ricotta, parmesan, and 1 cup mozzerella.
Add uncooked ziti. (I also added about 1/2 tsp each of Italian and Pizza spice blends.)
Spoon ziti mixture into 13x9" baking dish.
Cover with foil and bake 55 minutes.
Remove foil and sprinkle with remaining mozzerella. (This is when I sprinkled the parmesan, too.)
Bake uncovered for 5 minutes. 

Sunday, July 10, 2011

PB&J, Hamburgers and Hot Dogs and Beans

Nothing special to see here today, folks. No tried and true recipes, no new adventures in culinary prowess, just some every day eats with affordable standbys as we reach the end of the monthly economic cycle.

My income is extremely fixed, so when the money's gone, it's gone. Sometimes I make it until the next check, sometimes I don't. 

Things are thinning out a bit right now, so when I went shopping, it was for the most affordable foods. I got some hamburger at the in-town grocer and other items at Dollar Tree. I love Dollar Tree because there are just some foods that you can get there whose prices you can't beat. I get my chicken and beef broths there, my tortillas (seriously - try finding tortillas in your regular grocery for $1.00 - unless you're wanting jumbo sized), sometimes I get eggs, hot dog and hamburger buns (very good and very fresh), 3 liter bottles of sugar free soda, and, lately, 8 oz. bags of shredded cheese. I really feel no reason to pay a higher price for something I can get for only $1.00. Granted, there are things there I won't buy because I can get them cheaper somewhere else (like canned veggies, soups, etc.), but the things I can get for less money there are totally worth it!

So, I have had fewer full-sized meals of late, other than the two I posted recently. And, one of those was made primarily with ingredients obtained from Dollar Tree (cheese and pasta). I made hamburgers a couple of nights with the hamburger and the burger buns and fries I had bought at Dollar Tree (they frequently have frozen fries and tater tots, sometimes hash browns). Twice I had hot dogs (Bar S brand from Dollar Tree both times) with canned baked beans and the hot dog buns I had and a jar of applesauce on the side.

Now, the peanut butter and jelly did not come from Dollar Tree. That's one of those things that I either can get a better value elsewhere or they don't have what I generally use. Because I'm diabetic, I've been buying sugar-free jams and preserves and found a wonderful Triple Fruit Spread at our local Wegmans grocery. Naturally sweet without that sweet intensity so often found in other jellies. As soon as I can, I'm getting more. 

The peanut butter I got at Dollar General; not because it was the best price, but because I happened to be there when I needed some and the price was comparable to others. However, it is by far the best crunchy peanut butter I have ever had!! I LOVE crunchy peanut butter. I'll eat the creamy, but I get no pleasure from eating it. This peanut butter truly lives up to its "crunchy" moniker. These are the crunchiest peanuts I have ever found in peanut butter, bar none!! It's fantastic. I plan to get it there from now on, as long as they have it in stock. It is their brand and I'd love to know who they contract with because it's not like any I've ever had. 

I've been eating whole grain white bread lately. It's actually very good. This last loaf came from Wegmans. Really dense, but not gritty, yet soft like we've all gotten used to bread being. Larger slices, too, so when you're done making your sandwich, it's a sandwich of substance.

I'll eat PB&J for breakfast, as a late night snack, lunch and occasionally for supper. That and tuna fish sandwiches. I'm not really much into eating sandwiches on a regular basis, but if I have good bread on hand and either of those two fillers, I will enjoy having a sandwich instead of making a mess making eggs or pancakes for breakfast.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Beer Baked Chicken ~ Tried n' True Recipes Blog

I decided to thaw some chicken leg quarters and find a recipe that was easy to put together and might use some of the beer my daughter had left over from last weekend. I found this recipe on the Tried n' True Recipes blog (which wasn't easy with so many Beer Can and Beer Butt chicken recipes out there). There were beer-braised chicken recipes galore, but there were none whose images drew me in. Most looked more like stew and I didn't want something on top of the stove in this heat and humidity.

I actually found this one by looking on Google images. The picture looked great, so I went to the recipe to check it out. I had all the ingredients except the rosemary, but it allows for that. That sealed the deal. Easy to throw together and in the oven, not on top of the stove. Perfect!

The only "problem" I had was that I was using two chicken leg quarters and not 18 legs, so I cut back on the ingredients quite a bit. I also took the skin off, so to compensate, I dried the chicken and smeared sour cream over the meat and then added the same seasoning to the sour cream that was blended with the beer. I used slightly less than a half can of beer, but if you're hesitant about using beer, I would try either chicken or vegetable broth. The taste will be different, but not bad.

The recipe calls for baking for 2 hours, but I baked for an hour with foil over the chicken and 30 minutes with the foil removed. The meat was fall off the bone tender and moist. I was pleased with how it turned out and wouldn't be afraid to do it again, other than I'll cut back just a little on the mustard. It added a pungency that we would rather not have. But, that doesn't make the recipe bad. It would be good without it, too. I served this with "baked" potatoes (aka microwaved) and am very happy with it.

I'll admit I enjoyed the mac n cheese recipe more, but that's a personal preference issue. I like BOTH recipes because they are throw together easy and get popped into the oven with little mess and no steam adding heat to the kitchen. I would recommend either one for ease of preparation and because they're worth making even in summer.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

No-Boil Mac & Cheese by Plain Chicken

Plain Chicken: No-Boil Mac & Cheese: "This was the best traditional baked mac & cheese we've ever made. It was SO simple and SOOO delicious! The best part about this mac & che..."

These are the first words you'll find in Plain Chicken's blog entry for this absolutely wonderful recipe. I haven't cooked much in a while, as you have noticed, I'm sure. But, when I saw this recipe and knew I had pretty much all the ingredients (and knowing that I LOVE macaroni and cheese), I just HAD to make it. Of course, it was after 9:00 when I began, but I've never been much of a clock watcher when it comes to eating, so when the mood strikes, I follow it.

I am so glad I did. First, let me tell you of some adjustments I had to make out of necessity. The first was the cream cheese. I had none. And, I didn't have money to buy any. But, I had ricotta on hand, so guess what? I used ricotta cheese. Secondly, I didn't have four cups of cheddar cheese. I had about three cups of Mexican blend cheddar and Jack plus shredded Mozzarella. Guess what again? I used it! Thirdly, I didn't have onion salt. Instead, I used dried minced onion. It turned out just fine. Lastly, I added more liquid because it just seemed like it needed it. I was right. But, that could be just me, so follow the recipe the first time and make that decision for yourself.

The thing I loved most of all about this was that it was all thrown together into one dish (or, in my case, two dishes since I didn't have a single dish big enough) and put into the oven. No pots of boiling water heating up the already warm kitchen from this summer heat, no pots coated with sticky cheese sauce that would then be poured over the already cooked macaroni, and no major mess in the kitchen. I did use a large bowl to mix everything because of the already mentioned lack of a large casserole dish, but since nothing is baked into it, it's easy to clean.

I will say this, though. Be sure to add the flour BEFORE you add the cheese and macaroni. It will be easier to blend into the liquid that way. Despite that, it turned out wonderful!

Now, I'm a big fan of easy, so I am absolutely thrilled with this recipe and that it turned out so well. It's obviously flexible or it wouldn't have turned out so well with the adjustments I made. And, it's so much easier to put unboiled macaroni in than it is to know when it's reached the al dente stage. In fact, it wasn't until I made no-boil lasagna that I finally had a wonderful firm pan of lasagna that didn't slip-slide away while it was being cut, so I'm a huge no-boil fan. And, trust me - you don't need no-boil pasta to make a no-boil recipe. That's just an added expense that's unnecessary. I just make sure there's enough liquid for the pasta to absorb while it's cooking - which is what this needed for me. I think it's because I used two smaller casserole dishes instead of one large one. I probably should have reduced the cooking time, but no matter. I'm just so happy with how it turned out.

Don't be afraid to try this one. It'll be worth it!