Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Grocery Budget... Again

I can't believe I'm writing about our grocery budget again... but I am.  I don't know quite what I want to say about this topic, except maybe, sadly, I bet that this isn't the last time it'll come up.

How do you do it?  How do you eat well, eat interestingly, and entertain friends and family, all in the same month, without playing fast and loose with your budget?

I haven't figured that out yet.  When I was living on my own (and exercising almost daily), I knew how.  Eat frozen black bean burgers for dinner and a rotation of tuna with mac and cheese or turkey and cheese sandwiches every day.  Splurge on a $6 frozen pizza on the weekend and eat leftovers for a couple days.  Also splurge on the Skinny Cow ice cream sandwiches.  Chips and salsa played a main role in my evening snacking.  Meat?  What meat?  Maybe a bag of frozen chicken for the month.  But that kind of thing just doesn't fly for me as a married gal.  For one thing, I want to feed my husband with the labors of my hands.  For another I've developed an aversion to frozen chicken.  I want the good stuff now.  Fresh, no hormones, no antibiotics, free range.  For another, the guy has quite an appetite.  Lasagna that would feed me for a week is gone in three days.

Got a little off track there.  Sorry.

Okay, I have a few money-saving ideas.  But I don't love them, really.  Not yet.  Because so far this grocery-budget-ignoring has not resulted in me not getting my hair done or skipping my Starbucks or cancelling my gym membership (although I haven't darkened that door in a couple of weeks).

I suppose, to truly embrace them, I need to view this budget and my money-saving ideas as challenges.  I've always been one to like a challenge.  Give me a fitness chart and I'm happy to fill it in daily - same thing with a food diary or a to-do list.  So here we go.  My plan.  To be revised as needed.

1.  If you have someone over for dinner, let it be a bring-a-dish event.  Friends always ask, so trust them and say yes.  What they bring might not be the ideal complement to the simple-elegant meal you planned, but it might just be a recipe you'll love for years to come.  And people like the feeling that they've contributed to a fun evening at someone else's home.

2.  Use more beans and whole grains.  As fillers, as bases for a main dish, as side dishes.  Fiber, protein = filling, satiating.

3.  Simple meals.  Whole ingredients.  Like baked fish with a sweet potatoes and steamed broccoli.  Or chicken breasts with roasted carrots and a salad.  Foods that don't need a whole lot of dressing up to be delicious.  This is nice for time management, too.

4.  Use the leftovers.  Insist upon it!

5.  Plan ahead.  Way ahead.  If you want to have friends over for a game night AND co-host a baby shower AND have the whole family over for dinner in the same month... well, you're going to have to cut back and you're probably going to have to start doing it at the beginning of the month.  Don't experiment with a new salad dressing or buy extra salmon just for the satisfaction of a well-stocked freezer or allow for two yummy, nutty loaves of bread a week or buy extra bags of tasty oat crisps just because they're on sale.  This isn't the month for it.  I know this from experience.  We should have been eating black bean and barley patties every week this month.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Mexican Chicken Casserole

This is not an exciting, groundbreaking, or especially interesting recipe.  I do realize that.  But it tastes good, and it is easy to put together, and easy to cook after work.  Those are my reasons for sharing it.  I hope you appreciate this practicality as much as I do!

This mixture of chicken, beans, corn and other good stuff would also be good inside tortillas as burritos.  That's what I'm doing with it next time!  Maybe add a little rice with cilantro, too...

Mexican Chicken Casserole
4 small (fajita size) flour or corn tortillas
2 cups cooked, seasoned chicken
1/2 cup chopped onion (any color)
1 can black beans, drained and rinsed
1 cup corn (canned or frozen)
1 cup chopped cilantro
1 1/2 cups chunky salsa (approx)
1 1/2 cups shredded colby jack cheese
1/2 cup sour cream (approx)

In a 7x11" 2-quart baking dish, spread about 1/2 cup of salsa to cover the bottom of the dish.  Tear two of the tortillas and place on the salsa.  Spread half the sour cream on top of the tortillas.  Mix the chicken, onion, black beans, corn, cilantro, and 1 cup of salsa.    Spread half this mixture on top of the tortillas.  Sprinkle with half the cheese.  Repeat layers again.

Cover with foil and bake at 350 for 35 minutes.  Remove foil and bake for 5-10 minutes longer, until cheese is melted and dish is bubbling.

Serves 4.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Joy the Baker's Cappucino Cookies

I have been dying to make these cookies - laced with espresso and white chocolate chips - for quite some time now, and the opportunity finally presented itself.  I'm taking them to our small group tonight, because they're so good if I don't get them out of the house, There Will Be Trouble.  In the form of a scale I can no longer face.

Of course, fitting with the story of my adventures in the culinary arts, I did not have all the ingredients I needed.  It did not deter me from trying the recipe.  And it was only a small aberration anyway.  I used 1/2 cup white chocolate chips and 1/2 cup semisweet chocolate chips.

Delish.  Try them.  Today or any day.  Preferrably with a cup of coffee or hot chocolate.

To give credit where credit is truly due... go here for the recipe:  Joy the Baker:  Cappucino Cookies with Espresso and White Chocolate

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Grandma Kate's Easy Lasagna

This is the first time I've made lasagna on my own.  It's a week for kitchen milestones obviously.  The big ones, too.  My most recent kitchen milestone was cooking with dried beans and ham hocks.

Grandma Kate makes a mean lasagna, it's a proven fact.  It's simple, classic, straightforward, and always good.  So I figured it was my best shot at a successful lasagna.  And it was quite tasty, despite us having to judge it on a (literally) sliding scale.

Served with a nice fresh green salad, it was a delightful meal!

Grandma's Easy Lasagna
8 oz lasagna noodles, cook according to package and drain
Meat Mixture:  Brown the ground beef, then add the tomato sauce through ground black pepper.  Remove from heat.
2 lbs ground beef, browned
2 15 oz cans tomato sauce
4 tsp sugar
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp garlic salt
1 tsp oregano
1/2 tsp ground black pepper
Cheese Mixture: Combine the following ingredients.
16 oz cottage cheese
8 oz shredded mozzarella
1/2 c dairy sour cream
1/3 c grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 c sliced green onions (use whole onion)
1/2 c chopped green peppers
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp dried Italian seasoning

Spread half the lasagna noodles in a greased 9x13 baking dish.  Top with 1/3 of the meat mixture.  Spread all the cheese mixture on next.  Top with remaining lasagna noodles and remaining meat sauce.

Bake 40 minutes at 375 or until edges are bubbling.  Let stand 10 -15 minutes before serving.

P.S.  This is why I don't make layered recipes more often.  The kitchen becomes a danger zone.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Ham and Bean Soup with Cornbread

Of course Ham and Bean Soup goes with Cornbread.  Can it be served any other way, really?  No.  It can't.  It just can't.  Don't fight centuries - or at least decades - of this proven serving method.  If you're going to make Ham and Bean Soup, make Cornbread to go along with it!

Now that we've got that out of the way...

This was my first time to cook with dried beans.  Just wanted to let you in on that little kitchen milestone of mine.

Also my first time to work with ham hocks.  They had been in the freezer for a loooong time.  So long, in fact, that I felt the need to cover the date with the bacon.  We are both alive and well; no food poisoning symptoms, thanks.

It smelled so delicious simmering on the stove all day!  It was a test of my self control not to taste too, too much before we actually had it for dinner.

Ham and Bean Soup
1 1/2 c dry great northern beans, soaked
1 qt water
2 cans chicken broth
1 ham hock (or 1 1/2 c chopped ham)
4-6 strips bacon (remove before serving)
1 can diced tomatoes
1 c chopped onion
1 c chopped celery

Put water, ham hock, bacon and beans in a stockpot or crockpot.  Let cook on low heat for 4 to 6 hours.  Remove ham bones and add remaining ingredients.  Cook on low heat for approximately 4 hours longer.  Remove bacon before serving.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Turkey Sliders

What do you do with the 99 cent bag of sliders you bought on clearance a week ago, and the extra lean ground turkey that's been languishing in your deep freeze for a month?

In a moment of genius, you decide to make turkey sliders, that's what you do!

Turkey Sliders
1 package extra-lean ground turkey
1 egg
1/4 c oatmeal
1 tsp Lawry's Seasoning Salt
1 chopped green onion
freshly ground black pepper

Mix all ingredients together and shape into approximately 2" x 2" circles.  Poke a small hole in the center of each.  Grill outside or on a grill pan over medium heat until done.

Fun to serve and fun to eat - especially if you want a really tasty breakfast sandwich to go!

Friday, March 4, 2011

Grilled Turkey and Cheese with Green Peppers

If you've read my "The Perfect Sandwich" post, you might think my sandwiches are pretty lame.  Basic and unimaginative.  And maybe they are.  But let me tell you - they are undeniably delicious!

On a cold should-be-spring day (My hopes for spring start early - like mid-February.  Yes, I'm going to seek counseling for my delusion.  I was born and raised in the Midwest.  I should know better than to hope like this.).  Anywho, pardon that interruption.  On a cold late winter day, a grilled sandwich cannot be beat. 

Gooey cheese, warm meat, melty mustard and mayo, crusty bread...

I won't bore you with the details.  You know how to make a grilled sandwich.  Here's the thing, though.  For the best gooey cheese factor, you must use two pieces of cheese.  Each piece of cheese should be right next to the bread.  And if you're going to include any veggies, as I did with the green peppers, you should heat them in the skillet for a few minutes so they aren't completely raw and crunchy.  And finally, to get that nice crusty finish to the bread (without the calories of a couple heavy swipes of butter), spray cooking spray in your pan and let it heat up, then add your sandwich.

Go home, fancy panini maker.  All you need is a nonstick pan.

Served with some vegetable beef soup straight from the can to the stove, we had a cozy, comforting lunch.

Murray's New Hobby

Murray's new hobby is squirrel-watching.  A couple weeks ago, when he discovered the squirrel that taunts him from our backyard, he raced up the tree without thinking and got stuck halfway up.  We, overprotective parents that we are, were worried that he was going to get up there really high and touch the power line and get electrocuted.  So I scaled the tree and coaxed him into my arms.  Back inside we went, and Murray was forced to watch from the kitchen window for any signs of squirrel life.

The very next day, he did it again.  Climbed that tree and looked stuck.  I called him and when he didn't come down right away, I took the tough love approach.  "That cat will just have to learn to climb down trees that he climbs up..."  I went back to doing my thing.  Thirty minutes later, I took another look.  He was still in the tree, and he didn't have that intent, hunting look on his face.  He just looked frozen.  He didn't even glance at me when I called him.  Tough love was over.  Imagine my surprise when I opened the back gate and saw two dogs lounging five feet away from Murray's squirrel tree!  They were a casual, friendly-looking couple of dogs - a terrier and lab mix, maybe - but Murray definitely did not have the same opinion.  Once again, I scaled the tree.  This time, getting Murray into my arms was next to impossible.  I'd pull one paw off a branch and go to work on loosening the other, only to have him throw up the first paw in a desperate attempt to Stay High and Safe in the Tree.

Thankfully, Murray has learned to come down from the tree on his own, and I haven't seen hide nor hair of the dogs since that day.

The squirrel, however, seems to be a permanent neighbor.  Good luck to him.