Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Dinner Shortcut

Today was a long one. I was looking for a quick dinner with a short grocery list. This was it!

I already had some of the ingredients.

I had most of a rotisserie chicken leftover from when I used half of the breast meat for buffalo chicken dip for a party. (Yum!) The celery came from the same thing.

I have a stockpile of Ronzoni Smart Taste pasta I ordered by the case from Amazon a while back when I thought it would be discontinued. Weird, I know, but I really like the stuff.

My brother-in-law has been telling me about Philadelphia Cooking Creme. It's on the same grocery shelf as the regular cream cheese, but it's flavored and pourable, designed to serve as a sauce. I bought the Italian Cheese and Herb flavor to try tonight.

First, I put a pot of water on for the pasta.

Then I started out by dicing a medium sweet onion and a few sticks of celery. I cut a small broccoli crown into bite-sized florets. I picked the meat off of the chicken bones and cubed it. I even used some of the dark meat; I just diced it a little smaller than the white meat. It amounted to about 2 cups of chicken.

I added a couple of teaspoons of olive oil to a large saucepan and turned it to medium heat. I added the onion and celery to the pan and salted it.  I sautéed the veggies until they were tender, about 8 minutes.

Meanwhile I put 8 oz. of rotini into salted boiling water. When the pasta had five minutes left to cook, I added the broccoli to cook along with it.

When the pasta and broccoli were done, I drained them into my cool collapsible colander. (It is dishwasher safe and takes up very little space in the dishwasher or cabinet. Love it!)

I added the chicken to the onion and celery pan, then added the drained pasta and broccoli, and stirred in the container of cooking creme. I should have saved a little of the pasta water to loosen the mixture up a bit. Next time I'll  know better.

In the end, I ended up with a nice plate of pasta that took very little time to cook. Yeah!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Dinner Tonight: Pork Chops and Apples

Finished Product!
Today my husband woke up feeling a little under the weather. He felt better after a day of rest, and I decided to make some of his favorite foods for dinner: pork chops and cooked apples.

(I can't help but think of The Brady Bunch and "pork chops and applesauce.")

About three hours before I cooked dinner, I decided to brine the bone-in pork chops. I combined about 1/4 cup each of salt and brown sugar with about a cup of boiling water. I stirred until the salt and sugar were dissolved.

I added 1/4 cup of apple cider vinegar, 6-8 whole black peppercorns, 1/2 teaspoon of whole mustard seeds, a teaspoon of whole coriander, and a bay leaf. Then I added ice cubes and stirred them in until the mixture was cooled.

I put the pork chops and brine mixture into a gallon zip-top bag and put it back in the refrigerator to soak up some flavor.

About 30 minutes before I was ready to cook, I took the chops out of the refrigerator to come closer to room temperature.

Meanwhile, I peeled and chopped two apples. (I think they were Galas).  They were crisp and sweet. (Please ignore that one is upside down in the picture.)

I also had some Granny Smith apples, but I would have had to add a lot more sugar to sweeten them, so I stuck with these. I chopped them into pieces about 1/2 - 1 inch each.

Next I chopped one sweet onion. I chopped half of it into larger pieces to add to the pan with the pork chops and apples.

The other half, I chopped a little smaller. I also chopped 3 small zucchini into bite-size pieces for a zucchini-onion saute.

For some reason, I do not seem to be able to cook zucchini for two. Note to self: we only need 2 small zucchini and 1/4 of an onion for our dinner if we don't want leftovers.

I put olive oil in the bottom of two nonstick pans, one large and one small. It doesn't take much, maybe a couple of teaspoons.

I turned the large skillet to medium-high heat. While it got hot, I took the pork chops out of the brine and patted them dry. I salted and peppered each side.

When the oil was hot, I added the chops to the pan to brown, about 3-4 minutes per side.

Once they were browned, I added the apples and the onion I had set aside for this dish. I added a tablespoon of brown sugar on top of the apples and onion, along with 2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar and 1/4 cup of water.

I turned the heat down to medium and covered the pan.

Next, I turned the smaller pan onto medium heat.

When the oil was hot, I added the zucchini and the rest of the onion, plus salt and pepper to taste.

Incidentally, I used this cool little tool to make that job easier.  I love this thing! It's called a bench scrape. I think it was designed to use with pastry, but I use it all the time to get chopped ingredients into pans without spilling them all over the place. (It's the little things in life!)
I covered the pan so the veggies would soften the way we like them. If I hadn't covered them, I would have added a little water so they could cook without sticking or burning.

I let both the chops and the zucchini cook about 15 minutes, until both were done. (I used an instant-read thermometer to make sure they were at least 165 degrees.

I used the cook time to empty the dishwasher and fold laundry. Does anyone else hate emptying the dishwasher as much as I do? My next least favorite chore is folding laundry.

Oh well, by the time I was finished, we had a nice dinner ready!

(When I plated my dinner, I realized that next time I will slice the apples rather than chopping them, so they won't be the same size and shape as the zucchini.)

Dinner was tasty!  Now on to ironing....

Friday, December 7, 2012

Ham and Bean Soup

Last weekend my family had our Thanksgiving gathering. In addition to a turkey breast, we also had a bone-in Smithfield ham. My mom and sister assured me the ham bone would make the base for a great soup, so I threw it in the freezer.

Today was the day for soup!

I bought a 20-ounce bag of mixed dried beans and found a method for quick-soaking the beans on the internet since I didn't want to wait to soak them overnight. 

(OK, so this is an empty bag. I forgot to take a picture before I put the beans in the pot.)
Put the beans in a large pot and add water to 3 times the volume of the beans. Do not salt the water. Apparently salting at this point will cause the skins of the beans to become tough. Also, ham is often salty and the soup may not need additional salt.

Bring the beans to a boil, then cook at moderate heat for two minutes. 

Take the beans off the heat, cover, and let sit for one hour. Drain.

Meanwhile, dice up one onion.

I always use sweet onions because I don't like to cry while cooking. 

Peel and dice 5 small carrots and dice 4 celery ribs. 

In an 8-quart stockpot over medium heat, drizzle 2-3 teaspoons of olive oil. Add the vegetables to the pot and sweat them until they are softened. I added salt out of habit, but I recommend waiting to season this soup until the end as the ham can be pretty salty.

Slice or mince 4 cloves of garlic and add to the vegetables. 

Once the vegetables are tender-crisp, add the drained beans. Place the ham bone in the pot.

Add 32 ounces each of vegetable and chicken stock. 

When I made vegetable soup a few weeks ago, I added a Parmesan cheese rind I found in my freezer. The results were so great, today I cut the rind off the Parmesan in my refrigerator and added it to this pot.

I also added a few dashes of liquid smoke. I would say this is optional, but as far as I'm concerned everything is optional. I'm always editing recipes to add ingredients we like and omit items we don't like.

Cook for at least an hour. This is where the judgement call comes in. The recipe I found said to cook it 8 hours. Based on my two hours of cook time, I can't imagine any beans would be left intact by then. Next time I'll only go an hour. Especially since I like to freeze the extra for another day.

To add some texture and extra nutrition, I decided to add some Swiss chard. This is rainbow chard. Aren't those red stems pretty?

I thought about chopping the stems and adding them to the soup, but I haven't cooked them before and didn't want to ruin anything. I'll experiment another day. 

(I found a recipe that said to treat the stems like asparagus. I know how I like to cook asparagus, but didn't know how that would fit into this soup so I ignored it).

Strip the leaves from the stems and chop the leaves. I chopped them fairly fine for two reasons: 1) I've not used this green before and didn't know how it would do in the soup, and 2) my husband doesn't love greens, but he's fine if they aren't too prominent.

When the soup had cooked an hour, I tasted it for seasoning. It tasted great!

I added about half of the chopped chard. Once I stirred it in, I found that seemed like plenty. This is to taste, though. Personally, I would have been good with the whole bunch but decided to stop with half for my husband's sake.

Before you serve this, stir through the soup and pull out what's left of the Parmesan cheese rind and the ham bone. 

Some clumps of fat and unsightly clumps fell off of my ham bone and I removed those. I removed the bone and pulled quite a bit of beautiful tender meat and added it back to the soup pot.

The soup turned out to be so delicious!

I cooked some cornbread to eat with it. 

I put the rest in quart zip-top bags and froze them for easy meals for other busy nights.

Yeah! I love homemade soup!

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Vegetable Beef Soup - For Thanksgiving?

Today is Thanksgiving Day. Our big, traditional family feast won't happen until next weekend, so three of us will go to a restaurant to eat later today. I guess I was feeling a little left out of the cooking that usually happens today.

So...I decided to make a big pot of soup and clean out the freezer at the same time.

I pulled everything out of the freezer and took a "soup" inventory.

First, I had one lonely hamburger patty and a couple of packages of filet beef tips that I cut into small pieces.

I put the meat down into the bottom of my 8-quart pot and turned it up to high.

It was already browning when I realized I had not added any fat to the pan. Oh well. It turned out fine anyway!

Then I found some packages, some open, some not, of various veggies: corn, chopped spinach, butter peas, and mixed vegetables.

(I tried to chop the spinach even finer. but my immersion blender did not appreciate that effort...)

Once the meat was browned, I dumped all of these in the pot.

I found some little packages of leftovers: a couple bags of chopped onions and several slices of cooked bacon that I chopped up. 

I also found a parmesan cheese rind. I had tossed it in the freezer some time ago, because I heard a TV chef say you could add it to soups. Here goes!

In my refrigerator were a few tablespoons each of sauteed vegetables I used earlier this week: mushrooms, zucchini, and more onions.  Why not throw those in too? 

Also in my refrigerator was half of a small onion. I chopped it up and added it.

Then I checked the pantry for more possibilities. I used the tomatoes after blending them up, and also the black beans, rinsed. I didn't end up using the white beans. 

For me, vegetable soup is all about adding things until it just looks right. It looked right to me without the beans!

I also used a whole 32-ounce box of low sodium chicken broth. I didn't have beef, or I would have used that instead.

I still wanted a little more liquid, so I found some chicken broth I had made and frozen last week and added it as well. A great thing about a simmering pot of soup is that you can just dump stuff in even while it's still frozen.

I added a few cloves of chopped fresh garlic, a little salt and some crushed red pepper flakes.

I wanted the soup to have more of a tomato flavor, so I went to the refrigerator to pull out my tube of tomato paste only to find out I didn't have any. I remembered running across a cup of leftover marinara sauce in the freezer, so I pulled it out and added it to the pot. Since I added marinara, I decided to also add some dried oregano, a few springs of fresh thyme, and two bay leaves.

Now it looked yummy!

After it simmered about 25 minutes, I tasted it for seasoning.  It tasted good, but it still needed something.

I used a trick I borrowed from a Cincinnati Chili recipe I made years ago. I added a teaspoon of unsweetened cocoa. It sounds weird, but just adds a little more flavor without any hint of chocolate.

After an hour of simmering, I cooled the soup. Of course, it's best to cool it completely before freezing, so I used this contraption a friend introduced me to a few years ago.

You fill it with water then freeze it, and put it in a pot of soup (or whatever) to cool it quickly.

I put the pot in the sink, surrounded it with ice water, and added the frozen "thingy." I don't know what it's really called, and even if I did, I bet not many other people would know what I was talking about anyway!

Now I have lots of delicious soup, and my freezer is newly organized!

We have supper for later tonight after our restaurant lunch, two small packages for my mother-in-law's freezer, and two larger ones for ours. 

A good morning's work, and something else for which to be thankful.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Pasta Milano Inspired

 My husband's out of town, so I decided to make myself something for dinner that he wouldn't really like. It has three of my all-time favorite ingredients: mushrooms, spinach, and Parmesan. None of these are Mark's favorites, and the lack of meat just pushes it over the edge for him. Oh well, since it's just me....

Years ago, one of my favorite meals was Pasta Milano at Mick's Restaurant. It was a bow tie pasta with spinach and tomatoes, topped with toasted slivered almonds. 

Here's my version:

And here are the components:

(I forgot to get the slivered almonds in the picture. Oops!)

First, put the water on for the pasta. I have a ridiculous stove that takes forever to get water to a boil, so that's always what I try to do first. 

Then I got out my trusty non-stick pan, put it over medium heat, and added a little butter and about half of the baby portabella (crimini) mushrooms. I LOVE mushrooms. These were not in the pasta at Mick's but I wanted mushrooms today so I added them. That's what I like about making own food! 

Once they are done...

...add salt and turn them off. If you, unlike me, have a stove that allows you to add your pasta to the water by now, you won't have to turn your mushrooms off and wait for water to boil. <<sigh>>  Oh well, I took the time to seed and chop the tomatoes. I used two of those little Campari tomatoes. So good! 

But don't add them yet!

Add some slivered almonds to a dry pan. Toast over low heat. (I keep my almonds, pine nuts, walnuts, etc. in the freezer so they keep longer.)  Keep an eye on them because they burn quickly! I did not take a picture of the first batch since I burned them.... Don't add them yet!

Also, I grated some Parmesan cheese. But don't add it yet either!

Once the pasta is in the water, add the spinach to the pan. I just covered the pan with a nice layer. Remember it really shrinks!  I could have added even more and been happy.

Sprinkle with a little salt and turn the heat to low. Saute the spinach just until it wilts. I take care to keep it separated since it tends to all clump into one big bunch if I don't.

Once the pasta is done, add a little pasta water to the pan (maybe 2 - 3 tablespoons), add the pasta, a little more butter, and about 1/4 cup of Parmesan. Toss it all together. Turn off the heat and add the tomatoes; toss to distribute. 

Plate the pasta and top with the almonds and a little more Parmesan.

Ta Da!  A dee-licious quick supper. (I MAY have added a little more Parmesan after I took the picture....)

I'm sorry I can't eat at Mick's anymore, but at least I can have my pasta!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Big God

Lately I've been thinking about a particular social issue and it's had me really seeking God's heart and mind. It seems complicated to me; there are people I respect on either side.

It occurred to me today on my drive into work that this is why God made all of us different. I know, it's nothing new. We all have our place in His plan, and we are all gifted to take our specific part in that plan.

But it's even more than that. We are called to areas of ministry and given passions that often seem contradictory. It causes Christians to argue amongst ourselves about which ministries are right and which stance on an issue is more biblical; what is right and what is wrong; what is open to interpretation and what is not.

It's too much for me to comprehend. But I'm sure of this:

     God called some to serve the homeless. Some work to teach them skills to give them the dignity to stand on their own. Some struggle to provide shelter and food in a safe, clean environment, loving them where they are.

     God called some to fight to save the unborn. They work in pregnancy centers, hospitals, clinics. Their goal is that every baby conceived is born. Others work with those who have chosen abortion. Their goal is that every woman knows God's peace and love.

     God called some to work with students who are on fire for Christ, and who are leading movements on their campuses. Some are called to befriend the lonely, the disconnected. Others are called to seek out the troubled, abused, abusing.

     God called some to minister to at-risk youth, to give them self-esteem and purpose so they can become productive citizens. Others befriend prisoners, who will never be free again.

How is this possible with just one God? How can He take all of us, throughout all of time, and work His purposes out for the good of His kingdom? We disagree, we misunderstand, we try to convince one another that our passion is the one after God's heart, that our viewpoint is the right one. Yet He uses us all if we're willing. (Frankly, I suspect He sometimes uses us even when we're not).

I don't know how it's possible, I just know that it is. Because my God is that big.

Mark 10:27b "....For all things are possible with God."

Romans 8:28  "For we know that God causes all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose." 

John 13:35  "By this will all men know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another."

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Cleaning Up

Since my cleaning lady has been pretty slack lately,   ;-)   I've been doing some projects the last couple of days. I organized the closet by putting up some winter clothes. I know. It's August. Don't judge me.

I also bought new bins and organized my kitchen utensil drawer.

Isn't that pretty?

Today I vacuumed. In some places I had to go over the same patch several times before the "debris finder" light on my machine turned green instead of red. (Seriously, what has that cleaning lady been doing?)  Then I cleared and cleaned all the kitchen counters so I could seal the granite.

Don't those clear counters look nice?  I almost hate to put things back. The only thing is, now the kitchen table looks like this:

Although I liked the cleared counters, I decided to go ahead and put things back where they belong after the granite was sealed.

It's not quite as clear, but homier.  And more functional.

Unfortunately, the kitchen table still looks like this:

What is all that stuff and why does it wind up on my counters? The African violet is the only thing that's supposed to be there. Anyone else have this problem? If I heave it all in the trash will I really miss it? Hmmm.....

Anyway, the dilemma was too great to decide in the moment, so I sat down, put my feet up, and pinned some organizational and cleaning tips on Pinterest. So much more fun than actual organizing and cleaning!