Monday, September 24, 2007

Menu-Plan Monday

Here's the plan for this week:

Pork Chop and Rice Hot Dish
Green Beans Amandine

Chicken and Dumplings
Spinach Salad

Sliced Beef and Gravy

Spinach and Ricotta Tortellini Soup with Cannellini and Chicken

Mini Meatloaves
Mashed Potatoes w/ French Fried Onions

Beef Barbecue Sandwiches
Broccoli Slaw w/ Peanuts

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Alfredo Sauce

I cannot recall my mother ever serving Alfredo sauce to us when I was a kid. Sad, I know. She probably thought it wasn't healthy enough or something. What a misguided lady. She meant well, though.

When I was in college, different student groups would sponsor "skip-a-meals"--meals where you'd sign your student ID away so that the money that would have been spent on that meal would be donated to a starving child somewhere. I guess the idea was that you'd fast for that meal--and not only would you be giving money towards the cause, you'd be experiencing the hunger these poor children must be feeling. Well, almost everyone would sign their ID away, because who wants to be the only student who was selfish enough to take food from a starving kid's mouth? But almost everyone skipped the fasting part of it and simply went out to eat that night, because college kids are nothing if not sacrificial. And hungry.

So on skip-a-meal evenings, we routinely made the trek to Fazoli's in Marion and feasted on all the free breadsticks they would throw at us. And while I had never had Alfredo sauce before, for some reason, when we were there at Fazoli's, it sounded delicious. The first time, I ordered it with chicken, broccoli, and tomatoes, and it turned out to be so wonderful, it became my standard order.

Years later, I no longer skip meals unless I'm in a coma (which is hardly ever), but I do still enjoy Alfredo sauce. In fact, Fettuccine with Chicken, Broccoli, and Alfredo is a favorite in our house. But my mom was right (I assume--she usually is); Alfredo sauce is not what you'd call healthy. There were years in the 90s when it was referred to as "Heart Attack on a Plate," which is probably not far from the truth.

So when I stumbled upon this recipe from the Kraft Kitchens, I had to give it a try. Fortunately, it turned out to be a very, very tasty way to enjoy Alfredo Sauce with only a fraction of the guilt.

(Or the high price at the grocery store.)

Best of all, it's extraordinarily easy, takes about 5 minutes to make, and requires things you most likely have on hand.

Alfredo Sauce

1 1/4 c. chicken broth (I use Better Than Bouillon, and it's the best--and the most economical)
1/4 c. flour
1/3 c. softened 1/3 fat Neufchatel cheese (in the Cream Cheese section)
3 Tbsp. Parmesan cheese (or more, if you like)
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
1/4 tsp. ground black pepper (I bumped up the amount of pepper because I like my Alfredo peppery, but you can reduce it if you're so inclined)
2 Tbsp. parsley

Whisk together the chicken broth and flour in a medium sauce pan.

Stir in cream cheese, Parmesan, nutmeg, and pepper. Cook over medium heat, stirring with a wire whisk constantly, for 2 minutes, or until mixture boils and thickens.

Add parsley; toss with pasta. Garnish pasta with additional Parmesan and parsley.

Makes 4 servings.

Menu-Plan Monday

Well, here it is, Tuesday, and I forgot to post this week's menus. No one seems to be suffering without them! Still, here's the plan for the week:

Chicken Alfredo with Basil and Spinach

Roast Beef
Roast Potatoes
Glazed Carrots

Hot Chicken Salad

Saucy Short Ribs
White Rice
Steamed Peas

Fair food (again! Please don't judge us!)


Aglio e Olio

Monday, September 17, 2007

Chilly Chocolate S'mores

I made this one up just tonight, and it went over BIG. And why wouldn't it? It's chocolate. And chocolate chips. Mini marshmallows. Graham Crackers. So much yum, in such a compact little package.

It's really quite simple, and it was born of a serious chocolate craving, which, I am happy to report, this cool treat more than satisfied.

Here's my recipe for

Chilly Chocolate S'mores

1 sm. pkg. sugar free and fat free instant chocolate pudding
1 c. milk
4 oz. whipped topping (like Cool Whip), thawed (about 1/2 a container)
1/2 c. mini marshmallows
1/4 c. chocolate chips (or more if you want--this ain't rocket science)
9 whole graham crackers

Whisk together pudding mix and milk until no lumps remain, then stir in cool whip until well combined. Toss in your marshmallows and chocolate chips, and stir (you'll probably want to switch over to a spoon at this point, unless you want to fish marshmallows out of your whisk later).

Line a 9x9 in. pan with plastic wrap to facilitate easy removal of the chocolate mixture later.

Pour chocolate mixture into plastic wrap-lined pan, and place another piece of plastic wrap directly on the surface of the mixture. Press down gently to smooth chocolate into an even thickness in the pan, then wrap loose ends and place pan flat in freezer. Chill at least 1 hour--or until firm, but not solid.

Lift plastic wrap out of pan and cut frozen mixture into 9 even squares. Break graham crackers in half, and make sandwiches out of two graham halves and one square of the frozen chocolate mixture.

You can eat all of them right away, if you wish, but I bet you could also make them up into sandwiches, wrap tightly in plastic wrap, pop into a plastic bag, and freeze for future consumption (though I don't think our current batch will make it that long). In that case, I think you'd have to thaw them for a few minutes before you eat them. I'm also experimenting with simply refrigerating them, but I'll have to get back to you on that one.

Makes 9 cool sandwiches. (Each sandwich is about 156 calories.)

This recipe could have many different incarnations--watch:

1) Graham crackers, cool whip, vanilla pudding, and drained crushed pineapple
2) Chocolate graham crackers, cool whip, banana cream pudding, and banana pieces
3) Chocolate graham crackers, cool whip, vanilla pudding, peanut butter chips, chocolate chips
4) Cinnamon graham crackers, cool whip, vanilla pudding
5) Chocolate graham crackers, strawberry cool whip, vanilla pudding, diced strawberries
6) Chocolate graham crackers, cool whip, butterscotch pudding, chocolate pieces
7) Graham crackers, cool whip, cheesecake pudding, blueberries, 1/4 tsp. lemon peel
8) Chocolate graham crackers, cool whip, cheesecake pudding, chopped maraschino cherries
9) Chocolate graham crackers, cool whip, banana cream pudding, crushed chocolate sandwich
10) Graham crackers, cool whip, vanilla pudding, diced canned peaches

You could also make a basic concoction (say, cool whip and vanilla pudding) and swirl in chocolate fudge sauce or caramel, or even your favorite preserves, thinned for a few seconds in the microwave. Just mix the cool whip, milk, and pudding, and pour into pan. Drizzle swirls of topping over pudding mixture, chill for a few minutes in the fridge (just to set the topping so it doesn't stick to the plastic), then cover with plastic wrap, and freeze until firm.

The possibilities are endless.

Now, here's another idea: there's this very easy, very refreshing Jello pie--Cool 'n' Easy Pie--which sets up with a fairly similar texture in the fridge. I've never tested this theory, but I imagine you could use the basics of this Pie recipe and make up a few thousand other spins on this Chilly Sandwich idea, what with the wide range of gelatin flavors available in the grocery store these days. If you give it a try, let me know!

Friday, September 14, 2007

Good Old Fashioned Pancakes

Pancakes are another food item I've experimented with a bit. I love a good pancake, but I think really good ones are hard to come by--sometimes they're too thick, sometimes too thin. Sometimes chewy, sometimes crumbly. Sometimes they taste like fried wallpaper paste. Mmm-mmm good.

The title of this recipe is Good Old Fashioned Pancakes, so I had high hopes. They were pretty good the first go-around, but I thought they could be improved, so I made a couple of adjustments. Just minor changes, really, but they really added a punch of flavor.

So tomorrow morning, when you're in the mood for pancakes, give these a shot!

Good Old Fashioned Pancakes

1 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
3 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
1 Tbsp. white sugar
1/4 tsp. freshly ground nutmeg*
1 c. milk
1/4 c. maple syrup
1 egg
3 Tbsp. butter, melted

In a large bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, salt, sugar, and nutmeg*. (I just use a whisk or wire mesh sieve to accomplish this--no need for an actual sifter.)

Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and pour in the milk, syrup, egg, and butter. Mix until smooth.

Heat a lightly oiled pan or griddle over medium heat. Using a 1/4 c. measuring cup, scoop batter onto griddle. When bubbles come to the raw surface, it's time to flip.

To keep warm, place finished pancakes in a single layer in a warm (200 degrees) oven until all the pancakes are done. Serve hot.

Yields: 8 servings

*Nutmeg: why freshly ground? It really is a totally different flavor than bottled ground nutmeg. (Like the difference between fresh and dried cilantro, but that's a topic for another time.) Plus, while bottled ground nutmeg starts to lose its flavor after just a couple of months after opening, a whole nutmeg will keep more or less indefinitely, and be wonderfully flavorful every time. I use a Microplane grater or the really really fine grating side of my box grater to grind it.

I purchased a container of 16 whole nutmegs a year ago at an Amish store for $1.69, and even though I use nutmeg every time I make a cream sauce, these pancakes, or apple pie, I'm still on my first or second nutmeg. So not only is it more flavorful, it's cheaper, too!

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Very Favorite Barbecue Sauce

It's important for you to know that I take Barbecue sauce very seriously. Truly. I am extremely particular: I want it to be sweet, but not too sweet, tangy without numbing my taste buds, flavorful without being overpowering. It must be tomatoey but with a good dose of vinegar, thin enough to flow, but thick enough to stick to my meat. Let me say from experience: there is not much barbecue sauce out there that makes me happy.

On our honeymoon, though, Abe and I went to a restaurant in Gatlinburg called Calhoun's. Specializing in ribs, it was an absolute treat; in fact, during the week we were in the Smokies, we ate there three times. Their biscuits were as light as a feather, their corn muffins tender and tasty. Their sides were perfect--not afterthoughts at all, but genuinely good in their own right. And their ribs: oh, their ribs. Falling apart-tender, smokey and flavorful, with that wonderful bit of crisp char on the edges of the plentiful meat, they would have been fantastic on their own. But then they added the sauce. The sauce was an awakening for me: I had been accustomed to sauces like Bull's Eye and Kraft, and even Sweet Baby Ray's, which is pretty good, but Calhoun's tangy combination of flavor and spices, sweet and heat, made it truly memorable. I would bathe in the stuff if I didn't think it might be hard on my eyes. We took home two or three bottles, and when friends went to Gatlinburg on vacation, we commissioned them to bring home several bottles of this mystically tasty sauce.

Sadly, we haven't had any couriers of late. We have run out of Calhoun's sauce, and I do not have the personal strength to call them and have them send some to my house. It somehow seems too desperate.

So I've tried grocery-store sauces: Sweet Baby Ray's, as I mentioned, and even Emeril's. They were...good. But I did not want to bathe in them. And one day, after watching one too many Barbecue specials on the Food Network, wherein people whip up their own award-winning sauces, I thought, why not? I can do that. So I set out to make my own Barbecue sauce, just the way I like it.

I did a fair bit of research into other Barbecue sauce recipes, just to see what types of things people put in them, and after a little tinkering and a batch or three, I think I've got it. We had it the other day on some roasted chicken, and Abe stopped and said, "This is good." It's pretty hard to elicit comments like that from him lately--it's got to be something pretty special.

So after too much ado, here's my recipe for my Very Favorite Barbecue Sauce. It's a long list of ingredients, but assembling it is a snap.

Very Favorite Barbecue Sauce

1/4 lg. sweet onion (Vidalia or Walla Walla, for instance), grated (or very nearly pureed)
3 Tbsp. butter
1/4 c. water
1/2 c. apple cider vinegar
2 c. ketchup
1/3 c. apple juice
2 Tbsp. brown sugar
2 Tbsp. honey
2 Tbsp. molasses
1/4 c. maple syrup
1 Tbsp. liquid smoke
1 1/2 tsp. ground mustard
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
1/2 tsp. cayenne
1/2 tsp. chili powder
1 tsp. garlic powder
1/4 tsp. black pepper
1 bay leaf

In a medium saucepan, melt butter. Saute onion in butter over low heat until onion is very tender, about 10 minutes. Add the rest of ingredients, and whisk together thoroughly. Note: I have found that it's easier to incorporate the spices if they are first whisked into one of the liquids, like the ketchup.

Bring mixture to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, for about 30 minutes.

Store in an airtight container in the fridge. Makes about 3 cups of sauce.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Honey Oatmeal Wheat Bread

Back in the day, before I spent my time sorting through endless piles of laundry, cooking for the masses, and changing diapers (my current lot in life), I was the Publications Coordinator at a non-profit Christian ministry, serving as an editor, writer, and eventually, graphic designer. As a 9-to-5 kind of gal, my yen for cooking was shelved; I was positively too tired after a long day to do any real cooking, so dinner usually consisted of a bag of microwave popcorn or a bowl of instant stuffing. Fancy!

But working at a small Christian ministry has its perks--namely, potlucks. (It ain't the benefits, that's for sure.) Sweet, wonderful potlucks. Those magical days when everyone brings their best thing in, and you stuff yourself until there is just no more room, and then you hit the dessert table. Middle-American gluttony at its down-home finest. The brilliant part was that the men on staff didn't cook at all, so their wives would send something yummy in with them, and that's how I came to enjoy a variation of this tasty bread.

J.J., our IT guy, brought these "Heavenly Honey Oatmeal" rolls in to share. After one bite, I was hooked. With a delicate, tender crumb, just the right amount of chewiness, and a perfect hint of sweetness from the honey, this is the sort of bread you just keep going back for. His wife Christie was kind enough to share the recipe with me.

But I was still a Career Girl with no real time or energy to cook, so this recipe sat in my recipe file, dormant, for years. Years. Then I got married, left my job, settled in as a homemaker, and acquired a bread machine. Mostly, I made the loaves featured in the recipe booklet that came with the appliance, so this recipe still sat unused. But gradually, as I became more and more enamored of cooking and comfortable with basic techniques, I wanted to stretch my culinary legs a bit more, making more from scratch. Homemade bread seemed like a logical next step, so I retired the bread machine and started kneading.

Out came Heavenly Honey Oatmeal bread, which I turned into loaves, instead of rolls. And since I had become a bit more concerned with making food as healthy as we could palate (which is to say, just a tiny bit), I replaced some of the all-purpose flour in this recipe with whole wheat flour. Luckily, I think the wheat flour actually enhanced the already "heavenly" flavor of this bread, which, when toasted and spread with butter, tastes a whole lot like an Auntie Anne's pretzel. Swear. But if you don't have whole wheat flour on hand, you could use all all-purpose flour, and it will still be downright delicious.

It makes two loaves, so like the Brothers' Bread, it is perfect to make on a day when you can share the second loaf with someone. Or, you know, you could just tell everyone that it just makes one loaf and eat the other one in the front closet by yourself.

(But that's up to you.)

Honey Oatmeal Wheat Bread

1 c. quick-cooking oats
2 c. boiling water
1 package (or 2 1/4 tsp.) active dry yeast
1/4 c. warm water (110-115 degrees F)
1/3 c. honey
1 Tbsp. butter
2 tsp. salt
2 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 Tbsp. milk
2 Tbsp. oats

Mix oats and boiling water. Let stand 15 min., or until the mixture has become lukewarm.

Sprinkle yeast over the warm water, and let sit 5 minutes, or until it has become foamy.

Add proofed yeast, honey, butter, and salt to the oatmeal mixture, and mix well.

Stir in the wheat flour, and then as much of the all-purpose flour as you can. (I use a Kitchen Aid mixer, which makes this oh-so-easy, but you can do it by hand, too. Especially if your name is Beth Culp.) Remove from mixing bowl and knead for 2 minutes. cover, let rest 10 minutes. Then knead again, adding flour as needed to combat stickiness, 12-15 times.

Transfer dough to a greased bowl. Cover with plastic wrap, and let rise in a warm, draft-free place for 1 hour. Punch down, and transfer to a lightly floured surface. Divide in half, then shape each half into a loaf, placing each loaf into a greased loaf pan. Cover again with plastic wrap (this time, loosely), and let rise until doubled.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Brush each loaf with milk and sprinkle with oats. Bake for 45 minutes in preheated oven. Turn out onto wire rack to cool. Enjoy!

Yield: Two loaves, many happy tummies.

P.S. Beth, people will always need bread. We Be Bakin'.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Menu-Plan Monday

Fall is on its way! And suddenly, the door opens to a long-forgotten world of culinary pleasures. Shepherd's Pie, welcome back! Pot Pie, we've missed you so! Apple Pie, we've never been so glad to see you! (I'm sensing a theme.)

Alas, no pie on the menu this week, but we are looking forward to a menu full of comfort favorites. I'm also trying to economize a bit better, too, so you'll see some elements repeated during the week.

Last, we're heading out to the fair this Friday, so no meal for that day. Just wonderfully greasy food and a giant case of heartburn. Can't wait!

Chicken Stew
Mashed Potatoes

Two-Saucy MockZagna

Turkey Club Panini on Homemade Honey Oatmeal Wheat Bread
Pasta Salad

Tomato Soup
Grilled Cheese

Fair Food

Homemade Pizza


Monday, September 3, 2007

Menu-Plan Monday

Happy Labor Day! I hope you've had a relaxing day! Here's what's on the menu for our family this week:

Monday--Labor Day

Western-Style Ribs
Baked Mac and Cheese
Steamed Peas

Italian Sausage
Onions and Peppers
Risotto (my first time!)

Taco Soup

Maple-Bacon Fried Rice