Sunday, March 30, 2008

Menu Plan Monday

Here's what's cooking at our house this week:

Grilled Steak
Potato Salad

Mashed Potatoes


Roasted Chicken
Roasted Green Beans
Honey Oatmeal Wheat Bread

Leftovers or re-styled chicken something-or-other

Drywalling Work Day! Sloppy Joes, Chips, Pasta Salad, and Brownies


Monday, March 24, 2008

Roasted Potatoes with Bacon and Cheese

Thank you, good night. The title pretty much sums up the whole recipe, doesn't it? I'll still elaborate, because I'm me and can't leave well enough alone.

We had a birthday party this weekend for Judah and his cousin. It was strictly nothing-fancy fare (these are kids we're talking about); burgers, hot dogs, corn dish, potatoes, cake, ice cream, and finger jello. My contribution was the potato portion. I toyed with the idea of doing potato wedges, but good grief--we were feeding 12 humans. That's a lot of potato wedges. I had just read through the new Food and Family magazine from Kraft foods, though, and noticed this recipe. It sounded tasty, easy, and (most importantly for our purposes) kid-friendly. I was very pleasantly surprised--and so was everyone else! Here's the recipe as is from the Kraft Kitchens.

Now, here's how I modified its preparation. Enjoy!

Roasted Potatoes with Bacon and Cheese

3 lb. potatoes, well-scrubbed and cut into 1-in cubes (more or less)
1/2 c. ranch dressing
1 c. shredded cheddar cheese
6 slices of bacon, cooked and crumbled

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Toss potatoes with ranch dressing. Place potatoes on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper or in a large non-stick roasting pan, and toss 'em in the oven. After about 35 minutes, give 'em a good stir, then toss in the cheddar and bacon, and stir to combine. Return to oven until potatoes are tender and as golden brown as you prefer. (I actually let mine go a bit longer than I meant to, and the bottoms of the potatoes had gotten a bit crunchy and golden, and they were great!) Total cooking time: approximately 45-55 minutes. Feeds a bunch!

Menu Plan Monday

Sorry about last week, I really am. We did end up eating something for dinner every day, but I just really lacked the energy to create or commit to a plan. A highlight of the week (for the kids, anyway) was the pizza party we had for Judah's birthday--homemade pizza (I made the sauce and the dough, but not the mozzarella or sausage. So, only kind of homemade), pop, and homemade "Hostess" cupcakes. The kids couldn't believe their good fortune--pop? With dinner???? And no veggies?!?! Giddiness ensued.

One night we had crock-pot pork ribs. A couple days later, we had shredded pork sandwiches. Also, we had Shepherd's Pie, per Abe's request. So if this week's menu doesn't do it for you, those are some other suggestions from my un-chronicled week.

Up this week:

Brats with caramelized sweet onions
Asian Broccoli Slaw

Shredded BBQ chicken sandwiches w/pickles and cheddar
Green beans

Chicken and Sugar Snap Pea Stir-fry
Steamed Rice

Steak Salad with field greens, toasted almonds, sliced strawberries, and feta cheese

Baked Potato Soup
Leftover Salad


Campanelle Pasta (a new short-cut that looked fun)
with slow-cooker Marinara Sauce

Friday, March 14, 2008

Go-To Mac 'n' Cheese

One of the first meals I ever ate with Abe's family included a favorite of his: Baked Mac 'n' Cheese. It's his grandma's recipe, and he has enjoyed it ever since fetus-hood. He would eat (and probably has) and entire pan of the stuff without blinking if the rest of the family, also ardent fans, allowed it. Alas, they do not. They all eat it with great gusto and appreciation.

I, on the other hand, eschewed mac 'n' cheese as a child. I wouldn't touch the stuff with a ten foot pole. (I'm sure my mother was pleased as punch about that. I also never cared for bologna or peanut butter and jelly, but that's better left for another post.) I never ate mac 'n' cheese until I was a starving college student, by which point either a) my taste buds had developed more fully, or b) my poverty-induced hunger and need for a cheap meal trumped my lactose intolerance and general dislike of cheese. Either way, I was a relative mac 'n' cheese newbie well into my adulthood, and when I did eat the stuff, it was usually the neon-orange stuff from the blue box (or its equally-orange but less-expensive generic counterpart) or other saucy versions.

So when I sat down to sample Abe's family's mac 'n' cheese, I was stymied; it looked simply like baked noodles. Plain baked noodles. Later, after inquiring after the recipe, I realized that it was in fact a closer relative to scalloped potatoes than the mac 'n' cheese that I knew and, well, tolerated. I personally found it to be fantastically mushy, indescribably bland, and altogether unsatisfying. This was apparently no problem with the rest of the family--they polished off the entire 9x13 dish in a matter of seconds without needing my help.

Well into our marriage, the subject of baked mac 'n' cheese was a hot-button one in our household. I told Abe that I'd make anything he liked to eat in the kitchen--except his grandma's baked mac 'n' cheese. Of course, that only meant that he'd ask for it more repeatedly. It took me a while, but I finally hit on this solution: I would make a dish that had all of the qualities I thought mac 'n' cheese should have, and would bake it to give Abe the satisfaction of having his requests met. When it comes down to it, this version is neither bland nor mushy, and it is really satisfying--even more than the kind with the bright orange cheese-flavored powder. So I'm totally satisfied by this incarnation, and as for Abe, well--who really cares? He's not cooking anything anytime soon.

I started with Alton Brown's version of Stove-Top Mac 'N' Cheese and modified it slightly--I doubled the amount of pasta, while leaving the rest of the ingredient list intact. And I only use a total of 8 oz. of shredded cheese, putting 4 oz. in the actual pasta, and sprinkling the rest on top before running it under a broiler on low to give the illusion of being baked. (Don't tell.)

So, thanks Alton, for the inspiration (and the recipe).

Go-To Mac 'n' Cheese

1 lb. penne pasta
4 Tbsp. butter
2 eggs
6 oz. evaporated milk
1/2 tsp. hot sauce
1 tsp. kosher salt
Fresh black pepper to taste
3/4 tsp. dry mustard
8 oz. shredded cheddar (or the cheese of your choice), divided

Cook the pasta in well-salted boiling water until JUST al dente. be very careful not to overcook (unless you like your noodles mushy like my husband does). Drain, and return to the pot, tossing with the butter until the pasta is coated and the butter is melted.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk, hot sauce, salt, pepper, and mustard. Stir egg mixture into the pasta, add 4 oz. of the cheese, and put some low heat under your pot. Stir for about 3 minutes more, or until the sauce is creamy.

Spray a casserole dish with cooking spray (you'll thank me later) and add pasta to dish. Sprinkle remaining cheese over top of the pasta, and place under a broiler set at low* until the cheese is as golden brown as you like it.

*Note: if your broiler doesn't have high/low settings, just put the mac 'n' cheese on a really low rack in the oven, and watch it carefully so it doesn't burn. Or, you can actually bake it--I'd suggest about 25 minutes at 375 degrees, or, again, until it's as golden as you like. JUST MAKE SURE that your pasta isn't too done before you start baking, or else you're going to end up with mush during the baking process--the pasta will absorb much of the sauce. If you like it mushy, though, of course, proceed with all manner of overcooking. I will try not to judge.

Serves: I've never gotten an actual count of how many this could feed, since it generally just all gets eaten by Abe. As a side dish, though, I bet it could feed 6. But not in this household.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Best Ever Banana Bread

Here's another recipe that was the result of a years-long search for a recipe that was what I thought it should be. I can honestly tell you that I tried dozens of recipes for banana bread, ranging from easy, Bisquick-based recipes to more complicated, superlative-laden recipes. This is the first time I've ever made a recipe that labeled itself "Best Ever" and ended up believing that the recipe authors were telling the truth.

For me, banana bread has to meet a few criteria to make the grade. It must first of all be moist, because, hey--no one likes a dry bread, really. It should be dense, but light; nothing too fru-fru for me, please, but I'd prefer it not also be suitable as a doorstop. And it should be addicting.

I believe this last point is what made my banana bread quest so daunting: there are plenty of Just Fine banana bread recipes out there, but few Really Good, Really Addicting ones. There are so few breads that make you guiltily slink back to the loaf promising yourself just one more little sliver--for the third time. The ultimate test of the addiction factor comes when I put it in front of my family: if they all feel they must sneak a bite or two when I'm not looking and end up eating the whole thing in a day, well, that's a pass. Then there are recipes like the coffee cake I tried last week: it was okay, but it took us four days to finish the thing. That's a fail.

Now, I realize that most superlatives are subjective. And this banana bread might not fit the bill for your family. That's okay. All I'm saying is, this banana bread never lasts more than six or seven hours in our house, and that's something, when you consider that two of our family members weigh about 30 pounds and have stomachs the size of a walnut.

One more note before you try this recipe: Sometimes, I get a little decadent and mix up a streusel-type substance to put in the middle. It usually involves brown sugar, a dash of cinnamon, ground nuts, and melted butter, but I've never even attempted to write down any sort of recipe for it. So if streusel sounds good to you, find another recipe somewhere that has streusel in it, and just steal it away and insert it into this recipe. I'll never tell.

Oh, and I take back that other thing about that last paragraph being the last one. I have one more thing to say: use rrrriiiipppe bananas--I mean, bananas so ripe, they're nearly black and too smooshy to eat. They'll make the most flavorful bread for you.

Thank you. The End.

Best Ever Banana Bread
from The Complete Guide to Country Cooking, a Taste of Home book

1 3/4 c. all-purpose flour
1 1/2 c. white sugar
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
2 eggs
1 c. mashed banana (2 or 3 medium)
1/2 c. vegetable oil
1/4 c. plus 1 Tbsp. buttermilk *
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 c. chopped walnuts (optional)

Preheat your oven to 325 degrees. Lightly grease (I use cooking spray) and flour a 9x5x3 loaf pan. (Actually, I use a bundt pan, because it bakes up a bit more quickly and makes for a prettier bread. But use what you've got!)

In a large bowl, stir together the flour, sugar, baking soda, and salt with a wire whisk. In another bowl, mix together the eggs, banana, oil, buttermilk, and vanilla. Add the flour mixture, and stir just until moistened. (Seriously, don't go overboard with the stirring.) Fold in the nuts, if you're using them.

Add batter to loaf or bundt pan. Bake for 1 hour (less--ore like 45 minutes--for a bundt), or until loaf tests done. (That's what they say in the recipe. Here's what I say: Insert a toothpick, and if it comes out clean, the bread is done. Also, if the edges of the loaf are pulling away from the sides of the pan, that's a good indication of doneness, too.)

Remove from oven, and cool for 10 minutes in pan before turning out onto a wire rack to cool completely.

This bread is a better-the-next-day bread, so I usually bake it at night. When it's cool, wrap it in plastic wrap, and it'll be so moist and tasty the next day, you won't believe it. In fact, don't even try to eat it the same day, because you'll probably be disappointed, and you'll want to rename it Pretty Average Banana Bread and never make it again.

*Buttermilk: I never purchase buttermilk. Instead, for this recipe, I put a teaspoon of lemon juice in the bottom of a 1/3 cup measure, and then fill it not quite to the top with milk. Give it a good stir, let it sit for about five minutes, and you've got the thickness and tang of buttermilk without the added expense of it. For other recipes requiring more buttermilk, use this formula: 1 Tbsp. lemon juice or vinegar, plus enough milk to measure 1 cup total.

Menu Plan Monday

And we're back. I've got a little more vim this week. Also, I actually went grocery shopping, so now I don't have to obsess about how else I can use potatoes without causing my family to revolt. Or obsess about how I can disguise potatoes in my menu plan so you don't judge my single-mindedness. Potatoes are quite nutritious, see? (And cheap. And filling.)

Off of the top of my head, then (because I have--can you believe it?--options), here's what's on deck for this week:

General Tso's Chicken (homemade-ish, so hopefully healthier than Hunan Kitchen's version)
Steamed Rice
Stir-Fried Broccoli

Bronco Beans ('cause we worried about health yesterday)

Wednesday ('cause I've got a lot of singing to do this evening, so I need a quick-to-prepare dinner)
Hawaiian Ham Steaks
Pineapple-Almond Rice Pilaf

Thursday ('cause I made fresh pesto, and YUM)
Pesto Chicken Pasta Salad

Friday ('cause we need a little comfort)
Western-Style BBQ Pork Ribs
Baked Mac and Cheese
Steamed Green Beans

Saturday ('cause I need a day off)

Sunday ('cause who doesn't love a potluck?)
Choir Potluck Dinner--I'm taking BBQ Cola Meatballs

Monday, March 3, 2008

Menu Plan Monday

...will resume next week. Frankly, I'm too tired and uncomfortable today to think about it! I'm hoping the dinner fairy will leave meals under my pillow at night. Come to think of it, that would be pretty messy. So I guess this week will be off-the-cuff!

See you next week.