Monday, November 8, 2010

Broccoli Casserole

Growing up, one of our holiday dishes was my mom's broccoli casserole. The casserole only made an appearance once a year at our Thanksgiving meal. I assumed my mom avoided it because it was difficult to make. Then she sent me the recipe: frozen broccoli, a can of this, a can of that and Velveeta cheese. Nope, not bad at all! Of course, I don't really do "canned" anything so I "fixed" it.

I decided to leave in the Velveeta cheese. After thirty plus years of eating this casserole, I have definite opinions as to how it should taste and part of that expectation is Velveeta cheese. But, I will probably play around with it later and try out cheddar cheese and brown rice to make it even healthier.

Mom's Broccoli Casserole
1 small onion, diced
3 Tablespoons butter
3 Tablespoons four
1/2 cup chicken stock
1/2 cup milk
1 stick butter, melted
1/2 cup evaporated milk (or 6 Tablespoons dried milk and 1/3 cup water)
1/2 lb Velveeta cheese, diced
1 cup cooked rice
2, 10 oz bags of frozen chopped broccoli
Cracker crumbs (about 1-2 cups, usually Ritz-type)

Melt 3 Tablespoons of butter in a large pot. Add onion and cook until translucent. Whisk in flour and cook for 2 minutes. Whisk in milk and then stock, whisking constantly to avoid lumps. Stir in melted butter and evaporated milk. Add in Velveeta cheese and stir until melted. Stir in rice and broccoli. Stir to combine.

(If making prior to cooking, put in to a gallon bag and freeze. Thaw before proceeding.)

Put mixture in to a 2 quart baking dish. Top with cracker crumbs. Bake at 375 degrees for 45 minutes.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Five Ways to Refresh Leftovers

Today is Friday. My culinary ambitions tend to wan towards the end of the week (my husband does a lot of the cooking on weekends) and I'm always happy when I have enough leftovers on Friday to suffice as dinner. The problem is that I'm not a big fan of leftovers. My husband and kids have no problem eating leftovers, but I just can't really get in to them. I have found that if I "refresh" the leftovers, however, I enjoy eating them.

1. Make a fun bread: I don't usually have the time to make anything other than our "normal" bread for dinner. But when we have leftovers, I have time to try my hand out some fancy options. For me, fresh bread makes any meal wonderful! My kids love garlic knots or bread sticks made out of pizza dough. I really love this Green Olive and Rosemary Focaccia. Garlic bread is another option that I often skip on busy weeknights (just mix up butter, olive, minced garlic and oregano; spread on bread loaf or slices and bake for about 10 minutes at 400 degrees). Homemade pretzels would be really fun, too! You could also make biscuits or cornbread or muffins.

2. Make an appetizer: I love appetizers! But I never have the time to make anything except cut up veggies and dip for meals. With leftovers for our main course, though, I have lots of time to make Crock Pot Spinach Dip or this Jalapeno Popper Dip -- both recipes are on my "to make" list! A cheese ball or simple cheese and crackers add a nice new touch to a leftover dinner. Potato skins are another appetizer that is too time consuming for dinner, but are perfect for leftovers.

3. Make a "fancy" salad: We often eat tossed salads with our meals which consist of shredded lettuce, carrots, cucumber and dressing. It's just an easy way to get some raw veggies in to our diets. But I LOVE to make nice big salads. Leftovers allow me the time to make one! This Greek Spinach Orzo Salad is amazing. You could also reuse some leftover steak to make a steak salad and leftover chicken can be added to pretty much any salad, but I really love it on Caesar salad. Taco salad is another leftover favorite -- I toss all kinds of stuff in to it!

4.Re-purpose and Reuse: Leftover meats can be reused many, many ways. Pot pies are great for leftover meats and veggies. Put anything in to pie dough and it's good! Just cut up pie dough in to small rounds, stuff with leftovers, and bake. Stir fries or fried rice are perfect for leftovers. Throw in whatever veggies or meat you have, add some soy sauce and a little brown sugar if you like, and you have a brand-new dinner. Omelets make nice, hearty dinners (if you like breakfast for dinner) and you can stuff all kinds of leftovers in them.

5. Just freeze it: When all else fails, I just throw the leftovers in the freezer for later. Sometimes a good idea will hit me later on. I tend to freeze when I have either way too much (I'm tired of it) or way too little (just not enough to do anything with it) leftover. Somehow the leftovers aren't so bad a month later when I re-use them for something else.

How do you like to use up leftovers?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Planning Ahead for The Holidays

November and December are for us, like many people, crazy busy. In addition to the holidays and all their celebrations (concerts, parties, cook exchanges galore!),  we also have SIX family birthdays from November 14th until December 17th. My sister has announced that no one is allowed to have a baby or marry anyone with a birthday between November 1st and February 28th (we have four more birthdays in January and February).  I'm already feeling a bit overwhelmed by it all!

The key for me to stay organized and not have a melt down (I don't do well under pressure) is to plan ahead, cook ahead and FREEZE! I am planning to get as much cooking done as I can in the next few weeks and to freeze everything until I need it. 

My mom and sister and I sat down two weeks ago to plan and divide Thanksgiving. By mid-October we had our menu. I am responsible for Pumpkin Cheesecake, Sweet Potato Pudding, and Pull Apart Rolls.  I am planning to make the cheesecake entirely, cook and mash the potatoes and get the rolls right to the point before they bake and freeze all of it. All I should have to do on Thanksgiving is finish up the sweet potatoes and bake the rolls.

I'm also planning to make a few batches of cookie dough in the next few weeks and freeze those to bake in December. I find it overwhelming to make the dough and bake cookies on the same day. I'll make the dough now and then bake when the mood strikes. I'm planning to freeze Cream Cheese Sugar Cookies and Gingerbread Butterscotch cookies.

I always want to make a big batch of cinnamon rolls to eat on Christmas morning, but every year I don't have the time or energy to make them the night before. So I'm planning to make a few batches and freeze. All I'll have to do is thaw the night before and pop them in the oven when we get up.

I'm planning a small get together for my son's 2nd birthday and I will bake and freeze some cupcakes for that. We'll be on the road for my mom's birthday and I'll do brownies (or whatever she wants) for our daughter's birthday when we celebrate with her around Christmas.

Phew. I'm hoping that all the planning and prepping will save me some stressed out moments later this month!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Chicken Spaghetti Revamp

I can't remember exactly when I first ran across The Prairie Woman's Chicken Spaghetti recipe, but it quickly became one of my favorites despite the fact that it has few "issues" for the way I cook. First off, it calls for canned soup, which I don't use. Second, it calls for pimientos and I never have those things in my pantry. Third, if I'm going to cook an expensive whole organic chicken in water, there is no way I'm using the resulting broth to cook spaghetti (even though I'm sure it's very, very good)! So I revamped the recipe in to a homemade wonder of goodness.

When I made this the other night I used really good all natural white cheddar cheese. We just recently finished up all the Kraft cheese in the freezer and this was my first foray using "good" cheese. Wow. What a difference it makes! I've read that when it comes to cheese it is better to splurge on good cheese and just use less when cooking. I can officially tell that advice is spot on. The white cheddar does, however, make the dish less visually pleasing, but it tastes superb! Just put a nice big green salad next to the spaghetti.

I usually double the recipe and make two casseroles -- one for dinner and one to freeze.

Chicken Spaghetti Revamp
3 cups dry spaghetti, broken in to 2 inch pieces
2 cups cooked chicken
2 cups chicken broth
1 cup milk
6 Tablespoons butter
6 Tablespoons flour
1/4 cup finely diced onion
1/4 cup finely diced bell pepper (I like red)
1 teaspoon Lawry's Seasoned salt
1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Salt and pepper to taste
2 cups grated white cheddar cheese, separated

In a large heavy oven proof pot (like a dutch oven) cook spaghetti in salted water just until al dente. DO NOT OVERCOOK. Drain pasta and set aside. In pot, melt butter over medium high heat. Saute onion and peppers until onion is just turning translucent, about 5 minutes. Whisk in flour and cook for 1-2 minutes. Slowly whisk in 1 cup chicken stock and then the milk. Keep whisking to avoid lumps. Allow to cook and thicken for about 5 minutes. Add remaining 1 cup stock or to desired consistency (you don't want it thin, but not super thick like gravy either). Stir in chicken, spaghetti, Lawry's, cayenne pepper, 1 cup cheese and salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle remaining 1 cup cheese on top. Bake at 350 degrees until warm and bubbly, about 20-30 minutes.

Monday, November 1, 2010

An Alternative to Canned Tomatoes

Ever since the news over BPA surfaced a few years ago, I've been doing my best to limit our exposure to it. I would say that in general, it's been pretty easy to find replacements for items that contained BPA (except store receipts!). The one item that I've had the most difficult time replacing: canned tomatoes.

In general, I've never bought many canned vegetables. I prefer frozen. But my pantry was always stocked with diced, crushed, sauced and pasted tomatoes. I rarely bought pasta sauce -- I just made it from the cans. As it turns out, the acid in tomatoes causes the BPA to leach in to the tomatoes even more than in other canned veggies. Apparently, it also affects the taste of the tomatoes, which I didn't really notice until I started making my sauces from actual, real tomatoes. What a difference! I did my best to freeze fresh tomatoes at the end of summer, but it won't be enough to last us a year. I started buying organic jarred pasta sauce, but it has a bit more sodium in it than I like. I feel like I am forever on a hunt to find an alternative to canned tomatoes.

A few weeks ago I discovered Pomi tomatoes, from Italy, that come in a box. Ah ha! According to the article I read, however, they were only available on-line. With shipping, a 26 oz box would cost around $5! Yeah. So I wrote those off. Until one day a few weeks ago when I was hunting through the pasta sauce aisle at Wal-Mart and lo behold there they were -- boxed Pomi tomatoes! They still aren't cheap at just over $3 a box, but that is certainly a better price. I saw them a few days later at Whole Foods as well (for a little closer to $4/box).

I haven't tried them out yet so I can't vouch for the taste, but those boxes of tomatoes made my day! I make a lot of recipes that call for canned tomatoes and I was way stressing out about the canned stuff. They still cost more than I am accustomed to paying for tomatoes, but I am learning that paying more usually means better quality and taste.

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