Monday, January 30, 2012

When Life Gives You Winter {Make Lemonade!}

 My dear friend from my home state of California sent me some delicious, fragrant little pieces of sunshine in the mail last week.  Meyer Lemons straight from the tree in her own backyard.  They were delivered to me on an 11 below zero kind of Alaskan day so when I retrieved them from the mail box they were frozen solid.  The box smelled like a warm summer day when I opened it, and how could I not smile when all these beautiful yellow citrus fruits were so bright and happy!   

I debated on what to make with them; lemon curd, lemon meringue pie, lemon bars?  I couldn't decide, and I was also awaiting my new Canon Rebel T3i camera in the mail in hopes that I could photograph these babies before they rotted away.  All my hopes and dreams came true and so not only did I get happy, shiny, citrus fruits but I got the Rebel a few days later too.  And when life gave me Winter I made lemonade!! Not just any lemonade...strawberry lemonade in honor of my daughter's 7th birthday. 

Food pictures excite me, and it is even more exciting since I now have the MOST amazing camera!! Eeeeekkk...I literally did a happy dance when it came, and I am still learning but I love this camera. 

I did a little lemon squeezing with my girls.  Here they are, all squeezed out.  It was a bit messy, and we had some spills.  But we managed to get what we needed out of them.  And because I don't have a juicer I just use this handy dandy squeezer/juicer thingy (a very technical term as you can tell).  So bust out some lemons, and whatever device you have to start extracting juice from them.

Get about a cup or more of fresh lemon juice.  And a bag of frozen strawberries, some sugar and some water...and you have the makings of some sunshine in a cup!!

I made some simple syrup on the stove top, just some sugar and water and brought it to a boil to dissolve the sugar.  Then I let that cool down. 

I added the lemon juice, syrup and water, I mixed it up and then added in the bag of strawberries, and stuck the pitcher in the fridge, allowing the strawberries a chance to defrost a bit and get mushed in there. 

{Strawberry Lemonade}
8 cups of water
1 3/4 cups of white sugar
1 cup (or a bit more) fresh squeezed lemon juice
1 12oz bag of frozen strawberries

Combine 1 cup of the water, and the sugar in a pot on the stove and bring to a boil.  Boil just a few minutes until sugar is fully dissolved, stir and turn off and allow the syrup to cool to room temperature.  Add in the lemon juice, syrup and 7 cups of remaining cold water.  Stir.  Add in frozen strawberries, stir and refrigerate.  Once berries have softened slightly, mash them and stir them a bit to incorporate.  Adjust sweetness to your liking by adding in more white sugar if you so choose, but I recommend a taste first. 

*You could use fresh berries, but since this is Alaska and it is the dead of Winter the frozen berries were a more cost effective and handy solution for this time of year*


Monday, January 16, 2012

{Menu Planning} Save Time, Money and Eat Well

One of my dearest friends sent me a text message telling me that she was considering following my lead on something I have done for years now: menu planning.  I thought that I would share exactly what and how I go about with my menu planning.  There has been a recent popularity in couponing, menu planning, and frugal living; and they are all so very useful to military families and ALL families.  Why wouldn't you want to save or stretch a dollar, right?

Every two weeks I make one big grocery trip.  I make a menu, and it saves me time, money, stress and really satisfies my Type A personality...I just really like the ease of knowing what I am going to feed my family every night.

{Goals to Achieve with Menu Planning}
  • save money
  • cut back on food waste
  • save yourself time and stress
  • improve nutrition
Getting Started
If menu planning is new to you, try starting with a one week menu; just seven dinners and build from there.  I usually only plan for dinners, and then I purchase breakfast and lunch items my family enjoys but I have considered adding in all three meals to the menu plan.

The Process

1)  Scope out the Recipes...
I sit down and I grab my recipe box, recipe binder and a pile of cookbooks or open up to my favorite recipe finding sites online. 

I like All Recipes, Food Network, The Pioneer Woman and also this new one I have found Food Buzz (an entire network of Foodies and Food Bloggers...I am in heaven!).  I cannot leave out another new favorite site Pinterest a virtual pin board for things all over the web, including recipes and food blogs.   

My recipe collection binder, magazine articles and printed out recipes inside document protectors.  I have one for savory and one for sweets.

2)  Make the Meal Calendar... 
I jot down every day of the week with dates on a piece of paper.  And I start writing down things we want to eat, I don't really care if come Tuesday the 23rd we don't want to eat spaghetti because I can switch it for Thursday the 25th when we are eating chicken and who is going to know that I didn't "follow the menu" to a 't' right?  It is really a guide for me to make sure I have enough meals for every day between this payday and the next.  I have considered a computer print out for this but every time I make one, I end up going right back the handwritten list.   

You can see I just make notes, use arrows, and my blank spaces are so we can have a treat night and go out one time during the two weeks.

3)  Find the Deals... 
I blaze through the coupon sites, but I use a rule...don't clip a coupon just because it is there and I *could* save money on something that I wouldn't normally buy otherwise.  You can easily fall into the trap of clipping coupons and end up with a much larger grocery bill if you are not careful, I speak from experience. 

But have you seen the Extreme Couponers? Seriously...scary, and *amazing* all at the same time.  I can't seem to dedicate myself to doing that extreme level of clipping so I just go forth and save a few bucks.  For now I frequent a few coupon sites (check out "Smart Money" Magazines list of the 5 best couponing sites), and I go directly to all the local grocery stores websites to check the ads for the week.  I also pay attention to prices, and I keep a book of average prices of staples like meat, milk, cheese, bread, eggs, coffee, etc.  So that if something does go on sale at another grocery store I know right away I need to make an extra stop somewhere else.

If my husband were not deployed he would make a really awesome spread sheet for this, but I like spiral notebooks still.

If you have a smart phone and you frequent a grocery store check to see if they have a mobile app.  Often the mobile apps will load coupons right to your savings card for a particular store.  My favorite ones are the ones where I can spend money, use a digital coupon on my card and then save money at their gas station.  Fred Meyer has a mobile app under Kroger (same company) and I load coupons all the time through it.  Safeway (Carrs or Vonns) also has the same deal, you can load coupons online from their site to your savings card.   

Another one (not grocery related) JoAnns craft store has a mobile app and you can take your coupon on your phone to the counter and they will scan it right off your phone, same goes for Kohls, sign up through email for coupon codes and they will scan from your phone too!!   

4)  Adapt Where the Money Can Be Saved... 
I adapt the recipe choices for the two weeks according to what I can get on sale by checking the food ads online or in the newspaper.  Whole chicken on sale at Carrs?  Then I add that to the menu or swap it out for something else and so on.  Don't forget that most stores will give you rain checks for items that they advertise on sale but are out of stock on.   

5)  Take Inventory... 
I go through my cupboards and refrigerator and check to see if I have the ingredients for any of my recipes, then I add what I need to avoid buying what I already have.  

6)  Prep Food Now, to Save Later...
After going to the stores, I will freeze any of the meat that I do not need in the first couple of days.  Any produce that I know will not last more than a couple of days gets used first and I prep things like herbs or cilantro by wrapping them in paper towel and sealing them in bags.  Things like carrots, potatoes, winter squash, celery, and onion; those things can last longer and I can wait to use those later in the menu.  We have lived in some interesting locations where fresh produce isn't always at the best quality because it has to be trucked in, and I have to use it right away or switch to something flash frozen.  This is really not a bad alternative and can be just as healthy for you.  Things like Lima beans, corn, and broccoli can maintain many of their nutrients when frozen.  Got to do what you got to do right?

7)  Reduce, Reuse, Repurpose Leftovers...
I make plans for leftover nights, which can save you money as well.  But if you aren't much of a leftover person than try to reuse your leftovers in creative ways.  Roasted chicken can be turned into chicken tacos or chicken salad, leftover steak into steak quesadillas or fajitas, leftover steamed broccoli to top baked potatoes, or leftover white rice for fried rice.  Since we are short one adult eating in the house right now if I make a pot of spaghetti sauce I freeze half of it for another time, same goes for soups, and casseroles as well. 

I usually have to make a run for milk, eggs or bread sometime between shopping trips and I try to avoid picking up anything extra.  Often, I will run to a bulk store and buy items like butter, string cheese, bread, and frozen fruits and veggies and freeze them.  I can find better deals on butter and cheese at my local Costco so once a month I add a trip there to the shopping list.  Share a membership fee with a friend, or go in halves on large food items if you both have smaller families.  I like being able to go to my deep freeze and pull out a pack of butter when I need to make cookies for care packages instead of running to the store last minute.     

8)  Pat Yourself on the Back...

Following these guidelines I have decreased our grocery bill by at least a hundred dollars or more every two weeks.  If you can stick closely to a list than you a more likely to save your family money in the long run, make healthier choices in food, and are less likely to make the drive-thru run or call the local pizza delivery boy later.  Give it a try, you might be surprised how taking an hour for menu planning and creating a list can save you a ton in both time and money later. 

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Sage Rubbed Pork Chops and Wild Mushroom Orzo: {Meet the K Family}

When I first moved away from home, and the Army let me have my husband back I think I could cook 5 meals.  We basically rotated those meals, and mixed up those meals in various combinations of things.  I couldn't even boil rice, and I think we ate chicken parmesan so many times I don't think I could ever eat that again in my lifetime!!  I was armed with one cookbook my Mom got me, and a handful of recipe cards that I had requested as gifts from my friends at my bridal shower.  Armed with a general knowledge of cooking, some really weak kitchen skills and some comfort food recipes I was thrust to Southeast Georgia; home of Paula Deen (ya'll), collard greens, fried chicken, pralines, fried catfish and grits!  This little old California girl was so out of her element.  But I made it through and my husband did not go hungry.  I now am armed with an arsenal of recipes and techniques I learned over time and with lots of practice and mistakes.  And let me tell you, this Cali girl can now throw down some collard greens thanks to watching Ms. Deen!!   

I say all of the above, as my next Deployment Dinner story takes me back to those memories so easily because I was in this Army wife's shoes once too.  Meet the K family.  John and Michelle.  John is a Medic, Michelle is a student and server at a really tasty burger restaurant "Red Robin" Yyyyuuummm!  It just so happens that Michelle is from Georgia!!  Here they are at the unit ball before the guys cute!  This is their first deployment, by far the most difficult one to conquer.    

Michelle is like that cool, younger sister, an "Aunt type" to my girls and the eight year age gap between us doesn't seem to matter much sense we seem to have been friends forever...those are really the nicest friends to meet because nothing is ever really forced or awkward.  Jessica (another friend from the first Deployment Dinner post) introduced us.  I have plans to take Michelle under my culinary wing and she is going to master some kitchen skills before John returns from deployment.  I wish someone would have done that for me all those years ago in Georgia.  It helps that my girls adore her, so we like having Michelle around.  

*Do you have a recipe that you have wanted to make but are too afraid to tackle on your own? 
M: "Girl, I have about a million recipes like this (lol) just flip open any cookbook!"

*Vegetable that frightens you?  Why? 
M:  "Are artichokes vegetables? Just don’t know how to cook them I guess
(Michelle, I think you are so cute!  I have an amazing artichoke recipe...I will show you one day.)

Michelle with my Cha Cha bug.

*Your proudest kitchen moment:
M:  "When I made the alfredo from scratch for the first time, I was like whoa! I can actually cook something!"
*Your worst kitchen moment:
M:  "Frying chicken… smoke detectors were going off, doors had to be open to ventilate.. it was bad."

(LOL!! I have been in your shoes, and I still burn stuff every once in awhile...although I hate to admit that.)

*What are your proudest Army moments?
M: "Him (John) graduating basic, then AIT, then going thru Airborne school. I’m so proud of everything he does!"
(Michelle you have the true makings of an Army wife;  strength, pride, and honor.)

Michelle is not a picky eater so I figured she wouldn't mind eating Sage Rubbed Pork Chops and my signature dish Wild Mushroom Orzo Pasta.  Makes my mouth water thinking about it.  The first time I made this Orzo my husband said, "Why have we waited so long to find Orzo?"  I totally agree, it beats being in the rice rut, or potato dilemma...mashed, fried, or baked?  The husband is very military in his meal requests; protein, starch, vegetable so Orzo makes for a nice "starch."

I ate at a restaurant called Rutherford Grill in the Napa Valley in California and I had the most amazing thick cut, sage rubbed pork chop so I was on a mission to find a recipe similar to duplicate it at home.  It didn't take me long to find one on one of my favorite recipe sites, All Recipes.  They also have a very cool smart phone app (check it out).

 At Rutherford Grill they serve them with purple red cabbage and blue cheese, and a side of homemade apple sauce.  I tell you it is the best combination of flavors.  I make these a lot so here are some pictures of the pork chops I made before my husband deployed.  Now, that is a man size chunk of meat. 


For the Orzo (which can be found on the shelf with the other pastas) you will need to find dried fancy mushrooms. I find these in our commissary in the produce section but have seen them in specialty food stores or "fancy food aisles".

This is the brand and type I use.  Melissa's Exotic Mushroom Medley

  Dried mushrooms do not look appetizing in their dried form (I will admit), but they are very rich, and add such a nice flavor dimension to this pasta. You will need to reconstitute them by putting some boiling water into a glass measuring cup or bowl and then steep the mushrooms in the hot water, and cover with a lid.  About 7-10 minutes or until they are soft.  Drain the mushrooms and then chop them and set them aside.
Chop one small onion (or half a large one) and saute with 1/4 cup of butter.
Add to the pan, one cup of uncooked Orzo pasta.
Add in your fancy mushrooms.  These are porcini, oyster chanterelle, shiitake and cremini.  Every fancy mushroom your heart could desire in one bag.
Saute that all up together, stirring often.  Give the Orzo a chance to heat up well so that it can better absorb all the liquid you will be adding next.
Add in a cup of chicken broth and 1/2 cup of white wine.  I like to use a Chardonnay.

Bring it up to a boil and then reduce heat to simmer with lid off.  Sprinkle some garlic powder and some salt and pepper over the top.  Allow to simmer (about 15-20 min.) until liquid has cooked down. 
Add a mountain 1/2 cup of grated parmesan cheese.
Stir the cheese in and add in 1/4 cup more butter and stir it all up until melted.  Taste your orzo and adjust your salt, pepper and garlic powder to taste. 

This makes a great vegetarian dish, it is filling enough to be a meal on its very own but we love it as a side dish as well. 

{Wild Mushroom Orzo}
By: DK365

1/2 cup butter, divided
1 small onion, chopped
1 package (1/2 oz.) of dried wild mushroom medley, reconstituted and chopped
1 cup Orzo pasta
1 cup chicken broth
1/2 cup white wine
garlic powder, salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese

Melt 1/4 cup of the butter in a large skillet.  Add the onion in and saute until soft.  Boil one cup of water and steep the mushrooms covered until softened, drain and chop.  Add the orzo pasta and mushrooms to the skillet.  Saute for about 5 minutes, stirring frequently.  Add the chicken broth and wine to the skillet, sprinkle in salt, pepper and garlic powder, stir, and turn the heat up, bring to a boil and then turn down to a simmer until liquid is gone and pasta is al dente.  Add grated parmesan and the remaining butter.  Adjust salt, pepper and garlic powder to taste.

{Sage Rubbed Pork Chops}
Adapted from the original recipe found here at All Recipes

4 tsp. salt
2 tsp. dried rubbed sage
2 tsp. ground black pepper
4 thick cut, bone in pork chops
4 Tbsp. butter
1 cup of water
2 cubes of beef bouillon

Combine the salt, pepper and sage in a bowl.  Rinse and pat dry your pork chops.  Rub the seasoning mixture on both sides of the chops.  Melt the butter on a medium-high heat in a large saute pan.  Sear the pork chops when the pan gets really hot, searing one side (a couple of minutes a side), flip and then sear in the other to lock in moisture.  Heat up the water and dissolve the bouillon. Pour the water/bouillon mixture into the pan and bring up to a boil.  Cover and turn to a simmer about 25-40 minutes depending on the thickness of your chops.  You can serve the "au jus" (fancy French word for the liquid it was cooked with) on the side and dip your bites of pork chop into it! That is my husband's favorite way to eat them.  

**Important notes: be cautious of the salt measurements, this recipe has potential to get highly salty. Do not add additional salt into the recipe.
Cook your pork to at least 145 degrees per new USDA standards.  I prefer mine slightly pink in the middle, about a temp of 160 degrees or so.  Cook to your liking. 


Monday, January 2, 2012

{How to Peel a Whole Head of Garlic}

You can go into a grocery store these days and buy yourself an entire container of peeled cloves of garlic, or even garlic in a jar that has been finely chopped or turned into a paste for you but it much more expensive than a whole head of garlic.  My Italian Grandfather probably rolls over in his grave every time I reach for a jar of prepared garlic.  It is nice to use in a pinch but there is something so tasty and much more fragrant about whole, fresh garlic.  If you have ever stared at those sweet, white bulbs and broke into a sweat then you might be a vampire...or you might just not know how to even bust one of those things open into something useful and tasty, or maybe you do and maybe this will make your life a lot easier.  Here I will give you a tip on how to disassemble a head of garlic.    

Choose a head of garlic that is tightly closed when you get it from the grocery store. 

 Pinch away the top of the head of garlic, it crumbles apart like paper.  Then put your thumb down into the center of the bulb and separate it like this.  Peel away a few cloves.  You can see two of them here, but they still need to be peeled.

Take the flat side of a chopping knife and place it flat against the clove of garlic.  I find it helps if the rounded section of the garlic clove is facing up against the knife.  

Then place your dominate hand, palm down flat against the flat part of the knife.  Place your non dominate hand on top for added force and press down firmly but not to the point of completely smashing the clove.  I sometimes will just use the meaty part of my palm without the knife to do this if I only need a couple of quick cloves for a recipe, whatever you prefer.  

 Then cut the stem ends of both sides of the garlic clove and the outside should peel right off.  You now have a gorgeously smooth and useful clove of garlic that is now ready for a fine chop, a dice or a crush.