Saturday, June 29, 2013

Spinach Avocado Grilled Cheese

This is not your mother's grilled cheese sandwich. And it's certainly not your son's.

In the summer, we tend to do summery meals--more salads, sandwiches, more quick things and cold things and simple things. Which can get boring if you're not careful.

So I made this. It wasn't boring. And it's awesome. And definitely filling enough to be a meal. And kind of green. I wasn't sure how I'd feel about the avocados. I don't generally like mine hot; once I tried them as a pizza topping and HATED it. But in this they just get mildly warm and add a nice creaminess to the sandwich.

Spinach Avocado Grilled Cheese
adapted from Taste Spotting
Makes 1
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 5-10 minutes
Cost: $1.20
bread: .20, avocado: .20, spinach: .05, pesto: .20, mozzarella: .15, goat cheese: .40)

2 slices bread (any type will work, so go as wholesome as you wish)
6-8 leaves of baby spinach
1/4 avocado (use the rest in a smoothie if you wish)
2 Tbsp pesto (or even mayo if you don't have pesto, though mayo won't have as much punch)
2 large slices mozzarella or cheddar
2 Tbsp crumbled goat cheese (optional, but good)

Spread the pesto on your slices of bread. Add sliced cheese to one slice. Add spinach leaves (layer them only in a single layer; otherwise, they feel crunchy and don't feel right with your warm sandwich). Add avocado slices. Add goat cheese. Top with other slice of bread.

Butter each side and put in a frying pan on medium low heat. You'll need the heat low-ish so the cheese melts. Once one side of the bread is lightly browned, flip and do the other side.

Note: If you're having trouble getting your cheese to melt, take the pan off the burner and put a lid over the sandwich. This will hold the heat in and melt your cheese without burning your bread.


Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Avocado Salad Dressing

Now that we've learned how to know when to cut open our avocados, let's talk recipes. I made this last night for a lettuce-based salad. It was delicious. It would also be delicious as a mayo sub for chicken salad. It would also be a fabulous veggie/cracker/whatever dip. It'd be so amazing with hamburgers I might have to make some this week just to have them together. And while it could be spread on your hamburgers, it could also be used as a dip for your fries. Or chips. Or to give your potato salad a little pizzazz. It's just that kind of a thing--a be-whatever-you-need kind of a condiment.

You can use Greek yogurt or sour cream to make it. I'd planned to use Greek yogurt, but them my kids ate it all for lunch, so I used sour cream. To make it more dressing-y, a yogurt would be perfect. To make it more dippy, use sour cream. Although I cannot emphasize enough that you could use either for anything and it will be great.

Avocado Dressing
makes about 1 cup
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cost: $2.00
avocado: 1.00, yogurt: .50, olive oil: .40, other stuff: .10 (this will be considerably cheaper with sale avocados which is what I used--mine were .60 and bulk yogurt--mine only cost about .25 for 1/2 C)

1 avocado, mashed
2 tsp lemon juice
1/2 C Greek yogurt, regular yogurt, or sour cream
1/4 C olive oil (another oil would work as well, but I really like it with olive)
1-2 garlic cloves
3/4 tsp salt
dash of cayenne or hot sauce (optional)

Mash the avocado. Add lemon juice and combine. This should keep it's color nice longer as well as add a nice punchy flavor.

Add other ingredients and mix until it's combined.


Monday, June 24, 2013

How to Know When an Avocado Is Ripe

I'd never eaten an avocado until I was an adult. And after that, it was a really hit or miss experience for me. I didn't like my avocados under ripe and as a result I would generally let them ripen and ripen until the skin was entirely dark and the area around the stem was quite wrinkled and the fruit was softish. Then I'd open my avocado up and occasionally I'd get a decent avocado, but much more often I'd have a nice rotten piece of fruit. I blamed stores for this--stores with their hopelessly bad avocado selection. This went on for years.

Then, the last time I visited my sister, she showed me how she could tell if an avocado was ripe. And it worked. Every time. Every single time.

You ready?

Your avocado is ripe when the little stemmy area is just about ready to fall out. If you wiggle it, it will start to pull off and sometimes even pull off completely. Then your avocado is ripe and you can cut into it with full confidence. Every time. Every single time.

(See, when I wiggled this guy, the stem came off, but it took a little wiggle. By which I mean, I didn't touch it and it fell off--if that had happened, it would have been a little over ripe.) 

Ahh, avocado perfection, right there.

By way of warning, I should say that you must start with a decent avocado--one that is a nice, firm fruit. Not one that is bruised or squishy.

Also, for this to work, you've got to get an avocado with a little stemmy thing still on. I haven't found this to be too much of a challenge.

The great thing about this tip is that it also helps with meal planning. If you need the avocado soon, then pick one from the store with a wiggly-about-to-fall-off stemmy thing. If you need it in a few days or a week, pick one with a stemmy thing that is still pretty firmly stuck to its fruit.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Crock Pot Chicken Curry

Lately I've logged a little time thinking about mothers and food. (Warning: Politically incorrect comments to ensue.) Ever since marriage and motherhood, I've given some thought to this topic, but this spring when our ducks birthed babies, I started thinking about it a lot more. Those ducks knew their mission. They snuggled the babies; they led the babies to water; they taught the babies to eat and drink; and they shielded the babies from any perceived dangers. It was a truly beautiful thing to watch if you want to know. And I realized that almost all mammals and birds do this. The mothers are wired to know that one of their main purposes in life is to teach their children to eat. In some species, the fathers help out. But in most (if not all) species, the mothers are either the sole feeders or are there sharing the duty. If not, the babies die. The end. 

It kind of got me thinking about us human mothers (and, yes, the fathers too because we're definitely one of those species that can share the load, but since I'm a mother, I thought more about them). Our babies won't quite die. At least not immediately. First they'll raid the snack drawer, right.

Now let me say before I go any further, that I have made lots and lots and did I mention LOTS of mistakes in teaching my children to eat. My son, as you know if you follow this blog at all, is the world's pickiest eater and I--as his pushover mother--am at least partly to blame for this. My other children eat okay (and Mark is very very very slowly kind of sort of some days improving), but I still feel terrible every time I read some kind of natural mothering blog or a book about feeding children or hear a comment about how so and so made a kale and egg and squash rice bowl that their kids just inhaled. Um, yeah.

But I do--even in my sometimes misguided, sometimes error-filled way--try to feed my kids. Usually with healthy, homemade foods.

However, I also recognize that this is not always easy to do. Especially in the American, mid-western culture in which I live. There's junk food everywhere. People are busy. Not everybody loves to cook. Food costs money. Food takes time. And in the summer, cooking food will heat up your kitchen.

I've tried to address several of these topics on this blog from time to time, especially as I continue to try to do a better job myself with the feeding/teaching of my own young.

But one area has been woefully underexplored: The Crock Pot. This summer, I hope to rectify that a bit. Because the crock pot deserves more space than it's gotten in a blog about food, cheapskatery, and people without all the time in the world.

Also, it's rising up again in popularity. As well it ought. It's a quick solution for busy and/or working mothers/fathers the country over. It's a way to have dinner and soccer night. It's a way to not have to slave over the hot stove all evening (yup, it's summer). It's a solution, people. And we should welcome it. 

Now there are--as I see it--a few types of crock pot recipes.

1. One is a type where you still have to spend 30 minutes prepping and cooking your stuff before it goes into the crock. This could still be useful if you have some time in the morning, but won't at night, but for an at-home mom like me, it seems a little pointless since I could just prep that meal in the evening (unless it needs to sit and simmer and be amazing, but even then I don't consider it a time-saver per se). These are, it seems to me, a new thing--a response to the rising popularity of the crock as people adapt their normal recipes to a slow cooker.

2. And then there's the ubiquitous can of whatever soup crock pot recipe. Meat + cream of whatever soup + potatoes. I think this can be useful in a pinch, but I also think it's what put the crock pot out of style in the first place.

3. Then there's the "cook 2 hours" crock pot recipe. To me, these are the least helpful (though again if ultra-tasty, maybe worth it). I mean, you can't come home to it; you can't get it over with in the morning. But it might be helpful if you have some piano lessons to attend to in the afternoon.

4. Finally there's the 5-minute, whole food, let-it-sit-however-long-and-it-tastes-good crock pot recipe. This, people, this is what I'm talking about. These recipes are AWESOME. And I hope to get you more of them this summer.

Today--if you've managed to make it this far in this post, I present to you a delicious one. Five minutes of your day and dinner is served. (Although I do recommend a pot of rice thereby, which will take another 15 minutes.) This was a delicious curry that wasn't too spicy/crazy. Kip liked it even though he doesn't usually like curry recipes. And I loved it and I like curry recipes. So it's a good crowd pleaser curry. And have I mentioned it takes 5 minutes. Now, my friends, now you can be a proud mother duck.

Crock Pot Chicken Curry
adapted from The Lemon Bowl
Serves 4-6 (if over rice)
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 4-8 hours
Cost: $5.75-6.00 (without peas)
chicken: 4.00, coconut milk: .50, chicken stock: .25, tomato sauce: 1.00,

4 boneless skinless chicken breasts (mine were frozen)
good sprinkle onion powder or 1 medium onion, sliced
1/2 C coconut milk (we used the kind from the can)
1/2 C chicken stock
15 oz can tomato sauce
2 Tbsp curry powder
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cayenne (we used just a dash 'cause we're wimpy)
1 C peas (optional and, yes, I skipped it, but I thought it would have been awesome)
2 Tbsp lemon juice
cilantro for garnish

In bottom of crock pot, stir, coconut milk, chicken stock, tomato sauce, curry, salt, and cayenne.

Add chicken and turn it a time or two so it's coated in the sauce.

Cook for 4 hours on high or 8 hours on low (we did the high option).

Just before serving, stir in peas and lemon juice and heat through.

Serve with cilantro if it's your thing (it's my thing, but definitely not Kip's).


Friday, June 14, 2013

Summer Fried Rice

So we had this lovely spring--cool and wet-enough-but-not-too-wet and green. And then Wednesday it was 95 degrees. Naturally that was the day I signed up to help at my son's scout camp. By the end of the day I was ready to kick the camp announcer/director guy in the shins. Judging from the way he made the entire camp stand on a shade-less hill for 20 minutes waiting for the flag ceremony to begin at the devilishly hot hour of 3:00, and and then gave 20 more minutes of announcements after that, I'm guessing he'd spent most of the day in the air conditioned scout building. Seriously, if I hadn't been about to faint away, I might have marched right up and given him a piece of my mind. When Mark and I got home, we ate ice cream. And let me tell you--it was not cold enough for me.

And then I had to make dinner. I made a simple one--fish, rice, corn on the cob, and watermelon. And I was glad I did because eating a nice, light, 20-minute meal felt better and more restorative than lying on the couch and hooking myself and my kids up with IV's of peanut butter (not that there's anything wrong with that).

But all that isn't really the point of this post (tell me you're shocked). The point of this post is to say that we had a couple of cooked fish fillets left over, a bit of rice, and a cob of cooked corn leftover. Now, I don't know about you, but I can't stand day-after fish. And cooked and reheated corn on the cob isn't really my thing either. You know, now that we're confessing things, I'm going to have to say that plain old leftover rice doesn't exactly rock my world either. And I couldn't pawn any of it off on Kip for lunch the next day.

So today I whipped out a frying pan, heated oil, and threw everything into it with some soy sauce (and some fresh chives that were sitting there on my windowsill). I thought it would be decent, but it was awesome. I could have been more creative or colorful  or healthy. I could have chopped up a few more vegetables or herbs. But I didn't need to. It was delicious. It was light, fairly healthy, and wonderfully satisfying. No nasty day-after-fish taste. No wrinkled, sad corn on the cob, no dry rice. It was that same light summery fish meal, but refurbished. You should do this too. In fact, you might even want to cook extra fish, rice, and vegetable one night just so you can have a (quite literally) five minute dinner of awesomeness the next night. I double dog dare you. And you don't even have to spend seven hours in 95 degree heat to deserve it.

Summer Fried Rice--a template of sorts
serves 4 (lightly)
Prep time: 1 minute
Cook time: 5 minutes
Cost: $6.50 (or about $1.60/serving)
fish: 5:00, rice: .50, corn: 1.00

Note: This can, of course, be made from scratch; and would be well worth it and still be a 30-minute meal. However, if you just make a little more one night when cooking fish (yeah, any fish) and rice, you can have a butt-kicky five minute meal the next night (or even the night after that). Also, fried rice is always a little better with leftover rice.

4-6 fish fillets (I used tilapia)
2-4 C cooked rice
2-4 cobs corn, cooked (or not--it'd work either way because they'll cook quickly in the pan)
1-4 Tbsp oil
soy sauce
chives (optional, but dang good and gives a little color)

For Leftover Meal:

Put oil in a pan and heat till shimmering. Add rice and toss with a spatula so that the oil gets on the rice. Add soy sauce (not too much; you can always add more; I'm sorry I didn't measure it; I didn't know this meal would be so awesome).

Chunk up your fish and add that. (Your fish, if already cooked is also already seasoned and that keeps the meal from needing too much extra seasoning.)

Cut the corn off the cob and add that.

Add a bit more soy sauce. (Garlic, ginger, etc. would also be lovely contributions, but mine was simple and still delightful.)

Snip in some chives if you can.

Remove when it's all hot and awesome. Eat.

Serve a salad on the side if you'd like to over-achieve.

For From-Scratch Meal:

Add 2 C rice to 4 C water. Cover. Bring to a simmer. (Note: I use less rice than this (about half), but if you like a lot of rice in your fried rice, then go for it.)

As rice cooks, heat butter in a skillet. Add fish. Season with celery salt, dill, and pepper.

Remove corn from husks. (Just use a sharp knife and cut down the sides.)

When rice and fish are cooked, remove fish from skillet and chunk it. Throw corn into skillet for 1-2 minutes. Add a bit more oil to skillet. Throw in 2-4 C rice (I prefer less, so I have more meat, corn, etc). Stir to coat with oil (by which I don't mean 'coat' as in get every piece of rice doused in oil, but to get more than just the bottom level of rice so it has some oil on it). Add soy sauce. Cook, stirring occasionally for a couple minutes. Add fish and stir. Add chives or whatever seasonings you want. Taste, adjust seasonings. Eat.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Baked Chicken Spaghetti

It's time for another Secret Recipe Club recipe. I'm kind of excited because for the first time I got someone I know (not personally, but we look at each other's blogs). Kind of fun. I had Rebekah at Family, Food, and Fun. She likes kids, cooking, and hiking. Right up my alley. I managed to pin plenty of her recipes. The one I made for Secret Recipe club was called Chicken Spaghetti. Why did I pick it? Because I had one lonely chicken breast languishing in the freezer waiting for something in which to sing. And my family loves pasta. And even though I don't make as many casseroles (or casserole-like foods) as I could, I'm a firm believer in them. They are a great way to turn a hodgepodge of foods (even leftovers) into something awesome. And speaking of leftovers, this could really be an ideal meal for a leftover Tuesday. It does well with adaptation. You could probably throw in whatever vegetables, pasta, and cheeses you had. Then proceed with her base recipe. As I said, I love a good casserole. Rebekah's was especially appealing because you could use cream of whatever soup, but you didn't have to. And while I'm not opposed to cream of whatever soup in a pinch, I really love me a whole foods casserole.

Baked Chicken Spaghetti
adapted from Family, Food, and Fun
makes 1 9x13 pan (we halved it for and 8x8x)
Prep time: 30-40 minutes (if using leftovers, this will take 5 minutes)
Cook time: 20-25 minutes
Cost: $5.10 (or about $.63/serving)
pasta: 1.00, chicken: 1.00, spinach: .35, cheese: 2.00, white sauce: .45, chicken broth: .30

Note on pasta: Rebekah used whole wheat. I went the low road and used regular. Also, I found that we didn't have any spaghetti (whaaat??? we always have spaghetti) so I used Radiatore)

Note on vegetables: Rebekah used onion, pimentos, and green pepper. Kip doesn't like those things, so I used 2 cups of baby spinach, chopped very small instead. I'd wager a host of different veggies would work well in this.

Note on cream of whatever soup: You can use it or you can make this simple white sauce: 4 Tbsp butter mixed with 4 Tbsp flour, then add 2 C milk and boil until thick, add salt and pepper. Rebekah has a more elaborate cream of recipe on her blog; here's the link. As a note, just making your own white sauce (5 minutes) is going to save you $1-2 dollars. It's $.45 as opposed to $1.00-2.00 for the canned soup.

Note on seasonings: I kept mine to simple salt and pepper, but Rebekah added 1 tsp seasoned salt, and a bit of cayenne.

Crunched for time: Use cream of chicken soup and canned chicken in this. Then throw in a can of drained vegetables (or pre-chopped vegetables) of your choice. It's not as cheap or as healthy, but it's better than a McDonald's run.

1 (13.25 oz) package spaghetti or angel hair (or other pasta)
2 1/2 C cooked chicken, packed
2 cans cream of chicken/mushroom soup
2 C shredded cheddar cheese
1 small onion, diced (or do as I did and add several sprinkles of onion powder)
2 C baby spinach, chopped very small
1 1/2-2 C chicken broth (as needed for consistency)
salt and pepper to taste
1 C shredded cheddar cheese (for topping)

Cook pasta in pot of salted water until al dente (seriously, don't get it to gloppy state; it's going to cook some more in the oven). (Alternately, you can use leftover spaghetti--3-4 cups.) Drain.

While the pasta's cooking, cook your chicken if you need to. I just boiled mine, then shredded it.

In bowl, combine cooked chicken, cream of whatever soup (or basic white sauce), 2 C shredded cheddar, onion (or powder), and spinach.

To this add cooked pasta and chicken broth. Start with 1 C of broth and add more as needed to get it to a consistency that you like--not soupy, but not to stiff. Add seasonings.

Spread in 9x13 inch pan. Bake at 350 for 20-25 minutes or until hot and bubbly. Add remaining 1 C cheese on top and return to oven until it's melted. (I put my one cup on at the beginning because I like mine to have a little color.)


Monday, June 3, 2013

Julia Child's Chocolate Almond Cake

I have made a few chocolate/ground nut cakes in my time. Usually they're dry. Because of this, I haven't made one in many years. Even this one, with the golden halo of Julia Child's name, has been sitting in my Pinterest for a year. I was afraid to make it for my birthday. I was afraid I would be disappointed. I should have trusted the Julia Child golden halo because this cake is awesome. I made it for book club this last month and it was delicious. It was still moist for two more days (can't tell you after that). Even the frosting, which--on it's own I considered a little lackluster--was perfect when paired with the cake.

This cake is not quite as easy as your run-of-the-mill chocolate cake. But it is still worth the hour or two of your life that you will give it.

Also--One thing about Julia Child. Her instructions are wordy (yeah, who am I to talk?). I appreciate very thorough instructions; I do. But it's one of those things that I think sometimes makes people feel too overwhelmed to try making a cake. And that's a pity. Because everyone should have a chance to know how good homemade cake can be. So I've tried to streamline the instructions just a wee bit.

Julia Child's Chocolate Almond Cake
adapted from Apron Strings
Prep time: 30-40 minutes
Cook time: 20 minutes
Cool time before frosting: at least 2 hours
Cost: $4.10
chocolate: 1.25, butter: 1.25, sugar.14, eggs: .30, almonds: 1.00, flour: .06, powdered sugar: .10

Note: To pulverize almonds, I just put sliced almonds in a small blender and pulsed until they were crumb-like. I used a bit over a cup and got a little over the 2/3 necessary. Any leftover can be used in a banana smoothie or your morning oatmeal.

For the cake: 
4 oz semisweet chocolate melted with 2 Tbsp hot water (I used 60% chocolate)
1/2 C (1 stick) butter, softened
2/3 C granulated sugar
3 egg yolks
3 egg whites
1 Tbsp granulated sugar
2/3 C pulverized almonds
1/4 tsp almond extract
1/2 C flour (I used all-purpose; cake flour would work too)

For the icing:
2 oz semisweet baking chocolate
2 Tbsp hot water
5-6 Tbsp butter
1/2-1 C powdered sugar

Preheat oven to 350.

Butter and flour an 8-inch pan (I only had a 9-inch and it worked just fine.) Line the bottom with parchment paper.

Heat water and chocolate. I put it in a microwave safe bowl and nuke it at 20-30 second intervals, mixing in between. If you have big chunks of chocolate, you'll want to chop it first.

Cream together butter and sugar (2/3 C). It will eventually be paler and fluffy--this takes about 3-5 minutes with a hand mixer.

Add egg yolks and beat until well blended.

In a separate bowl, beat egg whites and salt until soft peaks form. Sprinkle sugar on and beat until stiff peaks form. If you've never done this, it takes several minutes. Stiff peaks means that when you lift the beaters out, it leaves a little mountain of egg white behind.

Set the egg whites aside.

With rubber spatula, blend melted chocolate into butter/sugar mixture. Mix quickly as you pour. Then stir in almonds and almond extract. Stir (or fold) in one forth of the egg white mixture. Then fold in another 4th of the egg whites, then 1/3 of the flour mixture, then 1/3 of the egg, 1/3 of the flour. Then the last of the egg and flour. This keeps the whole thing nice and light while still ensuring that everything gets well incorporated.

Put batter in cake pan. Bake in middle of oven until the outside 2-3 inches have set, but the middle isn't quite set. So if you stick a cake tester in the outside 2 inches, it will come out clean. But when you stick it in the middle, you want it to come out a bit wet. The middle might even be a wee bit jiggly, though not much. (Mine was past jiggly point, but still wet when a knife was inserted.) This is the part where trust comes in. Your center will cook once it's out of the oven. Trust me. But if you overcook this whole thing it will be dry and crumbly (or that's what I'm betting; I did NOT overcook my cake.)

This will take 15-20 minutes in a 9-inch pan and probably about 20-25 in an 8-inch pan.

Allow cake to cool in pan for 10 minutes, then run a knife around the edge and turn it out onto a rack or serving platter. Allow it to cool completely before frosting.

For the Icing:

Place chocolate and water in a medium or large sized mixing bowl. Melt in microwave at 30 second intervals, mixing in between. When it's melted and smooth, take it out and beat the butter in 1 Tbsp at a time. That's where the original recipe ended, but it was too sophisticated for me, so I added 1/2 C powdered sugar and liked that better.  Keep beating beating beating. As you do this, the frosting will start to cool. It will thicken and lighten in color. It will look like normal frosting then and you can spread it on your cooled cake. If you'd like you can press some almonds in in a nice design.



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