What’s Cooking?

I did something I haven’t done in ages.

It’s been so long, in fact, when I started doing it again I thought I might wither and die from the stress and strain.

My head was spinning, my breathing was labored, and by the end of it all I was pretty worn out.

I created… (drumroll) …a menu.

Hubs had made a Costco run to get our first stash of food for the month, and came home with the biggest pork loin I’ve seen in my life. I’m pretty sure it came from some unknown breed of dachshund pig, for how long it was. There were other groceries as well, but they weren’t near as impressive as the giant slab of meat.

Looking at my countertop covered with fresh bounty, I felt an overwhelming sense of responsibility. How could I be entirely responsible, efficient, and effective, with all this food? We’re battening down the hatches with regards to our budget, so keeping a strict reign on our groceries is imperative.

“I know,” I thought. “I’ll make a menu to get us through the next couple of weeks, working around the food we’ve got on hand.”

Brilliant! … Right?

Probably, yes. But also very time consuming. And requiring my brain to function at full-capacity at the end of the day. Brilliant, but dangerous.

I sat down and started to make a list of everything I knew we had on-hand. My initial mistake was thinking we didn’t have much. When I started making a list of all the meat we had (including a pork loin as big as Little Man), the list kept growing. And growing. And growing.

We have so much meat.

It turns out, though I’ve spoken against it for so long, I was approaching my food with a scarcity mindset. Though we had cupboards, freezers, and a fridge full of food, I always told myself we “didn’t have anything to eat”. I’d think of something I wanted to eat, we’d make another run to the store for that meal’s ingredients, and each month we were spending inordinate amounts of money on inordinate amounts of food, and all the while I was thinking we didn’t have any, didn’t have enough, or needed different foods from what we had.

I was wasting my time, wasting my family’s resources, and blowing beyond our budget.

With a list in hand of what we currently had in stock, I started writing down meals I wanted to eat and knew I could make. Before I knew it, I had 10-days worth of dinners planned out.

Since school started last August, my daily routine has been something like this: Around 3:30, I think to myself, “Oh crap. What are we going to have for dinner tonight?” I walk to the kitchen, open a cupboard, and stare. This staring lasts for several minutes. I then close the cupboard and message my husband something like, “Anything in mind for dinner tonight?” to which he rarely provides a helpful answer. By 4:00 I’m in crunch-mode to get something thrown together so we can all eat a hot meal once he gets home from work.

It’s a stressful routine. Most often, we end up having only a main dish with no sides, because I haven’t thought that far ahead in my panic to put food on the table that night.

Hubs has been suggesting for a while we go back to planning a menu, to which I always scoffed in reply. I always manage to get dinner on the table one way or another. I don’t need anyone telling me what to cook my family! Except, I absolutely need someone telling me what to cook my family.

We used to subscribe to a menu service which provided the week’s menu and the accompanying shopping list. Some meals were hits. Some were total disasters. It did save us money each month, though, only buying what we needed for the planned menus.

I had a fresh Costco haul before me, though, with half the month’s budget spent, so I needed to get creative in a hurry. It was an exhausting process, but when I was done, I felt powerful! Capable! Superhuman!

Yesterday was the first day of putting my menu to use. I had dinner ready by 9:10 a.m. God bless the crock pot. We had beef roast, carrots, potatoes, and mushroom gravy. It was delicious. It wasn’t the least bit stressful. We polished our plates in no time.

For the next several days, dinner will be so much simpler. Why didn’t I think of this sooner?

Southern Comfort To The Rescue

This would have made a great video, but I still don’t have a voice and am battling this cold, so a lengthy post will have to do. I’m one who never understands why people who post recipes have to go through some kind of historical-account dialogue before they tell me how make the daggum meal, but now I find myself needing to tell a story about this dish.

Many (many) moons ago, when I was away at college, I drove from Tennessee to Arkansas for the weekend to visit a family near and dear to my heart. The wife was about to start making dinner after I arrived, and asked me a few questions. The conversation went something like this:

Her: “Val, do you like tomatoes?”
Me: “No.”
Her: “Do you like chilies? Like, green chiles?”
Me: “No.”
Her: “Well what about mushrooms, do you like those?”
Me: “No.”
Her: “Shoot. I was going to make Rotel casserole, but if you don’t like those things…”
Me: “Make what you want to make! I’ll eat around it if I have to, but don’t worry about what I like.” (thinking: because if it’s not Taco Bell, I don’t like it.)

She whipped up this Rotel casserole and I fell in love. IN. LOVE. So much so, that I made it all the time for the rest of my 20s, and I even sang a song about it. When I almost died hiking up the mountain, I would break out into a song that kept me going, because when we got back to town that night, I was going to make this for everyone for dinner. The thought of serving this after a grueling day in the wilderness was absolutely delightful. I couldn’t think of a better way to heal my bruised ego than to shove my mouth full of “Ro-teeeeeeeeeeel Cass-uh-roooooooooole”.

I don’t make it often now. It’s rare when it makes an appearance. It’s far from healthy. I’m sure there are some changes I could make to make it a little healthier, but…. why? So even though I don’t like 50% of its ingredients on their own, this is a southern-comfort-food that quickly became a favorite.

As we’re preparing over here in North Dakota for snowpocalypse this weekend, I thought this would be a great warm dish to share on those freezing cold evenings.

southern rotel

Ingredients:

1 lb. hamburger (or ground turkey)
1 can Rotel tomatoes & chiles*, undrained
1 can corn, undrained
1 can cream of mushroom soup
1 c. minute rice**
1 (big) bag of nacho cheese Doritos, or plain corn tortilla chips
2 c. shredded cheddar cheese (at least!)

In a large skillet, brown and season your meat. I always season my meat the same way: with onion, garlic, and chili powder. Add the can of Rotel, the can of corn, the mushroom soup, and the rice. Stir to mix well and let simmer together over low to medium heat for 20 minutes. In the bottom of a greased 9 x 13 pan, crush some Doritos in a layer to cover. Sprinkle with cheddar cheese to cover. When meat mixture has heated through, add half of meat mixture to pan. Layer more crushed Doritos on top, sprinkle more cheese, and add the remaining meat mixture. Top with more crushed Doritos and more shredded cheese.

If you have cheese or Doritos left over, you’re doing it wrong. Live a little.

Bake at 350* for 20 – 30 minutes until cheese is melted through. Voila!

*I am at a stage in my life where my sensitivity to spice is worse than it’s ever been. I can’t even use mild Rotel anymore. So I use petite diced tomatoes. They have to be petite diced, because regular diced tomatoes are really just “lazily cut huge chunks” of tomato.

**We don’t buy minute rice. So I cook rice ahead of time and add it to the skillet mixture to simmer with the rest. I guess that’s one way I improve the nutrition quality of this meal. Look at me, being an example.

Warm up, and enjoy this delish dish of good ol’ southern comfort food. You’re welcome.

How A Chicken Keeps You Sane

chicken

Many moons ago, someone submitted a survey suggesting I post recipes. Whoever you are, if you still read my blog today, this post is for you.

Really, it’s for anyone tired of cooking the same thing repeatedly, running out of creative ideas, and who doesn’t want to spend an entire Saturday bagging things up to put in the freezer so you can forget to thaw them in time to put them in a crock pot one day.

First, a story. Once upon a time, I tried to embrace our situation and make the most out of it. As much as I detest living in an apartment, I made a decision to make the best life possible here, now. That’s how the whole “Little Apartment On The Prairie” came about. Playing what you’re dealt and doing it without being a sourpuss is how Ma Ingalls spanked me into a big ol’ reality check.

Little Apartment on the Prairie isn’t just a cutsie hashtag phrase. It’s a reminder we still very much walk in the Lord’s blessing, He’s gotten us through a lot worse, and He has a plan for much better.

Now… what does that have to do with cooking? One thing I grow tired of is having to think of, prepare, then cook dinner every day. I love cooking, and I’m quite good at it (save for the time we invited friends over and I ruined it and had to go buy pizza…), but I don’t live to cook. Recently, I’ve been traveling, trying to get various family members over their illness bugs, and I’m flat out tired.

Previously, this would warrant a trip through the drive through, or to the frozen food section of the grocery store for a quick fix. That only makes us sicker and heavier, though, so I’ve stopped doing that. What I do instead is put my big girl panties on and cook.

It’s not as much of a headache as it was, though. I’ve learned some tricks and I’m going to share one with you today.

We all know how amazing the crock pot is. If I had room to store several, I would own several. Crock pots are so versatile and can be used in cooking, canning, reheating, making cider… I could easily have an entire crock pot kitchen. Not to mention they don’t put off near as much heat as an oven, and in the summer time, that does wonders for keeping your home’s interior cool. Don’t think you have to use a crock pot only for a roast or for something you’ve spent a whole day chopping and putting into a freezer bag.

Just this morning, I put a whole chicken in the crock pot. I cut up an onion, minced some garlic, seasoned the chicken with our favorite dry rub, put the lid on, and we’ll have dinner ready in a few hours.

But wait – there’s more!

I have four mouths to feed. Two of them don’t eat much at all, no matter how we plead with them. One whole chicken will feed us at least three times. But who wants to eat the same old chicken three nights in a row? No one. I can’t stand eating the same thing over and over. And I don’t have to.

Today, I roasted a whole chicken. We’ll most likely eat the legs and thighs for dinner tonight. Whatever we do, we’ll have plenty of chicken left over. I’ll be able to divide the leftovers in half and make two more meals.

Tomorrow, we’ll have chicken pot pie. The next night, we’ll have white chicken chili. We’ll have chicken three nights in a row, but different meals so we don’t get bored, and one $6 chicken just fed my family three times. (Don’t like those meals? Chicken and rice, chicken salad, chicken and pasta, bbq sandwiches… the possibilities are endless.)

But wait – THERE’S MORE!

The bones and carcass that will remain after I’ve stripped the chicken meat won’t go to waste. I’ll throw those into my stock pot and make my own broth.

One chicken. Three healthy, wholesome, home-cooked meals. Plenty of broth. $5.94.

You’re welcome.


Crock Pot Chicken:

  • 1 Whole Chicken, rinsed (and not frozen)
  • 1 – 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 Onion, coarsely sliced
  • Dry rub seasoning

Cut the onion garlic and place in the bottom of the crock pot. Carefully cover outside of chicken with dry rub. You may coat the inside as well, if you’re crazy about the flavor of your dry rub. Place on top of the onions and garlic. You don’t need to add additional liquid – the chicken will provide plenty. Cook on low for 6 – 8 hours (the longer and slower it cooks, the better the flavor and tenderness of the meat. You can cook it on high for 4 hours, but it probably won’t be the best chicken you’ve ever had.).

Chicken Pot Pie:

  • 2 stalks celery, finely chopped
  • 1 large carrot, finely chopped
  • 1/4 onion, finely chopped
  • 1 large chicken breast (or equivalent amount of meat), shredded or chopped to bite-sized pieces
  • 1 1/2 – 2 c. chicken broth
  • pie crust(s)
  • ** you may include whatever veggies are your favorites. Potatoes, corn, peas, green beans, etc. all go well. Make it to suit your taste – you’re the one who’s going to be eating it! I’ve even used okra in a pot pie before!

I find it best to have the bottom pie shell already baked before filling the pie.

Sauté the celery, carrot, and onion in some butter (I use at least 1 Tbsp. of butter, you can use more or less) until tender. Add some of the chicken broth (enough to adequately cover) and simmer until broth has cooked down and veggies are nice and tender. Add chicken to pan, and whatever additional veggies you want to add to your pie. Add the rest of the chicken broth (and possibly some cream of tartar or cornmeal, if you want a slightly thicker gravy-sauce consistency) and simmer until heated through. Add your seasonings (salt, pepper, garlic, etc.) to taste. Remove from heat, and let cool slightly (and allow the sauce to thicken). Pour into the baked pie crust, cover with second pie crust dough (or with mashed potatoes if you’re looking for more of a shepherd’s pie) and bake until top is browned (usually 10 – 15 minutes at 375* does the trick).

White Chicken Chili:

This recipe might drive you crazy if you’re a person who needs exact directions. This is really all about how you like to eat your food. I am NOT a spice person (in fact, I have severe reactions to spicy food, so I am the queen of mild flavor), therefore I won’t put chilies in my chili. Counterintuitive, I know… Season this to your liking, and feel free to experiment. You can even add non-white beans to white chili. SAY WHAT?! You heard it here first, folks. Make a meal you’ll eat with what you’ve got. Keep It Simple, Silly.

  • Whatever’s left of your chicken! – best if shredded
  • White beans (Navy, Great Northern, heck, throw some chickpeas in there!)
  • Seasonings & Spices (typically salt, pepper, cumin, chili powder, oregano, bay leaves, chili peppers)
  • You’ve still got 1/4 of an onion to use – throw it in here, too!

Get your crock pot ready again, because you can get this ready in the morning and then forget about it until dinner time! It absolutely works on the stovetop as well, however, and you can bring everything to a low boil, reduce heat and let simmer for a good 25 minutes or so.

Throw the beans and chicken in the pot. If your beans don’t have a lot of moisture, you’re going to want to add enough water to barely cover, and check on this throughout the day. If you prefer a soupy chili, add more water. If you prefer a thicker chili, only add liquid as needed. If you add bay leaves, make sure to remove them before serving.

You can cook this on low all day in the crockpot, or follow the cooking instructions listed above for the stovetop.

The Gift That Keeps On Giving

Forever ago, when hubs and I walked down the aisle, food was the last thing on my mind. I had salmonella, after all, and had contracted it from food I didn’t even eat. (Thanks, cross-contamination!) When we opened gifts, however, we received this cookbook.

I think. It could have been a shower gift? I don’t really remember. I don’t remember who gave it to us. If it was you, you’ve saved our mealtime more than once. Thank you.

The Gift That Keeps On Giving

I’ve owned and gotten rid of so many cookbooks over the years, but I consistently return to two of them. This one, and the Betty Crocker book I stole graciously given to me from my parents.

Growing up, Mom was never excited about cooking. She could make a killer meal, but she never really liked to cook. I enjoyed dabbling in it now and then, but it wasn’t until I took Home Economics in the 7th grade, that my love for food reached an entirely new level. (Mrs. Stubblefield, you’re a saint.) When I started learning I could make food – ridiculously tasty food – and fairly simply, I was hooked on cooking.

I used to ask my parents if we could invite people over, so I could cook a meal. I baked goodies after school all the time. I perfected recipes and loved nothing more than making food people would rave about. Mostly, I loved the attention. But cooking extra tasty food was a great vehicle for said attention. So it stuck.

Brent has always been a fan of my cooking. He hasn’t always loved what I cook, but he loves that I actually cook. A growing family and a crazy schedule later, I don’t cook every single night. But when I do, it’s pretty tasty.

This cookbook, however, has been the inspiration behind many a meal. And dessert. And bread. For the last almost-13 years, it’s been my go-to for recipes and ideas on feeding my family.

Last week I was feeling especially domestic and had all kinds of adventures going in the kitchen. I made pot roast, and apple cake, alongside a couple of apple pies and cooked some pumpkins to use for the famous pumpkin pie I make each fall. This book saved my tail in the way of the apple cake.

Yum & Yes, Please!

It never gets put away – it stays out on the kitchen counter for how often I reference its pages. After we were married, I made my first-ever Chicken A La King from this cookbook and catered our first (of many) Superbowl parties with appetizer recipes from this book as well. It truly has been the gift that never stops giving.

I’m kind of a rare bird when I cook in the sense that I really don’t want anyone’s help. I need the kitchen to myself, else you’ll most likely just end up in the way. I also had to learn to offer my assistance to others in their kitchens, since I want to be alone in my kitchen turf, it took me a long while to realize not everyone else is the same way.

Holiday meals are my favorite to prepare, and I love the fact every time I cook a big holiday meal, my husband puts himself on clean-up duty without being asked. Another reason on the long list of why he is my favorite person on the planet.

I am sorely disappointed I am the only one in my household who has deep love for sweet potatoes, though. They are a holiday staple for me, but my husband and children don’t share the same enthusiasm. Pray for them to be healed from this malady.

One holiday meal tradition for us has been prime rib at Christmas. The first time I made it was for my family Christmas five years ago. I was incredibly nervous. Prime rib is an expensive hunk of meat, and one you can’t really afford to screw up. Thankfully, it turned out deliciously. After a few bites, my brother-in-law turned to my husband and asked, “Did you ask Val to marry you after you tasted her cooking?”

Yes. It had nothing to do with my personality, my hilarious wit, my love of music or not murdering him when he quoted every line before it was spoken during the movie Tombstone. He didn’t really love me until he put a fork full of homecooked goodness in his mouth. And they lived happily ever after.

There is something to be said, though, for people enjoying the fruits of your labor of love in cooking a giant, hearty, tasty meal. It’s a gift I love to offer, a skill I’ve enjoyed mastering, and something I’ve grown to appreciate even more over the years.

This cookbook has become an important part of my kitchen. It’s a wedding (shower?) gift that has kept on gaining. Er, giving. Giving us pounds. Of love.