Sunday, October 30, 2011

Cheddar Broccoli Soup, Beer Bread, Salami

Tonight's dinner was supposed to be scramble, but we had a beer bread mix calling my name and the weather was perfect for a creamy soup.  It's not in line with the low(er)-carb direction I'm taking our household meals, but it's not outside my comfort zone for an occasional special meal.  And it was certainly special.

The wind is cold, cold, cold on my nose.  But the soup warms me, down to my toes.

Kalua Pig

This weekend we had a mini-luau with some friends that we traveled to Hawaii with last year.  It's nice and rainy already here in Portland, but this time last year we were sitting on the beach, enjoying fresh fruit, beautiful seas and skies, and relaxing in the lovely weather.  We didn't make the trek back this year, but to commemorate the trip we had some Hawaiian cuisine favorites like mac salad, shoyu chicken, haupia pudding, and I made Kalua Pig for the first time.

Tim took some great photos for me of the prep and the cooking and then, in my haste to serve it up, I failed to get some shots of it all cooked!  But it looked like any other kalua pig you've ever seen and it tasted good too. Kalua Pig is not my favorite dish, but Tim was impressed and he's really my target audience.

It's really three ingredients - these two, plus a lot of pork.

The salt was a coarse grain and was surprisingly damp feeling.  The package said it contained carbon from coconut shells and it had a smoky scent to it.

The recipe calls for pork butt, but I found pork shoulder on sale at Whole Foods and the butcher said it would be perfect for this dish.  I haven't had a lot of conversations with butchers.  It was kind of fun.  He was very helpful and I appreciated his ability to talk through the recipe and process with me.

Salted, smoked, and ready to go.

Cooking away in the slow cooker.  We flipped it over once mid-cooking and by morning it was already fall-apart tender.  The salt worked in throughout the meat and the whole house smelled of hickory.

I wish we had a picture of it all cooked up, but you can probably imagine what it looked like.  It was dark, still moist, and very tender.  I should have taken more pictures at the rest of the luau too!  It was a success.

Tilapia, green beans, string cheese

Friday dinner was quick and tasty - the perfect meal to start a nice weekend at home.  My only complaint was that it's not cooking with as many colors as I prefer.  Cream looking salmon with basil pesto and green beans and a cream string cheese.  Where is the pop!!  Where is the pizazz?  It didn't lack for flavor though - and the hands-on time was minimal.  Win.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Brussels Sprouts and Chicken (Leftovers!)

Tim was out last night for dinner so I was left to my own devices and I didn't feel like cooking for one.  Leftovers to the rescue.  Brussels sprouts and some quick grilled chicken.

The sprouts looked a little slimier than the first go-round, but they actually held their texture better than I expected.  My complaint was more about the flavor.  Spicy!  The dried red pepper flakes had soaked into the glaze and were active and fiery.  Too much.  I think I might try rinsing them if I try to eat them as leftovers again.  I drank my quota of water for the evening after the spicy sprout escapade.

Dinner is... Onions!

Dinner wasn't just onions.  We went to our first community group dinner and they pick a theme and then people sign up for ingredients.  I brought onions - yellow, green, purple.  Pretty and tasty!!

It looks like green were the most popular - which is actually kind of what I expected.  They are nice and mild and sit beautifully on top of some chili and cheddar cheese.

I threw all of the leftover onions together in one big container so now I have pre-chopped onions for a few days.  Handy.  I use my glass containers for leftovers whenever they are pungent or I am likely to want to reheat directly in the container.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Meals: 29 October - 5 November

Meal plan!  I am growing to love this time to sit down and review what we ate recently and figure out what we want to have in the next few days.  Plan to Eat has a great queue feature, so if I add a recipe and I know that it's something I want to try soon I can queue it and then when I open that week to plan it out, the queue reminds me of what I've been wanting to make lately.

We went to Hawai'i on vacation this time last year and I think we are all wishing we'd booked another trip.   Instead, we are going to have a little luau at our house and it will be a mid-afternoon meal, so for dinner we will either have leftovers or for those of us who already had enough of the kalua pig, I'm making Caramelized Onion Tarts with Apples (new recipe!)

Scramble - nice and simple, which is often what we need during this last evening of family weekend time before we head back into our work week.  This meal will often get subbed for a pizza delivery or a special dinner out, so I'm purposely planning something flexible.

Apple and Pork Stir-Fry - this is one of my favorite fall meals.  We used to serve it over rice, but now I just use a LOT of bell pepper so that it fills the bowl.  I bought some fresh ginger in a tube (I've always used powdered before) and I'm curious to see if we can taste a difference.

Chicken Caesar Salad

community group - I'm not sure yet what is on the menu

Low-Carb Zucchini Lasagna - This uses zucchini slices (lengthwise) instead of lasagna noodles.  We had it once before, and liked it, but I have a couple of tweaks in mind that I think will make it even better.

Chicken Tricolore (new recipe!)

Spinach Feta Salad

I'm happy to answer any questions about the meals or the recipes.  This last week was great and we mostly stuck to the plan and I've enjoyed posting pictures of the dinners as I finish them.  The meals are still coming to mind easily, like I have genius inspiration, but I'm sure the idea wheel will slow down at any time.  Feel free to leave meal ideas in the comments.

Takeout - Chicken Marsala Ravioli

It's nice to have a break sometimes.  We had an expiring Groupon and a schedule shift that meant we were having dinner together instead of the quick chicken caesar salads I had planned.  It lined up well for us to call in some takeout that Tim picked up on his way home.

This wasn't the greatest food I've ever had, but it was alright.  I actually missed cooking because of the control that it gives me over the flavors and the freshness of a dish.  It has been a while since I've had veggies quite this limp.  It kind of tasted like it looks there... fairly brown and a bit lumpy.  But it was still dinner and I didn't really have to work for it, so it worked out - and I'm all for motivation to keep cooking and trying my own things.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Brussels Sprouts and a Burger

I strayed from the meal plan tonight.  Tim was working late and I didn't have the broccoli that was in the meal plan and I had Brussels sprouts that I needed to use by the end of the week - all factors that made it a good idea to change it up.

I have never cooked Brussels sprouts.  I have only eaten them once in my life, about six months ago, and I was surprised to find that I love them. Why does everyone fuss about them?  I did a bit of internet reading and it turns out that some people don't like the smell, and they are often overcooked which results in soggy gray lumps that smell slightly of sulfur.  That pretty much clears up why people fuss about them.

But, as I suspected, steamer to the rescue, they were delicious.  I steamed them lightly using my double decker steamer and flavored them using guidelines from Sam the Cooking Guy in "just a bunch of recipes."  I wish I could recommend this cooking book!  I just can't get fully behind his style.  He makes some good points and I thought the tone started out pretty funny, but by the 15th recipe or so, I just thought he was being rude.  So, read at your own discretion - I got his book from the library, tagged about 12 recipes to try, and I don't feel the need to own it.  Just in case you want to make Brussels sprouts as tasty as the ones pictured below, I've typed the recipe out at the end of the post.  It was a great dinner!  Tim brought his own dinner home since he knew he would be late, but I saved out a sprout for him to sample.  Sadly, this is one of probably three foods in the world that we don't actually agree on.  But Tim's a great sport, so I'm sure these will find their way to the table once in a while.

Brussels Sprouts You'll Actually Eat
Copied from: Sam the cooking guy: just a bunch of recipes.  (with just a couple of edits by me)

3/4 lb Brussels sprouts
1/2 T olive oil
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 T balsamic vinegar
1 T brown sugar

Trim the sprouts to remove any ugly outer leaves.  If the sprouts are large, like big walnuts, cut them in quarters lengthwise; if they're small, like a big grape, just cut them in half lengthwise.

Steam until the sprouts are just beginning to get tender, about 10 minutes.  

Preheat a nonstick pan well over medium-high heat and add the oil.  When it just begins to smoke, add the sprouts, garlic, and pepper flakes.  Stir and keep moving until they begin to brown, maybe 2 minutes.

Add the balsamic vinegar and brown sugar, stir for a minute, remove, and serve.

Chicken Sausage with Veggies

Dinner ended up being pretty late last night.  We went to family swim and that always makes us tired and hungry, so Sophie was ready to go straight to bed when we got home, which delayed dinner prep.  Tim and I stopped and grabbed a Muchas Gracias snack on the way home to tide us over before dinner.  I could seriously eat there every day. Tim even shared a little bit of his cheese quesadilla with me.  Ahh, true love <3.

Our chicken sausage with veggies ended up being worth the wait.  I don't always balance sausage warming with veggie cooking very well, but this time everything went together in a great blend.  It tasted wonderful.

I've started buying mini bell peppers from Costco - they are easy to prepare and they portion out well for a whole pepper per person in omelets.  For this veggie dinner I used mini peppers for the two of us.  This photo isn't doing the color of the pepper justice.  They are beautiful!

The finished dinner.  It was delicious.  Tim suggested adding spinach, which ended up adding a great bass flavor to the kick of the sausages, peppers, and onions.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Pizza Quesadillas ... and a little twist

Dinner tonight was pizza quesadillas.  They are easy to make, Tim loves them, and with our low(er) carb tortillas they work out alright.  I use squeezy pizza sauce from Contadina, a little mozzarella cheese, some turkey pepperoni and - tada! - dinner.  My waffle iron has plates that flip over for a smooth side option, so I use those to grill my quesadillas.

I'm not always in the mood for the traditional pizza ingredients, so sometimes I change it up.  Tonight I went with peanut sauce, a little cheese, and some bell pepper.  I loved it.

A little overdone on the peppers, so it didn't cook flat, but it was still tasty.

The bell peppers get just a little softened and they taste great with the peanut sauce.  I used my pizza cutter to slice the quesadilla into manageable triangles.  Works great.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Taco Salad

Tonight's dinner was taco salad.

Normally, I would pile it all on in layers, but I spread it out a bit so that you could see the different elements.  The base is romaine lettuce, topped with taco meat, a few pinto beans, cheddar cheese, green onions, some tomatoes, a dollop of sour cream, a scatter of olives, and a couple of scoops out of an avocado.  It was delicious!

tools: Plan to Eat

As I struggled with this wave of cooking ennui, I started to look to friends and blogs for ideas and thoughts on recipes, meal-planning structure, shopping frequency... all of it.  I found some great resources, but my favorite one came from I'm an Organizing Junkie in the form of a meal planning tool.

Plan to Eat has jazzed up the whole routine and I am loving it!  I started with the free 30-day trial, and by day 4 I was convinced that this would make the difference.  It's been wonderful.

The recipe importing is ideally straightforward and easy to use.  When I have a recipe on paper I type it in and then it's available for planning at any time.  If it's an online recipe I can use their bookmarklet to import it directly into my recipe stash at Plan to Eat.  This is making my recipe and meal-planning blog-surfing so much more productive and worth my time.  I am not printing off recipes to try to use later - just click import, change anything that I know I don't want in my version of the recipe - and it's done.  Simple.

I love the drag-and-drop planning structure.  Recipes are displayed on the left-hand side (and you can search through them, or filter them as you find helpful) and then when you've selected a recipe for dinner on Thursday night, drag it over to Thursday night.  Love it.

Then the customized date range on the shopping list searches your planned recipes and culls out a shopping list, sorting items by departments (which you can label in a way that makes sense to you) and then also sorts them by store.  So handy.

The ability to friend people within the site means that you can easily swap recipes with friends with accounts, or you can look for people on message boards who are trying to follow a similar diet track.  This has been so helpful for me as I try to get better at finding lower-carb options for our family.  I was browsing through the friend posts and saw Weight Watchers, Paleo, Gluten-Free, Organic-focus... lots of options.

I recommend taking the tour and seeing what you think of Plan to Eat.  Let me know if you sign up and want to be friends so that we can swap recipes.  It's a beautiful site and the simple, cornflower blue (classic kitchen color) design makes me feel organized and ready to plan.  Check it out!  I bet you'll love it.

Update: Tim is right - he mentioned in the comments that I left out a key feature in my review.  The meal plan can be published as an iCal feed and imported into a Google calendar, Outlook, etc.  We use Google calendar as a family and it has been great to have our menu for the evening available at a glance.  It's a handy feature.

a starting point

I've always managed our household menu planning and grocery shopping.  There were plenty of years when we were both working and one or the other of us was in grad school and "menu planning" literally was picking a restaurant and then trying to bribe, beg, or otherwise persuade the other spouse to be the one to call in and pick up the order.  I don't miss those years.  I was surprised though, at how difficult it was for me to get any kind of good planning, shopping, prep, cleanup rhythm going.  I quickly got frustrated with how much food I would buy and then end up wasting because I didn't have a plan.  I got tired of trying to think of something new and exciting to have (I went through a whole month where all I could ever think of was soup - just the word "soup.")  Overall, the whole task just seems really boring and I didn't want to put work into it.

Just when I started to feel like I could set a budget, and make waffles, potatoes and meat, rice and stir-fry for dinner every night and at least we would get by, we made some changes in habits as a family and we decided to cut back on carbs.  We have a carb-filled - no, a carb-stuffed, diet in this country - and Tim and I started to see signs that we should rethink that track.  We are now looking for less overall carbs, and trying to pull in the complex, veggie and bean based, helpful building blocks kind of carbs, instead of the cheetos and white bread carbs, which were not helping our bodies towards their ideal performance capability.

It's been tough.  Very tough.  I have never looked into nutrition in depth before, and I still don't really have the patience to make a science out of it.  I'm at the stage now where I'm cutting out the obvious factors.  When I make stir-fry now, I rarely serve it over rice.  The bowl holds it just fine and we don't miss that filler.  Instead of having a chicken sausage on a stadium bun, we are just eating the grilled sausage with a fork and knife.  I'm surprised at how much I miss conventional munching formats (sandwiches are brilliant!!  It's been hard to give them up) but I'm also amazed at how much more flavor I get when things aren't drowning in bread.  Hamburger patty with feta and pickles and maybe some mustard has way more taste going on without the onion roll and I am enjoying the chance to explore those flavors.

We are by no means perfect at this - or even committed to letting it run our lives.  At this point we are looking at our options and putting ourselves through some change to see how it feels.  As I write this, just a tiny portion of a ginormous Costco pumpkin pie is sitting in our fridge.  We've munched the rest of it.  Not perfect; not claiming to be perfect.  But working on it.

Food planning has helped.  I have a lot more energy and attention now to the foods around me.  I'm learning about heartier veggies (kale instead of corn) that help us to feel more full and satisfied and less likely to just keep munching.  This blog will help as I get the chance to think through things on paper (which is definitely how I learn best) and get some feedback from other people who are noticing the same things, or already have great recipes to share, or want to talk through ideas together.  I'm also looking forward to being able to look back at meals over the course of a year and see where we've changed, where we've stayed the same.  I think evidence of personal growth is one of the best motivators for a big project like this.

Oh, one more thing about the planning.  Baby Sophie is 6 months old and I am excited about the opportunity we have to raise her with a different level of food awareness than I had growing up.  I've had some food struggles (yep: addictions) that I would love to see her avoid if possible.  She'll find her own path (don't they always?) but I will do my best to set her on a good course.  Which may just include the occasional pumpkin pie.

Happy meal planning.

Meals: 21-28 October

Normally I like to plan my menu on Wednesday and then do grocery shopping on Thursday. This week is a little off though, so I'm playing catch-up and planning today. I have some meals on hand that I think will get us through and hopefully I can just do a little grocery shopping to fill in where needed.

taco salads - I am taking lettuce and taco toppings up to a friend who just had a baby.  I'll make double the ingredients and when Sophie and I get home from our errand of love we will have the same meal we just delivered.

pizza quesadillas

chicken sausage with bell peppers and onions (in a bowl - no bun), cheese cubes on the side

turkey bacon, steamed broccoli, cottage cheese

chicken caesar salad - I have been cooking up chicken tenders with lemon juice and rosemary for our salads. It just adds a nice little zip.

chili night with our new community group through church (we are trying it out for the first time - excited/whoa - new thing)

basil pesto tilapia (from Costco), steamed edamame, string cheese

peanut chicken with sprouts - I put together this collection of Thai-ish veggies with chicken and it's one of my favorites.  It's usually chicken, carrots, cabbage, bean sprouts, purple onion, and then a peanut sauce.  I like the one from Trader Joe's - better than I liked the one from Pampered Chef.  I found a couple of recipes, so I'll try making my own soon.

Feel free to ask any questions about the meals.  Most of them are really as simple as they look - like Monday is really turkey bacon in the oven, broccoli in the steamer and 1/4 C cottage cheese.  Simple, but filling and tasty.  I'd love to see your meal plan for the week in the comments.