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You’re Gonna Need a Game Plan

It’s time to start working backwards toward Turkey Day. I’ve already started. Here’s how it goes…

First, ask yourself a few questions. That will determine your plan of action. Are you hosting or visiting? I’m hosting this year. How many guests will you have, and are any of them staying over? I’ll have 9 for Thanksgiving dinner and 3 are staying over, so that means the house will have to be ready for guests and I’ll have to plan breakfast for Friday. Do any of your guests have dietary restrictions? I think we will have enough menu items that it won’t be a problem, and that brings up the first strategy,  You have to Delegate.

I have asked each guest to bring a dish of their choice, children included.  I did make a few suggestions, based on what some of them have prepared in the past.  For example, Jen makes an excellent pecan pie, and the tradition of Granny’s Green Stuff is easy enough even for Xander to handle.  We must have that green bean casserole with the crunchy fried onions on top and our Broccoli Casserole .  It’s another family tradition.  Kaij thinks mac and cheese is a must.  Emily’s Thanksgiving specialty is a Pumpkin Roll. She chooses to bring that.

Michael and I will provide the basics, including the (Brined) Turkey and Gravy, Make-Ahead Mashed Potatoes, Bread Stuffing, and Cornbread Dressing.  Oh, I almost forgot the Cranberry Sauce.  I plan to try making it in the pressure cooker this year.

Now that the menu is set, it’s time to put together a shopping list. If you have a recipe management program on your computer, that’s a piece of cake. If not, you’ll have to do it by hand. Ouch! Be sure to compile your list so if two recipes call for milk, you’ll need to have that total quantity. On shopping day, check your fridge and pantry and mark off the items you have on hand. (be sure to reserve them for that purpose)

Speaking of shopping, just like Elizabeth Warren, “I have a plan for that!”  I pick up all the non-perishable items a little at a time.  I learned my lesson many years ago when I hosted my first big family Christmas dinner.  That year I waited to do all my shopping in one big trip.  Not only were the stores a nightmare, but my bill came to over $300.00!  When I wrote my check they had to call the manager for approval.  He looked at the check, then he looked at me.  I guess he recognized me and approved it.  When I got the check back at the end of the month I realized I had made the check out to myself and signed it “Brunos”, the name of the store.  I must have been in shock over that total.

Anyway, not only do I pick up what I can a little at a time, I make Monday before Thanksgiving my absolute last shopping day, and that’s for as few items as possible.  I try to purchase few enough items to qualify for the express lane.  And, yes, I count.

Not only do I shop ahead, I prep and cook ahead.  The breads for the stuffing and dressing were baked and allowed to go stale.  Now they are parked in the freezer, waiting to be combined with the veggie components, which are also already cooked and frozen.  I’m kind of a fanatic when it comes to the broth I use in my recipes and gravy.  I just never substitute chicken broth in turkey dishes, so where does all that turkey broth come from?  I roast a turkey breast, (the smallest I can find), as soon as they go on sale, usually the first week of November.  My recipe for Rich Chicken Stock is easily converted to turkey stock, which I now stew in the pressure cooker for 45 minutes, rather that simmering all day. The stock is fortified in part with the trimmings from all the veggies I prepped for other dishes. I always chill my stocks overnight to allow the fat to separate before the broth is frozen in smaller containers. Turkey fat plus flour plus broth equals GRAVY, now in the freezer. The potatoes have a shorter make-ahead window, since they don’t freeze all that well, but even fixing them a day or two in advance helps.  Have you considered condiments and beverages? Oh, and make sure you have all the serving dishes you need.  I even write the name of each menu item on a scrap of paper and save it in the dish I plan to use.

Now, get out your calendar.  If you’ve taken advantage of a sale on frozen turkeys that turkey needs to be moved to the fridge in time to thaw.  Pencil that in.  Find time to clear out the fridge as best you can.  You’ll need the room.   The bathrooms?  If you can, give the one your guests will use a good cleaning, then ban its use by the family until the big day. Ample supplies of paper products, including toilet paper?  Guest room sheets?  Dusting and Vacuming?  Do a thorough cleaning job, then all you’ll need to do is a quick spiff up the morning of.  Delegate that, too.  The old saying is, “Many hands make light work.”  Believe it!

I write everything down, especially the time line for Thanksgiving day.  If I know what time I’d like to serve dinner I can work backwards to know when to start things cooking.  I use my formula for baked ham, but allow about 25 minutes per pound and let the turkey rest covered  a bit longer before carving. That way you’ll have time to pop other dishes in the oven.

I have a plan!
Happy Turkey Day and, as always,
Be Thankful for what life gives you.

Soup’s On!

Finally!
After hitting the 100° mark the first 3 days of October, we finally fell into the 60’s.  Not exactly soup weather, but I’ll take it. I’ve gotten a bit tired of our usual summer fare and ready to move on, so here we go…

Sunday was a new addition to the repertory, Pork and Pinto Bean Chili, made in that kitchen wonder, the electric pressure cooker. It’s very similar to my Pork and Poblano Chili and to be honest, I don’t know which one I prefer. Both are very filling and delicious with a side of cornbread.

Meatless Monday hit the mark with a bowl of Free Asparagus Soup. (It’s the same as my Free Broccoli Soup, just using a different veggie.) This time I added a little twist, Grilled Cheese Croutons. These delectable croutons are like a mini grilled cheese sandwiches, but they aren’t grilled at all, they’re broiled, and very easy to make. Try them with a bowl of good old tomato soup sometime.

Tuesday’s dinner came straight from the freezer, as did Thursday’s.  When you are cooking for two, that freezer fills up quickly and it’s really hard to empty.  It’s a good thing that most soups and stews freeze well.

Tuesday evening we enjoyed a piping hot bowl of Chicken and Gnocchi Soup, along with some of Sunday’s cornbread. By then the weather was warming up again, but that soup was my plan, and I was sticking to it! Thank goodness for air conditioning.

Thursday’s Company Beef Stew was served in Mashed Potato Bowls.  This freezer friendly meal solves two potato related problems.  Cubed potatoes in soups and stews don’t generally freeze well.  They tend to turn out grainy and mushy.  Company Beef Stew contains no potatoes, but could be served over rice or noodles.  The satisfying potato portion is provided when the stew is served in potato bowls, which do freeze well.  I think the modifying factor is that the potatoes are mashed with plenty of cream cheese, butter, and an egg, changing their structure.  I’m no scientist, but trust me, it works.

Finishing out “soup week” was one of Michael’s favorites, Clam Chowder. My version was modeled after the chowder my grandparents used to make for an annual church fundraiser. Living in upstate New York, fresh clams were available. Not here in Alabama. This recipe relies on canned clams and clam juice, so you don’t get quite the same briney flavor as one gets from fresh clams, but we like it just fine! Try not to freeze the leftovers, though. Remember the potato problem?

Of course we didn’t eat soup for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Blackberry Coffee Cake served well both as breakfast and dessert.  Think coffee cake meets cheese cake with a blackberry topping.  This recipe was modified from a raspberry version that I tried.  The original had less than half the amount of cream cheese, leaving that layer to just disappear into the cake.  It also had half the amount of berries, and those only decorated the top.  If you’re gonna use berries, use berries!  This version has two layers.  You can find both the cheese cake and the berries here.

As a fall-ish nod to the end of summer, we churned up a batch of Butter Pecan Ice Cream and topped it off with My Apple Ice Cream Topping. Now I guess it’s on to apple season. I wonder what kind of trouble I’ll get myself into next?

Happy Fall, Y’all!
Be happy for what life gives you.

Fast forward to Fall?

Not so fast! There’s still plenty of Summer around here in North Alabama, and we intend to enjoy it.  Today is the 22nd day in September that the temperatures have been in the 90’s.  We even hit 100 twice this month!  We might as well make the most of it, since there’s nothing we can do about it.  It will be soup season soon enough.

I finished off the peach crop with a new, fun way to form a pie crust.  I started off with my standard Peach Pie recipe, but branched out a bit by making the Buttermilk Pie Crust. Then came the fun part! Rather than dividing the dough into two crusts, I rolled it out into one huge round, about 16-18″ in diameter. After carefully centering it in the pie pan and adding the filling,  I pinched on an edge and then pleated the whole thing toward the center, brushed it with egg wash, and sprinkled on coarse sugar. Success!  This may have been one of the prettiest and tastiest pies I have made.  Try this trick on any fruit pie.

Those of you who follow this blog may remember that I’m rather fond of one-dish dinners. We enjoyed a couple of simple, yet satisfying entrees this past week. Creamy Zucchini and Spinach Rigatoni fills the bill for Meatless Monday. This time I took it up a notch by stirring in a can of diced fire roasted tomatoes. Yumm! Those tomatoes added just a little something. I think I’ll continue to use them.

You folks may also know that I dehydrate small strips of pork loin for animal treats. Not all of the pork gets used making these little morsels, so Michael and I eat a lot of pork! (Our pets aren’t spoiled, are they?) Anyway, the last pork leftovers were just what a skillet of Pork Fried Rice with Snow Peas called for. The prep work for this meal took longer than the actual cooking, but I had leftover brown rice, so that helped time wise.  Any time you cook up a batch of rice, I suggest you double the recipe.  It doesn’t take any longer, and having precooked rice stashed in the freezer is a huge time saver.

I often focus on main dishes, but don’t let me forget the sides.  Here are a couple you might like to try…

Cauliflower Alfredo is a lighter alternative to traditional Alfredos that are loaded with heavy cream and cheeses. Don’t take me wrong. There’s still plenty of the cheesy flavor that we all love and you won’t miss the fat grams at all.  Cauliflower Alfredo pairs well as a side with simple grilled meats or seafood, but it can also stand on its’ own as a meatless main.

Not in a cheesy pasta mood? Try these Instant Pot Melting Potatoes instead. These may be my new favorite way to serve potatoes. They are just a little crispy on the outside and meltingly (is that a word?) creamy on the inside. Fresh thyme adds just a bit of interest without detracting from that rich potato taste.  For best results, be sure to use baby potatoes.  I like Yukon Golds for their texture, but just about any small potato will work.

On a silly note…Yesterday was Bella, our Weimaraner’s  13th birthday. Thirteen is old for a big dog, but the vet says she’s in “decent shape” for a dog of her age. She and Lizzie, our little spaniel, celebrated with a birthday dinner of canned food instead of their usual dry.  Happy Birthday, Bella!

Be thankful for what life gives you.

I’m still playing with those peaches

It seems that I’ve developed a couple of summer staples. Every year we celebrate summer with a batch of Fresh Peach Ice Cream, often over a warm bowl of Peach Melba Crumble.  Peaches not in season?  Puree any other fruit for this custard-style ice cream, instead.  The crumble recipe is pretty versatile, as well.  Substitute any fresh fruit you choose, and serve with store-bought ice cream, or skip the ice cream all together if you prefer.

And here’s a new Instant Pot recipe for you…Fresh Peach Jam in the Instant Pot. I just love this recipe. Rather than relying on tons of white sugar, the recipe calls for just a half cup or so of honey, letting the peaches shine as the star of the show. (Never mind the fact that without all that excess sugar these preserves are just a bit better for you.) I do need to mention that you control the thickness of your jam by watching your cooking time. The longer you leave the pot open on the saute setting at the end of the cooking process, the thicker the preserves will become.  I use my immersion blender to adjust the consistency, but very frequent stirring will break down the chunks of peaches, too.  Make it as smooth or chunky as you choose.  This Instant Pot recipe is a keeper!

While we’re playing with our Instant Pots, try this recipe for Swedish Meatballs in the Instant Pot. It tastes rich and creamy with only 1/4 cup of sour cream. Most of the time, Swedish meatballs are served over egg noodles, but for the Instant Pot I think the shape of butterfly pasta works better.  Working on this recipe, I discovered an interesting tip. To cook pasta to perfection, submerge the dry pasta in your liquid of choice, then use the LOW pressure setting for half the cooking time suggested on the box. At the end of the cooking time, immediately release the pressure. I throw a kitchen towel over the release valve so pasta water doesn’t spray all over the kitchen.

Tired of the same old breakfast? Trade that bowl of cereal in for Overnight Chocolate Chia Seed Pudding.  Most people would call this bowl of chocolaty goodness “dessert”,  but at only  204 calories with 6 grams of protein per half cup, I call it good.  Why not?  It’s a quick and filling start to my morning.  In fact, I think I’ll go enjoy some right now!

Do any of you have a tip for keeping those pesky squirrels from stealing my tomatoes?  They think I’ve planted them just for their enjoyment!  The irritating thing is, after a bite or two our little friends throw that tomato down and pick another.  Squirrels are not afraid of plastic snakes or fake owls.  Even a hefty sprinkle of cayenne pepper doesn’t deter them.  Those furry robbers just sample one, decide it’s not to their taste, and move on to take a good bite out of the next.  I’ve had to resort to buying my tomatoes at the farmers’ market!   There has to be an answer.

Oh well,
Be thankful for what life gives you.

So much work, So little time…

Why is it, I always bite off more than I can chew? The blueberries need picking and peaches are in season, so of course I’m on my second basket of those.  Our next door neighbor shared a big bag of his cucumbers with us, as well. The dogs are out of dehydrated pork treats; I had to buy a pork loin for those, and while they are on sale I bought an extra one for us. AND we’re out of ground beef, so I picked up a couple of sale chuck roasts for that.  (If you follow this blog you might remember that I never purchase store ground beef.  You just don’t know where it came from.)  Now, where do I start?

The dog treats take the longest, so I guess that’s as good of a beginning as anything. It takes a while to trim all the fat off a boneless pork loin, then cut it into thin strips and load those into the dehydrator for a 10 hour stint. Why do I bother? Well, Bella has food allergies and can’t have any chicken in any form, not even “animal fats”. Try finding commercial dog treats that fit that bill. I guess she could go treat-less, but what fun is that? Our dogs aren’t spoiled! I guess I’ll save the second piece of pork for next week.  It’s dated out that long.

While I’m working with treats, let me tell you about Hot Garlic Dills. These slightly spicy dill pickles come together in about a week and are the perfect use for those cucumbers that “got away”. You know, the ones that manage to hide in your garden until they are too large and seedy to enjoy as is. After I cut the cukes into spears I trim away the seedy core to produce flawless pickles.  Of course, you can also start with smaller cucumbers and keep the seeds, but just in case…

When ever I’m trimming up pork loins for the dogs, there always nice meaty portions that don’t lend themselves into cutting fat-free strips.   Waste not!  Those chunks go into the meat grinder.  I usually wind up with a good pound of ground pork for meatballs or burgers.  I have my standard recipes for Meatballs and Rib Burgers, but this time I think I’ll try something new. I recently ran across a recipe for Swedish meatballs prepared in the Instant Pot. Sounds good, doesn’t it? I’ll let you know how it goes.

I do have one new summer recipe to share with you: moist and tender Zucchini Meatloaf. You can make it any time of year using grocery store produce, but add this recipe to your arsenal for using the garden’s bounty of this prolific squash. You might even be able to sneak an extra serving of veggies by your picky eaters.

And that second basket of peaches? There are so many options! Michael always enjoys Peach Turnovers. These simple treats call for frozen puff pastry. It doesn’t get much easier than that, so off I go.

Be thankful for what life gives you.

Ready for the Forth?

Before I get started, it looks like someone may have hacked into this account. If you received a post about a new recipe for homemade Marinara, that post didn’t come from me! I’d like to know if you did receive it.

Anyway, every year, our Forth of July menu stays pretty much the same, just as do Thanksgiving and Christmas. You know, ribs, potato salad, cole slaw, and corn on the cob. Same old, Same old. Maybe it’s time to change things up a bit.

Let’s start with the protein selection. Grilling is still a requirement. After all, it is the Forth of July! Do your kids love their hot dogs? Make those hot dog buns do double duty with Bacon Cheeseburger Rolls. No need to buy a second bag of hamburger buns. The way these all-in-one burgers fit right into those hot dog buns help your condiments stay put. No sliding off the bun.  And besides, this presentation is kind of fun!

Not a fan of red meat?  How about trying Grilled Bruschetta Chicken? Fresh basil and home grown tomatoes are both coming into season about now, so use them to pack fresh flavor into not so boring chicken breasts.  For the juiciest chicken, take it off the grill just before it’s done and tent it with foil.  Carry-over cooking will take care of the rest.

Now, about that potato salad…Gotta have it, right?  Let’s twist it up a bit and cut out some of those carbs with UnPotato Salad. While this salad still has that old fashioned potato salad taste, the base of it is actually cauliflower, but you’d never know it. Amp up that potato taste and texture by mashing one boiled potato into the dressing. If you’re a mustard fan you can add that, as well.

And now for the kid’s favorite Mac ‘n Cheese. Let’s twist that up a bit, too by serving Mac and Cheese in a Bacon Bowl. Any recipe for mac and cheese will work here, but I like my Low Guilt Mac and Cheese. It’s super creamy, but stands up well in the bowl, Bacon bowl, that is.

Cole slaw?  Turn it green by serving a crispy Broccoli Salad in creamy sweet and sour dressing instead.  Crumbled bacon and dried cranberries or raisins add interest to the palate.  I think the key to this salad is cutting the broccoli into small bite sized pieces. Larger florets are difficult to manage without a knife, and who wants to cut their salad?

If you prefer your broccoli hot, try Grilled Broccoli.  The slightly caramelized florets carry a subtly smokey flavor, punched up by a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese and a squeeze of lemon.  You just can’t get this flavor out of your oven!

That corn on the cob?  Try using grilled corn cut off the cob instead of the canned corn called for in a batch of Southern Caviar. This addictive appetizer recipe does make a large amount, but it stores well in the fridge IF you have any left. Try using diced homegrown tomatoes instead of the recipe’s canned “Ro-Tel” for a wonderful fresh taste.

Of course, no Forth of July celebration would be complete with out dessert! The possibilities are endless. One of our favorites is Fresh Fruit Custard Ice Cream. I make it with whatever seasonal fruit looks the best at the farmer’s market. Dark cherries are available at the grocery this time of year, too. Finely dice or puree the fruit for the best result, and don’t forget the secret ingredient, vodka! Just a tablespoon doesn’t change the taste or make the ice cream alcoholic, but makes a dramatic difference in the texture. Your ice cream scoop will thank you!

Have a happy and safe Forth of July, and don’t forget to be thankful for what life gives you.