Monday, April 28, 2008

RECIPE: Banana Chocolate Chip Muffins

It's easy to get stuck in a breakfast rut (cold cereal and bagels, anyone?) but with just a tiny bit of effort, you can enjoy something much more scrumptious. These are guaranteed to fill your kitchen with a delicious aroma - your family will thank you! You can get these ready for the oven in about 10 minutes. I get these baking before I jump in the shower - by the time I'm done, they are just about finished. You can also make the batter up the night before and refrigerate, then bake the next morning.

Time: 10 minutes prep, plus 20 minutes baking
Makes: 1 dozen muffins

1 cup flour
1 cup quick cooking rolled oats (NOT instant!)
½ cup wheat germ
½ cup sugar
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
2 eggs
¼ cup cooking oil
¼ cup milk
1 cup mashed bananas
1 cup chocolate chips

In a medium-sized bowl, mix together the flour, oats, wheat germ, sugar, baking powder and soda. Make a well in the centre. In a separate bowl, mix together eggs, oil, milk and bananas until well combined. Add banana mixture to flour mixture, stirring until just moistened. Fill greased muffin cups 2/3 full. Bake at 400°F for 20-25 minutes or until golden and tops spring back when lightly touched.

Tip: When your bananas get over-ripe, toss them in the freezer as-is. When you're ready to bake with them, partially thaw, then slice the banana open lengthwise to remove it from the peel.

Friday, April 25, 2008

RECIPE: Spicy Chickpea Pasta

This is a great recipe to pull out when you're overdue for a grocery shop and need to dig deep in the pantry! This dish is vegetarian as long as you use vegetable rather than chicken stock.

Time: 30 minutes
Serves: 4

10-12 oz rotini pasta
2 tbsp olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium onion, chopped
1/2 a sweet pepper (red, yellow, or orange)
3/4 cup chicken or vegetable stock
Half a 28 oz can of crushed tomatoes
19 0z can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
1 1/2 cups frozen green beans
juice of 1 lemon
2 tsp chili powder
1 tsp cumin
2 tbsp dried parsley (or about 1/4 cup fresh chopped)

1. Cook the pasta in boiling water.

2. While the pasta is cooking, in a large frying pan, saute the garlic and onions in the olive oil until they start to soften. Add the sweet pepper and cook until tender.

3. Add the chicken stock, crushed tomatoes, chickpeas, green beans, lemon juice, chili powder, cumin, parsley, salt and pepper. Cook until hot and bubbly and the green beans are completed heated through.

4. Pour sauce over cooked pasta and serve!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

12 Ways to Make the Most of Grocery Day

Good grocery shopping habits are instrumental in minimizing your grocery bill down and maximizing your kitchen efficiency. If you take the time for a well-organized effort, the rest of your time spent in the kitchen will be much more enjoyable! I usually grocery shop once every one to two weeks, and this whole process takes about an hour and a half at the most.

Steps to make the most of your grocery shopping experience:

1. Keep a running list of what's needed. As you use something up (or notice you're running low), add it to the list.

2. Do a quick scan of your pantry "zones". Quickly check the cupboard, fridge, and freezer to see if you are running low of any items on your pantry list. This step is necessary because lots of times family members eat the last of something and don't add it to the running list! Also check if any of your basic supplies (parchment paper, cling wrap, aluminum foil, paper towel, masking tape) are running low and add them to the list as needed.

3. Scan the sale flyers. Make note of any good bargains, particularly on items you're running low on or use a lot of (when cheese is on sale, I buy a LOT since we eat a lot and it doesn't go on sale that often.)

Now you're ready to head to the store...

4. Keep an eye out for unexpected bargains. You can often find marked down produce, bakery items and meats if you look for them. These items are near the expiration date and have been reduced for quick sale. Even though it's a bargain, you should still only buy it if you KNOW you're going to use it.

5. Stick to your list! Unless you find a truly good bargain as in point 4, don't be tempted to buy lots of stuff you don't really need and probably won't use.

Back home again...

6. Put everything in its place. Once you have an organized pantry, fridge and freezer, everything should have a spot to live in. Put it in its place as you unpack and it'll stay organized (and you'll always know where to find everything).

7. Look for expired items. As you're unpacking, toss anything that's lurked in the depths of the cupboard or fridge for too long and is no longer edible. If you do this consistently, after a few weeks you shouldn't be tossing much of anything.

8. Make note of items you've missed. Even the most organized shopper will sometimes get home and realize they forgot to buy something they need. If you notice this while you're unpacking, jot things down on your running list so you can't forget them on the next trip!

9. Freeze grains and pasta for 24 hrs after purchase. This will keep them from getting "buggy"(particularly important if you buy in bulk and will take a few months to use up your supply). I end up leaving most of my grains and pasta in the freezer until I'm ready to use them, since I have enough extra space.

10. Portion out and freeze meats. I buy meat in "club" packs, so once I get home I divide it up into meal-sized portions (i.e. a club pack of chicken will be enough for 2 or 3 meals' worth).

11. Capture your inspiration. I don't know about you, but I usually get my best meal ideas while I'm at the grocery store, and while I'm unpacking. Once it's all put away, I tend to forget all the good intentions I had. So, if you had a particular meal in mind, make note of it so you won't forget!

12. Plan to use the most perishable items first. I know, I know, this should be a no-brainer, but I'm sure I'm not the only one who's ended up with moldy strawberries and bean sprout mush at the bottom of my crisper because I forgot to use them. These highly perishable foods should be eaten in the first day or two after a grocery shop, so plan accordingly!

I have found that following the above system makes grocery shopping about as fun as it can possibly be. I also feel good knowing I'm not wasting much food or spending money on items we don't need. It's much more pleasurable to cook in a well-stocked, organized kitchen!

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Emergency Meals

Emergency meals are for those nights when you are just plain exhausted, overwhelmed, sick, or super-short on time. Every cook should have a few emergency meals in their repertoire for nights when the going gets rough. It's been a week like that around here. I was in bed with a virus for a few days, and when I finally started to feel better I had a lot to catch up on around the house, plus a couple of days with a fairly hectic family schedule. Emergency Meals to the rescue!

Here is one of our family's favourites:

Western Omelette Wraps

Time: less than 15 minutes
Serves: flexible

You can get these done in under 15 minutes if you're not feeding more than 4 people (it'll take a little longer if you need to make more than 4 omelettes).

INGREDIENTS (to make 4 wraps):
4 large flour tortillas (we like whole wheat ones)
4 slices bacon
1-2 tbsp canola oil
8 eggs
1/4 cup milk
1/4 cup each chopped onion and red pepper
1 cup grated cheddar cheese
salt and pepper
mayonnaise, mustard, guacamole, or ranch salad dressing, as desired

Cook bacon until crisp, crumble and set aside.

In a small bowl, beat 2 eggs, 1 tbsp milk, 1 tbsp each onion and red pepper, 1/4 of the crumbled bacon, and a pinch of salt and pepper.

Heat 1-2 tsp of oil in a small frying pan or omelette pan. Add egg mixture to pan, making sure mixture evenly coats bottom of pan. Cover and cook over medium heat until eggs are set.

While omelette is cooking, heat flour tortilla in microwave or on "warm" setting of oven.

Spread warm flour tortilla with mayonnaise or desired spread. Carefully slide finished omelette out of pan and onto flour tortilla. Sprinkle with 1/4 cup cheese. Roll up tightly,tucking in ends, then slice in half. Repeat process 3 more times to make 4 wraps.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Pantry Principle

It's commonly advised to make a menu plan every week and stick to it, if you want to stay organized in the kitchen. For a few years I forced myself to make a weekly meal plan (most of the time) but even when that plan was in place it was a rare week that we actually stuck to it every day. Life happens and on any given week there are some unexpected events that throw a wrench into the best laid plans.

Over time, I developed a new strategy that's worked much better for me - the Pantry Principle. Instead of shopping every week for items to make specific dishes, I have determined all the food items I need to have around to make all the meals we like to eat. I simply make sure our pantry always contains these items, and I'm good to go to make whatever we like whenever we want it!
I use the word "pantry" loosely here, as I'm referring not only to what's in my cupboards, but what's in my fridge and freezer as well.

I've found this works a lot better than menu planning for a number of reasons:

1. Flexibility: I can change my mind more easily about our dinner plans when I know I've always got the ingredients to make a wide variety of meals on hand.

2. Makes shopping the sales easier: Because I have a standard list of items I keep on hand, it's easy to see when I'm running low on a particular item and need to stock up. It also saves me from buying so-called "bargain" items that will end up going to waste because we either didn't like them, or they didn't fit in with our usual eating habits.

3. Allows me to focus when evaluating new recipes: If I read a recipe in a magazine or cookbook that uses a lot of items I don't normally keep on hand, I just skip right on by it. I know it's not too likely I'll ever make it if it requires a special trip to the store.

4. Minimizes food wastage: By keeping only "high turnover" foods that we frequently use in the house, there is little chance that any particular item will hang around long enough to spoil.

5. Makes ALL food prep easier, not just dinner time: Traditional meal planning usually focuses only on what's for dinner, leaving you wondering what to do about all those breakfasts, lunches and snacks. The Pantry Principle is more inclusive, making sure you have everything you need to meet your family's food needs all day long, every day!

I should note that it doesn't take a lot of space to have a well-stocked pantry. I have a modest amount of cupboard space, a regular size fridge with freezer, plus an apartment size (7 cubic foot) freezer that easily holds everything we need. Once you root out all the stuff that's just taking up space (but never getting used), you'll probably find you have plenty of space to store the items you actually need.

If you'd like to get started organizing your own pantry, you can find my standard pantry list here.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Sunday Night Fridge Clean Out

It's hard to cook when you have no idea what's in your fridge or where to find it. Fortunately, it's not difficult to keep things organized in there if you stay on top of it regularly. A quick once-a-week romp through the depths of the fridge should be enough to keep the science experiments at bay. This should take about 15 minutes. If your fridge is a total disaster, just work on it 15 minutes at a time, every day for 1 week and you should get it under control.

Remove any spoiled food and toss in compost, green cart, food disposal or (last resort!) garbage.

Found stuff that's still edible?

Make a plan to use it in the next 24 hrs (i.e. tomorrow's lunch or dinner)


Freeze it for future use (make sure to label it clearly with the date and type of food- trust me, you won't remember what it is 2 months from now when you find it at the back of the freezer!)
If you have leftover mashed potatoes, freeze it in approximately 1 cup portions (we'll talk about what to do with them later.) If there are little bits of a few different cooked vegetables lying around, you can freeze them together if they seem compatible (e.g. green beans and carrots) - they can be tossed into a soup, stew or other dish later. If you have leftovers of an entire dish (like a casserole or soup) portion it out into single servings for future use when quick lunches or dinners are needed.

If you do a once-a-week clean out faithfully, you'll always have a good idea what's in your fridge, and you'll drastically reduce the amount of food waste in your home - and the amount of money you're spending on groceries!

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

RECIPE: Creamy Cucumber Salad

Quick to prepare, and a family favourite!

Time: 30 minutes
Serves: 4

1 1/2 to 2 English cucumbers
1-2 tbsp salt
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup sour cream
1 tbsp white wine vinegar
1 tsp sugar
1/4 tsp each salt and pepper
herb of choice - parsley, mint, or chives

Slice cucumbers in half lengthwise, then slice into 1/4" chunks. Place cucumber pieces in a bowl and sprinkle with 1-2 tbsp salt, stirring to mix well. Let stand 15-20 minutes while you prepare dressing. Dressing: Combine mayonnaise, sour cream, vinegar, sugar, salt and pepper. Add herb of choice (about 1 tbsp dried or 3 tbsp fresh chopped). Once cucumbers have stood 15-20 minutes, turn into a collander and rinse well to wash off salt. Drain well, then add to dressing and mix until well combined.

RECIPE: Easy Oven Fries

I know I'll have a happy family on my hands if I make oven fries for dinner! We like them cut really chunky but you can slice them finer if you prefer.

Time: 45 minutes
Serves: flexible

Approx. 2 medium potatoes per person
Olive oil (approx 1-2 tbsp)
Sea salt (approx 1-2 tsp)

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Peel the potatoes and cut them into desired size pieces. Place potatoes in a large bowl. Drizzle with olive oil, stirring until potatoes are uniformly coated. Sprinkle with sea salt (add more salt if you like them really salty) and mix well to distribute evenly amongst potatoes. Line 2 cookie sheets with parchment paper, spread potatoes out evenly onto cookie sheets in a single layer. Place on middle rack of oven. Bake for 15 minutes, then flip fries over and bake about 10 minutes more or until golden brown.

RECIPE: Lime and Garlic Chicken

This is one of my most favourite foods! It's super quick and easy to make, tastes great, and the leftovers (if you're lucky enough to have any) are incredibly versatile. You can use either boneless or bone-in chicken pieces for this recipe. Use as many as will fit in your large frying pan!

Time: 20 minutes

9-12 chicken thighs (or about half as many breasts), skin removed
2 tbsp olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
juice of 1 lime
salt & pepper

In large frying pan, saute garlic in olive oil for about a minute or until it starts to turn golden (be careful not to burn it!) Add the chicken pieces in a single layer, and cover the pan. Cook for about 5 minutes, then flip over chicken pieces (they should be nicely browned). Sprinkle with salt and pepper, and pour lime juice over top. Cover again, and cook for 5 more minutes or until browned on the bottom and pieces are cooked through.

Lime-Garlic Chicken is great served hot or cold (perfect for picnics!) Use leftovers to make chicken wraps or fajitas, add shredded or diced chicken to soup, or dice finely to make a chicken salad.

We had this for dinner last night with Easy Oven Fries and Creamy Cucumber Salad and everything disappeared off the plates!

Saturday, April 5, 2008

RECIPE: Sausage and Apple Saute

Although spring weather is finally starting to arrive, it's still chilly out by suppertime. We've been enjoying a last taste or two of our winter comfort meals, knowing that asparagus and other fresh seasonal produce is coming soon!

We had this for dinner last night:

Sausage and Apple Saute
Chopping the veggies and apples is the most time-consuming part of this recipe. It all comes together quickly after that!

Time:30 minutes
Serves: 4

1 cup rice, uncooked
4 turkey sausages
2 tbsp olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium onion, chopped
1 green or red pepper, chopped
2 apples, peeled and chopped.
1 1/2 cups chicken stock
3 tbsp brown sugar
2 tbsp cornstarch
2 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp vinegar
1 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper

1. In a large saucepan, combine rice with 2 cups water. Cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook until rice is tender and water is evaporated, about 20 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, with a serrated knife, slice sausages into 1/2" rounds (this is easiest if they are partially frozen).

3. Combine garlic, onions, and peppers in a large frying pan with the olive oil. Cook over medium-high heat until onion begins to soften.

4. Add sausage and apple. Cook until no trace of pink remains in the sausage.

5. In a small bowl, combine chicken stock, brown sugar, cornstarch, soy sauce, vinegar, salt and pepper. Add to sausage mixture.

6. Cook, stirring frequently, until sauce is thickened and bubbly.

7. Serve sausage mixture over rice.

Friday, April 4, 2008

My Food Philosophy

My food philosophy is summed up as follows:

FAST: As a general rule, I want to get a meal on the table as quickly as possible. Most of my recipes can be prepared in 30 minutes or less. Some of them take 45-60 minutes, but generally no more than that. If it takes longer than an hour, it usually merits "Special Occasions Only" status around here!

FUN: I think cooking and eating should both be fun and enjoyable activities. So, I do my best to streamline my recipes as much as possible (recipes that end up with 19 dirty bowls and skillets leave me with a throbbing headache AND a big mess to clean up!) I like to eat fairly simple foods, nothing too fancy or "gourmet", so what you'll find here is mostly good old-fashioned homestyle cooking. I love many different ethnic cuisines (Thai, Indian, Mexican and Middle Eastern are some of my favourites) so you will find echoes of those flavours in many of my recipes.

FRUGAL: I like to keep our grocery budget as low as possible (while still enjoying plenty of good food!) so my focus is on using minimally processed, inexpensive foods. You won't find recipes calling for tuna steaks or scallops since they're not in my budget (except for special occasions). I also cook using a lot less meat and a lot more legumes (beans and lentils) than many people. Don't let that scare you away - this is definitely not a "vegetarian only" blog. I was vegetarian for several years, though, so I will offer up vegetarian versions of recipes where possible.

FABULOUS: When it comes right down to it, it doesn't really matter if a recipe meets the previous three criteria unless it also tastes great! I will only publish recipes that my family and friends have found satisfying and tasty. Of course, not everyone's tastes are the same, so it's not possible to guarantee that you'll love everything we do. At the very least, my recipes should inspire you to create a personalized version that will meet with your family's approval!
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