Quick and Easy

24 Jan

Tonight, we made Pollo Cacciatora from Nigella Express. You can find the recipe here. I opted to serve the cacciatore over rigatoni. I’m not much of a fan of chicken combined with tomatoes (unless we’re talking chicken parmesan), but it was actually quite good. The celery salt adds an interesting element of flavor.

I’ve quickly learned that for weeknights, dishes that can be prepared fairly speedily are necessary. The Nigella Express cookbook is great for that, as it’s filled with lots of fast, easy recipes. We need to be done with dinner by 6:30. It’s challenging.

When we started the project, we planned two weeks’ worth of meals and then shopped for ingredients. We’ve since cut back to choosing seven dinners at a time and then purchasing groceries accordingly. This way, nothing is in danger of going bad before we can use it.

We’ve also had the opportunity to make new-to-us meals. One of my favorite foods is spaghetti with marinara sauce, so that’s usually what I would make when I cooked. We’ve had all sorts of things lately, though: potatoes dauphinois, mustard pork chops, steaks, and even duck. This week, I’m even making Tikka Masala! Also on the menu: Schnitzel, Boeuf Bourguignon, Cheddar and Leek Risotto, Pizza, Baked Ziti, and Enchiladas.

One caveat: I am so tired of chicken. It’s inexpensive and fits well into a variety of dishes, but jeez. Summer cannot get here quickly enough; I am ready for more fruits and vegetables to be in-season and affordable. I’m looking forward to putting together a few tasty vegetarian dinners, definitely.

Also: If I can find time in the next few weeks, I’m going to tackle Julia Child’s French Bread! It takes over 6 hours, and the recipe is 7 pages long. Wish me luck!

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The Cooking at Home Resolution Continued

5 Jan

In the days since Christmas, we have successfully prepared most of our meals at home. True, we did rely on our old pals Zaxby’s and Whataburger for lunch on two separate occasions, but other than that, we’ve done well!

We decided to plan out two weeks’ worth of meals at a time and subsequently shop for ingredients. Having a well-stocked fridge and pantry feels pretty great; it’s comforting to think I could make practically anything we felt like having. It’s a huge difference from a year ago, when I was hoping my Ramen supply would hold out until my job started again.

One unexpected element: a feeling of isolation. I never realized how much of my social interaction is done while dining out or picking up food. Yes, I see people at work, but it’s somehow not the same. For a while, I felt closed off and lonely. When we went out, we not only spoke with other people, but we dedicated more attention to talking with each other. It makes sense; having a conversation is easier when distractions are eliminated. Since Mr. P has an unusual work schedule, he goes to sleep very early. Toiling to finish dinner at a reasonable hour while trying to unwind from my own workday didn’t leave time for much chitchat.

For a while, I just sat around feeling unhappy. Finally, the “differentness” is gone and I’m comfortable again. The bit of post-holiday depression I experienced wasn’t entirely helpful, either. Now, though, my cooking skills are actually improving. I’m getting faster at prep work, and I’m working toward washing all dishes immediately (what a time saver that is!). I’m able to do kitchen tasks and spend time with my fiancĂ© simultaneously. Even though I’m doing more at home, I feel more relaxed. Cooking doesn’t feel like such a marathon any longer.

Since we’re cooking more often, we’ve even expanded our horizons! I’m not making the same few dishes over and over again; instead, we’re pulling new recipes from our collection of cookbooks. This is both fun and interesting.

With my free time in the evenings, I’ve started reading! Due to being immersed in scholarly books practically constantly, I haven’t read for pleasure in ages. I forgot how great it is. It’s possible to download a heap of classic novels FOR FREE on the Kindle machine, too, so I’m looking forward to delving into some of those.

Funny, we started this project in order to save money, but it seems to be positively affecting other areas, too. All this in under two weeks! Wow.

I’m looking forward to Mr. P’s designated cooking night on Saturday. He makes a mean Skyline Cheese Coney.

SodaStream, I Love You.

27 Dec

Mr. P and I received a SodaStream for Christmas. After doing the math, we finally decided to add one to our wedding registry. It seemed a bit of a lavish item, but it would end up saving us quite a bit of money in the long run. The more we thought about it, the more we wanted a little fizz maker. We didn’t think anyone might get it for us; rather, we thought we might save up here and there and buy it eventually.

Well! My mom actually bought us the Fizz model for Christmas. Ours is red. The gadget manages to look retro and futuristic at once, and it’s a bit larger than it seems in photos.

What fun the SodaStream is to use, though! You can customize the level of fizz, which is fantastic for me because I want my drinks as bubbly as possible, like a natural disaster in a bottle.

All of the flavors we’ve tried so far have been delicious. My favorites are Diet Pink Grapefruit (a little like Fresca) and Orange, which tastes like those sugar-crusted gummy citrus wedges. We’ve also tried Diet Cranberry Raspberry, Root Beer, Fountain Mist (tastes just like Mountain Dew!), Diet Cola, and Dr. Pete. I’ll let you guess what flavor that one echoes!

You can adjust the amount of flavoring, which is nice. None of the flavors contain High Fructose Corn Syrup, and even the non-diet flavors are much lower in calories than their store-bought counterparts. The flavors do contain Splenda, but considering I was drinking about 4 cans daily of soda sweetened with aspartame, I can work with Splenda.

You can even use Monin or Torani-type syrups to make Italian Sodas, you can add a splash of juice, or you can make plain seltzer water. Lots of versatility here!

So far, we love it! We’re already taking out exponentially less trash (our community does not offer recycling -boo). According to studies, homemade soda also costs less than ready-made soda. Annnd we have much more free space in the fridge – woohoo!

Plus, making the soda is so much fun! Hopefully the Fizz will help in our quest to save money in 2012.

What flavor should I make next? Hmmm…

(SodaStream has not paid me a cent for this write-up; I’m literally just a very excited customer.)

Resolutions

27 Dec

Christmas is over. Although I usually love the holidays, I’m kind of glad it’s time for life to return to normal.

Mr. Parker and I aren’t really resolution makers, but we did set one main goal for 2012: save more money!

We have two strategies in order to fulfill our goal: 1) Stop buying junk we don’t need, and 2) Cook more meals at home.

While Strategy 1 is going to require mostly willpower, Strategy 2 is actually going to demand planning and effort. I’d like to stick to fairly simple recipes that will yield leftovers, which will save us money by allowing us to pack the leftovers for the next day’s lunch. Why go out for burgers if you have a great, already-cooked meal waiting in the fridge, right?

We’ll also have to be better about grocery shopping. Right now, we shop when we need ingredients. We’ll need to transition into buying affordable staples once a week, and then planning meals around those ingredients.

And if there’s a night we’re simply too tired to cook? Since this should be no more than once a week to once every other week, we’ll simply go out. The planning and cooking at home should save us enough money that occasional restaurant trips are not a big deal.

We’re eager to get started, and we look forward to sharing our progress with you.

Are you making any sort of cooking-related resolutions?

Happy New Year!

Salty and Sweet Cookies

10 Dec

Mr. Parker got the idea for the pretzels and the chips from a “Compost Cookie” recipe on Good Morning America. The base of the recipe has been an old standby since childhood.

These are almost perfect: sweet, salty, crunchy, and chewy. Enjoy!

2 cups all-purpose flour

3/4 teaspoon baking powder

3/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt (1/4 teaspoon if you’re using standard table salt)

2/3 cup butter

1/2 cup shortening (I typically use butter flavored Crisco)

1 and 1/3 cups brown sugar

2/3 cup sugar

2 eggs

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

1/2 cup butterscotch chips

3/4 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

1 cup salted pretzel sticks, smashed a bit

1 cup plain salted potato chips (we used Lays Original)

Cream butter, shortening, and sugars. Add vanilla and eggs. Stir to combine. Add flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Mix until just incorporated. Throw in the butterscotch chips, chocolate chips, and pretzel bits. Once mixed, break the chips into the batter and stir.

Form into tablespoon-sized semi-flattened orbs. Place about two inches apart on a cookie sheet.

Bake at 375F for about 9 – 10 minutes. Refrigerate dough between batches.

*We originally used 3/4 cup each butterscotch chips and semi-sweet chocolate chips; however, we found the butterscotch flavor to be a bit too sweet and overwhelming, so we cut the butterscotch down to 1/2 cup with satisfactory results.

These Mashed Potatoes Will Spoil You.

7 Aug

Mashed potatoes have been a preferred food my entire life – just ask my mom. My mema’s mashed potatoes are still my ultimate favorite, and I have yet to successfully duplicate them.

In the meantime, I’ve combined various aspects of recipes from Michael Chiarello (pound cake potatoes!) and Paula Deen and ended up with these, which are pretty special. Yes, they’re terrible for you, but I love them. They’re also full of odd ingredients. Professional chefs would probably say there are too many competing flavors, which is probably true. Still, I find them to be delicious. They’re so good, they don’t even need gravy.

Yukon Gold potatoes 4 – 6 large. Half -peeled.

Butter – salted, several tablespoons

Cream

Salt

Pepper

Parmesan

Cream Cheese

Optional: Roasted Garlic

Cut the potatoes into one-inch cubes and gently boil in salted water until easily pierced with a fork. Drain and transfer to a bowl; mash with a potato masher. Add salt, pepper, cream, and lots of butter. Stir and re-mash if necessary.

Next, add Parmesan (about two tablespoons) and about a quarter-cup of cream cheese (adjust as needed). Toss in additional cream and butter if the situation merits. If you’re using roasted garlic, add it now. Stir. Enjoy. You’re now ruined on plain old mashed potatoes forever.

Enameled Cast Iron

20 Jul

There’s a reason enameled cast iron cookware has become so popular: it’s fantastic. Plus, there’s no need to season it like would be necessary with basic cast iron. I love it for making pasta sauces as well as roasts and the like.

Enameled cast iron is also, unfortunately, very expensive. Famous brands typically cost $300 or so. Now, $300 might end up being a really good value for a pan a cook will use at least three times a week for decades, but there is no room in my budget for $300 expenditures anywhere.

But!

I found this 7 quart enameled cast iron dutch oven at Target (it’s from Giada’s line) last fall. It was $89, and since I had literally no kitchen supplies (I moved back to Florida with two dogs, two suitcases, and a bunch of books), I used my birthday money from my mema to buy it.

Even though this piece isn’t from the popular French line, I like it even more than the pricey dutch ovens I had to leave behind in Washington. The weight is perfect, it’s incredibly easy to clean, and any dish I prepare in it turns out wonderfully. Of all the times I’ve cooked in the last nine months, I’ve probably used it all but three times. It still looks and performs just like it did when it was new, too. I’m anticipating it will last many years.

A 5 – 7 quart enameled cast iron dutch oven is an ideal addition to any kitchen, especially one this versatile at this nice of a pricepoint. One can use it for almost anything.

(And no, I have no financial relationship whatsoever with Target or Giada for Target… well, aside from the one where I pay <i>them</i> money and then take home way.too.much home decor stuff every time I visit. This is simply I product I really, really like, and I think you might like it, too. The end.)