Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Week 48: Organizing for Efficiency (part 2)

I've posted before about how I've been in a slump and what I've tried to do about it.  First, I addressed the monotony of our menu plans by cleaning out my recipe binders and planning on trying the untested recipes in those binders (that was part 1).  Then I challenged myself to try new produce which produced a super yummy soup. Next I picked up a new appliance to help me with food prep (and I love my food processor).  Now I have to come to terms with the fact that making nearly all of our food from scratch takes planning.

I have friends that tell me, "Oh, I could never spend that much time in the kitchen!"  But, I've come to realize that it doesn't have to take 4-5 hours in the kitchen every day to make food from scratch.  It takes planning.  A great part of the slump I've been in, is that I haven't been planning ahead enough.  If I don't take time to throw a chicken in the crockpot, then I won't have chicken ready to put in a recipe.  If I don't take the time to make yogurt, then I won't have smoothies or granola parfaits.  It's the same with beans and rice and roasts.  None of it takes a lot of time, it takes planning.

This week's goal (and why didn't I come up with this 2 months ago?) is to plan out when I'm doing certain tasks, so I will always have the right food for whatever recipe I want to try.  Ultimately, I would like to spend 20-30 minutes in the morning while I'm cooking breakfast to get a bigger project going.  I'm sure that my original plan will need to be tweeked, but here's what I've got so far.

Sunday-alternate weeks either making loaves of whole wheat bread or dinner rolls/buns for sandwiches-leave out what we'll eat on Monday and freeze the rest
Monday-make big batches of beans in the crockpot (each week a different kind depending on the menu: great Northern, pinto, red, black)-while cooking dinner, divide beans up into meal-sized portions freezing what won't be eaten in the next day or two
Tuesday-crockpot chicken or roast, occasionally a ham or turkey in the oven (probably chicken twice a month and then one of the others on the off weeks)-while cooking dinner, debone the chicken
Wednesday-use carcass from chicken, turkey or bones from roast (or soup bones when we get our beef this next spring) to make broth in the crockpot-while cooking dinner, strain the broth and put in jars
Thursday-make a half gallon of yogurt (one quart plain to be used as a sour cream replacement and one quart of vanilla)
Friday-make 2 or 3 batches of baked brown rice to be used in other recipes.  This is the one that might take more time than the others.  It only takes a few minutes to get the rice in the oven, but it bakes for an hour.  Someone needs to be there to take the rice out of the oven and start a second batch.  Right now, since I'm at home all day it wouldn't be a big deal.  However, if I have things to do that take me from the house, this one might be hard to pull off.  It could probably be done in the evening rather easily though-make one batch while cooking dinner and another before bed.  I'll think on that one.

I skipped Saturday because we're usually running around doing errands and activities.  Saturday evening is typically my meal planning day.  I'm hoping to work my menu around my prep schedule-like no chicken until Wednesday or after.  Once I get 2-3 weeks into it, I'll have a better idea how long the food will last-will I still have a little yogurt left when I start a new batch or will we have been out for 2 days-that kind of thing.

What do you think?  Is it doable?  Do you have a schedule for your food prep?

Soaking-An Update

Last week, my baby step was to try my hand at soaking grains.  Of course we all know that while I have good intentions, my follow through lacks on occasion (especially given the super busy time of year).  I did do a bunch of reading on the reason behind soaking grains and I found a couple recipes that I wanted to try. 

Last night I set to work getting my prep work done for soaked whole wheat pancakes and soaked whole wheat bread.  For the pancakes I used this recipe from Kitchen Stewardship.  I was a little skeptical this morning when I thought the concoction smelled funny, but they tasted awesome.  This recipe made 21 pancakes approximately 4" across.  Next time I will make mini pancakes and let the kids dip (I think they eat more when dipping than forking).  Each of the kids ate 2 (and Little Man ate 4), but there were still 7 left to freeze for a morning when we're rushed.  Gotta love that.

I also made whole wheat bread.  I had picked out another Kitchen Stewardship recipe to try, but abandoned that idea last night in favor of using my own whole wheat bread recipe. I used the principles that Katie (from Kitchen Stewardship) laid out when making her own bread and applied them to my recipe.  Basically, add all your wet ingredients (making sure that there is a somewhat acidic liquid) to the flour and then add yeast and salt the next day.  I used 1/4 cup lemon juice as part of my warm water and used 6 cups of flour.

This morning, I wondered how I was going to get the yeast incorporated into the bread and activated since my kitchen was a cool 61 degrees.  I activated the yeast in a 1/4 cup of warm water and dumped it on top of the pile of goopy, soaked dough with the salt.  I mixed it in as well as I could (which didn't seem to be near enough).  Once again, it was covered and I placed it on top of my stove with the oven preheating-I hoped that the stove top would get warm enough that the dough would rise.  An hour later, the dough had risen some, but not much.  I was about to consider the whole thing a failure and dump the bowl.  I decided that since I'd already used 6 cups of flour, another cup wouldn't be that more to waste.  I dumped the dough out on my counter and kneaded another 3/4 cup of flour into the dough, placed the dough in bread pans, covered and waited for the second rise-again on the stove top.  The rise was much better this time.  I let it rise for an hour before baking and it came out of the oven looking like any other loaf of bread I've baked.  At this point I was getting a bit more enthusiastic.

Once cool, I cut a mini loaf for the kids' peanut butter and honey sandwiches.  I did thin slices (think cocktail bread) and it didn't crumb very much at all.  The crust was tender and the bread was soft, but not doughy.  The taste is a tad on the sweet side, which was fine for pb & h, but I'll probably want to measure the molasses next time I make a loaf-this time I just eyeballed it and probably got a little too much.

Overall, I've been impressed with my soaking efforts.  Assuming the mini pancakes turn out as good as the larger ones (and I can't see why they wouldn't), this will be make go-to pancake recipe.  I'll tinker with the sweetener in the bread (like actually measure) and see if I still like the bread as well, but I think soaking helped the texture of the bread and made it better for sandwiches.  If I find this to be the case, it will be my top bread recipe.

I didn't get around to making my steel cut oats.  Maybe that will be breakfast tomorrow-we'll see.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Hamburger Stroganoff

In an attempt to get out of my some 'ole recipe slump, I've started going through my recipe binders and few remaining cookbooks (in a big de-clutter last year, most didn't make the cut).  Several years ago, my mother-in-law made a family cookbook for each family for Christmas.  This recipe was submitted by Hubby's Aunt Marlene.  It looked good and I thought Little Man might like it-he's going through quite the picky phase right now.

Anyway, it was ready in a jiffy and the kids liked it. Little Man ate most of his serving.  I thought it was good, but next time I'll add cheddar cheese.  Cheese makes everything better.

1/2 cup onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, minced (again, I'm a jar girl)
4 oz. mushrooms, chopped (the original recipe called for a can, but I used fresh)
2 Tbsp. parsley flakes
1 pound ground beef
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup flour
1 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. pepper
2 cups milk
1 cup sour cream
12 oz. egg noodles, cooked and drained

In a large saucepan or small stock pot, heat water for cooking the noodles.  When boiling add noodles and a little salt.  In a skillet, brown the ground beef with the onion, garlic, mushrooms and parsley.  When the onion is soft and the beef thoroughly cooked, dump it into a colander to drain (or however you drain meat, but empty the pan).  Leaving the pan on medium high heat, melt the butter, then add the flour, salt and pepper.  Whisk together and allow to brown slightly.  Add milk slowly and whisk in to incorporate, continue whisking to get rid of any lumps.  When thickened, add the sour cream and stir it in.  Then add the meat mixture back in.  Stir together and heat through.  This is where I'm going to add a cup or so of cheddar cheese next time.  Serve over cooked and drained egg noodles.  I dumped my sauce over the noodles in the stockpot and mixed them that way.  I just have visions of noodles all over the table as my kids try to stir it together on their plates.  That might just be me though. :)

Note:  The original recipe called for a can of cream of mushroom soup, but since I don't use that, I just incorporated making my own soup into the directions for the meal.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Rockin' good Potato and Leek Soup

A couple weeks ago, my "baby step" was to try new produce.  Leeks were at the top of my list because it seems that all of the cool cooking shows or fancy food magazines have recipes using leeks.  And we all know that I'm secretly striving to be like Paula Deen.  NOT!  I really just think they are cool looking and wondered what they tasted like (and if I could get my family to try them).

My organic leeks arrived last Friday in my Azure Standard order, and due to some unforeseen activities, I didn't get to make my soup until last night (Tuesday).  I can't believe I waited so long.  It was awesome (like both of my kids ate 4 bowls awesome)!

Granted, in the past couple of weeks I've read about 40 different recipes for potato and leek soup and similar variations.  I didn't find one specifically that I thought would be better than others, but I saw definite elements in some that I knew I would love.  Last night when I started cooking, I started throwing things together and ended up with a masterpiece.  It would be nice to have a picture of this masterpiece, but my camera is on its last leg and isn't taking very good pictures at all.  You'll just have to trust me.

2 tablespoons bacon grease (oil or butter would work, but the bacon adds flavor)
2 leeks, sliced/rings separated, soaked and spun dry
1/2 an onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced (I still do the jar kind.)
8 cups chicken broth, divided
6 Russet potatoes, peeled and diced
2 carrots, peeled and cut in coins
1-2 stalks celery, chopped
salt and pepper to taste
8 oz. cream cheese (optional)

In a large skillet (I used a 10 inch cast iron and it was on the smallish side), saute the leeks, onion and garlic in bacon grease until softened.  Add 1 cup of chicken broth and simmer until completely soft.  Meanwhile boil the potatoes, carrots, and celery in the remaining chicken broth until potatoes are cooked through, but not mush.  Add salt and pepper to taste.

*Puree the leak mixture and cream cheese adding a little broth from the potatoes if necessary to thin (I used my new food processor).  Add the puree to the pot of potatoes and stir to thoroughly incorporate the puree.  Heat through.

If you desire a more blended soup, you can scoop out some of the chunks and run them through the food processor and return it back to the pot.  Or, for a completely smooth soup, you can use a stick blender and blend the soup in the pot.  I chose to blend some, but leave lots of chunks (I thought the pureed orange of the carrot might make the coloring of the soup unappetizing.).

*I added the cream cheese to the main pot after incorporating the puree and it didn't melt completely.  It tasted fine but had tiny white pieces throughout.  I'm thinking that pureeing it along with the leeks will melt it completely and eliminate that.

Last night we topped our soup with shredded co-jack cheese, but today I had it plain and it was equally yummy without it.  I can imagine that adding crumbled bacon would also be nice.

Link up at Penniless Parenting's Hearth and Soul Blog Hop.

Week 47: Soaking Grains

As a person who reads many food blogs, I find many things that are similar-less or no processed foods, more fruits and veggies (organic if possible), high quality meat-not conventional, etc.  Another thing I read about frequently is soaking grains.  The basic idea is that soaking the grain breaks down the proteins in it aiding in digestion.

So, this week, I'm going to take a stab at that.  I've got some steel cut oats that are looking for purpose.  Also I think I'll try it with a loaf of bread and see how that turns out.

I've been toying with this for a while, but my main hold up has been that soaking takes thinking ahead--which, admittedly, I haven't been very good at lately.  I'm trying to get back on track, so this might be one way to prod myself to do that "thinking ahead" stuff. :)

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Week 46: Buy quality kitchen appliances

It isn't a big secret that I like to save money.  Sometimes I'm not very good at melding my desire to eat better food and still save money, but I'm working on it.  Since I make our meals from scratch and cook three full meals and at least one or two snacks each day, it is safe to say that I spend A LOT of time in the kitchen (or near it). 

Over the past several years, our income has dropped about $10,000 over what it once was.  While we're in no way impoverished, time are tougher and the budget is tighter.  That generally means that when something breaks, I seriously debate about whether to replace the item or not.  In terms of kitchen appliances, the decision is usually made not to replace something.  In the past two years, I've lost my bread maker, hand mixer, toaster, hand blender/food chopper and various other fluffy items that aren't necessities, but are nice to have.  Luckily Hubby's parents gave me a stand mixer for Christmas last year and that has been wonderful to have.  But, there are still other wants...

Back in the summer (week 26 to be exact) Hubby and I decided that we would purchase used if possible to save money and be "greener."  To keep in the spirit of that "baby step," I've been periodically checking out Freecycle and Craigslist to see if anything fabulous popped up.  Unfortunately most of the appliances that were listed weren't really things that I thought we needed and/or they were still pretty expensive.  No big deal, I'd been getting along just fine without them anyway.

In the past month or so, I've been in a funk.  I've sort of lost the energy to stick with some of the changes I've made.  I still have the desire, but there has been a definite lack of follow through on some things, like meal planning, staying under budget, eating out--hanging head in shame. :(

After a lot of thought on why this was, I came to a conclusion.  With Hubby working a second job for the past three months, there just isn't the support there at night.  Not that he's not supportive, but there's alot to be said for adding a second set of hands to help with homework, run errands, keep Little Man busy, etc. while I'm in the kitchen.  No extra hands mean I'm doing it all and I run out of steam long before my next day's meal prep gets done and there is no time for blogging or searching for new recipes during nap time because I'm doing laundry, sweeping floors, or trying to get dinner prep done before the kids come home from school needing help with homework, etc.

OK, so now I identified the problem, but what could I do to solve it?  I decided that adding a couple quality kitchen appliances to speed the prep process along would be money well spent.  Coincidentally, I came across the Kohl's Black Friday ad and saw that they had a Cuisinart Food Processor at a crazy markdown.  That, coupled with $50 that I had received as an early Christmas gift and a 15% off card, I paid a little less than $5 out of pocket for an awesome food processor.  I've had it 5 days and I've already used every feature on it.  I've used it to make biscuits (within 10 minutes of arriving home with it!  LOL), waffles, shredded veggies on a salad and this morning I used it for cinnamon roll dough-delish!

Hopefully, this new addition to my kitchen will save me time and help me be more efficient.  I'm feeling a little less funk-ish.  We've tried several new recipes in the past couple weeks, all of which the family thought were yummy.  That's a plus.  I'm back to planning and using cash, so hopefully that will keep the budget in check.  I've made a few concessions though for my sanity.  I have purchased a few convenience items (bag of fries and popcorn chicken and a couple take and bake pizzas).  I know that these are certainly not healthy choices, but if I'm hitting McDonald's on a crazy night, it is certainly no healthier.  We'll save these things for those on the go nights and save money by not eating out.  One day, I hope to have all of this mastered with several homemade options in the freezer to just pop in the oven.  But, until that day comes, I'm doing what I can.

My second, and notably the biggest, concession is that I've allowed the girls to eat school lunch.  This was a huge hurdle for me to overcome, but when lunches came home day after day uneaten, I decided to give this one up.  The girls liked the food I sent and most often ate it every day as soon as they got home from school (or occasionally on the way home), but they got teased at school because their food was different so they would eat only the food they thought would be acceptable to their peers and leave the rest inside their lunchboxes so no one would see it. :(

On the higher side, our school is working hard to make the lunches healthier.  Salad bar is offered every day with a variety of fresh fruits and veggies.  They make much of their bread items from scratch-adding whole wheat (not solely, but some is better than none).  They serve bone-in chicken instead of processed patties.  I appreciate the effort being made and if I could get them to ditch the canned goods, I'd probably be completely ok with it (but beggars can't be choosers it seems!).  Now, the downside... I've heard that they might ditch some of the healthy measures they've taken because the general population of kids won't eat the healthier foods.  Ugh!  We'll see how that goes!

I've rambled enough for now.  Hopefully I can get a minute to post my menu plan for this week and include links for some of our new dishes.  Have a great day!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Week 45: Try new "in season" produce

I like to think that my family eats a pretty wide variety of  foods.  I plan meals that use a variety of ingredients and from different cultures.  You would think that by now, before I pat myself on the back, I should think again.  Last Sunday I was walking through the produce section of our local grocery store and could point out at least 10 (and probably more) foods that I've never tried, much less prepared for a family meal.  Ahhh, a new goal forming!  We will try at least one new food each week for the rest of the year.  Last weeks (if you didn't realize, I'm behind a week) new veggie was turnips.  Hubby brought a few home from his second job and peeled them and ate them raw.  Little Man and I didn't care for them, but Baby Girl loved them and wanted more.  Big Girl was undecided-she ate the piece she was given, but didn't want more, so who knows on that one.  I think in my next menu plan I will try to find a different preparation to see if a can win over the non-lovers (myself included).

The new veggie for this week is leeks.  I've always considered leeks to be a fancier food.  We'll see.  I'm going to make a batch of potato and leek soup this weekend.  It's not the focus of any meal-so if it's terrible, we'll still have other food! :)

If you have a great recipe using either turnips or leeks, I'd love to hear it.

Other possibilities for the rest of the year are spaghetti squash, acorn squash, various types of potatoes, parsnips and fruits like persimmons, papaya, etc.  I don't necessarily know if the fruits are in season, but they have been on sale in this particular store lately, so I might try those as well.

I'll try to keep everyone updated as to what we're trying and what the verdict is!
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