Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Perfect Mashed Potatoes

I always thought it would be silly to sit down and write a recipe for mashed potatoes, but I figured right before Thanksgiving would be as good a time as any.  I grew up watching my grandma make them, and I guess I just continued the tradition.  She made the best mashed potatoes.  I know, I know...your grandma probably made the best too.  I'll let you continue to live in your dream world, but my grandma really was the best.  I kid, I kid!  Your grandma's potatoes were probably equally delicious. 

One big reason a recipe is hard to write is that uniformity is really hard with mashed potatoes, because there is no way that all of your potatoes will ever be the exact same size.  I keep the same base each time for my mashed potatoes, but I just continue to add each ingredient to taste.  So keep that in mind if you decide to try this recipe.  You must conform it to your taste, it's a must-must.  But I do have a few tips for the perfect creamy mashed potatoes.  So here we go...

Tip #1:  Make sure to dice your potatoes the same size as much as possible.  They will cook more evenly and you won't have as many lumps.  Lumps are the fallen angel of mashed potato heaven.  I also have people ask me which types of potatoes to use.  I always use Russets or Yukon Gold potatoes.  I find that red potatoes are too gummy for my liking, but russets and yukon golds are light and fluffy!

 Tip #2:  Make sure to place your diced potatoes in cold water.  This will help them to come up to boiling temperature gradually.  Again cooking evenly = no lumps.

Tip #3:  Place 1 Tbsp of balsamic vinegar + 1 Tbsp olive oil in your water.  I got this trick from another lovely blog, and I'm not exactly sure how or why it works, but it does.  And never fear, the potatoes will not come away with one single hint of vinegar flavor.  You should try this sometime, but if you don't trust me (which you should, I would never lead you in the wrong direction) try it after Thanksgiving.  You know, sometime when all you have to feed is a toothless toddler who doesn't care because they just love mashed potatoes.

I know it looks murky, but don't worry!

Tip #4:  Boil the potatoes until they are all falling apart.  I know popular belief is to boil them until they are "fork tender" but I like to boil them until each piece falls apart with the touch of a fork.  Like imagine that the fork is the hot senior football player and the potatoes are the giggly freshman girls.  They should just melt with one tough.  How's that for a metaphor?? :)  A lot of people also worry that this will make for watery mashed potatoes, but we'll take care of that in tip five.  This ensures that I will have no chance for lumps.  Plus I sort of make a game out of finding the biggest piece of potato left and making sure it is fork tender.  I know.  I'm weird like that.

Tip #5:  Once you drain the potatoes place them back in the hot pot.  The potatoes will cook just a bit more and all the moisture left in the potatoes will evaporate.  Leaving you with a perfect base for fluffy goodness.

Tip #6: Once you have your potatoes minus all the moisture, dump them into your mixing bowl.  The mixing bowl should already have one stick of butter plus some salt/black pepper.  This is also the point I put the garlic in too, so it gets all warm and yummy.  I have vowed to try it with roasted garlic someday.  Sounds delicious!

Tip #7: Turn on your mixer and try to get out as many lumps as possible.  If you followed all of the steps there shouldn't be very many at all, but sometimes these things just happen, not sure why.  Add in the sour cream and mix again.  If the potatoes aren't creamy enough, now would be the time to slowly add in the milk.

Tip #8: A lot of people put a couple of slices of butter on top of the potatoes so they melt down over them.  I happen to like to press small squares of butter all over in the potatoes, so not only do they melt, but sometimes you can find a nice buttery surprise with a bite. 

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Monday, November 22, 2010

Comforting Chicken Pot Pie

Timothy and his roommates used to love eating the frozen mini chicken pot pies.  Marie Calendar got my husband through some pretty cold winters.  But once we got serious and I was at his house doing more cooking, I kept thinking, "I can do that! And I could probably do it just was well, for less money!" So I set out to find an easy pot pie recipe that tasted homemade.  I'm pretty sure this was how I snagged Timothy.  What farm boy doesn't like a girl that can cook.  I made this once and it turned out pretty yummy.  But for us, chicken pot pie is not something that is on the menu every single week.  Our menu usually has something Mexican, Italian, something involving meat & potatoes, and something super easy.  It's sad to say that chicken pot pie is rarely on the brain.  However, when I sat down to write the menu for my freezer meals for this season, chicken pot pie only seemed logical.  So I busted out the old recipe, and made a few.  Timothy said he just wishes somehow I could make little mini frozen ones that he could take to work.  So I'm working on that...but for now, here's a hearty, simple, delicious chicken pot pie that you can make for your family on a cold winter night. 

*On a side note, I am going to try to do a cost breakdown of as many of the meals as I possibly can, so you can see per serving how much money it would cost for your family.  I realize that sometimes it is more expensive to make your own food, but in my opinion (and take it for what it's worth) I would rather spend $1 more on the whole meal in order to know exactly what I'm putting in my food.  Most of my recipes are semi-homemade, so I can't guarantee a preservative/additive free recipe, but I figure as much as possible is good enough for me!
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Sunday, November 21, 2010

Freeze Your Butt Off (And Thank Me Later)

With basketball season fast approaching (it has since started!) I took some tips from one of my best good friends Carlei, and decided to attempt to freeze meals for the entire season.  Crazy I know!  You see, Timothy can cook, he just chooses not to.  Why would you if you had a wife that loved being in the kitchen??  He does grill a mean steak, I have to say.  I can't even compete with that (except with my filet mignon :) so I just make the side dishes.  We have a great relationship when it comes to grilling.  He can also make a really good fried egg, which I attribute to his father and his hundred-year-old cast iron pan.  Mine is still just a baby...

My basketball season runs from the beginning of November to the beginning of March.  There will be nights that I will be home at a decent time if we have practice right after school, but some nights I won't get home until 8:00 or beyond.  It is nice to know that I am feeding him well, and even better, that I will have a hot meal ready for when I get home!  I know he would be completely content with frozen pizzas, chicken nuggets, and french fries for a whole season, but according to Carlei, that only worked the first year, ha!  So I decided that I would hit up Sam's club and Hy-vee and stock up on all the things I would need to make a bunch of food.  I took tips from Carlei, and did a ton of research.  Turns out, there's a whole "making meals a month at a time" movement out there! Two full days of cooking later, our freezer is now stocked with:

Two chicken spaghetti casseroles
Two chicken enchilada casseroles
Two chicken burrito pans
Two chicken pot pies
4 containers of spaghetti meat sauce
1 beef ravioli casserole
3 meatloafs
3 pans of beef enchiladas
4 lasagnas

I ended up getting chafing dishes from Sam's club that worked great, and had nice little flat aluminum tops that would crimp on that I could write the directions on.  The only complaint that I had with the whole process was the the pans are about 8x11, which is pretty big for us.  Each pan is lasting about 3 meals.  I really wanted deep square pans that would supply one dinner and possibly lunch the next day.  If I had found those pans, all of my frozen meals would have been doubled.  Oh well.  So for now we're eating something for about 2-3 days in a row, which can get old.  But if we had a bigger family it would be perfect, so I'll keep that in mind for about 20 years down the road ;)  I will try to get all of these recipes on the blog at some point along with freezer friendly directions!  Here is a little collage of the whole process followed by a few of my tips (I'm a first timer, so I'm no expert, but these are just a few things I learned.)

Tip #1 - Do all of your shopping prior to your cooking days.  If you try to shop in the morning and cook in the afternoon you will get exhausted with the whole thing and give up.  I made my menu/shopping list and checked the sales flyers for things 1-2 weeks prior to cooking.  I also recommend buying in bulk.  I got big bags of cheese, a container of sour cream, and large cans of tomatoes/sauce (overall the best bang for your buck!), etc.  This really helped me to save time, money, and pantry/refrigerator space.

Tip #2 - I got this one from Carlei.  Never be afraid to freeze something once.  The general rule of thumb is you don't want to freeze anything with raw eggs or sour cream, etc because it won't come out as good as it would've baked fresh.  You can google all the other things you "shouldn't freeze" if you really want to freak yourself out.  I don't recommend it :)  I definitely didn't find any of those things to be a problem anyway.  Like we had no problems with the egg wash on the pot pie, and I have sour cream in the enchilada casserole.  Only time will tell, but I'll update and let you know!

Tip #3 - Write all of the baking directions on the top of the pan or tape a post-it note to the top, etc.  I just write directly on the aluminum foil, worked great for me.

Tip #4 - Do one meal at a time! Don't attempt to have 4 pots on the stove at once. It will get crazy and tomato sauce will probably go everywhere!

Tip #5 - Clean out your freezer before you start trying to stack things in there.  It is also a good idea to completely freeze somethings before you start stacking.  My casseroles got to be pretty heavy so I was worried about them squishing each other.  However, since I followed tip #4, the previous meal was pretty much frozen when I was ready to put another in the freezer.

Tip #6 - If you are making a bunch of chicken based dishes, poach whole cut-up fryer chickens in a huge pot of water.  Remove the chicken after it is finished cooking, cool, and shred up.  It's almost a game to me to see how much chicken I can get off of the bone.  Don't forget to save the broth!!!  It's practically free!!  I did this and had a nice mix of light and dark meat. 

Tip #7 - Stock up when you see things on sale.  Every once in awhile Walmart has the big bags of frozen boneless skinless chicken breasts on sale and I'll grab a few bags.  I threw all these in the crockpot and threw just about 1-2 cups of chicken broth (water would work just fine) in and cooked on high for 4-6 hours.  This, combined with tip #6 gave me enough chicken and broth for all my casseroles and even extra chicken and broth to freeze future things like soup and chicken quesadillas!

Tip #8 - I have Timothy pick out a casserole on his way out the door for work in the morning and put it in either the fridge or the oven to defrost.  We found the oven works best for the big casseroles.  Refrigerator works best for things like the pot pies and meatloaf.  If you are lucky like some people I know, you have an oven you can program to start at a certain time.  Someday.....

Tip #9 - Line up an assembly line of all your casserole dishes and work that way.  Makes things a lot easier!

Tip #10 - Enjoy the process.  I like working in the kitchen by myself, but this would be a really great thing to involve your kids in.  There were so many times in each dish that it would have been fun to have kiddos around to layer things with me.

Overall I would say freezing the meals has been a great experience.  I am honestly thinking about doubling and freezing meals even in the off-season.  Everyone out there can relate to those nights when you get home and just don't feel like cooking.  This can also be a big help when someone you know has a baby or a death in the family.  You can just pop out a casserole, directions included, and take it to their house.  Best part is they can even throw the container away!! 

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Friday, November 19, 2010

Party Potato Casserole

I know we have all been to a family barbeque or church picnic where a potato casserole was served.  If you've never had it, there may or may not be a small piece of your soul that is missing.  Well maybe not, but I like to think that this casserole is pretty close to perfect in so many ways.  Creamy, buttery, hashbrown potatoes with just a hint of onion flavor, finished off with gooey cheese and a crispy, crunchy cornflake topping.  For the sake of anything good left in this world, you really need to try this casserole.  Try it with pork, try it with barbeque chicken, try it with burgers, or try it by itself.  This last option can be dangerous though when you find yourself in a potato coma with bits of cornflake on your face.  Whatever way you come up with, just try it.  I promise you will be the bright shining star of your next family get-together, if the casserole makes it there in one piece.  In my house there is the occasional missing this...


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Thursday, November 18, 2010

Pumpkin Bar Series Part II

Well it's part deux of my pumpkin bar series, and this one really knocked my socks off.  By the way , where the heck did that phrase come from?!? It's right up there with phrases like "I would go, but I don't want to be the third wheel."  What's wrong with being the third wheel?  It seems to me that the third wheel is pretty important.  You need the third wheel... Now the 5th wheel, that's a different story.  Or how about the ever popular, "More _____ than you can shake a stick at."  I believe that no matter how much (something) was in a pile, I could still shake a stick at it if I wanted to...These are just a few, but I could seriously go on and on all day. 

But back to the pumpkin bars...These bars were different from my first try.  These contain an oatmeal crust, which ended up a little more crunchy and had some more bite to it.  It also isn't as sweet as the first, and has more of a tang from the cream cheese.  Oh how I love cream cheese.  So if you have to take something to work for a pre-Thanksgiving feast, try these! They are super easy, and everyone will appreciate the "pumpkin pie"-esque flavor right before the holidays.  Because I've heard that if you eat too much actual pumpkin pie before Thanksgiving you won't want to have any on the actual day.  I think it's just a dirty rumor, but I'm not tempting fate.   

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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

White Chicken Chili w/ Avocado Smash

We like to have friends come over for dinner as often as possible.  Even though we have a teenie tiny kitchen, it's still nice to have a few people over at once.  One of Timothy's friends requested that I try and make a white chicken chili.  I had made one before so this was a gimme in my book :) After a long weekend of hunting in some pretty chilly conditions (in my opinion...Timothy would beg to differ) I was definitely ready for a dinner that would warm my body up. 

Whooo baby! Not only did this warm my body up, but it definitely cleared out my sinuses too.  I'm not complaining though, because I love spicy food.  My favorite quote from the night from one of our good friends was, "so hot my lips are on fire! shouldn't have licked them, but I don't want to stop eating!" Lol, thanks Tay!  Hope you enjoy this belly-warming bowl of chili.
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Sunday, November 14, 2010

Sloppy Joes

Sloppy joe, slop, sloppy joe...sloppy joe, slop, sloppy joe.  None of you can deny that you think of that song every time you hear the words sloppy and joe in a sentence together.  I sure do!  In fact, I may or may not sing it in my head every time I make the darn things.  I will admit that I am a fan of the can.  Manwhich that is...But every once in awhile I do like to try to make those canned foods we all grew up on homemade, sometimes with a twist.  I enjoy doing this because not only does it not take much extra time, but I usually have the ingredients on hand, and I can control the salt content.  Plus now I know exactly what's going into my Joes!  And don't worry, I made em' extra sloppy for yous, I know how yous kids like em' sloppy! 
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Friday, November 12, 2010

Pumpkin Bar Series Part I

I had a few cans of pumpkin lying around and decided they needed to be put to good use.  Oh who am I kidding? I panicked because last year there was a pumpkin shortage so I bought every can I could get my hands on.  It was like Y2K all over again...Anywho, I've been craving pumpkin pie but I didn't want to make a full blown pie and burn myself out on it before the actual holiday, because if you're like me, you could sit down and eat a whole pie.  By. Yourself.  Never a good thing.  So I thought I would look up some recipes for pumpkin bars.  I came across so many of them that I decided to do a series of 3 recipes and see which one I like the best.  All three recipes will be very different, so you'll have to check back and try each one.  Part I is more of a Pumpkin "Pie" Bar.  Not cakey at all and the closest I could get to the actual pie.  Let me know what you think!
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Monday, November 8, 2010

Baked Ziti

Baked ziti is such a comfort food for me.  The big round noodles that soak up all the sauce, loads of cheese, and a creamy filling.  It really doesn't get much better than that, round it out with some garlic bread and some salad and you've got a great meal.  A few years ago I researched some baked ziti recipes and stumbled upon one from All Recipes.  This recipe called for using sour cream for the filling.  Sour cream?? What the french toast?!?!  Well I tried it, and it was lovely.  It worked perfectly and gave the ziti a little zip, zing, tang!  I have since used my own recipe for ziti, but kept the sour cream, and it is a winner every time.
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Friday, November 5, 2010

Banana Bread

Growing up I remember my Grandma Lee and mom saving ripe bananas until they were practically falling apart.  It completely grossed me out, but once I tasted the amazing flavor of their homemade banana bread, it all made sense.  I am so lucky to be given this recipe, and while I’m sure it is similar to a lot of other banana breads, in my eyes it really is the best.  It comes out so moist and delicious, I can’t even begin to describe the taste of it right out of the oven.  My husband likes it with nuts and I don’t, but I’ll forgive him.  However, if you don’t like nuts in your breads, just omit them.  I have tried a lot of banana breads over the years (you’ll never see me turn down a good banana bread), but I’ve never had one that quite matches up to this recipe.  From my family to yours, I hope you enjoy this warm, comforting blast from my past.

My grandma, brother, and grandpa (in the back) :)

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Wednesday, November 3, 2010

OG Salad

We were having spaghetti and meatballs one Sunday for lunch and I decided a good salad was definitely in order.  Thinking about spaghetti and meatballs made me think of Olive Garden.  We don’t eat there very often but my husband always gets their spaghetti.  Of course we end up eating so many servings of salad and breadsticks that we are barely able to eat much of the actual meal.  I decided that I had a craving for their salad, and my mind was made up.  Problem was, there was no way that I was going to drive 30 minutes just to get some salad.  So I did a little online research, combined some recipes, and came up with my own take on the famous side dish.  Pretty tasty if I do say so myself! Everyone said it tasted exactly the same.  Enjoy!
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Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Big Hunting Weekend

It was a big weekend for a few of my favorite hunters.  My sister-in-law Mikela got a really nice buck on her first ever hunt, and my husband Timothy got another nice buck with his bow.  A few months ago I took Mikela to our state Hunter Safety Education Course.  We both made it all the way through the class, and let me tell you, it was much more grueling than it used to be.  Both my husband and father-in-law said it would be a breeze and consist of common sense hunting techniques.  After the first lesson where we learned about how to disassemble a gun and why steel shot vs. lead shot should be used,  I knew this would be a challenge, especially for an 11 yr old.  But we prevailed, and I was so proud of her!  So of course she was super excited about youth season this past weekend.  She went out, first hunt, first shot, and got a great buck that most grown hunters would love to have.  She worked really hard helping her dad process the deer and now her family can enjoy the meat for a few meals.  You see, in this family, we don't just hunt for sport, we hunt for food! 

Later on Saturday, Timothy went out to his bow stand and ended up shooting a buck too!  It was getting dark, and we didn't want to spook anything else, so we waited until Sunday morning to get this beauty.  Because we will probably harvest some does this season for food, Timothy donated his buck to Share the Harvest.  If you have never heard of this program, check out the information on the website.  It is a really great opportunity for hunters to help out families in need.  Rifle season starts in a few weeks, so I will be needing to make some breakfast for some very hungry hunters (myself included fingers crossed)...I will definitely post some great breakfast stand-bys from those meals! 

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Monday, November 1, 2010

Simple Spanish Rice

Most of the time when I make a Mexican dish, I like to serve it with a side of guacamole and Spanish rice.  I’ll admit, I’m guilty of using the Spanish flavored rice of the boxed variety when in a pinch, but I use this recipe when I have just a little more time.  It really takes little effort and comes out delicious every time.  Make this simple little saucepan rice next time your meal involves a little spice.  You won’t regret it!
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