Sunday, May 22, 2011

ai de mi! que suerte!

Roughly translated (and forgive the spelling) the title means "Oh my! What luck!"  At least that is what I remember from high school spanish class.  I thought I'd write a wrap up post for this adventure and that phrase popped into my head... being 'what luck!' I finally really dedicate some brain cycles to cooking better and I pick a book with recipes that turn out, well... bland!  I, personally, tend to the bland end of the flavor spectrum.  The recipes from this book were too bland for even me. 

There were some valuable lessons learned from this experiment though:
1.  Cooking with 'real food' is better than the prepackaged stuff.  Doing these recipes reminded me of a book the kids and I read this year titled Across Five Aprils.  It's a book set during the Civil War although not being directly involved with the war itself.  It's based on a journal kept by a young boy(about 12 I think).  It spoke of how father knew which woods to use for different parts of a chair, for example, based on the needs for that part.  Likewise, the mother knew and cared for each vegetable and spice/herb she used when cooking.  She understood which would be good combinations, when each would be at their peak tastiness, etc.  Gaining this experience will take time but seeing real food going through the kitchen is terrific.
2.  Cooking this way does take more time.  This is a bit of a sticky one for me.  Between homeschooling the kids, running the house (laundry, cleaning, repairs, errands, account balancing, etc), working part-time out of the house, running the kids to activities... I'm a bit short on time most days.  I'll need to be more pragmatic and more organized in order to do this sort of cooking.  With the official school year being over, I should have more time for this sort of thing.
3.  The kids like things they helped make.  Even when the food didn't turn out great, they liked it.  The more involved they were in making the food, the higher initial score the food seemed to get.  This goes to 'work put in resulting in accomplishment regardless of outcome' which seems like a great thing for them to experience.

I utilized my experience from this cookbook already.  I added finely chopped bell peppers and onions to pre-made spagetti sauce the other night.  The color and texture was good and it wasn't 'just jar' sauce.  I think with that I'm moving in the right direction regardless of how long it will take to get there.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Week 2 begins: Creamy Noodle Bake with Spinach Salad

First, here's the list of this week's dinners:
  • Creamy Noodle Bake with Spinach Salad
  • All-Day Roast with Fries and Peas
  • Salmon with Cranberry-Lime Sauce, Rice and Broccoli
  • Pizza and a Tossed Green Salad
  • Japanese Grilled Chicken, Rice and Stir-Fry Veggies
Okay, week 2... here we go.  I'm excited... okay, I'm not in some ways.  The food has been okay but not what I had anticipated.  It donned on my earlier today: This is a cookbook for families, to encourage diverse diets and reduce 'pickiness'.  Some of those eating this food will be young looking for bland food (in general) and some will want fully rich, full-bodied interesting flavors.  These recipes have interesting ingredients but also are on the bland side.  Seems like the goal was to give the adults enough while fully engaging the kids.  I like the idea but for someone with a self-admitted limited palette: its even too bland for me.  These cookbooks will have a hard time keeping my interest at this level.  If I lose Scott's interest in the food, then the kids' interest will drop too.

Back to the meal at hand: Creamy Noodle Bake with Spinach Salad.  This meal brings Ally back to cooking.  This meal was what caught Ally's attention when looking at the cookbook.  Granted, you can't see anything but the baked cheese coating on the casserole... who wouldn't think it looked yummy!

The prep was pretty straight forward. Boil water, brown beef, and add some stuff for flavor to the beef.  I almost put pizza sauce in instead of tomato soup... oops.  When it came to adding the Italian Seasoning to the mix, I added some extra.  The peanut gallery(aka Ryan) hollered: "But mom, you are supposed to be following the directions! How are we supposed to know if we like their recipe if you change it?"  He had a point but I really wanted some flavor tonight.  This is a dish you layer egg noodles, the meat sauce, a mushroom cream sauce and cheeses and bake.  It calls for a lasagna or large cake pan.  Either they make small lasagnas and cakes in Canada or something but each layer only covered about half the 13x9 cake dish.  I almost switched out to my 11x7 but I thought "No, let's see how this works."  I now wish they had measurements for the pans.  After all the chopping of the last several meals, this went together very easily.  Ally kept taking breaks to read.

Tonight Scott happened to have to miss dinner but that was okay with the kids... they loved it.  At one point, Ally said while scooping up seconds, "Sorry Dad, but I don't think there are going to be leftovers tonight!"  They really liked the again bland creamy noodle casserole.  I think it would have been better if made with sausage instead of ground beef, had some chopped onion and bell peppers and maybe some corn.  As much as they were right in sync with their scores for the casserole(Ryan:"Can I rate this a 12?"), they were very different on the salad.  The spinach salad included mandarins, chopped red onion, cashews and feta cheese.  The last one was the kicker for Ryan and me.  Ryan is still convinced it was bleu cheese.  I should have shown him the container.  That was the sort of the taste/smell I was preparing for when I tried it.  Thankfully feta cheese isn't as smelly as bleu cheese but I don't care for cheese of any kind on most of my salads, or by itself for that matter, so I may be a bit biased.  I enjoyed the mandarins, red onion and cashews in there though.  Overall score(without Scott's input): 8.2.  With my estimation for Scott's score: 7.4.  Ryan had to average the 10 for the casserole and the 7 for the salad to come up with his score.  Too funny.

After dinner, Ryan was up for clearing the table, helping clean the kitchen and doing the dishes.  He was great about it!  He cleared the few dishes on the table while I started on the dishes.  He then helped load the dishwasher and then dried the big dishes after I washed them.  We had a great conversation about why I don't play video games, why I like Age of Empires (the horses) and how I should definitely play Age of Empires: War Chiefs(horse-something or other military unit).  We talked about what we'd be doing the next day and how he liked going to my garden class (less school work, more video games, yummy snacks).  No complaints!  It was wonderful!  It was the highlight of the dinner for me and came at the end of a great day with the kiddos.

Next up: All-Day Roast with Fries and Peas...

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Sweet Indian Chicken with Rice and Spinach Salad

The last meal of Week 1 turned into being the first meal of our second week.  This recipe again uses 'real' foods and required lots of chopping instead of simply opening a bag and dumping contents into a skillet.  By now I've gotten pretty good at chopping since the kids and knives... well, I'm not so comfortable with just yet.

Ryan has gotten to know where a lot of the ingredients are and what they look like.  I asked him to grab the rice and he said, "Which one?  There's 4 kinds!"  This dish calls for basmati rice, a kind I'm sure I've had before but I don't remember it.  When shopping I thought: "Eh, basmati looks similar to the regular stuff.  How much different could it be? I'll just get the regular stuff."  I'm so glad I didn't substitute.

My favorite part of cooking this meal was when we put in the curry paste.  Ryan had been tasting each ingredient but after several meals, he'd already tasted most of them.  He hadn't tasted curry paste though.  He was willing until he saw it.  "That looks like poo!  Baby poo!"  My response: "So you'd try it if it looked like regular poo?"  Sorry, had to be included. ;)  He asked if we really had to include it and we did.  Again, when testing the meal though, it tasted kind of bland.  We'd already put in the garlic, ginger and now curry paste and I was worried.  Not "OH NO!" worried, just "bummer dude" worried.

The rest of the prep Ryan was more involved since it involved setting up the toppings.  These included mango chutney, mandarin oranges, crushed peanuts, and cilantro.  After tasting the chutney, I just wanted a bowl of that!  No longer bummed.  I thought, "These will provided the flavor."

Overall, it wasn't what you would think of when you'd say Indian Chicken.  I think 'somewhat spicy/tangy to REALLY spicy'.  That wasn't the case here.  The base, chicken and rice, were okay but the toppings were definitely where the flavor really was.  Everyone put on all the toppings, even me!!  It was yummy although Scott and I agreed it could use something to bring up the heat a little to counter-balance the sweetness of the toppings.  Overall score:  5.66.

This concluded Week 1: Cooking with Ryan.  Next up is Week 2: Cooking with Ally.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Dry Ribs with Couscous and Broccoli

Follow-up from the taco dinner: official ranking= 8.25.  No matter what the numbers have been, the tacos were so far the best.

Okay, onto the ribs.  This is another dinner of which we already have a regular in place that is kind of similar.  Heck, its probably called Studham Ribs by now.  Visiting family members are always treated to a round of ribs, cheesy potatoes and Ally's Baked Beans since Scott got his Big Green Egg smoker/bbq last year.  The ribs are always great and very saucy and just plain yummy!  The sides don't help to lighten the meal and you usually go into food coma after devouring too much but its so yummy!  This recipe not only calls for BAKING the ribs for 8-10 hours but also calls for a DRY RUB...and then 2 healthy sounding sides, VEGGIES, to boot!  The future wasn't looking too bright for this meal.

This time we actually remembered to prep the ribs the night before.  Ryan tried each ingredient individually as he did with the taco recipe.  Brown sugar was of course a favorite.  Paprika?  Not so much.  Ryan: "We're actually going to put THAT on the ribs?!  But it will ruin them!"  Too funny.  After the night-before's success with following the directions, he relented and added it to the mix. Our next challenge was to remember to put the ribs in and at the right time.  I'm historically terrible at this.  I often forget until its too late.  I've tried to make up for some time with a higher temp... don't do it.  Just cook it the next day. On this day, we got it right.

With all the seasonings, I anticipated a nice aroma to waft through the house similar to when there's a pot roast in the crock pot.  There was a bit of a scent but not really one that makes your hubby say "Wow!  Dinner smells good!  What's for dinner?" as he enters the house.  As dinner time approached, we started on the sides.  The couscous recipe included a lot of ingredients to be put in before the actual couscous which meant for a good deal of chopping.  It seemed potentially interesting too: onions, mushrooms, chicken broth, cilantro, and tomatoes were included.  Still not a lot of aroma though.

This meal turned out to be "ehh, so-so".  It was really missing any real flavor.  Although the meat was fall-off-the-bone tender, it didn't stack up to any recent ribs we've either smoked or had at area restaurants as far as flavor.  We ended up adding some bbq sauce we had on hand.  The couscous was alright, mostly because it was something different than we typically eat.  The broccoli was a bit yellowed and was lackluster too. Even with all that, the kids loved it! I think they have such an "Oooooh!  Ribs!  Yummy!" mentality they would have given it a high score regardless.  Their's were 10's, ours 4's... overall score: 7.

There was one thing I got out of this meal: growing up, we did almost always have a protein, a starch and a veggie like this book does.  Our portion sizes of the protein weren't big enough to feed an army, either.  I hadn't really thought about that before.  Thanks, Mom!

Another thing to note: I believe this cooking thing is really taking hold for the kids.  Ally made another concoction for lunch (heated, chopped lunchmeat ham on toasted buns with fruit-enhanced maraschino cherry juice with additional fruit) and for desert(some sort of cookie dough with white chocolate chips and ice cream cookie dough).  Ryan had no reservations about eating it and wanted another sandwich at lunch.  They haven't spontaneously cleaned the kitchen yet but I'm still hoping that'll come with more practice but I'm not holding my breath.

Tomorrow night is our Date Night so no special cooking.  The kids' typical dinner during our date night is box mac and cheese and carrots but I'm thinking that won't suffice after this week... which is a very good thing.  One thing I've noticed, I'm actually consistently cooking with 'real' foods!  The only thing that I can think of off the top of my head that was in a box was the pasta.  That may seem silly to some but it feels really good!  I often settle for a bag with pre-mixed, pre-sauced, pre-salted meals due to time constraints and to avoid having food spoil before we'd eat it.  It's worth it and more fun now that I have some company in the kitchen and a family really appreciating the food served, whether they are thrilled with the meal or not.

Next up (maybe on Sunday): Sweet Indian Chicken with Rice and Spinach Salad.  Hopefully we'll end this week on a high note.  Keeping my fingers crossed!

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Soft Shell Tacos with Toppings it is...

Tonight's meal was going to be Dry Ribs with Couscous and Broccoli but somebody (not pointing fingers- okay, ya, it was me) didn't check the recipe and it was supposed to be prepped the night before cooking and then cooked for 8-10 hours the day of serving.  Since I had put the chicken in the freezer not wanting it to go bad before we used it, tacos it ended up being.

Soft Tacos
Now this was a bit of a tough one to go a head and do since we already have a taco dinner down, known as Studham Tacos.  Why mess with a good thing, right?  And the recipe calls for more unusual seasonings instead of just taco seasoning.  This recipe in addition to chili powder includes turmeric and cumin, seasonings I've only used in Indian dishes.  These all went in the browning hamburger in addition to onion flakes and finally some water and ketchup to thicken over a simmer.  Ryan tried each ingredient individually and REALLY didn't like the turmeric.  I reminded him its the blending and proportions and balance of the ingredients that when mixed makes a new flavor.  Of course, I'm just reiterating what the rat said in the movie Ratatouille and hoping it would hold true.  Tasting the meat (a perk of being the cooks) proved it to be true.  We went on chopping the standard toppings of tomatoes and lettuce in addition to some we don't typically use- green onions and cilantro.  More on the cilantro later.  Cheese, sour cream, and salsa rounded out the toppings for the soft flour tortillas.

Ryan enjoying the last of the tacos
When we sat down, I was thinking, "Hmmm, this will be interesting but we'll probably never make it again.  It can't be as good as Studham Tacos."  I didn't think the kids would use the tomato and lettuce since they never do.  Heck, Ryan doesn't put any veggies on his Subway sandwiches.  Tonight he did use them!  He even tried the cilantro too.  It was really good!  The sauce was kind of like a Manwich flavor but not nearly as sweet or tomato-y.  It definitely wasn't a taco flavoring either.  The ketchup seemed to give it enough sauce without making it saucy, if that makes any sense at all.  Having the cilantro in there was great.  Gave it a really fresh flavor to counter the savory/sweet sauce/not-saucy meat.  I even used the green onions, which I usually bi-pass out of habit, don't tell our kids;).  They weren't nearly as strong in the soft taco as I thought they would be.  Seemed to be in there more for the crunch than anything else.  I still skipped the sour cream.  That I just don't like...again, the munchkins need not know;).  This meal was by far the best overall so far.  The meat was so good we were bargaining scoops of ice cream for the last taco.  When we make it again, which we definitely will, we will be doubling the amount of meat.  It'd make great nachos... if there were any leftovers.  Overall score: I'll have to put it in tomorrow's posting.  It received Scott's highest ranking so far but I don't remember the kids' rankings to average them out.  Regardless, the meat was really good.

On deck for tomorrow night: Dry Ribs with Couscous and Broccoli.  Ryan mixed the rub before going to bed and tried each ingredient.  More on that tomorrow...

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Chipotle Steak with Balsamic Reduction, Italian Veggies and Baby Potatoes

We did cook the Chipotle Steak with Balsamic Reduction, Italian Veggies and Baby Potatoes for night number 2.  It turned out pretty good.  It is still taking a while longer than estimated times given in the book so we didn't sit down for dinner until a little after 7pm.  Ryan was the cook's assistant this night and he did a great job.  He decided English cucumbers are actually a little better, lacking the extra seeds.  He still wasn't interested in the bell peppers or tomatoes that when in the tossed veggies with the balsamic vinegrette.  The most interesting part of the meal was making the balsamic reduction for the steak.  It had ginger, garlic, red onions, balsamic vinegar and maple syrup... and it looked black.  He didn't think he'd use any since he was really looking forward to the steak.

Scott was in charge of working with Ryan on the steak and demonstrating usage of the Big Green Egg smoker/bbq.  This night the whole crew got involved with the meal,...very cool.  While they were cooking the steak, I continued the reduction and added some more syrup hoping the reduction would be worthy of the steak.  I was beginning to have my doubts too!

As it turned out, the reduction was a hit...partly because it was so unusual and because it conjured nicknames suited to its black color.  The sauce did a great job of balancing the heat from the chipotle seasoning rub on the steak.  The veggies were interesting but maybe we'd saute them next time.  The potatoes were well cooked and used to dip in the sauce too.  Overall score: 7.625.  And, yes, I had seconds of the steak.

Tonight (actually since last night), we(actually Scott) smoked a pork butt to make pulled pork sandwiches for a great group of young adults who are volunteering for Habitat for Humanity during their Spring Break.  Oh, the college wish I studied less and enjoyed my youth more. ;) Tomorrow night we are back on the Rushed Kitchen dinner plan.  Not sure which it'll be:
  • Sweet Indian Chicken with Rice and Spinach Salad,
  • Dry Ribs with Couscous and Broccoli, or
  • Soft or Hard Shell tacos with Toppings.
BTW: The little bit of chipotle steak that was leftover and the remaining potatoes were great with some scrambled eggs and bacon bits eaten with flour tortillas. :)

Monday, March 28, 2011

"Okay, fine. I'll learn how to cook..."

So, to be honest, I've made that statement many times.  My hubby is a good natural cook.  He can look at ingredients and have an idea if that combination might produce the desired result.  He can also look at what is available and make something that tastes pretty darn good most of the time (there have been a couple of occasions when we just had to throw it out).  My mother-in-law also cooks this way with no recipe needed.  I also have good friends who can 'throw a soup together' and it is wonderful.  I can, too.  Mine involve a can opener and way too much salt and little creativity.  I have used lots of excuses: "I didn't grow up with access to all these ingredients and spices." "I don't know what these different spices tast like.  How would I know how they'll taste together?" And my favorite, "I don't have time."  No more.

What I really wanted was a menu which built our families pallette while still being budget conscious(but not necessarily budget restricted), involved the whole family, and encouraged a balanced diet.  Currently we are using Sandi Richard's The Family Dinner Fix: Cooking for the Rushed book.  Apparently she's on the Food Network but I had never heard of her.  We happened on the book while Ally was looking at cookbooks at McKays.  She presents a practical, varied approach and addresses picky eating, caloric intake and planning/shopping.  After reading the instructional part in the first third of the book, I was hooked.

We started today.  I asked both kids to pick 2 of their favorite weeks of dinners(there are 10 total).  They didn't match up, dang it.  Of course not, that would have made it easy!  I asked which week we were going to do first and Ally volunteered to let Ryan go first.  I suggested Ryan let Ally pick the first meal and let her help me cook it.  The idea was who ever selected that week's meals would assist in the cooking.  The other would set the table, clear the table, and then help with dishes too.  Ryan was cool with that.  Yeah! Crisis averted.

We spent time going through cupboards seeing what ingredients we had on hand and added other misc items needed for other meals/snacks as well as household goods to the shopping list.  We then spent school time at the grocery store collecting the items on the list and finding out what English cucumber was... I didn't know so I had to ask. (It's long and skinny and has less seeds in case you didn't know either.)  For the other items for snacks and such, we used the NuVal rankings at Food City.  They worked perfectly.  The kids finally understood just how little nutritional value Lunchables give. (They score a 5 out of 100.)  They chose reduced-sugar strawberry milk powder, the healthiest granola bars, and ice cream.  Hey, they learned their assigned Mandarin Chinese words so they earned their reward.  I also had to make a trip to Kroger for the mango chutney and chipotle seasoning.  The checker at our small local Food City looked at me weird... "Chutney?  What's that?"

Tuna Tettrazzini
The kids helped unload the groceries and put them away.  Since we were home a little late, Ally and I got right to work on dinner.  We made Tuna Tettrazzini with Corn and Peas.  Ally was involved with everything.  The recipe was well laid out and explained clearly.  It was great.  It took us a little longer than the cookbook suggested but I was demonstrating things to her so it was worth it.  At dinner, each of us ranked the dinner.  It averaged to be a 8.125 on a scale of 1-10.  Ally really liked the dish, largely due to her involvement cooking it.  She wanted to rank it an 11.  She beamed the whole dinner.  Very cool.  Ryan did well helping clean up, something we haven't really asked them to do up to this point.  It went so much faster with an extra set of motivated hands... go figure!

On tap for tomorrow night: Chipotle Steak with Balsamic Reduction, Baby Potatoes and Italian Veggies.