Friday, February 28, 2014

Black Bean Chili

Welcome to Friday...let the weekend begin.  But, not without first sharing about a special day this week and a great first-time soup.

Earlier this week when the kids were making their meal requests, Ryker asked for Chili and Alayna asked for Black Bean Soup.  I thought I'd combine them into one simple, delicious and filling meal to be served when we were having friends this week.

I know not all of you find as much joy or have the time for the joy of chopping, so this could definitely be simplified to a quick'n'easy meal as well.  Stick with me.

Since I always keep an array of vegetables on hand, this is the best and easiest way to get them eaten in our house. For example, I'm not sure that celery would be considered a staple of chili, but I figure once it is chopped up and simmered for an hour, most people don't know if it is an onion, zuchini or even give it much thought at all, so in it goes.

I started by throwing one chopped onion, and a tablespoon of minced garlic into two tablespoons of vegetable oil that were heating on the stove.  Then I put in 2# of lean hamburger to brown up.  Two pounds is a lot of beef, but since we were having guests over for dinner, I was going for a bigger batch size to ensure there was enough…(Spoiler alert: there was just enough!)

Once the meat was browned, I threw in the rest of the freshly chopped vegetables; celery, green peppers, zucchini and tomato.  Now, if you want to simplify this recipe, you could skip the fresh veggies and just go with canned or frozen, especially if time is of the essence.

Now, it's time for the seasonings...which I'm notoriously terrible about measuring.  I know I don't like too much cumin, nothing can ruin a dish like cumin can, but I do appreciate what it brings at low levels, so that was probably about a teaspoon, that I pre-eyeball (as opposed to measure) into my hand.

Kids don't like anything too hot, so just about a teaspoon of ground red pepper was added as well, to bring some flavor but not too much heat.  Finally, a tablespoon or two of chili powder.  Of course, you could always use a packet of chili seasoning, but I prefer to concoct my own. The salt and pepper is added to taste, fresh ground black pepper can be pretty potent, so I use that with caution.

From here on out, it is very easy...couple cans of diced tomatoes, couple cans of black beans...tonight, for the first time, I did not drain or rinse the beans (I know, I'm such a rebel).  Once the veggies are all mixed in, I pour in another household staple, tomato juice, to serve as my broth, if you will.

The last addition to this soup is some frozen corn, most soups of mine are rarely complete without those little golden nuggets of texture and sweetness.

This simmered for about an hour and was served with oyster crackers, sour cream and shredded cheese.  Even my favorite brown-eyed 5 year old devoured her bowl faster than the birthday boy (aka a grown man) could.

Speaking of birthday boy, it was my husband's big day yesterday.  I thought I'd give some diabetic baking a try, using Splenda rather sugar.  Apparently the family agreed that the diabetic-friendly chocolate cupcakes wouldn't have been so bad, if the diabetic-friendly cream cheese frosting had been omitted.  Eh, live and learn. However, anyone with low sugar, diabetic-friendly recipes, tips or tricks, feel free to share. I've got lots of room for improvement!

Thankfully Wendy saved the day with some full-force brownies for all to enjoy!  Her and Brian have always saved the day for me...usually when there was a foot of snow in the driveway or when there was a tasty holiday meal being served. Even though we are no longer neighbors, I'm still so thankful we are great friends!

Tonight is the hubby's special birthday meal, you'll have to stay tuned, I can't ruin the surprise now!

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Clean-out-your-fridge Pasta sauce with Spaghetti

Not sure how meal planning goes in your house, oh, it doesn't...well, hopefully this give you some guidance.  

Usually on Sunday nights we go around the table and everyone gets a chance to throw out a meal suggestion or request for the following week, then I plan the meals according to what is going on each night (for example tonight is a Crock Pot Chicken and Barley Vegetable Stew from Iowa Girl Eats so there is something ready, warm and nutritious to devour between swim lessons and my early volleyball game). Tomorrow night is swim, 3 parent teacher conferences and piano...not sure I'm going to win the homemade healthy meal battle tomorrow night.  Sometimes you just have to willing to throw up the white flag in surrender. I digress. 

Landon, being the youngest and having the least complex taste buds, asked for spaghetti.  That is completely understandable for an 8 year old boy who would rather just eat hot dogs everyday, but It sure bursts my creative juices bubble...what am I supposed to do with that?!?!?

After mulling it over a bit, I decided it would be a great opportunity to use up some of the leftover ingredients in the fridge from the we're talking, since I HATE throwing anything away.  

So, upon a quick glance through my fridge, I decide that the sauce will start with some red bell peppers, pizza sauce, marinara and sausage all left from the pizzas on Saturday night and then might as well throw in the shredded carrots for good measure.  

This just goes to show that you can put just about anything into certain dishes. In fact, Jerry asked me if I used up the open jar of salsa from the fridge, I hadn't, but he's catching on quickly! 

Round out the sauce with one fresh tomato, green peppers, zucchini, onion, garlic, let them cook down a bit before adding the first can of diced tomatoes as well as some Italian seasoning.  The sauce started with just one can of diced tomatoes but a second was added after the initial simmering had taken place and it just wasn't saucy enough.  

Now, I realize that is a lot of veggies but even if we let the kids pick out one that they don't like, they are still getting a decent serving of veggies in the meal.  I throw veggies into every dish I make and sometimes they don't even notice or maybe they have just resorted the fact that the veggies are going to be there and just stop fighting it.

That simmered away until the family was home and ready to partake.  

Now, onto the pasta...I'm not a huge pasta fan...there I said it!  I'd rather save my carbs to accompany cheese, hummus, guacamole or even ketchup, not as a main component of my meal.  But, I insist on the kids eating what I like most of the time, so I can suck it up on occasion and eat their meal of choice. 

Despite having a lifetime supply of pasta that I bought at a club store some time in the last decade, I decided I wanted to go with the healthier whole grain pasta for Jerry and I, at the very least; another attempt to bring some nutrition to the table.  (Now that I think about it, last time I made a similar meal, Jerry and I were served spaghetti squash...not sure he was too thrilled with that).

So, I got two large pots of salt water boiling to make the respective pastas.  (Because of the way the salt bonds to the water molecules, the water has to reach a higher temperature before boiling, helping the pasta to cook case anyone is interested in any of the scientific principles behind all of this good stuff.)

Before straining the noodles, I used a ladle to reserve about a cup of the pasta water to pour back into the noodles.  As the pasta cools, the starches continue to absorb water, so saving pasta water to add back helps to keep the spaghetti from sticking together too badly.  Once that was absorbed, I tossed with some olive oil before serving.  

As it turns out, the Clean-Out-Your-Fridge Pasta Sauce was a big hit with the family as was the whole grain pasta...I think that will be a new staple in our house as we move towards healthier grains and away from white bread and rice, now we can add pasta to the category as well.  

What are some ways you like to use up ingredients in your fridge?  How about sneak some extra vegetables into your kids meals?  I know there are some pretty clever people out there reading this and I'd love to hear what your thoughts. 

Monday, February 24, 2014

Mmmmm, Buffalo Chicken Pizza

Happy Monday, hope you had a glorious weekend.

Ours was basketball laden, but I'd much rather have the kids active and busy than yelling at each other over Minecraft ("Get out of my house!!!" has been shouted by each of my rascals). Please tell me I'm not the only one.

So, we had some families over on Saturday night to celebrate the conclusion (survival!?!) of another basketball season.

Whenever we have friends over (which I love to do!), I like to serve something convenient, yet, many of you know that equals soup in my world.  But, since this was mostly guys/boys, I thought I'd opt for pizza, would hate to scare them off with too many veggies.

Started with some homemade pizza bites (string cheese and pepperoni rolled up in a crescent roll, baked for 10 minutes served with marinara, which the kids usually skip anyway) are generally a quick, no-mess option for the kids to grab while running through the kitchen or taking a break from a big game of horse.

I was also excited to experiment a bit with some pizza recipes while ensuring the the stand-bys are safely within reach for anyone who isn't quite as adventurous.

So, the first pie started with pizza sauce and added minced garlic. Most tomato/pizza/pasta sauces are waaaaaay too sweet for me, so no matter the brand, I always sprinkle in some minced garlic (and maybe even some grated onion) to balance out that sweetness that makes me cringe.

Continued to top with sausage, pepperoni, onions, red peppers and LOTS of cheese. My favorite part of cheese is when it is crispy and and the Maillard reaction, we are great friends!  It was tasty.

The crowd pleaser was the Buffalo Chicken Pizza.  The sauce should have been bleu cheese dressing...I have no idea how that one got away from me, I was aghast when I realized there wasn't any in the fridge or pantry.  No fear, queen of improvisation, just used ranch instead. Just as tasty and delightful.

Next, the cooked, chopped chicken was tossed in melted butter and hot sauce before being spread on the creamy dressing.  Then, added some chopped onion before layering with cheese.

Here is my lesson-learned through this first try at time, use a little less dressing.  

Ranch, blue cheese, and other dairy based dressings have a tendency to run and spread when heated, unlike tomato based, my pizza was noticeably larger in circumference coming out of the oven than going in. 

Still tasted great, but duh...somehow those scientific principles escaped me...perhaps it was whatever was in that coke that my husband served me.

I know we thoroughly enjoyed this tasty combination of guy-friendly foods into one happy marriage of buffalo chicken and pizza, give it a try and tell me how much they loved it!

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Marinated steak rolls with sautéed veggies

Steak hasn't always been a staple in my repertoire, 
but ever since my husband got his first deer last November, 
our freezer has been stuffed with this lean, 
tender meat and I have had a great time trying out different steak recipes.

The whole family has embraced the venison and 
I'm pleased with the meals that have come together over the last few months.  
Lots of soups, even a risotto, 
last night was a crowd-pleaser for the hearty appetite of the men in my family.

So, starting with some venison strip steaks
probably a little thicker than the usually prescribed flank steaks, 
but I'm crazy like that...always willing to change things up, improvise and go with what I've got.

It is worth noting that it is uber important for venison or any wild game to be cooked thoroughly.  So please keep that in mind!  

The marinade was a simple sprinkling of salt and pepper,
followed by a 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
that had an hour or so to hang out and get acquainted with one another. 

While the marinade was doing it's thing, 
I took an inventory of the veggies in the fridge and started chopping. 

A few stalks of celery, 
red and green bell peppers, shredded carrots (will work in a pinch) and 
green onions, cut the long way, 
will make for the perfect combination of flavors and textures inside this steak roll.  

Chopping is very therapeutic for me…
few thing are more relaxing for me than a knife, cutting board and some fresh produce 
(accompanied by a glass of a red never hurts either!)

This bottle was a recent find as I seek out the best values in wine.
 It was full-bodied yet smooth, great pair for the venison as well as the prep. 

Before sautéing the veggies, I started the balsamic glaze reduction.  
Reductions have always been a little intimidating for me and 
easily the first thing I would skip if time were tight.  

However, they are almost always worth the time and 
not nearly as much hassle as they may seem at first. 

Start with melting 2 tbsp of butter in a sauté pan, 
then add 1 chopped shallot, which I actually had on hand, 
otherwise, I'd use some onions, just the same.  

Once the shallots were cooked, I added a half cup of balsamic vinegar and a half cup of beef broth (if I don't have broth on hand, I just use a bouillon cube to achieve a similar effect). 

After the glaze had reduced down and thickened to a syrup consistency, 
I poured it into the measuring cup for use later. 

I tossed all of the chopped veggies into the same pan with some hot oil 
to soften a bit prior to rolling into the steaks.  

The next time I make this, 
I would not sauté the green onions, 
the texture of the raw green onion would have been a nice touch in the finished dish.

Finally, the veggies were laid in the middle of the steaks and the meat was rolled up around it,
 being secured by a toothpick before going into the pan for some heat of its own.  

Once there was some nice crust formed on both sides of the steaks, 
I put a cover on the pan to help cook the meat thoroughly.  

Pour the glaze and serve…
many thumbs ups, kudos and even knucks were awarded over the delight of this meal. 

Hope your family enjoys as well!

Marinade Time: 1 hour
Cook Time: 30 minutes

Servings: 4

4 venison strip steaks
salt and pepper - to taste
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
3 stalks celery
1 red pepper
1 green pepper
Green onions
2 tbsp butter
1 shallot - minced
1/2 cup of balsamic vinegar 
1/2 cup of beef broth

Marinade steaks with salt, pepper and worcestershire sauce, allow to sit for 1 hour. 
Chop up veggies into strips for stuffing .
Make reduction by melting butter and sautéing shallots. 
Then add vinegar and broth, simmer until thickened and set aside. 
Lightly sautee the veggies, excluding the green onion. 
Place all of the veggies on the marinated steaks and roll up, securing with toothpick. 
Start cooking the steak rolls over medium-high heat to sear the meat and form a crust, cook each side for 4-6 minutes. 
Then, reduce the heat, cover and allow the steaks to cook thoroughly, turning as necessary. 
Finally, top with the balsamic reduction and serve. 

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Amazing, Healthy & Easy Banana Chocolate Chip Muffins

Like you, I, too, love to enjoy delicious treats and whenever I can take something delicious and make it healthier, I'm on cloud nine. Having a nutritious snack, that my kids fight for, ready for them after school, helps to keep everything in check when they get home and before they dart off to the next activity.

This recipe is my own healthier version of an awesome recipe for Double Chocolate Chip Banana muffins (which I will include below for those of us who are more inclined to indulge), I thought if I skipped the cocoa powder, replaced some of the all purpose flour with whole wheat flour and oatmeal, as well as decrease the amount of sugar, these could still be killer without as the guilt of feeding my kids more junk food.  I was RIGHT!!!  They are moist and delicious!

We had some bananas that joined us at the basketball tournament over the weekend and were not longer suitable for my family's taste buds; a rare but happy day for me when bananas get this ripe in my house.

After setting the oven to 350 F to preheat, I combined all of the dry ingredients (1 cup flour, 1/4 cup quick oats, 1/4 cup whole wheat flour, 3/4 cup sugar, 1 tsp baking soda, 1/4 tsp baking powder, 1/2 tsp salt) in a large bowl.  When baking quick breads like this, there is plenty of room for play…if you don't have whole wheat flour, try a half cup of quick oats or throw in another healthy grain…you won't even know it is in there!  

In a smaller bowl, mash up the ripe bananas, I usually use 3, add 1/3 cup of your baking oil of choice, today I had canola on hand and 1 egg, once the wet ingredients are combined, pour into the dry ingredients, mixing until just moistened, then add the chocolate chips…recipes calls for 1 cup, I'm usually a little light on that.

After spraying the muffin cups, fill them about 3/4 full. It is important to try to keep the level of batter similar so that they bake the same.

Pop them into the oven for 20-25 minutes and enjoy, upon cooling.  They never last more than 24 hours around my house, they are great for breakfast, after school or on the go.  

Ingredients Healthier Indulgent
All purpose flour 1 cup 1 1/2 cup
Quick Oats 1/4 cup  -
Whole Wheat Flour 1/4 cup  -
Sugar 3/4 cup 1 cup
Baking cocoa  - 1/4 cup
Baking soda 1 tsp 1 tsp
Baking Powder 1/4 tsp 1/4 tsp
salt 1/2 tsp 1/2 tsp
Bananas - ripe 3 each 3 each
Vegetable oil 1/3 cup 1/3 cup
egg 1 each 1 each
chocolate chips 3/4 cup 1 cup

Bake at 350 for 20-25 minutes.

**Just a little aside, most muffins won't brown this much, I accidentally added 1 tsp of baking powder, instead of a 1/4 tsp…they tasted fine, just a little more browning (Maillard reaction) took place.