An epiphany on food

I am all over the place when it comes to food and menu planning and grocery lists and all that important stuff.  There are eight eating people in this house.  And since we school at home, they eat here.  Nearly all their meals.  Which adds up to a dizzying 21 meals per week in this kitchen of mine and at least two snacks a day too!  If the belly is growling and wanting, it is terribly hard to learn and focus and engage in learning.  But preparing food is only one of a great many hats mamas wear.  This is my recent new insight on the matter, after sitting down and making a list of our favorite 31 meals, thinking we could just rotate through each day of the month.  (insert smirk or giggle here) Yes, I really did think it a good idea.  But I am learning to simplify and more importantly realizing that having 31 meals to choose from is a “first world problem” – meaning, the majority of the world would be grateful simply to have one solid meal a day.  Let alone three.  Let alone a wonderfully organized list of 31 great dinners.  My life needs to work for me and I need time to be spent where it matters most.  Researching the latest food trends and reading food blogs and color coding my dilapidated recipe binder are not how I choose to spend my minutes right now.  Having a vast array of meal choices is in fact not helpful for me at this current life stage.

Enter theme nights.

It all started with Mission Mondays, where we eat a very simple meal of brown rice and lentils and practice gratitude for our bounty and provisions while remembering how most of the world eats, meagerly.  Then came Taco Thursdays and Make your Own Pizza Fridays.  We don’t have it down pat yet.  But the general idea is, each day of the week is narrowed down a bit.  Crock-pot meals on Tuesdays when we have a quick dinnertime turn around.  Soups on Saturdays.  Salad bar or our beloved Garden Hash on Wednesdays when I have time in the late afternoon to chop a bunch of veggies.

This is our general outline:

Mondaylentils and rice
Tuesday – Crock-pot something (like this roast-terrible photo but a delicious meal served over mashed potatoes)
Wednesday – Garden Hash (recipe below)
Thursday – Tacos of any kind – lots of ways to mix it up each week like this insanely delicious pork taco recipe
Friday – Make your Own (pita) Pizza – kids love it and its a wonderfully fun way to end the week
Saturday – Soup or Stew
Sunday – whatever is left or needs eating up (if nothing else, apples and popcorn, I ate that every Sunday night growing up!)

The underlying premise for me behind this simplifying for this season is this truth:

Food is intended to sustain and nourish us so we can get to the all important tasks of living and loving.

It isn’t meant to be a daily showcase of our mad kitchen skills or be catered to one persons picky tendencies.  It doesn’t need to impress my kids or have five different items to serve up every night.  What matters far more is the cultivating of “family” that happens when we gather together to share a meal.

Though summer is quick becoming a memory and it is pouring rain at the moment, I’ll still share what is probably one of our family favorite meals.  It’s my own creation and is ever so flexible and might not be an exact science since we already established my extra time and energy are not spent imitating Ina Garten or Rachel Ray.

Garden Hash (serves 4, we double or triple this):

Saute in a skillet 1 lb ground beef and one onion chopped.  Add a clove or two of crushed garlic. Once the meat is cooked and broken up, add whatever garden bounty you like.  We love a head of kale or rainbow chard chopped up real small, several carrots grated, a zucchini or even a peeled, chopped sweet potato are delicious too. Really, the sky is the limit.  Salt and pepper the hash.  Let the kale or chard wilt, the potatoes simmer till soft, all in the one pot.  Add water if needed for the simmer, but also add the all important ingredient, tamari or soy sauce.  How much?  Well, I’d just say several swigs and then taste after five minutes, if I had to guess, maybe start with 1/4 cup?  We usually eat it in a pile on a plate and its ugly so I don’t have a photo for you.  It can also be served over rice, quinoa, steamed greens or roasted diced potatoes.

Update – Missions Mondays recipe

I found my recipe to share with you!  If you want the full story, scroll down two posts to read the original Missions Monday post.  Here is the way I make the meal packets:

1 cup brown short grain rice

1/2 cup brown lentils

3T chicken broth powder

1/4 tsp garlic powder

a pinch of salt

Store in glass jar or ziploc bag.

With each packet, these are the cooking instructions – for our family of 8 we make two at a time:

Put 1 Tablespoon olive oil in medium saucepan.

Dump in “meal mix” (whole bag), saute for a minute on low/medium heat

to warm and awaken the spices.

Add 3 1/2 cups water, bring to a boil,

cover, turn to low, simmer 45-50 minutes until most all water is absorbed.

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Caramel Apple Dip-perfect fall treat

My beloved college friend Shauna sent me home from our breakfast date over the weekend with homemade caramel apple dip.  It smelled divine and tasted as even better.  I was careful not to ask for the recipe until after we’d eaten the whole jar in a day!  I knew it couldn’t be any sort of healthy, but for a special thing it would be fun.  So I must share since apple season is in full swing here…

1 cup butter (that’s why it’s so good!)
1 can sweetened condensed milk
3/4 brown sugar
1/4 corn syrup

Combine in a small pot and heat over med. heat until butter is melted, and sugar is dissolved (about 5 min)….Make sure you are continually stirring so as not to burn the brown sugar. Whisking it helps to emulsify the ingredients together. Mixture does not need to boil, just be thoroughly mixed. Remove from heat, and add 1 tsp cinnamon, and 1 tsp vanilla. Enjoy with apple slices!

Scrumptious Teriyaki Sauce in 20 minutes

This was too tasty and too easy not to share.  My memory lapse on forgetting to buy teriyaki sauce at the store last time I went may have been a good thing!  I skipped the weekly grocery run last night because I was too exhausted and opted to rummage around the cupboards all week instead.  I set out to make teriyaki chicken and rice for dinner but quickly realized we had no sauce.  I briefly thought about going to the store but didn’t feel up to it.  So I read a few recipes, most called for mirin  (sweet Japanese cooking wine), which I didn’t have.  But I did have four common ingredients and felt brave, so I combined all I had read and started out to make some sauce, this is roughly what I did:

2 cups shoyu (just because I’d bought a bottle of it at a local specialty store a while back)
1 cup brown sugar (because I’m almost out of honey)
2 inches of fresh ginger, peeled
5 large fresh garlic cloves

I decided to blend first then cook.  So I tossed the sugar and shoyu (Japanese soy sauce) in the blender.  I pushed the garlic through a crusher, grated the ginger both straight into my blender.  I let it go on high for maybe 30 seconds then poured it into a saucepan on medium heat.  I simmered for a few minutes, then tasted.  Crazy salty.  Too strong for my kids.  But incredible flavor.  And not thick.  So I mixed 3 heaping TBS of cornstarch in at least another cup of water.  Poured that in and let it bubble and thicken to the perfect consistency.  It was still a little sharp on flavor so I added the last little bit of honey I had, maybe 1/3 cup I’d say.

I imagine the quality and kind of soy sauce you use would radically alter the taste, saltiness and flavor.  Tamari would maybe have been even better, because it is even more robust in flavor.  What I used was certainly nicer brand that I usually have and it was close to going to waste in my pantry!

After making dinner I had about two thirds of a quart jar left, a couple more meals worth for certain.  I’m not sure how long it will last in the fridge  but after watching the kids inhale the rice sprinkled with the sauce and the chicken cooked in it….it won’t be a problem!  I’m not sure how the cost compares to buying sauce at the store but there are no preservatives which is certainly great, and at least in my opinion the flavor is beyond comparison.

And yes, for the record I know I spelled it wrong.  But I’m pretty darn stingy with my label maker tape so I wasn’t about to reprint it.

Favorite friday night dinner

It’s almost embarrassing to post this because it truly is one of the most no-brainer meals I make.  But it is a huge hit every time so I can’t help but share.  It’s the perfect meal for a busy day, for feeding a crowd or when you don’t want to heat up the house using your oven in summer.   We had a fun filled day at the beach today (forgot the sunscreen, first sunburn of the summer) and I knew we’d be tired when we got home.  So before we left I threw a 5 pound bone in pork shoulder roast into the crockpot.

We enjoyed the sand and sun with friends and it was hard to peel the kids away from it all.  We came home, rested and then enjoyed the simplest of meals together.  Here’s how it goes:

Buy a pork roast (or three) when they go on sale – my large chunk of meat cost under $5

Place the whole roast into the crockpot on LOW  in the morning, pour 1 can or bottle of root beer over the meat.

Yes, really just root beer that’s all.

Let it cook all day.  Take it out at dinner time.  Pull meat apart and drain juice from crockpot.  Put meat back in and cover with BBQ sauce of your choice.  Stubs is my standby favorite brand but sometimes I make my own from this recipe.

I cannot explain what the root beer does to the meat.  I can only testify to its extreme goodness.  I do only use natural root beer, which is made with spices and cane sugar instead of pure high fructose corn syrup like regular soda.  I don’t know if it makes a difference.  But when my husband asks for thirds every time we have it, I just make it the same way every time.  And a 5 pound roast would feed at least 10 average eaters.  For us, it is two entire meals, I always freeze the other half for a rainy day.

We tend to just eat a protein and raw or steamed veggies and fruit for dinner so we added fresh corn and cantaloupe tonight.  Easy peasy yum!

And for the record, little girls slathered in coconut oil for their sunburn are perfectly yummy too-works better than aloe vera!

My umpteenth attempt at homemade bread

I think I found the secret.  I have been doing a fair bit of reading about the value of soaking grains and how much better our bodies absorb the nutrients in the grains.  So I was delighted to find a recipe for homemade bread that included soaking the grains overnight first.  I can’t believe how much softer, lighter the bread turned out despite being made almost entirely with fresh, whole wheat flour.  Having a large family, being about to make 4 loaves at one time was also a big draw for me.  I did end up having to knead it by hand and my lower back isn’t thanking me for that but it was worth it!  I’ve been grinding our own flour for 18 months now but haven’t used it for bread making much because my efforts seemed doomed to fail.  Now I am armed with confidence and a great recipe, if I can just plan well enough to do it regularly!

If you are interested in the recipe, you can find it over at Passionate Homemaking.

Lentil Taco Night

For many reasons, I’ve been working on making one meatless dinner a week.  And I’ve also been painstakingly trying to incorporate more beans and legumes into our diet.  They pack such a nutritional punch and are so cheap!  This recipe has become a staple and it is a welcome substitution for a greasy bowl of ground beef taco meat.  It looks similar in color, tastes as good or better and a handful of lentils costs less than a dollar.  For toppings, they are required to have a bit of everything healthy.  That means shredded carrots, olives, avocado, fresh tomato or lettuce.  Then they can add sour cream or cheese if they like.

Lentil Tacos

1 cup finely chopped onion
1-2 garlic cloves minced
1 tsp oil
1 cup dried lentils
1 T chili powder
2 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp dried oregano
2 1/2 cups chicken broth

Toppings: salsa, tomatoes, lettuce, olives, sour cream or avocado

In a skillet, saute onion and garlic in oil until tender.  Add lentils, chili powder, cumin and oregano.  Cook and stir 1 minute.  Add broth, bring to a boil.  Reduce heat, cover and simmer about 25 minutes or till lentils are tender.  Uncover, cook 5-10 minutes until mixture is thickened.  Mash lentils slightly if desired.  I stir some salsa in at this point.  Then serve in tortillas or taco shells.

On the table tonight…

I feel like I should have a title for my dinner recipes but I have no creative blog post titles!

Oh well…this is what we had for dinner and I thought I should share because it was delicious and easy.

It started with a trip to the store for my weekly groceries, I found a lean piece of pork sirloin roast for cheap so I bought that and wanted to make BBQ pork shredded sandwiches for dinner today – Monday is soccer practice during dinner and we come home starving (that is, if we make it home without stopping like this disastrous night!).  But my favorite BBQ sauce, one made without high fructose corn syrup and that tastes super good, wasn’t on sale and I needed two bottles.  It was almost $5 a bottle!  Crazy.  No way I was going to pay that.  So I came home resolved to make my own BBQ sauce, I’d done this once before with enchilada sauce and it worked out well so I thought I ought to try again.

I found this simple recipe online and after making it I poured it over the roughly cut up pork roast in the slow cooker and turned it on this morning.  By afternoon you could smell it down the street and the meat was falling apart.  I had leftover buns from burger night so we had those to use for the sandwiches.

Simple BBQ sauce

1 cup ketchup
1/4 cup white vinegar
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 T chopped onion
2 t lemon juice
1 t Worcestershire sauce
few grinds fresh black pepper
pinch of allspice
pinch of celery seed or celery salt
good sized pinch of mustard powder
few drops liquid smoke, only if you happen to have some handy like I did

Combine all ingredients on stove, simmer a few minutes then use as desired.

I took the meat out before dinner to make sure it was all chopped/shredded up.  Then fill up some buns and voila!  Yum.   I didn’t figure out cost but I’m sure it cost much less than Stubb’s by the (small) bottle!  It would work easily with any other lean cut of meat, beef, or pork or even chicken I’m sure.  We also enjoy BBQ meatballs, meatballs that simmer an hour in BBQ sauce then we eat them over brown rice.  Also a tasty easy dinner that the kids all like.  But if you made this and didn’t have a large family, you’d surely have leftovers that would freeze nicely for another meal.

If my husband hadn’t eaten three of the sandwiches we might have had leftovers…but he did and we don’t.  Nothing says love like an empty plate. 🙂

Make your own pizza night

With homeschooling, caring for 4 little kids and a husband who often is gone for 12 or 14 hours in a day…getting to dinner with no plan is inevitable despite planning and shopping ahead.  This dinner has become a big favorite around here and I keep the ‘crust’ in the freezer as a back up for the days I get to 5:00 and have nothing in the oven!

It is easy, social, healthy, fast and great fun.  We’ve experimented with many pizza doughs and the best is home-made whole wheat pizza dough crust.  But the much easier and faster option that tastes exceptional is Indian Nan bread.  Pita bread pockets are good and very healthy but not nearly so yummy.  First, I open a bottle of inexpensive white table wine, because cooking and wine just go so well together.  I use leftover spaghetti sauce or canned tomato sauce/paste or a mix of the above with a heap of Italian seasoning.  No need for buying canned pizza sauce.  Then, I do a quick inventory of our topping options and throw it all into bowls:

The toppings are (in our house) any of these things…

sausage, ground beef, leftover meatball chunks or ham
feta, mozzarella, parmesan or goat cheese
red peppers, artichokes, olives, mushrooms, onion, garlic or tomatoes

or whatever else is hanging around that needs using up!

The kids help with the cutting of toppings and each drizzle & spread olive oil over their pizza.  Then they spread sauce and cover with toppings.  Their job is to do something unique to make sure they know it’s their pizza!

After everyone has made their pizzas, we bake them for about 12 minutes at 400 degrees.  Till they are hot and bubbly.  Then there is silence at the table and everyone gobbles up their culinary creations!  We even served this recently when new friends (a couple with four kids) was over for dinner.  We did the eight kid pizzas then the adults, everyone had so much fun!  If we have babies/toddlers we use English muffins which are a more fitting size for little bitty ones that eat table food.  Bon appetit!

If we’re extra lucky, we get a glimpse of our strawberry stealer while making pizzas…

Dutch Oven Yum!

Last year, after wanting one for quite a while, my friend Kim gave me her extra dutch oven.  I was thrilled to not have to wait for Christmas to get one and at the same time intimidated by it’s heavy, difficult-to-care-for nature.   The picture is of the one I have, a 6 quart dutch oven that weighs a whopping 15 pounds!

I started my cast iron cooking adventure by using it to make soups.  To this day, I swear the soups I make in that piece of cookware taste better than any soups I’ve ever made.  Maybe my cooking skills have evolved or maybe there’s just something about the general, subtle flavor the cast iron imparts.  I’m inclined to say it’s the latter.

I have no soup recipes to share, just the basic process.  In a bit of oil in my already oiled, well seasoned dutch oven I throw in chopped vegetables of every kind.  Whatever is in my fridge…carrots, onions, parsnips, potatoes, peppers, zucchini, garlic (ALWAYS-5 or 8 cloves!), mushrooms, squash maybe even.  I saute for a few minutes, then add a few cups of chicken broth, fresh herbs if I have any, a scoop of brown rice, Israeli couscous or barley.  If I have some leftover chopped chicken, I toss that in.  I also, almost always throw in a cup or two of frozen, pureed squash of some kind.  It thickens the soup, gives a bit of flavor and is the only way any of my children eat squash.

This mixture simmers then, with the lid on, for an hour or so depending on what I’m doing and if I’m paying attention.  I usually make double so I can freeze half for a rainy day.

The recipe that I simply must share however is this (it’s cooking in my oven this very minute!).  It’s written in my cooking language, so pardon me if it seems a bit relaxed…

Dutch Oven Pot Roast with glazed vegetables

One 2 1/2 – 3 pound inexpensive cut of beef (trim any fat if possible)
Red wine
Kosher salt and fresh pepper
1 onion, chopped
2-3 stalks of celery, chopped
1 bell pepper, any color, chopped
7-8 cloves garlic, chopped
olive oil
1 can diced tomatoes
1 cup beef broth
Fresh herbs, whatever is handy, rosemary is my favorite

Preheat oven to 300°.  In large skillet, brown the meat (whole) in some oil on both sides.  Sprinkle with salt and pepper and perhaps some fresh rosemary.  Place into dutch oven.

(This is the best part) While the skillet is still hot with oil, pour some red wine in and scrape the pan.  Let it cook down a bit.  Drink some wine.  Throw all the veggies into the pan.  Add some broth or wine or oil as needed while the veggies get delightfully glazed with the fat/wine mixture.  Don’t cook the veggies, just brown them, med-high heat, not too long.

Toss the veggies in on top of the meat.  Pour in a bit more wine, the cup of broth along with the can of tomatoes.

Cover, place in oven for 3 hours or until meat is fork tender.

Here now you have two choices:  You may eat the veggies with the roast per normal roast eating.  Or you may remove the veggies, put them in the blender and make an unbelievable gravy to pour over your roast (and some potatoes should you choose to cook some up).  I prefer the second option and then I use the extra gravy to make beef barley soup with the leftover beef.

Maybe it sounds long, but it is truly very labor light.  And the house smells so good while the meat cooks slowly.