Chicken & Spinach Lagagna Roll-Ups

It’s the last week of school, and needless to say, it’s crazy busy around here. However, I took some time today to cook one of the Heathen’s favorite dishes: Chicken & Spinach Lasagna Roll-Ups. This super-easy meal gets a fast flavor cheat by using ranch dressing mix to season the chicken and spinach filling. I prepped it in the morning so all I had to do was pop it in the oven, and serve it up with a side salad and some garlic bread. And wine. Lots of wine. Did I mention it’s kinda crazy around here right now?

Chicken & Spinach Lasagna Roll-Ups

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Ingredients

  • 2 (8-ounce) packages Neufchatel cream cheese, room temperature
  • 2 packages powdered ranch dressing mix
  • 2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cooked and shredded (or about 3 cups of cooked chicken)
  • 1 (12-ounce) bag of frozen chopped spinach, thawed
  • 1 box lasagna noodles, cooked according to package directions (about 15 noodles)
  • 2 (8-ounce) cans tomato sauce
  • 1 cup half and half OR 1-1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 2 cups grated mozzarella cheese

Procedure

  1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. In a medium-sized bowl, combine cream cheese and ranch mix until incorporated. Remove about 1/3 cup of this mixture and set aside.
  2. Add chicken and spinach to the bowl, stirring until the mixture is well blended.
  3. Carefully spread about three to four tablespoons of the chicken mixture onto each noodle. From the narrow end, roll up each noodle and place seam side down into a casserole dish
  4. Combine reserved 1/3 cup cream cheese with tomato sauce, whisking until blended. Add half and half OR cream, stirring to combine.
  5. Pour sauce over roll-ups and cover the casserole with foil. Bake for 25 minutes. Sprinkle cheese over roll-ups and re-cover loosely with foil. Bake an additional 10 minutes, or until hot and bubbly.

Cook’s Notes:

  • I cook for 6 people every day, three of which are hungry guys, so I tend to make a lot of food. You can easily half this.
  • Don’t forget to add salt to your pasta water. Salting the pasta water separates the good pasta cooks from the not-so-good pasta cooks.
  • To make the noodles easy to work with, lay out some foil or parchment paper on the counter and spray with non-stick spray. After you drain the noodles, lay them out in a single layer on the foil to prevent sticking.
  • Cook a few extra lasagna noodles. Inevitably, some will tear during the cooking process, so it’s good to have backups.
  • Grab a rotisserie chicken to cut the prep time if you want. I cooked a big batch of chicken in my Instant Pot and used the rest to make chicken salad.
  • Variation ideas: Add roasted red peppers or sundried tomatoes to the chicken mixture. Top with jarred alfredo sauce instead of the tomato sauce. Substitute chopped cooked shrimp or turkey for the chicken. Garnish with a little chopped basil or parsley.

Friday Eating and Reading (As I Army-Crawl Across the School Year Finish Line)

It’s Friday, and I am still in the trenches of what we call the May Gauntlet around here. This month consists of three of my family of five’s birthdays, Mother’s Day, another trip to Science Olympiad Nationals for the Hubs and Bear after winning State, Confirmations, graduations, finals for G-Man, driving test for G-man, and yet another week-long business trip for the Hubs. I am, in a word, overdone.

Meanwhile, I’ve been sneaking in crafting, reading, and knitting time in at every possible moment, lest I allow my “End-of-the-year-and-I’m-over-it attitude” to spew out all over innocent bystanders. While I know I will probably want to let my kids run away and join a circus within two weeks of summer vacation, the prospect of a break from carpool lines, packing lunches, the daily uniform search/6 a.m. emergency washing panic, and unplanned trips to the school because I forgot it was our snack day (again), is the only thing separating me from insanity.

Anyway, here’s a few things I have been really into this week:

I just finished The Wishing Thread by Lisa Van Allen. Magic realism and knitting? Sign me up. I am a big fan of Sarah Addison Allen, so this seemed right up my alley. Overall, it’s a cute book, and one that I enjoyed. The narrative of the family ties, local lore, the subtle magic, and hope all made this a nice, pleasant read. If you just want a light, feel-good read similar to Addison Allen’s works, this is a good option.

I love Rick Bragg, who, among his numerous writing accolades, also has his essays featured in Southern Living every month. I’m only about a quarter of the way through this, but I am so totally in love with it. His writing brings to life the essence of the times and influences that defined my grandparents and parents (both good and bad). I started this on Mother’s Day morning, and it felt like a bittersweet balm on my soul. It reminds me of cooking with my mom, and all the stories she would tell of our grandparents and cousins, and the recipes that were simply learned by doing. I still suck at this whole grief thing, especially since I got the grief sandwich going on, but this book reminds me that the stories and traditions mean they will always be with me.

This orzo salad from Food Network definitely wins our dang tasty seal of approval. While I skip the red onion because picky eaters gonna pick, the recipe is perfect for a cool summer side dish (very important when we will reach nearly 100 degrees next week). A couple of notes on this one–I just mix the whole shebang together rather than this pointless staging. You would have to mix it before serving anyway, and artistic efforts are lost on The Heathens. Also, I have a possibly controversial view on pasta salad recipes. I always make 1.5 times of the dressing that any pasta salad recipe calls for, if not 2 times because they always end up drier than I want if I follow the recipe. Thus far, my over-doing-it on pasta salad sauce (for creamy-type sauces) hasn’t steered me wrong. You could also add rotisserie chicken to this for a complete meal, but if so, I would definitely double the sauce just to be safe. No one ever said “My Pasta Salad is too creamy.”  If they did, you should seriously side-eye them.

Time to fortify myself for the last week of school. That means whiskey, in case you didn’t know.

Coming Soon: “Communty Cookbook Throwback Thursday”–A Haphazard Journey Through Grief and Seriously Questionable Coping Mechanisms.

See the source image

***Insert meaningful and insightful intro here…or not***

Before my mom passed away, she amassed quite the cookbook collection, many of which she inherited from her mother, or were gifts from the dozens of cousins, aunts, etc. that make up my huge, southern, zany extended family. And that’s where this post and the new series on my blog begins…

I remember spending hours flipping through those books, and not really understanding all of the history they contained, or what they represented to my mother. I would sit at her small, marble-topped kitchen table, turning the wrinkled, dog-eared pages while she miraculously bent our tiny, galley kitchen to her culinary will. Often, she’d pause mid-dinner prep to wash my cornsilk-like hair in the sink, setting a towel on the edge to cradle my neck before sending me off to a proper bath.

I always knew when she was feeling particularly down or frustrated, because that’s when she would fry chicken. After I had kids, she confessed that cooking our traditional fried chicken dinner (with rice, gravy, peas, and biscuits…preferably with mayhaw jelly), was a mental and emotional escape. She found that cooking that meal was the closest connection she could find to her own childhood memories, as well as a unique therapy when tackling the more difficult of life’s challenges.

When we moved to California, Mom was alone in a new place with no family and support system, which looking back, must have been incredibly lonely for her. Sometimes, her loneliness seemed like an invisible raincloud that blanketed our home, and she retreated to the kitchen like it was the only connection to her family and sense of home she could find.  I also remember that, during these low periods,  she pulled out the same few cookbooks from her collection, which were published works from the assorted regional chapters of Louisiana’s Junior League, churches, or other community cookbooks.

When she wanted to try something new, those were the books she looked to for a familiar foundation. Unlike a nationally published cookbook full of glossy photographs of culinary perfection, Mom was more inclined to try a new recipe that she knew came from the communities of her home state (as well as what came from her mother’s and aunts’ generation), and I think these books helped ease the homesickness that seemed to be her constant companion during those years. Other than the familiar recipes and techniques of her up-bringing, any recipe experiments began with a foray into those collections for research she felt she could trust. Looking back, I see that they were more like dictionaries and encyclopedias for a generation that wouldn’t see accessible internet or even unlimited long-distance calls for many years to come

By the time I was in middle school, I knew that the chocolate pie recipe I liked was in The Revel, the Christmas cookie recipe was in Cotton Country, and if I could not remember which recipes she had tried, I could always see her handwritten code in the margins to clue me in (a “check-plus-plus” meant she really liked it). I didn’t realize until we moved home, and I had spent more time with my extended family, that the various Louisiana Junior League  and community cookbooks from that era were staples in every kitchen. Growing up in southern California, I did not realize how much community cookbooks were such an ingrained part of our Louisiana culture.

Unfortunately, I don’t have access to Mom’s cookbook collection, so when I stumbled across a copy of Cotton Country at a local bookstore, I snatched it up and ran to the register like I was Indiana Jones avoiding that whole boulder issue. What is amazing about the iconic cookbooks of the various chapters of the Louisiana Junior League (published in the 60’s and 70’s) and local churches, is that they continue to be staples in many of our homes, which is why I was able to find this one. For example, Cotton Country was published in 1972 by the Junior League of Monroe, with a first printing of 10,000 copies. Since that time, the book has gone through 21 additional printings, with some topping 60,000 copies per printing, and the most recent being 5,000 in 2016. The book I purchased is identical to the original publication, with the only upgrade being a hardback binding that replaced the annoying comb binding. The book has no photographs, hundreds of recipes, lots of original artwork, and demonstrates just how much a labor of love these books were for their creators. I remarked to my husband about how much work these books were for local communities, because they were complied long before we had computers and software to streamline the process. From the meticulous index to the sheer volume of recipes, I imagine this book, and those like it, was a momentous undertaking and a great source of pride for the women who created it.

As I flip through the recipes, they seem like a microcosm of a by-gone era, both good and bad. I see how much they focused on entertaining (some have notes “will feed 25 for appetizers, or 12 for entrees”), which is something I think we all could use a little more of (entertaining, that is). I feel like the more digitally connected we get, the less meaningfully connected we become to our friends and neighbors, and that a little real togetherness could do us all some good.  These books also often give the ambiguous language of seasoned cooks (“just add to your taste”), which definitely reminds me of the women in my family, and why growing the confidence in cooking through experience is important in familial development.

However, along with all the feel-good nostalgia, I also know that these books also reflect the imbalances of race, gender, and socioeconomic classes that were just as much a part of those decades as beautiful Crab Mornay in elegant silver chafing dishes. In fact, each recipe in my recent purchase features the contributors’ names not as their own, but as a subset of their husbands. For example, rather than see “Mrs. Ann Smith,” you see “Mrs. John Smith,” a tradition that luckily seems to have faded slowly as modern South catches up. If anyone ever tried to call me “Mrs. Bayou-Husband,” I’d probably snort my cocktail right out of my nose. I well know that as charming as many of these books are, and the nostalgia they trigger, we could uncover an entire underlying narrative of racial and class dynamics that deserves acknowledgement, and that I could never do the justice that it deserves.

So, let’s circle back around to what this post is really about. A couple of months ago, I lost my father suddenly, and without warning. I’m trying to process the year-after-year grief sandwich life keeps serving me, losing my grandmother, mother, and father in such a short, successive time. After Mom died, that grief was like acid, eating away at me and it’s pretty much been a self-pity party ever since. This was a trauma I did, and do not, handle well. Except for those times when I kick myself in reminder that I am so blessed, it’s ridiculous. I wallow, but I also kick my own ass nearly everyday because perspective is the first step to a more graceful approach to the grief sandwich digestion project.

I think one of the most difficult parts of losing both parents is that I also feel like I lost a connection to my grandparents, because my parents helped keep their histories alive through their own stories and memories (though I was truly blessed to have my grandmother on Dad’s side live to see all of her great-grandchildren born and to be here for me into my mid-30’s). My mom regaled me of stories of her mom, including that she was a master sewer though my mom could not sew a stitch. I’m scared that I’ll lose those pieces in the telling of the stories to my own kids, and that they lost their own maternal grandparents at such a young age, when I had most of mine into my late teens to 30’s. I had the village. My kids’ village has shrunk in ways they will never know how to miss, but it also encourages me to embrace what’s still here.

I decided that one way to try and prevent an even deeper dive into the unhealthy grief sandwich starts with these cookbooks that defined so much of both my mom’s life, but also all the people in my crazy, zany, lovable family. Both Mom and Dad carried emotional weights from their own upbringings, and I want to learn from what worked and what didn’t. As a crafter, cook, and general maker, of course my approach starts with “PROJECT!!!”

I’m starting a new segment on the blog called “Community Cookbook Throwback Thursday” in which I will make a recipe from an old Junior League, church, or otherwise community cookbook close to me. You will see an unvarnished attempt at the recipe of the week, even if it fails epically, as well as my notes on how to translate the vague portions and directions into coherent words for an actually repeatable recipe.

So, if you actually managed to read this, you get a gold star! Stay tuned for culinary adventures and plenty of mishaps. And maybe, by the end of this little or big experiment, grief won’t be quite such a four-letter word. No promises there, but I promise a good cocktail along the way.

Cajun 15 Bean Soup in the Instant Pot

I survived Thanksgiving week, which ended up being a relaxed, fun holiday despite the fact that I made more food than any reasonable person should. We ate leftovers for days, and I cranked out 4 big casseroles for the freezer with the remaining turkey. For the holiday, my sister brought a Honey-Baked Ham, and afterward, we froze the ham bone (that still had a good chunk of meat on it) for later use.

A leftover ham bone (or leftover ham in general) is the perfect foundation for 15 Bean Soup, which I typically cook on the stovetop with the above mix. However, I decided to adapt it to the Instant Pot so I could get it done, start to finish, after getting the Heathens from school.

First, I did soak the beans for barely a couple of hours, but I think you can get by without that if necessary. I added the ham bone and rinsed beans to the Instant Pot:

Then, I added 8 cups of water. I did not add salt because the ham itself is pretty dang salty, and the seasoning packet to be added later also contains salt. I put the lid on, and set it to Manual for 50 minutes on high pressure (note–with that much liquid in the pot, it takes about 20 minutes to come to pressure, so plan accordingly). Once it beeped, I did the quick pressure release, and removed the ham bone. I carefully removed as much meat from the bone as possible, then returned the meat to the pot while discarding the bone. I then added a minced onion, three cloves of minced garlic, a can of fire-roasted diced tomatoes, the juice of a lemon, and the seasoning packet:

I put the lid back on the pot and reset it to Manual for 10 minutes. Once was it done, I did another quick pressure release, stirred, and served with cornbread:

The original recipe calls for sausage and sautéing the onion and garlic. While you can do this with sausage, ham hocks, or generally any smoked meat, I think the Instant Pot negates the need for unnecessary sautéing steps. Overall, we used up every last scrap of ham, which is a good thing because Honey-Baked Hams are not cheap…which is probably why they are so dang tasty. If you want to stretch this, you can also serve it over rice, but I like it as is and my scale could not justify any more calories…like at all…ever. If you need me, I’ll be at the gym.

15 Bean Soup in the Instant Pot/Pressure Cooker

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  • 1 pkg. Hurst’s Cajun 15 Bean Soup Mix
  • 1 ham bone with leftover ham if possible
  • 8 cups water
  • 1 can fire-roasted diced tomatoes
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • Juice of 1 lemon

Remove seasoning packed from beans and set aside. If desired, soak beans for a couple of hours. Place ham bone and leftover ham in Instant Pot. Add drained beans and 8 cups of water. Place lid on pot and set to Manual for 50 minutes, then do a quick pressure release. Remove ham bone from pot and remove as much ham as possible from the bone. Return ham to the pot and discard bone. Add the tomatoes, onion, garlic, lemon juice, and seasoning packet to the pot and stir. Return lid to pot and set to Manual for 10 minutes. Do a quick pressure release, stir, and serve.

Thanksgiving Leftover Ideas…Because It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint

Ok, so if you are just joining us, here are some helpful past posts regarding my favorite holiday, specifically my Thanksgiving Planner (which is still my proverbial holiday bible of organization and recipes), the What I Wish I Knew post, and if you want to see a diatribe about the disappearing Thanksgiving, click here. Thanksgiving is my personal Superbowl, and I’ve cooked for crowds both large and small. I love it, but since I cook sooooo freaking much food, I really do need leftover ideas, because the Heathens will balk at eating the same meal for three days afterwards. My leftover approach is two-fold: have a selection of dishes that I make and freeze, then a selection of meal ideas to take us through the long weekend. After spending a small fortune on Thanksgiving, you can bet your behind I’m going to stretch those leftovers like crazy.

So, here’s some options:

Make and Freeze

  • Turkey Tetrazzini–I now use Pioneer Woman’s recipe which I love. I make several batches and freeze them for easy, weeknight meals. The bacon and peas add a great dimension to the turkey and it definitely is a taste profile that is approachable to all of us. I put it in foil pans, and wrap in both foil and plastic wrap to prevent freezer burn. Just be sure to remove the plastic before baking.
  • Turkey and/or Ham Pot Pies–I confess that this is the one post-Thanksgiving dish where I take ALL the shortcuts. I use refrigerated pie crusts, canned soups, canned veggies, and fresh herbs to feel better about myself. I assemble and freeze, then defrost and bake until golden and bubbly. If you are burnt out from cooking, these are a way to get something in the freezer in 10 minutes or less.
  • The ham bone (usually with a few scraps on it)–I freeze this by itself and make 15-bean soup later (crockpot or Instant Pot).
  • Stock–I simmer the turkey carcass with aromatics and freeze for later use.
  • Soups, chili, casseroles etc–These are viable options and pretty much any chicken soup or casserole you can freeze, just swap in the turkey.

Meals

  • The Thanksgiving Panini of Awesomeness–We use the gravy like mayo, then basically pile everything on it, including turkey, ham, cranberry sauce, stuffing, mac and cheese, sweet potatoes, and more. If it’s lying around, it can go in. Grab some French bread and panini all the leftovers into delicious submission.
  • Along those lines, we slap some ham and American cheese between two glazed donuts and panini those in the waffle maker…because it’s sinful and delicious, and waffling makes everything better.
  • These Monte Cristos, but instead of tomato chutney for garnish, I sauté a little chopped (fresh) jalapeno in butter, then add leftover cranberry sauce, heating until it’s thinned down and sauce-like (think sweet and spicy). These sandwiches are much easier than a mess of the traditional frying.
  • “Funeral Sandwiches”–Google it, but ham has never been happier…except in that donut panini thing. Bear can put down a whole tray of these.
  • Similarly, mix up some turkey, dressing and cranberry sauce, fold into won-ton wrappers, and fry until golden. Wonton and egg roll wrappers offer plenty of options to mad-scientist your way through creative leftover mash-ups, just wrap the mess up and fry it!
  • Here’s some of my Food Network ideas: Stuffed Pork Chops (made these and love them),  I haven’t tried these Crispy Turkey Bites, but they are on the list, and this stuffing/mac and cheese mash-up looks so crazy, it may be good.

Overall, my best advice for leftover management is to be creative, but don’t wait until this week *cough, cough* to come up with a plan next for next year. I jot down ideas all year long as I see them, so that, come Friday, I have 10 different plans waiting in the wings so I stretch the most expensive meal of the year into endless adventures in decadence. I’ll see you at the gym come Monday.

 

Post-Thanksgiving Rest

towelWelp, I survived a Thanksgiving marathon like no other. To be honest, we had a great holiday, and despite hosting 20 of our family and friends, things proceeded smoothly and happily. As I was giving my dad the event recap, he asked in exasperation, “Who even has 20 chairs?!?” This girl, Dad…this girl.

During the days of preparation, my neighbor’s daughter stopped by and handed me this kitchen towel as a sweet pre-holiday gift. That 11 year old was on to something. I accepted ahead of time that big holidays can be chaotic, and that if something went wrong, it really would be ok. I’m  so over the pressure for picture-perfect gatherings, and I realized that once you have that mentality, you certainly enjoy them a lot more. I enjoyed the preparations, and approached the whole she-bang with very uncharacteristic calm. We ended up with a wonderful meal, a bucket of leftovers, and happy memories. We even got to spend unexpected extra time with my husband’s great uncle, which resulted in days of happy stories and tree trimming.

As I talked about in this recent post, we made a special effort this year make the most of our leftovers and to stretch them into as many meals as possible. We did the traditional next-day paninis with everything  on them:

 

panini.JPGWe also made and froze several casseroles of turkey tetrazzini, several quarts of turkey soup, and ham pot pies.

Now, it’s time to slow down a bit, catch up on work, and enjoy the first bit of sunshine we’ve seen. Not to mention my pressing need to pick up the pace on those last-minute knitted gifts! We won’t even get into the mess that has overtaken my house. Or the laundry pile…Dear God, the laundry pile…

I hope you had a great Thanksgiving as well! I’ll just be over here, closing the laundry room door.

Adventures in Rethinking Food Waste and Reimaging Leftovers

chicken salad

So, my husband and I have been talking a lot lately about food waste. I’m embarrassed to admit that we waste way more food in my house than is responsible or ethical, and we are trying to make some changes.

Our grocery budget is soaring and I see way too much going to waste. Part of this waste comes from poor menu planning on my part. I need to be more conscientious in planning meals with intersecting ingredients rather than selecting dinners willy-nilly. This will ensure that items get completely used up, rather than seeing those half-wilted bunches of green onions or a stray, sprouted sweet potato go into the trash (before you say it, we can’t have a compost bin in our neighborhood). I think better planning will alleviate a good bit of the issue.

However the other main culprit in our food waste comes from leftovers. Ohhhh…the fights we have about leftovers. My husband fusses at me that I throw out too many extras, and tells me to save everything. But, do you know what happens? It sits in the fridge for a week, and then I throw it out anyway and have more dishes to wash. He has good intentions but if I pack dinner’s leftovers for his lunch, he forgets to take it with him… without fail. If I have a ton of dinner leftover, it means the family probably wasn’t a fan of the meal and they are unlikely to go back willingly for a second round. If they actually loved the dinner, there’s probably not enough left over for round 2, so I’m stuck with how to get rid of it without fighting.

Honestly, however, my kids just aren’t leftover fans anyway. They have the attention spans of goldfish, and they want to come home to something different each night. I swear my pet peeve is that they ask me what’s for dinner the second they hit the car seat, and it annoys me to no end to see those crestfallen, disappointed faces when I announce leftovers. You’d think I kicked a puppy. Spoiled much, Heathens?

I started thinking about Thanksgiving, and how I have a roster of creative leftover recipes, and am always trying to reimagine cool ways to get the most out of that food. After all, after spending so much time and money on one meal, I better get a return on my investment, right? Well, that philosophy needs to bleed over into everyday meal planning if we really want to cut down the waste.

So, here’s the plan. My goal over the next few weeks is to create a weekly meal plan such that at least one meal is comprised of leftovers reinvented. While I had to wing it this week (since I had already bought groceries), we still stretched that fried chicken meal quite a bit. Our favorite re-do was to transform it into chicken salad by de-boning and chopping the chicken yet keeping that tasty/crispy skin. We then combined it with finely chopped celery and some mayo. It didn’t need any additional salt and pepper since the chicken was so well seasoned. Finally, we halved the leftover biscuits, ran them through the toaster, and built the most delicious chicken salad biscuit sandwiches. Cool, huh?

And then I got on the treadmill…but that’s a story for another day.