Strawberry-Jalapeno Jam & Deep Quarantine Thoughts

Day five gazillion of quarantine. We’ve been plodding along, and thank bejesus, today is the last day of school. Homeschooling did not bring out the best in me, and poor Bean deserves a teacher who is not brought down by the devil otherwise known as “Common Core.” While this past week has been an exercise in patience, I did have a bright spot:

I took a quick drive down to the strawberry farm to pick up a couple of perfect flats. (Before you side-eye me, it was contactless pickup). Despite it being the spring from hell in terms of storms, hail, and tornados, the crops managed to thrive. When I arrived home, I immediately launched into a full afternoon of canning.

Ok, maybe I went a little overboard. But in fairness to me, I think a lot of us under quarantine feel the need to fall back to, or learn, some fundamental skills of self-sufficiency. My social media feeds are full of sourdough starters, homemade breads, pantry recipes, and ideas to stretch items further. People are also tackling things that they would normally outsource, like birthday cakes, haircuts, and even pet grooming.

I totally get it. We see supply chains breaking down, and I think that we are all getting the reality check that it takes mere weeks to go from abundance to scarcity. If you told most of us on New Years Day that, by May, we would be rationing meat, toilet paper, and cleaning products, we all would have laughed hysterically. Especially if you told us yeast turned into one of the most coveted commodities. But now, we all have the uncomfortable knowledge that we are more vulnerable than we think, and so we turn to the kitchen, garden, sewing machines, and other tools that help us feel more in control of our lives.

So yeah, I canned a crap-ton of strawberry-jalapeno jam, and you can to!

Strawberry-Jalapeno Jam

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Ingredients

  • 2 quarts of strawberries (or about 4 cups crushed strawberries)
  • 1 cup minced jalapeno peppers
  • 1/4 cup bottled lemon juice
  • 1 package powdered pectin
  • 7 cups granulated sugar

Procedure

  1. Wash strawberries and remove stems. Crush strawberries in a large pot one layer at a time. Add jalapenos, lemon juice, and pectin, and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally.
  2. Add sugar, stirring until dissolved. Return to a roiling boil, and boil hard one minute, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat.
  3. Skim foam. Ladle hot jam into hot jars, leaving 1/4-inch headspace. Wipe rim clean, add lid and ring, and adjust until fingertip tight. Process 10 minutes in boiling water canner.

A few notes on canning this recipe:

  • This should make about 8 half-pints, but I don’t think I’ve every made a recipe that did not go either over or under expectations.
  • If you are new to canning, I highly encourage you to purchase the Ball Blue Book to learn the basics. I posted a few thoughts in this post for those considering giving it a try. Canning is not hard, it’s just understanding a few basic principles.
  • When canning, ideally use commercially bottled lemon juice. I know that stuff is gross as all get-out, but the reason professionals recommend it is that it has a consistent acid level. The acidity of fresh lemons can vary greatly, and the acidity is key in safe water bath canning. Remember that canning is about food safety, so the experts want to ensure we all have consistent results and not death by botuluism.
  • Take the time to skim the foam well.
  • You will probably still have strawberry solids that float to the top of your processed jars, giving your jam an uneven appearance. As mine cooled, I would occasionally turn the jars upside down, let them cool for a while, turn them right side up, cool for a while, repeat. Toward the end of cooling, I have them a good shake to ensure any solids distributed evenly in the jelling syrup.
  • If ever there was a time to tune into the food supply and learn an essential skill, this is it. Go for it!

Eclairs with Stupid-Easy Vanilla Bean Custard and Chocolate Ganache

Well, after having a not-fun-at-all Easter thanks to the storms (no power equaled no Easter lunch, and no sleep to boot), we spent most of last week continuing the work-from-home/homeschooling grind.

However, I’ve been in the kitchen more than ever, and if you follow on Instagram, you’ve seen this bit of deliciousness:

I decided to try something new, and boy did it pay off. I started with a basic choux paste, which is a cooked dough that is used to make cream puffs or eclairs. Then, I messed around with what I affectionately call my mom’s “Cheaters Custard” method, incorporating a lone vanilla bean that was hanging out in my pantry, and finally topped the whole mess with chocolate ganache. I swear, the kids went bananas for these, and my neighbor was over the moon. (Don’t worry, we don’t break quarantine, we do contactless meal delivery to her).

Anyway, even though this recipe seems like a lot of steps, the whole process is really easy. I think people new to the choux paste concept might be a little intimidated at first, but once you go through the steps, you will be like, “Oh, ok, that was no big deal.” So, not only can you have an impressive, delicious dessert worthy of a special occasion, but you can also bask in the complements from your lucky eaters.

Eclairs with Stupid-Easy Vanilla Bean Custard and Chocolate Ganache

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Ingredients

Choux Paste

  • 1/2 cup whole milk
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 7 TBS unsalted butter, cubed
  • 1 TBS granulated sugar
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 5 to 6 large eggs (see method for why)

Stupid-Easy Vanilla Bean Custard

  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 1 TBS unsalted butter
  • 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 1 vanilla bean (alternatively, you can use 1 TBS good quality vanilla extract OR 1 tsp. vanilla bean paste)

Chocolate Ganache

  • 4 ounces semisweet chocolate
  • 4 ounces heavy whipping cream

Procedure

Choux Paste/Éclair Shells

  1. Preheat oven to 400 F. Get out a couple of sheet pants and line them with parchment paper or baking mats. In a medium sauce pan, place milk, water, butter, sugar, salt. Bring to a full boil over medium heat, stirring often, ensuring the butter is completely melted. Add the flour all at once, stirring quickly and vigorously until the flour is thoroughly incorporated. Cook about 45 more seconds and remove from heat. Transfer mixture to a bowl (ideally use a stand mixer with paddle attachment or hand mixer for the next step).
  2. While the dough is still hot, add the eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition (start with the 5 eggs only). After you have added all 5 eggs, test to see of the texture is right. If it seems too thick, add the last egg. I only needed 5 eggs. The dough should be a good consistency for piping while maintaining it’s structure.
  3. Transfer dough to a Ziploc bag and cut a corner so that you will get about a 1-inch diameter hole. Pipe the dough onto your prepared pans into logs about 5 inches long. (If you have piping equipment, go for it fancy-pants, but a Ziploc will do, I promise). *note, I did not do it, but if you want to, you can give the eclairs an egg wash before baking*
  4. Bake eclairs for 15 minutes at 400, then reduce heat to 350 and bake for about 10 minutes more until they are golden brown and feel hollow. Keep an eye on them the last 5 minutes of baking. My convection oven cooks hotter than a standard oven, so I had to pull mine out sooner than I expected. Set the pastry shells aside to cook completely.

Stupid-Easy Vanilla Bean Custard 

  1. In a medium saucepan, add milk, butter, flour, sugar, egg yolks. Slice vanilla bean in half and scrape the vanilla caviar from the bean halves into the pot, then toss the scraped pod halves into the pot as well.
  2. Place the saucepan over medium heat, and mix it thoroughly with a whisk. As it heats, it will begin to thicken and bubble. Keep stirring, and once it is bubbling consistently, let it cook for 1 minute. Remove the pot from the heat, and using tongs, fish out the vanilla pod halves and discard them. Transfer custard to a bowl and cover with plastic wrap, pressing the wrap directly onto the custard surface (this prevents it from getting a “skin” on top). Refrigerate until cold and thick.

Chocolate Ganache

  1. Place chocolate and cream in a heat-safe bowl, then place the bowl over saucepan of simmering water (medium-low heat), making sure the water isn’t touching the bowl directly. Stir frequently until the chocolate is completely melted and incorporated into the cream, and is smooth and shiny.

Assembly

  1. Place custard in a Ziploc bag for piping, and snip a corner to make a 1/2-inch diameter hole. For each éclair, cut a small slit in the side of each pastry, and then pipe the custard into the center making sure you get good coverage on both ends. Finally, dip the top of each éclair into the warm ganache and place on a baking rack to set. Refridgerate until ready to serve!

Maple Orange Bourbon Glazed Ham & What We are Cooking for a Quarantined Easter

With Easter coming up this weekend, social distancing means that the usual celebrations will be very, very different this year. No hanging out with the family and no Easter baskets for the kids. I figure that the grocery pick-up/delivery services are busy enough with real needs, and that shopping for chocolate bunnies and trinkets is a waste of their time and resources. We have candy and plastic eggs in the house already, but will forgo dying real eggs because I just feel like it’s wasteful in a time of scarcity (before you get offended, no one in this house will eat hardboiled eggs, so it really would be wasteful for us).

But, I’m still planning a good meal that will make us at least feel like it’s a special day, even if we can’t watch my sister and kids throw plastic eggs at each other.

I don’t usually cook ham at home, because HoneyBaked Ham is totally my jam, but I’m not in the mood to spend that kind of money for just the five of us. I saw this recipe on Food Network last summer, and decided to make it when we went on a family vacation. It got rave reviews, so I decided that I will bake one up this weekend, along with my Cheesy Hash Brown Casserole, roasted asparagus, biscuits, carrot soufflé and a carrot cake (or maybe red velvet). Also, the bone and scraps will be repurposed for Cajun 15 Bean Soup in the Instant Pot, and if we have an leftover casserole, I may try to transform it into something new.

So, we will cook, eat, celebrate, and be grateful this weekend.

Maple Orange Bourbon Glazed Ham

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Ingredients

  • one spiral-cut bone-in ham (about 7-8 pounds)
  • 1 cup orange marmalade
  • 1/2 cup bourbon
  • 1/2 cup maple syrup (the real stuff, not the pancake syrup from the dollar store)
  • 2 TBS butter
  • 1/8 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/8 tsp cloves

Procedure

  1. Preheat oven to 375 F.
  2. In a roasting pan with a rack, place ham on rack, fat side up. Using a small knife, lightly score the fat in a crosshatch pattern. Add a 1-1/2 cups water to the bottom of the ham, place ham in oven and bake for 45 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile, make the glaze. Combine remaining ingredients in a saucepan over medium-low heat. Cook about 20 minutes, stirring frequently, until thick and syrupy.
  4. Brush the ham with half of the glaze, then continue baking, while glazing ham every 15 minutes until it’s reached an internal temp of 130 F (about 45 minutes to an hour).
  5. IMPORTANT: The ham should get very brown, but the amount of sugar in this can start to burn. If you think your ham is geting there, cover it with foil that has been sprayed with non-stick spray (lest you rip off all that glaze). Once the ham is done, let it rest for about 10 minutes before serving.

Short-Cut Slow Cooker Beef Stroganoff for the Judgement-Free Zone

Ok, I know we are all supposed be cutting down on our processed food consumption. But we are in the middle of a damn quarantine, going to the grocery store is not the best idea, and even if I did, pickings are slim. Oh, just order groceries, you say? I don’t even want to into get into how well that is NOT working out. My husband kept wondering why my phone dinged 50 times yesterday, and I had to explain that was the Instacart shopper refunding all of the items Kroger did not really have, despite what the app said.

So, as every planned dinner idea crapped out with each successive ding, it was time for plan F.  I pulled a chuck roast out of the freezer, dove into my pantry, and settled on…*gulp* canned cream of mushroom soup.

Keep your judgements to yourself there, Karen. We all know you secretly have a crush on that Tiger King guy.

Anyway, this recipe only takes about 5 minutes to throw in the slow cooker, and other than the chuck roast, uses ingredients that you probably have on hand. If you don’t have sour cream, cream cheese or Greek yogurt would work in a pinch. I served it over egg noodles, but you can make do with other pastas as well. The Heathens love it, it’s easy, and while it probably takes my foodie street cred down a notch, there’s no shame here.

Short-Cut Slow Cooker Beef Stroganoff

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Ingredients

  • 2 medium yellow onions, halved and sliced
  • 1 chuck roast, approximately 3 to 3-1/2 pounds
  • 2 (10-1/2 oz) cans condensed cream of mushroom soup
  • 1-1/2 tsp. seasoning salt (like Lawry’s or Morton’s)
  • 1 tsp. black pepper
  • 2 TBS Worcestershire sauce
  • 4 TBS ketchup
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • egg noodles or pasta for serving

Procedure

  1. Cut chuck roast into cubes (about 1-1/2 inches). Add onions and chuck roast to the slow cooker.
  2. In a medium bowl, combine soup, salt, pepper, Worcestershire sauce, and ketchup, whisking to combine. Add the soup mixture to the slow cooker, and stir until the meat is coated. Cover and cook on the LOW setting for 8 hours, or until the beef is super-tender.
  3. Just before serving, stir in the sour cream. Check for seasoning, adding more if needed. Serve over egg noodles, and if you are feeling extra-fancy, garnish with a little parsley.

 

 

This Too Shall Pass…

 

I was scrolling through my photos this weekend, hoping to clean up my phone storage, and came across this pic of G-Man. He presented a lecture at a local conference, just a week before everything went to hell in Louisiana. It was a bittersweet moment, finding this photo, because things have changed so much such a short time. Louisiana has been hit especially hard by this crisis, and we continue to adapt to a way of life that seems so incredibly foreign and surreal.

I can’t really compain about the quarantine. As a knitter, crafter, reader, and cook, I’m never, ever bored. I have enough yarn,  needlepoint projects, craft vinyl, fabric, and embroidery projects to last for years, and my to-be-read pile of books will barely have a dent in it by the time this crisis is over. Yes, I do get tired of cooking, and miss date nights with the Hubs, but I I’ve been challenged to be more thoughtful and intentional about meal planning during this time of scarcity.

While social media has it’s drawbacks, being able to stay connected with my friends and family is what makes this situation less of a challenge. We share silly memes and jokes full of pandemic humor, because a good laugh reduces stress. But even as we stay connected, I still feel the sting of how this quarantine impacts things that are trivial in comparison to the situation at hand, but still carry with them sadness just the same. We celebrated Bean’s birthday, and while she remained as positive as ever, I know she was disappointed about missing her planned trip to the amusement park. Bear turns 16 this week, and all he wanted was to eat at his favorite restaurant, which is clearly a no-go. So many of our favorite places have closed and it remains to be seen if they will be able to reopen when this crisis ends. So, a milestone birthday will feel just like any other day, even if we do our best to celebrate at home. We couldn’t even get his gift shipped due to overseas manufacturing shutdowns.

Most of all, watching G-Man’s senior year end like this has been especially difficult. Both senior prom and his graduation ceremony look doubtful, and the the huge party we planned and our first international vacation will not happen.  He also missed signing day at his future college, because they had cancel all on-campus events.

Despite these small disappointments, the Heathens have been amazingly understanding. They 100% get the magnitude of what is happening, and know we all have to do our part to flatten the curve. When I start to let the stress of these strange times get to me, or when I want to tear my hair out while attempting to homeschool, I also take a breath and focus on gratitude. These are miniscule drops in a bucket in comparison to the proverbial hurricane so many others face right now, as well as the real sacrifices being made by those most impacted by this pandemic.

Changing directions, progress surprisingly continued on the pool project:

The construction company decided they had to proceed, because once they dug the hole and placed the rebar, they deemed the project too much of a danger to leave in that state. Hopefully, they can continue soon, but at  least we aren’t facing severe threats of erosion or unintended impalement anymore.

If you have been following my Instagram, I have been posting frequent dinner pics as I try to make the most of our pantry and freezer. Last week, I made a brisket from See You on Sunday by Sam Sifton, and turned the leftovers into nachos, tacos, and shredded BBQ beef with hash brown casserole.

Then, I made a mini-Thanksgiving dinner with turkey and dressing and sides, and used the leftovers to make Turkey a la King with stuffing waffles, and finally turkey noodle soup. My friend created a Facebook group specifically devoted to quarantine cooking ideas, and between that and posting on Instagram, we are all trying to share inspiration as we think outside of the box.

Finally, I finished two more baby knits:

Pattern: Seamless Baby Booties

Yarn: Berrocco Comfort in the Adirondack colorway

Needles: US 4

Notes and Mods: If I were to do these with this yard again, I probably go down to a 3.

Pattern: Baby Sophisticate

Yarn: Berrocco Comfort in the Adirondack colorway

Needles: US 8

Notes and Mods: Cute little pattern, but I had to pick up a couple of extra stitches and decrease in the sleeve underarm to make the join less noticeable.

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So, as much as life is bananas right now, let’s take a breath, do something good, and stay the heck home. This is exactly why we have drive-thru liquor stores, after all.

Chicken Alfredo Pizza with Caramelized Onions and Sundried Tomatoes

So, I mentioned on the blog yesterday that I was going to start posting some recipes and ideas just in case they may help people navigate the ways quarantine is limiting our abilities and pantrys. Chicken Alfredo Pizza was something I made frequently when the boys were young. It’s fast, easy, cheap, customizable, and can stretch two smaller chicken breasts to feed a family of 5. This week, I made two versions: one with caramelized onions and sundried tomatoes added, and one with just the chicken, garlic, sauce, and cheese for the picky peeps. Before I list the recipe, here are some ideas to customize it or hack it if the grocery store is still a wasteland:

  • You can use any cooked chicken or turkey, or even brown up ground chicken and crumble it. When all the meat was gone this week at Kroger, there was a whole wall of smoked turkey legs. In a pinch, you can remove the meat from those and use it.
  • Who says it has to be chicken? Our store still had plenty of frozen shrimp in stock. Just sauté some until just under done, because they will finish cooking on the pizza.
  • Pizza dough: Making your own is easier than you think, and as long as you have flour and yeast on hand, you can do it. Alternatively, buy the tubes from the refrigerator case, which is what I did up until the Heathens were no longer tazmanian devils 24/7. My Kroger also sells fresh balls of pizza dough in baggies, which is in the deli section where they store the pre-made soups, salads, and take-home entrees.
  • While this recipe calls for the caramelized onions and sundried tomatoes, you could add bacon bits, sliced peppers, red pepper flakes for spice, toasted bread crumbs for texture, spinach to sneak in some veggies,  or finish with a drizzle of balsamic glaze.

Just remember, until life settles down and our grocery stores can catch up, not every meal is going to be a Pinterest moment, nor is every recipe going to be a favorite of everyone in your household. I will say, though, that I think both experienced and less-confident cooks are going to come out on the other side of this having learned something new about the ways we shop and eat.

**Note–I doubled this recipe to make two the two pizzas seen above**

Chicken Alfredo Pizza

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Ingredients

  • 1 ball or tube of pizza dough (basically enough so you can roll it out to the size of a half-sheet pan or a large pizza pan.
  • 1-1/2 cups shredded cooked chicken
  • 2 TBS olive oil (or butter)
  • 1 medium onion, thinly sliced
  • 1/2 to 3/4 of a cup jarred sundried tomato Alfredo sauce (regular jarred Alfredo works too)
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced (or a couple of teaspoons of the jarred stuff)
  • 1/4 cup sundried tomatoes, chopped (the kind packed in oil preferably)
  • 2 cups shredded mozzarella (or pizza blend cheese).
  • 3 TBS grated parmesan

Procedure

  1. Start the onions first: Heat oil in a small skillet over medium heat and add the onions and a small sprinkle of salt, stirring well. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally until they reach your desired level of caramelization.
  2. While the onions cook, preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Lightly grease a sheet pan or pizza pan with non-stick spray.
  3. Dust your counter and a rolling pin with flour and roll out your pizza dough to fit your pan, then transfer it to the pan. Bake the pizza  dough for 11 minutes, then remove from oven.
  4. Spread the Alfredo sauce evenly over the pizza dough, starting with 1/4 cup at first and adding more as needed. The amount of sauce you will need will depend on the size of your pizza and your preferences. You want a nice even layer of sauce, but try not to drown it.
  5. Distribute the chicken, onions, garlic, and sundried tomatoes over the pizza. Top with mozzarella and parmesan and return it to the oven.
  6. Bake an additional 7-10 minutes until the cheese is melted and starts to brown a little in spots.
  7. Let pizza rest about 5 minutes before slicing and serving.

The Dirty Secrets–Pantry Meals, Cheap Meals, Canned Meals, and More for Tips for Your Quarantine Kitchen

Ok, I think we can all agree that food media and culture as a whole has changed in the past 20 years. We now have easy access to blogs, recipes, information, and research. Meanwhile, Michael Pollan and other researched-based advocates opened our eyes to the less-than-desirable aspects of processed foods and ingredients. We get to be seasoned foodies without ever having attended culinary school.

But the reality is that many people do not have the luxury to be selective about ingredients and methods, pandemic or not. They may live in food deserts with no access to fresh products (what would you do if the only store you could reach was Dollar General?), they may have inadequate funds, limited equipment, and lack the basics we take for granted, like reliable internet access for help.

When I first got married, I had recently birthed the Demon-Baby. My husband worked endless hours of overtime to keep us afloat, and I stretched our meager budget as far as it would go. And you know how I did that? Lots of processed products, canned products, protein stretching, and shortcuts. No shame in my game.

Those meals represented my efforts to provide us some semblance of “homecooked” meals, even if it was just a medley of frozen and canned ingredients hastily tossed together. Even before we got married, our college garage apartment produced many memorable bargain meals that we still recall with fondness: Bisquick cinnamon rolls and casseroles, sautéed chicken with Rice-a-Roni pasta, cheese omelets, and that time my husband and one of his best friends learned that splattering hot oil next to boiling liquid was a very, very, very bad idea.

As we all face uncertain weeks ahead, I thought I would dust off some of those meals and ideas. They are not really recipes per se, but ideas based on how I stretched our budget, made the most of processed foods, fresh food, and managed not to kill any of us.

  • Easy and Cheap Chicken Pot Pie: Stir together 2 cups cooked chicken (I often only used one chicken breast), 1 can cream of celery soup, 1 cup milk or half-and-half, 1 tsp. seasoned salt, 1/2 tsp. black pepper, 1 can drained peas, and 1 can drained corn. Using a box of refrigerated pie curst, line the bottom of pie plate with 1 roll of the crust. Pour in chicken mixture, top with the other roll of crust, crimping edges. Cut a hole or two in the top to vent. Bake at 400 F 35-40 minutes until top begins to brown. Rest 5-10 minutes before serving. (Or use any combo of canned veg you have).
  • Under $5 Corn Chowder: Stir together 1-1/2 cups milk or half-and-half with one can of cream-style corn into a saucepan over low heat. (The regular size can of corn, not the 7-oz baby size). Add 4 slices chopped ham from the deli (or 1/2 cup chopped diced and browned smoked sausage, or some cooked bacon), 1 can of sliced or diced potatoes, drained, 1 can whole kernel corn, drained, and salt and pepper to taste. Heat about 10-15 minutes, and stir in 1 cup grated cheddar until melted. Serve with bread or rolls if you can.
  • Chicken Squares: Combine 6-oz of room temperature cream cheese with 6-oz of room temperature margarine, 4 TBS milk, 2 chopped green onions and add 3/4 tsp. salt and 1/4 tsp. black pepper. Add 3 cups shredded cooked chicken, mixing well. Separate two tubes of crescent roll dough into eight squares (which is two of triangles still together for each). Press the perforated seam of each square together firmly to create a solid square of dough. Place a spoonful of the chicken mixture into the center of each square. Bring the dough corners to the center, pinching all the edges to seal. Bake at 350 F for 20-25 minutes until golden brown.
  • Pantry Spicy Tomato Soup and Grilled Cheese Sandwiches: For the soup, combine 3 cups Spicy V-8 juice, 1 can condensed tomato soup, 1 can condensed cheddar cheese soup, and 1 tsp. dried basil in a saucepan. Heat on medium, whisking occasionally until hot and combined. For the sandwiches: Combine one can of condensed nacho cheese soup with 1-1/2 cups fiesta blend shredded cheese. Spread a couple of TBS of cheese mix between two slices of bread, and brush outside of sandwiches with melted margarine or butter. Cook the sandwiches grilled cheese-style until golden. Slice on the diagonal and serve with the soup. *If you can get your hands on a baguette or sausage buns, make mini sandwiches for optimal dipping, which makes picky eaters happier. They like to dip stuff*
  • My Spaghetti Casserole was a staple and continues to be a go-to. I would serve it with frozen or canned green beans that I seasoned with what I had on hand. You can make garlic bread using the ends of a bread loaf or sandwish bread you need to use up. Brush bread with a couple of TBS of butter mixed with a 1/4 tsp. garlic powder and 1/2 tsp. dried parsley. Toast in the oven.
  • Chicken Fajita Chowder relies on mostly pantry-ready ingredients and you can reduce the chicken to stretch it further (the beans add plenty of protein). If you don’t have chips, cornbread is a good side, or even crackers.
  • You don’t get any more affordable than Salmon Croquettes. We would serve this with boxed mac and cheese and canned peas.
  • When I Was in a Bind: I often would throw together a couple of diced, cooked chicken breasts with sautéed diced onion and minced garlic, add a can of cream of celery soup, 2 TBS. lemon juice, 1 TBS Worcestershire sauce, 1/2 cup of milk, 1 tsp. seasoned salt and one 1 tsp. paprika. If I had any dried parsley or thyme, I added some. I’d simmer it for a bit and serve over wedges of cornbread.
  • Top Some Potatoes: Potatoes are affordable, and last if you store them properly. If you can bake potatoes, you can top them endlessly, like with shredded chicken or beef, BBQ sauce, and cheese (maybe chopped onion or even slaw for the adults). How about cooked chicken, broccoli, and cheese sauce (maybe with some bacon bits)? Cook frozen breaded chicken strips, dice them, toss with ranch dressing, top potatoes, and drizzle with hot sauce (and sprinkle of blue cheese if you can find it). Try potato tacos, with all the usual ground beef and taco fixings on top. Potatoes are the ultimate affordable canvas to stretch protein.

Other tips:

  • Bisquick and other pre-made mixes are often very cheap, and versatile for pantry cooking, especially if you are short on time. I’ve made many a casserole from on-hand cans and a mix.
  • Combo meals that combine proteins with starches and/or veggies allow you to stretch ingredients further. Think pot pies, Shephards Pie, casseroles, breakfast scrambles, hashes, stews, soups, etc. Eggs are the often least expensive per-serving protein there is.
  • Nearly anything can be transformed into hand pies/meat pies. If you need to clean out the fridge of leftovers, use refrigerated pie dough or frozen bread dough to create a “sweep the kitchen” hand pie night. Use leftover protein, starches, and vegetables, and convince your kids it’s like personal pizza night, but better. Same goes for grilled sandwiches/panini.
  • Ask yourself if what a recipe calls for is TRULY necessary. It may call for three cups of shredded chicken, but you could probably fake it with two. Out of fresh ginger? You could probably scrape by with a fraction of that amount of ginger powder. Will it be just like the recipe? No, obviously, but it could help you try and hit closer to the flavor profile than nothing at all. I frequently substitute fresh herbs with dried (decreasing the amount by half). Some skipping and substitutions can get you by, but remember, don’t be that butthole who goes onto a website and gives terrible recipe reviews after you do so. While being a pantry MacGyver can keep your family well-fed, it’s not fair to compare a hacked recipe to what the writer intended.
  • The good-looking chicken breasts in the refridgerated case are going to be the most expensive. For now, I’d go for the frozen bags (which are often smaller and less-than-neatly cut), or if you have the time, grab the cheap cuts like legs or leg quarters and cook and shred the meat for later.
  • When in doubt, trust dishes like Red Beans and Rice, Jambalaya, Stewed Chicken and Rice, Beef Tips, Meatloaf, etc. They are classics for a reason.

So, these are just some basics from the early days extreme budget eating that I hope inspire anyone struggling under quarantine frustration or scarcity. If you have questions about this post or how to stretch what you have, leave a comment, or if you prefer to ask a question privately, drop me an email (check my profile for the address).

Keep calm and drink on, my friends.

 

 

 

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.

Shoepeg Corn Salad–Cool Food for a Hot Day (And a Nearly Effortless Potluck Side Dish)

We had our family reunion last weekend, which is always such a fun and blessed time. We cooked, we laughed, we ate, we played games, and mostly, we continued the tradition of togetherness that my grandmother and her siblings created for us. It’s easy to get lost in the stress of the day-to-day, but when you come together with about 80 of your nearest and dearest, it’s a good reminder about remembering what’s important.

Anyway, I made a few dishes to contribute to the weekend, and this salad was a big hit. It’s a crisp, cool dish that is the perfect antidote to the hot summer days. It’s also an ideal contribution for potlucks. If you need a refreshing salad that is sure to help beat the heat, this is it!

Shoepeg Corn Salad

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Ingredients

  • 2 cans shoepeg corn, drained
  • 1 can English peas, drained (preferably Le Sueur brand)
  • 1 bunch green onions, chopped
  • 1 bell pepper, chopped
  • 1 cup chopped celery
  • 3/4 cup white vinegar
  • 1 TBS water
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. black pepper

Procedure

    1. In a large bowl, combine corn, peas, green onions, bell pepper, and celery, stirring gently to combine.
    2. In a small saucepan, combine vinegar, water, oil, sugar, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, and remove the mixture from heat as soon as it begins to boil. Let cool.
    3. Pour vinegar mixture over corn mixture, stirring to combine. Refrigerate at least 6 hours, better if overnight.

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.