Making Changes – Cooking at Home

My mother volunteered me to write a post about the benefits of cooking at home, and I admit, I feel like a bit of a fraud writing it. Mostly because I live with two devils (my husband and 10 year old son) who are infamous for such lines as, “Oh, let’s just order something” or, “I want Zia Taqueria!” To which my instant and mouthwatering mental response is, “Well crap, now I want a fish taco and nothing else will ever make me as happy as that fish taco and dear God in heaven turn the car around and drive to Zia or I will kill you all right now.” *Sigh* Thank goodness I have my (almost) 2 year old son to balance the other two’s unending temptation-filled mutterings by his sheer power to ruin any seated meal, let alone one had out in public. Dining out with Augustine? It just should not be done.
Augustine ~ 7 months old.

All that being said, I guess I should be proud that we eat at home roughly 6 nights per week. Eating at home entails consuming food prepared here, not just bringing Five Guys burgers and fries home and eating them at the dinner table, with or without actual dinnerware. Except for about four weeks last month when I was in the throes of first trimester nausea/exhaustion/crying misery. But we won’t count that, right? 

Could be a fetus, could be the fruits of too much Five Guys.
Things that I find make us drastically less likely to order a last minute pizza or something else I’ll regret are budgeting, menu planning, freezer cooking, and my pressure cooker. Budgeting keeps me aware and accountable to how much we spend on groceries vs. eating out. When I know takeout will cost us $35 and how many meals I could feed us on that same amount, takeout just doesn’t taste as good. Menu planning in advance allows me to have ingredients on hand, thus eliminating one excuse for not cooking. Freezer cooking gives me access to a freezer full of either ready-made meals, or things I can just throw in the oven while I sit on the couch and obsess about how much harder pregnancy is at 34 than it was at 23. Finally, my pressure cooker prevents us eating takeout due to not having enough time to bake/roast/boil (insert something obnoxiously time consuming here; i.e. boil brown rice).

   

Having a ready stock of easily prepared sides is also helpful. Sweet potatoes sitting on the kitchen counter in my fruit and vegetable rack, staring at me condescendingly day after day is usually sufficient for me to declare, “That’s it, you guys are going in the pressure cooker for 20 minutes…now let me fish something out of the freezer to eat with you.” Costco has a great selection of frozen vegetables (many organic), which are a simple and healthy side to any main dish. One of our favorites is stir fry veggies, which we saute tossed in garlic, sesame oil, and soy sauce.
As you can probably infer from all of this, dining at home is an active struggle and something we tackle on a daily basis. But most days I win, and to reward myself we budget and meal plan with one day per week allotted to eating out. Really, the whole thing is absurd because more often than not my husband and I look at each other across the dinner table and agree that no restaurant can compare to my mother’s spaghetti sauce recipe, my meatloaf, or his Jalapeno Cilantro chicken (recipe coming soon!). And then Augustine screams and pegs one of us with his food-laden fork like a javelin from 6 feet away, Ayden starts gagging on an imaginary piece of chicken gristle, and we know that the four of us should not be allowed to dine in public anyway.

We are open to renting him out to food addicts as aversion therapy.

I am including some other links to previous posts that are also relevant and most of them also have recipes.  I apologize for having all the links, but it helps to keep the post from getting too long and rambling.
Check back on Friday for the last post in our series – “Making Changes – Choosing Healthy Food”.
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Stuffed Bell Peppers

This is a family favorite and I am happy to say a (somewhat) toddler approved meal. I started making this at least five years ago, and have lost the original recipe. Regardless, I’ve made many changes over the years. The current version has to be the most satisfying, and its very busy-mom/OAMC/freezer friendly!
When I first started making this recipe, I cut the bell peppers length wise, and made little boats. I baked them in a casserole dish. Later I begun doubling our recipe, and freezing a second tray. More recently I discovered that it was possible to make these in the crock pot! Not only does this require significantly less active cooking time, it requires quite a bit less prep. The recipe below makes approximately 10 peppers. I cooked 5 the other day (enough for dinner and left overs) and then froze the remaining peppers. As they are individually freezable, you can choose how many you want to freeze and/or cook in the future. Lastly, I included some suggestions, these are quite customizable to your taste.

Taco Stuffed Bell Peppers

Ingredients
  • 1 lb ground beef (or ground turkey)
  • 1 med onion, chopped
  • 1 can black beans*
  • 1 can pinto beans*
  • 2 packages taco seasoning**
  • 1/2 cup water (per taco seasoning directions)
  • 10 bell peppers
  • 1/2 cup salsa (or Rotel)
  • 1 block cream cheese
  • 1 cup shredded Mexican/taco cheese
Optional ingredients & toppings
  • additional shredded Mexican/taco cheese
  • sour cream
  • hot sauce
  • crushed tortilla chips
  • Jalapenos
*You can substitute cooked dry beans, I just didn’t know how to make them until recently. Check out Mary’s post for more info. 

**I purchase this ingredient in bulk at Costco. I know some people make their own. (Another project for the future!). Use enough seasoning for 2-2.5 lbs worth of meat.

Directions:

  1. Drain and rinse beans. Set aside.
  2. Brown the ground beef.
  3. Add onions, beans, taco seasoning, and water to the pan.
  4. Cover and simmer, stirring occasionally until onions begin to soften (approx 5 minutes)
  5. This is a good time to cut the tops off the bell peppers, and clean out the seeds/insides. Set aside for later.
  6. Stir in 1/4 C salsa or Rotel
  7. Add in cream cheese – I slice mine up into chunks to make it easier to blend
  8. Stir in 1/4 to 1/2 cup shredded cheese based on your preferences
  9. Remove from heat and allow to cool.
  10. Scoop the mixture into the bell peppers. Top with shredded cheese
To Freeze: Place peppers upright on a pan or plate. Freeze over night. Wrap individually or put in bag or container.
To Cook (in slow cooker) Place peppers in slow cooker with 1/4 C salsa + 1/4 C water. Cook on low for 4 to 6 hours. You can also use taco sauce in the slow cooker instead of salsa and water.
To cook (in oven): This requires an additional step. Before stuffing, boil bell peppers for approximately 5 minutes to soften and start the cooking process. Then follow the steps listed above. When complete, cover the bottom of a casserole dish with salsa, or taco sauce, place peppers and bake covered for 20 minutes at 350. When cooking this way, I slice the tops of the peppers, then length wise to make boats, so a cover can fit on my dish. You can fit 4 upright peppers in a square casserole dish, or 4 pepper boats (2 whole peppers). They could be frozen this way as well. 
To Serve: Eat each pepper as is or topped with crushed tortilla chips, hot sauce, jalapenos, or whatever other topping you may enjoy.  

Variations & notes: 
  • While it was not part of the first recipe I used, many versions of this include cooked rice. I’ve never made it with rice, but you could add it. In addition to onions, you can add bell pepper (I was left with an entire bowl of diced bell pepper from the tops), mushrooms, or other veggies (like corn).
  • We used salsa since my toddler cannot eat spicy foods, but prior we usually used Rotel. I’d probably add some chipotle peppers in adobo if we could eat spicy now. 
  • I like this combo of beans and meat, but you could double the meat, or use only one type of beans, or do all beans or beans and rice for a vegetarian version. I’ve never tried it, but I bet this would taste good with chicken or pork also. 
  • I’ve seen versions of this made with raw meat. As 6 hours on low in a slow cooker is more than enough time to cook raw ground beef, this would cut way down on prep time, but I’m not sure how mixing all the ingredients (spices) together raw would work. 
  • Finally, we’ve used pretty much this same filling with some additional taco sauce to make taco stuffed pasta shells…. another recipe which is delicious as well as easily prepared and frozen. 

OAMC Session #2- Cinnamon Sweet Potatoes, Wings, Fried Rice, and Fried Chicken

MaryP and I undertook our second Once A Month Cooking (OAMC) session this week, and chose my friend BethAnne from our waiting list of people who would like to join us. Her heartfelt pleading and willingness to drive 30+ minutes to join us the next evening after she got off work won me over in the end. Since my mom and I have easy access to Costco, we bought all the ingredients and just asked that BethAnne bring a large cutting board, good knife, and her own freezer bags. She has a REALLY nice knife, by the way, which is good because we soon learned that she should not be left unattended with a food processor. BethAnne only cooks for herself and her teenage son most nights, but opted to package her meals to feed a family of four, since they often have company and also enjoy leftovers. We made seven servings of the following: Fried Mustardy Chicken, Cinnamon Sweet Potato Bites, Chinese Wing Marinade, and Cauliflower Fried Rice. The cost per meal came to $4.85 (for 4 servings).

3 hrs = 35 individual meals + 9 side dishes

 Fried Mustardy Chicken

Maybe a weird family name for this dish, but my mother has been making it since I was a child and it never ceases to please. I don’t even particularly like mustard, but it adds a tangy flavor to this chicken that cannot be missed. We used pounded chicken thighs for this dish, despite a little reluctance from my mother to use anything but breasts. Personally, I find breast meat boring, dry, and expensive. They came out DELICIOUS. For lack of any good sales, we bought the frozen bags of chicken thighs from Costco, which came to $2.19/lb. The benefit of using this meat is that each piece barely needed pounding, which is a plus when you’re doing two whole Costco-sized bags!
When we first started experimenting with eating mostly Paleo, we discovered the versatility and joy the sweet potato provides. You can only eat them baked or as fries so many times, though. This is one of our favorite ways to eat them, but I abhor the peeling and chopping. Therefore my sweet potatoes often have a glorious and thriving afterlife in the back of my veggie rack, complete with purple sprouted arms reaching for the heavens in potato ecstasy. Having knife-happy guests over seemed like a perfect solution, especially when the three of us decimated 13 lbs of raw sweet potatoes in under 10 minutes, laughing and talking the whole time. This dish is obviously also vegetarian/vegan friendly, which is something we have been getting many requests for.

Beautiful BethAnne posing with her potato bounty.
We each bagged up our desired amount of roughly chopped sweet potato, and added a dollop of coconut oil, a hefty sprinkle of cinnamon, and a dash of salt, then shook the living daylights out of our bags before freezing. 
Sweet Potato, Cinnamon, Coconut Oil, Salt


Chinese Wing Marinade

I first saw this recipe on Food Network, and when Andrew Zimmermen mentioned the words “ancient Chinese recipe” I was sold. He spent almost 20 years trying to perfect this recipe, and swears that all ingredients must be precisely measured for the proper flavor. I’ll admit, it was a rather pricey undertaking the first time I made it, with a lot of time spent scouring our local Asian market (did you know you can purchase fresh pork uterus there?!). But many of the ingredients such as the chilis and star anise were practically a one-time investment for many batches of marinade. Sake is by far the most expensive ingredient, but can be purchased for $0.01 per mL. The flavor of this dish is unlike anything I have ever tasted, and completely worth the hassle. We put our marinade ingredients in gallon bags to be frozen, so that wings can be added later and allowed to marinate. I like to let mine sit for 24 hours after adding the wings, shaking and turning often. (You can also add the wings before freezing.) We just pour the wings and marinade onto a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper and bake at 400 for 45 minutes, turning once. A word to the wise: do not attempt to eat the baked ginger slice, no matter how brown, gooey, and delicious it appears (ask me how I know). *full body shiver*

Even yummier than it is pretty.

Wings marinating and ready to cook.


Cauliflower Fried Rice

I swear you don’t miss the rice.

We love fried rice, and when I saw this recipe on one of my favorite sites, The Recipe Critic, I knew I had to try it adapted with cauliflower rice so we could eat it guilt-free. I get a lot of raised eyebrows when I go on and on (and on) about cauliflower rice, but 100% of people who have sampled my lunch at work (more than you would believe) are astounded at how delicious it is. I practically have to growl and eat hunched over my food to keep the vultures away, nurses are a curious and hungry lot. We used frozen organic mixed vegetables from Costco, and doubled the amount called for. We substituted a head of cauliflower (about 2 lbs) for the rice required in this recipe, and found that Costco had the best deal for 2.2 lbs of pre-cut (swoon!) cauliflower for only $3.79. With no swearing or cauliflower-destruction mess involved. You simply pulse the cauliflower florets 2-4 times in a food processor (or use a grater) until it is the size of grains of rice, and voila! Since these will be frozen and therefore will be soft when reheated, there is no need to cook. We also added chopped Costco rotisserie chicken and crumbled cooked bacon, because what isn’t better with bacon? Packaging this meal was a breeze, we simply added each ingredient as we prepared it, which made for a beautifully layered finished product. To prepare, one must simply defrost and heat in a large frying pan (we chose to add the soy sauce then). 

Cauliflower Fried Rice w/Chicken & Bacon

Cauliflower rice is great to have on hand for easy meal pairing.

We are working on getting all of our recipes added into the recipe page.  Please bear with us.

OAMC & Freezer Cooking

We have put out a few posts referring to bulk cooking and stocking up your freezer. Kayte & Mary even had their own freezer session. I have been doing some form of this type of cooking for the better part of 4 years. Sometimes I feel it’s the only reason I get a hot meal on the table for dinner. Having a stocked freezer is also helpful when you’re meal planning.  By planning ahead, you don’t have to make so many trips to the grocery store (save time, $$$, and gas) and you can take the time to buy items when they are on sale, and take advantage of opportunities to save money by buying bulk.
Currently I’m working on getting together all my food for this month, a bit for next month and stocking up for when the baby comes. On top of this, I don’t want to stray too far off budget. We use freezer meals two to four times a week. Other meals are left over, new recipes, something we are craving, or occasionally eating out or fast food.  

My freezer from bottom to top (Left to Right): (1) egg crate of slow cooker meals, (2) two baskets, one with raw meat, 
and salmon, the other with meatballs and soup, (3) Popsicle, biscuits, veggies, chicken stock, and 
(4) baskets of frozen veggies!
While working on my current shopping list, it struck me that there’s plenty of ways out there to get this done. Generally speaking, all of these methods fall under the title OAMC (once-a-month-cooking) or freezer meals, but there are certainly different ways to go about making this happen. Honestly, first and foremost you have to choose the way that works best for you and your family. For us, it’s a little bit of everything. 
The first method is really a way of easing yourself into it. Planning on making spaghetti for dinner with your own homemade/meat sauce? Make two. For most recipes, the actual time it takes to double a recipe is only marginally more than a single recipe. Sauce freezes great, particularly flat in a Ziploc bag. My favorite sauce takes a good 30 to 45 minutes to make from prep to finish. I can pull a bag out of the freezer, defrost over night, or in water for a few minutes (just long enough to un-stick from the bag), then put into a pot on the stove, and by the time the spaghetti is done, it’s ready to go. This process works great for sauces, pasta dishes, and marinades. I recently used this method for chicken enchilada pasta, and Rio chicken.  
Enchiladas made with Rio Chicken. Pre-“Flash-Freeze”, and bagged for freezer
For marinades, I just make a double batch and freeze the meat with the marinade (it marinates while it defrosts) and then cook like normal – grill, bake, slow cooker, or pressure cooker. This brings me to one of my favorite methods: dump meals. A friend of mine and I did a giant cooking session, all dump meals. No cooking required. Throw ingredients and spices in the bag and freeze. Dump the defrosted ingredients in your crock-pot, and go.  You can adopt most slow cooker meals to this method. If you have a favorite, buy the ingredients, or buy double, bag and label for the future. 
Crazy Meal Prep: 20 “Dump” Meals for Each person. Look at all that meat!

Finally, there is full-blown once a month cooking (OAMC). This involves extensive shopping and a full blown game plan. Ideally, you make enough meals for the entire month, this type may or may not involve repeats, and the meals may or may not be fully cooked. It all depends on what you want in your fridge. This method is great, if you’ve got time, enough kitchen space, and perhaps a toddler-free environment. It does require pretty extensive planning, as far as ingredients, and order of prep and such to make it work. I’ve always thought it’d be a really great choice, if you had a few friends who you wanted to work with and split up meals. You can also do “mini sessions”, cooking a few meals at once, or perhaps all your meals that involve ground beef. Mini sessions are especially ideal, if you are watching sales, and a particular ingredient goes on sale (like meat).
Don’t forget to keep track of whats in your freezer

My current game plan involves a bit of all these methods. Last weekend, I found chicken breast on sale for less than $2/lb (stock up price!). I purchased two packs, for 8 lbs total. I turned 4 lbs of chicken into Rio Chicken. I split the chicken into 2 bags of cooked chicken (1 lb each), and a tray of enchiladas, and then ate some for dinner. It was the bomb! I cooked the remaining chicken, saving a pound to have in the fridge for my son’s meals this week, and the remainder went to a double batch of Chicken Enchilada Pasta.This fed us for dinner, with enough left overs for another meal, and two trays of pasta for the freezer. The grocery store also had frozen veggies on sale, so I picked up a crazy amount (20+ bags/boxes). Keep an eye out for a post on how awesome frozen veggies are!
Buying on sale in bulk, allowed me to save a lot of money, and time!