Monday, March 28, 2011

Menu Plan Monday: March 28

Our schedule has been different the last month or so, and that, combined with spring break two weeks ago, has totally messed up my regular menu planning routine. With the higher cost of gasoline, and my interest in a knitting group at church, our new errand day is now Wednesday. That means grocery shopping on Wednesday instead of Friday. That means I need to plan my menu differently. That also means that I need to reset my mental organizer so I can actually plan a menu and grocery shop more efficiently than I have been doing the last few weeks. :oP

I did make two new things last week: a frittata with sausage, onions, and peppers on Wednesday and homemade pasta sauce on Friday. Both were big hits! And both are from a wonderful library book I'm reading: How to Cook Without a Book. The basic idea is to learn a few techniques and vary them to cook a wide range of gourmet (or basic) foods - without having to rely on cookbooks, recipe cards, etc. It's a great reference book, so I'm considering ordering it for my own personal library.

The frittata will be a new fall/winter dish since it's baked in the oven. What I love about this is the wide variety of fillings to choose from. I can use whatever is on hand, or I can plan for something a little more extravagant - like the bacon, spinach, and feta I'm dying to try.

The homemade pasta sauce will be a year-round staple. Billy loved it (said it was the best he's ever had) and nearly begged to have it again really soon. (Love that he loves it!!) It's something else that I can vary with ingredients on hand. My favorite part is that a 28-oz. can of crushed tomatoes only costs 25 cents (from ALDI), as opposed to a jar of Prego for $2 or so. I always doctor what's in the jar anyway, so making my own sauce took the same amount of effort and time - but saved me soooo much money in the long run. (Well, about $1.75, but it adds up!) I can make the sauce with meat or mushrooms, add whatever veggies I want, season it differently for different uses (spaghetti, lasagna, or pizza), etc. (We like our sauce a little on the sweet side, but since I add sweet Italian sausage to my lasagna, it doesn't need to be as sweet. Pizza sauce can be plainer since most of the flavor comes from the toppings.)

Here is the plan for this week: (New recipes are in italics.)

BBQ chicken tenders
Smoky Potato Pancakes (modified, from the Jan/Feb issue of Cooking Light magazine)
green beans

baked potatoes with the works
green salad

scrambled eggs

grilled pork chops
Butternut Squash Risotto (from a box...)
green salad

Camp food! Billy will be taking the boys to a Dads & Dudes camp out at a local Christian camp/ranch, and I'll be joining the seminary wives for part of a weekend retreat in the opposite direction.

??? I know I'll be too tired to cook and clean up. We'll either have sandwiches or order pizza or Chinese take-out.

AWANA Pizza Party

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Monday, March 21, 2011

March 2011 Book List

5. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Married, but with an absent husband, Hester Prynne finds passion with another man, resulting in the birth of a baby girl, Pearl. Shortly after Pearl's birth, Hester stands in front of the townspeople, with a bold letter A embroidered on her bodice to shame her for her part in adultery. As she looks out at the crowd, she sees her husband. He meets with her later in the prison and tells her he's changed his name and won't interfere with her life anymore. However he is curious and makes it his mission to discover the man she refuses to name as her lover. For seven long years, Hester, always wearing her scarlet letter, and Pearl are ostracized. Her husband has discovered the secret offender, and he secretly torments him. Finally Hester realizes what's going on and vows to put an end to things, but they don't turn out the way she planned.

This book was easier to read than Emma (from January), but it was still difficult because of the language. I found myself mentally summarizing what each chapter was about, based on a technique I read about several years ago in The Well-Educated Mind. Of course, since the chapters had titles instead of just numbers, it was easier to recall what happened in each one.

I enjoyed this book and often found it hard to put down. Earlier I saw a recent novel exploring a current author's creation of Hester's earlier life. I might see if I can find it again and add it to my ever-growing stack of books.

6. Wally's World: Life With Wally the Wonder Dog by Marsha Boulton

Yes, another animal book. I'm a sucker for a good animal story, and this one was superb. The start was a little slow, with the author going into detail about all the dogs she had previously owned, from childhood until she got Wally. I kept wondering if she'd ever get to him. Once she did, though, the story flowed beautifully. Wally led quite a life, full of love, play, and pain. From his experiences living on a farm to staying in 4-star hotels, and everything in between, Wally's world was fun. He made sure of it.

While I do rate this book highly, I was able to put it down for days at a time to do or read something else, especially in the beginning. But I always came back to it because I wanted to know what Wally was up to next - and there was always something to laugh about.

7. Quesadillas by Donna Kelly

Yes, I read a cookbook. Actually I peruse cookbooks frequently, but this is one I actually read from cover to cover.

I make quesadillas often, but they're usually the same: black beans with corn and a few other varying ingredients, based on what I have on hand. This book inspired me to put all sorts of things between flour tortillas and "glue" them together with various cheeses. Then there was the dessert section... YUM!

While it's not a cookbook I feel I need to have on my shelf, it did serve as a springboard for all sorts of creative ideas. I made BBQ chicken quesadillas, and BLT quesadillas are not far away. I really want to try a few of the dessert ones, too, but I feel like I need to justify eating them. I'm trying to watch my fat and sugar intake (again!), and tasty desserts aren't conducive to success in that area...

Thursday, March 10, 2011

My Cheesecake Blunder

I love cheesecake and have always wanted to learn to make one. Last Thanksgiving, among the many desserts were a cheesecake and a sweet potato pie. I couldn't choose one or the other, so I put a thin slice of each on my plate. And I ate them together. What a smooth blend of flavors! I immediately wanted to make my own sweet potato cheesecake.

Obstacle number one was easily overcome. Billy's mom had a springform pan that she never used, so she gave it to me.

Obstacle number two was easily overcome after a little thought. With two Christmas parties coming up, which one would I make the sweet potato cheesecake for? When the clipboard for the Sunday school class party was passed around the next week, I saw several people had already signed up for desserts. That worked perfectly, because I could sign up for something else and save my cheesecake for a smaller group of guinea pigs friends - my home team.

I scoured the internet looking for recipes for sweet potato cheesecakes. I read reviews. I studied the directions on the ones that sounded scrumptious. I finally chose the one for me. I found all the ingredients I needed at my friendly "neighborhood" ALDI store (20 minutes away, since there's not one in my little part of the pasture). I was ready!

The day arrived. I started that morning cooking my sweet potatoes, crushing cookies for my crust, and rereading the directions several times to be sure I didn't mess anything up. Oh, and I did plenty of sampling the mixture to make sure the taste was going to be good.

I'm glad I started in the morning, because it was an all-day affair. The prep work, the cleaning, the baking, the cleaning, the chilling, the cleaning. Oh, and the cleaning! I messed up soooo many dishes and utensils! I'm typically a neat cook, and this was nowhere near my norm.

Finally, about two hours before time to leave for our party, I put the caramelized pecan topping on my beautiful masterpiece and put it in the refrigerator to chill. Just before time to leave, I gently set it on the base of my cake carrier and sprung the pan. It was standing! The topping was still a little oozy, dribbling slightly down the sides, but it was beautiful.

I carefully balanced my work of art on my lap as we made our way through heavy holiday traffic. When we got to the church, I took it inside and took the lid off to check it once more before I put it in the refrigerator to chill a little more. I was so excited about how beautifully gourmet it looked. I only gave it about 20 minutes in the 'fridge before I just had to set it out on the dessert table and bedazzle everyone who saw it.

After a time of chatting and eating our meal, it was dessert time. Time to cut the (cheese)cake. I made the first cut and it wiggled a little. Hmmmm... I made the second cut and slid out the first slice. It fell. Another slice out. The center of the whole cheesecake fell. My heart fell. My face fell. I hoped and prayed it wasn't still "raw" in the middle.

Everyone raved about the flavor, which really was good. Still, the texture left a lot to be desired. I worried that someone - everyone - would get sick from the eggs that possibly hadn't thoroughly cooked. I made sure I ate plenty so I would suffer right along with the others.

When we got home with about half the cheesecake left drooping all over the place, I couldn't bear to throw it out. I had worked so hard and had such high hopes that my first cheesecake would be perfect and talked about for years to come. (Well, the second part is most likely true, though not for reasons I like...) I made room for it in the refrigerator with the intention of taking care of it the next day.

After Sunday lunch, I took the cheesecake out, curious about what might have happened to it overnight. It looked firm, like a cheesecake should be. It looked really tasty, regardless of the mess it had made all over the plate. I braved a bite. Wow! It was delicious! The texture was perfect, and the flavors had time to blend together better. What a difference a longer refrigeration time had made! I was belatedly impressed - as well as encouraged to attempt another cheesecake (which I haven't done yet...).

As I thought back over the last few days, I grabbed my recipe and read over it again. Had I missed instructions about refrigeration times? Did it say that I should've made the cheesecake a day earlier? Nope. Nothing of the sort. Why not? Why take for granted that anyone who's making a cheesecake - especially a first-timer! - should know those things?

I decided to check my local library and see if I could find any sort of cheesecake guide book. I happened upon The Ultimate Cheesecake Cookbook by Joey Reynolds and Myra Chanin, which looked promising. Once I got home with it, I put it on my library book shelf, where it sat a few weeks until today. I found that very bit of advice in "Chapter 4: Twenty-Three Tips for Making Perfectly Baked Cheesecakes Every Time". It's under the bold heading "5. Never Bake Cheesecakes at the Last Minute". It goes on to say that they should be baked about two days early and "allowed to mellow before serving".

I wonder what other wonderfully necessary tips I'll learn as I keep reading... Then I plan to make another cheesecake. I just need to pick my occasion.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Menu Plan Monday: February 28

Yes, I know. I'm a day late. Again.

I hard the hardest time planning my menu for this week. Uninspired? Not so much as a mental block that suddenly lifted overnight. I made a quick trip to Brookshire's today to pick up a few sale items, and now I have something for the week, including a new recipe to try.

Well... I was going to make Shrimp Alfredo with Broccoli and Mushrooms and Caesar Salad. But... I thawed out chicken instead of the shrimp. Instead of going ahead with Chicken Alfredo, I decided to hold off and do something totally different.

I stir-fried the chicken with some olive oil and some Asian seasoning, then I tossed in some sliced onion, carrot matchsticks, broccoli florets, and fresh mushrooms. After those had cooked a little, I added some teriyaki sesame sauce I had bought at ALDI during their Asian food week. I served it over some leftover steamed rice from our fried rice a few nights earlier. It was a hit!

hot dogs
mac & cheese
It was National Pancake Day at IHOP, and I took the boys for brunch. Not only was that my breakfast and my lunch, but it's most likely going to be my supper, too! Well, I'll probably eat some granola and yogurt... The boys will be hungry, though.

Shrimp Alfredo with Broccoli
Caesar Salad
Italian Herb Bread
Yeah, the mushrooms are gone now...

Chipotle Pork Chops
Fried Cabbage and Onions
Today was the last day of Brookshire's sale on the family pack of pork chops. Now we're good to go for three meals!

leftover buffet

sandwiches (Home Team night)

sandwiches (AWANA)

For more menu plan ideas, check out I'm an Organizing Junkie.