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Friday, January 23, 2009

Yogurt and Cake Mix Bar Cookies

Way back in the 80s, one of the winners of the Pillsbury Bake-off was a Sour Cream and Raisins bar cookie. I don't think I have ever made the "real" recipe, but I started modifying it and have come up with a whole set of variations that are different enough that I can really call this recipe my own. The speed at which this can be made and the variations that allow you to take advantage of whatever you can get on special really do make this a frugal, fast, and fun recipe.

Yogurt Cookie Bars
A really fast dessert with lots of variations possible

1/2 package standard size cake mix, any brand, any flavor (see NOTE)
1/3 c melted butter
1 1/2 c yogurt, plain or flavored
2 large or extra large eggs
1/2 c sugar--if using flavored yogurt, reduce the sugar to 1/4 cup

Optional ingredients

* 1/2 c raisins or dried cranberries
* 1/2 to 1 c chopped dried apricots
* 1/2 c nuts--sliced almonds, chopped walnuts or pecans
* 1/2 t vanilla or almond extract
* grated rind of one lemon or one orange
* 1 c frozen raspberries, blueberries or chopped strawberries or peaches, only slightly thawed; if the fruit is quite juicy, either drain the juice or reduce the amount of yogurt by a tablespoon or so
* 1 c chocolate chips

Preheat the oven at 350 degrees. Cut the butter in chunks and put into a 9 X 13 pan. Put the pan in the oven as it is preheating to melt the butter. When the butter is melted, pour over the dry cake mix and stir until the mixture is evenly crumbly. Return to the pan and press firmly and evenly across the bottom.

Mix together the yogurt, eggs, sugar, and any optional ingredients being used. Stir until well blended and pour over crust. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes, until mixture is just set in the middle.

NOTE: The original recipe used a full package of cake mix, but we prefer the thinner crust only half the mix makes. Most brands seem to measure out to around 4 cups, so I either measure out two cups or just eyeball the two halves, trying to make them as even as possible. After I have divided the dry mix, I put the half not used in a zippered plastic bag or glass jar, add a post-a-note to identify it, and store it in the cupboard or refrigerator.

Some of our favorite combinations over the years:

With yellow or white cake mix:

* lemon or plain yogurt, almond flavoring, and dried apricots and almonds
* lemon, plain or vanilla yogurt with vanilla extract and raisins (or dried cranberries) and walnuts
* any fruit flavored yogurt with the same kind of fruit stirred in

With chocolate cake mix:

* plain or vanilla yogurt with vanilla extract, nuts, chocolate chips, and raisins
* raspberry yogurt with frozen raspberries and slivered almonds (I usually sprinkle these over the top instead of stirring them in)
* vanilla yogurt, chocolate chips, and chopped walnuts or pecans
* vanilla yogurt, almond extract and lots of slivered almonds

Monday, January 19, 2009

Broccoli Soup and Poor Man's Garlic Toast

After writing about all the uses of broccoli stems, it seemed like a good idea to make some broccoli soup. The cold weather we've been having is perfect for soup, and I had everything I needed to make a large pot of it. Alongside, I made "Poor Man's Garlic Toast" from the ends of ten loaves of bread; last night I helped make grilled cheese sandwiches for about 60 to 70 people and had all the leftover ends to use up.

Broccoli Soup
1 T (or less) peanut or canola oil
1 large onion, chopped (about 9 oz)
1 large rib celery, chopped (about 3 oz)
1/3 c chicken broth (optional)
1 medium potato (about 5 oz)
1 packet chicken seasoning OR 1 or 2 bouillon cubes
1/2 T chopped garlic (I used the bottled kind today, but fresh is always good)
1 1/2 t mixed herbs (see NOTE)
1 T Worcestershire sauce
1 1/2 t salt
1/2 t black pepper (or less)
1 pound broccoli stems, diced (about 4 cups)
2 c instant nonfat dry milk powder
7 oz broccoli crowns, cut in small flowerets (about 2 to 3 cups)

Saute onion and celery in oil until just translucent, about 5 minutes. Add broth, 2 cups of water, the potato, garlic, and seasonings. Cook on medium high heat about 10 minutes and stir in the chopped broccoli stems and 4 to 5 more cups of water. Taste for seasoning and turn heat to medium low. Allow to simmer for up to an hour, until broccoli is very tender. Stir dry milk powder into 2 more cups of water and add to soup. Remove soup from heat and allow to cool slightly.

While soup is cooling, prepare flowerets by cutting into small (less than an inch) pieces. Place in a microwave-safe bowl with 1 -2 tablespoons water, cover and steam in microwave for 2 to 3 minutes, until just barely tender.

When soup has cooled a little, place in processor or blender in small batches and process until quite smooth. Return to pan and return to a low simmer. Stir in broccoli flowerets and water from steaming, and cook for another 5 minutes or so, until the soup is heated through.

Serve with grated cheddar cheese and freshly grated pepper if desired. This makes enough for 6 to 8 people, depending on how often they want to refill their bowls.

NOTE: I make my own mixed herb seasoning to use in many soups, casseroles, and stir fries. I combine 1 T rosemary, 1 T thyme, 1 1/2 T basil and 2 t marjoram (all dried ) in a mortar and pestle and mix thoroughly. I transfer this to a shaker bottle for storing. If you don't want to go to the trouble of doing this ahead of time, just crush a pinch of each of these herbs (or your own favorite blend) between your fingers and add to the soup.

Poor Man's Garlic Toast
1/4 c butter
1/4 c olive oil
3 to 4 cloves garlic, crushed
salt (optional)
Melt butter in microwave and stir in olive oil. Add garlic and salt. This is best is made ahead so that it cools to a nice spreading consistency and the garlic has time to permeate the entire mixture.

Use the ends--heels--of any kind of bread, leftover hot dog or hamburger buns, or whatever bread you have that may be getting a little stale. Spread one side of each piece liberally with the slightly solidified butter-oil mixture. If using bread slices, cut in quarters for square little cracker-like servings.

After spreading, put the bread on a baking sheet and bake in a 350 to 375 degree oven until the bread is crispy and golden. Serve immediately, with soup, spaghetti, or any place you would use the more traditional garlic bread.

Extra spread stores well in the refrigerator, so make a larger batch and keep it on hand.

Between the leftover broccoli stems and the bread ends that would have otherwise been thrown away, this meal seemed like almost free food. By using these low cost ingredients, I was able to justify the cost of the butter. (I could also justify the calorie/fat cost too, since the soup is quite low fat if served without cheese and with water substituted for the broth.)

The Rest of the Broccoli

Our family has always liked the crunchy texture and flavor of the broccoli stems about as much as the more popular crowns, so I almost always buy the entire stalks. The full broccoli stalks are usually quite a bit cheaper too, but not if you are going to throw half your purchase away.

Right now, a local store has large bunches (averaging up to 3 pounds) of broccoli for $1.48 while the crowns are selling for $2.99 a pound; that's a lot of incentive for a frugal cook to find ways to use the whole thing. But what to do with all those pesky stems? Here are some of the things you might consider:

  • Slice horizontally into circles and use in stir fry instead of water chestnuts
  • Grate and use in place of cabbage for a wonderful broccoli slaw
  • Make cream of broccoli soup
  • Cut into sticks—peeling if the outside is very fibrous—and use to add interest to a fresh vegetable tray
  • Cut into sticks and deep fry as you would zucchini sticks

Of course, there is still the old standard, preparing the whole thing like the same as just the crowns. Many people steam the uncut stalks and serve them on a platter, with perhaps a little lemon butter or other sauce on the side. While that makes for a very attractive presentation, it often means that either the tops are overcooked and mushy or the stems are still so hard, diners will just leave the woody pieces on their plates. Here's my suggestion for avoiding these problems:
  • Prepare the broccoli by cutting the stems into bite-sized pieces and cutting the crowns into flowerets the size you want for serving. Steam the stems in the microwave about 1 to 2 minutes before adding the broccoli crown pieces. Cook for another 2 minutes, or until all broccoli is just done. Serve as usual for just the crowns.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Making Pizza with the Grandchildren, a New Pizza Stone, and the Last Garden Tomatoes

After years of reading about the wonders of a "pizza stone," I finally picked one up in an after Christmas sale and we tried it out last night, we being my two grandsons, ages 4 and 2 1/2, and me.

I did some exploring to find more information about using and caring for a pizza stone (my "kit" included lots of utensils but absolutely no instructions) and came up with lots of crust suggestions along with some wonderful sounding bread recipes that I'll be trying later in the week. The crust we ended up with was basic and not as healthy as I might have liked since I had just finished the last of my whole wheat flour and had only unbleached to work with. The following recipe was just enough for two 12 to 14 inch pizzas.

Quick and easy pizza crust

2 t dry yeast
1/4 c warm water
4 t sugar
2 T canola oil
1 t salt
3/4 c cool water
3 c unbleached white flour
2 T gluten (may not need if you have bread flour instead of regular unbleached)
cornmeal (see NOTE)

Stir yeast into warm water and add sugar. Set aside for 5 to 10 minutes until it is rising and foamy. Meanwhile, combine oil, salt, cool water, gluten, and half the flour. Stir in the yeast mixture and add the remaining flour. Beat and then turn out on a lightly floured surface and knead until a smooth ball is formed. Brush lightly with a little oil or soft butter so surface is completely covered. Put a towel over the bowl and set the dough aside in a warm place for an hour or so, until doubled.

When you are ready to start making the pizza, put the pizza stone in the cold oven, on a rack in the middle of the oven, and turn to 500 degrees. It should preheat for about 15 minutes or so, depending on your oven. (Some instructions talk about up to an hour of preheating, but this does not seem at all necessary.) Divide the dough in half, punch each down and let sit for about 10 minutes or so. Roll each half into a 12 to 13 inch circle and place on a cornmeal covered pizza peel or baking sheet with no rim. Spread with sauce and add toppings.

Open the oven, sprinkle the pizza stone quickly with just a little cornmeal and then slide the pizza onto the stone. Bake for about 5 to 7 minutes or until cheese is bubbly. Carefully remove the pizza from the oven with a pizza peel or by sliding it back onto a baking sheet.

If you are making more than one pizza, wait about 5 minutes before putting the second one in, giving the oven and the stone time to return to full heat.

NOTE: This cornmeal is really just to keep the pizza from sticking to the surface of the pizza peel and stone, so you can use the cheapest brand available for this. Save your really good stone-ground cornmeal for times when it will be an integral part of the recipe!

Pizza sauce
While there are all kinds of recipes for this part of the pizza, my favorite is just whatever spaghetti sauce your family prefers, with some fresh garlic and dried herbs (I use oregano, marjoram, basil, and rosemary) stirred in. The key with a thin crust pizza like this is to spread the sauce sparingly to avoid sogginess.

We used what we had on hand for vegetarian offerings: chopped peppers, black olives, chopped onion, sliced Roma tomatoes (see below), and lightly steamed broccoli flowerettes. Then we covered with grated Mozzarella cheese (I ended up using about 6 ounces on the two pizzas). We served the pizza with red pepper flakes and freshly grated Parmesan.

My "helpers"
Pizza is a great learning to cook food, and my grandchildren have all helped me make mini-pizzas using split pitas. They all have also used the rolling pin, having made cinnamon rolls and Christmas rolled out cookies at Grandma's house too, so rolling this "big" crust made the preparation even more fun. Both boys took turns rolling and then I applied the finishing touches before putting the crusts on to the pan.

I ladled out the amount of sauce I wanted into two little puddles on each crust and then handed each boy a small rubber scraper so they could spread the sauce over their half of each one. (These scrapers are about an inch wide by 2 inches high and have very short handles, just right for small hands. I think I found them in a dollar store.) All of the toppings had been prepared ahead of time and were placed in small bowls from which the boys could take their preferred toppings to spread evenly over the sauce. They were able to "take orders" for toppings from the adults, which added to the fun. For now, I handled the cheese, having found that getting this spread evenly is not yet within their skill level. Then it was time to set the table while the pizzas cooked. We had leftover broccoli, so the boys snacked on that with some yoghurt and dill dip while they waited.

The End of Garden Tomatoes
Finally, one other highlight. Here, almost in the middle of January, the tomatoes that we used to top the pizza were still from last year's garden! I had quite a few small green Romas and cherry tomatoes that I had picked just before the last frost, thinking to make green tomato mincemeat. I put them in my cool dark garage and found that they kept ripening slowly, so I enjoyed a few now and then, monitoring the rest for signs of decay--probably about a quarter to a third didn't make it--and bringing up to the kitchen those with the most color. Yes, the flavor of these last stragglers has been at the level of subpar winter tomatoes in the store, but it has been a great experiment, and they tasted fine on the pizza, especially knowing where they had been grown--you can't get more local than these.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Vanilla Beans and Vanilla Extract

A New York Times article on what to keep in your pantry mentioned "bargains in bulk" for vanilla beans when purchased on-line. Since this has always seemed too pricey for me to try, I decided to do a little research and found a) a good-looking source for beans, a pound of which would be about the price of a large bottle of vanilla extract (and, if the number of beans in a pound is accurate, would make far more extract) and b) a great article about making your own vanilla extract.

Have I tried any of this yet? Nope. After all, going from never having used a vanilla bean to buying more than 100 at a time, even from a wonderful source, seems like a big jump. But I am strongly considering trying it out. I really love good vanilla in so many things, so it seems like this would be a good project for a new year. It could be a frugal way to go (especially if I find others to share some of that huge volume of beans), and it sounds like it might be fun to try, but it definitely is not a fast project-though the actual work in making the extract after getting the supplies sounds like it only takes minutes.

Some of the links that I found helpful:

the NY Times article that started the search:

A really great blog post, with lots of narrative, a "recipe" for making extract, and some good feedback in the responses:

Another blog with some interesting feedback; this one recommends going on E-bay for the beans:

A frequently recommended source for beans:

A more formal recipe for making vanilla extract (this site also sells beans, but they looked to be a lot more expensive than some of the other on-line sources):

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Time for Vegetables

After all the rich foods of the past few weeks--cookie exchanges, three or four course meals, chips and dips, cheese and crackers at all those holiday parties--it's no wonder so many New Year's resolutions involve better eating habits.

To be able to keep those resolutions, it's a good idea to have healthy ingredients around to make some menu changes. However, how often have you come home from the store with bags of all those bright vegetables and fruits and whole grain goodies and then had them go to waste because you didn't really have a good plan for doing something with them?

Although you may think of stir frys as more summer than winter food, they are great choices to consider in January. The cost can be quite low--just what we need right now--and the healthy things you will put into them can build right into that resolution to lose weight and/or eat more healthily.

Winter stir fries will have a very different mix of vegetables than many of the ones you may have made in the summer, but they can still be a great meal with just rice (or a baked potato) and perhaps a dollop of yoghurt or some grated cheese over the top.

First, the method:
Put a tablespoon or so of canola or other oil in a nonstick or cast iron skillet and heat. Stir in onions and firmer vegetables like carrots and celery. Cook on medium high heat for a few minutes, stirring occasionally. Add seasoning and then begin adding other vegetables, starting with those that need the most cooking and finishing with those needing the least amount of time, like leafy greens or frozen vegetables. Garlic is best added sometime in the middle rather than at the beginning, to avoid burning or overcooking it. I usually cover--and often add a little bit of water as well--for the last few minutes for even cooking. Yes, I know that is not "official" stir frying, but I never have any complaints with this approach and almost always have lots of requests for seconds.

Here are a couple of more detailed "recipes"--really just templates--for winter stir fries. Amounts are always very general; don't worry about exact measures. Start out with half an onion for one or two people, a whole onion for three or four, and then use the amount of vegetables that you have so that you will end up with a couple of cups total for each main dish portion. If using as a side dish, one cup per person will be enough. And though they may not be as crisp or bright the next day, all of these mixtures will taste wonderful if refrigerated and reheated in the microwave for tomorrow's lunch, so don't be afraid to make lots at a time.

NOTE: None of the recipes below include salt. If you are going to add soy sauce or cheese or use the pepperoncini or bottled red peppers, there will be plenty of salt but, even without these garnishes, the flavors are so good that you may find yourself being able to kick some of the salt habit we all seem to have become accustomed to. If you decide to add salt at the table, that's fine too--just give these a try without the salt first!

Green and White Stir Fry

peanut oil
1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
1 large stalk celery, sliced
1/2 to 1 bell pepper, chopped or cut in long strips
1 1/2 t bottled, chopped garlic
1 to 2 c broccoli stems, cut in thin slices
1 to 2 c cauliflower, stems and flowerets, coarsely chopped
1 pepperoncini, finely chopped (optional but nice for just a little more zip in the overall mix)
1 to 1 1/2 t mixed herbs (rosemary, thyme, basil, and marjoram)
1 T soy sauce

Saute onions, celery and pepper in oil at medium high heat until onion is translucent and all are tender. Add all remaining ingredients except soy sauce, along with a tablespoon or so of water. Stir often, keeping heat quite high. Cover for a few minutes if desired to speed up cooking. When just crisp tender, add soy sauce, stir, and serve. (As an alternative, the soy sauce may be served at the table for each person to add to taste.)

The pepperoncini is a very economical way to add heat to these mixtures in the winter. They are sold in the pickle section and cost less than half of canned jalapenos or green chilis while adding similar heat and pepper flavor.

Orange and White Stir Fry

canola oil
1 medium onion, cut in julienne slices
2 or 3 large carrots, coarsely grated
1 small celery rib, finely diced
1/4 medium head cabbage, shredded
1/2 red bell pepper, diced--OR 1 pickled red pepper (NOT sweetened)
1 c frozen kernel corn--no need to thaw
1 T or so of water
oregano, cumin, basil to taste
freshly grated pepper

Saute onions, celery, and carrots in oil until onions are translucent, stirring often. Add remaining ingredients, stir, and cover for a few minutes, cooking until the cabbage is just barely tender. Taste and adjust for seasonings. With grated cheese over the top and a baked potato or fresh bread, it makes a great vegetarian meal. It is also an excellent side dish for all kinds of meat.

Summer in Winter Stir Fry

canola or peanut oil
1 large onion, coarsely chopped
1/2 c bell pepper, chopped--use frozen peppers, fresh, or canned peppers from the pickle aisle
2 to 3 c shredded cabbage OR grated cauliflower OR sliced zucchini if available fresh
2 or 3 cloves garlic, minced--or use bottled chopped garlic
10 oz package chopped spinach, only slightly thawed
1 can diced tomatoes, drained--save the liquid
1 c frozen corn
dried basil, thyme, cumin
grated parmesan or romano cheese
freshly ground black pepper

Heat oil in cast iron or other heavy pan over medium high heat. Saute onion until barely translucent and stir in bell pepper and cabbage or cauliflower. Cook, stirring often, until vegetables are just limp. Stir in garlic, spinach, drained tomatoes, and corn. Add seasonings to taste. Stir, cover, and simmer until all ingredients are piping hot. If necessary, add a little of the reserved tomato juice. Serve with grated cheese and black pepper. This is good with brown rice and a tossed salad of romaine, sliced apples, and walnuts with your favorite dressing.

Save the reserved tomato juice for other recipes; if you are not sure how you will use it right away, just label and freeze in a small container for adding later to chili, spaghetti sauce, or anything with a tomato base.

Remember: a really frugal cook NEVER throws away perfectly edible, tasty "byproducts" like drained fruit and vegetable juices, meat broths, etc.

Last Week's Baked Ham, This Week's Soup

I tucked half a ham into the slow cooker on Christmas afternoon to go with some good rolls, lots of fresh vegetables and dip, and cheese and crackers for an afternoon/evening of snacking while we played board games and talked. One of the joys of having brunch as our big Christmas meal is the relaxed eating the rest of the day.

A nice thing about having the ham in the refrigerator has been the ready source of meat for all kinds of meals throughout the holidays along with several tightly wrapped packets of ham for casseroles throughout the coming month.

And then the best part of all: the ham bone along with the reserved juices from the cooker become the heart of at least one batch of soup. This time I went with split pea, starting with a recipe I found years ago on a bag of Jack Rabbit brand split peas. As usual, I added my own changes and then--as you should always do with every batch of soup--I tasted and upgraded with a few additions to fit the final taste. Result? A huge pot of soup that has already made a couple of meals; a few more bags have been fitted into the still full freezer for drop in guests or a quick meal after a chilly afternoon of shoveling. The nice thing is that the bone is essentially free, the bag of peas is still just under a dollar, and I was able to get all the vegetables on sale, so the cost per serving has got to be a fraction of what purchased soup would cost.

Split Pea Soup

16 oz dry split peas
ham bone--from a half ham--with most meat cut off
1 large onion, chopped
2 minced garlic cloves OR about 1 T bottled, chopped garlic
1/2 t dried oregano
2 t mixed herbs (I mix rosemary, thyme, basil, and marjoram in about equal parts in a mortar and pestle)
1/2 to 1 t black pepper
2 large carrots, cubed (about 2 c)
2 or 3 ribs of celery, chopped
1 packet bouillon (optional)
Water and ham juices--see NOTES
Splash of cider or wine vinegar

Rinse peas and combine with other ingredients in a large stew pot, using enough water to cover all ingredients well. Cover and bring to a boil and then simmer for about two hours. Remove the bones, cut off any remaining meat and add to soup. Taste for seasonings and add more liquid if necessary. . Continue simmering until all ingredients are very soft, perhaps another hour or so.
This makes at least a gallon and a half of soup.

NOTE: When you bake your ham, be sure to save all juices for this soup--UNLESS you have used a very sweet glaze for the ham. If that is the case, you will want to use only water to avoid an overly sweet soup.

NOTE: The original recipe called for 3 quarts of water, but I often use a little less for making the soup. This will result in a very thick soup that will take less space in the freezer. After thawing and before reheating, you will be able to thin it with water just like the condensed canned soups.

What to serve with a soup like this? Saltine crackers of course! A nice apple crisp would be a good dessert, or a big bowl of tangerines (about half the cost of clementines right now).