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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Quick and Easy Cornbread

This cornbread is truly a "frugal, fast, and fun" accompaniment to chili or soup. While I rarely buy canned vegetables, I keep some creamed corn on hand just for this recipe. The chiles can be omitted, but they add just the extra flavor boost needed to make this bread stand out. And don't hesitate to spread a little homemade jam or apple butter on the cornbread even with the chiles--the mix of sweet and savory is really good.

Quick and Easy Cornbread

2 packages corn bread mix (the size that makes 6 corn muffins)
2 eggs
1 15 oz can creamed corn
1/2 to 1 4 oz can diced green chiles, including liquid (if you use only half of the can, the remaining chiles can be frozen for another batch later)
1 to 2 T butter
1 T canola oil

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Put the butter and oil into a glass, ceramic, earthenware or other heavyweight 9 X 13 pan OR 10 inch cast iron skillet and place in pre-heated oven.

Meanwhile, stir all the remaining ingredients together. When the butter is melted and just beginning to sizzle (don't let it burn!), remove the pan from the oven and pour in the batter. Bake for 25 to 35 minutes until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. While this is best served warm, it is good the next day with leftover soup and chili too.

This serves far fewer than you might think, because everyone comes back for seconds and more!

The frugality? In early 2011, I can buy the cornbread mix for 33 to 35 cents a box. I watch for sales on the green chiles (Cinco de Mayo in May and Mexican Independence Day in September are good times for all things Mexican to go on sale) and stock up. Half a can is enough to give the bread good flavor, so that is one way to reduce the cost of the bread more.

Fast? With all the ingredients on the shelf, this can be put together in about 3 minutes, so the longest time required is waiting for the pan and butter and oil to heat.

Fun? Adult help will be needed with the heating of the fats, but the rest of the recipe can easily be handled by young cooks, so it's a good starter recipe for kids.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Black Bean Enchilada Bake

Yes, I know that enchiladas are really rolled up and yes, spaghetti sauce sounds suspiciously much more like Italian than Mexican food.

So here I come with a dish I call an "Enchilada Bake," based on flat tortillas and a spaghetti sauce base, but the addition of cumin, cilantro and green chiles brings it pretty darn close to Mexican food, especially when you are in a hurry and are working with just what you have in the cupboard. (And my suggestion is that you always have some basic spaghetti sauce on hand!)

Black Bean and Cheese Enchilada Bake
28 oz spaghetti sauce
15 oz tomatoes and green chiles
1 c diced onion, sautéed
1 t cumin
1 t dried cilantro
1 t garlic powder
15 oz black beans, drained—reserve liquid
1/3 to 1/2 c sliced processed cheese (Velveeta)
8 to10 corn tortillas
6 to 8 oz grated part-skim Mozzarella cheese

Combine the spaghetti sauce, tomatoes and chiles, sautéed onion, cumin, cilantro, and garlic powder. Add in the liquid drained from the black beans and simmer for about 15 to 20 minutes, until the mixture is slightly thickened.

Spread about a third of the sauce mixture on the bottom of a 9 X 13 microwave-safe pan. Tear tortillas to cover the bottom evenly. Spread with half the black beans and arrange the processed cheese over them. Layer with another third of the sauce, more tortillas, then the remainder of the black beans. Sprinkle generously with Mozzarella. Finish with another layer of tortillas, the rest of the sauce, and then more Mozzarella.

To cook:

With little time:
Loosely cover and microwave for about 7 to 8 minutes until mixture is bubbly in the center as well as around the edges.

With a little more time:
Loosely cover and microwave for about 5 to 6 minutes until the mixture is bubbly. Finish in a 375 degree oven to brown the top.

Or, if you are really organized, you can make this ahead, cover tightly, and refrigerate overnight (or even a couple of days ahead--make it on the weekend and have it ready for a busy weekday).

Serve with yogurt (or fat free sour cream), shredded lettuce, diced tomatoes, black olives, guacamole, salsa, hot sauce--whatever dress ups you like with "real" enchiladas. Enjoy!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Candy Kiss Cookies

Still looking for something to take to the Valentine's day party at the kids' school or for a special treat for friends, family, or neighbors? Here is one that includes two layers of chocolate, and what says Valentine's day more than chocolate and kisses!

Chocolate Kiss Cookies

6 oz butter (1 1/2 sticks), softened
2/3 c sugar
1/3 c ground almonds (see NOTE)
1/4 c cocoa
1 t vanilla
1 1/2 c flour
2 to 4 T water, ONLY if needed
42 to 60 Hershey's Kisses

Combine the butter, sugar, almonds, cocoa and vanilla and mix until evenly blended. Stir in flour. If the dough is too crumbly, add just enough water to hold it together. (The less water you use, the easier the dough will be to work.)
Unwrap the Hershey's Kisses. Take a small amount of dough and wrap around each kiss, shaping the dough to completely cover the candy and molding it into a candy kiss shape. Place on an ungreased cookie sheet.
Bake 11 to 12 minutes at 325 until dough is no longer shiny and just set. Allow to stay on the baking sheet for a few minutes before removing to a cooling rack.

Cut foil into 3 to 5 inch squares, depending on the size of your cookies--make a test wrap or two before cutting all the foil! Wrap each cookie to look like a candy kiss. If desired, strips of paper can be prepared with valentine messages and twisted into the foil as well.

Makes 40 to 55 cookies, depending on the amount of dough you wrap around each candy.

NOTE: If you don't have access to ground nuts, you can process some chopped nuts in a blender or processor OR just omit them entirely. Using chopped nuts, even if rather finely chopped, will make the dough quite a bit more difficult to work with.

And speaking of difficult to work with: This is a recipe that really needs to have butter at that "just right stage" to work easily. Too firm and you end up having to add water to hold things together, resulting in a much stickier dough. However, if you melt the butter, you will have a pretty greasy mess to work with too. So how did I get to the right consistency? Here's my trick: my coffee was getting a little on the cool side, so I tucked it in the microwave to heat up and then just put the dough bowl on top for a few minutes. A cup of just plain boiling water would have the same effect. (Yes, if you are using a microwave-safe bowl, you could just put the butter in that and nuke a few seconds. However, this often leads to melted rather than softened butter if you aren't really careful. Thus, this crazy double-boiler kind of approach. And no, you DON'T want to turn the microwave on while that stainless steel bowl is inside!)

Cherry Heart Refrigerator Cookies

Refrigerator cookies have long been popular because they can be made well ahead of time and kept in the refrigerator (or even freezer) until ready to be baked and served.

This recipe is just right for Valentine's day and, even if you are just making them now, a few hours in the refrigerator or freezer should chill them enough to be ready for that Valentine's day party. The dough is quite easy to work with, and you can re-shape the hearts after slicing--a little pinch here, a push there--if your first tries at molding a heart-shaped log aren't exactly the greatest. Still, these free-form hearts will let everyone you serve them know you cared enough to make something just for them.

Cherry Heart Cookies

1/2 c butter, softened
1 c sugar
1 egg
1/2 t vanilla
1/2 t almond
1/3 c ground almonds
1 3/4 c flour
1/2 t soda
approximately 15 to 20 maraschino cherries, drained

Cream the butter and sugar until smooth. Add the egg, flavorings, and ground almonds and mix until well blended. Sift the flour and soda and stir in.

Pat the dough into a rectangle on an 18 inch length of waxed paper. The dough should be about 4 to 5 inches wide and 15 to 18 inches long.

Arrange maraschino cherries down the center of the dough in a tight line so there are no gaps between the cherries.

Bring the sides of the dough up to seal in the cherries, forming a point along the top of the roll.

Using the waxed paper, gently turn the cookie roll on its side. Using a wood spoon or table knife handle, press a crease in the opposite side of the roll to form a heart shape.

Wrap the dough with the waxed paper and chill until very firm, several hours or over night.

Cut the dough into thin slices and place on ungreased baking sheets.

Bake at 350 for 11 minutes, until just set and beginning to brown. Leave on the cookie sheet for a minute or two before moving on to a cooling rack. Makes about 4 to 4 1/2 dozen.

And the frugal hint for the day:

One more thing--you weren't going to toss the drained maraschino cherry juice, were you? Of course not. You could put it back in the jar for later, but it also is a great addition to your next glass of orange juice or lemonade.

Or make a healthy dessert to go with all the over the top sweets on Valentine's day: peel an orange or two and section. Cut the sections in half and put in a bowl along with the maraschino cherry juice, and perhaps a couple of diced cherries as well. Chill for an hour or so to blend the flavors.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Chicken "Casseroles" -- Some Ideas

When my kids were young, we had the same menu item perhaps two or three (or more!) nights as week: "Casserole." (If we had lived in Minnesota back then, it probably would have been "hot dish.") However, my goal was never to serve the same meal two times in the same week, and I was usually able to accomplish that. The point is that, for a busy family, these one dish meals can be a wonderful time and money saver without ever becoming boring.

Since my last post focused on chicken and mirepoix, here's the plan using those two ingredients. When you broaden out to pork, ground beef or turkey, ham, and vegetarian options, you could go for weeks without ever duplicating a meal.

The Nutrition Background

By now you've probably heard it dozens of times: Balanced meals should include mostly vegetables, then carbohydrates, then protein--the British call it the "healthy plate." Basically, only a quarter of the meal should be the meat/protein source, with another quarter carbs, and half vegetables (and fruit, with vegetables predominant). Keeping this in mind, here is how some of your "casserole" meals should work out:

A one cup (8 oz or so) container of chicken really does include enough for a family of four, especially if there are other sources of protein included in the meal--glasses of milk, some cheese or beans in the casserole or diced into a side salad, etc.

Think of all the ways you have been served chicken--with rice, pasta, potatoes, and bread. These are the "basic" carbs we Americans tend to use, so you already have at least four different ways to use that chicken.

Here is where a lot of families get bogged down. If any (or all) of the adults in the family are averse to veggies, it will be a challenge to get the kids to get too excited about this part of the meal, but a casserole often provides ways to ease the family into more healthy eating. The mirepoix is actually a good place to start, even if it doesn't provide a full serving of vegetables for each person.

Now...Some ideas:

The following list starts with a cup or so of pre-cooked, boned chicken and as much of the mirepoix as you prefer for each dish. If you are starting out with unseasoned chicken, you will be able to add your own preferences to each combination.

These are not recipes so much as ideas for ways to build main dishes adapted to your own family preferences, grouped by the kind of carbohydrate you might use with the chicken.

Chicken, rice, mirepoix, peas or broccoli, with some melted American cheese as the sauce; a splash of Worcestershire sauce can add a little more flavor as well

Chicken, rice, mirepoix, broccoli, snap peas, bell peppers, etc., with soy sauce and other Chinese, Thai, or Vietnamese seasonings your family prefers

Chicken, rice, mirepoix, corn, bell peppers, black or kidney beans, and chili powder and/or taco or enchilada sauce

Chicken, rice, mirepoix, French cut green beans or tiny peas or other green vegetables, a basic cream sauce with wine, and some very "French" herbs--savory, tarragon, etc.

Chicken, "mac and cheese" as per your family's favorite recipe, mirepoix, and lots of peas, beans, mixed vegetables, broccoli, etc.

Chicken, fettucine, mirepoix, cream sauce, and green beans or other green vegetables

Chicken, rice noodles, mirepoix, mixed "Oriental vegetables" and soy sauce or other Chinese, Thai, or Vietnamese sauces

Chicken, rotini or other fun-shaped pasta, mirepoix, spaghetti sauce, topped with Parmesan--this is a good place to drop in some peas, green beans, or "mixed vegetables" for kids who are otherwise vegetable-averse

Chicken, lasagna noodles, mirepoix, spinach, and the rest of your usual lasagna recipe ingredients

Chicken, sliced potatoes, mirepoix (with extra onions), cream sauce and broccoli or frozen chopped spinach--upgrading your scalloped potato recipe

Chicken, mashed potatoes, mirepoix, some of the chicken stock made into gravy, and mixed vegetables of your choice--turn this into a shepherd's pie by combining all the other ingredients, spreading the potatoes over the top and then sprinkling with Cheddar cheese before baking just long enough to get a golden crust

OR--turn the shepherd's pie upside down--mix the potatoes with some cheese and an egg and spread in a well-oiled dish. Bake until this "crust" turns golden brown while you combine the chicken with vegetables and gravy or a cream sauce. Put the chicken mixture into the crust and sprinkle with seasoned breadcrumbs and/or grated cheese if desired

Chicken, diced potatoes, mirepoix, white beans or lentils, and other "stew vegetables" with some chicken broth and sage, poultry seasoning, or other herbs to make a hearty chicken stew

"Potato lasagna"--chicken, sliced, pre-cooked, potatoes, mirepoix, spaghetti sauce, chopped spinach or broccoli, oregano, Italian seasoning, and fennel seeds, ricotta and mozzarella cheese--layer the potatoes as you would lasagna noodles along with the other ingredients. Caution--this will NOT taste like "real" lasagna, but it will suit the tastes of those who especially like Italian flavors

Chicken, finely diced, "raw" mirepoix--grated raw carrot along with diced onion and celery to taste--and perhaps even some finely grated cabbage and/or diced bell pepper, all mixed with your favorite salad dressing to taste and served on hard rolls. (Okay, I know, this is a sandwich, not a "casserole." Still, it's a fine use for these ingredients and yet another meal option.)

Combine this same "chicken salad" filling with some elbow or shell macaroni, perhaps with some black olives, radishes, or hard boiled egg slices, for a summer pasta salad that is, after all, just a cold "casserole," right?

Though not really a casserole, don't forget pizza with chicken as a topping. For this, stir some mirepoix into the sauce to up the vegetable content or just spread it over the top. Include broccoli or other vegetables that your family especially likes as well.

Chicken, mirepoix, in a cream or gravy sauce with broccoli, cauliflower, carrot slices, sugar peas, bell pepper, etc., topped with a biscuit crust

Chicken, leftover (or newly made) stuffing, mirepoix and a cream or gravy sauce with vegetables of your choice. The stuffing can be spread in a well-oiled dish and baked just enough to form a crust before topping with the chicken and vegetables layer, OR the chicken and vegetable mixture can be put in the pan and then the stuffing spread over the top before heating to bubbly in either the oven or the microwave

Chicken, mirepoix, black or pinto beans, chili powder, cumin, corn, green chiles, diced yams or butternut squash, chopped cilantro, and a cream or gravy based sauce, stirred together and layered in a casserole dish with Monterrey Jack or other white cheese and whole wheat tortillas. This one is best if made ahead and allowed to sit in the refrigerator for a few hours or overnight.

By my count, the suggestions above could serve for at least three weeks of non-stop chicken meals--not that any of us would want to do that! Just think, however, how far they could take you if you planned to serve chicken with vegetables and some kind of carbohydrate just a couple of times a week. And while it may seem that the inclusion of mirepoix in all of these is unnecessary, by considering this as an "ingredient" that you can make ahead and have ready in the refrigerator, just think of the time that pre-preparation might save on especially busy nights.

(One more comment: Turkey is easily substituted in just about any of these ideas as well--a good thing to remember when trying to decide what to do with all those leftovers.)

I would love to hear of some of the other ways your family enjoys one-dish chicken meals, along with your own time-saving ideas.

Mirepoix + Chicken = Limitless Meals

Do you ever run out of ideas--and maybe time too--for a variety of family friendly meals that don't cost a lot? Using chicken and mirepoix as a starting point, here are some suggestions for literally dozens of meals.

But, you ask, what is "mirepoix?" It may sound exotic, but it is really just onion, celery, and carrots sauteed in butter or oil and then added to other dishes. In Italian cookery, soffritto is almost the same, though that is almost always prepared with olive oil and may routinely include garlic and herbs specific to the region of the country where it is prepared.

I've included below a few basics that will put ready-to-eat chicken into the refrigerator/freezer and a batch of mirepoix in the refrigerator for a week's worth of menus. If you are really in a chopping and saute-ing mood, you can even freeze some of the mirepoix too, though it generally should not be kept there longer than a few weeks.

First, the chicken.

A few weeks ago, a local supermarket chain had a one day special, chicken leg quarters for 39 cents a pound, limit four packages please. For just over $7.00, I was able to get almost 19 pounds of chicken. Even with the bone in, that is a lot of meals! Though there have been times when I would cook all of this chicken at once (I have one of those big electric roasters you usually pull out just at Thanksgiving for the turkey), I decided to freeze three of the packages and cook only one right away. This particular package cost $1.43 and I still ended up with almost 4 cups (about 2 1/2 pounds) of firmly packed boneless chicken along with about 2 1/2 cups of rich broth. I divided the meat into four parts, freezing two and keeping the others out for two quick meals. The broth went into the refrigerator to be ready for soup, yet another meal; as it turned out, this was rich enough to serve as the base for two large batches of soup.

After I had pulled off most of the skin and fat from the chicken, I browned it in a little of the fat and discarded the rest. When the meat was browned on all sides, I covered it and let it simmer about 20 to 30 minutes more, until the meat was falling off the bones. If I had been short of time, I could have just dumped the chicken into a slow cooker, covered it, and let it go on LOW for several hours instead. The meat does not brown quite as well this way but will still work well in future dishes.

I then took the meat off the stove and put it in a colander to drain, being sure to save all that lovely broth that had developed. I was careful to scrape up all the drippings from the pan as well, adding them to the broth.

When the meat had cooled enough to handle, I quickly pulled it off the bones. This is a step that many of us don't really like to do, but I have found it to be more tolerable if I use those lightweight disposable plastic gloves that are available at dollar stores, Sam's Club, pharmacies, and many supermarkets at very reasonable prices.

As you may have noticed, there has been no seasoning added yet. Sometimes I do season the meat, but I was not sure what uses I would make of this, so I left all seasoning for each individual dish. I made sure to label the freezer portions as unseasoned.

Now the mirepoix.

I have found I can save some time by making enough mirepoix for a couple of meals, since it keeps for a few days in the refrigerator and goes into a wide variety of dishes. (Think of all the recipes that start out, "saute onion and celery..." This just adds the color, nutrition, and sweetness of carrots too.) Here is the "recipe" that I most often start with:

Basic Mirepoix

canola oil
1 large onion, chopped--about 2 cups
2 to 3 celery ribs, diced or sliced--1 to 2 cups, as desired
1 large or 2 medium carrots, diced or grated--about 2 cups

Put just enough oil in a heavy skillet (my preference is cast iron) to evenly cover the bottom. Heat so that the vegetables will sizzle slightly when added. Stir in all the vegetables, reduce heat to medium, and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes or so, until the onions are golden and the carrots are tender. I sometimes cover the pan and add a few drops of water to allow the simmering to continue a little longer.

And then...putting it all together...with what?

As long as this post is getting, I'll reserve the "what" for another entry. Stay tuned!

Chowder or Soup?

Have you ever wondered what the difference is between a chowder and a soup? Or, for that matter, what exactly makes a dish a bisque instead of a soup--other than the reputation and cost of the restaurant serving it?

True to the Internet's vast supply of information, half information and misinformation, there are all kinds of definitions offered if you try to Google the differences. Several sites offer the distinction as being simply whether milk (or cream) is in the mix or not; if it's base is dairy, these sites suggest, you should call it a chowder. Hmm, cream of mushroom chowder? Broccoli chowder? Just doesn't seem right, especially for those of us who grew up on those ubiquitous red and white Campbell's cans of cream of everything. There might have been a Campbell's clam chowder, but I think just about all the rest of their mainstays were good old, all-American soup.

Two sites that seem to have some credibility (based on other resources as well) give an interesting history, tying the term to both seafood and an American-ized corruption of the dish that chowders were served in. If you want to read more, go to,-A-Chowder?&id=744788


As for bisques? It appears that the big difference here is in the pureeing step that results in an overall creamy texture. As good an explanation as any appears here:

I started looking at these terms after making what seemed like a corn chowder this week, but I wasn't really sure if the recipe qualified. According to the definitions I found, it probably is on the edge of being a soup and a chowder. No seafood, but that is no longer a requirement to make it a chowder. There isn't any bacon, another common ingredient, but there is ham, along with plenty of potatoes and enough corn to be considered a corn chowder. Whatever it is called, here is what turned out to be a wonderfully warming meal with homemade artisan bread and apple crisp for dessert. This has a rich golden color because of the "hidden" squash, adding to both the appearance and nutrition of the final dish.

And, as with many soups, this is even better the next day, warmed bowl by bowl in the microwave for individuals or reheated for a second family meal.

NOTE: I had baked a 7 pound ham and used much of the meat for other meals. The bone and perhaps a couple of cups of meat clinging to it were used for this soup, along with the juices that had been left from baking the ham (I don't use a sweetened glaze on my hams. If you do, the juices will likely not work for this soup.) This is a perfect use for a ham bone, but you can also buy some "ham hocks" or a small bone-in, pre-cooked ham as well. If you take this approach, cook the ham according to the package directions-or just put in a pan on the stove or in the oven and simmer until it begins to fall off the bone.)

Golden Ham and Corn Chowder

1 meaty ham bone, and juices (see NOTE)
1 to 2 T reserved ham fat OR canola oil
1 large onion, chopped (about 2 cups)
3 celery ribs, diced (about 2 cups)
1 bell pepper, diced (about 3/4 cup)
5 medium potatoes, scrubbed and diced (about 4 to 5 cups)
8 oz butternut squash puree
16 oz corn--may use up to 32 ounces if you want this really "corny"--this may be fresh, frozen, or canned, whatever you have available
15 oz can evaporated milk
1 c nonfat dry milk powder
1 t thyme
seasoning salt to taste
1 t ground black pepper, or more to taste

Slowly saute the onions and celery in the reserved ham fat or oil until the onions are golden and almost caramelized, about 20 to 30 minutes. Stir occasionally.

Meanwhile, prepare the potatoes and put into a large soup pot or large slow cooker along with the diced pepper, squash, ham bone and juices. Add enough water to cover well (probably about 1 or 2 quarts, depending on the amount of ham juices available) and begin cooking slowly. Add the onions and celery when done along with the seasonings. The ham that I used was one of the new reduced sodium products, so it did need just a bit of seasoning salt. Do be sure to taste before adding any salt however.

Cover and cook over low for about an hour to two hours, until the potatoes are almost tender.

About an hour before serving, remove the ham bone and cut the meat into bite-sized pieces. Add the evaporated milk, dry milk, and corn. If needed, add a bit more water to bring to desired thickness, and taste again for seasonings.  Then return the diced ham to the soup.

This will make about a gallon of soup, depending on how "soup-y" you make it, how large the ham bone is, and how much corn you include. It reheats well and may be frozen.


Add a can (or more) of green chilis with the corn and milk.

Use red bell peppers instead of the green peppers for a bright touch of color.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Cream of Vegetable Soup

Staying with a theme and having soup again. This one can be completely vegetarian by using vegetable bouillon cubes or broth but it is also enriched by using chicken stock. For an entirely different take on the flavors, use some ham juices (or just put a "leftover" ham bone at the beginning, to simmer along with all the rest of the ingredients.

Cream of Vegetable Soup

canola oil for sauteing
1 large onion, chopped
1 large stalk celery, diced
2 large potatoes, diced but not peeled
3 c finely shredded cabbage
3 bouillon cubes OR 1 to 2 c rich chicken stock
2 T Worcestershire sauce
1 1/2 t mixed dried herbs (basil, thyme, rosemary and marjoram)
seasoning salt to taste
8 to 16 oz mixed frozen vegetables of your choice
2 to 3 c chopped fresh spinach (OR 10 to 16 oz frozen chopped spinach)
1/4 to 1/3 c c flour
2 c nonfat dry milk powder
1 to 2 t balsamic vinegar

Saute the onions and celery in a small amount of oil over medium heat until the onions are golden.

Meanwhile, put the bouillon or stock, Worcestershire sauce and herbs in a large pot. Add the potatoes and cabbage and enough water to cover the vegetables well. Stir in the onions when sauteed and cook on low to medium heat until the cabbage and potatoes are very tender, about 45 to 50 minutes.

Mix the flour and dry milk powder well and stir in about 2 cups of water. Blend to make a smooth mixture and gradually pour into the soup. Continue stirring until the mixture returns to a low boil and is thickened. Taste and add seasoning salt and vinegar as needed. Stir in the frozen mixed vegetables and spinach (and additional water or broth if the soup is too thick) and continue cooking for about 20 to 25 minutes, until the mixture has returned to a gentle simmer.

Serve with freshly ground pepper and grated cheddar or Parmesan cheese if desired.