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Thursday, October 29, 2015

Busy Day Three Ingredient Meat and Potato Main Dish


Sometimes there are times when you get home late from work or kids' after school events or meetings, and the refrigerator just doesn't have a lot of ingredients for a "real meal." Before you reach for the phone to order take out, what if you could put together some home-cooked food in less than 45 minutes? And without needing to refer to a recipe (even though I'm going to give you one)!

Yes, there is a bit of advance preparation, but that will be at the grocery store, whenever you see some  boneless chicken or pork on sale. (Bone-in meat can also be used; it just takes a little more prep. I'll be putting up another entry on making stock from bones in the next few weeks.)

While it would be possible to use this method with cubed beef, the cuts of beef that will remain tender with this approach are not usually very budget-friendly.

You can cube the meat before you freeze it or just wait until time to serve--in case you decide on a different way of preparing it.

You will also need to have the other two ingredients on hand: potatoes (which, for a really frugal cook, should almost always be in the pantry)

and a favorite oil and vinegar typed dressing.

I rarely buy purchased salad dressings, but I do like to keep one of the vinaigrettes in the refrigerator just for marinades. I prefer Costco's Kirkland Balsamic Vinaigrette, but choose whatever is your favorite, whenever it is on sale.

You may also want a little olive or canola oil and added salt or other seasonings to fit your tastes, but these too should be staples that will be readily at hand. Because many prepared dressings are already quite high in salt, be cautious about adding more until you taste the finished product.

One thing to keep in mind: most prepared dressings will have some sweetener in them, and in fact this will help finish with a nicely browned and caramelized dish. However, you do need to keep the heat low enough that the browning doesn't turn into blackening--this isn't a "blackened" Cajun kind of meal! Medium to medium high heat should be just fine. 

With these basic ingredients, you are ready to make a main dish that will be faster than you might imagine, with a relatively low cost if you watch for sales on the meat.  The key is to keep the vegetable and meat pieces not too large so that cooking can proceed quickly. Using enough dressing for the marinade will avoid drying out the meat in the short time you will be cooking it.

...and that's it. The flavors of old-fashioned pot roast with roasted potatoes in a fraction of the time.

Meat and Potatoes Main Dish in Minutes

Per person to be served:
4 oz boneless chicken or pork, cut in about 1 inch cubes
purchased oil and vinegar style dressing
1 medium potato, scrubbed but not peeled,
olive or canola oil (optional)
added salt or other seasonings, to taste

1.  Place the chicken or pork in a small bowl or plastic bag and pour over just enough dressing to cover. Stir thoroughly to be sure every cube is covered. Set aside for about 15 to 20 minutes, while preparing the potatoes and any other sides you may be making. (If you need to marinate the meat longer, you should return it to the refrigerator.)

2.  Pour any excess marinade from the meat into a large enough pan so that the meat can be spread in a single layer. Don't try to use too small a pan, as that will lengthen the time needed to prepare the food and will reduce the browning.

If there is very little marinade available, add a little oil to just cover the bottom of the pan. Heat on medium high for a few minutes, until the marinade/oil barely begins to sizzle.

3.  Spread the meat cubes evenly across the pan and allow to cook, uncovered, for about 5 to 7 minutes, until the bottom side of each is well-browned. Stir to brown all sides of the meat.

4.  Meanwhile, cut the potatoes into thick slices (about 1/2 inch thick). Spread the potato slices across the pan and stir them in so that they are all coated with the browning marinade. If necessary, add a tablespoon or so of water to be sure all the meat and potatoes are being steeped in the pan juices--just don't add too much. You want to keep the mixture sauteeing, not poaching! 

5.  Cover the pan and continue to cook over medium heat for about 5 minutes. Turn the potatoes and continue to cook another 6 to 8 minutes, until the potatoes are just tender. Taste for seasonings and serve.


Cut carrots into 1 inch chunks--or use baby carrots--and add those with the potatoes. Onions, garlic,  and/or celery could also be cut coarsely and added with the potatoes.

The per serving cost of the dish can be cut further by increasing the proportion of potatoes to meat.

Frozen vegetables--broccoli, peas, corn, etc.--can be added. Cook the meat and potatoes until just done and then add the frozen vegetables (no reason to thaw), cover the pan, and continue cooking for another 5 minutes or so, until the entire mixture has returned to full heat.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Pumpkin--Turning Jack-o-Lanterns into Frugal Meals

Have you ever wondered how to use those jack-o-lantern pumpkins after they have served their purpose as decorations? Do you want to avoid having THIS happen to your perfectly good pumpkins?
(Thanks, friends, for allowing me to share this.)

Even though the "jack-o-lantern pumpkins" may not be as sweet as "pie pumpkins," they still can provide a lot of nutrition and flavor, if you plan ahead.

A few things to keep in mind if you want to be able to use the pumpkin for food after its decoration life is over:
  • Keep the pumpkins from freezing.
  • Don't carve your pumpkin too early; if it starts to wilt or sag, it probably is too late to get any meals from it.
  • If you put a candle inside, just cut out any smoke-blackened sections (and of course, cut out the wax drippings!).
  • Don't paint the pumpkin, like the blue one in this picture. Even if you try to cut off the painted sections, you will likely find too little to use, and the effort will be so tedious, you'll never try to save a pumpkin for food again.
  • On the other hand, if you use a marker for the features instead of cutting out eyes, mouth, etc., just cut those sections out.

And, whatever you do, please try to save the seeds--they are a wonderful snack and really easy to prepare. 

Now, for the good part! Here are some links to hints on preparation, along with some recipes you may want to try. If you were planning to just scrap the pumpkin, you can even think of this as "free" food!

First, some thoughts on preparation:

Thinking of only dessert uses for your pumpkin? How about some soup?

Or bread? This recipe calls for butternut squash, but you can easily substitute pureed pumpkin in recipes calling for pureed butternut squash. This one is a bit of a surprise but it's always well-accepted.

The next two are related, again showing how easily squash and pumpkin can be substituted for each other.

And finally, there is the recipe from my friend, Arlene, cookies that are always gobbled up as soon as her famous cookie tins show up at a dinner or potluck:

Hope these links will get you started on some great uses for your "Great Pumpkin."

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Apple Raspberry Cupcakes...or Muffins? You Decide

Many years ago, muffins were pretty straight forward, basic quick breads with relatively small amount of fat and sugars, good while warm but quick to dry out after the first day. In these "olden days" before cake mixes were widely available, there were also a lot of basic cake recipes (often categorized as "one egg cakes") that were sweeter and with higher fat content than muffins but still pretty quick to make.

Today of course we have muffins piled so high with added ingredients--especially sugary toppings and lots of fatty ingredients (more butter and oil, nuts, coconut, etc.)--that they often rival and even surpass the calories in some of the equally overindulged cupcakes available at bakeries and coffee shops. Sometimes about the only difference seems to be that cupcakes are frosted and muffins have some kind of rich crumbly topping.

What sets these cupcakes apart is the rich caramelization of the fruit. Except for that slow cooking of the apples, the cupcakes are quick to make. My recommendation? Double (or triple) the fruit preparation ahead of time. Then you can also use it for an ice cream topping or a second batch of cupcakes later in the week.

Frugal, with raspberries in the batter? Well yes, if you have access to your own raspberries. If you don't, then strawberries or blueberries could be substituted when they are the most reasonably priced fruits. Dried cranberries (probably only 1/2 to 3/4 cup) might even be a substitute for the raspberries.

Apple Raspberry Cupcakes

Fruit mixture:
3 small to medium apples, about 12 oz or 2 1/2 cups
1 T butter
2 T sugar
1/2 t cinnamon
1/4 t ginger
1 c raspberries

Cake batter:
1/3 c butter
3/4 c sugar
1 egg
1 t vanilla
1 3/4 c flour
2 1/2 t baking powder
1/4 t ginger
1/2 t cinnamon
1/2 c milk

1.  Fruit mixture:
  • Core the apples and dice them into small pieces--no need to peel.  

  • Melt 1 T butter in a non-stick pan and stir in the 2 T sugar, spices, and diced apples. 
  • Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, for about 15 minutes, or until the apples are very soft and caramelized. 
  • Remove from heat and stir in the raspberries. Set aside to cool.
2.  Beat the butter and sugar together until light and creamy. Stir in the egg and vanilla and blend well.
3.  Sift the dry ingredients together and add to the butter mixture alternately with the milk.
4.  Gently fold in the cooled fruit mixture. Spoon the batter into a muffin pan lined with cupcake papers.
 5.  Bake at 350 degrees about 15 to 20 minutes.

 Spread with a basic cream cheese icing when cool.

 This will make approximately 12 to 15 cupcakes.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Crunch-Top Applesauce and Apricot Bars

Many years ago I found a recipe for some simple applesauce bars that were pretty basic. Adding dried apricots and almonds adds a special burst of flavor. 

The topping is a little messy, but that never seems to keep these cookies from being perenially popular. Cornflakes are an inexpensive way to stretch the crunch of the nuts, so I buy them when on sale just for these bars. Substituting bran flakes can add just a little more nutrition if desired.

 Crunch Top Applesauce and Apricot Bars
1/2 c butter
1/2 c sugar 
1/2 c soft dried apricots, diced, and enough unsweetened applesauce to fill a one cup measure (see Step 1)
1 t vanilla
1 t almond flavoring
2 c flour
1 t soda
1 t nutmeg
1 1/2 t cinnamon

1.  Place the diced apricots in a one cup measuring cup and pour applesauce over them, filling to the one cup measuring line. Make sure all the spaces between the apricots are filled with applesauce. 
If your apricots are quite dry, you can put the applesauce/apricot mixture in the microwave for a minute or two and then set aside to cool.
2.  Blend butter and sugar; stir in the applesauce-apricot mixture along with the almond and vanilla.
3.  Sift the dry ingredients together and add. Mix just enough to blend evenly.

4.  Spread in a greased 15 1/2 X 10 1/2 jelly roll pan and sprinkle with the topping mixture.
5.  Bake at 350 degrees about 18 to 20 minutes. Cool before cutting into bars.

Makes about 4 to 5 dozen.

1/2 c almonds, coarsely chopped
1/4 c sugar
1/2 t cinnamon
2 T butter
about 2 to 2 1/2 c cornflakes, crushed to make a cup of crumbs

Mix all except the corn flakes. Stir in the crushed cornflakes until well blended.