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Ontario, Canada
I am a wife, mother and grandma who enjoys the many aspects of homemaking. A variety of interests and hobbies combined with travel keep me active. They reflect the importance of family, friends, home and good food.
Cook ingredients that you are used to cooking by other techniques, such as fish, chicken, or hamburgers. In other words be comfortable with the ingredients you are using.
--Bobby Flay

For Your Information

Please watch this area for important information like updates, food recalls, polls, contests, coupons, and freebies.
  • [January 15, 2016] - It's National Soup Month so this month's posts will focus on soups. Yum!
  • [February 1, 2016] - An interesting report on why you should always choose organic tea verses non-organic: Toxic Tea (pdf format)
  • Sticky Post - Warning: 4ever Recap reusable canning lids. The reports are growing daily of these lids losing their seal during storage. Some have lost their entire season's worth of canning to these seal failures!

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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Let's Make a Caesar Salad

My husband and I go out with the guys for wings on Tuesday night during dart season.  It's just a casual little outing that doesn't cost much and gets me out of the house during the winter months.  Trust me, I much prefer staying indoors in the winter!  The days of 10¢ are long gone; they are up to 39¢  What I don't like about the restaurant we go to is the lack of consistency o one week they are great, the next week they are so so but they have never been horrid.  They really are the only restaurant in town with chicken wings and the guys want wings.  I usually get Caesar salad with no wings but sometimes get it with 6 wings.  Caesar salad is my absolute favourite salad.  Honestly though, restaurants seriously over charge for a Caesar salad with the average price per serving at $7 but it is one of the least expensive salads to make and most restaurants do not make their own Caesar salad dressing to begin with.

how to cut romain lettuce for Caesar salad
Caesar salad starts with fresh, Romain lettuce.  Romain lettuce is packed full of nutrients and it's easy to prepare.  Wash the Romain lettuce then pat dry.  Remove the harder centre stem.  Stack the prepared Romain lettuce leaves on a cutting board (1).  Roll the leaves to form a tube (2).  This is called a chiffonade and is commonly used with basils and leafy vegetables although it could be used for making thin strips of lunch meat as well.  Cut lengthwise through the rolled lettuce into half-inch strips being sure to hold the base tightly (3).  Cut across the strips in half-inch intervals (4).  You now have the lettuce base for a great Caesar salad.

the important Caesar salad ingredients
Any good salad starts with good ingredients and a Caesar salad is no different.  Fresh lemon juice is a requirement of a good Caesar salad as it makes the salad sparkle.  Don't use the bottled lemon juice  Cut the lemon into wedges (5) then use one to drizzle over the cut lettuce and serve the rest of the wedges with the salad.  Some prefer a bit more lemon taste.

I seriously detest when I pay a premium price for Caesar salad to be served 'artificial bacon bits' or worse yet 'bacon flavoured soy bits'.   I make a lot of pea meal bacon but for Caesar salad like the thick cut bacon (6) my husband loves.  I also don't like it cut into small pieces either.  Sorry, but I like to taste the bacon in Caesar salad.  I prefer homemade croutons made from home baked bread not the dump from the bag, store bought version.  I don't make my own Caesar salad dressing (8).  Instead, I use Renee's Gourmet Might Caesar salad dressing.  This dressing contains no artificial colourants, flavours, sugars, and it is gluten free.  It's low in saturated fats as well.  Renee's contains no preservatives so must be refrigerated from time of purchase to use.  I usually just mix it in with a fork.

Caesar salad
After adding the dressing, I squeeze in the juice of one to two wedges of fresh lemon depending on the size of the salad and mix it in.  Then I pour the dressed lettuce into the serving bowl and top with bacon pieces and croutons with fresh ground pepper, fresh grated Parmesan cheese and lemon wedges on the side.  I've even added fresh lemon zest on top of the salad for entertaining.

Caesar salad is simple yet elegant.  It is very easy to make, always sure to please.  It took me a lot more time to edit pictures for this post and write.  I can have a Caesar salad on the table from start to finish in less than 10 minutes.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Frugal Kitchens 101 - Grass Fed Beef

Frugal Kitchens 101
Years ago well before our kids ever started school, my husband and I always dealt with local beef farming friends for our beef who believed as we did that grass fed beef is healthier for us.  Cannings Free Range Butchers is one larger scale farm producing grass fed beef and free range animals.   We actually took it further because our pork and chicken are free range, locally raised by people we know.  They are small scale producers with only 5 to 10 cattle.  The organic farmer I get my chickens and eggs from only has about 20 chickens and a rooster.  There is a notion that grass fed, hormone free beef is more expensive but that simply is not the case.  We pay about $2.30 per lb across board for all cuts of beef, so one pound of sirloin steak will cost us $2.30 as will one pound of ground beef.  The reality is, overall we pay less for our grass fed, hormone free beef than we would pay for store bought than store bought, farm factory raised beef.  We know the cows were treated in a humane fashion during their life-time.  The bottom line is, grass fed, free range beef is the healthier choice in frugal kitchens.  Here's a few pointers:

  • ethical and humane treatment -  Animals raised for food still deserve good and humane treatment over their life-time.  That means they are not caged in areas so small they can barely move.  The farmer usually is a small time producer with a herd numbering under 20 depending on the animal but it is definitely not large scale farming.  The farmer and/or family is tied to the farm and the welfare of the animals meaning they are the primary care givers for those animals.  In most cases, they don't have hired help and if they do, it is likely a seasonal worker to help out if they are away but more likely it is a family member or neighbour that comes in to help the farmer if needed.
  • grass-fed - I honestly cannot stress enough the importance of free-range grazing aka grass-fed.  That means the livestock is not being fed grain, usually corn.  Corn, as used for livestock feed is most likely GMO and proteins from the corn can be rather problematic for the growing number of folks experiencing severe corn allergies.  Grass-fed livestock tend to have stronger immune systems so are healthier requiring less intervention via antibiotics, another growing concern.  Antibiotics given to livestock can leave trace residue in the meat that later affect humans consuming the meat.
  • no growth hormones - Farm factory raised meats are often given growth hormones to get them ready for market quicker.  That is not the case with local producers raising grass-fed beef or other livestock.  Growth hormones can cause a lot of problems in children and are now implicated in the earlier onset of puberty in young girls.
  • eco-friendly - In general, those farmers using grass-fed and free-range methods are those who are most concerned about the environment.  They tend to use green growing methods that have lower carbon footprints.  In most cases, the livestock they sell is sold locally meaning lower transportation costs from farm to table and they don't use practices that pollute the land or waterways.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

My Version of Pigs in a Blanket

My husband and I host a monthly games night that sees anywhere from 15 to 25 plus ourselves.  Then there are the special games nights or all day events like Superbowl, the weekly Sunday gatherings, along with family and friends.  Essentially, we have one or two things going on at our house weekly that involve entertaining.  That means over the course of a one month period, I make a lot of appetizers and finger food!

pigs in a blanket just out of oven
There are just some appetizers and snacks that are always in high demand.  So it is with pigs in a blanket.  The original recipe uses mini hot dogs and Pillsbury refrigerator crescent rolls.  Each package of crescent rolls will yield 8 pigs in a blanket but if you are making a lot of these as I do, wrapping them individually takes more time.  I seriously went through 5 tubes of the Pillsbury refrigerator crescent rolls making these last Saturday!  I have tried other dough coverings but the refrigerator crescent rolls are the ones that always win out perhaps because that is how their Mom's made pigs in a blanket.

I modified the recipe to use Schneiders 100% Juicy Jumbos (wieners).  These wieners contain no fillers, no by-products and no MSG.  These wieners are longer than the regular sized wieners. I open the tube of refrigerator dough but instead of breaking into the crescent triangles, I just separate it into two rectangles (4 triangles each).  Then I place one jumbo wiener at the short end of a rectangle and roll it up.  I bake as per instructions on the tube, 400°F until golden brown as pictured.

Once baked, I remove from the oven, place on a cutting board and cut on the diagonal using a serrated knife.  I pop a wooden toothpick into each slice for serving.  I usually put out dipping bowls of BBQ sauce and sometimes I put cheese in with the wieners, but the big ticket item is the plain pigs in a blanket.

Cut this way, the yield is usually 12 per tube of refrigerator dough instead of 8 wrapped traditional style.  I think making pigs in a blanket this way is a lot easier and they look just as yummy plus I don't have to buy those smaller wieners.  They may look a bit unconventional but the guys love them!

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Kitchen Quick Tips - Save That Bacon Grease

kitchen quick tips
Bacon grease is packed full of flavour.  Use it in place of oil for pan frying chicken, pork or venison.  Use bacon grease when stir frying Brussels sprouts, cabbage or greens.  Stir a bit into potato soup for a bit of extra flavour. Some store bacon grease on in a container on the counter but I prefer to store in the refrigerator or freezer.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Chicken Pot Pies

Years ago as a newlywed, I learned a cardinal rule of frugal cooking that has never failed me.  Left-overs need never taste like left-overs.  They don't even have to look like they were left-overs.  Seriously, one of the biggest mistakes you can make is to serve your family the exact same meal they had the day before just reheated.  That's why left-overs get such a bad rap.  There are so many creative ways to use left-overs that simply reheating can go by the wayside!

the makings of chicken pot pie filling
A couple of days ago I made a quick roast chicken dinner consisting of roasted chicken with baked potatoes and steamed carrots.  I had half of the chicken and the gravy left-over for another meal.   It has been cold and snowy here so last night I de-boned the chicken putting the carcass into the freezer to make stock with later.  I decided to make chicken pot pie with the chicken and gravy.  Pot pie involves a filling thickened to a stew consistency and topped with at least a top crust but can be in a double crust if desired.

There is nothing wrong with mixing left-overs with a bit of fresh cooked or using them as an ingredient in a new dish.  I had no left-over potatoes or carrots so steamed some for the filling then stirred in frozen whole kernel corn and the left-over gravy.  The steamed vegetables were warm which helped mixing in the cold gravy.  Once that was mixed, I stirred in the chicken pieces.

chicken pot pie filling in the casserole pans
Pot pies are usually served in individual serving dishes.  You can buy the aluminium pot pie pans at the dollar store but I prefer to use re-usable oven safe stoneware of which I have a fair number of pieces.  The shape doesn't really matter.  I have round, oval, rectangular and scalloped.  The standard would likely be round the same as you would use for French onion soup.

I poured the chicken mixture into two individual serving size baking dishes and one double serving size one.  At this point the chicken mixture was very much like a thick stew so could have been enjoyed just the way it was but I decided a topping was in order.

cutting the puff pastry
Pot pie has at least some type of topping crust if not double crusted but you can get very creative here.  Anything from biscuit batter to pastry works well.  If I am in a hurry, I like using a drop dough that I would normally use for dumplings.

Puff pastry is a nice topping for pot pies because it is light and flaky.  You can use home made puff pastry but for this dish I used a store bought puff pastry left-over from holiday entertaining.  The rectangular piece of dough was just perfect for cutting into three pieces to fit on top of my filling.

puff pastry on top of the chicken pot pie filling
Trust me, a pot pie topping does not get much easier than using puff pastry sheets.  Simply cut and top even if using home made.  Don't tuck or pinch, just lay the sheet of puff pastry over the filling loosely to allow steam from the hot filling to escape.  It doesn't matter if the dough touches the sides or fully covers the filling because it does puff when it is baking.  If it touches the sides sealing off the filling completely, poke a few holes in the crust with a fork to release some of the steam.  You can lightly brush the dough with melted butter if desired.  This will give a nice golden colour to the crust but it is not necessary if using puff pastry or drop biscuit dough.

chicken pot pie fresh from the oven
Pictured are the chicken pot pies fresh from the oven.  I baked the pot pies until the filling was warmed through, just lightly bubbling and the crust was a golden brown.  The two smaller, individual serving size were served in the baking  dishes as is with a side Caesar salad.  It was a delicious, low cost meal that used up a few left-overs, just perfect for a snowy, winter's day.

Even though I used left-overs, it was fairly easy to make a completely different dish that did not resemble the first.  This is a frugal way to use left-overs.  Did you know that left-overs can actually be hidden in other dishes as ingredients.  For example, if I have a couple of tablespoons of mashed potatoes left, I often use them to thicken soup.  If I have a couple of tablespoons of applesauce left over, I use it in quick breads.  Bits of left-over vegetables find their way into meatloafs.  Get creative with using left-overs if you really want to save money in the kitchen!

[Disclosure: I am part of the Life Made Delicious Blogger program and I receive special perks as part of my affiliation with this group. The opinions on this blog are my own.]

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Cooking With Kids - Quick Roasted Chicken Dinner

Roast chicken is not something a lot of folks would consider making during the week especially working moms.  However, a roast chicken is a rather frugal meal because there is usually left-overs for lunches the following day plus you have the carcass to make stock if desired.  During the week, time is often at a premium.  If you get home at 4:30 PM, the ideal goal is to have dinner on the table by 6 PM but if you have older kids that get home earlier, popping a roast chicken in the oven is about as easy as it gets so dinner can be ready earlier.

roasted chicken out of oven
My favourite way to roast chicken includes stuffing, cooked in the bird, but when wanting a quick roast dinner the stuffing should be omitted.  The bird will quickly roast with the cavity left empty, usually within about 75 minutes.

I am a strong advocate for getting kids into the kitchen cooking and creating as soon as they can stand!  A young kitchen helper could easily get a bird into the oven ready for the parents to take over when they get home although this is better suited to kids about 10 years old and older.  Mom or Dad should rinse the chicken then cover and place in the fridge ready for the child to take over when they get home from school.  Have a small covered roasting pan ready for the young helper who will put the chicken into it.  I will stress small for two reasons.  First, it is easier for the younger cook to lift and second it cooks the chicken faster.  Add 1 c of water, a couple dabs of butter and sprinkle with salt and pepper then lid.  The oven is set to 350°F and place the covered roasting pan in the oven.   That's it.  In an hour and fifteen minutes the chicken and juices will be ready, just in time for the parents to take over.  The juices can be thickened for gravy.  If the child is old enough, they can wash and poke potatoes for baking, placing them in the oven after the roast has been cooking for 45 minutes.

This is my quick version of a roast chicken dinner but don't get the wrong idea, as it is very flavourful.  The meat is tender and juicy.  The only thing missing is the stuffing.  I usually serve with baked potatoes and steamed vegetables, in this case steamed carrots.  I also use a lighter thickener for the gravy since it will be used on the entire plate.

The beauty of this plan is involving your kids.  Our kids were in the kitchen from day one.  Our grandkids are following suite.  Sure there is a lot of things they aren't capable of doing but you would be surprised at what they can do.  I love cooking with my kids.  One of them will say, hey Mom, have you tried this?  We learn from each other and now I have the great pleasure to learn cooking through the eyes of our grandkids, three generations cooking together.  What a wonderful gift that is!

Monday, January 21, 2013

Frugal Kitchens 101 - Continuous Harvest

Frugal Kitchens 101

Last month I focused on discussing my continuous harvest on my gardening blog.  Growing fruits and vegetables indoors is an ideal way to stretch your food dollar.  It is a very frugal activity that the whole family can enjoy while saving money.  Let's put it in perspective.  A head of leaf lettuce costs somewhere between 80¢ and $1.50 during the winter months.  A packet of leaf lettuce seeds costs about $1 but that packet of seeds will give a much greater yield than one head of leaf lettuce.  Fresh herbs in the produce section cost about $2 and you use them up but a potted herb costs mere pennies if you start from seed or the same $2 if you start from clippings in the produce section or buy an established potted herb.  Now, the beauty with herbs is they are cut and come again edible plants that adapt rather nicely to growing indoors.  Two more examples are potatoes and tomatoes. If you grow tomatoes outdoors, take a few clippings then root in water and plant in pots indoors for  fresh tomatoes.  You won't get a huge bumper crop but those tomatoes taste so much nicer than those available in the grocery stores during the winter months.  Everyone has had a sprouted potato that has gone soft.  Cut the potato into quarters with an eye (sprout) in each piece.  Fill 4 - 5 gal pails with soil then plant a potato quarter in each.  You will be rewarded with 4 pails of new potatoes, about 10 or so per pail, just perfect for a free side from something you were going to toss anyway.  Ok, now you have an idea on what a continuous harvest is (growing a year round indoor garden), here are a few tips setting up growing space.

  • what to grow - In general most herbs, smaller fruiting tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, radishes, leaf lettuce, mesclun mix, mustard, cucumbers, bush beans, some varieties of pole beans, sweet peas, zucchini, sweet peppers, spinach and some varieties of strawberries can be grown indoors.  Hot peppers and most melons don't grow indoors well.  Indoor space is too limited to grow most berries or other fruits, or corn but as you can see, there is a fair amount of produce that can be grown indoors year round.
  • plastic trays - Water from over flowing potted plants can damage furniture and floors.  I bought a few plastic kitty litter trays from the dollar store.  I put potted plants in the trays making it easy to move several plants at one time while protecting surfaces from water damage.  
  • space - Space is of course the limiting factor when growing indoors as everything else (eg. lighting, temperature, humidity, water, nutrients) can all be controlled.  I use a lot of the principles of square foot gardening so I always look at ways to 'grow up not out'.  There are all kinds of shelf units available that can be fitted with grow lights and there are several products on the market for growing small (eg. table top, self contained units) for growing indoors.  Of course, there are hooks for hanging edible potted plants from the ceiling.  Sometime, thinking outside of the box works too.  I turned one south facing window in our second home into a lovely grow space by adding shallow shelves that held 4 - inch potted plants.  The window was still functional but it did eliminate the need for curtains on that window.  A small, rigid plastic kiddie pool (bought at an end of season sale for about $5) can be turned into a stunning indoor garden.  Pop all your edible potter plants into the pool, camouflage the edge with a row of plants in self watering containers, add a couple of grow lights and you have lovely, easy to care for, low maintenance indoor garden that can be the focal point of a room as well.
  • time savers - Growing edible plants indoors need not be time consuming.  If anything it is easier than growing outdoors because there are a lot of time savers available.  Use self-watering pots (dollar store, Wal-mart) or make your own using plastic bins.  Watering a couple of times a month is likely all you will need from there especially if the heat or AC is not on.  Use water bulbs in potted plants, another dollar store find that works quite nicely to lessen the number of times you need to water.  An inexpensive indoor drip watering system can be set up using plastic aquarium tubing.  This clear tubing can be discretely run to water all your plants from a single location.  I use wooden plant dollies with plastic casters (dollar store find) to move larger plants around when needed.  The casters don't mar up our laminate, tile or marble flooring and I don't have to worry about injuring myself moving heavier plants.
  • successive plantings - Some plants (eg. herbs) are cut and come again meaning the plant will continue to grow and produce even though you harvest some of it.  Never harvest more than a third of the plant.  Other plants like leaf lettuce are depleted upon harvesting.  For that reason, grow them in larger pots and treat them the way you would in a square foot garden by repeated sowings.  If it is a plant you use a lot of, plant multiple pots then combine with repeated sowings as a pot is harvested to ensure a steady supply.  For example, plant four pots a day or two apart with leaf lettuce.  As the first one matures to harvest, the next one will be a couple of days behind and so on.  Harvest some or all of the first pot, work up the soil a bit and sow more seeds.  Continue in this fashion for a steady supply.  You can do the same with any vegetable grown indoors, adjusting the spacing between plantings as desired.
  • cost - For very little investment, even as low as $0 you can easily have a rather productive indoor garden set up.  Honestly, most equipment can be found for free and chances are you already have what you need on hand.  The cheapest way to get seeds is to collect them yourself either from your outdoor garden or even from some of the produce you purchase in the grocery store.  Seed exchanges are a cheap source for seeds for only the price of a stamp.  Electricity for lighting should be minimal as well if you use CFL bulbs.  I have spent about $20 so far establishing an indoor garden here that is still very much a work in progress.  A lot of the materials, shelving and planters can easily be found on Freecycle or very cheap at yard sales.  Higher end, self-contained growing stations will cost somewhere between $50 and $80 but there is a return on that investment so they can pay for themselves.  The biggest expense with indoor growing is the energy to operate any grow lights.  Grow lights are necessary indoors to give the proper light spectrum for healthy plant growth.   In general grow lights are incandescent, fluorescent, CFL and LED.  Forget incandescent grow lights.  They are cheap to buy but can increase your hydro bill by $20 or more a month.  LED lights are expensive to buy but very cheap to operate.  The standard in growing indoors has been the fluorescent tube lighting but the newer and cheaper to operate CFL grow lights are now on the market.  CFL bulbs should be in the higher wattage range and despite a bit higher cost of operation as opposed to lower wattage CFL, they are still less expensive to operate than fluorescent tube lighting.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Quiche Revisited

Years ago when our four kids were still quite young (none in school), I got to know a few young moms with kids.  Our kids played while we chit chatted over coffee, a fairly regular morning routine.  We'd take turns making cookies or some type of snack to enjoy.  A lot of that chit chat revolved around food, sharing recipes and tips.  One of the moms shared her tomato and broccoli quiche recipe.  The first time I made it, I omitted the tomatoes making it a broccoli quiche.  This versatile dish quickly became and remains a family favourite.

I have made this quiche so many times, I don't need to refer to the recipe.  The original recipe has bacon in it but I have substituted ham.  I have also substituted spinach and Swiss chard for the broccoli.  I normally make the quiche using a home made pie crust.  It is an inexpensive, frugal dish that always goes over well.

Quiche freezes nicely!  We arrived home from our winter vacation on December 20, 2012 to immediately jump into holiday entertaining.  Some of that meant our kids and grandkids staying overnight for a couple of nights so we had quite the full house.  My husband, aiming to make things easy bought four ready to use frozen pie crusts.  Then he bought three dozen eggs thinking we would go through a lot with hot breakfasts.  So the first week of January, I had eggs and a lot of left-overs to use up.

Pictured are two of the four quiches I made to use up some of the eggs and pie crusts.  Two of the quiche were used for dinner that night and my husband's lunch the following day.  Two were wrapped for the freezer.  My freezer space is at a premium right now but it was nice to be able to put a couple of ready meals up for later use.

Normally when freezing quiche, I use home made crust but aluminium pie plates bought at the dollar store.  I usually make six at a time.  The dollar store has a wide variety of aluminium trays in various sizes perfect for freezing casseroles in.  The best price I have found for the deeper dish, rectangular casserole trays is Sam's Club at 30 for $6.98 or 23¢ but you have to buy 30 at a time which is fine for me but if you aren't doing a lot of bulk cooking, the dollar store may be a better option.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Chile con Carne with Cheesy Garlic Bread

January is very much a laid back, catch-up month for us rounding up the end of our winter vacation in December, the holidays and entertaining, as well as re-adjusting to the cold weather and getting the house up and running smoothly.  The first week of January I started a batch of yogurt, sour cream, sour dough starter and turned my attention to grocery shopping for produce and dairy.  My husband came down with a cold so I focused on home-made comfort meals.  The down time gave me a bit of time to plan what food preservation needed to be done.  Then by the second week of January I was sick and it hung on [I sure wish we would get a hard freeze to kill off all the germs!] so it was relying on the pantry and freezers.

chili from the freezer served with cheesy garlic bread
Chili con carne is one of our favourite home made meals.  Whether made with beef or venison, my version does contain beans that are cooked fresh when making a large batch or home canned if making a small batch.  The reality is, it takes as much work to make a huge batch of chili con carne as it does a smaller one.  I personally prefer to make the largest batch possible.  I home can chili con carne and it freezes nicely.  I usually freeze in 4 to 6 serving size.  It warms up nicely on the stove top or in the slow cooker.  Even if you don't home can the chili, this is one convenience product that can be frozen for a quick meal.

January is very much a fresh start month so we are rather busy but that doesn't mean we can't eat well.  I partially thawed a smaller container of chili con carne from the freezer.  Freezing chile con carne is very easy.  Once it is finished cooking, quick cool then ladle into freezer containers or freezer bags.  It can be froze in a container then popped out into a vacuum bag and vacuum sealed if desired.   If reheating on the stove top the chili need only be thawed enough to be able to get it out of the container.  I put it in a saucepan with just a little water then heat through.  If I am doing a larger amount for entertaining, I thaw the chili then reheat using a slow cooker.

Chili con carne is often served with soda crackers, tortilla or nacho chips, or corn bread.  I like serving it with cheesy garlic bread.  This is very easy to make and there are even ready to use, pre-made garlic bread loaves available, however home-made cheesy garlic bread is ever so easy to make.  I like using a home made French baguette but other breads can be used.

Method:  Use thick sliced home-made Italian style bread to make the cheesy garlic bread.  Lightly toast the bread in the oven.  Cut a garlic clove in half and rub over the surface of the toasted bread.  An alternative method is to brush the bread with garlic butter (finely chopped garlic blended into soft butter with a bit of parsley).  Top each slice generously with shredded mozzarella cheese.  Bake at 400°F until cheese is bubbly and just lightly browning.

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Versatility of Tomato Sauce

Last September I was extremely busy home canning ten hampers of tomatoes into various tomato products.  The total yield was 206 jars ranging in size from 250 ml to 1 L for a total volume of 111.5 L.  This may seem like a large amount but the goal is to home can enough to last from one growing season to the next.  Trust me, this will not be enough to last us a full year.   Guaranteed, we will run out of some of the tomato products well before the next harvest.

The number one question I get when someone sees our pantry for the first time is 'Why?' followed by 'What do you do with all of it?'  Well, the easy answer really is to explain that this is my grocery store so unlike most home makers, I'm not spending my time in the grocery store each week.  It is a way for us to avoid the horrendous amount of food additives, excess salt, HFCS and preservatives the food industry is so good pushing at us without acknowledging the health ramifications.  Essentially, my goal stocking our pantry with good, healthy and safe foods by taking responsibility in doing so.  The bonus of home food preservation and cooking from scratch is the monetary savings.   As to what I do with all of it...

spaghetti with roasted Italian sauce with mushrooms
I have been making roasted tomato sauces for a number of years so have developed several versions like fire roasted Italian tomato sauce with mushrooms.  This is a full bodied with a rich, deep flavour.  It makes for a quick, heat and serve over spaghetti as a meatless meal as pictured.  That is fresh parsley clipped from my continuous indoor garden.

On average, my tomato sauces cost 30¢ to 50¢ per L taking into account all costs (eg. lid, additional ingredients, cooking fuel).  With a 750 ml jar of this home canned tomato sauce, spaghetti and a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese, Caesar salad and home made bread or rolls , I can feed 4 adults for under $3 and still have left-overs.  The beauty of this sauce is, while it is an excellent quick sauce for pasta, it a very versatile sauce.  I use an immersion blender for those dishes if I don't want the larger chunks like mushrooms in some of my sauces but in general all the uses listed can be done with any tomato sauce.  A variety of home canned tomato sauces will always earn their keep in our pantry to help use eat healthy, frugal, home cooked meals.

Here are some of the ways I use my many home canned tomato sauces:

  • a sauce over meatloaf, burger patties or chicken
  • a sauce to cook meatballs or chicken in; brown the meat first then finish cooking in the sauce for tender, juicy results
  • a liquid for poaching fish in
  • a liquid for cooking rice in
  • a blush sauce (mixed with béchamel sauce) for pasta or chicken 
  • an ingredient in meatloaf, burger patties, and casseroles (eg. pasta based, cabbage rolls, chicken)
  • topping for baked brie or cream cheese served with crackers
  • a topping for twice baked potatoes (sauce, pepperoni or bacon, shredded cheese)
  • an ingredient for dip (sour cream, sauce, Parmesan cheese blended in food processor then topped with shredded cheddar cheese)
  • as a dip for cheese, bread sticks, pizza crust or chicken wings
  • as a pizza sauce
  • an olive tapenade (sauce, chopped olives, roasted red peppers, capers, fresh parsley) served with crackers
  • an ingredient in soups, stews, breads or biscuits
  • as a spread in panini 
  • a base for baked beans and sloppy joes

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Kitchen Quick Tips - Frying Bacon

kitchen quick tips

Sprinkle a little sugar in the skillet when frying bacon to prevent sticking.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Homemade Verses Store Bought Plain Waffles

There are a multitude of small kitchen appliances available, many of which can save you a substantial amount of money over their lifetime.  Some are a more frugal choice than others and as always it depends on your needs.  For example, if you are buying store bought frozen waffles to have on hand for quick hot breakfasts, then consider a waffle maker.  They start at under $20 on sale ranging into the high end of about $150.  Consider too that waffles aren't just for breakfast any more.  You can make some rather tasty desserts using waffles and savory waffles can be used in the place of biscuits for dinner. The payback period on a waffle maker is about 6 months to a year depending on how you use it.

the new Cuisinart Belgian waffle maker in action
One of our kids very generously gifted us with a Cuisinart 4-Slice Belgian Waffle Maker (WAF-100C).  This maker produces waffles with deep pockets to hold more toppings.  There are five settings for browning control as well as ready-to-bake and ready-to-eat lights with audible signals.  The plates are non-stick so only need washing then a light oiling before use.

Another of our kids who has had a waffle maker for a few years showed me how to use the waffle maker while giving me a few tips.  The grandkids and adults enjoyed fresh made waffles for breakfast that morning.

The following week I decided to do a test run myself.  I had two goals in mind.  The first goal was learning how to use the waffle maker and find the sweet spot for perfect browning.  The second goal was to do a comparison of the price of store bought frozen waffles, to those made with a store bought mix, then finally to waffles made with homemade batter.

waffles just cooked in the waffle maker
I had just enough Krusteaz pancake and waffle mix to make four waffles.  This is a mix that only requires the addition of water that the guys like for hunt camp.  I mixed up the batter then poured into the heated waffle maker.

According to the manual, it takes a bit of experimenting to determine the right amount of batter needed.  They suggest two cups of batter poured evenly over the bottom then quickly spread with a heat resistant spatula before closing the lid.  Obviously, I have to work on my technique a bit but as my first attempt, I was rather pleased.

comparing the rise on store bought mix verses homemade
The next batch of waffles was made with the basic waffle recipe that came in the Cuisinart manual.  I did a test batch by halving the recipe to make 8 waffles.  What really impressed me was the higher rise using the homemade batter (right).  Clearly, the homemade batter gave nicer results but the true test was the taste.

The waffles made with the store bought mix were good.  They were fluffy with a nice flavour.  The waffles made with the homemade mix were fluffier with a cleaner flavour (aka no chemical overtones).

Basic Waffles
modified from: Cuisinart Instruction Booklet, WAF-100, Pp. 7

3 c unbleached all-purpose flour
3 tbsp organic granulated sugar
1½ tbsp baking powder
¾ tsp baking soda

¾ tsp sea salt
2½ c milk
½ c plus 1 tbsp vegetable oil
3 large eggs, slightly beaten

Combine the ingredients in the order listed in the bowl of a stand mixer.  Blend until smooth.  Let the batter rest 5 minutes before using.  Pre-heat the waffle maker then pour about 2 c of the batter onto the centre of the lower grid.  Spread evenly with a heatproof spatula.  Close the lid and cook until the tone sounds.  Open lid and carefully remove the waffles.

cooled waffles ready for packaging
Overall, I was very impressed at the ease and cost of using a homemade waffle mix.  The results in terms of rise and flavour was superior to using a store bought mix.  Store bought frozen waffles cost about $4 for 12 or 43¢ each.  Homemade waffles using a store bought mix cost about 8¢ each and those using a scratch batter cost about 6¢ each.  Now there isn't a huge difference in cost between store bot mix and scratch batter but with scratch you aren't getting all the additives.  You are getting 8 ingredients rather than a whole list of chemicals.  Another thing you aren't getting with home-made is all that extra packaging.  Homemade waffles are about 20% larger than the store bought frozen version so that's something to consider as well.

waffles ready for the freezer
The cooled, stacked waffles were ready for packaging for the freezer.  Home-made waffles reheat in the toaster just like store bought so you still have the convenience of a quick, hot breakfast.  I packaged 4 waffles per freezer bag each separated by a piece of parchment paper and pressing the air out of the bags.  I didn't vacuum seal them as they are meant for short term storage in the freezer.

This is just a really easy way to put healthy, hot breakfasts on the table with a minimal of effort while saving a considerable amount of money.  The two batches took me under 15 minutes so I can't complain at being able to stock the freezer with waffles ready to pop into the toaster being time consuming at all.  An easy way to do this would be to make a double batch of batter, then freeze what isn't used that day.  On the other hand, if you are making waffles for a family and need a larger amount, in a half hour you can easily make 64 waffles by making a triple batch of the basic (recall I halved so double then triple).  The cooking time is very minimal so you can really make a lot of these in a very short period of time.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Baked Pizza Penne

After a busy holiday season right on the heels of returning from our vacation home only a day before the holiday festivities started for us, I have been relying on tried and tested home cooked meals.  At the same time, I am anxious to try out a few new dishes always in the hope of finding that next family favourite.  The new Foodland Ontario calendar arrived just before we left in late November so I didn't have a chance to go through it.  Last week I had a chance to read through the recipes for 2013 and immediately decided to make the Baked Pizza Penne (March) for dinner that night.

The calendar specifies Ontario is several of the ingredients which is great since they are promoting our beautiful province but you can get the same results by using local produce from your are if outside of Ontario.  Both my home canned tomato products were made with Ontario tomatoes but then the vast amount of the foods we consume are grown or produced in Ontario.  A wide variety of produce during the winter months.

baked pizza penne just out of the oven
Reading through this recipe I quickly realized it would be very easy to modify to include your favourite pizza toppings while leave the base flavours.  I modified the recipe because as always a recipe is just the starting point and I'm a firm believer in using what's on hand.  The original recipe can be found in the calendar and on the Foodland Ontario website.  My version follows below.

The baked pizza penne just out of the oven smelled delicious and it looked very much like the picture in the calendar so I was rather pleased.  I baked it in the largest stoneware casserole dish (9" x 13") of my KitchenAid 5 piece set bought at 70% off at Canadian Tire shortly after we moved here. Canadian Tire is the store to watch the sale flyers, one day sales and clearance bins as kitchen items are often on sale 40% to 70%.  I find that the stoneware gives nicer results for most casseroles in comparison to my ancient but still very function glass casserole dishes.

baked pizza penne served
I used bulk sausage in place of the pepperoni as I had some left-over from holiday entertaining that I wanted to use up.  I used home canned tomato paste and crushed tomatoes.  There is a flavour difference using home canned over store bought.  I also used organic raw coconut oil in place of the vegetable oil and used grated Guyere in place of the Parmesan as I had run out.  It was a cold, wet day with high winds that I didn't feel like walking to the store.  I omitted the hot pepper flakes and reduced the salt.

The baked pizza penne certainly did not disappoint!  It had nice mild pizza flavour and I did like the texture.  This is a casserole I would tweak just a bit more the next time I make it.  My husband said it needed more cheese to mimic the extra cheese we like on our pizza.  I thought it could have a bit strong pizza flavour.  What I really like about this recipe is the versatility!  You could use one or more meats of your choice to mimic a meat lover's pizza, you could eliminate the meat for a cheese pizza flavour and add anything that strikes your fancy as a pizza topping.

Baked Pizza Penne
modified from:  Foodland Ontario, 2013 Calender, March

1 onion chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 red sweet pepper
2 tbsp organic raw coconut oil
3 c (750 ml) home canned crushed tomatoes or 28 oz store bought crushed or diced
2 tbsp tomato paste
1½ tsp dried basil
1½ tsp organic granulated sugar
1 tsp dried oregano
½ tsp sea salt
2 c browned mild bulk sausage
2½ penne pasta
1 1/3 c shredded mozzarella cheese
¼ c shredded Guyere cheese

Cook the pasta in boiling water 8 to 10 minutes until al dente.  Drain well and return to pot.  While the pasta is cooking chop the onion, mince the garlic and dice the sweet pepper.  Brown the sausage, breaking up the pieces well.  Drain.  Heat the oil in a deep frypan then stir in vegetables.  Cook over medium heat 5 minutes.  Stir in tomatoes,tomato paste, herbs, sugar, salt.  Bring to a boil then stir in sausage.  Simmer 15 minutes.  Pour the sauce over the pasta and mix well.  Pour mixture into baking dish.  Top with cheeses.  Bake at 400°F/200°C for 20 minutes or until cheese is golden brown.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Frugal Kitchens 101 - Year Round Preserving

Frugal Kitchens 101
Here in the beautiful wintery wonderland of Ontario, we are hunkered down for the cold and chill the reality of winter brings.  We spent a total of six weeks spanning two trips of the last quarter of 2012 at our vacation home in Florida so really had four days to do any prep when we arrived home.  Between prep, family, friends and gatherings it was a very busy and tiring end to 2012!  The holidays are over and being mid-January, things are pretty much back to normal.  Quite often the days are cold, damp, and dreary so I don't want to be outdoors.  This is the time of year my attention turns to doing a bit of home preserving that doesn't have to be done during the busy canning season (mid-May through mid-October).  I don't mind so much running the dehydrator, canner or even the oven to do extra baking for a bit of homemade convenience for those times I don't want the heat in the house.  It's also a wonderful time to take a half hour to assemble a few cake, cookie and dry soup mixes as well as add a few casseroles and other goodies to the freezer.  I personally like to can a few soups, stews, stocks and beans during this time as well but if you don't can, you can still make all these homemade convenience products and freeze them.  It is just a great way to help stock the pantry and feezers that in most cases takes me about a half hour a week for making dry mixes or doughs for the freezer.  The canner usually runs once a week but anything I am canning is very low prep and I can work on other things while the canner is running.  A mini bulk cooking session for the freezer depends on the complexity of the dish with some casseroles taking more prep but things like waffles and pancakes less than a half hour.  Here's a few of the things I will be doing over the next few weeks with a few tips.

  • waffles/pancakes/French toast - All of these have become rather popular sellers in the freezer section of the grocery store but did you know you can save a lot of money making your own and freezing them for later use?  'Tis true.  Store bought freezer waffles cost about $4 for 12 but home-made costs between 40¢ - 70¢ for 16 to 20 waffles and takes only about 15 minutes of time if that.  Not only that, my home-made versions are healthier for you with no preservatives, HFCS or artificial anything AND they are every bit as convenient as store bought so a quick hot breakfast is only as far as the toaster.
  • beans - This is the time of year I love canning dried beans for easy and convenient ready to use beans (eg. brown beans, kidney, navy, black).  The beans are soaked overnight then home canned without cooking however, if you cook them they can also be frozen.  Now one thing I haven't tried but am planning on trying is cooking the beans then seasoning and mashing.  The mash is spread out on a drying sheet then dried and powdered to be used for instant refried beans.  It sounds interesting.
  • stocks - I save bones throughout the year to be made into stock when I have time aside of the busiest of the canning year.  Once I have enough bones accumulated, I make stock that in my case is home canned but can easily be frozen.
  • soups/stews - I make a lot of soups and stews from scratch but I also like to stock the pantry and freezers with home made versions to be used when it is too hot to cook.  During this time, the soups and stews are more meat and root vegetable based, depending on when the organic meat and poultry is available.
  • bread crumbs/croutons - I do a lot more bread making during the winter months so tend to make a lot more bread crumbs and croutons for use through-out the year.  Both use up the last bits of home made bread.  They can be stored in the pantry for short term storage or in the freezer for longer term storage.
  • casseroles - By far the two favourite casseroles that I make in bulk for the freezer are lasagna and quiche followed as a close runner up by cottage pies.  The amount I make in one bulk cooking session is very much dependent on available freezer space.
  • jams/jellies - If I have more fruit than can be processed during the busiest of the canning year, I often freeze it to make into jams when it isn't as busy.  This is also the perfect time to make jellies from wine or organic juices as well as herbed jellies from herbs grown indoors.
  • dehydrating - This is the prime time for me making beef jerky, powdered citrus peel, as well as citrus slices and coconut.
  • mixes - I make up several mixes (eg. baking, cake, pasta starts, hamburger helpers etc) usually over a period a week focusing only on mixes.  This takes a bit more planning.  Day 1, I make a list of the mixes I want to make and the number of jars, then make a shopping list for the bulk food store, pick-up my supplies then organize into ingredients per mix.  Day 2 through 4 or 5, I work assembly line style to quickly fill the jars with the desired mixes.  Each mix takes me anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes to jar ready for vacuum sealing and labelling.  Set-up is minimal requiring the recipes, measuring cups/spoons, ingredients and jars with lids.  Clean-up is minimal as well since several of the ingredients are completely used in the mixes with no left-overs.  In total, I spend about 30 minutes per mix session, usually one session per day during that week.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Pot Roast

There is nothing better than enjoying a pot roast on a cold winter's day.  The beauty of a pot roast is a whole meal is made with very little effort.  The roast itself need not be thawed either depending on your cooking method.  Not only is there minimal prep, the house smells tantalizing as the roast cooks filling the air with mouth watering aromas.  A pot roast is a win, win regardless of how you cook it.

pot roast
Pot roast is a braised beef dish are generally the less tender cuts of beef like rump or chuck roast.  The slower cooking combined with liquid and vegetables help tenderize the meat.  The thing is a pot roast is about as old of the hills, appearing on our ancestors' tables eons ago and pot roast is still about one of the most frugal winter meals you can make.

There are several ways to cook a pot roast but first things first.  There are the basic ingredients you will need in addition to the roast.

  • meat - Choose a nice cut of beef, trimmed of excess fat.  This is one time you do want to trim the fat because you likely won't be defatting the gravy before serving.
  • vegetables - The most common additions for a pot roast are potatoes, onions and carrots.  Parsnips and mushrooms are good additions as is cabbage wedges.  There is no reason why you cannot add whole kernel corn, small pieces of corn on the cob or even rutabaga or squash.  If adding tender vegetables like sweet peas or broccoli, add them very close to the end of cooking or cook them separately to serve as a side dish.
  • liquid - The most common liquid used for a pot roast is water but you get better results using beef stock, tomato stock (tenderizer, flavour boost), red wine or beer.  
  • thickeners - The most common thickener is a cornstarch slurry however, you can use tapioca, wheat or arrowroot flour.  You can also choose to not thicken the gravy.
  • seasonings -  In general, you don't need a lot of seasonings to make a good pot roast.  I usually add garlic pepper or Canadian steak spice, a bay leaf, Worcestershire sauce and quite often browning sauce.
Next up is cooking methods.  Remember you are braising which means using some type of liquid.  That means you have a few pieces of kitchen equipment to work with.  At your disposal are: roasting pan in oven or outdoor grill, countertop oven, slow cooker and pressure cooker.  You can even use an aluminium foil packet on the grill.  All can give very good results.  By far, the pressure cooker is the quickest way to get a tender pot roast on the table but busy home-makers may prefer the slow cooker.
  • pressure cooker - A pressure cooker operates at 8 lb pressure (low) or 15 lb pressure (high) so food cooks fast and the pressure tenderizes tougher cuts of meat.  In general, a tender and juicy pot roast takes a total of 56 minutes on low or 30 minutes on high.  Browning the roast in the bottom of the pressure cooker before cooking will add both flavour and colour.  The roast need not be thawed just increase the cooking time.
  • roasting pan - The traditional roaster is the way most folks cook pot roasts in the oven or on the grill.  It is low cost, effective with good results but takes a longer cooking time.  The roast need not be thawed but if starting from frozen, you will need to increase the cooking time.  Start the prepared roast at 275°F in covered roasting pan adding root vegetables and mushrooms mid-way through cooking, add thickening slurry after removing vegetables and meat for serving.  Strain the gravy.
  • clay baker - I really love doing a small pot roast in the clay baker.  While it works pretty much the same as a roasting pan, it gives moister results.  The reason being is a clay baker is always soaked before using so moisture is high during the cooking process.
  • countertop roaster -  A countertop roaster is a bit more energy efficient and doesn't heat the kitchen like the oven does.  It does cook faster and at a lower temperature because there is a reduced volume.  Start cooking the prepared roast at 225°.  The roast need not be thawed. After the half-way mark for cooking add root vegetables and treat as you would using a roasting pan.  
  • Dutch oven - Traditionally a pot roast was cooked in a cast iron Dutch oven hung over the fire in the fireplace.  When we heated with wood and when camping, I cooked many a pot roast using a Dutch oven.  A cast iron Dutch oven gives wonderful results when cooking a pot roast.  It is used much like a roaster but cooked over wood fired heat.
  • slow cooker -  Newer slow cookers run a bit hotter than older models so do consider that.  In general it will take 4 to 6 hours cooking a pot roast in a slow cooker depending on the setting.  In this case, you do want to start with a thawed roast.  Essentially and unlike other pot roast cooking methods, everything except the slurry and tender vegetables are added at the same time then allowed to cook together for the entire period.  For best results, the roast should be browned before adding to the slow cooker for both colour and flavour.  

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Expanding the Drying Space on My Dehydrator

In August of 2012, I bought a Nesco® All American Harvest® Dehydrator & Jerky Maker at Home Hardware since I no longer have my Jenn-Aire slide-in range as I went to natural gas when we bought this house.  My ancient Mr Coffee Maker stand-alone dehydrator quit back in 2005 and I didn't bother replacing because the Jenn-Aire had a dehydrating setting.  Well, Home Hardware had had the FD-61, 500 W, expandable to 12 trays on sale so I bought one.  It had to be ordered in on a rain cheque but I still got it at the sale price of $65.  I had considered ordering extra trays at the same time but wanted to see how the dehydrator performed.

snackmaster add-a-tray for Nesco dehydrator
The extra trays were $20 for two so expanding to the full 12 trays would cost me an additional $160 plus HST bringing my initial investment close to the cost of a smaller Excalibur dehydrator.  The reality is only a small portion of our food storage goes into home dried foods. Don't get me wrong as I do dry a lot, just no as much as some do.  Now that we are settled into our new home, I will likely do a bit more dehydrating.  One of my projects is to make more home dried foods that could easily be popped into our backpacks when flying down to our vacation home.  Liquids are restricted to a quart bag, 3 oz per container so that eliminates taking any home canned foods.

We stopped at a Bed, Bath and Beyond while we were doing Christmas shopping.  They had my exact same dehydrator and beside it the add-a-trays priced at $9.99 for two.  I popped one box into the cart figuring that it was a good deal and I may not want to fully expand to the 12 trays so reasoned that buying 2 at a time as needed would be the more frugal choice.  My old Mr Coffee was a five tray, round model that served us nicely for several years.

new trays added to dehydrator
My dehydrator has light grey speckled trays but the trays in the package were solid white for the FD-40, FD-50 and FD-60 series.  They are identical in every way except for colour.  They fit perfectly and really, the colour difference might come in handy when drying two or more types of foods.  For the price savings, I can live with two colours of trays!  Besides my husband and I will more than likely be the only ones seeing it and others would realize it isn't supposed to be a stripped effect when assembled.

At that price, I now have $75 into the dehydrator.  If I expand again, it will cost me another $10 for a total of $85 investment, something that would be recouped during the first year of dehydrating depending on use.  Each 2 tray expansion kit gives an additional 1.73 sq feet of drying space meaning each tray is 0.865 sq feet of drying space.  With 6 trays I now have a total of 5.19 sq feet of drying space which is a fair amount of drying space.  Whether or not that is enough drying space for my plans remains to be seen so I will expand further if needed.

Friday, January 11, 2013

President's Choice The Great Canadian Single Serve Coffee Pod

My husband and I love our coffee.  By far we prefer coffee made in our vintage 1950's perculator which brews excellent coffee.  However, it is not convenient if only wanting to brew a single cup.  The Melitta Espresso & Cappuccino maker brews a lovely coffee but it is more for speciality coffees rather than daily use.  Several years ago, we bought a Melitta One:One single serve coffee maker that used round pods similar to Tetley tea bags.  The biggest problem we had was finding the coffee pods for the Melitta so when it started leaking, I splurged on a new Keurig single serve coffee maker in 2011.  As with our last house, the Keurig is one of two small kitchen appliances that have earned a place on the counter, never put into storage.

President's Choice The Great Canadian single serve coffee pods
I bought a My K-cup reusable filtering system for the Keurig with my initial purchase.  K-cups are expensive at about 80¢ per cup whereas using store bought or fresh ground coffee, the price goes down to 8¢ per cup.  My main concern with the K-cups has not been price, it has been waste.  The K-cups cannot go in the recycle bin although they can be emptied into the compost then the cup and foil top tossed.

K-cups are convenient.  I did find an online source that sold certain K-cups as low as 40¢ each and was happy with my order but after several high pressure emails followed by a multitude of spam from them, I won't deal with them again!  Sam's Club is the best price for K-cups followed by Bed Breakfast and Beyond but our local No Frills has been putting the K-cups on sale as well.  I was looking for a few extra K-cups for holiday entertaining and came across the President's Choice The Great Canadian single serve coffee pods.  A twelve pack was $4.99 (42¢) so I decided to try them even though I am a bit leery of cheap K-cups.  I brought back a package of Grove Square K-cups from Florida only to find out it's instant coffee!

comparison of K-cup to soft-bottom single serve pod
The President's Choice The Great Canadian single serve coffee pods are a unique soft-bottom single serve pod.  There is no hard plastic cup as in a K-cup (left).  If using a K-cup, it is placed in the K-cup holder then punctured top and bottom before the brewing process.  If using a My K-cup reusable filter system, the K-cup holder is replaced with the filtering system so nothing is punctured.  The soft-bottom pods are somewhat in between with the pod being placed in the K-cup holder but only punctured on the top.  Essentially, they are as convenient as K-cups, less expensive and have none of the mess of cleaning a reusable filter.  The box does indicate that the soft-bottom pods will work with most single brewers using Keuring Incorporated brewing systems but they are not affiliated with or approved by Keurig.  On the same note, I am aware of three other reusable systems other than My K-cup (Keurig) that can be used in Keurig systems that aren't affiliated or approved by Keurig.

K-cup and soft-bottom single serve pod after use
It's hard to get a picture of both puncture marks on the K-cup (left) but there is a puncture on the bottom as well.  Once the K-cup has been used the foil top can be removed and the coffee grinds put into the compost.  While there are many ways to reuse the actual plastic cup, in most cases they will end up in the waste because a lot of municipalities don't allow unmarked plastics in the blue bin.

The soft-bottom pod has only a puncture in the top and the bottom becomes firm as the coffee swells during brewing.  The foil top can be removed then pushing hard bottom to top the soft bottom and coffee will pop off the ring for the compost.  You are left with a small, plastic ring considerably smaller than the K-cup.  I'm sure I will come up with a few ways to reuse these rings but if tossing, they should be cut to prevent any problems with wildlife strangling.

storing K-cups and soft-bottom single serve pods
One of the biggest differences in the soft-bottom coffee pods is the package which overall is less than K-cups.  K-cups are usually kept in some type of rack right beside the brewer for easy access.  So you walk past the rack and all of a sudden want a coffee!  I usually buy K-cups in bulk from Sam's Club, occasionally buying a flavoured coffee on sale when I find it.  Neither of us are much into flavoured coffee but some of our guests are.  I have a couple of boxes and a plastic bin of K-cups so just restock the rack as needed.  However, the soft-bottom coffee pods cannot be stored in the rack for convenient use.  The reason being, there is nothing to stop the coffee from losing its aromatic flavour.

The soft-bottom coffee pods are packaged in a vacuum sealed, foil pouch inside a small cardboard box, both of which can be recycled.  The pods should be stored in the pouch, in the refrigerator for best flavour.  Another downside to the President's Choice soft-bottom coffee pods is the are only available in medium roast and west coast dark roast but both gourmet coffess made with 100% Arabica coffee.  I suspect they may introduce flavoured coffee pods but again, if you are looking for a nice alternative to K-cups, this coffee is good.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Kitchen Quick Tips - Cooking Bacon on an Outdoor Grill

kitchen quick tips
Cooking a larger amount of bacon is a cinch using an outdoor grill.  Heat the grill to medium then brush of the grate.  Place the strips of bacon directly on the grate across the rungs.  Cook moving the strips as necessary to prevent flare-ups, turning once until desired crispness.  Remove from grill.  There's no need to drain.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Artisan Sweet Cherry Bread

I grew up in a small town (pop. ~ 2,000).  One of my greatest pleasures as a child was waking up to the smell of bread baking from the local bakery less than a two minute run from our house.  I would quickly dress, get 50¢ from my Mom then out the door I would go anticipating the delicious flavour of fresh baked bread.  I'd arrive back at the house with the bread still warm.  This really was the best of artisan bread!

At one time, small Mom & Pop bakeries could be found in most villages, towns and even cities all featuring artisan breads.  Artisan breads are those crafted in small batches rather than massed produced.  Great attention is paid to the quality of ingredients.  Unlike massed produced 'stay fresh forever' breads, artisan breads do not contain HFCS, preservatives, artificial flavours or artificial colours.  As a result artisan breads do not keep as long so are best used within a day or two.  They are healthier for you!  Home-made breads made from scratch and baked in the oven or on the grill are considered artisan.  Breads made in a bread-machine are not because part of the results differ from handmade, oven baked.  Artisan breads are as much about the process as they are the ingredients and delicious end results.  Artisan breads are often referred to as speciality breads.

artisan sweet cherry bread
The small bakery of my childhood is no longer a bakery.  The very small, and I do mean small bakery in the village (pop. ~ 1,100) we lived in a few years back closed leaving the villagers quite disappointed.  The bakery in the town (pop. ~11,000) closed back in the 1980's leaving the town without a bakery.  About three years ago, a small bakery opened up down town featuring artisan breads.  I bake a lot of bread and always have, mostly artisan breads.

We have been fairly lucky at finding artisan bakeries during our travels.  One tourist village a few kilometres from where we enjoyed camping had a very tiny (about 8' square) bakery but the bread was baked in the most amazing outdoor oven I've ever seen.  That bread was incredible!  We haven't found an artisan bakery near our vacation home but there is an onsite small bakery at the Publix featuring fresh baked, artisan breads.  What has become increasing more common is small artisan bakeries selling their products through the big box stores.

We stopped at a Meijer's on the way home from our vacation.  They carry a small selection of artisan breads from a Michigan artisan bakery.  I thought the sweet cherry bread topped with icing would be a festive dish to take to the party we were attending the following day.  This was a delicate pink yeast bread dotted with maraschino cherries.  The icing was a simple thick icing sugar icing with just a hint of almond.  Almond extract is often used with cherries because it enhances the flavour of the cherries.  This would be rather easy to duplicate at home using a sweet yeast bread base (eg. the base used for cinnamon bread) then substitute maraschino cherries for the raisins and almond extract for the cinnamon, then adjusting to desired consistency.  I would add the cherries in just before finishing the first knead to prevent too much crushing.  Hmm, sounds like a bread experiment in development :)

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Flatout Flatbread Turkey Pinwheels

We arrived home from our vacation home on December 20, spent the day shopping before finally arriving home.  The next day we had a party that involved bringing a dish on December 21.  Now, I am good at pulling off last minute dishes but I was tired and had been feeling under the weather for well over a month.  One of my quick stand-bys is spirals which can be made with any type of filling using home-made or store bought tortilla shells.  We stopped at a Meijer's on the way home where I spotted a new to me product called Flatout Pinwheel Lavash Flatbread made in Saline, Michigan.  Essentially, this is a flour tortilla shell formed into a rectangle so you get more spirals out of it with less waste.  It is a lower carb, high fiber flat bread.  I popped two packets of 4 pinwheel lavash flat bread into the cart.

preparing the flatout flat bread
Lavash flat bread is an Armeenian soft, thin flat bread similar in texture to flour tortillas, shaped into a rectangle and traditionally  slapped against the hot walls of a clay oven.  It is popular in Iran, Iraq, Turkey and the Caucasus.  Flatout makes five kinds of flat breads including lavash in a variety of flavours.  There were instructions on the back of the package as to how to assemble the pinwheels.  Pinwheels are similar to the ham spiral appetizers I make fairly often but with a few more ingredients.  What is important is that bit of null space in the middle.  Other than that you can basically do what you like.  Use these just as you would to make a regular wraps or spirals with your filling of choice.

I used a mixture of sour cream, Miracle Whip and garlic herb seasoning for the base mix (to the right) then topped with lettuce, smoked turkey, honey mustard, red pepper and seedless cucumbers.  On the other end (to the left) I used plain homemade Miracle Whip.

There are three tricks to getting nice results when making spirals.  First, you want to place the ingredients on top then roll tightly!  Second, you need that blank space.  Third you need the covered last third to hold it all together.  Once the wrap is tightly assembled, press to ensure tightness then turn so the long end faces you and cut across to form pinwheels or you can cut in half to form sandwiches.

Don't the turkey pinwheels look delightful?  I like that they were larger with room for more filling in comparison to using regular flour tortilla shells.  The actual wrapping style is similar to wrapping sushi so the presentation is a bit more colourful than some spiral appetizers I have seen or even made.  I really like the Flatout flatbread for this particular application which means the next time I make home-made tortillas, I may just be doing a bit of experimenting, rolling the dough out into a rectangular sheet then cooking it on the griddle.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Frugal Kitchens 101 - In The Soup Pot

Frugal Kitchens 101Now that the holidays are over and a new year has begun, it is time for many to turn their thoughts into paying for that expensive holiday season.  That means cutting back on expenses as the bills start to roll in.  If you have been frugal during the holidays, January will pass on by without so much as a worry.  For others, a bit of a helping hand is needed to make those payments usually in the form of cutting back on expenditures.  In days long ago, our ancestors had a pot of soup on the hearth for much of the winter.  It was added to as the family was lucky in getting a bit of wild game or fish but more often than not stretched from their larder using carefully stored root vegetables.  Fast forward to present times and hard core frugalistas do the same thing only using a slow cooker.  The slow cooker is turned on in the fall then constantly being added to with left overs and anything else that can be added, not to be turned off again until spring.

Now, I am rather hard core when it comes to frugality in the kitchen but the never ending soup pot is not something I do.  First, I am not comfortable with a slow cooker going 24/7 for four or five months even on low.  That is not what it was designed to do nor is it an economically good use of electricity especially if you are on TOU electricity pricing as we are.  Second, we now spend about 3 months of the year in Florida with at least one period during the time the never ending pot of soup would be going and we take a lot of impromptu overnight and weekend get-aways.  Instead of the never ending pot of soup, I make clean-out the freezer or refrigerator soups.

Here's a few thing I do to make quick and economical soups using left overs from the freezer or refrigerator:

  • freezer packets - I freeze bits of left-over food, pieces of left-over meat, bones and anything else that can be used for soup. 
  • basic stock - My basic stock uses bones, unpeeled onion, unpeeled carrot, unpeeled parsnip, bayleaf, and peppercorns.
  • fair game - Anything in the freezers or refrigerator is fair game for the soup pot although I do target left-overs if at all possible.
  • time savers - By far my pressure cookers are the biggest time savers when it comes to soup making.  I can go from frozen bones to soup on the table in less than an hour.
  • thickeners - Small bits of left-over mashed potatoes (frozen, refrigerator) thicken soups nicely as does mashed up zucchini.  The immersion blender thickens soup nicely without any additions depending on the ingredients.  
  • extenders - Pasta, rice, barley and beans can all be used as soup extenders.  Even the half cup of brown beans can be tossed into the soup pot, especially in a beef based soup.  If I don't have left-overs I just cook from fresh or add a jar of home canned.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Carrabba's Italian Grill

A chain restaurant is one in which there are the same restaurants under the same ownership or franchise owned at different locations.  The chain may be small as only a few locations within a certain region of the country or it may be large with multiple locations throughout the world.  Chain restaurants are typically fast food or take-out, or sit down.  Chain restaurants regardless of the type are popular because they tend to be conveniently located, lower priced, family friendly and ideally the food is consistent from one location to the next.

We are not huge fans of and likely never will be fans of fast food chain restaurants.  They are usually seen by us as a last resort if we can't find a restaurant while travelling which is seldom as usually we can find a good truck stop restaurant.  We occasionally have Harvey's (Canadian burger chain) or Wendy's at home and we have tried a few of the fast food chains in Florida as well as en route, but for the most part, our preference is for sit down.

Sit down chain restaurants, while not fine dining really are a lot better than fast food chain restaurants.  Neither of us grew up with fast food so didn't develop the taste for it.  As newlyweds we barely had two pennies to scrape together so couldn't afford it and as our young family grew to what would be considered a large family today, sit down restaurants offered a way to enjoy homestyle cooking at a reasonable price.  Two of our favourite chain restaurants from the past were Mother's Pizza Parlor & Spaghetti House(pizza, spaghetti) and Ponderosa Steakhouse (steak).  Mother's ceased operations in Ontario in 1992 and currently there is only one Mother's in operation, located in Calgary, Alberta.  Ponderosa currently has locations in the US but ceased operations in Canada in 1984.

open style kitchen at Carabba's Italian Grill
During our many travels, we have been very fortunate to discover a multitude of sit down chain restaurants.  Some are family owned while others are franchises.  Depending on the restaurant the price per meal ranges from low (eg. Steak & Shake, Five Guys, Long John Silvers) to moderate (eg. Harry's Seafood Bar & Grille, Texas Roadhouse, Olive Garden).

We discovered Carrabba's Italian Grill during our December stay at our vacation home.  Carrabba's is a casual dining chain restaurant founded by Damian Mandola and Johnny Carrabba on December 26, 1986.  It is owned and operated by OSI Restaurant Partners, LLC headquartered in Tampa, Florida.  There are currently 231 company-owned locations and one franchise location throughout the US.  Carrabba's offer sit down dining, carside carry-out using their online service and catering.

We love restaurants with atmosphere.  In this respect, Carrabba's certainly does not disappoint!  The open style kitchen was very impressive as various pots of cooking food filled the numerous gas burners.  Of note, most professional and restaurant kitchens use natural gas for stovetop cooking because of the degree of temperature control possible.  There was a long prep counter facing the dining area with a glass shelf when plates of food were set for the waitresses to pick up.  Just out of sight to the right, attached to the prep counter was a small sitting area aptly named the kitchen counter for patrons to sit and and enjoy a drink while watching the food being prepared.

wood oven and grill at Carrabba's Italian Grill
On the right side of the stovetop cooking area, there was a gorgeous and very impressive wood oven and grille.  Not only is the grill a workhorse, very much designed for function, it is also aesthetically appealing with the south of the border flare.  You can't help but be drawn to the counter to enjoy the dancing flames and tantalizing aromas!  The ambiance this indoor wood oven and grill creates is priceless.

Much like an outdoor charcoal grill, this wood grill infuses the food with a flavour that can't be duplicated.  This is a very versatile grill used for several of their dishes.  The wood grill allows for direct cooking over hot coals as well as indirect cooking using radiated heat.

bacaon and caramelized onion flatbread  appetizer
The Carrabba chefs travel to Italy every year to discover what is new and exciting in the Italian culinary world.  Many of the dishes offered in the restaurant are authentic Italian dishes, unlike  some Italian restaurants that serve more of an American Italian style cuisine.  Be sure to check out their website as they have a few of their classic recipes for you to try at home.

Meals are served with a hearty helping of bread with lightly seasoned olive oil for dipping in traditional Italian style.  We ordered the the bacon & caramelized onion flat bread served hot from the wood-burning oven as an appetizer.  Oh my gosh, was it ever delicious!  This is a must duplicate at home dish.  It would be ever so easy to do so using homemade or store bought flat bread.

While many consider lasagne a casserole, Carrabba's Italian Grill lists it as a stuffed pasta.  I ordered the lasagne served with a choice of homemade soup or side salad, so I ordered a Caesar salad.  The salad was a basic Caesar salad with a creamy dressing topped with shredded Parmesan cheese.  There was no croutons, crumbled bacon, fresh cracked pepper or lemon wedges that usually accompany Caesar salads especially at Italian restaurants.

The lasagne was a very generous serving size of fresh lasagne pasta layered with house made pomodoro, bolognese meat sauce, fresh grated ricotta, mozzarella and Romano cheese topped with marinara sauce and garnished with fresh grated Parmesan and chopped parsley.  It was a delightfully, tasty lasagne!  I really liked the mingling of flavours of the two sauces that added an extra depth.  The fresh made pasta really set this lasagne well above what many restaurants serve, using dried lasagne noodles.

veal marsala
My husband ordered the veal Marsala entrée that was served with a cup of homemade soup or side salad, vegetable of the day, garlic mashed potatoes or cavatappi amatricana.  The tender, juicy veal was topped with mushrooms, prosciutto and Carrabba's Lombardo Marsala sauce garnished with fresh grated Parmesan cheese.  The Marsala sauce, made from scratch daily, is their most used sauce.  He chose a bowl of their classic Minestrone soup and substituted the cavatappi amatricana with linguine in a creamy Alfredo sauce.  Doesn't it look yummy?  It was a delicious meal that got two thumbs up from him.