Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Vacuum Sealing: The Basics


During the month of October, I will be participating in the Write 31 Days hosted by Crystal Stine. My category is Food, Health & Wellness and my theme is "Into The Kitchen". 



Today is the final day of the Write 31 Days blogging challenge. In previous posts we talked about ways to save money and time by stocking our pantries, using coupons, buying in bulk, and stocking up during sales (especially meats), so we are wrapping up the series with a look at vacuum sealing.

One of the best ways to preserve your valuable meat is to freeze it. However, one enemy of food is air, and food that is exposed to air can suffer freezer burn, mold, staleness and rancidity. When you freeze your meat the way it is packaged for sale, you could lose some of it to freezer burn. Now this food is still safe to eat, but the taste and texture may be compromised. 

How can you avoid freezer burn?

A quick and easy way to reduce freezer burn in the short term (a couple weeks) is to rewrap it in several layers of plastic wrap or foil and place in a zip top freezer bag. 

However for longer storage or larger quantities of meat, chicken, pork, etc. you should consider vacuum sealing. There are a number of different types of vacuum sealers on the market, the most well-known is probably the Food Saver brand. I have the Game Saver Deluxe model which comes with the vacuum tubing to seal food in mason jars (with the jar sealer attachment).

When you package your meat for sealing, you should freeze any wet/juicy foods first, then place them into vacuum seal bags, allowing for 3 inches beyond the food level for proper sealing.

What can you seal?

Many foods can be sealed and frozen, but remember that vacuum sealing is not a substitute for refrigeration or freezing and all perishable foods must be refrigerated or frozen after sealing.

Vacuum sealing is excellent for foods such as steaks, seafood, chicken, pork, breads, sausages, casseroles, and hard cheeses. Freeze soft foods like casseroles and soups before sealing. They may not seal properly or you may get liquids into your sealer.

Foods you do not want to seal:

Soft cheeses
Raw bananas
Mushrooms
Raw onions
Whole apples
Garlic
Cabbage
Lettuce
Cruciferous vegetables
Freshly cooked or steamed vegetables

Benefits:

Saves time because you make fewer trips to the store to purchase fresh meats.
Saves money because you can buy larger amounts of meat on sale.
Your meat lasts longer in your freezer.
There is less waste from spoiled meat.
Savings not limited to just meats; seal other foods as well.

What else can I seal?

Vacuuming sealing is not just for food. You can seal things like extra clothes, keys, phone, wallet, books, first aid kits, etc. for outdoor activities, beach or camping trips. You can also seal your silver to keep it shiny and reduce or eliminate the need to polish. Make sure you wrap your silver in cloth or a thick paper to prevent punctures to your bag.


Discussion Questions:

If you have a vacuum sealer, what do you seal most often?
Do you find it saves money?


If you enjoyed this post, please leave a comment. I would love to hear your thoughts.

Monday, October 30, 2017

The Secret is in the Seasoning: Herbs and Spices


During the month of October, I will be participating in the Write 31 Days hosted by Crystal Stine. My category is Food, Health & Wellness and my theme is "Into The Kitchen". 



Have you ever wondered why a dish from your favorite restaurant tastes so much better than when you make it yourself, or why grandma's soup always made your taste buds shout whereas yours is bland? The secret is in the seasoning! 

Why do you think the Colonel's chicken has been around so long and still going strong? It is the secret blend of eleven herbs and spices. That was always a treat when I was a kid.

There are many more herbs and spices than we can explore here, and their uses reach around the globe and back. This is simply an overview of some of the more common ones you may have in your own kitchen and how you can use them.

Herbs:

A herb is a plant whose leaves are used in cooking to add flavor to food, or as a medicine. Herbs may be used fresh or dried, depending on the recipe, but always use fresh in salads, salsas or as a garnish. The flavor of dried herbs is more concentrated, so when using dried herbs, use about 1/3 the amount you would use of fresh herbs. It is helpful to crush them between your fingers to release the essential oils and bring out even more flavor.
  • Basil is a member of the mint family and has a mild liquorice flavor. It is often used in sauces, soups, salads, sandwiches, and of course, pesto.
  • Oregano is also a member of the mint family and commonly used in spaghetti sauce, pizza and Greek cuisine.
  • Thyme is used in French cuisine with meats such as pork, lamb, duck and goose. It pairs well with rosemary, sage, oregano and parsley. Thyme also complements spicy Italian sauces, soups and stews.
  • Rosemary has a strong lemon-pine aroma and flavor. It pairs well with roasted lamb, garlic and olive oil as well as roasted potatoes and breads such as focaccia. Given it's strong flavor, less is more.
  • Parsley has a mild, grassy flavor that works well with garlic and olive oil. Add anchovies and you have a wonderful sauce for grilled beef.
  • Sage is native to the Mediterranean and has a fuzzy texture and a musty aroma. Italians pair it with veal, while the French add it to stuffings, sausages and pork dishes. This too has a strong flavor, so go lightly.
  • Cilantro is similar to parsley in appearance but is very different in flavor and aroma. It is frequently used in salsas and Southwestern cuisine. It is a "love it or hate it" ingredient" as some people find it has a "soapy" flavor.
Spices:

Spices are a flavoring for food made from part of a plant, such as its fruit, seeds, or root, usually dried and often made into a powder. You may purchase spices whole and grate them at home with a grater or spice grinder.

Savory
  • Chili powder is used most often in chili, both meat and vegetarian based.
  • Curry powder is an essential ingredient in Indian and Thai cuisines, and is a blend of spices that can be sweet, or mild to very hot.
  • Cumin has an earthy, nutty flavored and is commonly associated with Mexican and Spanish cuisine, but also frequently used in Middle Eastern and Indian cooking as well.
  • Coriander comes from the seeds of the Cilantro plant, but with no similarity in flavor. Coriander has an earthy, lemony flavor that works well with cumin. I use these together in making black beans.
  • Turmeric is a relative of ginger and widely used in Indian and Thai cuisines and contributes largely to the yellow color of mustard. Turmeric is also used as a natural anti-inflammatory, either through food or in capsule form.
  • Cayenne pepper is a medium hot chile pepper which is versatile, widely used and often found at the table in pizzerias. It adds a nice burst of heat to many different cuisines.
  • Ginger, when paired with garlic, is an integral component in Asian cuisine, specifically Chinese. Like turmeric, ginger also has many health benefits.

Sweet
  • Cinnamon is a spice that comes from the inner bark of trees from the Cinnamomum family, and there are numerous species of cinnamon. It is a sweet spice usually used in desserts, cereals and breads.
  • Nutmeg is a warm, fragrant spice that adds something special to sweet as well as savory dishes. Try adding a little freshly ground nutmeg to greens such as spinach or in your Christmas eggnog. It is used in sweet dishes in India and savory ones in the Middle East.
  • Cloves are the unopened bud of the clove tree which is native to India and Indonesia. Cloves lend a deep sweetness to desserts and baked goods. This pungent spice should be used sparingly so as not to overpower the dish.
  • Allspice has an aroma similar to the combination of cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg, however it is a single spice - the dried, unopened berry from the Pimenta Dioica tree, native to Mexico and Central America. It is an essential part of Caribbean and Jamaican cuisines, but is predominantly used to flavor desserts here in the U.S. Lastly, an interesting fact about allspice; it is the ingredient of Cincinnati-style chili that give it it's unique flavor

Now look through your pantry and see what inspires you to make some new and exciting dishes.

Discussion Questions:

Do you regularly cook with herbs and spices?
If so, what are some of your favorites?


If you enjoyed this post, please leave a comment. I would love to hear your thoughts.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Pantry Soup


During the month of October, I will be participating in the Write 31 Days hosted by Crystal Stine. My category is Food, Health & Wellness and my theme is "Into The Kitchen". 



This is October and the time of year that much of the country starts cooling down. This brings out our desire for warm, comforting dishes, possibly a throwback to when much work was done outside, and as the days grew colder, people wanted to warm up with a good, hot meal at the end of the day. Dishes that quickly come to mind are soups, stews, chili, and casseroles (or hot dishes in some parts).

Image Source: wikipedia
In this series we have been talking about simple recipes, quick-fixes for busy nights, keeping our pantry stocked and saving money. I thought about where to go next, and decided to bring you a soup recipe that you can make entirely from your pantry. 

I usually use any fresh ingredients that I have, but I know that if I am out of potatoes or my carrots went south, I can still make my soup. Here is how I would make a pantry version of my vegetable beef soup.

What you need:

32 oz. beef stock or broth
1 can Italian-style diced tomatoes, pureed
1 tomato can of water
1 can diced potatoes
1 can white beans, drained and rinsed
1 can roast beef, undrained (I use Kirkland)
1 can sliced carrots, drained
1-2 tablespoons dried minced onion
1/4 teaspoon oregano
1/4 teaspoon basil
Salt and pepper to taste

Add all ingredients to an 8-quart stock pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer at least 30 minutes and an hour or more is better. If your soup seems too thick, add more stock or water.

As usual, everything but the canned items are estimates, and this is fine because this is more of an illustration of how you can make a pot of soup with only what you have on hand in your pantry. You can customize it to suit your family's tastes by changing up the veggies, or use it as a guide for your own creation.

Substitutions:

For the Italian-style tomatoes, use any style tomatoes you prefer
For the white beans, use kidney beans, pinto beans or pasta
For the roast beef, use frozen meatballs
For the oregano and basil, use Italian seasoning
For the beef/beef broth, use chicken/chicken broth 

Notes:

When using dried onions, you are looking for the equivalent of the amount of fresh you would use.

When using dried herbs, use about 1/3 of the amount you would use fresh.

When using fresh ingredients, I will heat some olive oil in my pot and begin cooking the potatoes, onions and carrots, then add the liquids and other canned ingredients.

Discussion questions:

What is your favorite soup?
Is soup only a cold-weather food?


If you enjoyed this post, please leave a comment. I would love to hear your thoughts.

Friday, October 27, 2017

A Well-Stocked Pantry Saves Time and Money


During the month of October, I will be participating in the Write 31 Days hosted by Crystal Stine. My category is Food, Health & Wellness and my theme is "Into The Kitchen". 



Previously we talked about how to quickly turn convenience foods into something more interesting and appealing. That is easy to do with a well-stocked pantry, which can be your kitchen cupboard or other storage place for dry goods and shelf-stable items. In addition, we will look at the freezer as another way to save money.

Where to Start?

The best place to start planning your pantry is to look at what your family likes and eats regularly and categorize ingredients such as pastas, soups and sauces, vegetables, meats and fruit. This is not meant to replace fresh foods, but rather to supplement them.

As an example, perhaps you eat pasta frequently, and unless you always make your own sauce, you would want to keep jars of sauce on hand as well as dry pasta such as spaghetti, macaroni or penne. 

Other pantry staples include: 

Canned vegetables, meats and fruits
Soups, sauces and broths/stocks
Dry mixes such as taco seasoning, gravy mixes and other seasonings
Herbs and spices
Pasta
Rice
Condiments (mustard, ketchup, mayonnaise, relish, olives, etc.)
Cooking oils
Peanut Butter and jelly

As I mentioned in a previous post, if you are a baker, you might consider purchasing your baking ingredients in bulk to save money. This also helps keep your pantry functional and prevents that last minute run to the store for sugar or flour. Another tip for the baker's pantry is bulk yeast. It is far cheaper than the 3-packs and will keep for quite a while in your freezer.

Your freezer is an extension of your pantry.

Your freezer is another money-saving strategy, especially on meat, because we all know how expensive that is these days. 

When it comes to beef, chicken, bacon, etc. buy one get one free sales are your best friend. Stock up on your family's favorites and freeze them. Some things will need to be repackaged because the way it's packaged for sale will not protect it for long in the freezer. 

A well-stocked pantry is about saving money, reducing last minute trips to the store and having what you need when you need it. This will help with quick-fix meals as well as allow you to eat better on a regular basis. Personally, I use fresh, frozen, dried and canned foods, and each has it's own place in my kitchen.

Discussion Questions:
Are you a weekly shopper, a monthly shopper or a stop-on-the-way-home shopper?
What are your favorite money-saving strategies?



If you enjoyed this post, please leave a comment. I would love to hear your thoughts.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Fixing Up Your Quick-Fix Meals


During the month of October, I will be participating in the Write 31 Days hosted by Crystal Stine. My category is Food, Health & Wellness and my theme is "Into The Kitchen". 



We all do it, right? We are busy running around and all of a sudden it's time to make dinner. You have hungry mouths to feed, not the least of which is your own, so you grab whatever is the easiest or worse, take-out. 

When hunger strikes, I look to my pantry and freezer to see what I can pull together in a hurry. It is important to be able to make a meal without having to run to the store (which is another post), but how do you turn your quick-fix convenience foods into something interesting rather than serving up the same old boxed mac and cheese, or frozen pizza...again?

Here are a few examples:

Buy frozen cheese pizza and add your own toppings. This way you can make one or two pizzas and everyone can customize their own portion. Maybe you add extra cheese to one half and peppers and onions to the other, and make the second one half mushrooms and ham and the other half pepperoni. Everyone wins!

Take boxed or frozen hash browns and add chopped onions and green peppers and top with cheese or bacon bits. Serve with eggs and toast for breakfast or dinner.

Boxed mac and cheese can be dressed up with add-ins such as ham, bacon, onions, or prepared as directed and then topped with buttered bread crumbs and baked like homemade.

Packaged pasta salad is another side dish you can embellish upon. Prepare as directed and add in things like olives, pepperoncini, pepperoni, tomatoes, feta, red peppers, onions...whatever suits your family's tastes.

Another tip is to check the bag or box for alternate preparation ideas.



Not every meal has to be slaved over or planned to the nth degree to be delicious and satisfying. So next time you're puzzling over dinner to the tune of grumbling stomachs, try some of these ideas or come up with your own creations.


Discussion questions:
What is your favorite pantry staple?
What are some of the ways you jazz up convenience foods?



If you enjoyed this post, please leave a comment. I would love to hear your thoughts.

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