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.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

An Unlikely Combination

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". 

Many good recipes come with a story. They can be handed down for generations or the result of a plan gone awry. This recipe comes from friends who served it at a wine dinner they held in their wine shop. Their backgrounds are Italian and Polish, I believe...forgive me if I got that wrong. 

We were all gathered around the table and when the course was announced, I thought hmm, I probably won't like this but here goes. I forget exactly what they called it, but essentially it was white rice and navy beans (white beans) with a onion and butter sauce topping.

Who would have thought that the combination of white rice, white beans and onions would make such a tasty dish? Not me for sure, but let me tell you I was surprised and pleased. It was so simple and so delicious, I had to try and duplicate it. Now I don't make it like they did, but it is every bit as good because all the same ingredients are there.

What you need:

1 can white beans (drained and rinsed)
1/2 cup rice (long-grain, parboiled)
¼ cups water
4 cups sweet onions, rough chopped 
2 tablespoons butter
Olive oil as needed
Salt and pepper to taste

Remember, I don't measure this stuff (except the rice and water), so these are my estimates, and I may use more or less on any given day. And yes, you read that right. Four cups of onions...don't skimp, the onions make the dish!

Heat a couple tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet over medium low. Add the onions and let them cook, stirring occasionally for about 45 minutes total, adding more olive oil as needed. I put a lid on mine, but it's not necessary.

4 cups of onions
Periodically add small amounts of butter, reserving some to stir in just before you add them to the beans. 

At about the halfway point, bring the water to a boil and add the beans and rice. Cover,  reduce the heat and cook for 20 minutes. 

When the rice is done and the onions are a dark golden color, add them to the beans and rice and mix thoroughly. 
Caramelized onions
This recipe can be used as a main dish or a side and is easily doubled.  I often serve it with a small portion of sausage or perhaps a vegetable. 

It's not the most photogenic dish, but it is really good. I served this last night with some spicy sausage. Yum!

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

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Rice: Brown, White or Other?

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". 

Rice, as we know it, was domesticated from Oryza Rufipogon some 10,000 to 14,000 years ago and has been eaten by people all over the world. Rice was first grown in California back in the gold rush days, and it is one the top rice producers in the U.S.

The question on our minds today is this: What is the best rice? There is no right answer because there are multiple types and varieties. Let's break it down and take a closer look at one of the most common foods on earth, found in almost all cuisines.

Rice comes in three basic sizes: 

Long-grain, which is the most common, it cooks up fluffy and stays separated. It is about four times as long as it is wide.

Medium-grain is tender, moist and chewy. It is twice as long as it is wide.

Short-grain rice is short and plump, sticks together and clumps when cooked.

Each size has it's own characteristics and dishes for which it is best suited. There are many varieties of rice, which come in one or more of the sizes discussed above.

Variety and Uses:

White Rice. Most common is the standard white rice, which has been milled to remove the husk and then polished to remove any remaining bran. This has fewer nutrients than the other types. It is, however, very versatile and great for everyday dishes with meat, chicken and veggies, and also as part of a salad.

Brown Rice.  Brown rice comes in both short and long grain sizes and is milled to remove the husk, but the bran layer remains. It has a chewy texture and a nutty flavor. It is very nutritious, and you can substitute brown rice for any recipe made with white rice. Brown rice does take longer to cook than white rice.

Parboiled Rice. Parboiled rice is the product of rice that has been soaked, steamed and dried. During this process, the nutrients from the husk are absorbed into the grain, making it more healthy than standard white rice. The starch content is altered, and the lower starch content means it is less sticky than white rice, and particularly well-suited for thick curries.

Other more specialized types of rice:

Arborio is used mainly for risotto and absorbs liquid and flavors from slow cooking.

Basmati, a long-grain rice from India, is very fragrant and full flavored. This comes from aging for one year after harvest. Basmati is often served with curries.

Black Rice, once known as "forbidden rice" or "emperor's rice" is high in antioxidents. It is a medium-grain rice frequently used in Asian cuisines. It is also nutritionally even more impressive than brown rice.

Jasmine is a long-grain, slightly sticky rice that pairs well with curry or Jamaican Jerk Chicken.

Sushi Rice comes in white or brown and is a Japanese short-grain. It's high starch content gives it the stickiness needed to make sushi.

Nutritionally Speaking:

Now that we have covered the styles and some of the varieties, what should we use for our go-to rice? While brown rice has more calories, protein, carbs, fiber, sodium, sugars and fat than white rice, it also is rich in magnesium, selenium, phosphorus, B vitamins, copper, zinc, iron, calcium and potassium. There are differing opinions on the brown vs. white question, but based on it's nutrition analysis, brown rice is certainly a good choice. It is healthy, versatile and delicious. 

Brown rice does require more liquid and needs longer to cook (at least twice as long as white rice). Also, because of it's higher fat content, it does not keep as long as white rice.

White rice has had the husk and all bran removed, so it is basically stripped of many of its nutrients. It is lower in calories and fat content and has more iron and calcium than brown rice. A negative is that it has a higher glycemic index than brown rice.

Which brings me to parboiled rice, and my rice of choice for everyday cooking. What is the nutritional difference? Compared to standard white rice, parboiled rice has more fiber (double that of white rice), calcium, potassium, B6, niacin, magnesium, iron, zinc and more. Here is some good news for diabetics; parboiled rice, like brown rice, has a lower glycemic index than white rice.

The best rices for everyday use are brown, parboiled and white. For specialty dishes or cuisines, choose the best rice for the dish based on it's type and characteristics. 

Discussion questions:
What is your rice of choice for every day?
What is your favorite specialty rice or rice dish?

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

Monday, October 23, 2017

Into The Kitchen: Grilling Tips

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". 

Are you a grill master? Do you love the sound of the gas lighting up, the smell of the fire, or the glowing embers of charcoal? Whatever your preference, grilling is fun, it brings people together and the food speaks for itself.

Grilling isn't complicated, but there are a lot of variables and grill options. Gas or charcoal is what most people use, and those are found at every hardware and home improvement store as well as many big department stores. 

There is always going to be the debate over which one is better, but that's not the point here. This is an overview of how to grill successfully.

Having said that, charcoal is definitely a popular method, and the one I grew up with. However it is more affected by the weather than gas grills, thus timing is more unpredictable and the main reason I use gas.

Direct or Indirect?

Many foods lend themselves to grilling, but not all require the same heat or time to cook. For proteins, there are two main methods of cooking, direct heat and indirect heat. For foods that cook rather quickly, you use the direct method of placing the food directly over the heat. Usually all burners are on and set to the same temperature; you may use a higher temperature for searing then reduce the heat. Foods using the direct method include steaks (2 inches or less), burgers, hot dogs, fish and shrimp.

Your thicker cuts of meat, bone-in chicken and roasts, which take longer to cook, use indirect heat. You preheat your grill as normal, then turn one burner off and place your food there, leaving the other burner(s) to maintain your desired heat.

Image Source: Norton Farms
How will I know when my meat is done?

That is a good question and one that hits on the more complicated aspect of cooking (not just grilling) meats. The easiest way is to use an instant read thermometer and you will find much information and charts here

There are other methods, including the hand and finger method described here.

Most of the following tips apply to either gas or charcoal grilling.

Tips for Success:

  • When lighting a gas grill, always leave the lid up to avoid a dangerous accumulation of gas.
  • Always check your gas before beginning. It is no fun to jeopardize your expensive steak by running out of gas in the middle of cooking.
  • Preheat for at least 15 minutes, and longer is better.
  • Keep your grill grate clean. Scrub the hot grill down with a long-handled brush (I prefer brass bristles). You don't want residue from last weeks barbecue chicken on your salmon.
  • You may oil your food and/or grill. If you oil your grill, do so just before putting the food on otherwise the oil will just burn off before you're ready to cook.
  • Never slap a piece of cold meat on a hot grill. Always take your meat out of the refrigerator at least 30 minutes before grilling.
  • Remember sugars burn at high heat, so always wait until your meat is nearly cooked before brushing on sauces containing sugar, e.g. barbecue sauce.
  • Use tongs or a spatula to turn or remove your meats. Never use a fork as piercing the meat will allow the juices to run out.
  • Always let your meat rest for at least 10 minutes after taking it off the heat. This allows the juices to redistribute throughout the meat giving you a juicy steak.

From the simple hibachi to the Big Green Egg or anything in between, grilling is a delicious way to prepare food, and best of all, there is less to clean up in your kitchen.

Discussion questions:
What is your favorite grilled food?
Gas or charcoal?

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

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Know Your Sausage

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". 

Sausage may be a love it or hate it food. I love it and always have some in my freezer. I seldom think about what type it is beyond whether it is spicy or mild and whether I need to really cook it or just pop it on the grill until it is browned and sizzling.

There is more to sausage than initially meets the eye. It is basically ground meat, usually but not always, pork, mixed with seasonings. It may be stuffed into casings, formed into patties or sold in bulk by the pound. Following are some of the different types of sausages and a little information and examples for each one.

Four main types of sausage:

Fresh. These need to be refrigerated or frozen if not used immediately. Fresh sausage must be fully cooked before eating. When cooking, prick the skins so they don't explode because that spurt of hot grease when you turn them is impressive. Also, fresh link sausage can be removed from the casing to be crumbled and cooked for other dishes.

  • Breakfast links and patties
  • Italian
  • Bratwurst
  • Mexican Chorizo

Pre-cooked.  All pre-cooked sausage start with a smooth pureed filling, which may be partially cooked before stuffing, but all are cooked after stuffing. You still want to cook these or at least heat thoroughly to bring out the flavor. Many deli meats fall into this category.

  • Hot dogs
  • Bologna
  • Mortadella
  • German Wursts

Smoked. These are cooked over a cool fire which produces a lot of smoke. This provides
flavor and preserves the meat. These can be eaten as is or cut up and used in other dishes. Like the pre-cooked, you often find these in the deli.

  • Andouille
  • Kielbasa

Cured. This type of sausage is made fresh then salted and air dried. These make great appetizers and snacks. Slice thinly and serve at room temperature.

  • Spanish Chorizo
  • Coppa
  • Genoa Salami

Tell me which sausage you like and how you prepare or serve it.

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


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