Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Fast & Easy Weeknight Meals--Sausage & Potatoes

I know we all have "standard" meals we reach for (resort to?) during the week when things are just too hectic for words. I'm going to start posting some of mine here, and I'd love it if other people sent me some of their fast and easy meals.

In my house, the #1 standby is pasta. But since you don't need a recipe to make pasta and pour a jar of sauce in it, we won't discuss that too much.

Next on the list would be sausage and potatoes. This is actually something I learned from a friend, and it was a weight watchers recipe (although perhaps not the way I make it). All you need is a package of chicken sausage (we generally end up with garlic & artichoke because that's what I can usually find), some potatoes, olive oil, sea salt, and Italian seasoning (although you could get away with whatever seasoning you like).

1. Cover a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Spray the foil with cooking spray. Do not skip the cooking spray, trust me. Pre-heat the oven to 375-400 (depending on how much of a hurry you're in).

2. Wash and chop potatoes into small chunks--a little larger than a piece of pineapple in one of those fruit cups. Spread the potatoes on the baking sheet, drizzle with olive oil, and mix it all around. Sprinkle GENEROUSLY with Italian seasoning (I have one you grind, which is lovely) and then with sea salt.

4. Place sausages around the perimeter of the baking sheet. The Big Geek thinks I should put the sausages in later because they cook faster than the potatoes. He's probably right.

5. Bake for 20-30 minutes, depending on your desired level of crispy-ness.

The Big Geek loves it when I resort to this meal. Not sure it's actually nutritious, but it is filling and better than hot dogs and french fries.

At least I tell myself that.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Chili and Cornbread in the Cast Iron Skillet

The Big Geek got me a cast iron skillet for Christmas this year, and I've been trying to use it. So far, I've made some pretty tasty things that I hope I'll make again in the future and photograph to tell you about here.

For now, here's something really basic: Chili and Corn Bread.

For the chili, I just used a seasoning packet, some canned diced tomatoes, canned beans, and ground turkey. I did saute an onion to add in as well (well, half of one, because The Big Geek has onion issues). I'm sure there are many many home-made chili recipes on the web that would be far better, but for a weeknight, this works.

I also found the cornbread recipe by using google. I chose one that didn't use sugar, because I didn't want to use sugar, but I wasn't really all that happy with it. The cornbread was a little dry, and I'm not sure why--I assure you I used plenty of butter both in the skillet and in the cornbread. The edges were the best part.

While I'll keep looking for better recipes, it was a good weeknight dinner. I'm going to try calling my grandma to see if she'll share her cornbread recipe. Although when I was in college and asked her how she made her chili because it was so good, she laughed and told me she used a seasoning packet from the store, so I won't be surprised if she tells me the secret is "Shawnee Mills."

Have a great recipe using a cast iron skillet? Please share it!

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Cookbook Review: Sandra Lee Semi-Homemade slow cooker recipes 2

I borrowed this cookbook from a friend because I <3 the crock pot. What's not to love--you throw stuff in, walk away, and come back to a finished meal. Apparently, however, I do NOT <3 semi-homemade.

This could be my fault. See, I am cheap, so when a recipe in this book called for "bacon crumbles, Hormel," I'd think, "doubtful" and just make some bacon and crumble it myself. Or when I was supposed to use diced frozen onions, I'd just dice an onion instead. Maybe that contributed to my disapointment in these recipes. But I think the main issue is that I like food that tastes good (and fresh). And you can't do BOTH "semi" homemade and fresh in the crock pot.

I'm not accustomed to drowning my chicken in cream-of-whatever soup. And you know, I don't care for the flavor of cream-of-whatever soup. I was surprised by that, because I ate plenty of chicken doused with cream-of-whatever soup growing up. But now, it's just not my thing.

The first recipe I tried was for red beans and rice with Andouille sausage. It actually tasted pretty good, although I ended up with red beans and mush. This, though, was most likely my fault for two reasons. First of all, the recipe called for "converted" rice. I foolishly used REAL rice. Second, I let it cook for WAY longer than it was supposed to, because that's how things worked out that day. Still, it tasted good even if the texture of the rice was WAAAY off. I have to say I'll try this again on the stove without any particular recipe.

The second I tried was tukey cutlets with green chili scalloped potatoes. I know, right? Sounds good. However, my grocery store didn't have the cream-of-chicken verde soup that was needed. I tried to improvise by using cream-of-chicken and then tossing in a bit of salsa verde. Either that didn't work out or the recipe sucked, because the potatoes are still in my fridge a week later. I tried to throw them away last night, but they are glued to the container and I'd already started the dishwasher and didn't want to dirty another utensil. Maybe tonight.

At this point I should have given up. But I'd already purchased ingredients for another dish, cheddar beer chicken. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't good. The recipe used a prepared cheese soup, but would have been better with actual cheese. Also, there was FAR too much liquid in the pot after it cooked. But the chicken was very tender and I liked the beer flavor (even though I don't like beer--go figure).

The most annoying thing for me was the way she tacks a specific brand onto every damned ingredient. I realize you don't really have to use that brand, but still--someone BOUGHT the cookbook, do you have to advertise in it, too? If you're going to use your cookbook to sell endorsements, you should give it away for free.

In addition, the cook times were not good for most crock pot cooks. Most people using the crock pot want to put stuff in before they go to work (or start their day), and then not come back for 8-10 hours. This book contains a lot of recipes that only cook for 3-4 hours, plus (and this is SUPER inconvenient), ones that cook for an hour, then need more ingredients, or have to rest, or change from "high" to "low" or whatever. If I'm going to have to be that involved with my crock pot, I'll just use the stove or oven.

I know a lot of people like Sandra Lee, and I appreciate that many cooks are busy and just want to do things quickly. But really, buying so many "convenience" items is super-expensive, and it would probably cost about the same amount (and taste much better) if you just went out to dinner. I'm giving this one back to my friend.

Final rating: 0 of 5 Bytes.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Maple Pumpkin Sheet Cake

Adapted from Taste of Home's Maple Pumpkin Torte

I had part of a can of pumpkin left over from some muffins I made last week, and I needed to use it up. This recipe was appealing, but I was too lazy to make the layers (plus I only have 2 rounds and this needs 3), so I adapted it to be a sheet cake. I'd do the layers for a special occasion, but just to have around the house a sheet cake is easier to make and to store.

1 package white cake mix
1/2 cup all purpose flour
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 cup water
3/4 cup canned pumpkin
1/3 cup vegetable oil
2 eggs
4 Tbsp brown sugar
2 cups white or vanilla chips
1/2 cup chopped pecans

Spray 9x13 cake pan with cooking spray. Heat oven to 350.

In large bowl, combine cake mix, flour, cinnamon, water, pumpkin, oil, eggs, and brown sugar. Beat well. Stir in white chips and chopped pecans. Pour into prepared pan and bake 30-35 minutes, until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean.

Remove and cool completely. You can eat it like this (it is good enough), but why not add more sugar?

1 stick (1/2 cup) butter, softened
3-4 cups powdered sugar
1/2 cup milk (or 1/4 cup milk plus 1/4 cup brewed coffee)
1 tsp maple flavoring
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/8 cup chopped pecans (optional)

Mix butter through vanilla. Tweak amounts of sugar/milk/coffee to taste. Frost completely cooled cake. Sprinkle with chopped pecans if desired.

The frosting turned out a little "wet" for my taste, and tasted a bit too much like butter. Basically, you could take your favorite buttercream frosting recipe and add some maple flavoring (and maybe a little coffee) to it and you'd have the same thing.

In the original torte, only the middle layer had pecans and white chips.

Overall, this is a yummy way to use up leftover canned pumpkin. For an everyday "snack" cake, I'd skip the frosting (but then it's really just a pumpkin white chocolate chip cake).

Mediterranean Spinach Strata

Because of THE COLD, I wanted to cram some nutrients into my family at breakfast. This strata proved to be the perfect way. I love stratas because you can prep them the night before, after the little geeks have gone to bed, and then just pop them in the oven in the morning.

2 8-oz (or 1 16-oz) loaves French bread baguettes (I used whole wheat), cut into 1-inch slices (if you are lucky they will do this for you at the store).
1 cup chopped onion
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 8-oz package sliced mushrooms (optional)
1 Tbsp all-purpose flour
2 7-oz bags baby spinach
1/2 tsp black pepper, divided
1/2 tsp salt, divided
3 cups thinly sliced plum tomatoes (about 1 lb)
1 (4 oz) package crumbled feta cheese
3/4 cup grated Asiago cheese, divided
3 cups fat-free milk
2 Tbsp Dijon mustard
1 1/2 tsp dried oregano
5 large eggs, lightly beaten
4 large egg whites, lightly beaten

Preheat oven to 35o. Arrange bread slices in a single layer on a baking sheet. Bake at 350 for 12 minutes (or until lightly browned).

Heat a large nonstick skillet coated with cooking spray. Add onion, garlic, mushrooms (if included), and saute 5 minutes until tender. Sprinkle flour over mixture and cook 1 minute, stirring constantly. Add half the spinach and cook until it wilts. Add the other half, cook until it wilts (you could do this all at once if your skillet was large enough). Stirl in 1/4 tsp salt and 1/4 tsp pepper.

Place half the toasted bread slices in the bottom of a 13 x 9 bakign dish coated with cooking spray. Spread spinach mixture evently over the bread. Top with tomato slices. Sprinkle feta and half of Asiago cheese. Top with remaining bread.

Combine 1/4 tsp salt, 1/4 tsp pepper, milk, mustard, oregano, and eggs/egg whites in a bowl with a whisk. Pour over bread, then sprinkle with remaining Asiago cheese. Cover and chill overnight (8 hours at least).

Prehead oven to 350. Uncover strata and bake at 350 for 40 minutes or until lightly browned and set. Serve warm.

I thought this had a little bit too much spinach, so I'd probably use about 1/2 a bag less in the future. I also might up the Dijon mustard, but that may just be me. The Big Geek thinks it needs ham. Maybe some bacon, and then use cheddar instead of feta, and it would be kind of like a blt. . .

Way Better Than Opening a Can Chicken Soup

It's good for what ails ya.

Everyone at Chez Silicon has been struck by THE COLD, a nasty, horrible thing that results in drippy noses and hacking coughs. Fortunately, my kitchen already had chicken soup fixins.

I'm a big fan of soup because it's easy to make, you can walk away from it, and you can get creative and be flexible. This "recipe," if you can call it that, can stand lots of tweaks depending on what you and your geek squad prefer.


1.5 to 3 lbs chicken. You have some flexibility here. I prefer boneless skinless thighs, although leaving the bone in will result in more flavor. You can also use breasts (I suggest bone-in, but take the skin off), but the meat will be a bit more dry than thighs. If all you have is boneless and skinless whatever, then that's fine. Have a whole chicken? Well, just go ahead and use it. See what I mean about soup? Lots of wiggle room. This time I had breasts. I removed the skin, left the bone, and tossed them in.
Olive Oil--about 2 Tbsp
Chopped carrots--about 2 or 3
Chopped onion--1 medium or 1 1/2 small
Chopped celery--about 3 stalks.
Broth/Stock--chicken or vegetable, 2-3 cups
Water--about 2 cups (or 1 cup white wine, 1 cup water)
Rosemary (or whatever seasoning you like)--about 2 Tbsp fresh or 1 Tbsp dry
Salt/Pepper to taste

Chop all the veggies. You can include the leaves of the celery too, if you want. Or you don't have to. I like to do this part while the little geeks are napping.

Heat the oil in the bottom of a large pot. Toss in all your veggies and cook until the onions are soft. Pour in your broth. Season your chicken with salt & pepper and put it in the pot. Add water until the chicken is totally covered (if you want to be really fancy you can throw in a cup of dry white wine). Stir it all around and bring to a boil.

Turn down heat and simmer, covered, for about an hour.

When chicken is cooked, remove it from the pot and let it cool a bit. In the meantime, add your rosemary or whatever seasonings you like. Taste the broth in the pot and add salt/pepper according to your taste. If people are sick, you might want a little extra salt. It is really hard to mess this up. If it doesn't take enough like broth to you, throw in a cube of chicken bouillon. Toss in a cup or so of frozen peas if you feel like it. Get crazy--there are no chicken soup police.

If you want to put in noodles or rice, this is the time to do it. Toss it in, bring everything to a boil, and let it cook (with rice, you probably have to put the lid back on).

When the chicken cools a bit, start removing it from the bone (if there were bones) and shredding it. If you put in noodles or rice, wait for it to finish cooking. Add more liquid (broth or water) as needed. Then toss as much of the shredded chicken as you want back in the pot. Put the rest (if there is extra) in a ziplock in the freezer to use for enchiladas or chicken salad or something another day.

Let the whole concoction simmer a bit more so the chicken warms back up.

If you want to add dumplings, this is the time to toss them in (just use bisquick or refridgerated biscuit dough) and let them simmer, covered, for 10-12 minutes).

Then dish it up and let the healing begin.