Hacks from my Happy Place – VII

As kids start back to school and the evenings get just a little cooler, my yearn for nesting starts to take hold. I rely on my crockpot, slow cooker and toaster oven throughout much of the summer because I don’t have central air and my kitchen is in the back, getting no satisfaction from my living room and bedroom window units. I’ve been a little bit antsy to start using my oven. I’ve got a recipe for using flour tortillas to make homemade dipping chips, and while the recipe is for a savory version, I want to try the same idea and create a sweet version (I’m thinking cinnamon and sugar). I also have a recipe for making cookies from cake mix, and the box of sugar-free cake mix in my cupboard is awaiting me to turn on the oven and bake them (turning them into Snickerdoodles by adding cinnamon).

When I think about nesting, my mind goes immediately to soups and stews. I’ve tried several different packages for making the sauce for beef stew, but they aren’t the taste I’m looking for. Suddenly, I remembered my aunt making beef stew once and liking it. She’d told me back then, but I’d completely forgotten! She makes her regular pot roast with carrots, potatoes and onions. Once dinner is over, she takes out a can of Dinty Moore beef stew, purees it, and adds her leftovers to it, with a little extra beef broth, if needed. She explained that, by pureeing it, all the little pieces of meat, potato and veggie in the can get ground up, so they don’t look funny adding it to her larger pieces. Genius! It creates a very tasty “gravy”! Dinty Moore beef stew will definitely be added to my winter stock-up shopping excursion!

I did make a batch of chili recently; even though it’s usually a winter staple, I was hungry for it! In my opinion, my mom made the best chili! A long time ago, a now long-gone restaurant named Gingerbread Man had chili that tasted just like hers! Knowing that we didn’t like spicy foods, her seasonings included a tablespoon of sugar, salt and pepper to taste and…ground cinnamon! I know, I know, that sounds oddly out-of-place for a pot of chili, but it rocks! I remember the first time my brother had a bag of homemade chili from me, which was labeled “Mom’s Chili”. He agreed it was just as he remembered!

Now that I have people in my life who enjoy cabbage as much as I do, my cabbage soup is high on the list for the winter. It’s easy to make, the hardest part being cutting up cabbage into bite-sized pieces. A friend of mine, who suffers with arthritis in her hands, followed the recipe but added bagged coleslaw from the produce department. The taste was very much the same, but it lacked the texture and comfort of using regular cabbage.

I realized, as I was looking over this post, that cinnamon has been to the forefront three different times. I’ve always liked cinnamon, starting way back to the childhood days of toast with cinnamon and sugar. I’ve been known to add a little cinnamon with my sugar in a bowl of rather plain cereal (the few times I eat cereal). I add a preferred flavor of coffee creamer to my coffee at home (it’s NOT cinnamon!) but, when at a convenience store that doesn’t have a flavored coffee or creamer I prefer, I often add cinnamon with my coffee and standard creamer. I’d added it to hot tea before, but I was surprised at how much I also enjoyed it in hot coffee! Considering the multiple health benefits of cinnamon, I’m going to start looking for other ways to add it to food and drinks!

Of course, I suppose my favorite way to enjoy cinnamon is in a warm, gooey cinnamon roll/bun, but my diabetes precludes that from being a primary source of ingestion!

Meanwhile, it’s time to enjoy grilled meals for as long as possible before the weather changes too much. If you have a grill, use it as much as you can while you can! If you don’t have one, I can tell you that broiling a hot dog in a toaster oven gives you that same sense of a grilled hot dog if you let it cook for at least 15 minutes!

So, here’s to the last hot days of summer – and here’s to it getting cold enough that I can do more than just talk about nesting! And as always, please feel free to share any kitchen tips or hacks you have!

Hacks from my Happy Place – V

For our Fourth of July feast, my bestie had what I call a “happy accident”. I use that label to apply when you are cooking and without one of the ingredients, so you substitute something in its place and it turns out even better! One of our entrees was chicken, which was to be cooked on the grill with barbeque sauce. My poor bestie discovered that morning that she didn’t have any barbeque sauce! What she did have was a bottle of steak marinade, so she used it as a marinade for the chicken. It was fabulous! It had some of the sweetness of a barbeque sauce but also some of the smokiness of a beef marinade. I have tried different brands of barbeque sauces, never finding one that was quite the right blend of flavorings to suit me. Well, thanks to that “happy accident”, I’ll be using steak marinade instead in the future. It really WAS that good!

I love cabbage any way you cook it. Cabbage is one of those foods that you either love or hate, and I’m a lover. Years ago, I learned a recipe for fried cabbage, which I make now and again. It’s pretty simple. You fry bacon and set it aside. You fry loose sausage and set it aside. You fry chopped onions and set them aside. Then, in a non-stick Dutch oven, you add chopped cabbage and fry it over medium heat until it has almost completely softened (you’ll want to stir it now and then so you don’t burn it). When it’s just about soft, put the lid on and continue cooking until it’s completely soft. Remove the lid, add in the bacon (crumbled), the sausage and the onions, and stir until combined and everything is hot. Dish up and serve! I can eat this as an entire meal by itself, or it can be a side dish to a main entrée. Either way, it’s yummy! If you really want to make an impression on guests, dish up hot fried cabbage into a casserole, sprinkle with your favorite shredded cheese(s) and pop under the broiler until the cheese is melted and beginning to brown. The fried cabbage will last for up to a week in the fridge!

Did you know that you can brown flour? Flour is often used as a thickening agent for sauces and gravies and such, but using it in a roux (equal parts butter and flour, stirred until completely combined) does tend to lighten the color of whatever you add it to. To keep the rich, dark color of your sauce/gravy/etc., simply put flour in a frying pan and heat over medium heat, stirring about every 5 minutes or so. You will begin to see the flour turn brown. Keep heating and stirring until all of the flour has browned. Now when you use it as a thickener, it will help keep what you add it to from turning light. And, as a bonus, you can make this and keep in an airtight container in your pantry for as long as you’d like, so you don’t have to make it every time you want to use it!

“Brown butter” is a butter sauce you usually only see in Amish or PA Dutch cooking. But yes, you can brown butter. Again, do it in a frying pan, stirring repetitively, until you see the melted butter go from a pale yellow to a golden tone. Once you’ve reached that color, pull it away from the heat immediately. Serve over noodles or, yes, cabbage, or any pasta or vegetable of your choice. Browning butter gives it a subtle nutty taste, but it does, indeed, add taste to your butter! As an appetizer, add spices you would like and serve it with chunks of bread, like they do with oil in those fancy restaurants. Delish!

Well, now I’ve made myself hungry! Hope I’ve made you hungry too! Try some of these simple hacks, and here’s wishing you a “happy accident” in your future!

Hacks from my Happy Place – II

Summer is upon us, and that means we’re looking for alternatives to using our ovens and adding unwanted heat to our kitchens and homes. For those of us with a toaster oven, this is a great alternative for anything that fits the reduced size. Air fryers, crock pots and slow cookers (no, they are not the same thing) are also great alternatives. Of course, for anyone lucky enough to have an outdoor grill, that’s the way to go, weather permitting!

Foil becomes a good friend for outdoor grilling. Any combination of fresh vegetables can be put in a foil ‘pocket’ with some broth, spices, butter and folded up, then laid, seam side up, on the upper rack or far corners of the grill grate. The important thing to remember is not to put them on the hottest part of the grill grate, as they will cook too quickly. Fresh green beans, asparagus, squash, zucchini, even sliced tomatoes can be cooked with some broth and seasonings. This is a good way to make use of fresh produce as it comes in season!

Your crock pot is useful for large pieces of meat or poultry. A turkey breast, a whole roasting chicken, ham and of course, beef roast all cook well in a crock pot and require nothing but preparation time – the pot does the rest.

Slow cookers are a useful kitchen appliance to have year-round. A slow cooker allows you the additional advantage over a crock pot by having settings from warm to deep fry. It also allows you to lift the cover to stir or add without losing the heat. I always use mine when making my (semi-homemade – see my first “Hacks” entry) spaghetti sauce and for making meatballs, stuffed peppers and whatever other creations I come up with. It’s very similar to using your stove top but at a very reduced electric usage!

Your microwave can be helpful in cooking through things like potatoes, which then can be made any number of ways. My favorite is to cut slices in cooked potatoes that don’t go all the way through (make sure they are cool enough to handle!), add some butter or margarine between the slices, then wrap them in foil and cook on the grill as you would fresh produce. You can add spices like garlic, or simply serve them with things like sour cream, cheese, bacon bits, etc. and each person can top their potato as they please.

Air fryers are for more than just French fries! You can use them to bake, roast and even grill. If you own an air fryer, do yourself a favor and check out the recipes that came with your booklet. Then experiment!

When you DO have to use your oven, plan ahead! You can make multiples of things (like meatloaf) at the same time, then freeze the extras for future meals that will just need thawing and reheating.

Here’s hoping you have a cool kitchen this summer without losing the variety of great meals!

Hacks from my Happy Place

Some of my readers already know this about me, but some of you are just finding it out with this blog post. My kitchen is my happy place. It’s not big, fancy or updated, but when I’m there, pots bubbling away, stirring, adding additional ingredients, tasting and occasionally trying new ways with old recipes, I am happy and totally in-the-moment. No, I’m not any kind of fancy chef; I was blessed to get to spend time in my grandma’s kitchen with her. Grandma was PA Dutch (the German influence is obvious in her maiden name, which was Nonemaker) and she had a strict budget for groceries which forced her to stretch things like meats as far as she could. A roast chicken for Sunday dinner after church became things like chicken and waffles, chicken salad and, when most of the meat was gone, the bones were boiled and picked and used to make a big batch of chicken pot pie. (Sidenote: my grandpa shot rabbits and squirrels for extra meat, so the chances were that one or the other – or both – were added with the leftover scrimpy pieces of chicken in this pot.)

Many of my family and friends have enjoyed my cooking. Okay, so only a vegetarian would not enjoy meat and potatoes, right? When my ‘sista from another mista’ found out I was starting a blog, the first thing she asked was if it would include recipes.

In thinking about that, I realized that I was going to have to come clean about the fact that most of the things I’ve learned to make have been easy, not requiring a complex recipe with a large list of sometimes uncommon ingredients. And with the entrance of a crock pot being a necessary appliance in a cook’s kitchen, things got even easier.

I’m going to save the idea of ‘recipes’ for now, however, and share some of my easy-breezy anybody-could-do-it hacks to make cooking easier and to help make store-bought items into ‘homemade’ meals.

Tomato paste: Although I’ve seen numerous cooking shows where the tomato paste is squeezed from a tube, I know from checking that, if you CAN find it in your local grocery store, it is extremely little in ounces for an extremely lot in price. So that leaves us the cans. Anyone who has used a can of tomato paste knows how difficult it can be to scrape every last drop from a can because the product is so thick. Here is an easy hack for you — open the top of the can completely. Set the lid to the side. Now, turn the can over and open the bottom lid completely as well. Don’t worry, the paste is not going to run out of the can once you turn it upside down! Leave the second lid on the bottom of the can, then hold the can over where you want to empty the tomato paste into. Gently push the lid on top down and the tomato paste will, as a whole, slide down until it’s free from the can. Carefully remove the lid at the top, scraping off any excess paste stuck to it with a utensil and into your pan/bowl/etc. You will be surprised at how clean the interior of the can is with no effort! Rinse the can and lids and drop in your recycle bin. Easy!

“Homemade” spaghetti sauce: Remember that tomato paste? Add it to any brand of canned spaghetti sauce, browned meat if you want, and add a few spices that you probably already have – things like onion powder or salt, garlic powder or salt, dried oregano, dried Italian seasons – whatever you see in those numerous jars that you know will add to the flavor of your sauce. If desired, sprinkle in some store-bought grated cheese, Parmesan or any such related combos of cheese. If you have them, add a bay leaf. Now, just stir this all together until the tomato paste is broken down and incorporated, then simmer it on medium low for at least 1/2 hour, stirring occasionally. The longer you simmer it, the thicker it will get and the more the seasonings will incorporate into the sauce. The longer it simmers, the darker the red color will deepen as well. I tend to simmer mine not by time, but until I’m satisfied with the thickness and rich color. I promise you that this little bit of time and extra ingredients will give you bragging rights to call it homemade, because it will NOT taste like jarred sauce!

Candied sweet potatoes: This side dish is often popular at Thanksgiving and Christmas, served with turkey and/or ham. Most of us look for the frozen brand ($3.99 for 8 ounces of Hanover brand) because we can just put it all together in one dish and use the microwave to cook them. Did you know that the ‘candied’ part is nothing more than brown sugar and butter (margarine works as well) in equal parts, heated and stirred until the brown sugar melts? Instead of spending so much for so little, you can buy a large can of sweet potatoes, heat them in a sauce pan in the canned juice, strain them once they are good and hot, then add equal parts of brown sugar and butter to the empty pan, cook them until they meld, then add the canned and drained potatoes to the pot and stir gently to incorporate them with the sauce. You’ll have twice as much for half the money, still use only one utensil to make them (though you’ll want to have a colander to drain them). A bonus is that this same glaze works well on cooked carrots, and we all know that we’re more likely to eat a vegetable if it has a sweet candied glaze on it!

Frozen diced onions: If you’re not already using these, shame on you! There is no need to face the frustration, not to mention the tears, dicing an onion to add to a recipe. While frozen onion pieces tend to get a little bit of frost on them when frozen, they can be thawed on a paper towel before using. I use them for almost everything I make to add an onion flavor!

Fried Brussel sprouts: Speaking of veggies, Brussel sprouts will never rank up there as a favored vegetable. This little trick might get those picky veggie eaters you know to change their minds about these things that look like tiny cabbages. And it’s easy to make as well! Use some bacon cut into pieces (I ‘cut off and save’ the more fatty end of bacon strips for recipes like this) and brown. About halfway through browning, add some of those thawed diced onions and cook both. Meanwhile, steam Brussel sprouts in the microwave (you can buy them frozen in steam-able bags if you don’t have a steamer). When the bacon and onions are thoroughly sautéed, simply add the cooked Brussel sprouts and let them lightly fry in the oil from the bacon. For really picky eaters, you can slice them in half before adding to the pan to make sure more of each sprout is exposed to the flavorful bacon grease.

Oh, I could go on and on, and on and one…. but I’ll let my readers who choose to do so try out some of my hacks. If you do, please comment, and please tell me if you’d like more tips and ideas to add some variety to your mealtimes!