Hacks from my Happy Place – XV

I want to use this article to talk specifically about one item. That item is mashed potatoes.

I grew up with mashed potatoes being a staple as a side dish. Potatoes are relatively inexpensive at any time of the year and the fact that they are a product filled with starch means that they are very filling, always good for the budget-conscious.

The process I learned growing up about making them was pretty basic. Peel and dice the potatoes. Put in a large pot with salted water and bring to a boil. Continue boiling until potatoes are tender. Drain. Add butter (margarine) and some milk and begin to mash (by hand or with an electric mixer). Add milk as needed to acquire the desired consistency. Place in serving bowl. Serve.

Now, there is nothing wrong with that process, and it is continued on routinely.

However, one of the things about peeling potatoes is that all of the vitamins and minerals are in the peel of the potato, not in the meat of it. Once a potato has been peeled, it has pretty much lost any of its nutritional value. Perhaps that is why we see restaurants starting to use red or fingerling potatoes – any potato that has a very thin skin – and leaving some, or all, of the skin on the potato for boiling and serving.

Here’s my thing about that, and why I love it so much. You see, in addition to keeping some nutritional value, I’ve begun to abhor the task of peeling and dicing potatoes. It’s such a time-consuming and monotonous chore! I’ve been lucky enough to discover that my bestie’s husband likes this chore (probably because he likes to nibble on raw potato pieces while he’s doing it!), and this has allowed me the freedom of not feeling like I’m a slave to it!

My bestie is lactose-intolerant. (My bestie is also intolerant of having to cook, by the way!) Since we do Thanksgiving and Christmas together, it is my task to do the actual mashing of the potatoes without using milk. And this is not a problem! You see, one day when I was watching Rachel Raye, she talked about using the potato water instead of milk, suggesting that the potato water is full of the potato flavor. I tried it – and she was right! The actual flavor of the potato was much more prominent and added a vibrancy to the taste! I’ve been making them that way ever since!

Now, I admit, I’m still lazy about the peeling potatoes process, so I have succumbed to the instant potatoes method for myself. If I’m going to be covering the potatoes with something like gravy, or the sauerkraut from pork and sauerkraut, the potatoes assume that flavor, and it all works out. When I really DO want the flavor or real mashed potatoes, I simply use red potatoes and leave the skins on because, they are very thin skins and because, I’m keeping the nutritional value. Win-Win!

I know, from experience, that when you are going to go through the task of making real mashed potatoes, you make more than you anticipate needing to feed however many people you are feeding! Pennsylvania Dutch cooking is not about “waste not, want not” – it’s about “food aplenty” and “leftovers”! So, what can you do with leftover mashed potatoes?

Of course, they can be re-heated via the microwave or in a saucepan with a little extra butter (margarine) to re-moisten them. But how many days in a row do you want them again, especially when you’ve finished off the rest of the leftovers from the original meal? Now what?

The answer is two words: Potato Cakes. Potato cakes are basically leftover mashed potatoes, with a few extra ingredients, turned into a batter that you make like pancakes! The basic recipe is one cup of flour for two cups of potatoes (you can guesstimate this without measuring the potatoes) and one egg for each two cups of potatoes. From there, you can make different varieties. As a side dish to another entrée, add chopped onion (optional), salt, pepper and any other seasonings you feel are appropriate. For example, you can add Italian seasoning if you are serving them with something that it tomato-sauce based. You can actually turn them into breakfast by adding a little bit of vanilla to the batter, (omitting the salt, pepper and onions) and serve with syrup. Get creative and add some blueberries or chocolate chips or whatever else you might put in pancake batter! If you have a lot of leftover mashed potatoes, mix them thoroughly with the flour and egg and then divide – make a batch of savory AND a batch of sweet! The batter can be refrigerated for a couple of days, and you might just need to add a little bit of water to thin it back down before using!

Mashed potatoes do freeze. As with refrigerating, they may appear a little ‘watery’. Just stir them up until the liquid is absorbed back in and reheat. You can also freeze them in two-cup batches and thaw them out to make potato cakes. So go ahead!! Peel, dice and cook a whole slew of potatoes to make mashed potatoes while going through the effort, and you’ll have a variety of options for the leftovers without having the task of peeling, dicing and boiling again!

Happy Mashed Potatoes, my friends! Any way you make them, they are yum, yum good!

Good old creamy mashed potatoes!
Crunchy potato cakes! Yes, please!

Hacks from my Happy Place – XIII

I’m focusing this post on all things chicken. I once saw a book called 1001 Recipes for Chicken, and although I neither bought it or even leafed through it, I already know some very versatile ways to create entrees using this poultry meat.

I have two favorite casserole recipes for chicken (though I think I could probably create some new ones if I put my mind to it). Ironically, many of the items in each can be interchanged with the other, creating more variety. The common components in both are cooked, cubed chicken and Campbell’s cheddar cheese soup. For what my mom called “Chicken Devan”, you spray an oblong pan with non-stick spray and place frozen broccoli (I prefer florets but you can use the full ones with stems) on the bottom. Place a nice layer of the cubed chicken on top. Mix the cheddar cheese soup with a can of milk, as directed, in a separate bowl. Pour the mixture over the top of the chicken. Cover with foil and bake at 350(F) for 20 minutes. Remove foil and return to the oven for an additional 5-10 minutes, until the top begins to turn golden brown. Remove from oven and let the casserole rest at least 5 minutes, then dig in and serve!

For my recipe, which I call Chicken and Stuffing, you use a sprayed oblong pan. In a large bowl, mix one can cheddar cheese soup with one 8-oz container of sour cream until thoroughly mixed (do not add any milk). Add cubed chicken pieces to the mix and stir until blended. Place this entire mix in the bottom of the casserole dish. Meanwhile, use one box of stuffing mix (any brand) in chicken flavor and make according to directions. Spread the finished stuffing mix over top of the chicken mixture. Again, cover with foil and bake at 350(F) for 20 minutes. Remove foil and return to the oven for an additional 5 minutes, until the stuffing has just a little bit of crust on it. Remove from oven and let the casserole rest at least 5 minutes, then dig in and serve!

One time, I wanted to make this recipe and didn’t have any stuffing mix on hand. So I improvised and melted a stick of butter/margarine and crushed up about 1-1/2 stacks of Ritz crackers into pieces, stirred them into the melted butter, and spread that over the top instead. A slightly different taste, but still good!

Of course, you can add broccoli to the Chicken and Stuffing casserole, or use the cheddar cheese and sour cream mixture in the Chicken Devan. Experiment!!!

I always look for boneless chicken breasts when they are on sale, then buy a lot of them, boil them in water until they are cooked, rinse them well and let them cool until I can handle them. Then I cut all of it into cubes and freeze portions separately in my freezer so I have some on hand. In addition to these casseroles, I use them for PA Dutch pot pie and my cabbage soup.

I could easily eat chicken 5 days a week as long as I have various ways to eat it. So, if you’ve got a really good (and preferably, easy) recipe for chicken, please share it with us here!

Meanwhile… if you’ve got a lot of turkey left over from your holiday feast, simply de-bone and dice it up and use it in place of the chicken! This might save you from having the turkey doldrums!

Hacks from my Happy Place – XII

It’s been a while since I posted anything about my fun times in the kitchen. I haven’t really been doing a lot of creating and experimenting there recently, mostly because I’ve run out of freezer space! Much of what is stored there is to share with my brother to take home when he visits for Christmas, and then I can start cooking again! YAY!

I’ve also been adding posts of a ‘heavier’ emotional weight recently, and I’m sure my fellow readers and I could use a break from that. So… it’s time to put my apron on for a bit….

I no longer get into baking for Christmas. Having been diagnosed with diabetes and having no real space to speak of in my kitchen are the two major reasons. I can’t help but try a sample of each of the variety I make when it’s still warm from the oven, after all – and someone needs to dispose of the imperfect ones without letting them go to waste as well! But, in the days when I baked like the devil in a tailspin, my record was 146 dozen. Yes, that’s right, dozen – the equivalent of 1, 752 cookies! I gave tray upon tray upon tray of cookies away, and the trays also included 3 mini-loaves of assorted breads. Yea, that’s not going to happen again in this lifetime!

I do, however, follow a Christmas cookie baking site on a social media site, probably because I enjoy seeing the artistry with which some people decorate cookies. Visual creativity and the ability to draw are two of my weaknesses.

One that site, however, I found a couple of ‘hacks’ I thought I’d share for those of you who do bake! HACK #1: The cap on a bottle of vanilla equals one teaspoon. To those of you using measuring spoons for several ingredients, this means one less wash and dry between use for each one! HACK #2: If you need to soften butter quickly, but don’t want to melt it, boil water in a microwave safe glass to heat the glass, then dump the water out and flip it over your stick of butter. In a few minutes, it will be soft enough to use for your recipe.

Okay, that’s it for my hacks. Although I don’t make cookies, I still do some baking. I recently made one of my favorite desserts to make as a gift to someone who is a proclaimed chocoholic. I shared the recipe and photos on another social media site, and my friends from the Netherlands, who saw it and both follow my blog, suggested I post the recipe and photos here. So, Nurse and Belly (yes, more Mixer family folks!), this is for you!

Death by Chocolate – ingredients: One box of cake mix in dark chocolate/chocolate fudge flavor (any brand will do). One box of instant chocolate pudding (dark chocolate if you can find it). Two boxes of instant mousse mix (again, in dark chocolate if you can find it). One large tub of whipped topping (any brand will do). Your choice of add-ins, such as chocolate chips, broken candy bar pieces, etc. (You can use other items, such as peanut butter chips, nuts or espresso beans, but I think it’s better to stick with something chocolate.) Chocolate syrup is an optional additional ingredient.

Bake the cake according to directions, adding the dried instant pudding to the mix. (I use a Bundt pan because I want as much of the cake to be the moist inside as possible, but any pan will do.) Let cake cool according to directions.

After cake has cooled sufficiently, break it into small chunks and set aside in a large bowl. Mix the two boxes of instant mousse mix according to directions on the box. Now it’s time to assemble all of the ingredients together to begin building layers.

Cake chunks, mousse, whipped topping, dark chocolate chips and chocolate syrup.

This dessert is built in layers, so it’s best to use a large clear bowl if possible, so you can see the layers. In this demonstration, I used a smaller bowl because I was gifting some, but it does make a large bowlful!

The first layer in the bottom of the bowl is cake chunks. On top of the cake, spread a layer of chocolate mousse. On top of the mousse, spread a layer of whipped topping. Sprinkle on some of your add-ons (this layer doesn’t show so you can be sloppy) and swirl with chocolate syrup (optional).

Chunks of cake
Mousse over cake
Whipped topping, add-ons and chocolate syrup

From there, you just keep repeating the layers, always ending with the whipped topping on top. My BIGGEST suggestion is that you don’t fill the bowl to the brim so that you can cover it with plastic wrap. It does need to be stored in the fridge. In the end, it looks something like this:

View from the top
View from the side

Even though my sample is only two layers, you can see how spectacular it looks from the side, and that’s why a clear bowl is the way to go!

This is a dessert that any hostess would enjoy putting on her table if you bring it with you for a dinner invitation. This is a dessert that can be delved into a spoonful at a time whenever you crave just a bite of something sweet. And this is a dessert that takes a little bit of time to assemble but is easy to make! So try it! And enjoy!

Hacks from my Happy Place – XI

I think the fact that this is my 11th post related to food, cooking and the kitchen certainly validates my passion for those things, doesn’t it???

People who enjoy baking are gearing up to start all of those goodies for the upcoming holiday seasons. For you, I offer the following information I found online:

This is quite helpful!
Hmm, I have neither whole milk nor unsalted butter in my house!

Meanwhile, the beginning of baking season also signals that I can “officially” start my ‘nesting’. This is the time – every year – that I wish I’d had space to bring my small chest freezer with me when I moved. I toy with the idea of making room for a small upright freezer, and have to remind myself that it’s less expensive to just cook in smaller batches! The last time I visited my brother and took some goodies along, his freezer was almost over-stocked by the time I left him. And my bestie is always willing to reap the rewards when I do make a batch of something. In an ideal world, food banks would take – and be able to store – homemade frozen items for the needy. If that could happen, I could do more than my share to fill the freezer!

Meanwhile, I thought I’d share a couple of recipes with you that I’m trying for the first time. The first is for homemade tortilla chips. Start with large soft tortillas. Cut them into 8 (pie-shaped) wedges. Depending how sharp your knife is, you can cut through several at a time. In a medium to large bowl, combine 1/2 cup melted butter (or margarine), 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese (dried is okay), 2 tsp. garlic powder, 2 tsp. oregano and 2 tsp. basil. You can add other spices you like, such as Italian seasoning, red pepper flakes, etc. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Toss the tortilla slices in the bowl to coat. Spread out in a single layer on the baking sheet. Bake for 8-10 minutes at 350 degrees. Let cool, then store in an airtight bag or container.

This next recipe comes from my bestie, Joanne. I’m calling it Boxed Cake Cookies, and it is super simple! Begin by preheating your oven to 350 degrees. In a bowl, combine one box of cake mix (brand and flavor of your choice), 1/2 cup oil, 2 eggs and 3/4 cup of your favorite ‘add-ins’ (think flavored chips, nuts, etc.). Drop batter by teaspoons onto parchment covered baking sheet. Bake for 10-12 minutes. Let cool for 5 minutes, then transfer to cooling rack until completely cool. Store in an airtight container. NOTE: One of my favorite cookies is Snickerdoodles, so I used a yellow cake mix, added 1 tsp. cinnamon and omitted the add-ins. I chilled the dough so that I could work with it to form balls of dough. The balls were rolled in a cinnamon & sugar mixture, then placed on the baking sheet. I then pressed them down a bit with the palm of my hand to spread them so that they would cook more evenly.

So there! Now even the most novice of bakers can make cookies, and with different add-ins and/or combining add-ins, create a lot of varieties!

Meanwhile, I have the hankering for some meatloaf – or spaghetti with homemade sauce -, so more cookies and tortilla chips will wait for another day!

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!