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!