Archive | September, 2010

Slow Cooker Chicken Tacos

29 Sep

The kids asked for seconds.

Did you hear what I just said? SECONDS. And the food wasn’t fried, on a stick, drenched in syrup or ketchup, or fresh from the microwave.

~*~*~Happy Dance!!~*~*~

Today, I made crockpot chicken tacos. And yeah, I could have dumped chicken in the crock with a bottle of taco sauce, but didn’t feel like all the salt. Ditto for those envelopes of taco seasoning from the grocery store–those things are wretched. And honestly, it took me two seconds to toss some canned tomatoes and spices into the crock (OK, a minute or two because I was tasting and figuring amounts along the way) and bury some chicken breasts in there. And then it took me two more minutes at the end to pull the meat out, shred it (tho it pretty much shredded itself after simmering in there all day), and plop it onto tortillas.

Taco meat freezes absolutely beautifully. Go ahead and double or triple this. Cook it up, shred it, add a little sauce, put it in a freezer bag, squeeze all the air out, and pop it into the icebox for an easy dinner on a hurricane day. And this recipe would work with beef or pork if you’re not in a chicken mood.

I set this on our kitchen island as a buffet. A bowl of shredded meat with smaller bowls of salsa, guacamole, lettuce, diced tomatoes, and cheese. A plate of tortillas. Another big bowl of Mexican rice evened things out.

It was healthy. It was deliciously simple. It was actually pretty cheap, all things considered. And they asked for seconds. I may live off that moment for days. (It’s also gluten-free if you opt for corn tortillas or serve the meat as part of a salad.)

To make my slow cooker tacos, you’ll need:

2 14-oz cans diced tomatoes

2 tsp chili powder

1/2 tsp garlic powder

1 tsp onion flakes (or 1/2 tsp onion powder)

pinch of red pepper flakes

1/4 tsp oregano

1/2 tsp paprika

1 1/2 tsp ground cumin

1/4 tsp salt

1 tsp smoked chipotle Tabasco (not the regular super hot stuff!)

2 tbsp vinegar (I used apple cider but white is great too)

1 pound chicken, any cut you like

Drain one can of the tomatoes. In a bowl, mix together both cans of tomatoes (one undrained), spices, Tabasco and vinegar. Stir together until well blended

Use a fork to poke holes throughout the chicken.

Pour half of the tomato mixture into your slow cooker. Put chicken on top of that, and then pour remaining sauce on top. Cook on low 8 – 10 hours.

Remove chicken from crock and shred with forks. Put it into a bowl and spoon the tomatoes from the crock into it. Add a few spoons of sauce to the meat and serve in taco shells with diced tomato, shredded lettuce, cheese, guacamole, sour cream…the sky’s the limit. Enjoy.

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Freezer, Blessed Freezer

28 Sep

That right there? That is the bane of my existence.

That monstrous refrigerator was in this house when we bought it, and unlike the horrible oven (we’ll chat about that one soon) and totally dysfunctional dishwasher that have been summarily tossed since then, the damn fridge will not die. It chugs along, spitting out ice and keeping stuff cold, in its maddening side-by-side design that won’t fit a pizza box, ice cream cake (even regular boxes of ice cream are just this side of impossible and must contort to squeeze in there), or even a lasagna pan if there’s anything else at all on the shelf.

It’s a huge, massive appliance. And nothing fits. And it has this stupid water dispenser on the door which is very ooh la la, but which my one-year-old black Labrigator figured out quite some time ago and has threatened to flood my house every day since. I can’t touch it–she mimics me when I dare and I fear disaster will ensue.

Come into my house in the middle of my trying to cram one stupid thing in there, or opening the door to have something heavy tumble out onto my foot, and you’ll hear me whispering to it in a sinister display of a side of me most people don’t see. “Die. I hate you. Just DIE already.”

But that’s not what we’re talking about today (unless you’re talking to Santa by chance, in which case chat me up, wouldja? Ask the jolly old elf to bring me a bottom-freezer stainless model, preferably Kenmore Elite, pretty please I’ve been soooooooo good!). We are talking about freezers in general and their amazing way of making dinner easier. Because lots of you have told me how difficult getting dinner on the table is once school and sports and music and scouts and everything else starts up each fall, and the freezer can really be your friend in that department.

Let’s start with the basics. I told you about my bags o’ salmon from the warehouse club. Twenty minutes, freezer to table, I promise. Flavorful on their own, they need very little to make a really healthy, filling dinner. Throw a filet in the oven, pop a potato in the microwave, and then throw a bag of SteamFresh veggies in there while the taters sit on a plate, and whammo. You are the Queen of Dinner.

My freezer also has a bag of frozen chicken breasts (not the huge one because of the aforementioned godforsaken side by side issue, but I digress.) that can also give me a super fast dinner in no time. Defrost a chicken boob in a bowl of water (faster than the microwave and no risk of cooking the poor thing into a tasteless, rubbery slab), give it a pat, dip it in egg and breadcrumbs, saute it in a big pan, and pour some spaghetti sauce over it. Top with some shredded cheese, pop it under the broiler for a minute, and boom. Chicken parm. How awesome are you?

Also in my freezer: a bag of homemade meatballs (throw them into a bowl of pasta or or onto a hamburger roll with a little sauce), several bags of pumpkin, chocolate zucchini, and chocolate chip muffins, wrapped and bagged individual servings of baked ziti and slow cooker lasagna, and some pre-marinated tuna steaks from Trader Joe’s that go onto the grill almost straight from the icebox. A package of English Muffins, a bunch of SteamFresh bags of veggies and even rice (DUDE! Rice in three minutes! Rock ON!), and some veggie burgers, which are surprisingly healthy and delicious round things out. Oh, and a few containers of chicken noodle soup, chili, balls of pizza dough, and a load of spices are stuffed into the corners. Along with an Amy’s cheese pizza (totally squashed, not that I’m bitter or anything) for total emergency nights.

The freezer is your friend. If you’re hauling out pots and pans to make a nice dinner, it’s almost always just as easy to haul out one or two more, make a double batch of your entree, dole it into individual servings, and wrap, bag, and freeze it for another night.

So tell me…what’s in your freezer, and how do you make it work for your family?

Perfect Corn Chowder

27 Sep

It’s pouring down rain today. I’m wearing jeans and a cotton shirt, curled up on the couch with my laptop and work files, listening to the drops bounce off the roof and windows.

It’s a corn chowder day.

This recipe is one of my most requested. Every time I serve it or take it somewhere, someone wants to know how to make it. And they rarely believe how simple it is. It’s rich and creamy and comforting, and–surprise!!–really light, calorie-wise.

There are no potatoes in this chowder. I think that’s a good thing. I love me a good potato, but I want my corn chowder to taste like corn. Which this one does. I’ve written it using chicken because that’s usually how I make it, but you can do this with shrimp, crab, scallops, or just more corn instead of a bird. If you do use chicken, really anything you have is fine–leftover roasted or grilled chicken, pulled-apart rotisserie, or even cooked chicken strips from the grocery store’s deli department. Give it a rough chop and dump it in. It’s all good.

I adapted this recipe from Cooking Light, bumping up the veggies, playing with the spices, and adding some smoked Tabasco. You won’t believe how good that makes this.

This works great cooked early in the day and reheated, it’s a superstar of a leftover dish and gets better every day, and does really well kept hot in a slow cooker on the warm setting. I’ve set it out at parties that way–just crack the lid a bit or leave the top off so it doesn’t thin out too much.

I had a bowl for lunch today, and chances are good this will be my dinner later today. It’s that good. I hope you like it too.

To make this corn chowder, you’ll need:

Two tbsp butter (the real stuff…trust me)

Half a small or medium yellow onion, finely chopped

Two stalks of celery, finely chopped (or about 1/3 cup from the salad bar)

Two tbsp of flour (I suspect arrowroot would work if you want to go gluten-free)

3 cups lowfat milk (I use 1 percent)

1 – 2 cups cooked chicken, shrimp, crab…whatever, roughly chopped.

2 cups fresh or frozen corn kernels

1 14-oz can cream-style corn

1/2 tsp dried thyme

1/2 tsp dried dill weed

1/4 tsp salt

1/2 to 1 tsp smoked chipotle Tabasco

In a large saucepan or Dutch oven over medium heat, melt butter. Add onion and celery and cook until soft (about 5 minutes), stirring occasionally.

Stir in flour and cook, stirring constantly, about 1 minute (to get rid of the raw flour taste). Stir in milk, cream-style corn, corn kernels, chicken (or shrimp or crab or whatever), spices, and Tabasco.  Bring to a boil and cook until thick, about five more minutes. Ladle into bowls and sprinkle some shredded Parmesan on top if you have it.  Makes about 6 servings.

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The Icing on the Cake (really!)

24 Sep

Y’all are about to laugh at me, but the truth is…I’d never made frosting before last night.

Oh sure, I’d made royal icing for gingerbread houses and sugar cookies. And I’d mixed powdered sugar with milk and lemon juice to make a glaze for breads and cakes. But real, honest-to-goodness buttercream? Never.

My son’s teacher asked me if I’d make a cake for a class project. She gave me little dinosaurs to bake inside and said she needed them in a chocolate cake with green icing. No problemo. I baked the cake and bought a can of frosting from the grocery store, just like always.

And then the people on my freelance writer’s board had this discussion, see, about icing and cans and how nasty the grocery store stuff is.

Huh. I never thought it was nasty. It was sweet and goopy and filled its purpose. So I was willing to just disagree silently and frost my cake as I’d always done. But DH was away last night and the movie I rented for myself was just horrible, and I wound up with a free evening at home. So I looked on the ‘net and found a frosting recipe that looked easy enough, and figured I’d give it a whirl.

Oh. My. God.

Seriously, gang, such an amazing difference. I will never go back to the canned goo again, swear on my soul. Even for kids’ desserts. Because this frosting took about two minutes to whip up with stuff I already had here, and was absolutely amazing. And I can pronounce all the ingredients, which is really nice.

Give this a shot next time you’re frosting something. Tell me you can resist eating spoonfuls of it alone (not that anyone I know would do that so late at night…*ahem*). Kiss the cans goodbye. You don’t need them anymore.

To make a basic buttercream frosting, you need:

1 stick of butter, room temperature

4 to 4 1/2 cups of powdered sugar

1 1/2 tsp of vanilla extract

Enough milk to make it all creamy–I’d say three or four tablespoons

Using an electric mixer, cream the butter until it’s light and fluffy. Add in the sugar and vanilla and mix until it’s evenly combined. With the mixer running, drizzle in enough milk to get a frosting consistency (you can add more sugar if you go too far). Whip with the mixer until it’s fluffy and holds peaks. Stir in food coloring if necessary. Frost and enjoy.

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Apple Cinnamon Oatmeal From the Microwave, Without the Instant

22 Sep

I can’t stand instant oatmeal.

There. I said it. We’re all supposed to eat oatmeal because of its amazing nutritional benefits, and I cannot tolerate that stuff that comes in the packets, ready for Your Own Boiling Water and a stir.

For starters, it’s mega sweet. Way too sweet (which makes me wonder about the aforementioned nutritional benefits, but I digress…) for me first thing in the morning.

For another thing, the texture is gross. No other way to say it. It reminds me of something someone’s already eaten, if we’re all being honest.

And third, it’s expensive! Figure out the per-packet cost and factor in the number of packets you’d eat (be honest–nobody but nobody eats just one) and you’ll be amazed how much you just spent for a breakfast whose flavor and benefits are negligible.

I am typing this while eating a bowl of oatmeal. It tastes like apple and cinnamon. It has no artificial anything in it. It requires chewing and has some heft to it, which is a huge plus. It’s healthy as all heck. And it took me two minutes and thirty seconds to make and dirtied exactly one bowl and one spoon.

Sound good? I thought you’d like it. It’s a great way to start your day and the perfect hot, nutritious way to kick off your kids’ school mornings. You can personalize this a trillion ways. Add fruit–frozen blueberries work wonderfully, as do banana slices or apple chunks. Stir in a spoon of peanut butter or Nutella. Play with spices–add some nutmeg or cloves, replace the brown sugar with Splenda or honey. Mess with it. You cannot screw this up. And rarely has their been a healthier, better, faster breakfast.

Those snack-packs of applesauce are the perfect size for this, and their plastic containers make great measuring cups for the oatmeal once you dump the sauce into your bowl. Big jars of applesauce are good too, of course. 🙂

Give this a shot. I bet you’ll love it. To make the world’s easiest microwave oatmeal, you’ll need:

1/2 cup applesauce (a snack pack is this size)

1/2 cup old-fashioned oats (not quick-cooking)

A sprinkle of cinnamon

1/2 tsp brown sugar (or honey or whatever sweetener you like)

About a quarter-cup of milk, to taste

Add ins: blueberries, banana, apple, raisins, Craisins, peanut butter, etc.

In a cereal bowl, stir together oatmeal, applesauce, sweetener, and dry spices. Cover with a paper towel and microwave on full power for 2 minutes. Let sit about 30 seconds (or longer–you really can’t mess this up!). Stir in fruit, peanut butter, or other add-ins, and then milk to your desired level of creaminess. Enjoy. And then donate all those awful packets to a nonprofit. You don’t need them anymore.

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Mushroom Quinoa

21 Sep

I started reading about quinoa a few years ago, during the low-carb craze, and haven’t gotten it out of my system quite yet. In fact, this recipe is a favorite for lunch or as a dinner side dish, and it always makes me happy.

Quinoa is a grain, but only technically. It’s related to the beet and a few leafy greens, is gluten-free, and is packed full of nutrition. It’s a complete protein source and contains lots of amino acids. And it cooks up a lot like rice, which gives you some hands-off time to go do something else (I hear it works in a rice cooker, but haven’t tried that myself).

This recipe didn’t start as anything. I wrote it myself, start to finish, when I was trying to figure out what to do with a box of quinoa that made its way home from the grocery store (you’ll frequently find it near the rice, and all the stores in my area carry it now). It’s a little bitter and absorbs other flavors well. I was going for comfort and texture, so mushrooms, garlic, and onion came to mind.

Be sure you rinse your quinoa well before you cook it. It’ll help take the bitter edge off. Just pour it into a mesh sieve and rinse it under the faucet for a few minutes, and then dump it right into your cooking liquid. That’s not always written on the box, but it’s a step I don’t recommend skipping.

Feel free to add beef, chicken, or other veggies to this. I like to brown the mushrooms first because they give off a wonderful liquid that’s perfect with the broth. And speaking of that, go ahead and switch out the beef I use with chicken, veggie, or another liquid you like. You can also swap out the quinoa with couscous (follow cooking directions on the box to get the broth amount) or rice–I’m thinking wild rice would be really good.

This recipe makes about four lunch-sized servings for me. It keeps beautifully and re-heats really well, which makes it great to cook up on a Sunday and pack for the week. It would also be a great substitute for rice or potatoes with steak or other red meat.

To make my mushroom quinoa, you’ll need:

About 2 tsp of olive oil

8 oz of sliced mushrooms

About a quarter-cup of finely diced onion

One clove of garlic, finely diced

1 14-oz can of beef or other broth

Water

1 cup of quinoa, rinsed well

Heat the olive oil in a small saucepan or saucier over medium heat. Saute your sliced mushrooms until they’re a deep mahogany brown:

Add onion and garlic and saute until they begin to soften, just a few minutes.

Pour broth into a 2-cup measuring cup and add enough water to reach the 2-cup mark. Pour that into the saucepan with the veggies, and stir in the quinoa. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low, cover, and let simmer until all the broth is absorbed, about 20 to 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

When the liquid is gone, turn off the heat and let the quinoa sit for about five minutes. Sprinkle with shredded Parmesan if desired (yum!).

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Chicken or Turkey Marsala

20 Sep

Turkey cutlets were on sale last week. That’s about the only way I’ll buy them and it doesn’t happen very often, but it happened last week and a package thusly landed in my fridge. And I remembered a friend asking me about marsala a few weeks (months, but who’s counting?) ago and making a mental note to make that soon, and then having Life get in the way. Know how that goes?  Anyway, I decided to give marsala a whirl with turkey.

Turkey does not like being cooked at high temperatures. It gets tough and stringy. Low and slow is the only way to go with this bird. Since this recipe was developed for chicken, I’m going to tell you how to do things differently depending which poultry you’re using.

This was another Weight Watchers recipe, and really the only thing I’ve done with it is double the sauce. This thickens up quickly and dramatically, and the original became more of a glaze than a sauce. It’s delicious, and not having extra to sop up with bread or another carb seemed a shame, so I make extra.

I told my friend, back when she asked, that the thing I like about marsala is that it’s both very Italian and very beefy in taste. So you can treat it like an Italian dinner and serve it with pasta and steamed veggies and bread, or treat it like steak and serve it with rice or a potato and a salad. Either way works.

We gobbled this up. DH told he he likes it with chicken better, and I liked the turkey very much. So go figure. Pick whichever is on sale and follow the directions for that one.

One more thing, and I’ll confess it only to you. I used Marsala cooking wine instead of the real thing. Maryland, being pesky and annoying in a number of ways, doesn’t allow grocery store sales of alcohol in most areas, and a stop at the beer/wine store wasn’t on the agenda. So this came to the table with often-maligned cooking wine, from the oil and vinegar aisle at the grocery store. Nobody complained. I couldn’t tell the difference, quite honestly. If that makes life easier for you, I recommend it. I also recommend that the food snobs shut it. We’re busy and we’ve gotta eat, y’all.

To make this, you’ll need:

Four chicken or turkey cutlets

2 tbsp olive oil

a sprinkling of salt and pepper

2 cups sliced mushrooms (any variety you like)

3 tsp flour

1/2 cup Marsala wine

1/2 cup chicken broth

Heat oil in a large pan–high heat if you’re using chicken, medium-low if you’re using turkey. Let it get hot either way. Sprinkle your poultry with salt and pepper and let it cook in the oil until it’s done, about three minutes per side depending on your stove, the meat thickness, etc. Remove it from the pan to a plate and tent with foil.

In the same pan, saute mushrooms until they’re deep brown, using your spatula to scrape up all the yummy bird brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Then sprinkle the mushrooms with the flour and cook another few minutes, stirring constantly, until you don’t see the flour anymore (get rid of that raw flour taste, which is just nasty).

Add the wine and broth and stir until the mixture thickens, which will seem to not be happening and then will happen all of a sudden. Stir your turkey or chicken back in, warm up, and serve.

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