Archive for July, 2016

Brown Bagging It

July 19, 2016

Something that comes up a lot is packing a lunch for work.  Even the best local dives, while relatively inexpensive, still add up.  Consider that a quick takeout salad or sandwich lunch downtown runs about $10.  Five days a week and 4 weeks per month takes your lunch expense to $200 each month!  I don’t know about you, but I can certainly think of a few other things I could do with $200.

Of course, brown bag lunches often bring visions of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, cold leftovers in Tupperware, or the ubiquitous cup of noodles.  It doesn’t have to be that way though.  Consider first what you like to eat and how that might be prepared in a to-go situation.  There are a variety of thermos type containers to consider, as well as thermal lunch bags that keep your hots hot and your colds cold.  One of my favorites is the Bento thermos .  imageIt’s a large-ish thermos with 3 smaller containers inside and it comes in a thermal tote bag.  There’s a larger version as well for those who have a bigger appetite than I do.  And a bonus, my thin coffee thermos fits in the same tote bag!

I like the three containers for breakfast, lunch,  and snack.  I leave super early in the morning so don’t eat breakfast until I get to work.  Instead of opting for the nearest mc-breakfast sandwich, I scramble eggs, chopped bacon, and cheese before I leave and pop it in the smallest bento container.  Lunch is often leftovers from dinner the night before, heated before I leave home and put in the largest container.  The medium container gets a snack or another lunch item.  Breakfast is still hot when I get to work (after an hour and a half train ride), and lunch is still warm at noon.

Ok, so you’re still thinking “leftovers”, ugh!  Just hold on a minute.  Let’s take a look at some of the recent recipes we’ve created.  Chicken enchilada bake with a little extra salsa makes a perfectly nice lunch, or you can take some of that leftover chicken and wrap it in a tortilla or lettuce leaf for a taco/wrap.  How about that shredded pork?  Put some in one container and some lettuce and tomatoes in another container.  With a dollop of salsa you’ve got a taco salad for lunch.  Quick and easy!

So what if you don’t have any leftovers, or really don’t want leftovers 5 days a week?  Then make up some other lunch options when you’re doing your weekly meal prep on the weekend.  Planning on chicken stir fry one night for dinner?  Cook a couple of extra chicken breast tenders at the same time and make chicken salad.  Dress it up by using wasabi mayonnaise or mashed avocado.  My favorite is adding turmeric and black pepper.  You can even make a couple of small batch variations for variety during the week.  Toss some in a lettuce leaf for a healthy wrap or serve some with tortilla chips for a fun variation.

Chicken Salad (the basics)

Base Ingredients: chicken breast tenders, mayonnaise

Options: wasabi mayo and chopped green onions, turmeric and black pepper, celery and onions, or cranberries and walnut pieces.  Just use your imagination!

Add-ons: lettuce leaves for wrapping, chopped lettuce for salad, tortilla chips, whole wheat crackers

Planning and Meal Prep

July 13, 2016

I’ve touched on prepping ingredients for meals a bit in the past, but what does this really mean?  It could be just chopping vegetables ahead of time for quick assembly when it’s time to cook.  Or it could mean assembling the entire meal so it just needs to be popped in the oven when you get home from work.  Depending on your available time and the type of meal, you can even go so far as creating the entire meal and freezing it.  When it’s time for dinner, all you need to do is heat and eat.

Since we’re getting back to basics and finding time to create whole food healthy meals instead of pre-made store bought meals or ordering takeout, let’s focus on saving time by prepping as much as possible for a week’s worth of dinners.

Planning your menu will help you plan your grocery trip.  Cooking meals with similar ingredients is a start.  The frozen chicken tenders gave us an Enchilada Bake and an Asian inspired stir fry by just switching up the add-ons.  We can do the same with a pork roast.

A 3-4 pound pork roast can give you a couple of chops and some shredded pork for tacos or BBQ sandwiches.

Back to your basic shopping list. For the previous recipes we’ve focused on some frozen chicken breast tenders.  Let’s add some variety to the list and get a pork loin roast.  Let’s say you want chicken stir fry on Monday, shredded pork tacos on Tuesday, chicken enchilada bake on Wednesday, and Pork chops on Thursday.  You’ve shopped for your meats and veggies this week and you already have your pantry staples from previous shopping trips.  Now just set aside an hour on the weekend to prep for the week.

I cook for two people and try to allow for leftovers to bring to work for lunch.  If you are feeding a family of 4 or more, just adjust the amounts.  Take your pork roast and cut two 1/2-3/4 inch chops off the end.  Put these in a zip lock Baggie and toss in the freezer for Thursday. The rest of the pork roast goes into either a crock pot or electric pressure cooker. Add a splash of water, broth, or a couple of tablespoons of salsa for moisture while the pork cooks down. image

I highly recommend getting an electric pressure cooker, like the Instant Pot.  Like a crock pot, you can turn it on and walk away, but the IP will only take about 1/4 of the time of a crock pot to cook that pork roast.  You can even cook from frozen!  The 3 pounds of pork roast left after the chops will cook down in about an hour in the pressure cooker.

While the pork is cooking, cut your chicken tenders into cubes and store in a sealed container or zip lock baggie in the fridge for Monday’s stir fry. If these are too frozen to cut, just toss them in the bAggies and they’ll be thawed for Monday’s dinner and you can cut them up then. Chop your stir fry veggies and store as well.  Next place your frozen chicken tenders for the enchilada bake in your baking dish, top with salsa, and store in the fridge until Wed. Pyrex baking dishes (like these) imagewith plastic lids are great for pre-prepping meals as they go straight from the fridge to the oven.

If you’re leery of storing meat in the fridge in advance, you can keep it the freezer, but remember to put it in the fridge the morning you will need it so it will be thawed for dinner.

You now have three meals prepped!  Once the pork roast cooks down, shred it using two forks.  Store the pork in a covered container in the fridge for tacos on Tuesday.  Depending on how many people you are feeding, you might split it into two portions and freeze one for another time.  Shredded pork is not only great for tacos, but also on nachos or with BBQ sauce for a BBQ sandwich.

So here you go.  With minimal ingredients and a little time on the weekend, you now have four home cooked meals prepped and ready for your busy week ahead!

Grocery Shopping 101

July 9, 2016

So here’s the deal, you don’t have time to cook full meals because you work, and have kids, and have to go to the gym, and you don’t have the right ingredients in the pantry, and…I get it!  Step 1 for healthy, home-cooked meals is having the food available to cook.  If you only have frozen pizza, canned soup, and condiments then there’s not much available to cook even if you found the time.

Cooking full meals requires planning (until you become so good at it you could MacGyver that pizza and soup into a 4 course gourmet meal).  Even then, there will still be some planning involved and this starts with filling the fridge and pantry with versatile ingredients.  Remember that bag of frozen chicken tenders we discussed previously? Not only could that be used for the Chicken Enchilada Bake, but also: Asian stir fry, shredded BBQ chicken, Greek chicken kabobs, chicken in mushroom sauce, and tons of other quick and easy recipes.

Then there are the add-ons like cheese, salsa, herbs and spices.  Keep your favorites handy.  Shredded 3 cheese blend is great for Mexican dishes, omelettes, and even on top of burgers.  Choose a couple of sauces and salsas you like. Yes, you could make these from scratch too, but let’s start simple.  For now, buy the sauces and condiments.  There is an array of sauces available depending on your mood: BBQ, Asian peanut, green and red salsas, curries.  Keep a couple of options in your pantry.

Next are the veggies.  Again, we’re keeping this simple for now.  Pick one or two you like that can last a while.  I almost always have broccoli and avocados.  I get carrots and celery as needed (you know, for stir frys or chicken salad).  Seasonally others may show up in my cart like spring asparagus or winter squash for variety.  Onions also go in just about anything.

A few other staples to keep on hand are good quality butter, coconut oil, eggs, rice, pasta, pasta sauce, and good quality salt and pepper.  If you can find these in the grinder jars, even better!  By keeping versatile staples available, meal prep will be so much easier and you can even prep a meal on the fly when the mood strikes.image

To get the most out of your shopping trip  and to keep it as short and painless as possible (you are very busy after all), make a list. If possible, put the list in order of your grocery store layout.  This will keep you from backtracking and ending up with a cart full of items you probably don’t need.  My local store has produce just inside the door, then fresh meats, frozen, pantry, then dairy.  I can usually fill a cart from my list in 10 minutes and I’m outta there!

Lets say you now have all of the ingredients listed above.  What can you do?  The last post gave you a Chicken Enchilada Bake (chicken, salsa, cheese).  This time, let’s go for an Asian Stir Fry (chicken, broccoli, rice). We are keeping this simple, and there’s no need for a wok, so I guess technically it would be a chicken vegetable sauté. Whatever.

Ingredients

  • chicken (estimate 1-2 tenders per person, cut into 1″ chunks)
  • broccoli (about 1/2 cup per person)
  • rice (about 1/2-1 cup cooked per person)
  • soy sauce

Directions

Do yourself a favor and buy a rice cooker.  Rice can be cooked on the stove, but you don’t have time for that, remember? Follow the directions on the bag of rice and your cooker for amounts, typically 1part rice to 2 parts water.  A full pot of rice will take less than 45 minutes and will stay warm until you need it.

Put the rice on and go do some chores, a quick workout, or relax with a cold beverage.  A rice cooker will automatically switch to warming mode when rice is cooked and stay warm until you are ready.  Since the stir fry will only take a few minutes, you now have some time to chill.

Once the rice is cooked, add a table spoon of coconut oil,to a heated frying pan.  Toss in chicken cubes and cook until done (the small cubes will only take a few minutes).  Drizzle soy sauce to taste (go light at first, a little goes a long way and you can always add more).  Turn heat up, add a splash of water and broccoli.  Cover and let steam about 5 minutes.  Serve over or next to rice.

This is a very simple version to get you started.  You can embellish with additional veggies like carrots, onions, and celery.  Toasted sesame oil sprinkled on top after cooking gives a fantastic depth of flavor.  To have this meal during the busy work week, you can cut up the chicken and vegetables beforehand and store in the fridge.  They will then be ready to toss in a pan and ready in 10 minutes.

You can just do vegetables for a vegetarian meal.  You can make a larger portion of meat and veggies and omit the rice for low carb.  Once you get the hang of a basic one-pan meal like this, the sky is the limit on which ingredients you use!

It’s Been A While

July 3, 2016

Yes, this project fell by the wayside.  There are so many activities to keep up with: weaving, spinning, hiking, kayaking, and even work.  This is what got me thinking again.  People are busy. I am busy. You are busy.  Because of this, many young people never learn to cook with whole food ingredients.  Many older people just stopped cooking at all and rely on heat-and-eat meals from the grocery or eating out.  Don’t get me wrong, I love a good restaurant meal, especially if it’s at a locally owned and operated, non-chain establishment.  But as busy as we are, real food at home is a necessity. And learning how to cook real food is a crucial life skill.

As busy as we are, it can be done, it just takes a little planning, both at the grocery store and in the kitchen.

When I first started writing and really getting in to cooking, I was working at home and raising my children.  My time was more flexible and without a commute to work, I had a bit more of it. This made for an easier transition to a whole food cooking life.  Now that I’m back in an office with lots of extracurricular interests, my time is limited, but there is still time for cooking and eating well, and that’s what I plan on sharing with you!

For you who have gotten away from home cooked meals due to lack of time and you who are young and just learning how to fend for yourselves in the real world, I have tips and recipes to share to get you (back) in then kitchen and enjoying preparing your own healthy meals.

No more chatter for today, let’s get to a recipe.  One of my favorite stand-bys, Chicken Enchilada Bake.  This is not a traditional enchilada recipe.  In fact, technically it’s not enchiladas at all as there are no tortillas.  It’s just a quick and easy 3 ingredient meal that can be made for one person or six with no extra effort.

Grocery Store Tip:  Purchase large bags of frozen chicken breast tenders (boneless, skinless, not breaded, just chicken). Trader Joe’s sells them in a zip lock bag.  If you only need one or two or six, just throw the rest back in the freezer. They thaw quickly and can be cooked from frozen.

Ingredients

  • chicken tenders (however many you need for the people you are feeding)
  • salsa verde (enough to cover the chicken in a baking dish)
  • Monterey jack (or pepper jack) cheese, shredded

Directions

In a baking dish large enough to fit the chicken in a single layer, place the chicken and cover with salsa.  You want to be able to see the chicken through the salsa, so not entirely covered or you’ll end up with soup.  Cover and bake until chicken is cooked. These don’t take long, maybe 20 minutes for 6-8 tenders if thawed.  A bit longer if frozen.  Remove cover and generously top with cheese.  Bake until cheese is melted.  Voila!  Dinner is served.

Add a side veggie or salad if you like.  Spark it up by seasoning chicken with cumin before baking.  Add extra chilies or chopped sweet peppers.  You can customize this as you wish.