Friday, August 27, 2010

Tomato Pie

Making Pie Dough and Tomato Pie
It may not be as hard as you think!

One of my favorite summertime dishes is Tomato Pie! All you need is mayo, cheese, and fresh tomatoes, green onions, and basil. It's not as hard as you might think to make your own pie dough, but you can always use store-bought, too.

Pie Dough

  • 1 c. flour
  • 1/3 c. vegetable shortening
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2-4 TB cold water

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. 

Mix the flour, salt, and shortening together. 
This is most easily done with a pastry cutter/blender; however, you can also use two knives or even just your hands.

If it's particularly warm at your house, you may want to chill the flour, shortening, and even the pastry cutter and bowl before using them for pie. However, I don't do this, and I've had no problem making pie dough. (Our house stays between 68 and 78 degrees.) 

Blend the flour, salt, and shortening together until the mixture looks like crumbs. You don't want areas with plain flour - the entire mixture should be lumpy, like in this photo. 

Do not overwork the flour and shortening.
In fact, that instruction goes for this whole process: handle the dough as little as possible, to keep it from getting tough.

Add 2 TB of cold water and mix it in with a fork. 
Continue adding water until the dough begins to all clump together.

What you're going for is the dough being willing to clump together. Your goal here is to have it just tacky enough to make a ball.

My mom says to just use 2 TB of cold water, but I find that I have to use double that amount.
You should not have any dry flour hanging out in the bottom of the bowl when you're done.

See how it's forming into bigger balls in the photo above? As you stir, you should see the loose flour/shortening bits picked up and formed into balls.

Use your hands to form a big ball with all the dough. If some of it won't join the ball, then it's too dry. You can add a bit of water to the dry parts left in the bowl, mix it with the fork, then add it to the ball.

As you make the ball of dough, shape it a bit like a mushroom cap - have an indentation on the bottom. This will help as you roll out the dough.

Place your dough ball on a floured surface.
  • This is what a pastry cloth is for. If you're making pie dough regularly, go ahead and get or make one. A cotton pillowcase will do the job, too. 
  • When you're done with the pastry cloth, scrape or shake off loose flour/dough bits, then fold it & put it in a ziptop bag, and put it in the freezer. This will keep little beasties from making it their new home. 

Roll out the dough with a floured or covered pin.

Start at the center and roll out to the edge. Let's call that direction north. Now come back to the center and roll out south. Then east, west, north-east, south-west, north-west, south-east ... get it? You just go around and around, from the center out.

My dough never comes out perfectly circular, and the world has not yet stopped. So, don't worry about it if yours isn't perfect either.

If you're not sure if the dough is big enough yet, just place your pie tin on top. You want the dough to extend past the pan, like in the photo to the right.

Now, you should be able to fold the dough in half, pick it up, and place it in the pie dish. I'll be honest with you, though... it took me about 2 years of making pie dough to be able to do that. For years, I could not use a glass pie dish, because my method was to lay the dish upside-down on the dough, sneak my hand under the pastry cloth, and whammo! flip the whole thing over.


The goal is simply to get the dough in the pan, whether you fold and lift or do a whammo! flip-it-all-over method.

Do not cut off the spare edges!  Instead, moisten the edge, then fold all the extra over to make a nice, tall pie edge.

Flute the edges. Use your thumb and first two fingers and press all around to make it more stable.  

If you were making a covered pie, you would fill the pie then cut the edge. Then you would moisten the flat edge before adding the top piece.

What if the dough cracks? Add a bit of water and stick it back together!

Prick the dough, then bake it. Use a fork to prick the dough all over, then bake it for 25 minutes at 425 degrees.

As you can see, my dough got a bit too brown... ah, well.

The dough is now ready to be filled. What shall we fill it with? Tomato Pie, of course!

Tomato Pie
  • 4 tomatoes, peeled and sliced
  • 8-10 fresh basil leaves, sliced
  • 1/3 c. chopped green onions
  • 1 c. shredded mozzarella cheese
  • 1 c. shredded cheddar cheese
  • 1 c. mayonnaise

Set your oven to 350 degrees. 

Bring a pot of water up to a simmer; place the tomatoes inside for a few minutes. Using tongs, remove the tomatoes and place them in a bowl of ice water. The peel should now slide easily off!

Layer the tomatoes, green onions, and basil inside the prepared pie shell. Isn't that pretty?

Mix together the cheeses and mayo, then spread that on top.

Okay, now it looks less attractive. It'll be delicious, though!

Bake for 30 minutes at 350 degrees, or until browned on top.

The pie will hold its heat well, so you can plan to have it come out of the oven as much as 30 minutes before you're ready to serve, if needed.

And that's it! All told, it takes me about 20 minutes to get this pie in the oven.

Let me know how it works out for you. I'd be glad to help trouble-shoot any pie dough preparation troubles you're having.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

MENU Wed 8/25 to Tue 8/31

Summer Just Keeps on Coming 
.... A meal from the freezer, a meal heading to the freezer. Call it a trade.

I can't wait to see this week's delivery from The Produce Box! I'm particularly excited about the melons and the muscadine cider.

This week, I received:

  • 2 Butternut Squash (2.75 lb)
  • Watermelon
  • 5 Peaches (1.75 lb)
  • Grape Tomatoes were scheduled; I got big ones instead!
  • Sprite Melon
  • Local Muscadine Grape Cider
  • Sweet Potatoes (3 lb)

    Last Week's Successful Experiments

    Making bagels was downright easy! The process took a long time, but most of that time I was just waiting for dough to rise. The actual work didn't take long at all.

    Lesson Learned: Careful when Blending. I also made 3 varieties of the Dr. Pepper Barbecue Sauce - using Dr.P, A&W Root Beer, and Coke. Dinah and I liked the Dr.P and Coke best. However, I learned that you must be very, very careful when running a blender with hot liquids inside. I had no idea... so, the lid of the blender blew off, I spent quite a while cleaning the kitchen walls and counters, and I still have burn marks on my arm. Please check out this advice from my favorite cooking Q&A site before you attempt that recipe!

    Decreasing Recipes Made Easy! I actually cut the Watermelon Dressing recipe down, making only 1/8 of the original. It was still plenty of dressing for two nights of salad. If you ever need help cutting a recipe down (say, figuring out what 1/8 of 2/3 cup is), I highly recommend downloading the simple program, EZConvert. You can find it (FREE!) at ... just scroll down to the bottom of the page, and you'll see it. Here's how it works:

    Just type in (or copy/paste) the original value, select multiply or divide from the drop-down, give what amount you're multiplying or dividing by, and it will provide an answer for you! So, instead of 2/3 cup of oil for the dressing recipe, I just used 1 TB plus 1 tsp, since I was dividing the whole by 8.

    Even our bring-the-baby-to-a-restaurant experiment went well! Here's hoping for anther great week of meals.

    Here's the Week's Menu: 

    WED 8/25 - Visiting  We're meeting Dinah's parents for dinner, so I'm off the hook tonight!

    THU 8/26 - Italian Night! Lasagna Rolls served alongside Italian sausage cooked w/ onions and peppers.

    FRI 8/27 - Easy Friday  Go to farmer's market for peaches (destined for cobbler and jam) and grape tomatoes. I received two GIANT tomatoes from The Produce Box, so we'll have Stuffed Tomatoes for dinner, made with frozen stuffing from the last batch. Serve with Butternut Cheddar Shells. I am not sure that these recipes really go well together... but they're two things I really want to have, so oh well!

    SAT 8/28 - Lazy Daze!  Cary, NC has a fabulous festival, Lazy Daze, every August. I can't wait to go; last year we didn't stay long due to rain.
    Breakfast: Aussie omelette w/ shrimp
    Lunch: Meatball subs for lunch if we eat here; pack sandwiches if we eat at the festival. 
    Dinner: Grilled Porterhouse, sweet potatoes baked & whipped, veggie stir-fry of red pepper strips & asparagus.

    SUN 8/29 - Hoping for Good Weather 
    Lunch: I had planned on grape tomatoes from The Produce Box but will get them from the farmers' market instead... add to that, shrimp in the freezer, and leftover cilantro & celery in the fridge... sounds like Shrimp & Black Bean Salad to me!
    Dinner: Barbecue Sauce Pizza for dinner. Trying again on the peach cobbler, since a certain baby didn't let me get to it last week.

    Muffins? What muffins? My poor husband had to make do with packaged breafast granola bars... going to try to get to the muffins again this week. I might need to go back to freezing extras for just-in-case. They're just not as good once frozen, though. 

    MON 8/30 - An Old Friend.  It's been a long time since we've had Chicken Marsala, so here we go! Served with Rosemary Roasties and Steamed Asparagus w/ Toasted Almond Slices.

    TUE 8/31 - Making Extra for the Freezer  Half a pork loin (on sale for $1.99/lb, wahoo!) cooked in the crock pot with the leftover Soda Barbecue Sauce. Serve as pulled pork sandwiches with homemade BBQ Baked Beans (made with that same sauce), and corn. I'll freeze all the extra pork for future meals - it'll make great sandwiches and burritos. 

    Not the most original week of recipes, but we're getting by. Will life get any easier as this little baby grows up?!  

    It's bizarre that the produce manager is more important to my children's health than the pediatrician.  - - Meryl Streep

    Friday, August 20, 2010

    In Defense of Cookbooks

    I've been thinking a lot about cookbooks lately, and about whether they are really necessary now that such great recipes can be found online

    If your intention is to find a recipe here, a recipe there, then searching online should work fine for you. I realize that some people have little desire to cook at all, and may only occasionally need to know a recipe. 

    But if your intention is to learn more about cooking, then I think a book would help you more. I used to think my mother was very strange for sitting around reading books about cooking. Now, I understand. Like anything, if you want to get better at it, really get better, then you would greatly benefit from some time spent reading. Then, head to the kitchen and practice what you read.

    Another advantage of a book is having a compilation of advice from a chef you trust. Sure, you can search online and find a highly-rated recipe for just about anything. But what if you want to learn about quick meals in general? or Mediterranean, Mexican, vegetarian, or Indian dishes? or have a few dozen salad ideas all in one spot? I have found it infinitely useful to be able to pull a book off the shelf, knowing it is a trustworthy compilation, and find what I'm looking for, right there.

    Reliable References   
    • A reference for basic information on just about everything: the Joy of Cooking is the classic reference. Joy is a fairly exhaustive reference, including countless recipes along with (importantly) much explanation of how and why they work. Each section (and subsection!) has an "about..." area that has provided much of my cooking knowledge. Reading this book is like stepping inside my mother's and grandmother's mind.
    • Two simpler all-inclusive reference books would be Betty Crocker's Everything You Need to Know or Better Homes and Gardens. I think only one of those two is necessary.
    • To learn about cooking techniques, a great starting place is Alton Brown's I'm Just Here for the Food. To get more in depth, you may want to check out something like The Professional Chef.
    • To learn about baking bread, check out Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day or Peter Reinhart's The Breadbaker's Apprentice
    • Learn about the science behind cooking:  Michael Ruhlman's Ratio is my new wish-list book for this topic. Want to create your own muffin recipes without having to build on someone's else's? This book will teach you how. This book contains information on doughs, stocks, sausages, and custards, and I can't wait to read it! Or, check out McGee's On Food and Cooking.
    Go-To Books for Specific Cuisine

    Besides having reference books like those, I think cookbooks are useful for having a single, trustworthy source on any given topic. Over on the right margin, you can see what's on my shelf, under "Bookshelf."

    I don't have an overly extensive cookbook collection, and that's intentional. I would rather get very good at a limited number of dishes, with brief explorations into other areas, than be in a continual state of experimentation. I simply do not have the time to make a new recipe each night, as I have found that it takes me almost twice as long to make a new recipe as it takes me to make one I'm familiar with.

    My advice to you is to pick up a couple of books that cover food genres you enjoy, and learn from them. Two of my favorite books are Rachael Ray's 30 Minute Meals and 500 Best Ever Recipes: Mediterranean.

    When I need an easy recipe, I go to Rachael Ray... and when I want something new and am willing to put some time into it, I flip through my Mediterranean book.

    What About You?

    What are the books you find yourself continually coming back to? Where do you turn when you need to learn about a new technique or are looking for ideas?

    Wednesday, August 18, 2010

    MENU Wed 8/18 to Tue 8/24

    Experiments Galore!
    Watermelon Dressing, Soda-Based Barbecue Sauce, and Carrot Muffins

    I'm excited about all the fruit in this week's delivery from The Produce Box! As you may have seen in Raleigh's Sunday Paper, The Produce Box is a local Community Supported Agriculture group that provides a box of farm-fresh, local fruits and vegetables right to my door. Talk about convenient!! To find a CSA near you, check out

    This week, I received:

    • Roma Tomatoes (3 lb)
    • 5 Peaches (2.5 lb)
    • Scuppernong Grapes (1.5 lb)
    • Red Potatoes (2 lb)
    • Watermelon, seedless personal size
    • Sprite Melon
    • 2 Banana Sweet Peppers

    Last week's Muscadine Grape Hull Pie turned out great! It reminds me of blackberry pie, probably due to the tart but sweet flavor. The recipe calls for 5 cups of grapes. Post-munching, I had about 3. So, I just used about half of the remaining pie filling ingredients, and it still worked well. Give it a try this week!

    If you're looking for more recipes for produce currently in season, check out - there, you'll find all the recipes from this year's The Produce Box newsletter. 

    Here's the Week's Menu: 

    WED 8/18 -  Something New  Italian Breaded Pork ChopsTomato Pie, and salad topped with Watermelon Basil Vinaigrette. When I first came across the recipe, I was not yet willing to sacrifice any watermelon as dressing fodder. I think my craving has subsided enough to allow it at this point.

    ...and Bagels, too! After the baby's in bed, I'll start work on bagels. I've never made them before... I'll keep you posted. Please comment with any bagel-making advice you have!

    Moroccan Chicken and Lentils
    THU 8/19 - Super-Quick Meal  All in one hour: feed the baby, make dinner, eat dinner, and get ready to leave for the evening. Ready, Set, GO! Fortunately, we have leftover Moroccan Chicken and Lentils from Monday. I also froze some leftovers, so you'll see it on the menu one more time. It turned out fairly bland, though topping it with Tzatsiki Sauce helped. I'll dice up the sweet pepper from this week's box and mix it in to the leftovers, too.
    More Quick Meal Ideas:

    Summertime Pasta Salad
    FRI 8/20 - Fishy Friday  Crunchy Oven-Fried Fish, Summertime Pasta Salad, and Steamed Corn

    SAT 8/21 - Soda Barbecue Experiment  Using the Simply Recipes Dr. Pepper Barbecue Sauce recipe, I'm going to make one batch with Coke, one with root beer, and one with (of course) Dr. Pepper. We're having baby back ribs (I've begged a friend for their fabulous recipe) slathered with said barbecue sauce, Skillet Corn Bread Pudding, and salad with more of the Watermelon Dressing.

    Tasty Tomatoes: If you're looking for how to use big, ripe tomatoes, check out Spiced Lamb Stuffed Tomatoes. Also, Broiled Parmesan Tomatoes would make a great side-dish to any meal. or you could check out this great dish, which also uses fresh new potatoes. Make it a vegetarian meal, or add some chicken.

    SUN 8/22 - Trade-off: Shrimp and Peaches  Grilled Shrimp and Veggie Kabobs, Corn Pudding - made with fresh corn, and Peach Cobbler. My sweet husband doesn't really like peaches, so I have held off making it, not wanting to do something special when it's just for me. But I can no longer take the temptation. It's August, and there are peaches everywhere! I give in. I shall appease him with shrimp. 

    Don't forget the weekly muffins! Corn pudding only partly uses a can of evaporated milk, so I'll use the rest in this week's muffins. The great carrot muffin experiment continues! Last week's muffins were too nutmeg-heavy and too cake-like for me. Once I have a winning recipe, I'll share it with you.   

    MON 8/23 - More Grilling!  Honey-Teriyaki Chicken (using store-bought Honey-Teriyaki Marinade, then grilled), Roasted Red Potatoes using garlic instead of rosemary, and sauteed broccoli.

    TUE 8/24 - Baby Experiment  We're going to try to take Rosie out to a restaurant. Plan B: Pasta w/ meatballs from the freezer and canned sauce.

    A Couple Fresh, Fun Summer Meal Ideas: 

    Salad Trio: Cucumber, Shrimp, and Corn Salads
    Share your successful experiments on or as a comments here - I'd love to try them! 

    You don't have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces - 
    just good food from fresh ingredients. 
    - - Julia Child

    Monday, August 16, 2010

    Giant, Beautiful Tomatoes

    I received two large tomatoes in my produce box this week. What better use could there be than stuffed tomatoes?

    If you're cooking for just a couple people, I advise you to go ahead and make the full quantity of the stuffing. Stuff the tomatoes you're cooking today (or refrigerating to cook tomorrow) and freeze the remainder of the stuffing. Next time, they'll be super-easy to make: just defrost, stuff, and bake!

    If you make a little extra each time you cook a freezer-friendly recipe, you'll quickly build up meals to defrost & cook for those nights when take-out looks awfully tempting. Don't ruin your budget; just plan ahead a bit. 

    Spiced Lamb Stuffed Tomatoes

    • 2 large, ripe tomatoes, each about the size of your fist - - don't worry if they're not super-ripe. I think this recipe works best if they're still a bit firm. 
    • 4 more tomatoes if you're not freezing extra stuffing for later
    • 2 TB butter
    • 1 large onion, chopped
    • 1 pound ground lamb
    • 1/2 c. dry red wine
    • 1/4 c. chopped fresh mint
    • 2 TB chopped fresh parsley
    • Additional chopped parsley for garnish (1-2 tsp per tomato) 
    • 1/4 tsp cinnamon
    • 1 tsp salt
    • 3/4 c. cooked rice (I used brown) - - just put some stir-fry on your menu a couple days before, cook extra rice with it, and you'll be ready to go when it's time to make these!
    • 2 tsp dry, plain breadcrumbs (1 tsp per tomato)
    • 2 TB grated Parmesan cheese (1 TB per tomato)

    Slice the top 1/3 off each tomato. Chop this slice after removing the core.

    Scoop out the inside of the big tomato piece.

    When done, you'll have something that looks like this --->   

    On the bottom right in the photo, you can see the innards I scooped out of each tomato. If you're making the recipe using 6 tomatoes (and stuffing all of them), you'll dice all the tops but save the innards for a different use (or discard). But if you're making the recipe using only 2 tomatoes, make up for the missing slices (like I did) by using both the tops and the innards as ingredients in the stuffing. 

    Melt the butter in a large, heavy skillet (cast iron works great).

    Saute the chopped onion until tender and golden.

    Add the lamb and cook until browned. You also can use leftover leg of lamb; if doing so, just cook it with the onion long enough to warm it up.

    While the onion and lamb are cooking is a great time to gather the rest of your ingredients.

    Once the lamb is browned, add the tomatoes, wine, mint, parsley, cinnamon, and salt.

    Reduce heat and simmer until the mixture thickens. This only takes a few minutes.

    Stir in the cooked rice. The resulting mixture isn't the prettiest thing I've ever seen, but it tastes great! 

    Spoon the mixture into your tomatoes. Sprinkle each tomato with about a teaspoon of breadcrumbs and a tablespoon of Parmesan cheese.

    Bake at 350 degrees for about 25 minutes, until heated through. Before serving, sprinkle with a bit more chopped parsley.

    You can make these ahead, too. Once the tomatoes are stuffed, cover and refrigerate. When you're ready to bake them, you'll just need to add about 10 minutes to the cooking time.

    If you're only stuffing a couple of tomatoes now, you can freeze the leftover stuffing for 2-3 months or refrigerate for 3-4 days. If you're not sure how long leftovers are safe, check out!

    I can't wait until I receive more large tomatoes from The Produce Box; I have stuffing in my freezer, just waiting for them.

    Friday, August 13, 2010

    Summer's Endless Squash

    Have you heard the joke yet? Why do people start locking their car/house doors in late summer? .... So they don't end up with another bag of zucchini!

    It's amazing, really. You put a few simple seeds in the ground, you enjoy watching the plants grow, and then... you have more zucchini and summer squash than you want. More than your neighbors want, too. If this is your problem, you may be interested in reading Handling an Overwhelming Harvest without Waste, by The Simple Dollar.

    Breads, Muffins, and Cake

    • Zucchini Garden Salad, brought to you by Tasty Kitchen, reminds me of fresh corn salads. It's simple, fresh, and soooo good.
    • Summer Squash Salad brings in some mint for a cool summer treat, by Simply Recipes.

    Side Dish
    • The texture makes all the difference in this Quick Zucchini Saute from Smitten Kitchen. If you don't have a mandoline slicer, trust me that it's worth the time to chop the squash into little matchstick slices. Be careful, though - the almonds will brown more quickly than you think!
    • Classic Side Dish: Sauteed Zucchini with Mushrooms, from Cooking for Engineers. If you like clear step-by-step instructions, spend some time on this site. My favorite is the timing chart shown at the bottom of each article. (Is that called a Gantt chart?)
    • Squash Fritters, by Simply Recipes, are one of my favorites. Be sure you have your oil hot enough so they get crispy on the outside! 
    • These are good for you, but won't taste like it! Check out this post from SpoonEats - Zucchini Fries!
    • Vegetable Kabobs, laid out by The Simple Dollar - and they don't have to be just a side - they can be the main course!

    • Here's an original (and tasty!) idea, from Simply Recipes: Zucchini Breakfast Casserole.
    • Ratatouille Tart will make a great breakfast (or brunch for those of us who get up late). Smitten Kitchen, as always, has beautiful photos of it as well! 

    So, there's a few ideas to get you started... please share your favorite summer squash uses, too!

    Wednesday, August 11, 2010

    MENU Wed 8/11 to Tue 8/17

    Into the Heat of Summer: Easy Cooking ....
    Leftovers, Salads, Grilling, and Slow Cooker

    As you may have seen on Monday's post, I build my menu by taking stock of what's on hand and build my menu from those ingredients. I also have now received this week's veggies from The Produce Box, a local Community Supported Agriculture group that provides a box of farm-fresh, local fruits and vegetables right to my door. To find a CSA near you, check out

    This week, I received:

    • Muscadine Grapes (1.5 lb)
    • Large Field tomatoes (1.5 lb)
    • Bell Peppers (qty 2)
    • Corn  (4 ears)
    • Red Potatoes (1.5 lb)
    • Spicy Sweet Dill Pickles, 1 pint

    Last week's chicken-salad-with-squash lunch plan never came to fruition, as I had sufficient dinner leftovers for lunch that I didn't need to make anything new. Fortunately, Rosie is starting to eat baby food, so she will be getting some of that squash. If you'd like to learn how to make and freeze baby food, check out this helpful site

    Here's the Week's Menu: 

    WED 8/11 - Leftovers! We have some corn chowder leftover from Sunday night and some Pibil in the freezer; I'll saute the last of the summer squash as the veggie. I made extra brown rice the other night, too, so we'll add that to the mix. I have a nasty cold, so I need an easy meal night.

    THU 8/12 - Exploring Muscadine Grapes. Sauteed Chicken Breasts with Grape Sauce - recipe in the making, though it will be something like this one. Serve with arborio rice and steamed corn.

    If the baby lets me, I'll also try out Muscadine Grape Hull Pie.

    Need Muscadine Grape recipes? I found the mother lode! The NC Dept of Commerce site has a recipe for all things Muscadine:  Juice, Jelly, Grape Butter, Grape Ice, Ice Cream, Pie, Dump Cake, Sherbet Floats, Cider, Fondue, and Sweet & Sour Glaze.

    FRI 8/13 - Salad, salad, salad! Cool Shrimp Salad, Balinese Cucumber Salad, my new favorite Corn Salad, and instant brown rice. The salads don't take long to make, and can all be made ahead of time.

    Tonight, after the baby's in bed, I'm going to put together Tomatoes Stuffed with Spiced Lamb so they're ready to pop in the oven to bake for lunch tomorrow. Why don't you try putting them together the night before, too, so they're ready for dinner the next night?

    SAT 8/14 - Optional Menu. We may or may not be eating at home tonight, so I'll plan for Easy Shepherd's Pie. I know, I know, that's lamb for lunch and lamb for dinner. Hey, I'm not expecting to be home for dinner anyway. This is a just-in-case plan. The ingredients will all keep for future use if not used this night. If I do make it, I'll use some of the red potatoes I received in my produce box this week.

    SUN 8/15 - Dinner on the Deck. Bison burgers, German Potato Salad, and Grilled Corn.

    Muffins! I'll also make Oatmeal Carrot Muffins for the week's breakfasts - helped me find the recipe, using up the yoghurt and carrots I have hanging out in the fridge. I'll let you know how it goes!

    MON 8/16 - Slow Cooker Day. Moroccan Chicken and Lentils, served over white rice, Tzatsiki Sauce spooned over all.

    TUE 8/17 - Italian Night!
    Italian Sausage, prepared with fresh tomatoes, bell peppers, and onions. Served alongside lasagna noodles, rolled up with ricotta, mozzarella, and parsley, sauce spooned over the top and then baked. I'll post the recipe once I make them. EDIT: Here's the Lasagna Rolls recipe!

    How are you beating the heat? What's your favorite easy, summertime dinner? 

    Great torpid grapes, all fattened through
    With moon and sunshine, shade and dew
    - - James Whitcomb Riley

    Monday, August 9, 2010

    Putting Together Your Meal Plan

    Ready to plan your meals for the week? Grab a pen and paper, and let's get started.

    Kitchen Stock Inventory: Freezer

    What's lurking in your freezer? Are there items that need to be used? Take a couple of minutes and write down what you have.

    How do you get your freezer stocked? Purchasing meat when it's on sale is the way to go! (see related post) This helps keep your cost down and keep variety in your meals. If you don't buy and freeze meat when it's on sale, you're limited to what's on sale each week... or you're forced to pay full price, which is no fun.
    Here's my freezer list.
    • Ground lamb, ground beef, and meatballs
    • Italian sausage links
    • Boneless, skinless chicken breast - always kept in stock!
    • Pork Chops (From whole boneless pork loin at $1.99/lb that the grocery store butcher cut into chops for me.)
    • Shrimp (40-count size)
    • Bison burgers
    • Porterhouse steaks
    • Frozen peas and corn... though I'm saving the corn for when I can no longer get it fresh. In fact, I've intentionally bought fresh corn and frozen it for future use. It's far superior to canned corn.
    • Black beans... saving for use in a couple more weeks. I made a big batch on 7/22 and we just had some of the frozen extras two weeks later, on 8/4. I'll wait a bit before serving them again.
    • Shredded chicken... to be used in burritos with the black beans.   

    Kitchen Stock Inventory: Refrigerator

    Find those items you need to use before they go bad! One of the most-often neglected ways to save money in your kitchen is using what you have. Food thrown out is money thrown out; it's that simple. This week, I need to use these items.
    • Plain yoghurt
    • Heavy cream
    • Cucumbers
    • Tomatoes
    • Carrots

    Kitchen Stock Inventory: Pantry

    Look through your cupboards for those items you may have forgotten were tucked back there. Like I explained above for meat, it's a great idea to purchase items when they're on sale, saving them for future use. But you have to be sure to use them, too! Take a quick look through your cupboards. What's in there that you've been meaning to use but keep forgetting?
    In addition to my standard kitchen staples (that do receive regular use), I found these neglected items:
    • Instant brown rice
    • Packaged saffron rice
    • Arborio rice
    • Lasagna noodles... how long have those been hiding back there?
    • Corn muffin mix 
    • Dried apricots 
    • Dried cranberries 
    • Vanilla wafers - these really need to be used, or they'll go stale

      Current Sale Items 

      What's on sale at the grocery store? What produce is in season (thus less expensive)? Take a few minutes and check out the grocery fliers. Most stores have their weekly ads available online. This week, I'll be receiving these items from The Produce Box.
      • Muscadine grapes, 1 quart basket
      • Field tomatoes, qty 3-4
      • 4 ears corn
      • Bell peppers, qty 2-3
      • Red potatoes, 1 quart
      • Pickles - 1 pint spicy, sweet dill pickles

      Your Schedule

      Think about your schedule - which nights do you need the least prep time? Be sure to have an easy meal those nights. Are there nights you might change your plans and not be home for dinner? Plan a meal that you can drop from the menu without consequence, one with ingredients that can be saved for later.
      • Fridays are hard for me: I appreciate especially low-maintenance meals then. 
      • Lunches: I'm home every day for lunch, so meals that produce leftovers are appreciated.
      • Changing plans: We may be away one night this weekend.

      Ready? Let's Get Planning!

      Now that you have your list, let's plan some meals.
      1. Assign a main item to each day. You don't have to center meals around meats; maybe you want to have a stir-fry day, or pasta, beans, or lentils and rice... just go through your list of what's on hand and start assigning ingredients to different days.
      2. Pick a potato/rice/pasta starch side to serve with each meal. Not necessary, just trying to give you a starting place.
      3. Eat your veggies! Pick a vegetable you'd like to have as a side or center the meal around. Keep in mind, you'll want to use the more delicate veggies close to the day you bought them.
      4. Start looking for recipes, drawing from your own knowledge as well as books and websites.
      Another way to get started:
      1. Assign a genre to each day: Mexican, Italian, Mediterranean, Crock-pot meal, Casserole, Easy Meal, Fancy Meal, etc.
      2. Pick a meat or other main item that goes well with that genre.
      3. Eat your veggies! Pick fresh summer veggies that go well with each genre. 
      4. Start looking for recipes, drawing from your own knowledge as well as books and websites.

      Having this much written out in front of you may provoke all the ideas you need. But, if you need some more help, start checking out recipe sites. Search by a main ingredient or a genre if that helps.

      Another idea: I just spent 15 minutes and entered pretty well every ingredient I have into It suggests recipes using what you have on hand, sorted into entrees, sides, and desserts. I'm really, really impressed with this site. You can ask it to center the recipes around a certain ingredient, or choose more than one ingredient to focus on, too.

      Armed with the list of what you'd like to use and/or, you can put together a meal plan pretty quickly.

      Check in Wednesday for this week's menu!

      Please let me know how I can help you. What sort of menu plan would you like help with?

      Thursday, August 5, 2010

      Review: Diet for a Small Planet

      A reference I have come to appreciate is Diet for a Small Planet, by Frances Moore Lappe. Several editions have come out since the original publication date in 1971; my version is from 1981. This review was hard for me to write, since I do believe this book is relevant and has good information... but I have to admit it is rather outdated. There is probably much better information out there today. If you know of another resource like this one, but more modern, please point me to it!!

      My favorite part is that Diet for a Small Planet provides good information on how to get sufficient protein from meatless meals; it contains both the theory and the recipes. Diet was also one of the first books to address the wastefulness of meat in terms of food produced (grain) versus food available to be eaten (grain-fed meat). The environmental movement was young, and vegetarians were rare; thus, a large part of her book was spent in defense of a meatless healthy diet.

      If you are looking for a recipe book alone, there's certainly better ones out there. However, if you, like the author, have a concern for world hunger and for environmental damage caused by the food industry, this book can get you started in learning what you can do to make a difference.  


      Part I: The author's personal journey into food activism.   Lappe found food to be an "entry point" into world problems like hunger and ecological destruction. She was a graduate student and social worker with a desire to understand how individuals' choices can effect change in the world; she became a successful author and founder of the Food First Institute. The Institute continues on today, researching the ties between global economics, food supply, and human rights, working toward social change.

      Part II: Two Problems Presented.   (A) People go hungry no matter how much food is grown; the food production system manages to decrease what would otherwise be great abundance, and (B) system needlessly depletes natural resources.

      (A) World Hunger.   The author's position in the first edition was that America should export the grain we instead feed to livestock, thus reducing the problem of hunger worldwide. In this newer edition, she corrects herself, stating that the problem is not that simple. Exported food aid often does not reach the hungry at all, due to other governments' corruption. Also, each country has the ability to grow enough food to support itself. What America does or does not export will not solve world hunger. She clearly makes the point that world hunger is a larger issue, mainly an economic one. To further support this idea, see this quote from Greenpeace:
      "There is a common misconception that food shortage causes one out of seven people to go to bed hungry every night, but the truth is we currently produce enough healthy food to feed the whole world. In fact, we currently produce enough healthy food to nourish nine billion people – the estimated population of Earth 40 years from today." 
      The world already produces enough food to feed everyone - more than enough. Food production is indeed divorced from human need. 

      (B) Environmental Concern.   I agree entirely with this second idea, and I think it is perhaps the more understandable one (especially compared to world economics and how to solve the problem of hunger!).  Basically, the author expresses the idea that eating meat is "like driving a Cadillac." If you want an easy way to conserve resources, eat less meat. More resources go into meat, calorie for calorie, than into any other food product - fossil fuels, water, soil erosion, you name it.

      Part III: Protein Complementarity.  This section begins by addressing the two main problems with the standard American diet: too much meat, and too many processed foods. She goes on to explain how you can get just as good of protein from a meatless diet as you can from one containing meat. In more modern times, we know that any diet, vegetarian or otherwise, must strive not only to provide good protein, but essential vitamins, minerals, and a balance of other groups as well.

      Protein complementarity is the idea that you must combine certain groups of foods in the same meal in order to ingest a "complete" protein, equal to that provided by meat. The 1981 edition of the book explains,
      "In 1971 I stressed protein complementarity because I assumed that the only way to get enough protein (without consuming too many calories) was to create a protein as usable by the body as animal protein. In combating the myth that meat is the only way to get high-quality protein, I reinforced another myth. I gave the impression that in order to get enough protein without meat, considerable care was needed in choosing foods, Actually, it is much easier than I thought." (162)
      If you are concerned about getting enough protein in your diet, this book has a fabulously helpful chart, showing combinations of foods that would be most helpful to you (page 181). It links grains + dairy; grains + legumes; legumes + seeds; as well as several other connections (though not as strong as these). 

      Although the necessity of eating complementary foods in the same meal is now considered an outdated idea in general, I believe it is still very useful information for individuals who need a higher protein intake (athletes, nursing mothers, etc.).  

      Part IV: Making Social Change Approachable.  This small section is a bit of a pep-talk, helping the reader to see that people involved in all sorts of activism are just people like the rest of us. You don't have to make it your full-time obsession... everyone can do something to help make a difference. She also provides a great list of organizations. Although I'm sure the contact information is all outdated, it can still give you a good idea of the kind of groups you can look for today.

      The second half of the book is a collection of recipes, focused around protein complementarity. If you're looking for some great-tasting vegetarian meals, check out this book! The recipes I have tried have been wonderful. Honestly, though, I haven't tried many, as my husband is not terribly interested in a meal that doesn't contain meat. But don't let that stop you!


      Eating healthy - whether you eat meat or not - is about having a variety of foods. Friends of mine in college, claiming to be vegetarians, would eat typical college student fare (pizza, twinkies, soda, packaged snacks)... and they were not any more healthy than those who did eat meat but would simply add, say, sausage pizza to the list. A healthy diet is more than whether you do or do not eat meat.

      Start thinking about what you DO eat and what you SHOULD eat. The amount of protein, fat, carbohydrates, fruits, and vegetables... too little protein is bad, as is too much. Whether your concern is for health alone or for how you can help the environment, the way you approach food will make a difference.

      To come full circle to one of my greater concerns, it's all about planning your meals. Plan what you're going to serve for dinner. Stop and think about how often you serve fresh, unprocessed foods. When you have to actually write down what you're serving your family for the week, you'll think twice about that frozen pizza. Making it fresh does not take long, I promise you! Cooking is approachable. There are endless great resources out there to help you learn how to easily put healthy meals on the table.

      Wednesday, August 4, 2010

      MENU Wed 8/4 to Tue 8/10

      What a week! Between the store not having any okra (I wasn't up to another trip to the Farmers' Market with the baby), baby Rosie having a hard time, and my computer having a virus, it was a rough week... life did not go as planned, and that's okay. No ingredients went bad, as I made sure to still use the ones that would be in danger.

      Meal planning is meant to help you, not create a burden. I believe in having a dinner plan, but also in the ability to be flexible. If you need to do a different dinner than what you planned, go for it! Just be sure to use up ingredients that would otherwise go bad. Don't give in to take-out when you've had a bad day! Just make something super-easy (like quesadillas) and move on.

      Example: Last night, I had chicken defrosted in preparation for Tarragon chicken. I typically have shredded cheese and flatbread around b/c flatbread seems to keep forever and makes nice sandwiches. So we had Super-Easy Quesadillas instead. Ta-daaa! Dinner.

      Here's hoping this week goes better!

      I chose the "Surprise" box from The Produce Box this week. I received:

      • Yellow Summer Squash (1.75 lb) - - used in four recipes this week!
      • Peaches (1.75 lb)
      • 4 ears Corn
      • 1 Cantaloupe (at least I think that's what it is)
      • 1 Sprite melon
      • Salsa (16 oz jar)
      • Honey (8 oz jar)

      Lunches - I'm going to experiment in making chicken salad with grated summer squash in it. I'll keep you posted on that. Dinah's not a big peach fan, so I'll mostly be enjoying those w/ my lunches.

      WED 8/4 - Previously, I froze leftover Cuban Ground Beef Creole and Cuban Black Beans, knowing they would make for great burritos. Tonight, I'll be enacting that plan. I have a few grape tomatoes and a little bit of mint hanging out in the fridge, so I'll also make Roasted Tomatoes with Mint. Give it a try!

      THU 8/5 - Off to the Farmers' Market for okra! We'll have Okra with Shrimp, served over rice. Really, I'm making it this time. I'll toss some summer squash in the recipe, too. I'm thinking it will be like a simpler version of Gumbo. Cucumber Salad on the side.

      FRI 8/6 - Roasted Chicken Quarters, Fresh Corn Salad, Rosemary Roasties. I'll be working on a new recipe for Fresh Corn Salad, so keep your eyes out for it on

      SAT 8/7 -
      Lunch: Easy Meatball Subs - frozen meatballs, a couple of rolls, canned sauce, and deli cheese. Done!
      Dinner: Pork Stir Fry, using onion, green pepper, carrots, and summer squash as the veggies. Served over brown rice.

      SUN 8/8 - 
      Breakfast: Chorizo and Eggs, from Simply Recipes.  I picked up some chorizo at the Farmers' Market, and I've been dying to try it!

      Dinner: I'm cooking a birthday dinner for my father-in-law. He loves Stuffed Mushrooms, so I'll make them as an appetizer (using the same proportions as this recipe, cut down for 4 people). We'll also have Corn Chowder (my sister owes me the recipe!) and sauteed chicken and summer squash over pasta... One-Ingredient Ice Cream for dessert.

      MON 8/9 - I'm going to try Thai-Style Chicken Legs from Smitten Kitchen. Yes, I'm going to use Fish Sauce. No, I've never used it before. Here goes nothing! Served with brown rice and steamed corn.

      TUE 8/10 - Chicken Tetrazzini - just defrost and bake! Serve with salad and bread. I'm a big fan of making a big batch of something & freezing the rest for later. It's not much extra work, and it will save you a lot of time for future meals.

      What do you do with summer squash? Please share your recipes!

      One of the very nicest things about life is the way we must regularly stop whatever it is we are doing and devote our attention to eating.  
      - - Luciano Pavarotti and William Wright, Pavarotti, My Own Story

      Monday, August 2, 2010

      Homemade Salsa

      Homemade salsa is one of the great joys of summer!

      You can make salsa to be enjoyed fresh, and you can also preserve your own salsa. Fresh salsa is particularly enjoyable - you can mix up your own salsa at home and keep it refrigerated for about a week or in the freezer for up to 2 months (

      When you're making fresh salsa (not to be canned), you can use whatever recipe you'd like. Personally, I love fresh melon salsas. They make a great use of leftover melon. Just mix together melon, onion, cilantro, garlic, and a bit of lime juice, and you're ready for a snack!

      If you've never canned your own salsa before, I highly recommend giving it a try as well.
      • You can have great-tasting salsa all year long, at an affordable price, too! If you make it year after year, you'll more than recover the cost of your materials. 
      • Homemade salsa is an appreciated gift, especially in the dead of winter, when fresh tomatoes have passed from memory.

      Warning - 
      Use Approved Canning Recipes & Instructions

      It is very important to note that not just any recipe may be canned. Use a recipe found at the National Center for Home Food Preservation (approved by the USDA) or from a site like Ball.

      Botulism, a type of food poisoning, is caused by a toxin produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum. This bacteria grows quite happily in an oxygen-free environment... like jars of canned low-acid foods. To keep from getting sick, you must be sure to follow proper canning instructions and use laboratory-tested recipes.

      Acidic foods (pH less than 4.6) can be preserved in a boiling-water-bath canner. Low acid foods (pH greater than 4.6) must be preserved in a pressure canner.

      Tomatoes are on the border between high- and low-acid content.

      Vinegar or lemon juice is added to salsa recipes to increase the acidity, allowing the salsa to be canned with a boiling-water canner. But you must have the right balance of high- and low-acid foods and vinegar/juice. This is why you should use an approved recipe.

      One more time, for good measure: Use an approved, tested recipe. Grandma's salsa recipe is great - but enjoy that one fresh, then freeze leftovers.


      In addition to the standard kitchen items you'll use in making the salsa (knives, cutting boards, an 8-quart pot to cook the salsa in, a large spoon, etc.), you'll need these canning items:
      Check yard sales and your local craigslist - I saw multiple canners listed for $10. You should also ask around - I happened to mention to my mother that I wanted to start canning, and she found materials in her attic for me.

      For step-by-step canning instructions, check out the National Center for Home Food Preservation.

      Fresh Ingredients

      Roma tomatoes (also known as paste tomatoes) work best for canning. As you can see in the photo, the roma tomatoes (on the left) have less seeds and liquid inside than the regular slicing tomatoes (on the right). Ask around - you may be able to buy them in bulk from a local farmer - - or get some from a friend with an over-active garden!

      For all your ingredients, choose items in good condition - they don't have to be pretty, though! They can be misshapen, just not damaged. They should be firm and ripe, free of bad spots and mold.

      Check out your local farmers market for a variety of peppers!  I used mostly Anaheim and Poblano, with a couple jalapenos and banana peppers, too.

      Be sure to use gloves when handling hot peppers.

      Roasting the peppers adds great flavor to the salsa. Just put them on the grill or under the broiler, then peel the peppers and remove the seeds and stems.

      Great Fresh Salsa Recipes

      Safe Canned Salsa Recipes