Category Archives: Money Savers

Knock it Off: the Cinderella Story of a Coffee Table

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Yesterday was a harrowing day around our house. We had to take poor Ted to the vet for an undisclosed aggressive something that was causing him to chew his feet to ribbons. Poor Ted! Turns out that it is most likely an allergic reaction (what we all narrowed it down to without having to give him expensive skin testing). The worst part of the whole thing was having to stuff him in the crate and drive him the 10 minutes to the vet. He and I both cried the whole way there, it was not pretty. The ride home, though, only he was crying. Well, him and the credit card, that is.

And on the ride home, I saw a coffee table with a sign on it that said ‘Free.’ The magic word! I just had to get the cat home and comfortable, and beg the universe to keep that table there for me to go back to inspect. Lo, it worked. After some inspection as to structural soundness (yes, that was me standing on top of a coffee table on the side of the road) and funky stains or smells, into the hatchback it went. It was really heavy, really solid oak and oak veneer. I should have called Nick to clear it first but, well, there was a suburbanite in a minivan circling the perimeter, and there was just no time. I could dumpsterize it if need be.

I’ve been in the market for a new coffee table for a couple months now. I got one when we first moved in to our new place; it’s of the ottoman persuasion. I really like it but it’s a little too small for our living room layout, and visually it’s a BRICK. I wanted something that was open underneath so the light could come through it and make the room feel more balanced. The roadside attraction was the right size, with nice mission-style lines. The only crap thing about it was it was that horrible, honey-colored blond wood. Lookee here:

So, I got out my waterproof drop cloth (an apartment painter’s best friend) and my paint pod. Have you seen these? My hardware store has them for about $3, and they’re the perfect size for small projects like this. Just enough paint to get the job done without having to invest in a whole quart. Located my brushes and my sandpaper and got to work.

I knew I wanted the legs to be dark so they’d recede into our darker rug, so I painted those first. The wood for the top and bottom shelves, though, was actually in pretty good shape, but again with the ugly color. What to do? I considered staining them a nice walnut color, but sanding is inconvenient here and I didn’t want to buy a whole quart of stain for the 4 tablespoons I needed. I considered covering them in some upholstery fabric and adding finishing nails to the sides, but didn’t like that idea either. What to do, what to do? I stopped at this point and made a call to my mom, the original furniture reformer. (Pssst… that’s the paint pod on the lower shelf.)

She told me about a paint and rag technique that she has used, but the idea scared me, even though she swore I couldn’t screw it up. Luckily she grabbed a rag and did that part for me. After a couple of tries, we both really liked a more worn and distressed look, rather than the nice light stain we originally set out to achieve. I think the result is awesome. A nice, solid table for sitting around and playing games, something that we can still put our feet on, that we don’t have to worry about using coasters with (it’s getting a clear varnish today). It lets the light through and has storage underneath for my millions of magazines and books. It came out really pretty, and looks like I paid a lot of money for it. You’d never know it was a ground score, it looks like it came from Pottery Barn. I can’t believe I knocked it off so well! See for yourself:

I have a stack of side tables that I’ve been meaning to repaint or re-SOMETHING that are of the same blonde wood, but they’re pretty hidden so they’ve survived in their original color. Not for long, though. After the paint and dry brush treatment of the new coffee table, those babies are going under the brush and will match this table. So excited!

Happy Wednesday everybody! Halfway to the weekend!

Breakfast is Served

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Good Morning, and Happy Friday to you all! Are you ready for the weekend? Do you have any big plans? I think we’re just going to lay low and relax again ~ most everyone we  know is busy, so we are going to enjoy the fact that we aren’t!

And what better way to fuel a weekend than to start with breakfast. We aren’t big Every Day Breakfast people around our house; in fact the only one of us that eats his breakfast almost every day is the cat, and lately even he has been off of the idea. Nick and I are coffee with coffee people in the morning, rarely taking in more than that. One of us might muster the gumption to fry an egg every now and again, but only on the weekends. It’s such a bad habit to not eat breakfast, but neither of us wakes up hungry. He goes to work, I go about my day, and the next thing we know, lunch is upon us and our tummies are rumbling.

I’m trying to get myself to eat breakfast, as I have found that I’m less hungry later in the day when I do, thus preventing me from mowing an extra helping of dinner down. I could just eat yogurt and berries and granola, or even just yogurt and berries, but I get tired of it. Even with the endless combination of fruits and nuts and whathaveyou that you can stir in to yogurt, it just gets old. I do eat toast every now and again, but meh. We don’t have a real toaster and sometimes I don’t want to turn on the oven just to toast a slice of bread (note to self: buy toaster). And I do love oatmeal, but with the weather as hot as it has been, the last thing I want to start my day with is something hot.

Lately, I’ve taken the Swiss approach and made my oatmeal the night before (the Swiss call this Museli). There’s no cooking, and the ingredients you can add are endless. Thinking beyond the canister I searched around the internet and found this blog, which is written by the cutest little gal and is chock full of yummy vegetarian things. I’m nto a vegetarian, but for breakfast, it’s something I can get behind.

One of her overnight oats recipes floored me. Chocolate. Oatmeal. No way. For breakfast? What could me more indulgent for breakfast than ChOcOlAtE?! I was hooked. I was also down a couple of ingredients for her version, and wanted a couple bites more than what hers prepared (as I am a bigger girl, I wanted a bigger brekkie. Can you blame me?) And so, Raspberry Chocolate Smash was born.

You can make a couple of these at a time, so you have breakfast for a few days made in one short assembly line. I love my vintage Pyrex fridge dishes for this application, but  if I didn’t have them this would SO be one of those Food In Jars projects. And who doesn’t love eating things out of mason jars these days? It’s almost as fun as food on a stick.

Raspberry Chocolate Smash
Makes 1, multiply by the number of jars you’re assembling

1/3 c. old fashioned oats (you can use Instant, too, I haven’t found a huge difference in texture, but the old fashioned are more hearty. Don’t use steel cut!)
1/3 c. milk (what ever fat level you’re comfortable with, or almond, soy, coconut, etc.)
1 1/2 t. unsweetened cocoa powder
1 t. chia seeds (optional, I had some laying around so I tossed them in. They add great mouth feel.)
1/2 t. vanilla extract
1/2 t. maple syrup or honey
1/4 t. cinnamon
6-8 raspberries

Combine oats through cinnamon, stirring until well mixed. Gently stir in raspberries. Cover and refrigerate overnight. Stir just before eating.

They Say it’s Your Birthday…

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I had the great pleasure of making dinner for my dear Dad for his birthday this year. I realized the other day that I hadn’t had my mom and dad over together, and for dinner, since we moved. For shame. What better day to have them over than on Dad’s birthday, am I right? (I know some of you are saying Father’s Day but, it being his day and all, he decided he wanted to grill ribs and oysters in his own back yard. I can’t say I blame him, my parents’ back yard looks like it fell right outta Sunset magazine, no fooling). And what a birthday feast I planned for him!

Le Menu

To Start
Fig and Goat Cheese Crostini with Balsamic Syrup
Piquillo Peppers filled with Mozzarella and Basil

For Dinner
Zucchini Galettes with Fresh Ricotta and Lemon
Oven Roasted Salmon on a bed of Spring Greens

For Dessert
Chocolate Cake filled with Strawberries,
Homemade Strawberry Jam and Fresh Strawberry Cream Cheese Frosting

Say it with me, YUM. I know, it’s kind of a lot. But Dad and I have many things in common, including the feeling that going out to dinner is overrated a lot of the time, because, well, my mom and I cook like this. I thought about taking him out for dinner but it just means so much more to have someone prepare a really beautiful meal for you. The best part about this is I had the time to do it all. Not that any one part of it (well, except for maybe the cake) was cumbersome or labor intensive, it just takes time that I wouldn’t ordinarily have on a weekday and this year I did. And I’m learning in my old age that the best gift you can give anyone, ever, is the gift of your time.

I’m proud to say that I made my own ricotta for the galettes (and for those of you who know me well, I made my own pie crust too, which I rarely do). Ricotta from the grocery is mealy at best, and tastes like grade school paste at worst (and don’t even get me started on the fat free amalgamations out there, holy crow they are so gross). Unless, of course, you buy one of the artisan containers, and those are so pricey. But if you have ever tasted the fresh ricotta, you know that the silky mouth feel and milkiness are so superior to the grade school paste that you can never go back.

Making your own ricotta is honestly easy as 1-2-3, and you can make it with wonderful, organic local milk and no weird preservatives or stabilizers for a fraction of what the already-made cheese would cost you at upscale grocer in town. A 1 lb. container of the really great, really fresh ricotta at my favorite cheese counter is upward of $6. How much does a half gallon of milk cost? Even the local organic moo? In my store, less than $3.50. Be sure that you are grabbing milk that is NOT ultra pasteurized, you want some of those little bacteria that hang around in regular old milk. It should tell you right on the front of the carton if it’s ultra pasteurized or not.

Fresh Ricotta
Makes about two cups

1/2 gallon of whole milk (Yes, whole, 2% doesn’t have enough fat to get the job done.)
6 T. freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 t. sea salt

Heat the milk in a large pot (or in your microwave like I did) until it reaches 180*F. DON’T BOIL IT, we don’t want it scalded. Remove milk from the heat, stir in the acid of your choice plus the salt, and stir gently just once or twice. Let the milk hang out for 5 minutes; you will see the curds separating from the whey immediately (see picture above).

Line a colander with cheese cloth (or in my case, a clean flour sack towel) with a pan underneath to catch the whey. Pour the warm curds into the cloth-lined colander and let the cheese strain, for about an hour for looser cheese or up to two hours if you want one that’s a bit more firm, closer to cream cheese. (If your cheese strained for longer than you wanted it to, stir back in a bit of the whey that you captured in the pan. Or just add some olive oil!).

Use the cheese right away or store in an airtight container in the fridge until ready to use. Pat yourself on the back for being the ultimate homemaker, making your own cheese and saving yourself $2.50.

Twofer Two: Pork Fried Rice

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The second meal I made from that pork tenderloin and rice that we had on Sunday was Pork Fried Rice. Fried rice was a staple in my house, alongside egg burritos, when I was a poor hotel front desk employee. I made many meals for myself and friends out of a handful of this-and-that tossed in a pan.

Get crazy with your chopped vegetables. This dinner is a good Veg Drawer Cleaner Outer, use up that last sad stalk of celery, that wedge of bell pepper, hell you can even throw in lettuce if you’re not averse to warm greens. Seriously, use whatever here.

Fried rice will literally cook in less than 7 minutes, so make sure your ingredients are measured and your food is all chopped up before you turn your pan on. The most cumbersome part of making something like this is dicing up all of the components, making this is a good task to share with a spouse or kitchen partner.

Pork Fried Rice
Makes enough for 4-6 servings

1 cup (more or less) leftover pork tenderloin
1 1/2 cups diced vegetables (I almost always use napa cabbage, and whatever else is in the fridge: bell peppers, scallions, carrot, zucchini)
1/2 thinly sliced onion
3 eggs, cracked into a cup and gently beaten
4 cups cold cooked rice (we used brown, but white will work too)
Leftover sauce from Pork Tenderloin
-OR-
A mixture of 3 T. Soy Sauce or Tamari, 1 T. sherry, and 1/2 t. sugar or honey
4-5 T. canola oil (don’t use olive oil here, you want something with a higher smoke point)

Chop up and measure out all ingredients before heating your pan, as cooking goes QUICK. Break up any chunks in your refrigerated rice with tongs or a wooden spoon.

Get out your biggest, baddest, heaviest cast iron or non-stick skillet (I use my 12″ calphalon here and it’s BARELY big enough, you really want to be able to toss your food around). Heat your pan over high heat for a minute or two, and pour in a tablespoon-ish of oil. Swirl it around the pan and let it heat until shimmering and lightly smoking. Turn on your exhaust fan and prepare for battle.

Add onion to the pan and fry quickly (literally about a minute) until starting to char. Add in your mixed vegetable medley and fry for a couple minutes until also charring. Remove all vegetables from pan to a large heat-proof bowl.

Add more oil to the pan (2-3 tablespoons). When smokin’ hot,  dump the rice into the pan and quickly fry, turning with a folding motion to get all of the rice in contact with the pan bottom and rotating it around. It takes a couple of minutes, don’t rush it.

Pour the beaten eggs over the hot rice and fold in gently (I like getting egg chunks in my rice, stir more vigorously to break them down if you want) until egg is barely cooked. Pour the leftover pork sauce or soy sauce mixture over the rice and egg and stir to mix.

Add vegetable/onion medley back to the pan and quickly toss to reheat all of it.

Serve in bowls with additional soy sauce, chili oil and/or sesame oil on the side.

Waffling

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We were given a waffle iron as a wedding gift that hasn’t seen many daylight hours, to our dismay. Not that we aren’t waffle people, but our old kitchen was so cramped, had so little counter space, and such an INCREDIBLE LACK of outlets (literally, one in the whole kitchen other than what the fridge and the oven were plugged in to) that it just didn’t come out a whole lot. A waffle iron is one of those appliances that you either use every weekend like clockwork or once in a blue moon when the mood strikes and you have house guests and buttermilk laying around. I also have yet to find a couples-friendly waffle recipe that only makes 2 or 3 of them. Why must all recipes make enough waffles for an entire classroom?

I have the tendency to sit down and have a drink with a good friend of ours and talk food. All things food. He and I talk about flavors and combinations of textures and cooking styles, each creation better than the next. And of course this always happens when we’re out camping, or at the pub, or somewhere that making these dreams come true isn’t going to happen. And far be it from either of us to write down these food-soaked dreams. We’ve had a couple of conversations about non-traditional waffles that leave us (and anyone in ear shot) salivating but have yet to make any of them come true. Until tonight.

I was inspired by this recipe but out of pure want for a healthier waffle, I smashed together this recipe and this recipe and topped the whole thing with a fried egg to make what I present to you below. We made these guys for dinner, but they would be equally appropriate and tasty for brunch or lunch as well. And all the while, I was dreaming of yet another waffle dinner that is going to make an appearance someday very, very soon.

Ham and Cheddar Waffles with Eggs

Made 7 in my waffle iron (will depend on the size of your waffler)

1 1/2 cups cornmeal
1/2 cup all-purpose flour (or your favorite GF flour mix)
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 tablespoons honey
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
1 large egg
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
1/4 cup butter, melted
3/4 c. shredded cheddar cheese
1/2 c. sliced green onions
3 T. shredded fresh basil leaves
1 cup fresh or frozen corn
2 oz. thinly sliced ham, minced

Stir together first 5 ingredients in a large bowl. Stir together egg and next 3 ingredients; add to cornmeal mixture, stirring just until dry ingredients are moistened. Add in cheddar cheese, green onions, basil and corn. Preheat your waffle iron, and preheat your oven to 275*F (to hold the waffles at temp).

If your waffle iron tends to stick, give it a pre-spray of olive oil or canola oil cooking spray. Pour appropriate amount of batter in to your preheated waffle iron (usually 1/2 to 3/4 c. per waffle), sprinkle on a scant 2 T. of ham bits. Bake 8-10 minutes, or until your waffle iron tells you it’s done (mine is dummy-proof and beeps at me when the waffle is finished). Transfer to a foil- or silpat-lined baking sheet in the oven.

In your favorite skillet, fry 1-2 eggs per person until desired doneness (I like mine over easy, Nick likes his closer to over medium). Place a waffle on a plate, top with egg(s), and finish with hot sauce, maple syrup, honey and/or sour cream and a crack of black pepper. Devour with reckless abandon.

Twofer: Honey-Gingered Pork Tenderloin

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It can be cumbersome coming up with a dinner idea some nights. I have a handful of ‘standards’ that I can whip up in a moment’s notice but there are evenings when even that fails me because I just don’t want to eat it. It’s hard for me to put my heart into something that I know I don’t want to eat, even if it is one of my favorites. These uninspired nights generally end up being bacon and egg nights, or even (eeek) ramen and toast nights. Don’t judge. Having the foresight to think up two dinners and only have to do the real cooking once is a life-saver. Most of those types of dinners around our house come from the Sunday Night Chicken Roast, but who’s roasting a bird when it’s a million degrees outside? Certainly not I, even with air conditioning. And to be honest, I’m kind of chickened out these days, we eat a lot of it.

Pork tenderloins aren’t something that make regular appearances at our house. The only pork persuasion  items that I generally buy with any sort of frequency are bacon and Italian sausage, and the occasional pork shoulder for a dinner party or carnitas. Sometimes I’ll buy a ham when they’re on sale around the holidays that warrant their immediate consumption. I sometimes get some fat pork chops when I’m blue and need gravy. I grabbed a couple tenderloins and froze them last week but only because they were fire-sale priced and really make for a fast dinner, as they cook in no time flat.

I managed to come up with a new twofer this week, which I’m a bit proud of. Night 1 was this Honey-Gingered pork tenderloin, with brown rice and foil-roasted green beans.  To make this a twofer, save about 1/4 of the pork tenderloin, and make double the amount of rice that you will need for dinner and save it for Night 2 Pork Fried Rice later in the week when you don’t feel like thinking up dinner (recipe to follow later this week).

I only made one pork tenderloin and used the entire amount of marinade. If you’re making two tenderloins like the recipe calls for, double the marinade so you have enough to boil down for sauce for dinner later in the week. The marinade was probably one of the best I’ve ever had, I didn’t even get to marinate it the entire time, either. I can only imagine how good it would have been if I pulled my life together and made it the night before like the recipe said! Also, for those who don’t eat pork, this would be amazing with turkey ‘tenderloins’, turkey breast or chicken breast.

Honey-Gingered Pork Tenderloins
Adapted from Gourmet magazine

Two 3/4-pound pork tenderloins (I only used one)
1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup soy sauce (or tamari)
1/4 cup oyster sauce
2 tablespoons packed brown sugar
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon minced peeled fresh gingerroot
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon ketchup
1/4 teaspoon onion powder
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

Pat pork dry and arrange in a shallow dish. In a bowl whisk together all remaining ingredients and pour marinade over pork. Turn pork to coat well. Chill pork, covered, turning it once or twice, at least 8 hours and up to 1 day.

Prepare grill.

Remove pork from marinade, reserving marinade, and arrange on a lightly oiled rack set 5 to 6 inches over glowing coals (or over medium high heat on a gas grill). Grill pork, basting with reserved marinade and turning it every 5 minutes, 15 minutes total. Continue to cook pork, turning it every 5 minutes, until a thermometer diagonally inserted 2 inches into center of tenderloin registers 155°F., about 10 minutes more. Let pork stand 5 minutes before thinly slicing.

For Sauce: Save the left over marinade! Pour into a saucepan, add 1/2 c. water, bring up to a boil and reduce the whole mixture by half. Drizzle a little over the sliced pork for tonight’s dinner, and save the rest for dinner later in the week.

Next up: Pork Fried Rice

Way Back

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Does anyone else out there remember pudding pops? On a recent trip to the grocery store I had a sudden want for them (I’ve been on a big frozen dessert kick lately with the uptick in the mercury) and in wandering the frozen food aisle was bereft to find they didn’t have any. And when I asked the kid who was stocking the cases if they still carried them, he questioned what they were, and asked if I maybe meant fudgesicles? Obviously they’ve been gone of the shelves longer than I thought, and I suddenly felt like I was eleventy-billion years old. I wanted to ask this whippersnapper if he knew what a VHS tape was and if he’e ever heard of a man named Bill Cosby, but resisted the urge to completely embarrass myself and wheeled my cart away in shame.

After traveling through the meat counter, the deli and the produce department, I had an idea. Looking at the strawberries in my hand, I decided to try to make myself some pudding pops. Even if they weren’t the same silky consistency, they would probably be pretty damn good. I wandered to the baking aisle.

I never realized there were so  many flavors of pudding, I’m such a chocolate pudding kid that I never even thought that they made flavors other than that and vanilla. There was butterscotch, caramel, pistachio (in a very fetching shade of mint green, might I add), chocolate, milk chocolate, Oreo cookie and cream, vanilla, french vanilla, banana, and the one I settled on: cheesecake. I came up with a cold dozen different combinations of pudding and adjuncts with which to make pops; I told myself I was pudding-blind and to put back the butterscotch, with a silent promise to make the banana-butterscotch pops dancing in my head the next time if the first batch came out edible.

Back at the ranch, I rinsed and dried some strawberries and whizzed together my pudding and milk. I stirred in a little bit of vanilla extract to give it a more homemade flavor, though who was I kidding; I bought the fat-free sugar-free mix and there’s no real way the pudding was going to taste homemade. I know I crow a lot about only eating things that a 5 year old can pronounce and that processed food is the downfall of society. But sometimes a girl needs a mouthful of junk. And fewer calories and fat. And besides, I added strawberries, that had to health it up at least a little bit.

With the strawberries sliced and gently folded into my pudding, I filled up the ice pop molds, which was not as easy as it sounded. I left the strawberries in big chunks and my molds are the skinny, flat variety, so it took some finagling. Next time I’m going to mix up the pudding in a zip top bag and cut off a corner of it to faux-pipe the mixture into the molds. Necessity is the mother of invention, and I need to keep more of the pudding off the counter next time. I’m sure Bill Cosby never had this problem way back when.

If you venture out into making these, be sure to give the molds a couple of good smacks on the counter after filling, to force the air bubbles to the top. Don’t worry about splashing, the pudding is fairly set up. Total cost for 10 pops was less than $2, and each pop is less than 40 calories according to some quick math. Wallet and waistline friendly!

Strawberry Cheesecake Pudding Pops
Makes 10 in my ice pop molds, will vary with mold size

1 package instant Cheesecake flavored pudding (I used sugar-free fat-free)
2 cups cold milk
1 t. vanilla extract
1 cup sliced strawberries
1 graham cracker, crushed

In a mixing bowl (or a zip top plastic bag), combine the milk, pudding and vanilla, and prepare according to package directions. Gently fold in the strawberries, and fill clean ice pop molds with the mixture, leaving a bit of room at the top for expansion (less than 1/4″ headspace). Sprinkle with graham cracker crumbs, insert popsicle sticks, and freeze until firm (1-2 hours).

Taking it Back: The Grilled Cheese

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Grilled cheese is on most people’s Top 10 comfort food list. What is more cozy than grilled cheese, I ask you? It’s just not a cozy night without that toasted cheese sandwich.

I’m here to tell you that, while a grilled cheddar (or Velveeta, if you dare) on sliced white with gently buttered sides is sublime, you can take it up a notch and make it a very special sandwich that is even company-worthy. With a side of oven fries or a green salad (or both) it can be a glamourous little bistro lunch or dinner for as many as you please.

Around here, we make grilled cheese with leftovers on nights that serious cooking can’t be mustered. I know many of  you are leftovers-averse, but pitching the rest of dinner is so wasteful and expensive. Why not take those leftovers and make something new out of it? Odds are you won’t even know it was Sunday’s roast of you make a killer sandwich out of it. Enter the Adult Grilled Cheese. There are a few rules to follow, but the mix and match of fillings is yours to create and play with.

The ‘rules’ are simply the stacking and layering of the sandwich, to ensure that each bite is cheesy and that the whole business sticks together. I generally stick to this basic theory:

Starting with your bottom slice of bread:

  • Butter the outside of the bread
  • Mustard of your choice on  the inside of the bread
  • Top with grated cheese of your choice (we use lots of extra sharp cheddar or jalapeno jack)
  • Top with meat of choice, if using
  • Another smattering of cheese (just a pinch or two)
  • Top with vegetation (usually caramelized onions, leftover baked apples, pepper jam, sauteed red peppers, pickled jalapenos or banana peppers or pepperonicinis)
  • Top with more cheese
  • Top with second slice of bread, buttered on the outside and with either mayo or mustard (or both) smeared on the inside

Yes, this is a loaded sandwich. Each layer, however, is a very thin layer, so it doesn’t get all Dagwood on you. Sometimes when there are many layers, I’ll build them in the pan I’m cooking them in, to avoid explosion when transferring from the board to the pan. Also, during cooking, I smash the sandwich on the flip, either with the back of my spatula or, if I’m making two or more sandwiches, with a foil sheet placed over the top of the flipped sammie and a well-placed heavy pan on top, and then pressed with my hand. Voila, instant panini press.

Some regular combinations of grilled cheeses in our house (again, usually made from left overs) are as follows:

  • Sliced sourdough with horseradish mustard, pork loin, baked apples, and caramelized onions, with cheddar cheese (this one is also good with pork roast or deli ham)
  • Sliced rye with pastrami, well drained sauerkraut and swiss with a slathering of thousand island (instead of the mayo/mustard)
  • Sliced sourdough with tri tip or roast beef, blue cheese, mayo, horseradish mustard, arugula and balsamic onions
  • Sliced cinnamon swirl bread with ham, brie and spicy pepper jam (don’t knock it until you’ve tried it)
  • Foccacia with mayo and dijon, shredded chicken, bacon, pepper jack and pepperoncinis
  • Sliced cinnamon bread with peanut butter, jelly and banana
  • Sliced cinnamon bread with nutella, peanut butter, chocolate chips and banana, with a dusting of powdered sugar (oh yes, I have)

Don’t be afraid to experiment. Leftovers are the ultimate grilled sandwich! Is it lunchtime yet?

Taking it Back: Spaghetti Sauce

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For a few posts, we’re going to take it down a notch or two and go back to the basics at the request of one of my readers. Granted my cooking prowess has made me adventurous and has wooed me into making more complex things, but the best homemakers have a handful of their very favorites they can pull out at any time that please a crowd, are down-home tasty and have very little muss or fuss involved. It’s also nice to have a set of standard recipes that you can turn to that are cost-friendly and don’t break the bank. In times like these we can all stand to save a few bucks but also deserve to have a home cooked meal that we can sit down to and be proud of.

Enter the classics ~ well, my classics. In my freezer there are always a couple of things that are my go-to items for dinners: chicken stock, whole chickens, varying types of sausages (both pre-cooked and raw), boneless, skinless chicken breasts, and spaghetti sauce.

Spaghetti sauce, in my family, is the generalized term for what a lot of people call ragu, meat sauce, or ‘gravy’. Gravy is an entirely different thing to some Italian families than it is in the rest of the country; Italian gravy is a tomato based meat sauce, rather than a brown sauce made of pan drippings after roasting meat. I always have at least one container in the freezer, and the ingredients to make it are part of my general pantry so I can whip up a batch in a flash. When I want spaghetti sauce with dinner there’s very little that can be done to sway me. And while it benefits from all day, low and slow cooking, it is just as tasty when it’s simmered for a half an hour and then served.

This sauce is the basis for my lasagna, or is served either tossed with short pasta and ricotta or cottage cheese and baked, spooned atop a mountain of spaghetti, pooled on polenta, and I’ve even used it as a filling for calzones before, mixing in some cubed mozzarella and sauteed spinach before tucking into a pizza dough blanket (and it’s soooo gooood). By having some in the freezer, in the time it takes to boil pasta, defrost the sauce and make a salad, dinner is ready. It’s not just a mid-week must eat staple though; I like to think that my sauce is good enough for company, and none of my dinner guests have ever said otherwise.

Feel free to riff on this sauce and make it your own. If your grandma made hers with finely diced carrots and celery, then by all means add them. Same goes for fresh or canned mushrooms, fresh spices instead of the dried, the world is your oyster with this sauce. And the more you make it, the more it becomes ‘your sauce,’ evolving each time to become your signature dish.

This sauce is mildly spicy because of the hot Italian sausage, but it isn’t kid-unfriendly in the heat department so far as I’ve found. If you’d rather skip the spicy, go ahead and use a full pound of the mild sausage. To keep your calories and fat down, you can sub in turkey Italian sausage and plain ground turkey for the meats (but you’ll also lose some of the richness). Go ahead and add more of the aromatic spices to your liking, and even extra garlic if the mood strikes. And, if you aren’t a household that generally has an open bottle of red wine around, don’t go open one just for this. There are several bulk wine producers that make split bottles (they come in 4-packs) of wine that are readily available at your grocery store. They are nice to have on hand for something like this: use what you need, and freeze the rest in an ice cube tray and save it to toss in marinades and sauces that call for a bit of wine.

One thing you have to do, though, is taste your sauce while it’s cooking. I know that every diet magazine on the planet is shouting at everyone about the number of calories you consume while tasting dinner as you make it, but it’s essential to good cooking to taste as you go. I personally like to taste my sauce by dipping a slice of french bread in it. MMMMmmm…

Spaghetti Sauce
Makes 12-14 cups of sauce

1 T. olive oil
1/2 lb. mild (sweet) Italian Sausage
1/2 lb. hot Italian sausage
1/2 lb. ground beef (whatever fat level you’re comfortable with)
1 large  yellow onion (we’re talking softball sized), diced
4-6 cloves of garlic, minced
1 28 oz. can diced tomatoes in sauce
1 14 oz. can diced tomatoes in sauce
1 8 oz. can tomato sauce
2 T. dried basil
1 T. dried rosemary
1 T. dried oregano
1 California bay leaf
1 1/2 t. kosher salt
Red wine
Worcestershire sauce
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Heat a large stockpot with the olive oil over medium heat. Add the mild sausage, breaking up with a spoon, and cook until brown. Remove from pan with a slotted spoon, and  cook off the hot sausage (if using), and then the ground beef, in the same manner. Avoid putting them all in the pot at once and crowding it, as it will steam your meat bits instead of browning them.

Remove excess grease from pan if necessary, leaving behind a tablespoon or two. Add the meats back to the pan, along with your diced onions and garlic. Sautee the onions and garlic until they are translucent, about 4-5 minutes.

Add in all spices (basil through bay leaf) and stir to marry with the meat and vegetables, then add in your salt, and cans of tomatoes and sauce. Using the 8 oz. sauce can as a measure, fill it with red wine and add it to the pan, along with a couple of dashes of Worcestershire sauce. Stir in thoroughly, and taste to adjust seasonings. Lower heat to a simmer, and let it go for at least a half an hour or as long as you can stand it.

Cinco de Mayo!!

Standard

Happy Cinco, campers! One last post for you about taco bar and side dishes, then I have to dash and get to work picking up my house.

Let’s have a quick coffee chat about refried beans. Coming from a taqueria they are silky, salty and savory. Coming out of a can from the grocery store, they are the consistency of brown paste.

And who likes a side of brown paste with their beautiful taco bar? Not me. Especially when they are so easy to make. I learned just how easy they are to make at home from my aunt’s best pal on a camping trip last summer, and I haven’t bought a can of refried beans since.

Refried Beans
Serves 8 as a side

1 40 oz. can of pinto beans (I was taught to use Teasdale, if you can find them)
2 serrano peppers, washed and dried
2-3 slices of bacon, on the fatty side if you have it (alternatively, if you keep bacon grease like I do you’ll need about 2 tablespoons

Drain the pinto beans, reserving the liquid in a bowl or measuring cup. Don’t bother rinsing the beans.

In a very heavy pan (cast iron is best), render the fat from your bacon over medium low heat. The object isn’t to crisp the bacon, this is sacrificial bacon as it’s being used for it’s fat only. (Use it to make yourself a BLT while your beans are cooking, no reason to throw it out). Remove the bacon from the pan.

Alternatively, if you hoard bacon grease like I do, scoop a couple of tablespoons out of the jar in the fridge and drop it into your pan. Melt it over medium heat until it glistens.

When your bacon is rendered or your fat is melted, drop in your serrano peppers and let them blister and brown over medium heat (be careful because they will pop on you). Give them a squeeze with your spoon every now and again to get some of the oils out.

If you like your beans with some heat, leave the peppers in and add your beans. If you prefer them mild, remove the peppers from the pan and add your beans. Add about 1/4 cup of the reserved bean liquid. Give the pan a stir and let it hang out for a bit.

For these beans, you’re going to almost completely cook out the liquid before adding more, over and over until they are the creamy consistency that you want them. I like mine with some chunks still but go ahead and let them break down completely if you’d like. Resist the urge to smash the beans, as the gentle cooking will do that for you. Give them a stir every now and again, being sure to scrape the bottom of the pan, but they don’t need babysitting. Total cook time is about 20-25 minutes. When you’re done, your beans should look approximately like this, for taqueria style beans:

Now, go pour yourself some sangria and finish putting together your taco bar. Your party is going to be a hit!