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Thursday, April 29, 2010

Top Ten Kitchen Tools Or Tips

I try to keep things easy in my blogs, especially in my recipes.  I want people to eat healthy but I realize not everyone loves to cook like I do.  In today's post, I'm going to share the top ten things I use that make cooking a breeze.

1.  Sharp knives.  Nothing is more frustrating and slows you down like a dull knife.  Always hand wash your knives as putting them in the dishwasher dulls the blade.  Sharpen your knives frequently.  I have not had much luck with the knife sharpeners you can find at the store.  I was very pleased with a local man who will come to your home to sharpen everything you have.  His name is Bobby Bennett and his number is 336-0125 for those of you who live in the Jonesboro area.

2.  Jarred chopped garlic, jalapenos, shredded lettuce or cabbage, frozen chopped bell pepper, southern style hash brown potatoes, etc.  I keep the garlic and bell pepper on hand all the time because I use both frequently.  If I have time, I chop my own fresh but we all need a short cut at times.  Shredded cabbage is great for stir fries or slaw.  The potatoes can be used in so many dishes - soup, casseroles - and saves time peeling and chopping potatoes.

3.  A microplane grater.  I don't know how I got along without one because I use it for so much now.  Even a tiny bit of lemon or lime zest or fresh ginger adds such a big flavor boost to your food.  I use it several times a week and toss it in the dishwasher.  It's also wonderful for grating hard cheese like parmesan.  (Kids like using a grater too so they will do it for you.)

4.  Frozen cooked chicken.  You can throw together a pasta dish or a stir fry in no time if you keep this on hand.  You can either purchase it from the grocery or grill extra chicken and chop it up yourself for the freezer.

5.  Nonstick pots and pans.  Cooking with anything else means clean up will be a battle.  A better quality pan should last longer but expensive ones aren't necessary.  Just make sure they are not too thin. 

6.  Cooking spray.  Crisco original 100% canola spray is my favorite.  Use it on anything that might stick.

7.  Olive oil.  Using olive oil in cooking is an easy way to get some health benefits without much effort.  I use canola oil when baking but olive oil for just about everything else. 

8.  Magic Bullet.  This is a pint sized blender or processor.  It's great when you are making a smoothie for one or pesto sauce.  It's small size takes less room in the dishwasher.  (I hate cleaning up large appliances, therefore I don't own a large stand type mixer, only a hand mixer as well.)

9.  Kitchen scissors.  A wonderful tool that is easier to use than a knife for so many jobs.  I use kitchen scissors for cutting up meat, herbs and green onions.  Kids can use them safely too. 

10.  Mini or baby carrots.  I always have a bag of these around.  We snack on them and with very little chopping, they go in stir fries, soups, salads or casseroles as they are peeled and ready to go.  I've even been known to give everyone a handful at dinner as a side dish.  A no cook or prep dish!  How easy is that?

I hope these tips will help you in the kitchen as well.  I love to cook but don't always have alot of time.  Short cuts relieve the pressure and make life easier.  Have a great weekend and get some exercise and eat well!   


Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Something New To Check Out

Most of you don't know I have another blog called lisatedder/writercat.  I started this blog just for a class on writing that I took over a year ago but I recently decided to start posting the occasional story there.  I enjoy writing flash fiction and humorous pieces about my family.  If you need a laugh, check it out.  Today I posted a story that many women will relate to - the eternal quest for youth and beauty that doesn't end quite as hoped.  It's a true story so maybe you will get a good laugh at my expense and learn a lesson. 

Thursday I will return to my usual health post on this blog.  In the meantime, remember that laughing is good for you and I hope I am giving you the gift of a laugh today. 

Thursday, April 22, 2010

I Could Dance All Night

Exercise is always easier when you are doing something fun that you love.  For years, I have wanted to take dancing lessons.  Not the ballet and tap lessons I had as a child but ballroom or latin dancing.  A friend of mine recently met a young man who teaches latin dances and arranged for 7 couples to take a class on Tuesday evenings.  We have had 3 classes so far and we are having a ball learning the merangue.  Each evening when we leave, my hair is soaked, my makeup wiped off on my sweaty shirt and I am feeling so good.

Yes, people!  Exercise makes you feel SO GOOD.  And it is so good for you.  You all know that exercise helps maintain your weight and keeps your heart running well but do you know how much exercise does for your brain?  Of course I'm going to tell you and if this doesn't make you get off the couch and get moving, nothing will. 

Exercise improves your circulation, getting more oxygen and glucose to your brain.  It improves our ability to learn, concentrate, reason, plan, organize and mentally juggle multiple tasks.  Regular exercise may delay the onset of and progression of diseases like Alzheimers.  Older adults who exercise experience less forgetfulness and have better mental function.  People who exercise have better moods and handle stress better. 

So, do you want to be happier?  Feel less stressed and concentrate better at work?  Avoid the embarrassment of wandering out of the house naked when you are 70?  Be healthier in every way?  Exercise!  Find something you like and do it.  I do many different things so I don't get bored.  I lift weights, walk, swim, shovel horse poo daily, do yoga, and now, dance.  It beats the alternative - nursing home, impaired health, forgetting who you are.

Even more important - get your kids moving.  Today's kids don't get nearly enough exercise but spend plenty of time sitting at a computer or TV.  If you want your kids to be better behaved, smarter and do better in school, this is a simple step to take.  Kids with ADD and ADHD can improve enough with exercise that they can do without medication.  I always feel better any time I can avoid taking medication or giving it to my kids.

I hope I have given you some food for thought.  Do some google research on your own if you aren't convinced.  I know I want to feel good. 

Have a happy weekend and get moving.         

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Eggs Snow Beach - Another Partial Dinner Disaster

Don't we all like to know that others mess up at times?  Makes us feel better about our own screw-ups.  I never mind discussing my kitchen disasters; they are down right funny at times.  Last night's dinner was delayed  due to a mix up in picking up children.  I was making Eggs Snow Beach, my interpretation of a dish I had in Colorado once.  Sometimes I have a restaurant meal that I have to try doing at home even though I don't have the recipe.  The Blackened Catfish from Disney is another example.  Eggs Snow Beach is a simple (do I ever cook anything else?) breakfast dish that makes a great dinner.  Poached eggs, English muffins, cheese sauce and crab meat - really very rich for breakfast. 

I was expecting everyone home around 6 p.m. so I had the cheese sauce ready when my husband walked in with only one child.  So while he drove off to retrieve the other child, I tried to stall dinner.  However, some foods don't hold for long.  The sauce began to get thick and gloppy despite my efforts.  I started poaching eggs so Grace could go ahead and eat.  Her eggs turned out ok but the next set broke when I was spooning them out.  The water became "eggy" and things slid downhill rapidly.  At least everything tasted decent but the cheese sauce was grainy and more like pudding. 

Don't let my disaster stop you.  The hardest part about this dish is poaching the eggs.  Poaching eggs is a skill I have yet to master.  Sometimes they turn out but often they don't.  Here is the method I use.  Add enough water to a pot to measure about 2 inches deep.  Add 1/4 cup of vinegar and heat to boiling.  Reduce heat so water just simmers.  Bubbles should break the surface occasionally.  Break the eggs into a cup one at a time.  Gently slip the egg into the simmering water.  Cook 4 minutes or more for a harder egg.  Scoop out with a slotted spoon and let drain.  Blot with a paper towel.

Eggs Snow Beach is one of those adaptable recipes you can make for one or several.  Simply make more or less cheese sauce, eggs and toast.  I hope you will be adventurous enough to try this dish.

Eggs Snow Beach (recipe serves 4)
8 eggs
4 English muffins
8 oz. whipped cream cheese
1/3 cup milk
1/2 cup shredded cheese such as cheddar or your favorite
8 oz. crab meat, imitation is ok, finely chopped
1 Tbsp. butter  
Rinse crab and check for bits of shell.  Drain well.  Heat butter in a small skillet and saute crab about 5 minutes.  Keep warm.  Heat milk in a small sauce pan over low to medium heat and gradually add cream cheese.  Stir well till smooth and lump free.  Add shredded cheese a bit at a time and stir till melted.  Add more cheese if sauce isn't thick enough, or more milk if too thick. 
Split and toast English muffins while poaching eggs.  You can also just fry the eggs sunny side up.  To serve, place split, toasted muffins on a plate, top with crab and eggs.  Spoon cheese sauce over all.  You will want to make this recipe again, I promise.

I heard a blurb on the news this morning that the FDA may eventually mandate the lowering of salt in processed food.  The major food companies are trying to lower the salt in their foods already to avoid being legislated.  You may have read my earlier blog on salt but remember, Americans eat about twice the amount of salt we need each day.  MOST of our salt comes from processed foods!  Cutting down on processed foods in your diet will reduce your salt intake and help your heart tremendously!  So remember to look for no salt or reduced salt foods like canned vegetables, snack foods and soups and to add less than recipes call for when cooking.  Have a happy spring day!      

Thursday, April 15, 2010

If Life Gives You Lemons, Make Risotto!

This week's meals have more than made up for last week's disastrous, hotter than hell fire, tacos.  If you read Tuesday's blog, you read about the wonderful meal I made Sunday with Meyer Lemons.  Lemon just seems so right for spring suppers.  It's light and refreshing and adds a subtle flavor most people love.

We also had chicken tetrazini and meatball sandwiches this week, both a hit with my family.  The meatball sandwiches are really easy.  Look on January 19th's post for the meatball recipe and cook the meatballs in purchased spaghetti sauce such as Newman's Own, about 30 minutes, turning over gently after 15 minutes.  Serve on toasted hoagie rolls with your favorite cheese on top.  There might be a fight for any leftovers.

Back to the lemons.  Risotto has a bad reputation for being difficult to make but it's really not.  If you have plenty of time and want a special meal, you can make risotto.  The secret is to add the liquid slowly and to stir constantly.  Risotto is a great accompaniment to seafood, chicken or red meat.  One person can grill some shrimp or chicken while the other makes the risotto.  Finish with a simple green salad or grilled vegetables.  You will have a dinner to impress anyone.

Lemon Risotto
2 large shallots, chopped
2 to 3 Tbsp. olive oil
2 cups aborio rice (do not substitute other rice)
1/4 cup dry white wine
6 cups chicken broth
1 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
2 Tbsp. chopped fresh parsley or 2 tsp. dried
2 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice, Meyer or other kind
4 tsp. lemon zest
Saute the shallots over medium high heat in the olive oil till tender.  Add rice and stir 1 to 2 minutes more as the shallots lightly brown.  Add wine and stir till absorbed.  Continue adding chicken broth 1/3 cup at a time and stirring until absorbed.  May need to reduce heat slightly.  The rice will become creamy as the liquid is slowly added.  This process takes 30 to 40 minutes.  When all the liquid has been added, the rice should be done.  Add the parsley, lemon juice and zest.  Serve as soon as possible as it will dry out and become sticky.

Lemon, lime or orange zest is easy to do if you have a microplane grater.  Check at the local cooking stores and ask for one.  To zest the lemon, wash and dry it first.  Then lightly rub the lemon against the blades, turning the lemon frequently so you only get the yellow outer part.  Don't zest the white pith underneath as it is bitter.  A little zest adds so much flavor to all your cooking that you will want to use it often.

The weather has been just lovely this week and I have been getting out as much as possible.  We forget how much good the outdoors does for us, mentally and physically.  Mulching a small bed or putting in a few flowers will give you such a peaceful sense of accomplishment.  Walking your dog and admiring all the newly green trees and plants will also do you both good.  I hope you are taking advantage of this wonderful gift of spring.  Enjoy your risotto and have a good weekend.             

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Meyer Lemons!

If you read my last blog, you know I was excited to find Meyer Lemons in the local Wal Mart after reading about them for years.  And since I made an inferno of a taco dinner last week, I knew I had to make up for it on the weekend with the Meyer Lemons.  Whatever I made had to be darned good. 

I spent hours pouring through recipes, trying to decide what to do with two bags of lemons. I ruled out many desserts; I wanted a main dish recipe as well.  Finally I made my selections and did the shopping.  Sunday morning started out with Lemon Pancakes, very delish and delicate.  I swear there were no lemons at lunch but at dinner I pulled out all the stops.  Grace was prompted to say, "It's just like Iron Chef America and the secret ingredient is Meyer Lemons!"  She was really into the whole thing as she loves Iron Chef.  Anyway, we started with Lemon Martinis.  (The kids had lemonade!)  These were great - Barry is very good at making martinis.  Then we had pan seared scallops on lemon risotto with steamed fresh asparagus.  For dessert we had lemon sorbet.  Everyone agreed it was an excellent meal.  I still need to learn the perfect technique for searing scallops but the risotto was wonderful.  The sorbet was tart, too tart for some, but very simple and refreshing.  Here is the recipe for the lemon martinis.  I altered our Key Lime martini recipe for these so try substituting key lime juice as they are delish too.

Key Lime Martinis
2 oz. vanilla vodka (vanilla vodka really makes a difference)
1 oz. pineapple juice
Juice of one lime or lemon
1 oz. simple syrup
Mix as for any martini.  Enjoy!

The lemon sorbet recipe has only three ingredients so it couldn't be easier unless you purchased it.  But then it would have all sorts of preservatives and strange chemicals.

Meyer Lemon Sorbet
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
1 cup fresh squeezed lemon juice
2 tsp. or more of lemon zest
Mix sugar and water together in a small pan and heat until sugar dissolves, stirring occasionally.  Add lemon juice and zest.  Pour into a shallow pan and put in freezer.  Let freeze till just set then fluff with a fork.  Continue freezing till solid.  Fluff with a fork or put it in a food processor for a few seconds till smooth.  Serve immediately. 

I will share the Lemon risotto Thursday.  Risotto isn't hard, just time consuming.  If you can't find Meyer Lemons, you could make these recipes with regular lemons.

I had a great time at the Health Expo on Saturday morning and I hope all you local readers got to attend.  The fish tacos with mango salsa were a hit as was the salmon with orzo pasta.  I think people were amazed that I made both fish dishes and the green beans in about 40 minutes.  There was a bit of a mishap.  Lesson learned:  Always check the contents of a new oven before using!  Upon opening the preheated oven to place the salmon inside, I discovered a brochure!  I was so lucky it didn't catch on fire.  I could just imagine the whole convocation center being evacuated. 

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Fanning the Flames of Hell

I almost set my family on fire last night.  I'm sure they thought I was trying to kill them.  In the process, I almost killed myself.  Right now you're wondering if I'm sitting in a smoky house, if there was a kitchen fire, or if I accidentally left a candle burning.  The incident occurred in the kitchen alright but it was just me trying a new recipe.  So today's lesson is: Know your ingredients. 

If you have been reading my blog for long, you know how excited I get over new foods and recipes.  Last night I was anticipating a really good dinner because I was trying a new Mexican dish, picadillo tacos.  The recipe was easy with few ingredients so it seemed a shoo-in for a weeknight meal.  However, I had never eaten chipolte peppers, at least not that I remembered or in any quantity.  The recipe called for 1 or 2 cans of chipolte peppers in adobo sauce.*  I added one can and thought it needed to be "saucier".  I added the other can, gave it a good stir and tasted.  Instantly my lips and mouth were seared with the flames of hell like no other heat I've ever felt.  I grabbed some bread to absorb the oils and cool down the heat in my mouth.  Great.  What was I to do with our lethal dinner?  I told Grace to start picking out the peppers, hoping that would tame things to an edible level.  I dashed out to feed the horses.

When I came back, Grace had a plate full of peppers.  (The small, 4 oz. cans couldn't possibly have held that much!)  I crossed my fingers as everyone gathered and we sat down to eat.  Right away, the situation was bad.  Removing most of the peppers hadn't helped a bit.  Each bite was like a blow torch in your mouth.  Grace and Barry powered through, saying that if you just kept eating, it wasn't so bad.  Cameron and I struggled.  Breathing through your mouth was horribly painful as was each bite.  We all ate bread and drank large gulps of milk, holding it in our mouths to ease the pain.  Finally Cameron and I gave up but the other two managed to eat it all.  Cameron complained that his stomach hurt and lay on the couch for awhile.  I was mad as, well, mad as hell for ruining dinner.  I certainly felt like I'd been to hell and back.

I'm always encouraging everyone to get in the kitchen and try new things.  Just learn from my mistakes and find out what you are putting in your food first.  Meanwhile, I'm excited to announce that I found Meyer lemons at Wal Mart yesterday!  I've read about them for years but have never seen any.  I bought two bags and have been busy trying to decide just what I'm going to do with them.  I'm sure good eating lies ahead for my family.  Check back next week to learn more about Meyer lemons and find out what I did with them.

Have a happy weekend.  If you come out to the HMG Health Fair, I hope you catch my cooking demo at 10:30.  I promise my food WON'T be hot.

*For those of you who don't know, I NOW know that chipolte peppers are dried, smoked jalapenos.  Their heat ranks 7500 on the Scoville scale used to measure heat in peppers.  A sweet pepper for instance, is 0.  Adobo sauce is a spicy tomato sauce.  You can reduce the heat of the pepper by removing the seeds and white membrane inside, neither of which I did.          

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Get Your Kids In The Kitchen!

Used to be that children, especially girls, were expected to help cook but with both parents working and relying more on fast food, that practice has disappeared.  This has resulted in generations of adults  who can only order pizza because they never learned to make a simple meal.  No wonder children can't identify basic vegetables like tomatoes and broccoli; they've never seen them in their original, fresh from the garden state. 

Children should be taught to cook and included in meal preparation from an early age.  Four and five year old children can at least set the table.  Older children can stir and add ingredients.  By nine and ten, children can cook pancakes and chop some fruits and vegetables or peel them.  Some of my best memories of my father are when he let me help him in the kitchen.  My job was to stir and of course, the minute he turned his back, I tasted whatever batter was in the bowl.  Cooking with your children can be a time to share and develop a closer relationship.  Children are proud when you announce they helped with the meal and get a sense of satisfaction seeing the family eat what they prepared.

When cooking with your children, put aside some expectations.  Their efforts won't be perfect and they may slow things down.  Who cares if the carrots aren't perfectly peeled or there are lumps in the mashed potatoes?  Children will be slow so resist the temptation to do things for them.  Obviously there are times when you need to get the food on the table quickly so let them help when things aren't rushed.  Teaching your children to cook will have big payoffs when they are teens.  Teenagers are capable of preparing dinner.  Think how nice it would be to come home from work and find dinner waiting for you!  Don't leave out the boys.  The time will come when they are on their own and need to do more than pull through the drive thru everyday.

Both my children cook occasionally.  My son is more reluctant but Grace has embraced cooking and often asks to help.  She makes the best buttermilk biscuits and frequently makes breakfast on the weekends.  Cameron is more likely to make desserts but he can make other dishes.  I'm going to share one of the recipes that my kids like to make.  It is easy for the 11 to 13 year old, depending on their previous cooking experience and appeals to their tastes.

Seashell Hot Dog Bake
8 oz. shell macaroni
1 cup chopped onion
1 garlic clove, minced
1 Tbsp. olive or canola oil
1 16 oz. package hot dogs, sliced into rounds
1 1/2 cups spaghetti sauce
1 large tomato chopped
1 4 oz. can drained mushrooms
1 8 oz. carton sour cream
2 oz. shredded provolone cheese
2 oz. shredded mozzarella cheese
Preheat oven to 350.  Prepare macaroni according to package directions.  Drain and set aside.
In a large skillet, cook garlic and onion in hot oil over medium heat till nearly tender.  Stir in hot dogs and cook until lightly browned.  Add spaghetti sauce, tomato, and mushrooms.  Bring to boil, then remove from heat.  Stir in sour cream and half the cheeses.  Stir in pasta.  Pour into a 2 quart casserole that has been sprayed with cooking spray.  Cover and bake about 30 minutes.  Sprinkle with remaining cheeses and bake 5 more minutes till cheese melts. 

So get those kids in the kitchen and get cooking!  Your job is to teach them life skills; don't send them out without some basic kitchen know-how. 

Friday, April 2, 2010

Cooking Demonstration At The Health Expo

For those of you who live in or near Jonesboro, you should take advantage of  this year's HMG Health and Fitness Expo at the ASU Convocation Center on April 10 and 11.  Admission is FREE and there are many FREE screenings available, even mammograms for qualified individuals.  You can find out about different fitness options offered locally and talk to nurses and physicians.  You can also attend cooking demonstrations throughout the day.

I will be doing one of those demonstrations at 10 a.m. on Saturday.  I am looking forward to doing this but have to admit being a little nervous.  My presentation will be Fabulous Fish since I love fish so much and since it is so easy to prepare and so good for you.  I will also be making my garlic green beans and giving other cooking tips.  My daughter Grace has agreed to be my sous chef.  She is such a great assistant in the kitchen.  I am excited to be able to show just how quick fish is to cook and let others sample how delicious it is.

Let's hope the bulging disc in my neck is better by then.  I've been gardening, mostly spreading mulch, in addition to cleaning the barn daily and my workouts.  I guess it has been too much as my neck started hurting in the middle of the night.  Motrin usually helps after a few days.  So I'm going to use myself as an example: get out there and exercise, garden or whatever, just be careful.  The spring weather will have many of you out in your yard, cleaning up the beds, planting and pruning.  However, take it slow.  Don't try to do it all in one weekend.  Do a little bit each afternoon since daylight lasts till 7 or so.  Take some ibuprofen and a hot bath afterwards to prevent stiffness and soreness.  Stretching after any activity will also help plus make you more flexible and strong the next time you work out.

I'm glad some of you have tried the recipes I offer and liked them.  I plan to make the whole wheat and flaxseed pancakes this weekend and throw in some blueberries.  There will be buttermilk syrup too!  Easter dinner will be simple: ham, asparagus, homemade bread, deviled eggs and lemon cupcakes.  Happy Easter and I hope you have a lovely, sunny weekend.