Thursday, October 29, 2009

10 Best Things About a Snow Day

Snow day! That's right within the last 24 hours or so our area received about 3 feet of snow (it's still coming down). All three of my kids were home--what a fun day. Here's my top ten favorite things about our snow day. What are yours?

10)Snow angels.

9)Uno marathons.

8)Playing Webkinz--If you haven't tried Polar Plunge, you need to.

6)Warm cookies--we made oatmeal today.

5)Snowball fights.

4)Snuggling up together to watch Harry Potter. (My favorite is #3)

3)Sleeping in!

2)Hot cocoa after playing outside.

1)Down time with the kids.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

5 Meals Under $5

With the temperatures getting cooler now, I'm happily spending more time in the kitchen. But just because you're cooking, doesn't mean you have to spend extra $$ on your meals. Here's some easy, inexpensive meal ideas from our house. (Each recipe designed to serve four.)

Saver tip: Cook once, eat twice. At our house, we call them “planned-overs” instead of leftovers. Cook extra meat or pasta from one dinner to use as the base for your next meal. Try these two dinners as an example of what you can do.

Pulled Pork Sandwiches
Ingredients: Pork loin (2-3 pounds), barbecue sauce, hamburger buns, coleslaw mix (in the produce section).

Directions: Place the pork on HIGH in a crockpot and add 1 to 2 cups of water. Add salt and pepper. You can also toss in other spices or ingredients you may already have on hand such as garlic, onions, or peppers to add flavor. Cook until tender (5 to 7 hours). Shred the pork in a bowl using two forks. Separate half the pork and place into a plastic container for the next meal. With the other half, mix the barbeque sauce with the pork. Place on the hamburger buns. Serve the coleslaw on the side.

Shredded Pork Quesadillas
Ingredients: Remaining pork from the previous recipe, flour tortillas, shredded cheese (such as Monterrey Jack), canned black or pinto beans.

Directions: Warm a large, heavy-bottomed pan over medium-high heat on the stovetop. Meanwhile, place the quesadilla fixings in bowls to easily put together your quesadillas. Put one tortilla on the hot pan; sprinkle with shredded pork, cheese, beans, and a little more cheese. Once the cheese just starts to melt add another flour tortilla. Flip the tortilla once it’s golden brown. Remove quesadilla once the tortillas are golden on each side. Cut with a pizza cutter and serve with salsa.

Saver tip: Choose flavorful ingredients. Still think that ground beef is the cheapest meat available? Not always. You can find good deals on more satisfying meats like pork loin, round steak even chicken breasts. Look for Italian sausage on sale at buy one get one free or half-off. Packages often come with 5 or 6 links per package. Use half the sausages for another meal.

Penne in a Rich, Ragu
Ingredients: box of penne pasta, 3 Italian sausage links, 1 can or jar spaghetti sauce

Directions: Cook your pasta according to the package instructions. Cook the sausage until golden in a medium-sized, heavy bottomed pan. Add the spaghetti sauce to the sausage and cook until heated through. Serve the sausage sauce over the penne.

Saver tip: Pass on the meat. Welcome to vegetarian night! Try cutting out the meat for at least one meal each week.

Scrambled Burritos
Ingredients: Eggs, cheese, flour tortillas, (hash browns, optional).

Directions: Depending on the number of servings, whisk 4 to 6 eggs. Add a tablespoon of butter to a medium-sized, heavy bottom pan at medium heat. Once the butter has melted add the whisked eggs. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cook. Warm the tortillas in the microwave. Place scrambled eggs and cheese on the tortilla. Fold two opposite sides toward the middle of the tortilla. Using the unfolded sides roll the tortilla. Serve with salsa. You can also add in hash browns, or if you miss the meat, ham or bacon.

Saver tip: Freeze the savings. When grocery staples like meat or cheese go on sale, stock up. Make sure to store the meat in freezer-ready bags. Shredded cheeses like mozzarella freeze well.

Pasta salad
Ingredients: Penne pasta, cubed chicken, cubed ham or bacon, cubed cheese, ranch dressing and barbecue sauce.

Directions: Reinvent your leftovers with this tasty sauce. Cook the pasta according to the package instructions. Add the cubed chicken, ham and cheese. For the sauce, mix equal parts ranch dressing and barbecue sauce. Toss the sauce and the other ingredients together. Enjoy!

Friday, October 16, 2009

Dreamy Cream Cheese Brownies

Ah, the weekend. That means it’s time to reward myself--and my kids--for surviving the week. Hey, everyone actually got all their homework done and in on time, that’s reason to celebrate with some brownies.

I stumbled on this brownie recipe leafing through Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything. I have all of 15 cookbooks in my kitchen—this is one of them. If you want a good resource, and plenty of fabulous recipes you should give Bittman’s tome a try (seriously, it’s about 3 inches thick). Of course, one of my favorite sections is cookies, brownies and cakes. Next to chocolate and peanut butter, my kids’ next favorite dessert combo is chocolate and cream cheese. So let’s get cooking.

4 ounces chocolate, roughly chopped
5 tablespoons butter, softened
4 ounces cream cheese, softened
1 cup sugar
3 eggs
1 cup all purpose flour, plus 1 tablespoon
½ teaspoon lemon juice
1 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract
½ teaspoon baking powder
pinch of salt
½ cup chopped nuts
½ teaspoon almond extract

Turn up the oven to 350 degrees and grease a 9-inch baking pan.

You’re going to need four bowls to make these brownies—one for the dry ingredients, one for the melted chocolate, a third to fluff your cream cheese and a fourth for the brownie batter. Don’t worry, getting to lick the brownie bowl clean is worth the dish duty later.

To start putting together your brownies, Bittman suggests melting the chocolate and butter in a saucepan over a low-heat burner. Here’s where I differ from Bittman, I don’t believe in melting chocolate over the stovetop; same goes for double boilers (it’s too many extra pans to clean up). I’m patient enough to melt my chocolate in the microwave. One key is using a glass dish so the heat gets evenly distributed AND heating at a low power then mixing vigorously afterwards. Melt your butter and chocolate in a large glass mixing bowl at low temperature in your microwave (around 1-2 minutes at half power). I have to say, I tried out milk chocolate recently and the flavor just wasn’t intense enough for my taste, so I’d stick with semi-sweet or dark varieties. Let the mixture cool while you put together the cream cheese.

Beat your cream cheese and ¼ cup of the sugar in your second bowl. Add one egg and then stir in the lemon juice, ½ teaspoon vanilla and 1tablespoon flour. I’ve tried some substitutes for the lemon juice like fresh orange juice and zest and even a dash of vinegar. My advice: if you don’t have a fresh lemon for juice just omit the ingredient; I haven’t noticed a real difference in the finished flavor.

In another mixing bowl beat the remaining 2 eggs together with the left over (3/4 cup) sugar until it forms ribbons when you pull the mixer away from the bowl. In yet another bowl mix your dry ingredients together. Gently stir together the melted chocolate, the egg/sugar mix and your dry ingredients (and don’t forget that last teaspoon of vanilla). Add the almond extract. Usually, I’m all for nuts in desserts, but they seem a distraction in this recipe so I omit those.

To put the batter together, Bittman suggests pouring half your chocolate brownie batter into the pan, then all of the cream cheese then finally the rest of the chocolate batter. I like my cream cheese and brownie flavors to remain more separate, so I pour all the chocolate batter in first, followed by the cream cheese mixture. Next, using a table knife, make swirls in the batter for a marble effect. Bake the brownies for 25 to 30 minutes or until just golden brown. These are one set of brownies that taste better after they’ve had time to sit. In fact, we keep them in the fridge at our house. If you’re serving these for company, swirl some warmed raspberry jam on the bottom of the plate then top with the chilled brownie and whipped cream. Yummy.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

H1N1 Hits Our House

Like many parents, last week I debated whether to send my elementary school aged daughter to school. She spiked a fever and came down with a hoarse cough after a day of school and a playdate with a friend. I wasn’t sure whether she was genuinely sick or just exhausted from a full schedule.

Even before the start of the school year, the principal had sent home a notice informing parents not to send potentially sick children to school. With fears of transmitting H1N1 through a school full of kids who are more likely to wipe their noses on shirtsleeves than a tissue, the chance of contagious illnesses spreading quickly student-to-student is enormous. In fact, many states have already been identified by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control as having “widespread” outbreaks of H1N1 since the school year began.

In my daughter’s elementary, I’d heard many students had been out for a week or more with swine flu-like symptoms. And yet, with physicians urging parents to keep kids home, versus coming into the office or visiting the ER (where they could pick up another illness in the waiting room), it’s difficult to know exactly how sick your child may or may not be. In our case, I had previously scheduled my daughter’s seasonal flu shot the day after she’d become sick. Instead of receiving her vaccination, the physician swabbed my daughter’s mouth and confirmed H1N1.

I was startled by the diagnosis--my daughter didn’t seem very ill and over-the-counter medication brought her fever under control easily. The pediatrician advised that I continue with the medication, considering that the most popular prescription for treating H1N1, Tamiflu, wasn’t available in our area (the pharmacies were all out of doses for children). She explained that relatively healthy children, without a history of serious illnesses or potential complications like ear infections or asthma, would probably recover on their own. Rest and relaxation were the cure, according to her doctor. Still, I wondered, did I need to come back into the office before she could go back to school? Her advice: as long as my daughter was fever-free without the help of Tylenol for 24 hours, she could return to school.

My decision about whether to send my daughter to school or not was relatively easy; most school districts would rather have your child miss a day—or two—versus having him spread an illness that might infect the whole classroom. And, since I work from home I could let my daughter stay at home with me without having to call in and explain to a boss that I needed to take a personal day. Even though she was well after a weekend on the couch watching countless episodes of SpongeBob, I kept her home an extra day before sending her back to school. Afterall, I didn’t want her to pick up another illness while her body was still recovering.

For other parents encountering the same quandary about whether to send their child to school, the decision isn’t always so simple. You may have exhausted all your personal and sick days at work, or your boss may be unwilling to let you miss, leaving you to contact friends or nearby family to help out. Add to the confusion, many media outlets are reporting mild swine flu symptoms next to stories of fatalities due to the virus. If you have any concerns about your child’s health, the first step to take is to call your child’s pediatrician, who can tell you whether the illness has been making the rounds in your area and offer additional medical expertise. Maybe the next call should be the school attendance line.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Apple Muffins your kids will eat--promise!

I made two--count em two--batches of these muffins this week. My inspiration came from some apples that had been sitting a little too long in my fruit drawer. They weren't bad...yet...but they wouldn't be great for eating. This recipe has nearly as many apples as batter but it still manages to stay together. My middle daughter took two muffins to school each day this week (one for lunch and one for a snack) after eating two for breakfast.

I have no idea where I got this recipe originally, I wrote it down as a kid and have been making it ever since. I've made some tweaks and improvements through the years. For example, I like to throw in ground flax for a little healthy boost.

Ovens ready? Here's the recipe:

Apple Cinnamon Muffins
1/2 cup butter or margarine
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 egg, beatan
1 cup buttermilk* see note
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups diced apples
1 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon ground flax, optional
chopped walnuts, optional

*I've never used the buttermilk. Instead I squeeze a good tablespoon or so of fresh lemon juice into the milk and let it set while I dice the apples. Also, I leave the extra lemon in my diced apples so they don't turn color and to add a little zing to the apples.

Cream softened butter with the sugar and egg in a large mixing bowl. In a smaller bowl mix all of the remaining dry ingredients. And the buttermilk to the butter/egg mixture then fold in the dry ingredients and the diced apples. Mix in the walnuts. (I save a few to put on top of each muffin.) Fill each muffin cup about 2/3 full. Bake at 375 degrees for 20 minutes or until golden brown. Enjoy!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Becoming the Deflector--Good for Tantrums, Arguments, Crying...

Every mom has her own technique for dealing with kids on those difficult days. I'm not sure if it was the sudden change in weather (the temperature dropped almost 30 degrees from yesterday) or that my kids have been getting to bed a little later than they should, but today they were just snapping at each other all afternoon. I knew simply getting upset at them wouldn't solve anything, so instead I relied on my standby mom coping strategy I like to call deflecting.

Follow this scenario:

Youngest: "Mom she's making too much noise, I can't do my homework. Mom, make her stop."

RM:"Hey, you told me you got an award in class today, what was that for again?"

Youngest: Forgets her sister's infraction and start telling me all about her coloring award.

Perhaps I do it too often and my kids are destined to have some sort of parent-triggered ADD, but for me a little distraction can pull a kid out of just about anything. What do you do when a simple, stop, doesn't suffice?

Friday, October 2, 2009

The Best Peanut Butter Cookies—Ever

Cookie Friday again. Today I made my husband’s all-time fav, PB cookies. Don't worry, these cookies aren't like the typical hard, greasy ones you find at school bake sales. The original recipe comes from an old back issue of Cook’s Illustrated, but you can also find it in The America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook.

I like to make a few tweaks to the cookies to suit my family’s tastes. I toss out the iconic fork print on the top in favor of adding chunky chocolate chips to the batter. You can’t beat peanut butter and chocolate. So if you’re looking for a cookie packed with peanuts, chocolate and some whole wheat for at least a little bit of a health boost, ready the glass of milk!

2 1/2 cups flour (I use half King Arthur White Whole Wheat, half all-purpose)
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon baking powder
16 tablespoons butter, softened (margarine is fine)
1 cup packed light brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup crunch peanut butter (creamy works too)
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 large eggs
1 cup salted peanuts, ground fine (I use a food processor)
Chocolate chips or chunks

Directions: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. This is the one cookie recipe I’ve found that doesn’t need time for the dough to sit in the fridge to create a softer, firmer cookie. It doesn’t improve the texture of the dough to bake these cookies right after mixing. Beat the butter and the sugars together in a large bowl. Mix the dry ingredients in a separate bowl.

Add the peanut butter to the sugared butter and mix until creamy. Mix in the vanilla and the eggs (the recipe calls for you to mix in the eggs one at a time, but I haven’t noticed any difference if you just toss them in all at once). With the mixer on low speed add the dry ingredients in slowly. Mix just until incorporated. Add the ground peanuts. Toss in chocolate chips; as always, my preference is Ghirardelli. Bake the cookies on lightly greased or parchment-lined cookie sheets for 10 to 12 minutes or until just golden brown.

A note on peanut butter: According to the Test Kitchen tasters, Skippy Peanut Butter was a standout. Around our house we go for the store brand for a couple reasons: first, it doesn’t cost as much and second, I find that it’s less sweet than the name brands. I don’t like overly sweet desserts, especially with these cookies where the star really is the peanutty flavor.