Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Spaghetti Soup and Cheesy Garlic Bread

I love making soup!  You've probably noticed soup is on our fall/winter menu quite a bit.  I love making soup because I become like a magician in the kitchen.  I can take nothing and turn it into something.  Spaghetti Soup is one of my family's favorite recipes that I created from a bunch of nothin' and turned it into something great!

Do you ever have just a little bit of spaghetti sauce leftover at the end of dinner?  I'll make a pound of pasta and a batch of sauce, but it always seems we have one scoop of sauce leftover at the end of the meal.  I used to just toss that away because it seemed like it was not enough to bother with.   Then one day, I needed something for dinner that needed to be made from the ingredients on hand because the littlest one was down for a nap and there was no time to go to the store before dinner.  I had a small bowl of spaghetti sauce in the fridge and just started adding some things to it into make a soup.  The end result was fantastic!  Now, instead of throwing away those small bits of sauce, I freeze them and when I have about 1 1/2 - 2 cups of sauce collected, I make a batch of this Spaghetti Soup

The kids love this dish!  The littlest one scraped her bowl clean before I had a chance to even finish my salad!   The soup comes together in under 30 minutes which is perfect for our busy afterschool schedule.  The soup cooked while I made a loaf of garlic cheese bread and helped supervise some music practice.  If you choose to make the soup ahead, it will thicken up so you'll have to add a little water before serving it.  Because I made this soup from all our leftover bits and pieces, it was very economical.  It's a good end-of-pay-period kind of meal or great for a night when you might want to spend your grocery budget on a fancy dessert or a family ice cream date.

Here's the recipe:

Spaghetti Soup
1 Tbsp olive oil
2-3 Tbsp chopped onion and celery
1 tsp minced garlic
1 1/2 - 2 cups of leftover spaghetti sauce
1 can of diced tomatoes (I use home canned tomatoes from my mother in law)
1 can of tomato sauce (small or large can; whatever you have)
2 cups beef broth (or 2 cups water and 2 beef bouillon cubes)
1/2 - 1 Tbsp Italian seasoning
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 pound of spaghetti noodles broken in 1 inch pieces
Parmesan cheese for garnish

1.  Drizzle olive oil in a large stock pot.
2.  Saute onions and celery until opaque.
3.  Add garlic, spaghetti sauce, tomatoes, and tomato sauce.  Rinse out the cans/containers with a little water (no more than 3/4 cup total)
4.  Add beef broth, salt, and Italian seasonings and stir.
5.  Bring to a boil.
6.  Add spaghetti noodles and stir.
7.  Cook at a low boil until noodles are tender and soup thickens. (about 15 -20 minutes)

Serve with pamesan cheese on top.  (You'll have to imagine some parmesan on the top of this bowl in the picture.  I forgot to take a picture BEFORE we ate, and this was all that was left!  Our original bowls were filled a bit more towards the top!)

Spaghetti Soup and Cheesy Garlic Bread

My kids love to order cheesy garlic bread whenever we get pizza!  I picked up a loaf of fresh Italian Bread on the way home from school and thought it would make a great addition to our soup.  We LOVED this bread!  They all said I could give Donatos a run for their cheesy garlic bread money!  Try some today!

Cheesy Garlic Bread
1 loaf of Italian Bread (often $1 or less at Kroger)
4-5 Tbsp Spreadable Butter (I used Country Crock)
1 tsp garlic powder
2 tsp of dried parsley
few shakes of salt
1 cup of shredded mozzarella cheese (or Ital blend with provolone)

1.  Slice bread horizontally.
2.  In a small bowl, mix together the butter, garlic powder, parsley, and salt.
3.  Spread the butter mixture on the bread evenly.
4.  Sprinkle cheese on top of the buttered bread.
5.  Place cheese topped bread on a baking sheet and bake at 375 for 15 minutes.
6.  Slice cheesy garlic bread into wedges.

Cheesy Garlic Bread
Your house will smell like a pizzeria with this fresh baked bread topped
with ooey, gooey cheese and a hint of garlic.  I'll take you on, Donatos!

Kid Friendly Chicken and Cheese Enchiladas

We received a pan of these simple chicken and cheese enchiladas after the birth of my youngest from a MOPS friend.  She said that they were very "plain" but it was a dish her kids liked.  She brought me a jar of salsa along with the pan of enchiladas and said her husband would add the salsa at the table because he liked a little extra kick.

Since then, I have adapted the recipe she shared slightly to suit our tastes, and I have taken this same meal to numerous families in need over the years.  It transports well and tastes great leftover, too.  I like this dish because it is very kid friendly, it can be made ahead, and I often can find the simple ingredients on sale.  The kids like that there is nothing they have to pick out before they start eating, and the eaters who enjoy a little spice and texture can add as much spice and texture as they want at the table.  I'm often asked for this recipe, so I'm happy to share it today.

I put together a pan of these Kid Friendly Chicken and Cheese Enchiladas in less than 10 minutes.  I had chicken already cooked in my freezer.  Having pre-cooked chicken makes dishes like this one come together in a snap.  I like to cook my chicken in the crock pot when I find a good deal at the store (less than $5 for a whole chicken or $0.99/lb for dark meat or $1.99 for white meat).  After the chicken is cooked and slightly cooled, I chop it up and package it in 2 cup packages to put into the freezer.  This particular batch of enchiladas was made from dark meat, but I usually use white meat or a combination.  When it's all rolled up in the enchilada, it's hard to tell what kind it is. 

I used low fat versions of cream soup and sour cream, and I actually prefer it with the low fat versions to the full fat version.  It makes a little thinner sauce which I think is better.  I have also used Greek yogurt in place of the sour cream, but it will make the dish have a little more tang than using sour cream.  I have also used low fat cheeses, but I prefer the regular version of cheese because it melts better.  I have used both whole grain and white tortillas; can't really detect too much flavor or texture difference.

I apologize for the poor quality of the photos.  It was sunny yesterday, and I did not have on the lights in the kitchen, but the pictures turned out a little too dark when I look at them on the computer.  I checked out a Food Photography book at the library on the weekend.  I definitely need to pick up some new tips.  Let's just say you know that my cooking is real and not staged in any way shape or form!  Just try the recipes; your kids will like them!

Here's the recipe:

Kid Friendly Chicken and Cheese Enchiladas
1 can low fat cream of chicken soup
1 cup low fat sour cream
2 cups cooked chicken (seasoned with salt and pepper during cooking)
1 1/2 cups shredded co-jack cheese
6-8 tortillas
chili powder
onion powder
garlic powder
dried cilantro or parsley
jar of favorite salsa (for use at table)

1.  Mix together the soup and sour cream in a medium bowl.
2.  Sprinkle a few shakes or chili powder, cumin, onion powder, and garlic powder over the cooked chicken and stir it around.  (I don't always measure; I go by smell; I would guess I use about 1/4 tsp of each)
3.  Empty bag of shredded cheese into bowl.  (It makes it easier to do the assembly)
4.  Sprinkle some cheese down the center of a tortilla shell.  (about 1-2 Tbsp)
5.  Place a scoop of chicken on top of the cheese. (about 1/4 cup)
6.  Sprinkle some cheese on top of the chicken. (about 1-2 Tbsp)
7.  Plop on some of the sour cream/soup mixture. (about 2 Tbsp; this kind of seals the tortilla shut)
All ready to roll up.  You can plop the sauce on the top;
just wanted to show about how much.

8.  Roll up the tortilla and place in a greased 9x13 pan with the seam side down.
9.  Repeat until you are out of chicken.  I can usually get 6-8 tortillas made depending on the size)
10.  Spoon the remaining sour cream/soup mixture on top of the rolled tortillas.  Sprinkle with additional cheese (maybe 1/3-1/2 cup).
11.  Sprinkle the top lightly with paprika and dried cilantro or parsley (for color)

Ready to bake, refrigerate until later, freeze, or deliver to a family in need

12.  Cover loosely with foil and bake for 35-40 minutes at 350.  Remove the foil for the last 5-10 minutes to brown on top.

You can easily make this ahead and cook it later in the day or even the next day.  You can also freeze this dish unbaked.  You made need to add some additional bake time.

Kid Friendly Chicken Enchiladas
Slightly seasoned chicken and cheese wrapped in a tortilla
topped with a creamy cheese sauce.  Great for kids who usually
ask you to pick things out of casseroles before they will eat them.

Serve enchiladas with salad and rice and/or beans.  Offer salsa at the table for those who like their enchiladas with a little more kick.

Here's what it looks like on the plate:
Kid Friendly Chicken and Cheese Enchiladas
Add your favorite salsa at the table for extra kick

We enjoyed ours with rice, a tossed salad topped with corn, black beans, red peppers, cheese, crushed tortilla chips, and ranch dressing, and a bowl of fresh cut up fruit.  There wasn't much talking going on at the table because we all were busy cleaning our plates!

What's your favorite recipe you've adapted to be more kid-friendly while still pleasing the adult eaters in your house?

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

A New Week - Rebounding from Surving Back to Thriving

Last week was one of those weeks when it was just about all I could do to keep us fed, clothed, transported to all our activities, and maintain some level of acceptable cleanliness around the house.  I came down with a head cold.  It wasn't bad enough to make me want to stay in bed all day, but let's just say that I didn't have the energy to do anything extra. 

We did still manage to eat some good dinners last week, but I didn't take too many photos or sit at the computer to write the anecdotes to accompany the recipes.  This blog is my hobby, after all!  There may be some extra posts this week as we did have a few new yummy things!

We'll see what this week brings!  I'm already a day behind with my menu post for the week as it was nearly an all day chore to get the house picked up and get the laundry back under control yesterday.  If nothing else, last week reaffirmed that the little bit I do every day to keep the house organized does make a big difference. 

We have a bit of an up in the air weekend coming, so my menu is a little sketchy for those days.  I have plenty of things around here to eat, so I know we won't go hungry!

Here's what we'll be eating at our house this week.  As always, we'll round out our meals with salad and fresh fruits from our produce drawer.

SOUP NIGHT MONDAY - Spaghetti Soup, Cheesy Garlic Bread, Vanilla Cupcakes with Lemon Cream Frosting
ONE DISH TUESDAY - Chicken Enchiladas, Rice and Beans, Salad (never had this last week as planned; had chicken tacos instead)
SANDWICH WEDNESDAY - Sloppy Joes (from freezer), Corn Casserole (from freezer), Strawberries
KIDS PICK THURSDAY - Basil Chicken Strips, Parmesan Noodles, Broccoli
QUICK BITE FRIDAY - Fish Sandwiches, some side dish yet to be determined
SATURDAY - Kids in the Kitchen (I plan to cook something with the girls for our special Girls' Night; we haven't yet looked through the cookbooks)
SUNDAY BRUNCH - Baked Oatmeal, Ham Slices, Fruit Parfaits (never had this last week as planned; went out to brunch after church)
SUNDAY DINNER - Make you own pizza, salad

Breakfast Choices This Week:
Hard Boiled Eggs/Sausage Links

Snack Choices This Week:
Trail Mix (nuts, fruit, M&Ms)
Granola Bars/Cereal Bars
Pretzels/Cheeze Its
Cheese and Crackers/ Peanut Butter and Crackers
Pizza Bagels
Fruit/Veggies with Dip

If you need more menu planning inspiration, please visit Menu Plan Monday at 

I did a BIG grocery shop on Friday, Feb 17.  I spent around $120 which included my husband's Starbucks coffee for the next several months, toilet paper, wax paper/aluminum foil/parchment paper/various plastic bags, and laundry detergent.  But my mother in law was here and the kids were hungry and ready to have lunch when I got home, so I never took a photo of what I purchased, and quite honestly now I don't even remember all the deals I snagged that day.  I know I put 3 loaves of whole wheat white bread for $0.79, some slider buns for $0.49, and 3 meals worth of boneless pork chops (sliced by the butcher into chops from a boneless pork loin) for $6 into my freezer

I did hit the Meijer last Friday morning to take advantage of the 10 for $10 sale.  I picked up quite a bit of $1 produce including spinach, bagged salad, peppers, mushrooms, potatoes, carrots, and strawberries.  I also found a good deal on Gogurts for the kids' lunches/snacks at $0.92/box, Sargento Shredded Cheese for under $2/bag, and several boxes of Hamburger Helper for 50 cents and cans of chicken noodle soup for $0.30 to donate to our local food pantry collection for our oldest's Upward basketball team. 

Total Spent: $62.34
Total Saved Using In Store Specials and Coupons: $47.29

Ever had one of those weeks were it was more like surviving than thriving? 

What's on your menu this week?

Monday, February 20, 2012

Menu Plan - February 20-26

One of the best things I've done in my kitchen over the years is to meal plan! Having a plan written down makes that "witching hour" of 4:30-6 pm go so much more smoothly. Do we always follow the plan down to each detail? No, not always. Sometimes what I plan on Sunday to eat on Thursday isn't what I feel like fixing come Thursday. Or we might have a change in plans that will not allow for me to make what's on the menu. Or I might forget to get the meat out of the freezer in time to thaw. But it's a start, and that's what matters most. A plan is a very good thing to have!

With our busy schedule and commitment to eating together as a family nightly, I've come up with a thematic night approach to planning our weekly menu. I've used a variety of menu planning strategies over the years, and this seems to be working best for our family at this stage of life. We have fruit at every meal, but I don't always write that down in the plan. We just sort of pull together what we have on hand.
Here's what's on our menu plan for this week with a few changes to our regular themes due to our family schedule. 

Monday - Chicken Enchiladas, Rice and Beans, Salad, Red Devil's Food Cake
ONE DISH Tuesday - No Peek Beef Stew, Salad, Rolls, Applesauce (from freezer)
ON THE GO Wednesday - 3 Bean Chili, Cornbread, Salad
KIDS' PICK Thursday - Pork Chops, Cheesy/Bacon Mashed Potatoes, Green Beans, Dirt Pudding Cups
MEATLESS Friday - Black Bean and Corn Quesadillas, Salad
QUICK BITE Saturday - Italian Sliders, Garlic Parmesan Fries, Fruit Cobbler
Sunday BRUNCH - Baked Oatmeal, Ham Slices, Fruit Parfaits
Sunday Dinner - Roasted Sausage/Potato/Veggies, Salad, Rolls with Homemade Peach Jam   

Cereal/Oatmeal with fruit/Toast
Choc Chip Pancakes/Waffles/Sausage links
Hard Cooked Eggs
Crackers with Cheese/Cream Cheese/Peanut Butter
Apples/Peanut Butter
Snack Mix (goldfish/pretzels/raisins/nuts/cereal/M&Ms)
Granola Bars

I'll post the recipes later in the week with photos. This blog is a work in progress! Thanks for following!

What's on your menu this week?

Need some inspiration? Check out Menu Plan Monday over at

Quick and Easy Lasagna

I've always loved lasagna, especially when company comes over.  It was my mom's "go to company meal" when I was a kid.  As I left her nest and started inviting friends and family to my own home, I started serving lasagna because it reminded me of the comfort and hospitality of my childhood.

When we lived in Wisconsin back in our early days of marriage before kids, we met a wonderful set of friends who had invited us over for dinner after work.  When we arrived, there was a pan of lasagna on the table ready to be devoured.   It was delicious.  It set up on the plate without running all over the way mine usually did.  When I asked the hosts their secret, they shared that they don't cook the noodles first.  They just put them in the lasagna uncooked, and they were not the "no boil" kind.  Just the regular, plain old lasagna noodles.  They had discovered this secret first by accident because when they tried to figure out how to make lasagna together they didn't know you were supposed to cook the noodles first. 

Now you know I love any recipe that tastes like you've spent lots of time making it when you really have not.   So since our days in Wisconsin eating our first pan of lasagna with Paul and Laurie with the uncooked noodles, I fix my lasagna the same way.  When people eat my lasagna, they always say, "How do you get your lasagna to stay all together on the plate and not run all over everywhere?"  I've had skeptics who don't believe me when I say that you start with uncooked noodles, but once they try it, they never go back to the "old" way. 

I have made this lasagna for each of my girls' first birthday dinners because it was one of their favorite foods of their first year of eating table foods.  It easily impresses a crowd and can be made ahead in under 30 minutes and with ingredients that I often find on sale.  I use jarred sauce (usually Prego or Kroger brand) that I have enhanced a bit, but feel free to use whatever sauce your family likes, store bought or homemade.  I also use low fat small curd cottage cheese instead of the traditional ricotta because I don't like ricotta cheese.  I can usually find the cottage cheese on sale for $1.25 and try to pick up bags of mozzarella cheese for under $2.  As we enjoyed a pan of my quick and easy lasagna last night at dinner, the 3 year old gobbled hers up and said, "More yum-sagna please!"  I think that speaks for itself.

I didn't take pictures through the assembly process because we had company over the weekend and I was just cooking as normal, not as if I was making food for a blog post.  If I make it again soon, I'll post some more pictures.  I realized as I was writing for the post that pictures would have been helpful!

Here's the recipe:

Quick and Easy Lasagna
3/4 lb ground beef
2 Tbsp chopped onion
1/2 tsp minced garlic
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
1 jar of your favorite spaghetti sauce
9 lasagna noodles (I've used the whole wheat or white)
2 cups small curd cottage cheese
1 egg
1/2 - 3/4 tsp garlic salt (the mixture should smell like garlic)
1-2 tsp parsley flakes (you should see flecks of green throughout mixture)
2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
2 Tbsp parmesan cheese

1.  Brown and drain the ground beef.  (I use a medium pan so I can just add the sauce on top of the meat after it's browned)
2.  Add the onions, garlic, salt, and pepper and cook until onions turn opaque (about 1-2 min)
3.  Add the jar of sauce to the pan.  Add about 3 Tbsp water to jar to rinse it out and then add that to the pan.
4.  Bring sauce to a boil.  Cover and let simmer 10-15 minutes.
5.  In a medium bowl, mix the cottage cheese, egg, garlic salt, and parsley. 

Now it's time to layer the lasagna.  I use a 9x9 pan because that makes just enough for our family and the amount of sauce.  You can play around with the amount of sauce and meat to make more.  If you double everything, it will make two disposable lasagna size pans (they are a little smaller but deeper than the regular 9x13 pan).  This is perfect for a large crowd or make one and give one away.

1.  Spray a 9x9 pan with cooking spray.
2.  Spoon a little bit of sauce in the bottom of the pan.  I try to get more sauce than meat for this bottom layer.
3.  Place 3 uncooked noodles on top of the sauce.  (You will have to break off a little bit of the ends unless you are using a bigger pan.)
4.  Scoop about 1/3 of sauce on top of the noodles and spread it around with the back of your spoon.
5.  Scoop about half of the cottage cheese mixture on top of the sauce layer.
6.  Sprinkle 2/3 cup or so of mozzarella cheese on top of the cottage cheese layer.
7.  Place 3 more uncooked noodles on top.
8.  Spoon 1/2 of the sauce left on top of the noodles and spread it around with the back of your spoon.
9.  Spread the rest of the cottage cheese on top of the sauce.
10.  Sprinkle about 2/3 cup of mozzarella cheese over the top of the cottage cheese layer.
11.  Place 3 more uncooked noodles on top.
12.  Pour the remaining sauce on top, carefully covering all the noodle.
13.  Sprinkle the remaining cheese on top.  You can also add a sprinkle of parmesan
14.  Loosely cover the lasagna with foil.
15.  Refrigerate to bake later or bake immediately.

Bake lasagna at 350 for one hour or until bubbly.  Remove cover for last 15-20 minutes.  Let stand for 15 minutes before serving.  (If you make it ahead and then bake it, you will have to increase the bake time about 20-30 minutes)

Serve a big cut of lasagna with a tossed salad and hot garlic bread. 

Quick and Easy Lasagna
The noodles are tender, the sauce is rich and thick,
and it comes out of the pan without running all over the plate.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Creamy Chicken and Asparagus Soup

Once a month, three other moms and I feed the staff at my girls' elementary school.  This month we'll be doing a dinner on Parent Teacher Conference Night instead of lunch, so I thought I'd invite the girls over for lunch so we could have the chance to plan out our conference dinner and just catch up.  It's always a treat to sit down and have a leisurely lunch with friends.

I often try out new recipes when I have company.  This may be an unusual practice for some, but I like the challenge of finding something new that might please my guests' tastes.  I was fortunate in that my guests all said, "I don't think I ever met a food I didn't like!"  It was a dreary day, the kind of day that seemed to call for soup, and a creamy soup at that.  I saw this post on Mel's Kitchen Cafe about one of her favorite creamy soups containing simple vegetables, chicken, potatoes, and cream cheese and decided to give it my own spin. 

I have been clearing out my freezer stash, so I decided to put together a simple lunch menu based upon what I found on sale at Kroger and the chicken breasts I had leftover from last week's shopping trip.  I first spotted some baby bibb lettuce, grape tomatoes, and English cucumbers for $1 and a yellow pepper for $1.25.  That inspired me to do a simple mixed salad with a light oil and vinegar dressing seasoned with a bit of garlic, salt, and pepper.  When I went to the store to pick up a few things, I spotted asparagus for just $1.99/lb.  I love asparagus, and I thought the green would make a nice addition to the soup.  I also picked up a few red potatoes because I thought the red skins would make a nice touch over regular Idaho potatoes.  I planned to make another batch of artisan bread.  What a wonderful way to greet my guests with a house that smelled of fresh baked bread!  One of my guests offered to bring dessert, so I was all set.

The soup turned out beautifully!  The color combination of the red potatoes with their skins on, the green asparagus, and the orange carrots was very appealing to the eye.  The cream cheese gave the soup a smooth, velvety texture and just the right amount of zing.  The salad was light and offered a nice balance of crunch and sweetness.  The fresh baked artisan bread spread with just a little bit of real butter balanced out this luncheon feast.  What a treat to sit, laugh, and share a great meal with friends.  I was able to get this feast on the table in less than an hour and the entire meal cost less than what it would have cost for just one You Pick 2 Combo at Panera.

Creamy Chicken and Asparagus Soup

Here's the recipe:

Creamy Chicken and Asparagus Soup
2 Tbsp butter
1/4 cup onion, diced
2 celery ribs, diced (the inner stalks with the leaves are fine)
2-3 carrots, peeled and sliced into coins
1 tsp minced garlic
3 cups chicken broth (I used 1 cup homemade stock, 2 cups water + 2 tsp bouillon)
3-4 red potatoes, diced with skins on
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
4 Tbsp flour
1 cup milk (I used 1%)
1 block of low fat cream cheese, softened (I put it in microwave for 1 min @ 40% power)
1 bunch asparagus, cooked and cut into 1 inch pieces (saute or steam; I sauteed)
2 cups cooked, diced, chicken breasts (I cook mine in the crock pot in a large batch)

1.  In a large stock pot, melt the butter.
2.  Saute the onions, celery, and carrots for about 2 min or until the onions turn opaque.
3.  Add in the potatoes and chicken broth and seasonings; stir.
4.  Bring to a boil; reduce heat, and simmer with lid on for 10 minutes.
5.  Check potatoes to see if they are cooked; you don't want them mushy.
6.  Whisk the flour into the milk in a 2 cup measuring cup.
7.  Pour the flour and milk mixture into the soup pot after the potatoes are done.
8.  Gently stir and bring soup to a boil.  (turn up the heat a bit)
9.  Boil for 3-4 minutes, stirring gently to keep it from sticking on the bottom but not enough to break up the potatoes.
10.  Return the heat to low.
11.  Add the cream cheese in cubes.  (The cream cheese should be very soft, so it melts easier.  It might look like it's clumping up; be patient; it will melt.)
 12.  Add the cooked asparagus and the chicken to the soup and heat through.

I always taste my soup after I get everything cooked and in it.  Sometimes I need to add more salt and pepper depending on how much the potatoes absorb or how salty the broth or chicken is.  Adjust it to suit your tastes.

When I make soup, I like to chop all my vegetables first and have them on the counter so I can see if all the ingredients are in balance and add more if necessary.  The great thing about soup is that your measurements don't have to be exact in terms of the ingredients.  Go for balance.

I have learned to do some batch cooking of chicken breasts to have cooked, diced chicken on hand.  I buy chicken breasts only when they are on sale for under $2 a pound.  I cookziploc  bags or containers.

For this recipe, I opted to saute the asparagus before adding them to the soup so they would retain some of their firmness.  I have not put asparagus in soup too many times before, and I didn't want them to end up all mushy.  By sauteing them lightly, they stayed bright green and had the perfect amount of crisp tenderness.   If you don't like asparagus or they are not on sale, I think that green beans would also do nicely for this soup.  You could probably add the green beans with the potatoes and they would cook appropriately.

This was the first time I had used cream cheese in a soup before.  It really did a nice job of making a rich, creamy soup!  I have not done a caloric comparison of using cream cheese to using cream or half and half, but I would imagine it is less.  It had a much richer flavor than the creamy soups I have made in the past using just milk.  The trick to getting the cream cheese to melt nicely into your soup is to soften it quite a bit before adding it to the pot.  I was worried when I made it the first time, because it seemed to be all gloppy, but by the time we served the soup, it had all melted and was incorporated into the base just fine.

I made this soup a second time for dinner last night because I thought it was so good for a cold winter day!  It was just as yummy and came together in about 30 minutes or so.  The kids really liked it, and John took the leftovers for lunch today.

What's your favorite recipe to serve for a special luncheon?

Easy Valentine Cookies

Happy Valentine's Day!  We had a fun filled weekend with our girls spending 2 nights and 3 days at Fort Rapids Indoor Waterpark.  Our oldest had won a coloring contest at Drug Mart, and we cashed in her grand prize for a wonderful mid-winter getaway weekend.  The kids had a great time, and I had planned a few fun Valentine treats including these super easy sugar cookies to make our stay extra special.

I'm the first to admit that I'm not a good baker.  I love to cook, but baking has never been my strength.  I like desserts, however, and recognize that sweets play an important role in the full experience of family eating.  So, over the years, I've learned how to make some easy desserts that look like I've spent lots of time on a complicated recipe when really I have not.  I'm about to let one of my biggest secrets out of the box. . . . .

Here it goes. . . . .

I hope you'll still follow along in this blogging journey after I share my secret. . . .

I use premade mixes for many of my baked goods!  In fact, almost all my Christmas cookies come from package mixes.  It's not that I can't bake cookies from scratch.  I can.  I just find that the package mixes have better end results when I'm in a time crunch and/or baking with kids.  Maybe it's because there is not a lot of measuring involved.  Maybe it's because I find that I can be a much more patient Mommy with my little helpers when all they have to do is dump a package into a bowl and help me stir.  Maybe it's because a package mix makes less cookies than a batch of homemade and so I'm not tempted to eat as many.  I'm not exactly sure of all the reasons.  I just know that I've fooled many treat eaters in my kitchen for years, and it's probably time to come clean.

So last Thursday before our trip, the 3 year old and I spent a half hour or so making a batch of heart shaped cut out cookies from a package sugar cookie mix.  I had purchased the mix on sale before Christmas using an instore special and coupon making the mix less than $1.  We added an egg and a stick of butter, a 1/4 cup of additional flour, and rolled our cookie dough out onto the counter.  She helped me cut out about 18-20 large heart cookies that baked in 10 minutes.

Now I admit that I often start with a package mix, but I almost always throw in a simple, homemade touch which is probably why most people never know they're eating a box mix goodie.  For sugar cookies, I make my own frosting, tint it with food coloring, and then the kids and I add sprinkles.  Back when I lived in Wisconsin, one of my teacher colleagues shared her tip for making excellent sugar cookie cutouts - add a bit of almond extract to the buttercream icing.   This simple addition makes these easy cookies go from okay to wow!

Here's the recipe:

Sugar Cookie Frosting
3 Tbsp butter, softened
2 1/4 cups powdered sugar
2 Tbsp milk
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/4 tsp almond extract
food coloring

1.  Cream the butter.  (I just use a spoon in a small bowl)
2.  Add half the powdered sugar and mix well.
3.  Add the milk, vanilla, and almond extract.
4.  Add the remaining powdered sugar and stir until smooth.
You can add in food coloring and add more powdered sugar if you need to thicken it or a few drops of milk it you need thin it down.  Spread on cooled cookies and top with your favorite sprinkles.

These easy Valentine cookies were a hit on our weekend trip.  My husband said I didn't have to wait until the next big holiday to make a batch of these cookies.  Maybe we'll have them for Leap Day!

What easy Valentine treat do you have planned for your family?

Friday, February 10, 2012

It's a Keeper Muffins - A Guest Post

Today I've invited my friend, Helen, to share one of her favorite "It's a Keeper!" recipes.  An "It's a Keeper Recipe" would be one of those long forgotten recipes that you stumble upon in your pile of stored recipes.  You wonder, "Should I keep this one, or toss it?  My recipe pile is getting out of control!" 

Helen and I first met when our 8 year olds were in preschool together.  Our paths have continued to cross through the years as we are both busy, on the go moms, looking for ways to feed our families economical, nutritious, easy to fix meals that our children will eat without complaining.  I hope you enjoy her recipe and are maybe inspired to look through your own stack of stashed recipes and decide what's a keeper and what can go. 

Hi! My name is Helen. I'm a full time mom & wife, part time lunch lady, and full time crazy busy. I am always looking for a hearty muffin other than those sold in plastic wrap or baked from premade mixes that scream "Just add water" to feed myself, my three growing children, and my on the go hubby. After several family recipe book clean outs, I found this muffin recipe that you can make as a single serve snack or feed to a crowd. The batter also keeps for up to 5 weeks covered in the fridge or garage (if Ohio ever gets a winter) so you only have to go through the prep work once and can enjoy many batches of these deliciously moist and tasty muffins. I hope you enjoy these as much as my family and I do!

Here's the recipe I found and decided to keep:

ME's Keep it muffins
9 Cups raisin bran cereal
1 - 15 oz. box golden raisins
4 Cups sugar
5 Cups flour
5 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons salt

Mix the above dry ingredients in a LARGE bowl. I use my hands to make sure all the raisins are covered and unclumped. Next add the wet ingredients...

4 Cups of buttermilk
4 eggs
1 cup of oil

Mix well without crushing up the cereal. Transfer to a LARGE (I use a 19 cup container) plastic container with a lid. Let sit overnight in the fridge or garage (if it is between 35 and 40 degrees).

Scoop mix from the top (it is very important to NOT mix the batter) and place in prepared (papered or sprayed) muffin cups. Bake at 400 degrees for 12 to 15 minutes until the tester comes out clean.

These muffins can be made on a waffle iron, too. You should test out a couple to see how long they need to "bake" on your particular iron. Also, if you want to make a small batch, they can be made in a toaster oven.  I use mine to make six or fewer, but I have to watch so I don't get them too done.

Our family has been known to swap the raisins for craisins or press chocolate chips or nuts gently into the top of the unbaked muffins. Enjoy!

ME's Keep It Muffins make an excellent snack any time of day

What's your favorite recipe that you've found in a stashed pile and decided "It's a keeper!"?

This recipe fit the description over at Eat At Home Ingredient Spotlight: Dry Cereals.  Check out some other great ideas using dry cereals.  Maybe you'll find one that's "a keeper"!

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Crock Pot Chicken Parmesan

I love chicken parmesan!  When we received meals after my 8 year old was born, we received a large pan of chicken parmesan!  It was so good!  I loved it.  My husband loved it.  My oldest loved it!.  After receiving that meal, I tried to find a good easy recipe for chicken parmesan.  I tried several and while they were usually tasty, they all seemed to take more time than I like to spend on meal preps.  There were just too many steps.  You know, prep the chicken, pan fry the chicken, bake the chicken, etc. Remember, I'm Queen of the Easy Meal so I like things that can come together without all those steps.  But I like food that tastes like you've spent a long time making it, so I kept searching and trying new recipes.

Last year I stumbled across this recipe for Crock Pot Chicken Parmesan on A Year of Slow Cooking.  She claimed it tasted just like the real thing without all the steps.  I wasn't so sure, but I gave it a shot on a busy day when I had all the ingredients for traditional chicken parmesan and a taste for traditional chicken parmesan, but not the time for making traditional chicken parmesan.

I was pleasantly surprised to find this dish to taste very similar to what I have made traditionally in the past.  The crunch on the chicken is not quite the same, but it still is very good.  To me, it tastes more like traditional chicken parmesan leftover the next day than when it first comes out of the oven.  The ease of the prep of this meal, however, trumps the texture issue at this busy stage of our life.  The fact that my husband and my kids make "mmmm" noises throughout dinner also make it a family favorite around our house.  Because you can use your favorite jarred sauce and even throw in frozen chicken that you find on sale, this meal is very economical. We like our served with pasta, a tossed salad, and garlic bread.

Here's the recipe:

Crock Pot Chicken Parmesan
1 Tbsp olive oil
4-6 chicken breasts
1/2 cup bread crumbs
14 cup parmesan cheese
1/2 tsp Italian seasoning
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/4 tsp pepper
1/2 tsp salt
1 egg, beaten
1-2 cups mozzarella cheese (sliced or shredded)
jar of favorite marinara sauce ( I only used about 3/4 of a jar)
I found the chicken on sale for $1.77/lb, the cheese for $1.50, and the sauce for $0.75!

1.  Mix together bread crumbs, parmesan cheese, and spices in a shallow bowl.
2.  Whisk egg in a separate shallow bowl.
3.  Drizzle oil in the bottom of your crock pot; spread it around a bit.
4.  Dip each piece of chicken in egg mixture and then roll in bread crumb mixture.

 5. Place chicken in crock pot.

6. Top with cheese; use a little or a lot; whatever you like.

7. Cover with sauce. (I only used 3/4 jar; I don't like mine swimming in sauce, just covered)

8.  Cook on high for 3-4 hours. (I used my programmable crock pot; it stays warm until we're ready to sit down and eat)
9.  Serve over your favorite cooked pasta; add a little extra parmesan for pizazz.
Crock Pot Chicken Parmesan
Tender, melt in your mouth chicken wrapped in rich, cheesy, tomato sauce
This is Italian Comfort Food at it's Finest. . . .And it's so easy!

What's your favorite recipe that you've learned to simplify from the original recipe?

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Breakfast on the Go - Ham, Egg, Cheese, Potato Wraps

One day a week, I try to set aside some time to do some batch cooking.  I find that taking the time to make certain meal items ahead has great benefits in both the time and money departments.  I especially like to batch cook items for breakfast because it is the one meal at our house we typically do not eat all at the same time.  I find that I can still offer a variety of nutritious, low cost options if I do some batch cooking of things that can just be reheated or defrosted.  I don't have to play short order cook in the mornings nor do we all have to face a bowl of cold cereal.  (A bowl of cold cereal is still the 8 year Cereal Monster's first choice, but it's not for the rest of the family!)

This week I finished up the ham I had bought last week for $1.49/lb at Kroger.  There was still plenty of usable ham near the bone, it just had to be cubed instead of sliced.  After cubing about 1 cup, I still have plenty of ham left near the bone to make a good pot of soup. I had a partial package of tortillas and one extra large potato in my pantry.   I had some shredded cheese in the freezer from a recent trip to Yutzy's Farm Market in Plain City.  Their deli sells "cheese ends" for 99 cents a lb, and I love to pick those up if they have any when I am there.  I shred the cheese and bag it in 1 cup packages and put it in the freezer. 

"Cheese ends" are what is left at the end of the big block of cheese when they slice it for you at the deli.  When you buy a package, you never know what kind of cheese might be stacked together.  It's that mix of all the different cheeses that make it so wonderful to add to dishes, especially egg dishes.  I try to look for packages that do not have the Pepper Jack cheese in them because my family does not like that, but I also know that those particular packages are often the ones first grabbed by other customers.  Maybe some year my family will like peppers!

So, with these ingredients on hand, I put together 10 ham, egg, cheese, and potato breakfast wraps for us to enjoy in the next couple of weeks.  We can have a hot breakfast in 60 seconds.  They're individually wrapped, so I can even eat mine on the go as I drive the girls to school as there are many mornings that I get ready to walk out the door and realize that I've taken care of everyone's breakfast and lunch, except my own!

Usually when I make breakfast tacos, I do not put the cheese in with the eggs.  The last time I made these, however, I experimented putting the egg right in with the cheese, and I like how they turned out better.  The cheese kind of holds it all together so nothing falls out of the wrap as you eat it.  It made for a much quicker assembly, too.  I like to throw a little potato in our morning wraps if we have one on hand because it will stretch the ingredients to make just a couple more and I just like potatoes! 
Here's the recipe:

Ham, Egg, Cheese, and Potato Wraps
1 large potato, baked and diced (I baked it in the microwave while I got everything else ready)
1 cup diced ham (deli ham would also work, maybe 1/2 cup)
6 eggs
1 cup shredded cheese (any kind you like except mozzarella; makes it too stringy)
10 tortillas
several shakes Onion powder (or you can saute some diced onions/peppers/mushrooms, etc)
several shakes of Lawry's Seasoned Salt
several shakes of Salt & Pepper

1.  In a medium bowl, crack the 6 eggs, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and whisk briskly.  (You can also add a little milk if you like)
2.  Add the shredded cheese to the egg mixture, mix gently, and set aside.
3.  In a large skillet, heat 1 tbsp oil over medium heat. (or a tsp of bacon drippings if you're not counting calories and want real countrylike, homecooked flavor)
4.  Lightly saute the diced potato for 1 min or so.  Add a few shakes of onion powder and Lawry's seasoned salt.
5.  Add the ham and stir it all around.
6.  Pour the egg and cheese mixture over the top and gently scramble using a silicone spatula careful not to mash the potatoes too much.  (It will look like a big gooey mixture and then all of a sudden it will start to set up and look like scrambled eggs) 
The eggs will set up, but it will still look creamy because of the cheese.

7.  Place a large spoonful of the cooked filling in the center of your tortilla shell and fold.
It took less than 15 minutes to cook, fill, and package 10 wraps!

8. Wrap each filled tortilla in wax or freezer paper and place in a large ziploc bag.
Place folded, filled tortilla on wax paper
Make an envelope as you roll.  Here it is ready to go. . . .  

8.  Wrap each filled tortilla in wax or freezer paper and place in a large ziploc bag. 

9.  Cool wraps completely in the refrigerator before freezing.
There's also egg. . . forgot to write that on the label!

10.  Reheat each wrap for 60 seconds in the microwave.  Let stand 1 minute before eating.

What foods do you like to make in a big batch to have on hand later on?

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Honey Garlic Chicken

I made this dish several weeks ago and realized I never posted the recipe.  This is another one that I don't have a picture for.  We served it for company on Chinese New Year, and I got distracted as I was setting the table with all the excitement and did not photograph the plate before we started eating.  There were no leftovers, so I sort of missed my photo opportunity. 

This dish is just too good, however, to not share the recipe until it makes a repeat performance on our dinner menu.  This is the recipe that I included in our annual holiday letter to family and friends as it became one of our favorite new recipes in 2011.  I hope you'll give it a try and it will become one of your family favorites in 2012.

I first read of this recipe in Stephanie O'Dea's book, Make It Fast, Cook It Slow that I picked up at the library.  I was intrigued with the simple list of ingredients.  Plus I just love anything that has a combination of salty and sweet.  I also love that you can put the ingredients in the crock pot in less than 5 minutes and come back later and have the whole meal ready to eat.  I also often find boneless, skinless thighs on manager special which make this meal very easy on the budget.  No matter how much I make, there never seems to be leftovers of this meal.  I think that speaks for itself.

Here's the recipe:

Honey Garlic Chicken
1 1/2 - 2 lbs boneless, skinless chicken thighs (breasts would also work, but we like thighs)
1 1/2 tsp minced garlic
1 tsp dried basil
1/2 cup soy sauce (we like LaChoy better than Kikoman)
1/2 cup ketchup
1/3 cup honey

1.  Place your chicken in the bottom of a greased slow cooker.
2.  Mix together all the other ingredients in a small bowl and pour over the top of the chicken.
3.  Cook on high for 3-4 hours.

Serve chicken over a bed of steamed rice and a steamed green vegetable of your choice (we like broccoli or edamame)

The sauce is the best part, according to my kids, so I've learned to thicken the sauce after the chicken has cooked.  You can remove the chicken and add a little corn starch and water to the sauce in a small saucepan on the stove.  Bring to a boil for a couple of minutes until it thickens up.  Spoon the thickened sauce over the cooked chicken in a serving bowl.

What was your favorite new recipe of 2011?

White Chicken Chili

Yesterday was one of those days when I walked out the door at a little after 8, and did not walk back in the door until almost 5.  For many moms, this is the norm.  For me, this is a challenging day.  We had early morning orchestra, 2 dentist appointments, a big volunteer project at the girls' school, and an afterschool errand.  I needed a meal for this busy day that I could put in the crock pot before we left the house and have ready to eat when we walked in the door.  I love my programmable crock pot for nights like these.

With the chicken I found on sale at Meijer last week for $1.77/lb and my stash of pre-cooked beans in the freezer, I decided to put together a batch of White Chicken Chili for our menu plan.  I did some of the prep work the day before so that all I had to do was throw it into the crock pot in the morning.  This recipe came from my friend, Brenda, who shared her recipe in our Cypress Wesleyan Church MOPS Cookbook in 2008.  Brenda has been making this chili for her family for years and even pureed it for her kids when they were babies.  She also won 2nd place in a chili cook off with this recipe.  I made a few changes to her original recipe to suit our family's tastes, but it still got rave reviews from the hungry eaters around our family table.  You might have heard the clinging of the kids' spoons against their empty soup bowls. I love when our dinner table is filled with those sounds! 

I did not get a good photograph of this chili, however.  The white chili just did not photograph well in my white soup bowls.  I guess I'll have to invest in some new serving pieces if I decide to make this blogging thing more than just a place for me to organize my recipes and use the other side of my brain!  You'll have to just trust me that this recipe is worth making due to it's ease, low cost, and taste

Here's the recipe:

White Chicken Chili
3 lb jar of pre-cooked Great Northern White Beans (I used 5 cups of pre-cooked, frozen)
2 lbs of boneless chicken breasts, cubed (I used raw chicken, you can also used cooked)
1/3 cup chopped onion (leftover from the Pico de Gallo prep; can add more to suit taste)
1 tsp minced garlic (can add more to suit tastes)
2 cans of chopped mild green chilies (I used only 1 can)
2 tsp ground cumin
1 1/2 tsp oregano
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper (I used 1/4 black pepper)
1/2 tsp salt
6 cups chicken broth (I used 3 cups homemade, 3 cups water + 3 bouillon cubes)
3 cups grated Monterrey Jack Cheese (add just before serving; we added ours at the table)

Mix all the ingredients except the cheese in a slow cooker.  Cover and cook on low 6-8 hours.  Stir in cheese just before serving.

We had a side salad of mixed greens topped with a generous scoop of leftover Pico de Gallo and crushed tortillas on top.  A bowl of apples, oranges, and blackberries and a loaf of artisan bread rounded out our meal. 

What's your favorite meal that is ready for you to enjoy when you walk in the door after a busy day?

Monday, February 6, 2012

Super Bowl Sunday a Success

When the kids asked John who he wanted to win the Super Bowl, he said he didn't have a favorite team, he was just hoping to watch a good game, eat some yummy snacks, and check out the good commercials. 

With that set of criteria in mind, I can confidently say we had a very successful Super Bowl Sunday!  The game was good, especially the last few minutes.  We stuffed ourselves silly with all the goodies I had made.  We got a few good laughs at the commercials, especially the Ferris Bueller one for Honda CRV.  And we felt very old as we had to explain to the 8 year old who that old blonde lady was singing at the halftime show. 

We had quite a feast, and John hopes that I'll repeat the menu with the NCAA Basketball tournament in a few weeks.  I tweaked the recipes from Pioneer Woman just a tad, but here's what I put together using the ingredients from my weekly shopping trip.

Our Super Bowl Sunday Feast. . . . . .
Traditional Hot Wings, Plain Wings and Panko Crusted Boneless Bites, Asian Wings,
Pico de Gallo, Tortilla Chips, Guacamole, Knock You Naked Brownies,
Cherry and Lime Sparkling Water with lime garnishes, Veggies and Ranch and Blue cheese Dip

Pico De Gallo
1 cup red onion, diced
2 cups Roma tomatoes, diced
1 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
1 jalapeno, seeded and chopped fine
1/2 lime
kosher salt to taste

Mix all the ingredients in a bowl.  Squeeze the lime juice over the top.  Sprinkle with kosher salt.  Mix.  Taste and adjust as needed.  Store covered in frig.

Serve with tortilla chips.

1 avocado
scoop of pico de gallo
salt to taste

1.  Dice avocado and put it a small bowl.
2.  Mash with a fork.
3.  Add a scoop of pico de gallo.
4.  Mix together.
5.  Sprinkle with salt if needed.

Store with pit on top and covered tightly so it doesn't brown before you eat it.

Serve with Tortilla Chips

Pico De Gallo, Tortilla Chips, Guacamole
I could have made a meal out of just this!

Knock You Naked Brownies
1 stick butter, melted
1/3 cup plus 1/2 cup evaporated milk
1 box German Chocolate Cake Mix
1 cup chopped pecans (I didn't measure exactly; I probably had a little less)
1 bag Kraft caramels, unwrapped (the 8 year old helped with this task)
1/3 cup chocolate chips
powdered sugar for dusting finished brownies

1.  Preheat the oven to 350.  Spray a 9x9 baking pan with cooking spray.
2.  Mix together cake mix, melted butter, and 1/3 cup evaporated milk in a large bowl.  Dough will be stiff.
3.  Spread 1/2 of the dough in the pan.
4.  Bake for 8-10 minutes.
5.  Place caramels and 1/2 cup evaporated milk in saucepan and melt over low heat.
6.  Pour melted caramel over cooked brownie crust.
7.  Sprinkle chocolate chips over the caramel.
8.  Between a sheet of waxed paper, press the remaining dough into a square slightly smaller than the pan.
9.  Carefully place the dough on top of the chocolate chips.
10.  Bake 20-25 minutes.
11.  Remove pan from oven and let come to room temperature.
12.  Refrigerate brownies a couple of hours to allow caramel to set up.
13.  Cut and dust with powdered sugar before serving.

Hot Wings
4 lb bag of frozen chicken wings
Franks Red Hot Chicken Wing Sauce (just 80 cents with my coupon and in store special)
Franks Sweet Chile Hot Sauce (free with my coupon and in store special)

1.  Bake wings according to package directions
2.  In a small bowl, toss wings with desired sauce (I did half traditional, half Asian)
3.  After wings are coated in sauce, return wings to oven for 5 minutes in separate pans @ 425 to set the sauce and crisp them up a bit. (I used my round cake pans)

Serve wings with your favorite blue cheese or ranch dip and fresh vegetables.

We also had some "plain" wings for the ones that don't like spice and I made some panko breaded boneless bites with the chicken left over from my white chicken chili prep.

How was your Super Bowl Sunday?

Apple Cinnamon Pancakes

I had these 2 ingredients staring at me in the frig, just waiting to be used in some creation:
Have you had this cinnamon sugar butter yet from Land O Lakes?  This is the second container I've picked up "free" using the instore special and my coupon which gets doubled.  It's heavenly!  It tastes very similar to the spread they give you at Texas Road House.  I had a hard time finding it for awhile, but I saw it in stock at Giant Eagle a few weeks ago and it's been staring at me in the frig since then.

I don't remember where I first read about these Apple Cinnamon PancakesI think I might have seen the blogpost referenced on Menu Plan Monday over at, but I'm not positive.

All I know is that we loved these Apple Cinnamon Pancakes back in early fall when we had more fresh handpicked apples than we knew what to do with, and they were delicious again this past Sunday for our weekly Sunday brunch.  My husband said it was "a bit of autumn bliss right here in February".  The addition of the cinnamon butter on top makes them extra delicious.  I added a side of ham (from that big ham I bought last week on sale at Kroger for $1.49/lb) and just warmed it a bit on the griddle after I cooked the pancakes.  Our brunch was ready after church in less than 30 minutes.  We all cleaned our plates.

Here's the recipe:

Apple Cinnamon Pancakes
1 1/4 cup flour
2 Tbsp brown sugar
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 cup milk
1/2 cup applesauce
1 egg
2 Tbsp melted butter or oil
1 apple, peeled and chopped

1.  In medium bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients.
2.  In a separate bowl, whisk together the wet ingredients.
3.  Pour the wet ingredients into the dry, whisking as you go.
4.  Fold in the chopped apple.
5.  Cook pancakes on hot griddle. 
(Flip them when they start to form bubbles on the top of the surface and the bottom starts to brown.  Cook them on the second side until steam begins to rise from the center of the pancake.)

Serve warm with cinnamon butter and syrup.  Dust plate with additional cinnamon if you want it to look more like a restaurant.

Apple Cinnamon Pancakes
Pure Autumn Bliss ready to be enjoyed any time of year

What's the best dish you've created using a "free" ingredient?