Labor Day Fiesta 

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Hello, faithful readers!  My sincerest apologies for the recent lack of posts.  I have been cooking, but I’ve also been busy enjoying the outdoors during my favorite season, spending time with friends and family, and staring at this face:

  
And, OMG, those feet ❤

I want to share with you one of the meals a friend brought us during our “just-had-a-baby-and-can-barely-manage-to-shower-much-less-prepare-food” phase: cheesy enchilada casserole.  Honestly, I’m not sure why they added “enchilada” to the title, since there is no enchilada sauce in the recipe.  They could really have just called it “cheesy Mexican casserole.”  But I digress.  I made it for some friends who visited over Labor Day weekend and they have made it twice since then.  So obviously, it’s good!

Cheesy Enchilada Mexican Casserole

Servings: 8

Ingredients

  • 1lb lean ground beef (I’be been told ground turkey works just as well)
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2 1/2 cups salsa (I used about 4 cups)
  • 1 15oz can black beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1/4 cup reduced-fat Italian salad dressing (I thought this was an odd ingredient and therefore did not add it)
  • 2tbsp reduced-sodium taco seasoning
  • 1/4tsp ground cumin
  • 6 8-inch flour or corn tortillas (I used corn- I find they get less soggy when used in a casserole)
  • 1 small can corn, drained
  • 3/4 cup sour cream
  • 2 cups shredded mexican blend cheese (I used about 3 cups)
  • lettuce, tomato and cilantro for topping (optional)
  • tortilla chips for scooping!

 

Excuse the funny color of the meat- I promise it wasn’t expired and didn’t smell funny!

 
Directions

In a large skillet, brown beef.  Remove and drain.  In same skillet, saute onion until soft.

Return meat to skillet and add salsa, beans, corn, dressing, cumin, taco seasoning and sour cream.

Spoon a generous layer of meat mixture on bottom of 2 quart baking dish.  Sprinkle with grated cheese.

Place a tortilla on top of meat mixture.  Layer with half the meat and more cheese.  Repeat as many layers as you like.

The final layer should be a healthy dose of grated cheese.

Cover with foil that has been sprayed with cooking spray and bake at 400 degrees for 25 minutes, or until hot and bubbly. (I removed the foil for the final 5 minutes or so.)

Let stand 5 minutes before topping with lettuce, tomato and cilantro. (We did not add these toppings but ate it with tortilla chips and additional sour cream.)

*I made this ahead of time and froze it.  When preparing from frozen, bake for approximately 90 minutes at 350 degrees.  This is a great freezer meal!

   
  

   
Enjoy!

Cheesy potato casserole deliciousness!

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Doesn’t it seem like fall is the time for gathering?  It seems like we have so many social events going on lately and it is often requested that we bring along a side or dessert.  I am happy to oblige that request, especially when I can make something that would be way too much food (and calories) for just the two of us!

One of my favorite side dishes is one I got from my grandma (of course): cheesy potato casserole.  We attended a gender reveal party last week (it’s a girl!) 

and this is what I brought as a side.  I accidentally grabbed cream of mushroom soup with roasted garlic and it was the best mistake ever!

Cheesy Potato Casserole

Ingredients

1 1-lb bag frozen shredded hash browns

1 small onion, diced

1 stick unsalted butter

1 can cream of mushroom soup (with roasted garlic!)

1 cup sour cream

2 cups shredded sharp cheddar

salt and pepper to taste

Parmesan cheese to top (optional)

 

Not pictured: parmesan cheese (it was a last-minute decision to add this)

 
Directions

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees.  Melt 1/2 stick of butter and combine with cheese, onion, sour cream, cream of mushroom soup, salt and pepper.  Break up potatoes in the bag and mix with other ingredients (my grandma puts the topping over the potatoes but I find that you get more flavor out of every bite if it’s mixed in).  Place mixture in 9×13 pan.  Melt remaining 1/2 stick butter and pour over top of potatoes.  Bake uncovered for 45 minutes.  Sprinkle parmesan cheese over top and enjoy!

  
Like I mentioned in the caption, it was a last minute decision to add the parmesan cheese and I think it really added a lot to the dish!  That, combined with the roasted garlic cream of mushroom soup really took this to the next level.  

  
I will say that one challenge I faced when preparing this was that the bowl I used to mix everything up wasn’t really big enough, so potatoes, cheese and onions kept spilling out of the sides.  I ended up using my hands to mix in order to get control over those wayward ingredients but, let me tell you, mixing frozen hash browns with bare hands is cold!  Maybe next time I’ll try mixing it up in a couple of batches, adding half the potatoes to a large bowl with half the cheese mixture, putting it in the casserole dish, then doing the second half.

I’ve died and gone to pulled pork heaven

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For some reason, I’ve always been intimidated by pork shoulder.  Perhaps because it’s also referred to as “pork butt” and that just sounds unappetizing.  Perhaps it’s because it’s a pricer hunk of meat in which to invest (and possibly screw up), not to mention I had no idea what I was getting myself into as far as bones, etc.  Turns out all of my fears were unfounded, and I have now discovered an amazing source of sustenance which lasts for many, many meals and tastes delicious.  You are not married to pulled pork sandwiches, either.  I found this website with links to several amazing recipes using left over pulled pork.  So far, we’ve done BBQ sandwiches, nachos, quesadillas and pork fried rice (I did a variation of this recipe without jalepenos- Natalie does not do well when I eat too spicy – and added onions, carrots, a splash of teriyaki and soy sauce).  So.  Good.

Dr. Pepper slow cooker pulled pork

Ingredients

1 pork butt/pork shoulder roast (I got an 8 pounder on sale)

salt, pepper & garlic powder

1 onion sliced (optional) (I added this)

1 can Dr. Pepper

¾ cup barbecue sauce (or to taste)

Rolls & coleslaw for serving 

  
Directions

Place the onion in the bottom of the slow cooker. Rub the outside of the roast with salt, pepper and garlic powder.

Pour the Dr. Pepper over the pork and cook on high 4-5 hours or on low 7-8 hours. (I did some research on this and it turns out that you actually want to cook this type of meat longer to make it more tender and easier to pull.  I would have thought that it would get dried out but I cooked mine till about 185 degrees internal temperature and it was not dried out at all.  This took almost 9 hours on low.)

The meat will be very tender. Using 2 forks, shred the pork and place back in the juices. (Returning it to the juices made it pretty greasy even after spooning out some of the fat.  I’d be curious to see how this tastes with just adding some BBQ sauce and not putting it back in the pot.)

Add barbecue sauce to taste. Allow to cook an additional 30-60 minutes if desired.

Serve on crusty rolls with cole slaw if desired.

 

This monster barely fit in my slow cooker!

  

This is just a small portion of the meat

   
The meat came out juicy and tender but was not super flavorful.  This turned out to be OK since we did so many different recipes with it, we just seasoned as we went.  Turns out there is only one large bone which was easy to remove.  The meat shredded fairly easily and when I ran into some tougher pieces, I threw them in my KitchenAid and mixed them up in there.  This meat lasted us for several meals and there is still a bunch in the freezer!

  

Keep it simple, sister

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Oh, the joys of learning to be a mama!  Honestly, it’s mostly joy.  Who can resist this face?:

  
She also has this side grin that just melts. me. 

This process has taught me many things, one of the biggest being the importance of prioritizing!  My time is no longer my own.  But I am sort of a control freak who likes things in my home to be just so.  Internal conflict arises!  Our sweet baby is a professional cuddle bug (read: doesn’t like to be put down) so I have to decide each day, what is really a priority?

I’ve been (roughly) using this chore chart to do a little cleaning each day.  I added a few things that apply to me (cleaning cat boxes, sterilizing baby stuff) and had it laminated so I can check things off with a dry erase marker each day.  I’m a big fan of checking things off.  Multi-tasking is also key.  As I type this I am also using my breast pump and rocking Natalie Bean in her bouncer with my foot.  

I also have lots of help from a very dedicated husband and father, Dr. Matthews.  He has been a saint about helping out around the house and with the baby after work and taking over at night on the weekends.  I am one lucky mama!

As I mentioned in my last post, dinners have had to be kept simple, too.  A couple weeks ago I put together the most delicious pasta dinner from ingredients we already had (and a couple Dr. Matthews picked up):

Italian Sausage and Veggie Pasta

Makes 10 1cup servings

1/2 box spiral pasta (we had some whole wheat from Trader Joe’s already boiled.  Whole wheat does not taste good with every pasta dish, but it goes fine with this one)

1 lb spicy Italian sausage

1 jar marinara sauce

1 can diced tomatoes

1 large onion, chopped

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 large zucchini, cut into rounds, then in half (I don’t normally cook with zucchini, but a friend gave us one from her garden and it was delicious!)

handful fresh basil, julienned (optional)

grated parmesan to top

  

  • Boil pasta according to package instructions
  • Brown sausage, drain
  • Using same pan, saute onions, garlic and zucchini.  Be careful not to overcook the zucchini!
  • Combine pasta, meat, veggies, tomatoes (with juice) and marinara.  Heat through.
  • Serve topped with basil and parmesan

 

This meat-browning tool is very helpful!

 
  
For some reason this meal just really hit the spot.  Dr. Matthews and I have really been enjoying spicy Italian sausage, but you can use ground beef, chicken, or just add more vegetables if you want to make it vegetarian.  This dinner was prepared in no time and is suprisingly healthy, given it’s magnitude of flavor!
 

Per 1 cup serving

 
  

64oz of Ricotta Cheese and a 5lb 6oz Baby

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Hello again, faithful readers!  Thank you to all my guest bloggers who kept this ship sailing while I was busy overcoming sleep deprivation delivering and soaking up my new baby girl!  I’m happy to be back and have slowly been reintroducing myself to my kitchen.  Between the frozen meals I prepared in advance and the generosity of family and local friends, we have been fed without me having to cook since Natalie Rose was born.  I did make a fantastic, simple pasta dish recently which I would love to share, but I thought for my first post back I would share my birth story and the recipe that goes along with it:

It was my 38 week check up and the doctor said I was “measuring small.”  I wasn’t too sure what that meant or what the implications would be but I headed down have an ultrasound for the first time since 27 weeks.  It was so great to see my baby again and everything looked good- except that she was measuring closer to 33 weeks.  Since the doc couldn’t be sure whether or not this was due to problems with my placenta, he said it was best that we go ahead and have me induced.  

Now, many people had informed me that “first babies almost always come late.”  I was two weeks away from my due date with many things to take care of before baby arrived, such as cleaning the house, getting my nails done and, of course, installing the car seat.  Needless to say I was in a state of shock, excitement and serious anxiety. I had also purchased all the ingredients to make and freeze several trays of stuffed shells to add to my collection of frozen dinners.  I was in shock when the doctor said I needed to be induced either THAT DAY or the next and my first response was, “I have 64 oz of ricotta cheese in my fridge so it’ll have to be tomorrow.”  

Of course, there were many reasons why I wanted to wait – Dr. Matthews was at work that day, my parents needed to drive down from Ohio, and I was far from mentally prepared.  However, one can not deny the importance of not letting good ricotta go to waste! I spent the day cleaning and cooking like a mad woman and even squeezed in a relaxing mani pedi with my friend, Nicole. A more productive day has not been had since!

Just as I was told that I may have to wait longer than my due date for the baby to arrive, I was also told that an induction can take up to several days.  Again, I was suprised by the speed at which everything went down.  I think this baby was just ready to make her debut!  And I assure you this mama was ready to NOT be pregnant anymore 🙂  I checked in at 8am and Natalie Rose Matthews was born at 6:01pm the same day- June 13.  5lbs, 6oz and 19in of sweetness:

   
  

Newborn pic taken in the hospital

  

Bringing Natalie home from the hospital for the first time

 

She has been heathy, strong and growing like a weed ever since!

As for the shells, we enjoyed the last of them for dinner just last night.  This was a recipe my cousin, Jamie, introduced me to when we were making freezer meals for her (her daughter, Evie, was born March 9).

 

Evie and Natalie wearing the aprons Jamie made for them- Natalie Bean was not having it!

 
Stuffed Shells

Ingredients

12 oz Mueller’s Jumbo Shells

2 eggs, lightly beaten

2 containers (15 oz) each Ricotta cheese (I quadrupled the recipe, hence the 64oz)

2 cups (8 oz) shredded Mozzarella cheese

1-1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese, divided

½ cup chopped fresh parsley or 2 tbsp dried parsley

1 tbsp dried basil

1 tsp salt

3 cups spaghetti sauce (Jamie introduced me to basil pesto sauce for this recipe, which I used for the majority of the trays I made, but you can obviously use whatever sauce you like best)

Cooking Instructions

Cook Jumbo Shells for 9 minutes (I added a bit of olive oil to keep them from sticking).

Drain, cover and set aside.

In medium bowl beat eggs lightly; stir in Ricotta, Mozzarella, 3/4 cup Parmesan, parsley, basil, and salt.

Spoon about one tablespoon of cheese mixture into each shell.

Spread a thin layer of spaghetti sauce on the bottom of the pan. 

Arrange filled shells, seam down, in 13×9-inch baking dish; top with spaghetti sauce.

Sprinkle with remaining Parmesan.

Bake in 350˚ oven 25-30 minutes or until heated through.

(When making to freeze, skip the last step.  When ready to serve, bake at 350 for approximately 90 minutes.)

I didn’t take a picture at the time of making this since I didn’t realize I was going to blog it.  Instead, I will leave you with a picture of Natalie wearing the awesome bib her Auntie Julie made for her:

  

Mexican Monday Nights

Hi everyone! My name is Calley Ondocsin (pronounced phonetically, on-dock-sin) and I am Hilary’s faux cousin. That’s the best way I know to describe our relationship although I feel like we have always been related. My mother-in-law is great childhood friends with Hilary’s mom and her aunts. She’s just like another aunt to Hilary which makes me her cousin! I believe I have the pleasure of finishing up the guest posts on the blog before Hilary returns from her leave. I am very anxious for her return to get updates on baby Natalie and also to hear Hilary’s new perspective on being a mother. Speaking of Miss Natalie Rose, she is about 6 weeks old and growing too fast! Here’s the latest of the little bean. Too cute!

natalie

So on to my Mexican Monday. We regularly eat some type of Mexican inspired dish almost on a weekly basis. It’s just so easy to make different variations of tacos, fajitas, quesadillas, salad, and so forth. When you start with the basics of beef/chicken, bell pepper, and onion, you can come up with so many tasty dishes. One I’ve recently added to my list is an easy one-pot dish, the chicken burrito bowl.

Here’s the line up of ingredients, including the staples: chicken, onion, and bell pepper. Another staple I often like to include as much as possible is avocado. If only I could make guacamole like Hilary’s mother! 🙂

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I used a deep dish skillet for this recipe, but I believe a large pot of any kind would work nicley. Start by sauteing the diced onion and bell pepper in a little olive oil. I chose to use a red bell pepper instead of green solely because they just looked better than the green that day at the grocery store. Use your favorite color! Saute just until the onion is starting to turn clear.

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Next, add the diced chicken and cook until no longer pink. It doesn’t necessarily need to be cooked through because it will continue to cook with the rice. Also add the spices at this point to really coat the chicken.

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Once the chicken is no longer pink, scoot everything in the pan to one side, add a little bit more olive oil and then the rice. You’ll toast the rice for about 1-2 minutes. I’ve heard this helps keep it from getting gooey since it’s cooked in one pan, but I also wonder if it helps with flavor much like toasting nuts.

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Next add the black beans, Rotel, and chicken broth and stir well. Once I took this picture it occurred to me that this might make an excellent chicken tortilla soup if you left out the rice. I may have to try that out this coming fall.

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Bring to a boil, then reduce to simmer and cover for about 20-25 minutes. Here’s an important tip. Check the cooking time of your rice! I thought mine would cook in 25 minutes, but when I looked at the rice it called for 45 minutes of simmering. Ooops! Dinner was served much later than expected due to this little mistake, so I’m helping you avoid that. You’ll know it’s ready once the rice is cooked and the liquid is absorbed.

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Here’s my finished meal! I topped my burrito bowl with cheese and cilantro. (The avocado didn’t make it until the end of the meal and was consumed while waiting on the rice to cook.)

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This makes great leftovers and would be perfect if you did want to stuff a tortilla with the mixture to make a burrito. I’m willing to bet it tastes just as good and is probably healthier than any burrito at Moe’s, Chipotle, or Qdoba. I like this dish so much because you can truly customize it to your liking. If you want to leave the meat out just add a little more black beans. I’m sure it would taste great adding steak as well. I hope you give this dish a try and enjoy the simplicity of the one-pot meal as much as I do!

Ingredients:

2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil

1 pound chicken, cut into bite size pieces

1/2 onion, diced

1 bell pepper, diced

1 cup rice (I used brown rice)

2 1/2 cups chicken broth

1 tsp garlic powder

1 tsp chili powder

1 1/2 tsp cumin

1/2 can black beans

1 can Rotel  or 1 tomato, diced

Toppings: cheese, sour cream, avocado, cilantro

Directions:

Saute onion and bell pepper on medium-high heat in 1 Tbsp of olive oil just until onion is starting to turn clear. Add the diced chicken and sprinkle in the garlic powder, cumin, and chili powder. Continue to saute until the chicken is no longer pink. Move all ingredients in the pan to one side. Add 1 more Tbsp of olive oil and the rice. Toast the rice for 1-2 minutes. Stir in the chicken broth, black beans, and rotel. Bring to a boil, then reduce to simmer and cover. Cook for about 20-25 minutes or until all the liquid is absorbed and rice is cooked. Garnish with your favorite toppings and enjoy!

The novice gardener

Happy weekend! My name is AJ, and I know Hilary through her sister-in-law and fellow-blogger. I have a periodic blog called Eat with AJ. For this guest blog, it seems like the perfect time of year to talk about gardening.

As someone who loves to cook, visiting farmers markets has always been exciting to me. So, it was only natural that when I moved out of my apartment and into a house, I would have a garden.

Credit where credit is due: I did virtually no research into this garden. My fiancé did a lot of that for our garden. We decided on a raised 4 foot by 8 foot garden broken into square foot quadrants. To keep the plants well fed, we layered the raised garden with manure, peat, mushroom compost and generic garden soil.

Looking through the seeds at the hardware store, we were kind of like two kids in a candy store.

“Let’s grow a watermelon!” one of us said.

“How about a pumpkin?!” the other said.

We had no idea what would work. It was a fun first attempt. Here’s what we have grown and what I’ve learned thus far:

WHAT WE GREW
Other than the watermelon — which, yes, we planted! — we avoided fruit. It seems awfully complicated for a first-timer. Here’s what we grew from seed:

  • Red Russian kale
  • Giant Caesar lettuce
  • Spinach – two varieties, both on the ‘baby’ end of the scale
  • Carrots – two varieties, one typical kind, the other rainbow carrots
  • Pole beans
  • Chamomile
  • Zucchini
  • Sunflowers
  • Pumpkin
  • Watermelon

What we grew from plants or starter sets:

  • Shallots – two varieties
  • Tomatoes – cherry, yellow pear, beefsteak, and giant heirloom
  • Rosemary
  • Lemon thyme
  • Garlic

OUR BEST SUCCESS
Our most successful plant as of this writing was the red Russian kale. We are in southern Indiana, and I think the weather must have been perfect for it. I had so much kale, I was running out of things to do with it! I made kale chips, of course, and also attempted a couple different egg and kale casseroles. One of my favorite things was tossing the kale and some broccoli in olive oil, lemon pepper and Parmesan cheese, and roasting that in the oven.

I think by next week, our biggest success will actually be tomatoes. I have tons that have grown so far. They just need the temperatures to rise to turn red. I’ll soon have more tomatoes than I can eat.

PESTS
We did not surround our garden with chicken wire or any other sort of barrier. I’d stick with this moving forward. We did have something — likely a chipmunk — dig around in the dirt a couple times. But by and large, we didn’t have animal problems.

There were some insect issues with our kale after some time. We attracted something that was eating holes into the leaves. This was mostly resolved by removing the damaged leaf and rinsing the plant with a soap and water mixture.

LESSONS LEARNED
Next year, we will likely start our seeds inside in egg cartons. As novices, we had a hard time distinguishing between legitimate plants and weeds. I’m pretty sure this is how our zucchini and chamomile never grew.

Planting a couple varieties of vegetables also let us learn which we liked better. One of the spinach varieties I loved, and the other I could do without. Same thing with the carrots — I found out that rainbow carrots aren’t actually that delicious (to me), they’re just pretty.

The food from our garden couldn’t compare at all to the grocery store. It was surprisingly delicious, and I was amazed at how long some of the items stayed just fine in the fridge. Given the amount of time our produce typically travels, it’s no real surprise. But, I thought two of us would struggle to eat everything before it went bad, and that hasn’t yet been a problem.

Maintenance of the garden was a bit more than I expected. There’s a lot to do on nice-weather days, between weeding, harvesting and pruning back plants that are getting out of control.

Google also became my best friend. I learned the value in doing an image search for the plant to see what it looked like at various stages. This helped to distinguish between weed and vegetable. It was also was helpful to know when to harvest, especially with the shallots.

Gardening can be intimidating, but with a little bit of research it’s not that hard. It’s good to go into it with low expectations, because inevitably something unexpected will happen.

You Can Cook in That?

Hello everyone!

Chani from Hello, Healthy here with some fabulous (and easy!) recipes. Hilary asked me to post for her while she is enjoying her beautiful bundle of joy and I was happy to oblige. For background, Hilary and I went to graduate school together!

Confession time. I’m actually pretty lazy in the kitchen. My husband does a lot of the cooking, probably because he’s pretty creative and comes up with delicious dishes. Mine aren’t bad…when I actually cook! I also like to cook a bunch and have leftovers (probably so I don’t need to cook again…see a pattern here?). That’s why the recipes I bring you today are perfect – not only are they super easy, but they make a lot too. And you only need one pan to bake everything – a muffin tin!

Without further ado, here are 2 recipes –  a lunch/dinner, and a dessert! These were done by trial and error, let’s just say that!

Muffin Tin Pizza Bites

Serves 6 (2 pizza bites per serving)

Ingredients:

3-4 whole wheat tortillas

1 can pizza sauce (there will be extra if you’re not doing a double batch)

3 tbsp. Parmesan cheese

Mozzarella cheese (or, alternative, pizza blend cheese) – the amount depends on how cheesy you like your pizza!

Pizza toppings (mini pepperoni, veggies, etc. – whatever you like on your pizza!)

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 425F.
  2. Spray a 12 count muffin tin with nonstick cooking spray.
  3. Lay your tortillas out on a flat surface, and using a cookie cutter, can edge, or overturned glass, cut out 3-4 circles from the tortillas (I was able to get 4 out of the tortillas I used). Repeat until you have 12 circles.
  4. Place the circles in the muffin tin. They need to fit snugly in the tin.
  5. In a bowl, combine half a can of pizza sauce and the Parmesan. Mix well.
  6. Place approximately 1 to 1 ½ tablespoons of the cheesy sauce mixture in each muffin tin. Cover with mozzarella.
  7. Top with your chosen pizza toppings.
  8. Bake for approximately 12-15 minutes or until the cheese is melted and golden brown.

Peanut Butter Cup Muffin Cookies

Makes about 2 dozen cookies

Ingredients:

1 ½ cups all purpose flour

¾ tsp. baking soda

½ tsp. salt

½ cup butter, slightly softened

1 cup peanut butter (I used smooth, but you can use chunky if you’d like)

1 cup sugar (plus extra for coating)

1 egg

2 tsp. vanilla

1 bag miniature Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups (yes, there will be extra. Yes, it’s okay to eat them.)

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 350F.
  2. Sift flour, baking soda and salt with a wire whisk; set aside.
  3. Beat peanut butter and butter together until well mixed. Add sugar and beat until fluffy.
  4. Add egg and vanilla to peanut butter mixture.
  5. Add flour mixture to peanut butter mixture; combine well.
  6. Roll dough into 1 to 1 ½ inch balls and roll in sugar to coat. If you’re not using a mini muffin tin, make the balls slightly bigger.
  7. Press rolled balls into the muffin tin (you don’t need to use liners, but you can if you’d like)
  8. Place an unwrapped peanut butter cup into each piece of dough.
  9. Bake for 8-10 minutes, then let cool.

The Art of Southern Cuisine

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51XNXyxh3EL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_As a native of the South, I understand all too well that some of the best cuisine to be found anywhere hails from my part of the country, an assertion which is backed up by the fact that some of the best cooks to be found live below the Mason-Dixon line.

I say cooks, not chefs, because in the South a cook is someone who prepares great food and a chef is someone who is looked at with a slight air of scorn because they had to be sent away to school to learn what the rest of us learned standing alongside our parents, grandparents and even great-grandparents in the kitchen.

Except for me of course. I am neither a cook nor a chef, although I enjoy food which is, I suppose, the reason that Cousin Hilary asked me to be a guest writer on her blog while she was indisposed (that too, is a Southern expression meaning that one has either had a baby or is serving time; in this case it is the former of course).

Her instructions were simple in this assignment; explain who I am and how I know her and then post something relevant to her blog about cooking something delicious. Hilary is my first cousin once removed, which in the South does not mean that she was formerly my cousin and somehow found herself excommunicated from that role, as the title might mislead one to believe. That phrase simply means that she is one generation removed from her mother, my first cousin Kim, who is the daughter of my Aunt Jeane, who was the sister of my father. Now that she and Greg have had their first child, Natalie Rose, I have a new cousin twice removed. On the other hand, my son Ethan is Hilary’s second cousin. Confused yet?

Southerners take all this in stride, preferring to forego all of the hyperbole and refer to everyone they are related to as “Cousin” regardless of how removed they are. Then we go beyond that and just shorten it to “Cuz” when addressing a cousin because it makes us sound a little less like we stepped out of “Gone With the Wind” and because sometimes you forget their name at the family reunion. You can always be assured of being on safe ground when that happens because you have a family noun that works as well as a name and is both accurate and endearing.

Regardless of the failings of memory, to a Southerner, a Cousin is a highly regarded member of the family. Depending on their age, they are the perfect addition or substitute for the more mainstream members of ones family. If they are a generation older, they become surrogate aunts and uncles and if they are a generation younger, they become like nieces and nephews. If they are close to your own age, they are like having brothers and sisters without all the emotional baggage that siblings can create.

Cousin Hilary, as most of her longtime friends know, was raised in the North but I have always held the suspicion that inside of her was a closeted Southerner waiting to get out. She was raised with a strong helping of Southern DNA from her mother, a native of Alabama, who went off to Ohio to marry Hilary’s father, taking with her the accumulated cooking knowledge of generations plus a 50 pound bag of grits. Once Hilary made the move to the South, she immediately began imparting her cooking knowledge to others, a true trait of the Southerner. It is a miracle that Greg can get through the door.

Now that you are familiar with the back story of how Hilary and I are related, I should probably get to the part of this assignment which is the section on food. As I indicated earlier, I am neither a chef or a cook. In the South, most (but not all) men know how to prepare three types of food: barbecue, chili and anything frozen from the freezer. We also know how to make a reservation, but that doesn’t count. I do know how to make French Toast, which was the only thing my grandfather knew how to make and which he passed on to me but that’s another story.

If you were expecting some great revelation from me on the art of cooking chili, I’m afraid you’ll have to wait until my father passes his recipe on to me. Since my family is in the professional barbecue restaurant business and most of our cooking methods are shrouded in a veil of secrecy and intrigue, well…I could tell you but then I would have to kill you. In this case, I’m going to go into the proper way to prepare and cook that staple of bachelorhood and college dorm days, the ubiquitous frozen pizza. Frozen pizza is safe ground and since my family is spending part of the summer in Florida, a necessity at times when there isn’t anything else in the house to heat up.

IMG_5558To most people, there are two kinds of pizza: a). pepperoni, and b). everything else. Pepperoni is the pizza you never outgrow, kind of like the vanilla ice cream of pizzas. When dealing with frozen pizzas, I usually prefer a DiGiorno or a Tombstone and since there happens to be a Tombstone in the freezer, that is the one I will go with here, laid out in easy to follow steps.

Preparation

To cook a frozen Tombstone pizza, there are a number of preparation steps that should be taken to help ensure that the final product is perfectly rendered. You might not think these steps are important but each one plays an integral role in the overall presentation of the pizza.

IMG_5564Step 1 is to TURN THE OVEN ON. This should seem like the most obvious step but occasionally, left brained people will get distracted by a phone call, fighting cats or anything advertised on television as being in “limited supplies”. There is nothing worse than popping your frozen pizza in the oven, only to come back in 20 minutes to find out your pizza has thawed in the oven at room temperature. Set the oven to 400° and let it preheat. It is best to leave the pizza in the freezer until the oven is ready (Tombstone’s instructions, not mine).

Step 2 is to PREPARE THE PIZZA itself for cooking. As soon as the buzzer goes off telling you that the oven is preheated, go ahead and get the pizza out of the freezer. Hopefully you remembered to remove the baking stone from the oven before you turned it on; if not, you will have to find something else to cook the pizza on.

IMG_5560Preparing the pizza is a lot more than tearing off the clear plastic shrink-wrap, sticking it on a baking stone and putting it in the oven. The pizza comes on top of a round piece of cardboard with an overlay paper that shows the name and type of pizza it is, all wrapped up in shrink-wrap. If you tear this plastic off, small pieces of frozen cheese are going to go everywhere and either you or the cat are going to have a mess to clean up. Get a pair of kitchen scissors and carefully cut the plastic off as demonstrated in the photograph. As you can see from the photograph only a few pieces of cheese escaped but if this had been down the other way, it would have been a lot worse.

IMG_5561Once you remove the plastic overwrap, remove the paper and this is what you will see most of the time. Pepperoni shift is a common problem with frozen pizzas due to their being stored upright in the freezer section of your local supermarket. Gravity causes the pepperoni to wind up in a pile on one part of the pizza and although the temptation is there to leave it alone and later claim this half of the pizza, there are good reasons why this isn’t a good idea, which I will get into a little bit later in the article. The solution is easy and will ensure fairness and well-balanced taste and this leads into the next part of the preparation.

IMG_5563Carefully arrange the pepperoni on the pizza in such a way so as to make sure that no pepperoni meets an untimely death at the hands of a pizza cutter. If you have children, they will watch to make sure when you cut this thing that if a piece got cut in half, that no one got the bigger half of the pepperoni so its best to make sure that there aren’t any partial pepperoni on a piece after cutting. Wars have been fought over less. Now your pizza is prepared and ready to cook. Make sure that you DON’T LEAVE THE CARDBOARD under the pizza before you cook it. While literature teaches us that paper doesn’t burn until it reaches 451°F, it is not a chance you want to take.

Step 3 is to COOK THE PIZZA. The instructions call for placing the pizza directly on the oven rack for cooking but this is where I tend to deviate from the instructions and for good reasons too. One, the pizza will get soft in the oven and there is always the potential for toppings to slide off into the oven. If this doesn’t bother you, be sure you have a self-cleaning oven to help burn away the burned cheese pieces and sauce drippings. Two, getting a pizza out when it is hot off of a burning hot oven rack can be tricky and sometimes harmful to the pizza. I prefer to use a well seasoned Pampered Chef round baking stone, which also provides you with a place for step 4.

Once the pizza is in, be sure set the timer so you don’t get distracted by the aforementioned phone call, cat fight or commercial and forget about it. In the South, blackened is best left to things cooked on the grill and not on a baking stone. Since I don’t follow the “bake it on the rack” rule, I tend to cook it for 20 minutes because the heat is not as directly on the bottom of the pizza until that stone gets hot. In any case, if the cheese is turning brown, it is probably done and should be removed from the oven.

Find something to do for 20 minutes, such as walk the dog, go get the mail, see who is fighting what cause on Facebook and for what reason and wait for the buzzer.

IMG_5566Step 4 is to CUT THE PIZZA but first you have to remove it from the oven without dropping it or burning yourself. Baking stones get very hot and you need a good thick oven mitt to work with it. Once the pizza is out, the instructions say to let it stand for 5 minutes but no one in my house waits for hot pizza. If you like pizza, go ahead and invest in a quality pizza cutter. Don’t get one of those wimpy ones they sell at the supermarket which wobble when you cut. Any decent kitchen supply place sells good pizza cutters and they last forever. These can also be used for cutting other things such as a cookie cake and even a pan of brownies if you are careful.

IMG_5567Be sure to eyeball the pizza and try to remember where your cut paths were mapped out by the placement of the pepperoni. You must be sure not to cut a pepperoni in half but if you do, get the pieces off the pizza and eat them while no one is looking. You cooked it, you should get that perk. If they happened to have counted the pieces during prep, you can always tell the kids that one caught on fire. They like stuff like that.

Carefully cut the pizza as shown. When my family is home, we prefer to cut ours into eight slices because then there is more pizza to go around. Just ask anyone under the age of 10. If you are pulling bachelor duty, it doesn’t matter how you cut it but practice in cutting does render perfect results. You are now ready to enjoy the fruits of your labor.

IMG_5568I hope this article has been significantly helpful to you and that you have learned all kinds of things that you never knew or even wanted to know about the art of preparing frozen food. If frozen pizza doesn’t sound Southern enough to you, have it with a glass of sweetened iced tea, which requires another article on how that is properly made.

If you enjoyed the article and want to read more about living in the South, our crazy family, life in general or other ramblings that I write, be sure to check my blog out at http://www.theliteratepen.com for more information.

Best of luck to Cousin Hilary and Greg and welcome to the world, Cousin Natalie!

Love Cuz

Gourmet Baby

Hello! I’m helping fill in for Hungry Hungry Hilary while she is on Mommy Leave, and I’m THRILLED to be the one to announce on her blog that her baby has arrived! Baby Natalie joined the world on June 13, two weeks before her official due date! I’m sure Hilary will give more details later, but I’m happy to say that both mommy and baby are healthy and doing great. And here are a few pictures of the beautiful new addition!

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Isn’t she so cute??!!  We love her already.  And lucky me, I’m an aunt to this adorable bundle!  Yes, as way of introduction, my name is Julie and I am Hilary’s sister-in-law.  Dr. Matthews is my little brother.  Ok, maybe not so “little.”  He’s 9 inches taller than me and all grown up with a baby now.  I’m so excited to see him and Hilary in their new roles as daddy and mommy!

Ok, that being said, on to the food!  I’ve decided to write my guest post about making baby food.  Now that Hilary’s a mommy, she might find this useful several months from now.  And hopefully some of you out there could benefit from these tips as well.  I have two children, ages 3 and 1, and I’ve made about half the baby food for each of them.  I use some store-bought, for the convenience of it, but sometimes it’s nice to use homemade to cut the cost, and so I know exactly what ingredients are in it.

The two main things you’ll need for making baby food is a way to grind it up and a way to store it.  For grinding, you can use an actual baby food grinder, a food processor, blender, or immersion blender.  For storage, you can use any container, but ice cube trays work great.  Then, just blend away!  For young babies just starting on “solid” foods – about age 6 months, you’ll want to start with simple purees of single, easy-to-digest vegetables such as sweet potatoes, carrots, and squash, and fruits such as bananas, apples, and pears.  Steer clear or citrus fruits until they’re about 12 months.  As the baby gets older, you can add new foods, create different combinations of foods, and begin adding spices and sauces.  And when they’re about a year old, you can grind up anything!  It’s really convenient when they’re old enough to eat table food, and you can just throw whatever you’re eating into the grinder and then feed it to baby.

Step 1: Choose a fruit or veggie!
Step 2: Peel it!  Unless it’s something that doesn’t need peeled, such as green beans or broccoli.
Step 3: Steam it!  Bananas and avocados don’t need to be cooked, but everything else should get steamed.

I often steam veggies in my rice cooker!  Or you can just boil them in a saucepan with about a 1/2 inch of water.

I often steam veggies in my rice cooker! Or you can just boil them in a saucepan with about a 1/2 inch of water.

Step 4: Grind it!

Sweet potatoes in my baby food grinder!

Sweet potatoes in my baby food grinder!

Pureeing carrots using my immersion blender!

Pureeing carrots using my immersion blender!

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Step 5: Feed baby!  I always mix in baby rice cereal or oatmeal to bulk it up a little.
Step 6: Store the rest!  I put mine in little Rubbermaid leftover containers or these handy baby food portion trays with lids:

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And that’s it!  Again, as the baby gets older, you can do all kinds of combinations.  Below is a photo of Egg Fried Rice and Teriyaki Chicken Stir Fry, right before I ground up a portion of it to feed to my baby!  We’ve also done this with Pot Roast, Spaghetti, Tacos…just about anything.  Except pizza.  I’m not sure how that would do in the blender!

Grown up food ready to be pureed for baby!

Grown up food ready to be pureed for baby!

Enjoy!  And, for more fun thoughts on babies and my life as a mom, head over to my Groovy Mama blog at https://bewarethegroove.wordpress.com/