Monday, October 21, 2013

Arugula Pesto

Pesto is a great condiment to have on hand for quick dinners and for adding flavor to all kinds of dishes. While basil pesto is near and dear to my heart, fresh basil can be pricy and difficult to find out of season. When I had a bag of arugula leaves the other week that was on its last leg, I decided to try making pesto, and it worked!

Arugula, basil, or any other flavorful herb (I had about half a bag left, maybe 2 cups packed tight)
1 clove fresh garlic
2-3 tbsp olive oil
1-2 tbsp toasted pine nuts (or any nuts that aren't too sweet)
pepper and garlic salt, to taste
(optional - 2-3 tbsp parmesan cheese)

Add all ingredients to a blender or food processor and blend until desired smoothness. That's it! I usually add a fair amount of parmesan cheese to my basil pesto, but opted not to with this arugula pesto and didn't miss it. You can use this just like you would any other pesto, but here are a few ways I managed to use it:

1) Use in recipes like Red's pesto chicken here
2) Add a little more olive oil and marinate chicken for grilling
2) Mix a tablespoon with mayo for a flavorful sandwich spread (and then toast it!)
3) Add to pasta sauces and soups for a big burst of flavor
4) Mix with a little more olive oil and a light vinegar for a great salad dressing (especially on caprese salads!)

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Tips for saving time, money, and calories when dining out

We've all been there: left my lunch at home, burned dinner, dinner was so good we ate it all and have no leftovers, I was too tired,  my spouse is out of town and I hate cooking for myself, everyone in the office is going out together, cat ate my pad thai (or is that just me?)...There are plenty of reasons for not eating home-made meals every single day. It was especially bad for me when I had a 2.5 hour daily commute to another city for work last year, which gave me very little time to make dinner in the evenings and had the extra temptation of many good restaurants in walking distance. Here are my tips for making the most of the times when we're paying someone else to make our food:

1) Get your order to go. While the ambiance of many restaurants is far nicer than sitting at your desk or in the break room, you're paying more for that experience in time, tips, and temptations. I learned to keep takeout menus from local restaurants on-hand and just call in my order...that way, I know exactly when my food will be ready, and can order my favorite salad without seeing their famous loaded french fry platter drifting by my table, or thinking about how much I need to tip my waiter. Plenty of places also have outdoor seating they don't mind you using as long as you've bought their food - so you can still have that out-of-office time without paying for it!

Still getting the Mellow Mushroom experience, and sunshine!
 3) Package up half of your food right away, or split with someone. Most restaurants give ridiculously huge proportions, especially in things like chicken on salads and cheap sides. If you're dining out in a restaurant, ask for a to-go box right away and put half your food in it. Then, you can clean your plate and still have lunch for the next day - getting two meals for the price of one! If you're with friends, coworkers, or your spouse, splitting a meal is always a good option, too.

4) Look for healthy appetizers. Some of the best deals are hidden in the appetizer menu. Skip the chicken wings and loaded fries (sigh) and look for the veggie spring rolls, chicken and veggie quesadillas, dip trios with chips, etc. Mellow Mushroom was a favorite of mine when I needed a quick lunch and had the most amazing salads in their appetizer menu - and all of them were under $6! I usually paired it with a $2.50 slice of pizza with chicken, and had lunch for two or more days for under $10 total.
Mellow Mushroom's caprese salad appetizer is amazing (and huge!)
5) Check the kids' menu. Many places have items in their kids menu that are identical to their regular menu - just in smaller proportions, and for much less! I could never eat an entire burrito at Moe's, for instance (and they don't make the best leftovers), but their kid-sized burrito is perfect and lets me have everything I want for much less. It works great for fast food, too - if you're traveling and have to eat on the road, getting something from the kids menu ensures you're eating less junk, and usually includes an extra small drink, which also saves calories. 

I had to split this "Joey" burrito with Shawn - kiddie size for me next time!
6) Keep tea bags and instant coffee on hand. Buying drinks can be a real killer when dining out- both in calories and in price! I always order water at restaurants, and reserve getting my precious southern sweet tea for when I'm ordering a kids' meal at Bojangles. I've quit coffee (again) recently, but my work has a keurig machine and I was able to use a reusable k-cup to bring my own coffee from home, and always keep a few tea bags in my purse now for that occasional pick-me-up. Almost any place will give you hot water for free (some charge you a quarter for the cup, but not many), so keeping the instant stuff on hand is a great way to save a few bucks when the emergencies happen!

7) Utilize gift cards to help with budgeting. If there's a place nearby that you find yourself going to often, see about getting a gift card! It's a great way to keep track of your spending in specific places and for those special treats like your favorite coffee drink. If you have friends or relatives always asking what to get you as a gift, let them know what your favorite local restaurants are - then you get to say they took you out to lunch or dinner!

Breakfast at Starbucks courtesy of a Christmas gift card from the parents!

Monday, October 14, 2013

Quick & Easy toasted pine nut hummus

We've been so busy in my house lately that I've been digging up my easiest possible recipes to get us through the days! One healthy snack I try to keep around is hummus; it's full of protein, low on fat, and can be eaten with whole wheat crackers, veggie slices (healthy and gluten-free!), spread on pizza, or used as a filling in sandwiches and wraps. It's fairly expensive if you buy pre-made hummus from the grocery store, but it's very cheap to make it yourself! All you need is cooked chickpeas (aka garbanzo beans), which cost around $1 in the can (or you can buy them dry and cook them yourself to save even more), and a few pantry staples.

For roasted pine nut hummus, my ingredients are:
1 can chickpeas (I recommend no salt added)
juice of half a lemon
2-3 TBSP olive oil
sesame oil (or tahini, but I always have oil on hand and it's the same flavor)
~1TBSP toasted pine nuts, plus more for garnish
garlic, 2-3 small cloves
optional: salt (we cook low sodium so I don't add any)

If your pine nuts are raw, you can roast them in a dry pan over medium-low heat until they're starting to toast and your house smells amazing. A little goes a long way in flavoring hummus, so I toasted up a good 1/4 cup at once but only used a tablespoon or two in the recipe.

Once your pine nuts are toasted, dump your drained chickpeas, garlic, lemon juice, and oils into your blender or food processor (or right into your serving dish if you're using an immersion blender like me), and blend together until you have smooth, creamy hummus!

Taste it once it's blended fully to see if it needs more of anything..I usually add a few tablespoons of water so it's not too thick and dry, but other brands of chickpeas may be different. If you're adding salt, now would be the time to adjust that, too. Garnish with a little extra olive oil and a few pine nuts on top and you're ready for a healthy snack! This will keep in the fridge for over a week, but ours hardly ever lasts that long.

 We also love roasted red pepper hummus (same process, just add canned roasted red pepper instead of pine nuts!), but the flavors are neutral enough to work with just about anything! Enjoy!


Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Rotisserie-style chicken at home

Rotisserie chickens are one of those perfect multipurpose items you can buy on a busy weeknight; they make a great dinner on their own with simple sides that day, and can be used in all sorts of recipes after. The downside for us is that they are typically pretty high in sodium. While home rotisseries are amazing, they're not necessarily practical to keep around...and if you have a slow cooker and a broiler, you can get a whole roasted chicken that's pretty close to that perfect rotisserie texture!

Start with a whole chicken that will fit in your slow cooker. Rub the chicken down with olive oil and cover in a decently thick coat of your favorite spice mix. I usually end up with a mix of fresh garlic and shallots, paprika, oregano, thyme, garlic powder, onion powder, rosemary, black pepper, and cayenne. Jerk seasoning is also yummy, and even a simple mix of black pepper and lemon zest is really amazing!

I use mason jar rings to "boost" my chicken off the bottom of the crock pot - this prevents it from just stewing in its juices (balled up wads of aluminum foil work, too).  

Cook on low for up to 8 hours or high for up to 4 hours, depending on the size of your chicken. (I usually start this in the morning before I leave for work, and it's ready when we get home.) When your chicken is cooked, carefully remove it from the slow cooker (in large pieces, if you have to. They get fall-apart tender!) and transfer it to a baking dish or sheet tray under your broiler. Broil the top of the chicken for 5-10 minutes to crisp the skin. 

This makes a great dinner with a simple salad, and doing this at home lets you take it one step further. After dinner, separate the rest of the chicken from the carcass and store it in the fridge or freezer. Take the mason rings or foil balls out of the bottom of your slow cooker (there should be a bit of liquid and fat from the chicken still in there) and put all the bones, pieces of skin, and any little bits leftover back in the slow cooker. If you have any vegetable trimmings or fresh herbs, add them too! Fill the slow cooker with water and turn it back on low. Let this cook overnight, and in the morning strain the liquid out into ziplock bags or containers. 

This home-made chicken stock is great for soups, sauces, gravy, and cooking all sorts of other things! It's a great way to add a little more flavor and nutrition to rice, beans, and anything else you typically cook in plain water. I freeze mine flat in ziplock bags on baking sheets and file them upright in my freezer.

That's it! Dinner, leftovers, and home-made stock are all made from about 20 minutes of work total.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Tomato Lunch

We had a really good tomato garden this year and as our garden is headed for Fall, my husband and I are trying to use the tomatoes before they all go bad. This next recipe is fast and easy with tons of flavor that will make you want more. 

We start with a large tomato, fresh basil, fresh garlic, fresh mozzarella cheese, and sourdough bread. Sounds wonderful already right? Preheat your oven to 425 degrees. You can use a cake pan or a cookie sheet for this recipe, it's really up to you. Slice your tomatoes from the bottom so you get the bold pretty color. Drizzle olive oil on the bottom of your pan, place the tomato slices on the bottom of your pan two or three in a row.

I use fresh basil from our garden and this year we have two kinds: Russian Basil, a purple basil and Sweet Basil, a common cooking basil. I'm using our sweet basil for this recipe but you could really use any basil.


I use fresh mozzarella for this dish and add big slices over each tomato. Cut or chop the basil and spread over the tomatoes and cheese. Cut and chop three cloves of garlic and add those over the tomatoes. Salt and pepper. I use lots of pepper. Place a slice of sourdough bread over your tomato and cheese and again drizzle olive oil over the bread and bake until golden. Plate and eat. I would have loved a plated picture but Dave was out of the room again before I could grab the camera.

The first thing that will come to mind when you taste this is "fresh" all the flavors come together in perfect joy. I hope you try our tomato lunch today. This may not be gluten free but it sure is healthy and good to eat. Enjoy.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Handmade Cards

One of the things I've tried to remember do more this year is make greeting cards (and get pictures of them before they're sent off!). Store-bought cards are often expensive, and by the time I've found one that's "good enough," I could have just made one from scratch! I missed pictures of several this year already, but here are a few in no particular order:

Quilled father's day card (for my father-in-law) - I've really enjoyed getting back into quilling this year, and was especially happy to see that this card made it across the country unscathed!


Quilled and stamped bee father's day card:

Coffee cup mother's day card:

Birthday card for my nephew:

Quilled flowers card for my mother-in-law:

Making home-made cards is deceptively easy and inexpensive. The only real "card-making" tool I have is a scoring board, which helps not only to get the crisp folded edges like the ones on professional cards, but also for creating custom envelopes and interesting textures like the corrugated effect on the coffee cup card. I'll save pretty paper samples from packaging, junk mail, and commercial greeting cards to incorporate into my handmade cards. I've also found (by accident) that people are much less upset about cards arriving late when they're handmade. ;)