Posted in Being Healthy, Cooking

I want a “real” dinner (Momentum 7; PointsPlus 8)

So this morning as we passed each other in the kitchen, my mom says “Tonight, I want a “real” dinner.” What the heck? Oh, yeah, well, I haven’t exactly been around for a couple of weeks to be with my family for dinner. So we review what we’ve got frozen and settle on a pork loin, part of one that we bought at Costco and divied up for a couple of meals. I suggested braised spinach with it and for some reason that made my mom want glazed carrots; weird, but whatever. Keeping it in the simple vein, we agree on herbed egg noodles as our final side selection.

So the menu is

  • Roasted Pork Loin
  • Braised Spinach
  • Glazed Carrots
  • Herbed Egg Noodles

in case you didn’t catch that part already.

So, as you know, you want to start with the item that will take the longest to cook. Now, contrary to past posts, I will recommend that you completely thaw your pork loin before cooking; there’s just something difficult about keeping pork moist that calls for it to be treated special.

Okay, roasted pork loin is really easy. You have a piece of pork loin. You coat it with a dry rub. You put it in the oven. And, viola, roasted pork loin. So what’s this dry rub thingy? Nothing more than your choice of an herb combo. Please feel free to use whatever combo you have on hand (like Greek seasoning, poultry seasoning, pork seasoning, anything already combined that you like); me…well, if you’ve read anything of mine, you know I’m a sucker for the simple song herbs: parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme. Tonight, I combined about 1.5 teaspoons of each along with salt and pepper in a mortar and blended them all into a fine powder rub with the pestle. Don’t know what a mortar and pestle are? Click here. Don’t have a mortar and pestle? You can also use a spice or coffee grinder (one reserved for spices) or just combine the herbs as they are.

Coat both sides of the pork loin, rubbing the spices in with your fingers. If you don’t need to wash your hands, you’re not done. Set the loin fat-side up on a rack placed inside a foil-lined baking dish (9×13). Here’s my rationale: foil-lining the dish saves a lot of time on clean-up; using the rack allows excess fat to drip away rather than greasing up the loin; and placing the loin fat-side up helps keep the meat moist and crisps up the remaining fat (that didn’t melt down the sides) for those who enjoy it.

Roast uncovered at 350 for about 1 hour and 15 minutes. Check it for doneness and either set it out and cover for its resting period or put it back in the over for a little while longer (try 15 minutes at a time). Generally, you want your pork to read 155 on a thermometer before you pull it out of the oven for the resting period; 160 is your goal.

When the pork has about 30 minutes left to cook, you’ll get your sides going:

  • Set a large sauce pot on to boil, with some salt in the water. This one is for the noodles.
  • Set a large skillet (one that has a lid that fits) on a high-heat burner with a drizzle of olive oil. This one is for the Braised Spinach.
  • Set a medium skillet on a high-heat burner with a drizzle of olive oil. This one is for the Glazed Carrots.

As the water works on coming to a boil, you will quickly set the other two dishes to cooking.

In the medium skillet, drop in one clove of minced garlic and chopped carrots. Salt and pepper lightly and stir quickly for about 1 minute to coat the carrots with the little bit of oil in the pan; it’s on high heat, so watch carefully that you don’t burn the garlic. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of sugar over the carrots and again stir quickly for about 1 minute to coat the carrots and dissolve the sugar in the oil; this allows the sugar to begin carmelizing just a tiny bit. Add 1/3 cup of water, stir, and bring to a boil. Let the carrots and sauce boil until the carrots are as “done” as you like them; I like mine with bite still, so for me it’s about 7 minutes. And they’re done.

While the carrots are glazing in their boil, you’ll start dropping in ingredients for the Braised Spinach. Start with 2 cloves of minced garlic and 1 whole sliced red onion. Stir continuously to make sure the garlic doesn’t burn and to cook the onions through without carmelizing them. Drop in 2 bags of baby spinach and snap the lid on tight; turn off the cooking heat and let the dish sit for about 5 minutes. Lift the lid and stir using a folding motion. Salt and pepper and drizzle with good quality balsamic vinegar.

With these two dishes just about done, the water is probably boiling for the noodles (use Lehmans if you need a gluten free, corn free option). Just drop them in and cook like the package says. When they are done, drain, drizzle with olive oil, and add herbs: salt, pepper, and herbs de provence are our favorite and a good complement to the pork rub.

By now, the pork is probably done and resting on the counter. Just slice it into nice sized servings (about 4-5 oz each, perhaps 1/2-inch thick).

And tonight I decided to try a new beer, one on sale at the grocery store (so if it’s not good, I haven’t lost that much). But it’s really nice. I chose Pyramid Breweries Apricot Ale, hoping to marry the sweet notes in the beer with the sweeter flavor of white meat pork loin. I wasn’t disappointed!

Weight Watchers Momentum Points:

  • 5 oz roasted pork loin = 5 points
  • 1/2 cup herbed egg noodles = 2 points
  • braised spinach = 0 points
  • glazed carrots = 0 points
  • beer = 3 points

Weight Watchers Points Plus:

  • 5 oz roasted pork loin = 5 points
  • 1/2 cup herbed egg noodles = 3 points
  • braised spinach = 0 points
  • glazed carrots = 0 points
  • beer = 5 points
Posted in Being Healthy, Children, Cooking

Rescue Meal–what to make when a friend is dealing with an emergency situation

This is in the freezes beautifully section of my cookbook, and I wanted to bring something that freezes beatuifully.   ~Annelle (Daryl Hannah) in Steel Magnolias

So I just signed up to make a meal for a friend dealing with a medical crisis with her daughter. Over the weekend, a high school classmate posted on FaceBook that one of her daughters had fallen out of her second-story bedroom window. After a terrifying trip to the ER, the family brought their daughter home, only to have to rush her back to the ER, suspicious of internal bleeding.

Luckily, a close friend of theirs has taken an active role in organizing dinners for the family, and I signed up for Tuesday. Here’s what I have to work with:

  • The dinner audience: tired, anxious, terrified mom and dad, older sister (10-ish) and younger sister (6-ish)
  • Food preferences according to the kids: peas, chicken, pasta are all things they like (separate of course :)), pizza, chicken nuggets, hot dogs, salad, fruit salad, pancakes/eggs/bacon, hamburgers & fries, steak, porkchops.

So here’s what I’m thinking is a good meal to take over already cooked, still warm, and easily re-heatable (and still good):

  • Roasted Lemon and Garlic Chicken: whole split chicken with extra drumsticks, with lemon and garlic stuffed under the skin for roasting
  • Seasoned Bowtie Pasta: you don’t always have to put sauce on pasta; it’s really nice to enjoy it with some light seasoning like salt and pepper and herbs de provence with an olive oil drizzle. And I’ll include some mix-ins like a can of artichoke hearts, a jar of roasted red peppers, olives, and feta cheese, which would make a great lunch for the next day if there’s any leftover. And don’t be afraid to use gluten free pastas if someone in the family has an allergy.
  • Loaded mashed potatoes: who doesn’t like this…homemade mashed potatoes mixed with sour cream, cheddar cheese, and bacon
  • Seasonal fruit salad: since it’s still winter-ish, I’ll do a plum, nectarine, pineapple, banana and raisin salad with a cinnamon-date balsamic creme-lemon dressing (on the side in case the kids don’t like it)
  • Clemson Tiger Paw Sugar Cookies: my dessert specialty is sugar cookies, and I know this family is completely devoted to Clemson University (as are quite a few friends of mine)

And here’s what I think are the keys to preparing and taking a meal over for friend to enjoy at their leisure or in a stressful time:

    • choose meats that are easy to keep or make moist during reheating–for the chicken, cover it with a damp paper towel and microwave for 2 minutes (direct from fridge)
    • choose sides that are as good cold as they were warm–pasta salads, vegetable salads, fresh fruits–in case the family is just too tired to heat things up
    • put sauces and mix-ins “on the side”–for two reasons: 1) you never know just what someone else likes (unless you cook for them alot) and 2) it gives them options for sprucing up any leftovers
    • make enough servings for one night and maybe lunch the next day; avoid making “double” especially if you know someone is organizing meals for each night. The buildup of leftovers and dishes can be just as overwhelming as having to come home and cook for yourself
    • use disposable containers. Aluminum pans or the Glad bakeable plastic pans are great. I also save the very nice take-out containers that my grandmother’s resort kitchen uses, as they are great for single meals and lunch packs as well as for keeping hot and cold dishes separate but not bulky.
    • include reheating instructions, since you never know when they’ll get around to eating or will want to have leftovers for lunch the next day.
    • and finally, don’t forget dessert and some beverages. If they haven’t been home long enough to cook, then there’s probably not fresh iced tea made or even lemonade much less a quick bite of sweet.

Leftover Suggestion: cut up leftover chicken, artichokes, red peppers, olives, and feta into bowtie pasta for a fabulous pasta salad lunch to take with you on Wednesday.

Other Meal Ideas:

The Casserole–this is such a classic primarily because it uses just one dish (avoiding the bulk in the fridge) and can be frozen until a later time. Also, pretty much any standard meal can be “casserolized”:

    • Spaghetti, ziti, canneloni, lasagne
    • Any stirfry over rice
    • Jambalaya, Baked Shrimp/Chicken Creole
    • Shepherd’s Pie
    • Chicken Pot Pie
    • Mexican chicken/pork and rice (with salsa and queso)
    • Italian chicken/pork and rice (with marinara and parmesean)
    • Cuban chicken/pork and rice  (with black beans, corn, plantains, and sason seasoning)
    • Indian chicken/pork and rice  (with couscous, raisins, curry, and garam masala)
    • Hawaian chicken/pork and rice  (with some pineapple)

The Restaurant Gift Certificate–especially for a restaurant that has great curbside pick-up

The Holiday Meal–give them some real comfort food by making Thanksgiving or Christmas or Easter dinner with classic trimmings

Soups and Stews–paired with a simple salad and bread, a soup or stew or chili is one of the simplest and most comforting meals folks can enjoy during a stressful time when they might not be very hungry but still needs nourishment; it is heated quickly, managed in one container in the fridge, and is easy to pair with a variety of sides.

Posted in Being Healthy, Cooking

Salmon Croquettes, a southern classic

Go to any traditional southern brunch location (like Rick’s in Greenwood, SC), and you’ll find salmon croquettes on the menu: a delicious salmon cake deep fried and served over grits.

You see, most folks only hear about shrimp and grits as the classic Charleston breakfast (or any other time) dish, but salmon and grits is far more common and delicious. The restaurants don’t bother to “put their own spin” on salmon and grits like they do with shrimp (usually ruining a simple shrimp and gravy dish).

Plus, this is one of my grandmother’s classics, a special dinner treat, usually when it’s just us girls. So as I make these little fish cakes tonight, I will set aside a couple to take to her to enjoy.

The Menu: Salmon Croquettes, Dijon Roasted New Potatoes, Braised Spinach

First, I’ll get the potatoes ready and in the oven. The Dijon Roasted New Potatoes is a recipe right out of the Weight Watchers Weekly this week, but for those who don’t participate, here it is:

  • Quarter or halve 1.5 lb new potatoes; we leave the skin on, but that is up to you.
  • Whisk together 2T Dijon mustard, 1t olive oil, 3/4 t paprika, 1/2t salt, 1/4t thyme (I use more cuz I love it!), 1/4t pepper; toss the potatoes in this dressing.
  • Bake at 425 for 15 minutes; then stir them well and bake for 15-20 minutes more until they are tender (stick ’em with a fork!).
  • Tip: if they aren’t crispy enough for you, spray them with a little cooking spray and put them back in for a couple of minutes.

Makes 4 1.25 cup servings at 4 PointsPlus each.

With the potatoes in the oven, it’s time to mix up and form the Salmon Croquettes. Here’s how it goes, with attention to getting the mixture to hold together rather than exact measurements:

  • 2-3 cans of salmon, drained (about 1 lb)
  • 1/3 cup of cornmeal (for coating only; for GF, substitute rice flour)
  • pinch of baking powder
  • 1 egg, beaten before you pour it into mixture (yes, that is important when you use egg as binding)
  • 1/2 cup very finely diced onion
  • 1T Worchestershire sauce (make your own GF/CF/SF with this recipe)
  • 1T lemon juice
  • splash of Tobasco sauce
  • salt and pepper, as you like it
The main ingredients: salmon and onion

Mix this all together with your hands; yes, that is an essential part of making these. You can’t know if the mixture is at the right consistency if you can’t feel it. The mixture will be “tacky” when you make a ball in your hand, but will not actually stick. It’s also very important that when you roll it into a ball and then flatten it into a patty that the “stuff” sticks together easily, without you having to push it back together. If it’s too loose (wet) or to thick (dry),  it will all fall apart in the skillet and just become salmon hash, sort of.

When you’ve got your mixture just right (with a slight, wet squishing sound when you squeeze it into a ball), form eight 4 oz patties; if you’re not actually weighing these, this will be about a small 2-inch ball of mixture in your palm. Roll the mixture into a ball and then flatten the ball into a patty, lightly patting the edges into shape if needed.

Dust each patty in cornmeal, very lightly. This is optional as some don’t like the gritty coating. An alternative for helping them not stick to the skillet is to dust them with rice flour, which will not create a coating like regular wheat flour does.

Smoking away in a cast iron skillet

Now the original recipe calls for deep frying, which is wonderful and delicious and easy, but completely unnecessary. Just spray a skillet with cooking spray to prevent smoking and cook the patties over medium high heat for about 4 minutes on each side. Since the salmon is already cooked, you are focused on cooking the egg and the onions and heating the whole patty through for great flavor. You may also choose to bake the patties on a cookie sheet at 350 for 20 minutes.

As I put on the patties to cook in the skillet, I’ll start the final dish of Braised Spinach. For this, you’ll need

  • 1 clove garlic, crushed or diced or sliced
  • 1 red onion, halved and sliced
  • 1 large bag of spinach, baby or regular as you like
  • really good balsamic vinegar (should be sweet and syrupy)*
Braising the spinach…don’t stir!!!

Heat the garlic on medium in just a touch of oil (or use cooking spray); raise the heat to medium high and cook the red onions until soft and lighly carmelized. Pack the spinach into the pan, salt and pepper the pan, shove on a tight lid, and shut off the heat; this will wilt the spinach, and takes just about 3 minutes. Remove the lid, stir just a little to toss everything together and drizzle with balsamic vinegar.


Weight Watchers PointsPlus:

  • Salmon Croquettes (makes 8) = 2 points each
  • Dijon Roasted New Potatoes (makes 4 servings) = 4 points per serving
  • Braised Spinach (makes as many or few servings as you like) = 0 points
Posted in Cooking

A Surprise Family Favorite: Spaghetti Shrimp

Back last summer, my mom found this super easy recipe for spicing up plain ‘ol spaghetti. No one remembers where it came from or what it’s really called, but we’ve named it “Spaghetti Shrimp”.

Now here in Charleston, we locals are committed to buying and eating fresh local seafood, but it’s out of shrimp season right now. BUT, we are never without some local frozen shrimp in the freezer. You’ve heard me say don’t worry about thawing your meat…just throw it in raw. Um, that won’t work for shrimp because they cook way too quickly. Be sure to allow for a full thaw.


    • Thaw and peel 1 lb shrimp
    • Dice 1 large onion (your choice) and as many mushrooms (whatever variety you like) as you like

Tip: I take a LARGE cutting board into the living room with my bowls and pots and veggies and knives and do this prep work on the ottoman while watching a little tv.


Okay, to keep the number of dirty pots and pans down to just 1, here’s what you do:

  • cook 4 servings of your favorite pasta, not the whole box; this can be any shape, color, or gluten level! Look at the nutrition label; it will tell you how much is a serving given the nutritional content of your preferred pasta. Just cook the right number of servings, and you don’t have to worry about overeating the carbs!!
  • in the same pot as you cooked the pasta (which is now hanging out in the colander), saute your onions and mushrooms in just a teeny tiny bit of olive oil. Keep in mind that the mushrooms will “spill” liquid as they cook and you’ll want to wait til you’ve cooked out that liquid before dumping in a jar of your favorite spaghetti sauce (we use homemade marinara that we put up during tomato season). Spice it up with a little more garlic, oregano, and red pepper flakes…to your family’s taste tolerance.
  • stir in a little more than 1 lb raw shrimp, which will cook in the simmering sauce and be flavored by your spices.
  • stir in your cooked pasta
  • serve with a simple side salad and bread.

Yep, it’s as simple as that and so delicious. And you can substitute any other meat…chicken, steak, pork…just be sure to cook it first.

Weight Watchers PointsPlus:

  • 1 lb cooked shrimp = 8 points
  • 20 oz Ragu Old World Style Traditional Sauce = 12 points (to give you an idea if you use jarred spaghetti sauce)
  • 2 medium sweet onions = 0 points
  • 1 container baby portabella mushrooms = 0 points
  • 1 teaspoons olive oil = 2 points
  • 4 servings Barilla Plus Multigrain Angel Hair pasta = 20

4 servings (1.5 cups) of Spaghetti Shrimp at 11 points each.

Note: if you make your own marinara or make sure that your jarred spaghetti sauce is fat free, that item drops to 0 points and drops the serving points to 7.5 points each. You can also find lower point pasta in both wheat and gluten free varieties. I’d have used homemade, but I’m not great at making yet.

Posted in Being Healthy, Cooking

On a Black Bean Kick

So this week, seems I’ve been on a black bean kick. Shhhh…it’s the ONLY bean I like and eat willingly.

But, let’s see…there was a Qdoba night with black beans on my naked burrito, then my friend Danielle tried to make black bean soup but simmered all the broth right out and ended up with a most delicious black bean dip.

Tonight, though, is Wednesday. And Wednesdays are for fish in my house. Family pick for tonight: mahi mahi. So now I have to figure out what to do. In an unusual twist, I pick the side first: black beans and rice, paired with spicy cajun mahi mahi and pickled asparagus. The earthy sweetness of the beans with the spice of the fish with the tang of the pickled asparagus make for a wonderful “party in your mouth”!

With some leftover rice from the other night (my dad cooked and made waaayyyy too much), I’ll start with the black beans and then cook the fish while they are simmering.

Black Beans and Rice…recipe from Marsha Mikell (my mom) as published in the St. John’s Lutheran Church Cookbook (long time ago)

  • 1/2 small onion, diced small
  • 1/2 red or yellow bell pepper, diced small
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 hot pepper (base “hot” on your family’s preferences)
  • 1 16 oz can black beans, with juice
  • 1T granulated sugar
  • Spices to taste: pepper, oregano, garlic powder (if not using fresh garlic), 1-2 bay leaves
  • Splashes of: apple cider vinegar, white wine

Saute on medium high the veggies, garlic, and pepper til soft (or carmelized if you like that), dump in beans, sugar, spices, and splashes. Stir well and simmer on medium low until the fish is done.

Once the beans have gone into the simmer stage, season the fish liberally on both sides. My family likes the Frontier Organic Cajun Seasoning, which we find at Whole Foods. Sear on high on each side for about 3 minutes each; if your fish is thick, then it won’t be quite done in the middle (if you cut it with a fork it’ll still be grey and translucent). I like to pour in about 1/4 cup fruit juice (pineapple tonight since it was leftover from a can I ate earlier today) and “poach” on high for about a minute; pour out the juice and continue cooking til the fish is very firm when poked (no give or bounce). When I use a spicy seasoning, I like to use a sweet fruit juice to give the dish some balance so the heat isn’t so overwhelming.

And, um, that all takes about 20 minutes, from start to plate and eat. Yep, this is my favorite Wednesday night meal for just me and my mom as we try to be healthier with lean protein, nutrious carbs, and yummy flavor combinations!

Weight Watchers PointsPlus

  • 6 oz  cooked mahi mahi = 3 points
  • 1/2 cup texmati brown rice = 3 points
  • 1 cup black beans = 3 points
  • pickled asparagus = 0 points

For a grand total of 9 points for this delicious, flavorful meal!

Posted in Cooking

Quickie Leftover Dinner–Chicken and Rice plus a bonus Refresher Course on Gravy Basics

So last week, I had made oven poached chicken and had some of the chicken thighs leftover. Some other time (is it bad that I can’t remember?) someone else had made some rice, and put the leftovers in the fridge. And then everyone but me went on a cruise to the Bahamas, and I got stuck trying to figure out what to do with the bits and pieces of meals left in the fridge for when they got back this week.

Creamy Chicken and Rice with a side of Pepper Vinegar Spicy Broccoli and Cauliflower

So…chicken…rice….hmmmm…how about chicken and rice. Duh!

So this is a refresher course in basics…and what to do when your pantry doesn’t have some of the basics.

Assumption #1: Everyone knows the ingredients for chicken and rice. Right?! It’s cooked chicken, rice, and gravy.

Ha! Bet I stumped you on the gravy. Why? Because since I was a kid, everyone has just used “canned gravy” otherwise known as cream of mushroom or cream of chicken soup. What is cream soup? Flavored gravy.

Assumption #2: Everyone has the ingredients for a basic cream gravy, even during the 2011 snow or snice storm; the term “snice” was coined by my friend Sue Sneed to describe the actual precipitation result in Atlanta.

What are the ingredients for a basic cream gravy? Butter, flour (wheat or rice), milk, and water. Yes, alternatives such as heavy cream and fresh stock will make better tasting gravy, but we’re talking basics here.

How do you make soup out of cream gravy? Use mushroom stock and add mushrooms for cream of mushroom. Use chicken stock and add chicken for cream of chicken. Use vegetable stock and add cooked celery (pureed) for cream of celery. You get the idea, right?

Assumption #3: Everyone knows how to make gravy or a white sauce. Yep, that’s where I lost you. Why? Because gravy has been a “bad” food for several decades now, identified as all fat and no nutrition. Thus, gravy-making from scratch is nearly a lost art in the regular person’s house.

You can look up any gravy recipe, and if you look closely and compare, you’ll see that it’s all about ratios…yes, math. You’ve got a

  • 1:1 for thin gravy or cream soup
  • 1:1.5 for medium gravy
  • 1:2 for thick gravy
Roux…the flour and butter mixture that thickens sauces

The ratio describes the number of tablespoons of butter compared to the number of tablespoons of flour. Then you’ll add the number of cups of liquid (equal parts milk and water) to result in the number of cups of finished gravy. The liquid gets you the mass, while the butter-flour mixture (sometimes called a roux) gets you the thickness (photo from

Oh, yeah, this is also called a white sauce, which is the base for nearly every french sauce and cheese sauce out there (yes, that includes mac and cheese!!). But in a white sauce, usually only milk is used as the liquid.

And when you get good enough with the basic sauce, you can start to make gravy out of drippings: roasted turkey drippings, fried chicken or steak drippings, breakfast sausage drippings, bacon drippings, and more!

Assumption #4: Everyone has cream of something soup in the pantry. Yep, the Sandra Lee shortcut way of making gravy, which, of course, is why the soup label has recipes on it, showing you how many ways gravy can transform simple basic ingredients into a delicious, creamy casserole combining any yummy combination of meat, rice/noodle, grain, veggies…and gravy.

Okay, you’ve got all that; you don’t need me to tell you how to make chicken and rice, right?

Well, in the spirit of the refresher course, here goes:

  • dice, shred, pick off the bone 2 lbs of cooked chicken*
  • 4-5 cups of partially cooked rice (I use brown)
  • 2 cups gravy (aka 2 cans of cream soup, your pick of flavors)
  • salt, pepper, other seasonings you prefer (I’m a thyme girl)

Mix all the ingredients well in a bowl and pour it into a baking dish. Top with some grated cheese or bread crumbs or cracker crumbs or sliced almonds or fried onions (like green bean casserole), whatever you like to give it a little crunchy top. Bake at 350 for 30 minutes. Done!! This recipe is for a 9×13 dish and makes 8 substantial servings.

*Since Weight Watchers PointsPlus values white and dark meat chicken the same, I don’t bother separating them; and I LOVE dark meat…so rich and flavorful, and fat is essential in a healthy and balanced diet.

Weight Watchers PointsPlus: 8.25 points per serving

  • 2 lbs cooked chicken = 16 points
  • 5 cups brown rice = 20 points
  • 1 can 98% fat free cream of mushroom soup = 5 points
  • 1 can 98% fat free cream of chicken soup = 5 points
  • alternate to canned soups: 2 cups white sauce is 9 points (skim milk and water) or 11 points (whole milk and water); be sure to adjust points if you use homemade stock since it will have fat-points. NOTE: it’s the same points to use a homemade, full-fat roux as nearly fat free canned stuff…please go for homemade when possible.

Total points of casserole = 66 points = 8.25 points per serving

Posted in Children, Cooking

Making a Meal out of Nothing

Danielle: So, what do you want to make for dinner?
CeCe: Whatcha got?
Danielle: Chicken and feta, a veritable smorgasbord of choices there for ya <laughter>.
Um, but, yes, I am one of those annoyingly imaginative and versatile people who can take someone’s leftovers or still-frozen food and have dinner on the table and super yummy in just 45 minutes.So, what did I do with these insane options? Make a fabulous dinner in three easy steps.


Summer in her apron, ready to help me cook dinner!

Step 1: Entreé…I had my choice actually of frozen chicken breasts, frozen pork chops, or frozen stew beef. Since I already had a chicken idea in mind, that’s what I picked out. Simple. Tossed the equivalent of two chicken breasts into a baking dish…yes, still completely frozen…poured about 1/4 cup of lemon juice in the bottom, and sprinkled the top with salt and pepper. Actually, one of Danielle’s daughters helped with the salt and pepper. Into a 350 degree over with the timer set for 45 minutes.

Step 2: Veggie Side…here, my choices were very limited. As Danielle had no fresh veggies in the crisper, a salad was out as was any kind of sauteéd, carmelized, fried, etc. veggie. But, as any mom does, she had several bags of frozen veggies. We chose a steam-in-bag medley of green beans, wax beans, and carrots, mainly since her girls would eat them.
Step 3: Carby Side…since Danielle’s girls had already mandated mac and cheese (one of them eats ONLY mac and cheese), she always has a box mix or some Bob Evans mac and cheese.
As the timer goes off for the chicken, I turn off the oven but leave the chicken in. Meanwhile, into the microwave go the frozen steam-in-bag beans. Done. In goes the mac and cheese. Done.
Magic Sauce: While I make the kids plates (which consists of cutting up the chicken and the beans and cooling off the mac and cheese), I put one more bowl in the microwave. A special bowl…just for the grown-ups. Remember that feta Danielle laughingly mentioned? Time for a quick sauce. In the bowl is equal parts of regular cream cheese and feta cheese, liberally sprinkled with basil, oregano, and pepper (no salt because cheese is already loaded with salt). Microwave for one-and-a-half minutes, then stir it all together to blend.
Kids plates: simple baked chicken breast with a hint of lemon juice, green beans, and mac and cheese.
Grown-up plates: Baked Lemon Chicken with Feta Sauce and Kalamata Olives, Haricot Verts, and Pasta with Cheddar Sauce.
And, yes, you can do this too. Here’s what to remember:
  • Make three choices. That’s all it takes. Doesn’t matter what’s frozen or what’s raw.
  • Start cooking the thing that will take the longest. Here’s a quick priority list: frozen meat, raw root veggie or grain (like rice), box mix of something (like rice-a-roni). Well, that’s actually it. Fresh and frozen veggies take just a few minutes in the microwave.
  • For frozen meat, in the oven, add about 15 minutes per pound of frozen meat. In the skillet, remember that your fingers are your best judge, not a timer. Yes, I have just advocated poking your tender finger near a very hot skillet and testing the resiliency and elasticity of your meat–chicken, pork, beef, whatever.

Weight Watchers PointsPlus: for 3 oz of chicken (3 pts), 2T feta sauce (2 pts), 1t sliced olives (1 pt), 1/2 cup or 4 oz Bob Evans mac and cheese (6 pts), and as many green beans as you want = 12 points

Sorry, as happens with making a meal out of nothing, it’s done quickly and on the fly, with no thought to taking pictures at different stages.

Posted in Cooking

Shepherd’s Pie

Shepherd’s Pie

Naturally, my first dish is quite possibly my best, but definitely a favorite of all of the families I’ve ever cooked it for. Shepherd’s Pie, or cottage pie, is more truely a “technique” than a recipe.

So what’s the difference between a technique and a recipe? Well, it’s simple really: a technique is a way of putting types of ingredients together while a recipe is a very specific collection of ingredients that blend together to make a whole new substance and flavor. Hmmm, maybe this will work better: if you can still identify the ingredients separately, then you have just made a technique; when the finished dish resembles nothing like the individual ingredients, then you’ve just made a recipe.

So back to Shepherd’s Pie: leftover meat, vegetables, potatoes. Yup, that’s it. Literally. So how does this work? Tonight’s Shepherd’s Pie is very traditionally American in the meat and potato layers, but perhaps a bit different in the middle veggie layer.

See, just a drizzle of olive oil, not even coating the bottom of the pan.

So start with a sprinkling of olive oil in your hot hot pan and toss in one rather large onion, roughly diced. Of course, if you like a finer textuer, use a fine dice. Whatever. You might also use an earthily flavored oil (rosemary, garlic, sage) as well as shallots and/or garlic at this stage. (NOTE: if you use fresh garlic, wait til you are almost done cooking the onions so you don’t risk burning it).

What you want to do is carmelize the onions, or turn them brown; at least, that is my preference. Others may just sweat them until they are clear.

When you get the onions where you like them, crumble in 2 lbs of meat. Here’s where that technique thing comes in handy. Secret: it doesn’t matter what meat you use, whether it’s ground, shredded, chopped, fresh/raw, or leftover from last week, as long as you like it. In the US, ground meat (beef or lamb) is the most traditional.

Onions carmelized, meat browned, worchestershire sauce simmering nicely

Okay, so I tossed in 2 lbs of 12% lean ground beef, sprinkled that lightly with salt and liberally with pepper and thyme. Use a spoon and break it up, browning it completely and mixing it well with the onions as it cooks. When you’ve nearly got all the pink out of the pan, sprinkle in about a quarter to a half cup of worchestershire sauce (use this GF/CF/SF recipe). This will help to deglaze the carmelized onion bits and stuck on browned meat from the bottom of the pan. I like to let the whole mixture simmer in the sauce for about 5 minutes for that delicious sauce to get into all the meat and keep it moist.

Okay, the first layer is done and ready for the baking dish. Now, because two of my family hate vegetables and the other two love them, I make two 9×9 pans of pie. Only one will get the next layer of veggies.

How pretty is that! See how the cut sides of the brussels sprouts are all browned…perfect!

So, true to form, tonight I used some fresh veggies that are coming to the end of their shelf life in the veggie crisper: some brussels sprouts (aka baby cabbages) and baby carrots. Brussels sprouts are super easy to cook and come out tasting like sweet cabbages when cooked in the skillet. Just cut off the root end, peel off any yucky leaves, slice the whole little head in half and place in the skillet (yes, with a drizzle of olive oil) cut side down. And just leave them there, place each new one as you clean and cut it. Yes, I said it, just leave them sitting there, alone, untouched, unloved. Trust me, you won’t regret it. After you’ve cut up the carrots and thrown them in the pan, stir it all around a bit. Oh, yeah, don’t forget the salt and pepper…just a light sprinkle.

Okay, all done with that layer, so onto the meat it goes in the pan. Just the one pan, remember, for the veggie lovers.

All finished with three layers of yumminess and parsley on top!

The final layer is mashed potatoes. Well, tonight, I’m taking a page out of Sandra Lee’s semi-homemade book and using instant potatoes: Betty Crocker butter and chive instant potatoes, to be exact. Now since you are going to bake all of this when the layers are done, don’t even bother with boiling water, etc. Just mix hot tap water with the other ingredients and mix up the potatoes. Spoon them into the pan(s) and use your spoon to smooth them out into a nice layer.

Now mashed potatoes are the simple, American way to prepare this dish, but originally, it was made with thinly sliced or even shredded potatoes. I haven’t tried it, but I imagine some major goodness in doing a crispy hashbrown-ish top layer, frying up the tiny diced or shredded potatoes in a thin layer in the skillet and just sliding onto the top before baking. I think I would serve that with some sour cream and chives on the plate.

If you are a garnish kind of person, go to town. I’ve enjoyed a number of toppers including roasted garlic, various herbs (parsley, chive), different cheeses, but my favorite topper has always been horseradish chedder…mmmmmmmm.

Last step: shove the whole pan in a 350 degree oven for 30 minutes.

All the yumminess oozing out of the pie!

Now see all that juicy, saucy yumminess just oozing out onto the plate. Imagine the full, rich flavor of the beef complimented by the tangy worchestershire sauce, the lightly sweet brussels sprouts and carrots (now that they are fully roasted), and the smooth, buttery potatoes. This supper is well-paired with a Guiness beer or a spicy Malbec wine.

Casserole Reminder: make ahead of time and freeze until you are ready for it. This is a casserole, people. And all casseroles can be made up in double batches so you can freeze one for a later date. Same amount of effort for double the reward!!!

Weight Watchers PointsPlus: this makes 8 servings with each serving being 7 points.

Ingredients List:

  • 1 very large onion
  • 2 lbs meat
  • fresh or frozen veggies of your choice (need 2-3 cups worth)–briefly sautee or microwave-steam fresh veggies, place frozen directly onto cooked meat
  • 4 cups mashed potatoes (that’s 8 half-cup servings)
  • seasonings and toppings of your choice