Saturday, January 31, 2009

You may wonder how I do my shopping...

...since we have only one car and my husband takes it to work. (Well, if you knew we have only one car.)

The answer is grocery delivery.

While Jeff (or all of us if I need to get out) can pick things up at the 24 hour supermarket as needed, when I forget something or whatever, for most of our tax season grocery shopping, I order from Vons online and have the food delivered. It costs a little more (no coupons, which I usually can save a lot with, plus a $12 delivery fee unless I am doing a BIG shop-- $150+-- and happen to be buying things they have a free delivery promotion for) but it is SO worth it. The delivery guy and I got to be quite good friends last year. This year there's a new one, I look forward to getting to know him! :) They are friendly, they bring the grocery bags right to my door, and it's wonderful.

I do occasionally buy things like avocados that I want to check for ripeness myself at the little market down the street, and that's where we pick up bread when we run out or snacks, since we can walk there and back and they have excellent produce. But I couldn't bring myself to drag the kids back and forth enough times to pick up everything I needed-- not to mention they have a limited selection of American products which tend to be higher priced, as they are an Armenian market-- so they fill more of a need of supplying things we decide we want suddenly/run out of in between large deliveries.

I just had my first delivery of the year and it is so nice to have all of next week's groceries put away waiting for me. (Usually I'll do it biweekly but we bought the first week's in the store.) The process to order online makes thing simpler, too-- I don't have to write a paper list, I can just toggle windows between my menu, my recipes, and the shopping page.

Review of Cheesesteak Sandwiches

The sandwiches were a hit!

Jeff said the meat was kind of one big chunk at the end of 6 hours. So maybe stir it once in a while if you're home with it. (He stirred it up though and it was fine.)

It was tender and juicy (due to the way it was sliced), very flavorful, and I think even better than grilled meat for a cheesesteak. But that's me. (I don't claim to be an expert on cheesesteaks, mine have all been of the fast food/chain restaurant variety.) I think they could have used more salt and pepper (I only used about a tsp. of salt and a Tbsp. of pepper-- could maybe even have used a shot of soy sauce instead of salt) and maybe a Tbsp. of sugar to cut any bitterness from the bell peppers cooking so long. That's what I'll do next time.

I also thought that with different seasoning (a couple of Tbsp. of chipotle or a few dashes of hot sauce, a couple more of cumin, a dash of lime or lemon juice, a sprinkle of sugar) it would have made quite decend fajita filling. Perhaps an idea for a party?

For your reference, the provolone went first, it seemed to be the choice of cheese for a cheesesteak. And if I was serving them at home/at a party, I might toast the rolls first and maybe put out some mayo to spread on them. But it was well recieved, and I might do it again in April (with my seasoning changes.)

Friday, January 30, 2009

Friday 1/30: Cheesesteak Sandwiches

I looked around at several recipes but ended up kind of improvising based on the theme. Here's what I did (remember this is to make a HUGE amount, enough for 12 or more sandwiches:

-Sliced 2 onions in half-rings; dumped in crockpot.
-sliced 1 red, 1 1/2 yellow, and 2 green bell peppers into strips; dumped in crockpot.
-Using kitchen shears, cut almost 5 lbs. of beef loin flap meat (the stuff you use for fajitas; if you watch Good Eats and saw "Tender is the Loin", this is familiar territory) WITH the grain into pieces that were as wide as I wanted my strips long. Trimmed off excess fat and any silverskin that I found left on (because as Alton says, "That's definitely not good eats." Turned sideways and cut across the grain into thin strips. Dumped in crockpot.
-Seasoned with salt and fresh-ground pepper.
-Tossed (but left a lot of the onions on the bottom to carmelize.)

This will cook 6 hours on Low, then go to Warm until time to eat dinner, and be stirred just before serving.

It will be served with sliced French rolls and an assortment of cheeses (the traditional American slices, but also sliced mild Cheddar and sliced Provolone.) Each person will open a roll, put their desired cheese on, then top with meat/pepper/onion mixture, close it up and let the cheese melt while he makes his salad.

I kind of really hope there's some left over. ;)

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Thursday 1/29: Polish Sausage and Potatoes

This one is actually a family favorite. It's an adaptation of my mom's recipe, which she cooked on the stovetop (takes about 40 minutes with thin-sliced potatoes and sausage. If doing it on the stove saute the onions and sausage, sliced thinner than in this recipe, add the thinly sliced potatoes, and put water in to just almost come up to the top. Then cover and simmer until potatoes are tender. For us I usually use about 1 lb. potatoes, 1 package kielbasa, 1 medium onion. Can also be baked or put in foil packets, as you desire, and is easily done in a dutch oven over a fire.)

Here's what I'm doing (and I'm doing massive amounts because more people have joined AND this is my dinner tomorrow too):

4 lbs. baby red potatoes, halved
2 large sweet onions, sliced into half-circles
3 packages polska kielbasa (or other smoked sausage-- I'm actually using 1 package all-beef kielbasa, for the flavor, and 2 packages turkey smoked sausage, for lower fat and more protein per ounce), sliced into 1- to 1 1/2-inch pieces

Toss the potatoes, onions, and sausage in the slow-cooker together. Add water until the water is about 1/4 of the way up the side of the food. Cook on Low for at least 5 hours, until potatoes are cooked through. (You could do High but I never have to figure out the time.)

It's simple comfort food but I think it's a winner. Everyone I've ever served it to likes it and for a Thursday when they're working late, it's perfect. Resist the urge to add any seasonings (unless you want more garlic, that works well.) The sausage salts and flavors the potatoes quite nicely, and the onions get sweet and counterbalance the starchiness of the potatoes and the meatiness of the sausage.

I divided a third or so out into our home crockpot for our dinner tomorrow night. It was too much to fit even in a 6 qt and it looked good to me.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Review of Chicken Tortilla Soup

Verdict on the Chicken Tortilla Soup:

It was good. The flavors were superb, the texture (once tortilla chips and other toppings were in) was just right. It was a little bit more spicy than some people would like (mild to me, but I like spicy.) I would say if you have kids who are not fans of spicy, definitely tone it down, perhaps omit the jalapeno completely. That would take out most of the "kick" I think. (Like I said, I liked it.) There was enough left over after they all ate (and the boss tried some-- now he thinks he wants in, lol) for me to have a whole bowl when it got home. I don't know that I'll make this one for the co-op again (at least not this year) as it was a lot of work chopping. But if you want to go out and run errands and come home to a dinner to impress guests with, and don't mind a bit of work, this one is a winner!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Tuesday 1/27: Chicken Tortilla Soup

I used this recipe. My notes:

-I didn’t use shredded pre-roasted chicken. I had frozen chicken; I put the frozen pieces in a Pyrex bowl (2 small thighs and 2 large ½ boneless skinless breasts; I buy chicken when it’s cheap, de-skin if it has skin, wrap individually in waxed paper, and freeze, and these were “ends” of different packages I had in there), poured water in, seasoned with salt and pepper, covered with plastic wrap. Then I microwaved on high for 15 minutes, then let sit for ten. It came out perfectly poached. Instead of shredding I just did a rough dice. I figure it will fall apart cooking anyway.

-I forgot to get chicken broth when I was shopping at the big store. I walked with the kids to the little Armenian market but all they had was a tiny can; the recipe calls for about 3 of those. They were expensive (the American convenience foods tend to be expensive there; on the other hand, the meat, veggies, and imported brands are good and cheap) so I only got one. Poaching the chicken in the microwave solved my broth problem; I poured the liquid from the poaching out and got enough to equal about 2 more cans.

-I only found 2 decent tomatoes, and they were small, so I put those in and added an extra can of diced.

-I forgot to get an onion too. For once I’m out. So I used diced instead. I’m not worried because there’s extra liquid from the extra can of tomatoes.

-The store I went to didn’t have Anaheims in stock so I used Pasilla peppers instead. They have a similar heat level (mild) and are about the same size; the difference is that Anaheims are lighter green and have a brighter, slightly more bitter undertone while Pasillas are darker green and have a lower, muted fruitier undertone.

-I don’t keep Tobasco around and didn’t feel like buying it just for this. I upped the chipotle to a whole tsp. instead.

-While I was at it I doubled the cumin, because it just seemed like it could use more. (I really like cumin.)

-Since I was slicing the avocados ahead of time (and I did slice them, I think they look prettier that way than diced and also they maintain their integrity better in a bag) I put the juice of a lime in with them and shook around before sealing, in hopes they won’t turn completely brown.

-I also sliced up green onions in case anyone wants them. (Actually I did that the other day when I was doing the ones for the salad. Might as well do it all at once.)

I don’t usually like cilantro but I do like it in albondigas soup (ooh, that’s an idea; I bet I can do that in the crockpot!) and in curries, so since this recipe is almost a halfway point between those two flavors, I figured it will probably be good. If I get to taste any I’ll tell you!

This one is supposed to cook 5 hours on “High” but instead I will have him put it in right away for 4 hours on “High,” then it will go to “Warm” and they can get it whenever they are ready for dinner. The extra time on “Warm” should give it time for all the flavors to really meld.

Emma had fun helping me crush tortilla chips in a zipper bag. (I used about 2/3 of a bag. I was going to use those blue corn tortilla chips with flax seed in them for a little extra fiber, but the store I went to was out. So I just got the regular ones. She and Bridey also had fun helping “clean up” the avocado that got left in the skins when I scooped it out. ;)

Monday, January 26, 2009

Review of lasagna

Review of lasagna served 1/26

Well, we did find out one person has a mild allergy to mushrooms (luckily he was okay just picking them out. Why he did not say this when asked if he had any allergies, I don't know!)

The verdict: rave reviews. There was a little left over for me and Emma to taste and it was really good. You can't tell that it was low-fat cheese and whole-wheat pasta at all. I had thought of putting in some spinach; I think next time I will. This is going on the list of "things they don't mind if I make again." Some comments:


"It was really good, and so nice to have a warm dinner."

"It's like Maggiano's in a crockpot!"

"Oooooh, I'm full!"

(Now, to be fair, this is from a bunch of guys who are used to eating junk food all tax season so any real food is a pleasant change, but it was very good.) Quite a passable lasagna, and from a crockpot! Now that I know the technique-- order of layers, dry pasta, slightly thin sauce-- I can change some things around. I'd probably add spinach if making at home, for an "all in one pot" meal, and I think it would be really good with a mixture of sweet and hot Italian sausage to replace the beef. I was surprised that even after 4 hours on "warm" the noodles did not burn to the bottom or anything even though I didn't grease the pot. This one is going to become a staple at home as well as for the co-op. I forsee much more lasagna in our family's future now that I don't have to heat the house up to make it!

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Monday 1/26: Slow Cooker Lasagna

I started with this recipe. I made the following modifications:

-used whole-wheat lasagna noodles (and used the whole package)
-used part-skim ricotta and low-fat mozzarella
-used extra mozzarella
-added minced garlic to the beef before browning
-mixed the (undrained) mushrooms with the sauce instead of layering (I'm lazy that way)
-mixed Italian seasoning in with sauce instead of meat
-used a slightly smaller can of spaghetti sauce (that's what the store had.)

It will cook for 5 hours on low. We'll see how it works! I found the ricotta a bit hard to spread so I ended up putting globs all over and then spreading them out to just about cover, like frosting a cake. Emma washed her hands and helped sprinkle the cheese on.

Instead of breadsticks they're getting garlic bread. I got too lazy. Sorry. ;)

I also cut up veggies to go on their salads all week. This is starting to make me hungry...

Menu, weeks starting 1/26 and 2/2

Due to office politics, we will not be serving food on Saturdays, when their lunch is brought in. Instead juices will be included in each week's meals.

Recipes to follow.

All meals include salad with assorted veggies, croutons, and dressings and assortment of juices. Foods listed for each day are main dish and side or other menu items if applicable. Menus subject to change.


Monday 1/26

Tuesday 1/27
Chicken Tortilla Soup
Toppings for Chicken Tortilla Soup

Thursday 1/29
Kielbasa With Potatoes and Onions

Friday 1/30
Cheesesteak Sandwiches (meat in crockpot, buns and cheese on side; assemble as desired)


Monday 2/2
Nogales Pie

Tuesday 2/3

Thursday 2/5
Cranberry Chicken with Potatoes

Friday 2/6
Macaroni and Cheese
Fresh fruit

Monday, January 19, 2009

So what crockpot are you going to use for this?

I've had some conversations with people about this so I thought I'd do this post in a question/answer format. So here you go!

So what kind of crockpot are you going to use for this?

I just bought a new one: the Hamilton Beach Set & Forget Stay or Go 6 Quart Slow Cooker. (That, by the way, is the store with the cheapest price for it that I could find. Their website also lets you check your local store for availability; if they have it in-store you can save yourself shipping, or if they don't they also have a ship-to-store option where you order online and pick it up in-store.)

Why did you choose that one?

I chose that one because I wanted a larger-capacity crockpot with a lid that sealed for easy transportation of a full crock and a programmable timer that would cook for a set time and then turn to "warm." Rival makes a 6.5 qt. model that claims to, but all the reviews I found of that one said, "Don't do it! Steer clear! It's poorly designed and falls apart after a few uses!" This model, on the other hand (Hamilton Beach model 33967) gets very highly favorable reviews everywhere I look (with the exception of a few people who said theirs had faulty wiring or something and wouldn't turn on, but they also said that customer service was quite helpful and they were able to get replacements without a problem.) One reviewer said their crock full of chili slid off the car seat driving somewhere and it didn't spill a drop, the gasket-seal lid kept it all in! It also can be used in probe thermometer mode to cook a roast or meatloaf or whatever to a desired temperature rather than time, which is rather awesome, and has a spoon that clips right into the top so you don't lose it, which is a nice bonus. I don't know that I'll ever use the probe but I like having that option. And it looks like an all-around good value.

But it's from Hamilton Beach, so it's not really a "Crock Pot" then, is it?

No. You're right. It's technically a slow cooker. Crock Pot is a registered trademark of Rival brand, and in the past I have really been very loyal to their brand, because most of their products seem to be the best intersection of consistent quality and low price. However some of their "fancier" models get reviews saying that they cook too hot, fall apart, etc. So if I'm going to spend that much money on a slow cooker, I'm looking for one with better reviews. As for why I call it a crockpot when it is actually a slow cooker, in my family and community the terms are interchangable. Like saying "Kleenex" when you mean "tissue," or "Scotch tape" when you mean "cellophane tape" (or "Sellotape" if you're British, apparently.) If you have a problem with it you have my permission to mentally replace "crockpot" with "slow cooker" each time you read it.

So are you going to send it back and forth every day?

We're going to try it that way, at least. Jeff will wash it every day, I will refill it, he will take it back the next morning. Only the crock part though, the hardware part will stay at his work.

If that gets to be too much work, we'll buy a second, identical one, so he can bring it home and I can wash and refill it the next day at my leisure, and I'll have a second one already filled by the time he gets home each night so I can just relax, and we'll trade off which crock is at his work and which one is at home being washed and refilled.

You mean you're going to buy two $50 crockpots?

Maybe. Probably. If you think about it, though, $100 is not that big of an investment in equipment when it's going to save us a lot on the cost of my husband eating take-out, etc. Also, I just spent more than $100 on disposable serveware for them to eat out of at Smart and Final. So, yeah, not that bad. Those costs will actually be mostly covered by what folks put in toward the costs, though, and at the end of it I'll have 2 new crockpots, which is great.

What will you use them for when you're done though? I mean, won't it be a waste of space to have 2 more crockpots in your kitchen?

In my opinion, more crockpots are never a waste of space! I've had parties where I cooked everything, or almost everything, in crockpots. I anticipate using them many times in the year to come, and of course if this goes well we'll do it again next year, so it will be a one-time investment for many years' savings during tax season.

Wait, you've had parties where you cooked everything in crockpots? How many do you have?

Well, not counting the new one I had 3. And I would borrow several more from my aunt, my dad, etc. I think with the new one (and possible second new one) I'd be able to not have to borrow and return any others, which would be nice.

So that's the scoop on my new crockpot. If you guys have any other questions post them in comments and I'd be happy to answer. :)

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Watch This Space

My husband is a tax accountant. From mid-January until mid-April, he works insane hours-- 100+ hour weeks, Sundays his only day off. Many days he doesn't have time to do more than microwave an instant mac and cheese or Cup O' Noodles and eat it at his desk while he works. He can have food delivered, but that's expensive and not that healthy either. Wednesday nights dinner is provided for the employees, but that leaves 5 nights a week when he's not eating well or skipping dinner completely and just snacking at work. Considering he usually doesn't have time for lunch, either, that's not really a good thing. And by the time he gets home he's so tired that in the battle between food and sleep, sleep often wins out.

I decided that this year we needed to do something different. I toyed with the idea of a Mr. Bento, but that seemed like a lot of work for him (since I'm often not up when he leaves for work so he'd basically be packing a complicated lunch every day, time that could be spent sleeping instead. I know him; he'd choose to sleep. Because of the way the bento jar works, it couldn't be packed the night before, really, not without extra work in the morning and extra dishes to boot.)

Then I hit upon the idea of using a crockpot. I love my crockpots; I do lots of crockpot cooking and even taught an Enrichment activity class for my Relief Society. But if I was going to cook for one in a crockpot, that a) might not go over well and b) would be a lot of work for one person. So I came up with another idea: why not keep a crockpot at his work and offer anyone in his office a chance to sign up and chip in for dinner each night, and that way they could ALL eat a decent meal each day, save money, be healthier in their food choices, and we'd have more of a budget for nicer meal choices?

And so the Tax Season Crockpot Co-Op was born. For each 2-week period that a co-worker wants to participate, s/he will chip in $20. Five days a week (every day but Sunday and Wednesday) I will send my husband to work with a pre-filled crock of food and instructions on how to cook it (I'll be aiming for things that can go 8-12 hours in the crock on low most days.) That works out to $2/person/night for a complete meal-- can't get that price ordering in! That's less than you could spend on a frozen dinner, even! Weekly a 5-lb. box of spring mix salad, salad dressings, and salad "fixin's" will also be provided, and daily there will sometimes be a side dish (such as a bread or fruit) to complete the meal. We anticipate that each dish made will be made to serve 8-12 people, since participation may vary from fortnight to fortnight.

On this blog I'll chronicle our menus, recipes (with links to where I found them online and notes on modifications I made, or a post of my own on the recipe I'm using), notes on what went over well and what didn't, or anything else I come up with that seems relevant. :) I find it useful to have an online repository of this information, and friends on a forum have asked that I share it, hence the blog.

So watch this space! I'm sure I'll discover some really great recipes and you can benefit from the experiment, too!