Saturday, November 23, 2013

Things to be thankful for

In Southern Indiana, Fall brings beloved "sweater weather" alternating with shorts and t-shirt weather. It's good times. Except when those alternating weather patterns bring tornadoes, like they did last week. Some of the little towns in Illinois where my mother-in-law grew up were hard hit by the killer storms, as were some Southern Indiana towns. It was a similar situation to November 5, 2005, when a twister cut a path through my hometown and many smaller towns, taking lives and destroying scores of homes - like that of my current next-door neighbors, who are blessed to have lived through it. I'm thankful that this time our city was spared, and I pray for those who were affected by this November's tornadoes.

I'm thankful for so many things that it would be hard to list them all. We are blessed beyond belief. But one thing I've been particularly thankful for recently is my friends. As you grow up and grow older, friends come and go. Those you thought would be with you til the end of time fade gently away; those you've been with through thick and thin suddenly decide there is no room for you in their lives anymore; those you quickly bonded with and shared laughs with in adulthood just as quickly move back out of the picture through physical distance or busy schedules; those you thought you'd lost in growing up come back into your life and bring a new and different joy; and those you've simply been acquainted with - sometimes for years - you wake up one day to realize have slowly, quietly become the ones you hold closest to your heart.

One of those old school friends (should I say imaginary high school nemesis?) helped make this freezer cooking adventure a reality. I'm thankful for my friend Christina and for her being back in my life. She's smart, witty, caring (no matter what she says), giving, a good cook, and a helluva mom and wife. And I have her to thank for introducing me to her neighbor and fellow freezer cook Kathi.

A fellow animal lover and all-around super-nice person, Kathi has been fun to cook and plan with, and I've enjoyed getting to know her. She was even nice enough to share her dad's chili recipe with me - which was used in last weekend's freezer cooking adventure. And even better - she's letting me share it with y'all. Enjoy!

My Dad's Chili
Courtesy of Kathi F.

1 lb ground chuck
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
1 large can condensed tomato soup
1 15.5 oz can diced tomatoes
1 medium can Brooks chili beans
Chili powder to taste
5 handfuls of elbow macaroni (optional)

In large pot, saute onion in oil until caramelized (fancy for browned). In a separate skillet, brown the ground chuck; drain. Add drained beef to onions. Add tomato soup, diced tomatoes, chili beans and chili powder. Fill tomato soup and Brooks cans with water and add to pot. Stir well.

Bring to a boil over medium heat, then reduce to simmer for at least an hour, stirring periodically. (I do not cover because I like my chili thicker and not so runny.)

OPTIONAL: Add macaroni about 10 minutes before ready to serve. Chili is done when pasta is al dente.

TIP: For thicker chili, cook uncovered; turn heat off when done and let sit for a bit.

photo credit: Vox Efx via photopin cc

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

What the heck is a "pilau" anyway?

I am such a dork sometimes.

There's this recipe I found in Southern Living magazine about 10 years ago and have been making ever since. It's called Chicken & Smoked Sausage Pilau. And for 10 years, every time I made it, I thought to myself, "What the heck is a pilau?" But I never thought until this week to just Google the damn word. Turns out it's just another variation of "pilaf." Which got me thinking, what exactly is a pilaf anyway? I know in general American restaurant terms it's just seasoned rice. But since general American restaurants have a tendency to generally bastardize everything, I looked up the term pilaf as well.

Here's what tells me about pilaf/pilau:


  [pi-lahfpee-lahf]  Show IPA
a Middle Eastern dish consisting of sautéed, seasoned rice steamed in bouillon, sometimes withpoultry, meat or shellfish.
rice cooked in a meat or poultry broth.
Also, pi·laff, pilaupilaw.

1925–30;  < Turkish pilâv  < Persian pilāw

Ahhh, that makes sense! The recipe is basically chicken, smoked sausage and rice. But the time, labor and seasonings make it so much more than what those three simple ingredients imply. And so it quickly became a favorite in our home. And since the recipe makes way too much for two people to eat - even taking leftovers and lunches into consideration - I always freeze half of it for later.

So, for my freezer cooking friends, here's the recipe - with my modifications from over the years. 

Chicken & Smoked Sausage Pilau
Adapted from Southern Living
(Cook time: approx. 1.5 hours; Serves 8-10)

Photo source:
5 lb whole chicken or whole chicken cut up
2 lb smoked sausage, sliced into 1" pieces
1 large bunch fresh thyme (or 2 tsp dried)
2 bay leaves
2 carrots, cut in half
3 celery ribs (including leafy parts), cut in half
2 large sweet onions, chopped
1-1/2 Tbsp seasoned salt
1/2 Tbsp black pepper
8 cups water
4 cups long-grain rice

In a large stockpot, bring all ingredients EXCEPT rice to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer, covered, 1 hour. Remove from heat and let stand 15 minutes. Remove and discard celery, carrots, thyme stems and bay leaf from stock, reserving stock in stockpot.* Remove chicken and cool slightly. Remove skin and bones, then coarsely chop chicken.

Saute sausage in large skillet until browned. Drain, if needed. Add chicken and sausage to reserved stock in stockpot and bring to a boil. Stir in rice and return to boil. Cover, reduce heat to low, and cook 20 minutes or until stock is absorbed and rice is tender.

If you're not serving an army or are unwilling to eat leftovers of the same thing for a week, freeze some! Cool half of finished meal completely, place in gallon freezer bag, squeezing all excess air out of the bag as you close it. Press contents out to flatten bag and freeze. To reheat, thaw in refrigerator overnight and nuke for a couple of minutes. If rice is too dry for your liking, add a splash of chicken stock.

*I often get the veggies and herb stems out of my stock by placing a colander or sieve over a large mixing bowl and straining the stock into the bowl. Then dump the stock back into the pot. It can be downright maddening to chase soft pieces of carrot and those ninja bay leaves around in hot, murky chicken stock with a frickin' slotted spoon.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Freezer Cooking Adventure #2

It seems like Fall is the craziest season of the year for me. At work, clients are wrapping up their programs for the year and beginning to plan their Q1 initiatives. In Tupperware, it's vendor fair season with lots of craft shows and Christmas bazaars. And in the Masonic organizations the Big Guy and I are members of, there are numerous Fall fundraisers and events, our annual Shrine circus on Thanksgiving weekend, and week after week of Christmas parties on the horizon. It seems that every weekend is jam-packed with activities, and the weeknights aren't much better. Folks like to think couples without kids have all this free time on our hands, but life is what you make it. And the Big Guy and I make our non-working days and nights full of friends, fellowship and opportunities to give back to this world that has given us so much.

All of these long working hours, meetings, events, and activities make for busy weeknights and the temptation to grab takeout or go out to eat, because even though it takes just as long to drive to a restaurant and eat there as it does to cook at home it just seems easier to let yourself be waited on than to stare into the fridge wondering what the heck to make, spend a half hour on your feet in the kitchen preparing something and then deal with the clean-up. Add to all this the fact that we both now go to bed by 8:30-9:00 each night because we're getting up at 4:30 for work (Big Guy) or the gym (me), and our evenings are maddeningly brief. But all this eating out and takeout food gets expensive! Plus, I'm trying desperately to lose all the weight I accumulated in my 20s, so I really want to gain more control over the type and quality of food I'm putting in my body.

As I wrote about before, these factors led a few friends and me to try the freezer cooking method of dinner planning. Our first session was a little crazy and we learned a lot of valuable lessons about what worked well and what didn't. So when we started planning session #2, we went in with all our notes about our previous experience and worked hard to make this session go more smoothly. The biggest lesson I learned from our first experience was that, even though freezer cooking days are long and challenging - and your body tells you about it the next day - it is so worth it! I came home with a couple of weeks' worth of heat-and-eat meals that were much more nutritious than takeout and nearly as easy. The Big Guy is a fan because neither of us is stressing out over dinner, and it's budget-friendly. Yes, the initial investment is high because of the volume of food being prepared at once. But spread out over all the meals you end up with in the freezer, the savings are incredible - especially if you plan your shopping right and take advantage of major grocery store sales on meat and staples.

Here's a summary of the lessons learned and applied from Freezer Cooking Adventure #1:

  • Planning sessions are a must! 
    • The first go-round, we did have a planning session that went very well. Where we hit a bump, though, was that only 3 of the 4 planned participants attended, so the fourth person was not quite up to speed with the game plan. 
    • Tip: Planning sessions don't have to take much time. Our first one was a couple hours long, but we were all new to this and there was lots to discuss. Our second one only took one hour early on a Saturday morning. We all met at a centrally located Starbucks, had coffee, mapped out our plan, and then went our separate ways to kick off our weekends.
  • No additional participants may be added after the planning session.
    • Part of what made our first freezer cooking day awkward and difficult was that the person who did not attend the planning session decided to invite one more person to join us. No big deal, right? Wrong. During planning, we carefully multiplied and divided to ensure we were making the same amount of each recipe for each family. We shopped for exactly the right amount of ingredients. We showed up for cooking day and were surprised to find one more person there expecting to exchange meals when we had not planned for her. She was a lovely person and we enjoyed cooking with her, but the division of meals ended up being off. Some people were shorted and everyone was a bit uncomfortable. 
  • Create a place for online collaboration and tweak it until it works for your group. 
    • We began planning our first session through Facebook private messaging. This was good because it allowed everyone to be in on the conversation, but the downside was that if you added anyone after the conversation started, the new participant couldn't see the conversation history. Plus, all the scrolling and back and forth was hard to keep up with. 
    • For the second go-round, we created a private Facebook group. This allows us to share recipe and planning files under a single tab, have separate conversations under individual posts, create events with maps (helpful when not everyone knows where everyone else lives), share recipes and ideas, and add new people without having to recap information for them. Once they're in the group, they can see the entire group history and all files.
    • If you're Pinterest-obsessed (like me), create a group board to share recipes and ideas. Click here to visit ours!
  • Pay attention to grocery store ads and "loss leaders," then plan your recipes accordingly.
    • Loss leaders are those incredibly deep discounts stores offer from time to time to bring shoppers in the doors. If you have a large freezer, stock up on expensive items like meat when they're on sale cheap. For instance, Schnucks had leg quarters in 10 lb bags for 49 cents/pound several weeks ago. I bought 20 lbs and separated them into gallon freezer bags for later use. Later they had whole chickens cut up for 99 cents/lb. I bought three packages and did the same thing - flash froze the pieces and individually bagged each chicken. I kept the wings and backs out separately and put them all together in their own bag to make chicken stock later. So, when planning this latest freezer cooking day, I had the 20 lbs of bone-in chicken I needed already on hand. Just thawed in the fridge before cooking day and I was ready!
    • Tip: Do not freeze, thaw and refreeze raw ingredients. It diminishes the quality and taste. Only freeze your meat before cooking day if you're going to thaw and COOK it like I did. Once it's cooked, you can refreeze it without hurting the quality or taste.
  • Create multiple work areas to keep from tripping over one another.
    • Last time we had one very large table in the kitchen for all of our ingredients, prep, assembly and packaging. There was no counter space, and while the table was enormous, it just wasn't sufficient or effective for our needs. We were constantly on top of one another.
    • This time we had four distinct work areas: 1) stove and surrounding counter space - for cooking and cooling; 2) sink and surrounding counter space - for keeping up with dishes throughout the day; 3) prep table & snack table in the kitchen - normally a breakfast nook, the existing kitchen table was pushed to the corner and became the snack/drink zone, the big bay window became the equipment storage area, and a small folding table became a prep station for cutting meat and chopping veggies; 4) long folding table in dining room - for staging/measuring ingredients, labeling bags/packaging, assembling meals and planning.
  • Start planning your next freezer cooking day during downtime in your current cooking day - like when you stop for a lunch break. You may or may not work out all the details at that time, but it helps to get a jump start to keep you on track.
Kitchen prep area - small folding table and
big bay window (and wine, of course!)
Stove prep area - remember to take into consideration
how many large burners you will need!
Dining room staging/assembly/planning area

This was an incredibly long day, and more valuable lessons were learned (which I'll recap for you next time), but in the end we each walked away with 8 meals or meal components to make our weeknights or breakfast times easier. (Breakfast on the go turns out to be a big need for this particular group.) And many of them were HEALTHY. Added bonus. Here's what we ended up splitting between 4 cooks:
I'll try to share more recipes once I get approval from the group (some of these are personal recipes) and once I have the actual recipes in hand. That's another TIP: create a binder and use it to store all your freezer meal successes! That way, you'll have a handy resource for recipes you know work well and that everyone in your group likes.