Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Five Dollar Meals

As I was scrolling through my news feed the other day, a Wal-Mart ad caught my eye (Thanks, Facebook!). It was a picture of a box of Kraft macaroni and cheese and a big jug of storebought, prepared Kool-Aid. The picture was captioned, identifying the combination as a "weeknight family meal". Now call me Judgy McJudgerton, but THAT is not a weeknight family meal! At best, it's a "there's nothing left in the pantry or refrigerator and payday isn't until tomorrow" kind of meal. Or even a "Mom is incapacitated and Dad's fixing dinner tonight" kind of meal. (See, now I'm judgmental AND sexist!)

All I'm saying is, it's easy to whip up a healthy, filling meal under normal circumstances without resorting to such extreme measures. I mean, at least serve a side of apple sauce or a handful of grapes with that meal! I'd be happy to show you just a couple of options for roughly the same price.

Let's just say I'm fixing lunch for my four little darlings. Here's what Wal-Mart's meal looks like:

Macaroni and cheese: $1.00 per box X 2 boxes = $2.00
Kool-Aid (purchased prepared): $3.00
Total Meal: $5.00
(Of course, this doesn't include the butter and milk needed to prepare the pasta. They'd be negligible.)

Here is a different option:

Black beans: $0.60 per can X 2 = $1.20
Tortillas: (1/2 package) $0.60
Spinach: (1/2 package) $0.40
Cheddar cheese: (8 oz) $1.90
Pineapple chunks: $0.90
Total Meal: $5.00

With these ingredients, plus some salsa and other seasonings you probably already have in your fridge, you can make Black Bean Soup, spinach and cheese quesadillas, and a side of pineapple!

Guess which meal is healthier? Now, I'm sure some of you may be saying that your kids wouldn't eat that, but I have at least two that don't like boxed mac and cheese! That's fair enough, though. I make homemade "Spaghettios" for my kids (and me!) all the time, and that's comparable to good old cheesy mac. Check this out:

Pasta: (2 cups) $0.50
Tomato sauce: $1.00
Tomato paste: (negligible, but let's say) $0.10
Cheddar cheese: (4 oz) $0.95
Gala apples: (3 small) $0.63
Greek yogurt, vanilla: (1/2 large container) $1.95
Total Meal: $5.13

That's a BIG pot of flavorful pasta, plus a side of apple slices with Greek yogurt for dipping (I add a sprinkling of cinnamon, too!) And neither of these two meals takes much more time than cooking up that blue box.

It's all about perspective and priorities. Sure, there's a time and place when all you feel like is that blue box and Kool-Aid, if that's how you roll. My objection is to the suggestion that those two items are a legitimate complete meal.

Let's come up with a better "weeknight family meal" advertisement, Wal-Mart!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Red Pepper Hummus

I improvised this hummus recipe the other day when I realized I was out of spinach for my favorite Spinach & Feta Hummus. I was craving a relatively healthy snack that could pretty much double up for my lunch and this Red Pepper Hummus satisfied my craving perfectly. I used pita crackers from Aldi as my dipper, and also had a hard-boiled egg and half of a honeycrisp apple. It kept me full all afternoon!

Red Pepper Hummus

1/2 red bell pepper, chopped
3 cloves garlic, peeled and halved
1/4 cup olive oil, plus 1 tablespoon
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 can garbanzo beans (chickpeas), rinsed and drained
salt and pepper, to taste
1 teaspoon cumin
1-1/2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/4 cup feta cheese (optional)

In a small skillet over medium heat, saute the red pepper and garlic in 1 tablespoon olive oil until tender. Sprinkle in the red pepper flakes and cook for a minute longer. Remove from heat.

Meanwhile, in a food processor combine the chickpeas, salt and pepper, cumin, and lemon juice. When the peppers and garlic are ready, add them to the food processor and blend. Drizzle in about 1/4 cup olive oil and blend well. Add in the feta if using and blend. At this point you'll want to check your seasoning and adjust if necessary, adding a touch more oil or lemon juice to get the hummus to your desired consistency.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Chocolate Chip Cream Cheese Bars

If I had to name my favorite dessert, I'd say cheesecake and soft, warm chocolate chip cookies would be tied for first place. These decadent bars have the best of both worlds!

Chocolate Chip Cream Cheese Bars

2-1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup white sugar
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 eggs
1 package (12 ounces) chocolate chips

1 package (8 ounces) cream cheese
1/4 cup white sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 egg

Preheat oven to 375°. Combine dry ingredients in a bowl and set aside. In a mixing bowl, combine sugars, butter and vanilla. Beat until creamy. Add eggs and mix well. Add dry ingredients and mix again. Stir in chocolate chips.

Line an 8-inch square baking pan with foil and spray with cooking spray. Press about half (a little less) of the cookie dough into the bottom of the pan, all the way to the edges. Transfer remaining cookie dough to your (now empty) dry ingredients bowl. Wash out your mixing bowl.

In your (now clean) mixing bowl, combine the cream cheese, sugar, vanilla and egg. Mix until smooth and well blended. Pour over the top of the pan of cookie dough. Dollop 9 teaspoonfuls of reserved cookie dough over the cream cheese layer. Bake at 375° for 22-25 minutes until it's very lightly browned.

Cool completely, remove from pan using foil to lift it out, and cut into squares. Yield: 2 dozen bars

Now, the awesome part of this is that you have some cookie dough left over! You can do one of a few things with it:

1) Bake cookies right away! 8-10 minutes at 375°. This should make about 2 dozen cookies.

2) Portion the dough out onto wax paper covered cookie sheets, freeze it, then transfer it to a freezer bag. Whenever you want a few fresh cookies, just pull some out and bake as usual.

3) Make a bigger batch of the bars to begin with and eliminate the leftovers! Just follow the recipe and make these changes: double the cream cheese layer, use a 9x13 pan, and add 7-10 minutes to the cooking time. (You'll use just over half the dough for the bottom cookie layer, of course.)

Friday, November 7, 2014

Oatmeal Crumble Apple Pie

We've been eating lots of apple desserts around here lately! Recently, one of Jeff's co-workers offered him a big bag of Granny Smiths and of course he accepted, knowing I could use them to create said desserts. One thing I've made is a fantastic Food Network recipe called Apple-Butterscotch Blondies. I am telling you, these things are moist and packed full of flavor! I love that they have a butterscotch twist instead of the standard cinnamon. Now that I've said that, I'm here today to offer you an apple recipe featuring the standard cinnamon!

Oatmeal Crumble Apple Pie

4 large Granny Smith apples, thinly sliced (no need to peel!)
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup white granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
dash of salt

pastry for single-crust pie (If you don't want to make your own, store-bought is fine.)

1 cup old-fashioned oats
1/4 cup shredded coconut
1/4 cup self-rising flour
dash of salt
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon cinnamon
(I also add in 1/4 cup of mixed flax seed and wheat germ, totally optional!)
3/4 cup brown sugar
4 tablespoons butter, softened

Preheat the oven to 375. In a large bowl, combine the first seven ingredients. Pour the filling into your pie crust. For the crumble, just combine all the ingredients for it in the same bowl you mixed your filling. Use your hands to mix the butter in until the ingredients are completely moistened. Sprinkle the topping over the apples, pressing down slightly. Bake at 375 for 40-45 minutes, until topping is browned and apples are tender. If you like your apples very soft, you may want to lightly cover the top with foil halfway through baking and bake it longer. I prefer the apples to have a little bite to them.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Multigrain Yeast Rolls

Have I mentioned before how much my family adores bread? It's crazy. I have long since stopped fighting it, and if anyone develops this trendy gluten-intolerance thing we are in serious trouble! At any rate, I figure if they're going to be eating so much bread it might as well be fairly good for them. A while back I purchased a 7-Grain Hot Cereal Blend from Bob's Red Mill for a multigrain bread recipe, which we all really enjoyed. Recently I came across a different yeast roll recipe and I immediately thought of making them multigrain with this cereal. They were soft, tender, and absolutely delicious!

Multigrain Yeast Rolls

2-1/3 cups water, divided
1/2 cup quick-cooking oats
1/2 cup 7-grain cereal
2/3 cup brown sugar
3 tablespoons butter, softened
1-1/2 teaspoons salt
2 packages (1/4 ounce each) active dry yeast (4-1/2 teaspoons)
2 cups whole wheat flour
3-4 cups all-purpose flour

In a mixing bowl, combine the oats and cereal. Pour two cups boiling water over and stir. Let sit for 2 minutes, then stir in the sugar, butter, salt and remaining water. Let cool to 110° - 115°. Add in yeast, wheat flour and 1 cup all-purpose flour. Blend well. Add enough remaining flour to form a soft dough. Turn onto a floured surface and knead until smooth and no longer sticky. Place in a greased bowl, turn once to grease top. Cover and let rise in a warm place for one hour or until doubled. Turn dough out onto a floured surface and divide into 24 rolls. Place in greased pans. For crusty rolls, use baking sheets and allow space between the rolls. For softer rolls (my personal favorite), snuggle them into round cake pans. Cover and let rise until doubled, about 30 minutes. Bake at 375° for 15 minutes on baking sheets or 20-22 minutes in cake pans. Yield: 2 dozen

Monday, November 3, 2014

Creamy Chicken Noodle Soup

I have no idea what happened to fall, but this happens every year it seems! We go from summer to winter with only a few days of autumn - which may or may not be consecutive! At any rate, Friday was hot. I mean, we all wore short sleeves, for Pete's sake. Saturday, not so much. The kids were outside playing in hats, gloves, and coats! The good news is, it was the perfect day for a bowl of hot soup and some hearty rolls for dinner. Today I'm sharing the soup recipe, which I made up as I went along and is really easy and flavorful! The seasoning blend I used is one my dear friend sent to me from a local spice shop. This was my first time using it and I think it's safe to say this one's a keeper!

Creamy Chicken Noodle Soup

2 chicken breasts, diced
2 teaspoons of your favorite seasoning blend (i.e. Mrs. Dash or lemon-pepper)
1 tablespoon canola oil
3 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup finely diced onion
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup finely diced carrots
1/2 cup finely diced celery
2 cups finely diced spinach
3 tablespoons flour
1 carton (32 ounces) reduced-sodium chicken stock
1-1/2 cups elbow macaroni (or pasta of your choice)
1/4 cup heavy cream

 In a stew pot, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Saute the chicken in the seasoning until just cooked through, about 5-6 minutes, depending on how small you diced them. Remove from pot and set aside.  Saute all the veggies together in the butter, seasoning with a little salt and pepper. When the onion begins to look translucent, sprinkle in the flour, stir and cook for 2-3 minutes. Stir in chicken stock and add the cooked chicken back to the pot. Bring to a boil, then stir in the pasta. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 8-10 minutes until your pasta is al dente. Reduce heat to low; stir in the cream. Check your seasoning, then serve! Yield: 6-8 servings

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Fruit and Cereal Bars

My kiddos (and their parents, honestly) love snacks. Yet, I am somehow always surprised at how quickly they go through the snacks I buy when we go grocery shopping! It shouldn't come as a shock, since with most boxes containing 6-8 snacks even if they only ate one per day that's only two days' worth. I try to compensate by buying a variety of options and making homemade treats to enjoy as well. Typically, my kids have fresh and canned fruit, Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, string cheese, granola bars, cereal bars, raisins, and various other options from which to choose. They ask, on average, seventeen times a day if they can have a snack, though they're limited to two in-between meals treats, usually at 10:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m.

The recipe I'm sharing with you today is one I've made many times, and it's one of our absolute favorite treats. I'm not sure how much cheaper it is than store-bought, but these cereal bars are definitely better for them and much tastier! I adapted my version from this recipe for Homemade Cereal Bar Cookies.

Fruit and Cereal Bars

1 cup cold butter, cut into pieces
1 cup old-fashioned oats
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup flaxseed*
1/4 cup wheat germ*
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup jam or jelly or preserves or apple butter

Preheat the oven to 350°. Line a 9x13 pan with foil and spray with cooking spray. In a food processor, combine the dry ingredients and blend until well combined. Toss in 1/2 of the butter and pulse until coarse crumbs begin to form. Add in the rest of the butter and the vanilla and pulse until well combined. Pour half of the mixture into the prepared pan and press down firmly and evenly, all the way to the edges. Gently spread the jam over the top, leaving a border of about an inch all around. Carefully sprinkle the remaining cereal mixture over the jam, making sure to cover it well. Press down firmly but gently all the way to the edges. Bake at 350° for 25-30 minutes, until golden brown and the edge is slightly darker. (They will firm up some as they cool.) Allow to cool in the pan for at least an hour. When cool to the touch, transfer the bars (using the foil to lift them) to a cutting board. Cut into 16 bars and store in an air-tight container in the fridge. They can also be frozen - just thaw them slowly in the fridge overnight.

* You can leave these two things out and simply increase the oats by 1/2 cup.