Two Batches of S’mores Happiness Versus One Bad Day

A law school girlfriend’s birthday was Sunday, so I wanted to make her a treat – I love spoiling people for their birthdays! I also was in one of my bad moods today, and was generally irritable, which isn’t nice because sometimes it comes out as snipping at J. Not that he doesn’t deserve some snipping on occasion, but today he truly was an innocent bystander. Baking has become a significant part of my evolving coping mechanisms, so tonight became the night to bake a birthday treat.

I have seen recipes for different variations of S’mores bars and cookies all over Pinterest, and what’s happier than a S’more! They immediately conjure up memories of campfires, summer, lounging at J’s parent’s camper at the lake, swimming, kayaking, and fireworks on the 4th. Happy stuff! And I need happy stuff! Yay S’mores!

The recipe I used is over on Chocolate, Chocolate, and More. And really, how can you not trust a lady with a blog name like that! Sounds like my kind of gal! I ended up using two smaller round pie dishes because I wanted to make two versions – one with the graham cracker crust, for my friend, and one without graham crackers, because I personally think that graham cracker crusts are a pain in the butt and after the first one I thought, “eh, no.”

Basically, it’s a chocolate chip cookie with mini marshmallows in it, which is one of those things that makes me say “why did I not think of this!” The batter ends up thick and chunky and delicious, but it spreads and rises nicely.

smores1smores2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you remember my brownie disaster post, you’ll recall that I love batter. J shares that sentiment, so I had to keep chasing him away from the bowl. Threats of bodily harm with a wooden spoon didn’t deter him too much (although I do have a history of whacking him with Tupperware when he deserves it), but I was able to keep him at bay until I at least had everything in the oven, after which I surrendered the bowl and spoon with a dollop of batter as a peace offering and he willingly retreated to the living room.

After twenty minutes, my S’mores pies looked amazing and very campfire-ish, because the marshmallows puffed and browned slightly at the surface and it just looked like summer and put a huge smile on my face.

smores3

Then to top it off, literally, the recipe instructs you to smoosh pieces of a Hershey bar on top after it comes out of the oven. I used mini Hershey bars, and may or may not have made myself a mini s’more with my mini chocolate and mini marshmallows while lacing my s’mores pies with extra chocolate. Because, well, chocolate, chocolate, and more chocolate!

smores4

J and I dug into ours, and I think I can safely say that the birthday girl is going to be delighted! So are my other girlfriends who I have class with tomorrow, because our leftovers will be handed out as well in an effort to moderate the net caloric intake of my household. J was sure to remind me that I need to save him “at least one!” for tomorrow, but if one is going to use baking as a mood stabilizer, one must also make sure to stabilizer portion sizes, which in turn helps stabilize those scale numbers.

At the end of the night, I was in a much better mood. Baking works for me, I’ve figured out, because it’s time I have to do something I enjoy without THINKING. Because most of my THINKING turns into FRETTING, and the fretting is what turns into the snipping. While I’m baking instead of fretting, I think my brain starts subconsciously working things out on its own, and by the time I’m turning the oven off a solution or some reassurance seems to magically materialize along with dessert.

After many, many nights spent chasing away bad moods with baking over the course of the past six months, I’ve finally admitted to myself, as well as to a few select people whom I love and trust dearly, that I struggle with depression. That was a very scary thing for me. Mental illness runs on one side of my family, and I’ve always been petrified at the thought of that dark set of traits leaping out of my genetic closet and shoving me down a path of self-destruction, as I’ve seen happen to my mother and several others.

Baking appealed to me so much as a coping mechanism for those moments when depression grabs me because it’s a constructive activity. It makes people happy. It engages someone in a conversation and brightens their day. They express their appreciation for their treat, and in turn, for you. It is a way of connecting with someone and receiving their help without burdening the interaction with heavy conversation. It makes me happy, keeps my hands busy, and keeps my mind settled.

And best of all, who can be sad while eating a s’more?

Advertisements

Spiced Venison Steak-Ums

My Healthy Lifestyle Change Efforts have been paying off recently (nope, still not calling it a diet), in the form of both lower scale readings and, this morning, a very sore knee. I’ve cut my mile time down quite a bit in the past two weeks, and in return the legs mutinied and demanded a day off. Without the gym time to factor into my day, I wanted something exceptionally lean for dinner.

Which led me to reach for venison again, but I was craving something other than a burger. We usually have multiple forms of venison in our fridge, so tonight I grabbed a bag of it in Steak-Um form. For those of you not familiar with Steak-Ums (I have absolutely no idea if that is a universally understood term, or if its something colloquial. Like Speedies, which are HUGE in the area of New York state where I grew up – but then I transplanted one state over and people looked at me like I had three heads when I asked where I could get Speedies), it is essentially a loin sliced extremely thin. Think of the slices of beef you’d find on a Philly Cheesesteak. And although I like the taste of venison au naturel, I was in the mood to jazz things up.

As well as attempting to keep my diet a little cleaner these days, I was desperate to get something into J that wasn’t ice cream, which has become his staple for the past week. He’s still very sore and can’t eat anything other than soft foods after getting all four wisdom teeth yanked last Monday, so ice cream is his best friend. I feel like an evil witch if I give him the side eye at his frequent trips to the freezer, because he looks at me with this innocent, pained face and cries “but my TEETH HURT!”

Ok, so, soft, healthy veggies. Whaddowegot? “Power Greens” mix! Which is a pre-bagged mix of spinach, kale, bok choy, arugula, and a few other dark green leafies that you can find pretty much anywhere. The spinach is the predominate flavor, so J eats it willingly. Cook that down and throw in a can of butter beans for more substance, and you’ve got a healthy, filling side dish. Good stuff!

Spiced Steak-Ums

Servings: 4

Prep and cook time: ~15 minutes

What you’ll need:

1/2 pound of venison or beef, thinly sliced

1 egg

4 tablespoons garlic powder

4 tablespoons chili powder

4 teaspoons dried dill

2 tablespoons olive oil

Heat one tablespoon of olive oil in a large pan over medium heat. When working with meat that is this thinly sliced, you don’t want your heat too high, or the meat will burn quickly. If you’re using an electric stove like I am, don’t get your heat above 6, at most.

Whisk an egg in a bowl. On a plate, thoroughly mix together 2 tablespoons garlic powder, 2 tablespoons chili powder, and 2 teaspoons dill. Working with one piece of meat at a time, dip the steak-um in the egg to coat, then roll each side of the steak-um in the spice mixture. I reserved half of the spices initially, because as you continue to put the egg-coated steak-ums in the spice mixture, the remaining mixture on the plate will become gummy consistency. You’ll want to add the rest of the spices about halfway through the process so that all of the meat gets an even layer. Same concept applies to that second tablespoon of olive oil – as the meat is cooking, some of the spice will end up coming off and gumming up the bottom of your pan. Add the second tablespoon of olive oil halfway through the cooking process, and even more if you think it is needed. If you don’t keep enough oil in the pan to coat the bottom, your spices will burn almost immediately.

Because they are very thin, the steak-ums will cook very quickly, so you’ll want to keep a sharp eye on them. Especially if you’re working with venison instead of beef – venison is much leaner, so it will dry out and burn much quicker than beef.

Sauteed Greens with Butter Beans

Servings: 2-3

Prep and cook time: ~10 minutes

What you’ll need

2 cups of dark leafy green of your choice (I used a pre-bagged mix, but straight spinach or kale would work great)

1 can of butter beans, aka great northern beans, aka cannellini beans (I don’t know either why they can’t just pick a name), drained and rinsed

1 teaspoon black pepper

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

Super easy side dish here – put about 1 teaspoon of water in the bottom of a pot or a pan, doesn’t really matter, as long as you can put a lid on it. I used a wok. Put your greens in, put the lid on top, set the heat to the low side of medium (4 on my stove) and let the water steam the veggies until they’re wilted, stirring every couple of minutes. Once the veggies are wilted, throw in the butter beans. Leave the lid off to let the remaining moisture in the bottom of the pan cook off so you don’t have soggy beans – about 3 or 4 minutes. Mix in the black pepper, garlic powder, and salt. Let the spices warm up and cook in the mixture for another 2 or 3 minutes, and you’re ready to serve!

Beef Barley Stew and Other Foods to Eat Without Wisdom Teeth

J got his wisdom teeth out yesterday, so his food options have been restricted to soft foods he can chew gently. My poor guy – he didn’t get put under for the procedure, because as of January 1st, our insurance company has a new policy that they won’t pay for anesthesia for wisdom tooth extraction (except for little kids). And because of J’s job, he can’t take narcotic painkillers without having to fill out a bunch of paperwork for his employer, and its a hassle. So he was awake, and his only pain management was a shot of novocaine to the jaw. He walked out looking like a zombie movie extra, and the only thing he could stomach yesterday were protein shakes and vanilla ice cream.

Today he was feeling a bit better, and I felt like tackling a more time-consuming dish because I don’t have class or work on Tuesdays. I am attempting to generally improve my diet (I’m not calling it dieting or losing weight because that’s never worked before!), and thanks to Pinterest, I have a whole stack of healthier, filling, especially-good-for-cold-weather meals.

Tonight’s selection was Beef Barley Soup, which, in my case, ended up being Beef Barley Stew. I’ve never used barley before, and I really enjoyed it in this stew. It is a great filler and a healthier alternative to the white pasta that I usually crave. I got the recipe from Skinnytaste – http://www.skinnytaste.com/2012/09/beef-barley-soup.html. This gal has some really fantastic, healthy recipes and I highly recommend you go over to Skinnytaste and check it out. I was going to use her picture, too, because none of mine worked out (must have been my lighting, because my liquid looked gray! And it wasn’t, really! Time to get serious about Googling food photography), but I didn’t know if that would be a breach of blogging etiquette of some sort.

I made a couple of changes from the original recipe. I added a whole cup of barley instead of 2/3rd cup. I have never worked with barley before, and when I measured it out and dumped it in the soup, it seemed like the proportions were off and I’d need more barley. What I didn’t realize is how much water barley absorbs as it cooks, and the full cup of barley soaked up enough of my liquid to turn it into a stew, not a soup. Lesson learned! I also added 2 tablespoons each of oregano, parsley, and thyme, which I think gave it an extra oomph.

For J’s portion, I had to scoop out the pieces of beef first and shred them, pulled pork style, to reduce he chew-time-per-spoonful. He didn’t seem very enthusiastic about it, but I’m not taking offense because he hasn’t been enthusiastic about anything since watching his own teeth getting yanked out. Of course, his suggested remedy was ice cream, so after dinner he got his second heaping bowl of vanilla for the day. This stew was so yummy, though, I don’t care if he eats all the ice cream and leaves all the leftovers to me! Unless……..barley and vanilla ice cream? Hmmmm……..better not.

Mozzarella Curry Venison Burgers

I know what you might be thinking – Mozzarella and Curry and Venison? Weird combo! Which, it is. But its a YUMMY weird combo.

It was just me for dinner tonight, and I was looking for something pretty lean and healthy to balance out our fantastic meal out on the town last night with friends followed by the incredibly gooey chocolate brownie disaster. I had venison burgers planned along with veggie mac and cheese, but J not being home for dinner was an unplanned, last minute thing and I didn’t want to make mac and cheese all for myself. So, I figured venison burgers and a side of steamed broccoli sounded yummy and reasonable to cook for one.

The perk of J not being home for dinner is that I get to use CURRY. I LOVE curry. He doesn’t like it. You see my dilemma. Curry and venison gave me pause, but I figured, hey, I’ll try it. And I’m glad I did because it’s actually quite the delicious combination! The spiciness and slight nuttiness of the curry compliments the game-y taste of the venison, and the more smooth, basic flavor of the mozzarella balances out the meat and the spice and kind of brings them together and makes them get along. But then again, melted mozzarella makes anything amazing.

So here’s how you make Mozzarella Curry Venison Burgers!

Servings: 6

Prep and cook time: ~30 minutes

What you’ll need:

2 pounds ground venison

2 eggs

1/2 cup breadcrumbs (I used Italian seasoned breadcrumbs)

2 tablespoons curry powder

1 tablespoon black pepper

1 tablespoon garlic powder

6 slices of whole milk mozzarella

Put your thawed, ground venison into a bowl. Add the breadcrumbs and eggs and mix thoroughly. I usually just use my hands to mix things into raw, ground meat to make sure it is evenly distributed. Mix in the curry powder, garlic powder, and black pepper. Spray olive oil or some other type of cooking oil into a pan, put the pan on medium heat, and let the pan heat up for a couple of minutes. Form burger patties out of the ground venison and place them in the pan.

Venison is tricky to work with when its ground. Because venison is very lean, it won’t make a good burger by itself. Regardless of what other ingredients I use, when I make venison burgers I always mix in egg and breadcrumbs – 1 egg and 1/4 cup breadcrumbs per pound of venison. If you don’t, you’ll end up with a pan full of ground venison, because every time you try to move or flip your burger, the patty will fall apart. Also, if you’re pan frying instead of using a grill, always let your pan heat up on medium heat and let the burgers get a good initial sear. This will help keep them together as they continue to cook. But venison also burns easily on high temperature if you don’t watch it, so after you get a good sear on each side of your burger, turn the heat down to low. I have an electric stove, and I start the temperature on 5, then turn it down to 2 after I sear the burger.

So after you get a good sear on each side of your burger, turn down your heat and cover the pan. Make sure you let them cook until they reach an internal temperature of 160 degrees (any ground meat needs to reach a minimum internal temperature of 160 degrees to kill the bacteria that is distributed through the meat during the grinding process). My burgers took about 20-25 minutes to cook. During the last 2-3 minutes of cooking time, place a slice of mozzarella on each burger and cover the pan again to let the cheese melt. When the cheese is fully melted, serve and enjoy!

venisonburgers2

Chocolate Catastrophe Almost Averted

This was a tough week for J and I. My grandmother died on Monday. She was 89 and ill, so it wasn’t entirely unexpected, but it still sucks. We had to drive a state over for the funeral, so I’ve been away from my kitchen for a few days. We got home late last night, and close friends of ours were scheduled to come up from down south to visit us today on their way to another destination. Since its so hard to plan these kind of cross-country visits and we really needed some lighthearted company anyways, we told them to keep our date.

After they got here, the boys took off for the garage to go play with man-toys, and my gal A and I decided that we needed to spend the afternoon making brownies! Because, BROWNIES!!!!! Now, I’ve been on the hunt for The Perfect Brownie Recipe. I have found The Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipe, but those perfect brownies have eluded me. This time, we decided to try this recipe that I found on Pinterest, and the original recipe is over on Life Made Simple – http://lifemadesimplebakes.com/2014/06/thick-chewy-better-boxed-brownies/. 

Things started off well.

To me, the proportions of flour to cocoa powder and wet ingredients seemed a little off, but hey, I like my brownies chewy, so I’ll go with it.

brownies2

brownies1

A and I, of course, managed to get chocolate ALL OVER my kitchen as we “tested” the batter, which we had to clean up quickly so A’s sweet little girls, Chloe and Delilah, wouldn’t get an unhealthy dose of theobromine.

puppies

The batter came out fairly thick (and was incredibly tasty, salmonella be damned). The recipe says cook time approximately 25 minutes, give or take one or two minutes. At the 25 minute point, they were looking fully cooked and delectable.

brownies7

brownies3

And then we cut into them. And they were raw. Now, as much as we loved licking the spoon, the goal was fully baked brownies. So we put them back in the oven for five minutes. And then another five. And then another ten….Finally, after another almost 25 minutes in the oven, we came to the conclusion that they were as done as they were going to get. And

they STILL looked like a big, goopy, chocolate catastrophe.brownies4bronwies8

I like chewy brownies, but this was a little ridiculous. You couldn’t even pick one up in a brownie square, they just fell apart in a big chocolate lava puddle.

Ok then, if they’re only edible with a spoon…….

brownies6

Chocolate mud a la mode!!!!!!!

A and I snuggled up on the couch to watch the Cooking Channel with our brownies and ice cream, and as each of us got about 1/3rd of the way through our bowl, looked at each other, and went………”oohhffffff TOO MUCH CHOCOLATE”. Which, I know, is blasphemous in some circles….but…….ugh. I feel like I swallowed a chocolate brick. Luckily the husbands stepped in and cleaned up the scene.

Soooooo A and I decided that we need to make our own brownie recipe. Brownies that are edible without a spoon and a stomach pump. But we still had fun! And got some girl time love in, which is much more important than chocolate.

Garlic-Bomb Salmon

I love salmon. Hands down my favorite fish. I enjoy fish that has a real ‘fish’ flavor to it, and generally I’m not a huge fan of the blander fishes like flounder because it seems like the ONLY thing I taste is the topping/marinade. J was never a huge seafood eater before him and I got together because his parents aren’t that big into seafood. I, however, grew up in a household with a pescetarian – my dad has always eaten seafood, but not meat. Or as he put it, the “swimming, but no running or flying” diet. So, in an effort to diversify our diet in a healthy way, I’ve been leaning heavily on fish as of late. I actually had quite the flounder disaster last week (we’re not going to talk about it), and so I wanted to redeem myself with a nice salmon dish.

In deciding how to prepare my salmon, I leaned on J’s input again. Lately, he’s been on an intense garlic kick. Now, I love me some garlic as well. I’m of strong Italian descent, and garlic is one of our main food groups. Garlic was something that he always liked, but was never madly in love with. Then suddenly, about two weeks ago, EVERYTHING I put in front of him was met with “more garlic!”

Ok then! You want some garlic? You’re gonna get some GAAAAALICK!!!!

Servings: 4

Prep and cook: ~25 minutes

What you need:

4 salmon fillets (approximately 4 oz each)

1 tablespoon lemon-infused olive oil (or just regular olive oil with a dash of lemon juice would work)

1 teaspoon dried dill

1 teaspoon black pepper

~8 cloves of garlic (about two cloves per fillet, depending on how big your garlic cloves are)

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Put just a smidge of olive oil in the bottom of a glass baking dish (or, if you’re like me and don’t have a large square glass dish, put two fillets each in two round dishes). Place the fillets in the baking dish, making sure that none of them are touching each other. Brush the remainder of the olive oil over the fillets. I use D’Avolio lemon-infused olive oil (best Christmas present ever!). Sprinkle the dill and black pepper evenly over the fillets.

Then the fun part. Peel and slice up your yummy raw garlic and just lay those slices right on top of the fish in rows, getting two or three rows on each piece of fish. Just load right up on the garlic. Don’t be shy, now. Make sure that your top oven rack is at the halfway point of your oven – if you put this fish on a rack too close to the top of your oven, the garlic will just burn instead of cooking evenly and releasing all that good flavor. Put the fish in the oven, uncovered, for 20 minutes. Salmon is done when it flakes evenly with a fork, and is a light pink color.

I didn’t get a chance to snap a picture of my finished product because J swooped in on it too quickly. He was happy to finally get his major garlic fix! I hope you all enjoy this garlic-bomb recipe as much as we did!

A Crockpot of Love

Because I had so much homework to do today in preparation for the start of the semester tomorrow, I wanted a crockpot recipe for dinner. I found a great recipe on Pinterest for Chicken Fajitas in the crockpot, and I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t thought of that before. The original recipe can be found on Eat At Home – http://eatathomecooks.com/2012/12/easy-crockpot-chicken-fajitas.html. I made a couple of small changes – I added a can of black beans, and I used McCormick low sodium chicken taco seasoning.

When I pulled it out of the crockpot, I realized that we were out of taco shells (that’s me and my meal-planning-preparedness, for you), so we ended up putting it on top of tortilla chips. And of course, topping it with excessive amounts of shredded sharp cheddar, salsa, and that amazing substance which is known as sour cream. NOMNOMNOM. I would highly recommend this for a busy day when you know you’ll just need to come home and dig into something hearty and tasty. J’s only comment was that next time, he wants jalapenos in his portion. Which I think are gross and way too spicy, so next time he can get that nasty jalapeno juice all over his own hands and on his own plate.  Other than that, he chowed down two huge plates of it and complimented my dinner prowess repeatedly. Another win for the crockpot!

tortillachipfajitas

I have a very close relationship with my crockpot. Two crockpots, actually. J’s grandfather, who passed away a couple of months ago, was visiting us this past summer and I made chicken and gravy in the crockpot to go over homemade biscuits. My crockpot didn’t have a timer, an automatic on/off, a stirrer, or anything else fancy. I ran late coming home one night, and the gravy ended up slightly burnt. Nothing that a good stir with a little milk didn’t fix, but Grandpa got it in his head that I needed a bigger, better, fancier crockpot. So he gave us some money, with strict instructions for me to go find myself the best crockpot I could find. He also told me to keep the first crockpot on standby, because eventually, I’m going to want two at a time.

The next time Grandpa visited – the week before he passed away – I dug out my fancy new crockpot for homemade meatballs. The new crockpot has a ‘keep warm’ setting, an on/off timer, an automatic stirrer, and little latches on the lid. Its quite the thing of beauty. Grandpa raved about the meatballs, and was just pleased as punch that he got me a new, fancy gadget.

Grandpa was my favorite person to cook for. Frequently, as we’d be sitting over dinner, he’d lean over and in a fake stage whisper, tell me that I was a much better cook than J’s mother (who openly admits that she hates cooking, and was very relieved when J married a gal who LIKES to tackle the holiday dinners). When he visited, we’d sit in the living room together while I flipped through my Food Network magazine, and he’d tell me about the different ways his wife, who passed away shortly after I met J, would make green beans or potatoes. Once we decided we wanted to make pralines. Grandpa sat at the kitchen table and looked on, giving me tips and words of encouragement, as I fought with a candy thermometer and tried to get sugar on wax paper without painting my kitchen with it. The pralines didn’t turn out very well, but Grandpa gave me a smile and a pat on the arm and ate them anyway.

His last visit to us was a few weeks before Thanksgiving, and we sat and planned the holiday meal together, making sure to work his special requests into the menu. Grandpa didn’t make it to that meal, and Thanksgiving was a somber occasion at our house. But every time I break out my crockpot, which is often, I think of him and smile. And as I pull whatever delicious dish I’ve whipped up out of that crockpot and give a plate of it to his grandson, I think of what kind of compliment or critique Grandpa would be able to give me. I miss him very much. But every time I cook, I know he’s in the kitchen with me, telling me, again, his favorite way to make green beans.

unnamed (6)

Double Chocolate Peppermint Cookies

So last night I was in a downer of a mood. My challenge to myself lately is to learn how to deal with those moods in a constructive manner. Easier said than done, of course, but baking usually works! Especially when I bake something intended to give away to someone. Its the best of both worlds – I get to have fun baking and eat one or two sweet treats, but then I get to give the rest away and avoid having a delicious temptation sit on the counter.

Then I thought, I haven’t been over to my neighbor’s in a while, I should bake something for her! We live next door to our landlord’s parents, very lovely, retirement-age people. They have somewhat adopted J and I, and love to good-naturedly worry over us and check in on us. Often I’ll bake something and walk it over to their house on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon and spend an hour or two in her cozy kitchen, drinking coffee and indulging in my latest baked good.

The other advantage of baking for someone other than J is that I can make stuff that he doesn’t like (not that there are too many things in that category). Peppermint is a flavor that I am absolutely crazy over, and J doesn’t care for. I also happened to have almost a whole box of leftover candy canes that didn’t get eaten off the Christmas tree this year. So, Double Chocolate Peppermint Cookies it was!

I can’t take credit for this recipe – I found it on Pinterest, and the original recipe is over at A Pumpkin and a Princess:

http://apumpkinandaprincess.com/2013/11/double-chocolate-peppermint-cookies.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed:+APumpkinAndAPrincess+(A+Pumpkin+And+A+Princess)&crlt.pid=camp.rpB4fNCsyoIz

The only change I made was that instead of pressing the candy cane pieces into the top of the cookies, I put them directly into the dough. I thought the candy inside the cookie would be fun, and the candy pieces ended up taking on a delightful chewy texture. I was extremely pleased with them – hopefully my neighbor will like them too!

On a related note, apparently I need to do some googling on food photography. How do all you wonderful food bloggers make your stuff look so pretty?! Do you have special food staging areas? Special lighting? Probably something better to take a picture with than an iPhone. But I could barely keep The Senor off the counter long enough to take a picture of my cookies – he’s very investigative, and apparently really likes the smell of peppermint.

Tomorrow I start my last semester of law school, so I suppose that for the rest of the day I should do all the homework I need to do in preparation for tomorrow, instead of continuing to cook and bake. But then again, I’m planning on putting chicken fajitas in the crockpot …….

Italian Shrimp Stir Fry

Whenever I’ve done a stir fry in the past that focuses on Asian flavors, J has reacted with, “Eh, it’s good, but you know what would be REALLY good? Italian stir fry!”

So, tonight instead of a spicy Asian-influenced shrimp dish, I decided to run with his suggestion. The result? Lets call it Italian Shrimp Stir Fry! (Because I’m awfully creative like that)

Servings: 4

Prep and cook: ~30 minutes, plus thaw time for shrimp

What you need:

1 bell pepper (whatever color tickles your fancy – I used orange)

1/2 cup chopped onion

8 oz mushrooms (I used a package of baby portobellos)

8 cloves fresh garlic

12 oz shrimp (I buy it raw and frozen, with tails on)

2 tablespoons oregano

2 tablespoons parsley

2 tablespoons olive oil

2-3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

Put 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a large pan on medium heat. Chop the onion, bell pepper and mushrooms and get them sauteing in the olive oil. Baby portobellos have a high water content, so as the veggies saute, you’re going to get extra liquid in the pan. Drain the veggies once or twice while cooking to prevent them from getting soggy. Add the oregano and parsley to the veggies.

In a second, smaller pan, add the remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil and the shrimp (don’t forget to take off the tails!). I cooked the shrimp separately from the veggies (until the very end) to ensure that my shrimp are evenly cooked. However, if you’re confident about keeping an eye on your shrimp, you can keep this a one-pan dish. Peel the 8 cloves of garlic and use a garlic press to crush them directly into the pan of shrimp.

Once the shrimp is fully cooked through (pink, not translucent), transfer the shrimp and garlic into the pan with the vegetables. Add the balsamic vinegar (2 or 3 tablespoons depending on your tolerance for vinegar) and salt and pepper to taste. Mix thoroughly to distribute the vinegar.

The finished product was, I thought, pretty darn good. The meatiness of the mushrooms are a good compliment to the texture of the shrimp, and the balsamic vinegar gives it a little zing. I think I’ll take J’s culinary advice more often. Hope you enjoy it to!

Meal Planning 101

I love meal planning. Both the process and the result. There’s nothing I like doing more on a Saturday morning than curling up on the couch with a cup of coffee, Pinterest, and a stack of cookbooks and food magazines and planning out the upcoming week’s meals. (I’m aware that makes me sound like a total nerd, and I’m definitely ok with that).

I’m finally at a point where I’m consistent with meal planning, but when I first decided to start planning our weekly meals, I didn’t do any research or ask anyone else how they did it. I just jumped in. Through lots of trial and error, I’ve finally found a method of meal planning that works for me and J, and I thought I’d share a few trips and tricks.

#1: Budget, budget, budget

Even though its the least fun part of the process, before you start planning out a large grocery list, you have to get a handle on how much you are comfortable spending. Seafood or top end meat cuts once a week might sound fantastic, but realistically, you may need to plan more for a chicken and pasta budget than a sirloin and shrimp budget. And there’s nothing wrong with that! Being on a budget doesn’t mean you only get bland, boring food.

#2: Multitask ingredients 

When I first started meal planning, one of the problems I repeatedly ran into was that I would get really excited about a recipe with an unusual ingredient, buy that ingredient, make the dish, and then end up wasting the rest of that ingredient. One ingredient in particular that would end up going bad for us is avocados – I don’t really care for them, but J loves them. I’d buy a couple, thinking that I’d use them all in one recipe, then I’d only end up using a half of one and the rest would go bad and get thrown out.

Now, if I pick out a recipe that has avocados or something unusual that I don’t use on a regular basis, I’m careful to include at least one other recipe for that week that includes that ingredient. For example, this week I’m planning on baked salmon topped with an onion and avocado mix. Because I’m buying the avocados, I specifically planned on making guacamole to go with chicken fajitas that I have planned for another night.

And when you’re coming up with ways to stretch ingredients, don’t forget that you don’t have to restrict your meal plans to dinner! If you need avocados for dinner one night, you can work avocados into a lunch salad or a breakfast quiche on a different day!

#3: Don’t forget the leftovers

When planning a week’s worth of meals, I used to get so excited about all the possibilities that I would plan huge meals every night of the week and end up with heaps and heaps of leftovers that sat in the back of the fridge, forgotten, until I had no clean tupperware and the food had gone bad. Check the serving sizes on your recipes – if you want to make a crockpot full of soup, you probably won’t need to plan a new meal for the next day.

I try to make the larger, more involved meals on the weekends so we have leftovers on a Monday or another hectic weekday. But even if I’m not planning a particularly large meal one week, I still leave at least one day without a plan, because we inevitably end up with leftovers, or end up going out to dinner, or get home from work late, ect.

#4: Keep stocked with staples

In our house, there are a few constants: block cheese, crackers, lettuce, frozen steamer packages of veggies, ground beef, and eggs are the big ones. I love planning out our meals, but sometimes I don’t have the time or energy to whip up an entree and healthy sides and lunches and snacks all in one day. So I’ll focus on making a beautiful piece of fish or a steak and let a side salad suffice. As long as I can get some form of veggie on the plate, I consider it a win.

The other benefit of always having easy, simple, tried and true foods on hand is for those wonderful occasions when you bomb a recipe. It happens! No matter how often you cook, if you’re experimenting, you will end up with a dud, whether its something that you burned or something that turned out just the way it was supposed to but you end up hating it. When you have one of those nights, its great to be able to just zap some frozen sweet corn in the microwave to serve as a side, or to throw together some quick, basic burgers. So find a handful of ingredients that your family loves that you know you can work with in a pinch, and keep stocked.

#5: Be a flexible shopper, but not too flexible

Having a solid plan on your way into the grocery store can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you have a very specific list to keep you and your budget on track, but on the other hand, unless you exhaustively search for coupons and deals prior to every grocery store trip, you’re probably going to run into an unexpected good deal once in a while, and that good deal won’t beautifully jive with your existing plan.

When I first started meal planning and ran into an unexpected good deal at the store, I could never resist, no matter how obscure the ingredient was. Huge tub of red pepper hummus on sale? Sure, I’ll buy it, even though we’ve never had hummus before and other than chips, I have no idea what to do with it! I quickly learned that just because something is a great deal doesn’t mean it will be a great deal for me, if that great deal ends up going bad in the back of my fridge.

Now, I use a five second rule – if I see something on sale that isn’t on my list (assuming its not one of my trusty staples), I won’t buy it unless I can come up with at least two ideas for that ingredient in five seconds. For some things, this is really easy. If shrimp is on sale, I’m grabbing it and I will adjust my meal plans accordingly. If its a soft cheese or eggplant, for example, and I think I’d need to put some time and effort into using it, I’ll pass.

#6: Get creative with your produce

For a while, we were in a vegetable rut. I like to serve a vegetable with every dinner, but I was getting so bored with steamed broccoli and baked asparagus, which were my two main veggie sides. So I started paying more attention to my produce aisle. Once I started looking, I was actually pretty amazed at the varieties of vegetables I could find – and I don’t even shop at a fancy or organic grocery store. We’re rural enough that my only shopping option within a 30 minute radius is Walmart.

If you have skeptical eaters in your house (*ahem* a husband), start with something close to a veggie you know they like. J likes green onions, so I tried leeks. Then leeks lead to parsnips. Parsnips were a no, but leeks worked. So I tried bok choy. Now we eat all sorts of veggies that I never thought would sound appealing – turnips, cabbage, brussel sprouts, kale. Just keep those staples on hand for those occasions where your experimentation is met with wrinkled noses.

#7: Don’t be afraid of canned goods

I like to serve and eat fresh food. I aim for healthy and flavorful. But for certain things, like beans or diced tomatoes, canned is the way to go. Store brand canned black beans are less than a dollar, can be thrown into any recipe with no more effort than cranking a can opener, and serve as an excellent, healthy filler in most meals. I love to make my own tomato sauce when I have the time, but if I’m making a baked pasta dish and want to get it in the oven with minimal fuss, I crack open a jar of Classico. In some instances, longevity and price are going to win out over the time and expense of fresh or homemade, especially if you’re focusing on perfecting a main dish and don’t want to fuss too much over sides.

#8: Have fun!

Enjoy yourself! The whole point of planning out meals for the week ahead is to make cooking a relaxing, enjoyable, creative process. Whether you’re trying to keep your family healthy, trying to save time and money, or just simply want to play with your menu, meal planning can help you on your way. Happy cooking!