Thursday, May 31, 2012

Mexican Cheese Soup

I took my new roasting oven (aka crock pot with controllable temperature dial, see rant here) out for it's maiden voyage last night.  I decided to make one of our new family favorites, Mexican cheese soup.  This soup is quick, easy, lazy (as in dump in cans of things without draining them) and still ends up being delicious. The original recipe is very spicy, so I've modified it to be more family friendly.  When I take this to a potluck people always ask me for the recipe, so here it is:

Looks yummy, yes?  Since I varied from the original, in the printable recipe link I will include both the spicy version (original) and the one I tend to make.  By the way, this recipe was from an older Rival Crock pot recipe book.  First, gather your ingredients:

Some cut up left over rotisserie chicken (or optional: 1 pound of ground beef, cooked and drained), 1 can of light red kidney beans, 1 can diced petite tomatoes, 1 can of Mexican stewed tomatoes, 1 can of corn, 1 lb Velveeta/processed cheese, and taco seasoning (one packet worth or 1/4 cup). Now, let the dumping begin! Throw in your meat (chicken or beef) and then toss in 1lb of Velveeta that has been cubed up for easier melting.

Now, more dumping!  Have the kids help here if you want.  The best part about this is there is NO draining.  That's right, open the can and dump the whole thing in, liquid and all. Dump in the stewed tomatoes, the beans, the corn, the diced tomatoes, and the 1/4 cup taco seasoning.

That's it!  Just stir it up, slap the lid on and cook it 4-5 hours on low or 3 hours on high.  By the way, the original recipe is spicy HOT.  I'm talking punch you in the face hot.  They add diced tomatoes with green chilies, optional jalapeno peppers, and another can of diced green chilies. That was just way too hot for my little ones (and lil' ol me who likes 0 star Thai food and can't eat hot wings).  The recipe I use here has a slight warming "hey I'm eating Mexican food" spicy sensation without burning your tongue off.  After it simmers for a few hours, this is what it will look like:

Crush up some tortilla chips or corn chips and top with sour cream, cheese, whatever you like.  Definitely don't forget the cheese... it's the best part!

I hope you enjoy this recipe.  You can make it as mild or as spicy as your family likes it. Make a big vat and freeze half or take the rest to work for left overs.  This one is sure to be a crowd pleaser!

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Too Hot Crock Pot!

I was mid-stew a month or so ago, when my trusty Rival, low-tech, one giant knobbed crock pot up and died.  It was a sad day.  She was a good and faithful kitchen companion who dutifully cooked soups, stews and sauces for the family for years on end. This picture below doesn't even do her justice, after 10 years of use she was not as shiny or streamlined, and she only had three settings:  Off, Low, and High. "Warm" at the time was only a newfangled notion of the future. 

Well after we had a touching goodbye ceremony (bagpipes were played, doves were released followed by a moment of silence), I started thinking ahead to what would replace her.  I got pretty excited.  Oo, maybe I could get a fancy new high-tech digital one with features like switches to warm when the cooking cycle is over, or a built in meat thermometer!  Hubby came through with a new one for my birthday.  It had all the bells and whistles!  My new found joy was quickly turned into a bit of worry, as some of my friends on facebook warned that I might not like the new crock pots so much, because they cook things too hot.  

Well that weekend I decided to make my crock pot spaghetti sauce that simmers slow all day.  I started it on high (as I normally do, with the idea of turning it down to low shortly after).  Well within a few hours, the whole thing was boiling.  Not just bubbling merrily, but a HARD boil.  I turned it down to the "low" setting.  It was STILL boiling.  Alright, I guess I'll turn it down to the warm setting.  Guess what? Still boiling.  Um... what the heck was going on??!!  Off I went to the googles to find out.  Turns out the government recently changed the rules.

Yes, they decided the American public (with 40 years of crock pottery experience) were entirely too stupid on their own to slow cook food all day.  They decided to raise the temperature of all settings by 20-40º on all new pots in the last 5 years.  The high setting is now close to 300º!  The low temp is around 250º and even the warm setting is over 212º.  I know this because that is the temperature water boils. Before the low temp was under 200º, probably closer to 180º.  So in essence, they have made the notion of LOW and SLOW cooking null and void.  If meat boils it changes the molecular structure, making it tough and stringy.  You no longer can "set it and forget it", by putting a roast in the morning and come back and dinner time and have it ready and waiting for you.  With these new crocks all the liquid would be burned off and your meat will be tough and dried out.  You have to sit and baby sit your meal all day, adjusting temps, adding water.  No way would you leave and go to work, you might come home to the whole thing boiled over all over the counter or maybe it could even catch on fire!  Yikes.  

I was so upset by this.  It boiled the living snarf out of my sauce, which was done in half the time, by the way.  I decided there must be something else out there!  I did some on line research, turns out a LOT of people are ticked off about the higher temp pots.  Old recipes don't work any more, food is overdone and you can no longer cook low and slow, the whole POINT of a crock pot.

Well I just found the answer (cue angel music and heavenly light here)!  It's not called a crock pot technically, but you can use it that way. 

It's a Nesco professional 6qt roaster oven.  It works just like a crock pot but here's the best part, you can control the temp, from 125º to 400º!!  Hallelujah.  Now I've found something that works just like my old trusty crock pot.  Set it and forget it here I come! Low and slow, remember me? I'm BACK! PS. By the way, it also can roast, bake, stew, etc. It is also non-stick and has a removable cookwell for easy cleaning.

So I went right out and packaged up the other "HOT" pot and took it right back to the store.  We should all boycott these new pots that simply do not work correctly.  Too HOT means you can cook low and slow.  Find a pot where you can control the temperature and you will be golden.  Wait, you will be yummy and tender and delicious and falling off the bone, and your children will sing your praises and actually clean their plates, and your hubby will write sonnets in your honor, and your in-laws will take the kids for the weekend, and you will live happily ever after.  Amen.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Baby Bumble Bee - crochet

Last year, when my eldest was in Kindergarten, there were two classes, each with it's own theme name.  The other class's name was the "cool cats" and my daughter's class was called the "busy bees".  At the end of the school year I was searching for a teacher gift that I could make, and came across the free baby bee pattern on the inside of a red heart yarn label.  It was so cute and perfect, so I decided to make one for her teacher and the assistant teacher.

Aren't they so sweet?!  They are under their category of easy crochet on the red heart website, and can be made using small scraps of left over yarn. The downloadable pattern can be found here.  If you are new to crochet it can help teach you a number of skills, like changing colors, stuffing, working in the round, and attaching small pieces securely. This is like a beginning amigurumi pattern that can be the gate way to many cute stuffed animals in your future. So here is my girl on the last day of school, dressed in her class colors and off to deliver her adorable baby bees to her teachers.

By the way, the class party once we got there was really cute, you could easily do a fun birthday party with that theme. They had yellow plates and black cups, yellow and black balloons, plus two different bee themed cakes.

Check out the favors one mom made up for the whole class.  You could easily get a packet of yellow paper bags and decorate with either bee stickers, or a black ribbon stripe on them.  They were filled with a bug catcher craft, bee pencils and erasers, crazy straws, and bug stencils. Also the little name tag on the outside doubled as a book mark.

The kids had a blast at this party!  The whole place was buzzin'. ;)

So, back to the crochet... if you want to try and make a cute little stuffed toy, this buzzing bee is a great place to start.  I'm going to try and make a little butterfly modifying this pattern very soon.  It would make a cute baby gift for a new mom or a gift for a little girl's birthday.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Crochet - Boutique Bag

You know how most people on Pinterest have a crafty board, usually titled "things to try", or "I must learn how to do this".  Well I have one of those very same boards, only I actually want to TRY the things I put in there.  Like yesterday, I saw a cute pattern for a small crocheted clutch bag and I decided to see if I could crack one out last night using an "I" hook at 5 count soft bulky yarn.  This is what I came up with:

Spring Boutique Bag - inspired by Pinterest and Sara

and here's the back (without the flower)

I got the pattern over at the blog Tangled Happy by Sara.  She has a lovely free pattern, and a couple of variations you could try on the same bag.  Here is a picture of her three different purses entitled the "Granny Stripe", the "Alligator", and the "Strappy" Boutique Bags, (click the link above to the directions).

Photo by Sara at Tangled Happy blog
When I first started making this pattern, I realized that the bottom of the bag is left open and you whip stitch it together at the end to seal it up.  I thought I would rather make the bag closed to start with, so instead of chaining 51 to start this purse, I chained only half of that (26). Then I SC in the 2nd chain from the hook and the rest of the ch all the way back to the start.  From there I went around the back of the original chain and started the pattern in the round right away.  This made it so the first row of shells sprouted up in a "V" shape from both the front and the back of the original line and thus the bottom of the purse was sealed off.  Here is a pic of the shells coming out from both sides of the original chain and row of SC (if that helps).

What it looks like to make this bag starting from a sealed bottom of the purse
I still had 17 shell stitches per row, everything else on the pattern I did the same.  I ended up doing an extra row of the shell stitches to make 9 rows, then followed the instructions for the sideways handle. 

I added my own flower from a book I have, and added a small pearl accent. I did a blind stitch very carefully to attach the flower to the purse (going in between the thick yard so no one could see it from the front OR from the inside.  I think this turned out pretty cute!  I read on the Tangled Happy site that some people used this for I phones, Nintendo DS's, and other small electronics.  This is small enough to hold your phone and a set of keys, a cute little make up bad, or even a small purse for a little girl.  I'd like to still try it in a number of cute colors.  Stay tuned.  :)

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Artichokes - The bestest green veggie

Since it is my birthday month, I wanted to focus on some things I LOVE.  We don't go out to eat that often, but when I get the chance, we make a bee line to Black Angus Restaurant to get only one thing: Their fire-grilled artichokes appetizer.  Oh my goodness they are yummy.  Served warm and dripping with garlic butter and served with two aoli dipping sauces.  I don't even get a meal anymore, JUST the artichokes.

The artichokes - picture from the Black Angus menu.
Have you ever seen an artichoke plant?  Technically they are a perennial flower that are actually considered part of the thistle family. It really makes you wonder, somewhere, in the distant past, somebody looked at this poky bush with a thorny knob sticking out of it and thought, hey, I'd like to eat that thing??!!  How in the world did it ever come about that these were discovered to be, in fact, as Alton Brown says, "Good Eats"?  I planted one last year in my garden and it grew to be of a large size, but produced no artichokes. A friend informed me that they establish themselves the first year, and produce chokes after that.  Well this year I am PLEASED to report that I have chokes a' growin'!!  This is very exciting to me and I want to learn how to cook them just like they do at the restaurant so I can enjoy them fresh from the garden. Look I have three bulbs already!!  Yea!

The artichoke plant in my garden!! (Healthy artichoke plants, with a lot of space can yield many chokes in a season from one plant!)
Usually there are two ways to cook these babies.  Boiling and Steaming.  I asked the chef at the restaurant they prefer the steaming method.  So I did a little you tube googling to find out the best way to prepare them.  First rinse them off quickly and pat them dry.  Cut a bit off the stem, but be sure to leave about an inch, which will make it easier to grab later.

Next, flip them around and cut off about one inch off the front of the choke. 

Then, you want to get rid of those prickly spines.  They are very sharp, so beware.  Take a pair of kitchen scissors and snip to remove them all the way around (your fingers will thank you later).

The nice lady on the you tube video told me that artichokes oxidize fast, and to rub them all over quickly with a half of lemon to prevent browning.  Next, it's time to steam them.  I went looking all over a few different stores for that little metal "space ship" type device that steams vegetables, but alas I could not find one anywhere.  Luckily, my husband is half genius and part "MacGyver" to boot, so we decided to jimmy-rig a steamer with household items we had on hand.

First of all, our artichokes were those BIG monster globe type.  My normal pot was way too small, so we went for our extra large pot.  On the bottom of the pot we put our metal strainer upside down.  On top of that we put a plate right side up.
I'd like to thank my hubby, aka MacGyver for this spur of the moment choke steamer
Next we added a few inches of water to the bottom of the pot, but not touching the plate.  We also, under the plate, added the lemon juice and halves left over from rubbing the chokes, a few cloves of garlic and 2 bay leaves.  This will give the water and thus the steam extra flavor.

Next we put in the artichokes in on top of the plate.  Note: We laid them on their side because of the plate factor.  Normally if you have a steamer/spaceship you would place them face down.

Next it is recommended to steam them about 45 minutes.  I hate it when they are slightly tough though, so because of their size, I added an extra 10 minutes, steaming them for almost an hour.
You will know they are done when you can easily stick a knife through the stem without any resistance.  By the way, the house will smell fabulous and they will look like this:

While they are still warm bring them to a cutting board face down, and with tongs, cut down the middle of the stem, slicing them completely in half.

In the center you will find a purple section of leaves (what would have become the flower) that you will need to scoop out.  Because everything is so soft, it comes out pretty easily. Just take a big spoon and gently cut out the center part and remove so they look like the two on the left.
Picture from Cooking's Good blog - The one on the far right still needs the center purple part removed

Preparing them this way is genius I tell you, because now you have an edible bowl where you can pour in a slathering spoonful of garlic butter and as you pull the leaves off, each bite will have a bit of butter on it.  If you have never eaten an artichoke before, simply pull off the leaves and scrape the lower half of the leaf in your mouth, pulling off all the "meat". It is DIVINE!

Don't forget to add on a couple of turns of sea salt over the finished chokes

We were so excited to eat these that we totally forgot to grill them.  But the grilling part is not for necessarily cooking them, just to add the tasty char marks to the out side.  If you don't have the time (or the patience) to grill, eat them as soon as you can!  They are great as an appetizer, on their own as a meal, or a side to steak, chicken, etc.

Also after you have pulled off all the leaves you are left with the very best part, the heart of the artichoke.  Be sure to saver these. I tend to cut them up like hunks of meat, dip them carelessly in garlic butter and chew slowly to enjoy the wonderful flavor.  I could almost go vegetarian if I could have these every night.  They are so satisfying! These have GOT to be my all time favorite green vegetable.  So don't be afraid to try this alien-esque type orb, as it could easily turn out to be your go to veggie!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Forty is the new 25!

So yesterday was a big event around here.  It was my 40th birthday!  

When I was a kid, forty seemed so OLD.  I remember my grandma with grey hair and glasses.  She watched Lawrence Welk, took walks to the park, and called the couch a "davenport".  If you had looked up "grandma" in the dictionary, you probably would have seen her cute picture right next to it. Come to find out, she was only in her sixties for my entire childhood!  It was a different time back then.  Looking back now, people from the older generation looked and acted older way before their time.  Come to think of it, I have seen recent pictures of people taken in the 1970's and they look younger NOW in 2012 then they did in that old Polaroid.

This picture was taken on my mom's wedding day back in June of 1969. 
My dad's mom Jo (Josephine), My mom Cathy on her wedding day, My mom's mom Carol, and Henrietta in 1969
Yes, yes, my mom is so young! I believe she was around 12-years-old (ok 20ish), and looked a lot like Molly Ringwald... but the lady in green to her right was my Grandma Carol.  Isn't she sweet?  When you say the word "Grandma" that's what I picture in my head. I love looking at old pictures from the past. I was born 3 years after this picture was taken, so when I was a kid, that's how a grandma was supposed to look.  Now, take my adorable parents, in a picture taken 3 days ago.  They too are in their 60's, have four kids,  and 12 grand kids, but just LOOK at them!

Are they not adorable and young looking?  Does my mom look almost the same as she did as a beautiful 20-year-old bride?  Pretty close.  My point being that age is relative.  You are as old as you want to be.  If I can take my fun, young parents and model myself after them, you can be young in mind and spirit for many many years to come!  So I don't look at 40 as a bad word, that I'm "over the hill" now, or it's the beginning of the "end".  It's sort of a mid-point in your life to stop and see where you've been, what you have accomplished, and what your plans are going to be for the other HALF of your life!

My and my cute hubby at my birthday dinner last night.
My goals for the next 40-50 years are: to live each day to the fullest, try to encourage and teach as many people as I can, enrich the lives of others, to try new things and do them to the best of my ability, to be there for my friends, to be the best wife, mom, daughter, and sister I can be, and to treat each day like a gift, because that is what it is!  My dad has a saying, "Life is a gift, tear it open".  I plan to do just THAT!  Happy Birthday to ME!

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Silpat Mat - Genius invention

I received a wonderful gift from my hubby last year, and it's one of those things that after you have it, you wonder how you ever lived without it.  It has a crazy  name, it's from France, it makes cooking and baking a breeze, and I've only just begun to scratch the surface on all the things this thing can do! Yes, look no further, it's the wondrous Silpat Mat.

I know it looks like they jumbled up the letters, like it should say "slip mat" or sometimes I even see "splat" when I glance at it.  It was invented by a French chemist and it's made of a glass fiber weave that is reinforced with silicone.  Together they make an amazing non stick surface that REPLACES foil, cooking spray, and/or parchment paper.

As you might of gathered, I am a big (almost card-carrying) fan of the food network.  My favorite shows are Chopped, The Pioneer Woman, and Iron Chef, who tend to use the silpat mats in their shows. Hubby, the thoughtful guy he is, has been on a quest to gift me with food network inspired kitchen gadgets for birthdays and holidays.  I've often said the perfect place to live on this earth would be neighbors with Pat and Gina Neely on one side, Ina Garten on the other, and Ree Drummond across the street.  The Neelys because they are almost always making scrumptious down home BBQ grub and are down right adorable and fun, Ina Garten because she spends a LOT of her time making wonderful food, then giving it away to her neighbors (aka ME), and Ree for her charming family friendly recipes and wit.  Let's visualize what that would look like now:

Sigh... Beautiful!  (Why yes, in my head, all the food network stars live next door to each other, throw fabulous progressive dinner parties, borrow cups of sugar across the fence, and dine together each night on one giant table, thanks for asking).

Ok, back to the silpat mats.  They are a dream.  Nothing sticks to them!!  First, I decided to try the most basic of things to make on a cookie sheet... wait for it... gasp... it's cookies.

Flash forward to 12 minutes later, and voila, you've got a little bit of heaven on a pan

Mmmmm warm and chocolatey, can you smell them???
These cookies, by the way, practically flew off the pan and landed on the cooling rack all by themselves!  (Ok I did use a spatula, but I can attest they came off with the greatest of ease.

Plus, these bad boys are not just for cookies, oh no!  You can make candy, brittle, almond macarons, pastries, cheese crisps (going to try that), breads, pizza, cinnamon rolls or sticky buns turned out onto it, roasted veggies... the list goes on and on.  And cleanup?  A breeze.  It's recommended just to wipe it down or rinse it with some warm water.  I got a tip from another blogger that the best way to dry them is to roll them into a large tube and lean up tall to let both sides air dry at the same time.

So there you have it!  If you haven't got around to trying one of these, you should really try one sometime.  My birthday is next week and I'm hoping I'll get one more as a present (hint hint), so BOTH my half baking sheets will have a silpat friend.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

No Peek Chicken

I was perusing on Pinterest the other night, as I was on the lookout for easy, low, and slow cooking recipe that could be simmering in the oven all  afternoon when I'm busy, and then PRESTO, be ready when it was dinner time.  I found one from Nicole over at Thrifty Decorating called "No Peek" chicken, which intrigued me.  I didn't have the exact ingredients on hand, but I did have most of them. I really wanted to try it and just see what would happen.  In the end it actually turned out pretty delicious.  When I make it again I will try a few minor changes.  Here's what it looked like:

First, gather your ingredients.  I used 4 (large Costco-sized) chicken breasts sliced into smaller strips, the cream of celery soup, the cream of mushroom soup, and 2 cans of water. What I didn't have was the box of Uncle Ben's long grain wild rice.  I did have a box of Rice a Roni Rice Pilaf which I thought might just work, so I gave it a whirl.

(Note: I didn't have a small can of the cream of mushroom, so I used 2/3 of a bigger one I had on hand)
The recipe says to spray a 9x13 pan with cooking spray. Dump in the box of dry rice, the seasoning packet, the two cans of soup and two cans of water and stir until blended.  (Ignore my giant can, the original recipe calls for one small can of cream of celery and one small can of cream of mushroom.  So when you do two cans of water use the regular sized small soup can for the 2 cans of water)

Next, lay the raw chicken pieces into the pan

Cover with foil and place in the oven at 325º for 2 to 2 1/2 hours.  (The original recipe called for a temp of 350º but I think that might have a tendency to evaporate all the liquid and/or dry out the chicken according to some response posts). So I just knocked back the temp a bit to make sure.  The next part was hard.  The NOT PEEKING part.  (Remember that Mervyn's commercial "open open open"...)?

My hubby came home and was about to poke his head in the oven to see what was smelling so good, and I stopped him like he was about to disarm a bomb.  WAIT... you can't peek!  It's the rules. Phew, that was a close one.  (The look on his startled face was absolutely priceless).  After I explained myself he thought that was pretty funny.  Too bad smell-o-vision monitors haven't been invented yet, because this really does make the house smell fabulous by the way!  Finally, it was time for me to peek.  What would I find? Had it worked?  Hopefully I had not destroyed our entire dinner in one fell swoop??...

Goodness no!  Besides smelling fantastic, it looked like it turned out pretty good.  The chicken was very tender and the nice part about it was the rice was all ready to go, no extra pan to have to make the side in.  I scooped it onto plates and waited for the verdict...

And... the family LOVED it.  It had a very good, creamy flavor.  I had never used cream of celery soup before this, but I really liked how this turned out.  Only small issue was the rice.    The Rice a Roni rice pilaf was tasty, but got a little mushy/soft.  None of us really minded that much, but I bet the original recipe of the Uncle Ben's long grain wild rice, (which normally cooks for 25 min) or any slower cooking rice would of held up it's texture a bit better with this long cooking time.  Printable recipe for this dish found here

Other than that I think we have a bonafied family winner.  The kids ate it all up and it's pretty hard to find one meal that pleases everyone around here. It even made some yummy left overs hubby took to work for lunch.  Just remember, whatever you do... no matter how much you want to... DON'T PEEK!!!!
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