Meal Planning

Hello Friends! I am proud to announce that I survived my first week of residency! After finally feeling adjusted to life in our new house as newlyweds, we are going through another series of changes with the start of my intern year. I am starting off on one of my more taxing inpatient rotations, which means long hours and 1-day weekends. My husband has been very helpful with pitching in to do some cooking and general house up-keep, but being in the kitchen is still very therapeutic when I have the time! We have started loosely planning our meals for the next week on Saturday or Sunday to help us stay within our food budget and waste less food. This also helps guide us when we are grocery shopping! We have been doing this for a month now with great success, so I wanted to share some tips that have really helped us. If there are any veteran meal planners out there, I would love to know some tips that help you stay on track!

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1. Write it out
We use two chalkboard canvases (leftover from our wedding) to catalogue what our plans for the week are, what meats/staples we have in the freezer, and what homemade meals we have frozen away for really busy nights! They hang right next to the fridge so that we always know what we have around.
2. Plan for the main dish, but keep a loose idea of the sides
We tend to plan only the main theme, or central dish. For example, I will plan to make marinated chicken, but will decide on the vegetable to serve on the side when I get to the farmer’s market or grocery store and see what looks freshest or on sale. This way, my grocery list ends up being staples (meat, beans, lemons, eggs, grains) plus 5-6 vegetables and 2-3 fruits.
3. Pick seasonal meals
This sort of goes with what I mentioned above, but you can save money and get better tasting ingredients if you plan your meals in concordance with the season. For example, my husband loves this Israeli Cous Cous salad, but we only make it in the spring and summer when squash and cherry tomatoes are in abundance. In contrast, hearty chilis and bean soups simmer and heat up the house while cooking on a hot summer day.
4. Plan with ingredients that you can buy/prepare in bulk.
For example, we are big brown rice eaters. At least 2-3 of our meals per week will be served with brown rice. Instead of making rice every night, we make it once and then keep it in our rice cooker for the next few days. In order for the rice to stay fresh, we try to plan to have the meals that go best with rice in a row.
5. Always buy salad greens.
As a veggie advocate, having fresh lettuce on hand for quick salads is the best way to ensure that something fresh and green makes it to the table on even the busiest of nights. Even with the best pre-planning, life happens and salads are the easiest, albeit not always the most exciting, way to get your veggies in.
6. Plan at least one meal with lunch leftovers.
We are lucky enough as a family of two to often get lunch leftovers out of most of our dinners. If your family is larger, though, plan for one meal that makes great leftovers. Vegetarian bean dishes, lentil salads, pasta salads, and curries tend to be our favorite to eat the next day!
7. Be flexible.
If you know that things frequently come up in your week or you often find yourself with unused ingredients in the fridge by Friday, build in some wiggle room. For example, we always plan for a date night, and frequently leave one more night “unplanned,” leaving room for impromptu dinners with friends or pantry creations.

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This is some of what we have learned so far. Any other thoughts or things that you have found to work for your family or lifestyle? Share in the comments section!

July 6, 2014 at 1:42 pm 1 comment

Slow Cooker Chicken

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Just a few years ago, the thought of cooking a whole chicken was quite intimidating to me. As a former vegetarian, cooking meat seemed like a daunting task, and cooking it on the bone was scarier still. I had no idea how to tell if it was done, and even less of an idea of how to carve and serve it. More so, the thought of rubbing a chicken with herbed oils or sticking my hand in a turkey carcass to remove the neck was the stuff of nightmares. (Thanks, Grandma, for chasing me with a turkey neck during my first vegetarian Thanksgiving! ;) Haha) However, as I learn more about environmentally responsible animal farming and less wasteful eating habits, I am more convinced than ever that whole chickens are the way to go. First of all, the flavor is all in the bones, fat and skin, leading to the most flavorful and juicy white chicken meat I have ever tasted. Second of all, you can cook once (perhaps on a lazy Saturday or Sunday) and enjoy chicken meat on sandwiches and salads throughout the week. Perhaps most exciting for me is the opportunity to use the leftover bones and veggies to make your own chicken stock.

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To make this whole process even easier and more approachable, I learned that roaster chickens easily fit in a slow cooker. This method is perfect for the summer when you don’t want to overheat your house, or for all year when you want a low-maintenance alternative for roasting chicken! With this method, the skin will not get crispy (OK by me as I still take off the skin when I am done cooking). However, you will get fall-off-the-bone, melt-in-your-mouth, perfect chicken with very little effort. When you are done making the chicken, don’t even rinse out the slow cooker. Throw the bones and a few more carrots, onions and celery stalks back in with some bay leaves and peppercorns to make chicken stock! I usually freeze mine in 2-cup portions to use the next time I need it!

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Slow Cooker Roaster Chicken

1 whole roaster chicken (between 4-5 lbs), giblets removed

1 lemon, cut in eighths

4 carrots, peeled and roughly chopped

5 stalks celery, roughly chopped

1 large or 2 small onions, roughly chopped

spices: basil, parsley, garlic powder, paprika, salt and pepper

1/2 cup white wine or chicken broth or water

Rinse chicken under cold water. Place in slow cooker and season to taste with herbs, spices, salt and pepper. Add 4 lemon slices to the interior of the chicken, then place the remaining slices between the wings/legs and body of the chicken. Sprinkle with vegetables, then add cooking liquid. Set slow cooker to low heat and cook for 8-9 hours. Remove and discard the skin prior to serving. Serve with roasted potatoes and favorite vegetable.

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Slow Cooker Chicken Stock

Bones from 1 roaster chicken

1 onion, quartered

3-4 carrots, roughly chopped in 2-in pieces

2-3 stalks celery, roughly chopped in 2-in pieces

4 cups water

pinch salt

Return chicken bones and fresh vegetables to the slow cooker after chicken has been cooked and carved. (You do not have to discard the liquid or vegetables that remain in the slow cooker). Add water and pinch of salt. Cook on low heat for 8 hours. Skim fat from resulting broth, then store in airtight container in fridge for immediate use or in freezer for future use.

June 11, 2014 at 9:17 am 1 comment

My New Kitchen!

Hi Friends! Sorry for another brief absence. Life got busy as we moved into our new apartment!!! To say that I am excited is an understatement. I never realized how important having my own space to cook, relax, and entertain was to me until I no longer had my own home. While I have learned invaluable lessons over the past 5 months from my apartment fire, it feels so good to be settled again.

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On Saturday, my parents helped my husband and me play a miraculous game of moving truck Tetris to load all of our worldly possessions and bring them to our new home in Albany, NY. We then spent the next 4 days frantically unpacking our things that had been boxed away for the past 5 months. (We were so excited to be out of boxes that we are fully moved in after less than a week of being here!) It felt a bit like Christmas as we finally got to pull wedding gifts from their original packages and find them a place in our new home. We are so thankful and feel so loved as we look around our new home and see the memories, people and stories behind each item.

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My favorite part of being re-settled is having my own kitchen again. We have TONS of windows in our new space and I absolutely love the natural light that floods our kitchen. Hopefully I will be able to continue to cook and share recipes and ideas from this new space, though likely not as often as I would like as I learn to balance residency with married life in a new city.

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Question: What makes your house feel like home?

June 5, 2014 at 11:06 am Leave a comment

Summer BBQ

Everyone has a slightly different meaning of appropriate cook-out foods depending on your cultural and regional backgrounds. Growing up in NJ, a summer BBQ always meant hamburgers and hot dogs, potato salad, and chips. To my husband, who was born in Brazil, no cook-out is complete without linguica (Brazilian sausage) and short ribs. I have also heard that BBQ and cook-out can signal two totally different affairs if you are from the southern US.

No matter what, it is hard to disagree that anything off the grill just screams summer. My husband got a new Weber charcoal grill for his birthday yesterday, so we are excited to have many grilled treats this summer. Here are some of my favorite summer recipes for the grill. These are all perfect for any special graduation celebrations or Memorial Day BBQs coming up!

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Homemade Shake Shack – Two Ways

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Fingerling Potato and Asparagus Salad

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Grill Basket Veggie Panini

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Sweet Potato Grill Fries

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Greek Herbed Turkey Burgers

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Grilled Pizza

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Beer Can Chicken

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Drunken Grilled Fruit

May 23, 2014 at 7:43 am 1 comment

Homemade Shake Shack Two Ways

Have you heard of Shake Shack? In some ways, I would lightly call it the “In-N-Out” of New York City based on its popularity with tourists. My husband is obsessed, and was one of the first in line when they opened their Boston location. In my opinion, the regular burger at Shake Shack is overpriced and nothing to write home about. However, the Shroom Burger or the Shack Stack are worth the hype. If you have never had the privilege of indulging here while in NYC, then allow me to describe it. The Shroom Burger is two Portobello mushroom caps that have been lightly scooped out to accommodate a generous cheese filling. They are pressed together, lightly coated and then deep-fried. The result is a deliciously unhealthy, cheesy and hearty vegetarian mushroom patty. To create the Shack Stack, this monster patty is layered on top of a normal beef burger and served on a grilled potato roll. To say that this is over the top is an understatement, but more than just my husband is obsessed as evidenced by the around-the-block lines that Shake Shack draws daily.

Since we are moving out of Boston, my husband and I wanted to create a homemade version of his favorite burger. We each had our own idea of how to do this. A Shake Shack purist, his mission was to recreate as close to an exact replica as possible – double mushroom patty with a gooey cheese filling over a beef patty. I wanted to come up with a less intense version that is not quite as indulgent so that we can enjoy this treat more often at upcoming summer BBQs. In my opinion, both avenues were a messy success. Our method still needs perfecting and will never quite replicate the real deal, but for a homemade option we are quite happy!

Neither of the following are recipes, more like ingredient lists and bare bones guidelines of what we did (with pictures). If you have or plan to experiment with this chain favorite, let us know what you did that worked (or didn’t!)

Classic “Shack Stack”

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Take two medium-sized Portobello mushroom caps and wash well. Gently scrape out the middle of the mushroom (what we call “gills”). Place mushroom caps between two paper towels and two microwave safe dishes. Microwave for 1.5-3 minutes, or until moisture seeps out and the mushroom caps become flat and pancake-like. Allow to cool. Mix together shredded cheese (we used Muenster and Cheddar). Form a palm sized ball of cheese. Place the cheese in the center of the mushroom caps. Surround with plastic wrap and wrap tightly to adhere the two mushroom caps together.

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Allow to sit for several minutes. In separate bowls, lay out flour, a beaten egg, and plain panko bread crumbs. Dip the mushroom patty in flour, then egg, then breadcrumbs, then repeat in egg and breadcrumbs.

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Deep fry in canola oil until the outside is golden brown. Meanwhile, cook a burger as desired. Toast a potato roll lightly. Assemble burger with mushroom patty, lettuce, tomato and onion. Serve immediately.

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Lightened Up “Shack Stack”

Wash and prepare one mushroom patty as above. Follow instructions to flatten the mushroom cap. Mix together one to two tablespoons of shredded cheese and place in the middle of the mushroom cap. Create a covering for the cheese with either 1/4 lb ground beef mixture or a pre-formed hamburger patty.

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Grill beef side down first until meat is cooked as desired, then flip for one minute to melt cheese.

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Serve on toasted potato roll with lettuce, onion and tomato.

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Question: Anyone hosting a memorial or graduation celebration BBQ this weekend? What is your favorite thing to make on the grill?

May 21, 2014 at 7:35 am 1 comment

Vinegar Braised Chicken and Vintage Cast Iron

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My husband and I have a new vacation hobby – browsing antique stores. While we are in no way knowledgeable about what we are looking at, we enjoy looking around at old furniture, imagining what old kitchens looked like, and reading old letters or signs. We like to look for unique old pieces to mix in with our new and more modern furniture to give our home an eclectic and lived in feel. So far, we have only made two purchases from antique stores, mainly due to limited space and a tight budget.  Our rule is that the item we select must be usable or repurposed in some way. So far, we have gotten a hand painted planter set for a kitchen herb garden and a cast iron dutch oven – both of which we have already put to use! I was so excited about the dutch oven because it is pre-seasoned from years of use, and came at a far lower price tag than the pretty enameled ones that I have always looked at. I like using dutch ovens over regular pots when meals require long cooking time, since the thick bottom holds the heat evenly and results in less sticking to the bottom. So far, I have used my pot to make Frugal Feeeding’s Greek Lamb with Orzo (I made this for Easter but it would make a lovely Mother’s Day meal!) and Bon Appetit’s Vinegar Braised Chicken.

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For my braised chicken, I served it over homemade pasta to recreate a favorite restaurant meal. It was delicious, and would be another great meal to honor the special women in your lives! I used leg quarters and picked the large bones out prior to serving to create an easier to eat pasta dish. The ratios in the dish can be easily reduced if you do not want to make 5 lbs of chicken (I halved it to serve 4 people). The chicken would also taste great over rice, cous cous, or quinoa if pasta is not your mom’s favorite! Either way, I hope you all get to spend a beautiful weekend celebrating mothers, grandmothers, daughters and good friends who have helped to shape and mold you. I am especially thankful for my mom and the time we have gotten to spend together over the past two months!

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Question: What are you doing to celebrate Mother’s Day?

May 9, 2014 at 10:02 am Leave a comment

Trivets from Old Tiles

I am excited to share that I have my own apartment again! Our move-in date is still a month away, but I am beyond excited to begin preparing to move again. We have gotten so many beautiful gifts from our wedding that I am excited to find a home for! It has been fun to start dreaming of how to make our new apartment a home (we are hoping not to move again for the next 4 years if possible!), but it can also be expensive. We took our first trip to IKEA last week, and even the small and inexpensive pieces add up. Since we are working on a tight budget and have some free time, I have been tackling a few DIY projects and getting back in touch with my creative side.

My first successful project has been turning old ceramic backsplash tiles into trivets (or, if you are like my husband, the things you set hot dishes on when you serve dinner). I have seen so many trivets that I love from online stores, but they all seem to come with a hefty price tag that I cannot afford. While these don’t quite fit into the “necessary and willing to pay for” line of our moving budget, they also are something that I would really like to have. I was inspired by one of my mom’s own trivets that is essentially a large decorative tile with feet, and knew that I could make something similar at a far smaller price tag!

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Before starting, I headed to Michael’s to pick up some acrylic paint and brushes. I like Folk Art Multi-surface paint for any kitchen projects. It is a bit more than the store brand, but the paint is thicker and has a smoother finish, and it also has the best (and longest lasting) results when baked in the oven. To start my project, I lightly washed the tiles with soap and water. After letting them dry for 10 minutes, I lightly wiped the surface with rubbing alcohol. While they dried, I set up my workspace with newspaper, a color “palette” made out of the side of a cardboard box, water and paper towels to clean my brushes, and my dishes for pattern inspiration. I practiced a few flowers before beginning, and decided that it was less work to freehand the flowers than it was to create stencils. If you are less confident in your painting skills, I have used some great stencils for other projects before. They add a bit in up front cost, but if you will use them for multiple DIY projects than they can be worth the investment. You can also create your own stencils with card stock and an exacto knife, but this is time-consuming and works better for larger DIY projects.

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After feeling confident in my painted flowers, I began to paint my tiles. I am not so much of a plan-ahead type of painter, and prefer to add slowly and let my design flow organically. I started with one large flower on each tile, then added vines, leaves, and smaller accent flowers until I was satisfied with each tile.

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Once all of the tiles were complete, I transferred them to a cold oven. Then I turned the oven on to 350 F and allowed it to heat. (Do NOT put your project in a pre-heated oven!) This step allows the most even baking of the paint, and also prevents your project from cracking (a step that is more important when working with glass and fragile ceramics, but you can never be too careful!) After your oven comes to temperature, set the timer for 30 minutes and allow the tiles to bake. Once baked, allow to cool completely in the oven. The following morning, I added self-adhesive foam dots to the bottom corners of the tiles to raise them slightly off the table.

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They are now awaiting a test run in my new kitchen! I love that they match my new dishes, and that they are pretty enough to be used to add some color and decoration to my new kitchen! This is a fun project that can be simplified as much or as little as you want to! I also think the painting part would be fun to do with kids! Even better, I made 4 trivets for less than one store bought trivet (about $18 for 6 acrylic paints, paint brushes, and foam dots). If you do not have old ceramic tiles, they are inexpensive at any home improvement store and will only add $1-2 per tile to your project!

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Question: Are you a DIY home decorator? What has been your most successful project?

My next project? Refinishing new-to-me furniture!

April 29, 2014 at 5:19 am 1 comment

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