Monday, August 30, 2010

Best Deals on Meals Around Town

I already posted about the meals I think are way too overpriced for the food you get.  And I promised to post about the ones that I think are worth it.  So this is me keeping that promise.  Do note that I’m leaving out fast food as options, since we all know how cheap they are from the start.

Best bang for your buck in my book:

**Shucks – This seafood stop has amazing prices and delicious food.  Everything is under $20.  So far my top pick is their grilled shrimp, which can be paired nicely with the green bean risotto (a half order is $8.95!).  Jake absolutely adores their Ahi Tuna Steak, which comes in at a reasonable $13.95.  That’s some seriously fresh and delicious seafood for an amazing price, folks!  The same outfit (Absolutely Fresh) owns a brunch bistro as well, which I find to be incredibly overpriced for the options.  Seriously, I can get Ahi Tuna Steak for $13.95 but several egg entrees at Bailey’s will cost me $9.95!  Crazy.  Either Shucks is an even more incredible deal or they’re just raking it in at Bailey’s.  So definitely go for Shucks.

**Tropics  -  My top Omaha pick for the best value in burgers around.  For $4 you can get a fresh burger and fries with loads of topping options.  And several more (and interesting) topping options are just $1 more (each).  Exchange the regular fries for sweet potato fries for $1 as well.  I just love sweet potato fries.  Much better than other chain burger joints that gouge you from the get-go.

**LaMesa – I can get a chicken enchilada, side of rice, salsa & chips for under $5 (when ordering to-go; I don’t cheat the server a tip when I eat in!).  And, yes, you still get free chips & salsa when you order to-go.  Can’t beat it!

**Sushi Half-Price Happy Hours at Hiro, Blue, etc – Sushi is expensive!  So the best way to get your raw fish fix (or cooked, for that matter) is to go when it’s half off and with a group to share that large boat platter filled to overflowing with the scrumptious big bites of deliciousness.  (Can you tell I love it & haven’t had enough of it lately?!)  There are several places around town that offer this kind of half price happy hour, but my favorite will probably always be Hiro.  It’s the first place I tried sushi, the first place we discovered we both LOVED it (not too common for Jake & I), and so far, makes the best sushi I’ve tried.  Other places have been “fine” but nothing compares to Hiro as of yet.  I did recently go to Baby Blue with some friends & their selection of half price options at happy hour is abundant, so that’s nice.  But I still think Hiro’s sushi is best. with Blue in 2nd place.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Appetizers – Hot & Steamy

Some appetizers need a little heat to have them at their best.  These are always the trickiest treats for me to figure out how to serve.  Sometimes keeping them hot in a crockpot for serving works well.  Other times it’s just bet to wait right until the time to serve to actually finish making them and then get ‘em while they’re hot!

Mini Ham Puffs
2.5 oz finely chopped ham or turkey (I buy already diced ham)
2 T finely chopped onion (I use dried onion flakes)
½ C shredded Swiss cheese
1 egg
1 T snipped fresh parsley (I use dried parsley, a little less than 1 T)
1 ½ tsp Dijon mustard
1/8 tsp black pepper
8 oz pkg refrigerated crescent roll dough

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Lightly spray a mini-muffin pan.  Mix together ham, onion, cheese, egg, parsley, mustard & pepper.  Unroll crescent dough & press into one large rectangle.  Cut dough into 24 squares using a pizza cutter.  Press one square of dough into each muffin cup (works really well with a lightly floured mini-tart shaper, if you have one).  Fill each muffin cup with a scant scoop of ham mixture (a small cookie scoop works well).  Make 12-14 minutes or til puffs are light golden brown.  Remove from pan & serve immediately.

Hot Spinach & Artichoke Dip
6 oz jar marinated artichoke hearts, drained & coarsely chopped
1 pkg (9-11 oz) frozen creamed spinach, thawed
¼ C mayo (I may use Miracle Whip for an extra zip)
¼ C sour cream
1 small garlic clove, pressed or minced
½ C finely shredded Parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Mix artichokes, spinach, mayo, sour cream, garlic & cheese.  Spool into a small baking dish.  Bake 20-25 min or til heated through.  Serve with toasted bread, tortilla or pita chips.

Cristin’s Spinach Artichoke Dip
8 oz cream cheese
2 C parmesan cheese
½ can artichoke hearts, chopped
2 C frozen chopped spinach, thawed
Garlic salt, to taste

Melt cream cheese in medium pan over med/low heat.  Add other ingredients 1 at a time, stirring after each addition until the mixture is well blended & cheese is melted.  Serve with tortilla chips or crackers. (Thank you, Cristin Dunn!)

Bacon-wrapped Little Smokies
16 oz pkg Little Smokies (I use the turkey ones)
1 lb. bacon (do not use the pre-cooked kind)
1 C brown sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Cut bacon into thirds & wrap each strip around a little sausage.  Secure with a toothpick.  Arrange on a baking sheet and sprinkle liberally with brown sugar.  Bake until bacon is crisp and brown sugar is melted into a glaze sauce, about 20-30 min.  Serve immediately, drizzling glaze over sausages.
**Note: the pre-cooked bacon does not give off enough fat to turn the brown sugar into a glaze.  I would also question if turkey bacon would work for the same reason.  A co-worker once used the Splenda brown sugar, though, and that tasted fine.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Appetizers – Cool & Creamy

I love a good chilled appetizer.  There’s something so fresh and crisp about them!  Whether it be a dip or a canapé, I’m in.  Here are some of my top picks for appetizers on the cold side.

Easy Party Slices (aka Cucumber Sandwiches)
1 pkg cocktail sliced bread
1 medium cucumber, thinly sliced (peeled, if desired)
8 oz cream cheese, softened
½ C mayo
.7 oz pkg dry Italian salad dressing mix
Dried dill weed

Combine cream cheese, mayo & salad dressing mix.  Mix well.  Spread small amount of mixture on each bread slice.  Top with a cucumber slice.  Sprinkle dried dill weed on top.

Mexicorn Dip
1 C Miracle Whip
1 C sour cream
2 cans Mexicorn, drained
1 can Rotel tomatoes, drained
2 C shredded cheddar cheese

Combine all ingredients & chill in fridge for a couple hours.  The longer the chill time, the more the flavors will blend.  (And the hotter the dip will become due to the tomatoes.)  Serve with crackers or tortilla chips.

Cool Spinach Dip
10 oz pkg frozen chopped spinach, thawed & squeezed dry
16 oz sour cream
1 C mayo
1 pkg Knorr vegetable recipe mix
8 oz can water chestnuts, drained & chopped

Combine all ingredients and chill about 2 hrs.  Serve with crackers or bread cubes.  (Makes a great bread bowl appetizer, for those that like such things.)

Lemon Pepper Crab (or Shrimp) Canapes
1 pkg cocktail sliced bread or canapé French bread
8 oz imitation crab meat, coarsely chopped (or salad shrimp)
8 oz can sliced water chestnuts, drained & chopped
¼ C grated carrot
1 lemon
1 green onion, thinly sliced
1/3 C mayo
½ tsp coarsely ground black pepper (I think I usually use regular pepper)
1 medium cucumber, scored & sliced

Zest lemon to measure 1 T zest; juice lemon to measure 1 T juice.  Add carrot, green onion, mayo, pepper, crab meat & water chestnuts to juice & zest.  Mix well.  Top each bread slice with a cucumber slice.  Scoop crab mixture evenly over cucumber slices (I use a small cookie scoop).  Garnish with parsley, if desired.

Black Bean Corn Salsa
1 can black beans, rinsed & drained
1 can corn, drained
1 avocado, diced
1 small red onion, diced

Combine all ingredients.  Serve with tortilla chips.

Fruit Dip
8 oz sweet-flavored cream cheese, softened (I like strawberry, but honey nut or other fruit flavors would be good too)
1 jar marshmallow crème

Combine cream cheese & marshmallow crème until smooth.  Serve with fruit or graham crackers. 

And as mentioned previously, I do love a good veggie pizza, but I’m much too lazy to make it!  All that dicing of veggies is too much work for me.  So feel free to do the work for me, friends!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Appetizers: Crockpot Hot!

I’m an appetizer lover.  Sometimes I go to restaurants and order just an appetizer for my meal.  Either it’s that good, or I’m in the mood for greasy & yummy, or I know I’ll never get it as just an appetizer because that’s a budget buster most days.  So here is the first in a 3-part series on the appetizers I love.  These are the ones that are incredibly simple, yet crowd pleasing at the same time.  Oh, how I love my crockpot.  And the disposable liners they make now for them!

Mini Hot Dogs ‘n’ Meatballs – This is a male crowd pleaser for sure!
36 frozen cooked Italian meatballs (1/2 oz each)
16 oz pkg little smokies (I like the new turkey ones – can’t tell a difference!)
3.5 oz sliced pepperoni (again, I go with turkey)
26 oz meatless spaghetti sauce
18 oz BBQ sauce
12 oz chili sauce

In 5-qt crockpot, combine all ingredients.  Cover & cook on low for 3 hrs or til heated through.  Serve with toothpicks (or forks).

Little Smokies
2 16 oz. pkgs little smokies
1 bottle BBQ sauce

Heat in crockpot & serve.  (My mom always did a mixture of grape jelly & chili sauce, which sounds super weird but basically just turns out to be mostly a BBQ sauce.  So I just go straight to the BBQ sauce!)

Chili Cheese Dip
2 cans Hormel chili without beans
1 lb. Velveeta cheese, cut into cubes
Tortilla chips

Combine chili and cheese in crockpot; cook on high, stirring regularly until cheese melts.  Doesn’t take long.  Keep warm to serve.  Serve with tortilla chips.

Queso Cheese Dip
2 cans Rotel diced tomatoes with green chilies, undrained
1 lb. Velveeta cheese, cubed
Tortilla chips

Combine tomatoes & cheese in crockpot; cook on high, stirring regularly until cheese melts.  Doesn’t take long.  Keep warm to serve.  Serve with tortilla chips.  (This can also be done easily in the microwave.)

And here’s a new one I’m dying to try at the next opportunity:
Glazed Kielbasa
3 lbs. fully cooked Kielbasa or Polish sausage, cut into 1-inch chunks (Hillshire Farms has a good low fat Polish sausage I use regularly)
½ C packed brown sugar
1 ½ C ginger ale

Place sausage in 3-qt crockpot; sprinkle with brown sugar.  Pour ginger ale over the top.  Cover & cook on low for 4-5 hrs or until heated through.  Serve with a slotted spoon.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Overpriced Meal Deals

Like any good foodie, I love eating out.  And like any good budgeter, I like getting a good (or great) deal.  There are several places that I find to be overpriced for what you get, however.  Some of these places I may have mentioned previously in posts as yummy places to eat, and that hasn’t changed.  But I do think you might find a better bang for your buck elsewhere.

Red Robin – Don’t get me wrong, I really like the food.  But it’s burgers & fries, people!  I shouldn’t be expected to pay at least $10 for such fare!!  I know they work hard at giving me different gourmet options, but I can go to Tropics for a $4 burger where lots of the same toppings are free and several are just a buck more.  And, yes, they have bottomless fries.  But have you ever found it as difficult as I have to actually get the server back to your table with more said fries?  I just don’t think this place is always worth the pretty penny you have to shell out to eat there.  Since we’ve buttoned down the hatches on our budget, I’m becoming more choosy in how I spend my money and what I want to get for that spending.  And Red Robin ain’t it.

Mimi’s Café – Again, good food.  But their prices are steep for breakfast entrees and the like.  Chicken and fruit is almost $10?  I did get a buy one, get one free entrée coupon when I signed up for their email club, which made it somewhat more affordable.  But I still won’t make Mimi’s top of the list.

LePeep – I do love a good brunch, and this place has good brunch options.  But not uber-fantastic brunch options, which is what you’d expect from the prices listed.  For the cost, I would think they could stuff a bit more stuffing into my Stuffed French Toast!  Or smother it in fresh strawberries.  Or load up on the potato hashbrowns on the side, instead of sprinkling a few measly nuggets next to my omelet.  Breakfast food is cheap to make, people, so they’re getting a steep markup on what they’re offering.  Maybe I’ll just make it myself at home instead.

Perkins, Country Kitchen, Etc. – These kinds of restaurants are fewer and farther between these days for a reason:  they don’t offer premium product for the premium price they charge.  Sure, you usually get plenty of food, but it’s not really great food.  And their breakfasts are definitely better than lunch or dinner options, which are usually just reheated, deep fried & gravy smothered.  I can get that from a good frozen dinner at the store.  So why pay more for the cheesy “country” atmosphere and (usually) lazy service?  I’ll skip these venues as much as possible.

There are several restaurants that I do think are worth the money.  Some I’ve already touted.  Some will come later, so keep checking back! 

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Sandwiches I’ll Eat

Now, if you thought I wouldn’t like sandwiches because I don’t like bread, you’d be right.  With a very few exceptions.  And even these sandwiches will never be my very top pick of cuisine, though some are pretty great.

In no particular order:

-#4, Turkey Tom at Jimmy John’s (with BBQ chips & a Cherry Coke)
            This sandwich is perfect as it is.  It’s the original for a reason, folks.  I get it with everything on the menu (turkey, sprouts, mayo, tomatoes, lettuce).  I do not add the cheese they always ask if you want to add but again, isn’t on the listed menu for this sandwich.  Since the Turkey Tom comes with sprouts I was so very, very sad for a couple months last year when they wouldn’t serve sprouts due to a recent sprout salmonella contamination.  So sad.  Anyway, I always ask them to cut the sandwich in half since for easier eating, but they only get that request right about half the time.  I like Jimmy John’s for their chewy bread, which is almost hallowed out in the middle & stuffed to the max with delightful ingredients.  That’s how bread should be!

-The Smith Special at Back Alley Deli, Grinnell, IA
            Basically this sandwich is a Danforth, which has roast beef, pickles (which I always discard), tomato, onion, lettuce, Swiss cheese (I think) and normally comes with mayo.  But the Smith clan (that’s my maiden name for those who don’t know) prefer it brushed with the oil & vinegar herb mix instead of mayo.  SO tasty!  The bread they use comes from a local bakery.  And the toppings are usually pretty dense.  My mouth is watering just thinking about it.  This local find is hidden away in the back of a store.  It used to be a magazine shop but I think it’s something different now.  In any case, it’s worth the sometimes long wait & the price (not uber expensive, but not cheap either).  But it’s always been a special treat for our family.

-Californian Sandwich Melt at The Flying Star Café in Albuquerque, NM
            From the menu:  “Marinated, grilled crimini mushrooms, Swiss, avocado, tomatoes, caramelized onions & ranch dressing on grilled sourdough.”  Need I say more?  AMAZING.  I’m so sad this is apparently a New Mexico only restaurant chain.  It’s similar in menu options to a Panera Bread, but so, so much better.  This sandwich was served with homemade BBQ chips to top it off.  I ordered this sandwich early into my week of grant writing training in Albuquerque this past February.  And the fellow trainee I went with was a local, so she’d been to this restaurant before but never ordered this sandwich.  When I got it, we were both drooling.  And it tasted even better than it looked.  So, so good.  She was a little disappointed with her choice at that point.  And I thought I might go back to get it again before I left but I didn’t.  Major bummer.  And did you note that there wasn’t even any meat?!  Cuz I’m not a vegetarian but I would get this again and again and again.  Probably a good thing I don’t live there, actually.

Monday, August 16, 2010

“Change Your Life” Utensils

There are regular, everyday utensils like a good rubber spatula and a wooden mixing spoon.  And then there are utensils that rock your world and change how you’ve always done a particular cooking step.  The following is a list of utensils that have had an actual impact on me.  They may not fall into the “essential” category, for you could get by without them.  But you don’t want to have to.  They are ‘change your life’ fantastic!

- Pampered Chef’s Mix ‘N Chop – this utensil is perfect for chopping up hamburger, ground  turkey & Italian sausage.  Other utensils may work for such a project, but nothing is as easy or works as well!
Website Description:  A Pampered Chef® exclusive! Unique, beveled pinwheel blades efficiently chop and crumble foods for even cooking and seasoning. Its high-quality nylon design follows the curves of your cookware and won't scratch the surface. A soft grip and thumb rest help you comfortably grasp the handle and chop more easily. Heat-resistant to 428°F. 11". Dishwasher-safe.

 -Pampered Chef’s Small Spreader – works perfectly to smoothly frost cakes & cupcakes, without any lines or bumps that come from knives & other spreaders. 
Website Description: A shorter offset blade gives you the perfect control needed to frost cupcakes. Its ergonomic handle is easy on your hand. 3 1/2" stainless steel blade. Dishwasher-safe.

-Eggsact Egg Timer (or similar brand) – this tool took me from the mess & uncertainty of hard-boiling eggs to a pro!  Not to mention the ease of knowing about soft & medium-boiled eggs now too. 
Website Description:  It's so simple, you'll wonder why it wasn't invented sooner!  This Eggsact Egg Timer takes the guesswork out of boiling eggs. Whether you want your eggs soft, medium or hard boiled, simply place this egg-shaped timer in a pan with your eggs and watch as the timer changes color as the eggs cook. Equipped with an internal sensor that reacts to heat, you can actually boil your eggs to the perfect stage every time. No more wondering when your eggs are done because the timer heats up along with the eggs tells you exactly how done your eggs are. Features: Changes color as the eggs cook (from red to purple) Internal sensor reacts to heat 3 stages include soft, medium and hard boiled Works with any number of eggs.

-Pampered Chef’s Core & More – to be honest, I don’t really have this tool!  I have an earlier version that is just the Corer part.  And that’s the part I really recommend, but this new version comes with an added bonus, which I think sounds good too.  The Corer is great for de-stemming strawberries and taking out the core of a tomato.  You no longer have to cut off half the strawberry to just take off the stem, or do the time-consuming work of wedging a knife down around the core/stem in a circular motion.  It’s such a quick, one-step, no-mess process with the Corer!
Website Description:  Remove stems, seeds and cores from vegetables and fruits with the stainless steel corer. Make melon balls and create veggie boats with the double-sided scoop. Corer end includes an ergonomic handle and protective storage cover. Dishwasher-safe.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Side Dishes: (Final Take) Everything Else, But Mostly Just Deviled Eggs

In my Go-To Food post, I mentioned a couple side dish recipes that I probably overuse but that are simply loved by us.  Garlic herb roasted potatoes and Aunt Marti’s corn are just perfect.  Feel free to flip back to that post for those recipes. 

Since the potatoes are from my mom and the corn is from Jake’s aunt, it just seems fitting to include another family recipe that usually gets raves (I’m still new to making it, so it’s taken some time for me to get it right).  My Grandma Peterson’s deviled eggs are always a hit at birthday parties and family reunions.  We’ve come to expect them from her, but since her eyesight is now failing her (she’s 93!) it’s about time I took up that cross.  I know deviled eggs are a controversial choice, with a love ‘em or hate ‘em quality.  But for most people in our families, they’re pretty high up there on the list. 

So here’s the secret family recipe for delicious Deviled Eggs:

6 hard-boiled eggs, shelled & halved lengthwise
¼ C Miracle Whip (not mayo for this – got to have that tangy zip!)
1 tsp cider vinegar
¼ tsp mustard
1 tsp sugar
½ tsp salt

Remove yolks from eggs.  Combine yolks with the remaining ingredients & mash.  Refill egg whites with mixture.  Makes a dozen deviled egg halves.

**Note:  I tried to really measure out the ingredients the first couple of times I made these, which is a mistake.  They taste much better if you eyeball the ingredients and then taste to check, adding in more of what’s missing, etc.  I rarely do this in cooking (though know some of you out there only cook this way!), but for this particular recipe, this method works best.  And using less Miracle Whip to start is best or the mix can get too runny, which is harder to fix than adding in more later, if needed.  Good luck!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Side Dishes: (Take Two) Comfort Casseroles

One of my favorite times of year for food is holiday season.  Somehow you can get away with having every dish on the table be carb-loaded!  At least the turkey or ham is usually fairly carb-free, but a normal Thanksgiving for us includes a variety of the following:  mashed potatoes & gravy (carb), stuffing (carb), corn casserole (carb), sweet potatoes of some kind (usually accompanied by marshmallows or brown sugar – carb, carb!), green bean casserole (carb), scalloped pineapple (carb, carb! – a family favorite), jello salad (carb), and maybe rolls (carb).  You get the idea.  And then you top it off with pie & whipped cream (carb, carb, carb!).  Forget the Tryptophan – this carb-fest is what puts you to sleep!

Still, some of my favorite and most popular dishes are these “comfort casserole” sides.  In addition to complementing turkey and ham, they also go well with BBQ and chicken.  The following is my ‘best of the best’ for comfort casserole sides.

Corn Casserole
1 can cream-style corn
1 can whole kernel corn, drained
2 eggs
1 C sour cream
1 stick butter, cut up into slices (or melted)
1 box Jiffy corn muffin mix
Minced onion to taste

Mix all ingredients well.  Spread into a greased 9x13 pan & bake for 45 min – 1 hr.  (Baking in a smaller dish will take longer but result in a thicker mix, if desired.)

Sweet Potato Casserole
3 C sweet potatoes, boiled & mashed (about 4 potatoes; I also used the frozen Ore Ida kind last year & it worked pretty well as a shortcut since I find sweet potatoes incredibly hard to cut)
½ C sugar
½ C butter or marg.
2 eggs, well beaten
1 tsp vanilla
½ C milk

1/3 C butter or marg, melted
½ C flour
1 C chopped pecans
1 C brown sugar

Mix casserole ingredients together & pour into a greased 9x9 dish.  Mix topping ingredients & sprinkle on top of sweet potato mixture.  Bake at 350 degrees for 45 min. or until set.  (This is as good as dessert for me!  Probably close to a crumb topped sweet potato or pumpkin pie.)

Green Bean Casserole (Extra Easy!)
2 cans green beans (any style but I prefer just the cut ones, not French style)
1 can cream of mushroom soup
French’s fried onions

Drain one can of green beans & some of other, but reserve about 2/3 of juice from one can.  Mix beans and juice with soup & spread into a 9x9 or similar baking dish.  Heat in microwave for 5 min on high; stir.  Heat for another 3-5 min.  Top with fried onions & bake in preheated oven at 350 degrees for about 5 min to brown.  (Note: do not broil in oven, as onions tend to burn quickly this way.  Multiple family members have tried this as a shortcut!)

Scalloped Pineapple (Family Favorite – intriguing, right?!)
2 qts bread cubes (1 qt = 6 slices)
3 eggs, beaten
2 C sugar
2 sticks butter/marg, softened
1 large can pineapple tidbits, drained well

Beat together eggs, sugar & butter until creamed.  Add in bread & pineapple gently.  Spread into a greased 9x13 pan and bake at 350 degrees for 45 min.  (1/2 batch = 2 eggs; bake for 35 min.)

Many people also make a hashbrown potato casserole that would go well with this list.  I have a recipe for this delightful dish, but I think I’ve only made it once.  I love, love, love this casserole, but many people smother it in cheese (yum!) and that excludes it from my household due to Jake’s abhorrence of cheese.  Sad.  Same goes for any fancy mac-n-cheese recipe too.  Though lately I’ve had several people tell me they’ve tried gourmet mac-n-cheese recipes from well-known cooks (i.e. Martha Stewart, Paula Deen) but have been disappointed with the outcome.  Interesting…

Do you have favorite comfort casserole side dishes?

Monday, August 9, 2010

Side Dishes: (Take One) Salads

I love that my friends and readers are suggesting blog post topics to me on a (fairly) regular basis!  Sometimes it’s good to have a little assisted inspiration.  And recently a good friend asked me to post on side dishes.  I came up with so many recipe ideas that I thought it would make a good series of posts instead of one VERY long one!  So we’ll start this series with salad recipes.  These are salads I’ve made at various points in my life, sometimes to the point of overkill.  And some are still ones that I make regularly.  But they’re all beloved!

Snickers Salad
6 Snickers candy bars
2 pkgs instant vanilla pudding mix
8 0z Cool Whip
5-6 Granny Smith apples
3 C milk

Peel & cut apples into bite-size pieces (I don’t always peel; sometimes I use my apple wedger & then cut the wedges into chunks).  Cut candy bars into bite-size pieces.  Mix milk & pudding together; fold in Cool Whip.  Add apples & candy bar pieces. 

Pasta Salad
1/3 C oil
1/3 C vinegar
1/3 C sugar (I use slightly less than 1/3 C)
Garlic pwdr, onion pwdr, pepper, onion flakes to taste
Pepperoni, diced, to taste
Baby carrots, sliced, to taste
½ bag/box of cooked pasta, drained (I prefer gemelli or radiatore)

Combine first 4 ingredients; add pepperoni & carrots.  Drain pasta & toss with sauce.  Serve immediately or chill until ready to serve, stirring often.

Asian Slaw
16 oz. broccoli slaw mix
2 pkgs. beef ramen noodles
¼ C sliced almonds
½ C sunflower nuts
2 T vinegar
¾ C oil
1/3 C sugar

Mix together ramen noodle seasoning packets, vinegar, oil & sugar.  Crumble raw noodles.  Add remaining ingredients; pour dressing over and toss well.  Serve immediately.  (If making ahead, add crumbled noodles only right before serving.)

Acini de pepi Salad (old family favorite from my Grandma Peterson)
16 oz. pkg of acini de pepi (small pasta, similar to tapioca in shape)
Cook in salted water for 8 min; rinse & drain well.  Cool.

1 C sugar
3 eggs
½ tsp salt
2 T flour
1 ¾ C pineapple juice (use from drained pineapple to add in later)
Mix & cook til thick.  Pour over pasta & refrigerate overnight. 

Add next day:
Small can crushed pineapple, drained
Regular size can pineapple tidbits, drained
2 small cans mandarin oranges, drained
10 oz. pkg mini-marshmallows (optional)
8 0z. Cool Whip

Refrigerate; best if stands awhile.  Makes a very large batch.  Freezes well.

Broccoli Orange Salad
4 C fresh broccoli florets, bite-size
½ C cashews
Small red onion, chopped
½ C buttermilk ranch dressing
2 T orange juice
1 T horseradish sauce
Small can mandarin oranges, drained

Mix ranch dressing, orange juice & horseradish sauce together.  Poor over other ingredients, adding mandarin oranges gently at end.  Mix well & chill for 2 hours. 

Grape Salad
2 C fruit (can use mixed berries, but I prefer just grapes)
2 individual containers vanilla yogurt
8 oz. Cool Whip
1 pkg instant vanilla pudding mix

Mix pudding mix & yogurt together (will be very thick); fold in Cool Whip.  Add in fruit gently.

Berry Peach Bellini Salad
¼ C orange juice
3 T sugar
4 medium peaches, peeled, pitted & cut into bite-size chunks
1 C raspberries or diced strawberries (I prefer strawberries)
2 C sparkling wine or lemon-lime soda (I’ve only ever used Sprite or 7-Up; can use diet)

Mix orange juice & sugar together.  Add peaches & berries.  Divide fruit evenly into 4 individual serving cups.  Cover & freeze at least one hr.  About ½ hr before serving, remove cups from freezer.  Let stand until slightly thawed.  Poor sparkling wine or soda over fruit evenly.  Serve immediately.  Serves 4.

Buttermilk Salad (aka Striped Cookie & Mandarin Orange Salad)
1 pkg instant vanilla pudding mix
1 ½ C buttermilk (will make mix a bit thicker & tangier, but can use reg. milk)
8 oz Cool Whip
½ pkg fudge-striped shortbread cookies, crumbled (can use caramel-striped as well)
Small can mandarin oranges, drained

Mix pudding with buttermilk; fold in Cool Whip.  Add crumbled cookies & oranges; mix gently.  Serve immediately.  (If making ahead, add crumbled cookies only right before serving.)

Southwestern Black Bean Salad
1 can black beans, rinsed & drained
9 0z frozen corn, thawed
1 tomato, chopped
1 avocado, diced
¼ C red onion, chopped
1 green onion/scallion, sliced
Juice of 1 lime
3 T olive oil
1 T cilantro, optional (gross!)
Salt & pepper

Combine beans, corn, tomato, onion, green onion, cilantro (gross!), salt & pepper.  Mix with lime juice & olive oil.  Marinate in fridge for 30 min.  Add avocado before serving.  (My friend Stef uses lemon juice instead of lime, which would be handier since I always have it on hand in the fridge.  But I haven’t tried that yet.)  This can be served with tortilla chips or on lettuce.  But I eat it ‘as is’ with a spoon!

Picnic Potato Salad (oil based, not mayo – different, but a bit lighter & good!)
10 medium red potatoes, cubed
2/3 C oil
2 T cider vinegar
4 tsp honey
1 tsp dried basil
1 tsp ground mustard
½ tsp salt
½ tsp dried thyme
½ tsp dried marjoram
¼ tsp dried mint
Dash cayenne pepper

Place potatoes in a large saucepan & cover with water.  Cover & bring to a boil over med-high heat; cook for 15-20 min or until tender.  Drain & place in a large bowl.  Combine the remaining ingredients; pour over potatoes & toss to coat.  Cool to room temp.  Cover & refrigerate til serving.  Serves 12.

**Note:  Unless otherwise noted, I normally use sugar-free pudding mixes, light Cool Whip, turkey pepperoni, canola oil & white vinegar.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Food as Ministry

When you read the title to this post, are you automatically thinking of places like a homeless shelter / food kitchen or a food pantry?  Good things and obviously related to food as ministry.  But the focus of this post is going to be about hospitality and fellowship as a tool for ministry.  And the idea that Jesus saw fellowship (i.e. “breaking bread” together) as essential, not just a side benefit.

A couple years ago a good friend and mentor suggested that perhaps my love of hospitality could be a ministry in and of itself.  I’ve always had a hard time fitting myself into normal church ministries like “children’s ministry” or “women’s ministry” and finding a perfect fit.  But equally so, I’ve always loved having people over to our home and serving a good meal.  Thankfully, I also have a husband that enjoys this as well (possibly because he’s a homebody and prefers to be at home more than anywhere else – this we do not have in common!).  It was pretty difficult for us when we lived in someone else’s home and didn’t have that opportunity.  So we were very excited to move into our home and begin to have people over!

But I think so many of us have a hard time seeing things like having people over for dinner as a “ministry”.  If it’s not church-sponsored, then it’s not really a “ministry”, right?  Unfortunately, that’s a very short-sighted view of ministry, but that’s something I had to overcome myself.  I’m so grateful for friends and mentors that have opened my eyes to this reality. 

Jesus understood the importance of food and fellowship in our lives.  At a recent staff meeting where I work (Nebraska Christian College), David Huskey presented a devotion about just this topic.  (Dave and his wife, Jill, are serious about food as ministry.  They regularly cook for Northeast Iowa Bible Camp as well as New Way Singers and CIY groups that are held on NCC’s campus.  And they are diligent about opening their home for food and fellowship.)  Dave pointed out the many times in scripture – the Gospels specifically (the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) – where it’s mentioned that Jesus broke bread with people, went to someone’s home for a meal, or even performed a miracle with food (or wine!).  The feeding of the 5,000 with a few loaves of bread and some fish is a famous example.  As is the story of Zacheus, a vertically-challenged and hated tax collector, whom Jesus picked out in a crowd and then proceeded to invite himself to Zacheus’s home for a meal.  The Last Supper is a well-known story of Jesus breaking bread with his disciples right before his death.  But the Bible is filled with even more such accounts of Jesus fellowshipping and breaking bread. 

So in this age of watching our budget and thus limiting our eating out, I’m pursuing this ministry of hospitality even more by inviting people into our home.  I still remember conversing with one of Jake’s co-workers at StoneBridge Christian Church when he first started there and having them recount to us how privileged they would feel when someone would invite them to their home.  It speaks something to people to be invited into one’s home.  So if you offer to go out to eat with us and we turn that offer into an invitation to come over to our house instead, you’ll take us up on it, right?!  Having the opportunity of opening our home as a hospitality ministry to you is our pleasure & privilege!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Budget Tips & Tricks

A friend suggested I post on what tips and tricks I use when planning meals on a budget.  She mentioned things like meatless meals and using leftovers to make other meals, neither of which I do!  But those would be good tips and I know some of you do those things for a variety of reasons (like time saving & convenience), not just for budget ones.

Here’s a short list of my own tips & tricks when it comes to planning and shopping for meals on a budget:

Make meal lists that you actually stick to and then make your grocery list straight off those meal lists.  And then purchase (mostly) only what’s on your list when you shop.  Be sure to include any dinner parties in your meal lists so that when the party comes up, you’ve included it in your budgeted list instead of going over budget for “special” things.  Those can add up quickly! 

I substitute ground turkey for ground beef in whatever meals I can.  Sometimes we notice the difference and don’t like it, but many times that’s not the case.  And ground turkey in the tubes is usually under $2 / lb. for the leanest stuff!  (Bonus:  this is also a healthy tip!)

I use coupons, but only if it’s cheaper to do so than to buy the store brand.  The only items I cannot or will not buy store brand on are: Kraft Macaroni & Cheese (my husband will only eat the original kind & it has to be Kraft – but, yes, he will eat that kind even though it’s cheese!), Viva paper towels (I often find coupons for these anyway and several people have actually commented on how much they like my paper towels), Puffs plus lotion facial tissues (i.e. kleenex, but NOT Kleenex brand!) and Clorox wipes (even the Lysol ones are streakier & only save you a few pennies anyway).

Buy produce in-season.  Often I’ve said that it is expensive to eat healthier because fresh produce can be so expensive and chips are $1!  But if you purchase in-season produce, this is often not the case.  If you’re unsure, simply do a Google search to find out what time of year different produce is in-season.

Either choose recipes that use cut-up chicken instead of whole breasts or whole pieces or convert the recipe to do so.  This is a trick I use for many dishes because it allows you to skimp on the number of chicken breasts you have to use.  If you use whole breasts, you have to use the same amount of breasts as equal to the number of people you’re serving.  But if you’re cutting it up, you can often get away with using only 2 chicken breasts for 4 people, etc.

Make recipes that are large enough to allow for leftovers.  This cuts down on the amount of food you have to buy for separate lunches.

Usually pasta and rice dishes are inexpensive, filling and can also be healthy options.  They also fit the bill for some of the above items listed quite easily.

Shop at Aldi’s.  It’s really been helpful for me.  The items I buy there are always even cheaper than Walmart and I’ve even found some incredible deals on good produce from time to time.  My friend Kim is an Aldi’s advocate as well.  She spends $40 a week at Aldi’s for her family of 4.  She sticks to buying only what she really needs; she is also a big advocate of keeping things simple & uncluttered in her life, so she doesn’t have a huge pantry of stocked items, just what she needs for the next couple weeks only.  She is not big on cooking, though, so that’s something to keep in mind.  (Addendum to this: sometimes I find that shopping at two places, like Aldi’s & Walmart for the rest of what I can’t find at Aldi’s, adds up to me actually spending more than if I just shop at Walmart alone.  Not sure why this phenomenon exists, but it does.  So be careful!  Sometimes its better to just shop at one place, even if a few things are a bit more expensive.)

And I never, never shop only at ‘grocery’ stores like Hy-Vee, Baker’s / Kroger, even Bag ‘N Save (mostly Omaha options).  Sometimes with sales & coupons, these stores can have good deals, but for the majority of purchases, I find that I spend much less money overall if I shop at discount stores like Walmart and even Target.  Though Target can still be pricier than Walmart on most items, and when you’re counting every single penny like me, that adds up!  Here is just one example of this in practice:  I priced canned chicken (generic) at Bag ‘N Save, Walmart & Aldi’s.  Bag ‘N Save’s price was over $3, Walmart was about $1.99 and Aldi’s was about $1.50 (I've since noticed Walmart's price dropped even more - hurray!).  Again, those savings add up over time!  And I found the same to be true on shredded cheese.  Sometimes I can find specific items only at those grocery stores, so I go ahead & splurge.  But rarely!

It’s kind of hokey, but I swear by using a calculator when I grocery shop.  It helps me stay on budget by keeping a running total.  If I go over, I have to put stuff back!  (I really, really hate doing that.) 

I rarely buy in bulk.  Even though it may essentially be cheaper per unit in the end to do so, it usually means spending big bucks up front.  And I don’t have a lot of bucks to spend all in one shot.  I have to stay on budget each time.  So instead of stocking up on toilet paper once & taking a huge chunk out of my budget to do so, I buy a small package of cheap toilet paper each major trip (twice a month for us).  That way I stay on track every time.

I do most of my major shopping all at once, supplementing with a couple extra trips as needed (like more milk or fresh produce) but keeping those to a minimum and keeping track of the overall budget the whole time.  I’ve found that if I go to the store every few days & just get a few items each time, I spend more than if I do one major trip and a couple smaller ones. 

Those are the tips & tricks I can think of at this point.  Do you have some you’d like to share?

Monday, August 2, 2010

Ethnic Picnic: Indian style

I have my sister-in-law, Christine, and brother-in-law, Brian, to thank for introducing us to the yummy cuisine of the Indian persuasion.  When we moved to Omaha, they invited us out to Jaipur, a restaurant in Rockbrook Village.  I loved it from the start, but Jake has had a little more trouble finding something he would order again and again.  But find it he has!

My perfect Indian meal at Jaipur:

Appetizers:  Vegetable Samosas - mildly spiced vegetable turnover (pictured below)


Green side salad with a creamy, tangy citrus dressing (comes with meal)

Bread:  Garlic naan - chewy bread, almost pita-like, stuffed with minced garlic (pictured below)

Main Course:  Chicken Korma - boneless pieces of chicken cooked in a creamy curry sauce, served with Jasmine Rice (white rice with an infusion of jasmine)

We both prefer the vegetable Samosas over the meat ones, though Jake often orders some of both for his main course.  He told me recently that his mouth started to water at the thought of the Samosas.  So we have reached success at finding Indian food he likes! 

Beware of the tricky lunch hours at Jaipur.  Be sure to call ahead to see if they’re really open before you make plans to go.  Twice I’ve had the misfortune of arriving during off-hours!