Friday, January 30, 2009

Char siu pork

Char siu is a Chinese version of barbecue. Serve with rice and stir fried vegetables for a fabulously tasty meal.

Char Siu Pork

2 T soy sauce
2 T hoisin sauce
2 T ketchup
2 T honey
1 clove garlic, minced
1 t fresh ginger, grated
1 t sesame oil
1/2 t five-spice powder
1 lb pork roast, trimmed of fat

1/2 c or more of chicken broth

Place soy sauce through pork into bag and marinate for a few hours or overnight. Place pork and and the sauce into a crock pot, cover and cook on low for at least 8 hours. Using two forks, shred the pork. Add enough chicken broth to moisten.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Chinese-style green beans (OAMC)

These beans can be made up in bulk as a OAMC vegetable and frozen for later. Don’t steam them for very long if you plan to freeze them. They also keep very well for a few days in the fridge, so they’re great to make ahead during once a week prep time. If you’re eating them right away, steam them for several minutes, until they’re the tenderness that your family likes.

Chinese-Style Green Beans

1 lb whole green beans, lightly steamed
1 t canola oil
1 t ginger
1 t ginger
1 clove of garlic, mashed
1 T soy sauce
1/2 t brown sugar
1/2 t sesame oil
crushed red pepper

All of these ingredients can be simply tossed together, or if you’d prefer having a real sauce on the beans, mix 2 T water with the soy sauce and add 1 t cornstarch. Mix with the rest.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Baby back ribs, Chinese-style

Long and slow is the key to good ribs, so this recipe won’t fit into our usual 30 minute slot. When you’ve got enough time, plan to make these…an hour should be enough time, not counting the time that the ribs marinate. Mix up the marinade the night before, or that morning, and let them soak all day.

Chinese-Style Baby Back Ribs

1/4 c soy sauce
2 T toasted sesame oil
2 T sherry (cooking sherry is fine)
1 T brown sugar
1 T fresh ginger, peeled and minced
2 t red pepper flakes
Black pepper

2 lbs baby back ribs

Hoisin sauce

Whisk soy sauce through pepper together in a small bowl. Place ribs either in a ziploc bag or in a glass dish, and pour on the sauce. Turn to coat and refrigerate for at least a few hours. Grill at medium heat until tender (usually around 45 minutes or so). Serve with hoisin sauce.

If you can't grill them and need to bake them in the oven instead, just cover a cookie sheet with two layers of foil. Spray with cooking oil, and spread out the ribs. Bake at 225 for about 2-1/2 hours, basting occasionally with spare sauce.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Happy Chinese New Year!

Happy New Year! 2009 is the Year of the Ox, and I am looking forward to sharing many tasty Chinese dishes with you, at least my untrained versions of them! :-)

Image: WikimediaCommons

Saturday, January 24, 2009

La Sita chicken - a perfect OAMC dish

La Sita Chicken is a great example of a recipe that is made for Once a Month Cooking. It takes some pre-cooking before it’s ready to assemble, and the actual cooking time is low and slow. But it makes enough for a family of 4 to eat twice, varying the accompaniments! It’s worth the time, and it’s delicious.

I don’t usually like to use canned cream soups, but this recipe is just amazing, and I’m unwilling to fiddle with it. Indirectly, it came from a local restaurant (La Sita!), and when a friend of mine discovered how easy the recipe was, she was just overjoyed! Since my husband and I had always enjoyed this particular offering too, she was willing to share it with us.

La Sita Chicken

3 lbs chicken breasts, pre-cooked and torn into bite-sized pieces

12 corn tortillas, torn in strips

1 can cream of chicken soup
1 can cream of mushroom soup
1 c milk
1 large onion, diced
12 oz salsa

1 lb grated cheddar cheese

While the chicken is cooking, tear up your tortillas into long strips, and mix the cream of chicken soup through the salsa in a large bowl. Spray a 13 x 9 pan and layer the ingredients as follows: Divide each ingredient group in half. Starting with the tortillas, layer on bite-sized pieces of chicken, the soup mix, and cheese. Do this twice. Cover with foil and refrigerate over night. Bake uncovered at 300 for 1-1/2 hours.

If you are going to freeze it as a part of OAMC, do so after baking. To reheat for dinner, remove from the freezer and place in the fridge the night before. Reheat at 300 for about 1/2 hour.

Put more salsa on the table for those who like it hot, hot, hot! The first day, I’d serve this dish with a salad, and maybe with some stir fried veggies the second time since you’ll be able to simply heat the chicken up quickly in the microwave.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Individual tomato pizzas

How about super-fast individual pizzas for dinner tonight? You’ll need something else to go with these, most likely a fast salad or some crunchy cut up veggies and dip, but they are fast, fun, and delicious enough to make often! They’re also great when you really just want a light meal, a little something…

Individual Tomato Pizzas

4 large flat whole wheat wraps (split pita bread will work too)
14.5 oz can of crushed tomatoes with green chilis (or separate cans of each)
1/2 c black olives, preferably kalamata, chopped
1/4 c parmesan cheese, freshly grated
4 large fresh basil leaves, torn
4 t olive oil
Black pepper

Drain the tomatoes and save the juice for another time. Layer all the ingredients onto the wraps, topping with olive oil and pepper. Place on baking sheets and cook for about 10 minutes at 400 until the bread is crisp and the cheese is melty. Dive in!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Beef chowder - a hearty OAMC dish

Buy your beef in bulk and you can make quite a few OAMC meals from it, or at least get a few meals ready to go during your once a week food prep time. Here’s one really tasty and hearty soup that’s easy and fast to make. It uses ground beef , which you can also use for your make-ahead meatballs. Having your shopping and cooking time do double duty is a good thing!

Beef Chowder

1 1/2 lbs ground beef
2 stalks of celery, chopped
Medium onion, chopped
Green pepper, chopped

2 cans of crushed tomatoes, 16 oz each
16 oz whole kernel corn, fresh, canned or frozen
3 c White sauce, medium thickness (2 T butter, 2 T flour, 1 c milk for each cup of sauce)

Brown the beef, add the veggies and cook until soft. Drain off extra fat. Add the tomatoes and corn, and heat while preparing white sauce. Slowly stir into the beef mixture. Pour into containers and freeze.

To serve, heat the soup slowly, stirring often. Add water or beef stock if needed. You can also add cooked rice or pasta, and spices that suit your family. We like to add whatever fresh herbs are available, particularly basil, or sometimes dried bay leaf.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Spaghetti and meatballs

Spaghetti is a great way to enjoy some of your Master Mix Meatballs! And even though it’s very very easy to open up a jar or can of spaghetti sauce and simply heat it while the pasta’s boiling, it’s much nicer and tastier to make it yourself. And I can guarantee that you’ll find no reason to add high-fructose corn syrup to your sauce either… Enough said!

This is a really versatile recipe. You can make it up quickly and have a thirty minute meal, or you can make it ahead during either your once a week food preparation or during OAMC time. It freezes well for the future. One of the best variations is to put it in a crock pot and let it simmer for hours, but I usually don’t have time for that!

Spaghetti and Meatballs

1 onion, chopped
1 pepper, green or red, chopped
1-2 cloves of garlic, minced
Olive oil

32 oz crushed or diced canned tomatoes
6 oz tomato paste
Red burgundy (cooking burgundy is fine)

16 oz spaghetti, cooked and drained
20 (or so) meatballs
Parmesan cheese, fresh grated

In the bottom of a large heavy stockpan, saute the onions, peppers, and garlic. Add the tomatoes through the salt, adding as much burgundy and water as needed to make the consistency your family likes. Add the meatballs and let it simmer while you cook up the pasta.

This sauce can also be done in a crock pot, and allowed to simmer for a longer time. The flavors are wonderful this way!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Meatball Master Mix - an OAMC basic

There are a gazillion things (at least!) that you can do with basic meatballs. If you make a large batch of them during OAMC or once a week food prep time, you’ll then have lots of different taste treats ahead of you by simply varying the sauce. Easy peasy, just the way we like it!

Basic Meatball Master Mix

3 eggs, beaten
3 c soft bread crumbs
3/4 c milk
Large onion, chopped
2-3 t salt
3 lb ground beef

Mix all the ingredients together, in order, by hand. Shape into 1 inch balls (you should be able to make about 6 dozen!). Spread them out in baking pans and cook at 375 for about 30 minutes.

For the meatballs that you plan to store, spread them out on cookie sheets and freeze until firm. Wrap them, or place them in zip-locs, label and freeze.

Monday, January 19, 2009


Falafel is traditionally fried in a deep pool of olive oil, but it’s possible to bake them instead with less oil if you’d prefer. I like to actually start mine out by frying, just to get a crisp coat on both sides. Then I transfer them to the oven for the remainder of the cooking time. These make a warm and hearty sandwich meal in about 30 minutes!


1 large can of chickpeas (approximately 19 oz), drained and rinsed
1 large clove of garlic

1 egg
2 T tahini
1 T flour
1/2 t cumin
1/2 t tumeric
Dash of red pepper

Olive oil

Pita bread and greens

Puree the chickpeas and garlic in a food processor. Dump the mix into a large bowl and add the other ingredients through the salt, mixing by hand. The dough is sticky: resist the temptation to add more flour. Instead, oil your hands or put the dough in the refrigerator for a bit. Form 1-1/2 inch balls.

Heat a couple of T of olive oil in a cast iron skillet. Brown the falafel just a bit on both sides, flattening somewhat. Put in the oven at 375 for 10 minutes. Flip them over after 5 minutes. makes about 12 patties.

Serve with pita bread, more tahini to drizzle over, and herb salad to stuff the pockets.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Sardinian lamb and couscous

Even though this is a really fast meal to prepare, it’s got the look and flavors of a show-off meal. I wouldn’t hesitate to serve it to anyone except my vegetarian friends! Above is a picture of the meat and vegetables in a heavy skillet, and below is a picture of it plated on top of the couscous.

Sardinian Lamb and Couscous

Olive oil
1/3 c pinenuts

3 cloves of garlic, chopped
Onion, chopped
Cauliflower (I used the orange variety), chopped
3 T lemon juice
2 t thyme
Salt and pepper

Small can of crushed tomatoes
2 c chicken stock
1/2 c currents
1 to 1-1/2 lbs lamb, cubed

1 to 1-1/2 c couscous (alternative: pre-cooked rice)
1/4 c fresh parsley, chopped

In a large heavy skillet (with a lid), brown the pinenuts in olive oil for a few minutes, and remove from the skillet. Set aside. Cook garlic through salt and pepper in the frying pan, adding more oil if needed. Add ingredients one at a time cooking for a total of about 10 minutes. Add canned tomatoes through lamb to the pan and simmer for about 15 minutes. Add the couscous to the pan and simmer for about 5 minutes. Add more liquid if needed. Stir in the pinenuts and a bit more lemon juice if needed. Depending upon your preferences, you can add enough liquid to make this dish stew-like and serve it in bowls, or you can add enough couscous to soak up the liquid and serve it on plates. Garnish with parsley.

As a summer-time alternative, grill the lamb on skewers on the barbecue instead of stewing it.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Savory frittata

I just love frittatas! So much less fussy than souffles and better able to fill you up! If you simply add decent quality toast (for breakfast) or side salad (for dinner), you’ve got a really great meal in under thirty minutes!

Savory Frittata

Olive oil
Leek, sliced thin

8 eggs
1-1/4 c ricotta cheese
1/3 c green olives with pimento, chopped
1/4 c pine nuts
1 t salt
1 t thyme
1 t rosemary

Set the oven to 400. Heat a large cast iron skillet and saute the leek slices in olive oil. Mix the eggs and the rest of the ingredients in a mixing bowl. When the leeks are soft, add them to the mixing bowl, stirring all together. Add a bit more oil to the still hot skillet if needed, and pour the mix in to cook for about a minute. Place it in the over for about 20 minutes, until the center is set. Turn on the broiler, and brown the top for 2 to 3 minutes.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Prosciutto-wrapped fish

On a rainy Saturday afternoon, I watched Ellie Kreiger’s show on the FoodNetwork. Ellie is a lot of fun to watch, and I love her attitude towards healthy and delicious eating. Of all the meals she demonstrated that day, the one that grabbed me most was whitefish wrapped in prosciutto, which she cooked on an indoor grill. Since I don’t have a grill top except on my outdoor grill, I decided that this could certainly be done in a skillet almost as well. It worked just fine!

We had the fish with some focaccia bread and a salad topped with bruschetta dressing.

Prosciutto-wrapped Fish

1 lb whitefish fillets (I used tilapia)
4 thin slices of prosciutto (as many as you have fillets)
Olive oil

Wrap each fillet in a slice of prosciutto. Heat your cast iron skillet with a little olive oil, and cook the wrapped fish on both sides for a few minutes each. Place into 400 degree oven and bake for 25 minutes.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Super-fast stir fries

I do a lot of stir fries for my busy family, and one of the nicest things about them is that if you’ve done the once a week meal prep, they can be on the table in about 10 minutes…no joke! By the time the kiddos have the plates and forks out, the dinner is ready. I usually serve these with whole grain rolls or bread when we’re in a big hurry. If there’s more time, the rolls might get heated!

Here’s the version we had last night. All the veggies had been pre-chopped, and the hamburger had been pre-cooked with onions, so it was a snap to put together. If that prep hadn’t already been done, it would still have ended up being a thirty minute meal!

Stir Fry: Hamburger, carrots, peppers, and greens

4 carrots, cut in diagonal slices
2 peppers, chopped (I used one red and one yellow)
Olive oil

1/2 lb ground beef, pre-cooked with a chopped 1/2 onion

10 oz bag of mixed greens (beet, red lettuce, spinach)

Get the oil in the wok up to medium high temperature and add the carrots and peppers. You want them to soften but not brown, so turn the temp down if the oil is spitting. Stir fry for about 3 - 5 minutes, until they’re as soft as you like. Add the precooked meat and onions. Mix together and heat through. Add the greens and stir until just wilted. Serve immediately. Feeds 4 really nicely with rolls or bread.

Note, if you haven’t pre-cooked the meat and onions, do them first in the wok while you’re chopping up the vegetables that you probably also didn’t do ahead ;-)

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Tilapia with mustard salsa

A quick and delicious sauce makes this meal special, even though it’s aluminum-foil-easy! I served this meal with a cheese topped focaccia bread, heated for the last 5 minutes of baking time.

Tilapia with Mustard Salsa

1-1/2 lbs thin tilapia fillets
Vegetables of your choice, cut into serving sizes (I used Brussels sprouts and broccoli)

1/2 c salsa
2 T plain yogurt
2 T honey
2 T prepared tangy mustard

Put the fish on a piece of foil and arrange the vegetables on top. Cover with another piece of foil and seal up the edges. Bake at 450 for 25 minutes. Stir salsa through mustard together in a small bowl. Remove fish and veggies from oven and pour off any liquid. Spoon salsa over top and return to oven for about 5 minutes, just to heat through.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Somewhat healthy sloppy joes

Wondering how to get more vegetables into your family? This revision of Sloppy Joes will do the deed for you! My kids were never raised on the 100% meat version, so they didn’t think anything of the different taste, texture, and colors of mine. If yours are picky, you might have to gradually introduce more and more veggies until you’ve got it all the way up to my half-and-half version.

When you first start cooking the meat and veggie mixure, you’re likely to panic at the green color. Don’t worry…the addition of tomato paste fixes that right up. You can still see the chunks of veggies, but the overall color will be a nice tomato-beef shade :-)

On the way out the door in the morning, stick a package of frozen mixed veggies (pretty much any variety) into the fridge to let it mostly thaw during the day. You’ll be good to go when you get home. This is another great thirty minute meal!

Somewhat Healthy Sloppy Joes

1 lb bag of frozen mixed vegetables, thawed
1 lb ground beef
12 oz tomato paste

1 T dried mustard
1 t chili powder
2 t Worcestershire sauce
1/2 t oregano
Black pepper
1/2 t sugar (optional)
1/2 t salt (optional)

Process the vegetables fine in a food processer, but do not puree. Brown the ground beef in a large skillet. Add the diced vegetables and heat through. Add the tomato paste and enough water to create a good consistency. Add all the spices and serve on rolls, open-faced, or however you normally have Sloppy Joes!

It would be nice to have a salad as a side dish, but it’s really not necessary since this meal is so packed with veggies. If your family likes a variety of dishes at each meal, serve it up!

Monday, January 12, 2009

Greek-style chicken (OAMC)

This dish can easily be a thirty minute meal if you've done the once a week food prep. If not, start by boiling up the chicken and cutting it up. Save the stock water for another time. This can also be packaged up for OAMC, as the rice will still be slightly firm. When you thaw and reheat it, the rice will soften slightly.

Greek-Style Chicken

Two breasts of pre-cooked chicken, cut into chunks

4 carrots, cut in chips
Onions, chopped
2 stalks of celery, chopped
Olive oil

1-1/4 c long grain rice
2-1/2 c stock and water
Lemon juice
Black olives

In a large skillet, saute carrots through garlic in olive oil. Add rice and saute for 2 more minutes. Add stock and water, bringing it to a boil. Reduce the heat and cook covered for 20-25 minutes. Stir in the lemon juice and chicken to heat. Stir in the olives and serve.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Spicy lamb & black bean chili

Chilis are hard to make quickly! That's because they benefit so much from long slow cooking that lets the flavors develop. Still, this particular chili is so flavorful, that even if you have to make it quickly at the end of the day as a thirty minute meal, it'll taste great. It would just be better if you could assemble it earlier and let it simmer in a crock pot all day. The recipe calls for black beans, which I like, but I find them to be a bit overpowering, so I mixed half and half black beans and pinto beans.

Spicy lamb and black bean chili goes together very quickly, especially if you've already pre-cooked the meat and chopped the onion during your once a week food prep. But even if you haven't, it's not going to take more than about half an hour to put this together. Serve it with a green salad and maybe some crusty rolls or cornbread if you like, and you're set to eat.

Spicy Lamb & Black Bean Chili

1 lb ground lamb
1/2 c chopped onion
Olive oil

1-1/2 T chili powder
2 t ground cumin
1/2 t ground red pepper
24 oz tomato sauce
4 cans of black beans, 15 oz (or a mix of black beans and pintos)

Brown the lamb and onions together in olive oil (or brown the onions and heat up the pre-cooked lamb). Add the rest of the ingredients, bring to a boil, and simmer for 15 minutes. Serves 4 with hearty appetites.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The world's best seafood stew

Serve some wholegrain bread or rolls with this stew and you'll be good to go! You can speed up the preparation even more if you've done the once a week food prep, but with only four items to chop, it won't slow you down too much if you haven't. Once your family tastes this stew, they'll be asking for it often :-) This is one of my family's favorite thirty minute meals.

Seafood Stew

Olive oil
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
1 onion, chopped
2 carrots, sliced
2 potatoes, cut into bite-sized pieces

15 oz vegetable broth
bay leaf

8 oz fish fillets, cut into bite-sized pieces

6 oz can of clams with juice
8 oz can of oysters
2 oz can of anchovies
28 oz can of chopped tomatoes

Saute garlic through potatoes in olive oil in a large soup pot for about 5 minutes. Add the broth and spices and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium high and add the fish fillets. Simmer for about 3 minutes. Add clams through tomatoes, including all their juices, and simmer only a few minutes more. Don't overcook to avoid toughening the clams. Serves 4 with good appetites.

Feel free to make substitutions that will suit your family better. Some can't abide oysters. That's fine, use shrimp instead, or more clams. If you've got pre-cooked rice around from your once a week food prep, consider adding that instead of potatoes if that's what your family likes. Don't add pre-cooked rice until the last step though, since it tends to expand too much if left soaking. I actually prefer to add it to each individual bowl rather than the whole makes the leftovers a lot nicer, if there are any leftovers :-)

Friday, January 9, 2009

Epicurious predicts the top 10 food trends of 2009

And I have to say that most of the trends they spot seem like a pretty good bet to me. Epicurious is predicting trends towards more family-friendly, green, thrifty, and just plain old more practical! Especially for busy families who really have no idea what Molecular Gastronomy is, or why they should care ;-)

Read the Epicurious predictions

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Time to slow down

That might seem like a strange thing to say on a blog called Real Food Fast, but here's how I got there. So much of the busyness that we experience, especially during the school year, comes from over-scheduling. How many activities does each child have to involved in? Does every single minute have to be devoted to "life preparation"?

Please, let's slow down this year, at least enough to have dinner together most nights of the week. Even if that means everyone eating later than we're used to. Here's why:

"For young children, meal time at home is a stronger predictor of academic achievement and psychological adjustment than time spent in school, studying, sports, church/religious activities, or art activities."
~ William J Doherty, PhD, Professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota and author of The Intentional Family.

Doherty goes on to say that older kids benefit greatly too from the family dinner. For them, it is not just a predictor of academic success, but also correlates highly with low alcohol and drug use, avoiding early sexual behavior, and low suicide rate.

So, let's be busy, but let's also keep it all in perspective. Meal time is important, the fellowship as well as the food quality. My belief is that if you prepare meals that are amazing (but don't take too much time), you can train even the most slap-dash group to sit and enjoy. Enjoy each other as well as the food :-)

Image: Stock.xchng

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

What's in season now? Winter

What's a person to do when faced with the dizzying array of "fresh" fruits and vegetables in the modern grocery store? Strawberries are now available in the middle of winter, but they also usually taste like cardboard at that time of the year! I've had to think through my buying habits very carefully in the last few years, since I spend most of my time and money in the produce aisle :-)

I love to buy organic if possible, especially if it's an item with thin skin, or an item that I know from previous experience is far superior in taste to the non-organic varieties (like oranges). But organic is not the be-all and end-all of making choices. Some organic growers are huge agribusinesses that are only one step better than non-organic growers. They may not be spraying, but they are just as likely to be depleting the soil and shipping produce long distances.

Sometimes, buying local produce is the better choice, even if the farm is not certified organic. Fresh produce, in season, locally grown...especially if it's grown on smaller independent farms...may end up being your best choice. Get to know your local farmers and farmstands. Find out what local farms supply your local grocery store.

That means we also have to know what actually is in season! We've lost our sense of the seasons over the last decade. Even though it's probably neither possible nor convenient to eat local, organic, in-season food 100% of the time, most of us could do a lot better job if we simply went back to basics and paid attention!

So here's my list of what's available in my neck of the woods. Please feel free to leave more suggestions in the comments, particularly if there are food items available in your local region that I didn't mention.

Here's a link to a page with links to many spring recipes using these ingredients. I'll be adding to it and creating new lists for each season. You can always find this page in the sidebar: What's in season now?


Halibut, lobster, mussels, scallops
Goose, other fowl
Beets, cabbage, cauliflower, celery, chestnuts, kale, kohlrabi, leeks, parsnips, potatoes, rutabaga, shallots, spinach, turnips

Image: Stock.xchng

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Why I don't use processed foods to save least not very often!

You mean besides the fact that the nutrition has been leeched out of the ingredients, only to be replaced by chemical "nutrients"? Or that the only way they can have long shelf life is to be full of preservatives? Or maybe that every processed food you buy has been doctored by corn syrup and other added sugars, salt and MSG, texturizers, and other additives until we have no idea what real food tastes and feels like in our mouths anymore?

Maybe it's also because all these added ingredients do nothing for our health, despite labeling claims. We are fatter and have more heart disease and diabetes than before most of these products came on the market. In the "good old days", these packaged foods wouldn't even be considered real food, because they aren't: they are food-like products. Whole foods are where it's at.

That said, I love my Oreos! And I don't always have time to bake a batch of cookies from scratch.

There are, in fact, some processed foods that I buy and use regularly:

  • Frozen vegetables. There are usually no additives as long as you don't buy the ones that come with sauces, and sometimes frozen veggies are even more nutritious than the veggies that are "fresh" in the produce section. If they were picked early, gassed to ripeness, and shipped from another part of the world, they're probably not as nutritious as the ones that were flash frozen. So consider buying out-of-season stuff frozen. Try to make a habit of buying most of your fresh produce in-season.
  • Canned beans. I just don't have the time, or don't chose to make the time to soak and cook my own dried beans. Look for brands without additives. Beans don't need additives. Neither does peanut butter, which is also a type of legume.
  • Canned tomatoes. No need for extra additives here either.
  • Canned soups. Yup, sometimes I just don't have even thirty minutes to make the meal! Again, look for brands with as few needless and unpronounceable ingredients as possible.
  • Bread. Much as I like to bake bread, I don't always make the time to do it. Besides, my grocery store bakery makes amazing breads without preservatives and added sweeteners. Look for real'll be shocked the first time you read the ingredient label of some brands.
  • Tofu. Just the way it's been made for hundreds (thousands?) of years. No stablizers, texturizers, or fake meat flavoring. You can add your own flavorings.
  • Pretzels, crackers, and cookies. Only as a treat, not as the mainstay of the diet and never as a substitute for a meal!
  • Cereals. My favorite type is oatmeal, which contains just one ingredient, as long as I buy whole oats with no flavorings. It's fun to add my own fruits and nuts. But my family gets bored with just oatmeal, so I do buy some whole grain cereals with as few additives as possible.
  • Yogurt. The healthy stuff. No syrup-laced fake fruits mixed in.
  • Icecream. Pure ingredients only. No need for additives ever. That means that low-fat and fat-free varieties are probably out. That means that I have to limit how much I eat.

Really, practically everything we buy is "processed" in some way. The trick is to buy it as close to its natural state as possible with as few preservatives and additives as possible. One simple piece of advice I learned years ago is to "shop around the perimeter" of the grocery store as much as possible. And leave the grocery store for a local farmer's market if feasible. Look for organic food whenever possible. That label still means something (at least for now), but you so have to check the ingredient list if the organic product is processed. Added organic corn syrup is still unnecessary.

Think "Whole Foods are Chic"...I'm going to make that into our new mantra!

But for now, I need to get back down off my soapbox and get cooking :-)

Image: USDA

Monday, January 5, 2009

The well-stocked pantry

It depends upon what part of the country you live it as to what you'll consider to be the essentials of a well-stocked pantry. Here's what works for me, with the addition of some items that I don't actually stock but that I believe a lot of folks do! It's absolutely essential to keep the basics on-hand if you are going to be doing OAMC or OAWC, or even Once a Week Food Prep! Trust me, everything just flows better and you save a lot of time!

So, what have I missed? I'd love to here what is an essential in your part of the country: for example, I don't do a lot of Mexican cooking, although I'm learning, so what would be the essentials for that?

If I get some knowledgeable replies, I'll post suppliments with your suggestions! How's that? :-)


Baking Staples
* flour
* baking soda and powder
* cornmeal
* cornstarch
* matzo meal
* cocoa powder, baking chocolate
* dried fruits like raisins, cranberries, figs
* nuts
* powdered milk
* vanilla and other extracts

Canned or Bottled Goods
* whole and crushed tomatoes
* tomato sauce and paste
* variety of canned beans
* chicken, beef, and/or vegetable stock
* olives, at least green and black
* tuna
* peanut butter, tahini
* artichoke hearts, in water
* ketchup
* mustard
* salsa, pesto, tapenade, and/or bruschetta
* hummus

Fats and Oils
* butter
* olive oil
* canola oil
* sesame oil

Frozen Items
* emergency stash of egg-substitute
* extra bread products, including bagels
* vegetables like corn, broccoli, edamame, green beans
* fruits like blueberries, strawberries, raspberries

Grains and Legumes
* variety of rices
* variety of pastas
* couscous
* oatmeal and other cereals
* variety of dried beans
* dried split peas
* barley

Herbs, Spices, and Seasonings
* whatever you use most often, but at the very least:
* salt
* black peppercorns
* basil
* oregano
* rosemary
* thyme
* bay leaf
* chili powder
* cinnamon
* crushed red pepper
* variety of sauces, like soy, worcestershire, tabasco, and teriyaki

Liqueurs, Wines, and Vinegars
* cooking sherry, favorite white and red wines
* favorite liqueurs for flavoring
* variety of vinegars, like balsamic, cider, white wine, red wine, and rice wine
* non-stick cooking spray, preferably olive oil

Miscellaneous Grocery Items
* crackers, flat bread
* matzo
* garlic
* onions
* potatoes
* sun-dried tomatoes

Sugar, Honey and Other Sweeteners
* sugar, preferably raw
* brown sugar
* honey
* molasses
* maple syrup
* jam

A different topic...disaster stocking

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Sunday, January 4, 2009

Your how-to and why-to guide to Once a Month Cooking (OAMC) -- Part 2

Part 2
Here are the basic steps that we covered in Part 1:
1 Choosing the time
2 Planning and shopping
Here's what we'll cover now, on the second day:
3 Cooking
4 Labeling and freezing
5 Adapting recipes
Good shoes, good tunes, and comfy clothes will help a lot. Remember how "A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down"? Well, bribes work well for this task too. Planned breaks, chocolate, a great movie, whatever gets you through it!
Group your tasks so that the flow goes well. If this isn't the smoothest, most natural thing for you, rest assured that it will get much better as you get experience with this method of cooking. Mostly, you really need to make sure that you know how each of your recipes work and how many of each you're going to make. Get the meats cooking early, and get your chopping done all at once. Don't chop upan onion for a recipe: chop all 10 onions for all the recipes.
As you work your way through the different dishes, don't worry about making each one start to finish. At some points you may have 10 or 12 recipes each half-way finished. That's fine! It's more efficient in the long run to group your tasks and combine any steps possible. As each meal is finished, set it aside to cool before packaging it up!
There are several methods to choose from, so once you pick your favorite, make sure you add the supplies you're going to need to your shopping list to pick up on shopping day.
Whatever method you choose, you're going to need to do some labeling. Masking tape or Avery-style stick on labels both work great. Whatever type you use, even if it's just writing directly on the foil with a Sharpie marker, you'll need to include at least this info: Name of meal, cooking directions, date it was frozen. You might want to add the date that you plan to use it if this is applicable to your organization method.
Freezer bags or aluminum foil
This is my favorite method. You can easily stack the packages that you wrap up, labeling them before tossing them in the freezer. When they are transfered to your fridge to thaw, they don't take that long since they're spread out. Freezer bags are particularly good for meals that have a lot of liquid in them, and it's easy to remove extra air as well. A higher-tech version of this is to use a vacuum sealer, which you may want to indulge in if you really get into OAMC.
Parts of meals can also be assembled but not cooked ahead of time. My friend Wendy suggested using silicone bakeware for this, particularly for muffins
For instance, you can use a muffin “tin” and put your muffin batter inside, freeze it and then pop the frozen muffins batters right out for baking later, just storing them in a ziploc bag until needed. The silicone has enough give that it aids the process.
Inexpensive reusable containers
Glad makes Tupperware-type containers now that are quite inexpensive. You can also save containers that would be good sizes for various meals and use those.
In-the-pan method
Line your baking dish with foil and fill it with the meal. Allow the meal to begin to freeze, and as soon as it holds its shape, remove it from the baking dish and label it for the freezer. When you're ready to have that meal, you can pop it into the baking dish to thaw and cook (with or without the foil still on it!). This method is great because it doesn't tie up your dishes for the month, but allows you to get the meal ready to go very quickly.
Not all recipes are equal when it comes to cooking either large quantities, or freezing for future use. There are a number of ingredients that can separate, become watery, or thin when frozen. Most are ok if included in a recipe that can be remixed before serving, but watch out for recipes that contain a lot of sour cream, mayonnaise, cream cheese, yogurt, frosting, cream fillings, or gravies. Again, you'll probably be alright as long as you can stir them up before heating and serving.
Some foods become just plain nasty when frozen, like cooked eggs and fried foods. Yuck! Your fries will be limp and your hard boiled eggs will feel like rubber. Some sauces and stews will thicken rather than thin. It's easy enough to fix with the addition of some extra water or other liquid. Sometimes it's difficult to predict just what will happen when a recipe is frozen. Pastas, rice, and beans will turn to mush if fully cooked before freezing. You can fix this by slightly undercooking when making the original recipe. Seasonings can be completely unpredictable: some will strengthen and some will weaken. Add herbs, spices, and seasonings during the final reheat if at all possible.
As you probably already know from buying frozen vegetable, even raw vegetables and fruit will lose their crispness, but they are perfectly fine for cooking afterwards.
I just learned recently that if you freeze heavy cream, it will never whip up afterwards! You can still use it for cooking, but just be warned about that little quirk. In fact, most things that "don't freeze well" can be frozen, you'll just have to figure out if you can live with the consequences. Baked potatoes don't keep their texture, but they can still become mashed potatoes :-)
One thing you might want to do is to start with some of the recipes in the links below which are already kitchen-tested for OAMC. That will give you a good feel for how to adapt your own favorite family recipes to this form of cooking.
Real Food Fast
Ellen's Kitchen
Once a Month Cookingworld
Real Food 4 Real People

Great links to more tips and other people's methods:
Real Food 4 Real People
Once a Month Cookingworld
Menues 4 Moms
Busy Cooks
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Saturday, January 3, 2009

Your how-to and why-to guide to Once a Month Cooking (OAMC) -- Part 1

Part 1

Why would anyone want to do this, to ruin a perfectly good day by spending the entirety in the kitchen? Well, because that's the end of slaving in the kitchen for the whole month! Imagine coming home and having a great dinner either waiting for you or ready to pop in the oven for a few minutes while you have a glass of wine with the one you love...every day for a month!

Sound like a fairy tale or like something only Martha could pull off? Not at all. Think you'd have to buy tv dinners to have this sort of convenience? Definitely not at all. Once a month cooking (OAMC) recipes allow you to put wonderful, tasty, nutritious meals on the table, even taking into account your family preferences and needs like organic, whole food, gluten-free, etc.

The biggest secret to doing OAMC successfully is to plan plan plan. The better organized you are, the more likely you'll end up liking it. Don't give up on the idea, though, if you don't happen to be a really organized type. You can start smaller, with Once a Week Cooking (OAWC). It's done the same way, but may be less daunting for you to start out with. For all intents and purposes, OAMC and OAWC are so similar, that from now on when I refer to OAMC, you can just assume that I mean OAWC as well :-)

Here are the basic steps:
1 Choosing the time
2 Planning and shopping
3 Cooking
4 Labeling and freezing
5 Adapting recipes

Chose two days and mark them on the calendar. Two days for NOT try to do your planning, shopping, and your cooking all on the same day. You will end up exhasted, frustrated, and hating the whole process.

If you can just get past the planning part, the rest of it becomes much easier. Everyone ends up developing the system that works best for them. Some folks make up a monthly calendar with the exact meal written on it for each day. Some just know that there will be a chicken meal on Thursdays and pull an appropriate package out of the freezer the night before. Whatever works for you: that's why I suggest starting small and working up to the full month plan.

For planning day, you mostly want to pull out the recipes that you're going to use, decide how many times you'll repeat each, and create a shopping list from them. Remember that there will probably be left-overs, times that you'll eat out, special occasions, etc, so you won't need a full meal for every single day. Also on your shopping list, you need to add basic pantry items that you might be low on, and freezing supplies which we'll discuss later. Not all recipes are equal in terms of freezability! We'll discuss this later too.

Think about how you want to organize your recipes for future use too. I like having mine in plastic protector sheets since I'm kind of a slob. You can also use colored dots or some other system to keep track of when you'll use them.

When you go to do your actual shopping for the whole month, your list is going to be huge! Don't let that throw you: you'll often be able to get much better deals shopping in bulk. And since you're not going to shop and cook on the same day, you'll have time to visit more than one store if you need to for the best prices. Maybe some of the things you need would be best found at a BJ's, Sam's Club, or other discount shopper. Even if you're just hitting your local grocery store, larger-sized containers tend to be better bargains. And don't forget about local farmer's markets and farm stands when the season permits. Also, don't forget to buy(or rent) those bribes that you're going to need later!

Tomorrow, Part 2, where we'll cover the second day's activities!

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Friday, January 2, 2009

Once a week food preparation

I love making great meals for my family, but I used to find the planning, shopping, and chopping parts kind of tedious! Oh, you too? Well, one of the best ways I found to deal with my own bad attitude was to first of all realize that these chores were really part of how I loved my family. I mean, how I showed them love, not how I felt warm and fuzzy about them. Love really should be an active verb a lot more often than we might like. And you know the strange thing? As I loved them more (active verb), I found I also loved them more (passive verb).

But this isn't supposed to be a lesson in grammar! It's a lesson in getting organized and loving the results.

I don't know what day of the week you grocery shop, but for me it's Tuesday. I'm going to suppose, for the purposes of organizing this blog, that you shop once a week like me. I don't really care which day it all works out the same as long as I give you lots of great thirty minute meals to make and you plan to go to the grocery store once a week and spend an hour or so doing Once a Week Food Preparation.

Yup. Using this method, you'll still have to cook most days, but your time cooking will be drastically reduced, and the time you can spend enjoying the meal with your busy family will increase. And so will the love! There are other methods of food preparation that we'll talk about in the future: Once a Week Cooking (OAWC) and even Once a Month Cooking (OAMC).

Once a Week Food Preparation is the time-saving method that I personally use, and I'm quite fond of it. I don't have to devote an entire day to the process each week, or an entire weekend each month. I can do most of my shopping and food prep in a few hours once a week, and then actually enjoy putting meals together each night.

So how do you do it?

  1. Start with deciding what you're going to eat that week. That means looking through the recipes that you want to use, or at least deciding upon broad categories if you're a spontaneous cook.
  2. List the ingredients that you don't already have on hand on your grocery list. If you don't already do this, list them on the paper in a way that corresponds to their physical location in your store.
  3. Make sure you have all the staple products that you usually need, or else add them to your grocery list as well.
  4. When you get home, put everything away except for the meat, vegetables, potatoes, rice, and anything else on your list that can be pre-chopped or pre-cooked.
  5. Pre-cook your meats* by roasting, boiling, stir-frying, or any other method you like. Cut up large pieces into sizes appropriate for one meal, package them up, and throw them in the fridge or freezer (depending up how soon they'll be used that week). I use a combination of foil, which is recyclable, and platic containers, which are washable. [Note: I don't pre-cook any meat that will ruin the recipe. It would be kind of hard to make a meatloaf with precooked ground beef! Also, for the nights that I plan to have stir-fries, I usually do not pre-cook since it cooks up so quickly. Instead, I just slice it up raw and package it that way for the meal. Your choice!]
  6. While the meat is cooking away, wash and chop up all your vegetables, both for the main courses and for salads. You can pre-cook some of them if it makes sense for the recipe by steaming them lightly (I use my microwave steamer). Chop up common ingredients like onions. Keep some in the fridge to use in the next few days, and store the rest as follows: place them spread out on a baking sheet and freeze them fast. Scrape them off into a container for freezer storage. You can use this same method with any vegetables that you use frequently. Quick freezing keeps them from losing as many nutrients as sitting around in the fridge all week.
  7. You can also be boiling up large quantities of rice** to use over the week during this time. Make it long grain real rice, none of that quick cook stuff. They polish the grains and par-boil them...can you even imagine how much nutrition is lost? Since you're going to make enough for the whole week, what do you care if it takes 30 to 40 minutes to cook it? If your family really likes rice, think about investing in one of those rice steamer gadgets. I suggest slightly undercooking your rice and freezing the portions that will be used later in the week. When you thaw and reheat it, it will be fine.
  8. Mix up any Master Mixes that you'll need for the week. Most of them keep long enough that you probably won't have to make them every week. If you've still got some extra time today, you might want to think about making up some baked goods for the week using those mixes, and storing or freezing them for later.
  9. There are other tasks that you might want to add to this list, depending upon your family's preferences and yours. Do you enjoy baking real yeast breads? Either by hand or by bread making machine, maybe this would also be a good day to do that each week. Or every two weeks. Whatever! Are you a pie maker? Maybe you should add fruit or filling preparation to your list.

There you have it! It's really not as daunting as it appears, especially once you get into a rhythm with it, which I promise you that you will do if you just stick with it for a few weeks. Once you really start to enjoy making the meals each night because of your prep work, you might even start to enjoy the prep itself. I like to listen to an audiobook while I'm doing it. And each night, the reward comes in having a great home-cooked dinner, devoid of toxic convenience food or, even worse, fast food, while the good stuff you bought rots away in the fridge. Again.

Try it and see!

*meats - most meats are not safe to keep in the refrigerator all week. Freeze the ones that you're not going to be using for several days.
**rice - I have learned that rice is also not safe to keep for more than a couple of days in the fridge. I strongly suggest slightly undercooking and freezing it if it won't be used soon.

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Thursday, January 1, 2009

Introducing Real Food Fast

Nate & Dani, 1990

Hi, I'm Cyndi. Wife to Mike, mother to Nate and Dani. I love my family, I love food, I love cooking...but I am so busy!

Although I don't have a food science degree, I do have 25 years of experience cooking and baking solidly nutritious food for my own busy family without resorting to fast foods or packaged junk. My emphasis is on whole foods, prepared with both speed and love, making even a rushed dinner time a nice family experience. I'm well-versed in OAMC and OAWC, as well as 30 minute meals, etc. I was taught by the best...RuthAnn Lavin, my mother...and have expanded my repertoire as new ingredients and techniques have become available. I am as passionate about food and good healthful eating as I am about artwork, which is my real profession.

To start off our food journey together, I'm going to quickly share some of my very favorite 30 minute meals plus the basics of once a week food preparation. Once we've got those as a reference, I'll be sharing meal planning and preparation guides, more fast and easy recipes, time-saving tips, master mixes, special occasion foods, book reviews, and a host of other information to take the tedium out of meal preparations and to make your meal times a pleasure!

All of us, 2008
(Nate holding his daughter Katherine, Dani in bottom right corner,
RuthAnn second from left at the top)

If you enjoy Real Food Fast, please check out my other websites and blogs:

Mazel Tov! Jewelry Treasures
Wildest Dreams Designs
Why Not Art
Beading Arts
Mixed Media Artist