In the Kitchen at Our Little House

We’ve given up on trying to eat out here and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I’ve written before about how we miss different types of ethnic food, but even the restaurants we have here aren’t very good – or good for you.

I was usually caught trying to grab something not very healthy the nights I was covering meetings for the local paper here. On December 30, after I covering one such meeting, Dale and I stopped to get something just a little before 8 (most things, including restaurants, close by 8).

When we were presented with a meal that was lower quality than what we could have found in a TV dinner and could barely choke it down, and then presented with a $25 bill for it, I said, “Enough.”

Cooking is something I had to learn. My mom, although a good cook at what she made, was not creative in the kitchen. We came from a regular meat and potatoes stock, so roast, meatloaf, spaghetti and chicken cacciatore was about as exotic as it got.

I have been watching Rachel Ray for awhile now. I like the fact that she wasn’t a professionally trained chef and most of her recipes can easily be converted to vegetarian (I would love to go completely vegetarian, but Dale wouldn’t, making it tough, so I opt to squeeze in at least a couple meatless choices each week). It doesn’t hurt that her pit bull is on her logo and she’s into animal rescue either!

Dale even bought me a food processor for my birthday, as I commented that Rachel Ray used it a lot in her cooking. I had also been invited to a Pampered Chef party back in December, so I had a new chopper, garlic press and masher to try as well.

So, the first week of the year, we resolved to quit wasting money on grabbing food, even if I had to cover an event for the paper. I dug out my crockpot recipe book and leaned on a couple of standbys for nights we got home late.

But I also wanted to try some fresh ideas. Rachel Ray has a new show, “A Week in a Day,” and while I didn’t want to stand in the kitchen cooking a whole week’s worth of meals on the weekends, I chose a couple of her new recipes to try on my slow days last week.

The first one, Portobello-Porcini was just ok. Nothing I would make again. Of course, I had problems finding a couple of items on the list here, cubanelle peppers and San Marzano tomatoes, so that could have been the problem (I substituted Italian tomatoes and nothing for the pepper). Dale isn’t a big pasta fan either, so I had that working against me as well.

The second recipe, Roast Chicken Enchilada Suizas Stacked Casserole was a big hit, but I knew it would be, given our affinity for Mexican food. The recipe was really labor intensive, Rachel might not be a professionally trained chef, but her definition of “easy” and mine are two different things. I cooked the chicken in the crockpot rather than roasting it, but it was fun and I got to use my new food processor!

I also used tomatillos and fresh garlic for the first time in my life. Yes, there is quite the difference from the dried garlic in the little spice jar!

This week, I decided not to try anything new on Dale and stick with some “traditional” standbys, I don’t want to overwhelm his taste buds, or wear out my new processor or other new kitchen tools just yet.

Do you have a new favorite recipe? Do you get creative in the kitchen?

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33 Responses

  1. Sandy says:

    Hey Kerri,

    One thing I love to is grill chicken. I always grill out an extra 4 breasts to use later in the week. I am big on saving time and this one step really helps. So, what do I do with my left overs? I chop garlic, onion, mushroooms and fresh pepper and stir fry til done, throw in 2 of the breasts thinly sliced and toss until warm. You can then take this mixture, add fresh salsa, cheese and eat on burritos. Or a second way I love to eat the left over chicken is to slice it and place on top of a pasta salad. I like to use bow ties. I’ll use fresh tomatoes, peppers, kidney beans, jalapenos, onions, cukes and cheese. Served with a little ranch dressing and it is delicious! We love it in the winter or summer and it’s the main course so that’s your meal in a bowl. It’s especially nice in the summer when all your veggies are coming in. Well, hope that gives you some ideas. Since me and my husband both work full time, we need quick and easy prep meals. Over the last couple of years I’ve really learned to appreciate what time savers left overs really are.

    • kerri says:

      These are great ideas, Sandy! How do you keep your grilled chicken from drying out, especially when reheating? Thanks!

      • Sandy says:

        I use a little olive oil to coat it, then toss with the already warm veggies, surprisingly it doesn’t take long to heat through. I also like to use the thinly sliced chicken in quesadilla’s with onions, peppers, etc. You can use it straight from the frig because as the dilla browns on each side it also makes the mixture nice and toasty!

        • kerri says:

          Thanks, Sandy. The one thing I didn’t like about grilling chicken is that it always seemed to dry out on me, especially when reheated!

  2. Vida says:

    Hi Kerri,

    I’m glad to hear that you have discovered real garlic! Living in the Mediterranean, I’ve never even heard of garlic from a jar or can. Why bother when the real thing is so readily available and cheap? I think that I use garlic in 80% of my meals. There are even great dishes with raw garlic: gazpacho (cold tomato soup) and pasta “cruda aiola”( raw tomato, garlic, fresh basil and olive oil). Next time you roast potatoes in the oven, toss the potatoes in olive oil, sea salt, pepper and chopped fresh rosemary and throw in whole garlic cloves with the skin on. You can also roast chicken with whole garlic cloves, the beautifully softened roasted garlic transforms into a fragrant, nutty paste that accompanies the chicken or potatoes perfectly.

    If you are making a mixed green salad, finely sliced raw garlic can be tossed with a dressing of hot chillies, olive oil, salt and lemon juice. The garlic gives an extra “tang: and you don’t have to actually eat the slices if you don’t want to.

    Having fish or seafood like shrimp or shellfish? Make a “pinzimonio” sauce which is finely chopped garlic and minced parsley in olive oil. This lovely piquant green sauce is spooned over the fish or used as a dip for shrimp.

    Start any pot roast or stew with a “sofritto”: chopped garlic, onions and celery sweated in olive oil…

    I could wax lyrical about garlic for pages, so I’ll stop here!

    PS. San Marzano tomatoes are particularly excellent tomatoes for sauce in that they are meaty and not watery and produce a concentrated and flavorful tomato sauce.

    • Kerri says:

      Wow, Vida, thank you so much for all of these wonderful ideas! I’m in love with fresh garlic now. A word of caution to our U.S. based community though, if you do not buy organic garlic marked that it has been grown in the U.S., there is more than an 80 percent chance the garlic you are buying was grown in China. 75 percent of the world’s garlic is grown in China. I buy mine at our local organic grocery.

  3. Allie Johnson says:

    Kerri – This is another great topic. I love it. I know what you mean about being disappointed with pricey restaurant food that’s not very good. I love to cook.

    One great source for recipes is the Apartment Therapy blog
    I have found many great recipes there – they often have vegetarian recipes, but they have a lot of meaty ones too. This week they are doing a vegan week and have had some recipes that look superb. I’ve tried a lot of their recipes, and all have come out fabulous.

    Also, one of our favorite things to make at home is pizza. I spent years trying to find a great pizza dough recipe and finally found one here:
    It is very important to use bread flour, and I always end up having to add quite e bit more flour to get the dough to the right consistency. You want it stretchy, but not sticky. After you form it into a ball, coat in olive oil and let it rise in a warm area. (I turn the oven on to 350 and set the bowl with the dough in it, covered by a towel, on top of the stove – the heat helps it rise.) You can do any toppings you like.


  4. mat says:

    I feel compelled to share my favorite vegetarian recipe with you:
    It’s soooo simple to make but the flavors are fantastic. We usually serve it with a little pork/beef blend sausage and on a bed of penne.
    It fits great in a big casserole dish or 2 small ones.

    I will warn you that learning to make your food well will spoil most restaurants for you. My wife and I never order out something we make ourselves–it’s just never as good. We either use better ingredients, season it specifically, or feel we’re not getting “value”. It’s always better to make a steak dinner for $25 than it is to buy one at $50…just not as convenient.

    • Kerri says:

      Thanks for all of the tips, Mat, and the recipe. It looks wonderful. What are mancini fried peppers and where in the grocery do you find them?
      Steaks are something we quit eating out years ago. No one does one like Dale can on the grill. 🙂

      • mat says:

        You’re quite welcome. Mancini is a brand that Wegman’s carries. Any fried pepper rings in a jar will work fine–just know that they’re QUITE tart. If you don’t like tart peppers, I think you could substitute bottle sweet peppers but they’re generally a lot more expensive. We usually get the super-big jar(32oz, I think) because we like them on our pizza. Regardless, you should be able to find them in the condiment isle.
        Another tip I’ll share is to start using Kosher salt for cooking. It’s not expensive in the slightest, but has less junk in it than table salt. What you get is a cleaner flavor–and you’ll be surprised how much of it you can use at a time, giving you a big window in seasoning with it.

        • Kerri says:

          Thank you! I don’t use very much salt at all and use sea salt when I do. I’ll look into the kosher salt when I have to buy more.

      • Vida says:

        I agree with Mat. Table salt is very harsh. I much prefer the large grained sea salt for most dishes, from sprinkling onto steaks to salting water for pasta. When I need a “finer” salt I use “Fleur de Sel” which is hand harvested salt flakes from the North of France. May sound silly but the size, shape and quality of the salt grains makes a huge difference.

  5. Since we’ve moved to the country, I try to make my grocery trips as infrequent as possible- stocking up on things so I don’t have to make numerous trips into town. Not to mention that I find grocery shopping intensely depressing these days and the cost of everything just plain shocking. Also- all the food manufacturers must have gotten together and all planned to shrink their boxes, bottles and cans at the same time. Everything is smaller than just a few months ago, except the price of course.

    In fact, when I made a recipe at Thanksgiving, the amounts given on some of the ingredients were given as the standard can size i.e. “add 14 oz. can of cranberries.” Unfortunately, the cans of cranberries had all been shrunk to 12 oz. I call this ripping off consumers! They would all have to have decided to do this at the same time, or else the differences in sizes of things would have been much more noticeable to shoppers.

    At any rate, I want to do a lot more crock pot cooking and freezing of entrees that can be thawed and eaten later. We don’t have a micro-wave, which I missed at first, but now realize that I don’t buy the kind of microwavable, overly processed foods that I used to. I can’t justify heating up our entire oven just to cook two little portions of something, so we’re eating healthier. Like you, I’d like to go total veggie but have a husband with too much carnivore in him to adjust to that, so I try to just eliminate meat as much as possible. I would love to have the recipe you mentioned above, the Mexican one, as my husband is a big fan of Mexican food and probably wouldn’t miss the meat in a good Mexican dish. Great post! Happy crock potting!

    • Kerri says:

      I’ve noticed that with the servings as well, Kathy. They started doing that at the beginning of the recession. They’re excuse was it was a way to get around the high cost of shipping and gas prices while not raising the cost of the food. Argh.
      Anyway, both recipes for the Mexican dishes are provided in the links.
      One thing you might consider doing is getting a toaster oven. I use it a lot, especially when I’m heating up one portion for lunch.

  6. Alexandra says:

    I find that my cooking has suffered recently, now that I have so many more things to do, and no longer cook for a family. In fact, I regret not having written down my recipes. I thought I had them all committed to memory, but sometimes its nice to be able to check on amounts, for instance. I made a pork roast with prunes and thyme over the weekend, something I used to cook in France. And, yes, I used real garlic.

    • Kerri says:

      Oh, that sounds lovely! I know it must seem strange to more experienced cooks that I never had cooked with real garlic, but better late than never! 😉

  7. Alfredo says:

    I have been reading your site for a year now and just now felt the need to comment. The crockpot can be your friend during a busy week. Prepping the night before and tossing it all in just before you walk out the door is a godsend for me. I would also suggest a wok. A little chop chop and your dinner is done. On the week end maybe prepare an Indian dish. I know its a lot of spices, but they are good for you, many vegetarian dishes too, plus if you make a large enough batch you can freeze part of it.

    • Kerri says:

      Thanks for the comment, Alfredo! I do love my crockpot. On days when I’m busy here at the studio, it is very nice to go home and have dinner all ready. I hadn’t thought of prepping the night before though, that’s a wonderful idea. I do have a wok and make stir fry (we’re having it tonight). I have a writer colleague friend who cooks Indian food and even has a blog, so that’s a good idea as well. Good to “hear” from you! Thanks for being a part of Living Large.

  8. Kim says:

    I got a food processor last birthday and LOVE it. There’s a book called the “Food Processor Bible” that might give you a lot of ideas; I haven’t used all that many of her recipes, but her techniques and very creative use of the processor have really helped me adapt my own recipes to FP use. It is magical for dough (pizza dough, bread dough, biscuits, pie crusts), and fantastic for things like veggie soup where you’d spend 45 minutes at the chopping board otherwise.

    Local restaurant advice: If you’re in Harrison, DeVito’s (Italian) and Jasmine Thai are both well worth your time. Ranch House is my favorite breakfast joint (they do lunch too), and if you’re headed up to Branson, chili at the Devil’s Pool restaurant at Big Cedar is a great, inexpensive reason to enjoy the wonderful rustic ambience there. We would be very sad without these options in town… you’re right, this isn’t exactly a Foodie Region. Oh, and the new Prairie Market natural food store behind the mall should have an organic cafe going sometime next spring, but it’s not there yet (they just opened).

    Today’s favorite new recipe: (and hey! It’s mexican and vegetarian!) We ate Black Bean and Tortilla Bake tonight for the first time. It’s a winner at our house…

    …too long of a comment! Sorry to blather on!

    • Susan says:

      That recipe looks pretty good, will have to give it a try.

    • Kerri says:

      Thanks, Kim, for that recipe and the restaurant recommendations. I needed a new vegetarian recipe for next week! I do like DeVito’s, but Dale wasn’t that impressed (maybe it was what he had or something) and I’ve heard nothing but good things about Jasmine Thai. I haven’t heard of the other two, but I would like something new other than Famous Dave’s (Dale’s favorite) in Branson! 😉 If you’re ever in Mountain Home, Bamboo Garden has wonderful sushi. Don’t try the new hibachi place in town, it’s overpriced and not as fresh.

  9. I totally agree about eating out. There’s nothing I hate worse than having to pay for food that’s low quality. It’s not just the money either. Because I’m on Weight Watchers, I want great tasting food because I don’t get all that much.

    • Kerri says:

      Oh, yes, when you’re on a limited diet, the worst thing is wasting your points on bad food. 🙁 There’s one restaurant here I trust and that’s the sushi place. That can be my night out once in awhile.

  10. Kristi says:

    I agree about eating out. We are not close to restaurants so eating out is a big sucker of time and usually I could do better at home and it is so expensive. Even if it is just a grilled cheese and tomato soup. And, restaurants are the biggest waster of food. The best way to control food waste is in your own kitchen. I am not big on doing menus for the week. Our schedule changes too quickly, but I do like to keep food in the pantry and in the freezer. If we had a big snowstorm I don’t need to run to the store.
    I have never switched to just cooking for two and fortunately we like leftovers. I love to cook one pot meals, whether in the crockpot or on the stove.
    Anyway, you are doing lots of good things by curtailing eating out; eating healthier, saving time, wasting less food, possibly eating more locally and in season.

    As Martha would say, “It’s a good thing.”

    • kerri says:

      We have a new organic store here that sells locally produced, organic food. It’s wonderful. I love the 1-pot meals as well. The other good thing about Rachel’s recipes is that they make quite a bit. I had enough casserole left over to freeze for one of those nights I don’t have time, or feel like cooking.

  11. Olivia says:

    I come from a family of great cooks. One grandmother ran a hotel for many years and did most of the cooking; one aunt was a certified Cordon Bleu chef and my eldest son is a professional chef. In addition, it seems, my family just liked to cook. I used to enjoy it but years of having to prepare meals for kids kind of took a lot of the pleasure out of it. (“I don’t like this,” “Do I have to eat that?”) Most of them outgrew their fussiness but they also grew up and left home. The last one at home is a very picky eater.

    We are fortunate to live by the ocean and we all love seafood so we eat a lot of that, particularly lobster, mussels and scallops. I was a vegetarian for many years but as I am also celiac and live with 2 guys (husband and son) who are not vegetarian, that became too complicated and time consuming. I don’t really care for bread, pasta, cereal and so on anyway (gluten free varieties are tolerable but nothing to write home about, IMHO). I prefer meat, fish and vegetables. Fruit, too, but I do not have a sweet tooth so prefer the veggies.

    Oddly enough I just discovered pot roast. I recently watched “Julie and Julia” and became inspired by the cooking so I looked up Julia Child’s recipe for pot roast and loosely followed that. Emphasis on loosely. However I found that adding red wine and tomatoes to the beef broth made a huge difference. Usually I preferred to drink the wine rather than “waste” it in cooking but it really does make a difference. I guess these chefs know what they are talking about.

    • kerri says:

      How lucky you are, Olivia, to have such creative cooks in your life! Thanks to a bad childhood of being forced to drink cod liver oil and a horrible experience with shrimp early on for my mother, I had never even eaten seafood until Dale took me out on a date when I was 15. Chinese, I thought, came from a tin can named La Choy! I used my food processor to make my grandmother-in-law’s taco sauce this past weekend (instead of the mixer) and it was great!

    • mat says:

      I favor the chuck roasts–the cheap cuts. Pot Roast is a very humble meal and a lot of effort seems to be made these days in the name of “rescuing” a meal from it’s origins. “Gourmet” grilled cheese and all that. That said, every culture approaches their cooking in a different way, due to the common availability of ingredients–hence you see a lot of wine in French cooking.
      Also, the reason that wine makes a difference in food is the alcohol. The simple way of explaining it is that it acts as a “flavor activator”. There are certain flavors in food that only come out in the presence of alcohol–and heat, for that matter.

  12. V Schoenwald says:

    I am a meat and potates gal. Having Amish grandparents, fancy food was not on the table, but strange innards from critters were. So I had to just step around the UFO’s swimming around or in your plate or bowl.
    My grandmother like others from the Depression era where masters of making something from nothing and personally I think that is the best and most wonderful thing to do. The flavors of food were pure, and from the heart.
    I like to watch the cooking shows too, but where I live, we don’t have access to things, and produce here stinks, and I grow unusual vegetables in my garden each year to try, and either dehydrate them or can them.
    The San Marzano tomatoes are just a paste tomato, Kerri, an Italian type of tomato, you can just use any tomato you can get your hands on. I grow Amish Paste tomatoes and I will try a type of San Marzano this spring. Remember, Kerri, make do with what you have or can get. Last year I tried some Italian Marconi peppers and had some roasted also, and I will tell you I sure like them also.
    I will dig through my recipes to see if I can email some to you. I do simple recipes in the crock pot, or something I can re-heat, sort of like a tv dinner.
    Take care and have cooking adventures and fun, because food is fun.

    • kerri says:

      I am having a lot of fun, especially with the garlic. I even put it in my chili yesterday! 🙂 Dale said I should write Rachel Ray and tell her to come to Arkansas and find some of these ingredients. 😉

      • mat says:

        You can usually find a nice, big bottle of already-minced garlic at your grocery store. I prefer the stuff in oil, as I’m usually PUTTING it into oil.

        Also, try caramelizing the onions in your chili. Med-high heat (7 of 10) in veggie/canola/peanut oil (not olive–the smoke point is too low and the oil will break down). When you see the onions turning tan, you need to start keeping them moving. The longer you cook them, the more the sugars break down…but there’s a fine line between dark brown and black. I prefer mine medium brown, but cook as long as you dare. Just remember that if you burn it, you need to toss it.