Friday, March 29, 2013

Savory baked sweet potato fries

I love sweet potato fries. Today I made some for lunch with a savory variation. I cut up one large sweet potato into thin sticks (about 3" long and 1/4" thick). Spread out on a large cookie sheet and drizzle with blood orange olive oil and sprinkle with seasoned salt. Bake at 325 for 35 minutes turning halfway through the time. Then broil for 6-8 more minutes to crisp the fries.

Holy cow these were tasty! Sure they take a little time to bake but worth every baking minute!! Give it a shot.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Roasted Asparagus with Balsamic Glaze

I learned a few weeks ago that it is asparagus season. I do love me some asparagus. Steamed. Grilled. Roasted. Love it all. We've been getting asparagus in our bountiful basket recently, too. It had been awhile since we'd had good fresh asparagus. My favorite way to eat asparagus is a recipe I've altered to be similar to an appetizer my husband and I ate on one of our anniversary dinners. Personally, I think my version is much better. Any time I've cooked it for friends, it's always a hit. Here's what you need:

1 bunch asparagus
2-3 T olive oil (get the good stuff, and if you can get garlic olive oil, it's even better)
1 clove garlic, minced
3-4 T finely grated parmesan cheese
Balsamic glaze for topping (see notes below)
grated parmesan for topping

Preheat oven to 375. In a large plastic bag (ziploc works well), put the olive oil and garlic. Wash the asparagus and break off the tough bottom ends. Pat dry and add to the plastic bag. Smoosh and shake to coat the asparagus with the oil/garlic. Open the bag and pour in the finely grated parmesan and shake again to coat. Spread the asparagus on a large cookie sheet and place in oven. Cook for 7-8 minutes, turn and cook for another 5-8 minutes depending on the girth of the asparagus. Remove from oven. Serve with a balsamic glaze drizzled over the top and with some freshly grated parmesan.

**Balsamic glaze is sold in many supermarkets in the vinegar section. It's usually in a plastic bottle that is sqeezable. You can also purchase at specialty food stores. You can make your own version by starting with a good quality balsamic vinegar and reducing it on the stove. It can take 30-40 minutes to reduce down. You must be careful to reduce over low heat because it is easily burned. When I make mine from scratch, I use 1 cup balsamic vinegar and 1 T brown sugar for a slight sweet tang. Bring to boil over medium heat and then turn to low. Stir frequently. It should reduce to about 1/4 cup. Store in the refrigerator.**

Hope you enjoy this asparagus side dish!  It's one of my favorites!!

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Penne Gorgonzola

There's an Italian chain restaurant near us that holds a special place in my heart. My husband and I went there on our first date. Awwww. I'm one of those people that tends to order the same dish at a restaurant every time I visit. The recipe I'm sharing with you today is my version of Penne Gorgonzola inspired by this restaurant. The nice thing about this recipe is it can be made vegetarian or with chicken. I choose to use half and half instead of heavy cream since the flavor is almost the same but it has fewer calories. It's very adaptable to your personal tastes, too. If you like more garlic, add more garlic. Same with the gorgonzola. Or take out the gorgonzola and add parmesan for a more traditional alfredo sauce. So many possibilities folks. Here's what you need:

For the sauce:
2 T butter
2 T flour
2 cloves garlic, minced (not pictured)
1 cup half and half
2 cups broth (chicken or vegetable)
4-6 ounces gorgonzola cheese (or parmesan for milder flavor)
salt and pepper
For the remainder of the dish:
12-16 oz penne pasta (or pasta of your choice)
1 large chicken breast (optional)
sauteed mushrooms (optional)
diced tomatoes for topping
fresh parmesan for topping
In making the sauce, you're going to start by cooking the garlic in a small skillet. Just heat olive oil over medium heat, add the garlic and cook until softened. Set aside. In a med saucepan, add the butter and heat until melted. Add the flour and stir. You're making a roux. Continue stirring until the mixture is a light brown color. Using a whisk, slowly add the half and half. Stir until well combined and smooth. Add the garlic and broth and let simmer for the flavors to meld. Finish by adding the gorgonzola cheese and stir until melted and smooth. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
You'll pour this sauce over cooked penne pasta and diced chicken (if desired). The restaurant version also has sauteed mushrooms, but I'm the only one in my family who likes mushrooms, so I usually leave them out or serve on the side. Top with freshly diced tomatoes and grated parmesan.
This really is a comfort food dish. As I mentioned above, you can alter the recipe to your own preferences very easily. I hope you enjoy!!

Monday, March 25, 2013

Pickled Cauliflower

Today is a marinara making day. We're down to less than a quart left of marinara sauce, so I needed to get the next batch going. (My crock pot marinara recipe is here.) All my vegetables are from my bountiful basket, including the tomatoes I canned about a month ago. Smells delicious.

I'm pretty new to canning. This is not something my mom did when I was growing up. I know my grandma canned, but I pretty much have learned it all on my own the past couple years. You can see the fruits of my labor in the picture above. The beans were done by my mother-in-law. We haven't had much luck growing beans in our garden the past couple years. Pickling is a fun part of canning, too. My kids are good little vegetable eaters, but cauliflower isn't their favorite. I've tried the mock mashed potatoes, cauliflower hot "wings", and cauliflower au gratin but nothing really hit the spot. A local steak house has pickled cauliflower on their relish trays, so I thought I'd give that a shot. Holy cow!! My kids LOVE it. Seriously. They can eat an entire quart in one sitting if I let them. It's always a favorite around here (pretty much anything pickled will get eaten). I frequently get asked for my recipe, so here it goes:

1 head cauliflower
mustard seeds
black peppercorns
2 quart or 4 pint jars, cleaned and sterilized

I'm going to give you the measurements for pint jars. For quart jars, double all the measurements except the peppercorns.

Wash a fresh cauliflower. Remove any brown spots (cut them off). Cut into florets. Set aside.

Slice an onion. Cut into rings. Place 6 rings of various sizes into the bottom of your jars. Put 2 garlic cloves (sliced) in the jar as well. Add your dill. I used 3 sprigs per pint jar.

Fill your jar with cauliflower as full as you can make it. Then add 1/2 t mustard seeds, 1/4 t black peppercorns, 1/8 t ground coriander, 2 t pickling salt, 1 t sugar and 1/4 cup vinegar. Then fill the rest of the jar with water leaving about 1/2" head room.

Wipe the edge of the jar and place the lids on the jars. Tighten the lids on the jars to finger-tight. Place the jars in your water bath (still cold) and turn on med-low heat. If you don 't have a canner, use a large stock pot and place a tea towel or washcloth in the bottom before putting your jars in. Process the jars until it starts to boil. Let boil 5-10 minutes. I usually boil 10 since we're at a high altitude. Turn the heat off, cover the pot with a towel and let it sit until completely cooled. Remove from canner/pot and check the lids for sealing. If the lid pops in the center, it did not seal and you will need to keep it in the refrigerator. Allow the pickling to sit at least 1 week before eating.

I encourage you to give this recipe a try if you like anything pickled. The cauliflower stays crisp but has the delicious tang of pickling. You know it's good if my kids want to eat it for breakfast. Happy pickling!!

Friday, March 22, 2013

Big Bunny Craft

Easter is right around the corner. Already. This is the time of year that just speeds by for our family. We have something planned every weekend until May. It's nuts. Despite our busy schedule, the kids and I made a fun little bunny craft. These can be Easter bunnies for those of you who celebrate Easter or they can just be giant rabbits for fun. All it takes is some construction paper, scissors, glue sticks and some markers or crayons to decorate. This is an OLD project I remembered making in 5th grade art class. Some crafts are timeless.

The first thing you need to know how to do is fold your paper in half like a hot dog or a hamburger. A hot dog fold you put the long sides together and a hamburger you put the short sides together. Got it? You need 4 pieces of construciton paper. Piece one: fold like a hamburger and cut a wide heart. Piece two: fold like a hot dog and cut a long heart. Piece three: fold like a hot dog then fold like a hot dog again and cut a long heart (this will actually make 2 long hearts). Piece four: fold like a hamburger and tear in half along the fold line. With one half, fold like a hot dog, cut a long heart and then cut the heart in half along the fold. With the second half, fold like a hamburger, cut a wide heart then cut the heart in half along the fold.

You should now have 1 wide heart, 1 long heart, 2 skinny long hearts, 2 half skinny long hearts, 2 half short wide hearts.

Make your bunny. Notice the placement of each heart and glue it to the other parts as shown in the picture.

Decorate to your heart's content (pun intended). This is a simple craft that beginning cutters can do. Simply trace the heart and even preschool kids can cut out the pieces. It makes a bunny that is over 2 feet tall. If you want a smaller animal, just cut 2 pieces of construction paper in half and follow the directions using half sheets. Hoppy crafting!

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Reward/Consequence Jars

I'm back! I was really on a roll with my blog posts lately. Then my youngest daughter decided NOT to listen and ate her Reese's peanut butter egg in the living room and drooled chocolatey peanut buttery saliva all over our keyboard and shorted out the letters "K" "L" and the comma. Needless to say, I can't really post without using those letters and it's too tough to compose on my iphone. We ordered a new keyboard for the laptop and I installed it yesterday afternoon. Easy Peasy. Which leads me to today's post on a parenting idea.

Many of you know my kids are preschool aged. My oldest is 4-1/2 and my youngest is almost 3. They're smart girls and generally good kids. They have their moments, though. One of the difficult things for me as a parent is blatant disregard for instruction. You all know what I'm describing. You ask your child to pick up a toy. Child ignores you. You ask again. Child ignores again. You tell the child to pick it up. Child continues to ignore you. This continues until either A-you pick up the stupid toy yourself or B-you raise your voice, scold the child for not doing the task AND not listening, and perhaps administer a consequence meanwhile the toy is still sitting on the floor where it doesn't belong. I'm not the only one, right? My problem was this: I don't enjoy harping on my girls. I don't enjoy scolding them. I don't enjoy yelling at them. I became frustrated when they chose not to listen. I needed a behavior modification technique that would be understood by young children, could be used for positive or negative reinforcement, was easy enough that my husband would use as well, and taught the correct behavior I was trying to achieve.

My solution was a set of reward and consequence jars. First, because my kids are craft-crazy, we took some upcycled pizza sauce jars, made labels and mod-podged the labels on the jars. Each child had a jar and mom and dad had a jar to share. I cut the labels so they did not go all the way around the jar. I wanted to be able to see the contents from one side (more on this in a minute). I placed 50 pennies in each of the kids' jars and an assortment of pennies, nickels and dimes in mom and dad's jar. If your kids are older, pennies might not work as well, you may have to start with nickels or dimes or even quarters, but the concept is the same.

I used them like this: if the girls were asked to do something (clean their room, pick up toys, brush teeth, put clothes in laundry basket, etc) and did not do it, they were asked a second time (just to ensure it was not a hearing issue but a will issue) and still didn't do it, a coin was moved from their personal jar to mom and dad's jar. Being able to SEE the coin moved from jar to jar and seeing the coins pile up in mom and dad's jar instead of theirs is key. Everytime during the week the girls demonstrated an instance of not listening, a coin was removed. BUT if the girls did an extra chore, showed extra care or sharing, or had an above and beyond good attitude, they were rewarded by receiving a coin or coins in their jar. I try to reward with nickels and dimes and consequence with pennies. Again, seeing the coins move into their jar is key to reinforcing the behaviors. At the end of the week, the money left in each child's jar was removed and they could put it in their piggy bank. I would fill again with 50 pennies and the week starts over.

I had to explain the jars to the kids when we started and at the end of the week when we counted the money. I also made sure to explain the jars when I took coins out during that first week. I wanted my child to see me remove or replace the money in her jar. The first week was difficult, too. My girls had coins removed every day. I quickly saw some behavioral changes as well. Now, I can say, "Do you want to lose money?" or "I'm going to take money from your jar." and they know to change behaviors and/or follow directions.

The unintended consequence of this method has been the kids asking if a certain chore will get them money. I believe there are some chores which should be done regularly, without pay, because you're part of a family and that means working together to maintain the home. My oldest tries to get "paid" for some of these types of chores. I use it as a learning exercise to show that mom or dad doesn't get paid to clean or do laundry but it still has to be done. It's a small consequence I will accept in return for the better behavior.

I've been pleased at the results I've seen with the girls. I feel it's helped me be a better parent because the situations don't escalate. The jars hold both positive and negative behaviors and are easily administered. My husband follows through as well. We don't do allowances, so this lets the girls earn money for saving. It's also a learning activity too! My youngest can learn counting out objects and sorting (I usually ask for piles of 5) and then we can count by 5s as well. My oldest is learning about coin values so she understands 1 dime = 2 nickels = 10 pennies. Both girls love counting their money at the end of the week.

I hope this gives you ideas on alternative techniques to change the behaviors in your own homes. Let me know what you're doing, what is successful for you and your kids, what you've tried that wasn't successful. We have to learn from each other!!

Friday, March 15, 2013

Tom Kha Gai

Tom kha gai is a delicious, creamy Thai soup. I first had it at a soup cookoff at my previous job. I'm still new to Thai cuisine since my family ate pretty American growing up. I've come to love Thai food, but my husband and kids can take it or leave it. At least they humor me and try it when I make it. Bountiful Baskets had a Thai veggie add on pack last week so I bought it and was excited to make the tom kha gai. I always thought it meant coconut chicken soup, but perhaps that was simply a descriptive definition instead of literal. Apparently it means chicken galangal (blue ginger) soup. Frankly, I don't care what it means because I like it. Here is the recipe I used:

2 cans coconut milk
1 can lite coconut milk (or the water from 1 coconut...I used the coconut water)
2 cups chicken or vegetable broth
4 stalks lemongrass (remove bottom 3 inches and outer layer, bruise with knife and cut into 2 inch chunks)
5 kaffir lime leaves (leave whole) or the juice of 1-2 limes
2 inches of gingerroot, peel and slice thinly
1 shallot minced (about 3 Tbsp)
1-3 tsp sriracha (depends on preferred spice level)
1.5 pounds chicken thighs, cut into bite size pieces (do not cook first)
about 8 oz mushrooms (shitake and oyster work well)
2-3 Tbsp fish sauce
2 Tbsp brown sugar

Infuse the coconut milk: in large sauce pan pour all coconut milk (and water if used) and broth. Bring to simmer. Add ginger, lemongrass, lime leaves, shallot and 1/4 tsp hot sauce. You can put the solid ingredients in a mesh bag to make it easier to remove later. Allow this to infuse for 15 minutes.

Prep the chicken and veggies. Cut into small pieces while the broth is infusing.

Balance the flavor of the soup: taste the soup and let rest and simmer between each step. Remove the lime leaves. Add chicken. Remove lemongrass. Add mushrooms. Remove ginger. Taste. Add fish sauce and brown sugar. Taste again. Let cook at least as long as it takes for the chicken to cook (10 mins). The goal is to balance spicy, sweet, salty and sour. Add more fish sauce, hot sauce, lime juice and/or brown sugar to achieve preferred taste.

Serve with diced tomatoes, cilantro and jasmine rice.

This recipe doesn't take as long as you might think. If you're making and trying it for the first time, be prepared to taste it repeatedly. Let your taste buds guide you to the "right" combination of flavors for your family. My husband and oldest daughter are pretty mild, so I kept the sriracha low in the batch but loaded up on it in my own bowl. And as most soups, it was better the next day. mmmmmmm

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Autographed Disney Character Postcards for Kids

The Disney brand is amazing. Sure, it's a ginormous company with thousands of branches of business, but they still take time for the little things. My daughters are huge Disney Princess fans. It started before my oldest turned 2 and has continued to this day. The princess love being passed from older sister to younger sister and even down to the day care kids. I had read that you could send a letter to Disney and you'd receive an autographed picture/postcard back in the mail. My oldest wrote a letter and drew a picture to her favorite princess of the month, Ariel. We just got a postcard back, addressed to my child, with a picture of all the princesses and their "signatures!" Needless to say, my daughter was thrilled. Such a simple act gathered a giant smile.

Here's how you can get a postcard sent to your child:

Write a letter to your favorite Disney character (it's not just princesses, you know!). Be sure to include a return address!

Send the letter to:
Walt Disney World Communications
P.O. Box 10040
Lake Buena Vista, FL 32830-0040


Walt Disney Company
Attn: Fan Mail Department
500 South Buena Vista Street
Burbank, CA 91521

Wait about 4 weeks and your child should receive their card in the mail.

 Hope your little one enjoys this as much as mine did!

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Huli Huli Chicken

I love reading cooking magazines. I used to subscribe to four different magazines. I'm down to just a couple these days. I always find new meals in them. Sometimes it's a full recipe, sometimes it's an inspiration to tweak an existing recipe, but there are so many ideas between those covers. Today's recipe came from one of those cooking magazines. It sounded tasty and the preparation was simple (just what every mom wants, right?). The key to this is to let it marinate for at least 8 hours. I usually make the day or night before we're going to eat it and really let it soak into the chicken. Obviously, it was a hit or I wouldn't be sharing it. Here's what you need:

1 cup packed brown sugar
3/4 cup ketchup
3/4 cup soy sauce
1/3 cup sherry or chicken broth
2-1/2 tsp minced fresh ginger root
1-1/2 tsp minced garlic
8 boneless skinless chicken thighs (or 4 boneless skinless chicken breasts)
In a large ziploc bag, mix all the ingredients except chicken.
Reserve about 1 cup of marinade and set aside.
Place chicken into bags and mush well to distribute the marinade.
Refrigerate at least 8 hours (I recommend overnight).
When ready to cook, heat grill to medium heat.
Oil the rack with a touch of oil to prevent sticking.
Place chicken on grill and cook 6-8 minutes on each side (or until no longer pink).
Baste occasionally with reserved marinade.
I served the chicken with some grilled pineapple and white rice. The reserved marinade also makes a great sauce for dipping and the rice. Try it out! Add a little Hawaiian into your meal plan!

Sunday, March 10, 2013

St. Patrick's Day Leprechauns

I don't know about you, but my kids are holiday crazy. We actually had to celebrate Groundhog's Day. Saint Patrick's Day is a bit more fun to celebrate with two young kids. This leprechaun craft is a Mama In Montana original creation. Not inspired by Pinterest. Not recreated from an image or a blog. I prepped everything for my kids to make it easy since they're smaller, but depending on your childrens' ages, you might be able to let them do more of the work. It did take me about 30 minutes to prep 6 of these little guys, but they turned out so cute! Here's what you need:

Paper in green, black, peach, yellow
toilet paper tubes
googly eyes
cotton balls
glue/glue stick
optional: glitter glue
Prep: cut a piece of green paper the height of your toilet paper tube and long enough to wrap all the way around. Mine was 5.5" square. Cut the pieces for the hat, belt, buckle, and face. I cut out of black a 2"x2" square for the hat part and a 5.5"x1" for the brim. Out of white a 2"x.5" belt. In yellow a .5" square for the buckle.  For the face, I cut a 1.75" square out of the peachy color. You could do circles for the face, but I was on a speed mission.

Glue the hat pieces together as shown below.

Color the cotton ball orange with a marker.

Glue the face piece in the top center of your large green square.
Glue googly eyes on the face.

Glue the beard to the leprechaun's face.
If desired, color the rest of the face (nose, mouth).

Draw and decorate the leprechaun's body. Use glitter glue if desired. My youngest daycare kiddo had to have "sprinkles" on her leprechaun! 

Wrap the green square around the tube and glue. Wrap the brim around the top of the tube. I trimmed the edge of the hats so they poked out a bit.
You can see how cute these leprechauns turned out! Each kiddo made theirs a reflection of their personality. My oldest daughter made a girl leprechaun with a bikini top and skirt. A couple kids did not want the beard. Have fun. Mix it up. Happy St. Paddy's Day!!

Three Cheese Manicotti

I had a thought recently. Really! It happens. Just kidding. My thought was this: I spend a great deal of my time teaching about meal planning, taking cooking classes, searching for new recipes to try, discussing cooking and sharing recipes with friends. Especially with my meal planning on a budget class wrapping up, there are recipes I am asked to share frequently. I was chatting with a friend who is just starting her blogging adventure (check out Mama To The Max) and became energized to blog more about the foods I cook. I know this isn't JUST a cooking blog, in fact I have a kids' craft to write up this week as well, but hopefully sharing some of my family's menu items will help others expand their own menus and assist in meal planning efforts as well.

Today's recipe is a three cheese manicotti. The story behind this recipe is that my husband, when we were still just dating, would tell me how GREAT his sister's manicotti was. I made some once and he ate it, but it didn't pass the test. Why reinvent the wheel, right? So I called my sister-in-law and asked for her recipe. It is simple, requires basic ingredients and it really does taste great. Shout out to Julie for this family-pleasing meal. Here's what you need:

1 box manicotti pasta (about 12-16 tubes depending on brand)
1 quart marinara sauce (of course I use my homemade stuff, but pick what you like)
8 oz chopped spinach (I buy the frozen stuff and thaw)
1-1/2 cups each feta, ricotta, and parmesan cheeses
1 egg (optional)

Cook the manicotti as directed. We like ours al dente plus it's easier to stuff when it's not quite as soft. It will be baking in the oven, so it's ok if it's not all the way "done."

Combine the cheeses in a large bowl. If you're using fresh spinach, wilt it slightly. If you're using frozen, thaw and drain extremely well. Add spinach to cheese mixture. You can also add the egg at this time as well. It's not necessary, but does help the filling to stick together a little bit. I've made it both ways and the taste is the same.

Pour a little marinara in the bottom of your baking dish. I usually use a 9x13 Pyrex pan. Tip the pan to spread the marinara all over the bottom. It will help prevent sticking. Stuff the cooked pasta with the cheese mixture and place the tubes in the dish. Continue until all the mixture or tubes are used. I've had extra cheese before and it works well to make a personal sized lasagna.

Pour the remaining marinara sauce over the stuffed manicotti. Bake at 350 for 30-40 minutes.

If you ask me, it's the feta that makes this dish. Feta really is "bet-tah." Try it out and let me know what you think!

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Quinoa Fruit Salad

I'm still learning when it comes to quinoa. I had never eaten it until last year. It's a funky looking little grain that can be added to lots of dishes to give it substance and boost the protein. Today's recipe is not my recipe, but one I got from my friend Cheryl. It's simple and fresh, so give it a shot! It's easily adapted for different types of fruit, so use what you have and what you like.

1 cup quinoa (rinsed)
2 cups water
pinch of salt

juice of 1 lime or lemon
3 Tbsp honey
1-2 Tbsp finely chopped mint (I used 2, but I think next time I'll just use 1)

Fruit: I used 1 cup each strawberries, blueberries and pineapple. You can increase or decrease as preferred. Think grapes, kiwi, mango, apples, oranges, whatever!

Add your rinsed quinoa, water and salt to saucepan. Bring to boil over medium heat and let boil for 5 minutes. Reduce heat to low and cook 10-15 minutes, or until the outside of the grain becomes translucent. Remove from heat and fluff with fork. Let cool.

Make the dressing by whisking the lime juice, honey and mint in a small bowl. Set aside.

In a large bowl, combine quinoa and fruit. Drizzle the dressing over the top and toss well. Garnish with additional mint if desired. You can serve at room temperature or chilled. I preferred to eat it chilled. The flavor enhanced overnight as well.