Sunday, February 26, 2012

Meal Planning Tips, & Cardamom Coconut Panna Cotta with Gingered Pineapple

woah! Hello! Apologies for falling off the face of the Earth!  I have to tell you, my days around here have felt a little like this at times:
I've been busy busy busy at work, and little miss Ellie has started doing so many new things, including some of this, from front to back and back to front, over and over:
And practicing this:
And putting every last thing in her mouth and gnawing on it as hard as she can.
We have managed to make some delicious food that I can't wait to tell you about, but the most exciting thing has been my first attempt at meal planning.  I have always cooked on a whim, usually buying groceries after work and putting together whatever sounded good at the time.  But with the little girl around, it's nearly impossible to get everything done.  So I've started doing my best to make a rough meal plan on weekends and it has been incredibly helpful.  Here are my tips if you're a beginner at meal planning, too.

  • Use technology. It helps.  Find something that helps you plot out your week and gives you a place to make shopping lists and write out prep for the next meal.  I've been using  From the site you can connect your calendar with iCal and Google's calendar.  

Here's a screen shot of last week's meal plan:

  • Repeat basic recipes every week, and basic elements every night.  We always have homemade pizza on Fridays.  It gives us something to look forward to at then end of the work week and makes planning so easy.  Once a week we have a crockpot meal using the pork we purchased from The Stamps Family Farm.  Sometimes it's carnitas, sometimes it's BBQ, but I always know that Wednesday morning I will throw something in the slow cooker and we'll have a hot meal by the time the work day is done.  Every night I include something green (as per my 2012 resolution!) and it's usually salad.  Even if I do include greens somewhere else in the meal, I have grown accustomed to having a big bowl of salad with homemade dressing at every dinner.  
  • Repeat easy, healthy breakfasts every day.  And don't neglect savory options!  My husband loves quinoa cooked in chicken stock for breakfast.  I love the convenience of overnight oats in a jar and carry them to work every day.  (Just combine oats, yogurt, milk of your choice, and any mixins you like. I always do chocolate chips and cinnamon.  Leave in the fridge overnight and eat either right out of the fridge or warmed up just a bit. Don't heat them!)
  • Make extra. Cook once, eat twice.  As I said above, my husband likes quinoa for breakfast, so whenever I make a pot to have with dinner (I use it to replace rice or pasta) I make a double or quadruple batch so there is plenty for breakfast.  
  • Prep over the weekend.  I do a big shopping trip on the weekend days to get all the dry goods that I'm going to need and then shop two or three times during the week for fresh vegetables.  Over the weekend, I like to prep as much as I can on Sunday so the rest of the week is already set up.  I like to fire up the oven and roast everything I'll need (usually at least sweet potatoes and onions) and I use the weekend to make doughs or sauces (which freeze perfectly) and soak and cook beans.  I also take the opportunity to make big batches of things that are easy to eat, like lentils, so that there's always something good to eat at a moment's notice.  (The appetite of a nursing mother is no joke!) 
  • Plan for leftovers.  We always make big portions at dinner time and either repurpose them for the next dinner or plan them as your following day's dinner.  (A roast chicken is the classic example of this, using leftovers for pot-pie, soup, or sandwiches.)
  • Divide up the work. As you can see in the screen shot, my husband cooks once a week.  This is mostly in name only because we really cook every meal together, but Wednesday is his night to pick out what he wants to cook and I take on the role of sous chef.  It's really fun for us to work together and for him to be in charge. 
  • Be prepared to fail.  It's possible that your plan won't work, so make some easy freezer meals that you can always fall back on.  (We love these burritos)  
  • Finally, have some fun. Experiment. Try new flavors and ingredients.  I can't explain why, but having empty slots to fill in my meal plan makes me more ambitious and adventurous as a cook.  
Last weekend, some friends came over and spoiled me by doing all the cooking for a big Asian-themed dinner.  I took the opportunity to make something for dessert and wanted to do something different but easy.  I knew I wanted to make panna cotta because I've been wanting to for months, and I decided to make it with coconut milk instead of cream to make it consistent with the rest of the meal.  I used Leftover Queen's recipe for the panna cotta and loved the idea of pan frying some fresh pineapple from Bittersweet.  This is a dessert that you can throw together with one hand if you're holding a cute little one but once it's plated, it looks gorgeous and tastes great.  It's also very easy to modify with any kind of milk or spice and can be topped with any sauce that suits your meal.  
Leftover Queen's recipe called for cardamom and I used it fresh.  If you've never used fresh cardamom, I can't recommend it highly enough.  You can buy the whole green pods in bulk, and they're much cheaper at Asian or Indian grocery stores.  I began by toasting the pods in a dry pan and then working on them in my mortar and pestle.  
If you don't have a mortar and pestle yet, I'd highly recommend one.  I've never managed to keep an extra coffee grinder for spices on hand like many people suggest, but I bought this mortar and pestle for under $10 and have gotten a ton of use out of it.  It's quick and effective at grinding most spices (not all though) and I love making chili garlic pastes in it.  After doing a lot of research on materials, we decided on a porcelain model because it's more lightweight than marble (not to mention cheaper) and easy to clean.  We chose a mortar that's around 4-5 inches in diameter and it's the perfect size.  You can find lots of cheap ones on Amazon.  I reach for mine a few times a week.  
To use a mortar and pestle effectively, you have to practice using the different techniques.  Combining them is the key to getting the desired final product.
Always begin by dry toasting spices because it helps warm up the oils and release the full fragrance.  Let the spices cool before processing them so you don't create steam and end up with mush instead of dry ground spices.

The first way to use the mortar and pestle is to hold the pestle with your hand wrapped around the neck and hammer down on the food.  This is where I usually begin because it helps you break big, oddly-shaped objects into smaller pieces.  Begin by crushing the seed pods by hammering down on each one just once.
Pull it out of the  mortar, separate the pod, and release the seeds.  Discard the shell and any inner bits you find because they will be tough and woody.
Return the seeds to the pestle and hammer again, crushing each seed.  It should smell so so good, which is one of the simple pleasures of using this tool.
The other way to use the pestle is to hold it in your hand like a pencil, between your thumb and forefinger, and turn it like a screwdriver against the edges of the mortar.  This helps you get the final fine grain.
Like this!
Coconut Cardamom Panna Cotta with Gingered Pineapple 
very slightly adapted from Leftover Queen
2.5 c. full fat coconut milk (try the Asian grocery store)
1/4 c. maple syrup
1 tsp. vanilla
1/2 tsp. freshly ground cardamom
1/4 c. water
1.5 tsp. gelatin (this is less than 1 envelope)

In the bottom of a bowl, bloom the gelatin by mixing it with the water while you heat the milk.
Put the milk over medium heat until the edges start to bubble.  (Note: if you want to use whole spices for the panna cotta you can steep them during this step and remove when you combine the milk with the gelatin.)
Add the maple syrup
And vanilla and cardamom.  Remove from heat after stirring to combine.
Add a little (1/4-1/2) c. of the warm milk mixture to the gelatin and water, which will be grainy, and whisk to combine.  Then pour this mixture back into the pan with the rest of the milk.
Grease four or five ramekins.
Fill with the milk mixture and refrigerate until they set up.  This took around 2 hours for us.
To make the pineapple, cut and core a fresh pineapple (canned just won't work for this because it's too soft and won't stand up to the heat) toss with 2-3 tbsp. brown sugar (I used raw sugar) and a sprinkle of powdered ginger.  Brown in a greased cast-iron skillet until each piece is seared and caramelized.  Serve the panna cotta cold and the pineapple hot.
We had egg rolls, crab rangoons, egg drop soup, and a spicy stir fry for dinner.
We washed it all down with 7 Deadly Zins, which held up well to the heat.
After the spicy/savory dinner, the creamy panna cotta was perfect.  It was not too sweet at all, so the juicy sweet pineapple was the perfect foil.  The fragrant cardamom and ginger kept with the theme of the dinner (and played very nicely with the coconut milk) and made the dish feel exotic and special.  I was so happy with how it came out, especially given how little time and effort it required.
The panna cotta was thick and rich, but not heavy.  The texture was perfect with the fresh fruit.

There was one piece left the next day, and it was just as delicious.
Thanks for coming back after all that time gone, and I promise that I have a bunch of good stuff coming up for you in the near future.  Until then, tell me, do you meal plan?  Are you successful?  Where do you get ideas?  
Please consider panna cotta for your next fancy dinner or just a special weeknight. It's really easy, impressive, and delicious.  

Thursday, February 9, 2012

How to Chop Carrots and Onions,Pot Stickers and Simple Lives Thursday

First, I'd like to thank you all for your unbelievable responses to Eleanor's birth story.  It felt like a major risk to put it out there and I have been totally overwhelmed at your response. I got emails, text messages, and comments telling me how much you enjoyed reading it.
THANK YOU.  There is nothing better than hearing that you've enjoyed reading something I've written. As a blogger it can feel a bit like a one-way conversation, shouting into an empty room.  Even though I can see by your clicks that you exist, it's very nice to have some confirmation.  So, thanks again, and always feel free to leave a comment, ok?  It makes me feel good.

This recipe is the perfect way to show you how I cut vegetables in the hopes that it might be helpful to you.  Of course fast and accurate prep work comes with practice, but you want to be sure you're practicing the right thing.  Today I'm going to show you how to cut carrots and onions.

Makes tons (this recipe uses pretty much the entire package of won ton wrappers)

1 pkg wonton wrappers (be sure not to get egg roll wrappers because they're too big. You'll probably find these in the produce aisle.)
1 lb. ground beef
1 onion
3 green onions
1-2 c. crimini mushrooms
1-2 c. carrots
4 cloves garlic
1 in. knob of ginger
1 c. vegetable or chicken stock
1/4 c. rice wine vinegar
1/3+1/4 c. soy sauce, separated
1 tsp. sesame oil

 how to chop a carrot:
 When you start chopping anything, your first goal is to make yourself a flat side.  Cutting round things is dangerous, so we're always looking to make ourselves a nice flat base to work on.  I hold the carrot on both sides, rest the tip of my knife on the board, and slice down the middle.
 Take the flat side down and use your knuckles, with your fingertips curled under, to guide your knife while you make matchsticks.
 This is how it looks from the side.  You can see that the knuckle of my middle finger is touching the side of the blade.  This is how you see chefs on tv chop vegetables without looking and still keep their fingers.
 After cutting lengthwise, rotate the carrot.  Stick your thumb on the back of the carrot and use it to feed the carrot through your knife while you again, with the tip rested on the board, chop.  Your chopping motion should be BOTH up and down and toward and away from yourself.  Use the thumb and move the FOOD not your knife.  The knife should stay in the same position the whole time.  Think of it like those guillotine cutters your teachers used.
 how to chop an onion
 with the root side of the onion in your non-dominant hand, slice off the bloom side just enough to remove the paper and give yourself that flat piece we talked about.  You're basically taking off the first inch or so, removing as little flesh as possible but getting to the white juicy onion part.
 Use this as your base.  Now that we have our flat spot, rest the top of the knife on the board (again, we're looking for stability.) and slicing down the middle of the root side of the onion.
 Keeping the root intact, peel the papery layers off and get down to the white part of the onion. Lay it flat on the big side you just made and slice through the middle to the root, knife facing parallel to your board.  Use a flat palm or curl your fingers up like I have and do this part slowly, since it's easy to slip here.
 Turn the onion so your knife tip is close to the root end and slice through the onion top to bottom in 1/4 in. slices, again using your knuckles to guide, pushing the tip in first and then slicing down.
 Rotate the onion again.  Curl your finger tips under and use your thumb to guide the root end of the onion through your knife as you chop up/down/back/forth.
 EASY!  Really it gets very easy the more often you do it.  So practice by cooking every day, ok?

On to the recipe.  Take those vegetables you so laboriously just chopped (once you've practiced enough, chopping takes little time) and cook them in a little oil over medium high heat.
 Once they start to soften, add your beef and brown.  Be sure to add a little salt and pepper with each addition.
 Once your beef is about halfway cooked through...
 Add your sliced mushrooms.
 Brown them.  Add your chopped ginger and garlic.  Season with 1/3 c. soy sauce and 1/4 c. rice wine vinegar. Taste and adjust for seasoning and then remove from heat.
You want your filling to be finely chopped so that you get a little of each ingredient in every bite, so I use a bench scraper.  
Add thinly sliced green onions at the very last moment so they're just barely warm.
 Pull the wrappers out of the plastic and cover with a damp paper towel so they don't dry out.  Fill each wrapper with 1 tsp (ONLY!) filling, brush each edge with egg wash, and fold in half.
 Take your triangles and brush the edges with more egg wash.  Then, crimp together pushing one side under the other.
 In the bottom of your skillet, add oil and brown the bottoms of the pot stickers.  Then, add 1/4 c. stock.  It should be hot enough that this starts to boil.
 Immediately cover the pot with a lid if you're fancy, or a sheet pan if you're not.  Slightly turn the pan so a little steam escapes.
The steam will cook the dumplings through.  Once it has almost evaporated, remove from heat and scrape out your dumplings.  
 Serve with the remaining soy, a drizzle of sesame oil, and thinly sliced green onions.
Ellie has been all about her toes this week.
What have YOU been all about this week?  Me, I've really been enjoying the SLT posts!

Featured Posts from Last Week's Submissions

SLT Featured Post Badge 
 We really enjoy reading your posts each week! Featured post bloggers, please grab the badge above and display it on your site! Link it to one of the host blogs' posts for the specific week that you were featured. Here are our picks from last week's submissions. Thanks to all who participated -- it is always hard to choose!
1. How to Craft the Perfect In-Season Salad by Riddle Love. "A good salad doesn't have to take years to assemble. We just need to know what makes a salad pleasing to the palate and eyes. In my opinion, there are four components (five for a meal salad) to accomplish this: sweet, salty, crunchy, and soft. For a meal salad, at "meaty" to that list. Use this rule of thumb and pair it with what you have to work with for the season and you've got yourself one beautiful, tasty, nutrient-dense treat."

2. Cultured Citrus Marmalade by Natural Health and Prevention. "These are xo good and a perfect topper for chicken or fish after you have cooked these meats, put into smoothies, or diced into cooked rice. They are also good eaten right out of the jar. We have had such a bounty of citrus -- this is the perfect way to preserve them and keep (and even add to) their high nutrient value."
3. I can't knit. I can't crochet. by Sweet Country Life. "I can recycle a sweater. Cut it into the shape of a hat. And sew it together like nobody's business! And then put it on the head of this cutie-pie and call it a day. And you can too."

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