Category Archives: Cooking

Shopping for new cookware? Consider stainless steel.

Tony and I have been married for four years (seriously? Only four?) In that time, we have bought three sets of nonstick cookware. Is it normal for cookware to last under two years? I don’t know. But as any cook will tell you, cheap cookware isn’t worth the cost of its excessive packaging, so replacing the good stuff every year and a half isn’t cheap.

Now before you send me all kinds of tips for how to extend the life of nonstick cookware, let me stop you right there. I cared for this stuff meticulously. Maybe not the first set so much, but the second two? Hand washed with mild detergent, metal utensils never touched it, nonstick safe sponges only, and I carefully stored each piece with a dishcloth in the bottom to keep them from scratching each other. Still, about a year and a half later, each pan started to chip, and I had to throw them away.

I’m not usually super paranoid about chemicals, but using chipped nonstick cookware is one area where I won’t negotiate. I don’t want to eat that stuff, and I certainly don’t want my baby eating it.

About a year ago, after our second set of cookware bit the dust, Tony and I started talking about how we could avoid replacing our cookware in another year. I looked up all kinds of tips for extending its life, and it turned out we were following all of them. We weren’t buying cheap cookware, so that wasn’t the problem. We came to a conclusion: we just don’t like nonstick cookware. It seems like no matter what we do, it doesn’t last long.

We decided it was time to invest in a set of stainless steel cookware. I was nervous. I envisioned stuck on messes that would take hours to scrub away and dinners scraped from the bottom of the pan, burned to bits.

My husband assured me that, as the primary cook in our house, he wasn’t intimidated by stainless steel. In fact, most of the chefs he admires recommend it over nonstick for most uses. Despite my nervousness, we ordered a set.

It’s been almost a year now, and we love our stainless cookware. Not only is it free of the crazy chemicals found in nonstick pans, but it’s surprisingly easier to clean — which I didn’t expect. I find myself scrubbing harder and longer on the nonstick pan we use occasionally, because I can only use those wimpy, nonstick safe sponges. If I’m scrubbing a stainless pan, I can use a steel scouring pad, and any gunk comes off much faster.

It’s also crazy durable. I love that we don’t have to worry about what kind of utensils we use with it, how we store it, how we clean it. A good set of stainless cookware can handle pretty much anything you throw at it.

If you’re going to take the leap, just make sure that you consider it an investment. It’s not necessary to get the top of the line, but you’ll get more mileage out of a good trustworthy brand like KitchenAid* or Calphalon* than you will from an off-brand. We went with the KitchenAid, because it’s very reasonably priced, and we’ve been happy with it.

As far as cooking goes, as long as you’re diligent about watching your stove as you cook (you should be anyway), refrain from turning up the heat too high, and use a nice oil when cooking things that stick (we like extra virgin olive oil), you’ll be fine. If you do burn something to the bottom of the pan? Just whip out your handy scouring pad, and with a little elbow grease, your pan will be good as new.

There are only a few things we cook that we don’t use the stainless. We have a nice nonstick pan that we use exclusively for scrambling or frying eggs. (My husband swears by keeping a special egg pan. He says it’s one of his secrets for perfect eggs, and I can’t argue with him, because the man can make a mean omelet.)

The other essential pan for your kitchen: a good cast iron skillet. We bought ours almost five years ago (for under $20, I believe), and it’s gotten better and better each year we use it. I’m told I’ll probably be able to pass that thing down to my grandchildren.

If you’re sick of replacing your nonstick cookware or wary of cooking with chemicals, give stainless a chance. I don’t think you’ll regret it.

*Affiliate link. If you choose to purchase an item using this link, I receive a small commission for recommending it to you.

Better than Panera broccoli cheddar soup

I’m back on the fitness train, so it will be a long time before I can enjoy this particular recipe again. But that’s no reason I can’t share it with you!

I am an absolute fanatic for broccoli cheddar soup, and this experiment started when we attempted to recreate Panera’s version. This is a blend of a lot of different versions that we’ve found through various sources. The following directions, tips, and tricks are written by Tony since he’d got a lot to say on the subject.

Broccoli Cheddar soup

I’ve tried to make this many different ways, and through all of the incarnations, I’ve learned a thing or two about this recipe. First, you really have to use a light-colored stock; darker stocks alter the flavor too profoundly and make it difficult to attain that cheddar-y color. Second, shredding the carrots instead of dicing or doing a juilenne helps with time and consistency. Third, the stock and dairy should be in equal proportion. Fourth, cut the broccoli (a food processor just demolishes it and turns the soup a greenish hue) and cook it in pieces separately, then fold in; the soup never gets hot enough to cook the broccoli fully. Fifth, anything less fattening than whole milk isn’t worth it.

  • 1/2 medium onion, diced
  • 4 tablespoons melted butter
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 2 cups half-and-half (or whole milk)
  • 2 cups light stock (chicken or vegetable)
  • 1/2 pound (or more) fresh broccoli florets
  • 1 cup carrots, peeled and shredded
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  • 8 to 16 ounces grated sharp cheddar cheese

Cut the broccoli into small pieces, no more than 1/2 inch in diameter. Bring a small pot of water to a boil, add salt, and cook the broccoli until it is bright green and soft, approximately 5 minutes.

Dice the onion and saute in the melted butter until translucent. Add the carrots and cook until the carrots have softened.

Whisk in the flour and cook for 3 to 5 minutes over low heat, just until all the flour has been absorbed by the butter and the mixture has thickened. Pour in the stock and dairy, and simmer until the liquid is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.

Once the soup is thickened, stir in the cheese one small handful at a time. Drain the broccoli and stir it into the soup. Serve with crusty bread.

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Super simple slow cooker hot beef sandwiches

This recipe comes from my parents. I’m not sure if it was originally devised by my mom or dad or if they picked it up from someplace else, but I know they’ve been making it on Sundays for years. With just five main ingredients, it couldn’t be simpler, and it’s really delicious. Perfect football food (not that I watch football).

  • Large, inexpensive cut of beef (a chuck roast or bottom round roast works well)
  • 16 ounce jar of pepperoncinis in vinegar
  • 1 can beef broth
  • 1 onion
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Roughly chop the onion and smash the garlic. Then just throw everything into the slow cooker and simmer on low for 6-8 hours. When you’re ready to serve, shred the beef with two forks, put it back in the pot with the onions and peppers, and dig in. I like to serve on toasted Kaiser rolls with a slice of melted Provolone cheese.

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Simplify your menu

Menu planning is one of those things I take for granted now. For as long as Tony and I have been together, I have always sat down and written out meals for each day of the week, and then shopped based on that meal plan. It wasn’t always this way for me. In college, when I lived with a roommate and planned most of my meals for myself, I didn’t really plan at all. I went to the grocery store, picked up whatever looked good, spent way too much money for one person, and felt like I had nothing to eat two days later. I don’t even remember what that’s like now, but it sounds like chaos!

Even if you’re single, menu planning is crucial if you want to eat healthy and frugally. Poor planning is one of the main reasons people end up spending money on unhealthy food at a drive-thru in the middle of the week. Either that, or you end up like me in college with a cart full of expensive food and “nothing to eat.”

There is most certainly room in the menu plan for eating out if you like, but the point is to plan for it. Know when you’re eating at home, what you’re eating, and when you want to go out for dinner.

Here’s my simple menu planning system. Feel free to share your ideas in the comments!

Start with the sale ad for your local grocery stores.

If you get a Sunday paper, chances are the ads are included. If not, check the grocery store’s website. Our local stores are Kroger and Meijer, and both stores offer easy online access to their weekly sales ads. I pull them up and look for deals that pop out at me and inspire menu ideas. Meats, cheeses, and produce items can all inspire menu ideas. If beef is on sale, I’ll make spaghetti with meat sauce. If chicken is on sale, I plan for chicken dishes and stock up my freezer. If cheese is on sale, it’s homemade mac and cheese or broccoli cheddar soup. Not only does buying what’s on sale save money, but it can make coming up with meal ideas easier if you’re inspired by the sale items.

Plan around your weekly schedule.

I always keep my weekly schedule handy when I’m planning meals for the week. If it’s going to be a busy day, I plan an easy meal. For laid back days, I may plan to try something new and a little more complex. This also prevents me from planning a meal for a night that we have dinner plans. If your menu works with your schedule, you’re more likely to stick to it instead of abandoning the plan for pizza.

Keep a list of tried and true favorites.

Even though there are some dishes we’ve been cooking forever, I always seem to get a form of writer’s block when it’s time to plan the menu. To combat this, I keep a list of our favorite dishes saved on my computer with links to the recipes. Some simple meals get repeated a lot (homemade pizza, burritos, roasted chicken, and grilled cheese sandwiches, for example). Some are reserved only for special occasions (like my mom’s delicious but labor-intensive lasagna). Keeping the list handy makes it easy for me to write a quick and dirty menu if need be.

The Internet is your best friend.

I am not exaggerating when I say that every time I plan a menu, I marvel at how people did this before the Internet. I guess that’s what all those cookbooks collecting dust on my bookshelf were for? Sites like AllRecipes, Food Network, and Pinterest make it incredibly easy for me to search for meal ideas and try new things.

I must confess that Pinterest (follow me here) has replaced all other recipe sites for me in the past few months, though. I have separate boards for Main Dishes, Crock Pot Meals, Side Dishes, Snacks, and Desserts. Every time I see something that looks good, I pin it on the appropriate board. I also pin recipes I see around the web on my own boards. When I’m looking for ideas, I just have to scroll through the Main Dishes board.

A word of advice: I see lots of people splitting their food boards into incredibly specific categories — soups, sandwiches, entrees, etc. I don’t recommend doing it that way. One board with all of your dinner ideas makes it easier to scroll through without clicking around to several different boards and looking for what you need.

Share the menu with the whole family.

Since my husband and I are currently the only family members who get a vote, I always email the menu to my husband right after I finish planning it. I also write it on a dry erase board that hangs in our kitchen for easy reference. This may seem redundant, but you would be amazed how often we completely forget the menu we just planned within minutes of returning from the grocery store. Displaying the menu lets everyone know what you’re eating and when, and serves as a reminder when you need to thaw the meat or begin preparing dinner earlier for more complex meals.

When all else fails, eat leftovers.

If money is tight or you’re struggling to come up with a meal, leftovers night is a great way to clean out the fridge without emptying your wallet (heh, see what I did there?). Let’s be real, though: leftovers night is also a great excuse to order a pizza.

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Easy weeknight roasted chicken and potatoes

Most people think of roasted chicken as a fancy Sunday dinner. The truth is, it’s so simple that you can easily make it on a busy weeknight. The price averages 89 cents a pound at my grocery store, which makes it a pretty frugal meal, too, since we always have leftover dark meat to use in other meals like quesadilas or chicken enchilada soup.

It’s not a quick meal compared to other “quick-fix” recipes — it usually takes about an hour to roast a 5-pound chicken at 400 degrees. But it’s very hands-off. Prep the chicken, and the oven does the work for you.

Here’s Tony’s no-fuss method for roasting chicken with a bonus side dish recipe for roasted rosemary potatoes.

Easy roasted chicken

  • 5-8 pound whole chicken
  • Kosher salt
  • Fresh ground black pepper
  • Dried rosemary
  • Dried thyme
  • Extra virgin olive oil

Rinse and thoroughly dry the chicken. Place chicken with breast-side up in a roasting pan or cast-iron skillet (we prefer the cast-iron skillet, because it makes cleanup easier). Coat chicken with olive oil. Cover with salt, pepper, rosemary, and thyme. Roast at 400 degrees for about an hour or until internal temperature of thigh meat is 165 degrees and juices run clear.

If you’ve never carved a whole bird before, this video will provide you with far better instructions than I could give you.

Roasted rosemary potatoes

  • 1 pound potatoes
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Kosher salt
  • Black pepper
  • Dried thyme
  • Dried rosemary

For this recipe, I prefer to use thin-skinned potatoes like yellow or red potatoes, because they don’t require peeling. This makes things much easier and quicker.

Wash potatoes, and chop into large bite-sized pieces for faster cooking. Spread potatoes in one layer on a baking sheet. Coat with olive oil, salt, pepper, rosemary, and thyme. Roast in 400-degree oven for 25 minutes, turning potatoes halfway through cooking.

If you’ve never roasted a whole chicken, you MUST try it. It is so simple and delicious. It’s one of our favorite go-to meals, and there’s always enough meat left over for at least one more meal later in the week. Plus you can reserve the carcass for homemade chicken stock.

Homegrown dried herbs

My first garden was sort of hit or miss. The herbs grew beautifully, and I harvested quite a few cucumbers before the plant succumbed to wilt. The red peppers were too shaded by the gigantic tomato plant to ever do much of anything. And that tomato plant? Pfft. It grew probably about 20 GIANT tomatoes that never turned red. I think it was a combination of planting too late and putting too much into one tiny bed.

I was feeling guilty about my beautiful herbs, though, because I didn’t think I’d used enough. As the first frost neared, I wanted to try to salvage some of them for drying so I could get a little more use out of them. I was really intimidated by the idea of drying herbs myself. My favorite Food Network chef, Alton Brown, did an entire show on the practice of drying herbs, but his method was so complicated and required buying lots of equipment. I didn’t have time for that. So I decided to do it the old-fashioned way and hope for the best.

I clipped as many stems as I could from each plant. Then I bundled them up and tied them with something I had laying around — embroidery floss. It took some thinking to find a way to hang them, but I eventually tied the bundles to a couple of ordinary hangers. I hung them in a dry, dark place in my house, and I left them alone.

About two weeks later, I cut them off the strings, removed the stems, crushed them into tiny flakes, and put them into clean, dry baby food jars that I reserved specifically for this purpose. I used office labels to mark each jar. Unfortunately, my gorgeous basil plant didn’t survive long enough for me to clip any for drying, but I have rosemary, oregano, peppermint, sage, and a little bit of parsley.

It was so simple! My only regret is that I didn’t clip more stems. I thought I’d end up with too many, but once they’re dried, removed from the stems, and crushed, they take up much less space than when they’re fresh. There’s not really enough parsley to do anything but garnish a few dishes, but I have a ton of rosemary and oregano and a little sage for our holiday cooking this year.

I will most definitely be doing this again next year with my late herb harvest. These dried herbs are much cheaper and fresher than the freeze-dried jars at the grocery store, and looking at these tiny jars of fresh dried herbs makes me feel so proud of my tiny little garden.

Thanksgiving menu with recipes

One of the perks of having families on separate sides of the state is that we don’t have to try to cram two dinners into one day on Thanksgiving. Last year, we hosted Tony’s family for a meal the week before Thanksgiving, and we celebrated with my family on Thanksgiving day. This year, it’s reversed. Either way, we’re having Thanksgiving two weeks in a row! It works out, because Thanksgiving is pretty much my favorite holiday.

Tony makes a pretty incredible Thanksgiving dinner, and we’ve gathered these recipes from various sources since we met and started celebrating Thanksgiving together. We’ve always cooked our own meal on another day, even on the days when we celebrated Thanksgiving day with our families. The turkey, gravy, and pie are new recipes that we’ve never tried. I’ll let you know how they turn out, but I’m sure it will be marvelous.

What are your favorite Thanksgiving recipes?

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Lasagna with old-fashioned marinara sauce

This is one of the only recipes that I prefer to cook instead of Tony. The recipe came from my mom. It was my favorite meal when I was a kid, and it’s one of the first things I ever learned to cook, so I have a lot of fun making it myself.

It’s not difficult, but it’s time consuming and a lot of work, so I usually only make it for special occasions or dinner guests. It’s worth the work, though! It’s still one of my favorite meals.

The marinara sauce is delicious on its own, and you can use it for ordinary spaghetti or other pasta dishes. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do!

Lasagna with old-fashioned marinara sauce

Classic Marinara Sauce

  • 1 lb. ground beef
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 3 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 (14.5-oz) can of diced tomatoes
  • 1 (14.5-oz) can of tomato sauce
  • 1 (5- to 6-oz) can of tomato paste
  • 2 Tbsp. of parsley
  • ¼ tsp. of sugar
  • ¼ tsp. of kosher salt
  • 1 tsp. of dried basil
  • ½ cup of red wine

Cheese Filling

  • 3 cups of ricotta cheese
  • ½ cup of Parmesan cheese
  • 1 Tbsp. of parsley
  • 1 tsp. of oregano
  • 1lb. lasagna noodles
  • 8 oz. shredded mozzarella cheese
  • 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese for sprinkling

Cook ground beef in a large skillet with a pinch of salt and pepper until browned. Drain all but a tablespoon of the fat. Add onion and garlic and saute in skillet with ground beef until soft. Add diced tomatoes, tomato sauce, tomato paste, parsley, salt, and basil. Stir until tomato paste is blended into sauce. Bring to a slight boil. Add red wine. Reduce heat, and simmer for 30 minutes.

In a large bowl, combine ricotta cheese, Parmesan cheese, parsley, and oregano. Boil lasagna noodles for 10-15 minutes according to instructions on packaging.

Build lasagna in a deep casserole dish beginning with a small layer of sauce to avoid sticking. Lay down noodles with no gaps followed by cheese filling, sauce, mozzarella cheese, and Parmesan cheese. Repeat twice for a total of three layers. Top with a layer of sauce, mozzarella cheese, and Parmesan cheese.

Bake at 350 degrees for 30-45 minutes until cheese is bubbly and beginning to brown. Allow to cool for 15 minutes before serving.

Chicken and broccoli stir fry

Every once in a while, I get a craving for Chinese food. What I do not crave, however, is the MSG and other generally yucky stuff in Chinese takeout. I’d also prefer not to spend a third of our weekly grocery budget on one meal.

We found this recipe one night when I was craving Chinese, and it’s since been added to our regular meal rotation. We modified it to cut out some of the pricier ingredients. It seems like a long list, but most of these ingredients are things we keep around the house anyway. Since it requires such a small amount of Hoisin, a single bottle (purchased from the international food aisle in the grocery store for around $3) can be used for several different meals.

This homemade version is healthier than Chinese takeout, and even more delicious. Enjoy!

Chicken and broccoli stir fry

  • 2 chicken breasts
  • 1 bunch of broccoli
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1-inch of ginger, peeled and minced
  • 1 Tbsp. corn starch
  • 2 Tsp. hoisin sauce
  • 2 Tbsp. low-sodium soy sauce, plus more for marinating
  • ½ cup vegetable stock (or water)
  • ½ tsp. crushed red pepper flake (adjust for taste)
  • 2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
  • Salt & freshly cracked black pepper
  • 1 ½ tsp. brown sugar (optional)
  • Sesame seeds (optional)

Cut the chicken into cubes and marinate in a small portion of soy sauce (approximately 2 Tbsp). Set aside. Chop the broccoli into bite-sized florets, then peel the stems, cutting the stems into half-moons. Stir together the corn starch, vegetable stock, soy sauce, hoisin, red pepper flake, and brown sugar.

Heat 1 Tbsp. of vegetable oil in the bottom of a wide skillet or wok. Put the chicken into the skillet, sprinkle with black pepper, and cook until entirely done. Remove from the skillet and set aside.

Add the other 1 Tbsp. of vegetable oil if necessary and sauté the broccoli, stirring constantly. When the broccoli begins to turn bright green, add the garlic and ginger. Continue stirring until the broccoli is slightly softened, bon’t overcook the broccoli or allow the garlic to burn. Remove from the skillet and set aside.

Add the sauce to the skillet and allow it to come to a simmer. Once the sauce is thickened, stir in the broccoli and chicken and cover in the sauce. Sprinkle with sesame seeds and serve over rice.

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