Friday, May 23, 2014

Planning is Key to Successful Beach Vacation

This is what beach vacation is about!!!
Unfortunately this year, finances will not allow my family to enjoy our yearly beach vacation in the Outer Banks, but that shouldn't keep you from benefiting from my experience in planning for the beach as you get ready to enjoy the surf and sand. If you search "beach"  on  this site there are several posts that will help you find a beach house, plan meals and pack for a week-long trip. Here are my tips for finding and selecting a home that will be a haven for your family for summer vacation:

1) Know your family -  Are you headed to the beach with a crew of young children? Do you have teens and young adults?  Are you a multi - generational group? Does your family expect all the bells and whistles, or are they happy just to be able to walk to the beach?This will guide you as you select a home to stay in, for example, choosing a home with five bedrooms may sound great on the surface, but if two of those have bunk beds and your kids are grown and coming with their own families, it won't work. Do you have teens who need their own space?  Look for a house with an extra den or game room.
Crab night!!!
2) Know your area -  I have always used a realtor to rent a vacation home.  They usually know the area and the owners and know who has flexibility. But be forewarned -  realtor sites can be deceiving. Your semi-oceanfront home may mean  you have to cross a busy thoroughfare that is fine if your party is adults and teens but not so great with a crew of toddlers. By the same token, your oceanside house may have the same views and even better access than some semi-oceanfront homes (i.e. if your SOF is in the middle of a block and the access is at the end of the block). Google earth and aerial photos can help you determine what location makes the most sense for your family.
3) Shop smart -  Arrival day is crazy and beach grocery stores are their own special kind of crazy, so
I usually make sure to carry enough food to get us through the first night so we can do the bulk of our shopping after we are settled and when the crowds have died down. For us- we carry many of our proteins with us because we buy at Costco to feed a crowd, we buy a lot of produce and small stands that are local, and that  leaves not much that has to be bought up front. We usually have a planned meal that can cook while we unpack that first day- frozen lasagna, a pre-baked ham, or barbecue made at home and brought in the cooler.
Buffet is easy for everyone!
4) Spread the load - When we head to the beach, I plan meals and then families coming can contribute by buying drinks, bread, deli meat, fresh produce, snacks or can provide a meal by buying pizza, or steamed shrimp or steamed crabs.  Breakfast and dinner are common meals but everyone is on their own for lunch- that means that I am not cooking all the time.  Also all guests take turns doing dishes, if you cook, you don't clean.While I love cooking and impressing guests I try to keep beach meals simple, grilled chicken, burgers, or barbecue.  Our most popular meals have been steamed crabs and taco salad!!! Focus on simple foods and lots of local produce. If  you have other cooks in your family, let them take a turn being responsible for a meal- a vacation means that even the cook needs a break
5) Buffet- We never serve food at the beach- everything is put out on the ample counters and everyone serves themselves.  That makes mealtime simple and casual.

Beach vacation has to include a vacation for the cook as well, and these are just some of the tips that will make your vacation go smoothly and make memories that are about fun and family, not stress and drudgery!

Sunday, May 18, 2014

"Kitchen Sink" Rice a hit!

I am not sure about you but since the number of people I feed daily has been reduced,  I often have parts of bags of frozen vegetables in my freezer with not enough to feed my crew but too much to simply pitch.  The other day I had the inspiration to use those bits and pieces as part of a quick side dish using, of all things, frozen brown rice.  Normally I turn  my nose up at ready made foods (frozen mashed potatoes are a mystery to me!), but these bags hold just enough for a side for my family and allow me to assuage those who like white and those who prefer brown rice at the same meal.

This particular day,  I had two ears of fresh corn, part of a bag of edamame and part of a bag of frozen spinach.  I began by melting some coconut oil and cutting the corn kernals off the cob.  I sauteed the corn, some chopped onion, the spinach and edamame while I "cooked"  the rice in the microwave.  Once the rice was ready I dumped it into the veggies and added a teaspoon of  Better than Boullion Chicken (a staple in my house) and cooked until the liquid evaporated.

I served this as a side to steamed shrimp, and it was a HIT!!!  You could make this a main dish by adding some leftover meat or some egg.

Even though this is not a grandiose recipe, I hope it inspires you not to be afraid to use what you have in unexpected ways - when it works out, you will look like a genius!

Friday, May 16, 2014

Steve Schirripa and His "Killer" Sauce

I was not a big fan of The Sopranos (although my husband never missed an episode), but I became familiar with Steve Schirripa through his role as the understanding but firm dad of Ben on "Secret Life of an American Teenager", so when I heard from a rep that he had a new line of pasta sauces,  I was eager to try them. After all what could be more authentic Italian than an Italian on The Sopranos?  I was really excited when my samples came, with each jar wrapped carefully in bubble wrap,three different recipes- Tomato Basil, Marinara, and Arrabiata.
This is likely how you remember Steve!

I didn't have to wait long to give this sauce a try.  When your 3-year old grandson is over for dinner and says his favorite is spaghetti, that is all it takes even for this Irish-American grandma!  I have to start by saying that while I do not normally make spaghetti sauce from scratch (fresh tomatoes,simmering all day, etc.), I usually do start with some San Marzano tomatoes, onions, not a jar of prepared sauce, and my experience with prepared sauces is that they usually are too acidic or too sweet, and overly salty. We decided to have a meat sauce with spicy Italian sausage,so we chose to use the Tomato-Basil flavor for this sauce.  Since I did plan to add my own meat and onions, I wanted to taste the sauce in its unadulterated form first. I was pleasantly surprised- the sauce had the flavor of fresh tomatoes with a great balance of sweet-salty, and without the overly acid tang that sometimes underscores prepared sauces. I sauteed onions and browned a sausage and ground beef mixture, and then added the Uncle Steve's sauce, and let the sauce bubble for a little while (Is there any better sound and smell?)

So how did it turn out?  While my daughters who were home knew the pedigree of the sauce, my grandson's mom, who is 6 months pregnant, came in from work, smelled the sauce and asked if we had extra.  Two plates later,she said,"Mom I really love your sauce the best!!"  Even her three-year-old cleaned his plate!

I apologize for paper plates,but that allowed the spaghetti and Uncle Steve to be the star!!
Do I want to discourage people from making their own sauce? Of course not!  That is part of the culinary tradition for many moms out there. But on a weeknight when time is tight, Uncle Steve's sauces are a high-quality option that fool even discriminating palates. I look forward to trying the other flavors- Uncle Steve is sure to be invited to my table more often , and you should invite him to yours as well!!!

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Homemade Chicken Pho in the Crockpot!!

This bowl of pho is a work of art you can eat!
In the deep freeze we have had lately that makes us look at 32 degrees as a heat wave, something warm is always desirable on the menu, but you can get tired of the same soups and stews. When my daughter suggested that we go out for pho before payday,I wondered if we could make our own pho and avoid the cost and going out in the frigid weather.  It turns out you can make a respectable pho at home!!!

I think of pho kind of like ramen -  the broth is key and it takes an expert touch and tons of time, but it turns out that there wee several recipes for pho that you can make at home.  When I saw one on the Eating Well site that used a crockpot, I figured it was worth a try. I didn't follow the recipe exactly- I used half chicken broth and half miso broth from paste, I had star anise, which I increased, a chunk of fresh ginger and a cinnamon stick and cloves as called for. I also added a dried Tsien Tsien pepper I had from a trip to Penzey's Spices, thinking that would add a little heat.  I used boneless skinless thighs from Costco since that was what I had. I set on high for four hours and when I got home, my house smelled amazing!! I pulled the chicken pieces out and shredded them and then got all the add-ins ready.  We got baby bok choy, cilantro, sliced baby bella mushrooms, firm tofu that we browned lightly on all sides, and fresh bean sprouts.  Everyone put what they wanted in their bowls and then added the fragrant broth and ....success!!!  I felt
like Brittany Murphy in The Ramen Girl- the broth was complex with spicyness, and a touch of sweetness and heat.  The perfect thing to break the winter doldrums.

I can't wait to try a beef version, I think it would be amazing as well.  If you are looking for something different, a bit exotic and still healthy, give pho a try at home- it was pho-king amazing!!!!

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Preparing for the Polar Vortex 2 - A Rerun

Since people are in a frenzy preparing for the next winterblast hear on the East Coast, I am bringing back this post on grocery shopping for a storm-  Love to hear your observations as you wait in grocery lines- your cart or those around you!!!  Be safe!!!

Friday, January 10, 2014

Fish on Friday.... and other Food-Related Traditions

I was out with my husband for a quick romantic lunch (Filet O Fish at McDonald's) and the idea of fish or
This is us on a real date, not McDonald's!
seafood on Friday came up with the manager while we were waiting on our food.  While I know that fish on Friday used to be very prevalent in the Catholic community, it turns out that according to the manager at this McDonald's they do sell significantly more fish on Friday!

We started this as a family tradition and while we usually stick to it, we have been known to use a substitute meatless day. There are many advantages.  Healthwise it is good to increase consumption of fish, and cooking wise, it is a good idea to learn other ways to incorporate proteins without meat.  It requires a little creativity, but that is good in the kitchen, right?

Do any of you have a specific meatless day or any other special food traditions that you follow in your household?  Share... I am interested, and I know others will be too!