Thursday, October 29, 2009

I over did it (again)

1) When will I learn NOT to volunteer to be the special party snack person?

2) When will I learn not to do the baking the same day the cleaning people WERE here?

3) When will I learn that ONE kind of cookie would have been just fine?

4) When will I learn that I could secretly do the decorating at night, after the kids have gone down, and then SURPRISE them, instead of involve them?

That last part sounds so unlike me. I mean, isn’t that the point of doing projects like this…to see the joy in your children’s faces and feel their excitement? And it was fun, and it was messy, and I am running on fumes.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Toting lunch into the city

As I mentioned in a post a couple weeks ago, we’ve figured out ways of saving here and there. Both my husband and I feel thankful for what we have and feel like it is only natural to be prudent given the state of economic affairs. That paired with the fact that I tend to cook large quantities of food led him to pack up a lunch each day. Or rather, I place an extra serving into a Tupperware for him to tote into the big, bad city. It wasn’t something we set out to do, it just sort of happened and then he realized the quality was much better than the salad bar joints he was frequenting, and he noticed how much less cash he was blowing through weekly. Well, now the expectation is that lunch will be sitting in the fridge waiting. I am sure he would tell you that some days are better than others. I think he’ll be psyched for tomorrow’s lunch.

Pork Tenderloin with Urban Accents Athenian Herb Dry Glaze + Butternut Squash + Baby Zucchini…roasted everything in a 425 oven. Minimal prep, excellent meal. In lower Fairfield County, I’ve picked up Urban Accents’ Dry Glazes at Walter Stewart’s and Whole Foods/Westport. But I’ve linked them above so you can search them out near you too. They are excellent to keep in your pantry for a night when you’d like a nice meal, but aren’t feeling like spending a lot of time at the stove! This is one of those products I wished I’d thought of!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Not-So-Smart Choice

When I read about the new Smart Choices food labeling program a couple of weeks ago I had flashbacks of my short tenure in brand management at Kraft Foods. Aside from the fact that my “food marketing” job had very little to do with food, I found it difficult to market my brand in good conscience. Viewed as a plum position out of business school, I eagerly took an entry level marketing position in the Post Cereal division of Kraft Foods, where I had completed a fabulous internship the summer before. I was learning a ton, and surrounded by smart, engaged co-workers. But still, it nagged me that in focus groups mothers would say things like, “I feed my children Fruity Pebbles because I want to make sure they get fruit.” What? Did I just hear that correctly? Replay. Oh yes I did. And so, after two life changing events in six months: my brother’s death and our marriage, I took inventory of what was important in my life and left my coveted marketing job and took a leap of faith, starting a personal chef service in Fairfield County. My goal: to give busy families truly good food. My clientele, I’d like to think, would never confuse Fruity Pebbles with fruit. But then again, if you trust everything you read, there’s always that chance for confusion. So as the glue dried on the robot, and I relished a couple of quiet minutes to peruse today’s newspaper, I was relieved to read that this confusing labeling program is coming under serious scrutiny. The only bummer to come out of this? The Assistant Brand Managers at every major food and beverage company are going to be pulling late nights working on package redesign, again.

Making a Robot

We are very, very busy today...

in fact, after making those decadent chocolate-chip banana muffins this morning, this is what we've been doing this whole rainy Saturday.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Go-To Turkey Chili (easy and always gets rave reviews)

Despite the wild temperature fluctuations we’ve been having in the Northeast, I think of Fall as soup time. I love soups because I can usually toss things in a pot, then go on my merry way while they do their thing. Plus, there’s nothing more comforting that a bowl of warm soup. I recently made this chili in 15 minutes. It was one of those days when I never caught a break…but I’d promised a girlfriend I’d come over to catch up, and I’d bring dinner along. Plus there’s the whole issue of my husband wondering what it is I was doing all day (“oh, just eating bon bons honey”), so I thought I should quickly get dinner made for all involved...

The beauty of this chili “recipe” is that you literally sauté the meat, then dump in the other ingredients, let it simmer while you check email or give the kids a bath, and it’s done. Combine it with a side of cornbread (made using Trader Joe’s cornbread mix which doesn’t have anything funny in it), and it’s even better.

My Go-To Turkey Chili
(This chili freezes beautifully, and also makes a great meal to give to a friend in need, so I always make a big batch.)

Olive oil
2 lbs ground white meat turkey (also great with beef, or TVP crumbles)
2 onions, chopped
3 bell peppers, chopped
4 carrots, chopped
2 cans black beans, rinsed and drained
2 cans kidney beans, rinsed and drained
1 can hominy (optional…I had some on hand)
1 jar marinara sauce or tomato sauce
1 jar salsa (whatever level of spiciness you like)
1 large can chopped tomatoes, no need to drain them, just toss them in)
Cider vinegar
Chili powder
(brown sugar, if necessary)

Saute the turkey and onions in a little olive oil. Once they have cooked for a bit, toss in the bell peppers and carrots too. Once the meat is cooked through, I toss in the 4 cans of beans. Last night I also added hominy because I had it on hand.

Then I poured in the tomato sauce, salsa, chopped tomatoes. For seasoning, I add a splash of cider vinegar (which you can correct with brown sugar if you ever get it too tart), and cumin, chili powder, and cinnamon. Continue adding the seasonings to taste. Turn the heat to low, and let it simmer for as long as you need. You'll just want to give it a stir every once in a while, so nothing sticks to the bottom of the pot.

There’s that it. You’re done. You just mastered the easiest chili (that always gets rave reviews)!

Fall fun at Stone Barns

I totally missed the boat signing up for a fresh local turkey from Stone Barns this year. The idea was appealing, but the thought of driving out there on the couple days leading up to Thanksgiving conjured up visions of bumper to bumper traffic on the Merritt. By the time I’d decided it might be worth the trip they were sold out. But, that doesn’t mean we can head out there for some fall fun another weekend. In fact, next Sunday (November 1) they have some very cool activities planned for families:

Kid’s Cooking Class at either 11am or 2pm: Make a pear sauce, $10/child. (Kids will get to bring home a jar of their homemade sauce too! The description says it’s "similar to apple sauce but made with local pears and honey". Sounds delish.)

And I know my children would love to help the resident farmers build winter hoops at 1pm on Sunday. According to the description, these are the “raised tunnels that protect cold weather crops and keep vegetable going strong through the chilly fall and winter months”. Again, it’s just $10/child.

To register for the programs, you may call Stone Barns at (914) 366-6200 ext. 152. To find out more about what’s going on at Stone Barns, click here. And to read about past adventures we’ve had there, you can always click here. I am a big fan of the place.

Monday, October 19, 2009

(Super Simple) Halloween-Themed Snack

Stroke of pure snack time genius…thanks to my 2-year-old who has a thing for cookie cutters. He wanted a snack before preschool, so I gave him a slice of cheddar. Boring old square. He asked if he could cut it into a shape before eating it, so I opened the cookie cutter drawer to grab a star or something and he spotted the pumpkin cookie cutter I’d picked up to make sugar cookies for next week’s Halloween party at school. “It’s orange like a pumpkin!” he excitedly announced about his cheese. Why yes it is, and with one swift press of the cookie cutter, you too can have pumpkin-shaped cheese this week!

And since I know not every kid is a fan of sharp cheddar, I also picked up some provolone for Friday's class snack…which just happens to be white like a ghost. Perfect. Kid-pleasing and so easy.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Quick update on cooking lessons

I bit off more than I could chew, booking cooking lessons outside of New Canaan on days when I have preschool drop-off, pick-up, and a rather small window of “free time” to teach. I prefer to teach you to cook in your kitchen (where the space, equipment, and pantry items are realistic), but school days are proving too limited to teach for 2 hours and travel to and fro unless I am teaching right here in New Canaan. So, I have added a couple of weekend slots that will allow for travel to neighboring towns. Below is an updated list of Fall cooking lesson availability:

Saturday, October 24 9:00-11:00am or 10:00am-noon (in New Canaan or any neighboring town)
Monday, October 26 9:30-11:30am – booked/New Canaan
Sunday, November 1 11:00am-2:00pm – booked/Greenwich

Thursday, November 5 9:30-11:00am – booked/New Canaan
Saturday, November 7 9:00-11:00am or 10:00am-noon (in New Canaan or any neighboring town)
Sunday, November 8 10:00am-noon, 11:00am-1:00pm or noon-2:00pm (in New Canaan or any neighboring town)
Tuesday, November 10 9:30-11:30am (in New Canaan only)
Monday, November 16 9:30-11:30am – booked/New Canaan
Tuesday, November 17 9:30-11:30am
(in New Canaan only)
Saturday, November 21 9:00-11:00am, 10:00am-noon or 11:o0am-1:00pm (in New Canaan or any neighboring town)

For more information on Full Plate’s cooking lessons, please click here. If you want to go ahead and book a class, please email me and I will go over your goal(s) for the lesson, what's giving you trouble when it comes to cooking, and I'll suggest some ideas of what we can get you confident cooking during your lesson . I will look forward to cooking with you!

Dinner Party Idea - An Oktoberfest Feast

Is there anything better than being invited over to friend’s home for a dinner party? It’s such a relaxing way to spend a weekend evening. But, is it as much fun to be the host? So many friends tell me they are hesitant to throw a dinner party because “they can’t cook” or “it’s too much work”. And so, when I can find some blips of free time, I am going to suggest a couple of menus to make entertaining easy…and yes, fun to host.

When planning a dinner party there are two things to keep in mind. First, a dinner party need not be fancy. No need to pull out the china and crystal. What’s important is that you’re gathering with friends over good food whether it be filet or grandma's casserole recipe. And second, it will be much more fun for you, the host, if you do the cooking ahead of time. This way, you get to actually enjoy the company of friends.

One of my go-to dinner parties I love to do in the fall is around the Savory Pumpkin Cannelloni I make each year. One weekend I’ll set aside time to make this rich, comforting dish, and I’ll make enough for a couple of gatherings, popping the dishes in the freezer. Serve it with a green salad and dinner is done…and wow, do the guests swoon. I'll have to post that recipe while we're all still thinking pumkin.

On a recent drizzly weekend, I made an Oktoberfest-themed dinner for a group of friends. I will admit that I spent several hours cooking on Friday, not because the recipes were laborious, but because I was actually reading recipes this go round (instead of cooking based upon what I have on hand, or relying on my own sense of flavors and textures). I had memories of German food from my time in Europe as an AFS exchange student, but I’d never actually prepared these foods. When planning the menu, I knew I would make one of my go-to fall recipes: Balsamic Braised Cabbage as a side, but the rest of these recipes I got by simply doing a google search for Oktoberfest recipes. I’ve linked to all of the recipes I made, in case you want to cook up your own Oktoberfest-themed feast. I considered it another fabulous evening, since everyone could relax over good food, and all of the recipes could be made in advance (including grilling the sausages), and then warmed in a low temp oven, or taken out of the fridge at mealtime.

“Oktoberfest” Dinner Party Menu
Trader Joe’s Cheese Puffs
Brown Sugar Bacon
Bavarian Cheese Spread on thinly sliced dark rye bread*
Trader Joe’s Pumpernickel Pretzels
*I wasn't so sure of this cheese spread when I first made it (shown above, before being "mushed") but it was actually pretty good. It's definitely a strong taste because of the brie, blue cheese, onions and beer but everyone enjoyed it...

Balsamic Braised Red Cabbage with Apricots (pictured above, before cooking)
Turnip Potato Gratin (pictured above before getting a heavy dose of cream and cheese)
Grainy Mustard
**Bratwurst, Knackwurst, Weisswurst…Walter Stewart’s carries the full line of Schaller and Weber sausages.
Trader Joe’s Apple Strudels (in the frozen dessert section of the market)
Ginger, Cinnamon or Vanilla Ice Cream
And of course, a hearty selection of German beers to go along with the feast. (I found this wide selection at Stew Leonard’s Spirits in Norwalk.)

Another Full Plate

So, I was a little irked when I heard that NYC mom/chef/writer, Brooke Parkhurst, named her new blog “Full Plate”. It’s not like I own the name. I mean, I barely have time to write my blog entries, let alone deal with all of the legal mumbo jumbo, after getting three meals a day made for my family. Still, I got a little ruffled when it popped up on a Google search. It’s the same feeling I’d get when a friend would announce they named their baby the same name we’d chosen just months before. (Never mind that we’d chosen one of the most common boy’s names that year, particularly in Fairfield County.) Still, you know what I am talking about. I guess that since I’ve been spending so much of my free time writing these entries, I felt a little proprietary about the name. And then I realized that this is probably exactly the way Domenica Catelli must have felt, if she ever knew out my initial Mom-a-licious blog. Each of us chooses a name because it resonates with the way we feel and captures the information we’re sharing. So, may each of us keep on writing about and sharing our Full Plates. But this does beg the question: could two of us also be Mom-a-licious? Hmmm…

Thursday, October 8, 2009

A Peek in our Snack Drawer

A friend recently asked me what I thought about snacking. I’d never really thought about it too seriously…both of my kids are itty bitty, so I am thrilled when they want to eat. I am definitely an “everything in moderation” mom. Nothing is taboo. When it comes to snacking, I do try to offer up healthy (or healthier) choices. Here are some favorites around here (many put together = a meal as far as I am concerned):

Fridge: cheese sticks, cheese “flags” (slices), ants on a log (celery, cream cheese, raisins), hummus with crackers or in a half of a whole wheat pita, yogurt (in a tube or a small carton of whole milk yogurt), grapes, carrots “swords” (big carrots not the mini ones), bell pepper slices, cucumber “pennies” (simply sliced cucumbers), berries (in season)

Fruit bowl: apples, pears, banana (and stone fruits when in season)

Then there’s our “snack drawer” (pictured above, which is a total mess...sorry, I did not organize it for you) and the kids can help themselves to whatever is in there too. This drawer is great if I need to grab something as we’re dashing out the door. Here’s what’s in it right now:
Mini bags of pretzels
Mini boxes of raisins
Fruit Leathers (Trader Joe’s)
Cereal Bars (Trader Joe’s)
Granola bars (Trader Joe’s)
Snap Pea Crisps
Cheddar Cheese Squares (Trader Joe’s cheese crackers)
Ak-Mak crackers
Water Crackers
Stone Ground Wheat Crackers
Alphabet cookies (Trader Joe’s)
Honey Whole Wheat Pretzel Sticks (Trader Joe’s)
Kashi TLC 7-Grain crackers
Mrs. May’s Black Sesame Squares (new fav from Walter Stewart’s Market)
Annie’s Snack Mix Bunnies
Freeze-Dried Strawberries (Trader Joe’s)
Dried Cranberries
Dried Apricots
Dried Bananas
and then there are assorted nuts, coconut, chocolate chips, etc for baking nestled in there too...

Appetizer Ideas - Cheese Pairings

Cooking is easy once you understand what flavors and ingredients go together, and are able to balance the texture of a dish. The app I made last night worked because the textures went well together (crisp shell, creamy cheese and a little showiness of the dried fig) and the flavors complimented one another (salty Feta and sweet fig).

The October 2009 issue of Health Magazine has a great one page article (page 146) on cheese pairings that I thought I’d share if you’re looking for other filling ideas, or to put out as a stand alone appetizer.

Gorgonzola + Honey
Feta + Figs (great minds think alike!)
Cheddar + Mango Chutney
Goat Cheese + Dark Chocolate
Camembert + Grapes
Stilton + Port
Manchengo + Membrillo (quince paste, often sold at cheese shops or gourmet stores)

Easy App - Feta Fig Tartlets

Those of you who follow Full Plate on Facebook, you already know that I was going to try to figure out my appetizer for last night’s preschool mom’s night out with what I had on hand since the thought of grocery marketing with two boys sounded less than fun. Plus, that would have meant tearing ourselves away from the heavy construction that was providing an afternoon of entertainment. Anyway, the appetizer turned out great and was super easy. Since we’re probably all going to some social thing in the next couple months, keep a box (or three) of those phyllo shells in your freezer so you too can whip up an appetizer with what you have on hand. Here’s one idea:

Feta Fig Tartlets

Phyllo shells (found in the freezer section of most supermarkets)
Cream cheese
Dried Figs

Fresh Rosemary (optional)

Preheat oven to 350. Pop the shells out of the plastic tray and onto a rimmed cookie sheet and put them in the oven for 3 minutes, just so they crisp up. Then I let them cool while I bathed the kids and got them ready for bed. In a small bowl, I blended the tub of Feta with the block of cream cheese (using a hand mixer to make it easy).*

* This made a TON of the cheese mixture. So, I used the extra in scrambled eggs this morning and I still had a bunch leftover, so I put the cheese mixture + thinly sliced cucumbers in a whole wheat pita for lunch today.

Scoop a little blob (for lack of a better word) into each phyllo shell, and top with a slice of dried fig. Baked them for about 10 minutes, just so they were warm and a little golden brown. Then off to the party I went!
My hostess gift? A bag of my Homemade Granola from earlier in the afternoon.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Easy Kid-Pleasing Granola

In the October 2009 issue of Health magazine’s Best in Food section, there’s a blurb saying you can “Steal This Dish” and it gives Jamie Oliver’s recipe for Easy Granola. I’d torn it out and filed it into my recipe binders thinking I’d give it a whirl one day. I’m a pretty horrible baker, since I prefer to slice, toss in and stir what I have on hand or what looks good at the market that day, instead of follow instructions. But this one had promise. Well, at least I hoped it was more flexible because I decided to tackle it this afternoon with what I had on hand. It turned out beautifully, and both kids approved. So, now I pass it along to you.

My Easy Granola (That’s a Combination of Jamie Oliver’s and Cooking Light’s and What I Had On Hand)
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

On a rimmed baking sheet, I combined:
2 cups of old-fashioned oats
1 cup of nuts (I used raw slivered almonds from Trader Joe’s)
½ cup of unsweetened coconut (which I’d gotten in a tub in the produce section of Walter Stewart’s)
About 5 tablespoons of maple syrup

3 Tablespoons of olive oil (yes, olive oil-- it works!)
About 2 teaspoons of cinnamon (because we really like cinnamon, but use less if you want)
About 2 teaspoons of vanilla (which we also really like around here)
½ teaspoon of kosher salt

I gave everything a little toss on the sheet with my spatula and then baked it for 20 minutes, taking it out and stirring it every 5 minutes (so stirring 4 times total). Then when it was golden brown, I took it out, and put it into a mixing bowl with ½ a bag of dried cranberries (so probably about ¾ cup). The berries plumped up in the heat. I tasted it, and it was good, but could use just a little more sweetness so I then put a hearty squeeze of honey on it, gave it one more stir. Served it to my boys for lunch with whole milk and they ate it right up. Love that. This one’s a keeper.

Today's Excitement

I was excited to master homemade granola, on my first try with whatever we had on hand. But that excitement was nothing compared to the excitement overload provided by the road construction trucks that rolled up....right at rest time. Yep, you know what that means: my downtime? Poof, gone!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Catchy name, interesting topic....worth reading?

I'm wondering if any of you have read The Dinner Diaries - Raising Whole Wheat Children in a White Bread World by Betsy Block? My friend, Cobie, and I were going to read it and chat about it over coffee one of these upcoming mornings when our little ones are in preschool. What did you think of it? Too "militant" or realistic and inspiring? Oh, and of course you are welcome to come chat about it with us too. Let's say the first 8-10 moms (or dads) who want to gather can do so, since we moms can be a rowdy bunch...

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Amazing (& Easy) Almost Caramelized Banana Muffins

We just made the most amazing muffins. I had every intention of baking them from scratch, but the bananas on the counter weren’t too ripe yet, and there was a banana bread mix staring at me. Plus, I was in the mood to experiment since I’ve had these dried banana in my pantry and wasn’t quite sure what to do with them? The muffins turned out amazing. The addition of dried bananas make the muffin flavor almost caramelized, and the consistency goes from cake-y (which is also delicious) to chewy.

"Caramelized" Banana Chocolate Chip Muffins

1 package Trader Joe’s Banana Bread Mix*
+ 2 eggs
+ 1/3 cup vegetable oil
+ ¾ cup water
½ pkg of semi-sweet chocolate chips
Trader Joe’s “Nothing But Banana, Flattened” (in dried fruit aisle)

Preheat the oven to 325. Line a muffin tin with foil or paper liners (unless you’ve got those fancy reusable ones). Prepare the banana bread according to the package, and stir in half a bag of chocolate chips. (You could do walnuts or pecans instead, but you’d be much less popular with your family.) Spoon batter halfway up muffin cups. Then, using scissors, chop a layer of the dried bananas on top of the batter. Full muffin cups with remaining batter. Sprinkle tops with a hearty shake of cinnamon. Then bake for 25-45 minutes** until the muffins are a nice rich brown and toothpick inserted comes out clean.

*Trader Joe’s Banana Bread mix contains: sugar, enriched flour, banana flakes, baking powder, wheat germ, wheat bran, salt and vanilla.

** I give a range on the cooking time because though my oven says it's the right temp, according to the thermometer I put in there every once in a while, everyone's oven is different. I usually use a regular "baking" setting, versus convection...and my rickety old oven always tends to take the long end of the range.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Big Pig In The Room

Gwyneth’s recent GOOP - DO blog entry was all about finances. I let it sit in my inbox, along with all sorts of other things I didn’t have time to read then. Since my older son and husband are off camping with their Y Guide tribe, and the weather couldn’t be nastier, it was a perfect evening to put the little one down (early) and tackle my office. Note that this is not the way I like to spend my Saturday nights. But then again, it’s also not the way I like to spend my precious 3 hours that our little one’s in preschool a couple times a week, so tonight I dealt.

Reading the GOOP finance entry was timely because I’d gone out earlier in the week with two dear friends who (over a couple glasses of wine) told me I had to write about how our family was attempting to save a little dough. This subject isn’t food related per se, but this blog is supposed to also be about getting control of that Full Plate of yours, and merrily balancing it as you trot through the day with an adorable child (or two, or three, or four) in tow. So, here goes…

Without getting into specifics, I’ll tell you what we’ve done. It’s not like we’ve figured it all out, but I do think it’s caused us to be thoughtful about expenditures.

OK, so many of you are going to cringe when you hear the first step, but I think it’s totally necessary if you’re going to get a handle on and clearly think through your spending: we inputted all of our 2008 expenditures into a spreadsheet, and categorized them. Every. Single. One. Cash, credit card transactions, checks, all of them. So we had buckets like: mortgage, groceries, pharmacy, dinners out, housecleaning, mommy & me classes, day camps, babysitting, my clothing, the kids’ clothing, gas, home maintenance, toys, travel, etc. A monstrous process, for sure. Really tedious. But wow, did it ever clarify our spending. And then we've done it again, each month, in 2009.

Once we had those buckets, we could answer the question of how we were spending our money. So, the next question was whether we felt like this was the right way to be spending? Maybe you look at your bucket list and you say, “You know there’s really no wiggle room because XYZ are important to me”, and things stay as is. But when I looked at the list and the astronomical amounts we (or rather, I, since I am the stay-at-home-mom) were spending on certain things I knew we could cut back.

The first thing I did—and I know many of my local friends think I am nuts to have done this—was to cut out my week day babysitting. All of it. Sure, we hire a sitter if we’re going out on a weekend evening. But during the week, yours truly is the one and only caregiver (save for a generous neighbor who helps out for things like teacher conferences in which case I “pay” them with a homemade meal). Multiply $15/hour x the amount I had each week to do a tennis clinic, meet a friend for coffee, grocery shop alone, go to a volunteer meeting, things like that and it really added up on an annual basis.

I know your next question: how’s it going? Still sane? Yes. Some days more than others. In most parts of the country, this is the norm. It’s just in Fairfield County that I seem like some mom who has a screw loose for “doing this to myself”. Sure, I’ve put off paddle sports until both of my kids are in school full-time, my shopping is greatly curbed (because who really wants to try on clothing in confined space with a wiggly toddler?), no I do not get to go to most of the parent meetings/social gatherings at school anymore, and yes sometimes I am envious of friends enjoying a bowl of coffee and adult conversation at Le Pain Quotodien when I roll my jogger in to buy my little guy a special treat (since he’s going to have to be really good sitting through mommy’s eyebrow wax). But you know, the flip side is that I am spending a ton of time with my children and it’s forced me to prioritize. And, recession or no recession, I no longer suffer pangs of "mommy guilt".

Cutting out the babysitting alone put a big chunk of money back into our bank account. Of course there were other areas we pared back some, like not going out twice a weekend, every single weekend. Rest assured, we still have a life. And if I am feeling stretched too thin during the week, I make plans to meet a fellow mom for a casual supper out, once my husband is home. I tried shopping with coupons but that was too tedious for me and I found myself buying things because I had a coupon for them. So that kind of backfired. However, the Wednesday Supper Exchange has replaced what was a typical night of take-out most weeks. When I am cooking, I make an extra portion for my husband to take for lunch the next day. He’s psyched. It’s not a huge sum of money saved, but daily NYC lunches add up (and my cooking is way better than any of those salad bar joints). Instead of a gym membership, I spend about $30/week going to a boot camp 2x/week at $15/class. The remaining days I have to be disciplined to either go for a long walk, get on the elliptical or do a video (which I must get more disciplined about, this is definitely the area that needs work for me).

In sum, we’re still living really well. I feel a little funny even writing this entry, since we’re lucky that these “cut backs” are all we’ve done to date. But it’s all relative, so if it gives a fellow mom an idea of a way she can take care of herself and/or her family for a little less, then it was worth sharing our experience.

Super Easy Creamy Pesto Pasta

Here’s a very simple, and delicious, comforting meal that pleased both our kids and the parents in our house last week. This past summer, my sister-in-law made a "chocolate cream pie" using tofu as the "creamy" base, and none of us was the wiser. So, I improvised using the same concept on a creamy pasta sauce and it totally worked. Unlike some of the magazine recipes I gave a whirl this weekend, this one I excitedly pass along to all of you busy parents looking for an alternative to pasta with red sauce, meat sauce, or plain pesto...

Super Easy Creamy Pesto Pasta

1 tub of store bought pesto*
1 pkg of firm tofu (preferably organic)
1 large can of diced tomatoes (optional)
Your favorite brand of pasta, cooked according to package
Shredded Parmesan (optional)

In a blender, combine the tub of pesto with the block of tofu. Blend it to a creamy consistency. Then heat in a saucepan and serve over pasta, with shredded parmesan cheese if you’d like.

I added a big can of diced tomatoes as well, to give it some texture. One unexpected (or at least unexpected to me, since I didn’t have a color wheel in my head) is that the sauce is really pretty when it’s light green from the pesto and tofu. If you add tomatoes, it turns it orange-y brown…..not pink, as my two-year-old sous chef hoped for given his current favorite color! Still, it was delish.
* Some of you may have some pesto you made this summer in your freezer. Here’s a good opportunity to use it.

Sticking with what I know

I love cooking magazines. Every year, I switch up the ones to which I subscribe. Given the hundreds of recipes I have filed by category in notebooks (yes, you read that right), I need new recipes like a hole in the head. And sometimes the magazines pile up and two months pass from the publication date before I actually get enough peace and quiet to crack the magazine open. But still, I love those cooking magazines. This fall, my little one is taking swim lessons so I've had the chance to slip a cooking magazine in my purse, and spend a weekly half hour relishing these magazines.

Well. Yesterday I made a shopping list from the recipes I’d torn from the magazines, and set about to cooking what I thought would be three fabulous new dishes for my family. I had to make a special trip to the supermarket because I never have things like liquid eggs that come in a carton, or refrigerated bread dough that comes in a tube. That should have been clue #1 that I should have stopped right there. But the pictures in the magazines looked so pretty….

I won’t even touch on the disaster that was the sausage thingies. The whole process of dealing with the sticky artificial dough grossed me out…and I put too much of my yummy filling (my adaptation of the recipe) inside so the thing wouldn’t roll the way it was supposed to. So, I just folded it into a blob and stuck it in the oven. Never mind that my husband came home to this baked blob on the counter and proclaimed it really good. That recipe was tossed before I even took a photo.

The "Seafood Cakes with Mustard Crema" from Cooking Light’s October 2009 issue weren’t much better. When I served them last night, they looked pretty (just like in the magazine photo) but it was too much effort for too little taste.

Then there was this morning’s attempt to send my husband and older child off on their (rainy, gray) father-son Y Guide campout with some fortification: "Ham and Cheese Corn Muffins". Listed under the Bake Ahead and Freeze category (again in the October 2009 issue of Cooking Light), I thought they sounded brilliant. Perhaps a new weekday breakfast to add to the repertoire? No. They are like tasteless yellow balls. Totally not worth the effort. And tell me again why I had to buy eggs in a milk carton instead of cracking the real deal?!

So, I still have this affinity for the cooking magazines, but I think I will go back to simply ogling the photos and relying on my own mom-a-licious sense of flavor combinations, texture and-- most important—simplicity when cooking for my family. And if I ever do feel like following a recipe to the letter, then I've got hundreds of tried and true ones just waiting for me.