#OmahaFamilyDining, a Giveaway, and a Whole Lotta Mason Jars

#OmahaFamilyDining, a Giveaway, and a Whole Lotta Mason Jars

Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert has designated October 19th-25th as “Family Dining Week” for the second year in a row, and is calling out to Omaha families to take the “Family Dining Pledge.” This pledge simply asks that you and your family commit to eating more home-prepared meals together… and taking the pledge will give you the chance to enter in giveaways with some pretty sweet prizes.

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Speaking of prizes… Live Well Kids Omaha has given me a $15 Hy-Vee gift card (enough to cover one or two home-made meals) to one of my lucky, pledge-making readers!  All you have to do is hop on over to this link to make the pledge, then come back here and tell me about it in the comments! I’d love it if you’d share what your favorite meal is to have at home with your family, while you’re at it! I’ll randomly select a winner on Saturday the 25th!

I really wanted to have some meat to this blog post, in addition to the giveaway details… and thought maybe some meal-planning tips would be helpful. I think, though, that there will be plenty of tips in some of my fellow bloggers’ posts that would be far more efficient than mine. So, instead…

masonjars

I think it’s time to fill you in on my Mason Jar journey.

Planning lunches has always been difficult for me. I can bust out a week’s dinner plan pretty easily, but half the time I forget that lunch even exists. I usually end up scrambling around last-minute to make my husband’s sandwiches, and then wind up eating the portion of macaroni and cheese that my kids didn’t polish off at lunch time. I think, though… I think I’ve found my solution.

Now, if you’ve ever fallen down the chevron-painted, pallet-studded rabbit-hole that is Pinterest, you’ll have noticed a few pictures of mason jars, artfully packed full of greens, vegetables, and very healthy-looking vinaigrettes. This, my friend, is what is known as a “mason jar salad…” or MJS if you feel like abbreviating things.

I’ve been eyeing these for a while now. The idea is that you buy, chop, cook, and pack a week’s worth of salad ingredients into these whimsical glass jars and enjoy the convenience and tastiness of a custom-designed salad every day of the work-week… without having to put forth any effort at the time.  About a month and a half ago, I decided to do it.  So far, I’ve successfully put together 10 salads for my husband and I three times out of those six weeks… and I’m calling that a success.

Rather than go through an entire step-by-step process (because my food photography is ABYSMAL, I want to share some really helpful MJS links, as well as a few of the things I’ve learned during this (still ongoing) process.

Basic breakdown, helpful links:

There’s a basic structure to these salads that’s the same in many posts:

  1. Dressing
  2. Hearty Vegetables
  3. Less-hearty Vegetables
  4. Protein
  5. Cheese
  6. Greens

What goes on between the hearty vegetables and the greens can vary according to the source, but your most important task is to separate the dressing from the greens. This will keep them from wilting.

Check out these posts from Simple Bites, Organize Yourself Skinny, and Popsugar. They’re pretty extensive in their directions, and much better at food writing than I. You can also follow my Pinterest board as I continue on my quest toward mason jar domination.

Things I’ve Learned:

– One 16 oz. clamshell of spinach and one 11 oz. clamshell of pre-washed romaine leaves (not hearts) seems to be the perfect amount of greens for ten salads; five for me, five for my husband.

– I appreciate the health benefits of spinach, but also need a little crunch in my salad… so I’ve found that the best solution is to get the pre-washed leaves of romaine (I use Earthbound Organic), rather than a bag of romaine mix or romaine hearts. The bag of mix never stays as fresh, and I do not have the time tear apart, wash, and dry those hearts.

Four medium sized boneless, skinless chicken breasts, baked in the oven, is the perfect amount for ten salads, plus one night of tacos when you heat up the leftover chicken with canned beans, corn, and seasoning.

– If I went back in time, I would get on the internet and find wide mouthed, quart-sized jars. I could only find pint-and-a-half wide mouthed jars in the store, so I bought them… because patience is not my strong-suit. When I pack a pint-and-a-half jar totally full for my husband, it’s just the right amount of food… but he has to dump it into a separate container in order to actually eat it. I imagine that if I put the same amount in a quart jar with a wide mouth, I’d be able to mix it all up with a good shake, AND eat right out of the jar.

My first ingredient after the dressing is always the onions. I’ve found that, when they’re chilling out in the dressing, they don’t fill the whole jar with the taste/smell of onion. Not that that’s a bad thing… I suppose it depends on your feelings about onions.

Don’t try to spread this process out. I like to cook my meats (usually chicken and 1 lb. of bacon) in the morning and chop/assemble ingredients in the afternoon. Try to set aside a solid chunk of time to get all of your salads put together, rather than work on it all day long. I tried that the first week, and I ended up with three partially assembled salads and a bunch of ingredients in my fridge.

 

Someday…

Someday, I’ll sit down and write a for-real MJS post with actual pictures, I promise. In the meantime, I hope the links and my tips are helpful, and I genuinely hope you take the Family Dining Pledge!

Also, if you’re interested, you can heck out a few of the other participating bloggers:

CoolestMommy, Liv Laugh Love, Sensory Mama Saving Cents, Mom Saves Money, Making Mine, Oh My! Omaha, Family Fun in Omaha

Real Talk:

I was contacted by Live Well Kids Omaha to blog about Omaha Family Dining Week. I am being compensated with a $15 Hy-Vee gift card, as well as one to give away to one of my readers. I was also compensated  with a fresh, homemade batch of warm-fuzzies.

 

Scones and Scents and Wistful Sighs

Scones and Scents and Wistful Sighs

When I was in college, I was lucky enough to find the perfect (part time) job.  I, of course, didn’t realize at the time that I was living the dream, but now I sometimes find myself desperately missing it.

In 2006 (someone please correct me if I’m wrong), I started working at this wonderful little place in Kearney, NE, called Elements.  I say “place” because there’s not one right way to describe it.  It had an art gallery and studio, counselling, life coaching, yoga, massage therapy, and the most delightful little café you ever did see.  I was mainly responsible for making hot tea and serving customers, while the other two ladies worked in the kitchen like culinary bees, crafting soups, sandwiches, wraps, and desserts that were all natural and mostly vegetarian.

Guys, I miss these days.  Most of the customers worked at the university, and many of them were my English professors.  What could be better than getting paid to scoop out precious teaspoons of exotic loose-leaf tea, while listening to some of the people you admire most in the world talk to each other about whatever it was these academic beings felt important enough to talk about?  Not a whole lot.  At least in the world of part-time college jobs for an English/Theatre major, anyway.

During this time of my life, I learned a lot about myself.  I learned that there were many kinds of people in this world, and a lot of them had some VERY different opinions and lifestyles than what I thought to be truth.  I learned that obligation and guilt are not the right reasons to stay with a person, and that opening yourself up to a little hippie magic isn’t going to hurt a thing.

I miss the vibrant paintings on the chocolate brown walls, the absolutely gorgeous Yoga studio, the smells of steam and garlic and Moroccan lentil stew simmering away on the stove.  I miss helping customers browse through the little retail section, and seeing people leave their massages looking like they could float out the front doors.  I miss hearing Weezer or K.T. Tunstall playing in the kitchen while dishes clinked and knives chopped.  Elements was a sweet, warm retreat for intellectuals, free spirits, and people who simply needed a haven.

There were many flavors that filled those rooms, and some of my favorites could be found in the scones.  They were both dense and light, if that’s possible, and welcomed whichever ingredients Helen or Rikki decided to put in them that day.  One of my favorite flavor combinations was Ginger Peach.  Can you imagine the smells in the morning?  Coffee brewing, Mango Ceylon steeping for the day’s batch of iced tea, and hot Ginger Peach scones cooling on the counter.  I’m telling you, it was practically a spiritual experience.

I asked Helen if she still had the scone recipe, as I wanted to make a batch for book club.  Amazingly (actually, it wasn’t surprising) she gave me the recipe by memory, and the scones were definitely a success.  I had to make a few changes of my own, since I had to work with the ingredients that I had, but they provided the sense memory that I was hoping for, and I think they might now be my go-to baked good recipe.

Now, if you guys can excuse my low-quality photos and fumbly food writing, I’d love to share this recipe so that the warmth of Elements can spread into a few kitchens and keep the dream alive … even if just a little bit.

Cherry & Ginger Scones:

sconeingredients

2 Cups Flour

1/3 Cup Sugar

1/3 Tsp. Baking Soda

1 Tsp. Baking Powder

Dash Salt

1 Stick FROZEN Butter

1 Cup Chopped, Pitted Cherries

½ Cup Chopped Candied Ginger

1/3 to 1 Cup Yogurt

Ground Cinnamon, to taste

***

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Sift/stir together flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, and salt.  Gently grate entire stick of butter into dry ingredients, mix with hands until blended.  Try not to overmix; you want to keep the butter as cool as possible.  It will be clumpy.  Also, grating the butter will be slightly annoying and you may grate some of your fingernails into the butter.  If this happens, simply carry on and don’t tell anybody.

sconesbutter

Make a well in the middle of your dry ingredients and add the egg and yogurt.

sconesyogurt

I had a cup of Siggi’s coconut yogurt in the fridge, so I used that.  Siggi’s is kind of a weird Icelandic-style yogurt that is VERY thick and pasty.  I ended up using the whole personal-sized cup in the recipe, but I think that if you were using regular yogurt (or even a not-so-thick Greek Yogurt), 1/3 would be plenty.  Stir it all together, and then add your cherries and ginger.

sconescherries

I like to put the fruit and ginger in a bowl and stir it up with a bunch of ground cinnamon.  Also, I used Ranier cherries instead of peaches, because I had a giant flat of them in the fridge.  Mix it all until you reach a moldable, but not too sticky, consistency.  I like to mold the dough into an evenly-shaped log, put it on my parchment paper, and cut little triangles out of it, like so:

sconescutting

Next, throw ‘em in the oven and cook them for 30 minutes, or until lightly golden brown.  At Elements, we had some homemade (butter and powdered sugar, maybe?) frosting that we spread on by request, but these are still tasty without anything on them.  I like to slap some butter on them when they’re warm, and I’ll bet lemon curd would be awesome, depending on the fruit/mix-ins you choose.  Either way, put them in your mouth!  …After they’ve cooled down a bit!  Please don’t sue me for a burnt tongue!

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The beauty of this recipe is that it’s only lightly sweet, so it will work well with almost any ingredients you want to add.  I made a batch today using 1 cup of raisins, a handful of chocolate chips, and a whole carrot.  I imagine you could do one with scallions, cheddar, and bacon, too!

***

Just like these scones adapt to whatever you choose to mix in them, Elements welcomed all types of people through its doors.  This place felt like home to me for almost two solid years, and I feel charmed to have been a part of it.

As with all things that are built by multiple hands, there were some less-than-pleasant times at Elements … but those times are not the ones that I choose to remember.  I will remember the hilarious looks on the faces of customers after I explained how to use a Neti pot, or the pleasant, comforted feeling of watching one of the owners, with her dark pixie haircut, sweep the floors in the mornings.  I’ll smile when I think of the almost embarrassing sounds that people made when they tried the butternut squash soup, and of the gaggle of women who would cheerfully head back to the studio for their group art lesson.

I’ll always hold the mornings close to my heart, because I so loved readying the café for the day while our favorite group of wise, jolly men chatted about the weather or the art on the walls while they drank their coffee.

I was meant to walk through those doors and hand in that application.  Elements helped shape me into the person I am today, and I am so grateful for that.

I also totally got scones out of the deal.  You just can’t beat that.

***

I would love for you guys to add your favorite Elements memories to the comments, if you’ve got them.  I know I’m not the only person who loved that place!  OR, if you’ve got memories of ANY place, I’d love to hear those, too!

Thoughts that may be going through one’s head while one frosts a cake.

Thoughts that may be going through one’s head while one frosts a cake.

1.) One always thinks that the frosting will be the fun part.  One is always, always wrong.

2.) The amount of food coloring it takes to make white frosting a bright, vibrant, Lego-like color is enough to make one uncomfortable about dyes and Red #5 and . . . you know what?  Pastel Lego cakes are just fine.  One will have to explain to everyone that they’re supposed to be Legos anyway.

3.) The crappy/delicious cream cheese frosting that comes from a plastic can is surely what Mrs. Doubtfire’s face must have tasted like.

4.) When the Betty Crocker YouTube ladies say that one will need a “crumb coat,” they are not fooling around.

5.) A “crumb coat” is a layer of frosting that goes on first and looks terrible so that one can catch all the crumbs in the frosting before cooling the cake and putting on another layer.  The second coat looks only slightly less terrible than the first coat.

6.) One may need to remind one’s self that their child loves them.  Their child loves cake. Their child also loves Legos.  A cake that one makes to look vaguely like a Lego will probably be greatly appreciated by one’s child.

7.) Probably.

8.) One genuinely used to love frosting.

Meal Planning, Yo!

Meal Planning, Yo!

(My grocery buddy. He was really enthusiastically saying “Cheese!”)

Oof. It’s been busy.

. . . The (mostly) good kind of busy, though. We’ve had playdates and seen grandparents and turned Charlie’s room into something that actually resembles a child’s living space. We’ve done laundry, paid a few bills, and even managed to watch a couple episodes ofSupernatural.

Miraculously, throughout all of this, we’ve actually been eating meals cooked at home. I’m pretty amazed, myself. Although last night we ordered takeout, it was purely by choice and not as a result of “not having anything good to eat.”

How could this possibly have happened? I actually have all of our meals planned through October 18th.

Seriously, this is almost newsworthy. Maybe it’s not. But, whatever, I’m pretty proud of myself. Anyway, I thought that since I had them all written down, I might as well post my meals in case someone out there needs a little inspiration. Like I’ve done in the past, I’m simply writing down the meal’s name and the ingredients needed, since almost all of my recipes are available online. I’ll post a link to the ones I can, and give a quick description of the recipes that mainly live in my brain. I’ve started the board “Meal Planning Booyahs” on Pinterest, if you’re interested in following it. I’ll use that board to only pin the recipes I’ve successfully made and will make again. As always, please comment or email me if you want anything in more detail!

This is what was initially planned for last week . . . Due to things like unforeseen amounts of leftovers, some recipes got moved into the next week, but, oh well. This was the plan:

Kale and Kielbasa Casserole
1 Onion, Butter, Potatoes, Polish Sausage, Kale, Flour, Milk, Cheese, Dijon Mustard, Garlic, Salt, Pepper, Thyme, Nutmeg, Breadcrumbs

I used Pepperjack cheese in this, and thought it gave it a nice kick. I also would suggest boiling the potatoes and blanching the kale the day before, as this took A LOT longer to make than I had wanted. It was really, really good, though, so I’ll definitely be making it again. I also didn’t use all of the sauce, as the blogger said it was really soupy. And, holy crap, I just realized as I typed this list that I forgot to put in the Dijon mustard. Somebody make it with the mustard and tell me how it goes.

Eggplant Feta

1 pkg. Whole Wheat Spaghetti, 1 pkg. Feta Cheese, 1 can/jar Spaghetti Sauce, 1 Box Trader Joe’s Breaded Eggplant Cutlets, Garlic Bread of your choosing

Super easy, really tasty. I bake the eggplant till it’s almost done, then spoon a little red sauce on each cutlet. (You could totally do this with chicken, too.) Then I sprinkle some feta cheese on each and throw it back in the oven till it’s melty. Toss the spaghetti with the sauce and put the eggplant on top. Put it in your mouth. (After it’s cooled a little.)

Orange Chicken and Fried Rice

1 bag Trader Joe’s Mandarin Orange Chicken, 1 bag Trader Joe’s Chicken Fried Rice

Totally a “cheater” meal. Just prepare according to package directions and chow down. You don’t have to use Trader Joe’s stuff if you don’t want to or don’t have access to it. I’m sure you can find similar frozen Chinese meals in the grocery store, but TJ’s doesn’t have any MSG or nasty preservatives in it.

Copycat Olive Garden Chicken & Gnocchi Soup

Olive Oil, Butter, Flour, ½ and ½, Milk, Celery, Onion, Carrot, Garlic, Chicken Broth, Cooked Chicken Breasts, Packaged Gnocchi, Spinach, Salt, Pepper, Dried Thyme, Nutmeg

This turned out AWESOMELY. (Apparently, “awesomely” is totally a legit word, as Word did not give me the red line. Sweet.) It fed me, my Mom, my Aunt, my Dad, and Paul . . . and we ate out of big bowls. This meal will go a long way. The blogger suggests using Rotisserie chicken, but I just baked boneless, skinless chicken breasts and shredded them. I accidentally bought a pint of ½ and ½ instead of a quart, so I subbed in a pint of milk to make up for it, and I don’t think it suffered at all (not to mention added significantly less calories).

Like I said, our week changed a little bit, so I only ended up using four of the things that were initially planned. I don’t want to post anything I haven’t made recently, so I’ll update you guys after next week’s round is done. This week’s menu seems to have used a lot of packaged foods, but it’s not the norm . . . it’s just how it worked out this time. I find that I have the most luck if I plan a couple “semi-homemade” meals along with all of the scratch-made stuff.

We’ve got to be realistic, right?

DIY Pumpkin Spice Latte

DIY Pumpkin Spice Latte

Today’s a day of positive thoughts, productivity, and a warm beverage recipe to prepare you guys for the upcoming Winter.

Now, call me a wannabe-yuppie, but I love me some Starbucks. I don’t care who knows it.

So, of course, my fellow Starbucks lovers understand the unbridled excitement that overcomes them when Fall rolls around… all thanks to the return of the Pumpkin Spice Latte. As it’s now November, you may think that talking about this seems a little tired… I, however, say, “Nay! Now is the perfect time to talk about Pumpkin Spice Lattes!” Why?

Because by November, your wallets are probably a little tired of forking out the dough to support your pumpkin habit.

A few weeks ago, I set out to try a Pumpkin Spice Latte recipe I found (with much better photo quality than mine) on Pinterest. My in-laws were in town, and since I always clean them out of their cappuccino mix and whipped cream, I thought I’d let them be the guinea pigs.

I pretty much stuck to the recipe, but I did change a few things. Here are the ingredients you’ll need:

Strongly brewed coffee, or espresso if you’ve got the machine.
Milk (in whatever form you like: 2%, Almond, Soy, whatevs)
Unsweetened pumpkin puree
2 tsp. Pumpkin pie spice
1 tsp. Vanilla extract
Honey

I’ll warn you, when it comes to things like this, I tend to just throw it together…I needed to make 3 lattes, so I needed more than what the actual recipe called for. I’ll try to be as accurate as I can…

Now, when I set out to make this, I realized that I didn’t have any pumpkin pie spice… After a few moments of irrational grumbling, I then realized that I can make it myself. Here’s what I used:

1 tsp. Ground Cinnamon
¼ tsp. Ground Nutmeg
¼ tsp. Ground Ginger
¼ tsp. Ground Cloves

betterpumpkinspice

Find yourself a cute little container and fill it up with your tasty blend of spices…then measure out about 2 teaspoons for your lattes.

Throw about 2 cups of milk, ½ a cup of pumpkin, your spices and vanilla, and a good squeeze of honey into your blender…blitz it till it’s nice and smooth. If you want to use a sweetener other than honey, by all means do it. I thought the honey went well with the cinnamon, and made the drink feel even warmer than it already was.

blender

Now toss your pumpkin milk into a saucepan and heat it on LOW until it’s the temperature you’re looking for. If you heat it too quickly, it will curdle and make you want to throw up a bit… It takes a little longer, but LOW is the way to go. You could also microwave it, but we don’t have a microwave…so, you’re on your own there.

pumpkin milk

I filled up a couple mugs halfway, then filled the rest up with my coffee.

beforewhip

And then, of course, I topped it with a healthy amount of whipped cream, and a little sprinkle of the pumpkin pie spice.

lattescomic

Overall, I’d say it was a success! Paul’s parents were happy with it, I was happy with it, and I was able to make 3 lattes for cheaper than 1 would cost from Starbucks. I might even say it tastes just as good as the real thing…but we all know that walking in to Starbucks, unwrapping your scarf, taking a big whiff, and wrapping your hands around that cardboard sleeve is pretty hard to beat.

A Guest Post to Keep You from Melting

A Guest Post to Keep You from Melting

I’m posting this week’s guest post in hopes that all of my readers haven’t melted away…Our lovely guest this week is Heidi Moyer, a dazzling domestic goddess with blogging skills to boot. Once you get a batch of her homemade popsicles made, you should probably bring a couple over for me.

Yeesh, it’s been hot. Duh, Heidi it’s summer. There is always relief in sight, as long as freezers continue to exist in our realm, and too, the desire to eat something cold, cold, COLD.

Popsicles are an excellent choice to help chill you from the inside out—great for kids and adults, alike. But I always feel let down when I get to the market and begin looking at ingredients, it usually starts out something like this: Water, sugar, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, juice from concentrate, natural flavorings, ice structuring proteins, contains 10% juice…I could be exaggerating but I’m not, this list is from none other thanPopsicle brand popsicles website. So, is my toddler supposed to suck on one of these chemically sweetened hyper-sticks? Em, no.

Homemade popsicles will delight your kids and you, and you won’t be trying to figure out how to cut sugar from the rest of their meals to balance out the bad ingredients. And can you say “smarty-pants”? Only because these babies are so easy to make you’ll wonder why you ever bought them from the store to begin with. If you don’t have a blender, just get two different flavors of yogurt smoothie, although, the fresh fruit flavor of the second layer is very tasty. All you need besides the ingredients is a popsicle mold, mine came from the friendly dollar aisle at Target. (Now you’re thrifty and smart!)

Pastel Popsicles

Needed: 1 container of Kefir (or other Probiotic yogurt smoothie) in any flavor, ½ cup vanilla yogurt, ½ cup frozen strawberries, food processor or blender, popsicle mold—most molds need approximately 2 cups of freezable liquids, you can always eyeball to make more if needed.

Preparation

020

1) Shake, and then pour Kefir half-way up into the popsicle molds
2) Cover with plastic wrap (without sticks stuck in) and freeze for 2 hours
3) Remove popsicle molds, the Kefir should be softly set
4) Blitz together the vanilla yogurt and frozen strawberries, pour into molds

028

036

5) Place the stick-handles into the molds
6) Freeze for 3 hours before serving

050

Heidi Moyer is a stay at home Mommy to Vail, and wife to Eric, and writes as often as she can for her food blog at www.thekitchette.blogspot.com.

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