Monday, March 31, 2014

My Favorite Dinner Secrets

My mama loves to cook. As a little girl, I really couldn't be bothered with helping in the kitchen. Sure I'd help mix up cookie dough, but only so I could lick the beaters. And homemade pizza night was fun as my older brother and I stood on kitchen chairs, fighting over who got to wear the vinyl Santa Claus apron my mom has had for who-knows-how-long while we dumped copious amounts of cheese and pepperoni on our make-your-own pies. But no, cooking was not one of my hobbies. Only once, that I can remember, did I volunteer to make dinner on my own (with the help of my older brother). Dad was deployed over Mother's Day, so we made chicken parmesan (with those pre-breaded nasty chicken patties you used to get on Wednesdays in the school cafeteria that were advertised as "Crispy Chicken on a Bun" which may or may not have been accurate), green beans (in which we found a worm...after we started eating them), salad (made from produce that my brother did not prewash), and blueberry muffins (which go so well with Italian food, right?)...

As time went on, I learned my way around the kitchen inasmuch as it was my chore to set the table and later to unload the dishwasher.  In high school I'd sometimes help with dinner prep, but I was usually at track practice or an after-school job.  In college I became a little more active in helping my mom cook, but really I'd just scurry back and forth fetching ingredients, mixing bowls, and other mysterious utensils my mom needed to create that evening's masterpiece.  Once I graduated and found my own apartment, my mom bought me my first cookbook (Rachael Ray!) and helped me outfit my first kitchen with the bare essentials and from there on out, I was pretty much winging it.  I ate a lot of nachos, and the canned ingredients I bought the first time I ever went to the grocery store stayed in my pantry for well over a year, when I moved into my first townhouse.

Yes, I started to cook more and more often.  I bought myself a nice set of pots and pans that my mom actually joked she would trade me for her older set.  I still have those pots today, and have added to my collection, even venturing into cast iron!  I started cooking for my parents every so often, and even invited their good friends over for brunch at my new apartment after Mass one Sunday.  When I started dating my husband, I'd cook for him, and since he's still alive and kicking, I guess I have yet to poison him!

Now I have a whole cabinet of cookbooks (not quite the Cookbook Closet that mom has), drawers and crocks full of my own mysterious utensils (some of which my mom threatens to steal when she visits), and four full sets of dinnerware, to include two sets of china...all of which I use (ok, well maybe not my grandmother's china that's been handed down for several generations).

While I've graduated from making recipes exclusively from the 30-minute meal variety and my spice rack has exploded well beyond the bare essentials, I still maintain a few "tricks" up my sleeve.  Let's face it, I'm a busy mother of two small boys, working on a second degree (in nursing, which is no cake-walk), who, while I can now admit that I do enjoy cooking, I also enjoy some relaxation at the end of the day.  And that is where these little secrets come in to play!

There are a slew of amazing products out there now that make the household cook's life so much easier.  Things that while they are prepared, still enable you to make your family a homemade meal with your tastes and preferences in mind.  Things that are versatile and can be changed according to the menu du jour.  Things that I use on a regular basis and have no problem justifying the cost of something I could make on my own simply because they same me at least ten minutes of chopping.  And with that, I present my five favorite time-savers!

Stocks (I always have boxes and boxes of chicken stock on hand, but I also keep some seafood and beef stock too).  I use stock exclusively when making rice or couscous in order to add flavor to an otherwise bland side dish.  Stock is also wonderful as the base to a broth-y soup and even for homemade baby food.  I never buy "broth" as I find it to be watered down and only buy the more flavorful stocks available.  I typically do not cook pasta in stock since the liquid is drained off, but for dishes where the liquid is retained (rice, couscous, quinoa) or mostly retained (orzo), I will use the stock.

Prepared pasta sauces.  I use marinara as the base to spaghetti sauce, and for just about any Italian dish that requires a tomato sauce.  Remember that chicken parm I "made" my mom?  Now I use Prego as the starter to my much improved version of that recipe!  I use it on pizza.  I use it in homemade vegetable soup that just needs a little more flavor (I'm not a big fan of large chunks of cooked tomato in soups).  

Couscous.  This is a favorite starch in our house.  I almost always buy a flavored variety that includes a seasoning packet, but I never "make as directed".  I have several staple recipes that have couscous add-ins, so I mix and match according to my mood or the main course I'm preparing.  I add shallots and onions of every variety, fresh mushrooms, herbs and spices (both fresh and dried) that complement the flavor of the featured protein, nuts, dried fruit (cherries, currants, raisins, apricots) and more.  And, of course, I use chicken stock to cook my couscous.

Flavored olive oil cubes.  I recently discovered Land O Lakes Saute Express and fell in love!  These are great little patties of olive oil and butter seasoned with a variety of popular flavors (herbs, teriyaki, garlic, etc.).  They're a little bit on the pricey side, considering I am never without olive oil and fresh garlic in my kitchen, but they're fabulous for adding flavor to an otherwise bland chicken breast.  Pop a cube of this into a hot skillet and you're ready to saute about a pound of meat!  I usually add extra olive oil and garlic and depend on these just for the boost of butter and herbs.  So far I've tried the Garlic & Herb and Lemon Pepper and both are divine!

Seasoned breadcrumb kits.  I've sung the praises of Kraft Fresh Take before on my blog, and I'll do it again!  These 6-ounce kits are lifesavers for busy moms everywhere.  Use them on chicken, pork, fish, and even vegetables and pasta dishes.  Check out the recipe booklet on the website I linked above and tell me what you make!  I've tried almost all nine varieties.  Unfortunately, the one that intrigues me most, Chili-Lime, appears to have been discontinued since I've never been able to find it in a grocery near me.  Regardless, these kits take Shake 'n' Bake to a whole new level.  Recommended to me by my mama, I've passed on my stamp of approval to both my mother- and sister-in-law as a great stand-by when you just don't have a lot of time to spend on dinner.

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