Archive for the ‘cooking’ Category

We used to be like a lot of other folks, trying to figure out what to have for meals based on what was in the house. As a result, buying at the grocery store was always a haphazard affair. In addition, there is time and stress in trying to figure out meals and then considering if you have enough time to get the meal cooked. When you add in time commitments like karate and ballet for the kids, as well as church, it becomes easier to grab fast food rather than plan a balanced meal.

About a year ago we said enough with the choosing and cooking a meal on the fly. We instead decided to start planning meals, with the exception of weekday lunches. Weekday lunches would consist mainly of leftovers and/or sandwiches, so there didn’t need to be any planning involved there. A microwave was the most complex cooking apparatus needed and the kids can use it just fine. This helps a lot. It means most weeks we’re only planning 16 meals. Breakfast isn’t that difficult because there are a few combinations that my family likes and we can repeat those. Therefore, dinner has the most variation, especially for the Saturday, when we have the most time to prepare. Because of planning meals out for the week, we know in advance what needs to be cooked. That also means we know about when to get started with everything, which results in a more consistent meal time. It also means we reduce fast food meals to when something happens and we just don’t have time or when we choose to get a fast food meal as a treat. Here’s an example of this week’s meal plan:

Breakfast Lunch Dinner
Sunday, July 01, 2012
  • white rice
  • tuna fish
  • cucumbers
  • homemade spaghetti
  • salad
  • French bread
  • grilled cheese sandwiches
  • sweet potato fries
Monday, July 02, 2012
  • eggs
  • chicken sausage
  • fried potatoes
  • pork tenderloin
  • carrots
  • green beans
  • couscous
Tuesday, July 03, 2012
  • pancakes
  • bacon
  • baked chicken
  • black-eyed peas
  • corn on the cob
  • biscuits
Wednesday, July 04, 2012
  • boiled eggs
  • oatmeal
  • peaches
  • hamburgers
  • hot dogs
  • chips
  • chicken cordon bleu
  • peas and carrots
  • French bread
Thursday, July 05, 2012
  • cereal / pop-tarts
  • brown rice
  • pot roast
  • carrots
  • green beans
  • potatoes
Friday, July 06, 2012
  • eggs
  • bacon
  • biscuits
  • meat loaf
  • salad
Saturday, July 07, 2012
  • pancakes
  • sausage
  • hamburger helper
  • brown rice
  • cucumbers
  • orange chicken w/ broccoli
  • oriental noodles

We know at a glance what we’re having. Also, since we have the meals planned out, it means we can write out a shopping list before heading to the grocery store. This saves money because it reduces impulse buys. It also reduces the time you spend in the grocery store. In our case, I know the layout of the grocery stores we shop very, very well. I have actually spent time learning the layout. Why? Quite simply, because I can organize my grocery list in the order I encounter the items at a particular grocery store. Again, this saves time. However, I did it not so much for the time savings, but because if I am treating grocery shopping like a game, where I’m trying to cross items off my list as quickly as possible, I don’t linger and make the impulse buy. It’s more than just being able to justify buying something that’s not on my list. It’s a simple of matter that I don’t even consider anything that’s not on my list. And finally, we save time because we don’t have to keep going back to the grocery store. We make two trips a week and we’re good. If we weren’t a family of six, I’m sure we could get away with one trip. However, milk, juice, and eggs don’t make it a week.

All in all, here are the benefits we see from menu planning:

  • Eliminates the stress of trying to figure out what to cook.
  • Reduces cost grocery shopping because a shopping list is easier to write out.
  • Reduces time grocery shopping because we’re following a list.
  • We’re able to plan out meals and ensure a reasonable balance for meals.
  • We’re able to reduce fast food meals to when things just go haywire or when we choose to eat out. This is both more healthy and saves money.
  • We’re able to have a more consistent meal time.

If you aren’t sitting down and planning your meals, I hope you consider it. It helps a lot. It will take a bit to find your happy medium as far as time intervals are considered. Some plan two weeks, even a month out. We tried that, and we even tried to shorten the interval to twice a week to coincide with grocery store trips. For my family, once a week seems best. We still need to make two trips to the grocery store, but that second trip is faster and cheaper overall.

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AanvallenI was extremely fortunate. My mom had me on a stool stirring spaghetti sauce when I was 6 years old. She got me involved in cooking early and while I didn’t do very much of it with her over the years of my childhood, I did learn several important lessons from her:

  • Be prepared
  • Understand proper timing
  • Have a passion for your work
  • Check your work
  • Master your work
  • Understand how much is too much

Except for the last one, my mom excels at each of these. I learned the last one in reverse. It’s often joked that when my mom cooks, she cooks for about 3-4x the number of people there actually are. It probably comes from the fact that she grew up in a large family with a lot of boys and men around. Add to my mom’s impromptu lessons the ones I received from Japanese culture classes during my time in Japan and a regular classes during a quarter of home economics in 7th grade, and I found that cooking was something that was useful, enjoyable, and carried lessons for other aspects of life. Needless to say, I’m starting to make sure that my oldest children learn how to cook. Here’s how:

Start Small and Simple

Last night we had cubed steak, green beans, black-eyed peas, and biscuits. My younger son (12) was tasked with preparing the vegetables and the biscuits while I worked on the cubed steak. Now it’s easy to heat up vegetables on a stove, but he also had to keep an eye on the biscuits. They were all going to be done around the same time, so he needed to think about what to do, not panic, and do the things in the way he thought through them. Of course, I gave him coaching to help him be ready, and he did just fine. The biscuits came out great, the vegetables were seasoned and hot but not mushy, and everything hit the table warm and ready to go.

Build Up Their Skills

My oldest daughter (6) is learning to bake. We started simple, with a cake mix. For her first go around with baking, I had her put the eggs in and use the electric mixer. Now with cake from a name brand cake mix, as long as you have the ingredient ratios right, that’s pretty much all there is to it. All that’s left is to spread the cake batter into the cake pans, stick them in the oven, and ensure they don’t burn. Yes, there’s some things to do on the decorating side, but they aren’t very difficult either.

The next time we went after a cobbler. I wanted her to do more as she learns how to be a better baker. So this time I measured out all the ingredients and she had to put them in. In addition, there was one point where hand mixing was required (cornstarch with water and lemon juice as a thickener for the fruit “filling.” She did that, too, to the best of her ability and I finished it up until it was ready to put in with the rest of the fruit mix.

Logically what’s next is for her to get some practice measuring out her own ingredients. I know this will be a bit more trouble for her, but it’s the next step in what she has to do, ehich leads to the next thing to remember.

Expect Mistakes

I know she’ll do fine, but one of the things to realize if you’re working with children is they are going to make mistakes. I’ve been cooking and baking for years. A lot of things aren’t hard for me, but that’s because I have had plenty of practice doing them. For instance, the first time I tried to put icing on a cake… it didn’t come out so well. So it’s important to remember that most of the time when we ask children to do something, it’ll be their first time, too. Therefore, expect mistakes. You can minimize the impact of mistakes by:

  • speaking words of understanding when a mistake happens
  • Ensure you have extra amounts of the ingredients for the mistakes
  • Practice the concept of mise en place to ensure you aren’t waiting for an ingredient when it’s needed, thereby ruining the dish

When we were preparing the cobbler, my daughter went to pour in the lemon juice and moved too quickly. It went all over the counter and not into the cornstarch slurry. This wasn’t a problem. We had practiced mise en place in getting all the ingredients together and weren’t in a rush. So I told her it wasn’t a big deal, she cleaned up the spill, and then I pulled more lemon juice from the refrigerator. After the measuring spoon was refilled, she completed the step in the recipe and we were fine.

Talk to Them about Next Time If You Can

With my son, since it was dinner and he’s helped in the past, there really wasn’t any major conversation about next time. However, with my daughter, since all of this is new, we talked briefly about how she would do more measuring of the ingredients next time. We also talked a bit after putting the cake in the oven. Next time she’ll get to help decorate. She’s looking forward to that.

Remember It’s Time with Your Child

An old saying is, “Children spell love T-I-M-E.” That’s so very true. I know nowadays the talk is about maximizing your time by having “quality” time, but the truth of the matter is that you don’t know when those special moments will come. Therefore, quantity of time is required to set the table for those special moments (pun intended). Since this is time with your child, don’t be in a hurry to get it all done. Make sure you have enough time for your child to be able to help you, allowing for mistakes and for the fact that they aren’t experienced at doing whatever it is you are trying to show them. Also, seek to have a positive and nurturing spirit during this time, not a negative one. Your role is not one of executive chef where you’re barking out orders and your charges must snap to immediately with exactly what is demanded. This isn’t a job for your child. This is fun time with you.


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Simple Buttermilk Biscuit Recipe

Here is the simple buttermilk biscuit recipe I used a couple of days ago to good effect. Prep time should be less than 15 minutes before the biscuits are ready to bake.


  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 5 tablespoons butter

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit.

Mix together the dry ingredients with a fork and then add the buttermilk. With a wooden spoon, quickly mix to a wet dough. Add a trace more buttermilk if the dough looks too dry. Be careful to mix as little as possible to bring the dough together.

Roll out dough to about 1/2 inch thick on a floured surface and fold back on itself about five times. Again, work the dough as little as possible. Cut the dough into biscuits, makes about 10 or so. Place the biscuits onto an ungreased cookie sheet. Cut the butter into 1/2 tablespoon slices and place on top of the biscuits.

Place into the oven and cook for 10-12 minutes, watching for browning to indicate when done.


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My five year-old daughter has an allergy to milk proteins. This goes beyond lactose intolerance. For any processed food we buy that she might consume, we have to look carefully at the ingredient list to see if it says Milk in the list of allergens it was made with. We also scan to see if whey and caesin is listed when the allergens aren’t listed. And we’ve come to discover with bread we have to do this every single time we buy bread. There have been two occasions now where a particular type of bread did not use milk but somewhere along the way the company making that type of bread changed the process and now it does. Needless to say, with kids liking bread a lot (can you say, “Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches!”) and my daughter being no exception, this isn’t a fun way to waste a few extra minutes at the grocery store every single time we go to buy groceries. It can be up to an additional 15-20 minutes if a formerly relied upon brand has changed its recipe as we scan to find another brand that’s safe for her.

Now over the years, her allergy has reduced a little. When she was a baby, it was extreme. The least little bit of milk and everything came out the backside, and she received almost no nutrition. That, in addition to her renal tubular acidosis, meant she did not grow at all from 9 months to 18 months. Not one inch. Not one ounce. It took us that long to find out both problems and we saw just about every specialist there is to see outside of oncology. She can now have a little milk, but it has to be carefully watched. Too much and she has the same problem again. Now, think about how many things are made with milk. Things kids like… like cheese. She loves cheese. But because of her allergy she can only have a bite or two of cheese every few days (and then we have to watch what else she has). When you also consider how many people cook with milk, it makes things really, really difficult. There have been several times when we’ve gone to a church meal function and I end up having to leave to pick up something for her because we see what has been made and we do a quick summation in our head of what she has had that has milk in it and make the determination that’s what’s before us will put her over the edge. This is stressful, and it gets old in a hurry. But I don’t expect for folks serving in this way to accommodate us. I know what it’s like cooking without milk. It can be challenging and sometimes, you just can’t do the recipe even with substitutions (soy milk, for instance), because the taste is off. Several of my favorite recipes are in the scrap heap because they just have too much milk in them. To expect others who don’t do this regularly to do so easily when they are already under the stress of cooking for a large number of folks is completely unrealistic.

So the trick is to reduce the milk intake wherever we can. One place we can control is in bread. Bread ultimately can be made with the following ingredients:

  • flour
  • water
  • yeast
  • salt

And it can taste really, really good. So that’s why we’re now making our own bread. I want to make situations where we can’t control the milk content easier to manage. And I’m tired of the ingredient list game at the grocery store. Those two motivating factors led me last night to make my first ever hand-kneaded batch of bread. I don’t need another electrical device, so I didn’t even consider a bread making machine. I know others may swear by theirs, and that’s fine, but it’s not for me. I think that first batch came out well. The picture is one of the loaves from my first batch last night.

What I learned from making that first batch is yes, it’s quite a bit of work. Most of it because this was the first time I was learning how to do things. Also, because I’m a complete novice at kneading bread. But kneading bread, though it took some effort, was fun. I loved how the texture of the dough changed to a satiny feel, telling me it was kneaded enough. I loved setting the dough aside, coming back an hour later, and seeing how it had expanded. Or how making the incisions at the top spread out in the finished product. Or how squirting the top with water led to a great crust. Making and kneading the dough and then baking the bread was, from start to finish, a rather enjoyable experience. It was similar to the feeling I get when I know I’ve gotten the broth right for udon or when I’ve come to the end of making my own chicken broth and I know that the soup from it will be outstanding. One that I now look forward to the next time I do it (which will probably be this weekend to prepare enough bread for the first half of next week).

Because I’m serious about making our own bread from now on, I made sure to get the right tools for the long haul. Here’s the list of what I either already had or picked up to make bread regularly from here on out:

  • The River Cottage Bread Handbook – It’s small, it’s hardcover, and the author’s passion really comes through. Also, he looks to do things simply, but well. The simple bread recipe is what I used and it is simple (other “simple” recipes are not necessarily so).
  • KitchenAid Stand Mixer – If you do any baking, this is a huge time saver. We already had one.
  • Oneida Rectangular Baking Stone – I’ve heard mixed reviews on this one. However, it was the only one available locally.
  • Progressive Dough Cutter / Scraper – This is the one I picked up. Any decent stainless steel one will do.
  • Wooden Peel – The one I bought cracked on first use, so I don’t have a good one to recommend, but one is needed.

The other things are appropriate sized bowls; a good, sharp, serrated bread knife; measuring spoons, cups, and bowls; large wooden surface (like a large cutting board); and cloths to cover the bread as the yeast does its work.

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Spicing Up Eggs

I learned a long time ago that it’s not too hard to make a simple dish taste better. Spices are a key, as is technique. This is what I tell my wife. I grew up cooking. I can remember helping make spaghetti sauce as a 5 year-old with me propped up on a stool and stirring the sauce while it was cooking on the stove. My mom showed me what to do, what ingredients to put in, and how to keep from getting burned. That was just one of many lessons I have learned over the years. My wife, on the other hand, did not grow up learning to cook. And so things I consider to be second nature are things that she has to think about. I’ve grown to really appreciate the lessons my mom taught me over the years. One of those lessons is to use a little spice to make a dish better.

This morning when I woke up I wanted a hot breakfast before getting ready for work. We had some rice in the refrigerator, but we didn’t have hot dogs. My all time favorite meal is rice, hot dogs, and eggs. Not the healthiest meal in the world, but one that can be slathered with ketchup (something I learned from my Uncle Carlos). Rice is a staple for me because I’m half-Japanese. So without hot dogs, what to do? I decided to make a ham and cheese omelet.

Now ham and cheese omelets are nothing special. I don’t add milk to my eggs (I never have) and I don’t mix the cheese in with the eggs, either. I go a route I saw for a traditional French omelet. If you do a search for “french omelet” or “how to make a french omelet” you’ll see a bunch of different recipes and different ways to do it. Here’s my basic approach:

  1. Mix two eggs well in a bowl using a fork.
  2. Ensure the filling ingredients are prepared. In this case I sliced the ham and the cheese for easy distribution.
  3. Heat a skillet over medium heat (you want the temperature a little lower so it doesn’t burn).
  4. Use non-stick spray to coat the skillet once it comes up to temperature (I know traditional recipes call for butter, but I prefer non-stick spray made out of canola or olive oil)
  5. Pour in the eggs and spread around the skillet so it evenly coats the bottom.
  6. As the bottom of the omelet begins to set, add the filling to the center and season with herbs and spices.
  7. When the omelet looks mostly set (a French omelet will still look a little runny) use a spatula to ensure the omelet isn’t sticking, then transfer to a plate, causing the omelet to fold in half as you do so.

Even if I’m just cooking scrambled eggs, this is the basic technique I use. The eggs are creamy and they aren’t dry. There’s no need to add extra milk or water and I don’t have to reserve any extra egg to ensure I keep a creamy consistency. It’s all about having the ingredients ready ahead of time and controlling the temperature. It may take a few times to get the technique down, but it’s worth it. However, the technique isn’t what really makes a better meal. That would be the spices and herbs.

When I started cooking, we were pretty much limited to MSG, soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, and ground black pepper. My mom has high blood pressure and the soy sauce had more than enough sodium for what she could tolerate. Being able to afford much else wasn’t in the budget of a Marine enlisted family. Nowadays spices are cheap and plentiful, especially dried spices. However, you should never do without the basic staple of salt and pepper. I know salt can make eggs hard, but as fast as omelets cook, I don’t worry about it. They always turn out fine. So I ensure that I use a reasonable amount of salt and pepper. I also reached for two other sets of spices that just about everyone has in their cupboards: garlic powder and Italian seasoning. Yes, fresh garlic would have been better. But I didn’t have any and I didn’t have time to mince any garlic even if I had some around. Notice I did not say garlic salt. I don’t tend to use garlic salt. I typically use salt and fresh garlic. As for Italian seasoning, it’s a blend of several spices and while I like using the more common ones (basil and oregano) fresh, I didn’t have any around and I didn’t have any extra time to deal with them in any case. So I went with what worked given my resources and time: salt, pepper, garlic powder, and Italian seasoning.

It may not seem like a whole lot, but those ingredients really spice up a simple omelet. And that’s a tip for just about any simple recipe. The right selection of herbs and spices along with salt and pepper can turn an ordinary dish into something far more tasty. It’s something my wife has learned and she experiments from time to time with different spice combinations as she grows in her cooking expertise. Not every experiment is a success, even the top chefs create dishes best relegated to the trash can on occasion, but experimenting is key to knowing what you and your family like and how much spice to use.

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Serves: 6-8

Preparation Time: 15-20 minutes


  • 2 Tablespoons Vegetable Oil
  • 2 lbs. of potatoes, peeled and sliced
  • Dash of Italian Seasoning
  • Salt and Pepper


  • Heat the skillet to medium-high heat and add the vegetable oil. Roll the skillet to coat the bottom.
  • Add the potatoes to the skillet, frequently moving around to keep them from burning.
  • Season with salt and pepper.
  • Continue to cook until the potatoes are tender. Then transfer to serving plate.
  • Sprinkle the top of the potatoes with Italian Seasoning. Mix the potatoes to coat all of them.

You could also use extra virgin olive oil w/ a bit of garlic for a stronger taste. Since I have younger tastebuds in the house (including a 5 year-old picky eater), I stayed simple with the vegetable oil. If you don’t have Italian Seasoning, you can mix your own using any combination of basil, oregano, or majoram. We always have some around for use in spaghetti and the like, so that’s what I went with. If you’re eating with chicken, a bit of rosemary would go nice as well.

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This is modified from the recipe found at About.com.

Serves: 6-8

Preparation Time: 3.5 – 4.5 hours


  • 6-8 pork chops, about 1 inch thick
  • 6-8 apples (we used Juicy Delicious)
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • Additional vegetable oil to brown the pork chops
  • Ground Cinnamon
  • Ground Allspice
  • Salt & Pepper


  1. In a skillet over medium high heat, brown both sides of each pork chop in the vegetable oil.
  2. With the crock pot on high, layer the pork chops along the bottom of the crock pot as best you can. Season lightly with salt and pepper.
  3. Thinly slice the apples, avoiding the core. Layer the apples on top of the pork chops.
  4. Mix the 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil and 2 tablespoons of lemon juice and pour over the apples.
  5. Lightly coat the top of the apples with the cinnamon. Use about half as much allspice. Season with salt and pepper.
  6. Mix, by hand, the apples to ensure the cinnamon and all-spice get over all the apple slices.
  7. Cover and cook for 3-4 hours on high.

The pork chops should be good and tender and have a nice hint of apple when you bite into them. When I cooked them, they were tender enough to cut with a fork. The apples will slightly resemble apple pie filling, but the juices of the pork chops should be absorbed, giving a nice overall flavor.

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