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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Tomato Basil Parmesan Soup

A couple of days ago, I was craving soup.  I love cheese soups, but unfortunately I'm the only one in my household who does like them, so I usually share whatever I make with my mom.  Tomato Basil Parmesan soup filled the bill.  

It does take a bit of time to make, but the payoff is worth it!  It's spicy.  It's creamy.  It's tomatoey.  It's yummy, and it is filling!  What's not to like?  Plus, it makes a ton of soup, so there is plenty to eat and plenty to share.  Serve this with an antipasto side, such as olives and cheese, plus a crusty bread or just good old-fashioned crackers.  

Tomato Basil Parmesan Soup

 ½ stick butter

1 cup minced onion (about 1 medium onion)

1 cup chopped celery (about 4 stalks)

1 cup chopped carrots

2 cans (14 to 14.5 oz.) diced tomatoes, undrained

3 cups chicken broth or reconstituted bouillon

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1  Tablespoon dried basil

1 bay leaf

2 cans cream of chicken soup

1 can 12 oz. can evaporated milk

1 cup parmesan cheese     

Salt and pepper to taste

In very large sauce pan, melt butter over medium-low heat.  Add onion, celery, and carrots and allow to cook until onions are translucent.  Increase heat and add tomatoes, broth, oregano, basil, and bay leaf.  Cover, bring to boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes.  Remove lid and add cream of chicken soup.  Blend well.  Add milk and blend.  Add parmesan cheese and blend.  Cover, reduce heat to low and allow to heat through for approximately 5 minutes.  Salt and pepper to taste.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Easy Spicy Baked Chicken

Spicy baked chicken is a very versatile dish and one that is so easy to make it should be a sin.   We make this in large batches and then store it and use it throughout the week for both hot and cold dishes.  The first night we usually eat it with rice, potatoes, and a salad or other vegetables.  After that, we may slice it into sandwiches, reheat it and eat it with onions and peppers for fajitas, toss it with greens for an easy salad, or reheat it for a quick hot meal.  

We do this on nights when it's crazy around here and want a simple, hearty meal that can be reheated as needed. We work such varied schedules that many times we eat at different times.  By making this dish, it's a way that we can make sure we all have a nice meal no matter what time we arrive home.  I make my own all-purpose spicy seasoning mix, and combine this with butter or olive oil for a savory seasoning that comes out just right.  The chicken falls apart when it comes out of the oven, and there will also be a savory au jus when baking is finished that is a wonderful seasoning for a baked potato, rice, or noodles.

Easy Spicy Baked Chicken
3-4 boneless skinless chicken breasts (or as many as you want), cut into 2 inch wide strips 
My all-purpose seasoning (recipe HERE) or seasoned salt plus ground black pepper
Butter or olive oil 

Spray a large baking pan with nonstick cook spray.  Coat both sides of chicken strips with seasoning.  Place in pan.  Either dot with 1/2 teaspoon spots of butter or drizzle with olive oil.  Cover pan with foil.  Place in 350 degree oven and bake for 1 hour to 1 hour 15 minutes.  

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Frugal Versus Cheap

Frugality has become very popular over the last several years due to the economy, job market, and rising cost of things like groceries and utilities.  A change in a person's living situation, or simply a desire to be debt free or spend less can set off a chain of events that lead to an examination of lifestyles and ways that money is being spent.  Frugality is a mindset.  It is a way to look at the money you have available to you, what you desire in your life, and using your resources wisely.  Unfortunately, sometimes, people can become overzealous with their frugality and go over to cheap.  What's the difference?  For some people, it's semantics.  One person's cheap is the other person's frugal.  My personal definition of cheap is when your actions take away from others or from your or someone else's quality of life.  While it's great to save, moderation in all things is best.  

So how do you know the difference?  Here are some examples below: 

Frugal:  Buying paper towels on sale with a coupon.
Cheap:  Hanging up paper towels to dry that have been used for “wet only” items.

Frugal:  Using a 2-for-1 coupon to purchase meals at a restaurant or splitting a meal.
Cheap:  Failing to tip the server or only tipping for the 1-meal price.

Frugal:  Using wrapping paper from the dollar store or buying it on sale after Christmas and storing it.
Cheap:  Using birthday, wedding, or happy anniversary wrapping paper for Christmas because you’re too cheap to buy more. 

Frugal:  Having a pot luck meal, making the main entrée, and asking others to bring sides. 
Cheap:  Having a pot luck meal and assigning things to bring so that you don’t have to do anything except set the table…. And then keeping the leftovers. 

Frugal:  Agreeing to dinner and then splitting the tab.
Cheap:  Agreeing to split a dinner tab but ordering an expensive meal, drinks, appetizer, and dessert while the other person bought an inexpensive entrée and drank water.  

Frugal:  Purchasing an outfit on sale, at a thrift store, or by using a discount coupon.
Cheap:  Buying an expensive outfit, wearing it, and then returning it to the store.

Frugal:  Agreeing to carpool to an event and splitting the cost of gas.   
Cheap:  Agreeing to a carpool and then not chipping in for gas when everyone else does.

Frugal:  Buying vegetables on sale or that are marked down and close to their expiration date to be used immediately.
Cheap:  Going home and exchanging your fresh vegetables you just bought for ones that are starting to go bad and then taking them back to the store and demanding a refund, claiming your fresh veggies went bad too quickly.

Frugal:  Buying an item on sale, and enjoying it to its fullest extent, being sad if that item tears up or becomes defective after receiving a lot of use from the item.
Cheap:  Buying an item, using it well, then having it tear up.  Going into a store, buying the same item but repacking the well-used and broken item in the box, claim it’s defective, and then demanding your money back.

Frugal:  Saving leftover condiment packages such as ketchup, mustard, hot sauce, etc., from carryout or drive through meals for later use (i.e., items that were voluntarily given to you along with your meal).
Cheap:  Entering a restaurant and stuffing your pockets with sugar, salt, pepper, plastic utensils, napkins, ketchup packets, hot sauce packets, etc. (i.e., not given to you but offered to go along with meals in a restaurant and putting the restaurant at a disadvantage by taking them). 

Frugal:  Using coupons to get discounts at a restaurant.
Cheap:  Going to a restaurant and asking the cashier to use coupons other people have turned in.   

Frugal:  Learning to cut your family's hair. 
Cheap:  Taking your kids to free haircut days at JCPenney, having the kids' heads shaved so they can go 3 months without having a haircut, and then failing to tip the hair stylist. 

These are but a few very real examples of things that people have done in the name of saving money.  You have to decide for yourself how far you are willing to go to save money, but keeping the above examples in mind can help decide if you're being truly frugal or cheap. 

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Homemade Laundry Soap Using Liquid Castile Soap

Have you ever tried making homemade laundry soap?  I have, many times, with varying results.  I finally found a recipe that works for me that I'm going to share here.  Most recipes use simple, easily obtained ingredients that are sold in either local grocery/department stores or available online. I like being able to make my own laundry soap because it gives me a sense of accomplishment that I've made something useful.  (I am woman, hear me roar and all that!)  I also like knowing that, in a pinch, if I need to, I can whip up something to do a load or two of laundry in case I run out of laundry soap. 

I've found, however, that homemade laundry soap is one of those things that people either love or hate.  They have mixed reasons for trying it.  Some people do it for economic reasons, some for environmental reasons, and some for personal reasons such as having sensitive skin. Other people have tried it and rejected it because they felt it didn't clean their clothes well, it didn't smell right, or it was more work than they were willing to do.  If you are willing to stick with the process, you can often adjust the ingredients to develop a laundry detergent that works for you and your situation. 

Most recipes call for a grated bar of some sort of soap such as Fels Naptha, Zote, Kirk's Castile soap, or Ivory Soap along with water softeners and laundry boosters such as washing soda or borax.  Grating a big old bar of soap can be tedious, even with a food processor, because once everything is mixed, most people prefer to run it through the food processor yet again to grind the mixed ingredients into a fine powder. That's kind of pain.  If you don't have a food processor, you'll have big curls of soap shavings in your dry mix.  That is unless you use the liquid soap recipe.    That tends to make a big, gooey bucket of laundry soap akin to slime.  However, there are recipes using liquid soap that are very easy to make, work well, and are very gentle.  

My favorite recipe uses Dr. Bronner's liquid castile soap.  It comes together very quickly.  It's easily mixed, it's not messy, it's not slimy, and it is has concentrated cleaning power in a very pourable consistency.  The recipe is below, with some notes.  

1 cup very hot water
1 cup Dr. Bronner's castile soap, any scent 
1/2 cup washing soda*
1/2 cup borax*
1 gallon clean, empty container

INSTRUCTIONS:  Place borax and washing soda in a small pitcher or cup (easier to pour).  Add 1 cup very hot water (or more) and stir until washing soda and borax have dissolved.  Pour into gallon container.  Add castile soap.  Do not shake!  Cap container and tilt back and forth to mix soap, washing soda, and borax.  Remove cap and slowly add cold water until container is full, leaving enough room to mix.  Again cap container and tilt back and forth to mix.  Allow to cool, shaking periodically to blend.  This will be a very thin, watery detergent, but it works very, very well and has a wonderful scent.  

If you shake the ingredients before filling the container with water, it will make suds.  Then when you add the cold water, it may overflow the container.  Tilting the container back and forth several times will mix the ingredients without generating suds.

TO USE:  Measure out 1-2 tablespoons of laundry soap into dispenser or bottom of washing machine, and launder as usual. You may need as much as 1/4 cup if there are tough stains or the laundry is extra dirty. 

*NOTE:  The standard recipe calls for 1/2  cup each of washing soda and borax.  I have found that for our type of water, it is better to adjust the ingredients to be 3/4 cup washing soda and 1/4 cup borax because we have a high calcium content in the water so need a laundry additive that has a higher acidity.  If you use the regular recipe and find your clothes are not getting clean, try adding 1/2 cup of white vinegar or 1/2 cup lemon juice to the wash to further soften water and chelate any metals present in your local water supply.  

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Pumpkin Bread - 2 Ingredient Recipe

This is a repost as everyone in my family has been very, very sick.  I am finally getting back into the swing of things so wanted to repost this scrumptious recipe. 

I'm usually skeptical when it comes to certain recipes, particularly when it comes to baking.  Lately, however, I've been fascinated with recipes that contain only 2-3 ingredients.   I love to cook, and I love simple recipes, but some are a bit too simple.  Sometimes taste or consistency is sacrificed for ease.  Well, not with this one!   It was moist, tasty, and oh so easy! 

Pumpkin Spice Bread:
1 Package spice cake mix
1 Large (29 oz.) can of pumpkin*

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Mix ingredients well, until all lumps of cake mix are smoothed out.  Pour into a greased 9 x 13 inch pan.   Bake at 350 for 25-30 minutes or until a knife inserted in the middle comes out clean.  Allow to cool completely, then slice and serve with powdered sugar or cream cheese frosting. 

*I've seen some recipes that say to use the smaller can of pumpkin.  I tried it and did not care for it at all.  The batter was more like clay or putty, and it was nearly impossible to spread in the pan.  In my opinion, the larger can yielded better results. 

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Homemade Popcorn Chicken/Chicken Nuggets

Popcorn chicken is something that my family can always agree to eat.  Even my son, who is a very picky eater, loves it.  You can make a batch of this, and it is excellent so serve for a meal, as a snack, or serve alongside other goodies for a potluck type dinner.  We have a local chicken place that makes chicken chunks/nuggets, but they are just a little too big.  These are a perfect size to pop in your mouth, especially after dunking them in your favorite sauce.  As my son says, "Mom, these are the BOMB!" 

This is my own recipe that I developed over time.  I know most chefs would say that there is something special about the ingredients, but truthfully I just based them on trial, error, and what tastes good.  We like these served with ketchup or honey mustard dipping sauce, but they're also great smothered with gravy alongside mashed potatoes.  

Homemade Popcorn Chicken 
3-4 pounds of boneless skinless chicken breasts cut into 1 to 1.5 inch cubes 
1-2 cups milk 
2 cups of flour (eyeball it)
2 Tablespoons of my all-purpose seasoning or seasoning of your choice
1-2 teaspoons ground black pepper 
1 to 1.5 inches of oil in frying pan (or use a deep fryer) 

Instructions and are photos below.   
Cut chicken into 1 to 1.5 inch pieces (no bigger).  Place them in a large flat container. 
Pour in approximately 1-2 cups of milk.  Eyeball it, as the chicken just needs to be covered so that it can soak for a bit in a milk bath.  (Discard milk after all chicken has been removed from it.  Do NOT reuse this milk!)
While chicken is soaking, add oil to skillet (or turn on deep fryer) and allow oil to heat until a droplet of water flicked into the oil sizzles and turns to steam.    In another flat pan place flour, all-purpose seasoning, and black pepper.  Blend.  
When oil is heated, take pieces of chicken from the milk, place them in the flour mixture, and coat well.  Then fry batches of chicken in oil. Allow to cook 2-3 minutes, and then flip chicken pieces over so that both sides cook well.  Remove when chicken is a light golden brown.  Place on paper towels to drain and soak up any excess oil.  The color will deepen to a darker brown when removed from oil and allowed to cool. 
And there you have them.  Tender, golden, bite-sized chunks of yumminess just waiting to be popped into your mouth and enjoyed.