I love you Chuck. Chuck Roast, that is…

So this piece really has no direct correlation to parenting, but since I am quite the little food junkie I felt the need to dedicate an entire blog post to my favorite slab of meat:  the chuck roast.  Why?  Because it’s awesome.  Well if you eat red meat of course, which we do in my family.

As a full-time working mom I make great use of my crock pot all year long, not just in the winter.  And a chuck roast is quite simply one of the most versatile things you can prepare in the slow cooker.  It’s almost impossible to screw up, can take as little or as much seasoning as you want, and can be used in a thousand different ways.

So why the sudden urge to write about my friend Chuck?  When I think about the coming week and what dinners will fit into our busy schedules, I often look for things that I can cook once and use twice.  So yesterday I plopped a chuck roast into the crock pot with some onions, carrots, seasoning, and a little broth, with the intention of having a vintage pot roast dinner.  It turned out perfectly and I served the tender meat with rice, some quick homemade gravy (using the reserved broth), broccoli, and the carrots that cooked alongside the meat.  I felt like June Cleaver serving Ward and the Beaver (minus the patent leather heels), and it was delicious.  But the best part was seeing a big plate of leftover beef, knowing that dinner is covered tonight.  Because I chose to season the meat simply, it’s once again a blank canvas for tonight’s meal, which will be hot beef and cheddar sandwiches.  Nothing is simpler on a weeknight than a hearty sandwich, and this one rocks because the main component is already done.  And since I know it’s a quick fix tonight, I’m hitting the gym after work.  Score.

So here’s the skinny on all the different ways I use this versatile, inexpensive, delicious cut of meat.  I usually try to find a 3-ish pound roast with some good marbling; you need a little fat to ensure it stays moist as it cooks, and trust me, it breaks down completely after 8 hours (on low) in the crock pot.  I typically season it very simply so I can use it more than once in different dishes; salt, pepper, some cut up onions and garlic, and any other “universal” ingredient you want to toss in for flavor.  My arsenal:

  1. Traditional pot roast like I describe above. Add in some carrots and potatoes, serve with rice and gravy and you’ll be a 50’s housewife in no time.
  2. Tacos/burritos/enchiladas. Season the meat with cumin, chili powder, and hot sauce, and use it for your favorite Mexican-style dish.  It’s so flavorful and goes great with traditional taco fixins.  It’s like your own version of Chipotle.
  3. Beef stroganoff.  I love beef stroganoff in the winter.  I’ve made it a dozen different ways, using everything from high quality steak to hamburger, but the shredded crock pot beef is by far my favorite.  When I get home from work all I have to do is shred the meat, combine it with some of the broth (thickened), mushrooms, sour cream, a few herbs, and egg noodles.  So good on a cold night.
  4. Chili.  My husband loves chili made with chunks of beef versus ground beef.  It’s a nice twist on a traditional red chili with beans, and the chuck roast has more flavor than hamburger.
  5. Soup.  Beef and barley, beef vegetable, steak and potato.  Envision the soup aisle at the store and easily recreate it at home.
  6. Sandwiches.  French dip, beef and cheddar, sliders, you name it.  If you slow cook the meat with onions they are soft and sweet and so good on the beefy sandwiches.  Play around with different breads, cheeses, and condiments like horseradish sauce and honey mustard.  I almost always make sandwiches with leftover chuck roast.

I could go on and on, but I’ll stop here.  Want to know what’s even BETTER?  If you don’t want to eat beef two days in a row, it freezes perfectly.  So you can put it away and have it ready a month later when you get the craving.  The same goes for slow roasted pork roast, but that’s a blog for another day…

Chuck, I love ya.  I just wrote an entire blog post about you.

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Order Up!

I often read about how important it is not to be a short order cook at dinner time.  You should teach your kids to experiment and eat the same things you do, in an effort to keep things simple, dirty fewer pots and pans, and introduce them to something other than PB&J and chicken nuggets.  All of that is excellent in theory, but I think challenging in practice.

I have a 2 ½ year old who is a pretty good eater.  Is he the mock love child of Rachael Ray and Bobby Flay, devouring arugula salads and roast duck?  Hardly.  But he likes meat, fruit, and a few stealth vegetables that I sneak in.  Despite this, dinnertime gets tricky for me in a couple of ways.  First, I love to cook.  It is my absolute favorite thing to do (besides eating).  I bury my face in cookbooks, food magazines, and recipe websites whenever I get the chance, so I’m always trying something new.  Usually what I’m experimenting with are things most 2 year olds won’t touch.  Sometimes I’m pleasantly surprised (Junior loved Korean beef tacos — odd), but usually I have a pretty good pulse on the things he will like.   So if I go the anti-short-order-cook route here are my options:  put my adult-friendly concoctions in front of Junior and say “eat or starve,” settle into a life of grilled chicken, rice, and applesauce, or split the difference.  I vote for the latter.

Sometimes I get a wild hair and decide to start creating something off the wall at 6:30 PM, which makes it too late for Junior to be part of the taste test panel.  Yes, hold your gasps, we aren’t always able to sit down and have dinner like the Cleavers every night.  I rarely get home from work and daycare before 6, and my husband is usually later.  Unless something has been brewing in the crock pot, or I’m tossing together something quick or eating leftovers, we may have to divide and conquer.  But on those nights at least one of us is sitting at the table with Junior, recapping the day and having quality time.  Sometimes, though, the only thing in front of me is a glass of wine, and I’ve stopped feeling guilty about it.  The life of 2 full-time working parents is challenging in a few ways, and the family dinner is one of them.  But we make it work the best way we can.

I digress…  Back to my conundrum of Junior starving because he doesn’t like my grown-up food, us being bored to tears with kid food, or coming to a compromise.  I try to work it out so Junior’s dinner includes at least one component of what I’m fixing for us, if it’s not something he’ll enjoy all together.  Example – if I’m doing something with crock pot pulled pork that I know he won’t like (i.e. making it super spicy), I will set aside a couple servings of the meat for him (plain) before I dress up the rest.  That way he’s eating the main dish along with us, but his is more kid-friendly.  Another example – I recently made Mediterranean-style pita sandwiches with things he doesn’t care for, like grilled shrimp, peppers, cucumbers, and white bean hummus.  So instead of a pita wrap, Junior had a pita pizza using some marinara sauce I had in the fridge, and the chopped spinach and feta cheese I was using for my own meal.  I really didn’t have to deviate much from what I fixed for myself, other than pulling out the marinara and some shredded mozzarella.

This tactic has made mealtime a little easier.  It allows me to still cook “interesting” things, and Junior can sample what he wants, but if necessary, still have a kid-friendly dinner using some of the same ingredients.  Does it work every night?  Nope.  But as is the case for every family, you figure out what works on that particular day.  And if that occasionally involves a little short-order cooking I’m fine with it.  There’s a reason fish sticks were put on this planet, and one of them is so I can enjoy  sushi every once in a while…

I will say, however, that there is tremendous truth behind the “let your kids help in the kitchen” trend.  Junior has experimented with so many more things since I put an apron on him, gave him a wooden spoon, and hoisted him up on his helping chair.  A little food for thought.  Order up!

Take Advantage of Your Resources!

It’s no secret that a mom’s best resource is other moms.  I am so fortunate to have close knit group of girlfriends who have coached each other through just about everything.  I had my first baby later than some of the others, so I was fully prepared for everything – and I mean everything – that would come my way during pregnancy, delivery, and post-birth.  Some people aren’t comfortable sharing or hearing that level of detail, but I’m so glad I was…  I had few, if any, WTF moments as a result.

I now understand why most of our conversations at girls’ dinners end up focusing on the kids.  As much as we try to take a break from it, even for just a couple hours over drinks, we always seem to be pulled back.  But that’s how we learn from each other.  It’s how we talk through crises, plan for the next stages, and breathe a sigh of relief when we realize we’re not nuts for doing or thinking something off the wall.  We help each other and most importantly, we keep each other sane.

As I was pulling dinner together tonight I was reminded once again how great a tight network of moms can be.  Why?  Because sometimes my meals depend on it.  About nine months ago one of my friends got the idea to start a Facebook page on which members could share recipes, ask questions, and offer tips and tricks for making mealtime a little easier for their families.  It’s a private group so only those invited by other members can participate.  It started with 10 or 15 ladies and has now expanded to over 70.  My dinner tonight was inspired by one of the group’s members, a person I’ve never even met!

There are tons and tons of fantastic food and lifestyle blogs out there.  You can find recipes and how-to’s any time you want with just a few keystrokes.  But sometimes I think the endless supply of information can be a little overwhelming; every now and then it’s nice for an unsolicited idea to show up in my news feed, rather than me seeking it out.  That’s why I like this Facebook group.  It’s made up entirely of moms who have a connection to at least one other person in the group.  It’s working moms, stay at home moms, single moms, you name it.  Now I’ll admit that I spend a lot of time trolling through food blogs each week and loving every second of it, but our little Facebook group has a more personal feel.  The volume of information is nothing like that of other recipe sites, but that’s OK.  It makes it more manageable, and since it doesn’t happen every day, it’s always fun to log on and see that someone has shared something new.

My greatest resources are my friends, and in some cases, friends of friends who I don’t know personally.  I consider myself very lucky.  Whether it’s a TMI conversation over a glass of wine, or simply posting a recipe or tip on our Facebook page, I am happy to pay it forward.  Do you have a creative way to share things with other moms you know?

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A totally unrelated PS…  Check out the new artwork on my sidebar.  I submit my thoughts to BlogHer (www.blogher.com) once in a while and one of my posts was picked up as a feature blog a few weeks ago.  As a result I was given some fancy BlogHer bling to show off!  The other graphic is the logo for a cool company that helps people raise money for causes they are passionate about.  I like what they do and like their logo, so I figured I’d amp up the flair on my sidebar even more.  Enjoy!

Low and Slow

If your family doesn’t own a slow cooker, please please please go to Wal-Mart or Target or Kohl’s or any store you like and pick one up.  It doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive; mine has 1 knob that offers Low, High, and Warm settings, and that’s all I need.  It will take a huge burden off your shoulders to get home from work and have dinner simmering away once or twice a week.  Even if I didn’t work full time I’d still own one and use it regularly.

A lot of people connect slow cooker meals to cold weather, but I use mine all year long.  In the summer months I usually stick to cooking bigger, tougher cuts of meat for barbecue, sandwiches, and fresh tacos.   The big guns come out in the winter:  chili, beef stew, chicken and dumplings, soups, beef stroganoff, meatballs and marinara, old fashioned pot roast…  I could go on and on.    If I’m using my slow cooker for a weeknight dinner I do all of my prep the night before so all I have to do the next morning is take the insert out of the fridge, plug it in, and head to work.  There is NOTHING better than coming home to a warm house that smells like home-cooked food…  The dog and cat certainly have sweet (er, savory?) dreams on those days.

Since there are countless recipes out there I won’t waste your time or mine reciting a bunch of them, but I will share a few techniques that will allow you to turn a couple types of meat into several different meals.  ALL are perfect for freezing too, so don’t hesitate to make a lot!  My two favorite meats to cook in my cooker are CHUCK ROAST and PORK SHOULDER.   Both are relatively inexpensive hunks of meat that require slow cooking to get tender.  And you get a lot of bang for your buck.

For either one, simply put it in the slow cooker with some salt and pepper, sliced onions, sliced peppers, garlic, and a little liquid (water, broth, wine, whatever).  Turn it to low and let it go; when you get home from work it will be fork tender and ready to use in one of these (or a million other) ways:

  1. Spicy shredded beef:  mix cooked shredded beef with some jarred jalapenos (I like the vinegary kick) and use for tacos or beef ‘n cheddar sandwiches.
  2. Quick stroganoff:  mix cooked shredded beef with sautéed mushrooms and some sour cream thinned out with fresh beef broth or the juice from the slow cooker (skim off any fat).  Play with the liquid and sour cream until you get the consistency you like and serve it over buttered egg noodles.
  3. Pork barbecue:  mixed cooked shredded pork with your favorite barbecue sauce (homemade or bottled – homemade is so easy and so much better in my opinion) and serve on warm rolls with coleslaw.
  4. Green chili verde:  mix cooked shredded pork with salsa verde (bottled or make your own, but bottled is easier on a weeknight), pickled jalapenos if you like it spicy, frozen sweet corn, fresh cilantro, and a few dashes of cumin.  I like it a little on the thicker side, served over rice, but you can thin it out with a little broth or water.  You can also bulk it up with some canned, rinsed white beans.

The same techniques can also be used with slow cooked chicken if you like; cook a whole bird or the individual pieces the same way.

There is one slow cooker recipe I MUST share because I never in a million years thought would work:  crock pot bread.  I got this recipe from @yummly on Twitter and tried it out yesterday; I was pleasantly surprised and re-tweeted the recipe (see what you’re missing if you don’t follow @mommybanter on Twitter?)  Now, this only takes about 2.5 hours to cook so you need to be home to turn off the slow cooker, or if you have a fancy one with a timer that’s good too.  I think this is definitely something you can play around with and come up with some different versions; I immediately thought cinnamon swirl…

1 tbsp yeast

¼ cup warm water

1 cup warm milk (I used 1% but I’m sure any kind will work)

½ cup rolled oats

1 tsp salt

2 tbsp olive oil

2 tbsp honey

1 beaten egg

¼ wheat germ (ummm, don’t keep this on hand so I left it out)

2¾ cups whole wheat flour (I used 50/50 whole wheat and all purpose because I ran out of wheat)

  1. Turn slow cooker to HIGH to pre-heat.  Grease a deep metal or glass bowl (I used a medium sized Pyrex souffle dish)

    picture courtesy of http://www.food.com

  2. Dissolve yeast in warm water, then combine with milk, oats, salt, oil, honey, egg, and wheat germ (if you use it)
  3. Add flour, turn onto the counter or cutting board, and knead until smooth and elastic (about 5 minutes).  The dough is STICKY at first so flour the surface and your hands pretty well.  It will tighten up after a few minutes, but don’t over-knead it!
  4. Put dough ball in the greased bowl and cover loosely (!!) with foil
  5. Lay a trivet in the bottom of the slow cooker or wad up a few pieces of tin foil and put them on the bottom, along with ½ cup water.  The key is to keep the bowl with the dough in it off the bottom of the slow cooker; I used the balled up foil method.
  6. Cover the cooker and let it cook for 2.5-3 hours.  I peeked after 2.5 hours and mine was firm to the touch so I took it out, but every slow cooker is different.

The bread turned out crispy on the edges and soft in the middle, but I can definitely see how it could dry out if left in the slow cooker too long, so just be aware of that as time ticks on.  I put it under the broiler for a couple of minutes to crisp up the top too.  It went really well with my first batch of homemade fall chili.  Happy slow cooking!

 

Loud Yogurt

Not too long ago I bought a bag of frozen strawberries for no good reason.  I guess they looked lonely sitting in the freezer section at Trader Joe’s, so I picked them up and introduced them to the other unnecessary items in my cart like almonds covered in dark chocolate, sea salt, and turbinado sugar.  Oh my God were those things good…  The chocolate covered almonds, not the strawberries.

Anyway, after seeing the random bag of strawberries in my freezer for 2 weeks I decided it was time to buy a cheap blender and start making smoothies.  So I purchased a high quality $14.99 model from Wal-Mart and made a couple of pretty tasty strawberry-banana smoothies for breakfast.

Last Saturday morning I made one, giving Junior the preemptive “get ready for the loud noise” warning before I started blending.  I sat down with him as he was eating his pancakes (shocker) and I asked if he wanted a sip of the smoothie.  Naturally I got the “are you nuts?!” stare and a quite rude “NO” in response.  So I tried another tactic and told him it was just yogurt, something he eats regularly and is comfortable with.  He gave me a sideways glance and said “yogurt?”  And I said “yes, yogurt.  It’s just from the loud machine.”  Him:  “Loud yogurt?”  Me:  “OK sure, loud yogurt.  Want some?”  He seemed somewhat interested, but still skeptical, so I dipped one of his spoons in my glass and let him take a taste when he was ready.  He eventually did and we shared the rest of my drink.  Then he wanted one of his own.  Loud yogurt immediately became a new weapon in my arsenal of toddler feeding tactics.

I decided to set the stage and talk about all the fun colors you can make with loud yogurt.  Ours was pink because of the strawberries.  I asked him what color loud yogurt he wanted next and he said BLUE, so I made a mental note to get some frozen blueberries.  On the way home the other day I asked him, just for kicks, if he wanted some loud yogurt with his dinner and surprisingly he said OK.  But he wanted BLUE loud yogurt and I hadn’t bought any blueberries yet.  So I asked him if he wanted GREEN loud yogurt, knowing I had baby spinach in the fridge, and he was OK with it.  So that night Junior had a plate of rotisserie chicken and a loud yogurt with spinach and banana in it.  And I think a random piece of peanut butter bread.  I’ll take that all day long.  I tasted the smoothie before I gave it to him and you couldn’t detect even a hint of spinach aside from the pretty green color.  And just in case he decided to get weird about how it looked, I put the smoothie in a cup covered in dinosaurs so he couldn’t see through it.

So there you have it.  Loud yogurt is my fruit and vegetable vessel of choice, at least for the time being.  Could it be the new fwoot?  Or the new Baby Cakes?  I guess we’ll see…  I would love to hear some of your favorite combos, especially if they involve sneaking vegetables in!

Macncheesepancakeseggs: Part 2

In case you were on the edge of your seat wondering if I followed through with my cooking bonanza this weekend, your wait is over…  I did.

With my husband and son out of town for a couple of days I did just what I wanted — and needed — to do:  clean, cook, play golf, watch stupid TV, and sleep past 7:30 both weekend mornings.  I discovered Lifetime Movie Network and it’s almost as addictive as Twitter.  I watched Winnnie Cooper (you know, from that 80’s show with Fred Savage) get pregnant and held hostage by her baby daddy.  I watched a preacher’s daughter have an affair with the married church music director.  I watched one of the dozen made-for-TV movies on the Scott & Lacey Peterson story.  Riveting, all of it.  My husband is concerned that this infatuation will grip me as much as SoapNet’s 90210 reruns have for so long.  As bad as this all sounds, I actually don’t watch that much TV; this was a special circumstance.  But I do know exactly where to find LMN if I need it…

I digress.  So the cooking marathon started promptly after the cleaning marathon went into halftime, and after I finished 18 holes of golf and gossiping with a friend.  You’ll recall from my previous post that since Junior is on a mac-n-cheese diet these days, I wanted to make a big batch laced with veggies to ease my conscience.  Mission accomplished.  In my freezer are 10 single-serve containers of creamy macaroni and cheese infused with pureed cauliflower and butternut squash.  I will admit that the cheese far outweighs the vegetables, but something is better than nothing right?  And you know what?  It’s delicious.  I wouldn’t have taken the time to portion it out and freeze it without doing a little quality control, and I was very happy with the results.  So when I feel like it will be a mac-n-cheese night, I’ll transfer a container from the freezer to the fridge in the morning, let it thaw during the day, and pop it in the microwave at dinner time.  Or, transfer it to a small dish and bake it if that’s the preference.  It’s fully cooked, so either one will work.

I have to say that I hit the jackpot when I was shopping for containers.  I envisioned putting the servings into miniature aluminum tart pans, but I couldn’t find any and didn’t feel like scouring the surrounding counties for them.  What I found, however, was even better:  flip-lid plastic containers that are freezer/microwave/dishwasher safe.  14 of them for $2.97.  BPAfree.  Thanks Wal-Mart!  Check these guys out.

I also cleaned out the vegetable bin in the fridge and made some tomato sauce since I had some extra containers.  Junior normally loves homemade pizza so I made him one using the sauce.  He ate the cheese from the top and gave the rest to the dog.  Oh well.  One day he’ll let red sauce back into his life and I’ll be ready.

Tomorrow morning Junior will stand up in his crib all sleepy-eyed, hair sticking out in every direction, and in a crackly voice ask for macncheesepancakeseggs.  Who knows, maybe I’ll say yes to all 3 so I can laugh to myself as he eats cauliflower for breakfast…

 

 

 

Macncheesepancakeseggs

Curious about that title?  Add a few spaces and you’ll see that it spells “mac-n-cheese, pancakes, eggs”.  But to Junior those three items are one word.  I make the mistake every afternoon of asking him what he wants for dinner, knowing that he’ll respond with “macncheesepancakeseggs”.  Toss in some Cheerios and graham crackers and you’ve got his ideal menu for the next 6 months. 

From what I’ve heard this is all very typical at his age.  He knows what he likes and isn’t afraid to tell me, and he’s getting smart enough to know if I’m trying to pull one over on him.  He’s even starting to over-analyze the Babycakes creations, and they were my best weapon for sneaking good things into his little belly.  So I’ve decided to wave the white flag and give into his demands, but on my terms…

This weekend Junior and his dad are heading out of town to my in-laws’ house for an abbreviated boys weekend.  That’s code for “husband, after my rain-soaked, scream-filled road trip last week I need to have at least one day to myself to clean the house and have some silence so please take Junior to see his Grammy and Grampy and leave me alone with my bucket, mop, Pledge, and dog.”  He obliged.  One of my goals this weekend is to make a pile of homemade macaroni and cheese, laced with whatever pureed vegetables that will blend in with cheese sauce.  I’ll divide the supply into individual disposable containers, and store them in the freezer.  So a couple of times a week he CAN have his mac-n-cheese (plus cauliflower, squash, carrot, or whatever else I try to stuff in it) and the individual servings mean I won’t have to waste a bunch.  I have friends who’ve successfully used this technique and I’m ready to jump on board.

If you follow MommyBanter on Twitter (@mommybanter) you would know that Junior also loves hamburgers.  I cut them in half and he takes a big bite out of the middle so it looks like a half-moon, and he talks about eating the moon from that point on.  Works for me.  Given his affinity for burgers these days I’ve also started fortifying those with stuff from the produce drawer.  A couple of weeks ago I put a handful of spinach and red bell pepper in the chopper and mixed it right in with the burger patties.  He loved them.  (I posted a pic on Twitter – see what you may be missing??)  So this weekend I also plan to make a bunch of burger patties loaded with stuff.  And fortunately I still have the homemade pizza fallback.  He hasn’t started examining what’s under the cheese yet so I’m able to mix in shredded zucchini or spinach or whatever.  As long as it’s under a blanket of mozzarella he doesn’t want to put the effort into a veggie investigation.  For now… 

I also got several cool ideas when I watched “cook with your kids weekend” on the Food Network not too long ago.  Melissa d’Arabian (@MelissadArabian) whipped up pancake batter loaded with all sorts of fruits, veggies, and oatmeal.  She added cocoa powder to make them chocolately, but my kiddo won’t eat chocolate (unbelievable) so I’ll have to play around with it.  Boy, for someone who’s looking forward to peace and quiet I just realized I’ve set some lofty culinary goals for myself this weekend…   I will most definitely post pictures of my kid food bonanza next week, assuming I don’t get lazy and postpone the project.  I appreciate any motivation you can send my way.

I must sound a tad bit neurotic, but like I’ve said before I only have control over what he eats in the morning and evenings.  His daycare lunches are fine I guess, but certainly not catered in from Whole Foods for anything remotely close.  He’s a kid and I have no problem with him noshing on fish sticks and chicken nuggets, but I feel like it’s my duty to balance that out a little when he gets home.  Weird??  Maybe, but we all have our hang-ups…  If you have tips or tricks don’t be stingy — send them my way!