Monday, January 31, 2011

Menu Plan Monday January 31st

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Friday, January 28, 2011

Baked Ziti with Mini Meatballs

I love this recipe--based on the recipe in The Sopranos Family Cookbook. It is time consuming to make all those little mini meatballs, but so worth it in the end! I like to make enough for 2 large pans of ziti--which could also be made into 4 8 x 8 pans to stretch the meals even further.

Ingredients for the Mini-Meatballs (I usually double this recipe, freezing half for a Future Ziti):
  • 1 lb ground meat (I use beef, but want to try a mixture of beef and pork sausage next)
  • 1/2 cup panko (or other dried breadcrumbs)
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 tsp garlic, finely minced
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano-Reggiano (or plain old Parmesan)
  • 2 Tablespoons finely chopped Italian parsley
  • 1 teaspon kosher salt
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • (for the frying pan) 2 Tablespoons olive oil
Combine all ingredients (EXCEPT olive oil) in a large bowl. Mix gently with hands until combined. Roll mini meatballs to preferred size--I like the size of a small grape as suggested in the recipe. Try to avoid compressing the meat-roll it very lightly.

Add the olive oil in batches to a large skillet and brown the meatballs on all sides over medium heat (I find this cooks the meatballs all the way through.) If you are making sauce, you could add the meatballs to the simmering sauce for 30 minutes to cook further/add flavor, then strain them out with a slotted spoon (actually quite easy to do with a thin sauce). Otherwise, place cooked meatballs on a paper towel after cooking. Freeze, refrigerate, or use immediately to assemble Baked Ziti.

Ingredients for Baked Ziti:
  • 5 cups red pasta sauce of choice (or  more)
  • 1 pound Ziti
  • salt (for pasta water)
  • 1 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano-Reggiano (or plain old Parmesan), divided
  • 1 cup ricotta
  • 8 ounces mozzarella, cut into small cubes
 Cook ziti as instructed on box, adding salt to water. After draining ziti, return to cooking pot and add approximately 3 cups of sauce. Mix in 1/2 cup grated cheese and mini meatballs, stirring to combine. The pasta will absorb a lot of sauce, so feel free to add more if you have it.

Place half of pasta mixture in 13 x 9 pan (or two 8 x 8 pans). Spread 1 cup ricotta on top, then sprinkle with the mozzarella cubes and 1/4 cup of the grated cheese. Pour on 1 additional cup of sauce, spreading to lightly cover. Add remining half of pasta mixture, pressing to fit into pan. Pour remaining cup of sauce (or more) on top, then sprinkle with remaining 1/4 cup of grated cheese.

Cover dish with foil and bake for 45 minutes at 350 degrees. Remove foil and bake for an additional 15-30 minutes. Serve with hot crusty bread and salad. Try to save some for leftovers the next day, they're worth it!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Freezer Cooking Plans: Snow Day

We're experiencing Inclement Weather later today (hooray!), so I thought it would be a good time to get some freezer cooking done and out of the way. It will also be a good time to inventory the freezer and, er, clean up the results of some messes that my kids inform me were 'Science Experiments.'

 I'm looking forward to making some dishes from this weeks meal plan as well as a few bonus items if I have time.

The Plan:
 Hopefully I remembered to buy everything I needed from the store...

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Whole Wheat Banana Bread

I've modified the banana bread recipe from The 1997 Joy of Cooking to accommodate using 100% whole wheat flour.  The secret to the delicious bread is to add the flour mixture to the butter mixture before adding the other wet ingredients.

A short list of ingredients make it simple to whip up a single loaf early in the morning for brunch or play date snack time. It's also easy to double or even triple the recipe for those times when you want to use up all those blackened bananas that have built up in the freezer!

  • 1 1/3 cups whole wheat (or other whole grain) flour
  • 3/4 tsp kosher salt
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp baking powder
  • 5 1/3 Tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2/3 cup sugar (or less to taste)
  • 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 2 cups mashed very ripe bananas (I use 4!) including juices if defrosted
  • 1/2 chopped nuts (optional)


Grease an 8 x 4 loaf pan, or 4 mini loaf pans (pictured above), and line with waxed paper. (Alternately, grease a 12-cup muffin pan, the batter makes excellent muffins as well. It's worth it to grease the muffin pans rather than use baking cups as the outside texture of the muffin will have a nice crisp crusty texture.)

Whisk together flour, salt, soda, and powder. Cream butter and sugar, then add flour mixture, mixing until the consistency of brown sugar.

Add eggs individually, mixing until just combined, then add banana mixture and optional nuts, again mixing until just combined.

Pour batter into loaf pan(s) or muffin pans. Bake at 350 degrees for 50-60 minutes (less for smaller pans or muffin pans). Bread is done when inserted toothpick comes out clean.

Recently I made a triple batch of this bread in a variety of pans:

I froze nearly all of them and we have enjoyed pulling out loafs and muffins as needed. They are best when reheated in the toaster oven until crisp on the outside, moist and cakey on the inside, although my daughter is happy to eat the mini muffins in their frozen state.

When I make a single large loaf, we eat it within 24 hours without fail. I don't mind so much since it is loaded with fiber and potassium, and contains a minimal amount of butter and sugar. It's a great breakfast, and a great snack!

Monday, January 24, 2011

Menu Plan Monday: January 24th Comfort Food

This week I am hoping to strike the balance between easy meals and comfort food, and to make enough of the comfort food to stock up the freezer a bit. The crock pot will be helping me twice!

  • Monday: Spaghetti and Turkey Meatballs (courtesy of Trader Joe), quinoa pasta, and steamed broccoli
  • Tuesday: Salmon patties on whole wheat buns with baked potatos and steamed green beans
  • Wednesday: Ziti al Forno with Sunday Gravy and Mini Meatballs with salad (recipe to follow!)
  • Thursday: Leftovers
  • Friday: Dinner Out
  • Saturday: Crock Pot: White Bean and Kale Soup, Grilled Cheese
  • Sunday: Bean and Cheese Quesadillas, fresh fruit, steamed vegetables
  • Monday: Crock Pot: Chicken Adobo with bok choy (new recipe)
Find more meal planning inspiration at!

Good bye, Gina

Continuing a season of loss, my friend Gina Popp died January 14th, after living 14 years with a terminal illness. I have been living the 'Just The Basics' life since then. Now, after a very memorable memorial service, it's time to get back to some semblance of regular life.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Menu Plan Tuesday: January 18th

  • Monday: Hamburgers, Salt and Pepper Potatoes, steamed green beans
  • Tuesday: Frenched Lamb Rack, leftover potatoes, steamed broccoli
  • Wednesday: Meeting (pizza)
  • Thursday: Pork Loin Cutlets, roasted sweet potatoes, steamed broccoli
  • Friday: Attending Potluck, baking Chocolate Chip Cookies
  • Saturday: Salmon patties on whole wheat buns 
  • Sunday: (dinner guests) Spiced Seared Stuffed Chicken Breasts, with simple brown rice pilaf and salad
  • Monday: Spaghetti with whole wheat pasta and turkey meatballs (Trader Joe's), with steamed veggies
Find more meal planning inspiration at!

Monday, January 10, 2011

Menu Plan Monday: January 10th

Salt and Pepper Potatoes
Seeing as we got a little off track after Clearing up Christmas this weekend (take-out two nights in a row!) it's time to get back to a Plan...
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52 Weeks of Organizing: Clearing up Christmas 2010

Before I can work on any of my numerous household projects, I need to clear up everything from Christmas, which we allowed to run a little longer than usual after our tough season. I know if I take the time to organize now, things will go much more smoothly when I pull out the Christmas containers 11 months from now!

As I mentioned last year, now is the best time to record the things that worked and didn't work in 2010, and then I 'send' the letter to myself to be sure that I read it in early November 2011. Last year's highlights included:
  • Buy new lights for the Christmas Tree (great reminder as lights sell out in my area before we buy our tree)
  • For the English Trifle: buy TWO boxes of ladyfingers and only ONE box of blueberries (I guess I bought the wrong amounts in 2009 ;)
  • Family photo must be done by October or it will not happen (true!)
  • Gift Wrapping always takes about twice as long as I think it will, so schedule accordingly. (much better this year!)
All of this was valuable advice! I am adding a few new tidbits to the same list for next fall. In the mean time, I've been implementing my other Christmas wrap-up strategies:

Ornament Removal Procedure: I take all of the ornaments off the tree at once, carefully accumulating them on the bar in my dining room. When I unplug one from the light string, I immediately replace the plug with one of the original light bulbs. (We have a few Hallmark Magic Ornaments)

Now that the ornaments are down and the tree has been cleared for removal (don't forget any small ornaments!), I can stand in one position to invidually box the ornaments: find the box, locate the corresponding ornament, wrap up, store. I can stand in one place and work on this over the next few days whenever I'm talking on the phone or have a few minutes of extra time.

This takes much less time than searching for the correct box each time an ornament is removed from the tree. It also helps me to identify dirty or damaged ornaments that either need to be cleaned up, superglued, or thrown out. (Ebay is a great place to find replacement ornaments.) Most of our ornaments fit in 3 identical storage containers, except for a handful that don't have boxes, which will all be stored together in a labeled cardboard box (I should find a plastic storage container to replace that old box!)

Now is a great time to declutter Christmas decorations and supplies. If something is worn, broken, or just unused, weed it out now rather than storing it for another year. If something worn or broken needs to be replaced before next Christmas, you'll most likely pay less for the item now than if you wait and buy one in December.

Wash and neatly fold Christmas linens so that they will be ready for use right out of the container next fall.

If a kitchen item is used exclusively during the holiday season, consider storing it away to free up space in the kitchen. (cookie baking supplies, etc.) pic Be careful to store food type items (decorating sugars, etc.) in sealed containers to protect them from pests.

I'm hopeful to participate often in the 52 Weeks of Organizing challenge, with a variety of decluttering and organizing projects!

Friday, January 7, 2011

Stockpiling Strategies: A Series

I am sure I am not the only person who has reached for the shampoo in the shower... only to realize suddenly that the bottle was used up during the previous shower. Or to simultaneously discover that I am out of both workout clothes AND laundry soap at the same time.

Before I had kids, these pitfalls were no big deal. I could easily run to the store whenever necessary to pick up shampoo and laundry soap... often paying full price for the item.Now that I have young kids, a trip to the store has become more challenging to impulsively add to the schedule. It seems like the hardest shopping trips are the ones when I only need a few small items.

In the past year, I've managed to simplify my errand list by purchasing large quantities of each item that we regularly use all at once--at a discount price. This has helped me to cut down significantly on:
  • stressful last-minute dashes to the store when we run out of something crucial
  • paying full or high prices
  • trying to keep track of everything we are 'low' on
  • getting stuck in the parking lot trying to wrangle kids and large items (toilet paper packs, etc.) at the same time
By removing the pressure to purchase something that we are going to use immediately, I am freed to purchase stockpile items when it is convenient for me to do so (aka when the kids aren't with me) and to wait for lower prices. Often I am only actively looking for 2-3 types of items at a time during any given month, rather than buying 10 different items each month. It feels almost luxurious to nonchalantly reach into the cabinet and produce a fresh toiletry when the one my child is using has run out--definitely less stressful that searching for an alternative or adding an unexpected shopping trip to an already hectic schedule!

Here are a few stockpiling tips that I've found to be helpful:
  • Identify stockpile-friendly items. For my household, these items include paper products, laundry soap, dishwasher soap, certain cleaning supplies, dental hygiene supplies, certain non-perishable foods, and my special brand body wash.
  • Test before stocking up. Be sure that you and your family like the brand of the item that you are planning to stockpile. I tend to stick with familiar brands when stockpiling as I want a quality product that my picky eater and soap-sensitive kids will tolerate.
  • Focus on stockpiling only 2-3 items at a time (or fewer!) The idea is for stockpiling to simplify your life, rather than overwhelm your shopping trips and your budget. Look for sale prices, and start getting a feel for what is a 'good price' and what is a 'great price'. Stop buying the item when it costs more than you want to spend.
  • Don't forget to shop online! Especially when shopping for items that don't typically go on sale, I check online and see if I can get a better price at an online retailer. If I can use a discount code and get free shipping, I can sometimes find prices that are better than what I would find in my local stores. I also shop online for certain items that local stores may or may not carry. This reduces my time spent going from store to store looking for the correct size vacuum bags, for example.
  • Store your stockpiled items together in a logical, accessible place. The stockpile won't be effective if you don't remember where you put it! It will be even more effective if other family members know where to look for things, and will help cut down on the, "Honey, do we have any [item]" conversations.
  • When the storage area is full, stop purchasing the item. Other great discounts and sales will come along eventually. Don't let your stockpile exceed the size of your storage space and spill into your living space (and your life!).
  • Rotate your supplies. Use older items before using newer items. Check expiration dates and make sure that you will use the item before the deadline passes.
  • If you can't use it, donate it. Desginate a spot in your storage areas for items to donate. Items that we decide we don't like, or don't use anymore, or that we develop allergic reactions to, or free samples, etc. can be passed on to someone who CAN use them, which I love to do.

 Next week, I'll share my 10 favorite items to stockpile, as well as a few of my stockpiling failures, and my new stockpiling ideas for 2011!

Liven up Leftovers: Salmon Breakfast Bagel

I had some leftover cooked salmon patties which I cut into quarters and froze. I heated them and served them with wasabi mayonnaise on a toasted whole wheat mini bagel. The wasabi mayo gave breakfast some exciting heat, and the protein filled salmon held off hunger well until lunch. You could just use cream cheese for a low-spice alternative if the wasabi mayo is too much for breakfast.

A tasty way to liven up a small leftover bit of salmon!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Fitness Goals and Strategies 2011--and Wrapping up 2010

Things did not go as planned in November and December of 2010, to say the least. I managed to attend 13 Jazzercise classes in November, but when December arrived, chaos arrived with it, and I managed to attend only 3 classes in the first 17 days of the month before giving up entirely. (To give you an idea: One day my sister came to watch the kids so that I could work out, and I fell asleep sitting up on a chair rather than going to class!)

Total Classes Attended in 2010: 136

My total was 14 short of my goal--so close, yet so far away! If I hadn't given up, and I had gone twice a day in the last week of the month, etc., I would have made it... I probably would have collapsed as well.

It was hard to let go of my goal, but I think I made the right decision to prioritize some other things (including rest!) 2011 is a new year with plenty of time and opportunity to strive for new goals.

I am going to aim (yet again) for 150 classes. Seeing as November and December are such crazy months, I am going to aim to finish 140 of the 150 classes by the end of October. This works out to 14 classes per month for 10 months, or 3.5 classes per week. It's doable so long as I never get sick/injured, leave town, or lack childcare (aka Spouse late getting home from work...)

I've come up with new strategies to help me get to class more consistently:
  • Write it on the calendar. Each week I will write down on the calendar when I plan to go to class, as well as other types of workouts (DVD, walking, bike riding. etc.).
  • Go in the morning. I am not a morning person, but it has come to my attention that when I drag myself out of bed in the pitch darkness to get to a 7 AM class, it sets my day off to a great start. Sad but true! I want to do this at least once a week, ideally on Wednesdays. The Reward: I get to drink coffee on these days.
  • Go on the weekend and on holidays whenever possible. Holidays and husband's days off are great times to fit in an extra workout.
  • Do a double class once a month. I want to try to attend 2 classes back-to-back at least once a month. This will be challenging to schedule, but I think it will be worth it. I am very curious to see how many calories I can burn at a double class!
  • Count calories. I plan to use my heart monitor watch to count how many calories I burn at each workout and add up the total calories burned each month. (Way more fun and much less time consuming than counting food calories, which I did only for a few months last year before burning out.)
I'm not including weight loss in my goals, but that doesn't mean that I couldn't stand to lose some weight. I learned over Christmas that 2 weeks of no workouts + copious amounts of Christmas Cookies, Chocolate, Standing Rib Roast, Yorkshire Pudding, Ham, snacks, pizza, potato chips, and more than a couple glasses of wine = About 4 Pounds.

I don't do well with dieting or weigh-ins, or other such strategies. I either overdo it and don't eat enough, or get frustrated when attempting to track changes. My strategy is to boost my mood and energy with consistent exercise and eat what I like, moderately, while not paying too much attention to a scale.

I'm hopeful that this plan will hold together for 2011! I'll post montly updates.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Barely a Recipe: Black-Eyed Pea Hambone Soup

My Southern roots require that we eat black-eyed peas on New Year's Day each year. Fortunately, if you combine them with a leftover hambone, it's just about the easiest soup you can make!

Now I know, some of you are shaking your heads and thinking that you don't have a hambone and you aren't planning on buying one. Don't let this stop you! I have acquired numerous hambones from friends and relatives by politely asking, "Do you ever make soup with your leftover ham bone? It's really easy and makes bean soup taste fantastic!" When you say this, the person will either a) already have soup plans b) take your recommendation to make soup or c) offer YOU the hambone. Then you can wrap it and freeze it until you are ready to use it. :)

  • 1 lb black-eyed peas (I use dried) Or 15-Bean Soup mix, found at stores
  • 1 hambone, ideally with a little ham still attached (alternatives: diced ham steak, Polish or Italian sausage, etc.) OR leftover ham
  • Water
  • Onion, diced (optional)
  • 1 can diced tomatoes (optional)
  • Juice of 1 lemon (or 2 Tablespoons lemon juice)
The night before: Soak beans under 4 inches of water in a pot for at least 8 hours.

Pour bean/water mixture through a colander to drain beans. Rinse beans under cold water, return to pot. Add 8 cups of water. Drop hambone into pot with beans and water. Bring to a boil, then cover and simmer for 2 hours. Remove Hambone to cutting board and cool 10-15 minutes. Pull off ham pieces, shred with fingers, and return to pot. Add onion, diced tomatoes, and lemon juice. Reheat and serve.

We like our black-eyed peas over white rice and served with cornbread. My favorite topping is mayonnaise.

I was very low energy on New Year's Day, but I still managed to pull this meal together. It was delicious, despite the fact that it's Barely a Recipe!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

My Thank You Note Tracking System

Long, long, ago, I married my husband and became the grateful recipient of many lovely wedding and bridal shower gifts. Unfortunately, I only made it about half way through my thank you note list before the list disappeared.

For many, many, months, I believed that my husband threw the list away. You can imagine how vindicated he felt when I FOUND the list... in a pile of papers, on my desk, at my office. (Fortunately, he's a nice guy, so he didn't rub it in much.) Yes, the paper organization at my desk was a little out of control. Do I have a picture? Let me see.... here we are on a good day:

Anyway. I feebly attempted to resume my task of writing out my wedding thank you notes. This was challenging because I was having a lot of trouble staying awake. I could manage to crawl out of bed each morning and drag myself to work more or less on time, work 8 hours, and then drag home and fall asleep on the couch. I was having to take little naps in the parking lot of the grocery store before going in to shop--and when I did muster the energy to go in, I would try very hard not to throw up.

Yes, I was expecting a baby. A Big One. It was all I could do to do my job, sleep enough, eat enough, and do all the things I needed to do to prepare to be a parent. Things that fell by the wayside included the wedding thank you notes, unpacking in our new house, cleaning our new house, and paying any attention whatsoever to my poor husband (usually I was unconscious on the couch when he arrived home).

Then, of course, when my son arrived, there was a new round of lovely gifts, meaning a new list of thank you notes needed to be written. I am proud to say that I managed to keep up with these, but I never managed  to completely complete my wedding thank you note list. I regret it to this day. (No, I don't know where the list is now... Argh!)

As a result of this sad story, I decided to set up a system in my calendar/address book to track thank you note writing. It is a very simple system, and it has worked well for over 6 years now! Any gift recorded on the list eventually has a note written for it.

How it works:

I keep a tabbed section in my planner with a set of paper titled 'Gift and Card List' (any lined paper will suffice). I simply write the person's name, the gift they gave, and the person in our family who received the gift. When the thank you note is written, I check it off on the list.

The list is impossible to lose because it's in my planner! The list is conveniently stored with my tabbed address book within the planner, so when I write a thank you note, the address that I need is immediately on hand. I can even look back and figure out who gave us a particular gift if I need to know, for instance if I want to ask a person where they found a particularly unique gift.

Thank you note tips:
  • Combine them when possible. My children were both born in August, so I am not ashamed to report that I wait until September to write thank you notes for their gifts, and combine the gifts given to both children in one note (this is changing as they are old enough to write their own notes; see below). This also works for me in December; I combine notes for my birthday and Christmas gifts from the same person.  
  • 4 year olds can write thank you notes. I have some fill-in-the-blank thank you notes that my 6 year old had been using, and I discovered that my 4 year old can write them (almost legibly!) if I spell the words letter-by-letter. This is a great way to keep her entertained when I'm working in the kitchen. She draws a puppy picture on the back of each one.
  •  Avoid keeping your list on scrap paper that can be lost easily. I keep my list in my planner so that I can't get lost in a pile. I can open the rings and remove one sheet to lists gifts given at a party, and it's always conveniently located next to my address list in the planner, which I always need when writing the thank you notes.
  • A gift bag works well as a tote to store all your note-writing supplies. This tote contains the cards and envelopes that the kids have been using to write their notes, as well as the special stamps they picked out: My son picked The Simpsons (no longer available), and my daughter picked Puppies and Kittens.
This is what works for me!

And to everyone who did NOT receive a thank you note from me for our wedding gifts, I apologize. Your gift was and still is greatly appreciated. :)

Monday, January 3, 2011

Menu Plan Monday: January 3rd

Chicken Casserole

Now that I'm back, it's time to plan some meals!

  • Monday: Lentil Rice Casserole, steamed broccoli, grapes
  • Tuesday: Leftovers (Black-eyed peas, salmon cakes, etc.)
  • Wednesday: (husband out) Pizza, fresh veggies and hummus
  • Thursday: Spaghetti with Turkey Meatballs, steamed green beans, buttered bread
  • Friday: Breakfast for Dinner: leftover ham, biscuits, scrambled eggs, steamed vegetables
  • Saturday: Roasted Pork Chops with Polenta (new recipe)
  • Sunday:  Leftovers (I'm out with friends)
  • Monday: Chicken Casserole using the last of the Thanksgiving Turkey!
I also hope to bake some pumpkin puree, probably for the last time this winter, and bake some banana bread with some of the many frozen black bananas taking up space in the freezer.

As always, find more meal planning inspiration at!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Happy New Year

I haven't blogged for six weeks, and I've missed it so much! Unfortunately, any and all extraneous activities fell by the wayside as we coped with the diagnosis and subsequent death of my sister-in-law, may she rest in peace.

It has been a chaotic holiday season, one that I have not had much time to pause and enjoy. I did my best to prioritize and focus on only what was necessary, but I have this problem in that things that I like to do are usually complex and unnecessary. Translation: I didn't do a number of things that I enjoy doing at the holidays, due to time constraints. Other things that I did manage to get to were difficult to enjoy amongst the grief and exhaustion we were feeling. Fortunately, we spent a lot of quality time with family and I was reminded that all that unnecessary stuff I like to do is really that: unnecessary.

For the past week I've been looking forward to January, just to return to the mundane everyday existence that strangely brings me much joy and peace. I am looking forward to writing posts about inane household activities, planning simple things to do with my husband and kids, and fitting again into a pleasant rhythm of days that will hopefully inspire my energy for new projects and aspirations.

I will also look back on the past year and review the challenges that I set to myself in 2010. To be honest, I haven't decided what challenges I will take on for 2011. Right now I am just taking things one day at a time.