Thursday, March 24, 2011

Cooking on a Budget: Slow Cooker Roast Beef & Oven Baked Parmesan Potatoes

Today's post is all about cooking on a budget! Things have been, for several reasons, a little tight in our budget this month. My husband and I both working for a college dining service and, therefore, hit times where our finances get a little tighter due to lack of work when the students leave campus. This month was one of them for us. So, I used a couple key strategies to making it through. First off, I bought things on sale. The main place I check for this is in the meat section. The reason I start there is because that's usually where my menu planning has to start. So, why not look to the sales to base my recipes off of. Plus, I can get the best deals there a lot of times since the protein and fresh produce are usually the bulk of my grocery bill. I am blessed to have a large pantry and upright freezer so, I often buy in bulk or take advantage of 'buy one, get one' offers. Getting two anything for the price of one is awesome on any budget. I scored a great deal on an Angus beef bottom round roast so I knew I was either going to slow roast it in the oven or put my slow cooker to work. This is another budget saver. Cuts of meat that you would roast take a little longer and a little planning, but they are tougher pieces of meat and therefore cheaper. With a little TLC and taking the time to slow roast it, you can do wonderful things taking a 'tough' piece of meat and making it incredibly tender.

The other thing I took advantage of this week was shopping in my own pantry. I purposely didn't find a recipe and make a list and go shopping for that recipe as I usually would. I, instead, used what I had and found and tweaked a recipe to work for me and what I had on hand. Just so happens, since I was off that day, when trying to figure out what to serve with it, I was able to do the same with the side dish. I took a suggestion from a Facebook friend, thanks again Nicole, and luckily, I had all the ingredients on hand. This helps my budget in a few ways. First, I'm not spending more money on product when I already have useable product on hand. Second, considering the closest grocery store is 15 minutes away and gas is $3.49+ a gallon in this area, I didn't make an extra run to pick up something I didn't have. Third, I avoided the impulse buying that inevitably occurs once I get in the store.

I'd also like to share with you a site that I came across this week and that is I'm extremely excited to have found this site and I think it may be my best friend in finding recipes to accommodate my budget in the future. It allows you to enter in ingredients you have and ones you DON'T have or don't want to use and then searches all over the web for you. So you can easily get ideas for recipes for the food you already have, or don't have.

In short, with a little time searching for sales and the perfect recipes, and a little creativity adding this ingredient or taking another out, you CAN cook dinner TONIGHT! Also, use your networking. Facebook, is not used, in my eyes, for purely socializing. Yes, it's great reconnecting with old friends and being able to reach out to people so easily, but it's also a place for finding recipes and sharing recipes amongst others cooking at home just like you! So, enough of me rambling, here is my latest recipe for Slow Cooker Roast Beef adapted from a few other recipes found mostly at and, for the side, Parmesan Baked Potatoes made as recommended by a friend.

Slow Cooker Roast Beef (with Carrots, Mushrooms, & Tomatoes)
Adapted from many recipes, mostly from

2-4 lb. any cut of beef for roasting
1/4-1/2 cup flour
3 Tbsp. olive oil
1 pkg. dry onion soup mix
1 (28 oz) can diced tomatoes
8 oz fresh mushrooms, sliced
1 can Cream of Mushroom Soup (I used low sodium variety)
1 lb. baby carrots

Heat olive oil in a large skillet. Coat roast in flour and sear roast in olive oil, turning on all sides to brown. Meanwhile, mix the soup mix, tomatoes, mushrooms, and soup in the slow cooker. Once browned on all sides, set roast into mix in slow cooker and spoon some of the mixture over the top of the roast. Add carrots along the sides of the roast. Cook on low for 8 to 10 hours.

 Parmesan Baked Potatoes

6-8 Tbsp. butter
1/2-1 cup grated parmesan
About 2 1/2 lbs. any potatoes, I used Red Potato
Salt & Pepper (or other seasoning), to taste

Preheat oven to 350F. While oven preheats, place butter in a 13x9-in baking dish and put in the oven for a few minutes just to melt the butter. Wash and slice potatoes into 1/4" rounds, leaving peal on. Sprinkle half of the cheese all over the melted butter in the bottom of the pan. Layer half of the potatoes in pan. Season liberally with salt and pepper. (Next time I'd like to also try garlic powder or Mrs. Dash Garlic & Herb seasoning or other spices to kick it up just a little bit. Don't get me wrong, very yummy as is but I'm married to an Italian and we LOVE garlic!) Layer the other half of the potato slices. Sprinkle with remainder of the cheese and season, again, with salt and pepper. Bake in preheated oven until tender and golden (but not browned). This will depend on your choice of potatoes. The red potatoes took about 40 to 45 min.


Red Potato on FoodistaRed Potato

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Two-fer: An OK Entree but Delish Side

There's not a whole lot I have to say about tonight's dinner. There was nothing incredibly wrong with it, but there was also nothing to make me really jump up and down. Maybe it's just too overshadowed by the greatness of today's earlier post, Sweet & Sour Chicken which was amazing. While the side was delicious and will definitely be making an appearance back in my kitchen, the pork left a little to be desired. The flavor was decent, and it was great having it thrown in the slow cooker in the morning and being able to do something special to go next to it, but just wasn't something I'd rave about. I also seemed to have a problem with uneven cooking. I don't completely understand this coming from the slow cooker, but there were parts of the chops that were so incredibly juicy and tender while others weren't tough but a little dryer. It wasn't hard to chew and the meat did completely fall off the bone to the point where I had difficulty getting the chops out of the cooking liquid, but the texture was definitely different at some spots versus others. While I enjoyed it, I really don't think I'll be going back to this recipe considering all the other recipes that are out there in the world just waiting for me to dive in to.

Slow Cooker Smothered Pork Chops
I found this on Imperfect Happiness's Website but they gave credit to Cook's Illustrated The Best Slow & East Cookbook

4 oz (about 4 slices) bacon, cut into 1/4 in. pieces
3 medium onions, halved and sliced thin
4 tsp. light brown sugar
3 medium garlic cloves, minced or pressed
1 Tbsp. minced fresh thyme, or 1 tsp. dry
Salt (use sparingly due to salt content of bacon and soy sauce)
3 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1/4 cup soy sauce
2 Tbsp. Minute tapioca
2 bay leaves             
6 bone-in blade-cut pork chops, about 3/4 in. thick
Ground Black pepper
1 Tbsp. cider vinegar
1 Tbsp. fresh parsley (didn't use)

1. Cook the bacon in a 12 in. nonstick skillet over medium heat until crisp, about 8 min. Transfer the bacon to a paper towel-lined plate, leaving the fat in the skillet, and refrigerate until serving time.

2. Pour off all but 2 Tbsp. of the bacon fat left in the skillet and place over medium-high heat until simmering. Add the onions, 1 tsp. of the brown sugar, garlic, thyme, and 1/4 tsp. salt to the skillet and cook, stirring often, until the onions are soft and caramelized, 10-15 min. Stir in 1 cup of the chicken broth, scraping up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan.

3. Transfer the mixture to the slow cooker and stir in the remaining 2 cups broth, remaining Tbsp brown sugar, soy sauce, tapioca, and bay leaves until evenly combined. Season pork chops with salt and pepper and nestle them in the slow cooker. Cover and cook, either on low or high, until the meat is tender, 7-8 hours on low or 4-5 hours on high.

4. Transfer the pork chops to a serving platter with a large spoon, tent with foil and let rest for 20 min. Let the cooking liquid settle for 5 min, then gently tilt the slow cooker and remove as much fat as possible from the surface using a large spoon. Remove the bay leaves, stir in the vinegar, and season with salt and pepper to taste. (Remember, go easy on the salt before tasting it.) Reheat the bacon in the microwave on high power until heated through and crisp, about 30 seconds. Pour 1 cup of the sauce over the chops, sprinkle with the crisp bacon and parsley, and serve, passing the remaining sauce separately. (I kept all of the sauce separate and just poured on chops as desired by each person.)

The next recipe, I feel, was the star of the show. So simple, but definitely hit the spot for me. Unfortunately, I didn't think of the fact that I was offering the recipe for this also, so the picture really shows you how I felt about it. There are no words to describe this. I'll let the empty dish speak for itself.

                                                        Easy Baked Sweet Potatoes
From submitted by The Range Rover

2 (15 oz) cans sweet potatoes, with juice (in 1/2 in. chunks) (I drained and left the size they were.)
1/2 cup brown sugar, firmly packed
1/4 cup margarine, melted
1/2 tsp. cinnamon, (oops, forgot this)

1. Layer potatoes, brown sugar, and margarine in a casserole dish.

2. Sprinkle with cinnamon. (OOPS!)

3. Bake, uncovered, at 375F for 30 min. (I tossed them a few times during baking to make sure they were getting coated well with the sticky yummy goodness.)


Take Out Fake Out: Sweet & Sour Chicken

I recently joined a Facebook called The Great Recipe Exchange Between Friends. It's a new group so there aren't very many recipes on there, but all the recipes already posted seem very promising. When I saw this one, I must say, I had mixed emotions of being excited and sceptical at the same time. I work in a college bakeshop and get to see alot of the behind the scenes in the kitchen while walking through. I've seen bits and pieces of the process of making sweet and sour chicken and, while I haven't seen it from start to finish, I'm pretty sure that their technique involves marinating, definitely deep frying, and then tossing in sauce. When I saw the picture that went with this recipe, I was beyond excited because it looked SO sticky and delicious without breaking out the deep fryer. I love Chinese food and was SO excited how GREAT this tasted and how similar it was to the real deal. I think we've broken a little of our Chinese take out habit which will definitely save us cash (not only on the extra expense of the restaurant mark up, but also on gas with the closest Chinese restaurant being 15-20 min away and gas prices currently at roughly $3.50 a gallon). This is, by no means, the healthiest dish to have, but add a little broccoli and the fact you can make brown rice instead of the usual white served along side the local take out and maybe, just maybe, you can ignore all the sugar. Either way, I know this one will show up in my kitchen again and I'm very grateful that this recipe was shared among the group and I can pass it on to you!

Sweet & Sour Chicken
Courtesy of a Member of The Great Recipe Exchange Between Friends on Facebook

For the Chicken:
3-4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into chunks
Salt and Pepper, to taste
1 cup cornstarch
2 eggs, slightly beaten
1/4 cup canola or vegetable oil

For the Sauce:
3/4 cup sugar
4 Tbsp. ketchup
1/2 cup vinegar (preferably rice or white)
1 Tbsp. soy sauce
1 tsp. garlic powder

1. Preheat oven to 325F.
2. Season chicken with salt and pepper.
3. Working in two batches, toss the chicken pieces in cornstarch and then coat with the egg. Heat the oil over med-high heat and, again working in batches, brown the chicken, turning it so that all sides are browned.
4. Place the chicken in a single layer in a 9x13in baking dish. (My 13x9 was dirty, or rather filled with my hubby's birthday cake, so I used two 8in square pans and it worked fine.)
5. Whisk together the sauce ingredients in a small bowl and pour evenly over the chicken. Turn the chicken to ensure each piece is coated.
6. Bake for 1 hr, turning the chicken every 15 min. For the first 30 to 45 min it will look like it is not turning out. Stick with it! In the last 15+ min, something magically happens and it is incredibly delicious, I swear!

Serve with veggies and rice of your choice. I chose broccoli to make it most like our local take out and brown rice to make it a little healthier.


Friday, March 11, 2011

Pockets: Endless Possibilities

Last week was both my husband's, March 2, and my father's, March 3, birthdays. Since their birthdays are so close, we usually celebrate them at the same time. Since I love to cook, I usually contribute a great deal to the event, if not completely. I always give my father the option to request something for the menu, but he usually differs to my husband. That being said, the first year my husband and I knew each other, he told me his two favorite things to eat were chicken cordon bleu and pasta with alfredo sauce. So, since we've been together, I've tried MANY different varieties of cordon bleu. This year was a chicken cordon bleu pocket. Unfortunately, I didn't get a picture of this so it didn't post it. Why am I telling you all this you want to know? Because it was the inspiration for tonight's meal.

Normally, I'm very thorough at planning the weekly meals. This week, however, we were on vacation and my mother-in-law was visiting so it was alot more meals and less leftovers. So, I stopped at the store for a few things and picked up some proteins, since that's what I was lacking. One of the proteins I picked up was ground beef since I was craving a thick, juicy burger. My husband said I could make those pockets again. I didn't have any cooked chicken and cooking some would have taken too long, so I tried to figure out what else I could stuff in the pocket. At that moment, it came to me, bacon cheeseburger pockets. My husband saw what I was doing and requested that I make some with swiss cheese instead of cheddar and add mushrooms. So thus, dinner was made.

This is just an example of letting your imagination go wild when cooking. Take techniques you've used, like making pockets for the Chicken Cordon Bleu pockets, and use whatever you have available. I think these were, by far, a step up from last weeks meal and I never would have known if I hadn't tried! So start cooking, build your repertoire of techniques, and have fun!

Mushroom Bacon Cheeseburger Pockets
Yields: 8 pockets

1.25 lb. ground beef
Salt & Pepper
1.5-2 tsp. Steak Seasoning
8 oz. mushrooms, sliced
1 lb. bacon
2 c. cheddar or swiss cheese
2 cans crescent rolls

Note: I made this recipe half cheddar for me and half swiss for my husband. Out of that, I used roughly half of each mixture. You could definitely cut this in about half and still fill 8 pockets. I, however, enjoyed having extra for other uses (see note at bottom).

Cook bacon using desired method. (I laid the slices out flat in a single layer on two cookie sheets and baked at 400F for about 15 min. checking often so as not to burn and rotating pans halfway.)

While the bacon cooks, brown burger in a small amount of olive oil, seasoning with salt, pepper and steak seasoning. Drain. Brown mushrooms and then season with more salt and pepper. Add to burger.

When bacon is cooked, cool until able to handle and then crumble into burger and mushroom mixture. Mix in cheese of choice or separate into two bowls if doing both cheeses.

Unroll crescent rolls, leaving 2 triangles together to make 4 rectangles. You may need to pinch seems together to help them stay as one. If you can get the 'recipe creations' crescent dough, it would work GREAT for this and just cut the sheet in quarters. My store no longer carries this product, bummer! Pile about a 1/4 c. (good handful) of beef mixture on one half of each rectangle. Fold the empty half over the mixture and pinch along the edges to seal. If your seam where the triangles met begins to come open, you can pinch it closed a little bit.

Place on lightly greased baking sheet and bake at 350F for about 13 to 15 min or until golden.


Second note: The original recipe talked about freezing these pockets after baking and microwaving to thaw. I'm going to make extra and put them in the freezer for this purpose. I think the beef and cheese mixture would also be delicious mixed with pasta or rice.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Chicken Breasts Filled with Cheese Spread

Today, I will give you two recipes. I don't often focus on the recipe for sides because, often, it means me pulling a steamable vegetable out of the freezer and throwing it in the microwave while the entree finishes cooking. This, however, is one of the few standby vegetable recipes I come back to again and again because it is SO yummy and that's roasted asparagus. But, before we get to the recipe for that, let's talk about the chicken. This chicken is a work in progress for me. It's something I through together myself but I don't want to really call it my recipe. It's basically take a few techniques that I've seen over and over and trying to make it work with what I have. It takes regular boneless, skinless chicken breast halves and marries it with Allouette® cheese spread and makes one delicious mouthful. It started because I saw it on 'Manager's Special' in my local grocer which mean it was going to go past it's sell by date VERY soon. The thing I realized was it is a cheese and cheeses often last past their sell by date. As long as it isn't moldy or sour smelling, it is still okay in my book. So I bought it for 50% off. The first time it was the Garlic and Herb variety and I took the chicken breast halves and split them horizontally to make twice as many. This does a few things, first it is a budget saver since you are obviously getting twice as much product for your money. Alternatively, if you are not worried about your budget and want to save time, you can buy the thin cut breasts at the grocer but they are a little pricier. The second reason why I treated the chicken in this way the first time was because I put a 'blob' of spread at the thickest end and then rolled my chicken around it. 
First attempt, rolled
Without cutting them thin, I would have never been able to roll it up in a tight compact manor. The problem with this technique was I had to add alot of toothpicks to secure the cheese inside the chicken and it was just a pain. Plus, I worried about the temperature reaching fully cooked on the inside and the outside ended up getting VERY dark. Delicious but still, not appealing looking. The recipe that follows is what I made today and was much easier and I think is what I will do in the future. The cheese spread is a little on the expensive side but really is delicious and often goes on special in my town so this recipe will be returning to my kitchen in the future.

Cheese Spread Filled Chicken Breasts
3 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves
1 container Allouette® cheese spread, any flavor (I preferred the Sundried Tomato Basil variety)
Panko Bread Crumbs for coating (I tossed with a little Mrs. Dash garlic and herb seasoning to add more flavor)

Working very carefully, take a small paring knife and insert it horizontally into the thickest part of the breast. Carefully, without piercing a hole in the top or bottom halves of the breast, move the knife from one side and then the other creating a pocket as far down towards the tip of the breast you can. Fill a pastry bag or resealable plastic bag with the cheese spread. (If using a resealable bag, cut a corner off to make a homemade piping bag.) Insert the tip as far down into the chicken pocket as you can and begin to pipe the spread into the breast. You can apply pressure to the chicken to help evenly distribute the spread further down the toward the other end of the breast. When filled, dredge in panko crumbs and saute in a little olive oil over medium to medium high heat. If the outsides begin to brown and you don't think the center will be done in time, I covered mine for a few minutes to help cook them more evenly. Some of the cheese did run out during cooking but I just scooped it out of the pan and put it over the breasts.

Roasted Asparagus
As much asparagus as you will need to feed your diners (I get 2 medium bunches)
A couple good Tablespoons olive oil just to coat asparagus
1 to 2 teaspoons seasoning of your choice (I use several good shakes of Mrs. Dash Garlic and Herb seasoning - incidentally the same thing I used to season the panko crumbs above)

Leaving the majority of asparagus in its bundle, hold 1 or 2 individual spears of asparagus at either end and bend until it breaks at it's natural weak spot. Trim the rest of the spears to this length and discard tough ends a place whole spears on cookie sheet. Toss in oil and seasoning. Bake at 425F for about 15 to 20 min or until desired doneness, tossing halfway through cooking. I like my asparagus roasted a little longer until it gets a little brown on the tips and gets a nutty tasting but I also appreciate a crisp-tender asparagus. Try it out a couple different ways and see what works best for you. (The picture at the top of the post is done lighter than the asparagus accompanying the chicken. Both delicious just a matter of personal preference.)