Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Prep it up

I’ve always had trouble cooking dinner… at dinner time. This is because I’ve always been a morning person and am completely useless by 4 pm. I would be up at 6 am singing and baking bread, but when I got home from work I would just want to go straight to bed.

Despite spending my days at home now, having a child has only amplified the problem. She is a morning person too, which means when I’m tired and cranky and trying to cook, she’s tired and cranky and climbing my legs. It doesn’t mix well.

Many times my husband has come home from work to find me in tears at the thought of cooking even a simple meal. We ordered so much Thai in my daughter’s first months that they remembered our names. It was delicious, but at $30-40 a shot in a one income family it was dangerous.

I tried a few solutions. I would have Jason play music for Sera to keep her out of my way, but even the noise made me want to hide. I tried to take a quick rest before cooking, but it just made me want to keep sleeping. I tried making big batches of food and freezing them, but with our tiny fridge top freezer and our mutual dislike of frozen leftovers that idea wasn’t so popular. I wanted a fresh meal EVERY day.

Eventually I found that the easiest way to make dinner was to make it… at breakfast!

Here is how I manage….

Mix it up (obviously). I either make my seasoning mixes in big batches so I can just use them several times, or I pre-measure my spices into a small bowl in the morning.

Use the slow cooker. Chopping your food, dumping it in and turning it on is the easiest way to make dinner in the morning. I love slow cooking. It’s awesome.


Some foods just can’t be slow cooked and taste much better made fresh. This is where you need to prep it up. I have worked dinner prep down to a science these days. If it can be done in advance, I do it.

Set the stage….

For pasta, fill the pasta pot with water and put it on the stove with the package of pasta next to it.

For mashed potatoes, peel and chop your potatoes and leave them in a pot of water on the stove. If you add a splash of lemon juice the potatoes won’t brown or go bad.

For stir fries put the wok on the stove with a splash of oil inside and leave it on the stove with the lid on. Chop veggies and put them in various separate salad bowls in the fridge and chop and marinade your meat in a covered bowl in the fridge.

For casseroles or baked meat dishes mix the meat/sauce in a Pyrex dish with a lid and put it in the fridge. I love Pyrex. I wish everything I owned was Pyrex.

If a dish requires sauteed onions, chop the onions and place them in the wok with some oil, then cover the pan.

Place any canned goods you plan to use on the counter with the can opener beside them. If you are using canned beans get out your strainer and place it next to the cans of beans.

Lay any stirring utensils you need next to your pots and pans.


My sister gave me one as a gift years ago (Thanks Andrea!) and it’s my secret weapon in dinner prep.

I measure the water and put it in the cooker, chop the vegetables and put them in the steamer basket, and measure out the rice and put it in a bowl on the counter.

Steaming the veggies above the rice causes all those ‘lost’ nutrients from cooking to drip into your rice (and if your husband or child won’t eat their greens you can secretly know that they’re still getting some nutrients from the rice!).

I used to just leave it on the counter, but one very muggy summer day I went to make dinner and found my veggies covered in mould from their hot day on the counter. Now even in winter I take the pot, put the basket of veggies inside, put on the lid and put the whole thing in the fridge.

It’s show time…..

When my husband walks in the door I turn on the elements or the oven, and spend less than 5 minutes cooking (if even that). The rice cooker basket is inserted, rice is dumped into the water under the veggie steamer basket and the on switch is flicked. The wok gets meat or veggies thrown into it to flash fry. Or a casserole dish is popped in the oven. Or pasta is boiled. Or if we’re having something like stew the food is ladled right out of the slow cooker and into our bowls.

If you are not a morning person, most of this stuff can also be done the night before if you prefer. You might find you have more energy to cook for the next day, AFTER you've eaten dinner.

There are no more tears before dinner these days, and home cooked meals feel effortless. We still order Thai sometimes, but just because we feel like a treat.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Brushetta Mix

Pregnancy was a time of constant snacking for me and I craved Italian food ALL THE TIME. In the midst of all the carbs and tomatoes and cheese I came up with this brushetta mix.

Brushetta Mix

1 tablespoon basil
1 teaspoon dried garlic flakes
1 teaspoon dried onion flakes
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
½ teaspoon oregano

What else you’ll need

2 fresh tomatoes, chopped
2 tablespoons oil
2-4 slices of bread
Parmesan or shredded mozzarella cheese

Mix 2 teaspoons of mix, oil and tomatoes in a bowl and spoon mixture onto bread. Sprinkle cheese on top and bake in the toaster oven or oven until cheese is melted and bread is toasty.

I can't describe how utterly simple and delicious this snack is. You'll have to try it for yourself.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Gumbo Seasoning Mix

My favourite thing to make with leftover roasted chicken is gumbo. You can make all those tiny little bits of chicken into a hearty meal with very little effort.

Gumbo Mix

3 tablespoons paprika
2 tablespoons garlic powder
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon pepper
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 tablespoon oregano
1 tablespoon thyme
1 tablespoon cayenne (this makes it spicy, use less if you can't handle heat)

What else you’ll need

4 cups of water
1 bag of frozen okra, sliced
1 28 oz can of diced tomatoes and their juices
1 cup uncooked rice
2 cups leftover cooked chicken

Combine 2 tablespoons of gumbo mix with all other ingredients in your slow cooker and cook on low for 6-8 hours, stirring once or twice. I love this recipe because it’s just a matter of dumping everything in the cooker and turning it on.

I buy my frozen okra pre-sliced which means I only have to open the bag and pour it in. The rice semi dissolves making it more of a thick broth than actual rice, but that's part of what makes the dish so good.

It was pretty spicy and I worried about feeing it to my daughter, but she's turning out to have a real taste for hot foods. Every time we have Indian food she goes nuts and she ate three bowls of this gumbo!

Friday, March 25, 2011

Southern Spice Chicken Rub Mix

Some days I just want to be as lazy as possible, so I make the laziest dinner I can think of. I stick a whole chicken in the oval slow cooker and let it cook all day. I can make 20 seconds of work seem like a fancy meal by using my famous chicken rub mix.

Southern Spice Chicken Rub Mix

2 tablespoons chili powder
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon paprika
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon pepper
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon dry mustard powder
1 teaspoon cayenne

Use about 2 tablespoons of rub for every 4 pieces of chicken or for one whole chicken. I have used this on chicken pieces in the oven or on the BBQ, but mostly use it to season a whole chicken in my slow cooker because that requires not only the least effort and attention, but also the least amount of fuel used to cook it.

I tend to spoon mine onto the bird to avoid touching the yucky raw meat as much as possible. Then I put the chicken in the slow cooker and dump whatever mix has fallen on the plate on top.

I cook it on low for 8-10 hours. After a few hours it starts to make the house smell delicious and the cats start yowling and jumping on things.

I served it with peas and roasted sweet potatoes. If I’m really lazy I just microwave frozen veggies and boil potatoes. My family never notices. I’ve found that there is an inverse relationship between my cooking effort and their enjoyment. The less work I put into a meal, the more they like it. Go figure.

The most amount of work of making this is picking the little bits of chicken off the carcass once we’re done eating the breasts and legs, especially when you have two cats and a toddler clawing at your legs like rabid wolves trying to get to the meat. It's worth the effort though because it makes cooking the next day so easy you barely have to do a thing. I use the chicken bits to make the next day’s meal, which is another great mix.

To be continued….

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

General Tso's Chicken Mix

Lately when I look at cookbooks and recipes my first thought is 'can this be changed into a mix?' Usually it can, so I saw a recipe for General Tso's Chicken I knew I had to try to mix it up!

General Tso’s Chicken Mix

1 cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons garlic flakes
2 tablespoons ginger powder
3 teaspoons red pepper flakes

What else you’ll need

1 pound of boneless skinless chicken cut in cubes
2 tablespoons soy sauce
Oil for frying

Combine ¼ cup of mix with soy sauce in a bowl and add chicken. Let it marinade for 30 minutes to 2 hours.

Stir fry it in the oil on medium high.

I served it with rice and broccoli. My daughter loves broccoli and screams 'Ock-lee! Ock-lee!' when she sees me take it out of the fridge to cook for dinner. We gobbled the whole meal up in seconds, it was that good.


Monday, March 21, 2011

Hummus Dip Mix

We celebrated my father in law’s birthday at our house this weekend so I decided to make hummus to serve to our guests.

Hummus Dip Mix

2 tablespoons onion powder
2 tablespoons paprika
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon citric acid powder
1 ½ teaspoons pepper

Citric acid powder can be purchased in small bottles at bulk food stores. It seems expensive but lasts a long time. This is because it’s 8 times the strength of lemon juice! If you can’t find any you can omit it from the mix and just lemon juice to your hummus, but it does save time to use it instead.

What else you’ll need

1 14 oz can of chick peas, drained
¼ cup oil
¼ cup tahini

I used tahini in this recipe but it's a little known secret that peanut butter works just as well and is a LOT cheaper. I actually find that hummus made with peanut butter tastes even better because I find tahini to be a little too bitter.

Mix 4 teaspoons of mix, the chick peas, oil and tahini and blend until smooth. If the dip is too thick, add cold water a little at a time until you reach the right consistency.

Mine is a bit lumpy because the only thing in this world that my daughter is afraid of is our blender and she cries whenever I use it. As a result I blend things for as little time as possible.

I served it with baby carrots and whole wheat pitas cut in triangles.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Fettucine Alfredo Sauce Mix

My husband has been on a real pasta kick lately. I think this is because he finally got sick of eating peanut butter and jelly between meals. He's been boiling himself pasta and using various no-fuss toppings- salad dressing, cheese, Ragu... so I decided to try making a mix for alfredo sauce to mix it up.

Alfredo Sauce Mix

2 cups powdered milk
1 cup corn starch
1/2 cup parmesean cheese
3 tablespoons onion powder
2 tablespoons garlic powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper

The little flakes are dried onion flakes. I didn't like the texture of them in the sauce though so I modified the recipe to use onion powder. When substituting onion or garlic powder for flakes only use 1/3 of the amount.

Mix 1/4 cup of mix with 2 tablespoons melted butter and 1/4 cup of water. I used the leftover boiling water from cooking the noodles so the butter would melt easily because I'm a genius like that.

I used whole wheat fettucine noodles. It tasted great (except for the onion bits) and was very garlicky, but that's how alfredo sauce tends to be.

My daughter didn't really know what to make of the long floppy noodles. I think next time I'll make it with more kid friendly pasta shapes like bow ties or rotini.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

French Onion Soup Mix

This wasn't the greatest mix, so an improved version can be found here.

I didn’t have anything defrosted in time to make dinner the other night, so I decided to try this mix for French onion soup.

French Onion Soup Mix

2 cups dried onion flakes
1 cup bouillon powder
2 tablespoons onion powder
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon celery seed

Use 1/3 cup of mix with 2 cups of boiling water

It wasn’t as brown as I picture onion soup to be, but I realized this is because I used homemade vegetarian bouillon mix instead of regular beef bouillon like most recipes call for. I also found it very oniony, but was assured it tasted right. I am not much of an onion person, I tend to pick them off my burgers and only really like them if they are caramelized to the point where they are practically candy.

Serve with shredded cheese melted in and hunks of bread for dipping.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Taco Seasoning Mix

When I worked in Alaska it didn’t matter if I was on a boat or at a shore plant, every Wednesday was taco day. I’ve been thinking a lot about Alaska lately so I decided to make my own taco day.

Taco Seasoning Mix

¼ cup corn starch
3 tablespoons onion powder
2 tablespoons chili powder
4 teaspoons salt
4 teaspoons paprika
4 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons garlic powder
2 teaspoons oregano
½ teaspoon cumin
½ teaspoon cayenne

Add 3 tablespoons of mix to one pound of ground meat. I mixed mine in advance and let it sit in the fridge for a few hours to let the flavors really infuse.

Fry up the meat, then drain the excess fat. Serve on hard or soft taco shells with your favourite toppings. I used whole wheat tortilla shells with chopped tomato, onion and shredded cheese. They were the best tacos I’ve ever eaten.