Monday, May 9, 2011

Cooking from your Pantry – Real Macaroni and Cheese

You’ve just gotten in the door from work, and you’re starving. You look in to your sad, empty refrigerator and realize you desperately need to pick up some groceries. But what’s that?  You have cheese, milk and butter?  Some flour and short pasta too?  Even a stale piece of bread to make bread crumbs?  Never fear and stop reaching for that take out menu! You have in your empty pantry the very ingredients you need to make a DELICIOUS dinner, one that you’ll find yourself craving, even when your fridge and pantry are full. You’re going to make yourself some delightful macaroni and cheese!

Now, not only are you saving money by using what you have in your kitchen and not ordering in; you’re also eating vegetarian, which in and of itself can also save you money as protein is usually the most expensive part of any meal. The best thing about this dish, for you carnivores out there, is that it is so rich and satisfying that you probably won’t even realize there isn’t any meat on your plate.

I think this is the first dish that I learned to make from scratch, when I was probably 11 or 12. Since then, I’ve made it so many times I no longer need to look at the recipe.  Its simple, its easy, its tasty, it makes wonderful leftovers, it freezes well, and its inexpensive to make. What more could you ask for in a recipe?

Macaroni and Cheese – from Scratch
3c. your choice of short pasta (macaroni, penne, fusili, gemeli, whatevery you have)
2c. grated cheddar cheese, or whatever you have in your fridge
2c. milk
3tbsp. margarine or butter
3tbsp. white, all purpose flour
½ c. bread crumbs (take that stale piece of bread and buzz it up in your food processor or blender) OPTIONAL

  • Preheat your oven to 400F.
  • Put a pot with lots of water on to boil to cook your pasta.
  • Once you’ve got your pasta in cooking heat a large sauce pan over medium heat. Add the butter, and melt it down being careful not to let it burn.
  • Once the butter is melted, whisk or stir in your flour until a paste forms. Let this cook for a minute or two. This is a roux, and will thicken your sauce.
  • Slowly whisk in the milk. Be sure to keep the sauce moving so the milk doesn’t burn. This should thicken up. If it doesn’t, add a little more flour.
  • Once the sauce has thickened a bit, add 2 c. of the grated cheese and stir until melted through. Remove from the heat.
  • When the pasta is done cooking, drain it and mix it in with the completed cheese sauce. Mix it well, you want it to get into all of the nooks and crannies of your pasta. Trust me.
  • Pour this into a 9x13” casserole and top with remaining cheese and bread crumbs if you wish.
  • Bake until sizzling, and cheese on top is melted. About 20 minutes.
  • This can easily be prepared ahead and stored in the fridge, or even frozen. Just wrap it up before you bake it, and once you're ready to have it add between 10-20 minutes of baking time.
Notes on Cheese Choice:
Use up whatever you have in your fridge. The taste will vary depending on what you use, but I find that my most successful Macaroni’s are often those for which I use a mix of odds and ends of cheese. The last one I made was with a mix of gouda, mozzarella and old cheddar and it was great! I would probably stay away from types like feta because they don’t melt well. If you only have a block of plain old cheddar, well that’s really good too.

Notes on Pasta:
My favourite pasta to use for this is fusili. There is something about the way the cheese sauce gets into all of the crevices of the pasta that I find really pleasing. Really, any short pasta will work. A short pasta is just that, a short cut pasta that often has a hole in it, or rough edges to catch sauce. These include macaroni elbows, penne, ziti, fusili, rotini, gemelli, cavatapi, etc. My mom usually uses traditional elbows. Use what you have or what you prefer. It doesn’t affect the taste. The only type I wouldn't use is shells, because they all stick together and I don't like them.

This is a tasty yet inexpensive way to feed a crowd.   Always buy your pasta on sale, whether you use whole wheat, or normal, watch the flyers and every other week or so, one or the other is on sale. This past week I picked up a package of macaroni for only $1.  Bricks of cheese also are often on sale, usually once or twice a month Kraft or Cracker Barrell will be on sale for $5.  You only use ½ a brick for a macaroni, and would only use about ½ the bag of macaroni. If you get these key items on sale, then a large pan of macaroni will only run you between $5 and $7 and it can easily feed about 6 people, or even 8 if you’re serving a salad too. Or, it will feed 2 for one dinner, and two to three week-day lunches.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Pennies Make Dollars: How to Save Some Moolah at the Grocery Store

Pennies make dollars. This phrase is indisputable. Pennies might seem insignificant, and not worth the bother, but in the end they add up to dollars and dollars are significant, especially when they’re saved.

I like to eat and cook. There’s no doubt about that, but that doesn’t mean I like to pay large grocery bills. In fact, I can think of a number of other things I’d rather spend my money on than groceries: my upcoming wedding, travel, home improvements, to name a few. The more I save on my groceries the more money I can can put towards those other things. With this in mind I try my best to get my groceries and stock my pantry for the best price possible. This doesn’t mean sacrificing quality meals, rather, it means taking some time to plan them out.

Here are my tips to save you some moolah:

Do Some Meal Planning
  • Sit down sometime during the week and plan out what you want to eat for meals (dinners and lunches) for the following week. Make a list of the things you’ll need to pick up.
  • I usually plan for 5 meals, with two nights for either takeout of leftovers. You don’t need to assign days,  but I find having a list of things on the fridge of options that you know you have all of the ingredients to make really makes it easy to avoid the “What’s for Dinner?” struggle after a long day at work.  I also like to plan to make one larger dish, like a pasta, or soup, to take for lunches during the week. I usually make this on Sunday.
Cook From Scratch: Shop the Fresh Section of the Store
  • Try and buy most of your groceries from the produce and meat counter, usually the outside aisles of the grocery store.
  • Fresh meats and veggies, although they may seem more expensive, are a less expensive way to stock your kitchen then buying pre-packaged, pre-made items.
  • Not only will this save you some money, it will also help you eat more healthfully as well. Even if packaged products say they’re the healthy choice, they still contain way more salt than anything you would ever make yourself, not to mention the other unpronounceable ingredients they also likely include.
Shop the Flyers
  • When you’re doing your meal planning for the week ahead check out the flyers and plan your meals around what’s on sale and what you have in the pantry.
  • Don't get flyers delivered to your home?  Check out the store's website. They ususally post the weeks flyer there.
Shop with a List
  • Keep a running grocery list on your fridge. Add to it when you notice you’re out of things.
  • Shop only for the things on your list. Sticking to it will save you money you might spend on impulse buys.
Use Coupons
  • Coupons = free money! Use them! If a company wants to give you some money, just for buying something you need anyway, who are you to say no? Keep your eyes peeled and clip, tear or order them when you can.
  • Some sites I like to visit are: , , , and . Sometimes you need to create an account and order the coupons, but its worth the effort in the savings you get.
  • Next time you’re at your grocery store check out the area by the entrance. Some grocery stores have an in-store coupon rack. Have a peek each time you’re there, they change frequently.
  • If you’re looking for something in particular, you can check out the manufacturers website. They sometimes have coupons you can print.
Stock Up on Staples When Things are on Sale
  • When the things you use all of the time are on sale, buy some. Staples always go on sale, so why ever pay full price.
  • Some items to keep an eye out for:  tooth paste, toilet paper, tissues, soap, dish soap, pantry items (soup, crushed tomatoes, pasta, flour, sugar, etc.)
Compare Store Brands to Name Brands
  • Compare the store brands to name brands they’re often the same quality, in some cases the exact same product for a good deal less money.
  • Case in point, we used to feed our cats the premium name brand kibble, until I compared the ingredient list with that of the store brand. The ingredient list and nutritional information are identical, but the store brand is $10 less a bag. A name alone isn’t enough to convince me to pay $10 more a bag. 
Buy in Season When You Can
  • When produce is in season there is a lot more of it available which makes the price decrease. It also tastes better. Try and use produce in season, not only will it taste better, it will save you some pennies too.
  • I like to buy large quantities of berries when they’re in season and freeze them so that I can use them over the winter.
Buy in Bulk, Don’t Buy Serving Sized Packages
  • Stay away from serving sized packages, you’ll pay more for a smaller amount of the product than you would if you bought a larger package and served it out yourself.
  • For example: Buy the large container of quick oats for your morning oatmeal, you’ll find that you get between 3 and 4 times the number of individual servings you would if you bought the individual packages and at a fraction of the cost.
  • Check the price per unit; this is usually in small print on the price sticker on the racks in stores. The larger box is sometimes cheaper per unit. Paying a little bit more for a larger package is sometimes works out to better value for your money.
Happy Saving!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Chicken Soup for the Cold (both the temperature and the illness...)

It’s Wednesday, and we’re halfway through the work week. While it’s a mere -10C in our nations capital today, it was a bone chilling -38C (including the ever-present wind-chill) on Monday morning when I left the house for work. Between Monday and now, I’ve managed to pick up a cold. This is just one in an endless number of minor illnesses from this cold and flu season, and I’m tired of it.  There is only one answer:

Cold Temperature + Cold the illness = One need for Chicken Soup

So, taking the advice of my Mom (eat more garlic), and my Aunt Karen (eat chicken soup) to heart, I whipped up a batch of Chicken  soup last night.  This recipe contains a rediculous amount of ginger and garlic, but that’s because I’m hoping to scare this cold away. If you’re healthy, feel free to tone down the garlic and ginger.

Chicken Rice Soup
1 boneless, skinless chicken breast
2 carrots (one washed and cut in to 1” pieces, one peeled and sliced)
2 ribs of celery (one washed and cut into 1” pieces, one washed and sliced)
2 small onions (one quartered, one diced)
2 inch piece of ginger (cut into 8 pieces)
6 cloves of garlic (3 cut in half, 3 diced)
2 bay leaves
¼ tsp. red chilli flakes
1 tbsp. soy sauce
6 cups of water
1 c. rice (I used a combination of wild rice, white rice and brown rice)

First you make a broth:
  • In a large sauce pot put 3c. of water, the 1” pieces of carrot and celery, the ginger, the halved cloves of garlic, the bay leaves, the chilli flakes, the soy sauce and the chicken on to boil. This will both poach the chicken for the soup, and create a yummy broth. Leave this to simmer until the chicken is cooked through, between 20 and 30 minutes for a thawed piece of chicken, and 30-40 minutes for a frozen piece of chicken.
  • When the chicken is cooked (use a meat thermometer to check, it should read 180F), set it aside to cool and strain the vegetables, bay leaves, ginger and garlic from the broth.
Interesting Food Trivia:  Sometimes the terms stock and broth are used interchangeably. However, there is a difference between the two. Stock, is made using bones, like when you roast and boil the turkey carcass after Christmas to make turkey soup. Broth is made by poaching a meat, in this case chicken, to create soup.

To make the soup:
  • Add the remaining 3 cups of water to the broth and heat to a boil. Throw in your sliced and diced veggies, and the remaining garlic. Add in your rice, and the stock puck as well. Turn the heat down, and let simmer for 20-30 minutes.
  • Meanwhile, tear your chicken into bite sized pieces.
  • Add the chicken in the last 5 minutes of cooking.
This recipe makes enough for about 5 medium bowls of soup. Hopefully it doesn’t take that many to make my cold go away, but if it does, at least it tastes better than cough syrup!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Leftover Deliciousness - Cheese Steak Dippers

The leftover. Many people love the leftover. Cook once, eat several times. Less work, more eating. I do not feel this way in the least. At most, dinner should be recycled once, for lunch the next day and then I don't want to see that dish again until the next time I make it.  That's just how I feel.

There are of course exceptions to this rule. Thanksgiving, Chrismas and Easter are amoung those exceptions. THese are times of year where you don't mind eating that leftover ham or turkey for days on end in various incarnations until you do mind. Until you get what once commercial has so eloquently coined "Turkey Brain."

The other time I don't mind leftovers is when they can be transformed in to something that is truely delicious. Something you'd make for the initial meal, only with leftovers the meal comes together more easily. One of these leftover miracles is what I like to call "The Cheese Steak Dipper."

This dinner is an excellent way to use up leftover beef, whether it is steak, roast beef or even ground beef.

Cheese Steak Dippers
11/2 - 2 cups of leftover beef, sliced thinly or crumbled (I used leftover roast beef)
1/2 large onion, sliced
5-6 mushrooms, sliced
1 green pepper, sliced
1 cup of shredded cheese of your choice
Dipping sauce of choice (I suggest you make up a package of Swiss Chalet Dipping Sauce)
4-6 crusty rolls
Vegetable Oil

Preheat your oven to 300 C.

In a frying pan, heat a tablespoon or two of oil over medium heat. Throw in your veggies, and saute until the onions are translucent and the mushrooms have cooked down. This will take 5-7 minutes. Set aside.

If you're using the Swiss Chalet dipping sauce, I would reccomend putting this on now too. Follow the directions on the package. I believe that involves measuring some water and oil into a pan, and heating it along with the sauce mix, to a boil.

While the vegetables are cooking, slice up your leftover meat. When the veggies are done and you've set them aside, heat up your meat in the same pan. This will only take 5-7 minutes, depending on the amount of meat you are warming.  You can add a tablespoon or two of water to the pan and put a lid on it. The steam will help keep the meat moist.

When your meat is almost warmed through slice your rolls and place them in the oven to warm.  Top each roll with some meat, veggies and cheese. Cut in half and dip away. Delicious.

This is also good with leftover chicken or pork.


Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Happy New Year! A new year, and a new start!

Happy New Year everyone!  Here we are 4 days in, and its shaping up to be a good year.

I'm taking advantage of this time of the year to press the reset button on my blog. I apologize for the long absence, but this fall flew by, and was side tracked with the sinus infection that wouldn't end, and my dad (my most dedicated reader) had a heart attack which, no need to say, occupied my mind and thoughts for some time.  The sinus infection is gone, and I'm happy to say that after 9 weeks of rest and relaxation my Dad is back to work today, much healthier than he was before.

His heart attack was a wake-up call for my family that we need to be taking better care of ourselves. Healthy food is a great place to start.  With that in mind, and with an end to holiday leftovers in sight, I'm back to cooking from scratch in my kitchen.

Here's a quick recipe for a hearty soup, great to whip up on a Sunday to have for lunch all week. Sorry no pictures this time, but rest assured its a lovely orangy colour and is delcious to boot!

A note on lentils:  There are many types of lentils, I've chosen red because I think they're pretty. This soup would work equally well with other types.  Lentils are well priced (a bag of dried lentils, enough for many pots of soup, will run you maybe $3), high fibre and very filling. They're a great way to round out a meal or a soup.

Curried Red Lentil Soup
1 large carrot, peeled and chopped
1 celery stalk, peeled and chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
2 inch piece of ginger, peeled and finely chopped
1c. red lentils, rinsed and sorted**
4c. water
1 tsp. each cinnamon, cumin, curry powder
1 bay leaf
3/4 c. crushed tomatoes or  leftover marinara sauce
Canola oil (or whatever mild tasting oil you might have)
Low Fat Greek Yogourt
Lime, cut in to wedges

**make sure you rinse them to get the dust off, and have a peek through to make sure there are no stones or miscoloured lentils)

1. Saute in a large pot, the carrot, onion, celery and ginger until softened, about 5 minutes.
2. Add in spices, and bay leaf. Saute an additional 2-3 minutes.
3. Add in tomatoes, lentils and water. Mix well.
4. Simmer for 45-50 minutes. This will look more like a stew than a soup.
5. Serve with a dolop of greek yogourt and a squeeze of lime.

There you go, a heart healthy, delicious recipe, ready to fill your lunch bag in just under an hour!

Monday, September 27, 2010

Hunkering Down for Winter Part 2: Your Very Own Tomato Sauce

Ok, so since it never stops raining in Ottawa these days, and since there's no denying that its officially Fall (check the calendar and then come and find me - we'll pout together) it's time for another installment of Hunkering Down for Winter.

So my man-friend was away this past weekend which left me with wondering what to do with all of my newly discovered free time. Of course, I turned to my good friend the kitchen.

Tomato sauce is honestly and sincerely way easier to make than you think it is. Way easier. Also, the ingredient list is very short too. This is certainly something you can whip up right when you want it, no need to prepare it ahead of time. I just like to have a few cups on hand in the freezer.

Your Very Own Tomato Sauce
2 cans (28oz) of stewed, diced or crushed tomatoes (San Marzano are yummy, but whatevers cheapest works too)
2 stalks of celery, roughly chopped
1 large carrot, peeled and roughly chopped
1 medium onion, roughly chopped
2-3 cloves of garlic, roughly diced
2-3 tsp of honey (or more or less to taste)
2 tbsp olive oil
s&p to taste
chili flakes (optional)

1. Heat a dutch oven over medium heat, and add the oil and chili flakes.
2. Throw in your onions, and let them sweat for 3-5 minutes.
3. Add in the celery, carrots and garlic. Let this work for another 5-7 minutes.
4. Add in your tomatoes and mix everything up well. If you used stewed tomatoes, or diced tomatoes crush them against the side of the pot with your wooden spoon. Do not break your spoon like I did (RIP favourite wooden spoon, RIP).  Don't get bent out of shape if you can't get the consistency you want, you're going to buzz it in the blender after anyways.

5. Let all of this bubble for at least 5 minutes, or if you're preparing it ahead of time let it simmer as long as you have.
6. Once its done simmering, buzz it in the blender. 


If you're eating it now, add any other herbs or spices you might want (oregano, or basil are nice). If you're squirreling it away, let it cool completely divide it up in to 2 cup portions and put it in the freezer.

This is the base to any number of recipes: spaghetti sauce, meatballs and sauce, chili, tomato soup, stew.

If you want to make lots, this recipe doubles well.

Happy Eating!


Sunday, September 19, 2010

Fall Dinner (and left overs) for Two: A Fall Stirfry

As evidenced by the cooler weather, and seemingly unending rain, fall is most definately upon us. I don't know about you, but I'm enjoying it. Its nice to get back in to a routine, after weekend upon weekend of activity that was the Summer this year.

Today, I've got a yummy fall weeknight dinner for you. It comes together in about half an hour, and its pretty friendly on your pocket book too.

Fall Stirfry
1 small onion, chopped
2 carrots, washed and sliced 
2 potatoes, washed and sliced (you can use sweet potatoes if you want, I’ve used one of each) 
2 apples, washed and chopped
2 ribs celery, washed and sliced
½ blub fennel, washed and sliced (If you've never eaten it before, you should, its delicious!)
1 package of dinner sausages (honey garlic, bratwurst or Oktoberfest work nicely – maple flavoured breakfast sausages would also be nice)
½ c. apple juice or apple cider
2 tbsp. cider vinegar
½ tsp. Rosemary
½ tsp. Thyme
½ tsp. Fennel Seed, crushed
1 inch knob of ginger, grated
2 cloves of garlic
Salt and Pepper to taste

In a large sauté pan, or electric frying pan, sauté the sausages over medium heat until they’re cooked through. Set them aside.

Have a look at your pan and decide if there are enough drippings to cook up your vegetables, or no. If not, add a bit of butter or canola oil. Then throw in your vegetables, and stir them around to make sure they all get a bit of drippings / butter / oil love. Add the rosemary, thyme, fennel seed, ginger and garlic at this time too. Let cook covered, for about 10 minutes, or until things start to get tender. In the meantime, slice up your sausages.

Once your vegetables are about ¾ of the way cooked, add your sausage back to the pan. Deglaze the pan with your vinegar (it will help lift all the brown bits from the bottom of the pan – the brown bits are the extra tasty parts, and you want them incorporated in the dish – really you do). This will steam a fair bit. Make sure you get your hand out of the way. Next, add in your apple juice and salt and pepper to taste. Cover the pan again, and cook for another 5-10 minutes.

It should be done now. Check the taste and add a bit more salt and pepper if necessary. This is delicious with some bread and butter.

This dinner will cost you between $7 and $10 depending on where you source your ingredients, and if you get them on sale like I did. For two people, that's between $3.50 and $5 a serving. This will probably feed 4 for dinner, at $10 for the meal, thats an average of $2.50 a person. Not too shabby if you ask me!

Leftovers are good for lunch. This is the type of dish that gets better as it sits as the ingredients soak up the juices.

Happy Eating!