Family of N

The Bean Project

Posted in Food, Frugality by Laura on February 18, 2010

When the Professor and I were first married, we thought we were doing the frugal thing by bringing leftovers when we ate lunches at school and work. After all, buying food at the cafeteria would cost some $5.00 when our meals typically came out to $1.00-$1.50 per serving. We were saving up to $4.00!

I imagine we could slim down our dinner costs by using less meat or by making our cheaper meals more often, but we are going to pick the low-hanging fruit first: we can do much better for lunches — as in, a quarter per serving or less. The Professor is happy to eat sandwiches, so he can easily switch to grilled cheese when he is home at lunchtime and peanut butter when he is out. But I get tired of meatless sandwiches quickly, and I do tend to snack more in the afternoon when that is my lunch.

At this point, my mom and dad have license to point out how spoiled I am. My mom’s lunch is usually little more than a hard-boiled egg, and my dad’s is typically based around yogurt. My dad survived almost exclusively on peanut butter sandwiches in college. (I think my mom survived on ice cream for lunch in high school…)

So yes, I am spoiled, but I do rather prefer a hot lunch, even in the summertime. So to curb my expensive tastes, I am learning to cook beans for my lunches. The Professor, poor soul, doesn’t really like beans, so I have never bothered to learn how to cook them. But now I have a reason to, and in the coming weeks I am purposing to build a repertoire of bean (and lentil!) recipes, with Alton Brown, Debora Madison, and America’s Test Kitchen as my advisors. I expect that this will bring the cost of my lunches down closer to $0.15 per serving, saving us around $30 a month.

As I find recipes I like, I will be sharing them here for you to enjoy as well. So far, I have made chilli lentils and curried lentils. (Must. remember. to. soak. beans. next. time.) Served over rice, these have been every bit as filling as my dinner leftovers were, and I still get to enjoy my meaty, cheesy meals with the Professor and Savannah when I get home. In the coming weeks, I plan to make vegetarian gumbo, basic black beans, and baked beans.

What are your favorite bean dishes?


Secret Ingredients

Posted in Food by Laura on February 6, 2010

Sometimes I have a recipe that is good enough on its own, but the addition of one special ingredient really completes it. I’ve recently made some improvements to two of the recipes posted here, and wow, those “secret” ingredients really make such a difference! While I’m updating those recipes, I thought now would be a great time to do a run-down of ingredients that I have found to take a dish from everyday to holiday special. These tweaks apply to most any version of the dish — so if you have a favorite rendition of one of the dishes listed here, see if the “secret” ingredient improves it!

1) We have always used buttermilk to make the dumplings for our Chicken ‘n Dumplings, but the last couple of times, we also added a splash of it to the filling. It is amazing the difference this makes! I would venture to say that a splash of buttermilk would improve any chicken stew based dish. (Soup, chicken pot pie, chicken casserole, etc.)

2) Bay leaves are a great addition to chilli. We have started putting them in with the beans while they are cooking, and adding some of the bean broth to the chilli pot. The fact that these stiff, green laurels add something special shouldn’t be a surprise to any seasoned cook — it’s always a good idea to add a bay leaf or two to any soup or stew.

3) Take your favorite rice pudding recipe, and strip it down to the bare essentials — usually this means leaving out the cinnamon and raisins. (But keep the sugar and vanilla.) Now add in some orange zest — say, a half teaspoon or so. Comforting and satisfying; clean and elegant.

4) We don’t put our green beans in a casserole at Thanksgiving anymore — we just toss them with sauteed garlic and olive oil, and top them with our secret ingredient: fried shallots. Slice them thin, bread them in salted flour, then fry them in a shallow pan of oil. These would probably work well in almost any casserole, but be sure not to get them too dark if they still have to go in the oven. If you can afford them (or grow them!), shallots have a magnificently rich flavor that can replace onions anytime.

5 Reasons to Keep Chicken Stock Stocked

Posted in Food, Frugality by Laura on January 11, 2010

The Professor and I roast whole chickens regularly, more as an excuse to make mashed potatoes than for the sake of the meat. After one of these meals, no mater how exhausted I am, I always force myself to stick the carcass in our slow cooker to make stock.* This means we always have homemade stock on hand.

Now, I’m not going to spend this post telling you why you should make your own stock. (Although, did you catch that this stock was made from chicken bones I was going to throw away anyway — as in, virtually free? At the grocery store, that much stock would cost you around $7!)

But, ahem, I’m not going to tell you that in this post. This post is an ode to chicken stock in any form, and a reminder to me that our freezer (or pantry, if necessary) should never be lacking this staple.

    1. Together with a frozen package of cooked, shredded chicken, it makes Chicken n’ Dumplings a weeknight meal.
    2. Together with a frozen package of cooked, shredded chicken, makes chicken vegetable soup** as sophisticated a culinary endeavour as a dump cake.
    3. Makes egg-drop soup*** the go-to elixir for anyone in the house who gets sick.
    4. You can have gravy**** with those mashed potatoes.
    5. You can use some of the stock in a yummy dressing to go with the roast chicken. I use Harmony’s recipe.

Below are my recipes from the easy dishes made with chicken stock:

*Overnight Chicken Stock
To a chicken carcass, add 8 cups of water, a couple bay leaves, some peppercorns, and remnants of onion, celery, or carrot if you have any. I like to cut up the bones some and add vinegar if I remember — this helps the bones release all those healthy nutrients. Then set the pot to low and forget about it till morning. (At which point, the overpowering smell of rich chicken stock will remind you again.) Strain and freeze.
**Might-As-Well-Be-Dump-Cake Chicken Vegetable Soup
Combine chicken, 6 cups stock, 6 cups tomato juice, and frozen soup veggies in stockpot or slow cooker. Salt, pepper, and sugar to taste. Cook for 2-10 hours.
***Egg-Drop Soup
Heat 6 cups chicken stock; season with salt, pepper, soy sauce, ginger, garlic powder, onion powder, and sesame oil if you have it. Beat 4 or 5 eggs in a separate bowl. When the stock reaches a boil, stir in eggs using swift strokes.
****Rich Chicken Gravy
If you scatter onion slices around your roast chicken before putting it in the oven, the roast chicken drippings make it a rich gravy. Remove all but a 2 Tablespoons of drippings from the roasting pan. Over high heat, mix 2 Tablespoons flour into the drippings in the roasting pan. Cook for a few minutes; you want the flour to brown some. Add 1 cup chicken stock, stirring over high heat till smooth and thick. Season to taste and strain.


Chicken ‘n Dumplings

Posted in Recipes by Laura on January 4, 2010

This is a lazy-man’s adaptation of a heavenly recipe by Cook’s Illustrated. The original recipe (available here) is far better, but on days when I don’t have time to make fresh stock and pick chicken meat off the bones (read: every day since Savannah was born!), I make it this way, and it’s still a rather tasty dish. I always have stock in the freezer and often already have the cooked, shredded chicken in the freezer, too. When those two ingredients are on hand, this dish comes together pretty easily.

Stew Ingredients
3 stalks celery, diced
4 medium carrots, peeled and diced
1 large onion, diced
oil for sauteeing
4-6 cups chicken stock
4 Tbs unsalted butter, softened
6 Tbs flour
3 cups cooked, shredded chicken meat
1 tsp dried thyme
1/4 cup milk (or heavy cream for special occasions)
1-2 Tablespoons buttermilk, or to taste
3/4 cup frozen peas
1/4 cup minced fresh parsley leaves, or dried parsley to taste
Dumpling Ingredients
2 cups soft white wheat flour (cake flour or all-purpose flour will work fine)
1 Tbs baking powder
3/4 tsp salt
3 Tbs unsalted butter
1 cup buttermilk (or milk)
1. In a large stockpot, sautee onions, celery, and carrots in oil until soft.
2. Add chicken stock; bring to a simmer.
3. Mix 4 Tbs unsalted butter with 6 Tbs flour. Add to stock/vegetable mixture. Cook until thickened, then add chicken, milk/cream, a splash of buttermilk, thyme, and peas.
4. Meanwhile, make dumplings: mix the flour, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl. Heat the butter and buttermilk to a simmer (we use the microwave). Make sure the milk mixture is hot — this makes a big difference in the texture of the dumplings.
5. Add buttermilk mixture to the dry ingredients. Mix with a fork until it just comes together. (Do not overmix.)
6. Roll dough into ~ 18 round balls and place on top of the chicken stew. Cover with a lid and simmer until the dumplings are done, about 15 minutes.

What Savannah Eats at 51 Weeks Old

Posted in Food, Parenting by Laura on October 1, 2009

    Savannah’s birthday is one week away, and we’ve been working hard preparing for the festivities. By introducing the ingredients in cake and ice cream to Savannah’s diet. 🙂

    Well, actually, that hasn’t been the sole focus of the foods we’ve added to her diet, but it has been on our minds. But with her first birthday approaching, I thought it would be fun to make a list of the foods she has tried so far. So here goes:

    • My milk  (she drinks about 10 ounces on days when I’m in the office from 9-5)
    • A version of Super Porridge containing brown rice, millet, oats, and green lentils.  This is the bulk of the solid food she consumes.  We still call it “rice cereal” even though we’ve stopped making it with only rice.
    • Sweet potato (occasionally with cinnamon and/or vanilla)
    • Green peas
    • Egg yolk
    • Cheerio’s
    • Puffed millet
    • Banana
    • Broccoli
    • Carrots
    • Yellow Squash
    • Apple (she doesn’t like them, though)
    • Pear (not too impressed with these either)
    • Yogurt (she tolerated this mixed with sweet potato but not with pear)
    • Ground beef (torn off bits of my hamburger)
    • Potato
    • Butter beans (fresh from Harmony’s garden!)
    • Mild cheddar cheese
    • Buttermilk biscuits (they were too good not to share)
    • Grapes (peeled, of course)

    Compared to what I hoped to have introduced at this age, I’m pretty happy with this list. I had wanted to get to spinach, green beans, beets, tofu, zucchini, peaches (well, we tried, but she was very insistent that we Never Do That Again), beans, and chicken. And I do wish that we had found more fruits that she likes. (Maybe this is what comes from introducing them late… we went after vegetables first because supposedly babies who have bananas, peaches, or pears first are forever destined to be Picky Eaters who don’t eat their vegetables. Hmm. Now we have a Picky Eater who won’t eat fruit. Perhaps a balanced approach is better?)

    But yes, overall, I’m happy. She’s getting lots of good nutrients, exposure to lots of flavors and textures, and practice picking things up. (Puffed millet is probably smaller than necessary… poor Savannah often gets lazy and leans her head down to pick up a few with her tongue. You can hardly blame her… it’s much more efficient than struggling to pick up one at a time!)

    She drinks water out of her straw cup, but it’s hit or miss whether she ends up with most of it spilling back out of her mouth.

    Except for finger foods, she hasn’t made much progress towards independent eating or drinking yet. (In other words, she’s not interested in holding the spoon… she’ll hold the handles of her sippy cup, but won’t tilt it up when the straw isn’t in.)

    So, where do we go from here? Well, tomorrow we’re having breakfast for dinner and plan to give her some scrambled egg, which will be her first time eating egg white. For her birthday we want to make chocolate cake with pink frosting, and ice cream. (Her first serious dose of sugars… oh, my.) But other than that, I guess I just rambled off the next list of foods to try… spinach, green beans, beets, tofu, zucchini, beans, and chicken. Do you think she’ll like them?

    A Feast in September

    Posted in Family, Food, Homeschooling by Laura on September 7, 2009


    Photo by Sasakei / (Creative Commons License)

    I love family traditions. When I was a child, my family took a vacation together every summer, and we visited grandparents every year at Thanksgiving and Christmas. The format was predictable but the adventures were fresh and exciting every time.

    The Professor and I are homebodies more than my parents were. So as you would expect, our traditions are different — maybe a little less glamorous than a trip out West, but every bit as special.

    Case in point: This week corn went on sale at every grocery store in our county. So for the third September since we’ve been married, we came back with ten ears of corn and made Ina Garten’s delightful cheddar corn chowder (more appropriately described as Gain Back Your Pregnancy Weight Soup). September is a great time to get fresh corn, and the soup is a comforting reminder that autumn is on the way.

    If we had this soup regularly, I wouldn’t consider using half-and-half or a whole block of cheese or most of a slab of bacon in it. But for a once-a-year feast, we look the other way as we pour in the last few ingredients.

    As I make plans to homeschool Savannah, one of the things that has appealed to me from (gasp) a method other than Charlotte Mason or classical has been the Waldorf idea of seasonal rhythms. I want to teach Savannah to experience each season fully — to shower herself in the summer sun, to jump in piles of many-colored autumn leaves, to tumble in the snow of winter, and to learn the cheerful songs of the birds in spring.

    I also want our family to have traditions that celebrate the rhythm of the year. Corn chowder in September. Apple-picking in October. Turkey in November. Christmas cookies in December. All the year round.

    There are books that have great ideas for seasonal traditions, but don’t you think it’s more fun to come up with your own?

    “You’re going to post to the Blog? I thought the Blog was dead… You’re going to revive it?” — The Professor.

    Never thought you’d be reading an undead blog, did you? 😉

    The Professor’s Famous Chili

    Posted in Recipes by Laura on February 4, 2009

    Sorry I’ve been MIA lately. Savannah and I got another one of those brink-of-death colds, which she again endured far more gracefully than I. I had typed up a Menu Plan Monday for this week before I got sick, but had neither the foresight to schedule it ahead nor the energy to press the post button come Monday.

    If I had posted that Menu Plan Monday, you would have seen this on the menu for tonight. To make up for not posting anything for a whole week and a half, I’m sharing the recipe for this divine chili — and trust me, you’re better off with this than with a year’s worth of my most witty, insightful, and fascinating posts.

    We don’t make a spice mix for the long list of spices used after the beef is browned, because the fresh-ground cumin and cloves (especially the cloves!) are the real secret to this chili. We grind ours in a coffee grinder, which, ironically, has never seen a coffee bean in its happy existence.

    The Professor’s Famous Chili

    • Homemade Taco Seasoning
    • 2 pounds ground beef
    • 28 ounces canned, seasoned chili beans (or 1 1/2 cups dry pinto beans, plus chili powder, paprika, onion powder, garlic powder, and a bay leaf or two)
    • 2 quarts tomato juice
    • 1/2 teaspoon oregano
    • 1 heaping teaspoon whole cumin, ground
    • 1 heaping teaspoon whole cloves, ground
    • 1 1/2 Tablespoons chili powder, plus extra
    • 1 Tablespoon paprika
    • 1 teaspoon onion powder
    • 1 Tablespoon kosher salt
    • 1/6 teaspoon cayenne pepper
    • 1/4 teaspoon ginger
    • garlic powder
    • some pepper

    1. If using dry beans, soak overnight, then simmer in water with seasonings for four hours.
    2. Season ground beef with a coating of the taco seasoning mix. Brown in a large pan.
    3. Drain the beans and the beef. Combine with tomato juice and other seasonings in a medium or large stockpot. Simmer for 2 hours or more.

    Serve with shredded cheese (we like colby jack) and corn bread or crumbled tortilla chips.

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    Menu Plan Monday: First Week Back

    Posted in Food by Laura on January 26, 2009


    School starts back for the Professor this week. Tuesdays will be pretty tiring for him this semester (four hours of teaching Calculus for Students Who Don’t Need Calculus), so from now on, those are our Easy Meal Days.

    I am grateful his schedule is as condensed as it is this semester — he only goes in on Tuesdays and Thursdays. This is going to be nice for our gas budget, as well as for my work arrangement. (I work part-time outside of the home, but I only go in when the Professor can be home with baby Savannah. So far it’s working well, but we’re kind of at the mercy of the University to give us a workable schedule.)

    Here’s what we have planned for this week:

    Monday: Macaroni and Cheese with frozen peas on the side
    Tuesday: Rotini and Broccoli (since whole wheat bowtie pasta isn’t available in our stores). We like to serve this with chicken breasts, salted, peppered, and sauteed in a little olive oil.
    Thursday: Mongolian Beef. First time trying this. We’re using top round for the beef; I’ve read it’s good for stir fry dishes if you slice it thin and against the grain. I’ll let you know how that goes. I think I’ll also drizzle with a little sesame oil.
    Saturday: Spaghetti and meat sauce.

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    Frugal Friday: Homemade Spice Mixes

    Posted in Food, Frugality by Laura on January 15, 2009


    Many of us aren’t getting the full value out of our spice collections. Our pantries have everything we need to season our foods, but we instead opt to buy spice packets every week so we can just dump the spices in the pan and be done with it. After all, who has time to get out the measuring spoons on Taco night?

    Okay, well, the Professor and I usually do get out the measuring spoons on Taco night, but I’m not here to tell you that you have to. What I’d like to suggest instead is that you make your own “spice mixes” — homemade versions of things like seasoned salt, taco seasoning, steak seasoning, and stew seasoning. Given how slowly most of us go through those herbs and spices, making homemade mixes will save money otherwise spent on storebought mixes while allowing us to use something that we already own.

    Plus, you can cut back on salt if your family needs to, kick the heat up or down in your taco mix depending on tastes, grind whole spices for fresher flavor, and most important to me, leave out anything that contains MSG.

    Here are a few that the Family of N enjoys:

    Taco Seasoning
    1 Tbsp. chili powder
    scant 1½ tsp. cumin
    1 tsp. salt
    1 tsp. black pepper
    ½ tsp. paprika
    ¼ tsp. garlic powder
    ¼ tsp. onion powder
    ¼ tsp. dried oregano
    scant ¼ tsp. crushed red pepper

    For Tacos: Brown 1 pound ground beef or turkey. Drain. Add seasoning to taste and 2 teaspoons cornstarch dissolved in 2/3 cup water. Simmer until thickened.

    For Chili: Add seasoning as beef is browning.

    Beef Stew Seasoning
    ½ part oregano
    1 part basil
    2 parts salt
    2 parts pepper
    2 parts garlic powder
    2 parts paprika
    1 part celery seed
    2 parts onion powder
    2 pinches rosemary

    We use 1 Tablespoon of this to season a pot of stew.

    Seasoning Salt

    3 Tbsp. salt
    1 Tbsp. garlic powder
    1/2 tsp. paprika
    1/8 tsp. celery seed
    1/8 tsp. onion powder
    1/4 tsp. oregano
    1/4 tsp. pepper
    dash dill

    And a new one we tried last night — we sprinkled it on chicken breasts and sauteed them in canola oil. So yummy! I got the recipe for the spice mix from Chef Michele.

    Adobo Seasoning (makes 1/2 c.)
    3 Tbsp. salt
    1 Tbsp. onion powder
    1 Tbsp. garlic powder
    1 Tbsp. black pepper
    1/2 tsp. oregano
    1/2 tsp. chili powder
    1/2 tsp. cumin

    Use to season your favorite Latin American dishes.

    What spice mixes do you use to save time in the kitchen? Try a homemade version and let us know how it goes!

    Recession-Proof Chocolate Brownies

    Posted in Food, Recipes by Laura on December 26, 2008
    Photo by Laura

    If chocolate is recession-proof, then I want my stock in these for the next few years. I think I may just start selling these if times get really bad.

    I got the recipe for these chocolate brownies from my second cousin when I lived with her one fall. They were so temptingly delicious, she would freeze individual brownies and only thaw them out on Fridays — just one each Friday, and the two of us would split it. They were rich and dense and chocolaty, and that half a brownie was incredibly satisfying.

    When the Professor and I make these now, we don’t use the topping, because he doesn’t care for whipped cream. They’re perfect by themselves, or as the Professor prefers them, warmed and mixed in with some vanilla ice cream, Cold Stone style.

    Recession-Proof Chocolate Brownies


    • 4 squares (1 ounce each) unsweetened chocolate
    • 2 cups sugar
    • 3 eggs
    • 1 cup all-purpose flour
    • ¾ cup butter
    • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
    • 1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts (optional)  


    • 1 cup (5 ounces) semisweet chocolate chips
    • 2 Tablespoons butter
    • ¼ cup water
    • ¼ cup water
    • 1 cup whipping cream, whipped

    1. For brownies: In a microwave or double boiler, melt chocolate and butter; cool for 10 minutes. Add remaining ingredients; mix well. Stir in the walnuts last, if using. Line a 13x9x2 baking pan with parchment paper. (Or greased aluminum foil. Or just grease the pan well.) Pour batter into the pan.  

    2. Bake at 350 degrees for 25-30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out with moist crumbs (do not overbake). Cool completely.

    3. For topping: Melt chocolate chips, water, and butter in a microwave or double boiler; stir until smooth. Cool to room temperature. Fold in whipped cream. Spread over brownies. Chill before cutting. Store leftovers in the refrigerator. The brownies themselves also freeze well.
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