Saturday, December 31, 2011

Adventures in Freezer Cooking

This is something that, as a discipline, is new for me. Now, as much as I would love to pretend I'm a foodie the reality is I'm a junk food junkie who is all about convenience. Don't get me wrong. I love to cook. And I love to eat. But when I'm ready to do the latter, I have very little patience for the former. But I am sick of eating out (I never thought I'd say that!) and I miss having home-cooked meals. So, I'm willing to try different solutions to find something workable. I'm sure there are some freezer cooking purists who would say that, technically, what I'm doing isn't really freezer cooking because it's not making full meals, it's just extended prep. And after a while I may try my hand at more, but we're taking baby steps here!

Now, the thing that originally put me off of the idea of freezer cooking was simply the amount of prep and clean-up involved. Especially the clean-up. I HATE cleaning up the kitchen. HOWEVER, if I only have to clean one pot, it's not nearly as horrible. I can handle one pot. Heck, if Im creative I might can even get that one pot into the dishwasher! I might can even handle the prospect of one pot and one pan!

One thing I always dreaded was the preparing of the chicken. I eat a lot of chicken. I pretty much grew up on chicken casseroles. But the idea of boiling chicken every day (or even every other day) is not appealing to me. Plus there's the whole shredding it bit, which also doesn't appeal to me either. But I discovered a little tip on pinterest - put your cooked chicken (still warm) into your stand mixer with the paddle attachment and turn it on low for about 15-20 seconds and you suddenly have perfectly shredded chicken! Amazing! Why didn't I think of that? I can just freeze this and I'll be ready to go for just about anything. I cooked one large pack of chicken breasts (about six pounds) and, after shredding, divided it into four bags (so about 1.25 pounds each) I know Jeff will use one just to throw on top of salads. I have a casserole in mind, and perhaps some sandwiches or enchiladas. Only time will tell!

Another helpful tip - freeze meats in their marinade so that as they defrost they will also marinade and be ready to go! Love that! Especially for steaks or pork chops! Perfect for grilling and no pre-cooking is required. Awesome! I split a big pack of pork chops into three bags. Two I added teriyaki marinade and one I left plain.

Now, I have no idea why this never occurred to me, but I'm glad the switch finally flipped - pre-form hamburger patties. It makes it much easier to go from freezer to grill! The biggest reason we don't grill burgers at home is that it involves the fore-thought of defrosting the meat so we can make the patties. Now, we don't have to do that anymore. Love it! I used a 1/2 cup measuring cup to measure out my meat and make sure they were about the same size. I figure they were about 1/3 lb patties. I packaged them two to a bag so I can pull out two for just Jeff and me or more if we want leftovers!

Last but not least there is the pre-cooked ground beef or turkey. Take the mince (can you tell I've been watching too much BBC?) and saute it with onion and a little garlic (since I put garlic in pretty much everything anyway). Then I can divide it and freeze it and it's ready to go for tacos or spaghetti or a casserole or whatever. I divided my meat into two 1.25 lb bags - one just had the onion and garlic, but the other had some taco seasoning in it.

I had planned to do all my shopping and cooking in one day, but it just didn't happen that way. I did my big shopping at Sam's Club as the basis for all of this. I divided up the pork chops as soon as we got home since there was no actual cooking involved. I had the fridge space, so I saved the chicken and ground beef for the next day. I was expecting it to take a while, but it only took about an hour and a half to get it all done. I stuck the chicken on first thing. While it was boiling, I made hamburger patties (which really didn't take long thanks to my measuring cup. I'll have to remember that!). After that came the cooking of the ground beef. Once that was packaged the chicken was ready to go.

After it was over, I had one pot, one pan, one mixing bowl, one spatula, and one pair of tongs that needed to be cleaned up. That's it! It all fit in the dishwasher so it was super simple.

Next time, I'll probably try to put some carrot, celery, and onion in with the chicken and then drain and freeze the resulting broth, but I was pretty pleased with the results of this first attempt at everything! I've got at least 12 meals that can now be ready in 30 minutes or less with little to no prep time. Add this to my arsenal of crock pot meals and I'm pretty stoked about the possibilities.

Stay tuned for more adventures in freezer cooking that are still to come!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Week 51

Well, I'm pretty much halfway done with my little project! By this time next year my 101 weeks will be over and hopefully most of my list will be crossed off!

First of all, the good news - I've gotten several things crossed off my list in the past couple of weeks. I'm crossing them off on my list as I complete them, so I can't remember exactly which stories I've told and which I haven't. Forgive me. If you see something crossed off that you need details on, just ask!

The den downstairs got done, which is now amazingly awesome! Along with that, I have officially moved my computer down there so it is out of the bedroom for good! We also finished the kitchen including replacing the oven. I used it for Christmas and it's awesome! We're on the lookout now for a new rug for the living room and a china cabinet. The ceiling fan on the deck will be replaced in the spring (after we paint the ceiling on the porch). We have our credit cards paid off now, which really opens the door for being able to do other things!

Now for the not so good news - Right now there are 47 things that have not been completed on my list. I know that when the 101 weeks are over there will still be incomplete (like being commissioned) and I don't like that, but it's part of it. Still, I'm pretty proud of what I've been able to do in a relatively short amount of time, and I look forward to seeing what else I am able to accomplish. The "easy" stuff is all gone, so it's time to really put my head down and work hard!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

For Such A Time As This

I got a phone call on Monday that has changed my life in a pretty profound way. I can't yet say whether or not it was for the best, but my hunch is that it is indeed for the best. I was told that I will not be interviewed by the board of ordained ministry this year. The pre-screening committee did not feel that my work was adequate. So I have been turned down. Again. I was encouraged to re-apply next year. But before you start preparing your "I'm so sorry!" comment, just take a step back with me for a moment.

You know the saying "When you make plans, God laughs"? Well, I know that over the course of my life I have given God quite a few giggles. And the truth of the matter is that my life has rarely gone the way I expected it to go or even planned for it to go. I honestly believe the only thing I have ever completely set my mind to doing and then done it is completing my B.A. in three years, but I also recognize that it wasn't simply my stubborn will that made that happen. Deep in my heart, I had a lot of plans for how I expected my life to go after school. Short of being married to Jeff, it hasn't even remotely resembled what I planned or expected.

I expected to be commissioned as a provisional elder in the North Alabama Conference by this point (or to be very close to it.) I expected to have a child by now. I expected to be in full-time ministry either as a pastor or a chaplain. I expected these three things to basically be frame around which the rest of my life was planned and built. I planned and prepared and did everything I could to make these things happen, but none of it has. And now I can't help but understand and accept that there's a reason for it.

There is not a doubt in my mind that I have been called by God to be a minister. However, I am questioning whether that calling can best be lived out in some way other than as an ordained elder in the North Alabama Conference. I know that everything I have done in my life up to this point I have done so that I could end up exactly where I am. And everything I have been unable to do has been for the same reason. Now, where am I going from here? I have no idea. But for once I really and truly am okay with not having that answer and not trying to figure it out. I have considered my options and I will be talking them over with some important people. But I am not trying to figure it all out right this second. That includes whether or not I will reapply next year because I honestly don't have a clue.

I watched Julie and Julia tonight. I downloaded it on my iTunes before we went on our cruise back in April but never did watch it. I'm really quite glad because it was exactly what I needed to hear and see right now. I was paying close attention and it was lovely. I have absolutely zero desire to do something like that, but there were some good, deep reflections about passion and motivation and relationship and all of those lessons were important ones!

For right now, I'm going to sleep. I'll worry about tomorrow when it actually arrives. I appreciate all the concern that has been shared over the years as I have traveled this journey. I know there are some of you who have hurt right along with me as I have stumbled along this path. But please keep your sympathy. I don't want to wallow or feel sorry for myself any longer than I already have. And I really don't want anyone else feeling sorry for me either. Feel free to send words or thoughts of support and encouragement, because that is the fuel that keeps me going.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Friday Five -To Do List

It's been a few weeks since I've done a Friday Five, but this seems to be the perfect one to get me back into it! Today we are invited to share some things still left on our Christmas to-do lists. This year my list is much longer than normal. I'm usually done with everything around October, but this year has been unusual (not just this Advent/Christmas season, but the whole flipping year!) So here are my things I still have left to do.

1. Finish wrapping gifts - a few things are still arriving and need to be wrapped

2. Put up the tree - This really should have been done almost a month ago, but since we have been waist deep in renovations, I didn't feel like trying to learn new techniques for dusting a decorated tree! We have the decorations up outside, just nothing inside yet!

3. Finish my elf-ish duties - I have been tasked with picking up a few things for various family members and ordering the food for a Christmas Eve party, so I need to finish that up. Today I may attempt to do it with a toddler in tow!

4. Get the carpets cleaned - Thankfully, this one got scheduled yesterday, but it'll be another week before it's actually done. Ah, the joys of having everyone over!

5. Baking - I haven't done any. Normally I don't do a ton, but this year I wanted to do SOME. I may scale back considerably when I see what next week looks like!

Bonus - My friendly reminder about the whole point of all this is my Christmas sermon for this year. I'm actually pretty proud of this one (and have borrowed a little inspiration from a friend whose first son was born at about 4:30 am on Christmas morning a few years ago). I will probably post it after the dust settles, so check back if you're interested.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Stemware Charms

I have always thought the little stemware charms were just super-cute. I have never particularly had a need for them, but I decided it would be a fun craft to try. I got some not-so-expensive supplies and sat down to play. They were super-simple to make and lots of fun. I've enjoyed dreaming up new sets and making them. This is one of those "instant gratification" crafts.

For the set in the picture I used:
Six 25mm earrings
Assorted colors of seed beads - size six (I used 36 beads total)
Six Small silver bells

The only tool I used was a small pair of jewelry pliers.

Basically, I took each ring and opened it. These have a small end folded up that I flattened to get the beads on. I didn't have to get it perfectly flat and even, so there was a little notch, but that made it easier to bend back when I was done!

I used a colored bead, a white bead, another colored, a bell, another colored bead, another clear, and the last colored bead. Then I just folded the end back up the way it was before.

I used a different color on each one so that they can be used to identify the different drinks - red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and indigo.

These are super-easy to personalize. Use any kind of beads or charms you may want to fit your personality or match your china or just your mood at the moment! These would make a great little hostess gift with a nice bottle of wine or even a fun party favor!

Week 49

I've been able to cross quite a few things off my 101 List in the past week. There are other updates as well.

8 - "Replace the oven" - Hopefully by this time next week I will officially have my new one in and the old one hauled away! I've gotta tell you, nothing makes you want to cook as badly as not being able to!

9 - "Re-do the countertops and backsplash in the kitchen" - This one is finished. I'm pretty pleased with the way it has come out.

10 - "Finish the basement" - This one should be done by next week, too! We're so close! I just want it done so I can hang out down there!

27 - "Have Jeff teach me to use AutoCAD" - This happened in a rather unexpected way, but he taught me how to use it to draw a family diagram (genogram) for my continuing education class. I had a good time with it now that I have sort of gotten a feel for it. I could definitely see myself playing more with it, although I think it'll be a while before I'm up to drawing house plans!

38 - "Go without fried foods for two weeks" - This is definitely going to be more of a priority starting in the next week or two. We have had so much take out and fast food in the past few weeks that I really just want simple things like grilled chicken and rice for a while!

47 - "Get two new sets of sheets" - You will remember that one set I got as an anniversary gift. The next set will be purchased in the next week or two for the guest room! Yay!

71 - "Move the computer out of the bedroom" - This goes along with the completion of the basement room!

As of right now, I have 50 items on the list crossed off! By next week I should have close to 55! That's not a bad way to close in on the halfway point of this little exercise!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Playing with Fire

First, a story. I'll try to keep it short. Last night Jeff and I went to his company Christmas party. They were having a drawing for different prizes. They probably gave away maybe 20 gifts, most of them gift cards. There were about 150 employees at this party, so there were plenty of folks who just got a free meal (and lots of drinks) out of the evening. Jeff was very hopeful he would win the big TV they were giving away.

He did not.

I was hopeful he would win the iPad they were giving away.

He did not.

We both kind of figured he would walk away from the evening with empty hands.

He did not!

He didn't win the iPad or the TV, but he did win the Kindle Fire!

Now, I love my husband, but he has a tendency to jump to conclusions. And he will admit that he is kind of behind on tech stuff. His assumption when he heard the word "kindle" was a black and white reading device much like the one I already own (and now rarely use because of the app on my phone!) So when he claimed his prize, he brought it back to the table and just handed it to me and pouted a bit. I noticed that it came with a gift receipt, so I offered to let him return it and use the store credit towards a TV. After all, it was his prize and I'm a good wife like that. BUT, I did make sure to tell him all about it. And he started looking at the box. And he got curious and interested. So the new toy stayed!

When we got home, we pulled it out of the box and started playing with it. Before long we were both TOTALLY in love. It really is almost like an iPad or any other tablet. In terms of what I would want or use an iPad for, I can do it all on this. I can read my books. I can check my e-mail. I can play free games to pass the time. I can surf the internet (as long as I have wifi access). I can even listen to music and watch a few videos.

Those aren't the primary reasons we'd use an iPad anyway, so that suits me just fine. The music downloading took a while, I think because the file types have to be converted. There also isn't a ton of space for music (at least not for free) but again, not the primary reason I use it, so that's fine by me. If that is your thing, you can always pay for more storage on their Cloud Drive. I won't be doing this because it's not worth it to me. If I want, I can upload documents and photos as well. I haven't tried that party yet. I could definitely see how having the documents accessible would be helpful, especially if I were in school.

There are two things that an iPad has that this doesn't - a camera and 3G. I had already decided I wouldn't want or need 3G on an iPad anyway since I have that on my phone, so that's not really an issue. I also have the camera on my phone, so that wouldn't really be a big deal to me either. So at the end of the day, they're even.

One thing I honestly didn't even consider at first was the calendar. It's not something that comes standard and I'm not overly impressed with the free calendar apps that I have found, but they work. I don't expect this to be my primary means of organization anyway since it will be a shared device so I may or may not have it when I need it! No matter what, I'm still gonna have the iPhone to take care of the odds and ends for me.

Now, had I been left to my own devices, I probably wouldn't have even considered the Kindle Fire to be comparable to an iPad. I knew I wanted an iPad and there was nothing that would have convinced me otherwise. I did have to add some apps that would have come standard like a note pad, but I also don't have to fool with stuff like stocks and youtube that I don't use that often and just take up space.

All in all I've been very happy with this new toy. As an added perk, we get a month free of Amazon Prime. The big advantage for us (right now at least) is the free streaming video. We've each watched something, and each had mixed results. I watched a 90 minute movie and he watched a tv show. My movie took several tries to be able to load, but once it got started it was fine. His show loaded up right away and started fine, but about halfway through went out on him, and he didn't bother trying again. Because we haven't been really wowed by the selection of freebies (not every video is available as a free Prime video) and because it's not always perfect, I seriously doubt we'll be paying for this service once our free month is up. Still, it's nice to be able to try it out!

So yeah, if you're in the market for a new electronic toy, I recommend checking out the Fire. The jury is still out on how this will add to my productivity, but stay tuned!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Week 48

Well, life is continuing and stuff is happening, but not a whole lot is getting crossed off of this list. Still, lots of things are much closer to being done than they have been.

8 - I'm not ready to say that this one is complete yet, but it's so close I can taste it. We ordered the new stove. Jeff's uncle pulled the old one out when he was working on the countertops. Unfortunately, the new stove won't be here until the 21st, so I've got two weeks of microwaving everything, becoming very creative with the use of the grill, or eating out. I'll count this as complete after the new one is installed.

9 - As previously mentioned, the countertops have been re-surfaced by Jeff's uncle. Yay! We also put up our new backsplash! The cabinets are in the process of getting re-painted (that wasn't on the list but it needed to get done!) It should be done by this time next week! Yipee! We also replaced the sink, got a new faucet, and put in a garbage disposal. We're putting up new light fixtures this week, too. I'm one very happy girl!

10 - Another one that's so close I can taste it. We're to the "finishing" stage. Everything has been primed and and the first coat of paint is on the walls. We just have to finish that, paint the floor, put on the trim, put back the sink and toilet, hang the ceiling fan, and put the furniture in. It should all be done in the next week or two.

71 - I'm hoping to get this done to go along with the completion of the basement.

76 - If I can ever find one I like, we'll get this taken care of, too!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Christmas Menu

I'm in charge of cooking Christmas dinner for my family. I'm so excited! I love doing stuff like this. This year there's an added challenge of Christmas being on Sunday morning and that means I've got to do church. We're having our church service at 10 am so we can all get home a little earlier, but I wanted to keep this very simple so I can enjoy the day!

Turducken - This is my step-mom's contribution. I think we're all a little curious to try this! It includes stuffing so that's taken care of, too. All the prep should be done so all that is required is baking.

Beef Tenderloin - I found a recipe that says to grill it on high heat for about 25 minutes, then wrap it in foil and let it rest for about half an hour and it will finish cooking itself in the foil. We'll see how it goes! (If all else fails, we'll throw it back on the grill!)

Garlic Mashed Potatoes - I'm doing my own version of "semi-homemade". I'll probably test drive this one in the not-so-distant future.

Green Beans - quick and easy. Not complicated.

Macaroni and Cheese - prep the day ahead and bake the day of. Easy Cheesy!

Roasted Sweet Potatoes - another quick and easy one. We're forgoing the sugared and crusted casserole in favor of simply seasoned and roasted sweet potato cubes.

Balsamic Onions - cut in wedges, wrap in bacon, drizzle with balsamic, and bake.

Cranberry Sauce - from a can (because it doesn't count without the little rings on it!)

Turkey Gravy - from a jar (because I'm lazy and won't have drippings to use for homemade anyway!)

Horseradish Dijon Sauce - easily made the day ahead

Gorgonzola Port Sauce - also easily made the day ahead

I'll probably also have some sort of cheese appetizer. It may be a cheese ball, it may be a dip to go with crudite, or it may be a baked cheese and herb spread. We'll see how I feel closer to time.

I promise to provide "real" recipes eventually, and I'll try to remember to link back to this post, but just check back after Christmas to find out how it went!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Pizza Pops

I saw a recipe recently on pinterest that looked brilliantly tasty an easy - balls made of canned biscuits, pepperoni, and cheese (and any other pizza fixings you may want) and then baked in muffin tins. Brilliant! Well, since I've been looking for new ways to use my cake pop maker, why not pizza pops?

I found these super-precious tiny turkey pepperonis, so that saved me from having giant hunks of pepperoni or having to do lots of chopping. Basically, I just put a little sprinkle of cheese and a few tiny pepperonis onto half of a canned biscuit that I had flattened a bit, then wrapped everything as best I could and rolled it into a ball. the ones I thought had too much stuff in them turned out to be the best.

My cake pop machine recommends a baking time of 4-5 minutes for cakes, so that's what I did for my pizza balls as well. They were ALMOST over done for my liking, so I think in the future I'll do closer to 4 minutes. They did puff up into perfectly round balls and browned pretty evenly.

I saw an alternative version very similar to this where a large pepperoni was used along with cubes of cheese. Basically you lay down your bread, then lay your pepperoni, then put your cheese in the middle and wrap it all up. I think that would probably work better for my next attempt because the one thing I wished was that I had a bit more cheese, and the cube would probably be just what I need!

All in all, it was a success. I think they work great for a small group, but I don't know that I would do this as a party food, as cute as they are. The reason being that these are best when they are warm, but because you can only do 12 at a time in the cake pop maker, by the time you get all of them made, all the first ones are going to be cold! For a large group (like a football party, perhaps?) I would probably do it Monkey Bread style!

But just for me? The cake pop maker is perfect!

If you try these out (in the oven or otherwise) give me a shout and let me know how it worked, especially if you have some brilliant improvements!