Wednesday, December 29, 2010

STAYING PUT

Sorry to say, with the onset of winter, this old biddy has been sticking very close to home.  With the exception of a wonderful Thanksgiving at a friends home and the unanticipated trip of a week in Florida (where it was cold and rainy), the majority of my time has been spent in the house bundled up keeping warm.
My view for this week, cat on lap
and tv on.  Ah, the holidays!

The highlight of this past week has been my cat-sitting duties while a friend visits with her family in Minnesota.   No complaints here, James is always a welcome addition to the house.  He reminds me of the years when the little pitter pat of cat paws regularly paraded around my house.  A co-worker keeps telling me I need to get a cat or dog of my own, but since the house is empty a lot of the time, it just doesn't make sense to get one at this point.  Some day maybe.......

MEANWHILE
Since I've been sticking close to home I've been cooking a lot of meals for myself.  Still frustrated by my own inability to prepare meals for one person on a regular basis, I've been doing some further research on the subject.  It makes sense that some foods lend themselves better to single serving versions than others...casseroles are too much effort as is anything that requires more than 30 minutes of prep and cooking time.

What I've discovered for myself is that if I can get a meal on my plate in under 20 minutes, that is just about perfect.  Whether that means 20 solid minutes of cooking time spent in the kitchen at once or 10 minutes prep the night before and 10 minutes at dinner time, this amount of time makes it "worthwhile" in my mind to turn out my meal.  Less time than that is usually some sort of frozen food shoved in the microwave and more than 20 minutes feels too daunting to be worth the effort.

My continuing task this year is to perfect a repertoire of meals that I can have ready in short order without serving up leftovers over and over and over again the following week.  I've already blogged about some of those I've been using and you can read about them here.  Keep checking in as I work my way through some more of my favorite things in single serving portions - and if you have anything you make for yourself (or for two) and want to share, feel free to comment and let me know.

MY FAVORITE COOKING APPLIANCES
Pretty slow cookers all in a row
Whether cooking for just me, or turning out a big meal for a bunch of people, one of my favorite cooking utensils is my slow cooker.  Or should I say, my slow cookers...I have 3.  Ranging in size from large to small, these have turned out meal after meal of good, homecooking goodness over the years.  I got my first 5 quart cooker before I ever got married and used it to cook for myself and my roommate or my family on many occasions.  Later, after my divorce, I obtained a smaller 3 quart version that rarely saw the light of day unless there was company coming or my parents were staying with me.  I still loved these cookers, but they were too large for the small amounts of food I was needing on a regular basis. The few times I attempted to cook a single chicken breast or a small piece of beef roast in these, I came home to burnt, dried out food that was completely unacceptable  Consequently, they mostly gather dust on the top shelf of the kitchen pantry.

SIZE TRULY DOES MATTER
In frustration over the inability to turn out a decent pot roast or a chicken dish for one, last year I finally did some more research and ended up purchasing my third slow cooker, a small 1 1/2 quart version that has been my best buddy in the kitchen for months now.  Soups for one or two meals - no problem!  Tiny pot roasts for one or two - no big deal!  Chicken dinners of all kinds - fantastic!  With a little pre-planning and prep work the night or morning before mealtime, eating a home cooked, comforting meal is a snap.

SOUPS ON!
One challenge I hear most of my single friends dealing with is making soup for themselves.  We all love soup, and cold weather definitely cranks up the comfort factor of a warming bowl for dinner, but "too much work to make soup for one serving" is what I hear constantly.  Hmmmmm....not for me!  With my trusty slow cooker standing ready and a few minutes of slicing and dicing the night before, the heady aromas of fresh soup greet me as I stumble through the back door on a cold evening. 

After my foray to Al's Market last week, I've been contemplating those bones I removed from the smoked pork chops.  For me, the logical use for these is in bean soup.  Last night, I rescued one of the bones from the freezer and grabbed a cup of navy beans and a box of chicken stock from the pantry and set up my dinner for tonight.  The following prep work took all of 10 minutes.  With a stop at the fridge in the morning to toss everything into the slow cooker, total prep time was about 15 minutes.  A snap decision to make a batch of corn bread to go with the soup when I got home took another 5 minutes plus 20 minutes of baking time, still putting me within my 20 minute hands-on cooking time frame.  When the fresh hot bread came out of the oven, my soup was ready and dinner was served.

OLD FASHIONED BEAN SOUP

Notice that little pork bone I had
saved from the pork chops earlier
this week? Perfect for this!
There are many versions of bean soup - bean and bacon, black bean, italian bean, to name a few, but this version is what I grew up eating.  In our house it was always served with corn bread which usually ends up being crumbled into the soup bowl over the beans.  Yum!

And by the way, this makes enough for two servings, soups of all kinds are good left over for lunch another day so I do not fret over the extra serving here.  And if there are two of you in the house, well...this is perfect then, huh?

Ingredients:
1 cup dried navy pea beans, rinsed and checked to remove bad beans or stones
2 cups chicken stock
1 small smoked ham or pork bone
1 bay leaf
1 medium carrot, peeled and grated
1/3 cup finely diced red onion
1 garlic clove, whole but slightly crushed
1/4 tsp fresh ground black pepper

Prep time:
   The night before, rinse and sort through the dried beans.  In a medium sized bowl, put in the beans and about double enough water to cover them completely.  Add in 2 teaspoons salt and stir to dissolve the salt.  Let beans sit overnight.
   Gather up the remaining ingredients, except the stock, and put in the crock of the slow cooker and store in the refrigerator overnight. 

The next morning:
   Remove the crock from the fridge and put in the cooker.  Turn to low heat.  Rinse your beans thoroughly and add them to the pot along with the 2 cups of stock.  Stir around to ensure everything is covered in stock.  Leave the pot to cook on low for 8-10 hours. 

Old Fashioned Bean Soup
& Cornbread

   Test to see that the beans are cooked through.  Remove the bone, garlic and bay leaf.  Pull off any meat left on the bone and add it back to the pot.  Add salt and pepper to taste.

CORNBREAD
makes 4 servings or enough for two meals if you do as I do and eat one for dessert with apple butter on top...YUM!

I love fresh bread with soup and it seems as though some soup and bread combinations simply go together.  Such is this bean soup and cornbread.  Slightly sweet and crumbly, you can either eat this out of hand with a bit of butter on it as it emerges from the hot oven, or crumble it into your soup bowl as is tradition in our home. 

I bake my cornbread in a 6-inch cast iron skillet that I purchased specifically for baking this bread. I use it for other things as well, but it is the perfect size for this amount of cornbread batter and fits neatly into the toaster oven to bake.

My favorite little skillet and some
golden cornbread!
This recipe is the one my Mom used forever and is best baked in a cast iron skillet to form a deep golden crust.  The other family trick is to use bacon drippings as the fat and to melt it in the skillet on the stovetop in order to pre-heat the skillet as well as the fat.  Pour out the grease into the batter but make sure you leave a little in the hot pan - when the cool batter hits it, it will begin to form that crust immediately, even before it gets to the oven.  Mmmm, mmmmm, good old fashioned magic!

Ingredients:
  1/2 cup flour
  1/2 cup yellow corn meal
  1 Tbls. sugar
  1 tsp. baking powder
  1/2 tsp. salt
  1 egg
  1/2 cup milk (more or less)
  2 Tbls. corn oil or bacon grease, melted*

     Preheat your oven to 400 degrees.  Put your skillet (with an ovenproof handle) on the stove and heat, adding the oil or grease (be careful if you use oil, it will burn very quickly if left too long).  The idea here is to heat the pan so be careful, the handle will get hot.
     In a small bowl, combine all dry ingredients.  Add the egg and enough milk to make a loose batter (it will resemble cake batter).  Add the melted oil or butter and stir to combine.  Immediately pour into the hot skillet and transfer to the oven to bake for 15-20 minutes until the top is puffy and golden brown. 

*A note about bacon drippings - as the granddaughter of a farm wife, my refrigerator is always home to a jar of bacon drippings.  Every time I make bacon, the grease is poured into the container for future use.  Although I know my Grandmother used this as her main source of fat for many dishes, in my house it's used as both a fat and a seasoning.  It's main use in my kitchen is in cornbread as I've described above. 

When I was younger and not as wise, I substituted oil or shortening but the bread never tasted the same.  Now, I'm older and somewhat wiser and the little jar of grease is a constant in the fridge.  Add a spoonful to things like green beans when they're cooking, use it as the grease for frying potatoes in a skillet, pan fry your eggs in it....use it anywhere that you would use a pat of butter and a hint of bacon flavor would be acceptable. 

And don't say eeeuuuwwww...your great-grandparents were cooking with pork fat long before a can of Crisco or margarine showed up on their pantry shelves.  If used sparingly as a seasoning, this still has a place in today's modern kitchen.

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