Homemade. Dinner. Fast.

Homemade. Dinner. Fast. You don’t often see those three words standing so close together. But with a little preparation, it can be done–and done well.  The trick is to keep what you need in your freezer.

It involves three main ingredients:  pizza dough, grated cheese and sauce.

From the freezer: dough, grated cheese, pizza sauce.

From the freezer: dough, grated cheese, pizza sauce.

In the morning transfer them from freezer to refrigerator.  Keep them all in the fridge for most of the day to thaw slowly.  The dough came out a couple of hours before dinner to sit on the counter and finish thawing. I then removed the plastic wrap, set the dough on a plate and covered it with a clean tea towel to warm up and rise a bit.

The crust:  I’ve been using this particular recipe for the past year.  It makes a thin, extremely crispy crust that is absolutely delicious.  Find the recipe on another really great blog, Dinner a Love Story.  The only difference being that I substitute half the white flour with whole wheat.  Works perfectly.  I also am a fan of prepping the dough in my food processor. It’s quick and easy.  The recipe makes enough for two crusts.  Wrap each in plastic wrap and tuck them into a freezer bag.

Grated cheese:  Freezing grated cheese destined for melting works well.  I cut a pound of mozzarella into three equal pieces that would fit through the intake tube of my food processor.  Freeze the cheese for about 20 to 30 minutes in advance for easier grating. Use the grating blade attachment.

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The food processor will definitely save time, but hand grating works fine, especially if you have lots of eager helpers.  I packed the cheese equally into three pint size freezer bags. One bag works for one lightly cheesy pizza, but use two bags if you like yours rich and gooey.

Ready for bagging!

Ready for bagging!

The sauce:  If all you have is a large can of diced tomatoes (or a freezer full of frozen ones), you can whip up this pizza sauce in minutes with the addition of four more common ingredients.  There is no cooking required! The recipe comes from cookbook author, Amanda Haas.  It’s so easy your kids can make it while you prepare a green salad.  Use some and freeze the rest.  I prefer sturdy jars for freezing this sauce in.

Putting it all together:  Simply spread the dough in a large, very thin rectangle on a heavily oiled (olive oil–it does great things to the crust) cookie sheet.  Cover with sauce and sprinkle with grated cheese.  I brush olive oil on any exposed crust, but I try to take the toppings as close to the edge as possible. I also drizzle some good quality olive oil over the top as well.

Bake at 500 degrees.  Check after ten minutes.  The edges should be brown and the cheese bubbly.

The result?  Gourmet pizza at a fraction of the cost of take-out.

What pizza toppings do you prefer?

With the addition of black olives.

With the addition of black olives.

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5 Surprising Foods to Keep in the Freezer

You’ll save money and waste less with the freezer as your friend.  These five foods are handy to have on hand:

1. Tomatoes  When you find a great source for tasty tomatoes (your garden?), and you want to preserve the flavor of summer, it’s a simple matter to pack them clean and whole in a freezer bag.  When needed, simply rinse under warm water, and the skin peels right off.  Core and chop to the desired size while still semi-frozen.  When thawed they will be comparable to canned tomatoes.  Use in soups, stews, casseroles and sauces.

All that's left from last summer's garden.

All that’s left from last summer’s garden.

2.  Avocados  Simply wash, slice in half and peel.  Pop them into a freezer bag just like this.  Alternatively you could mash them up with a little lemon juice and freeze.  The texture of this fruit does change from its fresh state, but previously frozen avocado makes a great guacamole.  I like to use mashed avocado on my sandwich as a replacement for mayo.

Peel and freeze!

Peel and freeze!

3.  Grains  When you have time, make an extra-large batch of your favorite grain.  Let them cool thoroughly, spread out on a baking sheet before freezing.  Then divide grains into small portions in freezer safe bags.  Squeeze out all extra air in bag to avoid ice crystals and freezer burn.  Keeps in freezer for two to three months.  Use as the basis for a quick dinner, an addition to casseroles or soups, or as a breakfast cereal.

Cook then freeze your favorite grains: bulgur, quinoa, farro, rice and more.

Cook then freeze your favorite grains: bulgur, quinoa, farro, rice and more.

4.  Milk  When I started buying organic milk on a regular basis, it was a shock to the pocketbook.  But then I found out that I could buy it on sale and stick the extra jugs in the deep freeze.  Yes, the texture does change.  It may be slightly “grainier” and needs to be shaken before use to blend the fat back into the milk.  Not great for drinking a glass with cookies but fine for cooking/baking, and I happily use it on my cereal.

5.  Ginger  We love cooking with ginger.  Unfortunately, it always seemed that we didn’t use it up before it went bad.  Then I stumbled on a tip in my Cook’s Illustrated magazine that changed my despair to, well, if not joy, then satisfaction…  Peel and freeze.  Easy.  Frozen ginger makes grating simple.  Also, check out this page from Lunch In A Box for more ideas about freezing ginger.

What do you find that works well coming out of the freezer?

Family Project: Yogurt Cream Cheese

In If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, by Laura Numeroff, you learn that if you give a mouse a cookie, he’s going to want some milk.  And when he gets the milk, he’s going to ask for a straw.  And when he’s done, he’ll need a napkin. I’m sure you see where this is going.  And if you have children, you’ve lived it! One thing leads to another until you’re right back  to cookies.

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Well, in my case it started with a realization that we were spending quite a bit of money on organic yogurt.  Sam was going through record amounts and I was *cough* indulging a bit as well.  So I met the challenge head on and made it myself!

Once I made the yogurt though, I discovered that I could make cream cheese out of it.  Imagine that.

Using The Encyclopedia of Country Living as my guide, I followed a few very simple steps:

Step 1:  Pour one quart of freshly made yogurt into the center of a length of cheesecloth spread over a bowl.  (Optional: Mix in 3/4 of a teaspoon of salt to yogurt beforehand.)

001Step 2:  Pull the ends together to create a “ball” of yogurt.  I used rubber bands, of which we have plenty, to close off the cloth.  I used the remaining ends to create a loop (again with rubber bands) which I could hang from a yardstick.  Use whatever materials you have on hand to hang the yogurt.

As you can see, the liquid will drain into the bowl.  I had to dump mine periodically so the yogurt wasn’t sitting in it, but you could hang yours differently so that it isn’t quite so low.

006Step 3:  Hang for 6 to 48 hours in a cool airy place (sooner is safer). This ball of yogurt cream cheese was hanging for at least 17 hours in my cold, unheated kitchen—from the afternoon of the previous day and through the night.  Peel off cheesecloth.

It’s ready to eat!  And honestly, it’s tastes better than store bought cream cheese made from cream and just slightly (and deliciously) tangier.  No complaints from the head taster, my 13 year old son.

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And, naturally, if you make some yogurt cream cheese, you’ll have to make some bagels to go with it. 🙂  It’s as simple as that.

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Make or Buy: Yogurt (from scratch)

It’s time to take yogurt to the ultimate level.  I talk a good game, and I’ve written about both frozen and flavored varieties, but lots of people make their own.  Why not me?

I’ve been wanting to make yogurt for quite a while.  It sounds easy enough, but nothing can be that simple, right?

Well, turns out it is!  Here’s how:

First gather all your tools and ingredients.

  • 1/2 gallon of milk (I used whole milk for best flavor but you don’t have to)
  • 1/2 cup “starter” yogurt with live cultures (grocery store yogurt is fine)
  • dutch oven or other heavy pot
  • candy thermometer (great because it clips on side but other type is fine)
  • wooden spoon
  • whisk
  • small bowl

  • Heat milk on medium high, watching thermometer.  Stir pot the whole time to avoid burnt milk on the bottom and take off heat when the temperature reaches around 190 degrees (don’t boil).

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  • Have sink filled with a couple of inches of cold water.
  • Place entire pot into water to cool, stirring continuously, this time to keep temperature even throughout.

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  • When temperature reaches 105 to 115 degrees, remove one cup of milk and whisk it into small bowl with the half cup of yogurt until smooth.

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  • Now whisk this mixture back into the large pot with the rest of the milk.  
  • Fit with lid and wrap the whole ensemble in a thick towel for insulation.

For the incubation period, you want to keep the milk in a warm place.  I used the microwave to heat two cups of water in a large mug to boiling point.  Then I shut my towel wrapped package carefully inside (avoid jostling) along with the heated water–which kept the interior nice and warm.

The cup of heated water is in the back corner.

The cup of heated water is in the back corner.

Check on your yogurt after about 6 hours.  Taste for preferred tartness.  I let mine sit for 7 hours with happy results but you could go longer.

I’m not sure what it was about making yogurt that seemed so daunting initially.  I guess I assumed this was one of those unforgiving processes–where one false move can end in disaster.  But after my success, I’m thinking that, with a few more batches under my belt, I can probably ditch the thermometer and intuit the timing.

I can do this!  And when I do, the whole operation will take less time and trouble than driving to the store to buy it.  Make or buy?  Definitely make!

yogurt parfait with orange segments and chopped almonds

yogurt parfait with orange segments and chopped almonds

Make or Buy: Flavored Yogurt

I’m not quite done with the subject of yogurt.  It didn’t feel quite right to cross it off the list of blog topics with just one teensy post about frozen yogurt.  The truth is, we eat a lot more flavored yogurt than frozen yogurt.  And while you can find hundreds of different kinds at the grocery store, much of them contain a scary amount of sugar…and in some cases, thickeners, added colors and preservatives.

Check out the list of ingredients!  This is yogurt?

Check out the list of ingredients! This is yogurt?

  Flavoring plain yogurt at home can make a healthy food even healthier.
018Here’s Sam’s favorite.

Lemon Yogurt

  • 1 cup plain yogurt (preferably low-fat or full-fat for best flavor)
  • zest of half a small lemon, washed well
  • 2 tsp. fresh lemon juice (love those Meyer lemons)
  • 1 T. maple (or agave) syrup
  • 1/4 tsp. vanilla extract

Whip it all together and let rest for a few minutes for flavors to meld.

Another well-loved recipe is a riff on one included in a book I picked up at our library’s used book sale, Fit Kids! The Complete Shape-Up Program from Birth through High School by Kenneth H. Cooper, M.D.

Chocolate Yogurt

  • 1 cup plain yogurt
  • 1 T. maple (or agave) syrup
  • 2 tsp. cocoa powder
  • 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

Whisk together and let sit for a few minutes for flavors to meld.

Delicious and chocolatey, this makes for a nice after dinner dessert should one be needed.

Another good sweetener is 100% juice concentrate.  Remember that apples made the top of the Dirty Dozen list of most heavily pesticided produce, so buy organic apple juice concentrate.  And, of course, fresh fruit is the very best possible choice of all.

Eat it for breakfast or pack it in a lunch box, have it for a snack or dessert.  Easy enough for the kids to make themselves.  Pretty all around great.  Definitely make.

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A Tale of Two Plates

Meet MyPlate. It takes the place of the USDA‘s outdated food pyramid that was so confusing to so many.  It was definitely a step in the right direction.  It doesn’t focus on servings, which can be confusing. Instead it shows how much of your plate a food group should cover.  But it leaves out a lot of important information.

And as Harvard Health Publications points out, “a hamburger or hot dog on a white bread bun with French fries and a milk shake could be part of a MyPlate meal – even though high red and processed meat intakes increase the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and colon cancer, and high intakes of refined grains and potatoes make it hard to control weight.”

The USDA's baby.

The USDA’s baby.

Now I’d like to introduce you to MyPlate’s renegade sibling.  The Harvard School of Public Health’s Healthy Eating Plate.  The resemblance is there, but it’s what’s on it that’s a game changer. It spells out the types and quality of the food we should be eating.  Food industry lobbyists had nothing to say about it.

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Here’s the big picture:

1.  Healthy oils are good for the heart.  Limit butter and trans fat.

2.  Vegetables and fruits, in all their colorful variety, should make up 1/2 your plate.  Potatoes don’t count.  They have the same effect on our blood sugar as consuming refined grains and sweet treats.

3.  Eat whole grains–like whole wheat breads and pastas.  Limit white bread and rice.

4.  Choose healthy proteins like fish, poultry, beans, and nuts.  Steer clear of red  and   processed meats because eating these on a regular basis can lead to heart disease, diabetes, and colon cancer.

5.  It’s a water glass!  Limit dairy to 1 or 2 servings a day, and avoid juice and sugary drinks.

There’s even an icon to remind you to stay active.  Eating healthy foods and getting your body in motion is what it’s all about.

As a parent, I appreciate all the help I can get in making sense of the large amounts of science based nutrition out there.  I want the specifics.  And I want it from an organization with no commercial ties to the foods it’s suggesting I eat.  This is the plate I’ll be eating from…


A Sweet Treat You Can Love

We have been eating yogurt in this house from time immemorial.  I’ve cut back on dairy considerably since Jim became a vegan, but I’ll never give up yogurt (and kefir).  It won’t happen.  It’s part of a good breakfast, nice to send occasionally in the lunch box and makes a darn good dessert when the need arises (as it frequently does at our house).

One thing that has happened however, is that we don’t make that weekly trip to the frozen yogurt shop in town anymore.  I’m all about supporting local businesses–just not when it could be bad for my heart…and my waistline.

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With the popularity of self-serve yogurt shops, the temptation to fill up that cup can mean more than 50 grams of sugar a serving.  Before the addition of toppings.  Sheesh!  And I always have a tiny financial seizure when they announce the cost.  $5 for a bowl of yogurt? Really?!

So what do you do when you’re a “can-do” penny-pinching, anti-sugar obsessed mom? Why you make it–or something vaguely similar–at home!

Start with really ripe bananas.

Seriously ripe bananas are especially sweet.

Seriously ripe bananas are especially sweet.

Peel and slice them for the freezer.  They’ll blend easier if you only freeze them for a couple of hours.  Make sure pieces aren’t touching.

This gives you the option of putting them into a freezer bag for use later without them all sticking together in one glob.

Here’s the recipe we concocted:

Blueberry Chocolate Frozen Yogurt

  • 1 frozen banana
  • 1/2 cup frozen blueberries
  • 1/4 cup plain yogurt
  • 2 tsp. chocolate powder (unsweetened)
  • 2 tsp. maple syrup
  • 1/4 tsp. vanilla extract

Put it all in a blender or food processor.  Watch it turn into “frozen yogurt”.

Eat it before it melts!

Eat it before it melts!

This recipe made 6 ounces.  Using a free calorie tracking tool, My Fitness Pal, I was able to create the recipe through this application to determine the following nutritional information for a 3 ounce portion.  If you’re eating the whole thing, then double it:

  • Total sugars:  15.6 g
  • Added sugar:  4.4 g
  • Calories:  99

I use about 1 frozen banana with an additional 1/2 cup or more of other frozen fruit. Remember, like most recipes, this is only a framework.  Frozen bananas provide the base from which to work.  Try adding other frozen fruit besides blueberries.  Experiment with different extracts like almond and orange.  If your fruit is especially sweet, skip the added syrup/sugar. Try it with frozen bananas alone if you prefer.

There’s lots of options to go with those frozen bananas.  

  •  frozen peaches and almond extract
  •  chocolate powder and peanut butter
  •  frozen strawberries and shredded coconut

What combinations do you envision?