Spaghetti Squash: Make-Ahead Meal

School is back in session! And with it, extracurricular activities. Our eldest, A, auditioned for a Junior Dance Company at her current studio and was invited to participate! This is super exciting as I was never a dancer, but now I’m like officially a “DANCE MOM”. (Um, wait. I think there’s a reality show about dance moms… I don’t think they have a good rep. So, I’m just a dance mom. Not one of THOSE dance moms. Glad we cleared that up.)

My struggle with extracurriculars is scheduling them at a time that works with school and meals and bedtimes. Last year I learned that 4pm is the WORST time to have an hour long class, because everyone is so hungry during and right after, and by the time we got home it was already 30 minutes past our normal dinner time – that’s if we were lucky and didn’t hit a whole lot of rush hour traffic. Not the ideal way to make a meal. It makes that witching hour in the kitchen just a little bit worse.

But today I tried something that I will absolutely be doing again. A’s class is from 5-6pm, so I knew I had to have something at least half-way prepped before I took her. Today we had to run a few errands after picking her up from school, so we didn’t go home in between the end school and the start of class. Commence early major meal prep!

If you have a similar situation and don’t want to do take out, fast food, or frozen TV dinners every week, try this:

Several hours before dinner – about 5 is good, but schedule it however works for you – start on this Homemade Pasta Sauce. I started about 1:30, knowing I had to leave to pick A up from school between 2:45-3, and wouldn’t be back until after class, about 6:30. Once that has simmered for about an hour, blend it up and turn it down as low as possible. Pop a lid on it, and leave it to simmer for another few hours while you’re gone. My hubby was home on this particular day, so I informed him of what was going on – but if you’re uncomfortable leaving a burner on while you’re not there, just transfer it to a crock pot after blending, and leave on low (or even just the “keep warm” setting) until you return.
*Side Note: If you don’t have time or don’t want to attempt making the homemade sauce, I SUPPOSE you can use jarred sauce. It won’t have the same effect when you get home and walk in the door though. 😉

About an hour and 15 minutes before you have to leave, prep a spaghetti squash for the oven. The ones I’ve purchased at the store are generally VERY LARGE, and difficult to cut. One tip is to cut it on a damp kitchen towel so it doesn’t roll around. If you’ve never used spaghetti squash before, here is a picture:
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All you do with this awesome squash is cut it in half lengthwise and put it cut-side-down on a foil-covered baking sheet drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with S&P. I have heard of people doing it the opposite way – cut side up – and then of course you’d put the olive oil, S&P on the inside/top. The large ones need about an hour at 400ºF. I had 2 small ones fresh from our visit at Frederick Family Farm (possibly it’s own future post – we had a blast!), so I baked them at 350ºF for 45 minutes. *Note: I also cut the stems off. It makes it easier to cut in half lengthwise and also, since ours were fresh from the garden, they were very long and would’ve been more difficult to handle if I left the stems on.

Right before you leave, pull that baby out of the oven and let it rest on the stove until you return. It needs to be at least room temperature for you to handle it, regardless of when  you cook it.

The other thing you’ll need for this make-ahead meal is some pre-cooked ground sausage. I had some in my fridge from a few days prior when I made biscuits and gravy. (Do you remember my posts on Second Meal sausage pasta & this one sharing other Second Meal ideas?) I use half the chub for the biscuits and gravy, and save the other half for a dinner in the next day or two.

So. Before you leave you have:
1. Cooked ground sausage in the fridge
2. Spaghetti squash cooling on the stove
3. Sauce simmering in the pot

When you return home, follow these simple steps:
1. Turn the heat up on the sauce just to medium-low. Leave lid off. Stir.
2. Add the sausage and stir.
3. Holding the squash by the outside, use a fork to remove the seeds (I just pile them up on my baking sheet with tin foil) and then use the tines of the fork to scrape along the squash from top to bottom to remove the good stuff:

That's the stuff!

That’s the stuff!

Once I have the majority of it out, I scrape along the inside with the side of my fork to remove whatever is stubbornly clinging to the inside of the rind. (Peel? Crust?)
4. You can scrape that good stuff right into your pot with the sauce simmering. Once you’ve finished that, stir again. *If you’re not sure that you made enough sauce, or think you made TOO much, you can scrape the squash onto a cutting board or into a different pan and then add the sauce after the fact.
5. Sprinkle some cheese on top, and VOILA! You have successfully completed a healthy, home-cooked, filling, delicious make-ahead meal that will be ready to serve your family in 10 minutes within arriving home. (I think fresh grated Parmesan would be amazing here, but all I had was shredded mozzarella and some Kraft grated parm. So that’s what I used. OHI, right?!)

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Any questions? 🙂

Product Review – Ice Cream Magic!

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My mom picked up these great individual ice cream makers for the kids a few weeks ago. A and I were both excited as she had seen then in a commercial and I have wanted an Ice cream maker for some time now.

So I opened the boxes and read the directions, and realized we really only had ingredients for vanilla ice cream – not that that’s a bad thing. So I set to work making fresh, individual ice cream.

And when I say work, I mean it!
CON: Each one had to be shaken continuously for 3 minutes until the ice cream was solid.
PRO: All that workout makes you feel less guilty for eating the end product (even though I only had a few bites).

CON: It really is an individual serving. It’s probably only a 1/2 cup.
PRO: it’s only half a cup. Built in portion control!

CON: You need a lot to make a little. Each one required 3tablespoons salt! (This is not actually IN the ice cream- it’s under the ice cream, with the ice.)
PRO: You can control your ingredients. I didn’t have heavy cream, so I used half & half instead. It still turned out really good – and probably healthier. I used organic vanilla too, and added some chocolate chips (because, well, it’s CHOCOLATE).
There are also lots of recipes for you to try.

PRO: It’s a fun activity with your kids that will create memories!

All in all, I don’t this these are for every day use, but good for a special occasion or when you want to do a craft or activity together. The ice cream rally was delicious, and it was nice to know exactly what ingredients were in the ice cream and that there were no preservatives or anything. It also made me want a full size ice cream maker even more… the possibilities are endless! 🙂

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Good till the last drop!


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Yum!


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All gone!

Mahi Mahi with Mango Salsa and Coconut Rice

The smell of fish cooking reminds me of vacations in Florida visiting my grandparents. My grandpa out on the screened-in porch grilling, maybe simultaneously smoking a cigar, while Mom and Grandma chatting away while prepping a side dish or two in the kitchen. And us helping set the dining table.

These are the memories that flooded my head as I grilled up some Mahi Mahi yesterday night – indoors, on my grill pan, while outside the window there was gray 40º weather. Different setting altogether. But I could care less, because the memories and that SMELL transported me and made me so happy!

This is one of those meals, because of those early marriage cooking days, that I look at and think, “Did I do that?!”

I usually pull from a recipe but adjust it a little. In this case I pulled from multiple recipes, so contrary to my normal posts, I will be including the actual recipe for you.

Let’s start with the salsa, because that’s what I prepped ahead of time.
SALSA
1 mango, chopped
1/4 diced red onion
4-5 strips of red pepper, diced
1/4 cup or so cooked sweet corn (I used the microwavable frozen kind –OHI– but I’m sure fresh off the cob would be even better)
Juice from half a lime
Dash salt

Combine all ingredients and stir. Adjust to taste. Easy! I wouldn’t change a thing.
Except…
Well, here’s an opportunity to explain my view of kid-friendly. To me, kid-friendly means the meal is prepared in bite-size, easy to eat portions. It can also mean adjusting to their spice tolerance. Next time, per my daughter’s request, I will add yellow and orange peppers. Maybe even omit the red, or just use less, because as she pointed out, the yellow and orange are sweeter. Another change I might make: substituting yellow or white onion, and maybe even lightly sautéing them with the peppers before adding to the salsa. But for adults, this original recipe was PERFECT.
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‘Blackened’ spices for Mahi Mahi
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon dried oregano
3/4 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground mixed peppercorn
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons lite coconut milk

Again, combine all ingredients except coconut milk and make a paste. Just before using, add the coconut milk. It will look like a vinaigrette.
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You can use a pastry brush to spread this on your fish (1.25 lbs Mahi Mahi). I dipped the first piece and then just used my finger to spread it. That’s how we do in my kitchen 😉

Now I have to make a side note. I opened the package from the meat counter and realized I forgot to ask them to take the skin off the Mahi. AHHHHHH! I don’t have a filet knife. I’ve never really even learned how to de-skin a fish. (Is that even the right term? I’m sure there’s a more professional culinary term for this but it escapes me at the moment.) Did I panic with the clock tick tick ticking away the time until dinner? Mm. I chose to keep my head and just do it myself. So out came my raw meats cutting board and my paring knife (the best substitution I had). I tried to remember what I’ve ever seen of someone de-skinning a fish on TV. I put one hand on top of the skin and wiggled the knife underneath, to the point of being afraid I was going to slice my upper hand open. Once I had a good portion of the skin off, I started to pull it up so I had a better view underneath it.  Amazingly, I didn’t cut myself at all, the whole time. And I didn’t even butcher them too badly. (I SWEAR, no pun intended. I literally thought this last night when I stood back and surveyed my work.)
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So! Now for the cooking. Heat your grill pan over medium high heat. Spray with a non-stick cooking spray. **One thing I’ve learned from watching cooking show after cooking show is when you are using a grill pan, MAKE SURE IT’S PIPING HOT before you put anything on it, otherwise your stuff will stick. You’ve been warned.**  Place your fish on the grill and cook for “approximately 4 minutes on each side or until desired doneness.” That’s what the recipe said that I based this on. It worked, the fish was SO DELICIOUS. My 5 year old daughter even said, “MOM! You’re right. I DO like this fish! The inside… it’s so moist … and juicy!”
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COCONUT RICE
2 cups dry brown Minute rice
1 1/4 cup lite coconut milk
1 1/2 cup water

Soak your rice in water to remove some of the starchiness, if desired. (Again, this is what the recipe told me to do – but she was using long grain rice and I was using minute rice. I did do it, and I think it did actually help remove some of the dry starchiness, especially since I was using brown rice.) Put the coconut milk and water in your pot and bring to a boil. Add the rice and cook according to package directions. Actually, the package said to bring back to boil, simmer for 5 minutes, and let stand for 5 minutes. I probably let it cook more like 7-10, let it stand, and then reheated it a teensy bit before I plated it. One thing: KEEP A CLOSE EYE ON THIS! Any time I’m boiling milk I pay extra attention, but last night was one of those times that couldn’t be helped… Some of the kids were arguing, or someone got hurt, and I swear even though I only walked away for 90 seconds, my pot was suddenly boiling over. Anyway just watch it, because I had to keep removing the lid to release some steam so it wouldn’t boil over again. (And that’s even using my awesome “sure simmer” function on my electric oven. Yes I love it.)

Guess what? I had the coconut milk, corn, and rice in my OHI, so all I paid for this dinner was probably $10-11. Score!

Now! Spoon some rice onto your plate, top it with a piece of Mahi, and spoon some salsa on top. Done! Now go feed your family some surprisingly easy, joyfully affordable, shockingly healthy, tantalizingly delicious and fresh food!
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What is OHI? Plus Banana Oat Cookies -only 3 ingredients!!

Something you should know about my cooking skills: When I first started making meals for my family, I had NO IDEA what I was doing. I followed every recipe to a T because I knew NOTHING. I’m not kidding. Before we had our eldest daughter, it was just me and my husband in a tiny 500 sq ft rental house. I had to call my mom to ask how to boil water.
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(I’m mentally pausing for you to have time to laugh at my ignorance. It’s okay, I’m laughing too – don’t feel bad.)
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Now that we’ve all had a good laugh, I can tell you that with practice, I was able to take certain factors into account in order to change recipes to my family’s liking. These are:
1. Budget – like most families, we don’t have unlimited money pouring out of our closet or randomly falling off our tree in the front yard. I plan our meals before I strategically plan my weekly shopping list, which is most times based in part off of the grocery ad / what’s on sale.
2. Pantry/Fridge/on-hand ingredients (I think from here on out I’m going to just abbreviate and say, OHI. Because I can foresee myself blogging about this a lot from here on out!) – I keep a pretty good mental inventory of what we have at home and what possible ingredients are substitutable (is that a word?!? …it is now!) for ones I find in a new recipe. So, I will define OHI as fulfilling these things: 1. you already have it in your kitchen; 2. something that is expiring soon that you don’t want to waste by throwing away; 3. a similar ingredient to what’s in a recipe but that you know you or your family would prefer.
3. My family’s taste – I learned quickly that my husband Alex is a pretty simple guy. I’m talking frozen pizza – hot dog – salami/bologna sandwich kinda guy. And if I tried to do something fancy he wasn’t having it. I’m pretty sure he’s actually said to me before, “Why are you trying to make it all fancy? Stop trying to complicate things.” I was probably adding shredded cheddar to leftover mac n cheese, since that’s one of the few things I understood how to make at that point. And everyone knows reheated mac n cheese is not the greatest. I was so proud of myself for figuring out a way to freshen it up the next day (a splash of milk and a little shredded cheese actually DOES do wonders.) Once we had kids I had to learn how to adjust meals to be kid-friendly. I’m going to have to work in a post about what constitutes ‘kid-friendly’ in my house.
READ THIS NEXT: I do NOT feed my kids different dinners than what I make for Alex and I. And I do NOT make different meals for each child. I am blessed enough not to have to worry about allergies or special diets, so I take full advantage of that!
4. My cooking style – this includes anything from my time constraints, equipment limitations, availability of ingredients, and my own personal preferences.

So why am I talking about this??? To tell you this: I am about to share with you what might possibly be THE best recipe I have ever come across (and I made a small substitution that would have prevented me from making it at all when I first started cooking). Here’s why:
– It can be eaten in place of any meal: breakfast, snack, with lunch, dessert… ok maybe not fulfilling enough for dinner, so ALMOST any meal.
– The recipe includes 3 ingredients. YES I said 3. And they’re probably things you already have at your house!!! (remember OHI?!?! This is a slam DUNK in the OHI department)
– It is indulgent. It is sweet. It has chocolate. It has texture. It is served best warm. It pairs well with a hot cup of tea or coffee. It checks all my boxes in terms of a good dessert.
– My kids love them. They can help make them. Heck, Aubrey can practically make them on her own (as long as an adult does the oven part of course)
– The clean-up is super fast and easy. No worrying about cross contamination from raw eggs or having to soak really messy mixing bowls.
– IT IS HEALTHY! (And the crowd goes wild!!!!)

Here’s what you’ll need:

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2 large bananas, 1 cup oats, about 1/3 cup baking chips

The first time I made these, my bananas were not that large, so if you only have what can be categorized as medium or small, you’ll probably be fine. Just use a little less oats. HERE COMES THE SUBSTITUTION: The recipe called for “quick oats”. In my OHI all I had was “Old fashioned Oats”. I have no idea what the difference is. But I figured I’d try it and see how it came out. (If you’re wondering, they were amazing) And as for the baking chips, I’ve seen versions where people use white chocolate or peanut butter chips. In my house we use straight up semi-sweet chips for most things. (I’m kind of a former chocoholic.)

All you do is mash up the bananas and oats together:

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The first time I did these we mashed the bananas and then added the oats. This time I just put both ingredients in at once and mashed the bananas together. I found this way, the oats are incorporated with much less effort. Next add the chips:

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Lastly put them on a greased cookie sheet to bake for 15-18 minutes at 350º.

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DON’T SKIP THE GREASING PART! I’m not saying load your sheet up with butter, but use some non-stick spray or maybe a parchment sheet. I don’t have a sil-pat, but I’m sure that would work too. There is so much moisture in the bananas that they will surely stick otherwise.
The ‘cookies’ don’t look much different after 15 minutes. Just test them to be sure they’re springy and not mushy.  After picture:

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Enjoy! They are most definitely best warm. Eat quickly (I’m telling you, that won’t be a problem).

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I’m thinking the peanut butter chips will be worth a try, but I’d have to need them for another recipe to justify buying a bag. And I’m also debating if they’d be good with some chopped nuts, or maybe some dried pineapple?! I bet if you used the pineapple, then the white chocolate would be good. Otherwise the sweetness of banana + white chocolate = too sweet for me (I found this out when making banana muffins and tried white chocolate chunks). Yes, I can see many variations in my future 😉