Archive for December 23, 2014

Menu Plan and Shopping List 12/25/14-12/31/14

I think Christmas exploded in my living room. There are stacks of gifts that need to be wrapped, boxes of wrapped gifts (sorted by which Christmas family event they need to arrive at), Christmas socks I bought for myself and never put away, scraps of paper and lamination plastic, leftover squares of wrapping paper that are theoretically big enough to wrap some gift somewhere (but never the one I’m trying to wrap at the moment), and to top it all off the lights and ornaments I put up in our window keep falling down at odd moments with startling plinks of sound and I’ve given up on trying to put them back up.

Also, my NOEL letters on the bookshelf currently read LEON, but that’s because of a family tradition of taking sides and sneaking around to switch the letters around when the other team’s not looking, so the only strange there is that I’ve been so distracted today that I never changed it to NOEL after my husband left for work this morning.

In light of this festive explosion, the title of this blog post is rather misleading. For one thing, I’m not digging myself out of this mountain of ribbon and tinsel to go grocery shopping any time soon. For another thing, I’ve decided not to make a menu plan this week.

Shocking, I know.

My husband was able to arrange taking extra time off for Christmas this year (partly because he’s been so busy at work that he had extra vacation days we weren’t able to use earlier in the year), so starting tomorrow he’s off work for the duration of this menu plan and a bit beyond. This means that after a string of Christmas celebrations with various branches of our families we’re probably going to do a mini staycation that includes pajama days, movie marathons, eating leftover Christmas cookies and cooking whatever’s easy to make that we feel like eating. (If the weather cooperates I’m sure it will also include sledding and other such outdoor winter activities, but the point is, we’re both ready for some time off to just crash for a while.)

I have checked the fridge, freezer and pantry and confirmed that we have enough hot dogs, hamburger patties, potatoes, cheese, frozen pizza and ramen noodles to last through next week, and that’s all the planning I feel the need to do. (Okay, okay, I also confirmed that we have squash, sweet potatoes, onions, saurkraut, homemade ketchup and water kefir to fill the vegetable and fermented sides of our diets.)

So, after a quick rundown of how last week’s menu plan went, and giving you a peek into my Christmas dinner and party food plans, I’ll be heading back to wrapping gifts!

Last week I followed the menu plan fairly closely, and without having to fall back on the hot dogs plan! I did a few food swaps like replacing rice with potatoes and leaving out the nachos from one meal. I also completely simplified the hash meal into hamburger patties with ramen noodles and garlic green beans. Saturday we went out to Wild Berries Cafe, a local restaurant I’d been wanting to try. Sadly, their coffee bar was closed, but their food was good (and plentiful!), and I would definitely go back again. Also, the leftover from our meals stretched our leftovers to the point where I really didn’t have to figure out anything besides creative re-combinations of leftovers for lunches last week.

We are attending three Christmas gatherings/parties this week. One is a brunch doesn’t require us to bring food, so if we take anything it will be a plate of Christmas cookies. Another one is mostly lighter sides to go with sandwiches, so I plan to take artichoke dip with crackers and tortilla chips and homemade cranberry sauce. The third is more of typical Christmas dinner and I’m taking roasted garlic mashed potatoes. (I may also take some sort of dip or other lighter food for snacking before or after dinner, but I haven’t quite decided on that yet.)

For our own personal Christmas celebration at home, we do a large breakfast/brunch and a Christmas dinner in the late afternoon, with snacking in between as needed.

For breakfast we will have flaming Christmas pudding. I bought (nitrate free) sausages at Costco to go with the Christmas pudding, but I wasn’t able to figure out if the spices would make for good breakfast sausages or not, so I also have bacon as a back up.

For snacking  we’ll have cheddar cheese and Christmas cookies, and I’ll probably make crab dip.

Christmas dinner will be corned beef brisket (I buy an extra one when they go on sale on St Patrick’s day and save it for Christmas–yes, I even saved it through the pantry challenge this year!), mashed potatoes, cheesy onion casserole and sweet potatoes.

Merry Christmas, everyone!


Christmas Gifts and Stocking Stuffers for Foodies and Cooks

Those of you who are more organized that I have been this year may already be done with your Christmas shopping. In that case, I hope  you will still enjoy this peek into my kitchen and the brief reviews of my favorite kitchen tools.

For those of you are still trying to figure out gifts for those last few people on your list, here are some ideas for those cooks, tea snobs, foodies and real food enthusiasts in your life. (Or, if you ARE the cook and foodie in your life, and you want a handy list to share with those people who are running behind on gifts for you, that works too.)

Most of these gifts are available on Amazon, and will still get here in plenty of time for Christmas with Amazon Prime free 2 day shipping. If you don’t have Amazon Prime, this is the perfect time of  year to sign up for a free trial.

 Stainless Steel Ginger Grater

(This link is to a very similar grater to the one I have; Amazon doesn’t seem to carry the exact brand of ginger grater I own.)

I picked up this ginger grater on clearance somewhere for a couple of dollars. When it came it looked like a ridiculous little gadget, and I really wasn’t sure how often I’d use it, especially since fresh ginger is something I buy occasionally and not a staple in my kitchen.

From the first time I tried it I was hooked.

It makes a very quick job of grating a few tsp of ginger for tea or flavoring water kefir and other ferments. (It get a little uncomfortable to hold if I need to grate a larger amount of ginger, but that’s a fairly rare occurrence for me.) It also works well for zesting an orange, and would probably work as a nutmeg grater and for lots of other such small jobs.

The grater I linked to on Amazon is about $6, which is well worth it for a small and versatile kitchen tool, and makes it a great little stocking stuffer.

Perma Brew Tea Infuser (Tea Toby)

As far as I have been able to discover the Tea Toby is the ultimate way to brew a single cup of loose leaf tea. It snaps closed and doesn’t leak tea leaves into your cup of tea (unless you catch some tea leaves in the seam when you close it, which isn’t really the fault of the infuser at that point).

I like the fact that I can fill it with tea and throw it in my suitcase, or even my pocket, and be ready to brew a serving of medicinal tea, peppermint tea, or my favorite chai at a moment’s notice.

It’s about $7 on Amazon, so small and cheap enough to qualify as a stocking stuffer, or it could be included in a gift basket of loose leaf teas.

Small Mesh Strainer  

This is a seriously high quality little stainless steel strainer. It costs about $13, but it comes with a lifetime warranty, and I’ve used mine for about two and half years without it showing any signs of wear. I bought it while I was on the GAPS diet, to use for straining pulp out fresh juice by the glassful, and it quickly became one of my most frequently reached for kitchen utensils.

I use it when straining spices out of water kefir or kombucha after the second ferment, straining my cold brew tea into a glass or new jar, straining cold brew espresso, and other misc. occasions of “I have particles in my drink that I don’t want there”.

It fits perfectly into the top of a glass, mug or quart jar without needing to be steadied as I pour through it, and the fine mesh does a good job of straining most things well. (You might get some small dust like particles when straining tea, but I haven’t had a big problem with that with most teas.)

Bamboo Cutting Board with Cutting Mats

I used to have this set of cutting boards (which cost about $6 on Amazon), which I really liked because of the ability to store several cutting boards in a small space in my apartment kitchen. They even lasted pretty well, as it took over a year of heavy use (probably an average of being used once or twice a day) for the fruits and veggies cutting board to start falling apart.

The problem I had with my original set of cutting boards was that they would fall down between the side of my fridge and the cupboards if I wasn’t very careful when putting them away (in the only reasonably accessible storage spot I have for cutting boards in my small kitchen).

I’ve only had the bamboo cutting board (which cost about $20) for a few months, but it’s already demonstrating all the advantages of my original set of cutting mats, with a few important bonus features.

It comes with even more (color coded) cutting mats, so I can use different mats for raw chicken, raw beef, raw pork, veggies, bread and cheese, plus a plain black mat for serving food on. The variety of mats helps prevent cross contamination while storing in a small space AND all the mats store conveniently INSIDE the bamboo cutting board, so no more plastic mats slipping down into hard to reach cracks!

Also, the bamboo cutting board has a lip around the edge to prevent juices from the chopped foods going all over the counter. Plus, the cutting mats feel more heavy duty than my original set of cutting mats, so they should last even longer. (A set of replacement mats to fit in the bamboo cutting board can be purchased for about $13.)

Aerolatte Milk Frother 

While the other items I mentioned are mostly very practical kitchen tools that I reach for often as I cook, this one is pure luxury. At $26 it’s stainless steel with a 5 year warranty (there are also lower price options with no warranty where the housing is made from cheaper metals) and indispensable for any coffee lover who likes to whip up fancy coffee drinks with as little fuss as possible.

While I can’t say that this milk frother has worked flawlessly, most of the problems I’ve had with it in the past have been due to battery issues which are not the fault of the frother. (The more juice in the battery, the better and faster it froths, while low quality batteries or mostly used up batteries cause it work slowly, poorly or not at all.) The first one I was shipped did have a manufacturing flaw which affected its use, but Amazon quickly replaced it without any fuss.

The beauty of this tool is in its simplicity. It fits in my utensil jar on my counter, so about two minutes total I can pull it out, froth milk for a latte or a steamer, rinse it off, set it in the dish drainer to dry and enjoy my fancy hot drink.

Bonus Idea: Cast Iron Skillet Maintenance Kit

This one works as a stocking stuffer, as a small extra to add to a larger gift of cast iron cookware, or just as small gift for neighbor you know could use it. It could work for newlyweds, for seasoned cooks who can always use more dish scrubbers, or for those who you think need a little help understanding how to take better care of their cast iron.

For the cast iron maintenance kit you’ll want a nylon scraper (I have these, which are simple but heavy duty, but there are a range of options available, including this more elegant bamboo scraper), a plastic scrubbie (you can make one yourself, buy them in bulk on Amazon, or buy them individually at your grocery store), and a green scouring pad (also available in bulk on Amazon
or in smaller quantities at your grocery store). Optionally, you could also include one of these scrub buds for the really tough cast iron messes.

This post contains affiliate links.

Menu Plan and Shopping List 12/18/14-12/24/14

It was a bad week to be a menu plan at our house. Our poor menu plan was twisted, pulled, ignored and pummeled this week. We skipped one social event because of illness but added another one we thought we were going to have to skip. We didn’t attend church fellowship meal (again, because of illness), and we’re still eating off of the rotisserie chicken that was intended for that meal. We’ve eaten grilled cheese sandwiches, frozen pizza, french onion soup, and a skillet lunch composed of leftovers.

I think the only two meals that truly stuck to the menu plan were one social event (my husband’s workplace Christmas party) and apple cider glazed hamburgers with sweet potato fries (which were fabulous by the way).

As we’re heading into the last week before Christmas and I’m further behind than normal on gifts and wrapping and such I’m trying to keep this week’s meals pretty simple. If even when I’ve planned ends up being too complicated I will fall back on Costco hot dogs which I have stashed in the freezer.


Social Event

Apple Cider Brined Pork Loin, Roasted Apples, Rice (carried this one over from last week)

Spicy Chicken Thighs, Tortilla Chips with Nacho Cheese Sauce, Buttered Squash

Leftovers/Fridge Scrounging

Costco rotisserie chicken (for church fellowship meal)

Ground Beef and Potato Hash, Green Beans with Onions

Pork Loin, Mashed Sweet Potatoes


We should have enough leftovers for all the lunches except one. Depending on how that day is going, I may throw together a quick french onion soup for lunch, or make cheesy fried potatoes.


I’m moving back toward having creamy spicy chicken broth as a regular part of my breakfast, though it hasn’t quite been every day. Other than that, I’ve mostly had zucchini bread and fruit for breakfast.My husband has had eggs nearly every day for breakfast, sometimes with zucchini bread.

Next week will almost definitely continue with eggs for my husband, possibly with some fried potatoes thrown into the mix. I may or may not manage to keep up my chicken broth routine, but we do have more fruit and more zucchini bread (and Christmas cookies… but I’ll try not start eating those for breakfast until Christmas vacation officially starts).

Baking and Extras:

I did finally take care of my water kefir and the grains seem to have survived their extended ferment just fine (yay!). I also did some Christmas baking and cookie swapping with my husband’s family, so I have most of the basic necessary cookies for this season.

This week I’m keeping things simple, and other than keeping up with water kefir my only definite plan is to make salted caramel pretzel bark. (I may do more baking here and there over the actual Christmas celebrations while my husband is home, but I’m not making definite plans at this point.)

Shopping List:

I ended up doing my shopping already, picking up more turbinado sugar, nitrate free sausages for Christmas morning breakfast, tomato paste, and couple more rotisserie chickens at Costco. I also got some eggnog at Kroger, along with sour cream and package of chicken thighs.

The striking deals at Aldi this week are mandarin orange at $2.29/3 lb, navel oranges at $1.99/4 lb, black beans at $2/2lb and butter for $2.29/lb (yeah, butter’s just expensive, but that’s probably the best price around right now).

Hyvee has frozen veggies for .88 (10-16 oz packages).

Kroger has sour cream for $1 (of course, now that I already broke down and bought it…), frozen veggies for $1 (8-16 oz packages), eggs for $1.50/dozen and pears for .99/lb.




Nacho Cheese Sauce

Nacho Cheese Sauce (made with real food ingredients!)

Just look at that cheesy gooeyness. Or is it gooey cheesiness?

Imagine this scenario: You’re invited to a party at the last minute and you’re supposed to bring a finger food to share. You suspect that everyone else will bring some kind of dessert, which fine and all, but you kind of get cranky if you don’t get some kind of protein for supper. The problem is finding a high protein food you have on hand that everyone else will consider acceptable party food.

No problem!

This nacho cheese sauce is mostly made out of cheese (along with a few other real food ingredients), but with that creamy processed food texture that will satisfy all your normal friends that it belongs at a party. In fact, if you could get your hands on an old Cheez Whiz jar, they’d probably never suspect the contents were homemade. (Just make sure you serve it warm–the homemade nacho cheese sauce thickens considerably when cold.)

Other good reasons to make this nacho cheese sauce include needing to make lunch in less than fifteen minutes, needing a midnight snack, having cheese and tortilla chips in the house, or having cheese and spoon in the house.

If you really want to replicate a processed food flavor, I recommend making this recipe using mild cheddar cheese and a few dashes of hot sauce. The sky’s the limit for flavor combinations though, if you want more of a gourmet and personalized cheese sauce. Mozzarella and green hot sauce? Extra sharp cheddar and lots of cayenne? Monterey Jack and a spoonful of chili powder? Okay, now I’m getting hungry…

Healthiness Rating: Healthy

As always, the quality of the ingredients you use determines exactly how healthy your end product is (for example, I always try to use organic cornstarch to avoid GMOs), but in any case you’re replacing a processed food that’s full of chemicals with a homemade sauce made from real foods, so it’s a vast improvement regardless.

Yumminess Rating: Yummy

Oh, so yummy! As you might imagine, this nacho cheese sauce is very much a husband approved recipe. (My husband has been known to mix it with salsa on occasion for a different twist.)

Nacho Cheese Sauce

inspired by this recipe from How to Cook Like Your Grandmother

1 1/2 TBSP butter

1 TBSP cornstarch

1/2 cup milk

1 ounce cream cheese

1 heaping cup of cheddar cheese (or cheese of choice)

dash of cayenne and/or dash of hot sauce

Melt the butter over a medium heat. Break (or cut) the cream cheese into three or four pieces so it melts into the sauce more easily when you add it. (But don’t add it yet.)

Turn down the heat to medium low (if you’re more patient than I am you can just start with the heat at medium low). Whisk the cornstarch and milk into the melted butter.

Add the cream cheese and whisk until it’s fully melted in.

Add the cheddar cheese (or whatever kind of cheese you prefer) and whisk (or stir) it in until it’s completely melted and evenly blended into the sauce.

Mix in cayenne, hot sauce, or whatever seasonings you prefer.

Serve warm. Refrigerate leftovers.

(The refrigerated nacho sauce will develop a texture not unlike a loaf of american cheese, so if you like you can pour the leftovers into a small loaf pan and experiment with this use of the sauce.)



Menu Plan and Shopping List 12/11/14-12/17/14

We followed this week’s menu plan surprisingly well, just swapping a couple meals from the day I’d originally planned to fix them, and swapping out veggies a couple of times. In fact, I will admit that I forgot to fix a veggie to go with our meatloaf. I’m going go with the theory that the LARGE amount of chopped onion I put in the meatloaf counts as our veggie for that meal…

The only other change is with the BBQ chicken thighs meal: First, I forgot to buy chicken when I went shopping (more like I looked at it and decided against that particular chicken at every single store I went to). Second, we ended up deciding to go out to dinner anyway, as part of our date night to go see a local theater perform The Sound of Music.

I was feeling unusually ambitious about cooking meals on Saturday, so instead of just scrounging leftovers, I made a sweet and sour pork dish. It was really good, but for once my decision to double the sauce backfired, and made the whole dish just a little too sweet (which my husband didn’t seem to mind at all…). Serving the leftovers with extra veggies and pasta helped a little.

We’re heading into the Christmas party time of year, so the next few weeks will probably involve extra social events, easy meals so I have time to focus on special Christmas activities, and a lot of last minute changes between when I plan meals and when we eat them.

We had well over a gallon of apple cider left after Thanksgiving that went fizzy and is now halfway between sweet cider and hard cider. I thought we’d just drink it anyway, but we haven’t been going through it that fast, so I found a few recipes to help me use it up this week.


Social Event x 2


Leftovers/Fridge Scrounging Day

Costco Rotisserie Chicken (for church fellowship meal)

Apple Cider Glazed Hamburger Patties and Sweet Potato Fries (using this glaze recipe)

Apple Cider Brined Pork Loin with Roasted Apples and Rice


We should have enough leftovers for every lunch except one or two. I’ll probably cover those with grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup, or possibly nachos.


Toast, fruit, zucchini bread, cheesy fried potatoes… Lots of options this week.

Baking and Extras:

So, I got almost nothing done from last week’s priority list, but I did make the homemade bread and also made zucchini bread. This week: water kefir for sure, hopefully process apples and start Christmas baking!

Shopping List:

Aldi has both avocadoes and pomegranates on sale for 50 cents each.

I’m probably not going shopping this week, as the few things I need (such as sour cream for holiday baking) I’d rather wait to buy until Kroger has them on sale for their cheapest price.

Menu Plan and Shopping List 12/4/14-12/10/14

Well, all I can say is that coming down with the flu a couple days after Thanksgiving, after a pantry challenge, and before post pantry challenge grocery shopping will throw a huge wrench into all of your plans for the week.

I’m not even sure what to tell you that we ate this week, because there were a few days (especially when I had a more noticeable fever) that I barely ate at all. My husband cooked while I was feeling especially crumby, and I think he ate a lot of fried potatoes… We also ate the Grave of Small Birds leftovers that were in the freezer, we cooked up that last pound of ground beef in the house, and I did make sardine fritters during a brief spurt of feeling better (sardine fritters are surprisingly good–I would make them again). Oh, and we ate some alfalfa and lentil sprout salad and leftover garlic green beans from Thanksgiving.

Other than that, I drank a LOT of coconut water, sipped some apple cider that was left over from Thanksgiving, and generally tried to stay hydrated without drinking any water, (because water was inexplicably disgusting).

Thankfully, my sister and niece rescued us from continuing to try to eat out of the pantry, and picked up some groceries for us, which made eating a lot more pleasant all of a sudden. I still need to do a more serious grocery trip and do some real stocking up again, but it makes life so much better to have bread and cheese and bananas in the house again when you don’t feel like cooking and don’t really feel like eating any more sardines or candied celery.


Astoria crab pasta (using organic spaghetti from Aldi and canned crab), garlic broccoli


Leftovers/Fridge Scrounging

Costco rotisserie chicken (for church fellowship meal)

Grilled cheese sandwiches, tomato soup

Meatloaf, baked potatoes, peas

BBQ chicken thighs, fried sweet potatoes


Leftovers, cheesy fried potatoes or homemade mac and cheese to fill in if needed.


Fruit, toast, eggs (for my husband). I’m thinking we’ll keep it pretty simple this week as I’m still not feeling great and trying to catch up on everything I got behind on while I was sick, plus start decorating and baking for Christmas.

Baking and Extras:

Priority one: find out if my water kefir grains died while I was sick and get them going again if possible. Priority two: process the apples sitting in my living room.

Priority three: homemade bread and Christmas baking!

Shopping List:

I gave you my basic shopping list last week, a lot of which I still need to go pick up, so this week I’m just sharing a few highlights of sales I noticed:


clementines, $2.29/3lb

kiwi, $1.29/lb

blackberries, $1/6 oz

pomegranates, .49

mangoes, .49


boneless pork loin, $1.99/lb

bacon, $2.99/lb

Casdacian Farms organic frozen veggies, .99/10 oz (when you buy 4) — Note that the bags are a little smaller than standard bags, but considering that most standard Kroger frozen veggies come in 12 oz bags, and the lowest sale price on those is usually $1, this seems like a good deal for organic veggies.