Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Packing Lunch

A lot of sandwiches were packed up this morning and sent to school alongside a bag of chips and a cookie or two.

If you have children, odds are good you've packed a few lunches, either as a regular thing or just for a change of pace from the school lunchroom food.

I know I've packed my share of sandwiches, from bologna and cheese to peanut butter.

The first week or so, it's not so bad. But as the months go by, the child gets tired of eating the same ham sandwich, and who can blame him?

There are many ways to spice up a child's lunch box and many opportunities to work in nutritious meals.

One of the most important things is to ask the child what sounds good to him. What are the other kids taking that looks appealing? Are you willing to try something new?

If you're lucky, and you don't have a picky eater at home, there are plenty of options for some delicious and healthy lunches this school year.

* For starters, be creative with the breads you use for sandwiches. Whole-grain is preferred; if your child had rather have white bread, choose a white whole wheat option. We've bought several of these at my house, and we all like them.

If white bread isn't a necessity, then send lunch on different breads. Peanut butter is delicious on a bagel, either the full size or the newer thin-sliced bagels.

At my house, it's a big treat to have pimiento cheese on sunflower bread from our grocery store bakery; if the sandwich has been grilled first, it's a bigger treat. And yes, the grilled pimiento cheese sandwich is good cold.

And don't forget pita pockets, tortillas or sandwich wraps. Spread a little mayonnaise or mustard on a small tortilla, layer turkey and cheese and roll it up. There are so many options for sandwich wraps. A little dried tomato and lettuce will dress up a sandwich, so would a different cheese, such as swiss or mozzarella.

* Every now and then, forget the bread. Fill one small zippered bag with crackers, another with cheese squares or cubes and a third with some meat. You can choose pieces of bologna, ham, turkey or even slices of pepperoni (I buy turkey pepperoni). Chicken salad and ham salad are also good on crackers. When lunch comes, the child can make his own cracker sandwiches.

Another fun option is hummus with whole grain crackers or pita chips. Put the hummus in a small plastic container with the crackers in a separate bag. It's easy for the child to dip the crackers into the hummus for a change of pace.

* Hummus makes a nice dip for carrot sticks as well. If your child doesn't like hummus, pack a little of his favorite low-fat salad dressing to dip the carrots or celery in.

* Fruit is always a lunch box favorite, but don't limit the choice to an apple or a banana.

Strawberries are delicious for lunch, but be sure to wash them and take off the stem to make it easier for the child to eat. If it requires extra work, many kids will not make the effort.

A sandwich bag full of crunchy grapes is also a good option.

Peeled and sectioned clementines are one of my favorites for my own lunch. Clementines have no seeds unlike a tangerine, so they are especially child-friendly.

Keep individual-size containers of fruit such as peaches and pears or even applesauce on hand for those occasions when you don't have fresh fruit in the house.

* Most kids want chips with their lunch. If you want a healthier option, check out the many baked chips on the market now or pack a bag of pretzels.

*If you have a small thermos, make a bowl of soup in the morning or a box of your child's favorite macaroni and cheese. Spiral pasta mixed with your homemade spaghetti sauce would also be a nice treat for lunch.

If your child loves pasta salad, pack it in the thermos, but don't forget the fork! I've included a new pasta salad recipe I've made a few times this summer. I love it for lunch.

* Some kids expect a sweet treat in their lunch box. If you're worried about packing high-fat cookies each day, look for healthier options, such as graham crackers, or make your own treats, knowing you can control the ingredients.

* If you've packed items such as sandwiches made with meats and mayonnaise, pimiento cheese, chicken or ham salad, hummus or salad dressing (or anything else perishable), be sure to include a refrigerator pack or a frozen juice box in your child's lunch box to keep the food cool until it's time to eat

Honey Mustard Pasta Salad
  • 1 lb. box tri-color pasta twists or whole wheat pasta twists
  • 1 to 1 1/2 cups honey mustard salad dressing (I used Paul Newman’s Own Light Honey Mustard)
  • Any of your favorite mix-ins including yellow, green or red bell peppers; cucumbers; and carrots
Cook pasta according to package instructions. Drain and rinse. Pour into large bowl and mix with 1 to 1 1/2 cups dressing. Stir in vegetables. Store in refrigerator.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Snack bars loaded with favorite flavors

Several years ago, my husband and I started eating a lot of breakfast bars or granola bars.

During our weekly shopping trip, we always stop for a few minutes on the cereal aisle just to check out the latest offering of granola and fruit bars. There are so many on the market now that it's hard to keep up with all the new products. There are bars made from packaged cereals, nuts, dried fruit, oatmeal, peanut butter and chocolate.

Reggie and I particularly like the peanut butter varieties or anything with a lot of nuts, including almonds and sunflower seeds. I keep a stash of these breakfast bars in my desk drawer at work and will often have one for a mid-morning snack. It's a treat to pull out a granola bar filled with crunchy almonds!

But I like making my own treats, too.

Last week, I tried to think of some recipes that would be good for back-to-school, whether it be breakfast, snack or lunch for students or teachers. I searched the Internet for some ideas on breakfast bars and came upon a wonderful recipe that is totally versatile and can be tailored to your taste.

The recipe doesn't require baking, but you do need to heat the peanut butter/ honey/ brown sugar mixture on the stove.

The next step is up to you. The recipe calls for five cups of dry cereal, your choice, and a half to one cup (or more) of add-ins such as dried fruit, nuts or chocolate chips.

I made my first batch Sunday before moving my son back to college. I wanted him to try them.

I chose chunky peanut butter, five cups of Rice Krispies and a half cup of chocolate chips.

The recipe I used as a guideline said to boil the peanut butter mixture, but my ingredients got hot way to fast and started to stick and burn, so I turned down the heat, picked out the little burned pieces, and opted not to let the mixture boil. I let it cook until it was thinned out. The next time I made it, I let the mixture start to bubble; the bars turned out too hard to even cut.

Follow the directions on this one, and stir constantly. Use a non-stick pan if you have one. If you've ever made Rice Krispies Treats, you know what marshmallow/ butter mixture looks like after it's cooked. Go for a similar consistency.

I added the chocolate chips after stirring in the cereal. The mixture was still very warm, and the chocolate chips melted quickly. I only added 1âÑ2 cup of chocolate chips, but it looks like so much more because the chips melted. (That's a good thing in my book!)

The breakfast bars don't hold together at first. But once they've cooled enough to touch, press down the mixture firmly into the pan, or use a piece of waxed paper to press down if the bars are too hot to touch. Once they have cooled, they should firm up nicely.

I think the end result was awesome. I loved the taste and the texture of the peanuts and cereal, and so did my family. And, of course, the chocolate added a nice touch. The cut bars are also pretty, revealing a nice pattern of peanut butter/ honey mixed with the cereal.

I keep imagining new combinations for this recipe. I want to make it with two cups of oatmeal and three cups of Rice Krispies, and I want to try it with granola and maybe dried fruit. I'm sure Cheerios would be good, too.

I had a bar for my mid-morning snack today. I loved the chewy texture and the peanut butter flavor with the slight taste of honey. This recipe is most definitely a keeper and would be a great treat for those of you going back to school.

Peanut Butter Honey Breakfast Bars
  • 1 1/2 cups crunchy peanut butter*
  • 1 cup honey
  • 3/4 cup brown sugar
  • 5 cups Rice Krispies
  • 1/2 cup chocolate chips
Combine peanut butter, honey and brown sugar in saucepan. Warm over low heat, stirring constantly until mixture thins and is very hot. Be careful not to let it stick to the pan or get too hot. Remove from heat, add in cereal, then mix in chocolate chips. Pour into square baking dish. Press down mixture firmly with a buttered spatula or waxed paper.

*Adapted from cooks.com

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Remembering Cathy

My cousin Cathy should be turning 50 Wednesday, but she won’t.
I should be calling to tease her about being so old, but I can’t.
Our dear Cathy is gone.
Cathy died Jan. 21. It was out-of-the blue, completely unexpected. We were totally unprepared. But who is ever prepared to lose someone you love? Someone who was busy at a work event one evening and found dead in her hotel room the next morning? How does anyone know what’s lurking inside them and what’s coming next?
Cathy was a rock to her family. She was our Boykin family planner. The cousin who remembered birthdays and sent cards. Her Christmas card was always one of the prettiest ones I displayed. She was still sending them years after I stopped the practice.
She was the cousin who bought special gifts. She gave my granddaughter, Sora, a dainty layette set when she was born. Sora wore it to my daddy’s funeral.
Cathy was so devoted to her family; I learned a lot from her. Once, she told me she’d been criticized for being too involved with her parents, who had numerous doctor visits and hospital stays. But she ignored the criticisms and stayed by their side whenever they needed her, keeping a close eye on the medical staff caring for them. She was a hawk and loved her parents with a intensity and a sense of devotion that few children have. She also knew how much we all cared about what was going when her parents were sick, and she’d send us wonderful e-mails to keep us in touch.
Her mother, my Aunt Nellie Rose, died about two years ago. It was so hard on Cathy, who had no children of her own, but was a tender and loving caregiver to her mom and dad. We talked about it a lot.
My own parents were very ill at the time, and she helped me cope. She’d call or e-mail to check on me and to ask about Aunt Helen and Uncle H. Her phone calls always began with, “This is your cousin Cathy!”
Cathy headed straight to Wilson when she heard Daddy had died, just a few months after her mama’s passing. She guided me through the process and made sure Susan and I were safely tucked in the kitchen and out of sight when the funeral home came to pick up my daddy. She didn’t want us to see him leaving the house for the last time.
A few days later, at the funeral, Cathy arrived at the church with N.C. State tissues, a thoughtful tribute to Daddy, who loved the Wolfpack.
After Daddy died, she shared her own troubles dealing with her mother’s loss and helped me realize what I was experiencing was normal.
Not only was Cathy devoted to her husband and immediate family of parents, sisters, nieces and a nephew, she also helped take care of our aging Aunt Alice, who now lives in an assisted care facility in Wilson. She and our cousin Nancy would often meet to take Aunt Alice shopping for clothes or to K&W Cafeteria for lunch. They also had a standing date twice a year to change out Aunt Alice’s clothes to prepare for the next season. It was all about responsibility and dedication for Cathy.
I try to dwell on our younger, carefree years when I think of Cathy and the fun times we had as adults.
I remember all the Boykin cousins playing at our grandparents’ home in Rock Ridge. I grin when I think how Cathy and I got a strange pleasure in leaving our younger siblings, Betsy and Susan, out of our playtimes. I know, it was mean, but we were kids.
I remember the Fridays Daddy dropped me off at the Lassiter household to play with Debbie, Cathy and Betsy all day while he worked in the office in Raleigh. It was such a treat to play with those girls.
And I fondly recall the dinners I shared with Cathy and Nancy at Beefmastor. Cathy insisted on paying every time we went out. She said we had expenses she didn’t have and to please let her treat us. She wouldn’t even let us pay the tip.
Cathy was special to all of our family, and the band of cousins will never be the same without her. But we’ll remember her as the cousin who loved N.C. State sports, who married sweet Bob Voron in a beautiful rose garden ceremony, who loved her family, who flew to cool destinations with her job, who helped me book my first airline flight in 25 years, who helped her grieving daddy, our Uncle Jimmy, deal with the loss of his beloved wife.
We’ll remember Cathy loved her dog Moocher, and she loved us. She was as good a cousin as any girl could ask for.
The last time I had communication with Cathy was just a few days before she died. Mama had fallen and fractured her pelvis and was moved to the palliative care unit at Wilson Medical Center. When Cathy returned from her business trip, she wanted to come see Aunt Alice and Aunt Helen.
I often read that email, dated Jan. 18, when I think of Cathy. Her compassion is summed up in this one correspondence:
“Oh Lisa,
How horrible for your Mom. I can't stand this — just when you think she might be turning the corner for the better, more catastrophe. How are you holding up — I know you are exhausted. Please let me know how you all are doing, and if I can help in anyway. I was planning to visit Aunt Alice on Saturday, so I could sit with your Mom if you need me.”
You don't know how much I wish she could have made that visit

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Bow Tie Lasagna

Rachael Ray hit a chord with today's cooks when she started promoting 30-minute meals.

So many of us work outside the home during the week and don't have time to monitor the oven while a roast cooks or spend 20 to 30 minutes chopping, dicing, browning and mixing a casserole before letting it cook another 30-45 minutes. Instead, we want recipes that are quick, but we want them to be good.

I'm always looking for a good, satisfying meal that I can put on the table quickly when I get home from work.

A few weeks ago, I ran across a recipe for Bow Tie Lasagna on the hugely popular Web site, www.thepioneerwoman.com. The recipe is featured on Pioneer Woman Ree Drummond's sister site, Tasty Kitchen. Ree tagged this recipe a 16-minute meal, and, you know what, you really can make it that quickly or at least close to that!

The trick, of course, is to be organized. Don't do your shopping on the way home from work. Have the ingredients at home. Often, I'll place non-perishable recipe items for the night's meal on the kitchen counter during my lunch break or even the night before. I also leave the printed recipe on the counter so I don't have to hunt for it when I get home from work. And I work in advance as often as I can. For instance, my husband and I have gotten in the habit of washing and tearing lettuce and storing it in a zippered bag so when we're preparing weeknight meals and want a fresh salad, all we have to do is taking the bag of lettuce from the refrigerator. We add a tomato and bell pepper from our garden and have a quick, fresh salad.

Anyway, back to the lasagna dish.

I've made this recipe three times now and find it very simple to prepare: Start the water boiling for the pasta, then brown the beef while the bow ties cook. Once the pasta and ground beef are ready, it's only a matter of mixing the ingredients together and letting the cheese melt.

Serve the dish with a fresh salad and a loaf of bread. I often splurge on my breads and try any number of options from the bakery at the grocery store.

This dish is no ways as heavy as a regular lasagna recipe that uses much more cheese. It only calls for 1/2 cup mozzarella cheese and 1/2 cup sour cream.

My family really enjoyed this simple dish and frowned when I made it the second time because I was making it for someone else's family and not for them!

I think one reason we liked it so much was the pasta sauce. Instead of using my old standby brand and flavor, which I still love, I bought an entirely new pasta sauce, Paul Newman's Sockaroni, which gave the entire dish a different flavor.

We had leftovers when I made this dish for my family. I really enjoyed them warmed over for lunch the next day. Again, no heavy meat and cheese dish, just a nice change from the regular fare.

I feel certain I will keep this recipe as a regular in my family's meal rotation. I might even try it with ground turkey next time.

Bow Tie Lasagna
  • 1 pound ground chuck*
  • 5 cups bow tie noodles (cooked)
  • 3 cups spaghetti sauce
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon Italian Seasoning
  • 1/2 cup mozzarella cheese
  • 1/2 cup sour cream
Cook ground beef in small pan. Meanwhile, cook noodles according to package directions.

After noodles are cooked, drain and drizzle with olive oil. Mix in spaghetti sauce. Add cooked beef, seasonings, cheese and sour cream. Fold together and allow it all to combine and melt, over low heat, for about 5 minutes, or until cheese is melted.

Tasty Kitchen

* I made a few changes. I used lean ground beef, oregano instead of Italian Seasoning and reduced fat sour cream. I cooked my beef in a large skillet and mixed the other ingredients in the skillet instead of the pasta pot; it was tight fit! I cooked the entire package of bow ties and had enough left over for a small pasta salad.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Grape Tomatoes Galore

Overflowing. The vines and now our kitchen bowls and countertop have been overflowing with grape tomatoes this summer.

Unlike their larger counterparts that grow one row over in our raised bed gardens, the grape tomatoes are not smaller and cracking open thanks to the hot, dry summer. They are bright red and plump.

So, what do you do with quart after quart of bite-size tomatoes?

My husband and I have eaten our fair share in salads this summer, but, honestly, I'd much prefer a slice of a vine-ripened, larger tomatoes for a salad if one's available.

So that sent me looking for new ways to use our grape tomatoes.

The first thing I made was a very simple bruschetta from Rachael Ray on the Food Network Web site. Although recipes for the easy Italian appetizer don't mention using grape tomatoes, they are perfect for this before-dinner treat. Grape tomatoes aren't too juicy, and they are easily cut into cubes without really losing their shape. And, to make it even better, I was able to use fresh basil, which is also growing in my backyard. That means all I had to buy for the bruschetta was a small loaf of Italian bread because I already had garlic on hand.

Reggie and I ate so much bruschetta the first time I made it that we almost forgot to eat the main course!

Even after making bruschetta a few times, plenty of grape tomatoes were left sitting on my countertop. So I went back to my search for new recipes. I really wasn't looking for a soup recipe. It's much too hot for soup, right? Turns out I was wrong, this tomato-based soup is so smooth, light and delicious that it was actually a wonderful treat for a hot Sunday night meal with my sister, Susan, and her girls.

The recipe is Roasted Grape Tomato, Corn and Pasta Ribbon Soup. I found it online at www.muellerspasta.com.

Once I saw that the grape tomatoes and corn are roasted along with garlic, I knew I had to make it. One of my favorite new recipes from last summer starts with a variety of roasted vegetables, including grape tomatoes. I love roasting vegetables and knew the addition of fresh corn, which we had purchased at the farmers market, would make a delicious combination.

The recipe isn't complicated. It takes a little time to cook because the tomatoes must roast for a half hour.

The recipe suggests pouring the soup into a blender to puree. Instead, I used my immersion blender. My immersion blender doesn't do as smooth a job blending, but it was perfect for this soup, I thought, because although the base was smooth, it left a few pieces of corn and tomato, adding a nice texture to the dish.

I made several changes to the recipe. The original recipe said to roast the fresh rosemary with the vegetables. I don't like rosemary very much, neither does Susan, as it turns out, so I left it out. I've never found a vegetable broth I particularly like, so I used low-sodium, low-fat chicken broth. I also omitted the balsamic vinegar and black pepper, because we liked the way the soup tasted without those ingredients. My husband did add apple cider vinegar to his soup and said it was a very good addition.

We never found the specific pasta called for in the recipe, whole grain wide pasta ribbons. Instead, Susan picked up another whole grain fettucine. Really, any pasta would work. Next time I make it, I'll pick a small, whole grain pasta.

I have so many grape tomatoes on hand right now, that I'm going to make a double batch of the soup this week for the freezer. I'll omit the pasta for now but will add it when I'm ready to eat it.

Bruschetta with Tomato and Basil
  • 1/2 baguette or crusty long loaf bread, sliced (12 pieces)
  • 2 large cloves garlic, cracked away from skin
  • Extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling
  • 3 small plum tomatoes, halved and seeded (I used grape tomatoes)
  • 20 fresh basil leaves (I didn’t use that many)
  • Coarse salt
Preheat broiler to high, (if you prefer you can also grill the bread). Place bread slices on a broiler pan. Char bread on each side under hot broiler, keep an eye on it. Rub toasts with cracked garlic and drizzle with oil. Chop seeded tomatoes and place in a small bowl. Pile basil leaves on top of one another and roll into a log. Thinly slice basil into green confetti and loosely combine with tomatoes. Add a drizzle of oil and a little coarse salt to the bowl and gently toss tomatoes and basil to coat. Pile toasts around the bowl of topping. Place a spoon to scoop topping in bowl and serve.

Rachael Ray

Roasted Grape Tomato and Corn Ribbon Soup
  • 6 oz. whole grain pasta (fettucine or small pasta should work fine)
  • 2 pints grape tomatoes
  • 2 cups fresh or frozen corn kernels
  • 4 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 5 cups low-sodium, low-fat chicken stock
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh, optional
  • Fresh ground black pepper
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

In a large bowl, combine grape tomatoes, corn and garlic. Toss with olive oil. Pour onto baking sheet, prepared with olive oil or covered with parchment paper. Roast in oven for 30 minutes. Tomatoes will start to split. Let cool slightly. Mash garlic with a fork.

Spoon vegetables into large stock pot and add 1 cup of chicken broth. Blend with immersion blender until desired consistency. (You can also use a blender.) I like to leave a few pieces of vegetables, but leave most of the soup smooth.

Add remaining stock and bring to a boil.

Stir in pasta and simmer until pasta is tender but firm, following cooking times on package.

Garnish with basil and pepper if desired.

* The original recipe from Muellers roasts 1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary with the vegetables, uses vegetable stock instead of chicken broth and mixes in a tablespoon of balsamic vinegar to the finished product before pouring into soup bowls.