Monday, August 14, 2017

The Big Cook

I have had several requests for more information on my annual before school Big Cook, so here goes!

About eight years ago I saw several articles and news stories on businesses offering meal prep services, where you paid to go and make a months' worth of meals for your family. I thought, "Hmmm...I could do that." So I did. And it was SO worth it that I've done a Big Cook every August and December since. Katherine helps now, which is much appreciated and really a lot of fun. Here is what I do:

The day before a Big Cook I make a list of what I want to cook and all of the ingredients. Then I do all the grocery shopping. I buy everything I can in bulk, mostly meat and cheese. This is cheaper and if you're making a lot it's easier, too. Our refrigerator is crammed after this grocery trip, but I only need to store items for a day. We also have a dorm size mini fridge in our basement where I can store the overflow.

I start cooking early in the morning, while I have energy and it's still relatively cool out. I turn up the air conditioning, sometimes crank up some music, and kick everyone not involved with cooking out of the kitchen (and sometimes the house). On Big Cook day, my entire purpose is cooking, so I make sure that there are no other chores or responsibilities to distract me. I rarely take a break while cooking, just cook straight through. I can fill my deep freeze with about 5 hours of cooking.

The first thing I do is chop onions. I know I'll use a lot, so I do that chore first. I went through an entire bag today. If I'm using bell peppers in more than one recipe I'll chop all of them at once, also. This just speeds things up later and keeps me from doing the chopping over and over.

The first thing I cook is chicken breasts or tenders on the grill. I do this early because standing in front of the grill is hot and I don't want to be out when the sun is high. I grilled and chopped 3 bags of chicken today. Some of it went into recipes and some was portioned out, bagged, and frozen. Quesadillas or chicken casseroles are quick to prepare if the chicken is already done! Later this fall I'll probably cook a turkey and freeze the leftovers in meal sized bags, too.

I also cook up large amounts of hamburger - 12 pounds today. Some went into recipes and some was portioned out and frozen. Sloppy joes and tacos can be prepared in 10 minutes if the meat is already cooked. I keep two skillets going at once, an electric one on the counter and another on the stove. This way I can cook 6 pounds of hamburger at once.

Cooking giant amounts of food is easier if you have enough equipment. I have two large non-stick skillets (one is electric), 4 8x8 pans, and a large assortment of casserole dishes. I also need at least two very large mixing bowls. Nothing is high dollar or fancy. I bought a second soup pot at a Habitat for Humanity garage sale this weekend - cost me $5. I still end up using disposable aluminum pans sometimes (and usually washing and reusing them). Hamburger is stored in an ancient stained and warped set of Tupperware and assorted disposable plastic sandwich boxes. Chicken is usually just popped in freezer bags. I store some of my plastics and cookware in my basement so they aren't taking up room in my cupboards. Ziplock freezer bags work great for calzones, bierocks, and burritos. I also go through lots of heavy duty aluminum foil and parchment paper (If you've never used parchment paper, buy some! Get the kind that comes in pop up sheets. Use it and you will never scrape cookies or bread dough off a pan again!)

I package all the cooked food in meal size containers. I've discovered that if I make a big pan of something, we eat the whole thing, even if it's more than we're hungry for. If I split the recipe in two, we eat the smaller pan and are content. For individual items like calzones or burritos, I put one meal's worth in a bag. If I store the whole batch together, we're much more likely to take a little extra each meal. I use a sharpie to mark what is in foil covered pans and to write reheating directions.

Cooking is messy. Cooking huge amounts of food is especially messy. I go into a Big Cook knowing that I'm going to deal with a very messy kitchen. I clean as I go, to some extent. When I am completely finished with an item, I put it in the dishwasher. I run 3 or 4 loads of dishes every Big Cook. Items that are repeatedly used, like cutting boards and skillets, get rinsed off and used again. If you're cooking three batches of hamburger in the same pan there is no need to actually clean it between batches. I drag the trash can to the center of the kitchen where I can toss in garbage from all my work surfaces. I also put the recycling bin in an easy to reach spot. I save the messiest recipes for last (enchiladas today). After everything is finally cooked, then I scrub the kitchen.

I have the luxury of having a deep freeze in my basement. If you don't have one, you can do a smaller version of a Big Cook. Double a recipe and put one pan in your freezer for next week. Cook up extra chicken or hamburger. It doesn't take any longer to cook 3 pounds of meat than it does 1 and even small freezers can hold the extra. Prep some foods on the weekend for the week's meals.

I love having food in my freezer for quick meals. My 5 hours of work today made 23 meals, plus the meat cooked for 12 more. That's 35 nights that I do NOT have to cook! We don't eat out of the freezer every night, so this will last us until Christmas. (Over Christmas break I'll have another Big Cook.) On nights that I have time and/or energy, I cook (or even better, Katherine cooks!). On nights that we have choir practice, soccer games, meetings, or some other limited time frame for meals I pull something out of the freezer.

There are a LOT of meals that freeze well. Here are some we've tried: chili, chicken and rice soup, burritos, lasagna, rice casseroles, turkey/chicken tetrazzini, enchiladas, pot pie, jalapeno cornbread casseroles, quiche, bierocks, calzones, hasbrown or frozen potato casseroles, homemade pizza (I use my bread machine for the dough). Here are a few of my favorite recipes:

BIEROCKS
-Frozen bread/roll dough or your favorite homemade roll dough
-1 lb. hamburger
-1/2 onion, chopped
-3/4 small head cabbage, chopped
-Salt and pepper to taste

Brown hamburger and onion. Add seasonings. Add cabbage and cover. Simmer until cabbage is soft.

Divide dough into 8-10 parts. Roll or stretch dough into a 6-8 inch circle. Put a large spoonful of filling in the middle of each circle. Pull the edges of the dough up and pinch to seal in filling. Place bierocks, seams side down, on cookie sheet [use parchment paper!]. Bake at 425 for 10-12 minutes. I double this recipe.

CALZONES
-1 package frozen roll dough, thawed
-1/2 cup onion, chopped
-1/2 cup shredded carrot (1 medium)
-1/2 shredded zucchini
-2 cloves garlic, minced
-1 egg, beaten
-1 cup light ricotta
-1 cup shredded mozarella
-1/4 cup grated Parmesan
-1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
-1 cup finely chopped cooked chicken (optional)

In a small saucepan, cook onion, carrot, zucchini, and garlic in a little water until soft. Drain. In a large bowl, mix egg, cheeses, and seasoning. Add vegetables and chicken.

Roll or stretch dough into a 4-5 inch circle. Put a small spoonful of filling in center. Pull edges of dough up and pinch to seal. Place calzones, seam side down, on a cookie sheet [use parchment paper!]. Bake at 375 for 18-20 minutes. Serve with marina sauce for dipping. I double this recipe.

CHIMICHANGAS
-1 1/2 lbs hamburger
-1/2 onion, chopped
-1 teaspoon cumin
-1 large can refried beans (24 oz.)
-12 oz. jack cheese, chopped
-8-12 flour tortillas, depending on size

Brown hamburger and onion. Drain. Add cumin. Mix in beans. Add cheese and heat until melted. Mix well. Spoon meat mixture down the middle of tortillas. Fold over sides and ends. Freeze. When ready to eat, thaw and fry on each side in a little oil until golden brown. Serve with salsa. My sister adds green chilis to the meat mixture to make it spicier.

HAM AND CHEESE POTATO CASSEROLE
-2 cans condensed cream of celery soup
-2 cups of sour cream
-1/2 cup water
-2 packages (28 ounces each) frozen O'Brien potatoes
-1 package (16 ounces) Velveeta, cubed
-2 1/2 cups cubed fully cooked ham

In a very large bowl, mix all ingredients together. Pour into pans. [This makes a LOT! 2 huge or 3 large casserole pans worth.] To cook, thaw and bake at 375 for 30-40 minutes.

TURKEY TETRAZZINI
-1 1/2 cup spaghetti, broken in small pieces
-1/4 cup bell pepper, diced
-1/2 cup onion, diced
-1/2 lb mushrooms, sliced
-1 small jar pimiento
-1 can water chestnuts, diced
-2 cups cooked, chopped turkey or chicken
-1 can cream of mushroom soup
-1/2 cup chicken broth
-1 3/4 cup shredded cheddar

Cook and drain spaghetti. Saute pepper and onion. In a large bowl, mix cooked noodles, pimiento, water chestnuts, soup, mushrooms, pepper/onion mix, 1 cup cheese, and salt and pepper. Toss until well mixed. Pour into 9x11 pan (or two 8x8 pans) and top with remaining cheese. Bake at 350 for 45 minutes.




Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Climbing Tree

In Grandma and Grandpa's front yard
is an enormous pine

that is referred to simply as
 The Climbing Tree

because its multitude
of low spreading limbs

practically beg
to be climbed.

And the grandchildren have

with open delight

finding footholds
from toddlerhood on

working their way
to upper limbs

and swinging from
the sap sweet branches.

But the magnificent old tree
is showing its age
and the browning needles

and bare inner limbs
are marks of disease

that can't be ignored.

The grand old tree
is dying.

But for now
there is still time

for grandchildren to climb

one last glee filled morning
to honor The Climbing Tree

in all its magnificence.

Monday, July 10, 2017

China Camp 2017

We spent last week in Tulsa at our adoption agency's culture camp. We first went when Katherine was 4 and decided then that we would return to China Camp every year. Ten years later it is still very much a part of our summer routine!

Katherine has aged out of the regular camp, so she moved up to being a Teen Counselor. She always admired the bigger girls who volunteered in her classes and was excited to be one of them now.
She helped with the 1st graders. After the first day I asked how it had gone. Katherine answered, "Some of those kids are really annoying!" Welcome to the realities of teaching! There were other kids that she enjoyed, though, and she was quite pleased when one little girl brought her a gift on the last day.

Rachel was in the Sheep group, all kids who had finished 3rd grade. She doesn't have "orphanage sisters" in her class, like Katherine did, but she has made friends that she looks forward to seeing every year.
Rae's favorite camp activity was cooking and her least favorites were language and kung fu. Katherine agreed.

One of my favorite parts of China Camp is Picture Day. I never tire of seeing all those beautiful faces or of the Where's Waldo-like search for my own girls.


Fewer and fewer children are adopted from China each year, so this group is rapidly growing smaller. That makes me sad for many different reasons.

Camp always opens with drums and a lion dance.
And it ends with performances from each class. Katherine helped herd her 1st graders on stage...
...and then she sat back to enjoy their kung fu moves.

Rachel's class was part of a fan dance.

During their performance the teachers stood in front of the group to lead, so taking pictures was challenging. I promise the dance was lovely!
Closing Ceremonies ends with more drums and another lion dance, this one performed by the 6th graders. I get teary eyed every year watching it.


I am so grateful that my girls have had the opportunity to be a part of China Camp. It is such a wonderful affirmation of their birth culture, great support for our family, and a yearly reminder that my girls are not alone it their life stories. China Camp is just cool!

Monday, July 3, 2017

50th Family Trip: Eating Our Way Through the South

We knew that traveling through a large swath of the South would mean lots of opportunities for some good eating. We were not disappointed!

On our first day out, we stayed in Forrest City, Arkansas and had dinner at this place.
 The punctuation choices in the sign were perplexing, but the all-you-can-eat soul food buffet was good.
 We ate at Central BBQ in Memphis. It was different than the Kansas style sauce we are used to, spicier and with a vinegary kick, but tasty.
 In Selma we stumbled across a little place called The Back Porch Bistro, which served sandwiches and Southern sides.
 I ordered fried green tomatoes, which I had never tasted. They were delicious!
 We were the only people in the restaurant, so the owners came out to chat with us. The two women asked about our trip and recommended a restaurant in Orange Beach. They were discussing places we might explore and then changed their minds when they remembered it was June. One woman, in her soft drawl, said "I went there in mosquito season once and the mosquitoes were so bad they just picked me up and carried me into the next county." We laughed at that all week!
 Our first night in Orange Beach we ate sandwiches and burgers at a restaurant that was literally on the beach!
The ladies in Selma had recommended a small restaurant chain called Shrimp Basket. We tried it out and found it to be excellent! 

There was a wide assortment of fish and shrimp dishes. Meals came with homemade hushpuppies and "shrimp slaw", a tasty slaw with tiny shrimp mixed in it. I introduced Katherine to the wonders of cheese grits - she's now a fan.
 My dad had etouffee and gave it a thumb's up.
 We waddled out of Shrimp Basket, stuffed full of seafood and sides. But the next day when lunch time arrived, we made a unanimous decision to go back to Shrimp Basket to try some more. I had shrimp tacos (and more cheese grits).
 And we feasted on coconut shrimp. We will be talking about Shrimp Basket for years to come!
 Our vans got separated on the drive to New Orleans. Our car was needing lunch and picked this restaurant, mostly because it had a giant crawfish in front.
 Katherine was delighted to find jambalaya as a side dish choice.
 Our first night in New Orleans was walked to St. Charles street and had dinner in a narrow little pizza place called Slice. They sold pizza by the slice and had some wildly unusual offerings. I picked two of the weirdest, just because. The first had Muffaletta toppings - ham, pepperoni, prosciutto, provolone, and olive spread. It was rich and salty and the closest I came to having an actual Muffaletta in New Orleans. The second slice had ham, arugula, provolone, pepper jelly, and diced tomato. It had never occurred to me to put either greens or pepper jelly on pizza, but it was fabulous!
 Bread pudding with bourbon sauce. Best eaten warm, while listening to live jazz. Katherine and I seriously considered licking the plate when we were done.
 Red beans and rice with sausage, at the aquarium, of all places. This comfort food was a great meal for a rainy day.
 Our last night in New Orleans we walked to a place called Voodoo BBQ. Rachel had shrimp - "Not as good as Shrimp Basket". Steve had a po'boy. Katherine had gumbo. I had smoked chicken, corn pudding, sweet potato souffle, and the best corn bread I've ever eaten.
We loved our food journey through the South. We didn't eat anything fancy, and probably not much that was healthy, but it sure was good! When people ask Katherine what her favorite part of our big trip was, she doesn't hesitate to say, "The food!" It was a tasty trip!

I love birthdays!

the ladybug cake

The Ladybug Sisters

Sisters

Sisters
Jie Jie and Mei Mei

Park Pictures

Park Pictures
Peeking through the windows

Park Pictures

Park Pictures
Katherine and her toothless smile

Park Pictures

Park Pictures
The little one leads the way