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Debra Caffrey is the Education E-newsletter Editor for FredParent. She also writes, blogs, and assists with events. She is the proud mom of 8-year-old Aidan. She is passionate about cooking, meal planning, and smart grocery shopping, and is excited to share her ‘Practical Pantry’ with you.

 

Practical Pantry

A Comforting Classic

chix rice soupAs much as I love cooking, I’ll admit that it’s harder for me to get motivated sometimes in the dead of winter. It seems like cold weather brings out everyone’s love of baking and hearty favorites like comforting casseroles and hearty roasts, but personally, I’d rather be having picnics outside and firing up the grill in the sun! While winter can certainly get me in a cooking funk, I can still find a little solace in the coziness of being in the kitchen by using some of my favorite tools and techniques. I recently treated myself to a huge and heavy Dutch oven – a multipurpose pot that can do anything. I love it for roasts and stews, but it lends itself perfectly to the ease of homemade soup.

Even if you don’t have a Dutch oven, making a pot of homemade soup is one of the easiest and most economical dinners you can whip up any time of year. The great thing about soup is that the ingredients always yield a bountiful amount. When you pair a great homemade soup with some crusty bread on the side, you not only have a complete meal for the whole family, but a bunch of leftovers, too!

What I love about this wild rice and chicken soup recipe is that it connotes a cozy “guilty pleasure” meal, but it’s actually quite healthy for you! And it could not be simpler. The large hunks of rotisserie chicken meat are satisfying, the vegetables and rice are filling, and the not-too-rich creamy broth allows you to snuggle up with a comforting bowl of hot soup without feeling too much guilt. It’s just an all-around comprehensive easy weeknight meal to enjoy! I may still be dreaming about the beach and barbecues during these cold months, but this soup can provide me with a little comfort along the way!

Creamy Wild Rice and Chicken Soup

• ¼ cup butter or margarine
• ½ onion, chopped
• 3 carrots, sliced
• 8 ounces cremini mushrooms, sliced
• 3 celery stalks, diced
• salt and pepper, to taste
• 3 cups rotisserie chicken, shredded
• 4 cups chicken broth
• 1 cup light cream
• 1 tablespoon flour
• 1 cup long grain wild rice mix

Melt butter in large pot or Dutch oven over medium heat and add onion, carrots and celery. Cook for 3 minutes until crisp-tender, stirring occasionally. Add mushrooms, season with some salt and pepper, and cook until mushrooms are soft. Add in shredded chicken and broth. In a small bowl, whisk the flour and cream together, then add to the soup. Bring to a boil and add rice mix. Cover and cook for approximately 30 minutes, until rice is tender. Season with salt and pepper. Enjoy!

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A Meal to Remember

It was 2007—the last of our “pre-child” and parenting years. The end of that season of life when you could leave everything behind, travel whenever you wanted to and savor every last moment of the experience, whether it was sleeping in late in your kid-free hotel room or relishing the invigorating feeling of getting a little lost while sightseeing. Don’t get me wrong, vacations as a family have been some of the most cherished moments of my life as a mother. But there is something so sacred about traveling together just as a couple, or even alone. I’ve been grateful to do both in my life before parenthood many times, and for me, part of what makes this kind of voyage so memorable is the great food. It’s always about the food, isn’t it?

It was during one of these last little trips as a couple that I had one of the best meals of my life. My husband and I took a little weekend getaway to Mystic, Connecticut. We toured the aquarium and the beautiful seaport, loving the historic and nautical ambience of the town. On our last night there, we decided on a beautiful oyster house restaurant directly on the water. Back in those pre-parenthood days, the wait time to get a table didn’t matter, and I recall that we waited for about two hours—definitely a sign of a popular restaurant! Even though we were starving at that point, the wait was worth every minute because we scored the perfect patio table outside on the water. And the timing was perfect, too. The sun was melting gorgeously into the water, providing a blissful sunset as the backdrop to our dinner.

I ordered these creamy, cheesy, luscious “seafood skins,” a riff on a potato skin with loads of fresh crabmeat and shrimp, all held together with some kind of secret sauce that’s been haunting me all these years. It was simply one of the best meals I’ve ever had, not only because the dish was unforgettably delicious and because the scenery was stunning, but because that night lives on in my memory as a symbol of our couplehood and how sacred and perhaps indulgent those long, kid-free dinners out can be. For me, food is often the link between experience and memory, and whenever I make these crab-stuffed twice-baked potatoes, it brings back cherished memories of that night. They may not be the real thing, but they certainly are still super yummy and representative of that special time in our marriage. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do!

Cheesy Crab-Stuffed Potatoes


● 6 baking potatoes
● 4 tablespoons butter, divided
● 1 medium shallot, diced finely
● 3 cloves garlic, minced
● 2 cups cooked crabmeat
● 1½ cups grated cheese (cheddar, provolone, or Muenster)
● ½ cup sour cream
● 1 tablespoon freshly chopped parsley
● Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 400 F.

Prick potatoes with a fork. Roast in oven until cooked through, about 45 minutes to an hour.

While potatoes are cooking, melt two tablespoons of butter in pan. Add the shallots and sauté for a few minutes. Add minced garlic and sauté a few more minutes. Add the crab and cook until heated through. Set aside.

Allow potatoes to cool. When cool enough to handle, slice potatoes in half, then use a spoon to scoop out the interior, placing it in a bowl. Add the shallot and crab mixture, remaining butter, cheese and sour cream. Mix until well blended. Add parsley, and season generously with salt and pepper.

Fill potato shells with the crab filling. Top with extra parsley if desired. Bake until cheese has melted, around 35 to 45 minutes.

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Love Pie

It had been a culminating season of built-up stressors and a particularly emotional week. The tense political and societal climate was continuing to brew and make me feel hopeless and sad, the hurricane devastation in the South had made itself known to the rest of the country, and a friend’s beloved family member had passed away untimely and unfairly. With so many significant and confounding issues swirling around me, I couldn’t seem to find my way out of a profound funk of vulnerability and helplessness. Sometimes, it seems like this earth is given more than it can handle at a time, and as one tiny inhabitant of it, it seems like my small contributions could never make a dent of difference.

berry pieI couldn’t bring my friend’s loved one back to life, nor could I dry up all the flooding of increasing natural disasters, but I could continue to do what I love and what perhaps I do best. I could cook. I could make food from scratch with my own hands and fingers, and feed the ones I love. Provide sustenance to them and serve my love and compassion on a plate bubbling with goodness and tenderness. Treat them to something sweet, perhaps a bit too indulgent, and use the earth’s bounty to fill it with fresh ingredients and natural deliciousness.

You see, when everything seems to be going wrong, or when I feel like I have no control over tragic or chaotic occurrences, cooking is my therapy and my way to give something selflessly to those that I love. This is true for many people and home cooks. There is something indescribably cathartic about cooking, especially when just for others. To take a bunch of separate ingredients, use a bit of science, heat and strength to transform them into something that provides nourishment and pleasure for someone else—well, it’s one of the best acts of kindness I can personally think to do. It is pure, complete love on a plate.

I’ve never been good at sharing my feelings of affection with others. Perhaps I am a bit of a cold fish. It took me weeks and weeks to uncomfortably reciprocate my first “I love you” to my husband many years ago, after the poor guy had no problem offering me his sentiments. I’m not a hugger or a touchy-feely kind of woman. I don’t get that warm, mushy feeling when I see little babies, and I am better at offering a devil’s-advocate perspective rather than sympathy when others have problems. But despite this, I do feel things intensely. In fact, my heart is a deep, deep cavern of emotion and sensitivity, and it can ache all the same when others are suffering and when the world seems bleak. Cooking is my heart’s language to convey its love and solace.

On this particular day of helplessness, I decided to make a berry pie for my family. I headed to the farm to pick some fresh raspberries and blackberries. The tiny scrapes on my fingers from thorns were soothing as I felt good about using fresh, local and healthy ingredients. I returned home to knead my homemade pie crust. After letting it harden and cool, I was having a difficult time rolling it out and into my pie pan. It was starting to break and fall apart, so similar to how I felt the rest of the world seemed to be fracturing lately. I ditched my rolling pin and pressed the dough into the pan with just my hands, each indentation feeling restorative as I was able to mend it and eventually transform my broken dough into a proper and fitted crust. I mixed the berries with sugar and poured the sweetness into the pan, baking until perfectly bubbly and melded. I fed my family the sliced treat, watching lovingly. I don’t like pie, but I somehow felt better and just as nourished as they enjoyed it. If I can feel helpful and beneficial by cooking for my family, how else could I put this toward assistance for others? Could I feed more people? Could I help with hunger in some small way? Suddenly I started to realize how small and intimate acts of benevolence can be the stimulus for larger ones.

Cooking for loved ones might not change the rest of the world, but it’s where selfless love can begin. And right now, it seems the world needs all the love pie it can get.

Pie Crust Recipe

1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon granulated white sugar
½ teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons vegetable shortening
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
2 to 4 tablespoons ice water

Directions:
Pulse the flour, sugar, and salt in a food processor to combine. Add the shortening and pulse a few times until coarse crumbs form. Pulse in the butter until just combined. There will be some pea-sized pieces remaining. Pulse in the vinegar and 2 tablespoons ice water until the dough starts to come together but is still crumbly, adding more water if needed. Turn out the dough onto a piece of plastic wrap and pat into a small circle. Wrap and refrigerate until firm, at least 1 hour or overnight.

Preheat oven to 425 F. Roll out the dough into a 12-inch round on a lightly floured surface; then ease into a 9-inch pie plate, pressing the edges. Refrigerate until firm, at least 20 minutes.

Fill with your favorite pie filling and bake until golden brown.

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Mouthwatering “Monster” Chicken!

“We’re having Monster Chicken tonight!” I love saying this to my son, who gobbles up this scary-sounding, yet delicious dish. Truth be told, it is not frightening at all! Our family’s nickname for the easy go-to recipe came about because of the star of the meal—Muenster cheese. When you’re a busy parent, it’s crucial to have an arsenal of simple yet satisfying ideas for dinner that your kids will actually eat, but what makes dinner planning all the more enjoyable is when you can have fun with the process and even come up with nicknames that make food and ingredients less intimidating and more approachable to children. Not only is “Monster Chicken” a yummy and kid-friendly dish, it is easy to prepare! It’s been a family favorite for years.

Muenster cheese is a semi-firm mild cheese that is easy to work with. It is perfectly salty, a bit nutty, yet tame enough to complement the rest of the ingredients of a recipe without being overpowering. I love to use it on burgers and veggie patties, but because it has great melting properties, it’s delicious in mac and cheese recipes as well as atop casseroles like my Monster Chicken. You start by making every kid’s favorite—chicken nuggets—in a homemade form, add some earthy mushrooms, chicken broth and cheese, then bake until ooey, gooey and simply scrumptious! A bit of magic happens to the chicken in the oven. The chicken broth and cheese meld together into a luscious, flavorful sauce that is irresistible.

By calling the dish “Monster Chicken,” the less familiar cheese becomes accessible to finicky eaters. Best yet, they hardly notice the mushrooms hiding in the casserole. It’s super easy to pull together, and when paired with some rice and a vegetable, makes for a quick and complete weekday dinner for the whole family. I hope you love it as much as my family does, but be forewarned—everyone will be fighting for the cheesy leftovers!

Muenster Chicken

Ingredients:
● 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into chunks
● 2 eggs, beaten
● 1 cup seasoned bread crumbs
● 1 tablespoon garlic powder
● Salt and pepper, to taste
● ½ cup sliced mushrooms
● ½ cup butter or margarine
● ½ cup reduced sodium chicken broth
● 4–5 ounces grated Muenster cheese

1) Preheat oven to 350 F. Combine bread crumbs, garlic powder, and salt and pepper in a large bowl until blended. Dip chicken into beaten eggs, then dredge in breadcrumb mixture, shaking off excess.
2) In a large skillet over medium heat, heat butter until melted and slightly bubbling. Sauté chicken until lightly browned, approximately 5–6 minutes on each side. Drain chicken on paper towels.
3) Place chicken into a greased baking dish. Top with sliced mushrooms, then pour chicken broth on top. Sprinkle grated Muenster over chicken and mushrooms.
4) Bake for 30 minutes, or until cheese is melted and bubbling.

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How to Make Dinnertime Quicker!

By delegating a few tasks, you can make mealtimes a breeze

dinnertime

It can sometimes seem like the whole process of dinnertime from start to finish is an endless marathon. Not to mention, by the time everyone is done eating and the kitchen is fully clean, half the night is over already! I love to cook, but I still sigh some days at the unavoidable chore of cooking, serving and cleaning up dinner. And my son is such a super slow eater that dinnertime can be terribly sluggish and frustrating. I often just want him to hurry up so I can start cleaning and be done for the night!

If you follow the practice of developing a mise en place while cooking, which means prepping all your ingredients and organizing your workspace in advance, you’ll be able to slash lots of time off dinner preparation, and cooking the meal becomes much speedier. That said, the “dinner rush hour” of a busy family can still feel overwhelming and take much longer than you want it to even after the cooking is done and it’s time to sit down for the meal. What’s my advice on making the whole process a bit faster, as well as easier on the main cook of the house? It’s simple: delegate!

Assigning other family members with specific tasks related to the whole getting-dinner-ready-cleaning-it-up routine is important not only to teach responsibility to your kids, but also to alleviate some of the stress of having to do it all yourself. What’s more, you’ll find once you let someone else do some minor chores related to dinnertime, it shaves time off the whole process, even if the tasks seem so minor!

Here are five easy job titles you can assign to children and other members of the family to help teach responsibility and trim time off of your own duties at the dinner table:

1) “The Table Setter”: This person is in charge of setting the table well before the meal is ready, including all plates, silverware and napkins. They should also lay out items needed for dinner that night, like ketchup and other condiments, seasonings and butter. This is an important, yet easy job for younger children or even a spouse who is looking to help out.

2) “The Barkeep”: This family member is in charge of getting all beverages, as well as ice, ready and served right before it’s time to sit down to eat. They should be prepared to take everyone’s beverage “order” before dinnertime officially starts and have all cups properly filled when the meal is ready. This is another great job for a child. It helps them practice handling beverages out of the fridge without spilling them!

3) “The Busboy”: This person’s job is to bus the table after dinner is over, including scraping trash into the garbage and packaging leftovers. If you prefer that each family member clears their own plates, the Busboy of the family can still oversee these tasks, as well as assist younger ones.

4) “The Kitchen Manager”: This important job also occurs after the meal is over. The kitchen manager assists with expediting the overall kitchen clean up. They can put items and ingredients used during cooking away, such as placing vinegar and oils back in the pantry and the egg carton back in the fridge. They can put appropriate food scraps into the compost bin, help move dishes to the sink for cleaning or help load the dishwasher. This job would be great for older kids you are looking to assign more household duties to.

5) “The Crumb Catcher”: This is a fun role for little ones. The main job of the Crumb Catcher is to be responsible for picking up all the mess that’s accumulated on the floor. I don’t know about you, but my kitchen floor is filled with food bits and crumbs after every meal, no matter how neat we all try to be! The Crumb Catcher can help out with this as you are cleaning up the rest of the dishes.

Even though we are a small family of three, delegating these little roles to my son (and husband!) has helped tremendously with shaving time off the evening rush of dinnertime. More importantly, it reinforces to everyone that it’s crucial all family members are responsible for contributing to running a household and working as a team. You can have your family take turns with the roles, or think of other job titles that would be most helpful in your own kitchen. Play around with the concept and have fun!

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