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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

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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Glorious Garden Mac and Cheese

It’s hard for me to pinpoint what my favorite food in the world would be – but I’d have to say it’s any form of macaroni and cheese. Pasta = comfort to me! There’s something so nostalgic about macaroni and cheese. Any kind brings me back to being little and eating a bowl of Kraft spirals. In fact, even as an adult I still sometimes prefer to have that over a homemade or more sophisticated version!

There are so many different varieties of mac and cheese (lobster + cheese and pasta, best idea ever?) but unfortunately, so many of them make the classic dish even more fattening and indulgent. Let’s be real - it’s hard to get around the richness of macaroni and cheese, and for me, it’s OK to indulge every once in awhile. But when I want a version that feels a little lighter, I go for my family’s simple recipe of garden macaroni and cheese. I grew up eating this, and my mother referred to it as “garden skillet” because it comes together easily on the stovetop in one pan. It’s a great version of mac and cheese for summer, and a wonderful way to utilize the bounty of your garden by combining all the lusciousness of macaroni and cheese with the more healthful and tasty spring vegetables.

garden skillet 1

My secret ingredient for all of my homemade macaroni and cheese is very simple: a can of condensed cheddar cheese soup. I like this dish loose and creamy (as opposed to the more stiff, casserole type macaroni and cheese), and adding a can of this secret weapon into the rest of the ingredients achieves the creamy consistency and also supplements the cheesiness of the regular cheddar, along with some sort of je ne sais quoi hint of unique flavor!

garden skillet 2

garden skillet 3

garden skillet 4

Best of all, you can play around with the ingredients if you’d like. Instead of using zucchini, onions, tomatoes, and basil, what else can you interchange to make your own garden mac and cheese? Hope you enjoy!

Garden Skillet Mac and Cheese


• 2 cups diced zucchini
• ½ cup diced onion
• 2 tablespoons fresh basil, torn or thinly sliced
• 2 tablespoons butter or margarine
• 1 can condensed Cheddar cheese soup
• 1 pound cooked elbow macaroni
• 1 16 oz can chopped tomatoes with juice
• 2 cups shredded Cheddar cheese

garden skillet 5

In skillet, heat butter or margarine over medium heat. Sauté onion and zucchini with basil for a few minutes until crisp-tender. Add remaining ingredients. Heat until cheese melts, stirring occasionally

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Baby Steps...

paper towels 1

I will admit it – I’m addicted. To paper towels. Being a super frugal homemaker who’s trying to make steps towards creating a greener home, this is a terrible addiction to have! Most people use paper towels probably more than they should, but I use waaayyyy too many, especially for my small family of three. No, seriously - I go through a roll faster than you can imagine. I always have a good supply at the ready, and don’t think twice about ripping off a whole piece for the tiniest task.

paper towels 2

Lately my conscience has been eating away at me for this. Not only does the production of paper towels require a tremendous amount of trees, but discarded towels contribute to a few million tons of trash each year. If I’m going to say I’m serious about reducing waste from human consumption (which I am!), then how can I continue to be so careless with my overabundant use of paper towels? Plus, it’s a pricey addiction. My family pack of paper towels costs $12.99, and I usually buy at least one pack a month. Why not save money while trying to save the environment?


The worst part of my paper towel use has been how we use them as napkins. Three meals a day times three people, plus snacks. Sometimes, I’ll rip a paper towel off the roll to use while having a snack have out of habit, even when my hands don’t need it. It’s been a mindless habit that I decided has got to stop. While I may not be ready to give up paper towels while cooking or cleaning, I recently decided to make the switch over to cloth napkins for our family, and let me tell you – it’s been a wonderful thing!


I invested about $14 and bought a bunch of inexpensive dishtowels. There are plenty of choices out there if you’re making the switch to cloth napkins. There are microfiber towels, washcloths, traditional cloth napkins from the dining section of any store, bar mop towels, or you can buy material and make your own! I have a few friends who do so, but not being a sewer, I figured cheap dishtowels would be the right choice for us. They are the size of a washcloth, but thinner and a bit sturdier.

paper towels 3

Next, I purchased a few inexpensive mesh laundry bags – the kind you’d put lingerie and other delicates in to go right into the wash. I hung one by a hook on the wall of my laundry closet to throw dirty towels into when done. I didn’t want a big pile of dirty cloth napkins accumulating on top of my washing machine or any other inappropriate place, and I realized that in order to make the system successful, we’d need to make the process of laundering them easy. When the bag gets full, I throw them into whatever next load of laundry I’m planning to do. They are so small, adding some into your regular laundry doesn’t affect much.


Finally, I needed an efficient place to store the clean ones. Since my 9-year-old is in charge of setting the table for meals, he needs to be able to access them easily. I hung another small mesh laundry bag inside a lower cabinet door right next to our kitchen table and folded the clean towels neatly inside. Now, whenever Aidan needs to set the table or get a napkin for other uses, he can easily take one.

paper towels 4


The thing with change is that sometimes in life, you don’t realize how important the change was until you’ve already undergone it. That’s how I feel about this recent switch to cloth. It has opened up my eyes to how mindless and careless I’ve been about using paper towels. It’s also inspired me to see what other ways I can make our home a little more environmentally friendly while also saving a few bucks. Sometimes change can seem overwhelming when you view it as all-or-nothing, which is my typical, albeit, negative take on things. But small changes and baby steps still lead in the right direction!

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Pouches' Community Corner

Adoptive parents in Fredericksburg now have a new partner on their journey to a healthy family. In 2016, Children’s Home Society was awarded a $125,000 grant from the Virginia Department of Social Services to extend their Richmond area post-adoptive services to the Fredericksburg area.

ChildrensHomeSociety

Now CHS is looking to find adoptive families in the area who need support before they hit a crisis point. “It doesn’t matter which agency they adopted from, or when that happened,” said Buckheit. “We want to offer a lifetime of support to adoptive families in the Fredericksburg area, especially those who haven’t been aware of our services in the past.”

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