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In addition to her monthly Practical Pantry article, Debra Caffrey is the Editor of the Education and Infant E-newsletters for FredParent. She is the proud mom of a middle schooler. Debra is passionate about cooking, meal planning, and smart grocery shopping, and is excited to share her ‘Practical Pantry’ with you.


Practical Pantry

Reinventing a Classic!

Why does everyone love French onion soup so much? Well, what’s not to love? Sweet, caramelized onions, deep salty broth, and gooey, tart melted cheese to top it off? Come on! It’s the ultimate comfort food, and although it’s a classic that some chefs can get snobby about, it’s actually really super simple to make.

I enjoy French onion soup, but even more so, I have a slight homecooking obsession with experimenting and spinning classics into something different entirely. It turns out that French onion soup tastes even better on top of something else! Chicken is my go-to weeknight protein, and here, I’ve turned the classic soup into an easy chicken casserole dish that maintains all the same comfort of the original recipe but provides even more sustenance. If you pair it with mashed potatoes, you can drizzle some of the succulent remaining French onion sauce over and it is so yummy! Round out the meal with greens or a salad and you’re done!

french onion chicken 1

The crucial element to obtaining that deep, delicious French onion soup flavor is making sure you take the time to caramelize your onions thoroughly. But don’t be intimidated by this! The rest of the recipe is super quick, and you can prep the rest of everything as you let the onions slow cook and transform into sweet, browned morsels of amazingness! Seriously – caramelized onions are like magic flavor bombs that can elevate anything! They are the heart of the classic soup, along with rich Gruyere cheese. I have fond memories of passing through the actual town of Gruyere by train during my travels through Switzerland towards the French Rivera, so when I make this dish it always takes me back to that quaint moment in time. You can totally use the more affordable basic Swiss cheese slices from your store – no problem!

I hope you enjoy this reinvented classic as much as we do!


Debra’s “French Onion Soup” Chicken


• 1 onion, sliced
• 4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
• 1 tablespoon olive oil
• 1 cup beef broth
• 1 teaspoon granulated sugar
• 1 garlic clove, minced
• ½ teaspoon dried thyme
• 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
• ¼ cup dry sherry
• Salt and pepper, to taste
• 4 oz Swiss or Gruyere cheese, sliced

1) Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2) Heat oil in a large skillet on medium-high heat. Season chicken breasts with salt and pepper and sauté in oil until golden brown on both sides and cooked through. Remove and place on plate.

3) Add a touch more oil if necessary and sauté onion slices, seasoning with salt and pepper and allowing them to brown and caramelize. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally until browned and “wilted” down. This takes some time, but is the most important step!

french onion chicken 2

4) Add sherry and deglaze the pan for a few seconds, scraping the browned bits from the bottom of skillet. Add sugar, beef broth, garlic, thyme, Worcestershire, and more salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for a few minutes, allowing the flavors to meld and sauce to thicken.

5) Transfer chicken to an oven-proof baking dish and pour the French onion sauce from the skillet into the pan, covering the chicken with it and the onions.

6) Lay slices of Swiss cheese atop chicken.

french onion chicken 3
7) Bake in oven for about 20 minutes, or until warmed through and cheese starts to melt and get bubbly and slightly browned on top. You may also set it under the broiler for a few extra minutes. Enjoy!

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Not Your Grandma's Shrimp and Grits!

A little over ten years ago, my husband and I got married in Switzerland. It was my second time in the gorgeous country and I was so happy to introduce him to all the indulgent and memorable food I had remembered from my travels there several years prior. The interesting thing about Swiss cuisine is that it is so diverse, drawing heavy influences from its surrounding countries of France, Italy, and Germany. My first time there, I was pleasantly surprised to find such an abundance of amazing pizzas, pastas, and fresh seafood. And of course, there is the chocolate! In addition to all this, Swiss cuisine can be characterized as extremely rich and dairy and meat focused, relying on its abundance of farmland.

Soon upon our return home, my husband surprised me with one of the best gifts I could have ever asked for – an all day intensive course at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY. The class? Swiss Cuisine! The CIA was always a special place for me, as, in addition to being a wannabe culinary student, I’d visit the campus and the rest of the lovely town of Hyde Park as a child often. To actually be in one of the professional kitchens where chefs and students worked and learned every day? It was an absolute dream!

I didn’t realize until I was in the midst of chopping, stirring, and sweating over the cooktops how utterly different it would be from my humble home kitchen. I would also learn fast that I knew very little about how a real kitchen really worked. Within the first five minutes, I sliced my finger terribly on the super-sharp knife, and within the last ten minutes, I took a steaming hot pan of creamy polenta out of the oven without a mitt for some reason and burned my entire hand badly. At the end, I was completely exhausted and properly beaten, but proud of what I had learned. Me, the semi-vegetarian, de-boning a smoked pork knuckle!

It was a special day exactly ten years later, when I was able to take my son to the CIA while visiting family nearby. Since moving to the South, I hadn’t been back for a decade and missed it so much! We toured the campus and several of the learning kitchens, and a culinary student was nice enough to give Aidan his own toque! Aidan had just gotten interested in cooking at home with me, and it was a lovely full-circle moment for me!

Whenever I think about the CIA and my inspiring time there ten years ago at the Swiss cuisine course, I always associate it with the creamy, rich, cheesy luscious polenta I made that day. I had never had polenta before, and didn’t know what I was missing until I whipped it up that day with flavorful broth, Gruyere, and seasonings. Fluffy, succulent, intense, and comforting, polenta soon became one of my favorite starches to make. Although it mostly connotes richness and can be heavy, I also like to lighten it up.

I decided to experiment with it using one of my other absolute favorite ingredients of all time – tomatillos. I could write a novel on how much I love tomatillos – a fruit that looks like a green tomato but it not a tomato at all, and is the main component of salsa verde. Tomatillos are tart, sharp, refreshing, and dynamic! What if I paired creamy polenta with these contrasting characteristics?

The result is my sort of “tex mex-ish” take on shrimp and grits. Grits and polenta are similar in that they are both ground cornmeal; they are just a different coarseness. Polenta is much more fine. Charring the tomatillos and adding the heated pop of jalapenos create depth of flavor and sweety tartness that contrast sharply and intriguingly deliciously. If you’ve never cooked with tomatillos or polenta, or’ve got to give it a try! I know you’ll fall in love with both ingredients as much as I did.

Shrimp and Polenta with Charred Tomatillo Salsa Verde

  • One pound raw shrimp, shelled and deveined
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • 1/2 cup chopped onion
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
  • One clove garlic, minced
  • 8 ounces tomatillos, coarsely chopped (about 4-5)
  • 1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and chopped
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro (optional)
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • One cup (dry) instant polenta

1) Set oven broiler to high. Place chopped onion, tomatillos, garlic, and jalapeno on stoneware or baking sheet and lay in a single layer. You may drizzle a bit of olive oil on top and gently toss. Place under broiler for approximately 10 minutes, or until vegetables became nicely charred, but just before the point of being burned. Don’t be afraid to get some nice blackening on them! This is what makes them flavorful. Let cool slightly.

2) Place vegetables from baking sheet and whatever juices have accumulated into blender. Add cumin, sugar, red pepper flakes, salt, pepper, and lime juice. Pulse in blender until the consistency of a chunky salsa. Adjust to taste (you may want to add a little more sugar to balance the tartness of the tomatillos).

3) Heat remaining tablespoon of olive oil in skillet on medium high heat. Cook shrimp about 5 minutes, until cooked through and pink, stirring constantly. Lower heat to a simmer and pour tomatillo mixture from blender into skillet.

4) In the meantime, cook instant polenta according to package instructions. Heavily season your cooking water with salt – it needs it! While adding polenta, add more salt, then season to taste with pepper.

5) Serve shrimp-tomatillo sauce over polenta. Sprinkle fresh cilantro on top if desired. Enjoy!

This tomatillo sauce also works great with chicken breasts! To make, swap out the shrimp with boneless, skinless chicken breasts and pour the sauce on top. Pairs wonderfully with some Spanish rice and a dollop of sour cream!

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The Little Phrase That Will Transform Busy Weeknights!

It is almost 5:30 p.m. My husband is due to come home any minute and I am working to get dinner on the table. I *try* to aim for a 5:30 dinnertime but it often doesn’t work out exactly that ideally! Nonetheless, I am on track tonight and having an early dinner is looking good right about now! It’s been a super busy week and whenever we aren’t eating too late, it frees up a lot of time in the evening for homework and for my husband and son to connect and spend time together without the impending rush of bedtime!

Suddenly, my husband calls. “Can you leave in 15 minutes to pick me up at that Urgent Care next to Pier One?” Huh? A colleague has slipped at the office and injured her knee. My husband has offered to drive her for an emergency X-ray, using her car so she can continue home and leaving his vehicle at work. Happy to help and retrieve my husband, I am still thrown about the timing of things. I was just about to start my risotto, which takes constant stirring and eye-watching for 30 minutes, as well as preheat the oven for asparagus. Since the chicken was just about to come out of the Crock Pot, I’m not inclined to save everything for tomorrow and head to the drive-through after picking him up. But because of making sure my mise en place was completed before starting to cook, I am able to still whip everything together upon returning home, saving us money by not succumbing to take out and not wasting my ingredients. We may not have had the early dinner I was aiming for, but things still came together as planned, albeit slightly later than intended.

Mise en...what now? Mise en place is a French expression that means put in place. Essentially, it means that prior to cooking, you have prepped all your ingredients as well as prepared your kitchen space with everything you need to execute the dish. It is the cornerstone of any professional kitchen, but it goes beyond just dicing up an onion and putting a pot on the stove – it is a total mindset that takes anticipation, organization, cleanliness, and efficiency into account, making the multitasking and choreography of cooking less of an overwhelming chore.

Professional chefs and culinary students spend hours working on their mise en place, because a busy kitchen could not survive without it. In order to execute proper dishes, it is absolutely crucial to be organized and prepped. However, a lot of home cooks seem to dive right into a recipe without getting set first, which just perpetuates the notion that homecooking is too hard, too complicated, and too time consuming. This is just not true! All you need is a little mise en place, and it will allow you to succeed in your own kitchen. And, it eliminates the stress that so many seem to feel when trying to cook at home. Best of all, it literally shaves time right off your busy weekday night. I cannot stress this enough, trust me!

Here are a few ways you can get started with making mise en place help you succeed in the kitchen:

1) Rethink the cooking process and think about how long everything will take. I like to think of my home cooking as a three step process: Mise en place, execution, and plating. Each step roughly takes about 15 minutes on average. Therefore, I like to start about 45 minutes before I want dinner on the table. That’s not terribly overwhelming, right? If you break it down into steps, you can ease your mind and feel better equipped to handle home cooking. I promise!

2) Read through your entire recipe(s) first and figure out what you need. Don’t start actually doing anything until you’ve thoroughly prepared for it.

3) Based on your recipes/what you’re making, gather up all your ingredients (yes, take out everything!), as well as every pot, pan, knife, and cooking gadget you will need.

4) Arrange all of these things based on the layout of your kitchen appliances and countertops – basically you want to create a workspace that is efficient. Figuring this out will come with time the more you cook at home. Have things close to the cooktops and give yourself enough room to cook, as well.

5) Set the table (or better yet, have your kids set the table) way in advance of dinnertime. Get everything ready. This can also include vitamins, butter, salt and pepper, and other items that can stay out while you’re cooking. This isn’t necessarily mise en place for a professional cook, but it sure is crucial for us home cooks!

6) Have your garbage can close to you! This is one of the most important parts of my own mise en place. Why walk back and forth to the garbage a ton of times when you can have it close by? This one step has saved me a ton of time!

7) Make sure your hand soap or dish soap is out and ready to use at the sink! You don’t want to struggle to find it when your hands are covered in raw chicken juice mid-cook!

8) Be sure to have clean dish towels handy, as well as paper towels. Also, wear an apron! All this helps keep your work space clean and organized, which is such an essential part of not only mise en place, but of execution and saving time.

9) Prep your ingredients. Chop the one onion the recipe calls for and put the rest of the bag away. Measure out the one cup of cream you’ll need and put the carton back in the fridge. Combine the components of the spicy rub that’s needed for the pork in a bowl and put the spices back in the pantry! Prep, prep, prep as much of the recipe as you can before actually cooking anything.

10) Double check. Is there anything else you can prepare or do in advance that will save you time when you’re actually baking/sautéing/grilling/frying? Do it now. Look over your recipes again. What else can you get out of the way step-wise?

Now you’re ready to “fire” dinner up. You’ll find that if you’ve dedicated proper time to the mise en place steps above, any recipe or meal suddenly seems so much more achievable. And – it really is! Whether we want to admit it or not, organization truly is the foundation to success, and I promise you with all my heart that if you remain committed to this philosophy in the kitchen, as well as with meal planning and grocery shopping, you will find that home cooking is 100% attainable and easier than you ever thought possible!

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DIY Sushi? Yes, You Can!

I love going out for Japanese food. It’s a special treat reserved for rare moments when my husband and I are “kid-free” and get to meet for lunch. We both love sushi, but have different preferences. I personally don’t like raw fish, so I’ll opt for my favorites that include shrimp, crab, or vegetables. The tempura asparagus roll is a revelation! My husband will literally eat anything, even if he doesn’t understand which rolls he is ordering (which, he can actually no longer do since finding out he is allergic to shellfish)! Sushi is one of those things that seem worth paying more for, because it’s just so amazingly good. I mean - sushi chefs train for like ten years! I’ll agree that sushi is a treat worth splurging on occasionally. I’m never going to be a master sushi chef in this lifetime, and the caliber of ingredients at great sushi establishments can be deliciously unmatched.

But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to attempt to make your own sushi rolls at home! It took me a long time to try this myself, probably because I thought it was going to be harder than it was. But attempting to replicate restaurants meals at home is sort of my thing. Once I gave it a try, I could have smacked myself for not doing it sooner! There are plenty of variations you can play around with, and it’s honestly not that difficult! DIY sushi satisfies my cravings for Japanese cuisine until I’m able to enjoy a nice meal out, and it is super healthy. And most importantly to me, it’s sooooo much cheaper than buying. You might be thinking that the taste can’t live up to what you’d order at a restaurant or sushi bar, but I’m telling you – once you drizzle a bit of soy sauce over the rolls, and top with some wasabi and a slice of pickled ginger (yes, all available in your local international aisle!), it seriously tastes just as good.

Today I’ll share my way of making a simple vegetarian take on a California roll using beets. Beets happen to be one of my favorite veggies and they are great here in a fun way to eat your rainbow. If you think you’re not into beets, please give them a try like this! The fragrant and oceanic taste of the other sushi ingredients prevails – you’ll hardly know you’re eating such a healthy vegetable. You can use this method for anything, swapping out the beets for crab or another protein or fish of your choice! Don’t be scared – after all, they don’t have to turn out perfectly and your kitchen is a wonderful place to experiment and embrace mistakes! Give it a try!

1) Wrap beets in foil and roast in the oven for about 45 minutes or so. To test if beets are cooked through completely, stick a metal skewer or knife inside. The beets are done once the skewer or knife goes through completely and smoothly. If not using beets, skip to Step 4.

2) Let the beets cool. Then, peel the outer layer of skin off. You’ll want to use a plastic cutting board for this, as the juice tends to stain wooden ones. Wash your hands thoroughly right after to wash the juices off!

3) Cut the beets into large matchstick slices. Stick in fridge and cool completely.

4) The biggest tip I can give you when it comes to DIY sushi is to have your work station ready to go with everything you’ll need! In addition to the beets, you’ll need nori sheets, avocado and cucumber slices, plastic wrap, a bamboo sushi roller, and cold rice. You’ll also need a dish filled with water. You can find nori sheets and most likely the bamboo roller in the international/Asian aisle of most supermarkets. As far as the rice, I personally like to use jasmine rice, which is the right texture but more affordable than other types of sushi rice. You can honestly use anything you’d like!

5) Place a piece of plastic wrap on top the bamboo roller. This will prevent the rice from sticking to it. Carefully place one nori sheet on top on plastic wrap.

6) To spread the rice, dip your fingers in the bowl of water, then use your hands to scoop some rice and lay on top of the nori.

7) Continue to wet your fingers as needed as you spread the rice into a thin layer on the nori. Wet fingers will prevent the rice from sticking too much on your skin. This tip has been a game changer for me!

8) Carefully lift the nori sheet with one hand and flip it over so that the rice side is down. Line the beets (or whatever else you’ve chosen), cucumber, and avocado slices in a thin layer toward the bottom of the nori. Don’t overstuff!

9) Begin rolling the bamboo roller tightly and slowly, squeezing with one hand as you go.

10) Every inch or so, carefully unroll a bit to remove the plastic wrap, then continue the rolling motion. Some ingredients will smoosh out on both sides; that is OK!

11) Using a large serrated knife, cut your sushi roll into slices.

What I love so much about making my own sushi rolls is that it’s a chance to treat myself to something that feels so special, yet it still fits into my frugal budget. Buying a package of nori sheets, a big bag of sushi or jasmine rice, pickled ginger, and wasabi is a great investment because all items last a long time – perfect for all the experimenting you can do when trying your own sushi at home. Good luck!

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Truly Magical Magic Bars!

If you remember my chocolate nut oar bar recipe from a few weeks back, you’ll recall that I can be a little possessive of my most special recipes. But I am feeling generous again and want to share one of the yummiest desserts in my repertoire – my special magic bars. What are magic bars? It’s a fairly interpretive term for a cross between a brownie and cookie, usually fused together with sweetened condensed milk to make things ooey and gooey. You can play around with the base recipe a ton to customize it to your own favorites (i.e. using butterscotch chips instead of chocolate chips, or other types of nuts), but people seem to love my basic version of Magic Bars. They are always my go-to dessert item to bring to someone’s house or whenever my husband suddenly needs to bring something to a potluck meeting at work. I once brought a batch to a long play rehearsal my son had. His castmates gobbled them up within five minutes and were asking my son if his mom could make them again weeks later! I usually have all the ingredients already in the house and the magic bars are super portable and easy to bring anywhere. Best of all, they are SO easy to whip together with almost no effort or baking skills needed, because, let’s face it, we’re not all pastry chefs.

They’re also a nice change of pace from your basic chocolate brownie or chocolate chip cookie. The graham cracker crumb and butter base provides a delicious foundation to highlight all the interesting textural components on top – crunchy nuts, sweet coconut, and of course, just the right amount of chocolate. What makes them so magical? The sweetened condensed milk melds everything together in one complete, perfectly-sticky, buttery bite! I hope you enjoy trying out these magical bars for yourself!

Debra’s Special Magic Bars


• ½ cup butter, melted
• 1 ½ cups graham cracker crumbs
• 1 14 ounce can sweetened condensed milk
• 1 ½ cups semi sweet chocolate chips
• 1 cup coconut flakes
• 1 cup chopped walnuts

1) Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2) Coat a baking dish (13x9 inch) with cooking spray.

3) Combine melted butter and graham cracker crumbs together until it resembles wet sand. Press into the bottom of the pan. Pour sweetened condensed milk evenly over the crumb mixture. Layer with chocolate chips, coconut flakes, and walnuts. Slightly press down with the back of a fork.

4) Bake about 25-30 minutes, or until lightly browned and slightly bubbly. Cool completely before cutting into bars. Store at room temperature and enjoy!

User Rating: 5 / 5

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Cooking Autism, Inc. is driven to help children with neurological disorders (including autism) learn how to cook. Participants are encouraged to pick up critical communication skills, learn how to work as a team and be more independent. They can build skills in math, reading, and science, and learn about cooking-related topics such as health and nutrition.