Textured Vegetable Protein? No, thanks.

Question: When you think of “vegetable” what images come to mind? Personally, I picture carrots, onions, celery, leafy greens, tomatoes on the vine- that sort of thing. When manufacturers name something veggie or vegetable derived, they know this is the image we conjure up and market their products accordingly. Marketing is all about creating the right image.  Anything marked vegetable is healthy, right? One would think…

Well now, imagine my surprise upon learning that vegetable oil, for example, wasn’t made from the typical garden produce as the picture on the bottle hinted. Vegetable oil is soybean oil.

Yeah, um… I don’t see any pictures of soybeans on those bottles.

Mazola Vegetable Oil

So, considering what we know about vegetable oil I should have suspected the true origin of textured vegetable protein and steered clear, but I didn’t. And we ate it. This matters to me because, a few years ago, a wise healthcare provider suggested that I try cutting soy out of my diet to see if it would help control my raging hormones, since soy effects estrogen levels. It was in taking a closer look at my diet that I realized just how much of that particular vegetable we’d been consuming. The realization briefly made me want to become a soybean farmer because that stuff is in just about everything.

So, soy. I’ve avoid it for the past 3 years and am happier & healthier for it. Most noticeably, my acne has disappeared and stayed away, menstrual cycle became regular, mood swings and depression no longer have me in a stranglehold, and major pit odor is a thing of the past. I love being a girl! Which brings me to my recent use of textured vegetable protein and subsequent elimination of that item from the pantry.  Forever.

Textured-Vegetable-Protein

I was SO exited to find TVP in the bulk foods section of my grocery store and use it to stretch our ground beef.  I re-hydrated the freeze dried granules with hot water or broth and some tomato sauce along with whatever seasonings I liked for each particular dish. After soaking for a few minutes I’d cook it right in the pan with raw meat. The result was a seemless addition that even my husband couldn’t detect which tripled the amount of beef I had cooked. That’s right, instead of one meal from a pound of hamburger we got 3! I loved this stuff.

After two weeks of using it though, I was experiencing some unpleasant things like the return of acne and serious mood swings as well as upset stomach that just wouldn’t go away. So, I finally got around to looking into just what textured vegetable protein is… and was extremely disappointed. According to Bob’s Red Mill, one of the producers of this product,

“Textured Vegetable Protein is made from defatted soy flour that has been cooked under pressure and then dried.”

TVP

Nothing against Bob, I love his products, but that doesn’t sound good. Think about how much that (GMO?) soybean has  to go through to become this little protein packed nugget and the term “highly processed” comes to mind. I should have researched before trying something like this however, part of me just didn’t want to hear anything bad about my new favorite pantry staple. Oh, the shame- I’m guilty of willful ignorance to save a buck!

I haven’t used TVP in a week now and am seeing my unpleasant symptoms steadily decline. I usually use rice to stretch my beef and will continue to use that though would like to also try wheat berries and quinoa as alternatives. What tricks do you use to add extra nutrition and/or stretch the food dollar? I would love to hear some of your creative ideas! Thanks for reading 🙂

 

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Cut Yourself Some Slack: Fast Food in the Meal Plan

Frozen Food Aisle

We all know it’s true: a good place to trim the budget is to eliminate eating out but I’m here to testify that being Susie Homemaker is easier said than done. If you find yourself making unplanned trips through the drive-thru each week because making dinner is inconvenient, you’re not alone. A lot of us are trying to find ways to save money and cut out unnecessary spending but there are plenty of reasons why we may find ourselves in line at the nearest fast food place on a weeknight. If you work outside the home it can be tough to find the time each day to fit it all in. Or maybe meal planning isn’t your strong suit then you probably don’t have the necessary ingredients on hand to prepare the meal you’d like to. Feel free to leave your own reason in the comments. Sister Solidarity!

I confess: years ago, when faced with the task of feeding a family, I was often out of inspiration and frustrated by mealtime so we ate at the golden arches at least twice a week. Each day I’d stand at the open fridge trying to come up with dinner on the fly and usually found myself making an unplanned trip the store to pick up extra ingredients in order to make dinner happen. What a hassle! Before I figured out how to plan ahead, shopping would consist of wandering up and down every aisle of the grocery store and throwing anything that inspired me into my cart, followed by going home, putting it all away and forgetting about most of what I’d just purchased.

In recent years I’ve learned that pre-planning our dinners each week gives me a more concrete shopping list to follow and allows me to be better prepared when it’s time to get cooking. I like having a dry erase board on the fridge to list the weekly dinners as a reminder to myself of what I had planned when I went shopping. I also plan at least one fast food night into our week in order to give myself a break. I call this approach “fast food on purpose” because it’s the unplanned dining out that kills the budget.

Fast food on purpose is easy stuff that requires little or no mixing and prep. If you already have such a meal in your pantry or freezer it’s much easier to avoid spending a Wednesday night at the local burger joint. If you like to do make-ahead meals to keep in the freezer then you’ve already got a stash of fast food ready to go. I personally don’t do many make-ahead meals so I like to take a little help from the freezer section of my grocery store. Here is a list of dinner ideas that can be prepared with pre-packaged items and save you from the drive-thru:


  • Entrees:

Chicken Burgers

  Family Pack Chicken Patties

Chimichangas

chimisenchilada sauceshredded_mexican-four-cheese

Fish & Chips

fish stickssteak friescole slaw

Fried Chicken

friedn chicken

Pizza

pizza

Chicken Parmesan with Pasta

ChickenParmagianaBarilla_Spaghetti

Chicken Nuggets

Crispy Chicken Strips

Chili Dogs

hot dog chili

Corn Dogs

corn dogs

Biscuits & Gravy

biscuitssausage gravy


  • Sides: 

Salad kits

caesar saladSouthwest salad

Pre-cut veggies & ranch dressing

veggie tray

frozen onion rings

onion rings

frozen french fries

ore_ida_fries

Macaroni & cheese

mac and cheese

Steamed microwavable veggies

mixed veg

Garlic Bread  

Instant Mashed Potatoes

Instant or microwave rice


This list is just a small sample of some of the options available in your local frozen foods section.  You can also find stir fry and casseroles, even breakfasts, all ready to cook. Planning ahead is the name of the game and even if you don’t have time to cook there are options available to put a good dinner on the table. And even if occasional pre-packaged food isn’t for you, there are options. You can try buying organic frozen foods of doing homemade freezer meals as an alternative. I personally consider this approach the lesser evil when compared with going out for a 99¢ heart attack in a sack. One thing that has helped me reach the goal of eating out less is to avoid pressure to prepare the perfect meal because for me, that’s just asking for trouble. I strive for home cooked and we do alright. 🙂 Happy meal planning!

The Secret to Easy Stovetop Mac & Cheese

Fact of life: Feeding children is like being a short-order cook in a busy diner. There are orders and special requests coming at you fast and if you’re not prepared, the whole operation can come apart at the seams. Those of us in the kitchen trenches are continually honing our skill set to better manage day-to-day life and meet everyone’s needs in the most efficient and effective way we can. We gather recipes and tips from fellow kitchen warriors and are always searching for ways to improve our craft.

I’ve personally searched for and tried more mac & cheese recipes than I can say including a very tasty baked version that required a good amount of prep and $20 worth of ingredients. It’s delicious and a great one to have for special occasions but perhaps not a realistic choice for my 2 year old at lunchtime. So stove top macaroni is my go-to for a quick, pleasing meal for the kiddos. With efficiency in mind, I always have the ingredients on hand to throw together a batch of mac & cheese, either for quick hearty kid lunch or an easy weeknight dinner. There are A LOT of recipes out there alleging to be the best version and I make no claim to that here. however, the recipe I’ll share- well method really- is one that every home cook should have in their arsenal. It doesn’t involve evaporated milk, mustard powder, or anything fussy. Starting with this method you’ll have your own perfect mac and cheese that will have other Mom’s asking how you do it. Play around and make this your own “Best Mac & Cheese” recipe.

Easy Stovetop Mac

Ingredients

  • 2 C or 8 oz. of sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
  • 1/2 C milk
  • 2 T cornstarch
  • 2 C dried Macaroni or shells, prepared
  • Seasoning of choice *I use all-purpose seasoning salt and a dash of onion powder, you may want to add some cayenne or a little smoked paprika. Experiment to find the flavors that you like.

Note: You can use any cheese or combination of cheeses you like here, as long as it melts. In order to have a flavorful sauce you’ll want to choose cheese that has a strong flavor which is why I use sharp. It’s okay to use mild or whatever you have on hand though you may need to season your final product a little more to keep it from being bland. No need to run to the store, show-off your homemaker chops by making do with what you have.

cheese sauce

Prepare the pasta according to package directions. My kids like really soft macaroni so I add 2-3 minutes to the cooking time. For the cheese sauce, start by heating the milk. Get it nice and hot but don’t boil it. You can either do this in the microwave or on the stove top. While the milk is heating place your shredded cheese in a bowl and toss it with the corn starch to coat, you could also do this in a baggie. Once the cheese is coated, stir into the hot milk until smooth. Taste and season your sauce to your preference and then stir in the pasta and serve. Make this a dinner by doubling amounts and adding cooked meat, or boiling sliced hot dogs in with the pasta. This would be perfect for Meatless Monday. Add a side of veg for good measure.

Stuffed Shells and Stocking Up on Freezer Meals

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I haven’t had a chance to photograph this recipe yet, so how about a random picture of an onion instead? Aren’t vegetables beautiful? So, any-hoo… my husband calls this recipe amazing. I usually get comments like, “Whoa. How do you make this? It’s SO GOOD!” My shells aren’t mushy in texture and hold their shape well. Another mark in their favor is that Stuffed Shells is one of those recipes that makes more than we can possibly eat at once so I always have an extra pan for the freezer. Bonus! Doubling something I’m already cooking is pretty much my approach to building up a stash of freezer meals. There are also a few things I like to cook ahead and freeze for faster meal prep later like:

  • Rice: Next time you make rice, do a double batch. To reheat, just add 2 tablespoons of liquid for each cup of rice; microwave or cook in a saucepan (on the stove) until heated through. Will keep in the freezer for up to 6 months.
  • Ground Beef: I buy beef on sale and usually come home with 5 to 10 pounds at a time. The trick is to process the meat ASAP to preserve and get it ready for quick dinners later. I brown some and make burger patties or meatballs out of the rest. See my recipe for ground beef mix here.
  • Tomato Sauce: I like to buy a giant can of peeled, whole tomatoes and make up a bunch of spaghetti sauce for the freezer. On Italian night I go to my freezer for a package of pre-cooked ground beef, a jar of sauce and some Texas Toast. Boil noodles and toss a quick salad and dinner is done in under 30 minutes.
  • Shredded Cheese: Once in a while I get a really good deal on cheese and buy a lot of it. To freeze cheese grate it and package in airtight freezer bags with as little air inside as possible. Whole bricks of cheese will crumble upon thawing but shredding it eliminates that particular issue. Thawed cheese melts just fine so I pull it out to make cheese sauce, top casseroles, quesadillas and even sprinkle on sandwiches.

I don’t have to put aside a special time to do freezer cooking since things like homemade sauce, casseroles or soup can be made in larger quantities with very little added time & effort and stashed for a night when I just really need a break.

Stuffed Shells

  • 8 oz. cream cheese, cubed
  • 1 sweet onion, minced
  • 1 C mayo
  • 3 C shredded cheddar
  • 3 C shredded mozzarella
  • 1 lb. ground beef, browned & drained
  • 1 T minced garlic
  • 1/4 t Salt & 1/2 t pepper
  • 1T Italian seasoning
  • 2 jars of spaghetti sauce
  • 1 12 oz. box jumbo pasta shells

Boil shells according to package instructions. Be sure to salt the water to help reduce sticky pasta. You can also add a little oil. Stir gently & frequently to avoid clumping. Remove shells to a single layer on wax paper. Brown beef with garlic & onion, drain.  In a large glass mixing bowl and microwave 30 seconds to soften. Stir in mayo, Italian seasoning, salt & pepper completely. Then add shredded cheese and ground beef and to create your filling. I skip this step and pull pre-cooked ground beef ready to use from the freezer. Prepare your baking pans with a little sauce to cover the bottom of each. Spoon filling into shells being careful not to over-stuff them, about 1 1/2 T. Arrange shells in your baking dish then ladle sauce to cover and top with more cheese if desired. I like to use a little cheddar on top. Cover with foil, bake 35 minutes until hot and bubbly.

To make ahead: Prepare but don’t bake. Cover tightly with plastic wrap then foil and refrigerate for up to 24 hours or freeze for up to 2 months. Remove the plastic and replace foil to bake- refrigerated 40-50 minutes, frozen 2 hours.

Copycat Rice-a-roni

Whenever I’ve bought a box of Rice-a-roni or Hamburger Helper and cooked it up for dinner my family is like, “Oh, man this is so good! You should make this all the time! I love this stuff!” Prepackaged, sodium-filled, preservative-ridden food is their favorite. I can’t blame them, it is delicious. My Mom conscience, however, won’t allow me to feed them crap on a regular basis so I try to make the things they like from scratch instead. I can make more for less and it will have fewer ingredients which quiets my inner critic that nags me to feed them all natural, BPA free, non-GMO, sustainable organic, whole foods at every meal. I strive for not fast-food and usually succeed, so pipe down inner critic.

Tonight I’m making my homemade version of Beef Rice-a-roni but I also do this recipe with chicken which is the same method but substituting chicken breast and chicken broth for the beef. Everything else is the same.


IMG_1928

Homemade Hamburger Rice

Serves 6-8 plus leftovers. We love leftovers.

  • 1-2 lbs. ground beef, browned & drained
  • 5 1/4 -1/2 C beef broth (I mix up some bouillon)
  • 4 T butter, margarine or oil
  • 3 Cups white rice
  • 1 pkg vermicelli

    Toasting the rice & pasta

Brown  & drain your beef then set aside or, you can take a page from my book and pull your pre-cooked ground beef out of the fridge or freezer ready to go. Melt the butter in a large skillet. Add uncooked rice and vermicelli and stir frequently to toast until you can smell the roasty toasty buttery goodness and start to see pieces of rice & pasta turn golden. Add the beef and broth and stir to combine. Bring to a boil then cover and reduce heat to low. Let cook without opening or stirring for 20 minutes or until rice is tender. Serve.

Note: I use a 12″ deep-sided skillet with a lid for this recipe. If you don’t have one this recipe can be halved and made in a smaller skillet. The vermicelli I use can usually be found in the Hispanic foods section of the grocery store. 

Stretching the Food Dollar: Ground Beef

IMG_1530

Feeding our party of 5 within a budget means making the most of every food dollar. One of the things that helps achieve this goal is shopping with a strategy. As I’ve said before, I shop the weekly store ads for the best prices on meat and make a meal plan accordingly. If beef isn’t a good deal then we’ll eat chicken, turkey or pork; if it is, then I try to buy extra for the freezer. The most I’ve purchased & processed at one time is 10 pounds.

When I do bring home beef I need to extend it into as many meals as possible. Make-ahead meatballs are an awesome and easy way to do that because of the “fillers” we add and can be used in many different ways. I also brown up any we’ll need that week and store in airtight containers in the fridge. Cooking ahead stops the meat from aging in the fridge and cuts out a step for later to help get dinner made quicker. Here are my recipes & methods for processing ground beef to best advantage:


IMG_1537Depending on how much meat you’re processing, adjust ingredient amounts to suit. Personally, I rarely measure and make this recipe using anywhere from 2-5 lbs. of beef at a time. So amounts can be approximate. The seasonings are purely for taste and can be substituted with others. I’ve used leftover ramen flavor packets, onion soup mix, steak seasoning, anything I have on hand. If you don’t have one of the items listed or are a little short, make due, it’ll be fine. Go ahead, be flexible and your meatballs will turn-out whether or not you have the perfect measurements.

The deciding factor to making good meatballs is not so much in ingredients as in the size of your balls and how you cook them. I’ve found that if the balls are too small they’ll dry out no matter what and too big can give you an under-cooked surprise. Not cool. I get a perfectly moist & cooked meatball by measuring each with my trusty #60 disher scoop. Each of my meatballs is two scoops, which is about 2 tablespoons.  Meal ideas for meatballs include: with gravy & mushrooms, Swedish, with bbq sauce, with pineapple chunks & teriyaki sauce, sub sandwiches, cut in half to use as sliders, as a party snack or appetizer,  in a soup, with  marinara and mozzarella, sweet & Sour, in a Stroganoff or almost any meal that calls for ground beef. Put any of these over pasta or rice; there are just so many options!

Make-Ahead Meatballs

IMG_1535

  • 2 lbs. Ground Beef
  • I C precooked rice (I prefer white)
  • 2 t salt
  • 1 t pepper
  • 1/2 T onion powder
  • 2 t granulated garlic
  • 1 t Old Bay seasoning
  • 1/3 C ketchup
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1 T Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 t vinegar
  • (optional) 1 T Italian seasoning

Preheat your oven to 350º and line a lipped baking sheet with aluminum foil or parchment paper. Combine all of the ingredients in a large bowl and gently mix with hands just until combined taking care not to overwork the meat as that can make it tough. Portion out meatballs onto a baking sheet then form each on into a ball by hand. Bake for about 20 minutes until internal temperature reaches 160º. To freeze, cool to room temp then place in your freezer on a baking sheet for 30 -45 minutes before transferring to a freezer bag (be sure to remove as much air as possible before sealing to avoid excess frost and freezer burn). This method individually freezes each one and ensures they won’t turn into a smashed, stuck-together blob. Freeze for up to 4 months. To use after freezing, Place frozen meatballs onto a baking sheet, pie plate, etc., and place into a cold oven. Turn oven to 350º and bake for about 25-35 minutes until internal temperature has reached 165º.


I keep cooked rice in the fridge all the time ready to heat up for a quick lunch or add to a batch of ground beef. Handy thing to have on hand! If you cook your rice in beef broth it will add flavor to your meat mixtures. I like using carrot as a filler because it’s color doesn’t stand out too noticeably in the finished product and it adds an extra dose of roughage and vitamins to our diet. You can use other vegetables in addition or instead.  Adjust the onion as you like, my husband doesn’t like onion so I use very little here and mince it fine. Add up to a cup if you like! Beans are another great  filler though not as inconspicuous. Adding fillers ensures there is no loss of volume during cooking. For example, I just browned a 2.06 lb. package of meat and after this process the meat weighed in at 2.19 pounds. 

Make Ahead Browned Ground Beef

IMG_1540

  • 2 lbs. Ground Beef
  • 1 finely shredded carrot
  • 1/2 C minced onion
  • 1 T minced garlic
  • 1 t salt
  • 1/2 t pepper
  • 1 C cooked rice (I prefer white)

Spray a skillet with cooking spray or very lightly drizzle with oil then saute garlic & onion over medium heat for 2-3 minutes then add beef & carrot and brown. When done browning, drain fat then stir in rice, salt & pepper. Transfer to air-tight storage containers, cool slightly and store in the fridge for up to 3-4 days or freeze for up to 4 months.  You can reheat directly from freezer without thawing, especially if you froze it flat. If you froze in a container thaw ground beef for up to 24 hours in the fridge. Food safety guidelines advise that frozen foods be reheated to 165º.


Tips

Meal planning: Did you know that we really don’t need to eat meat at every meal every day? Planning  just one meatless dinner a week saves money and is a healthy habit to get into.  If you’d like to learn more on that topic, check out the website Meatless Monday for menu ideas.

Cooking with broth: I like to cook rice in broth to add flavor as a filler and my broth of choice is bouillon. I like bouillon cubes and powder because it keeps in the pantry for a long time and is a lot cheaper than stock or broth.

Browning large quantities of ground beef: One of my favorite food bloggers, Christy Jordan, has an awesome tutorial on her site for streamlining the process of handling large amounts of ground beef (like 5 lbs or more). Her method is so much faster than browning in batches! You can see that method on her site here.food scale

Kitchen tools: When buying meat in large amounts it’s so nice to be able to weigh out equal amounts to freeze. I have a digital scale that came from Costco for about $20 and use it for a lot of different things.

Another tool I wouldn’t want to be without is my disher scoop. I use it for cookie dough and meatballs and it rocks. They come in many sizes and greatly vary in price from El Cheap-o to Fancy-Schmancey. I have a cheaper model. Dishers can be found at most department stores but certainly at a restaurant or kitchen supply. 800px-Kitchen-Scooper-Small

Ditch the Store-bought Dressings!

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I try to avoid soy which makes buying salad dressing off the shelf difficult. Also, I like fresh and am totally picky when it comes to condiments. Homemade tastes so much better than store bought, am I right? Here are 3 of my family’s favorite salad dressings that are simple to make as well as delicious. Make them your own by tweaking the recipe to suit your tastes. Diced, pickled jalapeno would be a yummy addition to the thousand island for example. Mix it up!


French Dressing

  • 1 can tomato soup
  • 1 1/2 C canola oil
  • 1/4 C water
  • 1/2 C white wine vinegar
  • 2 t montreal steak seasoning
  • 1/2 C sugar
  • 2 T mayonaise
  • 1 t salt
  • 1 t pepper
  • 1 t prepared mustard

Combine all ingredients in a blender and mix until creamy. Pour into a quart mason jar and store in your refrigerator. Shake before using and use within 5-7 days.


Thousand Island Dressing

  • 1 C mayonaise
  • 1/2 C ketchup
  • 1 T sugar
  • 1 t onion powder
  • 1/2 t garlic powder
  • salt & pepper to taste
  • 1-2 T water to thin (depending on the consistency you like)
  • (optional) 1-2 T sweet pickle relish
  • (optional) 1 t hot sauce

Stir ingredients together in a small serving bowl. Can be used as a dip or dressing. Refrigerate any leftovers and use within 7-10 days.


Blue Cheese Dressing

  • 1 C sour cream
  • 1/2 C mayo
  • 2 t white wine vinegar
  • 1/2 t minced garlic
  • 1/8 t salt
  • 1/2 t black pepper
  • 1 4 oz. container of crumbled blue cheese or gorgonzola
  • (optional) milk to thin

Whisk ingredients together in a bowl. This will be thick and rich but you can thin it out if you want it to be easier to pour. This is wonderful as a dip with vegetables or hot wings. Heck, I like it with potato chips! Refrigerate any leftovers and use within 5 days.

 

 

The Trick to Breaking Pasta

You know how when you hold a handful of spaghetti noodles over a boiling pot of water and snap them in half, pieces of pasta shrapnel fly all over your stove? Or in your eye? Maybe that last one’s just me. However, the solution is this: Don’t take the pasta out of the bag. Unless you’re not using the whole bag, then wrap some wax paper around the noodles, or stick them in a gallon baggie (or an old bread bag if your a cheapskate like me) before breaking. But seriously, hold the unopened bag (or box, I’ve done this with a box) and snap the pasta like you were going to, this time without the noodle shower. IMG_1501