Tag Archives: dinner ideas

Last-minute Valentine’s Day meal ideas

 

 

So, you want to have a romantic dinner but don’t want to shell out $20 and up? Me too!

With Valentine’s Day only 2 days away, you may be thinking about having a special meal with a special someone. It doesn’t matter if you’re cooking for yourself, some of your girlfriends or bros, your significant other, your parents, your dog, whatever, cooking a meal is always an act of love. An act of survival too, sure, but also you’re taking the trouble to turn raw ingredients into something edible.

Even if it’s a box of easy mac, or as fancy as a seven course meal, the person enjoying the finished product knows a little dash of love went into it.

And while a romantic dinner out on the town is nice every now and then, there are several advantages to cooking at home. One, you get to control the ingredients that go into your food. Restaurants use all kinds of ingredients you might not want to know about: stabilizers, emulsifiers, preservatives, MSG, salt and sugar by the tablespoon. At home, you know what is going into your food, and thus into your body.

Two, you can control portion sizes. There is a ton of research out there, not to mention if you’ve been around 2-3 decades or more you can see it for yourself, pointing fingers at ballooning portion sizes as a contributor to the obesity epidemic. When you eat out, you want to “get your money’s worth”, and restaurants know that giving you more food but with cheaper, less healthy ingredients, is good for their bottom lines. Terrible for your bottom, however, which will expand along with the size of the plate.

And finally, it is far cheaper per meal to cook at home. If you go out to a moderately priced chain, you are hard-pressed to find a full meal for less than $15 for dinner. Then add in tip, time, and gas money to get there. If you go out to a nicer restaurant or a place with a prixe-fixe menu, you are probably looking more into the $50 per person range. Restaurants know people want a special experience for Valentine’s Day, and take advantage by making fancy looking and sounding menus and tripling the prices.

Why not have just as special a meal, in a quiet place where you can actually hear each other talk, with no rush because the place wants to turn over your table? That’s right, I’m talking about your home!

Oh, and yes, you do have to do your dishes unlike at a restaurant. But you know what? That can be part of the experience if you know your dining partner well. Make it into an assembly line as you wash and dry together, laughing and maybe splashing each other throughout. Or tag-team dishwasher loading, then curl up on the couch with a good movie while it runs. You can make even chores fun if you try!

 

And now for the potential menu!

Below are a wide range of recipes, each will take you less than an hour, and I specialize in recipes that are affordable and simple. You won’t find more than 10 ingredients, and most of them you likely already have on hand.

Choose a few things that you know how to make, or know you will enjoy eating, and make some magic happen.

 

Appetizers – having multiple courses helps spread the meal out, giving you time to talk to your dining partner and bond. Appetizers don’t have to be complicated, give one of these a try.

Main course – even if you think you can’t cook, you should give it a try! Start with something very simple, and give it a test run today. Then you may find some ways to tweak it or make it better or easier. Or just jump in with both feet, what’s the worst that can happen, you order a pizza later?

Dessert – everyone loves dessert! You could even make your entire meal just a dessert buffet! But I’d recommend choosing just one thing you feel you can make, then sprinkle in an extra cup or two of love, and enjoy it.

Drinks – for adults and under-agers alike, a special drink makes a memorable addition to a special meal. You don’t have to get crazy with dozens of ingredients and multiple steps. Even something as simple as adding thinly sliced citrus to a glass of water can elevate the everyday to the special day.

 

Baked Tamale Pie

 

Let me tell you a story.  So I love finding new things to cook that save me money, and I’m always willing to try something new.  Ethnic cooking of all kind intrigues me (as evidenced by my attempts at Ethiopian lentils, greens, and chicken). So when I find something that is steeply discounted, ethnic cooking, and I’ve never tried, it’s like a moth to a flame.

One day, I was at the grocery store, enjoying my trip through the discount sections. If you don’t know what that is, find out immediately! Most grocery stores have sections in the back where they deeply discount things that are out of season, almost ready to spoil, or dented or scratched. As long as you don’t care about aesthetics (you’re not gonna eat the can, you’re gonna eat the tomatoes inside) and are prepared to use it pretty soon, this is a gold mine of cheap groceries.

So I’m looking through the discounted canned goods, and a bag catches my eye. It’s green and yellow, and says “Maseca”. My small experience with Mexican cuisine tells me it has something to do with tamales, so since it was like a dollar, and the bag said it could make something like 150 corn tacos from one bag, I had to try it! Turns out, it is like a dried masa, which is corn flour used to make corn tortillas. I know homemade corn tortillas will happen someday soon now!

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To my delight, in the frozen section, chorizo was also on sale this week! I picked up a package, and knew I also had some black beans at home in my pantry. (Always buy canned goods on sale that you use often, and keep them on hand for when inspiration strikes!).

When I read up on how to make tamales, it sounded a bit too intimidating to buy corn husks and try this on my own. So instead I decided to make some kind of Mexican chili type thing. I didn’t want corn tortillas at the moment, so how to use the maseca?

Ah ha! As a crust and topping! Like a Mexican pie. Then I can have all the flavors of tamales, but without all the work. Brilliant.

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Ingredients:

  • 1/2 – 1 pound chorizo sausage
  • 1 can black beans
  • 1 can pinto beans
  • 2 cups masa (1 cup maseca, 1 cup water, 1 tbsp crisco)
  • 1/2 cup diced veg: tomato, onion, bell peppers, hot peppers if that’s your thing
  • Shredded cheddar cheese

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Step 1: If you already have masa, you can skip this step.  But to make masa from maseca, just mix together 1 cup maseca, 1 cup water, and 1-2 tbsp Crisco or lard to make a thick batter. This is also the dough used to make corn tortillas if you want to do that.

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Step 2: In a large pan, fry your chorizo until browned. Drain if there is a lot of fat in yours. Add the beans and any veggies you’re using, and heat until the peppers are soft and tomatoes release their juices.

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Step 3: Line a 8×8 or 9×9 oven-safe pan with the maseca dough, pressing it into the sides and corners. Pour the cooked meat and beans into the lining and spread it evenly.  Heat your oven to 325.

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Step 4: If using, sprinkle on a layer of shredded cheddar.

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Step 5: Cover the pie with another layer of the dough.

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Take a little ball of dough, flatten it with your hands, and smush it together on top.  This is also the way you make the tortillas, by flattening it and moving the dough between your hands.

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Smush it all in there, pressing with your fingers to make sure the top layer of dough is smooth.

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Step 6: Bake in the oven at 325 for 45 minutes, or until the top is nicely browned and the dough is cooked throughout.

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Cut it into squares. Mmmm look at all that flavorful deliciousness!

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Top with whatever you like, I used sour cream, tomatillo salsa, and more bell peppers. You can also use hot sauce, more cheese, whatever makes your taste buds say “Ole!”. Enjoy!

 

 

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One Week of Meals from One Pork Roast

 

Do you ever wish you had more time?  Do you feel like you spend too much time at the grocery store, or in the kitchen, or waiting for delivery? Does you bank account look emptier because of all the ordering out you do?  Do you want an easy way to make a week’s worth of homemade meals, for less than $100, with minimal prep and cook time from one grocery trip?

I thought so. Here is your answer!

This post is created to show you how to get a week’s worth of dinners (with some leftovers for lunches too) from a single 4 pound pork roast.  All recipes easily feed 2 adults, with many recipes making much more food for leftovers and re-make meals.

By planning ahead to use one main dish all throughout the week, you can get creative and ensure that none of your food dollars get wasted by literally throwing them away. You will save time throughout the week by not having to go to the grocery store to pick up “just one or two things” and not having to worry what to make for dinner, it’s already planned out. And you can eat healthy, whole food, home cooked meals all week long!

Here is the list of recipes you will be making if you follow this plan:

As far as cooking equipment, you will need at least a frying pan, and preferably a slow cooker. You can slow cook the pork in the oven, and make the casserole in the oven as well, but that requires slightly more hands-on time from you. The full grocery list can be found at the bottom of the post, and you can go to individual recipes by clicking on the links throughout.

The first thing you’re going to need to do is assess your pantry and freezer situation.  If you have plenty of Italian dressing, some frozen mixed veggies, noodles, and plenty of spices, you’re already halfway there on this week’s grocery list. Then make your list of what you still need to make the recipes, and head to the store.

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You will need to pick up a nice pork loin roast, or other pork roast. I recommend 3-5 pounds for 2 adults for one week’s worth of meals.  You can adjust to larger or smaller sizes if feeding a larger crowd, or just one, or if you wish to double recipes or omit certain recipes this week.

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Once you have your pork roast, use a sharp knife to cut 2-4 pork chops off the end. You can also ask your butcher to do so if you go to a regular grocery store. These pork chops can be frozen for later depending on when you want to make the Italian Pork Chops.

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Once you have your chops cut, take about 1 pound off the remaining roast. This will be diced up into cubes.  You can also freeze these chunks for later, depending on when you want to make the Pork Lo Mein Stir Fry.

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As for the remainder of the roast, put that guy into your crock pot.  This is gonna become one delicious, fall-apart pot of BBQ Pulled Pork. If you’re game, add a sliced onion and a can of beer, then cook on low for 8-10 hours or high at least 4 hours.

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Shred the pork roast with two forks.  I recommend removing half of the meat to a container in the refrigerator, and adding 1 cup BBQ sauce to the rest and cooking another hour on low.

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Now you have about a pound each of plain pulled pork and BBQ pulled pork! Plus 2-4 chops, and a pound of diced pork in the freezer. And that’s after less than an hour total of hands-on prep time.

Now you can use the shredded plain or BBQ pork for:

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Pulled Pork Burritoes (above) or Quesadillas:

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And slow cooker pork and rice and broccoli casserole:

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And the diced pork chunks for a delicious homemade lo mein:

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And the best part is, you can choose when to make these recipes and in what order, because the pork chops, diced pork, and shredded cooked pork all freeze very well. You can turn these into breakfast and lunch too, pulled pork omelettes are great, as are BBQ pulled pork sandwiches on nice thick buns.  Enjoy!

 

Full Grocery List

  • 1 4-5 pound pork roast
  • 1 cup Italian dressing
  • 1 can diced tomatoes
  • Frozen or fresh vegetables of your choice
  • 1 cup BBQ sauce (or more, to taste)
  • 1 package tortillas
  • ~1 cup white or brown rice
  • 1 can beans (black or pinto)
  • 1 package lo mein noodles
  • Soy sauce
  • Shredded cheese
  • Fresh or frozen broccoli
  • 1 cup milk (optional)
  • Burrito toppings – sour cream, guac, salsa, etc.

And seriously, that’s it! I guarantee you can buy all of these items for under $100 (at least everywhere I’ve lived from Colorado to Connecticut).

 

Also, if you’ve read this far and you’re curious, I also have a post explaining all the cuts of a pig. So next time you go to the store, you can know the difference between a rump roast, shoulder roast, and a loin. 🙂

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Pork with Peppermint Raspberry Sauce

 

This is a super-easy dinner you can create in less than 30 minutes, and it looks like you slaved all day.  Raspberry and peppermint naturally go together, with a sweet yet menthol cooling after taste.  Thin boneless pork chops are great to keep in the freezer for a quick last-minute dinner, because they defrost very quickly, and take to hundreds of different flavors and sauces well.

For this recipe, use either 4 small pork chops, or one larger 1-1.5 pound pork roast.  The sauce can be made while the chops cook, so that they are ready at the same time.  I made some potatoes and wilted spinach, but you could have a salad or any roasted veggie you like on the side to complete the meal.

Ingredients:

  • 4 pork chops or 1 pound roast
  • 1 tbsp butter or margerine
  • 4 tbsp apple cider vinegar
  • 4 tbsp cran-cherry juice
  • 2-3 drops peppermint
  • 1/2 pint raspberries

Step 1: In a frying pan, melt the butter and fry the pork chops.  Cook 5-6 minutes, then flip and cook another 4-5 minutes.

Step 2: In a small sauce pan, mix the juice and vinegar.  Add the raspberries, and bring to a simmer for 10-15 minutes.

Step 3: After the raspberries have basically fallen apart, add the drops of peppermint, and strain it if you don’t want the seeds.  Drizzle over the cooked pork.

Tomato Basil Chicken Cacciatore

 

One of a busy and/or tired cook’s favorite things is being handed an idea for an easy dinner. Don’t you just hate thinking to yourself or asking the family “what do you want for dinner?” and getting blank stares, or hearing the wind whistle between your ears? Cooking fatigue can happen to the best of cooks. And especially those who are new or new-ish to cooking on the fly have a tough time with this exact question.

Something I’ve used since college to help get the creative kitchen juices flowing (literally and figuratively) is a website called Supercook.

This website curates thousands of recipes from site members and other sites all around the web. All you do is input what ingredients you have in your kitchen or pantry, or what ingredients you want to use, and presto, hundreds of recipe ideas at your fingertips!

Let’s say you have a can of black beans, a can of corn, and some tomatoes from your garden. Those three simple ingredients bring up 26 recipes alone! And by adding in staples that most all of us have (hello, black pepper and salt, flour, oil, sugar, etc) your options expand even more. You can filter by type of dish you want to make, what cuisine you are in the mood for, and even filter by dietary restrictions like excluding nuts, fish, or dairy.

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Supercook is sponsoring a Back to Work cooking challenge, whereby they asked who can make magic using super simple pantry ingredients: chicken, rice, and tomatoes.

PICK ME! I can make kitchen magic with next to nothing, as abundantly proven over the years on this blog.

Conveniently, those are three of my favorite ingredients of all time. Entering them into Supercook’s website opens up over two dozen options. Several are too simple (plain steamed rice? yawn), but a recipe for chicken cacciatore catches my eye. With a few more ingredients I have on hand from an abundant harvest (fresh basil, yum!), I know this is what’s happening for dinner.

The recipe is for chicken cacciatore in the crock pot, which is even better for busy working adults! But, I’m impatient, so it had to be made tonight, and that meant on the stove top. Keep in mind you can indeed take all the ingredients and simply chuck it in the slow cooker for a truly hands-off meal that turns out like you slaved for hours.

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See? Pretty dinner, but oh so easy.

A basic cacciatore recipe includes, of course, chicken, vegetables sauteed in the chicken oils, and diced or peeled tomatoes. The seared chicken is returned to the pot of vegetables and simmered about an hour until done. I of course added a few extras, which you can choose to include, or keep it simple. I used a quart of pasta sauce I’d canned myself, with garlic & basil included. You can just use a can of diced tomatoes for the same effect.

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Ingredients:

  • 2-3 pounds chicken (breast, thigh, legs)
  • 1 cup brown, wild, or white rice
  • 1-2 cups diced tomatoes or tomato sauce
  • 1/2 an onion, diced
  • 2 medium carrots, diced
  • 1 small red bell pepper, diced
  • Optional extras: spinach, garlic cloves, zucchini, bay leaves

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Step 1: In a frying pan, sear the chicken on all sides, about 5-7 minutes. Pour off most of the oil and set the chicken aside.

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Step 2: Add the onion, and any other vegetables or spices you’re using, and cook 10-15 minutes, until onions are soft and translucent and the carrots are soft when poked with a fork.

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Step 3: Pour in the tomatoes, and bring to a simmer. Add the chicken back to the pan, cover and cook 10-12 minutes.

Pro Tip: The longer you simmer this, the softer the veggies get and the more the flavors meld. But if you’re pressed for time and don’t mind slightly crunchy carrots, this can be done in as little as 15 minutes total.

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Step 4: Serve warm over pasta, rice, or with a thick rustic bread on the side. I just made some rice in my cooker while the rest of the dish simmered on the stove.

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This dish is super tasty & satisfying, and also quite healthy. Especially if you pack it full of delicious veggies! You could throw all kinds of things in there, like cauliflower, beans, or broccoli. This flavor combination worked out very well.

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This dish is also quite frugal in addition to being healthy and delicious. A pack of chicken quarters is often on sale for $0.99/lb or less, rice is an affordable staple, and the veggies were mostly free at the height of gardening season.

I hope you enjoy this as much as I did, and that discovering Supercook can help you too save time and energy by answering the age-old question, “What’s for dinner?”

 

Tomato Basil Chicken Cacciatore

Tomato Basil Chicken Cacciatore

Ingredients

  • 2-3 pounds chicken (breast, thigh, legs)
  • 1 cup brown rice
  • 1-2 cups diced tomatoes or tomato sauce
  • 1/2 an onion, diced
  • Optional extras: basil, garlic cloves, carrots, pasta, sausage

Instructions

  1. In a frying pan, sear the chicken on all sides, about 5-7 minutes. Pour off most of the oil and set the chicken aside.
  2. Add the onion, and any other vegetables or spices you’re using, and cook 10-15 minutes, until onions are soft and translucent and the carrots are soft when poked with a fork.
  3. Pour in the tomatoes, and bring to a simmer. Add the chicken back to the pan, cover and cook 10-12 minutes.
  4. Pro Tip: The longer you simmer this, the softer the veggies get and the more the flavors meld. But if you’re pressed for time and don’t mind slightly crunchy carrots, this can be done in as little as 15 minutes total.
  5. Serve warm over pasta, rice, or with a thick rustic bread on the side.
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This recipe & post have been entered into the Supercook “Back To Work” Cooking Challenge! #SupercookChallenge #BacktoWork

Pork Shepherd’s Pie

 

This is a super simple recipe I came up with when I had made pork chops and mashed potatoes, then had copious amounts of leftovers. It is so easy, and takes only 5-6 ingredients. To save even more time, you could use raw pork chunks, and store-bought mashed potatoes. If interested in other Shepherd’s Pie recipes, read my earlier posts.

Or even one step further, use dried potato flakes in the liquid. Then you will not have  a top layer, but will cut down on steps. You  can use whatever type of veggies you like, or not use them at all. I just like to try to stuff vegetables into anything and everything. Frozen mixed vegetables are a cheap and healthy way to pack in extra vitamins & filling fiber.

Ingredients:

  • 2-3 small pork chops, diced
  • 1 cup frozen mixed vegetables
  • 1 can biscuit dough
  • 1 1/2 cups mashed potatoes
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 2-3 tbsp flour (or 2-3 tbsp potato flakes)

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Step 1: If cooking the mashed potatoes, simple microwave on high 8-10 minutes, or cook in the oven at 350 for 15 minutes, until you can mash them with a fork. Cook the pork chops on medium heat in a skillet for 4-5 minutes, then turn and cook other side 2-3 minutes. Cut to make sure there is no pink inside.

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Step 2: Spray an oven-safe baking pan, and layer in the veggies and the pork chops. It is best to thaw the veggies, or you will end up with extra-watery pie as they thaw.

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Step 3: In a pan, combine the milk and flour. Heat until just simmering, and ensure all flour dissolves. You could also use cornstarch, or dried potato flakes. Or cream of potato soup.

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Step 4: Pour the milk mixture over the veggies & pork.

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Step 5: Cover in a layer of mashed potato. Season with salt, pepper, garlic, onion powder, paprika, anything you like. Spread out the raw biscuits on top of the potato layer.

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Step 6: Bake in the oven at 350 for 20-25 minutes.

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Chicken Ranch Burgers

 

Spring and summer means it’s time for picnics and backyard BBQs. While the usual suspects, hot dogs and burgers, are tasty they are kind of old. (Hopefully not literally, you threw out the half-used pack from last summer right??)

I don’t know about you, but I like to experiment with “standard” foods to see if there is a way I can improve it and make it my own. With burgers there are so many options. You really just need a few fillers, spices, and something to bind it all together.

For the vegetarians and vegans, vegetable burgers are crazy easy to make and have so many customization options! My favorite way is to simply take about 1 cup of mashed beans and 1 cup of a whole grain (like couscous, quinoa, or oats) and some cooked vegetables, then bind it all with some oil and maybe flour. Kidney bean and quinoa burgers are my favorite so far.

For meat-eaters, try ground turkey, ground pork, or ground chicken for something other than beef. Or get really adventurous and try some ground elk, bison, or lamb. This recipe is one I tried for a picnic with friends, and everyone said it was an absolute winner, a great new, interesting flavor. With only four ingredients, you’ve got to try this out.

Ingredients:

*Note: You can substitute 2-3 tbsp of a Ranch seasoning mix instead of the dressing and other seasoning, then use 1 large egg to bind

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Step 1: In a large bowl, mix all of the ingredients. By hand is best.

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Step 2: Fire up the grill! You can also use a George Foreman style press, broil in the oven, or fry on the stove top.

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Step 3: Top how you like it and enjoy!

You can see we put american cheese slices on ours, but the topping possibilities are endless. Try coleslaw, fries, avocado, hummus, salsa, hot sauce, tomatoes, grilled onions, peppers, and/or mushrooms, arugula, spinach…

This is chicken, so you need to be a little more careful about ensuring it is completely cooked. The only way to be totally sure is to use a meat thermometer, and for chicken it should read 165 F. Worst case, poke it and make sure the juice is clear, or cut a piece off to make sure it isn’t pink still. If not, then it’s chow time!

4-Ingredient Chicken Ranch Burgers

Ingredients

  • 1 pound ground chicken
  • 1/2 cup quick-cook oats
  • 4 tbsp Ranch dressing
  • 2 tbsp steak seasoning
  • *Note: You can substitute 2-3 tbsp of a Ranch seasoning mix instead of the dressing and other seasoning, then use 1 large egg to bind

Instructions

  1. In a large bowl, mix all of the ingredients. By hand is best.
  2. Fire up the grill! You can also use a George Foreman style press, broil in the oven, or fry on the stove top.
  3. Top how you like it and enjoy!
  4. You can see we put american cheese slices on ours, but the topping possibilities are endless. Try coleslaw, fries, avocado, hummus, salsa, hot sauce, tomatoes, grilled onions, peppers, and/or mushrooms, arugula, spinach....
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Better than take-out Beef & Broccoli

 

Ever want the addictive taste of Chinese take-out, but not want the MSG, additives, preservatives, sugar, salt, and calories??

The answer of course is, duh! Yes!

Good news! Making your own Beef & Broccoli at home is super simple, cheap, and nearly as fast as dialing and waiting for delivery. Try this easy weeknight favorite for yourself, and save the tip for a treat for yourself.

Ingredients:

  • 1 pound beef cubes (can use chicken or tofu too)
  • 1 bag frozen broccoli cuts (or 1 head fresh broccoli chopped)
  • 1 cup rice
  • 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 1/4 cup fish sauce
  • 1/4 cup soy sauce
  • Dash garlic
  • 1 inch piece of fresh ginger, or 1 tbsp ground ginger
  • 2 tbsp sriracha, or to taste

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Step 1: Mix all but first three ingredients in a small bowl. If you have time, marinate the meat for 1-6 hours in refrigerator.

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Step 2: Cook the beef in a frying pan 5-10 minutes until browned but not completely chewy. Meanwhile, use a sauce pot to boil rice, or a rice cooker.

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Step 3: Add the sauce to the meat. Microwave the broccoli 3 minutes, or cook in the frying pan, covered, for 5-7 minutes.

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Step 4: Mix beef and broccoli, serve over rice with extra sauce.

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You can add cornstarch or a little flour if you like a thicker sauce, or add more water/fish sauce/vinegar for a thinner sauce. I added a little extra sriracha with servings because I like a little kick! Enjoy never having to stop for take-out again.