Grandma Ellen's Chili

I ~think~ I finally got this recipe down to a science.  My boyfriend's grandmother makes the best chili I have ever tasted.  This is such a personal preference that I can't tell you if this will be your favorite recipe or not; just like I can't tell you if the hundred other variants out there will be something you like.  Chili is something  you have to experience, tweak, enjoy and then perfect for a lifetime.  My goal as a thirty-something mom was to get this recipe down now for all future tailgating, bbqs, potlucks, etc. so that I could contribute something I was truly happy with. Plus, who doesn't want their son to be able to say "not as good as my mom's chili" someday?

The best way to describe this chili is smooth and flavorful, but not spicy.  I'm pretty sure the white vinegar is the key to making the flavors pop even though I'm not sure on the mechanics of the thing.

Also - apologies for posting such a large quantity recipe, but this freezes really well and can be used for nachos, chili dogs, as well as eaten on its own.  Grandma Ellen serves it with crackers, sliced cheese, and sweet and dill pickles. I suggest you do the same!

3 lbs lean (at least 85% lean) ground beef, browned and crumbled well
3 C. red kidney beans (about 2 cans)
1 large can tomato juice
scant 1/4 C. chili powder
1 tsp+ salt
1/4 tsp+ pepper
2 Tbsp Sugar
2 tsp white vinegar

Crockpot Preparation: Combine all ingredients except sugar and white vinegar in the crockpot. Simmer on low about 24 hours, stirring occasionally.  You will know when the chili is "done" when it achieves a gravy-like consistency.  At the end of the cook time, add in sugar and dissolve well. Add more salt/pepper to taste.  Just before serving or traveling with the dish, add the vinegar and stir in well.

Stove Top Preparation: Combine all ingredients except vinegar in the pot.  Simmer on low for several hours or until the chili is the consistency of gravy.  Add the vinegar just before serving.

I hope this adds a nice selection to your repertoire!

PS - For full disclosure, Grandma Ellen says she doesn't use sugar, but I'm also not sure what brand of tomato juice she's using.  I added sugar while using the Great Value (WalMart) brand of canned tomato juice to make it match the flavor of her chili, more than following her strict recipe (which she didn't have for me anyway lol).


Weekly Meal Plans

I'm going to sing the praises of the weekly meal plan.  I know what every last one of my readers is going to say - but it's so time consuming!
Is it?
I planned two weeks worth of meals in about 15 minutes.  What's the secret?  Repeated meals!
Once or twice a week I incorporate our favorite dishes.  A couple of my favorite dishes are Crockpot Spaghetti and Meatballs, burritos, nachos, and sandwiches.
For instance, Mondays are my tired days because it's the first day back to work in the week and frankly, it's exhausting!  I usually try to make a crockpot meal or a sandwich meal for that day.  And when I say sandwiches, it can range from normal turkey and cheese all the way to grilled chicken and dijon panini - depending on my budget.
We're fairly simple eaters so we find no problems having a nice grilled cheese with tomato soup once every few weeks.  And spaghetti and meatballs (or alternately spaghetti with chicken parmesan) can be made almost on a weekly basis and we are happy campers.
Usually on a Tuesday I'll make burritos because I've had Monday night's cooking session to throw some dried beans into my electric pressure cooker as my prep-work.  Our burritos are usually vegetarian because, well, they can be!
One thing I think a lot of homemakers forget (men & women!) is that there are going to be leftovers. There are also going to be nights when you just MUST order pizza or grab fast food because you're craving it.  I aim to plan four meals a week, leaving the other three days up to random leftovers or fast food cravings.  If you spend 45 minutes to make a giant fruit salad once a week, you have it as a side dish any day or night.
Any "real" food I plan, like dijon chicken, gets amped up with steamed frozen veggies and a packet of spiced rice.  We're talking 30 minutes from fridge door to table - this is the max time I want to spend cooking.  I clean as I go and then I'm done for the evening.
Here's my two week plan as it stands. (Note: I'm moving soon so I'm using up some freezer items to make the transition a bit easier.)
Week 1 Meal 1: Toasted Ravioli with Marinara and big Italian salads
Week 1 Meal 2: Chili cheese burritos (canned chili, shredded cheddar, crumbled tortilla chips inside a flour shell - microwaved)
Week 1 Meal 3: Chicken & Broccoli Stir Fry (1 lb diced raw chicken, 1/2 lb frozen broccoli, white rice and some sort of impromptu sauce using soy sauce)
Week 1 Meal 4: Hamburgers & French Fries (Grandma Jean gave us some frozen patties from QVC which sound yummy, adding the thin buns, leftover salad & cheese, frozen remnants of french fries from freezer)
Week 2 Meal 1: Beef vegetable soup (crockpot: frozen mixed veggies, can tomatoes, can beef broth, 1/2 lb diced stew beef, spices)
Week 2 Meal 2: Spaghetti and Crockpot Meatballs (crockpot meatballs: 1 lb ground turkey, 1/2 c. bread crumbs, 1/2 c. grated parmesan cheese, 2 tsp italian seasonings, salt & pepper rolled into little balls and put raw into one jar of spaghetti sauce in a crockpot on low all day)
Week 2 Meal 3: Qdoba Copycat Burritos (see previous blog post)
Hey! I only had to plan 3 meals for work nights next week because of the holiday - bonus :)  When I have time, I can put together any number of dishes on the weekends and days off.
Tell me what some of your favorite weekly meals are!


Half a Batch of Cookies

Sounds pointless, right?
Well, I had leftover Easter candy - the mini m&ms in the blue packets, and this made just over a dozen small cookies. Totally worth it. Not overly sweet - just right when you bite a mini m&m. Also: don't break out the kitchen-aid, this can be mixed by hand.
1/2 C. packed brown sugar
1/4 c. white sugar
1/2 c. butter
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/2 c. flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
6 snack packets mini m&ms (about 1 cup)
Using a pastry cutter or a fork and a popeye-strong forearm, cream the softened butter with the sugars.  Mix in the egg and vanilla well. Plop (yeah I said it, it's fun) the flour into bowl, add baking soda on top of flour and whisk into it with your little measuring spoon (this prevents lumps of salty ickiness in overall mixture).  Mix wet and dry together really well. Fold in mini m&ms. Using a melon baller or mini ice cream scoop, put even amounts of dough onto a cookie sheet.  Bake 350 degrees for 7-9 mins. 
Warning: raw cookie dough contains raw eggs. (So just yanno... be aware in case you don't wanna get salmonella OR I guess you could just not.. eat.. it...who am I kidding? *licks spoon*)

Happy Friday-indulging :)
PS - this could be done with just about any leftover candy. If pieces are big, put in a gallon baggie, freeze for about 15 minutes, then smash into pieces using a rolling pin. Voila - cookie sized bits.

How to Dine-in Without Feeling Deprived!

In my family it has been a long standing tradition to eat out on a weekend night, usually Fridays. This works fine for some families and works great for us when my family offers generously to pay the bill. When it comes down to my own meager buck-stretching, this weekly tradition has to be sacrificed occasionally.
Who doesn't love to order from a variety of foods (each person getting their own selection of favorites), having someone else cook it, and then being waited on hand and foot?  A pretty nice break from the daily monotony of fixing meals after a 10 hour work day, I'd say.
Unfortunately, when one has to make the decision between diapers and dining out, there really is no question which category wins.  It's easy to sort of feel bad for yourself in this instance, but when you look around and see all the wonderful things you have in life - shelter, clothing, love, health, etc. - it seems a little silly to dwell on it.
SO! Here are some of my favorite ways to make dining-in on your usual "treat" night seem just a little less like the short end of the stick!
My boyfriend's family has a neat tradition of "appetizer" night.  Basically they scrounge the freezer and hit up the grocery store for a few cheap appetizers that add up to a meal.  This sometimes consisted of several types of oven-baked wings (prepped by Tyson so you don't have to!), a nice rotel cheese dip with chips, and maybe even some home-made wheat crusted pizzas. Look at the bottom of this article for some recipe ideas. (Keep in mind, even prepped freezer foods are cheaper than dining out. Maybe you can afford to half splurge.)
Put on a Movie
Put it on in EVERY room.  This one takes a little bit of first-time prep-work, but it makes the night infinitely more fun.  Wherever you have a tv, run a cable or use whatever device is wireless you might have hooked up to it (xbox, wii, Roku, etc) to broadcast your movie to all sets.  Not sure how to do that?  Google to the rescue! Still not sure? See if you can agree on a show on TV that you can get throughout the house.
Switch It Up
Do you eat every meal at the table? In the dining room? Or do you eat most meals hurredly in front of the tv?  Whatever you normally do, switch it up. If you never sit at that gorgeous claw-footed oak set in the dining room - put on some music and have everyone gather in there. Toys allowed at the table - maybe a game of cards - whatever, just switch it up and let go.  If you can dine outside comfortably, try this as an alternative also - a picnic blanket in the back yard is fun! Wear bug spray or burn some citronella to make it even nicer.
Clean Up? Ugh
Ok I'm normally the "greenest" blogger you know - make things from scratch, reusable dining wear, minimalize packaging and all the lot!  This advice grates on my nerves, but it can really feel good to just not have a sink full of dishes.  Use paper. Paper napkins, paper plates, paper cups.  Or recycleable plastic. Just nothing you have to wash.  Rinse it, scrape it, toss it/recycle.  And just make finger foods and forget about the demonizing plastic utensils.
So you have entertainment, switched up the locale, maybe even made a "everyone must wear PJs" rule!  Great! What to cook?  Here are a few of our favorites (health benefits in parenthesis for you worriers!)
Rotel Dip
Depending on desired spiciness, choose mild, original, or hot Rotel.
Combine 1/2 block/pound cubed Velveeta cheese + one can of Rotel in a microwave safe bowl.  Put in a few minutes at a time, stirring between cook times, until a smooth dip is made. This recipe can also be made with a can of chili/vegetarian chili instead of Rotel. Serve with tortilla chips. (Calcium + veggies + protein + whole grains in chips.)
French Onion Dip
Combine a pint of sour cream with one packet of dry Lipton's French Onion Soup.  The longer you let this sit, the better it tastes. Serve with ruffled/ridged potato chips. (Calcium + potassium in chips.)
Ranch & Veggies *buy baby carrots and cherry tomatoes to save time cutting. (Veggies)
Tyson has several varieties of boneless and bone-in wings.  Our favorites include buffalo strips, garlic parmesan wings, and tequila and lime cajun flavored wings.  Want to make them yourself? Maybe to save a few bucks? No prob!
Boneless "Wings"
Follow instructions on bag to cook a couple batches of all-natural chicken nuggets.  In separate bowls, toss dipping sauces like honey + bbq, garlic parmesan, or even Frank's pre-made buffalo sauce with batches of your nuggets.  Set aside some plain for the kiddos. The more variety, the less deprived you'll feel. (Protein!)
For the wheat-crusted pizzas I mentioned above, I'll have to check with my boyfriend's dad (he's the expert) and repost.  A quick fix is one I've used many times:  prick a flour or whole wheat tortilla shell all over with a fork, spread on spaghetti/pizza sauce, add light toppings and a sprinkling of shredded mozzarella. Bake on a stone or pizza pan til crisp.  Other prepared crusts include half-hoagie rolls, half hamburger/hot dog buns, english muffins, bagels, biscuits - use your imagination!
See my other Top 5 Quick Meal Ideas post for even more yummy additions to this night-in.
Do it. Pick something.  A gallon of vanilla ice cream can even be a treat if topped with chocolate syrup and bits of candies.  Hey - we don't always order dessert when we're out... maybe this night just got BETTER than dining out!
So, just enjoy your night in! Maybe make that dining out a monthly tradition instead of weekly - or quarterly even!  Your pocket book will thank you.
Any suggestions from readers?
PS - Still want to dine out?  Bonus post - best bang for your buck:  Cracker Barrel, family-owned Mexican restaurants, buffets if you want a real treat - you pay the same $10 price tag per person, but get a wider variety.  Just go somewhere you can control your costs! (And skip the alcohol - way too pricey.)


Top 5 Quick Dinner Ideas

Cooking just for yourself? Or just looking for a quick night's dinner with very little effort?
Here are my Top 5 Quick Dinner Ideas
5.  Sandwhiches
    Sick of those turkey n cheese lunchtime blahs? Try it open faced!  Warm a can or packet of gravy in a pan, throw in your turkey lunch meat and cook until warm.  Toast two pieces of bread, laying a slice of swiss or cheddar on the top of each slice of bread.  Add your gravied lunch meat, maybe some quick instant mashed potatoes and you've got a blue-light special.  Make sure to grind some fresh black pepper over the top for a freshly made taste.  Get real fancy and crack open a can of green beans to serve on the side.
4.  Soup
  Canned soup can be dressed up in a lot of ways. Add pre-cooked rice noodles to a favorite chicken n vegetable soup blend, serve with a side of vinegary hot sauce and some basil, and you have Vietnamese Pho Ga for dinner! Not for something ethnic?  Serve your favorite canned chili or soup with a wide array of crackers, sliced cheese, and pickles and you have a full meal.
3.  Baked Potatoes
  Microwave them. Seriously. They're delicious and come in at about 5 minutes each.  Here's how - scrub jackets well, then while still damp, press in kosher salt.  Stab really well all over with a fork.  Use your microwave's potato setting or do about 4 minutes at a time until it's soft enough to split all the way through with your stabbing fork.  Toppings?  Leftover breakfast meats (sausage, bacon, etc.), any veggies (broccoli, cauliflower, carrots), cheese (even american slices work), butter, salt & pepper, hot sauce - just check your fridge and get creative.
2.  Nachos
  Same simple theory as baked potatoes.  Who doesn't have a bag of tortilla chips sitting around? Even stale ones work, the microwave will crisp them up!  Spread out a single layer (be generous!) on a microwave safe plate, topped with canned chili, or canned beans, salsa, veggies, then sprinkle across some shredded cheese. Be creative! Think protein + fiber + veggie to fill you up.  Microwave for 1-2 minutes on high until cheese bubbles.  Allow to cool before serving! Delicious
And finally, my number one "wth am I gonna cook tonight?" meal - always a go-to in my household.
1. Breakfast for Dinner!
  Frozen waffles, bisquick pancakes, eggs & cheese, leftover bacon or turkey links, anything you can think of - throw it together and make it sound mighty special to the kids.
Let me know your favorite quick go-to meal in the comments!


Weight Watchers Friendly Snack

Popcorn, even the bag of microwaved movie-theatre-butter stuff, is a pretty low point 'Watchers snack.  In an attempt to shave off a few points without sacrificing my late-evening snack, I did some research online how to pop my own kernels in the microwave.  Many of us remember air-popped corn from that craze in the mid to late 80's (you remember that noisy white contraption with yellow see-through top that shot hellaciously hot unpopped kernels at you instead of the bowl?!)  In those simpler times, we just put the butter in that little dish that fit in the top of the machine and then dumped it on, with a happy helping of salt, and mixed with our bare hands to achieve deliciousness.  For those who thought they could save a few calories by not topping their blandly popped corn, this was a short-lived fad.
The days of tasteless popped kernels for dieters are long gone.
These days they make bowls that look like granite-ware but are actually a type of heat resistant plastic.  They usually come with a lid as well.  They will hold the kernels in the bottom of the bowl and, without the use of oil, pop them like any bag would.
Guilt-Free Popcorn
Plain microwave popped or air popped popcorn
I Can't Believe It's Not Butter Spray
For one cup of popped and generously sprayed popcorn it only = 1 WW Point!
So enjoy that evening movie or tv show with an unsweet tea or a diet soda and a nice big bowl of low-point popcorn!
(I recently found my bowl, mentioned above, on Amazon.com for about $8 with free prime shipping.)

Qdoba Style Dinner - Completely Homemade!

Well, money is always tight, but sometimes we get cravings that we simply must indulge!
As I was pondering dinner last night, I ended up craving one of those delicious Qdoba burritos.
I scoured my freezer and pantry for something quick to make, caught the eye of some cilantro in my crisper and thought, "I could totally copycat Qdoba."
Our "burritos" were put together using flour taco-sized tortillas, a yummy black bean mixture, cilantro citrus rice, and shredded cheddar. I also made a new batch of the salsa I posted on an earlier date and served with bottomless tortilla chips.  We were all happy campers!
Black Bean Mixture
2 cans black beans (3 1/2 C. cooked)
1 can petite diced tomatoes
1 packet dry enchilada sauce mix
Place beans and tomatoes in pan, sprinkle dry sauce mix on top, and cook until warmed through and beans are soft enough to smash with a fork.
Cilantro Citrus Rice
3 cups water
3 cups instant rice
2 Tbsp Cilantro leaves (fresh)
1 Tbsp Lemon or Lime juice
1/8 tsp salt
Put the water and cilantro in a small saucepan.  Bring water to a boil. Add rice and allow to simmer until all water is absorbed.  Sprinkle with salt and lemon or lime juice.
To assemble "burritos" scoop rice into shell, scoop bean mixture on top, sprinkle with cheese.  These are filling and good for you.  8 WW Points for one large item (1 medium flour tortilla, 1/2 c rice, 2/3 c bean mixture and 2 Tbsp. shredded cheddar).