Almost No-bake Strawberry Pie

strawberries fresh

Strawberries are in-season here in the Midwest, and this morning I finally checked a “to-do” off of the summer bucket list – strawberry picking.  It has been years (!) since I have been out in the field picking berries and worried that my kids didn’t even remember the tradition.  In fact, my youngest, who will be 5 soon, wasn’t even born the last time we went picking.  Yikes!  It was time to get back into the field.

It was a hot but breezy day.  The rows were LOADED with berries.  It did not take our family  long to pick enough berries to fill up our tray.  Although later this week I am going to try to make jam and will also try freezing some, today the goal was to make strawberry pie.

This recipe is fantastically easy and such a seasonal treat. As a busy Mom, I mostly focus on cooking meals.  Desserts are a mostly forgotten second thought.  Baking is not my forte either – I often over or under-cook cookies and cakes.  Making this pie, however, is a tradition worth keeping when we  do get around to picking berries. The only thing you have to bake is the empty pie shell, and only for about 10 minutes.  If I can handle it, you surely can too!

Drop me a note if you decide to try this one, and let me know how you and the fam like it.

Ingredients

  • 9” pie shell – deep dish preferred
  • 1 qt. strawberries – halved
  • ¾ cup sugar
  • 2T cornstarch
  • 1 ½ cups water
  • 1 3oz. pkg strawberry Jello

Bake unfilled pie shell per package directions (at around 4000 for 10-13 minutes) until browned.  Set aside.

Mix in saucepan sugar, cornstarch, and water.  Cook over medium heat, stir constantly until thick and clear, about 5-10 minutes.  Remove from heat and add the 3oz pkg. of strawberry Jello.  Stir until dissolved.  Chill the sugar mixture in the fridge for 10 minutes.   It will look something like this before chilling:

gel

While the sugar/Jello mixture is chilling, wash, drain, and halve 1 qt. of strawberries and place them in the baked pie shell.

in pie shell

Pour cooled filling over berries.  Chill several hours.  Serve with whipped cream.

Pasta Fagioli

This is a picture from William Lingwood from the cookbook Pasta by Silvana Franco. I took a picture of the page in the book. If you look closely, you can see splatters of food on this page, proof of how many times I have come back to this recipe.
This is a picture from William Lingwood from the cookbook Pasta by Silvana Franco. I took a picture of the page in the book. If you look closely, you can see splatters of food on this page, proof of how many times I have come back to this recipe.

 

Fagioli means “beans” in Italian.  Although “proper” Italians would say “FAH-jolie”, those with different dialects may pronounce it “FAH-Jule”.  (To put this into context, think about how different pronunciations are used in the southern U.S. vs the north . . . this happens in other countries too).  Pasta fagioli translates to “pasta with beans”.  If your only exposure to this dish is by way of the one regularly served at Olive Garden, then I am here to give you a bit more background on this wonderfully hearty meal.

Using Beans as Protein

Beans are a great source of protein in any diet.  When I think of pasta fagioli, I imagine Italian peasant woman cooking in their villages who were looking for a way to use whatever they had on hand to cheaply and easily feed their families.  Adding beans to pasta with tomato sauce was an easy way to enhance a basic meal.  And if meat was scarce, beans filled the gap.

When I was young, the pasta fagioli served at my house was very simple – standard pasta (small shapes worked well, like elbow mac or tiny shells), basic tomato sauce, and the addition of white beans such as cannellini or navy.  Canned beans are the easiest to work with, but dried work well too if they are first soaked and boiled so they are soft when served.

Pasta Fagioli Soup

About 14 years ago, I found a pasta fagioli recipe that was completely different from what I grew up with – but also completely delicious and easy to make.  I have adjusted this recipe slightly from the cookbook I originally found it in, (Pasta, by Silvana Franco).  This Pasta Fagioli recipe calls for 5 cups of chicken or vegetable stock, making the dish more of a soup than pasta.  The noodles cook right in the broth with the other ingredients, and thickens the entire dish.  If you have leftovers and leave it in your fridge for a day, the noodles will absorb all of the broth and turn it back into pasta, but still with all of the hard-to-resist flavor that was created on day one in the soup.

Warning:  if you don’t want your kitchen – and whole house for that matter – smelling like garlic, DO NOT MAKE THIS RECIPE.  If the thought of garlic smell everywhere is your little piece of heaven, then please proceed.

Pasta Fagioli

  • 2T Olive Oil
  • 1 small onion, finely chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 potato diced (skin on or peeled, your preference)
  • 1 can low-salt diced tomatoes, undrained
  • 5 cups chicken or vegetable stock
  • 28 oz. white canned white beans – cannellini or navy
  • 3 cups small dried pasta shapes (elbow mac or small shells work well)

Heat the oil in a large saucepan.  Then add the garlic, onion, and potato and cook for 3-4 minutes until golden.  Add the tomatoes and cook for 2-3 minutes until softened.

Add the stock, beans, and pasta.  Bring to a boil, then simmer for about 10 minutes, until the pasta and potatoes are cooked.

Ladle into bowls and serve with shredded Parmesan cheese.  Serve with a nice green salad (click here for some great vinaigrette dressing ideas) and fresh crusty bread for a complete meal.

 

Nonna’s Special Sauce

My mother (aka Nonna, aka the original inspiration behind this recipe) is a fantastic cook, no argument there.  I come from a long line of at-home-from-scratch-Italian-peasant-cooks.  They learned to cook based on whatever was available and in season. I remember spending late August canning tomatoes with my mother.  My parents still make their own sausage every winter, dry cure it for weeks, then pack it in vats of olive oil.  I may dedicate a whole page to that process alone.  But now we are dipping our foot into territory that would make any busy Mom run for her life.  So let’s bring it back home to a simple, authentically Italian craft that all busy Moms can partake in – making your own spaghetti sauce.  And what magical tool will help you do that?  The crock pot of course.

There is hands down no way you can  compare the taste of homemade spaghetti sauce to that of anything you can buy in a jar in the grocery store.  Although my mother gags at the thought of grocery store jarred sauce, I will admit I frequently buy jarred sauce.  I am well aware I risk impeachment from my Italian family by doing this, but really, it’s a simple way to get a meal on the table.  HOWEVER, when there are days you want to go that extra few steps, homemade spaghetti sauce can slow cook all day at your house with about 20 minutes and some pre-planning.  Plus it smells AMAZING, and I guarantee you will TASTE THE DIFFERENCE.

The secret to a good sauce is – sorry vegetarians – the meat.  Sure, there are decent vegetarian marinara recipes out there, but NOTHING compares to  sauce cooked with beef short ribs and a few links of Italian sausage.  Another key element – sautéed diced vegetables.  Celery, onions, and garlic are a must, but I have also sneaked diced carrots in too –  just to get more veggies in The taste was not impacted.

So use this recipe as your guideline – not your absolute – for a great Italian meat sauce.

Nonna’s Special Sauce

I  use my 5Qt crock pot for this.  Any extra sauce can be frozen.

Italian Meat Sauce can be made with any type of the following meat.  For this recipe I would use 1 ½ – 2 pounds of meat total, but you can mix and match (a pound of each) if you desire.

  • Stewing beef – browned
  • Beef short ribs – provides excellent flavor to the sauce, but can be fatty.
  • Sweet or hot Italian sausage – I suggest cutting the links in half, browning the sausage, and adding it to the pot
  • Meatballs – I will give you a great recipe for meatballs in another post!

Brown your meat, then add it to the crock pot.  Then in the same pan that you browned your meat in, add:

  • 2 stalks celery, chopped
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • ¾ cup diced carrots (optional)
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 4T olive oil

Sautee until veggies are tender.  Add the vegetables to the crock pot with your browned meat.  Then add:

  • 2-28oz cans plain tomato sauce.  I like Dei Fratelli brand, but any brand will do.
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons dried oregano
  • ¼ teaspoon dried thyme

Stir all ingredients thoroughly.  Cover and cook on Low 8-10 hours.  Serve over your favorite pasta!  Bon apetite!

A Sample Month of Meals

A sample month of weeknight dinner meals for my family looks something like this.  Believe me, there were activities to contend with on most nights, but I was able to put these meals on the table in spite of busy schedules.  Pre-planning was essential.    I have only included five meals per week, because you can always count on a night of leftovers or a once a week meal out.

I encourage everyone to start recording a month of meals.  It can be inspiration down the road when you face “meal planning block”.  Stay tuned to this post  as I add links to all these recipes.

Chicken, Salsa & Cheese (crock pot) Spanish Noodles Spaghetti Chicken Pot Pie Vegetable Beef Soup (crock pot)
Sloppy Joes Easy Jambalaya Ranch Chicken Ham & Cheese Egg Bake Pulled Pork w/ Sweet Potatoes (crock pot)
Grilled Chicken Salad Tater Tot Casserole Brats with Cole Slaw Salad Sausage and Three Bean Soup with Lentils and Barley (crock pot) Tomato Basil Pasta
Turkey Pizza Burgers Pasta Fagioli (Vegetarian) Beef & Broccoli Stir Fry Tuscan Chicken Grilled Pork Chops (basic) Peas, and Orzo with butter
Ground Turkey Tacos Chicken Noodle Soup Unstuffed Cabbage (crock pot) Turkey Chili (crock pot) Chicken Fajitas

 

How to get everyone in the house to eat salad

Summer is upon us.  Although I have a penchant for soups and hearty comfort foods, summer is traditionally the time to incorporate lighter meals into your meal plan and salad with grilled meat is a perfectly easy and light weeknight meal.  The problem is, my two youngest children refuse to eat greens.  They cannot handle eating anything that resembles a leaf.  And they don’t like dressing either.  So putting a big bowl of greens in front of them will equal one thing: a dinner fail.

But I have learned this doesn’t mean I have to eliminate salad from our family meal plans.  The younger kids get a plate filled up of other things that the rest of us combine in our salad.  So although they don’t eat the lettuce or spinach, they do eat carrots, tomatoes, meat and cheese.  On salad nights I will also open up a jar of mandarin oranges or a bag of dried cranberries which they will take on their plate.  Peas, diced pears and apples often make the cut too.  Add a dollop of hummus and don’t forget hard boiled eggs and you really have a diverse and complete meal, minus the leafy greens.

Added bonus is that younger children love having small tastes of everything and a plate full of colorful food.  And if anyone has been around toddlers, you know that small bits of various items is sometimes how they best like to eat.  So enjoy those summer salads – just remember not to toss them for your younger, more discerning, family members.

Crock Pot Ranch Chicken or Ranch Pork Chops: You Choose

Here is another 4 ingredient dump-and-go crock pot meal with – listen up – VERSATILITY!  And by that I mean you can swap out the chicken for pork chops and essentially have the same – but slightly different – tasty meal.

Serve this over rice, egg noodles, or mashed potatoes.  This makes the best gravy.  Add a green salad or side steamed vegetable for a complete and quick meal.

  • 1 (1oz) packet ranch dressing powder mix
  • 6 boneless pork chops (2 lbs) OR 2lbs boneless skinless chicken breasts
  • 1 can cream of mushroom soup (feel free to use low fat or low sodium varieties)
  • ½ cup of milk

Dump contents into crock pot.  Cover and cook on high for 4-6 hours or low 6-8 hours.

Cooked Chicken Short-cut

A long, long time ago – like the year 2000 long time ago – my mother gave me a  cookbook (since there weren’t cooking blogs then) called Healthy Cooking for People who Don’t Have Time to Cook  – by Jeanne Jones.  The book contains 200 really fast recipes – many ready in 15 minutes, which sounds dreamy, right?  Although chock full of great recipes, I noticed a trend whenever it involved chicken.  In many of the recipes I read through, the list of ingredients called for pre-cooked chicken.   The recipe for chicken linguine was found in the section titled “From start to finish in 15 minutes” but called for pre-cooked chicken.  “Not fair!” my brain screamed.  Of course if you realistically counted in the cooking time for chicken, the time to make the recipe would increase, perhaps even double.

Now I know most experienced home cooks know you can buy a cooked rotisserie chicken at any grocery store and pull the meat off the carcass for your own use.  You can also use leftover chicken from a previous night’s meal.  Lastly, you can now buy cooked chicken.  But I don’t cook that way.  My husband does not care for rotisserie chicken, and I was concerned with buying packages of pre-cooked chicken for fear of over processing.  How did I know how my more additives were put in my food just to give busy people an easy shortcut for dinner?  I started to dismiss every recipe I read that called for pre-cooked chicken, in Jeanne’s book and beyond.

Enter – The crock pot

Everyone should know by now that I am a crazy advocate for crock pots.  But I will be the first to admit that it took me a while to realize I  could make the pre-cooked chicken that was called for in so many quick and easy recipes right here in my crock pot.  So now, if pre-cooked chicken is called for, the crock pot comes out, along with a little bit of low sodium chicken broth.  Combine chicken and broth in the crock, cook on low all day and presto!  When you come home from work, that chicken is done and you can move on to the true 15 minute or less section of the recipe.  Here is one of those recipes for Easy Chicken Pot Pie where the pre-cooked chicken makes meal prep easier

Easy chicken pot pie

For using two different cans of pre-made soup, this recipe is exceptionally tasty, and great if you need to bring a meal over to someone.

Ingriedients

  • 2-3 chicken breasts
  • 1 can low sodium chicken broth
  • 2 frozen pie crusts
  • 3 cups frozen vegetables any variety (peas, carrots, corn)
  • 1 can cream of potato soup
  • 1 can cream of chicken soup (fat free or regular)

Directions

Place chicken breasts and 1 can low sodium chicken broth in slow cooker.  Cook on low for 6-7 hours or high for 3-4 hours.  When complete, remove chicken from crock pot and shread.

In large bowl, mix together shredded chicken, frozen vegetables, and both cans of soup.  Place the mixture into one of the frozen pie crusts.  Place 2nd crust on top.  Cook for 1 hour at 350 degrees.

Dump ‘n Go Chicken, Salsa & Cheese

Here it is, complete with cheesy goodness
Here it is, complete with cheesy goodness

Everyone in my house loves this crock pot dump and go meal.  You can prep it the night before or the morning of.  I also make this recipe with Neufchatel cheese.  Neufchatel cheese is the older, French, great-aunt of cream cheese, and contains slightly less fat.  If you want to know more about Neufchatel cheese check out this fun article.

neufchatel cheese

Ingredients

  • 1 16oz jar of your favorite salsa. My favorite salsa brand is Frontera, by award winning chef Rick Bayless. 
  • 2 lbs of chicken breasts
  • 1 can of corn drained
  • 1 can of black beans, drained
  • Minute Rice Brown Rice – enough to make adequate servings for your family

Combine chicken and salsa in the crock pot.

Cook on high for 6-7 hours, and low for 7-8 hours.

About 30 minutes before serving, remove and shred the chicken.  It will look like this.

IMG_1663

Add the shredded chicken back to the pot.  Break up the Neufchatel cheese into chunks/spoonfuls and add it to the crock pot with the chicken.  In this phase, it will look like this:

IMG_1665

Stir until cheese is melted.  You may need to keep the crock pot on low to melt all the cheese.  Add the drained corn and black beans.  Serve over rice.

Hope for those with picky eaters

This is a common face I get from my picky eater.
This is a common face I get from my picky eater.

I hate picky eaters.  Firstly, advanced apologies to the adults out there reading this who may still be self-described picky eaters.  But, I dislike your kind.  However, life karma has made me come full circle in the battle against picky eaters.  Sure, there were days long, long ago, before I actually had children where I swore I would never raise a picky-eating child.  And then the powers that be said “I will send someone into your life who will make you rethink those bold statements you make.”

Enter child #2.  The middle child (who I also swore would never fall prey to middle-child syndrome because “I was a better parent than that!” That, in fact, is a whole other story about life karma).  Let me tell you about my middle child who was fine eating avocado and then refused avocado for 4 whole years.  Who at times has refused all fruits and vegetables, and only was living on processed carbs and meat.  The child who still does not like mint in any form – toothpaste, Girl Scout cookies, or with chocolate chips in ice cream.  The child who picked minutely diced onions, celery, or carrots out of anything I try to hide it in, and spent more energy picking things out of meals than he did actually eating them.

This was the child that made me institute the PB&J alternative at meals.  If he didn’t like what was being served, he could have the PB&J alternative.  If I was feeling extra nice, I would throw cereal in there as an option.  I worried about how much he was having said PB&J and cereal, but life moved on, he grew, and was not malnourished.

But you know what?  In this past year, this child, who is now 8, has turned over a new leaf.  He has tried fish of all kinds and even shrimp.  I got him to eat rutabaga more than once.  Dining out has become a whole new enjoyable experience and he isn’t relegating himself to chicken tenders and pizza anymore.  He loved going to a Japanese Hibachi restaurant and trying Indian food.

And it was not about anything I did.  Just pure and simple patience to wait for his palate to mature.  Sigh.  Such simple parenting advice.  But I am sure there are many out there, like me, who get too frustrated in the process.  We want our kids to comply NOW and have difficulties waiting for them to develop in their own sweet time.

Did I mention that this child happens to love bacon?  Here is one of his favorite recipes, Spanish Noodles, which I am convinced he only tried the first time because of the bacon.   I do still catch him picking out the green peppers though.