taco seasoning as art

foodwithpictures taco seasoning (2)

I make taco seasoning almost weekly. It’s used for more than just tacos around here! Today I was putting the ingredients into a new little 3 ounce jar and I just had to grab my camera. Remember sand art? Well, this was spice art! Even my hard to impress adult son said it was cool. That’s high praise right there.

foodwithpictures taco seasoning (1)

Here’s what it looked like after adding the ingredients exactly as listed below. Next time I’ll double everything first off, but this time I didn’t know if it would fit so I did one set at a time.

Taco Seasoning

1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 tablespoon cumin

2 teaspoons onion powder

2 teaspoons garlic powder

2 teaspoons paprika

2 teaspoons oregano

1 teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon salt

 

foodwithpictures taco seasoning (3)

 

dessert party

 

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My daughter graduated from high school in June. (YAHOO! YIPPEE! WAHOO!) On that Sunday we had a dessert party to celebrate her graduation. She and I love to bake, so instead of typical luncheon foods and/or party snacks, it made sense to serve only desserts. A graduation open house dessert party!

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In order to not have too much to do the day of the party, we started a few days prior. Here is the rundown of what we did:

Two days prior to the party my daughter baked the cupcakes, both cinnamon chocolate and vanilla bean. We kept them in the basement fridge until Sunday morning, when she made the corresponding frostings, and she then frosted all the cupcakes about one hour prior to the party.

 

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With some of the cream cheese frosting, my daughter piped it onto the edge of oreos, then rolled them into color sugar. She did this right after frosting the cupcakes. It took longer than expected, and required a steady hand, but they were worth it! Cute and delicious!

foodwithpictures frosted oreo cookies

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Three days prior to the party I made the cookie dough for the chocolate kiss cookies, rolled each teaspoon of dough into blue sugar (her school color), then put the balls into silicone ice cube trays so that they wouldn’t form one large ball by sticking together, then those trays were put into a large plastic zipper baggie. This was stored in the freezer until the morning of the party. On party day it sat out for about an hour, then the cookies were placed on parchment lined cookie sheets into the preheated oven. Cooking time was about 1-2 minutes longer than usual. These were baked about two hours before the start of the party.

 

foodwithpictures chocolate kiss cookies

 

 

foodwithpictures kiss cookies with blue sugar

 

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The other cookies made ahead of time were the m&m cookies. I used the dough from our favorite chocolate chip cookies, but used a large bag of m&m’s instead of chocolate chips. Each teaspoon of dough was rolled into a ball, then placed into a mini-muffin paper liner, and then stored in the freezer in a covered 9×13 pan. The cookies also had an additional minute or two added to the baking time, but one batch came out a little too brown, so in the future, if baking from frozen dough, I would only add 1 minute to the baking time, not 2 minutes.

foodwithpictures m&m cookies

 

 

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The night before the party I melted semi-sweet chocolate and in a separate container I melted milk chocolate.  I dipped some pretzel rods into each of these (not both chocolates on the same rod), then placed them on wax paper. Once on the wax paper, I quickly sprinkled a bit of sea salt on them. These were stored in airtight containers until just before the party was to start.

 

foodwithpictures pretzel rods dipped in chocolate

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When I had the melted milk chocolate, I pierced marshmallows with decorative toothpicks (either one regular size marshmallow or 3 minis on each stick), dipped them in the melted chocolate, then rolled them in crushed graham crackers to create Smores-on-a-Stick. (These were very cute … but in my opinion almost too sweet!)

foodwithpictures smores on a stick

 

 

foodwithpictures smores on a stick

 

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Shortly before the party started I washed strawberries, then cut a store-made pound cake into one-inch cubes. These were put onto wooden skewers, placed on a serving tray, then drizzled with chocolate sauce.

foodwithpictures pound cake and strawberries

foodwithpictures strawberries and pound cake

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For my party guests who are gluten-free we purchased gluten-free pretzels and dipped half of the pretzels into melted semi-sweet chocolate chips, and the other half were dipped into melted milk chocolate. We also dipped marshmallows into the melted chocolate, such as for the Smores-on-a-Stick, but without the graham crackers. Also, strawberries and grapes were put on wooden skewers and served on another tray. And we made hot air popcorn, added butter and salt, and put that into individual paper cups.

foodwithpictures gluten free

foodwithpictures popcorn

 

 

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In addition to the desserts, we had individual milk boxes (chocolate milk and white milk), juice boxes, water, iced tea, and lemonade. I meant to make a pot of coffee, but completely forgot! I also had some wine, sangria, and beer, for those that wished to drink that kind of beverage.

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Can’t forget the decorations! I wanted the kitchen to look festive, colorful, and whimsical, but didn’t want to spend a lot of cash making it so. I purchased two rolls of crepe paper, and two packages of inexpensive paper lanterns.

foodwithpictures decorations 2

foodwithpictures decorations 1

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For the paper products, I have been keeping a keen eye on the clearance section of Target for the past year and as I found bargains I purchased a few packages of plates and colorful napkins. I was also lucky to acquire some plates, paper straws, and bowls from a friend who had extras after purchasing too many for a large school party she planned. The dollar store was my final stop for the plates that said “Congrats 2014 Grad”.  Total cost for all the paper products was less than $10.

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The party was fun. And sweet! The vanilla bean cupcakes were the first to go, and the m&m cookies and the cups of popcorn were also scooped up quickly.

Prior to the party I had plans to make whoopie pies, and made the cake part two days ahead, but I made the mistake of using a new recipe and they didn’t turn out as expected. They were very tasty, but LARGE. More like cupcakes rather than easy to hold and eat whoopie pies. After the party I sliced each one in half, then put in the filling, and my kids enjoyed them very much.  Here is a pic of those.

foodwithpictures whoopie pies 1

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foodwithpictures plate

waste free lunches

I don’t want to say this too loudly, in case the children hear and get upset, but school starts in one month.

In addition to getting all the necessary school supplies before the start of school, I also need to get everything ready to send lunches each school day. It’s a big task, preparing multiple lunches morning after morning, but I prefer that over the summertime “what’s for lunch?” question that comes every day at noon.

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My oldest son, now in college, wasn’t able to eat the cafeteria lunches due to food allergies. Every day we had to make a lunch from home. He enjoyed variety, actually preferred something different every day, so that kept me on my toes.

My daughter is in high school, and since 1st grade has only purchased school lunch maybe half a dozen times. That’s right, half a dozen times in ten years of school. Which means I’ve prepared close to two thousand school lunches for her. She’s a picky eater and doesn’t like school cafeteria lunches (I can’t blame her… I’ve had them a few times when I was a substitute teacher, and found them to be on the yucky side), and she is happy with the same lunch brought from home each and every day. The exact same lunch … each and every day.

Next month my youngest will be starting full day school, and due to his food allergies it is best if I make his lunch. Plus he’s even pickier than his sister, so those cafeteria lunches wouldn’t work for him, even if allergies weren’t an issue. He’s the type that will get bored with the same thing every day, so I’m thinking up lots of different items that will make his lunch something that he will actually eat.

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Having put together so many school lunches throughout the years, I know what works for my children. And I know how many plastic zipper baggies I’ve used. I’m trying to be more friendly to our environment, so in the past few years I’ve purchased a few products that help me reduce the waste in the lunches I send to school. This year I’ll be even better, because there are new products that I’ve found which make this task even easier. If all goes according to plan, I won’t use any plastic baggies from now on. Yahoo!

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I’ve ordered some of these products at reuseit, some at amazon, and some at L.L. Bean, and have found others at local stores such as Target and Marshall’s and World Market.

The products I use and love:

Sporks!

LOVE LOVE LOVE these. Just flip from one side to the other when you need a spoon or a fork. On the bigger ones there is a serrated edge, which can come in handy, but not necessary for most of the lunches I make. Dishwasher safe. No more disposable plastic silverware for us!

LunchSkins sandwich bags

These LunchSkins sandwich bags are great for my daughter’s daily turkey on wheat. Unlike other brands I’ve tried, the Velcro seal on this brand goes the whole way across, keeping the sandwich fresh and protected. And you simply turn them inside out to wash them by hand or in the dishwasher. We’ve also used them for pretzels and chips, but by lunch time my daughter said the dry snacks came out of the bag soft. This year we’ll be using something else for dry snacks  (see below for the cute containers I just bought).

The lunch bag

These lunch bags are wonderful! The ones we use are from Built NY. They can fit all different sizes of containers and they come in fun designs and colors. I was frustrated with other lunch bags that didn’t offer flexibility and made me angry when I found myself having to use plastic baggies rather than small containers, in order to fit the lunch in the bag. This one is by far the best lunch bag I’ve found. It can hold a large lunch with snacks and drinks, fits into my daughter’s backpack, and is lightweight. And it can be machine washed if/when it gets dirty. Love it!

Something to put the drink in

My daughter is not a milk drinker, so each day I either send a juice box, or a container with water or juice (more economical as well as less waste, in comparison to the juice box). I like these Klean Kanteen containers (mine were purchased at L.L. Bean), and the 12 ounce size is perfect for lunch (when sending juice I don’t fill the container completely). They have never leaked and the sport cap is convenient. They are also dishwasher safe.

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Containers for dry snacks

And new for this school year, and so that I can stop using disposable plastic baggies, I purchased these Rubbermaid Blox containers for dry snacks (found them at Target). In addition to snapping together, which I know my young son will find fun, they come in different sizes for all sorts of lunch foods, and are BPA-free and dishwasher safe (yes, I love when things are easy to clean, especially when we are using them daily).

Another similar product for dry snacks are these clic-tite containers that I found at Marshall’s. They don’t click together as the Rubbermaid ones do, but the lids click on and off easily. Dishwasher safe and BPA-free.

All-In-One lunch container

Another great idea I found online (and of course can not locate right now to give proper credit) is to use a divided rectangle BPA-free plastic container (the one I found at Target is made by Ziploc), and by using silicone baking molds (the kind you would use for cupcakes), put little bits of different food items into the lunch. The sections keep all the food in place, and with only one lid to open, lunch is ready to eat quickly. This is a great option for young children. When done eating, put the lid back on, take it home, and clean it out to be ready for the next day. No waste (okay, in the photo below there will be waste from the applesauce, but when these single serve cups of applesauce are done I will start using applesauce from a jar and put it in the smaller section).

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Oh, one more thing. Toss in a cloth napkin instead of a paper one. This will make the whole lunch waste free. As with all the reusable lunch items, just remind your children not to throw it away when lunch is done!

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If you will be making lunches for your children soon (or if you take a lunch yourself) I hope you find these products useful in creating waste free lunches. Now go enjoy what’s left of summer!

farmers’ market

Saturday morning. Usually my idea of the best way to spend my Saturday morning would be to sleep in, while my husband does breakfast duty. But today I managed to get myself out of bed and to the local farmers’ market. Because it’s early in the season, and this market is one of the smaller ones in my area, there weren’t a lot of options. Baked goods were plenty, as were plants, fresh eggs and homemade dog treats, but only one stall had vegetables.

Fresh vegetables at a farmers’ market give me such pleasure. Imagine a shoe lover walking into a large shoe store and seeing rows and rows of colorful treasures awaiting them … that’s how I feel when I see the tables of potatoes, squash, beets, beans, radishes, and other veggies. I have to take deep breaths and remember that I’m only feeding a family of five (two of which don’t eat vegetables), otherwise I’d purchase way too many vegetables that would surely go bad before I had the chance to prepare them for a meal.

Today I purchased the items in the above photo. It’s hard to see, but those red potatoes are so cute and tiny! Really, who would have thought potatoes could be described as adorable? Yet they are! And the squash — my favorite summertime vegetable.

What’s that item on the right? Well, I did mention there were quite a few baked goods at the market this morning, and I had a hard time passing up freshly baked apple cinnamon bread. It’s not as good as if I had made it, in my opinion, but I still enjoyed coming home and having a slice with my 2nd cup of coffee for the morning.

What a lovely way to start my weekend!

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What are your favorite items to purchase at your local farmers’ market?

polish kitchen

The month of May reminds me of my grandmother. She was born in May, and 94 years later died in May as well.

The memories I have of my Grandmother mostly include food. She was simply an amazing cook, and I don’t know the exact words to rightly describe how wonderful her food was. Let’s just say her secret ingredients were thankfulness and love, and with those in every dish, that should give you some idea how the food tasted.

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I remember her spending most of her time in her kitchen. Even when she was a working woman (out of financial necessity — maybe in the 70’s?) she’d still wake hours early to bake and/or start a meal for later in the day, and she’d come home on her lunch hour to serve a meal to her beloved husband, who worked from home.

Every Sunday we enjoyed and were blessed with a huge family meal — over the river and through the woods we’d go — at Gram’s house. There were never any shortages of meats, vegetables, and desserts. It was her mission to provide at least one favorite item from each of those categories, for each family member. This was no small matter. Gram had only two sons, yet when both sons arrived with their wives and children on Sunday for the promptly-at-noon meal, we ended up with 14 people around the dining room table. It’s mind boggling to think of all the preparation that went into preparing all that food, every Sunday. It didn’t bother her to wake at 4 a.m. in order to accomplish this seemingly effortless task. Serving delicious food to her family, and cooking with love, was a blessing she never undervalued.

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Years ago I wrote this poem about my grandmother. I know poems shouldn’t have explanations, yet I’d like to note a few things, so that this poem, and through this poem my grandmother, are clearly understood.

Her parents came from Poland, and spoke little or no English. She was forced to speak only English when she attended grade school, and the teachers changed her name, with the ridiculous intention of helping to make the socialization aspect of school easier for her.

As a young child I spent many hours and countless summer days at her house. Neighbors would come in and out often, and when one of those neighbors came in with a letter from the old country, my grandmother would translate it for those that couldn’t read Polish. I craved listening to those foreign sounds through the screen door, and am sad that this language was not passed down to my generation.

Polish food was a specialty of hers, as expected, and she also excelled in many American dishes, such as pork chops, spare ribs, and apple pie. Everything she made — everything — was simply delicious. Even her coffee was the best I’ve ever had.

They had times when she was newly married that they went without. Gram was creative with a cabbage. Though my father, her oldest son, never went hungry. She wouldn’t have allowed that. Whatever meat they could get was served to him, to make him big and strong and to never know hunger. When times changed and she had the resources to provide food for her family, she did so with such joy. It was a blessing she never took for granted.

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Polish Kitchen

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Pierogi

Kielbasa

Golabki

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Honorata

Her beautiful given name

Changed to make it easier for the other school children

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She ate cabbage while to her son she served meat

Years later the grandchildren never went hungry

Her small kitchen filled with food and love

The table overflowed with the gifts of plenty

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Coming in to speak words the children didn’t recognize

Neighbors called her

Dorothy

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Egg Bread

Spare Ribs

Apple Pie

meals to go

Having a meal delivered when you need it most is a wonderful gift.

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For the past four years I’ve belonged to a local mother’s group, which is very active in scheduling meals for moms who need the help. Usually that’s due to the birth of a child, but also if the mom has surgery (as I did two years ago), or if she or a family member are undergoing medical treatments, or if there is a death in the family, or for any special needs that arise in a family.

Having been on the receiving end of these wonderful gifts of meals, I know what a relief and help it is to have food to feed your family when you are not able to make a meal. Whenever possible, I now pay-it-forward by making meals for others in need.

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From all these meals I’ve delivered, and from those received, I’ve learned a lot about this process. Here are some hints and suggestions. If the opportunity arises for you to bring a meal to a friend, I hope you will find this information useful.

  • Take into consideration the ages of the children in the family. If the children are young, don’t include onions or garlic. Stay away from spicy dishes. Usually casseroles for little ones don’t tend to go over well. A safe bet would be a simple meat (roast chicken or sauteed chicken breasts, a beef roast, etc.), a veggie side, and potatoes or rice or pasta. Yes, there are children that will eat anything (my oldest) but I’ve learned that for every one of those type children, there are two that are super picky (my two youngest).
  • Don’t be adventurous. This is not the time to try a new recipe or experiment. I’ve made this mistake twice (I know, I know… I should have learned my lesson after the first disaster!). Usually I have luck with new recipes, but the two times I tried new ones, both for moms that had just had babies, the recipes failed big time, but I realized this too late. If I had known before sending over the meals, I would have tossed them in the trash and ordered pizzas. From this I’ve learned it’s best to pick a meal you’re comfortable making — one that you know will turn out well. Save the experimenting for your own family.
  • Vegetables are a must, of course, but it’s so hard to know what the family members will or will not eat, without bothering them by going down the list of every possible veggie. I’d suggest making a simple steamed veggie mix — for example, broccoli and carrots. The children may not eat both, but chances are they’ll eat one of the two. In addition, bringing a baggie of cleaned and cut raw carrots and cucumbers and other good crunchy veggies may satisfy those that don’t like cooked vegetables. Maybe even a bottle of your favorite ranch salad dressing for dipping them into.
  • Everything should be in disposable containers. Easier said than done, I know, especially when cooking in those foil pans is less than ideal. Lately I’ve started cooking the food in my baking dishes, then I transfer it over to a disposable container. Reduces space in their fridge as well, since by doing that I can put the meat with the potatoes and veggies in one dish, rather than sending over three separate containers.
  • Consider including fruit. It’s a great option for those picky youngsters who might not eat veggies, and can be served with breakfast the next day — for the mom in need, or any family member. For a simple fruit salad I like to cut up a couple crisp apples and a pear, and toss in some berries. When doing this I coat the pieces of fruit with about a tablespoon or so of orange juice so that the apples don’t turn brown. If I add a banana and berries to the mix, I don’t toss the fruit salad before sending it over, since the berries and banana slices could end up under the heavier apple pieces and get squished. Instead I layer the fruit starting with the apples on the bottom and end with the berries and banana on top. Strawberries with pineapple chunks is a simple combo that is a favorite of mine as well. Of course, a large bag of cleaned grapes or a few oranges would be welcome too.
  • A very thoughtful addition to the meal being delivered would be muffins or something similar for the family to enjoy at breakfast the next day. This doesn’t have to be homemade (but I do have some recipes to suggestthis thisthis) — a store bought baked good or half a dozen bagels with cream cheese would work well. Or if you live near a donut shop, you could pick up a half dozen for the family.
  • Desserts are usually appreciated (though sometimes not — for example, if the meals are due to a serious health issue where desserts would be frowned upon). When making a dessert for another family, I highly suggest staying away from anything with nuts (all nuts… not just peanuts). So many people have nut allergies and it’s advised that younger children shouldn’t have nut pieces until they reach a certain age. There is a family I made cookies for once, and I knew the kids (teenagers) didn’t have any food allergies, so I went ahead and tossed on some crushed walnuts. When I delivered the meal I told them about the nuts, just to be sure, and found out the dad has a walnut allergy. I felt terrible that I hadn’t thought to ask if the parents had any food allergies. From that point on, my new rule is no nuts. Period.
  • Portion control is important. If the family is getting meals delivered every other day, I suggest sending over enough food for 1 1/2 meals. If you double everything, and some of the family members don’t like it (hey, it happens), that’s a lot of food to deal with when dinner is done. And maybe they also have meals from neighbors or church friends or work buddies. Sometimes the food can be overwhelming and there just isn’t room to store it all if it can’t be eaten the day it’s delivered. So I suggest sending over just enough for that one meal, or a bit extra for them to eat for lunch the next day. If meals are being delivered daily, stick with just enough for the one meal.
  • Don’t expect a thank you. I know, I know, that’s a tough one. I’m a stickler for what is now considered the old fashioned written thank you note, but when I was recovering from surgery, I had just enough energy and brain power to log onto email every few days. It was much easier for me to send a quick email, letting them know the meal was received and enjoyed and appreciated.  If I waited until I felt well enough to write a heartfelt note, I may have forgotten who gave which meal and would have surely missed someone.
  • Finally, let’s say you don’t love to cook. Or you don’t have time. Or you are worried the family won’t like your style of cooking. You could send a pizza with a large salad from a local restaurant. Or pick up a rotisserie chicken and a few side salads and fruit from the grocery store. Another option would be a few subs (or submarine sandwiches, grinders, hoagies, — whatever you call them!), or deli meats and cheeses with hearty rolls, a salad, some chips and fruit. Anything that would help the family — it doesn’t have to be homemade.

Do you have any suggestions or hints for delivering meals to a family in need? Please share in the comments section!