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Each year when the air turns cool, we start to crave hearty warm stews. This is  invariably one of the first ones I make of the season.  This year, I happen to have a huge bucket of olives from my first olive fermentation experiment (more on that later), so this was a natural to put in the rotation.   Tender chicken and hearty potatoes tossed with artichoke hearts and bitter olives sit in a pool of garlic lemon sauce.  This stew is at once bright and acidic, as well as hearty and nourishing. What is not to like? Many times this recipe has been a hit at our dinner table.  It is also great for lunch or as a warm meal to bring to a friend in need.  You can also make it a day ahead and reheat it when you are ready.

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We recently lost a chicken, which made me think of how fortunate we have been since our children were born not to lose any family or friends that they are close to.  This presents a challenge though, in how to teach our children of the role of death in life and of grief and how one continues on in the face of it.  But then, is that not what this season is all about?  The dying of summer and light leading us into the cool introspective winter.  The death of one season and the birth of another.

If one looks beyond what Halloween has become for many- an excuse for sugar indulgence or a chance to dress as a mass murderer or a whore, this time is an opportunity to commune with those who have passed on from life into death.    Our ancestors, our contemporaries, our friends who are no longer among the living.  The Mexican holiday of El Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is especially intriguing.   I love the imagery of the brightly decorated skulls that signify the integral part that death plays in life.  We act this out with each meal, taking the life and energy contained in plants and animals and bringing it into our bodies to fuel our own existence.

So, while looking at some pictures of celebrations of Dia de los Muertos, my son and I began to talk of death.  I told him how death was a part of life and that it need not be a scary thing.  That all that is living must one day die (like our carved pumpkins destined for the compost),but that death would fuel the beginning of new life.  He nodded and agreed, reminding me of how incredibly sane and stable children are and how grateful I am that my life is blessed with two very special little people.

Chicken Mole is a perfect dish for Dia de los Muertos.  A thick sauce, rich with chiles, nuts, and the signature chocolate, bathes chicken as it slowly cooks and absorbs the luscious flavors.  This is a special meal, requiring a bit of time to prepare the sauce.  Feel free to make it ahead and keep in the refrigerator or freeze.  It is worth every step to create this incredible sauce.  Serve Chicken Mole with simple rice.

Note: The mole is also excellent with turkey.  Try it as an unexpected gravy on Thanksgiving.  Enjoy!

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There is something magical about a recipe that can turn the simplest ingredients into something remarkable.  A recipe that causes one to dig through the dish looking for the secret ingredient, the one that turns an otherwise plain looking pile of beans and greens into something worth looking forward to.  This is such a recipe.  A deceptively simple list of parts come together into a whole that is bursting with flavor, texture, and depth.  If you pay any heed to the opinions of my son (and you should because eating is his favorite pastime- lucky for me), you should know that he likes this dish “to infinity!”

My husband brought this recipe home.  It was a rare valuable fruit from his long hours spent on the road, commuting and listening to the radio.  All Things Considered on NPR ran a series on how to feed a family for under $10.   This dish may look like college potluck fare (at least if you went to school in Oregon like I did), but the tastes are elevated well beyond.  Playing a lead role are the garlic cloves which are browned in ample olive oil, then mashed with bread fried in the same garlicky oil.  The toasted bread, sweet rich garlic, along with notes of saffron and cumin turn this simple dish into one worth planning a meal around.  The recipe below is modified from the original in a couple of ways.  Most notably, I subbed in kale for the recommended spinach.  Kale holds up well if you choose to make this a bit in advance, it is also more available this time of year. I have made it with spinach as well though and it is delicious.  The bean cooking method is simplified a bit and salt measurements are added.  This dish is a one-pot wonder that necessitates no sides, but do not forget a nice glass of wine to wash it down.

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We only grew one tomatillo plant in our garden this summer.  Based on our past success with these, I did not expect that we would harvest very many fruits.  So I was dumbstruck the other day when I went to harvest.  We had so many tomatillos that I had to rally the kids to hand over their sand buckets so we could fill them with fruit.  We harvested over 4 gallons of tomatillos from one plant!

Tomatillos are a funny fruit.  The firm green fruit is encased in a papery husk that is removed before cooking.  The fruit itself is sticky to the touch, though this substance washes off easily.  Though they are sometimes confused with green tomatoes, tomatillos are actually from a different plant family.  Tomatillos are best known for their role in green salsa.  One of our favorite preparations with tomatillos is to make Grilled Tomatillo Salsa, the other is this stew.

Chicken Chile Verde with Hominy is a perfect way to celebrate the tomatillo.  Cook them up with peppers, onions, and cilantro ,then braise the browned chicken and hominy in this tangy sauce.  The stew is warm and nourishing, yet the flavors are light from the tart  tomatillos.   Do not forget a squeeze of lime over the top at the last minute for a bright, acidic note.  This stew can stand alone, but serve with a simple slaw and some warm tortillas for a complete meal.

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Our country is awash with cheap fast food options.  As companies increasingly market these inexpensive, yet low quality foods to us in the drive-through and the supermarket the questions arise: Are fast food and prepared foods the only option for families on a budget?  Can nutritious and delicious foods also be economical?  For our family, we make almost all of our food from scratch, yet still adhere to a strict food budget.  Absolutely, YES, nutritious and delicious foods can be economical!  September 17, 2011, Slow Food USA is hosting a $5 Challenge.  They seek to counter-act the myth that slow food has to cost more than fast food.  The challenge calls upon us to serve a meal to our friends and/or family for less than $5 per person.

Truly, $5 per person is quite generous.  At this cost, a meal can be more than just a way to feed our hunger, it can be special.  Back in May, my Sausage and Kale Dinner Tart won Best Dirt Cheap Dinner on a food52 contest. This tart, though inexpensive to prepare, is suitable to serve for a dinner party.  For $5 per person, you can afford the tart, a salad, and a bottle of wine!  Most of the meals I serve my family come in at about half that price- closer to $10 for our family of 4.  In fact, the more of the preparation I take on myself, the lower the cost.  The base ingredients for bread, sausage, and soups are very low.  We also have a productive garden which helps to cut the costs of our produce.  Preserving the bounty of the seasons is a great way to ensure low cost, high quality food throughout the year.

Cannellini Beans with Tomatoes and Greens is a perfect late summer stew.  It is for those days when tomatoes are still abundant, but the air slightly hints of fall.  The flavors are rich without being too bold and the light color of the beans makes the dish seem light enough for even a hot night.  It is a perfect example of a delicious meal that does not cost much nor take exorbitant amounts of time to prepare.  In fact, the total cost of this meal is less than $10 total, or even less if you have garden tomatoes and cook with dried beans instead of canned ones.  This meal came together on a Thursday night, when the cupboard was nearly bare and the young natives of the household were restless and hungry.   Taking stock of the pantry, I found two cans of cannellini beans.  Heading out to the garden, I collected a pile of tomatoes and a handful of basil.  These humble ingredients cooked up with a small amount of sausage for flavor and protein made for a tasty dish.  The little man gave his seal of approval stating that it was “very, very good.” For an extra treat, bake up a loaf of Weeknight No-Knead Bread to serve on the side.   Nutritious, delicious, homemade food does not have to be expensive.

What will you make for the September 17th, $5 Slow Food Challenge?

Other My Pantry Shelf meals for under $5 per person:

Soups and Chili

Big Beef Chili, Chicken Tortilla Soup, Mexican Pozole Rojo, Split Pea Soup with Ham and Beer Bread, Vietnamese Hue Noodle Soup

Pasta, Pizza, and Tarts

Perciatelli and Meatballs, Green and Brown Spaghetti with Basil Pesto, Roasted Asparagus Pizza, Sausage and Kale Dinner Tart

Poultry and Meat Dishes

Chicken Satay, Biscuit-topped Chicken Pot Pie, Corned Beef, Divine Indian Butter Chicken, Fresh Ground Bacon Burgers with Homemade Bun, Huevos Diablos con Chorizo, Lamb Kebabs with Greek Salad, Roasted Garlic Lemon Chicken, Sesame Ginger Meatballs, Southwestern Chicken Burger, Swedish Meatballs (Kottbullar), Thai Lettuce Wraps, World’s Easiest Carnitas with Grilled Tomatillo Salsa

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This is no ordinary burger, in fact, it is quite possibly the best burger I have ever had.  I know, it is a bold statement, but one spoken from the stomach heart.  We make burgers once a month or so, usually as an easy dinner.  That is how this meal began, as an answer to what to make for dinner that would be easy, popular, and satisfying.  That was all well and good, until I got it in my head that I could make everything from scratch. Oh, and add bacon to the beef.  Whoa.

After we picked up a meat grinder attachment for our Kitchenaide, we discovered the magic of burgers made with freshly ground meat.  This burger includes not only beef chuck roast, but also a very special not-so-secret ingredient, bacon!  This was a perfect use for some bacon ends we had from our piggy in the freezer.  Using a ration of 4 parts beef to 1 part bacon, I ground the two meats with the course grinding plate.  After lightly tossing them to mix, I loosely formed them into patties.  I pressed the meat just enough so they would hold together on the grill, but so there were still some small air spaces between the meat pieces.  This gives a place for the juices and fat to collect (did I mention this is not a low-fat meal).  Grilled over medium high and plopped on a fresh toasted bun, these burgers taste amazing.  The bacon flavor is strong enough to make itself known, without being overpowering.  The best part is that unlike a burger topped with slices of bacon, the bacon does not slide out of the bun as you try to bite through it.  The flavors of the beef and bacon are perfectly blended.  And then there is the bun…

This recipe came from King Arthur Bread.  They were so good that my son declared, “Mom, these are CRAZY.  I never want to buy buns again.” (I love that my kids love to eat!)  The recipe uses an egg and some butter, so the buns are very tender and hold together well under the pressure of the burger and condiments.  They browned up beautifully and some extra butter brushed over the top yields a very tender top, making it easy to bite into the burger.   They came together very quickly and rose through the day.  The recipe makes 8 buns large enough for 1/4 pound burgers or bigger. This is enough for two meals for my family, so I froze half of the buns for another dinner.  You could also make the buns smaller and use them for sliders.  They would be delicious with pulled pork.  Mmmmm…  We will definitely make these again.

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Chicken Satay

August 10, 2011

Though my time frees up in the summer when my day job as a high school science teacher takes a hiatus, somehow our dinners suffer.  During the school year, time is so limited that a strict menu must be followed, the food shopping is completed on schedule, and for the most part we eat pretty well.  During the summer though, I have the luxury to let loose.  My kids and I bounce from one adventure to another and more than once we have found ourselves without a clue what to make for dinner. Or sometimes I spend the day canning and completely loose interest in preparing another meal when I am done.   (I will not embarrass myself by sharing our dinner for tonight, except to say that it included refried beans, tortillas, and cheese and not much else- but beans are a vegetable right?)  So you can see why when I find a recipe that is easy to whip up (especially in advance) and incredibly tasty, and yes, kid friendly, it quickly becomes a go-to recipe.

I first made Chicken Satay at the beginning of summer. We enjoyed it so much that it quickly fell into our program and has since graced our table a number of times.  At once bold, yet not overwhelming, this mixture of spices is a tasty accompaniment to juicy chicken thighs.  I modified the recipe to use Salt Preserved Lemons, instead of lemon grass, because I do not have a local source for the lemongrass and do have an abundance of lemons.  The authenticity may suffer, but the flavor does not. The skewers cook up super fast on the grill, which keeps the oven off and the house cool.  I usually serve this dish with a simple slaw, perhaps a mango salsa, and of course some sriracha for a spicy dip.

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