Weighty issues (oh, and slow cooker thyme pork roast)

Pork

I think I set a record on Sunday.

The very first person — ever, in the history of kitchens — to call out, “Oh, don’t even TELL me we’re out of caraway seed.”

Because … who uses caraway seed? And who uses caraway seed so often that they actually fear running out of it?

(Well, my delightful grandmother, who made the Polish-inspired dishes from her own youth that I devoured in mine. But, you know.)

Never fear: our jar of caraway seed was more than halfway full, so I could stifle the panic building in my chest as I prepared this slow cooker meal for Monday. That’s right, friends: I officially got my act together and prepared a meal a day in advance, refrigerated it and pulled it out Monday morning to simmer for that evening’s dinner. (Just let the crock warm up to room temperature first, of course.)

And it was delicious.

Like, oh, much of the adult population, January finds me thinking about goals and priorities and all that adult-ish stuff. Now that I’m also a mother, a working mother and an often stressed working mother, I really want to get back to writing out a serious meal plan on weekends, sticking to it, grocery shopping on Sunday and placing an emphasis on healthy eats.

Despite my hesitancy in my last post, I went ahead and jumped back into Weight Watchers (affiliate link). It’s been three years since I nervously attended my first meeting and two since I hit my goal weight, dropping 35 pounds, but I’m now — post-Oliver — heavier than I was when I started in 2013.

I just wasn’t sure I was ready for that level of commitment. Last summer, when I was an exhausted new parent who had just returned to work, I got it into my head that I needed to get “me” back. Now. If I let myself slack off with my eating, I thought, I’ll never lose the weight again. I’ll roll right back into old habits. That will be the end of the person I used to know.

Well, I was right — and wrong.

I’m not my pre-baby self again, of course. Everything that happened in 2015 — the beautiful, the scary, the overwhelming, the miraculous — changed me forever. Becoming a parent changes you forever . . . and I’m extremely grateful for that! I mean, it should.

But I did go back to old habits. It’s tough to come out of a pregnancy — unexpectedly early, too — and go right back to tracking every single thing you put in your mouth: something I was not in the habit of doing. Like, at all. For the last few weeks of my pregnancy, I pretty much lived off Chick-Fil-A’s frozen lemonade milkshakes.

When Oliver remained in the hospital for a month, Spencer and I ate whatever was quick and convenient. This translated to many lackluster cafeteria meals a few floors down from his NICU, as well as Wendy’s and Chick-Fil-A runs at odd hours driving back from Baltimore.

When he finally came home, it was just about stuffing something in your face between feedings, and diapers, and screeching.

Prepping enough to prepare healthy, quick meals with a newborn in the house? It just didn’t happen. I had grand ambitions of getting freezer meals ready before the baby came, trying to make our lives a little easier, but . . . well. That obviously didn’t happen.

After I went back to work in mid-June, I thought: it’s time. I now have nine uninterrupted hours in which I can focus on my job and control what I’m eating at ye ol’ desk.

That didn’t happen, either.

I was tired. And sick. Our company was sold over the summer and everyone’s duties changed quickly. Many of my friends were laid off, and I was staring down an extreme amount of change in a short time. It was the final straw in a very stressful season.

Quite honestly, I was depressed.

Though I haven’t discussed it publicly, I’ve been struggling with PTSD and postpartum anxiety since last spring — and there are times it was all I could do to get through the day. I finally sought help in the fall and feel about 1,879,986 times better than I did in October. The pressing weight of worry has lifted.

Through all that? I wasn’t obsessing about eating pumpkin pie, I can assure you.

pie

But I’m out of excuses now.

Oliver has been sleeping through the night — with the occasional hiccup, of course — for months . . . which means Spencer and I have, too. That early haze of dead exhaustion, which clouded absolutely everything, is gone.

Work has settled down. I’m happy and excited with my new responsibilities, and enjoying the new challenges. I’m still writing my column, but also working on projects and articles about different, interesting things. It’s really . . . fun. I miss my friends, of course, but we’ve kept in touch through the holidays.

The holidays are over. They were beautiful, but there’s something refreshing about vacuuming up all that rogue tinsel. It was sad hauling out the Christmas tree, but let’s be honest: the holidays have their own pressures that can’t be denied. Choosing perfect gifts, paying for said gifts, trying to see family and friends in a short time, traveling. It’s . . . a lot.

But January is bare. January is clean. January is scrubbed fresh, a calendar waiting to be filled with whatever we choose, and I’m ready again.

So I’m choosing my health.

It’s been a whole four days since I got back on track with Weight Watchers, so the aroma of my enthusiasm is still quite strong, I know! But honestly, there’s comfort in getting back to a familiar program that helped me so much before. It taught me to control my eating — and gave me such confidence — for the first time in my adult life.

Weight Watchers has been revamped for 2016, and I love the changes. LOVE. (They are not paying me to say this, by the way; my subscription is paid for by yours truly, along with generous affiliate referrals.) With their new “Beyond the Scale” approach, there’s a much greater emphasis on physical activity — not just your pants size. Obviously we’re all joining Weight Watchers to learn healthier habits and drop pounds, but everything begins and ends with overall health.

They’ve revamped how points for foods and drinks are calculated, and the new method makes much more sense. Under the old system, fats were fats; it didn’t matter if they were saturated, “bad” fats or good, healthy fats, ones we need and should eat. For example, a tablespoon of olive oil and tablespoon of butter could have the same points value. So what’s the incentive to go with the healthier option?

Many things haven’t changed, thankfully: fresh fruits and vegetables are still zero points, so you can — and should! — eat as much as you want. That was my saving grace the first go ’round. If I’d overindulged earlier in the day and was out of points for that after-dinner snack, I could always reach for a clementine and not feel deprived. There was always something to eat — as long as I’d made the effort to stock up on healthy food for the house. (But that’s another post.)

The first time I joined WW, I wanted to feel better: physically, mentally, emotionally. And I absolutely did. But I’ve come back to WW because I want to get my blood pressure down, return to a much healthier relationship with food and start showing my son — right now — that how we treat our bodies matters. And I know WW works.

So: there it is. My current weighty issues. It feels good to just . . . get all that out.

And I swear, this started out as a recipe post!

So, um, did you want to talk about pork tenderloin? Sure. Okay. Let’s do this.

This recipe is a WW recipe, actually: from the Weight Watchers New Complete Cookbook, which is ringbound and glossy and pretty. Some of the recipes I’ve made from it have been hits, others misses, but this one? Definite hit.

If you don’t like sauerkraut, you won’t like this. But if you do? You will. So much that you’ll want to make it again immediately. The apples lend a delicious sweetness to the dish, while the sauerkraut, caraway seed and onion — which mellows through slow cooking — give it punch.

It’s the perfect blend of sweet/sour. Dig in!

Pork

Slow cooker pork roast
with sauerkraut and apples

Ingredients:
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 (1 1/2-pound) boneless pork loin roast, trimmed of fat
2 teaspoons canola oil
1 (2-pound) package of sauerkraut, rinsed and drained
1 large red or white onion, sliced
1 McIntosh or Cortland apple, peeled, cored and diced
2 teaspoons caraway seeds
1/2 cup dry white wine
Chopped fresh parsley

1. Sprinkle thyme, pepper and salt over pork. Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add pork and cook until browned on all sides, about 6 minutes.

2. Combine sauerkraut, onion, apple and caraway seeds in 5- or 6-quart slow cooker. Place pork on top of vegetables; pour wine over. Cover and cook until pork and vegetables are fork-tender, about 4-5 hours on high or 8-10 hours on low.

3. Transfer pork to platter and cut into 6 slices. Spoon sauerkraut mixture around pork and sprinkle with parsley. Serves 6.


Creamy chicken and wild rice soup in the slow cooker

Creamy chicken soup

There aren’t too many slow cooker recipes we eat every. drop. of.

Every Crock Pot meal produces leftovers — especially for just two people (and a toothless infant who has just started eyeing “real food”). But more often than not, we get tired of the food before the food tires of us.

Or something like that.

But this? On the night we came home to that lovely aroma filling the house, it fed us both with seconds — plus a guest. We still had five (!) huge servings left over, so we packaged them up for a lunch (mine) and two more dinners (for both of us). In a given week, we ate this soup three separate times . . . and still weren’t sick of it.

That’s how delicious it was.

My husband is always appreciative of my slow cooker creations, but never have I heard him go so crazy over dinner. The only way it would have been better was if it were actually not 95 degrees outside . . . because, yeah.

This is warm, comforting, tasty soup that really sticks to your ribs and will be perfect for the chilly fall days to come. Serve with a little shaved Parmesan cheese and a hunk of bread to officially enter slow cooker heaven.


Creamy Chicken and Wild Rice Soup

1 cup uncooked wild rice
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast
1 cup onions, chopped
1 cup celery, chopped
1 cup carrots, chopped
4-5 cloves garlic, minced
2 bay leaves
6 cups low sodium chicken broth
2 cups water
2 tablespoons salt-free poultry seasoning
3 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil (or substitute more butter)
1/2 cup all purpose flour
2 cups milk
Salt and pepper to taste

Rinse wild rice under running water. Place the uncooked rice, chicken breast, onions, celery, carrots, garlic, bay leaves, chicken broth, water and poultry seasoning in a slow cooker. Cover and cook on the high setting for 3-4 hours or on the low setting for 7-8.

In the last half hour of cooking, remove the chicken from the slow cooker. Allow to cool slightly before shredding using two forks, then add back into the slow cooker. Melt butter and oil in a saucepan. Add the flour and let the mixture cook for 1 minute. Whisk the mixture slowly while adding in the milk. Continue to whisk until all lumps have dissolved. Allow the mixture to thicken and become creamy.

Add this creamy mixture to the slow cooker and stir to combine. Add additional water or milk to your preference if the consistency is too thick. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serves 6-8.

When reheating leftovers, add 1-2 tablespoons additional milk or water before heating. Enjoy!

Recipe from Little Spice Jar


Light Beef & Mushroom Stroganoff and meal planning

beef stroganoff

Before Oliver was born, I envisioned a lot of macaroni and cheese.

You hear stories of exhausted new parents who would survive on nothing but frozen pizza, TV dinners and the kindness of strangers (and their casseroles) for weeks. Maybe months.

When Ollie first came home, we were definitely two members of the Zombie Parents Club, and I couldn’t honestly tell you what we ate back then. I remember my parents coming by that first night with a huge family feast from Boston Market. We ate what we could (not much, given I was anxiously staring at our itty bitty baby the entire time), and reheated the leftovers for a week.

It took a little while, but we gradually got back in the kitchen. Spence and I love to cook. Before my maternity leave was up, I would look forward to Spence coming home daily for a thousand reasons . . . but especially so I could get started on dinner. It was a major stress reliever to do something “normal” after caring for an infant all day, and babying a skillet was a delicious taste of the old life.

I’ve now been back at work longer than I was out following Ollie’s birth, and I can’t pretend that being a working parent isn’t hard . . . but it’s a challenge we’re figuring out day by day, week by week. (On rough days, maybe moment by moment.) Another way life has changed?

Meal planning.

I doubted the wondrous powers of planning dinners in advance, friends. It was once a delightful challenge to come home, throw down my purse, kick off my heels and pour through the contents of our fridge and pantry until inspiration struck. If our brilliant plan took two hours to make, involving a fair amount of stirring and baking and hovering over the stove, that was A-OK. Put on a little Ingrid Michaelson, pull back your hair and get started.

Needless to say, we no longer have the time — or, more importantly, the energy — for anything complicated. I still look forward to our homemade meals, but our few precious hours as a family on weeknights are better spent out of the kitchen. I like knowing what I’m going to make ahead of time, which means we can get back and just get started.

Also? Budgeting. Babies are expensive, y’all. I knew this, I guess, but was naive to how costly the newest member of our crew would be. While we still stroll through the grocery store and grab little odds and ends when the mood strikes, I’m a pretty regimented listmaker. Meal planning goes a long way toward helping us keep our food costs low — and prevents too much food spoilage.

list

So what do I do? Nothing fancy. Maybe you even do something fancier. On Sunday afternoons, before shopping, I sit down and draft a list of dinners for the week. I don’t always follow the strict schedule (meatloaf on Monday, tacos on Tuesday), but the mix-and-match nature of the week is still okay. As long as the ingredients are on hand, we can play a little fast and loose with the timing.

Once I have an idea of what we’re making for the week, I head to the kitchen to see what we already have on hand — especially fresh ingredients — to avoid buying anything unnecessary. This is also a good way to see what we need to use up (like lettuce, a bag of carrots, some leftover grilled chicken) and amend my plan slightly to incorporate these things, as needed.

In my unscientific estimation, we save about $15 a week — $60 a month — by sticking (mostly) to my list, avoiding costly ingredients we’ll only use once and paying more attention to pantry staples we already have (the three bottles of Frank’s RedHot, for example).

We typically go out to dinner one night a week, which is a treat — and good motivation to cook at home the other evenings. Though honestly? By the time Spence and I get back with the little guy, the last thing I want to do is gather up all of our accoutrements and head back out. We don’t exactly travel light these days!

Funny how, when I was home on leave, I was desperate to get out of the house. And now that I’m gone nine hours a day, I can’t wait to come back.

So when we’re scouring the Internet and cookbooks to draft our meal plan for the week, I’m looking for quick, easy, filling and healthy-ish meals that will make enough for work lunches the next day. And if it doesn’t involve dirtying every dish in my house? Even better.

Enter this Beef & Mushroom Stroganoff, a tasty and lighter version of the creamy, heavy meal we all remember from childhood. We’re obsessed with mushrooms at the Johnson household, so we actually doubled the amount the recipe calls for. Just, you know . . . do what feels right.

And the best part? The leftovers were ri-dic-u-lous. Woo!


Light Beef & Mushroom Stroganoff

Ingredients:
2 tbsp butter
1 tbsp minced garlic
1 lb. ground beef
8 oz. fresh mushrooms, sliced
2 tbsp all-purpose flour
2 cups beef broth
1 package wide egg noodles
1/2 cup sour cream
1 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped (optional)

Instructions:

Add garlic and butter to a large pot or skillet and sauté for one to two minutes over medium heat, or until the garlic is fragrant. Add the ground beef and continue to sauté until it is fully browned.

Once the beef has browned, add mushrooms and continue to sauté until they are soft. Add flour and sauté for about two minutes more.

Add beef broth to the pot and stir to dissolve the flour. Add the uncooked egg noodles. Place a lid on the pot and allow the liquid to come up to a boil. As soon as it reaches a boil, reduce heat to low and allow the pot to simmer for about 10 minutes, or until the noodles are soft and most of the liquid has been absorbed (keep covered while simmering). Stir every few minutes to prevent noodles from sticking to the bottom of the pot. Make sure the liquid is simmering the entire time. If not, increase the heat slightly.

Once the noodles are tender, stir in the sour cream. Sprinkle with fresh parsley (optional), serve hot and enjoy!

Recipe adapted slightly from Budget Bytes


Grilled corn and tomatoes with a honey lime dressing

Roasted corn

Come Saturday morning, you’d be hard-pressed to find me somewhere other than the farmers’ market.

Given we have a stroller and adorably demanding human in tow these days, those trips have to be a bit more planned out . . . but since Oliver has been cleared for public strolls, we try to pack the little guy up and head out.

We were housebound for a while there — and the last time I made it to our local market, we had a choice of zucchini, squash and a few paltry peppers. This past weekend? Well, friends, it was a veritable smorgasbord . . . and I went hog wild.

Cherry tomatoes.
Watermelon.
Cantaloupe.
Blueberries.
Tomatoes so fat, you want to bite right in.

And after picking up half a dozen ears of corn for our little Fourth of July barbeque at home, I remembered a simple corn and tomato side dish I whipped up a few times last year. Like this cucumber and onion salad, this dish is light and fresh and comes together in no time flat.

Especially valuable when the little person inside the aforementioned stroller has a meltdown.

The original recipe calls for the addition of avocado, but I didn’t have any on hand — so I skipped it. It’s delicious without, so I’m imagining it’s even better with!


Grilled Corn and Tomatoes
with a Honey Lime Dressing

Ingredients:
1 pint grape tomatoes
4 ears of fresh sweet corn
2 tbsp chopped fresh cilantro, or 1 tbsp dried cilantro

For the dressing:
Juice of 1 lime
4 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp honey
Salt and pepper, to taste

Directions:
Remove husks from corn and grill over medium heat for 10 minutes. (The corn should have some brown spots and be tender, but not mushy.) Cut the corn off the cob and remove silks. Set aside to cool. Slice tomatoes in half.

To make the dressing, add all the dressing ingredients in a small bowl and whisk to combine. Set aside.

Combine the sliced tomatoes, cilantro and grilled corn with the honey lime dressing and mix gently until evenly coasted. Chill the dish for at least 30 minutes before serving. Enjoy!

Recipe adapted from Epicurious


Tomato basil chicken stew

Chicken stew

I try not to be too hard on Old Me.

You know, pre-baby me — the person who found rising at 6:30 a.m. painful, and considered anything less than seven hours of sleep to be a death sentence. The woman who could barely drag herself out of bed to smooch her husband goodbye at 7, and would chain-drink coffee in the mornings, “lighting” the next mug from the previous cup.

Now that we have a feisty newborn in our house, my previous experiences of “being tired” are sort of . . . funny. In that “Man, I was just so innocent” sort of way. Sleep deprivation will do funny things to you, and we’ve only been at this a month.

But this was my first week back at work, and I wanted to make life as easy for us as possible. Just sorting out our new schedules — two full-time work schedules, plus our day care planning — was a task, so I tried to make sure we’d be reasonably well-fed during the transition.

So I’m back to the slow cooker, my dear friend. I remember when getting a meal in the Crock Pot had me feeling like Superwoman, and I walked around all day anticipating the dinner I got ready before work. Yesterday I did all that, plus ten thousand other little tasks — and with a cranky, adorable baby on my hip.

At almost 10 weeks old, Ollie is already getting used to the aroma of garlic. Gotta teach that kid early.

This Tomato Basil Chicken Stew might not scream “summertime,” but it’s hearty in all the right ways — and generated leftovers for lunches, our saving grace. It’s not heavy or dense . . . in fact, for a stew, it’s remarkably light. The Parmesan cheese adds a nice saltiness and punch.

And honestly? As it was ready when we walked in the door with the aforementioned cranky infant after a very long day, it probably could have tasted like sun-baked seaweed and I would have still licked the bowl.

But it really is good. Trust the sleep-deprived.


Chicken stew

Tomato Basil Chicken Stew

Ingredients:
1 tbsp olive oil
1 white onion, chopped
2 carrots, peeled and diced
4 stalks of celery, diced
2 tbsp minced garlic
2 (28 oz) cans whole tomatoes (with their juices)
1 (14 oz) can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
1 lb chicken breasts or tenderloins
2 handfuls baby spinach
1/4 cup roughly chopped fresh basil
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
Parmesan cheese (to taste)

Directions:
In a medium skillet, saute onions, carrots and celery in olive oil, stirring occasionally, until onions are soft and translucent, about 7 minutes. Add garlic and saute for additional minute, then put aside.

In a slow cooker, pour in and crush tomatoes. Layer chicken over tomatoes and add remaining ingredients, except cheese. Stir gently to combine and cover chicken. Cook on high for 3-4 hours or low for 6-8 hours. Before serving, remove chicken and shred with two forks, then add chicken back to stew. Serve with Parmesan cheese and enjoy!

Recipe lightly adapted for the slow cooker from Gimme Some Oven


Chicken stew


Quick Buffalo chicken tacos

Buffalo chicken tacos


I’ve had exactly zero cravings for sweets during this pregnancy . . . but Buffalo wing sauce?

Forget about it.

Baby J is all about the spicy, savory, salty and hot. Though I won’t typically turn down a dessert, I’m much more likely to lose myself in a bag of chips than a slice of cake. And if those chips are flavored with jalapenos? Well.

My husband hails from the Buffalo area, so I guess we’re predisposed to love the food of his native land. But even before he’d convinced me to really embrace all things wing sauce, I was a fan. And these days? If we’re not making this chili, I’m adding Frank’s RedHot to sour cream and mayo to make our own quick dip.

I think I have a problem.

A good friend shared this recipe for Buffalo chicken tacos with me on Monday and, by Wednesday, I was tossing on the RedHot and salivating over the stove.

The best part about this dinner? It’s quick, painless and uses ingredients you probably have on hand. The tacos come together in 20 minutes or so, leaving you to devour them blindly and get back to the rest of your evening.

After you’ve happily stuffed your face, of course.

You’ll know what I mean.


Buffalo chicken tacos

Buffalo chicken tacos

Buffalo chicken tacos


Quick Buffalo chicken tacos

Ingredients:
1-1/2 lb. boneless skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1/2-inch-wide strips
3 tbsp Buffalo wing sauce
12 flour tortillas (6 inch), warmed
1/2 cup Kraft Classic Ranch Dressing
2 stalks celery, thinly sliced
1/2 cup crumbled bleu cheese

Directions:
Heat large heavy skillet sprayed with cooking spray on medium-high heat. Add chicken; cook 4 minutes or until done, stirring frequently. Stir in wing sauce; cook 2 minutes or until heated through, stirring frequently. Spread tortillas with dressing; top with chicken mixture, celery and bleu cheese. Drizzle on additional dressing and wing sauce, if desired. Makes six servings of two tacos each. Enjoy!

Recipe from Kraft Foods


Buffalo chicken tacos


White bean chile chicken verde soup in the slow cooker

Soup

Though I hear rumblings about spring being “just around the corner,” it’s still mighty cold in our corner of the universe . . . making soup pretty much a staple around here.

I’ve extolled the virtues of my slow cooker often (too often?) lately, but it really is one of my favorite things. I love knowing dinner is already taken care of when I leave for work at 8 a.m. Makes me feel like a rock star wife/cook/human. And I have a hunch my love affair with the slow cooker will only intensify after Baby J’s arrival.

While browsing for good slow cooker recipes, I’ve been struck by how many require cooking for just 4-6 hours. Given my husband and I get home about nine hours after leaving, I need a meal that will stand the test of time . . . literally.

This slow cooker white bean chile chicken verde soup cooks for eight hours and features meat so tender, it practically crumbles when you take it out of the slow cooker. The cumin gives it a nice punch, and the heat from the jalapeños and chiles is warm without burning you up. I like spicy, but not too spicy. And this isn’t too spicy.

It has everything I look for in a good weeknight meal, basically: tasty, filling, relatively healthy, makes a lot. Because what’s a soup recipe without leftovers? Disappointing, that’s what.

A great dish simply must be enjoyed again the next day. Pretty sure it’s in the Constitution.


Soup


Slow cooker white bean chile chicken verde soup

Ingredients:
2 pounds chicken breast, fat removed
1 small onion, chopped
2 fresh jalapeños, seeded and diced
2 teaspoons minced garlic
1 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp oregano
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp onion powder
2 cans green chiles
1 cup salsa verde
2 cans white beans, drained and rinsed
1 32 oz. container of chicken stock
2 tbsp lime juice
1 1/2 tsp seasoned salt, garlic salt or salt-based Cajun seasoning
Red pepper flakes, to taste


Place chopped onion, diced and seeded jalapeno peppers and minced garlic in the bottom of your slow cooker. Top with chicken breast and spices.

Add undrained cans of green chiles and salsa verde, followed by the cans of drained and rinsed white beans and chicken stock.

Let mixture simmer on low for 8 hours, or on high for 4 hours. Before serving, remove the chicken breast and shred, then add the shredded chicken back to the slow cooker.

Squeeze lime juice into soup and sprinkle with seasoned salt. Add red pepper flakes, if desired. Stir and let simmer an additional 20-30 minutes. Serve and enjoy!

Recipe adapted very slightly from Maebells