Creamy bacon bow-tie pasta with Brussels sprouts

You know what’s weird? My lack of bizarre pregnancy cravings.

Where I spent last time constantly fantasizing about Coke Slurpees, chips and spicy salsa, frosted lemonades from Chick-Fil-A and jalapeno poppers (something I rarely eat in “real” life, by the way), this pregnancy has been strangely devoid of oddball snacks.

I mean, I’m eating fish. And vegetables. And salad. With the help of my anti-nausea medication (which I’m still taking at 30 weeks), nothing feels disgusting or off-limits.

Even Brussels sprouts.

I love these leafy greens when I’m not expecting, and they’re something Spencer and I have in weekly meal rotation. But vegetables while I was pregnant with Oliver were . . . a no-go. Like, at all. I think I subsisted on processed carbs the whole nine months, favoring bagels and potato chips over anything that could be even vaguely considered healthy.

I mean, I’m not complaining. By keeping these cravings in check, I’ve only gained half the weight so far that I did with Oliver. Though I started 30 pounds heavier, so . . . I’m pretty much breaking even?

Still.

weeknightI haven’t been the best about making home-cooked meals lately, but I requested a new cookbook for Christmas and Santa obliged. The Weeknight Dinner Cookbook by Mary Younkin (of BarefeetInTheKitchen.com) is inspiring, and each of the five meals I’ve made so far have been big hits. I love that it features easy-to-find, familiar ingredients used in new ways, and it is — true to its title — all about quick, from-scratching cooking on busy nights.

That’s what we need. Desperately.

Meals are categorized according to how long you’ll need before having them ready: 15 to 25-minute meals; 30 to 45-minute meals; 5 to 10-minute prep (slow cooker meals, for example, or meals you just throw in the oven); plus quick desserts, simple sides and condiments/spices. I’ve found Younkin’s timing to be very accurate, unlike the “30 minutes to the table!” nonsense recipes that don’t account for the hour it takes you to slice, dice and prep everything. Big pet peeve.

The variety of meals is pretty awesome. There are plenty of Mexican-inspired dishes (Younkin lives in Arizona), complete with green chiles, but Italian, Asian and good ol’ American meals pop in there, too. The offerings are a good mix of seafood, pork, chicken and beef, as well as vegetarian sides and pastas. A little something for everyone.

The Bow-tie Pasta with Bacon and Brussels Sprouts is easy and awesome. You could throw in some onions and mushrooms, too, but we made this one as instructed and loved it. The caramelized Brussels sprouts — cooked down with the bacon fat — made my mouth water. The author notes that you could substitute asparagus for the sprouts, if your family favors one over the other.

Full disclosure? I used an entire pack of bacon here (about 12 strips), double what the recipe calls for. But I think this is acceptable because the leftovers were amazing and protein-packed, especially since I went ahead and boiled the entire box of pasta. So did I double this recipe? Informally, yes. But you’ll want to double it. Trust me.

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Creamy Bow-Tie Pasta with Bacon and Brussels Sprouts

Recipe from The Weeknight Dinner Cookbook by Mary Younkin

 

6 strips bacon, cut in 1/2-inch-wide strips, about 1/3 lb
1 lb Brussels sprouts, ends trimmed and halved
8 oz bow-tie pasta
1/2 cup cream (or half-and-half)
3/4 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp fresh ground black pepper
1/2 cup shredded Asiago or Parmesan cheese (optional)

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. While the water is heating, prep the bacon and Brussels sprouts. Cook the pasta until it is tender but still a bit firm, about 12 minutes.

While the pasta is cooking, warm a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the bacon and let it cook for 2 minutes, then add the Brussels sprouts. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 8-10 minutes, until the bacon is cooked through and the Brussels sprouts have browned. Transfer the bacon and Brussels sprouts to a plate. Drain the grease, leaving a teaspoon or so of grease in the skillet.

Place the skillet back over medium-high heat. Scoop 1/2 cup of pasta water out of the boiling pasta pot and carefully pour into the hot skillet. Use a flat spatula to scrape up the brown bits and deglaze the pan. Add the cream, salt and pepper to the skillet and stir to combine. Lower the heat to medium and let the sauce simmer for 1-2 minutes, until it thickens slightly. If the pasta hasn’t finished cooking yet, move the sauce off the heat until the pasta finishes.

Drain pasta well and add it to the skillet with the sauce, stirring to coat well. Add the Brussels sprouts and bacon to the skillet with pasta and stir to combine. Taste and adjust salt, if needed. Sprinkle with cheese before serving, if desired. Enjoy!

 

 

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Quick shepherd’s pie-inspired casserole

Shepherds pie

The week of my son’s surgery, my mother- and father-in-law arrived to help — and they brought food.

Lots of food.

You don’t realize what a task it is just feeding yourself until the last thing you want to do is feed yourself. Whether you’re exhausted (physically, emotionally . . . er, both), bored in the kitchen or just don’t feel like scrounging up dinner for the 1,676th time, having someone cook for you? At your own house? Amazing. And very appreciated.

Because I lived at home until marrying at 28, I completely took the reliable dinner-on-the-table-at-6:30 schedule for granted. I grew up spoiled by my dad’s reliable meals, and never had to worry about much prep beyond helping to set the table and clear afterward.

As I got older, I started pitching in during family mealtimes — but my parents usually handled the menu. It wasn’t until I met Spencer that I began seriously researching recipes and cooking . . . and it really took us moving in together before reality smacked me in the face. With a spatula.

My mother-in-law is a wonderful cook used to feeding a crowd. In the wonderful Johnson family, meals are frequently shared at their house on the hill — and this recipe was one Alex prepared for us during our holiday visit a few months back.

This version prepares a 9×13 casserole-worth of a quick shepherd’s pie (lots of delicious leftovers for two people), but you could easily double it for get-togethers. I tinkered just a bit with Alex’s original, but this recipe is hers.

It’s comforting, quick and easy to prepare . . . likely with ingredients you have on hand. Practically in a weekly rotation at our house. It really tastes homemade, you know?

And that’s a great thing.

Could you substitute homemade mashed potatoes for instant? Sure. But, as my mother-in-law asserts, it’s best to use the canned varieties of veggies. Fresh actually isn’t best here; you want that soft, melt-in-your-mouth texture. I’ve separately added corn and peas to this recipe, but found we like the green beans/carrot combo best.

But, you know . . . do what feels right. My mother-in-law uses frozen peas and carrots — also awesome. So improvise! Be bold! . . . Make dinner!

Let me know when it’s ready.


Shepherds pie


Quick Shepherd’s Pie Casserole

Ingredients:
1 lb. ground beef (I use 93/7 mixture)
4 oz. or more package of instant mashed potatoes
1 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp soy sauce
1 tbsp black pepper
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp onion powder
1 tsp oregano
1 can (14.5 oz) sliced carrots
2 cans (14.5 oz) green beans
1 can (10.5 oz) cream of celery soup
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
Paprika, to taste

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350F. In a medium saucepan, set water to boil for instant mashed potatoes. Prepare potatoes according to package directions. When ready, set aside in a warm place.

In the meantime, add olive oil to nonstick skillet and brown the ground beef over medium-high heat. As beef cooks, add the Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, black pepper, salt, garlic powder, onion powder and oregano. Drain the meat and spread it evenly in the bottom of a 9×13 casserole dish.

Drain the green beans and carrots, then combine vegetables in a separate bowl. Add the cream of celery soup to veggies and stir to combine. Distribute this mixture evenly atop the ground beef, then spread the prepared mashed potatoes as the top layer. Sprinkle with cheddar cheese, then dust with paprika.

Bake in a 350F oven for 30 minutes, until hot and cheese has melted. Cool a few minutes before cutting to allow casserole to thicken. Serve with biscuits or cornbread, and enjoy!


Shepherds pie

For the “wow” factor, use a cookie scoop to place mashed potatoes
on top before baking — Alex’s idea. Cute, eh?


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


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


Warm, comforting chicken chili

Chicken chili

I’m already reaching the lazy part of my pregnancy.

Everyone says the second trimester is the best! thing! ever! because, for most women, the nausea has abated (true) and you find yourself with a burst of energy (somewhat true). After the exhausted slog that was the first few months, I came into the new year determined to stop putting off necessary chores and focus on helping get the house in order.

But cleaning is just part of it, of course. Though we still have months before the baby comes, I’m already focused on making meal prep easier and less time-consuming. I’m crazy about our slow cooker and have taken advantage of the winter months to try lots of soups, stews and hearty meals . . . some I hope to make again and freeze before Baby J’s arrival.

Based on this recipe, this slow cooker chicken chili has a hint of heat . . . but is mostly a giant bowl o’ comfort. I’m a cheese fanatic, so the addition of shredded cheddar at the end really clinches it. I used chicken breast tenderloins instead of the breast themselves, and they worked beautifully! Even after cooking for eight hours, the meat was tender and the flavors thick and varied.

It has a bit of the feel of a Mexican enchilada — but it’s not spicy (unless you want it to be — add more red pepper flakes), and it’s definitely filling. Like all my favorite slow cooker recipes, we now have a ton for lunches!

Having lunch ready to go is awesome, too. Less effort. More convenient. Grab and go.

Awesome for tired pregnant ladies and hungry adults alike.


Chicken chili


Slow Cooker Chicken Chili

Ingredients:
1 can of black beans (drained & rinsed)
1 can of corn (drained)
2 cans of Rotel tomatoes with chiles (not drained)
1 package of Hidden Valley Ranch Seasoning mix (dry)
1 teaspoon cumin
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 tablespoon paprika
1 teaspoon onion powder
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
1 8oz package of cream cheese
2 chicken breasts
1 cup of chicken stock
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese (optional)

Directions:
In a slow cooker, combine black beans, corn, Rotel tomatoes, ranch mix, cumin, chili powder, paprika, onion powder, red pepper flakes, minced garlic, ground black pepper, garlic powder, chopped onion and chicken stock.

Cut chicken breasts in half and add to the mixture. Spoon cream cheese over the chicken and cover with a lid. Cook on low heat 5-7 hours, or until your chicken breasts shred easily with a fork.

When chicken is done, remove from the slow cooker and shred with 2 forks. Return to the chili mixture and stir well until all cream cheese lumps have dissolved. Top with cheddar cheese, serve and enjoy!

Recipe slightly adapted from The Best Blog Recipes