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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Ham and cheese quesadillas

Back from 18 holes of disc golf, and hungry.  Time for a quick lunch.  In fact, I can't believe I'm taking time to take pictures... at least I can get the writing done later...

Quesadillas used to be more of a staple in our household, until we shifted gears with the health level of what we put into our bodies.  Seeing as how cheese is somewhere around eighty percent milkfat, it's not a good idea to base an entire food item around it.  However, it is really delicious, and in moderation, like most things, it's good for you (remember, your body does need fats to be healthy, you just have to watch how much, and what kinds)

This is also here to show that a quick and easy lunch doesn't have to involve fast food or frozen anything (actually, I NEVER eat fast 'food'... I am of the mind that it should be outlawed, and not hold the right to be called food, since there are no nutrients involved)

With all of that said, lets move on to a positive thought... like delicious ham and cheese quesadillas!

Time: 15 minutes
Cost $2
Difficulty: 2

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Jambalaya! Sparks style.....

We kinda went meat crazy while shopping this week and got more than we normally eat.  To use some of it up, I think I'll make one of the family favorites and throw together a pot of jambalaya.... Of course, I'm allergic to shellfish, so it will lack shrimp or other crustaceans that people love so much.  This is a hearty, spicy melange of rice and beans with a few different meats.  Great on cold days, or to stretch a small amount of meat to feed a family (or if you're like us, and just don't like every meal to be heavy on the meats.)

A simple one pot meal that takes little effort to be outstanding.  Also, like most things we make, be creative and change it up.  Heck, I won't link the vegetarians here, because of the amount of meat and meat products in this version, but you could make an all veggie version of this as well, simply substitute the chicken stock for vegetable stock, and use heartier veggies like chunks of portabello, beets, carrots, cauliflower and turnips, chick peas and other beans; I just might have to try that.....

Cost: around $7 for the potful
Time: About an hour
Difficulty: 2

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Matzo Ball Soup. The Miracle Cure.

Whenever someone in this house gets sick, it's time for soup.  Not sure what it is about a hearty chicken soup that makes flu germs flee like a politician from the truth, but it sure seems to do the trick.  Hell, sometimes I think my kids feign illness just so I'll make soup.  To heck with an apple, a bowl of hearty stock full of chicken, veggies and matzo balls will keep the doctor away, unless, of course, you know the doctor, and they know about your soup.  Then they'll never get out of your hair...

Hot bowl of magic right here.
If you've made the stock in advance, this soup is pretty much a matter of chopping everything up and dropping it in hot stock.  But there's still a step by step after the jump.  Just hit that 'Read more' button down there...

I felt like a basic soup this time, but don't limit yourself to the ingredients I have here.  Yellow squash is wonderful, as is rice, wild rice, pasta, turnips, chard, spinach, broccoli... I could go on and on...

Time: 45 minutes to an hour
Cost: $8 for a good sized pot
Difficulty: 2

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Pork chops, squash and honey carrots

First off, hello!

My name is Taylor, and I am Shawn's daughter. As you know, my dad is a wonderful cook. Lucky for me, I got the awesome cooking gene from all sides of my family! Growing up surrounded by chefs, I was taught to cook at a very young age, and have loved working in the kitchen ever since.

For my first dish on this blog, I decided to make pork chops, honey carrots, sauteed zucchini, and garlic toast. Simple and inexpensive, yet delicious.

Total prep time: 5-10 minutes
Total cook time: About 20 minutes
Difficulty: 2
Cost: $5 for 3 portions

An inside stock tip: Make it from scratch

One of the staple ingredients in the Sparks household is chicken stock.  We make it roughly every two weeks from our scraps, and it fuels things like rice, adds a base to soups and flavors simple recipes.  When a recipe here calls for stock, this is what we use... 

Chicken stock in 8 and 16oz jars ready to jazz up simple meals
Home made stock is so much better than the factory made stuff and it takes all of fifteen minutes of attention to make (While it does simmer for 2-3 hrs, you can be doing other things, so I don't count that time).   We can keep the sodium at nearly 0, and the flavor at 11.  Yes the flavor goes to 11. Seriously, from scraps to stock in about fifteen minutes of work.

Time: 15 min (2-3 hrs to simmer, but no attention really needed)
Cost: FREE!!!! It's made from scraps
Difficulty: 1 - They should change the phrase to 'Easy as Stock"

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Quiche+Easy = Queazy? Not in this house....

Easy Quiche.  The hardest part was staging these photos!

One of our regular ways of clearing the fridge and using those odds and ends that are too much to add to the stock bag, or too good to add to the compost bin, is to make a quiche and throw it all in there.  It's the best use for a handful of this and a pinch of that.... Odd that I would choose this as my first official step by step guide...

Here's how it looked plated...

Ham and Veggie Quiche With Side Salad
And here's how we did it....  You can find the actual recipe here.

Thursday, February 16, 2012


welcome Fiddy!  Glad you found me here.  As my 10th member, you will receive a free, signed copy of the cookbook if, and when I ever get around to writing one.


Shopping tips, and the concept of "Degrees of Preparation"...

I want to thank you for reading and following this blog, and for your emails and comments.  Today was shopping day, and because I know you are out there, I shopped a little differently than usual.  I followed my own advice that I have offered so many times a little closer: Only shop the perimeter of the store.  I usually do, but this time I was extra conscious of it.

If you aren't familiar with this tidbit of wisdom, it's one way to keep your diet on a healthy track.  Nearly every grocery store is arranged so that the actual ingredients circle the edges of the store, and the packaged, processed, frozen and generally less healthful stuff is in the middle.

By shopping only the peripheral, your basket will have produce, meats, dairy and breads. I do venture into the middle to find the bulk aisle, and a few canned items (mostly tomato products), but for the most part, the less processed the food, the healthier it is for you.

I must give my dear friend Jody Gnant credit for coining the phrase "Degrees of Preparation" with me.  We were hanging out in Houston after a flash mob we were part of, and talking about stuff.  The topic of food came up, and I was telling her about my garden (in the works)... and we realized that the more times a food is processed, the worse it gets for you.

Consider fast food, and the steps it takes to become a "hamburger." I put that in quotes because if you are at all aware of the process, you know that there is a point that the meat they are serving, for the sake of sanitation, was actually sterilized in ammonia, stripping it of all germs and bacteria.  However, along with e-coli, the ammonia also washes away all color, flavor, aroma and nutrition, which is then added back in the form of dyes, perfumes, additives and texturing agents.  The same is true about the processing of the bread and cheese.  Not to mention the cheapest condiments on the market made from a base of corn syrup.

At home, the same components put together reflects far fewer degrees of preparation.  If you are conscious of what you buy, the meat will actually be  fresh ground, with all of its nutrients intact, the bread will be baked from  whole ingredients, the cheese will be simply enzyme treated milk left to age, and the condiments will be vegetable based (except ketchup, since we all know tomatoes are fruit).

Keep this in mind when you are shopping.  Approach the store as you would a Nascar track... round and round the outside, with an occasional, brief pit-stop in the middle for a few processed things (read your labels!!!)  Keeping your Degrees of Preparation to a minimum will keep the nutrients in your food, and your body will thank you for it.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Monday night: Fridge clearing night....

So, we are kind of running low on ingredients, so time to start using up whatever's left....

Grilled tofu, vegetable medley and salad

We had half of the block of tofu left, as well as some Brussells sprouts and baby carrots.  I grilled the tofu until crispy on the outside, and firm in the middle, compare to a steak done medium.  Same recipe for the veggies as the other night as well.  Parboiled the sprouts while the onions and carrots were caramelizing, and finished off together in olive oil over a medium high heat, and a pinch of battibecco.  Basic salad on the side (green leaf lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes and radishes).

Cost: FREE! (all ingredients have been accounted for previously)
Time: 25 minutes
Difficulty: 3 (the two stage cooking of the Brussels sprouts and getting the tofu to perfection bump it up)

Sunday night: Pasta again!!

Sunday is a transition day at the Sparks house, so I made something with little thought, but lots of flavor.
Rigatoni with a very veggie sauce (and a little chicken sausage)
This sauce is seriously heavy on the veggies.  Started with my basic mix of onions, garlic, celery and carrot sauteed together, then crumbled in the remaining two chicken sausages from the other night.  Added a jar of organic pasta sauce this time (cheater!) and continued to add veggies.  Zucchini, mushrooms, yellow peppers.  Served on a bed of rigatoni, topped with fresh grated romano.. MmMm.  

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Sunday night routine...

So... A 7:00 work arrival doesn't leave much time to prepare a hearty breakfast... What does one do? Enter: pre-made steel cut oats...

What I do is, prepare these wonderful individual servings of steel cut oatmeal. I buy the organic ones for about a buck a pound at my grocery store.  Simply cook with a 3:1 ratio of water to oats. I add a dash of salt and about a teaspoon of vanilla extract to the water and simmer uncovered for 30 minutes.
A work-weeks worth of healthy breakfasts for around $2
When the oats are done, I add a handful each of flax seed and sliced blanched almonds and stir together. Top each serving with a dash of cinnamon, a little brown sugar and dried fruit. These are cranberry and golden raisins. Delicious.

They keep fresh and retain flavor as well as texture for about a week in the fridge. I make five every Sunday and am good on breakfast until Friday.

Cost: Around $2 for 5 servings
Time: 40 minutes start to finish
Difficulty: 1

Sunday Morning Waffles!

Been wanting waffles for a while so I made these:

Belgian waffles with lemon curd, powdered sugar, almonds and cranberries
Waffle batter is pretty simple.  Eggs, flour, baking powder (and/or soda), milk and oil.  Flavor with a dash or two of vanilla and some cinnamon and ground ginger for that pop.  We all top them differently at my house, from Maple syrup to fresh fruits to simple powdered sugar.  I am trying to find a local place to buy Belgian pearl sugar, but it's pretty rare stuff, and I just can't see paying $5+ shipping for a 1/2lb box online.  Let me know if you have it near you and would be willing to send a box.

Cost: $6 including 1/2lb bacon
Time: 30 minutes or so, with constant waffle making
Difficulty: 3

Snack Saturday

No images.  We just sort of grazed.  Probably wont add these kinds of entries after this, but I realized that in my excitement to start this blog, I had documented a full week of meals.  It might slow down a bit, or maybe not... But definitely check out tomorrow's waffles.

Friday: Chicken/Spinach/Feta Sausage Sandwiches with Hush Puppies and Green Beans

Fridays we let the health level dip a bit, often it's a night for pizza or burgers or something, and it's the only night we can watch a movie or play video games during dinner, pizza party night, if you will.  This Friday, we got home late from Disc Golf, so we threw a little something together and still ate at the table.

Simply pan grilled the sausages until cooked through, added onions to the pan to caramelize while the sausages cooked.  Piled the onions high on bakery white bread, topped with dijon mustard.

The hush puppies were our Friday treat.  Jiffy cornbread mix made thicker than usual, added canned corn, diced fresh jalapenos and tiny cubes of cheddar.  Cooked them in the deep fryer.

Taylor made the green beans.  Steamed them halfway to retain vitamins, then sauteed in a pan with olive oil to finish. A dash of kosher salt was all they needed.

Cost: $7 total, and we had 2 sausages left over to add to pasta sauce for tomorrow.
Time: 25 minutes total.
Difficulty: 2

Thursday: Tofu and Veggie Stir-fry

This stir-fry takes a little bit of planning.  Marinate firm or extra firm tofu in a mixture of soy sauce, seasoned rice vinegar, a dash of sugar and sliced fresh ginger overnight first.  Well worth the effort.

Carrots, celery, onions, lots of broccoli, yellow peppers, fresh ginger and marinated tofu.  Heat wok and a separate pan of oil.  Toss veggies in wok starting with onion, then work your way from densest to least dense.  While that's going, fry the tofu in peanut oil until firm and toasty on the outside.  Once ready, add it to the veggies.  Done. I add a dash of soy sauce and a little seasoned rice vinegar while cooking to get the liquid out of the veggies.  This one is missing baby bok choy, but there was none when we shopped.  You can thicken the sauce with a little bit of corn starch shaken with some water.  Served with steamed white rice, as plain as can be.  Does it get any easier? 

Cost: $7 or so for a big wokfull.  3 meals and leftovers for lunch.
Time: 20 minutes from start.  Lots of chopping involved.
Difficulty: 2 Seriously, just chop it up and toss it in.  Just remember to marinate your tofu the night before.
Wednesday: Spaghetti madness!!!!!!!!  Who doesn't love spaghetti and meatballs?

I just wrote up my meatball recipe and will post it and link it here soon.  

Basically, 1/2 ground beef and 1/2 bulk Italian sausage mushed up with crumbled saltine crackers, tomato paste, eggs and spices.  The real secret ingredients are about a tablespoon of fennel seed and crushed red peppers.  It gives them a nice sweet/spicy flavor.  My protip for meatballs: Thrice cooked.  Yes, thrice. Pan sear until toasty on the outside, then bake at 325f for fifteen minutes and finish by simmering in sauce for another fifteen minutes or so.  This way they get that nice pan seared crust, then have a chance to bake out the fat, and finally, replace it with moisture from the sauce.  Perfect every time.

I also make my own sauce.  Heat a bay leaf in a pan of olive oil.  Mince together onion, garlic, carrot and celery and caramelize over medium heat.  Add a large can of diced tomatoes, and a small can or tomato sauce.  Add diced zucchini and mushrooms and let simmer for 15 minutes or so.  You can add ground beef just after the veggies caramelize for a meat sauce as well, but I prefer a lighter sauce if I am doing meatballs too.  And the sauce has enough veggie power that none are needed on the side for this meal.   Although, this pairs nicely with steamed asparagus on the side.

Cost: $12 or so total, however this makes aout two dozen meatballs, half of which I freeze for later use.
Total time: About an hour start to finish
Difficulty: 4 (the multiple cooking of the meatballs takes some getting used to, you don't want to over cook them at either of the first two stages.

Tuesday night was taco night.  MMmmM... tacos.

Ground beef seasoned with minced onion, crushed garlic, seasoning salt, crushed red pepper flakes, chili powder, cumin and other spices.

Salsa fresca: onions, fresh jalapenos, fresh tomatoes and cilantro.  Topped with shredded cheddar, shredded green leaf lettuce and Mexican cream.  A dash of Tapatio to finish it off.

Cost: around $7 made six tacos with some stuff left over.
Time: 20 minutes from the get-go
Difficulty: 2

Monday: Pan Seared Chicken with Rice and Veggies

On Monday we made pan seared chicken with broth steamed rice and vegetables for dinner.

This is a fairly straight forward dinner.

I marinated the chicken in a battibecco rub for 2 days prior.  Rubbed it under the skin to really season the meat.  Then I pan seared it over medium high heat in a cast iron skillet. I left the skin on for the first round (20 minutes or so, turning once midway through), cooking with a lid on and pulled the skin off and removed the lid at the end and browned the bare chicken (5 minutes per side).  This way it can cook all the way through without burning, and I can control the sear on the final step.

The rice was just steamed with chicken stock (a staple for the house, next time I make it, I'll post)

The veggies were simple. I parboiled the Brussels sprouts to about halfway cooked.  Then finished them off in a hot pan tossed with extra-virgin olive oil and more battibecco.  I cooked the onions and carrots with the chicken early on so they steamed while the lid was on the chicken.  Then I added them to the pan with the Brussels sprouts and tossed together for a magnificent side dish.

Cooking time: 35 minutes from start to finish
Cost: $9 made enough for four plates
Skill level: 3



Friends and family are often commenting on how delicious and healthfully we eat, so we are putting this blog together for two reasons. First, to show off. Yep, vanity drives this blog.

Okay, not really, the real purpose of this blog is to present ideas for eating healthfully and yet within a reasonable budget, and with the working single parent time allotment, which isn't much.  Most meals here will take 30 to 45 minutes from fridge to plate, and around ten dollars or less to feed a family of three, with enough left over to pack a lunch.

As for who we are... My name is Shawn, and I live in Austin, Texas with my two wonderful kids of 13 and 18. We are a fun, active and creative family. You can often find us on the paintball field, playing disc golf, participating in scavenger hunts or on photography excursions.

We always make time to enjoy dinner together at the table, often with a deck of cards or other social game. To us, it's part of what keeps the family connected, happy and whole.

We hope you enjoy follwing our culinary adventures, and try some of these ideas yourself. I don't follow recipes,  but I will add notes for you. If you are at all adept in the kitchen, you should have little trouble following along.

If you ever have questions, post a reply so that the discussion might help  others.

So without further ado, let's get cooking.