Chicken and rice

For a lot of us homemakers, our grocery bill is the easiest area to save money in. Any college student can tell you that Ramen noodles, bologna, and peanut butter will fill you up and save some cash, but when you are feeding a family you need a little more variety than that. One of our favorite go to frugal meals is chicken and rice. Not only is it frugal and filling, it makes a lot and is easy to clean up afterwards. We can usually eat for two or three days off a pot of chicken and rice. Even my somewhat picky husband doesn’t complain about leftovers if its this dish!

I rarely cook from a recipe, I just add ingredients in whatever proportion seems right, but I will try to explain to you how to make it as best I can. To me, the beauty of cooking is the fact that you don’t have to stick to a hard and fast recipe, you can substitute, change proportions, and add ingredients according to what’s on hand and what sounds good right then:)

Here is what you will need:
1 whole chicken
Water
2 whole carrots
2 stocks of celery
1 onion (cut in half)
Lots of rice
Frozen mixed vegetables
Seasonings

First things first, put your chicken in a stockpot with the carrots, celery, and onion. Fill the pot with water and let it simmer away. If you are rushed for time feel free to turn off the heat as soon as the chicken is cooked through, but the best chicken and rice is made when the chicken is boiled to the point that the small bones are mushy. This extracts all the flavor and gelatin from the bones. The gelatin in the bones gives a smoother mouth feel to a dish, adds valuable minerals and nutrients, and just all around tastes good. If we are cooking frugal we want our food to be as tasty and healthy as possible!

When the chicken is cooked remove it from the heat and let it cool. You can place it in the fridge, set it in a sink of ice water, or remove the chicken from the stock with some tongs and just cool the chicken. Once the chicken is cool comes the fun (and messy!) part. Be sure to enlist the help of your kids if you have any, it makes the work go by fast and they love it! If you haven’t already, remove the chicken from the stock and set to the side. Remove the celery, carrots, and onion and discard. Now take a piece of chicken and remove all the gunk you don’t want to eat like bones and skin and toss it. Take your chicken meat and break into small pieces and throw it back in the pot. This sounds complicated but I just set up my trash can next to my stovetop. Then I am in easy reach of the bowl of chicken, the bowl of stock, and the trash. I can pick through a whole chicken in about ten minutes by myself so it’s not as time consuming as it sounds once you get a good system working for you.

Once all your chicken is picked through and back in the stock turn the heat back on. Add your mixed vegetables ( I use about 2 pounds of vegetables but we have a HUGE stockpot and A LOT of hungry mouths to feed!). then I add the rice. I wish I could give you more accurate measurements but I really never measure. I dump in about six large handfuls of rice, but it depends on how big your stockpot is. With a little practice you will figure out the best proportions for your family.

Next I season with garlic powder, onion powder, and seasoned salt. I’ve also been known to add in some garlic and herb seasoning, lemon pepper seasoning, and one of our new favorites curry powder. Once everything has come to a boil I taste it and adjust the seasonings accordingly. I haven’t read anything that says this, but the rice seems to need a lot of salt, so you will probably use more than you think you need. Always taste your dish after the rice has cooked because chances are you will need more salt before serving it. Have fun with the seasonings and make your chicken and rice perfectly suited to your family! A nice last minute addition is a splash of rice wine vinegar, it heightens the flavors and the acid really gets your taste buds going. You won’t taste the vinegar, it just heightens all of the other flavors.

Cook until the rice and vegetables are very tender, usually about 45 minutes for me, and serve. Be ready for your family tot go crazy, this may be their new favorite dish! A nice time saver is the crockpot. I have used it many times on this dish to make my life easier. I cut up my chicken and place it in the crockpot, fill with water, turn it on low, and go to bed. In the morning I turn it off, put the crockpot in the fridge, and come afternoon nap time it is cool and ready to be picked through. The only downside is that I can’t make enough stock this way, but I just add some water and bouillon when I use the crockpot.

Enjoy!

Bread dough ideas

So once your bread dough is made, what can you do with it? Outside of the standard loaf there are many possibilities. I use a basic recipe that works well for all applications. It has just a hint of sugar in it, that way it works equally well for savory or sweet applications. My recipe makes enough dough for two loaves. I generally form half into a loaf and use the other half for another application.

One of my kids favorite things to make with the other half of the dough is pizza bites. I cut the dough into twelve fairly equal pieces. Then I form them into a ball, squish it into a disk and use my rolling pin or hands to flatten it further. Then we add a spoonful of spaghetti sauce, some cheese, and whatever toppings we feel like. Be very careful to only fill one side and to leave a decent sized edge for crimping! Then we fold the dough over on itself and squeeze all the edges very tightly to form a seal, place on a cookie sheet, and bake it in the oven along side the loaf of bread.

We have also made cinnamon breadsticks, garlic breadsticks, and herbed breadsticks. For the breadsticks I flatten the dough out onto a cookie sheet, brush with a healthy amount of melted butter, and season. Cinnamon and brown sugar, garlic and herb seasoning, And fresh minced garlic are our favorites. It is also delicious brushed with a thin layer of melted butter, sprinkled with some garlic, and baked for a few minutes. Once it is about halfway through the cooking time we pull it out, smother it in some grated cheese and pop it back in the oven to finish cooking, yum!

There are many other things that you can do with bread dough but these are things that have become regular staples around our house. Try some different ideas out for yourself and see what works for you!

Deciding on a bread recipe and forming the dough

You want to make a fresh loaf of bread for your family, but when you look on the internet you realize that there are million of different bread recipes out there.  How do you decide?  Just keep a few basics in mind and it won’t be difficult at all.

Do you prefer sweeter breads, like dinner rolls and Amish bread?   Then choose a recipe that calls for a small amount of sweetener (usually sugar or honey.)  Do you prefer the chewy texture and toothsome goodness of a french bread of baguette?  Be sure to use a recipe that does not contain any extra sugar and has a high water content.  Prefer a soft crust?  Choose a recipe that uses milk instead of water (or you can substitute milk for water in a 1-1 ratio).  Love a rich bread such as Challah?  Find a recipe that uses eggs.  For those of you who love  a good crunchy crust try mixing a bit of rice flour with water to form a paste and brush it on top of your loaf before baking.  It will bake hard and crack like a dry river bed, gorgeous and tasty all at the same time!

When working with your dough you need to keep a few things in mind that affect the texture greatly.  Artisan breads, such as baguettes, require a high water content to get that chewy goodness.  The dough should be sticky.  If you add too much flour that chewiness will go away and you will end up with sandwich bread in the shape of a baguette.  Tasty yes, but not what you are going for!  If you want a stiff bread that resembles a sandwich type loaf then add extra flour.  Don’t let there be even a hint of stickiness to the dough.  I prefer something in between.  I like my bread light and fluffy, but with slightly larger air holes than your standard sandwich bread.  Not holes big enough to interfere with proper mayonnaise distribution mind you, but just enough for a slightly rustic touch.  My dough does not stick to the inside of my mixer while it is mixing, but is just sticky enough to be noticeable when you touch the dough with your finger.

Just remember, more flour=denser bread, more liquid=chewier and lighter bread.  Keep that in mind and you will be able to adapt any recipe to your personal tastes.

Baking your bread

So you’ve done the hard part, now it’s just time to put your bread in the oven, right?  As simple as it may seem this small task poses huge problems for some people.  Instead of leaving you in the dark let me share some basic tips.

It is not uncommon for oven temperatures to vary.  You may set your oven for 350, but in actuality it’s fairly likely that it is more like 325 or 375.  Get to know your oven.  If you commonly have to return items back to the oven after the stated time of a recipe try bumping up your oven a few degrees.  If you have to check before the stated time or you have a tendency to burn your food, turn the dial down a bit.  My oven (and my Dad’s, Grandmother’s, and Sister’s ovens as well) tend to run a bit hot.  We set our ovens 25 degrees cooler than the recipe states.  If you want to get all technical about it go and by an oven thermometer.  Then set your oven, let it preheat, once it says that it is at temperature wait about 10-15 minutes and check your oven thermometer.  That way you know exactly how “off” your oven is.  I personally just eyeball it.  I spend a lot of time in the kitchen and just know from experience that subtracting 25 degrees will do the trick.  Do what works for you.

If you have your oven set correctly but your crust is always harder or browner than you like it simply lower the temperature of your oven and add a few minutes of cook time.  I have tried a lot of recipes for bread that say to cook at 400 for 20 minutes.  I hate a hard crust so I cook at 350 and check after about 25 minutes.  Most of the time it takes closer to 30 minutes for me to cook a loaf, but I always check at 25 to make sure that I don’t burn it.  If you love the taste of the bread but hate the light crust, then bump up the temp and knock a few minutes off the total cook time.

To test for done-ness simply pick up the loaf with one hand (hot pad please!) and dump it into your other hand (another hot pad!).  Thump the bottom of the bread, if it sounds hollow it is done, if not then throw it back in the oven for a few minutes.  With a bit of practice and patience you will figure out what your ideal time and temp is for any given recipe.  Happy baking!

Letting your bread dough rise

So you’ve conquered the art of kneading, now you just need to let the dough rise.  That sounds simple enough but it was always difficult for me to figure out.  Most recipes (all of the ones that I’ve ever seen) say to let the dough rise until doubled in size.  Many will give you a general time line, like “1 hour, or until doubled”, but how could I know if the dough had doubled?

I’ve tried guesstimating.  Let me tell you from experience, that is not the way to go!  I read somewhere (I believe maybe it was one of Alton Brown’s cookbooks) to put your dough in a clear container that has the same diameter from the bottom all the way to the top (like one of those cheap plastic pitchers you can get at the grocery store.)  You put a large rubber band (like the kind used for newspapers) where the dough is at first.  Then you can measure and see where the dough will be when it is doubled and place a second rubber band there.  I just have one major problem with that method.  It’s hard for me to get the dough out of a container like that, and I have two boys who love to have rubber band fights so it’s hard to keep track of them, especially the large ones that I would need (all the better to sting you with, my dear brother!)

There is a much simpler method, the finger test.  I’ve learned through experience that during the spring and fall the times listed in recipes are pretty close, so I use those as a guideline.  During the winter (when we keep the house cold to save on energy costs) it takes longer, and during the summer (when the house is hotter) it takes a lot less time.  I decide how long to wait until I check (based on the temperature inside the house and the stated time in the recipe) and set my timer accordingly.  When I think it has doubled I gently press my finger onto the dough.  If the dough bounces back then it needs to rise longer.  If it leaves an obvious impression where my finger was and doesn’t bounce back much at all, then it has doubled.  If, on the other hand, I press my finger into it and hear a whooshing sound and the dough deflates it has over-proofed (sat around for too long) and is pretty much useless.  I can knead it a few times and make a calzone crust out of it, but it’s not good for much else.  If that happens (rarely, thankfully!)  I just laugh it off and start a new batch.)

This stage of the game is where all professional bread bakers laugh sadistically knowing that you will be back for their product.  The recipe says to punch down the dough.  If you haul off and take all of your pent up aggression out on this poor piece of dough (what did it ever do to you!) you will end up with a really large hockey puck or brick, depending on what shape you form the loaf into.  Sure, it’s fun to hock a 1 pound frisbee at your annoying neighbors head, but it’s not good for much else!  How in the world the term “punch down” ever came into existence I don’t know, but it does not mean what it says. Do yourself a favor and go through every bread recipe that you own and cross out that term, replacing it with “redistribute gasses.”

Yeast is living and breathing (thus the tiny air bubbles that force the dough to rise.)  It gets all bunched up in a few spots, eats it’s fill, gasses up the whole place, and then goes to sleep.  You have to move that yeast around and give it a chance to gas up the whole dough.  You don’t want to go throwing away all that work it has already done either.  Gently run your hand under the dough (I “punch down” right in the bowl.)  Now lift the dough and fold it onto itself.  Press gently then make a quarter turn of your bowl and repeat until you have done this 4 or 5 times.  That’s all there is to it.  Treat it like a baby, not a punching bag!  Now form your bread into whatever shape your heart desires, place it on or in whatever baking receptacle you have planned, and let it rise again.  When it passes the finger test (doesn’t spring back when poked) it’s time to bake.  Easy-peasy!

Kneading bread

What is the single most important step in bread baking?  Plain and simple, it’s developing the gluten which is generally accomplished by kneading.  That word, kneading, strikes fear into the hearts of many.  Kneading is probably the #1 reason why people shy away from the whole process of making their own bread.  It just seems so intimidating, time consuming, and labor intensive.  Before you run away screaming just let me say one thing, kneading isn’t hard!  That’s right, you heard me.  Let me say it just once more so it will sink in, kneading isn’t hard!

There are several different ways to knead bread.  That vision you probably have in your head of a woman (with giant man arms!) slaving over a hunk of dough all day doesn’t have to be you.  As a matter of fact, I can make two loaves of bread with less than fifteen minutes of actual work time without breaking a sweat and without getting myself messy at all!  Now, if you really want to knead by hand go right ahead.  There is nothing wrong with kneading by hand, except of course for the fact that I am a bit lazy when it comes to things like that.  I’ve never been the best multi-tasker, exercising while cooking does NOT sound like fun to me:)

There are 3 basic ways (that I know of) to knead bread.  The first is the good old-fashioned way, by hand.  You simply push the dough forward with the palm of your hand (gently stretching it), then fold it on itself, turn a quarter turn, and continue to repeat.  The idea is to stretch the dough, not to break it so go easy!  The second way is to use a bread machine. I had a cheapy bread machine once and it did nothing good whatsoever for me and ended up at GoodWill.  Maybe it was just the brand that I had (I honestly don’t remember what brand, it was that long ago, but I know that I only spent about $30 on it.)  I’ve heard wonderful things about bread machiens.  Everyone has their preference.  Some put it through a double kneading cycle.  Some just let the machine do the work, some let it knead and rest, then shape it into loaf pans and bake it in their regular oven.  If the bread machine works for you then go for it!  Some people feel like using a bread machine is “cheating.”  Who cares what they think?  More than likely they do NOT have fresh bread on their dinner table so do they really have any room to talk?  The third method (and the one that I use every single time) is mixing with a stand mixer.

There are many different brands of stand mixers, each with their own special nuances.  I personally have a KitchenAid brand mixer and I love it.  Actually, I have two but that’s a whole different post 🙂  The placement of ingredients and mixing of the dough is a whole different post, so I am going to skip that and go straight to the kneading part.  The biggest secret that I can give you is to watch your dough!  Don’t start your mixer and walk away, or you will be very, and I mean VERY unhappy with the final result.  It may just be my kitchen, but whenever I start kneading the dough ends up getting very sticky.  Even if the dough has almost too much flour to begin with, before the kneading is done I have had to add more flour.  I think it has to do with temperatures.  As the dough is kneaded it warms up and gets sticky, at least that’s my theory, lol.

I watch my dough very carefully.  When I’m ready to begin kneading I set my timer for ten minutes and then huddle over my mixer.  Seriously, I place my forehead on the top of the mixer and just watch!  Whenever I see the dough begin to stick (usually at the very bottom and center of the bowl) I add more flour.  Not much mind you, or the whole dough falls apart, just a spoon full or so at a time until it is incorporated and no longer sticking.  If I am unsure about the dough I will stop the mixer and touch it.  If it is sticky add flour, if not then just turn it back on and let it do it’s thing.

How long should you knead your dough?  That depends on so many factors, humidity, altitude, your individual mixer, etc.  I used to knead for a few minutes, check, knead for a few more minutes, check again, etc.  Now I simply set my timer for 10 minutes and let it go, and it never fails.  I’ve seen recipes that say to knead for 5 minutes, and I’ve seen recipes that say 15, but 10 minutes always does the trick in my kitchen.

When you think that your dough is ready (or in my case, when my timer dings) it’s time to check and see if your dough is ready to rise.  The easiest way that I have found to check is by doing the “windowpane” test.  Sounds complicated, right?  Well, it’s not.  Just pull off a walnut size chunk of your dough and roll it into a ball.  Now flatten the ball into a disk shape and gently stretch along the outer edge until it is thin enough that you can see light through it when you hold it up to a light source.  If it rips or tears before it is thin enough then you aren’t done kneading.  If you can see light through it without it ripping or tearing then you are all done and ready to let it rise:)  Simple!

Bread baking

Recently I began my adventure in bread baking. Well, to be honest, I’ve traveled down is path before but I never made it very far:). I could occasionally produce a tasty loaf but all too often we would end up with a brick, either the loaf wouldn’t rise or the crust would be so hard and dark that it was all but in edible. Lately I’ve been able to consistently produce a very tasty and tender loaf so I thought I would share some secrets.

The only reason I even attempted to go down this path again, after so many failures, was because of a wondrous idea, no-knead bread. I know, it’s old news. Everyone on the planet has heard of no-knead bread and almost as many people have made it. I guess I’m behind the times because I didn’t try it out until recently. What can I say? Anyway, I finally got around to trying it out and I learned a lot. First, I learned that for all the science and chemistry going on, maybe bread baking isn’t as rigid of a task as I thought. I’ve always been so hung up on the process that maybe I’ve been over thinking it and looking over the finer details that really make bread making fun and easy.

I have always heard that kneading is the only way to develop gluten, the protein structure that makes bread rise. How can no-knead bread rise if the gluten isn’t developed? Well, I did some research and discovered that by “developing” the gluten, you are actually just helping the gluten line up. Over time, in a moist environment, the gluten will naturally line up of its own accord.

So, if I don’t have time to knead (or the energy), I just reduce the yeast and let the dough rise longer. Why do I reduce the yeast? Yeast is a living organism and needs to be able to eat. Too much yeast over a long period of time will consume all of its food and then die, leaving you with flat bread. Basically, the tasty little air pockets in bread is gas produced by yeast. If the yeast dies then it can’t give off gas so you get flat bread, not tasty!

There are a few other tips and tricks that I’ve learned, so here goes. Milk and egg in a dough will produce a less crunchy crust. Some of you may love a good crisp crust but personally I hate it. If you want a soft crust add some egg or milk. Another option is to brush the loaf with some butter straight out of the oven or to wrap the still hot loaf until its cooled. Be warne though, wrapping the bread retains its moisture which can cause mold to grow. I’ve never had a problem with that though, we eat the bread up way too fast for it to mold in this house!

To test and see if you are done kneading, pull off a walnut size chunk of dough and roll it into a ball. Now pull it out into a disk shape. If you can pull it thin enough to see light through it (hold it up towards a light source) then it is good. If it rips before it is thin enough then you still have some work to do!

Do you want a higher rising loaf? Add some vital wheat gluten to your recipe. Another option is a pinch of ginger. Sounds weird, I know, but it doesn’t take much. I can’t taste it at all in the final product, and I have a pretty sensitive palate. If you can taste it then you have used way too much. Yeast also loves any form of sugar, so adding a bit of honey, sugar, or other natural sweetener will aid in the rise. Please not that sweeteners such as Splenda do nothing for the final texture of the bread. The yeast do not recognize it as food so they can’t eat it. As a last note, don’t be afraid to reduce your baking temperature if your loaf has too dark of a crust for your liking. I reduce the temp all the time, just increase your cooking time accordingly. How do I k ow when the bread is done? I simply flip the bread out of the pan and tap the bottom. If it sounds hollow then you are done. If not, put it back in the oven for awhile and test again:)