I shared in my menu post that I make many things from scratch. I also make up recipes as I go along. When I’m trying a new recipe, I will follow it closely, substituting things that I know will work, but not changing much. My tried-and-true recipes from nearly 20 years of cooking are the ones for which I don’t measure ingredients, I add what I want, and I prepare them a little differently each time I make them. This provides great variety for my family, but it makes it difficult for me to simply give you a recipe. I will share in this post some of my recipes and how I sometimes alter them to fit my mood or to incorporate the ingredients I have on hand.
First of all, I rarely buy special ingredients like heavy whipping cream or buttermilk because I can make the recipe work without them and save money. In most recipes, you can substitute milk and butter for cream or half-and-half. I use close to the full amount of milk and then a tablespoon or two of real butter, depending on how much cream was required. If making a sauce with this, I might whisk in a little cornstarch or flour first to help it thicken. For buttermilk, simply add some fresh-squeezed lemon juice to the full amount of regular milk and let it sit for 5-10 minutes.
Secondly, I don’t use creamed soups in my recipes because store-bought versions have about fifty hard-to-pronounce and questionable ingredients, and it’s simple to make at home with ingredients I always have on hand. Simply melt a couple tablespoons of butter in a small saucepan over medium heat and whisk in about 3 tablespoons of all purpose flour until thick. Slowly add about 1/2 cup chicken broth/stock, whisking to remove lumps. Then add about 1/2 cup of milk (I just pour some in, erring on the side of having extra). Continue stirring for a few minutes until the soup thickens. Remove from heat and add seasonings to taste–salt, pepper, onion powder, garlic powder. If this is going in a Mexican dish, you can add some taco seasoning or cumin, paprika, chili powder, etc. If it is for an Italian dish, add some basil, oregano, and freshly grated Parmeggiano Reggiano or Parmesan. This creamed soup can be made with vegetable or beef broth. You can add sautéed and chopped mushrooms for cream of mushroom soup or sautéed and chopped celery for cream of celery soup. The possibilities are endless, and the results are just as tasty and creamy (and better for you) than their canned counterparts. Plus, these ingredients are staples in my pantry, so I never have to worry about having a can of soup on hand. I recently made this recipe gluten-free when I took dinner to a friend. Just use GF cornstarch instead of flour, but you’ll need to dissolve the cornstarch into the milk or chicken broth before adding to the butter.
Pasta sauce is another easy and cheap ingredient to make. Simply use a food processor, blender, baby food maker, or salsa chopper to purée two cans of diced tomatoes, leaving it as chunky as you like. If you want to sneak in some extra veggies, throw in some chunks of zucchini, squash, carrots, bell peppers, etc. to be puréed as well. Pour your puréed mixture into a saucepan and heat on low, adding seasonings to taste–pressed fresh garlic or garlic powder, diced and sautéed onion or onion powder, fresh or dried basil and oregano, salt, and pepper. My canned tomatoes already have a little sugar in them, but if yours don’t, you can add a little sugar to keep the sauce from being bitter. To thicken up the sauce and make it look more like the store-bought version, I usually add a small can of tomato paste. Let the sauce simmer on low heat for 20-30 minutes or in a crockpot on low for a few hours. If using in a recipe that will be baked, you don’t need to simmer.
Now for some actual dinner recipes.
Beef Tater Tot Casserole
1/2 pound ground beef
1 bag of frozen tater tots
2 recipes of creamed soup (with desired seasonings) or 2 cans cream of mushroom and/or chicken soup
1/2 cup sour cream
1/2 can original Rotel (optional or use mild or a whole can)
8 oz shredded cheddar cheese
Brown and crumble ground beef (I usually do this with a whole pound and then divide it, putting half in the freezer ready to go in spaghetti sauce or another casserole). Prepare soup and combine with beef, sour cream, and Rotel. Spray a 9″ square baking dish (13×9 works too) with oil. Pour half of the tater tots in the baking dish. Pour soup mixture over tater tots. Position remaining tater tots evenly over soup mixture and top with shredded cheese. Bake at 350 degrees for 30-40 minutes or until bubbling. This can also be assembled and placed in the crockpot on low for 2-3 hours, adding the cheese about 30 minutes before serving. Makes 6-8 servings.
Chicken Enchilada Casserole
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2 recipes creamed soup or 2 cans cream of chicken soup
1/2 cup sour cream
1 can diced green chilies or 1 pouch green chile enchilada sauce* or 1/2 can of Rotel (optional)
12 corn tortillas
12 oz shredded cheddar cheese
Boil chicken until no longer pink. Shred chicken with two forks and mix with soup, sour cream, and chilies/sauce/Rotel (if using). Spray 13×9 baking dish with oil. Tear 6 corn tortillas into pieces and arrange over bottom of dish. Top with half of soup mixture and then half of cheese. Repeat layers. Baked at 350 degrees for 30 minutes or until bubbly. Serves. 6-8. *If using green chile enchilada sauce, only use 1 recipe/can of cream soup.
1 pound smoked sausage
4 small potatoes
8 oz baby carrots
1 bell pepper
1 jalapeño (optional)
onion powder, garlic powder, salt, pepper, your choice of seasonings
Lay out 4 pieces of foil about 16-18 inches long. Spray with oil. Slice sausage into bite-sized pieces and divide evenly among 4 pieces of foil. Slice potatoes thinly or dice into small pieces (to cook faster). Slice baby carrots in half or quarters lengthwise. Cut bell pepper into bite-sized pieces. Seed and slice jalapeño. Add desired vegetables on top of each serving of sausage (each serving can be different). Sprinkle seasonings on top and spray with a little oil. Take two opposite sides of foil and bring together, folding them over to seal. Fold each end up (and mark with a Sharpie if for someone specific) and place on a baking sheet. Bake at 400 degrees for 45 minutes or until vegetables are tender. Open carefully and avoid the steam. Serves 4, but you can easily double this recipe. Use whatever vegetables your family likes–broccoli, squash, zucchini, etc.
Two of our hobo dinners ready to be folded up for baking.