Homemade: Taco Seasoning

Have you ever looked on the back of your favorite packet of taco seasoning and read the ingredients?  I don’t have any to reference right now, but I do have a packet of Taco Bell fajita seasoning.  First ingredient: corn syrup (dried).  Yep, first ingredient in FAJITA SEASONING.  What the heck?  Next is garlic, cornstarch, salt, sugar, chili peppers, onions, then the dreaded MSG, spice (what the heck is spice anyway? I think I read its a way for companies to generically label their products so others can’t copy the exact recipe.  Sheesh.), citric acid, soybean oil, calcium silicate (as an anticaking agent).

Sounds appetizing, eh?

Yeah, not so much.

After realizing all the crap they put in these packets and that the majority of it is sugar/corn syrup and salt/MSG, I thought “Why can’t I make my own taco seasoning?  Surely it can’t be that hard?”  And I was right.  It’s not that hard.  In fact, it’s so easy you’re going to smack yourself right on the forehead and say to yourself “Self, why didn’t I start doing this years ago?”

And as all seasoning combinations, adjust it to your own taste.  Like garlic?  Add more!  Like it spicy?  Add more red pepper flakes or add in some cayenne!

Just mix up a batch, keep it in a resealable container (I use an old sour cream container) and use it as needed.  Two to three tablespoons is the equivalent of one packet.  You can also use it in place of the chili powder/cumin combination you see in many Mexican/Southwest/Tex-Mex recipes.

Like any of the Midwest Mexican recipes from, *ahem*, yours truly.  🙂

Taco Seasoning

Ingredients:

  • 3 TBSP chili powder
  • 2 TBSP cumin
  • 1 TBSP kosher salt
  • 1/2 TBSP ground black pepper
  • 1  1/2 tsp paprika
  • 1 tsp garlic powder
  • 1 tsp onion powder
  • 1 tsp dried oregano
  • 1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes

Directions:

Mix all ingredients together.  Store in an airtight container.  Two to three tablespoons is the equivalent of one packet of storebought seasoning.

How to Get Your Kids to Eat Healthy Snacks: A tutorial

Let me just start by saying the title of this post is rather tongue-in-cheek.  I mean, I have (what I think is) some good advice to give on the subject, however I don’t really have a step-by-step guide to tell you how to get your kids to eat healthier.  Sorry if I misled you.  What is that called again?  Oh yeah, the old bait ‘n switch.

Anyhoo, usually once or twice a week our errands we run in the mornings require a stop by a grocery store.  I often bribe offer my kids a special treat if they behave themselves.  And lately their choice has been an apple.

When we’re eating at home and the kids finish their meal and want something special or sweet, I offer them yogurt with honey and/or fruit.  They love it and it’s good for them (especially since we eat homemade yogurt with no artificial colors or sweeteners).

So how did I get such health-conscious children?

I created them.  (Literally.)

Okay, I’m not giving them 100% of the credit.  It’s not like they walk into the store and make a beeline for the fresh fruit section and cry out “This, Mom! I want this as my special treat!”.  Nope, they’re not that brainwashed good.  Yet.

However as we meander the store I might suggest a few things they might like, typically in the fresh fruit section.  And as I speak to them I make it sound very appealing.

“Wow, look at those bright green and red apples!  Don’t they look good?”

“Those bananas sure are yellow.  Would you like a banana as a special treat?”

Or if we walk by the salad bar and see a fruit we don’t want to buy a whole bunch or a whole one of (say pineapple), I’ll offer that as an option.

Now if we pass through the bakery and they see cookies and cakes, do they ask for those?  Of course.  They’re human, not child-bots.  But I usually make a quick comment about that not being a very healthy choice or too expensive.  Or in Maddie’s case “No, Maddie, we’re not buying you a whole pie as your special treat.”  And we move on.

Do they always ask for yogurt after a meal?  No, sometimes they ask for ice cream or cookies.  Especially if they know we have them around.  Do we give them ice cream and cookies?  Occassionally.

So what in the heck is my whole point in all of this?  The point is you can influence your children’s food choices.  Especially if you start at a young age, like I did.  Don’t give in to every request they have.  You are the grown up.  You hold the purse strings.  They can have an apple or they can have nothing.  It’s up to them.

And for those super-picky kids that don’t eat anything healthy?  Continuously offer it to them.  Don’t let them choose an apple or potato chips.  If they’re hungry enough they’ll eat the healthy choice.  And let them see you eating it yourself.  If you don’t eat fruits and vegetables, guess what?  Neither will your kids.   And while I like the idea of getting the kids extra nutrition by “hiding” fruits and veggies in their meals, I also think it does not replace offering them real fruits and veggies at every meal.

Now I’m not saying to be a food-Nazi and only give them food you want them to eat.  If you force it on them without choice they could resist.  Kids need choices and need to feel that they have control over what they do.  But you can limit those choices.  And explain to them how a certain item (i.e. an apple) is healthier than another (i.e. potato chips).  If you let them know good choices like apples help them grow healthy and strong but potato chips don’t, they’ll get it.  Kids are much smarter than we give them credit for.

If you have young children (and heck, even if you have older children) you are laying the foundation of their eating habits for life.  If you give them healthy choices and they see you make healthy choices it will be engrained in them forever.

Did you know it’s possible for the current generations to actually have a shorter lifespan than prior generations?  I know I for one would love to change that trend and for the current generation of young kids to be less obese and have a longer life span than their predecessors.  And as their parents, it begins with us.

Okay, I’m down off my soapbox now.  Thank you for listening.  🙂

Homemade: Yogurt

As you may have figured out by now one of my frugal heroes (heroine, I guess) is Kristen aka The Frugal Girl.  One of the things I love about her blog are the ideas for things you can make yourself rather than buying from the store.  I love the idea of a better quality product to feed my family that I made with my own two hands.

Outside of yeast bread, homemade yogurt was one of the first homemade items I attempted on my own.  And I must say, it turned out fab. u. lous.

Now I make my yogurt sweetened and with vanilla.  Then we can serve it straight from the jar and over fruit without having to add to it.  Or we can sweeten it a bit more with just a touch o’ honey. 

But you can make yours plain.  Or partially sweeten it.  Or just add vanilla.  Or do what ever the heck you want so that you love it.

And I used to always make it with whole milk.  But recently I started making it with skim.  However since skim won’t set up as good as whole, I add unflavored gelatin to make it thicker.  I personally like it both ways.  Whole is of course creamier, but I like the skim a lot too, and of course it is more calorie-friendly.

So here is how I make homemade yogurt.

Equipment you will need

First, for a half-gallon’s worth of yogurt, you’ll need about 3 sterilized jars that hold about 24 oz. (or 4 cups or 2 pints) each.  Or use two larger jars that each old 36 oz. each.  Or one large jar that holds 72 oz.  You get the point.  I use old jelly or spaghetti sauce jars.  And I just run them through the dishwasher before using them.

You’ll also need a cooler that will hold said jars after they’re filled.

And you’ll want a couple of pots to heat and/or microwave the milk and water.

And finally, just a simple instant read thermometer.  Just the $5 kind.

Ingredients

The only ingredients you really need are milk and a yogurt “starter”.  If you want, you can add sugar and vanilla, and if you prefer to use a less fattening milk and still want thick yogurt you’ll want a packet of unflavored gelatin.

Directions

First, start by heating the milk to 180 to 190 degrees.  You can do this in a pot on the stove or in the microwave.  I’ve done both with good results on each.  I’ve found cold milk from the fridge will need about 18 minutes or so in the microwave to get to 185 degrees.  It will take just about as long, if not a bit longer, to heat it on the stove over medium-low heat (to avoid scorching the milk).

After the milk reaches the 180 to 190 degrees, set it either on the counter or in a sink filled with cold water to cool it down to 120 degrees.  Needless to say on the counter will take longer, but either method works fine.

Once the milk has reached 120 degrees, add in your starter.  Whisk it in real good to ensure all those bacterias get mixed evenly into the milk. 

If this is your first time making yogurt just buy a good quality plain (or vanilla if you want to sweeten yours) yogurt from the store.  I just happened to get a Yoplait Greek yogurt this time around, but  yours does not have to be Greek-style.

If you already have homemade yogurt (or some already opened yogurt) in the fridge you can use that, as long as you haven’t dipped in the jar, taken a bite, and put the spoon back in.  The bacteria from our mouths will kill the good bacterias in yogurt, and you need all those bacterias to make the yogurt. 

And if you want to add any “extras”, now is the time to do it as well. 

I usually add around 1/2 to 3/4 cup of sugar for a half-gallon of milk.  It keeps the yogurt a bit on the tangy side still, but since my kids like to add honey regardless of whether the yogurt is already sweet or not, I don’t want to overdo the sugar. 

I also add about 2 TBSP vanilla.  I just like the flavor it gives.

And if I’m making skim milk yogurt I add one packet of unflavored gelatin.  The boxes I buy come with 4 little packets, so I just use one of those little packets.

Then pour the milk into your jars.  I find using a funnel helps immensly if you have one.  If you don’t just try a ladle.  Either way, be careful, you do NOT want hot milk all over your kitchen.  Not a fun mess to clean up.

Skim off any bubbles on top, if you wish.  It just makes it look nicer and you can get the jars nice and full if you’re low on jar space.

Screw lids onto the jars, place the jars in a cooler, and add about a gallon or so of water that has been heated to about 120 degrees.  I usually am heating the water on the stove concurrently with the milk, but keep it at a very low temp. 

Close the lid to the cooler.  Let it sit for at least 3 hours, although I’ve let mine sit up to 7 with no ill effects.  I think especially for the less fattening milks you want to let it sit for a while so it sets up okay.  After the allotted time remove the jars from the cooler and move them to the refrigerator.

This is (hopefully) what your yogurt will look like. 

Just serve…

…and enjoy!

For other directions, more pictures, and lots of great comments about various ways to make yogurt, check out The Frugal Girls’ post on yogurt.

Have you made homemade yogurt before?  How do you make it?  Do you make it plain or do you add extras?

Homemade: Enchilada Sauce

I mentioned last week how I make homemade “oven fries” rather than buy packaged frozen french fries from the store.  And you all know about my quest to reduce the artificial ingredients that my family consumes. 

Well one item that keeps appearing in my grocery list that still contains ingredients I don’t love is enchilada sauce.  And given how much my family eat Mexican-style food this was one I wanted to tackle soon.

But I admit, this one daunted me a little.  Okay, a LOT.  I honestly didn’t know where to begin.  But as with all things homemade, you won’t know if you can do it unless you try.  So I checked out my favorite recipe website Allrecipes.com, searched on enchilada sauce, and looked at the top rated recipes and read some of the reviews.

And found this one

But you know me.  I can’t just make a recipe as it’s stated.  I have to tailor it to my own tastes.

How did it turn out?  Excellent.  Because I am a master chef who makes all things excellent the first time around.  Usually.  Okay, never.  Until now. 

Now when you first make it and you taste it, you might think its a bit too spicy straight from the pan.  But know that the spiciness was definitely cut quite a bit when I added it into my chicken and rice enchilada casserole.  So if yours tastes a bit spicy by itself, it probably won’t be quite so bad when you add it to your dish.

So without further ado, here is how I made my homemade enchilada sauce.  This turns out about 3 cups of sauce.

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup chili powder
  • 2 cups chicken broth
  • 16 oz tomato sauce
  • 1/4 tsp each of garlic powder, onion powder and cumin
 

Directions

  1. Heat the oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Stir in the flour and cook for 1 minute, then add the chili powder and cook for 1 more minute. It will be clumpy.  Gradually stir in the chicken broth, mixing well with a whisk to make sure you get out all the lumps.  Then stir in the tomato sauce and season with garlic powder, onion powder and cumin.
  2. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes. (Note: If sauce thickens too much, just add a little water to thin it out a bit.)

Homemade: Oven fries

I was having a conversation with someone the other day and I mentioned how I made “oven fries” with our meal rather than buying pre-made fries from the store.  This person was surprised and said she hadn’t thought to do that herself. 

So it dawned on me that there might be a lot of things I make from scratch that others may not think to.  I’ll cover “oven fries” today but will get to some others later.

Maybe you already do this yourself.  If so, yeah!  Then share with me how you make yours, I’d love to try new versions.

Years ago, when it was just Chad and I, if we had fries I was buying the frozen pre-formed fries from the store.  They were good, sure.  But each bag costs between $2 and $3 and we’d get maybe 3 meals from them.  With 3 kids (although only 2 who eat food) the bag only gets us maybe two meals.  And for most families I’m sure it’s just one.

And have you looked at the ingredients in those fries?  Think it’s just potatoes?  Think again.  I checked out a bag at the store the other day.  I can’t remember all the ingredients, but in my opinion the list was too long for something as simple as a fry.

I’m not saying the other ingredients are bad for you.   I honestly don’t know.  I just know that if you think a frozen french fry is just a frozen piece of potato, I’m telling you it’s not that simple. 

You can get a 5 pound bag of potatoes from the store for around $2 to $3.  Sometimes you can get a ten pound bag for that much.  A 5 pound bag will provide a side dish for around 5 meals at our house.  Usually about 1 medium potato per person seems to be the right amount, assuming you don’t want leftovers.

To make the oven fries I just slice the potatoes lengthwise into fairly even strips.  We like ours “steak fry” style.  Then I coat lightly but thoroughly with EVOO, sprinkle some kosher salt and sometimes some garlic powder and/or Italian seasoning. 

Place in a single layer on a cookie sheet.  Use multiple sheets if need be.  Do not stack the potatoes or they will steam instead of bake up crisp.

Bake in the oven at 425 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes.  Flip potatoes over, then bake for another 10 to 15 minutes until golden brown.

Are you going to get fries like you would from a fast food chain?  No.  But do you get a healthier, cheaper, and dare I say it, better version of a french fry? 

Well I guess you’ll have to try it for yourself.