Leek and Asparagus Risotto

My husband will tell you I am the most anxious when faced with an empty fridge.  Let me go grocery shopping, fill it up, and make a meal plan, and I suddenly feel like I can do life.  So the week before classes started, I changed my meal plan from a weekly meal plan based off the groceries I bought to a running categorical list based off the ingredients I already had on hand: 1. Meals I could throw together in about 10 minutes; 2. Meals I could make within 10-20 minutes; 3. Ready to go frozen meals; 4. Meals I could cook if I had some extra time and fresh ingredients.  I filled up a whole white board with my color-coded meal list, and suddenly felt like I could take on grad school.

Risotto is one of those meals that is homey and filling and warm and doesn’t take too long to pull together on one of those “extra time” days.  Add some fresh veggies, and your meal is set.


LEEK AND ASPARAGUS RISOTTO

  • Servings: 2-4
  • Difficulty: medium, for time
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INGREDIENTS

  • 1 cup arborio rice
  • 2 leeks, cleaned and thinly sliced
  • 2 large garlic cloves, minced, or grated with a medium ribbon grater
  • 1 asparagus bundle, trimmed and cut in thirds
  • 1/2 cup fresh Italian parsley, chopped
  • 1/4 cup roasted, salted sesame seeds, as garnish
  • 1 cup grated Parmesan or Parmeggiano-Reggiano cheese (or nutritional yeast flakes)
  • 6-8 cups vegetable stock

DIRECTIONS

  1. Coat the bottom of a large pot with olive oil, and saute the leeks with salt and pepper to taste on medium heat.  When the leeks are translucent, add the garlic and rice and saute 5-10 more minutes and lower the heat to low.
  2. Add 2-3 cups of vegetable stock, until the rice is just covered, and 1/4 cup of the parsley.  Allow to come to a boil, and let cook and reduce until nearly all the stock has reduced.  Add another 1-2 cups of stock and let cook and reduce.  Continue adding stock, one cup at a time, and reducing, until the rice has transformed into a creamy soft mixture, about 30-40 minutes.  When you add the final cup of stock, add the asparagus to gently cook.  Let the stock reduce just enough to be a thin, pudding-like mixture.
  3. Turn off the heat and stir in the cheese or nutritional yeast flakes.  To serve, garnish with the rest of the parsley and the sesame seeds.

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Saving up Tokens and Potstickers

Another change I instituted when starting grad school was tokens for chores.  We’ve had a chore chart for a while, and initially paid quarters and nickels and dimes for chores.  My boys’ interest in the money jar lasted just a month or so, and the chore chart subsequently lost its value.  When my boys got into Star Wars {and my husband introduced them to Star Wars video games}–and I started grad school and needed help around the house–I knew the chore chart was about to get dusted off.  For each chore they check off on their chart, they get one 5 minute token.  They add up tokens and turn them in for screen time–video games, shows, games on a phone, etc.

We’re going on four months now, and the novelty hasn’t worn off yet!  My boys get up, {mostly} check off their morning chores without me asking, ask if they can check off the afternoon chores, and always check off the evening and count out their tokens for the day before going to bed.  Ok, well, there are some mornings with lingering dishes on the breakfast table, and some nights with toys on the floor, but it’s a vast improvement from before.  It’s been great to watch them count the tokens at the end of the day and put them in their jar, and then count by 5’s to turn them in for a 20 minute show or game time, share the price of a show by joining tokens together, or tell me they want to save up their tokens for an hour of game time.  And let’s not forget the power of the token in terms of punishment or reward–or how cool you become when you say they can have some free time on you.

Tokens for me?  Freezer meals.  Dinner prep was seriously crunched during the semester, and it helped so much to have freezer meals to pull out and all I’d have to do was heat up the oven.  You have to devote a chunk of prep time–when you have time–but you’ll thank your cool self later when the only prep you have to do for dinner is heat up the oven or a skillet.

A couple hours one afternoon made a few lentil potsticker meals down the line.  Lentils only take about 20 minutes to make, mash them into a paste, add a finely chopped vegetable medley, herbs and asian seasonings, and your wrappers are ready to be wrapped.

Just about 1-2 teaspoons is enough for the small circle wrappers, then you just seal with water and crimp the edge by folding the wrapper over on itself.  And repeat.

You can cook some right away {because who can resist a good potsticker} and flash freeze the rest to pull out on a busy day.


LENTIL POTSTICKERS

  • Servings: makes one full package of small circle wrappers
  • Difficulty: medium, just for the time
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INGREDIENTS

  • 1 cup brown lentils, cooked and mashed
  • 1/2 cup each finely chopped carrots, snow peas, red pepper, fresh cilantro, green onion
  • 3 teaspoons Szechwan seasoning
  • 1-2 teaspoons sambal oelek with garlic

DIRECTIONS

  1. Mix all ingredients in a large bowl and set aside.
  2. Prepare an area to fill the wrappers (I like using a cutting board for easy clean up), and a bowl with water to seal the wrappers.
  3. Using a teaspoon, scoop the filling onto one wrapper at a time.  brush water along the wrapper edges and fold in half, sealing closed by pressing with your fingers.  To create the crimped edges, fold the edges over itself and seal by using water as needed.
  4. To cook, place two tablespoons oil and 1/4 cup water in a skillet.  Place the potstickers in the skillet, base-down, cover, and heat to medium-high.  Let cook for 7-8 minutes, then remove the lid and let the liquid evaporate or until the bottoms of the potstickers are golden brown and crispy.  Serve with your favorite dipping sauce (mine is a little soy sauce, sesame oil, lime juice, sambal oelek, and green onions).

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When in Doubt…Pizza

Believe it or not, pizza is a speedy go-to meal when you’re short on time…And I’m not talking about delivery.  I have the luxury of being at home, and so I can make my favorite pizza dough and let it rise {and meanwhile read some chapters or edit a paper for a class}.  If you’re on the way home from work, though, swing by your grocery store and pick up some ready-made pizza dough.  The dough is the part that takes the longest, the rest is just food creativity.

The toppings are completely up to you.  You can go traditional margherita pizza with tomatoes, cheese, and basil, or make a veggie flatbread without cheese or sauce…or a hybrid of the two with veggies and cheese.  I love the potato and onion combo I had on focaccia when I was in Italy, and so love it as a flatbread topping–except I add mixed greens and caramelize the onions.  A new favorite is leeks and artichoke hearts.

Crank your oven to 450F while you prepare your toppings, assemble, and it’s a quick 20 minute bake until dinner time!


MEATLESS PIZZA TOPPINGS

  • Servings: prepare as many toppings as you like!
  • Difficulty: easy
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I’m just going to list meatless toppings combination ideas to get your pizza juices flowing…have fun!

MARGHERITA
red sauce, fresh mozzarella, tomatoes, basil

POTATO & ONION
very thinly sliced red potatoes, caramelized onions (thinly slice a yellow onion, sauté on low heat with olive oil, salt, and a tablespoon of sugar, stir and sauté until onions are cooked down and sweet), fresh mixed greens

LEEK & ARTICHOKE 
thinly sliced leeks (sautéed in olive oil and butter), artichoke hearts (marinated from a jar), fresh mozzarella

ROASTED SQUASH
red sauce, roasted acorn squash, mixed greens, caramelized onion, dollops of fresh ricotta, walnuts

GREEN & RED PIZZA
red sauce, mixed greens, broccoli, thinly sliced red onion, red pepper flakes, fresh mozzarella

GREEN & PEPPERY
fresh arugula, olive oil, fresh Parmiggiano-Reggiano shavings (I ordered this pizza in the piazza in Siena almost 20 years ago, and still remember it to this day as the best pizza I’ve ever had–sharp and peppery from the arugula and sharp and rich from the cheese)

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One-Pot Dinner

Well, I made it through my first semester of Grad School with two A’s in my pocket and my kids are still alive!  Here are some tips for success, if you find yourself in a similar situation:

  1. Forget about cleaning.  I mean, do a quick wipe-down on a weekly basis…but if it’s between reading your chapters for the week, writing a paper, or scrubbing the toilet, you know where your loyalties lie.
  2. Reconcile yourself to the fact that your social life will not just go down the drain, but it will be plungered and flushed away.  You just won’t have time during the semester, so all your pre-grad-school friends will probably move on to other more available friends.  And when you do have a break between semesters, your time will be spent reacquainting yourself with your husband, whom you have ignored for the previous four months, and convincing your children you are more than just “boring mommy”.
  3. Cut your hair.  I was in the “growing-out” phase, but in the hard in-between time when it was too short to pull into a pony tail and too long to just let air dry without turning into a poofy mess.  So I went back to the choppy pixie crop.  Time management is all about priorities, and I gotta say, I love that my whole shower to make up to hair routine now takes 20-30 minutes tops.
  4. Get reading glasses.  You may not need them now, but by week 5, you will.  So go ahead and stock up at the dollar store now, so when it’s time to hit the books, you can keep on hitting without those pesky headaches.  And wearing glasses just adds to your short hair, making you look more academic.
  5. Lower your dinner expectations.  By a lot. Costco’s ready-made quinoa tabbouleh salad is my new go-to.  If I couldn’t pull dinner together in 10-20 minutes, it didn’t happen.

I also instituted a new dinner initiative.  Instead of making dinner to order like I used to do, for each little member of my family, I made one meal.  We now call it “Real Dinner”.  The little family members are required to have one bite of Real Dinner.  If they like it, they get to eat the rest of Real Dinner served to them.  If they don’t like it, they are not allowed to make gagging noises, say “I don’t like that”, or “But mommy, that’s gross”; they politely request a dinner substitution by saying, “No thank you, I would not like Real Dinner tonight.  Could I please have Prison Food?”  Upon which they receive one slice of bread (no butter, jam, or honey), and water.  This really works!  But, fair warning, it is really hard to keep a straight face while your children are politely asking for Prison Food.

I treated school like a full-time job (after my full-time mommy job, of course), so I set Monday through Friday as my work hours, and used Saturdays only if I was completely swamped.  This happened a few times, as my classes were doubled up the second half of the semester (I don’t remember much from the last 7 weeks).  I also had to use Saturdays as my long run days–I’m training for the Zion Trail Ragnar!  Saturdays were definitely a needed running outlet–kept everything balanced.

One-pot dinners are life savers.  I just had to try One Pot Spaghetti from Martha Stewart–I was really skeptical that noodles, water, fresh tomatoes, onions, and basil would all come together while in the same pot, but it was magic!  You really just throw everything together, and the tomatoes turn into a flavorful sauce, the onions cook down to a sweet note, and the basil keeps things peppery.  Need a 20 minute one-pot dinner?  This is it!

And now on to deep-cleaning my house.  My bathrooms are gonna sparkle this week like no other sparkle on earth!


ONE-POT SPAGHETTI

  • Servings: 4 bowls
  • Difficulty: easy
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From Martha Stewart’s One Pot Cookbook

INGREDIENTS

  •  1 12oz. box angel hair spaghetti
  • 12oz. cherry tomatoes sliced in half, or 6 roma tomatoes, chopped
  • 1 yellow onion, thinly sliced
  • 4 garlic cloves, grated on a medium ribbon grater
  • 6 fresh basil leaves, roughly chopped
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)
  • 4 1/2 cups water
  • freshly grated Parmiggiano-Reggiano cheese

DIRECTIONS

  1. Combine all ingredients except for the grated cheese in a large pot.  Bring to a boil over high heat.  Cook, stirring frequently with tongs, until al dente and water has nearly evaporated, about 10 minutes.
  2. Serve with grated cheese and a sprinkle of olive oil.