Circus Life: Outside the recipe box

“Wow, will you get me the recipe for that?”

How I dread that question!  Not because I’m a really mean person and my mother never taught me to share, but because I rarely have a recipe!  Really!  And truth be told, frugal, healthy, cooking and baking is all about getting outside the recipe box anyway.  You have to know how ingredients function and taste in a finished product (does it provide lift? moisture? make it more or less dense?).  You also have to know possible substitutions that provide the same or similar taste or functions, whether that’s to make the finished product more healthy, or more economical, or simply because that’s what you have one hand. (And if you’re like me, you can’t run into the store for “just one thing.”  So you can use what you have, keep yourself out of that store, and your budget stays happy!)

I think one of the easiest ways to start getting out of the recipe box is, ironically, with a great base recipe.  With a little creativity, you can begin to alter your base recipe turning a fantastic banana bread recipe, into an apple cinnamon bread, or even a cinnamon coffee cake with a crumb topping (Yum!  This morning’s breakfast…).  You’ll start to see what the core players are (what are the sweeteners, what makes it rise (does it need to rise?) what adds the protein, where is the acid to interact with the leavening agent, what’s the bready foundation (you know, the flour, the oats, whatever….no, I don’t know the technical term.  Enlighten me if you do.)  A little experimenting, and before you know it, you’ll be whipping up pumpkin muffins (because you bought that entire case of canned pumpkin when it was on sale in October and all but 3 cans are still sitting in our pantry) without a “recipe” in no time.

To get you started, here’s a base for a simple quick bread.  Make this super easy for yourself by dumping all the ingredients into your bread machine and setting it on the dough setting (because that is the setting that starts stirring immediately).  Once its mixed (you may need to help it out with a rubber spatula if you’re worried about over mixing), pull out the paddle, close the machine and set it on “bake only” for about 45-55min.  (Note: My bread machine won’t let me turn it back on once the timer turns off because it senses the unit is too hot.  Out smart the machine by setting on a later time (maybe 60 min) and then setting another timer to remind yourself to check it at 45 minutes, that way you can easily keep it in for a few more minutes).

Quick bread:

2 cups of flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

3/4 cup sugar

2 1/2 tablespoons oil

2 eggs

something fruity/moist- a cup’s worth or so


Oh my word!  3/4 cup of sugar!  How can you feed your children that for breakfast?!  I thought you were a super healthy food, oats and berries, organic, kale at every meal, crunchy granola kinda mommy?

Yes, I know.  Ah, how stereo-types turn around and bite us in the rear…  But since we’re being all honest here, how much sugar is in that breakfast cereal that was on the table this morning?  And lets not forget, this is a BASE recipe.  Don’t like the sugar?  Leave it out!  You’re the cook, its up to you!

Personally, I’ve never added that much sugar, and its plenty sweet for us.  If I’m using apple sauce in the recipe, I’m probably going to use very little, if any sugar (and I’d probably omit the oil , too!).  And I’m probably not going to use 2 cups of all purpose flour, either.  I’m probably going to use about 3/4 of all purpose, a half cup of rolled oats and about 1/4 whole wheat flour.  (Yes, I know this does not add up to 2 cups, but I also know that the oats and the whole wheat tend to make my finished products too dense and dry, so I use a little less of them.)  I might use some yogurt for some extra moisture if it looks dry, or some milk if I don’t have yogurt.  I’m probably going to add in about 1/4 cup of flax, because, well, flax just tastes good.  Plus, it has a whole bunch of healthy omega 3 fats (you know the ones they tell you to eat fish to get) and fiber. Yes, I said fiber.  ::Hangs head::  I am getting old.

I might use two of the bananas that are getting mushy on the counter, or I might use those frozen blueberries from last summer.  Whatever I use, you can bet I’m not going out to the store to get something special for it (again, I’m frugal.  Its also 10pm and I’m in my pajamas.)

Yes, its 10pm and I’m tired.  The only thing I’m even taking the time to measure are the flour type ingredients.  I’m only using the 1 cup scoop and estimating about where the ingredients should fall in the scoop.  A quick flick of the wrist with the open baking powder container, should be close enough. (Oh how my middle school Home Ec. teacher would cringe!)  Because at the end of the day, does it really matter if I get a teaspoon of baking powder or a teaspoon and  quarter?  I need to get it done, so I can get to the 20 something other things I have to do, so I can get a few hours of sleep before the clowns and monkeys wake up.

To quote one of my husband’s favorite movies:

“Look, Robin, you don’t have to do this.  I mean, this ain’t exaclty the Mississippi.  I’m on one side, I’m on the other side.  I’m on the east bank, I’m on the west bank. It’s not that critical.” -Dave Chappelle as Ahchoo in Robin Hood: Men in Tights, 1993.

And its not.  Critical, I mean.  Its always edible, and its more healthy than those cocoa balls and marshmallow horse shoes for sure. And worse comes to worst, you throw some sprinkles on top.  The kids will eat it up just fine…

Happy ingredient experimenting!

(Oh, and pureed kale actually does go well in an apple bread….just sayin’.)


Circus Grapes

Oh the directions a post entitled “Circus Grapes” could go…but alas, entertaining though it may be, I’m not talking about the adult juice variety of grapes.  Just plain ‘ole grapes; grapes with a lot of seeds and tough skin, to be exact. 

We bought them at the farmers market and man, they sure looked good.  They were indeed tasty, but basically not edible with all the seeds and thick skins.  So they sat, cold, lonely and essentially untouched in my refrigerator.  Every time the door opened to retrieve a sippy cup, or tasty snack they shouted “What are you going to do with us?  Please don’t throw us away, don’t let us rot here and get soft and moldy!  HELP US!!” 

I had to use up those poor grapes.  I had to give them a greater purpose than their destined addition to the compost bin.  What to do?  Also in the crisper were some baby eggplants and orange peppers that had no future prospects. 

……Yucky grapes, eggplant, peppers…..yucky grapes, eggplant, peppers…..Hm………


Sweet and Sour Meatballs! 

How does one go from yucky grapes to sweet and sour meatballs?  Like this:

IHF (I Had it in the Fridge) Meatballs


Grapes (about 3-4 bunches)

3 tablespoons corn starch

1/2 cup granulated sugar

4 tablespoons ketchup

3 tablespoons rice wine vinegar

3 tablespoons soy sauce

garlic powder (a couple shakes)

2 orange bell peppers

2 hot banana peppers (or other slightly spicy pepper)

1/2  onion

10 baby eggplant (give or take a couple)

olive oil

2lbs ground beef

breadcrumbs (4 heels of bread worth)

2 eggs


1)   Make the “jelly”.  Wash your grapes, put them in a sauce pan on medium high heat.  Cover.  Cook until soft and then press with potato masher.  Carefully pour into strainer positioned over another sauce pan.  Allow to drain for a few minutes, and it won’t hurt to press the pulp the masher a little more to get as much juice out as you can.  Discard the pulp.  Add sugar and cornstarch to the juice, bring to a boil, while stirring.  Remove from heat.

2) Sauce.  In a crock pot combine ketchup, soy sauce, vinegar, your grape “jelly”, and garlic powder.  Taste and adjust flavor by adding more of the above ingredients to taste.

3) Add chopped peppers and onions to the crock pot.  Cook on high.

4) Throw your bread heels in the food processor.  Pulse until coarse crumbs. 

5) Place breadcrumbs, ground beef, and eggs in a bowl. Mix with hands.  Roll into small meatballs. 

6) Brown meatballs on the stove.  They don’t have to be all the way cooked through, just browned (I like them a little crispy, I get the pan very hot and sort of sear the outsides). 

7) Add meatballs to the sauce.  Make sure they are in the crock pot long enough to cook through (an hour or so on high should do it).

8) Chop eggplant into small cubes.  Sprinkle with salt and allow to sit on paper towels for 10 min or so.  Place eggplant in a small baking dish with a little olive oil.  Bake for about 10 min at 425 degrees.  Add to the crock pot.  When meatballs are cooked and veggies are soft enough for your liking, turn crock pot to warm.  It’ll be ready when you are.

Serve over rice.