Recipe 101: Easy Creamy Dressing (and Broccoli Salad)

Having a great toolbox of basic recipes you can use for more than one dish is one of the best things you can do to maximize your time in the kitchen. I absolutely believe that mastering a few techniques and flexible recipes or recipe guidelines — think pan sauces, vinaigrettes, omelets — will build your confidence in the kitchen big-time. When you think about “cooking dinner” it can be overwhelming. Multiply that by seven days a week and I think we all feel a little intimidated. But the basics of cooking can be very simple, and once you have them you can treat them as building blocks to scale even the tallest mountain of meal planning. I’ll have both Recipe and Technique 101 series to help you get comfortable with making meals on the fly as well as building an understanding of how one recipe can serve two or three different roles through the week.
(Links may be affiliate links.)

Everyone loves broccoli salad with salty bacon, sweet dried cranberries, and crunchy sunflower seeds. Be the hit of your next potluck, or just make it for dinner at home! Plus, the dressing can be used for cole slaw, poppyseed dressing, and more!

Our First Tool: Easy Creamy Dressing

Easy creamy salad dressing uses just three main ingredients, plus salt and pepper, and whips up fast.
Just a few ingredients you probably have on hand anyway!

I know. You’re probably thinking I’m off my rocker, but a basic creamy salad dressing will see you through entertaining season easily. Mayonnaise-based dressings have been popular for a very long time (look at any early-mid 20th century cookbook), and I think they secretly continue to be so, but we just don’t talk about them as much because they’re not kale. You can put them on kale, though, so win-win.

This base works for coleslaw, broccoli salad, carrot and raisin salad, and layered salads (and more), and can be transformed into poppyseed or blue cheese dressing. I think it’s perfect for so many occasions, and the salads tend to be both crowd- and family-pleasers. I like making things I know will be a hit. I think we all do, right? Today I’ll share the dressing and a recipe for broccoli salad, but you’ll see it come up in future recipes too!

This recipe also provides an excellent and easy introduction to ratios in cooking. More on that at the end of the recipe.

Here’s the basic recipe:

Easy Creamy Dressing

Ingredients
1-1/2 cups mayonnaise
1/2 cup granulated sugar, or Swerve for our low-carb friends – I use less Swerve than sugar, despite what the bag says; about 1/4 cup here
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1-1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Directions
Combine all ingredients in a bowl and whisk (a fork works if you can’t find your wire whisk) to combine. Taste for salt and sugar. Store until needed, up to a week in the refrigerator.

That was easy, right? So now what do you do with it?

A note on the mayonnaise here: I vastly prefer Hellmann’s for this application. I love homemade mayonnaise, but for some reason the name brand holds up better here.

Once you’ve made it, you can see if you’d like it to be more or less sweet and so adjust the sugar, etc. There are so few ingredients, you’ll soon have mastered your own perfect version.

Here’s another thing to notice and start picking up: Some things are made by basic ratios, especially baked goods and dressings. Here, the ratio is 1 part vinegar to 2 parts sugar to 6 parts mayonnaise. This makes it easy to scale. If you’d like a smaller amount, say, you only have 3/4 of a cup of mayonnaise, all you have to do is adjust the other ingredients according to the ratio. So, the mayonnaise makes up 6 parts; 3/4 cup divided by 6 is 0.125 cups which is (and I’ll elaborate on this soon) 1/8 cup or 2 tablespoons. That means your vinegar is 1 part, or 2 tablespoons; sugar is 2 parts = 4 tablespoons = 1/4 cup; and mayonnaise is 3/4 cup. You can do this for any amount, and if you can’t remember the quantities you can always think 1:2:6 vinegar:sugar:mayo. Learning to think this way will eventually transform how you look at recipes.

 


Something to Try: Broccoli Salad

Simple sweet and tangy broccoli salad is so easy to make, and has a great mix of flavors and textures.
Mmm – crunchy, chewy, tangy, sweet, and actually pretty good for you. What’s not to love?

I happened to have all the ingredients on hand for this, so it’s what I made with my last batch of mayo dressing. I love broccoli salad. Many people do, and it usually only turns up on holiday tables and at potlucks;  it’s a nice surprise to serve it at home from time to time. It’s much better if you give the flavors a few hours to meld. That lets the broccoli soften and absorb some of the dressing, and the dressing picks up the nuance of the bacon and onion (which itself becomes less sharp and more pickled). I find it’s fine for a couple days, though by the end of day two it’s starting to get a little soggy, and on day three it’s definitely not what I’d call crunchy.

Broccoli Salad

Ingredients
1 head broccoli, cut into florets (about 3-4 cups)
1/4 cup onion, finely diced
1/4 cup sunflower seeds, hulls off
1/4 cup dried sweetened cranberries
4oz shredded or cubed Cheddar cheese
1/4 cup crumbled cooked bacon, or 6-8 strips (Costco sells great real bacon bits you can use, too)
1 recipe Easy Creamy Salad Dressing as given (i.e. with 1-1/2 cups mayonnaise), but you can adjust this based on whether you like more or less dressing

Directions
Place all ingredients in a large bowl (preferably one with a seal; I use my Tupperware Thatsa Bowls, obviously). Toss or fold with a spatula.

Let rest in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes; several hours to overnight is preferable. This does really well when made ahead.


I hope you’ll try the dressing and salad in your next meal plan! Let me know if you do – I’d love to hear about it. Join my Facebook group or comment here!

Continue Reading

Keto Diet Adventures, Part One

This past week, I started a keto (ketogenic) diet. I spent ages reading about it on Facebook groups and on Reddit, and finally decided it couldn’t be worse than other options, and it might help with my chronic fatigue and mood issues. I try to be body positive and don’t suggest that weight loss in and of itself is a good thing necessarily, but I also wouldn’t mind the side effect of losing some weight for myself. So here we are. This is kind of a long, rambling diary with some ideas; future posts will be more focused on helpful tips, but I thought it might be encouraging to see an exhausted mom’s experience just diving in. (Amazon links are affiliate links.)

Day One

I arbitrarily picked the day after Labor Day to get started with keto and, in spite of completely mismanaging the grocery shopping due to the holiday, I actually did it. I was pretty impressed with myself.  Maybe you do the “but it’s not perfect” thing too – I get so hung up on details and making sure everything is just so that I never actually take action. It’s something I’m working on. (As a small aside, that’s true for this blog, too; it’s not laid out or set up exactly the way I’d like it, but I wanted to get it off the ground and THEN worry about the fiddly bits.)

keto diet adventures

So. So! I forgot that day one was also my son’s first day of preschool. Instead of the delicious cream cheese pancakes I’d anticipated, I ended up drinking Bulletproof Coffee instead. That’s black coffee thrown in a blender with butter and coconut oil. I think you’re supposed to use MCT oil, but I don’t have that, so. I added some Ez-Sweetz since I already had it on hand – I really like it for sweetening beverages; it doesn’t have a weird aftertaste, at least to me – and you know, it was pretty good. I was not at all convinced that it would be. I mean, really? Emulsified coffee? I think I liked the coconut flavor, though, so I’m not sure how I’d feel about the MCT oil version. (This, apparently, is better because it’s all medium-chain triglycerides. I don’t know. Again, I’m going with the “sort the details later” approach!) I also wasn’t hungry until lunch time, in spite of running around doing errands. Wild.

Lunch ended up just being eggs cooked like a crepe, since there was much fussing and screaming. We had nice horseradish dill chevre from our CSA. Both kids were happy to eat “egg pancake,” though honestly B will eat anything. I had some arugula or spinach with mine, I can’t remember which now. The baby eats spinach. The preschooler does not.

For dinner, instead of delicious wings (because Aldi was sold out), we had cheeseburgers. I ate a big salad with mine, and everyone else got a bun. Snacks were cheese and turkey sausage sticks, also from Aldi. (You’ll notice a theme around here, which is: I love Aldi.)  I felt pretty good all day and thought, hey, this won’t be so bad! I wasn’t even tempted to buy the Jaffa cakes. Well, for like ten seconds. Keto had me feeling pretty boss, I have to say.

Day Two

When I woke up on the second day, I felt hungover and generally awful. Keto flu, apparently, is a thing. I thought some caffeine might help, but it didn’t, really. So for lunch I ate tomatoes, spinach, chicken, and put lite salt on everything. Lite salt has potassium to spare, and is an important tool in the keto arsenal, it seems. I didn’t believe this could actually help but it did. I felt human again. Lesson learned: Keep up on the electrolytes. Apparently they’re really important if you are burning fat instead of carbs, as in a keto diet.

I totally had another cheeseburger for dinner, because they were around. So I need to work on meal diversity a little; this is another point where I could have thrown in the towel but decided instead to make do with good enough and use what was in the house. I can’t get over that I actually did. This is not typical for me.

After dinner, I found I was still pretty hungry, and I needed some serious fat grams and basically no carbs. I ended up making cream cheese frosting with Kerrygold butter, cream cheese, and Swerve confectioners-style sugar substitute. I bought a bundle on Amazon with granulated and powdered, basically hoping they’d taste OK, and they absolutely do. I couldn’t pick up any aftertaste. So, I love Ez-Sweetz for beverages and Swerve for baking/cooking, so far. Anyway, then I ate a quarter cup of frosting. I felt completely ridiculous, but hey, just following the macros, right?

keto friendly drink in hydroflask
If you’re going to do keto, you NEED a water bottle you like.

Day Three

So day three, I started the day with a 40oz Hydroflask filled with ice water. I added orange-tangerine Mio (that squeeze flavoring stuff you can buy at the grocery store) and like 2tsp of lite salt. It tastes like saltier Gatorade, but I put extra salt in margaritas and drink pickle juice, so that’s all good by me. I drank lots of this all day long and didn’t end up feeling gross. G likes it too but I don’t want to give him too much because I don’t know about salt load and young kidneys. Keeping it away from him constitutes exercise, I think. At this point my weight had actually gone up 2 pounds, but whatever.

I grabbed breakfast at Taco Bell since I didn’t have time to eat before taking G to preschool. It turns out you can order anything on their menu as a side, so I got eggs, steak, and cheese in a bowl. The mild sauce packets are free, too. It was tasty as heck.

Lunch and dinner were just simple; pastrami and cheese, and rotisserie chicken with lotsa zucchini and mushrooms.

Day Four

Lunch was great. I used my Tupperware Smart Steamer (on which more anon, but it’s on sale right now; here’s my Tupperware site) to make cod and spinach. I put unsalted butter on it and pretended it was lobster (cod is good for that). It was actually quite tasty and both cod and spinach have lots of potassium. I actually missed breakfast – I definitely have to do some make-ahead stuff like egg bakes.

Day Five

So here I am on day five. I haven’t given in and eaten a strawberry Pop-Tart yet, which means I just might make it. I weighed myself this morning and, from the highest point during the week, was down 9 pounds. Now, I am significantly obese and have a lot to lose, and a lot of that is water weight. But still. I should’ve signed up for a Dietbet, eh? I wouldn’t say I’m feeling a lot of energy, but I feel… okay. My face has started to break out like crazy, and I don’t know if it’s detoxing or what. Hopefully that goes away. I’ve read that going carb or gluten-free can result in clearer skin in the long term. I don’t see any difference in my face or anything but I’m sure I will eventually.

Today I plan to try a low-carb cheesecake. I’ll be sure to share it with you!

Have you tried a keto or low-carb diet? How did it work for you in terms of energy and mood, especially?

Continue Reading

4 Ways to Do Meal Prep Without Really Doing Meal Prep

I love the idea of meal prep. The neat, orderly containers, all ready to go for the week, lined up and snapped for Instagram posterity. Having everything ready to go before the week even begins. It’s like a dream, right? And sometimes, I manage to actually do it. But more often, I am not able to spend a few hours in the kitchen on a single day. Sometimes, pain gets in the way; sometimes, it’s kids who are teething or sick or just ornery; sometimes, my calendar just won’t cough up a single extra hour, let alone three.

So it rarely happens here.

And yet, starting lunch and dinner from scratch every day is daunting. Having something you know you can fall back on when there’s no time or energy is priceless. I’d like to share how you can handle this so you have at least something ready and waiting in the fridge or freezer.

If you love the idea of meal prep but can't seem to actually get it done, check out these easy ideas!

Maximize the time you already spend in the kitchen.

This is something that I picked up while working in restaurant kitchens. There, multitasking is a necessity, and all the cooks have multiple things going on at any given time. At home, we can use the idea on a smaller scale to help make the best use of valuable minutes.

It doesn’t give you a glorious heap of ready-cooked food all at once, but it helps in a really practical way. Especially if you have an Instant Pot (Amazon affiliate link) or other electric pressure cooker, make a habit of using it when you’re in the kitchen anyway. Even if you don’t, keep notes on things that are pretty much “set and forget” for reasonable periods of time. This is the idea that I think makes the most difference, so I’m going to be a little more specific. Having a couple things you can use as kitchen timers is really helpful here, since you may need one for what you’re actively cooking and one for the stuff simmering in the background.


Here are some specific ideas:

  • Hard-boiled eggs. If you have an Instant Pot, these could not possibly be easier; you put them on the trivet with water underneath. Six eggs, six minutes at high pressure, six minutes of natural pressure release, then quick release the rest and put them in a cold water bath. It takes about a minute to get them into the pot and you then have 10-15 minutes before you have to deal with them again. You can make grilled cheese or saute fish or any number of other things in that time. You can make them on the stove top, too.
  • Brown ground beef. This does take a little stirring, but not a whole lot. You can freeze the beef in packets and add seasoning later for tacos; throw it in spaghetti sauce (from a jar, gasp); mix with sloppy joe sauce; use in quesadillas; etc.
  • Cook chicken breasts or thighs. Again, the Instant Pot is invaluable here; you just chuck them in with liquid and press a button. You don’t even have to thaw them. Do something else for half an hour or so while they come up to pressure and cook. I like to cook in chicken broth (thanks, Better Than Bouillon) and save it – then I can just add noodles, cooked chicken, maybe some parsley if I feel fancy, and have soup for a meal. The chicken can be used for tons of stuff; chicken salad, tacos, enchilada filling, salad topping, etc.
  • Roast veggies. This is especially easy if you have veggies you don’t have to chop, such as small potatoes (ha!), carrots, tomatoes, precut broccoli or cauliflower, small eggplant, etc. If you have a mandoline, prepping some into strips or slices is a little faster. I like to put parchment paper on a half sheet tray, toss the veggies with olive oil and salt, and roast at 400F – but you can fiddle with the temperature if you have something else in the oven. It helps to have everything be nearly the same size. You may still want to check in occasionally and remove stuff that looks done. During CSA season I can do two sheet trays at once and have lots of delicious vegetables to use as a side, in a salad, to puree for soup, put on sandwiches, in pasta, or whatever. I’ve never had enough to freeze, alas.
  • Make a quick bread or one-bowl cake recipe. These are usually simple enough, especially if you measure ingredients by weight. It makes cleanup significantly easier. Trust me. The smell will warm up your whole house, and I always feel particularly accomplished when I have something home baked to give my family.

I hope you can use some of these ideas to make mealtimes a little easier by having premade components on hand. Learning to multitask in the kitchen is a really valuable skill, and if you start out with simple things you can develop the habit without becoming overwhelmed.

Make extra servings when you’re cooking anyway.

Scaling a recipe up, for most of us, is a pretty efficient use of time. It doesn’t take too much longer to chop three onions than it does one. I’m one of those picky people who don’t really enjoy eating leftovers, so just making larger quantities doesn’t always work – but knowing how to repurpose certain foods really does help. And there are some foods that I think are just fine as-is; maybe there are a few for you and your family, too. Here, chili, enchiladas, and lasagna are all welcome for encore performances. Some other things that I don’t want to eat again right away can go into the freezer instead and come back out later. And some, like a beef roast, roasted veggies, or sauteed chicken breast, can transform into sandwiches, nacho topping, hash, salad component, taco filling, etc.

Stock up on shortcuts.

Did you know they sell frozen diced onions? They do, and they’re just fine for many recipes where there’s no need for deep caramelization. While my former professional cook self might throw in a token protest about developing levels of flavor, the fact is that many of us just throw stuff into a slow cooker or pressure cooker and call it a day. Why not save some work if you can? It’s not just the chopping time here but the cleanup of the counter and cutting board. You can also buy frozen julienned bell peppers (at Trader Joe’s, and some other stores); frozen chopped herbs in cubes with olive oil. There’s pre-cubed cheese (personally, I don’t love the pre-shredded, because it’s got anti-caking stuff on it, but I mean – if it works for you, buy it), herbed butter, mashed potatoes already made for you. I really like Better Than Bouillon, since so many recipes call for broth or stock, and I never manage to make it often enough. All of these things are of reasonably decent quality and are comparable in price to their fresh counterparts. Well, except the mashed potatoes, but if it’s your comfort food, you can justify it. At least I can.

Use convenience foods to help with meal prep.
Sometimes it’s OK to use convenience food – really!

 

Throw a few premade things in your cart, too.

If pizza rolls are wrong, most American kids don’t want to be right. Birdseye makes Steamfresh veggies, and offers several varieties already mixed with pasta and sauce. They’re cheap enough for most food budgets, especially with a coupon. Maybe your family likes frozen pot pies or take and bake pizzas. And don’t forget the king of this category: The rotisserie chicken. You can do so much with a rotisserie chicken it’s almost silly NOT to buy one. (At Costco, in particular, the chickens are so inexpensive they’re almost a gift.) I’ll have a separate post with ideas for a rotisserie chicken soon, but it makes a perfect dinner after grocery shopping. Everyone is too tired to cook after grocery shopping. It’s not just you. Buy the chicken. Eat the chicken. Relax.

 

I hope some of these ideas are helpful. I firmly believe that learning to multitask in the kitchen is a life-changing skill, and you can start small and build your confidence. Thinking ahead and using good shortcuts can save time and energy so you can use your resources for other things. Do you have any favorite tips to share?

 

Continue Reading