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Counter Intelligence: Few ingredients, many meals

By April Hamilton

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Cooking from scratch can be intimidating for some, but, given the proper tools, some simple ingredients and a few kitchen lessons, even the most reluctant cooks can find their way. And they have a great time in the process.

Angie Cavender, the school nurse at the King Center Head Start program, invited me to lead a "cooking healthy on a budget" series for parents with children in her school's program. She had received a grant from the CAMC Civic Affairs Council, and we worked together to design a program that would maximize the funding, the learning and the delicious fun.

The participants had minimal kitchen experience and were somewhat hesitant as I explained the concept of our initial class. "We're going to make three meals from one base recipe." Given the makeshift kitchen and small collection of ingredients their disbelief was completely valid; it is commonly thought that you need a lot of fancy equipment and tons of ingredients to make a meal from scratch.

We set about debunking this myth, beginning with an onion chopping demonstration -- the icebreaker, so to speak (or tear-jerker). Then each mother selected a workstation in our make-do kitchen.

Kelsey James and Takisha Jones worked together to thinly slice purple and green cabbage, and peeled and grated some carrots for a rainbow slaw. Monica Ingram whisked together the slaw dressing. She washed and spun romaine lettuce to accompany the cheddar cheese that Robin Christian grated for Inside-Out Tacos. Jackie Fox helped me brown the meat and onions for the "starter" base.

About one hour from start to finish, through rhythmic chopping and light banter, our supply of common grocery ingredients was transformed into three delicious meals. Our participants were transformed as well. "Look what we made! I'm shocked -- it's awesome," they exclaimed.

We sat down together to enjoy the delicious fruits of our happy labor. "This is sooo good! I can't believe we made this!" I heard someone announce as I crunched my colorful slaw.

According to Nurse Angie, they are already asking when we will be cooking again -- music to my ears!

(If the accompanying recipes look familiar, they were included in part of the series "The Shape We're In" last winter. They are so popular that I thought they would bear repeating. Enjoy!)

Ground Beef Starter

A lightly seasoned ground beef mixture can be ready for any of the following dishes. After cooking, the meat can be divided and cooled, then packaged and frozen, if desired. Alternatively, the "starter" keeps for several days in the refrigerator. Makes 4 to 6 servings per recipe.

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 onions, chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 pounds lean ground beef or ground turkey

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

HEAT olive oil in a large, deep skillet or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until it softens, about 5 to 7 minutes. Add the garlic and stir 1 minute.

CRUMBLE in the raw beef and break up with a large spoon. Add salt and pepper and stir occasionally until the meat is no longer pink.

Note: Remove one-third of the meat to make Asian Noodle Bowl (recipe follows). With the remaining two-thirds of the meat, you can make a delicious taco meat that can be transformed into Sloppy Taco Dogs and Inside-Out Tacos.

Taco Meat

2 heaping teaspoons chili powder

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 14-ounce can diced tomatoes, preferably "fire roasted," with juice

ADD ingredients to the remaining meat in the pot and stir over medium heat until it just begins to bubble.

REDUCE heat and simmer until juices are slightly thickened.

DIVIDE in half. Add a 14-ounce can black beans, drained and rinsed, to half of the taco meat.

Sloppy Taco Dogs

There's really nothing to this -- sloppy taco meat in a hot dog bun!

1/2 recipe of taco meat (without beans) (recipe above)

Whole-wheat hot dog buns, heated if desired

SPLIT the buns open without tearing the seam. Scoop the warm meat into the buns (4 to 6 depending on the size of the crowd).

SERVE with sweet potato fries and coleslaw (recipes follow)

Inside-Out Tacos

These can be as simple or as elaborate as you like. The concept is to put the inside of the taco on the outside. In other words, the lettuce actually serves as a wonderful taco shell, and then top to your liking and sprinkle crunchy corn tortilla "croutons" on top.

1/2 recipe of taco meat (with beans) (recipe above)

1 head romaine lettuce, leaves separated, rinsed and dried

2 corn tortillas

Cooking spray

Salt

Salsa

Guacamole

Sour cream (reduced-fat)

Cheddar cheese, grated

Jalapeño pepper slices

HEAT oven to 375°.

To make the croutons:

CUT corn tortillas into tiny squares and place on a cookie sheet. Lightly spray the squares with cooking spray and sprinkle with a little salt.

BAKE for about 10 minutes, turning once, until golden and crisp. Set aside to cool.

PLACE 3 romaine leaves on each of 4 dinner plates.

DIVIDE the taco meat among the lettuce "shells" and top each with a small spoonful of salsa and guacamole, a dollop of sour cream, a few shreds of cheddar and a jalapeño slice.

SHOWER each plate with a little confetti of tortilla "croutons" and serve.

Asian Noodle Bowl

Add a bit of Asian spice to your ground beef starter to create a totally different dish.

12 ounces dry whole-wheat pasta

1 tablespoon fresh ginger peeled and minced

2 tablespoons soy sauce

Pinch crushed red pepper flakes

1 large carrot, peeled and grated

3 green onions, thinly sliced

1 cup frozen out of shell edamame

3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

1/4 cup reserved (hot) pasta cooking water

Lime wedges

COOK whole-wheat pasta according to package directions, drain and reserve 1/4 cup pasta cooking water.

WHILE pasta cooks, place the 1/3 reserved ground beef starter in a large skillet and heat over medium-high.

STIR in ginger, soy sauce, crushed red pepper flakes, carrot, green onions, edamame, the reserved pasta water and cilantro and heat through, about 5 minutes.

TOSS with pasta and serve with lime wedges, if desired.

Rainbow Coleslaw

This colorful coleslaw is a wonderful partner to the sloppy taco dogs.

1/2 head each red and green cabbage, cored, cut in half, and very thinly sliced

3 carrots, peeled and grated

2 green onions, thinly sliced

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon white or cider vinegar

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

1 clove garlic, minced

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

COMBINE all ingredients in a large bowl, tossing well to evenly coat the salad.

SERVE. Leftovers can be refrigerated for the next day's lunchbox.

Sweet Potato Fries

A tasty alternative to traditional fries.

2 large sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into "shoestrings" (about 1/4-inch thick)

1 tablespoon olive oil

1/2 teaspoon garlic salt or Cajun seasoning

1/4 teaspoon pepper

HEAT oven to 450° and place a rimmed cookie sheet on the middle rack.

PLACE the potatoes in a large bowl and toss with the oil until coated. Sprinkle with the seasonings and toss again.

CAREFULLY remove the hot cookie sheet from the oven and pour the potatoes out onto the sheet in a single layer. Place the sheet in the oven and cook the fries until golden on the underside, about 10 to 15 minutes.

TURN the fries over and continue cooking 5 to 10 minutes longer until crisp and cooked through. If you have a pizza stone, place the cookie sheet on top of the stone in the oven for quicker crisping.

April Hamilton has always said, "Cooking is fun!" She shares her easy, practical recipes for delicious food through her cooking classes for kids and families. April's husband and three daughters help with testing and tasting in their Charleston kitchen. April would love to hear from you: Email aprilskitchencounter@gmail.com.


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