Chicken Pumpkin Stew

Last Sunday, Dan and I put up our holiday decorations. It was two days after Thanksgiving, which had been nice and filling, but not incredibly painful and indulgent. Nevertheless, I was in the mood for something filling but not super-heavy to round out the weekend and to enjoy after we set up our house for the holidays.

I wanted to use the small butternut squash from our Hungry Harvest box the week before as well as some of the pumpkin purée I’d made in October and have frozen in the freezer. I decided to make a pumpkin stew. I looked up a couple recipes for ideas but didn’t follow any particular one. On the stovetop in my Lodge enameled cast iron Dutch oven, I progressively added each of the following (all amounts ‘ish’):

  • 1 tbsp bacon fat
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 green bell pepper, chopped
  • 1 red bell pepper, chopped
  • 1 small butternut squash, after peeling, removing seeds, and cutting into 1/2 to 1 inch cubes. Ish.
  • About 1.3 lbs boneless, skinless chicken breasts
  • About 1.3 lbs boneless, skinless chicken thighs
  • 4? Cloves garlic
  • 3 tbsp chili powder
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tbsp cumin
  • 1 tsp paprika
  • 1 tsp cayenne pepper powder
  • 1 tsp chipotle chili powder
  • 4 cups homemade pumpkin purée
  • 1 28-oz can crushed tomatoes
  • 4 cups low sodium chicken broth

I let it come to a boil, then put the lid mostly on and put it on low to simmer for 90 minutes. I then added a bit more chili powder and salt. I definitely should have added more spices at the beginning. It was tasty, but not spicy (or spiced-tasting).

We garnished with lime juice, cilantro, green onion, and Dan added some shredded cheese. We froze the leftovers and have been continuing to eat them. It’s thick and hearty without feeling too heavy.

And our house is decorated! We put on holiday music and got it done. Dan spent most of the time getting the lights on the outside railing while I put ornaments on the tree. Penelope had a blast hanging out in the box with the newspaper that had been used to wrap the ornaments.

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Real Plans

I’ve been saying I would write about Real Plans. Here it is! Real Plans is a web app/online service that provides a meal plan for the week and a corresponding timeline and shopping list. It’s pretty user friendly and very customizable.

When starting (and at any point after starting), you set diet and meal preferences. For diet, you can choose from things like traditional (I think that’s just everything), paleo, vegetarian, gluten-free, etc. From there, you can further customize to include or exclude certain food groups or ingredients. For meal preferences, you can select which meals each week you want it to plan for you, how many servings you want those meals to default to, and what kinds of meals they’ll be (soup/salad, quick, make ahead, etc.). After adjusting all your settings, you click a button, and voila, it spits out a meal plan for the week according to all the settings you entered. It pulls from it’s own database of thousands of recipes, and you can also import your own into the Recipe Box. You can then further customize it by modifying or replacing the meals, adding notes, deleting meals, etc. It creates a shopping list for the meals for that week; you can check off what you already have or add additional things to it. And it creates a timeline, so (as long as you think to look at it), you are reminded to take meat out of the freezer to thaw on time and what not. Pretty snazzy.

So let’s break this down into some pros, cons, and things I’ve learned to maximize my experience.

Cost

I started with the one-month plan ($14, plus $1 to add on a subscription to Paleomg recipes, because that’s where I heard about Real Plans, so wanted to support Juli Bauer). After a couple of weeks, I liked it enough that I decided to go all in and change my subscription to annual, which is $6/month ($7 with the Paleomg subscription). I figured if I got tired of it before the year was out, that’s fine, the net difference in cost of doing a few more months versus a whole year wasn’t too different. Real Plans credited my initial one-month subscription to my year-long subscription, which seemed like good Customer Service to me, and they were really easy to deal with (all over email – quick and painless).

The argument could be made that Real Plans saves costs by preventing one from buying more than they need and letting things go to waste. I never really had that problem, so that wasn’t an issue for me. And actually, I started to have a little bit of that problem when I first started Real Plans because I was having it plan too many meals for me (more than I could actually make, ending up with too many leftovers). I faithfully followed the shopping list so ended up with all this food (especially produce) that I had to use, but was having trouble keeping up. I think I’ve now found a good balance, though.

All in all, I think the cost is totally worth it. I kind of see it as in between something like totally going off the cuff or doing your own thing and something like Blue Apron. It takes some of the guesswork out, but still allows some creativity or changes – and doing my own shopping.

Recipes and Variety

I’ve generally liked all the recipes. They’re all very manageable (reasonable number of ingredients, relatively low complexity, don’t take too much time). I have felt like there hasn’t been quite enough variety this month since I’ve chosen a strictly paleo diet (while doing a #Whole30), but that’s partly also a factor of the types of meals I’ve chosen. For example, for Sundays, I have my settings for a big make-ahead meal. That means that Sunday is typically slow-cooker-meat day, although it’s been a different slow-cooker-meat recipe most weeks. Wednesday night is set for soup/salad, so there has been a homemade mayo chicken salad often on those nights, though the actual recipe has been different most weeks with different flavors.

This feeling that there hasn’t been enough variety has led me in the past few weeks to add some recipes from other places that I’m interested in making or making again. It’s fairly easy to import recipes from other places on the Internet (although there usually ends up being some manual entry or correction of ingredients). You can also just enter a recipe, although that of course requires manual entry. But it’s been nice to have that option. I’ve gone back through various recipes that I’ve grabbed on Pinterest or in Evernote that I want to make and imported them and replaced some of the Meal Planner meals with those.

As I mentioned in a previous post, since I’ve chosen strictly paleo, the majority of my recipes have been from Paleomg, which, as I noted, is fine, but I’d like more variety. I’m thinking of subscribing to another paleo blogger source (options include WellFed, nom nom paleo, Wellness Mama, and others including some sources for other diets), but I don’t want to have to subscribe to multiple different subscriptions just for more variety. I definitely see a value in supporting these bloggers and their recipes. I think I’d be willing to pay $2-3 more per month and have access to all of them (with Real Plans spreading the wealth among them) and would prefer that to having to choose which specific ones I want to subscribe to. Dunno. Or maybe I’ll ask Real Plans if I can change which one I subscribe to for a few months.

But overall, I find the recipes pretty good. Easy to follow. Nothing too crazy, but not boring either. Definitely solid.

User Interface/ Usability

Overall, the user interface is good. Not amazing, but pretty good. It looks pretty nice and clean, there are pictures for all the recipes, it’s fairly intuitive. The negatives are sort of minor nitpicky things, but they are there nonetheless. A good example: on the Meal Planner page, you are able to move things around (drag and drop like)… but only after you click on Actions, then Modify. It would be more user friendly to just be able to click on something and move it. I often want to be able to look at something’s ingredients/directions and immediately after move it… but to look at the ingredients, you need to be in the not-modify mode and to move it, you have to be in the modify mode. So it’s just a lot of clicking. That’s probably the issue that affects me the most, but there are just little usability things like that.

Also, the phone app feels pretty limited. You can see your meal plan schedule, the recipes, and the shopping list (and interact with the shopping list), but you can’t edit your settings, move things around as easily, or see the nutrition information. They recently updated it, and parts of it are better – such as the shopping list, which used to have a time lag when you checked something off which was super annoying. That’s fixed. But there’s still something about it that’s not super intuitive.

Oh, and speaking of the nutrition information… it’s nice to have that, but it’s not always the most helpful. It’s not always totally clear the amount that the nutrition information is referring to, how it corresponds to the number of servings made. But still, a useful bit of information sometimes.

Other Thoughts

First, I’ve come to rely on Real Plans a lot, which is mostly great… but I also feel like sort of a slave to it sometimes. I don’t want to waste the groceries that I bought at the beginning of the week, so I feel tied to whatever the ‘plan’ was, and then I feel constrained from choosing not to cook one night, or just eating leftovers, or just making something easy. This is partly why I’ve really cut down on the number of meals I have it plan for me. Some weeks I’ll just do 2-3 dinners, and the rest are flexible. If I end up not being able to do something one of the nights, there are still plenty of other nights that I could make it up. But I definitely have come to enjoy sitting down on Saturdays and looking at what the next week’s plan is and making adjustments as I like, then preparing to grocery shop on Sundays.

Second, I don’t know how long Real Plans has been around, but it seems to be taking off a bit right now, so I think there will be more improvements to come. As I mentioned, they recently updated the app, and it’s definitely improvement. They also recently added a #Whole30 package (of course, now that I’m almost finished with this Whole30… but it costs more anyway and I’m doing just fine). But the point is, it’s a dynamic thing and I think will keep getting better.

My Setup

Currently, I have my diet set to paleo, no dairy, and I’ve also excluded non-Whole30 compliant things like alcohol and any type of added sugar or sweeteners. I’ve also excluded shrimp in any form (Real Plans has 14 forms of shrimp as an ingredient) because I really, really hate shrimp.

I have it set to do breakfasts on Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday. I often don’t end up making the Thursday one, and one of the other ones often ends up being a casserole, quiche, or something with a lot of leftovers that I end up eating throughout the following week for breakfast. No lunches. And five dinners, but I often edit it at the beginning of the week down to 3 or 4 for the flexibility I mentioned. These are a mix of make-ahead, quick, soup/salad. I’ve been able to mostly bring leftovers for lunch the next day (or two).

I have my default number of settings set to two. Most recipes are not actually written for two, so this has not always translated. I’ll often have to review a recipe beforehand to make sure that it’s translating right. For things that it’s hard to make half of (quiche in a pie pan, for instance), I’ll bump the servings back up and freeze the leftovers. Same with things like slow cooker meat. That freezes easily, so if I’m going to the effort to slow cook something all day, I’ll do the full amount and just have leftovers.

So that’s that! Overall, I’m really liking it and will stick with it for a while. At some point I might want to throw off the crutch, but at other points I’m sure I’ll want to come back. I’m really glad I’ve discovered it! Below are some photos of meals I’ve made (many of which are also Paleomg recipes, so credit there!).

Tahini Yogurt Sauce

Guys, my love of roasted vegetables knows no bounds. Like, I’m pretty sure that I would be perfectly happy for a really long time to eat nothing but roasted vegetables. But I can’t have everything I write about be about roasted vegetables, so for this I’m choosing to highlight the tahini yogurt sauce that I smothered my roasted vegetables in recently.

I forget what inspired me to make this. It was probably something like, “Oh, I want roasted vegetables. Again.” Followed by: “I should probably also have some protein. Let’s roast some chicken thighs. Oh and you know, I have a shit ton of leftover lettuce from the salad bar lunch we prepared to celebrate my boss’s upcoming baby arrival. I like putting tahini on roasted vegetables, but I need something more… liquidy… to put on a salad. What can I mix with tahini? Yogurt? Yeah, okay. Oh yeah, and I have frozen cauliflower rice in the freezer I could thaw and put on this and it’ll sorta be like a ‘grain’ salad.” Anyway, turns out it was delicious, and I have made this yogurt tahini sauce several times since then.

 

You can google yogurt tahini sauce (like I just did) and find any number of recipes. I unfortunately can’t remember which one I used originally, but I don’t think I followed it exactly then (I may have doubled the tahini because, um, delicious) and haven’t looked it up again since. It was something like:

  • 3/4 – 1 cup of plain yogurt (Greek would probably taste the best and be a good consistency, but I usually eat plain grass-fed yogurt [like Maple Hill Creamery’s which I can find at my local Harris Teeter] and I don’t think I’ve ever seen grass-fed Greek  yogurt. And yes, I know the yogurt itself is not grass-fed.)
  • 2 tbsp lemon juice
  • 2-4 tbsp tahini
  • salt
  • pepper
  • green onion (both the green and white parts) or shallot

Mix it all together and slather some on those roasted vegetables (in this case broccoli, asparagus, and brussels sprouts), cauliflower rice, chicken, and lettuce. Yum. Or just use it as a dipping sauce for whatever.

The second time I made this, I doubled the recipe and stored the leftover in the fridge for a few days. It got more and more tart (in a good way) as the days went on. I wondered if the yogurt was curdling… but I googled and became maybe 70% sure that I wasn’t creating anything dangerous. I feel like I need to spend more time looking into this. In the meantime, if you know any real science in this area, let me know, and until then, maybe eat this all in one go.