QUINCY -- Lori Brenner adds a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese over the top of a bowl of soup, then offers a guarantee.
"If you like stuffed peppers, you will like this soup," Brenner said.
Stuffed Pepper Soup is a favorite of the Brenners heading into fall along with White Chicken Chili, which can be made on the stovetop or in the slow cooker.
"It is super simple, but very good," Brenner said.
The Quincy woman will serve other slow cooker favorites, like Italian Beef, at many family gatherings along with Creamy Ranch Chicken and Potatoes, which turned a recipe for ranch potatoes into a complete meal. And Spinach-Stuffed Shells offer options to serve as a vegetarian meal or add a meat sauce for a heartier offering.
"It's kind of comfort food to me," Brenner said. "You really can't even taste the spinach for the creaminess of the cheese."
Adding a sweet finish to a meal is Carrot Cake, a tried-and-true recipe from her husband Tim's grandmother. "I didn't even like carrot cake until I had hers. It is melt-in- your-mouth delicious," Brenner said.
Making sure dishes taste good and go together quickly are goals for Brenner as she feeds her husband and their four children -- Hayden, Alexandra, Jackson and Joshua.
"As you do more and more cooking, you will learn what goes together well, what doesn't go together. I can look at a recipe and see certain spices and things in it that I know I will like, that I know my family will like," she said. "You also have to be willing to try eating new things because you may not know that something's going to be good if you've never tried it. I try to tell my children all the time that your taste changes."
Brenner had her start in cooking while growing up in Jacksonville. She and her sister each picked one night a week to cook the family meal, and she soon learned to love spending time in the kitchen.
The time involved in cooking keeps many busy people out of the kitchen -- and helped inspire Brenner's business, Dinner Is In The Bag, which offers parties where guests leave with 10 meals to feed their family along with ready-made meals for the oven or slow cooker available for pickup. More information is available on Facebook at dinner is in the bag or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
"So many people are pressed for time and busy, and they love the idea of just having something they can just throw in the CrockPot or in the oven at the end of the day and not worry about it and still have a home-cooked meal for their family," Brenner said.
Brenner's own family taste tests new possible meals and is happy to share their thoughts on what's good, what's not and what needs tweaking. Some of their own favorite meals didn't make the cut for the business because they didn't work well in the freezer.
"I like putting different flavors together to see what I can come up with, and I like seeking out new recipes, trying new things," Brenner said. "My goal is that every meal is something I'd be willing to feed my own family."
Stuffed Pepper Soup
1 pound lean (90 percent) ground beef
2 cans tomato soup
1 can diced tomatoes
1 1/2 cups chopped bell peppers (any color)
1/2 cup diced onion
1 tablespoon Italian seasoning
2 cups chicken broth
1 can diced tomatoes
1 box Spanish rice mix
Brown ground beef, and add to slow cooker. Add soup, tomatoes, peppers, onion, Italian seasoning and broth. Stir well. Cook on low for three to four hours, until peppers are tender. The add prepared Spanish rice with diced tomatoes, and cook an additional 30 minutes on low. Serve topped with a sprinkling of grated or shaved Parmesan cheese.
White Chicken Chili
3 cans great northern beans
2 cups cooked diced chicken
1 1/2 cups salsa (any kind)
8 ounces pepper jack cheese, cut into one-inch cubes
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 cups water (or more if needed)
Drain and rinse the cans of beans. Place into slow cooker. Add all other ingredients. Stir to mix. Cook on low for seven to eight hours, adding more water as necessary to keep soup consistency. Serve topped with crushed tortilla chips and shredded cheddar as desired.
Creamy Ranch Chicken and Potatoes
5 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
4 cups diced potatoes
1 packet ranch dressing mix
1 can cream of chicken soup
1 (eight-ounce) package low-fat cream cheese
Place all ingredients in slow cooker. Cook on low for seven to nine hours. Serve as is, or chop chicken breasts into chunks and mix together to serve.
1 (3 1/2 to 4 1/2-pound) beef roast
2 packages Italian dressing mix
2 packages brown gravy mix
1 onion soup mix packet
6-7 pepperoncinis, sliced (to taste)
2 cups water
Brown meat on all sides in hot oil in skillet over medium-high heat. Place roast in slow cooker. Mix remaining ingredients well, and pour over meat. Cook on low for 10 to 12 hours. Shred meat, and return to sauce. Serve on crusty bread with provolone cheese and extra pepperoncinis as desired.
Note: Brenner uses chuck roast when making Italian Beef.
Spinach-Stuffed Pasta Shells
18 to 20 jumbo shells
1 1/2 cups chopped fresh spinach leaves
2 eggs, beaten
1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
1 cup low-fat ricotta cheese
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese, divided
1 jar favorite spaghetti sauce
Cook shells according to package instructions, slightly undercooking. Drain, and rinse pasta with cold water to cool. Mix together spinach, eggs, mozzarella, cheddar, ricotta and 1/4 cup Parmesan. Stuff each shell with 3 tablespoons of spinach mixture until all is used. Place shells in a baking dish; a 9x13-inch dish works well. Pour spaghetti sauce evenly over shells. Top with remaining Parmesan. Bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes or until heated through.
1 cup oil
2 cups sugar
3 cups finely shredded carrots (pack loosely when measuring)
2 cups sifted flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla
Combine oil, sugar and eggs in a mixing bowl. Separately mix baking powder, baking soda, salt and cinnamon into the flour in another bowl. Alternately add flour mixture and carrots into egg mixture with electric mixer until all is combined. Add vanilla, and mix well.
Bake in a 9x13-inch pan at 325 degrees for 45 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the middle of the cake comes out clean. Cool completely.
For icing, combine 4 ounces softened cream cheese, 1/2 stick melted butter or margarine, 2 cups powdered sugar and 1 teaspoon vanilla in a mixing bowl. Mix well with electric mixer until smooth. Spread icing on cooled cake.