Indulgent Red Velvet Fudge

or a touch of decadence in a two bite escape

How is it possible that I made it through the month without a single dessert recipe?  With the endless batches of cookies, bars, cherries, and treats that have been rolling out of my kitchen I have somehow neglected to share even one of these delicious recipes, and for that I offer my most sincere apologies.  There is no excuse for this neglect, but as a peace offering I present to you my favorite new development: Red Velvet Fudge. 

Since my time in the more "Southern" states I have had a growing love and appreciation for the decadent dessert that is Red Velvet Cake.  I bring this dessert as cakes, cupcakes, and even  soft sandwich cookies to gatherings every chance I get, but for the holidays I wanted to try to transform this irresistible dessert into a gift giving treat so the first thing I thought of was fudge.  This should be easy, right?  There has to be a great recipe out there on the internet somewhere for this evolution.  Nope.  Nada.  Nothing.  I found one or two recipes that somewhat resembled this delight but they seemed a tad challenged in texture, visual appeal, or flavor (depending on the particular recipe at hand).  So I decided to set to work combining tried and true fudge recipes I had collected with the inherent flavors of Red Velvet Cake.  It isn't a perfect transformation but it is pretty successful at capturing, and in some ways amplifying, the flavor and essence of the remarkable dessert it was inspired by.  So why not give it a try?  I humbly present to you (insert trumpet sound here) - Red Velvet Fudge:

2 1/4 cups sugar
1/4 cup cocoa powder
1 cup buttermilk
3 tbsp butter (+ 1 tbsp for pan)
1/2 bottle red food dye
1 tbsp vanilla extract

Grease an 8 by 8-inch pan with butter.

1. In a heavy-bottomed saucepan combine the sugar, chocolate, 1 1/2 tablespoons of the butter, and the buttermilk. Over medium heat, stir with a wooden or silicone spoon (to help maintain the temperature) until sugar is dissolved and chocolate is melted.  It won't take too long just patiently keep stirring, this is no time for a break you just got started!

2. Increase the heat and bring to a boil. Immediately reduce the heat to medium-low, cover, and boil for 3 minutes.  Do not lift the lid. 

3. Remove the cover and attach a candy thermometer to the pot. Cook until the thermometer reads 234 degrees F (there may be some flexibility here from what I've seen in other recipes, but I'm a bit compulsive on this point and personally stick to 234).

4. Remove from the heat and drop in the remaining butter cut into small pieces. Do not stir.  Seriously, no touching.  Just let it rest.  Allow the mixture cool until it drops to 130 degrees F, it'll take some time so be patient (for me this took about 40 min, I suggest leaving the area to resist the urge to mess with it).

5. Add the vanilla and food dye, mix until well-blended and the shiny texture becomes matte (this step took me about 20 min by hand with a silicone spatula, I haven't tried it with one of those fancy stand mixers but after that I have every intention to do so and see how it works).

6. Pour into the prepared pan. Let sit in cool, dry area until firm. Cut into 1-inch pieces and store in an airtight container for up to a week.

This made lovely little gifts for those in my office this year, and the few bites I personally snagged were truly a decadent escape from the stressors of the season.  I do, however, advise against eating too much of this treat at once since it is quite rich and can become overpowering if you take on too much at once.  Kind of a built in "portion control" aid, which can come in handy when it comes to sweets.  Everything in moderation, but it isn't moderation without at least a taste!  So go ahead, indulge, find that moment of relief, and carry that feeling over throughout the rest of the day.  Whether you keep this for your family or spread the seasonal sweetness around, take a moment for yourself and enjoy!


Equal Opportunity Cheesy Potatoes (Gluten Free)

or Lose the Gluten, Keep the Cheese Potato Casserole

In my family not a holiday or gathering can go by without the essential dish of cheesy potatoes, I even make a breakfast version for Christmas morning.  And I consider this one of my safe "go-to" dishes for just about any occasion since it has a good "universal" appeal (who doesn't love cheese and potatoes? and together - even better!), travels easily, and pairs well with everything from grilled burgers to spiral sliced ham.  I had modified my mom's recipe that we had growing up and have been happily toting and serving this simply delicious side for years.  That is, until I came across a disturbing discovery when preparing it to take to a friend's house last Summer: it's dripping with gluten!  Now, don't get me wrong, I love gluten.  Really, I do.  Some of the best things to eat are filled with gluten.  But some of the people at the gathering were gluten free, including one of the children who has severe reactions and can not eat anything that has even come in contact with gluten.  So what was I going to bring?!  First I panicked.  Then I panicked some more.  And finally I thought - I can fix this - and headed out to the store, on a mission for gluten free foods.

Have I mentioned that I am stubborn?  I didn't change dishes to bring something that is easily gluten free, nope not me, I instead insisted on recreating this dish sans-gluten.  Much to my husband's relief, I was able to find some pretty awesome gluten free products out there.  The first time I made this I was unable to find gluten free condensed soup, so I had to use regular gluten free "creamy" soup - if this happens to you, you'll need to adjust for the extra liquid by cutting down the amount of soup and sour cream a bit.  Now this last weekend when I was once again shopping for the gluten free components I saw something that almost made me shout for joy right there in the grocery store but, as I'm sure my husband is grateful for, I restrained myself.  Right there on the shelf was a brand new product - gluten free condensed soup!  Perfect!  Now my previously perfected potatoes can be enjoyed by all, well except the lactose intolerant - sorry, there's not much I can do about that, they are "cheesy" after all...  So I rushed home with my find and happily set to work.

The ingredient list may look complicated but it really isn't bad, I just added some notes to help you ensure that gluten doesn't try to sneak in without you noticing.

  • Hashbrown Potatoes - cubed, 16oz (check the package to ensure gluten free, several brands of "plain" cubed hashbrowns are naturally gluten free)
  • Cream of Chicken Soup - 1 carton condensed, gluten free
  • Sour Cream - 8oz
  • Chedder/Monteryjack Cheese - 16oz, shredded (check package to ensure gluten free since some brands add ingredients to help keep it from sticking, if in doubt buy a block of cheese and shred it yourself)
  • butter - melted, 1/4 stick (or 1/8 cup)

Preheat oven to 325°

1. In a large bowl mix the soup, sour cream, 12oz of cheese, and butter until consistent throughout.  Add some additional spices at this time if you like (dried minced onion, poultry seasoning, garlic, salt, pepper, etc.  Just make sure they are gluten free if they are blends or all this "hard" work will go to waste!)

2. Add the thawed hashbrowns and stir until completely coated.

3. Dump the mixture into a greased 9x13 casserole dish and sprinkle with the remaining cheese

4. Bake for 30 - 45 minutes until cheese is melted and the top is lightly browned.  Allow to cool for 5-10 min before serving to give the cheese a chance to rest.

And there it is!  An easy version of cheesy potatoes fit for the gluten free crowd.  Unfortunately I do not have any photos from after it was cooked, it went too fast!  The kid that was highly sensitive to gluten was going back for a second serving before I even managed to take a second bite.  It feels great to be able to share my love of cooking and to bring something to the table to share with my friends and their families that they can enjoy even with a few dietary restrictions.  As always, I fully encourage embracing this recipe and making it your own by adding your personal flavors and touches, just use caution and be aware of any extra ingredients if you are trying to stay gluten free.

If you are a gluten lover there's no need for the specialty ingredients, and in that case I highly recommend sprinkling some Italian bread crumbs and Panko on top. Maybe then drizzle with a bit of melted butter..

But however you take it, I hope you enjoy it and welcome this dish or one of it's cousins to your next gathering.  I know we will!  Enjoy!


Pour and Go Creamy Chicken Scampi

or taking the long way home to a rich, savory meal.

You should know - there are several times of year when I fall into an all out love affair with my slow cooker.  Right now the combination of cold weather, busy days, and holiday festivities certainly makes this particular time of year a "perfect storm" for the affair to begin.  Best part?  It's a natural stress reducer.  This tendency plays perfectly with a lower food budget so it eases a bit of that stress that those of us who like giving gifts a little too much get right about now.  And for those of us over-scheduled between family, friends, and religious festivities of various sorts it simplifies dinner and the time allocated to it so that it is a more enjoyable part of the day.  Not that I'm speaking from experience on both of those points or anything..  

But I don't need to play up the amazing qualities of the slow cooker all day, if you haven't dusted yours off recently here's a perfect opportunity to pull it out.  It's not just for stews, chili, and soups.  You can make a delicious, rich meal any day of the week that has that touch of gourmet flair without even being in the house.  All it takes is a little planning, a few minutes in the morning, and in this case - a love of chicken. I must confess - the recipe calls for herb jelly, which may sound a bit strange, but if you have it on hand it is really quite good in this recipe.  Now if you don't have herb jelly just add in some basil, parsley, and a touch of oregano and you'll be fine.  You could even blend the herbs with a bit of butter to make an "herb compound" to use in its place.  No worries, just good food.  Let's get to it, shall we?

1 package of 6 chicken tenders
1/2 cup butter
1 cup chicken stock
1 cup white wine (or 1/2 cup Mead for an earthier taste)
2 tbsp herb jelly* (or basil, parsley, & a touch of oregano)
House spice blend
Garlic powder

Hardware: Slow Cooker

1. Cut the butter into tablespoon sized slabs and scatter along the bottom of the slow cooker.  Next add a layer of chicken tenders, there should be minimal overlap if at all possible, they are pretty touchy about having their own space in the sauce.  Top the chicken tenders with an thin layer of herb jelly (or herbs/compound).  Season lightly but evenly with spice blend and garlic powder.

2. Carefully pour in the chicken stock and white wine, stay towards the sides to allow as much of the jelly and spice coating to stay in tact.  Most of the chicken should be submerged once all of the liquid has been added.

3. Cover and cook on low for 8-9 hours.

4. Remove 1/4 cup of the liquid from the cooker and pour it into a small saucepan over low heat.  While it simmers, stir in flour 1 tbsp at a time until a paste-like consistency forms.  Once you get a nice golden color in the mixture (roux), slowly stir in 1 1/2 cups of the cooking liquid.  You may need a whisk to help it fully combine.  When you have a smooth consistency, serve chicken drizzled with the creamy scampi style sauce.

* I know what you are thinking - what is herb jelly?  and who uses that stuff anyway?  But I have a good reason... really, I do... in a whirlwind of canning this past Fall I came across some more unique recipes and thought that "herb jelly" sounded like a delightful gift for the holidays and a simple gourmet treat to have on hand.  (There are recipes for herb jelly in many places on the internet, one base recipe example is here.)  Then when I realized, a month or so later, that I had absolutely no idea what to do with it I became determined to come up with a recipe to attach to the jars when I gave them out.  I must say, this one turned out quite nicely for just such a purpose.  But, as I said above, if you don't have herb jelly just add in some basil, parsley, and a touch of oregano and you'll be fine. 

However you make it, just give it a try.  You'll be surprised just how good your slow cooker is at its job, and how you made such a delicious dinner with so little effort.  You don't need to be busy, or out of the house often, to use your slow cooker - it does just as well if you are happily relaxing in the other room in front of a nice warm fire, or typing away at your computer.  So dust off that slow cooker, or in my case take the crock out of the dishwasher from yesterday's meal, and try your own spin on this twist on a classic dish.  Enjoy!


Sugar and Spice Pork Roast

or the other white meat conquers Sunday dinner.

It's hard to think of many things that are more typical of hearty "Sunday Dinner" then a beef roast with potatoes, beef stew, or pasta with meat sauce.  Are you noticing a trend here?  I am, it's all beef.  Delicious, tender, flavor infused - but beef nonetheless.  So how do coax something with a much milder flavor, the "other white meat" perhaps, into being a meal worthy of this hearty homestyle tradition?  You give it a little love, a bit of sugar, some spice to kick it up a level, and garlic to bring it back home.  For the most part this roast makes itself, with a bit of hands on work at the start just to show you really care.  So let's get to it!

2-3 pound Pork Roast, bone in
¼ cup Brown Sugar
Cajun Seasoning
Garlic Powder
2 tbsp Honey
4 Tablespoons Butter
2 Tablespoons Olive Oil

Hardware: Dutch oven with lid or a deep baking dish and aluminum foil
Preheat oven to 300 degrees.

1. Evenly spread the honey over all sides of the roast.  Season the top of the roast lightly with the Cajun spices, if you like more heat you can opt to season all sides or put it on a little heavier just remember that a little of this blend goes a long way and you may need a jug of water at the table if you go overboard here.  Then season lightly with the garlic powder on all sides.  Sprinkle the brown sugar over all sides of the roast and press down to adhere all the sugar, seasoning, and honey.  Allow to sit for a couple minutes.

2. Heat the oil and half the butter in the open dutch oven over medium high heat.  Brown all sides of the roast, you'll notice a nice crispy "crust" forming from the sugars.  Once all sides are browned turn off the heat and add the remaining butter to the bottom of the pan.  Cover with lid and carefully transfer the hot dish to the preheated oven.  If using a baking dish in place of a dutch oven you will transfer the roast, along with all the oil and butter, into the dish and then cover with aluminum foil.

3. Baked, covered, for 1 - 1 1/2 hours or until desired internal temperature.  Pork does not have to be cooked to well done like poultry does so a nice "medium" is usually what I aim for but it's really up to your own preference.  For a little extra crispness you can remove the lid for the last 10-15 minutes to allow the top some more direct heat time.

4. Remove from oven and allow to rest for 10 min before slicing.  In a small saucepan melt 2 tbsp of butter over medium low heat and then stir in 2 tbsp of flour until it reaches a "paste" consistency.  Then slowly stir in the pan drippings from the roast to create a quick gravy.  Add seasoning to taste, this is a great place to add in some .  Serve slices of roast drizzled with gravy as desired, personally I drown the pork in it (I can't help it if I love gravy, and this sweet and spicy blend is heavenly over the pork).

So there you have it, right next to a pile of mashed potatoes with a pool of butter (don't judge, it's comfort food season around here).  The leftovers are excellent reheated, but I highly recommend appropriately dousing them with gravy during the reheat process.  Even if you remove the pork from the gravy before enjoying adding the gravy while it heats will help keep it more moist.  This is not just a weekend meal, it can be prepped in the morning and placed on time bake in your oven if you have the function, it fills the house with a fantastic aroma that can't be beat when you come in from the cold.  It's a nice option if you're just looking to switch things up and a delicious alternative to the beef laden meals that results in a lighter post-dinner feeling but still brings the deep down warmth and comfort you expect from "Sunday Dinner". So why not invite a little more pork into your life?  It's worth a try, with your own tastes guiding the way, to bring something new to the comfort food laden table.  Enjoy!

* Wait!  Come back! Don't forget to save the roast bone.  It's perfect for making homemade stock for another hearty slow cooker dinner - Go with the Flow Potato Soup.  I'm just saying, why waste all that delicious goodness by carelessly tossing it in the trash?  I don't know about you, but I know I'm looking forward to soup this weekend... *


Faux Fried Chicken for the Lighter Set

or crunchy comfort food goodness on a "stick"

When I think "comfort food" I think popcorn, marshmallows, tomato soup, mac and cheese, and - of course - fried chicken.  What could be better to cure a foul mood then that crispy, irresistible skin containing the juicy goodness of perfectly seasoned chicken?  Maybe adding in a side of veggies or potatoes doused in butter, really the side selection doesn't matter too terribly much as long as it is properly doused, and hot rolls fresh out of the oven.  Mmmmm..  I'm feeling better already...

Sadly as delicious as this meal is, and trust me it truly is, you just can't dive into a plate of fat and carbs every time frustration or hostility start peaking their little heads around the corner and waltzing into your life.  To keep things in moderation I try to limit this type of meal to full on train wreck mode.  So what do I do when my bad mood just isn't quite foul enough to warrant a full on fat indulgence?  I fake it.  Just as acting "happy" can actually help improve your mood, if you can tolerate yourself long enough for it to take effect, a well planned comfort food knock off can give you a little bit of that soothing feeling without all the regret that settles in just in time to mess with your late night popcorn snack plans.  This isn't the healthiest of the "fake" fried chicken recipes out there, but I find it has a nice balance between the crispy crunchy fat dripped deliciousness of true fried chicken and the non-greasy oven baked alternative.  Plus, if you want to kick it up a notch and still not fully indulge, just use the whole eggs instead of the egg whites and toss in a splash of heavy whipping cream in place of the milk.  Don't worry, I won't tell. 

Chicken drumsticks - 6 to 8
Panko bread crumbs - 1½ cups
Low Fat Parmesan Cheese - 1/4 cup
House spice blend
Flour - ½ cup
Egg Whites - 4
Low Fat Milk - 3 tbsp
Kosher salt - 6 tbsp
Parsley - 4 tbsp
View full recipePreheat oven to 350°

1. First of all, you have to be prepared.  Create a breading station with 3 separate containers: flour, egg whites and milk (whisked together), then the Panko mixed with kosher salt and parsley.  Line everything up with the plate of chicken at one end followed by the breading station (in the aforementioned order) in the middle and a baking sheet prepared with a layer of aluminum foil and sprayed with olive oil at the end.

2. Working from the front of the line.  Season all of the chicken evenly with the spice blend.

3. Then, one at a time: dredge the chicken in flour, gently shake off any extra, then carefully coat each one in the egg mixture, take a moment as you lift it out to allow the excess to drip off, and finally roll in the Panko mixture turning and pressing to ensure that it sticks as much as possible.  Surface area coverage is essential here, so take care not to rush through things.  The moistness of the chicken is at stake, don't say I didn't warn you if you carelessly toss things around and end up with half coated, dry chicken.  I'm just saying...

4. Once the stations have been completed, place the chicken on the prepared baking sheet and spray the tops lightly with olive oil.  Bake for 20 min then flip and continue to bake for an additional 10-20 min, or until the outside is crispy and the internal temperature is 170°.  If the outside isn't quite crispy enough when the internal temperature is reached, don't worry - just turn the oven to broil and keep an eye on it as the outside catches up.

Now I realize that the picture isn't of the drumsticks version of the recipe, but I wasn't quick enough last time I made them to snatch a picture before they were gobbled up.  What this does show, however, is the same recipe made with boneless skinless chicken tenders (an even healthier alternative I'd like to add).  All you need to do to adjust the recipe is to shorten the cooking time, it will be closer to 10 min per side but it really depends on the thickness since tenders can cook really fast.  You will most likely need to broil them a bit at the end to reach the necessary level of crispiness to satisfy my tastes, but we're all different so the texture may just be perfect for you.  Crisp to your heart's content, just don't burn (nobody really likes that).  Give it a shot, it's a healthier version of one of my favorite comfort foods that even the kids can enjoy.  Top it with hot sauce, dip it in (low fat) Ranch dressing, the world is yours to experiment with - I would just avoid the melted butter or people may begin to doubt your healthy intentions.  Enjoy!


Chicken Infused Tortilla-less Soup

or how to make soup and make do with what's on hand.

Sounds funny, I know, but I didn't plan this one out so well.  I know, shocking, right?  You don't have to pretend, I realize I'm not always the most prepared for random adventures in the kitchen (it's even worse when I'm so focused on cooking for an upcoming holiday that I all but neglect the days in between when grocery shopping).  So when I decided that I wanted to make something special for my husband who was running about town finishing errands we didn't get to over the weekend I had to improvise a bit. 
He was planning on coming home and making steak fajitas that he had marinating over night using this delicious recipe (substituting cola for lemon juice) so I thought that chicken tortilla soup would be perfect!  Only problem - no chicken and the tortillas were reserved for the aforementioned delicious fajitas.  Oops.

Since I had already started cooking before I fully looked into the existence of the ingredients that I needed I figured I'd just roll with what I had and see what happened (a concept I am desperately trying to apply in other areas of my life as well, but one step at a time and the first step - soup, sans chicken and tortillas).  So I resumed tossing things into the pot while multitasking and cleaning out the refrigerator, we are getting ready for a holiday after all, cooking is no reason to slow down!  Though, in retrospect, slowing down is often a good idea.  It's better to do it yourself before your body doesn't give you a choice and you collapse on  the couch at nine at night.  Not that I know from experience or anything...  The moral?  Take it easy, roll with what you have on hand, and eat delicious soup.  Now let's go!

1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
3 cups chicken broth (or 3 tsp chicken base and 3 cups water, chicken base is liquid gold you seriously need to try this stuff)
1 cup milk
1 can condensed cheddar cheese soup
1 jar salsa
1 tsp. cumin
1 tsp. chili powder
2 tsp garlic powder
1 tbsp dried minced onion
salt and pepper – to taste

1. Melt the butter in a medium sized stock pot over medium heat and stir in the flour to create a roux (a fancy name for a kind of a golden paste that forms when the butter and flour are completely mixed together in equal parts).  Stir continuously for a couple minutes, do not allow it to turn dark.

2. Slowly start to stir in the chicken stock (or water if you are using chicken base).  Make sure to add about a cup at a time and wait until it is fully incorporated before adding more, you don't like to be rushed and soup doesn't either so a little patience goes a long way in this part.  Take some deep breathes and enjoy the aromas, allow it to soothe you as the time slips by.  Better?  Ok.  If using chicken base you'll want to add that now, also stirring a bit to incorporate.

3. Now add in the seasoning and dried onion, mix well.  The bits of onion will seem to almost disappear as they absorb the moisture.  

4. Next stir in the milk and condensed soup, their thickness should balance out a bit once combined, and then add the salsa.  For salsa you'll want to use one that has a spice level that you enjoy, I used homemade salsa that I canned over the Summer in this case but if I didn't have any on hand I would tend towards mild or medium since I'm not really a "heat" inclined sort of girl, you need to go with where your tastes lead you on this one.  

5. Turn the heat down to medium-low and stir occasionally for about 20-30 min, careful not to let it boil.  Adjust spices to taste as you go.

Serve as is or top with some shredded colby jack cheese and a drop of sour cream.  This is a perfect compliment to the steak fajitas, and a great main dish for lunch the next day.  A pretty reasonable base recipe I think, take it in whatever direction you wish - if you want to add chicken to make it heartier or switch out the chicken base for a non-meat alternative for a vegetarian dish - it's up to you.  The world is your tortilla, so to speak.  Cheesy, I know, but who doesn't love a little cheese now and then?  Enjoy!


Apple Cobbler-ish Tart-ish Delight

or a half risen, half sweet, completely tasty breakfast dessert

So, what's the best part of cobbler?  The delicious doughy sweet topping of course!  And what have I been craving lately?  You guessed it - cobbler - but not all of the cobbler, just the top.  As I was reminiscing about picking away at the tart cherries that were always nestled so nicely in this delicious dish each Spring after we went cherry picking, I began thinking - what else can I do with that doughy goodness?  As much as I'd love to make just a large dish of the topping, and trust me I've considered it, I really did want to make it a little more universally appealing.  Because no one, even me, should sit down and tackle a dish of that all by themselves.  So to force moderation I was determined to transform it in a way that other people would enjoy it too.  Remember - momma always taught you it's only polite to share. 

So where were we... oh, right!  Tart cherries are nice, but the tangy bite in their flavor can be a bit much for me when I'm really craving some comfort in my breakfast.  My mom's recipe suggested raspberries but I suspect I may have a similar problem with them, plus they are distinctly out of season and therefor not found anywhere in my house.  So, what did I have in the house?  Apples.  Lots and lots of apples.  Not only did I have a bag of Gala apples sitting on the counter, but I also had about 8 jars of sliced baking apples (Northern Spies and Gala mixed, no real reason, those were the seconds they had at the orchards this year).  So now toss into the equation a bit of the end of the weekend laziness, and wouldn't you know it - those apples are still sitting on the counter and we are down to 7 jars of baking apples.

These thinly sliced apples do not carry the same weight as tart cherries so I expected a bit of difference in the resulting dish, and I was not disappointed.  The magical process of the lower layer of dough rising victoriously through the cherries to form a golden delicious crown over the top was not exactly where this dish ended up going.  When it came out of the oven, cooked to golden delicious perfection, the slices of apples were nestled nicely in the top half of the dough.  The beauty of this?  Once cooled to room temperature, this is easily sliced into sections that can be picked up and enjoyed sans fork!  It'll be sticky, but definitely worth it. 
Check it out:

Butter - 1/4 cup
Flour - 1 cup
Sugar - 1 cup
Milk - 1 cup
Sliced apples - 1 1/2 - 2 cups

Hardware: 8" round baking dish

1. Add the butter to the baking dish and place it in the oven.  Turn it on to preheat to 350 degrees.  Keep an eye out over there to check on it while you toss the rest together.  You want the butter to melt and brown a bit, not burn.  So don't neglect it, comfort food can't really be made without a bit of doting here and there anyway.

2. While that is happening, get out a medium sized mixing bowl and add in the flour, sugar, and milk.  Stir well to combine, ease out any large clumps as you go.

3.  When the butter is ready, take the dish out of the oven and set aside to cool for about 5 minutes.  Once the appropriate amount of time has passed, evenly pour in the batter. 

4. Top with the sliced apples.  If you are using fresh apples you will want to drizzle about 2 tbsp of apple juice over top.  If you are using canned apples, homemade or otherwise, you'll want to use only a couple tablespoons of the syrup they are stored in so you may need to drain them first over a bowl so you can get a better idea of how much is going in.  I only use a small amount of light syrup when I do my home canning so I just dumped the jar out over the batter.  Evenly of course.

5. Bake for 45 - 60 minutes.  Or until the crust starts to rise up amidst the apples and the top gets a nice golden tint overall.  I use a clear glass dish, if you do as well you'll also notice a nice golden crust around the sides.

6. Remove and allow to cool for at least 15 minutes before slicing to serve.  If you want to be able to eat this as finger food, don't be embarrassed deep down we all really do, let it cool to room temperature before serving.  It's not terribly sweet so if you have a prominent sweet tooth you may want to sprinkle it with cinnamon sugar when it comes out of the oven, but for me the balance is perfect just as it is - perhaps with a bit of whipped cream on top...   mmmmm...


A Kielbasa for All Seasons

or drunken sausage on a Sunday afternoon

We have sausage from Poland, beer from Ireland, and cookware from the Netherlands..  I know what you're thinking - I've gone too far, the cultures are all mixed up.  "Not only can this not possibly work, but it's insulting to the purity of each cultural dish! Stop the madness!  Turn back while you still can!"  Wait!  Slow down, take a deep breath, rewind.  Feel better?  Ok.  Now - there's nothing wrong with mixing a few cultures together, none of us are particularly "pure" anyway, and it's not like we're launching a large scale invasion - we're just assisting in the marriage of some delightful ingredients into culinary bliss.  And who are we to judge?  If a kielbasa wants to soak alongside a pepper in a pool of beer, who are we to stand in their way?  It's all about equality here people.  That, and good food!  So now that we've made it through the social science lesson, I'll just step carefully off my soap box, and let's get on to the eats:

Where exactly am I going with this?  Someplace magical, someplace delectable, a place I like to call - Kielbasaland.  Where it is a sunny 70 degrees year round and happiness comes out of a pot in the form of delicious, juicy, flavorful sausage that simmers to perfection while you enjoy a lazy afternoon.  Or, as it was last Sunday, my house.  Closer to 68 degrees year round, and with one of those mood boosting SAD lamps I can definitely pull off the "sunny" part!  So let's just enjoy my fantasy together shall we?  Hmmmm... I can smell it now...

Kielbasa - 5, uncooked
Red bell pepper - 1/2
Yellow bell pepper - 1/2
Green bell pepper - 1/2
Yellow onion - 1/2
Minced garlic - 1 1/2 tsp
Beer - 4 bottles, Irish or any type you have on hand

Hardware: Dutch oven

This is so easy you'll giggle, or maybe that's just the beer talking...  Either way:

1. Place the kielbasa in the bottom of the Dutch oven and cover with half the beer.  Move them around a bit so they get comfortable and aren't looking too crowded.

2. Slice all the peppers into long thin pieces, kind of a thicker "julienne" style for you foodies out there.  Cut the onion into half rings and then add both the onion and the peppers to the pot.  Toss in the minced garlic and stir.  All the ingredients should be mingling nicely.

3. Bring to a simmer and then cover.  Continue to cook at a simmer for 4-6 hours.  Remember to come back periodically to stir, adjust the temperature, and add more beer.  The mixture should always be covered with liquid.  I do this on the stove top but it can also be done on the grill in the Summer if you are using a grill friendly dish.

4. When you are ready serve take out the kielbasa and sear slightly on a grill pan, grill, or cast iron skillet to give it nice crisp bite on the outside.  Once you get those grill marks established, return the kielbasa to the pot and stir to combine.  If you'd like to do the same with some of the veggies I'd recommend the grill pan rather than the open grill unless you have a disposable pan to toss them in, flame kissed is good - engulfed bad - just keep that in mind.  Serve on buns topped with a few of the accompanying veggies and some spicy relish.

I love this recipe because it works just as good mid-Summer as it does in the dead of Winter.  In warmer weather it's a kicked up grilling option that will have your family begging for more, and in cooler weather it's a perfect comfort food that fills the house with it's delightful aroma as simmers throughout the day.  Regardless of the season, this simple dish is sure to please.

You've probably seen or done a close version of this dish with the kielbasa's not so distant cousin - the bratwurst - and it is in no way my most original recipe.  What it is, is my take on a family favorite.  My parents did it up with Italian sausage or tossed in brats when friends were coming over, but my heart belongs to kielbasa - and as such, so does this recipe.  So give it a shot, a tweak or two to your own tastes, and enjoy!


Slow and Sweet Honey Ginger Chicken

or kicked up sweets in a weekday pantry dinner.

So, yeah, here we are again.  Back from a lovely vacation with absolutely nothing in the house to eat.  You've been there - pushing the trip up to right when you have to go back to work and then flat out refusing to end your time off with a trip to the grocery store madhouse on Sunday night to keep it from sucking out all the relaxation you managed to build up while away.  A quick run to the store after work on Monday yielded chicken thighs, three types of bread, and boneless pork chops.  Ok, not the best thought out trip but since I wasn't feeling well I considered it a success that I came home with anything!  Then I had drive through soup from the local Coney Island for dinner.  Don't judge, you know you've done it.

Back to work and it's day two: with my husband out working at their corporate office this week I couldn't rely on him to whip together some form of out of the box meal while I laid on the couch trying to recover from whatever this cold/flu season has so inconsiderately thrown at me, so I was stuck trying to come up with something the required minimal effort and could come magically from the nonperishable ingredients I still had in the pantry.  This time it actually helped that I was already hungry that morning.  I openned the refridgerator and pulled out the chicken and grabbed the soy sauce, rummaging through the pantry I came across some honey and rice vinagar, I grabbed the slow cooker out of the cupboard and set to work.  Ginger seemed like a likely compliment so I pulled it out of the freezer, I've found that a solid piece of fresh ginger keeps longer in a bag in the freezer and grates much easier - bonus - I get to add a little extra flair to my meals even when the supplies are running bare.  Then I set to work assembling what I hoped would be a satisfying dinner for the evening.  Definitely a different flavor than many of my meals but the sweetness of the honey with a bit of tang from the vinegar created a surprisingly subtle blend of flavors that I am now excited to make again.

6 chicken thighs, no bones or skin
3 tbsp dried minced onion
⅓ cup chicken broth
½ cup honey
½ teaspoon fresh grated ginger
½ tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp poultry seasoning
1/2 tsp minced garlic
4 tbsp rice vinegar
¼ cup soy sauce 
Worcestershire sauce
3 tbsp ketchup
White rice

1. I prefer to use homemade chicken stock that I store frozen in muffin cup sized portions so it makes for a nice base to "stand" the chicken on at the beginning.  If you are using stock that is already in liquid form  it will work just fine, but you may want to spray the interior of the slow cooker with non-stick spray before starting.  Place the stock in the slow cooker first then add the chicken in a single layer.  Season with the salt, garlic powder, poultry seasoning, and ginger making sure you cover the chicken evenly.

2. Next add the Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, onion, and minced garlic. Cover the chicken evenly with the honey and sprinkle the rice vinegar over the top.  It should have a nice shine over the chicken.  Do not worry about mixing the sauce at this point, let each part have its independence and it will all come together in the end.

3. Cover and cook on low for 6-8 hours.  If you are going to be around the house feel free to flip the chicken halfway through, not necessary but if you don't want the top to get a bit of the caramelized crispy texture from the honey (one of my favorite parts) then this would help.  The chicken will be moist either way.

4. Remove the chicken to a separate dish and drizzle some of the sauce over top.  In the slow cooker, turn it to high and whisk in the ketchup until well blended.  This should help thicken the sauce a bit.  Return the chicken to the cooker and spoon some of the sauce over each piece.  Continue to cook on high for 10-15 min while preparing the rice.

5. Serve hot over rice with extra sauce drizzled on top.

The chicken pulls apart on its own as you lift it out of the sauce, this gives it the opportunity to pick up even more flavor as it makes its way to the plate.  Add more or less sauce depending on how strong you want the flavor to be, and don't forget to add some salt or soy sauce to taste if needed.  I like to sneak a pat of butter between the rice and the chicken, you can't eat rice without butter right?  Or maybe that's just me... Anyway, serve it up as you wish, add your own little twist.  But most of all, as always, enjoy!


Suburban Shepherds Pie

or comfort food by the spoonful, your inner Irish would be proud

The leaves are falling, the winds have turned, the chill is in the air - oh how I love Fall!  And then WHAM! out of nowhere, the hot weather comes brazenly back in just in time to disrupt a lovely weekend of orchards, farmers markets, and pure Autumn joy.  But we didn't let that stop us, oh no we are far too stubborn for that, we embraced comfort food season full force with a weekend full of canning (apples, jelly, pickles, tomato sauce), a hearty Sicilian pasta dinner, and bowlfuls of heartwarming shepherds pie.

Satisfying both ends of the spectrum of my heritage (Sicilian and Irish) in one weekend is pretty fantastic in itself, but add to that the ongoing reward of canned tomato sauce and several eagerly anticipated lunches of leftover shepherds pie and you have a recipe for satisfaction in your stomach, heart, and soul.  Now with that in your corner, how could the week possibly go wrong?  Well, that's another discussion entirely, but for now let's savor the moment shall we?  I can smell it now..

It looks like a lot, but it's not that bad really.. most of this you'll probably have in your pantry waiting for you:

Ground Beef - 1 lb
Carrots - ½ cup, diced
Celery - ½ cup, diced
Onions - 3 tbsp, dried minced
Butter - 4 tbsp
Flour - 4 tbsp
Garlic - 2 tbsp minced
Red Wine - ¼ cup
Beef stock - 2 cups
Worcestershire sauce - 1 tsp
House spice blend
Paprika - to season the top
Nutmeg - a dash
Kosher salt - 1 tsp
Pre-made or left over mashed potatoes

Preheat oven to 350°

1. Brown the ground beef in a large pan, if it is very lean or if you are using ground turkey you may need to add a bit of oil. Toss in the carrots, celery, garlic, and onions and continue to cook for 5 minutes stirring occasionally to prevent the browning from getting out of hand.

2. Next stir in the Worcestershire sauce, spice blend, salt, and nutmeg. The aromas should really be filling the kitchen right about now.  Add butter and as it melts mix in the flour, stirring to combine thoroughly, and cook for 2 minutes.  It will look really thick at this point, trust me that's a good thing, just be cautious to not let it burn.

3. Pour in the beef stock and red wine.  Stir to combine with the existing mixture so it looks consistent throughout and simmer, reducing until the mixture thickens again.  It will not be quite as sticky as it was with just the butter and flour, but it should cling momentarily to the the pan when pushed to the side.

4. Pour into a 9x11 casserole dish.  Top with mashed potatoes, this works best if they are at least room temperature, and season lightly with paprika.

5. Bake for 15-20 minutes. When done allow to set for 3-5 minutes before serving to allow it to firm up a bit, it helps the meat mixture to better bond with the potatoes.

Wait for it.. wait for it...  ok, dig in!  I highly recommend serving with bread and butter or fresh rolls to scoop up the sauce once the bowl is empty, and trust me - it will be empty.  It's a favorite of my husband's whenever cold weather hits, and a truer nod to our Irish heritage than my beloved corned beef and cabbage ever will be, I hope that you welcome it into your kitchen with the same loving embrace as we do in ours. With wishes of warmth and happy eating, enjoy!


Go with the Flow Potato Soup

or a spoonful of carbs helps the stress level go down (read to the rhythm of the classic Mary Poppins tune..)

This can not be good, there is no way that creamy delicious potato soup can be healthy.  Well, that may be true, but that doesn't mean that we can't at least take the sting off a bit with a couple "healthier" alternatives.  Remember - I only said a couple - but every little bit helps, right? 

I started the adventure with the bone from a pork roast I made a few days earlier.  I had been slowly making stock in the crock pot and was contemplating whether I wanted to freeze it or indulge in the newly arrived Fall season right off the bat with some type of soup.  As you can see, soup won.  So what exactly do you make with pork based stock?  Bean soup?  Split pea perhaps?  Not really in the mood for either, so I thought - what soups taste good with ham?  And there it was - potato!  And why not?  You often find bits of ham or crumbled bacon a top this rich, hearty soup.  So why did all the recipes call for chicken stock?  My guess - convenience.  But regardless, pork stock it was, and potatoes were the flavor of the day.  It's not terribly complicated, don't let the ingredient list fool you, just take it step by step and you'll be fine.

6 peeled and diced golden potatoes
2 leeks, finely diced
6 cups pork/ham stock
1 cup milk
4 tbsp butter
4 tbsp flour
1 tsp celery salt
1 tsp poultry seasoning
1 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp ground pepper
2 tbsp dried minced onion
1/2 cup diced slab bacon
1 tsp minced garlic

1. Combine the potatoes, spices (celery salt, poultry seasoning, garlic powder, pepper), leeks, and stock in a slow cooker.Stir well until they all "get familiar" and then let them settle while it cooks on low for 6-8 hours or high for 3-4.  Now go away.

2. When you are just about ready for dinner, about 30 min or so before, take out a potato masher and work out those potatoes until smooth in the broth.  You'll need to use it to pull the mashed bits from the bottom and sides as you work your way through the pot.  If you like chunks, take a cupful or two out first or simply add some new very small diced potatoes at this time. If you were cooking on low, turn the heat to high.

3. In a small pan, cook bacon with minced garlic and dried minced onion.  Drain the fat and add to the crock pot, stirring to combine.

4. In a separate saucepan, melt butter over medium-low heat. Whisk in the flour and cook, stirring constantly until thick and rich golden in color, about 1-3 minutes. Gently stir in milk, as not to allow lumps to form. Continue stirring over medium-low heat until thick, 4 to 5 minutes.  If you have some clumps popping up here and there just pull out your whisk and break them up with a few times around the pot.

5. Stir the milk mixture into the slow cooker, and cook soup until heated through. Serve immediately. Season with salt and pepper to taste, top with shredded cheese and sour cream if desired.

(The picture looks a bit orange, but that's more the lighting.  It is a warm, beige color in brighter light)

Well, we took out the cream and replaced it with a roux (flour and butter) so that should help, right?  I couldn't part with the slab bacon, but I'm sure it would still be good if you decided to make it without that as well in the interest of better health.  Now, I used homemade pork stock and it had some additional base flavors from the garlic and onion I cooked with it, so you may find that it needs a bit more of those flavors if you use a pure store bought broth.  

This made a lot of soup, but it turns out that I actually like it better reheated for lunch the next day, so I take that as a win!  Hopefully sometime this chilly weather inspires you to pull out your own crock pot/slow cooker and that you try your hand at this hearty soup.  It's heavy enough for a meal or a perfect compliment to a salad at lunch.  I hope you give it a shot in your own kitchen, with your own little twists, because that's where the true joy comes in cooking.  Enjoy!


Apple "Pie" Cups

or all the comfort food, half the guilt, weekday dessert

First one thing, then another, and just when you think it's all past - boom!  Something else comes barreling in like a bull in a china shop.  We all have those times when it seems that your schedule, mind, and heart have just been overloaded for a bit too long - well, for me this has been one of those months. As you can see, in the glaring evidence in the side column, I have not been faithful in my writing over the past few weeks.  This does not mean, however, that I have ceased my experiments (though "take out" has become the dinner option more often than I would care to admit lately).  I have in fact made time to "play" with my food, sadly it has not been as enjoyable as usual because the benefit merely raises my emotions to near balance rather than the usual boost I get straight into happiness, but I pushed on all the same.  So when last night's concoction actually got me excited again I knew it was time to sit down and share it with the world (well, with the handful of people in it that may actually be reading this).

I wanted dessert. Not ice cream from the freezer or popcorn from a bag, but a real homemade dessert.  Add to that the fact that my early morning exercise routine has instilled the fear of fat into my daily food consumption and I was truly in a pickle, so to speak.  Now after several days passed of longing for cookies, pie, and frozen drinks I finally had inspiration - and came in the form of an aging bag of Gala apples on the kitchen counter.  They were just a touch soft so they had been cast aside for canning, which was hopefully in the near future, and since a fresh bag had taken their place for snacking they were the perfect canvas for my new dessert.  I didn't have time to make apple pie, or even apple crisp, since my energy was fading fast.  I knew I had to deconstruct it even more.  So out went the crust, along with the sweet pie filling, and hopefully at least a few dozen calories.  What I had left was this - apples and crumb topping.  I wasn't terribly confident, but that little voice in the back of my mind whispered hopefully "try it, this could work!"  And wouldn't you know, it was right!  These delicious little perfectly proportioned desserts brought all the comfort of dutch apple pie in a fraction of the time.  Now, I admit, I wasn't thinking this out while I was making it so some of the quantities may need to be adjusted for the ingredients.  But believe me, once I gobbled this up I made every effort to recall the information as precisely as possible.  So here we go:

6 Gala Apples
4 tbsp softened butter
6 tbsp flour
1/4 cup loosely packed brown sugar

Preheat the oven to 350 F

1. Cut the apples in half around the middle.  Use a melon baller to scoop out the seeds/core.  It's ok if it goes slightly through the bottom, just don't make a giant hole or all the delicious pie top goodness will escape while baking.

2.  In a medium sized bowl combine the butter, flour, and brown sugar.  It should look a bit crumbly but be even in texture throughout.  Don't fret about perfection, just get it all mixed in there.

3.  Line the apple halves up in a deep baking dish and top with equal amounts of the crumble mixture.  Place the baking dish in the oven carefully so that none of the topping goes overboard.  Bake for approximately 30 min or until the tops are sizzling, looking melted, and getting a touch of golden brown in color.

4.  Allow to cool for about 10 min, top with whipped cream or caramel sauce, and enjoy!  Store in the fridge and enjoy the leftovers at room temperature or heated a bit in the microwave.

One bite and I was happily transported back to the holidays and my mom's amazing dutch apple pie.  Not a substitute by any means, but certainly a delicious option for the rest of the year.  This is a fantastic weeknight dish to toss into the oven when serving dinner that will be ready just about when everyone's finishing up and looking around hopefully for dessert.  The leftovers also make a nice addition to lunches, a somewhat healthy way to indulge at work or at school just when you need that sort of escape.  I hope that you give this quick, easy dessert a try and find it as delicious as I do.  Enjoy!


Adventures in Vegetables: Spaghetti Squash Casserole

or how to play with your food the healthy way

Thanks to our local Farmer's Market the late Summer has yielded a series of experiments into the depths of the vegetable world that I had not yet dared to seek, the fresh produce has lured me away from the safety of green beans and broccoli and straight into the high stakes world of squash.  I first dabbled in zucchini to build up my strength, sauteed in a stir fry one day and then stuffed with a ricotta mix the next.  Feeling confident after a few different trial runs that I'd begun to like this once loathed vegetable, previously only acceptable in zucchini bread if - and only if - it came with chocolate chips, I began to look around for a close relative.  There I found Patty Pan.  An adorable, bright yellow squash that looked to be more for decoration than eating.  This turned out to be, however, even more delectable than the zucchini!  And it most certainly made an attractive little side or main dish stuffed and served up as it's own little bowl.  I considered this Summer Squash Success!

And then came the Spaghetti Squash.  The plain, long, heavy squash with no apparent character or visual inspiration.  I thought there must something I can do with this, but what?  Turns out there is not the plethora of recipes out there for it as there was for zucchini, and those that I did find seemed a bit daunting at first glance, so there it sat - next to the onions - day after day.  I came home from work each night, looked sadly at the squash, and then reached for the green beans or peppers or even zucchini sitting in the basket just a few inches away.  Finally the day came when I couldn't face it any longer, I had to do something - anything - with that squash.  So I cut it open, removed the seeds, and once again stared.  This could not be spaghetti squash - where were the strings?  It was just more of the same mundane color inside as out, and it certainly didn't look like pasta strands could be pulled out of it.  So I took a deep breath, chopped up te insides, and tossed it into a vegetable saute.  Not bad, not bad at all.  I was surprised to like the subtle flavor of the squash and the different texture alongside other vegetables.  But I was determined that I could do more with this, so another squash made it's way into my home and onto my kitchen counter.  Not long after, Spaghetti Squash Casserole was born.  I had intended to follow a generic squash recipe that I had found online, really I did, but when it came out of the oven a miracle had happened - the strings had appeared!  And not just the appearance of strings, but texture and color, that's where the recipe went South and I really had a chance to play with my food.  Here's what I did:

1 small spaghetti squash
2 tbsp butter
House spice blend
1 tbsp dried minced onion
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/4 cup Panko bread crumbs
4 tbsp Italian bread crumbs
2 tbsp grated Parmesan cheese
Kosher salt

Preheat oven to 400 F

1. Place the squash on a large cutting board and carefully cut it in half lengthwise.  Put both halves of the squash cut side down in a deep baking pan and add enough water to come up about 1 inch on the sides so it has a nice little bath to soak in.  Cover with foil and bake for 45 minutes.

2. You'll know the squash is ready when it can be easily pierced through the skin with a fork, but don't push too hard there's no need for extra holes or reckless damage to the skins it will only make the next part harder.  Remove the squash from pan and allow to cool for 5-10 min on the cutting board.  Use a spoon to scoop out the seeds and discard, be careful not to pull out the flesh too much with it.  Now that the seeds are out of the way, take a fork and pull the "strands" of squash from the skin.  Once you get into the motion, you'll be able to hold the thin edges of the skin easily while maneuvering the fork around inside.

3. Put the strands of squash in a bowl and season with the spice blend, garlic, and dried onion.  Stir to incorporate, making sure the spices are spread out evenly.  Toss in the Parmesan cheese and stir again.  Add the butter first in the bottom of a small baking dish and then pour the squash over top.  

4.  Sprinkle the Panko crumbs and then Italian bread crumbs evenly over the dish.  Spray the top with a bit of olive oil or drizzle a little extra butter.  Before putting in the oven, use a fork to push some of the breadcrumbs into the squash with a gentle stabbing motion, this should create some ridges in the surface texture that will brown nicely.  Now place in the oven and broil until lightly golden on the peaks.  Remove and allow to set for a couple minutes before serving.

The picture does not do this justice.  I will work for a better image next time, unfortunately it was almost gone by the time I made it back to the kitchen to snap a picture.  It isn't the most colorful dish, that is true, but the flavor has surprising depth and the texture made an excellent compliment to the baked chicken tenders and potatoes that I served along with it.  Quite healthy and fun, not only to make but also to twirl around your fork while you eat, and it was so good that my husband made a face when I snuck the last spoonful into a container for my lunch today.  Who knew?  That long, plain, heavy squash blossomed into a light and flavorful side in less than an hour's time.  And now, sadly, I must go.  I hope that you enjoy this dish as much as we did last night, and I will this afternoon.  Take care, and remember - you're never too old to play with your food.  Enjoy!


Darling Sweet Potato Bites

or dessert with dinner anytime of the year..

Ok, so I'm a bit late on this entry, I know.  I feel appropriately ashamed and guilty.  But I have been trying to post a healthy recipe for baked "fried" chicken, for the past week, and could not seem to get the words flowing.  Then came my experiments in sweet potatoes and that's when everything changed.

Starting this process definitely took some motivation, I dislike sweet potatoes (more on principle then flavor, but still).  And by the end I had tweaked and mashed and seasoned and mixed until I found a combination that I really liked, albiet not really near any of the recipes I had drawn my inspiration from.  All those recipes tried to hold on to that seemingly essential savory side of the starch, but I am happy to say that I broke free of that grasp.  These aren't pretending to be healthy, but in all honesty they really aren't that bad for you either, they are just boldly saying
"I'm here, I'm dessert, and I am on your dinner plate."  So why not give them a chance to prove themselves?  After all they do make a good point, they are traditionally a side dish.

Now I know what you're thinking - those smelly things are just for the holidays, that's what Aunt what's-her-name makes every year, why would I ever want to make that?  Well I can tell you why, one word: marshmellows.  When else do you get to eat marshmellows for dinner?  Admittedly this falls a little more on the dessert end of the meal spectrum, but toss in a veggie or two and you can allow it on the plate with your main dish.  Give it a shot and maybe you'll discover a new found love for this forgotten starch just as I did.

Here's what you'll need:
4 medium sized sweet potatoes
1/2 cup mini marshmellows
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 tsp almond extract
1/3 tsp cinnamon
Nutmeg - just a dash
2 tbsp melted butter
2 egg whites
1/4 cup water
1/3 cup Panko crumbs

Prep work - I'm usually a big fan of instant gratification, but in this case it truly helps to get started a bit in advance.  The day before, while you're making dinner or popcorn or whatnot, toss the sweet potatoes in the oven on 350 F and bake until they are easily pierced with a fork.  Take them out and once they cool a bit let them rest in the refridgerator overnight, they need a little time to cool off (and let's be honest, don't we all sometimes?).

Now we're cooking - preheat oven to 400 F

1. Peel and mash the cold sweet potatoes, this is a great time to focus on any of that stress weighing down on you - just pound all that tension into the potatoes (they're tough, they can take it).  To make them a bit more smooth, first combine the melted butter and almond extract then mash the liquid into the potato mixture. 

2. Add 1/4 cup of brown sugar along with the cinnamon and nutmeg to the potatoes and stir until incorporated throughout, pockets of spice never do anyone any good.  Once it's looking pretty consistent stir in the mini marshmellows, adjust the amount as needed to ensure that there will be at least 1-2 per potato ball, and don't forget a few to munch on (you have to make sure they're still good don't you?).

3. Use a fork to mix the egg whites and water in a deep dish.  Set up a "breading station" with the bowl of potatoes, the bowl of egg whites/water, a container with the remaining brown sugar combined with the Panko bread crumbs, and a greased cookie sheet.

4. Roll balls of the potatoes about 2 inches in diameter, taking care to make sure that there are marshmellows enclosed in each, and procede to the "breading station."  A couple at a time take them down te line: a quick bath in the egg mixture, a playful roll in the dry mix until covered, then lined up on the cookie sheet.  Once all have been through the routine, spray the tops with spray butter or oil spray so they will crisp up nicely.  Escort them into the oven and allow them to bake for 15-20 minutes.

5.  Now the hard part - once they are becoming golden on top take them out of the oven, set them aside, and just walk away.  Don't look back, it will only make it harder.  Leave them there, on their own, for about 20 minutes.  They need time to settle down.

When, and only when, they are no longer hot to the touch can you bring them to the plate.  Feel free to serve with a little dusted brown sugar or drizzled melted butter on top, but personally I like just picking them up as is and enjoying.

So there you have it - the sweet potato recipe that finally won me over.  Who knows?  Maybe there's a whole world of sweet potato-y goodness out there just waiting for me to dive in..  I'm guessing not, but at least this was able to get the noble starch's "foot in the door" to my kitchen, and we all have to start somewhere don't we?  Now back to paperwork, meetings, workouts, family, and more.  I hope you enjoyed today's adventure and that you find these delightful little bites as delicious as I did!


Little Bits of Heaven Shortbread Muffins

or satisfying your sweet tooth on a non-existent budget

So much savory so little time, but life isn't all about the main course (no matter how delicious it may be).  Sometimes you just need dessert.  It's a simple undisputed truth, no matter your age or diet plan, at some point you just want something sweet.  Now before you shut me down and go in search of a "healthy" alternative to these delicious little treats consider this: will that option truly satisfy the craving for sweetness or bring that moment of comfort you are longing for that is reminiscent of childhood joy?  Think of the negative effects all that unresolved stress will have on your body.  And, if that isn't enough, just keep in mind - one little, bitty cookie muffin may well be worth the relief.  Besides, with only four little ingredients the risk falls more on your tastebuds than you pocketbook so why not give it a try?

For me shortbread is an amazingly fond memory of my childhood.  I remember happily sitting on the kitchen counter swinging my legs and singing "momma's little baby loves shortenin', shortenin', momma's little baby loves shortenin' bread" while my mom baked (it's a good thing it was a short recipe, or I very well may have driven her insane).  I couldn't help it, even then I knew the joys that resulted when butter, flour, and sugar all came to the party.  It was a delightful treat when the smells filled the kitchen and that first slice was cut from the pan.  For quite some time it seemed that my mom's famed shortbread recipe had vanished and I was stranded, forced to concoct my own.  Now, not wanting to compete with the comfort food of my childhood, I decided to try my hand at shortbread "cookies."  Not always the most successful, it was a very fussy concoction.  But I kept trying and one day I made some modifications to my most successful shortbread cookie recipe that resulted in the creation of shortbread muffins.  Reminicent of the rich dessert I loved but surprisingly light and fluffy!  Who knew shortbread could puff up like that?  

3 1/2 cups flour
3/4 cup sugar
2 cups butter, softened
1/2 tsp vanilla
Preheat oven to 350 degrees

First thing's first - before we start I must stress one thing, it's about the butter, it really must be softened.  You don't want it melted into a puddle in a dish but it does need to be soft all the way through in order to get the full fluffed effect we are going for, if you can't wait for it to soften just be warned that they may come out a bit more dense like traditional shortbread.  Now that we have that out of the way -

1. Using a hand mixer, blend softened butter and sugar until fluffy (should only take a couple seconds if soft).  Add vanilla and continue to blend.

2. Slowly add in the flour and blend until well mixed, should be a clumpy but mixed all the way through.

3. Grease muffin cups, mini sized work best but the regular size will work with a bit longer cook time.  Using a tablespoon, scoop out a spoonful of the mixture and compress in the palm of your hand to form a small ball shape.  Be careful not to overwork the cookie dough, if you do it will come out more dense.  Drop one ball of dough into each muffin cup, there's no need to shape any further as the cooking will help it take form.

4. Bake for approximately 12 min for small muffins and 16-18 min for regular muffins.  The shortbread should be getting golden around the corners and the center should rise a bit when done.  Pull out and allow to cool slightly on a cookie rack before removing.

There's no need to rush now, just take your time, go and get yourself a small plate.  Place a single shortbread muffin in the center of the plate, sit down, and enjoy that first bite - that rich buttery goodness, still warm in the center from baking but cool to touch on the outside - and let your mind wander past all that stress from work, all those frustrations with family, and on to that place of happiness we knew best as children. Enjoy the moment.  Just remember to take care to ease yourself back into reality before that peaceful feeling is shattered by the dog barking, kids sceaming, or traffic moving noisily outside your door.  But don't let go of that feeling, that comfort, that you felt in that first delicious bite.  I hope your day is as delicious as mine.  Enjoy!


Puttin' the Pressure on Pork Ribs

or quick flavor infused ribs for the time challenged cook.

I love ribs.  Beef, pork, bone-in, bone-out, country style, baby back, you name it - I love it!  And, true to most rib-snob forms, I will insist on grilled or smoked ribs whenever possible.  Unfortunately sometimes that just isn't possible, well quite frankly most nights that's not possible, but you shouldn't let that stand in the way of a delicious rib dinner mid-week.  Instead I offer you this: pressure cooked, BBQ flavor infused, pork ribs.  I know, I know, it isn't your tried and true cook for endless hours recipe, but this you can make just about any day of the week and for me that's a huge plus.  If you're still feeling finicky just toss them on the grill for some searing with extra sauce when you're done.  Are we all happy now?  Ok, let's move on.  Here's how it's done:

5 pounds* bone-in country-style pork ribs, cut singly
1 tsp paprika
2 tbsp canola oil
2 cup water
3 tablespoons ketchup
1-2 shots whiskey
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
2 tbsp brown sugar
1 tsp minced garlic
2 tbsp Dried minced onion
Smoked salt, pepper
6-8 very small golden potatoes

* This can be done with any number of ribs that will fit in your pressure cooker.  The key is to have enough sauce to cover the tops and enough head space for the pressure to build (your pressure cooker instructions usually define this if it isn't marked on the pot).

 What to do, what to do... oh, right, here we go:

1. Heat the oil in the bottom of the slow cooker pot while prepping the ribs.  For the ribs - on one side season with the smoked sea salt and press in firmly.  Now I'm not huge on all the fancy salt variations but the smokiness of this type is well worth the trip to a spice shop or specialty grocer once a year, it gives that rich smoky undertone that they get from cooking on the grill whether you're indoors or out.  But if you don't have this on hand or don't want to make the trip you can substitute smoked paprika for the standard kind and kosher salt for the smoked salt and that should help.  On the other side season with paprika and pepper and press in.  If you like additional garlic flavor, add some garlic powder to one of the sides when prepping.

2. Now that those seasonings are pressed firmly into the ribs add them to the oil in the pot.  Toss in the onion and garlic to sizzle.  Allow the ribs to brown on each side before flipping.  You may need to add a little extra oil while doing this if they start to stick.  If the ribs don't fit in the bottom of the pot, no worries, just work in a couple batches, it won't take long.

3. Smell all that flavorful goodness...  While they are browning mix together the sauce base.  Start with 1 cup of water and stir in the ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, brown sugar, and whiskey until smooth.  You may need to pull out a whisk for this, an excellent opportunity to release some stress by taking out any lingering frustrations on that lumpy sauce (you'll be amazed how quickly it becomes smooth when your stress level is particularly high).  Once it is ready, and you are feeling a bit more relaxed, pour it over the ribs.

4.  Nestle the potatoes in among the ribs and add enough water to cover the meat without going over the fill line.  Secure the top according to your pressure cooker guidelines and heat to high pressure.  Maintain pressure for about 20 min then turn off heat and let set for about 10 min.  Once that time has passed release the pressure slowly.  Stir well before serving.

These ribs practically fall off of the bone, a gentle tug is all it needs to release, and with the potatoes this makes a great one-pot meal.  Just think of how productive you can, or can not, be while it's cooking.  It's almost like dinner is saying "sit back, relax, I got this handled" and who would want to argue with dinner?  Certainly not I.  Now if you happen to find yourself wanting just a little more flavor simply toss the ribs on the grill, or in a cast iron skillet, with a light coating of your favorite BBQ sauce.  That extra searing may just push them over the top but that's a risk I would be willing to take, and you should be too, all in the name of ribs.  Glorious, smoky, tender, delicious ribs.  Enjoy!


Italian Mini Meatloaves

or comfort food come healthy, meatloaves even your kids will love

Ground beef or turkey is such a versatile ingredient that I am constantly trying to find new recipes or new ways to put a twist on more traditional ones - I can't go rogue all the time or people will never venture to try the recipes on their own.  So, after several weeks of more riske ideas, today I bring to you a peace offering - a simple twist on a home style classic - meatloaf.  While I ran in fear of this dish as a child, I have since found that it can not only be made in many different and delicious variations but it can also be made to be fun.  My two favorite recipes are Italian and BBQ mini meatloaves.  Today we're going Italian.

First - the healthier side (eluded to in the subtitle above).  In place of red meat, I like to use a low fat ground turkey with reduced fat cheeses.  Another benefit is the preset size of each loaf, making it easier at mealtime to stick to the right portions/ratios.  Also, making a lighter version of this comfort classic can help prevent that heavy, weighed down feeling that often slides in stealthily post-dinner (and nobody want that).  Definitely a bonus.  Ok enough of that health food talk, on to my second point - meatloaf can be fun!  Crazy, I know, but it's true.  As I was a meatloaf phobic child myself I can relate to those that shy away from such nondescript dishes, so let's just toss that word out and replace it with "muffins."  Sound a bit more pleasant?  I thought so.  Now lets take a winding trip down memory lane, with a few creative touches added to the landscape.

1 lb ground turkey
1 egg
2 tbsp low fat ricotta cheese
1/3 cup Italian breadcrumbs
1/4 cup Panko breadcrumbs
1/4 cup Reduced Fat Parmesan Romano cheese
House spice blend
1 tbsp Dried minced onion
1/2 tsp Garlic powder
1/4 tsp Basil
1/4 tsp Parsely
1/4 tsp Kosher salt

1. Dump all ingredients except a palmful of the Panko into a large bowl.  Roll up your sleeves and remove any jewelry on your hands and wrists, this is gonna get messy.  Now dig in!  Using your hands to mash together the ingredients, folding and pressing, squeezing and turning, punching if necessary, until it is blended throughout.  Take a deep breathe and relax as all that stress you didn't realize you had is released from your body. 

2. Use non-stick spray on two 6 muffin baking pans (silicone works best, it's much easier to remove). Shape balls of the turkey mixture into evenly sized "muffins" and place in pan. If they are resisting formation just add some extra breadcrumbs to the mixture, but don't force it dry - the moistness is one of the best parts!

Optional step: To make this a more decadent treat we'll add a bit of Brie.  Use your finger to make a small indent about halfway deep in each "muffin" and press in a 1/2" cube of brie, cover with ground turkey from sides to seal securely.  Now that the "treasure" is in place, we can continue..

3. Dust tops of the muffins with the remaining Panko Crumbs and bake at 450 degrees for 15-20 min. or until internal temperature reaches 165 degrees.  Let them cool for a couple minutes before releasing from the pans.  If using silicone they will just pop out, otherwise slide a small fork gently down the side (so as not to damage the delicate package) and lift from the bottom. 

And there they are - little savory muffin delights.  Whether you opted for the Brie or not tis is still a nice way to dress up a classic weekday meal.  For an easy throw together dinner you can prep these ahead of time and store them in the fridge under plastic wrap, then all you need to do is toss them in the oven when you get home!  This is an quick and simple dinner that makes both me and my hubby happy, while being healthy at the same time. The fun shape and hidden "treasure" makes this more fun for kids at any age.  Serves great with baked potatoes or salad, and of course a side of galic bread.  Personally I like to make extra, the moistness from the ricotta results in them reheating very well for lunches.  Well, I must run off now.  I hope you take this little twist on a home stye classic into your kitchen for a spin, it's always a hit in mine.  Enjoy!


Stress Prevention Sicilian Tomato Sauce

or It's Home Canning and I Helped!  An instant homemade meal.

Now, before you go running off at the thought of canning your own food let me lay it out for you.  This isn't your grandmother's canning.  Now I'm sure what she did was great, and the hard hours she put into it made it delicious, but much of that has gone by the wayside.  There are many tools that make it easy for you to preserve jars of delicious foods with only a few extra tools and your stock pot.  So never fear, modern home canning* is here!

Ok, I admit it, I am biased.  I love canning.  I only began canning on my own over the past year and it is already a mild obsession.  This recipe was one I created when I first started canning last Fall to make gift baskets for the holidays but my husband loved it so much that I soon had to make more.  To be honest, it was surprising how nice it was to be able able to pour out the slow simmered, homemade sauce over pasta and have such a delicious meal in the same time it takes to make a box of macaroni and cheese.  It does take some time to lovingly cook all those flavors into the sauce but just think of how many meals you'll have at your fingertips in the cupboard and it will all seem worth it again.  It took some adjusting, but I made a close replica of my Sicilian grandmother's spaghetti sauce base that is hot water bath canning safe.  And really, who doesn't want easy access to the grandmother's comfort foods?  Let the idea marinate as you read on, and maybe - just maybe - you'll find your inner strength to give it a try.

Beef bullion granules – 4 tbsp
Tomatoes - 1 can crushed or 28 oz fresh boiled and crushed
Diced tomatoes – 1 can, with basil & oregano, or 12 oz fresh diced and spiced
Onion – 1 large, minced
Garlic – 3 tsp fresh minced garlic
Seasoning salt
Parsley, Oregano, and Basil - 1-2 tsp each, dried
Garlic powder – 2 tsp
Tomato paste – 1 can, 12 oz
Wine – red, ½ a cup (perhaps an extra glass for the cook)
Parmesan cheese – ¼ cup, to taste

1. Get a big pot and sauté garlic and onions with some seasoning salt.  As they start to sizzle and brown soak in those savory aromas.  Once the onions begin to turn translucent it is time to move on.

2. Stir in the crushed and diced tomatoes until well blended. Bring to a simmer.

3. Now it is time to add the tomato paste, 2 cups of water, and wine. Stir until the tomato paste is incorporated in the sauce and the aroma of the red wine mixes almost seamlessly into that of the tomatoes and garlic.  Keep the pot at a simmer and add the beef bullion granules, stir until completely dissolved and start to cook down.

4. Mix in the remaining spices, adding additional amounts to taste. If you love garlic as much as I do use a more generous amount of garlic powder.

5. Bring to a boil and simmer, stirring whenever you happen to be in the kitchen to prevent neglect induced bottom burning. Remember to add water as needed, and season with salt and pepper. Keep cooking down and attending to the sauce lovingly generally for about 2 hours or so.

6. Taste throughout and add more herbs or salt and pepper as needed. Separate out any that will not be canned and during the last 30 min add Parmesan cheese, stirring well. Heat all the way through.

7. If canning, prepare jars and lids according to guidelines below and complete while sauce is hot.

You did it!  Your first canning experiment is now complete, and believe me it will be worth it.  After a long stressful day at work, chasing kids around, fixing other people's problems, or just about anything else that gets under your skin, just crack open a jar, boild some noodles, and enjoy!  I love to use this in my slow cooker lasagna recipe (coming soon to a blog near you) and also adding some browned ground beef or crumbled Italian sausage for a quick meat sauce.  If you are having guests or just want to dress it up a bit, toss it wiith pasta after adding the ground meat and then throw in the oven topped with mozzerella for a quick baked dish that will taste like it took hours to make.  And of course, you can't forget the garlic bread.  With so many options, and a great back up supply, this can be a perfect go to dish for instant stress relief, but maybe that's just the Italian me.  Either way, I hope you enjoy!

Canning tomato sauce:
1.) Prepare boiling water canner or stock pot. Heat jars and lids separately in simmering water until ready for use. Do not boil. Set bands aside.
2.) Ladle the hot sauce into hot jars leaving 1/2 inch headspace. Remove air bubbles with a non-metal utensil if needed by sliding it gently down the side. Wipe rim. Center hot lid on jar. Apply band and adjust until fit is fingertip tight.
4.) Place the filled jars in a boiling water canner or stock pot for 35 minutes, adjusting for altitude. Remove jars and cool. Check lids for seal after 24 hours. Lid should not flex up and down when center is pressed.

* You have to be careful to use tried and true recipe ingredients for hot water canning or it may go bad (some ingredients can only be pressure canned, a bit more expensive process).   As long as you stick to safe ingredient combinations, the options are endless!  So let loose and let those creative juices flow; just keep in mind a touch of restraint to keep from crossing over into forbidden ingredient land.