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Pumpkin Pancakes with Butter Pecan Syrup

After an extended period of unusually warm temperatures, autumn has taken its inevitable hold on our weather. There’s a definite chill in the air, which requires down jackets, more so than fleecy hoodies. As usual, the kids will trick-or-treat with winter coats stuffed under their costumes this year. It won’t be long before we see our first snow.

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Despite the chilly temps, this weekend was positively beautiful. The leaves are at their peak of vibrant color and the grass is still (mostly) green. And on this gorgeous weekend, I celebrated my birthday. We began our festivities on Saturday morning with these pumpkin pancakes, drizzled in warm butter pecan syrup. Then, we ended the weekend with a full turkey dinner at a crowded table of family and friends. I gave thanks a month early, for another year of good food, good family, and good friends.

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Warm butter pecan syrup seemed like the ideal accompaniment for these seasonally perfect pumpkin pancakes. My love for butter pecan syrup is so intense, that I have made trips to IHOP for the sole reason of dipping stuff in their famous syrup. A quick search for ‘copycat’ recipes for my fave IHOP syrup revealed numerous blends of sugar with water and a variety of artificial extracts. My version takes a more natural approach, using pure maple syrup, melted butter, and non-imitation vanilla extract. Toasting chopped pecans in a bit of butter brings out the buttery-nutty flavor in this crave-worthy pancake topper.

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Pumpkin Pancakes

Slightly modified from Martha Stewart’s Pumpkin Pancakes

Ingredients

  • 2 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 4 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ginger
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • Pinch of ground cloves
  • 2 cups milk
  • 3/4 cup pumpkin puree, fresh or canned
  • 4 tablespoons melted butter
  • 2 eggs

Directions

Combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, cinnamon, ginger, salt, nutmeg, and cloves in a large bowl.  In a separate bowl, whisk together the milk, pumpkin puree, melted butter, and eggs. Gradually pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients, whisking until well blended. Melt a little butter in a skillet over medium heat. Pour about 1/3 cup batter for each pancake. Cook pancakes approximately 3 minutes per side.

Makes about 12-15 pancakes

Butter Pecan Syrup

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup pecans, chopped
  • 1 1/2 cups real maple syrup
  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • Pinch of salt

Directions

Melt 1 tablespoon of the butter in a saucepan, over medium heat. Add the chopped pecans. Cook for about 3 minutes, until fragrant. Add the maple syrup, butter, and vanilla extract. Continue to heat over medium-low/medium heat until the butter has melted and blended with the syrup. Season with a pinch of salt. Serve warm.

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Triple Ginger Apple Muffins

If an apple a day keeps the doctor away, then my little James is going to have the doctors bolting in the other direction. The kid eats, oh, anywhere from 5 – 10 apples a day. No joke.

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At one point, I would dole out his daily allotment of apples, spending a ridiculous percentage of my days washing, peeling, and slicing his favorite food. After eating 3 in a day, I’d determine he’d reached his daily apple limit and try to persuade him to eat some nice, delicious cookies or perhaps some potato chips instead.

This never ended well. In fact, our worst fights pretty much all came down to a disagreement over how many apples a two-year-old should reasonably eat in a day.

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But, you know, as parents, you have to pick your battles, and eventually, I simply decided that if the kid wants to eat apples from dawn to dusk, then so be it.

We now buy multiple sacks of apples each week, which I wash and leave in a giant mountain on the counter, for my little guy to snack on at will. My only remaining problem is finding half-eaten apples hidden within my slippers. True story.

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Naturally, being peak apple season up here in Central New York, we recently spent an afternoon at our favorite apple orchard, Beak and Skiff, where we rode a flatbed tractor up to the rows of ripe Cortland apples and picked until the bags were too heavy to carry.

James filled his bag, then refused to let anyone touch his precious, precious fruit. He walked row by row, dragging that bulging bag of apples behind his little apple-nourished body, shrieking if I even attempted to lighten his load.

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After riding the tractor back to the front of the orchard, we placed our loot on the scales and handed over $26 for our sweet bounty. (Note to self: It costs 16 cents more per pound to pick the apples yourself than to buy the same apples, from the same orchard at the local grocery store.)

I went through the bags of apples once we’d arrived home. To my utter lack of surprise, James’ bag contained at least 10 bucks worth of half-eaten apples.

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Some of what I found in James’ bag of apples…

Thankfully, most of Liam and Lucas’ apples were not already eaten, leaving plenty of freshly-picked apples for snacking and for making these outrageous muffins. Based on a basic not-too-sweet molasses muffin, accented with a triple dose of ground, fresh, and crystallized ginger, these spicy muffins barely made it to the next morning.

I recommend making a double batch.

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Triple Ginger Apple Muffins

Ingredients

  • 2 cups flour
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 6-ounce container vanilla or apple-cinnamon greek yogurt
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/3 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/3 cup molasses
  • 1 tablespoon fresh ginger, grated
  • 1/4 cup crystallized ginger, chopped
  • 1 1/2 cups apple, peeled and diced

Directions

Preheat oven to 325ºF. Prepare muffin tins with liners or by spraying with a nonstick baking spray.

Combine the flour, sugar, baking soda, salt, ground ginger, and cinnamon in a large bowl.  In a separate bowl, whisk together the yogurt, eggs, oil, and molasses. Stir in the fresh ginger.

Combine the wet ingredients with the dry ingredients until well blended. Stir in the crystallized ginger and the apple. The batter will be pretty thick.

Spoon the batter into the muffin tins, so that each tin is about 2/3 – 3/4 full.

Bake for 20-25 minutes.

Makes 12-15 muffins

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Breaking Bad Dinner Menu

Well, hello friends!

Apologies for my unplanned vanishing act. By the end of Day 1 of summer vacation, I was pretty sure I’d never make it out alive. I fought the chaos tooth and nail for the first week. Then I just I surrendered. Summer swallowed me whole and belched as I went down.

I ran on reserve power for most of the summer, focusing on only my most integral functions, like preventing the boys from maiming themselves during their daredevil play routines and rinsing the mud from their summer bodies three times daily.

I thought that once the school year began, I’d be able to climb my way from the pit of chaos and promptly begin posting again, but I’ve been saying that for three weeks now. Alas, the school year brought upon us its own special kind of insanity and I still find myself with too many balls in the air. If only I knew how to juggle…

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Hear no evil. See no evil. Speak no evil.

I’m going to make it up to you today though, with an entire menu’s worth of recipes. Have we got any Breaking Bad fans out there?

I recently read some comment that watched in reverse, AMC’s Breaking Bad tells the inspiring story of drug lord who cleans up his act, beats cancer, reunites his family, and becomes a school teacher. Sounds like a Lifetime movie. In actuality, for the last five seasons, we’ve watched the tale of a seemingly normal man’s struggle with cancer and providing for his family crumble into the most unimaginable chaos, up to the point where last episode left off, with a suggestion that perhaps there’s nothing left of that kind, normal man. The show is widely considered one of television’s best dramas and for good reason. I’m approaching the series finale with mix of eager anticipation and deep sadness for its ending.

In honor of its finale, the good folks at Cinema Blend asked me to put together a little Breaking Bad themed dinner party menu. Though not in any way a show about food, Breaking Bad gives us no shortage for dinner party inspiration. Many of the shows pivotal confrontations occur over some of the world’s most awkward meals. The following menu, designed with a New Mexican flare for the show’s setting, should give you a few good ideas for hosting your own Breaking Bad series finale dinner party.

Check out Cinema Blend for all of the latest coverage, recaps, and reviews of Breaking Bad.

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During the past season, Walt, Skyler, Hank and Marie met for the world’s most awkward double date at a Mexican restaurant. At the height of the tension, an upbeat waiter arrives, eagerly pushing the joint’s signature tableside guacamole. (You can see the clip here.)

Make this guacamole tableside to your guest’s liking, or prepare it ahead of time. *Squeeze a bit of lime juice over the top and cover securely with plastic wrap to prevent browning.

Heisenberg’s Tableside Guacamole

Ingredients

  • 2 ripe avocados, halved
  • 1/4 red onion, finely diced
  • 1/2 jalapeño, ribs and seeds removed, very finely diced
  • 1 small tomato, finely chopped
  • 1/4 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
  • Juice of 1/2 lime
  • Salt and pepper

Directions

Smash the avocado using the backside of a fork, a potato masher, or with a mortar and pestle. Stir in the remaining ingredients. Adjust quantities as desired.

Serve with Walt’s signature blue tortilla chips and Jesse’s favorite Funyuns. To go full Breaking Bad style, wait to offer this to your guests during the most tense part of the evening. Orchestrate tension, if necessary.

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No Breaking Bad menu would be complete without some fried chicken, from Gus Fring’s Los Pollos Hermanos, the fried chicken joint which played heavily into the show’s third and fourth seasons. We served our boneless fried chicken tenders over a spicy salsa verde, drizzled with a bit of chipotle mayo.

Gus Fring’s Los Pollos Hermanos Fried Chicken Tenders over Salsa Verde with Chipotle Drizzle

Ingredients

  • 2 pounds chicken tenderloins
  • 3 cups buttermilk, divided
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 cups flour
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons garlic powder
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons paprika
  • 3/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • Vegetable oil, for frying

Directions

Soak the tenderloins in 2 cups of the buttermilk in a covered container in the refrigerator for a few hours.

Heat the vegetable oil in a large frying pan over medium/medium-high heat, until sizzling hot.

Whisk together the remaining cup of buttermilk and the eggs in a large bowl. Transfer the chicken tenders to the egg mixture.

In a small baking dish, stir together the flour, garlic powder, salt, paprika, and cayenne pepper.

Remove the chicken tenders from the egg mixture. Allow the excess to drip off. Press the chicken into the flour mixture until well coated on both sides. Place in the hot oil. Cook for about 3-4  minutes on each side, until cooked through and golden brown. (The chicken should sizzle when placed in the oil.) Drain the cooked tenders on a paper towel. Repeat in small batches until all of the chicken has been cooked.

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Salsa Verde

Slightly modified from Rick Bayless’ Salsa Verde

Ingredients

  • 8 tomatillos
  • 1 jalapeno pepper or 1-2 serrano peppers, halved, stems and ribs removed*
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/2 white onion, coarse chopped
  • 10-12 cilantro sprigs, bottom portion of stem removed, coarse chopped
  • Juice of 1/2 lime
  • Salt, to taste

*Use jalapeño for a spicy sauce. Use serrano for a more mild sauce.

Directions

Preheat your broiler.

Remove the husks from the tomatillos. Rinse. Cut off the stem, then halve. Place the halved tomatillos, garlic cloves, and jalapeño or serrano pepper on a baking sheet. Lightly rub the tomatillos, peppers, and garlic with olive oil. Roast a few inches under the broiler for about 5 minutes. Flip them over and roast the other side for about 5 minutes. Once cool, transfer the entire contents of the tray (including the juices) to a blender. Add the onion and cilantro. Blend to desired consistency. Season with lime juice and salt, to taste.

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Chipotle Drizzle

Ingredients

  • 1 chipotle (from can of chipotles in adobo), pureed or very finely chopped
  • 1/3 cup mayonnaise
  • 2 tablespoons of adobo sauce (from can of chipotles in adobo)

Directions

Combine all ingredients until well blended.

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The fifth season’s episode “Fifty-one”, finds Walt, Skyler, Hank and Marie seated once again at a dinner table on Walt’s 51st birthday, reflecting back the past year, with Walt spinning a web of lies while Skyler silently contemplates an escape for herself and her children. Attempting to break the tension, Marie offers a compliment about Skyler’s mashed potatoes, eager to learn how she removed all of the lumps. Skyler distractedly credits the use of a potato ricer, though her potatoes were actually store-bought and microwaved.

It may not truly be Skyler’s trick to creamy potatoes, but a potato ricer is in fact the ticket to smooth, non-gummy potatoes. By pressing the cooked potatoes through the ricer, lumps are thoroughly removed, without disturbing the cooked starches too much. I’ve had my eye on a potato ricer for many years now, though the idea to purchase one always corresponds with the holiday season, when I’m bleeding money and just can’t wrap myself around the added expense. I bought myself one yesterday in honor of this dish. Those are some smooth potatoes!

Skyler’s Creamy Potatoes with Cheddar and Jalapeño

Ingredients

  • 8 large russet potatoes, peel and chopped into 1″ chunks
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 2 cup cheddar cheese, grated
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1  jalapeño, ribs and seeds removed, very finely diced
  • Salt

Directions

Place the potatoes in a large saucepan. Add water to just cover the potatoes. Bring the water to a boil. Cook for about 10 minutes, until fork tender. Allow to cool slightly. Mash the potatoes in a potato ricer or food mill. Alternately, use a potato masher. Stir in the sour cream, cheese, milk, and jalapeño, just until blended. Do not over-stir. Add more milk, as desired, to reach your preferred consistency. Season with salt, to taste.

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Oh, Jesse, Jesse, Jesse… poor conflicted man, with any chance of living his American dream looking pretty hopeless right about now. Trapped in a concrete cell by some uber-creeps, Todd (no doubt the creepiest one of all) offers him some Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, giving him a choice between Peanut Butter Cup and Stephen Colbert’s Americone Dream.

Stephen Colbert’s Americone Dream combines vanilla ice cream with fudge coated waffle cone and caramel. This ice cream pie is inspired by the crave-worthy Ben and Jerry’s flavor. A waffle-cone crust gets coated with rich chocolate ganache then filled with vanilla ice cream and drizzled with caramel.

*Did you know that you can make a pie crust out of just about anything that crumbles? Combine two cups of crumbs with enough melted butter to make it stick (I usually use 10-12 tablespoons for 2 cups of crumbs, though other recipes use less butter), then press it into your pie shell and bake for a few minutes to set.

Jesse’s “Americone Dream” Inspired Ice Cream Pie

Ingredients

  • 2 cups ice cream cone crumbs (sugar cones or waffle cones)
  • 10-12 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
  • 1/4 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • 1/3 cup heavy cream
  • 1/2 gallon vanilla ice cream
  • 1/4 cup caramel sauce

Directions

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Stir together the ice cream cone crumbs and melted butter, until it sticks together when pressed. Press the mixture into a deep dish pie pan. Bake the crust for 10 minutes. Cool.

Bring the cream just to a boil, then remove from heat. Stir the hot cream into the chocolate chips. Stir until melted. Pour the ganache onto the bottom of the pie crust. Use a spatula to spread the ganache in an even layer on the bottom and up part of the sides of the crust. Cool.

Allow the ice cream to soften at room temperature. Spread the softened ice cream into the prepared crust. Place the pie in the freezer to set.

Before serving, drizzle with caramel sauce.

For more of a Breaking Bad effect, garnish the pie with little bits of blue rock candy or crushed blue hard candy. *You might want to wait until the kids go to bed before adding the crystal blue garnish. It just didn’t seem right to have the kids around pretend drugs, even if they’re clueless about the reference.

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Blue is Walt and Jesse’s signature color. This crystal blue cocktail is oozing with orange flavors. I used an orange infused simple syrup to sweeten the drink, in order to preserve the beverage’s crystal transparency.

*This is a strong one, folks. Drink responsibly.

Crystal Blue Martini

Ingredients

  • 2 ounces orange vodka
  • 1 ounce triple sec
  • 1 ounce blue curacao
  • 2 ounces orange infused simple syrup
  • Lemon juice, to taste

Directions

Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice. Pour off the ice. Garnish with orange peel.

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Orange Infused Simple Syrup

Ingredients

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup water
  • Peel of an orange, pith removed, thinly sliced

Directions

Combine all ingredients in a saucepan. Bring to a simmer, stirring until sugar is completely dissolved. Simmer gently for about 3-5 minutes. Remove the orange peel and reserve for garnish. Cool.

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Here are a few other fun ideas you could incorporate for a Breaking Bad viewing party:

Rooftop Roasted Pizza, just how Walt likes it. – Try any of the pizza recipes in the pizza section of my recipe collection.

Green Beans Almondine, like the store-bought ones that so impressed Jesse during his dinner at the White’s.

Breakfast with a number made of bacon, Walt’s annual way of bringing in his birthday. *This pic is from my son’s fifth birthday dinner. He is nothing like Walter White, except that he like breakfast foods and bacon.

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Tuco’s Burritos

Gus Fring’s Seafood Stew

Huevos Rancheros or this Huevos Rancheros Pizza

Rice ‘n’ Beans – Say it again. Rice ‘n’ Beans. Get it? Ricin Beans ** WARNING** DO NOT USE ACTUAL RICIN. It’s poison.

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Easy Indoor Slider Burgers with Spicy-As-You-Like-It Special Sauce

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It’s burger season. It’s also unpredictable, chance-of-rain just about everyday season, which might just foil your grilling burgers plan, unless you’re like my dad who grills in snow, sleet, and rain. Weather is no more a deterrent for my father than it is for the mail man. I guarantee he’ll have ribs on the grill during the apocalypse. I like that about him.

I, however, am a fair-weather griller. Thankfully, burgers can still be enjoyed on rainy days with these simple, indoor burger sliders. The kids love these tiny tasty burgers. Who am I kidding? We all love these burgers. Hot dog buns, split into thirds make the perfect little slider buns. A dill pickle slice and spoonful of my spicy-as-you-like-it special sauce complete each perfect mini burger.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to making these tasty burgers, which may quickly become one of your easy go-to weeknight meals!

Step 1: Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Scatter 1/2 finely diced onion in an even layer at the bottom of a 9×13 baking dish or half-sheet pan. **Click HERE  for a step-by-step photo guide for dicing onions.

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Step 2: Crumble 1 pound of ground beef over the onion. **Use 80/20 ground beef. It makes a difference!

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Step 3: Press the meat into an even layer. Sprinkle with seasoned salt. (I used Old Bay seasoning.)

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Step 4: Bake for 18-20 minutes. While the burgers are cooking, divide 7-8 hot dog buns in half. Cut the bottom halves into thirds. Top each piece with a spoonful of special sauce and a dill pickle slice.

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Step 5: Once the meat has cooked, remove it from the oven. Pour off any excess juices. Top the meat with slices of American cheese. Place in the oven for another few seconds to melt the cheese.

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Step 6: Arrange the tops of the hot dogs buns on top of the meat. Cut through the buns and meat so that each bun is cut into thirds. **A pizza cutter makes a convenient cutting tool.

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Step 7: Pick up each bun and burger portion and place it on top of the prepared bottom buns. Enjoy!

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Spicy-As-You-Like-It Special Sauce

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup mayonaisse
  • 1/2 cup ketchup
  • 1 tablespoon dill relish
  • 1/4 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
  • Tabasco, to taste
  • Salt and Pepper, to taste

Directions

Combine the mayo, ketchup, dill relish, onion powder, and garlic powder until well blended. Add a few dashes of tabasco sauce, then stir and taste. Continue adding tabasco, as desired. Season with salt and pepper, to taste.

Roasted Red Pepper Vinaigrette: One Simple Dressing, Two Amazing Salads (and a GIVEAWAY WINNER!)

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It was back in one of my undergraduate teacher education classes, that I was first introduced to the debate over nature vs. nurture. How much of our personality, strengths, challenges, and interests are a product of our individual biological makeups and how much is due to the environment in which we’re raised and the life events we experience?

From an educator’s point of view, I want very much to believe that nurture plays a more important role, because that idea acknowledges every child’s potential for success and a teacher’s ability to play a significant role in that. We teachers want to believe that given enough time, effective effort, and support, every one of our students can be successful. As educators, the idea of intelligence being a fixed, inborn characteristic would be limiting. So, as a matter of practice, we subscribe more heavily to the theory that nurture plays a more dominant role in human development.

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I have to admit though, watching my own boys grow and develop, it’s become a lot more evident to me that nature really does play a significant role. My three boys, all nurtured in the same environment, under very similar conditions, save for the automatic differences in birth order and changes that adding new members to the family have on a home environment. But, my three boys are just about as different as they can be, with their own individual strengths, interests, preferences, and challenges – traits which have been part of who they are since birth.

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My Liam is a creator, inventor, and planner. Hand the kid an old piece of cardboard, scissors, and a strip of painter’s tape and he’ll invent some revolutionary new technology which just might change the world. He’s also our head mischief-maker, in an ever-scheming, mad-scientist sort of way. He loves telling stories and doesn’t understand the reason for spaces between his words, either spoken or written. He’s a “What’s next?” sort of kid who wants to plow through the day filling it with as many experiences as possible. Liam doesn’t mind coloring, as long as he can do it fast and all with the same color.

Lucas is our character. He is silly and unabashedly honest with his emotions. The kid takes the stage and steals the show. Just last night, at his Irish step-dancing recital, he snuck out from behind the curtain before the show and spent a good five minutes flapping his arms and shaking his butt in front of the 100 or so people who’d gathered to watch the recital. After completing the first dance, while the rest of the dancers remained poised for the second dance, Lucas approached the front of the stage to shout to me about how much fun he was having. The curtain closed behind him. After spinning around and running nose first into the curtain, he giggled, then shuffled behind the curtain for his second dance. He feels things deeply, for better or worse. He likes his quesadillas with cheese only and “nothing I don’t like.” (If you’re sneaky about it, he will know.) He’s a songwriter, loves legos, and despises coloring.

Little James is a love. He requires copious amounts of hugs and kisses and snuggles, which he soaks up like a sponge and is generous in regifting to everyone he meets. He gives every child at the gym’s childcare a personal hug goodbye when we exit, and the gym cleaning lady gets one too. Sometimes he bites when he gets a bit to excited during a hug, sort of like a dolphin, which makes hugs a bit tense sometimes, but he’s irresistible. He thinks apples and corn on the cob are the best foods in the universe and he’s already trying to learn the alphabet – something the other boys had little interest in for most of their young lives. (His favorite letter is E.) James thinks coloring is the bee’s knees.

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They are who they are. And certainly, everything they experience throughout the rest of their lives will have an impact on who they will ultimately become, but it would be foolish to undervalue the unique people they were born as. I’ve learned that parenting, much like teaching, requires ongoing assessment of where our little people are in their lives, what natural talents and interests they possess, what motivates and what discourages them. Then, if we’re doing it right, we take all of that information and design little personalized plans that help nurture their existing strengths, expose them to other possible areas of interest, and teach strategies that might help them handle the areas of life which are more of a personal struggle.

So, do I treat all of my children the same? Absolutely not. I nurture each of my children in the way which seems to work best for them. We follow each of their natural leads and take it from there. Nature vs. nurture? I’m not sure. Ideally a bit of both, I guess, working harmoniously with each other to create unique, well-rounded, happy little people.

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Tomorrow, we welcome June. The weather is hot and soon my gaggle of small men will be off for a summer full of creating, destroying, laughing, crying, and loving. Our neighbors opened their pool yesterday and once again, I smacked myself in the head and thought, “Why the heck didn’t I start eating healthier months ago???” Somehow, I’m always too late for bathing suit season. But, the added bonus of the warm weather is that salads for dinner seem ever so much more crave-worthy. They’re light and fresh and have huge potential for deliciousness.

Here are two of my current favorite salads, both made with the same simple roasted red pepper vinaigrette. The dressing is light and flavorful, with a perfect balance of sweetness and acidity. The protein-rich toppings on these salads make either option a quick and easy, satisfying summer dinner.

Roasted Red Pepper Vinaigrette

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup roasted red peppers (from a jar works just fine or roast your own)
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1/4 cup white balsamic vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon dijon mustard
  • 1 teaspoon garlic, minced
  • Salt and pepper

Directions

Combine all ingredients in a blender. Pulse until smooth. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper, as desired.

Salad Idea #1 – Spinach with Shrimp, Bacon, Corn, and Avocado – Chop the bacon and cook in a fry pan until crisp. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain over a paper towel. Cook large shrimp in the hot bacon fat for a minute or two on each side, until cooked through. Toss a generous serving of fresh baby spinach leaves in a bit of the roasted red pepper dressing. Top with the cooked bacon and shrimp, fresh avocado, and sweet corn.

Salad Idea #2 – Mediterranean – Toss romaine or butter lettuce in the roasted red pepper dressing. Top with garbanzo beans, kalamata olives, chopped sun-dried tomatoes and feta cheese crumbles.

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GIVEAWAY WINNER!! We have a winner! Using http://www.random.org to select a number at random, out of the 17 entries received for the $50 Shindigz gift card giveaway, the winner is #7, Jill fox. Congratulations, Jill!! I’m going to send you an email at the address provided with your comment to get the information necessary to fulfill your prize!! Thank you to everyone who entered!

Indian Chickpeas and Mango Lassis

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We spent last weekend at a rental house in the Catskill mountains with some friends from college and a few of their close friends. 10 adults. 8 little boys ages 6 month to 6 years. An endless supply of good food. Late nights and early mornings. Amazing fun.

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The weather was cold and rainy, but the house was well equipped to keep everyone occupied. We played air hockey and foosball and pool and Settlers of Catan. The kids got lessons in backgammon, dominos, and the card game, war. On the warmest day, we played bubbles and hopscotch. The kids enjoyed the large outdoor play set and playing tee-ball in the yard, which was much more a practice in turn-taking than anything else. There were nature walks, a close call with a tick and a perfectly freaky encounter with a snake. The jacuzzi went largely unused and the karaoke machine went completely neglected. (The beer fridge worked double time.)

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Each of the five families prepared a meal during our weekend stay. We ate tender slow-cooked BBQ pork with grilled sweet corn, beer can chicken, homemade waffles with ripe strawberries and fresh whipped cream (the sweet result of a multi-person hand-whipping effort), an assortment of four types of bacon, cinnamon roll french toast bake, cheddar garlic biscuits, scrambled eggs with applewood smoked bacon, caramelized onions, and gruyere, and a taco spread that would make any mouth water. (The lime marinated skirt steak won my heart.)

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And though the food was amazing, the home more than comfortable, and the entertainment plentiful, the best part of the weekend, by far, was the people. Over the course of three days, eighteen of us lived together, laughing and connecting, enjoying old friendships and beginning new ones.

In my last post, I asked you to share what you believe is the #1 factor which creates a memorable party, as your entry into a giveaway for a $50 gift card to Shindigz. And though I completely agree that the food, theme, decor and a relaxed host all lend a big hand, after the experience of this past weekend, I wholeheartedly believe it is the people that make the party.

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Likewise, it was the people who made our recent Temple Run birthday party such a grand success – the friends and family who traveled from out of town to celebrate with us, the ones who came early to help set up, my brother who chased 20 or so small children through the Temple Run obstacle course in a hot gorilla suit, the guests who repeatedly helped me to repair the course with packaging tape every time one of our small runners plowed through the perimeter, and our fun and social guests. The food and the decorations and the theme all set the stage, but the people made the party.

Thankfully, I had help from Shindigz when it came to acquiring the right decor and party supplies to make our party theme come to life and I had help from a friend when it came to our Indian-themed menu. I’m no stranger to googling recipes when I’m looking to cook something new, (like a full buffet of Indian food) but this time I also had the benefit of an old teaching buddy of mine, who kindly shared the recipe for one of her mom’s signature dishes with me – a dish she fondly recalls from her childhood, as being served with pooris on special occasions and when entertaining visiting family from India.

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Vibrant green plates from Shindigz!

Like many familiar family recipes, which are passed on through generations, this recipe is often cooked more by taste than by exact measure. And since I’ve never had the pleasure of tasting the original recipe, I had to use a bit of guesswork and personal guidance from my own taste buds when determining the measurements for most of the spices in this dish. My version of this tasty recipe may not be exactly like my friend’s familiar family favorite, but these savory chickpeas certainly made a delicious addition to our party menu!

It’s not too late to enter the giveaway for a $50 gift card to Shindigz! For more details, click back to my last post, Temple Run’ Indian-Spiced Meatballs with Raita, and leave a comment there about what you believe is the #1 factor that makes a memorable party. The winner will be selected at random on Friday, May 31, 2013 at 12:00pm EST. One entry per person, 18 years and older, US mailing addresses only, please.

Indian Chickpeas

Adapted from a recipe by Rekha Antani

Ingredients

  • 3 cans chick peas
  • 1 medium onion, coarse chopped
  • 3 vine-riperned tomatoes, coarse chopped
  • 3 cloves of garlic
  • 1/2 inch segment of ginger, peeled
  • 3/4 teaspoon mustard seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
  • 3/4  teaspoon chile powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
  • Pinch of cloves
  • 3 whole cardamoms
  • 1/2 tablespoon sugar
  • 1/2 tablespoon cumin
  • 1/2 tablespoon coriander powder
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 3 tablespoons powdered cashews (optional)*

Directions

Drain chick peas, reserving the liquid for later. Process the onion, tomatoes, ginger and garlic in a blender or food processor, until smooth. Combine the mustard seeds, turmeric, chile powder and cardamoms in a saucepan over medium heat. Immediately add the onion and tomato mixture to the pan. Add the cinnamon, cloves, sugar, and cumin/coriander powder. Stir well and let it simmer for 2-3 minutes. Add the chick peas to the mixture, stirring from the bottom. Over medium heat, bring the mixture to a simmer. Continue simmering, partially covered, for 25-30 minutes, adding some of the reserved liquid, a little at a time, as the liquid reduces. Once it appears that the chick peas have changed color by absorbing the spices, lower the heat. Take about 1/4 cup of the hot liquid in the pan and mix it with the sour cream. Then, add the sour cream mixture to the pan. Simmer for 3-4 minutes more at a medium/low heat, until it begins to bubble and thicken. Add the powdered cashews, if desired. Garnish with fresh chopped coriander.

*I omitted the powdered cashews in my preparation due to children with nut allergies at our party.

**The original recipe also calls for an unspecified quantity of a spice called hing or asafoetida, which was not available in my well-stocked grocery store. It would likely be available in an Indian grocery store.

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Mango Lassi (Mango and Yogurt Smoothie)
Ingredients
  • 2 cups mango nectar
  • 2 cups mango chunks, frozen
  • 3 cups plain yogurt
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice
  • Honey (optional, to taste)
Directions
Combine all ingredients in a blender. Blend until smooth. Adjust sweetness with additional honey, to taste. Sprinkle with a dash of cardamom powder or garnish with a sprig of fresh mint, if desired.
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Disclaimer – Shindigz provided me with  $100 gift card to sample their products and services in order to share  my experience with you. All opinions expressed in this post are completely my own. 

‘Temple Run’ Indian-Spiced Meatballs with Raita (and a GIVEAWAY!!)

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Anyone play the game, Temple Run? You know, the video game for phones and tablets where this great big, manic, hybrid gorilla-vulture creature chases your character as you dodge fire, rushing waterfalls, and treacherous cliffs at the same time as trying to collect shiny medallions and green gems? That’s the one. We’re big fans of that game around here, bordering on obsession, to the point that I had to give it up for Lent to prevent myself from spending every second of my already minimal free time dodging fire and escaping gorilla beasts.

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Tiki Lantern Garland from Shindigz, for that exotic ‘Temple Run’ vibe.

Well, when my oldest son requested a Temple Run themed birthday party for his 6th birthday, I promptly replied, “No, they don’t make Temple Run party supplies. I’m not even sure how we’d do that. Think of another theme. How about pirates or rock ‘n’ roll or superheroes?” But, my son is not easily dissuaded once he’s stuck on an idea, so he persisted with his request. And I persisted with offering alternate ideas. Construction trucks, a luau, dinosaurs???

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Beginning of the ‘Temple Run’ obstacle course, complete with jungle entrance, terrifying flames and a rushing waterfall.

But after a bit of brainstorming with some friends, a vision for a Temple Run themed party started to evolve. We’d construct a Temple Run obstacle course in the backyard. There’d be fire and waterfalls and a cave. There’d be green gems and monkeys and tropical birds. There’d be a terrifying gorilla chasing our young party guests through the course, as they attempted to gather gold medallions and green gems to redeem for goody bag treats. Perhaps we’d need to ask parents to sign a waiver as they arrived with the party guests, sort of like those waivers of death they merrily hand you as you arrive at a bounce house party. (Kidding, sort of.) My husband was skeptical about this insane plan, but I’m just about as hard to dissuade as our six year old, once I’m set on an idea.

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Unfortunate temple runner who took a turn down the dead end, lured by the shiny gold medallions.

As if by fate, in the early stages of my party planning, I received an email from a party supply company, Shindigz, offering to send me a gift certificate to sample their products and services, in order to share my experience with all of you. It was kismet. It only took a few minutes of browsing their site to spark a million ideas. During a quick search for jungle party supplies, my plan for a Temple Run obstacle course became clear. I found green festooning in three different colors  to use to as tropical vines framing the perimeter of our course. Rolls of sheer gossamer fabric printed in a water pattern would create the perfect waterfall obstacle. A shimmery foil banner printed with flames would become our fire obstacle. Plastic gold medallions became the coins we needed to entice our temple runners – coins which they could later redeem for goody bag treats. Tropical birds and monkeys lent an exotic feel to my run of the mill backyard. We added tiki lantern garland and a hanging fiery pot to complete the atmosphere. The hardest part was narrowing down my wish list from Shindigz’ extensive collection of party supplies. I was so happy with everything I received and how fast it got to me, that I actually placed a second order for more festooning and a variety of streamers, which arrived just as quickly.

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The gorilla beast, right on Lucas’ tail, as he choose the faster route around the cave, instead of crawling through it.

Once the vision for our ‘Temple Run’ course was in place, all that was left to do was plan an appropriately themed menu. Admittedly, I was stuck for quite a while. I even tried researching the supposed setting for the Temple Run game, but came up empty handed. Then, I started thinking about Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. I certainly wasn’t about to go down the monkey brains and snake-stuffed snakes route for our menu, but then it occurred to me that Temple of Doom took place in India, which just happens to serve up some of my family’s favorite food. In fact, chicken tikka masala with naan is high on the list of the birthday boy’s favorite foods.

An Indian-themed buffet it would be. From that point, it was just a matter of selecting dishes that would appeal to both children and adults, as well as people who might not be so adventurous when it comes to trying new foods. The other top priority was ease of reheating during the party.

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Capture anyway, just before escaping through the waterfall exit!

This was the Indian-themed ‘Temple Run’ menu we settled on:

Chicken Tikka Masala
Naan*
Basmati Rice with Cinnamon, Cardamon, and Peas
Indian-Spiced Meatballs with Raita
Beef and Potato Samosas with Mango Chutney
Indian Chickpeas
Mango Lassis (Mango Yogurt Smoothies)
 
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We also served a large platter of fresh fruit as well as a plate full of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, for anyone craving something a bit less adventurous. The PB&Js went largely untouched, as our Temple Run menu was enjoyed by most of our guests, big and small. I’ve linked to the recipes for the chicken tikka masala and naan in the menu above. (Rather than grill the naan, as in the linked recipe, I cooked them on a baking sheet, several inches under the broiler for about two minutes on the first side, a minute on the second. Worked like a charm!) I’ll be sharing the recipes for the Indian Chickpeas and Mango Lassis in the near future.

Today, I’m sharing the recipe for the Indian-spiced meatballs and raita. Raita is a refreshing yogurt dip, not too different from a Greek tzatziki sauce. It’s frequently served as a cooling counterbalance to spicy Indian dishes, and while these meatballs are not overly spicy, the raita makes a perfect dip. (Kids love to dip stuff. Trust me.) I added these meatballs to the menu mostly to appeal to our younger guests, but they were a notable hit with the bigger guests too!

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Chicken tikka masala, spicy and mild, to please all taste buds!

A GIVEAWAY!!! My friends at Shindigz are offering a $50 gift card to one lucky reader, to give you a chance to enjoy their wide variety of part supplies. With graduation and summer barbecue season just around the corner, I’m sure that gift card would come in handy! To enter the drawing for the gift card, simply leave a comment below sharing what you think is the #1 factor which makes a memorable party! The winner will be selected using Random.org on Friday, May 31, 2013 at 12:00pm EST. One entry per person. 18 years or older. US mailing addresses only, please. Good luck!!

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Indian-Spiced Meatballs

Ingredients

  • 1 small or 1/2 medium onion, very finely diced
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic, minced
  • 1/2 tablespoon fresh ginger, grated
  • 1/2 teaspoon curry powder
  • 1 teaspoon garam masala
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1/2 cup bread crumbs
  • 1 pound ground beef

Directions

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Wipe a baking sheet with a little oil or spray with nonstick cooking spray.

Combine the chopped onion, garlic, ginger, curry powder, garam masala, salt, cayenne pepper, eggs and bread crumbs (everything except the meat) in a large bowl, until evenly blended. Add the meat. Use your hands to combine the mixture, just enough to evenly disperse the ingredients.

Form the mixture into balls, about 1 1/2″ in diameter. Place them on the prepared baking sheet. Bake for about 20 minutes, until cooked through.

Makes about 24 small meatballs

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Cucumber Mint Raita

Ingredients

  • 1 large seedless cucumber
  • 1 1/2 cups plain yogurt
  • 1/8 cup fresh mint leaves, finely diced
  • Salt and pepper

Directions

Use a box grater to finely grate the cucumber. Squeeze the cucumber gratings to remove as much liquid as possible. (If you have a piece of cheesecloth available, it’s useful to place the cucumber gratings inside the cheesecloth, then squeeze to remove the excess liquid.) Combine the cucumber, yogurt, and chopped fresh mint. Season with a pinch of salt and pepper.

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Green Gem Ringpop Cupcakes

Disclaimer – Shindigz provided me with  $100 gift card to sample their products and services in order to share  my experience with you. All opinions expressed in this post are completely my own. 

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