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Thanksgiving Menu Ideas

Hey, folks…

Reposting last year’s round-up of Thanksgiving ideas for a little menu-planning inspiration!

~Amy

APPETIZERS

Cranberry Chipotle Meatballs

Corn and Bacon Fritters with Smoked Salmon

Bacon-Wrapped Dates stuffed with Bleu Cheese

THE MAIN EVENT

Herb-Roasted Turkey Breast with Pan Gravy (and tips for roasting a whole turkey)

Bacon and Cider Braised Turkey Drumsticks (and garlicky creamed spinach)

Spiced Sweet Potato Puree with Pecan Streusel

Sausage, Apple, and Leek Stuffing

Cranberry-Orange Sauce

Green Beans Almondine

Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Bacon and Walnuts

Hot Doughy Buns

DESSERTS

Chocolate Pecan Pie

Pumpkin Coconut Pie

A Few Variations on Apple Pie (in an all butter pie crust)

Caramel Apple Cake

Turkey-Shaped Sugar Cookies

Caramel Apple Tartlets

Spiced Mango Upside Down Cake

Cannoli Cheesecake

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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. 

Chipotle Shredded Beef Flatbread Sandwiches

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My husband’s band was out of town for a gig on Saturday night, leaving me to get up early with the kids on Mother’s Day, as they eagerly attempted to prepare me my traditional, once-a-year breakfast-in-bed. My breakfast tray featured a half-eaten chocolate donut, sitting on top of a frozen pancake, which was elegantly placed on the foil wrapper from the plastic tub of the Frosted Flakes they prepared for me. (My boys prepare a classy breakfast tray.) They decided to toast only half of the bagel and gave up on spreading the too-thick cream cheese. The baby stayed occupied during the breakfast preparation by dipping an Elmo spoon into my cup of orange juice, taking small sips, then repeating. I enthusiastically ate all of my perfectly imperfect breakfast, of course.

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Following breakfast, the three boys proceeded to spin cyclones of chaos around the house in a flurry of special day excitement equivalent to that of Christmas morning. I spent a good part of the morning chasing after them, picking up garbage and toys from the floor, in a fruitless attempt at maintaining some semblance of order. At some point, caught between equal parts desire to live in a tidy house and lack of desire to pick up any more toys or fight with the kids to do it, compounded by my longing for a restful Mother’s Day, I fell apart. I sat on the stairs and had myself a good cry, equal parts disappointed that my day wasn’t going as I envisioned it would and angry at myself for being unable to just settle into the chaotic messiness of the morning.

Being a mom isn’t easy and it’s not always fun, not even on Mother’s Day, but what else can you do besides keep on keeping on. So, I stood up, waited for my eyes to be not so red, dressed the kids and brought them to Home Depot to purchase gardening supplies. When we got home, we planted a small fruit and vegetable garden in the backyard. We needed something to do to keep busy and the boys like dirt, plain and simple. I took a picture of our new little garden.

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The nature of the moments we capture on film lend themselves towards the good times: achievements, celebrations, vacations, something beautiful, or something funny; a graduation from school, a birthday party, an escape to Barbados, a stunning rainbow, a hand-made quilt, smiling faces, evidence of loving and of being loved, a garden. We share these images and it paints a portrait of an idyllic life, filled with joyful events and beautiful moments.

And life is beautiful, but it is far from the perpetually blissful existence that any one person’s photo album might suggest. We just don’t capture the ugly, frustrating, tearful moments on film, because those are the moments we are simply getting through. We’re not picking up the camera when the kids are fighting, because we’re busy playing referee. We’re not picking up the camera when the baby is smearing yogurt on the wall, because we’re busy grabbing paper towels. We’re not picking up the camera when the entire load of folded laundry has just been dumped on the floor, because we’re busy refolding it. We’re not picking up the camera when the house is covered in toys and the kids are all in time-out for refusing to pick them up, because we’re sitting on the stairs crying in frustration over something that shouldn’t be nearly as frustrating as it somehow feels in that moment.

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The experience of being a mom is a lot like planting that little fruit and vegetable garden. Successfully done, the plants will grow and thrive and produce photo-worthy, sweet fruits and nourishing veggies. I’ll proudly share those photos with family and friends, evidence of my gardening prowess. What the photos will not show however, are my tears of frustration that led to the trip to Home Depot, my dirt stained knees, the sun burn on the back of my neck, the muscle aches from cutting through the roots of an old tree as I prepared the garden bed, or the dirt collected under my fingernails. Yet all of those things were part of the experience.

My point is this… We share the fruit. We don’t often share the pains it took to get there. Being a mom can be messy and ugly. Like planting a garden, it’s hard work, but every so often, we get to harvest our fruit. Those are the moments we capture on film to remember why we do what we do, day in and day out. In between those moments, we’ve got tears on our face and dirt under our nails. As moms, we have a tendency to look at photos of other mom’s gardens and wonder why our own garden doesn’t seem as bountiful, forgetting that in between harvesting their fruit, that mom has got tears on her face and dirt under her nails too. We’re all living this perfectly imperfect life together.

I hope every mom out there had a beautiful Mother’s Day with a few perfect moments of bliss. Keep on keeping on. Your garden is growing and thriving as a result of everything you do in all of the moments between the photo-worthy ones.

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I’ve been hanging on to this recipe for a while and now seems like the right time to share this tasty treat. This is a multi-component recipe which takes a bit of time to assemble, but everything can be prepared ahead of time. The best part about the components of this dish is that you can mix and match the pieces in a million ways. Enjoy the corn and bean relish as part of this sandwich or with a bowl of tortilla chips or used as a bed for shrimp burgers. Enjoy the queso drizzled over a hamburger, tossed with macaroni or straight-up with chips. The tender, spicy beef is fantastic on this sandwich, but would stand alone beautifully too, served with a side of mashed potatoes.

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Chipotle Shredded Beef Flatbread Sandwiches

Ingredients

  • 4-6 flatbreads
  • 1 ripe avocado, sliced (Click here for a photo guide on slicing avocado)

For the Chipotle Braised Beef

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Approximately 3-lb beef chuck roast
  • 1 can chipotles in adobo (only use a few for a less spicy result)
  • 1/2 red onion, coarse chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, smashed
  • 2-3 cups beef broth
  • Salt

For the Corn and Bean Relish

  • 1 1/2 cups sweet corn kernels  (defrosted frozen corn kernels will do the trick)
  • 1 15-ounce can black beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1/2 red onion, finely diced (Click here for a photo guide on dicing onions)
  • 1 red bell pepper, ribs and seeds removed, finely diced
  • 1 teaspoon garlic, minced
  • 2-3 green onions, chopped
  • 1/4 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
  • Juice from 1/2 lime
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

For the Homemade Queso

  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 poblano pepper, ribs and seeds removed, finely diced
  • 1 jalapeno peppers, ribs and seeds removed, finely diced
  • 1/2 red onion, finely diced
  • 1 teaspoon garlic
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons flour
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 cup Mexican cheese blend, shredded
  • 1 tomato, finely diced
  • Salt and cayenne pepper, to taste

Directions

For the Chipotle Braised Beef - Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Trim the chuck roast of any excess exterior fat. Season generously with salt. In a large dutch oven or oven safe pan, heat olive oil over medium/medium-high heat. Place the meat in the pan and brown on all sides, about 2-3 minutes per side. Add the beef broth, red onion, garlic, and as many chipotles as desired (I used all of them). The beef broth should come almost to the top of the meat, but not cover it. Bring the liquid to a simmer, then cover the pan and place it in the oven. Cook for 3.5 hours. Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly. Using your fingers or a fork, pull the tender beef into small pieces, discarding any fatty bits.

For the Corn and Bean Relish – Combine  the corn, black beans, red pepper, green onions, red onion, garlic, and cilantro in a medium sized container. Squeeze half a lime over the mixture and toss to combine. Season with salt and pepper, as desired.

For the Queso - In a saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the peppers, onion, and garlic. Cook for about 5 minutes, until tender. Sprinkle the flour over the mixture and stir to coat. Cook for another minute or two. Gradually add the milk and whisk to combine. Bring the mixture to a gentle simmer and cook for a few minutes until the milk thickens. Turn the heat down to low and add the cheese. Stir until the cheese has melted into the sauce. Stir in the chopped tomato. Season with salt and cayenne pepper, to taste.

To Assemble the Sandwiches – Warm the flatbreads for a few minutes in a 350 degrees oven. In the center of each flatbread, place a generous mound of the braised beef. Drizzle the beef with warm queso. Top with the corn salsa and slices of fresh avocado.

Makes 4-6 Sandwiches

Pasta with Ham and Mushrooms in a Creamy Spinach Ricotta Sauce

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If you celebrate Easter, it’s likely that come Sunday, you may find yourself with an excess of boiled eggs, some ham, and maybe even some candy. With that in mind, I’ve gathered up a few tasty ideas on how to make delicious use of those leftovers, including a brand new, super-simple recipe for pasta with ham and mushrooms in a creamy, cheesy spinach ricotta sauce.

What to do with Leftover Boiled Eggs…

Creole Deviled Eggs

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Deviled Egg Salad

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Pasta with Bacon, Eggs, and Spinach

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What to do with Leftover Candy…

Cadbury Creme Crepes

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What to do with Leftover Ham…

Ham and Corn Chowder

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Grilled Peach and Prosciutto Salad with Creamy BBQ Dressing (use sliced ham in place of prosciutto)

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Grilled Brie, Prosciutto and Apricot Sandwiches (use ham in place of prosciutto)

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Chicken Cordon Bleu Panini

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Pasta with Ham and Mushrooms in a Creamy Spinach Ricotta Sauce

Ingredients

  • 1-2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more if necessary
  • 1/2 medium onion, finely diced
  • 1 teaspoon garlic, minced
  • 2 cups baby bella mushrooms, sliced
  • 2 cups ricotta cheese
  • 1 1/2 cups milk
  • 1 cup parmesan cheese, grated
  • 1 6-ounce bag baby spinach leaves, chopped
  • 2 cups leftover ham, diced
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 1 pound pasta, cooked al dente
  • Additional parmesan cheese and crushed red pepper, for garnish

Directions

Heat the olive oil in a large pan over medium heat. Add the mushrooms. Cook for 7-10 minutes until tender and lightly caramelized. Remove the mushrooms from the pan and set aside. Add a touch more olive oil to the pan, if necessary, then add the onion. Cook for 5-7 minutes until tender and golden. Add the garlic and cook for another 1-2 minutes. Add the ricotta cheese, milk, and parmesan cheese. Cook for a few minutes, stirring frequently, until hot and well blended. Add the mushrooms, ham and spinach. Gently simmer for a few minutes until the spinach is wilted. Taste and season with salt and pepper, as desired. Pour the sauce over cooked pasta and toss to combine. Garnish with crushed red pepper and additional parmesan cheese, if desired.

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Cheesecake-Swirled Carrot Cake

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Every so often, I get an idea for a recipe which I’m certain is so genius that no home cook or master chef has thought of it yet. 99.9999% of the time, it turns out that someone else has already covered that ground. It’s really challenging to come up with something truly novel and unique in the culinary field…at least for me it is.

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Such is the case with this cheesecake-swirled carrot cake. The idea came to me as I was brainstorming for some interesting twist on carrot cake to share as Easter approaches. The way I figured it, if carrot cake and sweet vanilla cream cheese frosting are delicious together (and they are), and cheesecake is also made with cream cheese, sugar, and vanilla (which it is), then carrot cake and cheesecake would be delicious together. If A and B, then C sort of logic…or something like that anyway.

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I initially contemplated stacking layers of carrot cake with cheesecake, but the idea seemed too similar to a basic carrot cake with cream cheese frosting. That was the point where I decided I’d bake the two cakes together in one pan, intermingled to create one grand cheesecake-swirled carrot cake. It was in my research phase of concocting this delicious confection that I discovered The Cheesecake Factory already beat me to the punch. Having been to The Cheesecake Factory a grand total of one, maybe two times in my life, probably about ten years ago, this was news to me. Perhaps you’ve already had theirs??

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So, turns out my grand idea isn’t nearly as revolutionary as I’d initially thought, but it is spectacularly delicious, nonetheless. Rich, moist carrot cake gets twisted with a creamy classic cheesecake to create a treat which is sure to be the hit of the Easter dessert buffet. Ol’ Peter Rabbit might even forego his basket of candy in favor of a slice of this carroty beauty.

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Cheesecake-Swirled Carrot Cake

Ingredients

For the Carrot Cake

  • 1 3/4 cups flour
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ginger
  • Pinch of nutmeg
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 sticks unsalted butter, softened to room temperature (plus more for greasing pan)
  • 2/3 cup dark brown sugar
  • 1/3 cup white sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/3 cup water
  • 2 cups finely grated carrots (approximately 4 medium-sized carrots)
  • 3/4 cup golden raisins (optional, but recommended)

For the Cheesecake

  • 3 8-ounce bars of cream cheese, softened to room temperature
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla

Directions

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 10″ springform pan with butter.

For the Carrot Cake: In a large bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and salt. In a separate bowl, beat together the butter and sugars until light and fluffy. Add the vanilla and the eggs, one at a time, beating between each addition. Add the water, then beat for another minute. Add the carrots, then beat for another minute. On low speed, gradually beat in the dry mixture until well blended. Stir in the raisins.

For the Cheesecake: Using an electric mixer, beat together the cream cheese and sugar until well blended. Add the vanilla and the eggs one at a time, beating until well blended.

To Assemble the Cake: Spread about 1/2 of the carrot cake batter over the bottom of the prepared springform pan. Drop large spoonfuls of about 1/2 of the cheesecake mixture on top of the carrot cake. Drop large spoonfuls of the remaining carrot cake mixture on top of and around the cheesecake. Pour the remaining cheesecake mixture over the top. Use a spatula to smooth the cheesecake on the top. Bake for about 55-65 minutes, until set.

Cool at room temperature for about an hour, then refrigerate for a few hours until completely chilled.

** Carrot cake portion of the recipe is adapted from Martha Stewart’s Carrot Cake recipe, found HERE.

Cherry Cordial Brownie Bites

My Lucas is charismatic, enigmatic, and profusely loving. There’s just something insanely captivating about him. He’s a heart-melter for sure, with his big blue eyes, sweet dimples, and long, dark lashes. And he’s mine. More than anyone or anything in the whole world (except perhaps Ninjago legos), he loves me. Not sure how I got so lucky!

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Just look at that face!

The kid says, “I love you sooooo much,” so many times each day that I’d begun to suspect it was just a filler statement; simply something to say when there was nothing else to be said. He even says it in his sleep, when I sneak in at night to kiss his little head before I tuck myself into bed. “Mommy, I love you so much.”

But I’ve come to realize that his words are so much more than sounds to fill the silence. He recently turned to my husband and began to say, “Daddy, I love…” I’d expected the statement to end with his predictable “…you soooo much.” But it didn’t. It was quite beautifully, “Daddy, I love Mommy soooo much.” He’s my precious little lovebug.

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On a recent trip to the grocery store, as we walked hand in hand through the parking lot, he squeezed my hand and expressed his sweet statement of love. I returned the sentiment, then we continued into the store. An older woman, who’d been coming from her car, caught the exchange as we passed. I saw her pause and hold her heart for a moment. We ran into that woman as we made our way through the store and she stopped to comment on my sweet boys. I thanked her and she parted with a friendly, “God bless.” As we began to walk away, she shouted back, “What am I saying? Clearly, He already has.”

He certainly has. I have been so generously blessed in love; a family who cherishes and supports me, a husband I can laugh with, children whose love is more contagious than the flu, and the most beautiful friends, who persistently raise me up. This Valentine’s Day, I will celebrate every bit of that priceless, precious love.

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Sweet treats are the perfect way to celebrate the sweetest people in your life, like these absolutely decadent, truffle-like cherry cordial brownie bites. They start with my World’s Simplest Fudgey Brownies, which are then blended with a bit of cream cheese, until rich and smooth. The luscious brownie mixture is then rolled into small balls with a Grand Marnier (or orange juice, for the kiddies) soaked cherry in the center, before being dipped in smooth, melted chocolate. A drizzle of melted pink candy and sprinkles provide the perfect final touches.

Today’s Focus on Technique – Using a Double Boiler

The process of cooking with a double boiler (also called a bain marie) is an ideal technique to use when preparing delicate sauces, such as hollandaise, or when melting chocolates. In a double boiler set-up, the food is placed in a bowl which is suspended above simmering water. The water provides a gentle, consistent, indirect heat which prevents finicky foods from breaking (separating) or burning. It works in a similar manner as using water bath to prepare custards and other delicate egg-based dishes. No special equipment or dedicated ‘double boiler’ is required to utilize a double boiler technique. Simply fill a saucepan with an inch or two of water. Place a stainless steel or glass mixing bowl on top of the pot, so that the bottom of the bowl dips into the pot, but does not touch the water. Place the food you’re preparing in the bowl, bring the water to a simmer, and you’re set to go!

For more useful tips, techniques, and culinary photo guides click HERE.

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Cherry Cordial Brownie Bites

Ingredients

For the brownies:

  • 1 stick of butter
  • 1 cup chocolate chips
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup flour
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

For the brownie bites:

  • 1/4 cup Grand Marnier or orange juice (approximately)*
  • 3 dozen dried cherries
  • 4 ounces cream cheese, softened to room temperature
  • 2 cups chocolate chips (semi-sweet or milk chocolate)
  • Pink or red candy melts and sprinkles, for decorating (optional)

*Be aware that no alcohol will be cooked off in the preparation of these candies, so it would be wise to use the orange juice for children, pregnant women, or anyone who is avoiding alcohol intake.

Directions

To prepare the brownies:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray an 8×8 baking dish with cooking spray. In a saucepan over medium-low heat, melt the chocolate chips and butter until smooth, stirring constantly. Turn off the heat. Stir in the sugar and salt until dissolved. Stir in the flour. Add the eggs and stir until well blended. Pour the mixture into the prepared pan and bake for about 35 minutes.

To prepare the brownie bites:

Soak the dried cherries in approximately 1/4 cup of Grand Marnier or orange juice for at least an hour.

Once the brownies are cool, crumble into small pieces, then place in a food processor. Add the cream cheese and pulse until well-blended and smooth. (A food processor would work best for this task, but it can also be done by hand. If combining by hand, cut off the crispy brownie edges before blending, for a smoother result. If using the food processor, it’s not necessary to cut off the brownies edges.) Roll the mixture into small balls (less than 1″ diameter), inserting a soaked cherry in the center as you roll. Refrigerate until well chilled.

Melt the chocolate chips in a double boiler, stirring frequently, until smooth. Use a fork to lower each brownie ball into the melted chocolate. Shake off the excess chocolate, then place on a baking sheet, which has been lined with parchment paper or wax paper. Refrigerate until the chocolate has set. If desired, drizzle the brownie bites with melted pink or red candy melts and decorate with sprinkles.**

**Click HERE to see an easy pastry bag technique, which can be used for drizzling the brownie bites.

Makes 2.5 – 3 dozen candies

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Huevos Rancheros Pizza

Back in the spring, I strong-armed a couple of my friends into taking Irish step dancing lessons with me. (I actually didn’t need to twist their arms too hard.) We three became the unlikeliest bunch of dancers you could imagine. It was a blast. We clobbered away through a few classes, along with an (almost) equally novice classmate, before the weather became too hot to continue in our dance space. At that point, we broke for the summer, with the intention of resuming classes come fall.

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Well, fall rolled around and I sent an email to our instructor expressing our eagerness to continue. But we never heard back. After a few months with no reply, we’d become fully convinced that we’d been silently dumped as a result of our utter hopelessness in the field of Irish dancing. We couldn’t really blame her. We truly are a hopeless bunch. But then, just as we were about to pack away our dancing shoes, I received a message explaining an email switch, along with an invitation to resume classes. We accepted, of course.

This time though, there are a few other adults in our class and a second instructor. Apparently, our new classmates danced all throughout their childhood and teen years. They’re just picking up where they left off, which is someplace lightyears ahead of the rest of us. While we practiced basic skips, intently concentrating on not running into each other, one of our new classmates gracefully danced circles around us, quite literally. It feels oddly like being stuck in the ‘guppies’ group, aside out advanced classmates in the ‘shark’ group. They’re reading War and Peace, while we struggle through Ted in a Red Bed. Us four clumsy guppies stick as close together as we can without kicking each other. It’s a level of comfort thing. We huddle close together, executing every drill as a unified group, in a fruitless attempt not to draw too much attention to ourselves.

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It’s a ridiculously fun time, swimming in our guppy group. I haven’t laughed so hard in a long while. Graceful, we are not. Skillful, we are not. Coordinated, we most definitely are not. But for all we lack in ability, we more than make up for it with enthusiasm. We will probably never have the graceful, swift-footed skills of our river-dancing role models, but we’re certainly having fun with it. And that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it??

The added bonus is that our weekly lesson and all the practice in between burns a bucketload of calories. Now, if I were smart, I’d save those burned calories and let them work their magic on a bit of weight loss. Oh, but I love food too much and the dancing leaves me ravenously hungry. So, I choose to ‘spend’ my burned calories on fun food, like this Mexican-inspired huevos rancheros pizza. Truth be told, this pizza is fully inspired by nothing more than my desire to cook a pizza with eggs baked into it. It starts with a cornmeal crust, in place of the corn tortillas which would typically be used in huevos rancheros. The homemade crust is then topped with beans, taco sauce, Mexican cheese, chiles, and tomatoes. Fresh eggs are then carefully cracked on top of the pizza before baking for a stunning and unique twist on pizza.

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Today’s Focus on Technique – Cooking with Baker’s Yeast

Baker’s yeast is a single cell organism, commonly used as a leavening agent in many breads, pretzel doughs, and pizza doughs. As the yeast feeds on the sugars in the dough, it releases carbon dioxide, which becomes trapped within the dough, causing it to rise and expand. The most common types of yeast used in baked goods are active dry yeast and rapid rise yeast. Rapid rise yeast is made up of smaller particles, which touch a greater surface area of the dough and typically require half as much time to rise. Many people feel that the long rise time required for active dry yeast recipes results in a more flavorful dough.

Typically, many yeast dough recipes begin by proofing the yeast. Proofing is simply a process of dissolving the yeast in lukewarm water. After a few minutes, the yeast should begin to foam, proving that it is alive and ready to work its leavening magic. If the yeast doesn’t foam, it’s time to buy some new yeast. The magic temperature for proofing yeast is somewhere between 110-115°F. To assure you’ve got the right temperature, it’s helpful to use an instant-read thermometer. I usually stick the thermometer in hot water from the tap, then wait until it reduces to the right range before adding the yeast.

Yeast doughs rise best in a draft-free area, on the warmer side of room temperature (around 70°F). If your house is chillier than that, allow extra time for rising. If time is an issue, I sometimes find it helpful to preheat the oven for a bit, then place the bowl of rising dough on top of or near the oven. You don’t need to keep the oven on throughout the rise time; just long enough to release a little extra heat near the rising dough.

** Lots of other interesting information about yeast can be found HERE.


Huevos Rancheros Pizza

Ingredients

  • 2/3 cup refried beans
  • 1/3 cup taco sauce
  • 2 cups shredded Mexican blend cheese
  • 2-3 tablespoons red onion, finely diced
  • 2-3 tablespoons green chile (fresh or canned), finely diced
  • 5-6 grape tomatoes, thinly sliced
  • 1/3 cup chorizo, chopped (optional)
  • 3 eggs
  • Additional taco sauce or hot sauce for drizzling (optional)
  • Cornmeal Pizza Dough (recipe from www.marthastewart.com)

Directions

Preheat oven to 450°F.

Prepare the cornmeal pizza dough according to the recipe found HERE, except do not divide the dough into smaller portions. Roll the entire dough into one large (approximately 12″) crust. Transfer the rolled dough to a baking sheet, which has been sprinkled with a bit of cornmeal.

Spread the refried beans onto the crust, leaving a 1/2″-1″ lip around the edge. Drizzle the taco sauce over the beans. Scatter about 1/2 of the cheese over the sauce, then sprinkle with the onion, chile, tomatoes, and chorizo. Scatter with the remaining cheese.

Use your fingers to create three shallow wells in the pizza toppings. Carefully crack an egg into each well.

Bake for approximately 15 minutes, until the toppings are hot and melty and the eggs are cooked to your desired doneness.

**Be aware that the egg whites and yolks will maintain a bright, glossy appearance as they bake. In this case, touching the eggs to check for doneness is a more reliable indicator than their appearance. (I made the mistake of relying on appearance and cooked my eggs past the cooked white/runny yolk I was aiming for. The yolks in the photos with this post are actually fully cooked, even though they appear runny.)

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