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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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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.

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. 

Spectacular Spinach Salad

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Process for Vacuuming a Room Without Kids:

Step 1: Remove vacuum cleaner from closet.
Step 2: Plug in the vacuum.
Step 3: Turn on the vacuum.
Step 4: Use the vacuum to suck debris and animal hair from the floor.
Step 5: Unplug and return the vacuum to the closet.
 
Approximate Time Required: 5 minutes

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Process for Vacuuming a Room With Kids:

Step 1: Remove vacuum cleaner from closet.
Step 2: Rehang all of the jackets which the baby pulled from the closet while you were removing the vacuum.
Step 3: Negotiate an argument over the remote between the two other kids.
Step 4: Plug in the vacuum.
Step 5: Instruct oldest kid to return the salamander to the outdoors and to stop squishing him.
Step 6: Replug the vacuum which the baby unplugged, while you were trying to save the salamander’s life.
Step 7: Return all vacuum accessories to their proper places.
Step 8: Turn on the vacuum.
Step 9: Begin vacuuming the room, while the baby rides on top of the vacuum, switching it off at intervals of 5 seconds.
Step 10: Turn the vacuum back on. Repeat as often as necessary in order to vacuum first half of room.
Step 11: Pause to console the child who is literally crying over spilt milk.
Step 12: Clean up the milk.
Step 13: Unravel the vacuum cord from the baby’s neck.
Step 14: Resume vacuuming the second half of the room.
Step 15: Revacuum the first half of the room after the baby spills goldfish on the floor, then crushes them riverdance-style.
Step 16: Instruct the children to put clothes on before playing outside.
Step 17: Accept that the vacuuming task is futile. Try again tomorrow.
 

Approximate Time Required: Unknown – This task has never been successfully completed.

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The actual experience, when sandwiched between twenty other equally impossible ‘simple’ tasks, is only remotely comical in writing. Experiencing it is a heart-pounding, curl-into-a-ball-and-cry-with-frustration, exercise in futility. (Yes, attempting to vacuum a room has brought me to tears more times than I’d care to admit.) If only I could learn to accept this loss of control over accomplishing simple tasks. Each day feels like a mad rush of tasks, errands, and chores, yet there is scarce evidence of the work accomplished by the end. Even the process of writing this simple blog post has been overly complicated by a million micro interruptions of the salamander, spilt milk, and crushed goldfish variety.

But recently I have managed to find the most perfect peace in a somewhat unusual place…the gym. Many people dread going to the gym. For me, the gym’s bright, sterile environment invokes the same calm as a dimly lit spa with soothing water features. I feel my heart rate decelerate when I walk through those doors, because my gym offers childcare. So, every day, I have been shuffling the little ones off to the gym, where I claim one hour to use as I please. One precious hour, where I am the master of my time, to select a task and complete it with minimal interruptions. One hour where I can choose to move slowly between the strength training machines or to let my heart race with the endorphins of a good run as compared to the cortisol of home stress. That hour may not make vacuuming a room any less stressful, but at least I had that one blissful hour.

And truly, as completing any task is basically impossible anyway, that one hour removed from my daily duties, has made little to no difference with respect to the condition of my house. Now, if that daily hour manages to make a difference with respect to the condition of my waistline, that will be the icing on the cake.

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Thankfully, the kids actually love going to the Kids Korner at the gym. There are novel toys and video games (which are a bit more violent than anything I allow in our home, thus exciting in an illicit way) and other kids to socialize with. So, in addition to my daily weekday gym escape, we’ve been taking a family trip to the gym each weekend. A post-gym stop at Panera for lunch, where we pick up salads and smoothies and other sorts of yummy feel-good food, has become part of our weekend routine.

I’ve been crushing on Panera’s Spinach Power Salad ever since they introduced it to the menu. I could eat it everyday, but that be bad for my wallet. So, I’ve come up with my own version of a salad inspired by Panera’s tasty offering. My salad features the same fresh baby spinach, topped with sauteed mushrooms and onions, crispy bacon, protein-rich eggs, and crispy garlic-pepper onion straws, tossed in a simple vinaigrette made with sweet caramelized onions and a touch of honey. It’s a near perfect combination of flavors and textures, the sort of thing which makes a healthful salad feel like a treat.

Today’s Focus on Technique – Mustard as an Emulsifier

I add a touch of mustard to almost every vinaigrette I make. In addition to adding a satisfying hint of flavor, mustard has the ability to act as an emulsifier, binding the oil and vinegar, so that the dressing is less likely to separate. This secret superpower of mustard occurs as a result of the  ground mustard seed’s particles’ ability to coat tiny droplets of oil, allowing them to mix harmoniously with the vinegar or lemon juice in a dressing. It doesn’t take a lot, but has the best overall result with ground mustard powder or a good quality prepared mustard.

Spinach Salad with Bacon, Eggs, Mushrooms and Caramelized Onion Vinaigrette

Inspired by Panera’s Spinach Power Salad

Ingredients

  • 8 slices bacon, cooked to crisp, crumbled
  • 3 eggs, hardboiled and chopped
  • 9-12 cups baby spinach leaves

For the sauteed mushrooms and onions

  • 1-2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 large sweet onion, thinly sliced
  • 2 cups baby bella (cremini) mushrooms, sliced
  • Salt and pepper

For the dressing

  • 1/2 cup caramelized onions (from the sauteed onions)
  • 1/4 cup white balsamic vinegar
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon dijon mustard
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • Salt and pepper

For the crispy onions

  • 1 large sweet onion, very thinly sliced
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1-1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • Vegetable oil, for frying

Directions

For the sauteed mushrooms and onions: Heat the olive oil in a pan over medium heat. Add the onion. Cook for 10-15 minutes, stirring frequently, until tender and golden. Remove the onions from the pan. Set 1/2 cup aside for the dressing. Save the remaining onions for topping the salad. Add a touch more oil to the pan, if necessary. Add the mushrooms and cook for about 7-10 minutes, until tender and golden. Season with a sprinkle of salt and pepper.

For the caramelized onion vinaigrette: In a blender or food processor, combine the caramelized onions, vinegar, oil, mustard, and honey. Blend until well combined. Season with salt and pepper.

For the crispy garlic-pepper onion straws: Soak the sliced onions in the buttermilk for 30 minutes or so. In a separate bowl, combine the flour, salt, garlic powder, and pepper. In a large fry pan, heat about 1 inch of vegetable oil at medium/medium-high heat for a few minutes, until it’s good and hot. In small batches, remove some of the onions from the buttermilk, shake to remove excess, then toss in the flour mixture until well coated. Scatter the onions in the oil. If the oil is hot enough, they should sizzle instantly and cook to golden and crispy in about two minutes. Remove the onions with a slotted spoon and drain over a paper towel. Repeat with remaining onions.

To assemble the salad: Toss a generous serving of spinach leaves (3-4 cups) with a bit of the dressing. Top the salad with the sauteed onions and mushrooms, chopped boiled egg, bacon, and the crispy garlic-pepper onions.

Makes 3-4 large salads

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Tropical Chia Green Smoothies

It’s been pointed out to me, that my own enthusiasm for holiday celebrations, may explain the intense energy my 5-year-old, Liam, puts into planning how we’ll honor each special day. We are two peas in a pod when it comes to festive occasions. Heck, we’re already co-planning the Temple Run themed birthday party we’ll throw in May, complete with a costumed gorilla to chase the party guests through the obstacle course we will assemble in the backyard. My husband is skeptical about the logistics involved in carrying out this event, but Liam and I have got it covered.

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As Valentine’s Day approached, Liam easily slipped into holiday planning mode. For weeks, I heard about the special Valentine’s Day he was planning for me. It was to be a spa day, as imagined by a 5-year-old, pieced together with ideas he’d gleaned from watching episodes of Phineas and Ferb or Spongebob. I was given a list of the supplies to acquire for this special day: bubblegum scented bubble bath, ‘some kind of soap’ for my face (a face mask), cucumber slices, candy, and bubbly water. Then I eagerly waited for Valentine’s Day and the one hundred arm massages I’d been promised as part of this luxurious spa package.

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But then I received the phone call from the school nurse. My sweet, little valentine was running a fever and needed to be picked up from school. After a bit of rest at home, I decided to turn his little spa idea around on him. It just seemed like he needed the extra attention more than I did. The boys enjoyed the funny face masks and cool cucumber eyes and they laughed their bubble-bearded faces to near tears in the over-filled bathtub. I poured cool glasses of cucumber water for the boys to sip while they enjoyed the soothing effects of the face masks, but none of the boys would drink what they perceived to be ‘pickle water’.

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After soothing face masks, ‘pickle water’, and bubble baths, we enjoyed some delicious tropical green smoothies. Inspiration for these smoothies came to me while watching a food documentary I ran across on Netflix, Hungry for Change. For the most part, the film spoke to what most of us already know; whole foods are good for you, processed foods are not. Eat lots of fresh, unprocessed fruits and vegetables and you’ll feel better, look younger, and have glowing skin. (They talked a lot about skin.) At one point, the filmed focused so heavily on juicing that I started to suspect I’d been tricked into watching an 89-minute long informercial for a juicing machine. But all-in-all, it was a decent film which drove home some important points about healthy eating.

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Above all, to me, the most interesting segment had to do with foods that have the ability to reset and detoxify our bodies, so that they function more efficiently and effectively. Leafy green vegetables and gelatinous plant foods, such as chia seeds, were given the biggest focus. After doing a bit of research into chia seeds and discovering their many potential health benefits, I made the decision to incorporate them into my diet, starting with these delicious and nutrient dense smoothies. These vibrant smoothies start with fresh tropical fruit and a big handful of baby spinach. Protein-rich greek yogurt, omega-3 and fiber-rich chia seeds, and natural, sweet honey complete the mix to form a nutritional powerhouse smoothie you can feel great about enjoying.

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Today’s Focus on Technique – Making Smoothies with Frozen Fruit

Keeping a stash of fresh fruit pieces in your freezer makes smoothie-making a breeze. Most fruit contains enough water content to give your smoothies that icy texture, without actually adding any ice. (Banana smoothies usually require some ice.) Clean, peel, and chop your favorite fruits, then freeze them in large ziploc bags or airtight containers. For extra convenience, consider buying the bags of pre-cut, no-sugar-added frozen fruit, which can be found in the freezer section of your grocery store.

Tropical Chia Green Smoothie

Ingredients*

  • 1 6-ounce container plain Greek yogurt
  • 1 cup pineapple, cut into cubes and frozen
  • 1 cup mango, cut into cubes and frozen
  • 1 cup kiwi, cut and frozen
  • 1 1/2 cups baby spinach leaves
  • 1/4 cup orange juice (or milk)
  • 3 tablespoons chia seeds
  • 1-2 tablespoons honey

*All ingredient measurements are approximate.

Directions

Add all ingredients to a blender. Blend until well combined. Taste and adjust sweetness with additional honey, if desired.

Makes 2 generous smoothies

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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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Loaded Nacho Chicken

Like many young twenty-something couples, my husband and I spent a good amount of our time, energy, and income on accumulating stuff. We needed the stylish duvet from Pottery Barn, the flatware set from Crate and Barrel, and the clothes from JCrew. When we married, we registered for the long list of items the registry guide told us we needed, fully believing that we would find frequent use for that 50-piece fondue set and the espresso maker with the milk foaming wand. We gathered our items and checked them off the list of things we were ‘supposed’ to have as well-equipped adults. We were consumers to the utmost degree.

But, recently, there’s been a major shift in how we handle our ‘stuff management’. I don’t know if it’s come with parenthood or age or just a general change of perspective, but we now purge, rather than collect. A few months ago, the microwave broke. I liked the counter space better than the microwave, so we didn’t replace it, and we’ve been totally fine since. The blu-ray player broke a few months before that. We dropped it off at the place for recycled electronics and left the shelf empty. This past summer, we sold  a good portion of the books and DVDs we’d accumulated over the years and have been thankful for the reduced clutter. Neglected toys and outgrown clothing, we regularly donate to our local rescue mission.

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And what we ‘need’ has changed too. Gone are our days of overpriced, trendy bedding and clothing. We buy mostly everything from Target now and when our Dyson, which served us well for many years, finally bit the dust, we replaced it with a bargain-priced Bissell. And you know what? It’s done the job just fine. Our priorities have shifted. We just don’t want the same things we used to think we needed; things which take up too much space in our lives and leave wanting holes in our budget.

A week ago, we made what was probably the biggest cut of all. We pulled the plug on the cable. Now, for people who are as serious about our tv-watching as we are, this is a humungous deal. We’d been toying with the idea for awhile. While we love our cable, seeing that bill every month was torturing us. We’d just rather have that money in our pockets. Liam cried when we told him what we were about to do. That alone may have signified that it was the right decision to make.

We kept our Netflix and through the convenience of modern technology, we are able to hook our computer up to the tv to get our weekly fix of Downton Abbey and our favorite network shows. I’ve felt no emptiness in my life without cable. In fact, life feels beautifully simpler now.

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When I told my mom I was making this loaded nacho chicken for dinner, she giggled at me, the ‘gourmand mom’, breading chicken breasts in crushed tortilla chips. But hey, no one ever said that good food needed to be complicated or utilize fancy ingredients. Simplicity can be positively blissful. The tortilla chips in this dish provide a fun variation on a basic breaded chicken breast. The tortilla coated chicken breasts are then topped with warm, delicious chile con queso and a generous dose of nacho toppings for a vibrant dish the entire family will enjoy.

**This dish could easily be adapted for a fun super bowl appetizer, but cutting the chicken into smaller pieces, skewering the cooked chicken, and serving with a big bowl of warm queso, topped with black beans, green onions, olives, and chopped tomato!

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Today’s Focus on Technique – Basic Breading Procedure

A basic breading technique can be used to coat veggies, meats, or seafood with a crispy, flavorful exterior. It is often used to prepare foods for pan-frying, but works swimmingly for baking as well. Foods can be breaded with basic seasoned bread crumbs, panko bread crumbs, or any variety of crushed crackers or even chips! Properly breading foods is a three step process. First, dredge the food in a bit of flour. Second, dip the item in a simple bath of eggs whisked together with a touch of milk. Third, press the food into your dry breading, until thoroughly coated. The flour adheres easily to the food. The egg adheres to the flour. The breading adheres to the egg. To prevent your fingers from getting breaded in the process, it’s a wise idea to handle the wet ingredients with one hand, while using the other hand for the dry ingredients. Once breaded, your food can be pan-fried in a bit of oil until golden brown and cooked through or oven baked for a lighter result.

Loaded Nacho Chicken

Ingredients

  • 3-4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tablespoon milk
  • 2 cups corn tortilla chips, finely crushed
  • 3/4 cup chile con queso dip (store-bought or homemade)
  • Black olives, sliced
  • Black beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1-2 green onions, sliced
  • 1 tomato, diced
  • Salt and pepper

Directions

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Season the chicken breasts with a sprinkle of salt and pepper.  To set up your breading station, spread the flour onto a plate. Whisk the eggs and milk together in a small baking dish or bowl. Spread the crushed tortilla chips onto a plate. Dredge each chicken breast in the flour, then dip in the egg mixture. Finally, press the chicken into the tortilla chips until well coated. Place the coated chicken breasts in a baking dish. Cook for 25-35 minutes, until the chicken reaches 165°F, as measured with an instant-read meat thermometer.

To serve, top the cooked chicken with a generous helping of warm chile con queso and a sprinkle of black beans, black olives, tomatoes, green onions, or your other favorite nacho toppings.

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Tomorrow will mark the one year anniversary of what we now jokingly refer to as The DeLine Family Super Bowl Massacre. Guess who’s not hosting a super bowl party this year?? Looking for some fun super bowl food ideas? Check out my Baked Asian Sticky Wings, Buffalo Chicken Monkey Bread, Spicy Mexican Wontons, Chicken Wing Dip (you know you want some), Creole Deviled Eggs, or any of the other fun recipes found in the party food section of my Recipe Collection.

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