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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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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.

Irish Mocha Chip Ice Cream

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Well, hello there! Long time, no see.

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I hadn’t intended to abandon the blog for any length of time, but life sort of sucked me into its unpredictable time warp. Between the kids and appointments and work and all of the other business of being a family of five, the weeks just flew by. Oh, and I joined a local gym, which has a ‘Kids Korner’, that the kids actually love going to. Ninety bucks bought me up to two hours of time for myself, every day, forever. Best childcare deal out there, folks. I’ve rarely missed a day since I joined. The getting in shape aspect almost feels like the bonus of going, not the very purpose itself.

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But, it’s come to my attention that one of my favorite holidays is rapidly approaching. So, I’ve pulled myself out of life’s time warp in order to bring you an appropriately Irish themed recipe. This is one for the grown-ups, as it’s chock full of caffeine and festively spiked with a bit of Irish Cream. Interestingly, it was my five year who inspired the whole ice cream idea, while I was pondering aloud about some Baileys twist on panna cotta or chocolate mousse. “It should be an ice cream,” he insisted. And with the approaching spring season peppering our days with warmer weather, he was right-on with that suggestion. I may need to reward him with a decaf, alcohol-free version of this recipe soon.

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The look your child may make when you prepare an ice cream, just for grown-ups.

If you’re looking for some more traditional Irish ideas, like Corned Beef and Cabbage, Irish Soda Bread, Shepherd’s Pie or even a low-carb twist on Cottage Pie, check out last year’s St. Patty’s Day recipe round-up HERE.

Have fun and most importantly, be safe, in all of your St. Patty’s Day festivities!

Today’s Focus on Technique – The Difference Between Ice Cream and Frozen Custard

The main difference between ice cream and frozen custard (also known as French-style ice cream or French custard ice cream) is the addition of egg yolks. Technically, to be considered a frozen custard, it must contain at least 1.4% egg yolks by weight. The USDA has lengthy documents which define all of the characteristics of ice cream, frozen custard, gelato, sherbet and something called mellorine, but basically, the difference between ice cream and frozen custard comes down to the egg yolks. The egg yolks in a frozen custard add a rich, silky creaminess to the end result. When adding the egg yolks to the ice cream mixture, it is important to temper the eggs by very gradually adding the hot cream mixture to the yolks. This allows the temperature of the eggs to rise to meet the temperature of the hot cream mixture without scrambling the eggs. The egg mixture is then returned to the pan and gently heated until the eggs are cooked to a safe temperature. For more info on tempering eggs into hot liquids, click here. I haven’t calculated the percent weight of egg yolks in the following recipe, but I’d venture to say it falls technically in the family of frozen custards.

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Irish Mocha Chip Ice Cream

Adapted from Emeril’s Coffee Ice Cream 

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 cups heavy cream
  • 1 1/2 cups whole milk
  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons instant coffee granules
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 3-4 tablespoons Baileys Irish Cream*
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 2/3 cup mini chocolate chips

*TIP – When cooking with liquors or liqueurs that you don’t frequently use, see if your liquor store carries the mini bottles (like they have on airplanes), to avoid having leftovers go to waste. 

Directions

Combine the cream, milk, sugar, coffee, and cocoa powder in a medium saucepan. Bring to a gentle boil over medium heat, stirring until sugar, coffee and cocoa are dissolved. Remove from the heat.

In a medium bowl, lightly beat the egg yolks with a fork. In a slow steady stream, gradually whisk about 1 cup of the hot mixture into the egg yolks. Then, gradually add the egg mixture to the remaining mixture in the pan. Cook the mixture over medium-low/low heat, stirring frequently, for 5-8 minutes, until it just begins to bubble. (You can use an instant read thermometer to check that the mixture is at least 170ºF.) Remove from the heat. Cool slightly at room temperature, then transfer to a bowl and cover with plastic wrap, pressing down against the surface to prevent a skin from forming. Refrigerate until completely chilled, about 2-3 hours. Stir in the Baileys Irish Cream and chocolate chips just before freezing in the ice cream maker.

Transfer the cooled mixture to your ice cream maker. Freeze according to your ice cream maker’s instructions. The ice cream will still be semi-soft (and lusciously creamy) coming out of the ice cream maker. It will harden a bit further after a few hours in the freezer.

*This recipe would make a perfectly delicious mocha chip ice cream without the Bailey’s. You could also use decaf instant coffee grounds if you’d prefer to skip the caffeine.

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Treat Your Valentine

Treat your valentine to a day’s worth of mouth-watering meals. Here are three ideas for each meal, from super simple to more elaborate. Click on the pictures or the links to see the recipes!

You can also check out the Recipes section at the top of the page for more ideas to delight your sweetie.

Breakfast

Super Simple: Strawberry and Nutella Stuffed French Toast

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A Bit More Complex: Cinnamon Raisin Donut Bread Pudding

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Manageably Elaborate: Eggs Benedict

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Lunch

Super Simple: Sausage, Bean, and Rapini Soup

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A Bit More Complex: Smoked Salmon and Cucumber Salad

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Manageably Elaborate: Quiche Lorraine

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Dinner

Super Simple: Penne a la Vodka

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A Bit More Complex: Pork Chops with Fontina and Marsala

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Manageably Elaborate: Slow-Braised Beef Short Ribs with Figs over Creamy Brie Potatoes

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Dessert

Super Simple: World’s Simplest Fudgey Brownies with Raspberry Coulis

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A Bit More Complex: Chocolate Raspberry Torte

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Manageably Elaborate: Fresh Berry Mousse with Vanilla Panna Cotta

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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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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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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.

Baked Asian Sticky Wings

Teaching children to make good choices is one of the greatest responsibilities and most intense challenges of being a parent. Young children are clever, creative, and sneaky; oh so sneaky. Succeeding at this task requires the snooping skills of Sherlock Holmes, the vigilance of an air traffic controller, and the patience of Mother Teresa. You must watch, wait, anticipate, and react. You must act quickly to intervene before irreversible damage is done and you must sniff out clues like Scooby Doo to unravel mysteries. And most importantly, you must maintain a straight face; calm, but firm and consistent; in the face of discipline.

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But kids are devious and unpredicatable. Don’t be fooled by their sweet little button noses and soft, furry backs. They are constantly testing their limits and devising new methods for mischief. Stay sharp, captain.

My husband and I should have known something was up when we noticed that the stack of plastic kid plates was diminishing. We knew it was peculiar. And yet we just shrugged our shoulders in puzzled confusion and moved on. But all misdeeds come to light eventually, as did the mystery of the missing plates.

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It started when I was changing the baby’s diaper. I laid him down on the carpet which sits in the center of our living room. In the center of that carpet is a large trunk-style coffee table, with legs that raise it about three inches off the floor; just high enough for toys and things to slip beneath, but not tall enough to easily vacuum under. In the position I was in, sitting on the carpet with the baby, I saw what had previously been hidden. Peeking out from the edge of the table were the two plates I’d served the boys breakfast on, which they ate at their snack tables in front of the aforementioned coffee table. A small pile of discarded scrambled eggs sat on one of the plates. I scolded the boys for their lazy behavior and asked them if they thought we lived in a barn (’cause that’s what you’re supposed to say, right??). They hung their heads in appropriate shame and brought their plates to the sink.

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In retrospect, I don’t know why I didn’t put the pieces together at that point. I should have peeked under the table, but I didn’t. We moved on with our day. Then dinner time came along and I served the boys some of my new Asian sticky wings. Chicken wings don’t make frequent appearances on our menu, so I’d anticipated some normal apprehension. When serving something unfamiliar, I make a practice of always including something known and loved on the boys’ plates, so everyone has a chance to fill their bellies with something they like, while also having the opportunity to try something new. I don’t make a big deal about finishing everything on their plates or eating big portions of food they don’t enjoy. I only ask that they take a small taste of each new item, with the idea that over time, as their taste buds mature, they will enjoy a wide variety of foods. No pressure.

So, what happened next never should have happened.

Liam stood up with his dinner plate, proud to show me that he’d eaten everything on it and making a point that he was going to put it properly in the sink. The rice, the sugar snap peas, the yogurt, and the chicken wings were all gone. You catch that?? The chicken wings were all gone. “Where are the bones?” I asked. “Huh…the bones?” came his innocent reply. “Yes, the bones. Where are the bones?” And then he proceeded to explain that he’d eaten the bones. Clever lady that I am, I knew this could not be the case. I had a hard time keeping that ever-important straight face by this point. I knelt by the edge of the table to find the discarded chicken wings before the dog did. I found those wings under the table. I also found five of the kids’ plates. Another mystery solved, Scooby.

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But the wings…the wings are delicious, even if Liam wasn’t interested in them. I’ve been watching what I eat in the new year, but whereas in the past I’ve messed up by going all-in from the start, then losing steam, I’m trying to take a more long-term balanced approach this time. I’m making smart choices most of the time, but not denying myself the opportunity to enjoy some good food and drinks when the opportunity is ripe, like during a girls’ night out with my besties. On our most recent girls’ night out, at one of our favorite local joints, we ordered the Asian sticky wings, which became the inspiration for this recipe.

Healthy goals in mind, these wings are baked, rather than fried. I tried two different techniques in search of the crispiest result. While the resulting crispiness of the winning technique doesn’t quite match what you’d get from a fryer, they come pretty darn close. The secret is baking the wings on top of a rack, so that the excess juices drip below the wings, allowing the skin to become firm. A final few minutes under the broiler seals the deal with a golden brown exterior. Once cooked, the wings are tossed in a sweet Asian-style sauce, which has been reduced into a sticky, delicious glaze. They’d make a perfect addition to any super bowl menu!!

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Today’s Focus on Technique – Reductions

Cooking a flavored liquid by reduction is a method used in order to thicken the liquid and intensify flavors. It is typically used to prepare glazes and full-flavored sauces. To reduce a liquid, simply bring it to a boil in an uncovered pan. As the liquid evaporates, the remaining sauce will become thicker and more flavorful. It’s a wonderful technique for elevating the flavor-profile of a sauce. Using a pan with a wider base will spread the liquid over a greater surface area and increase the rate at which a liquid reduces.

Baked Asian Sticky Wings

Ingredients

  • Approximately 2 dozen chicken wings and legs
  • Juice from 1 orange (approximately 1/3 cup)
  • Zest from 1 orange
  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 1/2 cup hoisin sauce
  • 1/3 cup soy sauce
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons sambal oelek (or crushed red pepper, to taste)
  • 1 teaspoon garlic, minced
  • 1″ ginger root, grated (or 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger)
  • Sliced green onions and sesame seeds, for garnish

Directions

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Set a rack on top of a baking sheet.  Arrange the chicken pieces in a single layer on top of the rack. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bake for about 40 minutes, then turn on the broiler. With the chicken several inches below the broiler, cook for 5-10 more minutes, until the exterior is golden brown and crisp.

While the chicken is cooking, prepare the glaze. Combine the orange juice, zest, honey, hoisin sauce, soy sauce, garlic, ginger, and sambal oelek in a saucepan. Bring the mixture to a bubbling boil over medium heat, stirring frequently. Allow the mixture to bubble away, uncovered, for approximately 10 minutes until the mixture has thickened to a glazy consistency. Taste and adjust flavor with additional honey, if a sweeter result is desired.

Toss the cooked wings in the warm glaze, then garnish with sesame seeds and sliced green onions. Serve with rice and/or steamed sugar snap peas.

Sweet and Spicy Honey Chipotle Infused Beets

Between the three boys’ birthdays, holidays, and my general love of entertaining, we host a good number of parties each year. So, it’s no surprise that we make regular trips to our local Party City.

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The curious thing is that visits to Party City have become high on the boys’ lists of favorite things to do. They ask for trips to Party City as rewards for good behavior. Musings about trips to Party City have even showed up in the boys’ school work. I’ve collected all varieties of art involving their favorite party supply store. Liam even listed it as his favorite place to visit in his kindergarten ‘All About Me’ book. And on last year’s Mother’s Day card, where every child in Liam’s class listed a reason they love their mother; things like She gives the best hugs, and She kisses all my boo-boos, and Her smile is brighter than the sun; Liam’s contribution was, She takes me to Party City. Clearly, I win the mother-of-the-year award.

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It’s like this mystical, magical land of party supplies and costumes. It’s pure fun, brightly displayed in a warehouse setting, with golden oldies playing in the background. There’s a wall covered in balloons, buckets full of candy and toys, and a whole rack of wacky sunglasses. What kid wouldn’t love Party City? But my boys take their love further than most.

So, I shouldn’t have been surprised about what happened as we were walking past Party City on a recent excursion for boots. We’d exited Famous Footwear, with James in his stroller and the boys in tow. As we neared Party City, the energy become palpable. James’ Elmo-radar activated at the sight of a 9-foot tall cardboard Elmo in the window. He began manically chanting Elmo, Elmo, Elmo as the boys bounced ahead of us. Liam and Lucas were buzzing on pure adrenaline by this point. As we began to make our pass, the automatic doors to Party City opened, as if by command of the boys’ enthusiasm. Keep moving, I instructed. Keep moving.

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But they didn’t keep moving. They just stood there; the two boys, side by side in the open doorways of their beloved Party City, as the cold winter weather rushed into the warm dreamland of party supplies. And then, in eerily perfect unison, they shouted into the bellows of the party warehouse, WE LOVE YOU, PARTY CITY!! WE LOVE YOU!!!!!!!!!!!

What I would give to see the security footage of that moment!

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Like many others, I’ve been watching what I eat in the new year. As such, I’ve been dining on more salads than sandwiches and more scrambled egg whites than pancakes. But I need bold, satisfying flavors in my salads to keep me interested and keep me on track with my goals. Tender, slow-roasted beets which are infused with the sweet and spicy flavors of honey and chipotle have been providing exactly the sort of intense flavor I desire in a salad. Combine them with a bit of crisp and salty applewood-smoked bacon and a few crumbles of goat cheese, on top of a big pile of mixed greens tossed in a white balsamic vinaigrette and you’ve got a salad I would crave no matter what my fitness goals!

Today’s Focus on Technique – Uses for Beet Greens

Don’t let those gorgeous beet greens go to waste! They are delicious and good for you too! Use them in the same way you might use spinach, kale, or collard greens. Add them to salads, soups, sandwiches, or smoothies. Sauteé them with a bit of olive oil and garlic or bake them up like crispy kale chips.

Sweet and Spicy Honey Chipotle Infused Beets

Ingredients

  • 5-6 medium-sized beets
  • 1 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 2 chipotle peppers (from a can of chipotle in adobo), very finely diced or pureed

Directions

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cut the top and bottom off of each beet. Rinse the beets, them securely wrap them in a piece of aluminum foil. Place the foil packet into a baking dish, then bake for about 90 minutes, until the tip of a knife inserts easily. Allow the beets to cool at room temperature. When cool enough to handle, use your fingers to slip the skins from the beets. (This will work best when they’re still slightly warm.) Alternately, you can use a knife to remove the skin. Cut the beets into fourths or eighths. Place them in a bowl. In a separate container, whisk together the apple cider vinegar, honey, and chipotle, until well blended. Pour the mixture over the beets, so that they are covered by the marinade. Refrigerate for a few hours.

Serving Suggestion – Serve your roasted, flavor-infused beets as part of a salad. Toss mixed greens (throw in the beet greens too) in a white balsamic vinaigrette (like the one used here). Top the greens with the beets, crumbled bacon, and a few crumbles of goat cheese. Vegetarians can substitute a small handful of pistachios for the bacon for equally delicious salty flavor and crunch.

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The Gourmand Mom

Good food, seasoned with a dash of life

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