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New Year Bean and Bacon Soup

The afternoon following my last post, I picked the boys up from school, acutely grateful for their safety while we were apart. On the way home, we stopped by the craft store to pick up two spools of a delicate, iridescent ribbon. After completing homework, snack, and our other normal after-school routines, we moved into the living room, where we used the ribbon to tie small bows to the boughs of our Christmas tree; one for each of the victims at Sandy Hook.

I spoke the name of each child and teacher aloud as we wrapped and tied each delicate bow, allowing a moment for their lives to be remembered. As I worked, the boys mostly bounced around the living room in their typical manner, half attending to the names I spoke and half lost in their own important business of being kids. They’d alternate between chat about their Christmas wish lists and comments about how about how they know Dylans and Chases and Jacks and Noahs; friends in their pre-k and kindergarten classes, children not much younger than the Dylan and Chase and Jack and Noah lost at Sandy Hook.

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It was a small thing to tie those little bows, but it felt cathartic to be doing something, anything, to honor those tragically lost lives. The bows remained on our tree as we hosted all varieties of holiday celebrations; a quiet way to keep the suffering Newtown families in our prayers, even as we went about joyously celebrating the holidays.

I retied those bows a hundred times during the few weeks that the tree sat in our living room, each time trying not to become frustrated by the boys’ constant undoing of my work. Instead, I consciously replaced my frustration with appreciation of the fact that I had all my little boys with me to make their special brand of mischief in our home. Those little ribbons shimmered on the lit tree all throughout the holidays. My Liam commented that they reminded him of angels.

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Our holidays were beautiful. We had a revolving houseful of family and friends straight up until New Year’s Day. We enjoyed Dinosaur BBQ takeout on Christmas Eve, our now-traditional beef bourguignon for Christmas dinner, and a plentiful selection of finger foods on New Year’s Eve. I’m talking about mini crab cakes with chipotle remoulade, tiny quiche lorraines in puff pastry, stuffed mushrooms, cheese, and chicken wing dip. For three weeks, our recycling bins overflowed with gift packaging and emptied bottles of wine and champagne; evidence of our prosperity in family, love, and life.

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I was inspired by a friend’s recent comments about bean soup and its symbolism for prosperity in the new year. I must admit that the connection between beans and prosperity was not something I’d been aware of, but the description of her soup had me sold. This incredibly simple soup utilizes canned beans, which makes it super easy to throw together. It’s a hearty, comforting, and delicious way to celebrate the new year. Serve it with a nice, crusty chunk of French bread.

Wishing you all a prosperous 2013!

Focus on Technique – Canned Beans vs. Dried Beans

Both canned and dried beans offer the same high-protein, high-fiber, antioxidant-rich nutrition, which makes them a great addition to any diet. Dried beans offer the advantages of being lower in sodium, free of preservatives, and requiring less space for storage. Additionally, dried beans can be cooked to your personal preference, whereas pre-cooked canned beans come as they are, at the risk of being mushy. The downside of using dried beans is the length of time required for soaking and cooking, which requires advance planning and preparation. If ease and convenience is the name of your game, canned beans are the way to go. (Admittedly, I almost always use canned beans.)

Bean and Bacon Soup

Ingredients

  • 1 pound bacon, chopped
  • 1 small onion, finely diced
  • 1 teaspoon garlic, minced
  • 1 (15-ounce) can kidney beans, drained
  • 1 (15-ounce) can garbanzo beans, drained
  • 1 (15-ounce) can black beans, drained
  • 1 (15-ounce) can cannellini beans, drained
  • 2 (15-ounce) cans chicken broth
  • 1 bag (approximately 4 cups) baby spinach
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

Directions

In a large saucepan, over medium/medium-high heat, cook the bacon until crisp. Remove the cooked bacon with a slotted spoon and set aside. Reduce the heat slightly and add the onion and garlic to the pan. Cook, stirring frequently, for 5-7 minutes, until tender and golden. Carefully drain any leftover bacon grease. Add the beans and chicken broth to the pan, then add the spinach. Cook for a few minutes until the mixture begins to simmer and the spinach has wilted. Return the bacon to the soup. Taste, then season with salt* and pepper, as desired.

*The bacon and beans will both contribute a good amount of salty flavor to the soup. Depending on how salted or unsalted your chicken broth is, you may not need any additional salt. Give the soup a taste before seasoning. I added a little pinch of salt and a good dose of pepper.

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Antipasto Chicken (and the yarn wreath giveaway winner!)

This recipe is born of my Thanksgiving leftovers, though not in the typical turkey soup, casserole, or sandwich sense you may expect. Thanksgiving at my Grammy’s always began with a giant platter of antipasto; all varieties of meat, cheese, and marinated yummies, drizzled with a dressing made from the oils and vinegars which preserved and flavored the veggies. And though I now host my own Thanksgiving feast, a smaller version of that antipasto platter still belongs at my table.

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So, after our Thanksgiving feast, we were left with the expected turkey leftovers, as well as a tasty assortment of salami, provolone, sun-dried tomatoes, and olives. In search of an easy dinner which would put those leftovers to use, I threw them all together in a baking dish with a bit of tomato sauce and a few chicken breasts. It wasn’t a planned blog post. No photos were taken or measurements made. It was just a lazy night’s meal made with leftovers. But the result was so delicious, I had to make it again just to share with you.

The savory antipasto ingredients flavor the tomato base as the dish cooks, creating a rich full-flavored tomato sauce. Nestled in the sauce as it bakes, the chicken remains moist and tender. Super simple for the busy holiday season, yet incredibly flavorful and satisfying!

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Today’s Focus on Technique – Using an Instant Read Meat Thermometer

When cooking meat, it’s important not to rely too heavily on the stated cooking times in any given recipe. Normal variations in actual oven temperatures, along with differences in the weight and dimensions of individual cuts of meat, mean that your meat may cook slower or faster than the stated time in a recipe. To avoid under- or over-cooking meat, your best bet is to use an instant read meat thermometer. It’s one of the most useful kitchen tools you can have on hand. If you don’t already have one, put an instant read meat thermometer on your Christmas list immediately! I use mine almost every day.

Here are a few tips for properly using an instant read meat thermometer:

  • Begin checking the temperature as you approach the expected finish time for your meat (typically a few minutes before the recipe’s stated time for smaller cuts; farther ahead for larger roasts).
  • Remove the meat from the heat before measuring the temperature. Do not measure the temperature while the meat is still in the oven, as the oven heat may skew the results.
  • Insert the thermometer into the center of the thickest part of the meat.
  • Make sure that the thermometer is not poking out the other end or touching bone.
  • Wait for the thermometer to register the temperature. Some thermometers will register the temperature immediately, while some will take a few seconds.
  • According to the USDA, the following are the recommended minimum safe temperatures for various foods:
    • Beef, Pork, Veal, and Lamb (steaks, roasts, and chops) – 145°F
    • Ground meats (this includes hamburger) – 160°F
    • Poultry – 165°F
    • Fish and Shellfish – 145°F
  • Keep your instant read meat thermometer pristinely clean and close at hand!

Antipasto Chicken

Ingredients

  • 1 8-ounce can tomato sauce
  • 1/4 cup tomato paste
  • 1/8 cup parmesan cheese, grated
  • 4 slices salami, chopped
  • 1/2 small onion, finely diced
  • 1 teaspoon garlic, minced
  • 1/4 cup sun-dried tomatoes
  • 1/4 cup olives (any kind), sliced
  • 3-4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
  • Salt and pepper
  • 3-4 slices provolone cheese, chopped

*Marinated mushrooms, spicy peppers, or marinated artichokes would all make delicious additions.

Directions

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

In a baking dish, combine the tomato sauce, tomato paste, parmesan cheese, salami, onion, garlic, sun-dried tomatoes, and olives. Sprinkle the chicken with salt and pepper, then press the chicken breasts into the tomato mixture. Turn once to coat on both sides. Bake for approximately 25-35 minutes*, until cooked through. Turn once, halfway through cooking. Once the chicken is cooked, sprinkle the provolone cheese over the top. Leave in the oven for just a few seconds to melt. *Cooking time will vary depending on the weight and dimensions of your chicken breasts. Use an instant read meat thermometer to determine doneness. Chicken is safely done at 165°F.

Slice and serve over pasta.

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GIVEAWAY WINNER!! We have a winner! Using http://www.random.org to select a number at random, out of the 15 entries received for the yarn wreath gift bag giveaway, the winner is #2 , Jennifer. Congratulations, Jennifer!! I’m going to send you an email at the address provided with your comment to get the information necessary to send you out your prize!! Thank you to everyone who shared their holiday tips and traditions.

Eggplant Parmesan Pizza (and a Giveaway!)

Yikes! Where’d the past week go? Think I can blame my absence on a Thanksgiving tryptophan-induced coma?? Seriously though, once the dishes were cleaned from our Thanksgiving dessert, I felt myself melt into an unproductive pile of mush. I just needed a little time to recover from the rush of Thanksgiving and gear up for the holiday rush. I’m ready now. Mostly.

It wasn’t a completely unproductive week though. I decided to try my hand at making one of those adorable yarn wreaths I’ve seen pictured online. I made one, admired it for a bit, then got sucked into a major crafting time warp. I awoke covered in bits of yarn and a web of those stringy glue gun remnants. I made sixteen yarn wreaths, complete with handcrafted felt flowers and tiny green leaves, over the course of six days. I barely remember making them. They just sort of appeared in a pretty pile on my dining room table. It’s kinda weird. Almost everyone I know is getting a wreath for Christmas…even one of you!

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On top of manic crafting, I’ve been overfilling my calendar with holiday events, shopping lists, and cookie baking schedules. Suffice it to say, this is gonna be a busy month. And busy months require easy dinners  – the sort of stuff you can easily prepare by throwing together a few basic ingredients, while still resulting in a tummy-warming winter meal. This eggplant parmesan pizza fits the bill perfectly. You could even make it with frozen pre-fried eggplant, if you wanted to keep it super, super simple, though frying your own eggplant takes minimal effort. That crisp fried eggplant gets scattered on a pizza shell (make your own or buy pre-made, like I did) along with pizza sauce, ricotta cheese, parmesan, and melty mozzarella for a simple, satisfying meal.

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Today’s Focus on Technique – Salting Eggplant

It is often recommended to salt eggplant prior to frying it. This technique is best applied to larger eggplants which have been sitting in the grocery case for a bit. Baby eggplants or those that have been freshly picked will most likely be wonderful without salting. The purpose of salting the eggplant is to draw out some of the bitter liquid which collects in larger, older eggplants. The end result is better tasting, firmer eggplant which will absorb less oil as it’s fried.

To salt your eggplant, start by cutting or slicing your eggplant, as desired. Arrange the pieces or slices in a single layer on a baking sheet. Sprinkle the eggplant slices with a good amount of salt. Allow it to rest for approximately 20-25 minutes. Beads of liquid will begin appearing on the surface. Thoroughly rinse the eggplant and pat dry.

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Eggplant Parmesan Pizza

Ingredients 

  • 1 eggplant, sliced into 1/4″ slices
  • Salt
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 2 cups seasoned bread crumbs
  • Vegetable or olive oil, for frying
  • 1 pizza crust (store-bought or homemade)
  • 1/2 cup ricotta cheese
  • 1/2 cup pizza sauce
  • 1/4 cup parmesan cheese
  • 1 cup mozzarella cheese, shredded

*All measurements are approximate. Actual measurements will vary depending on the size of your pizza crust. I used a 12″ store-bought crust.

Directions

Arrange the eggplant slices in a single layer. Sprinkle with a good amount of salt. Allow to rest for about 20 minutes. Rinse thoroughly, then pat dry.

Dredge each slice in the flour, then dip in egg, then dredge in the bread crumbs. Press the bread crumbs into the eggplant so that it is thoroughly covered. Heat a thin layer (about 1/8″) of oil in a large fry pan over medium/medium-high heat. Fry the eggplant slices for a minute or two on each side, until golden brown and crispy. Adjust the heat, as necessary, to prevent burning. Drain the fried slices on paper towels. Chop into small pieces.

To assemble the pizza: Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Spread the ricotta cheese in an even layer over the pizza crust. Spread the pizza sauce on top of the ricotta (I like to use a smooth and thick, tomato paste based pizza sauce.) Sprinkle about 1/2 of the mozzarella cheese over the sauce. Arrange some of the eggplant pieces around the pizza. (You may have extra eggplant remaining.) Sprinkle with the parmesan cheese and remaining mozzarella cheese. Bake for about 15-18 minutes, until hot and melty.

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I come bearing gifts… Want to win one of the 8″ wreaths I made? Keep it for yourself or cross someone off your shopping list! I’ll even try to match the winner up with a color scheme of your choice! If you’d like to enter to win a wreath, leave a comment about your favorite holiday tradition (any holiday) or your top tip for enjoying a stress-free holiday season. The contest will end at 12:00 noon EST on Saturday, December 8, 2012, when I will randomly select one winner. One entry per person. US mailing addresses only, please. Good luck!

Chicken Cordon Bleu Panini

boy, n.
1. noise with dirt on it
 

Daylight savings time has done a number on my noisy boys’ sleep schedules. They’ve always been early risers, but now we’re talking about 4:30 in the morning early. And they don’t wake slowly. They wake with the force of a jack-in-the-box that someone has been cranking all night long. It’s startling…even when you know it’s coming.

And they’re loud; so incredibly loud. I can’t even begin to put words to the kinds of noises which come from their little bodies. As they come barging into our room making all manners of inexplicable noises, I bury my head under my pillow and wonder why little boys don’t come with volume controls.

But even as I’m hoarsely grumbling ‘go away’, I’m reminded to be thankful for all of that predawn noise; that noise which means we have three healthy, active little boys to be making it. In a month of thanks giving, I am thankful for that.

Thursday nights are crazy nights for our noisy little family. For the few hours preceding the boys’ bedtime, it’s a revolving door of activity. The boys have ninja training (karate class) right about the time we’d normally be eating dinner, so we eat early. My husband gets home from work shortly after we return, then runs off to rock and roll training (band practice) just after the boys get to bed. At that point, I curl up onto the couch for my extremely informal sommelier training (glass of red).

So, everyone eats dinner in a rush and at a different time on Thursdays, making it essential that Thursday night dinners are simple and easy to reheat. This satisfying chicken cordon bleu panini fits the bill perfectly! Breaded chicken breasts are sliced and combined with salty prosciutto and a creamy gruyere sauce, then pressed together, wrapped in foil, and heated until it’s hot and melty. Every part of this sandwich can be made ahead of time (even the night before). Best yet, it can be wrapped in individual portions, which are ready to pop in the oven whenever your future ninja, rockstar, or sommelier gets hungry!

Today’s Focus on Technique – Bechamel Sauce

A bechamel sauce is one of the five French ‘mother sauces’, which means that it is a base sauce from which many variations can be made. Bechamel sauce is a simple white sauce made with a combination of roux (butter and flour) and milk. It’s typically seasoned with salt, pepper, and a pinch of nutmeg. Bechamel sauces can be made thinner or thicker by varying the amount of roux used in the sauce. A basic bechamel can be seasoned in a multitude of ways and used in lasagna, as the base of a cheese (mornay) sauce for macaroni and cheese, or as the start of a creamy soup.

The process of making a bechamel is simple. Combine equal parts butter and flour in a pan over medium heat, whisking constantly for a minute or two to remove some of that raw flour taste. Gradually add milk to the roux, whisking constantly. (Ideally, the milk should be warm or hot when it’s added to the roux, though I’ll admit that I rarely warm the milk and have never had a problem.) Whisk until well combined. Bring the mixture to a simmer. Cook for a few minutes, whisking constantly, until the milk is thickened. Season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg.

*1 tablespoon each of butter and flour to 1 cup of milk will produce a thin bechamel which makes a good base for a cheese sauce. Use 2-3 tablespoons each of butter and flour to 1 cup of milk for a thicker sauce.

Chicken Cordon Bleu Panini

Ingredients

  • 1 loaf of wide, flat crusty bread (such as ciabatta)
  • 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1 1/2 cups seasoned bread crumbs
  • Olive or vegetable oil
  • 3-4 ounces prosciutto (or ham)
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons butter
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons flour
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1/2 cup gruyere (or other swiss-style cheese), shredded
  • Salt and pepper
  • Pinch of nutmeg

Directions

For the chicken: Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Dip the chicken breasts in the beaten eggs, then press into the bread crumbs, until well coated. Heat a thin layer of oil in a fry pan over medium/medium-high heat. Cook the chicken for 2-3 minutes on each side, until golden brown. Transfer the chicken to a baking sheet. Place in the oven, until cooked through. (Chicken is fully cooked at 165 degrees. Cooking time will vary based on thickness of the chicken breasts and how well they’re cooked during the browning step. Mine took about 13 minutes in the oven.) *The chicken can be made ahead and refrigerated.

For the sauce: Melt the butter in a pan over medium heat. Add the garlic. Cook for a few seconds, being careful not to burn. Add the flour. Whisk to combine. Cook for a minute. Gradually add the milk, whisking constantly to combine. Bring the mixture to a simmer. Cook for a minute or two, until thickened. Reduce the heat. Add the cheese and whisk until melted. Season with a pinch of nutmeg and salt and pepper, to taste. *The sauce can be made ahead and refrigerated. It will thicken as it cools.

To assemble the sandwiches: Slice the loaf of bread in half. Spread a layer of sauce onto each half. Arrange the prosciutto in a thin layer on the bottom half. Slice the breaded chicken breasts into thin pieces. Arrange them on top of the prosciutto. Cover with the top half. Tightly wrap the sandwich in foil, pressing down to flatten the sandwich. If desired, you can pre-cut the sandwich and wrap in individual servings. Bake in a 375 degrees oven for about 20 minutes until hot and melty. *The entire sandwich can be made ahead of time. If cooking from cold, allow for extra cooking time.

Buffalo Chicken Pasta Bake (and Giveaway Winner!!)

Well, we did it! We made it through Halloween. I enjoy Halloween, especially now that I have kids to celebrate it with – but to be honest, for me it’s mostly just the gateway holiday to Thanksgiving and Christmas. Those are the holidays which really have my heart. I’ll admit, a small tear of joy may have run down my cheek when I walked into Target the other day to find the first of their holiday decorations hung from the ceiling. I have no problem with celebrating Christmas even as we prepare for Thanksgiving. The two go hand in hand for me.

But Halloween was fun this year. Really fun. The boys dressed up for the pre-Halloween party at their school. There was a dj, a disco ball, and hundreds of costumed children, half-blinded by masks, crashing into each other on the school gym dance floor. All varieties of goblins, ghouls, princesses and superheroes roamed the school cafeteria with slices of pizza and pumpkin cookies hanging from their mouths.

On Halloween, the boys put on their costumes for their school parade. Liam was Harry Potter, a costume I’m certain he selected for the pretend glasses it came with. Lucas was a terrifying werewolf, a costume I believe he selected for the shredded jeans it would give him a reason to wear. The kid’s got a weird love for jeans, as long as they have a real, functional button and zipper…none of those faux buttoned, elastic-waisted toddler jeans for him!

After school, we attended a pre-trick-or-treating party at our friends’ house. I dressed as a princess with baby James as my frog prince. We brought along a bucket of spooky eyeball cake pops, which everyone enjoyed after the delicious dinner served by our friend. There was pasta and meatballs, a vibrant pasta salad, Italian bread and butter, jumbo shrimp, fresh veggies with dip, cheese and crackers, baked ziti and chicken wings.

And that’s when the seedling of an idea began to take root, right there surrounded by ninjas and vampires – baked ziti and chicken wings…

Y’all know I’ve got a little thing for inserting buffalo chicken wing flavor into all varieties of other foods…chicken wing dip, buffalo chicken lasagna, buffalo chicken monkey bread, buffalo chicken pizzabuffalo chicken meatballs, buffalo chicken potato skins… so, why not buffalo chicken baked ziti? As my sister put it, “Why have we not eaten that before???” It’s a practically ludicrous idea to consider. Fortunately, we no longer need to commiserate over the absence of buffalo chicken baked ziti in our lives. I made it last night and my hybrid baked ziti-buffalo chicken world is now beautifully complete.

Focus on Technique – Poaching Chicken

It’s common to find recipes calling for poached chicken. Poaching is simply the process of very gently simmering a food until it’s cooked. Eggs, poultry, and fish all responded well to poaching. Foods can be poached in a variety of liquids, including water, milk, wine, and broth/stock. Various herbs and seasonings can be added to the poaching liquid to impart delicious flavor into the chicken. When poaching, it’s important to control the heat in order to keep the liquid at a gentle simmer.

Properly poached chicken breasts remain moist and tender. Poached chicken works well on its own, in chicken salad, on pizza, in soup, or mixed in with pasta.

To poach chicken breasts, place the chicken in a pot large enough for the chicken to fit comfortably. Cover the chicken with cool water (or chicken broth). Over medium heat, bring the liquid to a gentle boil. Adjust the heat so that the liquid maintains a gently bubbling simmer. Cook for about 10-15 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through. An instant read meat thermometer is the most effective way to determine doneness. Chicken is done once it’s reached 165 degrees.

Buffalo Chicken Pasta Bake

Ingredients

  • 1 pound pasta
  • 1 pound of chicken, poached and chopped into small pieces
  • 1/2 cup celery, chopped
  • 1 cup Frank’s Red Hot hot sauce (or your other favorite hot sauce)
  • 1 cup blue cheese dressing (I always recommend Marie’s)
  • 3/4 cup ricotta cheese
  • 2 cups mozzarella cheese, shredded
  • 1/4 cup blue cheese, crumbled (optional)
  • Salt and pepper (optional)

Directions

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Cook the pasta for about a minute less than the package directions call for. Strain and rinse with cool water to prevent overcooking. Return the cooled, strained pasta to the pot. Add the chicken and chopped celery.

In a bowl, combine the hot sauce and blue cheese dressing. Pour the mixture over the pasta. Add the ricotta cheese and 1 cup of the mozzarella. Stir to combine. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt, pepper, or additional hot sauce, as desired.

Transfer the pasta mixture into a large 13×9 baking dish. Sprinkle the remaining 1 cup of mozzarella cheese and the crumbled blue cheese (optional) over the top. Bake for about 30 minutes.

*You can prepare the entire dish, up to the baking step, ahead of time. If preparing ahead of time and refrigerating, allow for approximately 10-15 minutes of extra cooking time. 

Werewolf and the frog prince

GIVEAWAY WINNER!! We have a winner! Using http://www.random.org to select a number at random, out of the 28 entries received for the dairy-themed gift bag giveaway, the winner is #12 , Jessica M. Congratulations, Jessica!! I’m going to send you an email at the address provided with your comment to get the information necessary to send you out your prize!!

Moroccan-Spiced Lamb Meatballs in Minted Apricot Glaze

Today’s recipe is brought to you by school taxes and my freezer stash. School taxes were due this month. It’s a tax worth paying for the high quality education that my school district offers, which my children will most likely benefit from in the near future. But it’s like a punch in the gut every time that bill arrives.

With Christmas practically knocking at our door, I’ve been trying to reduce the impact of that big extra tax bill by cutting a few other things in this month’s budget…like groceries. This means that we’re mostly feeding off the freezer this month.

My husband’s intense love for lamb burgers means that our freezer is well stocked with ground lamb. Our grocery store irregularly stocks ground lamb, so when they have it, I buy it. And when I opened my freezer in search of cheap dinner, ground lamb it was! But I just wasn’t feeling like lamb burgers or even gyro salad, though my husband would have been eager for either. I was in the mood to experiment.

So, playing off of Moroccan inspired flavors, I came up with these delectable meatballs, which my husband talked about for three days afterward. Ground lamb gets combined with dried apricots, a touch of sweet honey, cinnamon, and cumin. Sliced almonds add an interesting texture to the otherwise tender meatball. Then, they’re tossed in a buttery apricot glaze with a touch of fresh mint. I served mine over couscous. They were good. Really good. We’ll be eating them again soon.

Focus on Technique – Tips for Tender Meatballs

Everyone loves a tender, flavorful meatball. Here are a few tips for crave-worthy meatballs:

  • Use ground meat with a bit of fat. If using beef, look for 80/20 ground chuck. The fat will add flavor and moisture. If using a leaner meat, like ground chicken, add some additional vegetables, such as chopped onion, celery, or peppers to add moisture.
  • Increase your egg to meat ratio. I tend to use two eggs per each pound of meat. Add enough bread crumbs as necessary to bind the mixture. About 1/4 cup of bread crumbs per egg usually does the trick.
  • Be careful not to overwork the mixture. Mix only enough to evenly disperse the ingredients. To reduce the need for over-mixing, combine all of your other ingredients before adding the meat.
  • Season, season, season – salt, pepper, garlic, cheese…give those meatballs some flavor!
  • Try adding a slice of soaked, then crumbled day-old bread to your meatballs. Though I have not personally tried this strategy, it’s a sworn by trick to others…so there’s got to be something to it!

What are your favorite meatball tips?

Moroccan-Spiced Lamb Meatballs in a Minted Apricot Glaze

Ingredients

  • 1 small or 1/2 medium onion, very finely diced
  • 10 dried apricots, finely diced
  • 1/4 cup thinly sliced almonds
  • 1 teaspoon honey
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/8 teaspoon cumin
  • 1/8 teaspoon black pepper
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1/2 cup bread crumbs
  • 1 pound ground lamb

For the glaze

  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1/4 cup apricot preserves
  • 3-4 fresh mint leaves

Directions

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

Combine the chopped onion, apricots, almonds, honey, salt, cinnamon, cumin, black 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 20-25 minutes, until cooked through.

For the glaze, combine butter, apricot preserves and mint leaves in a pan over medium heat. Stir until well combined and warmed, about 3 minutes. Toss the meatballs in the glaze before serving.

Makes about 24 small meatballs

October Pumpkin Round-Up

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It’s a chilly October morning here in Syracuse. And I’ve got pumpkin on my mind.

Our first pumpkin has been sitting on our front steps since our little ninja party last weekend. It has the face of a ninja painted on it. Ninja pumpkin will be joined by other pumpkins in the next few weeks and our kitchen will take on the sweet and fragrant aroma of some of our favorite pumpkin recipes…of that I am certain.

Focus on Technique –  Pumpkin Puree

Preparing fresh pumpkin is a manageable process, which can be done in a number of ways. Small ‘pie’ pumpkins tend to produce the sweetest pumpkin flavor. Many people prefer to remove the skin, chop the pumpkin into chunks, boil the pieces until tender, then puree. My preferred strategy is to simply cut the pumpkin open, remove the seeds, roast the pumpkins until tender, then scoop out the smooth pumpkin and puree. It involves less tedious chopping than with the boiling method and produces a better end result, in my opinion. You can see my complete step-by-step photo guide HERE .

If you’re not up for preparing your own puree, canned pumpkin provides a convenient alternative. Most canned pumpkin puree is prepared without additional salt, sweeteners, or preservatives, but check the cans just in case.

Check out this round-up of previously posted pumpkin recipes and keep an eye out for a few new pumpkin recipes, coming up soon!

Fresh Pumpkin Coconut Pie

Autumn Harvest Buns

Pumpkin Chocolate Chunk Bread

Pumpkin Gingersnap Parfaits

How to Roast Pumpkin Seeds

Roasted Pumpkin Caramel Bisque

Fried Pumpkin Wontons

Pumpkin Vanilla Custard

Fettucine with Pumpkin Alfredo Sauce  

Easy Vegetable Lo Mein and Pork Eggrolls

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Well, the ninja party was a grand success. We had a huge turnout of both children and adults, the weather was perfect, and laughter could be heard in every corner of the house and yard throughout the entire event…just as it should be! I love throwing parties of any kind, but I especially love throwing the boys parties, which are planned around a theme of their choice. This ninja theme sort of took on a life of its own and we all had a lot of fun with it.

We gave the party an Asian feel with a few Chinese New Year decorations I picked up online (shhhh…don’t tell anyone they weren’t authentic ninja decorations) and a whole bunch of red, black, and gold balloons. Little accents of tiny ninjas, dragons, and Asian fans were scattered about.

The boys dressed as ninjas and my gracious brother-in-law agreed to make a surprise appearance in full ninja attire. A bit of quick thinking at the radio had us listening to Kung Fu Fighting, as the ‘ninja’ evoked mixed feelings of terror and elation from the birthday boy and our young guests, while the adults giggled on the sidelines.

Good friends, good fun, and good food…

For our ninja themed party, I served a crowd-pleasing selection of Asian dishes. Though ninjas may be most closely associated with Japan, I planned the party buffet around a more familiar Chinese-takeout menu, which I was certain would be enjoyed by both the adults and children at our event. I made the sweet and sticky orange chicken, which I shared with you in a previous post, along with a mountain of homemade pork egg rolls (and a few veggie ones for our vegetarian guests) and a big batch of super simple vegetable lo mein. Grilled teriyaki beef skewers, sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds and jasmine rice completed the feast.

I’m sharing the ‘recipes’ for both the lo mein and egg rolls below, though I should note that the batch I made was quadruple of what I’m sharing below and in the flurry of party-prep, I didn’t take exact measurements or record times as I cooked. Use the recipes as a guide, but as always, taste as you go. It’ll be ‘right’ when it tastes good to you. And be creative with the ingredient lists. You can substitute any sort of veggies in the lo mein and add meat or seafood, if you desire.

Focus on Technique – How to Julienne

Julienne is a type of culinary knife cut, wherein the resulting pieces are long and thin, roughly the size and shape of a matchstick. A julienne cut is often used to make shoestring potatoes or can be used to cut a variety of veggies for sushi, soups, or garnish. A julienne cut appears most pleasing when the pieces are a uniform size, shape, and length.

To achieve a nice, even julienne, start by squaring your fruit or vegetable. To do this, cut off the rounded portion of one side. Lay the flat side down onto the cutting board, then slice off the rounded part of each side. Turn the fruit or vegetable to cut off the remaining rounded side. Then, thinly slice the fruit or vegetable, to about 1/8″ thickness. Finally, stack the slices and carefully cut into matchsticks, about 1/8″ wide.

*If you were to cut the matchsticks into teeny tiny 1/8″ cubes, you would have a cut known as brunoise, pronounced broon-wah.

Easy Vegetable Lo Mein

Ingredients

  • 1 pound spaghetti or lo mein noodles, cooked al dente according to package directions
  • 2 tablespoons sesame oil
  • 1 teaspoon garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon fresh ginger, grated
  • 1 cup mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 cup sugar snap peas
  • 1 cup carrots, julienned
  • 2 green onions, sliced
  • 1/4 cup soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon fish sauce or oyster sauce
  • Salt and pepper

Directions

Heat sesame oil in a large pan over medium heat. Add the garlic, ginger, and veggies. Cook for about 10 minutes, until tender, stirring frequently. Add the cooked spaghetti, soy sauce, and fish sauce. Toss to combine. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt, pepper and/or additional soy or fish sauce, as desired.

Garnish with additional sliced green onions, if desired.

For the Egg Rolls:

To prepare the filling: Heat about a tablespoon of sesame or vegetable oil in a large pan. Add about 1/4 pound bulk pork sausage. Cook for several minutes, using a spoon to break it into small pieces as it cooks. Add about 4 cups cups of cole slaw or Asian slaw mix (very thinly sliced cabbage, julienned carrots, celery). Cook for several minutes, stirring frequently until the cabbage is wilted and tender. Drizzle about 1-2 tablespoons soy sauce over the mixture. Season with salt and pepper, to taste.

To assemble the egg rolls: Arrange an egg roll wrap with one of the points facing you. (If desired, you can layer two egg roll wraps, for a chewier egg roll.) Place a mound of the filling, about 1/3 cup, in the center of the wrap. Grab the point closest to you and wrap it up and around the filling. Then, grab each of the side points and fold them in towards the center. (Brush the points with a bit of water to help them stick.) Brush the top point with a little water, then continue rolling up towards the top point.

To cook the egg rolls: Heat about 1/2″ vegetable oil over medium-high heat, to about 375 degrees. Place a few eggrolls in the hot oil. Cook for a couple minutes on each side, until hot, golden, and crispy. Drain on a paper towel.

Makes about 10 eggrolls

*Detailed pictures of the rolling process can be seen HERE.

Ninjago (ninja lego) treat bags

Creamy Chipotle Tomato Soup

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We have one of those Kinect sensors for the Xbox 360. We bought it on a whim a few months ago, in search of something fun and active to do as a family while we were all cooped up during the chilly winter months. We picked up a few games for the kids and ourselves and we played them often for about two weeks time. Then, our enthusiasm for our new toy waned and the games have gathered dust since.

Mostly, we use the Xbox 360 for watching movies and shows through Netflix. And my husband enjoys the convenience of the Kinect’s voice-command abilities. I, however, have been unable to get comfortable with shouting commands at the little sensor which sits perched on top of my tv. It just feels so We’re the Jetsons to me. Just can’t do it.

My husband, amused at my apprehension to talk to the machine, got a bit surly with it the other night. He started yelling at it, Xbox, make my dinner. Xbox, take a hike. Xbox, smell my feet. At each command, Xbox, upon hearing its name, would stop and try to process the request. Poor, confused Xbox was dutifully attempting to identify and obey each given command, while we sat by and giggled as it struggled.

Well…I’m pretty sure my husband broke the sensor with this little game. It hasn’t worked correctly ever since. It now requires most commands to be repeated multiple times or firmly shouted before it responds. It appears we’re dealing with a little case of boy-who-cried-wolf. The Xbox no longer believes we’re serious when we call it. Either that or it’s just angry and being difficult. It’s smart. It’s learning. And it freaks me out.

Thankfully, I am not reliant on the Xbox for doing my laundry or cooking my dinner.

We’re right about at that time of year when gardeners are proudly reaping the fruits of their labor in the form of baskets full of ripe, delicious tomatoes. I myself did not undertake trying to grow anything more than a few herbs and a beautiful flowering plant, which I promptly killed. I can grow some darn fine humans, but the ability to grow things in dirt eludes me. I buy my tomatoes at the grocery store and they have been garden-fresh, ripe, and delicious lately…the perfect tomatoes for fresh tomato soup. At any other time of the year, you might be wise to use canned tomatoes when making tomato soup, but now is the perfect time to use the season-peak ones you’re harvesting from your gardens or picking up in local farmer’s markets.

I give my tomato soup a spicy, smokey flavor with the addition of a chipotle pepper. A bit of heavy cream balances the spice and gives the soup a rich texture. The soup is garnished with a few homemade croutons and a couple dashes of chipotle tabasco sauce. On the side, I served a simple mixed green salad tossed in a ginger vinaigrette and grilled brie and gouda with bacon on French baguette. I’m fairly certain that the Xbox would have been incapable of coming up with something so perfectly simple and delicious as this…but don’t tell the Xbox I said that.

Creamy Chipotle Tomato Soup

Ingredients

  • 3 pounds ripe tomatoes, peeled and deseeded, coarse chopped*
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 small red onion, chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, smashed
  • 1/2 cup vegetable stock
  • 1 chipotle pepper (from a can of chipotles in adobo)
  • 3 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • Cayenne pepper, to taste
  • Chipotle Tabasco Sauce, optional (for garnish)

*Click HERE to see my photo guide on how to peel and deseed tomatoes.

Directions

Heat the olive oil in a large pan over medium heat. Add the onion. Cook for 7-10 minutes, stirring frequently, until tender and translucent. Add the garlic and cook for another minute or two. Add the tomatoes, vegetable stock, chipotle pepper, and tomato paste. Simmer over medium/medium-low heat for about 25 minutes, stirring frequently. The tomatoes should almost completely break down during the cooking time. Allow the mixture to cool slightly, then transfer to a food processor or blender. Blend until smooth, then return to the pan. Add the cream. Season with salt, to taste (about 1/2 teaspoon should do the trick). Add cayenne pepper, to taste, if additional spiciness is desired. Warm gently over medium-low heat.

Garnish with a few dashes of chipotle tabasco and homemade croutons.

Makes 2 generous servings

* For the homemade croutons, simply toss a few chunks of French bread in a bit of olive oil, season with cajun seasoning or any other seasoning, then bake in a 375 degree oven until toasted, about 10 minutes or so.

Barbecue Bacon Mango Pizza

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The sun is barely risen. I’m lying in bed and I can feel sweet warm breath rhythmically hitting my face. I slowly open my eyes and find myself nose to nose with Lucas, my three-year-old, who climbs into bed with me each morning. I put my arms around him, then close my eyes and pretend to be asleep. He plays with one of my earrings, trying to remove the small silver leaf from my ear. After a moment, he abandons the earring and begins running his tiny fingers over my eyebrows. Behind me, I can feel my five-year-old, Liam, trying to braid my excessively long hair. Lucas becomes bored with my eyebrows and begins trying to forcefully push my eyelids open. I roll over to face my Liam. Liam pushes his nose closer to mine and whispers, I love you, Mommy. I kiss his nose. The baby begins to peep through the monitor, wordlessly begging to join the family snuggle time. My husband rolls out of bed to grab the baby. Once in our bedroom, our sweet baby James crawls over his brothers to get on top of me. He puts his wide open mouth onto my cheek. I think it’s a kiss. A very sloppy kiss. Then he tries to jam his finger into my mouth to touch my teeth. I rouse myself then, to bring the boys downstairs for breakfast before my little amateur dentist gets too aggressive.

I’ve come to realize that I belong to my children as much as they belong to me. We belong to each other. It’s a thoroughly symbiotic relationship.

More than anything, I want my family to feel loved in the same way they so generously give their love to me. And one of the ways that I show my love is through fresh and delicious food, carefully crafted into delicious meals we can enjoy as a family, like this barbecue bacon mango pizza. This pizza is inspired by one of the recipes provided by The National Mango Board in a booklet they sent along with a shipment of beautiful ripe mangos. It instantly reminded me of a sweet and savory Hawaiian pizza, only substituting the ham for bacon and the pineapple for mango. Genius. Only I took that idea a little further by coming up with a homemade mango barbecue sauce, rather than slathering on something store-bought.

Though unplanned, the preparation of this pizza became a family affair. Small noses came running at the scent of bacon. Small hands stole said bacon. Small mouths gobbled up an entire mango before I had a moment to protest. We dubbed the afternoon Mangofest. There were tears when the last of the mango had been devoured, but smiles returned once this pizza was presented. Definitely a family pleaser! Best yet, the recipe for the barbecue sauce will make more than you need for the pizza…perfect for grilled mango barbecue chicken breasts the next day!!

Barbecue Bacon Mango Pizza

Ingredients

For the mango barbecue sauce

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/2 small red onion, chopped
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons garlic, minced
  • 1 (15-ounce) can tomato sauce
  • 1 1/2 cups fresh mango puree (2 medium mangos should do the trick)
  • 4 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon worcestershire sauce
  • 1 teaspoon dry mustard
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper (plus more, if desired)
  • Salt (optional), as desired

For the pizza

  • 1 12″ pizza crust
  • 1/2 red onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 mango, chopped*
  • 6-8 slices bacon, cooked and chopped
  • 3/4 cup mozzarella cheese, shredded
  • Fresh parsley, chopped

* Click HERE to see my photo guide on how to chop a mango.

Directions

To prepare the mango barbecue sauce: Heat the olive oil in a large pan over medium/medium-low heat. Add the onion and cook for 5-7 minutes until tender and translucent. Add the garlic and cook for another minute or two. Add all other barbecue sauce ingredients and stir to combine. Bring to a very gentle simmer, then reduce the heat to low and simmer for about 25 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent burning. Allow the sauce to cool, then use a food processor or blender to puree until smooth. Taste the sauce and adjust seasoning as desired. Refrigerate until using.*

To prepare the pizza: Heat the oil in a small pan over medium/medium-low heat. Add the onion. Cook for about 15 minutes, stirring frequently to prevent burning, until the onions are tender, sweet, and lightly golden. Spread a thin layer of the sauce (approximately 1/2 cup) over the pizza crust. Scatter most of the bacon, mango, and onions over the sauce. Top with the shredded cheese. Scatter the remaining bacon, mango, onions, and parsley on top. Bake in a 400 degrees oven for about 12-15 minutes, until hot and melty.

*The barbecue sauce recipe will produce more sauce than is necessary for the pizza. You can use the sauce as you might use any barbecue sauce on grilled chicken, ribs, shrimp… It would also freeze nicely for later use.

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