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Tropical Chia Green Smoothies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tropical Chia Green Smoothie

Ingredients*

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

*All ingredient measurements are approximate.

Directions

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

Makes 2 generous smoothies

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Cherry Cordial Brownie Bites

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

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Just look at that face!

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

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

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

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

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

Today’s Focus on Technique – Using a Double Boiler

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

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

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Cherry Cordial Brownie Bites

Ingredients

For the brownies:

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

For the brownie bites:

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

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

Directions

To prepare the brownies:

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

To prepare the brownie bites:

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

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

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

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

Makes 2.5 – 3 dozen candies

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Loaded Nacho Chicken

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Today’s Focus on Technique – Basic Breading Procedure

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

Loaded Nacho Chicken

Ingredients

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

Directions

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

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

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

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

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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Bacon-Mushroom Stuffed Chicken Breasts

One evening, when my sisters and I were young, my parents left us eating our dinner at the kitchen table. My father was in the swimming pool, cleaning it from the inside with one of those large nets for fishing out fallen leaves. My mother was standing outside the pool, chatting with him as he worked. And we, my two younger sisters and I, were calmly enjoying our dinner. Calmly, that is, until our youngest sister dug her fingers into either side of the stick of butter which sat on the table, grabbing handfuls of butter in each hand, which she then proceeded to eat. Straight up mouthfuls of cold butter.

My sister and I were appalled…the fingers in the communal food…the ingesting of pure milk fat. We were certain that our parents would want to be informed of this major dining transgression. If they’d taken away my sister’s knife privileges after she’d licked a butter knife, they would almost certainly take butter away from our youngest sis. Right?? And like many young siblings, we smugly delighted in the prospect of the other’s consequences for poor choices.

So, my sister and I go running outside, shouting, “Mommy, mommy, mommy,” who was in the middle of a conversation with our father and promptly shooed us away. “But, Mommy…” we persisted, confident in the righteousness of our interruption. She again directed us back to our dinners. So we just shouted it, “She’s dug her fingers into the butter.” We enthusiastically demonstrated, with an Oscar worthy tattle-telling performance. “And she’s eating it.”

Our mother ended her conversation mid-sentence and quickly moved into the kitchen to deal with our sister and her butter-slathered fingers. I can’t remember if she lost her butter privileges or not. What I do remember is our mother’s immediate shift from being inconvenienced by our interruption to urgently dealing with the incident at hand. We’d proven our cause to be worthy of interrupting.

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I had a parenting butter incident of my very own a few days ago. I had been trying to prepare dinner and the boys were in rare form; wildly running around the kitchen, stealing components of their dinner from their plates before I’d finished, and engaging in all manners of daredevil mischief which further diminished the odds that I’d ever complete dinner. I shooed them all into the living room. “Go watch tv. Leave me alone for a minute so I can get dinner on the table.”

Liam and Lucas reluctantly complied. James stuck around in the kitchen going about his normal business of pushing chairs around to access countertop supplies and opening the fridge in search of his beloved apple slices. I could see him out of the corner of my eye, standing in the light of the open fridge doors, chanting “Apple, apple, apple, apple…” I went about the dinner preparations, with my back turned to him. He became quiet and I’d assumed he’d temporarily given up his quest for precious apples.

And then Lucas comes into the kitchen, whining “Mommy, mommy, mommy…” I shooed him away in the same manner my mother had shooed me away at the pool. “But, Mommy…” he continued. I was becoming annoyed. I sent him away. He persisted, “But Gooba (our pet name for the baby) is eating bacon.”

I spun around, with the same swift shift of my mother at the pool. And sure enough, the baby was standing there with two handfuls of cooked bacon, which had been sitting on a plate in the fridge, happily snacking on his discovered fridge treasure.

I let him eat the bacon. It’s bacon, after all, and I’m not some kind of monster who steals bacon from babies. He was a smart baby to recognize the value of his find.

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Providing your baby doesn’t steal your bacon before you get a chance to use it, you should make this spectacular bacon-mushroom stuffed chicken. This recipe is fully inspired by a friend, who chopped up and stuffed some leftover bacon-stuffed mushrooms I’d made for her holiday party, into a few chicken breasts for an easy day-after-party dinner. Genius use of leftover stuffed mushrooms. Taking that lead, I modified my recipe for Bacon-Stuffed Mushrooms to be intentionally used as a filling for chicken and paired it all with a creamy sour cream and mushroom gravy for a simple and satisfying dinner.

Today’s Focus on Technique – Stuffed Meat Safety

When cooking stuffed meats, it is important to ensure that both the meat and the stuffing are cooked to a safe temperature. This is one of the major challenges with cooking larger stuffed items, like a whole turkey, where it will take much longer for the center stuffing to reach a safe temperature, while the surrounding turkey overcooks. In smaller cuts, like a stuffed chicken breast, it’s easier to bring both components to a safe temperature without overcooking the meat. To check for a safe temperature, it is important to test the temperature of both the meat and the stuffing. Do this by inserting an instant-read meat thermometer into both components of the dish. Poultry is safely cooked at 165 degrees.

Bacon-Mushroom Stuffed Chicken Breasts

Ingredients

  • 8 ounces mushrooms (about 10-12 medium-sized mushrooms)
  • 1/4 cup sour cream
  • 1/8 cup onion, finely diced
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic, minced
  • 1/8 cup bread crumbs
  • 4 slices bacon, cooked and crumbled
  • 1/8 cup parmesan cheese
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 3-4 large boneless, skinless chicken breasts
  • Paprika

For the Sour Cream-Mushroom Sauce

  • 2 1/2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons flour
  • 1 cup chicken broth
  • 1/4 cup sour cream
  • Salt and pepper

Directions

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Using a damp paper towel, wipe the mushrooms clean. Remove the stems from the mushroom caps. Finely dice the mushroom stems and about half of the mushroom caps. Slice the remaining mushroom caps and set aside.

In a bowl, combined the diced mushrooms, sour cream, onion, garlic, bread crumbs, bacon, and parmesan cheese. Taste the mixture, then season with salt and pepper, as desired. The stuffing should be fairly thick.

Slice the chicken breasts almost all the way through to create a wide pocket. Generously fill each pocket with some of the stuffing mixture. Spray a baking sheet with non-stick spray, then place the stuffed chicken breasts on the sheet. Sprinkle each chicken breast with a pinch of paprika, salt, and pepper. Bake for approximately 30 minutes. Check for doneness with an instant-read meat thermometer. Test both the chicken and the stuffing. Both components are safely cooked at 165°F.

While the chicken is cooking, prepare the sauce. Melt the butter in a small pan over medium heat. Add the reserved sliced mushroom caps. Cook for 5-7 minutes until tender and slightly golden. Sprinkle the flour over the mushrooms. Stir to even coat the mushrooms. Cook for about a minute, then gradually whisk in the chicken broth until well combined. Bring the mixture to a simmer. Simmer for a couple minutes until it has thickened to the consistency of a gravy. Stir in the sour cream. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper, as desired.

Pour some of the sauce over each chicken breast before serving.

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Bacon Thief

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!

Thanksgiving Takes Two, Three, and Four

Happy Thanksgiving, friends!

I’ve got a bird to throw in the oven and a parade to watch. Just wanted to pop in to share these previously posted ideas for your Thanksgiving leftovers.

I’ll be starting my holiday cookie baking soon with a few new recipes to share (including a chewy chocolate orange cookie, laced with grand marnier and bits of candied orange peel), but I’ll also be posting a few of my old favorite cookie recipes over on The Gourmand Mom facebook page during the next few weeks. If you don’t already follow The Gourmand Mom on facebook, click on over using the link on the right side of the page. See you there!

Bursting with thankfulness,

~Amy

Thanksgiving Leftover Variation #1 – Turkey Soup

Don’t let that turkey carcass go to waste! There’s so much flavor waiting to be extracted from those bones. Get the broth started right after dinner. Simply throw the whole turkey carcass into a large pot, cover with water, and simmer (partly covered) for 3-4 hours. Don’t worry if there’s still some meat or turkey skin hanging on the turkey! Just throw the whole thing in the pot and let it start working while you sit down to enjoy some pumpkin pie. Once it’s simmered, strain the broth and refrigerate overnight. The next day, you can finish making the soup. Click here for my step-by-step guide to making a basic chicken soup. You can follow the same process for turkey soup.

Thanksgiving Leftover Variation #2 – Open-faced Thanksgiving Sandwich

In my opinion, this is the best way to use leftovers on the day after Thanksgiving, when you’ve still got a bit of everything in the fridge. Simply reheat some leftover turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes. Spread some cranberry sauce on a lightly toasted slice of thick, doughy bread. Then, top the cranberry sauce with the hot turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes. Drizzle hot gravy over the entire thing and enjoy. This is a knife and fork kind of sandwich; simple, hearty, and satisfying.

Click here for more details on making an open-faced turkey sandwich any time of year.

Thanksgiving Leftover Variation #3 – Roast Turkey, Brie, and Homemade Apple Butter Melts

This is my new personal favorite. Such a perfect combination of flavors. I happen to love apple butter; always have and probably always will. You can find it in most grocery stores, usually near the  jams and jellies. Look for one which doesn’t contain a lot of unnecessary added sugar or corn syrup. Apple butter really doesn’t need anything other than apples and a bit of apple cider or apple juice. Apple butter is a cinch to make at home. So, if you can’t find any at your store, follow my simple recipe to make your own. And, if apple butter just isn’t your thing, substitute some leftover cranberry sauce on these sandwiches. It will pair beautifully with the brie.

For the sandwiches, thinly slice brie and spread it onto a sturdy piece of bread. I prefer to use ciabatta or pain de campagne, but any doughy, crusty bread should work. Spread apple butter (or cranberry sauce) onto another piece of bread. Place a few slices of roasted turkey breast between the bread slices. Loosely wrap the sandwich in foil and bake for about 20-25 minutes in a 350 degrees oven, until the cheese has melted, the bread feels slightly toasted, and the turkey is warm.

Homemade Apple Butter

Ingredients

  • 5-6 apples, peeled, cores removed, and coarse chopped
  • 1 1/2 cups apple cider
  • Cinnamon stick (optional)

Directions

Preheat oven to 250 degrees. Simmer the apple pieces in the apple cider for about 20 minutes. If desired, add a cinnamon stick to simmer with the mixture. Then, puree the apples until smooth. Pour the puree into an oven-safe covered pan and place in the oven for about 5 hours. The apple butter will darken to a rich brown as it cooks.

Thanksgiving Leftover Variation #4 – Turkey Salad Sandwiches

Turkey salad is a simple and delicious way to breathe new life into the remainder of your turkey leftovers. I love it on a lightly toasted bagel with a slice of swiss cheese. To make a basic turkey salad, simply chop or tear your leftover turkey into small pieces. Add some finely diced onion and celery. Combine with just enough mayonnaise and mustard to bind the salad. Season with salt and pepper, as desired. Stir in some dried cranberries for an extra tasty touch!

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