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Thanksgiving Inspiration

I learned something interesting about myself this week – I do not like corn bread stuffing. I love corn, corn muffins, corn bread, and corn fritters. I eat a ridiculous amount of corn when it’s in season. I even once made a sweet corn ice cream. But I do not like corn bread stuffing.

I guess it comes down to what you’re raised with – sort of how some families are the Crest kind of people and some families are the Colgate kind. Some families are loyal to Miracle Whip, while others will only use mayonnaise. Some families have corn bread stuffing at Thanksgiving and some families have white bread stuffing. Our family was always a Crest, mayonnaise, and white bread stuffing sort of family.

The four things I am most thankful for.

I didn’t realize how ingrained this inclination towards white bread stuffing was until I set about preparing a corn bread stuffing earlier this week. It should’ve been delicious, with crispy bits of bacon, tender dates, shallots, and celery. It was supposed to be a new recipe to feature in this post about Thanksgiving ideas. But I didn’t like it. I can’t even tell you if it was good or not, as far as corn bread stuffings go. I am just a white bread stuffing girl through and through and I couldn’t wrap my taste buds or my heart around that corn bread stuffing. I’m not sharing the recipe.

But I am going to share this round-up of wonderful, tried and true Thanksgiving ideas, in plenty of time to add them to your Thanksgiving menu…

Give thanks for good food, friends.

APPETIZERS

Cranberry Chipotle Meatballs

Corn and Bacon Fritters with Smoked Salmon

Bacon-Wrapped Dates stuffed with Bleu Cheese

THE MAIN EVENT

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

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

Spiced Sweet Potato Puree with Pecan Streusel

Sausage, Apple, and Leek Stuffing

Cranberry-Orange Sauce

Green Beans Almondine

Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Bacon and Walnuts

Hot Doughy Buns

DESSERTS

Chocolate Pecan Pie

Pumpkin Coconut Pie

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

Caramel Apple Cake

Turkey-Shaped Sugar Cookies

Caramel Apple Tartlets

Spiced Mango Upside Down Cake

Cannoli Cheesecake

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!!

Candy Corn Krispie Pops

I had the coolest adventure this past weekend, at an event hosted by the American Dairy Association and Dairy Council in upstate NY. I pet a baby cow. I drank wine. I ate cheese. Mmmmcheese. I’m in the process of organizing my thoughts so I can tell you all about it. I’ll even be hosting my first ever giveaway in conjunction with this dairy adventure!! I’m really pretty excited about it all!

In the mean time, I wanted to share this straightforward and adorable idea for a fun Halloween treat. These candy corn krispie pops almost never happened, as a series of wild events ensued in their making, beginning with the microwave dramatically giving up the ghost in a plume of stinky gray smoke as I was trying to melt the candy for coating these pops. That was just the beginning. I won’t go into the rest.

Suffice it to say, my life set a series of obstacles between starting and finishing these sweet pops. My end result lacks a bit of the finesse they may have had if I weren’t simultaneously jumping hurdles as I made them. But they’re too darn cute not to share. Yours will look nicer than mine!

Line a small baking sheet or baking dish with wax paper or parchment paper. Prepare rice krispie treats by melting 3 tablespoons butter and 4 cups of mini marshmallows in a large pan over low heat, stirring until melted. Turn off the heat, then stir in 6 cups of rice krispies cereal. Press the mixture into the baking dish in an even layer.

Once cool, cut the rice krispie treats into triangles. You can make them any size you wish, but smaller is easier to dip.

Try not to eat them all…yet.

Insert lollipop sticks into the bottom of the triangles. Cool in the refrigerator for at least an hour or two.

Melt about 3 cups of yellow candy melts in a double boiler or in the microwave until smooth. Dip the entire pops in the yellow candy melts. Cool until hardened. Then, melt about 2 cups of orange candy melts and dip the top 2/3 of the pops. Cool until hardened. Then, dip the final 1/3 in white candy melts.

A piece of styrofoam is handy for arranging the pops in an upright position as the candy hardens.

Finished pops can be stored at room temperature for a couple of days or in the refrigerator for several days. Take them out of the fridge a few minutes before serving so they soften up a bit.

A Few Other Spooky Treat Ideas for Halloween…

Spooky Eyeball Cake Pops

Chocolate Covered Spiders

Bloody Molten Lava Cakes

Wormy Apple Pops

Caramel Apple Tartlets

I had a little mommy meltdown yesterday. It was very unpretty…crying, rocking, gasping for the air which seemed to be sucked from the room. And over what? I don’t even know. Nothing even worth writing about. Stupid, every day, normal stuff…just too much of it. Fighting with an uncooperative vacuum while trying to banish the tumbleweeds of dog hair from our living room was the little thing that sent me over the edge. So silly. And yet in the moment it felt like the world was caving in on me. To an objective observer, I probably looked pretty ridiculous, throwing myself down onto the ground and mumbling under my breath as I cried, while my inner voice tried to coach myself to pull it together and act like a grown-up. But for me the feeling was crushing. Sometimes day-to-day life is just overwhelming.

Sadly, the kids witnessed my little meltdown, and I can only imagine how scary and unsettling that must have been for them. In the moment, rational mommy (as compared to crazy lump of tears mommy) told them I loved them and explained that I was just stressed and needed to cool down for a minute. Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to get that minute of serenity in a house with three young boys. Eventually, I stopped fighting with the vacuum, collapsed against one of the toy boxes and closed my eyes for a second.

And then the most beautiful thing happened. I opened my eyes and my precious 17 month old was sitting in front of me, completely silent. He sat facing me, knees bent, feet together, so that his entire little body was nestled within my own bent legs. And he just smiled. Silently, calmly smiled. I kissed his forehead. He smiled and leaned forward to rest his head against my chest. He stayed like that for what felt like a perfect eternity. I inhaled his sweet baby hair as I felt my heart rate slowly returning to normal. Eventually he turned around so that he was leaning against me, holding my hand as it rested on his little belly. And he stayed like that until his daddy arrived home from work. He greeted his daddy, then returned to sit by my broken side, smushed up against me with a perfect grin on his face. He was like a tiny, precious bomb defuser.

Such perfect, simple love…and trust. He saw me torn apart and irrational. If it were me, I would have run from that crazy woman. But he came straight to me. As close as he could get to me. Confident that his presence would fix me. How in the world did I get so lucky??

These drool-worthy caramel apple tartlets are bursting with flavors as uncomplicated and confident as my sweet little man’s love. We baked them using fresh-picked apples from our favorite local orchard. Though the apple crops up here were hit hard by an early spring bloom followed by a bloom-killing frost, the kids got every bit of fun out of filling buckets of unusually small apples. I made these tartlets using store-bought puff pastry and caramel sauce for time-saving convenience. The end result is still dripping in homemade yumminess.

Focus on Technique – Puff Pastry

Puff pastry is a rich and flakey pastry made by repeatedly folding and rolling generous quantities of butter into the dough, resulting in puffy, delicate layers when baked. It’s a manageable and fun thing to make at home (and will totally wow your guests), but takes a few hours of repeatedly rolling and chilling to be made properly. When ease is the name of the game, store-bought puff pastry provides great results with great convenience. It can be used to make decadent savory appetizers, like warm pastry-wrapped brie or sweet treats like these caramel apple tartlets. Check your grocery store’s frozen section, near the frozen pie shells for boxes of puff pastry sheets. Always defrost the sheets according the package directions and lightly sprinkle your clean work surface with flour before rolling.

Easy Caramel Apple Tartlets

Ingredients

  • 1 sheet puff pastry, defrosted
  • 2 large apples (or 4 teeny-tiny ones), very thinly sliced
  • 4-5 tablespoons caramel sauce, store-bought or homemade
  • 1 egg white
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Directions

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Spray a baking sheet with nonstick cooking spray. Lightly sprinkle a clean work surface with a bit of flour to prevent sticking, then roll the sheet of puff pastry into a square, about 12″ wide. Cut the square into four 6″ squares. Place the squares on the prepared baking sheet. Spread about 1 tablespoon of caramel sauce into the center of each pastry. Arrange a layer of thinly sliced apples on top of the caramel. Then, pull each of the four corners over the apples, slightly twisting each point so that the corners meet in a sort of pinwheel design revealing four pockets of the caramel and apples. Gently press the points together with your fingers to hold them together. Brush each pastry with some of the egg white. Combine the sugar and cinnamon and sprinkle over each pastry. Bake for about 20 minutes, until puffed and golden.

Enjoy hot out of the oven or at room temperature.

Makes 4 Individual Tartlets

Pumpkin Pie Frozen Custard

Our weather is forecast to hit 69 degrees tomorrow. It will probably be the last ‘warm’ day for a long while, as winter is already breathing its frosty breath down our necks. In the meantime we’ll appreciate whatever remaining moderate weather we have left. It won’t be long before we’re slicing cinnamon-spiced pumpkin pies at our Thanksgiving tables. But right now I’m still desperately trying to hold onto whatever remains of the warm season before we plunge into the winter abyss.

So, I thought, why not marry the autumny flavors of  pumpkin pie with my favorite warm weather treat…ice cream?? What more perfect way could there be to acknowledge what may well be the last day we can go without our winter coats, than with a rich and creamy pumpkin pie frozen custard, flavored with vanilla, ginger, nutmeg, and a generous dose of cinnamon. Your ice cream maker will thank you for giving it one last whirl before it’s tucked away for the season.

Frozen custard differs from ice cream in that it contains egg yolks. The egg yolks add an extra creaminess to the frozen treat. The following recipe would also work well without the eggs, so if you or a loved one have an egg allergy, just omit them and call it ice cream. The half-and-half will contribute a good amount of creaminess, but you can substitute light cream or heavy cream for an even richer result.

Focus on Technique – Tempering Eggs

Tempering eggs is a process by which egg yolks are gradually brought up to a higher temperature, by very slowing incorporating hot liquid. This is done to prevent the eggs from scrambling when they are incorporated into hot liquid…cause who wants to eat custard with the texture of scrambled eggs, right??? Tempering the egg yolks helps them to maintain a smooth, silky consistency. Egg yolks may be tempered for use in custards, puddings, sauces, or souffles.

To temper egg yolks, start by lightly beating the eggs with a fork. Then, take some of your hot liquid and very gradually, starting with just a few drips at a time, incorporate some of the hot liquid into the eggs, whisking constantly. After the first few drips, you can increase to a slow stream. Continue incorporating the hot liquid until the egg mixture is about the same temperature as the mixture you will be adding it to. Then, you can safely add the egg mixture to the remaining hot liquid and bring to a gentle simmer for a couple minutes to ensure the yolks are cooked.

Pumpkin Pie Frozen Custard

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2  cups half and half
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1 cup pumpkin puree (canned or fresh)
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1/8 teaspoon ginger
  • Pinch of salt
  • 2 egg yolks, lightly beaten

Directions

Combine the milk, pumpkin puree, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, salt, nutmeg, and ginger in a saucepan. Bring the mixture to a simmer over medium heat, whisking frequently. Once the mixture begins to simmer, reduce the heat. In a separate bowl, lightly beat the egg yolks. Gradually whisk about 3/4 cup of the hot mixture into the egg yolks, starting with a very slow drizzle. Gradually whisk the tempered egg mixture into the remaining mixture in the pot. Bring to a very gentle boil over medium heat, whisking constantly for 2-3 minutes. Allow the mixture to cool for several minutes at room temperature, then refrigerate until completely chilled. Pour the mixture into your ice cream maker and freeze according to your maker’s instructions.

Rice Krispie Treat ‘Sushi’

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I’m just about ready to put this chat about ninja parties to bed. (I’ve got a recipe for some really delicious and very un-ninjalike Moroccan lamb meatballs in a minted apricot glaze coming up soon.) But before we bid farewell to ninjas, I wanted to share a quick photo guide for making the rice krispie treat ‘sushi’ which we served as part of our dessert spread. It’s super easy and insanely cute. The hardest part was peeling those darn fruit roll-ups off the wrapper.

You can find lots of variations of this sort of thing all over the web. Here’s how I did it…

You’ll need:

  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 4 cups mini marshmallows
  • 6 cups rice krispies cereal
  • A baking sheet
  • Wax paper
  • Non-stick cooking spray
  • A few long, soft candies (like twizzlers, gummi worms, or sour straws)
  • Fruit roll-ups (green would be most realistic looking, but might be difficult to find)
  • Swedish fish candies

Step 1: Melt the butter in a large pan over low heat. Add the marshmallows. Stir until melted. Remove from heat, then stir in the rice krispies.

Step 2: Arrange a piece of wax paper on a baking sheet. Spray the wax paper with non-stick cooking spray. Transfer the rice krispie treat mixture to the baking sheet. Spray your hands with the cooking spray, then press the rice krispies into a thin (less than 1/2″) even layer.

Step 3: Arrange a few fruit roll-ups (the ‘nori’) on top of the rice krispie treats.

Step 4: Place a couple of the long candies on top of the fruit roll-ups. I used sour straws. Multi-colored Twizzlers or gummi worms would also work well.

Step 5: Lift up the edge of the wax paper and begin to roll the rice krispie treats around the fruit roll-ups and candy. Use the wax paper to help squeeze and tighten the roll.

Step 6: Once you’ve achieved a small ‘California Roll’ size, use a knife to cut the roll from the remaining rice krispie treats. Slice into pieces. Roll in colored sugar ‘roe’, if desired.

Repeat to make additional ‘California rolls’. Alternately, you can roll the candy within the rice krispie treats, but reserve the fruit roll-ups to wrap around the outside of the roll prior to slicing in pieces.

To make ‘nigiri sushi’: Using your hands, mold portions of the rice krispie treats into small oblong clumps. Place a swedish fish on top. Use thin strips of fruit roll-ups to wrap around the rice and fish.

Serve with a bowl of chocolate syrup ‘soy 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

Orange Chicken

You know that feeling you’re left with after a major spring cleaning of your house…purging the junk, wiping away the dust, polishing the knick knacks…that refreshed feeling of comfort in your space, when everything is organized, neat, and tidy?

Well, after taking the past few weeks to put a fresh polish on some things around this site, that’s just about how I’m feeling. And it feels good…

  • The Recipe Collection is up to date and organized in a way which I hope will make browsing the vast selection of recipes on this site a bit more user friendly.
  • The Gallery page now includes a much more comprehensive collection of photos, which are bigger and arranged in a more appealing manner. Best yet, clicking any photo will bring you directly to that recipe. Hovering your cursor over any picture will provide a brief description of the featured recipe.
  • A few new step by step guides have been added to the How-To Photo Guides page.

I’ve still got a bit more housekeeping to do around here, but I really hope you enjoy browsing around those pages!

It’s been a productive few weeks. But the best thing about stepping away from new posts for a bit is that it gave me a little time to reflect on where I am and where I’m going with this little blog. I started this blog two and a half years ago as what felt like a natural extension of what I was already flooding my social networks with…ramblings about cooking and eating. Very quickly, I discovered that it gave me a great feeling of satisfaction to produce a blog post…a delicious dish, a few photos, a written recipe…that tangible ‘job completed’ feeling that’s rare in my life as a stay-at-home mom. The very act of clicking Publish was rewarding to me. Even more rewarding was finding that people were actually interested in what I’d published. And that sure felt good!

Rice Krispie Treat ‘Sushi’ for our ninja-themed party

What started as a sort of personal food journal, took on a life of its own, with readers and subscribers and a facebook page and a twitter account (which I don’t really know how to use). But at the end of the day, this is just my little space about food, with no aspirations of being anything other than what it is. It’s not a baking blog or a gluten-free blog or a South Beach blog, though it contains recipes that fall into each of those categories. It’s not a gourmet blog or even a family-friendly blog, though there are plentiful recipes in each of those categories as well. Admittedly, the collection of recipes on this site is a bit scattered.

But you know what? So am I. So is my family. And this blog is a snapshot of our lives… One day I’m intent on losing the weight that’s been nagging at me since having our third son. The next day I’ve craving chocolate-covered bacon-wrapped twinkies. One day I’m cooking hot dog casseroles with my kids. The next I’m serving slow-braised short ribs in a cabernet reduction sauce at an elegant dinner party with dear friends. (I wear sweatpants regardless of the occasion.) My kids are usually clamoring around my feet when I cook and with three boys ages five and under, it’s almost inevitable that one of them will throw a tantrum, fall off a chair, or start coloring the grout between the bricks on my fireplace just as I’m engaged in some crucial time-sensitive step in a recipe. My photos are rapidly staged and shot close because my table is usually too messy to shoot wider. There’s often a baby climbing my legs while I’m frantically snapping the photos.

It’s chaotic. It’s imperfect. It’s my life. And I’m guessing it’s probably some of your lives too.

The Birthday Boy!

And that’s not about to change anytime soon, but there is something new I’d like to bring to this blog… The most wonderful thing about the culinary program I completed many years ago is that it left me with so much more than a collection of tasty recipes. It armed me with an understanding of techniques, which I can now apply towards everything I do in the kitchen…the tools and the confidence that enable me to walk into the kitchen and cook without recipes or to read another’s recipe and quickly understand what I can substitute or alter to fit my family’s tastes. That’s the thing I hope to share with all of you. I want to take my posts here one step further than just some story about my chaotic life and an awesome recipe for braised short ribs or pumpkin parfaits or cheddar bacon biscuits. I want each post to leave you with understanding of why the recipe works and how you can take that idea and make it part of your culinary toolbox. So, from here on out, that’s what I intend to do. Everything else will remain the same, but with each new post, I’m going to pull out one or two techniques or tips which are demonstrated in the recipe and be just a bit more explicit about the how or why.

Ninjago (Ninja Lego) Cake

Ok then, enough chatting about this blog. Time to get back to actually blogging on this blog… We’re throwing our middle guy, Lucas, a grand ninja battle…errr, I mean party, this weekend in celebration of his fourth birthday. It’s gonna be a ninjatastic event with an Asian-themed menu, surprise costumed ninjas, and rice krispie treat ‘sushi’ for dessert. I will share more details, photos, and recipes after the party, but for the moment, I want to share one of the recipes I’ll be preparing for this weekend’s festivities.

Orange chicken…I just adore the sticky sweet and slightly spicy sauce coating chunks of crispy chicken. As I planned the menu for this little ninja party, it seemed like the perfect fit for a big group of adults and young children. It’s a dish I’ve eaten often and made never. So, I did a bit of searching for a starting point. The big surprise for me was that some of the recipes contained not a bit of orange. No juice, no extract, no peel. Many recipes were more sugar than anything else. And though those recipes may be successful at reproducing the familiar orange chicken flavor from your favorite Chinese takeout restaurant, I just can’t come to grips with an orange chicken recipe made without orange. So, I played around a bit and came up with the recipe which follows. It’s pleasingly sweet, just a bit spicy, and packed with a good dose of authentic orange flavor. Prior to frying, the chicken is marinated in a soy-ginger-orange marinade, then dipped in egg, and coated with cornstarch. A simple sauce, made with orange juice and fresh zest is accented with Asian flavors then thickened to the consistency of a glaze with a bit of cornstarch. Definitely a crowd-pleaser!

Focus on Technique – Thickening with Cornstarch

Cornstarch is an effective (and gluten-free) thickener which can be used in a variety of recipes, including sauces, gravy, pudding, and fruit pie filling. It adds no flavor of its own and produces a clear, glazy result, as compared to the cloudy effect of a butter/flour roux. In general, about 1 tablespoon of cornstarch can be used to thicken 1 cup of liquid. To effectively blend the cornstarch into the liquid to be thickened, you should start by making a slurry, which is simply a mixture of the cornstarch with a bit of cold liquid (usually water). This step prevents the cornstarch from clumping when added to the hot liquid. Add the slurry to the liquid you wish to thicken, then bring to a simmer for a minute or two until the liquid thickens.

Orange Chicken

Ingredients

For the Chicken

1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1″ chunks

  • 1/4 cup soy sauce
  • 1/4 cup orange juice
  • 1 teaspoon fresh ginger, grated
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 3/4 cup cornstarch
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • Vegetable oil, for frying

For the Sauce

  • 2/3 cup brown sugar
  • 3/4 cup water
  • 1/2 cup orange juice
  • Zest from 1 orange (about 1 tablespoon)
  • 2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons sambal oelek (crushed chile paste)*
  • 2 teaspoons soy sauce
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 2 tablespoons cold water
  • 2 green onions, sliced

*You can substitute crushed red pepper or cayenne pepper powder to add a bit of spiciness. If using cayenne powder, reduce the quantity.

Directions

For the Chicken

Stir together the soy sauce, orange juice, and ginger. Submerge the chicken in the mixture. Allow the chicken to marinade for about 20 minutes in the refrigerator.

Combine the cornstarch and salt on a plate. Heat about 1/2″ of oil in a large skillet over medium-high/high heat to approximately 375 degrees. (You can use an instant read meat thermometer to estimate the temperature. If you do not have a thermometer, just heat the oil for several minutes until it’s sizzling hot.)

Remove the chicken from the marinade. Place the chicken in a bowl with the lightly beaten eggs. Remove the chicken from the eggs, then dredge in the cornstarch until well coated. Fry the chicken in small batches until crispy, golden, and cooked through, about 5-6 minutes. Turn the chicken once or twice during cooking. Remove the chicken from the oil with a slotted spoon and drain on a paper towel.

For the Sauce

Combine the brown sugar, water, orange juice, orange zest, rice wine vinegar, lemon juice, soy sauce, and sambal oelek in a saucepan over medium heat until well combined. In a small ramekin or bowl, stir together the cornstarch with the cold water. Pour the mixture into the sauce and whisk to combine. Bring the sauce to a simmer. Simmer for a couple minutes until the sauce is thickened.

Just before serving, pour the sauce over the chicken. Garnish with sliced green onions and additional orange zest, if desired. Serve over white jasmine rice.

Tips

  • To maintain the chicken’s crispiness, wait until just before serving to toss the chicken in the sauce.
  • To make ahead of time, fry the chicken and refrigerate until using. Prepare the sauce and refrigerate until using. Reheat the chicken on a baking sheet in a 375 degrees oven for about 10-15 minutes until heated through and crispy. Heat the sauce and pour it over the reheated chicken.

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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