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Chilled Mango Cucumber Gazpacho

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This past weekend, I had the pleasure of escaping with my husband to the most charming little place in the Catskills. We’d gone to celebrate the first wedding anniversary of my husband’s beautiful sister at the location she and her husband eloped to last August. Dear old friends, family, and new friends gathered at The Roxbury Motel for a truly blissful weekend.

Grounds of The Roxbury Motel in Roxbury, NY

This place is a polished gem with so many facets that you can’t help but gasp as you view each new angle. It’s hard to put into words and pictures don’t do it justice. It’s just magical. Every space on the property has been tended to with the same special care a momma gives her baby. You can feel the love in every unique little detail. During our time there, we encountered a family with two small children, a group of four women celebrating a bachelorette weekend, a couple on a romantic getaway, and a pair of outdoor sports enthusiasts. Oddly, The Roxbury Motel provides the perfect accommodations for each of these occasions. It’s definitely a special place.

The ‘Maria’s Curtains’ room in The Roxbury Motel

My husband and I stayed in the room which is called ‘Maria’s Curtains’…as in the Maria from The Sound of Music and the curtains she used to create play clothes for the von Trapp children. Our room was swimming in the curtain’s pattern, from the bedding to the hand stenciling which crossed from the walls to the ceiling, to the custom tiling around the massive soaking tub. The lamps were made of brown paper packages tied up with strings. And two fantastically tiny, bright copper kettles sat on a small corner table. I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t spend half of the weekend singing My Favorite Things in my ridiculously out-of-tune voice.

We stayed up too late laughing with friends, old and new. We had massages. We soaked in the spa’s hot tub. We drank champagne. And we dined at an amazing little restaurant, called the Peekamoose. The Peekamoose prides itself on its use of locally grown, seasonal ingredients with a menu which changes based on the day’s freshest available foods. Their execution is flawless in every way. I enjoyed a peppery arugula salad tossed in a light vinaigrette with fresh peaches, chevre, and toasted pine nuts, followed by tender goat cheese gnocchi and then the most decadent slow-cooked braised short ribs in a truffled bordelaise sauce. It was an amazing meal.

Exterior of the Peekamoose Restaurant in Big Indian, NY

My husband enjoyed the same selections, with the exception of the first course. For his first course, he selected the chilled watermelon gazpacho. (I stole a taste, of course.) And when we arrived back home to find a box full of the most beautiful, perfectly ripe mangos on my doorstep (courtesy of the National Mango Board), I was instantly inspired. Mango gazpacho.

Traditionally, gazpacho is a chilled tomato-based soup accented with cucumbers, onion, and peppers. But, inspired by the sweet and savory watermelon gazpacho at Peekamoose and the box full of gorgeous mangos on my doorstep, I came up with this refreshing (and quite mangolicious) variation.

Somebody couldn’t stay away from the mangos…

Mangos are just so perfectly versatile. They’re sweet, smooth, and bursting with fiber and vitamin C. Everyone in our family loves their flavor and I always feel good about feeding my family fresh, nutritious foods. When selecting mangos, focus more on the feel of the fruit, than the color. A ripe mango will feel slightly soft, like a peach. If your mangos are not quite ripe, store them on your countertop for a few days. Placing them in a brown paper bag can help speed the ripening process. Once they are ripe, you can store them in the fridge for up to five days. For a photo guide on how to cut mangos, check out my mango guide HERE or stop by www.mango.org for more tips and delicious mango recipes.

Apparently, I was taking too long to cut the mangos.

This smooth, chilled soup makes a refreshing first course during a summer meal or an eager partner to a nice fresh salad. Sweet mango provides the main flavor base, combined with a bit of creamy Greek yogurt and vegetable broth. Fresh cucumber, added to both the soup and the garnish lends a cool, crisp flavor. We tend to like things spicy around here, but you can easily adjust the spiciness to your family’s liking by increasing or decreasing the cayenne and jalapeño pepper in the recipe.

Chilled Mango Cucumber Gazpacho

Ingredients

  • 4-5 large mangos, skin and pit removed, cut into chunks*
  • 1 (6-ounce) container plain Greek yogurt
  • 1 (15-ounce) can vegetable broth
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons lemon juice
  • 3″ segment seedless cucumber, peeled and chopped
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper (plus more if desired)

For the garnish

  • 6″ segment of seedless cucumber, finely diced
  • 1 jalapeño pepper, ribs and seeds removed, finely diced
  • 1 shallot, finely diced
  • 1 teaspoon lime juice
  • Basil oil, optional

*Click HERE for a photo guide on how to cut a mango.

Directions

Place the mango chunks in a blender. Blend until smooth. (You should have about 3 1/2 cups of mango puree.) Add the cucumber, vegetable broth, lemon juice, and yogurt. Blend until smooth. Add salt and cayenne pepper, as desired. Refrigerate until chilled.

For the garnish, combine the cucumber, jalapeño pepper, and shallot with the lime juice. Refrigerate until serving.

For the optional basil oil, blend about 1/2 cup fresh basil leaves with abut 1/4 cup of olive oil, then strain through a fine sieve or a piece of cheesecloth to remove large chunks of basil.

Bacon Cheddar Drop Biscuits

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There’s a full moon tonight. Of that I am certain. I didn’t look it up online and I haven’t glanced at the evening sky. I need only to spend a moment observing my children to know for sure that the moon is full. They are like small, incredibly accurate phase of the moon indicators. And they’ve been in rare form this week.

Just yesterday, two of the boys spent thirty minutes engaged in a volatile argument over who is going to get the longer surfboard. You should understand that getting a surfboard of any size is not (and has never been) in our plans, which made this argument completely irrelevant and bizarre. But for thirty minutes they argued their way around Target shouting at each other about surfboards, until my five year old exclaimed that he was going to hire a shark to bite Lucas’ arm off. Anyone know what the going rate for mercenary sharks is this days??

Meanwhile, the baby has learned how to remove his own diaper and in the process has discovered that he’s a boy. He’s absolutely delighted with his new skill and new discovery. So, in between calling off the sharks, I’ve been chasing the baby and his bare tushy around the house, hopelessly trying to keep him dressed. He thinks he’s pretty funny. But I had the last laugh when I stuck him in a onesie and foiled his disrobing endeavors.

Trouble monkeys; every one of them.

When life gives you chaos, make bacon. Bacon makes everything better. Truly. Even the baby eagerly oohs and ahs at the sight of a plate of bacon. Smart baby. When he was younger he used to crawl around teething on a rubbery piece of pretend bacon. We called it his ‘training bacon’. We’re raising these kids right.

Make a lot a bacon and then throw some in these biscuits. These super simple drops biscuits are a delicious variation on my cheddar garlic biscuits. Cheesy, buttery, bacony; they make a perfect accompaniment for just about any meal. We enjoyed them alongside some grilled chicken in a spicy apple barbecue sauce and corn on the cob. You may want to make a double batch. These biscuits are gonna go fast.

Bacon Cheddar Drop Biscuits

Ingredients

  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 3 tablespoons salted butter, cold, cut into small pieces
  • 3 tablespoons vegetable shortening, cold
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 1 cup cheddar cheese, shredded
  • 1 cup bacon, cooked to crisp, crumbled
  • 2-3 green onions, chopped
  • 3 tablespoons salted butter, melted (for brushing the biscuits)

Directions

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Lightly coat baking sheets with cooking spray or vegetable oil. In a bowl, combine flour, baking powder, and salt. Add the 3 tablespoons of cold butter and 3 tablespoons cold vegetable shortening to the flour mixture. Use a dough cutter or fork to blend the butter and shortening with the flour mixture until pea-sized bits of flour-coated butter and shortening are dispersed throughout the mixture.

Stir in the buttermilk, cheese, bacon, and green onion. Do not overmix. Use an ice cream scoop or measuring cup to drop mounds of the dough onto the prepared baking sheets.

Bake for about 15-20 minutes.

Melt the butter in a small pan or microwave. Brush over the baked biscuits.

Makes 10-12 Biscuits

Grilled Soy-Ginger Flank Steak and Asian Cabbage Slaw

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I’ve written before about my Lucas and his regard for the truth. If Lucas tells you that pink elephants are falling from the sky, you’d better seek cover and fast. The kid doesn’t lie.

What I didn’t realize until recently is that his regard for the truth carries over into his assumption that everyone else around him is also always telling the truth. My first inkling of this issue occurred on an afternoon when Lucas approached the screen door, which was locked to prevent the baby from letting himself out. He called inside, where my husband and I were sitting, and requested to be let in. In what should have been obvious jest, my husband called back, Nope, sorry. You’re an outside kid now. I giggled. Lucas did not. He instantly crumbled to the deck floor and sobbed, But…I don’t want to live outside. 

His literal interpretation of any statement explains why he became so upset when his older brother told him we were going to put salt on his ice cream cone instead of sprinkles. It also explains why a simple game of hide-and-seek with his brother became so complex. Lucas was assigned the role of seeker. Liam came crashing into the house, ran into the bathroom and slammed the door behind him. Very un-ninja-like. Lucas began counting, 1.. 2.. 3.. 4.. 5.. 6.. 100. Then, he began searching the house. Meanwhile, Liam is raising a ruckus in the bathroom…slamming the toilet seat, running the water, banging into walls. Lucas jiggled the bathroom door knob, but couldn’t get the door open. So, he called into the bathroom, Are you in there, Liam? Liam (clearly from the bathroom) shouted, No…I’m under the dining room table. Lucas ran off to check under the table. Unable to locate his brother in the dining room, Lucas returned to the bathroom to ask, Where are you? Liam then explained that he was hiding under the kitchen table. Lucas, of course, checked the kitchen table and then came to me and sadly said, I can’t find Liam. 

He’s in the bathroom, silly goose.

I cried myself laughing when I shared this story with my husband. As exhausting as it often feels to spend spend all day, every day, with my very busy kids, I am so happy to be able to witness these funny times in their lives.

At the end of a busy day of mind-boggling hide-and-seek, a delicious dinner is always in order. This meal is inspired by a cabbage salad I recently had the pleasure of tasting at a friend’s barbecue. I’ve tasted other similar salads; fresh cabbage in a sweet, tangy dressing, topped with some sort of nut and crushed ramen noodles. It’s the ramen noodles that sell me every time. Seriously, how addicting are uncooked ramen noodles?? I decided I’d come up with my own rendition of an Asian cabbage salad, sweetened with honey, mixed with sweet red pepper and bean sprouts, and finished with cashews and the gotta-have-’em ramen noodles. This recipe makes a bucketful of the addictive salad. I’ve been happily eating it for three days now.

But, this meal doesn’t stop with the salad. Using the same set of ingredients in different proportions, I came up with a simple soy-ginger marinade, which I dunked a nicely trimmed flank steak into. I let the steak chill out in the marinade for about an hour or so, then I threw it on the grill and sliced it up to serve over the cabbage salad. Let me tell you, aside from imparting savory goodness into the meat, this marinade did something magical to the steak. Even though I let my steak go a bit too long on the grill, the result was incredibly tender, practically falling apart around the exterior. Even the baby, with all of his six (almost eight) perfect teeth, thoroughly enjoyed this steak. I’m sure the tenderizing has something to do with the soy sauce in the marinade breaking down the proteins in the steak. Honestly, I’m just as content to believe it’s a magical marinade.

I told Lucas it was magic. He ate all of his steak, of course.

Grilled Soy-Ginger Flank Steak

Ingredients

  • 1 flank steak (1.5-2 pounds), trimmed of excess fat
  • 1/4 cup soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon fresh ginger, grated
  • 1 tablespoon sesame oil
  • 1 teaspoon honey
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon rice vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon sambal oelek (ground chili paste)*

*Can substitute cayenne pepper, to taste

Directions

Whisk together the soy sauce, ginger, oil, honey, garlic, rice vinegar, and sambal oelek until well combined. Pour the mixture over the steak in an air-tight container. Refrigerate for about an hour or two. Periodically turn the steak in the marinade so that all sides are coated.

After the steak has been well marinaded, preheat the grill at medium heat. Place the steak on the grill. Allow the steak to cook for approximately 6 minutes on each side, or until it reaches your desired doneness. Remove the steak from the grill and allow to rest for 5 minutes before slicing.

Serves about 6

Asian Cabbage Slaw

Ingredients

  • 1 head cabbage, shaved or very thinly sliced
  • 1 sweet red pepper, ribs and seeds removed, shaved or very thinly sliced
  • 1 cup bean sprouts
  • 1/2 cup rice vinegar
  • 1/4 cup sesame oil
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 1 teaspoon fresh ginger, grated
  • 2 teaspoons soy sauce
  • 1 teaspoon sambal oelek
  • 1 cup roasted cashews
  • 1 package ramen noodles, uncooked, broken into small pieces

Directions

In a very large bowl or container, combine the cabbage, red pepper, and bean sprouts. Toss to combine. In a separate bowl, whisk together the vinegar, oil, honey, ginger, soy sauce, and sambal oelek until well blended. Pour the dressing over the cabbage mixture and toss until well combined. Add the cashews and toss to disperse. Refrigerate for at least an hour. Add the crushed ramen noodles just before serving.

Serves about 8

Strawberry Banana Bread

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Back in what feels like another lifetime, I was a second grade teacher. One portion of our daily routine included an activity we called Writers’ Workshop. It was a time of the day devoted towards writing, where my students could work independently or collaboratively on various forms of written expression. While they worked, I’d meet with individual students to help walk them through the editing process, while weaving lessons about writing technique, language, and grammar into our little discussions. Some students worked on personal narratives, others on poetry, and others on persuasive writing.

Strawberry Banana Bread Attempt #1 – with freeze-dried strawberries

And then there was the group of boys who’d formed a rock band and spent their time during writers’ workshop writing song lyrics. Now, this rock band was no casual arrangement. Though not a one of them played a musical instrument, they took the idea of their band quite seriously. These boys waited all day to work on their writing. They put careful thought into their choice of words and worked cooperatively to fine tune their performance. I was feeling like a pretty awesome teacher for being able to get my students so actively engaged in the writing process and so motivated to develop their writing skills. And that’s right about went things went sour with the band.

Strawberry Banana Bread Attempt #2 – with strawberry glaze swirl on the top

You see, ‘Diego’ kicked ‘Joshua’ out of the band. It had something to do with not fully committing to his dance moves. Seriously. Joshua was crushed. ‘Willis’ tried to remain neutral, but it was clear that he was also  unimpressed by Joshua’s moves. I intervened and brought peace back to the band long enough for them to perform the song they’d been working so hard at.

It went something like this…

Oh, when am I gonna be a man?

I wanna be a man!

I’m gonna get a wallet.

I’m gonna go to the gym.

Ooo, when am I gonna be a man?

It was sort of a rap song. And clearly very revealing about a second grader’s perspective on what makes a man…gym memberships and wallets. Of course.

Strawberry Banana Bread Attempt #3 – invisible strawberry glaze swirl throughout the bread

I was reminded of this memory when I walked into my living room to find my 5 year old giving my 3 year old lessons on how to be a man. They were as serious about these lessons as my former students were about their rock band. The lessons involved such behaviors as hopping on one foot, not crying, and toasting blueberry waffles. All very important man behaviors, for sure.

Kids are funny. They’re constantly trying to make sense of their little worlds and every so often, they give us a peak into the carnival of their little brains. Like this morning, on our walk back from the grocery store, when we passed an empty bottle on the side of the road.

That’s weird, commented my 5 year old.

I bet it was a man sitting by the road singing a song who left it there, replied my 3 year old. (A hobo with a handkerchief on a stick, perhaps?)

What was he singing, I asked.

Yankee Doodle, replied my 5 year old confidently.

No, my 3 year old adamantly intervened. I think he was singing Nowhere Man. 

I will bake five dozen cookies for any hobo with a bindle, singing Nowhere Man, on Blueberry Lane.

Strawberry Banana Bread Attempt #4 – with fresh strawberry puree and dried strawberries

But we hadn’t gone to the grocery store to buy cookie ingredients. We were picking up fresh strawberries and bananas for this Strawberry Banana Bread. This recipe is the result of not one, not two, not three, but four attempts. (We’ve been eating a lot of banana bread around here.) Every batch was delicious in its own right. But, it wasn’t until the fourth batch that I nailed what I’d been trying to accomplish.

Doesn’t seem like making a loaf of strawberry banana bread should be such an issue, right? But here’s the problem…when baked, strawberries become undesirably mushy. So, in my first attempt, I tried incorporating freeze-dried strawberries to conquer the mushy dilemma. The result was acceptable. The freeze-dried strawberries rehydrated during baking, but there wasn’t enough strawberry flavor throughout the loaf. So, on attempts two and three, I made a strawberry glaze, which I attempted to swirl throughout the loaf using two different techniques. But, the banana bread was too dense to produce my intended result. Both of those loaves came out fantastically sweet and moist with a lovely caramelized crust, but I still wasn’t satisfied. On my final attempt, I had the epiphany that I could puree fresh strawberries to replace all of the water and part of the vegetable oil in my normal banana bread recipe. This had the double effect of dispersing the sweet strawberry flavor throughout the bread as well as slightly lightening the recipe. Chopped dried strawberries lend additional strawberry flavor and a nice variety of texture to the loaf.

Strawberries and bananas are a classic flavor combination. And they’ve never been better combined than in this twist on banana bread. This is more than just a banana bread with a few strawberries mixed in. This bread pays equal homage to both the strawberries and the bananas. Definitely worth the four attempts it took to come around to this recipe!

Strawberry Banana Bread

Ingredients

  • 1 3/4 cup flour
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup pureed strawberries
  • 1/3 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 cup mashed ripe bananas
  • 3/4 cup dried strawberries, chopped

Directions

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray a loaf pan with baking spray.

In a large bowl, combine the flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Add the vegetable oil, pureed strawberries, vanilla, and eggs. Stir until well combined. Add the mashed banana and dried strawberries. Stir until well blended. Pour the banana bread mixture into the prepared pan.

Bake for 60-70 minutes.

Grilled Peach and Prosciutto Salad with Creamy BBQ Dressing

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There’s a little angel who lives on one of my shoulders, whispering, Be a good girl, Amy. Eat the apple instead of the brownie. Put down that fifth glass of wine. Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels. 

There’s a little devil on the other shoulder. He woos me with sexy little suggestions like, Come on, Amy…life’s too short to not enjoy delicious food. You’re not that much overweight. That chocolate will taste even better than skinny will feel. And wine is good for you…scientists say so. Trust me. Trust me. 

I was never ‘overweight’ until I had my babies. As a child, I was one of those featherweight gals who could scarf down remarkable quantities of lemon Italian ices, yodels, and meatball subs without a care. My hunger was infinite. In high school, I gained height without weight and bordered on scrawny. I sobbed like there was no tomorrow over my flat-chested fate. In college, I quickly gained the freshman fifteen (or twenty) on a diet of pizza, beer and Lucky Charms. It filled me out and gave me the curves I’d craved so badly in my youth. I slimmed down by the end of my college days. From there on out, I maintained a healthy weight, with barely an effort. I haven’t been ‘skinny’ since my high school days. But I was healthy and trim.

And then I had my boys. I gained a little more than I should have with each pregnancy. I lost most of the weight between pregnancies with a bit of discipline, but still started each pregnancy five pounds heavier than the one before. And now, here I sit, over a year after the birth of my third son, still struggling to get my weight down. It’s been harder this time. I’m not that far out of a healthy weight range for my height, but those pounds make a difference.

I started this year pumped full of motivation to lose the baby weight, just like millions of others who make grand new year resolutions and swear they’ll stick with them. I actually had a really successful start and quickly lost 15 or so pounds early in the year. And then I got lax and the number on the scale started creeping up again. I’ve been playing the yo-yo game ever since. Lose a few, gain a few, lose a few, gain a few. Lather, rinse and repeat. It would be so much easier if I didn’t love food so darn much!

The funny thing about those little guys on my shoulders is that, in my mind, the angel is blissfully plump. The devil is thin and decrepit. I secretly think that the angel wants me to enjoy the chocolate. He wants me to enjoy the beautiful world of delicious food…just in moderation, of course.

Thankfully, there’s no shortage of drool-worthy food out there which can still be enjoyed within the framework of wanting to shed a few pounds. And there’s no better time than the summer, when produce is at its peak and the hot weather naturally inclines us to eat lighter, to achieve those healthful goals. Take advantage of the season’s bounty to enjoy fresh salads full of vibrant summer flavors, like this grilled peach and prosciutto salad in a creamy barbecue-inspired dressing. Ripe peaches, at their summer best, get grilled to bring out even more of their natural sweetness. Combine that with crisp red onion slices, savory prosciutto, and salty gorgonzola, drizzled with a slightly-spicy BBQ dressing, and you’ll be singing summer’s praises.

Grilled Peach and Prosciutto Salad with Creamy BBQ Dressing

Ingredients

  • 3 peaches, sliced
  • 8 slices prosciutto, chopped
  • 1/2 red onion, very thinly sliced
  • 8 cups mixed spring greens
  • 3/4 cup gorgonzola cheese, crumbled
  • Vegetable oil, for rubbing the grill

For the Creamy BBQ Dressing:

  • 1/3 cup ketchup
  • 1/4 cup mayonaisse
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon dijon mustard
  • 1 tablespoon worcestershire sauce
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
  • 1/4 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Directions

Wipe your grill with a bit of vegetable oil to help prevent sticking. Preheat the grill at medium heat. Place the peach slices on the preheated grill and cook for a couple minutes on each side, until tender. (The peaches can be used hot off the grill or chilled.)

To prepare the dressing, stir the ketchup, mayo, brown sugar, mustard, worcestershire sauce, vinegar, onion powder, and cayenne pepper together until smooth. Refrigerate until using.

To assemble the salad, place about 2 cups of the spring greens on each plate. Scatter the onion slices over the greens. Arrange the peaches in the center. Top with the prosciutto and gorgonzola. Drizzle with the dressing.

Makes 4 Entree-Sized Salads

Simple S’mores Pudding Cups

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In bizarrely timely fashion, a friend of mine posted this quote, just as I was drafting this post, How much of this stuff has anything to do with who you are now and who you are becoming? Words to purge by…

I yearn for the simple life, a life with minimal clutter and limited complications. Just an uncluttered life focused on family, friends, and enjoying this beautiful world. But sometimes it seems practically impossible to achieve this state of uncomplicated living. We seem to accumulate stuff at twice the rate I can use it, gift it, donate it or trash it. And, my goodness, do kids come along with a lot of accessories…even after you’ve said no to the wipe warmers, diaper genies, bottle sterilizers, sleep positioners, and the tap-dancing monkeys that Babies R Us told you were newborn essentials. Honestly, I don’t even need bottles. I don’t need a swing or a special baby food maker. Heck, we barely used the baby’s crib for the first year of his life. Just give me my baby, a few onesies, a soft blanket, and a ridiculous quantity of baby wipes. (I’m not sure I could live without baby wipes.)

But kids amass stuff no matter how hard you try to avoid it. Puzzles and action figures and five million tiny legos. And little plastic toys from happy meals and musical instruments and samurai castles. And cars and books and stuffed toys and train sets. And a toy kitchen, a toy workbench, and something called bonkazonks. And coloring books, sticker collections, broken crayons, and cowboy hats.

And I’m also to blame for our accumulation of stuff. Because I need matching dishes and glasses. And I needed a sombrero for my Mexican fiesta (which will now live in the basement just in case I want to throw another fiesta). And we couldn’t possibly have had a lemonade stand without a proper lemonade dispenser. And my life wouldn’t be complete without those little metal nest candleholders and turquoise birdie candles. It all seemed so important at the time, but now it achieves nothing besides making me feel claustrophobic in my own home.

I don’t even want to think about the paperwork we collect. Bills and important forms and certificates. A million pages of important paper to file and save, just in case. Just in case.

And then the sasquatch ate mommy and daddy…

How in the world did complicated and cluttered become the norm of our existence? It takes actual effort to not accumulate stuff and not to feed into the expectations we’ve grown to have about what we need. Certainly, those brightly colored, beautifully photographed magazines from Pottery Barn and Anthropologie aren’t doing anything to help limit my stuff accumulation. I know, I know…waa, waa, waa, I have too much stuff. Talk about a first world problem! Believe me, I don’t take it for granted.

I just think that our well-intentioned culture has a tendency to overcomplicate life to the point of chaos. I want to simplify. Let go of clutter. Live in an environment of minimalistic zen. Focus on what’s important. And so this is the summer of the purge! I’m moving from room to room and closet to closet to eliminate the clutter. We’ll hold a garage sale to sell what we can, then donate the rest. Goodbye handheld carpet cleaner I’ve never used. Goodbye racks and racks of dvds we will probably never watch. Goodbye duplicate copies #2, #3, and #4 of The Giving Tree. I love you, but we only need one of you. Goodbye all three 50 Shades of Grey books. You weren’t worth the time it took to read you. May you live happily in someone else’s home. And goodbye wine rack. I drink my wine way too fast to ever put you to use.

My minimalistic impulses carry over into my feelings about food. I like simple fresh flavors, short ingredient lists, and uncomplicated preparation methods. I’m totally intrigued by the whole arena of molecular gastronomy…gelification, spherification, foamification and whatnot(ification). I want to eat that food and marvel over the cleverness of the chef. But my personal approach to food is much simpler. No fancy tools, no futuristic techniques…just a sharp knife, a few simple tools, and a good set of pots and pans. It’s really all you need.

A few nights ago, my husband and the boys pitched a tent in the backyard for a summer campout. They built a fire and we roasted marshmallows, which we layered with chocolate and graham crackers for a classic s’mores treat. The boys entertained us with campfire songs and spooky stories involving mommy and daddy getting eaten by a sasquatch. And then they snuggled up in the tent and slept the night away. It was an idealistic evening. It’s the simple things in life, isn’t it?

But a few days earlier in the week, the boys had a craving for s’mores. So I came up with these little individual s’mores pudding cups…for those nights when you don’t have a marshmallow roastin’ fire roaring in the backyard. Rich, homemade chocolate pudding gets layered with mini marshmallows and crumbled graham crackers. Nothing fancy, but what a crowd-pleaser! Simple pleasures.

Simple S’mores Pudding Cups

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 3 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1/3 cup semisweet chocolate chips
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 cup mini marshmallows
  • 3 graham cracker sheets, crushed

Directions

Sprinkle about half of the graham cracker crumbs and half of the marshmallows onto the bottom of six individual serving bowls or glasses. Reserve the remaining crumbs and marshmallows.

In a saucepan, mix together sugar, cornstarch, cocoa, and salt. Whisk in the milk, stirring until combined. Continue whisking over medium heat until the mixture begins to bubble and thicken, about 5 minutes. Whisking constantly, continue cooking for another minute or two. Be careful to whisk into the corners and along the sides of the pan. Remove from heat. Whisk in the chocolate chips and vanilla, stirring until fully melted. Carefully pour the hot pudding over the marshmallows and graham cracker crumbs. While the pudding is still hot, scatter the remaining marshmallows over the top and sprinkle with the remaining graham cracker crumbs. Refrigerate until chilled.

Serves 6 

How to Juggle Cooking and Kids

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I’m often asked, How do you do it? How do you cook all of that yummy stuff with the three boys running around?

Well…sometimes it’s not so easy. Sometimes it feels downright near impossible. And sometimes I don’t even try. We pick up some prepared salads or sandwiches from the grocery store, order a pizza, or I give the kids what I call ‘snack dinner’, which is essentially a random collection of snacky type things like a mozzarella cheese stick, cup of yogurt, handful of grapes, or some carrots sticks and dip. (Snack dinner happens to be the boys’ most favorite meal.)

But I do cook a lot and I’ve developed a repertoire of strategies which I employ to get the job done. Perhaps they’ll work for you too…

Involve the Kids

Strategy 1 – Involve the Kids

I love cooking with the kids. It’s an activity which is bursting with very natural learning opportunities, plus it teaches kids about foods and flavors and makes them more willing to try out new things. Best of all, when they’re engaged in helping you, they’re not off doing other sorts of mischief. You can read a bit more about involving kids in the kitchen in my special section devoted towards cooking with kids.

Dance Party!!

Strategy 2 – Kitchen Dance Party

Sometimes, getting the kids involved in the meal preparation just isn’t logistically possible. When that’s the case, I initiate kitchen dance party. I have an ipod dock sitting on my kitchen counter. We cue up my running mix and pump the volume. And then we dance our butts off while I tend to whatever I’m whipping up that day. All three boys come running when Ice, Ice, Baby starts pumping through the kitchen. Who doesn’t love a song which includes lyrics about a pound of bacon??

Serve an Amuse Bouche

Strategy 3 – Serve an Amuse Bouche

In fancy restaurants, they often serve an amuse bouche. Amuse bouche translates literally to ‘mouth amuser’. It’s usually some small bite-sized hors d’oeuvre of the chef’s choosing; a little blini topped with smoked salmon and caviar or a tiny cup of seasonal bisque or a bite of perfectly-cooked truffled risotto. The entire idea of an amuse-bouche makes me absolutely gleeful. It’s like a bonus course, a little surprise. And it helps makes the time between ordering your food and the arrival of your first course more pleasant. In the home, an amuse bouche may buy you the time you need to cook the actual meal. Of course, I’m not serving salmon, truffles, and caviar to my children. A handful of cherries, scoop of cereal, or a strawberry spinach smoothie usually does the trick…it just needs to be something which keeps them busy and adds a bit of nutritional value to the coming meal.

‘Mise en Place’ for Penne ala Vodka

Strategy 4 – Cook in Parts

I rarely cook a meal from start to finish all at once. I cook in parts, when the opportunities present themselves. If the kids are playing independently, I hop into the kitchen and chop the onions for a tasty penne ala vodka. Then I stick them in a baggie in the fridge. A little while later, while the baby’s napping, I may measure the cream and chop the prosciutto. When the boys are eating lunch, I grate the cheese. In the culinary world, chefs use the term mise en place, which essentially translates to ‘everything in its place’. It’s basically referring to the process of prepping and gathering all of your ingredients prior to cooking. It’s a good practice to get into whether you have kids or not. Gathering and preparing everything before you get started will save you a whole lot of scrambling around while you cook. I prepare my ‘mise en place’ in little bits all throughout the day so that when dinner rolls around, I just need to put it all together.

Melon Sangria, Anyone?

Strategy 5 – Put on Your Blinders and Charge Onward

Sometimes everything else fails and you just need to plug along. In fact, just this morning, as I was preparing a cake for a pool party potluck we’ll be attending tomorrow, I had a nightmarish cooking experience. I tried our dance party tactic, which worked for a while, until my 5-year-old threw himself head and hands first onto the floor in an attempt to do some sort of headstand type move, which he clearly has no business doing. While performing this ambitious maneuver, he managed to injure his hand, which resulted in the immediate need for icepacks, pretend bandages, and snuggles. I then moved onto to the ‘amuse bouche’ strategy in an attempt to get the cake in the oven. In this case, I gave everyone a scoop of the peanut butter chips I was using in the cake. The baby ate a few and then abandoned his peanut butter chips in favor of clawing at my legs and screaming at me to pick him up. The dog wasted no time and immediately stuck his tongue into the baby’s snack bowl. I threw the now slimy snack bowl into the sink, picked up the baby and held him on my hip while I continued preparing the cake batter. At this point, I realized that in my distracted state, I’d almost forgotten to add the cocoa to my chocolate cake. As I moved to the pantry the grab the cocoa, commotion ensued in the living room. Turns out that my three-year-old had found his favorite shoes outside, put them on, and proceeded to spread dog poopy all over the house and his toys. I stopped again to clean the mess, then thoroughly washed my hands in scalding hot water and proceeded to finish the cake with the baby on my hip. Sometimes you just need to charge onward.

And when all else fails, a glass of melon sangria usually helps…for you, not the kids, silly goose!

Individual Red, White, and Blue Trifles

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The fact that the Fourth of July falls right smack in the middle of peak berry season seems almost too good to be true. Right around the time when many of us are scrambling to come up with the perfect patriotic red, white, and blue dessert for our Independence Day barbecues, the sweetest strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries are arriving in the grocery store, fresh picked from local berry farms. It’s no wonder that so many 4th of July desserts feature berries. It’s patriotic kismet.

And this dessert is no different. But it’s more than just seasonal festive colors. These red, white, and blue fresh berry and vanilla custard trifles are addictively delicious. Seriously, I should admit that I made two batches since I just wasn’t satisfied with the photos I’d gotten from the first batch. I ate most of that first batch. I shared a little with the kids, but I made quick work of the rest…and I barely regret it either. I’m going to try to save the second batch for tomorrow’s festivities, but I’m not making any promises.

Traditionally, trifles are made with layers of fruit, spongecake, custard and whipped cream, arranged in a large glass bowl to display the beautiful layers. My version is made in perfect individual portions, arranged in jam jars for a unique presentation. In some variations of trifle, the fruit is suspended in gelatin. In mine, a bit of sugar and some instant pectin (commonly used in making jams and jellies), create a sweet thickened glaze around the fresh berries. Layers of crushed vanilla wafers, creamy vanilla custard, and sweet whipped cream complete the perfectly portioned dessert. Be sure to stick your spoon straight down to the bottom with every bite to get a little bit of every layer.

How will you be spending your 4th of July??

Individual Red, White, and Blue Trifles

Ingredients

  • 20 vanilla wafer cookies, crushed
  • 1 cup blueberries

For the Berry ‘Jam’

  • 1 cup strawberries, chopped
  • 1 cup raspberries, chopped
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 17-gram package instant pectin*

For the Vanilla Custard

  • 1 1/2 cup milk
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
  • Pinch of salt
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 3 egg yolks

For the Whipped Cream

  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
*Look for pectin wherever your grocery store carries their jarring supplies for jams and jellies.

Directions

For the Custard: Bring the milk, sugar, vanilla, salt and cornstarch to a simmer over medium heat, whisking frequently so that the sugar and cornstarch dissolve. Then, reduce the heat. In a separate bowl, lightly beat the egg yolks with a fork. Gradually whisk about 1/2 cup of the hot milk into the egg yolks, starting with a very slow drizzle. (Gradually incorporating the hot milk into the egg yolks tempers the eggs, allowing them to slowly rise in temperature without scrambling.) Gradually whisk the egg mixture into the remaining hot milk in the pot. Bring to a gentle boil over medium heat, whisking constantly for about 3 minutes, until thickened and smooth. Allow to cool at room temperature, whisking occasionally, until no longer hot. Then, transfer the mixture to a bowl or large measuring cup. Press a piece of plastic wrap directly against the custard to prevent a skin from forming. Refrigerate until chilled.

For the Berry Jam: Combine the strawberries, raspberries, sugar, and pectin. Stir for about 3 minutes. Set aside while you prepare the other components.

For the Whipped Cream: Beat the heavy cream and sugar for several minutes until quite thick.

To Assemble the Trifles: Spoon about 1/6 portion of the berry jam into the bottom of each serving glass. (8-ounce jam jars work perfectly.) Sprinkle about 1/6 of the crushed cookies on top of the jam. Spoon or pipe about 1/6 of the custard on top of the cookie layer. Top the custard layer with a layer of blueberries. Spoon 1/6 of the whipped cream onto each blueberry layer. Garnish with a additional berries, if desired. Refrigerate until serving.

Makes 6 Servings

Spicy Mexican Wontons

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A few weeks ago, I opened one of my kitchen cabinets and set my eyes upon a set of margarita glasses which have been long neglected. And what’s a girl to do when her margarita glasses have gathered dust, but wash them off and host una fiesta pequeña.

With the purchase of a few brightly colored decorations, a sombrero, maracas, and a piñata, plans for our little Mexican shindig were coming along. I taught the boys a few Spanish greetings and we practiced dancing in the kitchen to the sounds of a mariachi album, while we cooked up a chocoflan and spicy Mexican wontons.

It wasn’t until the tequila was chilled and the limes sliced that I realized we were hosting our Mexican-themed party on the weekend when many Americans would be celebrating America’s Independence Day. Oops. Arriba? I will celebrate America’s birthday in appropriate patriotic red, white, and blue style on July 4. Honest.

But, our little gathering was un gran éxito; a grand success. Everyone brought a dish to share and we killed a few bottles of tequila shaken with homemade mango and strawberry lime margarita mixes. The kids even enjoyed kiddie margaritas in sugar-rimmed glasses, as their pockets burst full of piñata candy. My three-year-old is already reminiscing about ‘the old days’…way back yesterday when we had a piñata. That was living!

One of my contributions to the party menu were these spicy Mexican wontons; not exactly traditional Mexican food, but I like to dance to the rhythm of my own maracas anyway. They start with a simple combination of shredded chicken, a hefty dose of Mexican cheese, fresh jalapeño pepper, and green onions which are then seasoned with a bit of chile powder, cumin, and cayenne. Spoonfuls of the mixture are tucked into wonton wrappers, then quickly pan-fried until crisp.

They can be completely made ahead of time and reheated in the oven for a few minutes before serving. They re-crisp beautifully in the oven, which means that you can get that messy frying part out of the way and all cleaned up, long before your guests arrive! Perfect party food.

Spicy Mexican Wontons

Ingredients

  • 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cooked and shredded*
  • 1 jalapeño pepper, ribs and seeds removed, very finely diced
  • 1 green onion, sliced
  • 3 cups Mexican cheese shredded**
  • 1 tablespoon chile powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper (plus more, if desired)
  • 1/8 teaspoon cumin
  • 40-50 wonton wrappers (check the refrigerated or frozen section of your grocery store)
  • Vegetable oil, for frying

* I poached the chicken breasts in simmering water. Alternately, they can be baked until cooked through.

**I used 1 1/2 cups queso blanco and 1 1/2 cups shredded Mexican blend (cheddar, monterey jack, and asadero). If you are unable to get queso blanco, you can use any combination of cheddar, monterey jack, or other Mexican cheese.

Directions

Combine the chicken, jalapeño pepper, green onion, cheese and spices. In batches of about 5 or 6, place a hefty teaspoon of the filling in the center of each wonton wrapper. Wet the edges of the wonton wrapper with a bit of water and fold over into a triangle. If desired, wet two of the corners and fold them in towards the center. Place the prepared wontons on a tray in a single layer as you repeat the process for all wonton wrappers.

Once all wontons have been prepared, heat about 1/2″ vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium/medium high heat. Get the oil good and hot. Test out one of the prepared wontons by placing it into the oil. It should become golden brown and bubbly-looking within about 30 seconds. Flip to cook on the other side. Cook all of the wontons in small batches. Remove them from the oil using a slotted spoon. Drain the cooked wontons on a paper towel. Serve hot.

If desired, the wontons can be served with a chipotle sour cream, made by blending one chipotle pepper (from a can of chipotles in adobo) with 8 ounces sour cream.

To reheat, place the wontons in a single layer on two large baking sheets. Bake at 375 degrees for about 7-10 minutes, until hot and crispy.

Click HERE for more tips on working with wonton wrappers and a photo guide showing an alternate method of folding the wontons.

Crab Cake Summer Salad

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My five-year old, Liam, and his three-year-old younger brother, Lucas, are inseparable. Yet the two boys could hardly be more different. One of the most notable displays of their differences comes in the form of their regard for truth-telling.

We like to joke that with Lucas, you always know where you stand. He does not mince words and he tells it like it is, for better or worse. The kid does not tell a lie, ever. Even at the cost of rewards or consequences.

Lucas, did you hit your brother?
Yes, I did. He looked at me funny.
What’s that smell, Lucas?
It’s me. I farted.
Lucas, are you going to cooperate for Mommy today?
No, I’m not. (Spoken with a voice of unfortunate regret and calm, matter-of-fact truth.)
 

Liam, on the other hand, is almost always scheming for his next treat or devising a plan to get his hands on some forbidden item. And he is hardly ever not spinning some story.

Whatcha doing, Liam?
Nothing.
It’s impossible to be doing nothing. What are you really doing?
Seriously, Mommy. I’m not doing any mischief. (Indicator of certain mischief)
If I need to come in there to see what you’re doing, I’m going to be upset.
Alright…I’m climbing on a precarious pile of knives, broken glass, and samurai swords, trying to get to the candy on top of the fridge. 
 

So, on the afternoon, when Lucas came crying to us, claiming that Liam had spit on him, we were inclined to believe him. When confronted, Liam repeatedly insisted that he did not spit on his brother. Finally, as my husband puts it, he played the Jesus card. In his words, I pay for Catholic school. That gives me the right to play the Jesus card. The Jesus card goes something like this: What would Jesus think if he found out you were lying? (Apparently, the infamous Catholic guilt doesn’t come from the church. It comes from the parents.)

But it worked. Liam let out a sigh and then reluctantly said, Alright… He then proceeded to carefully explain that he did in fact spit. And it was, in fact, in Lucas’ general direction. But he wasn’t spitting at Lucas. Lucas just happened to get in the way of the spit.

Sure…

The lesson here is…when in doubt, ask Lucas. And don’t take anything Liam tells you at face value.

I’m more of a Lucas when it comes to the truth, which goes to say that you can believe me when I tell you that this salad belongs on your list of must-make recipes for the summer. It’s a simple variation of one of my older recipes (Chilled Avocado Soup and Crab Cake with Chipotle Remoulade). In this variation, a simple broiled crab cake, loaded with crab meat and just enough filler to hold it together, is set atop a salad of mixed greens, ripe avocado, sweet corn, and summer tomatoes. A drizzle of spicy chipotle remoulade dressing completes the dish. This entree salad makes the perfect light, but satisfying summer dish. Crab, avocado, tomatoes, corn, and chipotle pepper…honestly, summer heaven.

Crab Cake Summer Salad with Chipotle Remoulade Dressing

Ingredients

For the Crab Cakes

  • 1/2 cup bread crumbs (regular or whole wheat)
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 tablespoons mayonaisse
  • 2 teaspoons Creole seasoning, such as Old Bay
  • 1 teaspoon garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon dijon mustard
  • 1 pound jumbo lump or backfin crab meat, cooked*

For the Dressing

  • 1/2 cup mayonaisse
  • 1 chipotle pepper (from a can of chipotles in adobo)
  • 1 teaspoon dijon mustard
  • 1 tablespoon sweet relish

For the Salad

  • 8 cups mixed spring greens
  • 1 ripe avocado, peeled and chopped**
  • 1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 1/2 red onion, thinly shaved
  • 1 cup sweet corn kernels

* Look for fresh-picked crabmeat in the seafood section of your grocery store. It’s a fresher alternative than canned crabmeat and a heck of a lot more convenient than picking your own crab meat!

** Click HERE for my photo guide on how to slice an avocado.

Directions

For the Crab Cakes: Preheat broiler. Wipe a baking sheet with a bit of olive or vegetable oil (to prevent sticking.) Combine all ingredients, except the crab meat, in a bowl. Mix until well blended. Gently fold the crab meat into the other ingredients, taking care not to break up the chunks too much. Use your hands to form four equal sized balls of the crab mixture. Gently flatten the balls into thick patties and place on the prepared baking sheet. Place the baking sheet several inches under the broiler and cook for about 10 minutes until completely heated through.

For the Dressing: Combine mayo, chipotle, relish, and mustard in a blender or food processor.  Blend until smooth. Taste and adjust seasoning, if desired. Refrigerate until ready to use.

To Assemble the Salad: Arrange about 2 cups of mixed greens on each plate. Scatter with the avocado, tomatoes, corn, and red onions. Place a warm crab cake in the center. Drizzle with the dressing.

Makes 4 Salads

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