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Grilled Chicken, Strawberry and Spinach Salad in an Orange Poppy Seed Vinaigrette

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Later this morning, I’ll be chatting with the morning host of Charlotte’s Lite 102.9. (Any Charlotte readers out there??) Lite 102.9 has recently begun featuring my blog on their website, which I think is super cool. And they have the great idea to put together a series of short audio clips about cooking, family, and this blog to air for their online streaming content listeners. I think that’s even cooler. I’m just hoping I don’t get stage fright…or phone fright, I suppose.

My husband says that I ought to practice my non-regional dialect and annunciation ala Will Ferrell Anchorman style. Unique New York. Unique New York. You know you need unique New York. The Human Torch was denied a bank loan. My husband believes that my accent may be a bit too Long Guyland-y for southern listeners. Of course, he’s just poking fun at me, but we do have some definite differences in agreement over how certain words should be pronounced.

In our 16 years together, some of our biggest arguments have revolved around how to pronounce the names Erin or Aaron and Carrie or Kerry. We’ve nearly come to blows over the proper way to say crayon (It’s definitely not ‘cran’). And don’t even get me started on orange. I can acknowledge that there’s an ‘or’ in the beginning of the word, so it could be pronounced like oar-inj, but that’s just not how I say it. And well…I’m just going to go eat my R-enges now.

However you say it, sweet oranges make me think of summer. And it doesn’t get much more summery than this light spinach salad, topped with a tender grilled chicken breast, sweet mandarin oranges and fresh strawberries, dressed in a vibrant orange and poppy seed vinaigrette. It’s bright, fresh, and perfect if you’re watching your waistline for summer!

Grilled Chicken, Strawberry, and Spinach Salad in an Orange Poppy Vinaigrette

Ingredients

  • Juice and zest from 1 navel orange (about 1/3 cup)
  • 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 1 1/2 tablespoon poppy seeds
  • Crushed red pepper, to taste
  • Pinch of salt
  • 4 grilled chicken breasts (seasoned with salt and pepper), sliced
  • 8 cups fresh baby spinach leaves (approximately)
  • 8-10 strawberries, sliced
  • 1 cup mandarin orange segments
  • 1 red onion, very thinly sliced

Directions

To prepare the vinaigrette: Combine the orange juice, zest, vinegar, olive oil, honey and poppy seeds until well blended. Season with salt and crushed red pepper, to taste.

To assemble the salad: Toss the spinach leaves in some of the dressing. (Do not overdress.) Arrange a pile of the dressed spinach leaves on each plate. Top with the grilled chicken, red onions, strawberries, and oranges. Drizzle a little extra dressing over the chicken.

Makes 4 meal-sized salads

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Spinach, Bacon, and Mushroom Salad in a Warm Bacon Shallot Vinaigrette

I haven’t talked a lot about my diet recently, but rest assured, I am still on the path of success. As of this morning, I have lost 16 pounds, give or take a pound depending on the day. I am continuing to follow the guidelines of the South Beach diet, but not without some leeway for splurging. In fact, I spent most of Valentine’s week living on a diet of chocolate, wine, and cheddar goldfish, which in an odd twist of fate, resulted in a quick 2-pound weight loss. I think sometimes we just need to mix things up and splurge a little to remind our bodies that there is indeed no famine and there is no reason to hold onto that excess weight. Somehow it’s never really as simple as calories in vs. calories out, is it?

Clearly I’m not following any hard and fast ‘rules’ as get myself in shape, but what I like about the overall South Beach diet approach is that by mostly avoiding refined carbs, I rarely feel the perpetual, intense hunger and cravings that I often feel when I’m not limiting refined carbs. I can eat a two-egg omelet in the morning and feel satisfied for hours or I can eat a bowl of rice flake cereal, be starving 30 minutes later and then spend the rest of the morning playing the hunger games (not those hunger games, silly). I chose the omelet. It just makes the weight loss process so much easier and a lot less painful. In fact, once you get the hang of it, the South Beach ‘diet’ doesn’t really feel like a diet at all. It just feels like healthy eating.

I don’t believe that refined carbs are evil, nor do I blame their excess as the root of weight gain or applaud their absence as the grand solution to weight loss. But what I do know is that refined carbs cause a rapid blood sugar spike and subsequent crash, which gives you that starving feeling soon after eating, which then causes you to eat more, which causes you to gain weight. It’s a vicious cycle of cravings. And even if you can manage to resist those cravings, you’re still left with that uncomfortable hunger which makes trying to lose weight so darn frustrating. So, for me, reducing my refined carb intake just makes the whole weight loss thing a lot easier.

And there’s still plenty of room for indulgences within the framework of a reduced carb diet plan, like this spinach salad which is topped with a slightly runny egg and drizzled in a bacon vinaigrette. I first ran across the idea for this salad on the Christian Science Monitor website, which regularly features my blog in their food section, Stir It Up. I’ve always been a fan of spinach and bacon salads, but the egg on this one really sealed the deal for me. I just love finding eggs in surprising places, like atop a pile of fries, a burger, or a salad! Not to let any of delicious bacon-y flavor escape this dish, I incorporated the bacon drippings into my vinaigrette. I couldn’t decide whether that was a genius or revolting idea as I was doing it. I firmly settled on utterly genius with my first bite.

This salad isn’t totally ‘legal’ on South Beach, since bacon doesn’t technically count as a ‘lean’ protein. And certainly mixing the bacon drippings into the dressing is not a recommended South Beach strategy. But it’s close enough (and definitely worth the splurge). This salad packs a ton of protein and lots of good healthy nutrition which will keep you feeling nicely satisfied for hours. Just go easy on the dressing and you can feel pretty good about this meal.

Spinach, Bacon, and Mushroom Salad in a Warm Bacon Shallot Vinaigrette

(Inspired by Beyond the Peel’s Wilted Spinach Salad with Bacon and a Poached Egg)

Ingredients

For the vinaigrette:

  • 1/8 cup olive oil
  • 1/8 cup warm bacon drippings (reserved from cooking bacon)
  • 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon shallot, finely diced
  • 1 teaspoon dijon mustard
  • Pinch of salt and pepper

For the salad:

  • 8 slices bacon (use applewood smoked bacon, if available)
  • 2 cups baby bella (cremini) mushrooms, sliced
  • 1/2 tablespoon butter
  • 8 cups baby spinach
  • 4 eggs

Directions

Cook the bacon according to package directions. Reserve the bacon drippings for the vinaigrette. Once cool, crumble or chop the bacon into small pieces.

To prepare the vinaigrette: Whisk together the warm bacon drippings with the olive oil, balsamic vinegar, shallot, mustard, salt and pepper until blended. The vinaigrette will get firm when cooled (from the bacon drippings). Microwave for a few seconds to warm and loosen the dressing.

To prepare the mushrooms: Heat the butter in a pan over medium heat. Add the mushrooms and cook for about 7-10 minutes, stirring frequently, until tender and slightly golden. Season with a pinch of salt and pepper.

To assemble the salads: Place about 2 cups of baby spinach on each plate. Scatter the bacon and mushrooms over the spinach. Just before serving, fry an egg to your preferred doneness (I prefer over-medium…well-cooked white, runny yolk.) Place the fried egg over the salad. Drizzle with a bit of the vinaigrette.

Makes 4 Salads

Diet Update: 16 pounds down and staying the course…only 6 pounds away from my first major goal!

Italian Wedding Soup

I’m about to eat my words.

“I guess I just don’t really think too much about soup. I never crave it. I rarely get the itch to make it. ” – Me, October 26, 2010

Well, I’ve changed my mind. A girl’s allowed to change her mind, right?? I think about soup all of the time lately. I crave soup frequently. I always have the itch to make it. In fact, I can barely think of anything more comforting on a chilly autumn day than a bowl of soup; a creamy pumpkin bisque, savory chicken noodle, or spicy sausage and bean. I love them all.

While I’m busy eating my words, I might as well admit that my lifelong, passionate distaste for Rod Stewart has been gradually waning. Rod Stewart, the thought of whom used to give me unpleasant shivers. I now find myself singing along to his songs on the radio. I may have even raised the volume once or twice. What’s happening to me?

I’m swimming in soup this week as I prepare for our littlest guy’s upcoming baptism. I’ll be serving a menu of soups, salad, and assorted breads. There will be a Roasted Pumpkin Caramel Bisque, a Sausage, Bean, and Rapini soup, a Spicy Beef Chili, and this Italian Wedding Soup.

Italian wedding soup is typically composed of a chicken broth with meatballs, leafy greens, and pasta. It’s a simple, but perfectly married combination of flavors. I start my soup with a homemade chicken broth. You can skip this step and use prepared chicken broth to save a whole bunch of time. But, if you make the broth from scratch you’ll have the added benefit of enough cooked chicken to make meals for the rest of the week! Totally worth the small investment in time!

Italian Wedding Soup

Ingredients

For the broth:

  • 2 whole chickens
  • 2 cups carrots, coarse chopped
  • 1 head celery, coarse chopped
  • 2 onions, quartered
  • 6-8 cloves garlic

For the meatballs:

  • 1 pound ground chicken
  • 1 pound ground pork
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup seasoned bread crumbs
  • 1/4 cup parmesan cheese
  • 2 teaspoons garlic, minced
  • 2 teaspoons parsley
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • Pepper

For the soup:

  • 3-4 teaspoons salt
  • Pepper
  • Splash of hot sauce
  • 12 ounces baby spinach, coarse-chopped
  • 1 pound small pasta (ditalini or orzo)

Directions

To prepare the broth, place two whole chickens into a very large pot (12-16 quart stockpot). Add carrots, celery, onions, and garlic. Add enough water to cover an inch or two above the chicken and veggies. Bring to a simmer and cook, covered, for about 3.5-4 hours. When cool enough to safely handle, use a slotted spoon to remove most of the chicken and veggies. Pour the remaining mixture through a fine-sieve strainer. Save the chicken for other uses (salads, quesadillas, chicken salad, pasta dishes). Discard the vegetables. Transfer the broth back to the pot and bring to a boil. Boil, uncovered for 20-30 minutes to reduce the liquid and concentrate the flavor. Allow to cool. Use a spoon to skim some of the fat from the surface of the soup. (If desired, you can cool the broth completely in the refrigerator to easily remove the excess fat, which will rise and harden on the surface of the broth. This is not a necessary step, but is the most effective way to remove the fat.) Reserve 16 cups of the broth for the soup. Freeze any remaining broth for other uses.

To prepare the meatballs, combine all meatball ingredients until well-blended. Roll the mixture into 1 inch balls. Bake on a baking sheet for about 20 minutes at 375 degrees.

To prepare the soup, bring 16 cups of the full-flavored broth to a simmer. Add salt and pepper, as desired. About 3-4 teaspoons of salt should do the trick. (Store-bought broth, which has already been salted, will require less salt. Taste as you go to prevent over-salting the broth.) Add a splash or two of hot sauce, as desired. Add the meatballs and spinach. Simmer until the spinach wilts. In a separate pot, cook the pasta for 2-3 minutes less than directed. (It will finish cooking in the soup.) Strain, then add the slightly under-cooked pasta to the hot soup.

Strawberry Spinach Smoothies

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Obsession, thy name is Strawberry Spinach Smoothies.

I honestly can’t quantify the amount of fresh baby spinach my family has consumed over the past two weeks. We are a family obsessed. It would probably behoove Popeye to snatch up whatever remaining spinach he can get his hands on, before my family calls dibs on every last green leaf. I suppose there are worse things to be obsessed with.

It all started with the Strawberry Basil Smoothie recipe I recently shared. While adding the bright green basil, it occurred to me that a bit of spinach might be a nice match to the ripe summer strawberries.

So, as soon as I was able to get my hands on some spinach, I set about making my first ever strawberry spinach smoothie. I started with just a small handful of spinach. A quick taste led to another handful. Another taste, another handful. Turns out that these smoothies can easily handle a full bag of fresh baby spinach without sacrificing any of the sweet strawberry flavor.

Now, admittedly, adding vegetables to a smoothie is not an insanely novel idea, but it’s one I hadn’t tried before and I just had to share the recipe with you! These smoothies are so insanely nutritious and delicious, you won’t be able to stop smiling. You’ll smile even wider while watching your young picky eaters happily gulp down massive quantities of fresh, spinachy goodness.

Strawberry Spinach Smoothies

Ingredients

  • 3-4 cups frozen strawberries
  • 6-8 cups baby spinach
  • 1 cup Greek yogurt
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 1/2 cup apple juice, milk or water

Directions

Blend all ingredients until smooth and frosty. Enjoy!

**Tips**

Buy and freeze plenty of strawberries now, while they’re in season and priced low.

Freeze your strawberries on a baking sheet before placing in a container to help prevent them from sticking together.

Chop large strawberries before freezing to make things easier on your blender.

Freeze leftover smoothie mixture in ice cube trays. Blend your frozen smoothie cubes with a splash of juice when you’re ready to enjoy!

This recipe is fully customizable. Have fun playing around with different combinations of fruits and vegetables!

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