December 31, 2011

Happy New Year!!

Happy New Year everyone! It's kind of neat to think that while I was spending time in my kitchen cooking for my New Year's celebration later tonight, someone else- somewhere in the world was ringing in 2012. I watched the fireworks in New Zealand this morning while I was on the treadmill!

New Year's Eve is a laid-back holiday for my husband and I... no wild parties, (especially not now with a 3 month old), but we still have a great time... most of the time. Our first New Year's Eve together, we spent the night on the couch in our apartment, I worked a 12 hour day, got home at about 8pm, we toasted champagne- which we found out that night that Matt was allergic to... he popped a few Benedryl, and I think we were both sound asleep by 1030... We've gotten better since then. We've spent three of the past five years with friends of ours and their two kids, and we'll be bringing our son along this year. It's a low-key night of games, great food and drinks, and Dick Clark. Someday, I want to go to, or host a swanky cocktail party, but that can wait (high heels aren't that comfortable anyway).

Food-wise, there is no other time for hors d'oeuvres like New Year's Eve. I look forward to a night of snacking and sampling a variety of different things. I'm happy as long as there are mini-hotdogs. Yes, mini-hotdogs. Not gourmet, not complicated... simple, delicious, mini-hotdogs wrapped in refrigerated biscuits, baked until golden brown, and dipped in either barbecue sauce, or spicy mustard. For me, it just simply isn't New Year's without mini-hotdogs. That being said, I think I would get sick if that's all I ate all night, so there has to be other things. This year, my friend Shannon is in charge of chicken wings, mini-meatballs, and a veggie tray (I think- she's always full of delicious surprises!)... I was responsible for: the ever-important mini-hotdogs, pulled pork sliders, and tomato-avocado salsa and chips.

Apparently, at some point in the 4 years that I have been friends with Shannon, I made a tomato-avocado salsa, (guacamole, basically), and it was phenomenal. She has asked me to make it several times since then... the only problem is, I have no idea what recipe I followed, or made up, and have not been able to make it again since, so I always come up with something else to bring. She asked me to bring it for tonight's festivities, and this time I knew I needed to come up with something, so I created my own. ...I have no idea if its the same thing that I made before, but it's good!!

Tomato-Avocado Salsa

2 Haas Avocados, peeled and diced
3 tomatoes (small), diced
2 tbsp, chopped cilantro
4 tbsp, finely chopped red onion
1 1/2 tsp minced jalapeno pepper
1 1/2 limes, juiced
1/4 tsp kosher salt
1/8 tsp ground black pepper

Halve avocados, slicing lengthwise. Holding the avocado in two hands, one on each side of the slice, twist to separate. Gently run knife along inside of avocado, slicing into small squares- scoop out into large bowl. Repeat process for both avocados. Keep pits in bowl with diced avocado- keeping the whole pits in with the salsa helps prevent the avocado from browning. Dice tomatoes, chop onion, cilantro, mince jalapeno- placing all ingredients into the bowl with the avocado. Juice lime into bowl, add salt and pepper. Stir. Serve with tortilla chips... a margarita would be good too!

I would share my recipe for the pulled pork, (something I usually make with chicken), but I have no idea where the recipe came from, and I don't want to get in trouble for stealing a recipe without giving credit where credit is due.

What kind of food traditions do you all have for New Year's? Anyone else love mini-hotdogs as much as I do?!?

I hope that everyone has a safe and happy New Year's!!

December 29, 2011

Christmas Sweets: Peppermint Ice Cream Cake and Chruscik

I am thrilled to announce that Christmas leftovers are gone!! Well, for the most part, at least... the remaining ham will be sliced and frozen for future quick meals. As far as blogging about it goes, I'm not quite done yet... I saved dessert for last.

This year I wanted to both try something new/different, and make something to tie in some of my family's traditions.  So, I was very happy when I found a recipe for a Peppermint Ice Cream cake in an old Cooking Light magazine, and even happier when my aunt invited me over to make Chruscik with her before Christmas.

I'll start with the new... Peppermint Ice Cream Cake. First of all, I must say that I love ice cream. I really don't know anyone that doesn't- even my lactose-intolerant husband. I also don't know many people who don't love chocolate cake. A recipe that combines the two? Delicious. The fact that its a Cooking Light Recipe? Amazing.

Peppermint Ice Cream Cake
Cooking Light: Serves 16

Cooking Spray
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa
3/4 cup boiling water
6 tbsp butter, melted
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup egg substitute
1 1/2 cups all purpose flout
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp vanilla extract
3 cups low-fat peppermint ice cream (such as Edy's/Dreyer's Slow-Churned Light), softened
3 cups frozen fat-free whipped topping, thawed (I used Cool-Whip)
1/8 tsp peppermint extract (I did not use this)
8 peppermint candies, crushed

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Coat 2 (8in) round cake pans with cooking spray. Line bottom of each pan with wax paper.
Combine cocoa, water and butter, stirring with whisk until blended. Cool.
Combine sugars in a large bowl, stirring well until blended. Add egg substitute; beat 2 minutes or until light and creamy. Add cocoa mixture, and beat for 1 minute.
Lightly spoon flour into dry measuring cups; level with a knife. Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Gradually add flour mixture to bowl; beat for 1 minute or until blended. Stir in vanilla. Pour batter into prepared pans. Bake at 350 degrees for 28 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool in pans for 10 minutes on a wire rack. Remove from pans. Wrap in plastic wrap, and freeze for 2 hours or until slightly frozen.
Spread ice cream in an 8-inch round cake pan lined with plastic wrap. Cover and freeze 4 hours or until firm.
To assemble cake, place one cake layer, bottom side up, on a cake pedestal. Remove ice cream layer from freezer; remove plastic wrap. Place ice cream layer, bottom side up, on top of cake layer. Top with remaining cake layer.
Combine whipped topping and peppermint extract, and stir until blended. Spread frosting over top and sides of cake. Sprinkle with crushed peppermints. Freeze until ready to serve. Let cake stand at room temperature 10 minutes before slicing.

As mentioned above, I skipped the peppermint extract in the Cool-Whip "frosting". I think that the cake was wonderful without it... I would actually say that I think that the extract would have pushed it a little too far over the pepperminty edge. Overall, the cake was light and refreshing, an excellent end to a big meal! Now that I've conquered the ice cream cake idea, I think I will play with different ice creams and cakes to create my own combinations.

... And now, for the "old". A bit of my family's tradition. As I mentioned above, I made homemade chruscik with my aunt. It was a great way to spend an afternoon, and the resulting dessert was delicious. My grandfather was Polish, and growing up, my family always followed the Polish tradition for Christmas Eve dinner. We would have soup, fish, pierogi, vegetables, and more... for a total of 7 courses. Dessert sometimes included chruscik. For those of you who haven't tried chruscik before, I would say that its like a very light, almost cookie-like version of funnel cake. Its really yummy, worth the work, and you really can't have just one...

Recipe from: Treasured Polish Recipes for Americans

2 cups flour
2 whole eggs
4 egg yolks
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1/4 cup butter
1 jigger rum

Add salt to eggs and beat until thick and lemon-colored. Add sugar, butter and rum and continue to beat. Fold in flour and knead, (on a well floured board) until the dough blisters. Cut in halves, roll very thin and cut into strips about 4 inches long. Slit eat piece in center and pull one end through the slit. Fry in hot fat (or oil) until lightly browned. Drain on absorbent paper and sprinkle with powdered sugar.

I got away easy. I was in charge of frying... and of my son, who luckily for us, spent most of the afternoon napping. I did, however, pay attention during the mixing and rolling-out process. Biggest tip: don't be surprised if you use much more than 2 cups of flour. The dough is sticky during the rolling... add flour gradually until it stops sticking to everything. Also, "roll very thin" means, roll very thin. We could faintly see the wood grain of the table through the dough when they were rolled out perfectly. We used canola oil to fry in... I put them in, one by one, with a max. of 4 cookies in the pan at once. Allow them to lightly brown on one side, before turning them over to finish cooking... If you're making them a few days in advance, store in air-tight container, and you'll probably want to sprinkle them with powdered sugar again right before serving. Mine lasted 4 days in a tupperware, and were delicious on Christmas.

The only other dessert item I made this year were almond cookies, (my and my grandmother's favorite)... I used a recipe for Russian Tea Cakes and used almonds as my nut-of-choice. Perhaps I will share that recipe sometime in the future. I'm sure I'll have occasion to bake cookies again soon. Lucky for me, a couple of my guests brought sweets with them; my grandmother baked a tasty vanilla cake, and my cousin-in-law's girlfriend brought yummy and adorable rice-crispie treat wreaths. (Which I wish I had gotten a picture of before they were all eaten!)

Well, thats it for tonight... I hope that everyone is enjoying their leftovers, and can soon celebrate finishing them! Time for me to find and make new things to share...

You can find the Cooking Light recipe for the Peppermint Ice Cream Cake online here.

Chruscik Recipe from cookbook: Treasured Polish Recipes for Americans, Published by The Polanie Club, by the Polanie Publishing Company, Minneapolis, Minnesota. Originally published in 1948, reprinted many times- most recently in 2008. Known lovingly in my family as "the red book". You can purchase a copy of this cookbook on

December 27, 2011

We Ate Our Way Through Christmas!

I hope that everyone is enjoying their holiday season!  I love the holidays, and really look forward to this time of year.  For four months, (October through January), there is so much to celebrate, so many family gatherings, traditions, and always lots of great food.

We seemed to eat our way through Christmas this year, starting on Christmas Eve, through dinner on the 26th!  Every bite was delicious.

Christmas Eve we went to my husband's Grandmother's house for baked ziti, sausage and meatballs, salad, and yummy Christmas cookies and cakes.  His Grandmother gave me her recipe for her Boiled Raisin Cake, which I will have to make before winter is over.  Filled with delicious, plump raisins and spices, it tastes like the holidays.

We spend Christmas morning with my in-laws.  My mother-in-law made a delicious, and somewhat healthy, brunch.  We had a refreshing fruit salad, Brie and Egg Strata, homemade cinnamon rolls, sparkling apple cider and hot tea.  Everything was fabulous!  The strata was wonderful; layers of fluffy eggs, tender veggies and potatoes, mixed with gooey brie cheese... yum!  The cinnamon rolls were incredible! She made them the day before, then warmed them and made the icing on Christmas morning... the house smelled like cinnamon and dough, like a delicious bakery.

For the first time, my husband and I hosted Christmas Dinner.  We had a total of 15 people from my family, and his.  The menu included: baked ham, cranberry chutney, green bean casserole (my own recipe), oven-roasted brussels sprouts, mashed potato casserole, sweet potatoes, balsamic succotash, and potato-cheese pierogies in caramelized onions (part of my family's Christmas tradition).  Desserts included a (Cooking Light) Peppermint Ice Cream Cake, almond cookies and homemade chruscik.

There was a ton of food! Luckily, we were able to use some of the dishes the next night, along with a perfectly roasted turkey and a spiral-cut ham, with my father-in-law's side of the family.

As you can imagine, there were many, many recipes from our holiday celebrations worth sharing.  To prevent this post from being the post that never ends, I will only be sharing a few tonight... I'll save the sweet stuff for tomorrow...

This was only the second time ever that I have made a baked ham.  So, I nervously scoured the internet for cranberry ham recipes, in hopes of: 1. being able to use the fresh cranberries that I bought at Thanksgiving, didn't get to use and tossed in the freezer, and 2. making a delicious ham.  Finding no cranberry ham recipes that I liked, I decided that I would separate the two, and make a delicious ham, and cranberry chutney as an accompaniment.  Matt's uncle makes homemade cranberry sauce for Thanksgiving every year, so the pressure was on! I was thrilled when I heard him say that the chutney was "bangin'"!!

Cranberry Chutney
Everyday Food, November 2005

1 tbsp olive oil
1/4 cup finely minced shallot
1 tbsp peeled and finely grated fresh ginger*
1 (12oz) bag fresh cranberries, rinsed and picked over
1 cup sugar
2 tbsp red wine vinegar
Coarse salt and ground pepper

In large saucepan, heat oil over medium-low. Add shallots and ginger; cook, stirring occasionally, until shallots are softened, about 5 minutes.
Add cranberries, sugar, vinegar and 1 cup water; bring to a boil. Reduce heat, and simmer, stirring often, until most of the berries have burst and mixture has thickened, 10 to 15 minutes.
Season with salt and pepper. Let cool completely. Serve at room temperature or chilled.
*I did not have fresh ginger, so I used about 1/2 tbsp. powdered ginger.
I made this chutney the day before, and chilled it in the refrigerator. About two hours or so before dinner, I removed it from the fridge and put it in dishes on the table so that it was room temperature by dinner time.

Growing up, every year we ate green bean casserole during Thanksgiving dinner. The version we ate was, I think, the original Campbell's soup recipe with full-fat Cream of Mushroom soup, cans of french-cut green beans and French's onions.  While nostalgic and tasty, I wanted to see if I could make one of my favorite dishes a little healthier and perhaps a little more delicious. I think that I accomplished my goals! This recipe is a definite 'keeper'.

Green Bean Casserole
Serves 8

2 (12oz) pkgs frozen green beans, cooked per pkg directions*
1 shallot, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tsp. fresh thyme
1/2 tbsp butter
1tbsp olive oil
1/4 tsp black pepper
1 (10.75oz) can 98% fat-free Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup
1/4 cup reduced-fat milk
French's onions, for topping.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place olive oil and butter into a large saucepan over medium heat.  Saute shallots and garlic until shallots are translucent. Add fresh thyme, pepper and soup. Slowly add milk, stirring constantly. Turn heat down to low, and allow soup mixture to come together. Cook green beans per package directions in microwave. Remove from microwave and place beans into large bowl. Pour soup over beans, tossing to mix completely, then pour mixture into an oven-safe 2qt. dish. Bake for 25 minutes. Stir, top with onions, and bake uncovered for 5 minutes, or until onions are browned. Serve warm.

*I used Bird's Eye Steamfresh green beans, and cooked them in the microwave for 4.5 minutes, each package.
I made a double batch of this casserole the day before and refrigerated overnight (divided into 2 separate oven-safe dishes). About half an hour before they needed to be baked, I took them out of the fridge to warm up a bit before putting them into the oven.

As I mentioned above, I had only made a baked ham once before Christmas dinner. I relied on a glaze recipe that I found online at The flavors were simple, familiar and delicious. I did not follow their baking directions. Instead, as per package directions, I baked mine in a 325 degree oven for 15 minutes per pound. Before putting the ham into the oven, I made sure there was about 1/2 inch of ginger ale in the bottom of my roasting pan, and covered the pan with foil.  Every 30 minutes, I checked on the ham, basting the top of the ham with the ginger ale, always making sure that there was about 1/2 inch of liquid in the pan.

Ham with Cola and Maple Glaze

1 fully cooked ham, about 6 to 8 pounds
whole cloves, optional (I did not use them)
1/2 cup pure maple syrup
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup cola (I used Cherry Coke)
1 tbsp Dijon mustard
1/4 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon

Combine maple syrup, brown sugar, cola, mustard, ginger and cinnamon in saucepan; bring to a simmer and continue cooking over low heat for about 2 minutes. About 20 minutes before ham is done, spoon about half of the glaze over top of ham, then about 10 minutes before done, spread remaining glaze over ham.

My ham turned out to be very moist, and is making us some very good ham sandwiches... Any ideas for recipes that use leftover ham?!?

There is still so much to share!! I could keep going, but it's making me hungry, and I want to keep this a bit shorter than a cookbook... Tomorrow, I'll share the recipe I used for the Peppermint Ice Cream Cake (Cooking Light!!!) and the homemade Chruscik.

Recipes I mentioned tonight:
Brie and Egg Strata
Cinnamon Rolls
Cranberry Chutney
Ham with Cola and Maple Glaze

December 17, 2011

Whole Wheat Banana Muffins

I am the type of person who buys bananas with the secret hope that they will go uneaten so that I can make banana muffins out of them... I like bananas, but if reaching for a fruit to snack on, I prefer apples, grapes... many other fruits. But, make them into a baked good, and I just can't get enough!

Today, (caught up somewhere between cleaning, planning, and a crying, growth-spurt having baby), I was in desperate need of "baking therapy", and very lucky for me, I had a couple of very ripe bananas waiting for me to make them into something yummy. I have tried and created many different recipes (eg. my recipe for Banana-Walnut Oat Bran muffins from February), for banana bread and banana muffins, but today, I wanted to try something new. This time around, I tried to make them at least a little healthful, by using some whole wheat flour and egg substitute.

Whole Wheat Banana Muffins
Makes 16 muffins

2 large, ripe bananas
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
2/3 cup dark brown sugar, lightly packed
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp kosher salt
3/4 cup reduced fat milk
3 tbsp canola oil
1 tsp vanilla
1/4 cup egg substitute, (equivalent of 1 large egg)
Turbinado/Raw sugar for muffin tops, optional

Preheat oven to 375°, and place muffin liners into muffin pan. Combine flours, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt in large bowl. Set aside. In bowl of mixer pour brown sugar, milk, oil, vanilla and egg substitute. Mix wet ingredients at medium speed until combined. Slowly add dry ingredients into wet, until well combined. In small bowl, mash bananas with a fork. Fold mashed bananas into muffin batter. Pour batter into muffin tins, filling each until about 2/3 full.  Sprinkle Turbinado sugar on top of each muffin. Bake on middle rack for 18 to 20 minutes, or until toothpick inserted into center comes out clean. Remove muffins from pan. Set on wire rack to cool.

I really enjoyed this recipe.  The whole wheat flour adds a warm nuttiness to the muffins, without having to splurge on walnuts (or worry about whether or not you have them on hand at the same time as your ripe bananas).  The cinnamon and nutmeg add a subtle spice, which is great- especially during this time of year.  The best part is, I made them out of ingredients that I had on hand at home... things that I always have in my kitchen. (With the exception of the egg substitute... but I always have either substitute or the real deal, and you could use either when baking.)

I hope that everyone is enjoying their holiday season! Christmas dinner will be at our house this year, which we are very excited about. There is a lot to be done, but I know that it will be a great time, and (of course) there will be a lot of good food to share... food that I plan on sharing here!!

December 08, 2011

Kahlua Chocolate Chunk Cookies and a Cookie Exchange

Clockwise: Peanut Butter Reindeer, Orange Marmalade Thumbprints, Oatmeal Cranberry, Orange Chocolate Chip, Italian Anisette, Chocolate Chunk, Chewy Chocolate-Cherry, Russian Tea Cookies
Cookie exchanges.  I had never been part of one until three or four years ago, when I got invited to an exchange at my aunt-in-law's house.  I had heard stories from friends and family about their cookie exchange experiences... the good, the bad, the ugly.  Despite what I heard, I was really looking forward to my first exchange.  I love to bake, I always enjoy trying new recipes, I love cookies, and my husband's family really knows how to throw a party, big or small.  So, I set out to create a winning cookie, no matter what.

My first year, I used a Cooking Light recipe for Chocolate-Hazelnut Thumbrints (made with Nutella!)... they were incredibly delicious and very labor intensive.  I took home a prize!  My second year, I chose an easier, (but equally as yummy) Giada De Laurentiis recipe for Lemon Ricotta Cookies with Lemon Glaze.  This year, my goal was to find and bake the easiest and best-tasting cookie I could find.  I had no delusions of winning best-looking.  Easy cookies, in my opinion, are drop cookies... and I don't know too many good-looking drop cookies.  So, after much research, this year I chose to bake a Rachael Ray recipe for Kahlua Chocolate Chunk Cookies.

These cookies use chocolate chip cookie mix as a base... a good time saver and sanity saver, (especially when, in the middle of counting teaspoons of baking powder you could get called away by a crying baby)... I was a little skeptical at first, just because I've never used a cookie mix before and it almost felt like cheating.  I got over my skepticism when I realized how easy it was to make double batches without getting worked up about losing track of my dry ingredients.
I needed a total of 10 dozen cookies for the exchange so I made two double-batches of cookies, which worked out very well... I made just enough to sample some right out of the oven, make sure my husband liked them, and ensure that my tasting and swapping dozens were as close to perfect as possible.  (While keeping any that I deemed "imperfect" in our share... which ended up being a little larger than a dozen.).

Kahlua Chocolate Chunk Cookies
Rachael Ray: One batch: 34 cookies

1 (1lb 1.5oz)  package dry chocolate chip cookie mix
7 tbsp. butter, softened
1 large egg, beaten
4 tbsp. Kahlua, or other coffee liquor
3 tbsp. instant espresso or instant coffee crystals
1 tbsp. ground coffee beans
1 cup bittersweet chocolate chunks, (she recommends Ghiradelli)
4 oz. walnut pieces*

Preheat oven to 375.
Place racks in center of oven.  In a mixing bowl, make a well in center of dry chocolate chip cookie mix.  Ad softened butter, egg, Kahlua, instant coffee and ground coffee, chocolate chunks and walnuts.  Mix well to combine all ingredients into cookie dough.  Scoop with a small scoop** or by heaping tablespoons and drop cookies 2 inches apart on ungreased nonstick cookie sheet.  Bake cookies in batches 9 to 11 minutes or until crisp and browned at edges.  Transfer to a wire rack to cool and serve.

*I did not use the walnut pieces, and still very much enjoyed the cookies.  When I make these cookies in a normal quantity (ie. one batch), I will include the walnuts.
**I love my cookie scoop (looks like a small, old-fashioned ice cream scoop). Cookies come out much more uniform and you actually get the expected number of cookies from a batch when using one.  I highly recommend getting and using a cookie scoop whenever you bake! I also use mine when baking cupcakes.

As a coffee and chocolate chip cookie enthusiast, I must say: these cookies were awesome!!  (One taster said that these cookies tasted just like a mocha frappuchino.) Although I did not get enough votes for best-tasting this year, I will be making these cookies again.

Best Tasting: Chewy Chocolate-Cherry 
So, who and what cookies won this year??  Best Tasting went to my mother-in-law and her Chewy Chocolate-Cherry Cookies, (Cooking Light is incredible).  Best Looking went to my aunt-in-law for her Italian Anisette cookies, which she made sugar-free with Splenda.  Other cookies included Russian Tea cookies, Chocolate Chunk, Oatmeal Cranberry,  Orange Marmalade Thumbprints, Orange Chocolate Chip, and adorable Peanut Butter cookies decorated as reindeer.  It was a very good year for cookie tasting!!

I really enjoy the cookie exchange tradition.  Some of the best parts of the holidays are food and the family and friends we share it with.  Cookie parties give us an opportunity to get-together, taste delicious treats and maybe even pick up a few new recipes- I am already looking forward to next year!

December 04, 2011

Oven Roasted Spaghetti Squash with Meat Sauce

I love pasta.  I am also trying to lose weight this winter, rather than gain my typical 5lbs of "insulation".  So, I'm trying to eat a little lighter this winter: skipping some unnecessary carbs, and doing my best to eat more fruits and vegetables.  I remember a couple of years ago, my mom told me that she had made spaghetti squash "pasta" as a stand in for one of my beloved starches.  I tried it, liked it, made it once at home... but it didn't become part of my rotation of go-to meals.  I decided last night, I would give it another shot.

The one time before that I made spaghetti squash, I steamed it in the microwave.  It was quick and easy to do, but I needed to do better.  The microwaved/steamed version that I had made before was watery, not very flavorful, and miles away from any pasta I'd ever had.

This time, I decided to try cooking the squash differently to see if I ended up with a more flavorful result.  So, I "googled" how to cook spaghetti squash.  It turns out that this squash, although perhaps more fun than the others, is just as easy to cook as its cousins the acorn and butternut.  Simple oven roasting.  I already had the oven on from baking my cookies for the cookie exchange tomorrow, (more on that next time), so I decided I would give it a try.  Oven roasting vegetables highlights their natural flavors and adds such a comforting, hearty quality... I had to try it.  The result: delicious, slightly sweet and a little nutty, I would have been more than happy to eat the whole squash all on its own, fresh out of the oven.  I did, however, throw together a light, simple meat sauce to add some protein for a more complete meal.

Oven Roasted Spaghetti Squash with Meat Sauce
Serves 4 (approximate)

For Squash:
1 medium spaghetti squash
2 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
3/4 tsp. kosher salt
Freshly cracked black pepper, to taste

For Sauce:
2 lg. garlic cloves, chopped
1 lb. lean ground beef
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1/4 tsp. black pepper
1 1/2 tsp. dried oregano
1 tsp. dried basil
1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes
2 (14.5oz) cans diced tomatoes, and their juice

Preheat oven to 375.  Slice squash in half lengthwise.  Scoop out and discard seeds and pulp.  Brush cut sides of squash with olive oil, coating completely.  Season with salt and pepper.  Coat a baking dish with cooking spray.  Place squash, cut side down, in baking dish.  Bake at 375 degrees for 50 minutes, or until fork tender.  Remove from oven, and set aside to cool in dish until cool enough to handle.

While squash is cooking, place a saucepan over medium heat.  Add ground beef, and garlic.  Cook until meat is browned, breaking up the beef into small pieces.  Strain fat, (if there is any).  Season with the salt, pepper, and other spices.  Pour the tomatoes, with their juices, into the saucepan with the meat and simmer on low heat for 5-10 minutes.  (The sauce will become less runny, and the flavors will have a chance to develop.)

Once the squash is cool enough to handle, turn the squash halves over so they are facing cut side up.  Run a fork through the squash, and it will easily separate into noodle-like strands.  Scoop squash into bowl, top with meat sauce and serve.

Roasting the squash was definitely the way to go.  I plan on trying roasted spaghetti squash as a side dish, and will be making roasted spaghetti squash "pasta" one of my go-to dinners.  If you're craving heavy noodles, or are a die-hard pasta fan, this isn't the perfect replacement for real spaghetti... but its definitely something you should try anyway!

November 28, 2011

Thanksgiving Desserts: Fun Turkeys and Delicious Crisp

I hope that everyone had a happy, yummy Thanksgiving!  As I mentioned in my last post, this year I was co-responsible for desserts.  While my mother-in-law conquered the pumpkin pie, (which was delicious), I decided to follow tradition and make my family's pecan tarts, and try a new recipe for a pear, apple, cranberry crisp.  We also got together and made fun, whimsical turkey treats following a recipe she found in Taste of Home Magazine.

Needless to say, there was no dessert shortage and everything tasted great- it's a good thing we all get together for "Thanksgiving Part 2" on Black Friday so we could savor every last bite.

The turkeys were a big hit!  Made out of Keebler's Fudge Stripe cookies and Rice Krispie treats, embellished with candy corns, and held together with melted chocolate- they were both yummy and adorable.  My mother-in-law and I were surprised at how easy, (and reasonably quick) they were to make... a good bit more manageable than the turkey cupcakes I made last year!
First, we "glued" candy corn onto the back of a cookie with some melted chocolate.  While they were setting up in the refrigerator, we made the Rice Krispie treats, which we rolled into balls- the body of the turkeys.  Then, my mother-in-law attached the bodies and the candy corn feet to another cookie using chocolate glue.  While they were drying, I gave each turkey a candy corn face.
Then, we attached the tail feather cookie to the turkey's body using more melted chocolate.  Finally, my mother-in-law gave each turkey two chocolate dot eyes.  In the end, each turkey had a little personality of its own, and because of the tasty materials we used, everyone enjoyed eating them!  (Even our dog Honey, who never steals food from the table, took and ate four and a half of them!! Thankfully, it was not enough chocolate to make her sick.)

A little more "grown up", the crisp I made was phenomenal!!  I really wanted to make a dessert that used some of the wonderful fruit that is in season, without making the usual apple pie.  This crisp, an Ina Garten recipe from the Food Network, was exactly what I was looking for.  Made with in-season apples and pears, the fruit flavors are highlighted by fresh citrus and a little surprise of tart cranberries.  The topping provided just the right amount of seasonal spice and richness.  I will definitely be making this recipe part of my fall repertoire!

Pear, Apple and Cranberry Crisp
Ina Garten: Serves 8 (probably more)

2 lbs. ripe Bosc apples, (4 pears)
2 lbs. Macoun apples, (6 apples)*
3/4 cup dried cranberries
1 tsp. grated orange zest
1 tsp. grated lemon zest
2 tbsp. freshly squeezed orange juice
2 tbsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup light brown sugar, lightly packed
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1 cup old fashioned oatmeal
1/2 pound cold unsalted butter, diced

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Peel, core and cut the apples and pears into large chunks.  Place the fruit into a large bowl, and add cranberries, zests, juices, sugar, flour and spices.  Stir to combine, then pour into 9x12x2 inch baking dish.

For the topping: Combine flour, sugar, salt, oatmeal and butter in the bowl of an electric mixer using the paddle attachment.  Mix on low speed for one minute, or until the mixture is in large crumbles.  Sprinkle topping over the fruit, covering entirely.

Place the baking dish on a sheet pan, (to catch any drippings from the fruit), and bake for 50-60 minutes, until the top is brown and the fruit is bubbly.  Serve warm.

Notes on this recipe: Although this recipe was wonderful as-is, next time I think that I will substitute the all-purpose flour in the topping with whole wheat flour to add some nutty flavor.  For Thanksgiving, I made this dish ahead of time.  The day before, I followed the recipe but did not bake- I covered in with foil and kept it in the refrigerator.  After getting to dinner, which was held at my husband's aunt's house, I put the crisp in the oven and baked for one hour. The timing was perfect: the crisp was still warm when we were finished with dinner and ready for dessert.  The next night, I tried the crisp cold... it was still delicious!

*My grocery store did not have Macoun apples, so I substituted Pink Lady apples.

Again, I hope that everyone really enjoyed their Thanksgivings! I had a lot to be thankful for this year, and definitely enjoyed my holiday.

Coming Soon: An annual cookie exchange... I'm not really sure what kind of cookie I will be making this year, but I will be back to share my cookie recipe and cookie exchange stories with you soon!  For now, I'm off to decorate the house for Christmas!

You can find the original crisp recipe here on the Food Network website. 

November 22, 2011

Fall Flavors: Roasted Butternut Squash

Thanksgiving is almost here!!  Sadly, I'm having trouble getting into the spirit of my favorite holiday this year.  I think I just lost track of the season between having a baby, being out of work, and being out of town during the height of the fall leaves...

Last night, I set out to fix my season slump by making a dinner full of some of my favorite fall flavors.  I made a oven roasted pork tenderloin, (which I marinated in a mixture of maple syrup, soy sauce, apple cider vinegar, cloves, cinnamon, salt and red and black pepper), sauteed kale, and the best part: roasted butternut squash.

I really enjoy the flavor of butternut squash, so I wanted to lightly season the squash with spices that would highlight the squash's nutty flavor.  Roasting the squash in the oven further enhanced the flavors and created the perfect bite: a caramelized slightly crisp outside with a tender, moist center.  The surprise at the end: a light drizzle of pure maple syrup brought out the squash's natural sweetness and helped create the subtle sweet/savory flavor I really enjoy.

Roasted Butternut Squash

1 medium butternut squash
2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1/2 tsp ground sage
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp pure maple syrup, drizzled over squash to finish

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Slice squash in half, scoop out seeds, and using vegetable peeler, peel skin off of squash.  Cut squash into bite-sized pieces.  Place squash onto baking sheet,  toss with oil and spices.  Bake at 375 for 20 minutes*.  While squash is still on baking sheet, drizzle with maple syrup.  Transfer squash to serving dish.

*Baking time will depend on how big "bite-sized" pieces are cut.

Dinner was delicious, and I can happily report that I'm now in the spirit of the season... just in time!! I have dessert duty for Thanksgiving, and today is planning and shopping day.  I will share my baking adventures soon!

What are your favorite Thanksgiving dishes and desserts??

November 15, 2011

Road Trip: Florida's Columbia Restaurant

My husband and I just got back from a two week long road trip that we took with our now 6 week old son...  Yes, we are some of those insane parents determined to stay mobile with an infant.   It was exhausting at times, (especially for my husband who did most of the driving), but overall it was a great vacation.  We were able to visit family, relax and eat a lot of great food!

A view of the patio dining room at Columbia Sarasota
While visiting my family in Florida, we made it a point to have lunch at one of my favorite restaurants, the legendary Columbia Restaurant.  We were unable to visit the original Columbia Restaurant in Tampa, c. 1905 during this visit, but instead we went to the location on St. Armands Circle in Sarasota, Florida which was opened in 1959.  Columbia, Florida's oldest restaurant, is also the world's oldest Spanish restaurant.  Owned and operated by the Hernandez Gonzmart family since it's beginning, the Columbia restaurant now spans seven locations and has won several awards; including the Best Award of Excellence from Wine Spectator, "One of America's Top 10 Salads" from USA today, and several awards of excellence and distinction as both a Spanish restaurant, and a restaurant in general.  The awards are well deserved and the menu definitely lives up to its reputation.

For much of the very warm summer, I had been craving a mojito... and no one makes them like Columbia does!  They are also known for their incredible Sangria, (both their red and white are fabulous), but I had mojitos on my mind.  There is something incredibly refreshing about the taste of mixing cool mint leaves, tart lime juice, a touch of sweetness, a little fizz and, of course, the rum... We ordered a pitcher which, prepared table side by our waiter, made it even more fun to enjoy.

There is, of course, more to a restaurant than the drinks they serve and Columbia's menu offers plenty of delicious dishes to choose from... all served with generous portions of warm, freshly baked, crusty, cuban bread and butter.

"1905 Salad"

They are very well known for their "1905 Salad", a mix of crisp iceberg lettuce, julienned swiss cheese and baked ham, beefsteak tomato wedges, spanish olives, freshly grated Romano cheese and their incredible garlic dressing.  The meal-sized salad is assembled and tossed table side, but we opted to order the smaller versions to accompany our tapas lunch.

Black Bean Cakes
Chorizo "Espanola"
My husband and I had the "Tapeo" Sampler- made of three tapas of our choosing.  We ordered gambas "Al Ajillo", (shrimp sauteed in olive oil, garlic and chili pepper), black bean cakes, and chorizo "Espanola".  All three were mouth-watering.  My mother ordered the tapas plate of Empanadas de Picadillo- two perfectly assembled empanadas filled with their family recipe Picadillo served with a fresh corn and black bean salsa...delicious!

The food, along with the friendly and attentive staff, the beautifully decorated dining rooms and fresh open-air environment right on St. Armands circle made for a wonderful afternoon.  On our next visit, I'm hoping to be able to experience the original Columbia restaurant in Tampa and learn more about the restaurant's rich history... perhaps while enjoying a glass of their Sangria!

You can learn more about Columbia Restaurant on their website.
Photo of patio dining room was taken from the Columbia website.

October 27, 2011

Zuppa Toscana

One of my favorite restaurant meals is Olive Garden's soup, salad and breadsticks.  I don't really go there for anything else.  There is something about their salad dressing and perfectly chilled salad, the warm, buttery garlic breadsticks, and steaming fresh soup that makes me happy, its kind of like getting a big hug after a long day.  My favorite soup to order is their Zuppa Toscana: a simple, light, comforting soup with crumbled sausage, greens and potatoes.

Now that there is a chill in the air, (I think that fall is actually here to stay this time!), I've been craving soups... and after a huge bag of pre-washed, pre-cut kale called my name at BJ's the other day, I've been craving Zuppa Toscana.  So, I set out to copy my favorite restaurant soup at home.

The soup was delicious!  My husband and I both enjoyed seconds, and there are some leftovers waiting for us in the refrigerator.

"Zuppa Toscana"

1 lb. spicy italian sausage
1 lg. yellow onion, chopped
2 lg. garlic cloves, chopped
1 tsp. kosher salt
1/4 tsp. black pepper
1/2 tsp. fennel
4 cups low-sodium, fat-free chicken broth
2 cups water
2 lg. russet potatoes, halved and sliced into 1/4 inch thick pieces
8 cups (approx.) chopped kale
1 cup reduced-fat milk

Remove sausage from casings.  Heat a large Dutch oven, (or heavy-bottomed pot), over medium-high heat. Brown sausage, breaking meat into small pieces as it cooks.  When sausage is browned, remove from pot and set aside.

Reduce heat to medium.  Place chopped onion and garlic into pot.  Add salt, pepper and fennel.  Saute until onion is translucent.  Add chicken broth and water to pot, scraping the bottom to loosen up any brown bits.  Add potatoes to broth mixture, simmer until potatoes are tender, about 15 minutes.  Add kale and sausage, simmer until kale is tender.  Stir in milk.  Serve immediately.

The soup, along with a crisp, fresh salad made a great dinner... if only I knew how to re-create their breadsticks!!

Notes on this recipe:  The other copy-cat recipes I stumbled upon called for heavy cream- I used reduced-fat Lactaid, (my husband is lactose intolerant).  Another healthy revision I made was the omission of bacon- several recipes I looked at for this soup included 2-4 slices of bacon.  I omitted the bacon mainly because I didn't have any, and I didn't miss it.  Next time I make this soup, I will use turkey sausage... the pork sausage was good, but the brand I used was a little fattier than I would have liked.

October 23, 2011

Spooky Dinner

As I mentioned in my last post, we've been very lucky to have family and friends bringing us food to help us get through the adjustment to having a newborn, sleep deprivation, and figuring out how to get anything done when all you want to do is stare at the beautiful baby...  For three weeks, we felt like we had a personal chef- it was fantastic!

Our last catered dinner, provided by my husband's Aunt was a themed, "Spooky Dinner."  I am not a huge fan of Halloween (I'm terrified of clowns, and most people in masks), but not surprisingly, my favorite childhood Halloween memory involves creepy food - and this meal reminded me of it!  Dinner was a lot of fun, and I hope that in a few years my son will think I'm fun (and not totally lame/nuts) and enjoy a meal like this too!

One year, when I was a kid, my Aunt threw a Halloween party for me and my cousins.  She put a lot of thought into how to make creepy food, and we had a lot of fun putting it all together.  We had hot-dogs that were carved to look like fingers, peeled grapes that felt like eyeballs (that we had to feel and guess for a game), she even made punch that featured a 'frozen hand' as an ice cube.  That was a great Halloween.  We had a great time getting into our costumes, (we even dressed up the dog), playing games, and trick-or-treating.

Fast forward about 20 years...

My husband's aunt and cousin went all out.  We had a cheese ball made to look like a mummy, breadsticks that looked like witch's fingers, salad with worms and eyeballs, sausages mummies, and manicotti bones.  For dessert, Matt's cousin made delicious cookies- Snickerdoodles decorated with black icing spider webs, and Devil's Food cookies decorated to look like witch's hats all on display on a haunting platter.

It was a great night!  Even though I'm not crazy about Halloween, it has me excited and looking forward to years of Halloween parties and fun costumes and coming up with spooky dinners of our own.

October 14, 2011

Edible Flowers

First, I would like to say "Thank You" to our family and friends who have helped us during these past two weeks.  We have been very grateful for every meal, load of laundry and chore you have helped us with!!  We have been lucky enough to have every dinner for the past two weeks prepared and brought to us so that we could relax and spend time adoring our baby, and not have to worry about shopping, cooking and cleaning... it has really been a lifesaver.

The other night, my mother-in-law made a large pot of soup, and my friend Jennie made a salad... not just any salad, however... It was the most beautiful salad I think I have ever seen, all thanks to the edible flowers tossed in the mix.

I know that edible flowers aren't a new phenomenon, by any means... but it was the first time in a long time that I had seen and eaten them... and the first time that I had ever been able to enjoy them at home! The flowers she used in the salad, (which was made up of greens and goodies that she had grown herself), were begonias and nasturtium.  The begonias were my flower of choice, their lemony/citrus flavor added something bright and summery to the salad, whereas the nasturtium added more of a spicy/peppery flavor.

The flowers prompted me to do some research into edible flowers, and I learned quite a bit.  There are many different edible flowers out there, many of which I never even thought of as flowers.  For example; cauliflower, broccoli, chives, garlic, capers and artichokes- what I would consider normal vegetables, all qualify as edible blossoms.  So, I guess I've been dining on flowers more than I thought...  Other blossoms are a little less likely to show up at the grocery store- who knew you could eat pansies and chrysanthemums??

Other cultures have been using blossoms in food and in medicines for many years, while it seems like here in the United States, edible flowers are most typically used as garnish or in teas- chamomile being a common example.  Hibiscus tea, a little less common, was studied by the USDA in 2008.  The study found that volunteers who drank hibiscus tea while maintaining their usual diet and exercise level achieved a 7.2 point drop in their blood pressure.  While further research is needed, this study points to the fact that drinking hibiscus tea may help some people manage their hypertension!  Pretty exciting stuff.*

Even though I am perhaps the worst gardener ever, (I've even killed mint...), those begonias have me thinking of trying to grow some edible flowers next year, and experimenting with some new flavors.  We'll see.  I will definitely be seeking out menus that feature blossoms- I'm dying to try a stuffed zucchini blossom!!

A report on the USDA study can be found here.

*I am not offering this study as medical advice in any way.  This study merely interested me, and I thought it worth sharing.  Any type of medical treatments or regimens should be discussed between yourself and your doctor before beginning. 

October 08, 2011

Birthday Cake!

I am proud to report that my son Ben turned one week old yesterday.  This milestone was cause for celebration in our house... and an excuse to eat some birthday cake!!

With the help of my mother, who is visiting from out of town, we made him a delicious birthday cake from scratch to complete the mini, grandparents-only celebration dinner we had at home.  We used a Martha Stewart recipe for yellow cake, and matched it with the Hershey's recipe for the amazing chocolate frosting, (which I raved about here).  The end product was delicious!  The cake was moist and light, and had a good, simple vanilla flavor which provided the perfect backdrop for the chocolate frosting.  

The cake recipe is very simple, and I am looking forward to re-making it and experimenting with it to see what other combinations I can come up with.  I think that the cake will work very nicely with fresh berries in the summer, or maybe with sliced apples and a hint of spice for fall? Perhaps some light chocolate mousse and a brushing of Kahlua?? I will try it out sometime and let you know...

Yellow Butter Cake
Martha Stewart: Makes 2 9-inch cakes

2 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature, plus more for pans
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for pans
1 1/2 cups cake flour (not self-rising)
1 tbsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 3/4 cups sugar
4 large eggs
2 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups milk, *I used 1% milk

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Butter two 9-by-2-inch round cake pans; line the bottoms with parchment paper.  Butter parchment, and dust with flour, tapping out excess; set aside.  Into a medium bowl, sift together flours, baking powder, and salt; set aside. 

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, 3 to 4 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed.  Beat in eggs, one at a time, then beat in vanilla.  With the mixer on low speed, add the flour mixture in three parts, alternating with the milk and beginning and ending with the flour; beat until combined after each addition.

Divide batter between the prepared pans, and smooth with an offset spatula.  Bake, rotating the pans halfway through, until cakes are golden brown and a cake tester inserted into the center comes out clean, 30 to 35 minutes.  Transfer pans to a wire rack to cool 20 minutes.  Invert cakes onto the rack; peel off the parchment.  Reinvert cakes and let them cool completely, top sides up. 

It has been an incredible week in our house, and I'm glad that I could share one of the many special moments with you! I hope that you have the chance to try out this cake- if you do, and you come up with something delicious, please share!!!

You can find the original recipe here on

October 05, 2011

Taking a Little Blog Vacation...

Hello all!!

I'm very proud, elated, and amazed to report that our son, Benjamin was born on Friday!

I will be taking a little break from blogging, until we have our new schedule figured out... but, no worries, I have every intention to return.  I'm already thinking of what to write about next! (Like my delicious Apple Pie)...

See you soon!

September 29, 2011

Pumpkin Latte: Starbucks vs. Dunkin Donuts

Fall is my favorite season, by far.  I love the crispness in the air, the changing leaves, the celebrations: my wedding anniversary, Thanksgiving, and coming soon: my son's birthday!  But really, fall wouldn't be fall without the flavors and aromas of the season... crisp freshly picked apples, butternut squash, cinnamon, nutmeg, and pumpkin.  I very much enjoy pumpkin... Every year, I look forward to making and enjoying pumpkin bread, pumpkin pie, pumpkin soup, pumpkin donuts, and even a sipping on a Pumpkin Latte.

Before this year, I had never really thought about it.  Fall comes, Starbucks advertises, and I obey... wandering into my local Starbucks for a seasonal "must-have", a Pumpkin-Spice Latte.

This year, though, perhaps due to my reduced caffeine intake... perhaps due to the extra time I've had on my hands, and my new-found baby induced budget, I decided to be somewhat skeptical.  Do I really like Pumpkin-Spice Lattes, or is it just habit?? Are they really worth the $4.55 that Starbucks charges?? Does Dunkin Donuts :gasp: make a better latte??  I wanted to find out.  So, I, (Brielle), enlisted the help of my husband (Matt), and my mother (Gina) and we had a taste test.

First, let me start by saying, I really expected Starbucks to win.  I had never had a latte from Dunkin Donuts before this taste test.  While I prefer Dunkin Donuts for some things: coffee, iced coffee, donuts, and breakfast foods.  I look to Starbucks to fill my craving for espresso drinks and other specialty items: the Caffe Americano, Cinnamon Dolce Latte, Caramel Macchiato, Peppermint Hot Chocolate and a modified Caramel Apple Spice are among my favorites.  Basically, Dunkin Donuts for everyday, Starbucks as a luxury.

Here are the results:

"Sample A": Grande Pumpkin-Spice Latte with skim milk, no whipped cream.

B: Earthy, spiced pumpkin flavor and aroma. Almost no coffee flavor, sweet. Nice, rich caramel fall color.
M: Earthy, tasted like biting into a pumpkin with a slightly sweet finish. Not much coffee flavor.
G: Very pumpkin-y. Coffee flavor too mild. Too sweet.

Dunkin Donuts:
"Sample B": Medium Pumpkin Latte with skim milk, no whipped cream.

B: Pumpkin flavor very artificial tasting, sweet aroma.  No coffee flavor, tasted more like warm milk with hint of artificial pumpkin.
M: Very milky, mild, not much pumpkin or coffee flavor.
G: Mild pumpkin flavor. Watered-down coffee flavor.


B: Although I preferred Starbucks' latte in pumpkin taste, this is one fall tradition that I think I will be giving up.  Neither latte was very satisfying.  Both left me wanting more coffee.  Starbucks is definitely still my go-to for espresso drinks, but I think I'll stick to their other offerings.  I don't think that I'll be ordering another latte from Dunkin Donuts.
M: As a scotch and red wine drinker, I enjoyed the intricate, earthy tones of Starbucks.  I would order a Pumpkin Spice Latte from Starbucks again.  I would not try another latte from Dunkin Donuts.
G: Surprised! Love coffee, love pumpkin, but "two rights went wrong". Didn't like either.  Both lacked coffee strength and neither were spiced to conjure up fall.

So, there you have it!  What are your favorite fall drinks?  Any recipes, stories, or suggestions you want to share?  If so, please post a comment!