October 29, 2014

Fall Flavor: Roasted Butternut Squash Soup

Today was a beautiful, cool, crisp, breezy fall day. What better way to celebrate than to open all the windows, fire up the stove, and make some delicious soup for the even cooler evening ahead?!?

One of my favorite fall foods is butternut squash, whether it is roasted, mashed, in salads, pureed in soup; it is versatile, healthy and delicious. This afternoon, roasted butternut squash, caramelized onion and apple came together to create a creamy, satisfying soup- perfect for a cool evening.

Most of the cooking is hands-off, so don't be afraid of the almost 2 hour cook time. It is well worth it!! I have made other butternut squash soups that begin with cubed and boiled squash, but roasting the squash, and caramelizing the onion really add depth to the flavor of this soup.

Roasted Butternut Squash Soup

Serves 6-8

4 pounds whole butternut squash, (about 2 medium)
5 tbsp unsalted butter- divided
1 Granny Smith apple
1 medium yellow onion
1/2 tsp ground sage, plus a sprinkle
2 1/2 cups low sodium chicken broth
2 cups water
1 1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup heavy cream
dollop of sour cream, for serving

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Wash the outsides of the squash and dry, then cut squash in half lengthwise, and remove the seeds. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil, and place the squash pieces cut-side up on the baking sheet. Melt 2 1/2 tbsp butter and brush the squash with the butter. Season squash with salt and pepper. Place on middle rack of the oven, and roast until the squash is tender- about one hour.
While the squash is roasting, thinly slice the onion. In small pan, melt 2 tbsp butter over medium heat; add sliced onion. Season with salt, pepper and sprinkle of ground sage. Saute for about 40 minutes, stirring every 5 to 10 minutes, turning down heat if needed to keep onion from burning. The onions are done when they are a beautiful medium brown, (see photos). Set aside.

Onion, just placed in pan...
Onion, after about 15 minutes... 
Onion, after 40 minutes... nice and caramelized!
When the squash is tender, remove from oven and place baking sheet on cooling rack until the squash is cool enough to handle. Peel, core and dice the apple. 
Melt 1/2 tbsp butter in Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the apple, 1/2 tsp ground sage and a sprinkle of salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally until the apple has softened. Use a large spoon to scoop the flesh of the squash into the pot with the apples. (This gets messy!! The skin is very fragile- it may be easier to pick it up and use your fingers to separate the flesh from the skin.)
Add the caramelized onion, broth, water, and salt and pepper to the pot with the apple and squash mixture. Using spatula, break up any large pieces of squash and stir occasionally. Allow soup to simmer for about 15 minutes.
Using a blender, carefully puree the soup in batches until smooth. Once pureed, return soup to Dutch oven. Stir in heavy cream and serve!

I paired the soup with an "adult" grilled cheese: Swiss cheese and thinly sliced pear on rye bread. So delicious!

October 27, 2014

Sunday Dinner: Meatloaf, Shredded Brussels Sprouts, and Mashed Potatoes

I hope that everyone had a great, relaxing weekend!! I am happy to say that we had beautiful weather, and got to relax and enjoy some time at home- and spend a little time prepping for baby.

I know that I have mentioned my love for Sunday dinners before... getting to make something comforting and perhaps slightly indulgent, while spending the evening as a family, enjoying the calm before the week begins again. Sundays are also usually the days that I have the most time to mess around with my own recipes, like the ones I made tonight!

After a quick, late-afternoon nap, I set out to make our Sunday dinner: meatloaf, shredded Brussels sprouts, and mashed potatoes.

First, a confession: I used to hate meatloaf... (like really, actually hate and refuse to eat). Over the past couple of years, however, I have set out to make a meatloaf that I enjoy... and after some trial and error, I have happily succeeded. (I actually enjoy it now, and have developed a love for ketchupy, gooey topping...) Usually, when make meatloaf I throw a bunch of seasonings together and hope it turns out well, forgetting to write things down so that I can make it again... Tonight, however, I kept track of my ingredients so that I could share a yummy, family-friendly, easy, meatloaf recipe with you!

This meatloaf is so good, that in between bites, my (three-year-old, picky eating) son came over to me, gave me a hug and said "you're a good cooker, mommy." !!!!! If that's not enough of a reason to make this meatloaf, I don't know what is!


Serves 4

1 lb. ground beef (I used 90% lean)
1/2 cup Panko breadcrumbs
1 egg
1 tbsp dried parsley
1 small onion, finely diced (about 1/3 cup)
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper

1/3 cup ketchup
1 1/2 tbsp yellow mustard
1 tbsp brown sugar

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Place ground beef, Panko, and other loaf ingredients (through pepper) into medium bowl. (Remove jewelry!) Mix with your hands, turning mixture over, until ingredients are well combined. Do not overmix. Place into loaf pan and shape into loaf. In separate bowl, combine ketchup, mustard and brown sugar. Spread half of topping mixture over loaf and place into oven. Bake 30 minutes, then cover meatloaf with remaining topping mixture, and bake another 30 minutes.
Remove from oven, and let rest for 10 minutes before serving.

Now, for the Brussels sprouts! Brussels sprouts are my husband's favorite veggie, and one that I really didn't eat before I was married and tried to cook his favorite things. Over the last six years though, I have had plenty of time to practice, and tonight's side is one of my successes! This is a simple, delicious and fresh side- one that even non-sprout lovers would enjoy.

The only time consuming part of this dish is the prep of the sprouts, (about 10-15 minutes), which is easily done while your main dish (tonight's meatloaf) is in the oven. The sprouts aren't actually shredded, but sliced very thinly- if you care to, you could use a food processor to speed up prep. I cooked the sprouts once the meatloaf was out of the oven and resting- cook time is about 5 minutes. The vinegar and honey mixture helps rid the sprouts of any bitterness without becoming overpowering.

Shredded Brussels Sprouts

Serves about 4

1 1/2 lbs. Brussels Sprouts
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1/2 tbsp unsalted butter
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp black pepper
2 tsp balsamic vinegar
2 tsp honey

Rinse sprouts, remove outer leaves. Then trim, cut into halves lengthwise and thinly slice sprouts into strips. (If some leaves fall apart during this process, don't worry, just toss them in with your sliced pieces for a little extra texture). In small dish, whisk together vinegar and honey and set aside. Heat oil and butter in large saucepan over medium heat. Add shredded sprouts. Season with salt and pepper, and saute for four minutes, or until sprouts are crisp tender. Add vinegar mixture to pan, tossing sprouts to mix well and saute for about one more minute. Remove from heat and serve!

I paired my meatloaf and sprouts with very simple mashed potatoes (no recipe to share), for a perfect comfort food, family dinner!

For dessert, I kept it super quick and easy and made microwave mug brownies... I followed this recipe, used milk in place of the water, reduced the sugar to 3 tbsp, and spiced it up a little bit with a dash of cinnamon and some vanilla ice cream. A perfect ending to a great night- and the perfect satisfier for a chocolate craving!

I hope you have a great week!

October 23, 2014

"Practice Thanksgiving": Cranberry-Cornbread Stuffing, and Cherry Pie!

My dinner plate, a little of everything! 

First, let me just say... I love Thanksgiving!!! It's my favorite. Pumpkin, cranberries, green bean casserole, stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, and turkey of course. But really, I love the idea behind it. You get together with your family and sometimes close friends, and you say thanks. You watch a great parade, say thanks, eat delicious food, then relax. How much better can a holiday get?!?

My family and I started the tradition of celebrating holidays en masse when I went away to college. Since I moved 1,000+ miles away to school, and started working in healthcare, I didn't always get to come home on time for holidays. So, when I could make the trip home, we started celebrating the holidays closest to make sure that we would get to spend them together. When we were planning our vacation to Florida this time, and my aunt asked if we wanted to have "Practice Thanksgiving", of course my answer was yes!!

For our 'Thanksgiving', I was in charge of sweet potatoes, green bean casserole,  (I used my peoplefood recipe from two years ago, but steamed fresh green beans, and added some fresh sauteed mushrooms), and stuffing. My mom mastered the turkey, mashed potatoes, rutabaga, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie. My aunt was in charge of hors d'oeuvres, and the apple and cherry pies. Yes, we went all out. Yes, it was all comforting, delicious and is making me look forward to my favorite holiday even more!

I cannot share all of the recipes of the day... (and I doubt you want to read all of them!) but I wanted to pass on the recipe for the Cranberry-Cornbread Stuffing I made, (which will likely be re-appearing on my table on turkey day), as well as the family recipe my aunt shared with me for a super simple, delicious, cherry pie!

Last year, I made a cornbread stuffing and it was moist, delicious, dotted with cranberries, and all around awesome. Of course, I couldn't find the recipe/my notes and didn't have all of my recipe stuff with me on vacation to sort through.... So, I set out to find a new recipe to try, (it was "Practice Thanksgiving" after all....). I ended up using a Martha Stewart recipe for Cranberry-Cornbread Stuffing, minus the pecans. I am sure that the roasted pecans would add a great meaty/nutty note to the stuffing, but I had to cook with safety in mind so I omitted them for my son's sake.

Cranberry-Cornbread Stuffing
Martha Stewart, serves 10

8 oz. (2 cups) pecans
1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter
3 large onions, cut into 1/4 inch dice
6 stalks celery, cut into 1/4 inch dice
1/4 cup fresh oregano leaves, chopped*
1 batch Skillet Cornbread*, cut into 1 inch cubes
1 loaf day-old white bread, with crust, cut into 1 inch cubes (10 heaping cups)
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 cups dried cranberries
1 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley*
1 tbsp coarse salt
1 tbsp freshly ground black pepper
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1 1/2 tsp Bell's seasoning (poultry seasoning)
1 quart chicken stock

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spread pecans in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet; toast in oven until golden and fragrant, 8-12 minutes, tossing occasionally. Let cool, then roughly chop; set aside.
Melt butter in large skillet. Add onions and celery and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until onions are translucent. Add oregano and stir to combine
Transfer onion mixture to a large bowl. Add pecans, cornbread, bread cubes, eggs, and all other ingredients. Mix to combine. Cook stuffing in turkey or baking dish. If using baking dish, generously coat dish with butter, fill with stuffing, and dot stuffing with additional butter. Cover with parchment paper-lined aluminum foil, and bake at 375 degrees for 35 minutes. Remove foil, and bake an additional 20 minutes.

Notes on this recipe: I think that this makes much more stuffing than 10 servings. I would probably make this same batch for 15, and expect it to be perfect. (There are always so many sides to choose from!) I made this batch for 8, and we still ended up with a gallon freezer bag of leftovers. Also, I used dried herbs instead of fresh... I will typically buy fresh parsley because its so versatile, but decided to scrimp a little and go without fresh herbs. Instead of 1/4 cup fresh oregano, I used 4 tsp. dried, and instead of 1 cup fresh parsley, I used about 5 tbsp of dried. In the future, I would say that you can do without fresh oregano, but would recommend fresh parsley to brighten things up a bit. I made the cornbread (see bottom of post) the day before, cubed it, and let it sit out for a day before making this recipe. I also cubed the white bread a day ahead. (It is humid in FL, and I thought that it could use more time to dry out so that the stuffing wasn't gummy and too moist, here in NJ, I would probably cube the breads the night before and they'd be good to go). I would recommend mixing it in two batches- this makes a lot of stuffing, and it was difficult to mix in all of the seasonings evenly.

Now... for the belle of the ball.... cherry pie. I love my aunt's cherry pie, and I don't get it very often. She has made this pie every Thanksgiving for as long as I can remember... and no one makes it like she does. I am very excited that she shared her recipe with me, and I can't wait to make it later this year. My mom is the pumpkin pie queen (maybe I'll share her secret next month), but my aunt always wins for her cherry and apple pies.

What I love about this cherry pie, is that it's not heavy. It's not syrupy or artificial tasting... and its easy!! The cherries are juicy and light, not-too-sweet, and the pie makes a great breakfast treat, snack, and dessert... especially with some vanilla ice cream!

Cherry Pie

2 cans sour cherries in water
3 tbsp instant tapioca
1/8 tsp salt
1 tbsp butter
1/2 cup white sugar
2 tsp flour

Mix the ingredients and let stand for 15 minutes. (This allows the tapioca to "bloom", and gives time for the tapioca and flour to work their magic as thickeners).
Pour into pie crust. Slice top crust, and lay over pie in lattice pattern.
Bake in oven at 450 degrees for 10 minutes, then lower temperature to 350, and bake for additional 25 minutes. (You can cover crust with shield or aluminum foil if it browns too quickly).

Mmmmm... my mouth is actually watering just typing the recipe. I cannot wait to make it myself now that we're home... I may have to practice before Thanksgiving again!

Martha Stewart's Skillet Cornbread:

2 tbsp. solid vegetable shortening; 2 cups all purpose flour; 2 cups yellow cornmeal; 2 tbsp sugar; 1 tbsp plus 1 tsp baking powder; 1 1/2 tsp salt; 2 cups milk; 4 large eggs
Preheat oven to 425 degrees, with oven rack in center. Place shortening in a 9-10 inch cast iron or ovenproof skillet, and place in oven to heat.
In medium bowl, whisk together flour and dry ingredients. In separate bowl, whisk together milk and eggs. Pour wet ingredients into dry, and stir until just combined. Do not overmix- batter should be lumpy.
Carefully slide out oven rack. Pour batter directly into hot skillet. Cook until cornbread is golden brown, and firm to the touch- about 25 minutes.

October 15, 2014

Good Eats: Myrtle Beach, SC

View from the Porch of Conch Cafe
Good morning from Florida!! We arrived in my home state last night after enjoying a fun day in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina with family.

While in Myrtle Beach, we had the opportunity to relax and enjoy a home cooked meal for the first time since leaving home, and to check out a couple of the area's restaurants.

Myrtle Beach, whose economy largely revolves around tourism, seems to have the most restaurants per capita of any city I've visited. There are countless seafood restaurants and buffets, barbecue joints, steakhouses, and more! Thankfully, there are also great places to shop- like the Tanger Outlets.
Croissants' HAB sandwich and cup of Tomato Basil Soup
Cobb Salad
I had the chance to have a ladies day at the outlet mall, followed by lunch at a great little cafe called Croissants Bistro & Bakery. Croissants is home to a delicious bakery- making gorgeous cakes, tarts, cupcakes, cookies, muffins, and more! The bakery case was definitely a site to behold... I had the chance to compare their chocolate chip cookie to the cookie I enjoyed from Southern Season in Chapel Hill. Croissants' cookie was more moist, a much more reasonable serving size, and just as satisfying! In addition to a beautiful and delicious bakery, Croissants is also home to a great bistro! Serving fresh, local ingredients during breakfast, lunch, and dinner- and brunch on weekends- in a casual atmosphere, it is definitely a place that I would recommend!! Although tempted by the Banana Foster French Toast, I opted for their 1/2 Soup, Salad, or Sandwich Lunch- choosing a cup of the French Onion soup along with their "famous chicken salad" on 1/2 of a croissant. The soup was delicious- a great onion flavor, perfect amount of cheese, not too salty, and a perfect serving; the chicken salad was simple and wonderful- reminiscent of a salad that your grandmother or mother would make- it was light and satisfying. The other ladies tried the Cobb Salad, the HAB Sandwich (a delicious offering of ham, apple, and Brie warmed in the oven, served on multi-grain bread with honey mustard, lettuce and tomato), served with a cup of the tomato basil soup, and the full-size chicken salad on croissant served with fresh fruit. We also all greatly enjoyed the iced tea! They use Tazo tea for their iced tea, and it was delicious and refreshing- I will be on the hunt for the same blend when I return home. It was a lovely lunch- and I would happily return to taste more of their menu!
Chicken Salad on Croissant with side of fresh fruit

For dinner, we picked up the boys and headed towards the ocean. While in a beach town, sampling the local seafood is a must for me... and this dinner definitely didn't disappoint. We headed to Conch Cafe for beautiful views of the ocean, and a great dinner. The Cafe, open February- mid October, has a large wrap around porch for outside seating with great views of the ocean, and a large, open, casual dining room if you prefer to eat inside. We all enjoyed the conch fritters as an appetizer, which were wonderfully seasoned, and perfectly cooked. One of the night's specials was a crab cake and sautéed scallop dinner, served with vegetables and the side of your choice.
The Special: Crabcake and Scallops

Four out of the seven adults in our party ordered the special, and gave it rave reviews. I had the opportunity to taste the scallops, and they were incredible! Well- sized, perfectly cooked and just the right amount of sweetness, they were some of the best scallops I have ever had! I opted for the caesar salad topped with a crab cake, my husband went for the Conch Sea Sampler appetizer (a platter of conch fritters, fried bacon wrapped shrimp, grouper fingers, and shrimp pasta salad), my son enjoyed the grouper fingers and fries, and my husband's aunt greatly enjoyed her grilled shrimp and scallops. I was very impressed by the fact that she is allergic to crab, and despite all of the crab served at our table and within the restaurant, after mentioning it to the waitress, she was able to safely enjoy her shrimp and scallops. (To me, that also says a lot about the cleanliness and order in the kitchen). We had a great dinner, and enjoyed the perfect ocean breeze and casual atmosphere. Afterwards, we were able to enjoy the beach access next to the restaurant and take a sunset stroll on the beach. It was a great evening!
Kids grouper fingers and fries
Conch Sea Sampler

Running around on the beach with a three-year-old was the perfect way to charge our sweet tooth. Several of us are ice cream lovers, so we headed to Meyer's ice cream in Surfside Beach. It was a great choice!! A beautiful, vibrant atmosphere, paired with Hershey's ice cream in more flavors than I cared to count, along with creative sundae choices- and even ice cream for dogs!- it is a must-taste!!! My hubby loved his "More Smores" sundae (chocolate ice cream with hot fudge, marshmallow syrup, crushed graham cracker, chocolate chips and whipped cream), and I savored my scoops of "Midnight Caramel River" (vanilla and dark chocolate ice cream with a caramel swirl), in a freshly made waffle cone! They also had soft serve- and give complimentary sprinkles on all kids cones! It was a sweet ending to a great day!

I wish we had our dog Honey with us to enjoy this treat!

I hope that you get to head to Myrtle beach, and enjoy these great spots, and more!! If there are places in the area you enjoy, please share!! We will be back and would love to try your favorites.

October 12, 2014

Good Eats: Chapel Hill, NC

Fried Green Tomato Appetizer at The Weathervane
Hello from the road!! We have been enjoying the first stop on our vacation: Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

We have had the chance to see some sights- we visited the North Carolina Botanical Garden, walked, and shopped in downtown Chapel Hill, and visited a local playground/park- in addition to enjoying the wedding festivities which brought us here.

Of course, no trip would be complete without touring the local restaurants and enjoying the flavor of a new place! I have done my best to document our little sample of what Chapel Hill has to offer...

Our first night in town, we headed to The Loop Pizza Grill for a relaxed, quick, and casual dinner. The Loop, which was recommended by the bride and groom's website, seems to be a local haunt; it is a small chain with locations in North Carolina and Florida. The restaurant itself is open and bright, with a few televisions showcasing various sports channels, and simple decor. Upon entering, you are guided down an open hallway decorated with posters of their tempting soups, salads, sandwiches and pizza. Fountain drinks, bottled Boylan's sodas, along with a selection of beers are available in addition to their shakes. They have a reasonably varied menu of sandwiches/salads, burgers, and pizza, all which utilize fresh ingredients and produce tasty results. (Their service system is the same as a Panera- you order, get a buzzer, relax at your table and then pick up your food when ready, which keeps the environment casual). Everyone in our group was happy with their meal; between the five of us, we enjoyed the Veggie Burger (pretty standard) with a side of fresh fruit; the Chili Cheese Dog with kettle chips and blue cheese dressing (the chips and dressing were incredible!); the Veggie Melt Ciabatta with the kettle chips and blue cheese dressing (again, a must-have!); and the kid's grilled cheese. The food was good quality, fresh, and worth stopping for; I would go back for a quick lunch or dinner on the fly.

We are staying at a Hampton Inn, and have been thoroughly enjoying their complimentary breakfast every morning!! Make-your-own waffles, fresh fruit, eggs, oatmeal, cold cereal, and a selection of pastries, bagels and muffins every morning! I highly recommend it!

While checking out downtown Chapel Hill, we headed to the Top of the Hill, affectionately shortened to TOPO. The restaurant, located on the third floor of a building at the corner of East Franklin Street and South Columbia Street, is home to an award-winning microbrewery and some pretty great food! You are given the chance to eat outside on their large rooftop seating area with great street views, or within their open, airy, simply decorated dining room with views of the brewery tanks. We thoroughly enjoyed our lunch in this landmark restaurant. My husband enjoyed his house-brewed porter, and as a group we devoured the freshly made kettle chips with onion dip and the "Lizard Chips" (beer battered fried pickle and jalapeno chips served with chipotle ranch dip). For our main courses, my mother-in-law and I both thoroughly enjoyed "Ninny's BLT" (bacon, lettuce and lightly battered and fried green tomatoes on texas toast, served with a salad of mixed greens); my husband loved his "The Top Cheeseburger" (featuring local, grass-fed beef); my father-in-law raved about his fried catfish sandwich; and my son devoured his corn-dog nuggets (served with a side of fresh green beans, per our request, and a creamy mustard dipping sauce).  We did not have the chance to sample desserts, but I am sure that they were also incredible! I would definitely recommend checking out the TOPO, and hope to have the opportunity to return to enjoy the dinner menu, and personally try one of their beers, or specialty drinks (they distill their own vodka, gin and whiskey).

 After our day of exploration, we attended a beautiful wedding at a church in Chapel Hill, and great reception at the Barn at Fearrington Village. The Village itself has a small shopping and dining district that seemed to have some great offerings, and live music. If you're planning an event in the area, the Barn is definitely a venue to check out! It was a beautiful space, with great food and great service.

Our second day in town was spent at a local playground and park, allowing my son to run off some steam, and a surprise bonus of a beautiful public rose garden! For lunch, we headed to the Weathervane at Southern Season. With locations in Chapel Hill, Charleston, and Richmond, the Southern Season is an incredible gourmet grocery. Complete with a coffee and tea bar; an impressive bakery; an expansive collection of international foods; gifts and kitchen gadgets; a cooking school; beautiful floral department; a wonderful wine selection; and restaurant- I could have spent hours exploring and tasting! (and if I were a local, I would definitely become a regular!) The Weathervane was accessible through the store and from the outside, and was bright and cheery, with fresh flowers adorning every table, and a simple weekend brunch menu. (They offer breakfast, lunch and dinner, and a full bar.) Our service was a little less than cheery, but that didn't detract too much from our experience. Within our group, we were able to enjoy the Fried Green Tomatoes; Butternut Squash Soup; Farm Egg Salad Sandwich; Fried Green Tomato Cackalacky; Housemade Chorizo Quesadilla; and the kids cheeseburger sliders. The menu is based on local, fresh ingredients and was definitely delicious. I would highly recommend stopping by to check it out- perhaps without kids. After our meal, my mother in law and I went on a hunt for a chocolate chip cookie, and were delighted by the offerings we found in the bakery area of the store. There was a large case with cakes, cupcakes, and tarts, as well as the expansive area showcasing cookies and pastries baked in-house, as well as at local bakeries. Thankfully, the store's ingredients labels were clear and complete, and we were able to stay clear of cookies with nuts. We chose a chocolate chip cookie and an expresso, chocolate cookie with white chocolate chips. Both cookies were about the size of my hand, and about one inch thick (the perfect size for sharing)... and yummy!!!

Chorizo Quesadilla, Hashbrown Casserole @ Weathervane
Egg Salad Sandwich, Sweet Potato fries @ Weathervane
We kept dinner simple, ordering pizza to bring back to the hotel. We asked at the front desk for a recommendation, and they came through! We tried out Amante Pizza, which is was within walking distance of our hotel. We decided to try out two of their gourmet pizzas, ordering a large "San Gennaro" (tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, spicy italian sausage, roasted red and green peppers and onions), and a small "Fig and Prosciutto" (fig jam with thinly sliced apple, prosciutto, sauteed red onions, and a mix of gouda and mozzarella cheese). The crusts were light and crispy, and all of the toppings were fresh and perfectly cooked. The sausage was a little spicy for my son (a very easy fix), and the Fig and Prosciutto pizza was a little saltier than I was hoping- however, I would definitely order from them again! It was great to have a low-key dinner in our room and spend the evening relaxing after dancing the night away the night before.
The "San Gennaro"
Fig and Prosciutto Pizza
I hope that anyone visiting Chapel Hill finds these reviews helpful, and will get the chance to enjoy some of these good eats! I look forward to visiting the area again, and checking out what else this great city has to offer- any suggestions are welcome, please share!

...The next stop for us is Myrtle Beach, South Carolina! Stay tuned for more stories from the road...

Chocolate Chip Cookie @ Southern Season

October 09, 2014

Road Trip!! Travel Snacks: Trail Mix

Today, we head off on vacation: two weddings, celebration of our sixth wedding anniversary, visiting family in South Carolina and Florida, and hopefully relaxing much more than we have been lately. I am grateful that we have the opportunity to spend the next two weeks making memories and relaxing as a family of three, because our January due date will creep up faster than we think, and I think our older son will really appreciate the extra attention!

Whenever we go on a road trip, I make sure to pack certain road trip snacks. First, there are essentials: Twizzlers and Corn Nuts. (I realize that neither are particularly healthy, and Corn Nuts may seem weird to many, but it's a tradition). I also try to balance out the junk food that we will inevitably eat on the road, (plus the Twizzlers and Corn Nuts), with some healthier options.

For this trip, I also picked up some fresh HoneyCrisp apples, and packed them along with some pretzels, all-natural fruit snacks for my son, bottles of water, and home made trail mix.

Trail mix is something that I have taken to making at home as opposed to purchasing pre-made mixes due to my son's tree nut allergy. My husband and I used to have almonds and/or cashews in the house all the time, and would pick up trail mixes that included almonds, cashews, and other- now forbidden- nuts. Thankfully, peanuts are safe! This time I am staying away from adding chocolate or chocolate candies to my mix, just in case it ends up getting a bit toasty- so I don't have to worry about melty chocolatey gooeyness all over little fingers... and my car interior.

For this trip, I made a simple mix of some of our favorites: honey roasted peanuts, banana chips, reduced-sugar Craisins, and roasted sunflower seeds. Salty, sweet, simple, and much cheaper than many of the pre-made mixes.

I enjoy trying new ingredients- sometimes I will add shredded coconut, cereal pieces (Chex or Cheerios), or anything else that looks good when I'm at the store or gets requested. Great tree-nut/nut free mix-ins include: pretzels, mini marshmallows, popcorn, caramel corn, graham cereals, Teddy Grahams, dried fruits (apricots, pineapple, blueberries, apples, etc), and Goldfish or other cheddar crackers. There are loads of possibilities!

That's it for now- we are on the road! I plan to write in about places we discover and meals we enjoy while we are away. (I'm super excited about the "Practice Thanksgiving" that we'll be having with my Florida family!)

For some other trail mix ideas, check out this list of tasty combinations! (All of which include tree nuts and/or peanuts.)

October 06, 2014

Lazy Sunday: Slow Cooker Beef and Cabbage Soup and Corn Muffins

The past week has been very busy at our house... celebrating our son's third birthday (for four days), having my mom in town from Florida, and of course working, cleaning, cooking and maintaining the usual activities of life.

Today was the first lazy day that we've had in about a week and a half, and I intended to take full advantage. (Especially since tomorrow we are back to being busy and cramming before we head off on a two week vacation on Thursday morning!) Phew.

Using my crock pot today was really a no-brainer; using my crockpot made dinner easy, and low maintenance. After making lunch, it only took me about 10 minutes to get all of the ingredients for the soup into the crockpot, and turn it on. Then, I got to walk away and enjoy the beautiful fall afternoon with my son. Around dinnertime, it took me only twenty minutes to bake the corn muffins and dish up dinner. Not bad at all!! I loaded up our cozy dinner and brought it downstairs so we could relax on the couch, and watch a good movie as a family during our relaxed dinner.

This soup is simple, light and delicious; definitely comfort food material without being too heavy. Perfect for a lazy Sunday!

Slow Cooker Beef and Cabbage Soup

Makes about 6 servings

1lb. lean ground beef (or turkey)
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cups tomato juice
1 cup water
1 16oz. bag coleslaw mix
1 16oz. jar chunky salsa
1 16oz. can whole kernel corn, drained
1/2 tsp. basil
1/2 tsp. oregano
black pepper to taste

In a large skillet over medium heat, cook onion and beef until meat is no longer pink, (about five minutes). Drain fat if desired.
Place beef and onion into crock pot, and add all remaining ingredients. Stirring to combine.
Cover and cook on low setting for at least five hours.

Tonight, I used a different recipe for my corn muffins- I had leftover buttermilk in the refrigerator and wanted to find a way to use it. These muffins were delicious! I like my corn muffins to have a little sweetness to them, and these had a perfectly balanced flavor. Soaking the cornmeal in the buttermilk while mixing the other ingredients helped to cut down on the grittiness that sometimes comes with corn muffins; these were tender, light, and moist! They were a perfect companion to the soup- and delicious on their own.

Buttermilk Cornmeal Muffins

Recipe found here, makes 12 muffins

1 cup cornmeal
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
1 1/4 cups flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1/2 cup sugar
1 egg
5 1/3 tbsp butter, melted and cooled

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Grease, or place paper liners in muffin pan.
In medium bowl, combine buttermilk and cornmeal; set aside.
In another bowl, combine other dry ingredients.
In small bowl, whisk together egg and melted butter. Add egg mixture to the cornmeal mixture.
Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients and mix until combined- do not overmix.
Fill muffin cups 2/3 of the way and bake 15 minutes.

Notes on this recipe: Tonight I used mild salsa in the soup in order to protect myself from pregnancy heartburn, and to please my son's palate. It turned out perfectly for us. You can adjust the heat to your liking by using spicier salsa if preferred. If you want to cut down on pre-made ingredients, you could easily substitute thinly sliced cabbage- the only difference is that coleslaw mix includes thinly sliced carrots. I have used ground turkey in this soup, and it is also delicious. For the muffins: if you do not have buttermilk on hand, you can make a substitute! Mix one cup of milk (whole, or low fat, whatever you have) with one tablespoon of either lemon juice or white vinegar. Allow the mixture to stand at room temperature for 5-10 minutes and then use as you would the buttermilk. Be ready to have a chocolate dessert-like item on hand when you're done to complete the meal!! Tonight, I went with hot chocolate.

October 01, 2014

Salted Caramel Cupcakes with Vanilla Buttercream

I hope that you all enjoyed my Salted Caramel Sauce from yesterday's post... I hope that some of you even made it already and got to taste your own wonderfully amazing caramel sauce.

As I mentioned yesterday, I made my caramel sauce to be the star ingredient in the Salted Carmel Cupcakes I baked and served at my son's birthday party over the weekend. These cupcakes are the perfect little package. The cake itself is very simple, but paired with the hidden dollop of smooth caramel and topped with vanilla buttercream- they become little gifts of their own. Definitely some of the best and easiest cupcakes I've ever made- and certainly cupcakes that I will make again.

Salted Caramel Cupcakes

The Baker Chick: Makes 12 cupcakes

1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
3/4 tsp baking powder
Pinch of salt
6 tbsp unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1 tbsp pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup plus 2 tbsp buttermilk

1/2 cup Salted Caramel Sauce
Vanilla Buttercream Frosting

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line cupcake pans with paper liners.
In a medium bowl, combine flour, baking powder and salt with a whisk.
In a large bowl, cream butter and sugars together until light and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.
Add vanilla.
Mix in dry ingredients and buttermilk alternately, beginning and ending with dry ingredients. Mix to combine- be careful not to over mix.
Pour batter into liners, filling each about 3/4 full.
Bake cupcakes about 20 minutes, until they spring back when touched- and a toothpick comes out clean.
Remove from pan and allow cupcakes to cool completely on wire racks.

Now for the fun part... Making filled cupcakes!

Using a cupcake corer or small knife, cut small core out of the middle top of each cupcake. Set cores aside.

Fill cupcakes with small spoonful of caramel sauce- I used a baby food spoon to get just the right amount.

Replace cupcake cores to top of cupcakes to conceal the delicious caramel underneath, and create a smooth top to your cupcake.

Frost with vanilla buttercream icing, (see below).

As it was my son's birthday, I decorated some cupcakes with Jake and the Neverland Pirates toppers for the kids, and drizzled caramel sauce atop the others. (Yes, the cupcakes drizzled with the beautiful caramel sauce were the first to be eaten.)

Vanilla Buttercream Frosting

3 cups confectioner's sugar
1/3 cup butter, softened
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla
1-2 tbsp milk

In a medium bowl, using electric mixer on low speed, mix confectioner's sugar and butter, until they begin to combine. 
Add vanilla and 1 tbsp milk, continue to mix. 
Slowly add remaining tbsp milk until frosting is smooth and reaches desired consistency. 
(If frosting is too thick, very slowly add additional milk while mixing- if too thin, gradually add more sugar until it's just right.)

*Notes on this recipe: I highly recommend getting and using a cupcake corer. They make baking filled cupcakes quick, easy, and uniform. I could not find mine online, but this is a similar one that was highly rated on Amazon. Depending on the volume and density of the filling used, sometimes I will remove the bottom half of the core before replacing the top in order to keep the tops level. (This gives you crumbs to sample, or to decorate the tops of your frosted cupcakes with.)
Again, as with the caramel sauce, I used the recipe found here for the cupcakes. I, however, chose to use simple vanilla buttercream icing. In my opinion, using frosting with the caramel sauce mixed in as she recommends would be too sweet- and kind of a waste of caramel sauce.
Since the cupcakes are made with buttermilk, they are more dense than box mix cupcakes, or other recipes, and are able to hold up to the caramel sauce. If using a box cake, or lighter cake, I would make sure to refrigerate the caramel sauce and the finished product to prevent the cupcakes from becoming too wet as the caramel seeps into the cake.
Even if you're not interested in making your own caramel sauce, I hope that you will try these cupcakes. I would recommend using a high quality store bought caramel sauce (you want something that is a little thick so that it won't saturate the whole cake).