Mmmm. Chocolate

Have I ever told you how much I love chocolate? Like, really, really love chocolate. As in, if my DNA were analyzed, I’m probably part cocao bean (I did not spell that incorrectly. Cocao trees produce the beans that are roasted and made into cocoa- chocolate). I’m pretty sure I could qualify as an honorary citizen of Hershey, PA (one of my favorite places on earth). And for all the summers I spent there with them, an entire section of Hersheypark should probably be named after my Aunt Sharon and Uncle Don (or perhaps a building, One with air-conditioning).

Over the years, I’ve collected all of the Hershey’s memorabilia: clothing, jewelry, refrigerator magnets, books, cookbooks, stuffed animals, sports equipment- I’m a walking poster child for Hershey’s, what can I say?

Several years ago, I received a set of Hershey kisses shaped cookie cutters for Christmas, in varying sizes. They’re adorable and I love them. The problem was, it seemed a bit counter-intuitive to use them for regular ol’ sugar cookies. Sure, I could’ve made traditional sugar cookies and then topped them with chocolate icing, but where’s the fun in that?

Problem solver that I am, I took to my laboratory Google and began searching for a recipe for chocolate cutout cookies.

Um, you guys? There wasn’t one.

Yes, you read that right. There was no recipe for chocolate cutout cookies.

And so, a few years ago, I set out to create one. Because there is no such thing as too much chocolate. Is there?

The final result is a cookie I’ve made several times and always had great results with. The dough is soft and sticky, and works best when refrigerated for a couple of hours (I usually go with 24, not because it requires that much time but because I have a problem with starting and finishing a project in the same day). Additionally, when rolling the dough, I usually forego the usual dusting of flour on my rolling surface and use plain ol’ baking cocoa instead to keep the dark chocolate color.

Here’s the recipe:

1 cup (2 sticks) butter or margarine

3/4 cup brown sugar

3/4 cup baking cocoa

2 eggs

1 tsp vanilla

1 tsp baking powder

2 cups flour

cream butter and sugar. Add cocoa, then eggs and vanilla, then baking powder and flour. Mix until combined, refrigerate 1-2 hours or overnight. Roll, on surface dusted with baking cocoa, then bake in oven preheated to 350 degrees for 8-10 minutes.





Pumpkin Spice. Nuff Said

I have a problem.

Actually, I got 99 problems but…

Right.  Family show.  Moving on.

So,let’s focus on my two biggest problems of the moment:

  1. I cannot for the life of me back down from a challenge, even when (especially when) it comes from my four-year-old.
  2. I have zero capacity for resisting anything that comes labeled as “pumpkin spice.”

There’s a humorous back story here, and a semi-related and wholly hilarious YouTube video parody to go along with it.  The back story is this:

Our oldest son goes to preschool three days a week, for two and a half hours each day.  He takes a snack every day, and he really loves to pick what he’s going to take- though, some days he prefers to be surprised; it really is a mood thing.  Among his favorite snacks to take are yogurt, these seasoned pretzels, fruit, graham crackers, goldfish crackers, and granola bars.  I started making my own granola bars about two years ago because they go REALLY fast in our house.  Ryan loves them at breakfast time.  And after dinner. They’re perfect for the boys’ “after nap snack,” as our oldest says.  And I love them too.  So those little boxes of eight that you pay $2 for?  Doesn’t even get us through a day- I can’t justify it when it takes just a few basic ingredients and little more skill than one needs when making Rice Krispy Treats.  So last week, the little guy asked me if we had any granola bars for me to send for his snack this week.  I didn’t, at the time, but I’d purchased what I needed with the intention of making some.  Then, he said these magic words: “Mom, could you make pumpkin spice granola bars?”

The words were music to my ears.  I immediately began searching for recipes.  Google, Pinterest, and all of my cookbooks.  But…I kept coming up empty.  I had a few results, but nothing that really sang to me (or the ingredients I had on hand.)  Sadly, I couldn’t let it go.  I had to find something that would work.  Because, not only had my baby boy asked me for something and I wanted to deliver, but also because it’s October and I’ll put pumpkin in ANYTHING this time of year!  So, I resorted to experimentation.  I went to my go-to granola bars recipe, then found one recipe on Pinterest I could tweak to my needs, and attempted to mash the two together. (By the way, if you’re following the links to check out the recipes, note that the first one is for a 13×9 pan-sized batch; the second is for an 8×8).

And so…the first attempt turned out to be pretty decent.  I would say they could still use a little something (chocolate chips are at the top of that list.  I’d also say mixing in a half a cup or so of finely chopped pecans might take this right up to where it needs to be).  But, for my first attempt and also for a completely fabricated recipe, on the first try, I’m a little proud of myself.  And my boy was happy, so, yay me!

Wanna try them?  Here’s how I did it:


3/4 cup canned pumpkin
1/4 cup peanut butter
1/4 cup plus 2 Tbsp honey
1/3 cup brown sugar
1 1/2 tsp vanilla
1/4 tsp salt
Heat over medium-low heat until just boiling.
1/4 tsp salt
2 tsp pumpkin pie spice


Pour immediately over:
2 cups quick-cooking oats
2 cups crispy rice cereal
1/4 cup wheat germ (or flax-seed)


Stir to combine, then pour into a 13×9 pan
lined with aluminum foil (this makes it easier to
pull the bars out to cut them, and also helps with


If you’re going to add chocolate (and, by all means, DO!), make sure you don’t mix them into the pumpkin mixture; they’ll become a melty mess.  Instead, once you’ve pressed the bars into the pan (I use a sheet of waxed paper.  Press HARD), sprinkle 1/3 cup or so over the top, then press gently once more.  And if you’re thinking of adding nuts (I totally will next time; this version is missing a bit of crunch), add them to the oats, cereal, and wheat germ or flax-seed.  Probably 1/4 to 1/3 cup is a good starting point.  And when you fall in love with these…

you can thank my son. Because I’m off to Starbucks for a PSL.






This is that

So, remember awhile ago I mentioned a new-found obsession with my grandmother’s handed down bread machine?  And I promised I’d be back to tell you about it?  Yeah, this is that.

In recent months, I’ve realized I’m a bit of a kitchen appliance hoarDER  (emphasis on the DER please!).  We have everything from the George Foreman grill to an iced tea maker (and two coffee pots: our coffee/espresso maker and the Keurig), to a Kitchen Aid mixer to an automatic wine chiller to a waffle iron…and, most recently, an ice cream maker.  Mmmm, the ice cream maker.  More on that another day.

For now, though, the bread machine.  In the Merrow house, we are carb addicts, every last one of us.  We love bread, white rice, pasta, pizza…everything that we know we shouldn’t have.  We live in sin here.  And we love every second of it.  Take, for example, French bread.  I discovered this while my sister was visiting us over the summer on a night when I needed a starchy side to serve with our dinner.  Many of my recipes come from Google: I type in a method of preparing the food (in this case, bread machine French bread), then I just surf for the recipe that matches the ingredients I have on hand.  Or I combine a couple of different recipes to tailor something to what I have in mind.  The French bread recipe turned out to be four ingredients.  Four.  And one of the four ingredients is water.  (the other three: flour, salt, yeast.)  Everything goes into the bowl of the machine, and one hour and twenty minutes later… POOF!  It’s bread.  Well, it’s bread dough.  But, it’s not like there’s much work involved in dumping a ball of dough onto the counter, cutting it in half, shaping it into two loaves, and letting it rise under a towel for another hour.  In fact, the day we first initiated this recipe, Peanut and I were poolside for the entire process.  Look what this miraculously materializes in this marvelous machine with nothing more than 1 1/4 cups of water, 3 1/2 cups of flour (I like Gold Medal better for bread flour for this), a teaspoon of salt, and a package of yeast:




It really is that easy.  And see how quickly a whole loaf disappears as soon as the pan comes out of the oven?  I have an addiction to this bread, piping hot from the oven, dipped in olive oil and some bread dipping seasonings.  Seriously, I could eat a whole loaf.  Except that I’m too ladylike for that.  (snort).

Convinced yet?

We’ve also been making lots of homemade pizza lately.  Growing up, every Friday night at our house was pizza night.  (Actually, it still is.  That’s the one night of every week that my mom doesn’t have to hear 6 different versions of “Maaaahhhhhmmmmm…whaaatttt’s for suuuuupperrrrrrrr?”  I’ve rather grown to appreciate the same absence of questioning one night a week).  Anyway, we have adapted the same tradition into our family.  Some Fridays we order out, sometimes we go out, and sometimes I make our pizza from scratch, but that’s it.  If I’m cooking on a Friday night, you can bet it’s going to be pizza.  For the dough, same basic rules apply, plus two ingredients: 3/4 cup water, 2 Tbsp oil, 2 cups bread flour, 1 tsp each sugar and salt, and a package of yeast.   Dump it all in, push start, walk away, and when you return, the dough is ready to be shaped and made into whatever kind of pizza your heart desires.  We like buffalo wing pizza (I toss leftover chicken in some hot wing sauce, slather the dough with ranch dressing, and top with cheese); pierogie pizza (which is a great way to use leftover mashed potatoes- or you can make them fresh, then just sprinkle with finely chopped onion and cheddar cheese);  white pizza (olive oil, tons of garlic, some tomato if you want, and Italian blend cheese) or just a plain old pepperoni pie.  We always do two pizzas, even for the three of us, because then we always have leftovers.  Typically, I’ll do one pepperoni, one “special,” for variety.  We’re carb addicts, remember?  Pizza for breakfast is the Golden Rule of a carb addict.  

Anyway, then I split the second dough into two, make half the dough into a “medium-sized” pizza, and bake the other half in a small, shallow baking pan topped with olive oil, garlic salt, garlic powder, onion powder, oregano, and grated Parmesan.  Breadsticks!  I’ve also frozen it for a week or so and then defrosted it before I was ready to use it.  And in recent weeks, I’ve learned that making the dough a day ahead and storing it in the fridge makes the dough much more airy and fluffy.  Sort of like clouds from heaven, in your mouth.  If you will.  Ahem.  Moving on…

So, with the Super Bowl looming on the horizon, I thought I’d share my new-found knowledge of dough from a machine.  Because pizza with football is kind of like a glass of wine with guilty pleasure TV.  Sure, you can have it without, but it’s just So. Damn. Much. Better. with it.  





Desserts. Because who needs dinner?

My friend Tas frequently labels my cooking as “gourmet.”  While this may or may not be an accurate description (I’m leaning more toward NOT!), I think her encouragement has subliminally planted itself in the part of my brain that takes over in the kitchen, and has led me to be, if nothing else, a bit more daring.  And a lot more hungry for dessert.

Lately, Ryan and I have become semi-addicted to the Food Network show Chopped.  If you’re not familiar, four contestants are unleashed in a kitchen with a basket full of random mystery items that must be made into a gourmet meal.  There are three courses: appetizer, main course, and dessert.  After each course, the contestant with the least tasty or least cohesive dish gets “chopped” and goes home.  Basket items typically include one type of protein, one fruit or vegetable, and one pre-packaged item (think Ramen noodles in the appetizer round, or boxed mac and cheese in the dessert round).  This show has led me to be somewhat creative with the ingredients I have on hand; it’s good practice for cooking techniques, if nothing else.

Tonight, I focused on dessert.  In fact, dinner was sort of atrocious compared with the desserts I served.  Yes, you read that correctly: dessertS.  Plural.  I made soup and salad and sliced some French bread for dinner, and served multiple desserts.  So sue me.

Fall is really evident around here this week; the leaves are showing their full range of gorgeous color and floating gracefully to the ground, and the temperature- while still decent- is cooler than I’d prefer.  When the weather changes like this, I think soup.  Since we’ve already had a few batches of cheeseburger soup and chili, I changed it up tonight with a big pot of broccoli and cheese soup.  I had made broccoli cheese soup only once before, about six years ago when we first moved in here.  Since Ryan was still anti-vegetables at that time, I basically made it for myself.  And it was awful.  I had no desire to try to make it again; I have a mom and two aunts who make awesome broccoli soup.  (Kidding.  Sort of).  This week, I mentioned broccoli soup, and Ryan sort of latched onto the idea as something he might be interested in trying.  While we were in the grocery store on Monday, he picked up a head of broccoli and asked me if that’s what I needed to make the soup.  We were going to try it again.

This afternoon I dug out the recipe my mom had given me all those years ago and took my time assembling the ingredients.  The process was much easier than I had remembered, and now I’m not sure what I did the last time but my confidence is restored.  Here’s how I did it:

Broccoli and Cheese Soup
4 Tbsp butter
1 onion
2-3 garlic cloves
3 cups chicken broth
1 potato, peeled and cubed
3 cups broccoli florets
2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
1/2 cup milk plus 1- 1/2 Tbsp flour, whisked together
Melt butter in a Dutch oven over medium heat.  Add onion and garlic; saute until translucent and soft.  Add chicken broth and potato; cook till potato is tender.  Meanwhile, microwave broccoli for 3-4 minutes until tender; chop into very fine pieces and add to soup.  Add milk and cheese; stir to combine.  

Yes.  It really is THAT simple.  Please don’t ask how I messed it up before.

Apparently, that success fueled my ambition and the pears on the counter grabbed my attention.  Several years ago for Christmas, Ryan’s parents gave me a Tuscan cookbook.  In the cookbook was a recipe for pears with a Marsala wine sauce.  Peanut picked some pears from the orchard for me over the weekend, so I decided to try it.  First, I peeled two pears, but left the stems (as sort of decoration).  I sliced the bottoms off, and used a fillet knife to remove the cores.  Then I placed them in a saucepan with 1/8 cup sugar and two cinnamon sticks, and let them cook over low heat until the mixture boiled.  Once the water reached a low boil, I covered them and let them continue cooking (still over low heat) for about a half hour, until they were tender.  Finally, I removed the pears from the cinnamon-flavored sugar water and let it cook awhile longer, until the sauce was thickened.  Once it was the consistency of a syrup, I stirred in 1/4 cup of Marsala wine.  Y.U.M!

I was on a roll; while I’m not a “band-wagon” type of person, I’m in love with the fact that caramel seems to be THE flavor this fall.  (Truth be told, caramel is one of my all-time favorites.  Our wedding cake three years ago had a caramel filling, and my new favorite cheesecake recipe from last fall was swirled caramel and peanut butter.  NOT on the bandwagon, people.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)  A few weeks ago, Ryan and I tried a new restaurant in town for lunch, and we ordered dessert afterward: a warm fudge-y brownie with a salted  caramel sauce.  Let me just tell you: To.Die.For.  We left with me vowing to replicate the recipe, somehow, some way.  Tonight I just may have accomplished this goal.  With a pan of hot, homemade brownies on the counter, I followed this recipe to almost perfectly replicate the sauce we had at the restaurant.  Fortunately, it made a whole jarful which is now blissfully chilling in my fridge.

I may or may not have to invent a breakfast recipe to utilize it.




Happy Fall!



Ambition. Some Days it Finds Me.

I was in the kitchen at 9AM this morning.  By 10:30, I had two dinners ready to go for the rest of the week.  Not because I was hungry- I can’t stand to eat much of anything before 1PM- but because it’s cold outside.  Cold, of course, means soup weather.  And comfort food in the crock pot.  Ambitious as I am, I decided to embark on both.  Soup is a staple in this house from September through May, and our most popular choice is Cheeseburger Soup, as I’ve mentioned here before.  However, I’ve never shared the recipe.  Until today.  Just a little something to keep you warm, friends.  You’re welcome.

Cheeseburger Soup
1/2 pound ground beef
3/4 cup onion, chopped
3/4 cup carrot, shredded
3/4 cup celery, diced
1 tsp dried basil
1 tsp dried parsley
4 Tbsp butter or margarine, div.
3 cups chicken broth
4 cups peeled & diced potatoes
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups processed American cheese, cubed
1 -1/2 cups milk
3/4 tsp salt
1/3 tsp pepper
1/4 cup sour cream
In a 3-quart saucepan, brown beef; set aside.  In the same saucepan, saute onion, carrots, celery, basil, and parsley in 1 Tbsp butter until vegetables are tender (about 10 minutes).  Add broth, potatoes, and beef; bring to a boil.
Reduce heat, cover, and simmer for 10-12 minutes or until potatoes are tender.  Meanwhile, melt remaining butter in a small skillet.  Add flour; cook and stir 3-5 minutes or until bubbly.  Add to soup; bring to a boil.  Cook and stir for 2 minutes.  Add cheese, milk, salt, and pepper.  Cook and stir until cheese melts.  Remove from heat and blend in sour cream.  

Meanwhile, in the crock pot, I decided to assemble this next recipe for the coming weekend.  Because it requires a couple of different steps and I have a date with my sister-in-law on Saturday that will have me out of the house most of the day, I decided to start today.  Tomorrow I’ll cook the beef, and by Saturday I’ll be able to set it on “Keep Warm” so Ryan and I can eat as we both come and go with no fuss.  We’ve never had this before, but I need a little Mexican in my life now and again.  A little Mexican food, that is… ahem.

Mexican-Style Shredded Beef (from this cookbook)
1 Boneless Beef Shoulder Roast
1 Tbsp ground cumin
1 Tbsp ground coriander
1 Tbsp chili powder
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground red pepper
1 cup salsa or picante sauce
2 Tbsp water
1 Tbsp cornstarch
Taco shells
Cut roast in half.  Combine cumin, coriander, chili powder, salt, and red pepper in a small bowl.  Rub over beef.  Place 1/4 cup salsa in slow cooker; top with one piece beef.  Layer 1/4 cup salsa, remaining beef, and 1/2 cup salsa in slow cooker.  Cover; cook on LOW 8-10 hours or until meat is tender.  

How about you?  What are your favorite fall recipes?  I haven’t been inspired by any new fall desserts this year; what are your favorites?





Remove beef from cooking liquid; cool slightly.  Trim and discard excess fat from beef.  Shred meat with two forks.
Let cooking liquid stand 5 minutes to allow fat to rise.  Skim off fat.  Blend water and cornstarch until smooth.  Whisk into liquid in slow cooker.  Cook, uncovered, 15 minutes on HIGH until thickened.  Return beef to slow cooker.  Cover; cook 15-30 minutes or until hot.  Adjust seasonings.  Serve meat as filling for tacos, fajitas, or burritos.  Leftover beef may be refrigerated up to 3 days or frozen up to 3 months.  (*ED NOTE: Remember these homemade tortillas?  I think that’s what we’ll be eating this beef with!  Yum!)

I Don’t Want Your Leftovers!

Last week, I was on a pretty good roll, dinner-wise.  It’s sort of a no-brainer some weeks: just cook Hubby’s favorites for 5 or 6 or 7 days in a row and he’s a happy guy: meatloaf, crispy ranch chicken, pork tenderloin on the grill, scrambled steak over mashed potatoes.  Now that I’ve run through all his best dinners though, I’m out of new ideas.  And I have a fridge-full of leftovers.  Hubby is not a leftovers guy.  Now what?

For the most part, my time off is affording me the ability to devour last night’s leftovers while I lounge in front of the TV all day, so I have been able to control things a bit that way.  And strategically planning the meals that will afford the most leftovers for the weekends has helped a bit also.  For instance, Saturday Nicole and I hit the outlets all day, and Andrea was hosting a party at her house in the evening.  Since I knew dinnertime would be a really big rush, I had put a roast together on Friday afternoon for the crock pot.  When we got our first crock pot several years ago, my mom bought me Betty Crocker’s Slow Cooker Cookbook as a gift, and I found this recipe inside that’s now my go-to for a quick and easy roast dinner:

1 pound medium red potatoes, cut into fouths
1 cup baby-cut carrots
3- pound beef boneless chuck roast
3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons chopped fresh or 1 1/2 teaspoons dried rosemary leaves, crumbled
1 teaspoon chopped fresh or 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 small onion, finely chopped (1/4 cup)
1 1/2 cup beef broth
Arrange potatoes and carrots in a 3-1/2-to 6 quart slow cooker.  Trim excess fat from beef.  Mix mustard, rosemary, thyme, salt, and pepper; spread evenly over beef.  Place beef in slow cooker.  Sprinkle onion over beef.  Pour broth evenly over beef and vegetables.  Cover and cook on low hear setting 8-10 hours or until beef and vegetables are tender.  
Remove beef and vegetables from cooker; using slotted spoon.  Place 0n serving platter.  Skim fat from beef juices in cooker if desired.  Serve beef with juices.

For just the two of us, a roast is way too much for one meal.  This is where planning it for the weekend was, well, kinda genius.  See, what we did then on Sunday was to make that leftover roast into hot beef sandwiches.  When we ate Saturday night we were in a real rush so we just kind of fished around in the pot for what we wanted.  Then when I put it away, I separated everything into different containers: one for the meat, one for the ‘taters and carrots, and one for the juices.  Sunday at lunchtime, I just emptied the juice into a pan and heated it, then whisked in a smooth paste of water and flour to make fresh, homemade gravy and shredded some beef on bread and spread the gravy over it.  My husband says it’s restaurant-worthy.

This evening, Janelle and her daughter came over for dinner.  The fare was spaghetti and meatballs, which leaves opportunity for meatball subs later in the week.  That sounds like an awful lot of sandwiches for one household, and I guess it kind of is.  But for weeks when we have lots going on, it works out pretty well to be able to create brand-new meals- even if they’re just quick’n’easy- from what I’ve already cooked.  Tomorrow night, Ryan starts back into Tuesday night RC racing, so he’ll be out late.  Also, his work schedule is getting kind of crazy right now, so being able to have something on hand that’ll be easy to throw together makes both our lives much easier.  Once some of the stuff in the fridge gets cleared out, I’ll be able to start over again with some fresh meals and a clean slate.


Till then,




Getting Brave

We spent the Labor Day weekend with Ryan’s family.  Since Ryan’s birthday fell on Monday, his parents and his brother and sister-in-law drove up for the weekend.  I love when people come to visit, because it gives me an excuse to try new recipes.  And try new recipes I did!  In fact, this week I’ve gotten pretty brave with inventing some of my own new meals.  For a by-the-rules girl like me, this inventing my own recipes thing is scary.  Really, really scary.  But, baby steps, friends.  Baby steps.

Sunday evening for dinner, I made my first attempt at cooking my all-time favorite dinner: linguine with clam sauce.  That sounds really funny, but in reality, it’s not so much.  See, just because it’s my favorite meal, doesn’t mean it’s my husband’s favorite.  His family, however, is always more than willing to try just about anything I put in front of them.  In fact, I’ve made a sort of game out of never serving them the same recipe twice.  (Sometimes this even includes dessert.)  So when I mentioned to them that my all-time favorite meal is linguine with clam sauce, everyone but Ryan agreed that it sounded like a good idea to try it.  However!  Spoiled brat that I am, I had never actually cooked my own favorite meal before.  Hey, I have a mom and two aunts who have always been eager to prepare it for me; there was no reason to learn to make it for myself, especially since I’m the only person in this house who eats it…right?  Right.  So anyway, with some help from my Sous chef/sister-in-law and Ryan’s mom, we whipped up a batch of pasta with a light sauce, a big salad, and a loaf of garlic bread.  Here’s the recipe (also from my Country Cooking cookbook):

Linguine with Clam Sauce
(*Ed. note: the real step one, omitted by the cookbook but not by the cook- Pour yourself a glass of red wine!  Enjoy while cooking!)
2 to 3 garlic cloves, minced
3 tablespoons olive oil or vegetable oil
1/4 cup minced fresh parsley
1 can (6- 1/2 ounces) minced clams
4 ounces linguine or spaghetti
1/4 teaspoon salt
pinch pepper
In a skillet, saute garlic in oil over medium heat for one minute.  Stir in parsley; saute 2 minutes.  Drain clams, reserving juice; set clams aside.  Add juice to skillet.  Cook, uncovered, for 10-15 minutes until liquid is reduced by half.  (*Ed. note: Remember my favorite saying?  “I like to cook with wine; sometimes I even put it in the food”?  Here, I added 1/4 cup white sherry cooking wine, and let it reduce as well, until the alcohol cooked out).  Meanwhile, cook pasta according to package directions.  Add clams, salt, and pepper to skillet; heat through.  

The recipe also says to toss the sauce with the pasta; I’m a rebel, and skipped that step as well, opting instead to just serve the sauce over the top.  And I doubled the whole recipe (including the wine) to serve five people, rather than the two these proportions yield.  Oh, and don’t worry: Hubby didn’t go hungry.  I made him some regular, boring ol’ spaghetti sauce to go over his pasta.  He was happy, we were happy, and it worked out all-around.

Since it was Ryan’s (ahem)-tieth birthday, I made sure to cook what he liked on Monday (not what he requested, since he didn’t make his request until the day of his birthday, three days after I had done the grocery shopping for the event).  He likes chicken, so I figured we couldn’t go wrong with the beer-in-the-rear chicken that goes on the grill as a regular ol’ chicken, and comes off a crispy and golden on the outside, moist and fall-off-the-bone on the inside, absolute masterpiece.   Here’s where I began to deviate from my normal recipe rules.

We had visited a local microbrewery on Saturday where Ryan found a pumpkin dark beer that he really loved.  He asked if we could use the new beer as opposed to the lighter cans we had in the fridge at home.  Team player I am, I drained a can of Miller Light into my pilsner glass and therefore down my throat, and poured the pumpkin beer back into the can.  Running with the pumpkin theme, I mixed a dry rub of nutmeg, thyme, seasoned salt, cinnamon, and a dash of sage.  After rubbing olive oil all over the bird, I followed with the dry rub and took it to the grill.  A 4- 1/2 pound bird took about two hours, and I also grilled some savory grilled potatoes for about the last hour.  With some fresh corn on the cob, and some fresh green beans from Momma’s garden, we had a pretty tasty birthday dinner.  Topped off with some homemade-from-scratch vanilla birthday cupcakes (thanks for the 500 Cupcakes cookbook, Tas!) and some trick candles (bwahahaha!), I think this ahem-tieth birthday party was a pretty successful one.

Apparently, my kitchen experimenting over the weekend didn’t scare my husband off completely.  He still trusts me enough in the kitchen that he made a request this morning before he left to have chili for dinner tonight.  Since it’s downright “chilly” here this week, chili sounded like a really good option for dinner.  Of course, since he requested traditional red chili with beef and kidney beans, I couldn’t very well change the game on him without his knowledge.  But here’s the thing: I’ve been wanting to try white bean chicken chili for several years now.  Since I had leftover chicken in the fridge from Monday, I decided to go for it.  Without a recipe, per se.  I Googled a couple of recipes for a basic idea, and ran with that.

To the best of my knowledge, I used about 1/2 tablespoon olive oil and put it in a Dutch oven over medium heat.  When it got hot, I added 1/2 an onion and a couple of cloves of garlic and let them get tender but not caramelized.  Once they got soft, I added two cups of water and a tablespoon of chicken base (you could also use two cups of lower-sodium chicken stock to cut back on the salt) and let it get hot.  Then I added a can of white kidney beans and about a cup and a half of cubed cooked chicken.  To season, I added about 1/2 teaspoon of salt, some freshly cracked black pepper, about a teaspoon of cumin, and some oregano.  I think it could have used some fresh cilantro too, but I was out and forgot to pick it up at the store.  It cooked over medium heat for about 45 minutes (though I don’t think it really needed to go quite that long) and I spooned it into my soup mug and topped it with a handful of Mexican-blend cheese, a dallop of sour cream, and a sprinkle of parsley for some color.  I think you could probably serve two people from this recipe, so to make it for more people, just double the proportions.






Stretching My Imagination

I’m getting a bit adventurous in the kitchen these days.  This may or may not be such a good thing.

After the produce contributions we received a few weeks ago, and my subsequent attempt to cook everything before it spoiled, I’ve begun inventing recipes of my own.  Totally not my style, but I’m far more likely to experiment when Ryan’s not here.  That made last weekend a great opportunity to try something different while he was away for his brother’s bachelor party.  Friday night was Ladies’ Night.  A gastronome and fellow wine enthusiast friend of mine, Tas, joined me here at the house for some grilled salmon and asparagus, some decent Cabernet, and a chick flick.  The company was fantastic, the movie was good, and the food was ok too.

Saturday, following a bridal shower for my friend Sarah from college, I came home and decided to improvise some version of a pasta primavera.  I had no idea what it was supposed to taste like or what I needed to put in it to begin.  That was just a minor problem.  I’m learning this much, though: when in doubt, do it like they do on Food Network and put some extra virgin olive oil into a pan.  While that was heating, I sliced some zucchini and yellow summer squash.  Tossed it into the oil with some fresh minced garlic.  Snapped a piece of asparagus like Rachael and Giada, to use as a guide to slice off the tough part, then chopped that into bite-sized pieces.  After waiting until the squashes were tender, I added the asparagus and some green beans.  While that cooked, I sprinkled in some (dried) basil, oregano, and thyme.  The taste was still a bit bland, so I added the juice and zest from half a lemon, and stirred.  A bit of salt and it was at least edible.  I think it could use a bit more tweaking, but my compulsion to create a vegetable pasta dish passed quickly once my project was complete.  (True confessions: I crave foods.  Once I cook or bake whatever it is I’m hungry for, I have little interest in tasting.  Right now, there’s a coffee-ice cream pie in my freezer that I’m not really hungry for.)

My next culinary experiment happened this past weekend.  My friend Nicole and I held a joint jewelry party at my house on Saturday.  Since the party was in the middle of the afternoon, we didn’t want to go overboard on food, so we searched for ideas of light and fun appetizers.  The idea came, as usual, from my Taste of Home cookbooks: a Pizza Party!  The difference this time, though, was that I didn’t actually use any of the recipes from the cookbook.  The entire party was a culinary experiment.  And I had 12 female guinea pigs in my house.  Judging from the leftovers (or lack thereof), I’d say the experiment was a success.

I’d like to take full credit as a culinary genius, but alas, I cannot.  The basic idea for the pizza party actually came from my dear friend Tas, who invited me last fall to co-host her wine-tasting party with her.  She had used Indian Naan breads as the crust for the pizza appetizer she made, and topped them with bruschetta and mozzarella cheese and fresh basil to make the most adorable, elegant little pieces of pizza.  Using that as my inspiration, I decided we would make three different varieties of pizzas for the party: one traditional, using pizza sauce and mozzarella cheese; one with a homemade Alfredo sauce, fresh spinach and Portobello mushrooms (on one); and a buffalo chicken pizza.

I took care of the traditional pizza, and the white pizza, even improvising my Alfredo sauce (melted butter and heavy cream, some fresh grated Parmesan cheese, and a pinch of salt).  Then I sautéed some fresh spinach in some EVOO a’la Rachael Ray, spread it over the breads,and topped it with Italian blend cheese.  I also sliced and sautéed some fresh Portobello mushrooms for one pizza.  The traditional pizza was a no-brainer.  And I left Nicole with the Buffalo-wing pizza, since I’m not a fan of spicy.  She grilled some tender-style-cut chicken, basting with a BBQ-Buffalo wing sauce.  Then she spread some Ranch dressing on the breads, mixed with a bit more of the wing sauce, and shredded the chicken to spread on top.  Finally, she topped with some mozzarella and a few crumbles of Feta cheese.  We managed to get six Naan breads in the oven at the same time, baked at 350 for about a half hour before I swapped the pans and put the top-rack pan on the bottom, and vice-versa.  They baked for a bit longer, before we took them out and cut them into pieces, about 9-12 servings per “pizza”.  (*Ed. Note: we baked everything on my two baking stones, rather than regular baking sheets.  Not sure what difference it made, if any, but nobody complained!)

Nicole also made an amazing s’mores pizza for dessert, with melted chocolate, marshmallows and graham cracker crumbs, and topped with slivered almonds.

After consuming six Naan-bread pizzas and nearly two s’mores pizzas, the party wound down, and the fun of playing hostess (not being sarcastic here; my ultimate dream is to own a B&B when I retire from “real” work…when I find a job again!) continued while my brother Brandon and his girlfriend Emily stayed with us.  This was Brandon’s first time driving here on his own, and Emily’s first time to our house.  It was fun to have them, though the time went entirely too quickly as it tends to do when you’re having fun.

So today, it’s back to reality.  The library program is winding down, but we have one last vacation planned before the end of the summer so I have some details to nail down before it’s time to go.  Also, Kevin and Lindsay’s wedding is getting close!  And they trust me enough to have asked me to help with some appetizers, so you can count on hearing from me with more culinary experiments in the next couple of weeks!

Much love friends.




Perfecting My Skills as a Desperate Housewife

Summertime.  It’s no secret this is my absolute favorite time of the year.  And, maybe the temperature lately has been flirting with the triple-digits, but so what?

Those are signs from above to take a day off and enjoy the oh-so-rare occasion to kick back in the sand and listen to the waves, the seagulls, and the giggling children.  That, my friends, is how my Auntie and I have spent quality time for as long as I can remember.

Ah, life's a beach...

Of course, one can’t spend all one’s time basking in the heat and the sun.  For one thing, one must maintain the illusion of productivity.  For another, beach days are best enjoyed on rare occasions, so as not to destroy the magic.  But two weeks ago, that’s exactly what we did: said to hell with productivity, and to hell with destroying beach magic.  It had been years since we had a beach day.  Like, since the summer I graduated from high school.  So we spent the afternoon on the beach.  And it was pure heaven.

However, for the days I haven’t spent lounging on the beach, I’ve managed to perfect my housewife-ing skills with all the fresh produce we’ve accumulated lately.  Last time we were home, my Momma sent me home with one of her large, home-grown zucchinis, from which I created two loaves of zucchini bread and a zucchini quiche:

This past weekend, we received a phone call from our neighbors, who were desperate to find loving homes for their wealth of garden-fresh produce.  We came home with a yellow summer squash, two more zucchini, a couple of cucumbers, and some garden fresh lettuce.  On Monday, my Auntie presented me with more veggies from my Momma: another zucchini, a couple of peaches, and a bagful of fresh green beans.

Yesterday, I set to work again to get our stash under control.  First, to energize myself, I prepared a roast beef sandwich with Dijon mustard and Swiss cheese and topped it with some of that delicious home-grown lettuce.  While I was munching on that, I sliced up the peaches from Mom and made a pan of peach crisp, adapting from an apple crisp recipe I found (pretty simple: just some butter, flour, brown sugar and cinnamon, and a bit of oats, sprinkled over the fruit and baked.)

While that was in the oven, I sliced up some zucchini to make another quiche.  This time, rather than using pepperoni, I topped it with turkey bacon.  I’ve done this recipe numerous times, and while it doesn’t call for any kind of meat, I always add something: sausage or ground beef.  This will be the first test for the turkey bacon.  I have faith that it will be devoured.

When the crisp came out and the quiche went in, I figured I’d whip up some more zucchini bread.  I love zucchini bread, and when frozen, it will keep for awhile.  I got two loaves out of the ingredients I had.  But that took care of both my flour and brown sugar, so I called it quits on the recreational creations and moved on to dinner.  Boring.  We had Delmonico steaks and some hibachi-style mixed vegetables: mushrooms and onions, zucchini and broccoli, with some sesame seed oil and teriyaki sauce in the cast iron skillet on the grill, and some white rice.  Few dishes.  Score.

Today was an errand-running day, as well as a long-overdue lunch with my friend Kayla and her two little munchkins.  After indulging in some retail therapy and lunching with my former partner-in-crime, I headed home and back to the kitchen.  It was time to tackle those beans.

Since we received a whole shopping bag-full, there was no way we would ever eat them all.  One of my favorite family traditions that I’m happy to apply to my adult life is the process of bean-freezing.  There’s something about opening that bag of frozen beans in the dead of winter that pulls me out of the doldrums and reminds me that there’s hope.  Green beans will come again.  Since I was little, helping Mom with the beans has been an activity of comfort to me.  I can snap those suckers in nothin’ flat, with quick, sure movements I don’t think my hands are capable of for anything else.  It’s sort of therapeutic to let my hands do the work while my mind wanders.  And today, before I knew it, the kitchen sink was full of bean pieces that were ready to be blanched, bagged, and frozen.

Currently, my produce inventory is down to a manageable level.  We have enough veggies for dinner for the next couple of days, enough fruit for some smoothies, and maybe a little leftover for some experiments.  If I find anything good, I promise I’ll share.

What about you?  What are your favorite summer veggie recipes?  Do you store things for winter?  Do you grow your own?  Inquiring minds want to know!




Recipes! Part II

Ha!  Did I fool you, with a Saturday post?  It’s been awhile since I posted on a Saturday.

But I can’t help it; I’m just so excited, I had to show the results of last night’s baking extravaganza.  Our appetizer menu was a huge hit, and I’m excited to share the recipes.  Yesterday I shared the stuffed potatoes recipe, the wine cake recipe, and the spread for Roasted Vegetable Turkey Pinwheels.  Today, I’ll share the other three recipes.

First, though, we need to finish the Turkey Pinwheels.  Remember the spread?  Well during the 2-3 hour “chilling” period, I fell asleep.  And the wraps?  (Sorry; we’re going to have to do this one un-illustrated.  I somehow forgot to take the photos).  So place a wrap (remember, I used the spinach ones, but sun-dried tomato would be awesome too?  Or whole-wheat, or whatever your preference may be…) on a flat surface, and spread that yummy oven-roasted veggie/cream cheese mixture on it.  Put it on there pretty thick; the recipe says about a half cup.  Really slather it on.   Then layer on some deli-sliced turkey.  Use your judgment.  For the half-recipe I prepared, a half pound will do (total!  Not per wrap!)  Then, put some lettuce on top of the turkey and roll it up tight.  Refrigerate for about an hour, and slice into small “pinwheels.”  Since I was transporting them, I placed a stoneware casserole dish in the freezer to get it good and cold.  This kept them chilled during the drive, and also well into the party- a huge concern when I wasn’t sure what the refrigeration situation would be.

Next on my list was Sour Cream Cheese Puffs.  These are super-duper easy.  The first ingredient is refrigerated buttermilk biscuits.  You know, the ones that come in a tube?

You’ll need two tubes of 10 for this recipe.  First step is to slice each biscuit in half and place each half in a greased mini-muffin tin.

Then, combine one 8-ounce package of cream cheese, a cup of sour cream, some sweet pepper (any color will do; recipe says red, but I used orange.  The finished product didn’t explode or kill anyone- yet- so I’m assuming it’s ok), two teaspoons lemon juice, a teaspoon of dill weed, 1/4 teaspoon pepper, and 1/4 cup chopped onion.  Mix it all up (use a mixer to get all the lumps out).

Then scoop all this yumminess into the biscuit halves you put in the muffin tins.  And I garnished mine with a little extra pepper.  You could use fresh cilantro, though, if you want.  I just like to be different.

Bake at 375 for 14-16 minutes.  You won’t be sorry.

Next up, keeping with the common ingredient of buttermilk biscuits from a tube, are these little beauties: Parmesan Knots.  Easy, and fabulous.  They were all gone; that’s how I know.

Start with another tube of buttermilk biscuits.  Slice each biscuit into thirds.

Roll each third into a “rope” of about three inches long.

Tie each “rope” into a knot, tucking the ends underneath.  Place on a greased baking sheet.

Bake at 400, 8-10 minutes or until golden brown.  In the meantime, combine 1/4 cup oil (recipe says Canola; I realized as an afterthought that olive would have worked as well); 3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese (recipe says grated, and the photos look like the dehydrated stuff in the can.  I used fresh shredded Parmesan.  Because I like to be different); and one teaspoon each oregano, garlic powder, and parsley flakes.

As the knots come out of the oven, dump them in here and swish ’em around real good.  Eat.  Fall in love.

Finally, I found this recipe that sounded like a strange combination, but also like the perfect, light side for a spring spa party.  Also, since our bride loves tortellini, it seemed like a great way to prepare it: Tortellini-Shrimp Caesar Salad.  That is, to all you naysayers who believe that you can’t have everything, a total contradiction to that very statement.

Start by preparing a 9-ounce package of cheese tortellini:

And cook up 2 cups of popcorn shrimp.  Yeah, the breaded kind that’s been hanging out in your freezer.  The one your husband’s been all excited about you plopping on the table with some French fries.  I baked mine, but if you’re not all that concerned about the whole concept of “salad,” go ahead and deep fry it.  I’m not convinced the breaded shrimp is the best way to go with this recipe, and may actually try it with fresh shrimp next time.  Anyway, while those are cooking and cooling, prepare a bunch of Romaine lettuce; says about 8 cups or so.  Add a half cup of prepared original Caesar dressing.

Once the shrimp and pasta have cooled, toss it all together.

Then, when it’s all put together, pour yourself a glass of wine and gather your friends (or wedding party) together, and have a great big party.

Missing from this photo: the Bride.

Till next time!  Cheers!