Thursday, December 13, 2012

Christmas Holiday Baking: Extra Crunchy Peanut Butter Balls

This is the first year in a while that I will be staying home for Christmas. I decided to start off my holiday baking with ironically a no-bake cookie. This recipe for Peanut Butter Balls came from one of the cookbooks I got this year for my birthday, Home Cooking with Trisha Yearwood.

This recipe couldn't be easier - you just heat some sugar and corn syrup together until blended, add gobs of crunchy peanut butter (or in my case, extra crunchy peanut butter) and some Rice Krispies cereal, form into balls and chill. Easy, addictively tasty, and I didn't even have to turn the oven on.

Extra Crunchy Peanut Butter Balls, slightly adapted from Home Cooking with Trisha Yearwood

makes about 35-40 pieces

1/2 cup dark corn syup
1/2 cup light corn syrup
1 cup granulated sugar
2 cups extra crunchy peanut butter (this was an entire medium jar)
4 cups Rice Krispies cereal

In a large pot, heat together sugar and both syrups over medium heat just until blended and smooth. Remove from the heat and stir in the peanut butter until blended. Add the Rice Krispies next and be ready to work out your arm muscles - this will get very stiff.

Once the cereal is well coated with the peanut butter mixture, lightly grease your hands and start forming balls about the size of a ping pong ball. Place the peanut butter balls on wax paper. Place inside an airtight container and set in a cool place to firm up. 

*NOTE: These may be left at room temperature, but if your house is as hot as mine, I recommend storing them in the fridge.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Organizing Re-usable Grocery Bags

I got into the habit of using re-usable shopping bags when I lived in Europe, where I was often expected to not only pack up my own groceries, but provide my own bags. Usually, my only method of transportation was either riding a bike, the local bus, or my own two feet.

Can you imagine having to carry all your groceries home using those horrible plastic bags with the tiny, thin straps that cut into your fingers? Or paper sacks that tend to tear?

I learned pretty quickly that having several sizes and types of sturdy bags was the most efficient way to not only fit all of my food into a compact space, but that would also keep my cold foods from melting on the way home.

I know a huge problem many people have with using re-usable grocery bags is that you buy them, and then forget about them next time you go to the store. I can't tell you how many times I would show up at the store and groan, realizing I'd once again forgotten the bags at home.

I keep a large trunk organizer in the back of my car at all times. It was designed to hold several bags upright so they don't fall over when you come to a quick stop. I found mine at either Walmart or Target in the automotive department.  I stash most of my grocery bags in the organizer, so that they are easy to grab when I get to the store.

Inside the organizer, I keep one large fabric cooler bag, which also contains two smaller cooler bags that are designated for specific items. The larger dark blue cooler bag is handy when I buy a lot of frozen foods or something bulky like a turkey or a huge bag of ice.  I don't bring these bags into the store with me - I just load the food inside them when I get back to the parking lot with my cart.

The large blue shiny bag is the only one I have found yet that is large enough to hold a frozen pizza.

The light green bag is for ice cream and other frozen treats, or sometimes candy that might otherwise melt in the Florida heat. Of course they sometimes get used for other foods too, if needed.

Next to the cooler bags is where I keep my large shopping totes, each filled with more bags. I actually have two identical grocery bag "kits" (one hangs in the garage near the door, easy to grab on the way out), the other goes into the trunk. This way I always have a spare set, clean and ready to go, just in case I need more bags or if my regular set is dirty. The large orange bag contains one compact freezer bag with a shoulder strap, as well as two more regular bags folded up. I only drag a grocery kit into the store when I am planning to do a full grocery run.

The last bag is my fabric tote, strong enough to store my heavy coupon binder, as well as a few of the smaller size shopping bags. I always try to remember to bring this tote into the store with me, even if I am not buying a lot of food. This way I still have some re-usable bags with me, and I feel less like a crazy coupon lady with my binder hidden neatly inside the tote.

How to Organize Your Re-Usable Shopping Bags

  • Gather up all of your bags from anywhere you have them stashed (check your kitchen pantry, garage, and car)
  • Clean them - empty out any old coupons and other stray bits of paper you may have left inside them, then wash using a non-toxic cleanser. I usually wash most of my bags inside out in the hand wash setting of my washing machine, then leave them on a drying rack overnight. The ones that can't go into the washer get hand washed with kitchen soap and hot water.
  • Throw out or recycle any excess bags or the ones you never use because they don't work for you.
  • Make a kit by stashing your coupon organizer, a cooler bag, and enough bags for one shopping trip inside a larger sized bag and keep it in your car or near the door.
  • You will be more likely to remember to use your bags if they are handy, clean, and are the right style and type for your needs.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Deliciously Simple Lemon Poppy Seed Muffins

I could have sworn that I already had a great lemon poppy seed muffin recipe lying around in my collection. I would have told you that I not only had a great recipe for them, but that I had made them many times. So one morning, I told my boyfriend that I would be baking him some.  I looked through my collected recipes, cookbooks, magazine clippings, and my computer recipe files. I found plenty of tried and true lemon muffins, cakes, and breads. But there was no lemon poppy seed combination at all. I was dumbfounded.

I pulled out one of my favorite community cookbooks, one that has been so well used that the back is missing entirely and the front is barely hanging on by a thread. I just knew the recipe had to be in there. Well, it was not ... but I did find my favorite poppy seed muffin recipe. I also noticed that on the very next page, there was a lemon pecan muffin recipe.

Then it dawned on me. Years ago, when I first had the urge to bake lemon and poppy seeds into a single muffin, I had turned to that favorite poppy seed muffin recipe and also used the lemon pecan muffin recipe for some suggestions, creating my own unique version. I just forgot to jot down my notes anywhere. You have no idea just how unlike me that is... most of my favorite cookbooks have writing all over them, indicating my personal tweaks and changes.

Studying the two different recipes, I tried to figure out what I must have done before, and slowly the recipe started to re-emerge in my mind. I remembered using lemon yogurt, and adding lemon zest and lemon flavored extract. I didn't happen to have any lemon yogurt in the house at the time, so I created some, sort of, by mixing some fresh lemon juice with some plain sour cream. I had almost no lemon extract left, so I mixed in both lemon and vanilla. They turned out essentially the same as I had remembered. My boyfriend loved them. This time, I am writing down what I did so I can bake them again and again.

Lemon Poppy Seed Muffins
(makes about 12 regular sized muffins)

2 cups plain all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp baking soda
3-4 tsp poppy seeds
4 ounces unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1 cup sour cream or plain yogurt or lemon yogurt (NOT fat free!!!!)
1/2 large lemon, juiced (add only if you don't have lemon yogurt)
2 Tbsp lemon zest
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp lemon flavored extract

Combine the flour, salt, baking soda, and poppy seeds in a mixing bowl with a whisk. In another bowl, beat sugar and butter together until creamy. Add in eggs, one at a time, beating well after adding each. Add sour cream or yogurt, lemon juice, and both extracts and blend well. Combine both the flour and creamy mixtures together using a wooden spoon, mixing just until there are no more dry patches, a few smallish lumps are fine. Spoon into greased muffin tins. Bake in a preheated 400 F oven for about 15-20 minutes, or until a toothpick tests clean.

Allow to cool about 10 minutes before removing from the tins.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

My Halloween Mantel and Amazingly Moist Pumpkin Bread


Fall is finally here, although looking around outside at the green grass and blooming tropical flowers, you'd hardly guess it was anywhere near October here in Florida. Even though it doesn't look much like fall outside, at least inside the house I can make it feel a little more like fall with some freshly baked pumpkin bread and a few Halloween decorations.

I am not all that into massive changes to my decor with each season, but I do change out some things. My living room mantel is the main area I focus on, since it is so easy to change out for the holidays.

I found these cute Halloween candle holders at a yard sale last spring. They were part of a huge plastic tub jam-packed with assorted Halloween and Easter themed decorations. I came late in the day, so the lady having the sale told me I could have everything for $5. The pumpkin platter my bread slices are on was also from the same tub of Halloween goodies.

This is another lovely scented candle I found at different yard sale for just 25 cents. It has dried apple slices embedded in the wax. The crystal candle pedestal is one I bought from a Partylite candle party years ago.

A cute snow globe I bought when my daughter was a baby. Instead of the usual white "snow," this globe has tiny black bats that fly up and swirl around when you shake it. It also has glowing eyes that light up and makes noises when motion is detected (and thankfully, has a very short range so it isn't going off every second).

My favorite thing to bake when fall arrives is this amazing pumpkin bread recipe. It is very, very moist and has a lovely golden amber color. When I once brought this to a work potluck, both loaves vanished so fast and I had several requests for the recipe. I have tried many different versions of pumpkin bread that I also love, but this is definitely one of my favorites. The secret to this recipe is the use of both lemon and Pumpkin Spice pudding mixes, which gives it a unique flavor and makes the texture extra soft and tender. Pumpkin Spice pudding mix is only available seasonally, so I try to hit the local stores early and buy up a bunch to last me the year. If you can't find any in your area, butterscotch pudding mix also works very well.

Pumpkin Spice Bread (as adapted from a recipe found in the Best of the Best cookbook series)
(makes 2 loaves)

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1 package instant Pumpkin Spice pudding mix (or butterscotch), (4 serving size)
1 package instant lemon pudding mix, (4 serving size)
5 large eggs
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 1/2 cups canola oil (or any flavorless cooking oil)
2 cups fresh cooked pumpkin, mashed without any seasonings (or use canned puree)
1 tablespoon real vanilla extract (really that much!)

Preheat oven to 350 F and grease and flour two 9x5" loaf pans. Sift together first 8 ingredients (flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, dry pudding mixes).

Beat eggs well in another bowl. Add oil, sugar, pumpkin, and vanilla to the eggs and mix well.

Combine wet mixture with flour mixture gently with a wooden spoon, pressing out any large lumps with your spoon, just until ingredients are moistened- do not overmix.

Pour evenly into the two prepared loaf pans and bake at 350 F for 1 hour to 1 hour and 15 minutes, or until a toothpick tests clean when poked into the center. Allow to cool in pans for 10 minutes, then remove from pans and let cool fully before slicing. If you cut into them before they cool, they will fall apart, so try to be patient, no matter how difficult it is!

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Golden Zucchini Tea Loaves aka "Shh! Don't Tell Them It's Squash Bread"

One of the things I treasure most is my box of collected family recipes. I love looking through the recipe cards and letters shared by my family and friends, especially the ones written in their own handwriting. Whenever I read them, memories come spilling out about the person and the fun times we had together. I was lucky enough to have inherited a lovely collection of recipes from my mother's elderly Aunt Alta when she passed away. Each time I cook one of her recipes, I get to bring her back for a moment. She was a great woman and a wonderful cook.

This recipe is from one of the newspaper clippings from Aunt Alta's collection. She used to live in Illinois, so many of her clippings came from The Chicago Tribune. This wonderful tea cake recipe, originally from a 1978 issue, doctors up a boxed cake mix with some instant pudding mix and yellow crookneck squash or "golden zucchini." The squash completely disappears into the cake once baked, and most people who taste this will not have any clue there is squash in the loaf unless you tell them. It is a wonderful and unique twist on the typical zucchini bread. This recipe works equally well with a mixture of zucchini and yellow squash, although you will notice green flecks in the finished loaves.

Golden Zucchini Tea Loaves (aka Shh! Don't Tell Them It's Squash Bread), adapted from The Chicago Tribune

makes 2 loaves

1 (2 layer size) box yellow cake mix or butter cake mix
1 (4 serving size) small box instant vanilla pudding mix
4 large eggs
1/4 cup canola oil
3 cups grated yellow crookneck squash (or a mix of green zucchini & yellow squash)
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
1-1 1/2 cups chopped walnuts, divided (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease and flour two loaf pans. Combine all ingredients except for the nuts in a large mixing bowl. Using an electric mixer, beat for 4 minutes exactly. If you like nuts, stir in just 1/2 cup of the nuts, reserving the remaining nuts for later.

Divide the batter into the two pans evenly. Sprinkle each pan with 1/2 cup of nuts, completely covering the surface of the batter. Since my daughter doesn't always like nuts in baked goods, I usually only add nuts to the top of one of the loaves and leave the second plain.

Bake for 50-55 minutes, or until a toothpick tests clean and the edges begin to pull away from the sides. Cool in pans on wire racks for 10 minutes, then remove from pans and allow to cool completely. I chill the loaves before slicing, letting them come to room temperature again before eating.

NOTE: Did you know that cake mix package sizes have recently changed? Old cake mix boxes used to be 18.25 ounces, now they come in a slightly smaller size, 15.5-16.5 ounces. I tested this recipe using both sizes, and it comes out slightly less poofy with the newer cake mixes, but still works out very well without any adjustments.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Back to School Easy Slicing White Sandwich Bread

This is a very reliable, old fashioned knead it yourself, no bread machine required white sandwich bread recipe that I have had for ages. I had thought this recipe was gone forever, until my boyfriend was able to recover the data from an old file of recipes from one of my old computers. It takes a while to rise.. and needs to rise several times, but you will be rewarded with a couple of loaves of very easy to slice pure white bread with a thin, slightly crispy crust.

This bread is very simple - no complex or bold flavors or any weird bits to scare away a picky kid. It is just plain white sandwich bread that tastes quite a lot better than anything mass produced and stuffed into a plastic bag in your grocery store. It is great toasted with butter and jam, or makes a mean peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Easy Slicing White Sandwich Bread
makes 2 loaves, about 10 slices each

2 cups milk
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon butter flavor shortening (or lard)
2 1/4 teaspoon Rapid Rise yeast (or active dry yeast)
1/4 cup lukewarm water
5 1/2 to 6 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

Heat milk in a small saucepan until warmed through; remove from heat and stir in sugar and shortening; allow to cool to lukewarm. Sprinkle yeast over warm water; mix well to dissolve, then set aside to activate, about 5 minutes.

In a large mixing bowl, pour the milk mixture and stir in 3 cups of the flour, followed by the yeast mixture. Using an electric mixer, beat for 2 minutes (or stir with a wooden spoon until mixture is very smooth and batterlike). Add in enough of the remaining flour, a little at a time, until a shaggy dough forms, one that leaves the sides of the bowl as you mix. (The amount of flour needed will vary based on the humidity in your house that day).

Dump the dough onto a floured board, cover, and let rest for 10 minutes. Knead dough with floured hands, working in more of the remaining flour as needed to keep the dough from sticking, for about 8-10 minutes, or until the dough is smooth and elastic. Place ball of dough into a large greased bowl, flip over to grease the top; cover with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled in bulk (about 45 minutes for rapid rise yeast, and 1 1/2 hours for regular active dry yeast).

Punch the risen dough down, cover, and let rise until doubled again, about 23 minutes for rapid rise or 45 minutes for active dry yeast.

Divide dough into 2 balls and form each into a loaf shape; place each into a 9x5" greased loaf pan; cover with greased plastic wrap and let rise until the dough rises above the edges of the pan, about 30 minutes to 1 hour for rapid rise, 1- 1 1/2 hours for regular active dry yeast. As you get close to the end of this last rise, make sure you preheat your oven to 400 F.

Bake for 35 minutes until golden brown. Let bread cool on wire racks at least 15 minutes before attempting to slice.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Retro Recipes - a Lovely Fruity Frozen Jello Mold

I have been digging through my stacks of community cookbooks recently, weeding out the ones I want to keep and those I want to declutter. During this process, I have been testing out some old recipes I marked that I wanted to try out and save before I unload another stack of books. One recipe that caught my eye was a retro jello mold from a book called "Taste of Heaven" put out by a women's charity church group in North Carolina.

When I was a kid, my mom used to take my sisters and I to a lot of church potlucks. One thing I vividly recall eating at those potlucks was jello salad in various forms. I always loved the fruity jello molds, but I tried my best to avoid the ones with vegetables suspended in the mix. I never really understood why someone felt the need to ruin my delicious jello with something like shredded cabbage or beets. I was fine with carrots or maybe even cucumbers, but really... cabbage??

I always loved the creamy, fruity jello salads best, the ones with suspended chunks of pineapple and bright red maraschino cherries or bananas. So when I came across a recipe for a creamy frozen fruit salad that called for mayonnaise, I was both drawn to it and also a bit scared to try it. I wondered how many of those jello salads I had eaten as a kid had secretly hidden mayonnaise and shuddered at the thought. Seriously, why, why , WHY would anyone think of putting mayo into a fruit salad?

Yet here I was, strongly considering making a recipe for a fruit studded frozen concoction that called for mayonnaise mixed into whipped cream. I hadn't detected anything afoul in such recipes as a kid, so perhaps I wouldn't notice as an adult. I considered skipping the mayo entirely and just adding extra whipped cream. Eventually, I gave in to my usual mantra of trying to stick to a recipe as directed the first time I try it, and went with the mayo. I mixed up my salad, stuck it in the freezer, and found myself worrying about it all night long.

I braced myself before the first bite...was I about to chomp down into a creamy, fruit deliciousness or had I somehow made mayo flavored ice cream? I bravely took a bite, and then another. I could detect a slight tang from the mayo, but it was not overwhelming. I took a few more bites. It was pretty good, actually quite good. Light and refreshing and so very pretty.

I used a jello mold I had picked up for a dollar at an estate sale. I am still not entirely sold on the mayo idea, but the salad was a real hit. I do think that for today's taste buds, I would from now on replace the mayo with sour cream or Greek yogurt, but the recipe as written did turn out quite well.

Alisa's Frozen Fruit Salad Mold, adapted from a recipe found in "Taste of Heaven" community cookbook

serves about 8-10

1 (15 ounce) can fruit cocktail, drained, reserving juices
1 (8 ounce) can crushed pineapple, drained, reserving juices
water, as needed
1 (4 serving size) small box lemon gelatin
1 pinch salt
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 cup mini marshmallows
1/2 cup Greek yogurt (plain or vanilla) or sour cream or mayonnaise
1 cup whipped cream, measured after whipping, plus extra for garnishing, if desired
3 to 4 drops red food coloring, or as needed to tint the salad light pink

You will need a medium-large sized gelatin mold or seal-able, freeze-able bowl. Spray lightly with unflavored nonstick spray.

Set a mesh strainer over a glass measuring cup and let the fruit drain, saving all of the juices from the cans. Chill the fruit in a covered container for now. Add enough water to the fruit juice to measure about 1 1/3 cups liquid. Pour into a small saucepan and bring to a boil.

Remove the saucepan from the heat and dissolve the lemon gelatin in the liquid. Whisk in a tiny pinch of salt and the lemon juice. Cover and chill until partially set, about 1 1/2-2 hours.

Once the gelatin has partially set, add the fruit and marshmallows and stir to combine. Fold in the yogurt, sour cream, or mayo if you dare (whichever you prefer), followed by the whipped cream and a few drops of red food coloring to tint the mixture a light pink color.

Pour into the prepared gelatin mold, cover, then freeze overnight or until firm. Loosen edges carefully, using a butter knife, before unmolding. I set my sealed container into a bowl of hot water for a couple of minutes to help loosen it, then placed a plate on top of the open container and flipped it over - it came out very easily.

Serve immediately, freezing any leftovers. Serve extra whipped cream on the side, if desired.

*NOTE: I found it easier to eat after I let the mold defrost a short time before unmolding; not long enough to have it start melting, just long enough to slice a bit easier).

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

How I Organize & Declutter My Huge Cookbook Collection

My boyfriend's first comment when he saw my massive collection of cookbooks was "that is an insane number of cookbooks." I really do have tons and tons of them. I read cookbooks every day for inspiration, even if I don't always choose the recipes buried in the pages. You can find cookbooks, recipe cards, recipe printouts, and an array of cooking magazines in several languages scattered around just about every room of the house.

It is pretty safe to say that I have just a bit of a cookbook addiction. I especially love to find unique books and charity books published by small community organizations. Yard sales and thrift shops in my area are a treasure trove for used cookbooks, and with the going rate at around $1 or less per book, I have found myself dragging home more than a few.

Since I have so many cookbooks already, I go through all of them several times a year to cull out any of the books I no longer love or find useful. Ideally, the only books that remain on my shelves are the ones I use all the time or that hold a special meaning for me (such as a few I inherited from my mom's elderly aunt). The rest I go through and copy out just the recipes I either already know worked for me or that I know I want to try someday.  Then I either donate the excess books, give them away to a friend, or sell them at my own yard sale for someone else to enjoy.

When you have so many books to go through, it can be really daunting to get all of the recipes you want to save copied out.

 How I Organize & Cull My Cookbook Collection

Every so often, I pull out a cookbook I don't think I use much and read through it. I keep a stack of Post It sticky notes handy and a pen. Whenever I see a recipe I want to save, I stick a Post It at the top of the page.

Sometimes I even write the name of the recipe, but not always. It depends on whether or not I feel like it. Generally, if I find myself marking a lot of recipes in a book, I usually jot down the recipe names.


As I finish marking a book, I place it in a stack to go through later. Then I move onto the next book.

Once I have gone through enough books, I start copying out the recipes. If the book has a nice photo of the food, I might make a photocopy of it, otherwise I just enter the recipes into my Mastercook software.

Once I have copied a recipe, I move the sticky note from the top of the page and place it sticking out of the side instead. This way, if I want to give the book away to a friend, all of the good recipes are still marked, but I know at a glance that I have already copied them out. If I am planning to donate or sell the book, it is very easy to pull out all of the Post It notes, and none of the pages are left dog-eared or marked up.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Huge Texas Sized Banana Nut Muffins

Banana Nut bread is one of the most baked items in my house. Not only does everyone love to eat it, but it makes my whole house smell like you just walked into a bakery, which is a wonderful aroma to wake up to on a sleepy weekend morning. When I want to make loaves of banana bread, I usually turn to my all time favorite banana bread recipe. However, since there aren't exactly a ton of people to feed in my home, sometimes I only really need to bake a few muffins. The following recipe is perfect for times when you just want to make a smaller sized batch, but you still want nice big coffee shop sized muffins.

Huge Texas Sized Banana Nut Muffins
serves 6

3 medium sized bananas, covered with black spots
1 large egg
1 stick unsalted butter, softened (1/2 cup)
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/4-1/2 tsp banana flavoring, optional
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp ordinary table salt
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup chopped nuts, walnuts, pecans or any nut you prefer

*You will need one jumbo sized muffin pan, with 6 wells.

Preheat oven to  350 F. Grease and flour your muffin tin well, including the top of the pan. I use Pam for baking, which already has flour in it - much easier than messing around with flouring the wells.

Now go grab a nice big bowl and your hand mixer. Yes, you read that right... this recipe is not your typical "stir just until moistened" type banana bread recipe. Of course you can mix everything with a spoon instead, but it really does work out better with the pulverizing power of a mixer for this particular recipe.

Peel the bananas, making sure you pull off any of those little stringy bits, and plop them whole into your mixing bowl. Crack in the egg and add the softened butter. I soften my stick of butter in a dish in the microwave for 12 seconds on High - it comes out just soft enough to still hold its shape, but blends as if it has been sitting out at room temperature for a while. Turn on your mixer to low speed and whirl everything together until it is smooth. Add in the extracts.

Grab a sifter or a fine mesh strainer and sift together the flour, baking soda, and salt into a separate bowl. Add some of the flour mixture to the butter mixture and briefly mix on low speed. It will look very thick. Keep adding the flour mixture in small amounts, mixing just a bit each time, until it has all been added. Just don't go crazy mixing the batter - it should be smooth, without any dry parts or lumps, but don't beat for very long.

Next add the granulated sugar and mix in on low speed until blended. You are all done with your mixer - go ahead and grab that spoon now. Using a wooden spoon, gently stir in the brown sugar and the nuts.

Ladle the batter evenly into your prepared jumbo muffin tins. You should have exactly enough batter to fill 6 wells about 2/3-3/4 full. Pop them into the oven and bake until a toothpick tests clean when poked into the center of your largest, tallest muffin, about 30-35 minutes. Allow the muffins to cool in their tins 10 minutes before you attempt to remove them.

Now for the hard part... try really, really hard to let them cool completely, preferably overnight, before you eat them. Banana bread always tastes better after it has had a chance to mellow out for a day or two. I won't tell if you sneak one early though ;)

*NOTE: Just in case you don't happen to have a jumbo sized muffin tin pan, you can also bake this in one 8x4" size loaf pan. It will take about 40-45 minutes for a single loaf.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Leftover Man Pleasing Chicken Salad

Nearly every day for lunch I have a nice big, hearty salad. I had a piece of  Man-Pleasing Chicken left over, so I sliced it up thinly and mixed up a quick and tasty salad. I loved it this way and next time I prepare the chicken, I will make sure I cook enough extra pieces to save for several salads.

I used cherry tomatoes, fresh from my farmer's market, with Romaine lettuce, black olives, shredded Swiss & Gruyere cheese, the chicken, cut thinly on the bias, and a bit of honey mustard salad dressing.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Easy Biscuit Dough Sticky Buns Ring

Recently, I found a few tubes of biscuit dough hiding in the back of my fridge. I had bought a bunch of them on sale one day, but just couldn't use them up fast enough. Some I used already to make Easy Chocolate Dipped Donuts, and another two tubes of the dough went into a huge, lovely ring of sticky buns.

While these don't capture the same taste as real homemade sticky buns from scratch, they did transform ordinary biscuit dough into something a bit more special with very little effort. I originally found the recipe over at The Jones Way, where there are some lovely step by step photos on how to place the biscuits in the pan.

Easy Biscuit Dough Sticky Buns (as adapted from a version The Jones Way

serves about 6-8

2 small tubes Pillsbury biscuit dough or 1 tube Grands biscuit dough
3 Tbsp unsalted butter, melted
1/2 cup maple syrup or pancake syrup
1/3 cup brown sugar, packed
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 cup chopped nuts, optional

Grease a Bundt pan well. (I used Pam nonstick spray for baking, the kind with flour in it). Preheat oven to 375 F.

In a small bowl, combine melted butter and syrup. In another bowl, combine sugar, cinnamon, and nuts. Pour half of the syrup mixture into the pan, and then sprinkle with half of the sugar mixture.

Next, lay the biscuits in a ring around the bottom of the pan, standing up, edges overlapping. Pour the remaining syrup on top, then sprinkle with the rest of the sugar mixture. Bake until puffed and golden, about 20-25 minutes. Be very careful not to overcook. Allow to cool in the pan for 1 minute or so, then invert onto a serving platter and serve immediately.

*Note:  Like most doctored biscuit dough recipes, these will keep only one day, and taste best warm and fresh from the oven.

LINKING UP TO: A Bowl Full of Lemons Link Party

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Trader Joe's Maple Mustard Chicken aka Man-Pleasing Chicken

This simple recipe for Maple Mustard Chicken, originally from the I Love Trader Joe's Cookbook, also known as "Man-Pleasing Chicken" by Witty in the City, has gone absolutely viral over on Pinterest.  Since my boyfriend would happily eat chicken every night of the week, I am constantly looking for new ways to serve it so that I don't get bored. The recipe calls for ingredients that I almost always have lying around in my house anyway: Dijon mustard, rice wine vinegar, and maple syrup. With a name like Man-Pleasing Chicken, it certainly sounded like a promising recipe to try!

I had a jar of whole grain country-style Dijon mustard in my fridge, so I decided to try that this time. This was a good call, as the little speckles of mustard seeds gave the sauce some texture and made it look appealing. I used boneless skinless chicken breasts instead of thighs, since that is what my boyfriend prefers and also what I happened to have in my freezer at the time. I used four pieces and cooked it about 30 minutes. It came out juicy and tender.

We liked how the chicken turned out and would make it again, although I am not sure that it quite lived up to all the hoopla. This was partly because the recipe wasn't all that different from a few other recipes in my regular chicken recipe rotation, the unique part here being the addition of maple syrup. Next time I might try some dark agave syrup and apple cider vinegar for a different twist. I served mine with some steamed Jasmine rice and broccoli.

Maple Mustard Chicken Breasts (adapted from a version on Witty in the City and the I Love Trader Joe's Cookbook)

serves 4-6

4-6 skinless boneless chicken breast halves, trimmed of any visible fat, pounded slightly
salt and pepper, to taste
1/2 cup Country-Style Dijon Mustard
1/4 cup pure Maple Syrup
1 Tbsp rice wine vinegar
rosemary, fresh or dried, to taste, chopped

Preheat your oven to 450 F. Lightly grease an 8" square casserole dish. Season chicken to taste on both sides with salt and pepper and place in a zip-top bag. Add mustard, maple syrup, a small amount of rosemary, and vinegar. Seal bag and shake around until the chicken is fully coated in the sauce. Pour the entire contents into the casserole dish and bake for 15 minutes, baste with the pan juices, and flip over the chicken. Continue cooking for another 15 minutes, or just until the chicken is fully cooked. (According the the original source, it should read 155 F on a meat thermometer). Let the chicken rest a few minutes before cutting into it.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Egg White Omelette with Basil, Cherry Tomatoes and Strawberry Basil Balsamic Salad

Ever since I began reducing my carbs, eggs have become one of my morning staples. It can get very boring eating eggs for breakfast day in and day out, so anyone eating low carb is usually looking for new and inspiring ways to prepare eggs.

One very popular variation is to combine egg whites with slices of ripe cherry tomatoes and fresh spinach. I wanted to make something similar, but I wasn't terribly fond of the spinach idea. I decided basil would be more suited to my taste buds.  I also added crumbled soft goat cheese, which added a nice creamy texture to each bite. The finished omelette was just beautiful and tasted light and filling.

Egg White Omelette with Basil, Cherry Tomatoes, and Goat Cheese
serves 1

Liquid Egg Whites (I used the natural Egg Beaters egg whites, which have no colors or flavors added), as much as you need to fill your saucepan
freshly ground sea salt and black pepper, to taste
fresh basil leaves, about 5
1/4 cup cherry tomatoes, sliced into rounds, approximately
1/4 cup soft goat cheese, crumbled
1-2 tsp salted butter

Heat a small nonstick skillet over medium low heat. Add a small amount of butter and allow it to melt and begin to bubble. Pour in enough egg whites to cover the surface of your skillet, plus a little extra. Grind a bit of salt and pepper over the surface of the eggs and then immediately drop a lid on top. If possible, use a glass lid, so you can see the egg cooking.

Allow the eggs whites to cook, undisturbed, until they transform from their unattractive clear, watery state into a creamy white opaque disc. This only takes a minute or so; be prepared to adjust the heat if needed to keep it from overcooking.

Before the surface is fully cooked, briefly remove the lid and drop in the tomatoes, basil leaves, and goat cheese. You may leave the basil leaves whole or chop them if you prefer. Season again with salt and pepper and allow the egg to finish cooking a few more seconds, allowing the topping to heat only slightly. Carefully slide the omelette onto your plate and serve immediately.

*Note:  If you are not using Egg Beaters, then use roughly 3 egg whites, beaten together well. 

On the side, I served a simple salad of diced strawberries with torn basil leaves, drizzled with some Archer Farms Strawberry Basil balsamic vinegar (which I found at Target and highly recommend).

Friday, August 3, 2012

A Perfect Summer Fruit Salad (Honey Lime Tropical Fruit Salad)

I have been really enjoying a new cooking show that recently started airing on the Food Network, Home for Dinner with Jamie Deen. Jamie comes across as very approachable and his recipes all seem to be the sort of dishes that are perfect for an ordinary small family. Nothing is too fussy or indulgent, and the ingredients are all pretty basic. I really hope this show sticks around, as it is one of the few that I feel I can truly relate to.

As soon as I saw Jamie present this salad, I knew I had to run right out to buy the ingredients. All of the fruits are fresh and perfect for a summer meal - fresh chunks of pineapple, bright green slices of kiwifruit, plump seedless purple grapes, and slices of juicy mango and bananas. The dressing is a simple blend of lime juice, honey, and fresh mint - light, citrusy, with just enough sweet and tang to bring out the natural flavors of the fruit. The salad is topped with a sprinkle of toasted shredded coconut, giving it nice texture. If you aren't a coconut fan, you could use some granola or chopped nuts or just leave the salad as is.

I could not stop eating this, and once the first bowl was gone, I made a second batch the next night and called up my mom to tell her to make it right away. This is also wonderful served with a dollop of plain Greek yogurt on top as a light breakfast or dessert.

Tropical Fruit Salad with Honey Lime Dressing, adapted from a version shown on Home for Dinner with Jamie Deen

for the Salad:
1/2 fresh pineapple, peeled, cored, cut into chunks (please don't use canned)
2-3 kiwifruits, peeled, sliced thinly
1 handful seedless Concord grapes (or any seedless grape - the darker color really makes the salad look pretty)
1 mango, peeled, sliced
1 large banana, peeled, sliced
1/2-3/4 cup shredded coconut, toasted lightly and cooled

for the honey lime dressing:
2 Tbsp honey, or to taste
1 large lime, juice and zest of
2-3 Tbsp fresh mint, thinly sliced into strips

To toast the coconut, spread the shredded coconut onto a small baking sheet in an even, flat layer and pop into a preheated 350 F oven for just a couple of minutes. Don't go walking away to chop fruit or wash dishes or something - coconut burns very easily!  When it is ready, you will detect the slightest hint of coconut aroma and the edges of some of the pieces will only just be starting to turn golden;  most will still be pure white. For me, this took about 2-3 minutes. Pull the tray out of the oven and let the coconut cool fully on the baking sheet. Store in a covered jar.

Mix together the fresh fruit in a medium bowl. Whisk together the dressing and toss with the fruit.  Taste and adjust the dressing flavors - I added a bit more lime juice and went heavier on the mint.  Serve immediately, sprinkling the toasted coconut on individual servings to taste.

*NOTE: To cut the mint into thin "chiffonade"strips, pull off the leaves from their stems and make a small stack. Roll up the leaf stack tightly, then cut the ends off into tiny coils. When you unwind the coils, you will have thin strips of mint.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

An Organized Kitchen: A Peek Inside the Fridge, Part 2

As promised in my previous kitchen organization post, today I'd like to show you how I keep my refrigerator door organized. My fridge door has four deep, yet somewhat narrow shelves, where I can fit very tall objects, but nothing much wider than a mayonnaise jar. There is also a covered butter compartment, which is just out of sight at the very top of the door. I regularly keep a box of unsalted butter, a package of cream cheese, an airtight butter dish (for storing cut sticks of butter), and sometimes a stick of garlic butter in that compartment.

Underneath the butter compartment is my salad dressing and mayonnaise shelf. What you see tucked behind the salad dressing bottles is a package of flour tortillas. They were always getting bent or squished in the main part of the fridge, so I started storing any flatbread items in the backs of each of my fridge door shelves, held upright by the bottles. This really helps keep them flat and also makes them easy to spot, instead of getting buried underneath a container of leftovers or something.

The next shelf is where I store all of my bottled sauces: barbeque sauce, salsa, marinades, Asian sauces like Hoisin  sauce, Thai Fish sauce, etc.

The third shelf houses all of my ketchup and mustard. Yes, I have SIX different bottles of mustard in my door right now. What can I say - I really love mustard! I usually make sure to have at least a bottle of Dijon, Brown, and Honey Mustard on hand at all times. I also currently have some Country Style, a Honey Dijon blend, and some Dipping Mustard.

And finally, the bottom shelf is for keeping dessert sauces, like chocolate syrup and caramel, as well as a bottle each of Limoncello and white wine.

The labels on each shelf make it really easy for everyone to remember where to put back any of the various condiments, so the fridge door really does tend to stay organized.

If you missed the first part of this kitchen organization series, click below to read more:

Friday, July 20, 2012

An Organized Kitchen: A Peek Inside the Fridge, part 1

I have a very tiny fridge. Not quite college dorm sized, but still much more narrow and crammed than I would like. I have four tiny shelves in the upper portion of my fridge, with only two small bins (no slim meat & cheese drawer like I am used to having). I have to get really creative and purge my food supplies fairly regularly in order to keep everything clean, tidy, and orderly in there.

My top shelf is designated for all of my big beverages - my jugs of milk, juice, soda cans, coffee creamer, etc. During the school year, it is also where my daughter stashes her lunch bag.

Since I had a lot of short, tiny, odd shaped jars and bottles of jams and other miscellaneous condiments that always seemed to get lost behind all of the other food, I decided to add a two-tiered lazy Susan to the second shelf. This makes it so much easier to find exactly which jelly I want when I am half asleep in the morning. The narrow strip of the shelf not taken up by the lazy Susan is where I store a row of pickles and relishes.

The third shelf is for all of my dairy containers - tubs of butter, sour cream, dips, yogurt, etc. On the fourth shelf, I keep my eggs, Canadian bacon, and any containers of leftovers. I also let my meat thaw in a sealed plastic container on this shelf.


I placed a dollar store plastic drawer off to one side of the dairy shelf to corral all of my packages of cheese and deli meats.


I eat loads of fruits and veggies, so in order to keep things tidy and visible, I try to prep some of my veggies when I get home. It is hard to tell in the photo, but I have several items prepped and cleaned and stored in small clear containers and bags. I keep veggies in the top bin, fruit in the bottom bin.

Next time I will show you the contents of my fridge door....

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Old Fashioned Nilla Wafers Banana Pudding

Being from the Northeastern US, there are so many classic recipes that I only discovered once I moved away from home. Banana Pudding is something I had never even heard of when I was a kid. Shocking, I know. I can hear you all gasping and imagine a lot of head shaking. One of my friends, Jenny, from whom I pried many great recipes (but unfortunately not this one), first told me about banana pudding, her eyes rolling with pleasure at the thought of scooping out a nice fresh portion of creamy, warm, cookie studded banana pudding. I knew I had to try some, and once I did, I was definitely a fan.

The best version of this dessert that I ever tasted was at a cute little family style restaurant, The Rainbow, in North Carolina. Every once in a while, the owner's mother would make up a batch and bring it to the restaurant as a special secret dessert of the day. Only the regulars and locals knew it existed, as it was not displayed in the huge dessert case that greeted you as you entered the dining area, nor did it appear on the menu itself. You just had to ask and hope they had some. And if they did have any, you knew to order it immediately, before you even had your dinner, because that stuff always seemed to vanish fast. Sadly, the last time I was there, I learned that there would no longer be any banana pudding served, as the lady had passed away.

I have been trying out different variations of banana pudding ever since, hoping to one day recapture the essence of The Rainbow's secret version. The following is my most recent attempt, which is essentially the same version found on the side of the Nilla wafers box. I have tried this recipe twice, first using the Cool Whip variation, and this time topped with a golden meringue. I enjoyed it both ways.

Nilla's Famous Old Fashioned Baked Banana Pudding (adapted from their official recipe, found here)

for the custard:
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 dash salt
3 egg yolks (save the whites for the topping)
2 cups milk
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

additional ingredients:
Nilla wafers cookies, about 45, (save some for the garnish)
3-5 ripe bananas, peeled, sliced into thin rounds (save some slices to garnish)

for the meringue topping:
 3 egg whites
1/4 cup granulated sugar

Preheat oven to 350°F.  Have a 1 1/2 quart deep baking dish ready. You will also need either a double boiler, or you can use a heat-safe bowl set on top of a saucepan.

Mix 1/2 cup sugar, flour and salt in top of  the double boiler. Blend in 3 egg yolks and milk, whisking to combine. Cook, uncovered, over boiling water 10 to 12 min., or until thickened, stirring constantly. Remove from the heat; stir in vanilla. 

Spread small amount of custard onto bottom of your baking dish. Cover with layers of 1/3 each of the cookies, bananas and remaining custard (saving some cookies and banana slices for the garnish). Repeat layers 2 times.

Beat the egg whites on high speed of mixer until soft peaks form. Gradually beat in remaining sugar until stiff peaks form. Spread over the top of the baking dish, sealing all of the edges.

Bake uncovered 15-20 minutes, or until lightly golden. Cool slightly. Decorate with reserved cookies and banana slices just before serving.

**NOTE: This is very good warm, but we liked this even better after it had chilled and the cookies had time to soak up some of the custard. To help keep your banana slices from browning, you can briefly soak them in some lemon flavored soda (like Sprite), which doesn't leave you with the tangy flavor of lemon juice. Be sure to drain well before using.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Fast, Cheap, & Easy Dipping Donuts

My boyfriend loves donuts and had been asking me to make him some for a while now. After poking around on Pinterest, I was reminded of a really easy recipe for magically turning canned biscuits into quick donuts. If you have ever been to an Asian buffet in the US, you have likely tried them before - plain biscuit dough dropped into hot oil, and coated liberally with cinnamon sugar.

They don't taste exactly like "real" donuts, but they are really quite addictive just the same and they are dead easy to make. You don't even need a deep fryer or any other special equipment to make them!  A simple deep saucepan and a slotted spoon will do just fine.

Since my boyfriend isn't a huge fan of cinnamon sugar donuts, I decided to make a chocolate glaze to dip the donuts into instead. The glaze was a big hit and will be my go-to recipe for dipping donuts in the future.  I tried a version I found on Food from Paula Deen. 

Easy Chocolate Dipped Biscuit Donuts (adapted slightly from a recipe by Paula Deen)

2-4 cans refrigerated biscuit dough (I used Pillsbury buttermilk biscuits), as many as you feel like making
oil, for deep frying

for the chocolate glaze:
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (I used Dark chocolate cocoa powder)
1 cup powdered sugar
3 Tbsp milk
colored sprinkles

Fill a deep medium-sized saucepan about halfway with cooking oil (or use a deep fryer), approximately 2 inches deep. Heat the oil to 350 F (check using a candy thermometer or until you can drop in a small piece of dough and it sizzles and starts to brown right away).

While the oil is heating, whisk together the glaze ingredients in a small bowl. Set out a clean plate to set your dipped donuts on, as well as a plate lined with paper towels or a clean paper grocery bag for draining. You will also need a slotted spoon handy to scoop out the donuts from the oil.

Drop a few canned biscuits carefully into the hot oil and let cook until golden on both sides, flipping over the dough with a slotted spoon to make sure both sides cook evenly. They brown really fast, so don't go wandering off to fix yourself some coffee or something.

Remove donuts with a slotted spoon to drain on paper towel lined plates. Repeat with remaining dough. Tip: You can drop the biscuits in whole, or use your fingers to pull them into the more familiar ring shape of a traditional donut. Tear the dough into smaller pieces to make "donut hole" shapes instead.

Once the donuts have cooled slightly, dip them into the glaze, then set onto a clean plate and decorate with colored sprinkles. Eat while still slightly warm.

**Note: These don't keep well beyond the first day, but usually they get gobbled up fast enough that there are no leftovers. Extra glaze can be chilled for a few days in the fridge.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Refreshing Chickpea & Cucumber Salad

Bursting with colorful, healthy ingredients like buttery smooth protein-packed chickpeas, juicy, crisp bites of sweet red bell pepper, freshly grated carrots, and cucumbers, this is one of my favorite salads.  Not only is this salad healthy, but the taste is incredibly refreshing and very addictive.

I make this salad often to eat for lunch throughout the week. My daughter really loves it. Easily halved, although honestly, we polish this off quickly because it is so tasty.  This will keep all week in your fridge, if it lasts that long. I started making this salad after seeing similar versions on several other blogs, most notably There's Always Thyme to Cook, as well as the back of a Goya chickpeas can.

Chickpea & Cucumber Salad, adapted slightly from There's Always Thyme to Cook and Goya
(makes one large bowl full, or about 10 servings)

2 (15 ounce) cans chickpeas (garbanzo beans), rinsed well, drained
1 large cucumber, diced (you may peel and seed if you you prefer)
1 medium red, yellow, or orange bell pepper, seeded, finely diced
1/2 small red onion, finely diced
1 large carrot, peeled, finely shredded or finely diced
1 to 2 tablespoons fresh parsley or mint (do not used dry, just omit if you don't have fresh)

1/4 cup White Balsamic vinegar, approximately
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, approximately
1/2 to 3/4 teaspoons salt, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon black pepper, or to taste
1 teaspoon granulated garlic (dried minced garlic)

Prep all of your veggies and drain and rinse your beans, combining everything together in a large bowl.  Mix together the dressing ingredients and toss with the beans/veggie mixture, tasting and adjusting the flavors to taste.  Chill well and serve.

*Note: Granulated garlic is sold in the spice section and comes in small tiny crunchy pieces; this is not the same product as garlic powder.  If you can't find any, you can toast some fresh minced garlic in a pan with a tiny bit of olive oil until it just begins to crisp, then quickly remove to paper towels to drain and cool.

White balsamic vinegar has a subtle, lightly sweet clean taste and is usually sold right next to regular Balsamic vinegar.  If you don't have any, you can mix white wine vinegar with some white grape juice.  Regular Balsamic vinegar has a much stronger, very different taste and also makes the salad take on an unattractive purplish hue, so I don't recommend it as a substitute.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Raspberry Walnut Salad

Since I have been dieting for the past couple of months, salads have become a major player in my menus.  I typically eat a large salad for lunch every day, and very often add a side salad to accompany my dinners as well.

This is a very simple yet addictive salad that I tried the other night.  I have had similar versions before, but this one was just so easy to throw together on the spur of the moment.  I think I have eaten this salad three nights in a row already this week, it is really that tasty.

Raspberry Walnut Side Salad
(inspired by a recipe demo at Publix)

1 serving

1 generous handful torn romaine lettuce leaves, washed, dried well
1-2 tsp blue cheese crumbles
1-2 tsp chopped walnuts
1/4-1/2 tsp freshly grated lemon zest, to taste
1-3 tsp raspberry vinaigrette*, to taste

Assemble the lettuce, cheese, and walnuts on a plate.  Whisk together some lemon zest and a small amount of raspberry vinaigrette, then drizzle over the salad.

*To make your own raspberry vinaigrette, whisk together canola oil, white balsamic vinegar, salt, pepper, and a very small spoonful of raspberry preserves, all to taste.  Or you may use store bought.

The lemon zest really makes the dressing sing and is a great way to doctor up any bottled vinaigrette.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Low Carb Lunch: Steak au Poivre

I am once again attempting to lose weight by eating low-carb.  I have had some success with eating low-carb previously, but was never able to commit fully to the process.  My main issues with eating this way are the limits on eating fruit, rice, and pasta.  When you are feeding a hungry sports-playing kid who happens to be part Italian, you both love Asian food, and you enjoy baking, low-carbing is very, very tough to maintain.

However, every time I have tried eating this way, I have lost weight. While for me it isn't a permanent solution, when I need to jump start some weight loss, my body does seem to respond really well to this process.  Rather than follow a specific plan, which I find too restrictive to continue long-term, I am focusing instead on reducing my overall carb intake.

As I have done before, I am relying heavily on recipes from one of the Idiot-Proof Diet Cookbooks by Bee Rawlinson, India Knight, & Neris Thomas.  This time, I tried one of their suggested lunches, Steak au Poivre with a side salad of avocado dressed with a dollop of blue cheese dressing.  It is a simple dish you can whip up in about 15 minutes and is very satisfying and filling.  I doubt I will make this a regular lunch dish, but it sure was delicious.

Simple Steak au Poivre, adapted from The Idiot-Proof Diet

1 (3-4 ounce) lean steak (I used sirloin)
1 pat butter (I used garlic butter)
crushed peppercorns, to taste
2 Tbsp cream, to taste
1 grind sea salt

Heat a heavy skillet over medium-high heat.  Melt butter until it begins to sizzle.  Meanwhile, rub crushed peppercorns into both sides of the steak - enough to give it a nice coating.

Cook steak until it is brown on the bottom, with a bit of crusty bits forming along the edges.  Flip over and continue cooking until it is cooked the way you prefer it.  Very soft = rare, Somewhat soft = Medium, Soft but getting firmer = Medium-well, Firm = well done.  Remember that the steak will continue to cook a few minutes after you remove it from the pan, so remove it just before it is as firm as you want it to be.

Drizzle a small amount of cream into the pan juices, stirring around to soak up the browned bits.  Heat for about 1-2 minutes over low heat, then pour or spoon over the resting meat.  Season to taste with a touch of salt, if desired.

The authors recommend serving this with some fresh sliced avocado and a spoonful of blue cheese dressing.

Monday, February 27, 2012

My Mom's Ambrosia Fruit Salad

My mom always used to make this delicious fruit salad when I was a kid. Back then, it was all I could do to keep myself from reaching in and helping myself to a grape or a cherry. She served this a lot at family gatherings and whenever we had a BBQ night.  It always went over very well, especially with children or anyone who had a sweet tooth.  When fresh fruit is in season, this is equally amazing using fresh fruits. I like to bring this whenever I am asked to bring a fruit salad to a baby shower.

My Mom's Ambrosia Fruit Salad

1 (15 ounce) can sliced peaches in juice, drained well, cut into chunks
1 (11 ounce) can mandarin oranges, drained well
1 (8 ounce) can pineapple tidbits in juice, drained well
1/2-1 cup maraschino cherries, drained, cut into halves if desired
1-1 1/2 cups seedless grapes (Mom used green), cut into halves if desired
1-1 1/2 cups miniature marshmallows
1 cup sour cream
1/4 cup granulated sugar, or to taste
shredded coconut, to garnish, optional

Combine all of the fruits and the marshmallows in a large bowl.  Mix together the sour cream with the sugar, tasting and adjusting the sweetness as desired.  Pour the sour cream mixture over the fruit mixture. Toss gently, making sure to coat evenly.  Cover and chill for several hours before serving.

If you like, just before serving sprinkle with a layer of shredded coconut.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Credit Crunch: My Weekly 3-2-1 Menu

If I walk into the grocery store without a plan, I am likely to start tossing things into my cart simply because I am hungry or I see something that looks good at the time.  Of course nine times out of ten, I get home and those impulse buys get forgotten the moment they get put away.

With my meals planned out, I only buy the items I need for that week instead of getting suckered into purchasing everything that catches my eye.

Traditional weekly menu plans weren't working for me.  I needed to find a way to be very flexible in order to accommodate my daughter's ever-changing schedule.  I also didn't want to be stuck with excessive leftovers.

One day it dawned on me that I didn't have to cook elaborate dinners for every night of the week.  I didn't have to make a recipe and then eat leftovers for the next four days to use it up.  I also didn't have to designate specific nights for specific meals.  All of that may work great for a different family, but it wasn't working at all for mine.  I needed something much more simple, and my idea for the 3-2-1 Menu Plan was born.

The concept is so simple, I really don't know how it eluded me for so long. Each week, I only plan to prepare three dinner recipes.  Two nights we eat leftovers or something incredibly simple like sandwiches. One night I pull something from my freezer, which I keep stocked with meals I prep in advance, and other quick things like frozen pizza or Lean Cuisine dinners.  That leaves one more night per week that isn't planned out - to allow for eating out or visiting with family/friends.

Here is my 3-2-1 Menu for this week:

3 Dinner Recipes:
Greek Salad
Roasted Shrimp with Thyme with steamed brown rice and broccoli
Crock-pot Pork Loin Chops with mashed sweet potatoes

2 Leftovers/Sandwiches Nights

1 From the Freezer night: Corky's Ribs, with coleslaw and cornbread

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Writing "Something"

It has been over a year since I last wrote here.  I can't tell you how many times I have sat down to write and found myself unable to untangle the thoughts filling my head.  It was a year of major changes - some good, some really not very good at all, but necessary.  Thinking and writing about food was still very much a part of my life, but I wasn't in much of a sharing mood.

Back when I was still in school, my creative writing teacher shared a simple but valuable writing tip with me that I have never forgotten:

Write something... every single day.

It doesn't matter if what you write has any substance or meaning. He didn't care if all we wrote that day was a string of random words.  I distinctly recall a few defiantly moody days when all I wrote down in my creative writing journal was the same letter over and over again.  Something is better than nothing, right? The idea worked...eventually.  Since I was used to writing something down each day, eventually those stories and thoughts cramming my brain would find their way onto the page. And sometimes those somethings were really worth reading.

I have a lot of great ideas to share with you and I am really excited to start blogging again.  Strawberry season has just begun and the weather is warming up (Hey, I live in Florida after all).  Already the ideas are flowing.  To those of you still here visiting and reading, thank you for being so patient.