Sunday, September 5, 2010

Creamy Tomato Gnocchi with Cauliflower

The other night I was standing in front of my pantry, not in the mood to do anything much less cook, trying to decide what to make for dinner. I spotted a box of gnocchi that I picked up at the store and decided to go from their.  The cauliflower needed to be used and I thought would add a little texture to the dish.  It turned our surprisingly well. My family even liked it (although they did comment that there was no meat) which really surprised me.  The only change I would make next time is to get a better quality gnocchi. I used a box from Fresh and Easy and it tasted good the first few bits but became rather gummy.

Creamy Tomato Gnocchi with Cauliflower
1/2 quart Italian Style Tomatoes (you could use an equivalent can size I just had some home canned on hand)
1/2 head of cauliflower cut into small pieces
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons flour
2 cloves garlic
2 cups milk
1 cup of shredded cheese

Directions:  Prepare gnocchi according to instructions and include cauliflower.  In a small sauce pan melt butter, add flower to melted butter to create a rue.  Allow to cook to light blond.  Slowly stir in milk over medium heat.  Allow to come to a boil and thicken.  Add small amount of salt and pepper to taste (remember you are adding cheese so don't overdue the salt).  Add the garlic. If you like the garlic bits go ahead and add minced. If you just want garlic flavor use the back of a knife to "crush" garlic clove, remove skin and add to cream sauce.  Then you can take out the garlic clove before you serve. You can the flavor but no one ends up with a sharp bite of garlic.  After you allow to boil gently and thicken add the cheese and stir to melt.  Finally add the tomatoes.  Bring to temperature.  Drain the gnocchi and cauliflower.  Top with sauce and stir. Best enjoyed immediately.

If you like gnocchi visit Noble Pig for what looks like an amazing Gnocchi Mac n' Cheese recipe. I haven't tried yet but the pictures have my mouth watering! Plus it's just an awesome site - amazing food and photography.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Quick & Easy Garlic Bread

I love garlic, probably a little too much, and I love garlic bread. This is so simple and easy and goes great with a variety of dishes and soups.

Garlic Bread
1 loaf french or Italian bread
3-4 tablespoons of melted butter
1 teaspoon of Italian Seasoning
2-3 finely minced garlic cloves
1 teaspoon salt
fresh cracked black pepper to taste

Directions:  Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  Slice bread into 3/4 inch pieces. I leave the very bottom uncut to keep the loaf together for baking. Mince garlic.  Put butter, garlic and seasoning in a microwaveable dish and microwave in 15 second increments until melted. This will hopefully prevent the butter explosion in your microwave.  You can also do in a small pan over medium heat on the stove if you like. With a pastry brush coat each side of cut bread with melted butter mixture. Brush remaining over the top of bread. Bake for 6-10 minutes until golden brown.

A little tip  I normally try to load up on french or Italian bread when it's on clearance for less than 50 cents at Fresh and Easy.  I make sure it's not stale and I put immediately in the freezer. Pull out the freezer the day you want to use and only allow to partially defrost. This actually makes it easier to cut perfect slices. Depending how frozen the bread is you might need to extend the cooking time 2-5 minutes.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

I'm in Denial

Yup, I admit it. I'm in denial. I'm in denial that tomorrow is September and it's still 100 degrees where I live. OK today it was 93 I think but Saturday it is supposed to be triple digits again.  Not that I want to say goodbye to summer but since school started on Monday it feels like Fall whether I want it to come or not. So I'm ready. I'm ready to embrace the smells, sounds and treats of fall. I'm ready to enjoy warm apple cider, pick out Halloween Costumes for the boys and get ready for the holidays to start arriving. Now... Las Vegas just needs to cooperate and give me Fall in return. Would that be so hard? Oh and can you thrown in some beautiful autumn hued leaves and the crisp smell in the air I remember as a child in Maryland? Pretty Please...

So since that probably won't happen... Hey you can only ask for some much when you live in the desert. I never have to sweep snow off my car right? I will share a favorite fall treat.

Caramel Apple Cupcakes
Butter Pecan Cake Mix
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
2 1/2 cups of diced peeled granny smith (or other tart apple)
35 caramels
4 tablespoons milk
1 1/4 cup of finely chopped toasted pecans
24 craft sticks

Directions:  Prepare cake batter according to package instructions adding spices. Fold in apples and 1/4 cup of nuts.  Fill 24 greased or paper-lined muffin tins 2/3 full.  Bake at 350 for approximately 20 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean.  Cool in tin for about 10 minutes and then move to wire rack to cool completely.  In a small heavy saucepan melt the caramels and milk on low heat.  You may need to add a little more milk.  You want the mixture to be "spreadable".  I found the best way to get the caramel onto the cupcakes was to dip the top of the cupcake into the caramel mixture and then quickly spread with an offset spatula.  Sprinkle with toasted pecan pieces, press gently to adhere and insert a wooden stick into the center of each cupcake. 

Sorry no picture but they really do look lovely and what's even better is that they taste heavenly! I made for my best friend's Halloween Party last year and they were quickly eaten.

Since I don't have a picture of the cupcakes I thought I would share a photo of our pumpkins from last year. I found these great decorative pieces on clearance. They worked great for my toddlers (and their teenage big sissy)!

Strawberry Lemonade Cake

There are a few things that just say SUMMER. To me lemonade is the quintesential summer beverage.  My office has started to celebrate to celebrate national food holidays occasionally and the other day it was National Lemonade Day.  I seem to be seeing a lot of lemonade, lemon-berry cake/cupcake recipes lately so decided to whip something up for the office. I used bits and pieces from 3 or 4 different recipes (including two on the side of the cake mix). The end results was a huge hit at the office, requested by one co-worker for her baby shower and is reminiscence of a lemonade poke cake.

Strawberry Lemonade Cake
1 white cake mix
1 lemon cake mix
Ingredients to prepare cake mixes - usually water, eggs and oil
1/2 can of frozen pink lemonade concentrate (defrosted)
3/4 cup of powdered sugar
zest of 1/2 a lemon (make sure very fine)
juice of 1/2 a lemon
16oz white frosting
8 oz of cool whip (make sure not frozen)
6-8 strawberries sliced

Directions:  Preheat oven to 350.  First let me tell you that using both cake mixes makes a lot of cake but I really like the flavor created by mixing.  It makes it a lighter lemon flavor more like lemonade. I was making a double layer cake (9x2 inch round) for my office and I was also able to make a single layer 8 inch square for my family. I do have to say the double layer tasted better.  Prepare cakes according to package instructions but prepare both cake mixes together. This works easily in a stand mixer. I use the whisk attachment to get a lighter batter and add an extra tablespoon of water. Bake cakes according to time indicated on package.  Take out of oven and cool for 15 minutes on wire rack.  Mix concentrate with powdered sugar using a wire whisk until dissolved. I found mine did not dissolve easily so I microwaved for 10 seconds and that did the trick. Remove cakes from pans. Level bottom cake layer.

Now here is a trick I learned from a cake decorator.  If you freeze your cakes they are easier to frost.  Also I find I like the texture better. The don't dry out.  I find it also makes it easier for me to make cakes. I make the cakes at night after my kids are asleep, put in the freezer and then can finish decorating when needed. Takes less time and tastes great. It does require a little pre-planning though so I am sure this step could be skipped. But if you skip you will need to refrigerate for at least 30 minutes after poking and adding lemonade - see below. If you are going to freeze I recommend cleaning out the cake pans with a paper towel. Line with plastic wrap and return cakes to pan.  Then follow steps below. This will make it easy to finish wrapping and put in the freezer.

Poke holes in cake using a skewer or straw. Pour concentrate mixture into holes.  I found that it worked best to spoon the concentrate into the holes.  Now finish wrapping cakes and place in freezer or loosely wrap and put in fridge.

Decorating: Slice strawberries. Zest lemon. Juice half of lemon and put in small bowl. In a large bowl combine the defrosted cool whip and white frosting mixture. I found that this was a little lumpy which I don't like. I would recommend whipping the white frosting with a whisk or mixer to get very light and fluffy before you gently fold in the cool whip. Add zest and juice.  Put a small amount of frosting on cake stand or plate. Add bottom layer. Put small amount of icing in center and smooth outward with knife or offset spatula. Top with sliced strawberries.  Add top layer of cake and ice with remaining frosting mixture. I didn't do these last steps since this was the first time I made the cake but I will in future.  Arrange sliced strawberries in a fan on top of cake and place halves strawberries and lemon slices at base. Dust with yellow sugar and place a sliced lemon in very center. Refrigerate until served. The double layer cake served about 12. Sorry for the bad picture due to the florescent lights in the break room at the office. Enjoy!

Monday, August 30, 2010

Eggplant Parmesan

Eggplant is one of those things most people either love or hate. Often the people who hate eggplant haven't even tried it.  Two of the most popular methods for cooking eggplant are Asian stir fry or the classic Italian Eggplant Parmesan. The other week I got eggplant in my co-op basket and decided to make Eggplant Parmesan for the first time. Now I have had it many times before but honestly it isn't my favorite dish. I find that sometimes it is really good and well some times it really isn't.  If eggplant isn't prepared well it can become slimy or bitter. I normally avoid ordering at a restaurant because I never know if I will like it. I checked out a few recipes and this is what I came up with.  It turned out fabulous. My family loved, even my 18 month old who had 4 helpings!  I will definitely make again but this is not an every day dish. The cheese along makes it a little pricey and it is definitely not low on calories. Plus it takes some time to prepare so not something I will be doing after a day of work but it really is quite simple and very much worth the effort! I will most likely save for Sunday dinner or when company is coming over.

Eggplant Parmesan
1 medium to large eggplant
1 cup of panko bread crumbs
2 eggs
1/2 cup of flour
1 bottle of spaghetti sauce (homemade would be even better)
1 large can (I used a quart of home canned) Italian tomatoes
2 small cans of tomato sauce
3 garlic cloves
2 - 3 tablespoons of Italian seasoning
1 medium ball of fresh mozzarella (6-8 oz)
1 cup of fresh shredded Parmesan cheese
Olive Oil
Canola Oil

Directions: Slice eggplant lengthwise and then into half moons approximately 1/4 inch thick.  Salt eggplant. While eggplant is sweating gather rest of ingredients.  Prepare dredging dishes. I do a paper plate for the flour first. I added salt and pepper to the flour.  Then quickly beat the eggs in a shallow bowl.  Finally you will need the panko breadcrumbs in a plate. Add 2 tablespoons of Italian seasoning to the breadcrumbs. Reserve 3 tablespoons of crumbs for the top of the dish. Heat about 2 tablespoons each canola and olive oil.  Olive oil has a low smoke point and since you will be frying I like to mix with canola to raise the smoke point.  I used a 12" fry pan. If you are using a smaller pan reduce the oil amount.  Bring oil to medium high heat.  Depending on how much eggplant you are frying you may need to add more oil in between batches.

In a medium sauce pan combine the Italian tomatoes, sauces and crushed garlic.  Bring to a boil. Depending on the sauces you used you might need to add additional salt, pepper or herbs. Preheat oven to 350.

Pat dry the eggplant with a paper towel.  Remove as much moisture as possible.  Dredge lightly in flour making sure to shake off excess. Dip in egg mixture making sure to coat both sides and again shake off excess.  Finally dredge in breadcrumbs. Gently press the breadcrumbs to ensure they adhere to the eggplant.  Pan fry for about 1-3 minutes per side depending on heat. You want a deep golden brown.  You will need to do in batches to make sure you don't crowd the pan.  If you put too many in the pan at once you will loose heat and the eggplant will soak up the oil and not fry properly. Place the fried eggplant on a paper towel to drain as you move onto the next batch. 

In a 9x13 casserole dish put a thin layer of sauce on the bottom of the dish.  Now cover bottom with fried eggplant. Slice the mozzarella cheese into thin slices and put about 1/2 on top of eggplant.  It won't cover all the eggplant but that's OK because it will melt nicely into the dish.  Now sprinkle with about a 1/3 cup of Parmesan.  Top with 1/2 of the sauce.  Repeat layer one more time.  Now add the reserved breadcrumbs to the top and remaining Parmesan cheese.  Bake for about 30 minutes until bubbling, cheese melted and golden brown.  Let rest at least 5-10 minutes. 

This equals about 6 servings.  You can simply adjust to make more.  The casserole dish could easily hold more.  Also I added about 1/2 pound of mild Italian sausage to my sauce simply because my family thinks dinner must have meat.  My husband also likes very thick sauces. If you like more sauce you will want to increase the amount of tomato sauce in the dish.  Enjoy!

Panko Breadcrumbs: If you haven't ever used panko breadcrumbs I highly recommend. They are Japanese style and have a coarser texture. I find they hold up my better in dishes like this where you fry something then bake with a sauce.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Brownies Dressed Up Two Ways

On Monday night my step-daughter announced on facebook that she wanted to bake something.  We decided to bake some brownies and after another friend commented that they wanted some too we decided to bake two batches and "dress" them up a little bit.  I love to start with a mix to save time and then add my own twist to make it taste more homemade. 

Sweet n' Salty Brownies

This is taking the idea from a cookie bar that my best friend loves to make.  I had made that recipe in the last few weeks so had some extra ingredients on hand and decided to use them. 

Are there flavor combinations that you love? I have a few. One is chocolate and bananas and another is the mix of sweet and salty. This is a perfect combination of sweet and salty for me.

1 family size brownie mix - prepared according to instructions
1 cup of broken small pretzels
1 cup of honey roasted salted peanuts
1 cup of chocolate chips

Bake the brownies just 2-3 minutes under time indicated on the box.  While baking break up the pretzels and mix together the pretzels, peanuts and 1/2 cup of chocolate chips.  Take brownies out and spread the topping mix evenly over the brownies.  Press very gently into brownies.  Top with additional 1/2 cup of chocolate chips.  Finish baking for 2-3 more minutes.  Let cool at least 30 minutes or more.

S'mores Brownies

Earlier this summer I was constantly craving s'mores so I have been keeping the ingredients in my pantry.  When I decided to "dress" up the brownies I decided s'mores sounds like a good choice. 

Again, it's quick and easy because you can start with a box of brownie mix or your favorite recipe.

1 family size box of brownie mix - prepared according to instructions
1/2 medium bag of miniature marshmallows
3-4 graham crackers crushed

Mix and bake the brownies according to package instructions.  Bake to the minimum time on package.  Pull out brownies and top with marshmallows.  Cover with foil and allow to sit for 5 minutes.  After 5 minutes spread with an knife or off-set spatula.  I highly recommend the off-set spatula.  Then top with crushed graham crackers. Allow to cool for at least 30 minutes.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Recipe: Italian Style Yellow Squash

This is another dish that I almost feel bad calling a recipe. I remember the first time I had a dish similar to this was at my brothers wedding. I was a preteen and wasn't quite sure squash sounded very good.  I tried it and have this preparation ever since.  It is best in the summer when the squash are fresh but it can be done all year long.

Italian Style Yellow Squash
Serves: 4

2-4 yellow squash (depending on size)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon Italian seasoning
1 clove minced garlic

Directions: Slice squash in half lengthwise and then but into 1/4 inch half moon slices.  Make sure to cut pieces uniformly so they will cook evenly. Heat olive oil in large pan over medium high heat. Season squash with Italian seasoning, salt and cracked black pepper.  Put in heated pan with garlic and saute until slight color change and slightly softened.  Some pieces may brown slightly. Make sure to keep heat low enough to not burn garlic.  Also works great with zucchini and yellow squash mixed. 

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Sewing for the Kitchen: My New Apron

Year end and audit at work mixed with a family vacation have left me little time to blog so sorry I've been away.  I have also been in the mood to sew. After many years of wanting to learn how to sew I finally learned earlier this year and have been having fun creating new things. Just like with cooking I have found I prefer to do things without a pattern/recipe.

One of the things I have wanted to make myself for years is a fun apron. I made this last week and have enjoyed using it in the kitchen! A sassy apron seems to make even cooking normal meals a little more exciting.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Recipe: Orange Almond Cookies

I love cookies. Honestly what smells better than baking cookies. The mix of sugar and vanilla warming is just fabulous! But I often don't make cookies because it takes more time than bars or brownies.  But I love making cookies during the holidays and I make these for the first time a few years ago.  Although they don't have any chocolate (a necessary item for desserts in my opinion) they are yummy and a little unique. Plus if you start with a cookie mix like I generally do you can whip up a batch in no time.

Orange Almond Cookies
3 Dozen
Dry Sugar Cookie Mix
1/4 cup of finely chopped almonds
1 tablespoon of orange zest (very fine)
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 cup of slivered almonds
1/4 cup of orange marmalade

Directions: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Prepare dry sugar cookie mix as directed. I normally use Betty Crocker which calls for 1 egg and 1 stick of butter. Mix in 1/4 cup of finely chopped almonds, zest and vanilla.  I use a food processor to chop the nuts very fine.  Also depending on the zester you use you may need to chop to get zest very fine.  Refrigerate for 10 minutes.  Roll into 1 inch balls.  With handle of wooden spoon or fingertip press a indentation into the cookies.  Fill with 1/2 teaspoon of marmalade and top with 3-5 slivered almonds. Cook for 9-12 minutes until very light brown on edges.  Enjoy!

Tip: Depending on how sweet you want the cookies you may want to add some sugar to the orange marmalade.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Recipe: Creamy Mustard Chicken - Slow Cooker

Sometimes it seems like I get in a mood for certain tastes. Right now mustard and apricot seem to be appearing again and again in my recipes.  If you have read my blog before you know I love the slow cooker.  Lately I have been working more than "part-time" so I've needed simple, quick recipes.  This recipe I tried for the first time last week when we were supposed to have friends over for dinner. I didn't have time to cook after work so I knew I needed to put something in the slow cooker. I tried this and everyone loved it!  Sorry for the picture. I know it isn't that great but hopefully it helps you see the nice creamy sauce.

Creamy Mustard Chicken - Slow Cooker
Serves 4-6

4-6 chicken boneless skinless chicken breasts
1 can of cream of chicken soup
1 can of cream of mushroom soup
2 tablespoons mustard
1-2 cup of shredded cheese

Directions: Mix together the soup and mustard.  Place about 1/2 cup of sauce in the bottom of slow cooker. Add chicken breast and season with salt and freshly cracked black pepper.  Add remaining sauce and set to cook on slow for 2-4 hours depending on amount of chicken and how hot your slow cooker runs.  If you need to leave all day I recommend starting with a cold slow cooker and using frozen chicken.  Just before service add about 1 cup of shredded cheese to sauce, mix and allow to melt.  Great over rice or with my new favorite sour cream pasta (another "taste" I seem to be wanting a lot of lately!).  I'll make sure to post that recipe soon.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Recipe: Apricot Mustard Glazed Pork Tenderloin

This is one of my favorite glazes for pork and ham. I like it best on pork tenderloin.  It also works with ham.  This recipe is enough glaze for a 1 to 2 pound tenderloin.  You will need to adjust amount should you want to use on a larger ham.  If you want a thinner sauce add 1 tablespoon of apple juice or stock.

Apricot Mustard Glazed Pork Tenderloin
Serves 4

2 tablespoons apricot jam or preserves
1 tablespoon mustard (I prefer a stone ground or sweet/hot mustard - not basic yellow)
1 teaspoon garlic powder
Pork Tenderloin - 1 to 2 lbs.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Combine ingredients and microwave for 10-15 seconds.  Stir and brush 1/2 glaze on seasoned (salt & pepper) meat.  Cook tenderloin for 15-20 minutes.  Increase temperature to 425, remove tenderloin and brush tenderloin with reserved glaze.  Return to oven and finish cooking for 10-15 minutes depending on size of tenderloin. Make sure to check pork with thermometer to determine if fully cooked.  Rest at least 5 minutes before serving to allow juices to redistribute. 

This tastes wonderful with the fruit studded couscous.  The flavors are a perfect combination.  Served with a nice salad it is a great meal for company that takes less than hour to prepare.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Things I Love: Whipped Cream

Whipped cream has a special status among my sisters and I.  Most people think of whipped cream as a topping or sweet garnishment.  We take whipped cream a lot more seriously.  The heavenly white stuff could be considered a food group.  We sisters generally try to eat our whipped cream with something just to appease those around us.  We think of the whipped cream goodness as the main item and a little topping to it.  I honestly think we could each eat an entire bowl alone!  The other night I wanted whipped cream, which thankfully I had in my fridge, and had to figure out some sort of a delivery method.  I pulled this quick dessert together and it was yummy.  I had some store bought chocolate chip muffins on hand. I microwaved for about 10 seconds.  Split in half and then topped with lots of whipped cream and a few strawberries.

I will be honest. I actually added more whipped cream after I took the photo! And to be clear. This is real heavy whipping cream. Nothing out of a can or a tub!

And to keep the tradition alive I gave my youngest son the whipped cream beater. He was quite happy!

Thanks again to The Diaper Diaries for hosting Things I Love Thursday.

Fruit Studded Couscous

I almost can't call this a recipe it's so easy.  I love couscous and one of my favorite things to add to couscous is dried fruit and nuts. This goes incredibly well with pork.

Fruit Studded Couscous
Serves 6-8

2 boxes of couscous (I used whole wheat)
1 tablespoon chopped dried apricots
1 tablespoon coarsely chopped dried cranberries
1 tablespoon coarsely chopped golden raisins
2 tablespoons chopped almonds (pecans, pine nuts or walnuts would all work)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon orange juice (not necessary but adds a note of brightness)

Directions: Boil water according to package instructions.  Just as water is boiling add the chopped dried fruit.  Add couscous and allow to sit for 5 minutes.  Fluff with fork and add olive oil and chopped nuts.  If desired add OJ, stir fruit and nuts are mixed well.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Recipe: BBQ Pulled Pork

I love barbecue, especially Memphis and Carolina style with a little sweet, a little sour and little kick.  I love just about any meat barbecued and I love all the sides. I think my version of heaven includes pulled pork sandwiches, mac n' cheese, fried okra and green beans (just to name a few).  This is one of my favorite recipes for BBQ pulled pork, it's easy to make and works great for birthday parties and potlucks because it can be made ahead of time.

BBQ Pulled Pork
Serves 6 - 8

5-6 lbs Pork Roast
(Picnic, Shoulder or Butt all work)
2 bottles 16 oz BBQ sauce 
2 tablespoons apricot jam
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
3 teaspoons garlic powder
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons cracked black pepper
2 tablespoons apple juice
3 tablespoons brown sugar
10 dashes of hot sauce (I use Franks)

In a large slow cooker pour ¼ bottle of BBQ sauce on bottom and then add pork roast. Season pork roast with 1 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon cracked black pepper. Mix ¼ bottle of BBQ sauce with 1 tablespoon apricot jam, 2 teaspoons garlic powder, 1 ½ tablespoons of brown sugar and 1 tablespoon of apple juice. Turn on low and cook for 6-8 hours. I generally put in before I got to bed at night.

The next morning or when the roast easily pulls off the bone if you did not cook overnight pull out the roast out of slow cooker. Reserve ½ cup of slow cooker juice (strain to remove fat). Allow roast to cool slightly while wiping down the slow cooker. Shred the pork into fine pieces. If you used a roast with a bone, make sure to remove and careful check for pieces of fat and bone. I shred with my fingers.

Mix the rest of the BBQ sauce, ½ cup of strained slower cooker juices, 1 tablespoon of apricot jam, 1 teaspoon garlic powder, 1 tablespoon of apple cider vinegar, 1 tablespoon brown sugar, 1 tablespoons apple juice, 5-10 dashes of hot sauce and pour over shredded pork in slow cooker. Turn slow cooker on low and allow to come to temperature. Check for taste and add extra salt, pepper, hot sauce, vinegar and/or brown sugar to taste. I like to cook for an additionally few hours on the lowest setting to get all the flavors to melt together but that is not necessary.

Can be served with rolls as sandwiches or alone as the main dish. Also a great option for potlucks. It also freezes very well. I like to make as large a roast as my crock pot will fit and then freeze the leftovers.

Friday, July 9, 2010

A night out... on a budget

No matter how much you love to cook it is always nice to have a night off. Of course when you are on a budget a night off can sometimes be difficult. One of the tricks I use to make a night out affordable is You can purchase gift certificates in various denominations ($10, $25, $50 etc.) at a discounted price. Normally a $25 gift certificate sells for $10. Sign up for an account and you will receive regular email promotions. Gift Certificates are often on sale for up to 80% off. That means you can get a $25 gift certificate for two bucks!

Now the gift certificates often have very particular restrictions. For example one of our favorite restaurants requires a minimum $35 purchase to use their $25 gift certificate. Another restaurant we have used only allows you to use the gift certificate during the week for lunch. Most specify that 18% gratuity (for the full value of the check) will be added automatically. Even with these restrictions you are still saving a significant amount of money, especially if you choose a casual dinning restaurant.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Have a SAFE 4th of July Weekend

Like the rest of American you are probably getting ready to enjoy some BBQ, a picnic, fireworks and maybe swimming this 4th of July weekend.  I love the 4th. I'm originally from the Washington DC area so love celebrating the birth of our nation.  I miss watching the fireworks on the National Mall with the monuments as the backdrop.  Unfortunately though the 4th also makes me nervous.  Why?  Because fireworks, alcohol, children and water often equal a dangerous combination.

After spending the better part of my career (10 years now) with non-profit organizations that focus on health, child safety, emergency preparedness and response I have become very passionate about family safety.  I have seen the impact of not paying attention, not being prepared and not knowing what to do when an emergency happens.  So many think that accidents or emergencies won't happen to them but in reality you are most likely to respond to an emergency in a home that involves your own family and friends. 

So this 4th of July, have some BBQ, light a sparkler, take a swim but don't forget some basic safety tips

Burn Prevention
*Only buy Safe and Sane fireworks

*Be aware of what's around you when lighting fireworks or a campfire. Clear brush, trees and other ignition sources. 

*If you are camping make sure to children don't play near campfires.  A easy tip is to build a large circle with large rocks around the campfire to keep children a safe distance from the fire. Teach children to not enter the "danger zone".

*Make sure children are supervised at all time

*Make sure children aren't allowed near heat sources including stoves and BBQ grills

*Scald Burns:  Of course we worry about children getting burned due to fire but scald burns are also very common in children and often involved cooking or food. Shriners Children's Hospital offers more information regarding Scald Burn injury.  Nearly 300 children a day go to the emergency room for scald burn injuries.  A good kitchen tip - Keep children out of the kitchen.  Children want to explore and they will pull on deep fryer and slow cooker cords and reach for handles on the stove.

*Hosting a pool party at your house? Hire a lifeguard. As the hostess you will need to attend to many things and will quickly get distracted from watching the pool.

*Remember the ABC's of Drowning Prevention. Active adult supervision, barriers and class (swimming & CPR) are essential.

*Alcohol and swimming just aren't a good mix.  Especially when you add in heat and dehydration.  If you have kids set the example and be safe.

*More Swimming Safety Tips from the American Red Cross.

*If you own a home pool the American Red Cross and the National Swimming Pool Foundation offer a great online course regarding pool safety and maintenance.


Wishing you and your family a very happy and safe 4th of July holiday weekend!

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Recipe: Lemon Bars

I was excited today to receive a lemon fresh from a local tree, but I only got one so wasn't sure what to make at first. A family favorite is lemon bars so I decided to make a quick batch.  Plus it's a great summertime dessert.  Lemon bars bring back happy childhood memories. One of my sister doesn't like chocolate.  Can you believe that? To me chocolate is a basic food group but not for my oldest sister and I remember her loving lemon bars. 

This is adapted from an older kids recipe booklet published by Gold Medal Flour that I received from a friend. This is not the recipe my family used when I was little but I like this recipe because I was able to adapt it to have less sugar (than the original) and it still tastes good.

Lemon Bars
Serves: 8-10

1 cup of flour
10 tablespoons softened butter
1/3 cup of powdered sugar
3 teaspoons of lemon zest
3 tablespoons of lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon of baking powder
1/2 teaspoon of salt
3/4 cup of granulated sugar
2 eggs

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Mix together flour, softened butter and powdered sugar. Press into the bottom of an ungreased 8x8 baking dish and gently press up the sides slightly as well.  Bake for 20 minutes.

Mix together (with handheld or stand mixer) filling ingredients until light and frothy. A little tip I mixed some of the sugar with the zest before combining with the rest of the ingredients.  Poor over the hot crust and return to oven for 18-20 minutes until the top is evenly golden and can be gently touched. Let cool for 5-10 minutes and then dust with powdered sugar. 

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

WFMW: Ingredient Replacements

Pantry Cookin' is all about using what you have in your kitchen and avoiding last minute trips to the store.  But sometimes you really want to make a certain recipe and you don't have one ingredient.  I normally find this to be the case on Sunday night, since I don't shop on Sundays, it always seems that I want to make something on that day but I'm  missing an ingredient.  Here is a handy list of substitutions.  Some are from  a Taste of Home advertising insert. I decided this would be a good first post to join the Works for me Wednesday over at We are THAT family.

1 cup = 1 tablespoon lemon juice or vinegar (white) plus enough milk to equal 1 cup.  Stir together and let stand about 5 minutes.

Cream  or half and half
1 cup = 1 tablespoon melted butter plus enough whole milk to equal 1 cup

1 cup = 1 1/4 cup sugar plus 1/4 cup water or apple juice

Lemon Juice
Replace equally with apple cider vinegar

Vegetable Oil (for baking like cakes, muffins, sweet breads)
Replace equally with applesauce

Sugar (for baking)
1 cup  = 1/4 cup maple syrup (sometimes less depending on recipe sweetness) 

Bread Crumbs
Equal replacement of crushed cracker crumbs (saltines, gold fish, butter), crushed corn flakes, oatmeal

1 cup = 1/2 cup honey (flavor will not be as strong)

Corn Syrup - light
1 cup = 1 cup of sugar and 1/4 cup of water

Monday, June 28, 2010

Recipe: Greek Couscous Salad

This recipe for Greek Couscous Salad is a super easy recipe to make and is perfect for a summer lunch, side dish at dinner or to bring to a summer BBQ or potluck.

Greek Couscous Salad
Serves: 6-8 (as side dish)

2 Boxes of Couscous
(I used Near East Toasted Pine Nut & Parmesan because I had on hand but you can also just make with plain couscous.)
1-2 cucumbers, partially peeled and diced finely
1-2 stalks of celery finely diced
grape or cherry tomatoes (sliced in half depending on size)
8-10 oz of feta cheese
1 small can of sliced black olives

4 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoon red wine vinegar
2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cracked black pepper
juice of 1/2 of a lemon or 1 teaspoon lemon juice

Prepare couscous according to package instructions.  Dice veggies.  While couscous is cooling whisk together dressing ingredients.   After fluffing couscous with a fork, transfer to a large bowl.  Mix together couscous and veggies.  Add dressing and mix together.  Add feta (crumble if not already crumbled).  Taste and check for seasoning.  Cover, refrigerate and enjoy.  This is one of those salads I actually like better a few hours later or even the next day.

If you use plain couscous (not a boxed mix with a seasoning packet) you will most likely need to add additionally seasoning to your dressing.  But that is dependent on your tastes.

Menu Plan Monday: June 28th

Hubby making Stuffed Chilis

Slow Cooker Scalloped Potatoes with Ham
Steamed Green Beans


Potluck lunch at work and I'm bringing Pulled Pork Sandwiches. Leftovers for dinner with Rhodes Rolls
Baked Beans

Asian Beef Stir Fry with Tofu and Buckwheat Soba Noodles

Have two 4th of July Parties but haven't heard back for the hosts as to what to bring...

Apricot Pork Loin
Couscous with Apricots, Almonds and Cranberries
Steamed Broccoli

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Things I Love: ICE CREAM

So it is insanely hot right now where I live in Las Vegas.  Although it has been a "cool" spring and summer so far it has now reached the triple digits and that is just too hot. 

But one thing I love about summer and hot weather - ICE CREAM

And honestly, I think I like about every flavor I have ever tried.  I've tried some interesting flavors too - garlic, purple yam  just to name two unusual ones.  I can't pick a favorite because that is totally dependent on my mood.  The only flavor that I question is vanilla.  Does that really count as a flavor?  OK, maybe a Madagascar vanilla bean scented homemade vanilla counts but vanilla out of a tub is just plain boring and dare I say a little useless in my opinion.  The whole beauty of ice cream is that it is a luscious, creamy delivery system for delicious ingredients like fruit, chocolate and nuts.

I love my memories of ice cream.  As a small child growing up in rural Maryland we used to make homemade ice cream every summer. I remember the old wooden ice cream  machine with the ice and rock salt.  My dad used the same recipe each time and we would add ingredients like fresh berries from our garden.  Now that I am adult with children I love watching my little toddlers eat ice cream.  Honestly - doesn't ice cream make everything better?

Thanks to The Diaper Diaries for making me think of something I love today!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Recipe: Cheesy Chicken & Rice Casserole

This is one of my favorite easy family casseroles. I love casseroles. They may not be exciting or gourmet but I find the my family loves casseroles and they are easy to make with pantry staples. This particular casserole is made even easier because I try to keep extra cooked rice and already cooked and diced meat (chicken, ham) in the freezer. 

Cheesy Chicken & Rice Casserole
Servings: 8-10

8 cups cooked rice (I used mixed brown and white)
1 family size can of cream of chicken soup
1 can cream of mushroom or chicken soup
16 oz bag of mixed frozen veggies
1 large boneless skinless chicken breast cooked and diced into 1 inch pieces
2 cups shredded cheese
1 sleeve saltine crackers
3 tablespoons butter

Directions:  If like me you have the rice, meat and veggies in the freezer they need to be defrosted and/or brought to room temp in the microwave.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl combine the rice, chicken, soups and veggies.  Spoon half into a 13x9 casserole dish, spread and then sprinkle one cup of cheese.  Add the remaining mixture and place in the oven for 15-20 minutes (depending on how cold your casserole was when you placed in the oven).  Increase oven temperature to 415 degrees.  Crush the sleeve of saltine crackers finely (great job for a small child!).  Melt butter and combine with crushed saltines. Remove casserole from oven, sprinkle 3/4 cup of shredded on top of casserole.  Sprinkle the saltine/butter mixture evenly over the top and then remaining cheese. Return to oven until top is nicely melted and brown - generally about 10 minutes.  Enjoy.  This is a also a great dish to put extra servings in the freezer for quick lunches or busy weeknight meals. 

Meat:  I have done this with ham, chicken and pork.  We prefer ham or chicken.  I generally try to keep some diced meat in casserole portions (about 2 cups) in the freezer so it is ready to go when I need to make dinner.  I season my chicken with my "pantry" seasoning which is a mixture of Italian seasoning, salt, pepper and garlic before cooking.  But if you don't have seasoned chicken you will need to add some seasoning to the dish probably. Ham doesn't need as much seasoning (especially salt).  

Topping: I have used crushed pretzels, goldfish, different types of crackers and even breadcrumbs.  I generally use whatever is in my pantry.  My two favorites are goldfish and saltines. 

Veggies: You can use just about any veggies you have one hand - fresh, canned or frozen.  Fresh will need to be steamed or cook the casserole longer at 350.  I find that frozen end up with the best texture but I have used all depending on what was in the pantry.

My almost 3 year old smashing the saltines for me - he had a blast!

I think he was a little surprised that I asked him to break something. I think he would have happily crushed the whole box of crackers.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Menu Plan Monday - June 21 - 27th

This week will be a little light since my teenage stepdaughter leaves for camp in the morning and my son still have swim practice. 

Delayed Father's Day Dinner (due to impromptu party at friends on Father's Day)
Steak in Garlic Butter
Roasted New Potatoes*
Green Beans with Onions, Butter and Garlic*
Glazed Carrots*

Swim Practice - Leftovers

BBQ Chicken
Steamed Broccoli*
Baked Beans

Swim Practice - Leftovers

Breakfast - Pancakes, Eggs and Fruit

Apricot Roasted Pork Loin
Green Beans*

Ham and Rice Casserole

Recipe: Sam's Chunky Monkey Cookies

Each Christmas I like to participate in cookie exchanges.  Last year I decided that I wanted to create new cookies inspired by my family.  At the time my youngest was just under a year.  He loved bananas and was a very chunky baby (often called by me - Chunky Monkey).  I was inspired by this recipe and made a few changes. 

Sam’s Chunky Monkey Cookies

2/3 cup of butter, softened
2/3 cup of Granulated Sugar
1/3 cup of Light Brown Sugar
2 eggs
1 cup of mashed ripe bananas
1 ½-teaspoon Vanilla Extract
2 cup of all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons of baking powder
½ teaspoon of salt
¼-teaspoon baking soda
12 oz Semisweet Chocolate Chips
1/3 cup of chopped nuts

Directions:  Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs, banana and vanilla. Combine the flour, baking powder, salt and baking soda; gradually add to creamed mixture and mix well. Stir in chocolate chips and nuts.

Drop by tablespoons 2 inches apart onto cooking sheets (stoneware works best). Cookies do not spread much. Try to make sure they are in uniform shape and then press down gently with the back of a wet spoon to ensure even cooking. Bake at 350 for 9-11 minutes or until edges are very light golden brown. Let set for 1-2 minutes and then place on rack to cool. Yields about 4-5 dozen cookies.

These cookies are very soft and keep well in a sealed container so they are great if you need to make a few days ahead.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Recipe: Roasted Garlic Sopa de Fideos

I've mentioned that my husband is Mexican-American and over the last four years I have learned to like and sometimes love Mexican food.  One of the recipes I have come to think of as the perfect comfort food is Sopa de Fideo.  Most commonly a tomato based chicken soup with fideos pasta which is basically short cuts of angel hair pasta.  The spices vary but every version I have tried has lots of salt.  You can even buy a soup mix package in the Mexican food aisle at the grocery store. It's pretty good but if you look at the ingredients list several items aren't really food or I am not able to pronounce.  Well this week I have been fighting a nasty cold and at work yesterday Sopa de Fideos sounded perfect.  I decided to give it a try at home.  I asked my co-worker from Mexico for a few tips and this is what I came up with.  It turned out well. My husband upon coming home informed me that he has never liked Fideos Soup and didn't even want to try it.  Well he tried it and loved it.

Roasted Garlic Sopa de Fideos
Servings: 6

4 1/2 cups chicken broth
2 1/2 cups water
1 small can tomato sauce
7 oz package of fideos pasta
3-5 cloves of roasted garlic
1-2 teaspoons salt
1/2 chopped onion
1/2 teaspoon oil (twice)
1/2 tablespoon butter
4-8 dashes of hot sauce
1 peel diced tomato (if desired)

A few notes:  Fideos pasta can be found with the ethnic or Mexican foods in the grocery store. You can also break angel hair pasta into smaller pieces if you already have in your pantry. About 2" pieces is what you want.  Also note I used broth - not stock. If you use stock that is richer you can adjust the water to stock ratio. It can also be made with bouillon. That is the traditional way for most Mexicans but due to the salt content I try to stay away from bouillon. 

Directions:  Roast the garlic for about 15 minutes in foil at 425 degrees.  Heat butter and oil is a medium sauce pan, add fideos and lightly brown. You just want to lightly toast the fideos to bring out the flavor. When you start smelling the warm earthiness of the grain its done.  Remove fideos.  Add a little more oil and lightly saute chopped onions until just translucent.  I had dehydrated onions on hand so used those but I think fresh or frozen chopped onions would taste better.  If using dehydrated you don't saute just add at the end. 

Add fideos back into the pot and add the liquid ingredients, fresh tomato and squeeze the roasted garlic into the pot.  Stir to combine all ingredients well and bring to a boil.  Leave it at a low boil for 6-9 minutes until the pasta is at the tenderness you like.  I like al dente, my family likes mush so I usually go in between.  After about five minutes taste the soup and determine what spices you want to add.  I used a low sodium chicken broth so I could control the salt. I still added about 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt.  I also added about 5 dashes of hot sauce. You could add some extra garlic powder or onion powder if you want more of those flavors or oregano would be a nice flavor with this soup as well.  After the pasta is cooked your dish is done. Enjoy!

This is an older post but I love this soup so I am joining SoupaPalooza and you can too!  Love the great prizes.  Come join SoupaPalooza at TidyMom and Dine and Dish sponsored byKitchenAidRed Star Yeast and Le Creuset