Wednesday, August 19, 2015

What the End of Summer Really Means...

Yes, folks, it's that time of year again.  The end of August is fast approaching, and with it bringing the end of days in the sun, fun at the pool, relaxation and the beginning of back to school, sports and hectic schedules.  But what does the end of summer really mean...for teachers?

Recently on social media I've seen several posts asking teachers not to post things that make going back to school "sound like a negative thing."  People making comments about how teachers posting things like "end of freedom" or "school's starting again this week...can't believe it's time already" were making them feel as if teachers were "dreading" this time and didn't feel that was right.  I thought for a while about how...or if...I should reply to any of these comments and finally decided I should write a little something about what the end of summer really means, from a teacher's prospective.

For those of you who don't know, I was a teacher for 7 years of my life before my first daughter was born.  I left the profession after she was born for a number of reasons.  I would not have traded those 7 years for another profession at all.  I am proud to say that I was a teacher and looked forward every year to a new host of "kids" I would think of as my own.  But I also remember quite vividly what the end of August meant for me when I was teaching.  I'm hoping that this perspective may make people be a little kinder to teachers around this time of year.


The end of summer meant that I went from spending 10-15 hours a week planning and prepping for the school year to spending 30-40 hours a week (outside of the school day) planning and prepping for the days ahead. 

The end of summer meant that $40 I used to pamper myself with a mani/pedi went to buying school supplies that my "kids" desperately needed.

The end of summer meant saying goodbye to casually waking up, enjoying a cup of coffee and my breakfast while watching the news and saying hello to alarms going off before the sun comes up and hurrying out of the door to make sure I had enough time to get everything ready for the school day.

The end of summer meant going back to working two jobs...instead of one.  (That's right, teacher's don't have summer's "off").  Most work a second job all summer if not all throughout the year to make ends meat...on top of the training and workshops they go to for school.

The end of summer meant not being able to focus completely on my family at night but share that time returning emails and grading papers and worrying about children who are not my own...but feel like they are.

The end of summer meant the end of sunshine...since I went to and from home work in the dark most days...instead getting my sunshine from the sweet smiles of my "kids".

You see, summer really isn't a traditional vacation for teachers.  But a time to try and rejuvenate and come up with new and fresh ideas for the next year since your new group of "kids" may not respond to things the same way your last group of "kids did.  Trust me, you won't find any teacher I've ever met chilling on the beach from mid June through mid much as we would want to!

Think about it this way.  How many working individuals out there haven't at one time or another felt just a little bit of disappointment when a vacation does end and you have to get back to your regularly scheduled program.  We all have.  It doesn't mean you don't love what you do.  It doesn't mean you put any less into your job.  It doesn't make you any less of a professional.  It makes you human.

Teachers everywhere are going back to school this week.  Teachers who care and love their jobs deeply are plunging head first back into the classroom to make sure everything is perfect for our children's school year ahead.  They will spend countless hours this week making sure everything in their classroom is perfect...or at least making it look like it is!  Trust me when I say, they love their jobs.  I haven't met a teacher that stays in the profession unless they love and are fulfilled by their position.  The "true" job of a teacher wouldn't be worth it unless that were the case.  It is one of the most important and under appreciated jobs that exist. They will get told multiple times this year, if not each month, each week or each day what they can and cannot say, what they can and cannot do, how they can and cannot teach. They take it in stride, most of the time with a smile. Give them this last bit of “freedom”.

So here is what I ask of you, dear readers.  The next time you see, hear or read something from a teacher about going back to school that may have been said in a moment of frustration, sleep deprivation or a good ole fashion need to vent, let it slide.  Don't take it personally.  Don't take it as a sign that they don't love their job.  Don't take it that they aren't looking forward to the new school year.  And most importantly, don't take it as they don't love your child.  They do...even if they haven't met them yet.  Let it slide.  Because one day soon that same teacher will let something you say out of frustration, sleep deprivation or a good ole fashion need to vent slide.  Remember as the summer comes to a close, there are a lot of emotions in a teacher's life.  Remember you are on the same team.  Remember you are in this together for the greater good of your child.  But most importantly, remember teacher's LOVE coffee and chocolate :)

So with that in mind, I give to you my (should be world famous) brownie recipe.  I've been making these delicious squares of chocolate heaven since I was about 10 years old.  It's one of the very few things I ever baked growing up.  They take 30 minutes, start to finish, and can be easily hidden in your desk to munch on once the kids are gone for the day.  Or just call me, and I'll bring them to you.  I can even deliver them disguised as some healthy alternative if you don't want to share!  Enjoy!

The Best Brownies EVER! (adapted from Hershey's)
Makes 16 brownies

1/2 c butter; melted
1 c sugar
1 T vanilla
2 eggs
1/2 c AP flour
1/3 c cocoa powder
1 T cinnamon
1/4 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt

1 - Cream together butter, sugar and vanilla.  Add eggs, one at a time, incorporating each well. 
2 - Combine flour through salt.  Gradually add to butter mixture, stirring until combined.
3 - Spread batter out evenly on a well greased 9x9 glass baking dish.  Bake at 350 for 20 minutes.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Welcome Back Solider!

Around the time we moved into our house last year, our neighbor's son joined the military.  I am, as always, eternally grateful for those in the service.  I know I don't have it in me to join so am thankfully for those that do! 

For the better part of the year, my neighbor's son has been in training and then stationed out of state.  She contacted me to let me know he was coming home and if I could make them a yummy dinner for the night.  I was more than happy to help her out.  After all, she needs to worry about spending time with her son and not slaving away in the kitchen! 

She chose for their dinner an extremely delicious and healthy Asian Chicken Salad.  When I posted the pic on social media, everyone thought it look phenomenal and wanted the recipe.  Mom and son both thought it was super yummy and spent the evening enjoying the good food while sharing some much needed quality time together.  So throw together this quick and easy salad and share a healthy meal and some quality time with your loved ones!

Asian Chicken Salad
Makes 4 servings

¼ c soy sauce
3 T fresh ginger; peeled, minced
¼ c canola oil
3 T hoisin sauce
1 T sesame oil
1 tsp Sriracha
2 large chicken breast
¼ c rice wine vinegar
½ lb Napa cabbage; thinly sliced
½ lb radicchio; thinly sliced
2 carrots; grated
6 green onions; thinly sliced
1/3 c fresh cilantro; roughly chopped
½ c slivered almonds
1 T sesame seeds
salt and pepper as needed
1 T sesame seeds; toasted
1 – In a bowl, whisk together soy sauce through Sriracha. 
2 – Season chicken breast on both sides with salt and pepper. Place chicken in a ziplock bag and pour 1/3 of the soy sauce mixture into the bag. Seal tightly and marinate at room temperature for 1 hour.
3 – Whisk in rice wine vinegar to remaining soy mixture and reserve as dressing.
4 – Toss together Napa cabbage though cilantro. Season salad with salt and pepper, toss again and reserve.
5 – Remove chicken from the marinade and discard remaining marinade. Place chicken in a baking dish and bake at 475 degrees for 20 minutes. Remove the chicken from the oven and allow to rest on a cutting board for 10 minutes. Slice the chicken into thin strips.
6 – Lay strips of chicken over salad. Top with cilantro, almonds and sesame seeds. Serve with reserved dressing.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Ready For a Little Healthy Competition?

So things have been super crazy lately!  I feel like I say that a lot...and as soon as summer is over and the oldest little one in back in preschool, I promise to set aside a day to blog and get back in the swing of things...promise!!

I've started to find that with my little peanut, the baby weight isn't falling off of me like it did before.  I know with my oldest, I didn't really do anything any differently and the weight was pretty much gone by the time she was 2 months old.  This time around...not so much.  My little peanut is quickly approaching the 5 month mark (how is THAT even possible?!?) and my weight isn't much lower than it was when I brought her home from the hospital.  Sigh.  It was time for something to change. 

Enter the hubs.

He suggested the only way either one of us was going to do anything about our weight and getting healthier was to have a contest.  If you know me or my husband, you know how competitive we can be.  If you've never met us before, let me make perfectly clear that neither one of us like to anything...ever.  His plan was to set a start and end date, each of us track our own nutrition and workout plan, and when the time was up, whoever lost the biggest percent of their starting body weight wins.  This all sounded way to familiar...and I was pretty skeptical that any of this would's why.

Years back when I was still teaching, the staff did a "Biggest Loser" style challenge.  Each participant threw money into a pot, set their own personal weight loss goal and those who met their goal at the end of the challenge split the pot.  The hubs decided that he wanted to get in on the action too.  His "prize", he decided would be a new flat screen for the living room.  A few weeks before the challenge was over, Best Buy had a huge sale on TVs.  Assuring me that he was "so close" that he would definitely meet his goal and tempting me with the idea of saving a good chunk of change, I agreed to him buying the TV that he hadn't "officially" earned yet.  Want to guess what happened next?  Yep, he stopped keeping up with his plan and never met the target he had set for himself.  No worries for him though.  He was now enjoying watching football on his new TV.  Cheater.

To say the least, the thought of entering into another weight competition with him wasn't very appealing.  He had decided that the prize this time would be $150 (the exact price of the new tennis racket that has been stuck on his Amazon wish list for months).  Promising me that this time there would be no cheating or early prize receiving involved, I agreed.  This time the hubs is going down!

In order to insure success, I needed to find a way to have ultimate accountability.  First enter My Fitness Pal.  If you have never tried out this website/app before, you need to.  It is AMAZING when you use it right.  All in one place you can keep track of your food intake and exercises for the day.  There is even an option to upload recipes from the web or scan barcodes to enter your food.  And they have everything.  I mean EVERYTHING!  You take a few moments to enter your food, and it calculates your calories for you.  And I will tell you one thing.  When you look up how many calories are in that double cheeseburger you've been craving, you will think twice about eating it!

Next, I needed a plan for food.  I've always been a pretty healthy eater, but with a baby and a toddler in the house, I've been falling short on staying as healthy as I want, sometimes skipping meals completely.  I wanted something that didn't have a lot of "don't eat this" guidelines since those programs will help you loose weight only as long as you stay on them.  When you're done with the "plan" the weight tends to come back. 

I started by doing some research into the 21 Day Fix.  I've known several people who have had success with this program which seems so easy on the surface.  There is a simple equation to calculate how many calories you need a day and from there, there's a chart to show you how many of each colored (food group) containers you need.  If you buy the program, it comes with one set of containers and workouts to go along with your 21 days.  I didn't see the need to buy it myself since I have TONS of Tupperware and two other Beachbody workout products I need to dust off, so I set forth seeing if this was the program for me.

Although I LOVE the ideas of the containers so there really is no thought into how much is a serving, they get tricky to use when you are trying to work through a recipe.  Trying to work in all the servings of each container was also tricky, not going over or under.  So I kept looking.

Since the My Fitness Pal app was going to make inputting my food so easy, I decided that I would go for a diet based on clean eating...or as close to it as possible.  After all, if I'm going to make it through this challenge without wanting to kill someone, I can't completely give up a nice glass of wine at the end of a long day.  That seemed to be the best bet for my success.

So in the spirit of accountability, my starting weight is 141.4 pounds with a body fat percentage of 26.3 %.  Using the 21 Day Fix formula, I should be trying to stick close to 1200 calories.  Since I'm still breastfeeding, I had to add an extra 300 calories to that to keep my milk up which make my target 1500.  My goal is to be down 20 pounds in the 3 months that we have se for ourselves.  It's a pretty ambitious goal.  But, go big or go home, right?

So far, I've been doing pretty good.  Like I've said before, knowing that anything I put in my mouth I have to put down in the app really discourages snacking and poor food choices.  Here's been my favorite dinner from the past week. 

Triggerfish with Roasted Asparagus and Mushroom Quinoa (Quinoa adapted from Damn Delicious)
Serves 3

For the Fish:
3 pieces of trigger fish (I got this beautiful fish at Island Seafood in Ocean Isle.  If you are ever in Ocean Isle, get your fish from them.  You will NOT be disappointed.)
1 stick unsalted butter
dried minced garlic
dried dill
sea salt
black pepper

1 - Season both sides of fish with garlic, dill, salt and pepper.  In a saute pan, melt the butter over medium heat.  Once the butter is completely melted and bubbly, add your fish.  Cook for 3-4 mins per side, basting fish with butter occasionally.
     *Alternatively, you could saute the fish in 2 T olive oil and reduce the calories and fat that you take on during this cooking process.  We happened to need the extra calories and fat today, so I buttered it up!

For the asparagus:
1 bunch asparagus; ends trimmed
1 T olive oil
salt and pepper

1 - Lay asparagus out in a single layer on a baking sheet.  Pour olive oil over, season with salt and pepper and toss the asparagus to coat.  Bake at 400 degrees for 15 minutes.

For the quinoa:
1/2 c quinoa
1 T olive oil
8 oz cremini mushrooms; sliced
1 T Italian seasoning
2 T chicken broth
salt and pepper

1 - Cook quinoa according to package directions.  Make sure to rinse your quinoa well before cooking.  Once cooked, drain and reserve.
2 - Heat olive oil over medium heat.  When hot, add mushrooms and saute until slightly softened.
3 - Stir in cooked quinoa, Italian seasoning and chicken broth.  Cook, stirring often, until all liquid is absorbed.

Altogether this meal had 691 calories a serving and was loved by all members of the family.  Not bad for a quick 30 minute meal!

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Super Easy Weeknight Dinner Anyone?

If you are anything like me, you are always on the look out for a quick and easy "go to" meal for weeknight dinners.  Since adding another wee baby to our clan, going out to dinner sometimes doesn't come with as much convince as it once did.  That plus trying to get back in shape and eat healthier to loose said baby weight has put cooking dinner every night back up high on the priority list. 

Here's my problem.  I have culinary ADD.  I always want to try something new.  Sure, I have a few go tos in my back pocket, but I find that I only go back to them when the hubs requests them.  Why?  I get bored easily.  I've never been one of those people who can eat the same things over and over again...probably one of the reasons dieting and me don't exactly see eye to eye.  I crave variety and love trying new things.  Would it be too much to ask to find a simple recipe where the ingredients could be easily exchanged so was really never the same thing twice?

For the longest time I thought this would be an impossible thing to find.  In fact when I made dinner last night, I didn't even know I had stumbled upon such a unicorn of a recipe until the hubs said something brilliant in the middle of dinner.  More on that in a minute.  Here's what we started with...

A few weeks back, I stumbled upon this recipe on Pinterest.  Dear God, what did we do before Pinterest!

From Life in the Lofthouse
I fell in love with the idea behind these wraps.  One of my favorite things in the world is a good burger.  This seemed like a healthier spin on a burger without going to far away from the original.  Quick and easy I decided to make them for dinner last night.

Something happened in our house around 4pm yesterday.  Someone came in, took our two darling girls away and replaced them with a nagging 4 year old and a screaming baby.  This ever happened to you?  I was attempting to get some cupcakes and a cake done for an upcoming order when all hell broke loose.  Combined with the fact that I had been up with the baby since 4:30 that morning, and the temptation to let Papa John rescue dinner was very real.  But I was determined.

The original recipe is super easy and, I'm sure, extremely delicious.  However, in the midst of everything that was going on, I decided to take the idea and "wing" it.  I knew if this dinner was going to happen, everything needed to happen at one time.  So here's what I used.

Crazy Night Cheeseburger Wraps
1 lb hamburger
20ish grape tomatoes; quartered
4ish sandwich dill pickle slices; diced
2 T Worcestershire sauce
2 T yellow mustard
salt and pepper
flour tortillas
shredded cheese

1 - Brown hamburger, drain and return to pan.
2 - Add cut up tomatoes, pickles, Worcestershire, mustard, salt and pepper.  Cook over heat until all the ingredients are heated through.
3 - Put about a half a cup of filling onto a flour tortilla.  Sprinkle with cheese.
4 - Roll up into wrap form and grill.  I did it on our George Forman, about 2-3 minutes until nice and browned.  I'm sure this could be done on a real grill or even in a pan on the stove, but I needed something I could walk away from for a few minutes to chase around a cranky toddler.
5 - I served them with tater tots and for a few blissful moments, there was quiet in the house which is always a good sign that the food is good.

In the midst of all of the chaos, I came up with the ingredients simply thinking what I like to what I like to eat on a cheeseburger and throwing that into the pan with the cooked hamburger meat.  Here is where the genius to this recipe comes into play.  Whatever you like on your burger...throw it in with cooked hamburger meat and you have a whole new meal.  Brilliant! 

I fell more in love with this recipe when my husband broke the silence during dinner by saying, "You know this would be good with anything, chicken...steak...pork, I'd eat it every day."  That's when it hit me.  We always have meat...we always have fixins (other stuff) in the fridge...and (in our house at least) we always have tortillas.  Praise heaven above I have found a go to recipe that really CAN be different every time I make it without much forethought or planning.  Hallelujah!

I thought my obsession with this recipe would stop at dinner...but I was wrong.  In my scatterbrained fog, I put all the leftovers (tater tots and all) in the same container after dinner was over.  This morning, after a better night of sleep, I had an epiphany.  In one little Tupperware containers I have potatoes, meat and veggies.  Sounds like all the makings of a good breakfast casserole.  I started by putting some of the meat mixture and tater tots in a saute pan, breaking up the tater tots to be more "hashbrown" like.

After getting a little crisp on the potatoes, I cracked two eggs over the whole thing.
I seasoned this with a little salt and pepper and ended up with a quick, yummy breakfast scramble all in the span of time it took to brew my morning coffee.
Quick and healthy dinner with leftovers that make a quick and healthy breakfast.  Holly from Life in the Lofthouse, I know we've never met, but I love you...and I love this recipe!  Try it, you will love it too!!


Friday, May 15, 2015

Thank You Teachers!!

For seven years before I entered the culinary world, I was a teacher.  Having lived the life of a teacher for that time, I can say there is no other job out there that is more important, more challenging and more under appreciated than that of a teacher.  Not to say that other jobs aren't difficult, but at least the majority of jobs out there that are difficult are also very well respected.  Overall, teachers are underpaid, over worked and not looked at with the regard in this country that they deserve.  There is constant talk on the news about how teachers "have it made" since they get off at 3 and have the summers off.  After all, all they do is "play with kids" all day.  They may as well be considered "glorified babysitters".  None of these misconceptions are true.  Most teachers I know work at least 10-12 hours a day, making little more than minimum wage when you do the actual math, and spend countless dollars out of their own pockets to make sure their "kids" have everything they need.  What other profession out there is "expected" to work like that?  Ok...stepping off soap box.

Last week was "Teacher Appreciation Week".  While one week is not nearly enough time to show appreciation for the selfless work teachers do on a daily basis, I'm glad to shower my daughter's teacher with lots of goodies!  This time around, I was chosen to provide all the teacher's at my daughter's school with a wonderful lunch in their honor. 

For starters, I made a lovely spinach salad.  Since strawberries are at their peak right now, I added sliced of those along with some brie cheese, candied pecans, celery, red onion and cucumber.  I cheated a little and served it with a slightly warmed Ken's Light Poppy Seed dressing.  If you haven't had this salad dressing before, do yourself the favor!  You could really tip and back and drink least I could...and hey, if it ain't broke right?

The colors were so beautiful, and everything was light and fresh.  Just what I love in a good salad.  Simple, beautiful ingredients.
For the main course, I made a Chicken Penne Pasta with Roasted Vegetables and Fresh Tomato Sauce.  People get a little turned off by the thought of making their own tomato sauce, but in this case, it doesn't require any additional time that you wouldn't already be cooking, so why not?

I used one each of the following vegetables: zucchini, green pepper, red pepper, orange pepper, red onion and one large package of button tomatoes.  I diced all the vegetables and threw them in a roasting pan with a few tablespoons of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, 6 cloves of garlic (sliced), a handful of fresh thyme sprigs, salt and pepper.  On a separate roasting pan I placed 12 roma tomatoes (quartered), 6 cloves of garlic (crushed), a handful of fresh thyme sprigs, a handful of basil leaves, salt and pepper.  I put both roasting pans in the oven at 350 degrees and roasted them for 25 minutes.  Once done, remove the thyme sprigs from both pans and discard.  Add the remaining contents of the tomato pan to a food processor and process until smooth.  If needed, thin with a little bit of chicken stock.  This will be your sauce.

Cook your penne pasta to al dente and saute chicken in a pan with olive oil and a little salt and pepper.  Once the chicken and pasta are done, dice the chicken and throw everything (sauce too) in the roasting pan with the vegetables.  Mix together well and put back in the oven at 350 for 10-15 minutes to make sure everything is nice and warm.  Viola!

For dessert, I made a marble cheesecake.  How did I choose this dessert?  Well, my daughter's teacher said her favorite dessert was chocolate or I mixed the two.  I LOVE the way it came out!  Absolutely gorgeous!
Marble Cheesecake (recipe adapted from Gordon Ramsey)

2 c graham crackers
6 T butter; melted
4 1/2 oz dark chocolate; roughly chopped
1 1/4 c sugar
1 1/2 c sour cream; room temperature
2 pounds cream cheese; room temperature
3 eggs; room temperature
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract

1 - Line a 12x8 inch pan with plastic wrap overlapping the plastic wrap so that it is at least halfway down the outside of the pan.  Tuck under so it won't be touching the racks when placed inside the oven.
2 - Crush graham crackers in food process.  Add melted butter and pulse until the mixture holds it shape when you squeeze it in your hand.  Add more butter if too dry or more cracker if too wet.  Pour out mixture into prepared pan and flatten to form the crust.  Bake at 325 degrees for 5-10 minutes, or just until you begin to smell the graham crackers cooking.  Remove from oven and allow to cool slightly.
3 - In the bowl of a mixer with paddle, beat together sugar, sour cream and cream cheese until smooth.  Add eggs one at a time, making sure each is incorporated before adding the next.  Beat in vanilla extract.  Pour batter over slightly cooled crust and tap lightly to remove air bubbles.
4 - Melt the chocolate over a double boiler or carefully in the microwave.  Swirl the chocolate over the cheesecake.
5 - Cook the cheesecake in a water bath at 275 degrees for 40-50 minutes until it is just slightly wobbly in the center.  Turn off your oven but keep your cheesecake in the oven (and water bath) for another 2 hours.  Remove cheesecake from oven and out of water bath and allow to cool in the refrigerator overnight.
Along with the lunch, here are some other goodies I did for teacher's last week!
Red Wine Fudge Balls anyone?
Teacher Appreciation basket full of all kinds of goodies!
Beach themed strawberry cupcakes since our teachers are "lifesavers"!
I've said it before and I'll say it again.  One week is defiantly not enough time to show appreciation for our teachers, but it's a start.  So THANK YOU teachers near and far for molding the minds of our young and treating them like one of your own.  Special thanks to Mrs. Laura, my little one's teacher.  You have been a wonderful blessing to her and our family this year. She has learned so much from you, and it has been amazing to watch her grow.  You are kind, caring, patient yet firm, everything our little girl needs.  We love you to pieces and hope you enjoyed your week!!

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Cinco de Mayo!

Next to Thanksgiving, Cinco de Mayo is probably the hubs favorite day of the year.  If he could, he would eat Mexican food everyday.  I can't even begin to tell you how excited he was that Mexican food was my big craving when I was pregnant with our little peanut.  It was like Christmas to him whenever I asked if it would be okay if we had Mexican...for the third time in a week.  So when May 5 rolls around, he gets pretty excited at what I'm going to cook up for dinner.

We used to go out to eat on Cinco de Mayo...USED to.  Now with two kids, standing in long lines and big crowds for tacos and tequila shots just isn't in the cards anymore.  Fine by me.  I would rather be able to stay in my yoga pants anyway.

This year the menu was set with a few ole favorites and a new little gem.  Chicken carnitas tacos (or rice bowl in my case), Spanish rice, corn salsa and southwestern eggrolls with avocado cream dipping sauce.  I was pretty stoked to get back in the kitchen and cook an entire dinner since most of my dinners since the peanut was born have consisted of reheating freezer meals and most of my time in the kitchen had been consumed in baking projects.  Not that I'm complaining, but it's always nice to get to "just cook" once in a while!  Of course, things didn't really do as planned.

Tuesday was pretty rough in our house.  The little peanut had a rough night on Monday which typically translates to an easy day...not the case.  When she wasn't attached to me, she was crying.  It's pretty impossible to get anything done when your trying to calm a screaming baby, so I was pretty thankful that one of the items on the menu was done mostly in the crockpot...until I looked at the clock and saw it was almost 4 already and there was no longer time to slow cook my chicken for 6 hours in the crock pot.  Ok...backup plan.

I took the same ingredients that were supposed to go into my crock pot and put everything in a pot on the stove, threw the cover on and put it over medium heat.  Once things got going, I reduced the heat to low and let it cook for about 1 1/2 hours.  Not quite the "low and slow" I was hoping for, but it worked in a pinch!

Chicken Carnitas (adapted from Closet Cooking)
1 1/2 lbs chicken thighs
3/4 c orange juice
1/4 c lime juice
6 garlic cloves; sliced
1 T chili powder
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp oregano
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper

1 - Place chicken in a crock pot.  Add remaining ingredients and stir to combine and cover chicken.  Cover the crock pot and cook on low for 6-8 hours.  (Or if you run short on time, cook like I did above)
2 - Remove chicken from crock pot and shred.  Put 1/2 cup juice from the crock pot onto a baking sheet, add chicken and toss to coat.  Bake chicken at 425 for 7-8 mins until the edges are nice and crisp.  Don't skip this step!  It definitely adds another element to your chicken!!

I made some Spanish rice to go along with the chicken and had a nice little meal.  The hubs made tacos out of the chicken and corn salsa, but I was just as happy making a little rice bowl with all the ingredients.  Super yummy!

The next big menu item was Southwestern eggrolls.  You want to know the way to my hubby's's eggrolls.  Southwestern may be his favorite, due to his affection with all Mexican fare, but throw anything into an eggroll wrapper and he's a happy fellow.

Since I'm trying to be healthier these days in an effort to loose the baby weight, I decided to try a recipe that had the eggrolls being baked, not fried.  That was a huge fail!  After baking the eggrolls just as the recipe had stated, they were still limp and not crisping at all.  Definitely NOT something you want in an eggroll.  Thankfully, a quick pan fry saved the day and we ended up with these beauties.
Since every recipe I've ever found for any kind of eggroll provides you with more filling than you ever need, I put half the filling in the eggrolls and took the other half of the filling (sans cheese) to use as corn salsa.  One recipe, two menu items!  Done and done!

Southwestern Eggrolls (adapted from Nutritious Eats)
(This is the full recipe and will make about 20 eggrolls.  If you don't need that many, either cut the recipe in half or save half of the filling for a yummy salsa.)

2 c frozen corn; thawed
15 oz can blak beans; rinsed, drained
1 c Mexican cheese blend; shredded
1 can Rotel
1 large green onion; chopped
1/ c fresh cilantro; chopped
1 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp chili powder
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
egg roll wrappers

1 - Combine corn through pepper in a small bowl and mix well.  Use about 1/4 c of filling per eggroll wrapper.  Roll eggrolls as directed on the package, using a little water to insure you get a nice, tight seal.
2 - Heat 1 inch oil in a pan to about 350.  Pan fry eggrolls for 3-4 minutes per side until nice and golden brown.

Avocado Dipping Sauce (adapted from Bobby Dean)
1 avocado; ripe
1/2 c sour cream
1 lime; juiced
salt and pepper to taste

1 - Place avocado, sour cream and lime juice in a food processor and process until smooth.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Of course, we had a margarita...or wash everything down and our Mexican fiesta was a success! 

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Following a Four Year Old (My Little One's First Post)

Recently, my oldest has been full of dessert ideas.  Almost every day on the way home from school, she talks about something.  Usually it's what kind of cake she wants for her August.  Guess she's going to be a planner just like me.  She's also been throwing out cake ideas for other events she knows we have coming up.  My grandfather is turning 85 in June, and we are all flying out for his birthday.  If it were up to her, his cake would be a layer of cookies, a layer of chocolate, a layer of strawberry, sprinkles and more cookies.  We'll see what we can do...

Yesterday, however, she got set on one idea that she wanted to make when we got home.  This is 100% her idea, executed exactly the way she wanted...with a little guidance by me.  It wasn't something I had ever heard of before, and I'm not sure where the idea came from, but since I'm always up to experiment...and I was super excited that she was being so creative...we came home and cooked...a Sweet Tea Pie.

What's a sweet tea pie you ask?  A four year olds first creation.  I have to admit that the idea sounded pretty good.  After all, we do live in the south.  Who doesn't love a good glass of sweet tea?  For that matter, who doesn't like pie?!?  Win, win.  First we made the crust.
She insisted on doing everything herself.  So here she is cutting the butter for the pie crust into cubes.  I'm still working on getting her to hold the knife better...which is why I don't let her use a "real" one yet.
She even rolled the dough out herself.  I loved seeing how focused she was.  Definitely took her work seriously!

For the "sweet tea" part, I fell back on a trusty recipe I have for an earl gray custard.  Since black tea would probably have been a little strong for her taste, I used plan ole Lipton instead.  What better way to get sweet tea flavor than to use the tea you make sweet tea with!  Here's that recipe:

Lipton Tea Custard - adapted from Martha Stewart
1 c heavy cream
1 c milk
2 T Lipton tea (about 1 large tea bag)
4 egg yolks
1/2 c sugar
pinch salt

1 - Heat cream and milk in a saucepan over medium heat until simmering.  Add tea, stir and remove from heat.  Cover and let steep for 30 mins.  Remove tea bag, squeezing out the juices.  Re-measure the remaining liquid and add more cream if needed so you have 2 cups.  Return cream and milk to the saucepan and place back over medium heat.
2 - In a small bowl, whisk together yolks, sugar and salt.  Once milk is steaming, slowly whisk into egg mixture.  Pour entire mixture back into saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring constantly.  Strain into a bowl and put into the refrigerator to chill.

Once the pie shell had been blind baked and cooled, she got to work on filling it.
All good pies need berries!  She selected blueberries and strawberries for this creation.  She filled her pie shell with custard and topped it with the berries she cut.  There were also a few peanuts thrown in there since ever good pastry chef knows you need a little crunch. 
I must say I was impressed with her skills right out of the gate.  If she keeps up this way I may loose my job to her by the time she's five!

We put her pie in the refrigerator to finish setting up.  She was super excited to enjoy it for dessert after dinner!  The look on her face was priceless when she brought out her final project to show everyone.  I wish I had a picture of it, but I had a baby attached to me at the time...and missed it...oh well, next time!

In the end, it was a pretty good little pie.  With a few tweaks here and there, I think we may have stumbled onto the next great pie flavor.  What do you think?

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Cooking for a Cause

This past Saturday I had the pleasure of being the pastry chef for a very special dinner.  My good friend and fellow chef Paul Johnson is going on a mission trip with his family and church to Moldova this summer.  To help raise money for the trip, he auctioned off his services in the form of a five course meal for six people.  The auction ended at $600!  The night turned out wonderful with great food and the chance to get in the kitchen cooking for such a wonderful cause!  Check out the wonderful creations we made!

Chefs for the night: Me, Paul Johnson and Kristen Beasley
Sous chef Kristen plating the amuse bouche
Amuse Bouche: Gouda stone ground grits with rendered pork belly and bourbon glazed apples
First Course: Market salad with heirloom tomatoes and carrots, shaved golden and red beets, radishes, and blood orange vinaigrette
Second Course: Tuna and avacado tartare with soft-boiled quail eggs, wonton crisps, radish sprouts, and pickled ginger
Chef Paul plating the fish course
Third Course: Poached Chilean sea bass with roasted corn citrus salsa, charred leeks, and bouillabaise foam
Fourth Course: Reverse-seared North Carolina bison with black garlic risotta, asparagus puree, sauteed baby carrots, and Merlot wine reduction
That's me plating up dessert!
Dessert: Chocolate mousse and caramel jelly cake, almond financier, cherry-Port compote, Port reduction, and sour cream ice cream
Mignardise: Strawberries and cream with toasted hazelnuts
Our happy diners!

Hope you enjoyed the feast for your eyes! 

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Dessert Trials

The past few weeks have been super busy!!  The best part was trying out some brand new desserts!  A good friend of mine is going on a mission trip this summer and decided to auction off his awesome chef skills to raise some money for the trip.  Six course dinner for a good cause anyone?

Well, it's been a while since the two of us were in the kitchen together.  So I couldn't resist offering up my services to throw down some yummy dessert.  Four desserts went head to head to see which one would win out.  Thanks to some lovely family and friends who were kind enough to lend me their taste buds, we narrowed it down to the chosen one!  Here they are:

"Nutty Banana" - Brown butter cake, caramelized banana, rum ice cream and candied peanuts
"Samoa" - Chocolate cake, toasted marshmallow, chocolate tuile, caramel ice cream, toasted coconut 

 "Oh, Honey" - Cornmeal almond cake, almond bark, citrus lime crisp, honey ice cream, candied citrus zest
"Chocolate Covered Cherry" - Chocolate mousse and caramel jelly cake, cherry port compote, almond financier, sour cream ice cream, port reduction

Can't wait to see what the guests think of the dessert.  I hope they have just as much fun eating it as I did making it!!

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Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Body After Baby...Step 2

I must admit that I was pretty proud of myself last week.  I set my breakfast, snack and lunch eating schedule and stuck to it...except for that one stop I made at Chick fil A yesterday but one cheat won't kill me...right?

With just the change in my diet, overall I feel better, have (a little) more energy than normal and have lost a pound.  YEAH!  So with Step 1 successfully underway, time to add on Step 2...exercise.

UGH!  If you are anything like me, this is the part that trips you up.  Someone once told me that all I have to do is find an exercise I like and the rest will fall into place naturally.  Here's the thing...I actually like working out.  I've found several different ways to get exercise that I enjoy, and every time I complete said task I feel great about myself.  Except most of the things that I enjoy are a touch on the time consuming side.  I've never found a class I don't like.  Yoga, pilates, Zumba...all good!  And I LOVE to swim!  The thing is before I go into one of those workout sessions, after or even sometimes during, I start thinking of all the other things I could be doing with that hour or so.  There's laundry that needs to be done, dishes that need to be washed, toys that need to be put away.  Like so many other moms out there, I have a hard time putting the "necessary" things aside long enough to do something to make myself better and healthier.  No one else puts that guilt on but me.  And no one would mind if I took those hours to better myself.  Still, I knew if I was going to get into a routine that would actually help me, I needed to find something that I could do at home, while with the baby if needed and would be over in less than 20 mins. 

I went on a search for the perfect plan for me.  I have several friends on Facebook who are Beachbody coaches, so I started there.  I have the PiYo program already, which I like, but some of the workouts are a little long winded.  I also wasn't a fan of having to pay for something...again...that I knew deep down I would only use intermittently.  So onward I pressed.

I found a few free plans online that met my time restrictions, but you needed weights and ropes and stretchy pieces of material to stretch with.  I knew I was being picky wanting something that only used what I already had laying around the house...but I KNEW something had to be out there.  And that's when I found...

Bikini Body Mommy!  The creator of this site is a woman named Briana Christine.  She not only has a website where you can get 90 days worth of FREE workouts, but she has a great Facebook page and You Tube channel where she demonstrates the workouts for you.  As of right now, she is up to 4 different 90 day challenges, I'm working through number 3.  The daily workouts are quick, easy and (most importantly) kick your booty!  Better yet...they are all FREE!  She does have customizable dietary options that you have to pay for...but for the most part...everything is free.  She also goes day by day through the workouts herself and posts to Facebook to help her followers hold themselves accountable.  Her new group starts May 4, so if that's something you are interested in, head on over and check it out!  Its pretty awesome.
NO GUILT.  What a concept.  One I know I need to work on, but one step at a time I'm getting there.  So it's been two weeks since I started working on getting my body back and I've only worked out two days.  This week I shoot for 3 or 4.  Baby steps...little by little...I'm going to get there and be happier and healthier for it!

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Happy Birthday Momma!

This past Wednesday was my mom's birthday.  April day...Happy Birthday, right?

In order to soften the tax blow, I decided to make her a very special birthday treat this year.  Her favorite dessert is Key Lime Pie.  I had heard of Key Lime Cake before but never tried it out.  Seemed like the perfect time to test out a new cake flavor!

Dinner was set with some family and close friends, one of which is gluten free so I decided to make the cake gluten free as well so she could have some. Can't leave people out on cake now can we?!?

I found a good looking recipe for the cake and decided to fill it with key lime curd to up the tart factor so that it would closely resemble the flavor of the pie.  I then made a marshmallow meringue frosting to top it with.  Although this type of frosting is pretty soft and wouldn't work well for any real type of fine piping work, it was AMAZING!!  Way better than buttercream in my opinion.  I plan on using it over and over again!  I also coated the outside of the cake with gluten free graham cracker crumbs to add the last little element of a key lime pie.  I must say that I was pretty dang pleased with the outcome!
To say the cake was a success would have been an understatement.  The birthday girl was happy (most important) as was everyone else at the table...except the hubs...who doesn't like lime and isn't a big cake person either...can't win them all I guess!  We even shared some with our two waitresses who "just happened" to bring over two more plates than we really needed.  The little that was left at the end of the night went to work with my mom the next day where it was gobbled up by the lucky staff who were fast enough to get a piece.  Everyone wanted to know the further ado...ENJOY!

Gluten Free Key Lime Cake with Marshmallow Frosting (adapted from Annie Eats and Always with Butter)

3 c gluten free flour (THIS is my favorite.  You can swap it into any recipe 1:1 without adding anything!)
1 T baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 c butter; room temperature
2 1/2 c sugar
1 lime; zest only
4 eggs; room temperature
1 3/4 c buttermilk; room temperature
2 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
2 1/2 tsp coconut extract

1 - In a bowl, combine flour, baking powder and salt. 
2 - In the bowl of a mixer with paddle attachment, cream butter until light ad fluffy.  Scrape down the sides of the bowl, add the zest and blend.  Add sugar 1/2 c at a time, mixing well with each addition.  Add the eggs one at a time, mixing well with each addition.  Scrape down the bowl well.
3 - Combine buttermilk and both extracts.  Alternate adding flour mix and buttermilk mix to the mixer in three batches, beginning and ending with your flour mix.  Scrape down the bowl well.
4 - Grease and flour two 9 inch cake pans and divide mixture evenly between them.  Bake at 350 for 20-25 mins until cake tester comes out clean.  Leave in pans for 10 mins before inverting onto a rack to cool completely.

KEY LIME CURD: (This gives you a little more than you need to fill the cake but extra is always good!)
3 eggs
3/4 c sugar
1/4 c key lime juice
4 T butter

1 - In a small saucepan, combine eggs and sugar.  Whisk together well.  Whisk in key lime juice.  Place over low heat and cook, stirring constantly until mixture is warm.  It is important to constantly whisk over low heat to avoid scrambling your eggs! 
2 - Once mixture is warm, whisk in butter one tablespoon at a time, allowing each to melt before adding the next.  Once all the butter is added, continue to cook, whisking constantly until the mixture reaches 170 degrees.  If you don't have a thermometer, cook until it leaves a thick coat on the back of a spoon.
3 - If you think you might have lumps, strain your curd.  Otherwise, cool completely over an ice bath, stirring occasionally.

1 1/4 c sugar
3 egg whites; room temperature
1/4 c water
1/4 tsp cream of tartar
1 T vanilla

1 - In the bowl of a mixer, combine sugar, egg whites, water and cream of tartar.  Whisk until very foamy.
2 - Place the bowl over a pot of boiling water (creating a double boiler) and whisk until all the sugar is dissolved and the mixture is well warmed through.  Add vanilla and put the mixing bowl back on te stand mixer.  Whisk on high speed until mixture forms stiff peaks.