Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Five Favorites: Complete Randomness + A Recipe for Loaded Baked Nachos


I just felt like linking up with another five favorites post, so I decided to come up with five completely random "favorite things" of this month of July to share with all of you today.

1) Favorite Baking Project: My first wedding cake! I should have mentioned the completion of this cake in my last post about my husband Paul. He was really great in helping me finish this huge project - I needed his engineering skills to cut the wooden dowels needed to ensure the cake did not collapse once all stacked together. I was pretty pleased with how everything turned out - it was a LOT of cake and a big project. Luckily, we got the kids to bed fairly early the night before the big event and stayed up until about 1:00 AM building this beautiful cake together. I quickly snapped a picture before we delivered it, but wish I could have gotten a picture with it all set up at the party site with the cake topper. It looked great! Again, Paul is awesome.


2) Favorite New Food: Emma discovered she loves chips and salsa. Then she ditched the chips and started to attack the salsa with a spoon. This is not a girl who shies away from spice.




3) Favorite Summer Moment: Watching another beautiful summer sunset with my family. The perfect end to another perfect summer day!




4) Favorite Milestone: Emma and Matthew took their first amusement park ride together. They rode a silly little plane ride that spun and flew in a circle. Paul was scared to death that Emma was going to wiggle out of the flimsy seat belt used to keep her in the seat. I wasn't too worried - but maybe I should have been! Both kids survived and seemed to enjoy it.



5) Favorite News Headline: I got a chuckle out of the headline that made the rounds yesterday about a tree planted 10 years ago in honor of former Beatle George Harrison that grew to be 12-feet tall before succumbing to a beetle infestation. Oh the irony!

6) BONUS! Favorite Easy Meal: More often then not, our weeknight dinners have to be something quick that I can just throw together in a matter of minutes. We had lots of tortilla chips leftover from a family get-together, so I made some baked nachos that took a couple minutes to assemble, about 10 minutes to bake, and *voila* dinner was served! I think this was the meal where Emma discovered she liked salsa so much. (See #2)




Loaded Baked Nachos

1/2 pound Mexican-style chorizo sausage
1 can refried beans
1 can black beans, drained
2 cans chopped green chilies
6 green onions, chopped
2-3 tomatoes, seeded and chopped
1 cup black olives, sliced
8-12 ounces Monterey jack cheese, shredded

Other additions:
Chopped avocado, sour cream, salsa, queso fresco


Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Cook chorizo over medium heat in a pan. When no pink remains, stir in the refried beans and cook until heated through. Remove from heat.

Spread the chips in a greased 13x9 glass pyrex pan. Top with the chorizo/bean mixture. Top with the black beans, chilies, chopped green onions, tomatoes, olives, and cheese. Bake in the preheated oven until the cheese melts. Serve with salsa and sour cream!

Want some more, non-random favorites? Head on over to Mama Knows, Honeychild to check out what some of the other bloggers have posted!

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Homemade Naan


My husband and I make a fantastic team.

Every year, we give a talk at our diocesan marriage preparation retreat about communication and commitment in our own relationship. We mainly talk about the challenges we face in our own daily communication and what strides we have made in our almost-six-years-of-marriage to overcome them. Our personalities differ in so many ways but we share two very large, personality flaws: we are both incredibly stubborn and HATE to admit we're wrong. This has led to quite a bit of head-butting in our relationship. However, we are also incredibly committed to both God and one another which is why we make a pretty dynamic duo. As we stand up in front of all these newly engaged couples giving this witness, I can't help but look at Paul and think of how incredibly lucky I am to have such a fantastic, virtuous, talented man as my soul mate. He's the peanut butter to my jelly. The cake to my frosting. The hummus to my veggies. You get the idea.

But in all seriousness, Paul is a pretty awesome best friend and husband. We have so many activities that we enjoy doing together and preparing a great meal is one of them. Last week, Paul was in the mood for some Indian food. We both crave Indian food from time to time and love to cook it at home together. The kids were acting pretty tired (early bedtime!) and it had been a rainy, cold day so a large pot of curry sounded pretty awesome. And what is a pot of curry without some warm pieces of naan to dip and scoop up all that delicious sauce? Paul and I have made curry and naan so many times together that we have the process down to a science.



Ignore my crazy hair. The humidity was insane.

First, I make the dough and we let it rise while we play with the kids/get them ready for bed. After the kids are in bed, I shape the dough into balls and cover them with a towel while he prepares the oven and the cast-iron skillet. Then, I roll/stretch each ball into a rough circle and then toss it to Paul who steams/cooks them in the hot pan. When the naan is flipped and cooked on both sides, I open the oven, Paul pops the cooked naan into the oven to stay warm and we repeat the process. It's a bit of a pain to cook the naan if you don't have two sets of hands working with it, but luckily Paul enjoys it. It really tastes so much better than anything you can buy in the store. In fact, last time we dined at the local Indian restaurant, Paul told me that he thought our naan tasted better than theirs - a high compliment!

After all the naan is cooked, we pile bowls full of hot basmati rice and spoon our curry of choice over the top - whether it be Chicken Tikka, Korma, or Makhani - and curl up on the couch together to enjoy the meal. It makes for a cozy date night at home.


Homemade Naan
adapted from Entertaining Magazine

1/2 cup ice water
1/3 cup plain, whole milk yogurt (no substitute)
1 egg yolk
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/4 teaspoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon instant yeast
1 1/4 teaspoons salt

In measuring cup or small bowl, combine water, yogurt, 3 tablespoons oil, and egg yolk. Process flour, sugar, and yeast in food processor until combined. With processor running, slowly add water mixture. Process until dough is just combined and no dry flour remains. Let dough stand for 10 minutes.

Add salt to dough and process until dough forms satiny, sticky ball that clears sides of the bowl. Transfer dough to lightly floured work surface and knead until smooth. Shape dough into tight ball and place in large, lightly oiled bowl. Let dough rise at room temperature for 30 minutes. Fold partially risen dough over itself 8 times by gently lifting and folding edge of dough toward middle, turning bowl 90 degrees after each fold. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise for 30 minutes. Repeat folding, turning, and rising one more time, for a total of three 30-minute rises.

Divide the dough into eight pieces and shape into small balls. Cover with a damp towel and let rest for 15-20 minutes.

While the dough is resting, preheat the oven to 200 degrees with a bowl or pie plate on the inside. Get out a cast-iron skillet and a lid that will fit over the top. Preheat the cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Set out a small ramekin filled with water.

Roll out one piece of naan into a 8-inch circle (roughly). Sprinkle some water in the hot pan to create steam and then quickly flip the rolled out piece of dough into the pan. Quickly sprinkle with more water and then cover the pan. Let the bread cook until it starts to bubble and is browned on the underside. This normally takes about 1-2 minutes. Do not let it burn! It may char a bit, but that's ok - flavor! Flip the naan, recover the pan and let cook an additional 30-60 seconds or until it is browned and cooked on the other side. Transfer the finished bread to the warmed plate in the oven and cover loosely with a damp cloth. Repeat the whole process of rolling, steaming, and cooking with the remaining pieces of dough.

Serve warm naan with curry of choice!

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Best Zucchini Bread


A few days ago, I was driving the kids back from the beach. Traffic was just horrible and it was blistering hot. Our car had been so warm when I was buckling the kids up, that I had the windows rolled down part of the way to keep air circulating. As I was driving up the busy street, I suddenly heard Matthew scream: "Oh no! MONKEY!" And in the review mirror, I saw his monkey - the precious little toy that has not left his side since he was 11 months old - fly into the middle of the street, where it was immediately run over by a truck.

I freaked. All I could think about was how much Matthew loves that toy. I quickly pulled the car over into the parking lot of a fast food restaurant. I locked the kids inside the car and then sprinted down the street, darting between the busy traffic and into the middle of the road where monkey lay with a huge tire tread mark across his battered face. I grabbed the toy and raced back to our car. A guy on a Harley stopped at a light a short ways away, who apparently found the entire scenario frightfully amusing, called out to me: "Now THAT'S a Super-Mom!"

I was so mad at Matthew. We had warned him before not to stick monkey out the car windows when they are rolled down for fear of losing him. But, as usual, he did not listen. Later on, Paul told me that I should have left monkey in the road - but I could not even imagine doing that. The truth is, monkey has been such an important toy to Matthew that he has almost become like family, stupid as that sounds. And if Paul were in the same situation, despite his tough talk, I know that he would have gone back for monkey too!

This is what the kids were doing on the other side of the counter as I made zucchini bread.
Notice Monkey next to Matthew there - definitely a little worse for wear after his accident.


Even when Matthew is driving me nuts, I still feel compelled to feed him delicious snacks. However, Matthew definitely has tastebuds for more savory and salty food. He's never been a huge dessert eater. Unlike Emma, who will inhale anything laden with sugar, Matthew tends to shy away from sweets. He claims to love brownies but will eat maybe two bites before he's done. On birthdays, he will try perhaps a couple bites of cake. He refuses to try pie or fruit desserts - I'm blaming the texture of cooked fruit. He likes cookies, but will never eat more than one in a single sitting. Again, this is so different than Emma whom we often have to pry away from baked goods.

However, I have found a treat that Matthew finds irresistible: zucchini bread! This is the first baked good I have ever made where Matthew ate not one, not two, but three pieces in one sitting! Now, I have made zucchini bread before and Matthew has never touched it. When I saw a different recipe for it in the latest issue of Cook's Illustrated, I liked that it incorporated Whole Wheat Flour and very little fat. When four large zucchinis graced our countertop the other day, I decided to give it a try. For some reason, as Matthew was sitting in the kitchen watching me shred the zucchini, he found the idea of vegetables being in the "muffin bread" appealing. He asked for a piece of zucchini to munch on as I baked - he loves zucchini in raw form.




When the bread had finished baking and cooling, I cut off a thick slice for him and showed him the specks of green scattered throughout: "See Matthew? Those are the pieces of zucchini!"

He found that so awesome. Which is really strange to me, because I think most kids would be turned off by that. But not my strange little boy. He gobbled down one slice and asked for another, using the excuse: "Monkey is hungry too!" I only agreed to give Monkey a slice because he is still recovering from his traumatic traffic experience the other day.


I tried a slice of the zucchini bread myself and was wowed by this recipe. It was the best loaf of zucchini bread I have ever baked. I even made a loaf of my other usual recipe alongside this one to compare. I'm dorky like that. It tasted so bland and boring next to this one. Paul was also blown away by it. This recipe is a keeper, for sure!

And now I know exactly what to make as a special treat for Matthew...and Monkey.


Zucchini Bread
adapted from Cook's Illustrated Magazine July/August 2014

1 1/2 pounds zucchini, shredded
1 1/4 cups light brown sugar
1/4 cup olive oil (not extra-virgin) or vegetable oil
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour (I use white whole wheat flour)
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

Adjust the oven rack to the middle position and preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Grease a 8 1/2" by 4 1/2" loaf pan and line the bottom with parchment paper.

Shred the zucchini using the large holes of a box shredder. Place the zucchini in the center of a dish towel. Gather the ends together and twist the towel tightly to drain as much liquid as possible. I sometime double wrap the towels. Set aside for a moment.

Whisk together the brown sugar, oil, eggs, and vanilla in a medium bowl. Fold in the zucchini.

Whisk together the flours, cinnamon, salt, baking powder, baking soda, and nutmeg. Fold in the zucchini mixture until just moistened. Pour into prepared loaf pan. Bake for 65-75 minutes in the preheated oven or until a toothpick inserted in teh center comes out with just a few moist crumbs attached.

Let cool on wire rack at least 30 minutes before removing from the pan. Let the loaf cool completely before slicing.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

What Would You Do For Some Free Food?


What would you do for a free meal?

Our family will dress like cows in order to score a free meal for everyone at Chick-Fil-A on Cow Appreciation Day. Matthew was thrilled when I suggested the idea; Paul was not. I am still in disbelief that I actually got him to go along with it. He was so embarrassed as he began reluctantly pasting the cow spots to the white t-shirt I had selected for him. But in the end, I think he rather enjoyed being a cow. He wore his cow hat longer than the rest of us and he taught Emma how to "moo!"
If you look closely, you can see the little tail that
Matthew insisted that I add to his costume!


However, he wouldn't let me color the tip of his nose black to match the rest of us. Spoil sport.

Before we could take a picture of Emma in her costume, she had eaten the majority of the cow spots we had pasted to her clothing. She still got a free meal even though the majority of her costume was inside her fat cheeks by the time it was our turn to order.



We were allowed to order anything we wanted off the menu. I tried the new grilled chicken sandwich. Holy Cow - it was delicious! Emma gobbled down her nuggets and Matthew and Paul happily munched on fried chicken sandwiches. Paul was a little embarrassed seeing the other customers coming in and ordering as we sat there eating in our costumes. There were not very many people dressed up and I had pretty much convinced Paul that everyone there would be dressed like cows as well (that may or may not have been the reason he finally agreed to go!). We had a lot of people pointing at us and giggling. We certainly did look silly! But who cares? We got a delicious meal out of it! Everyone left full and happy.

Well, almost everyone. Emma didn't want to leave.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Thai Chicken Salad with Sweet and Spicy Dressing


Before I get to the recipe for this amazing salad, I have a very important update regarded my club-footed baby girl!

She's walking! Every night before I put Emma to bed, I tell her to give Matthew a kiss goodnight and she will quickly crawl to wherever he is and give him a big smooch on the cheek. Well, last night, she WALKED over to give him a kiss. All the way across the room! And ever since then, she has been walking from place to place - still with quite a bit of timidity - but walking nonetheless! I am thrilled. She's quite proud of herself, too!


Matthew just loves helping her out with walking. He loves holding her hand and steadying her while cheering her on: "You doing it, Baby Emma! You is walking!" Melts my heart.


Anyway, this salad. There really is not much to say about it other than it is absolutely fantastic. It's also a meal where all the different components can be prepped throughout the day so that there is not so much work to do immediately before mealtime (because that's usually when the kids are the crankiest!!!). I prep all the veggies throughout the day and have the chicken marinated and ready for Paul to slap on the grill when he gets home. Then everything is tossed together with the vinaigrette and served! The vinaigrette is both sweet and spicy, there is a delightful crunch from the fresh vegetables, and the warm, grilled chicken melds together perfectly with the other components. I am in love with the peanut dressing that is reserved for drizzling over the top. It really adds something special to this meal. Paul agreed that this was truly a man's salad - actually satisfying! Half the time he complains that salads do not fill him up enough. We were all fighting for the leftover pieces of chicken - not a bite was left. I'm already debating when we'll have this next - it's that good! If you're a fan of Thai flavors, this meal will not disappoint!



Thai Chicken Salad with Sweet and Spicy Dressing
from Mels Kitchen Cafe

Chicken:
2 tablespoons oil
2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
1/4 cup rice vinegar
1 tablespoon lime juice
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts or thighs

Vinaigrette:
4 tablespoons rice vinegar
4 tablespoons sweet Thai chili sauce
1 teaspoon sesame oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Peanut Dressing:
1/4 cup creamy peanut butter
2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
1 tablespoon Thai sweet chili sauce
2 tablespoons very hot water, plus more as needed

Salad:
4 cups chopped romaine lettuce
2 cups chopped napa cabbage
1 cup diced cucumber, peeled or not
1 cup edamame
1 cup small diced carrots
1 cup chopped red bell pepper
4 green onions, white and green parts finely chopped
1 cup chopped cilantro
Salted, chopped Cashews

For the chicken, whisk together the oil, soy sauce, rice vinegar, lime juice, salt and pepper. Place the chicken in a ziploc bag or shallow dish and cover with the marinade. Refrigerate for 20 minutes or up to 24 hours (I definitely opt for the longer marinade time). Remove the chicken from the marinade and grill 6-7 minutes per side. Remove to a plate and let cool. Chop into bite-sized pieces.

For the vinaigrette, combine all the ingredients into a small bowl and whisk until well combined. Refrigerate until ready to use. The dressing can be made up to a week in advance.

For the peanut dressing, whisk together all the ingredients until well combined. Add additional hot water, one tablespoon at a time, until the dressing is smooth and thin enough to drizzle. Set aside.

In a large bowl, toss together all of the salad ingredients with the cooled and chopped chicken. Pour the vinaigrette over the top and toss until the ingredients are coated with the dressing.

Serve the salad with the peanut dressing on the side to drizzle on top. Have plenty of extra salted cashews too.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Whole Grain Oatmeal Cinnamon & Fruit Cookies



When the Wegmans bakery first introduced their fresh-baked whole grain cookies, I have to admit I was very skeptical. The cookies claimed to be made with Whole Wheat, oats, and flaxseed meal - and they looked super ugly and dry. Paul and I scoffed at their appearance and declared that if we are going to eat cookies, we want them made with white flour and NO flaxseed. We are dessert snobs.

Then one day Wegmans had a bunch of samples out as we were picking up groceries one Saturday morning. One of the sample stations was giving out tastes of the new whole grain cookies. Even though we had both sworn never to eat one of those sad-looking health cookies, neither Paul nor I could really turn down free food. Plus, I was actually really curious to try one.


And I am so glad I did. They were a revelation! Chewy, buttery, and sweet with a nice complex flavor from the flax and whole wheat - I was hooked. I probably would have bought a whole bunch of them except for the fact that they were priced at $10.99 per pound. I'm a little too cheap for that. I began chatting with the baker about the cookies and she ended up pointing me to the recipe. Apparently, Wegmans had published it in the most recent issue of their store magazine. I grabbed a copy and jotted down the recipe, vowing to make it as soon as possible.

The following week, I did just that. The cookies turned out amazing and tasted just like the ones we had sampled at the store. Matthew, who is normally not the biggest cookie eater, ended up gobbling down five of them. And don't get me started on baby Emma. She would have eaten the entire batch if I didn't cut her off.




Trust me, these are fantastic. Paul claims that they are his new favorite cookie. That's pretty big. While definitely not the prettiest cookies out there, they are quite tasty. And chock-full of whole grains, meaning they are healthy and that it's totally permissible to eat an entire batch as part of a healthy diet. Right?


Whole Grain Oatmeal Cinnamon and Fruit Cookies
adapted from Wegmans Menu Magazine, Summer 2014

1 cup unbleached white whole wheat flour
1 cup quick oats
3/4 cup whole ground flaxseed meal (Bob's Red Mill)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 large egg
1/2 cup dried dates, chopped
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1/2 cup dried cherries

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Set a baking rack in the middle position.

Whisk together the flour, oats, flaxseed, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon in a medium bowl. Set aside.

Using a stand mixer, cream together the butter and sugar until creamy. Add the egg and beat on medium-high until the batter begins to pale and appear a bit fluffy. Add the vanilla and beat to combine. Switch the mixture to low speed and gradually add the flour mixture. When combined, stir in the dried fruit.

Drop the batter by tablespoons onto an ungreased baking sheet. Bake for 9-10 minutes or until the edges are just starting to brown. The center should still be soft. Be careful not to overbake these cookies - it's better for them to be a bit underdone. Remove the cookie sheet from the oven and let the cookies rest for 1-2 minutes before using a wide spatula to transfer them to a wire rack.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

When Did We All Grow Up?


It has come to my attention that I failed to acknowledge something very big that happened at the end of June.


This is my younger brother Raymond. He has really big ears, even bigger feet, and used to dress up like a girl on a regular basis when we were younger (I am 97% sure that he doesn't do that anymore). He's pretty good at tennis, horrible at every form of communication with the exception of telepathy, and prefers stray cats over slobbery dogs. He loves to gorge on hot wings, is repulsed by chocolate, and likes to re-gift lame presents to his loving older sister for Christmas. He dries out chicken in a crockpot (how?!?) and is secure enough in his masculinity to proclaim that his favorite mixed drink is a Cosmopolitan. He's a catch, for sure.

I always wondered who would land this stunning male specimen for a husband.



And then along came Mary - a beautiful, vivacious, and spunky girl that Raymond met as an undergraduate at Notre Dame. She was unlike any other girl Raymond knew and he fell in love with her pretty quickly. Head-over-heels in love. They dated on and off for about four years - and even when they weren't currently a couple, everyone knew that Raymond could date no other girl for he only had eyes for Mary. They rekindled their romance at the end of last year and the family knew it was only a matter of time before a certain question was asked.

So, at the end of June, Raymond finally asked Mary to be his wife. She said yes - and a wedding date has been set! I'm excited to welcome Mary to the family and a little shocked that my goofy-looking brother was able to find such a beautiful girl to marry him! We're all excited to see what God has in store for them. Congratulations you two!