Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Our Trip to Denver: Part I

Now that we are entering into October, a fact that I cannot yet comprehend because the past couple months have been an absolute blur, I thought it was high time to share some pictures from our little trip to Denver. The trip was significant for a couple of reasons. First, we planned the trip in honor of our seven year wedding anniversary. Second, Paul wanted to take me to Colorado to scope it out as a potential place for us to live in the future. After the trip was over, we gleaned three major observations from our time in the Denver area. Denver is crowded, crowded, crowded. Not only that, I don't think we drove more than a couple of minutes without running into a major mall. Going hiking was not as accessible as we thought it would be because it took a couple of hours to drive up into the mountains and, once we got there, certain trails were packed with people. From these observations, combined with the ridiculous cost of living, we determined that Denver might not be such a great place to live.

But to visit! Denver is a great place to visit for there are so many things to do - both outdoor and indoor focused. We enjoyed exploring all the different areas of Denver and found that each borough had its own vibe. The scenery was gorgeous, of course, and we enjoyed the little break from the humidity of the Midwest. However, the sun was a little intense at times due to the higher elevation and by mid-afternoon, I usually had a pretty severe headache.

Our other major disappointment with Denver besides the crowds and the traffic was the restaurants. We researched the heck out of our dining options and expected to have some decent meals while in an area that actually has a lot of restaurant options (something we're really not used to here). We dined at the most highly rated sushi restaurant, the famed Denver institution Elway's, and tried dinner at the On the Border Mexican restaurant chain that we had heard so much about. Surprisingly, our favorite meal was at Bonefish Grill and On the Border - and I'm pretty sure we can find a few of those in Ohio. Our main complaint was the proteins. It just seems that Denver does not have the best quality beef and seafood. I know it's landlocked, so the seafood quality was passable, but the beef? I saw cows everywhere! Our main reason for visiting was not the food, but it was disappointing just the same.

So, let's backtrack a bit.

Before we flew to Denver, we dropped the other two kids at my parent's house and then flew out of a nearby airport. Lucky for us, we had a direct flight. Unfortunately, it was in the evening and we knew Lucy would be fussing most of the time. Thankfully, we had taken baby Matthew on quite a few flights and are now pros at handling a crying baby on an airplane. Lucy fussing did not phase us. Since we just had her with us, many strangers came up to us offering words of encouragement as we set out on this "new" journey of parenthood. We declined to inform them that we had two other kids, and just listened and nodded as several people offered us the age-old adages "they grow up so fast", "she's crying so she's probably hungry", "keep her toes covered because it's good for her digestion", and, my personal favorite, "you should try for a boy next time so you can be done." As usual, we got looks of terror as we walked onto the plane carrying an infant, as every passenger prayed that our seats not be next to theirs. However, upon disembarking, we suddenly were the recipients of many a smile and comments about what a good baby Lucy was. Funny how that works.

At baggage claim in Denver. Where is my car seat?!

Anyway, we got to Denver, got in the car, and drove 30 minutes to the area of our hotel. We saw a Bonefish Grill next to our hotel and chose to eat there since we had gone on a couple dates there when we were boyfriend/girlfriend and always enjoyed our meals. Thankfully, Lucy slept happily in her car seat and we enjoyed a nice, quiet dinner at 10:00 pm - complete with drinks and lots of bread. We were famished and probably spooked our waiter by how quickly we scarfed everything down. Then, it was back to the hotel to rest up for our first full day in Denver.

Nobody slept as well in the hotel as Lucy.

Stay tuned for Part II...

This post is being linked up with Tuesday Talk. Head here to check out the other posts.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Pasta Fagioli

When Paul and I were first married, I knew very little about cooking. I could make a few basic things, but I was always genuinely surprised when something I made tasted good. I remember having this one really simple roast chicken recipe that I thought was such an incredibly complex-tasting, restaurant-quality dish that I would serve it for dinner at least once a week. Sometimes more. I'm pretty sure everyone we had over for dinner in our tiny little apartment during that first year ate that dish along with a brownie a la mode for dessert (my fancy newlywed dessert before I learned how to bake). Things have changed so much since then and I have learned so much about food, nutrition, cooking, and serving. The best part is that my cooking tastes, preferences, and style will continue to evolve and change and grow since there will always be something to learn - a new ingredient to taste, recipe to try, or technique to employ.

No solids for you yet. Obviously, it's not negatively affecting her weight!

However, while that first favorite chicken recipe of mine has long since been shoved to the back of the recipe file, there are some simple dishes from those first few precious months of marriage that continue to pop up regularly in our weekly menu. This recipe for Pasta Fagioli is one of those dishes. I made this soup a few months after marrying Paul and I remember being so proud of myself when I did. It tasted so delicious - very reminiscent of my favorite Olive Garden soup, only made better, in my humble opinion, by the addition of just a tiny bit of one hot Italian sausage. Served with plenty of freshly grated Parmesan and some good ciabatta for soaking up the broth, this was one of Paul's favorite dishes back in the day. And, despite all the other dishes I have made over the years, he still thinks it is a pretty delicious meal. It is a fairly nutritious soup and I appreciate how easy it is to prepare on a busy weeknight. The kids love it too although they were skeptical at first. When I started calling it "Pizza Soup", suddenly they were all about it. Funny how that works.

Pasta Fagioli
adapted from Allrecipes

1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 - 1 pound hot Italian sausage, casings removed
2 stalks celery, chopped (I usually omit because Paul hates celery)
1 onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons dried parsley
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes salt to taste
1 (14.5 ounce) can chicken broth
1 (14 ounce) can diced tomatoes
1 (8 ounce) can tomato sauce
1/2 cup uncooked ditalini pasta
1 (15 ounce) can cannellini beans, with liquid

Heat olive oil and sausage in a large saucepan over medium heat. Cook the sausage until browned, breaking it up into small pieces with the back of a wooden spoon. Drain if desired, and then add the sausage back to pot (keep the heat on medium). Add the onion and celery and cook until translucent. Add the garlic, parsley, Italian seasoning, red pepper flakes, and cook until very fragrant, about 1 minute more. Stir in the chicken broth, diced tomatoes and tomato sauce, cover loosely, and simmer on low for 15-20 minutes.

Add the pasta and cook 10 minutes, until pasta is just tender.

Add the undrained beans and heat through. Serve with grated Parmesan cheese sprinkled on top and lots of bread on the side.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Amish-Style Apple and Cinnamon Baked Oatmeal

Emma has been doing this endearing little bit where she will ask me randomly througout the day: "Mommy, are you happy?"

If I reply "Yes I'm happy!" then she will respond: "I happy too, Mommy!"
If I reply "No, I'm sad" then she will say: "Don't cry, Mommy. Be happy! Like me!"
If I reply "I'm very mad right now" (usually at her or Matthew after spilling or a mess-making incident of some type), she will say: "I sorry Mommy. Please be happy!"

It's hard to not be happy when my chipper little 2-year-old is constantly dancing in my face requesting my happiness. I just love her. She is my little shadow, my zipping fireball of energy, my rambunctious chatterbox, and my source of daily joy. Not that the other two are not great, but there are several days where I am just in awe at how sweet and loving Emma is.

Another Emma story and then we'll get on with the recipe. Emma, Lucy, and I attend daily Mass and Emma has been charming some of the elderly couples that are in attendance. During the sign of peace, she asks permission to walk over and shake hands with some of the sweet older couples. They eat it up and give her hugs and kisses and she returns to me grinning widely and feeling like a queen. In the communion line the other day, a little old lady whispered to her: "You are so precious. And I like your Hello Kitty shoes!" Emma immediately dropped my hand and slipped her chubby fingers into the lady's palm. The lady squeezed her hand and held it all the way up to communion and back to the pew where she gave Emma a hug and whispered: "Thank you so much for that! What a gift you are!"

Emma just responded "Yes" before heading back to our pew with me. She's cute and she knows it. However, I'm very proud of how loving and social she is - it's a nice change from Matthew who hides his face every time someone who is not a relative or a friend he has seen no less than 100 times looks his way. Emma definitely has her moments, but she really is such a sweet little soul.

Emma has always loved ducks. Here is she following behind one at the zoo.

Breakfast is Emma's favorite meal of the day by far. She always eats a very large breakfast to start her day off strong. I also adore breakfast, but rarely have the chance to sit down and enjoy a good hot breakfast except on the weekends when Paul is here to help me with the morning chaos. Although he was not quite so helpful last Sunday when we were getting ready for early morning Mass. He was in charge of getting Matthew dressed for church while I handled the girls. I squeezed both my chunky little ladies into cute dresses, put bows in their hair, and shoes on their feet. I assumed that Paul had put just as much meticulous care into ensuring that Matthew looked dapper for Mass. So confident was I in my husband's abilities to dress our son, that I made the fatal error of not giving Matthew a "once-over" before heading out the door. I only noticed what he was wearing as we headed into the church. He was wearing a very nicely matched button down shirt and vest that paired nicely with black dress slacks. The slacks themselves, however, were about six-inches too short and revealed a nice portion of his skinny little ankles as well as the neon-green ankle socks he had chosen to wear with his black dress shoes. He looked ridiculous. I angrily turned to Paul and growled, "I thought you were going to help him get ready!" Paul sheepishly laughed and said, "I thought he had it under control."

Ridiculous. Matthew really does need help dressing himself. He is very inclined to find the one article of clothing in his closet that does not fit and proudly squeeze himself into it and continue on his merry way. For school, he will lazily pull out the polo shirt he wore the day before from his laundry basket and put it on and seem unfazed by the fact that there are pizza and paint stains all over the front. Because I have to dress all three children before taking Matthew to school during the week, our breakfast time is often very short and lately has been consisting of cheerios with honey. However, sometimes you really just want something warm for breakfast.

I have made baked oatmeal many, many, many times before. This recipe is not nearly as fancy as some of the variations I have made in the past, but it is truly a memorable meal in all its simplicity. A bowl of this warm, buttery oatmeal with cinnamon-scented apples and cool milk poured over the top is a great way to wake up during the cool Fall mornings. I love that this can be prepared the night before and then uncovered and baked in the oven while I ready the troops. When everyone is dressed, we can come downstairs and enjoy a giant bowl of this oatmeal before continuing on with our day. Everyone seems a little happier after enjoying a nice breakfast together in the morning.

Thus, it was appropriate that Emma, her face covered with oatmeal, grinned up at me from her bowl and asked, "Are you happy today, Mommy?"

Why yes, Emma, I certainly am.

Amish-Style Apple and Cinnamon Baked Oatmeal
from Mel's Kitchen Cafe

Note: The oatmeal can be assembled the night before, covered, and refrigerated overnight. Bake uncovered the following morning. The oatmeal may require a few more minutes in the oven.

3 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup lightly packed brown sugar (more to taste if you like things a bit sweeter)
2 1/2 cups milk
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 tablespoons butter, melted
2-3 large tart, sweet apples (I used a mix of Ginger Golds, Honeycrisp, and Macintosh), peeled, cored and diced

Lightly grease a  9x13-inch baking pan with nonstick cooking spray and set aside. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

In a large bowl, whisk together the oats, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt and brown sugar.

In a large liquid measuring cup or medium bowl, whisk together the milk, eggs, and vanilla.

Pour this mixture over the dry ingredients and add the melted butter. Stir or whisk to combine.

Arrange the diced apples evenly over the bottom of the baking dish and pour the oatmeal mixture over the top.

Bake for 35-45 minutes until the top is golden and the oatmeal is set.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Dolls from Heaven

Emma, as tough and outspoken though she may be, can be quite nurturing when it comes to her baby dolls. She loves to rock them and sing to them and change their diapers. One time, I actually caught her "changing" her babies diaper and using up an entire, brand-new package of wipes in the process. That must have been one explosive imaginary diaper.

The other day, Emma was upstairs quietly playing with her dolls. I had just peeked in on her as she sat on the floor, gently putting the shoes onto her little bitty baby. Once I headed back downstairs, I began to add "bitty baby accessories" to the electronic Christmas gift list I keep on file for the kids so I can jot down things as I think of them throughout the year because, let's be honest, I'm apt to forget things these days. As I was typing the addition to the list, Emma suddenly appeared at my side holding just the head of her bitty baby.

"Ahhh! Emma! What happened to your doll?" I asked, startled to witness this mildy disturbing sight.

Emma held up the decapitated baby head: "I broke my baby doll! Her head fall off!"

Well, I guess that was an obvious explanation. Turns out, the bitty baby head is held onto the body by a string that is tightly tied at the top of the neck, holding the head into place but allowing it to move from side to side. Emma had noticed the string and managed to untie it. No worries, I got the head back into place and used a sailor's knot to secure the head. Have fun untying that one, Emma!

Speaking of dolls, I would like to draw your attention to a new venture called "Dolls from Heaven" of which I've recently become aware. The company was started by a Catholic family who desired to create dolls that would inspire children to become saints. The plan is to release dolls representing several great saints of the church, beginning with their premiere doll Therese of Lisieux. The dolls would come dressed in clothing reminiscent of the saint along with a book detailing their story. The Therese doll, to be released in November, will come with a Carmelite habit and a children-friendly book based on her autobiography Story of a Soul. Their plan is to make several more dolls designed after saints, including Saint John Paul the Great, Saint Bernadette, Saint Francis, and Joan of Arc. I love this idea and think this would make a fabulous first communion gift for any little girl (or boy for the male dolls!). I'm already planning on ordering one of the Saint Therese dolls to tuck away for Lucy's first communion since her middle name is in honor of this wonderful saint.

Girls certainly love their dolls, so why not give them one that will encourage them to love and honor God with their whole heart and soul?

If you're looking for a wonderful gift for your children, grandchildren, or godchildren, consider supporting "Dolls from Heaven." Please visit their website at www.dollsfromheaven.com or click here to pre-order the Saint Therese doll.

With the recent decapitation of her baby doll, Emma has proved that she is not quite ready for a doll this nice, but I would love to gift her one of these in the near future.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Zucchini Fritters

Lucy is scheduled to see the doctor early next week and I'm looking forward to finding out where she measures up on the growth charts. She is a chunky gal! Thankfully, when we got the reminder call from the doctor's office, they actually had her correct name on file. Last time we were in, I noticed that her names was listed as "Lucia J" on her file. I asked the nurse about it and she replied, "Oh the "J" is just for her middle name!"

"But...her middle name is Therese," I stated, with some slight confusion.
"Oh! Well, we have it listed here as Juarez. I thought that was a strange name!" she replied.

Juarez? Why the heck would we name her Juarez? I realized that they received her full name initially over the phone when we called from the hospital shortly after her birth. Since we go with the french pronunciation of Therese (pronounced tey-rez), perhaps something was misheard over the telephone during that call. Either way, we have it straightened out now and we will see how much our chunk-a-roo has fattened up since her last wellness visit!

Such a die-hard fan of the Irish at such a tender young age!

She loves Emma's "Hello Kitty" chair.

This is a fun little recipe to use up some of that leftover zucchini from the garden. Not that I actually have this problem to contend with - nowadays I pick up my zucchini from the local farmer's markets but when I used to work before Matthew came along, my coworkers with more sophisticated gardening skills often gifted me tons of zucchini. One of these days, I will plant my own zucchini and finally have it coming out of my ears. I wouldn't mind - I love the stuff.

These fritters were quick, easy, and delicious. Paul was excited to see these grace the dinner table and it made for a lovely light meal when paired with a salad. I loved the orange scented tomato sauce served alongside. The mint seemed like a strange addition to the batter at first, but I loved how it complemented both the dill and the tomatoes in the sauce. Pretty darn delicious.

The charred edges were Paul's contribution to this dining experience - he's always happy and willing to fry anything for me. Maybe not the prettiest things, but they sure were tasty.

Zucchini Fritters
from Cook's Country August/September 2014

For the Sauce:
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 scallions, white and green parts separated and sliced thin
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon grated orange zest plus 1/4 cup juice
1 teaspoon packed brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
1 (14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes

For the Fritters:
1 1/2 pounds zucchini
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
6 tablespoons cornstarch
6 ounces feta cheese, crumbled (1 1/2 cups)
1 large egg, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons minced fresh mint
2 tablespoons minced fresh dill
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon pepper
1/4 cup vegetable oil

Melt butter in medium saucepan over medium heat. Continue to cook, swirling pan constantly, until butter is dark golden brown and has nutty aroma, 1 to 3 minutes. Add scallion whites and salt and cook until softened, about 2 minutes. Stir in orange juice and sugar and cook until syrupy, about 3 minutes. Add coriander and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in tomatoes and their juice and orange zest and cook until slightly thickened, about 8 minutes. Remove from heat. Stir in scallion greens, cover, and keep warm.

Line large bowl with clean dish towel. Grate zucchini on large holes of box grater into prepared bowl. Stir in salt and let sit for 10 minutes. Gather ends of towel to form bundle and twist to squeeze zucchini as dry as possible (you should squeeze off about 1 cup liquid). Discard liquid and return zucchini to bowl (without towel). Stir cornstarch into zucchini until fully incorporated. Stir in feta, egg, mint, dill, garlic, and pepper.

Heat 2 tablespoons oil in 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Using 1/4-cup dry measuring cup, drop 6 scant 1/4-cup portions of batter into pan. Gently press each fritter to 2 1/2-inch diameter using back of spoon or rubber spatula. Cook until well browned and slightly crisp, about 4 minutes per side. Let drain on paper towels, 30 seconds per side, then transfer to wire rack. Repeat with remaining 2 tablespoons oil and remaining batter. Serve with sauce.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Chipotle Peach Chicken Tacos

It's Taco Tuesday!

The kids have been taking Taco Tuesday very seriously around here ever since they first saw The LEGO Movie with their Uncle Michael. If you have yet to see it, spare yourself the migraine and just know that the LEGO characters are obsessed with eating their free tacos on Taco Tuesday. So, every Tuesday morning since this wonderful film came into our lives, Matthew wakes up and announces for all to hear: "It's Taco Tuesday!" Emma has now picked up on the habit and names the days of the week as follows:

Sunday, Monday, Taco Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday!

Paul is obsessed with tacos and Mexican food in any form, so he has championed the cause for Taco Tuesday in our household. And thus, it was decreed that every Tuesday, tacos will be served. Of course, we can play around with what kind of tacos grace the dinner table. Thus enters this seasonal recipe for Peach Chipotle Chicken Tacos.

Chipotle pepper pairs very well with sweet fruit and vegetables. One of our favorite dishes is this sweet potato and chorizo enchiladas that uses chipotle spice in the filling. When I saw this recipe for Chipotle Peach Tacos, I knew that this would be a fabulous combination! The sweetness of the fruit helps temper the bite of the peppers making a sauce that is a little more gentle to little palates. However, do know that the sauce does not taste like dessert! The end result is definitely on the savory side of things.

However, for me, the hero of the meal was the red cabbage slaw with lime vinaigrette. It tasted so fresh and bright and made a perfect compliment to the spicy taco meat! I wanted to eat the entire bowl by myself! Paul said his favorite part was the slaw too, which was definitely a surprise since he prefers to avoid salad. We all enjoyed this healthy take on tacos for our weekly Taco Tuesday. Try making it before all the peaches disappear for another 10 months!

Chipotle Peach Chicken Tacos
adapted from Heather Cristo

For the Chicken:
¼ cup vegetable oil
1 yellow onion, roughly chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
¼ cup chipotle chili in adobo
2 ripe peaches, chopped
1 (15 ounce) can of tomato sauce
kosher salt
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts

For the Slaw:
3 cups red cabbage very thinly shaved
1 ripe peach, thinly slided
½ cup cilantro, leaves and stems
2-3 green onions, sliced
2 jalapenos, sliced and pickled - I used the method from this recipe
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
1-2 tablespoons honey
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/4 cup olive oil

For Serving:
Flour Tortillas
2 peaches, very thinly sliced
Cotija cheese, crumbled

In a large pot over medium heat add the vegetable oil and the onion. Saute for 5 minutes until soft and tender then add the garlic and cook for another 2 minutes. Add the chipotle chili and sauce and the peaches and stir for a few minutes. Add the tomato sauce and cook on low heat for 20 minutes.
Transfer the sauce to the jar of a blender and puree on high until smooth. Return to the pot and add the chicken breasts. Turn the heat to low and cook the chicken in the sauce until it is cooked through. When cooked, remove the chicken from the pot and transfer it to a cutting board. Shred the chicken and return to the pot. Taste the mixture and adjust seasoning. Keep on low heat so it stays warm.

While the chicken is cooking, make the slaw. In a large bowl, combine the cabbage, peaches, cilantro leaves, green onions, and pickled jalapenos (removed from their pickling liquid). In a separate, smaller bowl, whisk together the lime juice, vinegar, honey, salt, pepper, and oil. Pour over the slaw and toss to combine. 

Serve the chicken over warm tortillas, top with a generous portion of slaw, and sprinkle with cheese and additional peaches if desired. Enjoy!

Friday, September 11, 2015

Sweet Baked Ham

Matthew is loving school. He looks forward to going every single day and seems to be adjusting to the long days well. I have yet to discover the secret that makes him eat his breakfast or put on his uniform quickly in the mornings for it seems that every single day we leave the house in an absolute rush to make it to school on time. This morning, I left him with a bowl of cereal while I went upstairs to wake and ready the girls to take him to school. When I came back down about 20 minutes later, he was still at the table in his pajamas with a full bowl of cereal. He just does not understand what "eat quickly" or "get dressed fast" or "you're going to be late for school" means quite yet. Unbelievable, I know. He'll get it one of these days.

Just chilling.

At the end of each school day, I like to have a chat with Matthew about what he learned that day. Sometimes, he is too tired to talk and fields my questions with the wonderfully descriptive answer: "I not know."

"What did you learn today, Matthew?"
"Ummm...I not know."
"Did you have recess?"
"I not know."
"Did you eat lunch?"
"Uhh...I not know."

You get the picture. That just tells me he's tired and needs to sit and do a puzzle by himself to decompress from the long day before chatting. Then, he normally does not stop talking until he's fast asleep.

Lately, Matthew has been really absorbing his religion classes at school. I love to hear his take on the biblical stories he learns about during the day. One afternoon, after picking him up, he asked me: "Mom? Have you ever heard of the Tower of Babel? It fell down because God was mad that it was too high!"

I love it.

He also spent a couple days learning about Noah's Ark. He completely absorbed that story and loved it. However, when prompted to draw a picture portraying Noah's Ark as part of an assignment, he had a unique take on the story. Matthew proudly whips out this picture to show Paul and I.

"Where are all the animals, Matthew?" I asked.

His proud reply was: "They're inside the boat because they are afraid of the water! And because there is a GIANT ALLIGATOR trying to eat Noah's Ark!"

Since this post has thus far been mainly about my quirky little Matthew, let's keep discussing him but now in relation to the recipe for today. Matthew LOVES ham. I don't know of anyone else on this earth who adores it as much as he. Whenever we have it for dinner, which is admittedly not too often, I have to cut him off before he eats the entire thing himself. The child cannot be stopped! So, it was because of Matthew's love of ham (and also because we still have a couple frozen hams from the Easter sales taking up space in our very small freezer) that I chose to make this recipe for Sweet Baked Ham for dinner. I had spied this recipe on Mel's blog while sitting in the hospital nursing my newborn baby Emma. She actually posted it on Emma's birth date. I bookmarked it immediately but am only now getting around to making it. Shame on me for taking so long for it was quite delicious - sweet, moist, and just plain good! Paul said the end result reminded him of bacon. If that does not pique your curiosity, I don't know what will! Overall, this was an easy recipe for a weeknight dinner although shredding the meat was a bit tedious with a screaming baby begging to be held. Other than that, the whole process was a breeze. I highly recommend this recipe, especially if you are a fan of brown sugar glazed hams. I also highly recommend this recipe if your children are as voracious as mine are towards ham. There was not a single complaint about dinner tonight. Nor will there be any tomorrow when I serve the leftovers. 

Sweet Baked Ham
from Mel's Kitchen Cafe

Note: Do NOT use a spiral-sliced or a boneless ham for this recipe or else it will end up being dry. Use an unsliced, bone-in ham, such as a shank.

5-7 pound precooked bone-in ham
White distilled vinegar
1 cup brown sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons ground dry mustard

Place the ham in the largest pot you can find and cover with 2 parts water to 1 part vinegar until the ham is covered by at least an inch or two of liquid. I used pretty much all the vinegar we had in the house - about 6 cups! Bring to a boil and cook, boiling vigorously, for 2-3 hours, until the meat easily falls off the bone.

When the ham is ready, carefully remove it from the pot, discarding the liquid, and let it cool until it is easier to remove the meat from the bones. Shred the ham, discarding all the fat and bones, and place half in a baking dish. In a small bowl, stir together the brown sugar and mustard. Sprinkle half of this mixture over the ham. Layer the rest of the ham on top and sprinkle with the remaining sugar/mustard mixture. Cover the dish tightly with foil and bake at 325 degrees for 1 hour.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Cheesy Basil Stuffed Chicken

Lucy is growing fast. And I mean that in more ways than one! Not only has she blossomed into a super-chunky, sturdy little bundle of blubber, but she is also beginning to enter a phase where she interacts and plays with her siblings. Matthew and Emma love to "play" with Lucy, although sometimes their antics make me a bit nervous. Matthew especially likes to dance around a little too close to where Lucy is lying helpless on the ground. Emma has been known to collect every stuffed animal we own and pile them all on top of her poor little sister. Lucy certainly lets me know when she's had enough of their shenanigans by crying desperately when she wants to be rescued.

The other day, Matthew and Emma were thrilled that Lucy was eagerly grabbing at every toy they shoved in her face. Matthew got a kick out of having her hold Woody's hand and this made a jealous Emma seek out her ballerina bunny doll to dangle in front of Lucy to grab. When Lucy did finally clutch onto the bunny's foot, Emma started excitedly telling me: "Look, she's holding it! She likes my bunny!" However, her glee turned to anger when suddenly she noticed Lucy slowly move the bunny's foot, held tight in her chubby little fist, to her open mouth (which I should add was oozing with drool). Emma gasped and started to cry: "No Lucy!! Don't eat my bunny doll!!" And she snatched it away and that was that. I tried to explain that babies inspect everything with their mouths, but Emma was just horrified that Lucy would want to eat her toys. She kept them a safe distance for the remainder of the evening. Emma is in for a big surprise when Lucy becomes mobile and then can get into her stuff all by herself!

The recipe for Cheesy Basil Stuffed Chicken that I would like to share with you tonight is a favorite of mine for a couple of reasons. For one, I love the combination of basil, mozzarella, and tomatoes - a caprese salad is one of my favorite things to eat during the summer months. Also, this recipe is a breeze to put together on a busy weeknight. All the steps can be done in stages. For example, during a spare moment in the morning you can make the breadcrumbs and filling. During a break in the afternoon, you can brine the chicken. While the children are happily playing, you can stuff the chicken, place it in your baking pan, and scatter the tomatoes over the top. When ready to bake, add the breadcrumb mixture to the tops of the chicken and slide it into the oven. About 25 minutes later, dinner is ready! All you need to complete this meal is a nice green salad.

And, thankfully, my children love tomatoes so there were NO complaints when they saw I was making this for dinner!

Cheesy Basil Stuffed Chicken
from Mel's Kitchen Cafe

Note: I chose to brine my chicken for about two hours before baking just to give me a little extra insurance against overcooking it. I used the same brine outlined in this recipe. I also pounded my chicken to an even thickness before slicing the pockets.

 1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
1/4 cup minced fresh basil, divided
2 tablespoons heavy cream
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
3 garlic cloves, minced
Salt and pepper
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (see note)
3 tablespoons mayonnaise, lowfat or regular
1 cup fresh bread crumbs
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved

Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 425 degrees F. In a medium bowl, combine the shredded cheese, 2 tablespoons of the minced basil, cream, lemon juice, 2 teaspoons minced garlic, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper.

Cut a pocket in chicken breasts, stuff with cheese mixture and seal, using a toothpick to help close the slit, if necessary. Transfer the stuffed breasts to 13 by 9 inch baking dish and spread tops evenly with mayonnaise.

In a medium bowl, combine the bread crumbs, remaining garlic, remaining fresh basil, and one tablespoon olive oil. Sprinkle crumb mixture over chicken, pressing lightly to adhere.
Toss tomatoes with remaining tablespoon oil, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and pepper to taste. Arrange the tomatoes in the baking dish in and around the chicken. Bake until the crumbs are golden brown and the chicken is cooked through (registering 160 degrees on an instant-read thermometer) about 25 minutes. Serve immediately.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Carolina Chicken Bog

I am a huge fan of one pot suppers. Meals like this are a lifesaver for me on crazy weeknight days where I do not have a lot of extra free time to throw a meal together. This dinner was made because I had a lot of polish sausage leftover and wanted to figure out some way to incorporate it into a cohesive meal. Enter Cook's Country magazine for the recipe for something called "bog". 

Bog. Such an appetizing name for a dish.

"What's for dinner, honey?"
"Yummy! Are we having a side of swamp and wetland with that?"

Ok, bad joke.

The kids love Lucy more than Bog!

Apparently, bog is a traditional dish from South Carolina, particularly from the county encompassing Myrtle Beach. Accurately described as a heavier rice pilaf, bog is a comforting one-pot mixture of rice, smoked sausage, and chicken. It's similar to the more famous southern dish Chicken Pilau. It gets it's name because it is a little "wetter" than pilau although some people think the name originated because when cooking the chicken becomes "bogged down" with rice.  Either way, it's a very popular dish if you are ever in South Carolina. All this information comes from the article that accompanied this recipe. Prior to that, I had never ever heard of bog. 
However, this is definitely a new favorite recipe. Despite it's simplicity, the dish is full-flavored, comforting, filling, and hearty. It's everything you look forward to eating after the end of a long day. While not really appropriate for a hot summer evening, I see this being made more often during the cold winter months. The only thing you need to serve with this is a nice salad or some steamed vegetables since, other than the onion, there are none in the dish itself. 

Simple, delicious, taste of the South. Although I wouldn't throw a dinner party and announce that you are serving "bog". Your guests may not show up. Or they'll hit the drive-thru before arrival. Sorry, I just can't get past the name.

Carolina Chicken Bog
from Cook's Country Feb/March 2015

6 (5 to 7-oz) bone-in chicken thighs, trimmed of excess fat
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
8 ounces smoked kielbasa sausage, cut into 1/2-inch-thick rounds
1 onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
4 cups chicken broth
2 cups long-grain white rice

Pat chicken dry with paper towels and season with salt and pepper. Heat oil in Dutch oven over medium heat until just smoking. Cook chicken, skin side down, until well browned, 6 to 8 minutes; transfer chicken to plate. Discard skin.

Pour off all but 1 tablespoon fat from pot and return to medium heat. Add sausage and onion and cook until onion is translucent and sausage begins to brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add broth, chicken, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1 teaspoon pepper and bring to boil. Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer until chicken is tender, about 30 minutes.

Remove chicken from pot and set aside. Stir rice into pot, cover, and continue to cook over low heat until rice is tender, about 20 minutes.

Shred chicken into bite-size pieces; discard bones. Gently fold shredded chicken into rice mixture. Remove from heat and let sit, covered, for 10 minutes. Serve.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The Best Oatmeal Raisin Cookies

When Matthew was very little, he always showed such an interest in mimicking me as I went about my kitchen chores. He loved to "help" unload the dishwasher, cook the meals, and set the table. I think for him this interest stemmed from a combination of inherent obsessions - his love of all machinery and his need to be social all the time. He has always been fascinated with all types of machines - their mechanics and functions - which is why he has always been drawn to my various kitchen appliances, especially the coffee maker, the espresso machine, the stand mixer, and the food processor. For the social aspect, Matthew loves to chat pretty much nonstop. That's actually been the biggest difference I have noticed with him being away at school during the day: there is suddenly silence! Emma plays fairly quietly when Matthew is not around and I have to admit that I find the lack of noise a little unnerving at times. I'm not used to it!

Unlike Matthew, Emma has showed very little interest in helping out in the kitchen. She always likes to be directly underfoot or perched atop a chair pulled up to the kitchen island, but it is not so she can help me cook or visit with me. She has more of an interest in eating the ingredients. She has been known to steal sticks of softening butter off the counter-top, peel off the wrapping, and chowing down. She loves butter. She uses dinner rolls as a vehicle for eating butter. We had king crab legs for dinner the other night, and she just kept continuously dipping one large piece of crab into the clarified butter and licking it off. Her butter obsession is pretty gross.

NO Emma!!!

But it's not just butter she's after. She's stolen onions, carrots, bell peppers, garlic, berries, cheese, broccoli, and potatoes off my cutting board as I'm prepping meals. Every time I turn around, I have to take inventory because Emma, in all her chunky glory, can actually be quite stealthy when it comes to swiping food. I'm just afraid she's going to go after raw chicken or beef one of these days.

I decided to try to have Emma help me with a baking project and to maybe foster a little bit of appreciation for kitchen activities. The item of choice? These Oatmeal Raisin Cookies. Now, this recipe is, in my opinion, makes the best Oatmeal Raisin Cookies. The recipe comes from our neighbor who brought me a huge batch of these cookies shortly after Emma was born. Paul and I thought they were heavenly and I begged her for the recipe. Now I'm sharing it with you!

Emma basically just helped me dump ingredients into the mixer. It was a major struggle trying to get her not to eat the ingredients. And when she tasted the cookie dough - oh my we were in trouble! When it came to scooping the cookies, I let her operate the cookie scoop. As you can see, she clearly mastered that skill. Can't you see how beautifully even and pretty the cookies turned out? The cookies in the picture were, believe it or not, the best looking of the bunch. Again, Emma tried to take a handful out of pretty much every cookie once we finally got a mound of dough onto the baking sheets.

Did this experiment kindle a love for cooking and helping in my little Emma? Not really. But she sure did love snacking on the end results.

Despite their homely looks, these cookies really are fantastic. It's hard to just eat one. Just ask Emma.

Oatmeal Raisin Cookies
from a recipe gifted by our neighbor

1 1/4 cup butter, softened
3/4 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup white sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
4 cups old fashioned oatmeal
2 cups raisins
1 cup chopped walnuts or pecans

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

Cream butter and sugars. Add egg and beat for 1 minutes. Add the vanilla and beat until combined. In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Add to the butter mixture. Add the oatmeal, raisins, and nuts and stir just until combined. Drop by the tablespoon full onto parchment-lined cookie sheets. Bake for about 10-12 minutes or until the bottoms are just lightly browned.

Let cool for about 5 minutes on the baking sheets before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.