Monday, January 21, 2013

Culinary Inspiration

Tomato basil soup:
The star of
last week's lunches
I started this post three weeks ago on Jan. 2.  I, like nearly everyone else, wanted to wish peace and blessings and spread good cheer into 2013. And, then my iPhone app killed my blog post. By the time I got back to it, I just didn't know what to write about -- not something that happens ordinarily (just ask my husband).

National Soup Month? That was the crux of my initial post. I even had the clever headline, "Soup's On." OK, so not that original, and probably not even that clever. 

National Spaghetti Day? I'm Italian. Every day should be National Spaghetti Day.

International Hot & Spicy Food Day? Mmmmm....Thai Basil Chicken, anyone?

Thai Basil Chicken:
Bringing a little of the
Far East to Virginia.
Although these theme days or months can inspire us, or are just plain hysterical (Dog Biscuit Appreciation Day), how many of us run to the kitchen to create dishes based on these culinary celebrations? Well, if you do, bless your heart! I, on the other hand, typically hear about them at 9 p.m. the day of or several weeks after the fact. 

What I do know is that in 2013, I am looking for new inspiration for my family's meals. Back in mid-December I wrote about being in a rut, about how if I could muster the strength, I might try a "365 homemade dinners expedition, making a different homemade gem every night for a year."

Well, I'm not here to declare that ambitious plan. But I am working toward making at least two new recipes a week (you have to start small!). So far in 2013, I've scoured several new recipe websites, found new gems in a few dusty cookbooks and am finding amazing inspiration from all the foodies on Twitter.
Sweet potatoes and
black beans ...
who'd have thought
that together they would
make such a delicious chili?

Here is a small sampling of new culinary delights making it out of my kitchen in 2013:

  • Carrot bisque
  • Fettuccine with shiitake mushrooms and lemon/basil sauce
  • Sweet potato and black bean chili
  • Gumbo
  • Filet mignon and creamed spinach 
  • Tomato basil soup
  • Prosciutto, pear and blue cheese paninis
  • Thai basil chicken
  • Baked potato soup
  • JalapeƱo, bacon and cheddar corn muffins
  • Chocolate chocolate chip muffins
  • Andouille egg bake

This week, I have several new recipes on the docket, including beef stroganoff and the andouille egg bake I just pulled out of the oven. This delectable breakfast will definitely warm our hearts and tummies during what forecasters are calling the coldest week of the year. When he returned from his business trip to New Orleans just over a week ago, my husband said, "I really want andouille and eggs. It was on the menu everywhere. Can you make something?" 
Andouille egg bake:
Breakfast of champions.

Tonight, when I put the egg bake in the oven, I simply said, "Ta da." 

I think we all get into our ruts on a regular basis. I end up falling to good old-fashioned standbys: chicken cacciatore, quiche, rouladen, spaghetti squash with roasted vegetables. The dinners are good (delicious even), but dull and boring ... and routine. Now, we will go back to our old standbys undoubtedly. In fact, chicken cacciatore is on this week's menu. 

But, I hope that adding the challenge of at least two new recipes a week will add some much needed inspiration to our menu and a little excitement to our tastebuds.

So far, so good.

Sweet Potato & Black Bean Chili


  • 1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium-large sweet potato, peeled and diced
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tablespoons chili powder
  • 4 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground chipotle chile (see Note)
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 2 1/2 cups water
  • 2 15-ounce cans black beans, rinsed
  • 1 14-ounce can diced tomatoes
  • 4 teaspoons lime juice
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro


Heat oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add sweet potato and onion and cook, stirring often, until the onion is beginning to soften, about 4 minutes. Add garlic, chili powder, cumin, chipotle and salt and cook, stirring constantly, for 30 seconds. Add water and bring to a simmer. Cover, reduce heat to maintain a gentle simmer and cook until the sweet potato is tender, 10 to 12 minutes.
Add beans, tomatoes and lime juice; increase heat to high and return to a simmer, stirring often. Reduce heat and simmer until slightly reduced, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in cilantro.

Nutritional Info:

Per serving: 307 calories; 8 g fat ( 1 g sat , 5 g mono ); 0 mg cholesterol; 51 g carbohydrates; 0 g added sugars; 12 g protein; 14 g fiber; 494 mg sodium; 947 mg potassium. Nutrition Bonus: Vitamin A (213% daily value), Vitamin C (48% dv), Iron (32% dv), Folate (29% dv), Potassium (27% dv), Calcium (16% dv). Carbohydrate Servings: 2 1/2 Exchanges: 3 starch, 1 vegetable, 1 lean meat

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Whirlwind Holiday

Blink ... and, now it's over.

I don't know how it happens. We spend so much time preparing for holidays, birthdays and anniversaries, and in the blink of an eye, they're over. 

For months, we did a countdown in our house. First for our darling daughter's second birthday, then a few weeks later, for Christmas. The babies' anticipation grew and grew, especially once we pulled out the Advent Calendar and then the Christmas decorations. 

And, in a blink, it's over. 

It was a fabulous celebration, one that lasted three full days in our house. And, although,  my goal is to keep the Christmas spirit going for as long as possible, it's sad to see it go so quickly. In our house, we're still listening to Christmas music. (If I had my way, we'd be listening to the cheerful and heart-warming tunes through the summer, but hubby would never let that happen.)

But, I digress ... 

Our little gingerbread house.
This Christmas, we started pulling together our own family traditions. With a 3 year old and just-turned 2 year old, we haven't had time to really create our own little family traditions. But, we're working on it. 

Two weeks before Christmas, we built our annual gingerbread house. Mommy took over ... just a little bit (the babies were too busy licking the icing off their fingers and eating as much candy they could sneak out of the bowls). 
Grandma's sugar cookies. Iced
in good Christmas spirit by our
little darlings.

So, when Christmas arrived, I made sure the girlies led the sugar cookie decorating efforts. We started baking my grandma's sugar cookie recipe on the first Christmas Eve after we had our first daughter. We've followed through that tradition. The girls were really into the decorating this year, and enjoyed it almost as much as they enjoyed eating the icing.

Since we are hundreds of miles away from our folks (both sides), we try our best to incorporate the traditions that meant the most to us into our newfound family traditions. 

For Christmas Eve dinner this year, we were blessed to have my brother, sister-in-law and nephew join us (they live locally and spent the holiday here this year). I made homemade sauerkraut pierogies (courtesy of my husband's grandmother, Gram), crab cakes, french onion soup and roasted carrots. It was incredibly important for us to have a meatless dinner, a tradition my husband and I both grew up with. I couldn't remember the pinch and flatten method for the pierogies that Gram taught me several years ago. So, instead, I pulled out my rolling pin -- gasp! -- and cut out little rounds that I molded into perfect little sauerkraut-stuffed pillows. My husband kindly told me how tasty the pierogies were, but I know they didn't hold a candle to Gram's. We'll just have to keep working on it, and next year, I'll remember the pinch and flatten method.

Rainbow cookies from the top.
And, below, here's a look
at the tasty layers.
My husband also requested a special treat for Christmas Eve dinner: Italian Rainbow cookies. Now, until he made the request, I knew very little about these colorful treats. In fact, I don't think I'd ever tried one. But, he's been making the request for months. So, we agreed that I'd make them for Christmas Eve dessert. And, so I began the LONG and grueling task of making these little brutal, albeit super delicious, beasts. 

Had I known the work that goes into these cookies, I probably would have put up my hands and walked away before even starting, but my husband insisted, even after the cookies turned into an hours-long project. He kept saying, "Don't you remember last week you were complaining you were in a cooking rut? I'm just trying to help you out." (Remember this, as he repeated this on Christmas Day when I was making the hours-long beef bourguignon.) 

If you've ever had these almond petit cakes, you'll know they're delicate in texture, moist and hit many complex notes on the palette. They're quite tasty, but so much work. I've sworn I will never again make these little treats, so my hubby better savor all 96 little sweet cakes. (I've included a copy of the recipe I adapted below.)

After the girls ripped open their packages on Christmas morning and savored all the goodies that Santa brought them, we headed over to my brother's and enjoyed sharing pecan rolls, something we had every Christmas when we were growing up. In my humble opinion, nothing says Christmas morning more than the scent of  warm cinnamon filling the air, and it was something we missed in our own house this year. But, my hubby and I were incredibly touched that my brother took the time to make these yummy pastries for us to enjoy on Christmas morning.

Searing the meat.
So, with nothing cooking in the kitchen on Christmas morning, I was due for a little challenge in the afternoon: beef bourguignon. In the Washington area, one of my favorite restaurants is L'Auberge Chez Francois. We try to get there once a year -- for our anniversary -- and I always order the beef bourguignon. I don't know what they do, but the dinner transports me to a different time and place. So, with that delicious meal in my mind, I had my work cut out for me. 

Sauteing the veggies.
I started marinating the meat two days before Christmas, but the real work didn't set in until Christmas afternoon. After an hour sauteing vegetables, searing the meat, and preparing the "sauce," the beef braised for three hours. The intoxicating smell filled the house, and my hubby kept asking, "How much longer?"

Although Elizabeth's beef bourguignon wasn't as "magnifique" as that at Chez Francois, it was tender, complex in flavor and, in a word, delicious. We paired the beef with roasted red potatoes and a roasted pear salad. My 2 year old loved the beef, "More chicken Mommy!" (She's 2 and calls every protein "chicken.") 

Christmas dinner.
My husband declared that the beef is our family's new Christmas tradition, and even suggested we have a "round 2" for New Year's.

We definitely are guilty of eating our way through the holidays -- and our belts need to be loosened a bit. But, we built off some of our childhood traditions (sauerkraut pierogies and cinnamon rolls) and created some of our own new ones (beef bourguignon and Italian rainbow cookies (ahem, can you tell my hubby "edited" my post?)). 

It was a tremendous holiday, and I'm so incredibly grateful for the precious time with family and the yummy foods that will help frame our memories in the years to come. 

... and, in a blink, it's now a memory.

* * *

Rainbow Cookies (adapted from Bon Appetit) 

Prep Time: 5 hrs | Cook Time: 2 hrs | Makes: 96 | 
Difficulty: Hard

  • 2 Tbsp. plus 2 cups unsalted butter, cubed, at room temperature
  • 6 large eggs, separated
  • 1 1/3 cups sugar, divided
  • 12 oz. almond paste (not marzipan), chopped
  • 2 3/4 cups plus 1 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. red food coloring
  • 1 tsp. green food coloring
  • 3/4 cup orange marmalade, heated, strained
  • 4 oz. bittersweet chocolate, chopped, melted
Preheat oven to 350°. Line three 13x9x2" metal baking pans with foil, leaving overhang; grease with 2 Tbsp. butter; set aside. Put egg whites in bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a whisk; beat until soft peaks form. Slowly add 1/3 cup sugar, beating until stiff peaks form. Transfer to a large bowl; cover; chill.

Using the paddle attachment, beat almond paste and remaining sugar on medium-low until incorporated, 4-5 minutes. Increase speed to medium-high; gradually add remaining butter. Beat until fluffy. Beat in yolks, then flour and salt. Fold in whites in 2 additions.

Divide batter evenly among 3 bowls. Mix red coloring into 1 bowl and green coloring into second bowl; leave third bowl plain. Spread 1 bowl of batter into each prepared pan; smooth tops. Bake, rotating pans halfway through, until just set, 9-11 minutes. Let cool in pans.

With a pastry brush, spread half of marmalade over green cake. Using foil overhang, lift plain layer out of pan. Invert onto green layer; discard foil. Brush remaining marmalade over plain layer. Lift red layer out of pan; invert onto plain layer and cover cake with foil.

Top with a 13x9x2" pan. Weigh down pan with several heavy canned goods to compress cake layers. Refrigerate at least 4 hours and up to 1 day.

Remove cans, top pan, and foil. Transfer cake to a waxed paper-lined baking sheet.

Spread half of chocolate over cake in a thin layer. Freeze for 10 minutes. Cover with waxed paper, invert the baking sheet on top, and flip cake. Uncover and glaze with remaining chocolate. Freeze 10 additional minutes.

Trim cake to 12x8". Cut crosswise into six 2"-wide strips. Cut each strip crosswise into 96 1/2"-wide cookies. Store in an airtight container.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Virginia, We Have a Problem: Dinnertime Rut

"If I could muster the strength, I might try a '365 homemade dinners expedition,' making a different homemade gem every night for a year. But, with a crazy work schedule -- that isn't showing mercy -- to weekly migraine attacks (how much fun is that? *noted sarcasm*), I'll just do these little friendly bets with the hubby. Who knows? Maybe in January, I'll kick off a 90-day bet of 90 different, unique homemade dinners for 90 days. Anyone can do anything for 90 days, right? Right?"
Spinach and feta quiche.
Yummy, but it's turning into a rut!
So that's what I wrote in November. At the time, my husband started buying secret ingredients at the store. For some reason, he thought we had entered the world of Iron Chef. We were in a groove. Each week, I'd scour the Internet, finding several new recipes each week. I'd find ways to use his crazy secret ingredients. Some weeks I didn't cook everything on my menu; on bad days, we'd have leftovers or I'd make a go-to easy backup. But, I was trying!

Well, in the four weeks since that post, we've hit the "wall." Or, I've hit the wall, and I'm dragging my family along for the ride.

We're doing great on the homemade, don't get me wrong. But, I find myself cooking the same thing week after week. I'll mix it up with a new recipe every now and then, but the creativity and exploration are few and far between. I've had one new recipe on my "menu" for three weeks: spicy dijon chicken. It sounds delicious. So, what did I do with the chicken? Ummm ... see the picture to the right: Mexican rice bowl.

Last night's Mexican
rice bowl with rice, chicken,
fresh pico de gallo and
and homemade guacamole.
Who's complaining? No one ...
Not really, but it's turning into
the "same ole, same ole."
Honestly, I can't fathom even 10 days of unique dinners at this point. What was I thinking? 90?!

In the past two weeks alone, I've made roasted pear salad three times, Mexican three times, quiche (or frittata) twice. Whoa! Virginia, we have a problem.

How do I reignite things? How do I get my mojo back?

With Christmas a week away, I feel tired and overwhelmed. I'm super excited about baking cookies with my girls and I do have some really fun ideas for creating a Christmas Eve and Christmas Day feast. But, between now and then? Ugh. 

I'm thinking roasted pear salad, quiche and Mexican. Repeat.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Birthday Party Success!

My little darling blowing out the candle on her
princess castle cake.
My Darling Daughter recently turned 2. I think she and her sister were counting down her birthday for months! When it came time to pick out the invitations, DD really wanted Barney. You know, the singing purple dinosaur who terrorizes parents' dreams... lucky for us (er, I mean sadly for her), they just don't sell Barney stuff anymore.

So, she settled on a princess party. Her sister loves everything princess. In fact, earlier this summer, we had a perfectly pink princess party for her 3rd birthday. I was a little sad my now 2 year old wanted a princess party, too, for no other reason than the hubby and I feel she hasn't had time to figure out what she likes because she likes everything her sister likes.

Anyway, we picked out some darling invitations for a purple princess party. DD's favorite color has been purple ... from the moment she popped out of the womb.

Then a few weeks before the party, DD no longer wanted a purple princess party. She wanted a pink princess party. Say, what??! Pink?

Distraught, I asked her over and over. "What kind of party do you want?"
"Pink princess," she'd say very sing songy.

I had to figure out a way to make her party unique from her sister's. I scoured online to find cake ideas, and came across the perfect one: a princess castle.

A few days before the party, DD emphatically declared she wanted a pink AND purple princess party. She wanted crowns, and dresses, and princesses, and shoes and a purple and pink cake. Yay! Individuality! (Well, kind of...)

On the morning of her birthday, she got just that. She was so excited when she saw her purple and pink cake for the first time, and the second and every time after that. At one point, she and her sister declared that they wanted to live in the cake. 

I take that as a birthday success!

~ ~ ~

Assembly of my DD's perfectly delightful purple and pink princess cake:

Every princess cake needs turrets. And what's more suitablethan purple and pink ... with sparkles? (Love thepurple and pink sugar crystals!)

Nothing better than hot pink and bright purple buttercream! 
Starting the assembly. 
Since DD's birthday is in December, I did the trim in "snowy" white.
Thank goodness for candied pearls. Added a nice
touch for the windows and doors.
Adding the final turret and the last bit of "snow."

The final product. Happy birthday baby girl!

The bottom tier was "manilla" for my birthday girl. I added a
berry compote in between layers. The top tier was a
dark chocolate cake with chocolate buttercream. 

Monday, December 3, 2012

Birthday Cake Fever!!

My youngest daughter turns 2 in the coming weeks (Mommy is trying to hold it together **sob.**) and I'm already preparing. 

My sweet princess has asked for a purple princess party. I've been researching online, and I think I've found the perfect cake to make.

Safari cupcakes and cake
for my older daughter's
first birthday. Her first
birthday is when I
learned the art of fondant.
I've always made my children's cakes: safari, teddy bear, Dora, princess cake #1. (Yes, it seems my girls are growing to believe that they're royalty.) Each birthday, the cakes get more complex and the decorations a little more extravagant. Those who know me well know I dream of opening my own bake shop someday. These cakes are my way of practicing my craft, getting a little more adept each time.

And for each celebration, I have a tendency to go overboard. (Who? Me?) One cake just isn't enough. I make a cake ... and cupcakes. Basically, I want everyone to be happy. My dad is allergic to chocolate, so I always make something non-chocolate and then something for those chocolate lovers (ahem, me, my hubby and children). I'm going to try to nip that this year, and just make a single cake.

For my older daughter's first birthday, I played with fondant. I made a perfectly delightful lion for her safari cake. The next few cakes, I practiced piping. With this cake, I'll practice architecture.

For each, I've tried a new recipe, trying to find a moist, light flavorful cake. 

My baby wants "manilla," even though her sister is pushing heavily for chocolate. I always get a little frustrated with white cake, but I'll see what I can dig up. (I might always resort to an apple spice cake, a way to celebrate the upcoming Christmas season, too.)

I hope to start the project soon. I'm very excited and can't wait to see her eyes light up on her birthday!

I'll post pictures after the big day. Wish me luck!

~ ~ ~

Photos from birthdays' past:

For my older daughter's third birthday, we went
pink princess! Arial is her absolute favorite.
To mix things up, I decided to add some
personality to her princess cake and
surprised her with a rainbow cake:

For our youngest's first birthday, we went with butterfly cupcakes
and a teddy bear cake. She didn't smash either.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Going Around the Table

When I was a little kid, whenever Thanksgiving rolled around, my parents insisted that we go around the table and share what we were thankful for. Those moments have long since passed, but it's one of my warmest memories from this special holiday, Thanksgiving.

Looking back on those memories around our rarely used dining room table, tears well in my eyes. They are beautiful memories, and I wish I had been a little more thoughtful on a few of my turns (especially during those, ahem, teenage years). As a mother of two young children now, I want to make sure they have beautiful and fond memories of their Thanksgivings past.

This year, we're spending Thanksgiving with my husband's family. They don't go around the table and talk about what they're thankful for, but it's a celebration of thanks nonetheless. Since we won't be sharing our thoughts tomorrow, I thought I'd share them now.

As asked by my daddy for so many Thanksgivings, "Elizabeth, what are you thankful for this year?"

I am thankful for my beloved daughters. They are my light and my reason for being. I love them with my whole heart.

I am thankful for my husband, my rock, my best friend. I thank him for the gift of our two darlings. I thank him for loving me with all my flaws.

I am thankful for my family--my parents, siblings, my niece and nephew, my in-laws and extended family. I really am a lucky lady.

I am thankful for my friends.

I am thankful for finding a craft (cooking!) that fulfills me, and I thank my husband for supporting me in all the homemade craziness.

I am thankful for the recipes passed to me by family and friends. Thank you for helping warm our hearts and fill our tummies.

I am thankful for a job that's challenging and keeps me on my toes. (Though, I'd be even more thankful if my schedule calmed down a bit.)

I am thankful and grateful for all that we have, and will try harder to give more to those who have less.

So, now, in my family's tradition and as I wipe tears from my eyes, it's my turn to ask, "What are you thankful for this year?"

Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 12, 2012

Game On

So, last week, the dearly devoted hubby bought a two-pound bag of cranberries. He bet me a margarita if I could use the entire bag. Since then, he's agreed that for each cranberry-laced goodie I make, I get a margarita. Yum! As of tonight, I've baked my way through half the bag, and plan on using the other half this weekend when we host our annual Fauxgiving with some friends.

This week, the hubby raised the stakes by buying a three-pound bag of pecans. (Can you tell that we've recently become Costco members?) I plan to blow his mind this week by using both "secret" ingredients later this week. Maybe that'll earn me a Mai Thai ... on the beach ... in Hawaii. (A girl can dream!)

In all reality, I wish I was a little more creative with these secret ingredients. As my husband told me this week, out of all the recipes we can make, we only cook a fraction of 1 percent of what's out there. 

Is that another challenge? If I could muster the strength, I might try a "365 homemade dinners expedition," making a different homemade gem every night for a year. But, with a crazy work schedule -- that isn't showing mercy -- to weekly migraine attacks (how much fun is that? *noted sarcasm*), I'll just do these little friendly bets with the hubby. Who knows? Maybe in January, I'll kick off a 90-day bet of 90 different, unique homemade dinners for 90 days. Anyone can do anything for 90 days, right? Right?

A perfect way to celebrate a summer-like
November evening
Well, between now and then, I took my beloved's statement as a challenge. Last night, I kicked off a new recipe voyage with pulled pork, chow chow and potato salad. I think that choice was a winner. Afterall, I stumbled across this posted on his Facebook page last night:
"99 percent of the time, my mouth, esophagus, stomach and brain are pleased and more than satisfied by Elizabeth's cooking. But tonight? Holy Moses. Another stratosphere of cooking and pure deliciousness!"
I'll take that as a "win!" And the girls agreed. They loved the "chicken." Let's face it, when you're 2 and 3, everything is chicken. And, they loved the chow chow and baked beans. We need to work on the potato salad, though.

Tonight, I tried for a second win.  If last night's dinner was a homerun, then tonight's was only a double. (Hey hubby, look, a sports metaphor!) I didn't get any rousing kudos and I certainly didn't get any public accolades on Facebook. (*sniffle*) I thought dinner was delicious: rouladen and spaetzel. Maybe he was bitter that I had him helping skim the spaetzel or whisk the gravy. But, the kiddos agreed. Our oldest wouldn't touch the stuff, even though she's a bacon fanatic. The littlest one liked the spaetzel and loved the soup (er, gravy). But, she wouldn't even try the "chicken" tonight. 

Rouladen and spaetzel
For dessert, I made fresh cranberry and chocolate chip oatmeal cookies. (If I had only thought of adding some pecans to the batter.) So, maybe with the cookies, it was a triple, when all is said and done. 

But after this weekend, and after my lovely husband's little seemingly innocent comment, I'm on a new mission: not only to come up with homemade meals as often as we can (we're averaging six days a week), but now, to find unique meals to expand our portfolio. We want to expose our children to all sorts of yummy things. And on a good night, when they're not intent on eating a bowl of Cheerios, perhaps they'll taste something unique that they love ... like chow chow. 

* * *
Fresh Cranberry and Chocolate Chip Oatmeal Cookies (Courtesy of Coconut and Lime)


Fresh from the oven:
A unique cookie recipe
that uses FRESH
cranberries, not craisins!
1 1/2 cup fresh cranberries3/4 cup dark brown sugar3/4 cup flour1/2 cup old fashioned rolled oats1/4 cup semisweet mini chips4 tablespoons butter, at room temperature1/4 teaspoon salt1 teaspoon vanilla paste1 teaspoon baking powder1/4 teaspoon ground ginger1 egg

Directions:Preheat oven to 350. Line 2 cookie sheets with parchment paper*. In a large bowl, cream together the butter, vanilla and sugar. Add the egg, beat until fluffy. Add the flour, baking powder, salt, ginger, and oatmeal. Mix until well combined. Fold in cranberries** and chips. Place 1 tablespoon sized blobs of dough on the cookie sheet (about 1/2 inch apart) and bake for 12-14 minutes or until they look "set" and the bottoms are just brown. Carefully, remove to a wire rack to cool completely.
Yield: about 2 dozen cookies