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

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

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

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!

Friday, July 11, 2014

July Happenings

Paul and I enjoyed a wonderful couple of days all by ourselves getting lost among the Finger Lakes in New York. We stayed at a secluded countryside inn where we enjoyed privacy, some beautiful waterfalls, breathtaking gorges, a couple intense hikes, and wine tastings at local wineries. We also had the chance to explore the city of Ithaca as well as Cornell University - a beautiful campus built into the natural landscape of the area. My favorite part of the entire trip was just being able to hold hands with Paul without interruption. Little moments of intimacy like that are harder to come by once Matthew and Emma came along!

The most unfortunate part of our trip happened as we were packing the car. I had taken the battery out of my camera to charge the night before we left. In our haste to depart, we packed the camera in the bag but left the battery charging. We were unaware of this until we arrived at our destination. Paul and I immediately headed over to a couple electronics stores in the area, but neither of them had the particular battery I needed in stock. So, we were unable to capture any pictures of the beautiful sights we enjoyed on our trip. Guess this means we'll have to go back sometime!

This was my first time away from Emma and I was very nervous about leaving her. I knew Matthew would do just fine since he gets along so well with my family, but Emma has always been a little more clingy. Plus, in my mind she is still very much a baby. She seemed fine when we took off - happily playing with Amy and Jane. However, I could not stop thinking about her - especially around her normal naptime and bedtime. I'm the only one who has ever put her to bed! I must have driven my Mom crazy by calling to check on her so many times, but she was doing just fine! When we returned, she definitely punished me a bit by being super clingy and whiny but while we were out of the picture, she played, ate, and slept normally. The little stinker.

When we returned, we visited with my family for an extra day before they headed back to Fort Wayne. We enjoyed a relaxing day hiking around the woods and playing in the stream. The little kids also enjoyed shooting each other with water guns all afternoon. It was a great day.


For the 4th of July weekend, we enjoyed having Michael, Maria, little Michael, and baby Bonnie out for a visit. Matthew and Emma just love their little cousins. Little Michael played wonderfully with both of them  and Emma could not get enough of Bonnie (I couldn't either - my goddaughter is such a cutie pie!). She kept pointing at her while exclaiming: "Baby! Baby!" She loved to touch her face and swing her in the little baby swing we set up for her in the family room.

The fireworks went well this year because Matthew only ran inside to hide once! This is a vast improvement over last year when he spent the entire evening watching the fireworks from behind the screen door. Emma, as a complete contrast, has the makings of a pyromaniac. She could not get enough of the fireworks. Every time Paul struck a match, her eyes would light up with wild anticipation of the explosion to follow. She turned into an angry little monster when we ran out of sparklers and threw a fit when I stopped her from eating a Bang Snap. What a horrible mother I am!

Of course, Michael (the big one) insisted that we purchase some snakes to set off. Snakes have become a firework tradition in my family mainly because my Dad is obsessed with them for some strange reason. My Mom and I detest them - they are ugly, look like feces, and leave nasty black marks on the concrete. I don't think the kids were too impressed with them either. Just look at their faces!

On a totally different note, after Emma's small bout with separation anxiety, I still thought she was acting quite irritable. Everything we seemed to say or do would set her off into a full-out, back-arching, whining, kicking, screaming, crying mess. I discovered the problem when I peered into her mouth the other day: she has six molars that all decided to pop through at once! The poor baby. She is behaving much better now which is especially fortunate for Matthew. He can't stand it when she cries - he claims the noise  "breaks the ears."

Hopefully I'll get back into a rhythm with posting and have some more delicious recipes to share in the coming weeks!

Friday, June 27, 2014

Seven Quick Takes: It's Almost July?

We hope your Friday has been just peachy! I'm linking up with Jen and all the rest for another edition of Seven Quick Takes!

1. One week ago, I let Emma have a sip of my coffee. Now, every morning since, she has been begging to drink from my coffee mug. Those familiar with her brother's long love affair with coffee will understand the significance of this. I just might have another coffee-addicted child on my hands. When Matthew saw me giving Emma a sip of coffee he began to scold: "No, no, Emma! Coffee is not for babies!" Says the kid whose first word was "coffee".

2. Matthew has really been into reciting everyone's full name - first, middle, and last. Then he realized that his Monkey did not have a middle name. So, my creative son has officially named is favorite stuffed friend "Monkey Brown". At least he is consistent in his nomenclature - he also named his goldfish "orange fish".

3. Matthew has a girlfriend. He met a little three-year-old named Tempie at the YMCA and the two have been lovebirds ever since. They are inseparable. Her grandmother brings her to the Y around the same time I bring my kids so they have been playing together for weeks now. Each time they are reunited, they both cry out "MY FRIEND!" and then proceed to hug and dance about. I've seen them holding hands while watching a movie together and coloring the same picture at the art table. True love.

4. Meet "Poofie". He's the little stuffed puppy Emma has been carrying around in order to copy how Matthew carries Monkey everywhere. She wakes up hugging it and has been taking it for car and stroller rides all week. We'll see how long she keeps this up before moving on to another toy.

5. Matthew and I finished his first 500 piece puzzle yesterday. It was a headache. He started out strong - helping find and put together all the border pieces and fill in about 1/2 of the puzzle before getting tired and frustrated. "This puzzle is TOO HARD, Mom!" he said with anguish. I had to majorly encourage him to help me with the rest of it. Paul came home to find us both frustrated trying to finish the last bit of it. It was a family effort by the end, but we finished it. And now I am never, ever taking it apart - we are gluing it and framing it because the picture is really gorgeous. Unfortunately, we bought it as a set and now have three other 500 piece puzzles just waiting for us to put together. Matthew has already forgotten his frustration and has been begging me to start a new puzzle. I might need a couple weeks before we do that again.

6. Our cat has been dragging dead mice still attached to the mousetrap that killed them. This is how a cat who is afraid of his own shadow hunts.

7. My parents are the best! They are coming over tomorrow to stay and watch our little munchkins for a couple days so Paul and I can have a little getaway. We are in dire need of it - Paul has been working so much lately that I feel we barely have a moment together. We're looking forward to having a 2-day long, completely kid-free date! Although I'm sure I'll start missing them the second we drive away. It's funny how two tiny little people can grate on your nerves while simultaneously tugging on your heart strings.

Head on over to Conversion Diary for more Quick Takes!