Thursday, April 17, 2014

Sweet Potato Salad with Bacon and Apples

Warning: This is probably the most disjointed blog post ever.

My sister and her fiance are spending Easter weekend with us and I have been trying to assemble the menu based around all of our tastes and preferences. I thought I had everything planned out, right down to a fantastic strawberry-rhubarb cobbler for dessert, when my sister dropped a bombshell on me: "Eww. Monica, I hate strawberries."

Who in heaven's name hates strawberries?

This revelation blew my mind - how did I not know that Catherine can't stand strawberries? Her aversion is especially perplexing when juxtaposed with the tastes of one of our other sisters, Sophie, who went through a 6-year-long strawberry obsession. Everything she ate had to be strawberry-themed. It didn't matter if it was artificially flavored or not (she was famous for sneaking boxes of the strawberry Frosted Mini-Wheats into the cart while grocery shopping with the parents). She doodled strawberries during class, she dreamed of strawberries, and I think her email address was something along the lines of "StrawberryLuverXOXO."

Sophie dreaming about lying among strawberry fields. Forever.

Bottom line is that I believe Sophie's fanatical love of strawberries to be slightly more normal than Catherine's full out hatred of them. What is it that she does not like? Is it the juicy deliciousness? The pure, unadulterated sweet flavor? The antioxidants that lower risk of heart and neurological disease? What is it Catherine?!?

The strawberry hater is on the left. The baby and myself happen to be strawberry lovers.

No worries, the strawberries have been banished from our Easter menu. But I refuse to make "leg of lamb" per Catherine's request. I have an aversion to eating anything that was once fluffy.

Our Easter dinner menu will be as follows:

Pork Rib Roast with Port-Wine Cherry Sauce
French-Style Potato Salad with Herbs
Spinach Salad with Grapes, Pears, Pistachios, and Sherry-Shallot Vinaigrettte
Cream Biscuits
Carrot Cake Cheesecake for dessert
Ice Cream (Paul/Matthew insist upon it!)

You're welcome, Catherine.


Since ham is traditionally served as part of the Easter feast, I'm sure that potato salad will be a featured side on more than one dinner table come Sunday. This recipe shakes things up a bit by employing sweet potatoes tossed in a light mustard vinaigrette instead of the traditional mayonnaise-laden version featuring russets, baby red, or Yukon gold potatoes. The sweet potatoes are roasted until just tender and then tossed while still warm in a hot mustard-vinegar mixture. After allowing those flavors to meld and absorb, the salad is rounded out with the addition of chopped bacon, diced sweet apples, and olive oil. Eat it as is as a side dish to complement ham, pork roast, or turkey or serve it over a bed of baby spinach (tossed with a little extra vinaigrette from the potato salad) as a spectacular main dish. This has been my lunch every day this week and I have not tired of it! It's so fresh, healthy, and filling!

I did not add them this time, but I'm thinking some chopped, toasted pecans or dried cranberries would be a welcome addition to this salad.

Our entire family enjoyed this dish and I'm sure you will too! While nothing can take the place of my Mom's potato salad recipe (especially alongside her honey-glazed ham), this is a great, healthy, and different version. Paul and Matthew were happy there was bacon, Emma loves her sweet potatoes, and I am just thankful to see them all eating something relatively healthy without complaint.

Sweet Potato Salad with Bacon and Apples
adapted from Cook's Country

2 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 3/4-inch cubes
5 slices of bacon, chopped
2 sweet apples (like Braeburn, Jonagold, or Honeycrisp), peeled, cored, and chopped into 1/2 inch pieces
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1/4 cup finely diced red onion
4 tablespoons cider vinegar
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
3 tablespoons Extra-Virgin Olive Oil

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Toss the sweet potatoes with a tablespoon of olive oil and season with salt and pepper to taste. Spread evenly on a foil-lined baking sheet and roast for about 12-15 minutes, or just until the potatoes can be pierced with a fork.Keep an eye on them and be sure not to roast them too long or the salad will be mushy. Remove from the oven and carefully place the potatoes in a large bowl.

Combine the vinegar and mustard in a bowl with the 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Divide in half and microwave half of the vinegar mixture on high for about 30 seconds, or until piping hot. Immediately drizzle over the warm potatoes and gently fold everything together with a rubber spatula. Let stand for about 15 minutes at room temperature.

Meanwhile, toss the apple pieces with the lemon juice in a small bowl.

Cook the bacon in a saucepan over medium heat until crispy. Drain on paper towels.

With the remaining vinegar mixture, slowly add in 3 tablespoons of olive oil  as you whisk. Continue whisking until emulsified. Add the apple, diced onion, and bacon to the bowl with the sweet potatoes. Add the vinaigrette and gently toss to combine. Refrigerate for about 30 minutes before serving. The salad can be made up to 2 days in advance.


Tuesday, April 15, 2014

TWD: Cantuccini with Dark Chocolate and Coconut

When Paul and I were first married, we lived in a two bedroom town home that shared a wall, a porch and a walkway with our neighbors, an elderly couple and their yappy Yorkie. Money was very tight and although we liked the idea of subscribing to the daily paper we chose to forgo doing so in order to save a couple of extra dollars each week. However, one Sunday after returning home from the early Mass, we were delighted to see a big, fat newspaper stuffed with ads sitting on our front porch. The news-people must have dropped us a free paper in an attempt to entice us to subscribe! We snatched up the paper and headed inside to enjoy a breakfast of scrambled eggs and hot coffee while leisurely looking over the news articles and perusing the shopping ads. We enjoyed it so much that we actually considered subscribing just to the Sunday paper, but our practical sides won out and we resisted temptation. However, the next week we were happy to find a Sunday paper sitting on our stoop once again. We did not question it and took it inside to enjoy once more. The following week, the paper showed up again. By then, we thought that perhaps our "free trial" was supposed to last a whole month and resolved to simply enjoy the paper for as long as it continued to come to us. 

Later that same week, I was outside collecting the mail when our neighbor walked outside and began to chat with me. We briefly discussed a story that had been in the news recently when my neighbor offhandedly mentioned: "Speaking of the news, I have had the hardest time getting the paper boy to deliver our Sunday paper. It's been missing the past few weeks."


Remember how I said that we shared a front porch with our neighbors? Apparently the newspaper boy dropped the Sunday paper off a little closer to our door than their door and we erroneously thought it was for us. We had been stealing the neighbors' paper for weeks! I'm pretty sure they already disliked us, so this would certainly kill any chance of us being invited over for a dinner party.

We just quietly stopped stealing their paper and went back to enjoying our Sunday mornings without it. How does this story relate to this week's Tuesdays with Dorie challenge? Not really at all, but for some reason in the process of making these delightful cookies, this memory popped into my head. Maybe it was the fact that these cantuccini, a classical recipe Tuscan recipe for the more ubiquitous biscotti, pair so perfectly with a hot mug of coffee - just like a Sunday morning paper. Unlike biscotti, the cantuccini do not incorporate butter or oil into the batter, using only the fat found in the eggs to flavor and enhance the dough. They bake up extra-crispy and crunchy - the perfect texture for dunking.

I omitted the almonds called for in the original recipe and instead added 3/4 cup chopped bittersweet chocolate and 1 cup shredded coconut to make a flavor reminiscent of an almond joy. Thankfully, these come together very quickly and easily. I made them while barely awake at 6:15 AM on a Saturday morning because the children refused to let me sleep in at all. I got them back later in the day by putting them to bed a whopping two hours early.

Emma found them to be the perfect teething cookie. Paul thought these were great with coffee or chai. Matthew just likes any excuse to eat cookies for breakfast. Either way, this is a great recipe!

Cantuccini with Dark Chocolate and Coconut
adapted from Baking with Julia

2 cups flour
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup sweetened shredded coconut
3/4 cup finely chopped bittersweet chocolate
3 large eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, cinnamon, and salt. Toss with the coconut and chocolate. In a separate bowl, beat together the eggs and vanilla. Add to the flour mixture, stirring with a wooden spoon until a dough comes together. Turn out the dough onto a floured surface and knead together into a ball. Divide the dough in half and shape each half into a 12-inch long log. Transfer the logs to a parchment-lined baking sheet.

Bake in the preheated oven for 30 minutes, or until brown and firm. Remove from the oven and transfer the logs from the baking sheet to a wire rack to cool completely. Leave the oven on.

Once cool, cut cross-wise into 1/4-inch thick slices. Using the same baking sheet as before, lay the cantuccini cut side down on the baking sheet and return to the oven for about 10-15 additional minutes, or until browned and firm. Enjoy with coffee or tea!

Monday, April 14, 2014

Hawaiian-Style Pizza with BBQ Pulled Pork

Oh the weather is finally changing! It feels like spring is here! We have been spending the last several days soaking in the sun and enjoying the sudden spike in temperature. Paul even got his first sunburn of the year - it's tough having a bald head when you're out under the beating sun. I might have to insist that he wear a hat in the future because his poor scalp is paying for it!

Emma has been loving being outdoors. The first time I took her for a walk this year, she loved it so much, she was positively giddy. However, I think she was a little angry with me for not taking her out sooner (as if it could be helped!). Whenever I made eye contact with her while we were out, she kept glaring accusingly as if to say: "How dare you keep this glorious new world hidden from me all this time!"

I'm trying not to get too excited about the weather. The forecast predicts more snow tomorrow. Still, the warmth and sunshine of the past few days have started to make us all crave summertime fare: salads, grilled burgers, and ice cream.

But, for now, we still have a ton of leftover pulled pork to eat...and that's where the pizza comes in.

When my siblings and I were little, my parents would often take us out to Pizza Hut following dance recitals and sports championships. Us kids always preferred the pizza with the most meat and cheese we could have packed on as possible. My favorite was always the meat lovers. Ham, Pepperoni, Sausage, Meatballs, AND bacon all together on one pizza!?! Heaven! However, our mother would always require that at least one of our pizzas be "Hawaiian style" with Canadian bacon and pineapple. We all vehemently protested her modest request, finding that combination to be "boring" or, to the more dramatic members of the family, "disgusting". Well, she usually got her way and other than Michael (who pretty much ate anything),the rest of us never stooped so low as to try a bite of that combination.

Fast forward about 15 years and I was dating a certain guy name Paul who happened to love Hawaiian pizza. While on a date, he insisted that I try that combination.

"What's so great about it? Pineapple on a pizza?" I skeptically asked him.
"It's just good! A little sweet, a little salty. It's amazing." was his reply.

I took my first bite and was hooked. Absolutely hooked. Ironically, it's pretty much the only way I like pizza now. That and BBQ Chicken pizza. I pretty much can't stand pepperoni or sausage anymore. Must be my old lady tastebuds kicking in!

Since we still have an abundant of leftover pulled pork, I decided cash in on our Sunday dispensation from our Lenten fasting and make pizza. Paul was oh-so-happy to hear that! I chose to combine my two favorite pizza combinations and make a Hawaiian-Style BBQ Pulled Pork Pizza. I tossed the pulled pork in our favorite BBQ sauce (Sweet Baby Ray's) and spread that evenly over our favorite pizza dough, then covered the entire surface with thinly sliced red onions, chopped fresh pineapple, shredded mozzarella and cheddar cheese. It was a delicious combination that everyone loved. Even Matthew, the purist who normally insists that a pizza is not a pizza unless it is topped with pepperoni, loved it.

Hawaiian-Syle Pizza with BBQ Pulled Pork

1 recipe pizza dough
1-2 cups BBQ sauce (depends how saucy you like it)
3 cups leftover shredded pork
4 cups shredded cheese (we used a combination of cheddar and mozzarella)
1 cup thinly sliced red onion
1 ripe pineapple, cored and cut into small wedges

Preheat the oven to 500 degrees with a pizza stone set on the middle rack.

Divide the pizza dough in two (if using my recipe- it makes enough for two pizzas). Roll out/stretch the pizza dough into a 12-inch circle. Place dough circle on a piece of parchment paper set on a large cutting board.

Combine the pork with the BBQ sauce. Spread half all over the surface of the pizza. Cover with half the onion, cheese, and pineapple. Carefully slide the piece of parchment from the cutting board onto the hot pizza stone in the oven. Bake the pizza for 10-12 minutes, or until the edges are browned and the cheese is melted. Repeat with remaining dough and toppings.

Let pizzas cool for about 10 minutes before slicing.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Ridiculously Easy Bunny Cupcakes for Easter!

Here is an easy Easter-themed cupcake craft that has been tested and approved by a hyper 4-year-old and his grumpy baby sister. This week, we wanted to bring cupcakes into the lady at the YMCA who does such a good job watching Matthew and Emma while I work out. Her birthday is the Monday after Easter, but we wanted to surprise her this week with some treats. Matthew suggested that we make some bunny cupcakes, so that's just what we did! I'm sharing this today just in case you also have an hour or two to kill while watching the clock slowly tick towards the kids' bedtimes.

First, bake a batch of cupcakes. We made carrot cake cupcakes. Delicious.

While the cupcakes bake, cut out ear shapes from card-stock. Ours were all so even and neat thanks to Matthew's mad skills with the scissors. We pasted some pink pieces of paper onto our white ones to try to make them look a little cuter. I'm not so sure it worked. In reality, it doesn't matter how neat or cute they look as long as they sort of resemble bunny ears.

Next, make a batch of frosting. We were super original and made a cream cheese frosting to go with our carrot cake cupcakes.

Finally, place some sweetened coconut flakes in a pie plate for the fur, pick out some pink jelly beans for the nose, and some chocolate chips for the eyes.

Frost the cupcakes, dip in the coconut, and decorate with the jelly beans, chocolate chips, and paper ears. You're done!

I think they look kind of cute. Matthew was quite happy with them. Emma ate two without complaint, so I think she approved. And now that it's finally bedtime (it's been a long day), they are all sticky, hyped up on sugar, and bouncing off the walls. Perfect.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Baked Green Chile Chicken Flautas

For Emma's Uno-themed Mexican fiesta, we tried to serve food that would both be pleasing to adults and easy for little hands to eat and enjoy. These flautas were immediately added to the menu since they are always a hit at parties and can be made well in advance and simply thrown in the oven shortly before guests arrive. Plus, they are usually loved by little kiddos since they are creamy, cheesy and super-flavorful while not being overly spicy.

This recipe is all over the internet and I can see why - the flavor is absolutely delicious. I like to make them with flour tortillas (and call them "flautas") rather than with corn tortillas (at which point they would be "taquitos") simply because my picky husband balks at corn tortillas. He claims they are too chewy or something ridiculous like that. Normally, I would ignore Paul and his whining but Matthew shares this sentiment. So, in order to avoid a hunger strike, I went with the flour tortillas.

We made about 200 flautas and stuffed the freezer to capacity with them in preparation for the party. Paul was such a good little sous chef during the flauta-making project. After the kids went to bed, we made our filling and then had a little flauta-rolling party in the kitchen. I scooped, Paul rolled, and together we drooled over the flautas we will be unable to enjoy until Lent is over and our cheese fast has been lifted. We're almost there! 

During Emma's party, about 125 flautas were consumed and I am convinced that the only reason I have 75 left in my freezer is because I did not bake more during the party. Otherwise, I'm pretty sure they would have all been completely devoured. Not that I'm complaining - having a freezer full of leftover delicious chicken flautas is a good problem to have!

Creamy Baked Chicken Taquitos
adapted from from Our Best Bites

3 ounces cream cheese, softened
1/3 cup green salsa
1 tablespoon lime juice
1 teaspoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
1/2 teaspoon onion powder
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
3 tablespoons chopped scallions
1/4 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
2 cups cooked and shredded chicken
1 can diced green chilies, drained
1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese
1/2 cup shredded monterey jack cheese
10-12 small flour tortillas

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees and spray a baking sheet with cooking spray.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the cream cheese until smooth. Add the salsa, lime juice, cumin, chile powder, cayenne, onion powder, garlic, cilantro, scallions, and 1/4 teaspoon salt and beat on low to combine.  Gently stir in the chicken, cheeses, and drained chilies.  Taste and season with additional salt and pepper if necessary.

Spoon 2-3 tablespoons of filling onto the lower third of each tortilla and roll tightly.  Place seam side-down onto the prepared baking sheet.  Repeat with remaining tortillas and filling.

Spray the flautas lightly with cooking spray and bake for 15-20 minutes, or until the tortillas are crisp and golden-brown.

To Freeze: Place the baking sheet with the flautas in the freezer and let them remain there until firm. Wrap each flauta individually in plastic and then place in a freezer bag. Bake from frozen in a 425 preheated oven for 20-25 minutes, or until browned on the edges. This is a great make-ahead meal to have on hand for busy weeknights!

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Pulled Pork Sandwiches with Mango-Lime Slaw

Pulled pork is a lifesaver when it comes to serving a crowd. It is relatively cheap (I can normally snag a large pork butt for less than 99 cents a pound!) and requires relatively few ingredients to transform it into something delicious. Plus, if you have a massive amount of it leftover, it freezes beautifully.

I chose to make pulled pork to serve at Emma's birthday party precisely because of its simplicity. We served it alongside baked black beans, cilantro-lime rice, and a large variety of other condiments so that our guests could build their own taco salads. We made too much food, as usual, and now have lots and lots of pork leftover. Our freezer is stocked full of it!

Thankfully, the whole family really does enjoy this recipe - even the kiddos! We enjoyed taco salads for dinner the first couple nights following the party, but after that Paul was anxious to shake things up a bit. I decided to just revert back to using the pork the traditional way: in a sandwich! However, I had to add a refreshing mango-lime slaw for topping. The slaw both brightens and freshens the sandwiches. The cilantro and lime flavors in the slaw are also a really great compliment for the sauce coating the pork. Delicious!

Cafe Rio Sweet Pork
adapted from Favorite Family Recipes

For the Pork and Marinade:
2 pounds pork (rib meat or loin)
¾ cup coke
¼ cup brown sugar

To Cook the Pork:
1 cup coke
¼ cup water
½ teaspoon garlic salt
¼ teaspoon onion salt
¼ teaspoon chili powder

For the Sauce:
¾ cup coke
¾ cup brown sugar
¼ teaspoon chili powder
1 4 ounce can diced green chiles
10 ounces mild red enchilada sauce

Place pork in a zip lock bag. Add the 3/4 cup coke and 1/4 cup brown sugar and seal bag. Let marinate overnight.

The next day, add pork to slow cooker and discard marinade. Add the 1 cup coke, water, garlic salt, onion salt, and chili powder. Cover and cook on high 3 hours. Drain slow cooker and shred pork with two forks.

Make the sauce by blending the coke, brown sugar, chili powder, green chills, and enchilada sauce together in blender. Pour sauce into slow cooker. Cook at least 30 minutes longer. Serve on sandwich buns with slaw.

Mango-Lime Slaw
A Nistler Family Original

1 fully ripened mango, small dice
1 (16 ounce) bag coleslaw
1/4 cup sliced green onion
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/3 cup honey
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
2 tablespoons lime juice
1/4 cup minced cilantro
Salt and Pepper to taste

In a large salad bowl, whisk together the mayo, honey, cider vinegar, and the lime juice. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add the coleslaw and toss multiple times until moistened. Add the mango and green onion. Toss again. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. Chill for about an hour before serving, tossing every so often.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Peanut Butter and Jelly Pie Bars

I'm still on my peanut butter kick and there is no end in sight. After hating the stuff for the first 23 years of my life, I guess I am just making up for lost time.

In preparing the menu for Emma's birthday party, I tried to think of treats that fit into our Uno Fiesta theme while appealing to both young and old palates alike. What is more nostalgic than a peanut butter and jelly sandwich? These bars are a homage to that favorite lunchtime staple of childhood. In fact, while making these, I was reminded of the phase that Matthew and his friend Sophia went through about two years ago where both of them pretty much refused to eat anything other than a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. At least it was a cheap meal made with materials we always have on hand. This phase was followed shortly by Matthew's hot dog phase where he consumed between 2-3 hot dogs a day for about 6 months. Thankfully, that obsession has also passed and he has not had a hot dog since August. He's now into eating raw cucumbers and tomatoes - weird, but healthy!

Anyway, THESE BARS. Amazing. A pastry crust is topped with a peanut butter buttercream, a generous slathering of your favorite preserves, and then topped with a cinnamon-spiced oatmeal streusel. Delicious! It's like a grown-up, slightly sophisticated, dessert version of the classic PB&J. I chose strawberry preserves this time. Next time, I would love to make these with my White Chocolate Peanut Butter paired with sweet orange marmalade to emulate my favorite PB&J sandwich combination.

Little Miss Emma definitely approved of these. She sampled plenty while I was cutting these into neat little bars.

Simply amazing.

Peanut Butter and Jelly Bars
adapted just slightly from Baked: Explorations

For the Pastry Dough:
1½ cups all-purpose flour
¼ cup granulated sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup cold unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch cubes
1 egg

For the Peanut Butter Filling:
1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 cups creamy peanut butter
1¾ cups powdered sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla extract

For the Crumb Topping:
¾ cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
1/3 cup dark brown sugar
2/3 cup traditional rolled oats
6 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch pieces

For Assembly:
2 cups preserves (we used strawberry!)

First, make the pastry dough. Butter the sides and bottom of a glass or light-colored metal 9x13-inch pan. Line the bottom with parchment paper, using enough parchment to hang over the sides of the pans. Put the flour, sugar and salt in a food processor and pulse until combined. Add the butter and pulse until sandy (about 6-10 quick pulses). In a small bowl, whisk the egg and pour into the food processor. Pulse just until the dough begins to hold together.

Dump the dough mixture into the prepared pan. Using your fingers, press the mixture into the bottom of the pan. Place the pan in the freezer for 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Remove the pan from the freezer, line it with aluminum foil, and fill it three-quarters full with pie weights or dried beans. Bake for 15 minutes, then remove the foil and weights and bake for another 10 minutes, or until the crust is lightly browned. Transfer the pan to a wire rack to cool.

Reduce the oven temperature to 325 degrees.

To make the peanut butter filling,beat the butter until it is completely smooth in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Add the peanut butter and beat until combined. Add the powdered sugar and vanilla and beat until smooth. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and beat again. Turn the mixture out onto the cooled crust and, using an offset spatula, spread it into an even layer. Put the pan in the refrigerator to chill while you prepare the crumb topping.

To make the crumb topping, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and cinnamon. Add the brown sugar and use your hands to rub it in until the mixture is uniform in color. Stir in the oats. Place the dry mix in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Add the butter and beat on low speed until loose crumbs form.

Spread the preserves in an even layer over the peanut butter filling. Sprinkle on the crumb topping, covering the preserves.

Bake the bars for 20-25 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through, or until the top is brown.

Transfer the pan to a wire rack to cool completely. To cut into neat bars, pop the pan in the freezer for about an hour. Cut into bars and serve.

The bars can be stored in the refrigerator in an airtight container for up to 2 days.