Turn Up the Heat, It’s Chili Season!

Chili is the perfect fall dish. Think about it. Few foods are more satisfying on a cool, crisp evening than a hearty bowl of chili. Serve this savory stew on game day and you’re sure to score a lot of points with hungry football fans. And, because it’s so versatile (have you seen all the different chili recipes online?), it appeals to any appetite.

Some like their chili muy caliente (very hot) with loads of sweat-inducing peppers that set our tongues ablaze, while others prefer a milder version, with just a dash of cumin and cayenne. In Texas they leave out the beans (it’s called “Bowl ’o Red”), and in Ohio they serve it over pasta (aka Cincinnati Chili). So, how you make and take your chili seems to be a matter of taste, tradition, and location.

Every October we have a Chili Cook-Off at work. Resident “chefs” bring in slow cookers filled with their homemade creations, and by noon people are lined up with bowls in hand, eager to treat their palates to a range of flavorful and fiery concoctions.  My taste buds are tingling already!

Since we tend to consume a lot of chili this time of year – at football parties, potlucks, everyday meals, AND cook-offs – I thought I’d share a few recipes, including some award winners! Note: if you can’t take the heat, just tweak the recipe a bit or go with one that’s a little less zingy.

white-chicken-chili

The 1st place winner in our last chili cook-off. One taste and you’ll know why!

Southwest White Chicken Chili   
This is my absolute favorite chicken chili recipe and it’s gluten-free!
Ingredients:
3-4 chicken breasts, cooked and shredded
2 (14.5 oz.) cans black beans, rinsed
2 (14.5 oz.) cans sweet corn, one drained & one with liquid
2 cans diced tomatoes with green chilies
2 pkgs. dry ranch dressing mix
2 (8 oz.) pkgs. cream cheese
2 tsp. chili powder
2 tsp. onion powder
2 tsp. cumin
1(14.5 oz.) can of chicken broth (optional)

Directions:
1) Place cooked, shredded chicken in the bottom of a slow cooker.
2) Pour the beans, corn, and tomatoes over the chicken. Mix in the ranch mix and spices. NOTE: This is a thick chili. If you are concerned with the thickness, you can add chicken broth to thin it down some. It won’t change the flavor much, just the consistency.
3) Lay the cream cheese on top of the chicken, beans, and corn.
4) Cover and cook on low for 6-8 hours.
5) When done cooking, stir in the cream cheese.
Serves 6-8. Recipe courtesy of glutenfreemakeover.wordpress.com. Photo: dennyssupervalu.com

Chili Corn Carne - traditional mexican food, in wooden bowl,

This recipe is loaded with extra-hot peppers, so it definitely has some kick to it!

Matschina’s Ghost Chili
If you like it hot, I mean really hot, this one’s for you!
Tip: Keep dairy products (e.g., ice cream or milk) on hand to tone down the heat from the peppers. Wear gloves when cutting chili peppers.
Ingredients:
7 ghost peppers, julienned
5 habanero peppers, julienned
5 jalapeño peppers, julienned
1 yellow bell pepper, julienned
2 medium white onions, chopped
7 cloves garlic, minced
1 lb. spicy Italian sausage
3/4 lb. applewood smoked bacon
3-4 (28 oz.) cans of San Marzano tomatoes
Vegetable oil
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. cayenne pepper (or to taste)
1 tsp. smoked paprika
1 tsp. dried oregano
Salt & pepper, to taste
All-purpose flour (optional)

Directions:
1. Using a sauté pan, heat oil to medium heat and add garlic. Simmer garlic for one minute; add peppers and onions and sauté until onions are translucent and peppers are heated yet crisp (not soggy). Place in cooking pot (without heat).
2. In another pan, brown sausage, adding salt and pepper to both. Drain grease.  Add to cooking pot.
3. Cook bacon. Drain grease. Chop. Add to cooking pot.
4. Add tomatoes straight from the can to cooking pot. Break up tomatoes with cooking spoon into bite-size pieces, but not so much that you have created a sauce.  Add up to all 4 cans to cooking pot, depending on your desired consistency.
5. Add all spices to taste, using a smaller amount of oregano than the first three on the list and then salt and pepper to taste.
6. Simmer everything in cooking pot on low-medium heat for 3-4 hours to allow flavors to come together.
7. Serve with flour tortillas, cheese, onions, sour cream, and chives.

debdoozles-chili

Simple to make and full of flavor – no wonder it got 5 stars on allrecipes.com!

Debdoozie’s Blue Ribbon Chili
This is one of the easiest and tastiest chili recipes out there!
Ingredients:
2 lbs. ground beef
1/2 onion, chopped
1 tsp. ground black pepper
1/2 tsp. garlic salt
2 1/2 cups tomato sauce
1 (8 oz.) jar salsa (mild, medium. or hot, depending on your taste)
1 pkg. chili seasoning mix
1 (15 oz.) can light red kidney beans
1 (15 oz.) can dark red kidney beans

Directions: In a large Dutch oven over medium heat, combine ground beef and onion; sauté for 10 minutes or until meat is browned and onion is tender. Drain grease. Add black pepper, garlic salt, tomato sauce, salsa, chili seasoning mix, and kidney beans. Mix well, reduce heat to low and simmer for at least one hour. Serves 8.
Recipe and photo from allrecipes.com.

For True Texas Chili, try this recipe from epicurious.com.

Skyline Chili 3-way
Wondering how chili tastes with spaghetti? Here’s a recipe for Cincinnati “Skyline” Chili from americanfoodroots.com.

Go meatless with this Contest-Winning Vegetarian Chili from Taste of Home.

Now that I’ve enticed you with all these amazing recipes, it’s time to indulge your chili cravings!

Find more great comfort food recipes on our Smart Perks Pinterest Board!

Smart Perks blogger Catherine B. likes to get out and enjoy the fall weather, but when winter comes she’d rather hibernate.

4 Deliciously Different Things to Do with Zucchini

If you have an overabundance of zucchini in your garden, you’re probably thinking “what the heck am I going to do with it all?” Yeah, I’ve been there and I know from experience that if you don’t pick them soon enough, your zucchini will turn into overripe, torpedo-size gourds!

Sure, we joke about leaving bags of the green stuff on neighbors’ doorsteps and using giant zucchini as door stops, but the truth is there are so many wonderful ways to prepare summer squash, you’ll wish you had more!

Let’s start with these amazing recipes!

zucchini shrimp scampi

This savory shrimp scampi uses spiralized zucchini in place of pasta and has only 214.3 calories per serving! 

Zucchini Shrimp Scampi (Serves 4)
Ingredients:
2 tbsp. unsalted butter
1 lb. medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes, or more, to taste
1/4 cup chicken stock
Juice of 1 lemon
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1-1/2 lbs. (4 medium-size) zucchini, spiralized
2 tbsp. freshly grated Parmesan
2 tbsp. chopped fresh parsley flakes

Directions: Melt butter in large skillet over medium-high heat. Add shrimp, garlic and red pepper flakes. Cook, stirring occasionally, until pink, about 2-3 minutes. Stir in chicken stock and lemon juice, season with salt & pepper. Bring to simmer. Stir in zucchini noodles until well combined, about 1-2 minutes. Serve immediately, garnished with Parmesan and parsley, if desired.
Recipe and photo courtesy of Damn Delicious.

Watch this video on how to spiralize zucchini.
Don’t have a spiralizer? Shop for one now at Amazon.com.

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Try this good-tasting, good-for-you snack with your favorite dip!

Baked Parmesan Zucchini Crisps   
Ingredients:
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups Panko breadcrumbs
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 zucchinis, thinly sliced to about 1/4 inch-thick rounds
3 large eggs, beaten
1 tsp. dried oregano
Salt & pepper
Directions:
1. Lay out paper towels and place zucchini slices on the paper towels. Sprinkle zucchini with salt on both sides. Cover zucchini slices with more paper towels and press down. Leave for 20 minutes. Paper towels should be wet and zucchini slices fairly dry.
2. Preheat oven to 400° F. Line large baking sheet with parchment paper.
3. In a shallow plate, combine Panko breadcrumbs, Parmesan cheese, oregano, salt & pepper; set aside.
4. In a 2nd shallow plate, add flour seasoned with salt & pepper.
5. In a 3rd plate, beat eggs with salt & pepper.
6. Dredge zucchini slices in flour, dip into eggs then dredge in Panko mixture, pressing to coat.
7. Place zucchini slices on prepared baking sheet. Repeat until all zucchini rounds are done. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes, or until zucchini rounds are golden and crispy. Serve with your favorite dip.  (We like it with ranch dressing.)
Recipe from jocooks.com.

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This yummy zucchini quiche is easy to make and there’s bacon in it… need I say more?

Zucchini Bacon Quiche (Serves 6-8)
Ingredients:
1 tube (8 oz.) refrigerated crescent rolls
2 tsp. prepared mustard
6 bacon strips, diced
3 cups thinly sliced zucchini (about 1-1/4 lbs.)
1 medium onion, chopped
2 eggs, lightly beaten*
2 cups (8 oz.) shredded mozzarella cheese*
2 tbsp. dried parsley flakes
1/2 tsp. pepper
1/4 tsp. garlic powder
1/4 tsp. dried oregano*
1/4 tsp. dried basil*

Directions:
1. Separate crescent dough into eight triangles; place in a greased 10” pie plate with points toward the center. Press dough onto the bottom and up the sides of plate to form a crust; seal perforations. Spread with mustard.
2. In a large skillet, cook bacon over medium heat until crisp. Remove to paper towels; drain, reserving 2 tablespoons of drippings. Sauté zucchini and onion in drippings until tender. In a large bowl, combine eggs, cheese, seasonings, bacon and zucchini mixture. Pour into crust.
3. Bake at 375° for 25-30 minutes or until a knife inserted near the center comes out clean. Cover edges loosely with foil if pastry browns too quickly.
*I changed this Taste of Home recipe by adding an extra egg and replacing mozzarella with Colby Jack cheese and dried basil/oregano with Adobo seasoning. My husband devoured it!

Southwest Zucchini Boats

These fun zucchini boats are packed with flavor and they’re healthy, too!

Southwest Zucchini Boats (Serves 4)
Ingredients:
4 medium zucchini
1 lb. ground beef
3/4 cup salsa
1/4 cup dry bread crumbs
1/4 cup minced fresh cilantro
1 tsp. chili powder
1/2 tsp. ground cumin
1/4 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. pepper
1 cup (4 oz.) shredded Monterey Jack cheese, divided

Directions:
1. Cut zucchini in half lengthwise; cut a thin slice from the bottom of each with a sharp knife to allow zucchini to sit flat. Scoop out pulp, leaving 1/4″ shells.
2. Place shells in an ungreased 3-qt. microwave-safe dish. Cover and microwave on high for 3 minutes or until crisp-tender; drain and set aside.
3. Meanwhile, in a large skillet, cook beef over medium heat until no longer pink; drain. Remove from heat; stir in salsa, bread crumbs, cilantro, chili powder, cumin, salt, pepper and 1/2 cup cheese. Spoon into zucchini shells.
4. Microwave, uncovered, on high for 4 minutes. Sprinkle with remaining cheese. Microwave 3-4 minutes longer or until cheese is melted and zucchini are tender. Serve with sour cream if desired.
Photo and recipe from Taste of Home.

Looking for something on the sweeter side? Check out these recipes for Chocolate Zucchini Bread and Cake from my 8/4/15 blog post.

You’ll find tons more zucchini recipes on Pinterest too!

Smart Perks blogger Catherine B. is hoping these recipes will entice her husband to eat more vegetables. 

Go-To Recipes for End of Summer Get-Togethers

Summer may be winding down (can you believe we’re closing in on August already? Dang!), but chances are you still have a family reunion, picnic, backyard barbecue, or town celebration coming up, and then of course there’s Labor Day weekend. Whatever it is, you’ll probably be providing some kind of side or dessert to round out the meal and share with the group. You could go with the usual macaroni salad or bars from a box, but why not shake things up and impress your relatives or friends with something totally unexpected?

If you’re looking for something different and delicious to bring to the table, I’ve got some recipes you should definitely try!

calico beans

Calico Beans beats basic baked beans any day! Photo courtesy of crockpotladies.com

Calico Beans 
Ingredients:
1/2 lb. bacon, in pieces
2 lbs. ground beef
1 cup chopped onions
1 cup chopped celery
1 (16 oz.) can baked beans in tomato sauce
1 (15-1/2 oz.) can kidney beans
1 (16 oz.) can butter beans
1 cup ketchup
3 tbsp. vinegar
1 tsp. dry mustard
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 tsp. salt
Directions: Fry bacon pieces; remove from grease. Brown ground beef. Add onions and celery at end of browning. In baking dish, combine remaining ingredients; add bacon and ground beef mixture. Bake covered at 350° F for 45 minutes or for 6-8 hours on low in a slow cooker.

coleslaw

More zesty and colorful than classic coleslaw! 

Sweet-and-Sour Coleslaw 
Ingredients:
4 cups chopped or shredded cabbage (I buy the kind in a bag)
1/2 medium red bell pepper, chopped
1/2 medium green bell pepper, chopped
1 tbsp. jalapeño pepper, chopped
1/2 cup thinly sliced green onions
1/4 cup cilantro, chopped
1 small can cooked corn kernels, cooled
Dressing:
1/3 cup rice vinegar
1/3 cup sugar
Salt to taste
Directions: Place cabbage, peppers, onions, cilantro, and corn in a large bowl. Mix vinegar, sweetener, and salt in a small bowl, add to cabbage mixture and toss well. Chill before serving.   Recipe and photo from allrecipes.com

cowboy caviar 3

Why settle for regular salsa when you can dip your chips in Cowboy Caviar? Photo courtesy of culinaryhill.com

Cowboy Caviar  
Ingredients:
1 can garbanzo beans – drained and rinsed
1 can pinto beans – drained and rinsed
1 can black beans – drained and rinsed
1 can white corn – drained
4 stalks celery
1 green, 1 yellow & 1 red pepper – chopped
1 small red onion – chopped
Dressing
1 cup canola oil
½ cup vinegar
½ cup sugar
Directions: Boil dressing ingredients together. Mix dressing with bean/veggie ingredients and refrigerate overnight.

caprese salad

A light, refreshing Italian salad that’s easy to make and simply delish! 

Caprese Salad 
Ingredients:
2 lbs. assorted fresh tomatoes, chopped
1 lb. cubed mozzarella
1 cup chopped celery
1 cup chopped fresh basil
1/3 cup olive oil
2 tbsp. red wine vinegar (I use balsamic vinegar)
Salt & pepper to taste
Directions: Toss ingredients together and chill before serving.
Photo and recipe from Foodnetwork.com

snow cone cupcakes

These snow cone treats are actually cupcakes, which means they won’t melt! Photo courtesy of lovefromtheoven.com

Snow Cone Cupcakes
You’ll find all kinds of recipes for these and other clever summer-theme cupcakes on Pinterest!

Deviled Eggs are always a hit at summer parties, but instead of going with the same old mayo and mustard recipe, try one of these Unique Deviled Egg Toppings!

Looking for handy ways to store, serve and carry your food & beverages?  Check these out:

snap and stack 2Snapware® Snap ‘N Stack Food Storage Eggtainer
Ideal for picnics and potlucks, this multi-use tote has two removable egg holders for deviled eggs and stackable containers for bars or cookies. Buy it now at boscovs.com

 

crock potCrock-Pot Oval 7 Quart Red Slow Cooker with Travel Bag
Perfect for hot appetizers, entrees, and side dishes (like Calico Beans!). Comes with a travel bag for easy toting to summer parties. Buy it now at shopko.com

cooler
Rubbermaid 60-Quart Wheeled Cooler

Keep beverages cold on the go with this roomy, easy-to-maneuver cooler. It holds up to 62 cans with ice, plus has built-in cup holders. Buy it now at homedepot.com

Enjoy!

Smark Perks Blogger Catherine B. loves summer. She just wishes it lasted longer (if only she could say the same for winter!).

Get Grilling with Tasty Recipes and Helpful Hints

Grill

Summer’s almost here and that means we’ll be grilling like crazy. After all, the backyard barbecue is not only an easy and popular way to cook and entertain this time of year, everything just tastes better when it’s fresh off the grill — burgers, brats, ribs, steak, pork, poultry, seafood, potatoes, vegetables, even fruit!

Self-proclaimed grill masters like my husband will tell you that it takes time, practice and a little trial and error to prepare the perfect medium-rare rib eye or lightly charred chicken. But, having the right tools and info upfront will help you hone your barbecuing skills and avoid potential disasters, like setting your garage on fire or under-cooking your entree.

Since I’m not an expert on the subject (nor admittedly is my husband), I’ve included a few web links for grilling guidelines, recipes, resources, and more.

kingsford.com — sponsored by Kingsford (the only brand of charcoal we’ll use), this site offers an impressive collection of recipes, ideas and techniques from professional outdoor chefs.

best-grilling-tips-and-recipes.com — the folks behind this site searched high and low to compile some of the greatest outdoor grilling recipes and tips available online.

BBQGuys.com — in addition to being an excellent online resource for quality grills, smokers and grilling tools, these guys provide insights, articles, instructional videos, and loads of inspiration to help you become a master griller.

And now for some enticing recipes…

raw salmon filet

Make your salmon more savory with select herbs, lemon, olive oil and garlic – I get requests for this recipe all the time!

Herb-Crusted Salmon
Ingredients:
Four fresh or frozen salmon fillets (skin-on), 3/4″ thick
1/3 cup chopped fresh oregano
1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1/4 cup sliced green onions
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
2 tsp. olive oil
1/4 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. pepper

Directions: Thaw salmon fillets, if frozen. Rinse and pat dry with paper towels. Combine oregano, cilantro, green onion, garlic, lemon juice, oil, salt and pepper in food processor or blender. Cover and process until chopped. (Or, use a knife to finely chop oregano, cilantro, green onion and garlic. Transfer to a shallow bowl, then stir in lemon juice, oil, salt and pepper.) Generously coat both sides of salmon with herb mixture. Place salmon, skin-side-down, on clean, lightly oiled grill rack directly over medium-hot coals or preheated gas grill. Cook until salmon is brown on the outside and flakes easily with a fork (about 6-8 minutes per side), turning fish once halfway through grilling. If there’s any skin left on the salmon after grilling, remove it before serving.
Need help grilling salmon? Click here for tips.

Grilled Asparagus

grilled asparagus

You may not be a fan of the green spears, but you will be after sampling these!

Ingredients:
1 lb. fresh asparagus spears
1 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
3 tbsp. balsamic vinegar
Sea salt
Cracked black pepper

Directions: Snap off tough (woody) ends of asparagus. Lightly season with salt and pepper and place in a shallow bowl. Cover with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Marinate for 1 hour, turning asparagus frequently. Preheat grill and place asparagus spears on clean, lightly oiled grill rack. Cook 4-5 minutes on each side until asparagus is tender with a fork. Turn often so they brown on all sides. Remove from grill and serve immediately. Yields 4 servings. Variation: Omit the vinegar and sprinkle asparagus with lemon juice and Parmesan cheese.

Pineapple Chicken Kabobs

Grilled chicken with pineapple

Looking for something different to do with chicken, I found this recipe from Mum’s the Word on Yummly.

Ingredients:
1 lb. chicken breasts cut up into large bite sized (approx. 1″) chunks
1 fresh ripe pineapple (canned is okay, but fresh is better), cut into bite sized chunks
1 red onion, sliced into 1″ pieces
1 tsp garlic powder
1 Tbsp. brown sugar
1/2 tsp. ground ginger
1/2 tsp. black pepper
1 Tbsp. oil (vegetable or canola)
2 Tbsp. water
1/4 cup low sodium soy sauce

Directions: In a medium sized bowl, combine garlic powder, brown sugar, ground ginger, black pepper, oil, water & soy sauce. Whisk vigorously for 1 minute until combined. Add chicken and mix until chicken is coated with sauce. Dump entire contents into a gallon sized zip lock bag (or cover bowl with saran wrap) and marinate in  refrigerator for 3-4 hours, mixing contents of bag/bowl every hour to ensure even marinade. Place wooden skewers in a pan of water and allow them to absorb the water while chicken is marinating. When chicken is done marinating, alternately skewer pineapple, onions and chicken until skewers are full, leaving 2″ on each end. Spray grill with a non-stick spray and place skewers on grill rack. Cook for 10-15 minutes or until chicken is done, rotating every 5 minutes to ensure even grilling. Serve immediately over rice. NOTE: I add extra raw veggies like bell peppers (cut into chunks) and cherry tomatoes.

Steak Marinade
Ingredients:
1/2 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup olive oil
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
3 tbsp. red wine vinegar
Dash of fresh pepper

Directions: Mix ingredients together in a bowl. Place marinade in a large freezer bag with steak, coating steak completely. Seal bag and refrigerate for 8-12 hours or overnight. Discard marinade and grill steak to desired doneness.

Make your own wood chips to infuse grilled food with a delightful wood-smoke flavor
We’ve always enjoyed that smoky, barbecue-y flavor you get from grilling with charcoal and my husband found a way to enhance it. Whenever he prunes/trims our apple trees, he cuts the trimmed branches into thumb-size (about 1″) chunks. Leaving the barks on, he lets the wood chunks dry for a couple of weeks then places several directly in with the charcoal briquettes. (Experts recommend soaking wood chips in water for a few minutes first for a slower burn.) Of course you can always get wood chips from the store, but why buy ’em if you don’t have to!  Click here for ways to use wood chips on gas grills. 

Here’s to a fun and flavorful Memorial Day weekend!

SAVE 78% on steak, chicken, burgers and more for grilling with this deal from Omaha Steaks – use promo code 44644KXS at check out to get your discount. 

Smart Perks Blogger Catherine B. loves just about anything from the  grill and the fact that someone else does the cooking for a change.

Appealing Banana Recipes

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The other day a few co-workers and I were discussing the ideal ripeness of bananas. Some of us like them best when the pulp is a bit firm and the peel is all yellow with green tips. Others prefer to eat them when the banana is a little mushy and the skin is covered with brown specks, which is apparently more flavorful and better for you. One thing we agreed on is how quickly this sweet, delectable fruit can go from bright green and barely ripe to dark brown and slimy.

Our conversation got me thinking about all the bananas I’ve wasted over the years because they were past their prime. Silly me, I could have used them in tasty treats like banana bread, banana bars or banana muffins!

Granted I don’t bake much, but I decided I needed to find ways to salvage overripe bananas (I have a habit of buying a bunch and forgetting to eat them until it’s too late). I’ve included some recipes here and I guarantee you’ll go bananas over them! (Sorry, I had to slip that in there.)

Banana Streusel Muffins (Yields 1 dozen)

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Tweak the recipe a bit to go from Banana Streusel to Banana Nut Muffins!

Ingredients:
1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. salt
3 large very ripe bananas, mashed
¾ cup sugar
1 egg, lightly beaten
½ cup butter, melted
Topping:
1/3 cup packed brown sugar
1 tbsp. all-purpose flour
1/8 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tbsp. cold butter

Directions: Preheat oven to 375ºF.  In a large bowl, combine dry ingredients. In a separate bowl, combine bananas, sugar, egg and butter; mix well. Stir into dry ingredients just until moistened. Fill greased or paper-lined muffin cups three quarters full. Combine the first three topping ingredients; cut in butter until crumbly. Sprinkle over muffins. Bake for 18-20 minutes or until muffins test done with toothpick. Cool pan on for 10 minutes before removing muffins.

Variation: use the same recipe for Banana Nut Muffins only skip the topping and add a half cup of chopped walnuts to the batter before baking.

 Recipe courtesy of Taste of Home

Gluten-Free Banana Bread with Blueberries
A co-worker brought this bread in one day (his wife’s recipe) and if he hadn’t told me beforehand, I never would have guessed it was gluten-free!

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Who knew gluten-free bread could taste so good?

Ingredients
2 cups gluten-free baking flour – click here for a guide to gluten-free flours
1 tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. salt
½ cup butter, softened
1 cup white sugar
2 eggs
2 tbsp. vanilla extract
2 ripe bananas, mashed
1 cup fresh blueberries

Directions: Preheat oven to 350ºF. Grease large loaf pan. In a medium bowl, mix together Flour Blend, baking soda and salt. In a large bowl, beat butter and sugar with an electric mixer until light and fluffy (the color will be lighter too). Add 1 egg and blend with butter mixture before adding the second egg and vanilla extract. Beat mashed bananas thoroughly into the mixture. Add flour mixture in small increments while beating until combined into a thick batter. Fold blueberries into the batter and pour into loaf pan. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Let pan sit for 10 minutes before removing bread and cooling on a wire rack.

banana bars

These bars are so moist and delicious they melt in your mouth!

Banana Bars with Cream Cheese Frosting

Ingredients:
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup mashed very ripe bananas (2 medium)
1/3 cup vegetable oil
2 eggs
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. salt
Cream Cheese Frosting
1 package cream cheese, softened
1/3 cup butter or margarine, softened
1 tsp. vanilla
2 cups powdered sugar

Directions: Heat oven to 350°F. Grease bottom and sides of rectangular pan, 13x9x2 inches, with shortening. In large bowl, mix granulated sugar, bananas, oil and eggs with spoon. Stir in flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon and salt. Spread in pan. Bake bars 25 to 30 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool completely, about 1 hour. Meanwhile, in medium bowl, mix cream cheese, butter and vanilla with electric mixer on medium speed until blended. Gradually beat in powdered sugar with spoon, scraping bowl occasionally, until smooth and spreadable. Spread cooled bars with Cream Cheese Frosting. Store covered in refrigerator.

Recipe & photo from Bettycrocker.com

Fried Banana & Peanut Butter Sandwich
A favorite of Elvis Presley (and my husband) – it’s like a grilled cheese sandwich only with peanut butter and bananas. Sounds like a weird combo, but it’s actually pretty good!

Ingredients:
2 slices white bread
2 tsp. butter
1 small ripe banana, peeled and sliced
2 tbsp. creamy peanut butter

Directions: Spread peanut butter on one side of bread slice. Top with sliced banana. Cover with other slice of bread and butter both sides. Heat skillet over medium heat and fry the sandwich on each side until golden brown and peanut butter is melted, about 4 minutes.

Check out our Sweet Tooth board on Pinterest for other appealing banana recipes & more!

FINAL NOTE: Instead of tossing the banana peels, save them for composting!

Enjoy!

Smart Perks Blogger Catherine B. loves fresh fruit. She just needs to remind herself to snack on berries, grapes or bananas instead of junk food.

Photos by Mary Haehn.

 

The Perfect Mother’s Day Meal

spring veggies

Was your mother always begging you to “Eat your vegetables!” like mine was? As a kid, I had no interest. Boiled Brussels sprouts and canned green beans? Blegh, no thank you. But between growing up and developing a more nuanced palate and finding new ways to cook vegetables in the current veggie-centric food world, I’ve become a veggie (and fruit!) fiend.

So mama, this one’s for you – here’s your Mother’s Day menu chockfull of those greens and things that abound in spring.

Though technically spring started in March, let’s get real: if you live anywhere in the northern or eastern states, you’re only now getting to really experience this awesome season. The beautiful greenery, fresh flowers, spring vacations, those warm but not hot days, and my favorite part of spring – the produce!

Asparagus, apricots, artichokes, fava beans, leeks, radishes, rhubarb, peas, carrots…  it truly is the best time of year for a fruit and veggie lover like me.

There are so many different options for how to use the spring crop bounty, but where to begin? It feels like for every time I see a new recipe I’m dying to try, the next day I find three new ones, and then they all just get lost in the bookmarks and I never end up making them!

But fear not. You don’t have to suffer the same sad fate as me, where I’ve followed the instructions to a t only to be left with starchy asparagus or smushy peas. Here is a menu collection of my favorite spring recipes – starting with an appetizer, ending with a dessert – that are as tried and true as can be. You won’t be wasting your precious spring veggies and fruits on disastrous recipes…just the absolute best ones.

Appetizer: Cauliflower-Leek Soup

leek soup

Photo from AllRecipes.com

I like this recipe for two reasons: 1) it switches out starchy potatoes for cauliflower, lowering the carb count, and 2) it’s pretty much as simple as sautéing a few ingredients and tossing them in the blender. Although this recipe calls for a warm soup, I actually have preferred serving it chilled, but both work.

Ingredients:

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 3 leeks, cut into 1 inch pieces
  • 1 large head cauliflower, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 8 cups vegetable broth
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 1 cup heavy cream (optional)

Directions:

Heat the olive oil and butter in a large pot over medium heat, and saute the leeks, cauliflower, and garlic for about 10 minutes. Stir in the vegetable broth, and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer 45 minutes.

Remove the soup from heat. Blend the soup with an immersion blender or hand mixer. Season with salt and pepper. Mix in the heavy cream, and continue blending until smooth.

 

Entrée: Crispy Catfish Sandwiches with Quick Cabbage Slaw, Plus Simple Spring Salad

sandwich

Yes, there is a bite taken out of the sandwich. Don’t judge me!

This is a personal recipe I based on a dish I had at a restaurant, and I’ve tweaked it over and over just to my liking. What’s great about it is you could totally substitute another flaky fish if you’d like, or even thin chicken cutlets, and although it is fried, the batter is so light it feels just indulgent enough without being heavy.

Plus, the salad is more than flexible – I’ve swapped radicchio for romaine, fresh French beans for radish, and tried a variety of dressings, though I’m partial to this vinaigrette.

Ingredients:

  • 1-3 whole French baguettes, or individual sub rolls per person depending on size of party
  • 1 catfish fillet per person
  • 1 cup shredded red cabbage
  • 1 lime
  • 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon creamy Dijon mustard
  • ½ cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon each cayenne, garlic powder, onion salt, paprika, and cumin
  • 2 hearts of Romaine (or lettuce of your choice)
  • 4-5 thinly sliced radishes
  • Handful of multicolored halved cherry tomatoes
  • Simple lemon vinaigrette dressing
  • Note: will use extra mayonnaise from side dish in this dish

Directions:

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. In a large bowl, mix the flour, 5 tablespoons of water, and half of the spice mixture, plus salt and pepper. In another bowl, mix shredded cabbage, the juice of the lime, the apple cider vinegar and the mustard, stirring well. Then place in fridge. On a dry plate pat the catfish dry. In a nonstick skillet, add just enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan on medium heat. Test the temp of the oil by adding a tiny drop of water; if it sizzles, you’re good to go.

Dredge the catfish in the flour mixture, then add to the nonstick skillet. Cook the catfish 4-7 minutes on each side, checking that it’s not burning or sticking but just turning golden brown and crispy. Once cooked, place on clean, paper towel-lined plate, and season with salt and pepper again.

Cut the bread of your choice, and toast in preheated oven gently, just until edges are turning a warm brown. Add the cleaned romaine (or other lettuce), thinly sliced radishes, and the tomatoes to the plate. Drizzle vinaigrette on top; add a grind or two of fresh black pepper. I like to garnish with finely chopped herbs, such as oregano, chives, or basil, but feel free to leave out.

Spread mayonnaise on toasted bread, add catfish fillet, topping with the quick cabbage slaw and serve warm with the side salad.

Side Dish: A Cozy Kitchen’s Roasted Asparagus

Asparagus_2

Photo from A Cozy Kitchen.

This is an easy to make side that truly stuns (if you like asparagus, that is). Here, we’re doubling the recipe for the hazelnut mayo, adding half to the catfish sandwich. Trust me, it works, but if you have nut allergy concerns, just omit the hazelnuts. Also note: she calls for white asparagus, but I made it with only green and it works wonderfully; though she uses an immersion blender, I’ve used a regular blender and everything turned out fine.

Ingredients:

  • 2 whole large eggs
  • *1 cup sunflower or grape seed oil (a clean, mild-tasting oil)
  • *1/4 cup hazelnut oil (optional – if not using, then add 3/4 cup sunflower or grape seed oil)
  • Juice from 1 lemon
  • 4 teaspoon whole grain mustard
  • Salt
  • 3/4 pound green asparagus, washed and ends trimmed
  • 1/4 pound white asparagus, washed, ends trimmed and peeled
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Juice from 1/2 lemon

Directions:

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Place hazelnuts on a parchment-lined baking sheet and transfer to the oven to toast for 10 to 15 minutes. Immediately transfer warm hazelnuts to the center of a clean kitchen towel. Wrap the kitchen towel around the hazelnuts and rub them vigorously until all of the skins have fallen off. (A little bit of skin staying on is normal and totally fine.) Set nuts aside to cool.

Meanwhile, add the large eggs, sunflower or grape seed oil, hazelnut oil (if using), juice from lemon, mustard and a few pinches of salt to a tall plastic cylinder (note: most hand immersion blenders come with a tall plastic cylinder for blending). Allow the egg yolk to settle to the bottom. Using a hand immersion blender, stick the blade to the very bottom and blend on high for about 30 seconds; you’ll immediately see the mayonnaise begin to form. Slowly raise the immersion blender near the surface to incorporate all of the oil and until very thick. Salt to taste. In a food processor or using a knife, pulse the hazelnuts until they resemble a coarse meal, about 30 seconds. Add the aioli to the food processor and blend until completely incorporated and smooth(ish).

Preheat the broiler. On a baking sheet (you can use the same one you toasted the hazelnuts on), add the green asparagus in an even layer. Rub the asparagus with the olive oil, lemon juice and a few pinches of salt. Place the baking sheet under the broiler and roast for 5 minutes. At the 5-minute mark, add the white asparagus to the baking sheet. Place the baking sheet back under the broiler and roast for an additional 10 minutes. Serve the asparagus alongside the hazelnut mayonnaise.

Dessert: Smitten Kitchen’s Strawberry Rhubarb Pie

rhubarb pie

Photo from Smitten Kitchen.

You just have to end your meal on a sweet note. I tend to like more delicate little bits and pieces of treats, but my mom is a pie fanatic. This one perfectly walks the line between sweet and tart. Plus, it can be made up to 3 days in advance and left at room temperature, so you don’t have to worry about dessert the day of.

Ingredients:

  • 1 recipe All Butter, Really Flaky Pie Dough or double-crust pie dough of your choice
  • 3 1/2 cups (about 1 1/2 pounds, untrimmed) rhubarb, in 1/2-inch thick slices
  • 3 1/2 cups (about 1 pound) strawberries, hulled and sliced if big, halved if tiny
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/4 cup light brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 cup quick-cooking tapioca
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
  • 1 large egg yolk beaten to blend with 1 teaspoon water (for glaze)

Directions:

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. On a well-floured counter, roll half of pie dough into a 12-inch circle and carefully transfer to a 9-inch pie plate. (I like to fold my gently into quarters, to transfer it more easily, then unfold it in the pie plate.)

Stir together rhubarb, strawberries, sugars, lemon, salt and tapioca in a large bowl. Mound filling inside bottom pie crust and dot with bits of unsalted butter. Roll second half of pie dough into an 11-inch circle and cut decorative slits in it. Transfer it to center over the pie filling. Trim top and bottom pie dough so that their overhang beyond the pie plate lip is only 1/2-inch. Tuck rim of dough underneath itself and crimp it decoratively.

Transfer pie to a baking sheet and brush egg yolk mixture over dough. Bake for 20 minutes then reduce temperature to 350 degrees and bake for an additional 25 to 30 minutes, until the pie is golden and the juices bubble visibly.

Transfer pie to wire rack to cool. When full cool (several hours later) the juices gel.

So, just to recap: This menu has cauliflower, leek, cabbage, lettuce, radish, tomatoes, asparagus, lemon, strawberries AND rhubarb. Is that enough veggies (and two fruits!) for you, Mom?

Whether you make this full meal or just some of the recipes, you’re sure to host a home-run Mother’s Day luncheon. Just don’t forget the wine and spritzers!

wine and flowers

Katie U., a Smart Perks employee, wishes all mothers a wonderful Mother’s Day.

 

Keep Calm and Cook On

 

Happy woman cook with okay sign, close up

I love to cook and I must admit I’m pretty good at it, but there are some things I’m not so good at, like peeling hard-boiled eggs without leaving divots. (If you were to rate my deviled eggs I’d probably get 8 or 9 in taste and a 1 in appearance!) I have the same problem getting the skin off tomatoes! It’s so aggravating, not to mention I end up wasting a lot of food in the process. I must say though that chopping onions is probably one of my least favorite things to do – even if I use a food chopper, I still get the tears and that strong “onion smell” on my hands.

I’m sure a lot of you can relate to my kitchen faux pas and frustrations. Fortunately I came across some helpful hints to make cooking and preparing foods easier, faster and less stressful. Some are from my Grandma Vi, who was an excellent cook, and the rest I found online.

Give these tricks a try and be smarter (and happier) in the kitchen!

* Avoid “onion tears” by placing the onion in the freezer for at least 30 minutes before slicing it. To get rid of the “onion smell”, try soaking your hands in lemon juice for 3 minutes, then rinse them in cold water.

* To easily peel skin off tomatoes, dip the tomato in a pan of boiling water for a few seconds, then stick a fork in the stem and use a paring knife to remove the skin.

Lemon and lemon zest with grater* For lemon zest, freeze the lemon and when a recipe calls for it, just grate the rind from the frozen lemon.

* Use an ice pick to peel and de-vein shrimp. Just run the pick down the back toward the tails and presto… the shell and vein are gone in one step!

* To keep apple slices from turning brown, soak them in a bowl of cold lemon water (1 tbsp. of lemon juice for 1 cup of water).

* Thaw frozen fish in milk to take away the “freezer taste”. Soaking fish in milk for 30 minutes or so will also neutralize that strong “fishy” taste and odor.  After removing fish from the milk, just pat dry with a paper towel and discard milk before cooking the fish.

fresh raspberries spilling out of their pint container

There’s nothing like fresh berries!

* To make fresh berries last longer and keep them from getting moldy, wash them in a water/vinegar solution (3 cups water + 1 cup vinegar), then store in paper towel-lined containers in your refrigerator.

* Prevent brown sugar from drying out by storing it in an air-tight container with a slice of bread.

* Keep celery crisp in your fridge for weeks by wrapping clean, dry stalks tightly in aluminum foil.

* Thinly slice raw meat, poultry or pork when it’s slightly frozen.

* If you want your fried chicken or potatoes golden-brown and crispy, avoid overcrowding the pan. It’s better to fry food in smaller batches or use two pans. The reason — food releases moisture as it cooks and you need to leave room for the moisture to escape.

* Add a small amount of uncooked rice to salt shakers and sugar containers to absorb moisture and prevent clumping. Also, instead of using your salt shaker to season food on the stove, place salt in a bowl and sprinkle it over the food.  Apparently the steam from cooking causes the salt to clump in your shaker too.

Boil egg in white plate on wooden background.

The end result when I try to de-shell a boiled egg.

Deviled Eggs

My goal – the perfect deviled egg.

* As for getting those stubborn shells off hard-boiled eggs… I found various tips on this and these seem to be the most commonly used methods. I put them to the test and voilá, the shells practically fell off!

  1. Start with eggs that are at least 7-10 days old as fresh egg whites tend to cling more to the inner shell.
  2. Place eggs in a pan of cool water (make sure they’re covered completely). Add about 3 tbsp. of salt and slowly heat to boiling – this will prevent the eggs from cracking.
  3. After draining water from cooked eggs, tap both ends of the egg with a spoon and roll the egg over a hard surface, like a countertop, until it’s cracked all over. You can also shake the eggs in the pan until the shells crack. Both seem to work.
  4. Cover eggs in ice-cold water and let them cool down to room temperature. This helps loosen the membrane, making them easier to peel.
  5. Peel egg with your thumb, starting at the wider end where there’s an air pocket. Hold under running cold water to remove any remaining shell pieces.

One final tip: save those eggshells — they’re good for your garden, among other things. Find ideas on Pinterest.

That’s it for now – I don’t want to bombard you with too much info at once. keep calm and cook

Smart Perks Blogger Catherine B. enjoys preparing all kinds of dishes, but dreads the clean-up afterwards. She finds someone else to do it.