It’s a Cool, Cool Summer

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When I was young, one of the highlights of summer was the ice cream man coming to our neighborhood once a week to deliver sweet relief from the sweltering heat. We’d hear the familiar melodious sound of his truck down the block and dash into our houses to grab a few quarters from our piggy banks. By the time he stopped at our street we were ready with coins in hand, eagerly waiting to dig into orange cream bars, Push-up Pops, Eskimo Pies and sundae cups. Aaaahhh, those were the days.

Sadly the ice cream man wasn’t around when my kids were little. So, we’d get ice-cold goodies at the community pool, local DQ or the grocery store.

Now that I have grandchildren, I want to start a new tradition – creating our own refreshing frozen treats.

You’ll find a fabulous assortment of fun and colorful containers and contraptions to prepare and enjoy your favorite frosty creations.  Check these out…

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Ice Pop Molds – Make your own pudding, fruit, yogurt and juice pops with these handy little molds! Pick up a 6-Pc. Set now from Amazon!

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Zoku Ice Cream Maker – Whip up a bowl of fresh gourmet ice cream, gelato, sherbet or sorbet in less than 10 minutes!

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Ice Cream Bowls & Spoons – I love these cute little bowls with matching spoons! They’re perfect for picnics, birthday parties & summer celebrations. Get a set of 12 bowls & spoons for only $13.99 at Oriental Trading Company.

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Zoku Slush & Shake Maker – Use this specially-designed cup to mix up milkshakes, smoothies, iced coffee and floats, or turn your favorite soft drinks into slushies!

Here are some recipes you’ll want to try, too!

Chocolate Pudding Pops
Ingredients:
1 (3.9 oz.) pkg. instant chocolate pudding
2 cups milk
1 cup thawed whipped topping
Directions:  Beat ingredients with whisk for 2 minutes. Pour into ice pop molds (or you can use paper/plastic cups and wooden pop sticks). Freeze for 4-6 hours or until firm. To unmold, run water on the mold for a minute or so. (If using paper cups, peel paper off pops before serving). Variation: try other flavored puddings like vanilla or banana. Serves 6.
Recipe from Kraft.com

Fresh Fruit & Yogurt Pops
Ingredients:
2-1/2 cups plain vanilla yogurt (divided)
1 cup fresh blueberries
1 cup fresh raspberries
1 tbsp. honey
Directions: Mix honey and berries together in a bowl; set aside. In blender, combine 2 cups yogurt with berry mixture, blend until smooth. Fill ice pop molds a quarter full with yogurt and layer berry mixture on top. Freeze about 6 hours or until frozen. Serves 6.


Homemade Strawberry Ice Cream  
Ingredients:
1 pound strawberries
2 cups heavy cream
1 cup whole milk
1 cup sugar
Directions:
1) Wash and trim strawberries; cut into 1/4″ slices. Place half of sliced strawberries in food processor or blender and puree. Set aside both sliced and pureed strawberries.
2) Combine cream, milk and sugar in medium saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring until sugar is completely dissolved. Remove from heat and pour mixture into large bowl. Add strawberry puree and mix well. Cover with plastic wrap and chill in refrigerator until completely cool.
3) While cream mixture is chilling, dice remaining sliced strawberries into smaller pieces to mix into ice cream. Pour cooled cream mixture into Ice cream maker and process according to manufacturer’s instructions. Towards end of process, stir in diced strawberries. Transfer ice cream to airtight container and freeze for at least 2 more hours before serving. Makes approximately one quart.

See more ice cream recipes at RealSimple.com
Find ways to make smooth no-churn ice cream without a maker!

Hot Fudge Sauce
Ingredients:
2 cups powdered sugar
1 (12 oz.) can evaporated milk
1 cup chocolate chips (milk or semi-sweet)
1/2 cup (stick) butter
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
Directions: In saucepan, mix powdered sugar, evaporated milk, chocolate chips, and butter. Melt and bring to boil. Boil 8 minutes, stirring constantly. Stir in vanilla. Take off heat and serve over ice cream. Store in airtight container in refrigerator and reheat as needed. Makes 2 cups.

sundae closeup finalTop off your sundae with sprinkles, nuts, cherries, fresh fruit, candy pieces, pretzel bits, cookie crumbs, peanut butter, whipped cream… you name it!

Think Outside the Ice Box
Tickle your taste buds with unique flavor combos like brown butter & bacon, cilantro & lime and curry & mint – click here for recipes
Or, try this Miso Butterscotch Milkshake  (It seems like an odd combination – miso paste and ice cream? But, I’ve been told it’s surprisingly delicious, a perfect blend of sweet and salty.)

As you can see, the sky’s the limit when it comes to creating your own frozen treats. Here’s to a cool and sweet summer!

Smart Perks Blogger Catherine B. adores ice cream. If she didn’t care about calories, she could probably eat a carton of chocolate almond in one sitting.

 

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.

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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.

 

Meal Kits for Inspiration in the Kitchen

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I think we can all agree that simplifying weeknight meals is a top priority. Whether you’re a busy working parent or a retired Baby Boomer, trying to cook homemade dinners can be a real pain.

As a result, a lot of different meal  delivery kits have become popular in the past couple of years, such as Plated and Hello Fresh, but my go-to (and the most popular of the bunch) is called Blue Apron.

So what is it, you may ask?

Each week, you get mailed all of the ingredients (less salt, pepper and cooking oil) you will need to make a well-portioned meal, along with step-by-step recipe instructions with pictures. The services vary slightly, but in general, the meals are truly delicious while being reasonably priced (Blue Apron’s costs, for example, are $60 for 3 meals for 2 people, or 2 family style meals for 4 for $70).

Whereas some people who are new to cooking enjoy learning new techniques they never thought of before, I like trying ingredients I never would have purchased myself (chicken demi glace or the nut-spice mix dukkah, for instance).

Hello Fresh recipe

A recipe from Hello Fresh.

The team of Smart Perks is all about giving you the best bang for your buck, which is why I started meal delivery services in the first place. Shipping is free and you can cancel or skip weeks, but this way I’m not spending time driving to the grocery store, waiting in line behind the person writing a check while trying to calm their crying baby, and then ultimately making a meal that leaves leftover ingredients I won’t use.

Seriously, who among us finishes a whole head of cabbage in one meal, or the rest of the bag of arugula before it goes bad? It’s an awful feeling to throw away perfectly edible food because you didn’t use it before it spoils, and that’s a huge advantage to the carefully packaged individual portions of ingredients in meal delivery kits.

Now, on to the fun part: the meals themselves!

Since I already order Blue Apron, I chose to highlight one of their meals here, but I’m also including two sample recipes from the other major meal kit services. Hey, whatever floats your boat!

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Doesn’t this motivate you to try this dish?!

 

Blue Apron’s Trinidadian Chicken Curry with Coconut Grits and Collard Greens:

See what I mean about the recipes being exciting and different? I for one would never think to cook this meal on a Thursday night after a long day of working, exercising and volunteering, but here we are! Just cooking away at a fragrant Caribbean curry with toasted coconut and fresh lime and cilantro accents. Not exactly the type of meal I think of, but totally a dish I am happy to have in my repertoire. Warm, filling, and just the right amount of spice!

Ingredients:

  • 4 Boneless, Skinless Chicken Thighs
  • ¾ Cup Yellow Grits
  • 1¾ Cups Light Coconut Milk
  • 3 Cloves Garlic
  • 1 Bunch Collard Greens
  • 1 Lime
  • 1 Bunch Cilantro
  • 2 Tablespoons Dried Coconut Flakes
  • 1 Tablespoon Butter
  • 2 Teaspoons Trinidadian Curry Spice Blend (Curry Powder, Ground Nutmeg, Smoked Paprika, Dried Thyme, Ground Cumin & Ground White Pepper)
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The ingredients laid out for easy cooking.

Although I linked to the recipe, here are the basics:

Step 1 – Prepare all of your produce by washing and drying it. Combine the coconut milk, salt and 1.5 cups water in a medium pot and bring to a boil. Zest the lime, mince the rind, and quarter it. Pick the leaves off the collard greens and the cilantro, discarding stems. Peel and mince the garlic cloves. Dry off chicken and sprinkle on salt, pepper, and spice blend.

Step 2 – Cook the grits by slowly adding them to the boiling coconut milk mixture, then reducing the heat and whisking occasionally, cooking for 12 minutes. Turn the heat off, and add half of the butter and the lime zest, and salt and pepper. Keep covered.

Step 3 – As your grits cook, heat a nonstick pan until just hot. Add the coconut flakes and toast by stirring frequently for about 3 minutes. You’ll know they’re done when they’re golden brown. Then transfer to a plate.

Step 4 – Also while the grits are cooking, add 2 teaspoons of olive oil in the (now-empty) pan, adding the garlic and collard greens when it’s hot and seasoning with salt and pepper. Cook 2-4 minutes, and then transfer to a plate.

Step 5 – In the same pan used to cook the coconut and the collard greens, heat 2 teaspoons of olive oil until hot. Add the chicken and cook for 5-7 minutes, making sure to cook through. Turn off the heat, and then add: the rest of the butter, the juice of 2 of the lime wedges, 1 tablespoon of water, and salt and pepper to taste, stirring until combined (and mixing up the yummy brown bits from the bottom of the pan).

Step 6 –Divide coconut grits between two bowls, topping with the collard greens and pieces of chicken. Garnish with the coconut, cilantro and 2 leftover lime wedges.

Still not your thing? Try one of these recipes from Plated or Hello Fresh.

smoresS’mores Fondue – Can you say ‘yum?’ This Plated dish takes all of the elements of a delicious s’more and turns it into a one-pan delectable dessert in under 10 minutes. Crunchy toasted marshmallows sit atop chocolate ganache, just waiting for your graham crackers to dip themselves into the sticky treat. No campfire required.

Jamie’s Incredible Sicilian Eggplant Stew – This dish was created by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, a frequent Hello Fresh contributor. Combining rich eggplant with salty baby capers and olives, tart tomatoes and crunchy almond slivers all atop warm couscous certainly sounds like a brilliant idea.

For more recipe inspiration, check out the Smart Perks Pinterest page. Juicy Lucy cheese-stuffed meatballs, anyone? Be still my beating heart!

In the words of Julia Child, “No one is born a great cook, one learns by doing.” So try!

Blogger Katie U., a Smart Perks employee, can’t wait for her chicken curry leftovers for lunch.

Roman Holiday: A Trip to A Local Italian Market

Food is the stuff of life, right?

A good meal not only sustains us, it’s the heart of so many holidays, celebrations, and family get-togethers. The dinner date. Catching up with old friends. The client lunch. Meals are where we make memories, toast to health and happiness, and delight in the most tantalizing of flavors, as well as the fruits of someone’s labor, be it family or a professional chef.

Food reminds me of my heritage and family traditions. I am Serbian, and grew up with my Grandma baking potica, a traditional Serbian sweet bread made with walnuts and honey in a flaky brown and cream-colored spiral, and sarmas, a meat mixture wrapped in cabbage leaves boiled with tomato sauce, sauerkraut and Polish sausage for hours, at every Christmas dinner.

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My family came from a small iron ore-mining town with a large immigrant population and lots of different cultural delicacies. So we enjoyed baklava, spanokopita, porchetta, antipasto, fresh crusty Italian bread, spaetzle, hard salami and delicious salty cheeses.

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Foccacia

Now that my grandparents are gone, and I am living in a different city, I don’t eat the foods of my childhood every day. However, we still make our Serbian sarmas every other Christmas. It’s a big production, but luckily my Grandpa taught us all the little tips and tricks before he passed (like freezing the cabbage beforehand and then boiling the whole head, so the leaves peel off easily and whole).

When my husband and I are both so busy with work, and life is hectic, we just don’t always have the time or energy to shop for fresh ingredients, or spend a lot of time in preparing authentic ethnic cuisine on a weeknight. It’s much easier when a meal comes in a box, and you can just pop it in the oven or microwave. But so much of the heart, soul and emotional symbolism of eating a good meal is lost with this lifestyle.

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As much as I love grocery shopping (I always shop when hungry…gasp…so taboo) at a big chain grocery store, whenever I have the time, I visit my all-time favorite, family-owned, authentic Italian grocer – Cossetta’s. It’s more than a mere grocery run. It’s a full-sensory adventure. 12047167_1229474950412007_5034716741244026546_nThe smells, the bright colors…you’re transported from the neutral palettes of most everyday life.

In the late 1800’s a young man named Michael Cossetta came to St. Paul, Minnesota from Calabria, Italy, and settled in a little Italian neighborhood in St. Paul called the Upper Levee. By 1911, he opened a tiny food market called Cossetta’s, which drew customers from everywhere who appreciated his quality foods and genuine hospitality.11930928_1229474957078673_2699722492694218449_o

Since 1984, Cossetta’s has been known for its award-winning pizza, homemade sauces, handmade Italian sausages and welcoming staff.  Cossetta’s recently celebrated it’s 100-year anniversary, and the fourth-generation family decided to expand the tradition to include all the Old World sensations and offerings a customer could experience in Italy without actually traveling there.

It’s about an hour from my house, but well worth the trip. Since I don’t get to Cossetta’s frequently, I like to stock up, and freeze some things. Because everything is so fresh, I can’t help but buy all of the ingredients for at least three nights of Italian meals in a row.

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“Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.” The Godfather

Since most people (like me, with little self-discipline) are too busy devouring their meal to remember to save room for dessert, Cossetta’s has smartly located the impressive Pasticceria — their pastry shop, where you can purchase an authentic cannoli pastry like you would in Sicily— in front of the regular market.

Only after I’ve filled a box with all of my favorite cookies and splurged on a cake, I head to Cossetta’s full Italian Market , featuring everything you need to make an authentic Italian meal, from antipasti to pizza, bracciole to parmigiana, masterpieces with only the best imported or home-grown ingredients. 11998952_1229965397029629_5135466810060602391_nMost of the time, I take shortcuts by buying Cossetta’s freshly made dough and thick, spicy pizza sauce, and then topping with their chewy, salty fresh shredded mozzarella (pronounced Moot-za-relle by my Italian friend from Long Island), which I buy by the quart.12004140_1229474900412012_9185852308898427024_n

It’s so good that sometimes we can’t resist digging in to the shredded cheese before we get home. If I’m not up for cooking, I might take home a chef-prepared meal.

The meat market is full of the freshest cuts of meats with romantic Italian names, straight from Carmela Soprano’s kitchen. I always buy Cossetta’s meatball mix in bulk, pepperoni for our pizzas and sandwiches, hard salami, spicy sausage links for my pasta and gravy (Sauce? What’s that?) several porchettas (a pork roast covered in Italian spices and seasonings), Italian beef roasts, veal cutlets, and thinly cut and rolled bracciole.

12019778_1229475070411995_6510653163129296253_nWe love meatball subs on crusty, demi-baguettes, baked fresh that morning. It’s our first night meal. Meatballs on our baguette, covered in marinara and heaped with mozzarella, with parmesan sprinkled liberally on top, then placed under the broiler. Yummo!

Second night is pizza night.

The first Sunday is a roast. Because Sundays were always the day my Grandma made a roast for the family. And a spicy hot porchetta sandwich with pepperoncini peppers tastes great with a cold beverage and a football game on TV.

I know that Cossetta’s is our own local gem, but if you haven’t found a local ethnic grocer in your area, it’s probably because you haven’t looked. Whether it’s Greek, Mexican, Asian, or Ethiopian, I guarantee you will find a grocery store that will transport you to another place, a vacation destination in your own backyard. Fall is the perfect time to start stocking up for the winter ahead, when you’ll be so glad you have some delicious meals to look forward to.

So go, already! Mangia!

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Blogger Melanie B, a Smart Perks employee,  gained 10 pounds just writing this post.

Fall’s Here! How Do You Like Them Apples?

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Photo courtesy of Billie Jo Bylund, http://www.buffaloplaidstudio.com

“There’s something about autumn that wakes up our senses and reminds us to live.”  -unknown

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Photo courtesy of Billie Jo Bylund, http://www.buffaloplaidstudio.com

I know some of you may be mourning the end of summer, but I’m one of those people who actually looks forward to fall. It’s probably my favorite time of the year. In this part of the country, the air is crisp and cool (we call it sweater weather) and the leaves turn to brilliant hues of red, yellow and orange. We even take short road trips just to view the spectacular fall colors. I also like the sound of fallen leaves crunching under my shoes when I go hiking in the woods. And, as crazy as it sounds, I even like to rake them when they pile up in my yard! It’s one way to get outside and burn some calories at the same time! Another great thing about this season… football! I’m a huge fan of the sport and every year I keep hoping our team will finally come through for us. Go Vikings!

Cart full of apples after picking in orchard

Cart full of apples after picking in orchard

But, I must say one of my favorite fall pastimes is picking apples. Over the last 20 or so years, we’ve set aside one Saturday every September to visit the local orchard. It’s evolved into a family tradition of sorts. I’m not sure what I like best about the whole experience – the wagon rides, watching the kids yank fresh apples off the trees, or seeing how many Honeycrisps, Haralsons and Firesides we can cram into 3 or 4 bags. Of course, we have to stop at the gift shop on the way out to sample apple cider and purchase some homemade preserves, apple butter and caramel dip. Suffice it to say we make quite a haul on these apple picking excursions!

The fact is we always end up with way too many apples to fit in our fridge. And, because one can only consume so much fruit in a day, I try to find recipes for anything with apples in them… apple pie, apple crisp, apple fritters, apple strudel, apple cake, apple bars, apple sauce… I’m beginning to sound like that shrimp obsessed character in Forrest Gump!
I’ve included some of my favorite apple recipes here. Give them a shot and I guarantee you and your family will love every bite!

Easy Apple Pie (Makes one 9-inch pie)
Ingredients:
2 Prepared 9-inch pastry shells (one for the top, one for the bottom)
6-7 crisp, tart apples – cored, peeled and thinly sliced
3/4 cup sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/8 tsp. nutmeg
1/4 tsp. salt
2 tbsp. flour
Directions: Preheat oven to 450ºF. In a large bowl, combine sugar, spices and flour with apple slices. Arrange apple slices in center of pastry-lined pie pan; dot with butter. Cover with other pastry shell, press edges together to seal and flute. Cut even slits on top crust to let steam escape. Place pie on the lowest rack in oven and bake at 450ºF for 10 minutes. Reduce temperature to 350ºF and bake for 35-40 minutes longer or until apples are tender and crust is golden brown. Top each slice with a scoop of vanilla ice cream or serve with a slice of cheddar cheese, if desired.

Dutch Apple Crisp
Ingredients:
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup rolled oats
1 tsp. salt
3/4 cup melted butter
4 apples, cored, peeled and sliced
1 cup water
1 cup sugar
3 tbsp. corn starch
Directions: Preheat oven to 350ºF. In a large bowl, mix first 5 ingredients together with a pastry cutter or fork until crumbly. Set aside 1 cup for topping and spread the rest in the bottom of a 9″ x 13″ pan. Arrange apple slices over crumb mixture. In a small saucepan, bring water, sugar and corn starch to a boil and pour over apples. Top with remaining crumb mixture. Bake at 350 ºF for 55 minutes. Serve warm with a dollop of whipped topping or vanilla ice cream.

Check out this awesome recipe for Apple Pie Moonshine, courtesy of my friend Billie Jo. As the name suggests, it tastes just like apple pie! But, I must warn you this stuff really packs a punch! I’m guessing that’s why they call it “moonshine”?

Apple Pie Moonshine
Ingredients:
1-gallon apple cider
1-gallon apple juice
1-1/2 cups white sugar
2-1/2 cups brown sugar
8 cinnamon sticks
1-liter 190-proof grain alcohol.
Directions: Combine juice, cider, sugar and cinnamon and bring to a boil. Let the mixture cool and add the high proof liquor. Makes 9 quarts.

Click here for more fabulous apple recipes.

Here’s to a fun and flavorful fall!
Catherine B.

As much as blogger Cathy B, a Smart Perks employee, enjoys a nice fall apple-picking excursion, she prefers a trip to the winery even more!

From Garden to Table: Time to Get Your Zucchini On!

I love vegetables, especially if they’re fresh from the garden. This year, I can actually say we’ll be enjoying zucchini, cucumbers, green peppers, tomatoes, and sweet corn from our very own garden!

After 20 some years without one, it’s about time.

I have to give my husband all the credit as he did the tilling, planting and tending. In my defense, he’s semi-retired so he has the time to do it. I don’t.

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San Marzano tomatoes from blogger Mel B.’s garden last summer. She blanched, peeled, and froze these in Zip-Loc freezer bags to use in sauces throughout the fall and winter.

The tomatoes aren’t quite ripe yet (I can’t wait for BLTs! I also like them sliced with a bit of salt & pepper – my mouth is watering just thinking about it!)

The zucchini and cucumbers, on the other hand, are growing like crazy! In fact, my husband brought in a giant, blimp of a zucchini the other day. My first thought was, what the heck am I going to do with this?! Since I couldn’t exactly use it as a door stopper, I had to come up with other uses for this humongous summer squash. So, I searched online for recipes featuring zucchini as one of the main ingredients, and found the perfect recipe for Chocolate Zucchini Bread on allrecipes.com (see recipe below). I figured as long as there’s chocolate in it, my husband and son will eat it (make that devour it!).

Because I had a surplus of the green stuff, I made a double batch. I kept one cake-size pan of it at home and brought a loaf in to work to share. I must admit I’m not much of a baker (I don’t have the patience and usually make a huge mess in the kitchen), but I’m proud to say my zucchini bread was a big hit with both my family and co-workers.

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Chocolate Zucchini Bread

Ingredients
2 (1 ounce) squares unsweetened chocolate
3 eggs
2 cups white sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
2 cups grated zucchini
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips

Directions
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Lightly grease two 9×5 inch loaf pans. In a microwave-safe bowl, microwave chocolate until melted. Stir occasionally until chocolate is smooth.
2. In a large bowl, combine eggs, sugar, oil, grated zucchini, vanilla and chocolate; beat well. Stir in the flour baking soda, salt and cinnamon. Fold in the chocolate chips. Pour batter into prepared loaf pans.
3. Bake in preheated oven for 60 to 70 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of a loaf comes out clean.

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED © 2015 Allrecipes.com

This is my own recipe for a super-easy side dish you can whip up using fresh zucchini and tomatoes.

Zucchini & Tomato Parmesan

Ingredients:
3 medium-size zucchini, sliced
2 large tomatoes, chopped or 2 cans stewed tomatoes
1/2 cup diced onions
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 tbsp. olive oil
Italian seasoning (basil & oregano) to taste

Directions: In large skillet, sauté zucchini, tomatoes and onions in hot olive oil for 5 minutes. Add Parmesan cheese and seasoning. Stir to coat well. Serve hot.

Chocolate Zucchini Cake

This is a recipe that Smart Perks blogger Mel B. has been enjoying since she was a little girl. It was her grandmother’s recipe.

Ingredients:

1/2 cup margarine
1/2 cup oil
1/2 cup buttermilk or sour milk (milk w/lemon juice or vinegar 1/2 tbsp for 1/2 cup milk)
2 eggs
1 tbsp vanilla
1 3/4 cup sugar
2 1/2 cup flour
1 tbsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
5 tbsp. cocoa powder
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
2 cups grated zucchini

Topping: 1/3 cup chocolate chips, 1/3 cup brown sugar, 1/3 cup chopped walnuts

Directions: Combine dry ingredients with wet ingredients. Pour into 13 x 9 greased and floured cake pan. Sprinkle topping over all. Bake at 325 degrees for 45 minutes.

Even if you don’t have a garden of your own, you can find fresh zucchini and other healthy, delicious and home-grown produce at your local farmer’s market.

Whether your veggies are the fruits of your labor, or your local grower, enjoy the fresh taste of summer!

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Little dog, big zucchini. Home office dog, Beanie.

Smart Perks Blogger, Catherine B, a Smart Perks employee.