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!).

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…

pops

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.

 

Planning a Theme Party Doesn’t Have to Be a Circus

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The season of outdoor parties is upon us! Graduation parties, weddings, birthdays, showers…everyone loves a summer party.

And one glance at Pinterest or Instagram and you’ll immediately realize that theme parties are a huge trend.  If you’re a Pinterest fan, you have to admit it…you’ve spent many an hour perusing board after board of fabulous cakes, floral arrangements, magical barn weddings, and over the top, themed birthday bashes. From elaborate color-coordinated candy tables to amazing baby gender reveal cakes, social media can give you a serious case of party FOMO (fear of missing out).

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So when my friend’s french bulldog Louis was about to turn one, I said “Me! Me! Me! I want to host the party at my house.”  Yes, we threw his dog a birthday party. And it was spectacular. I thought I’d share some tips on planning a summer birthday, so you can dream big and ensure nobody and nothing will rain on your parade, so to speak. I’ll also share some of my favorite party planning resources.

Pick a theme you love. Something that excites your imagination. Something that expresses your personality. If you’re in love with your theme, you’ll have no trouble imagining creative ideas to implement it. Enthusiasm breeds inspiration.

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Create a Vision Board. Google is your friend. Seriously, what did we do before search engines? Type in your theme (in this case, circus party) and the word images and you’ll get tons of great ideas. Copy the images into one Word document, or print out pages to create a collage or stick in a party plan folder. Whatever works for you.  Whether you want to DIY or enlist the help of professionals, starting with a vision in mind of your perfect event will save you from feeling let down with your final result.

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Have a couple WOWS in mind. Or maybe just one. For instance, the Big Top Circus Cake was my WOW. I went to the bakery about 3 weeks in advance (I know my limitations, I am not a baker) and I went in with a sheet of paper showing 7-8 circus cakes I’d found on the Internet that I was madly in love with. The baker immediately brought me back to reality. “Do you want to pay for a wedding cake?” I was asked. Some of my ideas were “Cake Boss” HUGE and way out of my budget. But we started talking about what I could afford. Layer cakes were out. However, I had my heart set on a circus tent. We ended up with a big top cake that would serve 8, covered in fondant (which is more expensive) and a dozen cupcakes with plain frosting and sprinkles, which were considerably less expensive. I got the cake I dreamed of. After all, cake is the best part of the party, right?

What about the dogs you ask? Well, my friend found some inexpensive and awesome dog bone molds and simple dog-friendly cake recipes, and he made those himself. So two-leggers and four-leggers alike got to enjoy birthday cake!

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Have fun planning. It’s a party! We made this party fun for both the dogs and their humans. Treat bags included cookies for the dogs and colorful gum balls for the people. Plus, wacky props like foam rubber noses and other goofy favors that made for plenty of great photo-ops. And we didn’t forget the two-legged kids. They got cute little circus tattoos and animals!

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Create a big first impression. Whether guests or passers-by, you want to let people know where the party’s at!

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Encourage your guests to take part in the theme. They’ll want to come prepared to play along and have a good time, too!

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Location. Location. Location. With summertime outdoor events, you have to be prepared for anything weather-wise, and you must have a sense of humor about it. Outdoor parties are not for the faint of heart. Before our party our biggest concern was rain. We considered public parks with a covered picnic shelter, but no loose dogs were allowed. We drew the line at tent rentals for the dog party, and it was a prime graduation party weekend, so we had to compete with that from nearby rental stores. So, our fallback plans included the garage and the house as a last resort. In the end, it wasn’t the rain we needed to worry about. It was oppressive 90+ temps with a heat index around 100 degrees.  We made sure we had extra water and plenty of cold drinks and ice to keep humans and dogs hydrated. We borrowed box fans from everyone we knew and had them on the deck and in the garage. We also had two swimming pools out for the dogs to cool off. We ended up moving lunch and cake indoors because no one wants to eat in that kind of heat.

Make Memories. Once the guests arrive, accept that you’re on the roller coaster, you’re buckled in, and there’s nothing you can do now but hang on and enjoy the ride. Mishaps make memories. It’s hard to see it in the moment, but looking back you’ll be talking about the things that went wrong and laughing about them. It’s a party. ENJOY! If you’re having fun, I guarantee your guests will too!

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The birthday boy@ouiouilouis loved his Bark Box.

Favorite Party Supply Stores:

Big Dot of Happiness

Oh Happy Day

Oriental Trading

Shindigz

Party City

Smart Perks blogger, Melanie Bisson is a natural born clown.

 

 

 

 

 

Chill Out with Refreshing Summer Drinks

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There’s nothing like relaxing on your patio, deck or porch on a warm summer day with an ice cold beverage. You can always grab a beer or soda out of the fridge, but I have a better idea – mix up specialty drinks for two or invite friends over for cocktails! I’ve included easy recipes for delicious concoctions (some with and some without alcohol) that are sure to satisfy your taste buds, quench your thirst and impress your guests. Best of all, you don’t have to be a professional bartender (or, should I say mixologist?) to make them. I’ll drink to that!

CRAVE-WORTHY COCKTAILS

160_F_105738118_6AhBQQSOTMctNcNdLmA53j0oOyS2Q2qMClassic Mojito  
Ingredients:
2 oz. light rum
1 lime
Bunch of mint leaves (about 8)
2 heaping bar spoons of fine sugar – add more to taste
Club soda (amount depends on size of glass)
Ice, cubed & crushed

Directions:
(1) Add juice of 1/2 lime to glass, then sugar. Use a muddler to squish everything together and make a syrup.
(2) Drop mint leaves in glass and use muddler to gently push the mint down into the syrup.
(3) Add crushed ice and pour in the rum. Stir until the sugar dissolves.
(4) Top off with club soda.
(5) Rim glass with lime and garnish with a sprig of mint and lime slices.
(Makes 1 drink)

Layered Lemonade Drops

lemonade cocktails

Ingredients:
6 oz. vodka
1 cup mango lemonade
1 cup pink lemonade blended with ½ cup of strawberries
1 cup regular lemonade
1 cup ice

Directions: Fill blender with 1/3 of vodka and mango lemonade and ice. Blend and set aside. Repeat 2 more times, first with strawberry/pink lemonade then regular lemonade.  Chill each mixture, and keep each layer chilled until ready to pour in glass. Pour into serving glass in layers starting with mango mix, then strawberry/pink lemonade mix, and lastly regular lemonade. Serves 4.  Photo & recipe from Delish.

Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville Perfect Margarita
Ingredients:
1 oz. gold tequila
1/2 oz. silver tequila
1/2 oz. triple sec
1/2 oz. orange curacao
1/2 oz. lime juice
2 lime wedges
Crushed ice
Directions: Rim margarita glass with salt. Combine ingredients in a shaker filled with ice. Squeeze limes and add to shaker. Shake vigorously and pour into margarita glass. Makes 1 serving. See more recipes like this on margaritaville.com

Blue Hawaii  blue hawaii
Ingredients:
1 oz. light rum
1 oz. blue curacao
2 oz. pineapple Juice
1 oz. cream of coconut
1 cup crushed Ice
Pineapple slice and maraschino cherry for garnish

Directions: Place first four ingredients in blender with ice. Blend for 15 seconds, or until frothy. Pour into tall glass and garnish with pineapple slice and cherry. Makes 1 drink. Photo & recipe from stepbystep.com

MARVELOUS MOCKTAILS (non-alcoholic beverages)

June Bug
Ingredients:
3 cups ginger ale
4 tbsp. grenadine
4 tbsp. orange juice
3 scoops orange sherbet

Directions: Blend together ginger ale, grenadine, orange juice and sherbet. Pour into ice-filled cocktail glasses. Variation: substitute orange with another flavored sherbet like lime, lemon or pineapple. Make 4 servings. Recipe from food.com

160_F_86742716_PqmU5KJr0NkBZPynoCm4pW0e9U1UA0GQSparkling Raspberry Tea
Ingredients
:
2 cups cold brewed tea
2 cups chilled raspberry or cranberry-raspberry juice
2 cups chilled sparkling water
Raspberries
Lemon slices and mint leaves for garnish, if desired

Directions: In a large pitcher, mix tea, juice and sparking water. Serve tea over ice. Garnish with raspberries, lemon slices and fresh mint leaves. Makes 4-6 servings. Recipe from Bettycrocker.com


Cactus Cooler

Ingredients:
4 cups orange juice
1½ cups pineapple juice
½ cup lemon juice
Grenadine, to taste
Citrus slices (limes, oranges, lemons) for garnish, if desired

Directions: In a pitcher combine the orange juice, pineapple juice and lemon juice. Fill glasses with ice. Drizzle a little grenadine into each glass. Top with the orange juice mixture. Garnish with citrus slices, if desired. Makes 6 servings. Recipe from lovebakesgoodcakes.com

160_F_52392039_kcMs40e82dkZs2DatVHFnXwrMzI7yDxZVirgin Strawberry Colada
Ingredients:
7 ripe strawberries
5 oz. pineapple juice
1-1/2 oz. coconut cream
1 cup crushed ice
Pineapple slice and maraschino cherry for garnish

Directions: Blend all ingredients in a blender at high speed. Pour into a tall glass and garnish with maraschino cherry and pineapple slice. Makes 1 drink. Recipe from food.com

Find more delightful summer drink recipes  at foodandwine.com

One more thing, when enjoying your favorite cocktails always drink responsibly and have a designated driver if you’re planning to go anywhere.

Cheers!

Smart Perks Blogger Catherine B. likes to sip on margaritas or rum cocktails on the patio, but her go-to summer beverage is iced tea.

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.

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.

 

Staycation: All I Ever Wanted

keep-calm-and-take-a-staycation

Sure, heading to Europe for a week sounds amazing, but that’s not really doable for the majority of us – though I wish it was!

Sometimes even taking a car trip to a neighboring state isn’t in the cards due to time constraints or previous commitments. Solution: a Staycation!

Never heard of it? Luckily, I have, and I’m here to give you the lowdown on the down low! (What?) Anyway, a staycation is a vacation where you stay at home. But don’t think this is just another regular weekend – Oh no. There are rules!

Family time at home snuggling on couch in living room eating pop

Don’t worry: the rules are very easy. Mostly, just relax. After all, it’s your vacation!

Rules include: No work, no phone calls, no errands, no doing laundry. It’s quality time with your spouse or kids or just yourself, exploring your own town and relaxing in your own home (or in a nearby hotel or bed and breakfast).

If you need more advice, here are my Staycation Rules! Rules:

Rule 1: Really, Truly No Working

It’s best to utilize a long weekend for a Staycation, or you can simply take off a Friday and/or Monday from work to create your own. Or, if you have a full week off and nothing to do (like during Spring or Summer Break, for instance) all the better!

no_cell_phone

Either way, put an “out of office” message on your work email, and don’t you dare look at that phone. Even to top your Candy Crush score or to read the news. This is your Staycation! You have to make the most of it, and getting a “Reply All” from all of your coworkers isn’t going to do much to help your relaxation.

In the same vein, no errand running. The dry cleaning can hold off for a few days.

However, if you are anything like me, and you’re choosing to stay at your home for your Staycation, I would suggest cleaning your house beforehand. That way, you don’t have the itch to pick up your kids’ toys or to dust the bookshelves. SmartPerks blogger Cathy has some tips on how to perfect your spring cleaning you might want to give a try to make sure you’re in the proper, relaxed mindset.

Rule 2: Theme Your Vacation

Hey, we’re really trying to make the most outta this Staycation. Wherever your ideal vacation place is, go with that theme – for an evening, a whole day or the entire weekend.

greek-chicke-kebabs3-srgb.

Recipe for Greek kebabs here.

For example, if you’re feeling a Mediterranean vacay, go to the grocery store one day before your Staycation. Pick up some key items, like marinated olives, tapenades, fresh feta cheese, and pita as an appetizer, and some shrimp skewers with roasted vegetables for dinner. Don’t forget the fresh fruit and baklava for dessert – and maybe a bottle of Ouzo. 😉 Play a beach-y Greek station on Pandora, and enjoy!

After dinner, you can settle down with a movie like My Big Fat Greek Wedding or Mamma Mia.

Mamma-Mia-wallpaper5

Maybe the next day, go to a park and have a picnic, head to the beach or take a hike, or if the weather isn’t permitting, drive to the nearest museum, spend a day at the spa or go to a fancy restaurant you wouldn’t normally try. Not all of your Staycation events have to be themed; sometimes it’s just nice to enjoy your own area while treating yourself.

Rule 3: Think Outside the Box

Of course, turning your living room into an Amazonian jungle isn’t likely to happen (though it might sometimes feel like it with that summertime humidity!), but choose activities that aren’t typical to your regular Saturday afternoon.

If you’re unmarried or don’t have kids, don’t feel left out – The best part of a Staycation is how little planning it can require, and that you can invite local friends or family on short notice. I one time had a Staycation in New York City with some of my closest pals, going out to meals, visiting the major tourist attractions, and in general acting like a visitor in my home city. We hadn’t planned it out at all, just woke up on a Saturday and decided that would be a fun way to spend the weekend!

If you’re Staycationing with pals, make it feel adventurous by going on a longer drive (2-3 hours is a good amount) so you have a change of scenery. You can even rent a convertible! Find hiking trails or national landmarks, or even quirky attractions, and make a day of it. I’ve used the site Roadside America before on long road trips to find the most interesting destinations.

Three Female Friends On Road Trip In Back Of Convertible Car

“Let’s go see the Unclaimed Baggage Museum!”

Regardless of who you do it with or if you’re alone, make sure you’re being creative! Instead of seeing a movie at the same old cinema, what about catching a live theatrical performance? Or, if you like the park, what about heading to a zoo, greenhouse or public gardens? Do you spend your time reading historical novels? Ever heard of a live reenactment!? The ideas are endless. As for me, I’ll stick to the kitsch – I plan on visiting the Hometown of Paul Bunyan and taking a gander at his giant statue. I’ll probably have too busy of a schedule this summer to travel a lot, so a Staycation here in Minnesota sounds about right.

Paul-Bunyan.jpg

Just remember: The possibilities of a Staycation are endless. Whether you spent your whole life in the town you live or moved there a month ago, there’s always something near by to make you see your surroundings in a whole new light. Enjoy!

Blogger Katie U., a SmartPerks employee, thinks her perfect Staycation involves a stack of fresh novels, Netflix, enough groceries to feed a small army and some nice red wine. Who needs Paris (or the world outside her apartment), anyway?