Planting Herbs: A Feast for the Senses

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If the thought of a garden nursery or farmer’s market makes your pulse quicken, then you’re probably familiar with the intoxicating allure of the herb. Even if I never once used my herbs for cooking, I would still plant them every year, because they are literally a feast for the senses, their heavenly aromas released with a touch, stunning colors and foliage, wonderful variety of textures, and oh, the taste of fresh versus dried herbs! C’est magnifique!

Martha Stewart & the British pronounce them with a Her rather than a Ur, which always makes me laugh because I think of my Great Uncle Herbie and the 70s classic Herbie “The Love Bug”.  But I digress.

Before I plant my window boxes or garden, I plant herb bowls. I can plant them early in the season, and if the temps are going to fall too low, I can easily bring them indoors or cover them to protect against frost damage. Basil is especially susceptible to damage from the cold weather, and should not be planted outdoors until all danger of frost has passed.

Another reason I love herb bowls is because I can get creative with mixing and matching complementary plants for simple aesthetics. My favorite pot would contain a variety of different colors and textures. For instance, thyme is one of my all-time favorite herbs for container gardening, because it comes in so many beautiful varieties. I love the tiny green teardrop leaves on woody stocks. My favorite thyme plants are English Thyme, Woolly Time, a wonderful fuzzy creeper, and Lemon Thyme, with its gorgeous variegated foliage and fresh citrus scent.

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Clockwise: Pesto basil, lemon thyme, english thyme, rosemary and french lavender

A good rule of thumb when planting for aesthetics is to plant one tall plant such as a silvery rosemary or chives, a trailing plant like creeping Rosemary, a small to medium-sized colorful plant, like a purple sage or purple basil, a bright lime green plant thyme, and a specialty variety oregano.

Or, I can plant for a more utilitarian theme, like a bowl containing the most common herbs for cooking (basil, oregano, sage, chives and thyme or rosemary), or, for sweets, teas, soaps and oils (chamomile, lemon verbena, mints and lavender).

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Clockwise: Peppermint, purple basil, woolly thyme, and golden sage

When I say mint, you probably think peppermint. But there is quite a variety of mints to choose from, including pineapple or chocolate. My favorite cheap thrill of summertime is to pluck a fragrant leaf or two of pineapple mint and just inhale the deliciousness.  A word of caution, though: mint is best grown in pots as it is an aggressive grower, and will quickly take over a garden, spreading year after year.

Watering – Unlike house plants, herbs need to be watered frequently. The good news is unless left for several days without water, most herbs will bounce back from wilting once watered. During hot summer days, you may have to water at least once a day. They should never be allowed to dry out, completely.

Clipping & Pruning – Using basil as an example, when clipping, start towards the top. That’s where the tender, young leaves are. The large, older leaves at the bottom of the plant absorb the energy from the sun that helps produce new leaves. With basil, and other herbs, you should never allow them to flower unless you’re growing them for decorative purposes only. All of the plant’s energy goes to the flower instead of producing new leaves. You want your basil growing out, not up.

Storing Fresh Herbs – Most cut fresh herbs will keep for at least a week, wrapped in a damp paper towel and stored in a sealed plastic bag in the refrigerator.

Cooking  – One tablespoon of chopped fresh herbs will equal approximately one teaspoon of dried herbs. Or you can simply remember you’ll typically need 3 times the amount of fresh herbs as dry.

I have to share two of my favorite ways to use fresh herbs, beyond pizza and bruschetta.

I could eat Italian food, seven days a week, 365 days a year. A hearty red sauce is my favorite. However, every home chef should have at least one classic summertime pesto recipe. Here is one from The Barefoot Contessa herself, Ina Garten. While many know her now from Food Network, I have all of her cookbooks. She is a true icon! http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/ina-garten/pesto-recipe.html

Another summertime staple at my house is Herb Butter, which can be made sweet or savory. You can’t go wrong with a lemon thyme herb butter, which is fabulous on pasta, fish or hot, crusty bread. And, it couldn’t be simpler to make, so you’ll spend less time in the kitchen and more time outdoors.

Lemon Thyme Herb Butter

½ cup softened butter

2 tsp. flat leaf parsley (finely chopped)

½ tsp. lemon thyme (finely chopped)

2 tsp. lemon zest

Roll on wax paper into a tube shape. Refrigerate until hardened.  Slice off a round pat when ready to use. Garnish with a thinly sliced lemon half or a sprig of curly parsley.

However you use them, from salads to steaks, I hope you enjoy a summer full of delicious herbs!

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For a free download of this darling watering can cross-stitch from Country Living visit http://bit.ly/20bD3Hp.

Smart Perks Blogger, Melanie B., enjoys fresh herbs for their scent as much as their taste!

All uncredited photos taken 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

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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!

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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.

 

Fun-Filled, Budget-Friendly Activities for Kids

 

mother and her child preparing healthy food and having fun

I’m not a mom, or an aunt, a godmother, or even a person who has friends with kids. But I am an older sister – to both a natural-born younger sis and as a mentor to a 12-year-old girl in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. And although my natural-born sister lives many states away for college, I am tasked with the challenge of coming up with fun and engaging activities which are appropriate for children but fun for adults with my Little Sister. Also, since I’m not about to spend an afternoon shelling out the big bucks for kid-friendly fun (Why are museums for children so pricey?), I’ve gotten pretty savvy at finding things we both enjoy – minus the hefty price tag.

Here are some of my greatest hits that are a ton of fun without breaking the bank.

Cooking/Baking:

Getting kids started early in the kitchen is a great way to teach healthy eating habits and improve important skills, like mental math and hand-eye coordination.

This one is great regardless of age. Do you have a 3-year-old? Great, have them pick out some fruits they like, put them in a blender with low-sugar yogurt and ice, and once the adult secures the lid (I would hold it down), let the kid press blend! You could also try ants on a log or a Crockpot recipe like Salsa Chicken where you just toss the ingredients in and let it simmer.

Boy eats a lot of sushi

Some kids do really love sushi!

If you’re looking for more of a challenge with older kids, Pinterest is (as usual) a great place to start. With my Little Sister, who loves spicy food and chocolate, we like to get really creative. Our last adventure in cooking was mole sauce, a spicy, savory chocolate sauce from Mexico. Spooned over grilled chicken, it took a blah dish and made it something out of this world. Our next adventure is sushi! But if sweets are more the taste of your kids or young friends, this easy éclair cake is super tasty.

Bowling:

Bowling has made something of a comeback in recent years. Gone are the days of The Big Lebowski-type establishments with dried-up chicken wings, dusty and dated furniture, broken arcade games and a vague scent of stale cigarette smoke. Though these can of course be great fun, they don’t exactly appeal to the kids these days. The iPad-and-Justin-Bieber generation thinks that’s like, totally lame, man.

Luckily, there are more to choose from these days. The website Kids Bowl Free showcases different kid-friendly bowling alleys across the US that, as the name suggests, offer free bowling for those under 18. For example, Brunswick Zone is in many states and is an updated take on a bowling alley, with video games and billiards. They cater to a hipper, younger crowd, so kids (especially those picky preteens) are sure to enjoy.

brunswick zone

Doesn’t this look like a day of fun?

The best part? Those that are in-the-know can join their rewards program for coupons and special offers, so you can get deep discounts. That’s a whole evening of family-friendly fun!

Crafting:

You might be surprised at how popular crafting is with kids of all ages right now. When I was a kid, we twisted pipe cleaners into knots, played with silly putty, and did paint by numbers and called it a day. Now, with crafting booming with the adult market as well, the wee ones are picking up on the new craft trends.

nature weaving craft 5

From Pinterest user Craftiments.

Take, for instance, fellow blogger Melanie’s potted mini gardens from our previous blog post. This is completely doable for kids of all ages, and is a lasting gift – and teaches them the gift of a green thumb (which I am sadly lacking).

sponge tower timeAnother idea is a nature-weaving craft ornament. As we all know, kids spend way too much time in front of screens. So I plan on taking my Little Sister for a long walk once the weather is a little nicer, picking up things like pine cones, flowers, leaves, shells and twigs along the way. Then, together we can craft one of these adorable decorations to commemorate our day! The best part is most of the materials are found in nature; all you really need is some yarn or string and your imagination.

For the indoorsy type, I loved this idea: Sponge Jenga. Buy a pack of sponges from a discount store, cut them up into even strips, and then stack them like Jenga. All of the fun of the game without the loud crashing sounds.

Volunteering:

So much time it seems is spent trying to figure out activities your kids and you will both enjoy, but what about the impact your activities have? Think about it this way: If you both like cooking, why not volunteer to cook for others at a soup kitchen? If you like animals, what about volunteering to walk an elderly neighbor’s dog, or at an animal shelter?

Happy siblings collecting rubbish

Volunteering can be easy as collecting trash in the park.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be an organized, repeated commitment, though there are plenty of websites to help you out with finding one of those. Huge nature lovers can just pick up trash as they walk the beach or a trail with a group of their friends, or to run a bake sale or lemonade stand and donate the money to their favorite cause. Not only are you of course helping others in the process, but you’re teaching the little ones in your life that no matter how small they are, they can make a big difference. And you can’t put a price tag on that (But also, if you could…it would be free!)

These are just my favorites. What are some of your suggestions for on-the-cheap activities to do with the kids in your life?

Blogger Katie U., a Smart Perks employee, not-so-secretly wants to be a little kid again eating Cinnamon Toast Crunch while reading Nancy Drew.

Tasty Ways to Start Your Day

Rise&Shine

“All happiness depends on a leisurely breakfast.”
– John Gunther

Everyone from moms to nutrition experts contend we should start the day with a good, hearty breakfast. Yeah, well, I work full-time so most mornings I’ll just have a cup of coffee and a piece of toast or a small carton of yogurt, which I tend to scarf down as I head out the door. I realize that’s not enough to sustain me until lunch, but with everything I need to do to get ready in the morning (shower, dress, style my hair, put on makeup), I don’t really have time to whip up an omelet or some fancy fruit smoothie. My husband usually makes pancakes from a mix or pops a frozen waffle in the toaster. Sometimes he’ll eat leftover cake or pie (I swear, the guy could live on desserts!). Bottom line: we don’t put a lot of thought and effort into our morning meal during the week.

That’s why we look forward to Saturday, when we can indulge in more satisfying breakfast fare like homemade pancakes or waffles with sausage, some kind of eggs with ham, or French toast with bacon. We don’t worry about calories (often times we skip lunch anyway) and we take time to savor every bite.

My specialty is scrambled eggs. I like to spice mine up with a little cheddar cheese, green chiles and a dash of cayenne, or add ingredients like ground turkey, roasted peppers (I buy them frozen), onions, mushrooms and spinach to give them more flavor and texture. My husband gets in the act with his own French toast concoction. Not to brag or anything, but I have to say our breakfast creations are pretty flippin’ delicious!

The proof is in the pudding (or in this case, the batter?). I’ve included a few of my favorite recipes to tantalize your taste buds.

Tasty waffles

Instead of the usual syrup, top off your waffles with fresh fruit & whipped cream!

Grandma Vi’s Buttermilk Waffles (Worth all the time and effort, believe me!)
Ingredients:
2 eggs (beat whites separately)
2 cups buttermilk
1 tsp. salt
1/3 cup sugar
2 cups flour (scant)
2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 cup melted butter

Directions: In large bowl, sift together all dry ingredients and set aside. In large bowl, beat egg yolks thoroughly with a whisk. Add 1/2 cup buttermilk to egg yolks and beat. Add 1/2 cup sifted dry ingredients and rest of buttermilk and whisk together. Mix in rest of dry ingredients (do not overmix). Stir in melted butter. In a separate bowl, beat egg whites until stiff. Gently fold beaten egg whites into batter with a rubber spatula. Pre-heat waffle iron and spray with non-stick cooking spray. Ladle about 1/3 cup of batter onto each section of the waffle iron (be careful not to overfill). Close lid and cook about 3 or 5 minutes, until steaming stops and waffles are crisp and golden. Place waffles on cookie sheet in warm oven until ready to serve. Top with butter and maple syrup, or whipped cream and fresh berries.

Casserole with sausage, bacon and apples in a pumpkin sauce

Sausage & Cheese Strata (A great make-ahead dish for brunch!)
Ingredients:
12 eggs
12 slices white bread (torn into bite size pieces)
1 tsp. prepared mustard
2 cups shredded cheddar cheese (I use sharp cheddar)
1/4 tsp. ground pepper
3-1/2 cups milk
1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup chopped onion
1 lb. pork sausage, crumbled
1 cup chopped green pepper

Directions: Preheat oven to 350°. Brown sausage in a large skillet, pour grease from pan and set aside. In a large bowl, whisk eggs, milk, mustard, salt and ground pepper. Stir in bread, cheese, sausage, onion and green pepper; pour mixture into greased 13″x 9″ baking pan. Cover and refrigerate overnight. Bake uncovered for 75 minutes or until set. Variation: Substitute 1-1/2 cups cubed ham for sausage.

Country-Style French Toast (Extra spices turn a basic recipe into something magnifique!)
Ingredients:
Loaf of French bread, sliced or 8 slices of white bread, slightly dry
3 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
2/3 cup milk
Butter

Directions: Whisk eggs in a wide shallow bowl. Stir in rest of ingredients and mix until well-blended. Heat griddle or skillet coated with a thin layer of butter on low or medium heat. Add bread slices to egg mixture, one at a time, coating both sides (do not soak). Place bread slices on griddle/skillet and heat slowly until each side is golden brown. Serve warm with butter and maple syrup or sprinkle with powdered sugar. Serves 4.

Upside Down Caramel Rolls (So sweet and gooey, they melt in your mouth!)
Ingredients:
2 rolls of frozen bread dough
Cinnamon
1 stick butter
1 large box vanilla pudding mix (not instant)
2 tbsp. milk
1 cup brown sugar

Directions: Place loaves of frozen bread dough on a cookie sheet and store in fridge overnight. The next morning, heat the oven to 200°. Take first loaf out, pull apart into pieces and place on greased 9×12 glass pan, then sprinkle with cinnamon. Mix other ingredients in a saucepan and bring to boil, stirring occasionally. Pour mixture evenly over dough. Take out second loaf, break into pieces and sprinkle with cinnamon. Spread dough pieces over other dough pieces on cookie sheet and set in the oven to rise (cover dough with a dish cloth, put oven light on and shut oven off until dough raises to level you want.) Bake at 350° for 20-30 minutes. Dump upside down onto plate covered with tin foil and serve hot.

You’ll find hundreds of enticing breakfast recipes on Pinterest.

Bon appétit!

Blogger Catherine B., a Smart Perks employee, admits she doesn’t always eat a decent breakfast, but as long as she gets her morning cup of Joe (she likes it strong with flavored creamer), she’s good to go.

BYOL: Bring Your Own Lunch

 

dual salads

I called this salad two ways. Because there’s nothing worse than a boring salad lunch.

Was one of your New Year’s resolutions to eat healthier? Or to save money? Well, I might not know how to curb your appetite or shopping habit, but I do know that bringing your own lunch to work every day can help you cut calories and cash flow.

I bring my lunch to work every day. Mostly, it’s leftovers from the dinner the night before; sometimes, it’s just a mishmash of ingredients I have in my fridge. Though I genuinely love everything about cooking – from the grocery shopping (I often say a well-stocked grocery store is my happy place) to the time I plate a nice, warm meal for my boyfriend and me, I enjoy every step in between. But even if you don’t love cooking, there are many different ways to make yourself a lunch that take less than 10 minutes…5 minutes, even! One really easy way to have a nice balanced lunch is to cut up a bunch of different fruits and veggies you have lying around, and then add some protein and a treat or two. Here, I had strawberries, blueberries, pineapple and oranges, white cheddar cheese slices and peanut butter on the celery, plus some treats (in this case, a slice of prosciutto and 2 squares of dark chocolate!)

fruit plate

Healthy lunch options

As many people are quick to point out, all too often prepackaged meals contain weird ingredients you don’t necessarily want to eat. Even if not, they also may be way too high in sodium or sugar. Because I like to know every bit of what’s going into my own body, I’m not a big fan.

 

I wasn’t always this way, though. One Friday night a month when I was a kid, my parents would go out on a special dinner date, leaving my younger sister and me behind with our babysitter Stephanie. I looked forward to it the whole month. Steph would paint my nails, do my hair in funny styles, and let me stay up late reading, warning me just before my parents got home so I could pretend to be asleep. The best part, though, was that I was allowed to choose my own dinner, and almost without fail I chose Stouffer’s frozen mac and cheese.

Mac and cheese

The stuff of my childhood dreams.

In my now six years of cooking post-childhood, I have become very resourceful, learning to create meals with my limited stash of groceries and even more limited amounts of free time. Typically, they’re fairly healthy, utilizing fresh ingredients and with a good macronutrient ratio. That said, it still cracks me up that it wasn’t my mom’s amazing meatloaf or chicken parmesan that I most looked forward to, but a dinky black box of frosted-over cheesy carbs.

Nothing sounds worse to me nowadays. Don’t get me wrong – I love a good mac and cheese meal, and I totally understand the convenience of transferring one item from freezer to microwave to mouth in under five minutes. However, those frozen meals come at a pretty big price, on both your budget and your waistline. There are so many delicious options you can make yourself using mostly fresh ingredients that are more filling, with feel-good vitamins and more texture than mush.

Again, I recognize that sometimes throwing a frozen meal into your bag or heading out for a $5 bowl of soup is easy and can be cheaper. But let me help make your meal decision-making easier: there are 3 kinds of perfect make-your-own lunch options, made simpler by making some ingredients ahead. For example, on Sundays, I like to roast a big batch of vegetables (my favorites are bell pepper, any kind of squash, potatoes, turnips and red onion) and make a large pot of soup, typically lentil or curry. That way, throughout the week, there is far less planning you have to do. You can blend the roasted vegetables with a bit of chicken stock and some spices, and have an easy and delicious soup, or the curry over rice for a filling but nutritious meal.

The Sturdy Salad, Super Soups and The Bold Bowl

1) The Sturdy Salad

Ever heard of this thing called kale? No? Hmm, that’s weird, because it’s everywhere these days! I truly love it, finding its fibrous bite much more satisfying than the wateriness of iceberg or limp romaine. Plus, it’s considered a superfood, with 134% of your daily Vitamin A and C requirements. It also has the added benefit of being able to stay dressed for hours without getting soggy, making it an amazing candidate for the make-ahead lunch.

One of my favorites is the Kale Caesar, with added veggies and a lighter dressing to keep the health factor high.

Greek Yogurt Caesar Salad Dressing

This dressing is so delicious, you truly won’t miss the oil, cream and egg-laden original. Promise!

  • ½ cup plain Greek yogurt (Note: you can use nonfat here if you want)
  • ½ cup Parmesan cheese, grated
  • 3 tablespoons milk
  • 2 tablespoons EVOO (extra virgin olive oil)
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 2-3 teaspoons anchovy paste or 5-6 rinsed and dried tinned anchovies
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 1-2 garlic cloves, minced
  • Pinch of freshly grated black pepper
  • ¼ teaspoon sea salt

Combine all ingredients but the lemon juice, either in a blender on low setting or in a mixing bowl with a whisk. Once smooth, slowly add in lemon juice, mixing it in, until you’re happy with the flavor.

Of course, you could make a regular Caesar with romaine, cherry tomatoes, croutons and extra parm, reserving the salad dressing for right before you eat lunch, and call it a day. Or you could try my version: toss torn kale leaves with some dressing, add cherry tomatoes, freshly trimmed green beans, radish slices, grilled squash, and any roasted veggies, like carrots or squash, I have lying around. Instead of croutons, I opt for toasted chickpeas for added protein and more flavor, but still the satisfying crunch.

tuna salad

This updated tuna salad from Eating Well is incredibly light but filling. Just wish I had that plate, too!

Other ideas for the perfect lunchtime salad include Tuna and White Bean Salad on top of mixed greens, BBQ Chicken Chopped Salad (I use this Avocado Greek Yogurt Ranch instead) and Greek Salad with Grilled Chicken. There are so many varieties of salad (have you heard of the Italian bread salad panzanella, or its Middle Eastern counterpart fattoush?) that you should never settle for something dull. When it comes to salad – especially during these harsh winter months! – you want something hearty enough that you don’t feel hungry after an hour, so look for protein add-ons (cheese, beans, tofu, lean meats like turkey and chicken, or fish) to spice things up.

2) Super Soups

I can think of only three things I like more than soup: cats, dogs, and soup. Wait a second…

Point is, I really like soup. Cold and spicy, hot and creamy, vegetable- or meat-based, I’ll never say no to a bowl of soup. The best part? It makes an incredibly easy (and often healthy) lunch, it can keep for up to 5 days in the fridge and 5 months in the freezer, and if you’re the one making it, you can size up or down depending on how many people are in your family.

Turkey ramen

Leftover turkey ramen, with a substantial portion of chili paste.

They’re also a great use of leftover meat; after Thanksgiving, I made ramen with the turkey carcass and topped with chopped up pieces of dark meat.

There are so many different soups to choose from, but right now, in the middle of winter, the height of cold season, and post-holiday excess recovery, nothing sounds better to me than a nice, bracing bowl of chicken soup. There’s a reason they say chicken soup is for the soul, and it’s an amazing mid-day pick-me-up during the workday.

Spicy Mexican Chicken Soup

This is not an authentic Mexican soup, but rather my interpretation of a Latin American classic. You could make your own stock (fresh, with a chicken carcass), but here I used ground chicken and previously made chicken stock (though store-bought would work, too!) Also, this recipe is all made in one pot, saving you dishes and time.

  • 1 lb ground chicken
  • 4 cups unsalted chicken stock
  • ½ yellow onion, diced
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 bell peppers, diced (I used one red and one green)
  • 2 carrots, diced or sliced
  • 2 stalks of celery, sliced thin
  • 1 28 oz. can of tomatoes (really, any would work; I used diced with oregano)
  • 1 15 oz. can of black beans, drained and rinsed
  • 8 oz. of corn, fresh, frozen or canned
  • 2 minced garlic cloves (I used 2 tablespoons minced garlic from a jar for ease)
  • A pinch each paprika, cumin, chili powder, dried oregano, black pepper, salt
  • For garnishes: cilantro, tortilla strips, cheddar or cotija cheese, scallions, avocado, sour cream or Greek yogurt

In large, heavy-bottom pot, heat 1 tablespoon oil on medium heat, adding in ground chicken and spices. Once cooked halfway through (about 4 minutes), add in all of the vegetables, stirring until combined and meat is cooked throughout and the vegetables have softened (in total, about 10 minutes). Add tomatoes, black beans, and stock, bringing the heat up to a rolling boil. Turn heat down to low and simmer for 20-30 minutes (or up until 1 hour). Serve hot, with an assortment of the garnishes.

Mexican Chicken Soup

The finished product, topped with grated white cheddar.

When I make this ahead of time for work lunches, I let the soup cool down, portion it out in individual Tupperware containers, and use these awesome little containers for the garnishes. Even if you don’t have a microwave at work, this soup is surprisingly delicious cold during summer.

3) The Bold Bowl

Arguably the simplest of the three, the “bowl” has really picked up steam in the past year or so. The concept is easy as pie: grains + greens + veggies + proteins. Add-ons are plentiful, such as different sauces, cheese, nuts and seeds, and combinations are endless.

Although you can certainly plan out the bowl ahead of time, like this fancy brisket bowl or Latin vegan bowl, but an even easier way of going about it is to make a big batch of grains (I prefer quinoa, for the protein content, or brown rice, for the heft) on Sunday and then add leftovers on top of it.

For example, are you making spaghetti and meatballs with roasted broccoli on the side for dinner? Make a couple extra meatballs and pieces of broccoli, reserve some of the tomato sauce, and get out your grains (brown rice would work really well here). Layer rice, meatballs, sauce, broccoli, add some grated parmesan and a pinch of red pepper flakes, and boom! Tomorrow’s lunch in no time at all.

Another favorite is to make a chimichurri sauce by putting different herbs, like cilantro and parsley, in a food processor with olive oil, red wine vinegar, a clove of garlic with salt, pepper and red pepper flakes and pulse until it’s fairly smooth. Then all you need to do is take some of the quinoa and roasted veggies from Sunday, and you’ve got a lunch bowl. Add beans or leftover meat such as chicken to really make it well-rounded, but it’s plenty tasty on its own.

I know in the short term it might just seem easier to run out and buy a sandwich at lunchtime, but that is costly in both time and money. With just a little planning, you can save so much in the long term. Plus, you’re showing yourself you’re worth more than an unsatisfying, premade egg salad sandwich. Trust me, it’s worth it.

Katie U., a Smart Perks employee, really does care this much about BYOL and hopes you will, too.

 

How To Survive Hosting a Big Family Thanksgiving

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Practically everyone I know looks forward to Thanksgiving.

It’s one of the few times you can get together with family or friends to catch up on each others’ lives and reminisce, and of course watch a little football.

But, let’s be honest the main attraction is the feast… turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes & gravy, pumpkin pie topped with real whipped cream… oh, yeah!

Slice of pumpkin pie served on antique china. Bacground of assorted pumpkins and what is left of the baked pie.

Sure, you may have to loosen up your belt a bit (or change into your lounge pants) after indulging in all the glorious food, but you can always diet for days afterward to cancel out all the calories you’ve consumed. That’s what I tell myself anyway.

My family has been hosting this holiday for years. At first it seemed a little daunting and stressful, but now that we’ve got it down to a science, we actually enjoy it. Besides, everyone contributes something towards the meal. We’re just responsible for the turkey, stuffing, potatoes and gravy.

Of course, we need to take care of all the preparations, too ― shopping for groceries and other essentials, thawing the turkey (I buy frozen because it’s cheaper), cleaning the house, setting the tables and getting up at the crack of dawn to stuff the bird and throw it in the oven. Fortunately, my husband and kids pitch in and somehow it all comes together in the end.
If this is your first time hosting and you have no clue what to do, don’t sweat it. I’ve got some tricks to help make your turkey day a success.

  • Plan ahead. This is a must! I decide on the menu weeks in advance and ask each guest to bring something, like a side dish, salad, rolls or dessert, oh and a bottle of wine (you can never have too much wine).
  • From there, I make a list of the things I need to buy and shop around for the best deals. Stores generally offer discounts on turkeys, breadcrumbs for stuffing, and other popular Thanksgiving fare days or even weeks before the holiday.
  • Thaw the turkey. If you do get a frozen turkey, you’ll want to purchase it a week or more in advance. The reason being it takes about 5 days to thaw a 20-24 lb. turkey in your fridge. The folks at Jennie-O have some tips on how to properly thaw a frozen turkey.
  • Make sure there’s enough tableware. We tend to have a big crowd every year (25-28 people), so I usually end up borrowing extra plates, glasses, silverware, serving bowls, and platters from a relative or friend. I don’t worry about them matching. Everyone will be so busy eating they’re not going to notice (or care)! Besides, mixing different patterns and colors make your presentation a little more interesting and avant-garde.
  • Tidy up the house. I de-clutter and clean the house, at least the rooms my guests will see, in stages. Otherwise, it can be too overwhelming. I do the dusting and vacuuming a day or two before the event so everything stays clean. A word of advice ― recruit family members to lend a hand, even if you have to bribe them!
  • Set the table the day before. It gives you one less thing to do on Thanksgiving Day. I cover them with nice tablecloths (if I need extra, I’ll borrow one or two from my mom or sister-in-law), and place napkins and silverware at each place setting. I also make sure I have salt & pepper shakers at each table.
    GHK image

    Photo by Good Housekeeping.

    As for the centerpieces, I create my own with candles, miniature gourds & pumpkins, and different colored leaves. Need some inspiration? Check out these do-it-yourself centerpieces on Pinterest.

  • Timing is key. This is where it gets tricky. You have to figure out how long it’s going to take to prepare everything (turkey, potatoes, gravy, sides, etc.) so the whole meal is done at the same time. It helps to do what you can ahead of time and have your guests bring pre-cooked or pre-made items so all you need to do is heat them up in the oven or microwave, or keep them chilled until you’re ready to eat.
  • Start with the turkey as it takes the longest. Usually the packaging includes cooking instructions. If not, you can look them up online at www.allrecipes.com. It also depends on whether or not your turkey is stuffed. Some people prefer to have the stuffing outside of the bird, but our family has always cooked the stuffing inside the turkey. Either way be sure to remove those little bags of giblets (heart, liver, neck, etc.) from the turkey before you pop it in the oven. In fact, you may want to cook up some of those little gizzards and add them to your stuffing to make it more flavorful. Here’s a recipe for classic giblet stuffing from Better Homes & Gardens.centerpieces country living
  • Make it casual. We have our guests arrive early in the afternoon for “social hour” with wine and cider, and some light appetizers (crackers & cheese, veggies & dip, etc.) before dinner. The main meal is served buffet style ― it’s less formal and more manageable. My husband carves the turkey and everybody dishes up their own plates then finds a place at the table.
  • Take time to enjoy the meal and each others’ company. In fact, we don’t start clearing the table until everyone is finished. Most of the time we’re all so stuffed after the meal we wait an hour or two to have dessert, giving us time to relax, catch up on the game, or take a stroll around the neighborhood.
  • Ask for help. I find that people (in my case it’s the women) are always willing to help out, whether it’s setting out the food, clearing the table, or doing the dishes. We talk and laugh a lot in the process so we don’t mind being stuck in the kitchen while the others are sacked out on the sofa.

Finally, don’t panic! I decided a long time ago not to fret over things like lumpy gravy or mismatched silverware. After all, it’s dinner with your relatives or friends, not the royal family!

Here’s to a happy and stress-free Thanksgiving!

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Click here for Free Thanksgiving Chalkboard Printables.

Blogger Catherine B, a Smart Perks employee, enjoys a good Riesling with her turkey.