The Smart Cookie’s Guide to Royal Icing

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Royal icing is having a major moment. Seriously. Decorated cookies are almost as popular as Pokemon Go right now.

There is a cookie cutter for virtually anything or any occasion you can think of.

So if you’re planning a party, or just want to do something special for a friend, you can just jump online and order a cookie cutter specific to whatever tickles the person’s fancy, from unicorns to 50s muscle cars to French Bulldogs and saguaro cactus (yes, everything and anything!)

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Of course, I want all the pretty things I see online.  And, I suffer short-term memory loss when it comes to my inability to bake, and whatever my last failed attempt was. So whenever I see some intricately decorated iced works of art on Pinterest or Instagram, I think “Oooooh, I want to do that!”

But royal icing seemed so intimidating! I’m a canned frosting from the baking aisle kind of girl. However, the fancifully decorated cookies you see everywhere right now require royal icing, which has that beautiful, smooth matte finish that makes a cookie look so professional, like it came straight from a wonderful bakery.

I enlisted the help of my go-to baking expert and good friend Mary, and said, “TEACH ME! I want to be your icing Jedi!!!” So she shared her techniques in this video, along with her amazing set of decorating supplies, and we set out on an odyssey of summer cookie decorating adventure.

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I got to do what I do best. Shop. I found adorable summer-themed cookie cutters on Etsy from Frosted. There are a bajillion great shops – just enter your desired shape + the word cookie cutter in the search box on Etsy and you’ll find some really unusual ones. Or, you can request a custom cutter if you don’t find what you’re looking for. Etsy is my go-to for unique and original everything.

I did manage to make the cookies beforehand using the package Betty Crocker Sugar Cookie Mix, although I baked one batch on wax paper instead of parchment. But the real purpose of this exercise was for Mary to teach me to decorate cookies using royal icing. My only other experience with it was a disaster, trying to make my own Ginger Bread House with a store-bought kit containing premade icing. It was too thick and well…see for yourself.

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Needless to say, Martha Stewart chose a different photo for her December issue of Living.

For this icing, my baking Yoda used a recipe from Sweet Sugar Belle which she modifies slightly. Mary used the whisk attachment rather than the paddle attachment on her KitchenAid mixer, and Vanilla Bean paste. We also added additional warm water by the drop as necessary when it came time to ice, in order to get the desired consistency, so the icing would settle when the cookie was gently tapped.

Take a look at the video Mary & I made, and you’ll never be intimidated by making royal icing again.

 

 

Smart Perks Blogger, Melanie Bisson, learned the hard way, NEVER to put plastic cookie cutters in the dishwasher. Special thanks to icing guru, Mary Haehn. 

 

It’s a Cool, Cool Summer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

 

Meal Kits for Inspiration in the Kitchen

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

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

So what is it, you may ask?

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

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

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A recipe from Hello Fresh.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Ingredients:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s to a Magically Delicious St. Paddy’s Day

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Faith and Begorrah, March 17th is a mere two weeks away and soon people across the country will be parading around in shiny green bowler hats and “Kiss Me I’m Irish” t-shirts, consuming mass quantities of green beer or shots of Jameson whiskey, and engaging in various festivities (or shenanigans) to celebrate the patron saint of Ireland. My good friend Kathy is three-quarters Irish, my daughter Meghan almost half and I know a slew of others whose ancestors hailed from the Emerald Isle. But, on St. Patrick’s Day it doesn’t really matter what nationality you are because everyone is a Murphy, Doyle or Sullivan.

If you’d rather skip the pubs and observe the holiday at home, consider inviting a few friends over for a traditional Irish meal of Corned Beef & Cabbage with Soda Bread, along with a pint of ale or a glass of limeade. You’ll want to save room for dessert, of course, and what could be more fitting than a Guinness Cake! You may not be a fan of the bold stout, but this moist, mouthwatering chocolate confection with heavenly cream cheese frosting is sure to win you over!

Give these recipes a try and who knows? They may become a St. Patrick’s Day tradition.

Corned Beef Cabbage

Why eat out when you can enjoy a traditional Irish meal of Corned Beef & Cabbage at home!

Corned Beef & Cabbage
Ingredients:
3 lbs. corned beef brisket
Water, to cover meat
2 tbsp. pickling spices
3 tbsp. salt
2 tbsp. peppercorns
1 head cabbage
Directions: Place corned beef with all the seasonings in a large stockpot. Cover with cold water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer until tender, about 2 hours. If not tender after 2 hours, keep checking at 15 minute intervals. Remove corned beef, save broth for cabbage. Cut cabbage into wedges, place in a large pan, cover with broth from the beef and simmer until tender. Keep cabbage warm in broth until needed. Serve corned beef and cabbage together with some boiled potatoes and carrots. Don’t forget the mustard!
Recipe courtesy of Food.com

If you don’t care for corned beef, check out this recipe for Irish Beef Stew

Irish Soda Bread
Ingredients:
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tbsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1/3 cup white sugar
1 tsp. salt
1 egg, lightly beaten
2 cups buttermilk
1/4 cup butter, melted
Directions: Preheat oven to 325º F. Grease 9×5 inch loaf pan. Combine flour, baking powder, sugar, salt and baking soda. Blend egg and buttermilk together, and add all at once to flour mixture. Mix until moistened. Stir in butter. Pour in prepared pan. Bake for 65-70 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in bread comes out clean. Cool on wire rack. Note: for better flavor, wrap in foil for several hours or overnight.  
Recipe from epicurious.com

Chocolate Guinness Cake
Ingredients:
1 cup Guinness (stout beer)
10 tbsp. (1 stick + 2 tbsp.) unsalted butter, cubed
2 cups superfine (granulated) sugar
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa
2 large eggs, beaten
2/3 cup sour cream
1 tbsp. vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
2-1/2 tsp. baking soda
Topping:
1-1/4 cups confectioners’ sugar
1 (8 oz.) package cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
Directions: Preheat oven to 350° F. Grease a 9-inch spring form pan and line the bottom with parchment paper; set aside. In a large saucepan, heat Guinness and butter on medium-low heat until butter melts. Remove from the heat; whisk in sugar and cocoa until well blended. In a small bowl, combine the eggs, sour cream and vanilla; mix well. Add to Guinness mixture. Combine flour and baking soda; whisk into beer mixture until smooth. Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake until risen and firm, about 45-60 minutes or until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean. Place pan on a wire rack and cool completely in pan. Remove sides of pan. In a large bowl, beat cream cheese until fluffy. Add confectioners’ sugar and cream; beat until smooth and spreadable (do not over-beat). Remove cake from the pan and place on a platter or cake stand. Spread icing on top of cake so it resembles a frothy pint of beer. Refrigerate leftovers, if there are any.
Nigella Lawson’s recipe from NYTimes.com

Luck_o_Irish_2

Blogger Catherine B., a Smart Perks employee, is a wee bit Scotch-Irish and although she’s not sure what that means, you can bet your Blarney Stone she’ll be wearing green on March 17th.

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.

 

 

NewYear

“Cheers to a New Year and another chance to get it right.”
– Oprah Winfrey

It’s time to uncork the champagne and bid adieu to 2015! We all know New Year’s Eve is a big deal and people all over the globe will be celebrating in a big way. You’ll find everything from extravagant, black-tie galas at high-class hotels to Karaoke contests in small town bars. If you’re not out carousing with friends you’re probably glued to your TV watching millions of spirited revelers take over Times Square.

Back in my single days, my friends and I would get all decked out and pay a month’s worth of wages to attend some lavish soiree, hoping to meet a rich bachelor (a girl’s gotta dream, right?).

Other years we’d go bar hopping and spend half the night fending off inebriated admirers and the other half waiting in line for drinks. Of course, we could always count on a few brawls and plenty of PDA to keep us entertained. Ah, good times.

If you’ve ever been out on New Year’s Eve you know how crazy (and expensive) it can be. So, if you want to take a break from the outlandish parties and crowded bars, I have some ideas for a fun evening with friends or family at (or close to) home.

Neighborhood Block Party. My sister-in-law and her husband live in Florida and every New Year’s Eve they get together with their neighbors for a barbecue. They’re on a cul-de-sac so they’re able to set up grills and tables right on the street and roam around with drinks in hand. At midnight they shoot off fireworks. The best part is everyone can walk home afterwards.

Progressive Dinner. Another great way to celebrate the New Year with your neighbors is to have a progressive dinner – appetizers at one house, the main course at another and dessert at a third. Everyone contributes something for each course.

big glasses times square

Theme Party/Potluck. Get the gang together at someone’s house and have everyone bring a snack or appetizers and their beverage of choice. To add a fun twist to your gathering, have it revolve around a specific theme. We do this every year and so far we’ve had pirates, hippies, the Old West, famous TV characters, a Hawaiian Luau, and a Mexican Fiesta. Often times the food, decorations and party favors are tied to the theme.

For entertainment, you could play games, watch movies and tune into one of those New Year’s Eve extravaganzas on TV. Don’t forget the party hats, foil horns and champagne!

Dollarphotoclub_73383225.jpg

Girls’ Night In. Watch romantic comedies or episodes of TV shows like Sex and the City, Downton Abbey and Desperate Housewives, maybe play some board games or even a little Truth or Dare! Forget the diet for one night (it’s the holidays after all) and indulge in your favorite comfort foods. For beverages, how ‘bout mixing up some delicious “girly” drinks, like cosmos, sparkling sangrias, or lemon drop martinis. Check out mygirlishwhims.com for easy and tasty drink recipes.

Dinner for Two. No reservations, no problem! You can always have a romantic dinner at home. Some menu ideas: Filet Mignon with baked potatoes & tossed salad, a pasta dish like Fettucine Alfredo or Spaghetti alla Carbonara with Caesar salad & French bread, or seafood with steamed asparagus and rice pilaf. Not sure what kind of wine to serve with your meal? Click here for a wine & food pairing chart  Create a romantic mood with lighted candles and soft music. Or, make it more casual and have pizza and beer. Hey, whatever floats your boat!

Happy new year card on table set for party

Family Movie/Game Night. When our kids were young, we’d rent movies or watch them on VHS tapes (remember those?). Now that there’s Blu-ray the picture and sound is so much better. Or, make it easy and stream movies directly to your TV. Enjoy a few “concessions” like popcorn, candy and beverages while you’re at it. As for games, you can play board games, cards, or build a puzzle together.

Click here for a list of the top 100 movies for kids & families from Rotten Tomatoes.

Click here for a list of the best board games for families.

Click here for fun New Year’s Eve games for kids and adults.
Of course, every New Year’s celebration needs some good eats. So, I’ve included a few of my favorite appetizer recipes:

med102917_0507_artichokedip_vert

Artichoke Dip from marthastewartliving.com

Buffalo Chicken Dip
Sweet ‘n Tangy Meatballs
Bacon-Wrapped Smokies
Artichoke Dip
Fiesta Pinwheels

Here’s to a happy, safe and healthy new year!

Catherine B., a Smart Perks employee, enjoys celebrating the New Year with good friends, good food and good wine (in this case a sparkling Asti Spumante).

May your troubles be less,
And your blessings be more.
And nothing but happiness come through your door.
– Irish Toast

Iconic Slow Cookers: The Audrey Hepburn of Kitchen Appliances

food-network_crockpot-sausage-bean-stew

Sausage, Bean & Pasta Stew. Click for the recipe. Photo Courtesy of Food Network.

Thinking deep philosophical thoughts this morning.

Like, “Do people in southern California love the Crock-Pot® as much as the rest of the country?” Because right now, in addition to sweater weather, changing leaves and football, people are going nuts over the start of Crock-Pot season!

Seriously…is there a more universally beloved counter-top appliance than the slow cooker?

Sorry toaster. Not even close.

The mere thought of walking in the front door after a day at work and that rush of delicious aroma, from a hearty satisfying soup or stew, enveloping you like a warm bath sheet or downy comforter, is pure bliss.

CrockPots

Clockwise from left to right: Cheetah Print from QVC ($39.99), Bella Diamonds from Kohl’s ($29.99), NFL Crock-Pot from WalMart ($39.42) and Purple Polished Stainless from Kohl’s ($29.99).

The slow cooker is unmatched in versatility. From pot roasts, soups and stews, to desserts and warm beverages, the Crock-Pot is the go-to appliance for any occasion.  People are even baking bread in a Crock-Pot these days. Is there nothing this little wonder cannot do? My new must-have is the darling little Crock-Pot Lunch Cooker. In pink! When I see a product this cute, and something every office worker MUST HAVE, I have to buy one. Christmas gift for the hard-to-buy-for? HELLO. What else are you going to get that is so adorable, functional and will last forever for $20?

Crock-Pot Lunch Cooker $19.99 @ Target

A good Crock-Pot is timeless. It never goes out of style. It’s the Audrey Hepburn or James Dean of the cooking world. However, like shoes, you can never have too many crock pots.

Crock-Pot_SCRMTD307-DK_16-Ounce_Little_Triple_Dipper,_Silver_and_Black_Free_Shipping_-_2015-10-07_14.31.25

The Crock-Pot Little Triple Dipper Food Warmer $34.97 at casa.com

I own 5 slow-cookers. Two mini-dip warmers, which only have one setting, a round 5-quart and oval 7-quart Crock-pot, for potlucks and smaller Sunday meals, and then the granddaddy of them all, the 6 1/2-quart All-Clad Programmable Slowcooker, the Mercedes of slow cookers with the weight of a Mack truck.

At one point I became convinced I couldn’t live without the three-crocks-in-one heating unit buffet server, until my mother bought it for me. The box was the size of a small car. Where is one supposed to store that thing? It was ginormous.

Diamond_Black_Rose_6_Quart_Manual_Slow_Cooker_Nordstrom_Rack_-_2015-10-08_13.22.59

Black rose Bella 6-qt. slow cooker $39.97 at Nordstrom Rack online.

However, if I had a bigger house, a larger family, or did more entertaining, that beast would be mine.

Even though I do own an All-Clad Programmable that cost over $150, another Christmas gift from Mom (thanks, mom), I’ve found that the smaller 5-6 quart manual slow cookers are every bit as good, despite having fewer settings. Plus, they cost a lot less.

The best thing about Crock-Pot cooking is how simple it is. When is the last time you made an appetizer in 5 minutes? AND got rave reviews for it? Trust me. This recipe for Sweet & Spicy Meatballs is a perennial favorite at holiday potlucks.

Sweet & Spicy Cocktail MeatballsUltimate_Party_Meatballs_Ocean_Spray_-_2015-10-07_15.27.08

1 14 oz. can Ocean Spray Cranberry Sauce

1 12 oz. bottle of Heinz Chili Sauce

1 2-lb bag frozen, pre-cooked, cocktail meatballs

Directions: Place meatballs in the slow cooker. Combine sauces and pour over meatballs. Cover and cook 4 hours. Prep time 5 minutes. 30 appetizer servings.

Another of my fall favorites, perfect for a Sunday afternoon of leaf-raking or couch-surfing, this slow cooker French Dip from the Let’s Dish Recipes blog. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a tiny pink Crock-pot to buy.

slow-cooker-french-dip-sand

Hello Gorgeous!

Blogger Mel B,  a Smart Perks employee, never met a counter-top appliance she didn’t like.