Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Salad for Dinner...a Summertime Winner

Salad for dinner. It just feels right on a hot summer evening.  I like to make a salad bar, where people can put what they want, and how much they want of each item.  We started making this “Cobb Salad” a few years ago with our small group from church.  We were looking for a semi-healthy meal, but one that was simple, hearty, and kid-friendly all at the same time.  This was our solution.  We like that if we serve rolls or some kind of good bread with it, then even people who don’t want to have a salad for dinner, can enjoy it (grilled chicken, some boiled eggs, tomato and cucumber slices and a hunk of bread).  And for those of us who love a great big dinner salad, we can pile it all on and feast on the beautiful bounty!

I have to say that there is something about this salad.  It is so good.  When our friend Blair had her “last supper” with our group before moving to Knoxville, she requested the Cobb Salad menu as her favorite small group meal.  

Our friend Ashley (who I mentioned a couple of posts ago) when she was visiting from South Africa sent this Instagram the night after having Cobb Salad at our house for dinner.

Lay it all out as a buffet and let people build their own salad.
like this...
and this.

Lettuce (typically Romaine and Spinach mixed together)

Grilled Chicken Tenderloins- one of our favorite marinades is a twist on Ina Garten’s Lemon Marinade, but we lessen the oil and substitute orange juice for the lemon juice to make it less tart.

3/4 cup good orange juice
1/2 cup olive oil
2 tsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1/2 tsp. dried thyme or 1 Tbsp. fresh thyme (I omit sometimes
              for kids)
3 pounds boneless chicken tenderloins 

Whisk together the juice, olive oil, salt, pepper and thyme.  Pour over chicken in a nonreactive bowl.  Cover and marinate in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour, (or overnight).  Heat grill and cook over medium heat until cooked through.

Shredded Cheddar Cheese
          And/or Feta (as an optional cheese)

Hard Boiled Eggsthis is a key ingredient! (I follow Martha Stewart’s instructions on boiling eggs: Place eggs in a single layer in a pan of cold water (water covering the eggs).  Set on the stove top.  Turn on high heat.  Let it come to a boil.  Close lid and REMOVE from burner.  Set your timer for 12 minutes.  Let stand.  Then rinse under cold water and crack eggs with cold water running over.

Bacon crumbles – a little goes a long way

Croutons- I make mine oftentimes out of stale crusty bread…super easy and yummy! Tear or cut bread into pieces. Toss bread in olive oil – I drizzle a little over the bread or use olive oil cooking spray, as it coats more evenly.
Place in a 400˚ oven for 10 minutes or until golden.
Remove from oven and sprinkle with kosher salt (and garlic salt, etc. if you prefer)

Avocado Slices

Diced tomatoes

Sliced Cucumbers

Dressing of your choice- one night at group, one of the guys said, “I think I went wrong with my dressing choice last time.  What do you all recommend for Cobb Salad?” (He had used an Asian Sesame dressing last time). The dressing choice is crucial.  You want something that brings the flavors of the ingredients together.  I love poppy seed dressing on it.  Some people prefer honey mustard, or even a buttermilk ranch, but Italian is often our standard.  As far as bought varieties, Dave and I love the Olive Garden Italian you can get at Sam's.  Or we like THIS homemade vinaigrette. And you can’t go wrong with THIS Greek dressing!

This is a great dinner menu if:
*you are hot and want a “cold” but filling dinner, OR
*you need a prep-ahead meal (because most of it can be made ahead of time), OR
*you are having a gathering and people are bringing items (as it’s an easy-to-delegate yet quick-to- throw-together meal), OR
*you have a grilling partner and then one of you can grill while the other preps the other ingredients, OR
*you have people with varying food needs  (healthy, or low carb, or dairy free or vegetarian) since everyone stacks their own salad, they can make it as they want/need.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Raspberry Almond Cream Cheese Coffee Cake

I love how children shed light on things by questioning what we adults sometimes don't think to question.  

Like why is a hamburger called a "hamburger" instead of a "beefburger"?
Or why is  a "step parent" called a "step" parent?
Or is he a 2nd cousin, or a cousin-in-law, or a cousin twice-removed,  and why?
Or why is coffee cake called "coffee cake" if it's not coffee-flavored?

I made this yummy coffee cake recently, that my friend, Haley introduced me to at church. 
When I made it I asked the kids if they wanted to try it, and Lainey said, “No, thanks, I don’t like coffee.”  
I said, “Oh no, there’s no coffee in it, it’s almond raspberry cream cheese! You love all of those things!”
To which she replied, “Then why is it called coffee cake?” 
I said, “Well, you eat it with coffee.”
"But I don't drink coffee."
"True, but you don't have to drink coffee with it, you just could."
“Why?”, she asked. 
“Because it’s like breakfast cake, kinda, I guess, or afternoon cake with coffee…you know, I am not sure.  It’s kinda confusing, huh?”
So I did what any good mom would do.  I googled:  “Origin of Coffee Cake”.
And here’s what I discovered:

According to Wikipedia: (bold my addition)
Coffee cake is a common cake or sweetbread available in many countries.  The term “coffee cake” can refer to any of the following
A class of cakes intended to be eaten alongside coffee (for example, as part of a breakfast meal) or that may be eaten during a “coffee break” or offered to guests as a gesture of hospitality on or around a coffee table.  Under this definition, a coffee cake does not necessarily contain coffee.  They are typically single layer cakes that may be square or rectangular like a Stollen or loaf shaped rectangular cakes, or they may be ring shaped.   Coffee cakes may be flavored with cinnamon or other spices, seeds, nuts and fruits.  These cakes sometimes have a crumbly or crumb topping called streusel and/or light glaze drizzle.
Since I love coffee, and would choose to drink it morning, mid day and evening.  I could, by this definition, eat this cake 3 times a day! Fabulous! 

And since this definition doesn’t narrow down things very much, my suggestion is that we come up with a definition of what’s NOT a coffee cake. 

A coffee cake is a cake that is NOT covered with thick frosting, served at a wedding or with candles on top for a birthday. Pretty much, that’s what’s I surmise is not a coffee cake.  Most everything else could potentialy qualify.  

This coffee cake is one of the yummiest I have ever had.  The day Haley brought it to church,  I tasted a sliver, and proceeded to walk around the crowd, asking people if they knew who made this cake!? I found out it was Haley and in the next few minutes, people started asking me about the cake – if I knew who made it!  By the end of the morning, 3 or 4 of us had requested the recipe.  She said she got it from a Cookbook from her daughter's school.  My mom has a theory that church cookbooks/school/neighborhood cookbooks, etc. where people submit their favorite and best recipes, you find winning dishes.  Individuals have taken their best, tried and true recipes, and put their name beside it and put them in the cookbook.  This qualifies.

 It’s like an almond crumble cake– meets a raspberry cream cheese danish.

2 1/4 cups flour
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup butter, cold and diced into pieces

1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
3/4 cup sour cream
1 tsp almond extract
1 egg

8 oz softened cream cheese
1/4 cup sugar
1 egg
1/2 cup raspberry preserves (I prefer a little more than this)
1/2 cup sliced almonds

Preheat 350. Grease and flour 10" spring form pan.

Combine flour and ¾ cup sugar; cut in butter to make coarse crumb. Reserve 1 cup crumb mixture. To remaining crumbs add baking powder, baking soda, salt, sour cream, almond extract and egg. Blend well. Spread over bottom and 2 inches up sides of pan.

Combine cream cheese, 1/4 cup sugar and 1 egg. Blend well. Pour into batter prepared pan. Carefully spoon preserves over batter. Combine reserved crumbs and almonds and sprinkle over preserves. Bake 45-55 minutes; or until cream cheese is set and crust is golden.

So if you have a need for a sweet treat for breakfast with coffee, or for "coffee break" (if your workplace has those), or to serve at your coffee table, I highly recommend this one.  
(Oh, and this almond shortbread,  and almond poundcake, or this gorilla bread, or plum cake,  or apple cake,  or lemon berry poundcake , and my go-to-sour cream poundcake.  I think these all might qualify for coffee cake! )

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Finding Your Menu-Planning Groove

This is the signature bumper sticker from the great blog, Dinner A Love Story
I have had several conversations with people lately about MENU PLANNING.  I think people have to find their own personal style and the system that works for them.  We have finally found a system that works for us.  The challenge is staying on my game and being disciplined to keep it in motion. But when I do…boy, does it pay off!

There is nothing more overwhelming than coming home from work/school, getting stuff put away, homework assessed, and then trying to think about WHAT’S FOR DINNER!?!?! If I were left to decide at 5:00 what was for dinner every night, we would be having pasta or cereal or ordering pizza 7 days a week. You too?

Here is my “formula” for successful menu planning:

1.  Do a personal inventory.  

I think it’s important that you know your values when it comes to dinner.
Consider what things you value most about meals:
Simplicity (not a lot of complex recipes/ easy to prepare)?
Crowd Pleasing?
Dietary Restrictions- Accommodating?

I have some friends who subscribe to online menu-planning resources and love getting new recipes (with grocery lists included) for each week.   Other friends feel overwhelmed by weekly “risks” and new recipes to navigate.   

You have to know yourself and your needs.

Meat-focused meals are not what I desire (for health and budget) and therefore a crockpot type of approach isn’t usually the best for my household.  For others, it is their go-to technique.

You need to consider what your priorities are and let them lead you.

We have made a list of meals that we know "work", are successful and meet our "qualifications" in our home. We add to that list when we find a new winning meal.  When I feel stuck in meal planning, I look to my list to remind me. 

2. Be practical.  
I think it’s really important to think about how much time you are able/willing to devote to meal preparation each night. Some evenings I have more time than others.  If I know we have a busy night, or I’m going to be coming home later from work, then I plan to keep it simple.  I am not going to try a new recipe, or plan something that will take a long time to prepare on those nights.  I will plan to have something the night prior that we can have as leftovers, or choose something that is a fast prep (or can be prepped the night before) for the menu. 

Also, as another matter of practicality, use things you have on hand.  (This may be obvious, but I have to remind myself to do this). Every week, I go through my refrigerator, freezer and pantry and “take inventory” of what we have and try to plan some upcoming meals to use up what we have on hand. 

3.   Let the seasons inspire you.
Not only is produce best when in season (cost, availability, and quality) but the seasons can also inspire what meals sound appealing.  In the winter I make soup.  At least once a week.  And sweet potatoes, and apples inspire dishes in the fall.  In the summer, we have “farmer’s market meals” where we see what’s at the market and create a prep-and-serve meal from it (sliced tomatoes, corn on the cob, melons, grilled zucchini, and fresh peaches and ice cream for dessert)!  And we usually grill at least once a week during warm weather months.


4.  Plan out your meals for the week. (I usually try to do it on Sunday for the week ahead, or at least a tentative plan of the meals I plan to prepare at some point during the week, and make my grocery list based on the plan.) 
Then POST IT somewhere visible. 
my week's menu plan on the fridge
Place that list where you will see it.  I put it on the dry erase board that hangs on our fridge and by doing this we are all on the same page – people can know ahead of time what's for dinner, I don't feel so lost and there is built-in accountability.

I try to cook 3 or 4 meals each week, we eat leftovers at least one night, and eat out (or bring in food from a restaurant) once or twice each week.   I plan according to what we have scheduled for each day of that week – considering when I have more time to prepare, and what perishable ingredients (like produce and meat) that I purchased need to be used more speedily .

On my board I also list recipes that I have been wanting to make, new things to try, and foods I have been craving.

5.  Have your groceries on hand! If you don't, your motivation to stick to your menu planning will drasticallly dwindle!  I think having your ingredients at home is half the battle won.

A couple of weeks ago, I was having my friend Ashley over for dinner.  She lives in South Africa and is visiting Nashville for several weeks. I wanted to make a meal that was seasonal, fresh, special, but simple. I wanted to be able to focus on her instead of fumbling with new recipes, stressing, preoccupied while she was hanging out.

Our menu was:
Corn on the Cob
Sliced Watermelon
and for dessert- Chewy M & M bars

 I had on my list of "things to make" the Bruschetta that Pioneer Woman had inspired me to make the other day. (My mom TiVoed the episode and showed it to me and it made my mouth water.) I had seen corn on the cob in the store for a good price and we all love corn on the cob at my house, and watermelons have been delicious the past few weeks.  I bought some Salmon, thinking it would make the meal feel special.  I made a batch of the Chewy M & M bars, because I was newly in love with them!

It was a super simple and yummy meal.  Best of all, we got to enjoy focusing on being together.

DISCLAIMER: Please know that though I love to cook (and love to eat even more), and though I have a strategy in motion for menu planning, I don't have this down pat.  Some weeks we start off whompyjawed and don't have a good plan.  Sometimes we have lack-luster meals, I'm unmotivated and weary and sometimes we eat out more than we should.  However, I am thankful to have a system that works when we work it!

Find your groove and hopefully take some of the angst out of "what's for dinner"?