Thanksgiving Game Plan

Thanksgiving is my Super Bowl. It’s how I define my success as a cook, entertainer, builder of traditions in my family. I can never compete at Christmas – I just don’t have it in my DNA, but oh Thanksgiving, oh, I can bring it and enjoy it and still look good doing it. Here are a few of my tried and true tricks for making it through the week with your sanity, your waistline and your relationships still in tact.

  1. Stay home for Thanksgiving: In our little family, we have made it a tradition to stay in our own home for Thanksgiving every year that we’ve been together. I know this isn’t possible for everyone, but we snatch up this little holiday as a 4 day staycation in [insert whatever town we are living in] and we fill it with a million of our own traditions. We prefer to travel to see family during times that aren’t so expensive/busy and we have found we enjoy those trips even more. We have filled our home over the years with friends and sometimes family who come through, but through it all we’ve stayed home, and kept it sacred. I love to cook, so I get to control the menu, and he who controls the meal controls the leftovers. Bonus.
  2. But, invite buffers: We host our dear friend Anna every year for Thanksgiving. Not only is she a master storyteller, epic kid-entertainer, ultimate go-with-the-flow girl and night owl (which gives Zac a late night movie watching companion when I turn into a pumpkin at 10 pm), but she gives us a reason to make the holiday special. In short, because Anna is here, we put on pants. We use the fancy silverware. We dress it up.
  3. Keep the rest of the day’s meals simple: Our traditions are eating pigs-in-a-blanket which we prep the night before and wake up and bake early and munch on throughout the day, and a huge veggie tray. Last year, Zac’s sister outdid her self with this veggie turkey tray that we fell in love with and will make every year. We keep it very simple, avoid cheeses and breads, and nibble throughout the day on these crowd pleasers.  We watch the Wizard of Oz sometime on Thanksgiving every year because it’s my mother-in-law’s favorite and it reminds us of her, and makes the perfect backdrop to the day (after all, there’s no place like home, right? Even when we don’t appreciate it?)
  4. Don’t cook on Thanksgiving (other than your turkey): We eat our meal at around 4 pm.  I cook everything in advance of the day, using a game plan that is as detailed as “thaw corn” and “peel potatoes” – I mix in the tasks throughout my week, doing a few things each day during naps and while I prep dinner, and other than the turkey, the gravy and the roasting veggies which take 5 minutes to prep (I cut them earlier in the week), I don’t cook on Thanksgiving. Weird, huh? The day flies by with checking on the turkey and making the gravy, watching toddlers and spending time with friends who have joined. The kitchen can be really lonely on a holiday unless you’re surrounded by your aunts and sisters, so I don’t want to spend the day in there alone and this is my answer.
  5. Cook a soup the night before: The night before Thanksgiving used to be for dive bars and hook-ups with exes. Oh, how times have changed. Now, I make a filling but healthy soup the night before, in the Instant Pot of course. It feeds a crowd and doesn’t mess up the kitchen the night before the big day. We roll the piggies for the next morning (great toddler activity) and get to bed early.
  6. Leftovers: Be strategic about leftovers. Over the years, I’ve found that I really only want the “second meal” once or twice, and then I want it all gone. What I want is leftover turkey. We make two turkeys (one is smoked) so we have plenty for Turkey Pho and Turkey tettrazzini, which is our family’s leftover jam (recipe to come), but we don’t make 20 million pounds of sides because they rarely get eaten. This year’s Cooking Light issue has great ideas for using leftover ingredients (instead of leftover cooked items) – check it out for genius uses for carrots, butter, apples, sweet potato, sourdough, shallots and half and half.  I will make plenty of turkey and roasted vegetables, but as for the rest, I don’t max out. Friday morning it’s back to the gym and onward through the holiday calorie season gauntlet.
  7. Get outside: Not being stuck in the kitchen all day on Thanskgiving means we can always make time to get outside and be active. Run a 5K Turkey Trot, throw a football, take a family walk, or hell, do all 3. Move your body, you will feel better. I know Americans make a sport of eating on Thanksgiving, but you can be active, eat an amazing meal and you’ll probably sleep better and feel a little more human the next day.
  8. Skip dessert: Coco Chanel said it best – “before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one accessory off.” I say, take one accessory off. Thanksgiving just doesn’t need dessert – it’s a gluttonous meal and most people will eat dessert if it’s around, but do we really need it? I realize this is controversial, but in our family, we skip dessert. Dessert can shine on another day, and it cuts the work in half. Ice cream is always in the freezer if someone has a sweet tooth.
  9. Incorporate kids: Every year, the kids help me make the place card settings. It’s their way of putting their stamp on the table, is minimal and costs barely anything, and gives my table a homemade feeling. Two years ago, we used their handprints as turkeys and then embellished them with feathers. This year, my mom will do watercolors with Marilyn the day before as placecard holders. You could have your kids color on craft paper, make napkin rings, or collect leaves  – it’s a great and useful tradition.
  10. Finally, don’t forget to reflect: The tradition of giving thanks is ever-present at Thanksgiving tables. Don’t forget to reflect upon your year, count your blessings, and share them. Whether or not your Thanksgiving is spent in sunny Florida eating stone crab, or in snowy Ohio surrounded by relatives, and whether your year has been incredibly wonderful or incredibly tough, Thanksgiving is a time for renewed hope, and sincere gratitude for that which we do have.

This Thanksgiving, I encourage you to be intentional — reflect upon the aspects of the day that you love, try to disconnect from traditions that leave you feeling drained (I’m looking at you crazy holiday travel), and start traditions that will keep your kids coming home for years to come, bringing friends, and making memories that are seared on their brains forever.

Thanksgiving Crudite Platter Recipe

Assorted raw vegetables: bell peppers, sugar snap peas, carrots, celery, radishes, broccoli, cauliflower, etc.

Ranch dressing

Sour cream

Peppercorns (for eyes)

Round Tray

Arrange cut crudites in a fan pattern as the “feathers” of the turkey, keeping colors together, and building from the outside to the ceter of the platter. Adjust platter size based on the amount of people you are serving, keeping in mind that you can always use up extra raw veggies in a day-after Thanksgiving chopped salad. Using one of the bell peppers, cut off the side so that the pepper becomes the waddle of the turkey.  Fill a small bowl with ranch dressing, plussed up with sour cream to make it extra thick and rich for Thanksgiving.  Cut two carrot feet and a nose and arrange with your red pepper waddle, and drop in two peppercorns as eyes. Voila!

Why You, Mama, Need an Air Fryer

One year ago, I broke with tradition and bought my husband a Christmas gift. It all started when he was listening to his favorite sports radio host. Paula Deen was being interviewed, and she when they asked her about the one tool she needed for football season, she replied: an air fryer. Now, Paula Deen is not known for her healthy food suggestions, but my husband became obsessed with the idea that he could have chicken wings on Game Day without leaving the house. You see, when you’re a real fan, as I’ve learned from five years of marriage to a real fan, you can’t really chance your game watching experience being out of the house. First, your team could be losing, and that would put you out of the house, surrounded by other humans, and in a really terrible mood. Second, it is really difficult to find bars and restaurants that will show “your game” depending on where you are in the country or world, and even more chancy that they’ll play it with sound. No, true fans want to tilt the world in their favor and watch their games at home.

I researched Air Fryers that year, and lo and behold found that the Pope, AKA, Oprah, had blessed one in particular. I read about about the Maillard reaction, researched recipes and footprints, and with the blessing of Oprah herself, purchased the Cuisinart Air Fryer and Toaster Oven. 

Out went our toaster oven, and in went our new improved version. In the year that we have owned the Air Fryer, I’m pretty sure we’ve sold 100 of them during cocktail party conversations. We talk this thing up to everyone we know, and practically cart it with us to parties. So, I’m here to tell you, mama, why you need to put this baby on your Christmas list.

  1. Kid food: Picture this, you’re coming home from a long day at the zoo/trampoline park/birthday party/playdate/outlet mall with your children, and they need to be fed stat. There is no time to spare, these kids need to be in bed in 32.5 minutes and they’re ravenous beasts. Grab your bag of (organic!) dinosaur chicken nuggets and throw them in the Air Fryer. Zero preheat time. Done in five minutes. Kids scarf them all and want more? Five more minutes for another batch. Your dinos will approach Chick-fil-A deliciousness when cooked in the AF, and you can have dinner ready in basically zero time.  You can apply this method to any frozen food – french fries, tots, taquitos, pick your poison. The stuff simply tastes better and is done in almost no time at all.
  2. Vegetables: You can cook batches of brussels sprouts, sweet potato fries, parsnips, rainbow carrots, broccoli, in basically 7-10 minutes, no preheat time, crispy, browned, perfection with the same amount of oil you would roast them with in the oven. We love to cook batches of veggies quickly because we don’t have to heat the oven. We make the best oven fries. It’s a game changer in terms of time spent to cook. We love our AF roasted veggies.
  3. Wings: Buffalo wings, spicy sesame chicken wings, lemon pepper wings, pick your poison. If you like wings, you can make them for pennies on the dollar at home, tossed with your favorite sauce, anytime you want them. Wings have always been our favorite game day food, and we can make them exactly like we want them at home in 20 minutes per batch.
  4. Toasting functions: If you don’t have a toaster oven, you need one. This air fryer takes up the same room as a toaster oven, so if you have a toaster oven, you simply need this upgrade. Toasting waffles for kids, toast for eggs, garlic bread from frozen, you name it- I can’t live without a toaster oven.
  5. Empanadas: we finally figured out where to buy empanada dough, and once we found it, we make empanadas like we’re Argentinian blondes. Several fillings, some dough, and the air fryer, and we can feed crowds. We can freeze the empanadas and cook them from frozen, or cook them in batches for parties. The results are light and flaky, cooked to perfection.
  6. Bacon! Yes, Bacon. I only cook bacon in the air fryer. On a Saturday morning I can avoid the splatter, the multiple pans, and I can cook bacon to perfectly crispy in 12 minutes start to finish.
  7. Pizza: Order your favorite pizza. Freeze individual slices if you can’t finish it. Heat the slices in the air fryer from frozen and you’ll feel like you just ordered the pizza fresh.
  8. Bagels: Skinnytaste’s Greek Yogurt bagel recipe is a huge favorite of ours. I can make these bagels in 20 minutes start to finish in the air fryer. They’re healthy, so flavorful, and the perfect canvas for a fried egg, a schmear or some of my favorite flavored butters.

In short, we use our Air Fyer & Toaster Oven in One every single day- probably 2-3x a day. It uses hot air to circulate to “fry” things, and doesn’t require any oil. It does have to be frequently cleaned (the trays do). It rivals the Instant Pot in effectiveness and MVP status in my kitchen, and I’m pretty sure it will look great with a big red bow under your tree this year.

If you do decide to purchase one, use my link and you’ll help me keep my husband flush in chicken wings. If you have any questions about recipes or ideas, let me know. The new Skinnytaste cookbook One and Done has an entire section dedicated to this amazing appliance (including the cover photo of this post.

Spaghetti Squash Pizza Bake (Gluten-Free)

Toddlers, man. One day, you’re spending your last iota of sanity convincing them to eat something like, plain pasta with butter and parmesan, and the next day you make two perfect over easy farm eggs with avocado toast for yourself with breakfast, and you feel the gentle tug of a kiddo next to you and end up getting two bites of your own meal.

Trying to figure them out is maddening, so I’ve stopped trying. I’ve made it my mission to fight the good fight over here— one meal, eat it or don’t, or you go to bed hungry. Last week, my son went to bed without lunch or dinner three days in a row. I’m not kidding.

I listened to a podcast recently that talked about minimalist meal planning — and it suggested that you identify the top ten meals that your family loves, and basically put them in heavy rotation. I thought it would be fun to identify our family’s top ten meals, so I opened a note on my iphone and started to write. I ended up with a few.

  1. Spaghetti Squash Pizza Bake
  2. Chicken and Lentil Soup
  3. Two Bean Beef Chili

And there the note sat. My biggest problem is that I forget to make things again, until my husband asks about it like – remember when we had that great thing with the mushrooms? Can you make that again?

So, all that is to say that this recipe has been an unlikely favorite of our family’s for going on two years. I don’t know how I stumbled upon it, but I have made it probably over fifty times, and every single time, there is not a bite left in the pan. My kids shovel this meal in like they haven’t eaten in days (I’m looking at you, George). My husband says this meal gives him is “lasagna fix” – which is good, because I never make lasagna (too many steps, too many calories, just too much and I choose to get my fix at a really good Italian restaurant once a year.

My friend Jen is in town. She is gluten free and dairy free, so this recipe seemed like the perfect one to make for her. Knowing my ravenous beasts, I doubled it, and cooked it in a cast iron skillet so large that I can’t lift it over my head (and I’m strong.) As it baked, we opened up a bottle of really good red wine and the kids helped us make a salad. I’m obsessed with these knives for kids. If you children like to be with you or like to cook, buy them! You may not even know how much your kids like to help you yet, but when you buy these, you’ll find little helpers all the time. Marilyn cuts carrots, celery, lettuce, apples, tomatoes, avocado, and pretty much anything else she can get her little hands on.

As for this recipe, I’m embarrassed to say that we almost finished the entire pan of this doubled recipe, but it’s kind of hard to be mad at any of us given how packed it is with

Spaghetti Squash Pizza Bake

1 large spaghetti squash, or 2 smaller

1 lb. of Italian pork sausage – I prefer to buy Jimmy Dean in bulk, but you can also use links and remove the casings (you can use turkey sausage, too)

1 cup of your favorite marinara sauce

3 eggs, beaten

seasonings like oregano, garlic powder, red pepper flakes, basil – to taste

salt and pepper

shredded mozzarella, optional

additional veggies, optional – such as spinach, olives, mushrooms, peppers, onions

First, start with your squash. Get out some frustration by inserting your knife in the side, and banging it furiously on the counter until there is a fissure, use your knife to open it up. Using a grapefruit spoon or spoon, scrape out the seeds. Put face down on a sheet pan with parchment and 2 tablespoons of water and roast at 350 for 1 hour. You can do this part a day ahead, and scrape out the strands of squash into a ziplock bag.

I often do this next step a day early, too. Saute the sausage until browned and broken up with a spoon.

In a large bowl, mix the slightly cooled squash, the sauce, the browned sausage, and the beaten eggs, seasonings and mozzarella (if using). Spread into an oval baking dish, a cast iron skillet or a 9×13 pan sprayed with cooking spray.

Bake at 400 for on hour, or until the edges are golden brown and the center is set.

We serve with a big green salad with some misshapenly cut vegetables (toddlers).  You can easily double this, and might want to.

Don’t forget to add these knives to your kiddo’s lists for the holidays and if you shop through my link, you can help me buy a stamp.

(Make Ahead) Amish Baked Apple Cinnamon Oatmeal

If you don’t eat breakfast, we probably can’t be friends. If brunch were a sport, I would be a decathlete. I love it all, but especially eggs. For many years, I woke up early every single day to cook a hot breakfast for Zac before he left for work. I can work magic for breakfast – I’ve been known to make eggs-in-a-hole with sourdough leftover from take-out, I invent elaborate hashes using leftover ribye from Sunday dinner, and a mash-up of veggies, including brussels sprouts and sweet potatoes, and I am famous for my over-medium eggs. An audience assembles when it’s time to flip them over. With breakfast, I am creative and resourceful, using whatever I can. My love language is breakfast. My kryptonite is time. Very few breakfasts make the cross over from sweet/cinnamony to eggy. This is one of them.

One morning a week, all Fall and Winter long, I mix up this make-ahead Amish baked oatmeal right after I clean up after dinner. It takes less than 5 minutes to prepare, and I know the recipe by heart. I put it in the fridge, covered, and in the morning when I get up to go to the gym, I take it out and put it on the counter. When I come back in, I preheat the oven, and by 8 am, when it comes out of the oven, puffed and brown, the entire house smells like an apple pie.

This recipe makes a weekday morning feel like a weekend, it’s all of the luxury of a hot, filling breakfast, with all of the laziness of me in my bathrobe, mainlining coffee. I get to be with my family for the brief time that we had together in the morning, rather than being in the kitchen.

My family devours this hot breakfast. It lacks the gumminess and stickiness that I’ve always found off-putting about traditional oatmeal. This recipe easily adapts to feed a crowd (read: houseguests), and can be liberally adapted to use whatever fruit you have on hand, although I love apples, pears and bananas the most. It’s a showstopper, beautiful on the table, and easy to serve up seconds (you’ll want seconds).

I made some swaps to the original recipe that I feel really good about. I want my kids to have the full monty in the morning – some fat, some carbs, and some protein, without too much sugar. This oatmeal sticks to their ribs like glue, warms their tummies, and makes mornings so easy for me. I only wish I had more tricks up my sleeve like this one.

(Make Ahead) Amish Baked Cinnamon Oatmeal, adapted from Once Upon a Chef

The original recipe used 3/4 cup of brown sugar, 2 cups of whole milk, and 4 tbsp of butter. I’ve made swaps that make sense, and make this a healthier morning choice. After all, we’re not working in the fields, we’re um, probably hitting up Target.

2 cups old fashioned rolledoats
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup maple syrup
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
1 cup of milk (I use 2%, but skim or whole milk will also work fine)
1 cup of almond milk (if you don’t buy or use almond milk, feel free to use 2 cups milk)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons melted butter, plus a little more for greasing the pan
1 cup of chopped fruit- peeled and chopped (I use 2 medium honeycrisp apples, peeled, or I often slice 2 bananas and layer them in the bottom of the pan; pears work too)
1/2 cup of toasted walnuts (optional, my kids actually love them in this dish)

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Preheat oven to 325F. Grease the bottom of an 8×8 or an oval baking dish with butter or your preferred greasing method. I love my 8 inch Le Creuset oval baker for this dish.  Scatter your fruit in the bottom of the greased pan.

In a medium bowl, combine the oats, brown sugar, maple syrup, baking powder, cinnamon and salt.

In another bowl, whisk the eggs with the milk(s). Add the vanilla and stir until combined. Add the milk mixture to the oat mixture, along with the melted butter.

Pour the mixture over the top and spread it out evenly. Sprinkle the 1/2 nuts on top, if you are using. Bake for 40-45 minutes until the top is golden and the oats are set – jiggle the pan and it will not jiggle if it is set. Serve warm.

Halloween Seven Layer Dip

Halloween is a tricky holiday. I never really liked it as a kid, which seems odd now, but I have a distinct memory of wearing one of those t-shirts that said “This is My Halloween Costume” at age 8. Such a killjoy, I was; I’ve come a long way.  Then, I married a Halloween-lover. Our first Halloween as a couple (which was two weeks after we met), I went into a tailspin trying to come up with an impressively funny/sexy/adorable costume, and failed so miserably that I still laugh about it.

I tried to be “sushi” by tying two sewn black pillow cases around myself, wearing a white long-sleeved shirt, and using tiny orange and red balloons as the fish roe. I put chopsticks in my hair. My balloons all deflated, and my nori belt made me look closer to a sumo wrestler than a cute roll of sushi. No one knew what I was, and most people actually scratched their heads while looking at me. When I met up with my now-husband at the party, he was standing in the street, leaning against a car, dressed head to toe in black, with black hat and eye mask, holding a real sword and doing an insanely good representation of Zorro. As you can see, I married up.

All this is to say that I’ve always kind of avoided Halloween until I met my husband, and as marriages go, it sort of helps to try to be into the things your spouse is into, so I’m trying really hard these days. Since having kids, we’ve hosted Halloween at our place, and I always make chili (I’m sure this is universal due to the fact that it stays hot and feeds a crowd cheaply throughout the night). We’ve come up with some amazing family costumes for the past few years, and last year, I came up with this dip to serve to the crowd.

This recipe is inspired by my dear friend Ashley. She is a woman of several stellar recipes. She makes an egg bake that she serves at almost every party she throws, and it makes you forget your name. She says its mostly cheese, but it truly has 4 ingredients and I could eat it at every brunch party from here until the end of time. She also makes a seven layer dip. Last Fourth of July, she made it in a huge sheet pan to look like a flag, and that inspired me to find one that I could do for Halloween.

This is the kind of crowd-pleaser that can be thrown together in advance, feeds a crowd, and has that Pinterest-worthy theme-y-ness to it that Halloween is known for. I love making this in a huge, flat, sheet pan, with a lid. People, if you don’t own sheet pans with lids, let me show you the light. They make prepping for parties and even taking dinner to someone’s house so much easier. I like this method better than making it in a 9×13, because it gives you plenty of surface area for your scene, and for cheese.

Halloween-Themed Seven Layer Dip

2 16 oz cans of refried beans

32 oz sour cream, with 6 oz reserved

2 packages of taco seasoning

3 8 oz packages of pre-made guacamole – I love Wholly Guacamole because it’s smooth and easy to spread

2 cups of finely shredded mexican or cheddar cheese

1 4 oz can of whole pitted black olives

1 4 oz can of sliced black olives

2 bags of scoops tortilla chips

tomatoes (I used grape, but any are fine, chopped or sliced in half)

green onions (optional)

a ziplock bag for piping

First, take out 6 oz of the sour cream and put it into a ziplock bag. Then, mix the remaining sour cream with the two packets of taco seasoning.

Spread the refried beans into the bottom of a quarter sheet pan. Spread them evenly. Top with the carefully spread sour cream mixture. I find it helps to put dollops all over the top and then spread with an off set spatula. The third layer, the guacamole, is the hardest to spread, so you will want to use the dollop method and spread very carefully. If you mix the layers, you can always “cover” with the shredded cheese to hid your mistakes. This layer takes the longest. When you’re done, cover the edges with cheddar cheese, leaving the center uncovered. Snip off the corner of your ziplock, and pipe the sour cream into a web-shape (as pictured). Using a paring knife, cut three of the whole olives in half for bodies, and then six more into 4 strips each for legs. Sprinkle the sliced olives and tomatoes around the edge, and green onions if you want (or depending on if kids are eating).

 

Instant Pot Chicken Tikka Masala Soup

I have never understood the concept of take-out. While I know that many of you relish your take-out rituals, I am pretty much in the camp of: if I’m home it should be homemade (cereal and scrambled eggs count), and if I’m paying to eat out, I want it to come with a side of atmosphere and no dishes to load. Not counting the first year of life with #twoundertwo, we have probably only had take-out a handful of times in our lives.

Still, life with two toddlers has confined us more and more to eating at home, and lately I have found myself missing the comforting flavors of Indian and Thai food. I have found that my little ones eat really well when I make soups/stews – one pot meals that they don’t have to think about dissecting or picking apart. They tend to be a little pickier when food is separated on the plate. They have also developed more of a flavor for heat lately – stealing my wasabi soy almonds out of my purse, and begging for more spicy chili and chipotle laced sweet potato fries.

So, when my friend Kristine posted a recipe for Chicken Tikka Masala soup straight out of one of my all-time favorite Atlanta restaurants, Souper Jenny, I knew I had to have this recipe, and adapt it for the Instant Pot.  My goal was to make it a little more vegetable-laden, double it so that it would feed us with leftovers, and ensure that it really had the punch of Indian flavors. It isn’t spicy, but it does have a richness and depth of flavor.

I really try to avoid recipes where I have to buy a lot of new ingredients, so I loved that I had most of these in the pantry and only had to buy a new jar of garam masala. Next time, I think I will totally nix the potatoes in favor of cauliflower florets (I was so close to doing it, but didn’t have time to chop up my cauliflower and my Instant Pot was too full to have both.)

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Chicken Tikka Masala Soup (adapted from Souper Jenny)

Every Monday night in our house is soup night. As I shared in my meal planning post I try to cook two meals every Monday, and usually they are both soups. We eat one on Monday night, and we eat the other for lunches throughout the week. This will fill your 6 quart Instant Pot; if you have a smaller one, reduce the liquid. This will feed a family of four with three extra bowls for lunches leftover. I served it with cilantro and extra greek yogurt as a garnish.

3-4 lb boneless, skinless chicken thighs
2 cups plain greek yogurt
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon chili pepper flakes
2 teaspoons garam masala
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 large finger ginger, grated (I always freeze mine, and I never peel it)
2 14.5 oz cans of crushed tomatoes
3 cups Yukon gold potatoes, chopped
2 cups of frozen peas
2 cups carrots, peeled and chopped
20 ounces coconut milk (about a can and a half)
2 teaspoons of better than bouillon
water
fresh cilantro

extra greek yogurt for garnish, or to tone down the heat for little palates

Marinate your chicken thighs whole with yogurt, coriander, cumin, chili, garam masala, salt and pepper for at least an hour, or up to overnight.

While the chicken is marinating, heat your instant pot on the saute function. Add 2 tablespoons olive oil and saute ginger and garlic and carrots until softened. Be careful, they will easily burn.

Remove chicken from yogurt, shaking off excess marinade and add chicken to the instant pot, stirring to saute the chicken on all sides (it will be crowded). Add the tomatoes, potatoes, peas, chicken broth, coconut milk and any remaining yogurt marinade. Set to manual for 25 minutes. Remove the chicken with tongs and shred it and add it back to the pot, or shred with a tongs in the pot. I use a scissors to cut up the chicken for the kids once it’s in the bowl.

Garnish with fresh cilantro, more red pepper flakes and greek yogurt.

 

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Drink Your Soup: Butternut Squash, Leek & Apple Soup

Back in California, on a crisp morning last Fall, we were invited to the sweetest little Saturday morning birthday party at a park. She made it a “breakfast” theme and each seat had a little plastic cereal bowl with a built in straw, a box of cereal and little spoons to match. The kids got to decorate their own pancakes and eat them, and the adults noshed on bagels and lox and mainlined Peet’s coffee.

Well, I brought those little bowls home around the same time that I fell in love with this one-pot, instant-pot soup from Skinnytaste. This cookbook of hers is so sticky and coated after a year of constant use, it’s a wonder that the pages even open to my favorite recipes anymore.

The good news is that you no longer need to risk life and limbs to cut butternut squash. I’ll never do that again. Use a 2 lb container of store bought, pre-chunked butternut squash. The leek in this recipe gives it that something special. I put this together today while my kids ate breakfast. When I got back from preschool drop off, I added the coconut milk and used my immersion blender to blend it up. I have a whole jar of the liquid gold in my fridge now. I will typically eat a mug of soup for lunch because it’s easy and I can do it standing while I feed my kids at the counter top.

Oh, and back to those genius bowls. They’re perfect for soup. My children won’t eat this Fall soup without their special bowls, but they will ask for seconds and thirds. Make this, because, October, and don’t be surprised when it becomes an easy stand-by on rotation in your home.

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Slightly adapted from Skinnytaste’s Fast and Slow cookbook

2 lbs pre-cubed butternut squash

1 granny smith apple, cored and cubed

2 carrots, peeled and chopped

1 leek, white parts only, roughly chopped (be sure to scrub the grit hiding inside first)

2 tsp better than bouillon chicken

2 cups of water

1/2 cup of coconut milk

Add all of the vegetables, BTB and water to your Instant Pot. Set to manual for 15 minutes. Natural release or quick release. Add coconut milk. Use your immersion blender to blend it til smooth. If you don’t have one, order one (because it’s sooo great for IP recipes like this) or transfer carefully to a blender and blend until smooth.

This whole process can be accomplished in the crockpot on high for 4 hours, and then blended within.

Serve in mugs. Serve children in little bowls with straws. Enjoy!

 

Perfection is Overrated (and a recipe for Bourbon Pork Tenderloin)

Your life looks perfect.

Do your kids ever cry?

You make it look so easy.

Over the years, I’ve heard these phrases and many more just like them from friends, acquaintances and people on social media. In the age of Facebook, it seems we are all eager to present our perfect lives to the world. Husbands and wives declare their love for one another, parents only post perfect photos of their kids (do you know how many takes it takes to get a perfect photo of kids? It’s about the same as the number of licks it takes to get to the center of a blow pop), and most of us shy away deliberately from the tough, vulnerable stuff. When we do become vulnerable,  it often causes people to worry and rush to our aid. You make one post about crying yourself to sleep (I mean, at least you slept!), and then all of a sudden your mother starts blowing up your phone wondering if you’ve lost it and asking if she should she book a plane ticket. I digress.

Hearing these questions always caused me to cringe. Is my marriage perfect? Is my husband perfect? Are my kids perfect? Of course not. Do I try to share a positive image of my life, but be true to the ups and downs? Yes. But maybe I needed to try harder. The year that George was born, my husband was out of the country for 6 months total on TDY travel. I sleep trained alone, potty trained alone, and celebrated my kids’ birthday alone. I fought to lose my post-partum weight, to feed a massive cluster-feeding child who was never satiated, and keep up with the tantrums of my growing toddler, mostly alone. I say alone, because, #soloparenting, but my village held me up that year, and made it possible for me to thrive.

Still, it was during that year that I started to be more honest about my life on social media, and it was when I felt like I finally developed a voice that said – here are the highs, here are the lows, wouldn’t have it any other way, please come give me a hug if you’re in the area (and could you also pick up a rotisserie chicken for me? kthanks.) That voice is the voice that resonated with so many moms I knew, and in honing that voice, I became a much more authentic version of myself. I’m a recovering perfectionist, here to say, this is my life. I am not editing it for you. I barely have time to pee more than once most days (must work on this), so I promise you, I’m not cooking something just so I can take a picture of it.

A few years ago, my sister-in-law told me about a book she was reading. In the book, it asked the question: what would you do more of, if you didn’t have to do it perfectly?

Talk about a question. It has rung in my brain for years since she posed, it, and I’ve answered it in more ways than one. I would entertain more. I would write more. I would pick up the phone more.

***

Last week, I took Marilyn to her first dance class in Virginia. She had been missing dance so much this Summer, and then her first class was canceled because of the hurricane. This dance studio is tucked back behind a community pool and a dilapidated Marshall’s, but once you’re inside, surrounded by Nutcracker costumes, pink leotards and ballerina buns (the required attire), you feel like you’re where the magic happens. We moms dropped our littles at the end of the hall as directed, prayed they wouldn’t be the ones who had to pee during class, and gathered on the couches to anxiously await their return.

I fell quickly into conversation with three moms, and before the hour was up, we had exchanged phone numbers. What would I do if I knew I didn’t have to do it perfectly? Start friendships.  With our group text established, I sent out a message inviting the families over to our house for Sunday dinner.

In the past, analysis paralysis would have taken over, and our Sunday would have been ruined. Ask my husband about the 20,000 things I have over-committed to throughout the years, and how the whole family is sent into a tailspin because of my stress levels. But, I’m recovering. Through minimalism, and through a more authentic exploration of who I am and who I want to be, I’ve committed to myself and my family not to overdo things anymore. Side note, an excellent book on this topic is Present Over Perfect.

Over the last two years, I’ve honed the art of entertaining (maybe I should call it gathering) without pretense. The secret? Affordable food that can either be 1) made in advance and kept warm easily (aka chili, soup) or 2) food that can be made in advance and doesn’t have to be served piping hot (for me, usually that means grilled meat) and 3) paper plates and 4) tolerance for chaos. Some of the best Sundays of the past year have been spent in our house, surrounded by friends, with kids eating on the floor and adults in every corner. I wanted to recreate that feeling here.

**

This Bourbon Pork Tenderloin is one of the most versatile, easy, show stopping proteins out there. It cooks in 30 minutes or less,  has a ton of gorgeous surface area for soaking up all of the marinade, and it slices up so easily, you barely need knives. I have rarely met a man, woman or child who eats pork who didn’t love the simple tenderness and flavor of a pork tenderloin.

We buy ours at Costco, and they come in 2- 2 packs. Cooking and marinating two makes a nice dinner for our family of four with leftovers. We doubled this recipe and grilled 4 tenderloins for a crowd of 6 adults and 6 kids and still had leftovers. I planned my menu around this recipe, which I sliced and served on a wooden cutting board with simple boiled corn on the cob (with garlic herb butter from Trader Joes) and easy oven sweet potato fries. Guests brought bread, wine and dessert. I took the kids to Target and let them pick out paper plates for their friends. George picked Avengers and Marilyn, shocker, picked mermaids.

Community is formed when we let down our walls. Gathering doesn’t have to involve fine china, perfectly planned menus or months of advance planning. So, what would you do if you didn’t have to do it perfectly? 

And finally, add this into your entertaining rotation!

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Bourbon Pork Tenderloin

2 pork tenderloins (3-4 lbs total)

4 large garlic cloves

4 tsp fresh ginger

1/4 cup of dijon mustard

1 dash of hot sauce

1/4 cup soy sauce or coconut aminos if you’re paleo or avoiding soy

2 tsp worcestershire sauce

1/4 cup brown sugar

1/4 cup of a neutral oil (vegetable, canola, or olive oil)

1/4 cup Kentucky bourbon – we use Maker’s Mark

Chop your garlic and grate your ginger with a microplane (don’t peel it!). I freeze my ginger so it grates really easily and we always have it on hand. Mix with the rest of your ingredients and marinate your pork tenderloins in a ziplock bag for a minimum of 2 hours, and up to 8 hours.

Grill it on direct heat (medium coals) until it reached it’s an internal temp of 135 and then place on hot coals for a sear for 5 minutes, turning until all of the sides are well-seared. Alternately, you can cook these in the oven at 350 for 25-30 minutes, until they reach an internal temperature of 145.

 

 

One Pot, Fifteen Minute, Italian Meatball Soup

Can we hear it for the one pot meal? But not the mushy 20,000 calorie casseroles of our youth, the healthy, flavorful prodigal children of the beloved Instant Pot. And before you stop reading because Insta-what?, this recipe will work just fine in a crock pot, too, but I can’t guarantee your husband and children will parade around the house proclaiming it one of your best. There is something that happens in the pressure cooker that can only be described as Black Magic. The things that happen inside the pot produce the richest and most intense flavors of anything I have ever cooked, and that is why I am forever devoted to the Instant Pot. That being said, the one pot soups and stews of the IP fit a little better into my Fall menu lineup, so, BBQ grill, I will miss you, but Instant Pot, you’re back in the twice-a-day rotation, girlfriend.

This recipe came to me via my friend Margo. Margo is part of the sisterhood of the Instant Pot, and much like me, she is the primary caregiver for two darling littles under the age of 4, which means that her meals literally have to be cooked while her toddler takes an extended potty session, or eats her lunch with a snail-like pace that can only be mastered by toddlers, or when she is sometimes able to roll out of her kids rooms like a Ninja and they both still stay asleep. What I’m trying to say is, if time is not your friend these days, this recipe simply must make it into your rotation. Choose it for that crazy night when karate stacks on top of ballet and your husband has the late meeting, and you have a thing early so you have that elusive 15 minute window to cook in, but you don’t want to order pizza, because, health.

Margo and her friends riffed on this recipe a fair bit before it came to me, and then I took liberties to riff further, and I’m so glad I did. The end result is like a big bear hug in a bowl – meaty enough to please the biggest carnivores (half my family), veggie-laden enough to make it a one-pot meal, and comforting enough to give solace to even the busiest of families. Plus, leftovers. I never make anything without leftovers.

One-Pot, Fifteen-Minute, Italian Meatball Soup

Serves 8 generously

4 teaspoons of beef better than bouillon (yes you can sub beef broth, but it won’t be as good- BTB is the jam)

2 14.5 oz cans of petite diced tomatoes with oregano and garlic (or just plain ones are ok, too)

8 cups of water

1 package of organic frozen veggie blend (I use the Organic Foursome from Trader Joe’s)

1 cup of acini di pepe pasta (or orzo, or something else teeny tiny, but buy the acini di pepe and keep it in stock if you can)

1 teaspoon of dried italian or greek seasoning (I love Penzeys the most)

1 cup of marinara or jarred pasta sauce – your preferred flavor and brand

30-40 frozen meatballs of your choosing (we love the Trader Joe’s brand and use about two bags, or we have recently started buying Costco frozen meatballs; Trader Joe’s also makes turkey meatballs which are even healthier)

I’ve always wanted to say this. Put all of these things in the pot (except the pasta), and close it, set it for 25 minutes on manual or if you’re using the old crock pot, for 6-8 hours on high. Forget about it. After a quick or natural release, open and add the acini di pepe, close and set for 4 minutes on manual. Open, take in the aroma of happiness and love in a bowl. If you’re using a crock pot, add the pasta for the last 30 minutes of time.

I serve with a bit of grated pecorino romano cheese.

Let me know how you like it!

Note: Update: This recipe works best in an 8 qt instant pot; if you have a smaller one, I recommend reducing the liquid or the meatballs by about 1 cup. Thanks for writing in, readers, to let me know! 

 

 

My Pizza Secret

I have a secret. I love pizza but I never eat it. It’s just that I love so many things so much more, and in the quest to become fit and wear scandalous bathing suits on my anniversary trips, I’ve kind of broken up with pizza. My family suffers with me. Since I make 99% of the food decisions under this roof, they haven’t really had pizza in…a long time. If you ever have us to your kid’s birthday party and my kids and husband eat all of the pizza, now you know why.

What about Califlour-based crusts, you ask? Well, I’ve been nosing around that trend for a while and was shocked to find that the average cauliflower crust is still 500-600 calories and filled with more ingredients than I can list or pronounce.

So, when my childhood friend told me about her new obsession – Cali’Flour pizza crusts, over the summer, I was kind of counting the days til we could move into our new house and stock our freezer with these bad boys. Cali’Flour pizza crusts have 180 calories in the entire crust. 180! All of the ingredients are real foods that you can pronounce, and there are only five ingredients.

They come in Italian, Red Pepper, and my favorite, Jalepeno. They are thin and crispy and the perfect vehicle for all of your favorite toppings. Last Friday, we topped ours with proscuitto and lightly dressed arugula. The kids love them, too. They have no idea what they are eating.

Friday nights have become pizza nights in our family, and with as hard as I’m working at the gym, I love finishing the week this way. I can’t recommend them enough.

They are not sold in all stores, but they are shelf-stable. They last best when frozen and are sold online at https://www.califlourfoods.com/ – we order ours online. Try them! You will not be disappointed, and you can let pizza back into your life again like I did.

If you do decide to purchase, do me a fave and use my link: http://fbuy.me/kqGEa