February In Review

Happy end-of-February (and also, almost-my-birthday)

I don’t know why I haven’t given you a little “favorites of the moment” recaps except for on my blogaversary. Here you go!

annnnnd you’re welcome.

February has been a snowy & busy month. Mr. J and I (along with all New England residents) got about 2o” of snow in one sitting. We’ve been back and forth to Maine a few times to see the C family. I hosted our February R family dinner.

Work is bananas in February. As in, it is so frenzied that I have the “I feel like I came to class without my homework” feeling. Did that feeling paralyze you? I’ve had the pleasure of dealing with some incredible difficult personalities within my local bureaucratic permitting agencies. #EventLifeIsntSmoothSailing #CitiesHateNonprofitEvents

What else happened this month? I got hopelessly addicted to Downton Abbey. I’ve completed season 1 and I can’t wait for more. Thanks to all who haven’t ruined season 2 & 3 for me. We “adopted”/brought home/took custody of the C family dog, who got her Three Bite Rule debut here.
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Anywho, moving on, and into the kitchen…

I made foolproof French Bread Pizza
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I got the sweetest gift ever…literally.
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I had fun checking out a new-ish local chocolate shop with some fellow bloggers. And I enjoyed cooking up a storm during the Blizzard of 2013.

Success! I attempted a Chinese dish in the crock-pot that was awesome!
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I baked. I rarely do, so savor it!
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I whipped up a few smoothies so be sure to check them out and recommend other smoothie ideas for me!

I stuffed meatballs too. The fam enjoyed them at our Red Themed February Dinner.
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This weekend is my birthday so buckle up. I LOVE birthdays and will have lots to share. Happy almost March!

Mozzarella Stuffed Meatballs

For our February Monthly Family Dinner with the R family, I chose red as the theme, for Valentine’s Day. Originally I thought maybe eggplant/chicken parm. Then I thought meatballs would be fun and even more fun when stuffed with mozzarella. I haven’t made meatballs in a while. This is my basic meatball recipe‎ and I loved my Greek meatball recipe.
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I started with a pretty basic meatball base then stuffed them with mozzarella before baking them. Yup, I don’t like to fry things.

Ingredients:

¾ pound ground pork
¾ pound ground chicken
2 eggs
⅓ cup grated Parmesan
½ cup breadcrumbs
½ cup panko
¼ cup milk
2 tsp Italian seasoning
1 tsp garlic powder
¼ cup red wine
salt & pepper
1 head of garlic (or 2 tbs chopped garlic)
mozzarella cheese sticks

Directions:

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Cut off ¼ inch off the top of the garlic bulb and remove a few outer papery layers leaving only 1.
Drizzle olive oil and a pinch of salt onto the exposed garlic before roasting for 30 minutes (45 to make pure paste without any texture).
Mix breadcrumbs, panko, and milk together.
Mix ground pork, chicken, eggs, Parmesan, spices, and wine together by hand.
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Pop garlic cloves out of the head. Chop or smooth into a paste.
Add garlic and breadcrumb mix to the meat mix. Combine by hand until combined.
Cut cheese sticks into about 5 cheese chunks per stick.
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Form meatball mixture into disks, add a cheese chunk and mold meat around it.
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Bake meatballs on a sprayed cooling rack on top of a sprayed baking sheet.
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Bake 20 minutes, rotating once.
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These were fun! I left them in too long (shoot for 20, not 30 minutes like I did. The meatballs were super moist and flavorful, but the cheese started to escape! I’ve used cheese sticks to stuff arranchini because it is much easier to work with then shredded cheese.
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I served the meatballs with penne in a creamy marinara, salad. Sis brought garlic bread and Mum brought cherry pie and vanilla ice cream.
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It was a fun dinner and we caught up after a busy month. I’m glad I paired the meatballs with other easy elements. I made sure not to overcook the pasta. All I did for the sauce was add some cream cheese into the sauce. It added a great creaminess and extra extravagance to the meatball dinner. I make my own croutons but was glad not to also tackle dessert.

What I Ate: Tortellini Soup with Sausage and Spinach

This is so easy I wasn’t going to blog it, but those are famous last words which then became the What I Ate series. I whipped the soup up on a cold day and it was a hit! This is a super easy soup that could easily be customized by what you have around. I had spinach to use up or freeze. I had seen some crock-pot soups with tortellini but that is an ingredient that definitely doesn’t benefit from cooking forever. This could have been a one-pot-wonder if I had only cooked the sausage first.

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Tortellini, Spinach, and Sausage Soup

Ingredients:

1 jar light Alfredo sauce
1 cup chicken broth
1/2 cup milk
1 tsp garlic, chopped
1 tsp Italian seasoning, salt, and pepper
3 sausage links
1 bag frozen cheese tortellini
3 cups baby spinach

Directions:

Add Alfredo, broth, and milk into a large pot over low heat.
Cook sausage links and slice into disks when cooked through.
Add garlic, seasonings, cooked sausage and tortellini to the pot, bringing to medium heat and cooking for 7 minutes.
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Test tortellini. When fully cooked, add spinach and stir.
Cook for 1-2 minutes and serve.
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I liked that this one was creamy but not super thick. The spinach reduces greatly even in just a minute so load it up, that’s the healthiest part of the soup!

Girl Scout Cookie Bars

Samoa Girl Scout Cookie Bars

adapted from Baking Bites

These cookies are Girl Scout Cookies-gone to the bar. Hahaha. I crack myself up. I gave these to Mr. J as and I-owe-you at Christmas when I had lots of cooking before our holiday celebration with each family, and had plenty of holiday cookies around. I finally made ‘em and they were a baking success!
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Ingredients for Shortbread Base:

½ cup sugar
¾ cup butter, softened
1 egg
½ tsp vanilla extract
2 cups flour
¼ tsp salt

Directions for Shortbread Base:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and spray/flour/line with parchment a 9×13 baking pan.
Using a stand or hand mixer, cream sugar and butter together.
Add egg and vanilla and mix well.
Gradually add flour and salt, mixing until crumbly.
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Press doughy mixture into the pan and make a few holes with a fork.
Bake for 20 minutes until golden brown. (Note: the base should be somewhat cooled before topping and topping cannot be prepped in advance to using it. Also note: I used a little pan but it was too thick.)
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Ingredients for the Topping:

3 cups shredded cocoanut
1 bag wrapped caramels (16 oz) unwrapped
¼ tsp salt
¼ cup milk
8 oz chocolate chips (or drizzle with chocolate sauce)

Directions for the Topping:

While shortbread base is cooking (or cooling if you prepped it in advance), put cocoanut onto a cookie sheet (with sides/edges) and spread into an even layer.
Bake for 15-20 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes, or so, until evenly golden brown.
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While coconut is toasting, start unwrapping caramels.
Melt caramels over a double-boiler or in the microwave. Stir occasionally.
When partially melted, add milk and salt.
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Stir toasted coconut and caramels together.
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Spread coconut & caramel topping onto the shortbread base.
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Allow to cool somewhat before drizzling melted chocolate chips or chocolate syrup.
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These are not exactly as tricky as they might first seem. I’m not a baking connoisseur, so I’ve listed steps so you’re ready for the next one. I stuck to the recipe (I never deviate when baking) except that I used a 9×9 pan and the shortbread was wayyyy too thick. It didn’t seem like it until I baked it and it puffed a lot.

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The flavor was good and as bars, they were much less work than shaping cookies etc. These guys won’t exactly fool anyone into thinking they are sold by your local girl scout, but a 4-something a box, you could make a LOT of pans of these bars for that price.

Heat

Heat by Bill Buford: An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany

I haven’t written about a foodie book lately but this one wrapped me right in. I didn’t care that I didn’t know the name. I was intrigued that this guy worked for Mario Batali so I felt like I got to know that star, by way of Bill Buford. He became a kitchen “slave.”

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I learned right along with Bill as he made his way through the stations in Mario Batali’s kitchen. It really sounds like a humbling experience given just what kind of learning curve it was from being a talented home cook to the bottom rung of the food chain chopping carrots for hours on end. Buford provides a lot of insight and life to the “characters” in the restaurant industry. There’s a lot of realness and upfront personalities behind the scenes at a restaurant.

In an effort to round out his education, he goes to Italy to learn pasta. I’d do that right now if you want to fund my trip! Ha! I actually don’t really want to learn to make my own pasta…there are some things I think are better left to the professionals. I haven’t been to Tuscany but I wouldn’t pass up a trip! It would be amazing to eat my way through Europe…not exactly Eat Pray Love style, but I’m sure you can imagine it too.

He goes back seeing an Italian butcher lesson. That is really fascinating because he finds a real talent. It was endearing to read about the culture in a tiny Tuscan village. I think what really made an impression on me was not the picturesque setting, but rather the pure passion they all have. These butchers and pasta makers do everything they can and everything they know to do it the right way.

I had a freak-out moment (#MomentsTurnedMonths) in grad school when I was so desperately unsure of my future. I worried what to do if I had a job that I knew I never loved. I felt claustrophobic. I was living with 3 girls who all hated their jobs/lives/futures. I interned where everyone was constantly annoyed by others around them. It terrified me. I left. I left grad school. I left the publishing industry. I left the terrible roommates. I made the right choice. I wanted to do something I could be good at. I wanted to do something that mattered. I wanted to feel happy at the end of the day.

I don’t want to be a chef. I don’t want to apprentice and work 80-hours-per-week in a kitchen. I’m happy to cook what I like and share that here. I admire that Bill Buford knew it wasn’t too late when he worked his way through the kitchen.

At the end Batali asks him about a restaurant. Buford says what every reader is (probably) hoping he’ll say. No, he doesn’t want his own restaurant. He wants to keep learning from the best. He’s hungry for more knowledge.

Peanut Butter, Banana and Nutella Smoothie

My go-to breakfast is often a smoothie. I got a pretttty awesome new Nina blender with single serve smoothie attachment. I ran my last one into the ground (circa 2004?). It is still kicking but my new one is freaking amazing.

Smoothies are filling enough when there’s protein (read: Greek yogurt) and several servings of fruit. My key is liquid to make it blend nicely (milk or low-calorie juice). I was craving nutella too, which is a new ingredient for my smoothies.
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Ingredients:
¾ cup vanilla Greek yogurt
1 small-medium banana, sliced
¼ cup reduced fat peanut butter
2 tbs nutella
¼ cup milk (if needed)

Directions:
Add yogurt and banana into the blender.
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Add peanut butter and nutella
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Blend until smooth.
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Add milk as needed.

I loved this one. It was sweeter than some of my other smoothies. I think the banana with the peanut butter was perfect. It was thinner than I usually make. Freezing the banana chunks or adding ice would have made it more thick/frothy/luscious.

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Do you have a favorite smoothie combo?

Chinese Pork in a Crockpot

This was just what a snowy day needed. We shoveled a lot last weekend and it was great to have this welcoming us back with a lovely porky scent. It may have driven the pups crazy though. I know I was salivating whenever I stirred it!

This was suuuuper easy, only a few ingredients, and was definitely the best Chinese dish I’ve ever made.
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Cantonese Pork in a Crockpot
adapted from Happy Tummies

Ingredients:

1 cup flour (I used whole wheat flour)
salt & pepper
¼ cup vegetable oil
1 large onion, chopped
4 tbs brown sugar
1 can tomato sauce, 8oz
1 green pepper, chopped
1 can water chestnuts, sliced
3 tbs rice wine vinegar (or white vinegar)
1 tsp salt
2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
3 tbs sesame oil (optional)
2 cups bean sprouts
4 scallions, chopped

Directions:

Trim the fat from the pork shoulder and slice thin.
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Heat a heavy skillet to medium heat and add vegetable oil.
Add tomato sauce, onion, brown sugar, green pepper, water chestnuts, vinegar, salt, Worcestershire, and sesame oil into a large crockpot.
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Toss pork slices in flour, salt, and pepper until evenly coated. A few at a time.
Pan fry pork, turning for just a minute on each side, in batches. (They don’t need to fully cook, just get a crispy sear on each side).
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Remove and drain on paper towels.
Add pork into crockpot, stir, and turn to low heat for about 4-5 hours.
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Enjoy over rice!

This was so good. I’ve attemped only a few Chinese dishes but they’ve never been great. This was great. I like that this is a bit different and would easily vary the dinner menu.
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The pork was falling apart. It was really good, but I think 4 hours was plenty. I cooked mine for 5 ½ and think it was borderline too long. I think it could use a bit more salt. Unlike take-out Chinese, it wasn’t overly salty. Soy sauce, more Worcestershire, or table salt would do the trick.

There were only a few ingredients and I think this would turn anyone into a pork believer. I forgot bean sprouts and was so early to the grocery store they didn’t have all the produce out! I debated getting a huge bone-in pork shoulder and making half into pulled pork, but those suckers are pricey and I hadn’t ever seen the little ones.

French Bread Pizza

Hope you had a deliciously snowy weekend like I did! Just you wait. I cooked some fun stuff I can’t wait to share with you. Too bad I don’t have an recipe for snow, because we got walloped and there’s plenty to go around. I think our official count was 22 inches.

I’ve shared a great deal of pizzas but I hear all the time how annoying/tricky dough can be. I agree. It can be tough. I’ve had a few struggles myself (like here, or here), so I figured it was about time for a pizza without a doughy crust.

Enter: French bread pizza (forget that the bread packaging says Italian Bread)
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Ingredients:

3 tbs butter/margarine
1 tbs garlic, chopped
½ tsp garlic powder
4 tbs grated Parmesan/Romano cheese
sprinkle of salt, pepper, & Italian seasoning
1 cup tomato sauce
2 cups shredded mozzarella
toppings of your choosing

Directions:

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Melt butter, adding garlic, cheese, and seasonings.
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Half bread, lengthwise.
Spread butter, garlic, and seasonings onto each half and bake for 5 minutes.
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Remove from the oven and top with sauce and cheese
french_bread_pizza_tobake_590_390Add the toppings of your choice!
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Bake 15 more minutes or until melty and crisp.
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I loved how quick this pizza is. Everything is already cooked. It also cuts into a lot of pieces if you wanted to serve it at a party. 1 loaf ended up being 5 servings. I think it would be the fastest freezer meal to have on hand for when nobody feels like cooking.

The garlic base helps elevate it from a frozen pre-made pizza to an easy but delicious one. I took out half a few minutes earlier than the half we were eating that night. I hoped it’d help the lunch-reheating portion not to be overdone. That’s something you can’t do with a regular pizza!

Also, you remember my sous-chef? Here’s Windsor. He was sitting pretty but the delicious smells of pizza on the counter got the better of him. Don’t his white whiskers make him look distinguished?
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Allow me to introduce my new sous-chef. Bailee comes to us from Maine (much like Windsor) and has been a fixture in the C family for all 8 years of her life so far. She’s living with us now (and maybe for keeps). I’m also her favorite when I’m cooking. She’s a bit portly so Mr. J has a grand-slimdown-plan. So far it has only involved fewer snacks than she’s used to and a few extra trips up and down our stairs. The snow is taller than she is so she’s not overly impressed with the backyard right now.
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Ice Cream Gift

The other day, I came home from work after being gone for 12 hours to find a surprise from one of my favorite people, Mrs. Z! I’m proud to be her friend and so impressed she found ice cream to send to me. She even themed it for my life and one of my favorite shows.

Mr. J and I are doing really well dealing with everything and trying to keep on, keepin’ on. It is just so nice to hear from all the people who want to offer condolences and encouragement (note: it doesn’t get old and is greatly appreciated).

That’s just how Mrs. Z rolls. She picks you up, thinks of exactly what you need, and serves it with a smile. She’s one of the kindest people I know and I appreciate her, all the time, but especially now. She just gets me and I know she’ll have a thoughtful response to whatever I throw at her. Her hubbie, Mr. B, is equally awesome (and he was a guest blogger woo hoo!). I only hope I get to meet baby Z allll the way in Houston sometime. I don’t get to see her nearly enough, but we’ve shared some big-time memories, unforgettable moments I’ll never forget.

She sent me eCreamery! I haven’t even heard of this!
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She named it after Parks & Rec
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It was delicious mint WITH brownie bits and oreo pieces. This is seriously good ice cream…and I know ice cream ;)
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I didn’t even know you could send ice cream. A snowy New England day needs ice cream, right?

(pssst. If you’d like to repay her with some kindness, support her on her crazy adventure!)

Cocoanuts Chocolate tasting

In the midst of everything else happening in my life, I was ever so grateful to spend a random Tuesday with Blog & Tweet Boston at Cocoanuts Boston  for a chocolate tasting. Just. What. the Dr. Ordered.

It was fun for a sweet treat and encouragement to go out in bitter winter. It was great to see Liz from Eating Places and Jessica from Little Miss Runshine there!

I joined some fellow bloggers from Blog and Tweet Boston for a fun night of chocolate samples, info, and champagne!
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The owners were truly an inspiration. These best friends decided it is never to late to do what you love. They left careers in advertising and real estate (did I get that right?) to open up a shop in the North End in Boston. I loved hearing how passionate they are about quality products and their focus on local and artisan treats.
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I liked seeing other goodies, like ice cream toppings, in addition to the many candies. I thought I could easily grab a gift for anyone, for any reason. Their items range in price big time. I felt like there was lots of options to a little something and they will also build huuuuge gift baskets.
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I swooned over the toffee from Little Bits Toffee. Toffee miiiight be my favorite sweet treat. That’s a bold statement, but I’m going there…
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We also got to meet Yes Chocolates. Sadly I devoured my sticky bun chocolate before snapping a photo. It was amazing, but I couldn’t believe this Walpole, MA candy maker hadn’t been to the town institution, Watson’s Candies, which has been in business continually since the 1930s. Tisk. Tisk. It is my alma mater/high school job. My loyalties will always reside with Watson’s.

That being said, Cocoanuts was super cute, classy and creative. I loved the inside and was thrilled they thought of the blogger community to introduce themselves.
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Are you drooling yet? They’re hosting a wine & chocolate tasting on Thursday Feb 7th 6-8pm. 

Full 3 Bite Rule Disclosure: I attended this complimentary event as part of the Blog and Tweet Boston group. The product samples were completely complimentary but my experience, thoughts, opinions, and words are entirely my own.