Mac & Cheese Taste-Off

The much anticipated Mac & Cheese Taste-Off finally arrived! Ok, so I was probably the most excited…but it was amazing! So good! So fun!

Birthdays are a super big deal to me. This year I had about 5 birthday celebrations. Each amazing and all involving delicious food. I decided to have a dinner party style Mac & Cheese Taste-Off at my apartment with friends.

I read about an annual mac and cheese face off on a blog I love: Wicked Good Travel & Activities and thought it was a fantastic idea. I was brainstorming taste-off ideas since the Wine Off in January.

I invited everyone to come and enjoy. They were welcome to enter one, or enjoy one of the many mac & cheeses here. We got many more than I even expected! There were 10 entries! I made 2 thinking that it would help the number of entries. Ha! My competitive and culinary inclined friends proved we didn’t need help with the entry numbers!

Mr. J made really awesome ballots with criteria including: cheesiness, noodle texture, creativity, and overall taste complete with voting bubbles and printed on orange and yellow paper. We had name cards for chefs to name their dish and let everyone know what the featured cheese is.

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Here they are:

1. Bacon & Scallion Mac & Cheese in a calzone (or outside the calzone!)
featuring: Cheddar & Cream Cheese score: 278

mac&cheese_calzone_290_200 2. Spicy Sausage Mac & Cheese
featuring: Cheddar score: 289
3. Chicken Bacon and Ranch Mac & Cheese
featuring: Cheddar, Asiago, and Monterey Jack score: 232
mac&cheese_ranch_290_200 4. Southwestern Mac & Cheese (that was mine!)
featuring: Pepper Jack & Cheddar score: 292
5. Classic Mac & Cheese (mine too!)
featuring: Gruyere & White Cheddar score: 229
mac&cheese_290_2006. Jalapeno Surprise
featuring: Kerrygold Cheddar score: 258
7. Children in India Are Starving
featuring: Gruyere score: 234
mac&cheese_india_290_2008. White Truffle Mac & Cheese
featuring: Asiago score: 284
9. Winning
featuring: Cheddar, American, Mascarpone score: 270
10. Pepper Jack Mac & Cheese
featuring: Pepper Jack & Cheddar score: 161

I was wowed! They were all soooo good. Not a bad one in the bunch! One recent Mac & Cheese I made wasn’t amazing, you may remember it here. This time I really turned it around. My Southwestern mac and cheese had ground turkey with taco seasoning, roasted red peppers, cheddar, pepper jack and taco seasoning in the cheese sauce. I took my Dad’s advice and mixed in some sour cream before it baked. My classic had orecchiette, Gruyere, Sharp White Cheddar, and breadcrumbs on top. This one was by far my favorite. I use buttermilk and I think it made a nice difference.

Tallying the scores was very hard. It was fun to have different categories with so many entries but it made scoring take a long time. We awarded prizes of grow-at-home herbs, Easy-Mac, Kraft Mac & Cheese, Annie’s Mac & Cheese, and naked mac (aka noodles). The top 3 also got fun award ribbons.

I didn’t take as many photos as I would have liked but there’s always next time. I think next time I’d do it in rounds or recommend half batches to better fit them into the oven. Somebody had a great idea of bringing a crock pot to keep it hot (I should have done that)!

We brainstormed all the other ideas. 10 may have boarded on too many. Half mac & cheese and half brownies would have been a fun competition. Wings? Burgers? Pizzas? The sky is the limit of taste-offs!

There was beer, wine, champagne, and sangria (red wine, cranberry vodka, lemonade, and apples) as well as some light aps. I was really grateful that there were so many friends and so many mac & cheeses! It was a great way to celebrate 27.

Chopped at Home

I love watching Chopped not only for the food factor, but the competition aspect! I’m not always in the mood to be told how to make something on another cooking show. Plus, that 10-second countdown at the end of each round? Eeeek! It’s also fun to see where the chefs have come from and I love some of the judges.

My sis and I play chopped sometimes. It brings us back to the days of Ready-Set-Cook from ‘95. Ready Set Cook had studio audience members bring mystery ingredients to cook along side the chef.

On Chopped, there are 3 rounds: appetizer (20-minutes); entree (30-minutes); dessert (20-minutes).  Each round includes a basket of mystery ingredients which need to be included (in any amount) in the meal with any of the pantry items. We don’t always make 3 courses and we definitely don’t have a time limit.

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My ingredients:

Cannellini Beans
Zucchini
Israeli Couscous
Whole Peeled Tomatoes

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Sis’ Ingredents:

Leeks
Thin Cut Pork Chops
Spam

Our Meal:

Pork chops in mustard sauce
Couscous with spam and leeks
White bean, leeks, zucchini, and tomato hash

Directions:

Chop the leeks and bathe or salad-spin the dirt/sand out of them.
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Mix dijon mustard, chopped garlic, salt and pepper together and spread onto the pork chops while a grill pan is heating.
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Drain tomato and bean cans before dropping into a skillet. Add leeks, chopped zucchini and season generously with salt, pepper, and italian seasoning.
chopped_hash_290_200Finely chop spam and pan fry as if it were bacon.
Start cooking the couscous while adding spam and leeks. This will take about 5 minutes so set the pork chops on to grill.

The spam was totally the curve ball here. I have to say, it’s not as weird when sliced into small strips and fried until crispy. Sis and I eat our share of pork so we went with it.

The pork chops were good! I think our sauce had a nice not overpowering flavor. It was a good quick fix that will come in handy sometime in the future.
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I loved the hash. It also provided a good vehicle for leeks 2 ways. It was fresh and a nice medley.

We toasted the couscous before adding the liquid for a more nutty flavor. Spam was the salt factor and dropped leeks in as well.
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Overall, I think our meal would have scored well…it did by our critique! Sis’ idea for leeks 2 ways was a good one…it tied everything together. I ate the leftover veggie hash for lunch and it was still good. I probably wouldn’t have given much credit to canned tomatoes but it was a great variation from my usual sides.

In the past we’ve made ratatouille stuffed, pita chip crusted pork tenderloin with green beans and no-bake chocolate marshmallow cookies.

I highly recommend you try this game sometime! It’s a good challenge to use something you have on hand or to try something new…spam?

I have several of birthday meals to post soon (Figs, Amrheins, and the Mac & Cheese Taste-Off) so stay tuned!

Not-Your-Average-Sandwich

Mr. J and I had lunch with my parents at their house and were lucky enough to join while they recreated a restaurant favorite. They ride bikes on a trail in Bristol, Rhode Island and pass an unassuming sub shop called Ricotti’s. One sandwich has captivated them. Our lunch was a recreation at home.
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Turkey, bacon, cranberry, tomatoes, and melty cheese are the highlights in this. Mum made one big sandwich and we all dug in.

Ingredients

oversized loaf of white bread, uncut
turkey breast, cut in thick slices
3 slices bacon
3 slices cheddar
jellied cranberry sauce
1 tomato sliced
lettuce

Directions

Hollow out the bread by slicing off the top and scooping out some inner bread.
Layer slices of turkey, cheddar, and bacon.
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Replace the top and bake at 350 degrees for 10 minutes just to melt the cheese and warm everything through.
After removing from the heat, layer tomato and lettuce before replacing the bread top.
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Slice and enjoy!

They were right, it was a really good flavor combo. Mum thought baking it mid-way through layering the fillings was key. This meant the sandwich was warm and melty but still had the crisp lettuce and juicy tomatoes.

I liked the cranberry but since I love tart cranberries so much, I would have liked whole-berry cranberry sauce. Mum and Dad like a marinated turkey breast that they had for dinner and used some leftovers for this lunch!

Everyone liked it…definitely a crowd pleaser. It was a fun lunch and Mum even whipped up dessert. Stay tuned for that!

I Hate to Bake (well, hate is a strong word)

Allow me to introduce you to the  I Hate To Cook Book by Peg Brackenand an easy chocolate cake!Anyone can make this cake…even a non-baker like me! I grew up with homemade cakes, cookies of all varieties, cream cheese frosting, trifle, yogurt coffee cake, and a different dessert all the time. Mum is the best non-professional baker I’ve ever met but I rely on her for my treats and I don’t bake much.

She makes a mean Milky Way cake. I don’t love fruit desserts so I lean towards something with chocolate or caramel or nuts…why not all three?!

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Our family doesn’t deviate from our favorites. Birthday cake is ALWAYS chocolate ring of coconut fudge cake. Nobody will choose anything different. I was at my parents house for lunch and Mum whipped up a cake to go with it. It’s one we made way-back-when and it’s like a wild card…play it when nobody is expecting it.

Ingredients

1 ½ cups flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 cup sugar
3 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons cocoa
5 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon white vinegar
1 cup water

Directions

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Assemble dry ingredients in a 9 x 9 pan and stir to combine.
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Add wet ingredients and stir well.
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Bake at 350 for 20 – 30 minutes.
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(It’s a bit tricky to remove from pan.  Don’t be in a hurry.  If you are in a hurry, serve it directly from pan.)

It is fluffy and actually tastes like chocolate. I hate cheap brown cakes…they’re not chocolate! I inherited an intense love for chocolate from both of my parents. Dad loves something chocolate after certain meals.

All desserts are welcome in my world, especially to help me celebrate my birthday on Thursday! Stay tuned for my Birthday Mac & Cheese Taste-Off!

The Pork is More Than Just Brine…With Butternut Squash Risotto

I don’t end up cooking much meat so I’ve never brined meat before but there’s a first time for everything. I was excited for a new technique.
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I set the country style boneless pork ribs set up in brine for the workday. The pork should absorb a lot of liquid and when this cooks off, the meat will be more tender. True story.

Ingredients

2 cups ice cubes
1 cup cider vinegar
¼ cup salt
¼ cup brown sugar
1 tbs peppercorns

Directions

Boil cider vinegar.
Add salt and sugar stirring until dissolved.
Add ice cubes and peppercorns.
Put pork into the brine and let sit for 8 hours.
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To cook, remove from brine, smother with bbq sauce and bake for 1 hour, covered.
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The pork came out smelling amazing! It was uber tender. Fork tender…no knives required. It would have been really special with homemade barbecue sauce but was so good and I was really happy with it.

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I made butternut squash risotto to go with it. I love risotto and don’t make it nearly enough. It is creamy and delicious with so many variations! I’ve made a weight watchers one with tomato juice and zucchini. The tomato juice makes it red, flavorful, and creamy without being overly acidic. Enough about that, onto today’s risotto.

Ingredients

1 cup aborio rice
2 cups vegetable broth
2 cups butternut squash
½ cup white wine
¼ cup Parmesan cheese

Directions

Toast aborio, stirring consistently until golden.
Heat broth and wine on medium low.
Steam butternut squash and add to rice.
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Add ½ cup broth until absorbed and repeat until all the liquid has been absorbed.
Serve with plenty of Parmesan.
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The risotto was sticky and delightful. The squash was a perfect addition. What a great orange color! Needless to say, I ate leftovers for days. I thought making a ½ cup of rice might be weird to have strange quantities but we definitely had more than enough. Maybe arancini will be a fun use of these leftovers.

New Neighborhood Burger Joint: Boston Burger Company

Mr. J and I had a simply wonderful day feeling famous during our engagement photo shoot. Seriously. At times the lens on the camera was about the length of my arm and people were looking to see if we were famous. I was nervous but it was SO fun. Afterwards we were “all dressed up with nowhere to go”. Well, we weren’t super dressed up so we could pretty much go anywhere! We broke out a Groupon for Boston Burger Company and could just stroll there from our apartment.
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We got even more excited while we waited in a crowded hallway of the tiny restaurant. We scoured the menu while we waited so it definitely felt like we earned it.Our meal started with an appetizer of mac and cheese bites. So amazing and cheesy. The noodles were the slightest bit al dente. Marinara dipping sauce always seems weird to me with these but the citric acid is a great contrast.
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We got fries, not because we actually needed them but how could we pass on one of the 12 variations? Most of ‘em came home with us but they were delicious! We got garlic Parmesan and really loved them. They were thick cut and had a strong zing of garlic which I love!
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I chose “The Pilgrim” which is a turkey burger with homemade cranberry mayo, stuffing, and American cheese. I swapped out the cheese for cheddar 1) because I like it better than American cheese and 2) because I thought the sharpness would be nice against the sweet and tart cranberries.
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It was so great to see such a substantial amount of cranberry spread on there. I was really impressed and loved every bite. Ohh, you’d like to see a cross section? Sure!
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Mr. J got the “Ranch Burger”. It was a beef patty with bacon, American cheese, and ranch dressing. He really loved it. The bacon was piled high but didn’t seem like it was over the top. Normally he leans towards burgers with without cheese but with blue cheese crumbles or blue cheese dressing. Did you notice the buttery grilled bun? Yum!
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The burgers come with coleslaw or baked beans (we went with the slaw, which was good). They also come with homemade potato chips. These were really impressive! I loved how much the rich potato flavor came through!

The waitstaff was so great. I’ve waited tables and these ladies knew what was up. It is such a small restaurant but there was a really bubbly vibe.

Luckily we could mosey on home after filling up while toting to-go boxes. I already know what I want to get next time.

Stone Potato Pizza

Let me profess my love to the pizza stone! It has changed the way I make pizza and I just can’t wait to make more! I’ve been dying for one and I make pizza and calzones regularly so it was just a matter of time.

I made this awesome Potato Pizza that I’ve made before and it seemed like a whole new pizza! The dough was just a refrigerated dough ball from the grocery store but it baked so differently on the stone! It was fluffy and doughy and the outside and bottom was beautiful and crispy.

My mum gifted the stone to me and I am truly excited. I was very careful to not put the stone into a hot oven (it’ll crack) and not to use dish soap (it’ll absorb it). Since it’s only for pizzas, calzones, and the like, I’m sure we’ll live a long and happy life together. Also, Oneida brand holds a special place in our hearts since Mum grew up in Oneida, NY.
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Spoiler altert: I wasn’t sure I was getting it off but thankfully with a few knives and spatulas, I did. Phew! It was a scary few minutes though. I should have oiled my new stone more.

Ingredients

1 large potato
pizza dough
2 slices bacon
½ cup alfredo sauce
½ cup cheddar cheese shreaded
½ cup mozzarella cheese shreaded

Directions

Preheat oven to 425 and put pizza stone into the cold oven while preheating if using a stone.
Cook bacon until crispy.
While the bacon is cooking, allow dough to get to room temperature.
Finely slice a potato into paper-thin slices (look how well I did even without a mandolin!).
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Spread dough out and top with alfredo (or garlic & oil spread).
Layer cheeses and potato slices over the top of the pie before topping with chopped bacon.
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Bake 30 minutes at 425.

This pizza is a great change from the norm. There’s nothing healthy about it but it is comforting and delicious. I cannot believe how much the dough puffed up! It was shocking and super exciting to see it happening!
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I really have to exercise some constraint to NOT open the oven the whole time to peek in and smell it coming together. The hotter the oven, the better the pizza. The potato cooks pretty quickly since it is so thin but I didn’t overlap them very much either.
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We top it with a little drizzle of ranch dressing but have topped with chives before too. It is so good and I highly recommend making it. Omit the bacon and voila, you have a vegetarian one! Pizzeria Uno’s has an appetizer of a deep dish pizza that is a “stuffed potato” using mashed potato, cheddar, and bacon…now that I also have a deep dish pan maybe that’ll come soon too!

I love that pizza makes such great leftovers and is amazing the next day for lunch!

Itsa meatball!

I made meatballs for the first time ever. Well, not never, but I made them by myself for the first time. I can’t eat red meat so if I want meatballs, they have to be turkey and it usually means I eat them at home after buying them.

When I was little I remember making meatballs. My mum would put all the ingredients into a bowl and dad would let us help roll and cook them. I think as a kid I probably thought she was “letting us help” but it was probably more that she doesn’t like to handle meat with her hands because of the “ick” factor.

We would get some cooking and then make a big one with all the remaining mix and giggle relentlessly before continue to roll them.

Even after buying some frozen turkey meatballs at Trader Joe’s (theirs are the best!). I decided to make some and they were AMAZING, if I do say so myself. This is a prime example of a simple meal, made with really great ingredients, and letting them speak for themselves.

Ingredients

¾ pound ground turkey
2 links sweet Italian sausage
1 egg
1 cup bread crumbs
½ cup milk
2 tbs parsley
2 tbs minced garlic
2 tbs Parmesan cheese
½ cup red wine
salt & pepper

Directions

Remove sausage from casing.
Mix bread crumbs and milk. Let sit a minute.
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Combine ground turkey, sausage, egg, parsley, garlic, Parmesan, wine, salt and pepper. Add breadcrumb mix and combine well.
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Form into balls depending on your size preference. I went with larger ones.
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Heavily oil a baking sheet.
Bake 30 minutes at 375 degrees, turning every 10-15 minutes to evenly brown.
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I was so happy with these! I thought sausage would provide enough fat for moist meatballs instead of proscuitto or bacon, but those would be good too. I was super diligent about turning them to ensure that they cooked evenly. I could have fried them but baking them was way easier.

I’ll continue to purchase them but they weren’t a big deal to make myself. The wine was a HUGE flavor enhancement. A few glug glug glugs of a pinot noir that was already open definitely added some depth of flavor.

They smelled simply amazing! Have you met my sous-chef Windsor? He was standing by, under my feet in our tiny kitchen as usual. I think he was super excited to see what delicious item was coming out of the oven! Even with that cute face he still doesn’t get anything I make.
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Part of my inspiration to make some came from another blog I love We Are Not Martha. Theirs were featuring prosciutto and were pan fried. I literally read the recipe and thought, ooo red wine would be good with these as I channeled my wine-loving college roommates as inspiration. Parsley isn’t my favorite so I just used dried parsley. Rosemary would be good.

I served these with a basic red sauce and spaghetti. I thought my meatballs were good enough and deserved to shine! I’m so proud!
meatball_plate_290_200I didn’t make a ton of meatballs but now that I know this recipe is a winner I’m sure I’ll make more and freeze them. I will probably also make some cute little ones to freeze for appetizers or soup. They aren’t that much effort and I keep thinking about all the exciting additions! Spinach very finely chopped would be good, sun dried tomatoes, maybe a little nugget of mozzarella? Mmmm the possibilities are endless. I also love sweet & sour meatballs which would definitely highlight these guys.

Dinner from the Depths of the Fridge

Every now and then meals should be easy to whip together or comforting…or both!! They can’t all be amazing, sometimes the goal is simply dinner.

I was digging around looking for inspiration in the fridge when I realized there are a few items in my fridge I couldn’t recall buying. Totally uninspiring. Cleaning out the fridge went onto my to do list but dinner was still a necessity.
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Anywho. I found some fresh spinach, some chicken sausage, a too-small-for-pizza-dough-ball. Time for a little experiment!I decided to try wrapping the chicken sausage in some dough and balancing the weight with a side of wilted spinach.

Ingredients:

2 bamboo skewers
2 chicken sausage links
pizza dough (size of a tennis ball)
salt, pepper, garlic powder mix (also known as Jane’s Krazy Salt)
3 cups fresh spinach
½ cup roasted red peppers, sliced
2 tbs lime juice

Directions:

Skor the sausage and insert a bamboo skewer in each to keep the shape.
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Stretch the dough out and wrap around the sausage. Secure each of dough on the skewer. Lightly roll in olive oil and season generously.
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Gently wilt spinach and roasted red peppers.
Flavor with lime juice.
veg_limedress_290_200Bake 20 minutes at 350 degrees, turning to ensure even cooking. The chicken sausage is fully cooked so only the dough needs to cook through.

I used my fav lime salad dressing. It goes with everything! This dressing is great for a touch of citric acid or Mexican salad. It makes a great marinade too.

The dough was ok, but puff pastry or crescent rolls would have worked better. I didn’t want to encase the sausage because I thought it wouldn’t stay perfect and the look of this was half the interest. I was going for a pigs-in-a-blanket appearance.

Maybe this isn’t my signature dish but it was yummy and was ready in 30-minutes. Serve with some mustard and call it dinner.

Love-ly Potluck

My office decided to have a Valentine’s Day potluck with the theme: food we love. I made sis guess our theme for Valentine’s Day and she guessed: food that bad for your heart. Also, a fun theme…for another time.

I love breakfast so I made Ebelskiver. These stuffed pancakes are fantastic and highly portable. Potlucks are so much pressure because reheating with only a microwave and toaster oven doesn’t do everything justice. Also, since I travel to work on public transit my choices can also be limited.

These stuffed pancakes became fast favorites of ours after I gave the pan to Mr. J for his birthday. I did 2 fillings: raspberries and chocolate chips. Some other favorite fillings are: jelly, sausage, brown sugar, coconut, and peanut butter.

Generously spray pan with non-stick spray. Pour pancake batter half way, add filling ingredient and add more batter on top.
ebilskiv_choc_290_200Williams Sonoma sells fancy turners but after a $40 pan I decided we would get creative. I can whole heartedly recommend cheap bamboo skewers.
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Some other loved items at our potlucks include:

Somebody loves: Thai Noodles in Peanut Sauce with Asparagus and Cucumbers
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Somebody loves: Matzo Ball Soup
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Somebody loves: Kale Salad with Mango & Sunflower Seeds
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Somebody loves: Queso Dip
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Somebody loves: Care Packages (you can’t see the neutella brownie inside and I ate it before taking a photo)
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Some others love salad and pasta salad.

It was such a fun theme. Some of our past themes have been: picnic food; dip day; and back to school lunch food. I can’t wait for our next potluck!