Category Archives: Food

Roasted and seasoned party pecans.

Go Nuts!

It’s been a month (or three) since I last posted to happy food. Yet here it is, the end of September, and Bryce and I are finishing up another round of Whole30. If you read my posts about our first Whole30 experience and thought we were crazy, you’ll be even more convinced of that knowing we willingly chose to make another go of it. And we’ve decided to do it again right after the holidays. In fact, we’ve committed to making it a quarterly event, so for the foreseeable future, we will be livin’ la vida Whole30 every January, May, and September. The program made that big of an impact on our lives back in May and again this September.

But I’m not here to ramble on in praise of Whole30. You can read more on that by checking out my three posts summarizing and reacting to our first Whole30 experience. I’m here to talk about a delicious, nutty snack that just happens to be Whole30 compliant–Party Pecans! Truth be told, though, if it weren’t for Whole30, I may not even be talking about them…at least not yet.

In the past Party Pecans always made me think of Christmas, mostly because every year my mom or dad threw together a big batch of them to serve in holiday-themed candy dishes placed strategically throughout the house. You know, on the end table next to the couch, alongside the bowl of Christmas candy on the dining room buffet, or directly on a plate of Christmas cookies served after dinner. It was always about easy access and providing the perfectly salty foil to the sweet of those Butterfinger Bells and sugar cookies.

My perception of Party Pecans solely as a Christmas treat changed while Bryce and I embarked on our first Whole30 adventure. While reading through the program rules and regulations, it makes clear that nuts like almonds, cashews, and pecans are an important component to Whole30. But it also makes clear that nuts like almonds, cashews, and pecans roasted or otherwise cooked in certain oils are off limits…eliminating many of the varieties available at the local grocery store, including the ones sold in bulk bins. What to do?

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with raw or dry roasted nuts, but as someone wise once said, variety is the spice of life. Figuring out how to add new and compliant flavors to the bags of raw pecans in our cupboard made my family’s Party Pecans came to mind. And I am sure glad they did. The combination of garlic, celery, and table salt used to season the pecans gives them a craveable, almost umami quality, working great as a quick, satisfying snack when hunger would strike in the middle of the afternoon. We found that they didn’t just serve as a compliant snack (even if snacking is technically verboten), also tossing them into salads to add a much needed dose of crunch. Barely a week went by in May without Bryce or I cooking up a batch of Party Pecans, a habit we’ve kept up in the months following our first Whole30 excursion and especially this past month on our return trip down the Whole30 highway. But regardless of whether or not you’re doing Whole30, if looking for a fun and tasty twist on regular old pecans, try this Party Pecan recipe–you might find yourself going nuts for them!

1/4 c cooking oil (Whole30 followers, we suggest avocado or coconut oil)
1 lb raw pecans
1 tsp. table salt (popcorn salt works well, too)
2 tsp. celery salt
1 tsp. garlic salt

Preheat the oil in a medium-sized skillet over low heat, just until hot. While the oil is preheating, combine the salts. Then, add the pecans to the skillet and increase heat to medium, cooking the nuts for 3-5 minutes or until browned. Be careful during this step–the pecans have a tendency to go from, “Umm, are these ready?” to “Oh, crap! They were ready but now they’re burnt!” quite quickly.

Once browned and the yummy aroma of toasting pecans has permeated the kitchen, pour the cooked nuts onto a cookie sheet lined with paper towels. Sprinkle the seasoning over the still warm pecans, toss to evenly coat, and enjoy. We used to leave them out in a bowl on the counter, but when they mysteriously disappeared in a day or two, we decided to keep them in an air-tight plastic bag instead.

Note: You may find using the entire batch of seasoning too salty. Over time, we’ve reduced the amount we use by sprinkling the pecans with a little bit of the seasoning, tasting them, and adding more as needed.


Livin’ la vida Whole30

What if I told you I didn’t make (or eat) a batch of blondies for an entire month? What would you say if I casually mentioned that I also hadn’t eaten any cheese during the same time frame? Nor any soy OR corn products? Would you believe me? Had you been following my blog previously or happened upon it by accident, you’d most likely be skeptical–especially since happy food started with ice cream. Heck, had you asked me in March if my May menu would exclude these items, I’d have thought you were crazy. But over the month of May, Bryce and I consciously decided to do just that as we embarked on a life-changing, month-long, nutritional journey and digestive reset, otherwise known as the Whole30 Program.

How did we get there, you ask? Well, earlier this spring, Bryce stumbled upon the Whole30 Program somewhere on the Internet. Knowing him, he probably discovered it on one of his trips down a Buzzfeed rabbit hole. He pored over the details of the program and declared in early April that he was going to start this diet thing he found called the Whole30 on May 1. Piqued by his seemingly sudden interest in the program, I asked for more details. That’s when he told me the diet cut out all dairy, soy, grain, legume, and sugar products (real or artificial). No milk. No cereal. No peanuts or peanut butter. No alcohol. No soy sauce. No ice cream. No popcorn. No butter to put on the popcorn. You can perhaps see why I initially balked at the idea. All of these things are staples, right? I told him and myself there was no way I could do this. I mean, 99% of the time, my day started with a bowl of Fruity Pebbles and cup of coffee sweetened with cream and sugar. How could I manage an entire month when the only allowable part of my typical breakfast was the coffee–as long as I drank it black?

As I continued to contemplate joining Bryce on this adventure and he continued to read about the Whole30 Program, I became more open to the idea and he became more obsessed with the plan. Over the course of a couple of weeks, I went from a definite not-gonna-happen to a solid it’s-a-possibility to a resounding when-do-we-start? You might wonder what changed my mind, and actually a combination of factors led me to hop aboard the train.

  • First and foremost, the enthusiasm and commitment with which Bryce talked about the program turned out to be quite contagious. Listen to him highlight all of the good things about Whole30 for twenty minutes, and I dare you not to want to start it yourself!
  • Second, the more informed I became about the reasons behind the program, the more attractive it became. Sure, at first glance the program seems all about limiting your food options, but it really focuses more on what you can eat rather than what you can’t. Plus, by cutting out the types of foods that commonly cause all sorts of inflammation, Whole30 allows your digestive system to reboot–which is what forms the whole foundation of the program.
  • Third, the potential benefits and countless testimonials (eventually) outweighed the daunting task of giving up cheese, bread, beer, and peanuts for just 30 days. Dallas Hartwig and Melissa Hartwig, the brains behind Whole30, convey in their books and on their website that when properly executed, the regimen can lower blood pressure, reduce cholesterol, improve seasonal allergies, and even alleviate problems associated with chronic diseases. Add to that almost guaranteed weight loss while still eating lots of good food, joining Bryce on this trip seemed a no-brainer. It may even start to sound pretty enticing to you now…and that’s before you read more about the great things Whole30 can do for your body.
  • Fourth, with school done for the summer, Bryce would have some time to prepare and cook many of the compliant foods we would need to make it through the month. That’s not to say I wasn’t interested in helping with meal preparation. I do love to cook and experiment, after all. But realizing ahead of time that staying on track would require a larger time commitment in the kitchen and that I’d still be working full time, we understood our success largely hinged on one of us having more time and energy to devote to the plan. No classes for Bryce to teach = better chance to keep the Whole30 train on track.
  • Fifth, and perhaps most important of all, choosing not to do this together would have almost certainly derailed any individual attempt made by either Bryce or myself. We had to be a team to make the Whole30 program work in our house, and confronting a challenge like this would require continual commitment, patience, creativity, and support.

So, while I started the month of April thinking I’d never agree to this Whole30 nonsense, I ended the month excited (and more than a little scared) to start on this adventure. Come May 1, we were livin’ la vida Whole30.IMG_1583

But wait, there’ll be more! Coming up…Livin’ la vida Whole30 (Part 2), in which I recount our emotional ups and downs during May. Then, after that, Eatin’ la vida Whole30 will provide a rundown of the culinary hits and misses we created during our Whole30 experience. It’ll be all about the food!

One Pot Wonder

It’s been a while, dear readers, since I last shared my culinary adventures with you. Apologies! Since last May, I’ve graduated from grad school and started two new jobs. Though life, in general, keeps me busy–and all of us really–I haven’t forgotten about happy food. In fact, I am constantly thinking up new blog posts about the food & drink I make or encounter and snapping what I consider to be artful snapshots of said happy food & drink, probably annoying those around me–especially in restaurants.

Now that summer is officially over and we’re all getting into the groove of autumn, the time for one-pot meals is upon us once more. These meals take the form of soups, stews, and everyone’s favorite–what most of y’all call casseroles. As a born-and-raised Minnesotan, however, I know them to be hotdishes. (And no, autocorrect, you can’t separate hot from dish…it’s all one word, don’t cha know.) So, forgive me for calling casseroles by their true name of hotdishes, I just can’t bring myself to do otherwise.

Not just for potlucks, hotdishes provide a hearty, satisfying meal by combining all the components of a delicious dinner into a single cooking vessel. One-pot meals are actually a tradition that date back centuries, when people did not have access to multi-burner stoves, double ovens, and the cornucopia of food we can find at our local grocery stores today. Often, a single cauldron over the hearth fire was the only way people cooked, and sometimes the only way to make a chunk of meat edible was to cook the crap out of it. Though that is no longer the case for many of us, the one-pot method remains an essential part of our everyday lives. By cooking everything in the same vessel, we concoct a magical brew of sorts, one that can take the agony out of preparing an elaborate meal while allowing the process to enhance and highlight the flavors of individual ingredients.

Growing up, my parents were no strangers to the hotdish. They could transform a pound of ground beef or a couple cans of tuna fish into some of my favorite week-night meals. A few of their staples included Franco American Spaghetti Hotdish, Tuna Hotdish (with crushed potato chips, of course),  and Goulash. But my absolute favorite family recipe remains Wild Rice Hotdish. Back in the day, my mom & dad’s recipe combined white rice, wild rice, ground beef, onion, mushrooms, and one of the foundations for any good hotdish, cream of chicken soup. With the savoriness of the beef and mushrooms, the heartiness of the cream of chicken soup and white rice, and the earthy bite of the wild rice, the traditional recipe is mouthwateringly delicious and perfect for those crisp, fall evenings.

If you’ve read many of my blog posts, you already know I’m not one to leave well enough alone. Rewind a winter or two ago–time goes by so fast these days, its hard to distinguish one winter from another–when I confronted the leftover half of a Costco rotisserie chicken staring at me every time I opened the refrigerator. Each time it seemed to call out to me, as if to ask, “What are you waiting for? I’ve been picked apart. Ransacked. Left as an unattractive, unappetizing version of my former self. Please, transform me into something much more dignified.”

Taking the chicken’s plea to heart, I pulled the recipe box filled with my family’s most treasured traditions off the shelf in search of my mom and dad’s famous Wild Rice Hotdish recipe. Though I remember my parents always using ground beef, I wondered if there were concessions if I wanted to use chicken instead. Alas, right there on the recipe card in my mother’s handwriting, it read: “Note: Can substitute chicken for the ground beef.” Of course I could, I didn’t need the card to tell me that, but when facing the daunting task of changing a family recipe, it’s always comforting to know that you have permission to do so. I then went to work using up the bits and pieces of leftover rotisserie chicken, and because of that, I reached into the freezer for some homemade chicken stock to replace the beef bouillon requested by the original recipe. The resulting alteration to my family’s Wild Rice Hotdish recipe exceeded all expectations, and the finished product truly lived up to the legacy of a one pot wonder. One that tantalized the tastebuds, warmed the soul, and honored the cherished memories of family dinners.

Bowl of wild rice hot dish.

Rotisserie Chicken & Wild Rice Hotdish

1/2 c. wild rice
1/2 c. white or brown rice
4 c. chicken stock
1 medium onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, finely diced
3 stalks celery, chopped
4 tbsp. butter
1/2 rotisserie chicken, pulled or chopped into bite-size pieces
8 oz can mushroom stems & pieces
2 cans cream of chicken soup
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. garlic salt
1 tsp. fresh cracked pepper

Preheat oven to 325.

Combine rices in a mixing bowl. In a medium sauce pan, bring 3 cups of the chicken stock to a boil, leaving one cup for the hotdish. Pour the heated stock over the rices and let steep for 15 minutes.

While the rice is steeping, melt the butter over medium heat in a large dutch oven.* Sauté  the chopped onion, chopped celery, and diced garlic for 5-6 minutes or just until the onions and celery start to soften. Toss in the chicken, and cook for another minute or two until the meat is thoroughly heated. Stir in the contents from the can of mushrooms (including the liquid), the cream of mushroom soup, the remaining 1 cup of chicken stock, and the seasonings. Finally, drain the rices before combining them with the mixture.

Cover and bake for 90 minutes. Serve immediately.

* If you don’t have a large dutch often, sauté the meat and vegetables in a large sauté pan before combining all of the ingredients in a large casserole dish.

Traditional Ground Beef Variation:

Replace the rotisserie chicken with 1.5 pounds of ground beef, browning it amid the onions, celery, and garlic after they’ve been sautéed.

Note: The flavors develop best if prepared the night before and refrigerated until it’s time to bake.


Simple Summer Sandwiches

A few weeks into July and summer is in full swing…days are hot and seemingly endless. People are packing up their cars and hitting the road for quick trips to the beach and heading out of town for weekend camping excursions. These are the days of campfires and s’mores, swimming and lawn games, fireflies and thunderstorms. We wait all year for this time of year, especially when the winter before refuses to loosen its grip. Let’s be honest, few of us want these summer days to fade away despite the often sweltering heat, including me–a die-hard winter fanatic. And sometimes the last thing we want to do is plan and prepare complicated meals…they prevent us from taking advantage of all the wonderful activities summer has to offer.

Last summer, while on vacation with my family, everyone took turns making the day’s main meal. Though everybody admittedly made delicious meals, if I had to choose one best new and innovative recipe (at least to me), I would have to give the award to my sister, Melissa. She introduced us to the wonder of crockpot turkey sandwiches, a recipe that requires a crockpot, a package or two of store-bought hamburger buns, and three ingredients. That’s right, just three! Turkey breast, ranch seasoning, and butter. Basically, you throw all three into the crockpot, turn it on low, and let the slow cooker work its magic. Eight hours later, simply take two forks and shred the turkey meat to serve pulled-style on a hamburger bun. You’ll have such delicious, flavorful, mouth-watering turkey that you’ll swear someone snuck into the kitchen while you were out enjoying the beautiful summer weather and added some secret ingredients to your mixture. Alas, no kitchen elves are required, and these simple sandwiches are the perfect solution to getting the most out of every summer day.*

Crockpot Turkey Sandwiches

Crockpot Turkey Sandwiches

3 lb. boneless, skinless turkey breast
1 packet of ranch seasoning (3 tblsp. bulk ranch seasoning)
1 stick of butter, cut into four or five chunks.

Place all ingredients into a crockpot. Cover, and cook on low for approximately 8 hours, at which time use two forks to shred the turkey breast. Serve immediately with hamburger buns. Makes approximately 12, 4 oz. servings.

Bryce and I recently utilized this recipe when we headed off to spend the day at the beach with some friends of ours. We added an onion, chopped, to the bottom of the crockpot. It was perfect! We came home to the smell of roasting turkey and a meal ready to enjoy, complete with caramelized onions to stir in. But because it’s just the two of us, we were faced with quite a hefty amount of leftovers. In addition to enjoying a few more turkey sandwiches throughout the following week, we also reconstituted the pulled turkey into a number of different recipes. Bryce added diced onions, potatoes, and fried eggs to make a turkey hash. I stirred in some Sweet Baby Ray’s BBQ Sauce, making BBQ Pulled-Turkey Sandwiches and Nachos. The possibilities are many!

* The turkey sandwiches prove useful all year round, not just during the busy summer months.



I have a confession to make…I’m a big fan of buffalo chicken dip. Made with blue cheese or ranch dressing, cheddar or mozzarella cheese, I care not. Paired with tortilla or potato chips, celery or jicama sticks, I do not discriminate. I simply love the spicy goodness of a buffalo wing whipped up and baked into a creamy dip. Who doesn’t? In fact, my penchant for this Super Bowl staple served as the inspiration behind a recent culinary experiment of mine, where I transformed ordinary, hum-drum sliders into mouth-watering buffalo chicken sliders. Yes, you read that right. Buffalo. Chicken. Sliders.

Now, I realize I can’t claim to be the original creator of such a concoction. I’m sure everyone from Rachael Ray to Rick Bayless has a similar recipe or method for either buffalo chicken sliders, buffalo chicken meatballs, buffalo chicken burgers, or–dare I say it–buffalo chicken meatloaf. (Hmmm, might have to try that idea out sometime…) Regardless, when inspiration struck, I avoided the urge to google a recipe and came up with my own flavorful mix of ingredients, and my Buffalo Chicken Sliders were born. Truth be told, I hadn’t set out to make sliders. At first, my plan was to make buffalo chicken meatballs. But the pliability of the ground chicken when combined with the hot sauce, egg, and freshly chopped vegetables prevented the mixture from remaining spherical once scooped and formed into balls. Even before they hit the hot oil, the meatballs flattened into patties, a process accelerated as they cooked. So, what was intended as a dinner of Buffalo Chicken Meatballs accidentally turned into a delicious meal of Buffalo Chicken Sliders, a happy accident that I will undoubtedly recreate in the future…and one you should try if you like buffalo chicken dip and sliders.

Buffalo Chicken Sliders

Buffalo Chicken Sliders

1 lb. ground chicken
2-3 tbsp. Frank’s Hot Sauce
1 tbsp. ranch seasoning
10 crackers, crushed (I used Ritz)
1/2 celery stalk, finely diced
1/2 small onion, finely diced
1/2-1 tsp. fresh cracked pepper
1 egg
Cheese, shredded or crumbled–your choice

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Cover the bottom of a large, oven-ready skillet with a thin layer of peanut or vegetable oil (approximately 3 tbsp.) and preheat over medium-high heat. While the pan is heating up, combine all ingredients–except the cheese–in a bowl until well mixed. Divide the mixture into eight portions. To make eight evenly-sized sliders, I used an ice cream scoop and scooped the raw sliders onto a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. (I also rolled the portions into balls, but I’m not sure that is necessary.) Once the oil in the pan is hot, place the raw chicken mixture into the pan, leaving a little room between each slider, and listen to that sizzle! Sear the sliders on each side until crisp and brown, approximately two minutes per side. Transfer the pan of seared sliders into the oven for 12-15 minutes to finish cooking, ensuring their internal temperature reaches 165 degrees. Just before they’re finished cooking, remove the sliders from the oven, top with your favorite type of cheese–I used shredded cheddar, but mozzarella, monterey jack, or crumbled blue cheese would compliment the buffalo chicken, too–and return to the oven just long enough to melt the cheese (about one minute). Once the cheese is melted, take them out of the oven and serve with your favorite buffalo wing accoutrements, with or without a bun.

A couple of notes: On the Frank’s Hot Sauce–feel free to add more if you’d like. Two to three tablespoons gives the sliders a nice, subtle buffalo chicken flavor. If you prefer a more intense buffalo chicken experience, toss a little more into the mix. Or serve the sliders with Frank’s on the side so people can adjust the buffalo-ness to their individual liking. Also, if your stove-top skillet is not oven-safe, transfer the sliders onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper before baking.


Blondies have more fun.


There are few foods better than chocolate chip cookies. Think about it. I mean, really think about it. Whether gooey or crunchy, mini or monster, raw or baked, chocolate chip cookies represent the Mary Poppins of tasty treats–they’re practically perfect in every way. I can remember coming home after school and finding that my mom had made fresh cookies to surprise my siblings and I. Maybe as a reward for our hard work at school. Maybe to fulfill a craving of her own. Maybe as a treat for no particular reason at all. Regardless, the lingering aroma of baking cookies, when greeting us as we walked in the door, instantly made the day infinitely better. I’m sure we didn’t even take off our coats or put down our backpacks before we snatched a cookie or two. Fresh out of the oven, the cookies were sweet, warm, comforting blankets. With or without an ice-cold glass of milk, the cookies were so much more than an after school snack–they were symbols of our mother’s love for us.

After leaving home, I would occasionally make the chocolate chip cookies my mom made for us growing up. But they always seemed too labor and time intensive to me. Usually when I wanted cookies, I wanted them right then and didn’t want to wait (how American of me). When my mom taught me how she made cookies following the recipe on the back of the Nestlé Toll House bag of chocolate chips, she insisted on mixing everything by hand. I rarely thought I had the time for that. So, over the years and out of a desperate need to expedite the process from separate ingredients to finished product, I tried several methods to speed things along. Once I melted the butter completely, but that failed miserably. The cookies ended up being the size of pancakes, and thin ones at that. Then I started using an electric mixer to combine all of the ingredients–even using it to mix in the flour though my mom told me not to. The resulting cookies tasted just as good as mom’s, and I thought I had struck gold. However, I still had to plan ahead to bring the butter to room temperature and then spoon the dough onto cookie sheets, which seemed to take a fortnight. After I stumbled upon the magical utensil that is a cookie scooper, I was excited. I realize the scoop was not a new thing–professional and home bakers had been employing it for decades. It was new to me, though, and proved to be a cookie-baking revolution in and of itself. With the scooper, the cookies took a lot less time to parcel out, and I didn’t make as much of a mess. Plus, the cookies all ended up roughly the same size and shape.

Once I got comfortable with the Toll House recipe and the cookie scooper method, I began experimenting. It’s a scary proposition, tinkering with the precise measurements required for baking. But I never seemed to hit any snags. For example–try mashing up a couple ripe bananas into the cookie dough and stirring in some chopped walnuts or pecans for banana-nut chocolate chip cookies. Yum, right? Another winning combination grew out of my fondness for the marriage of orange and chocolate. Try adding the zest of one orange to the dough for a nice fresh zip. My absolute favorite addition, though, was a cup of sweetened, flaked coconut. I’ve loved the tropical fruit/nut/seed as far back as I remember, and one day the thought just struck me–I should add coconut to my chocolate chip cookies! Since then, I rarely make a batch without coconut.

Yet as much as the baking process was shortened by the scooper and as much fun I had tweaking the recipe, making cookies still required a significant time commitment. Of course, the end product was always worth it, but sometimes I wanted cookies in less than an hour from start to finish. A couple years after I began experimenting with new mix-ins, I noticed the recipe for the bar cookie version on the Toll House bag. Score! An even faster way to turn dough into baked goodness! I had discovered my new favorite trick when I wanted chocolate chip cookies but didn’t want to spend the time preparing individual cookies–the magically delicious blondie became my lucky charm.

The blondie method allowed me a little more wiggle room for experimentation while answering my impatient calls for quick cookies, and that’s when I conjured up the mixture that remains my go-to blondie recipe. On top of the coconut flakes, I started adding bits of Heath toffee (without the chocolate), stirring in some almond extract (I love the stuff), and doubling the vanilla (how bad could that be?). Provided they’re not over baked–a mistake I recently made–the resulting blondies are soft and gooey on the inside with a little crunch from the toffee bits. A touch of saltiness from the salted butter and toffee also balances out the sweetness. They’re good on their own or topped with a scoop of ice cream (like my homemade Heath Toffee Ice Cream). Not only do blondies truly have more fun, so do I.

Coconut Toffee Blondies*

2-1/4 c. all purpose flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. Kosher salt
2 sticks salted butter, room temperature
3/4 c. granulated sugar
3/4 c. light OR dark brown sugar
2 eggs, room temperature
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 tsp. almond extract
2 c. semi-sweet chocolate chips (milk chocolate chips work well, too)
1 c. sweetened, flaked coconut
1/2 to 1 c. Heath toffee bits (sold as Bits o’ Brickle in the grocery store)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

In a medium sized mixing bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, and salt and set aside. In a separate, larger mixing bowl, cream together the butter and sugars with an electric mixer until smooth. Add the eggs, vanilla, and almond extract and beat until the eggs are fully incorporated into the mixture. Pour approximately half of the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients and mix (with the electric mixer) until all of the flour has mixed in. Repeat that step with the remaining dry ingredients, and stop mixing as soon as the flour has been incorporated completely. Dump in the chocolate chips, coconut flakes, and toffee bits and stir the dough until the mix-ins are evenly distributed. Turn the dough out into a greased 9 X 13 or larger bar pan and spread in an even layer. Bake for 25 to 35 minutes (depending on your oven and desired level of doneness). Once the edges and top are just starting to turn golden brown, remove the blondies from the oven. Allow to cool slightly–the bars are best when served warm. Enjoy!

*Adapted from the Toll House recipe



One of the happiest foods.

To accompany the recent revamping and renaming of the blog, I wanted to share a new tasty recipe. Of course, I wanted one that represents happy food on every level. To determine what that recipe should be, I got to thinking, what is one of my happiest foods? While there are plenty items that fit that bill, a certain appetizer instantly came to mind: taco dip. This creamy, seasoned and layered dip combines two of my favorite things – the flavor of tacos and the joy of snacks. I honestly think that snacks and appetizers are my favorite types of happy foods – they’re usually easy to make, fun to eat, and pair well with lavish parties or simple gatherings with friends. Think about it – there’s more than one reason happy hours usually offer a deal on such food with drink specials. Things like wings, sushi, and nachos are perfect noms for sitting around a table and catching up with great friends.

On top of that, I have fond memories attached to taco dip. When I was a kid, maybe around nine or ten, I distinctly remember having taco dip for the first time. My family would often travel to my grandparents’ summer home in rural Wisconsin, where my aunt, uncle and several cousins also lived. We’d get together, play yard games, and swap stories over various assortments of chips and dips. There’s even a traditional family chip dip served at every gathering and reunion that combines cream cheese, garlic, tomato juice, and lemon juice, but I’ll save that recipe for a different day. One sunny, summer afternoon, I sat down at the picnic table with my cousins and siblings for snacks, where my aunt had set down a new dip I had never seen it before. Chopped lettuce, diced tomatoes, shredded cheese, and sliced black olives made up the layers I could see. When I took that tortilla chip and scooped up a chunk of the creamy bottom layer, I fell in love. The creamy layer tasted like taco filling, the chip like a shell, and the other layers mimicked the traditional taco fixings. It instantly became my favorite chip and dip combination, though the occasions to enjoy it were few and far between. Fast forward ten years, and my good friend, Maggie, made the same fabulous dip for some social function at college. I had intermittently forgotten all about it, but one bite reminded me exactly how much I loved taco dip. Since then, the dip entered a regular rotation as one of my party-food staples, and every time Maggie and I get together, she typically throws together a batch for us to munch on while we reminisce about our shared memories and chat about any number of topics, from politics to travel to our current television addiction. Thus, in practically every way, taco dip defines happy food – it tastes great, it’s easy to make, and makes me think happy thoughts.

Taco dip.

Taco Dip

8 oz. cream cheese, room temperature
16 oz. sour cream, room temperature
1 packet of taco seasoning (my favorite brand to use here is Ortega)
1 jalapeño, seeded and finely diced
2 cups shredded lettuce
1 large tomato, seeded and diced
1 cup shredded cheese (I usually use some sort of Mexican or taco blend)
1 – 3.8 oz can of sliced ripe olives, drained

In a medium-sized mixing bowl, whip the cream cheese with an electric mixer until soft, about 90 seconds. Add the sour cream and taco seasoning packet, and continue using the mixer to combine all three ingredients until well mixed. Stir in the diced jalapeño before spreading the flavored cream cheese mixture into the bottom of a 9 X 13 pan/dish in an even layer. Next, sprinkle the shredded lettuce evenly atop the base layer. Repeat that step with the three remaining ingredients. Using seeded tomatoes is important because you want to remove as much moisture from them before tossing them onto the taco dip. Cover and refrigerate for an hour so the cream cheese mixture firms up. Serve with your favorite brand of tortilla chips and enjoy! If there are any leftovers, cover and return to the refrigerator. The dip lasts for two-three days before the lettuce starts to brown and the tomatoes release their remaining moisture.

Variations: (1) I often put black olives on only half of the dip, as shown in the picture above. That way, those who are not particularly fond of olives can enjoy the dip, too. (2) To spice things up, add anywhere from 1/4 tsp. to 1 full tsp. of cayenne pepper to the cream cheese, sour cream, taco seasoning, and jalapeños. Be sure to taste the mixture as you add the cayenne pepper so as not to over-spice the dip. (3) Not too fond of the layered idea? Stop after combining the cream cheese, sour cream, taco seasoning, jalapeños, and optional cayenne pepper – the base is a good dip by itself. (4) For an extra punch, add a layer of your favorite salsa between the cream cheese mixture and the lettuce.


Mayonnaise: Not Just from a Jar Anymore

As crazy unhealthy as it is, mayonnaise may be my favorite condiment. Not ketchup. Not mustard. Not Sriracha. Not BBQ. Not even soy sauce. Mayo. It just adds an extra layer of velvety richness to so many things – sandwiches, burgers, salad dressings, and even french fries. Just writing about it makes me want an order of hot, crispy fries with some flavored mayo to dip them in. Yum.

When Bryce and I had some friends over for burger night recently, I wanted to offer mayonnaise alongside the requisite ketchup and mustard. I opened the refrigerator and instantly became bored with the options staring at me from the shelves of the door. Miracle Whip is all right in a pinch, but let’s face the facts – it is NOT mayo. Save the Miracle Whip for tuna pasta salad. And the brand name real mayos? Blech. Because everything else was already prepared or prepackaged for the evening’s meal – down to the pattied burgers – I suddenly felt the urge to whip something up from scratch. I did’t know if I could live with myself if we hosted a dinner party, even such a low-key one, without some sort of homemade element. The lackluster inventory of available mayos combined with my desire to create something culinarily and led me to google recipes for made-from-scratch mayonnaise.

The top-rated return from my query was a recipe from Food Network’s Alton Brown. I clicked the link, read the recipe, and thought it seemed simple enough to execute, provided I had all of the ingredients – an egg yolk, fine salt, ground mustard, sugar, fresh-squeezed lemon juice, white wine vinegar, and oil. A quick perusal of the pantry and uninspiring fridge confirmed that I could, in fact, try my hand at Mr. Brown’s mayo recipe. After collecting the required ingredients, I set to work at creating mayo-ey goodness from scratch following the directions carefully. Although I have become more comfortable with egg-based sauces and custards over the past year (see my multiple ice cream recipes), they still cause a little hesitation, and it was my first attempt at making mayo – I didn’t want to screw things up. I need not have worried. Alton Brown’s recipe proved simple and straightforward. In roughly five minutes from start to finish, I had produced just over a cup of freshly made mayonnaise. I will definitely be making mayo again, and I recommend you give it a try as well. I may never buy a jar of mayonnaise again.

What made the homemade condiment even better? I split the batch into three smaller portions and flavored each one differently. In one, I sprinkled chili powder, cayenne pepper, and smoked paprika to transform the basic mayo into a spicy spread. I did not measure the amount of seasonings I added, I just stirred them in, tasted the mixture, and added more until I was happy with the taste. To the second portion, I mixed in a little kosher salt and fresh-cracked pepper. To borrow a phrase from the venerable Ina Garten, how bad could that be? For the third and final offering, I roasted a few cloves of garlic in an aluminum foil satchel drizzled with olive oil and a dash of kosher salt before mixing them with the mayo. I also pushed one clove of fresh garlic through a press and stirred that in with the roasted garlic for a delicious, garlicky mayo (picture below). All three sauces provided that extra something I was looking for to add a special touch to the evening. Winner, winner, burger-night dinner!

A couple notes on the recipe itself. Alton Brown calls for safflower or corn oil, but I used what I had on hand – soybean oil. The next time I hit up the grocery store, I think I’ll pick up some safflower or corn oil to try that because the soybean oil left that distinct vegetable oil flavor. Don’t get me wrong, the flavor isn’t bad – especially when masked by the addition of other seasonings and flavors – it’s just noticeable. The other thing of note is whisking – what a workout! Perhaps I should have done some stretching before hand. I’m sure you could use an electric mixer, but all said and done, I enjoyed the process of whisking together the emulsified concoction by hand.

A dish of homemade garlic mayo.


Easy like a Saturday Morning

There are few weekly meals better than lazy, weekend breakfasts, enjoyed after you can sleep in a little (or a lot) and spend the morning lolligagging before facing the freedom of the day ahead. Most typical days I stick to my trusty bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios or Cocoa Pebbles, a cup of coffee, and a tangerine. I am truly a creature of habit. But on those rare Saturday and Sunday mornings when time is not particularly of an essence, I revel in the opportunity to put together a more culinarily adventurous meal. Now, that does not mean I go crazy – I’m not making bagels from scratch or anything. After all, it is a lazy weekend morning. Instead, I tend to channel my inner-Sandra Lee and go all Semi-Homemade, just without the insane tablescapes that often make Sandra Lee’s dining room look like a craft store exploded (and not in a good way).

On a Saturday not too long ago, the universe conspired to give Bryce and I that perfect lazy morning. We had just moved the week before and definitely earned a laid back start to the weekend. So, for our first substantial breakfast in our new home, I found inspiration in a pint of blueberries chillin’ in the fridge. I contemplated making blueberry muffins or blueberry syrup before settling on fresh blueberry pancakes to go along with some crispy bacon and white cheddar scrambled eggs. For the pancakes, I started with the Bisquick recipe and then let my semi-homemade inclinations kick in. I mostly followed the instructions on the side of the box, which just combine Bisquick with milk and an egg. I changed a couple of things and added a few others – ta-da! Semi-homemade!

Truth be told, there is nothing wrong with traditional Bisquick pancakes and Golden Griddle Syrup. They remind me of my childhood, when we would have breakfast for dinner and my dad would make pancakes and bacon. He always turned those simple flapjacks into a special treat by transforming ordinary discs into snowmen or animal-shaped pancakes. On top of that, if we asked for a certain shape, he would attempt to make it. Dinner thus became more than just pancakes, it was an interactive and exciting adventure because my brother, sister, and I were involved in the creative cooking process. Experiences like those helped to inspire my own culinary evolution. Therefore, I aspire to recreate that sense of joy and human connection when I cook, much the way many cooks and chefs do (I assume).

Combining my semi-homemade skills with my proclivity to not leave well enough alone, I concocted a version of blueberry pancakes based on an alteration of the Bisquick recipe. I read somewhere that adding soda water to pancake batter helps make them fluffier, so I substituted 1/4 cup of soda water for some of the milk called for by the Bisquick recipe. I did not really notice a difference, but then again, I don’t make pancakes all that often and perhaps I did not use enough soda water. It definitely didn’t hurt the pancakes, so why not go with it? Then I added a little sugar and vanilla to amp up the flavor. Some melted butter lent a little more richness. And to compliment the blueberries, I stirred in the zest of one lemon, which provided an extra punch of freshness. Just to make sure things are coming together as planned, I usually taste-test my batter before taking the plunge and cooking it. Yes, raw eggs and all. I ain’t scared. The batter was ready. Once griddled and topped with a pad of butter and some warmed maple syrup, the resulting blueberry pancakes were not only scrumptious but easy like those wonderful Saturday mornings.

Blueberry pancakes, scrambled eggs, and crispy bacon.Easy Blueberry Pancakes
2 c. Bisquick (or similar baking mix)
2 tbsp. sugar
1 c. of milk
1/4 c. of soda water
4 tbsp. melted butter
1 egg
1 tsp. vanilla extract
Zest of 1 lemon
1 to 1-1/2 c. fresh (or frozen blueberries)

In a mixing bowl, whisk together all of the ingredients except for the blueberries. When the batter is just combined, gently stir/fold in the blueberries so as not to break them open. Part of the fun and yumminess of blueberry pancakes is when the blueberries pop open in your mouth and their gloriously tangy juice mixes with the pancake and maple syrup to make a perfect bite of breakfast. To keep them from bursting open, you can also sprinkle the blueberries into the pancake batter once you’ve started cooking it.

Ladle a spoonful of the batter onto a non-stick griddle preheated over medium heat. (Sometimes I put a little vegetable shortening on the griddle to give the pancakes a crispy edges.) When bubbles form on the raw batter side after a few minutes, flip the pancakes over to reveal the golden brown goodness that defines a great pancake. Within a few minutes after the big flip, the pancakes will be done. Serve immediately. If you aren’t quite ready to eat them yet, place them in layers on a cookie sheet lined and separated with wax paper. Pop them in an oven set around 150-175 degrees to keep them warm. Too many pancakes? No problem! After you finish enjoying your meal and cannot eat another bite, cool the pancakes completely on a cooling rack. Once completely cooled, wrap each individual pancake in plastic wrap, toss into a freezer bag, and store in the freezer. When you have a hankering for a pancake, reheat the semi-homemade goodies in a toaster oven. How’s that for an instant breakfast? Whether fresh or reheated, top the pancakes with a little butter and your favorite syrup and enjoy!

Words of caution – you may have to play with the heat settings on your stove or electric griddle so the surface is not too hot – you don’t want pancakes that burn or cook too quickly on the outside but stay raw in the center. Gooey pancakes are good, runny ones are not.


The Perfect ‘Coffeeness’

Well, I mentioned on Facebook towards the beginning of the year that I had perfected Coffee Ice Cream and promised a recipe would follow shortly thereafter. Days flew by. Then weeks. And now, nearly four months have passed, and I am finally getting around to spilling the beans. May is still ‘soon’ after January, right? I guess that’s what I get as a grad student. Now that the first year is said and done, I am looking forward to blogging a little more consistently and hope to find a way to keep up more regular postings once grad school starts up again at the end of August.

Anyhoo, back to the topic at hand – Coffee Ice Cream and perfecting the recipe…

Late last fall, Bryce whipped up some delicious coconut bars that used only half of a can of sweetened condensed milk. Pondering what we should do with the remaining half of a can got me thinking about ice cream, as is typically the case. What better use for sweetened condensed milk than an ingredient for my next ice cream making adventure? I thought it could serve multiple purposes – as milk, as sweetener, and as a thickening agent. Why I chose coffee ice cream for the trial run I could not tell you, but I was suddenly struck with a craving and went with it.

My previous attempt at making coffee ice cream turned out to be rather uninspiring. I had not yet tried the whole egg yolk tempering thing and therefore had no need to heat up the milk and cream mixture prior to freezing. As a result, the instant coffee only partially dissolved into the liquid and the undissolved granules ended up speckling the ice cream. Just not in a good way. Heating up the sweetened condensed milk, cream, milk, and instant coffee did wonders for the mixture. I also thought to myself, “Hey, Food Network chefs are always adding instant coffee to chocolate recipes, commenting that the coffee helps to make the chocolate flavor more intense. I wonder if the same is true in reverse?” So, on top of the sweetened condensed milk and egg yolks, I added a teaspoon of cocoa powder to my new coffee ice cream mix. Even before freezing, I knew I had stumbled upon a great combination. I mean, I had to taste test throughout the cooking process, right? And the resulting ice cream proved even better than expected. It was thick, creamy, and smooth with the perfect balance of milkiness, sweetness, and coffeeness. That’s right, I just made up a new word. That’s how good the ice cream was, and the recipe will be my go-to whenever we’re craving a little coffee ice cream.

Bowl of coffee ice cream.
Coffee Ice Cream

2 c. heavy cream

1/2 c. sweetened condensed milk

1 c. whole milk

3 packets of instant decaffeinated coffee

1 tsp. cocoa powder

2 egg yolks

1/4 c. sugar

1 tsp. vanilla

Add the heavy cream, sweetened condensed milk, whole milk, instant coffee, and cocoa powder to a medium-sized sauce pan and bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally. While the cream/milk/coffee mixture is heating, beat the egg yolks and sugar with a mixer on medium speed for approximately two minutes (in a medium-sized mixing bowl). Once the mixture on the stove reaches a simmer, reduce the heat and get ready – it’s time to temper the eggs! In a slow, steady stream (to prevent scrambling), add the heated cream mixture to the egg yolks while running the electric mixer to blend all ingredients together. After incorporating the eggs into the cream mixture, return the ice cream base back to the sauce pan and heat until the custard thickens, stirring constantly. This step takes approximately 5-7 minutes. You will see and feel the ice cream thicken. For a foolproof way to check if the ice cream base is thick enough, dip a spoon into the liquid and run your finger along the backside of the spoon. If your finger leaves a clean trail, it’s done. If the liquid is thin and runny, cook for a while longer. Transfer finished ice cream base to a bowl, stir in the vanilla, and refrigerate overnight. Freeze the cooled ice cream in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturers instructions. Enjoy! (Pictured above with a Timtam cookie.)