Category Archives: General Entries

Eatin’ la vida Whole30

Now comes the post I know you’re all waiting for–the one with all the food! As interesting as it is, I’m sure, to read about why we decided to give the Whole30 a whirl and what we felt while adhering to said Whole30, at the end of the day what matters most is the food, right? Well, wait no longer…just read on! Before you do, though, a little note: To save time and space, not every meal or recipe is recounted. This post focuses largely on our successes. I didn’t take pictures of the meals that didn’t work, after all. Who wants to remember those with a photograph? For recipes that correspond with the images, follow the links–most will take you out into the world wide web where we found inspiration. Others will transport you directly to recipes of our own, right here on happy food.

Moroccan Chicken & Vegetable StewDinner, Day 1: Since we hadn’t yet stocked the kitchen with compliant ingredients, Bryce found inspiration in the cupboards and online. He threw together one of my favorite dishes of the month, an amazing Moroccan Chicken, substituting thighs for whole chickens, replacing non-compliant ingredients with acceptable ones, and adding capers, artichoke hearts, and a can of diced tomatoes. The picture barely does the meal justice–it filled the house with warm aromas and tasted even better.

Day 2: Let’s go shopping! After enjoying some leftover Moroccan Chicken Stew for breakfast, Bryce and I ventured out to conduct the shop of all shops and stock our stores with Whole30 compliant ingredients. Almost $400 later and we were set for the month (and beyond). Yes, Whole30 required an initial monetary investment that was quite considerable–but what better investment than one’s own health? Besides which, the money we saved by not eating out all month helped us gradually recoup that investment. Hindsight being, you know, 20/20, I should have taken a photograph of the goodies we bought that Saturday: unrefined coconut oil, avocado oil, light tasting olive oil, unsweetened coconut flakes, eggs for days, pork shoulder, grass-fed organic ground beef, coconut aminos, spinach, sweet potatoes, jicama, grapefruit…the list goes on, and I am rambling.

To help make our first week as successful as possible, Bryce conducted a lot of Internet research the month beforehand. One of the blogs he discovered, Melissa “Melicious” Joulwan’s The Clothes Make the Girl, offered a lot of great tips and recipes, including a Whole30 week 1 meal plan. Bryce figured, and I quite agreed with him, that having prepared Whole30 foods at the ready would increase our chance of success, and because we went shopping, we could get down to business.

Curried Tuna Salad Lettuce Wrap

Lunch, Day 2: While Bryce started cooking, I whipped up some Curried Tuna Salad Lettuce Wraps for lunch. I mixed together some tuna, homemade mayo, onions, celery, sunflower seeds, salt, pepper, and hot curry powder, serving the mixture in leaves of crispy romaine lettuce. The refreshing snap of the lettuce served as an excellent vessel for the spicy goodness of the tuna salad, and we didn’t even miss bread. What started as an experiment turned out to be a recurring Whole30 recipe.

TIP: The homemade mayo recipe from The Clothes Make the Girl (follow link above) is simple to make and quite easily the best mayonnaise I’ve ever tasted. We will never go back to store bought mayo again.

Chocolate Chili, recipe courtesy of The Clothes Make the Girl blog.Dinner, Day 2: The crux of the Week 1 plan suggests spending an afternoon in the kitchen cooking up foods you can eat all week long. It involved creating specific meals (like the amazing Chocolate Chili, pictured) but also focused on prepping piece-meal items (like Italian pork roast and roasted veggies) that you could mix-and-match come meal time. At the end of our first cooking day, we enjoyed the savory Chocolate Chili mentioned earlier, spooned over roasted spaghetti squash.

Spinach & Onion FrittataBreakfast, Day 3: With a fully stocked kitchen, Bryce and I were back in business for breakfast (read: we had eggs). Having made a broccoli scramble on Day 1, I thought I’d mix things up on Day 3 with a spinach & onion frittata. In theory, the plan was solid–sautéed onions and fresh baby spinach floating in a pillowy blanket of eggs. But, as we dug in, Bryce and I found that the iron flavor brought by the fresh spinach was far too intense and frozen spinach would be better for future recipes.

Italian Pork Roast with Green Beans & Mixed BerriesLunch, Day 3: One of the many upsides to spending an afternoon preparing food for the week is the numerous options the spread provides. Take this Slow-cooker Italian Pork Roast, another excellent recipe from The Clothes Makes the Girl’s week 1 meal plan, for example. The melt-in-your-mouth pork, flavored with garlic and Italian seasonings, centered meals like the one pictured while also inspiring several other dishes later in the week (more on those later).

Modified Chinese Take-out Beef with BroccoliDinner, Day 3: Bryce, having spent most of Day 2 in the kitchen, tasked me with putting something together for dinner. Challenge accepted! Using available ready-made ingredients and our new wok (yay!), I threw together a Whole30 version of Chinese Take-out Beef with Broccoli. You may wonder, how do you make Chinese take-out without soy sauce? It’s not as hard as you might think. I combined date paste (sweetness) with coconut aminos (umami) and Frank’s Hot Sauce (spice).

Banana Nut Breakfast BowlBreakfast, Day 4: To prevent myself from getting tired of eggs, I sought alternatives online while bouncing from Pinterest to Instagram. I eventually ran across a breakfast bowl consisting primarily of sliced bananas and almond butter. Eureka–a tasty way to break up day after day of eggs! My favorite combination = bananas + crunchy almond butter + toasted & salted pecans + unsweetened coconut flakes + blueberries + a dusting of ground cinnamon. So yummy, I still make them.

Spinach & Avocado SaladBreakfast, Day 5: Another exercise in egg alternatives grew out of the Whole30 program’s invitation to rethink meals entirely. Why does breakfast have to fit a prescription? Truthfully, it doesn’t, which is partly what makes Whole30 life changing. So, I started day 5 with a salad: spinach topped with cherry tomatoes, diced onion, sliced avocado, and cilantro–dressed with fresh lime juice, kosher salt, and fresh-cracked pepper. I enjoyed this dish so much, I added it to my morning rotation.

Sweet Potato Shepherd's PieDinner, Day 5: Staring into the abyss of the refrigerator at dinner time and wondering what to make, inspiration suddenly struck–Sweet Potato Shepherd’s Pie! The best part? The baked sweet potatoes and ground beef browned with onions were ready to go! I adjusted the recipe by taking out the cauliflower (we didn’t have any), replacing the beef stock with chicken stock (we couldn’t find compliant beef stock), and using individual serving crocks. So delicious…and filling.

Spinach with Fried Eggs & BaconBreakfast, Day 6: Eggs were back on the menu, and one of the many wonderful things about them is versatility. I thought, why not combine eggs with a spinach salad? So, I crisped up some sliced bacon and fried two eggs to serve over a handful of fresh baby spinach. No oil or vinegar needed! The warm, runny, rich yolk created a creamy dressing of its own, seasoned simply with salt and pepper. With a half grapefruit and cup of black coffee, it was a true, Whole30 breakfast of champions.

Sweet Potato Hash with Fried EggsBreakfast, Day 9: There seems to be a theme developing with a heavy focus on breakfast. Not surprising, considering Whole30 completely upended my morning routine. Always looking for new egg dishes, inspiration struck once again when I saw sweet potatoes, Italian pork roast, onions, peppers, celery, and eggs in the fully stocked fridge. Let’s make hash! The sweetness of the potatoes combined perfectly with the savory pork and rich eggs to start the day off right.

Chicken Salad Lettuce WrapLunch, Day 9: After watching his students graduate from James Madison University, Bryce came home and made the two of us another delicious lettuce wrap lunch. Using chicken breasts prepared according to The Clothes Make the Girl (“The Best Chicken You Will Ever Eat. Ever.“), he stirred together diced chicken, raisins, cilantro, red onion, and homemade mayo before serving it in bibb lettuce. The seasoning from the chicken provided plenty of flavor–another Whole30 win.

Ina Garten's Lemon-Garlic Roasted Chicken with Root Vegetables and Green BeansDinner, Day 9: By the ninth day, Bryce and I had been through a few ups and downs but really began hitting our Whole30 stride. In celebration, I went all out and turned to one of our favorite Food Network personalities, Ina Garten, for her Perfect Roast Chicken recipe. We didn’t have any fennel, so we compensated by adding extra carrots, onions, and potatoes. Eating roast chicken with lemon and garlic over roasted root vegetables with a side of green beans on the deck…how bad could that be?

TIP: There are many great recipes out there that are pretty darn Whole30 compliant to begin with that require only minor tweaks, much like Ina’s Perfect Roast Chicken recipe. The only substitution we needed to make was swapping the butter out for ghee, otherwise the recipe is wholly Whole30 (Batman). If you’re considering Whole30, I recommend flipping through your favorite recipes. You might be surprised to find some that can easily be adjusted to fit within the program parameters.

Spinach & Turkey Sausage Egg BakeBreakfast, Day 10: If you read my previous posts about our Whole30 journey, you know that by week two I had grown frustrated with breakfast. I despised spending 30-45 minutes preparing and cooking my first meal of the day. The awesome answer to my morning meltdown came in the form of a Whole30 Breakfast Casserole. Once cooked and properly cooled, it made for an easy breakfast. Pictured is the original, chock full of eggs, homemade pork sausage, mushrooms, onions, and spinach.

TIP: The breakfast casserole remains one our top five Whole30 meals, not only because it tastes great but also because it lends itself to endless possibilities. Once you get the hang of recipes like this one, play with the ingredients. Experimenting provides variation and a certain amount of fun while also preventing tastebud boredom. We tried numerous versions of the breakfast casserole, each of them scrumdiddlyumptious, but none quite as good as what Bryce affectionately calls the Most Amazing Breakfast Casserole.

Coconut Shrimp CurryDinner, Day 11: As you most intelligently derived from my blog, Bryce and I enjoy the Food Network and gravitate toward several of its stars when researching meal ideas. Enter Pioneer Woman Ree Drummond and her Coconut Curry Shrimp. Of course, slight modifications were necessary–date paste instead of honey and roasted spaghetti squash instead of basmati rice. And we prefer cilantro over basil. Talk about flavorful! Another one of my top five Whole30 meals.

Prosciutto Topped MeatloafDinner, Day 14: Our good friend Dianna came from Minnesota to visit us and graciously tolerated our Whole30-ness. With recipes like Easy Paleo Homestyle Meatloaf topped with fully acceptable Prosciutto (Bryce’s idea), I think we succeeded in honoring our guest as well as the stipulations of the program. We kept things appealing, compliant, no-nonsense, and tantalizingly tasty. Who wants to spend all day in the kitchen when the Shenandoah National Park is calling?

Whole30 food fail: I attempted to make some coleslaw to pair with the meatloaf, leaving out the sugar and adding apple juice in addition to the apple cider vinegar. I don’t care who you are, you cannot make a successful coleslaw without sugar! Apple juice as a substitute just doesn’t cut it.

Happy Food Chili topped with Avocado, Onion, & CilantroDinner, Day 15: Happy birthday, Dianna! Let’s celebrate with Turkey Chili, using my own tried and true recipe (sans any off-program ingredients like beans, brown sugar, and alcohol, of course). Oh, and let’s top it with sliced avocado, diced onion, and fresh cilantro instead of Fritos corn chips, shredded cheese, and sour cream. You know what? I didn’t miss those contraband toppings one bit. Turns out cheese is often used to add salt to recipes–so why not just use salt?

Tumeric Lime Chicken with Sautéed Veggie NoodlesDinner, Day 21: Facebook feeds can be annoying. Every once in a while, though, a featured post piques my interest and I click that link. Such was the case with this Turmeric Lime Chicken recipe from The Splendid Table, one of our favorite NPR programs. It could not have appeared at a more opportune time, as Bryce & I were constantly looking for new recipes. Served with a side of noodled zucchini sautéed in cherry tomatoes, garlic, and olive oil, we were certainly glad we tried this one!

Sausage with Sautéed Onions & Potatoes and SauerkrautDinner, Day 22: What is my #1 favorite Whole30 meal, you wonder? The answer may surprise you as much as it surprised me: Oven Roasted Potatoes, Onions, and Boar’s Head Kielbasa with Sauerkraut. (I mention Boar’s Head here because of its compliance.) The combination of the salty sausage, heartiness of the potatoes, sweetness of the onions, tanginess of the mustard sauce, and sour bite of the sauerkraut married to form a most perfect union. My mouth is watering (again).

Roasted Capon & Vegetables with Mashed PotatoesDinner, Day 23: While traversing Whole30 it’s fun to meet up with fellow travelers. No one better understands the rocky path, and you get to swap stories both triumphant and tragic. Such was the case when Bryce and I enjoyed a four-course dinner with our friends, Ian and Katie. The kingly meal included guacamole with jicama, Caesar salad, roasted capon & potatoes with multicolored carrots & mashed potatoes, and peach cobbler. Over the top? No question. Worth it? Definitely.

SIDE NOTES On capon: Never having eaten rooster before, I found Ian & Katie’s version deliciously decadent–the crispy skin in particular. The recipe they used was simply fantastic, and I look forward to having it again in the future.
On mashed potatoes: To be completely honest, I never truly loved or even liked them as they typically tasted bland and had a paste-like consistency. While on Whole30, though, I developed a newfound appreciation for mashed potatoes. The trick? No cream or milk needed…just boil some cut up potatoes and then blend them with garlic, ghee, salt, pepper, and a little of the cooking liquid until smooth using an electric hand mixer. I don’t even peel the potatoes…the skins are where many of the nutrients are, anyway. For amped-up, back-of-the-nose spiciness, stir in some prepared ground horseradish. Yummy!
On the peach cobbler: The Whole30 guidelines specifically state not to recreate compliant versions of non-compliant baked goodies, because it completely misses the point of the program. But we wanted to end our special meal with something sweet, so we went ahead and bent the rules anyway. Yet, even when taking out the vanilla extract and a sweetener substitute, the end result left something to be desired. Lesson learned!

Hot and Sour SoupLunch, Day 25: Chinese take-out food proved quite an obstacle as it’s usually laden with forbidden fruits. We kept looking for adapted recipes to try, though, since it’s a favorite cuisine of ours. Bryce, the ever resourceful researcher, found an excellent Hot and Sour Soup bursting with umami that satisfied our cravings. To keep it Whole30-approved, the only correction Bryce made was replacing the honey with apple juice and extra vinegar. We also opted for water chestnuts instead of bamboo shoots.

Grilled Balsamic Mustard Salmon with Mashed Potatoes & Tomato SaladDinner, Day 25: Memorial Day means summer, and summer means grilling & eating out on the deck. What better way to start the season than with Grilled Balsamic Mustard Salmon, Ina Garten’s tomato salad without the feta cheese, and mashed potatoes (I’ll have mine with horseradish, please)? I couldn’t think of any better ways to kick summer off, either. Well, okay, maybe a gin & tonic and some ice cream could. Only a few days left to go, though, so we just said no to temptation.

Almond-Crusted Fried Chicken Thighs with Roasted Squash & ZucchiniDinner, Day 26: The dinner of Pan Fried Chicken Thighs and Roasted Zucchini & Yellow Squash that Bryce prepared near the end of our journey rounds out my top five favorite Whole30 meals. The fried chicken thighs felt like a guilty treat, but dredging them in well-seasoned almond flour and skillet-frying them in coconut oil proved a much healthier alternative to fast food. My sense of guilt was therefore (mostly) unfounded. Buffalo style with Frank’s Hot Sauce? Yes, please! Absolutely craveable.

Whole30 food fail: On day 28, Bryce spent the better part of an afternoon making Anne Burrell’s amazing bolognese sauce, complex and layered with flavor. It is intense and lip-smackingly delicious, the real deal. But when we served it over squash that just wouldn’t cooperate with the noodler and some leftover roasted spaghetti squash, we set ourselves up for nothing but disappointment…kind of like going to a Fleetwood Mac concert where Justin Bieber had replaced Mick Fleetwood. Not okay.

In the six weeks or so since our Whole30 adventure officially came to an end, Bryce and I have reintegrated some formerly forbidden foods and old favorites but adhere by and large to the plan guidelines. So, I drink my coffee with a little cream and sugar every morning, but no more Fruity Pebbles. The breakfast casserole tastes so much better and keeps me going strong until lunch time. I avoid most soy products but not peanut products. I occasionally indulge in ice cream and cocktails. I wrap tacos in crunchy, yellow corn shells instead of lettuce and serve guacamole with jicama AND tortilla chips. Burgers with cheese? Sure, but still no bun. On that note, Bryce and I went to Red Robin not too long after day 30, and we both wondered what the heck we used to love about the food so much. It was just tasteless and unsatisfying. Turns out pizza isn’t as good as it once was, either. Probably because it provides little nutritional value and therefore results in over-consumption (and therefore uncomfortable bloating). Freshly popped popcorn drizzled with melted butter and salt is a different story, though, and still one of my favorite foods, one I’ll probably never give up entirely.

Well, there you have the rather lengthy run down of the great meals and delicious foods we ate while livin’ la vida Whole30 (and even a couple failures). This post has been a labor of love, taking nearly an entire month to complete, and I hope it was worth the wait.

Livin’ la vida Whole30 (Part 2)

Hopefully you’ve had the chance to read through my first post about why Bryce and I decided to embark on our Whole30 journey. If not, you can check it out here. This second post centers on the emotional ups and downs and mental reactions Bryce and I experienced while livin’ la vida Whole30. It’s a tale of excitement, trepidation, surprise, frustration, and enlightenment, among other things. Before I get too far into our story, though, let me start by saying that the Whole30 website provides a nifty timeline of what to expect on an emotional level throughout the program. I found this resource particularly helpful, and though my trek did not follow the calendar to the day, I did eventually go through all of the stages. The most amusing–especially for my coworkers–were the ‘Kill All the Things’ days. More on those in just a few paragraphs.

Knowing very well the road that lay before us would be marked with do not enter signs, I made up my mind on the day prior to our adventure to take advantage of a few, shall we say, treats before they’d be verboten. Several of my coworkers and I ventured out for a ‘last lunch’ at Cuban Burger in downtown Harrisonburg, where I devoured a burger. The patty itself was technically Whole30 compliant, so you may think that I was behaving myself…but I ate that burger with non-compliant goodies like a toasted bun, melted cheese, crispy french fries, and an ice-cold Coca-Cola. So freaking good! I wondered whether or not I’d be able to make it through the month without such greasy goodness. SPOILER ALERT–I did!

That same day, later in the evening, Bryce and I met Ian and Katie, some friends of ours with Whole30 experiences of their own, for drinks Glass of beer at Pale Fire Brewery, Harrisonburg VA.at a new downtown joint, Pale Fire Brewing. I wanted to try the brewery’s offerings before beginning Whole30, mostly because I had converted to a beer enthusiast over the past year and a half and couldn’t resist a final adult beverage on Whole30 Eve. (Verdict? Really good beer and great atmosphere, made better because of the people I was with.) Now, my intention to enjoy a beer…or two if I’m honest…was not because I thought it’d be hard to go a month without alcohol. Rather, I knew the Whole30 experience would affect my palette, and I wanted to enjoy the beer in case I lost my fondness for it. As we prepared to depart, Katie and Ian asked what our plan for Day 1 was (having already been down the Whole30 road before). When we responded that we didn’t really have one, they both chuckled and said, “Well, good luck!” Uh-oh. What had we gotten ourselves into?

Day 1: On the first morning livin’ la vida Whole30, I woke up slightly worse for wear, perhaps a little hung over from the previous day’s pre-program food and drink bender, perhaps a little overly tired due to the lack of a good night’s sleep, and perhaps nervous that we were not truly prepared. Regardless, I resolved to make this thing a success, so I whipped up my first compliant breakfast: an egg and broccoli scramble with a side of crispy bacon and fresh sliced tomatoes.Breakfast with broccoli-egg scramble, bacon, and fresh sliced tomatoes. It was a great kick off–I didn’t even miss my usual bowl of cereal. How could I? I felt sated and ready to face the day–no, the month–ahead. I should also mention that I drank some black coffee with that inaugural breakfast, and newsflash! It wasn’t as bad as I had been expecting. In fact, I quite liked it. Somehow, the coffee rounded out the meal. This was truly a pleasant surprise and a rather encouraging way to start the program. After making and consuming a delicious, wholly compliant first meal that morning, I felt if I could drink–and enjoy–a mug of hot, black coffee, this Whole30 challenge wouldn’t be so difficult after all. My spirits were further buoyed by a tasty, successful lunch and an out-of-this-world, Moroccan-inspired dinner. I convinced myself this would be easy even though we weren’t fully prepared and the timeline referenced above suggested otherwise. And don’t worry, my next/last Whole30 post will focus entirely on the food we ate, recipes and (more) photos included.

Day 2: If Day 1 was a home run, Day 2 was a grand slam. Bryce and I conducted the Whole30 shop of shops, hitting up Costco, a local natural food store, and the supermarket. We got home, unloaded the veritable cornucopia of goodies, and emptied the kitchen of non-compliant items by freezing or boxing up all possible temptations. Auf wiedersehen, peanut butter. Guten tag, almond butter. Until next month (or never), ramen noodles. How you doin, spaghetti squash. Hasta luego, cheese. Hola, coconut milk. The transition seemed fairly easy, probably because we immediately restocked the kitchen with all the good things we could eat instead of mourning over our departing contraband. Now fully prepared, Bryce and I were overcome with excitement. We both love to cook, and the seemingly endless possibilities newly available to us provided much needed encouragement, especially when I experienced my first ‘Kill All the Things’ moment.

TIP: Maybe not surprisingly, Costco offers a bounty of Whole30 compliant products: organic grass-fed beef, organic whole chickens, organic unrefined coconut oil, organic fruits & vegetables, avocado oil, almond butter, and I could keep going. If you’re thinking of starting the Whole30 Program and have a Costco nearby, I definitely recommend starting the kitchen-stocking process there.

Womp, womp: The honeymoon of the first few days wore off rather quickly. Though they felt like a cinch, the first entire week was pretty much the hardest–at least for me. By day 5, I was frustrated having to spend 30-45 minutes every morning preparing my breakfast. I wanted to roll out of bed, throw breakfast in a bowl or on a plate, brew a cup of coffee, and enjoy my meal in front of Facebook without having to figure out what I wanted to eat, dirty a dozen pots and pans to make whatever that was, and clean up afterwards. You know the old saying that the early bird gets the worm? That’s because it doesn’t have to plan, prepare, and cook the worm before eating it. Damn lucky birds. Thankfully, Bryce was there to listen to me whine about my morning woes, offer some words of comfort, and, most importantly, suggest a solution–one that ended up preventing me from ditching the program all together: the egg and sausage casserole. With my mornings back on a more time-friendly schedule, I no longer felt my journey was threatened by breakfast.

Hulk, SMASH: Also known as ‘Kill All the Things.’ I’d read about this stage on the Whole30 website and heard Molly Mogren talk about her ‘Kill All the Things’ phase on the podcast, Go Fork Yourself with Andrew Zimmern and Molly Mogren. Basically, you get all hangry during this phase. As the Hartwigs write in their books and on their website: “Day 4 dawns and you tentatively step out of bed, expecting to feel like you took a strike from Thor’s hammer in the temple. Instead, your head is surprisingly clear. Your limbs all feel functional. This could be a good day! You walk into the kitchen and as you’re greeted by the smiling face of your significant other you are suddenly overcome…with the desire to punch them in the face for smiling this early in the morning.”* While, I never felt like punching Bryce in the face, I did have moments at home when I had to leave the room to prevent myself flying off the handle. I refocused that energy into mowing the lawn–that showed him! I also had ‘Kill All the Things’ moments at work–one in particular comes to mind, when I wanted nothing more than to take a peeled banana and smash it right into someone or something. My coworkers found this quite amusing, and retrospectively so do I. At the time, though, you’d think they’d have worried I’d smash that banana in their face for making light of the situation.

I got this: After going all Hulk (internally, anyway–I never turned all huge and green despite all the spinach in our diet), things calmed down emotionally, and Bryce and I hit our Whole30 stride. We continued trying out new recipes, mastered the breakfast conundrum, managed not to kill anyone or anything, and successfully resisted temptations, of which there were many. Not that I have something to prove, but let me share some examples. In early May, Bella Gelato & Pastries opened a block from my office. Shortly thereafter, several ladies from work decided to go and invited me along. Despite the obvious reasons not to, I nevertheless joined them. The pastries and gelato menu was enticing (Brown Butter Cookie Dough, HELLO!), but I was able to stare temptation in the face and walk away, albeit with an iced coffee topped with a splash of compliant almond milk. (Yum, by the way. It felt like a special treat!) Several days later, Dianna, one of my Minnesota besties, came to visit Bryce and I. During her stay, we celebrated her birthday. Now, even though we retained a compliant kitchen, I couldn’t let her go without cake on her birthday. We were high maintenance but not communists. So, I took Dianna to The Cupcake Company just down the road, and when that red velvet cupcake whispered sweet nothings through the display case, I ignored it. Even when Dianna and I walked around Washington, D.C. before she headed back to Minnesota, I ably maneuvered my way around menus at a burger restaurant and Starbucks. My relationship with food truly started changing, and livin’ la vida Whole30 became a way of life. I said to myself, “I got this.”

The home stretch: With the end so near, we both confronted moments in which we wanted to throw our arms up in the air and surrender. On day 28 there was an unfortunate mishap with some amazing bolognese sauce served atop lackluster noodled vegetables. The frustration was palpable, and we swore the answer was some real pasta. 28 days is as good as 30, right? We can cook up that pot of bucatini sitting just down the hall with the rest of the contraband, right? Well, no. Melissa Hartwig and Dallas Hartwig make that clear, commenting that if it was meant to be 28 or 29 days long, they’d have called it Whole29 or Whole28. Then, with just one and half days left of the program, Bryce and I hit the road for New Jersey to celebrate a baptism and ordination with the Fergusons, more good friends of ours. We were both feeling nervous about the weekend, particularly since the special events with all of their culinary accoutrements would be taking place on the first day after Whole30. Would we stick to the program on Day 31? Would we throw caution to the wind and completely indulge? Would we fall somewhere in the middle? There are instructions of what do to after completing Whole30 in the books and on the website, and one of the wise suggestions is not to schedule the Whole30 during a special event–or to end on the day before a special event. Whoopsie. Still, we were optimistic that we’d be able to handle the transition out of Whole30, and despite potential moments of weakness, we powered through the desires to give up.

Day 30: The last day was surprisingly easy and almost passed without notice. Compliant breakfast at a New Jersey diner for breakfast, check. Compliant leftovers for lunch, check. Groceries from Trader Joe’s for a compliant supper, check. I think because we kept busy all day, we faced no real challenges and didn’t think about straying. Suddenly it was bed time and we realized that we had successfully made it through the Whole30 program. Woohoo! Let’s celebrate with a cookie, on day 31.

Results: Funny things happened over the course of the month. When we started, I was adamant that I’d go back to eating the foods we worked hard to eliminate. As we settled into the program and our bodies grew accustomed to the real, honest-to-goodness food we ate for every meal, however, I realized this way of life was not so bad after all. And, truth be told, I didn’t really miss that bowl of Fruity Pebbles all that much. It really does not compare to a homemade egg and sausage bake paired with a spinach tomato salad and half a fresh grapefruit. Cravings for that afternoon snickers bar disappeared. Both Bryce and I also noticed that we thought cheese would be one of the most difficult things to eliminate but discovered we didn’t miss it at all. In fact, we commented just a day or two ago that cheese often seems an ingredient added to recipes for salt. But why not just add some salt? Some expected things happened over the 30 days, too. After a week or so, we both starting sleeping better. Our energy levels stayed consistent throughout the entire day. Our seasonal allergies didn’t bother us as much. Digestion worked effortlessly (read: no constipation, no diarrhea, no irregularity). By the last day, Bryce lost 16 pounds and I 10. Completely worth the emotional ups and downs. In fact, it was so successful that two weeks after completing Whole30, we’re still mostly following the program and considering little things like adding honey to hot tea and cream to coffee cheats. What’s wrong with thinking that way? Nothing, if you ask me. Turns out livin’ la vida Whole30 truly educated us about the importance of eating real food, all while transforming our emotional relationship with food for the better.

Coming up in the third (and final) post about our Whole30 trek will be the culinary hits and misses of the month, complete with recipes, links, and post Whole30 experiences for you to explore.

* See more at: http://whole30.com/2013/08/revised-timeline/#sthash.jq864Xw0.dpuf.

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.

CJC

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.

CJC

Dip-N-Sliders

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.

CJC

Blondies have more fun.

Image

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

CJC

 

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.

CJC

New name. New look. Same happy food.

Hello, dear readers!

It’s been a while. Almost two months, actually. I began the summer with all these grand plans for increased productivity – reading and researching for the looming school year, learning how to maintain the previously beautiful landscaping at our new place, and blogging more frequently about my adventures with all things food. Well, I can tell you I accomplished exactly zero of those things. Zilch. I’ve attempted to weed the landscaping a total of four times, with little to no success…I may have even killed a rose bush. (Tune in next spring to see if I did, indeed, manage to murder the helpless plant.) As far as my studies are concerned, I’ve officially read half of one book related to my school work. And although I planned to ramp up the blogging, that obviously did not happen. I even experienced some great food at home and on the road, Pappy’s Smokehouse in St. Louis stands out as a highlight I still may write a post about. Based on my lack of follow-through, however, I can’t promise anything definitively outside of saying that Pappy’s serves some amazing food. The one thing I accomplished with any sense of completeness was to start and finish a video game that sat unplayed since its release several years ago. (Assassin’s Creed II for those who must know.) Now it’s August. The back-to-school sales are in full swing, summer is racing to an end, and creative inspiration finally struck, reigniting my excitement to blog. I therefore present to you my redesigned, renamed site: Happy Food!

Why the name change and why now? Well, when I established the blog in April of 2012, I never intended to name it after myself. I pondered and pondered and pondered, but I couldn’t come up with a fitting name. However, I knew that I would stumble upon a better title one day, so I initially settled on ChristopherJCarlberg. It looked cool with the layout I chose and would be easy to change if and when I would dream up a better name. Then, while in the shower one morning not too long ago, an idea popped into my head: “I could name my blog Happy Food!” I’m not sure if one can get divine inspiration while showering, but I felt as though some higher power spoke directly to me that morning. Plus, the more I thought about it, the better I liked the idea. After all, this blog focuses on the food related experiences and memories that make me happy. I knew almost immediately the name perfectly described the theme and content of my blog, and as soon as I committed myself to instituting the change, I found myself excited once again to write about and share my happy food adventures. And that brings us to the present day changes. So, come on – let’s get happy!

CJC

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.

CJC