Holiday Open House 2013

Mini gingerbread cupcakes

For those who couldn’t make my Blog Holiday Open House earlier this month, here’s a little taste of what you missed.

This year’s theme was “Christmas in Paris” – I thought having a theme would help focus the menu and provide décor inspiration. Some of my menu items were legit French (i.e., gougères, or cheese puffs), but most were French-inspired/French-ish. I had fun creating a French Christmas theme board on Pinterest – a great way to organize ideas for a party.

Oui -those are little Eiffel Towers on my apron.

Oui -those are little Eiffel Towers on my apron.

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Prosciutto-wrapped Shrimp with Basil & Creamy Garlic Sauce

Prosciutto-wrapped shrimp

Need a quick but “wow” appetizer for a BBQ this weekend? These grilled shrimp bites are just the thing. You can prep the shrimp skewers and the sauce earlier in the day, or even a day ahead. When it’s party time, toss the skewers onto the grill and cook for a few minutes until the prosciutto is crisp and the shrimp have turned pink. Serve on a platter with the sauce alongside for dipping, or spoon some sauce onto small plates for an elegant first course.  (I’ve even served the shrimp over pasta and called it dinner.)

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Crafty Cracker Baskets

Cracker basket salad

While many of our friends are lounging around in sunny locales this week for spring break, sipping Piña Coladas (or Shirley Temples) and worrying about nothing but SPF coverage, we are hunkering down at home – gearing up for another snowstorm (?!) and making To Do lists for our New Jersey “staycation”.

cat watching snow

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Blue Cheese & Bacon Dates with Green Olive Tapenade

Bacon Blue Cheese Dates

Are you as excited as I am about watching TV this Sunday? The suspense, the egos, the drama – man, I love those commercials!

Another reason to get excited about this Sunday? An excuse to eat nothing but snacks and appetizers all day long. Sometimes I wish every meal could be comprised of nothing but appetizers. (And aren’t the hors d’oeuvres always the best part of a wedding or any catered event? Why is that?)

If you’re looking for a super-simple, super-delicious appetizer for Sunday, or for any day, try these 3-ingredient Blue Cheese and Bacon Dates (with Green Olive Tapenade, but that adds a few more ingredients). Not a fan of dates? I bet that’s because you’ve never tried them stuffed with blue cheese and snuggled in bacon, baked until the three ingredients meld into one crisp, salty-sweet, mind-blowing bite. (Did that all just sound like a commercial?) Continue reading

Wild Mushroom “Fondue”


This New Year’s Eve, I intend to make a few toasts. As in, toasted baguette slices, slathered in creamy Wild Mushroom Fondue and drizzled with a little black truffle oil. One last holiday hoorah before the austerity of the New Year begins.  Then it’s back to carrot sticks and kale salad for a while.  Continue reading

Open House Recap


“Full House” is more like it! Almost 50 blog followers and friends came to my Holiday Open House yesterday, and thankfully they were good eaters. (That’s why I love them!)  For those who couldn’t make it, here’s a little bit of what you missed. And for anyone planning to host their own open house this holiday season, I’ve added a few tips and past lessons-learned. There are always lessons to learn with entertaining! One of these days I hope to follow my own advice.


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After-ghoul Snack

I promised my husband I wouldn’t get carried away with the Halloween blog posting, but the kids still need a healthy after-school snack, don’t they?

Orange bell peppers make festive (and edible) dip vessels, and are a lot easier to carve than pumpkins.

Cut off the tops like you would for a jack-o-lantern, then use a grapefruit knife (what do you mean you don’t have one?) or your hands to remove the inner membranes. Rinse out any seeds.

Carve a simple jack-o-lantern face. My nose and mouth were a little too low; try to keep the “face” on the flat part of the pepper, before it curves under. This will keep the filling from oozing out too much.

Fill with a dark-colored dip, such as black bean or a 50/50 mixture of hummus and olive tapenade. (The stuff Peyton Manning keeps talking about in his DirectTV commercials.) I used about 1/2 cup of store-bought hummus and 1/2 cup of store-bought kalamata tapenade.

For a better presentation (since I messed up the face), I elevated the pepper jack-o-lantern with an upside-down custard cup.

Serve after school (or at a Halloween party) with carrots and breadsticks. And don’t forget to eat the pepper afterwards, unless you’re wary of double-dippers. . .


Fiesta Empanadas

Why is it that everything tastes better wrapped in dough? Take, for example, the lowly hotdog. Wrapped in puff pastry or even crescent rolls from a tube, it metamorphosizes into Pigs in a Blanket. (Also known as, “the first hors d’oeuvres to disappear from every party.”) My well-bred mother-in-law, who once called my second-hand dining set “disreputable” (and I guess I can see her point – it’s definitely more shabby than chic), established the ritual of serving Pigs in a Blanket on silver trays at every family event. But wait – I’m getting off track. Today’s post is about another pastry-wrapped treat – one perfect for Cinco de Mayo fiestas this weekend: Empanadas!

From the Spanish word for “wrapped in bread”, empanadas can be sweet or savory, baked or fried. My favorites are these baked Turkey Poblano creations, which I make in miniature size for appetizers or a larger size for a meal. The kids love them plain, but for me they’re not complete without Cilantro Lime Sauce for dipping. (Yes – yet another application for this versatile sauce, which one of these days I should figure out how to bottle and sell. That would be one way to get new dining room furniture.)

Cilantro Lime Sauce

The turkey filling is simple to make, and it can be made days ahead or even frozen until you’re ready to assemble the empanadas.  If you can find frozen empanada wrappers, just let them thaw and get ready to stuff.

If you can’t find them, you can use frozen puff pastry, pie dough, or this recipe below – which is stretchy and forgiving. The assembly goes fairly quickly, once you get the hang of it. (Just don’t overstuff or you’ll get oozage.) I like to freeze unbaked mini empanadas for almost-instant appetizers – great for any time you have extra Cilantro Lime sauce to use up.  (An almost weekly occurrence around here.)

Mini Turkey Poblano Empanadas

  • 1 poblano chile, roasted, skinned, seeded and chopped (optional, but worth the effort; see this link for roasting how-to)
  • 1 Tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 medium white or yellow onion, diced
  • 1 lb. ground turkey breast
  • 1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1 clove garlic, minced or pressed
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • Approx. 1 cup salsa verde (Xochitl®  Brand, if possible)
  • Pinch (1/4 teaspoon) sugar
  • 4 oz. cream cheese or Neufchatel (lower fat cream cheese)
  • 2 packages (10 per package) frozen empanada wrappers, thawed, or 1 package puff pastry, or 1 batch empanada dough (recipe below)
  • 1 egg
  • Sesame seeds

To a large pan or Dutch oven over medium-high heat, add olive oil and onion. Sauté 2-3 minutes until softened.

Add turkey, salt and cumin and cook until no longer pink. (Breaking up turkey clumps with a wooden spoon, as if making tacos.)

Add garlic and sauté another minute.  (Garlic can taste bitter if burned, so I add it towards the end of the cooking to be safe. Check out this cool garlic pressing trick: if you leave the clove “wrapped” in its papery skin, you can pull it out after pressing and no little bits get stuck in the holes.)

Back to the empanadas:

Stir in poblanos, salsa verde and sugar (which helps balance the heat and round out the flavors) and bring to a boil to reduce some of the liquid.

Remove from heat. Stir in cream cheese and taste for seasoning; add another pinch of kosher salt or sugar if you feel it needs more flavor.  Allow mixture to cool before filling empanadas.

(This looks yellow because of the lighting.)

Empanada Dough (makes about 40 4-inch empanadas)

  • 4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 cup cold water
  • ¾ cup vegetable oil

In a large bowl combine flour and salt. Add water and oil all at once and stir to combine.

The dough should come together but not feel sticky. Add a little extra flour if necessary. The dough may not look pretty, but this is OK.

Assembling Empanadas

Heat oven to 400ºF. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper or Silpat liners.

For appetizer-size using premade empanada wrappers or dough, cut out 3” circles with a biscuit cutter or empty can.  Gather excess dough and roll flat with rolling pin. Cut out additional circles until all dough is used.

If using homemade dough, shape into walnut-sized balls. (You should get about 40.) With a rolling pin, roll dough flat into 3”- 4” circles.

Spoon cooled filling into the centers of the dough circles. As a rough guide, use a heaping teaspoonful (the ice cream eating kind of spoon, not measuring kind) of filling for 2 ½ -3” circles or a heaping tablespoon for 4” circles.  I try to get in as much filling as I can, though I often pay the price with messy-looking empanadas that burst open while baking. Just be sure to leave a ½”+ margin around the entire edge of the circle.

If you’re using cut-out circles, you will seal them using beaten egg and a fork crimp.  Beat one egg and brush along the edges/margins. Fold the circle in half and press edges together to seal. Set onto prepared baking sheet and crimp edges with a fork.

If you’re rolling out homemade dough balls, you can seal with a “twisted rope” closure instead of the egg and fork method. Fold the dough over the filling to make a ½-circle and press to seal edges.  Starting at the top, fold dough up and over in a twisting motion, until all edges are sealed. Tuck the end of the twist under the empanada and place on baking sheet.

No one will care if the twisty rope edges aren’t perfect.

Freeze any unused filling or spoon it into taco shells.

Just before baking, beat 1 egg (or use what was left from sealing ) and brush onto tops of empanadas.  Sprinkle with sesame seeds.

Bake at 400ºF for 12-20 minutes (depending on type of dough used, size of empanadas and whether they were frozen), until golden brown.

Serve with Cilantro Lime sauce  (or any other salsa) for dipping.  Good piping hot, warm, room temperature or even cold from the fridge!

Green Eggs & Ham (Auntie Jo’s Spinach Frittata)

Setting:  Our kitchen, this morning

Sophie:   I do not like Green Eggs and Ham.

Mom:  Try them, try them – I’ve got the cam.

Sophie:  Say – I do like these Green Eggs and Ham! (especially the ham)

Dr. Seuss’s birthday is getting a lot of play this year (thanks to “The Lorax” release today), so I expect there will be quite a few green eggs and ham on breakfast menus this weekend. Food coloring’s one way to go, but this morning I thought I’d capitalize on all the marketing to help sneak some spinach into my kids’ diet. Auntie Jo’s famous spinach frittata was the perfect, all-natural Green Eggs vehicle. It also happens to be a great lunch, brunch or open house dish, because it can be served hot, cold or at room temperature. This recipe is sort of a hybrid between a frittata (open-faced omelette) and a strata (casserole made with bread & eggs); I think it’s easier to make than both. Auntie Jo’s frittatas always seem to taste a little better than mine – most likely because recipes that are passed along from person to person sometimes suffer from the “telephone game” fate. (That, or she has accidentally omitted a secret ingredient . . . ) Nonetheless, this is an easy and tasty recipe worth trying.

Auntie Jo’s Spinach Frittata

  • 1 10-oz package frozen spinach, thawed and drained
  • 3-4 slices bread, torn or processed into crumbs (about 1 ½ cups)
  • 3 large (or extra large) eggs
  • ¼ cup grated kasseri or romano cheese (I used romano; can never find kasseri)
  • ¼ cup grated Monterrey jack cheese or cheddar/jack mix
  • 2 Tablespoons cottage or ricotta cheese (I used a single-serve container of cottage cheese)
  • ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
  • Few grinds black pepper
  • Additional grated cheddar, parmesan, romano or jack for topping

[For a spanakopita-flavored variant, sauté 1/2 cup chopped onion in a little olive oil; add spinach and 1 Tablespoon chopped fresh dill. Substitute feta for the cottage cheese.]

Heat oven to 350ºF. Squeeze most of the water out of the thawed spinach. Pulse bread slices in a food processor, or tear into small pieces.

In a mixing bowl, beat 3 eggs.

Stir in breadcrumbs, cheeses, salt and pepper.

Then stir in spinach.

Pour mixture into a 9”x9” baking dish or small casserole. (Auntie Jo says to heat casserole with oil first; I don’t do this and don’t have any problems getting the fritatta out of my Pyrex baking dish.)

Sprinkle a small amount (less than ¼ cup) of grated cheese on top; this gives the frittata a nice golden brown color. (I used the cheddar/jack mix with a little bit of additional romano.)

Bake for 40-45 minutes. Let cool a few minutes before cutting into squares or shapes.

This morning I used a biscuit cutter to cut a few pieces into circles; you could also get crazy and scoop some into cleaned out egg shells. [The ham is Canadian bacon, quickly warmed/browned in a nonstick skillet.]

Serves 4 for a main course or 8-10 as an appetizer or side dish. Can be refrigerated for several days.


Holy Beano! Oven-baked Tortilla Chips & Black Bean Dip

As some of you have astutely pointed out in earlier comments (and I do read all comments!), it’s easy to make things taste good when you add enough bacon, cheese and cream.  It’s much more difficult to make things that are good for you taste like they’re not.

We used to say at Mars (home of brands such as M&M’s® Chocolate Candies, SNICKERS® Bar, DOVE® Ice Cream Bars and COMBOS® Snacks): “There are no bad foods, only bad diets; all foods are good foods in moderation.” Most non-Mars people roll their eyes when I spout that, but even Weight Watchers validates this philosophy! However, for the sake of a challenge, and to provide a healthful option for Big Game parties this weekend, I’m throwing down a recipe for 100% fat free tortilla chips and black bean dip that will give fully-loaded dips or nachos a run for their money. And of course, you could always top the dip with sour cream or cheddar cheese for extra vitamins and calcium!

Oven-baked Tortilla Chips

  • 8-16 (1 package) white corn tortillas

Heat oven to 350ºF. Arrange tortillas directly on oven racks. (One tortilla will make 4 large chips; toast as many as you like or will fit in your oven.)  Bake for 10 minutes; check and rotate tortillas if necessary.) Bake an additional 5 minutes or until tortillas are golden brown. Remove from oven to cool. Break each tortilla into 4 large chips. Store in airtight container if not using right away. Will keep for a long time; I’m not sure how long because the kids usually eat them all within a day.


Fat-Free Black Bean Dip

  • ¼ cup finely diced red onion (¼ cup is roughly ¼ of a medium onion)
  • 1½ Tablespoons sherry vinegar (you could use red wine or balsamic vinegar as well, but I recommend stocking up on sherry vinegar if you can find it)
  • ¼ cup water
  • 1 can (15.5 oz.) black beans (I like Goya Brand), drained and rinsed
  • ¼ tsp kosher salt
  • ½ tsp cumin
  • 1 Tablespoon pickled jalapeño slices
  • Small squeeze (approx. ¼ tsp) of agave nectar (or honey)

Add diced onion, vinegar and water to  medium microwaveable bowl or large Pyrex measuring cup. Microwave on high for 1 minute to soften onions.

Add remaining ingredients and microwave another minute.

Using a stick/immersion blender, blend until smooth (adding a little extra water if necessary). (You could also use a food processor.)

Serve warm with chips. Top with any desired toppings (chopped green onions & diced tomato are shown here – keeping with the Fat Free concept; grated cheese or avocado would be nice as well!)

Note: I also use this as a fat-free dressing for taco salads. Not the prettiest-looking salad once it’s all mixed together, but tasty and filling.

Will keep for several days in the refrigerator. Reheat in microwave; if still thick after heating, add a little water.