Holy Macaroni Salad!

With summer in view and the smell of burgers and hot dogs fresh off the grill in the air, it’s time to visit one of my favorite dishes to accompany those delectable savory summer treats: macaroni salad!

 

Yes–macaroni salad. You can load your protein with all the flavor in the world and the best part about a nice, cold & creamy macaroni salad is the way it instantly cools whatever you eat. Spicy food? Macaroni salad. Too much acid with ketchup or mustard? Macaroni salad. You haven’t let the meat cool down enough before you bit into it? Again, macaroni salad.

 

Now I have spent literal YEARS on trying to perfect the combo. Whether it be trying more of an Italian dressing style (regular and creamy, I have tried them both) or even cutting the mayo with other tasty ingredients, no two salads have been the same. I have varied up the ingredients with carrots, black olives, celery, various types of peppers and onions, even deli meat. What’s best about a decent macaroni salad is you get to experiment with whatever you have on hand to throw in–it’s hard to go wrong if you stick to the basics!

 

And last month as I was starting to experiment again with my tried and true summer side dish I finally had an epiphany….and got to work on what I would consider my ultimate macaroni salad. I have found that mayonnaise works best as a base in this, but it always needs a little kick. So while I have cut my mayonnaise with sour cream to provide an even creamier texture, I found that also adding some Dijon mustard is an easy way to punch up the flavor. And to make sure that the Dijon doesn’t overpower the mixture too much, also make sure to add in a pinch or two of sugar. A little bit of sweetness goes a long way and will bring out the savory and cut the bite.

 

Also super important–make sure to make more of your dressing mixture right before you serve! Pasta loves to soak up all the dressing when you first make it and set it to cool in the fridge, so you will always need to make sure you have more dressing to add right before you serve it. If you add enough that second time, you won’t need to add more later for leftovers. Also, if you’re like me, you’ll be snacking on a bowl of leftovers at some point during the week. And as always, enjoy!

 

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Jenn’s Awesome Macaroni Salad

One box macaroni, cooked “al dente” (I prefer elbows, pipette, or medium shells–something that your dressing can really cling to!)

1 bell pepper (preferably red, orange, or yellow), diced

1/2 red onion, diced

2-3 stalks of celery, cleaned and diced

For the dressing (for initial application):

1 – 1 1/2 cups mayonnaise

1/4 – 1/2 cup Dijon mustard (depending on how much you like it)

1/2 cup sour cream

1-2 liberal pinches of sugar 

1 tsp smoked paprika, plus extra for garnish

1/4 tsp black pepper

1/2 tsp garlic powder

1/2 tsp onion powder

  1. While pasta is cooking and all fresh ingredients are chopped, mix together all ingredients for the dressing and stir thoroughly. Dressing should be nice and smooth with a looseness to it so it can coat the pasta.
  2. When pasta is done, drain and rinse thoroughly with cold water to stop cook.
  3. As pasta continues to drain, pour a little bit of dressing mixture into container, then add drained pasta and fresh ingredients to bowl, covering with remainder of mixture. Toss well and cover. Refrigerate for at least 4-6 hours.
  4. When ready to serve, if more dressing is needed, create dressing with only mayonnaise, Dijon, sour cream, and sugar. Can make less than original application but try to keep ratio.
  5. Once ready to serve, garnish with some more paprika over top. Enjoy.

Makes 8-10 servings

Causing a flurry with Chimichurri!

As promised, gardening has become a part of our daily routine.

At about 5:30/6:00 am just about every morning, Matt slips on his sandals to go out and assess how our garden is faring. From his perspective: the romaine is thriving, cucumbers are starting to show progress, tomatoes and peppers are sprouting up taller and taller, and the herbs are growing like weeds!

In fact, in recent weeks Matt pruned some of the wilder herbs in our garden and brought his bounty into work at the end of the school year to give it away. We even had to give away some of our basil plants just to keep up with being able to utilize them in our cooking. It seems we may have created an herb monster.

But never fear, as Matt & I have made more conscious efforts to look up recipes where we could utilize the abundance and indulge in healthy eats. Our first culprit: parsley.

Now most of us know parsley as that herb that garnishes a semi-fancy dinner plate we receive at the diner. And if you have ever tried it (like I have), you know that it has a little bit of a bitter flavor on its own. I never understood why such a bitter herb was placed as garnish on a plate. Was it supposed to be a palette cleanser after the meal? Was it supposed to be something to just pretty up a plate? (Seriously, you don’t need fancy garnishes–they better be there to serve a purpose.)

For years I questioned what parsley as the main stair was good for. (I would later find out that during the Roman Empire parsley was not considered a garnish but more of a breath freshener….I still don’t quite understand how a bitter herb freshens breath. Not like they have parsley-flavored toothpaste selling like crazy!) And when we had an overabundance of it in our garden, Matt took to trusty old YouTube to find good uses for our generous supply.

Entering as our first contender: Chimichurri Sauce.

Yes, chimichurri has variations, mainly where you can add cilantro and/or oregano. But for all intents and purposes, Matt & I utilized our parsley with some garlic, red pepper flake (VERY little, I might add), apple cider vinegar, lemon zest, and olive oil to provide some liquid to the mixture. We also got to utilize our Cuisinart Food Processor, which I consider one of the best brands in all things food processor. (If you’re looking, check out their selection here: Cuisinart – Food Processors.)

While chimichurri can be used on an abundance of meats and vegetables for some brightness and flavor, this sauce shines on steak (even leaner ones like sirloin). Cover your favorite cut of meat with some of this flavorful mixture, add in some mini roasted potatoes and holy yum….you have one incredible meal!

As you fire up your grills this summer, get bold and try some bright flavors to change up those tried and true warm-weather dishes.

And as always, enjoy!

– Jenny V

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Chimichurri

1/2 cup parsley (aka a generous handful)

1-2 cloves finely chopped garlic

2 Tbsp apple cider vinegar

Lemon Zest (one lemon)

Pinch of crushed red pepper

Olive Oil 

Salt & Pepper

1) Add all ingredients except olive oil, salt & pepper into food processor or blender. Pulse until well incorporated and transfer to small bowl.

2) Add in olive oil to wet mixture, then salt & pepper to taste.

Makes 2-4 Servings

 

 

 

Toddler Tips: Literally Lateral

While Maxwell is not what I would call a picky eater, his aversion to certain textures has limited some of the foods we can immediately introduce that he will eat.

If he doesn’t enjoy the food that he is eating, we get the immediate finger scrape of the tongue. Foods that have joined that phenomenon are mashed potatoes, meatloaf, homemade meatballs, fish sticks, and most recently: slushed ices & teriyaki chicken.

In the initial stages of teaching Max how to eat, we would mainly rely on the reports from his daycare. If he was eyeing another kid’s pancakes, then we made sure to get him pancakes at home and test them out there. (The Kellogg’s® Eggo® Minis Buttermilk Pancakes have now remained a staple for breakfast all week long….with butter and syrup added on weekends for an extra treat.)

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Maxwell and his pancakes!

When he didn’t want to eat his puffs for snack time anymore, we introduced Gerber Lil’ Crunchies® – Mild Cheddar with yogurt. (I also highly recommend Stonyfield® Organic YoBaby® Yogurt as it provides that daily dose of probiotics for your little one.)

And when lunchtime got especially boring in texture with Gerber® Plastic Tubs mixed with Earth’s Best Organic® Infant Oatmeal Cereal, we introduced more table food to satisfy the palette.

Eventually Max started to come around on food in general, but this took a little finagling and some observation on how Max preferred to try new things. He would try something, not like it, then we would have to take a side-step in our process and get him to like another item related to that initial food to get him to take that next step. Once he got accustomed to the taste of that other item, we then gave him the initial food again with slight modification. Funnily enough: it worked!

The conclusion became clear: in order to introduce new foods that may not be the biggest hit, Matt & I would have to make lateral moves.

For example, Max initially HATED scrambled eggs. I am not exaggerating that we attempted at least a dozen times before changing our tactics to convince Max that scrambled eggs were delicious. When scrambled didn’t initially work we decided to try a different style of egg: fried with a little cheese on top.

The fried egg with cheese became such a hit! At our local deli there was a fall special for football season: $1.99 breakfast sandwiches on Saturdays & Sundays. We would buy three bacon, egg & cheese sandwiches and offer Max the egg on one while we each ate one sandwich and picked the bacon off the third one. Once Max showed he was comfortable with eggs, the next move would be to then try making scrambled eggs with cheese. Those dozen failed attempts are now a thing of the past as Max can now devour about 2 scrambled eggs on his own.

When it came time to start trying to convince Max that vegetables were delicious, we applied the same concept. First, we took notice that Max would gravitate toward eating fruit & vegetable pouches that contained spinach in them. That made trying spinach our task. Next, we decided that to introduce the real thing, we would need a vehicle like a favorite sauce or flavor to get Max to try it. With Chicken Francaise as one of Max’s favorite foods, Matt & I agreed that incorporating spinach into the francaise sauce was the best move. The end result: Max inhaled his entire serving of spinach with gusto.

And when ground beef was a tough sell, the move became to try another sandwich, like grilled cheese. When the grilled cheese was well accepted, we then made Max a burger patty and his first cheeseburger was quickly scarfed down. Well, he only ate about half of it in the first go, with the other half broken up for him to bring to daycare for lunch the following day. (He ate that too.)

The method worked for Max as he didn’t feel pressured to like a new food right away. We instead found clever ways to come back to once detested foods and make them some of his favorites!

So for those picky eaters, I suggest trying the lateral move:

  1. Have a goal for what you want your child to ultimately eat
  2. Take a side-step by observing what they do like, or formulate a different approach
  3. Once comfortable in that step, incorporate that goal

When children don’t like food that you have worked so hard on for just them, the feeling one gets from watching them spit out that food can be slightly soul-crushing. You just want what’s best, I know. But once you figure out what tactic entices your child to eat and experiment, go with it.

Not every child will be comfortable with the continual offering approach and some will try anything once and like it. I don’t claim to be an expert, just a parent who wants their son to open up to the possibility of expanding their culinary palette. If this tactic works for you, then kudos. If not, don’t get discouraged. You will find out what inspires your child to enjoy food.

Or you may just have a picky eater.

Kids can be funny like that.

And as always, enjoy!

– Jenny V

 

 

 

A Garden of Love….and possibly some fresh mint

Before Matt & I became serious about being parents, we had talked about our hopes and dreams for things we wanted in our first home. Jokingly (but not really a joke) we needed at least 1.5 bathrooms. We wanted room to expand our family, a place we could express our own sense of style and flair. No pool (even though since we now have one we have come around on the idea of swimtime during the summer) and a space to throw summer barbecues whenever we could.

But more than anything else, Matt wanted us to have an herb & vegetable garden that we could use to our advantage. When we needed that little bit of basil or possibly a fresh tomato, what better place than to grab the necessities from our own backyard? Prior to our house-hunting whirlwind we had attempted a bucket garden at our year-round rental. We used big buckets with potting soil and wrapped chicken wire with stakes around it to keep rabbits and squirrels from tampering with our project.

While our attempt at vegetables yielded only one little measly yellow squash plant with fungus on it, we found that the herbs were a lot more abundant! (And you know, no fungus.) Thyme, rosemary, and dill grew like wildfire from just a few seeds, so we found ways to incorporate those herbs into more of our dishes. Chicken dishes, tuna fish, homemade tomato sauce….we found ways to use as much as of it as possible. Eventually we just couldn’t find the time to keep up with pruning and drying out our abundance, so the garden fell to the wayside.

Fast forward to now….where Matt & I finally have the home, space, and enough time to work on such a large project. And so since this idea was Matt’s brain child, he set out to bring this garden to life.

If you had looked at the list of our YouTube searches, you may have chuckled a bit at seeing “How to Build a Keyhole Garden” in between “Little Baby Bum” and “Baby Shark”. We discussed what herbs and vegetables would work best with the way we cook, as well as looking up articles and videos on the best options for growth.

With a goal in mind, Matt set to work on creating on our garden project. First came a handful of Home Depot trips to select the correct lumber, chicken wire, topsoil, and potting soil all while scoping out potential plants. Next, Matt started skillfully building a keyhole garden, making sure that the ground was even before setting down the cardboard for the bed of the garden and loading it with the proper soil mixture.

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Starting our garden

And finally came the best (but most important part): selecting what we should grow in our garden. We wanted to have vegetables and herbs that we normally use in our cooking, as well as a few fun ones to try out in new recipes.

Of course the herbal basics (basil, rosemary, thyme, oregano, and parsley) were automatic shoe-ins for the main part of the garden bed. As a bonus, we added lavender, lemon balm, and sweet mint to round out the lineup. That holy trinity will be beneficial come iced tea/lemonade recipe time. And for that savory factor, lavender is one of the key ingredients in Herbs de Provence.

For vegetables, that became a little trickier but not impossible.

One of the best basics for a garden are tomatoes (even if it is considered a fruit). We decided on Roma tomatoes because they’re smaller than Beefsteak or Jersey, but are considered a good tomato for making homemade sauce. And usually smaller tomatoes are easier to grow, which means if this goes well maybe next year we’ll add cherry tomatoes to the mix.

Next came cucumbers, as my husband is half-Greek and I made pretty good homemade pickles using my great-grandmother’s recipe. There would need to be two types of cucumbers in our garden as the seedless are better for salads and tzatziki while Boston Pickling cucumbers are better for just that: pickling. And so we added those to our list.

With peppers we realized that while red bell are perfect for me as I am minimal on the heat and more on the sweet, Matt could get more into harvesting hot peppers for potential chili and just spicing up a few of our favorite dishes. By accident instead of grabbing four Tabasco pepper plants, we grabbed two Tabasco, one red chili, and one Santa Fe Grande plant. If all goes well, there will be very little need to replenish hot sauce.

For our final plant we had initially talked about spinach as Max has shown an interest in finally eating a green vegetable. (He ate spinach in Francaise sauce, which was a small victory in our house.) But since Matt could not locate a spinach plant anywhere, another great option was to attempt fresh romaine. With a handful of plants, we could pluck ripe leaves from the plant and have a salad without completely uprooting the whole plant. Sounded like a great compromise. Also, spinach is almost always on sale near us so that’s never a problem.

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Ta-da….we have a garden!

The lineup was complete and with some configuring (and eventually re-planting of some of our crops), Matt & I worked together in bringing our garden creation to fruition.

We’re waiting with bated breath to make sure that crops start growing so we can harvest our end product and I can’t wait to share what we make when/if we do!

Stay tuned for potential recipe adventures and stories of our gardening experience.

And as always, enjoy!

– Jenny V

 

 

It’s a little bit butternutty….

While I did it for the sake of Max’s little tummy at the time, adjusting to a dairy and soy-free life wasn’t easy.

With the constant need to read ingredients the process of eating became more of a challenge, more like an Olympic sport! Every item placed in the cart at the grocery store was scanned for any mention of dairy and/or soy. (I recommend the ShopWell app….saved me many times over at the grocery store and you can adjust it for just about any type of dietary restrictions.) I had to advise every waitress when I went out to eat of my dietary restrictions, sometimes even reading over a menu several times before I walked into the restaurant.

I lived with the feeling that it must have been frustrating for the cooks in the kitchen to have to adjust my meal, just because I didn’t want my son to cry in pain from any dairy or soy in my food that would get transferred to his breast milk. This frustrated me to the point that I really didn’t want to eat out at all until Max was cleared or we stopped breastfeeding. (After about nine months, I was able to finally go back to normal when Max started eating solid foods and showed no reactions as I reintroduced dairy and soy into my diet.)

But aside from that I will admit: I had missed dairy on occasion. There were moments I wished I could have a big slice of cheesecake, a plate of buttery Yukon Gold mashed potatoes, or a big bowl of fettuccine alfredo. Sure, there were alternatives like the Daiya products to give me the feeling that I was eating cheese or ranch dressing. (By the way, their pizzas and macaroni & cheese were pretty decent for not having any gluten, dairy, or soy in them.)

More than anything though, I really missed a good pasta in a cream sauce. Fortunately, I was able to locate this gem of a recipe courtesy of Cookie + Kate, which used pureed butternut squash in vegetable broth to replicate that decadence one craves when you order anything in a cream sauce. (And another added bonus aside from being healthy for all you non-meat eaters: it’s Vegan!)

You can check out the recipe on the Cookie + Kate website here: Creamy Vegan Butternut Squash Linguine with Fried Sage. And if you’re not that big into linguine, I recommend using fettuccine as evidenced by the featured photo. It was a delicious substitution and I mean, who doesn’t love fettuccine in a cream sauce?

While I am not a vegan or vegetarian by any means, this dish at the very least satisfied my palette. With my diet back to normal, I would more than likely add some heavy cream and possibly some Parmesan to give it that extra kick of salt. Yet I learned that if you need to be healthy, healthy can be delicious.

And as always, enjoy!

– Jenny V

Francaise: Not just a chicken dish

While I am a healthy mix of nationalities (and according to my recent genealogy research a few I didn’t know about), I was practically raised by my dad’s side: mainly composed of English, German, and Italian family members. I can credit my family for being a key factor in my appreciation of food and cooking. And especially with Italian food, I have developed a rather particular palette. Because while I’m sure a good portion of the Italians I know would pick a tomato-based dish as their favorite, mine has always been and always will be Chicken Francaise. (Fortunately, the version of Francaise we made for this post does have tomato in it.)

In fact, I love Chicken Francaise so much that during my freshman year in college when the cafeteria had failed spectacularly in their attempt to make it (they added raisins and made it sweet….NEVER add raisins or make it sweet, it’s gross), I went home that weekend and asked my dad for an emergency dinner at one of our favorite Italian restaurants. I still shudder thinking of those raisins….I stress that they should NEVER be added to a savory, lemony dish…:::shudders:::…but I digress.

About three years ago, approximately April of 2013, Matt and I opted for takeout from our favorite local Italian joint. I remember the date because Matt encouraged me to order anything and everything from the menu for reasons unbeknownst to me. It was after the fact that he admitted that that was the day him and his mom were in a jewelry store picking out my engagement ring. That day in particular, I had a craving for Shrimp Francaise. I had tried the chicken, I had even tried a flounder version from one of our favorite seafood restaurants. But shrimp? Never.

Fast forward to a few years later, Matt and I decided to try making Shrimp Francaise to add some new dishes to our repertoire. The end result was a delicious lemony and buttery seafood dream, with some fresh sauteed spinach and cherry tomatoes that were bursting with flavor! Seriously, cooked cherry tomatoes–look into it and do it. And as for spinach, buy it fresh in bulk and you will yield many meals: a nice salad, a sandwich topping, and of course, cooked in Shrimp Francaise.

Fun plays on classic dishes are always a great way to spice up your culinary technique in the kitchen. This one is definitely a keeper.

Enjoy!

~ Jenny V


Jenn & Matt’s Shrimp Francaise 

1/2 lb. shrimp, cleaned & fully peeled

2 eggs, whisked

1 lemon, juiced

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1/2 lemon, sliced thin 

1 container cherry tomatoes

1-2 healthy handfuls fresh spinach

1/2 cup white cooking wine

1 cup chicken broth

1 – 1/2 cups flour

1 tablespoon flour

1 tablespoon butter

1-2 tablespoons paprika

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

Salt, to taste

 

Directions:

1) In a small bowl, mix in eggs and tablespoon of lemon juice. In a small pan, mix flour, paprika, and black pepper. Dredge each shrimp through flour mixture, then egg mixture. Place shrimp in pan over medium high heat with a little oil in pan. Brown on each side and let it cook almost all the way through, then remove from pan.

2) Into pan, add tablespoon of flour and butter to create a roux, then add white wine, chicken broth, squeezed lemon juice, and tomatoes. Before the tomatoes begin to burst, add the spinach and shrimp. Place lemon slices over top.

3) Cook until spinach begins to wilt and  tomatoes burst. Remove from heat, season with salt if desired, and serve over pasta.

 

 

 

Sunday Dinner Memories….

While Matt is my main inspiration for posting recipes, he is not the only reason why I do this.

You see, when I was a little girl, not more than four or five, I remember Sunday dinner was always at my Grandma Parson’s house. (She was my great-grandmother and a force to be reckoned with on a culinary level!) I can still remember the way the smell of the pot roast and the sweetness of buttered carrots wafted through the air before I was even able to get my coat off and run into the kitchen to give her a hug. In fact, I’d even go as far to say that that smell *was* the initial hug, welcoming me into her home. It was just that good….and so was she.

I have memories of watching her pull that roast out, testing it to make sure it was done, then grabbing the salt and pepper in her arsenal and by instinct, seasoning perfectly. I’m sure in earlier years she had used them, but there was never a recipe in front of her. It was all by instinct, and the spread was glorious! Pot roast, creamed cauliflower, mashed potatoes, buttered carrots, and applesauce. And me, sitting next to her at the head of the table, greedily filling my plate with all the goodies.

My Grandma Parson passed when I was a sophomore in high school at the age of 98. She outlived her own daughter, my Grandma Shirley, by only a little over two months. My Grandma Shirley wasn’t a cook by any stretch of the means, more like the woman who would serve you Sanka using hot tap water. (I still love to think I get my sense of adventure and rebelliousness from her though, even though she couldn’t cook.)

I hadn’t thought about her too much until last year, as a bridal shower gift, my parents gave me my Grandma Parson’s recipe box. When my mom told me what it was, I think I sobbed for a good few minutes holding this treasure trove. It was more than just a box of recipes she collected. It was like receiving a piece of her in the process, a part that I could have in my home and visit whenever I needed guidance in the kitchen. And the best part? Her smell still lingers on those index cards; every time I open it, I’m that little girl running to greet Grandma Parson all over again while she has the oven ajar, preparing the drippings for gravy. Fun fact: the main picture on my blog is that recipe box.

I don’t mean to bore any of you with the details, but there is a point. My point being that with last night’s dinner, I felt my version of slow-cooker roast would have made her proud. As I prepped everything to go into the Crock Pot, including searing the roast in a cast-iron skillet, her guidance was ever-present. I liberally seasoned the meat, I tapped some salt into the cast-iron before searing, and as I put in all the ingredients to help develop those flavors in the Crock Pot, I understood her need for instinct in the kitchen.

I’m sure she would have been proud, because as I watched Matt take that first bite of roast, I felt like I was getting the opportunity to watch what face I used to make when I would eat my Grandma Parson’s roast: satisfaction. And I’m sure in those moments of love, she felt pride (like I felt) at being able to provide a delicious meal for her family.

Grandma Parson….this one is for you. Enjoy.

~ Jenny V


Jenn’s Sunday Dinner Roast a la Crock Pot

2-3 pounds top round roast (you can use any kind you like, but I prefer the cuts of meat that are on sale and can always use a little love)

2 cans beef broth

1/2 – 3/4 bottle red cooking wine (don’t pour all of it in at once, only half – save that quarter to de-glaze your cast iron!)

3 stalks celery, sliced into snack size pieces

1 package pearl onions

1 large potato, cubed

Salt

Pepper

Steakhouse seasoning

1-2 bay leaves

Worcestershire Sauce (a few shakes will do it)

1 1/2 tablespoons Gravy Master

1-2 tablespoons butter

Directions:

1) In the Crock Pot, add all ingredients (including bay leaf) except for roast, butter, little bit of red cooking wine, and seasonings. Turn on high.

2) Turn on stove on high heat and place cast-iron down on flame. While cast-iron is warming up, season roast with salt, pepper, and steakhouse seasoning. Sprinkle a little bit of salt into the cast-iron and after a few minutes of letting it come up to temperature, place roast into screaming hot skillet. Cook each side for about 3-4 minutes to get a nice crust on it, then transfer into Crock Pot and push down into the juices. Use the little bit of red cooking wine I told you to leave out to de-glaze cast-iron, scrape gently, and transfer liquid into Crock Pot, pouring it over the roast.

3) Cover and cook on high for an hour, then on low for four to five hours. Flip roast halfway through to keep moisture throughout. Baste liberally every 30-40 minutes. When done, remove and allow to rest for 10 minutes.

4) While resting, remove vegetables and transfer into a serving dish, remove bay leaves and toss in butter into Crock Pot with juices, allowing it to melt into drippings. Transfer drippings into gravy boat and serve over the vegetables and roast as you like it.