On Cooking with Alex #3: Bruschetta Bananza!

About two weeks ago, Alex & I changed up the game plan because of the warmer weather and decided to make a couple different bruschetta’s as part of a delicious and fairly light Sunday lunch/dinner! What a way to spend a Sunday afternoon! Not to mention that Frankie & I spent the evening on our porch for a really delightful dinner once he was done with work! Also, these are probably the prettiest things (savory wise) that I’ve ever made!

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I mean, LOOK AT THAT! And almost all of them were spot on! The only one that didn’t QUITE work out as we wanted was the Peach with Whipped Goat Cheese, only because peaches weren’t in season. Alex couldn’t find fresh plums, which is what I used to sub out the peach, and even then it was really bitter, and so she bought canned peaches. I seared off my plums, which helped add a new depth of flavor, but was still a little bitter, and was an odd flavor with the cheese. Alex had a similar experience with her peaches, which she left as they were, and it just wasn’t where it needed to be, so we believe, yes you do need a fresh peach, and it should be a juicy one that is sweet so it will better offset the tang of the goat’s cheese.

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Then there was the traditional Bruschetta that I had presented ages ago (relinked below) that I happened to find some heirlooms for, and that was the RIGHT decision to make. Romas/On-The-Vine are also good alternatives, BUT nothing beats the richness of an heirloom. BUT I did just notice my store is starting to carry orange and yellow tomatoes on the vine, which would be my next alternative for heirlooms. Plus, heirlooms are WAY more expensive, though you do pay for the outstanding quality, which is a plus.

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The third one we made was a bacon and onion marmalade, on top of brie, and this was a TOTAL winner! I mean, it was sweet, tangy, meaty, herbaceous (lots of thyme in there), and it was just the perfect amount of stick to the roof of your mouth kind of good, plus you had the earthy softness of the brie to break up the richness of this mouthful, and it is incredibly rich for such a small bite, but rich enough for you to want another one, then another one, then another one. Alex cooked her bacon first, then added the onion, which allowed it all to caramelize even more, whereas mine was a little lighter in color because I took my bacon out before cooking the onion, adding it all bacon in for the final few minutes. This is DEFINITELY another winner that will likely grace our next Christmas party!

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The last one on my plate is a minted smashed pea and prosciutto crostini, which I understand isn’t going to be the easiest one to make because Prosciutto isn’t always readily available, as was the case for Alex. I will say though, if you find some, make this one! This was by far the favorite (next to the regular bruschetta and bacon/onion marmalade), and I even took it one step further but drizzling a little balsamic glaze right on top, which packed a super punch! The peas were super easy to make, and the combination with the mint made it a very light and fresh bite, which paired beautifully with the subtle earthy elegance of the prosciutto, and the sweet punch of balsamic. Another winner to be sure, and honestly, you could even substitute the prosciutto for sliced ham, or even bacon (because who doesn’t like bacon?).

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All in all, these little morsels were a GREAT treat to munch on in the early afternoons of summer weekends, and I plan to try a couple more crostini recipes for possible party ideas! If you have a favorite bruschetta/crostini recipe, I would love to hear about them! I’m always looking for new ideas and would love to give a couple of your favorites a try! Hoping you’re enjoying the warmer weather wherever you are! — Cooking Maggie


Quick Fresh Brushcetta

Onion & Bacon Marmalade from Tasty Kitchen (Cook in Canuck)

Minted Pea & Prosciutto Costini from Martha Stewart

Peach Bruschetta with Whipped Goat Cheese from Life As A Strawberry

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On Last Week of Whole30

I can’t believe how close we are to being done! It’s Day 29, and tomorrow is DAY 30!!! Holy smokes! Sure, those last few days definitely have that “is day 29 pretty much the same thing as day 30” feel to it, and don’t worry, I absolutely am not going to give up! I will see this through to the end because I know I can do this for another day and a half, especially since I have the day off tomorrow! WOOT WOOT! Plus, Frankie & I have talked AT LENGTH about how to move forward from this experience so that the time and effort we put into the Whole30 won’t be wasted once we’re done.

We’ve discussed doing Whole7’s every so often (potentially every other month), and we’ve talked about ways in which we can continue to cut out processed foods/sugar from our diet a little more permanently, like not eating the free pizza that our works might order during lunch webinars and instead eat our leftovers so we don’t waste food, and just limiting our takeout/junk food habits significantly. We have decided that Friday night is going to be our date/eat out/cheat night, which works for me because I never really feel like cooking on most Friday’s anyway, but we won’t go overboard either! We’ve both seen such amazing results from this experience that neither of us wants to go to waste. We’ll definitely be including more veggies, more salads, and more real vegetables and fruits at home more than the processed snack foods we used to buy and store in our cupboard. There will definitely be an adjustment period, but I’m incredibly hopeful, and no doubt I’ll end up cooking as close to Paleo as I can since the majority of the dishes I’ve made were absolutely delicious!

But my ending thoughts though on the Whole30 are as follows: I will never do a month of that again, unless I really, REALLY have to, BUT the experience was indeed a life-changing one and will have a permanent effect on both Frankie & I’s lifestyle for the better. Would I recommend it? Sure, I would recommend it to someone who has been thinking about it or really wants to do it, and you should really want to dedicate yourself to this, otherwise you’re going to hate it, and in that case, I wouldn’t recommend this. But I will say that the best indicator of whether a diet is the right one for you depends on yourself. Only you know your body and general health better than anyone else, and if you do decide to tackle the Whole30 or another diet and find that it’s negatively impacting your mood or health beyond normal, then it’s likely not the right diet for you. Of course, you’re going through changes physically and mentally, BUT the only negative effect Frankie & I felt were the cravings and occasional hunger here or there because we cut out snacking, but we were never “moody” or “hangry” to a degree that would be considered abnormal. The Whole30 actually made us feel good, feel better in the long run, and THAT is why I would recommend this to someone else, but again, make sure you understand what you’re getting yourself into and commit.

But I also know that diets aren’t for everyone, so if you’re looking for just the one thing we learned the most, that would simply be to reduce/minimize your intake of sugar (processed or natural). Sugar is one of the biggest inflammatory ingredients there is, and as much as I love my Graeter’s Black Raspberry Chip Ice Cream, I understand that a lot of the weight I had accumulated was because of the sugar I was consuming on a daily basis through snacking and (honestly) mindless consumption. A little bit won’t hurt me now, today, but long term, yeah, I can totally see how it was impacting the way I was feeling and looking. Okay, THAT is my schpeel on Whole30!

Final Housekeeping: April 15th will be the first segment of Cooking with Friends!! The first round will just be a post, but we will be coming up with ways to potentially either stream it live or record it for when the post goes live. All things are still in the works, but that’s my main update for you! Tune in next Thursday for my attempt at homemade Funfetti cupcakes (courtesy of smitten kitchen’s recipe, because she’s amazing)!


Day 22

Dinner: Blackened Chicken, Guacamole, Bacon, Lettuce, Tomato Boats

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Day 23

Breakfast: Typical smoothie!

Lunch: Spaghetti Squash Jambalaya

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Dinner: CGBLTs!


Day 24

Breakfast/Lunch: Strawberry, Banana, Pineapple Smoothie

Dinner: Oktoberfest-less Stew

Note: Made WITHOUT the beer, and instead, I just added an extra cup of chicken broth. Oh, and to help thicken it up a little bit, I added Arrowroot instead of Flour to keep it all compliant! DELICIOUS!!


Day 25

Brunch: Strawberry Coconut Breakfast Bake

Note: I did not take a picture of this mostly because it wasn’t the most beautiful looking dish, BUT I will say it was pretty tasty! I think it needed the third egg, as stated on the recipe, but because my eggs have recently been coming with double yolks (and these are eggs I get from my butcher, so they are legit), I just worried that three double yolk eggs would make it too eggy…but perhaps I should have gone ahead and added the third one in any way.

Dinner: Crab Cakes & Roasted Red Pepper Sauce, with a side of Zucchini

Note: This was Frankie’s second favorite meal this month, AND he wants me to make it again soon! Not only was it all very low carb & healthy, it was easy to pull together, didn’t take long to make, and was packed full of flavor! You can’t even tell that I cooked them in coconut oil and used coconut flour! And that red pepper sauce?! The avocado really helps to smooth it out, but I think I will use the blender instead of my mini food processor next time so that it smooths out even more, and I think a pinch of salt and pepper can really take it to the next level.

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Day 26

Breakfast: Leftover Breakfast Bake

Lunch: Last of the Jambalaya

Dinner: Steak & Potatoes a la Frankie

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Day 27

Breakfast: Leftover Breakfast Bake

Lunch: Akor Roka – Sashimi Salad with Japanese Sweet Potato

Note: The prettiest darn salad I ever did see, and honestly, this wasn’t a bad experience eating out either! Sure, I was a little nervous about being an obnoxious customer who has to ask a Japanese restaurant what I can eat on Whole30 that doesn’t allow soy or sugar, which a lot of the sauces and glazes do have. But I’m glad I did ask because my waiter ended up revealing that he was currently on Keto, and understood where I was coming from! So not ONLY did he pull some strings and bring me an amazing salad for the same price as their 3 kinds of sashimi plate, he also took away some ginger that was served with it because there was sugar in the pickling liquid!! How nice was that?! So, for anyone who is afraid or hesitant to go out to eat simply because you’re worried your diet will make things difficult, don’t be! You’ll never know unless you ask!

Dinner: Paleo Slow Cooker Meatballs & Spaghetti Squash

Note: Okay, so now that I’ve cooked with lamb for the second time, we’ve realized that lamb is not Frankie’s favorite, which is okay! I was trying lamb because the last time I made meatballs the pork turned white, and so I was just experimenting with a different meat component. Next on my trial list: Veal. That being said though, THESE were again, SO easy to make, and broiling them first was actually a really great way to get them to stick together before simmering in the sauce for four hours in my crockpot! I actually managed to throw the whole thing together in about 30 minutes, and had a fully cooked meal for lunch/dinner by the time I worked out, did laundry, helped Frankie cook, AND got ready for bed! Easy peasy, and SO so good!

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Day 28

Breakfast: Smoothie & Banana

Lunch: Last of the Oktoberfest-less Stew

Dinner: Leftover Meatballs


Day 29

Breakfast: Smoothie

Lunch: Last of the Meatballs

On Whole30 [Day 2-15]

This week was all about fighting against cravings, and not being so concerned with meal planning, which fell to pieces anyway…it’s just not my thing. I can see how it’s helpful for sure, but by the time I say, “Yes, I will cook that,” I don’t want to eat it or make it come grocery shopping time, so then, I’m searching for something that looks more appetizing about a half hour before I hit the store, and that’s what I end up making for dinner…which is super weird for me because I’m totally an OCD planner rather than a fly by the seat of my pants kind of person. (I have a large suspicion that this is Frankie’s spontaneity rubbing off on me.) But it works for me and my method of cooking, and that’s what counts. And I always try to plan around what’s already in my fridge so I’m not wasting (like how a recipe calls for spinach or collard greens, but I have a bag of green beans that haven’t been eaten yet, so that’s what I end up making instead).

But the cravings have been…particularly bad this week. Pizza has been our biggest craving, especially Lou Malnati’s thin crust sausage & sliced tomatoes, no, wait, Piece Pizzeria pan pizza with white sauce, mashed potatoes (I promise, this is NOT a weird topping for pizza, it’s so so good), sausage, pepperoni, and sliced tomatoes…with a growler of Golden Arm…oh my gosh I’m not doing myself any favors by talking about it, but there you have it. It’s not that pizza was our crutch, it definitely wasn’t, but pizza is something that we would gravitate towards when it was date night at home or one of us had a REALLY crappy day (we’re talking borderline tears territory to require a pizza pick me up). But we’re halfway through and feeling more determined to make it than ever! Pizza cravings be darned! And honestly, I think it’s also that, because Frankie was born & raised in Chicago, pizza (among other Chicago staples) was a big part of his diet in the grand scheme of things (not the everyday or weekly scheme of things). Family dinners with his family on Sundays usually involved pizza because it meant getting more things done and spending more quality time together, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but I think that’s definitely where this particular craving stems from for him, and in a way for me too, since I’ve been going to Sunday dinners for the past, oh, five/six years?

That’s not to say we haven’t learned anything about this experience. Frankie has definitely felt the effects of eating cleaner, on top of being more mindful of what he’s eating. For me, I think it’s more about strengthening my willpower to not give into to unhealthy foods, that and not being so hesitant to try Paleo/Vegetarian dishes more often. Veggies never hurt anyone, and I will also say that both Frankie and I have noticed we’ve slimmed down a little, which is always a great benefit, and when you see good results, you’re more likely to continue to eat better too. I’m not saying this whole process is easy, it isn’t, but it’s not impossible, and a lot of times, I think that’s been the most difficult hurdle to jump in starting this. Can we do it? How much of a change are we going to have to make to be able to accomplish a goal we’ve set our minds to? Honestly, not much change—maybe 1 hour on the weekend to organize our cupboards/fridge/freezer and post stickies where bad food is hidden so we know to avoid it—and yes, we can do it, we are doing this.

I know this isn’t for everyone, and in absolutely no way and I’m trying to push this on anyone because that’s not fair, and that’s not doing anyone any favors, BUT from my personal experience, this has been really helpful in shifting our view on food in our everyday life. We’ve even talked about doing a Whole10 or Whole7 every month/every other month just to keep these lesson we are learning fresh and ensure we’re not slipping back into bad habits. THAT’S been the biggest thing we’ve learned and fought against. No more bad habits, though I’m not going to lie, the occasional shared pizza with a growler of beer with Frankie is something I have no plans or intentions of giving up. Moderation is key here. Not every week or month, but occasionally, especially when those nights involve a movie at home and my sweatpants! ❤ Ah, l’amor! — Cooking Maggie


Day 8

Dinner: Leftovers


Day 9

Breakfast: Smoothie – Banana & Berries

Lunch: Leftover Stuffed Pepper

Dinner: Steak, Lobster, & Roasted Cherry Tomatoes


Day 10

Brunch: Hashbrowns with Onion, Bell Peppers, & Ground Pork

Note: I added to the ground pork the following: ½ teaspoon of cayenne & crushed red peppers, 1 teaspoon of caraway seeds, oregano, Italian seasoning, salt, & pepper. This will kind of get you that breakfast sausage taste using pork that’s compliant! I also diced up ½ an onion, ½ green bell pepper, and ½ a red bell pepper for color & veggie freshness!

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Dinner: Zesty Chicken Bites & Marinara

Note: To quote one of my favorite rascals, OH MY LANTA! These are so, so good! Even Frankie liked them, and I know I shouldn’t be shocked, BUT I AM! The dude actually ate these healthy nuggets, and we made them again on Sunday because we had some left over tenders! I did use ground flax seed instead of almond flour, but I don’t think there’s much difference between the two.

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Day 11

Brunch: Zesty Chicken Bites & Marinara

Dinner: Beef & Broccoli with Spaghetti Squash Chow Mein

Note: The chow mein was SO good! Definitely a keeper and one I will be returning too in the future when I want to make something just a little healthier. The beef & broccoli was super delicious too, and there was barely enough leftovers for just one of us! This was a solid meal, and I think next time, I’ll be doubling it! YUM!

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Day 12

Breakfast: Cold Banana Coconut Bowl

Note: Tastes just as good cold as it does warm, and I was feeling incredibly lazy this morning, so sue me…sometimes my lifestyle does not fit into what the recipe calls for.

Lunch: Leftover Shrimp w/Chimichurri Sauce

Dinner: Lettuce Taco Night (Leftover Carnitas, Guac, Homemade Pico, Leftover Salsa Verde, & Leftover Chimichurri)

Note: Honestly, chimicurri on tacos, not my favorite, even though it’s delicious on steak and can be delicious on jerk or lime cilantro chicken, but my carnitas were better accentuated with the guac and pico pairing.

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Day 13

Breakfast: What was supposed to be a Paleo Strawberry Pineapple Smoothie Bowl that turned into just a smoothie because I was running late…

Note: Okay, so picture this, it’s 6:45am and if I want to make it to work by 8, I need to be out the door by 7:10/7:15, and I’m not dressed, the pup needs to be fed and taken out, and my lunch bag isn’t packed…I was rushed, and last night was too tired to prep bags/containers for the next morning, BUT that won’t be a problem tomorrow morning, so I can actually eat this the right way! Oh, and to make it whole30 compliant, don’t add honey, which it honestly didn’t need anyway, and don’t add oats. When I make it tomorrow, I’m going to top it with some blueberries, nuts (undecided as to which one, but probably going to be walnut because I’m super predictable), and coconut flakes! Oh, and for the fruit, I used fresh pineapple (which you should be able to buy in two forms: cored but unsliced, which is cheaper, and cubed), fresh strawberries (about 10 small ones), and frozen mango chunks. I also used a whole30 compliant almond milk from Califia Farms (unsweetened!)!

Lunch: Left over beef & broccoli & spaghetti squash chow mein

Dinner: Bacon Ranch Chicken Poppers w/ Ranch Dipping Sauce

Note: A no no recipe here, the first in our entire month that we haven’t liked, so I’m not going to include the recipe. The texture was too soft, and the carrots that were included in the recipe made the whole thing too sweet. And the ranch dipping sauce was off…Frankie said too oily, and I did use avocado oil, so he’s not wrong, but I’m not sure what was so off putting for me. The whole meal just wasn’t the best, so Frankie & I both agreed that we would not try this one again. Not all of them can be winners after all…BUT I have a feeling that using ground chicken was where I erred. The chicken bites we made over the weekend were OUTRAGEOUSLY good, so I think tomorrow, I’m going to try again with some chicken tenders, and perhaps almond flour vs. coconut flour, and see if that doesn’t produce some better results. I’ll even add the bacon to the top of each nugget so it looks cute! And I found a different ranch that actually looks yummy!

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Day 14

Breakfast: Apple Sandwiches! Yum!

Lunch: Sweet Potato Soup, topped with bacon, and served with a side of roasted green beans

Note: Another loser recipe for us…it could be that I used sweet potato instead of butternut squash, or maybe it was because there was ginger in it? I don’t know, but it just had no flavor depth…it was weird, and I was a good sport and ate it for lunch, but nada. I’m not going to make this one again. Whomp…

Dinner: Bacon topped Ranch Nuggets with Dump Ranch Dipping Sauce

Note: Okay, so after yesterday’s complete failure, I couldn’t let myself be defeated, so I decided to try again, and this time, I kept the bacon separate, no carrots, and used tenders like I did over the weekend. The covering was the Ranch spice mix linked, and I used almond flour instead of coconut flour, and I cooked the bacon separately, cutting them into bite-sized pieces to top each nugget with. They were BOMB! And I liked this ranch recipe way more than the other, but Frankie has this weird gift where he can tell when something isn’t actual dairy…it’s the main reason he hasn’t jumped on the almond milk/coconut milk bandwagon that I’ve become a part of. And I know this because I have tried purchasing other kinds of milk (ranging from fat free to 2%) and he hasn’t liked ANY of them. If it’s not Oberweis 2% milk, he won’t drink it. It’s weird, and I have no idea how he can tell, but he can…so Whole30 Ranch is not going to be a thing for him. Ohhhhh well, still a great dish, and a VERY easy to make appetizer! Possibly one that will make a reappearance at our annual XMAS party!

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Day 15

Breakfast: Pineapple Strawberry Smoothie Bowl, the right way…

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Lunch: Chicken Piccata with Green Beans

Note: I made this last night, and it was SUPER easy to make! However, 1) I did not butterfly my chicken breasts and kept them whole. 2) I did not coat them (didn’t feel like it, and frankly, I don’t always like the coating), just salt & pepper, and pan seared them to almost fully cooked. 3) Once I removed them, I added in the stock, lemon juice, and capers, let it bubble, then added the chicken back in, and stuck it in the oven (375℉ for 15 minutes), adding a bunch of green beans, garlic, and lemon slices at the 8 minute mark. I did check the chicken with my meat thermometer at the 15 minute mark to make sure it was fully cooked, and if it isn’t, check again every 1 minute till it is. But it was easy and it came out smelling great! Frankie even had the smallest portion for dinner last night because it was fresh, and he ate every bite!

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On Christmas Parties & First Christmas Trees

I don’t know WHY I bothered trying three different grocery stores, but when it came to finding party sized samosas, spring rolls, and spanikopita, ONLY TONY’S HAD SOME! Seriously?! Ugh, and I think I may have posted about Tony’s when I was making Empanada’s and how Tony’s was the only place that sold the premade empanada wrappers…so I hereby solemnly promise, on my honor, that I will only go to Tony’s for all my International food needs. If this promise seems repetitive, my apologies, but sometimes a good reminder can go a long way. But Christmas is my favorite time of year because this is when Frankie and I throw our only party of the year, and it’s definitely a highlight! We also go ALL OUT! I mean, we’re taking catering from Spiro’s up in Waukegan, a special cocktail, a pony keg of Spotted Cow, appetizers made by yours truly, and some appetizers not made by yours truly because I have spent whole parties in the kitchen cooking and cleaning up, and sometimes, not making everything yourself is okay, especially if it means getting to spend more time with your guests, am I right?!

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This year’s menu looked like this:

Drinks: Make-Your-Own Moscow Mule’s (using antique spirit pumps filled with Tito’s, the Dog Lover’s Vodka), Spotted Cow (purchased from Tenuta’s Deli in Kenosha; their price for the keg was exceptional, even though I think their deposit is a little steep, but you get that back as soon as you return the empty keg, so only a temporary hurt on the credit card), and access to other spirits that our guests may prefer if beer and Moscow Mule’s don’t sit well with them.

Appetizers: Baked Brie with Blackberry Jam & Apricot Jam (now, these are SUPER easy to make on your own at home, BUT I happened to find two of them premade from Jewel, for a little less than I would have paid to make it from scratch, so I thought, what the heck! And most grocery stores should sell the premade bakable brie in the special cheese area), my famous Bacon Wrapped Jalapeno Poppers, standard cheese tray that included gruyere and white cheddar cheese with water crackers, and spanikopita (purchased frozen from Tony’s), chips & two kinds of salsa (pico & blended). I also had some frozen vegetarian spring rolls & Tostino’s Pizza Rolls for any 2am hunger crunches too, but ended up not needing them! And yes, I did say 2am. This year, most of our guests left at 2.30, and the final guests left at 3.30 I believe, so I guess everyone enjoyed themselves!

Dinner: Catering from Spiro’s: Make Your Own Italian Beef/Bomber’s complete with dipping au jus, bread, sweet peppers, and giardiniera; Cathy’s Baked Chicken (always a favorite and can be stripped from the bones to be made into a casserole or soup afterwards; Greek Salad; Mostaccioli (penne & red sauce). This is where we splurge the most, but it’s worth it to see everyone happy and full! And the key for us is to start saving for our party starting January 1st of every year. Also, no joke. We put a little bit away every month and whatever we have at the end, that’s our entire party budget!

Dessert: Funfetti Cupcakes (a normal addition) and Gingerbread Sheet Cake Bites with Stabilized Whipped Cream made by Ed (he had them cut into bars, but we thought bites would be better for a larger group, and then we topped the whipped cream with just a sprinkling of cinnamon), and this was an AWESOME addition that may become tradition after how well it went over with everyone! I even plan to take a crack at this myself over new years with my new Kitchen Aid Mixer, which was a fabulous Christmas present from my future in-laws, and I cannot WAIT to try that sucker out! (Recipes are linked.)

Decorations: Honest to goodness, almost EVERYTHING came from the Dollar Store. No joke because honestly, people don’t come to your parties to analyze your decorations or wonder if it’s Crate & Barrel or Pier 1. They are there to spend time with the people who matter in their lives and just be joyful! So I firmly believe that any home can look beautiful with a budget, and while I hesitated with revealing my secret, I actually am really proud of what I have put together in years past, which is why they keep appearing in years future, and why I decided I wanted to share! The potpourri, Dollar Store. The red candles on my wine glasses, and the wine glasses themselves, Dollar Store. The fake garland, which I think I will replace with something juuuuuust a little nicer next year, Dollar Store. Most of the bigger ornaments, Dollar Store. The small ornaments, Walgreens (yup, you read that right, Walgreens) and I add to them every year for about $20…each year the patterns change, and if they can be integrated with some of the setups I already have, done deal. And all the other decor we’ve accumulated over the years were from mine & Frankie’s family, and some are even Christmas gifts! My rule of thumb is that you should be able to use what you have to decorate your house without breaking the budget. I think the only things I splurged on where the gold & silver plates for the wine glasses, which I bought at Target for $12 each I think? But if you find something similar for less, do it!

The big kicker this year was that Frankie & I got our very first Christmas tree together, and it was a momentous occasion! Sure, it’s not enormous, but it was perfect for our apartment and the space we had to work with! And using all the ornaments we’ve received from friends & family over the years, including a large set of straw stars made in Haiti by Frankie’s mom, we were able to really deck the tree out! And on top, well, that’s  Frankie special from our favorite Urban General Store, Enjoy. If you haven’t been, definitely go next time you’re in the Lincoln Square area! They are one in a million for all things interesting and unique, and I mean, you can’t find a more unique tree topper than this one!

And that’s it! Another Christmas party for the books, and a great anticipation for next year as it will be the first Christmas party that Frankie & I will throw as a married couple, which, can I just say I am SO excited about?! EEK!!! But if you’d like to share your own decorating hacks or favorite appetizers to serve! I’m always looking for new ways to keep our parties interesting and would love to hear what you do! Hoping you all had a Merry Christmas, and a very Happy New Year! — Cooking Maggie

On Nachos & The Best Dang Queso

Okay, so yet again, I fell to the confusion of trying to remember to take photos while I was cooking, BUT I’m going to share the best queso blanco recipe that I have. Now, I love me my cheese, but the thing I don’t like is, when you order queso fundido or just queso dip in general, it’s probably been made with chihuahua cheese, which is great for quesadilla’s, but I don’t think it’s a good queso cheese. It resolidifies too quickly, doesn’t stay, melty for lack of a better word. And I have NOT been able to find a place in Chicago, that has a queso dip quite like the one I had in college. Vaquero’s was the local Mexican restaurant that everyone went to whenever they needed a quick taco and margarita fix for a decent price! $20 got you chips, queso, salsa, a large plate of food, and two margaritas. It should come at no surprise that they were almost always busy. But Vaquero’s was where I found my queso blanco perfection!

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The only photo I managed to remember to take before making my nachos.

So, after many years of researching post-college, I finally discovered the key ingredient to their cheese, thus being able to make it at home on those rare nights we can’t cut a craving. WHITE AMERICAN CHEESE. Yup. You heard it here. White Amerian Cheese. When melted, with a little butter and milk to get it going, it’s the perfect consistency and is still a blank enough canvas that you can kick it up a notch with a few additions. Green chilies & a pinch (or two) of cayenne for example are my go-to’s, and a little salt & pepper, naturally. And while it’s FANTASTIC for dipping, it’s also great for topping on top of nachos, which I did make during house sitting! Happy dipping, and I promise to be much better about photographing as I go, but the final product is pretty darn delicious looking, no? —Cooking Maggie

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Quick Weeknight Nachos included ground beef with homemade taco seasoning (recipe included below), homemade pico de gallo (see recipe page), and store bought/store made guacamole. Nacho chips were baked till warm (about 5 minutes at 350), then topped with meat, pico, cheese, and lastly quac.

White Queso Blanco

Ingredients:

  • ½ pound of white American cheese (Land O’ Lakes)
  • ¼ cup milk (maybe more if you want it thinner)
  • 1 tablespoon of butter
  • 1 4oz can of green chilies
  • 1 teaspoon of cumin
  • 1 teaspoon of garlic salt
  • A pinch of cayenne

Instructions: Place cheese, milk, & butter in a sauce pan over low heat. Heat til. melted, stirring frequently. When melted, stir in green chilies, cumin, garlic salt, and cayenne. Add more milk if you want it thinner. Serve immediately with chips, tacos, enchiladas, nachos, etc.

Homemade Taco Seasoning

  • 1 tbsp chili powder
  • 1 tbsp ground cumin
  • 1 tbsp garlic powder
  • 1 tbsp onion powder
  • 1/2 tbsp (or 1 tsp+, to taste) crushed red pepper

Instructions: Mix everything together and store in a container for further use.

On Leeks

It’s official, I want leeks in my home at all times. Well, after I’m all done moving of course, but LEEKS ARE DELICIOUS! And if you haven’t had one before, try adding them in with whatever veggie dish you’re making! They have this really wonderful woody aroma to them, and a delightfully mild sweetness, unlike their very strong and pungent veggie friend, onion. For example, I found this really lovely recipe for asparagus that included leeks and pancetta (which I substituted for bacon because that was what I had, and frankly, I find it a little difficult to find pancetta around me) and let me tell you something, Frankie could SMELL it from the other end of the apartment and was shouting “THAT SMELLS GOOD! WHAT ARE YOU MAKING?” about every few minutes. Sometimes, being able to surprise your partner that vegetables, which are not his favorite things to eat, can actually be darn right delicious! Sadly, no photos, but I will DEFINITELY be making it again and included the link to the recipe below in case you don’t want to wait for my photographic evidence of utter tastiness!

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But I digress. As I’m working with leeks more and more, almost seeking them out in a way, I’m becoming more aware of how difficult it can be to cook. Too much and they become mushy and melt into whatever you’re cooking without adding much else since their flavor profile is milder than that of their close veggie friend onion. Though, naturally, if you’re making a soup, you want them to be soft so they blend easily, so in that case, cook away! But too little cooking leaves you with crunchy and fibrous mouthfuls of nothing. It’s only when you get them cooking in a little oil, or dare I say it, butter (which I think is the way to go because they soak up all that nuttiness) that the really aromatic sweetness comes out. You want your leeks to have a presence in whatever it is you’re cooking, rather than being masked, because they are delicate and beautiful, deserving a chance to shine in whatever dish you’re cooking.

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For example, take the asparagus I mentioned earlier! While asparagus was the main ingredient and star of that dish, with its own subtle note of sweetness amid its natural bright earthiness, the addition of the leek enhanced that sweet note to just the perfect amount. The leek complimented it, and still provided a slight tart nuttiness from their caramelization in butter to help them stand out amid the equally strong meatiness of the bacon! And all together, well, let’s just say the recipe is titled aptly!

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As for these fritters? Well, it’s safe to say that I have known for quite some time now that Smitten Kitchen is one of my top go to spots for things to make and try! Deb Perelman’s food is just elegantly simple, unfussy, but delicious, and always adaptable to taste, as I did with these fritters. I like to add a little heat to my veggie dishes if there seems to be a pull towards a single flavor note, which for this dish, since it’s JUST leeks, was going to be a pull towards that soft sweetness, so I added just a little more paprika than the recipe asked for to get a small spicy kick. Also, make sure you do dab your leeks dry after you rinse any remaining dirt away! This ensures that there won’t be too much moisture in your mixture, so your fritters stay in tact and fry perfectly once you mix up your batter!

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But look how tasty that looks?! And that’s another thing I love about her recipes. They’re easy to make. They don’t require a lot of time, making them ideal for weekday cooking, which for me, is becoming the kind of thing I’m gravitating towards the most. But here’s to the upcoming change in season, to a new home, and new meals in a new kitchen! Though, let me say it right now, there are two steaks in our current freezer just waiting to hit the coals of a new grill that may or may not make its way into our backyard in the coming weeks! BBQ and Bags anyone? — Cooking Maggie


Leek Fritters with Garlic & Lemon from smitten kitchen

Absurdly Addictive Asparagus from kaykay on Food52.com

On Quick Bruschetta

Holy smokes! It’s been a crazy couple of weeks, and my apologies for not posting sooner! I’ve been cooking and photographing, and attempting to write up posts and edit my photos, but then I get distracted with packing because we are moving at the end of the month! I know that’s a ways away, but this wasn’t really expected, and being the overly OCD one in the house, I promised not to be that person who leaves packing to the last week. I’m on a 5-6 box per day regimen, with Frankie helping when he can, but worry not, the kitchen will be the last thing we pack up. We aren’t moving far, like to another city far, but just to a different neighborhood far, which makes this whole moving business easier. And because I’m kind of flying by the seat of my pants for the next few weeks, slowly siphoning my equipment and tools to the bare essentials, I just don’t have as much time to spend on making, I’m going to call them “new” dishes, but the doesn’t mean we can’t make delicious food! In the meantime, I will be returning to my personal recipe collection and binge on the quick & easy meals I know and love until we get more settled into our new space, which should have more natural light, and if not, there’s a backyard that gets all SORTS of sunlight during the day, so there should be, hopefully, a nice change to my photos that my hard marble background just can’t really handle…but c’est la vie, we do what we can with what we have, no?

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And in the spirit of quick and easy, what could be better than a quick and easy bruschetta? The one thing I’ll say about this is that I LOVE to use heirloom tomatoes when I can get my hands on them. I find them to not only be more visually appealing, but I think they have a deeper flavor than your typical, everyday, red tomato, but if you can’t get heirlooms, I recommend sticking to roma or vine ripe tomatoes. Beef steaks are going to be just a little too firm and I think cherry tomatoes are too sour. And then there’s really nothing to it! Dice your tomatoes, throw in some garlic, splash olive oil, balsamic vinegar (maybe even get a little crazy with your olive oil and balsamic flavoring if you so choose, which is definitely on my list of things to do), and chiffonade your basil, add your salt & pepper and TA-DA! You’ve got bruschetta!

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As for bread, honestly, if you want to get REALLY authentic, you’re going to want to go with a baguette. Otherwise, any bread and size will do. I’ve used rolls before (sliced), and I’ve used crackers, but the one that I’ve pictured is an Italian Loaf because it was smaller in length than your normal baguette, and because it wasn’t necessarily so tough around the edges, it made it a little easier to toast! I love to rub garlic halves over each slice and brush some olive oil over the top. Now, I had run out of fresh garlic, didn’t have time to get some more while I was in the midst of packing and getting hungry, so I deferred to my ever handy jar of pre-minced garlic. Yes, I use this stuff, but only because it makes everything so darn convenient! And if you use a slotted spoon or dry them off a bit, and soak them in olive oil, it’s just like using the real thing. So I used that to add to my little toasts, and boy oh boy did they come out a beautifully toasted color!

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But there you have it! And everything in this recipe is easily adjustable to personal tastes with regards to recipe amounts, and it only takes maybe 10 minutes tops to pull it all together, making it a great afternoon snack or appetizer for a dinner party (which I have done and got GREAT reviews for). And if you run out, or think you will, it’s ridiculously easy to prep a second batch beforehand or make one on the fly! If I add any crazy and weird oil or vinegar flavors, I’ll be sure to mention them as I go! (Olive Oil stores are wonderful thing I must say! Especially if you find a flavor that you really like!) — Cooking Maggie

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Quick Brushetta

Ingredients

  • 3-5 heirloom tomatoes, preferably ones that have some different coloration to them*
    • If you can’t get heirloom, you’ll want 4-5 Roma Tomatoes or Vine Ripe Tomatoes
  • 2 cloves of minced garlic
  • 7-8 basil leaves, chiffonade into ribbons
  • 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil, adjust for natural wetness of tomatoes
  • 1-2 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar**
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper (or to taste)
  • 1 baguette/Italian loaf, sliced into rounds 1/4″ thick
  • olive oil & garlic for toasting

 

Instructions

  1. Dice your tomatoes into nice, small cubes, and either pat dry or leave as is. Add garlic, basil, oil, vinegar, salt, & pepper. Stir to combine.
  2. For the bread, either 1) rub fresh garlic halves on the top of each slice, then brush on a little olive oil on top, or 2) mix olive oil and minced garlic in a small bowl and brush a little on top of each slice. Toast under the broiler, and remove when golden brown. (Be sure to keep your eye on it or the edges will catch and burn!)
  3. Top each slice with a large scoop of tomatoes and proceed to stuff your face with this deliciousness!


Notes
* The 3-5 is completely adjustable depending on how much you want to make, but rest assured, it does keep in the fridge for a few days after you make it, so you don’t have to eat it all in one day.
* If you can’t get heirloom, you’ll want 4-5 Roma Tomatoes or Vine Ripe Tomatoes
** The ratio of vinegar to olive oil should be 1:2, so keep that in mind when adding

On Pickles: Upping My Fry Game

As I mentioned in my last post, I had a failed fried pickle experience, as shown. Ugh, it’s so sad…but okay, there’s no point in ruminating over the past, but rather, it’s time to get busy!

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Saddest fried pickles ever…

I present: The Great Pickle Experiment! I was absolutely determined to get something from my fancy hot dog dinner disaster, and thought the pickles would be the best focus for me, especially since it is a tasty treat that I wouldn’t mind munching on again on a lazy weekend afternoon.

The Breading Variations: Flour (plain, bottom right), Italian Breadcrumbs (fine, bottom left), and Italian Seasoned Panko Breadcrumbs (coarse, top left).

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The Method (used for all above variations per the instruction from my Fry Guy Ed): Flour—Egg Wash—Breading. (I also know it should really go egg wash—flour—egg wash—breading, but I felt that with the pickles being as wet as they were naturally, I said no need to two egg washes.)

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Now, before I get into the results and reveal some of my photos, let me first address what went wrong with…⇑ that. Firstly, no initial flouring…just egg wash and panko, and I wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt because…well, it’s their recipe, and I have had these beauties before, and this was my first solo attempt to make fried pickles. Nope. The pickles were too wet, they didn’t hold ANY of the egg wash, and thus, no panko covering evening…which led to my like Frankenstein-ed pickle problem.

I wanted to go by the book before I branched off on my own, but that’s when I realized that this cookbook may also have had a few…very common sense things, if you will, overlooked. I’m an amateur, I’ve mentioned this, and when I’m cooking something new or  challenging, the last thing I’m going to do is think about common sense techniques. I don’t fry, but yes, in hindsight, now, I should have just floured my pickles first, recipe be darned. But that’s why I started this whole endeavor, I wanted to learn the techniques that perhaps weren’t so common to me, since how I learned to cook wasn’t, for the most part, technical. It was very hands-on, feel-it-out, learn-on-the-fly. But duly noted, flour first, and me thinks a little cayenne or chili powder (or both!) would be a great addition for next time!

Oh, and pat those pickles dry! Not bone dry, but just dry enough that they won’t be too wet when going to the egg wash, but wet enough to naturally bind to the flour. And then I just had a frying good time!

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The Verdict: Italian Breadcrumbs (bottom right of the photo above — flour was top left, and panko bottom left). This was my favorite in terms of flavor, covering, texture. While the flour was crisp, it was flavorless, but had I zested it up with a little heat for both flour dredges, it might have been much nicer. The Panko was just a little aggressive with the crisp, a little too coarse for my liking (and to each his/her own I suppose). And I think, even for the Italian Breadcrumbs, I would add some chili/heat to the initial flouring. And it gave me a good excuse to buy a spider skimmer [I have very large ambitions to one day attempt to make my own tempura veggies, but that’ll be for another weekend when I’ve gotten a little more frying under my belt].

Fry On My Fellow Cooks —Cooking Maggie


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Ingredients

  • 2 whole pickles, sliced into 1/4 inch rounds
  • 1 cup flour
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup Italian Breadcrumbs
  • Vegetable Oil, enough to fill 1/2 of a medium saucepan
  • Salt & Pepper, to taste
  • Optional: 1-2 teaspoons chili powder or cayenne, added to flour

Instructions

  1. Slice your pickles into 1/4 inch rounds, gently pat semi-dry with paper towel (they shouldn’t be dripping, but shouldn’t be bone dry either).
  2. Set up your breading station: 1 plate for the flour (and chili powder/cayenne), 1 bowl for the eggs (whisk for 1-2 minutes until well blended), and 1 plate for the breadcrumbs.
  3. (For this step, I recommend only handling 2-3 pickle rounds at a time as this step should be done fairly quickly so no coating or egg is lost in the process) Dredge pickle slices in the flour, ensuring an even coating of flour all around, then transfer to egg wash. Coat the pickles in the egg wash, then transfer to breadcrumbs, ensuring another even coating of breadcrumbs all around. Set aside on another plate and repeat with remaining pickles.
  4. Pour your vegetable oil into your sauce pan (we’re looking for about 1/2 the saucepan to be filled, roughly 5-6″), and heat oil to 375°F. (Note: If you don’t have a thermometer, I found a nifty trick using a wooden spoon to check the oil! Place the handle in the oil (holding the actual spoon in your hand), and when the oil starts to bubble around the stick, it’s ready!)
  5. Carefully place your pickles in the oil, and fry until golden brown all the way around (about 3-5 minutes usually). Carefully skim the pickles out and place them on a paper towel to absorb the excess oil, and sprinkle with salt & pepper to taste (I just use pepper because the pickles are already perfectly tart and salt would be a little overkill, but it’s to your preference). Then serve hot with your favorite dipping sauce (ranch, chipotle aioli, you name it, you can use it)! YUM!

 

On First Bites [White Bean Dip]

First bites are so important in food, and I think really great first bites are rare, the kind that makes you actually stop chewing if only to savor the bite on your tongue for just one more moment. It’s that first bite that can set the tone of the meal, can make or break it if it’s only slightly off, and if it’s really, really good, it’ll be a bite you’ll remember for years to come. I have been lucky to have experienced a few of these meal making bites, and happened to recall one from over ten years ago only a few days ago.IMG_3330I was fifteen when I had my first bite of white bean dip, and I will never forget it. Sure, I had white beans before, but none that ever made me stop to think “Oh, so THIS is what a white bean tastes like.” Thick, creamy, salty, garlic-y, light, and slightly sweet. It was simple, but good food doesn’t always have to be complicated or over the top, and this bite was beautiful as it was. And funny enough though, it is the only thing I remember from what I’m sure was an absolutely delicious meal, but I hadn’t thought about this bite until I came across a recipe for Mashed White Bean (which I then adapted my recipe from) on Pinterest, and then I remembered, and then I craved.

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This photo (and all photos above) are the white bean dip made with cannellini beans.

I made a few changes to the recipe I came across because the garlic in the recipe wasn’t going to be enough, let alone be strong enough, so I decided to cook my garlic before I mixed it in. And while I did follow the rest of the recipe (mostly) as it was, I made another batch using great northern beans because I know they are softer and slightly smoother. The toppings are definitely things I plan to play with, although this grouping was just absolutely delicious, so I didn’t feel inclined to change anything about it when I was making it, though I may leave off the red pepper flakes next time.

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SO MUCH SMOOTHER! [Great Northern Beans]
I also want to note that while baguette would be the best bread to use, I didn’t have any on hand when I made it, and the grocery store I had chosen to go has a really poor bakery station, so there wasn’t any baguette available…so I went with what was available to me, and frankly, I think any bread with this dip would be utterly scrumptious! I also added more olive oil when initially blending everything together with the cannellini beans because of their tougher texture (really they are a bean that should be cooked before they are mashed, even coming out of a can, which is why I think the great northern bean would be more appropriate here). By no means any less delicious, but I’m definitely more aware of what I’m using to try (emphasis on try) to recreate what I had ten years ago. I know it will never be the same—it’s too hard to remake the same feelings you have from a memory because it’s too hard to recreate the same atmosphere and circumstance that those initial memories were born in—it still tasted just as good to remember such a wonder experience and to have this dip again after so long in my adult kitchen with my adorable dog licking my toes, hoping for a bite, and to me, that’s more delicious that reliving any memory exactly the same. Who wants to remember the same thing exactly the same way anyway? Not me!

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White Bean Dip with Great Northern Beans

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May you live for the newness in everyday, but never forget the wonderful experiences of days past. — Cooking Maggie


Quick White Bean Dip
Adapted from Mashed White Bean Bruschetta by Sweet Paul recipe

Ingredients

  • 1 can great northern beans, drained and rinsed
  • 5 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 2-4 tablespoons olive oil, more for topping
  • salt
  • 12 slices of preferred bread, toasted to taste
  • fresh tyme
  • a little chili flakes (if you’d like)

Instructions

  1. Cook garlic in 1/2 tablespoon of olive oil, just to get a little color on them, about 1 minute.
  2. Add garlic, salt, and great northern beans to food processor (or blender), add 1 tablespoon of olive oil at a time (add more if needed) till desired consistency is reached.
  3. Spoon dip into a bowl, and top with fresh thyme leaves, chili flakes, and a little more olive oil (if wanted). Or, just eat plain!