On Healthy Eating [After Whole30]

If I haven’t already said it, and I’m pretty sure I have, Whole30 was indeed life-changing. Not only does junk food or fast food no longer taste the same, it’s no longer appealing either. Not that that’s a bad thing, because it totally isn’t (better on our budget and better on our waistbands too), but rather it’s been interesting to observe the gravity of how much foods we haven’t been eating make us feel post-consumption. Pizza? We originally thought twice a month would be okay, especially when we go up to visit his parents and that’s what they want to have for dinner that night, but we’re thinking once a month (if that) is going to be the better alternative. Sugary substances in all shapes and forms? Yeah, I’m a one and done now—case and point: I ate ONE of my mini cheesecakes from over the weekend and gave the rest to my coworkers because my teeth started to sing just thinking about eating a second one—and all the gummies Frankie had hoarded prior to Whole30 are still in the bag I put them in and will likely continue to remain in that bag in our freezer for a while yet…and for me, the most surprising thing is when Frankie comes home and asks if dinner is Whole30 compliant!

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So with that in mind, we came to an interesting decision. While we will still have our moments of freedom (not going to lie, I totally had some Bad Apple cheese curds on Tuesday with my book group, sorry not sorry at all), but at home, we’re going to stick to a pretty Paleo diet…with a few exceptions of course.

  1. Beer & Wine: This is totally in moderation and we realized we don’t need it, but sometimes, a small glass of red, or a Zombie Dust or Hopback Amber is exactly what the doctor ordered, so we are going to keep alcohol in our diet, but since Whole30, our consumption has decreased significantly. Also, I miss cooking with beer and wine…sure I can totally not cook with alcohol, no problem, but sometimes, it just adds that extra little…oomph.
  2. Rice: We’re pretty much over pasta (though not excluding it completely either because sometimes it makes for a great easy weekday meal), but I missed rice A TON in March, so we’re going to keep it in and vary the kind of grain I use (more wild rice than white rice).
  3. Bread: Also in SUPER moderation. Since getting off whole30 I think we’ve made…1 smash burger for dinner, and had one night of hot dogs with buns…so we’re also not gravitating back towards bread, BUT having it as an option is nice to have. But now that I have found breadless meatballs & flour alternatives, this may not even be an exception, but rather it’s nice to have as an option for when we go out.
  4. Peas, Chickpeas, Beans, & Corn: The other non-Whole30 approved veggies/legumes that frankly I like too much to remove, though beans…eh, I could say bye or minimize my exposure to a number of them, but frozen green peas are my favorite last-minute additions to a meal (and if I can get them fresh, EVEN BETTER), hummus makes for a GREAT easy/low key meal (with veggies and rotisserie chicken), and I love hardshell tacos and tortilla chips with a passion.

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And that’s it! Really not too bad right? So in honor of our more finalized everyday diet, I have two recipes for you this week that are sure to keep that healthy kick going (if you’re on one) or will help start one (if you’re looking for that) OR just taste good and don’t take a long time to make (what I believe most of you come here for). Enjoy my lovelies! — Cooking Maggie

Quick Housekeeping: Cooking with Friends #3 will be post-poned to next Sunday (hint: think pasta), so the next post will be Monday May 7th!


Seared Barramundi with Yogurt Mustard Sauce from Champagne Tastes

Note: I also made this with a side of wild rice & pan seared green beans with garlic! Delicious!

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Guacamole Stuffed Lime Chicken

I don’t really have a recipe for this, I just kind of winged it, but essentially, you’re going to take 3-4 chicken breasts and season them with salt, pepper, and cumin on both sides, then pan sear in an oven-safe skillet for 4-5 minutes, then top with juice from 1 lime, and roast until cooked (165°F) flipping it over every 6 minutes.

When the chicken is done, cut a pocket in it and fill with your favorite guacamole (mine is here), and serve with sauted or roasted veggies.

I know it’s not the most standard recipe, BUT I was cooking on the fly, worked with what I had, and feel like this is so straightforward a full recipe would be been redundant.

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On All The Catching Up

Dear Readers: My apologies for my incredibly late delay in a post…it’s been a busy last couple of weeks with some updates to announce! The first: Cooking with Friends will premiere for the very first time on Tuesday, April 17th, and will be posted later that evening or the next day (depending on how quickly I can get myself together). The second: I have gone ahead and updated my recipe page so that it is clear where my recipes are coming from. Not that anyone has complained (no one has, honestly), but this is a personal choice because it looks, at a glance, like it’s all me, and I don’t want that, that’s not what I stand for. And even though I want folks to go through the specific blog that talks about that specific recipe, I also thought it fairly annoying to have to scroll through the blog post to get to the recipe link, so I also added a direct link to every recipe that I can’t claim to their designated blog. If there are adaptations that I made, I’ve added a star so you can decide how you want to approach the recipe. Just trying to make it easier for my readers, you know. The third: I have also updated (a little) my cookbook page as well, but I know I have more recipes to add, so take a looksee! And with that, let’s dig in, shall we?

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This past Good Friday was a company holiday for me, which meant a day to stick around home with Tuggs! It also meant that I actually had time to unbox the lightbox I had bought…oh…about six months ago…and I rearranged one of the tables in my dining room to be completely dedicated to taking food photos! I had thought to set it up in my kitchen, but I don’t have enough counter space as is. Anyway, here we are! TA-DA! The very first photos from the lightbox!

If any of you have heard or follow Pinch of Yum, not only does she have GREAT healthy, low cal recipes to die for, but she actually has a really lovely and informative post about taking photos with artificial light. I actually bought her setup when I got my camera, and if you haven’t noticed, these are the best photos I’ve been able to turn out! (See side by side of crab cakes below. UGH I CAN’T EVEN!)

And especially since I was just coming off of Whole30, I wanted to make something that wasn’t going to be…too hard on our system, but at the same time, I wanted to make something that had been on my to-bake list, especially with my kitchen aid mixer having been neglected all month, so that’s how I arrived at funfetti cupcakes, courtesy of Smitten Kitchen. Overall, you can ABSOLUTELY tell that these are not from a box – the cake itself is super moist and about as white as you get, and they weren’t bad, but they were VERY sweet, which I know is a weird complaint, but that’s only because we’ve been on an almost zero sugar diet for the last few weeks and it was just a little bit of a shock to the system. Still, a really wonderful first non-Whole30 recipe to try out! YUM!

Confetti Cake from Smitten Kitchen

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The week after Easter was very much filled with dinner with friends on Monday and Tuesday, then a singular night in (crab cakes), and then a comedy show Thursday night were we got to see Frankie’s groomswoman Emily Fightmaster kick butt and take names in Second City’s e.t.c. 42nd Review, Gaslight District  (yeah, shameless plug, but I love her to death and she is PHENOMENAL, so go see her while you can)! So there was minimal time to write, minimal time to cook, and then we whisked ourselves off to Buffalo to get REAL into wedding planning (menu, photographer meeting, ceremony site visit, and so on), which left even less time to catch up and pull something together for you all! Hopefully a two-fer recipe spill will set everything right again, especially since it’s one of my favorite dishes: curry! Red Thai Curry to be exact, but with my own spin to it. The recipe on it’s own, great, BUT, as I’ve noticed with any curry recipe that claims authenticity and quickness, it’s just not…where it needs to be. The same could be said for this recipe as well, and this is purely with regards to the spices that were just…not there. I’ve included the link below BUT the added spices and veggies are written below, along with my other notes!

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I love potatoes in my curry and I haven’t had peas in a month, so I couldn’t leave them stuck in my freezer for another moment longer, are all underneath! That being said, I also halved the onion/peppers as well to compensate for the amount of pot space I was swapping them out for. And you know what, so long as the sauce, the actual base of the curry is there, YOU can add and remove and swap WHATEVER you want! Don’t want chicken? Try duck! Or pork! Curry is great like that.

Red Curry Chicken from Mother Thyme

Adaptations:

  • USE FULL FAT COCONUT MILK! I feel low fat is just too watery, and a little dose of good fat does you good in the long run anyway.
  • I used ½ the peppers and onion because I wanted to add 2 red potatoes (cubed small) and ¾ cup of peas (swapped out for the beansprouts, which I don’t happen to like in curry).
  • Add an extra ½ teaspoon of salt & pepper to the dish before stirring in the peas.
  • To sauce, add ½ tsp turmeric, 2 teaspoon cumin, 2 tsp coriander
  • To kick up the heat, add in 1 serrano, deseeded, cut in half length wise, and thinly sliced! We used fresno chilies the first time and it didn’t have the kick I wanted, but no biggie! If my grocery store had the little red chilies, I would have used one of those, with a backup chili in case of extra needed heat.

My apologies again for taking so long to get back to you, but I hope you find it in your hearts to forgive me, and I hope you’ll check back on Tuesday for the first COOKING WITH FRIENDS! Happy Eating Everyone! (I know I am!) – Cooking Maggie

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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 16 – 22] & A NEW LOGO!!

In case any of you wondered, Frankie and I did not go out for St. Patty’s Day this year, and you know what, I’m really okay with it, especially since it was a headache I didn’t have to deal with on Sunday! Yahoo! Instead, I got to hang out at home and really unwind from what hasn’t been the easiest month, and I’m not talking about the Whole30 nor will I turn this into a woe is me post because I’m also not that kind of person. With regards to how I’m feeling, this week, I haven’t felt any cravings, but rather I feel awesome! I feel like I could tackle the world and then some! Bring. It. On. This is what the Whole30 book says is the Tiger’s Blood phase, though I’m not sure I completely understand the actual concept of Tiger’s Blood, but that’s neither here nor there. Honestly, I feel great, I feel energized, I feel calmer (more often when I’m not at work work), and I just want to keep this feeling going! I know that means continuing a lot of the lessons I have picking up throughout this entire process, but I would like to reintroduce rice as a starch option sometimes. But I don’t feel the crutch of cheese anymore, which is a little hard to believe because that craving lasted two weeks and didn’t feel like it was going to lift off me anytime soon! Ugh! But we’re still here, Frankie & I together, and we have been each other’s best support system throughout this process, and I couldn’t have kept going without him, especially on those days when I wanted to take advantage of having our local Lou Malnati’s saved in my phone contacts…but anyway, this week we had a lot of success recipes, and hope you find something to nosh on at home yourself! #paleoisntscary! Also! Made a couple updates to the website! I’m trying out a new logo! Would love some feedback if anyone has any! — Cooking Maggie


Day 15

Dinner: Deconstructed Hot Dog

Note: This was…okay. Super easy and simple to make, but was it completely filling? Absolutely not, simply because it wasn’t a real Chicago dog. God I miss street dogs so much…


Day 16

Breakfast: Strawberry Smoothie Bowl

Lunch: Chicken Piccata Leftovers

Dinner: Teriyaki Salmon & Cauliflower Fried Rice

Note: Normally, I make a Honey Siracha Glazed Salmon, but neither Siracha or Honey are Whole30 compliant, SO, I made Teriyaki (coconut amino style) Salmon instead! Still really yummy, but I’ll include the actual Salmon recipe I normally use above for reference. Oh, and the cauliflower fried rice was AWESOME!! Definitely was a surprise for both Frankie & I! I didn’t include egg, but instead used bean sprouts, which added a really lovely crunch to everything! It was overall, and really satisfying meal!

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Day 17

Breakfast: Banana (light breakfast because I wasn’t feeling the best)

Lunch: Leftover Salmon

Dinner: Steak & Roasted Red Potatoes (in honor of St. Patty’s Day)


Day 18

Breakfast: Apple & Almond Butter

Lunch: Hashbrowns with Ground Pork

Dinner: Paleo & Whole30 Chili

Note: This I think is the best chili recipe I’ve made in a good long while! It’s not bad, and I really don’t miss the beans in this at all! Besides, bacon in anything always tastes great! I will note the following: 1) I halved the recipe because I didn’t want to make a ton; 2) I added chili powder as well, because what’s chili without a little chili powder; and 3) I didn’t use sausage, but instead, found some ground lamb, which was a great addition!

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Day 19

Breakfast: Pineapple Strawberry Smoothie (this week is going to be crazy busy, and this is the best I can do)

Lunch: Leftover Chili

Dinner: Spanish Chicken with Roasted Spaghetti Squash & Green Beans

Note: I was literally futzing about in the kitchen when I came across a recipe that intrigued me, but needed a little more of an oomph, not to mention I didn’t want to serve cauliflower to Frankie twice in one week, SO instead I went with my own intuition on this one and crafted a new chicken recipe that came out unbelievably juicy, tender, and well seasoned! It’s a keeper folks!

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Spanish Chicken

Ingredients:

  • 4-6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 2 teaspoons paprika
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon Italian Spice Blend
  • ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • ¾ cup chicken stock (plus a little more if you’re using two pans)
  • 1 jar sun-dried tomatoes, removed from oil & halved
  • 1 cup pitted green olives, halved

Instructions:

  1. Mix all the spices together and rub all over the chicken thighs.
  2. In a large skillet over medium heat, add the olive oil, and then the chicken. (Note: I recommend dividing the chicken between two pans.) Cook until there’s a nice golden brown/crust on each side (about 4-5 minutes).
  3. Add in about ½-¾ cup of chicken stock to each pan, then cover with a lid, and lower the heat to simmer for 3-4 minutes.
  4. Divide and add the sun-dried tomatoes & olives equally between the two pans, cover again, and simmer for another 3-4 minutes, or until chicken reaches 165℉.
  5. Serve over roasted spaghetti squash and green beans.

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Day 20

Breakfast: Apple and Almond Butter

Lunch: Leftover Spanish Chicken (which I didn’t end up eating because breakfast was super filling and I had back to back meetings all afternoon, and by the time I even thought to eat, it was 4pm, and I had a training session at 5:30, so I snacked on carrots and strawberries instead).

Dinner: Skirt Steak Jicama Tacos

Note: I also got a little creative on this one too. There was a slow-cooker steak recipe in the Whole30 Cookbook, but frankly, I just wasn’t feeling the slow-cooker tonight, so instead, I flew by the seat of my pants and picked skirt steak, which I haven’t tried cooking on my own before. The rub ingredients are below, and let me just say, I was definitely doing my happy food dance around the kitchen! It was quick & easy, and unbelievably delicious! I even had another reason to use the leftover chimichurri from last week again! Yay! Also, while a jicama is NOT a tortilla, it’s not a bad substitute for getting me as close to the real thing as possible, which was what I was aiming & hoping for, and together with the beef and chimichurri, it was quite tasty and fulfilling! And with 10 days left to go, I am feeling all sorts of good vibes for this week and next!

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Skirt Steak Jicama Tacos

Ingredients:

  • 1lb skirt steak
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon pepper
  • 2 teaspoon chili powder
  • 2 teaspoon cumin
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder
  • ½ teaspoon paprika
  • Olive oil for steak (about 1-2 tablespoons)
  • Avocado oil for cooking (about 1-2 tablespoons)
  • 2 jalapenos, blistered, deseeded, and minced
  • ¼ cup cilantro, chopped
  • 1 jicama, shaved/peeled (I found using a knife was easier), and sliced ⅛” on a mandolin
  • ¼ cup authentic chimichurri sauce

Instructions:

  1. Peel/shave the jicama, and using a mandolin, at the ⅛” setting, thinly slice and set aside. While you’re doing that, blister your jalapenos on the stove, and when done, let them sit in a covered bowl for about 1 minute. Then, remove the skin, seeds, and mince both jalapenos and set aside.
  2. Mix up all the spices in a bowl, then rub olive oil on the steak, season each side with the spice mix, and sear on each side for about 5 minutes each side (depending on the thickness of your cut, you might only need 4 minutes each side). This will produce medium rare steak, so if you like it more medium, make it 6 minutes depending on thickness. Let rest, then thinly slice against the grain.
  3. Spread the chimichurri on a jicama slice, add some of the jalapeno, top with sliced steak, and finish with cilantro. Then eat and do your happy dance!

Optional: Serve with a side of roasted fajita veggies (onion, red bell pepper, green bell pepper, and zucchini – which I had in my fridge anyway).


Day 21

Breakfast: Apple and Almond Butter

Lunch: Day 20’s Leftover Spanish Chicken

Dinner: DMK Burger

Note: They have a PALEO burger! It’s served on a portobello bun, but you can sub it for lettuce bun, and then I had them add some caramelized onions and it was just an EXPLOSION of flavor in my mouth! SO SO GOOD! They don’t cook the beef in anything but their own juicy and natural fat, so worry not Whole30-goers! This place is a-okay for you! And you can also eat any of the other burgers and sub out the bun, cheese, and aiolis for…well…other things! ^_^ And for my Paleo readers, their fries are fried in beef fat, so they are APPROVED! Plus, they just have bomb diggity burgers! COME AND GET IT YA’LL!!!


Day 22

Breakfast: Banana, Pineapple, and Mixed Berry Smoothie with ground flax seed, coconut flakes, and walnuts

Lunch: Last of the Steak & Jicama Tacos

On Whole30 [Day 2 – Day 8]

I’m sorry for the length, but I did warn I was going to be as accurate as possible. So far, with a week in, and yes, I’m having some cravings, but not as bad as I would have thought. Day 2 I think was the worst for cravings (cheese, chocolate, rice), but after that, especially if I just started to walk around my office when I noticed I was having cravings, or go and get some water, it made all the difference in being able to stay strong and not give into temptations, which I’m incredibly proud of myself for this! Frankie’s biggest cravings are the Chicago staples he grew up on (and cheese, definitely cheese), but he has also noticed the positive changes to make this whole journey worthwhile! Where we are in the typical timeline are different (he’s going through the cravings phase right now, while I’m dealing with a slight decrease in my energy levels, which I know will get better in another day or two), but it’s safe to say that we almost should have done this sooner. It’s going to have a permanent effect on how we view food when we go out and how we eat at home (which wasn’t terrible to begin with, but now I know it can be better), which is part of what this whole experience is supposed to be helpful in dissecting! That and how certain foods have a negative impact on our bodies on a personal level, and I’m curious to see how the reintroducing period goes! Oh! And all links to recipes will be included within the post, rather than after the post like I normally do!


Day 1
Oh my gosh, my work out today, the worst…definitely feeling the lack of energy for sure, but that was to be expected. I’m going to be taking the Whole30 advice and cooling my jets this weekend so as not to completely overdo it. I am, however, officially on the right track for making meatballs! Baking to have the meat set, then a quick simmer in sauce (which I think should be simmering about an hour prior to even making the meatballs themselves, is the way that best works for me! And the fact I don’t have to mess around with figuring out the egg and bread combination made it 100% easier! This time I used a mixture of pork & beef (2:1 beef to pork), and it was a tiny bit dry, but that was because 10 minutes in the oven and 20 on the stove was too long (I was following the recipe guidelines because I am still in my experimenting phase to just find a good point for me to work from, which I know I’ve found now!), so in the future 10 in the oven, 10-15 on the stove, CHECKING periodically! Oh, and I won’t use pork again because the meat came out white, which looked weird…instead I’ll use veal & ground beef, or just ground beef. But overall, really yummy, and I think next time I would even potentially double the spices so they really come through! Also, Frankie enjoyed the squash, which I never would have thought he would, but it’s so encouraging to know that he is really down to eat whatever I make, and instead of telling him ahead of time, just serve and let him enjoy it! We’re going to make it through this month! No question there!


Dinner: Spiced Meatballs in a Tomato Sauce w/Roasted Spaghetti Squash

Notes: Due to the fact that I couldn’t find any dried chilies or canned chilies without sulfites or non-compliant oils, I decided to simply make the meatballs with the spices I could, and made a different sauce that I had tried before. I will say one thing though – after you stick the meatballs in the oven, CAREFULLY remove them from the pan, drain the oil, THEN put them back in and top with sauce. Our sauce was super oily and didn’t thicken as nicely as I would have liked while simmering. Just a thought! I also added a little bit more of the spices I put in with the meat.

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Day 2

Definitely felt a little sluggish, and hungry, and don’t get me started on my cravings…being at work today was the worst because everyone was eating delicious Lebanese food (our office has an order in service that you can choose something from two previously chosen restaurants each day, which is great when I don’t have enough leftovers to make a meal) and then someone munched on a piece of chocolate…yeah, get out of here with all that! But, I was able to stifle my cravings with healthy food like carrots and Cutie segments, and a little walk around my office while sipping on some water! Thank you Whole30 for that trick!


Breakfast: Warm Banana Coconut Bowl

Notes: This was so easy to make, and while I did have to bring a bigger bag to hold my components—my own bowl, my adorable bowl holder, a jar to hold the leftover coconut milk, the can of coconut milk itself, and a can opener (I ended up buying a spare one to leave at my office)—it was really delicious, and I can’t believe how much I actually enjoy the taste of coconut milk!

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Lunch: Leftover Chicken Thighs

Dinner: 20 Minute Shrimp & Sausage Paleo Skillet

Notes: For the skillet, I had a jar of homemade chili oil that a friend gave me, so used that in place of regular olive oil, and it was the best choice I could have made! The whole meal was soooooo delicious! Definitely a keeper recipe for sure, but I think I also need to learn how to make my own chili oil for future uses!

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Day 3 & Day 4

Our first weekend on the Whole30, and probably not the smartest thing we could have done for ourselves, BUT it was the first time in…20 odd years that Salisbury was going to play Ohio Wesleyan University (OWU)—Frankie’s & my alma mater where we met and fell in love and all that romantic goodness—AT OWU! Frankie decided that we needed to be there and so we drove the 5 and 1/2 hours to Delaware, Ohio and went to the game! The difficulty in this spontaneous decisions was not whether we bring Tuggs or not—becuase we did, thankfully there are a couple of dog-friendly hotels about two minutes from the main drag—but rather, how were we going to eat. Delaware is a very small town in mid-Ohio, about 20 minutes north of Columbus & Ohio State University), and their restaurants aren’t really the most…dietary restricted friendly if that makes sense? We’re talking diners and burger joints and basic college town food necessities, all of which are incredibly delicious, but not great when you’re going Paleo. So, to make it as easy as possible, I packed. I packed A LOT! I packed dinner, breakfast, lunch, and snacks so as not to fall into temptation and dive off the Whole30 wagon. And let me just tell you, making dinner in a moving vehicle ain’t easy, and I don’t recommend it, BUT it wasn’t impossible either, and it kept us full and going for the small hiccup we had with Frankie’s car (which meant turning around an hour in to go back to Chicago to get my car) and the majority of the day that we were there! Plus, it meant we got to drive around real quick and visit old haunts and show off Tuggs, who was an INSTANT hit with the college kids, but that was a total given! Definitely don’t have ANY more plans to travel during this month if I can help it though!

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Day 3 Breakfast: Bacon & Apple Slices with Almond Butter, Blueberries, and Pistachios

Notes: While I did buy pistachios, I actually decided to use walnuts because I prefer them, but the slices themselves were SO good, refreshing, and filling!

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Day 3 Lunch: leftover meatballs

Day 3 Dinner: Chicken & avocado BLT on the road! & homemade mayo

Notes: The mayo recipe I got from the Whole30 Program Book, and it was really, really easy to make with my mini food processor, and I bought a Simply Organic Rotissere Chicken, but had to make sure there wasn’t added carageens or sugar, which I was surprised to see in a lot of the rotisseries I used to buy, but will never again. The Simply Organic chickens at Mariano’s are compliant for my Chicago readers! Also, here’s the Whole30 Cookbook Mayo Recipe!


Day 4 Breakfast: Hashbrowns with peppers & onion

Notes: We asked specifically for it to be cooked in oil, and Frankie got an egg to go with it! Worked out really well in our favor!

Day 4 Lunch: Greek Salad (from Whole30 Program Book), leftover chicken meat, Apples with Almond Butter, Blueberries, & Walnuts

Day 4 Dinner: Leftover Shrimp & Sausage Skillet


Day 5

No real change today, but definitely feeling a little tired. Not a ton, but tired.


Breakfast: Breakfast Smoothie

Notes: I know, I know this isn’t the best thing to eat with Whole30 because they prefer that I actually eat my food, BUT when I have just driven back from Ohio, it’s late, and not enough time to go grocery shopping, you work with what you’ve got. I won’t make a habit of it, but it’s a great alternative for when I just don’t have any time.


Breakfast Smoothie – Banana & Berry

  • 1 banana
  • ½ cup of frozen berries
  • 1 cup almond milk (unsweetened)
  • 2 tbsp walnuts
  • 2 tsp ground flax seed
  • 1 tsp coconut flakes

Instructions: Blend all ingredients together until smooth. Then, well, enjoy!

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Lunch: Leftover Greek Salad, chicken meat, blueberries, oranges

Dinner: Frankie’s Bunless Jalapeno Smash Burgers (with homemade ketchup from the Whole30 Program Book, AND we used lettuce instead of buns!)

Notes: The ketchup recipe in the book isn’t bad, but I didn’t feel like it was the best for what we were hoping/going for. SO! I started digging around and I plan to try this recipe out next: Whole30 Ketchup


Day 6

Today I woke up feeling like a million dollars, but when we got to the end of the day, I have never felt more tired in all of my life. I felt hungover or developing a head cold, which meant I was stuffy and mentally sluggish, and the only thing I wanted to do was lie down and veg…so I did. I managed to still go to the gym (seriously patted myself on the back for putting the effort in), and then when I got home I cleaned my floors and get the kitchen in order again, but that’s when I said, “Nope, I’m done,” and proceeded to take an HOUR long bath (#treatyoself) and then vegged on the couch with Frankie in my comfiest pj’s and my 3DS (yes, I’m a super nerd, and it’s the best way for me to destress). Best decision I could have made for myself!


Breakfast: Oven Roasted Breakfast Potatoes

Notes: I LOVE these potatoes, and are my go to when I’m feeling like a hearty, easy to make hash! I have one more hash on the docket for this week, but I adjusted the recipe slightly by adding fresh thyme & rosemary into the potatoes before baking them, so they could get extra potent! I also added some diced green bell pepper too, but I know others who have added or changed up the veggies they used!)

Lunch: Spicy Southwest Whole30 Stuffed Peppers

Notes: I made these the night before and I adjusted the spices/added a few things because 1. It was a little dry after it was said and done, and 2. It tasted like…nothing, SO I Cooking Maggie-fied it, as I tend to do when things aren’t to my taste. Additions included: upping the ground pepper to 1 teaspoon, with a spare teaspoon at the end to taste; upping the chili powder to 1 teaspoon; upping garlic to 2 teaspoons; upping cumin to 1 teaspoon (all the increases are to match the 1 teaspoon of paprika because I think it should be a 1:1 ratio so it’s not just SPICE!); I added ½ teaspoon of onion powder, ½ teaspoon garlic salt or granulated garlic, ½ tsp crushed red pepper, and at the end ½ cup of chicken broth, but I added it ¼ cup at a time to ensure I wasn’t going overboard on moisture and ending up with a soup.

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Dinner: Smoothie

Notes: I know, I know, smoothie, not great, but I hit my major wall yesterday in terms of how I was feeling, which wasn’t great. I think I’ve had just a steady feel of the Whole30 hangover phase for this entire week, and usually at night, and by the time I finished cleaning the floors and my kitchen, I was just way too tired to make the carnitas I had planned to make, so, I just didn’t. Frankie had some of the breakfast potatoes for dinner, and I made myself a smoothie because I wasn’t feeling hungry to begin with, was slightly nauseous, and was the only thing that sounded remotely appetizing. Not great, but at least I had something, and in my mind, not eating anything is much worse than drinking my meal.


Day 7

Definitely wasn’t feeling as burnout today as I was yesterday, but I definitely feel sluggish and took it easier. Still went to the gym and had my session with Dana, but thankfully, I had enough time beforehand to prep most of dinner so that, when I got home. it was a set and forget kind of situation, which gave me time to tidy the kitchen, prep lunch, AND do laundry. Still exhausted by the end of it, but in the good way. Oh, and physical changes include my normal work pants feeling looser and my stomach getting flatter (and I know that my working out has a good amount to do with this change as well)! I’m trying so hard not to focus on the physical aspect of this whole thing because that defeats a lot of what I am supposed to be focusing on, but that being said, I definitely feel more motivated to stick to these changes as a result of what I am seeing! Nothing better than feeling good in general, and feeling great about myself! All about that self-love right now!


Breakfast: Breakfast Potatoes

Lunch: Leftover Stuffed Pepper filling & Last of the Greek Salad

Dinner: Chicken Carnitas with Salsa Verde & Warm Fajita Veggie Side

Notes: To make this Whole30 compliant, don’t use honey, and don’t serve it with rice or tortillas, but the chicken & spices portion are all compliant and makes for a great set it & (kind of) forget it meal during the week! I still didn’t make it with the pepitas or acorn squash because I was feeling lazy. I’m sure I’ll try the acorn squash at some point, but tonight was not that night. The veggies were just green bell peppers, onion, and zucchini.


Day 8

Happy International Women’s Day! Today I’m feeling upbeat, bright, a little tired, but I went to bed way too late last night, which is my own fault, but I couldn’t care less because my lunch today is EPIC! SCALLOPS YA’LL! For real, big ol’ sea scallops! ALL FOR ME!!!! Mariano’s was having a GREAT sale on their frozen scallops, which came in a 1 pound bag for about…$12?? And I think there were 11 in there, but only 8 made it to lunch because, you know, I gotta make sure it’s not poisonous as I’m cooking it! So I definitely plan to keep my eyes peeled for more of those deals so I can snag a few more frozen bags to stash for a day when I need a lunch filler! But this salad, scallops aside, was bomb in itself! The vinaigrette was unbelievably tangy and slightly spicy, but completely light and refreshing! I ate EVERY bite, and might steal some of the shrimp I made for Frankie’s salad to make another helping of it for tomorrow! I don’t think it’ll be as good as my scallops, BUT I know it’ll be delicious! Another recipe to keep in the bank!


Breakfast: Apples with Almond Butter, Bananas, and Walnuts

Lunch: Asian Seared Scallop/Shrimp Salad (from Whole30 Cookbook)

Notes: Frankie doesn’t like scallops, so I seared up some shrimp for him, and some scallops for me because I LOVE SCALLOPS, so any excuse to get some and eat some (even if it means I’m cooking two proteins at once) I’m in! And it was SO SO good!!!

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So that’s one week down, three more to go, and I will say, the days are flying and I’ve stopped noticing any cravings or that I’m even on a diet, though when my coworkers eat Lebanese food, or Jimmy John’s BBQ Chips (the best!), I do have those pulls of wanting just a little nibble….no, no, I’m going to be good and keep my will strong, but it’s not easy. It’s not hard, but it ain’t easy either. Anyway, until next week readers! Sorry for all the overload of recipes, but I hope some of them are helpful for any of you looking to take a healthier approach to eating at home, and if you do, you WON’T be disappointed! And to my East Coast readers, stay safe! — Cooking Maggie

On Raspberry Swirl Cheesecake Cupcakes & Whole30 Day 1

If there’s one thing you need to know about me, aside from the fact that I love to cook, is that I love to read! With the book group I’m in right now, we meet on Sundays and have started to pair our deep discussion of the book with brunch! GENIUS! I don’t know why more book groups don’t do this to begin with! Everyone brings something (a little booze or champagne, some sweets, some savories, whatever!) and then we spend a couple hours together really delving into that month’s book, analyzing literary choices, social/political issues that were reflected on the page that we’ve experienced in real life, and just general life conversations! Before you know it, we’re well into the afternoon, but I mean, books, food, good conversation, and good people…nothing better in this world! Seriously, if you have a book group, I really recommend this meeting format!

 

Last month, I made avocado toast (albeit, not the prettiest avocado toast) with prosciutto, tomato, and burrata, but this month, I made my cheesecake cupcakes WITH A TWIST! A raspberry puree twist that is! I pureed a container of raspberries with 2 tablespoons of sugar, strained it, then added a few small dots to the top of my cheesecake mixture. Swirl it all with a toothpick and you get that amazing marbling effect, with just a pop of tartness! It’s the easiest thing in the world, and I plan to try it again with strawberry to see which one I like more! I’ve linked my cheesecake recipe/post above, but here is the recipe for the fruit puree & swirl!

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Raspberry Swirl for Cheesecake Cupcakes

  • 1 packet of raspberries
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  1. Add raspberries and sugar to a food processor and pulse until well pureed, about 30 seconds. Press/strain the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer into a bowl until there are only seeds remaining in the strainer. When done, set aside until you’re ready to add the swirl to your cheesecakes!
  2. Add 4 small dots to the top of your cheesecake cupcakes, then use a toothpick to swirl them around into a pattern. Then bake the cheesecakes according to the recipe.

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And how could I forget?! Today is Day 1 of Frankie’s and my Whole30 adventure and already I feel like everything is off to a great start! Frankie made himself a small plate of bacon and eggs this morning—for those who are also Paleo, or doing the Whole30 and are wondering where in the world we found compliant bacon, we went to a local butcher/deli and asked them about their cure! You can also try your local grocery store meat counter and ask them about the cure for their bacon—while I dined on a Warm Banana Breakfast Bowl, consisting of pecans, bananas, coconut flakes, cinnamon, and coconut milk! I had also made Crispy Chicken Thighs with a Pesto Zucchini Noodle last night (which we ate for lunch today), I’m planning to make meatballs tonight (which will not be the spicy meatballs I had hoped for because all the dried chiles had sulfites in them…so instead, I’m commandeering a sauce from another meatball recipe instead)!

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I will admit that I am actually feeling the hunger just a little bit, which was to be expected, BUT I have enjoyed everything I’ve eaten so far (though take that with a grain of salt since this is only Day 1 after all). That being said, I will be using Coconut Milk more because it’s not as coconutty as I was expecting it to be, and it’s creamy as get all, ESPECIALLY the bit that solidifies at the top of the can when it’s been chilled? Oh yeah, that stuff is basically like whipped cream, which makes it the BEST! I’m really looking forward to keeping a detailed account of this journey and cannot wait for all the recipes I’ve picked out to try! Here are the two from today, and I hope, even if you aren’t Paleo, that you give them a try anyway because they are really, really yummy! Oh, and if anyone has any questions about the Whole30 or more specifics on recipes/experiences, please don’t hesitate to ask! Happy Eating Readers! And wish me luck! — Cooking Maggie

Warm Banana Coconut Breakfast Bowl from Fast Paleo

Chicken Thighs w/Zucchini Noodles from Paleo Comfort Foods

 

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On Lent & Gumbo

Lent is underway, and this year, I have given up spirits and weekday (Monday to Thursday) drinking in general. This isn’t to say that drinking is a problem because it’s not, BUT I have just started to find myself not feeling very good after one beer/drink at dinner later that night or the next morning, so I think a break would do my body some good. And in the conversations that Frankie and I have been having regarding the removal and giving up of foods we know are not the best for us, we’ve seriously considered doing the Whole30 in March!

A lot of our friends are doing it right now, or have told us about how they did it recently, and the positive changes that it has made for them, and since our impending wedding is making us both more health conscious, Frankie thinks we should try it to help get a jump start on things! Since I am already getting back into a more consistent workout regime (also, not to plug, but I’m going to plug, the SWEAT App, specifically Kelsey Wells’ PWR Workout Program is LEGIT mind-blowing! Some of the best workouts I’ve been getting most recently!), it seems like a good idea!! So, in March, look out for Whole30 posts & weekly summaries to come, and hopefully, if you are already thinking about doing something like it, my own experience might sway you one way or the other. Plus, it’ll be a GREAT way for me to practice my willpower and not spend money out on food for a while. And naturally, I’ll be nothing but honest about my experience and will try to keep a day-to-day summary of what I’m eating, how I’m feeling, etc. I just want to be accurate and detailed if something like this can be helpful to you dear readers!

As for our Fat Tuesday indulgence? Well, while we were in Breckinridge over the weekend, we happened to make a quick visit over to Ft. Collins and visit with Frankie’s older sister Katrina, and his youngest brother, Ed! Well, Ed is a fabulous cook as well, and he decided to make gumbo for Fat Tuesday at Katrina’s house, and while I was not able to actually eat any of the gumbo that he made, I did get to taste the soupy broth before we left for the airport to come back to Chicago, and was instantly like “this, I need to make this as soon as I get home.” So I did!

Ed got the recipe from Munchies, and I will tell you now, when it says 3-hour simmer, it means a 3-hour simmer, and you’ll want to do a 3-hour simmer. I also had no idea that a roux could get as complex and deliciously deep in flavors as this one did! Oh, and Grapeseed oil is my new favorite oil! Ed told me that it is a great substitute from olive oil when you’re stir-frying or cooking anything on high heat because it has a higher smoke point than olive oil, so it won’t get that bitter burnt taste as easily! I wouldn’t replace olive oil entirely with it, but it’s nice to have an alternative when cooking on high heat! And the gumbo itself was so delicious, that I don’t think I’ll ever keep another gumbo recipe handy (though Frankie did gift me with a true Louisiana/New Orleans Cookbook, so I will definitely have to peruse and compare one of these days). But if you’re looking for something rich, elegant, and hearty as get all, this is the recipe to try next, without a doubt! Enjoy my fellow eaters! – Cooking Maggie

Chicken and Andouille Sausage Gumbo from Munchies

On Chicken & Rice

Because sometimes, one-pot meals are exactly what you need at the end of a long day, rainy day, cold/snow day, or even sick day! And I’m not kidding about that either! This is literally one of those put everything in the pot, let it simmer for a bit, then stuff your face with its hearty deliciousness! It’s just the right amount of spiciness to warm the blood, the vegetables warm your center, and the broth warms your soul. It’s just good ol’ fashioned good, and I’ve made this a couple times and somehow can’t wait to make it again! It won’t stick around in your fridge for long if you try this yourself either! And that’s it! Short and sweet this week, but don’t worry, next week will be a doozy! Next Week: Lent & Gumbo…woah, but we won’t get too heavy, promise! Until then readers, stay warm, safe, & full! – Cooking Maggie

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One Pot Chicken & Rice

Ingredients

  • 1 ½ pounds boneless skinless chicken breast, cut into 1-inch cubes (bite-sized)
  • 6-8 ounce package of diced ham/pancetta (depending on what is easier to find at your grocery store)
  • 1 white onion, diced
  • 1 green bell pepper, diced
  • 5 cloves garlic, minced
  • 15 oz can of diced tomatoes (including juice)
  • 1 cup uncooked white rice
  • 2 cups chicken stock
  • 2 tablespoons butter or oil (olive or grapeseed)
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • ½ teaspoon cayenne
  • 1 tablespoon thyme
  • 1 cup frozen green peas
  • Salt & Pepper, to taste
  • Fresh parsley for serving

Instructions

  1. In a large pot or Dutch Oven, melt butter or heat oil over medium heat, then add chicken and cook until no longer pink (about 5-7 minutes). Then add ham, let cook for about 1-2 minutes.
  2. Add onion, pepper, and garlic to the pot, cooking until onion is translucent, then add remaining ingredients except for peas & parsley to the pot, stirring until well mixed. Let pot come to a boil, the turn heat down to low, cover, and let simmer for about 20 minutes or until rice is tender.
  3. When rice is tender, remove from heat and stir in the green peas. Add salt/pepper to taste, and serve in deep bowls with chopped parsley!

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On Blackened Chicken Caesar Salad

With a renewed sense of wanting to get healthy, I thought that the best recipe to present for the New Year was a salad! I know, I know, it’s not the most exciting thing to make or eat, but there are actually plenty of salads that are incredibly delicious and filling that aren’t calorie heavy, and this is one of them! Drum roll please….Blackened Chicken Caesar Salad! TA-DA! Have I caught your attention? Excellent!

This is one of the EASIEST salads to make, AND if you want to go one step further, the Caesar dressing is easy to make from scratch, and the recipe is from one of my faves, Smitten Kitchen! Her recipe to her own Chicken Caesar salad is included below, which is where her own dressing recipe is located, and while I like me a Chicken Caesar salad on any other given day, this blackened chicken really kicks things up a notch and takes this salad to a whole other level of deliciousness! The season mix is my own concoction after a few years of playing around with amounts and components, and this is what I’ve finalized! It’s not really even that spicy, just enough to give a slight kick, so if you’re not a big fan of spice, you should still be okay with the amounts I’ve given. And if you want a little more spice, through in a ¼ more teaspoon of cayenne or paprika or chili powder (or all three if you want it to really zing)!

And in terms of the preparation, you can cube your chicken, as I did this time, or pan sear/roast your chicken breast whole and then cut it into strips, or cut into strips and pan sear them, but I like to cube them because then they are more bite-size friendly, and it reduces the cooking time for the chicken, which means it gets into my belly much faster! Plus, what better way to satisfy my healthy ideals or my healthy appetite? And the dressing? Also very easy, and quite tangy too! It might not be the bottled creamy Caesar that everyone knows and loves, but it’s certainly very close to it, and still very delicious! So if you’re looking for a way to lighten up your weeknight, or your afternoon lunch, why not give this salad a try and see for yourself! Salads can be fun and delicious! – Cooking Maggie

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Chicken Caesar Salad by smitten kitchen (Dressing recipe at the end)


Blackened Chicken Caesar Salad
4 servings

Ingredients

Blackened Chicken

  • 1 tablespoon cooking oil
  • 2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breast – cut into bite sized pieces or strips
  • ¾ teaspoon smoked paprika
  • 1 teaspoon chili powder
  • 1 ½ teaspoon ground cumin
  • ½ teaspoon onion powder
  • ½ teaspoon garlic powder
  • ¾ teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon ground pepper
  • ¼ teaspoon oregano, dried
  • ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 2 tablespoon lime juice
  • Zest from 1 lime
  • 2 tablespoon olive oil

Salad Ingredients

  • 1 heads of romaine lettuce, chopped or torn
  • 1 beef steak or roma tomato, diced
  • (Optional) ½ – 1 cup crouton
  • (Optional) ¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • Caesar Dressing

 

Instructions

  1. If you’re making your own Caesar dressing, whisk that together first, and keep chilled in the fridge. (Note: I added some cracked black pepper to the dressing as well, about 1/4 teaspoon.)
  2. For the chicken, mix all seasonings together, set aside. Heat pan on medium-high, add cooking oil. Add chicken, cook for 6 to 7 minutes until chicken turns white, then add the blackened seasoning, coat & cook chicken until no longer pink. Remove from heat.
  3. For the salad, tear or chop up your lettuce, and put into a bowl. Dice up your tomato and add to the top of the lettuce. Top with your chicken, croutons (if you’re having), and a little parmesan cheese (if having). Pour dressing over the salads, toss, serve, and enjoy guilt free!

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 Roasted Garlic Chicken and ACTUAL Polenta

Recently, I have been dealing with a polenta craving that stemmed from my grits craving from over a month ago that I never satiated because of Mac n Cheese Fest, which frankly satiated my regular craving for cheese for over three weeks. But that’s when my cravings started to kick back in, and frankly, the idea of grits, albeit delicious, just weren’t really reaching the exact note that my craving desired. So, I turned to the Italian cousin of grits: polenta.

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I have only attempted to make polenta once, about two or three years ago, and I did it so horrendously that I just never attempted to make it again. My mistake? I bought the wrong kind of polenta for the kind of polenta I was trying to make. What I wanted was creamy, and what I bought was the prepacked sausage roll of precooked polenta that only required a quick fry in a skillet or bake on a sheet pan. What I should have bought was course corn grits (aka. Polenta), and what I also didn’t know was what brand I needed to be looking for get exactly what I wanted. Enter Bon Appetit, and their recipe for Polenta Cacio e Pepe and their article on baked polenta, which included a feature of Bob’s Red Mill Corn Grits (also known as Polenta). Seems like an easy enough mistake, right? Okay, maybe that’s me or I really need to invest some time into researching my local grocery stores better…

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But now that I’ve made Polenta again, and this time made it the right way, I think I actually prefer it to grits! (I also really want to try the baked polenta recipe that was on Dinner: A Love Story’s blog.) This recipe was out of this world delicious, and surprisingly light! I will just quickly note that I ended up adding a little more salt & pepper to it (the power of “to taste”), and I think I added a couple more teaspoons of butter to smooth it out a little as well, but definitely added a pinch or two of S&P, stirred, tasted, then added more if it needed it, so don’t feel pressured to stick with the amounts listed on the recipe.

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But then the question becomes, what to pair with it? Ragu goes great with polenta, but since I’m now hunting for a better ragu recipe, I thought maybe best to try something a little different. Chicken perhaps? And then it hit me. About a year ago, I tried this recipe from Food Network, and it was UNREAL how good it was, and for the life of me, I can’t remember why I didn’t bother cooking it again sooner! All you need, about 2-3 heads of garlic (note the word heads, plural, not cloves), some rosemary, about 4 chicken breasts, and that’s it. Sear, roast, serve! It’s that quick and that easy, which I seem to be all about this holiday season especially. Not only are you getting a really tender chicken, but you’re getting the flavor punch of roasted garlic that you can double as a toast topper alongside the chicken! And who doesn’t love a little garlic toast? Spritz a little olive oil on top, and just, oh my gosh, enjoy that moment. And dare you EVEN try to sprinkle a little kosher salt on top?! STOP IT! However, if you are not a fan of garlic, then this chicken recipe is not for you. Instead, I would do a simple baked chicken, or maybe a balsamic glazed chicken, but if you’re game on for garlic, then get ready to fall in love with it to a whole new level!

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I will also note, that if you think this is a little on the heavy side, it honestly wasn’t, which I’ll admit, I was surprised about. I was expecting these dishes together to be rich, but it was just heavy enough to fill me up and allow some enjoyment of roasted green beans, which I felt added a little brightness to the plate! Simply throw green beans (topped with olive oil, salt, and pepper) into the oven at the same temp you’re cooking your chicken, and let them sit for about 10 minutes, stir them up, then roast for another 10 minutes. Then VOILA! Easy peasy! And I felt they were a fantastic accompaniment to the cheesy polenta and herbaceous chicken! So if you’ve been itching to try polenta, this is definitely the way to do it! Spread that delicious holiday cheer ya’ll! — Cooking Maggie

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Polenta Cacio e Pepe from Bon Appetit

Garlic-Roasted Chicken from Food Network

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On Stewed Green Beans (Pt. 2) & Catalina Chicken

Okay, so I know I just posted about green beans, but given that thanksgiving has just come and gone, I ended up having a Turkey leg left over and thought it would be such a shame to waste such a good piece of meat! So I thought I would try out stewed green beans with turkey meat this time around, because when I was working on my own, a few of the recipes that claimed full authenticity mentioned turkey meat over bacon.

I have to say that I’m not the biggest fan. It felt too heavy/oily, which completely shocked me, and honestly, the turkey TOTALLY overpowered the beans. Bacon I think is a better meat to use in general because it lends itself so well to other flavors and profiles so nicely without overpowering it. Bacon adds just the right amount of richness and meat, but lets the green beans still stand on its own. I’m still glad I tried it, but I don’t think I will be using turkey again in the future.

On another note, I made a Catalina Chicken the other night, and it was pretty darn good, but I did halve the amount of sugar and honey that the sauce asked for. It was already pretty strong as is, but for me, I really just don’t like super sweet sauces on my meats, but the added roasted cherry tomatoes—I used multi-colored because I think they look prettier on a plate in general—really added a nice tartness to cut through the thickness of the sauce! Another note I think I should mention is that I would use chicken breasts for this recipe over thighs. I know, I know, thighs are more flavorful, and I don’t doubt or argue that, but I think the thighs just got way too overpowered by the sauce, where as a chicken breast would greatly welcome a large amount of flavor. If you’re going to use thighs, they should also shine, and I think the sauce was what took the cake for this recipe, and I’d like the chicken to shine a little too.

Lastly, I totally could have made my own mashed potatoes, but I happened to have thrown my back out of whack and could only stand up for 15 minutes at a time with a heat pack permanently affixed to my lower back—thankfully the chicken was very much a throw chicken in a pan, let it brown, flip & add tomatoes, let it finish cooking, serve—and mashed potatoes, like really good mashed potatoes, take a little more time and effort to make, which I physically couldn’t do at the time I made this. SO, instead, I happily cut a corner and picked up a Bob Evan’s Garlic Mashed Potatoes because 1) it’s delicious and a great alternative to the real deal when you’re in a time pinch, and 2) I’m very distantly related to the Bob Evan’s franchise through my maternal grandfather, whose mother was an Evans! And frankly, while I try to make most everything I plate from scratch, sometimes there isn’t enough time or you’re just not feeling it—which if you work full time and are the primary cook for your family, sometimes there’s only so much homecrafted cooking you can do—there is absolutely nothing wrong with cutting corners here and there, and mashed potatoes is one of my main corner cutting that I do from time to time. I can’t recall the other corners I’ve cut, but as I think of them, or use them, I will make a note! But this was a great weekday meal choice for sure and will be kept in the weeknight meal roster! Happy Eating! – Cooking Maggie


Cooking Maggie Stewed Green Beans

Catalina Chicken from Creme de le Crumb