Thursday, October 27, 2011

Indoor Banana Boats

I can't think of a time when my house has been as quiet as when my boys were hunkered over their individual banana boats, gobbling them up.  That, my friends, is reason enough to make these. 

Another reason is that it's really fun (especially for kids) for each person to assemble his/her own boat.   

And another, they're quick and easy--hand out a sliced banana to each member of your party, let them have at a whole array of sweet toppings (ones that are probably in the pantry), pop them in the microwave for a few seconds and you have my sons' favorite dessert of the moment.  They've been begging for them daily. 

Indoor Banana Boats:
1 banana per person
mini marshmallows (a few tablespoons per person)
chocolate chips (a couple tablespoons per person)
Other ideas: butterscotch or peanut butter chips, shredded coconut, soft caramel candies, sprinkle of cinnamon, etc. 

Slice banana lengthwise through the peel without cutting completely through the banana.  Stuff the banana with any combination of toppings you desire.  Wrap banana up with waxed paper and microwave on high for 30-60 seconds or until marshmallows are melted and banana is warm and soft.  Unwrap and eat with a spoon directly out of its little peel boat.

P.S. If you're camping, wrap them in foil and heat over the campfire OR throw them on top of the grill!
Credit: Free photos from

Monday, October 24, 2011

Homemade Play Dough

I think this might be the first non-edible recipe I've posted (although maybe some might argue that other dishes to emerge from my kitchen can be inedible too...har, har, har...).

Anyone with small children in their life ought to have a good play dough recipe up their sleeve.  I don't know about you, but every time we break out the containers of Play-Doh, it's a big disappointment.  All the colors have been melded into an unappealing gray-green and someone forgot to seal the lid so it's hard as a rock.  With this simple homemade dough, you can overcome disappointment over petrified Play-Doh in a snap.

And, to jazz it up, you can even use Sugar Free Jello or packets of unsweetened KoolAid powder for fun scented dough that even the adults might be tempted to taste a little (it will still be horrible).  The only down side to making your own dough is the potential to color your hands in the process, but believe me, if I can rock blue fingers, anyone can! 

Homemade (Salt Dough) Play Dough
2 cups all purpose flour
1 cup salt
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
2 cups water
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
4 boxes sugar free gelatin or packets of unsweetened KoolAid different colors, or drops of food coloring

In a medium to large pot, mix together flour, salt, cream of tarter, water and oil.  The mixture will look like thin pancake batter.  With a sturdy spoon (I used wooden) over medium heat, bring mixture to a boil.  It will transform like magic from thin and watery to thick dough.  Continue stirring until any wet patches are just about gone.  Allow to cool enough to handle.  Divide dough into four equal portions and form a little "well" into each portion.  Sprinkle one color of gelatin or KoolAid powder over each chunk of dough and knead to incorporate.  Continue to knead until color is uniform and dough is smooth. 

If using liquid food colors, dribble a few drops of color into well of dough.  Knead until color is worked through and dough is smooth.  Or, if you don't mind having just one color of dough, you can add the food color along with the water before cooking. 
Store in a sealed container in the fridge until it has all been mixed into one single, unattractive color...

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Butternut Squash and Spinach Lasagna

Has butternut squash worn out its welcome around these parts yet?  Hopefully not, because this use of it is a serious winner (a couple of years ago I made it for my book club and everyone was fighting over the leftovers, it's that good! : ).  It is serious comfort food and the leftovers taste almost better than the original dish.  Originally adapted from a Cooking Light recipe, it's even pretty healthy as well!

If squash is not your thing (Please don't knock it til you try it!  And, by the way, butternut squash is the creamy tan, bell-shaped vegetable in the winter squash section), you could certainly play around with the fillings to have other white sauced lasagna options: for example, spinach, mushrooms and Italian sausage; other mixed vegetables like zucchini, spinach, red bell pepper and carrots (first sauteed and seasoned how you like); sliced cooked chicken, you get the picture...

Finally, although there are several components, all the steps can be done ahead of time.  Prepare the white sauce, roast the squash and saute the spinach and then refrigerate until you're ready to assemble your lasagna.
Butternut Squash and Spinach Lasagna
8 cups (3/4") cubed peeled butternut squash (about 2 1/4 pounds)
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
Cooking spray3 cups 2% reduced-fat milk
1/4 cup all-purpose flour (about 1 ounce)
4 tablespoons butter
8 garlic cloves, minced and divided
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 1/4 teaspoons salt, divided
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, divided
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
3 (6-ounce) bags fresh baby spinach
9 cooked lasagna noodles, al dente (8 ounces uncooked noodles)
1 1/4 cups shredded Asiago, Romano or Parmesan cheese
1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.  Place squash in a large bowl.  Add vinegar and toss to coat.  Add 1 tablespoon olive oil and toss to coat.  Spread evenly in one layer on a baking sheet coated with cooking spray.  Sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon black pepper and thyme.  Bake at 425 degrees for 30 minutes, stirring after 15 minutes.  Remove from oven and set aside to cool.

Meanwhile, melt butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat.  Add half of minced garlic and cook about 30 seconds to a minute or until fragrant.  Add flour to pan and cook 2-3 minutes, stirring constantly, or until smooth and golden.  Remove from heat, add about 2 tablespoons warm milk to flour mixture, stirring constantly with a whisk.  Gradually add remaining milk about 1/2 cup at a time and whisking constantly until all the milk is added and mixture is smooth.  Stir in 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon black pepper and nutmeg.  Bring to a boil, reduce heat and cook until smooth and thickened.  Remove from heat.  Cover surface of sauce with plastic wrap, set aside.

Combine remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil, red pepper and remaining garlic in a large pot over medium heat.  Cook 2 minutes, stirring constantly.  Add spinach, 1 bag at a time; cook until wilted, stirring frequently.  Add remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt; cook until liquid evaporates, stirring frequently.  Remove from heat and set aside. 

Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees. 

Spoon 1/3 cup white sauce mixture in bottom of a 9x13 inch baking pan coated with cooking spray.  Arrange 3 noodles over sauce, top with spinach mixture, 2/3 cup milk mixture, 1/2 cup Parmesan and 1/4 cup mozzarella.  Arrange 3 noodles over cheese; top with butternut squash mixture, 2/3 cup white sauce, 1/2 cup Parmesan and 1/4 cup mozzarella.  Top with remaining 3 noodles, remaining white sauce mixture and remaining Parmesan and mozzarella cheeses.

Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes or until bubbly.  Let stand 15 minutes before serving.
Makes 8 servings

Recipe adapted from Cooking Light Magazine December 2007

Monday, October 17, 2011

Chocolate Turtle Cake

Wow.  October has been flying by.  We've had a steady stream of company and a whole host of other things come our way in the last few weeks.  Consequently, there has not been as much cooking around these parts as eating out (or so it seems) and when I have been making food, there hasn't been a whole lot of attention paid to making sure to snap a pretty picture.

Sometimes, a recipe doesn't need a lovely shot to be enticing, though.  At least, that's what I would think when mentioning such a thing as Chocolate Turtle Cake.  While my parents were visiting, I really wanted to try out this recipe on them knowing that they have a weakness for the chocolate, caramel pecans combination.  I'm so glad I did (and especially glad there were extra people to help spread out the calories!).

Inspired by the beloved candy, this version consists of chocolate cake (use a box, if you please! I sure did.) is layered with gooey caramel and crunchy pecans, covered in rich chocolate frosting and then topped with a final dressing of caramel. 

Chocolate Turtle Cake
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 cups pecans, toasted
1 pound soft caramels (I used a 14 oz. bag of Kraft brand and it worked well despite not being quite 1 pound)
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 recipe Grandma Kaye's Fudge Frosting (recipe below) or 1 recipe Chocolate Icing (also below)
2 (8-inch) baked chocolate cake rounds

For the caramel: Finely chop 1 1/2 cups pecans.  Heat caramels, remaining cream and salt in a microwave safe bowl by cooking on 50% power in microwave, removing bowl and stirring every 30 seconds until caramel is smooth and melted.  Reserve 3/4 cup caramel mixture for topping.  Stir chopped pecans into remaining caramel mixture. 

To assemble: Place 1 cake layer on cake serving platter.  Spread the pecan-caramel mixture in an even layer over the top, leaving 1/2 inch border around the edges.  Pour a very small amount of chocolate frosting around the caramel filling to keep it from spilling over the edges (see photo).  Top with second cake layer.  Pour or spread chocolate frosting over top and sides of cake, allowing to set slightly.  Spread reserved caramel mixture over top of cake, allowing caramel to drip over sides (reheat caramel in microwave for just a few seconds if it has gotten too stiff to pour).  Garnish with remaining pecans.  Slice and serve
Making a "dam" of chocolate frosting to keep the caramel from spilling out.  Kindly disregard the very torn cake edges.  I was meant to relearn a lesson in properly greasing the cake pans.  Oops.

Note: the original recipe called for a chocolate ganache icing instead of the "Grandma Kaye's Fudge Frosting."  I changed it up mostly for the sake of time (the ganache has to cool for much longer).  If you would like to use it instead, I've included it below.

Grandma Kaye's Fudge Frosting
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup evaporated milk (you can also substitute half and half)
1/2 stick (1/4 cup) butter, cut into small pieces
1 cup mini marshmallows
a pinch of salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup milk chocolate chips (or a combination of milk and semi-sweet)

In a medium saucepan over very lowest heat, combine sugar and evaporated milk. Stir thoroughly until sugar starts to dissolve. Add butter and marshmallows. Stir constantly until butter and marshmallows are completely melted. Remove from heat and stir in salt, vanilla and chocolate chips, stirring until chips are melted and frosting is smooth. Use immediately as it will stiffen up quickly.

notes: after a lot of experimenting, I have found that it is very important to make sure to combine the milk and sugar first, otherwise the sugar crystals will never fully dissolve and your frosting will remain grainy. It is also important to keep the heat as low as possible. Finally, you can certainly play around with the chocolate used. We just prefer milk chocolate. 

Chocolate Icing:
1/2 cup heavy cream
6 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
In a medium saucepan, cook cream, chocolate and corn syrup over medium-low heat, whisking constantly, until smooth.  Transfer mixture to medium bowl and refrigerate until thickened but still spreadable, about 2 hours, stirring occasionally (alternatively, refrigerate mixture overnight until set.  Let sit at room temperature until softened and spreadable, about 1 hour).

Recipe Adapted from: Cook's Country Magazine

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Butternut Squash Soup

If you haven't noticed, I am a big fan of butternut squash.  It might be my favorite thing about Fall, although then I remember pumpkin and apples and caramel and roasted green chiles and I realize it has pretty stiff competition, Even considering all those Autumn favorites, butternut squash is still pretty fantastic.  This is one of the more classic applications, with good reason.  It's simple, comforting, sweet and savory all at once.  As the weather cools, this soup makes a welcome return to our kitchen lineup. 

Butternut Squash Soup
serves 4-6 
2 tablespoons butter 
1 medium onion, roughly chopped
1/2 medium butternut squash (about 3-4 pound squash), peeled, seeds scooped out and diced into 1" pieces
2 garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped
1 medium apple, peeled, cored and diced
4 cups chicken broth
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg, or to taste
1/4-1/2 cup half and half or heavy cream
salt and pepper to taste

In a large pot, melt butter over medium high heat.  Add onion and saute, stirring occasionally, for 2-3 minutes or until onions start to become translucent.  Add garlic and apple and cook for another 1-2 minutes or until garlic becomes fragrant.  Stir in butternut squash, chicken broth and thyme.  Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium low, cover and simmer until squash and onions are soft (15-25 minutes, depending on how big your pieces are).  Use an immersion blender to puree until smooth (or you can puree in batches in a blender or food processor).  Stir in half and half and season to taste with nutmeg, salt and pepper. 

Note: This is a very basic version, you can feel free to enhance it and make your own---some ideas: carrot and celery thrown in with the cubed squash, a bit of maple syrup, balsamic vinegar or curry powder to add flavor, a topping of crispy bacon, croutons or a dollop of sour cream or Greek yogurt...

Also, you can feel very fancy by calling it a "bisque" if you like as it's gone to company-worthy! 

Monday, October 10, 2011

Crock Pot Marinara Sauce

I like it when I have the sense to plan ahead.  Today was not one of those days. 

Today was a day of trying to get dinner thrown together while a toddler tried to scale the pantry shelves and then while I was moving the breakable pantry items out of his reach, proceeded to jump down, run over and burn his hand on the side of the oven door.  Sweet. 
Today is a day I'd wished I planned ahead and made this meal.  Never mind that I already made it last week and we plowed through the leftovers.  As I was holding a teary kid's hand under cold running water, I was wishing for more Crock Pot Marinara, cozily waiting in the slow cooker instead of mashing together a semblance of a meal while trying to referee a one and five year old. 

The original recipe is for meatballs along with marinara.  Personally, I am appreciative that God created bags of Costco meatballs because it's one less step (my boys have discovered a deep love for those little orbs).  For those days that we are feeling slightly more ambitious, I've included the original meatball version.   

I'll be making this again tomorrow and freezing it in batches so I'll be more prepared next time. 

Crock Pot Marinara Sauce (and Meatballs)
 sauce makes enough to coat 1 1/2 pounds of pasta
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium onions, chopped fine (about 2 cups)
2/3 cup tomato paste (1 6-ounce can)
8 garlic cloves, minced (use a garlic press or food chopper to crank 'em out)
1 tablespoon dried Italian seasoning (or dried Oregano)
1/2 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
1/2 cup red wine
2 (28-ounce) cans crushed tomatoes
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh basil

1. Cook Aromatics
Heat oil in a large pot over medium-high heat until shimmering.  Add onions, and saute until onions begin to be translucent, 2-3 minutes.  Stir in tomato paste, garlic cloves, Italian seasoning pepper flakes and 1/4 teaspoon salt and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, 1-2 minutes more.

2. Make Sauce
Transfer onion mixture to slow cooker.  Add wine to pot with remaining onion mixture and cook until slightly thickened, about 2 minutes.  Stir in tomatoes, then transfer to slow cooker.  Cook on low heat until sauce is thickened, 4-5 hours.  Stir in basil and remaining Parmesan.  Season with salt.  Serve over pasta.

Meatball Variation:
2 garlic cloves, minced

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
1/4 pound Italian sausage, casings removed
2 large eggs
1 1/4 pounds 85 percent lean ground beef
3 tablespoons heavy cream

Cook aromatics according to step 1 above.  Transfer half of onion mixture to a bowl.  Add 1/2 cup Parmesan, mozzarella, sausage, eggs, 3/4 teaspoon salt and remaining 2 cloves of garlic to bowl with onion mixture.  Mash with potato masher until smooth.  Add beef and cream to bowl and knead with hands until well combined.  Form mixture into twelve 2-inch meatballs.

Cook meatballs: Microwave meatballs on large plate until fat renders and meatballs are firm, 4 to 7 minutes.  Nestle meatballs in slow cooker, discarding rendered fat.  Cover and cook on low until meatballs are tender and sauce is slightly thickened, 4 to 5 hours.  Skim fat.  Stir in basil and remaining Parmesan.  Season with salt.  Serve over pasta.

Make ahead: Raw meatballs and sauce can be refrigerated separately up to 24 hours in advance.  When ready to cook, add sauce to slow cooker and microwave meatballs before adding them to the slow cooker.  Continue with recipe as directed.   

Recipe Source: Cook's Country Magazine

Thursday, October 6, 2011

What is hospitality?

I have come to realize, that although a byline of my blog's title is "Recovering the Lost Art of Hospitality," I rarely address the subject of hospitality head on. 

My definition, simply put:
Hospitality is using what you have (time, talents, gifts, possessions, etc.) to bless someone else.

To me, hospitality is not about entertaining but rather creating an atmosphere of welcome.  Hospitality is about being present and willing to offer up something you have in the goal of taking care of someone else's needs.

It has nothing to do with having a perfect meal, decorated house or even a lot of space,
it's about making the most of your resources in order to help build a deeper relationship with another person.

It does not even have to be on your "own turf"--you can practice hospitality at the store by offering to let the person behind you with three items in their basket to go ahead of you or allowing another car to take the close parking space (bonus, you'll get to burn some calories if you park further out).  I have to confess that usually when I'm at the store with my screaming, squirming children who are helping themselves to bites out of candy bars off the checkout display, I have been on the receiving end of this hospitality rather than the giving end but I know how much I have appreciated others' kindness in this area!)

Some simple acts of hospitality:
  • Putting a simple wrapped chocolate on the pillow of an overnight guest.
  • Keep a brownie mix (or the ingredients to whip up a quick dessert) in the pantry and invite someone over for a simple impromptu visit with someone.
  • When baking a cake (or said brownies, muffins, bread, etc.), cut off half and run it over to a neighbor 
  • Holding the door open for the person behind you
  • Recognizing an opportunity to lend someone assistance
  • Surprise someone with coffee
  • Write a thank you note, just because
  • Double a recipe and keep the extra in a disposable container in the freezer to give to a friend or neighbor in need.
  • Offer to watch someone's children for an hour or two.
Obviously, this is not an exhaustive list.  I am so excited to hear of others' ideas of ways to "recover the lost art of hospitality." 

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Non-Recipe Recipes

It's been a loonnngggg week.  Between some serious busyness and lack of motivation on my part, there hasn't been much real cooking round these parts lately.  Here are a few of our "go to's" when there hasn't been much time or inclination for anything elaborate.  What are your favorite Non Recipe Recipes?

Non-Recipe Recipes: Dinner and Lunch Ideas for the Time-Pressed and Creativity-Challenged

Frozen Cheese Ravioli or Tortellini: Top with jarred sauce or browned butter (just melt over medium heat until foamy and golden).  Or...layer cheese ravioli in place of lasagna noodles with meat sauce and shredded mozzarella for a quick lasagna!

Pita Pizzas: Toast 6" size whole pitas (or English muffins), top with sauce, cheese and desired toppings and bake at 400 until golden brown and bubbly.  This is one that's fun for the kids to do themselves. 

Rotisserie Chicken: A desperation dinner powerhouse because it can be used in so many ways.  Can be eaten plain with a salad and a loaf or bread, can also be shredded to use for chicken salad, bbq sandwiches, quesadillas, added to canned chicken broth, noodles and vegetables for a quick soup or thrown into pasta dishes.

Quesadillas: My kids are thrilled with some cheese melted in a tortilla.  My husband and I like to jazz ours up with additions of whatever is on hand--cooked chicken or steak, pico de gallo, crumbled bacon, fajita veggies, green chiles or chopped tomatoes. 

Pasta and Jarred Sauce: fancy it up by throwing in some ground beef or turkey or some chopped spinach or other cooked veggies.

Bean Burritos: As simple as canned refried beans and cheese or slightly more gourmet with a can of black beans mixed together with salsa and cheese wrapped in a tortilla.