Category Archives: Gatherings

Panko Crusted Perfection…

The past three months of my life have been a blur.  I know people say that all the time but I literally can’t remember how we got here.  It’s been a whirlwind of packing and boxes and LOTS of trash bags.  But in the end we are moved out of our old house and into a new one and we love the new town we find ourselves in.  Jay and I lived for the past 4 years or so in the house that was my grandparents, but after they died turned into a “half way” house as my parents like to call it.  Almost all of the grandkids have lived there at one point or another.  During college when we were poor, after college when we were really poor, or sometimes just because it was convenient…the house has seen a lot of use, and a lot of things that my grandparents would never have approved of!  We have tried a few times over the years to sell it but it hasn’t worked out for one reason or another.  This last time, my mother and my uncle decided to really give it some effort and it seems to be panning out.  As I write this, the sale is pending and we all have our fingers crossed.

In the mean time, an opportunity to move kind of fell in our laps.  We had been thinking of relocating for a little while, the house was great for us, but the location wasn’t.  It was out of the way for Jay to work and for church and pretty much most things we did, except my office.  Bonus for me, I never had to hop on the highway and filled my gas tank once ever y 2 weeks or so.  However, Jay’s truck was sucking down gas and money with it.  So when a friend at the office had mentioned that they were going to be renting a condo, I jumped on it.  The location was much better for us, we are just about 15-20 minutes to everyone in the family, to Jays work, and to church.  I do have to get on the highway to get to the office now, but I’m able to work from home 2 days a week so it all balances out.  We also moved from the city to the suburbs.  There are woods in back of the condos, the Linear Trail, which is a walking and biking trail, is just down the road, and it’s very quiet at night…except for the bugs.

We eventually packed up all our crap, threw out more than I ever thought possible, and in a couple trips with the trucks and a day with the movers, we are in the new digs and settling down pretty well.  There are no longer cardboard pieces everywhere, I have towels in the closet, and some pictures on the wall.  It’s starting to feel like home.

So now that we are in this new little town, naturally the first thing we ask is “Where are the good places to eat!?!”  Gratefully, our friends steered us over to a tiny place on the main strip.  It’s about 5 minutes from the house and is called C.J. Sparrow Pub and Eatery.  We met them there for dinner one night as they were graciously welcoming us to the area, and had a great meal.  The place fits in perfectly with my friend Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive ins, and Dives show.  It’s this small joint in a little plaza of stores with a very unassuming sign, you really probably wouldn’t even stop to come here unless you knew about it.  Parking is in the back of the building and the entrance leads you into the bar, which then wraps all the way around into the dining room.  The place is small, maybe 10 tables, plus a small patio and the long curved bar with seating too.  But don’t let the size fool you, these guys have their hands in everything.  Trivia nights, open mic, local bands, happy hour…the list goes on.  When you walk in you get the feeling that maybe you have stumbled into an episode of “Cheers” and that Ted Danson will come out at any point to pour beer from the tap and give you some advice on love and life.  Instead, what you do get are a great staff that seem to love their jobs, are always smiling, and a clientele that all know each other by name.  People sit at the bar with a drink and greet each other when they walk in the doors or smile in welcome at the people they might not know, yet (which were us).  It’s a TRUE neighborhood place and I think the locals try to keep it quiet so that people out of town don’t find out how rock star the food is and come ruining their favorite spot.

After our first visit, where we met half the town, who came in and said hello to our friends we were eating with,  Jay and I knew we would be repeat customers…the food was great.  So when we were looking to tame a burger itch last night, we decided to hit up “Sparrows” as it’s fondly called.  What we had this time was out of the realm of the fabulous.  Let me first start by saying we were starving.  It was a little late when I got home from work, we had both had lunch earlier than usual that day and my flip flop had started to look appetizing as I was driving home.  So we definitely knew we were going to get an appetizer.  We looked over the menu, still new to us, and a great length for this kind of place.  There is everything from seared Ahi to steak and cheese but not so many choices that they can’t keep everything made fresh and quickly turned out in the kitchen.   Smart owners.

The thing that caught our eye this time was the Fried Smoked Gouda.  The description in the menu is very succinct, “Fried Smoked Gouda with creamy bacon tomato sauce”.  It’s enough to tell you exactly what it is.  What is doesn’t say is that you will want them to fill a bathtub with the sauce so you can just swim in it for the good part of a week.  What comes to the table is a generously thick cut from a wheel of smoked Gouda cheese, sliced in half to form two half moons, coated in panko and fried to a quite perfect golden brown.  The bottom of the plate is coated in the slightly pink sauce with little ribbons of cooked bacon running through it.  They also throw just a bit over the top, and the bacon almost looks like little bows on the crunchy cheese package.

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We each took a piece; I cut into mine, swiped up a healthy dose of the sauce and bacon, and put it to my lips.  All conversation stopped save for the “Oh my GOD” that came after the first bite.  Jay finds me quite amusing when I have these overwhelmingly unladylike foodgasms and he mercifully just let me savor the little ripples of pleasure that were rolling over my tongue.  This was a perfect symphony of savory and sweet and salty and crunchy and smooth and smoky…good god there are not enough words.  The Gouda was soft but still firm and doesn’t ooze like mozzarella does, but keeps its form and maintains a ridiculously creamy texture with that hint of smoke around the ends.  The tomato sauce was silky and salty and the bacon married so well with the cream, it was genius and like nothing I have ever had.  This was not your ordinary fried cheese.  After polishing it off and restraining myself from licking the plate, I had to hold back from leaping from the table and storming into the tiny kitchen to find out the secrets that lived there.  I had found panko crusted perfection.

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After the cheese episode where I had my pleasure black out…we had our burgers which were just as awesome as they were the last time.  They use angus beef, make their own patties, and cook them perfectly to your taste.  Jay is able to get a true rare burger here, which hardly ever happens anymore.  He got the special burger for the night which was a burger rubbed with a Carolina dry rub and then topped with two kinds of cheese and cole slaw.  I went with the smokehouse burger that had swiss, mushrooms, super thin little fried onion straws and a creamy steak sauce.  Both of them were fabulous and juicy and a little charred by the grill, yum.  We weren’t sure if we wanted dessert after all that food but when she ran down the list, the bourbon pecan pie rung home and we got it warmed with a little vanilla bean ice cream.  You could taste the slight hint of bourbon and the pie was not so cloyingly sweet as many of its kind can be.  Even though Jay doesn’t like pecan pie much it didn’t take us long to finidh it off!

As we rolled ourselves out the door and back home to fall into a food coma I kept thinking how nice it was to have a local bar like that.  It makes the town feel so welcoming, it makes me happy to know that we could go at any time and have a really good meal among friendly people who love the food too.  They were genuinely happy to see you sitting at their table, and take the time to say hello and to make sure you have a great night with them.  The atmosphere there is not so much built by the space or the décor but by good people, eating good food, having a few drinks and supporting a local business that they love.  I’m looking forward to many more amazing meals here…

 

Day 38 – How To Make My Mom’s Lasagna…

Momma Kelly makes the best lasagna in the entire world.  That’s not just my opinion, that’s a fact.  It is perfectly meaty and cheesy and saucy and HOLY CRAP is it good.  It’s been made in very much the same way for many many years, and she has perfected it over time.  The technique, the amounts, how long it bakes, and how long it sits to rest before you eat it.  It all matters.

The one thing that you do have to keep in mind though is that you will never EVER have a lasagna that tastes exactly the same as another.  There are so many variables, the meats, the sauce, the seasoning of the ingredients…it will all vary ,and because of that, your lasagna will never really taste the same.  That’s ok though, if you get the technique down, it will always be good.

The most defining ingredient that has the greatest effect on the success of the whole dish is the sauce.  If the sauce isn’t great, your lasagna won’t be great.  Perfect noodles, perfect layering, and perfect baking will never be enough if the sauce isn’t awesome.  Work on your sauce, add lots of meats, and season liberally.  Let it cook for a while to meld, and if it’s possible, make it a day or even a couple days before you want to make your lasagna.  You will thank me.

The other important thing is to get quality ingredients.  Not to go all Barefoot Contessa  on you, but you want quality cheeses, and pasta along with good tomatoes for your sauce.  It really does make a difference.  We use Tuttorosso and Sclafani brand tomato products…crushed tomatoes, tomato puree, and tomato sauces too…they can be found at your local grocery store.  If you find a good Italian cheese shop you can get everything else you need there, and also find some other delicious treats while you browse like olives, dried sausages, and nutella.  The market we go to is Liuzzi’s in North Haven, CT.  They are straight from Italy, they’ve been doing this gig here in the US for over 30 years, and they totally rock, check them out if you’re in the area.

Wherever you go, whatever ingredients you use, however you make your sauce…be consistent.  Consistency will be what makes your lasagna something that people ask for every holiday and at every special occasion.  Why?  Because they know that even if it’s a “bad” batch, it will still be good.  My mother’s worst lasagna still is better than anything else you will have that night.

In the end I’m really blessed to even be able to talk about all these crazy tips and tricks for this traditional food.  I’m blessed because I have a mother who taught me this.  I’m blessed because I have the ability to carry on this tradition, along with my sisters, into the next generation of our family.  I’m blessed because the family I have been gifted with has a talent for making amazing food, and through that food, creates strong relationships, traditions, and love.  I truly believe that it is the reason everything we make tastes so wonderful.  It’s the reason that every gathering we have is attended by people who are laughing, happy, and have full plates and full hearts.  You want to know what it feels like to be in my family?  Come over on a Sunday afternoon, watch football with us, play with the kids who are running around the house like little maniacs, and EAT.  My parents kitchen feeds more than your belly, it feeds your soul.  Dishes like this remind me of that and will forever remind me of the love that they have taught us and the fullness of spirit that can come from a simple plate of pasta.  So when you are making this lasagna, don’t just think of it as a recipe.  This is a history of my family.  Give it time, give it respect, and above all, give it love.

Momma Kelly’s Lasagna   

Important notes before you get started:

  • It really is a process over a couple of days to get the best result.  Making the sauce, then making the lasagna, then it really helps to let the lasagna sit in the fridge overnight to set.  Then bake it the next day.
  • This lasagna is made in a hotel pan (dimensions are about 20X12).  I don’t know how to make it smaller, that’s just the way it is.  So invite over your family and friends and make it for everyone.  It feeds about 25 depending on the size of your pieces.
  • These measurements are approximations.  We have guesstimated amounts as best we can, but it’s all about feel  and sight and you may have a need for an additional egg, or another meatball in your crumbled meat.  Go with your gut.
  • We make a large pot of meat sauce.  Somewhere around 10 quarts.  The sauce has meatballs, stew beef, pork chops, and hot and sweet italian sausages.  If my mom’s really getting serious, she will also add in pigs feet.  I know, just trust it.  Like I said above, making it in advance helps too.
  • You will have to do some work to find the perfect pasta sheets.  The dried box kind is usually much too thick.  We suggest fresh pasta sheets, but not all fresh pasta is created equal.  Try a few brands and go with the one you like best.  We get a frozen brand from Liuzzi’s that has a mint green and red label.

OK here we go…

3 lbs of lasagna pasta sheets, cooked according to the package

2 lbs of whole milk ricotta

1.5 lbs shredded whole milk mozzarella

3-4 cups grating cheese (this is a serious geusstimate on amount, sprinkle like in the pictures and use however much that takes, we like parmesan and romano blend)

6 eggs

3 lbs of crumbled meat (from your sauce)

Sauce (I have no idea how much, just keep your pot next to you)

salt, pepper, granulated garlic, dried parsley

  • Clear off a counter for assembly purposes.  You are going to need a good amount of space.
  • Warm your sauce on the stove, you don’t want it really hot, just warm enough that the meat is warmed through.
  • Cook your pasta with a little bit of oil in the water, and watch them carefully.  Stir them gently to prevent sticking.  Drain them and put them back in the pot with cool water to stop the cooking.  Set onto the counter, ready for assembly.

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  • Pull out about three pounds of mixed meats into a bowl.  Meatballs, sausages, pork, beef, you want some of everything but you will have the most bulk from meatballs and sausage.

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  • Crumble the meat with your hands.  It should look like this:

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  • Mix your ricotta, eggs, and seasonings together in a bowl.  Be generous with your seasoning, you have a lot of cheese there.  It should look like this in the end:

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  • Put everything out on your counter so all is within reach.  Here’s the master at work:

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  • Start by spreading a good amount of sauce onto the bottom of your pan (she’s doing that above)
  • Then gently start laying out your noodles in your first layer, overlapping about 1/3 of the width.

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  • Spread sauce over the noodles.

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  • Sprinkle a few handfuls of grating cheese over the sauce

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  • Evenly sprinkle over handfuls of the crumbled meat.

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  • Then spread out clusters of the ricotta mixture.  Mom uses a fork so that it kind of spreads a little and you don’t have big clumps.  She is working fast here and is annoyed with me taking pictures…just FYI.

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  • You then sprinkle over the shredded mozzarella

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  • Your first layer is done!  Congratulations!  Now layer on another set of noodles.  If you will notice, she is now spreading them out in the opposite direction in the tray.  She also sometimes tears them and makes the middle pieces a little less wide to try to eliminate a too high center and lower edges.  This is an art, she does it without even thinking.  I still struggle with it, so just do your best.

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  • Start all over again, and do two more layers so you have three total.  In the end spread over another layer of sauce and sprinkle on the final grating cheese.

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  • Cover the tray with parchment paper first, then aluminum foil.  Don’t put the foil directly on the sauce, as the acid will cause a reaction with the metal.
  • If you can, put the lasagna in the fridge overnight to set.  If you can’t do overnight, at least let it sit in there for a few hours to firm up.
  • Now pay attention to this!  Take your lasagna out of the fridge, remove the cover, and cut it like you would be serving it.  I know it sounds crazy but cutting it before you bake it makes for a way better piece later.
  • Cover it back up and bake it in the oven at 350 for about an hour or so.
  • When you take it out it will look like this beautiful tray of deliciousness.

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  • DON’T EAT IT!  That’s right, I said do NOT eat it yet.  Let it sit out on the stove top or counter for at least 20 minutes.  This will allow the cheese and noodles to set up and it will keep your pieces from turning into messy sloppy kind of layers that you have to scoop out with a spoon.  Instead they will look like THIS:

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Oh hell yes…drizzle on a little more sauce and sprinkle on some grating cheese and dig in.  Then get ready for the uncontrollable moaning that will then occur.  Enjoy!

 

Day 37 – How To Make A Quick Guacamole…

Guacamole might just be one of my favorite things on the planet.  Avocado tastes awesome and is a good fat, which means it’s healthy…and so is pretty much everything else you put in it.  The chips you eat it with are another matter, but let’s not focus on the bad…

We make guacamole in our family quite a bit.  It’s a staple at many parties, especially in the summer, but even just on the weekends when we are hanging out at my parents the bright green dip of goodness often makes an appearance.  It never lasts very long.  My brother in law Jose and I can sit there and put away an entire bowl and not even blink an eye.  It’s one of the reasons I love him…

This guac recipe is a real crowd pleaser and it’s also a wonderful way to get kids (and fussy adults) to try something new.  What child won’t try something that you put onto a chip.  I know AC loves his “green dip”!  Yes, that’s my Christmas tree still up…don’t judge me.

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Here is a perfect recipe for a really quick guac that you can throw together in a snap.  And don’t just limit this to chips.  Substitute it for mayo in your egg or chicken salad, or mix it into some egg yolks for awesome deviled eggs.  You can also top your favorite burger or chicken sandwich with some for a healthier and tastier alternative to fattier mayo or sauces.  I’m getting hungry now…

Easy Guacamole 

2 ripe avocados (you want them to give when you gently press on the firm skin, but not to be mushy)

2-3 Tbsp jarred salsa (whatever is in your fridge)

1 lime, juiced or 2 Tbsp bottled lime juice

2 Tbsp sour cream (optional)

1 Tbsp fresh chopped cilantro (optional, I hate the stuff)

salt, pepper, granulated garlic to taste (I tend to be pretty heavy handed with the garlic, so don’t shy away from it)

Slice the avocado in half, working your knife around the pit in the center.  Gently twist and pull the halves apart.  If your avocado is ripe, this should be very easy.  Quickly and firmly hit your knife blade onto the seed and then twist it out.  Place the knife and seed onto a towel, hold the seed with the towel, and carefully remove the it from the blade.  Be careful if it’s your first time, it is slippery and you don’t want to cut yourself.  Here’s a great video from the Cooking Channel on avocados that is a useful resource for the avocado virgins.

Once the seeds are removed, your avocados should have a bright green rim and look nice and greenish yellow with firm yet silky soft flesh.

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Take a large spoon and run it between the flesh and skin to remove it all.  Scoop out everything from the inside, it’s all good and none should be left behind.  If you find that you have a couple brownish spots that is totally fine, don’t freak out.  As long as nothing is super mushy or slimy, then you are good to go.

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Mash up your avocado with a fork to make whatever consistency you like.  I lean towards a smoother guac, so I mash it pretty well, if you like it chunkier, that’s cool too.

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Add all the remaining ingredients to the bowl, mix it all very well, taste to make sure it is seasoned enough, and that’s it!  Not everyone uses sour cream in their recipes, but I think it gives it a nice tang and creamy back note, but it’s totally optional.  Die hard guac lovers will also tell you that cilantro is required, I however think cilantro tastes like soap and try to never eat the stuff if I can help it.  If you like that kind of thing, go ahead and throw it in…

And for a fun presentation, don’t throw away those avocado skins!  They make great little vessels that you can put out with your chips and then just throw away.  Who doesn’t love a fruit (yes it’s a fruit) that comes with it’s own serving bowl?

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The avocado will keep for a few days in the fridge, just smooth out the top of the surface, drizzle a little more lime juice over it, and cover it with saran wrap pressing it directly on top of the guacamole, kind of like when you cover pudding to prevent a skin.  When you uncover, there will be some oxidation on the very top but when you stir everything together, it will still be a nice green.  Enjoy!

Day 36 – How To Make Thai Take Out At Home…

I love a good Thai take out dinner.  The spice and the flavors are so unique and the veggies are so perfectly cooked, tender but still a little bite to them.  YUM.

About a year ago I found this book from a nutritionist named Christine Avanti called “Skinny Chicks Don’t Eat Salads: Stop Starving, Start Eating and Losing”.  I highly recommend it.  It is really amazing and has wonderful recipes for food that you actually WANT to eat.  This recipe is one of my hands down favorites.  It tastes awesome and kicks that take out craving in the ass.

It’s a great spicy stir fry with awesome Thai flavors, including sriracha which I LOVE.  I do make the jasmin rice for this one because it goes so much better with the flavors of the beef.  Marinate your beef the night before in a Ziploc bag, it gives all the flavors a chance to marry and blend.  Make sure you have a large pan with lots of surface area so that you can get a good quick sear on all the meat, you don’t want this to steam, you really want it to fry and then use that glaze to marry all the veggies when you add them back into the pan.  Make the full recipe, these leftovers are an awesome lunch the next day!

 

thai stir fry

Hoisin & Siracha Beef Stir Fry

Nutritional info: 400 cals., 26 gm protein, 50 gm carbohydrates, 12 gm fat. Makes: 4 servings

Paprika
1/3 cup hoisin sauce
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon low sodium soy sauce
1 tablespoon hot chili sauce (Sriracha)
3-4 cloves garlic, minced
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon garlic salt
2 teaspoons red pepper flakes, divided
1 pound extra lean flank steak (or any other stir fry steak), sliced into approximately 1 1/2” strips or small pieces
1 large white onion
2 large bell pepper

2 cups jasmin rice

Pour 4 cups of cold water into a medium pot and bring to a boil.  Rinse rice and add to boiling water.  Reduce heat and cover.  Cook for 20 minutes.

Combine first 5 ingredients in a small bowl.  Place steak strips and marinade into a large zip lock bag and place in the refrigerator.

Dice onion and bell pepper.  Using a large wok or frying pan, spray bottom of pan with cooking spray, and small amount of a high burn point oil like canola or vegetable.  Quickly cook the onions, peppers on high heat with some salt and pepper until just crisp tender.  About 3-5 minutes.  Remove from pan and set aside.

Place the marinated steak into pan and pour in all the marinade to make a sauce.

Saute steak for about 5 minutes on high heat to get a nice brown.
Add veggie mixture to pan and continue to cook for 2 minutes together.

Serve 3/4 cup of cooked rice with  1 1/2 cups of stir fry.  Enjoy!

(based off Christine Avanit’s recipe in her book “Skinny Chicks Don’t Eat Salads: Stop Starving, Start Eating and Losing”)

Day 33 – How To Bring The Right Dish To Your Next Party…

One of the first things that most people ask when you tell them you are having a party is “What can I bring?”.  For myself I know that I usually tell people to bring an app or a dessert so that I can focus on the main food for the evening.  Here are a few ways to decide what you can bring to your next event…

  1. Make sure it’s portable – Don’t bring something that is hard to transport.  You want an item that can be packed up or put on a plate and is ready to go on a table.
  2. Don’t require any effort at the party – Do not bring items that need to be baked, assembled, or otherwise messed with when you get to the party.  There is nothing worse than someone showing up with an unfinished item and telling you they need your stove, oven, or counter to complete it.  I’d rather you bring nothing, don’t hijack my kitchen.
  3. Be a crowd pleaser – Stay away from crazy food items or super intricate recipes.  You want something that everyone will enjoy and if you go with that beef tongue bruscetta or the duck liver mousse, while foodies will be impressed, the vast majority of people will be turned off.  Stay on the safe side unless you know you will be in a group of adventurous eaters.
  4. Bring what you committed to – If you said you would bring an appetizer, do that. If you said you’d bring a dessert, bring it.  Do not say that you will bring brownies and show up with guacamole and chips.  Your host most likely planned what they made around what others said they were going to bring, so stick, at least loosely, to your commitment and stay in the same type of food category so that you don’t completely screw up food plans for the night.

Try this awesome take along recipe for a super delicious appetizer that everyone loves.  These squares taste amazing and also cut and transport very well.  They can be served warm or room temperature, so no need to be worried about keeping them in the oven.  Not to mention they look pretty too.  Enjoy!

antipasta squares

Antipasto Squares  

2 cans of crescent rolls
1/4 lb of domestic ham, sliced (rectangle shape)
1/4 lb swiss cheese, sliced
1/4 lb pepperoni, sliced
1/4 lb provalone cheese, sliced
1/4 lb genoa salami, sliced
1 jar sliced roasted peppers
3 eggs
garlic powder, salt, pepper
Spread one can of crescent rolls, in a sheet on the bottom of a greased 9”x13” pan.  Press to seal the perforations if you can’t find crescent roll dough in a solid sheet.
Layer In order:
1/4 lb. of domestic ham
1/4 lb. Swiss cheese
1/4 lb. Pepperoni
1/4 lb. Provolone cheese
1/4 lb. Genoa salamiTop with jar of roasted peppers

 

Beat 2 eggs and add a little garlic powder, salt, and pepper and pour over the layers, spreading with your fingers if you need to.

Add the second can of crescent rolls on top and again seal perforations if the dough is not one solid sheet.

Spread 1 beaten egg over top of the crescent roll layer.Cover with foil and bake at 350 degrees for about 30 min.
Take off foil and bake about 20 min. longer to brown the top.
Cool a little and cut into squares.

Day 32 – How To Make a Great New Year’s Day Breakfast…

For the past several years we have gone to a New Year’s Eve party at a local banquet hall with a bunch of family and friends.  They have a ton of food, a DJ, open bar.  It’s a great time.  However, this year we stayed in and had AC with us while his Mom went out for the holiday.  We headed over to my sister Amy’s house so that AC and her kids could all play together and we could have a sleepover, which the kids were very excited about.

Another family joined us as well and we had a really nice evening that was very chill and complete with some board games and reminiscing of old times when we used to have a completely different type of house party before we all had kids!  We had some champagne at midnight, tucked some exhausted but wound up kids into bed and called it a night.  Jay and I slept on the futon in my sisters office and the kids were all asleep on the floor of their bedroom “camping out”.

The next morning, we all woke up and spent a totally lazy day in our pajamas hanging out, playing together, and watching TV.  To kick off that kind of day, we made a kick ass breakfast.  Amy had bought some really beautiful challah bread when she had stopped at the store and also had a quart of leftover egg nog in the fridge that she hadn’t used around the holidays.  That meant one thing…egg nog french toast.  Along with some maple brown and serve sausages and some cut up strawberries and other fruit, it was a great start to the new year.

challah french toast

Egg Nog Challah French Toast

1 loaf of good challah bread that looks like thischallah

1 Qt of egg nog

3 eggs

3/4 cup brown sugar

2 tsp vanilla

few shakes of cinnamon

Slice challah into about 1/4 inch slices.  Mix all other ingredients in a 13X9 baking pan and stir well to combine.  Get a griddle pan hot and melt some butter onto the surface.  Quickly dip the challah, one piece at a time, into the egg mix and then drop onto the griddle pan.  Challah is super soft and I don’t like soggy french toast, so I do not let it soak, I just lightly dip and cook, the egg will soak in, but the bread won’t fall apart.  Griddle until golden brown and cooked through.  Serve with some good maple syrup and more butter!

Day 31 – How To Be Italian At Christmas…

Everyone has their own traditions around the holidays, it’s true.  But really, nobody does it up like the Italians!  In our family, we celebrate with the classic Italian American Feast of the Seven Fishes.  If you don’t know what this is, here’s a brief recap for you from the end all be all of sources…Wikipedia

The Feast of the Seven Fishes is part of the Italian-American Christmas Eve celebration.  Today, it is a feast that typically consists of seven different seafood dishes. It originates, however, from Southern Italy, where it is known as The Vigil (La Vigilia). However, some Italian-American families have been known to celebrate with nine, eleven or thirteen different seafood dishes. This celebration commemorates the wait, the Vigilia di Natale, for the midnight birth of the baby Jesus.

We have celebrated Christmas Eve in this way, with lots of family and even more fish, for as long as I can remember.  When I was very young, we would gather in the basement level of my Aunt Rose’s house, but for the most part, my memories are of having Christmas Eve at my Uncle John’s house, who lives right next door to my mother.

There is a ton of work that goes into a night like this, which is mostly done by my mother and uncle.  My Uncle Johnny shops for all the fish and keeps the master list for all the things we need to make and all the recipes we need.  My mother has her tasks that she needs to do as well which consist of the stuffed clams, steamed broccolli and getting her butt over to the house next door to start frying at around 4:00.

The menu for the evening is basically this:

First Course

 Shrimp cocktail20141224_163113

Scungilli (sliced conch)and calamari salad (with a red octopus decor that my cousin brought back from a trip to Italy just for the food this night) 20141224_154327

Bacala (salted cod) salad 20141224_163105

Baked Stuffed clams 20141224_125207 20141224_190615

Saples (fried dough balls – we do three kinds – plain, mushroom, clam, and anchovy) 20141224_170009 20141224_170057 20141224_170330

Second Course 

Bacala stew (hearty fish stew with vegetable sand potatoes in a rich red broth) 20141224_154623

Pasta Course

Crab and Lobster red sauce with linguine (made every year by my cousin Christine and brought over on Christmas Eve)20141224_162604

Fourth Course

Assorted fried fish (shrimp, scallops, eel, squid, smelts, and flounder)  20141224_164735 20141224_162145 20141224_154931 20141224_154421 20141224_154344

Steamed broccoli with lemon (I forgot to take a picture so this is a pretty Google picture, but ours totally looks like this)broccoli

Dessert

Birthday cake (the 24th is my cousin’s actual birthday so we sing and have cake), assorted cookies and/or pastries

As you can see, we have more than just seven kinds of fish, but this is the menu that we have been laying out every year for more years than I know.  Suffice to say that we have this down to a science, and now that all of us “kids” are older, it seems to take us less time than it used to because we are able to help get everything done.  Over the years, the list has been slightly altered.  We have changed amounts as people have come and gone, tweaked items here and there, but the way we cook everything, and the vast selection, has not much changed.  We are, for the most part, making the exact same food that the generations before us were making on this day.

I know for me, it makes the holiday feel like home, it makes me remember so many wonderful times, and for a few hours, I can almost tangibly feel the presence of all the beautiful spirits who have passed on sitting right there with us at the table and listening to the organized chaos of 50 people and kids gathered together to share this piece of their family history.  It’s a beautiful tradition that we share with our family and friends, and even though it’s a ton of work, I can’t imagine it ever being any different.

So how do you do this?  How do you be Italian at Christmas?  It’s easy.  There’s only one step really.

Keep traditions.

There is nothing more to it than that.  If there is something that your family does that you love, keep doing it.  Don’t just be a spectator in the event, you have to learn.  You can say you love Grandma’s cooking all you want, but unless you find out how she does it, you aren’t going to be able to make that food when she is gone.  And trust me you will miss it.  My mother and uncle learned all of this from their family and have taught it to us.  Make your kids pay attention, make them get in the kitchen with you.  If nobody learns how to carry on the legacy, then that tradition you love will not be there for long.  You have to want to do it, you have to be willing to learn, and you have to love the people that you are sharing it with because that is the most important thing.  Sharing it with people you love.

If you don’t have any kind of tradition in your family. start one.  It does not have to be elaborate, it does not have to be grand.  I know some people who’s tradition is just one kind of special dessert that they only have on Christmas.  That works, that’s great, and that’s enough.  If you want something a little bigger, find something that you love to do and ask your family to do it with you.  Maybe you decorate a gingerbread house on Christmas, maybe you make cookies, maybe you try to incorporate one new food item you love until you find something that works for you all and takes shape to become a tradition.  Whatever it is, you have to make the effort and don’t give up from one year to the next.

My grandmother’s generation is mostly passed on now, but the things they taught us are still here.  Every year.  We remember them.  Every year.  And we teach something to our kids.  Every year.  That’s how you keep traditions, and in my family that’s how you be Italian at Christmas.

Day 30 – How To Keep The Magic And Wonder In Christmas…

We all know how it goes.  Shopping, cooking, family, wrapping, travel…it all quickly adds up and can make for one freaking stressful time of year.  However, it’s also one of my absolute favorites and I’m not just saying that.  I love Christmas more than any other holiday by far.  My Dad also loves Christmas and some of my most wonderful memories are of all of us decorating the tree, or going to the candlelight midnight mass.  When we were little, we would lay in front of the huge speakers in the living room and read the jacket of the Sesame Street Christmas record (yes kids, I mean vinyl here).  He still has it by the way, and puts it on for us every Christmas…and we know every word.

There’s just something about Christmas that touches my heart.  We are Christian, so church and the message that holds is a large part of the season for us, as it is for many people.  However I don’t feel you have to be religious to appreciate the magic of the season.  Seeing the children get so excited about Santa, driving around looking at all the beautiful lights, and teaching them to help others, that is magical too.  The warmth of the house, the lights from the tree, the beautiful music, the family time, it all adds up to a feeling of fullness and wonder.  It also reminds me of how blessed we are in this life and makes me try a little harder to do a little something extra for those who aren’t as fortunate.

No matter what your feelings are about the holidays, here’s a few things to remember if you are trying to keep some of that wonder in your home and your heart this year.

  1. Decorate –  You don’t have to go crazy here.  Although if you love it, go for it.  My brother in law is a decorating fool when it comes to Christmas.  He has lights outside and puts up the tree right after Thanksgiving.  Every surface is covered in holiday something and I’m surprised the dog doesn’t walk around with a wreath around her neck and a piece of mistletoe hanging off her tail.  We aren’t quite that enthusiastic about decor in our house, but I absolutely need to have a tree.  Sitting in the living room and looking at the lights and ornaments that are from when I was little or were made by the kids just makes me happy.  Whatever it is for you, make the house a little more festive.  A tabletop tree, a little candle in the window, or a lighted snowman in front of your door.  It all makes the season feel special.
  2. Watch those cheesy movies –  Yes, I’m serious.  All those cheesy, ridiculous specials and holiday themed movies that play on a constant circuit.  Watch them.  Some of them suck, but some of them are just too damn fabulous and will make your eyes well up and feel like an idiot, Christmas gold there people.  You also have to watch the classics like National Lampoons Christmas Vacation (which is playing right now actually as I write this ) and Elf and The Polar Express.  They are awesome.  They just are.  Do it.
  3. Listen to Christmas music –  There is nothing quite as beautiful and emotional as listening to the floating pure voice of Andrea Bocelli singing effortlessly the melody of “O Holy Night” along with a beautiful orchestra.  I think that this might be what you hear in heaven.  Music has a way of getting into those parts of our heart that we don’t allow ourselves to often feel.  For me, it makes the holiday real.  When I walk into my parents house and my Dad has on the Christmas music (which he is often singing along with). I know the holiday is here.
  4. Talk to a child –  If you ever want to really know what the season is about, talk to a kid.  The amazingly pure answers you get will remind you of what’s important.  They talk about baby Jesus like he is their friend, they get so excited about the possibility of seeing Santa, and they remember those crazy traditions like putting up a certain ornament or leaving carrots for the reindeer.  Kids make the holiday better, just to have that infectious excitement and magical outlook on the day makes everything just more.  They also distract you from the fact that you want to beat your husband for forgetting the one present you asked him to grab off the counter.
  5. Eat –  Yeah I know, most of you are sitting there and thinking “hello, I know this one”, but at Christmas you need to really commit.  Drink the 500 calorie thimble full of egg nog, eat those candy cane truffles, gorge yourself on the prime rib and eat two helpings of Mom’s mashed potatoes.  I may think it at other times of the year, but I never EVER have thought, “wow I wish I hadn’t eaten that” at Christmas.  Food, and decadent, rich, fat filled food at that is part of what makes the holiday special.  Take a break from the restraint, eat what you want, and enjoy it.  Don’t think about what it means tomorrow, and just have a good time, eat the food you love and save room for dessert!
  6. Give –  There are so many people for which Christmas is hard.  Really hard.  At our church we participate in a program with the Covenant to Care for Children organization where our church has “adopted” a DCF social worker.  Throughout the year we try and provide her and her case families with things that they may need and may have a hard time getting otherwise.  At Christmas, we ask what the children might want, and then create a giving tree that church members can choose from and buy gifts for.  Everyone loves it, and often we have to go back and get additional names to care for all the people who want to contribute.  Knowing that these gifts are going directly to these local kids and will be responsible for giving them a gift of light and hope at Christmas just makes me feel good.  The past couple years I have chosen a child who has been close in age to AC to remind me that much more of the need that is out there.  Something about relating it to our own kids brings it closer to home.  If you have the opportunity, and you are able to, try and give something during this time, or at any time during the year.  The need isn’t only now, but the opportunity is never easier to find than at the holidays.
  7. Take a moment –  Through all the insanity, take a moment.  Give yourself a brief reprieve from wrapping presents and checking off lists to just be.  Sit there, listen to the music, appreciate your tree, or drive through a festival of lights.  Look at your family and friends, and appreciate all you have.  There are times that I just sit in the kitchen at my parents house, when we are in the throws of full blown holiday chaos, with about 10 conversations going at once, a ridiculous amount of food on the counter, and the cocktails flowing freely and feel a rush of pure emotion at being so incredibly blessed to call this group of crazy, loud, messy, loving, and truly wonderful people my family.  As I look around at what we have, I take the time to pause, say a small word of personal thanks, and show them all that I love them very much.  I look at those little faces lighting up with joy and breathe in the smells that make the house a home.  In those moments, that is when I feel the wonder, that is when I feel the magic.  I wish all of you glimpses of those moments with those you love this year.

Merry Christmas to you all!

 

Day 29 – How To Make Super Easy Christmas Candy…

At the holidays almost every year, we make some sort of gifts with candy.  These aren’t necessarily candy that has anything to do with Christmas, but for us, it’s Christmas candy because this is pretty much the only time we do them.  This year, I needed about 15 bags of a few kinds of candy in order to do presents with them.  Because of the volume, I chose to do a couple of the easiest recipes we have.  Both of these can be made pretty quickly and give you a good amount of bulk so that you only have to do a couple batches.

If you have never made candy before these two are for you.  They are extremely easy, don’t have a ton of ingredients and taste great.  Take a chance and make them this year for your family and friends!

Fruit &Nut Chunky’s

2 cups semi sweet chocolate chips

1/3 cup peanut butter

1 tsp. vanilla

1 cup dry roasted nuts (peanuts, almonds, etc), unsalted

1 cup raisins (or craisins)

Melt the chocolate and the peanut butter together in a double boiler, add in the remaining ingredients and stir together until well combined and coated evenly.  Spoon into small paper liners (it helps to put the liners in mini muffin cups to hold the shape).  Let them cool completely and refrigerate to harden.  These can also be frozen.   Makes about 25 pieces.

YUM!

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Cinnamon Sugar Nuts

1 lb. nuts, unsalted

1 tsp water

1 egg white

1 cup sugar

1 Tbsp cinnamon

1 tsp salt

Beat the water and egg white until soft peaks form.  Fold in the nuts and coat, then fold in the remaining ingredients and mix well to coat them all evenly and completely.  Spread evenly onto a well greased cookie sheet and bake at 250 degrees for an hour, turning them once halfway through.  Let them cool on the sheets and break them up with your hands before storing.

Salty/sweet heaven!

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Day 26 – How To Re-Invent Leftovers…

Every two years my parents have a kick ass Christmas party and invite a ton of people to come eat, drink and be very merry in their home.  It’s always a good time.  The house becomes full of friends and buzzes with the sounds of old stories, new events, and laughter.  This year was no exception and we had a night filled with love and holiday spirit.

My parents are both retired (I hate them) and so they were able to do a ton of prep for the party during the week, but we all came together Saturday morning and rallied in the kitchen to finish up the prep, start cooking things in the ovens and get plating.  We pounded out the food as the day went on, and everyone had plenty to eat, cocktails and conversation.  As the night wound down, we could see that we had more leftover food than we had planned on, it happens often at the Kelly house.  We put everything away for the night and on Sunday my sisters and I went back and divided up some of the food for everyone to take home.  Not only was it a great weekend, but we had a good start on the weeknight meals thanks to my parents party!

I know some people don’t enjoy leftovers, but I love them.  We always ate them at our house and my Mom would make kick ass reinventions of the food that was in the fridge.  Today I made the classic leftover dish in my family.  Pot pie.  My parents had roasted a couple turkey breasts that they then sliced for little sandwiches.  We took home about a pound of it along with some leftovers from the veggie plate, namely carrots and celery.  With a few pantry staples and a quick run to the store when we were out doing some errands, we had the makings of a great turkey pot pie.

This turkey pot pie is a complete meal with lots of big chunks of veggies and a topping of stuffing that Jay asked for specifically!  It is semi homemade in that I take some help from the grocery store premade items.  If you’d rather make everything yourself, go for it.  But on a Monday night, premade crust and some canned goods were the way to go for us.  It takes a couple steps to make, but is totally worth it.  This recipe made two large pies, we ate one for dinner and wrapped and froze the second for a quick dinner another night in the future.  Enjoy!

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Stuffing Topped Turkey Pot Pie

1 pound cooked turkey, cut into pieces
1 small bag of baby carrots, cut into bite sized chunks
1 small bag of celery, cut into bite sized chunks
2 medium sized onions, large diced
1 can of corn
2 cans cream of chicken soup
1 cup milk
2Tbsp butter
salt and pepper to taste
2 tsp dried rubbed sage
1/2 tsp dried thyme
1 package of your favorite stuffing mix, prepared according to the directions.
2 premade, unbaked pie crusts

Melt the butter in a large, high rimmed frying pan, saute the onions, carrots, and celery, salt, pepper, and dried herbs until they are just softening.  Stir in the turkey, canned corn, canned soup and milk and stir until combined.  Simmer for a couple minutes.  While the mix is cooking, make the stuffing. according to the package.  Place the pie crusts onto a cookie sheet and ladle in the pot pie ingredients evenly across the two pie tins.  Place the stuffing over the tops of the pies and gently pat down to adhere the stuffing to the pie.  Bake at 375 for about 30-45 minutes or until they are browned and bubbling.  Let cool slightly before cutting and serving.

I served one pie for dinner, the other I let cool, then wrapped in plastic wrap and tin foil and stuck in the freezer to be used another night for a quick meal.

Look at those beautiful leftovers!

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