Wednesday, March 21, 2012

To Endings and New Beginnings...

So... my original plan was to write about the awesome weather we have been having.  I have been planning this for several days now, but just hadn't gotten that far.  However, when I finally sat down to blog last night about something so blatantly cheery as sunshine and rainbows, I learned some sad news.

An Ending:
My 12 year-old companion and friend, Porter, had to be put to sleep this morning.  There were many tears last night, as well as today. Some were tears of sadness and some of regret. Porter came into my life 12 years ago when living with an ex.  Although the relationship did not work out, Porter eventually ended up coming to live with me at my parents' house. I bopped around from place to place, as young adults do, finishing a year of college and then off to my first teaching job in southern Ohio. I then ultimately ended up heading into the unknown of Colorado. None of these places or circumstances were exactly conducive for a dog, so she "stayed" with my mom and dad.  By the time I was settled in Colorado and could even think of having a dog, I could not bare to take her from the home she knew and was now comfortable with.  Her and my parents had grown attached and well- it was home.  Although I did not see her on a daily basis or even as much as I would have liked to, I am happy that she lived a fine-and very spoiled- life.

I somehow knew that when I was in Ohio last month, that this would be the last time I would see her.  She knew it too. She kept me from leaving by following me to the door, and I spent some precious snuggle time with her before I departed.  (She was always a little camera-shy.) The picture above was taken just after our snuggles, and as I was leaving. She will be greatly missed.

And New Beginnings:
Spring is in the air! As many of you know, the weather has been phenomenal! I will take two-weeks of 80 degrees in March any year!   I spent some great time in Colorado soaking up the sun for a week (Read about it here at my previous post.) And now the glorious weather has followed me back to Iowa.  The grass is a vibrant green.  Trees are blossoming. Daffodils blooming. And I was sitting on my back porch reading The Hunger Games all weekend while drinking a cold home-brewed beer.  Life is good.

On Sunday, I thought it was high-time for some summery goodness.  I wanted a light meal to make me believe it was actually June, rather than March.  Instead of a typical heavy meal, I opted for a fresh fruit salad made with sliced strawberries, cantaloupe (aka "Muskmelon"- thanks to Muscatine!), and grapes.  I bought more than enough.  We ate it for dinner, and then I portioned it out into individual containers so I could easily take it to work this week for either breakfast or lunch.

I also had a hankering for some deviled eggs. Yum!  I found a recipe for some classic deviled eggs on Pinterest, but added some horseradish mustard instead of yellow mustard for a little extra kick.  They were awesome.  Along with the fruit and deviled eggs, we had some sliced cheese and crackers and we had ourselves quite a little picnic! 

Strawberries.  Strawberries. Turns out that I bought way more strawberries than I needed.  I was trying to find something fun I could do with them before they went bad.  Pinterest saved the day again!  I found this spectacular recipe for Strawberries and Cream Muffins.  Check these out:

The recipe is a bit more complicated than my usual attempt.  I have to admit that although I cook a lot, I am not the best baker.  (Just ask my husband.)  So I have to say I am rather impressed with myself!  Definitely check out this recipe HERE- it is SO worth it!  The only change I made was instead of  adding 1 cup of whole milk, I used 2/3 cup of 1% milk and 1/3 cup of sour cream.  

Seriously. Need. To. Make. These. Sam and I have discovered they make a great breakfast. (I froze several in individual portions to take to work for a quick breakfast.) They also make a killer strawberry shortcake dessert warmed up with a little vanilla ice cream.  


Sunday, March 18, 2012

Stuffed Green Peppers

I made this back before I left for Colorado, but just now having the chance to share.  This was an easy dinner- I just made a little extra to freeze for a future dinner.   Stuffed Green Peppers are an all-time comfort food and can be prepared fairly healthy as well.  This dinner was prompted by the fact that we happened upon a sale at the store advertising 3 green peppers for a $1.00.  Hubby can't pass up a deal and we ended up with ten green peppers. (We actually bought 12, but used two for another recipe.)  Hence, the reason for stuffed green peppers.  I chose to substitute ground turkey sausage instead of ground beef in my mixture. If frozen, you can even warm them up in the crock pot during the day for an easy, wholesome dinner.

4 green peppers
1 lb. of lean ground meat (beef, turkey, or Italian sausage) 
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 1/2 cups cooked rice
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
dash of garlic salt
1 15 oz. can of Italian diced tomatoes
1 jar or can of spaghetti or tomato sauce 

I started be steaming my rice first.  I have a rice cooker, so I used this while I was able to concentrate on cutting the tops off of the peppers, de-seeding them, and cleaning them.

I began to brown the meat.  Next, I chopped up the onions. Once the meat was thoroughly browned, I added the onion. After the rice was cooked, I added this to the meat mixture on the stove.

My next step was to add the can of diced tomatoes.  I like this added touch and it adds a bit more body and flavor. 

I let this warm slightly on the stove, remembering to give it a good stir every now and then to keep it from sticking. While I did this, I poured about 1/3 of the tomato sauce in the bottom of the pan.  

(*Note: I made a batch of four and then a batch of 6 for the freezer, so this is my "freezer" pan.)

I then scooped out a generous amount of the meat and rice mixture into each green pepper and very carefully arranged them in the pan. This was difficult to do in such a spacious pan.  My advice would be to make sure that you buy peppers that are fairly "flat" on the bottom so they "sit" better.  I did not think of this in our green- pepper-buying frenzy and was somewhat regretting it at this stage of the game...

Once I had the peppers arranged and ready to go, I poured the remaining tomato sauce over the top.  I like them saucy. 

Bake in the oven for approximately 40 minutes at 450 degrees.  Remember to periodically spoon the sauce in the pan over the peppers to keep them from drying out.  Feel free to top with cheese if that is your thing. 

If you would rather freeze, cover with foil and freeze the pan for dinner some other night. 


Rocky Mountain High

Sorry I have been out of touch for the last week or so.  However, I am glad to hear from several friends that they have been tuning into the blog regularly and are finding several of the ideas helpful!  I also received comments that people loved the awesome smoothies that Sara and her family demonstrated so well for us!  Thanks, Sara!

As I mentioned in my last post, I was off on adventure in Colorado last week.  It was a melting pot of emotions- excitement, comfort, sadness, longing, regret, satisfaction, and much more- a rollercoaster of great fun, as well as tears.  As I expected, my trip back to the Centennial State was a tough one.  I immediately was back in my comfort zone.  Friends were there to meet me with welcoming arms, and I found myself driving around the Front Range on "automatic pilot".  I also realized just how beautiful that place really is. I quickly found myself wondering, "Why did we even decide to leave?"  As always, the classic saying rings true: "You don't know what you have until it is gone."

I had fun visiting my friends and the two new babies of our Colorado family.  Thanks again to Julie and Dan for hosting the perfect summertime feast of hamburgers and hot dogs while I got to visit with baby Meghan. And a shout-out to new mom and dad, Amy and Dave, for all of their hard work with their brand new addition, baby Sierra. Here is a picture of Amy, Dave, Sierra, and my best friend Laurie, while on a walk around Boyd Lake, in Loveland, CO.  Oh, and I can't forget furry friends, Ellie and Stella!

While in Colorado I ate out WAY too much, but welcomed the delicious fare and beloved microbrews with open arms.  Boy, did I miss you. I probably gained a few good pounds, but it was worth it. I managed to fit in a hike with friends and did I mention good beer? I should have taken more pictures, but have included some links of my favorite restaurants and breweries in the Front Range area- this trip was primarily focused on the areas of  Longmont, Loveland, and Fort Collins.

The above photo was taken a nice relaxing 70 degree day at Big Beaver Brewing in Loveland, Colorado.  With the garage-door open and reading The Hunger Games on the ipad, I was in heaven! I have been taking up more reading recently and kind of liking my new-found hobby!  Big Beaver Brewing has fantastic beers...and some mighty creative names, albeit a little bit dirty.  ;) 

Here is a tasty batch of Sunshine Wheat that I shared with my friend, Eric.  It is made by the ever-popular and delicious New Belgium Brewing in Fort Collins, Colorado. 

This is from a drive through Horsetooth Reservoir, just west of Fort Collins.  Not the best picture, but you can never seem to capture the beauty with a camera...especially while driving. 

I even stopped by my favorite tortilleria while I was there.  This is where you will find the best-ever tortillas on earth.  They are so fresh and soft- absolutely perfect!  I hate buying tortillas from the store now.  They are just not the same. I was sure to stop by and grab two bags to take home.  Each bag costs $2.25.  You get your choice of corn or flour and come with approximately 12 homemade tortillas.  They are delicious! Don't forget- cash only. 

Here are some of my other favorite places for dining and brewing in Colorado.  Definitely check them out! 
O'Dells Brewing- Fort Collins, CO
Fort Collins Brewery, Fort Collins, CO 
Oskar Blues Brewery and Restaurant, Longmont and Lyons, CO
Lefthand Brewery, Longmont, CO
Pumphouse and Redzone, Longmont, CO
Lucille's Creole Cafe, Longmont, Fort Collins, and Boulder, CO 
Basil Flats, Longmont, CO 
Santiago's, various locations across Colorado- awesome breakfast burritos! 

Although I was constantly struggling with a variety of emotions throughout the week, I also was quick to remind myself of all that I am learning to love about Iowa- the green trees and grass, the friendly demeanor of neighbors, and family so close at hand. My past may be in Colorado, but right now my future is in Iowa. And seasons- I love having four seasons again...wait, nevermind. I forgot that we skipped directly from fall to summer...but I am ok with this.  More than ok.  I LOVE warm weather, which will bring me to another summer-themed post soon!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Smoothies by Sara

Sara and I first became friends in college, and although we had a lot of fun (These events shall remain unnamed), we seem to have kept in close contact as we grew older. About twelve years later (eek!) and now only two states away, our lives tend to be quite different at the moment. Yet, I somehow feel closer to her now then when I did then. She amazes me by her Facebook posts everyday with her innate ability to keep her life in balance- keeping up a marriage, maintaining a real estate business and a construction business with her husband, staying in shape and healthy, all-the-while entertaining and caring for their incredibly cute kids!

Sara also has a blog and this past weekend, they ventured into the world of smoothies.  I also make a smoothie about every other day.  My concoction is short, easy, and sweet, consisting of V8 Splash to get my much-needed vitamins, a small container of fat free yogurt in various flavors, 3 ice cubes, and a handful of frozen berries.  Put in the blender and DONE.  However, I have included Sara's recent blog post here so you can see all the wonderful yummy (and wholesome) concoctions that her family came up with.... and it looks like they had a lot of fun in the process! Check out her "Happy Nest" blog HERE. 



I get on kicks. It may be a low carb kick, a low calorie kick, a running kick, a reading kick, a crocheting kick, but I'm always on something. (That sounds bad, but you know what I mean.) I'm hoping that this next kick sticks around a little while and may work itself into being at least a weekly activity.

Since I've been not able to run and been on vacation (both are related but for another post), I've watching two or three pounds creep on. Now, that would be OK if I hadn't already been two or three pounds up since Christmas. Over the weekend, I hit THAT number. You know the one. The one that makes you wince when you get on the scale and say how did let THAT happen?! The one that makes you vow to not eat [fill in blank with current vice here] ever again. The one that makes you swear you'll make it to the gym every day this week. Yep, THAT number.

A while back, I created a Smoothies Board on Pinterest. My lunches and breakfasts are less than stellar these days and my fruit and veggie intake is next to nothing. I'd love to blame it on my busy lifestyle, but the truth is that I just don't make time for it any more. So, I decided to give this a try.

Over the weekend, and on another trip today, I picked up what I thought to be smoothie essentials. I also had some things on hand. Here is a list of what I planned to use.

Soy Milk
Almond Milk - Dark Chocolate
Coconut Water
Greek Yogurt - Vanilla
Strawberries - fresh and frozen
Blueberries - frozen
Pineapple - fresh and frozen
Vanilla Protein Powder
Flax Seeds

I told the girls we were making smoothies for lunch and they were stoked. This helped a lot with my excitement level too.

I let them make the first batch. I have a great blender that has two spots for separate glasses to blend. This allowed each girl to make their own. (And, later, I could make a small serving too.)

Josie's first concoction - strawberries, bananas, Greek yogurt, coconut water, soy milk and a tiny bit of Truvia. Verdict - delicious. She drank the whole glass!

Tessa's first try - strawberries, Greek yogurt, coconut water, Chocolate Almond milk and Truvia. Verdict - I thought it was awesome. Tessa didn't like it because the strawberries made it too seedy. I see where she would think that. It's just a texture thing.

Up next...

Josie - blueberries, coconut water, Greek yogurt and protein powder. She downed this whole glass too! I save a little of this back for my project at the end.

Tessa - Chocolate Almond Milk, coconut water and Greek yogurt. This tasted like a milk shake. She loved it! Gone!

Third try...

Josie - pineapple (mind you, she didn't think she like pineapple!), Greek yogurt, protein powder and coconut water. I think this tasted like a Dole whip if you've ever had one. Josie loved it too and Tessa tried a little and liked it. Then she spilled hers and didn't seem upset in the least, so not really sure how she felt about it. Josie was pleased she found something new she liked!

Tessa - strawberries, protein powder, coconut water and Greek yogurt. I think she was over it by now, but said it was good. I thought it was really good! I saved the extra out of this too for later.

All in all, it was a success for the girls. For two little ones that don't eat much fruit and would never touch Greek yogurt, I feel like I was able to get lots in their bellies. Plus, the coconut water has a lot of potassium and Vitamin C. It's too bad spinach is so green because there was no way to sneak that in!

As for me, I'll see if I can sum up everything I tried. First, I ground up some flax seeds in the blender. I didn't try to get them totally pureed because my machine isn't powerful enough for that. Then, I added some spinach and coconut water. It was hard to get the spinach pureed without liquid. I added that batch to Tessa's leftovers from her first try (chocolate/strawberry). I was blown away at how yummy it was! If you can get past the awful way it looks, the taste is surprisingly refreshing. (I'm serious - it looked disgusting!)

The next thing I did was some prep work so that I can enjoy these on busy mornings. I mixed the leftovers from Josie's blueberry and Tessa's strawberry (no chocolate). I put these into six muffin cups (another Pinterest find!). Then, I sprinkled flax seed on top. Back to the blender with spinach and coconut water. I added in a banana and some chunky almond butter. I tasted this mixture and probably shouldn't have because it was missing an important ingredient - ice! Eww! But, the taste was just fine. I put this in muffin tins too.

Both sets of smoothies are in the freezer. When they come out, I'll get them out of the cups and put them in a Ziploc to keep in the freezer. My hope is that I'll be able to pop a few in the blender for a quick and healthy breakfast!

And, love Instagram... :)

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Cheese Tortellini Bake

I have been quite busy lately and only had the chance today to cook for my "Freezer Friends" group.  The swap is tomorrow, but my hubby will be standing in for me at the actual swap due to work obligations. I am not usually such a procrastinator, but I am happy to say it is all done and ready to go.  The upcoming week will be a busy one with three nights of parent-teacher conferences.  Then I am lucky enough to depart on a road trip over my spring break back to Colorado.  I am both eager and nervous about this trip, as I think it will be somewhat heart- breaking to return. I think I still miss it too much.  Hopefully you will see one more post form me before I leave.

Needless to say, I needed a quick make-ahead meal for the swap tomorrow.  My category this month was pasta so I chose to do a tortellini bake- pretty quick and easy comparatively speaking. Not much prep needed for this freezer meal.
Here are the ingredients listed for one family's serving:

  • 1/2 pound ground beef or turkey 
  • 1 jar spaghetti sauce
  • 1 can diced tomatoes
  • 1/4 zesty Italian dressing
  • 1 can 10 oz. beef broth
  • 18 oz. cheese-filled tortellini or ravioli
  • 1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
If you plan to make freezer meals, as I did, you will need to multiply the recipe times the number of families you are cooking for.  Therefore, I multiplied this recipe times 8.  Six of these will go the families that I swap with, while the extra 2 are in my freezer for some later time when I need a quick meal. 

Of course shopping for ingredients can be a real saver if you are smart.  If you are a member of Sam's Club or Costco, it can be helpful to buy your ingredients in bulk. However, I find that availability of the ingredients you need can be somewhat hit or miss.  One place I like to shop is Aldi's with the exception of produce (never fresh).  For boxed and canned food, as well as cheese, I can find a REAL deal here when buying for this purpose.  I bought all of the above ingredients (x8) at Aldi's and spent $50.46 total.  At $50.46 divided by eight meals, this comes out to be $6.31 per meal.  Remember, that each meal is enough to feed six people for one night.  For Sam and I, this can easily feed us for two to three nights.  Quite a bargain if you ask me! 

First I browned all the meat in two big pans on the stove.  I added some salt, pepper, Italian seasoning and garlic.  

Next, I let the meat cool and measured out about a 1/2 pound of ground meat into eight Ziplock one-gallon bags.  The next part is the best part. Why?  Because it is SO simple!  Take each bag and pour in the beef broth, Italian dressing, diced tomatoes, jar of spaghetti sauce, and lastly, the tortellini.  

Once the bag is sealed, mix the ingredients together. Lay the bags flat. Here are a couple of the bags of tortellini bake after all ingredients were added and mixed. 

In a separate bag, I included the cooking instructions (also posted on Facebook on our group page) and 1 cup of shredded Mozzarella cheese.  I attached these to the larger bags by stapling them above the seal. 

The directions for reheating are as follows: Thaw. Pour into a 9 x 13 baking dish. Cover with foil. Bake at 375 for 50 minutes or until tortellini are tender. Remove foil. Stir. Sprinkle with cheese. Let stand for five minutes until cheese melts and serve. 

Of course, this does not have to be a make-ahead meal at all. You can simply brown the meat and pour all ingredients directly into a baking dish and cook according the above directions.  Enjoy!