My Quinoa Salad Recipe that won NatureSweet Tomato 2013 Chef Challenge!

"A true champion can adapt to anything."
Floyd Mayweather Jr.

Roasted Vegetable & Quinoa Salad with Balsamic Glazed Shrimp

4 cups cooked Quinoa
1 pint NatureSweet Glorys Cherry Tomatoes halved
1 small red onion diced
1 small zucchini chopped
2 small yellow peppers chopped
3 cloves garlic
1/4 cup fresh basil chopped
1/4 cup fresh parsley chopped
1/4 cup scallions chopped
1 cup balsamic divided
1 cup + 2 tbs Extra Virgin Olive Oil
2 dozen medium sized Shrimp cleaned & deveined
1 cup asparagus chopped
salt & pepper to taste

Cook your quinoa ahead of time so that it is room temperature when you mix your salad together.

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.  

On a baking sheet mix your tomatoes, onions, zucchini, peppers, 2 cloves of minced garlic, 2 tbs olive oil and a generous sprinkle of salt & pepper.  Roast in the oven for up to an hour, until tender.

While the vegetables are roasting prepare your vinaigrette.  Mix together the rest of your olive oil, 1/3 cup of balsamic vinegar, basil, parsley, scallions, 1 garlic clove minced, and a large pinch of salt & pepper.  Mix well and set aside.  Reduce the remaining balsamic by half in a sauce pan on medium heat until it is thick and syrupy.  Set aside to use for the shrimp marinade, but save 1-2 tbs to garnish the plate.

Season your shrimp with salt & pepper in a plastic bag, and use the rest of the reduced balsamic to marinade your shrimp for about 10-15 minutes.  Skewer your shrimp and pan sear for 2 minutes on each side until cooked through.  Set aside.  Use the same pan you used for the shrimp to saute the asparagus in the leftover juices for about 2-4 minutes, making sure not to overcook.  If needed, add a small glug of olive oil to ensure the asparagus won't stick.  When the asparagus is cooked through, but still al dente, set aside.

When your vegetables are done roasting, combine them in a bowl with the cooked quinoa and your vinaigrette.  Taste and adjust seasoning by adding salt & pepper if needed.  If you want to make your presentation fancier, form into a small bowl, flip onto a plate carefully, and remove the form.  Top with the asparagus, arrange shrimp, drizzle with the reduced balsamic you set aside and garnish with chopped herbs.

Tuscan Kale & Chicken Soup with Orzo

"Soup is a lot like a family.  Each ingredient enhances the others; each batch has its own characteristics; and it needs time to simmer to reach full flavor."
Marge Kennedy

Nothing warms the soul like a steaming bowl of soup on a chilly Autumn or Winter day.  This soup can be made entirely from scratch, if you prefer, but I wrote this recipe for those of us on the move looking for an easy way to make a belly warming meal for our family.  I love making soups when the weather starts to turn, because there is an endless list of possibilities to choose from depending on what leftovers I have in fridge & a slew of great pantry items I like to keep on hand.  I find that most home cooks have homemade chicken stock in the freezer or a few boxes in the pantry, so soup is an easy choice if you're looking to keep things simple.  How many times have you wondered what to do with those leftover chicken breasts from dinner the night before, and if you don't have any on hand there's no shame in grabbing a rotisserie chicken from your local grocer.  Vegetarians can easily make this soup as well by eliminating the chicken, using a great vegetable stock and adding more veggies.  Also, whenever I make soup I always prepare my pasta separately for a couple of reasons: 1. You don't end up with overcooked soggy noodles & 2. The pasta tends to absorb a lot of broth, so storing the soup and the pasta separately helps you retain the most broth.  If you don't like or have kale on hand, any leafy green such as spinach, escarole or Swiss chard can be used to give your soup a healthy kick.  Growing up in an Italian household, topping your soup with grated Parmesan was the icing on the cake!  A nice piece of crusty bread or even a good grilled cheese to boot, make this a meal any of us would find hard to resist.

Tuscan Kale & Chicken Soup with Orzo

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 stalks celery, chopped
2 carrots, peeled & chopped
1 large onion diced
1/4 cup chopped parsley
8 cups chicken stock or broth
1 bunch Tuscan kale, stems removed & chopped
2 rotisserie chicken breasts, skin removed & shredded 
1 cup cooked orzo
salt & pepper taste
grated Parmesan for garnish

Heat olive oil in a large stock pot on medium high heat.  Saute celery, carrots and onions with a pinch of salt and cook for 3-5 minutes until tender.  Add chopped parsley and saute for an additional minute.  Add chicken stock to pot and bring to a boil.  Once boiling reduce to a simmer and cook for 15 minutes.  Add kale and cook for 2 minutes until it begins to wilt.  Add shredded chicken breasts and cook for an additional 10 minutes.  Add salt & pepper to taste. Add orzo to soup, ladle into serving bowl and top with grated Parmesan.       

Healthy Pasta Recipe! Whole Wheat Penne with Spinach & Parmesan Cheese

"A healthy attitude is contagious, but don't wait to catch it from a carrier."
Tom Stoppard

In today's ever changing world, sometimes it feels like we never know if we are coming or going.  Constantly thinking of our next meal, meeting or manicure.  Rather than get bogged down, I find it's best to slow down and find ways to keep a healthy attitude about it all.  Eating right, being active, smelling the roses...these are all things each of us can do to feel our best and set great examples for others to do so too.  I think these types of conscious efforts encourage oneself to get in the now and be more conscious about everyday choices we seem to sometimes breeze over, like hitting a drive thru or local sandwich shop over trying to come up with an effective meal plan on that day you didn't defrost anything.  In fact, I believe setting time aside to do these things are like adding fuel to your inner you the energy you need to be a better Employee, Spouse, Parent, or Friend.

For me it comes down to simplicity, so rather than look at certain tasks I used to find daunting, I found ways to enjoy them.  For instance, waking up an extra hour early to really enjoy that first cup of coffee in the sun before work...flipping through magazines and folding pages down for potential future projects I'm interested in giving the girl scout try, and not setting a time limit on myself on when to do them...or cooking meals on Sunday for my husband and I to eat throughout the week.  Allowing myself these enjoyments I find gives me the energy on a hap hazardous week night to whip up a wonderful meal I can still be proud of serving my family.   How does one do this???
Well it's simple, I choose to day dream and enjoy cooking like a ballerina while in the midst of dance...

So when the day has made me feel weary, I just drift off and many times while I stir a big pot filled with boiling pasta or spaghetti sauce, I recall my lovely Nonni and the dainty way she used to hold her spoon as she would cook.  I can still remember the way I longingly admired her and the anticipation I felt for the meal to be 'finito' so we could eat!  My brother and I loved sneaking into the kitchen to steal corners of crusty bread and dip it into the boiling hot marinara that had been bubbling away on the stove all day.  These are the images I think about while I'm throwing together my meal.  

Now being the Italian girl that I am...I always have room for Rigatoni, but as the days of white flour overloading have come and have my twenties...I always try to find ways to indulge my pasta addiction without the guilt.  Adding vegetables, fiber and flavor are the best ways I find to give my body a head start in digesting these delicious Italian indulgences.  This pasta dish I am going to share with you is absolutely delicious, super simple, 7 ingredients and from start to finish took me less than 15 minutes to create.  Perfect Pasta in a Pinch!  ENJOY!

Whole Wheat Penne with Spinach & Parmesan Cheese

1/2 Lb Whole Wheat Penne
1 TBS Olive Oil
2 Cups Baby Spinach
1 Clove of Garlic
1/4 Cup Parmesan Cheese
Crushed Red Pepper Flakes
Salt to taste
Pasta Water

Start by boiling your whole wheat penne to al dente.  Before draining reserve a cup of pasta water, you will not necessarily need all of it, but always take a bit more just in case I say.  

After you have drained you penne set it aside in the colander while you make your quick sauce.  I use the same Pasta pot, and begin to heat up the olive oil on medium heat.  When the oil is ready, crush a clove of garlic with the back of your knife and add it to the oil.  Let the garlic clove mingle with the oil & sizzle a bit for about a minute.

At this point add the chili flakes and penne into the pot, and stir well to finish cooking your penne in the hot oil. After about a minute add a 1/4 -1/2 cup pasta water to help create a sauce, continue to cook for another minute until the pasta is done and everything is well combined.  Turn off the heat when the pasta is done and well coated with the sauce.  Add in the Cheese, Baby Spinach and any other seasonings you may like and mix very well.  If the pasta seems dry-add more pasta water, if it's too watery-continue to cook it down a bit longer.  Do note that your sauce will thicken upon standing as well.  And that's it!  Serve with a salad and you're good to go any day of the week!  Feel free to share any links to other healthy & quick week night recipes you love to make throughout the week in the comments section below.


Breakfast Sandwich Bliss

As I get older I seem to have an internal clock that refuses to let me sleep past dawn...this year 4:59 seems to be the repetitive alarm that goes off.  This morning when I woke up, rather than snuggle in with my husband for an extra hour or 2, I decided to wander into the kitchen to do what I love to do most on these mornings I am up far earlier than I need to be...COOK!

Since it's Lent, my husband and I do not eat meat on Fridays.  He isn't the most adventurous breakfast eater, so to ensure that he gets a healthy breakfast in him I like to make him his new favorite find...Egg White Sandwiches.  Today I threw together what we had in the fridge....

Organic Roma Tomatoes
Farm Fresh Egg Whites
Boar's Head Horseradish Cheddar 
Cholula Hot Sauce
Seedy Rye 

Here's a picture!  What are your favorite ingredients to have in a breakfast sandwich?

Mascarpone Mashed Potatoes will make you want to melt.

This year for Christmas I made the most delicious braised short ribs, and what better to sit beneath my savory delicious red wine braised beef than a sea of creamy mashed potatoes?  The addition of Mascarpone Cheese was a last minute idea I am so glad we splurged for.  These potatoes are practically perfect and a divine side dish for just about anything, do try them!

Mascarpone Mashed Potatoes

8 large russet potatoes peeled & chopped into larger chunks
1 large container of Mascarpone cheese
1 cup half & half
1/2 cup milk
2 sticks of unsalted butter
salt & pepper to taste

Fill a large pot with the chopped potatoes, cold water and a good amount of sea salt.  Bring to a boil & cook the potatoes until they are fork tender.  In a separate pot warm the milk as well as the half & half and 1 stick of butter.

When the potatoes are done drain well and put back into the pot with the warm milk & butter mixture.  Smash with a potato masher to get the potatoes going and add in a bit of salt & pepper after tasting a potato for seasoning.  Add in the mascarpone cheese and using a hand mixer blend together on low slowly adding the last stick of butter a few Tbs at a time until everything is mixed well & creamy, do not over mix.

Keep warm in a double boiler until ready to serve & add a bit more milk if they seem thick and need a bit more moisture.  These potatoes are absolutely delicious, but please feel free to share a link to your favorite mashed potato recipe!

Comforting & Classic Christmas Feast with Burgundy Braised Short Ribs

This year for Christmas I wanted to make something that was special, comforting and new to our family dinner table.  As we pondered the many Holiday dishes, a great one came to mind!  Braised Short Ribs in a sea of red wine kissed sauce was the perfect offered ease of operation with a low & slow cooking time, which resulted in a much less stressful kitchen for Christmas.  And really, what's more indulgent than short was a truly fabulous meal and made for even better leftovers.  

These Burgundy Braised Short Ribs go so well with the Mascarpone Mashed Potatoes I'll be posting later today...until then, savor this dish! Happy Holidays & Best Wishes for the New Year!

Burgundy Braised Short Ribs 

1 Bottle of Burgundy
5 Lbs boneless short ribs

2 large yellow onions
6 large carrots
6 ribs celery
10 cloves of garlic
1 small can tomato paste
2 large cans peeled plum San Marzano tomatoes
2 cups beef broth
3 bay leaves
5 stems rosemary
5 stems thyme
salt & pepper
olive oil

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a food processor puree half your carrots, onions, celery and garlic until fine.  Chop the rest of your vegetables into large chunks on the bias and leave the rest of your garlic cloves whole.  

Season your short ribs with salt & pepper and heat up a large saute pan.  Melt a few tablespoons of butter & olive oil, then begin browning your short ribs on all sides.  Once they are nice and brown, remove the short ribs and set aside.  

Add a little more olive oil to your pan and begin sauteing your pureed vegetable mixture while lovingly scraping the brown bits left from your short ribs.  Be sure to season with salt & pepper as you go.  After 3-5 minutes add the larger chopped vegetables & garlic cloves to the pan and saute for another 2-3 minutes.  If the pan seems a bit dry, you can always add more butter or olive oil.    

After your vegetables have all mingled taste one and check the seasoning.  Next add in the tomato paste and saute until the color begins to darken, about 2-3 minutes on Medium - Medium High heat.  You're just cooking out the acidic tomato flavor & allowing the sugars in the paste to caramelize a bit, the tomato paste is going to thicken your sauce.  Next turn up the heat & de-glaze the pan with the bottle of burgundy adding it slowly.

While the wine cooks down and simmers a bit, tear your tomatoes up into large rustic pieces, or you can course chop them in a food processor.  Once they're bite size, toss with their juice into the pot along with the rest of the herbs, bay leaves, and anything else you'd like to add at this point to your short ribs sauce.  

In a large roasting pan or dutch oven, nestle your short ribs & pour the hot red wine & vegetable sauce over the ribs.  Cover with aluminum foil and toss in your oven for at least 3-4 hours until the meat is tender & pulls apart nicely.  Stir every 30-45 minutes, turn your ribs half way through and uncover for the last hour so the sauce browns & thickens.  So delicious and pretty hard to screw up once you get the hang of it, enjoy!

Chocolate Cupcakes, Peanut Butter Buttercream and a goal.

"Make a list of important things to do today. At the top of your list, put "eat chocolate." Now, you'll get at least one thing done today." - Gina Hayes

In an effort to out do myself this Holiday Season...I went on a mission directly to the baking aisle last Sunday and grabbed anything & everything I could possibly need to create any Christmas treat my little heart desired.  Chocolate Chips, Peanut Butter, Chocolate Bars, Nuts, Sugars, Sprinkles, Syrups, Oils, Butters....and of course cream.  After endless baking options were imagined, I arrived at my goal....the final destination...these cupcakes.  

Chocolate Cupcakes with Peanut Butter Buttercream & Bittersweet Chocolate Drizzle

Chocolate Cupcakes
2 C flour
1 C cocoa powder
2 sticks of butter
2 eggs
1 C brown sugar
2/3 C sugar
1/2 C milk
1/2 C heavy cream
1/2 C Greek yogurt
2 Tbs vanilla
2 Tbs rum
2 Tbs instant espresso
2 tsp baking soda
   1/2 tsp salt            

This recipe will make approximately 24 standard cupcakes.  Start by preheating your oven to 350 degrees, line your pans with cupcake cups, and as a little trick ->> I like to spray my muffin cups with nonstick coating to ensure the cupcakes slip right out. (Just use a misto with a flavorless oil like canola, or pick up a baking non stick spray...some even have flour in the mix!)                          

Sift together your dry ingredients: Flour, cocoa powder, instant espresso, baking soda, salt.  Set aside & begin making the rest of your batter.

Start the wet  part of your mixture by creaming room temperature butter, brown sugar & white sugar on high speed for 3-5 minutes until the mixture comes together & looks fluffy.  Lower your speed and incorporate the eggs one at a time until combined, then in this order slowly add one at a time your vanilla, rum, Greek yogurt, milk and cream...allow for a few seconds in between additions, this will keep your batter light & airy.

Slowly fold your dry ingredients into the wet batter in several small batches.  Stir as little as possible & only mix until the batter is just blended.  Your cupcake batter should be thick, airy and not look like it's well long as the flour is incorporated, don't worry about it...the less you mix it, the better the cupcake! 

Distribute evenly filling the muffin cups 2/3 of the way and bake for approximately 20-25 minutes.  Test them around 18 minutes with a toothpick to ensure you do not overbake them.  While they cool you can start on your icing.  Allow them to cool completely before icing them or the frosting won't stand up tall like these pictures!!                                                                   

Peanut Butter Buttercream
3 C confectioners sugar
2 1/2 C creamy peanut butter
1 1/2 sticks of butter
3/4 C heavy cream
2 tsp rum
2 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp salt

Chocolate Drizzle
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate
1 Tbs canola oil

For the buttercream start with room temperature butter and blend it with the peanut butter and powdered sugar.  Then mix in the vanilla, rum and salt and cream until you have a thick frosting.  If frosting seems a little runny just set it in the fridge for a few minutes and let it firm up, this will make it easier to pipe onto the cupcakes.  

Wait until the cupcakes are cool & the frosting is made to prepare the chocolate sauce.  Set up a double boiler and melt the chocolate.  Once it's is melted, add in the oil and stir well.  Once it's shiny & ready, set frost your cupcakes.  

I pipe my frosting onto the cupcakes using a disposable plastic freezer bag.  Just fill the bag with frosting, push it all to one end and slice a bottom corner of the bag about 1/2 inch up.  Pipe a big swirl and pull upwards.  Once all your cupcakes have big beautiful mounds of frosting, put them on a baking sheet close together & drizzle with the chocolate sauce.  

You can keep them in the fridge until you're ready to serve them, this will keep the peanut butter icing from getting to soft.  Just be sure to take them out about an hour before eating...they taste best at room temperature!

You can eat them with a fork...but I prefer to dive right in! Happy Holidays everyone, hope you try this recipe out, they're worth every calorie!