Throw together mascarpone pasta

It's time for another throw-together meal! One of the easiest things you can do when you have some vegetables lying around and need some food quickly is just to cook them and mix them with pasta, and you'll almost always end up with something good. This time around we had spinach and cherry tomatoes. The tomatoes can be roasted in the oven with some balsamic vinaigrette or sauteed until they're soft and bursting, and then the spinach can be mixed in with the hot pasta and tomatoes so that it wilts. We also had some mascarpone cheese on hand that we mixed in for some extra flavor, and with a little pasta water added to the mixture, can create a creamy sauce for everything.

Beer & Cheese Party

It's finally here! The notes on our Beer & Cheese Party! Since my birthday was snowed out in February I really wanted to put some extra effort into our next party which would be celebrating Patrick's birthday! Our birthdays are about two weeks apart. Fortunately Mother Nature minded her manners at the beginning of March and we were able to carry out Beer and Cheese party as planned.

I had a lot of fun planning this and Patrick had a lot of fun picking out the beers! We decided we wanted to present our guests with a taste of NC so all of our beer and cheese were selections from the good ol' state of North Carolina. The cheese monger at our local Whole Foods was simply fabulous. He was actually responsible for the pairings; I told him about the party, what beers we had selected, and said "you can just give me a NC cheese and tell me which beer to pair it with and I'll be a happy customer."

The beers getting chilled in the fridge.

I purchased some brown packaging paper that I used as a table covering. This allowed me to write on the table about the pairings. At one end of the table I wrote a "welcome" note and some tips for tasting. And here's what was on the table:

WELCOME to our Beer & Cheese Pairing Party
“One of the main reasons beer and cheese pair so well together is due to beer’s heady carbonation. The high content of fat in cheese allows it to take over your entire mouth. The carbonation in beer acts as a palate cleanser.”

Tips for tasting
Find a balance - You want to make sure your cheese will not overpower the beer and vice versa.
Take texture into consideration - The texture of different cheeses makes them amenable to particular beers. You don't want to overwhelm your palate with too many bold flavors.
Have fun with flavors - You can pair similar flavors or pair beers and cheeses that contrast in flavor.
Timing your tasting - Typically, the best way to taste your beer and cheese pairings is to start with the lightest beer and work your way up to the heaviest or darkest.

After the welcome portion of the table we placed the beers around the table from lightest to darkest color and intensity. This was so someone's palette wouldn't be overwhelmed with flavor at the very beginning. We encouraged everyone to try the beer and cheese as paired but then make their suggestions for other pairings!

And here are the notes for each beer and cheese pairing.

BEER: “Endless River” Kolsch-Style Ale by Mother Earth Brewing, Kinston
Clean, crisp beer with a slight fruity flavor and aroma. Expect a slight tang in the finish
CHEESE: Hickory Grove by Chapel Hill Creamery Aged cheese; full flavored, natural washed rind Trappist style cheese.

BEER: “Wildflower” Belgian-Style Witbier by Natty Greene’s Brewing Company, Greensboro
Belgian-style witbier with a sweet and tantalizing taste. The flavor is defined by spices, rather than aromatic yeast or hops. Chamomile, coriander, and sweet orange peel are the spices that create its distinctive flavor profile. Crisp, light-bodied brew.
CHEESE: Smoked Farmer Cheese by Chapel Hill Creamery
Fresh cheese; naturally smoked. Smoky and tangy, this cheese is intensely flavored.

BEER: “Bad Penny” Brown Ale by Big Boss Brewing Co, Raleigh
Slightly sweet with a caramel and dark fruit finish. A show case of fine English malts, floor-malted the old way. Big Boss uses pale, chocolate and crystal malts to produce a complex but easy drinking dark ale. Very reminiscent of northern English ales.
CHEESE: Chocolate Lab by Looking Glass Creamery, Fairview
This is a washed ring cheese made from pasteurized Jersey cow's milk in a patterned basket mold. The wheels are washed every other day by hand with a brine solution to develop the classic intensity and pungent flavor of this style of cheese. When ready, the wheels are coated with a mixture of sea salt and crushed cocoa nibs from French Broad Chocolates to impart a rich and rugged finish to the rind.

BEER: “People’s Porter” Porter by Foothills Brewery, Winston-Salem
A robusty English-style brew with a dark, ruby hue. Complex chocolate, caramel and toffee notes give way to an herbal bitterness, finishing with a pleasant hint of espresso.
CHEESE: Gouda by Goat Lady Dairy, Climax
Using traditional Dutch methods the curd is washed and cooked before pressing in a vat under the whey. This gives the cheese a remarkably smooth, creamy texture and sweet buttery flavor. It is aged for 4-8 months or more. As it ripens, it develops brothy and umami notes with a nice caramel finish.

BEER: “Death by Hops” Double IPA by Olde Hickory Brewery, Hickory
This double IPA was hopped with 5 different West Coast hops and was twice dry hopped with different combinations of the hops. The result is an amazing aroma of ripe juicy fruit mixed in with a bouquet of spring flowers. Death By Hops was brewed to a high level of bitterness and therefore leaves a lingering bitterness.
CHEESE: Calvander by Chapel Hill Creamery Aged cheese; inspired by asiago. Aged at least 7 months. During the aging process, the cheese develops a natural rind with a leathery texture. This rind covers an assertive, flakey paste with balanced flavors of butter, herbs, and walnuts with a piquant tang. As it ages, it becomes increasingly spicy and firm.
 Can't have a birthday party for Patrick without some chocolate cupcakes! I followed this Smitten Kitchen recipe for the cupcakes.

We really had a lot of fun celebrating with everyone at our Beer & Cheese Party! If you came to the party and you're reading this, thanks for coming!

Brussels & Pancetta Pizza

We made a pizza! It featured Brussels sprouts and pancetta and it was most definitely a whip-it-up-however-I-want-to pizza. Please have no judgments on the shape of the pizza. We tried a new pizza dough and I was really having trouble with the elasticity of the dough but it tasted good no matter how it looked! Here's what I did:

Saute shallot
Add pancetta
Add sliced Brussels sprouts
Get everything nice and golden with a slight crisp
Get the cheese ready - some grated Parmesan and sliced mozzarella
Assemble the pizza - drizzle some extra virgin olive oil on the pizza
then place half the parmesan and the mozzarella followed by
the pancetta-Brussels mixture and the remaining cheese
Bake the pizza
Eat the pizza with a mixed greens salad

Meal Plan Monday Post

This has been an interesting week for Patrick and myself! We have dubbed April as our month of itchies. We both have some lingering poison ivy issues and, even though Patrick's poison rash is more persistent than mine, I now have some sort of bacterial infection (maybe, turns out I've unknowingly been playing stump the doctor). So we are slowly on the mend (again, maybe) and taking our time in the kitchen with cooking. Don't worry - there's lots of hand washing! Hopefully our itchies are resolved by the end of the week because it will be MAY and only April is the month of itches!!

Meal Plan for Monday April 20 - Sunday April 26

Monday - Eggplant Parmesan, salad

Wednesday - Take and bake pizza, salad 
Thursday - Broccoli cheese soup 
Friday - City Beverage with friends 
Saturday - Breakfast Apple oatmeal pancakes 
   Lunch Chef's salad [Assist from the Harris Teeter salad bar; we had a head of lettuce in the fridge and I picked up toppings during an unorthodox weekend grocery trip]

Sunday - Brunch Quiche with spinach salad 
   Afternoon adventures: Composting class and Patrick's Concert 
   Dinner Crockpot stroganoff

Backyard Snapshot

Kitchen Window View

When Patrick and I were on our house hunt last year one feature on my "would be nice to have" list was the kitchen sink at a window. I've always loved being able to look out the window a kitchen sink. The house I grew up in has a window over the kitchen sink with a nice scenic view and it's just been something I always thought would be nice.

After college none of the houses we rented had kitchen sink windows! Some of those rentals were open concept houses and the sink was faced towards a living area which had its benefits but I wasn't sold on that layout.

Imagine my joy when we toured this house and saw such a picturesque kitchen sink window! I fell in love from that point onward and knew this house was the one! It lets in so much light.

This past week I've had these three newly acquired pottery planters on the sill and put a small glass with some flowers in one. I'm hoping to plant some succulents in the planters soon - always a project!

Patrick comments that our "privacy leaves" are coming back. The view out our window is green and lush during the warm months and I love it! I certainly don't spend a lot of time at the sink with a dishwasher but it's nice to stroll through the kitchen and look out the window or see the birds while we're prepping dinner.

Are you on the kitchen sink bandwagon too?!

Valentine's Manicotti

Alright folks! I promised in my St. Patrick's Day cupcake post the other day that I would be trying to get our Valetine's post up soon and here I am following through on my promise! I present to you today our traditional Valentine's manicotti! If you're new to the blog then allow with me to share our past Valentine meals - 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014. I don't think we ever intentionally set out to make manicotti a traditional Valentine's meal but after we had done it two years in a row I guess we stuck to it!

We do enjoy putting a different spin on the manicotti. The first year we tried a spinach manicotti and then the next three years were a traditional tomato sauce based manicotti, and then last year we did lasagna roll-ups with our homemade pasta. This year we were ready to mix it up again! We decided to do a more authentic manicotti - made with crepes!

We loosely followed this recipe for the authentic manicotti but mainly used it as inspiration.
For the crepes we followed our recipe from Mario Batali we've been using for quite awhile now.
For the filling we mixed together 2 lb ricotta, 1 cup freshly grated Parmesan, salt and pepper, and an Italian seasoning blend. We would put about 1/4 cup of that in the crepe and then some slices of fresh mozzarella.
And for the tomato-meat sauce we used some frozen homemade bolognese sauce.

We served the manicotti with a side salad and then mini tiramisus for dessert!! They were amazing!

1/2 cup of whipping cream
2 tablespoons of sugar
1 teaspoon of vanilla
4 ounces of mascarpone cheese
8 lady fingers
1/3 cup of strong coffee or espresso
1 tablespoon of sugar
1 small chocolate barDirections
To make the cream filling, whip the whipping cream until thickened - about 3 minutes.  Add sugar and vanilla and whip together until stiff.  Incorporate in mascarpone cheese slowly until well combined.  Set aside.
In a small bowl, mix together coffee and sugar.  In two parfait glasses or other sort of individual serving bowls, put two lady fingers in the bottom of each.  Pour 1/4 of the coffee mixture on top of the lady fingers in each glass.  Spoon in 1/4 of mascarpone cheese and whipped cream mixture into each.  Top with two more lady fingers and coffee mixture.  Top with the remaining cream mixture.
To finish, make chocolate shavings with a vegetable peeler on a bar of chocolate.  Refrigerate up to 2 days.

It's Always Caturday
Nacho thought he would be part of the Valentine's decor

Loving Smoothies!

We've mentioned smoothies a few times on the blog before - here and here are a few instances. Just wanted to drop in today with a few thoughts and sharing a new smoothie contraption!

Whenever we make smoothies we layer into the blender yogurt, various fruits, protein powder, sometimes a green leafy vegetable, and then a dairy liquid usually milk these days. My absolute favorite fruit to add to smoothies is pineapple! It adds such a delicate sweetness that I really love so I've been trying to incorporate that more recently. Another recent addition is the green leafy vegetable and that is usually spinach. The past few times we went to Costco we purchased a bag of spinach (and, yes, it's a Costco sized bag of spinach that goes on for days) and the spinach has ended up in the smoothies.

Also when I near the end of the spinach bag I'll blend the raw spinach with a little bit of milk and freeze in our silicone muffin liners to have on hand for the smoothies.

And here are the new smoothie contraptions! I found this set of mason jar lids and straws (slightly different in picture) at Target the other day and we've been able to put our smoothies in mason jars now - trying to cut down on plastic cups!

Irish Coffee Cupcakes

Sharing a St. Patrick's Day dessert today! Pardon the lateness but it's posted within one month of the holiday and I think that's pretty great for this blog. Case and point - Valentine's Day and Patrick's birthday celebration are still in the draft folder! Hopefully those will be up by the end of next week.

Onward to something green! You were probably aware that Earth Day is in April and it's actually tomorrow! So maybe I should say these "green" cupcakes are the perfect Earth Day cupcake! But they're more suited to St. Patrick's Day because they're Irish Coffee Cupcakes and they are so good! The cake is light and fluffy and then there's whipped cream icing to mimic Irish coffee. The recipe calls for dusting with espresso powder but I went with a more festive green sprinkle.

Martha Stewart's Irish Coffee Cupcakes 

For the cupcakes
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup boiling water
2 tablespoons instant-espresso powder
1/4 cup whole milk
1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup packed light-brown sugar
2 large eggs
For the frosting
1 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon whiskey
Instant-espresso powder, for dusting
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon confectioners' sugar

   Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Make the cupcakes: Whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Pour water over espresso powder; let cool. Combine espresso with milk. Beat butter and granulated and brown sugars with a mixer on medium speed until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add eggs, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in flour mixture in 3 additions, alternating with espresso-milk mixture, beginning and ending with flour (batter may look broken).    Fill 15 cups (of two 12-cup muffin tins) three-quarters full. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the centers comes out clean, 20 to 22 minutes. Let cool; turn out cupcakes from tins.
   Make the frosting: Whisk together cream and confectioners' sugar until medium peaks form. Add whiskey; whisk until slightly stiff peaks form.
   Top each cupcake with 2 tablespoons frosting; dust with espresso powder. (or green sprinkles)

Meal Plan Monday Post

We're done with the food challenge - all 14 weeks of them! Our last week was to only eat unprocessed or minimally processed foods (no food products should contain more than five ingredients). Our CSA couldn't have started at a better time because we were able to use the produce straight from the farm. Patrick had friends in town this weekend for Duke's Alumni weekend. We hosted a big brunch Sunday morning before everyone departed and had a great time!

Week 14: Avoid any and all packaged food products that contain more than five ingredients no matter what ingredients.

Meal Plan for Monday April 13 - Sunday April 19
Monday - Pecan chicken, green bean casserole, couscous 

Tuesday Scallops and grits

Wednesday - Pasta with alfredo sauce, sauteed onions, crab, and peas

Thursday Bok choy salad with rotisserie chicken

Friday Roasted garlic salmon with brussels and sweet potato/rutabaga mash

Saturday - Brunch Bagels with cream cheese, jams and lox

   Dinner El Rodeo 

   Dinner Take & Bake Pizza, salad

Challenge Meal Plan Summary: Week 1 Fruits & Veggie | Week 2 Beverages | Week 3 Meat | Week 4 No Fried Foods | Week 5 New Whole Foods | Week 6 Labeling | Week 7 Grains | Week 8 Internal Cues | Week 9 No Refined / Artifical Sweeteners | Week 10 No Refined / Hydrogenated Oils | Week 11 Locally Grown | Week 12 No Added Sweeteners | Week 13 No Artificial Ingredients | Week 14 5 Ingredients or Less

Be on the lookout for a food challenge summary!

Last Lysol Wipe

I have used my last Lysol wipe!

In an effort to green my cleaning and reduce individual disposal waste I will not be repurchasing Lysol disinfecting wipes anymore.

Stay tuned for green cleaning updates!

Pork Braise with Orzo and Arugula

One night Whitney decided we should have something like this Pork Ragu for dinner, but I was in charge of the prep. Feeling somewhat lazy that night, I was annoyed that the recipe would have us cook such a small amount of vegetables in a skillet and transfer them along with a small amount of pork (since we halved the recipe) into a slow cooker, and getting both of them dirty in the process. With that attitude I looked up how to slow cook in a dutch oven so I could just saute the veggies in it and then throw the pork in and put the whole thing in the oven. I ended up putting the dutch oven in a 325 degree oven for 2-3 hours, and the meat came out perfectly while I saved myself a little bit of dish-washing.

Other than the cooking technique I think we followed the recipe pretty closely. We used orzo for the pasta and some full-grown arugula from a produce box we had. This was one of the better pork preparations we've done (I really prefer the tenderness from slow cooking) and look forward to having it again.

Pork Rag├╣ with Broken Lasagne from Sara Moulton

Serves 6 to 8: Makes 12 cups meat and sauce
4 pounds bone in pork shoulder
Salt and freshly ground pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium white onion, peeled and cut into large pieces
1 rib celery, cut into large pieces
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
4 cups Chicken Broth
3 sprigs fresh thyme
1 pound dried pasta, such as broken lasagne
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 cups trimmed baby arugula
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Using a sharp knife, remove the thick skin from the pork, leaving a small amount of fat on top of the meat. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Place the pork in a large slow cooker.
In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onion, celery and fennel seeds.
Cook until the vegetables are softened, about 10 minutes. Add the broth and thyme and bring it to a simmer.
Add the contents of the skillet to the slow cooker. The meat should be almost covered by the liquid. If not, add some water.
Cover and cook on low until the meat just begins to pull away from the bone, and a small sharp knife inserted in the meat comes out easily, 8 to 10 hours.
For the dutch oven method I mentioned, cook the veggies in a slow cooker, then add the pork, cover, and put in a 325 degree oven for 2-3 hours.
Place the meat on a cutting board. With two forks, tear the meat into bite size pieces and discard the bones. Place the meat in a bowl.
Strain the cooking liquid into another bowl. Skim off the excess fat. Discard the solids.
Pour enough of the liquid over the pork to cover the meat. (Use the remainder for soup or stews.) When ready to serve, reheat the pork in its liquid in a large pot. Simmer until the liquid is slightly reduced.
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to boiling over high heat.
Add the pasta and salt to taste. Cook, stirring often, until the pasta is tender yet firm to the bite. Drain well.
Add the pasta to the pot with the meat. Add the butter and cheese and stir well. Stir in the arugula. Serve immediately.

Snacks - How we eat grapes

Today I wanted to share one way Patrick and I have improved our snacking habits. Our food challenge has really made us focus on whole foods and incorporating more fruits and vegetables is one thing we've been doing well. Now I try to always buy more fruit when I'm at the grocery store for us to have on hand for snacks - bananas, pears, and apples work really well for us. I'll also try to snag a few navel oranges to have with breakfast.

One fruit we like but requires a bit of legwork are grapes. Patrick and I both enjoy grapes but if I buy a bag of grapes and stash them in the fridge chances are we may end up with some raisins. womp womp

I really wanted to change that habit! So now when I buy grapes - as soon as I bring them home I wash them and then section them off into 2 cup containers. This is the perfect serving and great for either one of us to grab in the morning!

Grapes for the win!

Do you have any tips or tricks up your sleeve you use to make sure you have healthy snacks available?