kid-friendly · Recipes

Classic Baked Ziti

I dread the onset of winter with its cold, dark, depressing ways, and anyone with little kids can tell you the havoc daylight saving time wreaks on family sleep schedules. We had an oddly warm fall here in New England; it was 70 degrees out Monday, when I started writing this, and as nice as that felt, I’m ready for the casseroles to start showing up again — even if Mother Nature isn’t. I’ve also been ready to dig into hibernation food for months now!

In that spirit, I’ve made this wonderfully simple Baked Ziti a lot this fall, including for potlucks, Sunday dinner, and for friends with new babies.

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This makes the perfect dish for visiting a newborn: it is comforting, filling, and reheats very easily, and can be eaten with one hand while holding a baby. It can also be frozen if your friends don’t have room to eat it right away. As a bonus, little kids like it, too, which is always an implicit goal of any recipe I post! Georgia simply gobbles this up, and it’s one of Mark’s, favorites, too. Win-win.

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This recipe was inspired by Smitten Kitchen with a few adaptations to make it my own.

Cook time: 30 minutes    Serves: 4-6

Classic Baked Ziti

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 pound ziti, cooked al dente
  • 1 pound ground beef
  • olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 tsp dried oregano or Italian seasoning (I like Wildtree)
  • 28-ounce can of crushed tomatoes
  • a few handfuls of baby spinach
  • 1 cup mozzarella, grated
  • 2/3 cup finely grated pecorino (or parmesan) cheese
  • fresh basil slivers
  • optional: red pepper flakes

DIRECTIONS

To start, preheat your oven to 400 F.

Heat a pot of salted water to boil and cook the pasta very al dente, or at least 2 minutes less than the normal cooking time stated on the box. Drain the pasta, reserving half a cup of the cooking water.

Heat a large skillet over  medium and add a swirl of olive oil until warm, then add the meat alongside the onion, garlic, seasonings and a healthy dose of salt and pepper over medium-hihg for up to 8 minutes, or until the beef is browned, stirring often.

Add the crushed tomatoes and stir to combine, then reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for five minutes. Add in the reserved pasta water and then the spinach, cooking until milted (maybe another minute or two). Here, I like to add in some fresh basil, slivered, and maybe a couple fresh tomatoes from my garden if I need to use them up.

Stir in the drained pasta and mix together. Pour half into a 9×13 glass baking dish or lasagna pan, and sprinkle with half the two cheeses; repeat with another half of the pasta then top with the remaining cheese.

Bake in the heated oven for 30 minutes or until nice and crispy and browned on the edges. You can even run the dish under the broiler for a minute if you’d like it extra crispy! Enjoy warm.

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NOTES:

  • You can also use Italian sausage, casings removed, if you prefer the taste.
  • To cook al dente, shave 2 minutes off the cook time stated on the package of pasta. Taking care not to overcook is essential for this not turning mushy!
  • Seasoning the ground beef well with salt and pepper is essential; it’s less important if you opt for Italian sausage.
  • I like to serve this with more slivers of fresh basil and, if you have it, fresh ricotta. But that’s totally optional!
  • I have never tried this week meat substitutes, but it’s certainly possible. Other good substitutions to make it vegetarian would be mushrooms, beans, or lentils.

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Stay tuned for my first holiday shopping guides soon, and some inspiration for Thanksgiving dinner! I’m so excited Christmas is right around the corner. I basically live for the holidays once Halloween is over every year 🙂 Have a lovely, cozy weekend.

kid-friendly · Recipes · Tips and Tricks

Maple-Dijon Pork Chops with Chunky Apple Topping

This dish has become a fall tradition in our house. Every October we plan a date to go apple picking as a family, usually the first weekend Mark gets off after closing his first show of the season; then, with our bounty overflowing, we get started making apple crisp and this delicious dinner that tops succulent brined pork chops with a maple-dijon glaze and a chunky apple cider sauce. It’s something we all look forward to when the air turns chilly! I made this for the first time this year just last night, and I’m looking forward to baking a sweet apple crisp this weekend, too. I can’t wait to share that with you!

These pictures are actually from the last time I made a large quantity of this for a dinner party a couple years ago (hence the Johnny’s Foodmaster packaging, for a store that doesn’t exist anymore in the Boston area!) Also pictured are some garlic-chive mashed potatoes (click here for my basic mashed potato recipe) and my balsamic roasted green beans, which is my go-to way of baking green beans in the oven so the whole family will eat them. Although there are lots of steps pictured, I actually managed this just fine on a weeknight yesterday. I threw the chops into a freezer-size bag to brine them before work with some poultry seasoning (sage, thyme and rosemary) — see brining instructions below — and then when I got home, I just set the water on to boil for the potatoes, tossed the green beans into the oven to cook, set up the apple topping on a back burner, and cooked the pork chops in the last 7 minutes while I mashed the cooked potatoes. It wasn’t hard at all!!

HOW TO BRINE

Brining, or submerging meat in salt water for tenderizing and flavor, can be done overnight or during the workday so your meat is ready to be cooked when you get home in the evening. As I wrote about in this post for Citrus Pork, brining is a simple technique that does a great job of preventing dense cuts of meat (like pork chops!) from drying out while cooking. Yesterday I just threw the chops into a double-bagged freezer Ziploc with enough water to cover them, and eyeballed the salt and herbs. In general, you want to aim for a ratio of 1 TBSP of salt for every 1 CUP of water; as long as you make sure to cover the meat completely with water and rinse them off well when you are done brining, it’s pretty hard to mess this up. You also want to use flavorings such as onions, herbs, or aromatics like ginger, lemon peel, cinnamon sticks, sugar or garlic in your brining bag. If you are hoping to brine a holiday bird, like a large turkey, or a roast, definitely make sure you give it overnight to soak. Want a more in depth guide by cut of meat? This article is a good place to start.

Recipe: Maple Dijon Pork Chops with Chunky Apple Topping

INGREDIENTS

  • 4 apples, cored and chopped
  • 1 CUP apple cider
  • 3 TBSP brown sugar
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 3-4 pork chops (or more for a crowd)
  • If brining: salt, water & herbs (I used a fresh poultry seasoning mix from the grocery store)
  • 1/4 cup maple syrup
  • 2 TBSP Dijon or spicy brown mustard (I used the latter)
  • olive oil for the pan

DIRECTIONS

If you are making the green beans and/or mashed potatoes, set those up to boil and bake in the oven first, then turn your attention to making the apple sauce and finally to cooking the pork chops in a frying pan. If you boil the water then prep all your other ingredients, your potatoes will be done cooking around the same time as your apple topping and your green beans, meaning you can set those aside in a warm place and cook the chops while mashing the potatoes.

If you’ve brined the pork chops, make sure to rinse them well and discard any seasonings that brined with them.

To make the apple topping, cook the apples in a medium sauce pan with the cider and brown sugar and cinnamon over medium/high heat until tender, about 15 minutes, then set aside.

(I’ve listed out the step-by-step for both the green bean side and the potatoes below).

To make the pork chops, heat some olive oil in a pan over medium-high heat and add the chops, seasoning with a little pepper. Cook until browned, about 5 minutes per side. Then, stir the maple syrup and mustard into the pan, tossing to coat.

Top the pork chops with the chunky apple sauce and serve alongside the mashed potatoes and green beans or sides of your choice. And enjoy!

Here’s a quick recap of the green bean recipe if you don’t want to click over to my full post about it. I bought a pre-rinsed bag of cut green beans (16 oz) and added half of a sliced onion in a foil-lined baking sheet. Drizzle with olive oil, salt and pepper, and add in a bunch of whole garlic cloves — I usually do between 6 and 10, peeled of course. Roast in the oven at 350F until browned pretty well, about 30 minutes; you want the onions to be starting to caramelize. You can also do 400F for 20 minutes, but I was timing it to be ready alongside the pork chops and potatoes here. Set aside and while still warm add a few drops of balsamic to the finished beans, tossing to coat (a little goes a long way). Serve warm.

For the mashed potato recipe you see here, I used half a bag of red potatoes (~1 pound) plus 1 stick of butter, about a half cup of milk (any kind; I used almond) and a hefty dollop of sour cream (a bit of cream cheese would also work), adding a generous sprinkling of salt to taste. I boil the potatoes, chopped in half, until fork-tender, then drain them, add them back into the stockpot and mash them by hand (skin still on) with all the ingredients mentioned above. So creamy and delicious!

I hope you enjoy this one. Stay tuned for a recap of our apple picking trip, some pictures from my recent travel to Detroit (where the food scene is bustling if you know where to look), and that apple crisp recipe I mentioned. The best part of fall is definitely the food if you ask me!

Holidays · kid-friendly · Recipes

Caramel Apple Dip (EASY!)

A few weeks ago, we went to the 1st birthday party of a close high school friend’s baby girl. Her mom had made the most delicious dip for sliced apples, and adults and kids alike were gobbling it up. When I asked her for the recipe (as Georgia kept digging into it!), she said it had just three ingredients that sound gross when you list them out separately, but tasted perfect when combined together. They are cream cheese, caramel sauce and granola. Weird, right?

But just like she said, it comes together magically. Thanks, Judi!

I love how fast this is to make, and how easy it is to find these ingredients. It tastes like a caramel apple that you’d buy at the orchard after a full day of apple picking! And the best part is that, for $10 in ingredients, you can feed a gigantic crowd of people, because a little bit of this goes a LONG way when served alongside fruit and crackers. I had friends over Monday night and made it, and six of us polished off half the pan; my co-workers took care of the rest when I brought it to work today!.


You can buy any brand of cream cheese, granola or caramel sauce. I picked up Trader Joe’s cream cheese and caramel and Bear Naked granola at the Roche Bros. downtown because TJ’s didn’t have any normal flavors of granola left. This can easily be made with a nut-free or gluten-free version if you so desire.

Caramel Apple Dip

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 container whipped plain cream cheese (full or low fat, your preference)
  • 1 jar of caramel dip (such as T. Marzetti) or sauce, like you’d find near the ice cream cones and toppings
  • about two cups of granola, any flavor you like
  • sliced apples and/or simple crackers to eat alongside

DIRECTIONS

In a pie plate or large bowl, layer the whipped cream cheese, caramel sauce (softening for 1 minute in the microwave if necessary) and granola evenly and serve at room temperature with sliced apples, cut large enough to scoop out the dip. Enjoy with a dozen friends!

This pairs especially well with cheese on an appetizer spread. Just like that slightly odd New England tradition of eating slices of cheddar with apple pie, right? What I especially like about this is how it doesn’t melt, congeal, separate, or otherwise morph into something inedible or gross-looking when left out at a party for a couple hours. You can also make it a day ahead, refrigerate, and it’s ready to go as soon as you are.

See our recent apple picking adventures here, and stay tuned for an apple crisp recipe coming soon. And for another easy fall recipe, be sure to check out my brown sugar kielbasa in the slow cooker! It’s perfect for Sundays spent watching the game with family and friends.

I’m signing off to get those darn wisdom teeth out tomorrow, so wish me luck and I’ll be back soon! XOXO

kid-friendly · Tips and Tricks

Apple Picking at Shelburne Farm

Happy Fall in New England! While I promise a few apple-centric recipes soon, for now I’m just going to share photos from our recent family trip to Shelburne Farm in Stow this past weekend.

We picked macouns, empires, mackintosh, cortlands and red delicious, and I’ve got lots of plans for them! This past Sunday was exactly the one and only day all three of us were free for a fall family activity, so we went all out and took a hay ride (or as Georgia called it “the hay choo-choo”), ate cinnamon donuts and drank mulled cider, sat in the pumpkin patch, and visited the petting zoo with Llamas, Alpacas, Donkeys, Sheep and Goats. (As we were leaving, Georgia kept waving “bye bye, animals! I love you!”)  
All in all it was a fun day, and last winter produced such a great crop of fruit this year that there’s plenty of time to get out there and get picking if you haven’t already!

  
If you do go to Shelburne, here are my tips. Get there before 11 a.m. or expect a mob; know that there are only porta-potties; plan on having some of their food for lunch, since they have an outdoor snack stand with picnic tables and a live band for entertainment; and bring extra cash for the pony rides, hay ride and corn maze. Oddly, there were a ton of people “tailgating” in the parking lot when we got there and when we were leaving, which I did not realize was a thing. (Have you done that? If so, explain! We didn’t get it).


The cowboy boots go everywhere. We found it to be noticeably cooler out west as compared to the city, so layers is probably a good idea. I love that there’s no admission fee here and a peck of apples (10 pounds) — more than enough for a small family to eat and bake with — costs just $20, with a full bushel only $28. Another farm we loved to visit last year, Lookout Farm, is right in the town where Mark and I grew up, and it’s another awesome choice for families, although much more expensive at $15 per person just for admission (and only kids under two are free!) They also have animals to pet, food, a playground area, and an adorable train that takes you to each part of the orchard. It was a great choice for a 14-month old who couldn’t really walk up and down the rows of trees just yet!

It also pays to have a really tall person in your apple-picking gang.



The refrain of the day was definitely Georgia’s new catch phrase: “My do it MYSELF!”

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Have a wonderful remainder of the week everyone, and stay tuned for two new apple recipes next week!

News · Tips and Tricks

Digest It: Food News for Fall

OK, so pumpkin stuff is everywhere, the temperatures are dipping below 60, Mr. Autumn Man is popping up on the Onion, and blah blah blah. Over in my house, we are in denial. Just say no to boots and tights! And people with jackets? Don’t even get me started!! Here’s where my brain’s at:


In that vein, I’m going deeper into denial by fixating on very summery recipes, food trends and news tidbits these days. A few things I’m finding helpful in pretending winter isn’t coming:

Shape Magazine’s Annual snack awards. So helpful in evaluating junk vs. worthwhile tidbits for in-between-mealtime eating. The best part is that they are categorized according to what you’re craving, from crunchy to creamy and sweet to savory. (Is anybody else craving ice cream with pretzels after reading that?) Some of my favorites from the list are Wholly Gaucamole’s travel packs, Blue Diamond’s Sriracha Almonds, Chobani’s Salted Caramel Crunch yogurt and Whole Foods Tropical Greens popsicles. Doesn’t that say summer? Or at least vacation?

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In a tropical vein, I am always looking for a good mock Orange Julius recipe. Darn it if I don’t love those things, junk that they are! It’s like I’m right back at the mall doing back-to-school shopping in 1992. Find the recipe here.

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And this is super summer-y, but have you ever found yourself with so much extra cucumber from your garden that you can’t possibly hope to find a new way to eat it? Enter the trend over-taking New York, the “Smashed Cucumber Salad.” I haven’t had a chance to try it yet, but it’s supposed to be a game-changer.

I’ve always loved House Beautiful Magazine, and this piece really hit home. I have the smallest refrigerator of all time — smaller even than my college apartments — and am always, ALWAYS looking for tips to make better use of it. I can’t even fit a gallon of milk on the top shelf, that’s how tiny it is! This list is pretty good, in particular this binder clip tip below. Great for freezing a bunch of those warm-weather fruits that just won’t taste the same when they’re out of season come winter.

Last but not least, if you live in Massachusetts, I have two fun things for you to consider! 

The first is a Pop-Up “Urban Apple Orchard” at the Ritz Carlton in Boston, starting this weekend and continuing at the hotel every weekend up to Halloween. They will be serving caramel apples, spiced cider, mini pastries and locally-picked apples by the full and half dozen, with proceeds benefiting The Food Project. Georgia and I agree: plentiful apples, and more specifically going apple picking, is one of the only worthwhile things about the weather turning colder. Also, making apple crisp, which is on our agenda for next month for sure.

And last but not least, if you’ve ever wanted a vanity or charity plate for your car but no cause really spoke to you, or you simply never got around to it, here’s your chance to get in at the first stage of a new licence plate supporting local food! Visit mafoodplate.org to find out more about how and when you can be among the first to sign up for a “Choose Fresh and Local” license plate. I’m going to do it, but first I have to replace the regular plate that got lost in a snow dune last winter. Which I’ve been meaning to do all summer.

And the other exciting thing I have on the calendar for mid-Fall is the Halloween Trick-or-Treat event at Stone Zoo, or “Boo at the Zoo” if you like! Let’s just say animals will be looking festive and so will Georgia.

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From what I understand there will also be a haunted maze (possibly too scary for a toddler; we’ll see), crafts, ‘ghoulish’ games and, of course, a costume contest. Probably we don’t have a chance there — we are going less creative this year as Minnie Mouse, which is Georgia’s favorite! And joking aside, giving animals items like pumpkins is more than a prop, it’s an enrichment tool for their development and well-being. You can learn more about that here.

Have a great weekend everyone and let me know what you’re doing to pretend summer is still here get in the mood for Fall!

Recipes

Pumpkin Spice Enchiladas

These are very pumpkin-y and taste like Fall (in Mexico)? Super easy and nutritious with a few key ingredient swaps, these make a good weeknight meal when served with veggies (I chose corn) or a salad.

Pumpkin Spice Enchiladas

Ingredients

  • 4 oz. light cream cheese  (about half a small container)
  • 1 1/2 cups pureed pumpkin (fresh or frozen — I used fresh!)
  • heaping TBSP pumpkin butter
  • dash of nutmeg
  • packet of taco seasoning (only need a tablespoon or so, to taste)
  • 1 can (7 oz.) diced green chilis
  • 1 can (10 oz.) green enchilada sauce, mild
  • 1 can (15.5 oz.) fat free black beans, rinsed
  • 2 cups Mexican blend shredded cheese
  • 1 package whole wheat tortillas (small or large)

Directions

Preheat the oven to 375 and get out a 9×13 glass baking dish.

In a mixing bowl, combine the pureed pumpkin (use frozen if you don’t have fresh) with the cream cheese (brought to room temperature) and stir to blend. Then, add the taco seasoning mix, chilis, and black beans (rinsed). Stir until just combined. Last, add the pumpkin butter and nutmeg and mix by hand until just blended.

In my opinion, the pumpkin butter really MAKES this dish and gives it the flavor punch it needs to be special. Without it, though, the enchiladas will turn out just fine, so don’t let one ingredient deter you.

Assemble each enchilada one by one, cupping the tortilla in one hand while scooping a few spoons full of the pumpkin mixture into the center, adding cheese on top. You’ll use about half your cheese inside the enchiladas and the rest on top of the dish before it goes into the oven.

Place the tortillas folded-side down in the pan; you can probably squeeze about 7 in one pan. Top them with enchilada sauce, taking a spoon to spread it in between and beneath each one, and sprinkle the remaining cheese on top.

Bake for 30 minutes or until the cheese starts browning. Serve warm.

I made some key choices to keep this healthier: whole wheat tortillas, low-fat shredded cheese, fat free black beans (which I rinsed under cold water to reduce the sodium content), lite cream cheese, and serving this with veggies on the side instead of tortilla chips, and without sour cream (it’s creamy enough already!) I also reduced the amount of cheese I typically bake on top. One of these enchiladas plus a full serving of veggies, like the frozen corn I used here, is a much healthier choice than using “Mexican night” as an excuse to overload on fried chips, fatty condiments and beer!

If you liked this, check out my butternut squash enchiladas, and my spinach-ricotta enchiladas — two more vegetarian options that are just as easy and delicious.