Party Time: Birthday Tapas Night

A while back, I hosted a combination birthday/game night party for one of my good friends. I had been wanting to do tapas-style food for a while, and I figured a birthday celebration would be the perfect opportunity. I got the inspiration from a novel I read, of all places – the main characters go to Spain, blah blah blah, I won’t bore you with specifics – but the description of the food sounded incredible. There is also a popular tapas-style restaurant in the area that I got a few ideas from. I researched some recipes on Pinterest and ended up putting together what was (in my humble opinion) one of my tastiest menus in recent memory.

We start with Albondigas, or meatballs in spicy tomato sauce. These are a staple at most tapas restaurants, and with good reason. Tender, flavorful meatballs, browned and simmered in a spicy red sauce. I served some pieces of fresh baguette along side of them, perfect to soak that sauce all up. This recipe makes a ton of meatballs, and I made the mistake of doubling it. For four people. Eating albondigas for a *week*, I was. Without complaints.

Next up was something the birthday girl spied amongst all my pinning, and left a comment along the lines of, “YES PLEASE,” underneath it. How could I refuse?

These Chorizo and Puff Pastry Bites with spicy dipping sauce were definitely a good choice. The recipe itself is not complicated, but the construction was a tad frustrating for me. Mine obviously do not resemble the ones in the picture that accompanies the original recipe, but I’m fairly certain they tasted just as good. I was worried about using raw chorizo and puff pastry together — if the pastry would cook faster than the chorizo, etc. —  and while a few of them did get a little “well done” on the bottom, I think they came out fine. I would perhaps flip them halfway through baking, or roll the chorizo out a little thinner before assembling.

To compliment everything I threw a couple noshy bites together as well — I wasn’t particularly thrilled with any of these and could have absolutely omitted them given the amount of people I was hosting this time around.

See? Kind of…meh. On top are some roasted chick peas, bottom right marinated olives, and bottom left sweet & spicy roasted almonds. I know for next time to focus on the main dishes and not bother with the stuff that people (including myself) will barely touch.

While I was planning the menu it became apparent we were going to need a non-meat option. But I was not about to sully all of this Spanish magnificence with some lame veggie plate, oh heavens no. So I came up with this, which will soon have its own post complete will full recipe:

Smoked paprika roasted cauliflower bites with roasted garlic aioli. Dudes. This was AMAZING. One of my guests was, by his own admission, not a “cauliflower fan”, nor does he like any kind of creamy, mayonnaise-based sauce, but this? He couldn’t get enough of. I couldn’t, either. I would have been happy with just cauliflower for dinner that night, honestly.

But then I would have missed out on this (brace yourselves, vegetarians).

I mean.

Garlic Brown Sugar Flank Steak with Chimichurri. So moist, so tender, so full of flavor. And the chimichurri on top of it was such the perfect compliment for the meat. (Side note: how have I never made chimichurri before? More chimichurri in my life, please.) I *need* to make this again, and soon. I might play around with it a little and turn it into kabobs. I’ll never tell. Okay, maybe I will.

To compliment all of this food I served three different kinds of wine, a Spanish Rioja, a tasty Fume Blanc from Sonoma, and a bubbly Spanish Cava. It’s not a party without something sparkling.

Lest I forget, we of course had dessert. Because how can you have a birthday without cake? I was planning on a showstopper of a cake; three layers of lemon chiffon, with tart lemon curd in between, all covered in strawberry swiss buttercream. In my head, it was magnificent. In person, however…

Screen Shot 2015-07-27 at 9.28.45 PM

HAHAHAHAHAAAAAAA. It tasted damn good, at least.

Cocktail Friday: Dirty Shirley Temple

While I was growing up in the Pocono Mountains, there weren’t a lot of different restaurants my family chose to go to whenever we wanted a nice meal. Hell, there weren’t a lot of restaurants, period. (Cut to 30 years later, when you can’t walk three steps without hitting yet another fast-casual chain, but I digress.) But there was one restaurant my family went to when there was something to celebrate, or we just wanted something besides a diner. I’m not sure if the restaurant had an official name, we just called it the Motel In Town, because that’s where it was.

At the Motel. In the town of Stroudsburg. We’re an uncomplicated bunch, from Monroe County.

This was my parents’ favorite restaurant in the area for years – a place where my mom could get a lobster tail, my dad could get a steak or some crab cakes, where I always ordered a plate of steamed clams because I liked to keep the shells (I was a weird kid, guys), and I always, always ordered a Shirley Temple, because I loved the idea of being able to order a “fancy” drink in a restaurant just like a grown up. I never knew that it was just Sprite with a cherry flavored syrup. I just knew it was pretty and came with fruit skewered by a plastic sword.

All these years later, I’ve had my share of “fancy” (and not-so-fancy) drinks, from the questionable malt beverages of my pre-legal years, to the Malibu Bay Breezes of my mid twenties to my now-usual order of Jack and Coke (or Ginger, in the summer), but I never thought to update my beloved Shirley to a more “adult” beverage until about two years ago.

This cocktail is the opposite of fancy. It calls for sugary soda and flavored vodka. It is horribly unsophisticated.

You know what else it is? Effective. This, my friends, is how I get what is called “White Girl Wasted”. It’s my go-to drink on game night, my Friday night stress reliever, and one of my favorite summer refreshments.

Dirty Shirley Temple

  • 1 oz Cherry Flavored Vodka
  • 8 oz Lemon Lime Soda
  • 1/2 oz Grenadine
  • Maraschino Cherries
  • Ice

Fill a tall glass with ice, crushed or whole. Add 1 oz. cherry flavored vodka. Fill with lemon-lime soda. Float 1/2 oz grenadine on top. Garnish with maraschino cherries and serve.

Tiny plastic sword optional.

Chicken, Stuffing, Broccoli and Cheese Casserole: My Favorite Comfort Food

My mom used to make this casserole a lot when I was growing up. Matter of fact, I remember specifically requesting it for my birthday on more than one occasion. And we’re talking, like, into my 20’s. She found the recipe on the back of one of those cans of french fried onions — you know, the kind people use to make that awful green bean casserole at Thanksgiving? (Cream of Mushroom soup? No.)

The first time she made it, it blew my tweenage mind. It was some of my favorite things in one dish! I was never a picky eater growing up (quite the opposite, in fact), but I especially loved anything with or involving box mix stuffing.

I know, it’s terrible. I should feel dirty just saying it.

But I don’t. Stuffing mix is awesome, especially when you’re short on time or don’t have the room to bake a pan of home made stuffing or you just need something quick to serve alongside your main course.

Or if you want to make this casserole. It’s the most delicious mess you’ll ever put in your oven (and your mouth). It takes a little bit of work to put together, but you can easily make it a day or two ahead of time. You can take a couple of short cuts with it, too – use rotisserie chicken, or pre-made cheese sauce (WHY, precious?); but I would refrain from using frozen broccoli — it might get too watery.

First step is to cook your chicken. I used boneless/skinless breasts because that’s my go-to protein, but you can do a mixture of white and dark meat if you prefer. Even roast it with the skin on, just remove it before dicing up and adding to the casserole.

While the chicken is cooking, prepare the rest of the ingredients – cut and steam the broccoli and set aside, make the stuffing according to package directions (stir in half of the can of the french fried onions at the end), make the cheese sauce and let it thicken a little bit.

Once your chicken is cooked through, dice it up, assemble the whole glorious mess, top with the remaining onions, and bake, covered, at 375 degrees for about 40-45 minutes.

Remove the cover and return to the oven for a few more minutes for those onions to get brown and crispy. Let cool and serve.

Oh heck yeah. Tastes like 1991. (What does 1991 taste like, you ask? AMAZING.)

Chicken, Broccoli, and Cheese Casserole with Stuffing

Serves: 8

  • 1 box stuffing mix
  • 1-11/2 lb boneless skinless chicken, roasted and diced into cubes
  • 2 cups fresh broccoli florets, steamed until fork tender
  • 2 cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese
  • 2 cups milk (stick with 2% or full fat)
  • 1 can french fried onions, divided
  • 2 TB unsalted butter (plus more for stuffing)
  • 2 TB flour
  • 1 TB dijon mustard
  • 1 tsp paprika
  • Salt/Pepper to taste

Prepare stuffing mix according to package directions. Stir in 1/2 can of french fried onions. Set aside.

Melt butter in medium saucepan over medium heat, stir in flour and cook for 1-2 minutes, until slightly brown and the flour is cooked out. Add paprika and stir together. Add milk slowly, 1/2 cup at a time, whisking constantly until thoroughly combined. Stir for 2-3 minutes until it starts to thicken. Add shredded cheese and continue to whisk until completely melted. Stir in dijon mustard. Cook cheese sauce for 3-5 minutes longer, stirring constantly, until it thickens slightly. Add salt and fresh ground pepper as needed. Set aside.

Assemble the casserole:

Spray a large casserole dish with non-stick spray. Spread the stuffing mix in the bottom of the dish. Top with steamed broccoli florets (you can absolutely chop your broccoli smaller than I did, hide it for those kiddos if you need to!). Spread roasted and chopped chicken over the broccoli. Pour cheese sauce over the entire casserole. Top with remaining french fried onions. Cover casserole with lid or foil and bake at 375 for 40-45 minutes. Remove lid and return to oven for 5-10 more minutes, until onions have crisped and browned slightly.

Remove from oven, allow to cool for 5-10 minutes (or longer, this stuff’s like molten lava), and serve.

Yes.

Cocktail Friday: Bourbon Lavender Lemonade

A couple of months back I took a day trip with a friend to Asbury Park, NJ. It was a gorgeous spring day and we were able to do a little shopping, a little sight seeing (I’ve never been to Asbury Park but Sara was a regular visitor back in the day so she gave me a tour and a little history lesson), and we saw a great music act perform Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black album with a 25-person orchestra in an old school bowling alley. Complete with tiki bar!

Before the show, however, we stopped in one of the numerous restaurants in town for dinner and a cocktail. Being a whiskey and/or bourbon kind of girl, I decided to order their lavender bourbon lemonade, which was so tasty and such the perfect summer cocktail that I knew I would have to re-create it at home, post haste.

So I did.

Start by making a lavender simple syrup. Stir 1 cup of sugar into 1 cup of water over medium to medium-high heat on the stove top and simmer until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture is slightly thickened. Remove from heat, add 1 tsp of dried lavender and allow to cool. Strain lavender from the simple syrup and set aside (store covered in refrigerator for up to a month).

For the drink: Run a lemon quarter around the rim of a rocks glass and dip in sugar (I used granulated sugar today, next time I will perhaps use Turbinado sugar, mainly for aesthetics). Fill glass with crushed ice. Add lemon juice, lavender syrup, bourbon, and stir.

Sip while sitting on the patio and watch the evening go by.

Bourbon Lavender Lemonade

1 oz. fresh squeezed lemon juice

1-1.5 oz. lavender simple syrup (see instructions above)

2 oz. Bourbon (Maker’s Mark or Knob Creek preferred)

Fresh lemon, cut in quarters

Sugar for rim of glass

Run a lemon around the rim of a rocks glass, dip in sugar. Fill glass with crushed ice. Add lemon juice, simple syrup, and bourbon. Stir and serve.

Enjoy, guys.

Quick and Simple Recipe: Meditteranean-Style Bulgur Wheat Salad (AKA Not Tabbouleh)

I didn’t make tabbouleh this weekend.

I made a salad that tastes a whole lot like tabbouleh. And it looks…a little bit like tabbouleh. But it’s not tabbouleh, in the truest most traditional sense. And I’m okay with that.

Start with bulgur wheat, cooked. I get mine from the bulk bins at my local grocery store. Cook 1 cup of bulgur in 2 cups of water at a low simmer for 15-20 minutes or until the water is absorbed. Set aside and let cool.

Now get to chopping. Seed and dice 1/2 english (hothouse) cucumber, finely dice one half a red onion, dice 4 plum tomatoes, mince 2 cloves of garlic, and finely chop a large bunch of italian parsley.

Toss all vegetables with the bulgur, dress with 2 TB olive oil, the juice of two lemons, and season with salt and pepper. Serve as is.

Or throw tradition totally out the window and top with a little crumbled feta cheese.

Because who doesn’t like a little culinary anarchy every now and then?

Meditteranean Style Bulgur Wheat Salad

  • 1 cup bulgur, cooked
  • 1/2 english cucumber, seeded, diced
  • 1/2 red onion, finely diced
  • 4 plum tomatoes, diced
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 bunch of parsley, chopped fine
  • juice of 2 lemons
  • 2 TB olive oil
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • crumbled feta, optional

Cook bulgur according to directions. Set aside and let cool. Add all vegetables, olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and pepper. Stir together and refrigerate for a few hours to let flavors combine. Top with crumbled feta (if desired) and serve.

That Long-Overdue Oscar Party Post

So this post has been…a little delayed, but I still wanted to talk about my Oscar party, because a friend of mine took such nice photos for me and it seems such a shame not to share them.

See? Thanks, dude. You’re my official party photographer from now on.

This is about the fourth or fifth year that I’ve hosted an Oscar party, and it is hands down my favorite to plan. I’m always trying to make or do something different than the year before, and this year was no exception. I tend to go with finger foods for my Oscar parties — just a tad more upscale than your run of the mill chicken fingers and pigs in a blanket. Not like caviar or foie gras on toast points, but something different and fun. Another factor this year was the necessity for a few make-ahead dishes. Thanks to an overnight shift at Job 2 the night before, I made a conscious effort to cut down on the amount of work I would need to do on the actual day. It’s smart to do this any time you’re entertaining, but it was a necessity for me this time around.

For my “main” offering, I (with the help of my friend Sara via text), came up with Mediterranean style sliders with all the fixings.

I used regular ground beef for the patties, adding garlic, onion, parsley, montreal steak seasoning, and some traditional kufta spices — allspice, coriander, and a tiny bit of cardamom and cinnamon. I served the sliders with mini pita rounds (OMG SO CUTE), and toppings like sliced plum tomatoes, caramelized onions, homemade tzaziki sauce, store bought harissa, and some homemade dakkous, a mild spiced tomato sauce, so kindly made by Sara. (Side note: I also had some crumbled feta to go with these, but totally forgot to put it out when the time came. We didn’t miss it.)

These were fun and super tasty and I will be making a regular burger sized version of them this coming summer, you mark my words.

My next offering was a tasty nibble I found via Pinterest, these sweet and spicy chicken/bacon bites. Diced chicken, wrapped in bacon, rolled in a brown sugar/spice mixture and baked. Easy to assemble, a great make-ahead option (I would not roll them in the spices until you’re ready to bake though), and just damn delicious. A hit all around.

I might need these again soon. For the protein, you know.

Because I can’t host a party without something on top of a slice of baguette, I threw together these crostini with sun-dried tomato jam and herbed goat cheese, an old favorite of mine. The tomato jam is better when you make it a few days ahead of time, and all you have to do to serve is toast the bread slices, stir a little fresh thyme into softened goat cheese and have at it.

I assembled mine a little differently than Giada did hers, but I won’t tell if you won’t.

Not pictured: Requisite crudite tray, because vegetables are boring. 

One thing I’ve started to do when entertaining is to offer a signature cocktail. Instead of assembling a full bar (which, let’s be real, my tiny kitchen is not equipped for), I serve just one main drink alongside a couple basic spirits, beer, or wine. This time around I crafted a pear sangria, made from pear juice, white wine, and a touch of St. Germaine. Fresh sliced pear to garnish.

Boozy! Careful with that one, it’s dangerous.

Along with our savory finger foods, I also served up some small(ish) desserts to finish up the evening. The first, which there’s no photos of because they were the last thing I served and we were all stuffing our faces full of sliders and bacon wrapped chicken deliciousness at that point, were my peanut butter tandy cakes. Always a hit.

Next were some white chocolate dipped strawberries. Simple, pretty, and…healthy? Mer. Maybe a little.

Also cute.

My final dessert was the result of seeing something on Pinterest and adapting it to suit my own cravings. I saw these mini cheesecake cookie cups and thought they would be perfect, but at the time I was planning this shindig I was craving lime. Specifically, key lime…anything. So I nixed the cherry pie filling from the original recipe, whipped up some key lime curd instead, and voila. Key lime cheesecake cookie cups. Big name. Tiny dessert. Freaking YUM.

Seriously, these might warrant a post of their own in the future.

Until then, I am working on ideas for my next party. Which is next week, so I might post about it by September.

“So, Like…What Do You Actually *Eat*?”

If you only knew how often I’ve been asked that question since having my surgery last year. And the answer is, honestly, anything I want. Within reason of course. I try to focus on protein and healthier options, obviously, but there have been days where I’ve…made less than stellar choices. I have binged on snacks, both salty and sweet, and there was that one time I was leaving Job 1, headed to Job 2 and *needed* a quick lunch so I said to hell with it and got a double cheeseburger, and boy howdy, did I pay the price. Dearly.

I’ve decided to – occasionally – start sharing my daily intake, A sort of “Day in My Pouch” type of deal – should anyone who is considering having a VSG stumble upon this here blog and wonder exactly how much and what type of food someone a year out of surgery can eat – well, here you go.

Coffee, 7:15 am: I was scheduled at our new scanner in the Allentown office today, so I brought my coffee from home instead of making it at work. One coffee, three Splendas, fat free half and half (Yes, I KNOW. Save the lecture, naturalists. I like it.) Pre-surgery I was a two or three cup a day person, but now a second cup is rare for me – maybe on Mondays, or I’ll have a cup of this chai tea in the afternoon if I want to warm up. I stick with water all day (I shoot for 8-9 glasses, but it doesn’t always happen), and will have the occasional diet iced tea at home.

Breakfast, 9:45 am:

1/2 cup Fage 0% fat greek yogurt, 1/4 cup Bear Naked Honey Almond Protein Granola

Greek yogurt is my usual breakfast. On my days off I’ll do scrambled eggs and candian bacon. Yogurt is much easier for work days, especially if I do a little food prep on Sundays – then it’s just grab and go in the morning. On work days I tend to eat breakfast late, even though I’m not “supposed” to. I find myself more snacky in the afternoon at work, so lately I’ve been saving my snacks for between lunch and dinner, lest I go trolling for mozzarella sticks from the hospital kitchen at 4 in the afternoon.

I’ve learned that my stomach can’t tolerate some foods as well as it used to, and since those foods are the majority of what I’m not “supposed” to be eating anyway, it’s easier just to cut them out of my life entirely. I’m not going to lie and say I don’t still bake. I do. I made cookies and macarons aplenty this past holiday season, and I’ll be damned if anyone else is going to make birthday cupcakes for my coworkers. Do I still partake of these goodies? Of course. Just much much less than I used to. If I bake a batch of cupcakes, I’ll have one. I log it in MyFitnessPal that day, and I’ll try to atone for it the rest of the week.

Lunch, 12 pm:

1 Arrow Everything Flatbread with 2 oz. Wegmans Honey Roasted Turkey and 1/2 oz. Adams Reserve White Cheddar Cheese and dijon mustard, 1 oz. Good Health Veggie Stix snacks (from the vending machine at work). 

These flatbreads are good but I’m rethinking using them regularly – I might switch it up and do lettuce wraps for lunch instead of sandwiches. I don’t usually do snacks with lunch but I was craving something crunchy today. I could have stopped after half the bag, however – I was pretty full after this. Another thing I’m still actively learning – head hunger vs. actual hunger, or Just Because It’s There Doesn’t Mean You Need To Eat It. Jennifer.

I’ve struggled, absolutely. I’m in the midst of a plateau I’ve been experiencing since mid-January. Am I giving up? Absolutely not. I’m re-evaluating my habits, making meal plans, making sure I get my water and exercise (even just a little) in, and I. Keep. Going. I did not go through this surgery to lose 90 pounds and stop. I’m not getting complacent. Complacency is what got me where I was in the first place.

Snack 1, 2:30 pm:

 Blue Diamond Toasted Coconut Oven Roasted Almonds, 28 pieces. 

Almonds are another go-to for me, especially the different flavored ones that are available now. These are super tasty.  

Snack 2, 5:15 pm: 

1 Bartlett pear, 1 Cabot Seriously Sharp white cheddar cheese stick. 

This was a little late for my second snack due to a shit storm at work, but I think in the future I might try to keep it as such, so I’m not wolfing down dinner as soon as I walk through the door — which usually results in me snacking the rest of the night away at home.

Dinner, 7:45 pm: 

1/2 cup homemade turkey chili with fixings.  A little heavier than my other meals, but it’s rich and satisfying, perfect for the cold and snowy week we’ve been having. I had been craving chili for a while so I made a pot on Sunday and it should last me through Saturday. And yes, that is full fat sour cream and shredded cheese. Since I’m only using a little I figured the splurge was worth it.

Snack 3, 9:30 pm: 

Dole dark chocolate banana Dippers, 1 pack. These were a welcome discovery at my local BJ’s – just that perfect sweet little bite before bed.

I’m usually in bed by 10, so this will be the last thing I eat tonight. Late night mindless eating is definitely a problem for me – especially the Saturday nights I work at Job 2. I’ll buy one or two healthy snacks at the local Wawa before I go in and I try not to keep cash on me so I don’t hit the vending machines. Drinking a lot of water helps, too.

So there you have it. A day in the life of my surgically-altered tummy. Next week? Who knows, maybe I’ll show you how I put on my socks. You should be so lucky.