Cuban Sandwich Salad

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Growing up in Florida, I’ve savored Cuban sandwiches ever since I can remember. Cubans can be enjoyed hot or cold, and whether served in school cafeterias, packed for lunches on the beach, or grab & go from the deli, Cubans have been a part of every season of my life. Mmmm….

So I thought I’d try my hand at transforming this delicious sandwich into a decadent salad!

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Keeping this salad true to the original Cuban sandwich, the ingredients are especially important. A “real” Cuban does not have mayo, fancy mustards, tomatoes, or any type of cheese other than Swiss; nor is it served on a hoagie. If a Cuban sandwich comes your way with any of these, it’s a fraud. ūüėČ

An authentic Cuban simply has butter, yellow mustard, roasted or barbequed pork, ham, Italian salami, Swiss cheese, dill pickles and Cuban bread. That’s it!

I used these ingredients (and their proportions to the sandwich) to keep this salad true to form. The dressing has real butter and yellow mustard. Italian seasoning compliments the salami’s spices. Rice vinegar and shallots are the mildest flavors of vinegars and onions so as to give this dressing personality but not dominate the salad or change the Cuban’s original flavor. And the vinegar also compliments the vinegar-soaked pickles; an awesome combination.

The point of the dressing is to get mustard and butter into this dish (like on the sandwich) and lightly coat the lettuce so it is still a proper salad yet with all of the authentic flavors of a Cuban sandwich.

IMG_E2337[1]Don’t skimp on the pickles! A true Cuban has bity dill pickles that deliver a crunch. Please skip the shelved, limp pickles and get the fresh, refrigerated pickles. Their crisp crunch and fresh taste is light years beyond any non-refrigerated pickle. Trust me on this! Good pickles are the ingredient that pulls this entire dish together. They are the crowning jewel of this salad; use at least 2 cups but add more if you’d like.

The mixed soft greens of spring, kale and watercress are given texture with crunchy cabbage and Brussel sprouts which do not add flavor, but do add texture and nutrition with the Brussels.

We prefer hard salami to Genoa, but either works. The roast pork is a cheat that I buy precooked from the deli. It’s definitely a time-saver, and since it’s part of the entree and not the main course I’m totally fine buying a pre-cooked portion of pork versus roasting an entire tenderloin – though leftovers are never a bad thing.

Lastly, serve with Cuban bread on the side or skip it for a gluten-free option.

My family kept saying that they couldn’t believe how much this salad tasted like a Cuban sandwich, woohoo!!

Enjoy Cuban sandwich flavors on top of a zesty, high-protein salad that, when paired together, you have a new, uncompromised version of the Cuban we all know and love.

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(Serves 4 to 6)

Salad:

4oz                         Spring mix lettuce

4oz                         Baby Kale

4oz                         Watercress

4oz                        Angel hair plain Coleslaw cabbage

4c                           Brussel sprouts; thinly sliced & ends cut off

3/4#                       Ham; diced (you can buy it pre-diced)

3/4#                       Roast pork; diced (pre-cooked from the deli)

1/2#                       Italian hard salami; diced (buy one thick piece from the deli then dice it)

3/4#                       Swiss cheese; diced

2c                           Dill pickles; chopped (use the refrigerated kind like Claussen dill)

1                             Cuban bread; optional- leave soft or toast and cut into cubes as croutons

Dressing:

4T                          Butter; unsalted & melted

1/4c                       Grapeseed or vegetable oil

2                            Shallots; peeled, ends cut off and then cut shallots in half

2t                           Italian herb seasoning

3/4c                       Plain/natural rice vinegar

4T                          Yellow mustard

2t                           Fresh minced garlic

4t                           Sugar

1/2t                        Salt

1/8t                        Black pepper

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Directions:

  1. Make the dressing by melting butter in the microwave or on the stovetop, then blend all dressing ingredients in a blender or food processor.

 

  1. If saving for later, pour dressing into a bottle, bowl or measuring cup that can be microwaved to keep butter melted if it cools and thickens. Otherwise simply set it aside. Dressing should be room temperature when served.

 

  1. In a large bowl, toss spring lettuce, baby kale, watercress, cabbage and Brussels with the dressing until evenly coated. Divide evenly among 4-6 serving plates.

 

  1. Plate salads by dividing remaining ingredients evenly and layering them on top of the dressed greens in the order listed above beginning with ham and ending with pickles.

 

5. Garnish with Cuban bread, optional. Serve immediately.

Peachy Keen Chicken Salad

Peachy Keen Chicken Salad

This salad!!! Oh my! New family favorite. I love to cook using ingredients in their peak season and right now peaches are perfection. Mmmm! This salad is our only meal of the day…it’s that hearty and satisfying!

The base flavors of this salad are peaches, goat cheese, blueberries and basil. These flavors compliment each other with sweet, savory and tangy tastes.

Salad notes – I always try to add a hidden vegetable to bump the nutritional value and the hidden jem here are green beans. They don’t change the taste but add nutrition and pack a crunch.

Bacon and peaches play off of each other with salty & sweet flavors and give this extra layers of YUM!

Compote note – Leeks add a savory tang to the sweet peaches and sugar in the compote. Balance is key to a yummy dish.

Marinade note – I always use grapeseed oil when I can. It’s better for our hearts than other oils and can handle heat up to 500 degrees which makes it perfect for the grill to help keep proteins from sticking when flipping.

Peach Compote:

6              fresh peaches; peeled and sliced

1/4c         sugar

1              leek; white part only finely sliced

Chicken marinade:

4 -6         chicken breasts (# of pieces depends on # of servings)

4T           balsamic vinegar

3T           garlic powder (not garlic salt)

1T           Herbs de Provence

4T           grapeseed oil

Salt & pepper to taste (be a little generous with the salt)

Dressing:

1/2c         balsamic vinegar

1/2c         extra virgin olive oil

2              fresh peaches; peeled and Sliced

2T¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†good white wine (preferably not ‚Äúcooking wine‚ÄĚ)

1/4c         sugar

1/2t          salt

1T            Herbs de Provence

Salad:

10oz       spring lettuce

5oz         baby kale

1/2c       fresh basil; finely chopped

2c            fresh green beans; ends cut off and beans cut in thirds

1c            green onions; chopped

4oz         goat cheese; crumbled

1c bacon; cooked and crumbled

1c            cranberries (50% less sugar)

1pint      blueberries

1c            pecan pieces

3              fresh peaches; peeled and sliced

1c            red pepper; diced

1              avocado; sliced

Peach compote topping

Directions:

1. Begin the peach compote. Place 6 sliced peaches and sugar in small saucepot and cooking on medium heat, stirring often so it doesn’t burn.

2. Once bubbling, turn down the heat to low and add sliced leeks. Simmer on low until sauce becomes translucent and compote is loose-jam consistency. It will take a good 20 minutes so start this step first.

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3. While compote is reducing, prep chicken by rinsing the chicken then the trimming fat and cutting breasts in half lengthwise.

4. Add chicken halves to a gallon plastic bag and then add the marinade ingredients.

5. Massage the bag gently and thoroughly to coat the chicken pieces evenly.  Set aside.

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6. Now make the dressing by blending all dressing ingredients in a food processor or blender. Pour into a serving bottle and chill until ready to use.

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7. Place cut green beans in a small pot with enough water to cover and boil for 5 minutes (set a timer!).

8. Immediately remove beans from heat and dunk them in an ice bath (a bowl with enough ice and cold water to cover the beans). This is called blanching. Boiling will slightly cook the beans, and the ice water bath shocks them so they stop cooking and keep their crunch and color. Keep them in the ice bath until ready to use.

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9. Heat grill and place chicken halves on the grill. Cook thoroughly. (You can also bake the chicken in the oven or air bake for approx. 20 minutes @ 350 turning halfway through- in lieu of grilling.)

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Time to assemble the salad…

10. Compote should be finished. Once it is thick, pour into a bowl and let cool on the counter while making the salad.

11. Keep checking on and turning the chicken, then remove from heat.

12. Assembling the salad ‚Äď plate the ingredients per their list order beginning with lettuce and ending with avocado. (I always put the green items on the bottom so the colorful items pop on top.)

13. Drizzle dressing over top. (Leftover dressing makes a great marinade for chicken or pork – or more salads!)

14. Place two grilled chicken halves on top of each salad. Evenly spoon compote over all chicken pieces. Serve immediately.

Summer Garden Salad with Crabcakes

Summer Garden Salad with Crab Cakes

I’m a firm believer in working smart, not harder, in the kitchen. This salad requires minimum prep and I buy our favorite crab cakes from the market. We prefer Charleston-style crab cakes versus Maryland crab cakes, but both work with this entree salad. If you’re feeling it, make your own crab cakes. More power to ya! Bought or made, they are a perfect compliment to this dish.

There are several different tastes and textures layered in this meal. Sweet, savory and salty work cohesively to give this salad a big, flavorful personality. There is also plenty of crunch in the carrots, Brussels, pepper, sugar snap peas, walnuts and pepitas which contrast this salad’s softer side of tomatoes, pickled onion, cucumbers and blue cheese.

Added proteins of nuts, pepitas and blue cheese elevate this meal from filling to downright hearty.

The dressing is my bruschetta dressing. Super light and summery but full of flavor. Works great as a dip for veggies, or don’t blend it and voila! You have bruschetta ready for a sliced baguette.

Enjoy the fresh flavors of the season with this summer dish!

Ingredients:

Crab cakes –

8                             store bought or homemade crab cakes

2T                           grapeseed oil

1                              lemon; juiced

Salad –

5oz                         baby kale

5oz                         spring mix lettuce

¬Ĺ#                          Brussel sprouts; thinly sliced

1                             cucumber; quartered and chopped

8oz                        fresh sugar snap peas; chopped

1c                           pickled red onion; thinly sliced

1                             yellow female* pepper; diced

1pint                      grape or cherry tomatoes; halved

1c                           carrots; thinly sliced (I like rainbow carrots for color)

1c                           walnuts; pieces

1c                            pepitas (pumpkin seeds)

4oz                         blue cheese crumbles

1c                           cranberries (50% less sugar)

Dressing ‚Äď

4 cloves garlic; minced

6 Roma tomatoes; diced

1 large bunch fresh basil; chopped

1/4c balsamic vinegar

1/4c extra virgin olive oil

1/2t salt

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Directions:

1. Prepare dressing by adding all dressing ingredients in a blender or food processor. Blend until thoroughly combined. Chill until ready to use.

2. In a skillet on medium heat, heat grapeseed oil. Add crab cakes and pour lemon juice on top. Flip halfway through cooking (according to package directions or recipe). Or air fry at 400 degrees for 15 minutes, flipping halfway through.

3. While the crab cakes are cooking, plate salads by dividing prepped ingredients into fourths and layering them in order listed above.  

4. Drizzle dressing over salad. Top with crab cakes. Serve immediately.

*Note ‚Äď use a female pepper because they are sweeter and better for eating raw. Male peppers are better for cooking. Female peppers have 4 bumps on the bottom. Male peppers have 3 bumps. You can taste the difference! ūüėä

Lemon Chicken with Lemon Basil Salad

As temperatures climb, we crave the light, fresh flavors of summer. Lemon and basil are two of those addictive tastes and are key ingredients to making this dish pop!

Packing this salad with extra proteins, like pepitas and nutritional yeast, makes this meal satisfying, even as its taste leaves us wanting more. Mmmmm!

Lemon Chicken with Lemon Basil Salad

Ingredients: serves 4

Chicken –                                                                    

4                             chicken breasts; halved longwise

1 1/4c                    Panko plain breadcrumbs

3T                            nutritional yeast (for parmesan flavor and additional protein & vitamin Bs)

3                              lemons‚Äô zest (zest 3 lemons, then juice them for the dressing)

1                              lemon; juiced (zest first, then save zest for dressing)

2t                            Herbs de Provence

2T                           oil (olive or avocado)

                               salt/pepper to taste (use black pepper generously)

                               pump, not aerosol, spray oil (Pam cooking spray with coconut oil)

Salad ‚Äď                                                                     

5oz                          baby kale                                                              

5oz                          arugula lettuce                                                                 

1 ¬Ĺ c                       fresh basil; finely chopped                               

¬Ĺ#                           fresh Brussel sprouts; thinly sliced                 

1c                            green onion; diced                                             

1                              female red pepper; diced                                               

1 pint                      cherry or grape tomatoes; halved                   

1c                            carrots; thinly sliced (I like rainbow carrots for color)

1c                            pepitas (a.k.a. pumpkin seeds)

Lemon Dressing –

1/3c                        plain (unseasoned) rice vinegar

1/2c                        fresh lemon juice (about 3)

1/3c                        canola or vegetable oil

1/4c                        sugar

1/2t                        salt

1                             garlic clove; minced

1                             lemon zest

Directions:

1. Trim chicken and place halves in a gallon Ziploc bag with all chicken ingredients. Massage until well coated. Place on greased cooking tray and spray pump oil top to top help crisp the breadcrumbs.

2. Bake at 350 for 20 min or until cooked through. Or air fry at 400 for 20min (flipping halfway through). Or pan fry in extra oil on medium heat until cooked through.

3. Prepare dressing – combine all ingredients in a bottle/bowl with lid & shake well until sugar dissolves or blend in food processor/blender.

4. Divide salad ingredients in fourths. Plate the salad in order from bottom up: lettuce, basil, Brussels, onion, pepper, tomatoes, carrots, pepitas. Drizzle dressing over salad. Place chicken on top and drizzle dressing over chicken. Serve immediately.

Cooking note – use a female pepper because they are sweeter and better for eating raw. Male peppers are better for cooking. Female peppers have 4 bumps on the bottom. Male peppers have 3 bumps. You can taste the difference! ūüėä

Black & Blue Salad, Modern

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I love the look of the classic wedge salad with tomatoes, bacon and blue cheese. Very swanky. Unfortunately, iceberg lettuce has practically zero nutrition. So I remade this salad into a much hearty, healthier version…and it’s addictive!

INGREDIENTS:  Makes 6 entree-sized salads

1 pkg                    Center-cut bacon; cooked

1                          Orange pepper; fresh (not frozen), sliced with seeds removed

1                          Yellow pepper; fresh (not frozen), sliced with seeds removed

1/2                       Red onion; peeled & sliced

4T                        Grapeseed (preferred), vegetable or Canola oil

1 + 1/2,                10oz boxes 50/50 lettuce & spinach

2                          Crowns of fresh broccoli (crown = without the stalk, if there is stalk just                                      cut it off); chopped

8oz                      Mushrooms; sliced

1c                        Frozen peas; thawed

2                          Cucumbers; sliced

1/2c                     Roasted pumpkin seeds

1 cup                   Pecan pieces or halves

2 pints                 Cherry or grape tomatoes

2 bunches           Green onions

1 1/2 – 2#¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬†Beef sirloin; cubed (use “Pan Frying” or “Stir Fry” quality beef)

Salt & pepper to taste for beef

Red wine (optional)

DRESSING INGREDIENTS:

2c                        Crumbled blue cheese

1/3c                     Mayonnaise

1/3c                     Sour cream

1/3c                     Buttermilk

1/3c                     Red wine vinegar

1/4c                     Onion; diced

3 cloves               Garlic; minced

1T                       Sugar or Agave syrup

1/4t                    Black pepper

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DIRECTIONS:

  1. Cook bacon @ 325 degrees for about a half hour (flip bacon halfway through). Place cooked bacon on plate with paper towel so as to absorb extra grease. Set aside.
  2. While bacon is cooking, saute orange & yellow peppers and red onion in 2T oil on med-high heat on stove until they just start to blacken. Set aside.
  3. While bacon is still cooking, make the dressing – Combine dressing ingredients (except blue cheese) in a food processor or blender and blend thoroughly. Add blue cheese and mash together until well blended. Cover and refrigerate.
  4. Prepare remaining vegetables according to their descriptions above (chop, slice, etc).
  5. Using 6 large bowls, divide the lettuce into the bowls.
  6. Divide the remaining vegetables equally and layer on the lettuce beds.
  7. On med-high heat, cook the beef (salt and peppered) and 2T oil on stove until no longer raw or as you wish (it’s safest to cook meat completely through). It only takes a few minutes; do not overcook or the meat will be tough.
  8. Optional – add a few splashes of red wine to the beef and cook for another minute or two.
  9. Divide beef equally and add to salads.
  10. Drizzle dressing on top and serve immediately.

 

 

 

 

BBQ Slaw Salad

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Do you like BBQ dinners but not the heavy feeling after eating them? This BBQ plate fills you up without needing a nap afterwards.

This dish looks as yummy as it tastes, with several flavors going on here.

Red wine vinegar offers a cohesive flavor between the onions, BBQ sauce and the slaw dressing amid the different textures and tastes of this recipe. The crunch of the slaw, pickled onions & pumpkin seeds pairs well with the soft pork. The mixed greens catch the extra BBQ juices and slaw dressing, making it a bonus salad unto itself. The cornbread replaces a traditional bun and has much more flavor (and doesn’t get soggy like a bun). I like to mix everything together (sans the cornbread) so as to get even flavors of everything in each bite. Enjoy a lighter, yet filling, take on this Southern dish!

INGREDIENTS: Serves 4

1#                  Pulled pork BBQ

2 bags            Broccoli slaw (or cabbage slaw)

1, 5oz bag     Mixed greens

1c                  Pickled red onions

1 box             Cornbread

SLAW DRESSING: 

4T        Mayo

3T        Red wine vinegar

4T        Agave syrup

3T        BBQ sauce

1/2t     Celery salt

DIRECTIONS:

  1. Whisk together all of the slaw dressing ingredients together and then blend in the bag of broccoli slaw, tossing well to coat. Refrigerate until ready to serve. *OR* Buy slaw dressing in the refrigerated section of salad dressings in the grocery store and add 6T per total jar (adjust amounts depending on your servings size). Refrigerate until ready to serve.
  2. Use store-bought cornbread or make with either a BOX MIX or THIS RECIPE (I half the sugar and butter in this recipe).
  3. Use store-bought pork BBQ or make it fresh with THIS RECIPE.
  4. Use THIS RECIPE for the pickled red onions. It’s really easy and one batch lasts for an entire month.
  5. When ready to serve, assemble the salad: greens on the bottom, then slaw, then BBQ, and top with pickled onions. Add cornbread and your all set. Enjoy!

 

BBQ Pulled Pork or Beef – restaurant style

If you love BBQ and go to a restaurant to get it, you probably don’t put just one kind of sauce on your beef or pork. You put at least two, maybe three! That’s one reason why BBQ at home never tastes the same…because we’re dumping one kind of sauce on the meat.

My BBQ is the secret sauce of mixing different flavored sauces together and adding one special ingredient. This recipe is crazy easy and freezes great!

Now you can enjoy restaurant-style BBQ at home any time you want, and any time is a delicious time for BBQ!

INGREDIENTS:

1 pack          Pork shoulder (a.k.a. pork butt, however the cut is actually the shoulder) or                                  Beef chuck roast, whichever you prefer

1-2 bottles¬† ¬†Red, sweet BBQ sauce (Our very favorite is Old Mule Original, but if you can’t¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† find it, Sweet Baby Ray’s Original or Stubb’s Original bbq sauce works)

1-2 bottles¬† ¬†Tangy, Memphis-style BBQ sauce (I use our local grocery store’s brand, but¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† any Memphis-style sauce will work)

1/2-3/4c      Red wine vinegar (secret ingredient!!)

DIRECTIONS:

  1. Place meat in a crock pot. Add 1c of water. Place lid on top and turn crock pot on high for several hours depending on the number of pounds of meat. Check it every couple of hours.
  2. When the meat is done, turn off the crock pot. You will know it’s done when it looks visibly cooked through (pork should not look raw/pink) and easily falls apart when you try to lift it with tongs.
  3. Using tongs, lift out a chunk of meat at a time and place it on a cutting board.
  4. Using two forks, separate the meat from everything else (fat, tendons, gristle, etc.). This is not hard to do, but does take some time.
  5. Then shred the meat with the two forks by pulling it apart.
  6. Put the shredded meat into a saucepot. Pour both sauces and red wine vinegar onto the meat and stir until blended.
  7. Keep the sauce pot on low heat until the sauce has thickened and BBQ is heated through.
  8. If freezing, let the BBQ cool to room temperature first. Never freeze meat hot. This recipe will typically yield several pounds of BBQ because of how the meat is packaged and sold, so call some friends to come over or pack up what you don’t need immediately and freeze it for later. Think sliders, sandwiches and my BBQ Slaw Salad recipe!

 

 

TwoFer Crustless Quiche & Pasta Salad

I am SO excited to have our son home from college for Christmas break. With a full house, I wanted to have some homemade meals on hand, but didn’t want to spend a ton of time and energy in the kitchen with all of the other to-do’s on the list this time of year.

Inspired by a lack of time, I decided to make two very different dishes that have overlapping ingredients so I could reduce my work and shopping list.

These two recipes have similar ingredients, but different bases. With that, and switching out a few key ingredients, they have different tastes, textures, temperatures and mealtimes. So we’re getting a TwoFer… two recipes for one trip to the grocery store and one amount of time & effort. Yes!

TwoFer Crustless Quiche & Pasta Salad

Crustless Quiche

10                           eggs

1 1/2c                     milk

2c                           Taco Bell Ranch Monterey Jack shredded cheese

12oz                       sweet or white onion; chopped (I use frozen) OR fresh leeks; whites                                            sliced thin; do not use the green stems (freeze them for soup stock)

3-4                         slicing tomatoes; sliced thin (Roma, small beefsteak, etc)

Cooking spray

Pasta Salad

16 oz                     Fusilli (corkscrew), penne OR farfalle (bowtie) pasta

1/2c                      pine nuts

1 bunch                 green onions; chopped

2 pints                   grape OR cherry tomatoes; whole

1T                         grapeseed or vegetable oil

1lb                        fresh mozzarella; cubed

(Vinaigrette)

5T                         lemon juice

5T                         white Balsamic vinegar

4T                         olive oil

2T                         sugar or agave

1/2t                      salt

Both Dishes

3 cloves               garlic

2t                        dried or fresh basil

Salt & cracked pepper to taste

1                        orange pepper; diced

2t                       grapeseed or vegetable

1 bag                 fresh baby spinach; chopped

1 1/2c                bacon; cooked & crumbled (I buy mine from Costco)

16oz¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ham; sliced, butcher cut or “off the block” cut

Directions:

Use two bowls, one for each recipe.

Quiche Bowl:

  1. Preheat oven to 350.
  2. Mix eggs, milk, cheese, 2t garlic, basil and salt & pepper.
  3. Saute onion in 1t oil and slowly add to bowl to temper the egg mixture.
  4. Saute orange pepper in 1t oil and add half of it to quiche.
  5. Add half of the spinach, bacon and ham and blend well.
  6. Pour into greased 10×10‚ÄĚ casserole dish.
  7. Slice tomatoes thin and place on top. Slightly press tomatoes into the quiche so the tomatoes stay soft.
  8. Bake for 25-30 min until cooked through.

Pasta Bowl:

  1. Cook pasta al dente (9-11min) in salted and oiled water (about 1T of vegetable oil).
  2. While pasta is cooking, make the vinaigrette by combining all ingredients in a container with lid and shake well.
  3. Drain pasta and pour into bowl and add vinaigrette while pasta is hot; mix well. Vinaigrette will absorb into the pasta as it cools.
  4. Add 1t garlic, basil, salt & pepper. Mix well.
  5. Add half of the orange pepper, spinach, bacon and ham.
  6. Add pine nuts and green onions.
  7. Saute grape tomatoes in oil until they blister and begin to pop. This greatly increases their flavor. Do not overcook. They should keep their shape as in the photo below.
  8. IMG_E6709[1]
  9. Add tomatoes to pasta bowl and gently toss.
  10. Add mozzarella and gently toss.
  11. Cover and refrigerate until chilled.
  12. Stir before serving.

** You can switch out ingredients based on preference, food allergies and what you have on hand.

Quiche freezes well.

 

 

 

The Lunch Date

I was a mess!  Stinky.  Sweaty.  Stressed out.  Family was coming to visit, and there was so much to do to get our house ready for them.

Clutter drives me crazy, but it seems Monday through Friday it is an unwelcome visitor that just doesn’t know when to leave.

Overwhelmed by the amount of work, I couldn’t even make a to-do list (which I love, and have been known to put finished tasks on the list after-the-fact just so I could feel the satisfaction of crossing them off!) because it all made my head spin. ¬†Our family had not found our groove for the new school year; my son’s birthday party was that weekend (an entirely separate to-do list!); and four precious family members were literally en route to our house.

Our extended family doesn’t care what our house looks like, thus I was only going to this much trouble in part for them. ¬†I had surgery just a few weeks before, and I was set on convincing myself, and proving to everyone else, this wasn’t going to stop the normal flow of our lives no matter the toll it took on me.

My heart pounded to the rhythm of the dishwasher, while I blankly stared at the clothes swirling around in the washing machine – as if my icy glare would make the washer work any faster. ¬†Just when I thought it was somewhat manageable to get it all done, I turned around and caught a glimpse of our dirty, stinky dog. ¬†She has this ritual of what we call “moling” in the grass when we walk her. ¬†She doesn’t walk. ¬†She puts her head down, muzzle to the ground, and sticks out her tongue. ¬†Then she takes off on her extendable leash and runs as fast as she can (throwing my back out once and costing me a few trips to the chiropractor, thank you very much) so she can lap up the morning dew off of the grass. ¬†Needless to say, she comes home wet and dirty with leaves and tiny sticks stuck in her fur. ¬†She’s one happy dog. ¬†But she was gross!

So into the laundry sink she went for a rapid home-spa, which with all her drama surrounding bath time I ended up as wet as she was.

Yep. ¬†Stinky. ¬†Sweaty from hauling the vacuum up and down stairs, cleaning floors, dusting, primping pillows, making beds, running errands, etc. ¬†Basically, I was trying to make our home look like no one lived there – which is impossible with five people and one crazy dog – and an African Pygmy Hedgehog to boot. ¬†It definitely couldn’t look like we were in the throws of a new school year, which reeks havoc in all of our lives trying to buy the “right” school supplies on the 10th trip to the store that week. ¬†Not to mention the impending birthday party or the fact that I was down an arm due to the shoulder surgery.

It was quite a feat to haul that vacuum all over creation one-handed, while trying to clean using my less-dominant hand.  Comical to say the least.  But, the real showstopper was when I looked out the window and saw the grass needed mowing.  Yes, one-handed.

There I was, zipping around in circles till dizzy, trying to control a mower that is lightening fast with my weaker arm.  It was challenging to say the least, but I conquered the mower and the grass eventually, though the grass looked like it had been mowed blindfolded.  Oh well.

I looked down at my watch, for the millionth time that morning, and saw it was 11:55am. ¬†Oh no! ¬†In five little minutes I had to be at a friend’s house for lunch. ¬†Really? ¬†Like this? ¬†No way.

I scrambled for my cell phone to tell her I couldn’t come, but as I dialed her number I realized she had already made it – given I was supposed to be there by then. ¬†What to do?

The house wasn’t done. ¬†The food for guests wasn’t planned. ¬†I had more errands to run and company would be on our doorstep in a matter of a few hours. ¬†Not to mention the fact I had dog hair and grass stuck to me. ¬†Dirt and sweat coated my arms and legs. ¬†A baseball cap hid my atrocious hair underneath. ¬†I smelled like a mix of earth, wet dog and baby shampoo. ¬†No make up. ¬†No energy. No time for lunch. ¬†No time to chat. ¬†No guts to say no.

Slipping out of my nasty yard shoes and into flip flops (at the time I thought they were a better choice so as to not leave a trail of grass in my friend’s home) I trudged down to her house not daring to look up at cars passing me by.

At her door, I took a deep, embarrassing breath and knocked.  Two little, angelic faces Рabout knee and waist height Рappeared in the window.  Their shining smiles were only outdone by the excitement their dog showed as he pounced over them to get to the window.

My friend opened the door, and her eyes grew big when she saw me. ¬†I said hello with a sheepish grin. ¬†I was a sight to behold and we both knew it. ¬†Thankfully, she is not a fair-weathered friend. ¬†She is real. ¬†Down-to-earth. ¬†Gracious. ¬†Funny. ¬†Kind. ¬†I couldn’t have shown up to just anyone’s house like this, but I knew she desired my company more than my choice of clothes.

We walked into the kitchen and my feet froze as I gasped!  There before my exhausted body was the most beautiful sight.  Lunch for two.  Real dishes.  Water goblets.  Shiny silverware.  Homemade chicken salad sandwiches with a beautiful spinach salad with strawberries and nuts.  Nestled in the bay window of her kitchen was the most welcoming table I had ever seen.  It was just for her and me.

Her young children, having already eaten, still tried to scam the strawberries off of the plates, but I just laughed.

I found my breath, blinked, and told her that #1, she went to way too much trouble, and #2, now I felt doubly bad for showing up in my humbled guise.

She reassured me it didn’t matter, and because I knew she meant it I knew I could stay and be comfortable. ¬†I pulled out the gorgeous wooden chair with a delicate fabric overlay, and my weary bones sank into the cushioned seat. ¬†She asked a blessing for our food, and I tried not to inhale even the plate as I had skipped breakfast in the name of time.

Nourishment and good conversation hydrated my wilted soul, and before I knew it we were chatting and laughing as the sun’s rays laced the windows and table. ¬†It was truly a scene out of a book.

I was so glad I didn’t cancel on her at the last minute. ¬†Although my watch screamed at me all day that I was late late late; and my shoulder was grumpy and telling me I was overdoing it; and the to-do list taunted and teased me; I needed this time with my friend – even though I had no idea I did. ¬†Our time together was good to the last berry and giggle. ¬†I left feeling stronger and with a tremendous sense of peace that people are more important than to-do lists. ¬†Time with my friend was like a cold glass of water; a nap on rainy day; the smile of a loved one. ¬†It was just what I needed. ¬†Had I been too proud to go because of how I looked and smelled, I would have missed all of the sweet blessings that came out of our time together – both everything she had planned and our spontaneous conversations.

I walked home thinking about how often I cancel on God when He wants to meet with me. ¬†He has planned something extraordinary for us each and every day, but because of being too busy, too tired, too distracted, or too proud (not wanting Him to see me in my sinful estate), I miss the fellowship, intimacy, joy, laughter, healing, company and teaching He has so lovingly designed for our lives. ¬†We miss the peace and strength that comes from drawing from the Living Water, Christ (John 4:13), who is also the Bread of Life (John 6:35). ¬†I have missed so much goodness that comes from spending time with our Abba Father, Creator, Redeemer, Restorer because I considered other tasks more time sensitive or more important that day. ¬†Or, I knew my sin and didn’t want to come to Him all mucky like I was that day with my friend. Later, God, once I’m all cleaned up. ¬†But later never comes.

We can get so wrapped up in our own little worlds, we miss the bigger plan – our destiny – that may lie just around the corner revealed in a conversation with God. ¬†We spin our wheels on things that don’t make an eternal difference. ¬†We stress and strain over tasks that most people never even notice – much less comment on.

That lunch was one of the most precious times I’ve ever spent with a friend. ¬†She invited me and asked me to bring nothing. ¬†She welcomed me in her home despite how dirty I was, and treated me like a queen for no reason at all except that she loves me and wanted to show me so. ¬†It was nothing I deserved or expected, it was a gift given freely.

That is exactly what God does for us. ¬†He plans, prepares and invites us to His table. ¬†He actually wants us to come with empty hands so He can fill them with blessings like joy, peace, encouragement and strength. ¬†He wants nothing from us except to be in communion with us. ¬†To be part of our day, involved in our stuff, so He can bear the burden and share the load. ¬†He wants to show His love for us, but too often I’ve left Him sitting at a table for one.

It was that lunch date that changed my thinking about spending time with God.  It revealed the pride that holds me back.  The mis-prioritizing of tasks that leaves my head spinning and stomach churning.  The giant hole in my heart that aches until the only One who can fill it, pours His living water into it and fills my soul.

Even though I’ve been walking with God for a long time, I need to be reminded that I can make things unnecessarily complicated between Him and me. ¬†The game of hide-and-seek is all me. ¬†He’s not hiding from me at all. ¬†Rather, He’s waiting for me and for you. ¬†Waiting for us to come, just as we are, and respond to the invitation. ¬†To relationship with Him over our own special table for two. ¬†He sits and waits eternally patient on His children, because He will never leave. ¬†He can’t because He cannot break His own oath to Himself – even when we cancel on our end.

Meeting with Him is not about checking yet another obligation off the to-do list. ¬†It’s about responding to an invitation, just like my friend’s, and coming with open hands and hungry hearts. ¬†He just wants to be with us. ¬†Every day. ¬†The table is set. ¬†He is waiting to listen and to speak. ¬†To laugh and cry with us. ¬†To dream and plan with us. ¬†To discipline and disciple us. ¬†To challenge and to hold us.

Will you join Him?

Culinary Quest #14 – Company’s Coming! Pasta Salad

Pasta salad is as flexible as whatever we¬†have¬†in the kitchen at the moment. ¬†However, sometimes we want to kick it up a notch – especially if entertaining. ¬†I needed a recipe that didn’t include average ingredients, so off to the store I went with an open mind! ¬†The ingredients below are simple to make, but together they offer a sophisticated flare that makes this dish not only savory, but it tastes like it was more work than it was by far.

By adding a couple of less typical veggies like heart of palm and roasted red peppers, this pasta salad does not taste like the kitchen sink salads I usually make. ¬†They are good, but this one is one fit for company. ¬†It’s quick and easy and with the main players being jarred, it can be easily made year-round. ¬†The vinaigrette is really simple because the flavors in this dish stand on their own. ¬†Enjoy!

Serves about 8

16oz                       Farfalle (bow tie) pasta

1 pint                     cherry tomatoes; halved

1/2c                       onion; chopped (white, red, or sweet onions or scallions)

9 stalks                  heart of palm (jarred); sliced

2 ¬Ĺ c¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† ¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† artichoke hearts; quartered (preferably jarred in marinated oil)

1c                            roasted red peppers; chopped

1 bunch                  fresh basil; chopped

¬ľ c¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† Kalamata or black olives; sliced (optional)

Balsamic Vinaigrette ‚Äď see below

****************************************

Balsamic Vinaigrette:

4T                           canola or olive oil

4T                           white balsamic vinegar

1/8t                        black pepper

***************************************

Directions:

Boil pasta in salted water al dente (approx. 10 minutes). Drain.

While pasta is boiling, prepare vinaigrette.

Toss warm, drained pasta in a large bowl with vinaigrette.

Once pasta has cooled to room temperature, add remaining ingredients as prepared above.

Chill for several hours.  Toss before serving.