My first attempt at crepes–success!

I admit it. I was scared. Scared to try my hand at crepes.

Though I consider myself a pretty avid cook, there are few simple dishes I sometimes have issues with. My scrambled eggs usually end up sticking to the pan, and my fried eggs are kind of scary-looking. Pancakes are another issue. Mine taste great, but I have trouble with the flipping technique, so they’re very rarely the perfectly round stacks you get at IHOP. The Guy is much better at the actual cooking part than I am, so our standard pancake arrangement is for me to make the batter and then let him cook them. He’s even perfected Mickey Mouse-shaped pancakes for the Kiddo.

Somehow I made it to my early 30s before I ever tried eating a crepe. I’m not sure why, but then a couple years ago, I had this amazing stuffed crepe at a fair–it was enormous, like an oversized tortilla, and they had stuffed it with chicken, peppers and onions, like a giant burrito. Best fair food I’ve ever had, hands down.

But the thought of making my own crepes seemed intimidating; if I can’t handle pancakes, how I would I ever master crepes? They’re so wafer-thin that surely they must take a feat of magic to accomplish, right? Still, after having the stuffed crepe at the fair and realizing how versatile this little dish could be, I really wanted to give it a shot. A couple weeks ago I did an internet search and found a couple tutorials on crepe-making. They were nice step-by-step pictorials, but still it seemed daunting.

Yesterday morning, the Guy and I slept late and I woke up hungry. Still in bed, talking myself into crawling out of the warm covers, I considered options for a hearty breakfast. I had some delicious leftover crock pot ham that would be great in an omelette. Oh, but omelettes also fall in the category of simple dishes I’m not very good at. Well, maybe, if I was going to make something and potentially mess it up, I should just go ahead and try the crepes?

So I did. Yep, yesterday morning I lost my crepe virginity. And they were surprisingly easy. They didn’t turn out perfectly round and beautiful like what you’d probably get eating out, but they certainly weren’t deformed, as I expected they might be. Actually, I think they looked pretty darn good. And because I was ravenous, I didn’t even take the time to reference my nice tutorials I’d found previously–just pulled out my trusted Better Homes & Gardens cookbook and went to town.

Here’s the basic recipe:

2 eggs, beaten

1 cup flour

1 1/2 cup milk

1 T. oil

1/4 tsp. salt

Whisk together all ingredients until well-combined. Heat a very lightly-greased, nonstick skillet to medium. Note–my cookbook said a 6-inch skillet, but I sent with slightly larger because I was planning to stuff them with my leftover  ham and a little feta cheese (result: delicious!). Eventually, I’m going to be brave and try to make giant crepes like those I had at the fair. Lift skillet from heat and hold at a slant while you pour slightly less than 1/4-cup batter (recipe called for 2 tablespoons but that was for the smaller version) onto the highest edge of the skillet, so that the thin batter runs down and covers the entire skillet. You’ll need to tilt and swirl the pan around a bit to coat the bottom with a very thin layer. Return the pan to heat. Cook for only about 20 seconds. You’ll see air bubbles start to form and the batter will begin to appear dry. Flip and cook for 15-20 more seconds. The flipping part was what I worried about, but as long as you’ve used just a little bit of grease in your pan, they don’t stick at all and flip quite nicely. I used vegetable oil and would recommend cooking oil over nonstick spray for these. I tried one with spray and did not have good results.  Once cooked, just turn the skillet over to flip the crepe onto a serving plate.

Now that I’ve conquered my fear, I’m excited to try these again and see exactly how versatile they can be. The recipe made about a dozen crepes. Since we were eating them stuffed, they were pretty hearty, so we only had two each. We put the leftovers in the fridge, and they reheated well later in the day when we got the munchies. Actually, I had one for a mid-afternoon snack, stuffed with ham again, didn’t even bother to heat it, and it was still yummy! According to my internet research, these also freeze well (layer wax paper between each crepe and place in a freezer-safe container), so I might need to do some batch cooking and keep some on hand in the freezer.

Stay tuned–I feel sure there will more crepe variations, recipe ideas using crepes and maybe even my own pictorial to come on this blog!


Simply Stuffed Peppers

Stuffed peppers with cheese

My mom used to make stuffed peppers from time to time when we were growing up. Back then, I loved eating the stuffing part, but wasn’t too keen on the peppers themselves. Oddly, although it was a dish she made with reasonable frequency, and although I now actually like the peppers too, they aren’t something that I normally make. Or at least they weren’t until about a year ago, when for some reason, out of the blue, I thought, “hmm, I haven’t had stuffed peppers in a while—I should make those for dinner.”

I started searching my recipe books and trusted web sites for a good stuffed pepper recipe. I found a lot of variety, but nothing like what I was looking for. I remembered the kind my mom made having ground beef, rice and some kind of tomato-based sauce. The recipes I found did not sound very similar. Some were more like a mini meatloaf inside a stuffed pepper, and many involved tomato soup as a base ingredient and just sounded very bland. Most of the tomato soup-based ones also involved an ingredient list a mile long and sounded like an all-day cooking adventure. I was pretty sure I could come up with a tasty alternative that would take less time at the grocery store and in the kitchen.

So I did what I often do in such situations, and used the recipes I found for some base information to get me started—in this case, primarily how long and at what temperature to bake the peppers. I also learned the trick to getting nice soft peppers (I don’t care for crunchy) is to boil them for a bit before you stuff them. As for the filling, I decided to just do my own thing. I stuck with the basics of ground beef, rice and, for the sauce, I used salsa with a packet of taco seasoning mixed in. For a little variation from my mom’s style of peppers, I mixed in a bit of feta cheese. The verdict from the Guy—well, after not making stuffed peppers in years (if ever), they’re now one of my most frequent dishes. Kiddo’s verdict was essentially the same as mine at that age—loved the filling but passed on the peppers.  I love them with a bit of fat-free sour cream, but the Guy eats them just as they are.

I won’t claim these are the world’s best stuffed peppers, but they are pretty darn good, and they’re a lot simpler than most recipes you’ll find. After the second or third time, it finally occurred to me that I could simplify the process even more, simply by cutting the peppers in half to seed them, rather than delicately trying to cut out the tops and dig out the seeds. The halves stuff just as nicely, you don’t have to worry about them toppling like you do with a whole pepper that has an uneven bottom, and they’re easier to cut up and eat on your plate, too.

Halved bell peppers

Simply Stuffed Peppers

6 bell peppers (you can use green but the red/yellow/orange sweet peppers are tasty too)

1 pound lean ground beef or turkey

Salt and pepper to taste

2 cups cooked brown rice

1 ½ cups salsa

1 packet taco seasoning (I have also used onion soup mix when I was out of taco seasoning; it’s a noticeably different flavor but just as delicious)

½ cup reduced fat feta cheese

4 oz. sharp cheddar cheese, shredded (about one cup after shredding)

Fill a large stock pot about ¾ full with water and 1-2 tsp. salt and heat on high to a full boil. While water is heating, slice peppers in half. Carefully cut out stems and remove all seeds. Once water is boiling, use tongs to drop pepper halves in pot; cook for about five minutes. Depending on the size of your pot, you may have to boil the peppers in two batches. Remove pepper halves with tongs and transfer to a large colander in sink; invert halves so excess water can drain.

Making stuffed peppers

Brown ground beef or turkey in a large skillet, seasoning with salt and pepper to taste. Drain excess grease. Stir in rice, salsa, seasoning packet and feta cheese.

Spray two 9×13 baking dishes with nonstick spray, and arrange pepper halves, cut side up. Spoon beef and rice mixture into peppers. Bake at 375 degrees for 20 minutes. Remove peppers from oven and sprinkle tops with shredded cheddar cheese; bake for additional 5 minutes or until cheese is melted.

Stuffed peppers

Stuffed peppers

Nutritional notes–I limit the fat and calories in this recipe by using lean meat and reduced fat feta. When using cheddar cheese in a recipe, I usually stick with the full fat version but try not to go overboard with quantity, since I find most reduced fat cheddar cheese varieties a little lacking in the taste department. Bell peppers are a good source of fiber and are packed with essential nutrients and antioxidants, including folate, and Vitamins A, C and K. 




Impromptu Pasta (aka Chicken & Sun-Dried Tomato with Bowties)

I’m the queen of improv. Cooking that is. I would claim comedy as well, but the Guy would probably argue with me. So back to cooking. I’m always finding a way to “make things work” when I have a recipe I want to try but don’t have quite all the ingredients on hand. Google often comes in handy for this, as I find myself sitting down and typing in “substitutes for __________.” Or, sometimes it’s not a matter of making a recipe with less than the required ingredients, but figuring out if there is some way, some how that I can make something edible for dinner out of what’s already in my pantry and fridge, without making a trip back out to the grocery store after I’m home from work and already in my “comfy clothes” (read: pajamas).

Tonight started out as an effort to do the former–make a recipe I already had in mind work. The goal was this Mini Farfalle with Roasted Peppers, Onion, Feta and Mint recipe (yes, that is a really long name) I found the other day when I was planning my menu for the week. Ok, ok, I realize that, since I was planning ahead for this recipe I should have had all the ingredients. And I did, except the three I was already planning to omit–pine nuts, golden raisins and mint–because they just sounded, well, odd in the recipe. Several reviewers reassured me that the odd-sounding ingredients actually worked well together, but I wasn’t quite daring enough to try them. This week anyway.

So I got home tonight and started getting out the makings of dinner, only to find that the roasted red peppers I had planned to use had gone bad. I looked at the recipe, looked at what I did have of the ingredients (plus the chicken and bacon that I had decided to add for a little protein–the Guy doesn’t do well with no meat), and then poked around the door of the refrigerator to see what I had that could bring everything together in a somewhat tasty way.

The answer came in the form of sun-dried tomatoes. Have I mentioned that I love sun-dried tomatoes? Because I absolutely do. One day, I will share my recipe for feta-stuffed chicken, which takes advantage of sun-dried tomatoes in a beautiful way. The Guy said that is one of his favorite meals that I make–maybe the favorite. Which I guess explains why he loved my “impromptu pasta” tonight so much; it’s basically just a pasta version of the stuffed chicken. And in the end, not really very close the original recipe I was aiming for–but completely delicious.

Alright, I’m done boring you with the narrative explanation. Here’s the recipe:

Chicken & Sun-Dried Tomato with Bowties

12 oz. bowtie pasta (farfalle)

1 medium onion, chopped

2 tsp. minced garlic (about two cloves if you’ve got fresh garlic–I had a jar)

1 small jar of sun-dried tomatoes, packed in oil (about 8 oz.)

4 slices of bacon, cooked and crumbled

1 cup cooked chicken breasts, chopped or shredded

5 oz. crumbled feta cheese (the reduced fat version tastes great, if you’d like to trim calories)

1 tsp. dried basil

1/2 tsp. black pepper

Cook pasta according to package directions; drain.

While pasta cooks, heat a large skillet over medium heat. Drain oil from sun-dried tomatoes into skillet; add onions and garlic and sautee until onions are transparent. Using a food processor or Magic Bullet, pulse tomatoes until finely diced (almost a paste). Add chicken, bacon and tomatoes to skillet; stir and heat on low until warm (only a few minutes).

Sun-dried tomato & chicken pasta
The tomato-chicken mixture….yum!

Add tomato and chicken mixture to pasta and stir to mix. Stir in feta, basil and pepper, then serve.

Sun-dried tomato & chicken pasta
The final product–the Guy had to stop himself from a third helping.


Two-Minute Magic Bean Dip

In honor of the football playoff season, I thought I’d post this quick and easy but delightfully addictive recipe. Warning: this dip is crazy hard to put down, so you if sit down to watch a game, you might realize you’ve cleaned the bowl out by halftime.

Sometimes you just have a craving for something crunchy, something salty….just something. It was one of those cravings that led me to come up with this easy concoction. I had some tortilla chips on hand and some salsa, but I need something more than that. Maybe something cheesy and creamy? So I scoured the pantry to see what I could throw together to kick the craving, and this turned out to be exactly what I was wanting. Bonus–with my beloved Magic Bullet, it took no time to whip up, so I was happily munching just a few minutes later. If you don’t have a Magic Bullet, a regular blender will work fine. If you do have a Magic Bullet and you have block cheese (I never buy pre-shredded cheese), there’s no need to get out the shredder–just use the Bullet.

Two-Minute Magic Bean Dip

1 can black beans, drained

1 cup salsa

1 pkg taco seasoning

1/2 cup cheddar cheese, shredded

Tortilla chips for dipping

Combine all ingredients and blend. Serve cold, or, if you like the cheese all melty and gooey, pop the dip in the microwave for about a minute.

DIY CoCo Wheats

When we were kids, I loved when my mom would make us CoCo Wheats for breakfast on cold Saturday mornings. It wasn’t something we had frequently, I suspect because the cleanup afterward is rather a chore. But I always loved the simple, warm goodness of it.

As a grown-up kid in the South, I have quickly discovered that grocery stores here carry every variation and flavor of grits you can imagine–but no CoCo Wheats, just original Cream of Wheat.  Note–CoCo Wheats are a product of the Malt-O-Meal brand, not the the more familiar Cream of Wheat cereal. After visiting the Cream of Wheat website, I found they have their own chocolate flavor, as well as a Cinnabon and Maple Brown Sugar. Lucky Yankees. 🙁

But fear not–making your own version of chocolatey, warm, filling (and healthy) goodness is quite simple. All you do is add a little cocoa and a little sugar. Just follow the Cream of Wheat directions on the box (either stovetop or microwave), but mix in 1/2 tablespoon cocoa and 1 tablespoon sugar per serving to the uncooked cereal before you stir in your water or milk (you can use either). You can even add a little sprinkle of cinnamon if you’d like. Once it’s cooked, you can sweeten your cereal with a bit more sugar or even honey to taste. Yum! Now I just need to figure out how to replicate the Cinnabon version…

Sneaky squash

Winter SquashThe first signs of fall in the South are not spotted on the trees, with their changing leaves. No, before the maples ever start donning their lovely hues, fall can be found indoors–just walk into your neighborhood grocery store. Boxes of pumpkin pancake mix adorn the ends of aisles, pumpkin creme cakes get their own special treatment in the bakery section and piles of pumpkin, butternut squash, acorn squash and a variety of gourds take center stage in the produce department.

It makes my heart happy when these lovely gourds start appearing. I love pumpkin, and have discovered in recent years that I love squash in general. It wasn’t something we ate much growing up. My earliest squash exposure was pumpkin pie and zucchini bread–both of which are delicious, but neither are particularly healthy. And let’s be honest: when you’re 10, if your mom says, “we’re having squash for dinner,” you’re probably not going to be thrilled. As an adult, I’ve discovered I love squash in all forms–not just desserts laden with fat and sugar.

My best bet to get the healthy benefits of squash AND still have something the Kiddo will eat is to sneak it into meals with clever disguises. Last weekend, I tried three “sneaky squash” recipes out on the Guy and Kiddo. Final results–two of them passed with flying colors, while the third was a hit with the Guy but not the Kiddo.

Squash Attempt #1: Low-Fat Pumpkin Brownies

Low-fat pumpkin brownies

This one was definitely a winner. These brownies don’t taste exactly like regular brownies–they’re denser and fudgier–but they don’t taste like pumpkin either. So how do you make them? Well, it’s unbelievably easy. Take your favorite brownie mix (one that makes a 13″x9″ pan of brownies) and a 15-oz. can of pumpkin. There. You’re done. Okay, it’s not quite that easy, but almost. Blend the pumpkin (make sure you get just plain ol’ canned pumpkin, not pumpkin pie filling) into the brownie mix in a medium mixing bowl until well-blended. Then  just follow the baking directions on the box of brownie mix. Ta-da! Nearly fat-free brownies!

I didn’t tell the Kiddo there was pumpkin in the brownies until after he taste-tested them, but I did mention it was a different recipe and the brownies might have a different texture than he was used to. He agreed they were “different” but loved them, even after he learned my baking secret. These were also Guy-approved.

 Squash Attempt #2: Butternut Squash Macaroni & Cheese

The Guy and I both absolutely LOVED this recipe–more than traditional baked macaroni and cheese, actually. The Kiddo did not share our love, but I believe the issue was not so much the inclusion of squash as it was that it was HOMEMADE macaroni and cheese, and not the processed-cheese-powder, unnaturally-yellow, from-a-box variety. Let’s be honest–as adults we realize that this processed goop is, well, goop. But kids love it for some reason, and tend not to like the real thing. If your munchkin does happen to like real, homemade, melt-in-your-mouth cheesy macaroni and cheese, then this recipe is probably a winner for them. Because it’s frickin’ awesome. Trust me. Overall, it doesn’t have the extra grease of traditional mac and cheese, and it has a “fluffier” texture.

I was inspired by this Cooking Light recipe, but I tweaked it a bit, both to simplify the recipe and work with the ingredients I had on hand. I also subbed in more kid- and budget-friendly cheeses than the Gruyère that was called for. Here’s my version:

3 cups cubed butternut squash
1 1/4 cups fat-free chicken broth
1 1/2 cups skim milk
16 oz. macaroni, cooked al dente
1 1/2 cups cheddar cheese, shredded
1/2 cup monterey jack cheese, shredded
Salt, pepper and minced fresh garlic or garlic powder, to taste
Nonstick cooking spray

Okay, let’s start with a word about the butternut squash. It’s delectable, but if you’ve ever cooked with it, you also know it’s a pain to work with. They do call them “hard” winter squashes for a reason. And butternut squash is probably the toughest of the bunch, partially because it is fairly large but has a much smaller seed cavity then, say, its pumpkin cousin. If you’ve never tackled one before, I would recommend reading this tutorial before you get started. Also, in this recipe, the cubed squash is ultimately going to get pureed anyway. So I would recommend cutting the ends off and splitting the squash lengthwise (following the linked directions), then roasting the squash until it’s cooked about halfway. Put both halves in a large baking dish covered with foil and bake at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes. If you’ve got a decent-sized squash, you’ll probably only need one half for this recipe. Let the squash cool, then remove the peel with a sharp knife and cube the now-softened flesh.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, the rest of the recipe is much easier. Bring the broth, milk and squash to boil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Reduce heat and simmer until squash is fork-tender (the original recipe calls for 25 minutes, but if you’ve already partially roasted the squash, you’ll probably only need 10-15 minutes).

Next step–puree the squash/milk/broth mixture. You can do this in a blender or in a couple batches in a Magic Bullet (my choice, because it’s much easier cleanup). Just make sure you let the hot mixture cool enough that you don’t end up burning yourself!

Transfer pureed squash into a large mixing bowl and stir in cheese, reserving 1/2 cup cheddar. Stir in pasta, salt, pepper and garlic, then spread pasta mixture into a 13″x9″ glass baking dish, coated with cooking spray. Top with remaining cheese. Cover with foil and bake at 375 degrees for 25 minutes, removing foil for last five minutes.

Squash Attempt #3: Whole Wheat Pumpkin Waffles

Canned pumpkinMaking pumpkin pancakes is easy–you basically just sub all the liquid in a pancake recipe with canned pumpkin. I had expected similar when I decided to attempt pumpkin waffles, but after exploring several different recipes, both online and in my collection of recipe books, I realized it wouldn’t be quite that simple. While canned pumpkin is a suitable substitute for the eggs when it comes to pancakes, every recipe I found for waffles required egg whites to maintain the lightness a waffle demands. So, not quite as simple as I’d hoped, but it’s still a fairly easy recipe.

This recipe is adapted from one in the “Secrets of Fat-Free Cooking” recipe book by Sandra Woodruff. You’ll notice that I tend to tweak recipes to make them work with the ingredients I have available, my available time and my family’s personal tastes. Changes I made to the book recipe include using white wheat flour in place of the mix of whole wheat and cornmeal called for, using a little more milk (batter was too thick otherwise), and using a bit of cinnamon, nutmeg and vanilla instead of the pumpkin pie spice.

The result was a fluffy, moist waffle with a slight, but not overpowering pumpkin flavor, which was a hit with both the Guy and Kiddo.

2 cups white wheat flour
2 T. sugar
2 tsp. baking powder
3/4 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
4 egg whites
1/2 cup canned pumpkin
1 1/4 cup skim milk
1 tsp. vanilla

In large mixing bowl, mix all dry ingredients. In a medium mixing bowl, beat egg whites until soft peaks form. You can do this with a whisk (as I did) if you don’t feel like dragging out the mixer, but it does take a little longer. Blend milk, pumpkin and vanilla into dry ingredients, then slowly fold in egg whites. Coat waffle iron with nonstick spray. Spoon batter into iron and bake according to manufacturer’s directions. Note–while normally I need to use the nonstick spray on my iron every two to three waffles, because of the lack of fat in these, you will need to spray between each waffle you make.