Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Bars


Thanksgiving was a blur as was the rest of the week. If we weren't going one place, we were headed out to another -- haircuts, yoga classes, ice skating and gymmastics (not too mention my husband started demolition on our office which will now become a playroom for the kids; hopefully we can claim our family room back from the army of toys).  And on top of it all, every Wednesday before Thanksgiving, I make a miniature Thanksgiving dinner with a stuffed turkey breast, cornbread stuffing, roasted brussell sprouts and pumpkin pie for dessert. It was so good. I seriously love Bob's Red Mill Gluten-Free Cornbread Mix. So good.

If you follow this blog, you know that I have a minor obsession with peanut butter and chocolate. Everything I seem to make somehow incorporates peanut butter and chocolate...ok, maybe not everything, but it sure comes close.

After making my almond butter cookies the other day, I wanted to see if I could turn them into a successful bar, making the recipe more time-friendly because let's face it: We just don't have enough time. I always switched back and forth between almond butter and peanut butter for the cookies, but for these bars, I wanted a clear peanut butter and chocolate flavor.

It totally worked! I was so excited to discover a bar alternative to the flourless almond butter cookies. These are so good popped in a lunch or for an afternoon snack and they freeze well too!

Flourless Peanut Butter Chocolate Chunk Bars






Ingredients:

1 16 ounce jar peanut butter (I used natural, chunky)
1/2 cup honey
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup chocolate chunks (I used Enjoy Life)

Directions:

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Mix the peanut butter until smooth and creamy. (I used my Kitchen Aid Mixer for this.) Add the honey, vanilla and eggs.


Add the baking soda and the salt and mix well. Add the chocolate chunks and stir to combine.


Press into a 9 x 13 baking dish until smooth and level on top.


Bake for 20 - 25 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.


Cut into 16 squares and enjoy!

One other thing I discovered is that I really don't like cranberry sauce. I tried making some in the slow cooker over the weekend and it was a complete and total disaster -- too tart for me and the skins are so weird. Oh well.

I've also decided to put Slow Cookin' Sundays on a hiatus because there are a lot of other recipes and projects I would like to share that just don't use the slow cooker. (Some do, though, so I am not completely giving up the slow cooker!). After the holidays are over, I am going to decided whether or not to bring it back...we'll see!

Till Next Time!





Nutrition Information Per One Bar: Calories 281; Total Fat 18.2g; Total Carb 21g; Fiber 3g; Sugars 15g; Protein 9g
*Nutrition information has been calculated using an online recipe calculator tool.

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Thursday, November 24, 2011

Book Review: Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen -- ★

Source
Don't waste your time reading Water for Elephants. Seriously. This book is the most far-fetched, unorganized and just plain silly book I have read in quite some time. I really wanted to like it, but the whole book just began unraveling. I was more than two-thirds through the book when my mom asked me what it was about and I opened my mouth and no words came out. I couldn't really verbalize what is was about because nothing was really happening.

SPOILER ALERT ** SPOILER ALERT ** SPOILER ALERT

If you plan on reading it still, stop here because I have no option but to go into detail about its many faults.

The author included a prologue (for what purpose, I am unsure) that drew the reader in, making her think that this book was filled with action and suspense. But when you finish the book, you realize the prologue served absolutely no role and makes you think that an editor somewhere pulled out the most exciting part of the book and threw it in a prologue to generate interest and book sales. Seriously, this is the most action this book sees and it doesn't come to the very end. And it comes in a way that is so unrealistic and absurd that you think the author must have been under a deadline and had to wrap things up quickly.

The book story is framed with the recollections of a very old man, in his nineties and chapter one actually begins with him speaking about his age and how once you hit ninety you can't exactly recall your age. (Okay, I feel like that in my thirties, but whatever.)

So the story is divided between his life now in a nursing home and his recollections from his early twenties when he joins a circus when his parents die in a car crash (I kid you not; I can't make this stuff up.)

He somehow becomes the circus veterinarian in a period of a night and makes friends with the stars of the show (equestrian director and female star). In between this, there are weird sexually explicit and random scenes that don't quite fit within the book (again, makes you think an editor had a heavy hand in the book) and then the circus acquires an elephant (I won't bore you with the details).

It turns out the equestrian director is crazy and beats the elephant because the elephant does not move on command. And it "pains" the narrator so much that he just sits on his rear end doing nothing to help the elephant as he gets beat over and over. (Huh? I don't get it. Why make such a mundane character? Who wants to read about a wimp main character who can't even stand up for an elephant who is physically abused? Weird.)

Meanwhile, some strange relationship is growing between the main character and the female star of the show. The main character unlocks the mystery as to why the elephant won't move (only speaks Polish) and then the equestrian director has a major freak out and the female star leaves him and professes her undying love for the main character. But now they are being "hunted" by the ringmaster and need a quick out of the circus and wouldn't you know there's a stampede in the circus and everyone dies but the two main characters. SO STUPID.

In between all of this complete chaos, the main character is telling us his woes about nursing home life and how his kids don't care about him and how he thinks he's getting Alzheimer's because he can't recognize anyone. As luck would have it, there's a circus in town right across the street from his nursing home, so he sneaks out and literally joins the circus again.

This was really one of the dumbest books I have read in a long time. Unrealistic events took place just to make the story; it felt schizophrenic and unorganized. And nothing really happened and when it did, you were left wondering how that happened.

Normally books are better than movies, but in this case anything has to be better, so maybe the movie will be decent.

Verdict: Avoid It If At All Possible
Rating: ✭


Sunday, November 20, 2011

Slow Cookin' Sunday: Steak Fajita Bowls


Last Sunday I think I got salmonella poisoning from peanut butter that I found out later was recalled. It was Smucker's Natural Chunky Peanut Butter.  I was making some cookies using the peanut butter and I was the only one who ate the peanut butter raw. Everyone else ate it after it was cooked to above 165 degrees. Within an hour, I was couched by a pounding, almost debilitating headache, extreme nausea and stomach issues, chills and fever. By the next morning, my chills and fever dissipated, leading me to believe that maybe I had accidentally eaten something that had gluten in it.

On Wednesday I saw on the afternoon news that the peanut butter I ate on Sunday was recalled. Ding, ding, ding. I can't be sure of the lot number because the jar was thrown out and long gone, but my symptoms were eerily similar to those listed online. And it was gross, yucky and very flu-like.

It wasn't until Friday that I really started feeling like myself. Needless to say, this house is falling down around me! I am backed up on laundry, cleaning -- just about everything (including blog posts!).

Yesterday we went to our local zoo with my oldest daughter's preschool. They purchase a tree to donate to the zoo and the kids make ornaments in class to decorate the tree with. We call this Trim-a-Tree event. We get there in the morning and they eat donuts and drink hot chocolate, decorate the tree and take pictures.


Then we spent the afternoon looking at the animals. I really love the zoo when it's cooler out versus hot. It was such a nice day!

When we got home, I was so glad I made this steak fajita mixture in the slow cooker the evening before. I got the idea for steak fajita bowls because I saw a few recipes for burritos, but I didn't feel like messing with a wrap. I wondered what would happen if I made a basic fajita blend in the crockpot and added some extras toward the end like cooked rice, black beans and corn and serve it all in a bowl. After it was done cooking, I let it sit in the refrigerator overnight knowing the flavors would most likely marry and be perfect the next day.

It was getting colder as the day wore on yesterday, so by the time we got home, we were seriously hungry. All I can say is with the week I had: Thank goodness for slow cookers. And thank goodness for steak fajita bowls.

Slow Cooker Steak Fajita Bowls






Makes 4, 2-Cup Servings

Ingredients:

1 lb flank steak, sliced thinly against the grain
1 teaspoon coriander
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tomatoes, diced
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 yellow pepper, julienned
1 red pepper, julienned
1 large onion, sliced thinly
2 teaspoons arrowroot starch or cornstarch
1 tablespoon water
1 cup cooked brown rice
1 can black beans, rinsed and drained
1 cup frozen corn
Salt
Guacamole (optional)
Corn chips (optional)

Directions:

Place the sliced steak, spices, salt, tomatoes and garlic in a slow cooker.


Cook on low for 3 - 4 hours.

Add the peppers and onions and mix well.


Season with salt and continuing cooking for another 2 hours.

In a separate bowl, make a slurry by combining the arrowroot or cornstarch and the water. Mix well and pour into the slow cooker. Mix well. Switch to high and cook for another 1/2 an hour. Add the rice, corn and beans and cook until heated through. Taste and salt if needed and serve with crushed up tortilla chips and guacamole.


This is such an easy dinner that packs a powerful punch.

As I was overcoming my sickness, I finished reading Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen. I'm going to post a review of that soon.





Nutrition Information Per A 2-Cup Serving: Calories 372; Total Fat 10g; Total Carb 37g; Fiber 6g; Sugars 5g; Protein 30g
*Nutrition information has been calculated using an online recipe calculator tool.

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Sunday, November 13, 2011

Slow Cookin' Sunday: Pumpkin Custard


My husband put the holiday lights on the house yesterday. And we also got one Christmas tree up in the front foyer, but the lights are a mess so that's going to a huge project for me today. As an added bonus, a local radio station went all Christmas music a few days ago. (Yes, we are those people who could easily skip Thanksgiving and go straight to Christmas.)  We love Christmas. It brings such a fuzzy, warm feeling.

This is the first year my oldest daughter really gets what's going on with the whole Santa Claus thing. We were at the mall the other day and Santa Claus was there for pictures (which totally surprised me) and we walked past and she screamed, "Look, look mommy. It's Santa Claus, Santa Claus."

He smiled and waved to her which put a little skip in her step, but for a moment I was stymied and a tad but nervous, thinking: What do I say? Why is he here? How can he be here and every other place in the world? Does she know he's fake?

I soon remembered she doesn't think adult thoughts. She thinks four-year-old thoughts. There is no other place than here for her.

Phew. Crisis swiftly averted. (No thanks to my paranoid thoughts.)

We also finished winterizing the outside yesterday because it was once again an unseasonable 60 degrees out. We finished putting away some flower pots and I pulled out the zinnias, cut down the perennials and flattened out the veggie garden bed. There is so much dirt in there from the digging of the shed.

Since it was so mild, I decided to throw some grass-fed beef ribeyes I got on sale at Whole Foods on the grill for dinner. They were really good with their little partners of garlicky broccoli. Luckily, I was on the ball, and we had dessert to end such a great dinner -- this wonderful thick and luscious dairy-free, gluten-free and refined sugar-free pumpkin custard I made in the crockpot on Friday night.

I used some sugar pumpkins I picked from the farm and roasted in the crockpot a few days ago. Although the weather still feels balmy in Chicago terms, there's no denying autumn with desserts like this -- thick and slightly sweet, but definitely spicy, pumpkin pie in bowl form.

Slow Cooker Pumpkin Custard 






Makes about 8, 1/3-cup servings

Ingredients:

2 large eggs
12 ounces light coconut milk (from can)
1/3 cup maple syrup
2 tablespoons coconut palm sugar
2 tablespoons Earth Balance soy-free spread, melted
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Flesh from 2 whole roasted sugar pumpkins or a 15 ounce can of pumpkin purée
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ginger
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup flour (I used a brown rice flour blend*)
Non-dairy whipped topping
Maple syrup, for drizzling
Chopped pecans

Directions:

Spray slow cooker with cooking spray. I use my Misto. Set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk together eggs, coconut milk, maple syrup, melted Earth Balance and vanilla extract. Add pumpkin and whisk well.


Add the cinnamon through the salt and whisk well.


Gently fold in flour until all of the lumps are gone. Pour into the slow cooker and cook on low for three to four hours. My oblong slow cooker is hot hot hot, so mine cooked this in three hours. Test using a toothpick. If the center comes out clean, it's done.

Cool in the refrigerator overnight. Serve topped with a dollop of non-dairy whipped topping (optional), a  drizzle of maple syrup and some chopped pecans.


To top this off, there are three grams of fiber and 3 grams of protein in each serving -- big-time bonus!





*My brown rice flour blend is as follows: 3 cups of brown rice flour, 1 cup potato starch, 1/2 cup tapioca starch. Mix well and store in an airtight container.

Nutrition Information Per 1/3 cup serving: Calories 165; Total Fat 7g; Total Carb 22g; Fiber 3g; Sugars 11g; Protein 3g
*Nutrition information has been calculated using an online recipe calculator tool.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Yo Gabba Gabba Birthday Card


Muno! Foofa! Plex! Brobee! Toodee! The only character we're missing is DJ Lance in this cute and easy Yo Gabba Gabba homemade birthday card.

We recently went to a 2nd birthday party and I remembered that the little girl whose birthday it was just went to a Yo Gabba Gabba (or Yo Yo Gabba as we call it) show. I thought it might be nice to make our gift a Yo Yo Gabba-themed gift.

I recall the first time my husband put Yo Gabba Gabba on the tv (quite on accident I think) for my oldest daughter who was probably around two at the time. I was mortified. It was so weird and c'mon, Tone Loc on a children's show? Yuck.

But my daughter was hooked and cried hysterically when I shut it off. I remember not knowing why the she was crying and then I realized, if I put Yo Gabba Gabba on, she'll stop crying. I remember telling my mom on the phone and she said she felt the same about Sesame Street when it first came on. She thought it was so weird. (Which now we think is so funny that Sesame Street could be considered weird, but it's all relative, right?)

But I got used to Yo Gabba Gabba and now I actually find the characters endearing. My youngest daughter only has eyes for Mickey Mouse though. On occasion, she plays with a random Yo Gabba Gabba toy. (If it looks chew-worthy enough.)


Anyhow, it was a Friday night right after dinner and I thought my oldest and I could do a little coloring together, so I quickly googled "free Yo Gabba Gabba coloring pages" and finally settled on this image for a few reasons: It was a large enough size to be scaled down to fit in the red envelope I wanted to use and I liked how they were lined up all in one row.


I scaled it so it would fit nicely into that red envelope I mentioned earlier. Then I printed it on card stock and proceeded to color the image using colored pencils.


Then I cut out the base of the card at 9.5" x 4". I then trimmed the picture to 8 5/8" x 4 1/16" and adhered it with double-sided tape.


Then in the white area to the right, I figured I had a couple inches for a message, so I cut out yellow scrap paper at 2 3/4" x 2" and then I printed a message on white card stock. I cut the white card stock out at 2 1/2" x 1 3/4", then I attached it to the yellow scrap paper using double-sided tape and then attached it the same way to the card itself.


My daughter was so amazed to see the black and white coloring page we printed out from the computer come to life that I think I may do this with other birthday parties!


I tried finding some Yo Gabba Gabba toys to go along with the card, but I couldn't find one thing. Last year there were so many in stores. I seriously could not find one (and I went to a many stores looking). I'm not sure if Yo Gabba Gabba is losing popularity or if I was just caught in between merchandising periods or something. Even if you can't find any Yo Gabba Gabba toys, you can still make this super cute (and totally easy) birthday card!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Slow Cookin' Sunday: Pot Roast and Veggies


For about a month, I've been dreading turning the clocks back for Daylight Savings Time. Everyone says, "Don't you just love the extra hour?"

No. I don't love the extra hour. Because I don't get an extra hour. I get the same amount of hours with a horrible 4:00 am wake up call. My youngest daughter normally wakes up between 5:30 and 6:15 am -- most often it's around 5:30 am. So when we push the clocks back, she wakes up at 4:30 am. Now I know that it's really still 5:30 am, but the clock says 4:30 am and I always have this horrible feeling that she will never adjust and just keep waking at 4:30 am.

You can see why I have been dreading this time change.

To make matters worse, this whole week has been a pretty crappy sleep week. Starting with last Sunday, either one or both of my kids have been up some portion of the night because of an upper respiratory virus they caught somewhere. I swear, we have not had a break this fall with colds yet. (I am hoping this finally puts an end to a very long battle of one virus and bacterial infection after the other.)

So I am exhausted, sort of moving through each day in a fog, because I just can't get a good night's sleep and with this time change breathing down my neck, I was really dreading Sunday morning.

After I put the kids to sleep last night, I sat down on the couch and slowly fell to a laying position. The last time I saw on the clock was 8:00 pm. My husband woke me up at 9:30 pm to tell me to go upstairs. I dragged myself upstairs, changed and put an extra binky in the baby's crib and covered her up again with a blanket. And went back to sleep.

Guess what happened this morning: The baby slept till the new 5:30 am (which would have been 6:30 am). Phew! Great news! All of the worrying for nothing. Oh wait...

But my oldest, the one who normally sleeps until about 7:00 am, gets up at 4:45 am (the old 5:45 am) rearing to go. Of course, I told her to go back to sleep and to her credit, she laid in bed (albeit making much noise) until she heard her sister loudly start jabbering at 5:30 am.

Murphy's law.

Earlier in the week when my fog wasn't quite so thick, I saw beef chuck roasts on sale at Whole Foods for $3.99 a pound and they just looked so fresh and good. So this week's Slow Cookin' Sunday was a no brainer (thankfully). Putting a beef chuck roast in the slow cooker breaks down the connective tissues and creates a moist and tender cut of meat that melts in your mouth. Serve the veggies alongside with the leftover gravy and you got yourself one heck of an easy and delicious meal.

Slow Cooker Pot Roast and Veggies






Ingredients:

1 tablespoon cornstarch
2 tablespoons water
1 beef chuck roast (about 2.5 pounds)
4 large carrots (or eight medium) cut into fourths
2 large onions cut into 8 wedges
1 tablespoon dried minced onion
1 teaspoon garlic powder
A few sprinkles of onion powder
Salt

Directions:

Start by making a slurry with the cornstarch and water by mixing together in a small bowl until smooth.


Once it is smooth, pour it into the slow cooker. Add the chopped veggies, season with salt and toss in the cornstarch mixture.

Season each side of the roast with salt and lay on top of the veggies. Sprinkle the dried minced onion, garlic powder and onion salt over the roast.


Cook on high for six hours or until fork tender.


Remove the roast and vegetables to a serving platter and strain the remaining liquid through a fine mesh sieve. Serve roast and veggies with the sauce if desired.


I think we may be starting to put up Christmas decorations today. It's going to be on the warmer side, so I think I was able to convince my husband it would be a great weekend to put up the Christmas lights outside. We also checked out this great Mickey Mouse dvd from the library and my oldest daughter has been really interested in Christmas, so I think we may put try to put up one of the Christmas trees today!






Nutrition Information Per 1/6 of Recipe (no gravy included): Calories 406; Total Fat 22g; Total Carb 17g; Fiber 4g; Sugars 7g; Protein 33g
*Nutrition information has been calculated using an online recipe calculator tool.
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Thursday, November 3, 2011

Harvest Soup and A Tad Bit Obsessed with Laura Ingalls Wilder


I just finished The First Four Years, by Laura Ingalls Wilder which completes the entire set of Little House books. I was in the middle of The Long Winter when I was making chili a few weeks back. This last book reads quite differently as it was published after both Laura and her daughter Rose died. This book (which really was a draft of a story) was found written in some notebooks. 

While I was sad to see the end of these wonderful stories, I still have a little more Laura Ingalls Wilder reading to do because I picked up some biographies from the library and I can't wait to read the "behind-the-scenes." I'm such a nerd.

My husband and I also started watching Little House on the Prairie reruns on the Hallmark channel. The episodes are played during the afternoon, so I DVR them and we watch them at night after the kids go to sleep. Yep, I'm obsessed.

What's really funny though is my husband has a strange fixation on Michael Landon (who plays Pa Ingalls). He's always making strange comments about his, "long flowing curly hair and his broad shoulders." I actually think he might be the slightest bit jealous of Pa Ingalls. (My husband is also probably the only person in the world who thinks Laura Ingalls Wilder was a bully.)

During each show, we like to point how how some aspects of the Hollywoodized version of the stories are not really pioneer-like at all (such as the airplane lines in the sky up above or the two-story modern house in the background.) We have also begun to translate our evening tv watching into our regular lives. For instance, if I am driving and I yell at someone for cutting me off, he tells me that's not very Ingalls-like of me.

Since I have been completely and absolutely engrossed in farming and the pioneer life, it was only natural I name this soup Harvest Soup. I've been making this for a few years. I actually ripped the recipe out of a magazine a few years ago in a doctor's office and it has evolved in our house to this creamy and rich concoction that gets its ooomph from butternut squash and a slight sweetness from a few apples.


I began calling it Harvest Soup because we went apple picking a few weeks back and picked the butternut squash from the fields. 


Ironically enough, there were no apples left to pick, so in true Laura Ingalls Wilder fashion, we decided to pick the other vegetables. (Okay, so we sort of had to since we planned the day around the baby's nap and it would have been a wasted trip otherwise.)


This particular farm had a store inside and picking available outside in the back. The storefront was beautifully decorated to welcome Harvest Season, so of course, we stopped for a photo shoot.


Even though you see a water thermometer ducky in the picture, we did not take a bath there.


They had plenty of squashes and mums for sale. But we decided to load up on other veggies that were in season.


As were were digging, I came across a curly-q of a snake. Dead, of course.


My daughter and niece had fun squirreling around in the pumpkin patch.


We spent the afternoon picking vegetables and walking around.


It was a gorgeous day with completely out-of-the-ordinary warm weather. And even though we came home apple-less, we had an awesome time.


Very pioneer of us, wouldn't you say?  (Except of course, it wasn't our farm and we drove there in our car.) But nonetheless...

I came home and knew just what I was going to do with that big 'ol butternut squash.

Harvest Soup







Makes about 6 cups

Ingredients:

1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 cup carrot, chopped
1/2 cup celery, chopped
1 medium onion chopped
3 1/2 cups butternut squash, seeded and cubed
2 apples, cored and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
4 cups chicken stock
Salt

Directions:

Heat the oil in a large dutch oven over medium heat. Add the carrots, celery and onion. Season with salt and allow to cook until soft, about 6 to 8 minutes.

Meanwhile, peel and cut the butternut squash. I lob off the top and bottom so it can stand on its own and then I peel it.


I then cut off the "circle" on the bottom (the part that contains the seeds). This way I have three pieces to work with. I then cut each of those pieces in half.


When the vegetables are soft, add the butternut squash, apples and chicken stock.


Bring to a boil and simmer for about 20 minutes or until the apples and squash are tender. Allow to cool slightly and transfer to a blender.


Season with salt and purée soup in blender until smooth. Ladle in bowls and serve.  A tasty soup using seasonal ingredients perfect for fall and the Thanksgiving holiday. You can make this ahead and reheat before serving.





Nutrition Information Per 1.5 Cups: Calories 245; Total Fat 7g; Total Carb 42g; Fiber 9g; Sugars 13g; Protein 8g
*Nutrition information has been calculated using an online recipe calculator tool.
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