May 27, 2012

Sun Dried Tomato, Artichoke, & Fresh Basil Pasta Salad


 When I first made this Sun Dried Tomato, Artichoke, & Fresh Basil Pasta Salad, my husband said, "You have to blog about this!"  That, my friends, is super high praise from my husband, whose usual response to food he likes is a simple "It's good."  If I get an "it's good" from my husband, I know I have a winner.  Of course, it was at his request that this particular pasta salad was created.

So how did this receiver-of-hubby-high-praise come to be?  Well, not far from our church is a grocery store that has a salad bar.  Quite often on our way home from church on Sunday, we stop there and grab a quick salad for lunch.  One day they had a pasta salad chock full of sun dried tomatoes and mozzarella (two of hubby's favorites), dressed simply with olive oil.  Mark took a big ol' scoop.

After about two bites, Mark looked at me and said, "Can you make this?"  Well, you all know how I love to figure out recipes ... so of course I said, "I think I can figure something out."

And I did. 

So much so that this pasta salad has now become a household staple.  And it gets Mark's super high praise every time!

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Sun Dried Tomato, Artichoke, & Fresh Basil Pasta Salad
Source:  A Tracey creation, inspired by a local grocery store salad bar
About 10 oz. cavatappi or rotini pasta
1 (8 oz.) jar sun dried tomatoes packed in olive oil, slightly drained and julienned
1 (12 oz.) jar marinated artichoke heart quarters, drained
1 c. green olives, halved
About 10 oz. mozzarella cheese, cut into small cubes
1 bunch fresh basil, chopped
3 T. red wine vinegar
About 1/4 c. extra virgin olive oil
1/4 tsp. salt

1.  Cook pasta according to package directions.  Drain and rinse under cold water.

2.  In a large bowl, combine sun dried tomatoes, artichoke hearts, green olives, mozzarella cheese, and basil.  Add pasta; toss to combine.  Add red wine vinegar, salt, and olive oil.  Mix well.

3.  Refrigerate for about an hour before serving. 

4.  As the salad sits, the pasta absorbs some of the olive oil.  Drizzle with a small amount of additional olive oil and toss just before serving if salad needs to be 'moistened.'

- Whole wheat pasta can be used, no problem.
- You don't have to bother to drain the sun dried tomatoes much.  The olive oil they're packed in brings fabulous flavor to the salad.
- For large artichoke quarters, I cut them in half ... so I guess that makes them 8ths!


May 22, 2012

Strawberries with Toffee Sauce


I am into seasonal strawberries right now!  They are so delicious when they're fresh out of the fields, brilliant red all the way through, and practically dripping with sweet juice when you bite into them.

But want to know what makes them even better?  This quick-to-whip-up toffee sauce!  Oh, yes indeed, it does. 

For a really easy, yet impressive and delicious dessert, just slice up some fresh strawberries and drizzle them with a little bit of this rich toffee sauce ... which just so happens to be chock full of tasty little toffee bits.  Top with a dollop of whipped cream or creme freche, and there you have it.  Isn't it pretty?

Don't feel like drizzling?  Oh, then go for the straight dunk!  Mmmm, hmmmm ... dunking whole strawberries was tasty, too.

Either way you dive on into this sauce, trust me ... your tummy will thank you.

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Toffee Sauce
Source:  Adapted from my friend Beth
3/4 c. sugar
1/2 c. whipping cream
1/4 c. light Karo syrup
2 T. butter
1/2 c. crushed Heath Bars or Heath Milk Chocolate Toffee Bits*

1.  Combine sugar, whipping cream, Karo syrup, and butter in a small saucepan.  Bring to a boil, and immediately remove from the heat once it reaches a boil.  Let cool for about 10 minutes.  

2.  Stir in crushed Heath Bars or toffee bits.  

3.  Serve over sliced strawberries, and top with whipped cream or creme freche if desired.

*Note:  Heath Milk Chocolate Toffee Bits can be found in the baking aisle of the grocery store, in the same area as chocolate chips.  Be sure to get the Milk Chocolate Toffee Bits, not the plain toffee bits.  You need the milk chocolate on the bits to melt into the sauce.


May 19, 2012

Surprise Rocks {& a Dinosaur Dig}


This project always makes me smile. 

Each year with my little first graders, I do a dinosaur dig ... featuring these nifty little surprise rocks hiding dinosaurs inside.  And they love it!  They think it's so cool to pretend to be paleontologists digging for fossils or dinosaur bones, never sure what they're going to find.

And these surprise rocks are truly so easy to make, the little bit of time invested in them is so, so worth the joy and fun they bring my students.  I would make these for them even if they took 100 times the effort!  Now, these are not edible ... it's the first non-edible recipe I'm posting, but they're so fun I hoped you wouldn't mind.

With just a little bit of sand, a bit of flour and water, some leftover coffee grounds, and a package or two of plastic dinosaurs (or other surprise!) from the dollar store, you can have yourself a batch of surprise rocks.  And here's how.

Start by combining some sand, flour, coffee grounds, and water in a big bowl.  It will be hard to mix, but just get it started a little bit with a spoon.

Then, knead the mixture with your hands, just like you would if you were making bread dough. 

I recommend taking off any rings you're wearing for this step... unless you want someone to get a real surprise in their rock!

The mixture will come together nicely, and look like this after your kneading is done.

I use plastic dinosaurs that fit in the palm of my hand as the surprise.  You could use any other little trinket that wouldn't be harmed by a low temperature oven ... or, you could use something bigger than this but would need to adjust up the baking time of the rocks.

To make a rock,  grab a hunk of dough.  To cover the dinosaur in my hand in the photo above, I took a hunk about this big:

Flatten the dough out into a pancake ...

... that's about this thick:

Lay your surprise on the flattened dough pancake and fold half of the pancake over it.

Then continue to fold the dough pancake up over your surprise ...

... until it's all covered.  Gently press the seams together to seal your surprise in.

Place the rocks on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.

Finally, pop them in the oven for a while ... and they come out looking like this.  Surprise rocks!

For our dinosaur dig, I bury the surprise rocks in a little bit of sand in a plastic tub.  Each student then gets to pretend to be a paleontologist.  So cute!  They first look over the 'land,' scanning for an area that looks like it's a little different than the surrounding 'land.'  Once they've found potential dig spots, they use paint brushes to gently excavate their finds.

After they've got their finds excavated enough to be able to grab them with their fingers, they pick up a rock and clean it off with their brushes, inspecting it to predict what they may have found.  Their excitement builds ...

... until they're finally at a point where they can break their rocks open!  They give the rocks a big ol' squeeze ...

... and SURPRISE! ...  reveal what they've found.  T-Rexes and pterodactyls always get the most squeals. 

And, I can't say for sure ... I mean, I wouldn't really know ... but I think the adults usually have just as much fun breaking open the leftovers.

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Surprise Rocks
Source:  Adapted from somewhere a long, long time ago
(Printable recipe)
2 c. sand
2 c. all-purpose flour
1 c. coffee grounds (leftover from brewing coffee in a coffee maker)
3/4 c. water + possibly 1/4 c. more

1.  Combine the sand, flour, coffee grounds, and 3/4 cup water in a large bowl.  Knead, as you would bread dough, until the mixture comes together into a workable dough.  Add the remaining 1/4 cup water, a little at at time, if needed.

2.  Take a small amount of dough (about the size of a golf ball), flatten it, and form it around your object.*

3.  Bake at 250 degrees for about 30 minutes, turning over after the first 10 minutes.  Store uncovered.

This recipe covers about 12 small dinosaurs.

*Note:  It's best if the dough is just thick enough to be workable in covering your surprise object, but not too thick.  If you make it thick, it'll take the rocks a long time to bake in the oven or the dough may not dry out enough at all.  For larger objects, you will need a larger amount of dough.  Large surprise rocks may require additional baking time.

Have fun and enjoy!

May 14, 2012

Honey-Vanilla Granola ... & Robbing Our Bees!


Woot, woot!  We completed our first bee robbing of the season this past weekend!  And I immediately came home and whipped up a big ol' batch of this Honey-Vanilla Granola.  It's such a wonderful way to enjoy the beautiful flavor of honey.

I always enjoy taking pictures during our bee robbing.  This time around, I took over 300 photos!  I enjoy sharing them with you, too ... but don't worry, I won't share all 300.  I've picked out just a few of my favorites.  If you'd like to see more photos and process information from previous robbings, click one of these links:

Who Stole the Honey?
2nd Bee Robbing of the Season!

Mark loves it when I share bee robbing photos, too, 'cause it makes him feel like a bee stud.  So without further ado, here is the bee stud and his bees! 

(Notice that he's being all super-studly and not wearing his beekeeper suit.  Our bees are sooooo gentle, that one can get away with this.  Seriously though, people - I DO NOT recommend this.  If you work with bees, wear a beekeeper suit!)

First up is Mark getting the smoker ready.  Our smoker is so super old, and I love it.  I've taken about a million photos of this old smoker.  I just think it has so much character.  (I'm exaggerating, of course, on the million photos ... but I do find myself taking the smoker's picture a lot.)

The smoker

Mark loves this photo of sending smoke into the hive.  It is pretty cool.
Smoke in action!
After he smokes the hive, he takes the top off the hive and takes out a frame or two to see if the honey is ready to be robbed.
Frames in the box

The cows were quite interested in what we were doing ...
Hey.  What are ya doing?

Out come the frames, and they're ready for robbing!  We can tell because they're full, and they have that white stuff (wax) sealing up all the cells.
The honey cells are all capped, so this hive is ready for robbing.

After Mark removes all the frames from the box, we take them inside.  The first step once we're inside is to cut off the wax caps.  Usually, the wax doesn't come off in nice big sheets like Mark got it to in the photo below.  He got lucky with that cut!

Cutting off the wax caps

Depending on what's in bloom at different times, honey can be very different colors and have very different flavors.  It was pretty cool that in this single robbing, we found frames with distinctly different honey color and flavor.  I took the photo below of the wax cuttings to show this.

Look on the left side of the photo --- See the very pale, almost clear-colored honey?  Now look to the right, even with the right-side board of the frame --- See the darker, amber-colored honey drippings?  Pretty big difference.  To me, all honey is delicious, but I do prefer the darker stuff if I have a choice.
Different colors of honey, as seen in the wax cuttings & drippings
Once the wax caps are cut, the frames go in the extractor.  Spinning them in the extractor removes all the honey from the frames.
Then you pour off all that beautiful, golden honey into jars ...
Pouring off
... and set the jars aside to rest for a while.  While the jars are sitting there taking their little rest, any impurities ... like bits of wax ... will float to the top.  We then skim this stuff from the jar tops before sealing.
Bits of wax & other impurities float to the top
When we clean up, we 'feed' any drippings on our utensils back to the bees.  I went out and put some drops of honey on the bees' front porch.  It's amazing how fast they clean it up and bring it back in the hive!  I wanted to share this photo because you can actually see the bee's tongue protruding out into the honey.

Look at the bee at the bottom right ... can you see it's tongue??

Bees are cleaning up!

Hopefully we'll be robbing again in a few weeks.  Get busy, little bees so we can come play with you again!

So, have I got your mouth watering for a honey treat?  Well, go on and whip up some Honey-Vanilla Granola.  You know you want to!

(Oh, and please leave a comment for my bee-stud hubby ... he would love it.)

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Honey-Vanilla Granola
Source:  A Tracey creation
(Printable recipe)
  • 7 c. old-fashioned oats
  • 1 c. wheat germ
  • 1 c. coarsely chopped walnuts
  • 1 c. unsalted sunflower seeds
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1 c. honey
  • 3/4 c. canola oil
  • 1 T. vanilla extract
  • 1 c. golden raisins
  1. In a large bowl, stir together oats, wheat germ, walnuts, sunflower seeds, and salt.
  2. Place honey, oil, and vanilla in a small bowl; stir to combine. Pour honey mixture over oat mixture; mix together until oats are evenly coated with the honey mixture.
  3. Spread granola mixture onto a baking pan lined with parchment paper. Bake at 300 degrees for 30 to 40 minutes, stirring about every 10 minutes.
  4. Remove from oven and stir in golden raisins. Let cool completely. Store tightly covered.
NOTE:  This recipe can easily be halved to make a smaller batch.


May 12, 2012

Toffee Bars & Honoring My Mom

A brown sugar cookie crust topped with chocolate, toffee bits, and pecans makes for rich-and-delicious Toffee Bars.  And they're my Mom's absolute favorite!

In honor of my Mom for Mother's Day tomorrow, I decided to post a recipe that is right up her alley ... these rich-and-delicious Toffee Bars.  My Mom loves Heath Bars (which you sprinkle on the top of these little beauties).  And pecans.  And ooey-gooey buttery sweet cookie crusts.  And chocolate ... Oh, yes - she loves chocolate.  Almost as much as I do.  Which is a lot.

So don't these chocolate, pecan, and Heath Bar-topped, brown sugar cookie crusted Toffee Bars sound just perfect for her?  (Hint, hint - the answer is 'yes.')

Also in honor of my Mom for Mother's Day, I decided to share two of my favorite memories of Mom from growing up.

Of course, many of my fondest memories ... far too many to count ... are of us working together in the kitchen.  My Mom is one of those Moms who prepared a home-cooked meal almost every night of our growing-up lives.  I truly don't know how she did it.  As much as I love to cook, I still have difficulty getting a home-cooked meal on the table just several times a week (I try to cook for two nights worth every time I cook) -- and it's just my husband and myself.  She worked full time, ran two kids around to all our 'stuff,' and still made delicious, well-balanced home-cooked meals each night.  My hat's off to you, Mom.

I would help.  And I loved it.  I was Mom's sous-chef, and learned so much from her about baking and cooking all sorts of stuff, and about experimenting with different foods and flavors.  Mom, like me, was always trying new recipes.  She figured worst case was, if we didn't like something, she just wouldn't make it again.  No harm, no foul ... I like that attitude.

I was also Mom's dishwasher.  That part I absolutely DID NOT like.

But let's talk about a couple of memories that are not food related.

Fun Memory #1

I was a bit of a metal-head, music-wise, when I was in grade school and high school.  So was my brother.  (We were children of the '80s people, so please cut us a little slack on this.  Okay?)  I loved my heavy metal music and '80s hair bands ... and will admit that I am occasionally known to still to-this-day rock it out to AC/DC or the Scorpions while driving around in my Volvo.  Which cracks me up.  A Volvo-driving, AC/DC-listening, 41-year-old ... quite the funny picture.

Anyway, this leads to one of my favorite memories of Mom (and Dad) when I was growing up.  See, when I was in the 8th grade and my brother was in early high school, my brother and I wanted to go to an Ozzy Osbourne concert.  In Montreal. 

I grew up in a very small town in Vermont, very close to the Canadian border, so Montreal was about a 3-hour drive.  Well, do you think our parents were going to let us cross a border into another country by ourselves?  And go from eensy-weensy little town where everyone knows your name to a huge city by ourselves??  And mix-and-mingle with an Ozzy Osbourne concert crowd by ourselves???

Nope.  Absolutely not. 

Solution?  Mom and Dad went with us.  To an Ozzy Osbourne concert.  Coolest parents ever. 

Fun Memory #2

When it came time to go to college, my brother left Vermont and went far, far away - moving to North Carolina to go to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  When it came time for me to go to college, I received an offer of a full academic scholarship to ... wouldn't ya know ... the University of Vermont ... just one hour away from the town I grew up in (and, therefore, just one hour away from my parents).  I was immensely grateful for the scholarship, don't get me wrong, ... and the University of Vermont is a fabulous school ... but, I was ready to have and assert my independence.

So how was I going to go to college just one hour away from home?  ('Cause you can't just pass up a full scholarship to a great school, right?.  That would be c-r-a-z-y.)

Well, I made a deal with my parents.  We agreed that, no matter what, my parents could not come visit me without calling and planning that visit in advance.  My stance?  If you couldn't drop in on my brother ('cause he was a 17 hour drive away), then you can't just drop in on me.  Mom and Dad agreed.  They're good-and-reasonable parents like that.

Now, picture it's the second week of my freshman year of college, on a lazy Saturday morning.  About 9:00 in the morning, the phone rings.

Just who do you think it was??  I'll give you three guesses, and the first two don't count.

Yup, it was my Mom.

The conversation went something like this...

MOM:  "Good morning!  Your Dad and I just wanted to check and see if it was okay to come see you today.  We've got to run a few errands up that way, and we'd really love to see you."

ME:  "Well, ... sure ... I guess that would be okay."

MOM:  "Great!  'Cause we're downstairs in your dorm."

So sweet. 

Now, Mom ... crank up some Ozzy, make yourself a batch of these Toffee Bars, and give me a call.  And if you happen to be making that call from 'just downstairs,' I'd love it.

Happy Mother's Day, everyone!

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Toffee Bars
Source:  Adapted from a friend's family recipe
(Printable recipe)
1 c. (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 c. light brown sugar (firmly packed)
1 egg yolk
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/4 tsp. salt
2 c. all-purpose flour (or white whole wheat flour, which is what I use)

1 1/2 c. semi-sweet chocolate chips
1/2 c. chopped pecans
3/4 c. chopped Heath Bar or Heath toffee bits

For the crust:
1.  With an electric mixer, cream the butter and brown sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes.  Beat in the egg yolk, vanilla, and salt.

2.  With the mixer on low speed, gradually add the flour and mix until just combined.  The dough will be stiff.

3.  Pat dough evenly into the bottom of a 9x13" coated with cooking spray.  Bake at 350 degrees until pale golden on top, about 15-20 minutes.

For the topping:
4.  Remove the pan from the oven and sprinkle the chocolate chips evenly over the crust.  Return pan to the oven for 1 to 2 minutes until the chocolate chips are beginning to melt.

5.  Remove the pan from the oven and spread the chocolate evenly over the crust.  Sprinkle the pecans and Heath bar toffee pieces evenly over the chocolate.

6.  Let cool completely in the pan.  Use a sharp knife to cut into small squares.


May 7, 2012

Jalapeno Popper Grilled Cheese


Well hello, GRILLED CHEESE Crazy Cooking Challenge!  What a fun adventure you have been!!  When Tina of Mom's Crazy Cooking announced this month's Crazy Cooking Challenge topic - GRILLED CHEESE - I thought, "Hmmm, how much can we really do with grilled cheese?"  Turns out ... a lot!

I've always pretty much just made your straight-up, regular ol' grilled cheese. I never really thought to change it up much, or thought there could be so many fabulous combinations.  But, whew! ... I have recently been enlightened.  This is one cooking adventure that will continue for me well beyond the monthly Challenge.

For my Challenge entry, I decided to go with this Jalapeno Popper Grilled Cheese from Simply Scratch.  Excellent choice, if I do say so myself.  Excellent choice.

Now, this grilled cheese is not for the faint-of-heart ... It. Is. Spicy.  The whole roasted jalapenos bring on the heat!  (I did come up with a 'cheater' method, though, that takes out the pepper roasting step and tones the heat down a tad, if desired.  I'll talk about that in just a bit.)

The original recipe calls for roasting jalapenos on the grill.  Well, I didn't feel like going outside and firing up the grill.  I know, I know ... it's not that hard.  But still ... I just didn't feel like it.  So I roasted mine right on the burner of my gas stove top.  Yep, just set 'em right on the burner.  It doesn't roast them quite as evenly as the grill, but it does work!

Once the peppers are good 'n charred, place them in a paper bag for a few minutes.  This lets them steam in their own heat for a bit and makes the skins easier to remove.

Then remove them from the bag and gently peel off the charred skin.  Now, it's recommended that one wear gloves for this step. I didn't have any gloves. So I improvised. With a piece of plastic wrap.

Hmm, I had a little jalapeno 'spillage' onto my hands ... which I discovered that evening when I removed my contact lenses. Can you say ouch? But this sandwich was totally worth it.

Your naked peppers will look about like this:

Split them open with a knife, and carefully remove the seeds and ribs.  If you want extra heat, leave in a few seeds.  But trust me, these puppies are spicy enough even without the seeds!  (Though, I must admit, I did leave a few seeds in the peppers for my husband's grilled cheese.)

To assemble your sandwiches, spread some slices of crusty sourdough with a cream cheese-&-green onion mixture and layer on slices of Colby Jack and the roasted jalapenos.

Grill it up, slice it up, and then enjoy! 

I absolutely loved the creaminess of the cream cheese melted up with the Colby Jack.  Soooo delicious.  Totally yummy deliciousness.  Be forewarned - the jalapenos are spicy ... and I love spicy food.  Still, I'll go with just one pepper on my sandwich going forward (instead of the two I'll put on my hubby's).

Now, I mentioned that I came up with a 'cheater' method for this sandwich.  I loved the roasted jalapenos, but also wanted to see if I could come up with an alternative that skipped that step.  I tried simply dicing up some fresh unroasted jalapeno ... but no deal.  This didn't bring any heat, and just got lost in the cheese without adding much (if any) flavor.

Then I tried diced pickled jalapeno.  Jackpot!  I prepared the sandwich the same as the original, but sprinkled diced pickled jalapeno on top of the cream cheese layer instead of roasting up the fresh jalapenos.  The flavor and heat were back!  A perfect quick-method alternative.

Whichever method you choose, if you like jalapeno poppers - you'll love this grilled cheese sandwich.  Oh, yes.  Yes, you will.

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Jalapeno Popper Grilled Cheese
Source:  Adapted from Simply Scratch Makes 3 sandwiches
(Printable recipe)
6 large jalapeno peppers
4 oz. cream cheese, softened
4 green onions, chopped
Dash of black pepper
6 slices Colby Jack cheese
6 slices sourdough bread

1.  Roast jalapenos on a pre-heated grill or burner of a gas stove top, turning to char all sides.  Place the roasted jalapenos in a paper bag to steam.  After about 10 minutes, remove from the bag and gently peel off the skin.  (It is recommended that you wear gloves for this step.)  Cut off the top of each pepper.  Slice down one side of each pepper and carefully remove the seeds and ribs.

2.  In a small bowl, combine the cream cheese, chopped green onion, and black pepper.

3.  Butter one side of each of the bread slices. Flip over three slices of bread and spread the unbuttered side generously with the cream cheese mixture.  Layer on the jalapenos and cheese slices; top with the remaining bread slices, butter side up.

4.  Grill in a heated pan, coated with cooking spray or a bit of butter, until golden browned.

'CHEATER' METHOD:  Omit roasted fresh jalapeno peppers.  Replace with jarred pickled diced jalapenos.  Sprinkle pickled jalapenos, to taste, on top of the cream cheese layer in each sandwich.


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