Saturday, December 7, 2013

Chicken Spaghetti with NO Velveeta or Canned Soups

The Mister and I have both been nursing wicked colds all week.  I'm finally getting my appetite back and decided that a big batch of chicken spaghetti would be just the thing to revive my neglected taste buds.  Most of the recipes I came across centered around cans of cream-o'-crap and a big block of Velveeta.  I'm not a fan of either, so I was excited to see that a blogger had created a version of this dish with a cheddar sauce.  The outcome was delicious!

Note:  I went ahead and baked my spaghetti, which makes for a drier dish.  You are free to just mix everything in the pot and skip that step if you'd like.  If you want to bake it but prefer a saucier casserole, I would recommend upping the liquids by about a cup.

Also, a lot of cooks use poached and shredded chicken breast for this dish.  I opted to dice my chicken, season it with seasoned salt, cumin, and chili powder, and sear it on the stovetop.

Adapted from Lauren's Latest

3/4 lb. thin spaghetti
3 tablespoons butter
1 yellow onion, diced
2 tablespoons all purpose flour
1 cup chicken stock
1 cup milk
1/2 lb cheddar cheese, shredded
1 can Rotel tomatoes and green chiles, drained
1/2 teaspoon cumin
salt & pepper, to taste
2 cups cooked, shredded chicken

Preheat oven to 350.  Bring a large pot of water to boil. Cook spaghetti to al dente and drain.

Meanwhile, melt butter and saute onions until softened, about 5 minutes. Stir in flour and cook 2 minutes. Slowly whisk in chicken broth and milk to prevent lumps. Increase heat to medium high.  Allow to bubble until sauce thickens.

Reduce heat to medium low.  Sprinkle in shredded cheese a bit at a time, stirring continuously until melted into sauce. Stir in cumin, salt, pepper, Rotel, chicken, and cooked spaghetti. Toss to coat everything evenly in sauce.

Pour into greased 9 X 13 glass dish.  Bake 30 minutes.

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Sunday, November 24, 2013

Soft and Chewy Double Chocolate M&M Cookies

Toward late October, my friends and I co-hosted a Halloween bash.  I was in charge of dessert and, after sifting through zillions of cookie recipes, decided to try these.  They were a HUGE hit.  I made two batches and they were almost all gone before the end of the night.  The subtle crunch of the M&M shells contrasted beautifully with the cookie base.  Winner, winner!
From Tracey's Culinary Adventures


1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon cornstarch
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg, at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup mini M&Ms


Preheat oven to 350 F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

In a medium bowl, whisk the flour, cocoa powder, cornstarch, baking soda, and salt together. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and both sugars on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Beat in the egg and then the vanilla. With the mixer on low, gradually add the dry ingredients, beating just until combined. Mix in the mini M&M's.

Using a small cookie scoop (mine measures about 1 1/2 inches across), portion the batter onto the prepared baking sheets, spacing the cookies about 2 inches apart. Bake for about 8 minutes (rotating the baking sheets halfway through if you're doing both at once) or until the edges of the cookies are set (the centers may look underdone - don't overbake!). Allow the cookies to cool for a few minutes, then remove them to wire racks to cool completely. Repeat with all of the dough.

Makes about 2 dozen cookies.

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Sunday, March 31, 2013

Easy Maple Granola

First of all, I hope everyone has had a lovely Easter holiday!  I have been a busy little bee the last few days.  See, I'm graduating (WOOHOO!!!!!!) with my masters' in May, and was feeling the mid-semester crunch.  I decided on Thursday that I might feel better if I just wrote out a to-do list with due dates for both of my classes the rest of the semester so that I could quantify my stress instead of stressing without bound.  :-)

Once I did that, it all started to seem more manageable.  I started tackling my to-do's and before I knew it, I had read four chapters, taken 3 tests, knocked out 2 major projects, and written 3 papers. 

Like a boss.

So now all that stands between me and my M.Ed. has been pared down to 6 lines on a to-do list.  (Two of them are going to be pretty intense, but we're just going to ignore that for now.)

After all that work, I retreated to the kitchen to whip up some homemade granola.  Except I couldn't find the recipe I usually use.  (Darn!)  It turned out to be a blessing in disguise- the new version I found has a fraction of the oil and cooks up in less than 1/3 the time of my usual.  (And fewer dirty dishes!  Heckyesscore!!!)

This recipe is forgiving, so if you want to throw in a few extra almonds or add some pecans or walnuts, knock yourself out.  I did!

Minimally adapted from Cafe Sucre Farine, Originally from Barefeet in the Kitchen

2 cups old fashioned rolled oats
1 cup sliced almonds
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup pure maple syrup
1 Tbsp vegetable oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Preheat the oven to 350˚F. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.

2. Stir together all ingredients to coat thoroughly. Spread across the parchment paper and bake for 15-18 minutes, stir the mixture after 10 minutes and spread across the tray again before returning to the oven.

3. Let cool completely before transferring to an airtight container. Use as a topping on yogurt or fresh fruit, oatmeal or for a quick, healthy snack.

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Sunday, January 27, 2013

Amtrak Trip

When I was a little girl, my mom once pointed out a passing Amtrak to me.  "Look in the windows- people are riding in that train!"  I was awestruck.  From that point forward, I dreamed of someday taking a trip on an Amtrak.  I told my husband about that dream a few months ago and the next thing I knew, we were looking at a route map, deciding where our final destination would be.

Over Christmas break, we climbed aboard the Sunset Limited; destination: Tucson.  It was AMAZING.  We saw such wonderful sights and met the most interesting, funny, and friendly people along the way.  Here are a few pictures of our journey.  Toward the bottom of this post, you'll find some tips I came up with for train travel.  Enjoy!

The Houston station featured wall-to-wall displays of old posters, tickets, photos, brochures, you name it!  It was awesome to be able to take a look through history to see how the route has changed over the years.

We had a multi-hour layover in San Antonio, so we were able to get off the train and explore the city.

Outside the station, a Union Pacific train had been decked out in Christmas decor.  It was beautiful!


We took that opportunity to go check out the front of our train for the first time.  That thing was a beast!
The Alamo, all lit up at 2:00 in the morning.

On our return trip, we were in the middle of a snowstorm through much of New Mexico and west Texas.  Aside from the snow-covered Grand Canyon (more on that another day), it was the most snow I had seen in my life.

  Passing another Amtrak in the middle of nowhere.

All in all, it was an experience I will not soon forget.  We plan to take another train trip in a couple years.  We're thinking next time we may visit Chicago!

 And a few tips for Amtrak travel:

1.  Spring for a sleeper.  The roomettes are tiny, but are totally sufficient.  The sleeper accommodations give you a lot of privacy and are very comfortable.   Your sleeping car reservation also entitles you to three free meals a day in the dining car.

2.  Speaking of the dining car, this aspect of Amtrak travel was one of the most pleasant of our trip.  The food was GOOD.  Not "good for a train," or "good for mass-produced food"- I'm talking really, truly delicious.  Over the course of our travels, I enjoyed roasted turkey with stuffing and cranberry sauce, fresh crab cakes with rice pilaf and a vegetable medley, a chicken pesto panini with kettle chips, pancakes with eggs and bacon, a flavorful four-cheese macaroni, and a seared tilapia fillet with roasted red pepper sauce.  Dinner entrees were served with a dinner roll along with a fresh salad.   It was all delicious!  There is also a wonderful dessert assortment available following lunch and dinner.

3.  Do be aware that there is community-style seating in the dining car.  A few hours prior to meal-time, your sleeping car attendant will come around and help you make a reservation for the meal.  When you arrive for your meal, you will be seated in groups of four.  My husband and I were a little nervous about this prior to our trip, but it was not a problem at all.  We got to know a lot of cool people this way!

4.  For your comfort, bring a jacket onboard.  You never know when it might be a little chilly in the dining car or in your sleeper.  In the same vein, be sure to ask your attendant for an extra pillow and blanket when you board.  You have some control over the AC in the roomettes, but it's best to be prepared.

5.  Have small bills on-hand for tipping.  A two-to-three dollar tip is sufficient for each meal.  We tipped our sleeping car attendants around $20 each way because they really helped make our experience great.

6.  Bring flip-flops for the shower.  I didn't think I would take a shower on the train, but it was actually a very comfortable experience.  Just make sure you take a wide stance in the event that you go over a rough section of track mid-scrub.  :-)

7.  Consider bringing a fanny pack or pocketed apron  to hold your toiletries to get ready in the morning.  Although the shower room was spacious and had ample shelving to place your soap, shampoo, and all that jazz, the toilet rooms themselves were pretty compact.  I found myself having to hold my face soap between my legs when I was washing up in the sink.  (Remember what I said about assuming a wide stance earlier?  Yeah, my elbow definitely met with the bathroom wall a time or two!)

8.  Amtrak's baggage policy is awesome.  We did not have to check anything- we were able to carry our two large suitcases on board along with toiletry bags, overnight bags, and a laptop bag.  The large bags were stored on luggage racks just outside our room.  It was nice to have access to our luggage at all times.

9.   Pack earplugs.  Some sections of the track are quite noisy and can keep you from getting your beauty sleep!

10.  BRING DRAMAMINE.  You do NOT want to discover 2 hours into a 25-hour journey that you get motion sickness on trains!  Lucky for me, a kind-hearted cafe car employee named Josette took pity on me and let me borrow her Sea-bands for a couple of hours on the ride westward. 

11.  You will be a lot happier if you tell yourself that your train will arrive late.  You will be even happier if you tell yourself your train will arrive *really, really, really* late.  We experienced a few hitches on our way to Tucson, turning our 25-hour ride into a 33-hour ride.  I was very grumpy about it and wish I had prepared myself for that possibility.  Our ride back went smoothly and we were able to get to our station within 15 minutes of our designated arrival time.

12.  Alcohol is plentiful on the train.  You may buy beer, etc. in the cafe car, and sleeping car passengers are free to bring their own liquor and beer so long as it is consumed in your room.  If you choose to imbibe, however, make sure you do so in moderation.  Amtrak conductors do not tolerate any shenanigans and will be more than happy to pluck your happy hiney off the train at three in the morning and deposit you into the waiting hands handcuffs of the local police (or a team of border patrol agents, as it were).

Anyway, if you have been thinking about taking an Amtrak vacation, DO IT!  Then, come back here and let me know how it was.  Cheers!

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Saturday, January 26, 2013

Italian Tomato Gravy

One of the most wonderful things my husband and I received for our wedding (almost five years ago!) was a booklet of recipes compiled by my husband's late grandmother.  Inside, my mother-in-law had placed this sticky note:

By that point, I had already heard a lot about this legendary tomato sauce.  My husband was so in love with it, in fact, that he turned his nose up at every other version.  Our first year of marriage was full of cooking fails- like the time I accidentally melted a nylon spatula into my chicken approximately one hour into my America's Test Kitchen chicken marsala.  But this tomato gravy, complex despite its simplicity, was a sure bet each and every time I whipped up a batch. 

These days, I usually serve it with Italian sausage, but it also makes a great meat sauce base and is fabulous in homemade lasagna. 

1 tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
3 6-oz cans tomato paste
3 cans water
1 8-oz can tomato sauce
4 tsp sugar
2 tsp salt
1 tsp sweet basil

1.  Saute onions in oil.  Add garlic, then add all other ingredients.  Cook 1 hour on low.

Makes enough to dress 1 lb of spaghetti, noodles, or with lasagna recipes.

Meat Sauces

Using the above recipe, brown 1/2 to 1 lb ground beef or pork and add to gravy, OR, 8 links of browned Italian sausages may be added.  Be sure to prick sausages with fork before browning.

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