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Dine In: Butternut Squash-Stuffed Shells

Butternut Squash-Stuffed ShellsThis has been one of the best weeks in recent history for a variety of reasons, but principal among them was finding out that my parents are coming to visit for Christmas!

Most years, I only see my parents once during summer vacation in Sandbridge, Virginia. On extra-special bonus years, I might get another visit in. This appears to be one of those years.

I’m already planning my menu for the four whole days they’ll be visiting.

I come from an Italian family, and my mom’s stuffed shells are the best ever. Mine are never as good as hers, so I’m not even going to try to duplicate the recipe this time around. Instead, I’m going to honor the dish with a variation on the traditional take on stuffed shells.

This is a recipe full of interesting flavors. The butternut squash is slightly sweet, especially after it has roasted and caramelized. The spinach, with its touch of acidity, offsets the sweetness of the butternut squash while the creaminess of the ricotta is balanced by the texture of the pine nuts. Then, the lemon brings it all together with a lovely brightness.

This is a great dish for a fall Friday night or to put in your holiday repertoire this year.

Butternut Squash-Stuffed Shells
Serves 8

2 cups roasted butternut squash
olive oil, for tossing
1 box jumbo pasta shells
2 cups part-skim ricotta cheese
1/3 cup grated parmesan cheese, plus more for garnish
1/2 cup toasted pine nuts, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 cup fresh baby spinach
1 egg
1 tsp lemon zest, grated
4 Tbs butter, melted
1/2 cup butter
10 sage leaves (if you can’t find sage, substitute oregano or basil)
salt and pepper, to taste
fresh lemon juice from 1 lemon

Peel and chop the butternut squash, and then toss in olive oil. Roast at 425° F for 15 to 20 minutes or until the squash is tender.

Meanwhile, cook your jumbo pasta shells according to directions.

In a bowl, combine 2 cups ricotta, 1/3 cup parmesan cheese, pine nuts, garlic, spinach, egg, salt and pepper. Combine well. Add the roasted squash and grated lemon zest.

Spoon about 2 heaping tablespoons of the mixture into each shell, and place in a single layer in a 9 x 13 baking dish. Pour 4 tablespoons of melted butter over shells. Bake shells at 400° F for about 20 to 25 minutes.

While the shells are baking, make your sauce.

To make the sage brown butter sauce, melt the 1/2 cup butter in a sauté pan until it’s golden-brown, bubbly and has a nutty fragrance. Add at least 10 sage leaves and sauté until slightly crisp. Remove from heat and add the fresh lemon juice.

Remove shells from oven, pour sauce over shells and sprinkle with additional parmesan cheese. Serve immediately.

Nutritional Information: Calories Per Serving: 527, Calories from Fat: 292, Fat: 32 g, Trans Fat: 0 g (17 g Saturated Fat), Cholesterol: 96 mg, Sodium: 344 mg, Potassium: 370 mg, Carbohydrates: 41 g, Fiber: 3 g, Sugar: 3 g, Protein: 20 g.

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Dine In: Mashed Potato Pancakes

Mashed Potato PancakesOn Monday, you’ll read about the Swiss Steak that Paul made for dinner last weekend, so I apologize that these posts are coming in a little out of order. You see, to go with the Swiss Steak, we made mashed potatoes, and because we had leftovers the second day, we made the first day’s mashed potatoes into mashed potato pancakes.

They were delicious, but I think we’ll both readily admit there was a steep learning curve involved. Turns out you can’t just smash the day-old mashed potatoes into patties and drop them in hot oil. I mean, you can and we did, but I think there is a better method out there. In fact, I know there is.

You start with cold, day-old mashed potatoes, but then you need a binding agent, like egg. We used cheese, which is a delicious add-on, but it wasn’t enough to hold the potato pancakes together. We didn’t dredge the potatoes in anything, but it turns out, that would have given them a crispy, golden crust.

Ours were still good, but these are even better! We had them with leftover Swiss Steak, but I even had one again the next morning, topped with Canadian bacon and a fried egg. The golden yolk ran down over that potato pancake, and it was a little bite of heaven.

Mashed Potato Pancakes

2 cups mashed potatoes, cold
1 large egg, lightly beaten
6 Tbs all purpose flour
2 Tbs onions, minced or grated
2 Tbs green onions
1/2 cup sharp cheddar cheese, grated
salt and pepper, to taste
vegetable oil, for frying

Preheat oven to 250° F. Keep the potato pancakes warm in the oven when you’re done frying them.

In a large bowl, combine the potatoes and the egg. Then, add the onions, chives or green onions and cheddar. Add salt and pepper, to taste. Combine well.

In a large heavy skillet like cast iron, heat 1/8 inch of the oil over moderately high heat until it is shimmering but not smoking. Press a heaping mound of potatoes into a patty and place in the oil. Fry until they are golden-brown, about 1 minute per side. When they are golden, place on a platter lined with paper towels and keep them warm in the preheated oven.

Nutritional Information: Calories Per Serving: 146, Calories from Fat: 44, Fat: 5 g (3 g Saturated Fat), Cholesterol: 39 mg, Sodium: 253 mg, Potassium: 275 mg, Carbohydrates: 20 g, Protein: 6 g.

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Dine In: Steak Shish Kebabs

Steak Shish KebabsOne of the things Paul and I love to do together is cook. Specifically, grill. If it’s a Friday or Saturday night, you can pretty much guarantee we’re on the back porch grilling.

We love steak, but that’s just not practical every single time we grill. However, there are great ways to stretch a sirloin into a date-night meal without stretching your budget.
Enter Steak Shish Kebabs.

They cook up quickly, and the juices from the steak flavor the other ingredients on the skewers. They’re a meal right on a stick, so to speak.

Last Friday night, we made some with steak, tomatoes, Noonday onions and Honey Gold potatoes. We sat on the back porch, watched the hummingbirds flock to the newly-filled feeder, and enjoyed some good company, sizzling sounds and succulent smells.
To me, that’s the best kind of date night.

Steak Shish Kebabs

1 1/2 lb sirloin steak, cut into large pieces
2 Tbs Lawry’s Seasoned Salt
2 tsp black pepper
1 lb Honey Gold potatoes, parboiled and cut into large chunks
1 Tbs extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper, to taste
1 pint cherry tomatoes
2 large sweet onions, cut into large chunks
wooden skewers

Soak wooden skewers in water for at least 30 minutes, so they don’t burn when placed on the grill.

Season steak with Lawry’s and black pepper. Toss parboiled potatoes with olive oil, salt and pepper.

Thread steak, potatoes, tomatoes and onions onto skewers, alternating items.

Preheat grill to medium-high heat. Place skewers on the grill. Grill for about 3 minutes per side, turning three times.

Carefully remove from grill. Enjoy.

Nutritional Information: Calories Per Serving: 309, Calories from Fat: 86, Fat: 10 g, Trans Fat: 0 g (3 g Saturated Fat), Cholesterol: 101 mg, Sodium: 90 mg, Potassium: 681 mg,
Carbohydrates: 16 g, Fiber: 4 g, Sugar: 5 g, Protein: 37 g.

Dine In: Crazy Candy Pie

Crazy Candy PieLuke was sitting next to me yesterday morning while I was scrolling through Pinterest on my laptop.

“WE NEED THAT!” he yelled, pointing at the candy confection on the screen.

I followed the link. It was a pie, full of bits of candy bars! Essentially, it’s like a blondie in a pie crust with candy. What more do you need to know?

“We should probably have that tonight, you know, to celebrate school starting on Monday,” he said.

That’s solid reasoning if I ever heard it.

This pie came together quickly and simply. It’s bright and colorful, and it was delicious.

“That sure was a special dessert” was Luke’s final comment on the subject.

I agree, Luke. I agree.

Crazy Candy Pie

1 frozen pie crust, thawed
1 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 egg
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup flour
1 cup candy bars (I used M&M’s, mini Twix, mini Rolos and mini Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups)
extra candy for the top of the pie

Preheat oven to 350° F. If using a frozen pie crust, make sure crust is defrosted.
Using an electric mixer, cream sugar and butter until fluffy. Add eggs and vanilla; beat until combined. Stir in baking powder, salt and flour. Mix well.

If you’re not using “mini” candies, chop your candy into bite-sized chunks.

Add candy to batter using a slow speed of the mixer or stirring it by hand.

Press batter into pie crust. It will be too thick to pour and somewhat sticky, so you might want to spray your spatula with nonstick cooking spray before you attempt this maneuver. Sprinkle remaining candy on top for decoration.

Bake for about 24 to 30 minutes, or until the crust is browned and the top of the pie is golden. It may still be a little jiggly in the center. Cool completely. Serve with whipped cream or ice cream, if desired.

Nutritional Information (calculated with 1 cup of M&M’s): Calories Per Serving: 409, Calories from Fat: 159, Fat: 18 g, Trans Fat: 0.1 g (8 g Saturated Fat), Cholesterol: 40 mg, Sodium: 248 mg, Potassium: 206 mg, Carbohydrates: 58 g, Fiber: 1 g, Sugar: 36 g, Protein: 4 g.

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Dine In: Steak and Cheese-Stuffed Pretzel Bites

Steak and Cheese-Stuffed Pretzel BitesSchool started this week, and that calls for a celebration, you know, before the weeks wear you out so much that you can only muster delivery pizza on Friday nights.

My boys LOVE this recipe, and I have to admit that I’m a pretty big fan as well. This is a great recipe for kids to help with, as they can roll pretzel balls to their heart’s content. You can swap out the filling ingredients. We’ve tried ham and Swiss with chopped pickles, roast beef with provolone, pepperoni and mozzarella, and scrambled eggs with ham and cheese. Did I mention we like this recipe?

The secret to the pretzel texture of the dough, crisp on the outside and chewy on the inside, is the boil-then-bake approach. Don’t skip this step, although it is a bit more labor-intensive. The result is well worth it.

Serve with a salad, and these back-to-school bites make a great meal.

Steak and Cheese-Stuffed Pretzel Bites

1 1/2 cups warm water
1 Tbs sugar
2 tsp kosher salt
1 pkg active dry yeast
4 1/2 cups all purpose flour
4 Tbs unsalted butter, melted
vegetable oil, for bowl
10 cups water
2/3 cup baking soda
1 1/2 to 2 cups cheddar cheese, shredded
1 1/2 to 2 cups Monterey Jack cheese, shredded
1 1/2 cups rare roast beef, coarsely chopped
1 large egg yolk, beaten with 1 Tbs water

In the large bowl of your electric mixer, mix warm water, sugar and salt. Sprinkle the yeast on top of the water, no need to mix. Let sit for about 5 minutes or until the mixture becomes foamy.

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Dine In: Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Fudge

Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough FudgeMy obsession this summer has been Andy’s Frozen Custard, specifically a chocolate chip cookie dough concrete with molten peanut butter poured into the middle. Chocolate chip cookie dough is my love language. I pretty much love anything chocolate chip cookie dough. It’s my favorite flavor of ice cream. It’s my favorite “mix-in” at Marble Slab Creamery. Yes, I even eat it raw by the spoonful every time I make cookies, and I haven’t gotten sick yet.

My sweetie loves fudge, and I love cookie dough. Trying this recipe was a no-brainer, a beautiful marriage of confections. It comes together quickly. The only problem with it is that the recipe says it keeps for a week in the refrigerator. In what alternate universe does chocolate chip cookie dough fudge last a week? Not in my house, for sure.

The directions tell you that 4 cups of powdered sugar make softer fudge, while 5 make a stiffer, sweeter version. I split the difference at 4 1/2 cups, and I thought it was just perfect. It had a great texture without making your cheeks pucker from overwhelming sweetness.

Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Fudge

For the cookie dough:
1/2 cup butter, room temperature
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar, packed
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/8 tsp salt
2 Tbs half-and-half
1/2 cup all purpose flour

For the fudge:
1/3 cup brown sugar, packed
1/3 cup butter
pinch of salt
1/3 cup half-and-half
4 to 5 cups powdered sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup mini chocolate chips

Using heavy-duty foil or parchment paper, line an 8 x 8-inch pan, leaving about a 1-inch overhang. Spray liberally with nonstick cooking spray.

Make this fudge in 2 parts. First, you prepare the “cookie dough” portion, then you stir it into the fudge base.

For the cookie dough, combine butter and sugar in a large bowl, and beat together with an electric mixer until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the vanilla, salt and half-and-half. Stir in the flour until just incorporated. Don’t overmix. Set aside.

To make the fudge base, combine the brown sugar, butter, salt and half-and-half in a heavy saucepan. Stir over medium-low heat until the butter melts and the brown sugar is dissolved. Remove from the heat and slowly stir in the powdered sugar, 1 cup at a time, until the mixture is smooth and well-combined. Add the vanilla.

Add the cookie dough to the fudge base and stir gently to combine. Do not overmix. Gently fold in the chocolate chips. Spread the mixture in the prepared baking dish; chill until set, at least 3 hours.
Keep in refrigerator for up to 1 week.

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Dine In: Dip for Dinner

Mexi-QuesoA few weeks ago, Paul and I ate at a popular Mexican restaurant in downtown Tyler. During the day, this establishment is packed to overflowing with business people, jurors, politicians and anyone who works downtown.

On a Saturday afternoon it was just about deserted, which was fine with me because I could take a little more time to enjoy the ambience and get some recommendations from our waitress on dishes to try. I must confess, as popular as that restaurant is, I’d never strayed beyond a few menu items. I think it’s because there are so many things to try, I get overwhelmed with the decision.

Paul decided we’d order the Choriqueso.

“What’s that?” I wanted to know.

Turns out it’s exactly what it sounds like: chorizo and cheese.

On the menu it says, “Mexi-sausage and mozzarella.” Oh really? Most queso dips I’d tried didn’t have mozzarella in them, especially at a Mexican food restaurant. I wondered what else was in it.

Nothing. Nothing else was in it. The waitress brought us a bowl of browned, spicy Chorizo sausage mixed with melted mozzarella cheese. It was served with chips.

Oh my goodness, it was delicious.

One recent Friday night, we decided to make our version of the dip, which you had to eat really, really, really quickly or the mozzarella cheese got stringy. We married the American version of queso with the restaurant’s concept and ended up with the best of both worlds.

Oh, and we ate it for dinner.


1 lb chorizo links, removed from the casings
1 16-oz box Velveeta, cubed
1 10-oz can Rotel tomatoes with green chilies

Brown sausage in a large skillet. Drain well. Pat with paper towels to remove excess fat.
Place into a slow cooker with cubed cheese and undrained can of tomatoes.

Cook on low until cheese melts. Serve with chips or tortillas.

Nutritional information: Calories: 285, Calories from Fat: 203, Fat: 23 g (10 g Saturated Fat), Cholesterol: 60 mg, Sodium: 1079 mg, Potassium: 192 mg, Carbohydrates: 6 g, Sugar: 3 g, Protein: 16 g.

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Dine In: Cajun Chicken and Rice

Cajun Chicken and RiceThe other night at dinner, I asked my guys what was ONE food they could eat for the rest of their lives.

Curt was non-committal. After all, he’s 13 and it’s no longer cool to play Mom’s games at the dinner table.

Luke didn’t hesitate.

“Rice!” he declared.


I mean, I like rice as much as the next person, but he waxed poetic about rice for several minutes.

A few days later, we went out to a Mexican restaurant. I told him he could ask for a double serving of rice instead of beans.

He ate his double rice, my rice and would have eaten his brother’s rice if I hadn’t put the kibosh on that, due to the fact his brother had a heinous summer cold (Luke caught it anyway).

While he’ll eat other forms of rice, his favorite is plain, old white rice.

However, there’s only so much of that I can take and am willing to serve. The best part of it is that if a dish contains rice, Luke is pretty much guaranteed to eat it!

Cajun Chicken and Rice
Serves 4

1 cup uncooked rice
2 cups water or chicken broth
1 lb boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1 Tbs Cajun or Creole seasoning
2 Tbs olive oil
4 cups diced onions and bell peppers
1 (10 oz) can Ro-Tel Diced Tomatoes and Green Chiles
1 cup cheddar cheese, shredded
Louisiana Hot Sauce, for serving

Combine rice and water (or broth) in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, then cover. Reduce heat to low, and simmer for about 14 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside, leaving the cover alone. (This is always the mistake I make with rice. Don’t. Touch. The. Lid.)

Cut the chicken into bite-sized pieces, and season with a Cajun or Creole seasoning like Tony Chachere’s. Add half of the olive oil to a large pot and set heat to medium-high. When the oil shimmers, add the chicken without overcrowding the pan. Brown on one side, about 2 to 3 minutes, and then brown on the other side. Remove chicken to a plate to rest.

Add the remaining olive oil to the pan; increase heat to high. When the oil is hot, add the onions, bell peppers and more seasoning; sauté until the vegetables become soft and browned.

Add the tomatoes, and then add the chicken back in, along with any juices that may have collected on the plate. Add the cooked rice and stir until well-combined. Add the cheese if desired and stir well to combine.

Serve with Louisiana Hot Sauce.

Nutritional Information: Calories Per Serving: 610, Calories from Fat: 227, Fat: 25.3 g (9.4 g Saturated Fat), Cholesterol: 131 mg, Sodium: 495 mg, Potassium: 662 mg, Carbohydrates: 48.3 g, Fiber: 3.4 g, Sugar: 6.3 g, Protein: 44.8 g

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Posted in: Cooking, Dine In

Dine In: Banana Cream Pie Bites

Banana Cream Pie BitesIf you know me, you know I don’t like bananas.

It’s really the only food I will not eat.

When my boys were little and I was packing school lunches, I had to hold the banana in plastic wrap when I cut into it so my hands wouldn’t smell like the fruit.

Most people love bananas. They’re really good for you, chock full of potassium. I just don’t care for them.

Recently, my best friend and I were eating at the restaurant where her daughter works. It’s a French café and bakery.

After our super-healthy salads, she plunks down, right smack in front of us, two of the “Cupcakes of the Month,” which happened to be banana pudding cupcakes.

Now, I’m not opposed to eating banana in other forms other than the (healthy) raw form. I like a good banana bread and still bake my favorite Southern Living recipe several times each winter. I will put a banana in a fruit smoothie. When I was on a job interview once over lunch and my prospective employer told me to order the banana pudding for dessert, I did so and enjoyed it immensely.

So, I was up for trying the Banana Pudding Cupcake. After all, NOTHING this bakery has ever produced is less than excellent.

What I didn’t expect was to enjoy it so much! It was a delicious blend of banana and vanilla. Yummy!

I wasn’t up for baking cupcakes last Friday night, but I did see this Pinterest recipe and decided to try it! I have to say, it was delicious.

Maybe it’s made a banana convert out of me.

Banana Cream Pie Bites

1 (16.5 oz) roll refrigerated sugar cookie dough
1 (3.4 oz) box vanilla or banana pudding, prepared according to package directions and chilled
1 banana, sliced into 24 rounds
1 ctn French Vanilla flavored Cool Whip topping

Preheat oven to 350° F. Grease a 24-cup, mini-muffin tin with nonstick cooking spray. Divide sugar cookie dough into 24 pieces and roll each piece into a ball. Place dough in prepared muffin tin.

Bake until golden-brown and set, about 15 to 18 minutes. Remove from oven and use the back of a spoon to press each cookie down; let cool 10 minutes. Remove cups from pan to a rack; cool completely.

Place a slice of banana into each cookie cup. Top with a generous dollop of pudding and finish with vanilla Cool Whip. Serve immediately or chill until ready to eat.

Makes: 24 bites

Nutritional Information: Calories Per Serving: 104, Calories from Fat: 33, Fat: 4 g, Trans Fat: 0 g (2 g Saturated Fat), Cholesterol: 7 mg, Sodium: 235 mg, Potassium: 18 mg, Carbohydrates: 17 g, Sugar: 7 g, Protein: 1 g

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Posted in: Cooking, Dine In

Dine In: Salami Roll-Ups

Salami Roll-UpsWhile we’re at the beach, we pack lunches every day to bring from the beach house onto the sand. No one, and I mean no one, wants to leave the beach to go back and be bothered to eat lunch, so we pack it and have lunch al fresco listening to the waves pounding on the shore.

I have to admit I’m not always creative when it comes to lunches, but my sister-in-law makes it look so easy. She concocts all these spreads, wraps and rolls for her kids, using all kinds of fun and fresh ingredients.

Yesterday, they ate spinach wraps spread with hummus and topped with roasted red peppers, cucumber slices and baby spinach.

We tried this version, which would also be great for a Friday night dinner, with a glass of chilled sauvignon blanc.

Salami Roll-Ups

1 lb cream cheese, at room temperature
1/2 to 3/4 lb salami, very thinly sliced
1/2 green pepper, thinly sliced

Lay out a large piece of plastic wrap on the work surface. Spray lightly with nonstick cooking spray.

Place the cream cheese on top of the plastic wrap and cover with another piece of wrap the same size. With a rolling pin or an offset spatula, roll the cream cheese out into an even layer, approximately 1/4-inch thick. This process can get messy, so be aware of the cream cheese seeping out of the edges of the plastic wrap.

Remove the top layer of plastic wrap and add the salami, laying the slices in an overlapping pattern and lightly pressing into the cream cheese. Cover the cream cheese entirely with salami.

Replace the plastic wrap; flip the salami and cheese mixture over so that the cream cheese is on top. Remove the wrap and place the sliced green peppers over the cheese.

Roll the salami over the cream cheese firmly. Roll the meat log and press the outer layers tight to hold it all together. Wrap the log in plastic wrap and refrigerate 4 to 6 hours or overnight. It’s easiest to cut when well chilled. Cut thin slices of the roll; serve as is or with your favorite cracker or crostini.

Nutritional Information: Calories Per Serving: 310, Calories from Fat: 263, Fat: 29.2 g (16.6 g Saturated Fat), Cholesterol: 93 mg, Sodium: 653 mg, Potassium: 157 mg, Carbohydrates: 2.6 g, Sugar: 0. 9 g, Protein: 9.7 g

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