Creamy bacon bow-tie pasta with Brussels sprouts

You know what’s weird? My lack of bizarre pregnancy cravings.

Where I spent last time constantly fantasizing about Coke Slurpees, chips and spicy salsa, frosted lemonades from Chick-Fil-A and jalapeno poppers (something I rarely eat in “real” life, by the way), this pregnancy has been strangely devoid of oddball snacks.

I mean, I’m eating fish. And vegetables. And salad. With the help of my anti-nausea medication (which I’m still taking at 30 weeks), nothing feels disgusting or off-limits.

Even Brussels sprouts.

I love these leafy greens when I’m not expecting, and they’re something Spencer and I have in weekly meal rotation. But vegetables while I was pregnant with Oliver were . . . a no-go. Like, at all. I think I subsisted on processed carbs the whole nine months, favoring bagels and potato chips over anything that could be even vaguely considered healthy.

I mean, I’m not complaining. By keeping these cravings in check, I’ve only gained half the weight so far that I did with Oliver. Though I started 30 pounds heavier, so . . . I’m pretty much breaking even?

Still.

weeknightI haven’t been the best about making home-cooked meals lately, but I requested a new cookbook for Christmas and Santa obliged. The Weeknight Dinner Cookbook by Mary Younkin (of BarefeetInTheKitchen.com) is inspiring, and each of the five meals I’ve made so far have been big hits. I love that it features easy-to-find, familiar ingredients used in new ways, and it is — true to its title — all about quick, from-scratching cooking on busy nights.

That’s what we need. Desperately.

Meals are categorized according to how long you’ll need before having them ready: 15 to 25-minute meals; 30 to 45-minute meals; 5 to 10-minute prep (slow cooker meals, for example, or meals you just throw in the oven); plus quick desserts, simple sides and condiments/spices. I’ve found Younkin’s timing to be very accurate, unlike the “30 minutes to the table!” nonsense recipes that don’t account for the hour it takes you to slice, dice and prep everything. Big pet peeve.

The variety of meals is pretty awesome. There are plenty of Mexican-inspired dishes (Younkin lives in Arizona), complete with green chiles, but Italian, Asian and good ol’ American meals pop in there, too. The offerings are a good mix of seafood, pork, chicken and beef, as well as vegetarian sides and pastas. A little something for everyone.

The Bow-tie Pasta with Bacon and Brussels Sprouts is easy and awesome. You could throw in some onions and mushrooms, too, but we made this one as instructed and loved it. The caramelized Brussels sprouts — cooked down with the bacon fat — made my mouth water. The author notes that you could substitute asparagus for the sprouts, if your family favors one over the other.

Full disclosure? I used an entire pack of bacon here (about 12 strips), double what the recipe calls for. But I think this is acceptable because the leftovers were amazing and protein-packed, especially since I went ahead and boiled the entire box of pasta. So did I double this recipe? Informally, yes. But you’ll want to double it. Trust me.

img_6182

Creamy Bow-Tie Pasta with Bacon and Brussels Sprouts

Recipe from The Weeknight Dinner Cookbook by Mary Younkin

 

6 strips bacon, cut in 1/2-inch-wide strips, about 1/3 lb
1 lb Brussels sprouts, ends trimmed and halved
8 oz bow-tie pasta
1/2 cup cream (or half-and-half)
3/4 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp fresh ground black pepper
1/2 cup shredded Asiago or Parmesan cheese (optional)

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. While the water is heating, prep the bacon and Brussels sprouts. Cook the pasta until it is tender but still a bit firm, about 12 minutes.

While the pasta is cooking, warm a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the bacon and let it cook for 2 minutes, then add the Brussels sprouts. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 8-10 minutes, until the bacon is cooked through and the Brussels sprouts have browned. Transfer the bacon and Brussels sprouts to a plate. Drain the grease, leaving a teaspoon or so of grease in the skillet.

Place the skillet back over medium-high heat. Scoop 1/2 cup of pasta water out of the boiling pasta pot and carefully pour into the hot skillet. Use a flat spatula to scrape up the brown bits and deglaze the pan. Add the cream, salt and pepper to the skillet and stir to combine. Lower the heat to medium and let the sauce simmer for 1-2 minutes, until it thickens slightly. If the pasta hasn’t finished cooking yet, move the sauce off the heat until the pasta finishes.

Drain pasta well and add it to the skillet with the sauce, stirring to coat well. Add the Brussels sprouts and bacon to the skillet with pasta and stir to combine. Taste and adjust salt, if needed. Sprinkle with cheese before serving, if desired. Enjoy!

 

 

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Mushroom asparagus quiche — all it’s ‘cracked’ up to be

Quiche

Something about quiche used to really weird me out.

I’m far from a picky eater, but I’ve never liked eggs. It’s weird, I know — especially given I’ll try just about anything. But no matter the style — scrambled, sunny-side-up, in an omelette — or flavor, I’d prefer to skip breakfast completely. I’ve been known to make a sandwich.

When we hosted friends for brunch after Oliver was born, I was looking for a quick vegetarian recipe that might look vaguely impressive to a well-traveled foodie couple (what? It’s the truth). I had that “new mom” sheen of greasy hair, half-closed eyes and unbrushed teeth, so . . . it couldn’t be complicated. I mean, just getting to the grocery store was a feat unto itself.

In my internet wanderings, I stumbled upon this mushroom asparagus quiche recipe from Taste of Home. Its base is a store-bought can of crescent rolls, friends. I can get down with that.

It’s filling, hearty and incredibly tasty — so much so that Spencer and I have made it many times since, usually doubling the mushrooms because mushrooms are life. It’s a great dish to make on a Sunday and slice up for breakfast leftovers during the week. It reheats beautifully and holds together well.

This quiche? It’s just really delicious. Good enough for me to have reevaluated my hatred of eggs as a whole . . . though, to date, this is the only acceptable vessel I’ve found for them.

But who knows. A few more bites and I just might come around.


Quiche

Mushroom Asparagus Quiche

1 tube (8 ounces) refrigerated crescent rolls
2 teaspoons prepared mustard
1 1/2 pounds fresh asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 medium onion, chopped
1/2 cup sliced fresh mushrooms
1/4 cup butter, cubed
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2 cups (8 ounces) shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese
1/4 cup minced fresh parsley
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon each dried basil, oregano and rubbed sage

Separate crescent dough into eight triangles; place in an ungreased 9-in. pie plate with points toward the center. Press onto the bottom and up the sides to form a crust; seal perforations. Spread with mustard; set aside.

In a large skillet, saute the asparagus, onion and mushrooms in butter until asparagus is crisp-tender. In a large bowl, combine the remaining ingredients; stir in asparagus mixture. Pour into crust.

Bake at 375° for 25-30 minutes or until a knife inserted near the center comes out clean. Let stand for 10 minutes before cutting. Enjoy!

Recipe by Taste of Home


Hands to help on a Monday night

Bread

As a writer, I’m used to asking the questions.

I inquire. Follow up. Probe, maybe — just a little! — to get to the core of a story in a way I hope will do the subject justice.

After seven years of writing a column, I’m still getting used to being “in the field” writing features — but am enjoying the heck out of it. I rarely get nervous these days because stories are stories, and that’s my job: to tell stories. Mine. Yours. His. Hers. Theirs.

I’ve started spending Monday evenings at a local soup kitchen. I couldn’t tell you why, exactly, other than I felt an extreme pull — a need, really — to go. I heard about the need for volunteers at work and, before I knew it, I’d signed up for the next shift. The spiritual part of me thinks that was God, and maybe it was. After sitting behind a desk most of the day, I guess I wanted to get my hands a little dirty.

I’m not saying this to pat myself on the back. In fact, it feels strange to write about it at all — but in a short time, these Monday dinners have become an important part of my life. They matter to me. These people, my neighbors, matter to me.

When I interviewed Angela Mitchell last month, she inspired me so much with her dedication to the Chesapeake Bay and its inhabitants. We talked about how some folks would love to get involved in volunteer work, but it seems daunting.

“Many people say, ‘I don’t know where to start, but I have these two hands and a Saturday morning,’” Mitchell said.

Two hands and a Saturday morning.

Two hands . . . and a Monday night.

And so I’ve started signing up to help at dinners, using an office restroom to change into faded jeans after work. The first time I came to serve anyone who needed a hot meal, at least 20 volunteers crowded the church hall. Everyone was bubbly, eager to help; so many people were there to cook and clean that I wasn’t really needed.

But I stayed. Tried to make myself useful. And at a dinner designed to unite the community and feed the hungry — older people; younger people; homeless people; people coming straight from work in faded uniforms — I looked into faces and listened to stories.

A young girl took a shine to me, lingering around the table of donated goods I was periodically manning. It was her sixth birthday, and she looked eagerly through stacks of school supplies. In her hands was a birthday card, and she asked me to read it aloud several times. “It had $10 in it,” she said.

“Are you going to save your money or spend it?” I asked.

“Spend it!” she said eagerly, as any child would.

I asked her if she had something in mind, and the look she gave me nearly burned.

“Food,” she said. “Duh.”


Eating in America


I have never wanted for food. Never had to fall asleep hungry or go to school hungry or watch others eat with nothing for lunch. My biggest food-related challenge has been to eat less of it — and the idea of a 6-year-old wanting (needing?) to spend birthday money not on toys or clothes, but lunch? Well.

I was not there to pity anyone, and they don’t want our pity. I wasn’t looking for a “thank you.” This was not for a story.

At least . . . not that kind of story.

In sharp contrast to my first time volunteering, when the hall was bursting with eager assistants, I walked in Monday to find two women struggling to pull down chairs and set up tables with just 30 minutes before guests would start arriving. Nothing was cooked, and the room was quiet. There were five of us to feed 40-plus people: serving, assisting, seating, helping, cleaning.

I panicked.

I assumed every night at the soup kitchen would be like my first: all hustle-and-bustle, laughter and ease, many people gathered to help many other people. Someone else in charge. Someone else with authority.

But this wasn’t the other volunteers’ first rodeo. As guests filtered in, I was amazed at the speed with which meatloaf, mashed potatoes, vegetables and rolls sprang from the kitchen. The women in charge were quick, kind and completely in control. After the room was set up for diners, I helped greet everyone and got them situated before we began serving. Many were lined up outside in the sun.

As we rushed to fill drink orders, bring out full plates and track down pats of butter, a young man reached out a hand. “Hi,” he said. “What’s your name?”

If I’m being honest, honest to the bone, well . . . I expected a leer. A come-on. A flirtation. Being asked my name has almost always preceded an unwelcome remark — though at 30, I rarely deal with that sort of thing anymore.

But I told him.

“Nice to meet you, Megan,” he said, and the two men with him also looked up with tired eyes. I smiled before grabbing plates and moving on.

A few minutes later, I passed by again — and the man put out a hand to catch my attention. “I’m sorry — what’s your name again?”

I told him, stifling a snap of impatience. A family was waiting on sweet tea.

“Megan,” he said, “can I ask you something?”

Here it comes, I thought. But I said, “Sure.”

“Megan . . . why do you . . .” He paused to take a slug of his water. Then he glanced at his friends, seemingly for help to pull the words he wanted from the meaty-scented air between us. Finally he asked, “Why do you do what you do?”

And I stood there, rooted to the sticky floor, used cups in my hands and sweaty hair in my face.

What I do?


Veggies


I was not the one who built this nonprofit from the ground up. I hadn’t cooked or organized this dinner. I had not donated meals, goodies or much-needed funds. I was just a worker bee: running plates, scrubbing gravy bowls, crafting Arnold Palmers from the iced tea and lemonade dispensers for delighted children.

I’m not doing much of anything, I thought. I’m just here. I showed up.

“I . . . don’t know,” I said. “I just heard about it and . . . felt like I needed to come.”

And that was the truth. The plain truth.

I don’t like to think about others being hungry — especially children. There are so many causes to care about, so much that can leave us inspired and heartbroken and eager to help. The more I volunteer to serve dinners, the more I feel the need to serve dinners.

I don’t want to talk about helping or plan to help. I just want to do it.

Maybe your cause, like Angela, is to work to preserve your home for future generations. Maybe it’s to encourage others to vote or help rebuild communities or encourage sustainable living or raise funds for cancer research.

Whatever it is, you can start small. Wade in. Commit to a few hours, then a few hours more. Get others involved. Give the gift of your attention.

Sometimes the simplest questions have the hardest answers. And even if we can’t do much, we can do something.

We can show up.


Oliver’s first Easter with easy French toast casserole

Easter was fun.

Really, truly fun.

In sharp contrast to Christmas, when I was stressed and overworked and dead exhausted and so completely overwhelmed I wanted to just get the whole thing over with already (sad, but true), Easter was . . . enjoyable.

It helped that we weren’t all sick. December was nothing but colds, coughs and croup, and it was awful. Now the weather is beautiful, the trees are in bloom, flowers dot lawns and the sun is shining . . . ahhh. I feel better just typing all that!

It was Oliver’s first, given he was born the Sunday after Easter last year. Because he’s four months older than he was at the holidays, he also seemed to better “get it.” He’s much more interactive now, more mobile and vocal. Though the nuances of a religious holiday were certainly lost on him, he looked darn cute in pastels — and even cuter with vibrant eggs. And bunny ears.

Blackmail for when he’s mouthing off at 16, eh?

Easter

Easter eggs

I was my better self on Sunday. The self that is in the moment, happy to be doing whatever she’s doing, wherever she is . . . running around and maybe anxious, but still aware of it all. Because it was Oliver’s last “first” holiday, I wanted to document it — but even more, I wanted to live in it.

This has been, for sure, the longest shortest time.

In two weeks, my baby will turn 1. He’s already practically a toddler, scrambling to keep up with his friends at day care and older cousins, not yet moving but definitely taking everything in. It won’t be long before it “clicks,” and then we’ll have a new problem: a child who runs faster than we do.

In that vein, I’ve given myself permission to . . . well, to let things go. Just a bit. A bit! Because we often welcome friends and family, sometimes without notice, I’ve had to fight down this … this urge to scrub, tidy and organize. To seem like a family with two working parents who still keep a spotless home.

But our home is not spotless. Even during those first few months at home, I felt like I had to keep the house impeccable even with a few scratched-together hours of sleep. It was hard to let go of those old insecurities about others not seeing you “at your best,” but I eventually accepted something had to change. That something was me.

In the last year, I have cried and I have laughed and I have welcomed friends into my living room with matted hair, smudged eyeliner and dirty diapers forgotten on the floor. When we volunteered to host an Easter brunch last Sunday, I had to fight — almost physically — an urge to clean and tidy like no tomorrow, panicking in the hours before my parents, grandparents and aunt arrived because I was worried everything was not . . . up to snuff.

But it was fine. And if it wasn’t, they would never have said anything — and surely cut us some slack. So does it really matter?

We served this French toast casserole on Easter morning, and it’s the epitome of what I love in a recipe these days: delicious, filling and quick. It can — and should! — be partially prepared the night before, meaning your work in the morning is minimal. It involves sprinkling on some brown sugar, popping it in the oven and going on your merry way.

Until you return with a fork.

Which you will do — and very quickly. Its aroma can’t be denied. Plus, the leftovers reheat beautifully for breakfasts later on . . . you know, if you have any left.

After our brunch, we had a really nice afternoon visiting with my grandmother, cousins and family in Virginia — complete with Ollie’s first Easter egg hunt! He was more concerned with beating any surface like a drum than actually seeking eggs, but he did realize they make excellent maracas.

I’ll listen to his beats any day.


French toast casserole 1

Easy Apple French Toast Casserole

1 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup butter
1 (8 ounce) loaf of French bread, cut into bite-sized pieces and slightly dried out
2 cups milk
6 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 pinch ground cinnamon, or to taste
1 jar (15 ounces) scalloped cinnamon apples
1 tablespoon brown sugar, or more as desired

1. Grease a 9×12-inch baking dish.

2. In a medium saucepan, stir together 1 cup brown sugar and butter together over medium-low heat until butter melts and sugar dissolves into butter, about 2-4 minutes. Pour into prepared baking dish and spread 2-inch layer of bread pieces over the top, lightly pressing bread into mixture to soak it up.

3. Beat milk, eggs and vanilla extract together in a bowl. Pour milk mixture over bread into the baking dish, moving bread as needed to make sure all bread absorbs liquid. Spoon scalloped apples over bread, spreading between pieces as desired. Sprinkle with cinnamon. Cover dish with plastic wrap and refrigerate, 8 hours to overnight.

4. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Remove and discard plastic wrap from dish, then sprinkle with remaining brown sugar over the bread mixture.

5. Bake in the preheated oven until browned and bubbling, about 30 minutes. Serve and enjoy, refrigerating any leftovers to enjoy later!

Recipe slightly adapted from AllRecipes


French toast casserole 2


Quick shepherd’s pie-inspired casserole

Shepherds pie

The week of my son’s surgery, my mother- and father-in-law arrived to help — and they brought food.

Lots of food.

You don’t realize what a task it is just feeding yourself until the last thing you want to do is feed yourself. Whether you’re exhausted (physically, emotionally . . . er, both), bored in the kitchen or just don’t feel like scrounging up dinner for the 1,676th time, having someone cook for you? At your own house? Amazing. And very appreciated.

Because I lived at home until marrying at 28, I completely took the reliable dinner-on-the-table-at-6:30 schedule for granted. I grew up spoiled by my dad’s reliable meals, and never had to worry about much prep beyond helping to set the table and clear afterward.

As I got older, I started pitching in during family mealtimes — but my parents usually handled the menu. It wasn’t until I met Spencer that I began seriously researching recipes and cooking . . . and it really took us moving in together before reality smacked me in the face. With a spatula.

My mother-in-law is a wonderful cook used to feeding a crowd. In the wonderful Johnson family, meals are frequently shared at their house on the hill — and this recipe was one Alex prepared for us during our holiday visit a few months back.

This version prepares a 9×13 casserole-worth of a quick shepherd’s pie (lots of delicious leftovers for two people), but you could easily double it for get-togethers. I tinkered just a bit with Alex’s original, but this recipe is hers.

It’s comforting, quick and easy to prepare . . . likely with ingredients you have on hand. Practically in a weekly rotation at our house. It really tastes homemade, you know?

And that’s a great thing.

Could you substitute homemade mashed potatoes for instant? Sure. But, as my mother-in-law asserts, it’s best to use the canned varieties of veggies. Fresh actually isn’t best here; you want that soft, melt-in-your-mouth texture. I’ve separately added corn and peas to this recipe, but found we like the green beans/carrot combo best.

But, you know . . . do what feels right. My mother-in-law uses frozen peas and carrots — also awesome. So improvise! Be bold! . . . Make dinner!

Let me know when it’s ready.


Shepherds pie


Quick Shepherd’s Pie Casserole

Ingredients:
1 lb. ground beef (I use 93/7 mixture)
4 oz. or more package of instant mashed potatoes
1 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp soy sauce
1 tbsp black pepper
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp onion powder
1 tsp oregano
1 can (14.5 oz) sliced carrots
2 cans (14.5 oz) green beans
1 can (10.5 oz) cream of celery soup
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
Paprika, to taste

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350F. In a medium saucepan, set water to boil for instant mashed potatoes. Prepare potatoes according to package directions. When ready, set aside in a warm place.

In the meantime, add olive oil to nonstick skillet and brown the ground beef over medium-high heat. As beef cooks, add the Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, black pepper, salt, garlic powder, onion powder and oregano. Drain the meat and spread it evenly in the bottom of a 9×13 casserole dish.

Drain the green beans and carrots, then combine vegetables in a separate bowl. Add the cream of celery soup to veggies and stir to combine. Distribute this mixture evenly atop the ground beef, then spread the prepared mashed potatoes as the top layer. Sprinkle with cheddar cheese, then dust with paprika.

Bake in a 350F oven for 30 minutes, until hot and cheese has melted. Cool a few minutes before cutting to allow casserole to thicken. Serve with biscuits or cornbread, and enjoy!


Shepherds pie

For the “wow” factor, use a cookie scoop to place mashed potatoes
on top before baking — Alex’s idea. Cute, eh?


Weighty issues (oh, and slow cooker thyme pork roast)

Pork

I think I set a record on Sunday.

The very first person — ever, in the history of kitchens — to call out, “Oh, don’t even TELL me we’re out of caraway seed.”

Because … who uses caraway seed? And who uses caraway seed so often that they actually fear running out of it?

(Well, my delightful grandmother, who made the Polish-inspired dishes from her own youth that I devoured in mine. But, you know.)

Never fear: our jar of caraway seed was more than halfway full, so I could stifle the panic building in my chest as I prepared this slow cooker meal for Monday. That’s right, friends: I officially got my act together and prepared a meal a day in advance, refrigerated it and pulled it out Monday morning to simmer for that evening’s dinner. (Just let the crock warm up to room temperature first, of course.)

And it was delicious.

Like, oh, much of the adult population, January finds me thinking about goals and priorities and all that adult-ish stuff. Now that I’m also a mother, a working mother and an often stressed working mother, I really want to get back to writing out a serious meal plan on weekends, sticking to it, grocery shopping on Sunday and placing an emphasis on healthy eats.

Despite my hesitancy in my last post, I went ahead and jumped back into Weight Watchers (affiliate link). It’s been three years since I nervously attended my first meeting and two since I hit my goal weight, dropping 35 pounds, but I’m now — post-Oliver — heavier than I was when I started in 2013.

I just wasn’t sure I was ready for that level of commitment. Last summer, when I was an exhausted new parent who had just returned to work, I got it into my head that I needed to get “me” back. Now. If I let myself slack off with my eating, I thought, I’ll never lose the weight again. I’ll roll right back into old habits. That will be the end of the person I used to know.

Well, I was right — and wrong.

I’m not my pre-baby self again, of course. Everything that happened in 2015 — the beautiful, the scary, the overwhelming, the miraculous — changed me forever. Becoming a parent changes you forever . . . and I’m extremely grateful for that! I mean, it should.

But I did go back to old habits. It’s tough to come out of a pregnancy — unexpectedly early, too — and go right back to tracking every single thing you put in your mouth: something I was not in the habit of doing. Like, at all. For the last few weeks of my pregnancy, I pretty much lived off Chick-Fil-A’s frozen lemonade milkshakes.

When Oliver remained in the hospital for a month, Spencer and I ate whatever was quick and convenient. This translated to many lackluster cafeteria meals a few floors down from his NICU, as well as Wendy’s and Chick-Fil-A runs at odd hours driving back from Baltimore.

When he finally came home, it was just about stuffing something in your face between feedings, and diapers, and screeching.

Prepping enough to prepare healthy, quick meals with a newborn in the house? It just didn’t happen. I had grand ambitions of getting freezer meals ready before the baby came, trying to make our lives a little easier, but . . . well. That obviously didn’t happen.

After I went back to work in mid-June, I thought: it’s time. I now have nine uninterrupted hours in which I can focus on my job and control what I’m eating at ye ol’ desk.

That didn’t happen, either.

I was tired. And sick. Our company was sold over the summer and everyone’s duties changed quickly. Many of my friends were laid off, and I was staring down an extreme amount of change in a short time. It was the final straw in a very stressful season.

Quite honestly, I was depressed.

Though I haven’t discussed it publicly, I’ve been struggling with PTSD and postpartum anxiety since last spring — and there are times it was all I could do to get through the day. I finally sought help in the fall and feel about 1,879,986 times better than I did in October. The pressing weight of worry has lifted.

Through all that? I wasn’t obsessing about eating pumpkin pie, I can assure you.

pie

But I’m out of excuses now.

Oliver has been sleeping through the night — with the occasional hiccup, of course — for months . . . which means Spencer and I have, too. That early haze of dead exhaustion, which clouded absolutely everything, is gone.

Work has settled down. I’m happy and excited with my new responsibilities, and enjoying the new challenges. I’m still writing my column, but also working on projects and articles about different, interesting things. It’s really . . . fun. I miss my friends, of course, but we’ve kept in touch through the holidays.

The holidays are over. They were beautiful, but there’s something refreshing about vacuuming up all that rogue tinsel. It was sad hauling out the Christmas tree, but let’s be honest: the holidays have their own pressures that can’t be denied. Choosing perfect gifts, paying for said gifts, trying to see family and friends in a short time, traveling. It’s . . . a lot.

But January is bare. January is clean. January is scrubbed fresh, a calendar waiting to be filled with whatever we choose, and I’m ready again.

So I’m choosing my health.

It’s been a whole four days since I got back on track with Weight Watchers, so the aroma of my enthusiasm is still quite strong, I know! But honestly, there’s comfort in getting back to a familiar program that helped me so much before. It taught me to control my eating — and gave me such confidence — for the first time in my adult life.

Weight Watchers has been revamped for 2016, and I love the changes. LOVE. (They are not paying me to say this, by the way; my subscription is paid for by yours truly, along with generous affiliate referrals.) With their new “Beyond the Scale” approach, there’s a much greater emphasis on physical activity — not just your pants size. Obviously we’re all joining Weight Watchers to learn healthier habits and drop pounds, but everything begins and ends with overall health.

They’ve revamped how points for foods and drinks are calculated, and the new method makes much more sense. Under the old system, fats were fats; it didn’t matter if they were saturated, “bad” fats or good, healthy fats, ones we need and should eat. For example, a tablespoon of olive oil and tablespoon of butter could have the same points value. So what’s the incentive to go with the healthier option?

Many things haven’t changed, thankfully: fresh fruits and vegetables are still zero points, so you can — and should! — eat as much as you want. That was my saving grace the first go ’round. If I’d overindulged earlier in the day and was out of points for that after-dinner snack, I could always reach for a clementine and not feel deprived. There was always something to eat — as long as I’d made the effort to stock up on healthy food for the house. (But that’s another post.)

The first time I joined WW, I wanted to feel better: physically, mentally, emotionally. And I absolutely did. But I’ve come back to WW because I want to get my blood pressure down, return to a much healthier relationship with food and start showing my son — right now — that how we treat our bodies matters. And I know WW works.

So: there it is. My current weighty issues. It feels good to just . . . get all that out.

And I swear, this started out as a recipe post!

So, um, did you want to talk about pork tenderloin? Sure. Okay. Let’s do this.

This recipe is a WW recipe, actually: from the Weight Watchers New Complete Cookbook, which is ringbound and glossy and pretty. Some of the recipes I’ve made from it have been hits, others misses, but this one? Definite hit.

If you don’t like sauerkraut, you won’t like this. But if you do? You will. So much that you’ll want to make it again immediately. The apples lend a delicious sweetness to the dish, while the sauerkraut, caraway seed and onion — which mellows through slow cooking — give it punch.

It’s the perfect blend of sweet/sour. Dig in!

Pork

Slow cooker pork roast
with sauerkraut and apples

Ingredients:
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 (1 1/2-pound) boneless pork loin roast, trimmed of fat
2 teaspoons canola oil
1 (2-pound) package of sauerkraut, rinsed and drained
1 large red or white onion, sliced
1 McIntosh or Cortland apple, peeled, cored and diced
2 teaspoons caraway seeds
1/2 cup dry white wine
Chopped fresh parsley

1. Sprinkle thyme, pepper and salt over pork. Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add pork and cook until browned on all sides, about 6 minutes.

2. Combine sauerkraut, onion, apple and caraway seeds in 5- or 6-quart slow cooker. Place pork on top of vegetables; pour wine over. Cover and cook until pork and vegetables are fork-tender, about 4-5 hours on high or 8-10 hours on low.

3. Transfer pork to platter and cut into 6 slices. Spoon sauerkraut mixture around pork and sprinkle with parsley. Serves 6.


Creamy chicken and wild rice soup in the slow cooker

Creamy chicken soup

There aren’t too many slow cooker recipes we eat every. drop. of.

Every Crock Pot meal produces leftovers — especially for just two people (and a toothless infant who has just started eyeing “real food”). But more often than not, we get tired of the food before the food tires of us.

Or something like that.

But this? On the night we came home to that lovely aroma filling the house, it fed us both with seconds — plus a guest. We still had five (!) huge servings left over, so we packaged them up for a lunch (mine) and two more dinners (for both of us). In a given week, we ate this soup three separate times . . . and still weren’t sick of it.

That’s how delicious it was.

My husband is always appreciative of my slow cooker creations, but never have I heard him go so crazy over dinner. The only way it would have been better was if it were actually not 95 degrees outside . . . because, yeah.

This is warm, comforting, tasty soup that really sticks to your ribs and will be perfect for the chilly fall days to come. Serve with a little shaved Parmesan cheese and a hunk of bread to officially enter slow cooker heaven.


Creamy Chicken and Wild Rice Soup

1 cup uncooked wild rice
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast
1 cup onions, chopped
1 cup celery, chopped
1 cup carrots, chopped
4-5 cloves garlic, minced
2 bay leaves
6 cups low sodium chicken broth
2 cups water
2 tablespoons salt-free poultry seasoning
3 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil (or substitute more butter)
1/2 cup all purpose flour
2 cups milk
Salt and pepper to taste

Rinse wild rice under running water. Place the uncooked rice, chicken breast, onions, celery, carrots, garlic, bay leaves, chicken broth, water and poultry seasoning in a slow cooker. Cover and cook on the high setting for 3-4 hours or on the low setting for 7-8.

In the last half hour of cooking, remove the chicken from the slow cooker. Allow to cool slightly before shredding using two forks, then add back into the slow cooker. Melt butter and oil in a saucepan. Add the flour and let the mixture cook for 1 minute. Whisk the mixture slowly while adding in the milk. Continue to whisk until all lumps have dissolved. Allow the mixture to thicken and become creamy.

Add this creamy mixture to the slow cooker and stir to combine. Add additional water or milk to your preference if the consistency is too thick. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serves 6-8.

When reheating leftovers, add 1-2 tablespoons additional milk or water before heating. Enjoy!

Recipe from Little Spice Jar