Please, sir, have s’more

IMG_9670

Ever feel like you want the campfire experience … without having to, you know, build a campfire?

A friend recently found this take on s’mores bars — a family-friendly bar dessert that is simple to pull together, cuts cleanly, and pleases a crowd. Made similarly to Rice Krispie Treats, these are a sticky winner perfect for summertime get-togethers (socially-distant, of course … #2020).

I added rainbow sprinkles while mixing in the Golden Grahams. No one really needs a reason for sprinkles, but let’s get serious: this has been a very stressful six months. I need any touch of whimsy I can find.

IMG_9660

S’mores Bars

3 tbsp butter, plus more for pan
1 (12-oz.) package mini marshmallows
7 cups Golden Grahams cereal
3 Hershey’s milk chocolate bars, broken into pieces

Grease a 9″-x-13″ pan with butter. Melt 3 tbsp of butter in a large pot/dutch oven over medium-low heat. Add all but 1 cup of mini marshmallows, then stir until melted and smooth.

Remove from heat and quickly stir in Golden Grahams, making sure the cereal is evenly coated. Press into pan and top with chocolate pieces and remaining cup of mini marshmallows.

Heat broiler and bake until marshmallows are toasted, about 2 minutes.

Allow to set at least 30 minutes before slicing. Enjoy!

Recipe from Delish

IMG_9669

Summer bowl: Shrimp & gnocchi with corn, basil, and blistered tomatoes

Shrimp gnocchi

Back in our early days of parenthood, when I was too exhausted to make decisions of any sort, Spence and I subscribed to a meal kit delivery service.

I looooved it. And I mean loved. Gone were the nightly “what’s for dinner?” debates. The angst over what to cook, when to shop, and basically how to live with a newborn was all very foreign (and overwhelming to me). Using one of those “five free meals!”-type promotions, we opted for Blue Apron. Our box came on Mondays. The recipes were fantastic and I loved the cute, perfectly-portioned meats and “knick-knacks” like red wine vinegar. I especially loved that we could make restaurant-quality meals at home … with a newborn.

If that sounds like marketing, well — it’s kinda hard to turn off, given my day job and all. It also happens to be entirely true!

As our family grew and we began getting more than a few hours of sleep, I couldn’t justify the cost anymore. That’s around the time I discovered The Weeknight Dinner Cookbook, a/k/a my cooking bible. The moment we experience an unexpected windfall, though, I will sprint back to Blue Apron … mark my words.

In the meantime? We’ll settle for eBay.

For roughly $3, my husband recently purchased a big lot of Blue Apron recipe cards from another home chef. These babies are full-size, full-color with step-by-step instructions. I kept the recipe sheets from all of our favorite recipes, so it’s easy to replicate the dishes again and again — unless they call for a tough-to-find ingredient (it happens, though not often).

Anyway. I’m in danger of turning into this meme.

Here’s a delicious summertime dinner (or lunch!) that turned out pretty as a picture. The original rendition from Blue Apron calls for fresh ingredients we didn’t have on hand, so I substituted with canned and frozen varieties … and the result was still fantastic. This is my wild-eyed, busy parent version.

It’s fresh. It’s flavorful. It’s fast, because it’s shrimp … and gnocchi, which literally cook in minutes. The description below seems long, but it is not complicated. You’re basically cooking the ingredients in batches and layering them together to create one balanced, tastebud-satisfying dish.

Dig in. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

 

Shrimp gnocchi2

Shrimp & Gnocchi with Corn,
Basil, and Blistered Tomatoes

Ingredients:
1 lb. frozen shrimp, thawed
16 oz. package potato gnocchi
10 oz. cherry tomatoes, any color
2 cloves garlic, minced or diced
2 scallions, sliced
1 can (16 oz.) corn kernels, drained
1 bunch fresh basil, chopped
2 tbsp butter
Salt and pepper, to taste
Crushed red pepper flakes, to taste
Lemon juice, to taste
Parmesan, to taste

Heat a large pot of salted water to boiling. In a large pan, heat 2 tsp of olive oil on medium-high and add the tomatoes. Without stirring, cook the tomatoes until browned and blistered (about 3-4 minutes). Season with salt and pepper. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, 30 seconds to 1 minute, or until slightly softened. Transfer to a bowl.

In the same pan, heat 2 tsp of olive oil on medium-high. Add the scallions and corn and cook, stirring occasionally, until slightly softened (about 1-2 minutes). Season with salt and pepper. Turn off the heat.

Pat the shrimp dry and season with salt and pepper. Add the shrimp to the pan of cooked corn along with the garlic and red pepper flakes to your preference. Cook on medium-high, stirring frequently, until the shrimp are opaque and cooked through (3-4 minutes). Turn off the heat.

As the shrimp are cooking, boil the gnocchi. Cook 2-3 minutes, or until the gnocchi float to the top of the pot. Reserve 1/3 cup of the gnocchi cooking water, then drain thoroughly.

Transfer the gnocchi to the shrimp mixture. Return the blistered tomatoes to the pan. Add the butter and fresh basil, along with a few tablespoons of the gnocchi cooking water. Cook on medium-high, stirring vigorously for 1-2 minutes, until the gnocchi are coated in the butter sauce. (Add additional cooking water a few tablespoons at a time if your sauce seems dry.) Season with more salt and pepper to taste.

Finish with a squeeze of lemon juice and sprinkling of parmesan cheese (optional), plus more of the fresh basil (not optional — just delicious). Enjoy!

 

My body has changed. I have, too.

06611D96-D296-43AC-885F-83FE666B2F57

I met with a dietitian at work.

For a story, that is — about mindful eating, purposeful choices … eating with intention. But like any writer, I capture little pieces of the journey for myself along the way.

Everything she was saying made perfect sense … and the story/conversation did not go in the direction I’d anticipated. I had the idea of doing an “Eating Well at the Holidays!”-style piece that would probably include tips like “load up half your plate with vegetables first!” and “eat a light snack so you’re less likely to nosh on apps!”

I opened our conversation this way with Wendy, who is so reassuring and non-judgmental.

“I was thinking back to my Weight Watcher days,” I said, “and remembering how, anytime I was headed for a party, I would try to eat all my boring food beforehand so I was less likely to eat all the delicious things.”

Wendy was nonplussed. Neutral. “And how did that work for you?”

“Well, at the time? It worked great. I was so regimented and basically ate when I absolutely had to,” I said. “I lost tons of weight. But now …”

But now.

But now, I don’t want to live my life counting cauliflower crackers and berating myself for grabbing a cookie in the break room.

But now, I care less about fitting into size-10 pants than being able to run after my kids.

But now, I don’t want to worry about every photo someone is snapping from a sideline, wondering if I look “fat.”

But now, “weight” is not a dirty word. I don’t cringe when my son pokes at my soft belly (which, he believes, makes an excellent pillow). We talk about bodies, how everyone has a body, and all bodies are OK. I really do believe this. I want my daughter and son to know this. And yet …

The altar of thin is so deeply-rooted, and I am human.

But I am exhausted.

There is so much more to life.

And you know what? It makes me angry, too. Diet culture, impossible beauty standards for women, obsession and worshiping “thin” bodies while vilifying larger bodies … this is all a total mess. I mean, how much time do we have?

So yeah, I guess I am angry.

I have been thin — a size 4. A size so impossibly small that I was even tinier than my middle-school self. I liked being thin, because everyone else liked me being thin. I felt like I’d “won.” I’d done something seemingly impossible. Everyone was so impressed!

It came at a cost. I justified it. I was tiny for our wedding in 2013, and small going into my pregnancy with Oliver. But “thin” is not a direct path to “healthy,” and I was physically and emotionally all over the place. “Thin” didn’t protect me from preeclampsia, which ultimately forced Ollie’s premature delivery and set off a series of health concerns for me.

I’m not a doctor. I know I need to exercise regularly, eat well more often than not, try to get adequate rest, etc. etc. etc. I’m not denying those facts. I am taking care of other health issues and working to be in better shape — for myself and my loved ones.

But this? This is something else. Something more. This is body image. Perceptions. Bias. This is about #goals and diet culture and the collective obsession with thin, particularly female thinness, which is what is so insidious.

Because here is a thing I know: today, after two babies in two years, I am heavier than I’ve ever been.

I’m also happier.

I appreciate my body. It’s been through so much. It’s done amazing things. It grew humans. That’s cliche, I know, but it’s true: women are amazing.

So I cut myself slack. Parenthood has taught me that there is beauty in the trying — that showing up and working hard is sometimes enough. I have to show up for myself, too.

E00D5AE8-FA90-4ABF-9A04-2DCD4D5A492A

After talking with Wendy, I looked up the concepts we were discussing: intuitive eating, which has to do with physical vs. emotional hunger, accepting our bodies, and making peace with food. It has nothing to do with restricting calorie intake or figuring out ways to reach an “ideal.” I found Isabel Foxen Duke (great name, btw), particularly this post, and Health At Every Size.

It addresses everything I’ve felt since having children, but didn’t know how to express: I want to feel healthy and be physically healthy, but not at the expense of my emotional health.

And restricting food? Creating impossible limits on what I’m eating, and when, and why? Constantly “getting back on the wagon,” then “falling off the wagon,” and dealing with the guilt associated with “failure”? Entering a cycle of self-loathing because I dared to eat a scone in front of my coworkers? That impacts my emotional health.

I’m … tired. And really just done with it.

A few weeks after learning about intuitive eating from Wendy, I’m still in the research phase. Just reading about all these people who have changed their outlooks (and lives) has been reassuring. I like what I’m finding, and want to dig deep to move in this direction: eating and living well for its inherent benefits, not because I need to conform to outside expectations of my body.

Life is too short. We all want to find what makes us feel well … mentally and physically.

So I’m setting off.

I’m going to try.

Not clean eating: Peanut butter chocolate chip cookie dough balls

img_1676

I know, I know — it’s the New Year and everyone is like, “Let’s join a gym! Let’s get back on Weight Watchers! Let’s start eating clean!”

And I’m like . . . here are some fake cookie dough balls. Enjoy?

I say “fake” because they contain no egg, so it’s safe to eat them straight out of the fridge. Or the mixing bowl. They really do taste like cookie dough, but with none of the residual guilt/rebellion I usually feel from eating the real stuff against medical orders.

If you also enjoy eating your feelings, these are portable and very pop-able. With the kids and I dealing with back-to-back illnesses since November, I definitely need sugar therapy.

And so, behold: peanut butter chocolate chip cookie dough balls from Mary Younkin of Barefeet in the Kitchen, who is my recipe guru. I live by her cookbooks, which are the basis for my weekly meal plans. Seriously: Mary is it.

This has been adapted just slightly to add peanut butter chips, because … why not?

Also: hi! Miss you guys. Think about you often. Try to scrape together energy to blog again and usually come up empty, but always plan to return.

 

Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip
Cookie Dough Balls

Ingredients:
1/2 cup butter, room temperature
1/2 cup peanut butter
1/2 cup light brown sugar
2 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp baking soda
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup quick oats
2 tbsp milk, as needed (I used half and half)
1 cup mini chocolate chips
1/2 cup peanut butter chips

In a bowl, beat the butter, peanut butter, brown sugar, and vanilla until smooth and creamy. Add the baking soda, flour, and oats. Stir to combine. If the mixture is too dry to roll into balls, add the milk. Stir in chocolate chips and peanut butter chips.

Scoop out the dough and roll with hands into 1-inch balls. Store covered in the refrigerator until ready to eat. Will keep three days in the fridge, or up to two months in the freezer.

 

 

Why I’ve converted to the Aldi way of life

I used to be a grocery store snob.

Here in the suburbs, chain groceries are everywhere. Giant, Safeway, Weis, Food Lion — not to mention the expansive grocery areas of Target and Walmart, where I find myself at least once (OK, twice) a week.

I loved Giant best. It was close to our first apartment and, after I took over grocery duties early in our marriage, I felt grown-up and responsible inspecting apples for blemishes and acting like I knew the difference between different cuts of steak.

(Ha! I used to buy steak. That’s cute.)

Spencer and I shopped together, making it our Monday after-work ritual. My husband loves trying new things, so all sorts of international items would wind up with our order. We were impulsive. I didn’t make a list. Didn’t meal plan. We wandered freely like the newlyweds we were, looking at each other by the deli counter. “I don’t know,” we’d say. “What do you feel like?”

The variety was captivating. Standing in front of the dairy case, 50 — heck, 100? — varieties of yogurt were at our disposal. Did we want toasted coconut or Key lime? Greek or plain? Dannon or Oikos?

I’d stare at the flavors and brands and prices. I’d cross-reference which was cheapest with my personal preferences. I’d think about what we liked in the past. Was coffee-flavored yogurt actually … gross? Did Spencer hate the mango? Should I stock up now, or wait until it went on sale?

Decisions. So many decisions.

Grocery shopping today — with a 2-year-old and 6-week-old — is … well, it’s a production. One we don’t make, given I go alone. I typically run out on Sundays, known to be the worst day to hit the grocery store with the rest of town, with Spence holding down the fort. I’m always a woman on a mission.

And I never leave the house until I’ve created a plan for the week. That’s how you overspend, you know? Wind up with all sorts of stuff you forget about, forgotten on a dusty pantry shelf. I sit down with recipe books and jot down what I’ll need to pick up versus what we have already to use up. Once that list is done, I rewrite a new list organized by department: the meats together, the veggies together, etc. So I don’t forget anything.

Have I mentioned I’m a little OCD?

This takes a half hour. I often write all this down while hiding in the corner of the kitchen that Oliver can’t see from the living room, thus granting me time to sip my long-cold coffee and put two thoughts together without toddler interference.

Up until recently, I was still darkening Giant’s door. I love Giant. The store is new and clean and rarely crowded. The parking lot is a pleasure to get in and out of. The selection — oh, the selection! — of produce is awesome, and every aisle is well-stocked. I don’t have to worry about Giant being “out” of … well, anything. It’s reliable. Predictable. And 10 minutes away.

So why the heck am I now schlepping up to an Aldi?

And … liking it?

My sister told me about Aldi years ago. Newly opened in a neighboring town, it’s tucked off the highway in an inconvenient and insanely busy location. From our current house, it’s easily a 35-minute drive. Always in traffic.

But I go. Because it’s cheap. And with two working parents and two kiddos soon to be in day care (don’t end, maternity leave!), affordability is important.

But even more than that?

It’s simple.

My brain is fried. We get very little sleep. I make what feels like endless decisions a day for my children and my husband and myself. When I go back to work in two weeks, that stress will multiply tenfold. (I’m trying not to think about it, really.)

At Aldi, if you want chicken, here are breasts and tenderloins. If you want ground beef, you grab the 93/7 split — ’cause that’s what they have. If you want milk, here’s a gallon of milk. Apples? Take a bag. You have to buy the bag. No debating Gala versus Pink Lady, you know? And how many of each?

When I first went into Aldi with Spencer, I was … well, I was a snob. Seriously. Where were my 10 kinds of shredded cheese? My super-specific favorite coffee creamer? My whole wheat sandwich thins?

It’s true that Aldi does not have everything. But you know what? They have most things. Many things. Enough for us.

And something strange happened. The simplicity, the lack of variety …

It’s been a balm on my frazzled soul.

There is something very zen about Aldi. I think it stems from the relief of knowing I’m getting out of there with my weekly order for less than $80 — absolutely, totally impossible for my family at any other grocery chain. I don’t always come home with everything on my list (fresh ginger was a no-go yesterday), but you know what? I improvise. We can manage. Or occasionally stop by the other chains for those unique finds.

If you’d told me last year that I’d be dragging my behind all the way to Brandywine to go to Aldi, where the parking lot is always full and the carts must be unlocked with a quarter (and I never have a freakin’ quarter!), I would have sipped from an overpriced latte and sneered.

Sneered, I tell you.

But I get it now. Megan Johnson, mom of two (!), harried wife and employee and daughter and sister and friend with a thinning bank account … she’s a convert.

I like easy and I cannot lie. It takes longer to get there, yes, and traffic is awful, but once I’m there? It’s easy, breezy, lemon-squeeze-y.

Now, if only I could find a quarter.


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!

 

 

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