Friday, November 10, 2017

Summer School- All About Tea Chapter Five

I PROMISE we are going to finish up our "summer school" before the dead of winter!! Chapter Five focuses on the health benefits of teas. This is a big reason a lot of people are seeking out teas and trying new types. Green tea in particular is very good for you. Let's talk about some of those benefits. Of course, we know tea has zero calories. I prefer my tea unsweetened so I'm not adding a bunch of empty calories to my cuppa, but if you like a sweeter tea consider the type of sweetener you use and switch plain sugar for something a little more healthful. Or not- it's your tea, drink it how you like it! Teas are loaded with antioxidants, and many other compounds that help our bodies stay healthy. Most are low in caffeine or caffeine free, as well. 

Green tea, including matcha, is one of the most popular teas in the world. Green tea has so many valuable benefits it's hard to believe it comes from a humble little plant. Your immune system is enhanced by consuming green tea on a regular basis, and it helps your body maintain regular sleep cycles. We all know how important sleep is to keeping us healthy and sane. It can also give your metabolism a little kick in the pants, helps your memory and eases anxiety.

Detox is a hot topic these days with all kinds of crazy concoctions being touted as the miracle detox cure. Just do a quick Google search and you will find some pretty disgusting sounding (and tasting) mixtures that promise much more than they deliver. Herbal teas, instead of vinegars and hot peppers, taste so much better and have proven benefits. Milk thistle, dandelion, ginger, mint and turmeric are wonderful herbs to steep and drink. Your skin will be hydrated, your mind will be eased, and your guts will thank you.

Back to green tea and matcha, where you can get a little metabolism boost, and cinnamon tea for lessening the appetite are both natural and healthful options for people looking to lose weight. Again, zero calories in tea make it the perfect beverage. Tea made from the peeled skin of the garcinia cambogia fruit may contain properties that inhibit the production of fat cells. 

Janet's beautiful china*
Do you ever turn to sports drinks to rehydrate after a work out? You might want to take a look at the labels next time. Many of those "healthy" hydration drinks contain shocking amounts of sugar, and others contain artificial sweeteners, plus artificial colors, and chemicals and other things you might not want. Herbal teas make a much better, and healthier, hydration option. Teas that include turmeric have anti-inflammatory properties and can help rejuvenate muscle tissue and aid in healing by reducing swelling and pain. Basil teas helps increase your endurance when exercising and helps your body cope with the demands. Much better than a sugary energy drink! Rooibos tea help balance electrolytes as well, and again, without all the chemicals and unnecessary sugars. Looking for an extra boost of hydration? Brew that tea with coconut water and you'll really be steeping a powerhouse beverage.

And finally, if you are anything like me, you need some help in the relaxation department. My job can be stressful and high pressure and after a long day of dealing with insurance issues, I can have a little trouble letting go and letting down. This is when I reach for floral and herb teas. Lavender and rose are not only delicious and beautiful in the glass, but sooooo relaxing. Even the smell of lavender helps your mind and body let go of everything that's weighing you down. Chamomile is a proven sleepy time tea. Herbal teas are free from caffeine, remember, and there is nothing better than a warm, soothing cup of tea to help you unwind, settle into your comfy zone and zzzzzzzzzzzzz.

**** Photo of Pop Gosser "Fleurette" china courtesy of Janet Barcheski Green. Her treasures can be found by clicking HERE.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Caramel Macchiato Cheesecake

I swore I was never going to get hooked on coffee. I had friends and coworkers that couldn't function without coffee. My mom was a major coffee nut. Heck, she would brew several POTS a day and have a cup full at all times every day. Plain black coffee. I always loved the smell, hated the taste. It was bitter and weird and not something I thought even cream and sugar could make palatable. That all changed. The more I explored different foods and recipes and cultures, the more I played with and sampled new ingredients, the more I began to see coffee as something more than gut torching brown liquid. I discovered....... the cappuccino. We are talking the real deal here, not the sugary junk you get from a convenience store, the real coffee shop, Italian cappuccino made by a barista. I fell hard. Bought myself an espresso machine and, surprise surprise, a cookbook of coffee beverages. Lattes, macchiatos, flat whites, foam, whip, butter- you name it. I became somewhat obsessed.

I won this in a giveaway and it's perfect for baking.
I became a coffee snob. I only bought "the best" coffees, fancy cups to drink from, imported flavorings to change things up, specialty roasts and imported beans, to grind myself at home for the freshest possible cup of coffee. Then I discovered ICED coffee. Holy moly. A whole new world opened up for me and along with that came iced lattes and macchiatos. I joined the membership program at every local coffee place. Baristas began to recognize me. My espresso machine wore out. Starbucks came to Des Moines. The obsession grew.

I began exploring recipes using coffee in different ways. Brewed coffee in marinades, gravies and sauces. Ground coffee in rubs and spice blends. I learned that a little bit of coffee combined with chocolate in baked goods really made the chocolate flavor pop. I began to look at coffee in a whole new way. Fast forward a few years and I am now, like many others, hopelessly in love with coffee. I still don't like a plain cup of black coffee but make me a macchiato and I'm yours forever.

One day I decided to make a cheesecake. I had the greatest idea in mind- matcha green tea and raspberry. The beautiful green color of the tea and the bright raspberry red would look gorgeous together, right? I stocked up on everything I needed, cookies to crush for the crust, two pounds of cream cheese. Looked through the matcha powder to be found. Grrrrr. I needed a Plan B and fast! That's when my love affair with foo foo coffee came in. I always have coffee around, and just happened to have some caramel sauce. It was a natural and obvious conclusion- Caramel Macchiato Cheesecake, featuring the incredible gourmet chocolate from Sinful Food. I used about two squares from the Espresso bar, grating it with a small cheese grater and added half to the batter itself and the rest sprinkled over the top of the caramel sauce, so you get the added boost of flavor of the crushed espresso beans and the super high quality chocolate. Garnish each slice with a dollop of whipped cream and a chunk of Sinful Food espresso chocolate for a beautiful presentation.

You can get the Sinful Food gourmet chocolate by clicking HERE. You can buy Sunny Day Organics products by clicking HERE.

Caramel Macchiato Cheesecake

1 1/2 cups crushed vanilla wafers
1/3 cup melted butter
2 lbs cream cheese, room temperature
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 tablespoons flour
4 eggs
1/4 cup cold espresso or very strong coffee
1/2 cup prepared caramel sundae sauce
2 squares Sinful Food Espresso Chocolate, grated, divided

Set oven to 325 degrees. Fill a baking dish with hot water and place in the oven on the lowest rack. Prepare an 8 inch springform pan- butter the sides and bottom well.

On a small bowl toss the crushed cookies and melted butter until combined. Press evenly on the bottom of the prepared pan. Set aside.

Place the cream cheese in a medium mixing bowl- using a stand mixer makes this batter super easy. Use the paddle attachment and beat cheese until fluffy. Gradually add the sugars, vanilla, flour and eggs. Mix in the coffee and half the grated chocolate. Pour the batter over the crust in the pan, smoothing the top. Bake in the oven for 50-60 minutes or until cake feels first and has a slight "jiggle"- it will continue to set on cooling. Cool on a rack, then cover and chill completely. I usually refrigerate this overnight before continuing.

Use a knife to loosen the sides of the cake from the pan. Place on serving plate and carefully remove the sides. Spoon the caramel all over the top or the cake. Sprinkle the remaining chocolate over the caramel sauce. Serve with whipped cream and additional caramel sauce, if desired.

After I made this cheesecake I asked for a few volunteer taste testers and chose four coworkers, Katie, Lia, Janelle and Taylor. Everyone loved it. I asked all four the same questions- how was the level of coffee flavor, too much or too little? Is the cheesecake sweet enough? Too sweet? Everyone agreed, the coffee flavor was on point with the caramel sauce being a perfect complement and the cheesecake was the right level of sweet for a dessert without being too sugary. I'd call this one a success!!

Disclosure of Material Connection: This is a "sponsored post." As a Brand Ambassador, the company who sponsored it compensated me via a cash payment, gift or something of value. Regardless,  I only recommend products or services I believe are of good quality and safe. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Monday, October 30, 2017

Summer School- All About Tea Chapter Four

Christian Littell's mug with a cute
ManaTEA infuser
Chapter Four was all about the caffeine. I never really thought much about the amount of caffeine in a cup of tea, I just drank it because I like it and since I never really had a problem with caffeine keeping me awake I often had tea in the evening, so chapter four was very informative for me. The typical cup of tea has less than half the amount of caffeine as the same amount of coffee. Tea contains the compound L-Theanine which works with the caffeine to create a sense of alertness but without the jitters often associated with coffee. Interesting to know, but I've never really felt like tea gave me any kind of boost like coffee, which is ok too.

Now, one thing that was very interesting to me was all the similarities between tea processing and winemaking. Where the tea leaves are grown, their cultivation, and how they're handled after picking all influence the level of caffeine in the finished product, just like wine grapes. Leaf size, the length of time you allow it to infuse as well as the water temperature can always change the level of caffeine in your cuppa. A tea that has a lot of leaf "tips" will usually be higher as well since caffeine tends to accumulate in the tips of the leaves. All of this was totally new to me and very interesting. A lot of science goes into making tea!

Laura Duffield Beigger has this cute collection
Teas can also be decaffeinated, although tiny amounts will remain after the process. Caffeine is extracted either by chemical processing or with high pressure and no chemicals, which obviously is more environmentally friendly. The process varies from brand to brand, so always read and do your research if you are concerned about chemicals you might be consuming or environmental issues. We all should be concerned, if you ask me! Just like some tea is decaffeinated, other teas have the caffeine increased, usually by the addition of green tea extract. This is your tea if you're looking for a big caffeine buzz. 

Only two more chapters remain in this fun tea course. I've learned all kinds of interesting facts about tea and it's made me want to learn even more. I know a chapter on matcha tea is coming, and I'm really looking forward to that!

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 55: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Foodie Field Trip- Is This Heaven?

It doesn't take much to get me excited these days- and a new store in a brand new shopping mall here in our city hit the nail on the head with one, and only one, store included in the project. Now some people need to drive an expensive car. Some women want the best, biggest and highest clarity diamond jewelry. Other people spend hundreds of dollars on hairstyling and spa treatments, and others spend hundreds on designer bags and clothing and shoes. I'm over all that stuff. Now, I spend my "big money" on things that are important to The Chef and I- high quality kitchen equipment and "good" grocery products. Seriously, those things go hand in hand. You might splurge on a $500 piece of AllClad but if you're just going to cook Hamburger Helper in it, save the money and buy a big box store cheap skillet. For us, we prefer to purchase what we consider investment pieces, things that will outlast us. 

Good knives are a must. I have accumulated a very nice collection of Wusthof knives from their open stock- I was able to purchase exactly the pieces I wanted and didn't end up with a knife or two that I'll never really use. I bought my block from eBay and saved a nice chunk of money on that. In fact, I often still do browse the eBay offerings and just see what's out there for sale. I sometimes grab a good buy. Now, don't think I don't also own some other knives, because I do. I have a couple Mercer Genesis knives and I'm quite impressed with their quality. Guy Fieri suckered me in to buying a big Knuckle Sandwich chef's knife when they first came out, and I couldn't resist a set of Tomodachi knives one day when I was wandering around a Sam's club. Cute, colorful, somewhat practical and disposable when they become too crummy to continue to sharpen. 

My real and true love is cookware. I've owned a set of Calphalon for a good ten years now and while some of the pots have seen better days, they are heavy, solid, the lids are all still intact with no loose handles or broken pieces. These guys are built for the long haul for sure. My next true love is cast iron. All kinds of cast iron. I love the old fashioned black cast iron that needs to be seasoned and has to be hand washed and might have been passed down for generations. There is something really special about owning a skillet that a great grandparent used to cook with. Just imagine all the breakfasts, all the bacon, steaks and burgers, all the pancakes and fried potatoes. You can't buy that kind of history. When it comes to cast iron, for me, the great French Le Creuset does it for me. Sure, I own some of the old fashioned black cast iron too, but the color pop of the Le Creuset just makes me happy. Sturdy and heavy, these beautiful cast iron, and a few ceramic, pieces are absolutely investment pieces. My first piece was a Dutch oven. I chose a color that was perfect for me- Marine, a dusty and deep turquoise that wasn't really bright or pastel, it is smokey and has a gray tint to it. I wish I had bought more pieces in this color because...... ugh, it's discontinued.  Instead now you have to make your choice between beautiful bright cherry red, sunny yellow, the perfect lime green, deep blue, a bright and pretty turquoise, pumpkin orange, and even pink. They do add new special edition colors from time to time as well.

My LeCreuset Dutch oven in Marine.
I said this is a field trip so that means we are going somewhere, right? You bet! Have you ever hear the old movie line "Is this Heaven? No, this is Iowa"? That sentence holds an entirely new meaning for me. Heaven, in Iowa, is the brand new Outlets of Des Moines shopping mall that features one store that fills my heart with joy- the Le Creuset store. My sister/friend Jessica and I made the trip the brand new mall on opening day and we had only one destination in mind- Le Creuset. She and I have a lot in common. Besides being family, we have an obsession with kitchen stuff. Cookware especially and beautiful things like bright enameled cast iron. We do the majority of our hunting at thrift stores, where you can score some great vintage pieces but we never pass up a chance to wander around, touching, holding, lusting over the beautiful brand new Le Creuset pieces.

Before we continue any further, let me insert a very brief lesson in French pronunciation here, because we cringed outwardly at the mispronounced name being spewed by literally ALL the other customers in the store and at least one employee. Say it with me: Le Crew Say. Again, Le Crew Say. Not Le Crew Set. Got it? Ok, let's move on.

The entrance walkway into the mall, which, by the way is a gorgeous open-air mall with coverings like an open roof over some of the walk ways, lovely glass store fronts that aren't looking over parking lots (those are all "behind" or around the outside of the plaza type setup), plants and benches sprinkled about, very contemporary and classy, leads right straight to nirvana......... the Le Creuset store.

Floor to ceiling glass walls give Jessica and I an incredible view of the goodies inside the store. Every size, every shape, every color of the rainbow.  We can hardly contain our glee. I said WE because she was just as giddy and giggling as I was was. Walking through the doorway literally brought tears to my eyes. I'm not even exaggerating here, guys. So many gorgeous cast iron pieces in such stunning colors, and we can TOUCH them and pick them up and hug them. Red, orange, deep blue and turquoise met us at the door and I immediately latched on the braiser. I have been wanting this piece for several years. I've entered every giveaway I've found trying to win one- and nada.

Off to the right the orange pieces have been transformed into pumpkins. I understand you can easily do this with a dry erase marker but I'm not so sure I'd try it. I was nearly jumping up and down like a kid in the toy store at this point. 

Just beyond the pumpkin display- kitchen linens. Gasp!! Le Creuset kitchen LINENS!!!!! OMG OMG OMG! Don't laugh, you people ought to know my by now.

The back wall of the store features all kinds of fun add-on pieces, like mini coccottes and mini baking dishes, utensils, a variety of cookbooks, teeny tine serving tureens, butter keepers, and crocks for all kinds of things. They even had wine glasses every bit as delicate and well crafted as Riedel. 
Teapots!!!! I die!!!!
If you wanted to, they had a table set up with filled pepper mills, in colors to match all your Le Creuset pieces, for you to try out and give it a few grinds. 

Rounding out the store, the pink pieces that you see in October and again near Valentines Day- shaped like hearts and flowers and super cute, a big selection of ceramic baking dishes, again in colors to match all the cast iron pieces, apple shaped pie pans, casserole dishes, lasagna pans, and a selection of teapots I could barely keep my hands off.

Floor to ceiling Dutch oven wallpaper

Jessica and I wasted no time getting signed up as Preferred Customers and believe it or not, we left the store without making a purchase, BUT, we both made a shopping list and we plan on working our way down the list in the very near future. We just could not pass up a visit on Opening Day!!

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 55: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Foodie Field Trip- Fireside Winery and Ackerman Winery

One lovely, rainy, windy autumn Saturday my daughter in law Janelle and I headed east to one of my favorite places on earth, the Fireside Winery. What better place for Girls Road Trip than a winery? Fireside is nestled in the rolling fields of Eastern Iowa, just a stone's throw from the famous Amana Colonies. It's a beautiful winery with a number of delicious wines all made from Iowa-grown grapes from their own vineyards. Founded in 2007 the winery has grown by leaps and bounds since the first time I visited there in 2008. Rona and Bill Wyant, the owners, were inspired by the loss of a dear friend to jump in and make their dream come true- build a winery. The tasting room is beautiful with dark woods and stone floors. The vineyards, known as Brickyard Hill Vineyard, stretch out as far as you can see. Named after an 1800s-era brickyard that once stood in the same place, the vineyards were planted in 2005 as planning and building the winery was in it's early stages.

In these vineyards you will find a variety of Iowa grapes, so let's talk about them- Frontenac Gris is a grape that reminds you of tropical fruits, citrus and stone fruit like peaches. Le Crescent is a white grape that produces wines similar to Riesling, and one of my favorites! St. Pepin is often left to freeze on the vine, which concentrates the sugars, increasing the alcohol in the wine and creating Iowa's version of Ice Wine. Brianna is another white grape that produces a lovely a perfumey sweet white wine. LaCrosse grapes have a lot of citrus notes. St. Croix is a popular red grape and makes beautiful single varietals, and is included in many red blends. Frontenac is a red grape with aromas of cherry, stone fruit like plums, and blackberry. It is used in roses and port wines. Marquette is a relative of the Pinot Noir grape and creates a fantastic red wine with a spicy note and cherry flavors.

The winery hosts special events all throughout the year, from music around the firepit in the summer, weddings, parties, and appetizer nights. In the tasting room you can also enjoy wine slushes in the summer, wine cocktails and of course, a glass of Fireside wine. They even have something for the non-wino in the group, a great selection of craft beers and non alcoholic beverages. We went for one of these special events- a Sip and Celebrate Tasting, which is geared to groups. The winery is just as much fun just to pop in for a visit. You can order from a pretty nice menu of appetizers, cheeses, meats and even flatbreads, grab a glass or bottle of your favorite wine, and head for a seat on the patio, or when the weather is less than friendly, at a table in the lounge near the fireplace.

I bet you're wondering what wines we sampled, right? Well, here is the rundown. Let's start with the whites- Seyval, which is a lightly oaked dry white. It has a sweet citrusy aroma and pairs perfectly with spicy or rich foods. Brianna brings hints of pear, apple, and a hint of butter aromas but brings citrus and "green grass" flavors. Our tasting guide told us Brianna is the first grape to be harvested each fall, and the grapes are also delicious when eaten fresh, unlike many wine grapes. Frontenac Gris is a lovely off dry white that has luscious honey flavors, apricot and pear. Sunset was a sweet and lovely wine, with a very fruit forward peach flavor. It's light and summery and makes perfect white sangria or wine spritzers. LaCrosse is another dry white with citrus and green grass notes, slight minerality, and perfect for pairing with seafood and garlicky dishes. Blu is Fireside's Riseling-style wine, made from Geisenheim grapes. It's spicy, citrusy and has that lovely minerality. Great for sipping on a hot summer day. Glow is another white that's perfect for moscato drinkers. Loads of tropical fruit, and stone fruits- apricot and peach.

We tried three reds. Hearthstone is a red that will surprise you. Very much like a Cabernet, the heady cigar aroma- not smoke, but the tobacco and leathery smells- and dark cherry flavor will make you fall in love. Made from Marquette grapes, it's lightly oaked and it perfect with rich red meats, and of course, pizza. I was craving a big juicy grilled burger with this one. Serenade, a sweet red made with Concord grapes, this wine is known as the "Happy Wine". Take a big breath in with your nose in the glass- you'll go right back to childhood and grape jelly sandwiches. It's sweet and fun. Firefly was the last red we tried. This is one of the winery's top sellers, and you can tell why. Berry notes, especially strawberry, are very pronounced in this wine, and it's perfect for taming spicy foods, or just sipping with friends.

The last two wines we tried were known as the special occasion wines. Autumn Spice is a sweet white with pear and citrus flavors, sweet spices and lemon and honey. Holiday Spice, also a white semi sweet wine, reminded me of Thanksgiving and Christmas. Oranges, cloves, cinnamon are very forward in this beautiful wine. Both of these wines are perfect for warming in the crock pot and serving around the holiday tree, chilled with dessert, or just a glass or two when you're curled up by the fire, with a cozy blanket and a good book.

Despite the heavy downpour and kind of windy conditions, Janelle and I made the most of our day in eastern Iowa. After leaving Fireside, we drove to the Colonies and did a little additional wine tasting at the Ackerman Winery. Ackerman is one of Iowa's oldest wineries and also one of the highest awarded wineries, winning competitions all over the country. It is also the "sister winery" to Fireside. They have a huge variety of wines, from fruit wines, to grape wines, and the Amana favorites- dandelion and rhubarb wines. Here at Ackerman we were on a mission to buy just a couple wines- peach and blackberry for Janelle, and peach and red raspberry for me. These wines combine for some pretty delicious wine cocktails. We also sampled a few others, including pomegranate and cranberry wines. The pomegranate was very unusual but also quite lovely. Of course, the shop also has all sorts of cute gift items as well, from t shirts and wine racks to cute wine toppers and candles with wine fragrances. 

After leaving the winery we were starving! We were slightly tempted by the German bakeries, but behaved ourselves, knowing we'd be having dinner. Anytime you're in the Colonies you just have to try and have a German dinner, and there are several wonderful options. We had a lovely early dinner at Ronneberg Restaurant too. Just stepping through the door was like a trip back to my childhood. I was reminded of my mom as we sat in the quaint and cozy dining room, decorated with beautiful Amana wood cabinets, chairs and tables, and shelves lined with lovely china and pottery. Real hardwood floors and plush carpet made it so warm and welcoming. Our server was so friendly and efficient, she made us feel very welcome. 

 The food was exactly like something my mom would have prepared. Janelle had the Bavarian chicken, which was a pan-grilled chicken breast wrapped in Black Forest ham and melty Swiss cheese. It was quite similar to Cordon Bleu but without the breading and deep frying, resulting in a lighter dish. I had a hard time deciding but went with the weiner schnitzel. Here at Ronneberg it's a tender veal cutlet instead of the pork that you usually see, lightly breaded and then pan-fried, served with a big lemon wedge to squeeze over. This is exactly how I remember eating this so many times as a kid. Both of our dinners came with Amana bakery bread, lovely rye and crusty white, homemade coleslaw which was perfect and not too mayonnaisey, two vegetables, and these super crispy and golden brown home fried potatoes I'm sure came from a cast iron skillet. No room for dessert, darnit, but we left full and happy and ready for a nap! Our day was wonderful and a great chance to hang out together, and even though we both got soaked by the rain a couple times, it was a fantastic road trip. We can't wait to do it again.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 55: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising." 

Friday, October 13, 2017

Summer School- All About Tea Chapter Three

My summer school is dragging into the autumn months!! Oh well..... we will just keep plugging ahead. Chapter three focuses on herbal teas. This chapter was filled with information I did not realize. For one thing, rooibos is not a tea at all, but the leaves from an herby bush in South Africa.. This was SO surprising to me. I have been buying a rooibos blend for years from a tea shop and had no idea it was herbal. Rooibos can be red or green, depending on the specific shrub it's from. Red rooibos is allowed to oxidize like black tea, and green rooibos is steamed and treated like green tea leaves. This tea has no caffeine and no calories.

Among the many teas in my collection are several hibiscus teas and blends. Hibiscus flowers for tea are not the same as the kind we grow in gardens. It makes a bright pink, beautiful and floral tea with some proven health benefits. Ground up, the hibiscus petals a lot like matcha powder, especially in cooking, giving the beautiful fuschia color and a unique flavor that is unlike anything else.

Mate tea is also not a tea- another surprise for me! It's from a plant that's a relative of the holly plant, and this one has caffeine. It's about the same level of caffeine as a cup of coffee. Mate is also used to make a Brazilian latte drink with cocoa, almonds, and steamed milk. In my collection I have a rooibos and mate blend that is just fantastic. It has little bits and bobs of things like fruit peels, flower petals, chocolate bits and spices. It's absolutely fabulous as a hot cup of tea. It's probably my favorite. I purchased this tea, which is actually a half and half blend of two of my favorites, from a tea shop in the mall, and I've head that they were bought by a huge coffee company and are all being sent to the chopping block. I's so saddened by this news. I can only hope the coffee chain will continue to sell these beautiful teas. My container is quite large and is currently full but it won't last forever, so as long as I still have it, why don't we make a latte?

Rooibos Latte

1 tea bag or 1 teaspoon loose tea
1 cup milk-dairy, almond or coconut milk will work
1/2 cup water
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon sugar

Combine the milk and water and heat until steaming. Add the tea to the mixture. If using a tea bag, open the tea bag and dump the loose tea into the liquid. Whisk the tea in and simmer for two minutes. Remove from heat and allow to steep for 5 minutes. Whisk in the vanilla and sugar. Strain into cups and serve.

This is probably the easiest latte recipe on the entire planet. No steaming milk separately, no mixing hot ingredients- it's all heated and steeped together then strained into the cup. Super fast!! You need to try this!

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 55: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Mom's Easy Stuffed Bell Peppers

Each year as the holiday season approaches I find myself thinking about my mother. Everyone who has lost a loved one understands the empty place at the holiday table, and the feelings that go along with that. I am sad that my mom was not here to meet The Chef, and be with Dad at our wedding a couple weeks ago. She would have adored The Chef and I'm sure they would have been great friends. I've talked about my mom's recipes with you guys before. Seems like the summer months really make me miss Mom and some of the things she would make for dinner. She always made a cucumber salad that was so simple and delicious, and a tomato salad with the exact same vinegar and oil dressing. She always made a giant pot of green beans, ham and potatoes, which was a huge family favorite. She made zucchini in the simplest way, sliced, sauteed with sliced onion and sprinkled with Parmesan cheese. As a kid I thought I hated zucchini but as an adult I realized how wrong I was.

When my friend Lisa brought all the jalapenos to share to the office, she also brought a big bag of bell peppers. It just so happened to be one of those days that I really didn't know what I was going to make for dinner, nothing was inspiring me, and I knew I'd end up at the grocery store. As soon as I saw the bell peppers I knew I'd have to make stuffed peppers. I snagged three peppers to take home and knew I'd be making Mom's stuffed peppers.

These stuffed bell peppers were a staple of my family's when I was growing up. Dad always grew bell peppers in the garden and Mom always made this version. Unlike the stuffed peppers I see a lot of other people making, this one is not filled with a meatloaf-type mixture. The stuffing is more like beefy Spanish rice with diced tomatoes, herbs and spices, diced onion, garlic and extra bell pepper simmered with rice (Mom always used Minute Rice). She used Italian herbs to season the mixture and each pepper would be topped with a strip, i.e. half a slice, of American cheese before popping in the oven to heat through and brown the cheese. Like Mom, I also use Minute Rice for this recipe but I just say no to processed cheese and instead go with some shredded Colby Jack. I like the peppers to still have texture and bright green color. If you like a softer pepper, steam the unfilled peppers for a few minutes to soften before stuffing and baking.

Mom's Super Easy Stuffed Bell Peppers

4 large green bell peppers
1/2 medium onion
5-6 cloves garlic
2 lb. lean hamburger
1 can Italian seasoned petite diced tomatoes in juice*
1 small can tomato paste
1 tablespoon Italian seasoning
salt and pepper
2 cups instant rice
2 cups water
olive oil
2 cups shredded Colby Jack cheese

You can use diced fresh tomatoes instead if you like- use about 2 cups diced tomatoes.

Cut 3 of the bell peppers in half lengthwise. Scoop out and discard seeds and membrane. Cut away the stem. Place in 9x13 baking dish and set aside. 

Clean and dice the remaining pepper, the onion and the garlic. Heat a large skillet over medium high eat and add a swirl of olive oil. Add the vegetables and saute for a few minutes until softened. Season with salt and pepper. Crumble the ground beef into the skillet and cook, breaking the meat up, until the beef is cooked. Drain off any accumulated fat.

Add the undrained can of tomatoes, tomato sauce, rice and water to the skillet. Bring to a boil over high heat, stirring often. Cover, remove from heat and allow to rest for 5-10 minutes. 

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a small casserole dish and set aside.

Pile the filling into the peppers and replace in the baking sheet. Pile any remaining filling (there is usually a lot) into the small casserole dish. Cover peppers and extra filling with shredded cheese. Place in oven and bake 45 minutes until peppers are crisp-tender and the cheese is browned and melty.

Serve this favorite Iowa summer dinner with fresh Iowa corn on the cob, sliced tomatoes, and crusty bread.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 55: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Friday, October 6, 2017

Russian Roulette Jalapeno Poppers

It's finally October. The weather, while still pretty warm, is cooling off gradually, Halloween has taken over the stores, leaves are turning, pumpkins are everywhere. I love this time of year.  Scary movies are a big highlight of this time of year for a lot of people and sometimes that includes me. Right now I'm really into American Horror Story. This season's theme revolves around a bizarre cult and plays on the fear of clowns. The clowns are just incredibly creepy, and not very friendly. Lots of scary things going on in this season!! All the movie channels are featuring the usual suspects- Halloween with Michael Myers, that nasty Jason Vorhees who haunts Camp Crystal Lake in the Friday the 13th movies (funny, too, because we have a Friday the 13th this October!), zombies, vampires and probably a Frankenstein here and there if I look hard enough.

I've been invited to a Halloween party this year so........ I need a costume idea. It's so hard to decide what I'd like to be. I prefer to make my own costumes rather than buy store bought ones, they're always so cheaply made and most women's costumes are borderline hooker wear. Sexy witch. Sexy cat. Sexy bat. Sexy cop. Sexy vampire. Sexy doctor. Sexy nurse. You get the idea. I don't really wanna go that route, and who wants to stand around in high heels and fishnets all night anyway? Not this girl. So I have to dig deep into the imagination and find something fun and cute and fully clothed.

Once October rolls around in Iowa the pumpkin patches, corn mazes, apple orchards and fall festivals are in full swing. Families make the trek out in the country to find the perfect pumpkin for jack-o-lanterns, a nice bushel of Iowa apples, apple cider, Indian corn. It's also the end of gardening season, and end of the farmers market season. Another year has gone by and I did not make it to the Downtown Des Moines Farmers Market but that's ok.

My friends continue to share their garden goodies with me, this time a big bag of jalapeno peppers. My love for peppers is well known and my friend Lisa brought a big bag to work for me. Half of them were Mammoth jalapeno peppers, great big peppers with the normal heat level and the rest were a cultivar known as Coolapenos, which look and taste exactly like their hot counterparts but have zero heat. They are just as mild as green bells but still have that distinctive jalapeno flavor. Just to make it fun, I piled them all together to make Russian Roulette poppers- you don't know if you're getting a hot one or a cool one. Fun, right? Another fun twist to the recipe, some of them are wrapped in bacon, and some are not, but they are just as delicious both ways. Seriously delicious.

Unlike the breaded and fried jalapeno poppers, these guys are filled with a mixture of cream cheese, Colby Jack, and just because I had some hanging out in the fridge, a scoop of goat cheese, caramelized minced onion and garlic, and mild pork sausage. The filling is wrapped with a strip of smoky bacon and baked until hot, bubbly and golden brown. These easy poppers are great to make ahead and store in the freezer. They are quick to heat from frozen and make great party snacks, football nibbles or a nibbles for a night of scary movies! They are also super easy to prepare and take to a Halloween party if you happen to go to one. What a great way to use up all those peppers at the end of garden season!

Super Easy Party Poppers

fresh jalapeno peppers*
1 pound cream cheese, room temperature
1 1/2 cups shredded Colby Jack cheese
1/2 medium onion, minced
4-5 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 lb mild pork sausage
2 lb bacon

*This quantity of filling made quite a bunch of poppers. I had a couple pounds of jalapenos to use up. If you make the filling and have extra, freeze it for future batches of poppers.

Prepare the peppers by halving the jalapenos lengthwise. Remove seeds and membrane. Set peppers aside.

Crumble the pork sausage into a small skillet, break up into very small pieces and brown the sausage until cooked through. Drain well and cool. In same skillet heat a small amount, a teaspoon or so, of cooking oil and add the minced onion. Cook over medium heat until softened and just turning golden. Add the minced garlic and cook for an additional two minutes. Remove from heat and cool.

In a medium bowl beat the cream cheese and Colby Jack cheese together. Stir in the cooked onion and garlic, and the sausage. Season with pepper.

Use a spoon or knife to stuff the filling into the halved jalapenos. Cut the bacon slices into halves or thirds, depending on the size of the peppers, and secure with toothpicks.
I left some without bacon and they are just as delicious

Place the peppers on parchment lined baking sheets and transfer to the freezer. Freeze until solid, the place peppers in zip top storage bags and freeze.

To serve, heat the oven to 400 degrees. Place frozen poppers on baking sheet and place in oven. Bake 25-35 minutes until bacon is crispy and filling is bubbly and browned.

These are great to have on hand for all kinds of occasions. Many nights I get home from work and just don't have the energy to cook a whole meal, and if The Chef is at work, it's just me, a small pan of poppers go in the oven for a quick and easy dinner.