Thursday, May 29, 2014

Dysfunctional Family Recipe Salsa

I wish I could say I had a bevy of amazing family recipes from which I draw daily inspiration. I have this little fantasy of unlocking some keepsake mahogany box overflowing with wholesome recipes lovingly written in my grandma's curling script...but it's not like that. (I'm sure if either of my grandmas had such a box, they would have given it to me--they are/were both lovely women. They just weren't/aren't that into recipe development, and I didn't grow up seeing one of them very much.) In reality, I have four family recipes: two for pie, one for cornbread casserole, and this one for salsa. They're all very good, despite their limited number. 

I call this my Dysfunctional Family Recipe for the simple reason that its originator is no longer a member of my family....and, just for fun, I'll throw in the juicy detail that this person is also in prison. (It's not one of my grandmothers, just to make that clear.) But this person made an incredible salsa that was the toast of many a family gathering--so hey, it's not a total loss. (I think?) Somehow I had the foresight to write this recipe down before the non-family-member was carted off to the slammer. Recently, as I was going through my own recipe keeper--contemplating whether or not to get a new one after my kids ripped the cover off--I came across it at the very back of the Appetizers folder. It had been at least nine years since I'd eaten this dish that had once been such a looked-forward-to staple. Part of me didn't want to make it. Like music, food has the power to bring back so many memories, and I wasn't sure I wanted memories of this person resurfacing in a bowl of blended Mexican deliciousness. 

Then I had an idea: what if I could turn it around, make this recipe my own? It's so ridiculously good that other people should be able to enjoy it. What if I could bring it to potlucks and picnics and neighborhood get-togethers to the delight of friends and family? It could be my recipe, not his. I'm not saying I came up with the ingredients; I just get to make it and share it. I mean, I doubt this person has access to a food processor where he is, so it's not like he's making it anymore. It's weirdly empowering to claim something good from a really, really, (really) bad relationship. For my spirit and my taste buds, I'm glad to do so. 

 So tell me, do you have family recipes? Do you still call them that if the recipe writer is no longer family?

Dysfunctional Family Recipe Salsa


3 medium-to-large tomatoes off the vine, chopped
3 Tbsp. chopped onion
1 medium jalapeƱo, seeded and chopped
4 green onions, chopped
2 cloves garlic, sliced
1 Tbsp. fresh cilantro
1 8-oz. can tomato sauce
1 Tbsp. lemon juice
1 tsp. red pepper flakes
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. sugar


Place all ingredients in a blender or food processor and blend until desired consistency is reached. Gently strain through cheesecloth to remove excess liquid.

Makes about 1 1/2 cups.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Going Away Party

For awhile now, I've tried to keep a Thankfulness Log. When I think of it, I write at least five things down that I'm thankful for. (And of course I always start it out like this: "Thankfulness Log, Stardate 2014.5.28.") It's amazing how many times my friends make this list. Between our neighbors, former classmates, and fellow churchgoers, my husband and I have a wonderful community of people we call friends. Unfortunately for us, for a variety of reasons, sometimes those friends move away. And despite our sadness at losing them, we're not gonna let them go without a big party as a last-ditch effort to make them stay here warm sendoff. The friends I'm talking about are our music minister of the last three years and his wife. Our involvement in our church's music ministry was the original channel through which we met these two wonderful people, but our friendship definitely evolved over time to encompass much more than that. We've shared many dessert nights and stupid movies (like when the husbands tried to prove to us wives that Wrongfully Accused with Leslie Nielsen was AWESOME), and eventually became involved in a Catholic prayer group called Teams of our Lady together. Jake and Yesenia have touched our lives in so many ways, from Jake getting me back into singing at mass to Yesenia giving me hours of her time as a physical therapist for free (!). We will miss them and their sweet daughter very much, because now these dear friends are off to new adventures in Boise, Idaho, where they are from. I thought I would post some of the ideas that made the Going Away party we held for them last Friday a lot of fun. (But sad.) (But fun.)

Let's start at the entry point to the party: the front door. A while back, I picked up a customizable pennant banner at Party City--and wow, what a useful thing this is! With something like 40 flags and multiples of every letter of the alphabet, there's nothing you can't spell. (Though there are some things you should not spell. Like "Surprise! You're a Moron!") This version says "Bon Voyage." See? Appropriate. Tasteful. Nothing like "Welcome to Turd City" it said last time we had a party.

Underneath the banner, next to the front door, we had a signpost pointing to our friends' past (the name of our church) and their future. Have I ever mentioned we live really, really close to our church? This particular signpost was devised on the cheap using an ice bucket for the base, broomstick for the post, and a five-pound weight with a circular hole in the middle to hold the broomstick in place. Sharpie your destinations and distances on a couple of construction paper arrows and viola! Custom signpost.

Inside, I wanted to go for a travel theme, for obvious reasons. We have a couple of decorative smallish hatbox suitcases my husband normally uses to house his collection of guitar cables (not his collection of dapper hats, sorry to disappoint). These moonlighted beautifully as centerpieces--one with a simple construction paper travel tag attached...

...the other filled with potpourri surrounding a candle.

Now comes my favorite decoration of the evening: a whimsical take on the classic "pin the ____ on the ____" game. For "Pin the Inecks on the Idaho," I thumbtacked a ribbon vertically on the wall with wallet-sized photos of our friends paper clipped/clothes pinned to it. The blindfold and double-stick tape next to it were self-explanatory....

and yes, people actually played it!

Up next--can you tell what that is? 

Could it be...and Idaho-shaped cookie cutter? Do they even make such things? Yes, they do, and they sell them on Amazon! How fun is that? I'll bet you're wondering if this cookie cutter was used to make any actual Idaho-shaped cookies. But you'll have to keep reading to find out. At any rate, with a tea light inside and beads nestled around, I thought it made a cute little decoration on the dessert table. Take note: if you buy a state-shaped cookie cutter, be sure to give it to your going away party guest(s) of honor as a parting gift. There is no way you are ever going to use an Idaho-shaped cookie cutter ever again.

One other decoration that may have been a little cheesy but ended up being educational for my kids was the road from AZ to ID over our mantle:

I printed off the Arizona and Idaho state outlines from My two older kids got really into having me print images of other states so they could color them. We now have 18 purple and green Californias. Thanks,

Lastly (as far as decorations) as people were leaving, they had the opportunity to write a farewell message to the guests of honor. (Since one of them is a music minister, the music theme made sense.) A small photo album with 4 x 6" notecards that slid into the photo sleeves served as a small keepsake that won't take up too much room in the moving van. My main piece of advice about a message station like this is to make it large and/or conspicuous enough for people to notice it before they leave.

And finally, a word about food! For this party, because of the large number of attendees, we decided to go with a pizza dinner and some gentle requests for potluck sides included in the invitation. As for dessert, there was the ever-convenient Costco sheet cake:

Someone couldn't wait for the picture before cutting into the bottom corner of this cake. And that someone was me.
And the less caloric but more distinctive Idaho sugar cookies:

"I'm so hungry I could eat the entire Gem State!"
These were a blast to decorate. I always use Our Best Bites' sugar cookie recipe and Betty Crocker's vanilla buttercream frosting.

Now I just need to get an Arizona-shaped cookie cutter. (Yes, they make those, too.) Because as far as I know, we are here to stay. So even though sometimes it's hard living at peace with the transience of this world and losing beloved friends...we really do wish them the very best and hope they (and everyone else) had a fantastic time at their going away party. Bon Voyage, Inecks!

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Fluffy Lemon Rosemary Layer Cake

Sometimes I think I should start a separate blog called A Love Letter to Dessert. Or maybe just A Love Letter to Cake. So many flavors, so many fillings, so many different kinds of frosting. It makes me think of the segment of my high school math class about combinations and permutations--remember that? Where you total up the number of all the different ways a collection of things can be combined? Like if you have chocolate, peanut butter, and vanilla, you could make a chocolate cake with peanut butter filling and vanilla frosting--or a vanilla cake with chocolate filling and peanut butter frosting, etc., etc.? There have got to be thousands of cake permutations--or is it combinations? (Either way, look, math was useful! It can be applied to cake! Thanks, Mr. Cox!) I occasionally spend a little too much time thinking about these many configurations, but I'm happy to hit pause on my Cake Permutation daydream for this particular combination of lemon-rosemary cake with lemon cream cheese frosting. It is dessert nirvana. As someone who doesn't really go for food trends, I am all for the current craze over the marriage of citrus and herbs in sweet treats. (Can we please just let lemon and rosemary get married already--I mean, you love who you love, right?)

I made this delight for my husband's family's Easter gathering last month and it received rave reviews. The high number of eggs gives it a light, fluffy texture that matches the lightness of the lemon flavor. Plus, the presentation of the rosemary sentries posted all around the cake make for visual interest. Definitely a special cake for a special occasion!

Fluffy Lemon Rosemary Layer Cake
(Adapted from Baker Bettie, who adapted it from Cook's Illustrated)


For the cake:

2 1/2 c. cake flour (make cake flour from all-purpose flour by replacing 2 Tbsp. per cup with corn starch)
1 1/4 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. baking soda
3/4 tsp. salt
1 1/2 c. sugar, divided
10 tbsp. butter, melted and slightly cooled
1 c. buttermilk (make buttermilk from regular milk by replacing 1 Tbsp. per cup with lemon juice or vinegar--let sit 5 minutes, then use)
3 Tbsp. vegetable oil
2 tsp. vanilla
1 Tbsp. lemon zest
1 Tbsp. fresh rosemary, minced
6 large egg yolks
3 large egg whites
1 lemon, sliced
8 sprigs rosemary

For the frosting:

8 oz. cream cheese, softened
1/2 c. butter, softened
1 Tbsp. lemon zest
2 Tbsp. lemon juice
1 tsp. vanilla
2 1/2 c. powdered sugar


1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease two 9-inch cake pans.

2. In a large bowl, combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and 1 1/4 c. sugar. In another bowl, whisk together the melted butter, buttermilk, vegetable oil, vanilla, lemon zest, minced rosemary, and egg yolks.

3. In a separate bowl bowl, beat egg whites at medium speed until foamy with a hand mixer or stand mixer. Stream in the remaining 1/4 c. sugar. Beat on high speed until stiff peaks form. Set aside.

4. Gradually pour butter mixture into flour mixture, mixing on low until just combined. Gently fold in meringue (egg) mixture one half at a time--a few white streaks are okay. Divide batter evenly between prepared cake pans.

5. Place cake pans on a baking sheet and bake 20-25 minutes, rotating halfway through for best results, until cake does not jiggle in the center.

6. Cool on a wire rack about 20 minutes, then run a knife around the sides of the cakes and invert onto a greased wire rack or wax paper. Allow to cool completely (about another hour) before frosting.

7. Meanwhile, make the frosting by mixing all ingredients on medium speed until creamy.

8. Frost and garnish with sliced lemons and rosemary sprigs.

Monday, May 19, 2014

15-Minute White Chicken Chili

For as often as I make chicken dishes, it's kind of weird how seldom they show up here on the blog. Maybe because chicken, as a rule, is just not the most visually appealing of meats and therefore not terribly photogenic, whether raw, 


Who doesn't want to eat a pile of legs?
 or in "original" form:

"I have NO idea why I crossed the road."
See what I mean? Chicken needs to go on one of those reality makeover shows like Ten Years Younger before it's camera-ready. (Ironically, I just looked up that show. It aired ten years ago. Whoa. That's meta.) Anyway, chicken. It may not be going to win Miss Teen Meat USA, but dang if it's not cheap, versatile, and easy to cook. At our house we're all over chicken like white on meat. Even in spite of our part-time vegetarian status, we probably average at least one chicken dinner per week. And a chicken dinner earns bonus points from me when it also contains wholesome ingredients and can go from fridge/pantry to table in under 30 minutes, like this super-simple white chicken chili. Did I mention it also only uses one pot? YEAH. 

So on a weeknight when life is crazy and you know you won't even make it home until 6:45, with a little planning, a delicious dinner can make it to the table by 7:00...which beats this kind of chicken any day:

Mmm...mechanically separated chicken goo.
And even though it might not be the prettiest dish you ever serve, it's a bit like the quote from the mother to her daughter in Thornton Wilder's play Our Town--it's "pretty enough for all normal purposes." Like dinner in a pinch. 

15-Minute White Chicken Chili
(Adapted from Better Homes and Gardens)


2 c. shredded rotisserie chicken
2 c. crushed tortilla chips
2 15-oz. cans cannelini beans, rinsed and drained
1 1/2 c. shredded Monterey Jack cheese
1 4.5-oz. can diced green chilies
20 oz. chicken broth
1 tsp. cumin
1/4 tsp. garlic powder
Salt and pepper to taste
Fresh cilantro (for garnish)


In a large stock pot, combine all ingredients except cilantro. Bring to boiling over medium-high heat. Reduce heat. Simmer uncovered for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Ladle into bowls and garnish with fresh cilantro.

Serves 4.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Coconut Cream Pie

Easter may have come and gone, but is that any reason to stop making spring-y desserts? No way! As far as I'm concerned, we still have another good six weeks of spring (100 degree temps notwithstanding). Before we roll out the watermelon and ice cream, I'm not ready to be done with the lemon bars, the carrot cake, or this delectable coconut cream pie. It's one of those sleeper recipes that came from my rather unassuming Bridal Edition Betty Crocker Cookbook, but I tell ya, Betty really hit some home runs as a faux homemaker extraordinaire (you did know Betty Crocker wasn't a real person, right?) Even my husband, who likes cream pies about as much as most men like watching Gilmore Girls, admitted to genuinely liking this version. My only significant change to Betty's original recipe was to toast the coconut on top, for aesthetic reasons as much as for taste. (Though it does nothing for the coconut getting stuck in your teeth--that's the price you pay for tropical deliciousness, I guess.) I also like that it's not one of those cream pies that's 80% cream and 20% pie. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy whipped cream. I just like pie better. And I'm not crazy about the heaping pile of excess goo that ends up on the side of my plate like liposuction aftermath. 

So on that lovely note: gear up for the rest of spring and get ready for the coconut cream pie of your dreams! (Seriously, it's really yummy.)

Coconut Cream Pie
(Adapted from Betty Crocker's Cookbook: Bridal Edition)


Pastry for a one-crust pie
4 large egg yolks
2/3 c. sugar
1/4 c. cornstarch
1/2 tsp. salt
3 c. milk
2 Tbsp. butter, softened
2 tsp. vanilla
1 1/2 c. flaked unsweetened coconut
3/4 heavy whipping cream
2 Tbsp. powdered sugar


1. Bake pastry for one-crust pie at 450 degrees for 9-11 minutes (or according to package/recipe directions).

2. Beat egg yolks with a fork in a medium bowl; set aside. Mix sugar, cornstarch, and salt in a 2-quart saucepan. Gradually stir in milk. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly until mixture thickens and boils. Boil and stir 1 minute.

3. Stir at least half of the hot mixture gradually into the egg yolks, then stir the whole thing back into hot mixture in the saucepan. Boil and stir 1 minute; remove from heat. Stir in butter, vanilla, and 3/4 c. of the coconut. Pour into pie crust. Press plastic wrap onto filling to prevent  a tough layer from forming on top. Refrigerate at least 2 hours until set.

4. To make the whipped cream: In a large chilled bowl, beat whipping cream and powdered sugar on high speed until soft peaks form. To make the toasted coconut: Spread remaining 3/4 c. flaked coconut on a baking sheet and bake at 350 degrees for about 3 minutes.

5. Remove plastic wrap from pie and spread whipped cream on top. Sprinkle with toasted coconut.

Serves 8.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

2014 Nutrition and Health Conference: the Cutting Edge and the Common Sense

As I mentioned last time I posted, this past week I had the incredible opportunity to attend the 2014 Nutrition and Health Conference in Dallas. The conference is put on by the University of Arizona's Center for Integrative Medicine, the groundbreaking holistic clinic/research/training center founded by Dr. Andrew Weil 20 years ago this year. I have followed Dr. Weil's work for quite awhile now and have even visited the Center's clinic as a patient (which, by the way, was the greatest health care experience of my life so far). Last year when I first heard about the conference, I applied for one of the limited student scholarships to attend, but did not receive one. Then this year it was like a little alarm went off in my head around February saying, "ding-ding-ding-Nutrition-and-Health-Conference!" I looked up the conference and sure enough, applications for student scholarships were due in two days. I wrote my 250-word "this is why you should choose me" statement and sent it off. Much to my surprise and delight, the next week I got the wonderful news that I had been given a scholarship!

Dr. Weil giving the opening presentation
The conference was held at the Intercontinental Hotel in Addison and lasted two and a half information-packed days. It's hard to even know where to begin to describe all that I learned--I only hope I can retain it! If I had to distill it down to a sound byte, my parting impression of the conference as a whole can be described with these two phrases: the cutting edge and the common sense. Yes, I heard about a lot of trials/journal articles (even research that has yet to be published--cool!), but I also heard a lot of simple, practical advice that could apply to anyone seeking a healthy diet. I attended lectures on everything from the benefits of the polyphenols in blueberries to managing pain with diet to using guided imagery to treat diabetes. Because I know I can't record anything close to a comprehensive inventory of all I learned this week, I thought I'd give a summary of my biggest takeaways, along with a few random interesting facts. 

Big Takeaways:

One of the most frequently addressed topics throughout the conference was the importance of "gut microbiota" (also known as intestinal flora or the bacteria in your belly and bum) for overall health. As a population, our gut microbiota has been compromised over the years by a variety of factors, including 

  • overuse of antibiotics
  • over-sanitation
  • rise in processed food 
  • increase in C-section deliveries
  • decline in breastfeeding

These little buggers have an astoundingly powerful affect on so many aspects of health, from the obvious (the GI tract) to the surprising (mood and behavior; obesity) to the scary (Western diseases). Thankfully, we have a large measure of control over our gut flora through

  • diet, such yogurt (not the super sweet kind) and other fermented foods, as well as fruits and vegetables
  • pro- and prebiotics
  • fecal transplants (this is for the very ill--don't worry)

In the future, we will probably see probiotics custom-made for individual GI tracts. Until then,  we can put ourselves in the driver's seat by eating a diet rich in probiotics and taking them in capsulated form, as well as increasing our fiber intake. 

A second big takeaway from the conference was putting the nail in the coffin of the myth that saturated fat is a culprit in cardiovascular disease. Recent studies have shown that saturated fat is not responsible for cardiovascular disease. In fact, the low-fat diet push of the '70s through '90s is probably one factor that has driven the obesity epidemic--in the absence of satiating fats, people turned to increased carbs--which has only increased the incidence of CV disease. This isn't a reason to eat cheesecake with abandon (darn) but it is grounds to stop demonizing fat.

In addition to taking the focus off of fat as a dietary bogeyman, presenters at the conference repeatedly stressed the importance of viewing overall dietary patterns, rather than nitpicky numbers and percentages. For the average layperson who wants to lose weight or simply be healthy, this kind of myopia is unnecessary and burdensome. 

So what do we tell that layperson who wants to lose weight or be healthy? In the midst of a million diets, cookbooks, blogs, and self-proclaimed experts, is there a one-size-fits-all piece of advice? Well, probably not. But the one recommendation that seemed to come through from most presenters as a great place to start was the Mediterranean diet. It's plant-based, low-sugar, and healthy-fat-focused. I call that common sense.

And now that we've talked Big Takeaways, it's time for the...

Random Interesting Stuff:

  • Calorie intake in the U.S. has increased around 400 calories/day since 1970
  • Nutrition facts about nuts are deceiving (in a good way). Because the body only digests about 70% of a nut, you only get 70% of the calories. Also, eating a handful of nuts decreases caloric absorption by 3% over the next 24 hours. So go nuts!
  • When Taco Bell recently ran a commercial depicting someone being embarrassed by bringing a veggie tray to a Super Bowl party, all it took was about 40 tweets decrying the ad for Taco Bell to pull it off the air. Grassroots nutrition advocacy, man!
  • The top source for omega-3 fatty acids in the American diet? Italian dressing (because of its soybean oil content). Make the better choice and get them from fish and nuts!
  • Despite the 18% rise in food allergies from 1997-2007, there are promising treatments for food allergies. The idea of building up an immunity to something is not new, but it can work when applied very gradually. If a child with, say, a peanut allergy eats incrementally larger and larger amounts of peanuts (starting, of course, with a teeny-tiny amount), s/he can eventually become asymptomatic to peanuts. Kinda like...

Interestingly, most people who go through this process then have to eat some small amount of peanuts (or whatever the food may be) every day to maintain their immunity.

Sorry, couldn't resist.
So there you have it. What a whirlwind of information my two and a half days in Dallas were. I'm already looking forward to next year, when the conference will be held in Phoenix!

Friday, May 2, 2014

Soba Salad with Chicken and Cabbage

Can we just raise a collective cheer for weeknight dinners that are fast, easy, tasty, healthy, and relatively inexpensive? My list of meals that fit all those criteria is pretty short. These last couple of weeks have been pretty crazy in my life, so finding healthy dinners I can whip up easily has taken top priority. The beginning of May is always a little extra busy in our family, since two of my kids have early May birthdays, but this year there's been the added crunch of trying to finish up this semester's courses toward my nutrition degree and preparing to head to the Nutrition and Health Conference in Dallas this Sunday (which I'm super excited about and plan to blog about soon!). So basically fast and easy are my best friends right now in all areas of life.

Fortunately, I happened to place this soba chicken salad on the roster of dinners for this week. As a perpetual fan of Real Simple's cookbooks, I've been working my way through this one that I got for Christmas and had been meaning to try this recipe for some time. I'm glad I finally did--it's one of those one-dish meals that's perfect for a weeknight when you're slammed. With chicken for protein, noodles for starch, and cabbage and carrots for vegetables, you're set. The sweet and sour dressing of soy sauce, rice vinegar, and ginger gives it a mild Asian flavor that even my kids enjoyed. 

So sayonara for now--look for a post next week on all the cool stuff I'm expecting to learn at the Nutrition and Health Conference!

Soba Salad with Chicken and Cabbage
(Adapted from Real Simple)


8 oz. soba noodles
8 small chicken tenderloins
salt and black pepper
6 Tbsp. canola or vegetable oil, divided
3 Tbsp. rice vinegar
3 Tbsp. soy sauce
1 tsp. grated fresh ginger
3 c. shredded red cabbage
1 large carrot, shredded
6 scallions, sliced


1. Cook the noodles according to package directions. Drain and run under cold water to cool.

2. Meanwhile, season the chicken with salt and pepper to your liking.

3. Heat 3 Tbsp. of the oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Cook the chicken until golden brown and cooked through. Cut into strips.

4. In a large bowl, whisk together the remaining 3 Tbsp. of oil, the vinegar, soy sauce, and ginger. Add the noodles, chicken, cabbage, carrot, and scallions and toss.  

Serves 4.