Black Bean and Chicken Enchiladas!

Hey hey hey! I’m back in action on the blog and must apologize for taking such a long (and often lazy, unintended) hiatus. So often I would think to myself, “I should write a post about this…..” and then end up doing something else that fills my time–knitting, cooking, walking the dog, reading, napping. But I’m back, with a super awesome recipe to boot!

Anywho…..back to today’s post! I was telling my upstairs neighbor the other day that one of my favorite tools for finding dinner recipes is Pinterest.  The abundance of recipes out there is truly astounding and you can find anything you’re looking for, and lots that you aren’t, that can provide inspiration.

That happened to me two weeks ago when I was looking around for something new to add to our meal rotation. I found a lovely picture of enchiladas and clicked on the link, which took me here.  I made the recipe how the author intended, making a few modifications along the way to make things easier. The dish was good, but still needed a little kick. I also thought that the way she called for preparation of the ingredients didn’t make as much sense as it would to just cook everything in one big pot and then scoop it out to fill the enchiladas. I tinkered with the recipe and here is my  version of Black Bean and Chicken Enchiladas. The second time I made these I had learned from the first and made a double batch because honestly, they are just that good. Doing a double batch allowed me to have a large dinner for me and hubby, lunch for work the next day (AND lunch for a coworker who graciously shared his deep dish pizza with me the day before), as well as a second full batch for leftovers/freezing.  Also, this recipe is slightly prep intensive, so making a double batch really does make the extra work involved worthwhile!

Kitchen Tools Needed:

  • Large skillet
  • Smaller skillet (or sauce pan). I used my smaller Le Creuset saucier, which works great for sauces because of the higher sides.
  • 2 Baking dishes, metal or glass
  • Blender, food processor, or immersion blender

Ingredients:

  • 10 small flour tortillas (20 for double batch)
  • 2 large chicken breasts, boneless skinless (if you don’t have time to prep the chicken yourself, grab a rotisserie chicken and chop up the meat)
  • 1 14-oz can black beans (2 for double batch)
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 2 small onions, chopped (4 for double batch)
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced (4 for double batch)
  • 1 jalapeno pepper, minced (2 for double batch)
  • 1.5 teaspoons smoked paprika (3 for double batch)
  • 1/2 cup frozen spinach (1 cup for double batch)
  • 1 cup corn kernels (frozen is fine) (2 for double batch)
  • 3 teaspoon chili powder (6 for double batch)
  • 1.5 teaspoon ground cumin (3 for double batch)
  • 1 teaspoon adobo seasoning (2 for double batch)
  • 12 ounces chopped tomatoes (24 for double batch) (you can used diced, canned tomatoes if you desire)
  • 8 ounces shredded cheese, preferably a mix of sharp cheddar and jack (16 for double batches)
  • 1 cup water (2 for double batch)
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • Chopped green onions, for garnish
  • Sour cream

Preparation:

For the chicken breast:

1. Line a baking dish with foil, rinse and pat dry the chicken breasts, rub lightly with olive oil, salt and pepper, and bake at 350 degrees for approximately 30-45 minutes until juices run clear and internal temperature is 165 degrees. Remove from oven and let cool while you’re preparing everything else.

Chicken Breasts

2.  Once the chicken has cooled a bit, chop it up into small, bite-sized pieces and set aside until you’ll need it to be added to the enchilada mixture.

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For the beans and enchilada sauce:

1.  In your large skillet, sauté the onions in the butter over medium-low heat until translucent. Add the garlic and cook a few minutes until softened. Add the jalapeno and let cook another minute or two.

Sauteeing Onions and Garlic

2. Remove half of this mixture into your smaller saucepan.

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3.  In the original pan, add the smoked paprika, and the can of black beans (don’t bother draining, the liquid just enhances the flavors).

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4.  Cook until the beans’ liquid is reduced, then add in the spinach. I literally added frozen chunks of spinach and just stirred until it broke up and was cooked into the mix. About 5 minutes.

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5. Once they’ve wilted, add the chopped chicken and cook until warm and thoroughly mixed in.

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6.  Add corn and continue to cook.

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7.  In the other saucepan, add adobo, chili powder, cumin, tomatoes, and water to the saucepan.

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Quick note on the tomatoes: the easiest way to do this is to just use canned tomatoes, with the juice, and toss it into the pan. However, we are at the end of garden season here and I’m working my way through what feels like a bazillion tomatoes. Thus, I just chopped up 24 ounces of tomatoes into small pieces and tossed them in the pan instead. I used a mix of heirlooms and beefsteak.

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8. Bring to a boil and cook until reduced by half, about 20 minutes.

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9. Cool slightly, then puree in a blender, taste for salt, and set aside. IMPORTANT: Blend the enchilada sauce in at least 2 separate batches in your blender. The sauce will expand as the tomatoes, onions and garlic are all liquified. And, hot stuff in a blender should not go all the way to the top. If you don’t do it this way, you will have it blow the lid off your blender and shoot piping hot enchilada sauce all over your kitchen. Don’t have that happen!

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10.  Time to make the enchiladas!!!!!

A. Spray your baking pans with Pam or other similar cooking spray.

B. Lay out each enchilada shell, and scoop in a healthy dose of the chicken, black bean, spinach and corn mixture.

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C. Wrap the enchilada up and place it into the baking dish. Repeat until you don’t have anything left of the black bean mix. Your baking pan(s) will look like this!

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D. Pour the enchilada sauce over the enchiladas in the baking dishes so that they are all covered and there is a little bit of sauce going into the corners of the pan, like so.

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E.  Grab your shredded cheese (I used an 8 ounce block of Colby Jack, shredded, and an 8 ounce block of Super Sharp Cheddar, shredded, and all mixed together in one big bowl).

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F.  Sprinkle the cheese liberally over the enchiladas, and they are now ready to be baked. You can also assemble the enchiladas up to a day in advance and store in the fridge until you’re ready to bake them. AND/OR you can now freeze a pan of them and then thaw them before cooking!  Bake at 350 degrees for approximately 20-25 minutes until the cheese is bubbly and starting to brown!

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11.  You can garnish with green onions, or more chopped jalapeno, and serve with sour cream.  The baked enchiladas will keep well in the fridge (properly stored in tupperware and sealed) for up to a week. If your batch of leftovers lasts that long, I will be surprised!

I hope you all enjoy this lovely meal, and if you give it a whirl, let me know how it goes for you and your families!

Things I Like Thursday, er, Friday, er, WHAT DAY IS IT?!?

So, fair readers, I’ve been thinking in my head about this post for a few days now and have finally sat down to write it. Some of my favorite posts from some of my favorite bloggers are the ones that are a quick roundup of the funny and awesome things that they have seen, or done, or found on the intergoogles. And as I’ve been perusing the intergoogles myself these past few weeks, I’m reminded of how much awesome stuff is out there and feel compelled to share some of it.

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Super Easy Peasy Italian Beef!

Hands down, my favorite kitchen tool in this world is my CrockPot. I love anything that I can plug in, toss my food in and walk away from for hours at a time and then come back to a perfectly cooked and delicious meal. If you don’t have a CrockPot, get one and I guarantee it will become one of your favorite, most-used items in your cooking arsenal.

 

I suggest that you get one with a timer on it, so that you can set how long you want the cooking time to be, but you don’t have to  blow a huge wad of cash on this item.  We got ours at Target years ago and it works like a dream!  We have the previous version of this CrockPot. Reasonable price and great product. If you’re feeling real saucy, you can get the super fancy Slow Cooker Liners so you don’t even have to clean too much when you’re done. I personally find them to be a bit pricey for what you get, but when we do our annual Super Bowl Party where we have 4 CrockPots with chilis going, we use them, as I already have enough to do on that day.

I’ve had a chuck roast in my freezer for about a month now that I’ve been intending to make Italian Beef with and today was the day. I was off work, and normally would do a nice big meal as I have time to cook, but decided I had other things I wanted to get done instead of doing something slightly more complicated. I pulled that roast out of the freezer yesterday to defrost it and cooked up this delightful Italian Beef. I posted this picture on my Instagram account tonight and got a bunch of likes and requests for the recipe. I swear, you all will laugh at how goddamn easy it is!

 

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Ingredients:

  • 1 Chuck Roast, preferably 2-3lb
  • 1 Packet (or 3T) Italian Seasoning
  • 1 22oz can Miller Lite (or other cheap beer)
  • 1 jar Jardoneira (you can go spicy hot, mild, or medium, whatever your taste preference)

How To:

  1. Turn your CrockPot on low.
  2. Coat the Chuck Roast in the Italian Seasonings, being sure to get both sides.
  3. Put Chuck Roast in CrockPot.
  4. Pour Jardoneria in. [Note: I'm fully intending to learn how to make my own Jardoneira and when that happens, I'll share the recipe here!]
  5. Pour beer in.
  6. Cover and cook until the meat is breaking apart–usually about 6-8 hours.
  7. Serve over a bread of your choice with cheese of your choice. We used Provolone Cheese. Super Sharp Cheddar is also really awesome.

 

If you make the Italian Beef right, not only will you scarf it down the first time you eat it, you’ll have plenty left over for leftovers in the following days.  Store it in an airtight tupperware container in the fridge for no more than 7 days. Microwave and eat up!

 

Please note, I served mine with leftover Hash Brown and Cheesey Breakfast Casserole made by my sister-in-law for Easter…..definitely not Paleo or even super healthy, but as I told a friend, they were so good and it would have been decidedly rude not to take the leftovers. THEY ARE IN MY BELLY NOW! I regret nothing.

In other news, today marks the first day that my bestie Carolyne and I are doing a Couch 2 5K program. We are using the C25K free app from ZenLabs (available to both iPhone and Android). Allegedly, by following the program, within 8 weeks we will be able to run a 5K race without stopping.  I’m intrigued to see how this will go.

 

I’ve started and stopped such programs before, but would really like to do this. Running has always been a pain in the ass, due to my weight and also having really big breasts. Thanks to a really good sports bra, that is hopefully not going to be an issue. Today’s workout was 30 minutes long, with 5 minutes of warmup walking, and then 20 minutes of intervals (60 seconds running; 90 seconds walking), and another 5 minutes of cool down walking. I gotta admit, those 60 second running intervals seemed like a really long time. The 90 seconds of walking in between? Not long enough! Stomps foot and screams not fair! But we did it. We got it done. We ran in Lincoln Park, near where Carolyne lives, and the scenery definitely made it a bit easier. Next workout is scheduled for Thursday, after what I know is going to be a looooong workday. But the weather is going to be nice and my (less) fat ass will be in the park running! Anyone else ever do a C25K? How did it go for you?

 

TTFN, fabulous readers!

Lean In…..

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I’m sure the media hype, hatred and vitriol toward Sheryl Sandberg and her book Lean In has not escaped the radar of many of you (as we are all media savvy peeps). Even before Sandberg’s book came out it was getting trashed and panned and I was, needless to say, intrigued. (Don’t even get me started on all the people angry at Melissa Meyer the new CEO at Yahoo! who is requiring people to work in the office. Heaven forbid!)  The night Lean In was released I picked up a copy from work and started reading when I got home. I was curious to see what her book was truly all about, and see what her thoughts on women, work and families were. Within minutes of reading the book, I was hooked. And I really mean, HOOKED! I grabbed it on my way out of work at 11pm at night and read for 2 hours when I got home. It was that compelling. I finished the book a few days later and have not been able to shut up about how good it was or stop recommending it to people. Upon starting the book, I texted my friend Amy who I work with and said “get this book. NOW.” I have talked about it nonstop to the point where a woman several locker bays down from me at the health club came over and asked if I was talking about Lean In. I told her I was and we started to discuss the book and I said I could not recommend it highly enough to EVERYONE.  And to this day, despite all the backlash she has gotten across many platforms, I stand by my statement. You need to read this book. It is one of the best treatises I have read on women, work and families in a long time.

Lean In starts out by detailing Sandberg’s early life as a young woman with parents who valued education and her college and post-grad experience. She discusses openly her failed first marriage, her fears at remarrying, and her current family life with her husband and two children.  But the real meat of the book is about what she has to say she has learned by being a full-time woman working at a high executive level in various industries from the Treasury Department to Google to Facebook.  Sandberg is HONEST in this book.  REFRESHINGLY HONEST. She talks openly about how scared she was that she did not belong at Harvard. That she was going to fail tests, fail out, and never make it. That these feelings continued well past her post-grad experience and carried her into her work life. Honestly, I think these are feelings we have all had at some point or another, especially those of us who have had experience in higher education and post-graduate work. I completely and totally related to what she had to say.  One of my most vivid law school memories was sitting in my first semester, Civil Procedure I final, with the two women on either side of me crying as they read the exam questions and started their answers. I remember thinking in my second year that I absolutely bombed my Evidence final, only to learn after a month of worrying about it (and I’m talking sleepless nights here), that I got the highest score in the class and a Cali award. Not believing in myself or my abilities enough, I actually went to see my professor to tell him I think he got it wrong. He did not. He laughed at me and told me to have more faith in myself. At the time, I thought “easy for him to say” because I was terrified of not being able to hack it. Law school was hard as hell and the competition and attitudes of my fellow students didn’t exactly bolster my self-confidence at the time.

I’ve thought long and hard about what I wanted to say about this book, and whether or not to weigh in on it. Ultimately, I realized that yes, I did need to write about it because I found it such a compelling read. Because she writes in a way that everyone can connect with. And because what she has to say is so important.  Ultimately, upon reflecting on this book and what I took away from it over the past few weeks, I realized that the reason I found this book so compelling is that the advice she gives and the commentary she has started is truly applicable to every woman, working outside the home or not, regardless of profession. The general practicalities of what she says — lean in to your career, sit at the table, don’t be afraid to look for opportunities to grow and increase your skill set– apply to everyone whether you work as a cashier at 7-11  or are the President of your own company.  Find a problem you face and figure out how to fix it. Understand that we are ALL scared at some point, that we ALL don’t think we can do the job we are faced with, that we are ALL stressed out with how to balance our work life and our home life and that this stress has at some point kept all of us awake at night.

One of the biggest criticisms I’ve heard of this book is that Sandberg is “un-relatable” to the vast majority of working women, as she is a high-earning executive and can afford childcare options and household help that others cannot. Totally true. And she doesnt’ sugarcoat it. She is in a position through her earning power and her husband’s earning power to provide options for her family that many people do not have. However, that does not negate the fact that she has the same struggles that everyone else does–how to be a part of her family’s life and meet the time demands of her career, how to get it all done, how to carve out a niche of time for herself. The fact that she can afford nannies and whatever childcare options she needs does not take away from the fact that if she is not home at night in time to put her kids to bed 5 days a week, she fears, the same way all parents do, that her kids won’t know who she is.

I also fail to see how Sandberg’s advice to women, to go full steam ahead into whatever field they are in, and not immediately assume that just because they are women that they cannot accomplish their goals, is somehow advice that is limited to women in executive fields alone. At one point in her book, Sandberg recounts a conversation with a colleague who wanted to join her team at Google, but in a role that was completely different from what she had done professionally up until that point. Sandberg was blown away by how this woman approached her, and instead of doing what all other candidates did in the interviews, she started off with a simple question of “what is your biggest problem you deal with in your position and how can I help to fix it?” By doing this, Sandberg’s colleague immediately placed herself in a position where she was helping move forward and be a problem solver. Asking that simple question “what is the biggest challenge you face and how do you feel I can best work to solve it?” is something that everyone can ask regardless of what they do. I just asked that exact question this week of a new management team that I will be working with professionally as we start a new fiscal year — things are going really smoothly where I’ll be, but there is always room to improve — what can I do to help that? It was a simple question, the answers to which helps provide me with guidance and goals for my own fiscal year and projects. And again, it is a question that anyone can ask regardless of whether they work outside the home or inside, and regardless of the nature of their work.

Another part of what prompted me to write this book is the hatred, just plain evil-spirited talk, that surrounds this book. This morning, the Chicago Tribune online edition had a story about a talk that Sandberg did in Chicago this week. You can watch the video and read the story here.  The article was short and sweet and gave an outline of the book. What struck me, though, were the comments by readers following the article. One reader commented “Sandberg is VIP who lives in a fairytale world of privilege and entitlement. Essentially, she’s a man living inside a woman’s body.” Another, “This lady is just another women from the [LIB] list who hasn”t turned gay, speaking to those who want to listen to her.” And, “It’s also time for men to lead. It’s been a while.” These are just a few comments that I’ve heard and seen repeated time and again about Sandberg and her book. Needless to say, I am sickened and appalled. When I was a young women, I was never told by my parents that there was anything I could not accomplish (except perhaps being an Olympic gymnast, as I was already 5’10” in the 5th grade.) How Sandberg’s book, which is a very positive, go forward and be all you can be type book can prompt anyone to say that she is a “man living inside a woman’s body” or that she has just not yet “turned gay” is ridiculous. Utterly ridiculous. I want to rail in the face of these morons and ask them “do you really not believe that a woman can be successful?” That a woman does not have the ability or brains to lead a large company based solely on the fact that she has breasts and a vagina? How does that impact her ability to do her job? This woman went to HARVARD.  TWICE! That’s more than most men in the workforce, and yet she is denigrated. And, of course, because she believes that women CAN have a career and a family, and believes that women should receive equal pay for equal work, and have the same opportunities as men, she is somehow now a lesbian too. I believe those same things and I am not a lesbian. Nor are any of my other heterosexual friends who believe that. And even if we were, it so does not matter! Utterly ridiculous.  Comments like those quoted above are exactly why this book needs to be read–by men, by women, by parents with young daughters and young sons. It is beyond time for American society to understand that women are as smart as men, that women can excel in their chosen professions, and that simply having been born with breasts and a vagina is not a reason to be held back.

Some of the most vitriolic comments against Sandberg, though, have been from other women. I am at a loss as to how this can be.  If women cannot stand together and say in one voice “we are here, we are smart, we are capable, and we should have the same opportunities and choices that men do,” we will never get anything accomplished. A failure to do this is something that I will NEVER understand. Of course, I have my own theories why. I see it with friends I have who are stay at home moms who get defensive about the choice they have made. I see it with working mom friends who get defensive at the choices they have made. And I see it with couples who have chosen not to have children and get defensive about the choices they have made. When other people–friends, family and media–denigrate the choices we make, we lash out. When we are insecure about the choices we have made, we lash out. And when we feel backed into a corner by choices that have been made for us, we lash out. Ultimately, it is time that we stop attacking others for the life choices and career choices and childbearing choices that they have made that work for them, and start embracing them. My friend’s decision to stay home with her children does not impact my life in any way, nor does my decision to work impact hers (other than, perhaps, making it more difficult to find time to chat on the phone or meet up). These are #firstworldproblems to the nth degree and are not problems at all. Is it okay to be jealous of what Sandberg has accomplished and the rewards she has reaped as a result? Sure, I guess. If you use that jealousy in a healthy way to motivate yourself to change. If you just sit back and bitch and complain about her, you’ve accomplished NOTHING. One of the biggest lessons that I have learned in my late 20’s and early 30’s is that if you want to see change in your life, the onus is on you to effect it. Nobody else is going to come along and give you what you want on a silver platter. You want a new job? Find it. You want to meet someone to share your life with? Put yourself in situations that will allow it. You want to lose weight? Start moving. Eat less. It will all fall into place. But it takes effort. And good old fashioned elbow grease and hard work.

I’ve read a lot of books in my life on the issue of women’s studies, from Gloria Steinem to now Sheryl Sandberg. I’ve read a lot of business books, and life books (and let’s not forget trashy books too!). Lean In is important. It needs to be read. The ideas that Sandberg has hit on, need to be discussed openly and women and men need to support each other so we can all move forward in a productive society. Have any of you read the book? What were your thoughts? Opinions? Etc? Let me know! I haven’t been this excited to discuss a book since The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo!

And of course, Happy Easter and Happy Passover to all my readers:)

Holy Long Time Without a Post, Batman!

I seriously cannot even believe that my last post was several months ago. And then, when I stop to think about it, I actually can believe that my last post was several months ago. Makes me want to hang my head in shame since there have been so many times when I have said “I’m going to sit down and write a blog post” and then I get caught up doing other things…..reading a good book (is there any interest in book posts on here), eating, watching TV, Oscar movie season, working, even napping took precedence. Time to hang my head in shame for a few moments……(am actually hanging my head in shame right now).

But spring seems to have sprung here in the midwest (at least today it is, where it is nearly 50 and raining, melting our foot of snow we got 4 days ago)!  It is a time for new beginnings, spring cleaning, shedding the winter weight and doldrums that, at the very least, hit me in February. And time to start looking forward to a new season — gardening, cooking, new books, new knitting and the belief that one day soon I’ll be able to have my morning cup of coffee on the back porch without freezing my ass off.

Over the past few months, I have to admit that hubby and I have gotten off track with our Paleo eating. Things like Thanksgiving, Christmas, pasta, pizza and cookies called our names all too loudly…..and sometimes it was just easier to eat crappy food than take the time to sit down and make healthy eating a priority.  It is time for that to end and we sat down and made a healthy meal plan, which in turn made going to the grocery store a million times easier as I knew what we were eating and what we needed. Shocking, I know! Sometimes, we all need to be reminded of the simplest lessons. I went to the store and got lots of yummy foods. Huzzah! Sometimes, we have to take our success in the smallest ways.

One of the difficult things of late has been my new (and somewhat crazy, non-traditional work schedule). Back in October I got promoted (awesomesauce) and it was right as we went into the holiday retail season (which for non-retail people means we start in August with Christmas–no joke). I hopped right in with really long hours, shifting commutes as I went to different stores, and 6 day work weeks. This made, for me, getting healthy dinners on the table a bit less easy for the nights Patrick and I were able to eat together. So one of the things we are trying this time around is more easy prep stuff on the days I work when Patrick doesn’t cook (fancier dinners can wait til days off). Which, of course, leads me to the delightful meal we had last night for dinner.

At some point in the last few weeks, I’d pinned this recipe over on Pinterest for Philly Cheesesteak Stuffed Bell Peppers. The photos were ah-mazing and looks so good and we LOVE Philly Cheesesteaks in this house (see my previous post on Paleo friendly Philly Cheesesteaks). This was a new take on it and I thought why not. So last night, after I got home from working way longer than I was scheduled for, I set to work replicating this. Since I like to have leftovers (makes lunch a lot easier the next day), we used the following ingredients:

  • 4 Large Green Bell Peppers
  • 1.5lb Sara Lee Rare Roast Beef (from the deli, on sale, score!)
  • Sliced Provolone Cheese
  • 1 Large Yellow Onion (sliced into half-rings)
  • 1 16oz container pre-sliced mushrooms (don’t judge me for not slicing my own, I was time saving)
  • A buncha minced garlic (do this to your own taste, I used about 1.5T)
  • Butter

In your pan, melt the butter over medium heat and add the onions, mushrooms and garlic. Sautee until everything is carmelized beautifully. (About 20 minutes) See, doesn’t it look so gorgeous just cooking away?

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While that was cooking away, I sliced my peppers (cut the top off, then pull out the center, then slice in half from top down). Seed them and then lay them on a baking sheet with parchment.  Put 1 slice of provolone cheese in the bottom of each pepper. Like so:

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Once the onion/mushroom/garlic mixture is looking all sexy and carmelized, lay your slices of roast beef into the pan and get them all warmed up and mixed in with the onion/mushroom/garlic mix.  Once everything is sufficiently warmed up (this requires taste testing, so good), use your tongs or a spoon and transfer it into the individual peppers. Then, top each pepper with another slice of Provolone cheese.

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Bake the peppers at 400 degrees for about 12-15 minutes until the cheese is melted and golden brown. Then, dive in! This was our result last night and they were so delicious!!!!!

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I cannot recommend this meal highly enough. I didn’t miss the bread of the sandwich at all and was filled up after eating them. Total prep time and cooking time was about 45 minutes, but it seemed much faster since you’re prepping different parts while things cook.

Tonight, we are having Korean Braised Vegetables and Chicken (first time trying Korean food) so keep your fingers crossed that it all turns out!

Dinner Time! Dinner Time! Dinner Time!

Happy Monday, fair readers! It’s a picture perfect day here in Chicago…..sunny with a slight breeze, and temperatures expected to be in the low 80s. Simply lovely June weather, indeed. Far better than the 50 and pouring rain with storms we had on June 1st. I’ll take it!

If it’s the beginning of the week, it must be time to be thinking about our meal plan! Our last weekly meal plan that was posted had some new recipes (some worked out beautifully, some will need some tweaking if they are to be made again) and we may try some new stuff out this week too.  Also, get ready, because grilling season is officially here and we are rocking it out! It is perfect weather for outdoor cooking and not heating up the kitchen.   Continue reading

Holy Awesome Garden, Batman!

Well, fair readers, as the May weather turned warmer here in Chicago (read: super hot, 100 degrees on Memorial Day weekend), it became clear that it was time to start the garden.  The wisdom on when to start your garden in Chicago varies, from people who get stuff out the first week of April to those of us who are a little bit more realistic about the weather here and wait until May.  Over years of gardening myself, and watching my mom do her planting for approximately 30 years, the well-worn advice of “wait until at least Mother’s Day in Chicago to plant” has great meaning.  There have been numerous years that the call of flowers has been too much for me in April, and I pick a moderately warm spring day to plant them, only to have a freeze come in and undo all my hard work. Please note: as I write this blog post up on the morning of June 1st, JUNE 1ST, it is 50 degrees and rainy in Chicago. We don’t really need to get into the fact that it was 90 for 5 days straight last weekend.  Raises fist at unpredictable Chicago weather.  With my edible garden, I’ve had to learn to stomp down the desire to start planting in April and hold out until Mother’s Day weekend.

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I Like to Stay Up Past Midnight Reading…

Well, Fatty Gal readers, we know that one of my all time favorite things to do is read! It’s one of my top two hobbies, along with knitting, and I just love to settle in with a good book and get lost in the story and the characters and the scenery of it all. when I find a REALLY good book, and then find out that the main character(s) that I like so much are part of a series, man, oh man, that’s just the best.

Such was the case with a book that I just read, er, actually devoured, over this past weekend.  Last week, my bestest girlfriend, Carolyne, and I decided to start a book club.  Or, as my husband referred to it, just us hanging out and talking about books, which is what we do anyway:) We both enjoy good mysteries, supernatural stuff and historical books, and thought it would be fun to make a pointed effort to both read the same book and have a discussion. Since the inception of this idea last week, we’ve picked up two more members for the club, so that’s a bonus.

Carolyne chose the first book, The Restorer by Amanda Stevens.

Seriously, doesn’t the cover just look intriguing? If I was wandering the shelves of my local Barnes and Noble and had come across this, I would DEFINITELY have picked it up based solely on the cover.  The Restorer is the first book in The Graveyard Queen Series featuring Amelia Gray. This is the description from the back of the book:

“My name is Amelia Gray.  I’m a cemetery restorer who sees ghosts. In order to protect myself from the parasitic nature of the dead, I’ve always held fast to the rules passed down from my father.  But now a haunted police detective has entered my world and everything is changing, including the rules that have always kept me safe.

It started with the discovery of a young woman’s brutalized body in an old Charleston graveyard I’ve been hired to restore.  The clues to the killer –and to his other victims–lie in the headstone symbolism that only I can interpret.  Devlin needs my help, but his ghosts shadow his every move, feeding off his warmth, sustaining their presence with his energy.  To warn him would be to invite them into my life. Ive vowed to keep my distance, but the pull of his magnetism grows ever stronger even as the symbols lead me closer to the killer and to the gossamer veil that separates this world from the rest.”

The description on the back of this book simply does NOT do this book justice. It is a Southern Gothic ghost story that takes place in old Charleston, where pre-Civil War history is colliding with the modern world.  This is already a huge plus for me, since I really enjoy reading about Southern history, with its ghosts and Gullah spirits and witchcraft, things that we just don’t have up North in Chicago where the city was rebuilt after a major fire. There’s a charm, for me at least, to the aura of the deep south, and I’ve always wanted to visit. The world that Stevens created for Amelia and Devlin, with its shadowy history and ghosts was just too intriguing.

Stevens also created compelling characters, who you want to get to know more. The author reveals just enough about the characters’ pasts to keep you flipping the pages, madly wanting more. The interplay between Amelia Gray and John Devlin, the haunted cop, is both believable and enticing.

At times, the world that Stevens created for her characters and her story got downright creepy, which is the hallmark of a good Southern Gothic ghost story.  No joke, at one point, I was reading the book late into the night long after my husband and dog were fast asleep and it was at a particularly scary point in the book and every single sound I heard in the house was creeping me out. Now. That’s a damn good book.

Since reading this book in less than two days over the weekend, I raced to the Chicago Public Library website to put the second and third books on hold so that I can read them. But dammit if somebody else hasn’t already checked all the copies out! I know I’ve found a good read when all I want to do after finishing one book is pick up the next in the series. If you like mysteries, ghost stories, and/or Southern Gothic novels, I highly suggest you pick this book up. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed!

Summer Grillin’, Happens So Fast…

One of my favorite things about the warmer weather is firing up the grill. For so many different reasons — grilled food is awesome, it means I get to be outside enjoying the spring/summer air and light and time in the backyard, and I’m not heating up my house unnecessarily by using the stove or oven.  And, ever since we switched from a charcoal grill to a gas grill a few years ago (thank you for the bestest Christmas present ever, honey!), grilling is fast and easy, so it’s no longer relegated to being a weekend-only event.

So what’s a girl to do when weeknight dinner beckons and you don’t want to be bogged down in prep time? Why, grill peppers, onions, tomatoes and sausage! Here’s a super easy, super fast, and super yummy dinner that you can make in, literally, 10 minutes of grilling time!

Ingredients (serves 2):

2 Green Bell Peppers, cut into bite size pieces

2 Red Bell Peppers, cut into bite size pieces

1 Onion, cut in half and sliced (think half onion ring size)

1 Pint Grape tomatoes, halved (or cherry, whatever floats your boat)

1 Packet Mojito Lime seasoning

2 Tablespoons Olive Oil

Turkey Sausage (or any other sausage of your choosing)

The before cooking pictures:

(Note: I used Ekrich Skinless Turkey Sausage)

Instructions:

1. Get your grill going nice and hot. You’re going to need a veggie grilling basket for this meal, and I always toss mine on the grill while it’s warming up so that the basket is piping hot and ready too.

2. In a large bowl, toss the peppers, onion, tomato, Mojito Lime seasoning and olive oil, to ensure that everything is coated up.

3.  When your grill is ready (I usually let mine heat up for about 10 minutes), toss the pepper mixture into the grilling basket, and toss the sausages on the grill.

For the sausages, assuming they are pre-cooked, which most are, you can grill them over medium heat, 5 minutes per side. Key –> Be sure to poke a few holes in each sausage with a fork so that the juices can escape and you don’t have the sausage explode on you while cooking. For the veggies, I let them cook away in the basket over medium-high heat, and mix them around with tongs at the halfway mark of cooking (5 minutes) to ensure that they are evenly cooked.

4.  Once the cooking time is done, turn your grill off and enjoy your fabulous dinner.

Behold, the beauty of grilled veggies, piping hot:

And sausages, perfectly grilled as well:

What’s your favorite meal to toss on the grill in summer?