Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Irresistible Orange Sweet Potatoes with Almond Streusel

Some dishes only come around a few times a year.  And while I  really can't think of a good reason to wait an entire year for something so good, we do.  While we do eat Sweet Potatoes often, these orange laced, incredible, awesome, fabulous, luscious, irresistible, exquisite, heavenly, sumptuous sweet potatoes usually only find their way to or table around the holidays and I savor each and every bite.  Why I wait all year to make something I love so much I don't know, but, a holiday tradition for years, these sweet potatoes are something I can't have Thanksgiving without.

Laced with the essence of orange and enhanced with a generous splash of my beloved Grand Marier, this sidedish is low on added sugar and butter and relies on fresh ingredients to bring that luscious mouth-feel and flavor to the plate.  Sprinkled with a toasted streusel of almond and a touch of paprika, these sweets aren't your over the top ooey-gooey marshmallow topped sweets of your childhood.  They're so much better.

I'll admit I've tried for the last 3 years to bring a decent photograph to you, and even though I'm still not thrilled with this year's shots, I've decided this recipe is just too good not to share.  My favorite Thanksgiving dish of all time, I hope you enjoy it as much as I do!  Happy Holidays my friends!!

Monday, November 25, 2013

Fine Cooking's Linzer Cookies... a Food Photography Challenge

Little Window Cookies... that's what we've called Linzer cookies since Liv dubbed them such some 10 years ago.  Thin, tender and sightly sweet, these hazelnut/almond shortbread treats bring a festive flair to any holiday table, and with this month's Inspired Plate Theme being Festive Food Fare, our choice didn't take much thought.

Evolving from the Austrian Linzer Torte, a lattice designed pastry traditionally filled with black currant jam, the Linzer Cookie's most popular filling tends to be raspberry, but any flavor will do.  I'll admit to raspberry being my personal favorite, but we've used strawberry and blueberry jam with equal success and Thanksgiving brings the perfect occasion to use some of that jewel-colored cranberry sauce you may have hanging around.

The cookies alone are quite crisp (I love that!), but will soften up after being filled with the jam.  Hence, if your preference is a crispier cookie you may want to fill the cookies the day of serving.  While I love a good crisp cookie, I can't get enough of these "little windows" a day or two after filling when the flavors have melded and the cookie has softened to a nice tender bite.

Now won't you join me all the way on the other side of the world as we join Inspired Plate Member, the newly graduated, Dr. Sabrina Wong, a food photographer from Perth Australia.  I'm eager to see her festive food and I'm totally envious of her holidays in summer!

Saturday, November 23, 2013

DIY Homemade Kahlua ~ 3 Versions

DIY Homemade Kahlua

Spirits of the alcoholic sort aren't usually my thing... however a 2008 Christmas gift of a homemade bottle of Kahlua became a treasure I savored for years.  Rich, sweet and bursting with mocha flavors, this coffee liquor is a fabulous treat over crushed ice, or for me, it's become a holiday baking ingredient I can't live without. 

I'll admit I had never tasted the liquor before my girlfriend gave me a bottle, but polishing off the bottle in a matter of months I begged for another the following Christmas.  Now out of Kahlua again, it's time I learned to make this necessity myself.  And who knew it was so easy?  With only 5 ingredients (including water), Kahlua mixes together in less than 20 minutes and then needs a just a few weeks to infuse with heavenly vanilla to bring it to its full potential.

DIY Homemade Kahlua
A simple internet search brings a plethora of recipes, each bringing its own variance to the table, or shall we say, to the bottle.  White vs. brown sugar, rum vs. vodka, and brewed vs. instant coffee, each variation allows one to bring one's own touch to the concoction, be it traditional or not.

For our first experiment, we decided to keep to the basics - coffee, vodka, granulated sugar and vanilla beans.  My quandary though, became brewed or instant coffee?  Unable to decide, I made batches of both.

Advice from a facebook post on DIY Kahlua brought agreement on one thing in particular... good coffee.   Most responders recommended using the best coffee available, and let me just note here that knowledge of making a good, strong cup of brewed coffee is a plus (and perhaps not my forte...).

As for the alcohol, the general consensus had me using a nice medium grade vodka, not too cheap, but definitely not the top shelf stuff.  And vanilla beans?  I like to use the best, and for me, my one stop shop is Beanilla.  Having used their beans and bottles for our general baking as well as DIY gifts for the last few years, I wouldn't think of using anything else.

DIY Homemade Kahlua
Being somewhat of a traditionalist, my first batch included freshly brewed coffee.  Might I just mention here that my husband is the coffee maker in the house, and my "strong" freshly brewed coffee left much to be desired.  Hence, I found my first batch of Kahlua to be somewhat weak - if you are a good coffee maker though, you may have better luck.

My second batch however, following the Beanilla recipe with instant coffee (we used  Medaglia D'Oro Instant Espresso Coffee), proved to be more traditional and brought a rich, dark coffee liquor immediately begging to be tasted.

Our conclusion to the DIY Kahlua experiment recommends using very strong coffee if you use freshly brewed, or better yet, stick with the majority of the recipes out there and use a premium instant brand for an even stronger result.

Agreeing with our facebook poll we suggest:

~  Good coffee ~
~  Decent Vodka ~
~  Excellent Vanilla ~

DIY Homemade Kahlua

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Naples, Florida - Review of Naples Bay Resort, Bonefish, Roy's and boating on the Intacoastal Waterways

Pier at Naples Florida

Naples, Florida... a land of beautiful sunsets, fabulous food and an entrance to the amazing intracoastal waterways.  Similar, yet different from my home in San Diego, Naples' gorgeous late October weather warmed our bones and gave these tired parents a much needed rest with its leisurely pace.

Arriving at The Naples Bay Resort, porters greeted us with friendly smiles and as much information about Naples as we desired.  From restaurant recommendations to parking tips, these guys made us feel immediately welcome and had us in our upgraded two-bedroom suite in no time.
Naples Bay Resort - 2 bedroom suite, marina view
Perfect for families, our 1,300 square foot two-bedroom suite included a full kitchen, living room plus dining area, two roomy bedrooms (I love the fans over the beds!), two bathrooms (master with separate jacuzzi tub and shower), front-load washer and dryer, and a balcony complete with table and chairs.

From our third floor location, the sunset brought a lovely view overlooking the marina and we enjoyed watching boats come and go throughout the day.

Located just below our room, the Bonefish Grill sent up occasional mouthwatering aromas, and proved to be an ideal location for dinner with that gorgeous marina sunset view.  Coming from the West Coast, Bonefish is not a restaurant I'm familiar with, but apparently it has quite a following.

Thai Coconut Shrimp - Bonefish
While our server highly recommended a Bonefish specialty, the Bang Bang Shrimp, my eye spied another shrimp offering, the Thai Coconut Shrimp.  After a day of exploring and driving, the arrival of the Thai shrimp had us both gasping slightly and trying not to appear anxious as the server took our meal order.  Politely offering each other to go first, we ended up grabbing shrimps at the same time and smiles of satisfaction replaced our hungry furrowed brows.  Combined with a nice glass of half-priced happy hour wine, this appetizer ranks up there in my "I loved it" book.

Dinner for both of us was the grilled salmon, which was indeed cooked perfectly, though a tad sweet for my taste.  The mango salsa provided an excellent compliment, with steamed veggies and rice rounding out the meal.  While this is my only experience at Bonefish, the happy patrons, many of whom were obviously returning visitors, have me hereby hoping Bonefish makes its way west.  A good, well cooked meal for a decent price, I very much enjoyed our dinner.

Marina sunset at Naples Bay Resort

But what made Naples Bay Resort special to me, is their boat rental option that had us cruising the intracoastal waterways in our very own bowrider.  Asking my husband if he could drive a boat, his comment of, "Well... I can fly a plane, how different can it be?" had me just a little worried, but I need not have been.

My Captain!
Featuring an iPod/Smartphone friendly stero, GPS, VHF Radio, onboard cooler, bimini sunshade in addition to the digital throttle and 4-stroke engine, we hit the waterways in style.

Wind in our faces we zipped through the mangroves alongside pelicans and dolphins.  Eyes peeled for the elusive manatee, we didn't see any on this visit, but I hear they are present.  Intricate nests covering most of the waterway signs caught my attention, and we saw a nesting osprey or two as we passed by.

Beach and dining destinations abound in the waterways, and our destination for the day included Keewaydin Island.  Popular with locals who beach for the day, we saw portable grills, popups with chairs and loungers, and even a few tents.  Forget to pack a drink and food?  Never fear!!  The food and beer boat pulled up shortly after we did!

Keewaydin Island, Florida

Perfect for liesure, one can cover the island in less than a minute.  Strolling from the waterways to the gulf, shells of all sorts covered the stretches of white sand and had families spending hours shelling the area.  I never tired of a child's shriek of "Look what I found!!" as they gathered a newfound treasure into their plastic bucket, and truth be told, I had the urge to shriek a few times myself.

Shells - Keewaydin Island, Florida

After an exhilarating day on the water, our appetites once again made themselves known.  As luck would have it, one of my all time favorite restaurants, Roy's, can be found just about a block from Naples Bay Resort.  Originating in Honolulu in 1988, Roy Yamaguchi invented "fusion cusine" by blending classic techniques with adventurous Pacific Rim flavors.  Not to gush... but I've never had anything at Roy's that I didn't absolutely love.

Roys, Naples Florida
Enjoying a lovely sake as the sun once again made its move towards the ocean, relaxation began to set in.  My husband's Blackened Island Ahi made its way onto his top 10 meals list, and my Sun-dried Tomato Risotto quickly eased me into pure comfort.

But no visit to Roy's is complete without the Melting Hot Chocolate Souffle.  Requiring an order at the beginning of the meal, the soufflé arrives to your table piping hot from the oven.  Decadent, rich chocolate pools from the center when cut and contrasts beautifully with the small scoop of Vanilla Bean ice cream and a drizzle of raspberry sauce.  A little piece of heaven on a plate?  I think yes.

Pleasantly satiated, our last stop in Naples took us through the adorable and busy little downtown.  Filled with tempting restaurants and enough shopping to fill your entire day, 5th Avenue will also get you to the ocean, and on the ocean we found the Naples Pier.

Simply stunning at sunset, travelers and locals alike make their way to the pier to watch the sun dip once again into the gulf.  With a blazing orange sky, dolphins frolicking in the waves and pelicans diving for dinner, the Pier brought our time in Naples to a lovely close.

Next stop?  Ft. Lauderdale and the Seabourn Sojourn... stay tuned!

Pier - Naples Florida

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Best Ever Sugar Cookies

Peering into the bakery display window at the age of 5, the items are all set for perfect eye level viewing.  Brightly colored and beautifully decorated sugar cookies beg for attention and even at that age I stood in awe at the artistic ability of the creative bakers.  Displaying seasonal works of art like turkeys for Thanksgiving, perfectly pink hearts for Valentines, or ornately decorated Christmas Trees for the holidays, I wanted them all.

Some 20 years later as I sat in my own kitchen contemplating the holidays and decided decorated sugar cookies were in order.  How hard could they be??  But without the internet at hand, I turned to cookbooks and unfortunately my choice in recipes was anything but proper.  While tasty, the recipe produced plumped, yet very soft cookies which did not bode well for decorating.  Repeat similar stories over the next few years, and you see me giving up on sugar cookies.

I gave up, that is, until I found the perfect recipe.  Have you been In Katrina's Kitchen??  If you haven't, a visit is definitely recommended.  A tag line of "Where dessert is always served first", Katrina's Kitchen begged me to sit down for a while and enjoy.  With her house full of hungry boys, Katrina provides ultimate treat after ultimate treat and has me ready to thing about putting in a request for adoption.

But back to the sugar cookies - Katrina has provided absolutely the best recipe ever.  Her description of:

Comes together quickly.
Does NOT need to be chilled.
Can be doubled, halved, etc easily.
Holds its shape with very little expanding when baked.

solved my numerous issues, and her description is perfectly accurate.  Using this perfect recipe multiple times over the last year, we've probably baked near 1,000 cookies, and much as I hate to admit it, I've received all the accolades. I've printed the recipe for friends, but I think it's time Katrina receives her due credit.

Dough shaped into discs and frozen
As the holidays approach, already limited time becomes even more limited with holiday events popping daily onto our calendars.  While we may try to plan ahead, the best laid plans don't always work out as, well... planned.  Hence, it's never a bad idea to have some sort of dough waiting in the freezer for last minute events or simply a rainy day in need of a treat.

Now, Katrina's awesome sugar cookie dough doesn't need to be chilled, but our experiment showed that the dough can indeed be frozen and used at a later date without issue.  Baking for Liv's dance team's fundraiser of an afternoon tea put no less than 5 batches of different baked goods on my docket, and making this dough a week early and freezing it put me ahead of the game.  On baking day I simply removed the dough from the freezer a few hours before baking and when I was ready, so was the dough.

While Katrina's recipe has made me a cookie hero, unfortunately my lack of artistic skills have left our cookies anything but designer.  However, even a simply glaze and a dash of sprinkles elicits oohs and ahhs as soon as the plate reach the table.  These beauties were a hit at the tea, and have already been requested for future events.  Katrina, thanks for making me shine!

Instagram from cookie baking day.  X for Xcalibur Dance Team!

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Arugula Salad with Sweet Potatoes and Beets

Have you ever rummaged through the pantry for potatoes only to find that your potato has sprouted roots??  Obviously, our potatoes don't get used all that often.  However the last time we discovered a sweet potato garden in the pantry, Liv said, "What would happen if you planted it?"  Good question... it would grow, right?  Right indeed! 

Producing a gorgeous, green vine, sweet potatoes don't require much care.  Actually, after planing our one potato I totally forgot it were there until weeks later my husband asked what that green vine was.  Leaving them to flourish for a few months I was surprised the other day when I actually took a moment to look and low and behold we had tips of sweet potatoes poking out of the ground.  Harvesting a few, I promptly roasted them with onions sending a simply amazing aroma through the house.

And perfect timing too.  Back from vacation, my waistline is in dire need of healthy food after two weeks of pure indulgence on our cruise.  Wendy, The Weekend Gourmet's Salad Bar Group is posting today, and the subject just happens to be sweet potatoes.

Tossing our roasted potatoes with dressed arugula, beets and a sweet crunchy sprinkle of sugared walnuts, this salad proved to be just with I needed to get back on track.  Thanks Wendy for for the perfect timing!

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Origial Caribbean Killer SkinnyTini

Can you see it??  Crystal blue skies, warm turquoise waters and palm fronds swaying gently in the onshore breeze.... it's the Caribbean!  And I've been living the tropical life for the last 14 days.  Celebrating our 20th Anniversary, my husband and I enjoyed a rare two weeks alone as we sailed the Caribbean waters on the Seabourn Sojourn and enjoyed ports including San Juan, St. John, Antigua, St. Barts and the fabulous Isla Catalina in the Dominican Republic. 

As I embark on the travel posts of the trip, I owe a great deal of thanks to my newfound friend and local San Diego girl, Teresa Howes.  You see, thanks to Teresa, I'm heading to the Caribbean, new bikini packed in my carry on bag along with a new confidence to don the costume that I've not had in years.

Stumbling across Teresa's 30-Day Juicing Challenge just over a month ago, she gave me the kick I needed to drop those few pounds that have been hanging around my middle for the last few years.  Beginning the challenge, my husband and I began our mornings with a plethora of juice concoctions (his favorite continues to be the Coconut Lime Detox Drink) and added servings of fruits and veggies to replace plates of pancakes while also increasing our exercise.  Some six weeks later, we're ready for the beach, and I'm ever so thankful to Teresa for the inspiration to get moving down a healthier path.

Chatting with Teresa we agreed to swap guest posts, and she suggested a bringing us a SkinnyTini.  Hmmm... SkinnyTini?  The phrase sounded so familiar.  And then it hit me, she was that Teresa, the one who wrote the book sitting on my girlfriends bookshelf and the one that we've used ever so often.  SkinnyTinis: :All the Fun for Half the Calories, is a skinny cocktail makers dream and one that suits my lifestyle.  Frequently I try to mix my beverages with non-caloric mixers, or will simply drink a premium tequila over ice with a squeeze of lime in place of a margarita with the sugary mixings... all in the name of saving those calories which have been tending to reside on my hips more often the older I get.

Today, to kick off our vacation to the Caribbean, Teresa brings us the Original Caribbean Killer SkinnyTini, the one that actually inspired her to write the book that we love so much.  Teresa, thank you for this celebration post, and thank you for inspiring me to drop those pounds.  I'm heading to those blue waters and won't be hiding under my coverup as I hit the beach.  Cheers!!


The Original Caribbean Killer SkinnyTini

Well while Kim is off in paradise perusing the Caribbean, I’m more than happy to fill some of her airtime with the story of the original SkinnyTini.  It’s so fitting, as I made my very first recipe ever on the beach in Antigua in the winter of 2006.  Well, not physically on the beach, but you get the picture.  It was actually the winter body, on the beach that inspired the skinny cocktail concept!  If you flash back 7 years, you may recall a time when there was no such thing.

I had headed out on a voyage for some fun in the sun to ring in the New Year with a girlfriend on the remote south side of the island.  I was coming off a few months of too much fun, but since it was seasonally chilly, I don’t think I really noticed how the alcohol residue had collected on my tummy, hips and thighs.  But strip that tan-less, chubby body down into a bikini and put in on the beach and the dilemma was all too clear.  But we were on vacation!  Not a time to start a diet. So I vowed to find a compromise, we would only drink our sun-kissed cocktails with zero calorie mixers.  As I read nutrition labels on the local juices and of course sodas, I realized we could easily cut our calories in half!

But it was 2006, and we were on the remote side of the island, where there wasn’t much to offer by way of zero calorie mixers beyond soda water or diet coke – which is not very clever or all that interesting.  We had just traveled clear across the country and then some, and I noticed in my toiletry bag a bottle of pink grapefruit Airborne.  I checked the nutrition label and what luck!  Not only could we color our cocktails with something interesting and boost our health, it had only 5 calories per tablet! Viola, the original SkinnyTini, the Caribbean Killer was born!

This is a true story!

So when I got home, in early 2007 I got a little obsessed with finding fun, creative zero or ultra low calorie mixers and created concoctions that were literally “All the Fun for Half the Calories.”  After a year of playing mixologist in my kitchen, my friends and coworkers encouraged me to “write a book.”  And so I did. And to my surprise, Wiley bought it and published it! In the spring on 2009, “SkinnyTinis – All the Fun for Half the Calories” was published, and will always stand proudly as the original low calorie cocktail book.

So let’s cheers to Kim and her fantasist and well-deserved vacation!

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Lightened Up Eggplant Parmesan… and a visit from Becky

Have you ever made a friend without meeting them in real life??  My fabulous blogging community has introduced me to so many people over the years, but a few of them are particularly special.  Such is the case with my friend, Becky, of Baking and Cooking, A Tale of Two Loves.

I have to admit, when I first starting reading her blog, I somehow got it in my head that the last word in the title was "loaves" not loves, but to this day when I think of her I think of sharing a loaf of bread with her, perhaps slathered with butter and sweet strawberry jam and alongside a cup of steaming coffee.  And someday, I'm really going to do that.

I've been reading Becky's blog almost since the day I entered the blog world, and I feel like I know her, her husband, her adorable little pup Bailey and even a few of her neighbors.  Becky has a heart of gold and a talent for food that has me visiting her kitchen often.  

While today my real life travels have taken me a different direction (I'll have more on that later), I'm ever so thankful to Becky to have taken care of dinner for my mom and the kids back at home.

Becky, one of these days we will share a meal in real life… I'm looking forward to it!


Lightened Up Eggplant Parmesan… a Guest Post from Becky 

Hi! I’m Becky from Baking and Cooking a Tale of Two Loves, and I am honored to be blogging for Kim today.  She and her husband are on a well-deserved cruise (without kids) for their 20th Wedding Anniversary. Congratulations!  Have a glass of wine for me.

Kim was one of the first bloggers that I met, and one of my best supporters, when I first started blogging over three years ago. Kim has a son and daughter, now a Freshman and Senior in High School, plus her husband, so she is a busy Mom. Kim is always making marvelous, healthy meals, desserts, and snacks, and I have made many of them. She is also an accomplished photographer. I’m sure that you have seen many of her photos on her blog, and Facebook. So, when I was asked to be a guest blogger, I wanted to make a healthy dish as well.

Lightened Up Eggplant Parmesan might sound like an oxymoron, but it isn’t. I substituted lower fat Mozzarella for full fat Mozzarella, and Part Skim Ricotta for full fat Ricotta. In addition, I used fresh grated Parmesan cheese, and the taste was incredible. This dish tastes like Lasagna without the noodles, and all of those carbs. Layers of melted cheese between roasted eggplant and ricotta filling. 

The eggplant was roasted, instead of breaded and fried, then layered with a homemade red sauce and the cheeses.  Kim’s family eats and drinks a lot of vegetables, so I didn’t think that eggplant would be a problem for them. Eggplant doesn’t really have a taste of its own, and takes on the flavor of the sauce in the dish, so it is a lot like zucchini, in that respect. I used our homemade Marinara Sauce with Fresh tomatoes, or you can use a basic ***Marinara recipe.  If you are really in a pinch, you could use a jar of Trader Joe’s Arrabiata Sauce, I won’t tell.

If you have never cooked with eggplant before, one thing that you have to do before you roast the eggplant is to lightly salt the eggplant, and let the excess moisture drain out of the eggplant, so your dish isn’t watery. Lay eggplant slices on layers of paper towels or place in your colander for about 1/2 hour. Then you can proceed with roasting the Eggplant.

Lightened Up Eggplant Parmesan 
Inspired by Gina’s Skinny Taste
  • 1 large eggplant (2 lbs)
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 12 oz fat free ricotta I used Part Skim
  • 1/4 cup + 2 tbsp Pecorino Romano, I used freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped
  • 1 medium egg
  • 2 cups reduced fat mozzarella
  • 3 cups homemade tomato sauce**
  • salt
Start by making the sauce if you don't have any already made. While the sauce simmers, slice the eggplant into 1/4 inch thick slices. Lightly salt the slices and put in a colander or lay on paper towels to release excess moisture for about 1/2 hour. Do not skip this step, or your dish might be watery.
Preheat oven to 450°. Brush eggplant lightly with olive oil on both sides and place on cookie sheets. Bake for 20-25 minutes, turning half way through until eggplant is golden brown.

In a medium bowl combine ricotta, egg, parsley and 1/4 cup of grated cheese.

In a 9x12 baking dish, put a little sauce on the bottom of the dish and put a layer of eggplant to cover the bottom of the dish.Top with 1/3 of the ricotta cheese mixture, mozzarella cheese and sauce. Add another layer of eggplant and repeat the ricotta cheese, mozzarella cheese and sauce until everything is used up. Top with sauce and the mozzarella cheese and the remaining grated cheese.

Cover with foil and bake until cheese is melted and everything is bubbling, about 30 minutes at 400°F. Remove foil and bake an additional 8-10 minutes. Take it out of the oven and let it sit about 10 minutes before cutting.  Enjoy!

***Marinara Sauce
2 /Tbsp olive oil
1 med chopped onion
1/2c finely chopped carrots
3 cloves garlic crushed
2- 28 oz cans crushed tomatoes
½ c red wine, optional
1 8 oz can tomato sauce, if needed
1 Tbsp. Italian Seasoning
Fresh basil
Sugar to taste


In a large stock pot, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add onions, carrots, and garlic and cook until soft, 2-3 minutes.

Add  dry spices and all other ingredients into the pot and simmer for about 45 minutes, until thickened.  Add basil, and tomato sauce for a thicker sauce.