Cucumber Finger Sandwiches

My daughter recently called to ask if I could share an easy appetizer recipe as she needed to assemble a quick item for a coworker’s going-away party. She had already looked through the recipes on my blog and couldn’t find one that she could easily make ahead of time and store in the fridge. My mind quickly turned to a simple recipe that I used to make when our children were young. I made this recipe for our annual St. Patrick’s Day Party when we lived in the southwest Chicago area. The yearly parade (and party) was always a fun event for all of the Irish families living in the neighborhood. Slices of pumpernickel cocktail bread are loaded up with a spiced cream cheese mixture and a thick slice of fresh cucumber. A quick sprinkle of dill adds a layer of flavor. Drawing the tines of a fork down the side of the cucumber before slicing, adds a unique design to the appetizer.

Cucumber Finger Sandwiches

1 (8 ounce) package cream cheese, softened

1 (.7 ounce) package dry Italian-style salad dressing mix

1 (1 pound) loaf sliced pumpernickel party bread

2 English cucumbers

2 teaspoons dill weed or dill seed

Mix cream cheese and Italian salad dressing mix in a bowl until well blended. Draw the tines of a fork down the sides of the cucumber before slicing (Make sure to pierce the skin of each cucumber.) Spread cream cheese mixture atop pumpernickel party bread and top each slice with a cucumber slice. Sprinkle with a light dose of dill weed or dill seed.

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Colorful Stuffed Peppers

While gathering produce during my weekly shopping trip, I noticed an abundance of beautifully colored bell peppers piled high in the sale bin as I entered the store. I realized that it had been a very long time since I had made stuffed peppers so I went through a mental checklist of all of the ingredients I would need to make the dish for our Saturday night meal. When picking peppers for this recipe, I was careful to select large, wide, flat-bottomed peppers that would sit nicely in my baking dish. As luck would have it, ground beef was also on sale, so I purchased several pounds of the 93/7% mixture. I love to stock up on versatile meat options, bring them home and divide them into meal-sized portions for the freezer. This allows me to have plenty on-hand, when needed. Here’s how I divided things up:

2 lbs kept for the stuffed peppers

2 lbs were made into hearty hamburger patties, placed in freezer safe container

2 lbs were mixed with ingredients to make 2 meatloaf bricks and wrapped in foil

2 lbs were used to make simple chili without beans, packed into freezer safe bags

(I usually add beans to the chili meat once I reheat later.)

Carefully labeling everything, I used a permanent marker to date and identify the items enclosed. I also bought several pounds of fresh, boneless, skinless chicken for other future meals. I divided each large family pack into 4 freezer bags with 4 chicken breasts in each.

I always feel so accomplished when I have a productive day assembling meals that can be cooked with very little effort during the busy week. These delicious peppers were gobbled up quickly with a few left over for weekday lunches.

I’m ready to relax and enjoy the rest of the weekend!

Colorful Stuffed Peppers

6-8 large bell peppers

2 lbs ground beef

1 tsp Italian seasoning

1 teaspoon onion powder

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1 (28 ounce) can diced tomatoes, undrained

1 (5.6 ounce) package Knorr seasoned rice and pasta blend (chicken or beef flavor)

1 1/2 cups of water

1/2 cup sharp cheddar cheese

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Remove and discard the tops, seeds, and membranes of the bell peppers; set aside.

In a large skillet over medium heat, cook the beef until evenly browned; drain.  Mix in Italian seasoning, onion powder, garlic powder, diced tomatoes (with juice), seasoned rice package and 1 1/2 cups of water.  Bring to a boil; cover and reduce heat to a simmer for 20-25 minutes to cook rice.  Remove lid, turn off heat and let cool slightly.  Spoon equal amounts of the mixture into each hollowed pepper.

Fill a 13X9” baking dish with about 2”of water.  Arrange peppers in a baking dish with the hollowed sides facing upward.  Tightly cover dish with aluminum foil.  Bake 35-40 minutes in the preheated oven, or until the peppers are slightly tender. Remove from oven, uncover and sprinkle each pepper with sharp cheddar cheese before serving.

Honey Granola Clusters

  
As the summer sun ripens a delicious array of fruits and vegetables, I make sure that nature’s bounty takes center stage at the kitchen table. Living in the Midwest, we have so few months during the course of the year where we can have locally grown foods literally sitting at our doorstep. Backyards, gardens and farms throughout the county have the opportunity to produce foods situated in patio pots, raised beds, trellising on garden fences and planted in rows along county roads.

As I was mowing the lawn last week, I spied the beginning of a few delicious looking pears that I can’t wait to harvest when they are ready. My grapes are coming along nicely. I have gathered and prepared several generous heads of romaine lettuce, lots of sweet peppers, and fresh herbs. Nothing compares to the flavors of fresh picked fruits and vegetables that accompany family meals carefully prepared from scratch.

   
   
We’ve also started raising bees as a hobby and as a source for our own golden delicious honey. Planting patio pots with wild flower seeds and leaving our land as natural as possible will provide them a source of food as well.  

   
   
This morning I made a batch of granola clusters to accompany many of the fruits that I grew or purchased from a local farm. A dollop or two of plain yogurt finishes off the dish. (The peaches aren’t quite in season yet so I suppose, there are a few things in the dish that I am hopelessly awaiting as the season continues to bring us an abundance of delicious and nutritious delicacies.)

Here’s to bright warm days and unpredictable summer rains… This is definitely one of my most favorite times of the year.
Honey Granola Clusters


1/2 cup canola oil 

1/2 cup honey

1/3 cup light brown sugar

1 tbsp. vanilla extract

1/2 tsp. salt

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

5 cups old fashioned oats

1 cup chopped nuts (walnuts, hazelnuts, pecans, whatever you prefer)

1 cup dried fruit (raisins, dried cranberries, dried apples, whatever you prefer)
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Grease or line a 11 x 17″ baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, whisk oil, honey, brown sugar, vanilla, salt and cinnamon until sugar is dissolved and oil is well incorporated. Add in the oats, nuts and dried fruit; mixing well.

Pour the oat mixture onto the baking sheet and spread it out into an even layer, firmly packing the oat mixture into the baking sheet.

Bake for 30 minutes, rotating the pan half way through cooking. Remove from oven and let the granola cool at room temperature for at least one hour.

Use a small spoon to scoop up the granola off of the baking sheet using the spoon to break the granola into clusters. Store at room temperature in an airtight container.

   

Make these ahead of time; cover them to store in the fridge for a few hours.

 

Butternut Squash Salad in a Jar

I’m always looking for a “silver lining” when I’m inconvenienced or when things just don’t seem to be going my way.  Recently, I found that silver lining in a major road construction project that closed a through-fare  that I frequented on my daily jaunt back and forth to work.  Because of the construction, a detour took me down a winding country road that was quite scenic as the fall landscape was beautiful.  Tucked in among the oak trees and farm land sat a roadside farm stand that was bursting at the seams with an abundance of cool weather vegetables, plump ripe tomatoes, and an assortment of peppers.  The entire front yard displayed a sea of beautiful orange pumpkins where families strolled to pick out a few of their favorites.  I had my eyes on the butternut squash as I pulled my vehicle to the side of the road. Hand written prices were scrawled on a mini chalkboard that was propped up against the old wooden flat bed wagon. A tin can was laid out for patrons to square up their bill and honestly leave the amount due.  It was like a blast from the past.  I was thrilled to have found this quiet piece of paradise alongside the road construction and the hectic traffic of the day. 

Arriving home, I searched the web for a delicious looking recipe where I could use my butternut squash.  I stumbled on this salad in a jar recipe and immediately gathered the ingredients I would need for the colorful dish. I chose this recipe because of the maple syrup in the dressing.  We tapped our trees this past spring and I wanted to use our own maple syrup with the other dressing ingredients.  I made a few slight changes to the recipe…  Instead of pepitas, I used sunflower seeds and instead of the quinoa, I used couscous. I used a container of field greens for the salad mix.  This is a delicious recipe that I will be sure to make again.  Here’s the link for this “Fall Mason Jar Salad with Maple Balsamic Dressing”…

https://www.spoonfulofflavor.com/2015/09/14/fall-mason-jar-salad-with-maple-balsamic-dressing/

Creamy Tomato Basil Soup

Another school year begins…

Our daughter is beginning her clinical year up in Evanston, IL.  Once again, we loaded up all of her belongings to move her into a cute little apartment, not far from the “Purple Line” in a beautiful part of town, just outside the Northwestern University campus.  The cool breezes off the shores of Lake Michigan have made for an unseasonably cooler summer.  

After settling her into the apartment, we walked into town to find a local place to eat lunch.  We spotted an adorable restaurant called The Farmhouse-Evanston.  The menu touted local foods, brews, and seasonal fare.  With a chill in the air, the tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwich sounded wonderful. My daughter ordered it without hesitation.  All through the meal, she raved about the creamy soup and hearty, three-cheese sandwich.  

After returning home, I was inspired to make a big pot of flavorful tomato soup for the family. What a treat.  This recipe makes enough to serve the whole clan with extras to pack into containers for weekday lunches.

…Outstanding soup!  Don’t forget to garnish with pieces of garlic toast, Parmesan cheese, and fresh basil.
Creamy Tomato and Basil Soup

3 tablespoons olive oil
4 garlic cloves, minced

1 large white onion, chopped

2 (28 oz) cans San Marzano whole, peeled tomatoes

1 1/2 cups water

3 teaspoons chicken soup base

2 1/2 tablespoons sugar

1/4 cup half and half

6 – 8 large fresh basil leaves, roughly chopped

1/4 teaspoon dried Italian seasonings

1 teaspoon kosher salt or to taste

3/4 teaspoon ground black pepper or to taste

In a medium pot, heat olive oil over medium-high heat. Add garlic and saute for 30 seconds, don’t over cook.  Add onion; stir and cook until translucent.

Add the two can of tomatoes with juice, chicken base, water, and sugar. Bring to a low simmer. Cook uncovered, for 12-15 minutes. Add the half & half, basil, Italian seasonings, salt and pepper.

Using an immersion blender,  puree soup until smooth. Serve immediately with a hearty grilled cheese sandwich or a fresh salad.

Beginner Garden Basket

On a recent trip to Kentucky, I purchased an adorable basket kit.  I must say, I’m not an experienced basket weaver, in fact, I am constantly seeking out classes so that I might gain more knowledge and skill pertaining to this craft.  Unfortunately, I have been unsuccessful finding a face-to-face class in my area so I usually review an abundance of internet videos to try to learn more about basket construction. 

When I entered the darling, rustic shop,  I was mesmerized by the abundance of wood strips, twine and basket making supplies carefully organized and perfectly displayed from floor to ceiling.  I must have spent 45 minutes just looking over everything the owner had displayed. I was taking it all in when a friendly women asked if I needed assistance.  I explained to the owner that I had very little experience and would like to complete a simple project.  She suggested a garden basket that was hanging from the ceiling along with several other beautiful creations.  With some hesitation, I purchased the suggested kit.  

When I returned home and opened the package to review the project.  I was pleasantly surprised by the simplistic instructions and the quality materials provided by the owner of this darling shop. Within the kit, each small bundle of wooden strips and twine was carefully measured and labeled to help me navigate through the supplies.  


It took me some time to come up with the courage to begin this project, but once I started, I kept at it until the basket was complete.  I am thrilled with the end product.  While it’s not perfect, (It’s a little wonky and maybe a bit slimmer than was intended) it’s one of my first basket weaving projects and I’m quite happy with my beginner skills.

Edit
I tried to take a few pictures as I progressed through the instructions. Those of you that might be basket makers can chime in to let me know if I’m doing something wrong…

I cut a circle of craft paper tracing the wood basket bottom disk and folding the paper to divide it into four equal parts.


I then marked the wooden bottom.

I soaked the wooden strips to make them pliable.

I evenly place the spokes around the disk.

Time to add some twine.

As per my instructions, I begin weaving up the side of the basket.



I soaked the colored strips for a short period as they have a tendency to bleed onto the natural wood.

Trimming and bending the rim…

Tightening things up and making a space for the handle…


Setting in the hinged handle…

Finishing up…



Not perfect, but it will do just fine!

Bumbleberry Jam



As the spring season ushers in warmer temperatures, I am focused on the blossomed plants that will soon produce ripe, succulent berries. My last year’s supply of Bumbleberry Jam is running low so I am hopelessly awaiting the opportunity to pick fresh berries and the prospect of an abundant canning season. 

There is nothing sweeter than a freshly baked scone or a slice of whole grain bread slathered with creamy butter and a heaping scoop of Bumbleberry Jam.  We also enjoy pairing the jam with a hearty helping of extra crunchy homemade peanut butter to assemble the classic PB&J.  Oh, it’s all so berry delicious!

Below you will find the link for this incredible jam.  Always remember that using a reputable source for canning recipes is imperative.  Some of these sources include the National Center for Home Food Preservation, University Extension Websites, and Ball or Bernardin Recipes. These organizations have thoroughly tested recipes making sure to focus on food safety guidelines.  

It’s relatively simple to make jam.  Follow the directions exactly as written and you’ll end up with a safe, delicious product.  Most jam recipes require an abundance of crushed berries…

Then you’ll often need some pectin and sugar…



You’ll need a large pot to mix all of your ingredients together according to the directions…



After processing the jars in a water bath canner for the recommended time, you’ll let the jars sit to cool for 12-24 hours…



The Bumbleberry Jam recipe can be found here:

http://www.bernardin.ca/recipes/bumbleberry-jam.htm?Lang=EN-US

Ball has a recipe for Mixed Berry Jam that tastes delicious as well.  Here is the link:

https://www.freshpreserving.com/mixed-berry-jam-%7C-mixed-berry-recipes—ball-fresh-preserving-br1276.html