How to Create the Perfect Cheese Platter

If there is one thing that I always have at every gathering it’s a delicious, rich, cheese platter.  I am not talking about the mixed cheese cubes you buy at the grocery, heavens no! For a couple of bucks more I like to wow my guests with a variety of cheeses that are gone before we get to the appetizers.

What types of cheese do I serve?  Here is the low down on the types, costs and the reasons I think you should serve a cheese platter too.

Goat Cheese: This is a simple cheese that has a rich and tangy taste with a smooth crumbly texture.  It pairs well with crackers and preserves.  My favorite way to pair goat cheese is with raspberry preserves.  You’ll find it wrapped in a 4-8oz log and it is very affordable.  Look for a pristine white color when buying your goat cheese.

Cheddar Cheese: You won’t find soft mild cheddar meant for sandwiches on my platter.  Cheddar is everyone’s favorite cheese, so why not move on up to something fancier?  A nice aged cheddar will bring plenty of flavor to your platter.  I also like an English-style cheddar but if you don’t find it you can get the Vermont aged.  Cheddar goes great with apple slices.

Blue Cheese: Embrace the funk.  The “moldy” blues might scare some people but if it wasn’t good they wouldn’t make an entire dressing to celebrate it!  Oh how I love blue cheese.  My grandmother used to cook it with so many things!  I love blue cheese paired with cherry tomatoes.  If you want something milder and sweeter try Gorgonzola cheese.

Sheep Cheese: Haven’t heard of it? You are really missing out!  Being that I am from Spain I grew up with Manchego cheese on every sandwich, salad, cheese platter… Manchego everywhere!  Look for “curado” or “aged” for a stronger sharper cheese.  Aged Manchego is firm and salty while the young milder Manchego is softer and sweeter (great for grilled cheese sandwiches).

Triple Creme Cheese: Say hello to my favorite cheese! Brie! This cheese is ultra rich and its triple cream cousins will melt in your mouth they are so delicious!   Triple cream usually means around 75% butterfat but the Brie comes in at a leaner 45%.  Do yourself a favor and don’t get reduced fat versions; they are rubbery and not as decadent.

How to put together a good platter?  Grab a variety of each cheese and find something to pair it with.  Not every cheese should be eaten with crackers so it’s ok to serve alongside fruit (grapes), bread, or nuts.

Enjoy!

 

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Cool Weather Calls for Chili

Just when I think I can’t HANDLE the truth regarding the change of seasons in Phoenix (cue Jack Nicholson voice); we get a cold front that upends us all and has us running from our cars into the already busy Starbucks to get some piping hot concoction that will make up 1/4 of our daily allotment of calories, (THANK YOU VERY MUCH EGG NOGG LATTE!). Wow, what a long sentence that was! I digress. It’s been cold here, and I actually kind of love it. I refuse to complain about it, I just wear more clothes on my morning runs. Every morning for the past week, the temp has started with a 3, as in 36, 38, 34, 33, etc. This morning, NYC and Phoenix were the same temperature, according to Syrie. Syrie is the new woman in my husband’s life. Syrie, if you don’t know and haven’t heard, is the voice of all authority and knowledge in the iphone, and lately, well she has been answering a lot of his questions. He kind of crushes on Syrie. I refuse to worry until she figures out how to make his favorite Penne alla Vodka, or until he starts wondering what she looks like “in real life.” Back off Syrie!

One of my favorite things to make, as it cools down, is an assortment of soups and chilis. I have some great white bean chili, some chicken chili and the like. But sometimes, nothing beats a good ole’ fashioned meat and bean chili with a little kick, and this one fits the bill. I also like to bake, pick up some fresh Sourdough bread for dipping, but you can go with whatever tickles your fancy, or just eat it plain. The kids will love it too. On a side note, it looks like you are adding a LOT of cayenne, but with the heartiness of the tomatoes and beans and meat, it doesn’t taste too spicy at all. I like to make mine with extra lean ground beef and turkey sausage, but again, whatever makes your skirt fly up is just fine. Start this chili early afternoon, let it simmer a bit, pop open some Zin or a hearty Cab, and voila! The stuff dreams are made of. Let’s get down to it.

ALL AMERICAN CHILI:

6 oz hot italian turkey sausage (I use 8)

2 cups chopped onion

1 cup chopped green bell pepper

8 garlic cloves (I know!! Yet it never tastes too garlicky)

1 lb lean ground beef

1 jalapeno, chopped

2 T Chili powder (large T is for Tablespoon, small t for teaspoon)

2 T Brown sugar

1 T ground Cumin

3 T Tomato paste

1 t dried oregano

1 t salt

1/2 t pepper

2 Bay leaves

1 and 1/4 cup Merlot or other fruity wine (See! Aren’t you glad you already have some open?)

2 28 oz cans diced tomatoes, undrained

2 15 oz cans kidney beans, drained

1/2 cup low fat or regular sharp cheddar cheese

Heat a large pot or Dutch oven over med high heat. Remove casings from sausage. Add sausage, onion, and the next 4 ingredients to pan; cook 8 mins or until sausage and beef are browned and crumbling. Add chili powder and the next 7 ingredients and cook for 1 min, stirring constantly. Stir in wine, tomatoes, and beans, bring to boil. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer one hour, stirring occasionally. Uncover and cook for 30 mins, stirring occasionally. Discard bay leaves (if you can find them:)) Sprinkle each serving with some cheese, low fat sour cream, and green onions.

Avocado and Shrimp Salad

I never get tired of eating avocados.  Their creamy texture helps this salad blend together without the saturated fats from cheese or dairy-based dressings.  They are rich in vitamins, protein and omega 3s… what is there not to like?  If you buy an avocado before it’s ready to eat, put it in a paper bag to speed up the ripening process.  Never throw them in the fridge unless you want to “pause” its ripening.

It’s fall, and apples are in full display at every supermarket and farmers market.  To add a little extra crunch, toss one in!

 

Serves 4

Ingredients:

  • 3 tarragon stems; 1 tablespoon chopped tarragon
  • 1/2 lemon, quartered
  • kosher salt and ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon black peppercorns
  • 8 ounces large shrimp, peeled and deveined
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons champagne vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons chopped chives
  • 1 Granny Smith apple, halved and thinly sliced
  • 1/2 English cucumber, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
  • 1 avocado, pitted, quartered, and thinly sliced

Directions:

  1. In a saucepan, bring 3 cups water, tarragon stems, lemon, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and peppercorns to a boil.
  2. Remove from heat, add shrimp and poach until opaque, about 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer shrimp to a plate (discard everything else) and refrigerate to cool.
  3. In a bowl, whisk together the oil, vinegar, chives, tarragon, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and pepper to taste. Add shrimp, apple, and cucumber, and toss to coat.
  4. Divide salad between four bowls. Add avocado to the mixing bowl and toss with remaining dressing. Top each salad with a quarter of the avocado. Serve immediately.

Enjoy!

**Photo Credit

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A “Lighter” Blue Cheese Dressing

The facts: I love blue cheese dressing.  I don’t like preservatives or weird ingredients in my food.  I just realized how easy it is to make a lighter version of this heavenly dressing with the help of Greek yogurt! It was easy, delicious, and quick to make!

 

 

 

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 tsp. garlic salt
  • 1/2 tsp. white pepper
  • dash black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
  • 1/4 c. milk
  • 2 tbsp. vinegar
  • 1 c. mayonnaise
  • 1 c. Greek yogurt
  • 3/4 c. crumbled blue cheese

Directions:

  1. In a bowl, mix dry spices then add the Worcestershire sauce.
  2. Add the milk then let it sit for a few minutes, to dissolve the spices.
  3. Add the vinegar to the milk mixture. It will start to curdle; this is normal.
  4. Add the mayonnaise and Greek yogurt and whisk together well. When blended, fold-in the Blue cheese crumbles.

The longer you let this refrigerate, the better the flavor will be. A must have for hot wings and salads!

You’ll never buy bottled dressing again once you taste this!

Makes 3 cups.


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Goat Cheese & Kalamata Olive Panini

When I was pregnant with my daughter 6 years ago, my husband and I took a week long trip to Rome.  This was food heaven for a pregnant woman!  The word “panino” in Italian means roll or biscuit.  However, they too grill the sandwiches and call them panini.  Originally, panini were filled with tomato, basil and mozzarella,  a mouth watering combination on its own.  That Christmas, my mother-in-law gifted me a panini press to have at home and my love for anything grilled only intensified.  Don’t believe it? Check out this recipe!

 

Goat Cheese & Kalamata Olive Panini

Serves 4. Prep time: 7 minutes Total time: 12 minutes

INGREDIENTS:

  • 14 pitted Kalamata olives, chopped
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped red onion
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tsp dried basil
  • 1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
  • 1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
  • 1 12-oz whole-grain Italian loaf bread, halved lengthwise
  • 2 cups baby spinach leaves
  • 2 1/2 oz goat cheese, crumbled
  • 1 large tomato (6 oz), sliced into 8 rounds
  • Olive oil cooking spray

INSTRUCTIONS:

  1. In a medium bowl, combine olives, onion, garlic, basil, pepper flakes and vinegar. Place bread halves on a cutting board, cut-side-up, and spoon olive mixture onto bottom half of bread. Top with spinach, cheese and tomato. Top with other half of bread and press down lightly to adhere. Using a serrated knife, cut bread into 4 equal pieces.
  2. Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Coat skillet with cooking spray, then add sandwiches. Add weight to sandwiches by covering them with a sheet of aluminum foil, then topping them with a dinner plate and a few bread plates. Cook for 1 1/2 to 2 minutes or until lightly golden on bottom. Remove plates and foil and flip sandwiches over. Again, place foil and plates on top of sandwiches and reduce heat to medium-low. Cook for 2 more minutes or until browned on bottom. Remove from heat and let stand, covered, for 2 minutes. (NOTE: This will allow sandwiches to continue heating throughout without drying out and over-browning.) Enjoy!

Nutrients per sandwich: Calories: 301, Total Fat: 6 g, Sat. Fat: 0.5 g, Carbs: 50 g, Fiber: 5 g, Sugars: 13 g, Protein: 9 g, Sodium: 537 mg, Cholesterol: 6.5 mg

**Original recipe from Clean Eating Magazine

 

 

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30 Minute Meal: Pecan Crusted Chicken

I’ve recently developed an adoration for Greek yogurt.  A friend of mine said to me the other day: did you know you can cook with it too?  Really? in actual food and not “baking”?  Bring on the challenge.  I found this recipe in an old Betty Crocker booklet my neighbor passed on to me.  I modified it to my liking and…voila!  A delicious dinner in under 30 minutes.

Prep: 15min  Total time: 30min  Serves 3-4

Ingredients:

  • 3  to 4 boneless skinless chicken breasts (about 1 lb)
  • 3/4  cup Italian style panko crispy bread crumbs
  • 1/2  cup chopped pecans
  • 2TB brown sugar (optional)
  • 2  tablespoons chopped fresh Italian (flat-leaf) parsley
  • 1  container (6 oz) Greek plain yogurt
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil or butter

Directions:

  1. Between pieces of plastic wrap or waxed paper, place each chicken breast smooth side down; gently pound with flat side of meat mallet or rolling pin until about 1/2 inch thick.
  2. In shallow dish, mix bread crumbs, brown sugar, pecans and parsley.
  3. In another shallow dish, place yogurt. Dip chicken into yogurt, then coat with crumb mixture.
  4. In 10-inch skillet, heat oil over medium heat until hot. Cook chicken in oil 8 to 10 minutes, turning once, until chicken is no longer pink in center and coating is golden brown.

Serve & Enjoy!

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Lemon-Basil Chicken Pasta Salad

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that I have been eating “salads” galore.  Eventually, the green salads have not become very filling and I also ran out of ideas; not to mention, my refrigerator is not a 50 ingredient salad bar!  Anyhow, I’ve been experimenting with healthier recipes that could be served hot or cold.  This delicious lemon-basil chicken pasta salad is one of them.  I might make it for dinner and eat leftovers cold the next day.  Now, that’s thinking ahead!

Serves 4.  Prep time: 25min.  Total time: warm: 25min  cold: 1hr 25min (for cooling)

Ingredients:

  • 1/2   teaspoon salt (for cooking pasta), if desired
  • 2  cups uncooked rotini or rotelle (spiral) pasta (6 oz)
  • 10 asparagus stalks (about 8 oz)
  • 1 clove garlic or 1/8 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 5 oz cooked chicken or turkey
  • 1/2  cup fresh basil leaves
  • 1/2 cup shredded Parmesan cheese (2 oz)
  • 1/4 cup olive or vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon grated lemon peel

Directions:

  1. Fill a 4-quart Dutch oven about half full of water. Add 1/2 teaspoon salt if desired. Cover with lid; heat over high heat until water is boiling rapidly. Add the pasta. Heat to boiling again. Boil uncovered 9 to 11 minutes, stirring frequently, until tender but not mushy. While water is heating and pasta is cooking, continue with recipe.
  2. Break off and discard the tough ends of the asparagus stalks where they snap easily; wash asparagus. Cut asparagus into 1-inch pieces to measure 2 cups. Add asparagus to the pasta during the last 2 to 3 minutes of cooking.
  3. Peel and finely chop the garlic. Cut the chicken into 1/2-inch cubes to measure about 2 cups. Tear the basil leaves lengthwise into narrow strips.
  4. Place strainer or colander in the sink. Pour pasta and asparagus in the strainer to drain. Rinse with cold water; drain.
  5. If you are going to eat it warm: pour pasta back in the pot after draining, throw in remaining ingredients, toss and serve.  Sprinkle with additional Parmesan cheese.
  6. Cold: In a large glass or plastic bowl, toss pasta, asparagus and chicken. Stir in garlic, basil, cheese, oil and lemon peel. Cover with plastic wrap; refrigerate 1 to 2 hours or until chilled.

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Grilled Shrimp with Chimichurri Sauce

It’s the end of the summer and you are bbq’d out.  You’ve fired up that grill more times the past 2 months than you do all year round.  Wait! There is one more recipe you must try!  This one is light, fresh and vibrant.  The herbs in this recipe’s chimichurri sauce -mint, basil, and parsley- add tang to any grilled dish.  Add this delicious sauce to shrimp and you have a fabulous meal to share with family and friends.

Ingredients: Serves 8-10

  • 2 1/2 to 3 pounds large shrimp, peeled, tail left on if desired
  • 1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • chimichurri sauce
  • grilled peppers and tomatoes (1 lb cherry tomatoes, 8-10 orange/red peppers)

Chimichurri sauce:

    • 1/3 cup chopped basil
    • 1/4 cup chives
    • 1/4 cup chopped parsley
    • 2 TB chopped dill
    • 2 TB chopped mint
    • 1 1/2 tsp minced garlic
    • zest of 1 lemon
    • 1 cup extra virgin olive oil.
    • salt pepper to taste.

Grilled Peppers and Tomatoes:

  • 1 TB Kosher salt
  • 10-20 Summer tomatoes
  • 1/2 lb cherry tomatoes

Directions:

For Sauce:

  1. Mix together all ingredients in food processor until well combined.  Do not over mix (don’t let it become a paste).

For Grilled Peppers and Tomatoes: These can be made 1-3 days ahead of time.

  1. Boil a pot of water and add kosher salt. Soak wooden skewers in water for 30 minutes. Boil summer peppers (1 to 2 per skewer) until tender, 1 to 33 minutes. Drain. Thread onto skewers with cherry tomatoes (about 3 per skewer).
  2. Grill over high heat until charred and tomatoes just begin to burst, 6 to 8 minutes, turning often.

For Shrimp Skewers:

  1. Soak wooden skewers in water for 30 minutes. Heat grill to high.
  2. Season shrimp with salt and pepper. Drizzle with oil and toss to coat. Thread onto skewers. Grill over high heat, turning once, until curled and opaque, 2 to 3 minutes per side. Brush and serve with chimichurri and grilled peppers and tomatoes.

Enjoy!

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Easy Brunch: Ham & Cheese Muffins

This week, I am at the beach with my kids in a condo with a full kitchen.  We are having lazy mornings where breakfast happens around 10:30-11am (right before we head down to the beach and eat a late lunch).  I brought some handy Biscuit mix with me because there are many quick and easy things I can make that are kid friendly and portable.  Yes, I am not a big fan of ‘mixes’ but we are on vacation!  I made these ham and cheese muffins for brunch yesterday and will be serving them with a salad for lunch today!  Can you say fast and deeeeeelicious!

Prep time: 10 min.  Total time: 30min   Servings: 12 muffins

Ingredients:

  • 2 eggs
  • 3 cups Bisquick mix
  • 1 cup of milk
  • 2 TB vegetable oil/melted butter
  • 1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
  • 3/4 cup chopped fully cooked ham

Directions:

  • Heat oven to 400°F. Spray bottoms and sides of 12 regular-size muffin cups with cooking spray. (Spray will work better than greasing or using paper muffin liners.)
  • Beat eggs slightly in medium bowl with fork. Stir in Bisquick mix, milk and oil just until moistened. Stir in 3/4 cup of the cheese and the ham. Divide batter evenly among muffin cups. Sprinkle remaining 1/4 cup cheese evenly over tops of muffins.
  • Bake 18 to 20 minutes or until light golden brown. Immediately remove from pan. Serve warm. Wrap and refrigerate any remaining muffins.

 

   
   


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Perfect for Summer: Light Taco Salad

You know it’s summertime when you get back from the pool with the kids around 5 o’clock and the thought of making dinner is… exhausting.  Don’t call pizza delivery or pick up Chinese take out! This light taco salad recipe makes a delicious and nutritious quick weeknight dinner (or lunch!).  This is the time of the year we rely on friends and family for extra help in the kitchen, right?  I saw this recipe over at The Nourishing Home, tweaked it, and made it my own.

You’ll be done making this dish in 15min or less and will have an easy family meal everyone will love.  I mean, who doesn’t like making their own salad? Or, lay out flour tortillas and make individual wraps.  Enjoy!

Ingredients:

  • 1 pound ground turkey (or substitute with grass-fed ground beef)
  • 1 TB  Mexican/Taco seasoning 
  • 1/2 tsp sea salt (only if seasoning above is salt free)
  • 1 cup salsa or pico de gallo
  • 2 tbsp cultured sour cream
  • 1 head romaine lettuce, cut into pieces/shredded almost (about 8 cups)
  • 2 cups cooked pinto beans (15oz can drained)
  • 1 cup corn
  • 1 avocado, diced
  • 1 cup grated cheddar cheese
  • 1/4 cup sliced black olives
  • whole wheat tortilla chips

Directions:

  1. In a large skillet over medium-high heat, add two tablespoons of olive, oil, the ground turkey, Mexican/taco seasoning and salt. Cook, breaking the meat up, until no longer pink, about 5 to 6 minutes. Pour off any excess liquid. Stir in 1/2 cup of the salsa, 1 cup of corn and cook until heated through, about one minute.
  2. In a small bowl, combine the sour cream and remaining 1/2 cup of salsa to create the taco salad dressing. Add salt and pepper to taste.
  3. Place the lettuce, turkey mixture, beans, avocado, cheese and olives into separate bowls. Serve buffet-style so your family can make their own salad. Top with the taco salad dressing.
  4. Serve with whole wheat tortilla chips.  These also make great wraps!

(Photo credit: Real Simple. Recipe adapted from www.realsimple.com)

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