Panzanella (bread salad)

Halfway through winter has me dreaming of the dog days of summer, and my favorite ingredients–fresh tomatoes and basil.

Before getting into this salad recipe, I must share a bit of context for you, dear reader, many of whom are scattered across the globe and virtually all of you somewhere warmer than MN. It snowed a foot yesterday. This is what that looks like:

We (well mostly not me) shoveled 3 times in the last day. There’s nowhere to put it! The boys were disappointed that school wasn’t canceled. I remember those grade school snow days well–watching the TV update the school closings…a mixture of joy at an unexpected day off and the exhaustion at the end of it after pulling kids up the sledding hill endlessly. I was bummed that we couldn’t spend the day like that today.

So I popped over to the neighbor’s to reminisce, as his creative kiddo built a snow fort. It was a glorious day full of winter sunshine and a balmy 26 degrees Fahrenheit. Perfect for hiding out and an ambush snowball fight 😈

Back to this summery recipe….

We Minnesotans like to clarify our salad types (ie lettuce salad, pasta salad, Jello salad), so it’s surprising that Panzanella, a Tuscan bread salad isn’t big here. Maybe we’ve never tried it because I have never had day old bread to use up 😉.

I substituted in lemon juice for the traditional red wine vinegar and added cucs, skipping the onions. It’s so easy! It’ll be truly fantastic when we have local, fresh tomatoes and variations of cucs, zucchini and herbs!! Cheers to only 3 more months of winter!

Panzanella bread salad

  • Loaf of crusty bread, cut into large cubes (I used a seeded sourdough)
  • 2 best quality tomatoes, cut into large chunks
  • 1/2 seedless cucumber, cut into 1/2″ half moons
  • 1/4c chopped fresh basil
  • 1 clove garlic, chopped
  • Juice from 1/2 lemon
  • 1/3-1/2c olive oil

Mix all ingredients except bread together in a large bowl, season with salt and pepper. Allow to marinate for at least an hour. In the meantime, toast bread at 350 for 8-10 minutes until dry but not dried out. (Skip this if you cube the bread ahead and just leave it overnight or if you truly have dry bread to use up. The texture is important). Toss the bread into tomato mixture until moistened but not soggy. You may need a bit more oil depending on how dry your bread is. Serve at room temperature.

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Food as self care

It snowed again today. I hate January in Minnesota. If you’re coming here for the SuperBowl in a few weeks, pack your warm stuff!!

The only good thing about weather like this is that it keeps us inside together and gives us time to read, watch movies/tv and just be together.

It was a day off of school for the boys, and they enjoyed the leftovers from yesterday’s football game (Go Vikes!): Halftime chili and cheesy cornbread. I was surprised to learn that most of the teenage boys who came over to watch the game hadn’t ever had chili “Cincinnati style”, which is served over pasta. Anything that can be served over pasta is in our house!!

I did not partake, but instead made an açaí bowl with fruit and desiccated coconut. It looks awful but is utterly fantastic. I’d had this unique superfruit full of antioxidants in Kauai and was thrilled to find a smoothie ready frozen package. Individual servings make it fast and easy.

For dinner I made grain bowls with quinoa and black beans over mixed greens with whatever vegs I could find. I roasted green beans (20 minutes at 400 degrees), and this is absolutely my new favorite prep for what can be a tasteless veg in winter.

That got me thinking about how much we enjoy trying new foods and techniques, and that our habits have changed pretty dramatically in 15 years (since Avery was born). We used to care mostly about cheap and familiar.

With more time and more adventurous spirits, every week is different now. Food (and food prep for me) has become a form of self care. I truly enjoy learning and exploring, and slowing down after a busy day to pull a meal together.

I’m really feeling so much healthier these days–more energy especially–and think a lot of it is the vegan diet (particularly getting rid of dairy). It’s easy to stick with something that makes you feel better!!

Ps We’re planning our winter getaway, which involved updating my passport. I am thrilled to be getting rid of this photo (12 years ago)!! 40 something is way better than 30.

“Beef” stew (vegan)

The boys are generally being good sports about this vegan thing we’ve been trying. They’ve both figured out coping mechanisms. Avery has been getting supplements at lunch from his friends who take pity on him, and Alec just drives himself to buy something when he wants it.

I was honestly pretty excited tonight to try one of our favorite recipes, made vegan–Sunday Night beef stew by Pioneer Woman. It’s a winter staple. It’s hearty and easy, classic flavors.

It turned out great…the smell of a simmering pot filled the house all afternoon with anticipation and when the boys sat down there was honestly excitement. (I serve it over a giant portion of mashed potatoes and a good old bowl of carbs is always good bait for a teenage boy.)

So when we dug in, the reactions were nearly simultaneous: “This isn’t meat, is it?”

No. And then even I was laughing because there’s no way soy chunks improve by simmering. Quickly the nickname “feeb” stew caught on (beef backwards and perhaps a nod to feeble).

Lesson learned. I really liked this meatless beef tips product when we used it in broccoli stir fry last week, but I think it was greatly helped both by quick sauté and a spicy sauce. Cooking it for several hours made the texture akin to the “meatballs” in Spaghettios and the flavor was definitely not umami.

Everything else in the recipe turned out great–substituting olive oil for butter and vegetable stock for beef. I amped up the Worcestershire and added bay leaves to give the sauce more depth. That part of the recipe was a success. The carrots/turnips were great as usual too. Even the boys said so.

I’m going to keep tinkering with the right meat substitute, perhaps a tempeh or mushroom. The key to this vegan thing I think is to play with a food’s strengths, not to try to make something into what it’s clearly not. I’ve got some trust building to do for the feeb stew, can’t fool these hungry boys. 😉

A year of opportunity

Just before the holidays we made some food changes in our house. We’d stumbled across a Netflix documentary “What the Health” and for the first time in 20+ years of marriage, Matt wanted a significant change too. I guess perhaps it was an early resolution.

We’re eating a plant-based diet. This is a big deal for him because he loves meat and milk. So we needed to quickly find some new options that he would enjoy. (Technically we’re not fully vegan, but vegetarian and dairy-free** with some exceptions. The boys are still eating some meat but we’ve completely cutout things like lunch meat).

It’s actually been fun to reimagine our food and explore new things. We’ve discovered we both love Indian food (although I have yet to try cooking anything and just prefer buying ready-made or takeout).

We know which veggie burgers we like, and the meatless meatballs are actually better (it’s a texture thing). He loves the chorizo “sausages”. The tofu lunchmeat options were the only failure, but substituting hummus and veggies or good old PB&J is just fine. Lots of avocados too! I got an avocado saver kitchen gadget for Christmas that makes me smile.

This week we’re testing out dairy alternatives. We’d already been using almond or coconut milk in smoothies and now it’s completely replaced dairy. The vegan mozzarella and cheddar are decent and perfectly fine as an accent. I like the tofu sour cream too.

But mostly we’re just not using cheese anymore. Honestly dairy was easy for me to give up and has made the biggest impact on how I feel. He’s noticing that a cup of tea is a better night time routine than a glass of milk and an easy way to cut calories. I have been trying a new tea each week to encourage (orange blossom from Teavana is a favorite).

Which got me to thinking about “diets” and New Years resolutions and why the stats say most people don’t stick with it past January. If I focus on all of the things I am giving up, it’s a whole lot harder and it frankly feels like punishing myself. The word diet itself just sounds negative.

Instead, focusing on the upsides–like using my insatiable curiosity to try new things and experiment as a tool to help us, and rewarding us with lots of things we love like splurging on fresh juices (strawberry lemonade!) and fruits, which I realize are being shipped in from somewhere much warmer, is a compromise I’m willing to make. The “goal” is about feeling healthier and having more energy, not trying to “stick with” sacrifices. That’s surely an eventual failure.

Speaking of compromise… going completely vegan is not in the cards for us. Making some modifications–like eggs and butter, and all of the things that they get used in–is one example. Sushi is another one that I just can’t give up, but have as a treat periodically.

As is splurging for special events. We had pastry treats for Christmas Eve breakfast and dessert from Rose Street Patisserie, and roasted whole rainbow trout with a garlic-mustard breadcrumb mix, which was fantastic! I appreciated every bite.

Everything in balance. I’m looking forward to more exploring in 2018 including maybe taking an Indian cooking class…Happy New Year!

Winter smoothie prep packs

It’s winter in Minnesota and the fresh local fruit options are sparse. It’s also hockey and swim season, meaning time is precious and calories in high demand.

What can I make ahead that’s fast and healthy? I pulled some miscellaneous greens and celery from the fridge, canned and frozen fruit. garbanzos, and various nutritional adds like oatmeal, desiccated coconut, flax and chia seeds, fresh mint, ginger, cinnamon, and turmeric.

Then I threw some combinations together into sandwich bags and tossed into the freezer so the boys could grab as needed, add liquid and a banana. Ironically we had all of the weird stuff but no bananas? Boys.

If you run into the same issue with an ingredient just know that everything except liquid freezes well and gives it a nice chill, but if you don’t happen to have celery you can always add it when you blend.

Smoothie recipes are loose and easy to experiment to find what you like. This is definitely more art than science in my book, meaning the amounts and exact fruit are really up to you. Here are some of the combos we like:

Tropical: mandarin oranges, pineapple, peaches, pears, 1/2 banana, desiccated coconut. Use whatever combo of fruit you like about 1 cup total plus 3 tbsp of the coconut (usually found in the bulk section, and you don’t generally want to use the sweetened stuff). Add 1 cup+ of almond, coconut milk or whatever milk you drink until you reach your preferred consistency.

Berry blast (fiber): 1 cup spinach, 1/2 total of blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, and 2 tbsp or so dried oatmeal, 1 tsp dried cinnamon, 1/2 banana. Add 1c+ milk. The oatmeal makes this very filling.

Toxin Cleanse: 1 cup chopped kale, 1/2c pineapple, 1 stalk chopped celery, 1 tsp ginger (I use the fresh ginger in the tube found near the fresh herbs). Add 1c+ water or coconut water if you’ve got it, which has awesome electrolytes. This smoothie is a great way to flush toxins, if you have overindulged or have an upset tummy.

Balance: 1c spinach, 1/4c garbanzo beans, 3 large strawberries, 1 tbsp fresh mint, 1 tbsp flax seeds, dash of cinnamon, 1/2 banana. Add 1c+ milk of choice. The boys don’t like this one, but it’s one of my favorites when I’m feeling run down as it brings me back into balance with all of the great protein and iron in it. Flax seeds add fiber and help absorb the other nutrients too.

A note about blending: Depending on how compact the bags are, you’ll have something close to a solid chunk. You’ll want to break it up a bit (smash it a couple times on the counter) before blending or your blender may make an angry noise 😉

We found that filling a standard size sandwich bag about half full was a good size.

Everything in balance 


We’re heading into a Minnesota winter, which always makes me want to hunker down…and eat. Combined with the tendency to overindulge at the holidays, and exercise less (no outdoor pool 😔), it’s easy to put on a few pounds.

Instead of trying to “will” my way through it, I’m resolving to take a new approach to embracing and accepting winter. When it comes to health habits, I am working “adventures” into our lives—trying new foods and restaurants, varying my exercises (I did starfishes this week at the gym!). Gotta do something to keep it interesting!

So 2 cool food discoveries this week:

  • Bulletproof coffee. Read more about this fad, which celebs like Jimmy Fallon and Gwenyth Paltrow swear by. It’s creamy, rich and nutty—with grassfed butter and coconut oil blended into it. I was flying high afterwards and see why people use it for a meal replacement (at 250 calories per serving it’s definitely an indulgence). The healthy fats are good for your brain and I definitely felt full afterwards. (FYI, Here in MN the restaurant Agra Culture sells it if you don’t want to track down the somewhat unusual ingredients).
  • Pomegranates. I have bought just the juice previously, had pom-flavored chocolate, cranberries etc, but I had never bought a fresh one until Fresh Thyme opened up near us this week and I was curious. Cutting it open, I quickly became fascinated with these little jewels and felt like a little monkey digging them out. It was truly fun. Tossed them on salads for some beauty and crunch. The boys were glad this superfood didn’t involve kale.

A reminder that food is fun, especially when you slow down to really experience its sensory aspects and keep an open mind. That, and Everything in balance. I’m justifying the coffee with pomegranates and starfishes. 🌟 

Shepherd’s pie


I’m sorry. I don’t take this blogger photo thing as seriously as I should. It’s not pretty, but it’s good. 

A bit of backstory: I started blogging about 4 years ago when several baseball moms started bugging me to actually write down my recipes. It’s a concept, and I have never been one to be so formal. 

But then I got the idea that if I organized both my recipes and shopping lists that would be real value to working moms. I did that for a summer to test the idea and learned a ton about how people cook and grocery shop. The idea was solid (as proven out by services such as Blue Apron), but it didn’t really scratch the creativity itch for me. Nor did I really intend to make money at it.

Cooking is an art form. I just love sharing my tested recipes and even more joy when someone tells me they learned something new in the process (or tried a new ingredient). The blog serves that purpose for me. 

But in the past year or so, I have observed that we have a food consciousnesses crisis in this country. We have more, we consume more than we need, we waste more. And by “we” I certainly am generalizing. Americans don’t want to think about our food and where it came from or what purpose it serves our body. We are mindless consumers. And trained to be that way. 

That’s changing, but like most change, not fast enough. I do what I can in my little world to support that change—raising mindful eaters and sharing recipes with my small circle. I think I need to bring more of those cultural observations into the blog going forward, in addition to recipes and food travel notes. Thoughts welcome!!

Ironically, this recipe makes a massive amount of food that lasts at least 2 days (that’s eons in our house). But as winter sets in, we do need our comforts. All things in balance. 😉

Shepherd’s pie

  • 5lb potatoes, peeled and halved
  • 3/4c 1/2 &1/2 (or milk)
  • 1 stick butter
  • Parmesan cheese
  • 1 lb lean ground beef
  • 1 lb lean ground turkey 
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 3 stalks celery, diced
  • 1/2 bag frozen mixed vegetables 
  • 15 oz can tomato sauce
  • 2 tsp paprika
  • 1/2 tsp cayenne 
  • 2 tsp oregano
  • Dash of cinnamon 
  • 1 tbsp chopped fresh parsley 
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Salt and pepper 

Boil potatoes in salted water til soft (about 20 min). While potatoes cook, sauté meats until brown, add onion and celery, cook til soft (about 5 minutes). Add seasonings, frozen vegetables and tomato sauce. Simmer for 20 minutes and then remove bay leaf.

There are 3 keys to creamy, light mashed potatoes: 

  1. Never add cold liquids to hot potatoes (=glue)
  2. Don’t rinse potatoes, just let them air cool to a temperature you can handle. In this recipe you can let them sit awhile.
  3. Get a potato ricer. 

Microwave butter and cream for 1 minute. Add potatoes using ricer. Mix together, season with salt.

Place meat mixture on the bottom of large (10×14) baking dish, top with potatoes and sprinkle with parmesan. Cover with tinfoil, bake at 350 for 30 minutes, remove foil and cook another 10 min or so til top begins to brown.

Can be made ahead and/or frozen.