Friday, August 26, 2011

Mexican Mocha Iced Coffee

So after the last two weeks, I’m kinda thinking I might want to crawl under a rock and never come back out. 

It’s been hectic, and just plain old weird.

Exactly two weeks ago my 80 year-old grandmother had a dizzy spell & took a tumble in the middle of the night. She fell and hit her head.


Poor Grammy Vittles suffered from a broken nose, two black eyes (one eye was completely closed), a lot of bruising, and above all - a serious scare.

Well let me tell you. So did I.

My stepdad & I spent most of the weekend helping her until my aunt was able to get there Sunday afternoon.  I even had to call in the big guns (my dad) to convince her to get checked out at the emergency room.

Needless to say, it was a stressful weekend... and I was pretty freaked-out over those events alone.

But the freaking-out was actually just getting started.

A week later, Mr. Vittles and I were watching some TV in the living room.  We had crazy thunderstorms that night with a ton of rain (some towns in the area had serious flooding) and I was thinking how happy I was to be inside when I saw something flying out of the corner of my eye.

Initially I didn’t think much of it since, after all, we do have a bird that makes a habit of flapping around the house.  But when I noticed my husband was holding the bird next to me, I realized we had a little problem on our hands.

Yep.  It was a bat. the house...

...zooming around our living room.

Thank goodness for my husband, who put on some gloves, got a fishing net & a headlamp, and (about 10 minutes later) was able to capture the bat and let him loose back outside.

After the bat was out we had a pretty good laugh over the whole thing.  I was still shaken up though.

But the shaking-up was actually just getting started.

Tuesday I was out driving for work, and I wanted to run some errands on lunch so I decided to just grab a quick sandwich at a convenience store & eat in the parking lot.

As I was sitting there, listening to the radio, the car started shaking so noticeably that I thought something was wrong with it.

So I turned it off, but the car was still shaking. I heard the fluids inside sloshing around, and could not figure out what in the world was going on.

It stopped as suddenly as it started, so I turned the car back on & went about my munching. But via the radio I quickly learned that there had been a 5.8 earthquake in Virginia, and there were reports of people feeling the rumblings all the way up to Canada.

Now I know there are probably many of you who have experienced much more than a brief rumbling.

But guess what.  I live in New Jersey.

We don’t have earthquakes here.

So I was a little shocked.

But the shocking was actually just getting started.

There have been numerous mandatory evacuations of coastal & low-lying locations in NJ, including my town, due to Hurricane Irene - which (as of now) is supposedly heading right for us as at least a Category 1.

Now while our house is about 6 blocks from the beach, we also live very close to a lake.  So even if this just ends up coming through as a tropical storm, surges could pose a very serious threat to us - not to mention the effects of heavy rain and sustained high winds. 

And this month has already been one of the top ten wettest Augusts New Jersey has seen since the 19th century.

Umm... seriously?

I’ve lived on the Gulf Coast of Florida and also the Outer Banks of North Carolina, so as you can imagine I’m no stranger to hurricane threats.

But again… this is New Jersey.

New Jerseyans having to evacuate for a hurricane is about as likely as the Governor temporarily suspending the collection of tolls along the southern half of the Garden State Parkway (the North/South main artery of the state). 

Which he did starting at 8AM today, to help lessen the burden of evacuation.

In fact, in just a couple hours they are completely closing the southbound lanes of the parkway altogether, starting about 10 miles south of here.  No one will be able to travel south on that road after 8PM tonight.

So.  Now I’m waiting for a mudslide or tornado to happen next.  

Who knows, perhaps that's what awaits Mr. Vittles and me as we head west to my in-law's house!

Or, maybe all those wackos that thought the world was going to end a couple months back were actually on to something. 

(Side note:  I just Googled that out of curiosity, and in case you were wondering we are still on track for doomsday - it's now scheduled for October 21, 2011.  Which is conveniently my best friend Lauren's birthday! Guess we better celebrate early :))

But in any case, I’ve been too busy securing all my outdoor furniture, placing all the boxes in our basement on raised plywood platforms, removing air conditioning units from our windows, and reading news updates to make any new recipes.

So I went with the one recipe that I had already written in Blogger - Mexican Mocha Iced Coffee.

It's good.

And… that is all.

Wish me luck!

Mexican Mocha Iced Coffee

  • 1 T. chocolate syrup (if you want to make your own, try this one)
  • ice cubes
  • 1/2 C.cold café de olla (recipe below)
  • 1 T. heavy cream or half-and-half
  • pinch cinnamon

Drizzle some chocolate syrup on the bottom of a glass.  Add ice cubes, the shot of coffee liquor and café de olla.  If you'd like to create a floating layer or cream, carefully pour the cream over the back of a spoon on top of the drink (otherwise pour on top to mix it all together).  Sprinkle with a pinch of cinnamon.  Makes one drink.

Serves one.

Café de Olla

  • 4 C. water
  • 1/4 C. packed light brown sugar
  • 1/2 t. molasses
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 2/3 cup whole or coarsely ground coffee beans (not espresso)

Bring water, brown sugar, molasses, and cinnamon sticks to a boil in a large saucepan or pot over moderate heat, stirring occasionally until sugar is dissolved. Stir in coffee and boil 5 minutes. Pour through a fine-mesh sieve into a heatproof pitcher or clean pot, discarding coffee beans and cinnamon stick.  Serve hot or chill to make iced coffee recipe above.  Makes about 4 cups.

Iced Coffee Recipe Addapted from Girl Cooks World (who adapted from
Amor y Tacos); Cafe de Olla Recipe Adapted from Gourmet Magazine, via Epicurious

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Whole Wheat Soft Pretzels

In the afternoons, I tend to get really bored driving around by myself for work.  Radio is the only thing to keep me company, and although I was always a strictly-music type of gal, hearing the same songs over & over can wear on you.

So lately I have been listening to a radio show where these two guys, Deminski & Doyle, have people call in and comment about things.  They'll take something that's in the news, something in their life, a political issue, or even just a random thing they saw and turn it into a question.

Like, "What's a movie that you can never resist watching when it's on TV?"

Or, "Should NJ limit the amount of times you can get married?

I have been wanting to call in for a while, and when I heard the question "What was the shortest time you ever held a job?" I knew I had the perfect story for them.

When I was 16, the summer after my sophomore year of High School, I got a job at an ice cream & candy place on the boardwalk.

I showed up for work the first day, and the manager (a middle-aged woman) told me my shorts were too short and to go home, change, and come back.

I was shocked.  My mom was somewhat lenient with my choices in clothes, but she also would never let me leave the house in something completely inappropriate - especially for a job. 

So I stood there dumbfounded for about 10 seconds, then I walked out and never went back.

But the best part of the story is that I just went a little ways down the boardwalk, to a frozen yogurt stand that was managed by a young guy.  I told him the whole story, and asked if he was hiring.

I think he was a little taken aback, but he said something along the lines of "If you work here, you can wear as short of shorts as you like."

And not too long after I started, I became his assistant manager.  It was a lot of hours for a 16 year-old but it was a fun job.  And as I told you a few weeks ago, I ate my weight in frozen yogurt that summer.

Surprisingly, I really never got too tired of eating it, but every now & again I needed a break.  Luckily, the stand next door sold giant soft pretzels and the Latino guys that worked there would trade us yogurt for pretzels.

I'm pretty sure the statute of limitations has passed so it's ok to tell you that now ;)

But those pretzels.... ugh. Insanity. 

Eating just one probably exceeded your weekly allotment for carbohydrates, but it was sooo totally worth it.

And ever since then, soft pretzels have been on my (long) list of food weaknesses.

I got it in my head recently that I wanted to try to make soft pretzels at home, incorporating whole wheat flour.  I haven't had the best luck with yeast in the past so I typically try to avoid recipes that use it, but I threw caution to the wind.

And if you read my post a few days ago, you would know that the first attempt was pretty much awful.

But Take Two came out perfect.

I was about to throw "thankfully" into that last statement ... but I'm not exactly thankful that I ate half the batch in one afternoon?

Whole Wheat Soft Pretzels

  • 1/2 C. + 2 T. warm water (about 110 degrees)
  • 1 1/2 t. rapid-rise, dry active yeast
  • 2 T. brown sugar
  • 1/4 t. salt
  • 1 1/2 C. all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 C. whole wheat flour
  • 1/4 C. baking soda
  • 1 1/2 C. hot water
  • kosher salt for sprinkling
  • melted butter, for brushing tops after baking (optional)

Dissolve yeast in warm water, and let sit 5 minutes.  Meanwhile, preheat oven to 425 degrees and grease a baking sheet.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with paddle attachment, combine brown sugar, salt, and flours.  With mixer on low, pour in yeast & water mixture, and mix only until well-combined and no flour streaks remain.  Dough should form a smooth ball.  (However, do not knead – the dough will become overworked & tough).

Cover bowl with plastic & let dough rise until doubled, at least 20 minutes.  (FYI – I was too impatient to let the dough rise, but the pretzels still came out great.  Just sayin’.)

Divide dough in 6 equal pieces.  Roll each piece into a skinny rope, applying even pressure to get a uniform width, until about 18 inches long.  Grab each end of the rope and cross one hand over the other to form into a pretzel shape*.

Once all pieces are formed, make the dipping solution: Dissolve baking soda in hot water, and pour into a pie plate or other shallow dish.  Dip each pretzel into mixture, front & back, then place on greased baking sheet.  Sprinkle tops with kosher salt (or other toppings) OR you can bake them plain then brush melted butter over tops before sprinkling with toppings.  Place in oven and bake about 10 minutes, until pretzels are puffed & browned.

Remove from baking sheet and cool slightly before eating (or adding toppings).  Pretzels are best when consumed immediately, but they can be frozen or kept in an airtight container for a day or two and reheated later.

*Note: There’s no need to limit yourself to just a pretzel shape.  You can get creative and make your dough into letters, braids, nuggets, etc.  Just make sure you adjust the baking time if you want bite-sized pieces – check after 5 minutes for doneness.

Recipe Adapted from

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Magic

Since we moved into our new house this past March, we haven't had all that many visitors.  But almost everyone who's come here has made a similar comment when they walked in the kitchen.

"So this is where the magic happens."



Let's set the record straight.  What happens in my kitchen is typically far from magical.

Unless you consider magic to be me singing to myself and occasionally dancing.

And my husband hovering & pestering me in a way that only he can.

And me breaking glasses, and chipping dishes, and clattering pots & pans because I'm a giant klutz.

And the bird flying in to see what all the ruckus is about.

And me nearly mortally wounding myself on a daily basis with sharp knives and mandoline slicers that I probably shouldn't even be allowed to use.

And me dropping an entire marinade mixture of oil & vinegar down a heating vent in the floor.  (If my landlords are reading this - don't worry, that was in our old house!)

And... me making soft whole wheat pretzels that look really pretty but kinda taste like salty sandpaper.

Nope. Definitely no 'magic' happening there.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Pasta Caprese

As you all now know, I am a reality TV junkie.

I've seen about 70% of the Bachelor/Bachelorette seasons.  Name a "Real Housewives of..." and I've probably seen it.  Actually, I've watched probably half of the shows on Bravo.


I'm not proud of it, but those are the facts.

One of my favorites is Real Housewives of New Jersey - for the obvious reason, that NJ is my home state.  And as crazy as some of the ladies on there are, I feel like I can relate to them more than any of the other Housewives.

But it worries me sometimes that people get the wrong idea about Italian-Americans... especially ones from Jersey. 

Growing up, I never thought much about it.  But these days, between the housewives, Jersey Shore, and even The Sopranos, I wonder - does the rest of America think we're all crazy, fist-pumping 'guidos' & 'guidettes' with weird accents and an uncle in the Mafia?

I've noticed it becomes much more obvious whenever I leave (what we call around here) the "tri-state area".

I attended college in Florida, and was in for an eye-opener when I got questions like "Oh you're Italian? From Jersey??  Is your family in the mob?"

And my response was usually an extremely confused, "Huh??"  In 18 years, no one had ever asked me that question before.

Then during my senior year, I was standing outside the office of one of my Sociology professors, and she had up a map of the breakdown of most common ancestries in the US, by county.   And I saw that the only counties where Italian ancestry was dominant was a small scattering in the Northeast - mainly New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut.

So that kind of put things in perspective for me... but it didn't make it any less disconcerting!

My dad's not in the mob.  We don't give people cement shoes to sleep with the fishes.

We don't flip tables at dinner, or start fist-fights at christenings (ahem, Teresa Giudice?)

We don't gel our hair into sharp points, or 'GTL,' or fist-pump to awful dance beats.

At lunch a couple months ago, I was talking to my co-worker & friend Lou (@LouRinaldi) who has pondered this very same issue.  How is being Italian-American perceived by others who don't share this background?  Especially considering the way the culture is portrayed in movies and television?

And how does that affect our own sense of identity in relation to our families & traditions?

He even made what I found to be an extremely interesting mini-documentary about it (shown here courtesy of Current TV).

So naturally Lou was the first person I told when I got an email from Yummly that they were featuring my baked ziti on their blog... in a post that was entitled "The Ultimate 'Jersey Shore' Dinner (After You GTL)," in anticipation of the season premiere of Jersey Shore on MTV.

Ok.  Not that The Best Baked Ziti isn't the perfect recipe to gear up for a night of Snookie & Pauly D.  And I was both flattered & extremely excited that something on V&B was noticed by the writers of Yummly's blog.

But I guess it just caught me a liiiittle by surprise to see V&B and "The Situation" in the same post, especially in light of this recent conversation with Lou.

Then this past weekend, I went to my cousin George's wedding in Connecticut.

Lindsay & George
And let me tell you something.

My family is awesome.

my cousin's fiance, my aunt, my cousin, myself, and my grandmother

The day was filled with laughter, dancing, tons of food, and so much love.

my cousin Sandi's son Dylan

my dad & George

And you know what?  That's what it means to me to be Italian-American.

my cousins & I, May 2008
That... and fresh mozzarella.

What??  I'm just sayin'.

Pasta Caprese
  • 1/4 C. extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 t. fresh lemon juice
  • 1/2 t. minced fresh garlic
  • 1 1/2 lbs. grape tomatoes, halved
  • 12 oz. fresh mozzarella, cut in 1/2" cubes
  • 1 lb. penne or other tubular pasta (I like to use whole wheat)
  • 1/4 C. chopped fresh basil
  • 1/2 t. to 1 t. sugar (depending on how sweet your tomatoes are)
  • salt & freshly ground black pepper

Whisk oil, lemon juice, garlic, 1/2 t. salt, and 1/4 t. pepper in large bowl.  Add tomatoes and gently toss to combine; set aside.  (Do not marinate tomatoes longer than 45 minutes).

While tomatoes are marinating, bring 4 quarts of water to a rolling boil in a stockpot.  Add 1 T. salt and pasta, stir to separate, and cook until al dente.  Drain well.

While pasta is cooking, place mozzarella cubes on a large plate or platter, and freeze until slightly firm (about 10 minutes).

Add sugar, partially-frozen mozzarella, and pasta to bowl with tomato mixture and gently toss to combine.  Let stand 5 minutes.  Stir in basil and sugar, and adjust seasonings with salt, pepper and sugar.  Serve immediately.  Serves 4-6.

Recipe Slightly Adapted from Cook's Illustrated

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Mango Chicken Chilaquiles Casserole

Sometimes I wonder if the best preparation for having kids isn't having a husband.

They do messy things that result in getting very dirty.

They don’t much like to pick up after themselves.  

They take great joy in pestering you.

They look at you with pleading puppy-dog eyes to fix them a sandwich because "you make is so much better, though."

And they don’t like to eat their vegetables.

Or wait... maybe this is just my husband? 

In any case, Mr. Vittles has a rather short list of acceptable veggies, especially when it comes to the cooked variety.

So for that very reason, I tried to sneak the zucchini into this dish before he got home from work.  But as luck would have it, he walked in just as I as I grating it.

Warily eyeballing the pile of vegetables, he demanded, “What’s all that green stuff?”

“Just bell peppers,” I said (knowing full well that was definitely not the green stuff he was referring to).

“No," he persisted, "the other green stuff.”

Argh!  Caught red-handed.

(Or green-handed, as it may be?)

“It’s zucchini,” I admitted, and the look on his face told me that no matter how delicious this meal might end up being, for him it would be completely tainted by the thought of this foreign ‘green’ vegetable lurking in every bite.

But during dinner, I still asked my usual - "How is it?"

And he replied, “Alright."

Then, "It tastes kind of weird though.”

(Wait for it...)

“I think the zucchini is ruining it.”


Lastly, he threw in "And I don't like mango."

Ok, ok!  I get it.  I'm waving the white flag,  'Don't ever make this again,' is what you're really trying to say.

Which is a shame, because I rather liked it.

To his credit, he did eat it that night, and also for lunch the next day… but quite begrudgingly.

Thankfully, however, the recipe is easily adaptable.  So if any of your family members don't like certain ingredients, or if you prefer a more 'standard' enchilada sauce, then by all means - do some experimenting.

But I bet that as long as they don't see that 'green stuff' go in, they will never even know it's there :)

Mango Chicken Chilaquiles Casserole

  • 1 1/3 C. enchilada sauce (see recipe below for Mango Enchilada sauce)
  • 1 lb. thin-sliced boneless, skinless chicken breast
  • 1 medium zucchini, grated
  • 1/2 C. diced bell pepper (whatever color you choose)
  • 14 oz. can black beans, drained & rinsed
  • 10 oz. can diced tomatoes & chiles, drained
  • 1 C. corn, frozen (thawed) or fresh
  • 1/4 t. ground cumin
  • 1/4 t. salt
  • 8 8” whole wheat tortillas, cut in 1” strips
  • 1 1/2 C. shredded Mexican cheese

Prepare Mango Enchilada sauce, if using.  Preheat oven 400 degrees.

Slice a stack of 4 tortillas in half, then 3 slices the other way (to create 8 strips).  Peel them apart then repeat with remaining 4 tortillas.  Keep piles separate from each other.  

Slice chicken into 1” strips and toss with 1/3 C. enchilada sauce.  Place mixture in a large, nonstick frying pan over medium heat and cook until chicken is no longer pink (about 3-5 minutes, depending on how small your chicken pieces are).   Remove chicken from pan & set aside.

Return pan to stove (you can wipe clean with a paper towel first) and add grated zucchini, bell pepper, black beans, diced tomatoes, corn, cumin, and salt.  Stir to combine, and cook 3-5 minutes over medium heat until mixture is heated through.  Set aside.

Grease a 9x13” casserole dish, and scatter half of tortilla strips to loosely cover bottom of pan.  Scatter half the vegetable mixture over tortillas, then half the chicken, then half the remaining enchilada sauce, then half the cheese.  Repeat the same 4 layers, ending with cheese, and bake in preheated oven 10 minutes.  Serve immediately.  Serves 8-10.

Recipe Adapted from Eating Well

Mango Enchilada Sauce

  • 1 small onion, quartered
  • 1 large tomato, quartered
  • 1 t. canola oil
  • 1 t. minced garlic
  • 1/8 t. dried chile flakes
  • 1/2 C. water
  • 1 t. chili powder
  • 1/4 t. cumin
  • 1/4  C. cilantro leaves
  • 1/2 t. kosher salt (or to taste)
  • 1/2 mango, diced
  • squeeze of lime

Place large, nonstick fry pan over medium to medium-high heat and add quartered tomato & onion, cut sides down.  As the vegetables brown, turn to other cut side.  Once each is roasted, add to a blender and blend about 30 seconds until fairly smooth.

Briefly clean & dry pan, then return to stove over medium-low heat.  Add canola oil, then garlic & chile flakes and sauté about 30 seconds to 1 minute.  Then add blender mixture back into your pan, along with water, chili powder, cumin, cilantro leaves, kosher salt, and diced mango.  Bring to a gentle simmer, increasing heat if necessary, and cook 3-5 minutes until mango is soft.

Pour the entire mixture back into the blender and blend until smooth.  Strain through a sieve to catch any large solids.  Return to the pan, add in the lime, and stir to combine.  Use immediately or refrigerate up to 2 days.

Recipe Adapted from Fat & Happy


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