Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Dark Chocolate Peppermint Mocha

by Jaelyn Penner

It’s December – and that means one thing… Peppermint!   If you love this wintertime favorite flavor as much as I do, be sure to subscribe to our updates (on the right side of the screen, just under the menu buttons), so you don’t miss a thing.  We’ll have peppermint recipes and info all month long!

Dark Chocolate Peppermint Mocha

The rich decadence of delicious dark chocolate combined with the refreshing chill of peppermint is, to me, the very essence of winter in dessert form.  

I have to tell you, this is my new favorite drink.  Rich.  Peppermint-y.  Caffeinated.  I am sipping it right now, and each mouthful makes me feel like I am sitting in my flannel PJ’s (I’m not) in front of a fireplace (which my home doesn’t have) during a snowstorm in Vail.  Ahhhh… bliss. 

And it’s so easy!

P.S. Do NOT tell any chocolatiers that I told you to microwave dark chocolate.  They would probably hunt me down and force me to eat cocoa until I was stuffed like a truffle.  But seriously, microwaving chocolate in beverages actually works great! :-D

  • 1 c. milk (I use 1% organic milk, but you can use whatever you normally have around the house!  More fat = creamier flavor.  Less fat = stronger flavor)
  • 1 oz. 60% dark chocolate (usually is 2 squares of a normal sized bar)
  • ½ tsp. sugar (or more, to taste.  I like mine minimally sweetened.)
  • 1 shot espresso OR 1 tsp. freeze-dried espresso OR 1 tsp good quality instant coffee
  • Generous 1/8 tsp. Peppermint Extract

In a microwave safe mug, heat the milk 3 minutes on 50% heat.  While the milk is heating, place the chocolate in a plastic sandwich bag and break into tiny pieces with a mallet.  When the milk is done warming, add the chocolate and stir.  Place back in the microwave for 1 minute intervals on 50% heat until chocolate dissolves when stirred.  Be careful not to bring to full boil.  Add the sugar, espresso and peppermint extract, stir and ENJOY!

Serving Suggestions:  Use a vegetable peeler to shave some chocolate on top, and toss in a marshmallow or two.  Divine!

Merry Minting!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Tips for Surviving (and Enjoying!) the Holiday Season

Note from Jaelyn:  This contribution is from an amazing therapist and great friend, who also just so happens to be my mom.  :-)  I love these tips for staying sane during this time of year - it's so easy to let the stress of expectations overwhelm you and make you lose focus on what you should be enjoying.  This quotation sums it up pretty well, I think!  -->

By Bev Lucas, LMSW
It’s hard to believe the holidays are here again and with them, anticipation, both positive and negative. If you think back over all of the holidays you have experienced most likely your favorites have been as children.  Those were times when the biggest expectation was whether you received the things you had asked for.   As we got bigger and older, our expectations got bigger as well.   Now, we not only try to make others happy, but also re-experience the happiness from our youth, and our high expectations often lead to failure and disappointment.  So, the question we face is:  How can we enjoy the holidays as we once did? 

Practice “Self-Care”  

In times of stress, the most important thing you can do is  to practice “self-care.”  The holidays can make this difficult. How you go about assuring self-care is up to each individual but here are a few rules to keep in mind:

  1. Eat regular, healthy meals starting with protein for breakfast. Don’t deprive yourself of the wonderful goodies, just eat them sensibly and in limited amounts.
  2. Sleep 7-9 hours every  night.  Get into the habit of sleeping regular hours as much as possible. Set a bedtime.  Starting an hour before that, begin to do relaxing things.  That means no telephone or computer, and preferably no TV.
  3. Do something every day to address your personal needs.  Take a walk, read something entertaining, watch a funny movie, stand in the shower and enjoy how the water feels.   If you can afford it, get a massage. The most important thing is to do something personally positive for at least 15 minutes every day.
  4.  Take your “emotional temperature” often.  Do you feel tension in your neck or shoulders?   Is your heart-rate elevated? Are things irritating you that don’t normally?  Are you distracted while driving?  If you notice these or any other stress signals, take a few seconds to acknowledge each of your Five Senses.  Close your eyes (this can even be done at the office).  Start with how each part of your body feels in the chair, and simply acknowledge the feeling.  Next, listen to and identify what you hear in the room.  It may be others talking, a fan, or noises from outside.  From there, acknowledge what you smell.  Is there a particular taste in your mouth?  If so, acknowledge what that might be. Don’t judge your sensations, just take them in.  Open your eyes and look around to see if there is anything that was there before closing your eyes that you didn’t notice before.  If you follow these steps, it will help to calm your mind and let your body know that things are ok.   This isn’t meant to totally relax you but to let you catch your “emotional breath.”

Trade Expectations for Appreciation

Often the thing that causes us the most stress during the holidays is our set of expectations.   We have expectations for ourselves and concerns about what others might or might not do.   Expectations of ourselves like cooking the perfect meal, buying the perfect presents, or presenting an immaculately clean house.   Expectations of others that they appreciate your efforts, behave like respectful guests, or amaze you with their thoughtfulness.  To laughingly quote "Phil’s Osophy" (from the TV show Modern Family), “The most amazing thing that can happen to a human being can happen to you, if you just lower your expectations.”   While the quote was meant to be a joke, it actually makes a very valid point:  Part of our distress during the holidays is that we expect too much for a short period of time.   Life isn’t perfect.  You need to put aside your expectations and enjoy the present.  Find the irony in situations with family members. Whatever goes wrong is still part of the experience so find a way to appreciate it (remember National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation?). Try to not anticipate the behaviors of others because if you do, whatever happens will already be accompanied by stress. 

Always keep in mind that you made it through every other holiday and with some patience (and a sense of humor) you will make it through this one.

Enjoy as much of it as possible, don’t overextend yourself.  Practice saying “no.” And let the rest of it go.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Green Bean Casserole: The Way It's Meant to Be

By Kristen Barchers

Thanksgiving:  a day in which we are obligated to gorge ourselves on indulgent, soul-satisfying food until we can no longer see straight.  A day for cooks and foodies.  This is my day.  Well…this is usually my day.

This year, my husband, 18-month old son and I are braving the chaos of holiday airport travel to spend the week with extended family in Colorado. The beautiful mountain hikes and the sound of cousins playing are well worth the tiny bags of peanuts and miniscule seating we’ll endure (I’d add a crying baby to the list if we weren’t the ones now supplying said baby.)  And, while I can take a back seat role in the dinner preparation, there is one thing that I simply cannot relinquish control over- the green bean casserole.

Thanksgiving dinner means different things to different people. Some fantasize about juicy turkey legs or mashed potatoes and gravy. And who can blame the dessert lovers (myself included) for getting giddy over pumpkin or pecan pie.  But for me, it’s really all about the green bean casserole, and the tired old canned version simply will not do. The thought of smothering mushy canned green beans with a sludge of cream of mushroom soup is enough to make me want to skip dinner all together.

This recipe gives you green bean casserole the way you always hoped it could be. The way it’s meant to be. Fresh and fragrant with all of the rich comfort of the traditional version and none of the sludge.

Fresh Green Bean Casserole

Servings: 8


 6 c or 2 lbs fresh green beans
4 oz bacon (omit for a vegetarian dish)
2 TBS butter
2 TBS extra virgin olive oil
1 c diced onion
1 tsp salt
1 TBS freshly ground black pepper
4 cloves garlic, crushed
½ c fresh sage, chopped
3 TBS flour
1 ½ c vegetable or chicken broth
1 c heavy cream
1 package fried onions (I used a natural brand from my local Whole Foods, but the 6 oz. cans of French’s fried onions are widely available in most grocery stores)


1. Preheat oven to 350.
2. Rinse and trim green beans and snap in half. Place beans in a pot with a steamer basket and a few inches of water. Steam until beans are tender crisp. Remove from heat and set aside.
3. In a large cast iron skillet or Dutch oven fry bacon until crispy.  Remove from pan and set aside. Leave bacon drippings in the pan.
4. Add butter and olive oil to the pan with the bacon drippings and heat on medium until butter is melted. Add diced onions, sprinkle with salt and pepper and sauté on medium heat until onions begin to soften and become translucent.
5. Add crushed garlic and sage and sauté another 2 or 3 minutes, until garlic becomes fragrant.
6. Sprinkle onions with flour, stir into mixture and sauté another 2 minutes.
7. Add broth and cream and cook on medium-low, stirring frequently, until mixture thickens.
8. Add green beans and bacon to the mixture and toss to coat thoroughly.
9. Pour green beans into a baking dish and top with fried onions. Bake approximately 20 minutes, until sauce is bubbly and top begins to brown.


Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Great Pumpkin Pie-tini

by Jaelyn Penner
If you love pumpkin pie, you will adore this drink!  It has an intense pumpkin flavor, with pie-like sweetness and spice.   It would be fantastic served with heavy hors d’oeuvres, or even with just some tasty (pumpkin seed?) crackers to unwind after a long autumn workday!

I love this time of year!  The holiday trifecta:  Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas all in such close proximity makes the last three months of the year a veritable storm of activity, decorating, un-decorating, decorating again, un-decorating again, decorating some more and shopping-shopping-shopping!  But of course, the best parts of all of this madness are the celebrations!!!
What are celebrations but great people, great food, great mood and yummy drinks?  Luckily, two holidays in the Trifecta are autumnal… meaning pumpkin works wonderfully for Halloween as well as Thanksgiving.  And in that spirit (pun intended), I have the perfect beverage for you!

The Great Pumpkin Pie-tini

1/2oz Pumpkin Pie Vodka (unbelievable but true – this flavor was available at my local liquor store.  If you can’t find it, substitute with vanilla vodka)
1 tsp. Pumpkin Butter
1 oz. cold Ginger Beer(available at Cost Plus World Market, or often at health food stores)
3 oz. cold Pumpkin Beer
Dash of Fresh-Ground Nutmeg
Cinnamon Stick for garnish

In shaker, add Vodka and Pumpkin Butter.  Shake well, add ice, shake for another 5 seconds.  Pour liquid only (not ice) into martini glass.  Add Ginger Beer, fill with Pumpkin Beer.  Gently stir.  Using a small grinder and whole nutmeg, grind a dash on top of drink.  Add cinnamon stick for garnish, and enjoy!

Note:  Beverage brands vary widely in taste.  I used a fairly sweet ginger beer by The Ginger People.  If yours isn't as sweet as you would like, you can increase the amount of pumpkin butter in your drink.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Manly Man’s Smoked Salmon


by Kristen Barchers

To many, smoked salmon brings to mind the UK’s traditional layers of thinly sliced lox atop a bagel and shmear. I like to think of this very different style of salmon as the ‘manly man’s’ smoked salmon. The recipe for the brine was perfected by my dad, the master of ‘manly food.’ Many a professed salmon hater has been converted after a taste. For those who already love salmon, you’re in for a treat. The smoky, slightly sweet flavor and hearty texture will make this dish ideal for any occasion. While I often use this brine on salmon, it works well for foods like beef jerky and tempeh as well.

A note on choosing salmon:

With all of the warnings about mercury, PCBs (carcinogenic chemicals found in some predatory fish) and irresponsible farming, knowing which fish to eat can seem like a daunting task. The Monterey Bay Aquarium has developed Seafood Watch, an informative guide to purchasing all types of seafood. Good quality salmon, such as wild Alaskan, is typically more expensive than farmed Atlantic salmon, however the benefit to your health and the environment are well worth it. One money saving alternative is purchasing frozen or previously frozen salmon instead of fresh. Due to the nature of this recipe and the great amount of flavor the brine adds, it is not necessary to purchase fresh salmon.

Manly Man's Smoked Salmon

1 large or two small salmon filets (approximately 2 lbs)

Brine Ingredients:

1/3 c. sugar
¼ c. non-iodized salt
2 c. soy sauce
1 c. dry white wine
½ tsp onion powder
½ tsp garlic powder
½ teaspoon pepper
½ tsp Tabasco sauce
1 tsp orange zest
2 tsp grated ginger


  1. Mix all brine ingredients in a large bowl and stir until sugar is dissolved.
  2. Place salmon filet in a large, sealable plastic baggie and pour in brine. If needed, add water until salmon is fully submerged in liquid. Place the bag in a large bowl or container that will catch any spills in case your bag breaks.
  3. Refrigerate salmon for 24 to 48 hours. The longer the salmon is in the brine, the saltier and more strongly flavored it will be.
  4. For the prettiest filet, remove salmon from brine, pat dry and let air dry under a fan for 1-2 hours. This will create a smooth sheen on the surface of the salmon once it is smoked and dried. If you chose to skip this step, simply pat salmon dry and proceed to step 5.
  5. Place the salmon in your smoker and smoke/dry according to your smoker’s instructions. This typically takes 10-12 hours for large filets. When the salmon is done is partially determined by preference. I prefer my salmon very dried out and flaky, however it is completely safe and delicious to eat while still slightly moist inside. Once the salmon is brined or cured, bacterial growth is inhibited. The drying process helps to preserve the salmon, but it is the curing that makes the salmon safe to eat.

Note: I use a Smokehouse Little Chief smoker for all of my fish smoking needs. This type of smoker is designed for a cooler smoke/drying (<140°) as opposed to other smokers on the market that are designed to simultaneously smoke and cook meats at much higher temperatures. For best results, make sure your smoker is designed to smoke and dry fish.

To serve:

This salmon is amazing alone, but pairs wonderfully with a simple dill sour cream. Simply stir a couple of tablespoons of finely chopped dill into a cup of sour cream. Top the cracker of your choice with a dollop of dip and a slice of salmon.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Halloween Table Decor

How to Make the Most of your Display

by Jaelyn Penner

You're hosting the big Halloween Bash this year, and want to make it an event to remember.  You have the menu, the party tunes, the costume... now you just need to set the scene for your guests!

I like to start with the table.  Note:  These tips are for parties that have finger foods/appetizers, not a seated meal.  You can (and probably will) have food set up in multiple locations, but you need a main hub - a home base - a focal point that wows!

Find Your Signature Piece

Start with one major element that everything else centers (figuratively speaking) around.  A "signature piece."  For this year's party, I knew just what I wanted:  an authentic, ornate, elegant, slightly gaudy, antique-looking candelabra!  I have collected a lot of decor pieces over the years, but this is something I did not have.  And I did not intend to spend a fortune on one.  Hello, Goodwill!  It's truly amazing what you can find in a thrift store.  I absolutely lucked out - the candelabra was part of a "lot" of silver plated antiques, which I was able to win at auction for under $40 - and many of the pieces ended up being perfect for the party!   I know what you're thinking, "stop bragging - I can't go out and get bunch of silver pieces that easily." Well, you never know.  Go to your local thrift store and see what they have!  If I hadn't found the candelabra, I would have settled for something else.  Your signature piece simply needs to grab attention.  Large is great, and  illuminated is awesome.  A large cylinder vase filled with lights and fake bones;  a stand with a fantastic jack o'lantern displayed on top; a spooky candle tree... you get the idea. 

Go Vertical!

Now you have your signature piece.  It's time to build around it.  You'll need to pull out all the serving dishes and vases you have and see what you have to work with.  The key is to make it interesting.  You can stick with one color theme - I did silver and white - but use dishes of different sizes and especially different heights.   If you don't have a tiered tower like the one in the pic, put a sturdy box or block on the table, cover with some creepy cloth or black fabric, and place one of your servers on that.  Do it in varying heights for different dishes.  A great-looking table needs to go vertical!

Find Some Symmetry

 Your table does not have to be perfectly symmetrical, but it will look most pleasing to the eye if there is at least rough symmetry.  In the picture above, there are varying heights, but the very outside edges start off lower, raising to the tallest points on each side, and then lowers a bit in the middle.  Keep it interesting by not being strictly symmetrical - but keep it in harmony by maintaining the illusion of symmetry.

Light It Up!

Lighting is essential for any occasion, but especially as a contrast to the darkness of Halloween!  Varying sizes of candles work great for this type of setting.  Another great option is to fill vases with battery-operated mini light strings.  I found some LED lights in the craft section of my local grocery store - the lights were meant to go on a poster, but they would be great in a vase with some fake spider webbing, or clear floral rocks, or a bunch of fake bugs!  You'll want to keep the lighting fairly symmetrical as well - make sure there aren't any too-dark spots, make sure the food is lit, and if you have something interesting on the table (like the skull above) make sure it's visible!


Other things to keep in mind for your Halloween table...
  • Dark tables or tablecloths make your decor pop.
  • Layer your tablecloths - in the pic above, I have a dark wood table, so I laid down a piece of light-colored 'creepy cloth' (you can find it at any Halloween store), then laid a black lace table runner on top of that.  The effect was some contrast and "framing" for the rest of the pieces.  On another table, I used a large piece of metallic silver fabric that covered the entire table, and layered on top of that a black lace tablecloth that covered it completely. It made the lace pop and looked fantastic! 
  • Disperse interesting props between your serving dishes.  I used fake bones - a skull on a platter, feet on another platter, and random bones scattered throughout.  Just the right spooky touch!
  • Use all of your resources!  Remember that "Candy Bar" you had at your wedding?  Fortunately I remembered mine - I used several of the same containers from that in this display.  Try to use objects you already have at home to make your display interesting and save lots of $$.
  • Use signage.  You will inevitably have to answer the question "what is that?" when serving your food.  Add some interest to the table and make it easy for guests to choose their food by creating signs to place in front of the more mysterious dishes.  Use Google - do a search for your theme and "printables" and you'll be amazed at what you find for free!  You don't have to label everything, just the harder-to-identify foods.

Now you should be ready to have the most talked-about table of the Halloween season!  Happy Haunting!
Please leave comments or questions, or your suggestions - we'd love to hear from you!

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Pesto-Mascarpone Torte

by Kristen Barchers

I am a fool for pesto. On pasta. As a sandwich spread. Drizzled over grilled vegetables. I’m pretty sure I was Italian in a past life. I’ll happily eat any kind of pesto, though the classic basil version will always be my favorite. The combination of sweet, pungent basil with the nuttiness of Parmigiano-Reggiano has no equal.

This particular recipe brings to mind a very important day in my life – my wedding day.  I was married to my husband on a beautiful summer day in the mountains of Colorado. The setting was breathtaking, the love of my life was dressed to the nines and the food was to die for. Or so I hear….

The typical wedding excitement left me with only a vague recollection of dinner.  The whole ‘cake in the face’ thing meant that I didn’t actually get around to tasting dessert. But the real culinary tragedy of the day was the failure of our caterer to bring us any nourishment during our painfully long photo shoot. By the time the photographers were done with us, every presumably delicious morsel had been scarfed down by our guests, leaving none for the bride and groom.

I had been looking forward to the appetizers most of all, and particularly this pesto-mascarpone torte.  

This spread pairs the intense aroma and flavor of a classic pesto with the smooth and rich palate of mascarpone cheese. The combination is bliss. Serve with crackers and crudités and prepare for your loved ones to duke it out for a taste. 

In honor of starving brides and grooms everywhere – enjoy this dish!

Pesto-Mascarpone Torte

1 8oz. package of mascarpone cheese* (room temperature)
6 oz. basil pesto (homemade or store bought)
¼ c chopped pistachios

*Mascarpone cheese is a soft Italian cheese similar in texture to cream cheese but without the tang.  For a frugal alternative, cream cheese, while adding a slightly different flavor, can be substituted for mascarpone.

Cheese cloth*
Loaf or bowl that will hold at least 14 oz.  This container will determine the shape of your torte.

*If you don’t have or can’t find cheesecloth, I recommend using parchment paper.  Cut two strips, one the length and one the width of your pan.

  1. Line pan or bowl with enough damp cheesecloth so that some extra hangs over the sides.  If using parchment paper, layer strips so all inner surfaces of the pan are covered.
  2. Place pistachios in the bottom of the pan or bowl on top of the cheesecloth.
  3. Spoon a quarter of the mascarpone cheese on top of the pistachios and spread out to form an even layer.
  4. Spoon half of the pesto on top of the mascarpone and spread out to form an even layer. Take care not to press to hard and squish the mascarpone into the pesto. The idea is to keep the layers separate and distinct.
  5. Repeat this layering process until you have three layers of mascarpone and two layers of pesto.
  6. Place the torte in the refrigerator to chill and set for at least an hour

To Serve:
  • Place your serving dish on top of the torte and flip it over.
  • Gently lift the pan/bowl and pull on the edges of the cheesecloth until the torte slides onto the plate.
  • Peel off the cheesecloth.
  • May be refrigerated up to 24 hours before serving.

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