Monday, July 27, 2015

Hale Yes Baked Beans

I'm just as surprised as you are to see a semi-homemade baked beans recipe gracing the posts of the Sparkle Kitchen. But bear with me. These are fantastic, and you will thank me later. 

The developers of this recipe, the Hales, have been making these baked beans forever. It's a finely-tuned camping staple that my family has enjoyed for years. The Hales are the kind of people who will show up early at your wedding, make a side dish, then party all night with smiles on their faces. They served these beans at our wedding, cooking them "low and slow" all night over coals in the firepit next to the lodge where we got married the next day. 

Since we make these beans from the comfort of our own house rather than on the side of a river, we modified the recipe slightly. We added smoked jalapenos. Smoking the jalapenos reduces the heat significantly, as does removing the seeds. The peppers are left with a distinct, smoky taste, but not a significant amount of heat. The texture combines well with the rest of the beans. 

After all of the ingredients are ready, heat the dish through to warm it up and help the flavors combine. I structured the recipe based on baking the beans in the oven. That said, we also sometimes cook the beans in the smoker on about 200 Fahrenheit. There is nothing "raw" in the dish by the time that it hits the oven or smoker. Using the smoker just adds an additional layer of flavor. It's certainly not a "must do" by any means, but if you have a smoker, give it a try. 

I think I may attempt to thoroughly gild the lily next time and add roasted sweet potatoes or butternut. Thoughts? 

Hale Yes Baked Beans
Serves 8-10 as a side dish

You will need:
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 2 teaspoons fresh minced garlic
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 3 28 ounce cans baked beans (we like Bush's Best Original Beans)
  • 1 pound spicy sausage
  • 1 pound lean ground beef
  • 1/2 pound bacon
  • 5 smoked jalapenos (if you are using fresh jalapenos, cut back to three).
  • 1/3 to 1/2 cup barbecue sauce (we like Sweet Baby Ray's)
  • 1 bell pepper, diced
  • 2-3 teaspoons hot sauce, optional
  • Dash cayenne
  • Preheat the oven to 275 Fahrenheit. 
  • Heat a large pot or cast iron skillet to medium-high. Add olive oil, garlic, and onion and stir for about three minutes. 
  • Add the sausage, ground beef, and bacon and cook until browned. Turn off heat. 
  • Finely chop the green bell pepper and the smoked jalapenos. Remove the seeds from the smoked jalapenos.
  • In a large oven-proof dish, combine beans, peppers, hot sauce (optional), cayenne, and contents of the skillet. Stir in barbecue sauce. 
  • Cook for one hour, until the dish is heated through. 

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Grilled Sweet Potatoes with Avocado-Cilantro Crema

Hosting is often labeled an "art", as in "the art of hosting" or "the art of entertaining." I would argue that hosting is better described as a "practice", much like either law or yoga, rather than an art. Practice, by the way, is defined as "repeated exercise in or performance of an activity or skill so as to acquire or maintain proficiency in it." Dinner parties, brunches with friends, even happy hour on a Tuesday - I relish the opportunity to invite guests over for any occasion. 

I started hosting elaborate, multi-course dinner parties in high school (thank you to my parents for cleaning and my guests for eating my barely edible food!) and I've refined my methods over the many years since then. One of the lessons I learned early on was that I could prevent unnecessary stress by making sure that guests were never actually waiting on me to eat something. There's nothing worse than being a mere fifteen minutes away from serving a dinner you know is going to be amazing and hearing your friends say that they're "starving". Pour that hungry guest a glass of wine (and pour yourself one while you're at it), force a smile, and point them over to the "arrival appetizer," as I like to call it, while you wrap up the meal you've worked so hard to prepare. 

When we entertain, I love to have a couple of appetizers set out for everyone to snack on. I take a break from working on the main course about thirty minutes before guests are supposed to arrive (to account for the blessed early birds) to set up my "arrival appetizer". Although it can be hard to tear yourself away when you feel like you're running short on time, believe me that the effort is worthwhile. 

Beyond lowering the host's blood pressure, a plated snack welcomes guests to your home and communicates that you're thrilled that they're joining you for dinner, even if you're cursing yourself for choosing a dish that requires you to pit a thousand cherries or sweating over a skillet. These dishes do not need to be anything elaborate - a couple types of cheeses, fruit, and sliced baguette is just fine. I prepared these grilled sweet potato rounds with an avocado-cilantro crema as my "arrival appetizer" when hosting a casual cookout-style dinner for our families and it went over well, so now I'm sharing it with the world. 

Appetizers like this are ideal for the summer months, when you're already firing up the grill and guests are mingling inside and outside. I think it would have been the perfect addition to our Fourth of July spread, except for the fact that my guilty pleasure is "red, white, and blue everything" on the Fourth. It's the only holiday that I like to celebrate with color-themed food. I don't do that with Christmas, Valentine's Day, Saint Patrick's Day, or any other holiday with a convenient color theme. But when it's July 4th, expect me to buy color-coordinated macarons:

And it's not just food. I also invest in patriotic bandanas (Mops hasn't forgiven me just yet): 

Now, back to these off-theme sweet potatoes. I've been proclaiming the virtues of grilled sweet potatoes for quite some time on this little blog, so I won't bore you with yet another ode to the slight crunch on the outside, the mellow, soft middle, and the earthy contrast of the skin (leave the skin on, people, just leave it on!). Instead, let's talk about the crema. 

The avocado-cilantro crema is a thick sauce with a foundation of Greek yogurt and sour cream. The Mexican-type flavor comes from a combination of ingredients used to make guacamole: avocado, cilantro, onions, jalapenos, lime juice, garlic, cumin, and cayenne. The creamy base tempers the heat and makes the dish taste deceptively indulgent, when it's really nutrient-packed and healthy. 

I'm going to use the crema again to top sandwiches (I'm thinking Cubanos), to drizzle on grilled salmon, as a salad dressing (how great would it be with grilled corn?!), and as dipping sauce for quesadillas. Any other inspiration? What else should I do to enhance my "practice" with this tasty sauce? 

Grilled Sweet Potatoes with Avocado-Cilantro Crema
Serves six to eight as an appetizer

You will need:
  • Three medium-sized sweet potatoes
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/2 cup sour cream
  • 1/2 cup plain, unsweetened Greek yogurt
  • 1 cup fresh cilantro, finely chopped
  • 1 ripe avocado, mashed
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons fresh jalapeno, very finely chopped, seeds removed
  • 2 tablespoons purple onions, chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon cumin
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)
  • 1 tablespoon lime juice
  • Heat a large pot of water to boil. Cook potatoes for five to eight minutes, until tender when pierced with a fork. Remove from water and let cool, then cut into thick (about 1/2 an inch) round slices. 
  • Heat grill to medium-high. Drizzle sweet potato rounds with olive oil and grill on each side for two to four minutes, until grill marks appear. 
  • Add sour cream, Greek yogurt, chopped cilantro, mashed avocado, chopped jalapeno, chopped onions, garlic salt, pepper, cumin, cayenne (if using) and lime juice to a food processor and blend until smooth. 
  • Transfer crema to a plastic bag and chill until ready to use. When ready to serve, snip a corner out of the plastic bag and pipe onto grilled sweet potato rounds. 
  • Top sweet potatoes with extra cilantro as a garnish, if desired. 
The crema can be made a couple of days ahead of time. The flavors will intensify, but you may need to stir it up before piping it onto the sweet potatoes, as the water in the yogurt and sour cream may separate. 

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Grilled Shrimp and Asparagus Summer Salad

We celebrated Father's Day in the traditional way - with a multi-course meat dinner! It's a lot of fun having my parents and my in-laws in the same town. And when I say "fun," I mean we can celebrate holidays together, thus turning every minor event into a gourmet potluck. What other kind of fun is there?

This was also our first time to have people over to our new house for dinner. Husband and I teamed up to create an easy, casual meal that was just perfect to celebrate our dear-old-dads. Mops even donned a new party dress for the occasion. 

While I was busy torturing my small dog making appetizers, Husband handled chicken on the smoker (possibly the best smoked chicken I've ever tasted). He rubbed the chicken down with apple cider vinegar, then used our current favorite rub (Butt Rub - that's the real name, I promise), and garlic salt for flavor. He smoked the chicken - which included wings, breasts, thighs, and drumsticks (all skin-on, bone-in) at 200 Fahrenheit. It was fantastic. Look at the bark on that chicken! 

The chicken ended up stealing the show. But, I never let fear of overkill run my kitchen, do I? So, in addition to the chicken, we bought an array of locally-made sausages (some of my favorite flavors: blue cheese & black pepper, plus red wine & Parmesan). I made a dad-approved appetizer (my pimento cheese dip). On the side, we had my mother-in-law's squash casserole (I didn't even get a picture of it because it was so delicious that I couldn't take the time to arrange it nicely) and smoked baked beans (Husband's favorite). 

My mom - the undisputed Salad Queen of the South, someone get her a tiara - made a fantastic, garden-fresh salad with corn, basil, avocado, tomatoes, mango, and more. Although I love to make and eat salad, I lack her ingenuity. I could more appropriately be dubbed the "Girl Who Thinks Anything Served on Greens is Salad." 

Usually when I make salad, I draw from the esteemed "kitchen sink" school of thought. Is it produce? Add it to the salad. Sometimes, though, one of my salads is worth writing down for future use. This is one of those salads. I started out by marinating the shrimp for an hour in an Italian flavor blend (including basil-infused olive oil, which I didn't note below because it's not necessary at all - just a nice touch), and added some lemon juice and garlic to the asparagus. These two ingredients - the shrimp and the asparagus - are grilled to perfection, then are tossed with an interesting blend of fresh fruits (pineapple), vegetables (hearts of palm and radish), and greens (arugula and cilantro). I didn't make a proper salad dressing, I just drizzled white wine vinegar and more of my infused olive oil over the bowl and lightly tossed it all together. 

It's a perfect make-ahead dish that you can impress guests with at arrival to a summer dinner party. The shrimp and asparagus are great chilled. Just grill them, fix the salad, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and refrigerate until right before serving. 

Grilled Shrimp and Asparagus Summer Salad
Serves six as an appetizer / side salad

You will need:
  • 1 pound large raw shrimp, peeled and deveined 
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons minced fresh garlic
  • 1 teaspoon Italian spice blend
  • 1 pound asparagus, trimmed
  • 3 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1 cup radish, finely chopped
  • 2 cups arugula
  • 1 cup pineapple, finely chopped
  • 1/2 cup fresh cilantro, finely chopped
  • One 14 ounce can hearts of palm, drained and rinsed, sliced into rings
  • 1/4 cup white wine vinegar
  • Salt and pepper
  • Optional ingredients to consider: fresh avocado, chickpeas, grilled corn, fresh basil, and roasted red peppers. 

  • Thaw shrimp to room temperature (if frozen). Prepare a marinade with 1/4 cup of olive oil (reserve the remaining olive oil), balsamic vinegar, and one teaspoon of minced fresh garlic. Marinate for at least one hour, or up to three hours. 
  • Prepare washed and trimmed asparagus for the grill by arranging in a single layer on a plate or tray, then drizzling with 1 1/2 tablespoons of lemon juice, a bit of olive oil, and the remaining teaspoon of fresh garlic. 
  • Heat grill to medium-high heat and add shrimp and asparagus. Scatter Italian seasoning blend evenly over the shrimp and asparagus. Cook for about four minutes per side, until starting to brown, then turn over and cook for about three minutes. Remove from heat and place on a clean tray. 
  • Toss remaining vegetables in a large bowl. Add shrimp after it has cooled for a couple of minutes. 
  • Let asparagus cool slightly, then slice in thirds for more "bite sized" pieces and add to the salad bowl. 
  • Top with white wine vinegar, remaining olive oil, and salt and pepper. Toss gently to combine, then serve in a large bowl. 

Monday, June 8, 2015

Summer Grill Inspiration

Late spring has ushered in days that start out chilly and tip dangerously close to hot during the afternoons. The long days are sunny into the early evenings and the intense rain is subsiding as we get ready for summer. 

It's at this exact time of year that I'm the most comfortable outside - if even for a brief few weeks. This is because the weather has warmed up enough that people have decided it's time to turn the thermostat down to about 65 degrees, such that every office, home, and restaurant feels slightly morgue-like. 

It's at this exact time of the year, coincidentally, that I switch from minimizing my exposure to the cold of winter and chill of early spring to minimizing my exposure to the cold indoors. As the thermostat pendulum swings into the warmer weather, I plot ways to spend as much time outside as it takes to cook dinner without working up a sweat. So, I have taken up the tongs and fired up the grill, with a t-shirt on while I'm outside and a hoodie at the ready for when I have to go back inside. Here are some of the things that I've been grilling lately for your inspiration:

Chicken Wings

These chicken wings had a great tangy flavor from the generous portion of red wine vinegar that I used in the marinade. The marinade is a blend of red wine vinegar, dry ranch seasoning, hot sauce, olive oil, garlic, paprika, cayenne pepper, and Cajun seasoning. 

I served these wings with grilled zucchini, bell pepper, and a few slices* (three each - I counted and weighed each portion carefully!) of marinated steak. 

*Pro tip: freeze individual portions of meat with different marinades, label carefully, and be a weeknight dinner hero with an effortless meal. 


Steak marinated with Worcestershire sauce, garlic, soy sauce, olive oil, a bit of brown sugar, and black pepper adds a delicious, savory flavor.

I went a different direction for a Mexican twist on steak with a marinade that was a blend of olive oil, lime juice, pureed cilantro and parsley, garlic, and Mexican hot sauce (my favorite is Tapatio). 

Chicken Breast

This chicken breast was marinated in soy sauce, apple cider vinegar, mustard, olive oil, garlic, black pepper, and honey. Right before cooking, I wrapped the chicken with thick-cut bacon and secured with a toothpick, then added a touch of cayenne to the bacon. I topped the chicken with some melted muenster for the last couple of minutes on the grill. 

Portobello Mushrooms

These stuffed, marinated portobello mushrooms are a bit less healthy, but are fantastic. The marinade is a mixture of white wine, basil-infused olive oil, lemon juice, and balsamic vinegar with thyme, garlic salt, and oregano. 

The mushrooms are stuffed with sautéed zucchini and summer squash cooked in olive oil with finely shredded onions, chopped sundried tomatoes, roasted red peppers, pesto, crushed red pepper flakes, and a mixture of chèvre and cream cheese. Set the filling aside, covered and wrapped, at room temperature while you cook the inside of the mushrooms. Spoon the filling in as the underside grills to perfection and heats the filling. 

I also used grilled portobello mushroom as the base for leftover smoked chicken, fresh buffalo mozzarella, and roasted cherry tomatoes. 


I made kebabs last weekend with jump shrimp, marinated steak, mushrooms, red and yellow bell peppers, zucchini, onions, and - wait for it - brussels sprouts. Brussels sprouts cook really nicely on the grill and enhance their slightly bitter taste. 

And this kebab dinner has zucchini, yellow squash, steak, and cabbage. 

What are your favorite marinades and things to grill? 

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Italian Roasted Cauliflower with Olives & Tomatoes

Easy, healthy, flavorful, and self-sufficient. Those adjectives comprise my "big four" for weeknight cooking. When I say self-sufficient, I mean that the dish needs to just cook on its own without too much fussing required from the cook. I just finished a long day of work {in heels} and a thirty mile commute. I'm not in the mood most nights to delicately craft an exquisite feast. We eat well during the week, but that's because over the years I've gotten quite good at doing prep work ahead of time and planning meals that rely on re-purposed leftovers. 

The leftovers from the first night's serving of my Italian roasted cauliflower, for example, were enjoyed on night two on a bed of spaghetti squash (served hot with chevre, garlic salt, and parsley) with grilled pork, as showcased below:

And pictured again, because is there anything better in the world than a roasted tomato that bursts in your mouth?

Another leftover iteration included roasted sweet potatoes and crumbled chevre: 

The key to a good leftover meal is making something versatile enough to take on the flavor of other foods after the first round is enjoyed. Cauliflower is naturally adept at absorbing flavors and is one of my "foundation foods" (I've really got the cooking for two thing down to a science when I have coined my own phrases, haven't I?). 

This recipe, which is suitable for vegans and vegetarians, has a couple less dynamic components that I might normally shy away from with the addition of olives and tomatoes. It's not like I can turn the leftovers into a Thai curry with olives. But, I love the intense saltiness of olives paired with the acidity of the tomatoes and the mellow cauliflower. And I don't mind committing to eating versions of Mediterranean dinners for the rest of the week. 

Italian Roasted Cauliflower with Olives & Tomatoes
Serves four as a side dish

You will need:

  • 1 head cauliflower, chopped into bite-sized chunks
  • 8 large green olives, pitted and sliced
  • 6 sundried tomatoes, cut into thin slices
  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 1/4 cup dry white wine (optional)
  • 1/2 tablespoon minced fresh garlic
  • 1/2 teaspoon each salt and pepper
  • 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • 12 cherry tomatoes, assorted colors, sliced in half
  • 1 teaspoon dried parsley
  • 1/2 teaspoon basil, red pepper flakes, and oregano (adjust to taste/modify for fresh herbs)
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • Preheat the oven to 375 Fahrenheit
  • Add all ingredients to a large, oven-proof dish, drizzling the olive oil in last. 
  • Toss the mixture to evenly combine. 
  • Bake for 30-40 minutes, until cauliflower is golden brown.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Bacon & Tomato Smoked Cabbage Wedges

Like anyone with a bit of British cooking heritage, I really, really enjoy cabbage. I just don't understand why it hasn't achieved the popularity that I think it deserves. There's nothing simpler than sauteing chopped cabbage with a bit of butter and seasoning with salt and pepper for a side dish. Husband tried to refuse to sample cabbage cooked this way when we first started dating, but after some convincing (ah, the leverage that I had back before we got married!) he took a bite and raised his eyebrows. He thought it was fantastic. 

Now, a few years later, he's still a far cry from a cabbage fiend, but he doesn't mind a bit of green, buttery goodness on the side every now and then. And due to his almost annoying prowess on the smoker, I've been forced to content myself with making side dishes to serve  with his flavorful smoked meats. Who can compete with that chicken?

Me. I'll take that challenge. This recipe is my attempt at making non-meats on the smoker. We have a fantastic cookbook that includes a smoked cabbage recipe, but I found the recipe a bit bland and the flavor combination, frankly, somewhat strange. So I did the normal thing: add bacon! My smoked cabbage has bacon, tomatoes, onion, pepper, garlic powder, butter, and soy sauce, all nicely arranged below: 

I recommend a serving size of about one quarter of a medium cabbage per person. The recipe is scaled to two people, but the smoker is a forgiving cooking vehicle. Just adjust it however you please. All you do is arrange the ingredients in an aluminum foil bundle and pop in the smoker for three hours at a low heat (I don't think ours was above 250 F). 

You can use the three hour cook time productively, or you can spend the time making collages that compare your dog to a sloth (they look like twins! Same litter!). 

Since everything in this dish is either pre-cooked or otherwise safe to eat raw, you don't need to be highly precise on the cooking time. It's more about the smoky flavor and texture that you're seeking. Although I didn't get any pictures of it, I topped the cabbage with feta right before serving. Divine. 

Bacon & Tomato Smoked Cabbage Wedges
Yields 2 large servings

You will need:
  • 1/2 head cabbage (1 quarter of a head of cabbage per person)
  • 1/2 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 5 bacon slices, cooked and chopped into large chunks*
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 12 to 20 cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 1/2 Vidalia onion (1/4 onion per serving), thinly sliced
  • 1/2 stick butter, sliced
*I like to cook bacon in the oven at 350 F with a scattering of brown sugar and cayenne pepper until golden brown (about 10 minutes)

  • Lay a sheet of aluminum foil flat. Arrange all ingredients in the middle, then fold aluminum foil over to create a bundle. 
  • Smoke at 200-250 for three hours, or until cabbage is soft and yielding.
  • Serve hot, topped with feta (optional). 

Friday, May 1, 2015

Mexican Fiesta Shower

We co-hosted a couple's stock the bar shower this weekend for a couple of friends who would have been elated had we just opened a bag of tortilla chips and unscrewed a jar of salsa. They are very easy to please, which made pleasing them just that much more fun.

This should really be the last party-related post shared here or anywhere else. I've found the definitive answer to every host trying to determine what theme to use for a shower or party. You can de-activate your Pinterest boards. 

The answer: Mexican Fiesta.

From the inexpensive decorations to the delicious food and plentiful libation options, the theme was easily pulled together and provided a relaxing backdrop for a fantastic shower. 

First: the decor. 

We had two pinatas, one each for the bride and groom, which we filled with things that they like (flower seeds for the bride and little plastic bottles of Fireball for the groom). No one really outgrows pinatas, do they? 

The co-hostess has amazing handwriting. How adorable is this "fiesta like there's no manana" chalkboard? And the mini pinatas. I mean, come on. 

There are hundreds of inexpensive touches available online. I am a big fan of Amazon Prime, where I found these mini maracas. 

Yes, those are luchador masks covering the water decanters. 

And the co-hostess found a sombrero with a veil for the bride to wear, plus more papel picado banners to attach to the outdoor lighting. 

Second, the food. A Mexican shower is great because you can decide how much you want to do yourself and how much you want to "outsource." 

We are lucky to live in an area with tons of Mexican grocery stores that sell pre-marinated meats ready to throw on the grill (and they taste infinitely less sugary and chemical-filled than the marinated meats you can buy at the chain grocery stores). We also have plenty of Mexican restaurants that serve a wide variety of salsas, quesos, and dips. We picked up several different kinds of salsas and made a few of our own. 

From the store/restaurant: marinated steak, freshly-made tortillas (heavenly!), three kinds of queso, jalapeno ranch, and a few salsas. 

Homemade: pork, guacamole, mojitos, elote dip, quinoa salad with roasted butternut and zucchini, salsa, chimichurri, and tres leches cupcakes. 

A few of my contributions were from recipes that I have already posted. I made my Chimichurri, which we served as a tangy topping for the steak. I also made my Mexican corn dip, but this time I turned up the flavor by grilling the jalapenos and corn the day before the party.

Husband smoked pork overnight before the party and pulled it for street-style tacos. Right before serving he and other host crisped it slightly on the grill. Perfection. 

I made tres leches cupcakes using Taste of Home's recipe. The only modification that I made was folding in 1 1/2 teaspoons of cinnamon into the batter and adding extra vanilla. 

As you can see, we had a great time putting the details into this party and our friends were ecstatic. Let me know if you ever need to borrow a sarape!