Make Popcorn an Appetizer to Your Thanksgiving Feast!

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It’s no surprise that Americans rank Thanksgiving among one of their favorite holidays. Steeped in history and tradition, Thanksgiving marks a time to bring your closest family and friends together and celebrate with a bountiful feast.

And while most people relish the traditional Thanksgiving meal, they also enjoy a guilt-free day of grazing on tasty treats leading up to the main event. When hosting a large crowd for Thanksgiving or any occasion, it’s always a good idea to serve a variety of snacks to please the many palates in the room. That’s why popcorn is a great option.

Plain or buttered, sweetened or spiced, popcorn can be flavored or even combined with other foods like nuts, fruit or cheese to create a delicious and nutritious snack. As a whole grain food, popcorn is a quality carbohydrate source that is not only low in calories, but also a good source of fiber. It’s an ideal in-between meals snack because it satisfies, but doesn’t spoil your appetite.

To satisfy your crowd this holiday season, try these simple popcorn ideas. For kids, mix popcorn with toasted pumpkin seeds, raisins and other diced dried fruit and watch how fast the bowl empties. A little butter, brown sugar and cinnamon will satisfy sweet lovers. For those who like a little spice in their lives, try this delicious Spicy Cajun Popcorn and Nut mix – it’s sure to be a crowd pleaser.

Spicy Cajun Popcorn and Nuts
Yield: 9 servings

Ingredients:
8 cups popped popcorn
1/2 cup toasted, coarsely chopped pecans
1/2 cup peanuts
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter or margarine, melted
1/4 teaspoon each: dry mustard, garlic powder
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Directions:
Place popcorn and nuts in large bowl.
In small microwave-safe bowl, microwave butter on HIGH until melted, about 30 seconds. Stir in dry mustard, garlic powder and cayenne pepper.
Drizzle over popcorn mixture and toss well.

The options for mixing and flavoring popcorn are truly endless. And you can make these recipes for popcorn ahead of time leaving you with one less thing to worry about on the big day. Just keep it fresh in an air-tight container or bag, then pop it open, pour it into a bowl and watch the crowd gobble it up.

And remember, popcorn is also steeped in history and facts. Try to stump “know-it-all” Aunt Betsy with some popcorn trivia while you’re munching away:

  • The oldest ears of popcorn ever were dis- covered in the Bat Caves of west central New Mexico in 1948 and 1950. They turned out to be about 4,000 years old.
  • There are six different types of corn: sweet, dent, flour, flint, pod and popcorn. Only popcorn pops.
  • What makes popcorn pop? Water. As the kernel is heated, the water inside the kernel turns into steam. The pressure builds until the kernel finally explodes and the insides turn out.
  • The average American consumes 54 quarts of popcorn a year!

For more fun facts about popcorn and other great-tasting popcorn recipes, visit www.popcorn.org

Scaring up Some Fun: Green Halloween Zombies

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It’s no secret how much we dig Halloween around here. In this family, October comes with a giant helping of family fun and tradition. All month long, it’s hayrides to the pumpkin patch; jack o’ lantern carving with the neighbors, costumes galore, scary decorations, spooky stories by the fire pit and, of course, monster movies.

Now that my kids are a little older (read: past the age where a scary movie means they’ll be sleeping in my bed until January) we’re enjoying some great monster movies together…both silly and scary. The “so bad they’re good” B-movie classics always get a laugh out of my teenage sons; I’ve even managed to get them to sit through some of my favorite modern vampire and werewolf flicks.

But for these guys, all my best monsters and maniacs—including that perennial bogeyman Michael Myers—pale before one species of creature that has completely captured their imaginations: Zombies!

Apart from being completely terrified by the original “dead” movie when I saw it in college, I never really gave zombies much thought. But evidently I’m in the minority because we are in the midst of a true zombie renaissance. Over the past decade or so, zombies have clawed right out of their graves and into books, TV shows, and movies like never before.

Zombies are, indeed, a “thing.” Even the Centers for Disease Control has jumped on the bandwagon, using the fictional threat of a zombie apocalypse as an entertaining tool to teach people how to prepare for actual emergencies. The agency has a zombie website, posters and everything. From a marketing and social media perspective, I think it’s brilliant.

There are plenty of theories floating around the Internet and in academic circles as to why zombies are so popular. Yes, they may represent technological alienation, or perhaps they’re a means to deal with our collective anxiety, but I have a theory of my own: the make-up artists did it. Zombies are probably really, really fun for make-up artists and, let’s face it, kind of cool in their own right. I know I’ve had a blast doing zombie makeup on my kids the past few Halloweens, and I’m a complete amateur.

So this October, I’m embracing the zombie: zombie movies, zombie costumes, zombie decorations, and even zombie snacks. My hollow-eyed ghouls will be shuffling around while noshing on these Green Halloween Zombies. Made with whole-grain popcorn, they’re simple make, delicious and—almost—too scary to eat.

Green Halloween Zombies
Yield: About 7 pieces (4 ½ x 3 ½ inches each)

Ingredients
• 2 ½ quarts popped popcorn
• 6 tablespoons butter or margarine
• 3 cups mini marshmallows
• 4 tablespoons lime gelatin powder
• Red gum balls, candy corn, flat green candy strips (or fruit leather), green sugar sprinkles

Directions
1. Place popcorn in a large bowl; set aside.
2. Melt butter over medium heat in a medium saucepan. Stir marshmallows into butter until melted. Stir in gelatin powder until evenly colored. Pour over popcorn and stir until evenly coated. With buttered hands, shape popcorn into 7 oval shapes.
3. Flatten one oval shape slightly and squeeze one end to form a ‘skull’ shape. Place onto parchment lined baking sheet. Repeat with remaining shapes.
4. To decorate: Press two gumballs into each skull to form ‘eyes’. Press candy corn into skull to from ‘teeth’. Use scissors to trim candy strips and press into top for ‘hair’. Sprinkle with sugar sprinkles.
5. Allow ‘zombies’ to set for about 20 minutes before wrapping individually in plastic wrap (or serve immediately).

Celebrating the Wonder and Hard Work of Leaf Season: Cranberry-Orange Caramel Corn

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cranberry orange caramel corn

There are a lot of things us New England folks put up with that can make life a little trying…bumper-to-bumper traffic for states on end, high gas prices, outrageous taxes, hurricanes, blizzards and a very weak sun for at least three months of the year. And oh…did I mention traffic?

But every fall, Mother Nature serves up a little something that makes it all worthwhile: the foliage.

The fall color in these parts was something I took for granted until well into my 20s. I visited Colorado one October, leaving while the vistas here were still mostly green. I spent two weeks soaking in the beauty of the Rockies and the aspen trees, which were a lovely gold in their own right. Beautiful as it was, the Colorado palette paled in comparison to what I saw when I got off the plane back at home: a riot of red, orange and gold leaves that literally took my breath away.

With all due respect to the rest of our country, for my money there’s no substitute for the views of a New England autumn. Around here, we’re fortunate to have an assortment of maples, oaks and dogwoods that almost never disappoint when it comes to fall color. Leaf peeping is more than an activity; it’s an industry. Locals and tourists alike watch the fall foliage maps and plan day and weekend road trips timed to drink in peak scenery.

As with most beautiful things, however, there’s a downside to our gorgeous leaves. (more…)

Popcorn and a Movie: Mom’s Motivator to Tackle New Technology

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nacho cheese popcorn

As I sit down at my computer to write, I’m filled with trepidation. And it’s not writer’s block. Today’s bugaboo is technophobia.

A few weeks ago, after ten years and two failed hard drives (restored at $300 each), I finally gave my computer the heave ho. It wasn’t even broken; we ditched it because the software company stopped supporting the operating system, and my machine wouldn’t accommodate the upgrade. I coasted along for a few months, relying on anti-virus programs to keep me safe, but the warnings were becoming increasingly dire. My computer was vulnerable to viruses and attack, and visions of data breaches, identity theft and financial ruin started keeping me up at night. It was time.

One reason I delayed buying a new computer was my family’s desire to switch platforms. My husband and kids wanted to move to a different operating system that integrated more seamlessly with our music libraries and offered more creative photo, video and music software. I’d been watching the commercials for years between the two factions in the PC wars, blissfully at a remove because I felt like I had no dog in the fight. I wasn’t a photographer or an accountant, and I was getting by just fine.

Indeed, contemplating this switch forced me to examine my relationship with technology as a whole, and personal computers in particular. I operate under what I like to call “efficient utilitarianism,” which is a nice way of saying that while I use computers all the time, I’m too impatient and/or lazy to learn how said computers actually work. Instead, I just want the shortcuts I need to get in, do what I need to do, and get out. I know…it’s lame. (more…)

Back to School for Moms: Celebrating with Peachy Keen Popcorn Snack

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Most years, I enjoy having my kids around during the summer. We have a nice mix of day camp, play dates, free time, family outings, vacation and just plain old relaxation. Even better, I’ve truly come to enjoy spending time with each one of them. They’re fun people.

This summer, however, didn’t feel quite so enjoyable, as our happy balance of structured and free time went off-kilter. My husband and middle child were on the Little League field almost every night for an entire month; my oldest and go-to babysitter was out more often than not rehearsing for a show; and my youngest sustained two minor injuries that sidelined her from camp and gymnastics. Our schedules were turned upside down. I was scrambling to find a bit of company for my daughter, and I logged countless late nights in the laundry room, scrubbing post-game uniform stains.

In the grand scheme, this is not a big deal. I know things could have been much worse—a topsy-turvy schedule is what my 15-year-old calls a “first world problem.” However, by the time mid-August rolled around, we needed some structure. After all, how many nights could my boys stay up watching disaster movies about sharks being strewn about LA and New York? It was time to head back to school.

So, here we are. Give me a month or so and I’ll miss having them around, but we do better with a regular routine. And, with everyone returning to the same schools this year, our transitions have been fairly predictable. All of which means I am now getting back to my “regularly scheduled programming” of early rising, a quick class at the gym, kids off to school then a morning of work at my computer.

But first, a little mom time. (more…)

Starting the “Year” Off Right

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If you go by the Gregorian calendar, the year begins in January. But ask any mom of school-aged children and she’ll tell you differently. With all apologies to Pope Gregory, my “year” begins in September. Possibly August.

After a relatively loose summer, I find myself buried under an avalanche of schedules outlining every practice, game, concert, conference and school event from now until next June for my three kids. Not to mention all the travel sports, music ensembles, religious education and whatever else crops up on the fly.

Fortunately, I have a passion for organizing. I think in outline form, make folders for every stray piece of paper in my house, and keep files on my kids that would make an FBI agent jealous. Even so, I’m challenged keeping track of it all. Some weeks we’re so booked up that I’m lucky if I don’t forget and leave a kid somewhere. I just hope when it does happen (and it will) that it’s one of my own because I can ill afford to get kicked out of any carpools.

Last year, I made some inroads using digital calendars and the “cloud” to manage our schedules. I’m not really a techie person, but I gave it a whirl. There were definite upsides, including the automatic merging of my kids’ team calendars into mine, along with real-time updates when schedules changed. I also enjoyed printing out a daily agenda like a cruise director.

That being said, cloud-based calendars have two big limitations as far as I’m concerned. (more…)

Turn Up the Heat: Sriracha Lime Popcorn

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sriracha

I come from a long line of pepper lovers…and the hotter the better.

In our family, hot peppers were treated as a quasi-medicine. As a child, my grandfather schooled me on the benefits of hot peppers to the metabolism and, to clogged sinuses. But what my grandfather loved first and foremost was the taste and, of course, the kick. When you were wiping your eyes and guzzling water, you knew the pepper was good.

His brother-in-law, Woody, shared his passion. Woody was a prolific gardener, and every summer his tiny patch of green yielded up a bounty of red and green hots that were the envy of his South Jersey Italian neighborhood. After siphoning off a cooking supply for my grandmother and aunt, he and my grandfather would retreat to the second kitchen in the basement. They’d sequester themselves for days, pressure cooking and preparing their secret recipe “hot pepper butter,” which they meticulously canned and preserved. Chemists by trade, they had this annual production down to a science; every year we were treated to dozens of jars of bright orange fire ambrosia. It was not for the faint of heart or stomach; in fact, being invited to partake of it was a rite of passage in our family, a sign that we had reached a certain level of maturity. It breaks my heart to say that the recipe died with them.

What lives on, however, is my craving for hot spreads and sauces. The truth is, I can’t handle the actual peppers very well. But hook me up with any kind of hot sauce, and I’m in heaven. I’m an opportunistic hot sauce user. I’ll toss it on everything from scrambled eggs to chicken soup to plain brown rice in near indiscriminate amounts. Sometimes I even use it as a dip.

I love that hot sauce has gone mainstream. My local Mexican restaurant has at least four varieties right on the table, and my grocery store seems to expand their line every time I go in. My new favorite sauce is sriracha, an Asian blend some California friends introduced me to a few years back. Although it’s been around for nearly three decades, sriracha has recently gained a huge following, with lots of specialty stores and smaller manufacturers producing their own versions.

So yes, I’m in hot sauce heaven, with no shortage of sauce or ways to use it. This tasty recipe for Sriracha Lime Popcorn is easy to make, and a great way to turn up the heat on one of my favorite snacks.

Sriracha Lime Popcorn
Yield: About 12 cups

Ingredients
• 3 quarts popped popcorn
• 1/2 teaspoon minced lime zest
• 2 tablespoons butter or margarine, melted
• 1 tablespoon hot chili sriracha sauce
• 2 teaspoons fresh lime juice
• 1/4 teaspoon salt

Directions
1. Place popcorn in a large bowl. Sprinkle popcorn with lime zest.
2. Mix butter, sriracha sauce and lime juice. Drizzle over popcorn and toss. Sprinkle with salt; toss again and serve immediately.

Family Chores: Sweetening the Deal with Cherry-Almond Popcorn Clusters

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By my early teens, I was convinced the only reason my parents had children was for the free labor.

It seems to be a mark of aging that we reminisce on how rough our childhoods were in contrast to the coddled generation being raised today. Even correcting for distance and memory, I still say my sisters and I did more than our fair share. With a dad who worked at night, and a mother who kept his night owl schedule, we girls made breakfast, packed lunches and got ourselves to school daily. Also, my mother just isn’t the type to voluntarily run the vacuum, pick up a dust cloth or wash the dishes. My dad did what he could, but mostly we took over.

And it wasn’t just my immediate family. My aunt and uncle bought a dilapidated “historic home” built in 1740 and renovated it themselves. My cousins and I spent entire summers demolishing barns, installing walls and staining floors. I’m sure there were legitimate contractors involved somewhere along the line but I never met one. In fact, my cousin did his final job for his parents–renovating two ancient bathrooms–15 years after they moved in. Then he left for medical school, which probably felt like a huge break in comparison.

Fast forward 25 years — and, despite vowing that I’d never enslave my children as I had been, I’m a staunch advocate of my kids’ pitching in around the house and yard. It’s good for them. (more…)

Backyard Fun at Camp Mom

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I missed the boat on registering my 12 year-old-son for camp this summer.

Back in early spring I devoted all my energies to filling up my other two kids’ summer schedules. The oldest is suffering through a two-week intense computer course that will knock off a high-school requirement followed by a rollicking good time at sleepaway band camp. The youngest is socializing her days away at town rec camp with her girlfriends, then will be shooting hoops and taking pictures at the local Boys’ and Girls’ Club camp.

But the 12-year-old? Nothing. I know…way to give the boy middle-child syndrome, right?

In my own defense, we devote a ton of time and resources to our 12-year-old’s summer Little League season. My husband coaches and the rest of the gang make it to nearly every game. In fact, our family’s summer schedule revolves around baseball, including when and even whether we go away on vacation. This is why I made such an effort to get the other two kids happily situated. Plus, with practices and games in the late-afternoon heat, the boy is tired. (more…)

Revamping a Child’s Diet: Whole-Grain Popcorn fills the Snack Gap

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Stovetop Popcorn

I count myself lucky that my family has been spared food allergies.

We’re friendly with at least a dozen families whose children have peanut or tree nut allergies ranging from mild to extreme; a few of the kids can enjoy some types of nuts, while others are so sensitive they break out in hives simply by touching anything with nut residue on it. These parents and kids alike have my admiration, since staying safe depends on diligent reading of food labels and self advocacy. I feel the same toward folks who are managing other allergies like wheat gluten or food additives. It’s a lot of work.

My kids are fairly picky eaters. Our lack of allergies is a blessing here in the House of Fussy Palates. Still, I’ve always offered a variety of foods; strived for well-balanced meals; and encouraged good food choices. I buy organic when I can, and we sit down to meals together at least five nights a week. My kids are active –everybody does at least one sport at all times—and in great shape. So I wasn’t worried about their food intake in the slightest.

Until, that is, my daughter’s 10-year-old physical, when a blood test showed high cholesterol, specifically borderline high LDL, the low-density lipids that are the so-called “bad cholesterol.” Honestly, I was shocked. (more…)