Fiery Flavors Heat Up The Home

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We just received an invitation to a friend’s Annual Chili Cook-off, where the competition is as hot as the peppers used.  In these colder months, I love a spicy chili.  There’s no quicker way to heat up your body than with the fiery sensation of hot peppers.  These sometimes painful and highly addictive pods can cause sweat to form uncontrollably on the upper lip and brow, noses to run and eyes to water.  No, not a red-carpet look, but if you love chilies, you’ll see this as part of the overall allure of this steamy southwest staple. (more…)

Popcorn Madness!

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My brackets are busted.

A couple of upsets and I’ve now got zero shot at this year’s NCAA pool jackpot. But being out of the money isn’t so bad; I still get to watch the hoop dreams unfold with my friends, many of whose teams are still hanging in.

In a sports world defined by lockouts, salary caps, endorsement deals and trade deadlines, the NCAA basketball tourney is a breath of fresh air. Most of these kids aren’t going pro—they’re playing for the love of the game. They’re taking their best shots, and it’s a delight to see. Best of all, the tournament is a great excuse to shake off the dregs of winter and gather with friends to watch and wager.

My buddy Andy is the Grand Master of March Madness. For the past 20 years, he has scheduled his annual “TV Vacation” just in time for the Sweet Sixteen playoffs. He and his pals gather at his place for a day-long marathon of food, drink and basketball on the giant flat screen. Over the years I’ve seen people come early…come late…come with spouses, children, neighbors and even work colleagues in tow…but they all show up for this can’t-miss party. And everyone brings food, typically of the frat house variety.
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Bacon-Lover’s Delight: Maple Bacon Popcorn Mix

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It seems the last few years have become the Golden Age of Bacon. And I for one couldn’t be happier about it.

My favorite breakfast food has migrated off the plate and firmly to the center of food culture. The morning staple is popping up in places from the ridiculous (breath mints) to the sublime (ice cream). Die-hard foodies have also taken to curing their own artisanal bacon as a hobby…and bacon-themed restaurants and food trucks are popping up around the country. In my opinion, bacon works best as a savory counterpoint to sweets, such as baked into chocolate chip cookies or, as I sampled this summer, dipped in chocolate. Wow.

As you might expect in the digital age, bacon’s newfound popularity is being embraced by hipsters and wider pop culture. There are websites, Facebook pages and Twitter accounts celebrating all things bacon…and quite a few bacon memes floating out there on the Internet. And, along with the expected bacon-related clothing and t-shirts, there’s something completely new on the market: a bacon-wrapped car. Yes, you read that right. The Ford Motor Company just announced custom exterior bacon decals for its 2014 Fiesta model—you can choose between completely wrapped or the more tasteful strips along the side. You buy that, you are one serious bacon lover. (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…)

Keeping Healthy Habits through a Long Winter: Adobo and Peanut Roasted Popcorn

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Sigh. My New Year’s resolutions are a distant memory. A couple of months into 2014, that long list of self- and home-improvement projects just doesn’t seem as quite as compelling as it used to. I know I’m not alone in this, because even the crazy crowds fighting their way into my gym back in January have thinned. It’s the human condition; in fact, only about eight percent of us stick to our resolutions.

Resolutions are tricky. They have an all-or-nothing quality to them that I find problematic. That’s why, even as I craft a list of goals for a given year, I try to remember that it’s all about progress. I don’t need to be perfect to make meaningful changes in my life and well-being. As I told my friend who’s struggling to stop smoking: every cigarette you don’t smoke is a victory. (more…)

Napping … With No Regrets!

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by Nicole

It’s taken me years to publicly admit this but here goes: I’m a napper. That’s right. Almost every day, at some point between 1 and 3 p.m., I sneak off and lie down for an hour of delicious, refreshing sleep.

In our go-go culture, where busyness is often viewed as a badge of honor, my nap habit sometimes feels like a moral failing. I have had friends and acquaintances who–upon hearing of my snoozes–offer remarks such as, “Oh, I couldn’t possibly rest during the day, I just have too much going on,” or “You’re so fortunate that you can find time to relax.” As if I’m lying around dozing and eating bon-bons all day.

True, I don’t work a full-time office job. But I get up before five a.m. and with work, kids, pets, husband, volunteering at school and keeping my household running, I barely sit down. Fast forward to three p.m., and I’m on the go again, supervising homework, more volunteering at school and church, and feeding and chauffeuring children ‘til well past 9 o’clock at night. Suffice it say, I’m no slacker. And I need to nap…with no apologies.

It turns out I’m not alone. Winston Churchill, Thomas Edison, Eleanor Roosevelt, Bill Clinton and Salvador Dali (imagine his dreams!) were all devoted nappers. And study after study extols the benefits of a brief nap. (more…)

A Valentine for Your Heart: Popcorn, Plain or Fancy White Chocolate Peppermint Popcorn Crunch

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Over the years, Valentine’s Day has had lots of different meanings for me: stacks of colorful cards in tiny envelopes from my elementary school classmates; pink and red carnations sent back and forth among my high school friends; flowers and chocolate from my hubby in the pre-kid years; and, later, family dinners where the five of us exchange cards before settling down to a movie or board game.

Three years ago, however, February 14th took on an entirely different significance; I spent the day in the hospital with my Dad, who was recovering from a quintuple bypass. Every time I tell his story, I always note that he’s always eaten healthfully, exercised every day and maintained a weight that would make a high-school athlete envious. But a routine EKG and subsequent catheterization showed that he’d experienced a heart attack and not even realized it, and was walking around with five mostly blocked arteries and one that had failed altogether.

Surgery was his best option, and despite a rough recovery he came through it like a champ, probably largely due to his excellent health habits. That’s when Valentine’s Day changed for me–again–to become a day to remember not only my dad’s close call, but to think about heart health in general.

I’m not alone in thinking February is a most fitting time to focus on the heart. That’s why, by order of presidential proclamation, it has been named American Heart Month. It’s an opportunity to learn more about heart disease, which is the leading cause of death in the United States, and—most importantly—how to recognize and prevent it. February 6 is also National Wear Red Day, which focuses specifically on heart disease in women, the symptoms of which are often overlooked.

The Centers for Disease Control offers a basic plan for prevention of heart disease on its web site, outlining simple steps and changes that can lower risk. These include managing blood pressure and cholesterol; exercising; limiting alcohol and salt; and eating a healthy diet low in saturated and trans fats and high in fiber.

As I learned from my dad, genetics also plays a big role in heart disease. However, I’m doing everything I can to reduce my risk. And while that may mean limiting the Valentine’s Day chocolate, I don’t have to give up one of my favorite snacks: popcorn. That’s because popcorn is a whole grain that contains fiber and is naturally low in fat and cholesterol. And air-poppped popcorn contains only 31 calories a cup.

I also use popcorn in my recipes on those special occasions when I’m ready to indulge in something sweet. This White Chocolate Popcorn Crunch is easy to make, with a satisfying bite that does justice to its name.

White Chocolate Popcorn Crunch
Yield: 1 pound

Ingredients
5 cups popped popcorn
1/2 cup dried sweetened cranberries
1/2 cup sliced almonds
12 ounces white chocolate baking chips, chopped white chocolate or white candy coating
1-2 tablespoons vegetable shortening

Directions:

  1. Cover a baking pan with foil or wax paper; set aside. Place popcorn, cranberries and almonds in a large bowl; set aside.
  2. Melt chocolate in a double boiler over barely simmering water, stirring until smooth OR melt according to package directions. (If chocolate is not smooth after melting, , stir in 1-2 tablespoons shortening until mixture is smooth and loose enough to coat popcorn.)
  3. Pour chocolate mixture over popcorn mixture and stir to coat.
  4. Spread onto prepared pan; allow to cool completely.
  5. When chocolate is cooled and set, break into chunks for serving.
  6. Store in an air-tight container at room temperature.

 

Variation:

White Chocolate Peppermint Popcorn Crunch:
• Omit cranberries and almonds.
• Stir in 1 cup crushed hard candy peppermints after chocolate is melted.

Big Snacks for the Big Game (on a Big TV): Blazing Buffalo Ranch Popcorn & Sweet and Salty Popcorn Party Mix

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We try to avoid gender stereotypes in our family…boys and girls of all ages play with building toys, love science, compete in sports, make crafts and bake. That said, there’s one area where my hubby exhibits some stereotypically male behavior: love for his big-screen television.

To be fair, the guy spends almost no money on himself. He wears his sneakers until they have holes in them (ditto for his jeans); drives at ten-year-old car; and has been known to duct tape a broken snow shovel. And it’s not that he’s cheap…in fact, he’s one of the most generous people I know. He’s just largely immune to the lure of material goods.

Except for the TV.

I have to give him credit. When flat-panel plasma TVs burst onto the scene more than a decade ago, he held off. The technology was new and the sets were heavy. With the advent of LCD, his resolve was tested even further, particularly because he’s a die-hard football fan who faithfully watches three games every Sunday and one each on Monday and Thursday nights.

Finally, about seven years ago, he relented and treated himself to a 40-inch state-of-the-art TV. I’ll never forget the first year we had it: on the Sunday of the Big Game, our three-year-old daughter flounced into the room just before the coin toss, grabbed the remote and changed the channel, saying, “Daddy, now let’s watch ponies!” My poor husband. That may have been the last time I heard him tell that girl “No.”

Our set has served us well over time but lately it’s seemed…kind of small. And I don’t think our family room is expanding. I’ve also noticed that whenever there’s a big sporting event, my husband tends to go to one of his friends’ houses to watch on their (much bigger) TV.

So this time, I relented. Last week, I accompanied him to the big box electronics store where he and a passel of other men stood in front of a wall of LED’s, agog at the offerings. My only requirement was a price cap (easy because the costs have plummeted), and the stipulation that the TV not be larger than our eighth grader (a challenge).

I have to say, the new set looks pretty great. It’s vivid, simple to use and nice and big. Even a movie theater purist such as I can see that it will do justice to some of my favorite silver screen epics. Best of all, this year, my hubby will be firmly planted on his own couch for the Big Game, hosting his friends for a change. Now if I can only get him to spring for a new pair of jeans….

Feeding a gang for the Big Game can be easy and economical with these tasty, crowd-pleasing popcorn recipes.

Blazing Buffalo Ranch Seasoning Mix for Popcorn
Yield: about 2 tablespoons seasoning mix

Ingredients
1 tablespoon ranch dressing or dip mix (from a 1 ounce package)
1 tablespoon seafood spice mix (or celery salt)
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon powdered sugar (or sugar)
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon vegetable oil
6 quarts popped popcorn
Cooking spray, optional

Directions:

  1. In a small bowl, blend ranch dressing mix, spice mix, garlic powder, powdered sugar and cayenne pepper. Sprinkle with vegetable oil and blend until well incorporated.
  2. Place popcorn in a serving bowl and spray lightly with cooking spray. Sprinkle seasoning mix over popcorn to taste and toss. Store leftover seasoning mix in an airtight container for future use.

Sweet and Salty Popcorn Party Mix
Yield: 14 cups

Ingredients:
10 cups popped popcorn
2 cups miniature pretzel twists (or another small pretzel shape)
1 cup pecans
1 cup peanuts
2 cups rice, wheat or corn cereal squares
1/2 cup butter (1 stick)
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup corn syrup
1/2 teaspoon baking soda

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees F. Place popcorn, pretzels, pecans, peanuts and cereal in a very large bowl; set aside.
  2. Heat butter, brown sugar and corn syrup in a medium saucepan. Stir mixture over medium heat until it begins to boil. Boil 3 minutes without stirring. Remove from heat and stir in baking soda (mixture will foam).
  3. Pour syrup over popcorn mixture in bowl and stir until evenly coated. Pour mixture onto a large, rimmed baking sheet or roasting pan. Bake 30 minutes, stirring twice during baking time. Stir mixture a few times as it cools on baking sheet. Store in an airtight container.

Shaking up the Lunch Routine: Popcorn with Toppings

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PopcornBar

My daughter is a pretty low-maintenance kid. As the baby of our family and younger sister to two brothers, she’s developed a fine knack for going with the flow.

Except when it comes to school lunch–for which she is unusually demanding.

A little background: For years, we were a “hot lunch” family. Our oldest son was a picky eater who declined almost any food with texture. School lunch, offered to him as a form of therapy in preschool, was a fantastic way to expand his palate. The positive experience of trying new foods with peers made him far more willing to try them at home. By the time this guy hit elementary school he was a hot lunch pro, so we kept it up for him and, in turn, his little brother. Our school district served relatively healthful lunches and, with younger children at home, I was only too happy to be relieved of the chore of packing lunch.

When my daughter started kindergarten, however, I noticed a few things. First, paying for three school lunches was getting pricey. I knew I could do it more affordably myself. Moreover, a few visits to the school cafeteria showed me that the children in the lunch line were often rushing to eat and sometimes not finishing their food. I wanted my kids to be able to eat slowly, enjoy their lunches and socialize with their friends.

So I switched to packing lunches. My offerings may have been a bit routine–sandwiches, fruit, carrots, pretzels, yogurts, cheese sticks and the like—but there were no major complaints. Until my daughter started declining sandwiches and asking for a variety of cut up veggies and hummus in separate containers; soups, pastas or macaroni and cheese in her brother’s Boy Scout thermos with the spoon in the lid; five-layer Mexican dip with warm tortillas; smoothies; and elaborate salads with dressing on the side to prevent sogginess. Of course, I was happy that my girl had found a taste for different kinds of foods, but keeping the hot foods hot and the cold foods cold and everything separated and packed appropriately was a LOT of work.

And then I realized: it wasn’t about the food. It was about the accessories. The girl is obsessed with thermoses, assorted, plastic containers, hot and cold packs, bento boxes and lunch totes of all varieties. She collects them the way other girls collect headbands or shoes. She adores the ritual of bringing lunch in multiple containers, assembling it at the table, and nesting the empty boxes together afterwards. Last week she had so many containers that she carried her lunch in a shopping bag.

Time being tight—and with three lunches to make—I can’t always accommodate her requests. Happily she’s started to make her own lunches, and a couple times a week I’ll indulge her with something that requires special prep. There’s one simple favorite that makes a regular appearance on her lunch menu: popcorn with toppings. We fill a big container with plain, air popped popcorn and a smaller one with the topping of her choice. Come lunch, all she has to do is combine and shake for the perfect, fun treat.

Her favorite toppings, lovingly packed in tiny containers, include:
• Grated cheese—parmesan or pecorino
• Cinnamon/brown sugar/nutmeg combo
• Chocolate chips
• Dried fruit (raisins, cranberries, apricots)

…and no refrigeration needed!

We’d love to hear from you: What’s your top lunch box challenge with your kids? Do you send popcorn? Plain or fancy?

Warm Treats for a Cold Kid: Cocoa Popcorn Crunch

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While I don’t claim to be an expert on the subject, I have learned a bit about the care and feeding of 13-year-old boys over the years. My current insights:

  1. The statement “everything is fine,” can mean anything from things really ARE fine to their world is about to implode.
  2. They almost never stop eating. At minimum, it’s breakfast, snack, lunch, snack, dinner, dessert, snack and late-night snack. They’ve also been known to drink a gallon of milk in a day.
  3. They will wear shorts in any weather. ANY weather.

I’ve pretty much figured out how to manage numbers 1 and 2 (rely on mother’s intuition/probe more when warranted and keep running to the grocery store) but number 3 is really a head scratcher. For the absolute life of me, I cannot fathom what is going on with the shorts thing.

Let me clarify: we don’t live in a tropical climate. We aren’t even close to the Mason-Dixon Line. We live in New England (okay, southern New England, but still). Most winters, it gets REALY cold…bitterly cold…normal-people-dress-in-layers-and-bundle-up-cold.

And yet, every morning, there goes my son…off to school in shorts. He’s not alone; I see dozens of his classmates similarly outfitted as they dash from their parents’ cars at drop off. A bit of research revealed that this trend is not confined to our little corner of the world. Indeed, kids everywhere are sporting shorts year-round, much to the bafflement of parents and school officials.

My son echoes the sentiments of the boy profiled in the article: he doesn’t like the “feel” of long pants, especially jeans. In his case, I also suspect that his middle school may be excessively warm and shorts keep him more comfortable. Of course, there’s also the benefit that he’s perpetually ready for gym class, which means one less transition in his busy day.

Every so often, though, he gets a look or a question from a well-meaning stranger or grandparent. They’ll ask him, “Aren’t you cold?” then stare at me while they wait for him to answer. This reminds me of the era when my kids were little and would rip off their shoes and socks and fling them out of their strollers; (more…)