Friday, April 8, 2016

Guest Post: Upgrades to Achieve a Chef-Approved Kitchen

For someone like me who spends a whole lot of time in the kitchen, the way a kitchen functions, flows, and looks are probably more important to me than any other room in the house. This has become front and center in our lives as we looking to move and/or renovate a kitchen.

So I warmly welcome Becca Grady from Zillow to share her tips for simple upgrades to a kitchen that any home chef would love!

Simple Upgrades to Achieve a Chef-Approved Kitchen
By Becca Grady

A kitchen is more than just a space to prepare and cook food. Any good chef knows that it is a gathering area for friends and family, an entertainment spot and, ultimately, the heart of the home. Although most homes just need the basics – a refrigerator, sink, oven and stove – there are simple upgrades to ensure you have a pro-grade kitchen setup.

Whether you’re a food enthusiast or a seasoned chef, consider these tips for achieving a chef-approved kitchen.

Friendly Layout

An open floorplan and ease of movement is important for a well-designed kitchen. Although layout is sometimes out of your control, there are changes that can be made to better accommodate a good flow. If you have ample space in the center, consider adding an island to help alleviate any congestion and expedite meal prep.

Ample Light

Light is an important feature of an outstanding kitchen, and the more light, the better. Lighting can set the tone and have a large impact on ambiance. Having multiple sources of light – recessed lighting, hanging lights and under-the-cabinet strips – is best. sources for different purposes, you are able to easily adjust lighting to accommodate any need.


Any cooking enthusiast knows that a top-notch kitchen is all about the counter space, especially for spreading out all of the ingredients for preparation and plating the dish when it’s finished. Kitchen surfaces should also be easy to clean, heat resistant, durable and scratch proof. Selecting a countertop that is tough and fits within your budget is essential.

Faucets and Sinks

Sinks are one of the hardest working spaces in a kitchen. Upgrading your normal sink to one with a deep-set bowl is a must for any pro-grade kitchen. Additionally, consider replacing faucets with a gooseneck model and a pull-out sprayer. A gooseneck faucet allows you to turn on the water while having mess on your hands, while a pull out sprayer helps to clean off dishes with ease.  

Convenient Storage

Most professional kitchens will forego cabinets and drawers for storing utensils, dishes and pans, opting for open shelves. Open shelving systems allow for easy access to cooking tools and utensils. If you’re not interested in having your storage exposed, consider other storage options that improve accessibility. Look into installing a hanging pot rack, a magnetized knife strip or a handy roll-out shelf.

With limited budget and space, it’s important to decide what features matter most in a kitchen. To ensure the kitchen is worthy of an aspiring or skilled chef, try using some of these tips.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Cooking Matters

Cooking Matters. Never did I think these two simple words would mean so much to me 10 years ago. Before I become I mom, I cooked occasionally with little thought on ingredients or sticking to a weekly budget. I had a good paying job. I cooked what I wanted and when I wanted.

Then I had kids. I was consumed with feeding them healthy food. We were on a strict budget. I made homemade baby food and tested new recipes with hopes they would adopt the same adventurous palate umdaddy and I had – and blogged about it along the way. Then I joined the team at ChopChop Magazine, embracing the mission of inspiring and teaching kids to cook real food as a way to combat hunger, poor nutrition and childhood obesity. Yeah, cooking matters. Big time.

So when I had the opportunity to hear about the work Share Our Strength’s Cooking Matters is doing
Cooking Matters Alicia McCabe demonstrating
skills taught in a cooking class
here in Massachusetts, I didn’t hesitate. Cooking Matters teaches participants (many receiving SNAP and WIC benefits) to shop smarter, cook delicious meals, and how to make healthy choices. With the help of an army of volunteers, participants enroll in a six-week cooking course that include a grocery tour to teach how to shop, read nutrition labels, and stretch their dollars.

And the results are impressive. In a recent study on the impact of Cooking Matters:
  • Participants have increased confidence in the kitchen
  • Number of meals cooked at home increased
  • Families are eating healthier and choosing healthy foods (whole grains, low-fat dairy, low sodium)
  • Participants reported increase in their ability to stretch their food dollars

While there is evidence Cooking Matters is making an impact, there is still work that needs to be done. We need to reach more families. We need to demonstrate why cooking matters. How can you help? Volunteer. Attend a culinary event to benefit Cooking Matters. Teach someone you love how to cook. 
(credit: Share Our Strength)

Disclosure: Thanks to Share Our Strength and Kirkland Tap& Trotter for hosting the event, which I received free of charge. As always, opinions are my own.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Last Minute Easter Menu Ideas

Is it just me or did winter just blast by and spring suddenly arrive? I blinked and Easter is this weekend and April is around the corner. So in typical fashion, I'm scrambling to put together some dishes for our family Easter brunch celebration. So I'm going to some family favorites that are easy to whip up and sure to please. 

Monkey Bread French Toast
Our kids go nuts whenever we make this. You can make this with challah bread or cinnamon raisin bread. We'll often make extra and freeze them for easy toaster french toast. 

1 cup half-and-half
3 large eggs
3 tablespoons honey, warmed in microwave for 20 seconds
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
8 (1/2 inch) slices day old monkey bread (or brioche or challah)
4 tablespoons butter


  1. In medium size mixing bowl, whisk together the half-and-half, eggs, honey, and salt. When ready to cook, pour custard mixture into a pie pan and set aside.
  2. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Dip bread into mixture, allow to soak for 30 seconds on each side, and then remove to a cooling rack that is sitting in a sheet pan, and allow to sit for 1 to 2 minutes.
  3. Over medium-low heat, melt 1 tablespoon of butter in a 10-inch nonstick saute pan. Place 2 slices of bread at a time into the pan and cook until golden brown, approximately 2 to 3 minutes per side.
  4. Remove from pan and place on rack in oven for 5 minutes. Repeat with all 8 slices. Serve immediately with maple syrup or fruit. 

Mom's Granola with Yogurt
I forget how simple it is to make homemade granola. Whenever we make this, I kick myself for buying store-bought and not making this sooner. 

2 1/2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
1 1/2 cups wheat germ
1/2 cup shredded coconut
3 tablespoons sesame seeds
1/3 cup sunflower seeds
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
1/2 cup sliced almonds 
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon kosher salt
3/4 cup canola oil 
3/4 cup vanilla extract 
2 teaspoons vanilla exract
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1/2 cup raisins


  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper
  2. In a large bowl, combine oats, wheat germ, coconut, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, walnuts, almonds, cinnamon, and salt and mix well. In a small bowl, whisk together the oil, honey and vanilla. Pour wet ingredients over the dry ingredients and mix thoroughly until the dry ingredients are evenly coated.
  3. Pour mixture onto prepared baking sheet and spread in an even layer. Bake for 30-40 minutes, or until golden brown. Stir the granola with a spatula several times during the baking to ensure even browning. Let cool completely, then add the cranberries and raisins and mix to distribute them evenly.

Carrot Cupcakes with Cream Cheese Frosting
You gotta have some sweets for Easter, right? These are to dye for (get it? Easter egg dyes?).

2 Eggs1 cup packed light brown sugar¾ cup canola oil3 tbs lowfat buttermilk½ tsp vanilla extract1 cup plus 2 tbs unbleached all–purpose flour½ tsp baking powder½ tsp baking soda½ tsp kosher salt½ tsp ground cinnamon¼ tsp ground ginger2 cups shredded carrots½ cup raisins½ cup chopped walnuts
Cream Cheese Frosting
12 oz cream cheese, at room temperature½ cup unsalted butter, at room temperature1 2/3 cup confectioners’ sugar
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.  Line standard 12-cup muffin tin with paper liners.
  2. In a large bowl or using a stand mixer, beat together eggs and brown sugar on med-high speed for 3-4 minutes, or until mixture is light in color and thick. In a small bowl, whisk together the oil, buttermilk, and vanilla. On low speed, slowly pour the oil mixture into the egg-sugar mixture.
  3. In a small bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, and ginger. Using a rubber spatula, fold flour mixture into egg-sugar mixture until fully incorporated.
  4. Add carrots, raisins, and walnuts and continue to fold until well mixed. Pour the batter into the prepared muffin cups.
  5. Bake cupcakes for about 50 minutes, or until golden brown. Cool in muffin tin on wire rack.
  6. Meanwhile to make the frosting, beat cream cheese (with paddle attachment) on medium speed for about a minute until smooth. It is important cream cheese is at room temperature or the frosting will be lumpy. You can microwave on medium power for 30 seconds to soften (be sure to remove foil wrapper!).
  7. Add the butter and continue to beat for another minute. Then add the confectioners’ sugar and beat for one more minute until well mixed. Chill frosting in the refrigerator to firm it up before using.
  8. Remove cupcakes from muffin tin and frost cupcakes. Decorate with shaved coconut, carrot strips or lemon zest.  

Monday, March 7, 2016

The Perfect Portion Cookbook

Each square = 100 calorie count

I’m a huge fan of Fitbit ever since I got one for Christmas. I love getting all this feedback such as how many steps I’ve taken (close to my daily goal), how much sleep I got the night before (not very much) and how many calories I burned. This last bit of data would mean something if only I knew how many calories I was consuming. And I’m not one for calorie counting, measuring or weighing out serving sizes or sacrificing good tasting food for fewer calories.

So when I had the opportunity to review The Perfect Portion Cookbook by Anson Williams, Bob Warden and Mona Dolgov, I knew it was the universe (or maybe Fitbit) telling me it’s time to pay attention to how much I eat.

Flipping through The Perfect Portion Cookbook, I was immediately drawn to the easy-to-read recipes, great photography and simple visuals of what equates to a 100 calorie-count. There are 150 comfort food recipes categorized by Breakfast, Soups, Salads & Sandwiches, Casseroles & One-Pot Meals, Everyday Meals, Sides, Entertaining, Holiday Favorites, Dressings, Sauces & James, Satisfying Snacks, and Desserts. And the book is loaded with helpful tips such as substitutions and shopping tips.

I decided to make the Ratatouille & Sausage Bake (I love me some one-pot meals) and 100 Calorie Brownie Bites for our Sunday supper. Both were incredibly easy to make and very tasty. And for the first time, I can feel good about portion sizes and better understand what's okay for lunch or dinner. And maybe one day soon, I can log in “Calories Eaten” into my Fitbit and really be boss of my personal data.

100 Calorie Brownie Bites. Photography by Christian Stella and Elise Stella

Disclosure: Thank you Partners in Publishing for sending me a copy of The Perfect Portion Cookbook. As always, all opinions are my own.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Ringing in the Year of the Monkey

Monday, February 6th marks the first day of the Chinese Lunar New Year. Which means I've been trying to keep to my family's tradition of cleaning the house, fresh haircuts for the boys, and setting mandarin oranges around the house for good luck. Now that the boys are older, they love learning about these traditions - and superstitions like these New Year's Day taboos:

  • No sweeping/cleaning or you will sweep away your luck and fortune
  • No crying children as this will bring bad luck
  • Don't wash your hair or you will wash away luck and fortune
  • Don't wear white, black or blue (signifies mourning). Wear something new and something red for good luck
There are several more "rules" but these are the big ones I grew up following. And of course there's the food. As with so many things in the Chinese culture, certain foods are more auspicious and lucky. This year, our New Year's Feast will include:

Long Noodles (Momofuku's Ginger Scallion Noodles) represents long life

Soy Sauce Eggs (Momofuku's Soy Sauce Eggs adapted by Catherine Newman) for prosperity
Lion's Head for family/togetherness

Whole Chinese Broccoli for long life
Almond Cookies for wealth

From our family to yours, gong hay fat choy!


Monday, November 23, 2015

Thanksgiving Vault

As I'm frantically planning, shopping and prepping for the big day, I've found myself going back into the vault of favorite Thanksgiving Day posts to remind myself how we pulled anything off in years past. And inevitably, I always go back to our most Tried-and-True Thanksgiving Day recipes and painstakingly timed plan, starting with when to prep and when to turn on the oven. It's times like this I want to hug myself for being the anal-retentive cook in our house.

So here's my throwback post for anyone looking for last-minute Thanksgiving day tips!

Last Minute Thanksgiving Day Prep

Turkey Trots/Thanksgiving Day road races are almost as popular as pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving. I've often thought about running in one, but decided I'd rather be running around in the kitchen than on the pavement. I will definitely need some running shoes in the kitchen this Thanksgiving seeing how I am way behind in all matters of Thanksgiving.

So for anyone hosting this year's feast and looking for some last-minute tips, look no further than this known-procrastinator and time-starved (and just plain starved) mom. 

Saturday & Sunday: 
  1. Plan menu and make shopping list. Here's our menu this year with design help from my kids.
  2. Ask guests to bring something. We like asking folks to bring a dessert or appetizers - one less thing to stress out about!
  3. If you are of the brave sort, shop for non-perishables. I avoid grocery stores the weekend before Thanksgiving at all costs. I'd like to keep my sanity before the holidays... before I lose it again a month from now.
  4. Make sure there's room in the fridge.
  1. Shop like the wind. I will go first thing in the AM after I drop-off the kids at school. Everything will be fully stocked and crowds will be less ornery. 
  2. Prep linens, platters, centerpiece, place cards, etc. 
  1. Make cranberry sauce. The sauce will benefit from being in the fridge for a couple of days where the flavors can develop.
  2. Cut and cube bread for stuffing and leave out in a single layer on baking sheets.
  3. Caramelize onions for green beans dish.
Wednesday (Eeek!):
  1. Make stuffing.
  2. Peel carrots and parsnips and store in zip-lock bag wrapped in moist paper towels.
  3. Peel potatoes and refrigerate in a pot of cold water.
  4. Wash and trim green beans.
  5. Pick up turkey and brine turkey if you plan on using a brine. 
11am: Set table
12pm: Remove turkey and allow it to sit at room temperature for up to 2 hours
1pm: Preheat oven, prep and stuff turkey
2pm: Put turkey in the oven and cook at 500 degrees for 30 minutes
2:30pm: Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees and roast for 2-2.5 hours for a 14-16lb turkey. Roast carrots and parsnips at the same time.
3pm: Take cranberry sauce out of fridge and bring to room temperature. Remove parsnips and carrots.
**More than half way there - pour yourself a drink.
3:30pm: Make mashed potatoes and keep warm when finished.
4pm: Make green beans and keep warm when finished. Bake stuffing.
4:30pm: Take out turkey and let it rest (thickest part of the breast should be 161 degrees F). Remove stuffing from oven. Reheat carrots and other sides as necessary.
5pm: Chow time!
Last bit of advice: Make sure you delegate as much as you feel comfortable doing. And the most important piece of advice (next to enjoying this time with family) - make sure your dishwasher is empty Thursday morning!

Have a Happy Thanksgiving!


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