Homemade Vanilla Syrup

Homemade vanilla syrup is one of my favorite gifts to make.Wrapped up in pretty little glass bottles and a ribbon, this syrup feels so special.  

In reality, it’s just three ingredients and comes together in 10 minutes flat. Even better, the syrup has a rich vanilla flavor perfect for stirring into coffee or hot chocolate or even drizzling over oatmeal on cold mornings. It’s the perfect hostess or teacher gift. You could even slip a jar into the stocking of the coffee-lover in your life.

Homemade Vanilla Syrup

  • 2 vanilla beans
  • 4 cups sugar
  • 4 cups water

In a medium pot, combine sugar and water over low heat. Slice the vanilla beans and scrape out the pulp into the sugar and water. Add the vanilla beans as well. Stir with a whisk until the sugar is completely dissolved.

Simmer for 10 to 15 minutes until syrup is condensed by about a third. Turn heat off and allow syrup to cool completely. Line a jar with cheesecloth and pour syrup through cheese cloth to catch the larger pieces of vanilla pulp. Remove vanilla beans and discard.

Pour syrup into individual four-ounce jars. Store in refrigerator until ready to gift. This batch makes about eight jars of syrup.

Dark Chocolate Peppermint Cookies

I was the ‘mystery reader’ in my daughter’s kindergarten classroom this week. Which essentially means I show up unannounced and read a couple of books to the kids. Scarlet knew I was coming in but didn’t know which day, so she had prepped me that I absolutely had to bring a Christmas
book in to read. She set out her special copy of Twas the Night Before Christmas and I dutifully brought it in.

Kindergartners have to be the very best age to enjoy the magic of the holiday season (well anything really) because they are so delightfully enthusiastic and excited over every little thing. They listened to
the story in bated breath and then proceeded to talk over each other telling me what Santa was going to bring them this year. It was the best.

As I was getting ready to leave, my daughter announced to the class we would be making cookies after school and she would be happy to bring one in for everyone. Her teacher and I laughed and of course, the kids were all too hopeful for a cookie delivery in the morning. And while I can’t quite deliver on those hopes, it made me think of my absolute favorite cookies to make this time of year.

Richly decadent chocolate cookies are studded with dark and white chocolate chips as well as peppermint bark. Sometimes the peppermint bark pieces can be hard to find but I’ve had good luck at Target and Wal Mart. We make batch after batch of these special cookies all month long and gift them to neighbors and friends, take to holiday gatherings and wrap up a few in extra special paper to give our favorite teachers.


Dark Chocolate Peppermint Cookies:

  • 1 ½ cups brown sugar
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1 cup unsalted butter, softened
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 ½ tsp. vanilla extract
  • 2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
  • ½ cup cocoa powder
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • ½ tsp. baking powder
  • ½ cup dark chocolate chips
  • ½ cup white chocolate chips
  • 1 cup peppermint bark, crumbled into small pieces

In the bowl of a stand mixer beat butter and sugars until creamy and well-combined. Add the eggs and vanilla and continue mixing for an additional two minutes. In a separate bowl combine flour, cocoa powder, salt, baking soda and baking powder. Use a whisk to stir until there are no clumps in the flour mixture. Slowly combine the flour mixture with the butter mixture, mixing until a dough is just barely formed. Using a spatula or wooden spoon, add the chocolate chips and peppermint bark to the dough and stir until well-combined. Place a piece of parchment paper over the dough and refrigerate for at least 1 hour or up to 24 hours.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat. Use a small ice cream scoop or a spoon to make cookie balls. They should be roughly two tablespoons of dough. Give them plenty of room on the baking sheet. Bake for about 12 minutes or until the cookie has spread out and looks firm.

Sausage and Cabbage Soup

A couple weeks ago, I saw a picture on Instagram of a cabbage and sausage soup by Nom Nom Paleo. I’ve made enough of her stuff to know whatever the recipe was , it was going to be killer. But I’m challenging myself to try and use photos I find on Instagram, Pinterest or even in my beloved cookbooks and make the recipe from what I have on hand or how I think it should be made. Weird, I know, but it’s my own little personal challenge to help me (hopefully) become a better cook.

So instead of clicking the link to her blog, I grabbed some pork sausage out of the freezer and surveyed my fridge to see what I could add. I ended up throwing in onion, carrots, celery, garlic, mushrooms and savoy cabbage. I had some homemade bone broth so I used that too and topped the soup with fresh parsley and chopped green onions.

The result is sort of ramen-esque but hearty and comforting all at the same time. The rich broth gets flavored with the mushrooms and sausage and the cabbage is cooked just until it softens. The veggies are tender without being mushy and the whole dang thing takes 30 minutes to make.

I won’t even try and pretend my kids eat this soup. Not a chance. Last night I didn’t even offer it to them. Sadly, I think they would actually like it, if they wouldn’t turn their noses up at the cabbage. Oh well. Mayne some day. I’ve made this a couple times now and I can already see this is going to be one of my winter staples. 

Sausage and Cabbage Soup

  • 1 pound ground pork sausage (any kind will do, just NOT breakfast sausage)
  • 1 yellow onion, diced
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3 carrots, diced
  • 3 stalks celery, diced
  • 5 ounce container sliced mushrooms (a mix of button and shitake is ideal)
  • 1 medium head of savoy cabbage, shredded
  • 2 32-ounce boxes of organic chicken bone broth (regular chicken stock works too)
  • Kosher salt and black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon minced green onion
  • 1 tablespoon fresh OR dried parsley

In a large Dutch oven, brown sausage over medium heat, breaking the meat up into small pieces, until just cooked through. Remove meat from the pot and drain on a plate lined with paper towels.

Return the pot to heat and sauté the onion, carrots and celery for 5-6 minutes or until the onion is translucent and the vegetables are fragrant. Add the garlic and stirring well, cook for 2 more minutes. Add the mushrooms and cabbage to the pot. Salt and pepper the entire vegetable mixture liberally, continuing to cook for another 3-5 minutes. Stir well. Add the sausage back to the pot along with the chicken broth. Turn the heat to low and allow to simmer at a slow boil until the cabbage is tender, about 20 minutes. The cabbage should not have any crunch but not so cooked that it begins to fall apart. Taste the soup and add more salt and pepper if needed.

To serve, ladle soup into bowls. Garnish with green onion and parsley. Soup should feed 6-8 people. Store leftovers in an air-tight container in the refrigerator for leftovers the rest of the week.

Winter Cobb Salad with Roasted Delicata Squash

This is a big long recipe and it would be easy to be intimidated but I promise you; it’s easy. And once you make the different components of this delicious salad, you have meals all week long. 

I’m not usually one for salads in the winter. I don’t know why, but I usually lean towards warm and comforting soups to get my vegetables in, but this winter cob salad is a game-changer. Roasted squash, tart pomegranate seeds, creamy avocado and tangy pickled onions work so well together. It’s a recipe that I’ve made over and over again and we’re barely to December. I like it because it’s a one-pot (or really one-bowl) recipe. Throw all the ingredients together and you have a healthy and delicious meal.

Even better, once you have all the ingredients, you can use them in different ways. Don’t feel like a salad? No problem…eat the squash on its own with some roasted chicken. Didn’t have time to make pickled onions (or just don’t like them)? No problem. Skip them. This salad is incredible forgiving, so swap in and out what you like best.

Winter Cobb Salad with Roasted Delicata Squash

For the Squash

 2 delicata squash, washed and cut in half with seeds and pulp removed
 Zest of half a lemon 
 1 teaspoon minced garlic
 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
 1 teaspoon parsley
 2 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese
 Kosher salt and black pepper.

Cut the squash into half inch pieces. In a large ziplock bag or bowl, toss the squash in olive oil, lemon zest, parsley, parmesan cheese and a liberal pinch of salt and pepper. Set aside and allow to marinate for one hour. When ready to roast, preheat oven to 450 degrees. Arrange squash on a baking sheet sprayed with cooking spray. Make sure to get all the bits of parmesan cheese and lemon zest onto the tray. Roast in the oven for about 10-12 minutes, flipping the squash halfway through the cooking time. The squash is done when they begin to turn golden brown and a fork easily pierces the flesh. Remove from oven and allow to cool.

For the Salad

 5 ounces arugula
 Roasted delicata squash
 1 cooked chicken breast, cubed (I usually just grab a rotisserie chicken from the store and peel the skin off)
 1 honeycrisp apple, diced
 2 tablespoons toasted pumpkin seeds
 2 tablespoons toasted slivered almonds
 2 tablespoons pomegranate seeds (dried cranberries work well too)
 Pickled red onion (optional)
 Avocado, sliced

Quick Pickled Onions

 1 red onion, thinly sliced
 1 tablespoon sugar
 1 teaspoon kosher salt
 Apple Cider Vinegar
 Water

In an air-tight container, combine the red onion with the sugar and salt. Pour apple cider vinegar over the onion until they are halfway covered. Fill the container the rest of the way with water. Put the lid on and let sit on the counter for at least onehour. Store in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.

Salad Dressing

 Juice of one lemon
 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
 ¼ cup white wine vinegar
 1 teaspoon dried mustard
 1 teaspoon dried parsley
 Kosher Salt and Black Pepper

In a measuring cup or a jar with a lid, combine ingredients. Mix well and taste to make sure it tastes to your preference. Add more salt or lemon juice as needed.

To assemble the salad, layer the squash, apple, pumpkin seeds, almonds, chicken, pomegranate seeds, pickled onions and avocado over the arugula. Garnish with kosher salt and pepper.

Drizzle the salad dressing over the salad and using two forks, toss and mix until ingredients are well-combined. Store any leftover ingredients in air-tight containers in the refrigerator. 

 

Cranberry Orange Relish

 

I’ll keep my words short and to the point because I know the hustle and bustle of the day is going to take over in what feels like the blink of an eye.

Whether your house is filled to the brim with every family member in a 100-mile radius or you’re enjoying a cozy quiet Thanksgiving, I wish you a day full of good food, a moment to steal away to reflect on the year’s blessings and priceless memories that will carry you the entire year.

As I write this note, my children are running through the house treading the line between happy jovial play and wild feral animal. It’s a blurry line that they seem to cross and retreat from all day long.

I’ve spent weeks thinking about the menu for Thanksgiving and now that it’s finally here, I realize with crystal clarity that I really don’t care all that much. What I care about is those wild children, my family near and far, friends who I miss and don’t see nearly enough and this wonderful, special opportunity I have each week to share a few words and recipes in this space. I feel so lucky to gather at the table over a meal with the people I love and to share it here as I go along.

And because I can’t just let a week slip by without a recipe, I offer you my most favorite cranberry sauce. I recognize everyone seems to have a firm stance on whether they like cranberry sauce or not, but wherever you fall with your preferences, I challenge you to make this easy dish. Tart cranberries are softened with a little sugar and fresh orange juice and then mellowed with cinnamon and ginger. 

Cranberry Orange Relish, adapted from The Pioneer Woman

 12 ounces, fresh cranberries
 3/4 cups sugar
 1 tablespoon orange zest
 1/2 cup fresh squeezed orange Juice
 1 cinnamon stick
 ¼ teaspoon ground ginger
 Pinch of salt

Rinse cranberries well, then place them in a heavy bottomed saucepan with the sugar, orange zest, orange juice, ginger and cinnamon stick. Give it a stir, then place the pan over medium-low heat. Cover the pan with a lid and cook for 15 minutes, stirring the mixture every 5 minutes to ensure the bottom doesn’t burn. 

After 15 minutes, the cranberries should all be popped. Remove the pan from the heat. The sauce will look very liquidy, but as it cools, the sauce will thicken up significantly. After the sauce has cooled completely, you can add additional water for a thinner texture. Remove the cinnamon stick and serve the cranberry sauce at room temperature or chilled. Enjoy!

Roasted Delicata Squash Salad

With much eye-rolling and shoulder shrugging, my family has finally accepted my insistence that a salad grace our Thanksgiving table. If I left it up to my husband or my brothers, we would have a square meal of all white and brown dishes: turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, sweet potatoes, rolls, pumpkin pie. And not that there’s anything wrong with that (I mean come on, it’s all so delicious), but my stomach and eyes need a little variety for such a big, heavy meal. 

This year though I’m thinking this roasted delicata squash salad is going to make an appearance. Delicata squash are roasted in lemon zest, salt and pepper and a bit of good parmesan cheese until they are brown and crispy. Tossed with arugula, a honeycrisp apple, tangy goat cheese, toasted pumpkin seeds and dried cranberries; this salad is the essence of fall in a bite. 

I love delicate squash because you don’t have to peel them. I also think they hold up a little better than other squashes when roasted. I don’t love any kind of mushy vegetable, but especially squash. I roast the delicata squash for just a few minutes and they come out crispy and golden brown; perfect for this salad.

Roasted Delicata Squash Salad

For the Squash

 2 delicata squash, washed and cut in half with seeds and pulp removed
 Zest of half a lemon
 1 teaspoon minced garlic
 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
 1 teaspoon parsley
 2 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese
 Kosher salt and black pepper.

Cut the squash into half inch pieces. In a large ziplock bag or bowl, toss the squash in olive oil, lemon zest, parsley, parmesan cheese and a liberal pinch of salt and pepper. Set aside and allow to marinate for one hour. When ready to roast, preheat oven to 450 degrees. Arrange squash on a baking sheet sprayed with cooking spray. Make sure to get all the bits of parmesan cheese and lemon zest onto the tray. Roast in the oven for about 10-12 minutes, flipping the squash halfway through the cooking time. The squash is done when they begin to turn golden brown and a fork easily pierces the flesh. Remove from oven and allow to cool.

For the Salad

 5 ounces arugula
 Roasted delicata squash
 1 honeycrisp apple, diced
 2 tablespoons toasted pumpkin seeds
 2 tablespoons toasted slivered almonds
 2 tablespoons dried cranberries
 2-3 tablespoons crumbled goat cheese
 Juice and zest of 1 lemon
 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
 Kosher salt and black pepper

To assemble the salad, toss the arugula with the lemon juice, lemon zest and olive oil in a large bowl. Let sit for 5 minutes. Layer the squash, apple, pumpkin seeds, almonds, cranberries, and goat cheese over the arugula. Garnish with kosher salt and pepper.

A Cozy Fall Dinner Party

So often food connects us to memories or people. We have a favorite dish our mother made for us as children or remember a special breakfast our grandparents made only when we visited them. We highlight memorable meals with friends and memorialize the trips we’ve taken based on what we ate.

We make a connection to the people we care about through food. It doesn’t matter one bit if you consider yourself a ‘foodie,’ or have no idea how to get around the in the kitchen.  What we find is that the food really didn’t matter all that much, ultimately it’s about the gathering.

My aunt, whose recipe for mashed potatoes is included in this menu,  understood the simple pleasures of a good meal, good friends, the decadence of a sweet-smelling candle and a good piece of chocolate. She never missed an opportunity to gather with her friends and family. She loved to cook and was a natural generous host. I think of her often when I’m in my own kitchen. Her food was thoughtful and inspiring while in the same breath completely approachable.

As the holiday season quickly approaches and so many of us steel ourselves for the onslaught of gatherings and events, here is an opportunity to make a meal for friends and family that feels like a warm hug on a cold blustery evening.

This isn’t a fancy menu; just good, simple food for a cozy evening. Grilled tri-tip steak is marinated in soy sauce, brown sugar, and garlic with a splash of sriracha resulting in tender flavorful meat. Mashed potatoes get a makeover with sour cream and cream cheese, then baked to give the potatoes a twice-baked texture. Your guests will be fighting over the last spoonful, I can guarantee it. And finally, a big spinach salad full of fruit, tangy goat cheese and delicious caramelized onions, not only surprise you but add big delicious flavor.

Dessert is decadent but so easy. Homemade mocha pudding literally comes together in 10 minutes but will wow your guests. It is rich and chocolaty with a hint of espresso. A dollop of whipped cream and a few berries softens the richness of the dessert and makes it so special.

Don’t worry too much about the perfect centerpiece or matching napkins. Just set the table, turn some music on and invite people over. Sit around the table long after the meal ends sharing stories and laughing until your sides hurt. The dishes can wait until morning, just enjoy being at the table, in the moment. 

Grilled Tri-Tip Steak

  • 2-3 pounds tri-tip
  • ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 cup soy sauce
  • ½ cup brown sugar
  • 4 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
  • 1 tablespoon minced ginger
  • 2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon sesame oil
  • 1 tablespoon sriracha
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper

In a large bowl, combine olive oil, soy sauce, brown sugar, garlic, ginger, vinegar, sesame oil and sriracha. Whisk to combine. Liberally salt and pepper the tri-tip steaks on both sides of the meat. Submerge the meat in the marinade. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside to marinate at least 3 hours, longer if possible.

Preheat outdoor grill to medium-high. Place tri-tip steak on the grill. Sear each side for 5 – 8 minutes per side.

Lower grill to medium-low heat and continue to grill for 6-10 minutes or until a thermometer reaches 130 degrees in the center of the steak. Tri-tip steaks can range in thickness. I suggest using a meat thermometer to check the temperature to ensure the meat does not overcook. The total cooking time will be about 20-25 minutes. 

Meredith’s Potatoes

  • 5 pounds Russet potatoes, peeled and cubed
  • 2 cups full-fat sour cream
  • 8 ounces cream cheese
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • Kosher salt and ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon green onions, thinly sliced
  • Dash of smoked paprika

Place potatoes in a large pot of salted water. Boil potatoes over medium heat for 20 to 25 minutes until potatoes are fork tender. Drain water from potatoes and return them to the pot. Turn the heat back to medium and cook for one to two minutes until moisture evaporates. Turn heat off.

Using a hand mixer or a potato masher, begin to mash the potatoes. Mix in the sour cream and cream cheese and continue stirring and mixing until the potatoes are smooth and the ingredient are well-combined. Salt and pepper to the potatoes liberally. Taste to see if they need more salt.

Generously butter baking dish. Add potatoes to the buttered dish, smoothing the surface. Sprinkle with a dash of smoked paprika. Bake potatoes in the oven at 350 degrees for 30-35 minutes. Garnish with slivered green onions. Serve immediately.

*Potatoes can be made ahead of time. Instead of baking, cover with plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator until ready to bake. Allow the potatoes to come to room temperature while oven preheats.

Harvest Salad with Caramelized Onions and Balsamic Dressing

  • 1 8 oz. container organic baby spinach
  • 1 honey crisp apple, thinly sliced
  • 1 6 oz. container fresh blackberries (or raspberries)
  • 1 large yellow onion, thinly sliced
  • ¼ cup crumbled goat cheese
  • ¼ cup toasted pumpkin seeds
  • ¼ cup toasted slivered almonds

Maple Balsamic Dressing

  • 1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon maple syrup
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • Kosher salt and ground black pepper

Start by caramelizing the onion. In a medium saucepan, drizzle two tablespoons extra virgin olive oil over thinly sliced onions. Give the onions a quick stir and sprinkle with kosher salt. Turn the heat to medium-low and cover with a lid. Stir every couple minutes until the onions are richly brown and condensed down by about half, usually about 30 minutes. After the first 10 minutes of cooking, remove the lid and continue to stir the onions.

In a large bowl, layer the honey crisp apple, blackberries, goat cheese, pumpkin seeds and slivered almonds over baby spinach. Top everything with the caramelized onions. Drizzle with maple balsamic dressing and mix to combine all ingredients. Serve immediately.

Herb Butter

  • ½ cup salted butter, softened
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh herbs such as Italian parsley, basil and rosemary
  • Zest of ½ lemon
  • Coarse sea salt

In a small bowl use a fork to mix softened butter with fresh herbs and lemon zest. Sprinkle with coarse salt. On a piece of parchment paper, place the butter in the center of the paper. Wrap the parchment around the butter forming a cylinder. Refrigerate until ready to serve. Just before serving, unwrap butter from parchment and sprinkle with coarse sea salt.

Chocolate Mocha Pudding

  • 4 cups whole milk
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 1 1/3 cups sugar
  • ½ cup cocoa powder
  • 1 ½ teaspoons instant espresso
  • ¼ cup cornstarch
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • Sweetened heavy whipping cream
  • Raspberries

In a medium saucepan, whisk together sugar, cocoa powder, instant espresso and cornstarch. In a separate bowl, whisk together milk and egg yolks. Turn the heat to medium and pour the milk mixture over the sugar mixture, stirring to combine. Whisk constantly until the mixture begins to boil and thicken, about five minutes. Allow the pudding to boil an additional minute before removing from the heat. Stir in vanilla.

To make whipped cream, whip one cup heavy whipping cream with a hand mixer. For additional flavor add one tablespoon powdered sugar and a dash of vanilla extract. Store extras in an air-tight container in the refrigerator.

*As soon as the pudding is finished thickening and the vanilla extract is stirred in, place a piece of parchment paper or plastic wrap over the pudding. This prevents a skin from forming and keeps the pudding decadently smooth.

To serve, divide pudding into individual cups. Top with sweetened whipped cream and a few fresh raspberries.