Dinner in a pinch, made to impress! Puff pastry with ham & Gruyère

Ham and Gruyere Puff Pastry 6

This time of year is so, so hectic (though we probably always feel like our lives are crazy busy, right?). When I think of an easy fall dinner, I often base its viability on a simple pre-trick-or-treating test. Basically, is it something that could be easily made and quickly served to a family (friends included!) before heading out for a wonderfully chilly evening of trick-or-treating and other Halloween fun? To pass this test, the dish must be: 1. Easy. 2. Reasonably quick and require little prep work. 3. Have some sort of protein/substance to it to combat the gallons of candy that will inevitably follow. Look no further, friends! This puff pastry with ham and Gruyère is the stuff that Halloween nights were made of.

Ham and Gruyere Puff Pastry 2

Yes, puff pastry is something you could theoretically make yourself, but even Ina Garten says she buys it at the store, so until some super ambitious day in the future, I’m following suit. Trader Joe’s has a version out now for the holidays with zero soy (huzzah!), so we’re stocking up. Because, guys, the real truth of the matter is you never know when you’ll need to wrap something in pastry dough.

Ham and Gruyere Puff Pastry 3

The recipe for this is hardly much of a recipe at all. Roll out some puff pastry, slather on some mustard, arrange some ham and cheese on top, and then top it off with the other piece of pastry dough. Add an eggs wash, and you’re done. Even without much effort, puff pastry has an amazing way of elevating something super basic to something that feels a little fancier. Truth be told, I think this dish especially fits my vision of a Halloween dinner because it feels like a more grown-up version of the crescent roll-wrapped mummy dogs that frequent Halloween spreads. You remember those, right? They’re a festive spin on pigs in a blanket, no doubt. But something about ham and Gruyère in a puff pastry seems a bit more elegant than a hot dog in pop-and-bake dough, even though they are most definitely related. Cousins, at least. (And not to knock the mummy dogs. Add a mustard face, and those things are delish.) I’d happily serve this to company, even on a non-Halloween night.

Ham and Gruyere Puff Pastry

Puff Pastry with Ham and Gruyère
From Ina Garten

• 1 package (2 sheets) frozen puff pastry, defrosted
• 2 tablespoons mustard (Dijon, horseradish, whatever you fancy)
• ¼ pound black forest ham, sliced
• ½ pound Gruyère cheese, sliced
• 1 egg, beaten with 1 tablespoon water, for egg wash

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F, and place a piece of parchment paper on a sheet pan.

Lay 1 sheet of puff pastry on a floured board or countertop, and carefully roll it out to about 10 by 12 inches. Place it on a sheet pan and brush it with the mustard, leaving a 1-inch border around the edge. Layer the ham on top of that, leaving the same border, followed by the cheese. Brush the border with the egg wash.

Roll the second sheet of puff pastry out on the floured board or countertop to the same 10 by 12 inches. Place the second sheet on top of the filled pastry, and line up the edges as best you can. Cut the edges straight with a small knife if you need to, and then press together lightly. You can use the tines of a fork to help seal the edges in place. Brush the top with egg wash, and cut a few slits in the top so steam can escape.

Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until pastry is puffed and golden brown. Allow it to cool for a few minutes. Serve hot or warm.

[Note: I actually halved this recipe, and it worked out really well. Instead of using two sheets of puff pastry, I just used one, rolled out to 10 by 12 inches and then cut in half (making one sheet the top layer and one sheet the bottom). Use half the amount of filling, and bake for about 20 minutes. Results should be the same!]


I think there are some pretty great spins you could probably take with this. Green apples and Brie maybe? Or leftover Thanksgiving turkey, Gruyère and cranberry sauce? What do you think?


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Every grill has its day: Chopped barbecue chicken salad

Chopped Chicken Salad 4-1

When we lived in Missouri, Jared and I had a beast of a grill that took up about a third of the deck space at the back of our small apartment. It sat largely unused for a good five months of the year, but once the weather warmed up enough for Jared to remove his snow gear, we put the grill to use at least three or four times a week (though I do recall a few winter grilling sessions that required the use of gloves). When we moved to North Carolina though, our new place had one of those “no grilling within 10 feet of the premises” rules, so there was no sense in moving a behemoth hunk of stainless steel 920 miles across the country just to let it sit. We left it behind, the poor thing. I guess every grill has its day.

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Chopped Chicken Salad 5-3

Summer is certainly the season for grilling, but we’re now living in our second no-grills-allowed apartment and have had to get a little creative to satisfy summer cravings without becoming wild tong-wielding rule-breakers. We finally bought a cast-iron skillet last weekend to try our hands at cooking steak inside, and I’d say it gave our memories of grilled steaks a run for their money (minus the three fire alarms and frantic fanning of lingering smoke, of course). For this barbecue chicken salad though, we fired up the ol’ panini press as a grilling substitute. And you know what? Not only does it taste pretty great, but it’s also amazingly fast. It’s not quite like the real deal, but it gets the job done with the bonus of adding those dandy grill marks.

Chopped Chicken Salad 3-4

The rest of this salad comes together super easily, and it’s one of those great recipes that’s really more of a loose guideline than a hard blueprint. Add what you love, skip what you don’t love, throw it all in a bowl, and you’re done. Aside from grilling (see also: panini-ing) the chicken, it’s low maintenance and cooking free. Now go forth, and chop!

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Chopped Barbecue Chicken Salad
Serves 4 

• 6 to 8 cups chopped Romaine lettuce
• 12 ounces to 1 pound grilled chicken, cut into small bite-sized pieces
• 1 can black beans, drained and rinsed
• 1 ½ cups corn (cooked, straight from the cob or however you like it)
• 1 pint cherry tomatoes, diced
• ¼ to ½ cup diced red onion
• grated cheese for sprinkling (cheddar always goes well with barbecue)
• ranch dressing (here’s a homemade version we like)
• barbecue sauce
* Other fun additions: hard-boiled eggs, avocados, crumbled bacon, olives, tortilla strips

Put all of the ingredients except the cheese, dressing and barbecue sauce into a large bowl, and give the salad a good toss. Top individual salads with a bit of grated cheese and an even drizzle of ranch and barbecue sauce. Enjoy!


I’m a big fan of making things that we can get two meals out of, and this salad keeps really well for a few days in the refrigerator as long as you leave the dressing and barbecue sauce off until the day you eat it. And when it says it serves four, that’s a healthy dose of salad, like for a whole meal, so it could definitely be stretched further if you serve it alongside some good bread or something else to help fill the tummies. It’s a new favorite for us and definitely in the weekly rotation for these warm-weather days.

What’s your favorite throw-it-together meal? Any other creative non-grill-owning grillers out there? What’s on the menu now that the weather is getting warm?


For diners big and small: Tomato mac & cheese

Tomato Mac & Cheese

By the time Beany turned 1, with a mouth full of teeth and a newfound interest in whatever sat on the plate of the person next to her, she’d pretty much lost all interest in the purees and baby foods we’d come to rely on as quick fixes for a hungry girl. Gradually, she started eating more and more big-people food, and we started feeling pretty proud of ourselves for the refined palate our toddler was developing. Now nearly 19 months old, she has a liking for sharp cheeses, spinach risotto and garlic and onion on anything. Of course, lest we get too proud in the matter, our tiny gastronome keeps us in check. Just last week, I caught her nibbling crayons (blue and yellow. Does that make it better?). So, yeah. The palate is a work in progress.

Tomato Mac & Cheese4

Refined palate and/or crayon-eating aside, Beany is a very much a toddler, and, like most little kids, she loves a good mac and cheese. She doesn’t get it often, but when she does, she devours it, and I’m happy to report that this version is her favorite to date. Maybe it’s the “Tigger tail” noodles instead of elbow macaroni (a switch made at Jared’s insistence), or maybe it’s the Gruyere and extra-sharp cheddar. Whatever the reason, she thinks it’s grand. We do, too.

Tomato Mac & Cheese2

Actually, I have a sneaking suspicion that most grownups love mac and cheese nearly as much as kids do, even though we’re programmed to think of it as kid food or a side for barbecue. The breadcrumbs and tomatoes really dress this guy up, and I’d happily serve it as a meal for company. You know, if Beany doesn’t get to it first. She’s a growing girl after all.


Tomato Mac & Cheese3

Tomato Mac & Cheese
Adapted slightly from the Barefoot Contessa

• 2 tablespoons olive oil
• 1 pound cavatappi (or elbow macaroni)
• 4 cups milk (I use skim.)
• 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
• ½ cup all-purpose flour
• 8 ounces Gruyere cheese, grated
• 8 ounces extra-sharp cheddar, grated
• 4 ounces Monterey Jack, grated
• 1 tablespoon kosher salt
• ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
• ½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
• 3 to 4 fresh tomatoes
• 1 ½ cups bread crumbs

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, and drizzle in the olive oil. Add the pasta, and cook according to package instructions. Drain well, and set aside.

In the meantime, heat the milk in a small saucepan (but don’t let it boil). Melt 6 tablespoons of butter in a large pot. Add the flour and cook over low heat for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring with a whisk. While whisking, add the hot milk and cook for another few minutes, until thickened and smooth. Off the heat, stir in the three cheeses along with the salt, pepper and nutmeg. Add the cooked pasta, and stir until well combined. Pour into a 3-quart baking dish (or divide between two smaller baking dishes).

Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter, and mix it into the breadcrumbs. Sprinkle the breadcrumbs on top of the pasta. Slice the tomatoes and arrange them on top of the breadcrumbs. (I also like to add a bit more freshly ground black pepper on top, just because it looks pretty.) Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until the sauce is bubbling and the pasta is browned on top.


Do you make any kid-friendly fare that’s fit for an adult crowd? Any fun additions to mac and cheese? Do tell!


Cinco de Mayo: Vegetarian enchiladas

Vegetarian Enchiladas3

Happy Cinco de Mayo! Not that anyone ever needs an excuse to eat Mexican food (it’s a mega favorite among the people in this house, Beany included), but today’s an especially great day for it, don’t you think? We’ve been traveling a bit lately and are happy to have landed back in North Carolina, so instead of heading out to eat, we’re whipping up some festive eats at home.

Vegetarian Enchiladas7

Enchiladas are always a crowd-pleaser, and these are especially great because they can be made ahead of time and refrigerated until you’re ready to bake (or frozen if you make them days in advance). I love that they’re vegetarian, but to tell you the truth, they’re so packed with flavor, I bet even the most carnivorous eaters won’t miss the meat.

Vegetarian Enchiladas4

And like lots of the best Mexican fare, the recipe has plenty of wiggle room. Add more of this and a little of that to suit your tastes. It all gets wrapped up in a delicious corn tortilla and topped with cheese, so it really is hard to go wrong. ¡Buen provecho!

Vegetarian Enchiladas


Vegetarian Enchiladas2

Vegetarian Enchiladas
Adapted from Martha Stewart

• 2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for baking dishes
• 2 rounded teaspoons ground cumin
• 2 rounded teaspoons chili powder
• ¼ cup all-purpose flour
• ¼ cup tomato paste
• 14 ½ ounces low-sodium vegetable broth
• coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
• 1 ½ cups grated Monterey Jack cheese
• 1 ½ cups grated extra-sharp cheddar cheese
• 1 can (15 ounces) black beans, rinsed and drained
• 3-4 ounces (about half a bag) fresh baby spinach, chopped
• 1 ½ cups frozen corn
• 1 bunch of scallions, white and green parts separated
• 14-16 corn tortillas

To make the sauce, heat the olive oil over medium heat in a medium saucepan. Add 1 rounded teaspoon cumin, 1 rounded teaspoon chili powder, flour and tomato paste, and cook while whisking for 1 minute. Whisk in the broth and ¾ cup water, and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, and cook until the sauce is slightly thickened, about 5 to 8 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, and set aside.

To make the filling, combine 1 cup of Monterey Jack, 1 cup of cheddar, the beans, spinach, corn, scallion whites, ¼ cup scallion greens and the remaining cumin and chili powder in a large bowl. Season with salt and pepper.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F, and lightly oil two 8-inch square baking dishes. Set aside. Stack the tortillas in aluminum foil, wrap them up and heat them in the oven or 5 to 10 minutes.

Top each warmed tortilla with 1/3 heaping cup of filling. Roll the tortillas tightly, and arrange them, seam side down, in the oiled baking dishes. [Note: If you’re baking the enchiladas later the same day, make them up to this point, cover the enchiladas in foil and the sauce with a lid, and place them in the refrigerator until you’re ready to move on to the next step. You can also make them up to this point, cover the baking dishes with plastic wrap and aluminum foil and the sauce with a tight-fitting lid and freeze them both for up to 2 months. To bake frozen enchiladas, preheat the oven to 400 degrees F, remove the foil and plastic wrap, pour the sauce over the enchiladas, top with the sauce and sprinkle on the remaining 1 cup of cheese. Cover with the foil again, and bake for 30 minutes. Then remove the foil, and bake for an additional 15 minutes, until the enchiladas are hot and bubbly.]

Top the enchiladas with the sauce, and sprinkle on the remaining ½ cup of each kind of cheese, divided evenly between the baking dishes. Bake, uncovered, until the enchiladas are hot and bubbly, about 20 minutes. Cool for 5 minutes, and then serve garnished with the remaining scallion greens.

Vegetarian Enchiladas6

Vegetarian Enchiladas5



The missing zing: Balsamic-glazed penne with roasted asparagus

Balsamic Penne

I love balsamic vinegar. Like, really love it. I add it to pasta, salad, rice, almost any savory dish that seems a little lacking in flavor. And I add it in quantities that would probably make most people shudder. Jared certainly likes it well enough, too, but any time I’m cooking and he sees me reaching for the balsamic vinegar bottle, I can tell he’s getting nervous. A little goes a long way, he likes to remind me.

Balsamic Penne5

So yes, I have a reputation for excessive balsamic vinegar usage, which is probably why Jared reacted the way he did as he watched me measure out a full two-thirds cup of it into a saucepan while putting together this recipe. Whether you use a lot or a little, balsamic vinegar likes to show you that it’s there. The second it hits the heat, it lets out a wonderful sizzle and a swoosh of steam that fills your nose if you’re standing too close. I lean in a smidge. Jared jumps back.

Balsamic Penne3

In most cases, two-thirds of a cup is definitely a lot of vinegar, and you might feel as if you’re basting yourself in it when you first begin this recipe. But by the end, once it’s simmered down into a beautiful, syrupy sauce, and it’s tossed in with the pasta, butter and roasted asparagus, that pungent zing is replaced by a smooth, rich glaze that coats the penne perfectly and makes you happy with every bite.

Balsamic Penne2

Jared was skeptical, but now he’s a believer. Balsamic vinegar knows no limits.


Balsamic Penne6

Balsamic-Glazed Penne with Roasted Asparagus
Adapted slightly from Food and Wine

• 1 pound fresh asparagus, trimmed and then cut into 1-inch pieces
• 1 tablespoon olive oil
• 1 teaspoon coarse sea salt or kosher salt
• ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
• 2/3 cup balsamic vinegar
• ½ teaspoon brown sugar
• 1 pound whole-wheat penne
• 6 tablespoons salted butter, cut into ¼-inch cubes
• ½ cup Parmesan cheese, plus more for serving

Heat the oven to 400 degrees F. Place the cut asparagus on a large, rimmed baking sheet (lined with foil for easy cleanup). Drizzle the olive oil over top, and sprinkle on ½ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon black pepper. Toss until the asparagus is evenly coated, then spread it back out in an even layer. Roast until the asparagus is tender and its ends begin to get slightly brown and crisp, 15 to 20 minutes, tossing partway through.

In the meantime, put the balsamic vinegar in a small saucepan and simmer until 3 tablespoons remain (you’ll know it’s reduced enough when the vinegar coats the back of a spoon). Stir in the brown sugar and remaining ¼ teaspoon black pepper. Remove from the heat.

While the vinegar is reducing, cook the penne according to package instructions. Drain the pasta, and toss it with the butter and vinegar until it’s well coated. Add the asparagus, Parmesan and the remaining ½ teaspoon salt, and toss gently to combine. Serve with the extra Parmesan.

Balsamic Penne4


Funnily enough, this was actually the very first recipe I pinned on Pinterest at least two years ago, and I finally got around to making it last week. We all love it, and I can’t believe it was just sitting on that board for so long, waiting to be tried. Now, it’s officially added to the rotation. Woot!

Have you tried any great new recipes lately? Are there any fellow balsamic vinegar lovers out there with delicious dishes to share? What are your favorite flavors that you could eat by the cupful (even if you know you shouldn’t)? Do tell!


Out of the rut: Barley risotto with spinach and sweet potatoes

Barley Risotto3

New baked goods are a regular occurrence in our house, but when it comes to dinner, I get stuck in a rut so fast. Try as I might, I just don’t get as excited about savory dishes as I do about sugar. Or butter. Or whipped cream. You get the idea.

I know, I know. A family cannot subsist on dessert alone, and I promise we’re fairly moderated in our consumption even when the oven triumphantly produces four new cookies in a week. Despite my fallback habits for the evening meal, we still eat fun things. We just tend to eat the same fun things over and over again, assuming that they’re relatively quick and easy. Weeknights are bananas sometimes.

Which brings us to this meal. Risotto is a favorite across the board for us (this spinach and mushroom risotto is our favorite among favorites!), but it takes so long. And it’s not just that it takes so long; it takes a lot of hands-on time — hands that are in high demand for puppy feeding and baby chasing and other miscellaneous hullaballoo come 6 p.m.

But this one is so easy! With barley instead of Arborio rice, this dish is not only handily finished off in the oven (woo hoo!), but it’s also healthy. I dare say it’s pretty foolproof, too, and tastes just as creamy and satisfying as the stuff that takes an hour over the stovetop to prepare. Now just think of all the cookie dough you can whip up with your hands free for those 40 minutes of baking! 


Barley Risotto2

Barley Risotto with Spinach and Sweet Potatoes
Adapted from Real Simple

• 2 tablespoons olive oil
• 2 large sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
• 1 onion, chopped
• kosher salt
• freshly ground black pepper
• 1 cup pearl barley
• ½ cup dry white wine
• 3 cups low-sodium vegetable or chicken broth (I used vegetable broth, but either works.)
• ¾ cup freshly grated Parmesan, plus more for serving
• 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
• 6 ounces fresh baby spinach

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. In a Dutch oven or large oven-proof saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onion, sweet potatoes, salt and pepper, and sauté for 5 to 7 minutes, until the onion begins to soften. Stir often to keep things from burning.

Add the barley, and cook for another minute, this time stirring constantly. Add the wine, and continue cooking until the liquid has evaporated, about 1 minute. Add the broth, and bring it to a boil. Cover the pot, and transfer it to the oven to bake until the barley is tender, about 35 to 40 minutes (Note: The first time I made this, I used quick-cooking barley instead of pearl barley. It was good but definitely already a little past done after only 25 minutes. If you’d prefer to use quick-cooking barley for a faster meal, make sure you give your sweet potatoes a little more time in the sautéing stage so they’ll be tender after about 10 to 15 minutes in the oven.)

Stir in the butter and Parmesan, then stir in the spinach. Serve with an extra happy sprinkling of Parmesan.

Barley Risotto


I’m planning to try out a spinach and mushroom version of the barley risotto over the weekend to see how it compares to our beloved favorite. I’ll let you know how it turns out!

Happy weekend to you!


Worth a second chance: The meatball sandwich

Meatball Sandwich

While surfing Pinterest on Saturday afternoon, I came across a DIY tutorial for turning a men’s collared shirt into a super cute women’s top, complete with an adorable bow around the neck. Like many pins, it came with the overly enthusiastic sell, something like: “SO TOTES EASY! Turn your man’s shirt into a cute weekend look for you. This is AMAZING! Pin now, read later.” Apparently, I’m an easy sell. That, or I was simply wooed by the promise of a chambray polka dot blouse. Either way, I showed the pin to Jared, who was sitting on the couch next to me. “Um, OK,” he said, less than enthusiastically. “But where are you supposed to find a guy’s shirt like that?” Alas, albeit for a few spotted ties, the man does not dress in polka dots.

I’m a sucker for second chances, and though I probably wouldn’t have actually broken out the scissors even if Jared did have a polka dot chambray shirt hidden away in the back of the closet, I do love the idea of putting a new spin on an old favorite. My mom spent most of my childhood transforming secondhand furniture into amazing new pieces with little more than paint. And my little sister could probably wear the same outfit five days in row with no one the wiser simply by wielding her accessorizing super power. If paint and necklaces have taught me anything, it’s that sometimes it doesn’t take much to make you feel — and look — brand new.


With neither shirts to deconstruct nor furniture to paint this weekend, I turned my attention toward the kitchen, which, suffice it to say, is always looking rather hollow by the end of week. There were a few handfuls of spinach, provolone cheese and meatballs leftover from Friday night’s spaghetti. “Make it work,” Tim Gunn said. No, wait, that wasn’t Tim Gunn. That was low blood sugar. The characters of my hunger-induced delirium are always rather bossy.

Real or not, I think Mr. Gunn would be proud. Jared ran out and picked up a few rolls from our favorite Durham bakery, Guglhupf. Then from the confines of our humble supplies, the meatball sandwich was born.



The Meatball Sandwich

• meatballs (see recipe here)
• marinara sauce
• provolone cheese
• a handful of fresh baby spinach
• freshly ground black pepper
• good bread

Heat the meatballs until they’re warm enough to serve. Layer a bed of spinach, three or four meatballs, a bit of marinara sauce and a thin slice of provolone on a piece of good bread. Pop both halves of the bread (the layered piece and the empty topper) under the broiler until the edges begin to brown and the cheese melts. Add some freshly ground black pepper, put the sandwich together, and enjoy!



What’s your take on new spins? Do you reinvent recipes? Outfits? Décor? I’d love to hear about it!



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