Comforting Spinach Stuffed Shells

Comfort food is traditionally eaten food (which often provides a nostalgic or sentimental feeling to the person eating it),[1] or simply provides the consumer a familiar meal, soft in consistency, and rich in calories, nutrients, or both. (wikipedia)

Hopefully being with family evokes feelings of nostalgia and comfort. When my sister visited this weekend so we could plan my mom’s upcoming birthday party, I definitely must’ve been craving comfort food. I wanted to cook a big Sunday dinner with no regards to counting calories and watching ingredients. I managed to keep it simple, yet still comforting with these savory, stuffed shells.  This recipe is not complicated but always impressive! Great for leftovers too.

Boil Jumbo Shell Pasta until soft. Not too soggy, but firm. Drain and let cool.

Jumbo Shell Pasta

Prepare sauce by browning meat (I used ground turkey), onion, garlic, tomato sauce, and spices. I added a little red wine and a tiny bit of agave to the sauce.

red sauce

In a large bowl combine 1 container ricotta cheese, 1/2 container cottage cheese, 1 egg, dash of nutmeg, and 2 cups chopped fresh baby spinach. Mix well. Add 1 cup mozzarella cheese, 1/2 cup parmesan cheese and mix well.

ricotta cheese stuffingUsing a small spoon, stuff each shell with cheese filling and set in a large rectangular oiled baking dish.  Line shells closely together, “stuffed” side up.

stuffed shells

Spoon meat sauce over shells evenly.

stuffed shells with meat sauce

Top with 1/2 cup mozzarella cheese and 1/2 cup parmesan cheese. Cover with foil and bake in 350 degree oven for 45 minutes.

stuffed shells

Cheese should be melted and edges beginning to crisp

stuffed shells

3 or 4 shells are a good serving size so this is good for a large group. I don’t eat like this often, but I love cooking this when I get the chance. Vary the ingredients by adding other chopped vegetables to the cheese or make vegetarian by skipping the meat.

spinach stuffed shells

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Nashville’s BEST Hot Chocolate

Since before Christmas I’ve been a little obsessed with hot chocolate. For me, it was about finding the perfect hot chocolate; dark, sweet, but not overly sweet, steaming and comforting. Since giving up coffee, I have been drinking only tea which I love, but something about cold, grey, wintry days makes me crave the rich sweetness of hot cocoa. I set out on the quest to find the best.

I started in my own neighborhood that has lots of great coffee shops.

Portland Brew. I love the quiet atmosphere and the industrial decor. They take their coffee very seriously here too. The hot chocolate was mildly disappointing. It was chocolate syrup pumped into a cup of steamed milk. Too sweet, too bland. I enjoyed the whipped cream on top but couldn’t finish it because it was too sweet.

Eighth and Roast is another newer coffee shop that we go to a lot. In the summer they make home made fresh strawberry lemonade that is to die for. I ordered hot chocolate and had to ask for whipped cream on top. It turns out they just heat up chocolate milk and serve. Bummer. Not what I was looking for. The whipped cream was freshly made from a local creamery which was a treat.

I was getting frustrated. 2 great coffee shops and 2 very mediocre hot chocolates. I did some research……

Bang Candy Company: When I googled “best hot chocolate” this is the place that came up. Known for making marshmallows and candy, I was pretty excited to see what they offered for hot chocolate. I ordered a medium hot chocolate and got my choice of marshmallow flavor- I chose spicy cinnamon. Sadly, I was disappointed at the weakness of the chocolate flavor. My drink literally tasted like hot milk. The marshmallow was bangin’ but the cocoa not so much. Cute shop and super nice people!

Starbucks: I don’t like going to starbucks. I don’t like the corporate feel or the food they serve that’s been pre-made and shipped in. In my opinion, they are the Wal-Mart of coffee shops- BUT I had a gift card which trumps integrity. Plus the BF loves his caramel macchiato’s. I asked how they made their cocoa and was told “Dark syrup, vanilla, and milk” The Dark Syrup piqued my curiosity. Again, I had to special request whipped cream- I thought that was a given??? The cocoa was oh sooooo disappointing. Watery, sweet, blah. I was ticked off that I wasted my gift card on it.  I threw a tiny fit in the truck and left it sitting there and to be fair, it actually tasted a little better after it cooled down.

I took a few more passes at more shops, a bakery, and friends well-meaning suggestions. My eyes glazed over as I envisioned finding my perfect cup of cocoa. I wanted to stumble across a little thatch-roofed shop where people wore cute hats and wooden shoes as they shaved curls of bitter dark swiss chocolate into gently boiling milk,  stirring it up with a long handled spoon. I wanted exotic spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, and REAL vanilla sprinkled lovingly into the hot goodness. I wanted a big white fluffy cloud of fresh whipped cream cooling my mouth from the top of the cup………….

Fantasy over. I took matters into my own hands. I’m a good cook, why couldn’t I make the perfect cup of hot chocolate exactly like I wanted? On a rainy afternoon I made the city’s best hot chocolate in my own humble kitchen. And I wasn’t wearing wooden shoes.

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I cup milk (I used lowfat but almond/coconut could be used)

2 tablespoons agave nectar or honey

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 large scoop unsweetened cocoa

dash of cinnamon or nutmeg

Bring all ingredients to a slow simmer (just til milk begins to bubble) over medium heat, stirring constantly. I think the stirring really blends the flavors together perfectly.

I topped mine with Peppermint Whipped Cream- from a can. We can’t have it all…..

The Lost Art of The Dinner Party

Do people still have proper dinner parties? I’m worried about that. I’m worried that because of convenience and time, restaurants have taken over and people have forgotten the art of throwing fabulous dinner parties.  The kind where friends linger and lounge on couches and armchairs with drinks in hand, waiting for the home-cooked meal to be served, but in no hurry to eat and run. I LOVE the whole concept of dinner parties and have wanted to host them since I was a little girl. I would scour my mother’s Betty Crocker cookbook looking at the delicious recipes and party themes for any occasion.

Retro cookbook

My childhood treasure that started my love of the kitchen

Luckily I love to cook so having a dinner party is not a source of anxiety for me but I know it can be to some. It doesn’t have to be though; it can be so simple that anyone can host a successful dinner party and have fun doing it. I had a birthday dinner party last weekend and here are some ways I kept mine simple but still fabulous….

Choose an easy main dish that you have made before: I chose to make lasagna. It’s easily prepared ahead of time with minimal effort and it always looks and tastes like a ton of work went into it. I made one large pan with meat and a smaller pan for a couple of guests who are vegetarian. Same ingredients, same prep time. To make it special I added red wine and fresh basil to the sauce!

tomato sauce

Have a great assortment of simple appetizers: My favorite thing is to buy a variety of crackers and chips and then make homemade hummus. I made garlic and chipotle pepper- same batch, just used different spices. Easy to make ahead too.

homemade hummus

I also bought a small amount of interesting cheeses from TJ’s. Yes, I bought cheese with chocolate in it, it was my birthday! I always splurge $ on cheese because the sizes are so small and quality makes a difference in taste.

chocolate cheddar cheese

Create a simple fresh salad: Greens, rasberries, slivered almonds, goat cheese. Done. Choose a light, versatile dressing and toss just before serving. Everyone loooooved the salad, I think the fresh berries and goat cheese was the tipping point.

Have an impressive dessert; I chose to buy a decadent chocolate ganeche cake from the bakery at whole foods. It’s easier to buy a fancy dessert than to try to make one but if you have a speciality like a pie or cobbler with seasonal items then go for that. I served caramel frozen yogurt with the cake and that was what made it really special.

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BYOB; if you’re comfortable with it, ask guests to bring their own liquor. People like too many different things for you to try and stock the bar. Plus you never know how much people drink so it’s hard to know how much to buy. My friends all brought wine, beer, and champagne and everyone enjoyed just what they wanted.

Create ambience: scented candles, a fire in the fireplace, good music, plenty of seating, fresh flowers. Make sure pets are bathed, well-behaved, and introduced properly. All of these little details can really seal the deal on a successful dinner party.

appetizers cheese and crackers

Mix it up: Invite a wide variety of your friends, or just invite 2, there is no magic #. It’s ok to mix and match people from different parts of your life. If you only have “work” friends, guess what the conversation will be about?

ENJOY: Don’t forget it’s your party to enjoy! Eat, Drink, and Be Merry- the dishes can wait……

Holiday Baking Love

This year I decided to bake some homemade Christmas gifts for friends. As usual, most everyone expects something super healthy from me: “Is it gluten free?” “Is it vegan?” “Are these whole wheat?” And the answer to all of those was “Nope”. I wanted to go old school and make holiday classics with simple, real ingredients like sweet cream butter, eggs, sugar, flour, and spices. I wanted to bake everything with love and intention and hand deliver them. To me, those things are just as healthy as omitting certain ingredients from our diets.

I believe that how we FEEL about the food we eat and how we FEEL while we are eating it is an important component in how we digest and react to certain ingredients. I’m not saying some people don’t have allergies or sensitivities to different foods, but something causes those reactions and our state of mind and attitude contribute greatly to our overall health on all levels, including digestion.

sweet cream butter

The first 2 of these recipes is from theKitchen, an awesome blog I subscribe to that always has tons of interesting recipes and cute interior design stuff too.

Snickerdoodles were my first batch. I love the simple sugar and cinnamon flavor of these and I know it’s an all-time favorite of a lot of people. Plus the name is fun!

snickerdoodles

Then I made Irish Shortbread Toffee Bars which I chose because the recipe was found in an old (1950’s?) cookbook from my town. I felt like a true junior league-er as I pressed out the crust and stirred away at the warm caramel filling. Spreading the warm chocolatey topping on was sort of meditative too.

shortbread toffee bars

These hardened up just enough to stay together and be firm. Half candy, half cookie.

shortbread toffee bar

My next recipe was Soft and Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies from the Minimalist Baker which features really healthy recipes. This recipe was gluten free so I went to the original source which was none other than Martha Stewart.

Mmmmmmm these are exactly what I envisioned- warm, chewy, soft, and buttery.

chocolate chip cookies

What made these extra good was the vanilla I used that I got in Mexico in the spring. It was SO strong and sweet that it gave them a different flavor. And I used dark chocolate chips rather than milk chocolate.

christmas baked goods

Packed and ready to be delivered with love to the lucky recipients! Please check out both of these wonderful blogs- they are definitely worth subscribing to if you love to cook.

PS Yes, of course I sampled. But now I am ready to get these out of my house they are SO good!

How to Make a Vision Board

There is a theory that what we focus on is what creates our reality: that we energetically draw to us anything that is in alignment with what we feel and think. There are MANY books to read on The Law of Attraction and I find it fascinating and empowering. People have been studying and living by this law for centuries. But what does it mean in our modern, everyday, busy lives?

It means being positive, optimistic, and reaching for what you want in life. It means setting intentions and keeping your mental focus on those intentions. It means aligning your energy, your mood, your spirit, with that which you seek in every way possible.

One of the best tools for this is visualization. Keeping our dreams and hopes in full view can be a huge help in manifesting our dreams. I’ve been making vision boards for a few years now and I find the process is always uplifting and helps to sharpen my goals and clarify my intentions.

Here is what you’ll need to create your Vision Board:

-Old magazines- all kinds, don’t just go for the ones you always read.

-Scissors

-Removeable Glue Dots (available at Michael’s or craft stores)

-Thick poster board

-Your Imagination!

I start clipping days before I am ready. It takes my mind time to let go of inhibitions, doubts, and other distractions in order to be really freely creative.

vision boards

Clip EVERYTHING that catches your eye, you can go back and sort through them later. Don’t over-think it- if you like it- Clip it!

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Once you’ve gathered a good messy pile of clippings begin placing them on your poster board in any order that is pleasing to you. You can categorize things, or just go by what feels good or looks good. Chances are they will take on some type of order without your help….

vision boards

This is the fun part when your aspirations really begin to come into view and you are able to move things around depending on how it feels. Feeling is a big part of creating a vision board.

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Use pictures as well as words that inspire or motivate you

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The removable glue dots can be placed on the back of the photo and allows you to move them around rather than sticking like glue.

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After I’ve assembled everything I will let it sit for a day or two and go back to look at it. I might shift things here or there or add or remove an image. I always somehow “know” when it’s done!

It’s so interesting to see how my boards have changed over the years. They are like visual journals.

vision board

Once you’re happy with your vision board be sure to put it somewhere you will see it everyday, that’s how the “magic” works! Most importantly, it should make you feel AMAZING and EXCITED when you look at it. That energy is what creates the movement of those things into your life.

Farmer’s Market Love + a really big a** peach!

July is one of my favorite months; things are in full bloom, veggies are ripe, and the colors of all plants and flowers are spectacular. I am a pitta so I love the intensity of the weather this time of year- especially the powerful, hot thunderstorms which we’ve had lately. I enjoy a soft spring rain like everyone else, but there is nothing like the energy in the air before and after a mid-summer storm. It makes everything feel witchy and magic!

My neighborhood farmer’s market is showcasing all of the seasonal produce right now.  I’m so glad I volunteered there this year, I’ve met some awesome people. This week I was lucky enough to be given a CSA (Community Shared Agriculture) box from the incredible and organic Delvin Farms. For someone like me, that is like winning the lottery. I wanted to cry like Miss America as I carried the heavy box overflowing with veggie goodness to my car.

Lots of tomatoes- all different shapes and sizes. I must make a sauce or something with these.

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Lots of squash, including this patty pan squash that always reminds me of a little cheerful UFO. Treat it like any other yellow squash, slice it and steam or grill.

pattypan squash

A-Mazing local berries!!!!!!! I wasn’t sure what to do with the blackberries so I am just eating them like candy from my fridge. They are a bit tart but the blueberries are like sugar drops…..

blueberries and blackberries

How ’bout these softball size peaches fresh from Georgia, the official Peach state?? I’m a lucky girl that I got these right from the farmer who picked them that day! I’m just gonna say: that’s a big a** peach!

georgia peach

And I was able to grab some organic celery before it sold out. I’ve been wanting to try homegrown celery for my juicing. It’s got a pretty strong flavor and it’s smaller than the pumped up conventional stuff.

organic celery

If you do anything else this summer PLEASE go find a local farmer’s market and indulge in local, seasonal produce! Use this link to find one in your area. The experience of picking out your produce, talking to the farmer, and preparing it for your family that night is priceless. We so seldom have the opportunity to use our “hunter-gatherer” skills anymore, and the drive-thru at McDonald’s does NOT count.

PS It’s my Blog Anniversary this week!!! 1 year and it’s been so fun! Thank you for reading!

Snack Like a Boss

I am big fan of snacking. I sometimes create whole meals out of snacks. Truthfully, I think snack is a useless word. If you’re going to eat; eat, right? The food industry has created an entire market around “snack items” which I think is total bull****

The highly processed, sugar-laden, refined carbohydrates that they stuff in a colorful can or a bag and call “snack packs” are about as filling and nutritious as a foam peanut.  And yes, that includes packaged granola bars which are basically candy bars with fancy names.  I feel strongly about being tricked into buying small-sized items out of convenience that majorly lack nutritional value. ESPECIALLY because most snack items are marketed directly at kids.

Take charge and make up your own snacking rules! Slice and chop up some fresh fruit and veggies and store in the fridge for the week. Make them easily accessible by storing in clear containers in the front of the shelves. Use hummus, pesto, yogurt and nut butters as kid friendly dips. Try food items you wouldn’t normally consider snacks; 1/2 cold baked sweet potato, green smoothies, overnight oats, a pita stuffed with hummus and sprouts.

I made a meal out of this rice cake snack the other night by topping with hummus, cottage cheese, sliced avocado and a sprinkling of seasonings.

high protein rice cake snack

I know what you’re saying “Carole-Ann, rice cakes taste like foam peanuts,  they have no flavor, they are awful, blah blah blah” I hear your complaints, but does THIS look awful? Naturally salty, crunchy peanut butter topped with golden raw local honey oozing over the sides?

sweet treat honey and PB

Maybe you have to use your imagination and work a little harder to make rice cakes interesting but they are a great canvas for snack art.

I also love using whole wheat tortillas for quick small meals. I cut into half and fold into quarters. I packed this one to take to work with peanut butter, thinly sliced apples, and cinnamon.

peanut butter apple sandwich

It folds up neatly and is easy to eat without being too messy, unlike the honey dripped rice cake.

peanut butter apple wrap

Be creative- add raisins, nuts, sunflower seeds, sliced bananas, almond butter, etc.

My other favorite snack is baby carrots- either plain or dipped in hummus or pesto. My dogs love them too!

homemade pesto

Make your own “instant oatmeal” by packing whole oats, cinnamon, nuts, raisins, etc. into individual containers and take one out when you need some healthy carbs.  Here is a jar of overnight oats I prepared for a client. All she had to do was add almond milk and honey and refrigerate overnight.

overnight oatsEat when you’re hungry, forget about the correct “meal time” and feed your body what it needs. Don’t let yourself get famished between meals in the name of “no snacking”- that is counter productive to maintaining a healthy metabolism. But for the love of real food- please stay away from vending machines. Save your money and carry your own!

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