Ultimate Haystacks

Sharing food with another human being is an intimate act that should not be indulged in lightly.
M.F.K. Fisher

I love to share food!  Although snack-type food may not be highly nutritious, it is very easy to make in abundance...which means more to share!  I had a bag of crispy chow mein noodles and a package of vanilla almond bark in my pantry gathering dust from Christmas '13 when we made haystacks and dubbed them "Who Hash" for our pre-Christmas movie marathon which included the animated and live-action versions of How the Grinch Stole Christmas.  The kids My daughter enjoyed the snacks, but the noodle:almond bark ratio was way off - my son couldn't even bite through them because the bark was so thick!  *This could be because the recipe called for half a package of almond bark, and I thought more would be better*  Flash forward to Halloween '14, and my daughter has a tummy bug and can't go to school (or trick-or-treating) on the day that they are making spider cookies.  We bought the ingredients and set to work.  You would not believe how difficult it is to stick pretzel rods into the side of Double Stuf Oreos!  The only problem was that we had a gigantic family-size bag of M&Ms and over half a bag of pretzel rods left over after making a couple of cookies each - the extra Oreos didn't last long (especially dipped in cherry Kool-Aid).  Salty and sweet combinations are one of my favorite - salted caramel, kettle corn mixed with extra buttery movie style, fantasy fudge smooshed on saltine crackers, shoelace fries dipped in ice cream...  I wasn't sure the pretzel rods would add enough salt to mellow out the bark (or enough bulk to balance the ratio of bark:other stuff), so I fancied it up a smidgen more and came up with...

Ultimate Haystacks

aka Whoville Crack Attack

I apologize for the lack of "process" photos, but it's pretty straightforward.  I will try to update it before the year's end with more photos.  I also have no idea how many this would serve or the nutritional information due to the variance in size of the pieces and distribution of ingredients.

12oz bag La Choy Chow Mein Noodles (crispy)
20oz Vanilla Almond Bark, broken into chunks
~2 cups salted pretzel rods (thin)
2 cups M&Ms
2 cups roasted/salted cashew halves/pieces
2 cups roasted/salted (shelled) peanuts

1.  Mix noodles, pretzel rods, M&Ms, cashews, and peanuts together in a very large bowl - you will need plenty of room to stir!

2.  Spread a large single layer of waxed paper on your table or counter top.

3.  In a nonstick saucepan over medium-low heat, melt almond bark.  Do NOT walk away from this pan while it is heating or you will risk scorching (and ruining) the almond bark.  Stir the bark as it melts to prevent sticking and scorching.  This stuff is very delicate, and though it has instructions for melting in the microwave I wouldn't take that chance.

4.  Once the almond bark has melted completely (no chunks, easy to stir, no trace when you drizzle it into the pan), evenly pour the entire pan over the other ingredients and stir/toss/fold until the pieces are coated.

5.  If you are fast, I mean really really fast, you can dollop out individual haystacks.  I am not that fast, so I just poured the whole mess onto the waxed paper and spread it out in a relatively even layer.  It dries pretty quickly, but I left mine for about 2 hours before handling it just to be sure it was dry and hard.

6.  I tried cutting the mixture into chunks, but it was just splintering into shmeensy pieces that I then had to eat (no guilt - broken piece just mean that all the calories fall out), so I ended up breaking it into silver dollar-sized pieces with my hands.  If you're like me and can't stand to have food stuck to your hands, you might want to don a pair of food-handler's gloves...I didn't have any on hand (no pun intended), so I washed my hands multiple times during the break-up.

7.  Once it is broken into chunks, store it in an airtight container.  I gave away about a third of the mixture, and nearly a week later I still have so much left I'm going to give away more.  This makes a very large batch, and it would be perfect for a finger-food party, a pretty homemade Christmas gift, or I suppose you could just eat it all.  Proceed with caution...this is very addictive.  I'm already planning when I can make my next batch!


Choco Nutter Yogurt Dip

"What's better than peanut butter, chocolate and banana?"
-Stuart Rasch

That sounds like a wonderful combination to me!  I've been trying to follow a Weight Watchers guided healthy eating lifestyle since September.  I initially lost about 10 pounds over the first three months, and I was so happy.  But, when I reached my goal weight, WW automatically raised my daily Points Plus value by 3 points.  That doesn't sound like a lot, but where I had been avoiding using my "extra" points each week, I was not only consuming my extra 3 points per day, but also consuming all my 49 "extra" points each week.  It did not take me long to put on half the weight I had lost *sigh*.  I realized that I really couldn't eat much more than I ate the first few months if I even wanted to maintain my weight, which is what WW had raised my values to - maintenance level.  Since then my weight has gone up and down by about 2 pounds every couple of weeks, and it is so frustrating!  I work hard to try to eat healthy - I have the same breakfast every morning, I eat mainly raw vegetables with my Ranch Veggie Dip for lunch, and I try to limit myself to only one form of dessert a day...which is tragically difficult...and nearly impossible for someone who loves dessert as much as I do.  So, that leads me to this little recipe.  I am a huge fan of Pinterest (amandamelton83), so I searched out WW recipes with Points Plus values attached.  I mostly searched for desserts, and I found a chocolate yogurt recipe that used my favorite: Fage Total 0% Greek Yogurt.  I buy it by the quart...3 at a time.  Yes, I love yogurt!  At any rate, I tried the chocolate yogurt recipe, but it called for artificial sweetener, which I avoid, and even using slightly more real sugar than it called for the bitterness of the cocoa powder overpowered my tastebuds.  Don't get me wrong, I like dark chocolate, but this was too much.  Yesterday I had a brainstorm and came up with this recipe - now I didn't have any bananas on hand, but I use bananas as sweetener in yogurt all the time - I also use bananas as spread for toast, but that will be another post sometime - and I would have done that here if I'd had one.  I may do a recipe version 2 once I have some bananas.  I hope you love this as much as I do!

Choco-Nutter Yogurt Dip

Serves:  4
Weight Watchers Points Plus:  1

1 tb creamy peanut butter
2 tsp cocoa powder
1 tsp packed light brown sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/2-2/3 cup Fage Total 0%

This is what I did, my note follows

1.  Place first 4 ingredients in a bowl and mix to a paste-like consistency.

2.  Add yogurt.  Stir to combine.  Serve with fruit of your choice:  bananas, strawberries, etc.

Do not, I repeat DO NOT make a paste with the first four ingredients!  You will have lumps in your yogurt, unless you use a blender to mix it up.  Instead...

1.  Place yogurt in 2 cup capacity bowl (mine was 1 cup and much too small to stir).
2.  Stir in sugar, vanilla, and peanut butter until well combined.
3.  Stir in cocoa powder.


Red Beans and Rice with Andouille Sausage

...well, it's Tuesday, but it was wash day for me, so maybe that still counts.  Reading up on the traditional Louisiana dish of red beans and rice taught me that on Monday (wash day) a big batch of beans was simmered along with the leftover ham bone from Sunday dinner along with the holy trinity of culinary arts: celery, onion, and carrots.  Hence the above picture that replaces my customary food quote.  I found a couple of food quotes about red beans and rice, but they were not entirely appropriate.

I have been craving red beans and rice for going on a month now, and I'd just about had all I could stand of not having some.  I visited New Orleans in January 2004 (pre-Hurricane Katrina), and I loved it.  I wish I could go back and experience it all again with a little dash of my 10-years-older wisdom.  I've tinkered with recipes that hearken back to the foods we ate that week, but I've never attempted RB&R 'til now.  It isn't difficult, really.  What I lacked today was time.  I wasn't certain I was going to have the andouille I needed/wanted, so I didn't get my beans pre-soaking until (eek!) 4pm.  Never fear, you can cook dry beans in the pressure cooker, and they turn out amazing!  I Googled it and found a couple of sites that are indispensable (theKitchn & hip pressure cooking).  Enough jibber-jabber.  Let's get on with it!

Red Beans & Rice with Andouille


1 lb dry red beans (not kidney beans)
8-10 cups cold water
3 TB salt

1.  Sort, rinse, and drain beans.  Add to large pot.  Cover with cold water.  Add salt, stir.
2.  Turn heat on medium-high.  Bring to boil.  Reduce heat to maintain rapid boil for 5 minutes.
3.  Cover pot, turn off heat.  DO NOT REMOVE POT FROM CAP!  Let sit 60-90 minutes.
4.  Drain, rinse, drain.
*ingredients from theKitchn*
quick-soaked beans
1 tsp pre-minced garlic (or a fresh clove or two if you have it)
1 TB oil
1 bay leaf
8 cups cold water
1 tsp salt

1.  Add beans and 8 cups cold water to pressure cooker.  Add remaining ingredients and stir.  Attach lid to pressure cooker and turn cap on to medium (5-6)

2.  While pressure is building, start on rice and sausages.

3.  Once pressure cooker reaches a steady pressure/jiggle, set timer for 24 minutes (as per chart).

4.  After 24 minutes has passed, turn off cap, remove pressure cooker from heat, and very slowly begin to release pressure.  I barely pressed the pressure button so a scant amount of steam could escape.  I just didn't have the time to let it depressurize naturally, so I thought this method was likely the next best thing. 

5.  Once cooker is depressurized, carefully remove lid.  Stir beans, test for doneness.  *If beans require additional time, simply replace lid on cooker and bring to full pressure to continue cooking*  Remove bay leaf and discard.

Rice (while beans are cooking):

3 cups Thai Jasmine rice
6 cups cold water

1.  Rinse rice until water runs clear.  Add rice and water to large pot.  Cook over medium-low heat until water is absorbed.  If rice reaches a boil, reduce heat to maintain a very gentle simmer.

2.  If necessary, add water 1 cup at a time if the rice cooks too quickly and is still tough or starts to dry out.

Sausage (while rice is cooking):

2 pounds Johnsonville Andouille
1 softball-sized white onion

1.  Cut onion into 1/4" dice.  Reserve 1 cup as garnish.

2.  Slice each sausage in half lengthwise.  Cut into 1/4" slices.

3.  Saute sausage over medium-high heat until lightly browned.  Add onion, and stir frequently until onion is your desired level of tender-crisp (I just cooked it until the rice was done - about 5 minutes from end-time on beans).


1.  Dump sausage/onion and rice into a very large bowl.  Stir to combine.

2.  Spoon rice/sausage/onion into bowl.  Top with beans and cooking liquid.

3.  Serve with White Lily Cornbread and enjoy.

Pan Fried Pork Chops

"Ever consider what pets must think of us?  I mean, here we come back from a grocery store with the most amazing haul - chicken, pork, half a cow.  They must think we're the greatest hunters on earth!"
- Anne Tyler

I am about porked out this week.  We had German style chops with cabbage, apples, and potatoes on Sunday, apricot pork tenderloin on Tuesday, and on Wednesday - our breakfast night - I fixed the leftover chops.  My mom had planned to fry them, but she was delayed at work, so that task fell to me.  I had never fried a chop in my life.  As I said before, I don't fry very often, and I'm not exceptionally talented at frying anything except hush puppies.  The only reason I accepted the challenge was I didn't want to be waiting on food at bedtime.  Before I began the chops, I set them on the counter to come to room temperature.  While the chops warmed up a bit, I worked on a batch of Biscuits - we were out of Crisco, so I used a stick of margarine instead.  After the biscuits were on the baking stone, I started work on the chops.

Pan Fried Pork Chops

8 pork tenderloin chops
2 cups all-purpose flour
salt & pepper
2 Tb cooking oil

1. Mix flour, salt, and pepper in a shallow dish.

2. Press chops into flour mixture, turn to coat.  Place coated chops on a cookie sheet lightly coated with cooking spray.

3. Let chops rest while you heat the oil in a large pan over medium-high heat (6-7).  Once oil is heated add chops 4 at a time.  Cook approximately 5 minutes per side.  Test internal temperature - it should be 145°.  Remove chops to a rimmed baking sheet in a preheated 450° oven while you fry the other batch - you can even bake a batch of biscuits alongside the chops in the oven.

4. Serve with biscuits and gravy.


Oven Roasted Sweet Potatoes

"My dream is to become a farmer. Just a Bohemian guy pulling up his own sweet potatoes for dinner."
- Lenny Kravitz
I feel you, man.  All I ever wanted as a child was to be a mommy, an author, a chef, a teacher, an ice dancer, a fashion designer, and a farmer.  Three out of seven ain't bad, I suppose.  If you count the backyard garden as a farm, I guess I've nailed four of those life goals.  I've still got time for the rest!

As a child I would watch my parents order sweet potatoes in place of plain old Russets as their side dish in a restaurant, and inwardly I would cringe at the thought.  A potato that is sweet?  A potato that is orange?  Gag!  It was not until I was in my early-20s that I courageously tried a sweet potato.  I believe we may have been at a steak house, since that is typically where potatoes are offered on the side.  I screwed my face into a look of confusion and trepidation and took the first bite.  Oh my goodness!  I could not believe what I had been missing out on for 20 years.  Oh, yes, I ate them pureed as baby food sometime in 1984, but after that, psssht, no thanks.  Now I will periodically buy them and roast them at home.  When I first attempted this, I used the microwave.  After all, that is where we ALWAYS "bake" our potatoes at my parents house.  Then again, we only ever "bake" brown, boring, baking potatoes.  I caution you not to bake sweet potatoes in the microwave.  You sacrifice texture and flavor for speed and ease of cooking.  After a couple of failed attempts, which came out shriveled-skinned and gummy, I gave up.  Sometime last year I embarked upon the Deceptively Delicious (To Puree or Not To Puree) route of getting my kids to eat vegetables (not so much my daughter as my son).  It didn't turn out so well, but it required me to roast sweet potatoes.  I searched online for the perfect method of turning out stellar, steak-house-quality potatoes (theirs always seemed oranger, softer, more flavorful), and I came up a bit short.  There were conflicting methods, oven temperatures, times, etc.  So I did what I always do when I can't find something, I improvised and through a bit of trial and even less error I figured it out and had wonderful potatoes as a result.  Now I am more apt to pick up a few sweet potatoes and toss them in the oven.  My daughter loves them.  My husband and I love them.  In fact everyone I cook for loves them...except my son.  We still haven't won Mr. Picky over to the orange side...or any side of a potato that isn't fried.  Side note, he loves sweet potato fries - that is next on my list of "figure it out."

Oven Roasted Sweet Potatoes

Sweet potatoes are the only ingredient for this, so you could use as many as you wanted.  I had 6.  The important thing here (which I clearly did NOT successfully accomplish this time) is to use potatoes that are relatively similar in size and weight.  Yes, I said weight.  My momma always said...when picking a sweet potato there are a few things to look for:
  • Skin - tight, smooth, free from dents/cuts/rot/eyes
  • Color - uniform
  • Flesh - firm, no squishy potatoes allowed
  • Weight - heavy for the size of the potato
  • Size - smaller/heavier is better, uniformly shaped
  • Scent - ummm, there really shouldn't be one except maybe dirt
Now, there are some who want a gargantuan potato, and that is fine...if that is what you like.  I tend to agree with my mom, though, that smaller potatoes with a uniform shape and heavy-for-their-size weight are best.  All of this size/weight/shape business is so the potatoes cook evenly and you don't have spots that are either overcooked or still crunchy.  The heavier ones tend to have more flavor and cook better, as well - lightweight ones are dry.

1.  First things first, you gotta scrub them taters.  I use a mesh kitchen scrubby from the dollar store.  They come in a pack of around 10 scrubbies for $1.  The green ones are my veggie scrubbies, the rest I use on dishes.  This is the easiest way for me to remember which is which.  Back to scrubbing - I hold them under lukewarm running water as I scrub so any dirt gets washed away.  If there are any eye buds or roots still hanging on, now is the time to pick them off and throw them away.  You don't have to scrub until the color comes off, but especially if you intend to eat the skin (like my dad) scrub until they are very clean.  If there are any "bad" spots - soft, wrinkly, rotted looking, or something else unappetizing - chop it off or excise it.  Then with extreme caution use the tip of a sharp knife or the tines of a fork to pierce the potatoes all over.  Please, please, please be careful not to stab yourself.  My mom missed the potato and instead stabbed her thumb with the fork when I was a kid...she had to get a tetanus shot.

2.  Place potatoes directly on top rack in a preheated 350° oven.  Spread them out so the air can circulate around the potatoes.  Place a sheet of aluminum foil on the lower rack to catch any drips once the sugars start oozing from the pierced areas of the skin - be sure that your potatoes are directly over the foil, or you will still end up with charred sugar burnt to the inside of the oven.

3.  I started out roasting for 45 minutes.  I checked them at that point, and they had started oozing a little.  The squeeze test showed me they were partially cooked - I could squeeze them, but they were still firm.  I set the timer for another 45 minutes, and at that point they looked like the image below - oozing from every place I had pierced them.  They were easy to squeeze.  I shut the oven door, turned off the heat, and let them sit for another 25 minutes while I finished steaming broccoli, making tea, and shredding chicken.  I will note that I typically do NOT let them sit in the oven after they are done.  It didn't affect the texture or flavor any, and the skin will be wrinkly after they start to cool regardless simply because it has been puffed up with hot air while it cooks and separates from the innards.  To each his own - leave them in, or take them out.  It makes no nevermind.

4.  While sweet potatoes are excellent on their own, and pack a lot of nutrients (a large one has approximately 162 calories, 6g fiber, 4g protein, a ton of Vitamins A & C, as well as some Calcium and Iron - SELFNutritionData), I love them with barbecue or steak.  This particular night I made Pacific Islands Chicken and steamed some fresh broccoli in the microwave in my Pampered Chef Large Micro Cooker from my favorite PC Consultant (1 head broccoli, 2 TB water, 4 minutes on HIGH).


Pacific Islands Chicken

"Southern barbecue is the closest thing we have in the U.S. to Europe's wines or cheeses; drive a hundred miles and the barbecue changes."
- John Shelton Reed

Sitting around Sunday afternoon, my mom asked casually what I wanted to cook for dinner this week.  I suggested barbecue chicken in the crock pot.  I love barbecue, albeit not as much as some people in my family, but I do appreciate pulled meat smothered in sauce slapped on a bun.  In addition to the chicken breasts, I requested pineapple and barbecue sauce.  I was envisioning a luau type chicken.  What I ended up with was yum-delicious pulled barbecue chicken that even my sometimes-picky-about-meat 5 year-old daughter gobbled up.

Pacific Islands Chicken

~3.5 lbs boneless, skinless chicken breast (fat trimmed if desired)
20 oz can crushed pineapple
28 oz bottle barbecue sauce (I used Sweet Baby Ray's)
1 tsp ground ginger (or to taste)
1 TB pre-minced garlic (6 cloves, ~ 1/2 tsp per clove, or to taste)

1.  Place chicken breasts in crock pot - try to get it as close to a single layer as possible.  Mine overlapped a little - I had 6 total.  You can also plainly see in the image below that I did NOT trim the fat.  Ordinarily I would have, but having had migraines daily for 2 weeks I was trying to speed up the process so I could rest.

2.  Dump in the can of pineapple - DO NOT DRAIN - and the bottle of barbecue sauce.  Stir gently to combine.

3.  Sprinkle on the ground ginger, garlic, and brown sugar.  Stir gently to combine the sauce.  I kind of wiggled the chicken around a little to get the sauce between and under them.

4.  Set the crock pot to HIGH for 4 hours and walk away.  Just walk away.

5.  At the end of 4 hours, remove the breasts and shred or pull the meat.  I prefer to pull the meat side-to-side rather than shredding it bottom-to-top - if that makes any sense whatsoever.  I just don't think it is aesthetically pleasing to have meat that appears to have been pre-chewed.  Blech!  You could alternatively thinly slice the meat if you do not like to pull or shred.

6.  Add the shredded/pulled/sliced meat back to the sauce.  Stir to combine.  Keep on WARM until ready to serve.

7.  Serve sandwich style alongside Oven Roasted Sweet Potatoes and steamed fresh broccoli for a complete meal.