Avocado Stuffed Tomatoes

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Would you just look at these pretty little flavor cups?

Tomato, avocado, spinach, and basil combine to create a nutrient-rich, finger food perfect for brunch, picnics, potlucks, or that space on your plate designated for vegetables. Add in a little dairy in the form of goat cheese and check off the health benefits:

  • Vitamin A
  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin K
  • Calcium
  • Antioxidants
  • Iron
  • Lycopene
  • Potassium

We’ve covered appealing and healthy … let’s go for the trifecta with simple.

No oven. No mixer. No bowl.

Seriously, you won’t need to wash a single bowl. A cutting board? Yes. The primary accessory in this recipe is a resealable plastic baggie. If you want to get the kids involved in the kitchen, this is a great place to start!

Print Recipe
Avocado Stuffed Tomatoes
These pretty litle vitamin-packed tomato cups are filled with a mixture of avocado, goat cheese, spinach-basil pesto and lemon juice. Easy to make and hard to resist!
Prep Time 20 minutes
Servings
dozen
Ingredients
Prep Time 20 minutes
Servings
dozen
Ingredients
Instructions
  1. Cut each cherry tomato in half. Scoop the pulp out of each half using a spoon or a strawberry huller (the one pictured is from Pampered Chef - see notes below). A serrated grapefruit spoon works well too. Turn halves cut side down on a paper towel to drain.
  2. Put remaining ingredients (excluding fresh basil and jalapeno) into the quart-sized resealable baggie and close tightly. Smoosh (technical term) the ingredients gently with your hands until smooth and well combined.
  3. Make a piping bag out of the baggie by cutting off a small piece of one of the bottom corners with a scissors. Carefully guide the mixture toward the cut corner, twisting the top half of the bag as pictured.
  4. Fill each tomato half with filling by gently squeezing the bag from the top.
  5. Garnish with minced basil and/or jalapeno slices.
  6. Refrigerate until ready to serve. Best to serve the same day they were made to retain bright colors.
Recipe Notes
  1. Pesto: Making your own pesto is very easy and it freezes really well. Here is the recipe for my Spinach-Basil Pesto.
  2. The number of tomatoes that the avocado mixture will fill depends, of course, on the size of the tomatoes you have. See blog post for serving suggestions for any leftover mixture.
  3. If you are not a fan of the piping bag, press and mix the ingredients with a fork until smooth and then simply use a small spoon to fill the tomato halves.
  4. The little silver tool for scooping out the tomato halves came from Pampered Chef. They no longer have this particular tool but they do have an updated version that is also a mellon-baller. It is called the "Core and More".
  5. Be creative! You can add diced jalapeno to the mixture, use lime juice instead of lemon, cilantro instead of basil, or throw in some crumbled bacon.
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Since cherry tomatoes vary in size, the number of cups that can be filled with this mixture is only an estimate. If, after the tomatoes are filled, there is leftover avocado mixture, do not throw it away. This makes an excellent spread for grilled cheese or fried egg sandwiches, a turkey or chicken wrap, or Mediterranean-style panini. Thin it out with a little milk and use it as a salad dressing. Or just spread it on crackers for an afternoon snack.

You’ll have time for that snack because you don’t have a pile of dishes to wash!

 

Peanut Butter Brownies

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1980 … the first time I saw my own name printed next to a recipe in a cookbook. I was 13.

Impressed?

I was. After all, my recipe was sharing pages with the recipes of a fine group of cooks and bakers: the women of St. John’s Lutheran Church. 1980 was the year of the church’s 100th anniversary and this cookbook was compiled to honor the celebration.

Take a minute to remember that in 1980, no one was using or had a computer. The recipes were submitted hand-written. The ladies on the cookbook committee typed each recipe and the typed recipes were submitted to a company for printing and binding. Oh how spoiled we are: everything at our fingertips, just a google search away; spell-check that eliminated the need for Wite-Out correction tape (what?); and formatting without counting spaces. Am I dating myself? Yes. But we so easily forget …

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As you can see, I love this book. It is tattered, folded, stained and faded. This cookbook quickly became very popular. If at a church potluck someone would ask for a recipe, you would most often hear “it’s in the cookbook”. Even though there have been at least four cookbooks printed by this congregation, it is generally assumed “the cookbook” refers to this edition.

In fact, a box of these cookbooks was recently discovered in a storage area of the church. Gold had been struck in Hanover, Iowa! They went on sale to members of the church. It was a short sale. I sure hope they find another box … mine might completely fall apart by then.

I have five recipes in this book. My favorite of those is Peanut Butter Brownies. I remember making these brownies for my family when my mom needed a quick dessert. I made them when I was in college because they could be made in one pan (less dishes to do). I made them for my boys and their friends when they were little … and not so little. Church functions, lemonade stands, tailgates, picnics (of course), care packages, and bake sales have benefitted from this recipe.  You will too!

Peanut Butter Brownies

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1/2 cup butter or margarine, melted but not hot
1 1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup peanut butter (chunky or smooth)
3 eggs
1 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup (or more) chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350°.

Whisk together butter, sugar and peanut butter in a large bowl. Add eggs, one at a time, beating after each until smooth.

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Gently fold in flour, baking powder, and salt until well combined.

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Stir in vanilla and chocolate chips.

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Pour batter into greased 9″x13″ pan.

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Bake for 10 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 325° and continue cooking for 15 minutes or until edges are brown and center is just set. Allow to cool on wire rack before cutting into bars.

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One Pan Method: Put the butter/margarine in 9″x13″ pan and place pan in oven before preheating.Preheat oven. Remove pan from oven as soon as butter/margarine is melted. If butter/margarine is bubbly/hot, allow to cool a few minutes before adding other ingredients. Carefully add peanut butter to pan (pan is hot), stirring to combine. Add sugar and stir. Continue adding ingredients as directed above, scraping the sides of the pan to combine evenly. Return pan to oven when oven is fully preheated and bake as directed.

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This is a great recipe to get kids involved in the kitchen. All it takes is a little measuring, a little stirring, a few extra chocolate chips to replace those that mysteriously disappear, and a helping hand with the oven. Everything tastes better when you make it yourself. It tastes even better when your name is printed next to the recipe “in the cookbook”.


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Zucchini Breads

Zucchini Bread

Have you heard the one about the woman who grew the world’s largest zucchini? She wanted to take it to a friend to show it off. The zucchini was so huge, it stuck out the car window and she couldn’t lock the car. Stopping at the grocer’s for a few things on the way, she returned to her car to find something awful happened while she was in the store… someone had left her the world’s second largest zucchini too!

You thought that was going a different direction, didn’t you? 😉

dsc_4963Growing up, everyone had more zucchini from their gardens than they could use or give away. After all, how much zucchini bread could you eat? And there seemed to be only one recipe which varied with the addition of walnuts or raisins. We didn’t really treat it as a vegetable … it was the magic ingredient for super-moist bread! And cake. Mom had a really great chocolate cake recipe too now that I think about it!

And, wouldn’t you know it? Now that I have my own garden, I can’t seem to grow it! I do not know what happens but it just doesn’t survive. After all those years of not being able to give it away, I am buying it. I am buying it, grilling it, roasting it … making things like ratatouille and harvest vegetable medley … and baking all kinds of sweet and savory bread.

My favorite zucchini recipe discovery is Parmesan Zucchini Bread. It is a savory quick bread with just a hint of onion. This bread is so amazing warm from the oven but toasting the cooled slices with a little butter is incredible! Then there’s always the good ol’ grilled cheese option. All I need now is a bowl of tomato soup!

Zucchini Bread

Print Recipe
Parmesan Zucchini Bread
Parmesan Zucchini Bread
Cook Time 50-55 minutes
Servings
loaf
Ingredients
Cook Time 50-55 minutes
Servings
loaf
Ingredients
Parmesan Zucchini Bread
Instructions
  1. Mix together the flour, sugar, cheese, baking soda, baking powder, and salt; add zucchini and stir to separate the shredded pieces. Set aside.
  2. Stir butter into buttermilk.
  3. Gently whisk the eggs and combine with the buttermilk/butter mixture.
  4. Add the onion and stir to combine.
  5. Pour the buttermilk mixture into the flour mixture and stir to combine. The batter will be very thick.
  6. Pour batter into a greased 9"x5"x3" loaf pan (or 3 mini-loaf pans or 12-cup muffin pan).
  7. Sprinkle with black pepper.
  8. Bake at 350° for 50-55 minutes (20-25 minutes for mini-loaves and 15-17 minutes for muffins) or until toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
Recipe Notes

This recipe makes a loaf of savory zucchini bread with a mild onion flavor and a hint of Parmesan cheese. It's excellent with soup and elevates a grilled cheese sandwich to another level.

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Zucchini Breads

Since you can never go wrong with a chocolate variety …

Print Recipe
Chocolate Zucchini Bread
Zucchini Breads
Cook Time 50-60 minutes
Servings
loaves
Ingredients
Cook Time 50-60 minutes
Servings
loaves
Ingredients
Zucchini Breads
Instructions
  1. In a bowl, stir together eggs, oil, sugar and vanilla; stir in zucchini.
  2. In a larger bowl, combine flour, cocoa, salt, baking soda, cinnamon, and baking powder; stir to mix.
  3. Add zucchini mixture to flour mixture and stir until moistened.
  4. Stir in nuts (optional).
  5. Spoon or pour into 3-9"x5"x3" loaf pans.
  6. Sprinkle with coarse decorating sugar.
  7. Bake at 350° for 50-60 minutes or until toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
  8. Cool in pans 10 minutes.
  9. Remove from pans; cool completely on wire racks.
Recipe Notes

This recipe can also be made into muffins as shown in the picture. Reduce baking time to 15-20 minutes.

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Alphabet Breadsticks

I was in Target last Sunday and one area of the store was particularly popular, noisy, and a bit frantic: the Back-To-School department. Pencils, erasers, scissors, glue, glue sticks, markers, binders, notebooks, notepads, crayons, rulers, tissues, water colors (does anyone ever use those?), and backpacks are being hurled into carts … often someone else’s cart … and parents are pulling their hair because they just realized that they will have to make yet another trip to another store to cross that last item off the list.

Two words pop into my head and I smile: Empty Nest!

These parents and kids got me thinking about those last summer days before my boys returned to school and a more structured schedule. In the summer I loved the days that they could help me make lunch. One of their favorite things to make were Alphabet Breadsticks, a recipe from a Pampered Chef cookbook called “Kids in the Kitchen”. When my boys were young, making these breadsticks for lunch was a lesson in measuring, letters and numbers, creativity, and maybe a little bit of science.

So when my now 20-year-old son was home for a day last week, and I told him I was going to make them for my blog, he wasn’t about to be left out (of the making OR the eating). Plus, his photography skills are far above mine so we both benefitted!

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Alphabet Breadsticks

1 package (6.5 oz) pizza crust mix
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon granulated garlic
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup hot (not boiling) water
2 tablespoons butter
1 clove garlic, minced
Pizza Sauce

Melt butter in a small bowl and stir in minced garlic; set aside.

In a bowl, combine pizza crust mix, oregano, granulated garlic, and Parmesan cheese. Add hot water and gently stir until evenly moistened and well combined. Cover and let stand for 5 minutes in a warm place.

Preheat oven to 425°.

Sprinkle a cutting board with flour, turn dough out onto cutting board and knead dough 10-12 times. Cut dough into 8 equal parts. Using your hands, roll each piece into ropes. Shape ropes into letters or designs. Place designs (and reshape) on a greased baking sheet. Brush breasticks with butter/garlic. 

Bake for 11-12 minutes or until golden brown. 

Serve warm with pizza sauce.

NOTE: Instead of the butter/garlic mixture, I used a Tuscan Herb Olive Oil from The Olive Tap. Also, for these photos, we made a double batch of the recipe. 

It is so much fun to see what designs kids will make. I made a tic-tac-toe board and my 20-year-old saw “hashtag”!  However, it is not just for kids. These pesto roll-ups would make a great appetizer for adults and kids alike.

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Roll out two of the dough pieces together into a rectangle and spread pesto on it. Roll it up from the short end and use dental floss to cut into 6 pieces. Slide the dental floss under the roll, position where you want to cut, cross the ends over each other and gently pull. The floss will cut it without crushing the spiral. Bake as directed above.

So what do you do for a finale on a project like this?


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Buffalo Chicken Meatballs

I think there is going to be a meatball renaissance. Call it a hunch. In fact, we’re going to lead the parade. Let’s #MakeMeatballsGreatAgain.

A lot of people hear the word “meatball” and instantly feel like yawning. Not me. My first thought is “What kind of meatballs?”

Swedish meatballs … Porcupine meatballs … Italian meatballs … Spaghetti and meatballs … Meatball subs … Meatball soup … Baked meatballs … Fried meatballs … Crock Pot meatballs …

I have seen how hamburgers have become the latest craze for creativity. What is a meatball but a ground up burger, bun and all? Why shouldn’t it be as trendy as its cousin? I started thinking about how versatile meatballs are and ended up channeling my inner Forrest Gump! “I know everything there is to know about …” meatballs.

WingSauceWhen we go out to eat, someone invariably orders buffalo chicken in some form: wings, sandwich, salad, etc. It is a major crisis at our house if the bottle of hot/wing sauce in the refrigerator is empty. Years ago, I started making homemade hot wings using only two ingredients: wing segments and Cookies Wings ‘n’ Things Sauce. We have tried a lot of hot-, wing-, buffalo-sauces and this is, by far, our favorite. And, being the good Iowa girl that I am, the fact that it is made in NW Iowa is a bonus!

And this is where meatballs start getting attention again. Let’s face it. After you say “buffalo” people don’t care what form of chicken you serve them! Okay so maybe that’s just my house, but I doubt it!

And what is the best part of ordering wings at a restaurant? It’s that everybody gets to choose their sauce! Mild or hot, tangy or spicy, barbeque, or buffalo, they’ve got us covered. So we are going to start with a basic chicken meatball with three different sauce options: buffalo, sweet-sour/schezuan, and honey-bbq.

BUFFALO CHICKEN MEATBALLS

1 cup finely diced celery
1 cup finely diced onion
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
1-2 teaspoons red wine vinegar, apple cider vinegar, or beer
2 pounds ground chicken
1 pound ground pork 
2 eggs
2 cups bread crumbs
1 tablespoon dry ranch seasoning (or dressing mix)
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper

Preheat oven to 350°. Saute celery, onion and garlic in olive oil over medium-low heat until tender, 5-6 minutes. Add vinegar/beer to pan to deglaze the pan (i.e. get all the yummy brown bits off the bottom). Remove from heat and allow to cool. 

In a large bowl, combine ground chicken and pork, cooled celery/onion/garlic, eggs, bread crumbs and seasonings.* Gently, mix by hand until evenly distributed. Form into balls and place in 9″x13″ pans that have been lined with aluminum foil (for easy clean-up). This recipe will make about 60-70 meatballs. 

* Please note that unlike most other meatball recipes, this one does not add milk. The moisture from the ground chicken that I use is enough to create a consistency that will form into balls. If your mixture is too dry, try adding milk, a couple tablespoons at a time, until the mixture holds together.

Bake for 15 minutes. Remove from oven, turn meatballs over, and drizzle sauce over meatballs. Increase oven temperature to 400° and return pans to oven for 15 minutes. Turn meatballs again to coat with sauce and return to oven for 5-10 minutes or until sauces are bubbly.

SAUCES

Since I was making 3 different sauces, I divided the meatballs into 3 pans. For the buffalo meatballs (top left on the plate of meatballs pictured above), I used the Cookies Wings ‘n’ Things sauce. This sauce does not thicken up like a lot of sauces that have sugar in them but the flavor is awesome. You could probably add a couple tablespoons of honey to it to make it thicker. It will, of course, take some of the heat away. Some of you may appreciate that but we’re sticking to the hotter version.

For the Honey-BBQ version I mixed one cup of our favorite BBQ sauce (a sweet and zesty version) with 2 tablespoons of honey. This one created the prettiest meatballs (top right on the plate of meatballs pictured above) simply because it got thick and glossy.

Lastly, I tried to make an Asian Zing style sauce by combining 1/2 cup Sweet and Sour Sauce (I think I used La Choy) and 1/8 cup of Schezuan Sauce (House of Tsang). The meatballs turned out beautiful (bottom on the plate of meatballs pictured above) but my guys said right away that it wouldn’t be fair to call it “Asian Zing” because there just wasn’t enough “zing”. They were delicious but needed extra Schezuan sauce, or maybe some sriracha. 

If you are wondering why I added ground pork to a chicken recipe, it is because the ground chicken is such a lean meat that it needs a little extra fat (even though pork is extremely lean itself it still has more than chicken). It seems that in meatballs, choosing more than just one meat makes for a better texture and flavor as well.

Experiment with the sauces your family likes most. Check out menus on-line to get ideas for other sauces. Make sure you have some fresh veggies and ranch dressing to go with your meatball buffet. Even though this recipe makes A LOT of meatballs, it has been proven at our house that there will not be as many leftovers as you think!


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Fried Rice

Want to get your kids more involved in the kitchen? Or just want a solid way to up-cycle leftovers? A little leftover cooked rice (or noodles), some leftover vegetables supplemented with some fresh ones, an egg or two, some meat … Fried Rice.

One of the keys to making fried rice is the same as one of my tips for getting kids to try new foods or foods they don’t think they like: cut things small. You want the ingredients to cook (or reheat) quickly and evenly so you don’t take leftovers and turn them into dehydrated bits.

When using leftovers, set them out of the refrigerator for 30 minutes prior to reheating. If you take the chill off of them first, it won’t take as long to reheat which in turn preserves the flavor and texture.

What you need:

  1. Eggs – Whisk them in a bowl and cook them like you would for scrambled eggs or an omelette; remove from the pan and cut into small bites.
  2. Fat – you have to revive and unite the flavors. I use a combination of an Omega-3 vegetable oil blend and a small amount of sesame oil.
  3. Asian seasonings – fresh ginger, garlic, crushed red pepper and lemon.
  4. Cooked rice/noodles – this can be leftover rice/noodles or you can cook it and let it cool before re-frying. A short cut is to keep Uncle Ben’s Instant Brown Rice on hand. It cooks in 10 minutes and although it is quick cooking rice it still maintains a firm texture and nutritional value.
  5. Veggies – carrots, onions, celery, broccoli, corn, peas, green beans (fresh, canned or frozen), mushrooms, water chestnuts … anything you like in your stir-fry dishes. Defrost frozen vegetables before cooking.
  6. Meat – I typically use leftover chicken or pork cut into very small pieces. You can also just use extra eggs and skip the meat. In these pictures I used leftover ground chicken from some Asian lettuce wraps.
  7. Sauce – soy sauce, sweet-and-sour sauce, sriracha sauce, schezuan sauce, or a mixture.

Take a large non-stick skillet and add 1-2 tablespoons of oil(s) over medium heat for 2 minutes. The oil(s) should be hot enough to sizzle when ingredients are added but not hot enough to splatter or burn the ingredients. Add 1-2 cloves garlic minced, 1/4-1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper (optional), and 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated ginger. Stir into oil. Add vegetables that require longer cooking times like carrots, mushrooms, fresh green beans and onions and a pinch of salt. Cook 2 minutes, stirring frequently. Add next group of vegetables with similar cooking times like broccoli and celery (we want these to maintain their crunch and color), add another pinch of salt and cook 2 minutes. Stir in final group of vegetables which only need to be heated through like peas, corn and water chestnuts, add a final pinch of salt and cook 2 minutes. Remove vegetables from skillet into a serving bowl and set aside.

Return skillet to burner and add another 1-2 tablespoons of oil and heat over medium heat. Add rice, spreading into an even layer. Do not stir for 1 minute. Flip rice over with a spatula and allow it to “fry” for another minute. Add meat and stir. After 1 minute, add vegetables and scrambled eggs, folding to distribute all ingredient evenly. Remove from heat. Drizzle with a small amount of fresh lemon juice (optional).

Serve with diced green onions, chopped cilantro, and/or chopped celery leaves and sauce(s) of choice.

Fried rice is great kid-friendly food because they can be involved in so many stages of the cooking: choosing the vegetables (just tell them there has to be at least 3 or 4 to make it look good), whisking the eggs, chopping some of the vegetables, squeezing the lemon, decorating their bowl with the fresh toppings or sampling a variety of sauces.

Want to teach them to eat slowly? Give ’em chopsticks! 😉


If you enjoyed this post, be sure to share it on social media using the buttons below. Like what you see? You can become an email or wordpress subscriber at the top left of this page. Please do not hesitate to contact us with thoughts and questions, and if you would like us to try out a recipe or test a product, drop us a line at picniclifefoodie@gmail.com!