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!

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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!

 

Simple Arugula Salad

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Meet the new kid in my neighborhood (a.k.a. my garden) … arugula. As you can see, the cool, wet spring we have had here in Iowa has made this newcomer feel very welcome. It won’t be long and we will hit the heat and humidity and arugula will have to leave so the tomatoes can take over.

Arugula is often described as “peppery” and “bitter”. The first is an accurate adjective. When I pinch the stems to harvest, the aroma of pepper reaches my nose quickly, a lot like cutting chives and the resulting sweet onion fragrance. When you think of the smell of pepper, think not only of fresh ground black pepper, but also a hint of fresh-cut green pepper. I think “bitter” is a harsh adjective. “Pungent” is a little better. “Piquant” seems to be the best but nobody uses it! “Piquant” (pronounced pee-kahnt) means “agreeably sharp in taste or flavor, pleasantly biting”. Anyway … when you bite it, it bites back … but just a little.

Before this year, my husband and I had only limited exposure to this leafy green … mixed in a few salads or on top of an occasional pizza (and I do mean occasional because greens on pizza is not in my husband’s comfort zone). We were visiting some friends who had just built the most beautiful raised-bed garden and they sent us home with some fresh picked arugula insisting that we hadn’t really given arugula a fair judgement unless we had tried it fresh from the garden and picked young. They were right. As with most foods, the fresher the better and picking before it gets big and tough means delicious.

I’m sure there are ways to cook the bigger, tougher leaves into wonderful dishes … I’ll experiment with that another day … but for now, we have what we need for fresh salads. I wasn’t sure how much my husband would like it so I introduced it with something I knew he’d love: pasta. I had heard that a piquant green like arugula was best with a simple dressing of extra-virgin olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and pepper and a nice amount of shredded parmesan cheese.

So that’s it.

That’s your recipe.

Seriously, that’s it.

Get the freshest arugula you can. Farmer’s markets are bursting with fresh greens. Look for smaller, tender leaves and ask if you can try some. A vendor worth buying from will be excited for you to try his/her produce. If you buy it at the store, again look for smaller leaves. It is sometimes called “Rocket” or “Baby Arugula”.

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Crisp and wash it. Fill your sink with cold water and throw in a handful of ice cubes.

Lay it out on paper towels or use a salad-spinner to dry the leaves. If the leaves are wet when you dress them, the oil and juice will not adhere to them.

 

Drizzle the greens with extra-virgin olive oil and lemon juice and sprinkle with salt and pepper (use Kosher or sea salt and fresh ground pepper if at all possible) and toss to evenly coat greens. Top with shredded Parmesan cheese and croutons (optional).

If you are like my husband, you are wondering “Why there are flowers on this salad?” The answer is “It’s pretty, it adds flavor, and it makes people ask questions.” The flowers are chive blossoms and yes, they do have a very mild flavor.

If you really want measurements, I will do my best …


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Simple Arugula Salad

4-6 cups arugula, loosely packed
1-2 tablespoons Extra Virgin olive oil
2-3 teaspoons fresh-squeezed lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon fresh cracked black pepper
3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese (more or less)
croutons (optional)
fresh chive blossoms (optional)

Wash and dry (on paper towels or in salad spinner) arugula and place in serving bowl. When ready to serve, drizzle one tablespoon of the olive oil and 2 teaspoons of the lemon juice over the arugula and sprinkle with half of the salt and pepper. Toss to coat. The leaves should be coated but not drenched.

Taste.

Add more olive oil, lemon, and/or pepper as needed. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and taste again. Add more salt if needed. Serve immediately.

Makes 4-6 servings.


As I mentioned earlier, we had this salad with a pasta dish. In keeping with the lemon flavor, I made a ravioli with Italian sausage and a butter-garlic-lemon sauce. I think it was the first time I ever heard my husband ask if I wanted any more of the salad.

He finished the bowl and said I should write about it.

And to think, he was worried I was taking garden space away from the tomatoes to plant “that green stuff”.


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Citrus Bites

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This past weekend, we had 3 guests at our house: my sister-in-law, my niece, and my cousin. They were participating in a biking event (bicycles, not Harley’s) in the area and didn’t want to make the big drive the morning of the near 50 mile ride.

Do you know what I call relatives that come to stay for a night?

Guinea Pigs!

This was my chance to experiment with a recipe or two. On my desk, I had just the recipe for such an occasion. This was one of those recipes that I found and it just made me so curious that I had to save it. I knew it would be good but I didn’t know if it would be good enough to commit to my recipe collection.

Luckily, these gals are super curious and not fussy at all. When they arrived and saw these bite-sized treats on the counter, they didn’t wait for an explanation. My niece took a bite and quickly declared “Mmmm … Tasty!”

The original recipe came from … where else? … an Advent Devotion book, printed by my good friend’s church. Every year they ask their members and associates to write a devotion and include a recipe. A lady named Anette Knoll submitted the recipe called “Orange Balls” and the thing that really captured my attention was the use of frozen orange juice concentrate. That, and the fact that this was a no-bake recipe. When you see the list of other ingredients, I think you’ll see why I kept it for 6 months. Well, you’ll probably wonder why it took me so long to actually make them!

I started thinking about frozen juice concentrates and realized I had options: lemonade, limeade, pineapple juice, apple juice, etc. I decided on a combination of lemon and pineapple. After all, the recipe involves rolling the dough balls in coconut so why not go with a tropical profile? Once I started thinking Hawaii, macadamia nuts ended up in my cart too.

And this is the resulting recipe …


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CITRUS BITES

1 pound vanilla wafers
1 1/2 cups macadamia nuts
1 1/2 cups unsweetened flake coconut
1 stick softened butter
6 oz frozen lemonade concentrate, defrosted
6 oz frozen pineapple concentrate, defrosted
1 pound powdered sugar

NOTE: One box of vanilla wafers is not one pound. Most boxes are 11-12 oz.

Finely crush vanilla wafers in a food processor (or by hand). Finely chop macadamia nuts in a food processor (or by hand). Toast coconut and macadamia nuts in a dry pan on low heat, stirring frequently until slightly browned and fragrant; place in a shallow bowl.

Combine vanilla wafer crumbs, butter, defrosted juice concentrates (start with 3/4 of each concentrate and add more as needed to get a “rollable” consistency), and powdered sugar with an electric mixer.

Use a small (1 inch) cookie scoop to make balls or shape by hand. Roll in coconut/macadamia nut mixture and place on a waxed paper lined cookie sheet. Refrigerate to set.

Makes about 6 dozen Bites.


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VARIATIONS

Now that I’ve made and enjoyed these “tasty” bites, I am curious about other combinations and ingredients:

  • adding citrus zest for an extra punch of flavor
  • almonds, pecans, pistachios, or walnuts
  • fresh herbs (like thyme or mint)
  • spices (chili powder, cinnamon, nutmeg)
  • margarita mix

These are a perfect sweet bite for picnics, reunions, parties and bridal/baby showers. They can be made ahead and refrigerated.


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Kurt & Mary’s Rhubarb Crunch

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Twenty years ago, we moved into our “starter” home. It was a small house but it was in a quiet neighborhood of a growing community and it had two very important things: an attached garage and a fenced-in yard. It didn’t take long before we realized the most important thing about our new home was great neighbors.

We were surrounded by awesome, friendly people of all ages. This was the neighborhood where May baskets weren’t just exchanged, you actually waited for the doorbell to ring so you could chase after the deliverer. On Halloween, you didn’t just say “trick-or-treat”, you were expected to have joke to tell. In the spring, everyone marvelled at how much the kids had grown over the course of a long winter. Run out of sugar? Send your kids next door and they would come home with the exact amount you need.

Our driveway was the meeting place for watching the fireworks on the 4th of July. Our house looked directly down a two-block street and just over the trees at the end of that street was the park where the fireworks were detonated. The kids had their sparklers and snaps, the adults had their popcorn and beer, and everyone had a blanket or chair.

Not only were we blessed to have settled in such a friendly area, we settled next door to a family who had just moved in a few months before us. Their kids were about the same ages as our boys. They were ISU alum just as we were. They were Catholic, we were Lutheran (close enough). We quickly became the “go-to” friends for each other. You know you trust someone when they know the combination to your garage door as well as they know their own.

  • Did you ask Kurt & Mary if they will get our mail while we are gone?
  • Mary, my washer just died … can I use yours?
  • Can we borrow your patio set for the party?
  • Would Brie or Dani be willing to take care of our dog this weekend?
  • Feel free to kick Marcus out of your house whenever you want.
  • Could you run over to our house, let yourself in, and make sure Cole is out of bed? He’s not answering his phone.

Over the years, the only battles we ever had involved the trees on our property. We have big maple trees … the kind that produce ridiculous amounts of helicopter seeds in the spring and leaves in the fall. Seeds and leaves that, with a good south wind, inevitably end up in Kurt & Mary’s yard. Not sure how many times Kurt threatened to rake them up and dump them back in ours.

It is always good to know your neighbors’ weaknesses so you can make up for those unfortunate (and, I might add, uncontrollable) incidences.

Kurt & Mary’s weakness? Rhubarb.

Many years ago, I made a huge pan of Rhubarb Crunch, using fresh rhubarb straight from my garden. Since Kurt & Mary’s birthdays are both in May and their anniversary is as well, I thought I’d share some with them. Mary’s text came the next day and it said something like “Thank you so much for the rhubarb crunch. I finished it off for breakfast this morning … fruit and oatmeal? That’s healthy, right?”

Twenty years later, we are still in our “starter” home. Kurt and Mary are still our neighbors … for a few more days. They are moving into a new home and we will miss them. I think it’s only appropriate that they are moving just as my rhubarb is ready to pick.


Kurt & Mary’s Rhubarb Crunch

1 cup sugar
3 tablespoons flour
5-6 cups thinly sliced rhubarb
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup old-fashioned rolled oats
1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup margarine, softened

Preheat oven to 375°.

In a large bowl, combine 1 cup of sugar with 3 tablespoons of flour and pour over sliced rhubarb; toss to coat and evenly distribute. Pour into a 9″x13″ baking dish that has been lightly coated with cooking spray.

In the same bowl, combine brown sugar, oats and 1 1/2 cups flour. Using hands or forks or a pastry blender, cut butter and margarine into oat mixture until small clumps remain. Sprinkle evenly over rhubarb mixture.

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Bake for 40 minutes or until browned and bubbly.

Serve warm with ice cream or whipped cream.

Makes 10-12 servings.

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This will make the perfect house-warming gift. May God bless them in their new home and with neighbors who value them as much as we do. And technically, they aren’t moving that far away that I couldn’t take them some next year.

Rhubarb crunch in the spring and a bag of leaves in the fall.


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Italian Meatballs

What today seems to be a dinnertime staple for busy families, spaghetti and meatballs (or meat sauce) was not something found on my childhood dinner table (see Snow and Spaghetti). And, technically, since I was a farm kid, it’s “supper table”, not “dinner table”.

In college, spaghetti with marinara sauce (usually the cheapest jar of spaghetti sauce I could find) was a once-a-week, affordable, and filling meal. As a splurge, my roommates and I might scrape together a couple of dollars to buy a pound of Italian sausage to add to the sauce. Usually, the smell of the sausage cooking would have the added bonus of bringing the cute guys who lived in the upstairs apartment down for a visit with stomachs growling. Why didn’t I think of subsidizing my college expenses by cooking for other students? Talk about entrepreneurship!

After we were married and had kids, spaghetti with meat sauce was one of the meals my husband would make. He would always mention how his mom would make meatballs and let them simmer in spaghetti sauce for hours and how much he loved breaking apart those tender meatballs.

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Shortly after a good friend gave me the recipe for her Sweet & Sour Meatballs, it dawned on me that this recipe could easily be adapted for Italian meals. I realize there are tons and tons of Italian meatball recipes out there but, in my defense, this was before Pinterest (gasp!) and modifying a tried-and-true recipe is always great place to start.

This recipe has become a family favorite, not only for spaghetti with meatballs but also for meatball hoagies, minestrone-style soups, pizza topping, and amazing appetizers. One batch will make about 120 small meatballs (about 1 1/2″ diameter) which means I have enough for a big Italian dinner and plenty to freeze for future meals (or for my boys to steal on their next trip home).

No, I am not above bribing my kids with food.

 


 

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Italian Meatballs

1 pound ground beef
1 pound ground pork
1 pound Italian sausage
2 eggs
2 cups bread crumbs
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons Italian seasoning*
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1-2 teaspoons black pepper
1 teaspoon salt
1/2-1 teaspoon crushed red pepper (optional)
1/2 cup milk

Preheat oven to 400°.

Combine all ingredients and half of the milk in a large bowl. If the mixture seems dry, add the rest of the milk. The only reason not to add all of the milk is if the mixture is already “soupy” or looking like it may not hold its shape when rolled into balls.

Using a cookie scoop (or just your hands), form into equal-sized (1 1/2″ diameter) balls and place on cookie sheets. Bake for 20 minutes or until edges brown and center of meatball is no longer pink.

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You can make the meatballs any size you want. Just make sure you make them equal in size and adjust baking time accordingly. If you are making them larger than 2″in diameter, drop the oven temperature to 350° to avoid drying out the outside and undercooking the inside.


Tonight, I will surprise my husband with the smell of spaghetti and meatballs when he walks in the door. I have no idea how my meatballs compare to hers and I’m not concerned. I know that they will bring back happy memories of his mom and that, in turn, will make me happy.

That, and the fact that I have more meatballs in the freezer!

Come on home, boys!


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!


 

Cream Puffs

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Does this look like a four-ingredient French pastry?

Water, butter, flour and eggs … that’s it. Though they look intimidating, these profiteroles (as they are often called) are simple, versatile, beautiful, and contain no sugar.

Did you catch that when I listed the four ingredients? No sugar. This lack of sweetness is what makes the puffs so versatile. They become a crispy-chewy vehicle for savory or sweet preparations. One batch will make 6 large puffs (as pictured above) or 20-24 mini-puffs (bite-sized). The mini-puffs are a great option for appetizers or a bite-sized sandwich/dessert for a party or luncheon.

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Some of my favorite ways to serve these include:

filled with mocha pudding (pictured),

stuffed with chicken salad and cucumber slices,

a replacement for shortcake in strawberry season, or

holding a big scoop of vanilla ice cream with chocolate syrup drizzled over top.

That last option is courtesy of my sister-in-law who would make homemade fudge sauce and was never stingy with it!

As I was making this batch, I started thinking about fillings I hadn’t yet considered. Now I can’t stop thinking about:

coconut cream,

sliced turkey with avocado slices and microgreens,

bruschetta with fresh basil,

peanut butter cream with jelly,

bananas foster,

scrambled eggs with sausage gravy, and

Italian meatballs!

Some of these ideas are not likely to work. The one rule to consider with cream puffs is they will absorb liquid and become soggy very quickly, making it difficult to pick up if they are filled too early. For example, the bruschetta mixture would have to be drained well before putting in the shell. A layer of fresh basil placed on the shell before adding the filling will help separate the remaining liquid from the pastry.

Of course you can use instant pudding. The mocha pudding in the picture was my first ever attempt at homemade pudding. Do not be intimidated … it is worth it!

But first, the puffs!


Cream Puffs

1/2 cup water
1/4 cup butter
1/2 cup flour
2 eggs

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Heat oven to 400°. Lightly grease a cookie sheet.

In a medium saucepan, heat water and butter to a rolling boil. Reduce heat to low, add flour, and stir/whisk vigorously about 1 minute, or until mixture leaves the side of the pan and forms a ball. Remove from heat.

Stir in eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition until smooth. Divide dough into 6 parts (about 1/4 cup each) and drop by spoonful onto cookie sheet, about 3 inches apart. Bake 35-40 minutes or until deep golden brown. Remove from oven and allow to cool 2-3 minutes. Transfer puffs to a wire rack.

If making mini-cream puffs, use about a rounded teaspoon of batter per puff, allow 2 inches between puffs on baking sheet, and bake for 20-23 minutes.

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Allow puffs to cool 2-3 more minutes or until they are cool enough to handle. Cut a small portion off the top of each puff and set aside the base. Gently use a spoon to “pull” the soft dough from inside each lid and base, careful not to tear the puff. Discard the soft dough. Cool completely. When cool, the puffs can be stored in an air-tight container in the refrigerator for one day. The puffs will not spoil after that but will not maintain their texture.

Mocha Pudding

2/3 cup sugar
3 tablespoons cocoa powder
3 tablespoons corn starch
1 1/2 cups milk
2 teaspoons powdered instant coffee
1 egg yolk, slightly beaten
1 tablespoon butter
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

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In a medium saucepan, whisk together sugar, cocoa, and cornstarch. Combine milk and instant coffee and stir into sugar mixture. Bring mixture slowly to a boil over medium-low heat, whisking constantly. Boil for 1 minute. Remove from heat.

Gradually stir a small amount of hot mixture into beaten egg yolk, blending well. Whisk the egg mixture back into saucepan and return to heat. Continue whisking until mixture boils and immediately remove from heat. Stir in butter and vanilla. Pour into heat-proof bowl and allow to cool 10 minutes. Press a sheet of plastic wrap onto surface of pudding and refrigerate.

When ready to serve, scoop pudding into cream puff base, place lid on top and sprinkle with powdered sugar.


I was looking through other cookbooks to see if I could find any other helpful hints to include and found that many recipes will tell you to bake at 450° for 15 minutes and then reduce oven temperature to 325° and continue baking for an additional 20-25 minutes.

I like this idea because it is how we bake pies to get the crust nice and flaky with the hot oven and then bring it down to finish the cooking process without burning the pastry.

For now, I can say I know the recipe above works. Next time I make it, I will try this new/old method. If I like it better, I will update the recipe with the improved instructions.

Sounds like the perfect excuse to try out some of those other filling options, don’t you think??

Cream Puffs
Cream Puffs are a versatile shell for stunning sweet or savory desserts or fancy sandwiches. Find out just how easy they are to make with only four ingredients!


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!