Chocolate-Covered Strawberry Smoothie

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It is no secret that I love smoothies. But this chocolate-y, slightly fruity version that could pass for a chocolate milkshake is my new favorite. It may or may not have been my afternoon snack for the past two weeks straight.

A touch of cocoa to any fruit smoothie makes for a nice change-up. But it is especially delicious with strawberries and cherries. For a while I was making a peanut butter, cocoa and banana version with a little ice, but couldn’t quite get the texture right. I added frozen strawberries for the soft-but-icy texture and they blend very well into the chocolate. This leaves the smoothie with a very subtle flavor which reminds me of a juicy strawberry dipped in chocolate. Definitely not a bad thing.

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This version I am currently loving is dairy-free, using some plain almond milk. However, you can use whatever type of milk you like. I have also often used water for liquid and added a scoop of plain yogourt for creaminess.

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As usual with smoothies, all elements can be adjusted to suit your own tastes.

 Chocolate-Covered Strawberry Smoothie

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Ingredients:

  • 1 and 1/2 cups frozen strawberries
  • 1 cup plain almond milk (or whichever type or flavor milk you prefer)
  • 1 tsp honey (optional – sweeten to taste)
  • 4 tsp cocoa powder
  • 1 ripe banana

Directions:

  1. Combine ingredients in a blender and pulse until smooth. Add additiional milk as needed to reach desired consistency.
  2. Enjoy!

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Notes:

  • Depending on your blender, letting the strawberries sit in the almond milk for a few minutes before blending may help make them easier to break up.
  • 4 teaspoons of cocoa is actually a large quantity for the ratio of ingredients, but since it is competing with a large amount of fruit I’ve found it necessary to achieve a really chocolate-y (official term) flavor. You may want to start with a bit less and see how you like it.

8 Things Making Me Happy Right Now

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There’s just something about that first cup…

I always enjoy reading posts where writers blog about lists of things that they love or are making them happy at the moment. In a blog-verse filled with an abundance of negativity, it’s like finding a little pocket of joy. If you will indulge me, here is my own list of things I am particularly enjoying at the moment.

1. This Blog

Whether it’s read by hundreds or just my close family and friends (more likely), I’ve really been enjoying the process of maintaining and creating this blog. Although I write regularly for myself, it is exhilarating and fun to put my thoughts out there in a public way. Scary, but fun.

2. Getting Up Early

As in an hour or two before the rest of my household. Since I spend a large portion of my day with a three-year-old, it’s an awesome feeling to get a bit of time to myself before she is awake. Plus, the world is so still and quiet at 5:30 am. Being able to do this depends on when I go to bed, so it doesn’t happen everyday. But when it does I relish the opportunity to read, write, blog, sort through photos, exercise, sip coffee or basically do whatever I want. And like exercise, it’s sometimes hard to get started but I am always glad I did it.

3. That First Cup of Coffee

There is just something about that first cup of hot, earthy coffee that is hard to beat, especially in a calm, silent house in the first hours of the morning (see above). My first cup is usually my only cup. Any more than that makes me jittery, but honestly the second cup just doesn’t achieve the same level of satisfaction as the first.

4. Sharpies in a Rainbow of Colors

No, there is no affiliate link to Sharpie here. I just really like their ultra-fine point markers! I use them all the time for labels and notes.  And in my stocking this past Christmas I received a package with a plethora of colours…I have to admit it made my heart sing a little bit I was quite happy about this. I’ve loved making rainbow flourishes to my labels. Speaking of which…

5. Labeling

For several years I’ve kept a sheet of small white printer labels in the kitchen for labeling items that go into the freezer. (They are easy to write on and for the most part come off containers very easily.) A little while back I read this tip at The Kitchn and was inspired to try labeling a little more in my fridge and pantry to identify leftovers more easily. It surprised me how quickly this became a habit. It only takes a second to jot a quick label, and I now know immediately when that jar of coconut milk was opened or what day I made the batch of brown rice. We are generally pretty good at using leftovers, but having the labels stand out when I open the fridge gives them a sense of urgency (I’m more likely to try and come up with a use for that coconut milk), and there has definitely been less wastage.

6. Smoothies

As you may be able to tell from previous posts, I am a huge fan of smoothies. Lately they have been a daily or even twice daily occurrence, up from a few times a week. They are handy for so many things: getting fruits and veggies into a toddler, getting fruits and veggies into adults, putting in Mason jars for a portable breakfast or snack, standing in with frozen fruit when there is not much fresh produce in the house, and satisfying a sweet tooth. There is a chocolate version involving strawberries, banana, cocoa and a touch of honey that I cannot get enough of lately (recipe coming soon), and my blender is getting quite the workout. Just…love.

7. E-Reading

I’ve recently become a convert to reading both e-books from my local library as well as purchasing them to read in my Kindle application. I’ve generally preferred to have a physical copy of a book to read, and that’s still my preference, but I’ve come around to the convenience of being able to easily read while on the treadmill, and also being able to access a book within minutes after deciding I’d like to read it. Plus, it saves room in our already-stuffed-to-the-gills bookshelves.

8. Playing with Legos

I’m thrilled that my daughter is now at an age where she is interested in building with original Lego bricks, rather than just trying to eat them. Between myself and my husband’s childhood stashes, she has quite the collection. Under her direction, we’re currently building a little compound that includes two mini houses, a corral to accommodate various Little People animals, a shed and a main house that keeps climbing upward.

What little (or big!) things are making you happy right now?

5 Meal Planning Tips That Work for Our Family

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As much as I enjoy food and cooking, and playing around with new recipes and ingredients, planning for meal times can be a bit of a pain. It’s sometimes difficult to figure out what might be good for a whole week’s worth of food, but there is nothing worse than the feeling of coming up towards 5 PM and still having no plan. It’s true that having kids often makes things more complicated, but if I’m honest trying to figure out dinner when we were child-free at the end of a long work day was no picnic either.

I’ve tried out a number of methods in an attempt to streamline meal planning: planning for an entire week and even an entire month, using a meal planning service, and other things that have been moderately successful. I have come to the conclusion (at long last) that there really is no set solution that will work all the time; it depends on what is going on in our lives in a given week or month. This seems obvious but it is sometimes hard to remember! And setting up an elaborate plan that is not realistic just makes me feel bad when I cannot keep up with it.

For me, the key definitely seems to be low key = less stress. The following are some tips for meal planning that have helped us keep it relatively painless.

1. Shut Off the Noise

There are a lot of tools out there to help us plan meals, including meal planning services, recipe websites and blogs, sites like Pinterest, and about a gazillion amazing cookbooks (rough estimate). When you need some fresh inspiration, they are great to use.

However, I find that I can quickly get overwhelmed with the sheer amount of information available to me. When I am trying to figure out what to eat for the week, I do not want to take the time to comb through masses of recipes – I want to decide quickly and move on. In this situation, it works better for me to try and stick to some basics that we know we enjoy (see below!) and to choose from what I already have available to me, such as a well-used cook book or a recipe online I’ve used many times. And just pick something. I can always change my mind if inspiration strikes, but if it doesn’t at least we already have a plan.

2. Compile a Recipe List

About a year ago I sat down and wrote out as many meal and snack ideas or recipes that I could think of that we have relatively often or just occasionally. I typed it up and left spaces to jot in other items as I thought of them. It includes everything from basics like omelets to once-in-a-while meals like lasagna. Stored in a recipe binder in the kitchen, this has been a great resource to turn to when I am stuck for ideas. Often, when thinking a week or so ahead, I can pull a few ideas out of this list and maybe pad them with a new recipe I would like to try. This does not need to be a time-consuming project; jotting some ideas down on scrap paper and sticking it on the fridge or somewhere you can easily access it will work just as well.

3. Shop More, Not Less

Although it makes sense to do a main run for groceries about once a week or so, I’ve found that I inevitably leave something off the list, or I need to go back to the store again later in the week to pick up things like fresh produce or milk. Or, I change my mind about a meal or it doesn’t work out for some reason, and the ingredients go to waste. I’ve discovered over time that planning for a few days at a time, and maybe a very flexible plan for the week, seems to work more than a rigid schedule.

This would not work for everyone. However, in the season of life we are in right now, a trip to the store can double as an outing for myself and my daughter, who loves to people watch and plop apples into a grocery bag. And planning for the second trip makes it seem less rushed than having to run out again last minute when my set menu plan changes.

4. Include Breakfast, Lunch and Snacks in Meal Planning

This is standard meal planning advice for a reason, but it tripped me up for a long time (and still does occasionally).

When you think about what to have for dinner each night, you also need to think about what lunches will be. What will I get for my daughter and myself at snack time? How about breakfast? What will I grab partway through nap time to snack on? When I think of only dinner it is much easier to run out of basics like cereal, bread for toasting or smoothie ingredients. A lot of these ingredients keep well – like oats, cereal and frozen fruit – but thinking about it a little beforehand will remind me to check I still have them on hand. Additionally, thinking about them ahead of time means I am more likely to plan for some variety.

5. Make a Grocery ‘Cheat Sheet’

This is literally what it sounds like, and was my husband’s suggestion when we were going through a period where both days with our daughter and work were crazier than usual. Basically, this is a list of grocery items for when you find yourself in a hectic time with work and/or kids, someone gets sick or another emergency arises, or you simply just cannot stand the thought of cooking (it happens to the best of us). Include items to prepare simple meals that will get you through at least of couple of days.

My list includes things like pre-prepared fruit salad, eggs, hummus, bread, cereal, cheese, fish and a quick-cooking veggie, and ingredients for particular sandwiches or salads that we like. You can also include whatever pre-packaged or frozen food you may occasionally have. Think about things you and other members of your household might like to snack on or have for breakfast as well as dinner and include those.

The point of the list is not to have to put any major thought into it; you can hand it off to a spouse or partner or go shopping yourself and come back with an emergency stash. You will know that from the items on the list you can come up with at least a few basic meals.

There is nothing wrong with getting some take-out either. But having a cheat sheet helps keep this as an occasional treat, solves the problem of what to have for dinner, and can get me through an additional day or two when I have more time or energy for planning meals. (Again, in keeping with #2, coming up with a cheat sheet does not have to be an elaborate affair. Scribbled on the back of a junk mail envelope and stuck on the fridge is just fine, or typed in an electronic device like your phone.)

What meal planning strategies work for you?

Sweet Spiced Almond Butter

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It has taken me a while to jump on the nut butter bandwagon. Generally, I like peanut butter but can take or leave it (and this was true even before I switched to a just peanuts variety). Aside from the occasional PB and J, a jar could last me for ages. And the ubiquitous Nutella holds a special space in my heart, but that has always seemed like more of a dessert item to me than an everyday spread.

Eventually though, through the proliferation food blogs, availability of recipes and techniques and sites like Pinterest, nut butter was suddenly everywhere and held so much possibility. (Peanut butter might be just okay on a cracker, but in a warm bowl of oatmeal, it is divine.) Different types and varieties of nut butters and substitutes became commonplace at the grocery store, and once I tried almond butter and sun butter (made from sunflower seeds) I was hooked.

Not only that, but many items besides nuts are being butterized these days…like cookies. Cookie butter – think about that. Only a single jar has entered my house and I cannot speculate as to how much was eaten with ordinary things like oatmeal and how much just traveled directly into my mouth on a spoon. I just know it didn’t last very long.

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Nut butter is also one of those things that is ridiculously simple, but you’re kind of incredulous you can make it yourself. But that is the awesomeness of a food processor! It is also relatively inexpensive to make at home (store brands are very pricey) and you know exactly what went into it.

It’s fascinating to watch too, if you’re nerdy like that…which I am. Right before your eyes the almonds turn from course crumbs to a ball of dough, until the oil is released and it eventually becomes smooth and drippy. With no interference. Easy as pie…or nut butter.

I’ve made this addictive flavored almond butter several times now and I’ve stuck pretty closely to the original recipe. However, I’ve found that mine needs less processing total and it also doesn’t need extra oil to achieve a smooth consistency. Not only that, when it is stored in an airtight container (I use a Mason jar), the butter remains smooth and does not separate from the oil as nut butters are inclined to do. Yay!

So here is the process:

1. Coat two cups of almonds with molasses and maple syrup. Roast at 300 degrees for 30 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes.

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2. When they have cooled for another 30 minutes, they are ready for the food processor!

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3. Turn on your processor and let it go!  It might seem like the recipe is not working out, but be patient as the almonds need quite a bit of time to do their thing.

After 2 minutes: Coarse crumbs.
After 2 minutes: Coarse crumbs.
After 6 minutes: Ball of Dough
After 6 minutes: Ball of Dough
After 7 minutes: Wet Consistency
After 7 minutes: Wet Consistency

4. At this point, add some spices, coarse salt and extra molasses and maple syrup.

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5. Process for another 2 minutes, and the consistency is smooth and drippy.

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Ready to spread or spoon!

A dollop of this almond butter on your morning oatmeal will take it to another level. And spread on some rice cakes and topped with slices of banana…happiness. :)

Sweet Spiced Almond Butter

Adapted from this recipe from Edible Perspective.

 Ingredients:

  • 2 cups raw almonds
  • 2 tbsp + 1 tsp maple syrup
  • 1.5 tbsp + 1 tsp molasses
  • 2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp ground ginger
  • 1/8 ground nutmeg (I used grated nutmeg to taste)
  • 1/2 tsp salt

Directions:

  1. Preheat your oven to 300 degrees. Place two cups of almonds on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and drizzle the first amounts of molasses (1.5 tbsp) and maple syrup (2 tbsp). Mix with your hands to ensure almonds are thoroughly coated.
  2. Roast almonds for 30 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes. Allow them to cool for an additional 30 minutes.
  3. Place your cooled almonds in a food processor and let it go for as long as it takes to achieve a wet consistency, about 7 minutes or so. Scrape down the bowl as needed.
  4. Add the cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, extra molasses (1 tsp) and maple syrup (1 tsp) and salt.
  5. Continue processing until the extra ingredients are incorporated and the almond butter reaches a smooth, drippy consistency, about 2 more minutes.

Notes:

  • Every time I have made this recipe it comes together in about 10 minutes of processing. However, food processors and ingredients vary a lot, so let it keep going until you get a drippy consistency, or whichever consistency makes you happy!
  • The original recipe calls for canola oil, which I have not found to be necessary. If your nut butter is not coming together after a reasonable amount of processing, however, you can add some canola oil to help it along, about 1/2 a teaspoon at a time.