Pork Soup with Crispy Crowns & Sea Salt

Pork Soup with Crispy Crowns & Sea Salt

It is the middle of April and I should be eating Chicken Lettuce Wraps on my deck, but alas.. clearly Mother Nature feels that I need a little extra time in the kitchen with my Le Creuset. Luckily, I have something fantastic to share that will warm all of us right up.

You guys. Seriously.

This creation was truly a collaboration between Jess & I. It went something like this:

“I’m making chili – do you want to bring toppings?” – Jess

“Sure!” – Nicole

But then the chili wasn’t really chili, and the toppings I brought weren’t really chili toppings. Clearly, we are expert communicators. But there you have it: a masterpiece. Pork Soup with Crispy Crowns & Sea Salt is about to become the best thing that happened to 2014.

A few quick notes:

-First let’s address the elephant in the room: Crispy Crowns??!? That’s right. They’re like the little brother or sister to the Tator Tot, and they are perfectly sized to be the world’s most fantastic addition to a soup/stew like this. They’re not healthy per-say, but a little goes a long way here. My husband thought I was crazy, and now he thinks I’m a genius. It was really luck, and some salt.

-Speaking of salt: In this recipe a standard sea salt will do, but if you are lucky enough to have a Trader Joe’s in your area then get your hands on some of this: Chili & Garlic Smoked Sea Salt. I’m not lucky enough, but I do stock up on it when I travel because unlike their delicious tangy frozen yogurt, this sea salt does just fine on the 80 mile trip back home.


-This is totally a great company-worthy soup/stew. You can make it up to two days ahead of time and reheat before serving, or make it the day of and your house will smell wonderful as the soup simmers while you have that last 50-60 minutes to clean up the dishes before your company arrives: score!

Pork Soup/Stew

Pork Soup with Crispy Crowns & Sea Salt

6 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1 1/2 cups chopped onion

2 cups carrots, peeled & diced

2 tablespoons minced Serrano peppers (or jalapenos, in a pinch)

3 pounds boneless pork loin, trimmed excess fat and cut into 1-inch cubes

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more if needed

Freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons minced garlic

28-ounces plum tomatoes, undrained and coarsely chopped

2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons fresh lime juice (from about 2 limes)

4 cups low-sodium chicken broth

2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro, for garnish

Crispy Crowns, prepared as directed, for serving

Freshly ground sea salt (see second note), for serving

1. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large, heavy, deep-sided pot set over medium-high heat. When hot, add carrots and onion and sauté for 5 minutes, stirring often. Add Serrano peppers and cook 1 minute more. Remove pan from heat and spoon ingredients onto a plate; set aside.

2. Place cubed pork in large resealable plastic bag. Add flour, 1 teaspoon salt, and several grinds of black pepper. Seal bag and shake well to coat pork with flour.

3. Return same heavy pot to medium-high heat and add 2 to 3 more tablespoons oil, or enough to coat bottom of pan lightly. When hot, add enough floured pork cubes to fit comfortably in a single layer in pan (do not crowd). Brown pork for 3-4 minutes, turning often. Using slotted spoon, transfer pork to paper towels to drain. Repeat to brown remaining pork, adding more oil as needed.

4. Return all browned pork to pan and add garlic. Cook and toss 1 minute more. Return reserved onion, carrots, and peppers to pan. Add tomatoes, lime juice, and broth. Bring mixture to soft boil, then reduce heat. Simmer (uncovered) for 40 minutes, then cover and cook until meat is tender, about 50 to 60 minutes more.

5. Preheat oven and prepare baking sheet to cook Crispy Crowns/Tator Tots or whatever other healthy potato option you have found. Bake as directed on package. Taste chili and season with salt and pepper, as needed.

6. To serve, ladle pork chili into deep bowls and sprinkle each portion with cilantro. Top with a few cooked Crispy Crowns and a few grinds of seasoned sea salt.


Inspiration: Sunday Soup

Another great chili that’s not quite a chili:

Slow Cooker Buffalo Chicken ChiliBuffalo Chicken Slow Cooker Chili



Spicy Corn Chowder

Spicy Corn Chowder

Last year for my birthday, Jess gave me the most wonderful cookbook. I knew right away that I was going to love it because America’s Test Kitchen always knocks it out of the park  – I have (and adore) their Slow Cooker Revolution – but I’m embarrassed to say that over one year later I have only made one recipe out of my entire 344 page birthday cookbook. I haven’t made it past page 10! That ONE recipe, though, is outstanding: it has been adapted it a bit to our family’s preferences, but the legwork and credit goes to the crew at ATK!

A few days ago, another of my incredibly generous friends gave the girls and I some sweet corn from her CSA. I didn’t have to give a second thought to what I would do with it, I just had to wait out the weird September heat wave that attacked Wisconsin earlier this week. Today: fall weather. Amelia had to put pants on for the first time in months. Her comment: “Um, these feel funny on my legs.”

So I usually shy away from chowder soups (2+ cups of heavy cream? Butter roux? My already-high cholesterol says “No Thank You!”) but this recipe uses the texture of creamed corn to replace the roux and cuts the cream to 1/2 cup of half-and-half. I don’t recommend using fat-free half-and-half as the extra fat helps to carry the flavor, so substitute with whole milk if you are looking for an alternative.

 Spicy Chicken & Corn Chowder


Spicy Chicken and Corn Chowder

2 cups chicken broth

2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts

5 slices bacon, chopped

1 onion, finely chopped

2 cups corn, cut fresh from cob (or frozen if in a pinch!)

1 jalapeño pepper, stemmed, seeded and finely chopped

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper (or 1/4 tsp if you want to go easy on the heat!)

2 (15 ounce) cans creamed corn

1/2 cup half-and-half

1. Bring chicken broth to a boil in a saucepan. Season chicken with salt and pepper. Using a kitchen shears or sharp knife, cut chicken breasts in half through the thickest part of breast. Season with salt and pepper, then add to boiling broth. Turn heat to medium-low and cover. Allow to cook for about 10-12 minutes before removing from broth. Allow chicken to cool, the shred using two forks. Set aside in a large bowl. Reserve broth.

2. In a large saucepan or Dutch oven, cook bacon over medium heat for 5-7 minutes. Remove bacon and place into bowl with cooked chicken. Add onions to the remaining bacon fat and saute for 5 minutes before adding jalapeno, corn kernels, cayenne pepper, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon black pepper. Cook another 4-5 minutes.

3. Add reserved broth and creamed corn to pot and bring to a boil. Turn heat to medium and cook another five minutes, then add reserved bacon and chicken and the half-and-half. Season with salt and pepper. Continue to cook another 2-5 minutes until chicken is warmed through. Serve warm. Enjoy!

Adapted from America’s Test Kitchen Simple Weeknight Favorites

slow cooker applesauce spice cake

Another thing I’m looking forward to this fall: Apple season. While my trees had a very sad year (4 apples, maybe?!?!) We plan to do some hard-core apple picking to try Jess’s Applesauce Spice Cake and fill up our freezer with slow cooked applesauce!



Handcrafted Snack Mix

Handcrafted Snack Mix

This isn’t technically a recipe, nor is it an activity or a project. I guess it kind of (?) could be considered all-of-the-above. But, let’s get real: this is really really simple, people. Like throw stuff in a container simple.

Happy Trails Mix

I can’t believe I’m calling this a blog post.

Actually, the only reason I am calling it a blog post is because today it saved my sanity. Winter is getting long, so I thought I would share a sanity-saving tip since we’re all in this together. You know, Together: That place where the good, great, or simple ideas of others are shared and propagated so we can all help each other out. But back to how this saved my day x3.

FIRST: I had to go to Target. No really, I did have to go. I had a prescription to pick up. Somehow, my kids looooove trips to the grocery store but get squirrelly on trips to any other kind of store. I don’t get it: same cart.. same concept.. but regardless, they need some extra encouragement. Or the Target people need to step up to the plate and put a SuperTarget here. Either works for me. But today, their ‘extra encouragement’ came in the form of a brainstorming game: “Girls, we’re heading on a roadtrip and will be in the car for awhile. What kind of snack could we pack that wouldn’t make a mess of my car?” As they listed off ideas, we added some things to our list. Target may not technically be a grocery store around here, but they do carry a grand selection of snacks. The  brainstorming toddlers stretched out their snack-wish-list-making for long enough that I made it through the pharmacy and the housewares section, with enough time for a quick swing through the gardening aisle (hello, spring!). Sanity in check.

SECOND: While I attempted to pack for this road trip, they attempted to UNpack. Empty suitcases make glorious pretend cars and peek-a-boo tents. I blame cabin fever and grand imaginations. I abandoned the clothes-packing endeavor and started thinking about the car. Why have six different choices of snack? The only thing that will do is guarantee that they will inevitably want whichever snack I did not pull out of my bag of tricks. Why not mix them all together? Done.

In an attempt to distract them from my suitcase-car, I set an empty Tupperware container on the floor and gave them some 1/4 cup measuring cups. “Mix these things together, but only add one cup at a time.” Genius. More sanity points, and a packed suitcase to boot.

Mixing Trail Mix

THIRD: I needed to have some labs drawn at the hospital, and the girls needed to sit peacefully for the time it took the phlebotomist to do his thing. Kind of nerve-wracking. If  they choose to take off while I’m literally in a tourniquet, well, amongst other things I would lose all of the sanity points I have acquired thus far. Solution: small cups of snack mix. Not only is this a snack, it is also an activity. Like “Seek and Find” or “Where’s Waldo” with an edible reward. They hunt and peck through their bowl for their favorites in a quiet concentration. It is like the kid-version of a bag of Gardetto’s, but without the salt and seasonings and residue on your fingers. All good in my book. So anyway, they sat quietly and I had my arm poked and some old ladies came up and told me what wonderfully behaved little people I had. Thank goodness for snack mix.

This is such a magical concoction that I’m confident they will peacefully sit with their snack mix for the entirety of our road trip without issue.  Or not. But today it looked something like this:

Trail Mix

So really, it’s more than just a bucket full of half-opened crunchy things. It’s choosing and measuring and mixing and testing. It’s searching tirelessly and hollering “marshmallow!!!!” when you thought they were already gone. We do this often, the girls are proud that they “made” their snack and enjoy the process.

Scooping Snack Mix

And I can’t believe I managed a post this long about throwing some snacks into an airtight container. Bon Apetit, or something.


A note about ingredients. Anything goes, really.We tend to incorporate one ‘treat’ ingredient, and are sure to include fiber and protein in addition to the obvious carbohydrates. Today’s Lucky Charms are a nod to the upcoming Saint Patrick’s Day.

I don’t tend to worry about mixing ‘flavors’ as unlike adults, kids are rarely grabbing a handful to eat at once. They prefer to hunt and peck. Cheddar-flavored bunnies with Lucky Charms? No problem.

Here are a few ideas, but often we find what we have on hand and work with that:  

Cereals – varieties similar to Golden Grahams, Cheerios, Kix, Chex, and Fiber One crisps are great grabbing-size

Nuts – peanuts, cashews, pine nuts, pistachios

Sunflower seeds, Pumpkin seeds

Chocolate pieces (chocolate chips, M&Ms, etc) – use caution. mess-potential.

Raisins or other dried fruits

Freeze-dried fruits or vegetables (Target has freeze-dried peas and corn that we have enjoyed)



Cereal Marshmallows (traditional mini marshmallows tend to get tough) – Did you know you can purchase cereal marshmallows in bulk? If you are local, Lamer’s Dairy has them on hand as well.

Cheddar flavored crackers (Goldfish, Annie’s, etc.)


Pieces of graham cracker (or Teddy Grahams, Annie’s bunnies, etc.)

Yogurt covered raisins

Disclaimer: Obviously, because you are wise, I know you will take into account your audience and not feed nuts to babies without teeth and things of that nature.


Four Cheese Cavatappi {aka: Nicole’s Mac & Cheese}

Four Cheese Cavatappi {aka: Nicole’s Mac & Cheese}

Like I mentioned last week, I’m not sure the best way to reacquaint ourselves. Here goes nothing: Hi, I’m Nicole. You might remember that I love to cook.  I can’t think of a better way to get the ball rolling than to share something for which no less than twelve people are waiting for this recipe (apologies for the delay!): Readers, meet my very favorite homemade mac and cheese.

The rage started with an Instagram photo over New Year’s weekend..

Four Cheese Cavatappi

and continued when I served it up at a kiddo/parent playdate, and then again at a football party. And then I ran out of cavatappi pasta and cried.

I’m not sure what else to say about this slow cooked mac&cheese, except that it is stupid delicious.

Okay, maybe I can find a bit more to say about it:

*The cavatappi pasta is a must – it holds up beautifully in the slow cooker while other pastas tend to get too soft.

*The pepper jack and extra sharp cheddars are also a ‘no-substitute’ – they allow a bit of complexity to the end flavor and will not be at all spicy.

*This is the only recipe in my repertoire that uses processed cheese, because try as I may, I have not been able to replicate the creamy texture without it. Let’s just agree to not have this for dinner every evening, okay? Actually, let’s just agree to make this for a large crowd of people so you don’t find yourself sneaking into the pot four (or five, or six) times.

*In my kitchen, instead of buying pre-shredded cheese, I try to buy in blocks and shred cheese right before using it. It could be totally in my head, but I really think it produces a tastier end result.

*If you do find yourself making this for a crowd, the recipe doubles well so long as your slow cooker can handle the volume.

*Rather than mix a topping into the entire pot, I choose to serve it with a topping bar. This works especially well for a meal where both children and adults will be eating. Or when you have some who are less adventurous eaters than others. And let’s face it, topping bars are just fun. I have provided a few ideas below for your mixing pleasure, but often our toppings revolve around what we have on hand.



5 cups uncooked cavatappi pasta (1 16 oz box)
4.5 Tbsp butter, unsalted
12 oz Velveeta cheese, cubed
3/4 cup extra sharp cheddar, shredded
3/4 cup muenster cheese, shredded
3/4 cup pepper jack cheese, shredded
3 tsp  Dijon mustard
1 1/2 cup milk
3/4 cup heavy cream
1 1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper

Cook pasta until just under al dente. Drain, then place pasta in slow cooker. Add remaining ingredients and stir until well combined. Cook on high for 2-3 hours, stirring about every 30 minutes. Serve warm, with assorted toppings if desired (see below).


Suggested Toppings Bar:

*Cooked lobster or crab meat

*Sriracha sauce

*Cooked, crumbled bacon


*Chopped red onion

*Marinated, cooked chicken

*Sun-dried tomatoes

 Last year at this time, BabyFoodScoops whipped up the crowd pleasing, freezer-friendly buffalo chicken chili. What did you think?

Hello there, old friends!

Wow, after {exactly} six months of silence, I’m back. Monday. With a post you won’t want to miss.

But today, I just popped back to say “hello!”

I’m not sure what one says after a prolonged absence. Especially one where I left without saying goodbye. 2012 was sure a trip: there was the wee baby, then the other wee baby,  then my nasty little bout with thyroid cancer, a few additional bumps in the road here and there, and then just like that it’s been half of a year since I’ve shared something here. I haven’t stopped thinking about it, however.

Actually, I have spent quite a great deal of time thinking about why I am drawn to a creative outlet such as this. I wonder if what I share makes a difference in the enormous and sometimes overwhelming World Wide Web. Every person, business and group seems to have a blog, seventeen social media accounts, and an Etsy store to boot. I can’t keep up with reading them sometimes, much less holding my own in terms of keeping up. Hats off to you, five-day-per-week bloggers, but I can’t swing that. I realized that I don’t really want or need to “hold my own” – I’m not selling anything, I still can’t figure out how to keep up with Twitter, and every day there is some new “it” app or site that everyone is creating an account for. Even so, I still wanted to contribute something useful. I guess the thought that I kept coming back to was this: while I don’t think I’m writing anything earth-shattering and I’m not angling for my own HGTV show, I still feel that I have something to share to give back to the internet community from which I have taken so much. I’m a blog-reading addict who syphons ideas from Pinterest, I haven’t purchased paper towel or toilet paper in a brick&mortar store in years, don’t even get me started with Zulily and I am kind of obsessed with Instagram. As you can see, the internet and I are good friends. I don’t want to just take, take, take.. every once in awhile I have something worth sharing!

You see, I have always been drawn to hearing real ideas, recipes and words from real people who tried them themselves. Cooking blogs over cookbooks; dialogue over directions; honest accounts over sales pitches. Some of our posts have really made a difference in people’s kitchens, home decor, and ability to sleep past 5am. More importantly, your comments sharing that these things have made a difference to you is what propels us forward!

See you Monday morning, bright and early!

 Last year at this time, Jess whipped up a roasted red pepper pestoHave you tried it yet? 

Roasted Red Pepper Pesto

The Marinated Cheese

The Marinated Cheese

I have been enthusiastically following blogs since before I can remember.

Okay, so maybe not that long, but at least a good eight-or-so years. This hobby(?) started with a few great food blogs and over the years has transitioned and grown into a variety of interests. Over the past couple of weeks, I have noticed many of the bloggers that I follow mentioning something along the lines of: “I’m sorry I haven’t been keeping up..” or “Apologies for the lack of posts lately..” To that I say, “Hey people, relax, it’s still summertime!” Let us spend these lovely summer evenings in the company of family/friends/neighbors and the outdoors, as chilly days with less glorious weather are ahead of us. Continue Reading »

Sriracha Chicken and Roasted Vegetables

Sriracha Chicken and Roasted Vegetables

Some like it hot. Some like it humid. Me? Not so much. I’m all about ‘warm’ weather, but I reserve admiration of the term ‘hot’ for spicy food. Lucky for us, a ‘cold front’ moved in and dropped the temperature to a more manageable (?) 87 degrees. So, it’s still balmy.

My siblings and I joke about how my father would moan and groan whenever my mother turned on the oven in the summertime, so I dedicate this roast chicken to him. While most of you probably have your roasting pans hidden away until Thanksgiving, I implore you to give this a try the next time you spy a good looking chicken at the deli. Spicy food and hot weather pair extremely well together, if for no other reason than they are both relieved by an ice cold glass of something! Perhaps it is no mistake that those pepper plants love the high temperatures. Continue Reading »

Bedroom/Bathroom Makeover

Bedroom/Bathroom Makeover

I have been promising for a long time to share our master bedroom/bathroom makeover with you and finally I am able! It was a lot of work to get the rooms to the point where I was able to post photos but the rooms are 99% complete so I am happy to share them with you. The biggest problem with our bedroom is that it’s massive, not in a good way. All of our furniture was too small but I didn’t want to break the bank and buy all new furniture. I figured I could purchase a couple of pieces to help fill in the space but the rest was going to have to work for now. The goals for our bedroom and bath were to make it feel more cozy and showcase our family. I wanted a space where I could relax and end/start the day with very positive emotions. We all know that when you have children, you have tough days and no matter how difficult the day I wanted to feel relaxed and crazy in love with my family. Continue Reading »

Easy-er Whole Wheat Lasagna

I absolutely LOVE lasagna but whenever I make it I make a complete mess of our kitchen. I use every pot, pan and dish in our kitchen which drives my husband absolutely crazy. SO, when I found this recipe, I fell in love and had to share it with all of you. It is a no-boil noodle recipe and it turns out perfectly. I actually prefer it to other recipes because the noodles soak up the excess moisture plus you don’t have to use a pot to boil the noodles or a colander!

No-Boil Noodle Lasagna Recipe

1 lb. Italian sausage
8 oz. whole wheat noodles uncooked
1/2 clove garlic (1 tsp.)
2 T. parsley leaves
1/2 t. oregano
1/2 t. basil
1/2 t. sugar
1 can 16 oz. tomato paste
1 can 15 oz. tomato sauce
1/2 c. water
24 oz. cottage cheese
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 t. pepper
1/2 c. Parmesan cheese
3 c. mozzarella cheese (shredded)

  1. Fry meat. Drain off fat and add garlic, 1 T. parsley, oregano, basil, sugar, tomato paste, sauce and water.
  2. Bring to a boil and simmer on low 15 minutes covered.
  3. Combine cottage cheese, eggs, 1 T. parsley, pepper, mozzarella and Parmesan.
  4. Spray entire pan with Pam. Layer sauce, noodles, cottage cheese mix, repeat (ending with cheese on top).
  5. Cook 350-375 degrees for 30 – 40 minutes.

Yum yum, eat up!

Here’s what we were blogging about this time last year.

Twenty-Minute Tuesday: Breakfast Muesli with Cranberries and Flaxseed

Raspberry Mint White Sangria

Raspberry Mint White Sangria

In honor of the impending holiday weekend, and in honor of my abundant hydroponic herb stash, today I share with you something that will rock your socks off. Because who needs socks after Memorial Day? Afterall, it’s summertime!

Has a particular version of food or drink ever “ruined” you for its lesser alternatives? As in, you avoid other alternatives all together because they cannot hardly compare to the real deal? I find this happens to us more and more frequently as we wind our way through our culinary lives. A friend’s butterscotch bars have me turning down any store-bought or potluck version… I won’t order tiramisu unless it’s made-to-order like one of my favorite local restaurant’s.. things like this. Am I alone here? (“Where is she going with this??” .. I hear you..) Continue Reading »