Mom’s Crazy Chili

Nothing sounds better on a freezing cold night than a big bowl of chili. It’s warm, hearty, delicious comfort food – but it can be healthy comfort food! The best thing about chili is that you can pretty much add whatever ingredients you want as long as you have the basics: meat, beans, beer, and the right spices (that’s right: beer).

I may be biased, but I believe my mom makes the best chili. When I called her to ask her for the recipe (for about the 15th time), she replied, “Well, I just add a little of this and a little of that.” I asked, “Well do you know how much chili powder or cumin you add?” She answered, “I add enough to make it taste good.” So I improvised. That’s why I call it my mom’s crazy chili recipe – there really isn’t any set recipe. But those basics I mentioned are in there, and that’s the key. I also truly believe that beer is the secret ingredient to setting this one over the top.

I’m going to break down necessary ingredients and optional ingredients. I’ll also give you healthy and indulgent options. Lastly, you can make this either on the stove or in the crock pot, so I’ll give you both options there, too. However, there is one area where you don’t have an option: you cannot make just a little bit of chili. You have to make a giant pot. But that’s a good problem to have because chili makes the best leftovers!

This one was hard to tag because you can make it as healthy as you want! As long as you have the basics, it's delicious.

This one was hard to tag because you can make it as healthy as you want! As long as you have the basics, it’s delicious.

What you’ll need:

Necessary ingredients:

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1-1.25 pounds ground meat – use ground turkey for a healthier option, but I love the taste of ground beef.
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 4 teaspoons minced garlic – not necessary to have fresh garlic, but garlic in general is necessary. Use more garlic powder if you don’t use fresh garlic.
  • 1 tablespoon garlic powder – garlic powder is necessary, even if you use fresh garlic. If you don’t use fresh garlic, too, then triple the garlic powder.
  • 4 tablespoons cumin
  • 4 tablespoons chili powder
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 28 ounce can crushed tomatoes
  • 1 can or bottle of dark beer – ales, nut browns, stouts, or porters are the best. In a pinch, you can use a light beer, but stay away from IPAs.
  • 2 cans red kidney beans, rinsed

Optional ingredients:

  • Bell peppers, chopped – I like green because it adds color; I use 2 bell peppers
  • Cayenne pepper – adjust the amount to make it more or less spicy; I use 1/2 teaspoon
  • Celery, chopped – it adds a nice crunch to the chili, just use however much you have in the fridge
  • Carrots, chopped – it adds a little sweetness to the chili, again, use however much you have in the fridge
  • Bacon, crumbled – either turkey bacon or regular bacon is delicious, turkey bacon is healthier
  • Rice – it’s traditional in my family to serve chili over rice
  • Cheddar cheese – I love topping my chili with cheese!

What you’ll need to do:

Brown your meat in the two tablespoons olive oil over medium-high heat on the stove for about 5-7 minutes. If you’re going to use a crock pot, use a large pan. If you’re going to make the chili in a pot on the stove, just brown the meat in the pot. As the meat is browning, constantly break it apart with a wooden spoon. You want the meat to be smaller crumbles instead of large chunks.

Or, as an alternative, cook the bacon in the pan first. Cut or tear the bacon into smaller pieces and put them in the pan so that they cook faster and so you don’t have to crumble it later. If you’re cooking turkey bacon, cook the turkey bacon in the olive oil. If you’re cooking regular bacon, don’t put any oil in the pan. Then brown your meat in the same pan with the bacon drippings.

When the meat has browned, turn the heat down to medium and add the onion. If you’re using fresh garlic or bell peppers, add those at this time, too. Cook for about 3 minutes or until the onion has turned translucent. Add all your dry spices, except the bay leaves, and stir with the spoon until the spices thoroughly coat the meat and veggies.

I used turkey chili here, but the spices added the darker color.

I used turkey chili here, but the spices added the darker color.

If you’re cooking in a crock pot, transfer the meat and veggies into the crock pot. Add the can of crushed tomatoes, beer, and bay leaves, either in the crock pot or big pot on the stove. Stir to mix.

Cover and let cook for many hours. If you’re using the crock pot, set on low heat for at least 6 hours – you can let this cook all day if you’re making it on a work day. If you’re cooking on the stove, turn the heat to low and let simmer for at least 4 hours, stirring occasionally. The chili generally tastes better the longer you let it cook.

This will make your house smell wonderful all day!

This will make your house smell wonderful all day!

In the last hour of cooking, add your kidney beans. You can also add celery or carrots at this time if you’re using them. Stir and cover.

I love serving my chili over rice and topping it with cheddar cheese. In my family, we’ve also been known to put chili over tamales, but that may be a Southern California thing. Of course, chili is also delicious on hot dogs, fries, or other ballpark food. I’ve also heard of people putting chili over noodles. If you want to make it healthier, chili would also be good over quinoa. But you don’t have to pair it with anything at all – this chili is also delicious all by itself.

Enjoy!

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Sandy’s Sweet Potatoes in Orange Cups

Every Thanksgiving, there is one dish I look forward to more than anything else because I only get it once a year on Thanksgiving Day: Aunt Sandy’s sweet potatoes in orange cups. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to travel back to California for Thanksgiving for the past few years so I haven’t been able to enjoy the dish from Aunt Sandy herself. So, I begged her for the recipe so I could make them myself.

I love these sweet potatoes because they’re different than the traditional heaps of sugary, one-note sweet potato casserole. These come in little individual servings inside hollowed out orange peels, which is not only convenient but also gives the sweet potatoes a little citrusy kick. I love the citrus in these because it cuts the over-the-top sweetness. Don’t worry, I still add marshmallows and this could still pass as a dessert. But the orange adds another layer of flavor to an otherwise simply sweet dish.

This delicious side dish comes in individual servings and tastes like candy. Yum!

This delicious side dish comes in individual servings and tastes like candy. Yum!

What you’ll need:
8 sweet potatoes
1 stick of butter or margarine, melted
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup white sugar
2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
12 oranges
4 eggs, beaten

What you’ll need to do:

Start by boiling the sweet potatoes in their jackets in a large pot of water for about 45 minutes. Poke the sweet potatoes with a fork to check tenderness.

While the potatoes boil, cut your oranges in half, juice them, and then scoop out the flesh. This is by far the most time-consuming part of the job – luckily I had my Mom here to help me this year! Be very careful of scooping out the flesh because you don’t want to tear the orange cups. Save the juice because you’ll need it later. Arrange the hollowed out orange cups in a casserole dish.

When the sweet potatoes are soft, peel the skin from them and mash. Add the butter and mix with an electric mixer. Add the eggs. Next, add the sugar and spices. Add 1/4 cup orange juice from your reserves to the mixture – the rest of the fresh-squeezed orange juice is a treat for the chef! Mix the potato mixture thoroughly.

Scoop the sweet potato mixture into the orange cups. Cook for 40 minutes on 350 degrees.

You can even make these ahead of time and freeze them!

You can even make these ahead of time and freeze them!

When you have about 10 minutes left in cooking, top the sweet potatoes with marshmallows and pop them back in the oven.

Enjoy!

Pumpkin Pie

I love Fall because it gives me the excuse to eat pumpkin everything. There’s pumpkin spice lattes, pumpkin bread, pumpkin spice Ghirardelli chocolates, and – the greatest of all – pumpkin pie.

This year I was ambitious with my pumpkin pie because I made it from a fresh pumpkin. Normally I use canned pumpkin, but a trip to a pumpkin farm earlier this Fall inspired me. I was surprised at how easy it was! It’s a little more time consuming than simply opening a can, but it was well worth the extra effort. Not only did I get delicious pumpkin meat for my pie, but I also roasted the pumpkin seeds. Needless to say, there was no leftover pumpkin pie this Thanksgiving!

I admit, I usually use a lot more whipped cream than this but it didn't make for a pretty picture. Yum!

I admit, I usually use a lot more whipped cream than this but it didn’t make for a pretty picture. Yum!

What you’ll need:
1 small fresh sweet sugar pie pumpkin OR 1 can pumpkin
2 eggs slightly beaten
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1 12-ounce can of evaporated milk
1/2 cup chopped pecans (optional).
1 unbaked pie shell

What you’ll need to do:

Preheat your oven to 425 degrees. Spray a pie pan with cooking spray and lay out your pie shell. I like to press the chopped pecans into the crust!

I love the surprise nuttiness of the pecans!

I love the surprise crunchiness of the pecans!

If you use fresh pumpkin, start by carving out all the pumpkin meat. I cut my pumpkin into small strips and then cut off the outer shell. I then cut the pumpkin meat into cubes and put it in a large pot of water with a steaming basket. Put about a cup of water in a large pot on your stove with the pumpkin meat in the steaming basket and turn the heat on high. Cover and steam your pumpkin for about 15 minutes or until tender.

Steaming the pumpkin is better than boiling because it helps the pumpkin retain its flavor.

Steaming the pumpkin is better than boiling because it helps the pumpkin retain its flavor.

When your pumpkin is tender, put it in a food processor or blender and pulse until smooth. Measure out 1 cup of the pumpkin puree for the pie. Freeze the rest for another recipe later.

Freezing the leftovers is great for future pumpkin bread or muffins!

Freezing the leftovers is great for future pumpkin bread or muffins!

Mix all ingredients together and pour into the unbaked pie shell. Bake at 425 degrees for 15 minutes, then turn the temperature down to 350 degrees. If you use fresh pumpkin, bake for an additional hour. If you use canned pumpkin, bake for 45 minutes.

Be careful of spilling, the pie batter is very thin when you put it in the oven.

Be careful of spilling, the pie batter is very thin when you put it in the oven.

Cool and serve with whipped cream.

Delicious. I almost can't wait for it to cool before I have a slice.

Delicious. I almost can’t wait for it to cool before I have a slice.

Enjoy!

Aunt Gwen’s Pecan Pie

There are a few perks to growing up in a great big Southern family. Growing up, I learned Southern hospitality, manners, traditions, and – most importantly – I was spoiled with Southern food. I’ve traveled to the South to visit extended family a few times. One of my fondest memories was traveling to Granbury, Texas to visit my great-aunt and -uncle who lived on a pecan plantation. I was very young at the time, but I enjoyed touring the plantation with my Uncle Frank on his golf cart with his dog, Buffy – he even let me drive a little! My Aunt Gwen spoiled us in the mornings with pecan-crusted sticky buns and family stories.

Years later when I needed pie recipes, I knew exactly who to ask. You can’t beat getting a pecan pie recipe from a Southern woman who lived on a pecan plantation! I’ve made Aunt Gwen’s pecan pie recipe for many years, and it’s definitely a favorite in my house. And it’s so easy to make!

I love making this pie for many special occasions. It's a real crowd-pleaser, and it's so easy!

I love making this pie for many special occasions. It’s a real crowd-pleaser, and it’s so easy!

What you’ll need:
3 eggs, slightly beaten
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon flour (rounded)
3/4 cup dark Karo
1/4 cup light Karo
3 tablespoons butter
1 cup pecans
1 tsp vanilla
1 unbaked pie shell

What you’ll need to do:

Preheat your oven to 350. Spray a pie pan with cooking spray and then lay out your pie shell.

Mix all of the ingredients in a bowl. Pour into the pie shell.

Perfectly delicious.

Perfectly delicious.

Bake for 1 hour.

Enjoy!

**Tip: To make this pie sugar-free, just replace one cup of sugar-free syrup instead of the light and dark Karo.

Thanksgiving: The Feast

The Feast.

Thanksgiving is a cook’s Super Bowl. It’s an opportunity to break out all the favorite dishes and go nuts. Rather than a typical meal with one or two side dishes, Thanksgiving calls for at least five – and that doesn’t include dessert. It’s also an opportunity to cheat a little on the healthier options I usually cook and add a little butter. Besides, there is nothing more relaxing to me than cooking all day.

I’ve had the opportunity to cook Thanksgiving dinner for a couple years now, but this year was my best yet. My whole family flew out to Chicago to celebrate and SeaJetCook in action (get it?!). This year, my lineup included a beautiful turkey with gravy, sourdough bread stuffing, a tangy cranberry pear sauce, sweet potatoes in orange cups, a skinny scalloped potato gratin, steamed green beans, fluffy biscuits, and two kinds of pie: the obligatory pecan and pumpkin.

I’m going to do this series of posts a little differently than normal. This post won’t actually include any recipes. Instead, it’ll be a play-by-play of how I organized the day. Don’t worry, I’ll include links to all the recipes, too. But the most daunting part of planning Thanksgiving is figuring out how to make everything by yourself in one oven. So here’s my game plan. Enjoy, everyone!

A Few Days Before the Big Day

Get all your groceries, including the turkey. You can also get all your veggies and keep them in the crisper in the fridge. Only potatoes and onions need to stay out on the counter.

I generally like gettingĀ  a fresh turkey instead of frozen. But if you do buy frozen, put it in your refrigerator to defrost over the next few days – it generally takes 24 hours for every 5lbs to defrost. If you’re in a hurry to defrost, you can put the turkey in a big pot of cold water (like my chicken recipe). It takes about 30 minutes for every pound to defrost in water.

The Night Before the Big Day

Double check that you have all your ingredients for the next day. There’s nothing worse than running to the grocery store on Thanksgiving Day while juggling 5 side dishes because you forgot something.

Clean the turkey. Remove everything from the cavity (giblets, neck, and plastic bag) and discard. Place the turkey in the sink and thoroughly rinse the inside cavity and skin with cool water. This helps remove any bacteria within the cavity or on the skin.

Brine the turkey in a large pot. This takes about an hour to prepare the brine, so don’t do it too late! Store in the refrigerator overnight. I’m all about brining these days. It’s makes the turkey perfectly moist and seasoned. Brine the turkey no matter how you cook it!

The Morning of the Big Day

8:00 A.M. Wake up and make a good breakfast for the family. Our tradition is Pillsbury cinnamon rolls.

  • While the cinnamon rolls are cooking, start preparing the pumpkin for pie. Cut the pumpkin from the skin and steam for about 15 minutes. If you want to use canned pumpkin, skip this step.
9:00 A.M.Start making the pumpkin and pecan pies – this takes about 15 minutes. Make sure both are ready to go in the oven at the same time.
  • Start with the pumpkin pie. It takes 15 minutes on 425 degrees before you turn down the head to 350.
  • When you turn the heat down to 350, pop the pecan pie in. Both pies cook at 350 for an hour.
  • While the pies cook, peel and prepare the potatoes for the skinny scalloped potato gratin. Have the gratin ready to go in the oven as soon as the pies are done.
  • If you have extra time, skip ahead and start getting the sweet potatoes ready – these take a long time!
9:30 A.M.The pies should done. Take them out of the oven and set them aside to cool. Crank the temperature back up to 425 degrees and bake the Skinny Scalloped Potato Gratin for 45 minutes.
10:30 A.M.(with a little time buffer) Your gratin should be done, and the sweet potatoes and the stuffing should be prepared. Turn the temperature on the oven back down to 350 degrees. Put the sweet potatoes and the stuffing in the oven for 40 minutes.
  • Do some dishes, then go relax! You deserve it!
11:20 A.M.Pull the sweet potatoes and stuffing out of the oven and set aside to cool. Get the turkey out of the fridge and start getting it ready for the oven.
  • Place the turkey on a roasting pan and season with garlic salt, Italian seasoning, and melted butter.
  • Chop up some leftover veggies and fill the cavity of the turkey (I used 4 stalks of celery and 2 small onions). This adds flavor and moisture to the turkey, even if you’re not going to be eating those veggies.
11:30 A.M.Put the turkey in the oven at 325 degrees. Here’s a timetable for roasting the turkey from the USDA:
  • 8 to 12 lbs: 2 3/4 to 3 hrs
  • 12 to 14 lbs: 3 to 3 3/4 hrs
  • 14 to 18 lbs: 3 3/4 to 4 1/4 hrs
  • 18 to 20 lbs: 4 1/4 to 4 1/2 hrs
  • 20 to 24 lbs: 4 1/2 to 5 hrs
  • Cook to an internal temperature of 165 degrees.
The Afternoon of the Big Day
11:30 A.M. to 3:30 P.M.Relax! Play board games with the family. Have a glass (or two) of wine. Put your feet up. Every couple hours check on the turkey and baste with more melted butter.
3:30 P.M.Check the turkey. If it’s done, take it out of the oven and let it rest so the juices can redistribute in the meat.
  • Turn the temperature up to 350 degrees and pop in some Pillsbury rolls. I know I cheated a little bit here, but those are so delicious and easy! They take 15 minutes to make. I don’t have a recipe for this one, so don’t forget them at the store.
  • While the rolls cook, get the gravy and the cranberry sauce on the stove. Both are easy to make and only take about 15 minutes.
  • After the gravy and cranberry sauce are simmering on the stove, prepare your green beans.
4:00 P.M.FEAST! Break open a couple bottles of wine, set the table, and dig in.
I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving and can use my guide for next year. Until then, enjoy all the components by themselves! Turkeys are on sale now, so I already bought a couple small ones and stuck them in my freezer. Sometimes in January I’ll pull one of them out and have a feast, part two.

The Feast on my plate!

The Perfect Pancake (with Strawberries and Whipped Cream)

My earliest cooking memories are sitting on the kitchen counter and cracking eggs while “helping” my dad make one of his Bisquick specialties – I couldn’t have been more than 2 or 3 years old. Cooking with Dad was a weekend tradition in my family, and every Saturday and Sunday we made something off the back of the Bisquick box, whether it be pancakes, waffles, or coffee cake.

Needless to say, I’ve come a long way since adding egg shells to pancake batter, but cooking off the back of the Bisquick box remains a weekend tradition (I’m partial to Bisquick because you have to add milk, all those “just add water” pancake mixes aren’t nearly as good). Here’s my step-by-step on how to make the perfect pancake so you can start your own weekend family tradition.

Nothing beats pancakes with fresh berries on a lazy Sunday morning.

What you’ll need (makes 2 servings):
1 cup Bisquick
2/3 cup milk
1 egg
Splash of vanilla

What you’ll need to do:

Preheat your pan one tick over medium on your stove so it’s just slightly medium-high. Spray your pan with cooking spray (you’ll only do this for the first batch of pancakes, don’t keep spraying every time you add batter to the pan).

I always stir my pancake batter in a larger measuring cup. This helps save dishes, and I love how my measuring cup has a spout for easy pouring.

I pour my ingredients right up to the measurement lines. 1 cup of Bisquick goes in first, then I fill the milk up to the 1 2/3 mark, and then just add the egg and vanilla. Easy as that.

Simply combine all your ingredients. Your batter will be slightly runny. The runnier the batter is, the thinner your pancake will be.

When the batter drizzles off your spoon, it’s perfect. It should be about the same consistency as cake batter (hence, pan-cakes).

Pour just a few tablespoons worth of batter into your pan so that it takes up about 1/3 of your pan (you’ll want to fit 3 or 4 pancakes in there). I’m careful to not make my pancakes too big, because the bigger they are the harder they are to successfully flip. Watch your pancakes, and after a few minutes you’ll see bubbles start to come up around the edges and throughout the pancake.

All those beautiful bubbles let me know these babies are ready to flip.

Use a large spatula to flip your pancakes, making sure to get completely under the pancake before you flip it so that it doesn’t fold on you (don’t worry if it does, it’ll still taste good!).

Post flip – beautiful!

After your pancakes are flipped, let them sit for just a couple minutes to cook the other side.

Serve with sliced strawberries and whipped cream, syrup, or (Clinton’s favorite) Nutella. In less than 20 minutes with all kitchen staples, you have a beautiful, fun Sunday breakfast. Enjoy!

Mom’s Sticky Buns with Butterscotch and Pecans

Every year for Easter, my mom makes these sticky buns that my brothers and I look forward to more than any Easter basket or egg hunt. They’re ooey and gooey, dripping with butterscotch and pecans. The rolls themselves are soft and chewy, making every forkful utterly indulgent.

And they’re very easy to make! Aside from being a delicious treat, my mom likes to make this for the holidays because a bulk of the work is done the night before. This way, all she has do to is pop them in the oven in the morning so she can enjoy us kids opening our Easter baskets without laboring in the kitchen.

This is my favorite family recipe of all time, and I look forward to these every year.

What you’ll need:
1 15 ounce pack uncooked frozen dinner rolls (or about 15 rolls), make sure they’re not the already cooked “bake in 6 minutes” kind
1 box butterscotch pudding, not instant (if you can’t find butterscotch, vanilla is also tasty)
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup butter, melted
2 cups chopped pecans

What you’ll need to do:

Grease a 10-12 cup bundt pan. Arrange balls of dough in pan, evenly spreading them around the pan. Then, sprinkle the pudding mix and then the brown sugar. Pour melted butter over the top of the mixture and then sprinkle with nuts.

It seems like the pan is not filled nearly enough, but these rolls rise and incredible amount by morning.

Lastly, cover it with a towel and let it rise overnight. I generally allow for about 10 hours.

When you wake up in the morning, the dough will be nice and risen.

This is what you'll wake up to in the morning before it's baked. It's amazing how much the dough rises!

Bake at 325 degrees for about 30 minutes.

Flip onto a serving dish and enjoy! My family always eats this as our Easter treat, but it would be great on any other holiday morning.

Grandma’s Grilled Cheese

I’ve made grilled cheese sandwiches my whole life, but never realized until very recently that I always made them the same way my Grandma does. My grandma taught my mom, my mom taught my dad, and one of my parents (I forget exactly who) taught me. Either way, this is the easiest way to get a perfect grilled cheese sandwich any time the craving strikes.

The trick with this grilled cheese sandwich is the butter. By putting butter on the non-cheese-facing side of the bread, the bread grills perfectly while melting the cheese on the other side. If you don’t use butter, your bread will burn before the cheese is fully melted. And microwaving doesn’t work either – it’s grilled cheese, after all. I guess that’s what you get when you come from a Southern family – butter is always the trick.

Delicious grilled cheese, so gooey that the cheese runs right out onto your plate.

What you’ll need:
1 tablespoon of butter or margarine (1/2 tablespoon for each slice of bread)
2 slices of bread
A few slices of sharp cheddar cheese

What you’ll need to do:

Heat your grill pan over medium-high heat.

Spread butter or margarine on one side of each slice of bread. Have your cheese sliced and ready to go.

Make sure to cover the bread entirely with the butter or margarine. It helps the heat from the pan go straight through the bread to melt the cheese.

Put one slice of bread on the grill pan, butter side down. Stack the cheese on top of the bread, making sure to cover as many edges as you can. Top with the other slice of bread, butter side up.

After a couple of minutes, flip your sandwich to grill the other side. You’ll see nice golden-brown grill marks on the cooked side.

The grill pan makes beautiful grill marks, but you can just as easily use a regular pan instead.

After a couple more minutes, your sandwich is done. You’re left with perfectly grilled bread and gooey melted cheese on the inside. This sandwich is great to eat alone, or served with a bowl of tomato soup.