cheesy sausage, veggie and pasta skillet

Okay, I admit it. I loooove the new Velveeta cheesy skillet commercials. They are hilarious, and I've found myself proclaiming, "Liquid gooooold!" to anyone who will tolerate me. Not a lot of people.

But while I love the commercials, I have to admit that it's been a really long time since I've had Velveeta. Let's just say that I have too much respect for good cheeses. And maybe it's also because Velveeta isn't actually cheese. Rather, it's a pasteurized process cheese spread. Hmmm.

I'm not going to lie, I did a little research about what Velveeta actually is. It's a pretty complicated product to try to understand, much less explain, so I'm not even going to try. (But if you want to check it out, this was a pretty good site.) This in and of itself makes me nervous.

My point is, I wanted to find an alternative to the easy and quick, one-pot meal. One that packed a punch of flavor with lots of veggies and whole grains. Found it! This one came together in about 30 minutes, using one pot filled with whole-grain pasta, spinach, tomatoes and more. And the sausage can be lean chicken or turkey varieties and no one would be the wiser. Now, that's my kind of cheesy skillet. Enjoy!

Cheesy Sausage, Veggie and Pasta Skillet
  • 1 lb. lean Italian turkey sausage, ground
  • 1 small onion (or 1/2 large), chopped
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/2 large green pepper, seeded and chopped
  • 1 can (14.5 oz) fire-roasted tomatoes, undrained 
  • 8 oz tomato sauce
  • 1/4 tsp fennel seeds 
  • 1-1/4 cups hot water
  • 8 oz dry whole-grain bowtie pasta, uncooked
  • 6 oz fresh spinach leaves
  • 1/3 cup fresh shredded Parmesan cheese 
  • Handful fresh, chopped basil
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper
  • Crushed red pepper, optional
  1. Brown sausage over medium heat with a little olive oil. Remove from pan and drain off any fat. Add onion, garlic and green pepper to pan with a little more olive oil until soft. Salt and pepper to taste.
  2. Add sausage back to pan with sauteed veggies, tomatoes, sauce, fennel seeds and water. Bring to a boil, cover and reduce heat. Simmer 15 minutes. (Make a salad to go with it!)
  3. Stir pasta well to make sure all the noodles are evenly cooked. Add spinach, most of the Parmesan (reserve a tablespoon or two for topping), basil and a sprinkle of crushed red pepper. Taste and adjust the salt and pepper as needed. Serve immediately, topped with a little basil and cheese.


chicken and brown rice with mushrooms

This was super yummy and healthy. And it made some coworkers jealous of my leftovers for lunch. :) Make this when you have some leftover chicken and aren't sure what to do with it but want a healthy, easy meal.

I should note that I made the mistake of using regular brown rice instead of basmati brown rice. The rice took a little longer to cook and threw me off my game a little. Be sure to try it with the correct type of rice! From what I've read, the basmati rice has a more robust flavor anyways. Can't wait to try it again with basmati.
Chicken and Rice with Mushrooms
  • 2 cups chicken broth (homemade!)
  • Olive oil
  • 1 pound white meat chicken, cooked and chopped into 1-inch pieces
  • 1 teaspoon sweet paprika
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, divided
  • 3/4 cup chopped onion
  • 2-3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 8 ounces sliced mushrooms
  • 3/4 cup uncooked brown basmati rice
  • 2 cups frozen green peas, thawed
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme (or 1/2 tbsp dried)
  1. Start by bringing chicken broth to a simmer in a small sauce pan. In a larger pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat and add the onion, garlic and mushrooms. Sprinkle with paprika, salt and pepper.
  2. When the vegetables are soft and translucent, add the simmering chicken broth and rice. Increase heat and bring to a boil. Turn the heat to low and top with a lid. Simmer for 35 minutes.
  3. When the rice is almost tender, add the chicken, peas and thyme. Cover and cook 10 more minutes or until rice is soft. Taste and season with salt and pepper, if needed.


spinach and lentil soup with cheese and basil

The hubs has been eating a spinach-lentil soup at work for lunch quite a bit, and coming home raving about it. I happen to be a born-again lover of the lentil, and was inspired by our mutual affinity to try and make it. This soup starts with a couple of slices of bacon (always a winner in my book!) and gave me the opportunity to use some of my home-grown, dried thyme and homemade chicken broth. I was in.

The final product is a tasty and creamy, yet almost meaty, filling soup. It's also super good for you. Lentils are a low-calorie powerhouse, high in fiber, protein, B vitamins and iron. In fact, lentils are credited for helping to reduce your risk of heart disease! Pair this soup with a crusty chunk of toasted cheese-topped bread and call it a night.

Spinach and Letil Soup with Cheese and Basil
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 cup chopped bacon or pancetta (about 1 ounce)
  • 1 1/4 cups chopped onion
  • 3/4 cup chopped celery
  • 3/4 cup chopped carrot
  • 1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 cup dried brown lentils
  • 3 cups fat-free, lower-sodium chicken broth
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 (6-ounce) package fresh baby spinach
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh basil
  • 1/4 cup (1 ounce) grated fresh Parmesan cheese
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  1. Heat a Dutch oven over medium heat. Add oil to pan; swirl to coat. Add bacon or pancetta; cook 1 minute or until it begins to brown, stirring occasionally. Add onion and next 4 ingredients (through bay leaf); cook 8 minutes or until vegetables are tender, stirring occasionally. Add lentils, broth, and 2 cups water; bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer 40 minutes or until lentils are tender and mixture is slightly thickened. Remove from heat. Discard bay leaf.
  2. Place 2 cups lentil mixture in a blender. Remove the center piece of blender lid (to allow steam to escape), and secure blender lid on blender. Place a clean towel over opening in blender lid (to avoid splatters), and blend until smooth. Return pureed lentil mixture to pan.
  3. Add baby spinach, chopped basil, Parmesan cheese, lemon juice, and black pepper; stir until spinach wilts. Serve immediately.


maple-mustard glazed chicken with sesame-roasted broccoli

I'm not a fan of an overly maple flavor in my food, which is why I think I liked this dish. The maple was just present in the background and was balanced by the tang of the mustard and vinegar. You'll have to pinch yourself as a reminder that it's good for you!

I paired this with a sesame-roasted broccoli side dish, which took as long to roast as it did to cook the chicken - 20 minutes. Not bad for a healthy dinner! This one is weeknight approved and a dinner you can feel good about eating.

Oh, and as a side note: For several months now, we have been slicing our chicken breasts in half lengthwise, only eating half per person per meal. This change came about partly because we have been eating higher quality meats, which are more expensive, and partly because we found ourselves struggling to eat a whole chicken breasts during our meals. Now, we no longer waste meat and keep our portions of it in check. Honestly, I don't think either of us miss the full serving!

Maple-Mustard Glazed Chicken
  • 2 teaspoons olive oil
  • 4 (6-ounce) skinless, boneless chicken breast halves*
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1/4 cup fat-free, lower-sodium chicken broth
  • 1/4 cup maple syrup
  • 2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme (use half this amount if dried)
  • 2 medium garlic cloves, thinly sliced
  • 1 tablespoon cider vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon stone-ground mustard
  1. Preheat oven to 400°.
  2. Heat a large ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat. Add oil; swirl to coat. Sprinkle chicken with pepper and salt. Add chicken to pan; sauté 2 minutes on each side or until browned. Remove chicken from pan. Add broth, syrup, thyme, and garlic to pan; bring to a boil, scraping pan to loosen browned bits. Cook 2 minutes, stirring frequently. Add vinegar and mustard; cook for 1 minute, stirring constantly.
  3. Return chicken to pan, and spoon mustard mixture over chicken. Bake at 400° for 10 minutes or until the chicken is done. Remove chicken from pan; let stand 5 minutes. Place pan over medium heat; cook mustard mixture 2 minutes or until liquid is syrupy, stirring frequently. Serve with chicken.

 *Note: If you choose to slice your chicken breasts in half like we do, then you may find that your chicken is practically cooked by the time it's browned in step two. If so, simply remove the chicken from the pan and tent it with foil on a plate. Skip the part where it is placed in the oven, and instead add it back to the pan when the sauce is nearly complete. It'll be perfect, I promise!
Quick Sesame-Roasted Broccoli
  • 1 large head of broccoli, cut into florets
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • Sesame oil
  • Salt and pepper
  • Pine nuts
  • Parmesan cheese
  1. Preheat oven to 400. Toss florets, garlic and a drizzle of oil together on a baking sheet. The broccoli should not look dry. Sprinkle with pine nuts. Roast for 10 minutes, stir, and continue roasting for another 10.
  2. Remove from oven and finish with a light sprinkle of Parmesan. Serve.


want to lose weight? eat food.

Seems counter intuitive, doesn't it? If you're trying to lose weight, shouldn't you try everything in your power to eat less food? Well, yes. But, perhaps more important, you should get rid of the foods that are making you fat. Stay with me.

Each January, we are barraged with ads from food manufacturers trying to sell their lighted-up, supposedly healthy products, which they claim will help you shed weight. These products are expensive, don't taste good and are filled with God-knows-what to shave off calories. And each year, people, bolstered by their resolutions to finally change their bodies, eagerly buy into these claims, racking up expensive grocery bills and carts full of nutritionally empty foods.

This year, I challenge you to consider your resolutions differently. If you're serious about changing your body and health, then consider changing your lifestyle. The real diet foods - the ones that work - are the ones provided to us naturally. It's the stuff humans have been eating for millions of years (even though food manufactures want you to think that their invention of a dense diet bar filled with chemicals is somehow superior.)

Produce. Whole grains. Naturally lean dairies and meats.

Where does the fast food fall into this approach? Or the baked chips, diet soda, fat-free brownies or canned light soups? They don't. And you'll find that if you start avoiding these foods, after a while, they don't taste good. If these are the things we eat all the time, our palette changes to prefer them. And the fresh stuff - the good stuff - slowly falls by the wayside.

Bring the real food back into your life. Skip the baked chips (and check out that ingredient list next time you're in the store) and diet soda, and instead eat an apple with a little peanut butter. Drink pure, clean water or unsweetened tea (in moderation). Add lemon to it if you require flavor.

Here are some other healthy snacks to try instead of a 100-calorie bowl of cereal that's more akin to Frankenstien than healthy grains:
  • Natural yogurt with fruit and or granola
  • Fruit and a handful of nuts
  • Whole-grain, naturally low-sugar cereal with skim milk
  • A hard-boiled egg
  • Raw veggies and a cheese stick
  • Popcorn, lightly salted
  • Homemade fruit and nut trail mix
I could go on and on. These are filling, satisfying snacks that give it to the food manufacturers. How could anyone say that a diet food bar is a better choice than what I've listed above?

The bottom line is this: If you can go with good, old-fashioned, common-sense choices when it comes to eating, and squeeze in some exercise, the weight will come off on its own. And you'll feel better because the quality of what you eat is better.

So, this New Year's, if your resolution is to lose weight, consider these thoughts. And, when your body is telling you it's hungry, eat food.

Want more ramblings? Check these out:


lemony penne with chickpeas, feta and tomatoes

While this dish is yummy and super flexible, the best things about it are how healthy and easy it is. I like to eat vegetarian dishes once a week or so, but I like to find meals that don't feel like they're missing something. Chickpeas and other beans usually satisfy me and provide good protein without unhealthy fats. It's a good trade off. This is a great, simple weeknight meal that squeaks in lots of good veg and whole grain. I put everything together while I waited for the pasta to boil and then stirred it together in a pretty bowl. I was in and out of the kitchen - including doing the dishes - in less than 30 minutes. Perfect.

Lemony Pasta with Chickpeas, Feta and Tomatoes
To mix it up, try adding spinach, cooked chicken, broccoli, mushrooms or other add-ins.
  • 8 ounces whole-grain penne
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/2 cup chopped shallots or onion
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 chopped red bell pepper
  • 1 (15-ounce) can chickpeas (garbanzo beans), rinsed and drained
  • 3 cups halved cherry tomatoes
  • 3 ounces crumbled feta cheese
  • 1 ounce Parmesan cheese 
  • 1/3 cup small fresh basil leaves
  • 1/2 Greek seasoning (or dried Oregano)
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 1/2 lemon rind, grated (use up to a whole lemon to taste) 
  1. Cook pasta according to package directions; drain in a colander over a bowl, reserving 1/4 cup cooking liquid.
  2. Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add oil to pan; swirl to coat. Add shallots and garlic; sauté 45 seconds, stirring constantly. Stir in bell pepper and chickpeas; sauté 2 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add tomatoes; sauté 2 minutes. Stir in pasta and reserved cooking liquid; cook 1 minute or until thoroughly heated. Remove from heat. Add feta, Parmesan and remaining ingredients; toss to combine.
 Want other easy, healthy weeknight meal ideas? Try these:


smoked salmon dip

So, part of the reason my posts have been a little thin lately is because of the amount of travel we've been doing in addition to the holidays. One of those trips was to Alaska for my job - a trip that had us across the country for almost 10 days. Way cool (cold!) in every way, but we got out of dodge just before the start of the winter snow storms began. If you know anything about Alaska, you know that being there around Halloween is really pushing it from a weather standpoint! But, alas, it was for work, so beggars can't be choosers. It was amazing!

This dip is made from one of our souvenirs in Alaska - smoked salmon we bought from a hatchery located in the small town of Valdez, easily one of the most beautiful and pristine places on earth. The hatchery doubles as the town's hydro-power plant, providing enough energy to run the place. I loved it immediately.

We shipped five lbs. of cured, smoked salmon home (paying a pretty penny in the process) and were so excited to try it on top of a salad. One bite, though, and we were done. Talk about salty! Not sure what else to do with it, I considered some of my favorite foods: pizza and cream cheese. While I haven't made a pizza with it yet (I'm thinking goat cheese, roasted red peppers and basil to soften the salty blow), cream cheese took the gold. Smoked salmon dip! And the holidays were approaching, so I would be in need of something yummy to share. The idea was hatched (ha!).

I found this recipe online and didn't change a thing. Our family really enjoyed it, as well. It's great with buttery or wheat crackers, and is perfect for the holidays or tailgating. It also freezes well. Give it a try next time you're headed to a party ... or you find yourself being shipped to Alaska in the wintertime for work.

Smoked Salmon Dip
  • 1 (8 ounce) package cream cheese, softened
  • 2 ounces flaked or chopped smoked salmon
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 1/2 teaspoon minced garlic
  • 1/4 teaspoon onion powder 
  • 1/4 teaspoon seafood seasoning
  • 1 dash ground black pepper
In a medium bowl, mix together cream cheese, salmon, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, garlic, onion powder, seafood seasoning and ground black pepper. Chill in the refrigerator until serving.


slow-cooked steak and peppers

 Perfect for cold weather, this one is savory and rich, and tastes like it took you all day to make. But only your slow cooker will be tired. This recipe is so easy I actually made it after dinner one night for the next day. Soak the juices up with brown rice or egg noodles, or use up leftover potatoes like I did with this recipe for cheesy-garlic mashers (it's my go-to recipe!). Stay warm and enjoy!

Slow-Cooked Steak and Peppers
  • 1-1 1/2 pounds lean beef sirloin, fat trimmed and cut into 2 inch strips
  • Garlic powder and pepper to taste
  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 cube beef bouillon
  • 1/4 cup hot water
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch
  • 3 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1/2 cup chopped onion
  • 2 large green bell peppers, roughly chopped
  • 1 large bay leaf
  • 1 (14.5 ounce) can stewed tomatoes, with liquid
  • 3 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1 teaspoon white sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  1. Sprinkle strips of sirloin with garlic powder and pepper to taste. In a large skillet over medium heat, heat the vegetable oil and brown the seasoned beef strips. Transfer to a slow cooker.
  2. Mix bouillon cube with hot water until dissolved, then mix in cornstarch until dissolved. Pour into the slow cooker with meat. Stir in garlic onion, green peppers, bay leaf, stewed tomatoes, soy sauce, sugar, and salt.
  3. Cover, and cook on high for three to four hours, or on low for six to eight hours.

Craving beef? Check these lighter/healthy recipes out: