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Homemade Soft Pretzels

Whenever we pass a hot pretzel stand — no matter what time of day it is or wherever we may be — Kenya and Chloe beg me for one. The two of them will start chanting “PLEASE” so passionately and endlessly, you’d think they were training for the Polite Olympics. Well, who can blame them. I’ve never met a kid who didn’t love him or herself a warm, soft, doughy pretzel to tear into pieces and savor, or just teeth on, as both of my kids did starting from when they were a year old. I remember watching Chloe gum her way through a whole one (after I rubbed every speck of salt off of it!).

Now that Kenya is 5, he’s starting to realize that we can make at home almost any food that he sees in the outside world. A couple of weeks ago, after Kenya spotted a pretzel place at the mall and performed his well-honed pleading calisthenics on me, I suggested to him that we make pretzels together instead. I am so happy I did.

On first glance it may seem like there are a lot of steps to this recipe, but don’t let that scare you off. Each one is so easy that even a kid can do them. Stirring, mixing, kneading and rolling the dough are incredible sensory experiences for kids and are great from everything to engaging their fine motor skills to letting them experience how food can transform from one form to another. I like to set aside some of the dough for K & C so they can manipulate it themselves into knots, twists, balls and other imaginatively inspired shapes. Both of my kids were enchanted with the entire process, from making to eating, and our whole family was convinced that our homemade pretzels were just as good as what we could buy at the hot pretzel stand…not to mention much cooler looking.

As for my little ones professional pretzel pleading, it hasn’t subsided. But at least it all happens at home now.

Soft Pretzels (Makes 16 Pretzels)

2 Cups Warm Water (about 100°F- it will be warm, not hot to the touch)
1 Tbsp Honey
1 (1/4 oz) Packet Active Dry Yeast
4 1/2 Cups White Whole Wheat Flour
2 Tsp Salt
1 Tbsp Vegetable or Canola Oil

1 1/2 Cups Water, room temperature
1 Tbsp Baking Soda

1. Preheat oven to 425° F.
2. In a large bowl, mix together the water and honey.
3. Sprinkle the yeast over the water mixture and let sit for 10 minutes.
4. In a seperate bowl, whisk together the flour and salt.
5. Slowly add the flour and salt to the yeast mixture. Stir until combined and the dough forms a soft ball (adding more flour if the dough is too sticky), about 5 minutes.*
6. Rinse out the mixing bowl and then grease it with the oil.
7. Place the dough in the greased bowl and turn it to coat with the oil.
8. Cover the bowl with a kitchen towel and let the dough rest at room temperature for 20 minutes to 1 hour.
9. Place the dough on a lightly floured surface and knead two or three times to remove air bubbles.
10. Cut the dough into 16 equal pieces. Keep the dough covered with a kitchen towel when you’re not working with it.
11. Roll each piece of dough into a 12-inch long rope.
12. Make a U-shape with the dough rope. Pick up each end and cross one hand over the other and press loose ends onto bottom of U to make a pretzel shape.
13. Place pretzels on a parchment or Silpat lined baking sheet, cover with a kitchen towel, and let them rest for 10 minutes.
14. Stir together the water and baking soda.
15. Brush the pretzels with the baking soda and water mixture (if you don’t have a brush, you can dip your finger in the liquid and rub it on).
16. Sprinkle pretzels with salt and bake for 15 minutes, or until lightly brown.

*This can be done by hand or using an electric mixer fitted with dough hook attachment.

Sweet Potato Biscuits

I hate to admit it, but considering the amount of things I normally have to do and dishes I need to prepare for Thanksgiving dinner, buying a bag of pre-made rolls from the grocery is usually how bread makes its way to our table come the last Thursday in November. As much as I love the smell of fresh baked bread, actually making it can be a real time suck on what is a busy day in the kitchen already .

When I’m planning Thanksgiving dinner for our family, I attempt to make everyone’s favorite dish for them. For me, that’s Brussel Sprouts with Lemon and Poppy Seeds, for my father-in-law, it’s Maple Roast Veggies, for Kenya it’s Sweet Potatoes in Orange Cups and for my husband, it’s stuffing. But my brother’s favorite (seriously) is bread. Since he was a kid, a roll, a slice of bread or anything resembling a baked good was his craving. He’s really that easy-going an eater. To this day he would rather down a basket of warm buns over a plate of turkey if given the choice. It’s why I feel so much guilt every year making everyone’s favorite thing from scratch while unwrapping my only sibling’s best-loved dish from a plastic bag.

So for my brother this year, I’m making these Sweet Potato Biscuits. They’re light, fluffy and, as far as biscuits go, have some added nutrition from the sweet potato puree, which gives them a slightly sweet taste and beautiful auburn color. The best part about these biscuits is that they seem to be a winner with anyone I make them for. Trying to make everyone happy on Thanksgiving isn’t always easy (to say the least), but when you have at least one recipe you know everyone will love, it makes life a lot easier!

Sweet Potato Biscuits (Makes about 20 Biscuits)

2 Cup All Purpose Flour
2 Tsp Baking Powder
1/2 Tsp Baking Soda
1 Tsp Salt
1/4 Cup Butter, chilled and cubed
1 Cup Sweet Potatoes, cooked & mashed
1/3 Cup Milk
2 Tbsp Honey

1. Preheat oven to 400 F.
2. Place the first 4 ingredients in a food processor and pulse to combine.
3. Add butter and pulse until it resembles coarse meal.
4. Add the sweet potatoes, milk and honey and pulse until the dough comes together.
5. Place dough onto parchment paper and knead 5 times to combine the ingredients and then shape into a flat disk (you don’t want to over knead the dough).
6. Place another piece of parchment paper on top and roll out with a rolling pin until 3/4-1/2 inch thick.
7. Cut into circles or other shapes using cookie cutter.
8. Place the biscuits on a Silpat or parchment-lined baking sheet lightly coated with cooking spray.
9. Bake for 15 minutes or until lightly golden.
10. Cool and serve.

Spinach Ricotta Bites

Lucky me that I have a cousin with two growing boys who loves to cook and feed her kids healthy foods. She makes a version of this recipe in a pie dish and has been trying to convince me that her boys absolutely devour it whenever she makes it for them. Although I sometimes find statements like that hard to believe when we’re talking about green foods and highly independent little boys, I’m always game for recipes that defy the odds.

I decided to take my cousin’s original recipe, make a few tweaks to the ingredients and then cook them in mini muffin cups instead of a pie dish, because it cooks faster (and after all, what kid doesn’t like something mini?). As for my my initial doubts about the kid appeal of this recipe, after watching Kenya repeatedly walk by the cooling rack to grab three of them within 15 minutes and Chloe scarfing down four at dinner, I realized these could be one of the all time greatest kid and parent friendly recipes I’ve ever made. Delicious, healthy and SO easy to make. My cousin gets total props for this kiddy culinary hit!

Spinach Ricotta Bites (Makes 20 Bites)

2 Tbsp Butter
1 Small Yellow Onion, chopped
1 Garlic Clove, minced
2 Large Eggs, Beaten
1 Cup Ricotta Cheese (low or full fat ricotta will work)
1/2 Cup Mozzarella Cheese, shredded
1/2 Cup Parmesan Cheese, Grated
1 10 Oz Pkg Frozen Chopped Spinach, defrosted and drained WELL (I use my hands to squeeze as much liquid out of the spinach as possible)
1/4 Tsp Salt

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Melt the butter in a sauté pan over medium heat and cook the onions for 4 minutes until tender.
3. Add the garlic and cook an additional minute then set aside to cool.
4. Whisk eggs in a bowl and stir in ricotta, mozzarella and parmesan cheeses.
5. Once combined, stir in spinach, salt and cooled onion and garlic mixture.
6. Pour the mixture into lightly greased mini muffin cups.
7. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until the filling is set and golden on top.
8. Serve.

Spanakopita

This recipe hails from Greece, but the inspiration for it actually came from my cousin in Kentucky. She always sends me suggestions for recipes based on foods her boys love and believe it or not, Spanakopita is one of them. Spanakopita is a savory Greek pastry comprised of flaky phyllo dough filled with spinach and feta cheese. The phyllo can be homemade, but it’s a time intensive process that is unnecessary since you can purchase quality prepared phyllo in the freezer section of your grocery. Spanakopita is a fun lunch, snack or dinner choice for your family because little kids can hold the individual servings in their hands and they are easy to eat.

I played around with this recipe a lot, worrying that it might be too involved compared with most of the simple recipes featured on weelicious, but once you get the hang of making them, it only takes minutes. And in my opinion, they’re worth it. I made this for dinner the other night with Kenya and he loved getting to stir the filling as I layered the phyllo and rolled the Spanakopita into triangles. An added bonus is that this recipe freezes beautifully, so you can store half of what you make now and just pop it into the oven on the nights you don’t have time to cook.

Whether you’re making this dish in Athens, Georgia or Athens, Greece, your family will definitely love you for it!

Spanakopita (Makes 30 Triangles)

1 10 oz Block Chopped Frozen Spinach, thawed and drained well (I drained it once in a fine mesh strainer and then once again, squeezing it in a towel to remove any excess moisture)
1/2 Cup Feta Cheese
1 Cup Ricotta Cheese (you can use either part skim or whole milk ricotta)
1 Egg, whisked
1/2 Tsp Salt
1 Pkg. Phyllo Dough, defrosted
1 4 oz. Stick Unsalted Butter, melted

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
2. Place the first 5 ingredients into a bowl and mix.
3. Gently place one sheet of phyllo on a work surface and brush gently with melted butter (while you work, make sure the remaining phyllo dough is covered with a damp towel because it dries out quickly).
4. Place another sheet of phyllo on top and brush with more butter.
5. Add a third sheet of phyllo to the top of the stack, giving you a total of 3 layers (no need to brush the top with butter).
6. Cut the buttered stack into 3 lengthwise strips (each about 12 inches long and 3 inches wide).
7. Take one strip and put 1 tbsp of filling near the corner nearest to you, then fold corner over to form a triangle.
8. Continue folding over, like a flag, keeping a triangle shape.
9. Place the stuffed triangles, seam side down, onto a silpat or parchment paper lined baking sheet and lightly brush the tops with butter.
10. Bake for 20 minutes, or until golden brown.
11. Cool and serve.

*I like to bake half of the Spanakopita and freeze the other half. To do this, after step 9, freeze the triangles on the baking sheet for one hour until solid, then place triangles in a zipper bag and freeze for up to four months. When you’re ready to cook them, continue with step 10. No need to defrost before baking.




Below is a diagram on how to fold the Phyllo triangles:


Okra Nuggets

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Whenever I tell people that Kenya’s favorite vegetable is okra, they look at me like I’m crazy. How in the world could a little boy ever want to eat okra?! Well, it’s true, he loves it and it’s not the result of me pushing it on him. From day one it’s always been his veggie of choice.

When I was growing up in the south, my mother and grandparents made okra all the time. My mother’s favorite preparation of it was fried. So for any okra lovers out there, I decided to make my family’s favorite version but with a healthy twist. Baked Okra Nuggets are crunchy and really fun to eat. If you’ve never tried okra before, this recipe is a good introduction to it and a great way to get kids to eat a veggie that they might have avoided before!

Okra Nuggets (Serves 4)

2 Cups Okra, cut into 1 inch rounds (you could also use frozen okra that’s defrosted)
1 Tsp Salt
1/4 Cup Flour
1 Egg
1/2 Cup Cornmeal
1/4 Cup Parmesan Cheese

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
2. Place the flour and salt in a bowl and stir to combine.
3. Whisk the egg in a second bowl.
4. Place the cornmeal and parmesan cheese in a third bowl and stir to combine.
5. Roll the okra in the flour and pat to remove excess flour.
6. Dip the flour coated okra in egg and then roll in the cornmeal/parmesan mixture to coat.
7. Place the okra on a cookie sheet sprayed or greased with olive oil (I use Spectrum Canola Oil Spray) and when all the okra nuggets are on the tray, spray again to lightly coat.
8. Bake for 15 minutes or until golden.
9. Serve.

*Freeze before baking. When ready to eat - take them out of the freezer and put them in the oven adding at least another 3-5 minutes baking time.

Big Kid Guacamole

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We’ve been having a lot of fun doing impromptu polls on the weelicious Facebook page. The other day I asked the question “do your kids like avocados?” and overwhelming number people responded. Not only did most parents say that their kids like avocado, they said they love them! Avocados are heavenly — creamy, smooth and delicious — but did you know they’re actually a fruit (for years I thought they were a vegetable)?

A few years ago I did a recipe for Guacamol-wee, which was designed to be an introduction for babies to this tasty dip. This Big Kid Guacamole is the next step up — for a kid that really loves the stuff! Whether you’re making Black Bean Cakes, Nachos, Fish Tacos or any other Mexican-inspired weelicious recipe, this guacamole will add an extra dimension of flavor and nutrition and your kids will love it!

Big Kid Guacamole (Serves 4-6)

3 Avocados
2 Tomatoes, seeded and diced
2 Tbsp Red Onion, finely diced
2 Tbsp Cilantro, chopped
Juice of 1/2 a Lime
1/4 Tsp Salt

1. Cut the avocados in half and remove the pit.
2. Scoop the flesh out and using a wooden spoon or fork and mash the avocado. Allow a few small chunks to remain, you don’t want to puree it.
3. Fold in the remaining ingredients until completely incorporated.
4. Serve.

Chicken in a Crock Pot

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Every Sunday at our local farmer’s market, I buy a whole chicken from the great folks at Healthy Family Farms (we also get our eggs from them). I like to make a Simple Roast Chicken every Sunday, but several weeks ago the farmer that sells the me chickens asked if I had ever tried cooking a whole chicken in a slow cooker. I had not. I listened as she told me just how easy it was to prepare, but I was still in disbelief at how simple her description was. No oil? No butter? No broth? Just a few herbs, lemon and salt? Really?! I immediately went home that afternoon and with practically no effort, prepared a chicken that was about as good as any I had ever tasted. My whole family was wide-eyed as we took our first bites — the chicken was moist, tender and juicy and the consistency is almost like pulled pork because the meat literally falls off the bone.

This recipe is embarrassingly simple and incredibly healthy, but the best part is that it essentially cooks itself. There’s almost no work involved, and I love that I can cook a whole chicken and then keep the meat in the fridge to make Weelicious Mac, Chicken and Cheese Bites, Chicken, Bean and Cheese Quesadillas or Chicken and Rice Burritos throughout the week!

Not only did Kenya, our friends, my hubby and I fall in love, but guess who ate more then her fair share of chicken? That’s right, baby Chloe. She was like a little chicken eatin’ machine, putting piece after piece into her mouth.

If cooking a whole chicken has always seemed daunting to you, try this version. It’s so simple, you’ll have a hard time finding reasons not to. Check out this video if you want to see how we did it.

Chicken in a Crock Pot (Serves 4)

1 4 Lb Whole Chicken
2-3 Thyme Sprigs
1 Lemon, cut in half
Salt (preferably kosher salt)

1. Stuff the chicken with the thyme and lemon halves and sprinkle the outside with salt.
2. Place the chicken in a crock pot (also known as a slow cooker).
3. Place the cover on the crock pot and cook on high for 3 hours (3 1/2-4 hours for a 5 pound chicken).
4. Using a meat thermometer, make sure the chicken is cooked to 160 degrees (the times on different slow cookers may vary).
5. Allow the chicken to rest for 10 minutes before cutting it into pieces (this allows the juices to redistribute and the chicken to remain extremely juicy).
6. Serve.
*The skin on the chicken won’t be golden because this is more of a steaming method, but the meat will be outrageously moist, tender and juicy.

Zucchini Muffins

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My mother used to make the most delicious zucchini bread. Whenever friends were coming over to our house or she needed a culinary gift, it was one of the most popular recipes in her repertoire. It’s amazing to me that a bread starring a vegetable (technically, zucchini is a fruit, but try convincing your kids of that fact) was so appealing to a kid like myself, but it was. So, if you have a little one who is normally zucchini averse, this bread may turn them around on it for good.

I don’t know why so many people have emailed me recently asking for a healthy zucchini bread recipe, but I’m happy to oblige with a weelicious version. There are a lot of zucchini bread recipes out there loaded with white or brown sugar, so I decided to make mine using agave nectar instead. I also opted to bake them in muffin cups instead of a loaf shape so it’s more kid friendly. Zucchini is a good supplier of potassium and vitamin A and it has a consistency that makes for a deliciously moist bread. When I made a batch for breakfast last week, Kenya turned into a muffin eating machine. It was then that I realized that it wasn’t important if zucchini was a fruit or a vegetable. To him, it was simply delicious.

Zucchini Muffins (12 Muffins or 24 Mini Muffins)

1 Cup All Purpose Flour
1 Cup Whole Wheat Flour
1 Tsp Cinnamon
1/2 Tsp Baking Soda
2 Tsp Baking Powder
1/2 Tsp Salt
2 Eggs, whisked
1 Tsp Vanilla
1/3 Cup Vegetable or Canola Oil
2/3 Cup Agave Nectar
1 1/2 Cups Zucchini, shredded (about 2 small zucchini)

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Place the first 6 ingredients in a large bowl and whisk to combine.
3. Place the remaining ingredients in a separate bowl and whisk to combine.
4. Pour the wet ingredients into the flour mixture and stir just until the ingredients are combined.
5. Pour the zucchini mixture into large or small muffins cups (I like to use a small ice cream scooper to make spooning into the muffin cups easier).
6. Bake 15 minutes for small muffins and 20 minutes for large ones.
7. Cool and serve.

Black Beans

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The day that Chloe started eating solid foods, I was over the moon. I really love the baby food puree stage, but I find it so much more gratifying making Chloe foods that she can enjoy alongside the rest of the family. I believe that when a baby sees that the food on the plate in front of her is the same as the food mommy and daddy are eating, it serves as a powerful connection to the group for them.

Beans are an amazing first solid food for babies to try because they’re soft, easy to chew, packed with protein and full of flavor. They’re also great for baby’s developing dexterity as he/she learns to pick up the beans and feed him/herself.

In our house we eat black beans like they’re going out of style. Inexpensive, healthy and easy to store in the fridge, we keep a container of cooked beans on hand at all time to add to recipes like Chicken and Rice Burritos, Black Bean Cakes, Nachos or just to eat on their own or with some brown rice. Whether your family has a bunch of wee ones, big kids or all of the above, black beans are always a good idea.

Black Beans (Serves 4)

16 Oz (2 Cups) Dried Black Beans
2 Tsp Olive Oil
1 Small Onion, diced
1 Clove Garlic
1 Bay Leaf
4 Cups Water
1 Tsp Salt (optional)

1. The night before you want to cook the beans (about 8-12 hours prior to cooking), cover the beans with water and soak them overnight (this reduces the cooking time of the beans). * If you don’t soak the beans overnight, just double the cooking time in step #5 and keep tasting until the beans are tender.
2. Heat the oil over medium heat in a medium sized saucepan.
3. Add the onions and cook for 4-5 minutes or until translucent.
4. Add the garlic and cook another minute.
5. Add the bay leaf, black beans, water and salt (if desired). Bring to a boil, cover and simmer for 1 hour or until the beans are tender.
6. Serve.

*Allow to cool, place in appropriate tupperware or ziploc bag, label and freeze up to 4 months. When ready, defrost in a pot over low-medium heat or allow to defrost in fridge for 24-48 hours.

Crispy Onion Rings

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When I was a kid I loved onion rings. Whenever we went to Burger King they were a “must order”. Biting through the crisp fried crust into tender sweet onions is definitely a cherished food memory of mine. Little did I know (or care) at that age, how unhealthy fast food was. Now that I’m a mom though, I’m doing my very best to avoid fast food at all costs!

It always shocks me that my son, Kenya, will eat both raw and cooked onions like they’re candy. I can’t tell you how many times he has picked raw onions as a snack over, say, raisins, but I guess that’s why we all have different palates and tastes. I figured Kenya would love onion rings if given the chance, but since I’m not taking him to fast food joints any time soon, I tried making some at home for him using sweet onions. To keep them healthy, I tried baking them instead of deep frying the rings.

I have to say I was impressed with the results and Kenya was simply in heaven. I’m pretty sure the smile on he had on his face as he sat there munching away was the same one his Mommy had back when she was a little girl delighting in a much unhealthier version!

Crispy Onion Rings (Serves 4)

1 Large Sweet, Vidalia or Maui Onion
3/4 Cup Buttermilk
2 Tsp Salt, divided
1 1/2 Cup Plain Breadcrumbs (I used whole wheat)
Canola Oil Spray

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
2. Cut onions into 1/2 inch rounds and separate into rings.
3. Whisk buttermilk and 1 tsp salt into a bowl.
4. Place breadcrumbs in a separate bowl and add another tsp salt.
5. Dip onion rings in buttermilk mixture and then dredge in breadcrumb mixture covering both sides of the onion completely (make sure to use one hand for wet dipping and one hand for dry dipping so you don’t get soggy, clumpy breadcrumbs and messy fingers).
6. Place onion rings on a oil sprayed baking sheet (I lined the cookie sheet with foil for easier clean up).
7. Lightly spray the onion rings with oil cooking spray.
8. Bake for 20-25 minutes, turning once halfway through, until lightly browned.
9. Serve.

*After step 5, place rings on a cookie sheet and freeze for 30 minutes then place in ziploc bags, label and freeze up to 4 months. When ready, follow steps 6-9 adding an additional 1-2 minutes baking time.