Thursday, March 31, 2011


Almost every Sunday, I make the same breakfast, unless making something special like the overnight french toast. It's a fairly simple breakfast, but a) it's delicious, and b) it reminds me of our honeymoon, since that is where I first had it.

We spent the first leg of our honeymoon in Las Vegas (at the Venetian--HIGHLY recommend it!) then headed up to California. Neither of us had been to Vegas, but we'd both been to California (LA & Hollywood) and love it there. So we decided on a mix of a new place and adventure then a place that feels like home to us.

Our original plan had been to stay over in Santa Monica close to the pier and the beach. However, J broke his heel three weeks before the wedding, and while the doctor first thought J would be out of "the boot" by our honeymoon (which we took 3 weeks AFTER the wedding), turns out 6 weeks wasn't enough to fully mend, and the week before we were leaving, the doc gave him the dreaded "3 more weeks" line. So boot=no beach, which meant a change of plan.

Our new locale was North Hollywood, at the Beverly Garland Holiday Inn.

We decided to stay here because it looked like a great little place, was somewhere new for us, had easy access to public transportation into the heart of Hollywood and back, and they also had a great package deal with Universal Studios, as well as a shuttle to get us there!

We tried to have lunch and dinner somewhere different each day, sometimes in our area or in Hollywood while we were there during the day. One place we kept spotting from the bus and shuttle was Vivian's Cafe, just up the street from our hotel.

We decided to have breakfast here our last day. Boy, how I wish we'd gone there sooner! It was DELICIOUS. I can't remember what J had, but I opted for the Huevos Salseros--per Vivian's menu : "Two eggs any style topped with warm salsa on top a flour tortilla. Served with our homefries." I ordered my eggs over easy, and in place of the homefries (I'm a hashbrown girl), I asked for a side of avocado, since I was in California after all, the Avocado capital!  It was wonderful--the salsa was homemade and delicious, and overall I was just in love with this dish. 

Since then (September 2010), I have made this almost every weekend! 

I start by heating a flour tortilla on low heat on my crepe pan. (You can heat in microwave if necessary, but better if you heat in a pan or skillet.)

 Fold the top over, and serve, or if you like a little more oomph, add some hot sauce. J & I are particularly fond of Cholula hot sauce.  
Fry my eggs, flip the tortilla to warm/toast evenly:

Try to work quickly to keep things as warm as possible. Tortilla on the plate, eggs on one half of the tortilla, and top with salsa. Fresh salsa is best. I love the Giant Eagle fresh salsa--the fire roasted salsa. Also, if you are local (Pittsburgh) in the Strip District look for Arturo of Cinco de Mayo salsas. He is also at the Farmer's Market May-November, and some of his salsas are available at the Mexican grocery store in the Strip District, a wonderful place! Arturo's salsas are amazing!

We usually have this with a side of fruit, but if you can find some good avocados, it's a perfect compliment to this dish!

We had the loveliest time in this little nook of North Hollywood, so it's nice to constantly think back on that trip. If you ever get there, be sure to stop at Vivian's!  

Sunday, March 20, 2011


Good Afternoon and Happy First Day of Spring!

Well, I wanted to our meals from last Sunday, as they were "divine"!

Saturday night I prepped an overnight french toast recipe. You can use any kind of french or sourdough bread, or try like we did, a delicious wheat raisin walnut bread from our local grocery store.

I cut into 6 thick slices (recipe calls for 6 slices, each 3/4 inch thick) and since it was a larger loaf, needed 2 baking dishes for the bread instead of one. I also needed to mix up a little extra batter, but this is the basic recipe:

3 eggs
1/2 cup milk
2 tbsp sugar
1/8 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp vanilla

Whisk all the ingredients together and pour over bread.

Soak overnight. In the morning, cook with real butter and serve with pure maple syrup.

I used our grill pan which we LOVE. Turned out great!

We topped our french toast with sliced bananas, but any berries would also make this breakfast extra delicious (and more healthy!). A very easy recipe, start to finish!

Dinner last Sunday was a chicken dish we'd been wanting to try. I'm not much of a meat-eater, but try to be a little more open to it, as J is willing to eat anything non-meat I might make. My stipulation is that it has to be organic, so usually once a month we take a trip to Whole Foods, pick out a few different meats to freeze and have throughout the month.  On the menu was stuffed chicken breasts, turnips & mushrooms, and Tomatoes Provencal.

I started out with cutting the turnips into 1-inch pieces and quartering from there. Tossed them in a bowl with some baby button mushrooms, olive oil, some herbs, and a bit of fresh ground sea salt & black pepper.
Spread those out on a pan and let them start roasting in the oven at 425 for about 25-30 minutes.

Meanwhile, I started on my chicken dish. I got the chicken ready, simply by slicing a pocket in each breast.  In our cast-iron skillet, I sauteed sliced mushrooms in a little cooking spray with some dried thyme.

I let the mix cool in a bowl for about 10 minutes, then added some shredded part-skim mozzarella and fresh ground black pepper, then stuffed the chicken breasts with the mix.


The next step was the tricky part: to dredge the stuffed chicken in flour, then into beaten egg, and coat with panko bread crumbs. A little tricky with stuffed chicken! But I got it done and cooked in a little olive oil in the cast iron skillet, for about 2 minutes on each side.
Then the chicken was baked in the oven (in the cast iron skillet) for about 15 or 20 minutes at 350.

I quickly prepped the tomatoes by cutting in half, a little brush of olive oil, and topped them with a bread crumb and grated Parmesan cheese mix.

The final dish photo below is sans tomatoes, as the breadcrumbs got a *little* burnt when I broiled the tomatoes, so not really visually stunning. But they were still delicious!

Finally, my catch-up ends with our second Lenten Friday meal. I opted for a slight easy-out by purchasing crab meat-stuffed banana pepper halves from Giant Eagle. They have a lot of great items like these that are premade, freeze nicely, and bake at 350 for about 15-20 minutes. J &I had had rough weeks at work, so I was looking to keep things simple but still delicious. I made a quick rice & bean dish that I popped in the oven 10 minutes into the peppers baking. I drained and rinsed a can of black beans while I cooked a Steamfresh bag of brown rice in the microwave. When the rice was finished, I emptied the bag of rice into a bowl, added about 2/3 of the black beans, a couple spoonfuls of whipped cream cheese, and a couple spoonfuls of salsa, and mixed well. I added the whipped cream cheese in an effort to maintain some moisture in the rice dish since I was baking it. (It worked!) I topped with a little shredded Mexican cheese blend and baked it for the remaining 10 minutes with the peppers.

I also made some homemade corn tortilla chips by slicing 4 small corn tortillas with my pizza cutter, spraying with a little vegetable oil, and topping with some fresh ground sea salt and black pepper. I baked those for the last 10 minutes as well, though next time I will bake a little longer or at a higher temp, as they were crispy on the outer sides, but still a little soft in the middle. But not bad for a first run!

Hope you've enjoyed the latest update. It's time for me to hit the kitchen to try a macaroni & cheese soup! I'll be sure to let you know how it turns out!!


Friday, March 11, 2011

First Lenten Friday Dinner

Hello Again!

Hard to believe that Lent and meat-free Fridays are already upon us! I'm not much of a meat eater to begin with, so for me it's not a huge sacrifice, and thankfully my husband, J, will eat anything, despite not being Catholic and also not being an almost non-meat eater like myself.

I decided to start out Lent with a relatively easy Friday meal. Open-faced tuna melts, macaroni and cheese, and a broccoli/cauliflower mix.  We bought a loaf of olive oil bread from Giant Eagle (local grocery store) and J sliced into medium thick slices.  I drained two cans of chunk light tuna in water, and mixed in some reduced fat Kraft mayo (with olive oil), fresh ground black pepper, and dried dill weed. I used our awesome grill pan to toast the bread with a little melted 50/50 butter/olive oil stick (Smart Balance or Olivio).

I added the tuna mix:

Some sliced cherry tomatoes (full size tomato slices are best, but I am famous for making due with what is in the fridge):

And of, course, cheese:

You'll notice I used sliced American cheese on half (Land O' Lakes 2% yellow American) and shredded on the other half. (Mexican cheese blend of cheddar, monterey jack, queso and asadero cheese). In several recipes, I will do the best I can to keep things low fat & low sodium. Using shredded cheese when you would usually use slices works in several dishes. You don't lose the cheesiness you love but can cut some calories and fat.

When my macaroni was boiled, I got that mix going in the pot--again, just some of the butter blend stick and some slices of the 2% American cheese. Mac n' cheese is something I always experiment with and encourage everyone else to as well. I have used shredded cheeses, sliced cheeses, and added in extras like some leftover goat cheese or crumbled blue or gorgonzola cheese. It can really kick it up another notch!

The veggies were steaming in the microwave (Bird's Eye cauliflower & broccoli florets...I have to have florets, not a big fan of stems, I'll admit it!), the mac n' cheese was almost done, and the tuna sandwiches went into the broiler. We LOVE to melt and brown up that cheese!

The finished meal:

You can see it's a *little* heavy on the mac n'cheese side...trial by error. For two, probably 1/2 to 2/3 cup dry macaroni would yield plenty for a side dish. We topped it with a few shakes of ground red cayenne pepper. We love things a little spicy!

One of my biggest pieces of advice is don't be afraid to go off the beaten path! Sometimes just trying something a little different--like an open-faced sandwich or adding different cheeses to your usual mac n'cheese dish--can really make the norm something special!

On the menu for this weekend:

Overnight French Toast

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Wine Party

Well the first endeavor to be covered here in Diva's Test Kitchen is a wine party for six that took place last night. My husband, J, & I chose a pinot noir theme, with each person bringing a bottle of pinot noir from a place they have travelled to or want to travel to. Several were California related, J & I having been to parts of California but also wishing for a more specific trip to Napa. One couple also has Napa on their wish list, while our other friends plan on a trip to Italy someday, as their families are from the same town. 

We wanted to keep the food all appetizer or finger foods. Enough for people to fill up, but nothing that required more than a toothpick to serve or eat with. Of course wine requires cheese, and I made sure there was plenty of cheese involved in the menu. The first great choice was to order a Pinot Noir cheese package from , which provided three delicious cheeses specifically set to pair well with Pinot Noir. We chose a variety of crackers from igourmet and Trader Joe's, our favorite being the fig cracker from igourmet.

Next came planning the homemade appetizers. This was easy. I had already been experimenting during football playoffs, Superbowl Sunday and the Academy Awards, so we had some top picks we wanted to share with our friends.

We did opt for one non-homemade addition to the menu, which was kosher mini-quiche from Costco. We served these in our B.Smith triple ceramic food warmer from Bed, Bath & Beyond, which amazingly kept the food items very warm. Next to the quiche we opted for pesto tortellini from Trader Joe's, simply tossed in olive oil with some dried basil and rosemary. The third item in the buffet server was an always crowd-pleasing, go-to recipe, Parmesan Spinach Balls.

We also utilized another B. Smith favorite, our three tier server, for other items.The top plate featured mini phyllo cups (found in the grocery freezer section, with pie crusts, puff pastry and phyllo items) with a homemade whipped goat cheese filling (whipped cream cheese and goat cheese) topped with a sauteed mushroom mix. (Chop fresh mushrooms, and heat a dry skillet. Toss in mushrooms, and as they begin to cook, they will produce their own juice. I added fresh ground white pepper, chopped fresh rosemary, and dried basil and thyme.) These bake at 350 F for 8 minutes.

The second tier feaured English cucumbers sliced into about 1-inch pieces. This time, I scooped out a hollow spot in the cucumber, filled it with fat free greek yogurt, and finished it off by sprinkling dried dill weed on top.  The bottom tier held a new favorite--asparagus and crumbled blue cheese wrapped in Pillsbury crescent dough. Very easy and delicious!

I took a favorite salad and turned it into an hors d'oeuvre: Fresh mozzarella & grape tomatoes skewered on a fancy toothpick, drizzled with balsamic vinegar and sprinkled with fresh chopped basil.

We added two bowls of wine crackers to the table so we could clear our palate at any time, and also made two types of roasted nuts. My husband made a long-time favorite, rosemary roasted almonds, and I made roasted honey pepper pecans. Once those were added to the table, we had the full spread complete.

J made a wonderful olive oil sea salt chocolate mousse that was a perfect finale and went wonderfully with our wine.

As guests arrived, they placed their wine selections behind the glasses, preset with Scrabble wine charms (Pottery Barn) with each guests' initial.

We all had a wonderful time--the key to a good wine party is keeping the group small and the conversation flowing. We added another twist to the party by asking each couple to bring two copies of their favorite appetizer recipe. Not only do we get to socialize for several hours, but we also get to discover new foods to try out in the future.

Well it's about time for me to step back into DTK (Diva's Test Kitchen) where today's experiement is a variation on a recipe for a low-fat potato goat cheese soup with rosemary.


Ah! I will share with you my Parmesan Spinach Balls recipe:

2 10oz packages frozen chopped spinach, thawed & drained
2 cups Italian-style bread crumbs
1 cup grated parmesan
1/2 cup butter, melted
4 eggs, lightly beaten (I have also used Egg Beaters)
salt & pepper to taste, if desired (due to high blood pressure, I usually just add pepper, the salt in the parmesan cheese adds enough flavor)

Preheat oven to 350 F. In a medium bowl, mix spinach, bread crumbs, parmesan, butter, eggs, and salt & pepper. Shape mixture into 1-inch balls. Arrange balls in a single layer on a large baking sheet. Bake 10-15 minutes, until lightly browned.

*These can be frozen unbaked and popped in the oven at a later time.*