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I’m not even going to pretend: this is the exact same recipe I used for the peanut sauce for my lettuce wraps. So read all about it in that post from last week. While rehashed peanut sauce plus some chopped up vegetables may not seem worthy of a post, I deem it worthy as a way to feature more of Ashley’s lovely photography. Commence eye candy!

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OK, I am interrupting my regularly scheduled programming here for a minute. Crudite and spicy peanut sauce can wait!

There’s a reason that writers like Michael Pollan say we have a National eating disorder. Between the meaningless descriptors on food packaging (what does natural actually mean? organic? free range? etc.) to the 100 calorie pack phenomenon (I don’t care if it has 100 calories, Oreos are never gonna be good for me) to artificial sweeteners to the HFCS vs. real sugar debate, no one knows what the hell is going on anymore. When you can’t even trust the government to set up a realistic food pyramid (the original version was heavily influenced by the dairy and meat lobbyists, and we know this country’s track record on valuing science over personal beliefs or undue influence from industry) who can you trust?

There are a lot of facts still missing from people’s general perceptions about food, and it’s important for people to know the facts. But what really bothers me is this healthy eating as a means to become skinny mentality. “Skinny” can be just as unhealthy as “fat”. These words are meaningless, because they don’t take into account anything about your lifestyle, your body type, or your history. And when our vision of skinny is based on many clearly unhealthy models and actors and we’re pursuing that end goal, we’re in trouble.

This is a long, roundabout way of saying that I came upon a list of “motivational phrases” listed on the blog of someone I knew in college who is now a fitness instructor. I think it’s a great thing to do – to help motivate other people to really make a change in their lives. I know I am 100 times more likely to work out when I have my favorite group exercise class to go to than when all I can look forward to is 45 mind-numbing minutes on some machine. And I have, in large part, my instructor to thank for that. HOWEVER. As a person in a position to motivate people and help them change their habits, I have a problem with health instructors making this statement: “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.”

If you can honestly say that and believe it’s true, I feel bad for you. Really.

That is just the kind of sentiment that drives people to extremely unhealthy eating habits. To cutting out all carbs out of the misguided belief that a piece of whole wheat bread is going to make you fat. To eating SnackWells instead of something made out of actual FOOD, just because it has “low fat” or “fat free” or “diet-friendly” on the package.

If I had to make up some motivational phrases (or maybe it’s more like personal philosophy), they’d go something like this:

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Is it really bruschetta if I make my guests do the work of assembling bread with topping? Or is it just caponata with a side of bread? This was another experiment I foisted upon my guests on Saturday. On the upside, the recipe was quick to prepare – probably 30 minutes of cooking time, plus chopping time and chilling time. On the downside, it made a lot of caponata – probably 4 cups all told, definitely more than I needed. But I used the leftovers to make a spaghetti pie, and it could just as easily be incorporated into a more saucy pasta application post-bruschetta-ing, if extras abound. The capers and olives give it a briny, almost sweet flavor, and in a way, I wish the eggplant was more prominent, although I know eggplant is relatively flavorless.

The recipe I adapted this from called for golden raisins, and I’ll be honest. I have a problem with raisins in otherwise savory dishes. I have this memory of eating cooked spinach with raisins when I was a kid and it was so disgusting. Yuck. Keep your currants out of my swiss chard, and your raisins out of my caponata. So if you like raisins, apparently they have a place in this recipe. Just not in my heart.

I would probably also add garlic to this recipe if I make it again, because garlic makes everything better, and I think it could have used a spicier note in the background. Come to think of it, I think I’ll add red pepper flakes next time too. In any case, here’s the recipe as I made it, which was still pretty darn tasty.

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Oh, I meant to do this earlier – if you like the photos from my party, check out Ashley’s web site: www.ashleymacknica.com. She’s super talented and totally fun to work with! How often does that happen?

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Bobby Flay is obsessed with piquillo peppers. He puts them in everything. Until last week, I had never seen piquillo peppers on sale anywhere, but of course my interest was piqued by my friend Bobby’s obsession (OK. We’re not really friends. But I would like to think that if I ran into him roaming Chelsea Market, he would offer me a show on the Food Network immediately. Dream big, right?).

So there I was in Trader Joe’s, having a little sample of their coffee, and I looked down at this random shelf and there they were! I bought them with no plan of how to use them, and then when I was deciding on my party dishes I thought it would be a great time to try them. I know the prevailing wisdom is to never try an untested recipe on friends. But I have to admit I do it all the time. There are just too many interesting recipes, and I get bored easily with my own tried and true standards. Maybe it’s not fair to inflict the experimentation on friends, but in this case I think they will forgive me.

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I’ve had several iterations of this appetizer / tapas dish at various restaurants and prepared by friends. The basic components are a date, stuffed with either cheese or a Marcona almond, and then wrapped in either bacon or prosciutto. I don’t think I need to explain why these are amazing.

I love the almond version because of the added textural element – that crunch is a great counterpoint to the softness of the date. So my original plan was not to include any cheese. But when I got my Medjool dates home from Sahadi’s, I realized they were the size of golf balls and perhaps the sad little almonds wouldn’t be enough of a filling. So why not just use the almonds and the goat cheese, which I already had on hand for my stuffed piquillo peppers!

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I sliced open the dates along one side, and removed the pit. Then I dropped in a bit of goat cheese and nestled an almond on top. I sealed the dates back up and then wrapped each with a sliver of prosciutto. I don’t always love how the smokiness of bacon overwhelms other, milder flavors, which is why I decided to go with prosciutto this time. It was nice, but I do think I like the texture of bacon better. Either way, you will not disappoint with these as an appetizer or hors d’oeuvre at your next party. They’re so simple, and so full of flavor (and impressive, too).

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To bake them, just preheat your oven to 400 degrees and bake for 5 – 8 minutes, depending on the size of the dates. Check them after a few minutes and turn them over so that the bacon or prosciutto browns evenly on both sides. Then eat ’em while they’re hot!

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I tend to roll my eyes when I hear the term “girls’ night out.” It conjures up images of bachelorette parties involving pink fluffy crowns and t-shirts with obnoxious wedding puns on them. I’m sure it’s reinforced by popular culture, but I think the stererotype is that women only go out in groups when they’re a) trying to pick up men, b) trying to comfort a friend who doesn’t have a man, or c) being all gung ho about a wedding. Well I’m here to tell you that it’s simply not true.

Of course my lady friends are a particularly intelligent and feisty bunch, so I knew we were in for an amazing time. We had good food, good drink, good conversation, and then lots of dancing. I couldn’t remember the last time I went out like that, leaving the apartment after 11 pm, knowing I wouldn’t be home until at least 2. It’s not my style most of the time, but I have to admit, it does give you a nice hit of adrenaline.

On to the food! I didn’t stick with one cuisine or region with my hors d’ouevres this time. Usually I like to plan meals around a cuisine or at least regional flavors, to make sure that all the components work together. But this time since I knew everyone would be grazing, so it wasn’t really necessary.

I took cues from my favorite tapas places and made dates stuffed with goat cheese and almonds and wrapped in prosciutto. I bought a jar of piquillo peppers recently partly because I always hear Bobby Flay going on and on about them (Food Network nerd alert!) and I stuffed them with goat cheese laced with capers and lemon. I made a caponata to include our Italian friends, briny and salty with green olives, capers, and of course eggplant. And I had crudite – often the most quickly devoured of all appetizers (people are drawn to fresh things) – with the spicy Asian peanut sauce I’d made for my lettuce wraps. I thought it would be extremely tasty on veggies – and it was! And to top it all off, my friend Ashley, a talented photographer, took fancy glamour shots of all my food. I’m kicking it up a notch here, people!

We drank gin and tonics (classy) and vodka tonics and Melissa brought homemade chocolate chip cookies and then we braved the mist and walked to Deity, a club in an old Synagogue here in Brooklyn. This may have been the first Ladies’ Night Out I’ve organized, but it’s certainly not the last. Individual posts with recipes for the hors d’ouevres to come!

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So my friend Gemma and I were going to make dinner tonight and our conversation went something like this.

“What do you want to make?”

“I dunno.”

“It’s cold and rainy out.”

“Yeah…but I’m sick of cold weather food.”

“Me too.”

Somehow from that extremely productive conversation, we ended up at Asian tofu lettuce wraps. It was touch and go there for a minute (was it possible we just didn’t want to eat anything?), but mention peanut sauce and I’m in. We marinated the tofu in Gyoza sauce (you could make Gyoza sauce easily, but I didn’t have rice wine vinegar so I just bought it – it’s basically soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, sesame oil, and cilantro) and sauteed it with ginger and mushrooms, and then filled the lettuce wraps with other veggies, some rice noodles, and a delicious spicy peanut sauce. They involve a bit of prep and chopping and whatnot, but they are totally worth it. I still managed to eat way too much, but at least it was tofu and not, you know, mac and cheese.

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Forgive me Alice Waters, for I have sinned.

I used blueberries in March. And nectarines. And a whole bunch of other stuff in my panzanella salad that is not in season. I’m sorry! I just couldn’t take it anymore. And what do I get for buying nectarines in March? Crappy nectarines. FINE. I learned my lesson.

Except that (almost) every fruit can be saved. Just as I boiled my strawberries to make strawberry tea, I saved these sad nectarines that were hard as a rock one day and then wrinkly like a sharpei the next. I baked them into a crisp. And, just to clarify, the bad out of season nectarines caused me to buy out of season blueberries to go with them in a crisp.

I looked to Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything for a fruit crisp topping, but I’m not gonna lie, I’ve made this same crisp topping many times before in many variations, learned from my dad. Another thing to draw attention to is that I made a small baby casserole dish of this – not sure of the dimensions but probably 4 x 4 or so. I had 3 1/2 cups of fruit, so you could easily double both parts of this recipe and do it in a full-size 8 or 9-inch square casserole. And, of course, you should have vanilla ice cream on hand. It’s just not the same without it. I could never be a vegan.

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Wow. I’ve really got to get it together. Home alone and suddenly my mind goes blank when it comes to cooking. On my way home I remembered that I had a baggie of cubed whole wheat baguette in the freezer that I’d been meaning to turn into a panzanella salad. At least that was somewhere to start.

A traditional Italian panzanella salad is really more of a summer thing. Fresh tomatoes, fresh basil, mozzarella and balsamic vinaigrette tossed with cubes of lightly toasted bread. Basically giant crutons plus veggies plus dressing. I’d seen a roasted vegetable panzanella recipe awhile back so I thought I’d give it a try.

My version featured green beans, mushrooms, tomatoes and mozzarella. It would have featured cannellini beans and capers too, but I suffered many minutes in line at Trader Joe’s, only to realize I’d forgotten my can of beans when it was too late. I didn’t have anyone to send to fetch the beans, and as I was on the verge of strangling one of the many people who don’t understand TJ’s etiquitte (you get in line, and shop the perimeter after you are in line. Don’t shove between me and the other guy in line to get your yogurt. GET IN LINE.) I thought better of leaving the line to go anywhere. I could have stopped at another store on the way home, but do you know that thing where you’re just determined to get home already and you convince yourself maybe you have that item in the cupboard that you actually know you don’t? Yeah, that happened to me.

I have no excuse for forgetting the capers. Here’s the recipe anyway, and I’m adding the capers and the damn beans even though mine didn’t have them. The beans would really make it more like a meal. Serves 2.

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