Foodie Pen Pal Fun – May

The joy of my life with joining Foodie Pen Pals is that so far, with every pen pal package, there has been at least one item that has been a game changer for me. Whether I knew I would love my treat at first sight like last month or whether it was a whole new, never-before-seen item that I PRAY is sold in Texas stores like this month, I think this is what the pen pal program is all about. I would have never known Justin’s peanut butter cups existed without Laura sending them to me in April. Nor would I have known the deliciousness of breakfast biscuits without Debra changing my world this month. Sit tight, and I’ll tell you all about it!

This month I was paired with two runners. I sent my package to Sara over at Run Around Sara. I was a little nervous because she said she is kind of a picky eater, but she also said she likes spicy, sweet, and salty, so pop over and see how I fared. 🙂 I aimed to send her a bit of Texas, touch on some foods she told me she liked, and maybe introduce her to a few new items that I know I love, even as a result of the pen pal program – hello, Biscoff! I received my package from Debra in New Mexico who blogs at Miles to Run. She is serious business about running, y’all. Go see what she is about. She sent me a fantastic package! Check out all these great items and this sweet card which now lives on my refrigerator door.


I was happy to see all the Skinny Cow and Fiber One treats. Recently, I’d had a conversation with my mom and grandmother about Skinny Cow being a good brand for healthier treats, but I’d never actually tried anything other than the ice cream. Well, now I have! The caramel clusters didn’t ring my bell too loudly, and there were only 5 in the package. However, that peanut butter heavenly crisp bar? HELLO! It smelled and tasted just like a Nutty Bar! De-freaking-licious! I was so happy to eat that sucker! I will be getting some more of those, for darn sure. The Fiber One brownie was a nice chocolate treat for the afternoon at work, but closer to the caramel clusters than the peanut butter crispy bar.

           

           

I’m rationing the chocolate truffles she sent me. There are four in the box from Cocopotamus, which is apparently a well known chocolate shop in New Mexico. At the time of writing, I’ve eaten the salt and pepper truffle which sounds STRANGE, I know. But it was actually quite good. Again, it is something I would have never ordered on my own, but because someone sent it to me, I’ll try it, and I’m glad I did. I have the following flavors waiting for me: red chile/cinnamon, dark chocolate fudge, and peppermint dark chocolate. Because there is no writing on the package, it’s just roulette when picking. What a food adventure!


Speaking of adventures in food, can you all identify all these different beans? How fun to get a homemade bean mix?? Debra is going to email me her favorite recipe for making them. I’m really looking forward to that.

Okay, y’all. Here is the game changer. Get ready. Belvita Breakfast Biscuits.
Yep. I’ll wait if you want to go out and find some right now. They are that good. I wasn’t sure what to think of them at all, and Debra had never had them, either; she got us both a box. I hope she loves them as much as I do. Heavens to Betsy. I took them to work the first day I had them and ended up sharing with some co-workers, much to their delight. When you open the little foil package, the most delightful oatmeal blueberry aroma wafts out, and you think, “How does it smell that amazing?” It smells freshly made! There are four thin, crispy wafers of blueberry and oatmeal tastiness just waiting for you. It’s a bit chewy where the blueberries are. You can see actual oats. There are hints of cinnamon. It’s a good thing you can’t see me drooling on my keyboard right now. My co-workers loved them just as much as I did. We were all amazed at how good they smelled and how homey they tasted. Thank you, Debra, for making our morning! I will have to ration these also, but they are a welcome addition to my breakfast rotation. Now to find out if and where they sell them in my area!
                       

If you are not already participating in Foodie Pen Pals, you should be. It’s seriously sweeping the nation and practically sweeping the globe. I don’t make this up. Visit Lindsay’s blog to find out the details. You should sign up by June 4th to get your match on June 5th. There is a spending limit of $15, and you put your package in the mail by the 15th of the month with the treats and a handwritten note/recipe. Then you wait on your own fantastic package to come in the mail. When it does, you rejoice, photo-document, and eat. 🙂 Then we all post about them at the end of the month. It’s a delightful way to make new friends across the country and learn about so many new places, foods, and people. Find us on Twitter with the hashtag #foodiepenpals. Come, join us, won’t you?

The Lean Green Bean
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Pasta Carbonara

One of my criteria when I go out to eat is to order a dish that I can’t, or won’t, make at home. Why spend the money on a dish that I can likely make for less money with a higher degree of ingredient control in my own home? Do any of you all have this rule, also? Every so often, I will take a dish that has previously been deemed “out of my league” and tackle it at home in the hopes that I don’t have to wait to go out to eat in order to enjoy its deliciousness. Spaghetti carbonara was one of those dishes that was always deemed out of my league. Cooking eggs with carryover heat to create a sauce? I was skeptical, at best. I’d seen some shows on Food Network on how to make it, and I’d eaten plenty of plates of carbonara from local Italian restaurants. I was content to let the professionals tackle such a complicated dish. But then, one day, I just decided I would not be bested by eggs, cheese, pasta, and heat. Y’all, I’m here to tell you a secret. Listen closely. It isn’t all that complicated. Not.at.all. Here we go!


Pasta Carbonara – Serves two

Ingredients
4 ounces pasta – I like linguine, personally
4 eggs: 2 whole and 2 yolks
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 cloves garlic
8 Kalamata olives
1/3 cup diced onion
2 – 4 cups chopped spinach (I only had 2 cups this time, but I wish I’d had more.)
1 tablespoon of oil or butter (for cooking the onions – your preference)
Basil or parsley leaves for garnish if desired

Steps
1. Put a large pot of water on to boil for your pasta. Salt the water liberally as this is your only chance to season your pasta. A Food Network chef once said, “The water should taste like the ocean.”
2. While the water is boiling (and doesn’t it always seem to take forever??), dice your onion, drain, blot, and chop your olives, and grate your cheese.

3. Heat a skillet over medium heat. I typically use 5 out of 10 on the dial on my stove. Add your butter or oil, and let it heat up for a minute or two. Add in your onions, turn the dial down to 3 or 4, and let them sauté until they reach your preferred level of softness.
4. Usually while my onions are cooking, my pasta water is ready. Add your pasta and cook it for the time given on the box. This is semi-critical for the remainder of the recipe. I suggest you set a timer to keep you on track.
5. Crack your whole eggs into a bowl. Carefully crack the eggs you need to separate over the sink and separate using your preferred method, adding only the yolks to the bowl. Add the cheese and beat well. It will be thick, and this is okay.
6. Chop the spinach, and check on your onions to make sure they aren’t burning – just sautéing and even caramelizing just a bit.

7. With about 2 minutes to go on your timer, turn your heat down to low (I go with 1 or 2 on my dial), add your spinach to the onions and mix them together. The spinach will cook and wilt a little bit. You can cook it higher or longer if you prefer your spinach to be more wilted or cooked. I do not. Add your olives just at the last minute, and toss them around.
8. When the timer goes off, drain your pasta, and then add it to the pan of veggies. Gently stir to mix it all up. Now you can choose your level of bravery and comfort. Officially you can turn the heat off and proceed, or you can leave it just barely on low. It’s up to you.
9. Once your pasta is all mixed up with the veggies, add your cheese-egg mixture, stir like crazy, and don’t stop for a good 90 seconds – 2 minutes. Keep stirring! For a split second, you may think it resembles something that might want to be a scrambled-egg pasta. Keep stirring, and something magical will happen as it transforms into a creamy, cheesy egg sauce for your pasta. It will be pale yellow/light white and well combined when all is said and done.
10. Transfer to a plate, top with your desired garnish, and enjoy your impressive feat.

Pour the sauce mixture into the pasta pan.

Stir and keep stirring!

Whip it around the pan!

Fold, turn, rotate, and keep stirring!

Don’t be shy now. Keep it up!

Soon and very soon you’ll have pasta sauce!

How ’bout them apples? It’s pasta sauce!

A few recipe notes: This is certainly not a traditional carbonara. Traditional carbonara is simply the pasta (which ought to be spaghetti to stay within tradition), the egg/cheese sauce and a crispy pork product like pancetta or bacon. The cheese should be Parmesan if at all possible. However, I first made this recipe for Meatless Monday, and I wanted to balance out what I assumed to be a high calorie/fat content with some vegetables and to add some additional flavors while removing the bacon. In my carbonara research, the “experts” and purists were emphatic that cream did not belong in a carbonara recipe. Nonetheless, there are many recipes out there with cream in them. My thought, however, is that there is already a CUP of cheese and FOUR egg yolks in this recipe. Do we really need cream? I think not, friends. Let us show some restraint somewhere. 🙂 Last note, I’ve mixed my sauce and pasta both over heat and off heat. For my current, personal comfort level, I prefer to mix it over the barest level of heat, but I’m also sure that the one time I did it off heat, my boyfriend and I survived without contracting food-borne illness. So maybe one day soon, I’ll graduate to full off-heat mixing.

Since I’ve clearly made my peace with a non-traditional carbonara dish, I do encourage you to experiment with variations of your own pasta carbonara. To me, this dish is simply begging to be experimented with, be it with pasta type, different kinds of veggies, or various kinds of crispy pork bits. So far, I’ve made my carbonara with combinations of kale, spinach, onions, shallots, garlic, tomatoes, Kalamata olives, green onions, bacon bits, and broccoli. The combination I gave you above is my preferred Meatless Monday combination. I did really enjoy the crispy bacon bits the one time I had them, but they aren’t a deal maker for me. The green onions are also really nice on top. A word of caution about the tomatoes, if you choose to try them: they will make your sauce much looser than you might anticipate. As they are made up of so much water, it’s hard to get it all out before you cook them; they will release their liquid into your skillet, and thus, it will end up in your sauce which will be a little thinner and a little pinker than you were ready for. Just a heads up. I’d love to know what combination of vegetables you use in your pasta carbonara!

If you are unused to separating eggs, let me offer you a few tips. First of all, you do not need any special kitchen gadgets to separate eggs! And this is serious business coming from a lover of all kitchen gadgets. Your clean hands or the egg shells will work just fine. Some folks prefer to use their hands to separate the egg, cracking it and pouring it into their hand over the bowl or sink, depending on which part you need. You can let the whites run out between your fingers, leaving the yolk behind. Alternatively, you can carefully crack the egg in as close to half as you can get and then, leaving the yolk in one half of the eggshell, let the whites run out over the edges. Gently shift the yolk to the other half of the yolk, and the rest of the white will run out; if you do this maybe 3 or 4 times, you will get a white-less yolk.

Sometimes the yolks break and that’s okay.

If you are cooking for one, this is a great dish for that as it scales easily. Just adjust your eggs at one egg and one yolk per person and a half cup of cheese per set of eggs for the sauce. Past that, it really is all about your vegetable preference. When I’m making it just for me and not for my blog, I’m less likely to measure and just to eyeball instead. Maybe it’s a little extra onion-y and garlicky that night, but if it’s just me, who cares? I encourage you not to care either. Throw caution to the wind, and go with what your taste buds tell you sounds good!

Leave me a comment, and share what veggie combinations you have tried or are planning to try. I’d love some inspiration myself, and it is always good to share the foodie love with others. Good luck and don’t be intimidated; you can do it! Happy eating!

Nutritional content: per serving
Calories: 643
Fat: 43.3 g
Carbs: 49.8 g
Protein: 38 g
Calcium: 79.2%
And that’s without the bacon or pancetta, y’all! I may never put bacon in it again!