Archive for July, 2009

I have not prepared many “meat & potatoes” meals of late.  (I have a constant fear of spelling potatoes wrong after the whole Dan Quayle incident … perhaps one of the few moments of political history that has stayed captured in my mind … but I think I got it right this time.) They aren’t my favorite on a good day and add in a warm, summer day and you won’t see this fare coming out of my kitchen.  But this recipe recently caught my eye, perhaps because of the goat cheese and perhaps because I had half of a bar of cream cheese nearing the end of its time. 

It ended up being a really nice flavor combination for this girl who rarely is impressed by chops.  I find that many times meat stuffing ends up either overpowering the meal completely or becoming totally bland.  This does neither, infusing the chops with the flavors of thyme, tomato and that delicious, tangy goat cheese.

Pork Chops Stuffed with Sun-Dried Tomatoes & Spinach

Prep Time:  15 min.   Cook Time: 20 min.    Yields: 4 servings

1 tablespoon olive oil, plus 1 tablespoon 
2 cloves garlic, minced 
6 sun-dried tomatoes, diced 
1 (10-ounce) bag of frozen spinach, thawed and excess water squeezed out 
1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more for seasoning 
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more for seasoning 
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme 
1/4 cup (2 ounces) goat cheese 
1/3 cup reduced-fat cream cheese 
4 (4-ounce) center-cut pork chops 
1 1/2 cups chicken broth 
1/2 lemon, zested 
2 tablespoons lemon juice 
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

Warm the 1 tablespoon olive oil in a medium saute pan over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the sun-dried tomatoes, spinach, salt, pepper, and thyme. Cook until combined, about 2 more minutes. Transfer the mixture to a medium bowl. Add the goat cheese and the cream cheese. Stir to combine and set aside.

Use a sharp knife to cut a pocket into the thickest portion of the pork chop. Stuff each pocket with 1/4 of the spinach and sun-dried tomato mixture and close the pork around the stuffing. Season the outside of the pork with salt and pepper.

In a small bowl combine the chicken broth, lemon zest, lemon juice, and mustard.

Warm the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat. When the pan is hot add the pork. Cook until golden and cooked through, about 4 minutes per side. Transfer the pork to a side dish and tent with foil to keep warm. Add the chicken broth mixture to the skillet over medium-high heat. Scrape up the brown bits from the bottom of the pan as the chicken broth simmers. Reduce the broth by half to make a light sauce, about 8 minutes. Spoon some sauce over the pork before serving.


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Our last full day in Panama City we had chose to go snorkeling again.  We ended up getting the hook up from the security guard at our hotel and were able to arrange a half day, private snorkeling tour around Cristobal Island.  At the first site, we were all a little dubious about entering the water.  We had to dock at a scummy, seaweed-strewn location and then swim about 10 yards to get to the coral.  After we squealed and squirmed at the squishy bottom, we set off as a four-pack.  It felt like an intrepid adventure, swimming stealthily through the murky water, giving each other hand signals.  We snorkeled around for a bit, but weren’t nearly as impressed with what we saw.  The water was very shallow and it was hard to keep from hitting the coral, so we swam back to the boat to head back to the second location.

(So nice to have the boat to ourselves)

The second location was smack in the middle of the big, wide ocean.   It was INCREDIBLE!  I didn’t expect much after the other site, but the minute I pressed my face under the water I was in total awe.  There was so much extravagant coral, the likes of which I’ve never seen.  The water was quite deep and something about the depth and coral gave the whole area a magical, aquarium quality.  There was nowhere that you could swim where there wasn’t something fantastical  to look at.  The coral was beyond anything I’ve ever seen.  We saw some that looked like green peas, some that looked like pearls and Christmas tree ornaments, and on and on.  The lack of limits made it seem like we had entered another land.  I marveled over and over that this whole other world exists right under us that we know nothing about.  I thought about God creating this whole world and how much pleasure there must have been in making creatures so unlike any others.  I was also left of a sense of humility.  As humans, we tend to be utterly self-focused, not taking in much of the rest of creation.  And though we are the pinnacle of God’s creation, there is so much more out there that he cares about.  One thing I love about snorkeling is how it can simultaneously be an intimate, individual experience and a group experience.  Words are left on the surface and you foray around as things catch your eye.  Yet your excitement leads you to motion others over to experience what you are experiencing.

I could have been out there forever, but eventually we had to leave the magical sea world.  It was my favorite experience of the islands. We spent the afternoon at a coffee shop talking about our snorkeling experience, drinking iced coffees, playing cards and reading.

(Walking around our last night before dinner)

(Drumline we ran into)

The next day was a lazy day.  We headed to a beach for just one hour in the morning, before showering and packing up our rooms. Then Kim & I got pedicures Panamanian-style, while the guys entertained themselves with Sudoku.  Pretty pampered to have the pedicure lady show up at our hotel at the hour we requested!  We spent the afternoon playing cards and trying to stay cool, as it was the hottest day we had experienced.  Then we boarded the plane and headed back to Panama City for our last night in Panama.  We spent our final evening at a Spanish restaurant in downtown Panama.  The paella that Nate and I shared ended up being my favorite food that I ate during the whole trip.  It was a perfect pick for a final night.

(Breakfast at the beach our final morning)

(Landing in Panama City again)


The next day was Panama City-Miami-Chicago … and back to real life.

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Sandy Sue’s I Dos

This weekend took me to Kalamazoo, MI for a hitching.  It was also a mini grad school reunion, as Sandy is a friend from Wheaton and people were flying in from Missouri and Korea to be there for her.  It was a fun two-day reunion involving lots of girl time, laughter, road tripping, wedding dancing and not much sleep.  Sandy looked beautiful, beautiful enough to make her groom cry on at least four separate occasions:)  We ended our mini reunion with a final night in Chicago at Honah’s apartment, with more laughter, dice games, and definitely more dancing.  I’m always glad to see these girls and appreciate how we can all let it just hang loose together, both the funny and the serious things.

(Breakfast together the next morning)

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On our second full day in BdT we decided to take a bus to Bocas del Drago for a full day of sun and sand.  Once there, we walked for 15 minutes along the ocean until we got to Starfish Beach.  We weren’t sure if we were there yet until we looked in the water and realized that starfish really did dot the sand everywhere.  It was incredible to see so many of a creature totally foreign to Illinois in one place.  We played with them for a little while, but mostly left them alone.  The beach was beautiful, with totally calm waters.  We spent most of the day sitting in the water, talking, laughing and trying to spot the schools of fish that streamed around and jumped occasionally.  Between laying out reading and chilling in the water, it was my kind of day thru and thru!

We arrived home satisfied and exhausted from the sun.  We cleaned up and headed out for another outdoor dinner (such a luxury to eat in the open air!).  We ordered pizzas and cracked up when it started pouring rain in this totally outdoor restaurant.  We were under a canopy, but it sure was comical to watch the waitresses try to juggle an umbrella along with their food tray.  The only bad part of the day came when Kim and FP realized they had overdone the sun a bit.  We made it an early night so they could get some extra sleep.

The next day we decided to do the tourist thing and take a full day tour of activities.  With about eight other people, we first headed off to Dolphin Bay.  There we dolphin-watched, though it felt overly manufactured, with five boats of tourists all in the water waiting for a sighting.  Still, watching dolphin’s jump is always amazing.  Next we went snorkeling at a location called Coral Key.  It was a great location filled with all sorts of fish, big and small, in packs and individual, and every color imaginable.  The coral was quite colorful and diverse as well.  When we finally surfaced, we were all motivated to do some more research on what types of fish we had seen.  There were definitely angel fish, sea cucumbers, and jellyfish … but other than that I just know it was beautiful.  There is something so serene about floating through the water, hearing almost nothing except the sound of your breath flowing in and out, while watching this underwater life. 

(Lunch at the dock)

Next up was lunch and then over to Red Frog Beach, a beach known for its poisonous red frogs and killer surfing waves.  Kim & I took the chance to relax on the beach, while Nate and FP had a blast getting tumbled, thrashed, and throttled body-surfing those killer waves.  They both really enjoyed that part of the trip, despite the sore muscles and necks later on.  And then our last stop was another snorkeling site, Hospital Point.  This was a little more intimidating as the water was choppy and deep, but it was still fun to try out.

(At Red Frog Beach)

(Dinner that night)

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If your summers are anything like my summers, they always involve a lot of burgers; burgers on the grill, burgers at barbeques, burgers with ketchup and mustard.  I’ll always opt for the hotdog , unless there is blue cheese and bacon involved.  It has to do with my attitude toward burgers in general.  I am not a ground beef girl and eating something that consists mainly of ground beef is just not that appealing.  I like treating my burgers as a vehicle for other, far more delicious items … which is why I actually ate these Caprese Polenta Burgers at my own home. 

It’s still ground beef in there and if that thought makes you puke, you should just skip over this post.  But if you’re okay with ground beef, I found these a refreshing departure from the usual burger makeup.  The polenta is a delicious gateway for the toppings, having none of the “sog” issues that standard buns have.  The mozzarella does a beautiful half-melt if you place it on top of the beef upon removal from the pan.  But the best part is the way the balsamic reduction drizzles on down from the cheese, through the beef, and hits the polenta smack dab. 

Oh and it doesn’t hurt that it takes about 15 minutes to throw the whole thing together.  Just add a side of fresh watermelon and your meal is complete.

Caprese Polenta Burgers
Originally from foodnetwork.com

2/3 cup balsamic vinegar 
1 1/2 pounds ground beef 
1 (16 to 18-ounce) package refrigerated prepared polenta, cut into 8 slices 
2 tablespoons olive oil 
Salt and freshly ground black pepper 
1 (8-ounce) package fresh mozzarella cheese, cut into 8 slices 
2 medium tomatoes, cut into 4 slices each 
Thinly sliced fresh basil leaves

Preheat charcoal grill to medium heat.

Bring vinegar to a boil in a 2-quart saucepan. Reduce heat; simmer, uncovered, 9 to 10 minutes or until reduced to 1/3 cup. Set aside.

Meanwhile lightly shape ground beef into 8 (1/2-inch) thick patties.

Brush polenta slices with oil. Place patties in center of grill over medium, ash-covered coals and arrange the polenta around the patties. Grill patties and polenta, uncovered, 11 to 12 minutes or until patties are medium (160 degrees F) doneness, not pink in center and juices show no pink color and polenta is heated through, turning once and basting patties with 2 tablespoons reduced vinegar after turning. Season burgers with salt and pepper, to taste.

For each serving, layer 1 each polenta slice, burger, mozzarella slice and tomato slice.

Drizzle with remaining vinegar and sprinkle with basil, as desired.

Cook’s Tip: If prepared polenta is not available, the following may be used: Combine 3 cups water, 1 tablespoon butter and 1/2 teaspoon salt in large saucepan and bring to a boil. Gradually whisk in 1 cup cornmeal. Reduce heat to medium-low; cook 15 minutes, stirring often. (Mixture will be very thick.) Remove from heat; cool slightly. Spoon polenta on aluminum foil-line baking sheet. Cover with plastic wrap and pat into 12 by 6 by 1/2-inch rectangle. Refrigerate 1 hour or as long as overnight. Cut chilled polenta into 8 (3-inch) circles using a cookie or biscuit cutter. Proceed as directed above.

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I word of encouragement from a co-worker can be so meaningful when it’s genuine and unexpected.  Particularly when you don’t work closely with that co-worker and don’t impact each other on a day-to-day basis.

I walked in at 2 p.m. after meetings all morning.  One of my co-workers found me in my office and said she wanted to hug me.  I thought she was joking but got up for the hug anyway.  Then she told me she had read two case stories that I put together the day before for grant purposes.  She teared up as she said she had to come hug me because she was astounded by my great work and blown away by what we direct service providers deal with regularly.  It was such a sweet moment and I’m really grateful for her taking the time to give me that feedback.  The genuineness of it made my day.

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The following morning it was time to leave our nice rainforest chalet for the salty sea air.  We packed up, and after a quick stop for coffee souvenirs, took a taxi to the main bus terminal in David.  Our bus ride between David and Almirante was just under four hours.  I was surprised at what a pleasant ride it was.  The bus was small, only holding about 30 passengers total and it was much cleaner than I imagined.  Of course it still included the requisite bachata music blaring at full volume for the bus to hear.  Thank God for ipods, though they made us stand out like sore, spoiled thumbs.  As we wound around curves going up the mountain to ultimately go down, I focused on not getting motion sick and the cautions my dad used to say about Ecuadorian buses.  Fortunately, the roads were a little better in Panama.

(Waiting for the water taxi to get to BdT)

From bus to taxi to water taxi and our first feelings of full-on mugginess that comes with the Caribbean.  Bocas del Toro is very similar to Venice in that you need a boat to get most anywhere, and most people own a boat.  It’s not at all like Venice in that it is much more antiquated and somewhat dumpy to the visitor’s eye.  We had drama on the boat dock, having been dropped off by the water taxi only to discover that the gate to our dock was locked and we were stuck on the water with no way to access land.  Nate did the honors of “escorting us” over the locked gate, with many giggles. We had drama late in the afternoon when we discovered that the keys we were given unlocked one lock and we had locked the other and then again at 10am when the water was suddenly cut off.  We learned the next day this is quite common.

(First sight of Isla Carenero)

(Climbing to get to our condo)

We spent our first full day laying low on Isla Carenero, where our condo rental was.  We walked the coast of the entire island, getting a feel for it.  It was a bit of a sad walk.  Half of the island is filled with little villas, rentals, and hotels.  But the other half of the island appears to be living in extreme poverty.  There was open sewage lines, shabbily constructed houses on stilts with no glass in the windows and outhouses, and trash strewn everywhere.  One thing we noticed along the trip in general is that a lot of the tourism money appears to go to foreigners, as they offer tours, hotels, adventures, and then pay locals to do these things for next to nothing. 

(First dinner on the island)

After our island tour we went back over to the main island, Bocas del Toro, to walk the main drag and also to look into other hotel options.  (We still didn’t have running water at this time and so we decided our little island getaway wasn’t quite as romantic as anticipated.)  The place we ended up staying was where we had dinner, including lobster and sea bass, our first night.  This night we ate at a Thai restaurant that boasted the best sea views on the strip.  I was very happy with my Pineapple Chicken and the boys continued to drink as many different types of juice as they could get their hands on.  FP opted for adventuresome things like coconut water, passion fruit, and watermelon juice.  Nate attempted to find the best pineapple juice on the island.

(Dinner at the Thai place after two days with no water … and no showers!)

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