Lake Como

Lake Como!  We ate, we drank, we hiked, we boated and I choked on a piece of steak!  More on that last part later, but we really loved our time on Lake Como.  As we were getting ready to leave Rome, a much visited vacation destination, where there is no shortage of trusted recommendations for places to eat and things to do, I started to feel sort of nervous about Lake Como, a place I knew was beautiful but not much else about.  Luckily, the owner of the apartment we rented had all the recommendations we needed and we found plenty of ways to entertain ourselves, apart from eating and drinking 🙂

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We took a train from Rome to Milan — it was such a nice train and they passed out Tarelli, an Italian cracker that I am now addicted to — then another (less nice) train from Milan to Varenna and then the car ferry from Varenna to Bellagio, where we stayed at Hotel Nenè, right in the heart of the town.  It was so rainy when we got in, but as we were basically inside a train all day, it didn’t matter too much.  We grabbed a quick snack at Apertivo Et Al as soon as we got settled at our apartment and then the rain really didn’t matter 😛

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We were still on Rome time for dinner, so we walked to Loppia — one of Bellagio’s many adorable hamlets — for dinner around 9 PM and it was a GHOST TOWN.  In the dark and rain, it was sort of eerie, but also kind of cool to walk around by ourselves.  We adjusted our dinner time to be a bit earlier after that night, but it was still an awesome dinner at All Darsene di Loppia.  I was so impressed with the food that I immediately stopped worrying Lake Como would be a culinary disappointment.  Check out our sampler of the fish from the lake!  I loved them all, but one of them literally tasted like bacon and that was obviously our favorite.  I had THEE BEST pumpkin gnocchi with a lamb ragu for dinner and then… we had a white chocolate sphere for dessert!!!  They poured a warm raspberry sauce over top so the chocolate melted to reveal a incredible, mildly liquorice-flavored cream inside.  DANG, it was so good!

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The sun was back out by the next morning, so we could see Lake Como in all her glory.  Gosh what a view!  I had a little shop/cafe I wanted to go to for breakfast but didn’t realize how far away it was until we’d been walking for twenty minutes, oops!  But it was okay because we go to see the San Giovanni hamlet and it was the cutest.  Felt like we had the whole thing to ourselves, you know, so we could do the zip-line at the park in privacy 😛

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After breakfast and exploring San Giovanni, we noticed a sign for a little train and you guys know we cannot pass up a little train, so we rode it back to the town center then decided to stay on and head back to Loppia to walk through the Villa Melzi botanic gardens.  The entrance to the gardens was RIGHT next to the restaurant we’d had dinner at the night before, so we maybe stopped back in for lunch.  It was the same staff, so they all remembered us.  As for the gardens, they were beautiful!  We were sort of blown away by how alive and thriving everything still is in Italy in October!  Learned we love an Italian Cypress too 😛

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Later on, we read near the water but maybe spent more time propping up Joey’s phone to take that portrait of us.  We had made dinner reservations at Trattoria Baita Belvedere and what an adventure it was!  First, it’s up in the hills and since we didn’t have a car, the restaurant sent a van for us (and two other couples) then drove us up the most twisty-turny road to the restaurant.  That view ♥♥♥  Joey read that they serve wild boar there, so his excitement level was a 10.  I don’t think it was as good as he’d hoped, but at least he wasn’t eating the world’s driest hen, which is what I was doing… we did have an excellent bottle of wine and a delicious cheese sampler though.

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Oh, just another beautiful day on Lake Como ♥  We tried another breakfast spot that involved more walking and unimpressive pastries and it was then that I realized Bellagio breakfasts might be a problem.  Afterward, we took the ferry to Mennagio, which was cute but not a ton to see or do.  We did put our hands in the water though and it was pleasantly not freezing cold.  We read that people don’t really swim in the lake because they consider it dirty but it looked super clear to me!

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We spent the rest of the day in Varenna, which you can also ferry to.  We had picked a restaurant called Il Cavatappi to have lunch at and when we finally showed up they were turning a group of three away.  I figured they were getting ready to close for their mid-day break and was about to walk away when Joey realized it might have been the party size causing the issue.  For two they had a table right away and I’m so glad because it was an amazing meal!  We felt so lucky 🙂

After lunch, we tried to take a sort of hike over to a small stream and a cemetery but we must’ve taken a wrong turn because soon we were actually hiking up to a castle on the top of Varenna.  I’m sure that cemetery was cool, but so was the castle.  We saw some papier-mâché ghosts and instantly recognized them from The Amazing Race!  The view was something else, plus they keep falcons and owls up there and they were really cool to see, even if we were a day early for their “show.”  Once we got back down to the town center, we grabbed a post-hike gelato, of course!

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That night for dinner, we went to La Pergola and I legitimately choked on a piece of steak.  It was a very scary moment when I was waving my hand at Joey to indicate I couldn’t breathe before I coughed that piece of steak up, so my advice to you is to really chew your food.  The good news is that steak was perfectly cooked and seasoned 😛

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After breakfast at Bar Cafe Rossi — it was steps from where we were staying, but right in the town center, so I’d deemed it touristy and kept resisting going there, but then it turned out to be better than both the places I walked so far to, so what do I know? — we walked around for a bit, then decided it was now or never if we wanted to rent a boat and take it out on the lake.  The first place we walked over to was fully booked for the day and we were thisclose to just letting it go, but decided to call one other place and they had a boat available!  We grabbed lunch at La Pergola (yes, we went back) out on their terrace and what a view of the lake.  Sorry for so many pictures of that ivy-covered house, but how cool?!

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Okay, I’m sorry if these pictures are out of order (it’s hard to remember which town was which!), but can you even believe they’ll let you take a boat out on your own, no license required??  We went through Boat Hire Bellagio and I could not recommend them more!  The man who ran the company was so kind and fun and gave Joey a little crash course on operating the boat, then gave us a map with a suggested route and it was perfect!  We got to see the other side of Bellagio, Menaggio, Varenna (including a view of that cemetery from the day before!), a bunch of breathtaking villas and the one little island on the lake.  We were hoping to catch sight of the Clooney villa but no such luck.  It was seriously so fun and Joey only went so fast that I was scared I’d fly out a couple of times 😛

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For our last dinner in Bellagio, we planned on walking to a seafood restaurant but it was sort of chilly and sort of far, so we opted to go to a place around the corner instead.  Turns out they serve the same risotto and fish dish that we’d been hoping to get at the seafood restaurant.  We were told it’d be an hour wait, but we were expecting it, so we just grabbed some pillows and sat on the steps outside the restaurant while we waited.  I guess this is a typical dish in Bellagio and despite how bad the lighting in my picture is and how simple the dish looks, it was amazing!  That fish was so perfectly fried and seasoned.  We both devoured it.  And then we ordered tiramisu and basically ordered it every night after that!

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One last view of those picturesque stairs and then we made our way to Venice!  I was really impressed with Lake Como and found it so beautiful, from the food to the people to the towns to the actual lake.  I hope to see it again some day ♥

Best Tastes 2018: From Our Kitchen

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5-Ingredient, No-Bake Vegan French Silk Pie (January 1) // I made this so my gluten free, dairy free-inclined family members wouldn’t be left out of the celebratory dessert moment at the end of our family New Year’s Day dinner and I was shocked at how much my gluten and dairy-loving self enjoyed it!  Bonus points for being make-ahead friendly and lookin all festive with that whipped coconut cream and shaved chocolate on top.

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Butter-Basted Steak + Creamy Chive Potatoes, aka the best at-home date night meal (January 6) // What is life if not an ever-evolving lesson in how to cook the best steak?  Joey usually handles steak for us but he appointed me the steak chef for the night and I spent many a Google search looking up the “best cooking method,” which it turns out involves salting and butter-basting.  I’m in!  It turned out so good but it was only half of what made this dinner so epic because Joey’s half of the bargain was a pleasantly not-so-gentle reminder that this potato recipe is one of my favorite things in life.  

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Slow Cooker Beef Ragu w/ Homemade Pappardelle (January 13) // I don’t want to deceive you, so I’ll just be honest and say we didn’t love this beef ragu.  But, we did REALLY REALLY REALLY love making homemade pasta and hey, it even tasted good!  Dean Martin was singing “Mambo Italiano,” the pasta was rolling, the red wine was flowing, life was good.

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Halibut Foil Packs with Chile Butter (January 19) // I have been very open and honest about my love for this recipe every time we make it and for two years in a row now, it’s made this list.  It’s the butter that makes it.  It flavors the tender flaky fish, it creates a delicious juice to drizzle over the rice and it pairs perfectly with bok choy.  Oh, we used gai choy for this (because Whole Foods didn’t have bok choy) and Joey kept calling it “boi-boi choy,” which was both incredibly wrong and incredibly funny.  

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Beet Brioche Burger Buns (January 20) // If eating hot pink slider buns is wrong, then I don’t want to be right.  I thought these were stunningly beautiful but then they more than held their own in the taste/texture department as well!  They get perfectly crispy if you pop them in the toaster but somehow remain soft and pillow-y on the inside.  Between these and my go-to vegan slider buns, I’d have a VERY difficult time choosing a favorite.

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Ricotta Gnocchi with Pesto and Zucchini from The Savvy Cook (January 28) // I’ve made potato gnocchi, beet gnocchi and sweet potato gnocchi before but never ricotta gnocchi and WHY NOT?!  This was so easy to make, so pillow-y soft and so incredible paired with pesto and some seared-to-perfection zucchini coins.  I was sort of annoyingly happy while eating this bowl of pasta clouds but it was just THAT GOOD.  

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Butternut Squash Baked Pasta (February 9) // Can I first tell you the best thing about this pasta?  It’s not the luscious sauce or the way it GENEROUSLY coats the pasta, or the crunchy bites of toasted hazelnuts or even the fact that eating a big bowl of pasta on a winter night while watching the Opening Ceremony of the Olympics is the definition of a perfect night.  It’s that this recipe claims to serve 4.  You make it in a 9×13 casserole dish, for God’s sake!  We ate it in something like seven servings but I genuinely appreciate that we could have eaten it as four servings and just been following the directions 🙂

P.S. This makes for really excellent leftovers.

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Roasted Squash, Onion & Fig Salad with Maple Mustard Balsamic Dressing (February 11) // Okay, I know I put this salad on my “Best Of” list last year, but GUYS, IT’S GOOD.  The dressing is straight delicious and the combination of roasted veggies, goat cheese, figs and walnuts is just so so good.  I seriously ate this 5 days in a row and was not even close to sick of it.

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Red Beans and Rice (February 13) // How many times can I tell you how much I love red beans and rice?  It is legitimately thee best comfort food of all time.  The end.

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Chicken Chili (February 19) // Joey made this chili for me on a snowy Monday night and absolutely nothing is better than sitting on the couch, watching Olympic figure skating when someone hands you a perfectly garnished bowl of chili.  NOTHING.  It was just the right level of heat, just the right consistency and just the right balance between beans and chicken.  So what we have here is the perfect chili ♥

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Green Mexican Rice with Corn (+ Baked Coconut Plantains & Avocado) // I’m not putting a specific date for this one because I honestly make this meal ALL THE TIME.  It’s really easy, it’s really flavorful, it’s really really satisfying.  Every time I eat it (which is many many times), I am just DELIGHTED by it.  The recipe doesn’t call for it, but a squeeze of lime over the rice really takes it to another level.

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Fried Broccoli Tacos with “Chorizo” Dip & Avocado Cream from The Savvy Cook (March 3) // I’ll be the first to admit this meal takes a bit of work.  The whole blanching, breading and baking process for the broccoli is time-consuming and then there’s two dips (and if you’re really ambitious, homemade tortillas!) but the payoff is so great that I can’t stop making these over and over.  The broccoli tastes like tempura, the sauces pack a flavorful punch and tacos are just a perfect food.

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Buffalo Wing Popcorn from Bon Appétit (March 4) // I was already fully in my happy place, watching the Oscars but then I filled myself a bowl of this popcorn and almost keeled over.  That’s how good it was!  The perfect balance of sweet and spicy and all nice and crunchy.  It was addictively good!

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Fettuccine with Tomato-Cream Sauce (March 10) //  We’ve made this dish about a million times but it went from great to FREAKING INCREDIBLE when we made it with homemade fettuccine.  The sauce is bright and fresh and creamy and the pasta was perfectly al dente and soaked up the sauce so well.  We were in our happiest place while eating this meal.

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Ejjeh Quiche (March 21) // Never criticize quiche in front of me.  I will hear none of it.  To me, this is a perfect food.  It’s probably part nostalgia — I have such wonderful memories of my mom making quiche and helping her flute the crust — and part THIS IS DANG DELICIOUS.  This one was all sorts of fresh and flavorful with all those herbs but, as usual, the crust was my favorite part ♥

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Cast-Iron Skillet Pizza with Olives & Basil (March 30) // We made this pizza at the end of a week that already involved our favorite vegan mac n cheese and our favorite veggie curry so I guess this was just a top food week for me.  No matter how many times we use this pizza-making method, it never ceases to delight me!

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Orange-Almond Cake + Cashew Ice Cream (April 1) // I’m about to make some very bold statements about this dessert combo.  A) This cake was one of the best things I’ve ever baked.  Ever! B) If I couldn’t eat real ice cream, I’d be just fine living off this cashew ice cream for the rest of my life.  These recipes aren’t just good for a gluten/dairy-free dessert, they’re just plain GOOD.  I’ve never been so shocked but also impressed and elated.

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Wild Salmon and Horseradish-Mustard Sauce + All the Green Things Salad (April 15) // Did I love this meal so much because it felt nice and light and fresh for spring?  Or was it because the fish was perfectly seasoned and crispy on the top and bottom?  Or because I really really love horseradish?  Yes.  Definitely all of those things!

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BA’s Best Molten Chocolate Cake (April 15) // Joey would be so disappointed if I didn’t include the thing that made him happiest in life (besides baseball, bowling, Chipotle and gummy bears) on this list.  Also, here’s a secret: this is really easy to make!  It’s so delicious and decadent and impressive that it seems like it should take a lot of work, but nope.

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Spring Pea Veggie Burgers (April 27) // A very good, very flavorful, very sturdy veggie burger that had Sriracha mayo, creamy avocado, crunchy cucumber slices and the ability to make me happier with each bite.

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Mediterranean Eggplant and Halloumi Bowls with Lemon-Dill Sauce (May 19) // Joey was less sold on this but he has a thing about eggplant so his opinion is invalid.  I loved it!  Farro is my new favorite grain, plus the fresh veggies tasted so summery, the lemon-dill sauce was bright and tangy in the best way and I even used some chickpeas I’d cooked from dry, which means they were way more flavorful than their canned counterpart.  MAJOR SHOUT OUT TO HALLOUMI THOUGH.  Joey and I agreed that was far and away the best part.  

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Spicy Shrimp Tacos with Garlic Cilantro Lime Slaw (May 21) // It’s official, I’ve narrowed down all my shrimp taco recipes to just this one.  It’s our favorite!  Probably because the slaw is the perfect tangy crunch, the shrimp takes mere minutes to cook and a sprinkle of crumbed Cotija makes things feel complete.  We were mega-happy after we ate these.

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Tender and Easy Buttermilk Waffles (May 27) // Probably, if I hadn’t had this waffle made for me (complete with butter, maple syrup and strawberries all cut up and ready to go!), it wouldn’t have tasted as good.  Luckily, it was and I loved Joey extra that morning.  Sometimes the simple recipes are the best recipes and this one falls into that category.

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Spicy Black Bean Burrito Bowls with Cashew + Hemp Seed Chipotle Sauce (June 4) // I wanted to drink this cheesy-tasting sauce, but settled for generously drizzling it over my burrito bowl instead.  If you make cilantro-lime rice, cook your own beans, layer on salsa, corn, cabbage, avocado and yes, that sauce, it will rival any bowl you’ve ever ordered at Chipotle.  (I made this A LOT of times this year.)

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The Easiest Vegan Pancakes (June 9) // Okay, I make these pancakes ALL THE TIME, but I’ll admit they are extra good when you make coconut whipped cream to slather on top.  Do not (or do, you live your life!) make the mistake of putting it atop hot right-off-the-griddle pancakes though or it was slid right off.  I know from experience.  Either way, these taste INCREDIBLE decked out in coconut whip, a drizzle of maple, some crushed pecans and fresh fruit.  Breakfast nirvana!

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Peruvian-Style Spatchcock Chicken with Creamy Cilantro Sauce (June 11) // Maybe it’s because we successfully cooked this on the grill or because the skin was so crispy and perfectly spiced, or because the sauce was just a tad sweet and paired perfectly with the flavors in the spice rub or because we ate it all outside but this dinner was a dream!  

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No-Churn Mint Chocolate Chip Ice Cream (July 4) // This recipe felt life-changing in the best possible way because not only did it not require an ice cream maker, but it meant homemade ice cream was a very delicious possibility from that point forward.  Never underestimate the power of a simple mint chip flavor and the pure ecstasy of a creamy dessert in the comfort of your own home.

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French Toast with Miso-Date Butter from The Savvy Cook (July 8) // I won’t claim to be a French Toast expert but we’ve made this no-egg version a few times and this time, when we left the Challah out overnight and let it dry out a bit, resulted in the best batch we’d ever made!  Topped with miso-date butter (homemade!), in-season peaches and maple syrup, I was in breakfast heaven!

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Egg-in-a-Nest BLT (July 17) // True Life: I’m 29 years old and just realizing the beauty of a good BLT.  This one was extra good because you mix the bacon into the mashed avocado AND crack an egg into one of the slices of bread, so you get the added bonus of that egg yolk (though, to be honest, I had to make sure mine was cooked long enough that it wasn’t too drippy because I just can’t) and even though it was just a sandwich that took all of 10 minutes to make, this was one of our favorite dinners!

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Sautéed Salmon with Chimichurri and Potatoes (July 22) // Not going to lie, I didn’t think this meal was going to blow me away as much as I thought it would be quick, easy and make Joey happy because it involved potatoes but then IT DID BLOW ME AWAY.  I have to give all credit to Joey for the perfect execution (that crispy sear on the salmon!) and expert seasoning that made this meal so downright delicious.  

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Summer Squash and Basil Pasta (August 2) // Ever cooked down some squash till it’s fall apart soft and oh-so-delectably caramelized?  We have!  Twice last year!  But this year, when we finally knew what we were doing (cut the squash super thin, cook it down for 30 minutes, season every component), and also that part where Joey and cooked it for my sister and I, was the very best it’s ever been! ♥♥♥

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Grilled Onion Blossom (August 9) // It’s been a real long time since I ate the real deal, but this non-fried, grill-cooked version of a Bloomin’ Onion was so good that I would choose it over the latter any day.  There was so much seasoning and even though it took a bit longer to get it perfectly soft, it was worth it.  Special shout-out to the dipping sauce which was mayo-based and obviously made the onion taste even better.

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BA’s Best-Ever Barbecued Ribs (August 12) // If I had to choose a single thing from this list as THE BEST OF THE BEST, it would be this meal.  These ribs were seriously one of the best things I’ve ever eaten in my life.  Salt, smoky, succulent.  I actually thought “if this is the last meal I ever eat, I’ll die happy” as I ate them.  What other dramatic things can I say to impress upon you how good they were? 😛

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Spaghetti with Tomato and Walnut Pesto (August 16) // In 2016, there I was, sitting on the couch, watching the Olympics when Joey presented me with this meal.  In 2017, I was tired after a long day at work, so Joey volunteered to cook dinner and presented me with this meal.  In 2018, I actually got to help cook this meal AND we got to use basil and tomatoes from our very own garden.  Gosh, I just love this meal ♥

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No-Churn S’mores Ice Cream (September 6) // Just when I thought our mint chocolate chip ice cream was the best, we made this s’mores version and I was blown ever further away!  We mixed in some chocolate chunks, mini marshmallows and Annie’s Honey Bunny Grahams and the grahams softened and tasted like cookie dough.  Truly nothing better than eating this together on the couch for our 4th wedding anniversary ♥

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Ultimate Summer PLT Burger (September 8) // This pictures probably needs no words, but I can’t help myself so I’ll just say OH MY GOD, THESE WERE INCREDIBLE.  

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Chipotle Corn Chowder (October 3) // Truthfully, I’m just not very into soup.  But sometimes I like to indulge Joey by putting it on our meal plan.  I came home after a post-work appointment to this bowl and was like “well I guess I love soup now!”  Okay, not really but this was very very good.  It also had a good kick of spice and if I remember correctly, Joey even cut us up some good French bread for dipping ♥

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Smoky Sheet Pan Chicken with Cauliflower (October 7) // Can we hear it for a sheet pan meal??  I was always sort of meh about them until we got an extra large sheet pan and now everything fits and it all cooks as directed!  We watched them make this one on The Kitchen and it looked too good not to try, but then turned out even better that I could have hoped!

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Autumn Vegetable Grain Salad with Cider Vinaigrette (November 4) // If soothing yourself with roasted veggies, crumbled cheese and a fall-flavored vinaigrette when the sun starts setting at 5 PM is wrong, then I don’t want to be right.  This veg-forward dish was somehow light and healthy but also comforting and filling?  I loved it!

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Pan-Seared Salmon + Parmesan Roasted Broccoli (November 12) // Okay, toward the end of the year, I became VERY into pan-seared salmon (using the technique from this recipe).  It’s so fast, crispy on both sides and so easy that you can focus more of your attention on a good side dish.  In this case, Parmesan roasted broccoli that seriously tasted like tempura broccoli minus any frying.  There’s a dip described earlier on in the recipe post that I LOVED LOVED LOVED and it went so well with both the salmon and the broccoli.  Can all healthy eating be this simple and this tasty??

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One Pan Greek Chicken (November 13) // When I asked Joey if he’d make this meal again, his response was “HECK YES!  It was a 25-minute meal that actually took 25 minutes and it tasted good!”  So there you have it 🙂  I swapped in bone-in skin-on chicken thighs and all the fresh herbs alongside the tomatoes, olives and salty feta was truly delicious.

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Creamy Butternut, Blue Cheese & Walnut Cavatappi (November 26) // We’ve been making this pasta dish for years now and it never fails to make me happy.  And look, I can see how some people don’t like blue cheese, but I am NOT one of those people.  Paired with the toasted walnuts, luscious sauce and roasted butternut, it just tastes extra good.

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No-Churn Salted Oreo Ice Cream (December 6) // Well, this is now a no-churn ice cream tribute post, just go with it.  Our favorite ice cream shop is known for their Salted Oreo flavor and one night we were struck with the idea of making our own.  How had we not thought of it before?!  We waited until the red frosting Oreos were out for the holidays to give our ice cream a festive look and not only did it look cool but it tasted AMAZING.  Went with 1 1/2 teaspoons Maldon and the salt was definitely present but in a pleasant way.  We maybe ate this in bed, don’t judge. 

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Garlic and White Wine Pasta with Brussels Sprouts (December 15) // Yes, we have made this pasta a lot of times, so adding it to this list isn’t the most exciting, but we made it with homemade pasta this year and that IS the most exciting!  It was extra, extra, extra good!  And even though pasta takes a little bit of time to make, the rest of this recipe is so quick and easy, so it really works out perfectly.  Not to brag, but I posted a video of me stirring this creamy pasta dish and got about five responses on Instagram from people who thought it looked delicious 😛

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Christmas Lunch! (December 25th) // Last, but not least, we cooked another killer Christmas lunch for our family and even though I thought it was all good, my two favorite dishes were the Corn Casserole and Sweet Potato Casserole, which are coincidentally the healthiest dishes (NOT!) 🙂  

As I went through our favorite restaurant meals and then our favorite home-cooked meals this year, I was surprised but maybe also proud and excited about how much better the latter list seemed to be.  Not that I don’t love going out (because I do, I really really do!), but this year, I felt more passionate and invested in the stuff we cooked at home.  There were fewer blow-away meals out than ones eaten in and something about that feels good and right.

I hope you all have a very Happy New Year!  See you in 2019!!!