5-Minute Fancy Cheese Plate on a Budget

Being able to throw together a solid cheese plate in a short amount of time is one of the keys to adulting.  It’s also key to making a night at home feel like a special occasion, even when you’re short on energy and the budget is tight.  Sure, you could eat the cheese on crackers pulled straight from the box while standing in the kitchen mindlessly trolling Facebook, but why not take five minutes to make the whole cheese and carbs thing a little more special?

In my experience, the secret to making a great cheese plate is variety:  contrasting flavors and textures make all the difference!  So, let’s talk cheese.  I like to think that there are four main categories of cheese:  soft, hard, stinky, and the wildcard.  Other folks may use stuffier categories, but this is what works for me!  When picking cheese, I try to select only one from each category.  For example, I might pick a brie (a classic, soft cheese that deserves a place on any cheese board), Manchego (hard), Gorgonzola (stinky), and smoked Gouda (wildcard).

Good news.  You don’t have to spend a lot of money to make a good cheese plate–with just one nice cheese and some inexpensive accouterments, you can create an impressive spread for less than ten buckaroos.

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For this simple cheese plate, I picked a rich and creamy goat milk brie ($2.79 at Trader Joe’s), gluten free rice crackers ($2.50 per box), a handle of almonds I had on hand ($FREE), and several goodnessknows snack squares (half a box = $2.50). That’s a fancy, filling cheese plate for less than $8! As an added bonus, this combination is totally gluten free.

Sure they call it a “cheese plate” but I think it’s really all the OTHER stuff that makes a cheese plate shine.  Rather than spending tons of money at the grocery store, take a look in your pantry and your fridge, and pull out anything and everything that looks good for nibbling.  Pickles of any variety, dried fruit, chocolate, honey, fruit preserves, mustard, nuts, cured meats, fresh bread, crostini, croutons…  I realize this sounds like a big hodgepodge, but, assuming you only keep things on hand that you actually enjoy eating, I don’t think you can go wrong!  One of my favorite stumbled-upon combinations, for example, is goat cheese Gouda + dill pickles + stadium mustard.  THE BEST.  The odds-and-ends plate is where it’s at.

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Cheese Plate 101 {IFBC 2014}

I’m proud to come from a family of foodies.  Though some attach a negative connotation to the word (shout out to Huffington Post and Eatocracy, among many others), I use the term “foodie” endearingly.  We foodies are people who, at the root of it all, love food, though it’s more than simply eating the food (or excessively consuming the food, as the case may be).  Food is the binding tie, the common ground, the one thing that unites us all, family and strangers alike.  It’s about sharing, and connecting, and traditions.  Food is love, after all.

My foodie family is big on potluck get-togethers.  Everyone brings a dish to share and the host handles the main course:  MEAT.  As far back as I can remember, there were two dishes we’d consistently have on hand for the hors d’oeuvre hour:  potato chips and French onion dip (Lawson’s or Heluva Good only, people) OR cheese and crackers.  This was my formalized introduction to the cheese plate.  The preferred cracker of choice was the round, buttery kind that disintegrated instantly on tongue contact, and the preferred cheese was Colby Jack.  If it was a really special get-together, like my Dad’s annual (epic) Christmas Eve parties, there’d also be some pepper jack and a little bit of Swiss.  For the life of me, I never understood why they wasted space on the plate with that shitty Swiss cheese.  No one liked it.  And at the end of the night, it’d be the only thing left, the last cheese standing, all hard and slightly yellowed from the night’s neglect.

But I digress.

Cheese board

The foodie family lesson to be learned here is that when you tell your guests to “come hungry” you better have something on hand for them to nibble on til mealtime.  The simpler the better, because as the host, you’ve got bigger fish to fry.  The cheese plate is my go-to, and though mine looks much fancier than the cheese plates of my youth, it comes together just as fast.  Plus, cheese tastes best at room temperature, so you can fix it and forget it before the guests arrive.

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Buffalo Chicken French Bread Pizza {recipe}

I know it’s the new year and we’re supposed to be juicing and diet cleansing and sweating to the oldies plus doing three thousand crunches a day, minimum.  I know I should be focusing on eating my greens and counteracting all that indulging I did over the holidays.  Spinach.  Kale.  Brussels Sprouts.  SALADS, SALADS, SALADS!!!

I know.  I KNOW.  But what kind of friend would I be if I didn’t share THIS with you guys?

buffalo chicken french bread pizza 1
Am I right?!

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Three Cheese Sausage Pasta Bake

This is one of my favorite weekend treats to throw together.  Pasta, sausage, cheese, cheese, and mo’ cheese.  It ain’t much of a recipe, but sometimes the simplest of concoctions put the biggest smile on my face.  You know what I mean?

Here’s what you’ll need:

Ingredients List for Three Cheese Sausage Pasta Bake (serves 5)

  • 8 ounces pasta of choice, cooked al dente
  • 3 cups pasta sauce of choice (such as Prego Heart Smart)
  • 4 links cooked chicken or turkey sausage (such as Harris Teeter Hot Chicken Sausage)
  • 4 slices mozzarella cheese
  • 1/2 cup fat-free ricotta
  • 1/4 cup shredded parmesan
  • Italian herbs of choice

I like to start off with some sauce in the bottom of a casserole dish.  Prego is (and always has been) my go-to standard store pasta sauce.  It tastes delicious, it’s super cheap, and you can buy it in a ginormous jar.  What more could you want?

1/3 of the sauce goes into the casserole:

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Then I toss on half of my pasta:

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Plus two tablespoons of shredded parmesan and 1/4 cup fat-free ricotta:

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Then I add the sliced sausages and sprinkle with my favorite Italian herb combo:  oregano, basil, S&P, and a touch of red pepper flakes.

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Add another cup of sauce, followed by the remaining pasta, then the last cup of sauce, 1/4 cup of ricotta, 2 tbsp parmesan, and 4 slices of mozzarella:

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Cover with foil (careful that it doesn’t touch the cheese!!!).  Bake at 375 degrees for 25 minutes, removing the foil for the last 5 minutes.

Dinner is served!

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Stats on 1 serving:  422 calories, 52g carbs, 11g fat, 30g protein, 5g fiber

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Holy crap, that was a lot of food.

Have you ever been in conversation with a new person and thrown out the obligatory “so, Bill, what do you do for a living?” and had Bill come back with “well Mary, I’m a psychiatrist”?  Confused smile

When a person discovers they’re in the midst of conversation with someone who analyzes people for a living, they are immediately scared.  (What the heck have I said in the last five minutes? …  Does he think I’m a basket case… Why am I suddenly sweating profusely?!)  All of this fear and anxiety is followed by near immediate curiosity.

Oddly enough, that’s a similar reaction to the one I get when I first tell a person I’m a food blogger.  People get oddly weirded out, followed almost instantly with excited curiosity.  I try to explain that I am not a food critic, but a food enjoyer.  I’m not professionally critiquing food, but rather honestly sharing my experiences with the food with friends and fellow foodies.

Isn’t sharing food with others what makes a good meal great, anyway?

 

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Shrimp & Mac & Cheese

WOW guys.  WOW.

Drooling yet??

For the big game this past weekend, I was looking for a something a little different to take to the family party… Something a little healthified but that still packed a little somethin somethin.  During my search, I stumbled upon the the Mac and Cheese Light recipe from the September 2010 Cooking Lite, and it looked like the perfect fit!  You can never have too much cheese on super bowl Sunday, I always say.

What really drew me to this particular recipe was that it started off with the “secret weapon” – a puree consisting of one whole LARGE onion and 9 cloves of garlic. 

Hello lover. 

Clearly this was destiny. 

First up, I put a big ole pot of water on the stove to boil, then tossed a large Vidalia onion and 9 cloves roughly chopped garlic into a bowl with 1/2 cup water. 

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I covered this guy with plastic wrap and nuked in the microwaved for 10 minutes.  Prepare to smell like onions and garlic for the remainder of the day.  Don’t worry.  I won’t judge you.

After 10 minutes, you dump this onion garlic goodness out into a blender and pulse until smooth.  It should look like grits, ya’ll:

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By now the water should be boiling, so drop in 8 Ounces Barilla Plus Elbow Macaroni and cook until al dente.

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Meanwhile season up you onion garlic puree with:

  • 1 tsp dried mustard
  • 1/4 tsp cayenne
  • Salt and pepper to taste (I used A LOT)

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Once the pasta is done, drain and set aside.  Then heat your onion garlic puree up in a pot (large enough to hold the sauce and the pasta), and once hot and bubbly slowly whisk in 2 cups shredded reduced fat cheddar cheese. 

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It should be gloriously thick.

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Once the cheese is all melted in, take it off the heat and whisk in 2/3 cup fat free plain greek yogurt, then add in the cooked pasta.  Once everything is combined, pour the mac and cheese into a casserole dish greased with cooking spray.

Sprinkle the top with

  • 1/2 cup whole wheat panko bread crumbs
  • 1/2 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
  • Sprinkling of dried parsley

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Baked at 425 for 15 minutes:

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Cheesy deliciousness:

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Just to balance things out, I also made a big arse salad for the game:DSCF5263

No joke.  Big. Arse.

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Of course I finangled one serving of the mac and cheese to take home with me after the game, and I decided to spice it up a bit for dinner tonight.

I LIBERALLY seasoned up 4 jumbo shrimp with salt, pepper, garlic powder, and cayenne pepper and sautéed them up on a pan:

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I also roasted up some broccoli  that I had liberally seasoned with S&P … and I also microwaved the mac and cheese.  Don’t judge.

VOILA!

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That is a seriously grown up healthified mac and cheese masterpiece!!!

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I havent had roasted broccoli in months!! I practically lived off of roasted veggies last summer, and I had somehow forgotten how friggin delicious they are! 

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The mac and cheese by itself was a little too mild for my tastes – so, at the super bowl party I topped it off with some Frank’s Red hot.  But for tonight’s dinner this spicy cayenne shrimp added plenty of kick:

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Can’t get over how delicious!

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Get in my beeeeeeeeeeeelllllllllllllllllllllllllllllly!!!!!!!!!!!!

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Stats on 1 serving mac and cheese (no shrimp):  275 calories, 30g carbs, 10g fat, 17g protein, 3g fiber

Stats on 1 serving mac and cheese WITH shrimp:  322 calories, 30g carbs, 11g fat, 26g protein, 3g fiber

 

Mac & Cheese Ingredients List (serves 8 )

  • 1 large Vidalia onion
  • 9 cloves roughly chopped garlic
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 8 Ounces Barilla Plus Elbow Macaroni
  • 1 tsp dried mustard
  • 1/4 tsp cayenne
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 cups reduced fat cheddar
  • 2/3 cup fat free Greek yogurt
  • 1/2 cup panko bread crumbs
  • 1/2 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
  • Sprinkling of dried parsley

 

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Mock mac and cheese

One of life’s true pleasures is a big ole plate of macaroni and cheese.  I’m talking homemade oven-baked cheesy glory.  Once fall rolls around, I start to get some serious cravings for comfort food.  I’m sure you know what I’m talking about.  Comfort foods.  The foods that make you feel warm and cuddly from the inside out.  The foods that make you want to hug your belly and sway side to side just because they taste so dang good.  The foods that you’d like to pour into a giant tub so you could jump in and swaddle yourself in their heavenly gooey warmth….  What.. that’s just me?!

Anyway, tonight I decided to give healthified mac and cheese a go in an attempt to satisfy my comfort food craving.  I remember seeing a recipe a while back on the Hungry Girl email blast, and that was the basis for my dinner (though I couldn’t find the email).

The main components of my mac and cheese were Carba Nada pasta and lightly sauced broccoli:

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 And 1 light French Onion laughing cow wedge:

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Carba nada only takes 5 minutes to cook, so this meal was ready for chowing in no time!  While the pasta cooked I also threw together a small salad with romaine lettuce, tomato, onion, and some Ken’s Lite Caesar dressing (LOVE that stuff).

All together:

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The flavors were a little mild, so I added some red pepper flakes and black pepper on top:

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Cheesy goodness:

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Not too shabby!  If you could get laughing cow in light cheddar that would take this dinner to a whole new level!

Stats on 1 serving mock mac and cheese:  235 calories, 32g carbs, 5g fat, 16g protein, 8g fiber

On a separate note, I’m debating on whether or not to join a gym for the winter.  Twice in my life I had succumbed to signing up for a year-long gym membership, and BOTH times I stopped going after only a couple months… yet still had to pay for the entire year.  I’m really not big on gyms… but without a gym, I see myself simply not exercising this winter.  Any tips for making the gym FUN?

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Ten Cheese Pizza

Usually on Friday nights, my BF (AKA man candy) and I order up some Gionino’s pizza with hot sauce.  This week, however, we’ve got big plans for dinner Sunday night ( 😉 😉 Tim), so we decided to go the healthy route tonight.  

The BF follows a strict diet and workout plan, which I have declared the “Road-to-Ultimate Fitness.”  He eats the same meals every day.  Day in and day out.  I would never succeed on the road to ultimate fitness.  I love food far too much, and get bored far too easily to do such a thing.  

Although the plan was to eat healthy tonight, there were no pizza sacrifices on my behalf!  I whipped up a flat bread pizza using a Joseph’s Middle eastern Bakery Lavash bread, some Classico Fire Roasted Tomato & Garlic sauce, leftover grilled chicken, thinly sliced tomato and onion, and a random assortment of cheeses that have accumulated in my fridge.  

pizza makin goods

 

It’s real easy to go over board on the cheese – so I made sure to measure everything out.  1 tbsp Kraft Italian Style Five cheese blend, 1 tbsp Athenos Reduced Fat Feta, 1 tbsp Digorno Shredded Three Cheese, and 2 tbsp fat free ricotta.  That’s ten — count ’em — ten cheeses 😀   

pizza into the oven

 

Some people hate ricotta cheese but I adore it.  I feel it adds a layer of delicious decadence to any meal.  (Which reminds me — I’ve been wanting to try out this recipe for Lemon Ricotta Cookies)  

So back to the main event–THE PIZZA.  I seasoned the pizza up with some garlic salt, black pepper, red pepper flakes, and some dried parsley and baked at 400 degrees for 15 minutes.  Served up with some leftover cucumber salad.  

  

For a person whose favorite part of a pizza is the crust, I was extremely happy with how this turned out!  The flavors of the cheeses and seasonings were perfection!  Only item to modify for next time will be to put the Lavash in the oven for a few minutes before topping it — that will give it time to crisp up so the sauce doesn’t make it soggy in the middle.  

Stats for the whole lavash pizza (and I was only able to eat 2/3 of it):  431 calories,  35g carbs, 13g fat,  48g protein, 10g fiber  

   

I do want to make side note of my afternoon snack — I had an afternoon meeting so I grabbed a Peanut Butter Cookie Luna bar to take with me.  I’ve heard mixed reviews on this specific flavor, but I thought it was downright tasty!  Though, it did remind me more of a peanut butter rice crispie treat than a cookie, but I’m content with that!  

Luna on the keyboard so I wouldnt forget her 😉

 

After the pizza eatin’, I decided to mix up a breakfast cookie.  I follow a few different food blogs, and I kept seeing this “breakfast cookie” popping up so I decided to look into it.  According to her website, Fitnessista is the brains behind the breakfast cookie.  I’m pumped to give this one a go

My cookie consisted of oats, optimum nutrition chocolate whey, Trader Joe’s crunchy Almond butter, skim milk, some mashed up blackberries, and little brown sugar. 

can't wait to try this puppy out tomorrow
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