Whip Smart Kitchen

Recipes, methods & musings for the whip-smart home cook

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Summer Party Panzanella

Dinner, Italian, Party, Recipe, Salad, Slow Food, Summer, VegetarianLeannda CavalierComment

This Italian bread salad boasts the best summer garden bounties and toasted bread cubes, all tossed in a tangy white wine vinaigrette. It’s big enough to bring to your block party—and keeps well enough to keep all to yourself. 

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Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links. That means I get a small commission if you buy products I recommend at no additional cost to you. I only recommend products I believe in from companies I believe in—either I use them myself or I've at least done thorough research and vetting. Please reach out if you have any questions or want more info!

Ready to party but less ready to read? Click here to jump straight to the recipe. 

Is there any better feeling than walking out to the garden on a sunny day, picking a juicy cucumber, rinsing it off, and eating it right then and there like an apple? Adding a sprinkle of salt and a splash of vinegar might enhance things a bit, but otherwise, probably not.

Growing up in Wellsburg, West Virginia it seemed like every other house had a garden, or at least a vegetable patch. Tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and more abound. Though my Pop-Pop’s garden was huge and we had some tomatoes and peppers sprouting at my house most years, neighbors would still bring over grocery bags full of their extra bounty all summer.

This is what July tastes like. 

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I could walk outside, grab a cucumber, rinse it off and eat it like an apple—and never run out as long as it was warm! I thought I fully appreciated it then, but now that I have a shady yard hundreds of miles away, I’m really missing the abondanza.

Whether you have a plentiful garden, a bustling farmers' market, or even a decent grocery store, sometimes you just end up staring at all those beautiful veggies thinking, "okay, but what am I actually going to do with all of this?!"

Enter panzanella.

What is panzanella?

Um, just the manifestation of summertime joy and happiness. With bread.

What is it really? A bread salad filled with all your favorite summer produce. I think everyone makes it a little differently, but I like a good mix of tomatoes, bell peppers, cucumbers, red onion and basil. 

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Add a deliciously tangy white wine vinaigrette for good measure and you're golden. Well, golden and all the other colors that taste good. 

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This summer party panzanella lives up to its name. Panzanella in general is great for cookouts because it can safely sit out at room temperature, plus it's best after sitting for a while. Primo vegetarian option, but no one is skipping this dish just because it's not barbecue. 

This specific panzanella recipe has another advantage: the bread is toasted in the oven rather than pan-fried. I do realize both stovetops and ovens are hot (especially in the middle of summer), but the oven method is so much faster, less messy and less greasy-feeling. It’s also a little easier to evenly cook the bread this way.

Hold up, is the bread cooked in authentic panzanella?

Classic panzanella, as it's made in Italy, features stale bread soaked in vinaigrette and tomato juice in yet another example of what I love about Tuscan cooking—finding a way to use what's around and still managing to make it irresistible.

Somehow over the years, especially in American versions, it's evolved a bit to the point where we're grilling, frying or toasting the bread to dry it out enough to really soak up the vinaigrette. I'm gonna be honest. I REALLY like it that way. The texture. The flavor of the slightly browned bread. The crisp from the hot olive oil. Everything about it. 

How do you toast bread for panzanella? Simple. Just toss it in a little olive oil and salt...

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Toast it in the oven until it's just turning golden-brown, turn the oven off, and leave it for a few minutes to dry off.

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That's. It. 

Another difference from panzanella purist recipes? The OG dish is typically made with bread, tomatoes, onions, vinaigrette, maybe basil, and that's it. Sounds delicious, but I have all this amazing produce laying around and it all tastes SO good together. 

I've said it before and I'll say it again. There's a time and a place for making food perfectly authentic, and I'm all about knowing the rules, but you're missing out on some incredible food if you're not willing to be a rule-breaker sometimes. 

HOWEVER, there is one unbreakable rule here. 

This recipe is great for bread that's a day or two old and starting to get a little stale, but for just about everything else it's all about freshness. That goes for all the vegetables down to using garlic you cut yourself—not the jarred stuff. This is a true peak of summer recipe. If you’re not eating all your ingredients as fresh (and ripe) as possible, don’t make this.

You’ll thank me when you take a bite.

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I like to make this with red and orange bell peppers (orange are my favorite to eat raw), but yellow is great too. Green peppers are a little too grassy for me in this particular recipe, but hey, try it out if you have some on hand you want to use up. Let me know how it goes!

I’ve made summer party panzanella for a bridal shower, for dinner parties, for hungry football players who helped us move, and plenty of times on regular old weeknights. My husband and I have been known to destroy one of these in 24 hours—yeah, that’s an entire loaf of bread for two. Yikes. Such a good yikes. 

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As it sits, the vinaigrette and the juices from all those veggies meld and soak into the bread for such explosive flavor that you don't even need fireworks, okay? Leave the pyrotechnics to the professionals, because you can blow minds all on your own with this. 

Some people will beg you for this recipe. Everyone else will just ask you to make more. 

Luckily for me, we do travel to the land of veggie-sharing (aka West Virginia) pretty often during the summer. I'm actually surrounded by fresh tomatoes and basil at this very moment, some of which I just ate in a frittata. We also live fairly close to some great farmers markets and the famous Grainger County tomatoes in Tennessee, so I’m not completely missing out.

Still, if you live in a community like the one I grew up in, know I’m jealous. Go out and pick the biggest, most misshapen, sun-ripened tomato you can find and slice it up with some salt for me!

So what's the produce situation in your area, and what's your fave summer vegetable or fruit? A super-ripe peach or plum might be runners-up to tomatoes and cucumbers for me. Basil and mint are great too though... Oh God, I almost forgot watermelon! For the record, that was an actual, unedited stream of consciousness.

Anyway, freshen up the comments below with your picks!

If you try out this summer party panzanella, let me know by sharing a photo with the hashtag #whipsmartkitchen and tagging me on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter. You can also use the "tried it" feature on Pinterest to help others find it too!

Let's get toasting!

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Fluffy Peanut Butter Pie Dip

Dessert, Make-ahead, Party, RecipeLeannda CavalierComment

Light and fluffy peanut butter pie deconstructed into a dip with plenty of texture from chocolate cookie crumbs and peanut butter cups. Perfect for parties and no wait time (or slicing) necessary.

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Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links. That means I get a small commission if you buy products I recommend at no additional cost to you. I only recommend products I believe in from companies I believe in—either I use them myself or I've at least done thorough research and vetting. Please reach out if you have any questions!

Listen, I've got people coming over in 30. Just skip to the recipe, please and thank you!

Today I've got a super simple but incredible dessert recipe for you. FLUFFY PEANUT BUTTER PIE DIP. You're welcome.

This peanut butter pie dip comes together super quickly, and unlike actual pie, you don't have to wait for it to chill, or bake or even slice it because everyone says they're afraid to mess it up.

Another perk of this recipe? It feeds a crowd, for real. It would be a game-changing Super Bowl party addition this weekend, and it comes together quickly enough to keep you from spending all day in the kitchen.

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I definitely wouldn't call it nutritious, but I think it's perfectly healthy to indulge from time to time. That being said, another perk of the dip variation is that your guests can have as little or as much as they want, and if you put out apples or strawberries with it they can at least get some vitamins.

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This recipe was inspired by my Great Aunt Sue-Sue's recipe for peanut butter pie. When I was little she made the desserts at my favorite restaurant in the Outer Banks, RV's (now closed, in its place is Sugar Creek Soundfront Seafood Restaurant).

People would ask for her recipes so much that she wrote a cookbook, which was—and still is—the COOLEST THING in the world to me. "How to Put the Caramel in the Middle of the Cake: Ten Requested Dessert Recipes from the Turtle Lady" by Sue Wilcox.

 For the record, this is easier with a flat coated beater, but mine was in the washer. It was fine.

For the record, this is easier with a flat coated beater, but mine was in the washer. It was fine.

Oh, and that turtle lady part? A reference to her most famous dessert: caramel turtle fudge cake. She and my Ya-ya have dueling turtle cake recipes with different interpretations of where the caramel should go. My Aunt's stance is pretty clear from the book title, I think. 

During the fall, I cater the press box of the same DII football team I sideline report for. I was trying to figure out a new dessert to make one week, and flipped through her book for inspiration. Then I saw it: her peanut butter pie recipe. I really wanted to make it, but I had about 50 people to serve and I transport everything myself... so pie was a no. 

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But pie dip? Peanut butter pie dip could work. I mean, I do make a lot of dips. Chocolate chip cookie dough dip, s'mores dip, cannoli dip—and those are just some of the sweet ones. 

I decided the best way to keep this pie-ish was to crumble up the pie crust and put it right in the dip, and that was a great decision if I do say so myself. It adds a nice texture along with the peanut butter cups. It also keeps the dip from being overwhelmingly and/or monotonously sweet.

One tip: don't completely pulverize the pie crust. You want different sized pieces in there so it's not all sandy. Besides, it will break down more when you stir it in. 

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This recipe went over so well that for Christmas we made several batches and gave out jars of it to my husband's department at work. According to reports, most of these jars did not make it home. Sorry if I'm outing anyone to their family for not sharing!

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A few things worth noting here:

  1. I used my KitchenAid standing mixer for the creamed cheese, peanut butter and powdered sugar, but you could easily use a hand mixer. It's also doable with just a bowl and spoon. It's slower, but it's a good workout!
  2. This makes more fluffy peanut butter pie dip than pictured in this purple container. 
  3. I mentioned using this recipe for catering. I had to double the recipe to serve all those people. It's mostly gone by halftime, but know that this does go a long way with other snacks.
  4. You can easily store this in the refrigerator ahead. I haven't tried freezing it (it's never lasted that long), but I would imagine you could as it's similar to a cream-based pie. Maybe test it before freezing it for guests.
  5. OH and if you're a newbie...
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What does folding in mean in a recipe? Can't I just stir?

If you're really new to this, you might not know why or how to fold in the cream. For the record, it's super easy! Folding is the process of mixing in an ingredient without flattening it by squashing the air out.

Think about making shaving cream art in kindergarten (or now. No judgement here). If you played with it for too long it disappeared, leaving only residue on the paper. If you do that to this recipe, you'll be left with the creamed cheese/peanut butter mixture from before, but like... watery and weird. 

Opinion: Flat peanut butter pie dip does not sound as appetizing as fluffy peanut butter pie dip. Luckily, folding is literally just what it says—and it's more fun than folding clothes, thank God.

How to fold in ingredients 

  1. Lightly drag your spatula through the mixture, lifting some as you go (this is called cutting).
  2. Gently turn over (fold) your spatula to drop what you lifted on top of the rest of the mixture.
  3. Repeat until the mixture is all the same color. 

See! Easy, peasy. 

 You're probably an expert scooper, so I'll stop there.

You're probably an expert scooper, so I'll stop there.

Like I said above, it's Super Bowl weekend! Will you be watching? I refuse to believe everyone who reads recipe blogs is anti-sports (I'm clearly not), so let me know if you're with me!

I want to know, who do you want to win? I'm generally not all that invested in any team if my Steelers aren't in, but this year I'm rooting the Eagles because of Vinny Curry. We went to Marshall at the same time and I used to sideline report football for WMUL-FM when I was in school, so go Vinny! 

If you like this recipe, you may want to sign up for my email list for more. Everyone who signs up gets a freebie guide to getting organized in the kitchen, which is one of the biggest commonalities I see when people say they're not good at cooking—and one of the easiest things to fix! Just click on the graphic below to sign up and download. 

P.S. If you ever need help with a recipe or have a question, please reach out. I'd love to help!

Let's get mixing!

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  Did you make this recipe? Take a picture and let me know! You can always tag me and hashtag #whipsmartkitchen on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook (links below), or use the tried it feature on Pinterest!

Did you make this recipe? Take a picture and let me know! You can always tag me and hashtag #whipsmartkitchen on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook (links below), or use the tried it feature on Pinterest!

Six ways to cook for a crowd without being a kitchen wench

Party, How-To, PlanningLeannda CavalierComment

Ever feel like you're chained to the stove while everyone else at the party is mingling? I’ll raise my own hand for that one.

That goes double for cookout season when the party moves outside. It’s like that time when you were eight and your mom made you sit in time-out by the window while all your friends were living it up on the trampoline. Ooof.

Have I ever mentioned that I catered my own bridal shower? Yes, I did that. The graphic above? A photo of me doing that. I wanted to spend time cooking with my best friends and save a little money. Overall, it was a blast, and I would SO do it again.

Buuuuut... 

I would do it a liiiittle differently. The experience definitely taught me some lessons in time management, food prep and this crazy thing called delegation. That’s probably a whole blog post in and of itself. For now, I’ll just say that if during the party your friend physically bars you from the kitchen, know there’s a real good chance something exploded in there.

P.S. You cannot put a slow-cooker's ceramic pot on the stove to make things heat up faster. 

So what can you do to make cooking for a crowd feel more like a party and less like Cinderella's 16-hour day? Honestly, I still struggle with this. There’s a reason you don’t see chefs or caterers out of the kitchen often, and it’s not just about restaurant rules. I also reaaaaally like to challenge myself and go all out for parties, to a fault. That being said, I’ve gotten better about this over the years.

Listen, I'm not trying to go all "Good Housekeeping" on you. This isn't about being perfect. It's about chilling out already.

It's 2017, not 1950. Your guests would probably rather have you relaxed and in a good mood than panicking over things they won't remember. 

Sooo, here are my best tips for making great food for your guests without missing the party.

1. Plan like a pro

This one sounds pretty obvious, but I can’t stress it enough. You shouldn't be grocery shopping the day of the party. You shouldn’t be deciding what to make the day of the party. You shouldn’t be doing last minute dishes and cleaning the kitchen the day of the party. Everything should be in the kitchen, cleaned, organized and ready to go. Otherwise, you're setting yourself up for a mondo headache. 

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Of course there are exceptions. Sometimes you have last-minute guests or you just want to keep things casual—there's something to be said for impromptu visits and scruffy hospitality. I'm just saying having fewer things to worry about will take a lot of pressure off of you, and you'll be more relaxed for your guests. 

2. Don't try to save the world while you cook

Make sure the food is all you have to worry about while you're cooking. Everything else can be done ahead, or by someone else. Your playlist isn't going to go bad if you make it a week early. This post is about cooking, not party planning, buuuuut, I tend to be a do-everything-yourself-because-you’re-superwoman-and-you-can-handle-it-all kind of person. That's my nature. 

And it makes things really difficult sometimes.

Heed my warning: do not try to cook, clean, decorate, host, make favors and do everything else—especially not at the same time.

If you can, decorate the day before. Have everything spick and span the day before. Maybe you are superwoman/man and you CAN in fact do it all… but do you really want to? 

3. Enlist help

The smoothest parties have many hands involved. If you don’t have to worry about the food AND the decorations AND the games AND the whatever, you’ll remove approximately 80 lbs from your shoulders. You probably have a friend who likes to cook—or even one who wants to learn—and would be happy to help out. 

Things go so much smoother when there’s someone to grab the extra salt from the pantry when you’re tied up at the stove, to help bring the food out when it's ready and especially to help clean as you go. Most homes don’t have the space or the amount of dishes of a catering hall. Things take forever if you have to stop every half hour to wash dishes and clear off the counter so you actually have room to cook.

4. Prep ahead

Prep as much as possible. If you’ve followed my advice so far, you already know what you’re making. Take note of what can be made ahead and do it! Certain things can’t be made ahead or are better fresh, but there are plenty of things you can do ahead for just about any meal. 

 Or you could rush around like a chicken with its head cut off hoping it's somewhat productive.

Or you could rush around like a chicken with its head cut off hoping it's somewhat productive.

Really take this into consideration even as you’re planning the menu. If you have the fridge space, prepping ingredients ahead and even making cold or reheat-friendly side dishes (cucumber salad, risotto) the night before can make a huge difference in your stress level the day of.

Maybe you can’t make the salad ahead because it will get mushy and gross, but can you make the dressing ahead? Chop some of the vegetables? Chicken breasts are better fresh, but you could marinate them the night before. You could make the dry rub ahead. You could even get up early and make something in a slow-cooker so you can forget about it until showtime.

5. Make it a potluck

I mean, what’s more fun than that? You make a few big staples, and everybody else gets to showcase their favorite dish too. If you’re going this way, just do your best to find out what people are bringing so you have the right dishes and utensils ready. Make sure you have plenty of room for serving, lots of ice, and check to see if anything needs to be kept hot or if anyone needs the oven to warm things up before serving. A major perk is that you can pick one or two things and make them shine, then relax.

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Having less to cook and making sure to coordinate will make things easy breezy—literally and figuratively, because in the summer you don’t want the oven and stove blazing half the day. 

6. K-I-S-S

Finally, keep it simple, spazzy! If you’re making a big, impressive main dish, your sides don’t need to be super-impressive. If you’re making intricate side-dishes, your main dish can be simple. Maybe the whole meal is really simple, but you have over-the-top appetizers and dessert that you made ahead. Most importantly, don't try to go above your current skill level or try out new recipes on party day. Time management is difficult enough without trying to flambé for the first time ever. 

Honestly, the food probably doesn’t need to be crazy complicated at all if it’s cooked well—one of my biggest takeaways from our trip to Italy last summer. I’m the biggest culprit of not listening to my own advice here as I’m my own harshest critic, but I’m getting better by thinking about my own expectations when I'm in the guest chair. If the food is tasty and the company is good, I’m always a happy camper. 

Learn from my mistakes. Every gathering doesn't have to follow an all-nighter, and I'm betting your friends and family would rather have you awake and happy than have a 10-course meal.

I’m sure I'm missing plenty of tips, which I'll probably think of 20 minutes after I hit publish.

In the meantime, what are your tips for making sure you’re not the kitchen wench at your parties? Share the wealth in the comments!

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Click the graphic below to join the VIP list & get started!

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Holiday baked brie with rosemary-infused cranberry sauce

Holiday, Party, Fall, Recipe, Vegetarian, WinterLeannda CavalierComment
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Christmas may be over, but we still have some of the holiday season to go.

Now, I know everyone's getting ready to "detox" and "start the new year with a new you." I'm with you (kind of), but listen: moderation is your friend. Deprivation? Not so much. More on that later, but don't skip this one just because 2017 is going to be the year you REALLY stick to boiled chicken and greens.

This appetizer would be perfect for a new years party. Decadent and cheesy, but "together" and so much more fun than some store-bought cheeseball. If you don't care about all that, throw it out the window, because it's freaking delicious. 

I've made this for several parties and the reaction is always, "what is THAT?!" Cut a sliver out and the wide eyes are joined by dropped jaws, watering mouths and reaching hands.

Pierce through the crisp crust, and meet tangy-sweet, gooey cranberry sauce mixing with buttery, salty, melty brie. Bits of lightly browned, pastry. The smell. Smother. It. On. A. Cracker. Now. Lizard brain. I wish I had a picture of this, but the last few times I've made it, it's been torn apart before I even got the chance. 

The rosemary and orange along with the cranberry give it the aroma every holiday party should have. 

I will say I've made mini versions just to snack on at home. I won't say how many times.

(It's a bunch of times.)

Slate ran a series a few years ago with new rules for party guests and hosts: never bring brie to a party, ever again. Fighting words, those. The writer argues American brie is a pasteurized disgrace to what a true Brie should be.

He's not wrong. It's worth reading and considering, especially if you're interested in how safety regulations affect our food for better or worse

Here's the thing: I've never been to France. I don't know if I'll ever be in France. I've never had access to a "proper" brie. I don't know if I ever will.  

I am discerning and try to get the best quality I can out of what I buy. I learn all I can and try to be aware of what is and what is not authentic, traditional, "correct," and so on. But there's only so much thinking, learning and searching most of us can do before we need to pick a cheese already.

The brie he's talking about? The adulterated disappointment? It's pretty good. It's REALLY good when baked into a pastry with cranberry sauce. Maybe I'm compromising here, but I like to enjoy my life. Enjoying cheese I have access to and like instead of pining for something I can't get is something that doesn't bother me too much. 

Not to say that I wouldn't go on a "real" brie hunt if the opportunity presented itself. 

Also, as curious as I am to try a cheese that tastes undeniably like broccoli, I'm pretty sure it would suck with cranberry sauce. Guess I'd have to create another recipe for that. 

Enjoy—the cheese and life in general. 

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