Sweet and Spicy Veggie Quesadilla

Sweet potatoes may not be a common quesadilla ingredient, but this puree — combined with black beans, mushrooms and jalapeño pepper slices — results in a delicious medley that gives your taste buds a little heat and sweet. It’s a great use of winter sweet potatoes, or you can preserve the puree during the growing season to enjoy throughout the year.

I love a reason to have a glass of wine with dinner. The mushrooms need some cooking wine, so there is my rational for opening a bottle and enjoying a glass or two with my meal. Cheers to good food, good wine and a different take on veggie quesadillas.

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 (8 ounce) container white button mushrooms, sliced
¼ cup red wine (any varietal)
2 cups (1 recipe) Spicy Sweet Potato Puree
6 whole wheat tortillas
1 (15 ounce can) no-salt-added black beans, rinsed and drained
1½ cups shredded mozzarella cheese
30 hot and sweet jalapeño pepper slices
Optional: light sour cream for serving

1. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms and sauté for 5 minutes, until browned. Add red wine and cooking 4 to 5 minutes, until liquid is absorbed.
2. Spread ⅓ cup of sweet potato puree evenly on one side of tortilla. Top with ¼ cup black beans, ¼ cup mozzarella cheese, 2 tablespoons mushrooms and 5 jalapeño slices. Fold tortilla over, completely covering ingredients. Repeat to create 5 more quesadillas.
3. Heat a large non-stick skillet over medium heat. Place two quesadillas in the skillet and cook for 3 minutes on one side, until golden brown. Flip quesadillas and cook for an 3 additional minutes. Continue cooking remaining quesadillas two at a time. Cut each into 4 wedges and serve with sour cream if desired.

Servings: 6 ~ Serving size: 1 quesadilla

Spicy Sweet Potato Puree

This versatile recipe makes a great side dish, but also stars as a main ingredient in my Sweet and Spicy Veggie Quesadillas. The chipotle chile pepper adds smokey heat, while the maple syrup amps up the sweetness in this puree. Add a pork chop and sautéed kale to turn this side into a meal.

I like to make a double or triple batch of this Spicy Sweet Potato Puree to freeze and have on hand for fast weeknight dinners. To minimize storage space, I place the potatoes in zip-top bags and lay them flat in the freezer.

2 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed
1 tablespoon maple syrup
1 teaspoon chipotle chile pepper
¼ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons skim milk

1. In a medium saucepan, add sweet potatoes and cover with water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat and cook for about 10 minutes, until tender.
2. Drain potatoes in a colander and return to saucepan. Reduce heat to low and mash sweet potatoes. Add maple syrup, chipotle chile pepper, salt and milk. Stir to combine and cook for a minute or two, allowing flavors to meld.

Note: For a more rustic version, use a potato masher. If you prefer a smooth, no-lump version, use a mixer.

Servings: 4 ~ Serving size: 1/2 cup

Bacon and Apple Peanut Butter Dip

The inspiration for this dish came from a restaurant in Lexington, Kentucky that serves a honey bourbon and sugar glazed bacon appetizer with peanut butter. My version is lighter, but still captures the wonderful combination of bacon and peanut butter. I know it sounds a little odd, but once you have tasted it you will forget all about peanut butter’s famous sidekick — jelly. Peanut butter and bacon is the new duo in town.

This appetizer is a perfect pairing with your favorite Kentucky bourbon. It brings out the whiskey’s sweet notes of vanilla, caramel and honey. Cheers to good bourbon, an appetizer your friends will love and adventurous food combinations.

1 pound center cut bacon, cooked
1 large apple, sliced
2 tablespoons peanut butter
½ cup non-fat Greek yogurt
1 tablespoon honey
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon skim milk

1. In a blender or food process, combine peanut butter, Greek yogurt, honey, vanilla and milk. Blend or process until smooth.
2. Serve immediately with bacon and apple slices or refrigerating until ready to serve.

Servings: 6 ~ Serving size: 2 bacon slices, 4 apple slices and  1½ tablespoons dip

Chicken Sausage and Spinach Manicotti

This recipe was developed for a quick weeknight meal, but it is adaptable for a homemade upgrade that is perfect for a stay-home, date night dish. For a busy weeknight, this recipe incorporates packaged noodles and jarred marinara. You can make it on the weekend for an even quicker version of a weeknight meal that just requires heating.

This meal was inspired by a dish at one of my favorite Italian restaurants, where the noodles are made from scratch daily and you can taste the love and attention that went into creating the pasta from this family-owned establishment. When time allows, I like to switch out the store-bought noodles and marinara for homemade. This meal pairs well with your favorite red wine, and I find that drinking wine while making homemade pasta is half the fun. Try adding some Italian music and making this meal together for a lovely date night.

1 tablespoon olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound or 3 mild Italian chicken sausages, casings removed
1 (8 ounce) package manicotti noodles
2 cups frozen chopped spinach, defrosted
1 (15 ounce) container part-skim ricotta cheese
½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon white pepper
1 (24 ounce) jar marinara
½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit, and spray an 8 by 10 baking dish with cooking spray.
2. Warm olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add garlic and cook for one minute, until fragrant. Add Italian chicken sausage and cook for 5 to 7 minutes, until browned.
3. Cook noodles according to package instructions. Drain noodles and allow to cool enough to handle.
4. In a large bowl combine Italian chicken sausage, spinach, ricotta cheese, nutmeg, salt and white pepper. Stir until well combined. Place mixture in large zip top bag. Cut a small slit in the corner of the bag. Pipe mixture into manicotti noodles, filling evenly and then placing in the baking dish.
5. Cover stuffed manicotti with marinara and bake for 25 minutes, until edges are brown and sauce is bubbly. Remove and top with Parmesan cheese. Continue baking for about 2 minutes, until cheese has melted.

Note: You can freeze leftovers for a homemade microwaveable meal or lunch.

Servings: 7 ~ Serving size: 2 stuffed manicotti

Grilled Hawaiian Bites

Grilling intensifies the delicious flavor of pineapple, adding an extra burst of caramelized sweetness. The deli ham and grilled bell pepper complement the sweet fruit, turning this appetizer into a sweet and salty snack on a stick. This is a great appetizer to bring to a potluck or make for game day. Especially if you’re a Green Bay Packer fan and want to add a little green and gold to your plate. It may be freezing at the football stadium, but after one bite of this dish you will feel like you are in tropical Hawaii.

1 medium pineapple
4 medium or 3 large bell peppers
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ pound deli maple or honey ham, thinly sliced

1. Trim and core pineapple, and slice into four large sections. Remove stem and seeds from the bell peppers and cut each into two halves. On a large platter, brush both sides of pineapple and bell pepper with olive oil.
2. Heat a gas grill (or prepare a charcoal grill) to medium heat. Place pineapple and pepper on the grill and cook for four to five minutes per side, until produce is tender with lightly browned grill marks. Remove from grill and set aside until cool enough to touch.
3. Meanwhile, lay ham flat on a cutting board and cut into 1 inch strips. Starting at one end, roll each piece into a tight roll. Cut pineapple and pepper into 1 inch pieces.
4. Thread a toothpick with bell a pepper segment, piece of rolled ham and a chunk of pineapple. Repeat with remaining ingredients and serve immediately.

Note: Turn leftovers into a Hawaiian salad by removing the toothpick and tossing with your favorite leafy greens and salad dressing.