The Kitchen Prep

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Honeydew-Celery Granita | Dandy®

You know those cheesy scenes in old movies where someone is walking through the sweltering desert and they're so thirsty that they hallucinate about an oasis? That's sort of how this recipe came to be.

Except, replace burning hot desert sands with 98% humidity, and you have my reality every day when I walk out the door -- the classic Florida summer.

I don't know how many times I can talk about how sweaty-hot it is outside, but I'm gonna bring it up just one more time because all that perspiration finally led to some inspiration.

Walking through Publix on a sizzling summer day is equivalent to splashing around in that desert oasis; an air conditioned wonderland of never ending thirst-quenching snacks at your disposal. Since I always go straight to the produce aisle, I am often easily enticed by the first few things in my line of vision that look like they might give any kind of relief from the blazing temps -- namely honeydew and Dandy® celery. When it's hot and sticky out, it's hard not to daydream about things that are cool, crisp and refreshing. So it's no wonder that celery snuck its way into my frozen summer treat in this Honeydew-Celery Granita.

I know what you're thinking. Celery?? Not chopped in a salad or slathered in peanut butter?? What in the world? But I guarantee that you'll stop questioning my sanity once you make this. Because, just like raw celery gives that nice, fresh crunch and snap when you eat it as a snack, the essence of celery works harmoniously with the flavor of sweet honeydew melon in this icy refreshment.

Truth be told, I hadn't given much thought to using celery in any way other than in soup or alongside wings until I served as a brand ambassador with Dandy® during the Food Wine Conference last month. But their creativity in using celery in desserts and cocktails at the conference gave way to all kinds of new ideas, which is nice because I can never quite use up an entire bag!

They say necessity is the mother of invention, but I'm here to tell you that so is humidity. This summer, you're bound to be cool as a cucumb... er... celery stalk when you get creative with Dandy®!

You may not have to imagine a tropical paradise if you enter and win the Summer Snacking Sweepstakes where the prize is a chance to "Build Your Own Dream Vacation!" Make sure to check it out and score a free e-book with summer-inspired recipes while you're there!

Disclosure: This is a sponsored post in partnership with Dandy® Celery. As always, all opinions here are my own! 

Honeydew-Celery Granita

1/2 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
4 pieces of celery, trimmed and roughly chopped
1/2 of a medium honeydew {I used an orange-fleshed honeydew, but any honeydew or cantaloupe would work here}, roughly chopped

1. Make simple syrup: Stir together water and sugar in a small pot over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil and allow to bubble until the sugar is completely dissolved, about 1-2 minutes.

2. Add chopped celery to the hot simple syrup. Set aside to let the flavors steep, about 10 minutes.

3. Place syrup mixture in a blender or food processor and blend until smooth. Using a mesh strainer, strain the mixture, pressing on the celery pulp to extract all liquid. Discard the pulp, and set the celery-infused syrup aside.

4. Place chopped honeydew in blender or food processor and process until smooth. Add about 1/4 cup of the celery simple syrup and blend together. Depending on how sweet your honeydew is, you may want to add more or less of the syrup -- sweeten to taste.

5. Pour the honeydew mixture into a glass baking dish or container and place in freezer. After 30 minutes, stir with a fork to break up any ice crystals. Continue to do this every 30 minutes for the next 3-4 hours or until the desired consistency is reached.

Note: Celery stalks make great scoopers!

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Zucchini Ribbons Romesco

Moms in bikinis. Discuss.

I've never given much thought to what moms wear to the pool during summertime until I became a mom myself. This is because 1. I generally do not have an opinion about what others choose to wear. {Or not wear. I'm talking to you, Speedo-clad 70-year-old on the beach. Rock on.} and 2. I have more important things to ponder.

But recently, I became friends with a group of women with children around Cole's age and we started having play dates at the pool. {Which, YAY, play dates within walking distance.} The first time I met up with them, I arrived to find that all of the "pool moms" had definitive "mom swimsuits" on, while I wore a two piece. Suddenly, my lack of attention to such details became an acute awareness of my own body and I sort of wanted to wrap myself in an oversized beach towel and hide behind a palm tree.

No one said anything to me, or even looked at me funny that I could tell. But it just got me to thinking: Once you're a mom, are you expected to make "the switch" to a one piece bathing suit? And, more importantly, did someone forget to send me the memo?

As a result, I polled a few non-moms {i.e. my husband and a close friend who doesn't have kids yet}, and both parties saw nothing wrong with my choice of swimwear. I was, however, left with enough doubt that I did a little window shopping in the one piece section at Target, only to leave empty handed. {There are some cute choices, just none that warranted spending the money on.}

I'm just gonna tell it like it is: I don't have superb body image. Like most women, I notice every wrinkle, dimple, droop, sag, stretch and bulge. But I also feel like pregnancy didn't "ruin" my body enough to have to cover it all up behind yards of stretchy fabric. The moms wearing the one pieces looked like beautiful, healthy women to me, and I wonder if their swimsuit choices were fueled by modesty, expectations or something else altogether. If I did dive into the world of one piece suits, it would be more because I want to feel "appropriate."

{As a side note, I have another group of girlfriends with small children -- and amazing bodies -- who shamelessly wear their trendy, two-piece and itty-bitty bikinis, so maybe that's why I had never given it a second thought.}

What do you think? {Please don't make me sorry I asked!}

I think we should think less about poolside fashion choices and more about food. Because that's a department where I feel totally comfortable.

I can't tell you what kind of swimwear is appropriate for the summer, but I can tell you that this zucchini dish is perfect for the occasion.

Summertime is a fantastic time to make the switch from pasta to "zoodles" {zucchini noodles}. In this dish, I skipped the spiralizer and turned to my trusty {and dangerous -- I almost lost a finger a few weeks ago} mandolin to make pappardelle-like strips that are hearty enough to fill in for a carby alternative without causing the bloat and belly. If you don't own a madolin, you can use a vegetable peeler to peel the long strips.

The Romesco sauce is so ridiculously easy that it will become a go-to to toss with pasta and veggies or drizzle over meat. The toasted nuts in the sauce give it a nice texture and the smoked paprika gives it a great, smoky flavor. I added some Kalamata olives to the dish for an extra pop of saltiness.

Just one bite and I think you'll agree that this is a fantastic dish for the summer, whether you're enjoying it while covered up or "al fresco." :)

Zucchini Ribbons Romesco
Sauce recipe adapted from Bon Apetit 
Makes 2 large servings, and about 2 cups of sauce

2 medium zucchinis {thinner ones, if possible}
About 1/3 cup jarred roasted red pepper
1 garlic clove
2 tablespoons roasted almonds
2 tablespoons roasted hazelnuts*
4 pearl tomatoes {or 2 medium Roma tomatoes}
2 tablespoons vinegar, preferably red or white wine {or fresh lemon juice}
1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
Dash of cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup chopped black or kalamata olives

1. Using a mandolin or a vegetable peeler, create long, thin strips with the zucchini. Set aside until ready to cook.

2. Meanwhile, in a blender or food processor, combine the roasted red pepper, garlic, almonds, hazelnuts, tomatoes, vinegar, smoked paprika, cayenne and salt by pulsing until chunky.

3. Open the feed spout and pour in the olive oil while pulsing, and blend until not quite smooth. {You want it to have some texture.}

4. In a large skillet over medium high heat, place zucchini strips and about 2 tablespoons of water. Cover with a lid {or an overturned plate large enough to place over the top} and allow the zucchini to steam for about 3-4 minutes. Uncover and allow most of the water to cook off.**

5. Pour in about half of the Romesco sauce, and gently shake the pan to toss with the zucchini. Cook for 2-3 minutes more just to warm the sauce through and allow the zucchini to become "floppy". Add olives and toss to combine. Serve immediately {with a sprinkle of cheese, if desired}.

*If you don't have hazelnuts, you can simply double the amount of almonds.
** Zucchini gives off a lot of water and can dilute sauces easily. I've found that by cooking off some of the liquid they give after steaming, the final product is less watery. Serving right away also helps.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Piña Colada Popsicles| Stonyfield Organic + prAna

What are you craving this summer?

Me? I'm thinking a lengthy vacation and an ice cold umbrella drink by the pool would be nice. Hey, a girl can dream.

Luckily, some cravings aren't hard to satisfy, like breezy summer dresses that go from day to night and creamy, frozen treats that you can make in minutes. My friends at prAna and Stonyfield can help you with those, no problem.

Last fall I wrote about the super comfy sweater I got when Stonyfield Organic and prAna partnered for a little Clean Plate Club collab. I'm not even kidding you when I say that I probably wore that sweater every time the weather dropped below 70. {Which, sadly, was only a handful of times down here.} But, I'm so, SO happy because my friends are at it again -- this time, they're talking summer outfits and warm weather treats, which is a perfect combo for this Florida girl!

I got to pick out a piece from prAna's sustainable, organic line and here's what I chose:

Posing in your neighborhood isn't awkward at all... 
The Quinn dress is everything a girl needs for the summer. It's low maintenance, stylish, comfortable and cool. {And it even has a little help built in up top for the bosom-impaired like myself! haha!} It's kind of a mom's dream to find a piece that you can wear to the park, the store, a play date and a real date, all while looking put together. This piece is it. And remember that vacation I was dreaming about earlier? This would make a fantastic piece to pack and wear with its quick-drying, stretchy fabric that hardly shows a wrinkle. Love.

Tryin' to get my zen on. Where's my Piña Colada?
Clearly, I've found a piece that I might be living in this summer... but now, let's talk about that umbrella drink.

It may be frowned down upon to sip on a real Piña Colada while you sit poolside for your kid's swim lessons this summer {and if it isn't, please tell me where you live}, so we're doing the next best thing -- turning a cocktail into a popsicle. {Sans booze, ladies. Sorry, we can't have it all.}

This Piña Colada Popsicle contains only 3 ingredients, and they're all pretty good for you, too! Creamy Stonyfield Vanilla Greek Yogurt, coconut milk and fresh pineapple come together in minutes for a frozen snack that the whole family will love. {So you might want to keep them in the back of the freezer if you're planning on keeping them for yourself!}

Quench your cravings this summer for cold treats and perfect pieces to add to your summer wardrobe! Want to add this dress to your collection? I'll be hosting a giveaway on my Instagram later this afternoon, so be sure to pop over and follow me so you can enter to win a Quinn dress of your very own, or do a little shopping using discount code SCS16ERSO to get 15% off your purchase! {Valid until July 7. Not valid on gift certificates or with any other offers.}

Disclosure: This post is sponsored by prAna. As always the opinions here are all my own!

Piña Colada Popsicles

1 cup Stonyfield Organic Greek Yogurt {I used Whole Milk Vanilla, but 0% or Low Fat Vanilla would work, too.}
1 cup coconut milk {again, I used full fat, but you could use reduced fat if you prefer}
1 1/2 cups fresh pineapple {you just need enough to make about 1 cup of pineapple puree}

1. Toss all  ingredients into the blender and process until totally smooth.

2. Pour into popsicle molds and place in freezer.

3. Freeze for 3-4 hours or until completely frozen.

To remove, run popsicle mold under warm running water to loosen before pulling out the popsicles.

*If you like your popsicles a little sweeter, of if your pineapple isn't super sweet, try adding a few tablespoons of agave or honey to sweeten them.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Pepper Jack Cornmeal Madeleines

Yesterday I went out to run a quick errand and, I kid you not, my eyelids were sweating. It already feels like it's a billion degrees out, and yet, I still can't stop myself from turning on the oven and baking from time to time. {That's why God created air conditioning.}

When inspiration strikes, you've got to deal with a little sweat.

A few days after I mentioned that I received 11 pounds of blueberries at my front door, I received another fabulous surprise: Thirteen blocks of cheese from my friends at Cabot. It was like the heavens shone down upon my doorstep with cheesy goodness, and I knew that I must make something worthy of this gift. But what?

Fast forward to that Friday evening -- I had been invited to dine at Jardin Restaurant in West Palm Beach and took my {lucky} husband along for the ride. We both loved our meals and all the yummy extras {and the cocktails... ohhh, the cocktails!}, but when I left there was one thing I just couldn't get out of my head: their savory Cilantro Jalapeno Madeleines.

We ate everything. 

Madeleines, shell-shaped, soft and cakey French cookies of sorts, are typically sweet and can come in a variety of flavors. At Jardin, they serve them warm in place of a bread basket with a side of cayenne butter. Had I not been on my best behavior I would have eaten the whole bowl and asked for more.

Warm Cilantro Jalapeno Madeleines. Mmmm.
Anyway, Jardin's savory Madeleines gave me an idea. I wanted to recreate them at home... but with cheese. Because, you know, I had a little to spare! I also wanted to give them extra texture, so I added a few tablespoons of cornmeal for a tiny bit of crunch.

I'm sad to report that my first attempt using a recipe I found online was a major failure. They turned out gummy, too oily, and just plain unappetizing. {Granted, I forgot to add the butter until after I had already scooped the batter into the molds and had to pour it all back into the bowl so I could add it after the fact. That could have had something to do with it.} I wondered if perhaps Madeleines with freshly grated semi-soft cheese were not possible.

Then I remembered I own Dorie Greenspan's cookbook, Baking Chez Moi, so I did a little reading and recipe research to see if Dorie could help me out of my dilemma. {Because if anyone knows their way around a Madeleine, it's Dorie.} As it turns out, Dorie likes to get a little complicated with her Madeleines, cooling her batter for a few hours in the fridge and then again after scooping it into the Madeleine molds before finally baking it off atop a baking sheet that was left to heat in the oven. I know she's a baking genius and everything, but that's just too many steps for me, so I skipped ALL OF IT and did it my own way.

Guess what? It worked!

Fluffy, savory Madeleines with the faint essence of spicy Cabot Pepper Jack cheese. To me, Madeleines are buttery enough on their own, but you can certainly serve them with some butter like they did at Jardin and I wouldn't judge you. If you really want to add some extra "kapow!" to your Madeleines, I bet some finely diced jalapeno peppers would be a good addition.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got to go blast the A/C because I have about 600 other flavor combinations I want to try!

Pepper Jack Cornmeal Madeleines
Inspired by Jardin Restaurant and adapted from Baking Chez Moi
Makes about 14 Madeleines

2/3 cup flour
2 tablespoons cornmeal
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup finely grated Cabot Pepper Jack Cheese
2 eggs
1 stick {8 tablespoons} unsalted butter, melted
2 tablespoons milk

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Lightly mist a Madeleine mold or mini muffin tin with non-stick spray. Set aside.

2. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, salt, and cheese until combined.

3. In a separate bowl {or in a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment}, beat eggs until pale and slightly frothy.

4. Add about half the dry mixture to the eggs, and fold it in gently with a silicone spatula until it just disappears. Fold in the remaining dry ingredients just until everything is moistened. The batter will be thick.{Don't overmix.}

5. Pour in the melted butter and fold it into the batter gently. Once it is fully incorporated, add the milk and fold it in as well. The batter will look kind of ugly and curdled -- it's supposed to look that way.

6. Scoop batter into the prepared Madeleine mold, filling each cavity to just under the top. {They will puff up as they bake so don't overfill.}

7. Bake for about 12 to 14 minutes or until the tops are golden and the edges are slightly browned.

These are best served warm and/or on the same day they are made.

Note: You can buy a Madeleine mold at most specialty stores or places like HomeGoods for a few dollars, but if you don't have one, you can also bake the batter in mini-muffin tins. They won't have the signature Madeleine look, but they'll still be good to eat!

Monday, May 30, 2016

Caramelized Onion & Bacon Dressing

Salad dressing is one of those things that people tend to have strong preferences about.

On the side. Tossed with lettuce.

Rich and creamy. Light vinaigrette.

Just a drizzle. Glopped on.

And don't even get me started on you die-hard "Ranch on everything" people!

Though I like a variety of dressings and vinaigrettes, homemade dressings always beat out the competition for me. The benefits of making your own dressings at home are obvious -- you can customize them to your liking and adjust the seasonings, quality of ingredients and even fat content.

I've become a big fan of yogurt-based salad dressings with their tart and creamy flavor. So, when the opportunity popped up to create my own yogurt dressing using Stonyfield Organic, I didn't have to think twice about it. Well, that's not entirely true. Have you ever thought about how many flavor combinations you can create for salad dressing?!

I ended up going with a combo that always works together: Caramelized Onion & Bacon. Instead of dressing a plain salad with this creamy, savory dressing, I drizzled it over arugula... perched on top of a Cheddar, Pear & Pecan Flatbread. Yum.

I left my version of this dressing on the thicker side {which actually makes it a great dip for crudites or pita chips}, but you can thin it out for easier pouring if you prefer, or use regular plain yogurt instead of Greek-style.

Don't stop at just one homemade dressing in your cooking repertoire! Check out these other yogurt-based dressings over on The Cookful, including this sweet and tangy Lemon Poppy Seed Dressing!

Disclosure: I was given coupons and compensation for the ingredients needed to create this recipe. As always, all opinions here are my own. :)

Caramelized Onion & Bacon Dressing

1/2 cup caramelized onion* {I used red onion but you can use whatever you'd like}
1 cup Stonyfield Greek Yogurt {I used the whole milk kind}
2 teaspoons white wine vinegar
2 to 3 slices of crisply cooked bacon, crumbled

1. Combine caramelized onions, yogurt and vinegar in a blender or food processor. Blend until smooth.

2. Stir in crispy bacon. Season to taste. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

For Flatbread:

1 flatbread base, such as lavash, naan bread or store bought crust
1 teaspoon olive oil
1/3 cup sharp white cheddar cheese, such as Cabot
1/2 a pear, thinly sliced
1/4 cup chopped candied pecans {or regular pecans}
1/2 cup arugula leaves

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place lavash or flatbread crust on a baking pan lined with foil. Drizzle bread with olive oil and brush to coat. Bake for about 5-7 minutes or until the edges begin to brown.

2. Remove from oven and top with cheese, pear slices, and candied pecans. Bake for an additional 10-15 minutes or until the cheese is melted and starting to brown and bubble in spots. {You'll want the pears to cook and soften a bit, too.}

3. Remove from oven and cool slightly before topping with arugula and drizzling with Caramelized Onion & Bacon Dressing.

*To caramelize onions, simply add about a tablespoon of olive oil to a pan, add thinly sliced onion and cook them down over medium-high heat, stirring frequently until the onions are very soft and turn a deep golden color. If they begin to burn to stick to the pan, add a little bit of stock of your choice, water or wine to the pan and continue to cook until the onions are ready and the liquid is completely evaporated.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Blueberry BBQ Sauce

I had a flat of blueberries delivered to my door last week. That's 12 pints. Almost 10 pounds. Of blueberries.

The longer I blog, the more crazy tales I have of things that are mailed to me. The delivery truck drivers who are assigned to my house probably either think I'm crazy or that the person who lives at my address looks like Jabba the Hutt. Depending on the day, they're probably half right. 

The absolute sweethearts at Wish Farms were kind enough to gift a flat of blueberries to each member of the winning team for the #Hashed competition I mentioned in my Food Wine Conference recap earlier this week. They also shipped a flat of blueberries to the winners of the Blueberry Toss contest I entered, so in a way, I'm glad I didn't win or I would have blueberries coming out the wazoo. {As a side note, though I didn't win, they did include my recipe submission on the Wish Farms site, which I thought was pretty cool!}

As you can imagine, we have all been eating LOTS of blueberries around here. Even Farley. And luckily, Cole has become quite fond of blueberries as a snack, so he's been helping out, too. 

But we still have about 6 pints left after snacking, smoothie-ing and baking all week, so I knew it was time to come up with another recipe for blueberry consumption. With this weekend being Memorial Day Weekend and all, and so many folks taking to their backyards to grill with family and friends, I thought I'd rework an old recipe that could add a special touch to otherwise ordinary grilling.

Blueberry BBQ Sauce! 

Not only is it patriotic to add a touch of blue to your red and white {meats}, but it's also a nice way to sweeten up the day with an unexpected twist that guests will appreciate.

I first posted a version of this recipe 4 years ago {!}, during one of my Tailgate Thursday posts. Back then I used to start by making a strained blueberry syrup, and later adding it to the rest of the ingredients. But that was back when I used to have more time and less children {fury and human} tugging on my apron strings, so I changed things around a bit for this version, and I actually like it better!

My first blueberry bbq sauce attempt back in 2012. 

Blueberries and sauteed onion, garlic and dried herbs make an excellent sweet and savory team, while vinegar and hot sauce give that zip and zing that perks up your taste buds. {I used a combination of Raspberry Wine Vinegar and Chardonnay Vinegar this time, and it really enhanced the berry flavor, but if you don't have those, just use regular red wine vinegar and it should still turn out great!} I blended my sauce in the food processor for a smoother consistency, but if you don't mind some blueberry skins and onion pieces, feel free to keep it chunky.

Whether you slather this sauce on ribs, toss it with chicken wings or dab it onto your burger, you'll be happy you tried something new! Have a safe and happy weekend, and don't forget to pause and remember the brave men and women who gave their lives for our country! 

Blueberry BBQ Sauce

1 pint blueberries
1 1/4 cups water
3/4 cup sugar
2 strips of lemon zest {just peel with a vegetable peeler avoiding the white pith}
4 tablespoons butter
1 medium onion, minced
2 large garlic cloves, grated
1/2 teaspoon ground sage
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4 cup red wine vinegar 
1 teaspoon hot sauce

1. Combine the blueberries, water, sugar and lemon zest in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat.

2. Reduce the heat to medium and allow to simmer until reduced by about half, stopping to smash the berries every now and again. {This takes awhile -- about 15-20 minutes. When it's ready the bubbles will be slower and the liquid will be thickened slightly.} Remove from heat and set aside.

3. Meanwhile, in another saucepan or in a medium pot, melt butter over medium-high heat. Add onion and garlic and saute until softened and translucent, about 5-7 minutes.

4. Sprinkle in sage and thyme, and cook for another minute or so. Stir in vinegar, hot sauce, and the blueberry mixture and bring to a bubble, then reduce to a simmer and allow to cook for another 6-8 minutes until the mixture has thickened a bit. Remove from heat and cool slightly.

5. Pour the mixture into a blender or food processor and blend to desired consistency. {Or don't if you want a chunky sauce.} DO NOT blend boiling hot liquids as they can blow the top right off of your blender!

Pour into a jar with a tight fitting lid and refrigerate until ready to use.

Note: Remember that since this sauce has a higher sugar content, it will burn easily if cooked over high heat. 

Monday, May 23, 2016

Lemon, Honey & Cinnamon Yogurt Mask | #FWCon Recap

Hi there! I'm finally fully recovered from attending the Food Wine Conference I mentioned a few weeks ago, and that means that 1. My head is swimming, and 2. I have so much to do. Nothing new there.

It was a great weekend, although the conditions going into it were definitely NOT ideal. My late-teether of a son decided to have some real doozies start to break ground, which meant fever, pitifulness and major grumps to deal with. Luckily, my husband tied on his Super Dad cape and came along for the ride, staying with him all weekend in our hotel room and keeping him mostly meltdown-free while I did my blogger thing. {As a side note, The Rosen Shingle Creek is not a terrible place to have to be trapped in a hotel room, should the need arise.}

The view from our room
I'm not going to give you a play-by-play of the entire weekend; that would be impossible since they manage to cram so much information, food and fun into such a short period of time. Here's the highlight reel!

Tell Me Everything You Know!

This year's speakers ran the gamut between renowned chefs {Donatella Arpaia to be exact}, farm owners and vintners, etiquette coaches, Instagram rockstars and hospitality professionals. Every year I think I can't possibly learn something new, but without fail I come to find I'm happily mistaken! The most useful session for me this year was a presentation on creating videos {like those viral ones you see from}, which was given by Denise and Lenny from Chez Us. Not only was I shocked to find out how simple they are to create, but I was also motivated enough to try it out at home right away. I definitely need practice, but not too shabby, right??

I am so thankful for the pros who have acquired a wealth of knowledge and are kind enough to share it with little 'ol me!

Make New Friends, But Keep the Old

I'm a pretty social kinda gal. I like meeting new people and enjoy chatting with strangers. But sometimes, things like conferences and large-scale events are kind of intimidating, even for social butterflies.  

In the past, I've attended conferences where I knew a few people, and ones where I didn't know a soul. I can tell you from experience that it makes such a difference to put yourself out there and make friends! Just a friendly "Hello" can open up a whole gateway to conversation, opportunities, and even friendships. Since FWCon isn't a huge conference compared to others, I remembered many of the folks there from the year before, and it was nice to see familiar faces {Shaina, Betsy, Terri, Sondra & so many more!}

I also ran into a blog buddy who I've followed for some time {Katie from Katie's Cucina}, and I felt like we really connected after attending the same conferences over the last few years, having babies that are close in age, collaborating in the past, and, yes, having a few cocktails together! We had so many laughs, and in between talking business, it was nice to feel like I was just hanging out with girlfriends. Katie introduced me to her friend April from Mama Loves Food, and I loved getting to know her and learning about how she does 90 minute {!!!} Facebook Live videos from her kitchen several times a week. {As a side note, April has FIVE small children, so there is NO excuse for me on finding the time to work on my business!} No matter how tempted you might be to keep to yourself or stick with only people you know, I highly suggest putting on your confident pants and getting out there!

Let's Eat {And Drink!}

There's no denying that part of the reason why I love food blogging conferences so much is because of the food. At Food Wine, they go all out and really try to make everything special for their guests. As far as I'm concerned, everything in life should have snack breaks featuring things like a Cabot mac & cheese bar, Duda Farm Fresh Foods produce, and Stoneridge Montmorency Cherries. End of discussion.

The formal lunches and dinners were even more elaborate. From beautiful displays of sushi and small plates made by Rosen's best chefs, to a full-blown Idaho Potato extravaganza to Certified Angus Beef's Denim & Diamonds themed dinner on Saturday night, you could tell that a lot of work was put into making these dining experiences memorable. {As a side note, since I don't eat beef, I got the vegetarian option for Saturday's dinner, and it was lovely!}

We were so fortunate to have CK Mondavi as one of the sponsors this year, so there was no shortage on wine. I even found a few new ones that I really enjoyed!

Work Hard, Play Hard

If you're not into blogging or social media, then this might all sound like a snoozefest to you... but I can assure you that there is as much time set aside for fun as there is for business. Between contests and giveaways, silly photo opps and cocktail receptions, there are good times-a-plenty!

Giant wine glasses, massages, playing with your food & porch-sittin'. Yup, plenty of fun.
Remember last year I played The Price is Right and won all the things? Well, it happened again! {Clearly, I've got some fabulous FWCon mojo!} This year, there was a Chopped-style cooking competition sponsored by Wish Farms called "#Hashed." Several teams competed against one another to create a dish using only the ingredients provided by our sponsors, and wouldn't you know it, my team WON! {Thanks, Terri, for literally taking the heat for our bunch in the kitchen!} We got so many gifts from the sponsors, and a free ride for next year's FWCon! WOOHOO!

#Hashed finished products ready to be judged!
I also won 3rd place in a Florida Dairy Farmers recipe contest with my Pimento Cheese Stuffed Cornbread, so I was gifted a great basket of FL Milk goodies, $100, and reimbursement for my conference ticket. Score!

This Time Around

This year, I applied to become a brand ambassador and was paired with Duda Farm Fresh Foods. {Ambassadors receive a discounted ticket to the conference and provide social media coverage for the brand throughout the conference. I hope you saw the pics & Tweets I posted of their super-fun & tasty displays throughout the weekend!} In years past, I wouldn't have had the confidence to sign up for something like an ambassadorship {because it sounded official and scary}, and would have been worried that I wouldn't do a good job. But I did it, and I'm so happy that I did.

Sunday Brunch sponsored by Duda!  
Though I've attended a lot of conferences, something was different about this one: Me. I think I was at ease and ready to receive the information that was provided so that I can work on taking my blog to the next level. If you know me, you know that's a big step for me. {I'm constantly downplaying, sidestepping, and back burner-ing anything related to the blog. NO MORE!} Some big changes are coming for this space, and I can truly say that making time to attend conferences like FWCon has helped me get to the point where I am now.

So, 6 conferences later, this "ain't my first rodeo" anymore. Even though conferences tend to have many of the same elements {speakers, food, sponsors, networking, etc., etc.}, I always come away from each one with a fresh perspective and a unique vibe.

I left this year's FWCon feeling, above all, grateful. Grateful that I've finally reached a point in this wide world of blogging where I have made friends that I look forward to seeing. Grateful that I get to do this crazy thing that actually earns money to help support my family. Grateful that I have overcome some {not all!} of the fears and doubts that I had when I turned this blog into a business. Grateful that other brands and businesses are FINALLY starting to see the value of what we do, and that our efforts often translate to actions that in essence make products and advertising better for you as a consumer.

Food bloggers, I highly recommend this conference, especially if it's your first! I plan on returning for their big 5 year celebration in 2017!

Whew! That was longer than I thought it would be... I think I need some R&R, but maybe I'll just settle for some DIY spa time. The yogurt mask we made on Friday night with Florida Dairy Farmers is perfect for an at-home beauty break. You should try it, too!

Lemon, Honey & Cinnamon Yogurt Mask

1/2 cup whole milk Greek yogurt
1 tablespoon lemon
1 tablespoon honey
Dash of cinnamon

1. Combine all ingredients in a bowl. Mix until well incorporated.

2. Spoon into a small jar with a tight-fitting lid.

3. Use immediately by slathering on face, then wiping it off with a warm wash cloth after 15 minutes. Store the remainder of the mask in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.

*Note: I actually ate this mixture with fresh berries, and it was delicious! May sound strange, but it's good for your outsides and insides! ;)

Disclosure: Though I was given a discounted ticket for my participation as a brand ambassador, the opinions shared here are all my own.