Pearl Couscous With Apples, Cranberries, & Herbs

The unique flavors in this Pearl Couscous With Apples, Cranberries, & Herbs blend perfectly for a memorable side dish. 

A few weeks ago we had some friends over for dinner.

Am I allowed to say that?

This is such a weird time where admitting to a dinner party feels like confessing an affair. (Also where coughing is the new farting.) Granted, our dinner group only just grazed the “gathering of 10 people” mark, so technically, we weren’t overstepping any official bounds. (There, now no one can yell at me in the comments.) Plus, personally, since having people over for dinner is something like a religious calling in my life, I felt pretty okay about inviting another family into our home after weeks of only virtual contact with friends.

While deciding a menu for our much-anticipated guests, I asked my husband if there was anything in particular he’d like to have on our special night. “How about that couscous thing you make?” he said, “The one with apples and herbs?”

I knew right away what he was talking about. I’ve been making this Giada de Laurentiis recipe for pearl couscous with apples, cranberries, and herbs for a few years now, and it’s one of those dishes that doesn’t *sound* like it’ll be anything spectacular–and then you eat it and go…

Not surprisingly, the wife of the couple who joined us for dinner ended up asking me for the recipe–not the first time someone has asked! Which I figure means it’s about time to share it on the blog.

So what makes this such a standout side? First of all, we have to give credit to the real star of this dish: the pearl couscous. If you’ve never had this larger, meatier type of couscous, you’re seriously missing out. It’s just the most delightful thing to eat–almost squeaky in its chewy roundness. Meanwhile, a savory olive oil and fresh herb dressing soaks into not only the couscous, but also into tart green apples, crunchy almonds, and sweet dried cranberries. While it may sound like more of an autumn combo, I think it’s one to enjoy all year round. It’s delicious all on its own, or serve it alongside grilled chicken or pork chops. Magnifico!

I’m happy I served this for our friends, and I stand by the decision to have them and their kids over for dinner. (I’ll even confess that we’ve now had friends over for dinner TWICE. Rebelzzzz.) Cooking for others after a lengthy stretch of isolation did wonders for my sense of well-being. And, if you ask me, while social distancing for physical health matters, connecting with others–yes, even in REAL LIFE–matters, too.

Pearl Couscous with Apples, Cranberries, and Herbs

Chewy pearl couscous pairs with tart green apples, sweet cranberries, and an herbed olive oil dressing in this memorable side dish.
Prep Time15 mins
Cook Time20 mins

Ingredients

For the couscous:

  • 1 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 2 c. pearl (Israeli) couscous
  • 32 oz. chicken broth
  • 1/4 c. fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp. fresh rosemary, chopped
  • 1 tsp. fresh thyme
  • 1 c. dried cranberries
  • 1/2 c. slivered almonds, toasted
  • 1 Granny Smith apple, diced

For the dressing

  • 1/4 c. apple cider vinegar
  • 2 Tbsp. maple syrup
  • 1 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 tsp. black pepper
  • 1/4 c. olive oil

Instructions

Cook the couscous:

  • In a large saucepan, heat 1 Tbsp. olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the couscous. Cook and stir until lightly browned, 3 to 5 minutes.
  • Add chicken broth and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until liquid is absorbed, 10-15 minutes.

Make the dressing:

  • While couscous cooks, whisk together cider vinegar, maple syrup, salt, black pepper, and olive oil.

Put it all together:

  • In a large serving bowl, combine cooked couscous, parsley, rosemary, thyme, cranberries, almonds, and apples. Stir in dressing and serve immediately.

Notes

Adapted from the Food Network.

Beef and Bean Nacho Casserole

Who doesn’t love nachos? This Beef and Bean Nacho Casserole layers ground beef, black beans, melty cheddar, sour cream, and more on crispy tortilla chips for a delicious, easy Mexican dinner.


Remember recipe keepers? As in, the OG Pinterest? When I got married, a friend gave me this once-stylish (and once covered) Trapper Keeper-esque recipe binder–complete with pockets for recipes torn from magazines and plenty of space to write down favorite breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and more.

Just like new…😂

Please ignore my awkwardly placed finger in this photo.

Little did I know that the internet would soon virtually eliminate my need for such a thing. With every recipe under the sun online, there’s less and less call for physical recipe keepers.

And yet…I do still actually use this book. (I’m in the generation that straddles the line between liking old school pen and paper and digital everything.) As you can probably tell from its appearance, this binder has seen 16 years of flipping, sorting, and stuffing. And while there are plenty of recipes I made in 2004 that I’d never consider now–lookin’ at you, chili with a spaghetti sauce base (yikes)–there are some I come back to time and again.


This Beef and Bean Nacho Casserole is one of them. Can you see why? Look at that gooey melted cheese, those dollops of sour cream, those lovable pops of cherry tomatoes! Come on, this meal is a nacho lover’s DREAM.

I honestly don’t know where this recipe originally came from, but it’s been in my recipe keeper almost since I acquired it. Some generous soul must have shared it with me, knowing what an inexperienced cook I was back then. Over the years I’ve tweaked it to make it my own. I’ve added fire-roasted corn, extra taco seasoning, and changed it from a single layer to a double layer. It’s not rocket science, certainly, but I can tell you it does make a crave-able Mexican meal that feeds a crowd. ‘Cause who doesn’t love nachos?

Typically, of course, nachos are not without their issues. The problem with making them in the microwave or under the broiler is getting the cheese to melt just right. Go too long and you’ll get a plate of scorched, blackened cheese crust–but too short a duration leaves you with a weird mish-mash that can’t decide if it’s melted or unmelted.

This recipe solves the problem by baking at 350 for about 30 minutes–perfect cheese-melting conditions, if you ask me. And though it may seem strange to bake dollops of sour cream, I promise it turns out as creamy as ever. Meanwhile, black beans add texture and fiber, and slivers of green onion finish things off with a piquant bite.

Hungry yet? Grab your nacho ingredients and get cooking! And tell me…do you have a recipe keeper? What’s yours like, and is it as messy (and well-loved) as mine?

Beef and Bean Nacho Casserole

In this delicious Mexican dinner, layers of ground beef, black beans, cheddar cheese, and more cover tortilla chips. Pop it in the oven for 30 minutes and you're done!
Prep Time20 mins
Cook Time30 mins
Servings: 8 as a main dish

Ingredients

  • 1 lb. ground beef
  • 1 15-oz. can black beans, drained
  • 2 c. salsa
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp. taco seasoning
  • 1/2 c. frozen corn kernels, preferably fire-roasted
  • 5 c. tortilla chips, roughly crushed
  • 1 c. sour cream
  • 2 c. shredded cheddar
  • 1/2 c. cherry tomatoes, sliced in half
  • 1/4 c. green onions, sliced

Instructions

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 9 x 13 inch baking dish with cooking spray.
  • In a large skillet, brown ground beef. Drain, then add black beans, salsa, taco seasoning, and frozen corn. Cook until heated through.
  • Spread half the crushed tortilla chips in a layer in the prepared pan. Top with half the beef-bean mixture. Dollop with half the sour cream and sprinkle with half the cheddar. Repeat these layers: chips, beef-bean mixture, sour cream, shredded cheddar. Distribute halved cherry tomatoes, cut side down, over the top of the casserole and sprinkle with slicedgreen onions.
  • Bake 25-30 minutes or until heated through and cheese has melted.

Notes

A Love Letter to Food Original Recipe.

Easy Canned Tuna Poke Bowl

Want to recreate restaurant-style poke bowls on the cheap? Use canned tuna and canned crab in this easy canned tuna poke bowl!



Not long ago I posed a question on A Love Letter to Food’s Facebook page:

I love asking open-ended questions on social media because, not only does it get plenty of engagement from readers, but usually gets me thinking. When I asked this particular question, friends and followers had PLENTY of answers. And, seeing as how most of us have been deprived of the restaurant experience for weeks, if not months, I get it. I’m chomping at the bit as much as anyone to actually go OUT to eat.

In fact, for me, the Covid-19 restaurant ban has actually been a proving ground for determining which restaurants actually have good food and which I apparently go to for their ambiance or other factors. If all I can get is takeout, that takeout better be worth it! One type of restaurant whose food I’ve realized I genuinely miss? Poke bowl joints.

A wee bit of backstory: It took me until about age 30 before I ever acquiesced to eating sushi. Like most sushi-averse folks, the thought of eating raw fish seemed SO VERY WRONG. But eventually my husband convinced me to try a local sushi place with famously fresh rolls and my eyes were opened to the amazingness of this culinary wonder. After getting on the sushi bandwagon, you better believe poke bowls were an easy next step. I love their combo of mild and spicy flavors, and they can be surprisingly healthy, too!

Besides that, poke bowls are the Chipotle burritos of Asian food–convenient, customizable, and uncomplicated. And, even though we can’t eat them at restaurants at the moment, they’re pretty easy to make at home. This version is super budget-friendly, using canned tuna and canned crab (I know, it could be a lot fancier with sushi-grade tuna, but we’re going for inexpensive here, mmkay?) Topped with a spicy sriracha aioli–my favorite part of any poke bowl–these are a tasty at-home version of the fast-casual favorite.

So add what you like, take out what you like, and enjoy!

Easy Canned Tuna Poke Bowl

Quick to prep and easy on your budget, this canned tuna poke bowl is a great at-home version of a restaurant favorite.
Prep Time10 mins
Cook Time25 mins
Servings: 4

Ingredients

For the sriracha aioli:

  • 1/2 c. mayonnaise
  • 1 Tbsp. sriracha sauce
  • 2 tsp. lemon juice
  • 1/4 tsp. garlic powder
  • salt, to taste

For the poke bowls:

  • 1 1/2 c. dry white rice
  • 10 oz. frozen edamame
  • 5.3 oz. can albacore tuna packed in water, drained
  • 6 oz. can white crab meat, drained
  • 1 c. shredded carrot
  • 1 c. cucumber, diced
  • fried onions, for garnish
  • sesame seeds, for garnish
  • sliced green onions, for garnish

Instructions

Make the sriracha aioli:

  • In a measuring cup, whisk together all ingredients. Refrigerate until ready to use.

Make the bowls:

  • In a large pot, make rice according to package directions. Meanwhile, microwave edamame according to package directions and prep all other ingredients.
  • Assemble 4 individual bowls, dividing rice, edamame, tuna, crab, carrot, and cucumber among all. Garnish with fried onions, sesame seeds, and green onions. Top with sriracha aioli.

Notes

A Love Letter to Food original recipe.

Yellow Grapefruit Bars

Yellow grapefruit bars are lemon bars’ mellow yellow cousin! Try this refreshing baked dessert with fresh-squeezed juice!

My husband calls these yellow grapefruit bars a “sleeper dessert.” You know the kind: the food you don’t think you’re gonna like that much or doesn’t seem that tasty at first…and then it grows on you. And I have to say, I think he’s right.

When I first whipped them up as a last-minute Easter dessert, I wasn’t sure what to expect of them, either. They were mainly an excuse to use up some of the many yellow grapefruits I’d been gifted from my mom’s over-producing citrus tree. Besides, with the coronavirus situation, I really don’t want to go to the store any more than I have to right now…so using up ingredients I have on hand sounded like a solid plan.

I’d made Ina Garten’s lemon bar recipe recently, with delicious results, and was thrilled to have finally found one that didn’t end up runny on top, squishy on bottom. (If you’ve ever made an unsuccessful attempt at lemon bars, you know what a miracle it is to find a great recipe.) Could this tried-and-true recipe hold steady with a substitution of grapefruit juice–and a few other tweaks?

Why, yes, it could–and it did!

These grapefruit bars turned out yummy at first, but as their flavor deepened over 24 hours or so, they got even tastier. (Hence their “sleeper dessert” status.) Their flavor isn’t as tart as lemon, but if you’re not a fan of pucker-up acidity, that may be just fine for you. The shortbread crust holds together beautifully with the help of a splash of milk, since I always find shortbread needs a bit of extra moisture to keep from crumbling. And their fruity, gooey filling? Perfectly smooth AND doesn’t stick to the knife when you’re trying to haul them out of the pan.

If you need a springy sweet fix (and who couldn’t use a little something sweet in these tough times?) a pan of these will do the trick.

(P.S. Did you know there are at least five different types of grapefruit?) I can’t say if this recipe would work with any of the other interesting varieties, but it’s certainly worth a try!)

Grapefruit bars

Grapefruit bars are lemon bars' mellow yellow cousin! Try these with fresh-squeezed juice.
Prep Time15 mins
Cook Time1 hr
Course: Dessert
Servings: 16

Ingredients

For the crust:

  • 1 c. butter
  • 1/2 c. sugar
  • 2 c. all-purpose flour
  • 1/8 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 Tbsp. milk or half and half

For the filling:

  • 6 large or extra-large eggs
  • 2 3/4 c. sugar
  • 2 Tbsp. grated yellow grapefruit zest
  • 1 c. fresh yellow grapefruit juice
  • 1 c. all-purpose flour
  • powdered sugar, for topping

Instructions

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees and grease a 9 x 13 inch baking dish.

Make the crust:

  • In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar. Add flour and salt and mix. Add milk and stir until dough holds together. Press into the bottom of prepared pan evenly. Bake 25-28 minutes or until lightly browned.

Make the filling:

  • Wipe out the bowl you used to make the crust. Whisk together the eggs, sugar, grapefruit zest, grapefruit juice, and flour. When the crust is done, pour this mixture over it and return to the oven for another 30 to 35 minutes.
  • Cool and dust with powdered sugar. Cut into squares.

Notes

Adapted from The Food Network.

 

Quarantine Exercise Playlist

Going stir-crazy during Covid-19? Here’s a fun Quarantine Exercise Playlist to get you moving and smiling.

Since my last post, it seems like the world has become a very different place. The onset of the coronavirus has changed so many aspects of everyday life–and, for some, even put life at risk.

How are you hanging in there?

For me, the last month has felt surreal. If I’m honest, I have NOT been at my best. Suddenly having to homeschool my kids and scale way back on my writing career has not only been a major challenge, but a blow to my ego and sense of self. Besides which, I miss my church community terribly, desperately want to see my friends in person, AND–the kicker–I haven’t been to Trader Joe’s in a month. (I jest…kind of.) Then of course there are all the worries about the economic impact of this disaster.

One thing I can still enjoy, though, is my semi-weekly run. Getting outdoors with my heart pumping certainly helps lift my spirits and put things in perspective. So, even though it’s not about food, I thought I’d share a Quarantine Exercise Playlist. (I’ve shared favorite workout songs a few times in the past, if you’d like to check out my other exercise playlists!)

These songs, for one reason or another, seem appropriate to our current situation. Some are uplifting, some are funny, some seem like they were written just for social distancing. I hope you’ll add them to your playlist for running, cycling, elliptical-ing, or whatever it is you do to get active.

Quarantine Exercise Playlist

1. “Higher Love” by Whitney Houston & Kygo

This ain’t your momma’s “Higher Love” from ’80s soft rock radio. Norwegian DJ/producer Kygo has taken a little-known recording of the song by Whitney Houston and tweaked it into something infectiously danceable–and surprisingly timely.

I definitely resonate with lyrics like:

Things look so bad everywhere / In this whole world, what is fair? and Worlds are turnin’ and we’re just hangin’ on / facing our fear and standing out there alone

But I love the resolution that there’s a Higher Love who’s got our back through all of this.

2. “I’ll Be Waiting” by Adele

“I’ll Be Waiting” is all about the chance to do things differently. I know there are things I’d change if I could go back to the time before this pandemic–and I definitely plan to do some things differently when it’s over, like appreciate my in-person friendships all the more.

3. “Every Time I’m Ready to Hug” by Ra Ra Riot

This song is so upbeat and happy, you’d never know it’s about trying to hug someone…and not being able to. (Story of our lives right now, right?) Give indie rock band Ra Ra Riot a listen in this zippy little tune.

4. “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us” by Sparks

I swear, some people are taking social distancing so seriously, you’re practically not allowed to be in the same town with them…hence this hit by ’70s brother duo Sparks.

5. “Stand By You” by Rachel Platten

Even if we can’t find heaven, I’ll walk through hell with you / Love, you’re not alone, ’cause I’m gonna stand by you

Okay, cue the tears. For anyone who misses spending time with friends and family right now, this one may be a tear-jerker. But for me, it’s a reminder that friendship is stronger than physical distance and we’re all in this together.

6. “Dancing With Myself” by Billy Idol

I mean, for obvious reasons…

7. “Shake It Off” by Taylor Swift

Some days in the last month since the coronavirus hijacked normal life, I’ve just needed to shake off the problems of the world. They’re not mine to solve. A little of T-Swift’s “Shake It Off” definitely helps.

8. “A Change Would Do You Good” by Sheryl Crow

This one’s here for a little irony. I don’t know about you, but I’m getting tired of the confinement of quarantine. It’d be so nice to travel or see something besides the small radius of walks in my neighborhood. A change would definitely do me good. Ya know, in another couple of months or next year or whenever…

9. “Never Give Up” by Sia

Is coronavirus awful and miserable? Yes. Are we as a society going to get through it? YES!

The lyrics in “Never Give Up” are a near-guaranteed injection of hope: I won’t let you get me down / I’ll keep gettin’ up when I hit the ground / Oh, never give up, no never give up, no, no

10. “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” by The Police

Who says social distancing can’t rock? Someone needs to do a coronavirus cover of this Police song and change the words “so close” to “within six feet.”

11. “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor

There’s a reason Gloria Gaynor’s disco smash is still a go-to song for everyone from cancer fighters to discarded wives. It’s totally an anthem of the human spirit. Crank it up for a head-clearing run or dance.

12. “Virus Alert” by Weird Al Yankovic

Weird Al’s “Virus Alert” (which, incidentally, is a parody of the aforementioned ’70s band Sparks’ signature style) is so catchy and funny, I think you’ll find it the perfect accompaniment to your virus-quarantined workout…even though it’s about a computer virus, not an ACTUAL virus.

What’s your favorite uplifting song for quarantine exercise? Tell me in the comments!