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Asparagus season varies based on the climate in which it is grown, though it typically matures in early summer in the US northern latitudes and even earlier in southern states, like Texas. In tropical regions of the world, such as the state of Hawaii or warm Mediterranean climates like those of southern Italy and Greece, asparagus season is year round. The plant, however, only lasts 90 days per season, so crops need to be planted incrementally to receive a steady harvest throughout the year.

A member of the lily family, asparagus comes from the Greek word, asparagos, which first appeared in English print around 1000 A.D. It cannot be definitively traced to any one specific area of origin, although it is known to be native to the eastern Mediterranean and Asia Minor areas.

As early as 200 BC, Cato , a Roman statesman and author, gave excellent growing instructions for asparagus, in his work, De Agri Cultura. The ancient Egyptians cultivated asparagus and Romans, from Pliny to Julius Caesar to Augustus, prized the wild variety. “As quick as cooking asparagus” was an old Roman saying meaning something accomplished rapidly.

The asparagus growing beds in Northern Italy were famous during the Renaissance period. These graceful spears have always been a sign of elegance, and in times past, were a delicacy only the wealthy could afford. Roman emperors were so fond of asparagus, that they kept a special asparagus fleet for the purpose of fetching it.

Asparagus spears grow from a crown planted in sandy soils and, under ideal conditions, can grow 10 inches in a 24-hour period. The most common types are green, but you might see two others in supermarkets and restaurants: white, which is more delicate and difficult to harvest, and purple, which is smaller and fruitier.

This large vegetable is one of the most nutritionally well-balanced vegetables — high in folic acid and a good source of potassium, fiber, thiamin and vitamins A, B6 and C.  A 5-ounce serving provides 60% of the RDA for folic acid and is low in calories. You can enjoy this vegetable raw or with minimal preparation.

Like all vegetables, asparagus doesn’t instantly “die” when it is picked but continues to engage in metabolic activity. This metabolic activity includes intake of oxygen, the breaking down of starches and sugars and the releasing of carbon dioxide. The speed at which these processes occur is typically referred to as “respiration rate.” Compared to most other vegetables, asparagus has a very high respiration rate. Asparagus’ very high respiration rate makes it more perishable than its other vegetables and also much more likely to lose water, wrinkle and harden.

Three types of asparagus are pictured with white asparagus at the back and green asparagus in the middle. The plant at the front is wild asparagus.

Since asparagus varieties most commonly available in the U.S. are green in color, you are most likely to find these green-colored varieties in your grocery store.

Two other types of asparagus that are widely grown aside from the typical green variety are white asparagus and purple asparagus. These strains have the same asparagus season for harvesting and only differ in appearance and size.

White asparagus is produced by keeping the stems of the plant buried under mounds of dirt which prevents them from being infused with green chlorophyll from interaction with sunlight and gives the plants’ shoots a more mild and softer texture.

Purple asparagus was first grown in Italy and is a larger than normal strain with a sweeter taste. It is a hybrid plant where the spear edges of the stems are noticeably purple and is named Violetto d/Albenga after the Albenga north-western region of Italy situated along the Gulf of Genoa. 

Purple varieties typically have a higher sugar content than green and white varieties and for this reason have a sweeter taste. Even with this higher sugar content, asparagus is anything but a high-sugar food. We’re talking about 3 grams of total sugar per cup of fresh asparagus — less than half of the amount in an extra small apple.

Asparagus stalks should be rounded and not twisted. Look for firm, thin stems with deep green or purplish closed tips. The cut ends should not be too woody, although a little woodiness at the base prevents the stalk from drying out. Once trimmed and cooked, asparagus loses about half its total weight. Use asparagus within a day or two after purchasing for best flavor and texture. Store in the refrigerator with the ends wrapped in a damp paper towel.

Cooking Wild Asparagus

As asparagus grows almost everywhere in Italy there are many regional asparagus recipes. The spears can be boiled for a few minutes and served as a side dish with a splash of olive oil and lemon juice or added to an omelette. The tender tips have a delicate flavor and taste the best with as little cooking as possible.

To make a simple pasta dish: cut the asparagus shoots into medium length pieces and then saute them for 3-4 minutes along with some finely chopped garlic, pepperoncino (chilli pepper) and a few shavings of lemon zest. Pour this mixture over cooked spaghettini (a thinner variety of spaghetti) and sprinkle with pecorino-romano cheese.

 

Italian Asparagus Gratin ( Asparagi alla Parmigiana)

Roasting is an excellent way to prepare asparagus. Asparagi alla parmigiana is a springtime favorite in northern Italy.

4 to 6 servings

Ingredients:

  • Asparagus, trimmed — 2 pounds
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • Parmesan cheese, grated — 1/2 to 2/3 cup
  • Salt and pepper — to taste

Directions:

Preheat oven to 450°F. Oil a shallow baking dish that is just large enough to hold the asparagus. Place a layer of asparagus in the dish with the tips all facing the same direction. Sprinkle with a little salt and pepper and some of the cheese. Keep adding layers until all asparagus and all cheese is used, finishing with the cheese.

Drizzle with olive oil and place the dish on the top rack of the oven. Bake for about 15-20 minutes, or until the asparagus is cooked through and beginning to brown and the cheese is melted.

Asparagus and Sausage Pizza

Ingredients:

  • 1 lb. Dough for Pizza
  • 1/2 pound asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1/2-inch long pieces
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 large sweet red pepper, seeded and cut into 1/4-inch wide strips
  • 1/2 pound sweet Italian sausage with fennel, casing removed
  • 3/4 cup shredded provolone cheese, or cheese of choice

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 375°F.

Place the asparagus in a skillet and add 1 cup water. Cook until the asparagus are tender; drain and transfer to a bowl.

In the same skillet add the olive oil and cook the peppers until they soften. Transfer to the bowl with the asparagus.

In the same skillet, cook the sausage until it is no longer pink. Cool.

Pat the dough into a large pizza pan. Spread the sausage over the dough.

Spread the asparagus and peppers over the sausage. Sprinkle the provolone over all.

Bake until the crust is brown and the cheese has melted. Slice and serve.

Spring Asparagus and White Bean Salad

Makes 4 – 1cup servings

Ingredients:

  • 3 cups asparagus, cut into 1-inch pieces (about 1½ lb)
  • 1½ cups canned cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
  • 5 thinly sliced radishes
  • 1/2 cup (2 oz) crumbled feta
  • 1 medium shallot, peeled and minced
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint

Dressing:

  • 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
  • 1 tteapsoon grated lemon zest
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon black pepper

Directions

Steam asparagus, covered, 2 minutes or until crisp-tender.

Rinse asparagus with cold water and drain.

Gently combine asparagus, beans, radishes, feta, shallot and fresh mint in a serving bowl.

Make the dressing by combining lemon juice, lemon zest, mustard, olive oil, salt and pepper and whisk to combine.

Pour dressing over asparagus mixture and toss gently to coat.

Rigatoni with Bacon and Asparagus

8 Servings

Ingredients:

  • 1 package (16 ounces) whole wheat rigatoni pasta
  • 1 pound fresh asparagus, trimmed and coarsely chopped
  • 8 bacon strips
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2/3 cup fat free half-and-half cream
  • 1/2 cup shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 cup minced fresh parsley
  • 1/8 teaspoon coarsely ground pepper
  • 1/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Directions:

Cook pasta according to package directions. (Cook asparagus with pasta during the last 3 min.) Drain.

In the same pan, cook bacon over medium heat until crisp. Remove to paper towels to drain. Crumble bacon and set aside. Drain fat from pan.

Add butter and oil to the pan and heat. Saute garlic briefly. Stir in cream.

Bring to a boil. Reduce heat; simmer, uncovered, for 3-4 minutes or until slightly thickened.

Stir in mozzarella cheese until melted. Add drained pasta and asparagus. Stir in the salt, parsley and reserved bacon. Sprinkle with pepper and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

 

Asparagus and Herb Lasagna

The lasagna takes some time to make, but it can be prepared the day before you entertain. It keeps very well for a day or two in the refrigerator before you bake it.

Ingredients:

  • 2 large garlic cloves, peeled
  • Salt
  • 2 pounds asparagus
  • 1 recipe Olive Oil Bechamel, recipe below
  • 3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon freshly grated Parmesan
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped fresh herbs, such as tarragon, parsley, chives, basil
  • 12 no-boil lasagna noodles

Directions:

Fill a pasta pot with water and add the garlic cloves. Bring to a boil while you trim the asparagus by breaking off the woody ends but do not discard. When the water comes to a boil, add salt and the asparagus woody ends. Reduce the heat to medium low, cover partially and simmer the asparagus ends for 30 minutes. Remove the asparagus ends and the garlic cloves from the water and discard.

Bring the water back to a boil and add the asparagus stalks. Boil thick asparagus stalks for five minutes or medium and thin stalks for three minutes. Transfer them, using a spider or tongs, to a bowl of ice water. Do not drain the cooking water.

Allow the asparagus to cool for a few minutes, then drain and dry on a clean kitchen towel. Cut the asparagus into 1-inch lengths. Set aside.

Make the bechamel sauce according to directions below.

Whisk 1/2 cup of the cooking water from the asparagus into the béchamel, along with 1/4 cup of the Parmesan cheese and the herbs. Add freshly ground pepper to taste and adjust salt.

Oil or butter a 3-quart baking dish or lasagna dish.

Bring the asparagus cooking water back to a rolling boil and drop in 3 lasagna noodles. Boil just until the pasta is flexible (about three minutes for no-boil lasagna). Using tongs, transfer the pasta to drain on a clean dish towel.

Set aside 1/3 cup of the bechamel sauce for the top of the lasagna and spread a very thin layer of bechamel over the bottom of the baking dish. Cover with the just parboiled pasta noodles.

Stir the asparagus into the remaining bechamel and spread a layer over the noodles. Sprinkle on 2 tablespoons Parmesan.

Parboil another layer’s worth of pasta, top with the asparagus bechamel sauce and with another 2 tablespoons of Parmesan.

Repeat with one more layer. End with a layer of pasta and spread the 1/3 cup reserved bechamel sauce over the top and sprinkle on the remaining Parmesan.

Cover tightly with plastic, if storing in the refrigerator.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Drizzle 1 tablespoon of olive oil over the lasagna and cover tightly with foil. Bake for 30 minutes until bubbling. Uncover and continue to bake until the top just begins to color, about 10 minutes. Remove from the ocen. Allow the lasagna to sit five to 10 minutes before serving.

Serves 6-8

Make Ahead: You can prepare this dish up to a day or two before you bake it. Don’t drizzle on the last tablespoon of olive oil until you’re ready to bake. Wrap tightly in plastic and refrigerate. Remove the plastic and replace with foil before baking.

Olive Oil Bechamel

The main thing to watch for here is scorching. Stir often with a rubber spatula, especially at the bottom and edges of the pan, so that the mixture doesn’t stick and begin to burn. If it does, immediately pour the sauce into another pot and continue to cook over very low heat.

Ingredients:

  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped shallot
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 2 cups low-fat milk
  • Salt to taste
  • Freshly ground white or black pepper

Directions:

Heat the oil over medium heat in a heavy medium saucepan. Add the shallot and cook, stirring, until softened, about three minutes. Stir in flour and cook, stirring, for about three minutes until smooth and bubbling but not browned. The paste should have the texture of wet sand. Whisk in the milk all at once and bring to a simmer, whisking all the while.

Turn the heat to very low and simmer, stirring often with a whisk and scraping the bottom and edges of the pan with a rubber spatula, for about 10 minutes or until the sauce thickens. Season with salt and pepper. 

Variation: Substitute vegetable stock for the milk for a vegan version of this sauce.

Makes 1 1/2 cups

Wild Italian Asparagus


When you think of carrots, what is the first thing that comes to mind? One thing is for sure, you don’t think “Gee, you mean that long purple vegetable.” Well here’s news for you, carrots were not always orange! Carrots originated in Middle Asia with some historians believing that they were known as far back as Ancient Egypt over 5,000 years ago. It is not clear if they were actually cultivated at this time, however by the 10th. century in Afghanistan, they were being grown in the colors purple and white. These weren’t the only colors around, however. In addition to purple and white, carrots were grown in red, yellow and even black. To begin with carrots were not eaten as a vegetable, but rather in the times of the Ancient Romans, used as a medicinal herb and even as an aphrodisiac. Carrots were cultivated in Europe by the 13th. century, with many doctors prescribing carrots for medicinal purposes for ailments as varied as syphilis and animal bites! 

Carrots were well-known to 16th. century botanists and writers, who described red and purple varieties in France, and yellow and red varieties in England. The Dutch cross-bred the yellow and red carrot to produce a variety that was symbolic of the House of Orange. This carrot quickly became popular and was further developed to become the sweet, orange carrot which is the most recognized color of carrot used throughout the world today?

Carrots arrived in Australia in 1788 and became an important food for the colonists. The Carrot Museum reveals that the carrot was introduced to America in 1609. In 1871 America developed its first carrot. It was called the Danvers carrot from its origins in Danvers, MA. However, the carrot did not become popular in the U.S. until after World War I, when soldiers returning from the war had been exposed to the carrot in French and European cuisines.

In the Second World War carrots were promoted by the British government and became one of the staple foods in England. People were encouraged to grow carrots in their gardens and to cook them in different ways. They were incorporated into both sweet and savory dishes. Growing this crop during troubled times helped people get sufficient amounts of nutritious food to eat in times of food scarcity and rationing.

Red and yellow varieties of carrot are eaten in China and Japan; with the purple carrot becoming increasingly popular in different states in America. There are also ‘rainbow’ carrots on the market. However, a single carrot is not multi-colored, the name comes from bags containing red, yellow, purple and orange carrots.

Today we know that carrots have great nutritional value and are low in calories. Not only that, but carrots are an excellent source of carotene, which the body converts into Vitamin A. It is this particular vitamin that really helps with vision, which is why carrots are a great vegetable to add to your diet.

When you are preparing your carrots for eating, whether you plan on cooking them or eating them raw, there is something important to keep in mind: don’t peel the skin! In carrots, like many vegetables, most of the nutritional value is just below the skin, so instead of peeling, just scrub the skin clean with a vegetable brush. And choose organic varieties when you can.

When purchasing carrots, look for those with minimal sprouting at the top. In other words, if the carrot has started to grow, it has been sitting around for quite some time. Also look for little “hairs” growing along the carrot. This also indicates the carrot is growing and has probably been sitting around for awhile.

The best way to preserve the flavor, crispness, and beta-carotene content in carrots is to refrigerate them.

When preparing carrots, steaming is the very best method for cooking and preparing them. Steaming carrots allows the beta carotene to be more available and readily used by the body. Add a small amount of butter to help better absorb the vitamin A.

How to Cook Carrots on the Stove Top

Cook 1 pound carrots, covered, in a small amount of boiling salted water until crisp-tender:

7 to 9 minutes for 1/4-inch slices

4 to 6 minutes for strips

8 to 10 minutes for baby carrots

How to Cook Carrots in the Microwave

Place 1 pound carrots in a casserole dish with 2 tablespoons water.

Microwave, covered, on 100 percent power (high) until crisp-tender, stirring once:

— 6 to 9 minutes for 1/4-inch slices

— 5 to 7 minutes for strips

— 7 to 9 minutes for baby carrots

How to Steam Carrots

In a steamer cook 1 pound carrots until crisp-tender:

8 to 10 minutes for 1/4-inch slices

5 to 7 minutes for strips

8 to 10 minutes for baby carrots

How to Roast Carrots

Cut 1 pound carrots into 1-inch pieces. Arrange cut carrots or baby carrots in a baking pan.

Toss carrots with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and other seasonings, if desired.

Cover pan with foil.

Bake in a 425 degree F. oven for 30 minutes.

Remove foil; stir carrots.

Bake, uncovered, for 5 to 10 minutes more or until carrots are tender.

Wholesome Baby Food Recipe

Carrot Purée

Carrots should be peeled when making baby food purées as many infants will not be able to digest the skins.  If you do not buy Organic carrots, please cleanse the carrots by using a vegetable brush and lightly scrubbing the carrots under cool running water.

Any amount of fresh carrots you desire

1. Peel carrots and cut into small chunks

2. Place chunks into a steamer pan with just enough water visible through the steamer basket

3. Steam until tender

4. Do not reserve any left over water to use for thinning out the carrots if baby is under 8 months old as Nitrates may seep into the cooking water

5. Puree with your choice of appliance.

6. Add purified water as necessary to achieve a smooth, thin consistency.

Carrots Braised in Marsala Wine

For this simple dish to taste extraordinary, you need the best-quality Italian dry Marsala. Others would give a harsh taste or none at all to the dish. If you can’t find one, use another braising liquid, such as chicken or vegetable broth.

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 1/4 pounds carrots, cut into large matchsticks or 1/4-inch-thick round slices
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • Small grating of fresh nutmeg
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar
  • 1/2 cup dry Marsala
  • Chopped hazelnuts, optional

Directions:

Choose a straight-sided sauté pan that has a tight-fitting lid and is just large enough to hold the carrots in one or two layers. A pan that is too large will allow the liquid to evaporate too quickly; if it is too small, the vegetables will be piled too high to braise evenly.

Melt the butter over moderate heat, so that it melts without taking on any color. Stir the carrots into the pan, and season with salt and pepper, nutmeg, and sugar. Turn the carrots over several times with a heatproof rubber spatula or wooden spatula or spoon to coat them well with the butter and seasonings. Cook gently — do not fry — stirring often, for about 2 minutes, to release the vegetable’s flavor, and then pour in the Marsala. Bring to a quick boil, and then adjust the heat so the carrots just barely simmer. Cover the pan tightly and braise, shaking it well from time to time, for 12 to 15 minutes, or until the carrots are tender. Check the pan occasionally, and if the liquid has evaporated before the carrots are cooked, add small amounts of hot water. When the carrots are tender, there should be only enough liquid left just to coat them. If there is more, turn the heat to high and boil it off. Sprinkle with hazelnuts.

Variations

Carrots Braised in Lemon and Parsley: Before adding the carrots to the butter, cook one finely chopped small onion until it is tender. Substitute broth for the Marsala, and add a teaspoon of lemon juice. When the carrots are tender, stir in 3 tablespoons of finely chopped flat-leaf parsley, and toss a minute before serving.

Braised Carrots with Parmesan Cheese: Braise the carrots with broth and when they are cooked, turn off the heat and sprinkle on 1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese.

 

Carrot Saute

A simple side dish is all you need to accompany the Basil Walnut Fish Fillets. You can substitute julienned zucchini or yellow squash for the carrots…just reduce the cooking time slightly.

4 Servings

Ingredients

  • 3 cups julienned carrots
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/2 cup sliced green onions
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 3/4 teaspoon Italian seasoning
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic salt
  • Dash pepper

Directions

In a large skillet, saute carrots in oil for 3 minutes. Add onions;

cook 4-5 minutes longer or until crisp-tender. Stir in lemon juice,

Italian seasoning, garlic salt and pepper. Yield: 4 servings.

Roasted Root Vegetables

Ingredients:

  • 4 carrots
  • 4 parsnips
  • 1 large sweet potato
  • 3 Yukon Gold potatoes
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/2 tsp kosher salt
  • 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • Chopped, dried or fresh herbs (parsley, rosemary or thyme) to taste
  • Garnish: fresh herbs (parsley, rosemary or thyme), chopped

Directions:

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Cut all the veggies into similarly sized pieces. Place all the cut vegetables in a single layer on a baking sheet. Drizzle with olive oil and toss well so all pieces are lightly coated. Add salt, pepper and herbs to taste. Roast for 25 to 35 minutes until all the vegetables are tender, turning once. Garnish with fresh herbs. Serves 6.

Italian-Style Marinated Carrot Salad

This Italian twist on carrot salad uses almost no fat and just a few ingredients, yet it is deliciously flavorful and has a wonderful texture. The work is all in the vegetable preparation. The recipe calls for the carrots to be cut into matchsticks, but any size will do. Just make sure to steam the carrots a little longer if your pieces are on the plump side. Its flavor improves with a day’s rest in the refrigerator. Fresh herbs may be used, but I prefer to use dried, because fresh herbs tend to darken when the salad marinates overnight.

MAKE AHEAD: The salad needs to be assembled and refrigerated overnight so the flavors have a chance to meld.

6 servings

Ingredients:

  • 1 pound carrots, cut into 2- to 3-inch-long matchsticks
  • 1 or 2 teaspoons dried Italian herbs (oregano, basil, rosemary and/or thyme; may substitute 2 tablespoons fresh herbs, finely chopped)
  • 1 teaspoon olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar
  • Freshly ground black pepper (optional)

Directions:

Steam the carrots until they are just tender to the bite but still retain their shape, about 3 minutes for 1/4-inch-thick matchsticks. Do this in batches so the carrots cook evenly. As each batch is done, turn out onto a shallow baking pan, spreading the carrots out to cool slightly.

Combine the herbs to taste, the oil, vinegar, salt, sugar and the pepper in a large bowl.

Transfer the still-warm carrots to the bowl; toss to combine and coat evenly. Cover and refrigerate the salad overnight. Before serving, toss the salad again. Serve at room temperature.

Fusilli with Braised Fennel, Carrots and Scallions

Servings 4

Ingredients:

  • ¾ lb fusilli
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • ½ lb fennel
  • 3 ½ oz carrot
  • 7 oz scallions
  • 3 oz grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
  • 1 tablespoon fennel tops, chopped
  • 2 ½ tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Directions:

Slice the fennel bulbs in half, then into thin slices. Slice the carrot into rounds, 1/8th inch wide. Peel and mince the garlic. Slice the onion into ¼ inch pieces.

Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a large skillet.

Once hot, add the minced garlic. When the garlic begins to turn golden, add the fennel and carrot and cook, covered, for about 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and stir from time to time.

Then add the onion and cook for another 3 minutes.

Meanwhile cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling, salted water. Drain and toss with the sauce in the skillet.

Stir in the Parmigiano Reggiano and garnish with the fennel fronds before serving.



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