Recipe: Apple Butter Muffin Top Cookies

I stumbled upon a jar of apple butter in the organic section of my local grocery store.  My husband has mentioned apple butter before and usually only gets to enjoy it at hotels when he’s traveling for work.  My kids love it on whole wheat toast, but I recently discovered another way to use it: COOKIES!

These cookies are more than just cookies.  They’re more like soft muffin tops – which we all know is the best part of a muffin anyway.  A little soft.  A little crispy on the edges.

The “add-ins” can be interchangeable: pecans, walnuts, raisins, or even chopped fresh apples.

Enjoy!

Apple Butter Muffin Top Cookies

Recipe Image

Apple Butter Muffin Top Cookies

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Recipe: Chicken Stir Fry Skillet

I’ll be honest – we rarely cook Asian-inspired food at home.  It’s just not our favorite food genre.  However, I had a taste for it recently and decided to branch out and create a meal that would please the entire family…and it did.

Because we don’t cook a lot of Asian dishes in our household, I naturally don’t have a wok.  So, I had to improvise and use what I had.  In fact, it’s the complete opposite of a wok, but it’s my go-to pan for ultimate flavor and heat control.  I used my trusty wrought iron skillet and it didn’t disappoint.

This recipe is extremely versatile.  Use whatever vegetables you have on hand and make it your own!

Enjoy!

Chicken Stir Fry Skillet

Recipe_Chicken Stir Fry Skillet

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Recipe: Honey Mustard Dressing

One of the most difficult food categories to let go of with a real food lifestyle is condiments.  At least it has been for my family.  Mainly because the only alternative is to make them at home as it’s very rare to find qualifying store-bought options.

This recipe for honey mustard dressing is so simple and delicious, though, that you can slowly start to transition store-bought dressings out of your fridge.

The good news about homemade condiments is that they are extremely versatile and are usually made in small batches.  That means you can mix it up next time  by adding what you have on hand without much time or energy lost.

Oh and, P.S., Kraft honey mustard dressing is made of 26 ingredients including caramel color and sorbic acid.

Try this honey mustard dressing on salad or as a dip for homemade chicken fingers!

Honey Mustard Dressing | Three Plates

Recipe Image Honey Mustard Dressing

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Recipe: Beef, Gnocchi, and Spinach Soup

Soup season is upon us.  I love soup.  Hating soup is un-American.  Everyone has strong opinions about their favorites, too.  Creamy.  Noodly (is that a word?).  Brothy (pretty sure that’s not a word).

I remember when I was a kid my mom would always let me and my siblings choose what we wanted for dinner on our birthday.  One of my go-to selections was chili.  I’m still a huge chili fan.  Unfortunately, my husband and kids are not.  I stumbled upon whole-wheat gnocchi at the grocery store this week, had a light bulb moment, and came up with this recipe to please everyone in the household.

The soup recipe below is kind of an Italian spin on traditional chili with hearty gnocchi, Italian spices, and a comforting hint of sweet red wine.  On a side note, I think there should be a line of savory candles with scents like red wine with beef and rosemary.  Or what about onion, butter and garlic?  Maybe they do exist.  If so, I hope Santa brings me one this year.  I digress.

My husband was sold on this twist.  And just like traditional chili, it’s even better the next day.

Enjoy!

Beef, Gnocchi, and Spinach Soup served with homemade whole-wheat focaccia bread is a perfect meal.

Beef, Gnocchi, and Spinach Soup served with homemade whole-wheat focaccia bread is a perfect meal.

 

Beef Gnocchi Spinach Soup Recipe

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Surviving Halloween

Oh, Halloween.  How I hate thee.  There are the scary costumes and masks that freak my kids out.  Oh, and the candy.  I hate any candy-related events, and this one is a biggie.

Here are some staggering facts about Halloween candy consumption:

  • In 2013, Americans spent $1.9 billion on Halloween candy.
  • The average American consumes 24 pounds of candy per year.
  • A whopping 90 million pounds of chocolate candy is sold during Halloween week.  How does that compare to other holidays? Almost 65 million pounds is sold during the week leading up to Easter and only 48 million pounds during Valentine’s week.
  • Of the $1.9 billion sold in Halloween candy each year, $1.2 billion was on chocolate candy and only $680 million on sugar candy.
  • The day of the year with the most candy sales is October 28th. And of all the 365 days in the year, the top five candy selling days are all in October.

I’m not a total prude.  We do take our kids trick-or-treating and they eat 2 to 3 of their favorite candies on Halloween night.  When they wake up the next morning…the candy has disappeared.  That has worked in the past, but I don’t know how they’ll react this year since they’re older and wiser now.  This may be the year we start the Switch Witch tradition which I’ve always admired, but never started because they were too young to understand the concept.  God bless the Target One Spot section for great trade-in loot.  I’ll have some special treats like pumpkin cookies or chocolate-covered bananas on hand the next day, too.

switch witch

So, what does a real foodie hand out to trick-or-treaters?  Don’t worry it’s not kale pops or tofu balls.  But we’re not handing out traditional mainstream candy either.  That would be like a vegetarian serving beef tenderloin at a dinner party.  It just doesn’t make sense to give something to others that you don’t believe in yourself.  My husband proactively purchased two huge bags of assortment candy (Pay Day, Almond Joy, Kit Kat, etc.) last week.  While I applauded the effort, I just couldn’t follow through with using it this year.  I gave him the vegetarian dinner party example and he exclaimed, “Well, we’re not gonna hand out nickles are we!?”  Right, because that’s the only other option.  I’m a real foodie, not an 80-year-old cat lady (no offense to any 80-year-old cat ladies reading this).

Instead, I bought organic lollipops, organic fruit snacks, and Pirate’s Booty.  These aren’t healthy or perfect by any means, but they are dye-free and have limited ingredients.  Don’t knock ‘em until you try ‘em.  I made the mistake of opening the lollipop stash yesterday and my willpower is definitely being tested.  They’re so delicious and flavorful.

Lollipops_front

Annies Fruit Snacks_frong

Pirates Booty_front

These days, homemade goodies aren’t an option due to allergy cautions.  And I’m pretty sure that handing out fruit would result in a good TPing (is that how it’s spelled?) by the neighbor kids.

I love holidays and I love tradition.  I also love real food and keeping my kids healthy.  It’s all about compromise and limits and not missing out on any of the fun.

How are you handling the candy craziness this Halloween?

 

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Re-igniting a Passion

I launched Three Plates 7 months ago with the intent of blogging 2-3 times per week.  Have you ever heard the old saying “my eyes were bigger than my stomach”?  That’s the analogy that works best for how realistic that goal was.  Other things like laundry, running, being a mom, and even just sitting down to watch Project Runway took priority over writing.  It’s easy to postpone something that I’m not accountable for to anyone but myself.  However, it’s a creative and professional outlet for me that I crave and that keeps me sane.

Not achieving my original goal of 2-3 posts per week by no means represents a lost passion about the idea.  In fact, I had so many potential topics running around in my head that it was difficult for me to pick just one to sit down and write about.

Two thing happened over the past month that re-ignited my passion for real food.

In late September, my husband and I flew to Nashville (my first post-pregnancy flight – I need to get out more!) for the Music City Food + Wine Festival.  I’m still pinching myself over how amazing that was.  For two days, we sampled high-end cuisine from Nashville’s best restaurants, sat in on cooking demos by world-renowned chefs like Tyler Florence, Andrew Zimmern, and Michael Symon, and attended an exclusive Harvest Night event sampling food prepared and served by famous chefs (in addition to Florence, Zimmern, and Symon), Aaron Sanchez, Masaharu Morimoto, Amanda Freitag, Jonathan Waxman, Tim Love, and Levon Wallace.  It really doesn’t get much better than that for a foodie like me.

Stopping for a picture during Day 1 of eating some of the most amazing food we've ever tasted.  I'm surprised we don't have plates in our hands.

Stopping for a picture during Day 1 of eating some of the most amazing food we’ve ever tasted. I’m surprised we don’t have plates in our hands because we NEVER stopped eating.  And I may or may not have 10 duck fat caramels stashed in my satchel.I met Iron Chef Michael Symon - one of the nicest celebrity chefs on the planet.I met Iron Chef Michael Symon – one of the nicest celebrity chefs on the planet.

Watching Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto's sushi-making demo (without subtitles!).

Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto’s sushi-making demo (without subtitles!).

Couldn't pass up this photo op of my husband with Chef Andrew Zimmern as he served us his dish at Harvest Night.

Couldn’t pass up this photo op of my husband with Chef Andrew Zimmern as he served us his dish at Harvest Night.  And, no, it wasn’t Rocky Mountain Oysters.

On Day 2 I met Chef Tyler Florence! His cookbook "Start Fresh" was a lifesaver during my homemade baby food stage of life.

On Day 2 I met Chef Tyler Florence! His cookbook “Start Fresh” was a lifesaver during my homemade baby food stage of life.

As if that wasn’t enough to inspire me, I started a culinary boot camp at the Chopping Block in Chicago last Sunday.  The boot camp takes place over five consecutive Sundays to learn intense hands-on culinary skills and techniques.  It’s a chance to learn most of the skills someone would learn in culinary school, but on a much shorter and accelerated timeline.  So far, in just one day I learned about knife skills, fish butchery (I filleted a whole Arctic Char!), fish cookery, fish stock, and emulsions.  Whew.  Can’t wait for the rest.

I thought I had a passion for food before.  It’s nothing like the passion I have inside of me now.  For so many years my husband would ask me “what’s your thing?”.  His “thing” is music.  He’s like a moth to a flame for any variety of live music.  If there’s a record store within 25 miles of anywhere we go – he’ll make a stop to check it out.  He has even taught the triplets how to clean a vinyl record, and they were sporting Allman Brothers and Nirvana t-shirts before age 3.

I’ve finally figured it out.  Food is my “thing”.  I’m obsessed with new cookbooks.  Going to the grocery store is so therapeutic.  I get giddy about visiting a restaurant that serves high-quality food.  And, now, taking culinary boot camp is a dream come true.

Whenever someone is really good at something or famous for something, they always seem to say, “I’ve been doing this since I was 5 years old”.  Tiger Woods started golfing when he was 3.  Can’t a passion or talent take shape later on in life?  Of course it can.

Don’t ever think it’s too late to find your passion – whatever it is.  Don’t ever stop learning and re-igniting that passion.  It’s easy to get into a rut and become uninspired.  It’s just as easy to become INSPIRED again.

Thank you for being patient with the progress of Three Plates as I figure it out.  I look forward to creating original recipes, sharing my favorite existing ones, and providing you with new information and inspiration.  Maybe not 2-3 times a week (passion or not, there’s still laundry to do!), but definitely more than before.

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Tales of a Gardening Rookie

A real food lifestyle and at-home garden just go hand in hand.  So, I decided to give it a shot for the first time.  I most definitely didn’t inherit my mom’s green thumb, so I’m a bit nervous about what the ultimate harvest will be.

My husband tilled a 10′ x 12′ plot in our yard.  I purchased a few vegetable plants and my friend generously gave me some of hers.  The stars had aligned and I was ready for my first garden adventure.

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I have already learned so much just from preparation and planting and my appreciation for the entire food cycle process has tripled.  The amount of care and attention each type of plant needs is beyond what I ever thought it would be.  I honestly thought it was just three simple steps: 1.) stick the plant in a hole in the ground, 2.) water, 3.) harvest.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Some plants need to be watered once a week.  Some once a day.

Some plants should only be watered at the base of the plant – not the leaves.  What if it rains?!?

Some plants need organic food.  Some need mulch.  Some need a wooden stake to grow on.  Some a trellis.  Some need a lullaby at night (OK, I made that one up.)

Some bugs are good for the plants.  Others are bad.  Really bad.

My head is spinning.

Here are some things I’ve learned along the way that may help you:

  • Create cheat sheets for each vegetable that is in your garden.  Each card should contain bullet points of 3-6 of the most important care instructions for each.  This is a quick reference for you to use each time you make a trip to the garden to water, feed, or harvest.

Garden_Cheat Sheets

  • Invest in a guide to gardening for your specific area.  The key is buying one that will only include instructions for your geographical area.  Otherwise, the information becomes overwhelming.  The one pictured below is my main resource.  It has been quite a nice crutch during this process.  Yes, there are many resources available online, but having a book to hold in your hand and mark up is much more reliable.
My go-to gardening guide

My go-to gardening guide

  • Start small.  Perhaps just potted herbs or tomatoes to get into the swing of the gardening thing.
  • Try a mix of low-maintenance vegetables and a couple that require a little more attention.  This will give you less anxiety, but will also give you an accurate idea of what is involved with some of the more difficult varieties.
  • Do your research before deciding what to plant.  Consider how much space each plant will need (i.e. pumpkins are sprawling and have a tendency to take a lot of space).  Is your garden in a full sun spot or part shade?  That will determine what will do well.
  • Mark everything in the garden!  This seems obvious, but don’t assume you’ll remember what is what.  I purchased craft sticks the size of tongue depressors and wrote the following information on each: vegetable, date planted, days to maturity, sun/shade needed, approximate harvest date.
Jalapenos with homemade garden markers (made out of tongue depressors)

Jalapenos with homemade garden markers

  • Document the process along the way (type of feed, mulch, when you planted/harvested, etc.) so you can use everything you learned next year for an even more fruitful garden.
  • Have a plan for what you’d like to do with your crop once it’s ready.  Canning?  Make tomato sauce to freeze?  Give to friends?  Some produce won’t last long after it’s picked, so it’s best to have a game plan so that it doesn’t go to waste.
  • Don’t get discouraged!  I have already removed two of our romaine lettuce plants because aphids were destroying them.  I didn’t do advance research to know that companion planting with garlic or coriander would have stopped this from happening.  However, I learned from that mistake and have done much more research about the remaining plants to make sure nothing else goes to waste.

Here is a list of vegetables and herbs I planted this year:

  • Tomatoes.  Lots and lots of tomatoes.  If the harvest goes well, keep an eye out for a post about homemade sauce and/or canning in August/September!
  • Green beans.  It will be so fun to let the kids walk out to the garden to pluck a bunch of beans for dinner in a couple of months.
  • Broccoli.  This may be the first vegetable we get to harvest soon.  Can’t wait to roast it!
  • Jalapenos.  Pico de gallo on the deck, anyone?
  • Sweet potatoes.  One of our favorite side dishes that also happens to do really well in Midwest Summer heat.  Seems like the perfect fit for us.
  • Pumpkin.  Gonna be fun to use our crop for Halloween and use the the flesh for homemade pumpkin pie filling.
  • Green bell peppers.  Relatively low maintenance and a household fave.
  • Cucumbers.  Looking forward to making homemade pickles with the future crop!
  • Basil.  Caprese salad, tomato sauce, the options are endless.
  • Parsley.  Easy to grow and we use it on lots of savory dishes.
Pumpkins

Pumpkins (eventually)

Parsley

Parsley

Broccoli

Broccoli

I highly recommend some level of gardening.  Especially if you have kids.  Letting them see and be involved with the food cycle is something that will stay with them for a very long time.

Have fun with it and enjoy the fruits (and veggies) of your labor!

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A Real Birthday Bash

The triplets recently turned 3, so we hosted a celebration in their honor.  Even though it’s a little stressful to host a party at our house with three toddlers under foot…I love every minute of it.  And when I say “host” what I really mean is: clean the house, plan the menu and theme, cook the food, get everyone dressed and presentable, and my least favorite part…the clean-up.  I am a fan of Pinterest, but I’m not one to go absolutely bonkers over a theme.  Just a few touches here and there.

This year’s theme was little chefs.  The kids are all interested in cooking and baking with me (and watching Food Network whenever I let them), so it seemed to be a good fit this year.  It’s also gender neutral which is a must with the 2 boy/1 girl combo.

Many kids’ birthday parties are riddled with processed food, food dyes, and candy.  I’m already dreading the day when they celebrate their classmates’ birthdays in school.  I digress.

It doesn’t have to be that way, though.

Here’s how we threw a fun kids’ birthday party without sacrificing our real food beliefs:

The Cake

Let’s be honest.  Birthdays = cake.  I know there are many other desserts to enjoy at a birthday party, but for my kids (and me)…it’s cake.  They don’t get it very often.  When we go to other birthday parties, it’s usually just a few bites each.  I’d love to say that I made their cakes myself, but it’s just one of those things that I have learned to pass on to the experts.

Here are some cake tips:

  • Use a bakery that makes their cakes from scratch.  I pretty much played the game of 20 Questions when I first talked to the baker we decided to use.  She assured me that her cakes are made from scratch and admitted that some of the fillings are not.  Yes, it’s white flour and white sugar, but it is not a box mix.  You’d be surprised how many bakeries use box mixes as the base for their cakes.  We always have a cake made for each of the kids.  This year the cake flavors we chose were: chocolate cake with a homemade chocolate mousse filling, white cake with a homemade strawberry filling, and white cake with a homemade banana filling.  Of course, I had to sample each flavor to make sure they were OK.  And, yes, they were absolutely delicious.
  • No dyes.  I’m sure my kids would be wowed to blow out candles on a multi-colored cake, but all of that food dye just is not worth it.  Heavily dyed frosting has become my new pet peeve.  It tastes horrible, is linked to child behavior issues, and stains your teeth for hours after the party is over.  I am always clear with our baker that we don’t consume food dyes.  This year, she used white icing and decorated with chocolate frosting.  It was perfect!  There are many other fun ways to decorate a cake without dyed frosting: fruit, nuts, raisins, chocolate chips, or just make fun designs with vanilla and chocolate frosting.

Trio Bday 1

 

Trio Bday 2

The Favors

Contrary to popular belief, kids enjoy non-candy (is that even a word?) party favors, too.  Because this year’s theme was little chefs, we had an apron decorating station for all kids age 10 and under.  I purchased the aprons and fabric markers at Hobby Lobby.  The cost per apron was only $2/per apron (on sale) plus the cost of the markers.  It’s something each kid can use well past the party – hopefully while they’re helping their parents in the kitchen!

My niece's finished apron!

My niece’s finished apron!

Here are some great ideas for non-candy party favors.  Yes, there are some junk food favors pictured here, but they can be easily adapted…or just ignore those!  Of course, favors are influenced by the overall party theme, but some of these may fit well into various themes.

The Food

Our guest list is usually between 35-40 people each year, so it is manageable to have homemade food at the party.  Sometimes, for us, only 50-75% of the party menu is homemade, but this year it was 99% (not including the cakes).  It took a good amount of planning and pre-party food prep to pull it off, but it wasn’t too hard at all.  My only regret is not snapping pics of the food before it was devoured.  Here’s what was on the menu:

  • Italian beef sandwiches (modified from this recipe) with hand-shredded Monterey jack cheese and homemade giardiniera (modified from this recipe).
  • Whole wheat penne pasta with marinara sauce
  • Chopped salad inspired by Portillo’s.  If you live in the Chicagoland area, you know about Portillo’s.  (Modified from this recipe.)
  • DIY trail mix station with popcorn, raisins, nuts, and chocolate chips
  • Fruit cups
  • Water, wine, and beer.  I know that many of the guests drink pop, but that’s something our household is strongly against.  Instead, we offered naturally-flavored sparkling water.  I know it’s not the same, but it’s as close as it gets in our house.
Trail Mix Station and Fruit Cups

Trail Mix Station and Fruit Cups

 

Hosting a gathering at your home is always about making the guests feel welcome, but that doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice your real food lifestyle.  There are many ways to make a party enjoyable AND real.  As always, do what you can and be sure to always make time to mingle and enjoy your party guests.  And when a party ends with a kids’ bike race in the driveway, you’ll know it was a success!

bday chaos

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Eating Real In College

I invited my younger sister Rachel to be a guest blogger on the site.  She’s 19, a college athlete, and shares the same food views as I do.  She has always been wise beyond her years and always fully dedicated to every path she takes.  So, it’s no surprise that she has been successful with her real food lifestyle.  

Here is her story about eating real (and vegetarian!) while living on a college campus.

Rachel, Three Plates Guest Blogger

Rachel, Three Plates Guest Blogger

Mmm… French toast, fried potatoes, and sweet pastries. I contemplated what to eat for brunch one morning as I stood in line in the cafeteria. My mind said, “Splurge! It’s the weekend!” but my body said “No. You’ll thank me later”. I listened to my body. I filled my plate with eggs, spinach, and beans with a side of cottage cheese and cantaloupe. Eating well in college is not as hard as most people think, but it does take self-discipline. Once you realize how well you feel, you’ll never turn back.

I can still recall high school days when I would get home from cross country or track practice and indulge in multiple sugary snacks and later in the night eat countless bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Rarely would I touch vegetables or anything green and obtaining enough vitamins and nutrients in the day never fazed me. When it came to food, all I cared about was if it tasted good.

But here I am today: 19 years old, a collegiate athlete, and a vegetarian. Sometimes I can’t believe who I’ve become, but I’m proud of myself for making these positive choices and changes in my life. Getting to where I am today was no easy journey, but it was a journey well worth taking.

Cross-Country Teammates

Cross-Country Teammates

Starting college, I was still in the high school state of mind when it came to eating. I was one of many young people to think, “My metabolism is so fast, I can just eat whatever I want!” Eating in a college cafeteria did not help when it came to me thinking that way either. Being surrounded by pizza, grilled cheese, and cookies every day made me crave these foods even more.

But the more I ate these foods, the worse I began to feel. The smell of the greasy cafeteria made me sick by the time first semester was over. Slowly I saw my eating habits begin to change. Instead of getting ice cream every night with the excuse that, “I’ll run it off,” I reached for the yogurt to feed my sugar craving. It was simple things like that that helped me become a better eater.

I began eating even better at the beginning of my sophomore year, but at the start of second semester, I made the biggest dietary change I ever have in my life; I became a lacto-ovo vegetarian (meaning I still eat dairy and eggs). I had never imagined being one, but I’m glad I am. I’ve only been a vegetarian since January 2014, but in these few short months, I’ve never felt better.

Being a vegetarian and eating well in college has not been easy, but it’s not impossible. There are days that the cafeteria will not have hummus that I oh so love, but instead of slacking off and eating bad, I’ll scoop some chickpeas into a bowl and smash them up with olive oil and pepper to create my own. When I get sugar cravings, I’ll eat a banana with peanut butter instead of a cookie. It all comes down to self-discipline, control, and being creative. Eating well takes effort; it’s not always as fast as grabbing a cheeseburger and French fries, but it’s worth it and just as satisfying.

I truly have noticed a difference in how I feel since focusing on what I’m eating and how many vitamins and nutrients I get in a day. I’m running faster, have more energy, and I’ve even noticed my hair growing more than usual (yay!). The benefits are endless.

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It really is possible to avoid the “Freshman 15” and eat well in college. I slip at times and eat M&M’s or pizza, but I don’t let it become a habit. It’s good to treat yourself, but be smart about it. I love saying I eat spinach, broccoli, beans, apples, carrots, and many other real foods every day. Never, and I mean never, did I think I would enjoy eating beans (right, mom?). I’ve learned to love good food; there is no excuse not to try it.

I eat well, therefore I feel well. Simple as that.

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Recipe: Cheesy Mashed Potatoes

When we first made our switch to a real food lifestyle, I was at a complete loss about how to make dinner side dishes that would qualify.  That was the meal category which we relied on convenience foods the most.

I soon realized that, yes, real food side dishes will take a little bit more time.  However, the end result is so much more delicious.  And when I do make side dishes that are a little more involved, I make sure the other components of the meal are super simple just to balance the work load.

This recipe isn’t extremely involved, but it is a bit more work than opening a package of convenient, pre-seasoned dried rice or potato mixes (which we totally used to do).

One of the great things about this cheesy mashed potato recipe is that the sweet potatoes add so much nutritional value AND add great color that make them appear to be similar to more traditional cheesy potatoes.

Enjoy!

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Cheesy Mashed Potatoes Recipe

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