date night & brunch recipes

last night craig & i enjoyed an impromptu date night at one of our favorite local restaurants.  bell's tavern.  this locals-only joint serves up delicious italian food.  what did we opt for?  my personal fave...their baked ziti.  yum!  2 glasses red wine + bleu cheese pecan salad + baked ziti = happiness : )

ok, so, today, i've been busy cooking & cleaning to get ready for weekend visitors!  two college friends are coming out saturday through sunday to see our place and enjoy some college-esque fun.  i won't bore you with the cleaning details, but i'll share what i cooked (much more fun).

i made an egg strata (i.e. egg "custard" poured over bread, onions, sausage, etc. and then baked until golden brown and delicious) and also made up some cranberry orange muffins.  so, here's what went down...

egg strata

4 eggs
1/4 cup light cream (or half&half)
1 tbsp ranch dressing
1/2 large vidalia onion, chopped
1/2 large tomato, sliced
2 slices (day old or frozen) bread, cubed
4 (small) links turkey sausage, cooked & chopped
1/4 cup shredded sharp cheddar
1 1/2 tsp chopped fresh rosemary
salt & pepper
olive oil (about a tsp)

preheat oven to 375 degrees, spray 8" by 6" pyrex with PAM or olive oil

saute onions in a drizzle of olive oil.  season with salt and pepper.  once onions begin to caramelize, mix in sausage and rosemary.

i love rosemary with sausage!

beat 4 eggs together with cream and ranch.  season with salt & pepper.

mix bread & onion/sausage filling together in pyrex.  sprinkle with cheddar.

pour egg mixture over and decorate with slices of tomato.  garnish with a bit more rosemary.  season with salt & pepper.  (it's important to layer in seasonings for optimal flavor, not just add all at once : )

bake for 40 min until edges are browned and top is bubbly!

fyi: for 1/6th of the strata, it's only 160 calories!  for 1/4th, it's 235 cal.

cranberry orange muffins

ok, i used a mix for these, but i have a secret about how to improve ANY mix.  add-ins.

this boxed mix would probably be a bit lack-luster, but i added in fresh orange zest to brighten the flavor and give it that "made from scratch" appeal.

other ideas:
blueberry muffin mix - add lemon zest (or a squeeze of fresh lemon juice)
carrot cake mix - add coconut, chopped pineapple and/or raisins
banana cake mix - add cinnamon, nutmeg and maybe chopped pecans
brownie mix - add chocolate or pb or butterscotch morsels, chocolate chunks or chopped candy bars

do you have any cooking tricks or short-cuts?.