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Six steps to get started crafting a perfect cheeseboard

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I am a sucker for a good cheese plate.

Cheese is one of the few foods that even after all of these years I still feel would stop me from going 100% vegan. Meat, I can take or leave. As some of you know, I didn't eat meat for a decade or longer and still don't eat a lot of it today. But cheese? Vegan cheese is ok, I happen to like nut-based cheese, but it's just different... #TrueStory

A cheese plate is, of course, excellent as an appetizer, but as I learned recently it can also be nice to have after dinner instead of a dessert. I was used to seeing after-dinner cheese courses here in the U.S. on fancy or trendy restaurant menus, but in France, cheese was on nearly all restaurant menus—talk about heaven! A cheese plate can also be a nice choice to have as a leisurely lunch or dinner, especially when there's little time to cook. No matter the course, a cheese plate is never a bad choice.

Not sure where to start in building the cheese plate of your dreams? Let's begin with a few of the basics. Here are six things that I like to keep in mind when crafting the perfect plate.

Yogurt-marinated chicken

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I love using yogurt as a marinade for chicken. It works because the lactose in the dairy helps tenderize the meat but more importantly is a great carrier for flavorful spiceslike cumin, turmeric, and other Indian-inspired flavors. I used 0%, non-fat but you can use 2% or even whole milk yogurt for extra richness. Either way, the yogurt chars a little when cooking and develops little, crusty bits which I think are especially delicious.

I always make sure to set aside some of the marinade at the beginning to use as a sauce for serving at the end. As a reminder, it's never a good idea to reuse marinade after it has been in contact with raw meat.

To make the recipe extra easy and mess-free, you can go the tried-and-true route of combining all of the ingredients for the marinade and the chicken in a large, gallon sized plastic bag. Zip the bag and massage to combine. You still might want to place the bag in a bowl, glass or aluminum baking dish, or on a baking sheet pan to catch any dripsjust in case the bag has tiny holes that you otherwise aren't able to see.

I like the plastic bag option if I am going to be grilling elsewherelike at a friend or a family member's house or for a BBQ at the park or beachbecause it travels better and takes up less space if I am putting it into a cooler. If I am staying at home, though, I typically like to use my largest Pyrex glass bowl that has a nice, matching lidthere's no sense in using then tossing a plastic bag if I can avoid it.

The chicken is great by itself with a side of rice, couscous, or a vegetable but I especially love it served as a sandwich or a flatbread made with naan.

Happy 4th of July: Festive recipes to celebrate Independence Day

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This is not a sponsored post or endorsement made in coordination with or paid by any of the brands or individuals mentioned here—only offering a few suggestions based on things my family and I have tried and enjoyed.

July 4th in the United States celebrates Independence Day. On that date in 1776, the 13 original colonies claimed their independence from England, forming a new nation.

If your family is like mine, years past may have been celebrated with large BBQs complete with burgers and hot dogs, pasta and potato salads, corn on the cob, and assorted sodas and beers (for those of age to drink, of course.) When I was growing up, my grandparents had an above ground pool at their home, and at my house we had a community in-ground pool. I spent a lot of time at both of them so depending on where our summer feast took place and if it wasn't raining, taking a dip in the pool was absolutely in order while dinner was being made.

For dessert, we typically took a trip to get soft-serve ice cream or ate an American flag cake—which many of you probably know and have likely made or tasted at least once, if not many times: a rectangle-shaped poundcake or a boxed vanilla cake mix covered with whipped cream, strawberries and blueberries arranged in the shape of a flag. Finally, a trip to see fireworks at a local park capped off the night, where we would sit on a blanket or folding chairs, or stand near the car, to watch the magical bursts of colors in the night sky.

This year will no doubt be very different. Maybe a large gathering you may have planned with your family and friends was downsized or turned into a virtual celebration with some of them instead. I have also seen some creative ways that communities are celebrating in the absence of being able to have large, in-person gatherings: drive-through fireworks, for example, are being planned at the Iron Pigs Minor League baseball team ballpark for the holiday weekend in the Lehigh Valley, PA.

No matter how you are celebrating this year, here are some festive food ideas that you can still hopefully try.

Elotes (Mexican Street Corn)

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This is not a sponsored post or endorsement made in coordination with or paid by any of the brands mentioned here—only offering a few suggestions based on things my family and I have tried and enjoyed.

Elotes, otherwise known as Mexican street corn, is a hot food trend right now for good reason: it's really, really good.

The topping is a perfect, creamy addition to fresh, sweet, in-season corn that gets sprinkled generously with Mexican-style seasoning blend (make your own or use one from the grocery store that's pre-made; there is a chili-lime one that tastes really good, called tajin) and cotija cheese. Cotija is a firm cheese that typically comes wrapped in a small wheel and can be easily crumbled, similar to feta but much milder in flavor. If you can't find this in a store near you, substituting a shredded Mexican-style cheese blend or cheddar cheese blend works (but definitely try the cotija, if you have that option!)

The recipe makes enough topping for about 6-8 medium ears of corn. You can always cut the corn in half, too, to double the number of portions—this is a nice idea for a buffet when you have multiple side dishes that people can choose from. When corn is not in season, frozen, small ears of corn can also be used, such as Green Giant® brand Nibblers®.

Mexican-style Spice Blend

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This is not a sponsored post or endorsement made in coordination with or paid by any of the brands mentioned here—only offering a few suggestions based on things my family and I have tried and enjoyed.

This is an easy Mexican spice blend that uses just five spices from your pantry. You can use it as a topping for elotes as well as for tacos, fajitas, or grilled meats—I like it on chicken or steak.

Toast your spices for maximum flavor—it's an extra step that brings out their flavor. (Admittedly, I don't always bother doing this, but here it makes a huge difference.) You can buy spices pre-toasted and ground, such as McCormick's, or make your own.

One of my favorite places online to buy spices is My Spice Sage. They have a nice assortment of whole spices, spice blends, and other pantry ingredients available in different size containers—from 2 oz bags to small glass jars, larger 8 oz and 16 oz bags, and even larger wholesale sizes. I like their lemon pepper spice blend a lot.

To toast spices, you'll need a small skillet, whole spices, and a little bit of time and attention. Add the spices to a cold skillet and turn the heat to medium. You'll want to keep the pan moving so the spices don't stay in one place for too long and burn. It only takes a couple of minutes for them to toast and during the process, they may start to crackle and pop a little bit, but they shouldn't blacken or darken considerably—if that happens, they're burnt and will taste bitter, so it's best to start over.

Foodie Resolutions: A five-year recap

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I came across an article on MSN Food & Drink in January 2015 that outlined new things that foodies should try in the new year.

The article (now accessible via PopSugar) really inspired me over the years to make and tackle some of my own "foodie resolutions" as well as see how many I could cross off from this list. Today, I'm revisiting some of them, five years later, as a recap of what I've accomplished.