My sweet little red Nissan 350Z got a workout this past weekend. I had to make a trip — well, I didn’t have too. I very much wanted to go to Cedar Park. Cedar Park takes up where Austin leaves off.

I thought this would be a trip to see how the car performed and enjoy the drive I have loved for years. Well, things change!

The car was perfect! The scenery and the less-traveled roads I had always loved were a nightmare. Nothing was familiar. New freeways, bumper to bumper traffic — certainly not what I expected. I didn’t even have a clue when I got to Cedar Park, but I had my handy cellphone with the earpiece to navigate for me.

Even with that, it was a nightmare traffic mess. Construction everywhere you looked. I can remember the last time I went to Austin, and it was nothing like this.

But I had the best visit with my aunt Nita ... when I finally found her! I am planning on going back to see her if she is still up for a visit.

We laughed a lot about all the old days. We decided our family was crazy but fun! I’m getting in all the visits I can while we are both able. I have two aunts left to visit with while I can. If you are in the same situation, do it while you can. It will make you feel good, and the person you are visiting will love it, too.

n n n

These are back to school recipes from our friends at Pillsbury. They will make your already busy life easier now that school is back in session. The first one is a complete no-brainer, as they all will be. Enjoy!

Slow-cooker 3-ingredient Italian chicken

Ingredients

2 pounds boneless skinless chicken thighs

1 medium red bell pepper, chopped, (1 cup)

1 jar (24-ounce) marinara pasta sauce (garden vegetable variety)

Directions

Spray 3-1/2 to 4-quart slow cooker with cooking spray. Place chicken in slow cooker. Top chicken with bell pepper and pasta sauce.

Cover; cook on Low heat setting four to five hours.

Tips

Serve this chicken dish over penne pasta. Garnish with grated or shredded Parmesan cheese to make this dish extra special. Chopped fresh Italian (flat-leaf) parsley also adds nice color.

Gin says: For sure you have to use the Parmesan and penne pasta.

5-ingredient slow-cooker balsamic chicken

Ingredients

2 1/2 pounds boneless skinless chicken thighs (about 12)

1 1/4 cups balsamic vinaigrette dressing

1 teaspoon chopped fresh garlic

1/2 cup grape tomatoes, quartered

1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, coarsely chopped

DIRECTIONS

Spray 3 1/2 to 4-quart slow cooker with cooking spray. Place chicken thighs in slow cooker, layering if necessary. Top with 1/2 cup of the dressing and sprinkle with garlic; refrigerate remaining dressing for later. Cover and cook on Low heat setting four to four and a half hours or until juice of chicken is clear when thickest part is cut (at least 165-degrees.

Remove chicken to rimmed serving dish and discard cooking liquid. To serve, drizzle remaining 3/4 cup dressing over chicken; top with tomatoes and basil.

Tips

A side of fresh green beans or asparagus would be a nice addition to this meal.

Balsamic vinaigrettes might vary, depending on the brand.

Of course Gin would serve garlic bread with both of these dishes. If you have kids you have to find some way to fill up those hollow legs.

Beef tortilla taco casserole

Ingredients

1 pound lean (at least 80 percent) ground beef

1 package (1-ounce) Old El Paso 25 percent less sodium taco seasoning mix

2/3 cup water

1 red bell pepper cut into 1-inch strips

2 3/4 cups Old El Paso Thick ’n Chunky salsa

1 package (12-ounce) frozen whole kernel sweet corn

6 Old El Paso flour tortillas for soft tacos and fajitas (6-inch)

2 cups shredded Colby-Monterey Jack cheese blend (8-ounce).

DIRECTIONS

Heat oven to 350 degrees. In 12-inch skillet, cook beef over medium-high heat five to seven minutes, stirring occasionally until thoroughly cooked; drain. Stir in taco seasoning mix, water and bell pepper strips. Simmer 3 to 4 minutes, stirring frequently until thickened. Stir in salsa and corn.

Spray 13-by-9-inch (3-quart) baking dish with cooking spray. Cut tortillas in half; place 6 tortilla halves in bottom of baking dish.

Top with half of beef mixture (about 3 1/2). Sprinkle with 3/4 cup of the cheese and remaining tortilla halves. Top with remaining beef mixture and cheese.

Spray piece of foil large enough to cover baking dish with cooking spray. Cover baking dish with foil sprayed side down. Bake 35 to 40 minutes or until heated through and cheese is melted.

To Make Ahead: Wrap foil-covered casserole in double layer of plastic wrap; label and freeze up to three months. To thaw and bake: Thaw overnight or until completely thawed in refrigerator. Remove plastic wrap. Bake one hour to one hour and 10 minutes or until center is hot (165 degrees) and cheese is melted. To bake from freezer (no thawing): Heat oven to 350 degrees. Remove plastic. Bake one hour and 30 minutes to one hour and 40 minutes or until center is hot (165 degrees) and cheese is melted.

Tips

If you’re destined for a potluck, make, bake and freeze the casserole in a 13-by-9-inch foil pan. Thaw in the fridge the night before so you can just reheat it before heading to the party.

Thanks again to Pillsbury for allowing me to print their recipes!

If you have recipes or tips to share, or a request, send to Conversations with Gin, P.O. Box 334, Clute TX 77531 or ginscolumn@hotmail.com.

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