Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Happy Leap Day!

I tried to explain what Leap Day is to my kids last night, and it sounded so magical! Every four years, we get an extra day. Just out of nowhere. Magic, no?

We have absolutely no Leap Day traditions whatsoever in our family. None. Nada. Zilch. But I have a fondness for the movie Leap Year (it is really cute and sweet, and Matthew Goode is rather easy on the eyes AND has a charming accent) and plan to watch it at some point today, maybe in between the lunch meeting I have and making dinner for a sick neighbor, or between that and kindergarten dance lessons, or between that and dropping off the kids at my parents house before heading to another meeting. Maybe they can find an extra hour to give us sometime.

You can read all about Leap Year and the crazy marriage proposal traditions that inspired the movie on Wikipedia. Kind of fun!
{postcard image from Wikipedia}
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Monday, February 27, 2012

Apple Galette


Despite my best efforts, pies give me grief.  Every time I think I've totally nailed it, my pie comes out of the oven slumped and sloshy. I try to follow all of the tips and tricks, but I just can't get pies to work for me. That's where galettes come in. A galette is just pie crust slapped on a baking sheet, piled high with fruit filling, and artfully (or not!) folded toward the middle. Galettes are just like pies, only easier, faster, and pretty much fool-proof.

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Friday, February 24, 2012

Our Favorite Chili

favorite-chili-1

Is it a bad sign that every time I need to spell the word "chili" I have to stop and make sure I'm using the right spelling? Yikes! Anyway, when we were newlyweds, my husband and I had a lot of fun trying to figure out our favorite things. Our favorite ice cream shop, our favorite pizza place, our favorite chili recipe (and no, Nellie Naysayer, that's not nerdy). The one we had the most trouble with was chili, believe it or not. I grew up eating my mom's chili, which is really good. But she doesn't exactly have a recipe for it; it's more of a pinch-of-this-dash-of-that kind of thing, and I have never been able to make it as good as she does. For several years, we thought a slow-cooker version made with beef broth and cornmeal was the ultimate chili recipe, but last time we had it, we kind of looked at each other and decided to keep searching.

One day, while grabbing a bite to eat between grocery shopping and our weekly Home Depot run, my husband was waxing poetic over Wendy's chili. He said it was The Best Chili. I figured if he thought it was the best, we were already halfway to finding the best chili recipe--all we needed was a copycat. We found one in my sister's restaurant copycat cookbook, which happens to be identical to most of the versions I found online, and to the one my Aunt Gigi published in a family reunion cookbook just a few months after my husband's chili epiphany. Apparently, people love the chili at Wendy's! And after one bite, I loved it too. In the years since we made our great chili discovery, this is the only recipe for chili we've used. It is easy and flavorful and delicious, and I usually have all of the ingredients on hand. Our search is officially over!

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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Gold Dipped Votives and Vases

For our pre-Valentine's dinner a few weekends ago, I wanted to really glitz up our dining room table. Inspired by all of the gold spray painting by Say Yes to Hoboken's Liz Stanley, I decided to turn some otherwise boring vases and votives into beautiful, gold-accented centerpieces.

I started by taking cheap, craft store vases and votives, wrapping the ends I didn't want painted in blank newsprint, and taping off the edges. Then I just dragged them into the backyard, set them on a plastic trash bag, and sprayed away. I made sure to spray them the day before the dinner party so they wouldn't be fume-y or burst into flames!
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Monday, February 20, 2012

Easy Beignets


Did you know that tomorrow is Mardi Gras? My knowledge of Mardi Gras is about as vast as a small puddle. Basically, everything I know about Mardi Gras can be summed up in 5 words: The Princess and the Frog. In our house, Mardi Gras is all about alligators playing jazz, frogs making gumbo, and Tiana's man-catching beignets! You probably won't catch any princes disguised as frogs with these super easy, super quick beignets, but you will catch plenty of small children and husbands.

Easy Beignets
makes 3-4 dozen

oil for frying
1 can refrigerated biscuits
1 cup powdered sugar

In the bottom of a dutch oven or heavy-bottomed pot, pour oil to a depth of about 2 inches. Over medium heat, bring oil up to 350°F. Meanwhile, use a sharp knife or kitchen shears to cut each biscuit into quarters. Fry dough in small batches for about 1 minute per side. Cover a plate or baking sheet with a layer of paper towels. When golden, remove beignets from the oil and set on paper towels to cool slightly. While still warm, place beignets in a large ziplock bag with the powdered sugar. Seal bag and shake to coat the beignets. Remove and eat immediately!
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Friday, February 17, 2012

Going Meatless: A Recipe Round-Up

A reader emailed me last week (Hi Lachia!) asking if I have any great go-to meatless recipes. Like a lot of families around the world, we've been trying to go meatless at least once a week for the past few years. Our reasons for doing so are probably the same as everyone else's, probably the same as yours. Movies like Food, Inc. and Supersize Me, and books like In Defense of Food have made us think about both the ethical and wellness ramifications of our food choices. So we started making changes and trying to eat more responsibly.

In the past few years of doing this, we've built up a great little collection of meatless recipes that we love. We've also learned a lot. I am not even close to being an expert at healthy eating or vegetarianism, but I suspect that most of you aren't either. So before I get to the recipes, here are a few things that have helped us eat better as a family, from one carnivore-trying-to-go-meatless-occasionally to another!
  • I plan our menu out at the beginning of the week every week. I honestly couldn't function and get good food on the table otherwise. It's hard to have healthy stuff if I'm winging it!
  • Even on nights where we aren't having a completely meatless dinner, we try to use meat more sparingly. Soups, salads, pastas, etc. are all dinners we love that don't have meat as the star of the show. When I'm planning the week's menu, I try to be mindful of how much meat we're eating; I never plan a big piece of chicken one night, and a big steak another night, burgers a third night, etc.
  • Since Christmas, we've been trying to start every dinner with a big, green salad. The kids don't necessarily like salad, but they like chopped raw veggies--salad minus the leafy greens! This habit has made a huge difference in how much of everything else we eat. We don't eat a big salad with dinner. We eat a big salad before dinner. Gone. Before we even dish up anything else. And the salad is just in addition to the vegetables we have with dinner. Does this require work? Yes. Is it totally worth it? Yes.
  • Meatless doesn't have to mean skimpy or not filling. Meatless doesn't mean "Plan a meal and take out the meat." That leaves a hole! When we eat meatless, we have just as many courses or sides as usual, and the meals are just as hearty.
So, on to the Meatless Monday recipes! Here are a few of our favorites from all over the internet:
*If a recipe contains chicken broth and you want it to be vegetarian, feel free to substitute vegetable broth.

Readers, do you have any favorite meatless recipes? Feel free to leave a link or comment below!
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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Adventures in Backyard Farming: The Free, Surprise Rare Breed

Bright and early Sunday morning, my husband's phone rang. It was the post office. The day we'd been waiting for had arrived: our chicks were here!

Lesson #1 in Backyard Farming: You can have baby chicks sent to you through the mail!

The first Spring we were in our house, which was several Springs ago, we bought two little Barred Rock chicks from the local farm store. We named them Phil and Lil. They were adorable, of course, and we kept them in a box in our garage until they were feathered out and big enough to go outside. We bought them a "chicken tractor" off Craigslist and put them in our backyard to eat bugs and peck at our vegetable garden. It didn't take long for some nosy neighbor to rat us out, and our HOA made us give them away, despite the city ordinance allowing us to have them. It was a sad day.
Barred Rocks
In early Spring 2010, we were inspired to try backyard chickens again when I very distinctly heard one in someone's backyard on a walk around the block. We figured if they could defy the HOA, then so could we! This time, we decided to order our chicks from Murray McMurray Hatchery and have them shipped to us, but why order 2 chicks when you can order 25, right? Slightly over half of those were meat birds (terrible, fat, lazy Frankenstein chicks--blech), but we had a sweet flock of 12 chickens running all around our backyard all Spring and Summer, getting fat and happy.

Right before they started laying, we let the girls each pick one to keep, and sent the rest down to my in-law's farm. Our oldest kept a beautiful Buff Orpington, and our youngest kept a gorgeous Silver-Laced Wyandotte. They kept our egg carton fully stocked, and dutifully ate all of the bugs in our backyard. They even scared off a pesky possum we had running around the yard last Fall.
Buff Orpingtons

Silver-Laced Wyandottes

So, Spring is here again, and we've decided to add to our little backyard flock. We have a Buff Orpington to replace (it sadly got attacked by the farm dog over Christmas break), and I wanted something to lay lovely blue eggs, so we also ordered an Araucana/Americana. I was already excited for our new chicks to arrive, but my anticipation sky-rocketted when I learned that the hatchery was running a promotion: they would include a free, surprise rare breed chick with our order! Call me crazy, but I think that is the best combination of things ever. The 5 year-old in me loves that it's a soft, fluffy baby chick, the cheapskate in me loves that it's free, and the big dork in me loves that it's a surprise breed that we get to try and classify.  The hatchery doesn't even keep track of what they send you, so basically nobody knows at this point! My husband and I had a lot of fun yesterday (because we're nerdy like that) trying to figure out which of the chicks is the rare breed (it's not that they all look alike, but not a single chick in our batch looks completely unique), and which of the rare breeds it is using our handy hatchery catalog. Our official guess is a Cuckoo Maran; I'll let you know when we know for sure!
Cuckoo Marans
Lesson #2 in Backyard Farming:  Catalogs are super fun to look at. It doesn't even matter what they're selling. Some of my favorites are the seed catalog, the farm equipment catalog (I don't even know why we get that one), and the chicken catalog.

Oh yeah, and my husband ordered 43 other chicks too. Because he's crazier than I am.

*All chicken illustrations are from the McMurray Hatchery website.
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Monday, February 13, 2012

Our Favorite Sugar Cookies

ethels-sugar-cookies

My mom makes the best sugar cookies ever. They bake up big and soft and pillowy and sweet, and no other sugar cookie I've ever eaten has tasted better. We baked up a big batch this weekend to give to friends and family for Valentine's Day, and it took all the love in my heart not to eat them all myself!

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A Pink and Gold Valentine's Dinner

Over the weekend, we had our dear dinner club friends over for a fancy, early Valentine's dinner.  I've been dying to do some pink and gold decorating, and our dinner party seemed like the perfect opportunity!

-marinated zucchini ribbons stuffed with ricotta, basil, pine nuts, and balsamic vinegar
-spring greens with roasted beets (heart-shaped, of course), fresh orange segments, pan fried goat cheese cakes, and citrus vinaigrette
-coq au vin served over garlic mashed potatoes
-lion house dinner rolls
-chocolate cheesecake
-berries and cream
-sugar cookies with pink frosting and gold sprinkles
It was a great party, and the food was among the best we've ever had at dinner club. It rivaled the best food I've ever had at the fanciest restaurant!
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Friday, February 10, 2012

Top 5 Desserts for your Valentine

Here's what we're craving this Valentine's Day:

1.  Chocolate Raspberry Truffle Torte--The deep chocolate flavor and silky texture of this torte will make you swoon.  And the eye-popping and taste bud-bursting raspberries don't hurt either.

2.  White Chocolate Cherry Biscotti--These heart-shaped cookies--studded with pecans and dried cherries and drizzled with white chocolate--taste like a cross between sugar cookies and shortbread.

3.  Strawberry Cupcakes--Nothing could be more perfect for Valentine's Day than sweet, pink cupcakes.  Except maybe sweet, pink ice cream...

4.  Raspberry Ice Cream--Sweet and tart for your sweetheart. (too corny??)

5.  Red Velvet Cupcakes--Heavenly flavor but such a naughty color!

And a bonus because we couldn't narrow it down!

6.  Sweetie Pies--Because they're just so darn cute.
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Wednesday, February 8, 2012

And the winner is...

69, dude! Congrats to DB--commenter 69. And a big thanks to everyone for visiting and for all the sweet birthday wishes!
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Handmade Valentines

**Don't forget to enter the Happy Birthday Give-Away. I'll choose the winner at about 5pm Pacific Time tonight!**

I enjoy making things, and that includes Valentines. I think it is big-time fun to sit around with my kids and come up with ideas for little notes of friendship they can make and give to their classmates every February 14th. Two years ago we made heart-shaped crayons attached to these cute little printables from The Long Thread. Last year we bought a box of fortune cookies, dipped them in almond bark and candy melts, covered them with festive sprinkles, and put them in cellophane bags with a sweet message saying, "I'm so FORTUNE-ate to have you as my Valentine".
This year, our little tomboy needed something special and not at all girly to give to her fellow kindergartners. She adores Superman, so we came up with a fun idea for a candy-free card for her classmates. We made little Superman logo badges out of felt, hot-glued a bar pin to the back, and attached them to cards we printed that said, "You're SUPER Valentine."
This is the kind of project where exactly how you go about it depends a lot on what materials you have/what you can borrow from friends. So, instead of a tutorial, here's a quick run-down of what we did.
We used three colors of wool-blend felt: red, blue, and yellow. I buy my felt online either from Prairie Point Junction or from Benzie Bazaar on Etsy. I didn't want to have to glue all of the little layers of felt together, so before I started cutting anything out, I ironed some Heat-n-Bond Lite to the back of the red and yellow felt sheets; after everything was cut out, all I had to do was layer the felt and iron it together! I knew 30 diamond shapes would be easy to cut out, but I'll be danged if I was going to cut out 30 little red felt S's, so I borrowed a die-cutter from my friend. It only took about 5 minutes to cut out all those little guys! For the yellow layer, I started by cutting long strips, then cut the strips into triangles, then snipped two corners off the triangles to make diamonds. Then I put the yellow layer on top of the blue and eyeballed where to cut. Again, once everything was cut out, we just peeled the backing off the yellow and red layers, stacked them up on top of the blue, and ironed them; so much easier than gluing! After everything was cool, we hot-glued a bar pin to the back.

The cards are simple and you could easily make them yourself, but if you're short on time, click HERE to get a printable version of the cards we used. We printed them on white cardstock, quartered each sheet, and punched two holes about 1" apart so we could attach the pins.
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Monday, February 6, 2012

Tortilla Soup

tortilla-soup-1

One of the nice things about writing this blog is that it makes it easy for me to find my go-to recipes without having to sift through piles of recipe cards or magazine pages. A lot of times, after writing a post, I'll throw away my hard copy of the recipe, especially if it was hastily scratched out on a scrap of paper, most likely the back of a piece of junk mail or an old receipt. But there are a few recipes that, no matter how many times I've made it or how easy it is to look up on this blog, I will always make the extra effort to find in print. This recipe is a perfect example. My copy of it is written out on an old piece of plain paper, not one that came out of a cheap ream of white printer paper, but out of a small box of nice paper for writing letters. It is written very carefully in my mom's beautiful cursive with a felt-tip pen (with a tiny correction in Nana's distinct handwriting in black ball-point). It is a recipe that I treasure, not because it is so delicious (it is!), but because it was written with love and care many decades ago. And I assure you that after I publish this post, I will still make the effort to find it every time I make Tortilla Soup.

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Friday, February 3, 2012

Zucchini Carrot Apple Bread

I've been trying like crazy to think of what to say about this quick bread. Here's what I have so far: I really love zucchini bread, and I really love baked goods containing apples, and I really love carrot cake. This fantastic recipe combines all three of my great loves into one delicious treat. And that. is. it. That's all I can think of, and that makes me sad, because I think this bread is my new favorite; I ate almost half of a loaf yesterday while trying to photograph it. It tastes like regular zucchini bread--which is to say it's super yummy--but then it has these tart little pockets of appley goodness, and plump, juicy golden raisins that are mellow and sweet. And on top of all of that, it has 2 full cups of delicious shredded carrots that make it extra pretty and extra good-for-you. And just like that, I have a blog post.

Zucchini Carrot Apple Bread
adapted from the Costco Connection--I know, right?!

1/2 cup golden raisins
1 cup boiling water
2 cups sugar
1 cup unsalted butter at room temperature
3 eggs
1/4 cup orange juice
2 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
3 1/4 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
2 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon cloves
2 cups shredded carrots
1 cup shredded zucchini
1 cup finely diced, peeled apple

Preheat the oven to 350° F. Place raisins in a small bowl, cover with boiling water, and set aside. In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream butter and sugar.  Add eggs, orange juice, and vanilla, and beat until combined. In a medium bowl, combine flour, salt, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, and cloves.  With the mixer on low, gradually add dry ingredients.  Beat until just combined, or until your mixer starts to struggle.  Stir in carrots, zucchini, apples, and drained raisins by hand. Divide batter evenly between two greased loaf pans. Bake for 1 hour or until a sharp knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Let cool on a wire rack for 15 minutes before turning out of pans. Allow to cool completely before slicing.

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Wednesday, February 1, 2012

February Favorites + a Happy Birthday Give-Away!

Happy February Everyone!  Here are some of my favorite things this month:


1. favorite TV guilty pleasure:  The Vampire Diaries/Pretty Little Liars
It's a real toss-up. I love them both and I'm only a little ashamed to admit it! {photos from cwtv.com and abcfamily.com}

2. favorite lip gloss:  Charlotte Ronson A Perfect Kiss Lip Gloss in Annabelle from Sephora
I'm a sucker for lip gloss, especially lip gloss that makes your lips look like you've been eating cherry popsicles. And the tube is heart-shaped. So cute!

3. favorite place to buy vanilla beans: Vanilla Products USA on eBay
That's right, eBay. Those little bottles from the spice aisle at the grocery store that contain 2 crusty beans and cost $8? That's a racket! Vanilla Products USA has a huge selection at great prices. I use them to make my own extract. Big, nerdy kitchen fun! {photo from igourmet.com}

4. favorite childhood memory spotted at Costco: Ducktales, Talespin, and Rescue Rangers on DVD
I practically screamed out loud when I saw some of my favorite childhood cartoons on DVD at Costco. I couldn't decide which box set to get, so for less than $10 each I went ahead and bought all of them! {photo from amazon.com}

5. favorite cute kitchen thing from Anthropologie: Chalkboard Spice Jars
I fill mine with salt and keep it next to the stove, but I know for a fact that it can also be filled with Swedish Fish (idea via [dandee]). {photo from anthropologie.com}

Now for the even-more-fun part: because I just had a birthday, I've decided to give some of this month's favorite things away to one lucky reader! If you win, you'll get

1 tube of Annabelle lip gloss by Charlotte Ronson,
a little sample of Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla Beans from Vanilla Products USA,
&
1 red-lidded Chalkboard Spice Jar from Anthropologie, filled with a little surprise


The give-away is now closed; thanks for stopping by!
To enter to win, please leave a comment on this post. Please make sure I can get in touch with you if you are the winner (ie, leave your email if it isn't in your profile). The give-away will be open for 1 week; I'll choose a winner next Wednesday, February 8th. Good luck readers!

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