Friday, June 28, 2013

A Mini Zoo

There have been a lot of surprising aspects of home ownership. Most of the unexpected things are completely wonderful. The way Winston bolts up the stairs, all the way from the basement to the top floor for absolutely no reason. The way little white butterflies arrive in my garden every morning. The random floor creaks that announce the arrival of feline or human companion. The hydrangeas and gardenias in my front yard that I didn't know existed.

But there have been a few surprises I could live without. The wasps in my backyard belong in this category. I am happy to support a healthy garden for bumble bees. But wasps are not welcome. They freak me out. Something about the extra long legs and weird, segmented bodies give me the willies.

Initially we tried a pretty trap from World Market. It didn't work. Then we tried a real trap from Home Depot and some spray. The spray just pissed off the wasps while we bolted inside. Not my bravest moment.

Finally, we got some industrial strength spray with amazing reviews from Amazon and crossed our fingers. These damn wasps had to go. Thankfully, the latest spray killed on contact and took care of the pesky suckers.

But, it was a learning lesson. Fiance was especially keen to make sure the wasp numbers stayed low. When we first purchased the house, I immediately wanted to put a bird feeder. I tend to talk to wild creatures in public. Once, I was walking down the sidewalk and there was a little, chubby bird in front of me. I said "tweet tweet, scoot!"...right as a stranger walked by and gave me quite a look. I love almost all wildlife and wanted them in our yard. Fiance wasn't so convinced. He was concerned by the potential for poop. Then he read about lots of birds eat insects and he was sold.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

One Heck of a Cupcake

On the subject of exceeded expectations, this recipe did just that. I wanted to make a fruit based dessert and it needed to be easy to transport. Half of the goods were staying with my dad for father's day and half were going to friends. I pinned this recipe ages ago and stumbled upon it when I was looking through my old pins for inspiration. I narrowed it down to four options, but quickly ruled out two recipes because they were cakes. As much as I love cake, they lose their appeal once they are cut in half. So I narrowed it down to two cupcakes. I knew I wasn't going to have a chance to test these recipes ahead of time, and since I was taking them out to friends, I wanted to go with the recipe I trusted. These cupcakes are from Bon Appetit and they did not disappoint. They blew me away. Try them. Immediately. Oh, and I should mention- they are pretty darn cute.

Blueberry Cupcakes with Maple Frosting
recipe from here
Cupcakes:
3 1/4 cups all purpose flour
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, melted
1/4 cup canola oil
2 large eggs
1 cup buttermilk or low-fat yogurt
1 cup whole milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon grated lemon peel
1 1/4 cups fresh blueberries, frozen for 4 hours

Frosting:
2 1/4 cups powdered sugar
10 tablespoons (1 1/4 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons maple sugar (I used one of those small containers you'd buy in the cookie decorating section. I think it was about 2 ounces and it worked out just fine)
1/2 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
1 1/4 teaspoons vanilla extract
4 teaspoons (or more) whole milk
1 cup chilled fresh blueberries

Fresh mint sprigs (optional)

Start by whisking together your dry ingredients.


In a separate bowl, whisk together the melted butter and oil.


Add the eggs and mix again.


Add the buttermilk, vanilla, milk and lemon peel.


Pour the wet ingredients into the flour mixture and mix with a spatula until just combined. Add your frozen blueberries and stir until combined. Hint: the easiest and fastest way to freeze blueberries is to spread them out on a cookie sheet. They will freeze solid in about two hours.


Fill 24 liners about 2/3 of the way full. I have a two tablespoon ice cream/cookie dough scoop and I did two scoops for each.


Bake at 375 for 20 minutes, or until a tester comes out clean.


Immediately remove the cupcakes and let cool completely on a cooling rack. Once the cupcakes are cool, beat together the powdered sugar, butter, maple sugar, vanilla, and salt.


Add four teaspoons of milk and beat until smooth. If the frosting is too stiff, add one teaspoon at a time until it's the right consistency. There will be small maple sugar granules. That's ok. It may not look like a ton of frosting, but it's deceptive. You want to pile the frosting pretty high. I had a lot left over and may or may not have eaten my weight in frosting.


Here are all of my decorated lovelies.
 

You don't really want to eat the mint. But it adds a nice little touch of green and really makes the look.


Enjoy!


Monday, June 24, 2013

Exceeding Expectations: Cheap and East Weeknight Dinner

I found this recipe on Bon Appetit's website and showed it to fiance. I thought it looked good, but he was a bit skeptical. I decided to make it anyway. The final product exceeded both our expectations, mine by a fair bit, his by miles. It was so good, he asked me to make it again that same week.

I made some changes to make it a bit more healthful. I halved the olive oil and cut the bread thinner. I also used less cheese. I printed the recipe below with my changes, but visit the link to see the original. The final product felt simple, but decadent. The flavors are super fresh and it just feels very Provencal. Is that snooty? I feel like food should look amazing, taste simple, but rich. Like countryside food. Am I making sense? I hope so.

White Bean Ragout with Toast
recipe adapted from here
3 medium onions, chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt, freshly ground pepper
4 garlic cloves, 3 finely grated, 1 halved
2 teaspoons tomato paste
4–6 1/2-inch-thick slices grilled or toasted ciabatta
5-6 tablespoons finely grated Parmesan
2 15-ounce cans cannellini (white kidney) beans, rinsed and drained
3 cups vegetable broth (I used chicken for extra flavor, but vegetable would be good too)
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved

2 tablespoons sliced basil

I started by chopping all of the onions in my new cuisinart! (It was a birthday present and this recipe was its maiden voyage!). I put the onions in a bowl, then chopped the red bell pepper. You don't want the pepper or onions to be mush, but you want them finely chopped. Add the pepper to the bowl and mix thoroughly.


Once you have the mix ready to go, heat up 4 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet. When it's hot, add the onion and pepper mix and stir together. Simmer, stirring regularly, for about 30 minutes until it's all soft. Add the grated garlic and tomato paste and cook for about 3 minutes. Set aside 1/2 cup of this mixture (it's called Italian soffritto) and put the rest in a container. Let it cool completely. Freeze it for up to 4 months or put it in the fridge for about a week. This is what it looks like when all cooked.


I had all of this soffritto left over, so we are planning some meals to use it up!


While the soffritto was cooking, I prepared the bread slices. I got a loaf from Whole Foods and they sliced it thin for me. Then I cut the garlic clove in half and rubbed it on the front and back of the bread. Finally, I grated about a tablespoon of cheese for each slice and sprinkled it over the top.


Add the reserved soffritto back to the skillet with the white beans. Cook for a few minutes until hot.


Add the vegetable or chicken broth and bring to a boil. Simmer for about ten minutes until the sauce thickens up. Then add the tomatoes and simmer for another ten minutes or so. You want the mixture to look like a thick soup.

 

Meanwhile, I baked the bread at 375 until it was nice and crispy. Then I popped it under the broiler to get a good brown on it. You want the bread to be really really crunch.


Finally, place a piece of bread in a large, wide bowl and spoon some of the mixture on top. Sprinkle with tons of fresh basil and enjoy! The center of the bread gets nice and squishy and the outside stays crunchy. It's absolutely amazing, you won't be disappointed!


Friday, June 21, 2013

Living Room Progress (Also Known as I Finally Tidied Up)

This post has really been a long time in coming. We've had the rugs for weeks now and the couch for quite some time. I just need to get all of the junk off the coffee table (which has become something of a dumping ground), straighten up the pillows, fold the blankets, etc. But I did it. And here is the progress.

Here was the before:

When we first got the rug, the room looked like this.


Ignore the blurriness if possible.


The problem was, the chair was too far from the tv, and the room felt very heavy on one side. We were thinking about getting a love seat or something to go where the white chair was, but it still felt weird.


Then we discussed what it was we really wanted and came up with a good solution. So here is the now:

Here is the new couch we bought from Ikea.


Oh, and you can see the rug. The chevron striped bench is temporary.


It is in the corner where the tv used to be.


The old couch is now in front of the window and provides a separate seating area. The wooden coffee table is too big for the space, but it's a really nice piece so we are letting it stay.


The tv is in the nook to the right of the entry. I've placed a permanent dibs on the chaise part and fiance lays down on the other part and goes back and forth as he sees fit. It's the perfect viewing distance and super cozy.



Right now we are using this ridiculous set up as a table. It's my old bench and a piece of wood for drinks, snacks, meals. Eventually we'd like to get a round, tufted ottoman for this space, but it will do for now. We really like to eat dinner here while watching games or tv shows, so we needed something.


Way down the road, I'd like to sell the grey couch and get two arm chairs and a smaller coffee table. It does look a little silly to have the two couches in the room, but it's functional. When we were trying to figure out what to do with the room, we figured we could either get love seat/chairs and down the road get the couch we really wanted. Or we could get the couch we really wanted now and get the chairs later. We decided to go with the option that is more functional and honors our lifestyle, rather than trying to cram ourselves into something we didn't want.

We decided to go with the white couch for a couple of reasons. One, it was super cheap (under $500- which is a lot of money, but for a couch is a steal). Ikea stuff isn't always the best, but some of their couches, like this one, are actually quite sturdy. We went for the white because it really lightened up the room and the slipcovers are super easy to remove and wash. The material is thick and durable. It does show every speck of Winston hair, but it's really easy.

I also don't know if we will be here for more than four years. So maybe we'll just keep both couches and then have places for them when we move into a different home. Either way, we didn't want to get rid of the grey couch right now because it's less than two years old, is super comfy, and is in great condition.

The room still needs art, a new light fixture and some pillows, but we are making progress!

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

My Travel Tips

Some of you may have noticed that I travel a lot. Well done you observant people you. There are definitely people out there that travel for work more than I, so I'm not claiming the most-traveled person award. And don't get me wrong, I'm lucky to be able to see family, travel for school things and when I was living in California, travel to see fiance. I know that I was and am fortunate to make these trips. But they can be tiring. I am not the biggest fan of flying. I'm not afraid of it, I'd just rather not. Especially because I get pretty bad motion sickness.

The last month I didn't fly was September I think? And I flew almost every month of last year and every month since October. I'm flying again next week for my brother's wedding and then I have two whole months off and I can't freaking wait. Two months without airports and airplanes and all that goes with it. Yippee.

However, since I have racked up quite the number of frequent flyer miles, I thought I'd share some of the tricks I've learned along the way. Some of these may not apply when you are taking a quick 50 minute flight, but when you are settled in for 5 plus hours, they will come in handy.

1. Dress comfortably. I've been on planes that have been so hot I thought I was going to pass out and planes so cold I shivered the whole flight. So I always dress in light layers. Scarves, cardigans, soft shirts, light jackets, etc. I always always always wear shoes with socks if I can help it. Doesn't matter where I'm coming from or where I'm going. My circulation in my feet is terrible (thanks mom), so I usually wear socks and short boots during the summer and tall boots in the winter. Not only does it make taking your shoes off in the security line more sanitary, it keeps your feet cozy and less prone to swelling. Here are my suggestions for perfect flight outfits. They are comfortable enough to sleep, but still look put together enough for wherever you are going.

I should also mention, don't wear crazy high heels. It looks stupid. Tottering down the aisles or struggling to reach your gate is never a good look. If you are really worried about it, pack your heels and change once you get to your destination.

Summer:

I actually own this skirt and it's my go-to for flights:


These t-shirts from Target are the very best. I bought two and want to go back and buy armfuls because I'm wearing them almost every day. I like the grey for flights because it's a little more forgiving than white:


Add a sweater for warmth:



Cover it all up with a jacket:


Add a pop of color with a fun scarf. I actually wore this one on a flight last week:

Keep your tootsies warm and comfortable with flat boots like these. I don't know why it won't let me save the picture. Oh well, on to winter.

Winter:

I like to start with a comfy pair of leggings:


A button-down is helpful because it still covers your tushy if you need to take off the sweater, but also looks great layered:


Add a sweater for warmth:


Top it with a trench in the fall or a longer, heavier coat in the winter:


A thicker scarf is necessary during the winter. This scarf is white, but I think your accessories are a great place to add interest. So choose as bold a color as your dare. (Side note: I like to keep my basics, like the shoes and coat, neutral, so I can wear them again and again on the trip with different outfits and can reduce the amount I pack):



And finally, good boots. I like riding boots because they are comfortable to walk in, provide good structure, and bring your outfit some elegance:


2. Bring snacks. I don't know about you guys, but I get so hungry on airplanes. I always try and pack way more food than I think I'll need. Usually, I have extras, but there is nothing worse than being on a plane that doesn't sell food and being starving. Watch out for grumpy passenger in 10D.

3. Bring multiple activities. The only thing worse than being hungry is being bored. Some flights have tv's with movies or shows. Some don't. So I always bring work (if I am lucky and feeling productive), books, shows, music, etc. If I'm feeling sick, certain activities aren't an option, so I have to plan ahead.

3. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate! No I don't mean alcohol or coffee. In fact, try and keep the caffeine to a minimum. If you need to, have a coffee right before you land to perk up. Try and stick to other beverages until then. The altitude tends to dehydrate you and makes your limbs swell. Nothing combats these side effects better than water.

4. Get there early. Three hours isn't necessary, but if you are checking bags, give yourself at least 1.5 hours. It probably won't take that long, but you don't want to be in security checking your watch every thirty seconds to see if your flight has left.

5. Check in and pay for bags ahead of time. It's easier, saves you time at the airport, and gives you a chance to see if there are any announcements/notices online. If you aren't checking bags and you are in a rush on the landing side, try and get a window seat or a seat at the back. This advice may sound odd, but if you are carrying bags on a full flight and don't want to gate check them, you want to board early. Window seats and seats in the rear tend to board first.

6. Don't be that person in the security line. No you can't bring entire tubs of toothpaste, shampoo, lotion, etc. If it's your first time on a plane, or the first time in a really long time, I get it. But there are websites for a reason. You can easily read what is allowed and what isn't. Don't try and walk through the security scanners with belts, wallets, coins, etc. You can't do it. You will have to go through again. It's really annoying to the person behind you. Similarly, while you are waiting in line, get prepared. Take off your belt and shoes and put them in a bin or hold them until you can. Take your laptop out. I am a well-oiled machine in line and it makes my trip smoother.

7. Try to keep your calm. Airline workers are not trying to piss you off. They don't want delays either, they want to go home and be done with their shift. If you yell unnecessarily, you will only earn yourself spit in your coffee or the embarrassment of other passengers on your behalf. I'm a firm believer that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar, and I have the experience to back it up. I've gotten upgrades and free stuff by smiling and being polite after a passenger screamed at an attendant.

8. Know the rules and don't try and break them. This one is in the same family as number 6. Don't try and bring eight bags on to the plane. You probably won't get away with it. Then you will hold up the line and cause yourself a ton of stress while you try and jam your bags together.

For those of you with motion sickness, here are my extras:

9. Stay away from dairy for at least an hour before the flight. It generally doesn't sit well.

10. Eat at least 1.5 hours before the flight and eat something with protein. It will give you time to digest and the protein tends to help combat nausea.

11. I don't like to do anything during take off and landing because those are my trouble spots. I try and close my eyes and relax or stare out the window.

12. If you are taking an early morning flight, first, I'm sorry. Second, these are always my worst flights. I try and grab afternoon flights when I can. If it's not possible, you can take half a pill of Bonine the night before. Although fair warning, it will make you super tired and loopy. But you won't get sick.

13. If you are still getting sick, ask your doctor for a prescription for behind-the-ear patches. They can give you dry mouth and I'm always super ridiculous when I take them off, but they work for three days at a time. They are a great option for quick turn around weekends.

14. Be prepared. I always travel with water, paper towels and a plastic bag just in case there aren't motion sickness bags in the seat-back pocket. Yes it's gross. But better than having no where else to go. If there aren't bags, I always try and ask the stewardess, but some airlines (tiny planes usually) don't offer them anymore.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Grilled Sweet Potato Fries

So about a week and a half ago, we were making some chicken and decided to try and use the sweet potatoes we had in the fridge. This entire recipe was fiance's creation from start to finish. I'm really just the messenger.

We started by trimming off the edges and washing the outsides.


Then, I sliced the potatoes in long, skinny strips. I did my best to make them as even as possible. Some were definitely a little wonky but it worked ok.


Then, I tossed the slices with about a tablespoon of olive oil, some black pepper, garlic salt, and paprika. Next time I'd Old Bay at this point.


Line up your sweet potato slices to grill.


Flip them over so both sides are nicely cooked.


We sprinkled Old Bay on ours at the end, but as I mentioned, it would be great to include it earlier on. These were so tasty and healthy. It was a great side to have for any summer dish. Give them a try!

Friday, June 14, 2013

Bullying Basil

I'd like to think my basil is a benevolent dictator. But he was just crowding the oregano and thyme within an inch of their lives. (As an aside, is it weird that I refer to my plants as little guys, as though they are people or puppies? Probably, but who am I kidding, I'm going to keep doing it). Anyway, it was probably my fault to begin with, because I didn't anticipate how big and happy my little herbs would get. So I set about remedying the situation.

This was the pot before I took action. As you can see the basil was just about out of control. And the poor the thyme and oregano could barely get any sunlight.


So I went back to my favorite store for garden pots (Home Goods) and found these two little yellow pots. They definitely were made by the same people that made the green and blue ones and I thought they added some cheeriness to the arrangement. I carefully dug up the thyme and plopped it down in this one.


And the oregano in this one...


And then re-situated the basil with more potting soil and more space.


The final arrangement.


It really makes my backyard such a happy place for me to be. And since I walk though it to get to the car almost daily, it brings me smiles all the time.


I've actually been out of town for the last week or so for school responsibilities and family visits, but fiance reports that they are all blooming away. So I'm going to try and update this post later today with after pictures to show their progress!

Update: Ok, so I went outside this morning after being gone for about 9 days and holy guacamole! The plants just went crazy!



The photos are the best quality because they were on my phone, but look at the growth! The tomatoes especially just shot up! There are even some big green tomatoes on the plant and tons of flowers on the jalapeno bush too. It was so nice to see the difference in my absence!