Sunday, April 29, 2007

Take Me Out to the Ballgame

We had the best time yesterday (even though our boys on the field came up one run short) enjoying the late-spring (finally!) weather... taking in the final game in the Nats-Mets series. Thanks SO MUCH to Tim and Jo for inviting us... from the pre-game barbeque in your adorable Capitol Hill backyard to the GREAT seats at the game - we were spoiled!!

Except for the fact that it's almost 20 years later, so many things about yesterday's SUPER fun day at RFK reminded me of being at the Braves' former home, Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, in the late 80's... including the the stadium only 1/2-full (which is actually a good showing for us - maybe more attendance at the new stadium next year??) and a bunch of young players on the field hustling and lots of GREAT effort (though sadly, most Nats' fans are oblivious and just want results... taking a page right out of Atlanta fans' playbooks).

Speaking of players who are known for their great effort... since our seats were literally about 5-rows back from the Nats' dugout, I joined the little kids behind the dugout and begged my way into a Nick Johnson autograph. Yes, he's on the DL and is almost ALWAYS is on the DL... but just wait, once he's healthy, you'll know it. Ryan Zimmerman might have the looks but Nicky-J is my favorite.

The afternoon could not have been more perfect... except that it was a little warmer than any of us were expecting... but we did manage to make it up on the big screen, gave a big high-five to ole' George, and got up close and personal with silly Screech (I was so tempted to jump on the dugout roof and dance with him... how do you get chosen to do that anyway?).

Saturday, April 28, 2007

A Better Way To Guac

One of the more frustrating aspects of making economic spending a part of your daily life is learning how little it costs to make something that you otherwise enjoy when out at a fun restaurant... to be honest, it kind of ruins the experience of eating out.

But, in this case, we've managed to make the most our predicament. Guacamole is one of these things, and it also happens to be one of my all-time favorites. It's very easy to make and requires only a few ingredients... so the only mystery that remains, really, is why it one of the pricier items on every Mexican restaurant's menu.

My "Guac"
(for 2)

2 ripe avocados
3 tbsp small diced onion
2 tbsp chopped fresh cilantro
1/4 tsp garlic powder
1/8 tsp cumin
1/4 tsp salt
splash of lime juice

Mix all ingredients together in a small bowl and mash with a fork, until the consistency desired is reached.

We always eat our guac with Trader Joe's Spicy Flaxseed chips!

*Another cost-saving idea... start a little herb garden! For about the price of one bunch of herbs from the grocery store, you can buy your own small plant that will continue to give you fresh herbs for the whole season! I'm growing basil, rosemary, curly parsley, chives, and cilantro; and so far, these all work great in small containers sitting in my window!!

Two great articles/events that I recently came across:

Real Simple had a great article highlighting the fact that planning ahead really helps in your efforts to save.

For the month of April, Sur la Table, one of my favorite cooking stores, offered free knife sharpening for any two knives that you bring in! They seem to run this special about twice a year.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

25 Hours in DC... PRICELESS!

Thank you MAERSK!!

Even if just for a tease of 25 hours (and a packed one, at that!), A.P. Moller sponsored a whirlwind tour of the greater Washington, DC, area for "the one who had previously abandoned us", Christy Parker.

Between 3pm Saturday and 4pm Sunday, we managed to get Christy a hair cut, wait for and eat Mexican at none-other than Cactus, drinks and desserts afterwards chez moi, (BREATHE) catch up with a friend before church followed by learning that we are allowed to run around like crazy on the Sabbath from Lon at McLean, see our friends' 6-day old teeny, tiny adorable baby, Sophie, and then one last stop for a late lunch with more friends while enjoying the beautiful DC weather at Jetties in Georgetown (must have - the Long Pond salad) before she caught the train up to Newark for the real reason (or so Maersk thinks!) she came back to the Red, White, and Blue.

Trend alert - babies everywhere! I'm surrounded!!!

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Spice of Life

Maybe I'm finally getting the knack of taking something (in this case, a recipe) I really like and making variations on it - after all, variety is the "spice of life", right? Not to mention, I'm finding that this new technique aligns perfectly with my quest to make the most of my pantry!

Thanks to yet another idea from Carolyn, last night we feasted on a delicious Mexican-inspired chicken and brown rice risotto. Yes, this sounds very similar to my last meal idea but if you take my original brown rice risotto recipe and add your favorite southwest flavors, it's anything but boring!
My "mix-in" ideas... (Cold Stone on the brain - we took advantage of my Entertainment Book's coupon for an after-dinner treat)

  • chopped onions and/or scallions (I used both... add the scallions in towards the end)
  • the liquid from canned green chiles
  • jarred jalapenos, and their juices
  • finely chopped cilantro
  • shredded Monterey Jack cheese (cooked into the rice and used as a garnish)
  • fresh diced tomatoes (added these at the end for color and fresh flavor)
To keep the flavors consistent throughout, I also "marinated" the chicken in a bit of a dry rub that I keep on hand, a splash of olive oil, and some more of the diced jalapenos and green chiles. Once the chicken was almost cooked through, I tented the pan with aluminum foil and melted down some shredded cheese. I finished it all off with the remaining scallions (or any fresh garnish, on hand) and enjoy! This might be a new favorite!

Monday, April 16, 2007

Is It a Good Deal, or...?

Not to sound pompous, but I think I've started down the road to becoming a budding, though still amateur, "deal" hunter. Lately, however, in my deal-tracking escapades, I've noticed a shift and I'm not sure that I'm totally sold on it. It seems that there are two schools of thought in the saving money world - one of those is just finding anything that you can obtain for free, whether or not you would have EVER wanted them in the first place (we'll call these "freebies"); and, the other tries to do the everyday while saving as much as possible.

As with most things, I've taken a pretty quick stance and will say that I am NOT a freebie hunter, even though this seems to be the latest and greatest. Recently, there've even been numerous articles written about different things you can get for free, with varying caveats. Both Real Simple and the Washington Post have had articles listing such things.

So what's wrong with this? At the risk of sounding harsh, I've found that "freebie" often equates to "it's not worth paying for". However, I will readily admit that there are exceptions - our great Smithsonian Museums (plug for DC) being one.

Sure, the occasional "freebie" is great and can sometimes lead to an unexpected adventure, but I advocate more strongly for living everyday within a budget (we can all learn something from this article about teens and budgeting). While I haven't had the experience of enrolling in one of MIT's online courses (freebie!), I have managed to have a modest amount of success in my money saving efforts at (no surprise here) the grocery store!

Tonight I actually combined a new grocery store "find" with my heart-healthy eating "diet" (my first experimentation with greens) and ended up with a filling meal for 2 that costed less than about $5 total! I started with Real Simple's Swiss Chard with Chickpeas and Couscous recipe and made some substitutions more in line with my cupboard to complete the meal.

Brown Rice Risotto & Healthy Greens

3 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
2 1/2 cloves garlic - 1/2 minced, 2 cloves thinly sliced
1 c brown rice
3 c either low-sodium chicken stock or hot water
1/2 grated Parmesan cheese (optional)
1/2 cup chopped pecans
1 15.5-ounce can chickpeas, rinsed
1/2 cup Craisins
2 bunches Kale, stems trimmed (any greens will work - spinach, Swiss chard, etc.)
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper

In a medium saucepan over medium heat, add 1/2 tbsp olive oil and minced garlic. Cook gently for about a minute and add the brown rice stirring to coat for 2-3 minutes. Turn the heat up to medium-high and slowly add enough stock or water to cover the rice, stirring frequently. Allow the liquid to cook down almost completely and then add enough liquid to again cover the rice, repeating the process until you have used all of your cooking liquid. If desired, stir in the Parmesan cheese.

Meanwhile, in a large skillet, over low heat, toast the chopped pecans for 3 to 4 minutes. Transfer to a plate. Return skillet to medium heat, add the oil, and heat for 1 minute. Add the sliced garlic and cook for 1 minute. Add the chickpeas, Craisins, Kale, salt, and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until your greens are tender. Remove from heat. Fluff the brown rice risotto with a fork and divide among individual plates. Top with the chard and sprinkle with the pecans.

This was plenty for two portions as a main course or could be enough as a side for at least 4 servings.

If you crave a good deal but love cooking as if you didn't have a budget, check back every once in a while - I'll try and keep you up-to-date on any great recipes/meals I make that take advantage of a money-saving find, and other good deals (in my unprofessional opinion) and worth-while freebies.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

ONE Kind of "Healthy"

My idea of perfection in the kitchen is finding a delicious recipe and being able to pull it off primarily using ingredients you already have on hand... my #1 favorite "healthy" buying habit!

Thanks to a recipe "share" from Carolyn, my great chef-friend, I was able to finish off what heavy cream I had left-over after making the Caramel-Milk Chocolate frosting last weekend.

Enjoying Carolyn's Orange and Vanilla Scones with my coffee this unseasonably cool April morning was SUCH a treat. Not only were they deliciously light with just the right hint of orange, but they required very few ingredients, most of which you surely have in your kichen right now!

2 c (10 oz) flour
1 tbsp baking powder
3 tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
5 tbsp cold, unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
2 tbsp fresh orange zest
1 c heavy cream
1 tsp vanilla

Heat oven to 425.

Place the flour, baking soda, sugar, and salt in a large bowl or the workbowl of a food processor fitted with a medal blade (this works great); process with 6 1-second pulses. Add the pieces of butter and orange zest and process with another 5-7 pulses, until integrated.

Stir in the heavy cream with a rubber spatula just until the dough begins to form, about 30 seconds. Transfer the dough and all dry flour bits to a lightly floured countertop and knead the dough by hand until it comes together into a ball. Press the ball into a round circular disc, about 8 inches in diameter, and cut into 8 slices. Place the wedges on an ungreased sheet pan, spacing at least 1.5 inches apart. Bake the scones until light brown, 12-15 minutes. Cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes and serve warm or at room temp.

So easy and SO delicious... what a way to "clean out the cupboard"!!

Monday, April 09, 2007

Spring Kookin'

Yes, around this time of year - most people are talking about spring cleaning... given the choice, however, I would much rather discuss what's kookin!

Especially with the strange weather we have been having, I was very thankful to see Easter approaching on the calendar - a true mark of spring (despite snow lying on the ground). And, as this year proved - no matter the weather, Easter is always a time of happy "beginnings" with family and friends.
Chris' cousin, Debbi, and her family, were kind enough to open their house up to the extended family... yet again. And what is one to do when they are invited to spend a holiday with family? Bake!!

When the only request I got was that I make something chocolate... I knew right where to start. My mom has a fantastic basic chocolate cake recipe that's been a staple in our house. I thought her pretty whipped cream frosting would be a nice, light touch, but then we realized it would never survive the ride down to Richmond. So I searched for a frosting recipe that would do her chocolate cake justice...

Mom's "ALMOST Too Easy" Chocolate Cake
2 c flour
2 c sugar
3/4 c cocoa
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
Sift the dry ingredients together (in your mixer bowl).

1 c milk
1/2 c vegetable oil
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla
Add to the dry ingredients; mix until just blended.

Add 1 cup hot coffee. Mix until blended. (Careful, can splatter!) Pour into 2 9" greased and floured pans. Bake at 350 degrees for 30-35 minutes until done.

You can easily make this cake ahead of time and even freeze the layers; this time, I made it a day ahead and covered it with plastic wrap to keep in the moisture.

The frosting recipe I found was definitely a challenge... and while it did look pretty good and tasted very smooth and rich, the jury is still out deciding whether or not the effort was worth it.

Caramel-Milk Chocolate Frosting

24 oz milk chocolate, finely chopped
3 oz bittersweet (not unsweetened) or semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
1 1/2 c sugar
1/2 c water
2 1/4 c whipping cream

Combine milk chocolate and bittersweet chocolate in large bowl.

Stir sugar and 1/2 cup water in medium saucepan over medium-high heat until sugar completely dissolves without allowing the mixture to boil. Cover tightly and turn heat to high for 2 minutes; remove the cover and boil without stirring until syrup is deep amber color, occasionally swirling pan. Carefully and slowly add whipping cream (mixture will bubble vigorously). Stir over low heat until any hard caramel bits dissolve and mixture is smooth. Pour caramel over chocolate; let stand 1 minute to allow chocolate to soften, then whisk until chocolate is melted and smooth. Chill chocolate-caramel frosting until completely cool, about 2 hours. Let stand 1 hour at room temperature before continuing.

Using electric mixer, beat frosting just until color resembles milk chocolate and frosting is easily spreadable, about 1 minute (do not over beat or frosting will become stiff and grainy). If necessary to correct graininess, set bowl with frosting over saucepan of simmering water for 10-second intervals, whisking just until frosting is smooth and spreadable.This made MORE than enough frosting for my two-layer cake; I would absolutely halve the recipe if I made this again.

I also thought it'd be nice to bring all of the cousins and family some little treats... so after the suggestion of my friend, Andrea, I tried (and yes, admittedly I used a cake mix!) the Cake Mix Doctor's Lemon Cake! (I adapted the recipe below - one recipe made plenty for 5 small loaf pans)
Vegetable oil spray for misting the pan(s)
Flour for dusting the pan(s)
1 package (18.25 oz) plain yellow cake mix
1 package (3 oz) lemon gelatin
2/3 c vegetable oil
2/3 c hot water
4 lg eggs

1 c confectioners' sugar, sifted
2 tbsp fresh lemon juice (from 1 lemon)
1 tsp finely grated lemon zest (from 1 lemon)

1. Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly mist a 12-cup Bundt pan with vegetable oil spray, then dust with flour.
2. Place the cake mix, gelatin, oil, water, and eggs in a large mixing bowl and beat with an electric mixer on low speed for 1 minute. Increase the mixer speed to medium and beat for 2 minutes more, scraping down the sides if needed. The batter should look thick and well blended. Pour the batter into the prepared pan, smoothing the top with the rubber spatula.
3. Bake the cake until it is light brown and just starts to pull away from the sides of the pan, about 40 minutes. Let the cakes cool for 10 minutes.
4. Meanwhile prepare the glaze. Combine the confectioners' sugar, lemon juice, and lemon zest in a small bowl and stir until smooth.

The Easter celebration was perfect... great company and good food, followed by the Black Diamond of Easter egg hunts.


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