Thursday, November 29, 2007

More Hours in the Day?

In my (very un)professional opinion, it seems that everyone experiences increased levels of stress (ones I am currently facing, as well) brought on by the holidays. This bothers me, though, on a number of fronts; a. I am 100% positive that this was not the original purpose of "The Season" and b. it's the holidays! Can't we just enjoy them?

With that said, I'm calling in the troops, i.e. the many, MANY people out there who have lives so busy that I can't even imagine. I see people like this everyday... ones living incredibly insane lives but all the while, they somehow manage to get their Christmas shopping done, Christmas cards well-written and out the door, and without ruffling a feather, still find time to create adorable little homemade gifts (things for neighbors, kids' teachers - not that I have kids, etc.).

But HOW!?!

I keep getting emails tempting me to "private shopping events" such as this one at Pottery Barn and I wonder... is this how they do it? They get invited to a couple of these special events and get to the malls before they open to take advantage of them thus freeing up the rest of their day? Do they manage to still bargain shop or just give up on shopping around in the name of saving time?

I can make it to the mall after work, no problem... but on those nights, I find myself getting home around 10:30pm, scrounging for something to eat (hence the lack of yummy dishes appearing here), and finally... oh right, sleep... that happens around 12:30 or 1am, if that early. This just can't be normal. Am I just not productive enough in the time I have? There must be a better way.

I really want to stay in the holiday spirit but it's getting harder and harder.

For my friends who are loyal readers... Christmas cards ARE coming out this year, but I hate to say there will be no cute picture collage with recipe or long hand-written note as in years past... rest-assured, I will be back next year, though!

By the way, it's still not too late to send thanks to the (the real) troops!

*An update, already... though, is that picture for real?

**Ask and you shall receive, apparently!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

In Less Than 5 Minutes...

Yes, you've probably seen something like this before... I'm sure this isn't the only one of its kind... so if you don't like this one for whatever reason, that's okay - just go and SAY THANKS somewhere, somehow. Truth be told, don't just do this tonight or tomorrow because it's Thanksgiving, or in a month because it's Christmas... do it once (or twice), and then come back next week, and do it again!

And while you're at it, say a quick prayer that our troops know just how thankful we all are for them each and everyday.

For the rest of you all, THANKS for all of the tips and recipes over this past year of being in the blogging world. It's been a fun distraction and I look forward to more where that came from. Now I'm off to finish baking for tomorrow... pumpkin and Tollhouse pie, anyone?

Happy Thanksgiving!

Saturday, November 17, 2007

So Generous

I have been overwhelmed by the amount of generosity around me this weekend... I attribute this in some small way to the fact that it's the holidays but more so, I think I'm just lucky to know a lot of people who are willing to donate their hard-earned money when a great cause is at stake.

First, I lead a group of 13 Provisionals ("new members") in the Junior League of Northern Virginia (insert all your jokes about the Jr. League here - we're used to it) and for our annual fundraiser, we are expected to host a tree in the "forest". This year, the group selected the theme of a "baby tree" (or two, as it may be); last night, before the entire event kicked off, we met and decorated our tree... and I was absolutely overwhelmed by the level of giving of each of the women. We covered not one, but 2 trees (and had fun while we were at it!) that will be auctioned off (that ARE being auctioned off - as we speak!) with all proceeds going to our focus area, preparing children for success. Now we just need some equally generous donors to bid on and buy our tree(s) so that the League can use the money in our community.

And then... in an extreme case of generosity, someone has decided to take my little gingerbread house home! I found this on my house last night!!!

Friday, November 16, 2007

They Said So!

Someone (way) smarter than me came up with this list of foods to keep you young... and well, I couldn't agree more (though after you see the list, you'll understand it's for very different, non-scientific, reasons). It is timely, though, to find something like this when I'd just been thinking - the next time fish is on sale, it's mine!

Of course, coupled with a list like this is the ever-ready mantra... "all things in moderation", right? Does that "all things" apply to numbers 4 and 6?

*I plan on taking full advantage of a lot of #4 this weekend... a batch of JFBs and maybe Abby's no-bake bars coming your way!!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

A New Twist

The subject "up there" is a bit of a misnomer... simply because I don't think the intention of this recipe was to become your new pumpkin pie, but in my house (another misnomer!) - looks like we might have a contender.

I went searching for a new quick & easy recipe using pumpkin last week because there was a chance we were going to walk up to our friends' house Sunday afternoon (only 7 houses away... LOVE having neighbors!) to watch some football and try Andrea's version of Polly Bergen's chili (really REALLY good, by the way)... and well, I always like to be prepared.

I must note that I believe I may have discovered a new measure by which recipes should be rated... two factors, actually; first, I initially whipped this up Friday evening and put it in the oven after which I promptly fell asleep watching TV and woke up approximately 2 hours later to a nice charred (thank goodness the condo was still standing) pumpkin cake-ish-something-or-other. The test was that even at this point, Chris ate quite a bit of it and pronounced it still good even grossly over-baked. Second, not including the first failed attempt, I have now made this same recipe twice in 4 days - this second time was for Chris' work pot-luck (my idea was something a little fancier but he wouldn't have it).

As for the dessert, I'm definitely not sold on having this on my Thanksgiving table instead of original pumpkin pie, but I'd have it on my table any other day (which means both that it's that easy that you COULD and it's also that good).

This also brings up a question... I know there are certain things that just 'make' my Thanksgiving (though I've been tolerant of others' traditions in the past few years celebrating with friends) - but when Turkey Day rolls around, what can't you live without?

Sunday, November 11, 2007

We Can Be Friends!

It's no secret that it wasn't the best weekend for my Deacs... though before anyone accuses me of looking for a new team the second my team falters, I must make a stand and say that this is very much NOT the case. I have friends that will vouch for me that Maryland has always been my second favorite ACC team (hey, they aren't Duke or Carolina... not to mention my mom's an alum!) and really, let's be honest, I'm just trying to keep the peace with my soon-to-be husband (an alum and life-long Terp).

But above all, who can turn down tickets to a great football game... sure, it might have been 40 (or so) degrees outside and Maryland was by all accounts supposed to lose the game, but still... college football! I miss those days.

In the end, though, we were pleasantly surprised... we brought blankets, gloves and hats, and two jackets each and only needed them for the walk back to the car (great warm-up for the upcoming Army-Navy game)... and Maryland upset the Boston College Eagles (what's better than watching your second favorite team sack the Heisman Trophy hopeful, Matt Ryan?!).

Saturday, November 10, 2007

It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like...

So... it's officially well-past Halloween, AND Thanksgiving is looming around the corner... I believe I can now declare the holidays in full swing. And with that, I had no qualms (admittedly, it wasn't even close, I've been listening to Christmas music on the internet for weeks already) spending this morning decorating a gingerbread house for my Jr. League's upcoming annual fundraiser, The Enchanted Forest (quick plug - come join us THIS weekend at the Westin Arlington Gateway).

I believe, much to my mom and my pleasure, that I have finally figured out how to use a lot of candy while the house still resembles, well... a house (!) but might also (the key!) be appealing to the eye.

The real test will be how much it will go for in the auction (you'll recognize my little house in the amateur division, obviously... begging to be sold)... which brings me to another, related issue: in the past, my house hasn't necessarily been the first to go; the more familiar scene is my house sitting by its lonesome hours after the gingerbread house village is closed up for yet another year. I finally realized this year that I think the families who decorated their houses in the workshops go back to The Enchanted Forest and bid on and buy their own houses back! So... to save face, should I do the same? Or, leave the fate of my house in someone else's hands?

Friday, November 09, 2007

New Adventures

In my experience, it seems that things in life do not happen in isolated instances... but instead, most often in groups. I would assume (though I claim to have done no research on this) that this is the genesis of the phrase "when it rains, it pours"; yet, this time, it's not quite pouring, but just a steady rain.

In the past few weeks, my job has taken some new turns, headed into waters yet undiscovered... which is both exciting but also a bit unnerving. I have a new Managing Director who is excited about making an impact on our organization which is fantastic, but as part of her team, I'm expected to be up to speed on everything she's attempting to implement. And well, I'm just not. Management Development Curriculum... Goal-Setting Courses (especially in a culture where goals generally aren't set)?! For good or bad, the new boss-woman is the type who subscribes to every professional association related to her field and is very well-read... but this means that recently, my inbox has taken on a new look as I can't possibly read (let alone grasp) everything she sends in a timely manner. I promise, I do like learning, it's just at a slightly slower speed...

Along those same lines, when I should be reading articles related to my job, I sometimes find myself reading things related more to my personal interests... not surprisingly, these are often about cooking, baking, and chef-ing (I think I just made that word up), and you'd be smart to assume part of that time is spent gazing at others' amazingly gorgeous pictures of their food. Most of the time, I'm not really one for reading poetic muses about cooking but this article discussing a new book (specifically the section on Recipes), The Elements of Cooking, by Michael Ruhlman, most recently seen as one of the judges on "The Next Iron Chef", really caught my attention.

The entire (short) article was worth a read (try this one too), but this was my favorite part quoted from the book...

How to use a good recipe: First read it and think about it. Cook it in your mind. Envision what it will look like when you serve it. Try to know the outcome before you begin. Read a recipe all the way through not only to understand it generally, but to make your work more efficient and to avoid making errors or taking unnecessary steps. Perhaps a dough needs to chill for an hour in the middle of a preparation, perhaps meat needs to be salted for twenty-four hours, or a liquid must be simmered, then cooled. The recipe suggests adding the flour, baking powder, and salt one at a time, but perhaps you can combine all the dry ingredients ahead of time while you’re waiting for the butter to get to room temperature so you can cream it with the eggs. Taking a few minutes to read a recipe, acting out each step in your mind as you do, will save you time and prevent errors.

In my own adventure with cooking, I have gone from one extreme to the other in terms of my use of recipes - my first bouts of cooking absolutely required a recipe and now, while I still use them with some frequency, I definitely alter some part of almost each one I find. His comment about "cook[ing] the recipe in your mind" just hit home... I definitely do that, and to be honest, if it doesn't "come out" in my head, then I usually find a new recipe.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Easy As Chili?

The only thing better than warm homemade soup or chili on a cool pre-winter evening is one that comes together in about 25 minutes (AND, my usual mantra - everything was already in my pantry!)! I know most of you out there are saying that a 25-minute meal can't possibly be called chili - isn't that supposed to sit on the stove for hours (not to mention, include some kind of ground beef)? But since I didn't name this dish, I take no credit or blame, as it may be. If I am permitted, though, to add my two cents, it seems that loosely defined, chili might just be pretty much anything, combined with chiles, used to make a delicious and hearty stew, so with that...

Chicken Chili Blanco
serves 4

6 oz skinless, boneless chicken breasts
nonstick cooking spray
1 lg onion, finely chopped (1 cup)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 c reduced-sodium chicken broth
2 c sliced fresh mushrooms (optional)
1 (15 1/2 oz) can reduced-sodium kidney beans, rinsed and drained
1 (8 1/2 oz) can cream-style corn
1/2 c chopped red or green sweet pepper
1/2 c dry white wine
1 (4 oz) can diced green chilies, drained
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp dried oregano
dash salt

1/4 c snipped fresh parsley (optional)
freshly grated cheese (optional)

Spray a large saucepan with nonstick cooking spray. Preheat saucepan over medium heat.

Cut the chicken into 1-inch pieces. Add chicken, onion, and garlic. Cook about 2 minutes or till chicken is no longer pink. Stir in chicken broth, mushrooms, kidney beans, corn, chopped pepper, wine, chilies, cumin, oregano, and salt. Bring to a boil.

Reduce heat; cover and simmer for 10 minutes. Stir in parsley (if using); top with cheese (if using) just before serving.

*My quick notes: make sure to use generous amounts of the spices; I didn't have any mushrooms and still had a filling meal; and, I think I'll add a couple of drops of hot sauce next time!

Monday, November 05, 2007

Leave Well-Enough Alone

Go right ahead and call me a hypocrite, it's fine... I am usually the first person to turn my nose up at using a cake mix to make a "homemade" cake but I admit it... one of my go-to recipes has its humble beginnings in a yellow boxed (oh, the horrors) cake mix. I'm not outright proud of this, but one of the best cooks and bakers I know *thanks, mom once told me when you find a great recipe, you don't question it, whether it comes from a box, packet, etc.; sometimes they just aren't meant to be messed around with.

This Junior League of Northern Virginia recipe is as easy as they come and delivers a cake that has been a crowd-pleaser everytime. Plus, if you buy the cookbook, you'll be the proud owner of tons of other great recipes (I stand behind the Antipasto Squares) while having contributed to a great cause.

Black Russian Cake

1 18.25 oz pkg yellow cake mix
1 5.1 oz pkg chocolate pudding mix
4 large eggs
1 c vegetable oil
1/2 c vodka
1/2 c water
1/2 c sugar
1/2 c Kahlua, divided
1/2 c powdered sugar

Beat first 7 ingredients and 1/4 cup Kahlua at medium speed with an electric mixer until smooth; pour into a greased and floured Bundt pan.

Bake at 350 degrees for 50 minutes.

Combine remaining 1/4 cup Kahlua and powdered sugar, stirring until smooth. Let cake cool slightly. Remove cake from pan. Puncture cake surface with a large wooden pick and pour glaze over cake. Let harden.

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