Monday, July 30, 2007

A Capitol Celebration

This weekend was filled with the wedding of Andrea Donahoe and Chris Garrity!!! The entire weekend was draped in everything "DC" which was perfect since they'd met and have since lived here; the only outlier was their engagement, last August, on a glacier in Alaska.

It was a spectacular weekend... capped off with a fun and delicious rehearsal dinner Friday night, at 1789 in Georgetown. The dads gave the traditional words of welcome and toasts and then we were treated to a choice of their famous and amazing crabcakes or the beef filet; Chris and I wisely each had something different so we could taste both. *Chris loved the filet but said that the accompanying "hashbrowns" were his favorite part of the meal (and you wonder why he likes my cooking).

Saturday was an early morning with the girls getting their hair done and then heading to the Fairmont where the rest of the preparations awaited. We all had our make-up done and had some time to relax with a fun champagne toast... to the bride and groom!!

The rest of the afternoon, until the time we took our SUV stretch limo to the church, was somewhat of a blur. I do know there were beautiful flowers, great memories retold, and a stunning bride... in no particular order.

After a series of photo shoots around the lawn of the Capitol, we headed back to the Fairmont to get the party started.

We sipped mojitos, margaritas, and sangria during the cocktail hour and then dove into the delicious seated dinner of either free-range chicken or pesto-crusted salmon. *Both were excellent! The Fairmont did some really neat and creative things with the different courses during dinner including a sorbet palate cleanser and plating the wedding cake so beautifully with a creme brulee and chocolate-covered strawberry!

Such a perfectly memorable weekend for the happy newlyweds... everything went according to plan and the weather even cooperated!

Congratulations, Andrea & Chris!!

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Nickels and Dimes

Everyone has their own personal "way" of managing their expenses. I learned early on that getting through the first month or two of developing your budget are the hardest (it's akin to culture-shock, plus it takes time to set your allowances and then monitor and adjust them accordingly), but that if you can perservere through that, you're well on your way!

So what's the deal... I always talk about saving money and budgeting - what's different this time?

There are numerous tools available promising to help you develop and manage your budget - you probably have one you're currently comfortable with; as a current user of a homegrown Excel spreadsheet solution, I just KNOW there's something more effective and efficient out there. Thus, I'm always on the look-out for a new tool that fits my spending, as well as record-keeping, habits.

I'm still investigating my new "find", but I like what I've seen so far... Wesabe is a free online tool and community similar to Quicken, with the added benefit that you have the opportunity to capitalize on the experiences of the entire Wesabe community as you share tips and advice all in the name of making better financial decisions.

I think one of the coolest features that Wesabe boasts is the ability to set financial goals, get tips on how to work towards those, and track your progress as you work towards your target! And, of course I am eager to read some of the members' tips on best values in a variety of categories.

This new tool definitely has captured my attention but I'm going to continue doing some additional research before I sign up. In the meantime, how do you keep track of your budget and personal finances?

*My mom'd be sad to hear that it seems the ole' pencil and paper method of balancing your checkbook has been discarded in general society; someone saw me balancing my checkbook the other day and asked what on earth I was doing!

Monday, July 23, 2007

Home SWEET Home

Like mother, like daughter (tries to be)...

During the past 3 days of a whirlwind visit home to Atlanta, I was reminded what an amazing cook and hostess my mom is... I can only hope that one day I'll be able to entertain, cook and bake with the ease that she does, but until then, I will continue to seeking her advice and copying her creative flair.

Upon our arrival, even into the wee hours of the night, thanks to an AirTran delay, we were treated to one of my summer favorites... a cold salad with marinated strips of steak, potatoes, and fresh green beans and asparagus. It hit the spot, as I'd been strangely craving red meat. This is a great salad for a crowd, and guys especially like it because of the strips of tender steak throughout.

As soon as we'd had enough of that, my dad, who, I'd noticed, had been lingering around the kitchen, whips out some homemade ice cream sandwiches. My mom had sandwiched some vanilla ice cream between two of her giant "Kitchen-Sink Cookies" and individually wrapped each one.

Friday we visited and had a quick lunch with Granny and then headed back to my parents to prepare for the evening festivities. Before everyone arrived, as if we weren't going to eat enough later, we had a casual (but delicious) meal of "white gazpacho" with a variety of bite-sized mix-ins, including cooked shrimp, green onions, sliced almonds, and diced tomato. Talk about refreshing!

That evening, we hosted some family friends for a fun and competitive night of Tripoley... AND, of course, everyone brought some munchies and mom provided the dessertS. I've asked her, from now on, to give me advance warning when she's going to serve something as incredible as the layered ice cream cake she pulled out later in the evening - so let this be your notice as well.

(This goes without saying) but this cake is both professional looking AND delicious (and secretly SO easy to make!)... it was absolutely perfect for the heat of an Atlanta summer.

Ice Cream Cake

1 qt each of chocolate, butter pecan, and coffee ice cream
1 1/2 pkgs of chocolate wafers
1 1/2 jars of Smuckers Chocolate Fudge Sundae Sauce
1 jar of Smuckers Wet Walnuts

Line a 10-inch spring form pan with chocolate wafers. Line sides of pan with wafers; you will need a layer of ice cream to hold wafers in place. Spread first quart of ice cream in pan. Next place a layer of chocolate wafers and then spoon 1/2 jar of chocolate fudge sauce. Spoon second quart of ice cream over cake. Repeat wafer and fudge sauce layer. Spread third quart of ice cream and top with walnut sundae topping, some fudge sauce, and crumbled/broken chocolate wafers. Freeze before serving.

*Mom altered the recipe by making a chocolate wafer crust (processed wafers with butter) and pressed it about 2-inches up the sides of the springform pan. To cut some of the richness of the dessert, we recommend not using all of the fudge sauce.

In a great weekend that was all about food (as it turns out)... Saturday afternoon, we met up with our friend, Denise, for what we thought would be just a fun lunch. Turns out we were treated both to a delicious Cuban meal at Papi's (we recommend the Cuban Sandwich, I had it without mayo and it was still amazing) and a walking tour of everything new and upcoming in Midtown. Yes, I'm from Atlanta... but don't ask me how to get ANYwhere in the city, though I now know all about the new SoNo District and how the city is revamping the Buckhead strip to be Atlanta's "Rodeo Drive" (you still won't find me there).

That night we headed (with the rest of Atlanta) to Stone Mountain for the Laser Show which has always been one of my favorite things to do. The show was even more patriotic this year than usual so it was very well-received. And so was my mom's picnic spread... gouda and crackers, shrimp salad on croissants, broccoli salad, and fruit salad. Coming home to left-over ice cream cake wasn't half-bad either!

As usual, Sunday was bittersweet... we visited again with Granny who had finished recovering from Friday night's game night, and great friends, Lindsay and Ron, but then packed up and headed out for one last meal, at The Brickery, on our way to the airport.

And while our flight, this time, actually wasn't delayed, we decided to volunteer to get bumped in order to get a free roundtrip! THIS kind of delay didn't put me in nearly as foul of a mood as I'd been on Thursday trying to get home to mom's cooking.

Thanks, Mom & Dad, for such a great weekend! See you soon!!

*If you're interested in any of these other recipes, let me know... I'm waiting for my mom to pass them along but I'd be happy to send them your way as soon as I get them myself!

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

What's Your's?

What's your "go-to" meal? The one you fix when all else fails - either you're pressed for time but still want a healthy meal or you just can't think of anything else to make?

Abby asked that very question the other day and at the time, the only thing I could think of was my good ole' egg-white omelet (filled with whatever I have around... some of my favorites are caramelized onions, fresh chives, canned or fresh tomatoes, turkey bacon, turkey deli meat, etc.), but as I was quickly fixing a very impromptu dinner tonight, I realized just what my real "go-to" is... any variation on a grilled chicken salad. I always have skinless, boneless chicken breasts frozen (stock up when they are on sale) and am never without at least a head of two of Romaine lettuce (from my Costco 6-pack!); once you have those two ingredients, the rest depends on your creativity and what you have in your pantry and/or fridge.

Tonight I was inspired by some left-over whole wheat bread. I cut the bread into large cubes, brushed them lightly with olive oil and a pinch of kosher salt, and set them on my grill pan with the chicken. We rarely have bread around but if I have the opportunity to do this again, I will - it was great and I loved the texture... next time, I'll probably add in some minced fresh herbs, or if I'm planning far enough in advance, I might infuse the olive oil with some rosemary or garlic for extra flavor.

As for the chicken, I usually rotate between a few different marinades but tonight I simply used some chopped, fresh thyme and Italian salad dressing (my favorite... Ken's Fat-Free Italian). To finish the salad off, I threw in some (delicious and healthy) avocado, thinly sliced cucumber, and bleu cheese.

I love this meal because it's different each time so it never gets boring - plus, it's so quick to pull together! If you're in a bind for a quick meal or you just want to try something new, check this out... 101 Simple Meals that are ready in 10 minutes or less. I'm not sure I completely buy the "10 minutes or less" part so if you try any of these, let me know how they turn out... and, I'd love to hear if you have any of your own tried and tested, quick and healthy meals.

Monday, July 16, 2007

RAT in the Kitchen?

Before anyone makes a comment about rodents in the kitchen... it's JUST a movie, okay? But a darn cute one.

I'd been dying to see Ratatouille ever since it came out (the release of the latest Harry Potter barely even diluted my excitement for this one!) and since Chris is easy to please with any animated film (his collection consists of Cars, Finding Nemo, Happy Feet, Monsters Inc., Shrek and Shrek II, Madagascar, The Incredibles... to name a few), we headed out to catch this latest Pixar wonder Sunday evening.

There are so many great things about this movie - including some great motivation for all of us to keep cooking, or trying to cook, all of the scenes of Paris (I do love Paris, anti-American sentiment and all... yes, this from this most patriotic girl), and how the artists are able to make even a (normally, to me) gross little pest so absolutely adorable.

I will absolutely, 100% for sure purchase this movie on DVD for my continued viewing pleasure and there's a chance I will see it again in the theaters (okay... not really, but it's THAT GOOD).

The movie served its purpose... though it doesn't take much to motivate me to cook. Remembering that I had some shrimp frozen, I went searching online for a yummy recipe around my main ingredient. I was rewarded with a recipe using tons of my favorites... including corn, avocados, cucumbers, lettuce (yes, I CRAVE salad)... all topped with shrimp!

*I just about doubled the amount of chili-garlic sauce/cumin/salt/pepper that they recommend to "marinate" the shrimp in for added flavor; and as one of the reviews suggested, I cut the corn off the cob before cooking and sauteed that in with the shrimp and chili sauce instead of boiling

The end-result was delicious (and I loved the bright colors!); I will definitely be coming back to this recipe time and again... and not only because I am now the proud owner of both chili-garlic sauce and toasted sesame oil.

Not bad for the end to a busy weekend... watching a super cute movie about a little guy who makes it big in the world of food and having our own fun in the kitchen!

Sunday, July 15, 2007

A Sweet Shower

While I now live in what many consider to be the North (though I am not convinced), I was raised (at least for the most part) in the South... so after hearing that my friend, Andrea, was engaged, my first inclination was to throw a wedding shower, of course!

*This is certainly up for discussion but in my experience, I find showers and wedding-related parties much more rare among my "Northern" friends.

After much internal debate and consultation from numerous sources, I decided that the party would undoubtedly be "dessert and drinks" (that was easy... Andrea's fiance, Chris, loves my desserts and I love making them!)... but somewhat more hesitantly, I came up with the theme of an "Entertainment Shower". Sure - you've heard of this kind of shower before... but this was to be a little different. I wanted the guests to bring things to help Andrea and Chris entertain their guests with (such as grill tools, serving pieces, DVDs, etc.) or things they could do together (restaurant gift certificates, board games, etc.)... you get the idea.

Basically this boiled down to me getting to make fun desserts for a bunch of people who wanted to celebrate one of my best friends' upcoming marriage... not too shabby.

The first item on the menu was a no-brainer... Chris loves chocolate-covered pretzels; in fact, I made the happy couple a big goodie bag of these very treats upon their arrival back from Alaska where they were engaged. This time, though, I decided to use white chocolate and added a touch of sparkle with purple sprinkles. These were just perfect because I was able to make them in advance - essential to party-planning. To kill two birds with one stone, I also made these into my favors and centerpiece by bagging up a few pretzels, tying a festive, curly silver bow on the bag and placing them on my favorite three-tiered serving piece.

Early in the planning stages, I toyed with the idea of a small chocolate fountain but after hearing the horror stories of chocolate spewing everywhere, I decided on the more tame but equally tasty chocolate fondue. This was a great make-ahead treat as I prepared the chocolate mixture early in the day Saturday and then quickly reheated it on low just before pouring it into the fondue pot as the guests started to arrive. To dip in the delicious fondue, I set out some fresh strawberries and bananas, pretzels, chunks of pound cake, and fun Nutter Butters - who doesn't love peanut butter and chocolate together!?

To round out the rest of the menu, I found a great Italian Cream Cake recipe, recommended by my mentor (my mom!) - which I must "re-recommend". This recipe was moist and delicious - and held its shape, perfect for a party where food that can be made ahead of time with little touch-up is key. *Leave a comment if you're interested in the recipe!

I decided on a "signature" drink for the ladies; admittedly, I got some help on this one and bought one of the frozen bucket drinks, this one was Sangria-flavored and was delicious! *Note - thankfully we had no mishaps this time but a deep, dark red drink is not a great choice for a party I garnished the drink with some sliced fresh limes, set out my pseudo-punch bowl and arranged it with some cute plastic wine glasses. I also set out a pitcher of water with minted-ice cubes and a tub of iced-down beers on the patio.

On one of my other tables, in an effort to spread out the sugar, I had a small tray of fudgy brownies (in a moment of emotional weakness, I sifted confectioners' sugar in a heart shape on top of them) and some of Martha's tangy lemon cheesecake bars.

I also had a few little bowls of nut mix scattered around; I think everyone appreciated having something to to cut the sugar-high.

To send everyone off, after all of the presents had been unwrapped, I passed around individual cups of my homemade peppermint ice cream (Missy's recipe - thanks!!) out of the freezer, complete with a mint leaf garnish and Cold Stone donated mini-spoons!

I was secretly hoping this would cleanse everyone's palate so they'd come around for round two of dessert but they all seemed to be stuffed.

We had a great evening meeting new friends and catching up with old; we were so excited to have Andrea's parents in from Virginia Beach for the weekend, as well as Chris' mom. I think it was one of the last times the soon-to-be-wed couple would have to really relax and have a carefree evening since their big day is only 2 weeks away!

Friday, July 13, 2007

I Wonder...

Until early last week, I didn't even know that the 7 Wonders of the World were up for grabs! Am I just that out of it?

Determined to get back "in the know", I've been checking out all of the newly voted on 7 Wonders of the World (and in the process learned about nominating one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature...), and as silly as it may seem, I was just not prepared to be so amazed!

I'm re-inspired to get out and really travel now, so just in case the opportunity presents itself, I've ranked the New 7 Wonders in the order that they appeal to me (try this, but I will warn you, it's tough!)...

1) Machu Picchu, Peru
2) Christ Redeemer (statue in Brazil)
3) Petra, Jordan
4) Great Wall of China
5) The Roman Colosseum
6) Taj Mahal
7) Chichén Itzá, Mexico

I have some (absolutely inconsistent) reasoning for my ranking system but for now, I will spare you all the gory details.

In a separate but related note, I also saw that on my favorite "The Today Show" they are doing a series on "My Views of America the Beautiful". Check it out and I think you'll agree that America IS beautiful! I have loved browsing through some of the pictures that have been submitted and seeing just how many people find beauty in their everyday surroundings.

I don't know that I'll ever submit any pictures but I do have a few of my own versions of America the beautiful (both taken in New York state, on or near Keuka Lake)...

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

It's Here!

I've been re-reading The Order of the Phoenix in preparation for today's movie release. I'm a huge fan (and an even bigger dork) and even got hooked on some hour-long A&E special this past Sunday night about the whole Harry Potter series... it was a great refresher (for those of you who, like me, don't remember a thing about this book...).

According to my pre-order on, my "Deathly Hallows" delivers on or shortly after July 26th, so you know where to find me then... though I'm torn because the faster I read it, the sooner Harry Potter will officially come to an end... not to mention, I can't decide if I think Harry survives or not.

What do you think?

*If you don't think you're a fan... don't knock it 'til you try it... I was more or less "dared" into reading the first book and have been hooked ever since.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Anyone Care about the All-Star Game?

How do you feel about the policy of Major League Baseball, decided a few years ago - after the 2002 game ended in a tie - that the winning team of the All-Star exhibition Game yields its Division home field advantage for the World Series? This has honestly been pretty much all I could think of leading to tonight's annual showdown (well besides wondering how I score a spot in the Bay behind AT&T Park to catch an out-of-the-parker).

Agree or not with MLB's decisions... I still watched (and cheered for PU-jols... how I affectionately pronouce Pujols' name) the Home Run Derby last night, voted for friend-of-a-friend Chris Young of the Padres in the "All-Star Game Final Vote", and await anxiously the results of tonight's game (the only reason that actually watching tonight's game isn't on that list is that two of my own softball games take precedence).

I've lately been intrigued with the number of stories floating around professional baseball and all the history that surrounds traditions and age-old rivalries... for instance, when Jackie Robinson was so celebrated earlier this year, a number of people wondered what about the American Leaguer, Larry Doby?!

As for tonight's events, this little tidbit popped up in my inbox the other day (from the Washington Post)...

A little-known fact about Major League Baseball's All-Star Game, which will be played Tuesday in San Francisco, is that the game was not invented by a league employee. Chicago was hosting a Century of Progress Exposition, a precursor to the World's Fair, in 1933 and organizers wanted a sports component. Arch Ward, the Chicago Tribune sports editor, came up with the idea of a baseball exhibition between the National and American leagues in which fans would pick the players. Babe Ruth hit the first All-Star Game home run and the event has been a mainstay in US sports ever since.

Sports are such a fascinating part of American history and I love every bit. Everyone has a different take on all of the action... if you're a Nationals' fan like me, you can't go wrong getting your daily update and fun tidbits from the Nationals Enquirer.

As for tonight... let the best group of the best players win!

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Condo-style Grilling

So far, I think one of the themes of my adult life (post-college... am I really considered an adult?) is "do the best with what you have".

As I've mentioned before, I have about 6 pots arranged on my already miniature patio, so investing in any kind of "real" grill would have been a mistake. This means I rely pretty heavily on my George Foreman (great for paninis!), pan-searing, and my most recent toy, my grill pan. But, there are times when the flavor of a charcoal-grilled burger just can't be beat... and for these times, we break out the mini-Weber. Each attempt at grilling with this little guy is an adventure in and of itself.

My plan was to re-create the tasty burgers that Andrea and Chris had fed me a few weekends ago. Eating with them had been both delicious AND a great learning experience because Chris taught me all about using the internal temperatures of the meat to test for doneness; it must work because his burgers were perfectly cooked!! I left vowing to break out my thermometer the next time but first, I had to research what the appropriate temps were!

*Anyone adverse to grilling temperatures, try this chart for approximate cooking times!

Since the heat that my little grill produces (and how long it takes to get there) is unpredictable at best, we decided this time to build our own chimney starter. This, I found out, is a great tool to expedite bringing your charcoal up to the proper temperature. I had an old (large) coffee tin, newspaper, and charcoal, and Chris did the rest!

As for the hamburger recipe - as my record currently shows, I just can't leave a good recipe alone. In my defense, however, I am always a little worried that my meat will dry out in the grilling process so I added some finely minced onion and a dash or two or Worchestershire sauce, and then for good measure, threw in a TBSP or two of grated Parmesan cheese. I also didn't have fennel seed which I know some people don't like but in this recipe, it's a keeper. The bleu cheese "stuffed" in the middle of the hamburger patty is delicious and I'd say to put as much cheese in there as you possibly can; if you have someone who doesn't love the taste of bleu cheese, feel free to substitute with any good melting cheese you like!

*I always buy the lowest fat percentage ground beef that I can but I'm finding more and more than the lower the fat, the less flavor. I haven't decided if it's worth it or not... or if I can otherwise season the there a trick? Also, the lower fat beef has a tough time staying together, especially in a recipe like this so be sure and refrigerate your burgers until they are very cold and firmly formed.
We were both full of yummy hamburgers by the end of the meal so my only comment would be to stuff that bad-boy full of cheese... there's never enough!!

*THANKS Andrea and Chris, for my first taste of a stuffed burger and lesson on smarter and safer cooking!

Friday, July 06, 2007

The Littlest Helper

It's true that my nephew can be a true almost 2-year old boy... with 3 other little ones in the house, he ran around with the best of 'em, but when it was crunch time, he was right there with his nana (my mom) helping her cool down the beverages, making sure to collect any pieces of ice that might have gotten away.

Ever heard of a "mwah-mwah"? Charlie is GREAT with the vacuum, too! His dad and grandad proceeded to destroy the kitchen but Charlie followed close behind with the vacuum (sadly, I didn't get a good shot of this - it's adorable!); the mess is all for a good cause - Jacob and Robyn are on their way to completely renovating their kitchen... new cabinets, countertops... the works. It's going to look amazing... and I learned that my brother, just 45 minutes up the road, does a pretty-darn professional job installing cabinets.

*And here's a shot of Nana and our little Charlie... no way my mom would let Grandad get Charlie to himself for a whole week!

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

A Capitol Fourth

It's true that no matter where you are, or live... on July 4th, the red, white, and blue, come out in true fashion... but this year, we were treated to the most "DC" 4th of July of all.

*It's occasions such as this that remind me to not take where I live for granted... and to get out and "be a tourist" in my own city more often.

We started off the afternoon sharing a gourmet cookout hosted by Drew & Amanda; Amanda is a fantastic cook so I'm always eager to see what she's come up with each time we get together. She and I shared un-American kir royales (we now both are proud owners of our own creme de cassis in case of emergency) while the boys sipped on their brews. While Drew fired up the grill, we snacked on a variety of delicious bruschettas... one topped with fresh tomatoes and purple basil and the other with fresh olive tapenade. She also had some amazing cheese that I intend on serving at my next gathering... as soon as I find out the name of it. For dinner, we sat out on their beautiful stone patio and were absolutely spoiled... grilled salmon, fresh green beans and tomatoes with a lemon vinaigrette, and a dill potato salad, lightened up by using yogurt instead of sour cream.

I brought up the rear with a shameless un-homemade concoction of a dessert... a summer trifle. This recipe has been a hit both times I've made it so I'll keep the recipe around but I do always feel guilty taking a "store-bought" dessert to such a gourmet cook's kitchen (note - I use frozen strawberries in juice in place of the fresh berries and chocolate sauce over caramel... this time I used homemade fudge sauce which worked out really nicely as well).

But... the real fun was yet to begin. We quickly cleaned up and headed downtown; we were going to watch the fireworks over the Washington Monument from the comfort of the balcony of the US Capitol!

Unfortunately the pictures I have from this special evening are anything but amazing but we had such an incredible time among so much "living" history... touring the Capitol, listening to the National Symphony Orchestra's "A Capitol Fourth" concert and watching the breath-taking fireworks.

The entire day was such a GREAT reminder, without any political implication (imagine that, in this city!), of what this country lives and dies for. For everyone who's able to enjoy the liberties this country so freely affords us, and especially for my proud American friends overseas (those who had to work on this most American holiday)... this one's for you!


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