Wednesday, December 31, 2008

On the Brink

Since we are a mere few hours away from a brand new year, it's high-time I seek some advice from the experts (that's you!)... I need help fulfilling one of my goals for 2009 - I know I can't do it alone because I've been trying and been somewhat successful but I know I've barely touched the tip of the iceberg.

So what's the big issue? Well, it's become more and more obvious that one of the keys to eating well and staying on budget will involve a more frequent use of our slow cooker! What other kitchen tool takes inexpensive proteins and turns them into delicious home-cooked meals... and with little to no effort!? (that was a rhetorical question... but if you do know one, let me know!)

Thus far, we've found an amazing pulled BBQ chicken recipe, I've done a couple pretty good, very simple BBQ pork recipes here and there, and I'm hoping to try this sometime soon, too... not to be out-done, however, is our most recent find - hands-down the easiest (but still fancy enough to serve for company!) pork EVER. I promise. In fact, here's the recipe:

3 lb. pork loin
1 can cranberry sauce
1 packet onion soup mix

On your way out the door, throw the pork loin, cranberry sauce, and soup mix in the slow cooker on LOW for 8 hours and

*we usually serve this with our favorite yummy nutty whole wheat loaf from Costco or some brown rice to soak up the delicious sauce

I've also dabbled in a great cookbook for slow cookers, Not Your Mother's Slow Cooker; we especially liked her Moroccan Chicken Thighs with Chickpeas and Cumin. And while I'm not even close to ready to give up on this series of cookbooks, many of the recipes (honestly, I find this to be true about slow cooker recipes in general) require a lot of advance preparation (such as browning the meat before tossing it in the cooker) and when I'm running out the door in the morning trying to make it to work on time, browning meat in a separate pan or chopping vegetables (though my smart husband suggested I could prepare the veggies the night before, which I will do!) is the last thing on my mind.

And thus... here I am. Begging for your help.

Do you have favorite crockpot/slow cooker recipes?

Pass along any and everything that you love to prepare and eat from a slow cooker. And your recipes don't have to involve a protein - although we are meat-eaters, we aren't above a yummy vegetarian meal every now and again!

Here's to a healthy, delicious and budget-friendly 2009!!!

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Sorry, No Reindeer Here

I know I'm risking using your very last bit of patience droning on and on about my family's Christmas (not to mention my adorable niece and nephew... can you imagine how bad it'd be if they were actually my kids?) so I'll make this short. I fully recognize that I need to move on... and I will, very soon. This is really more a free promo for our great nation's Capitol and just one more of the many reasons to visit (hint hint!).

Last night as our family's last ode to Christmas 2008, we took everyone into the city to visit the National Christmas Tree in it's 85th year.

It was especially enticing because of the rumored trains wrapped around the base of the tree - and we all agreed that it met and even exceeded our expectations. We also had a very special opportunity... Charlie discovered what he deemed as a very large "rocket" in the distance on the Mall.

Of course I couldn't help snapping a picture of Georgia's ornament as we walked past it on the Christmas Pathway of Peace.

It was neat to see all the states and territories different ornaments in the smaller trees surrounding the main event.

Sadly, however, there were no live reindeer on site as my mom swears there used to be when she visited the tree growing up in Maryland. If you know the whereabouts of said reindeer, please let us know...

Friday, December 26, 2008

Can't Resist

The benefit of having a 3+ year old on Christmas morning is that you really don't have to expend any energy opening presents... he does it all for you! And while you might think that takes all the fun out of it, in reality, watching him "help" everyone in sheer delight is more fun than opening the presents themselves and really embodied the true spirit of Christmas for my family.

Later on in the day, once all the excitement had died down, we found Charlie and Caroline still in their adorable matching PJs, provided by their Nana, sitting together (kind of!) and of course the paparazzi took the opportunity for a photo shoot.

Even though she's starting to teethe, our sweet Caroline was just that, sweet. She is such an agreeable baby in every way - and while I'm not one to dabble in soothsaying, I'll go ahead and say that she adores her brother.

After our delicious beef tenderloin Christmas dinner, we had some fun with what might become a family tradition... only time will tell. Courtesy of my co-worker, a Saratoga native, our family all took turns breaking a Peppermint Pig and tasting a piece of homemade peppermint candy in the hopes of prosperity for the coming year. Thanks to Darcy for a fun treat and toy!

And of course, it wouldn't be our family's Christmas night without way too many desserts. This year in addition to my mom and my Christmas cookies, Robyn contributed a harvester birthday cake for Jesus - the specs of which were requested by none-other-than farmer Charlie himself. Jacob and Robyn made each little tomato, bunch of lettuce and corn!! The only issue?? Whether or not the John Deere harvester on the cake would make it past Christmas morning (there was a little boy eager to get his hands on it).

In the end, my (very un)scientific poll ranked this Christmas as one of the tops I can remember. Call me a sap but I just can't get enough time with my family - especially now with the little ones.

Really, who can resist this cutie pie?

Merry Christmas to all, and to all, a good night!!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A Sweet Morning

Being in town this Christmas means lots of opportunities for hosting - and I think I'm finally ready to admit that I will find just about any reason to host a dinner, or any other kind of, party. So when we went through our Christmas week plans with everyone in my family, we thought starting a tradition of a Christmas Eve brunch would be fun - and no surprise, I jumped at the chance to have it at our house.

And of course, this meant pulling out all the stops... while I brainstormed for at least a month about the perfect menu, it only took a few seconds to decide that we'd use my new jewel-tone red chargers as a backdrop to our beautiful china to create a festive table. Suffice it to say, I'm not one of those people who's china won't get used.

I also came across these cute ornaments that I thought could double as place cards so each of us had one waiting at our appointed seat.

The menu did not come about quite so easily - but I think the final product was really delicious and hit the spot. We had a little beverage buffet of coffee, orange juice and holiday punch (a family favorite) - all ready when my brother's family arrived. Shortly after, we dug into a selection of cheddar cheese baked grits, a sausage and vegetable egg casserole, fresh sections of oranges dotted with sliced almonds, and homemade cinnamon rolls topped with cream cheese frosting. To round it all off, we had a mini dessert buffet of some Christmas candy and a tiered silver tray with brandy walnut balls and apricot crumbles.

I'm so thankful that mom and I work together in the kitchen so well because I definitely couldn't have pulled it off without her. Mom helped prep most of the entrees (and cut all the oranges!) the night before while I was delving into another attempt at yeast "bread" (Mom is an amazing cook but we both stay pretty far away from anything to do with yeast, aside from homemade pizza crust) with the homemade cinnamon rolls, which turned out to be so much fun to make and absolutely delicious!

After preparing the dough and letting it rise for just over 2 hours, it was perfectly soft and workable. I rolled it out and spread butter, cinnamon and brown sugar for the filling, all over the center of the dough. Then I rolled the dough into a long log and cut it into 1/2 to 3/4 inch slices and place them into two greased baking dishes.

I prepared the rolls last night, then I covered them tightly and placed the dishes in the fridge overnight. I took them out early this morning and let them rise for about 45 minutes and then baked them according to the directions. In the meantime, I prepared the cream cheese frosting so it was ready when the delicious-smelling rolls were finished; I frosted the rolls quickly after pulling them out of the oven and before they were devoured.

They were a hit and even though there were quite a few steps, it was worth it and each step was actually really simple. The cinnamon rolls could have been sweet enough to serve as our dessert but also provided the perfect complement to our savory casseroles for brunch.

Since the left-over cinnamon rolls doubled as our dessert earlier this evening and are sure to show up again on our Christmas plates, I'm sending them to JZ of JZ's Tasty Treats, host of Santa's Challenge.

We loved spending our Christmas Eve morning together and this brunch menu was just the icing on the cake!

Merry Christmas to my dear family!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Tea Time!

I'm not a tea-drinker... I'm just not. As many times as I've tried, thinking it'd be healthier to replace at least one of my cups of coffee with tea, I just can't do it. That is... unless this tea happens to be the tea they serve at the Mayflower, here in Washington, DC. It turns out I'm a bit of a tea snob, I suppose!

Sadly, some fluke bad weather kept my mom in Atlanta earlier this year when my dear friends threw me a bridal shower at the Mayflower but thanks to a set of crazy circumstances (thanks, Allison!), this afternoon, I was able to treat my mom to that delicious high-tea that she had missed!

We had such a great girls' afternoon out down in the city - the Mayflower is absolutely gorgeous and even prettier all decked out for Christmas. We both thoroughly enjoyed our Royal Tea - starting with glasses of Mumm champagne, and then we both chose to have Wild Blackberries Tea along with our assortment of sweet and savory tea sandwiches.
It was a really special and memorable start to our family Christmas celebration. I'm so excited to have my parents here until Christmas Eve and then to continue the festivities with my nephew and niece up in Maryland!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Always More Room

JUST in case you possibly need one more thing to serve and/or eat these holidays, I would highly recommend my favorite's (go figure) Sour Cream Coffee Cake.

Please don't go running in the other direction if you don't like coffee or don't want to bake something with coffee in it - even if you do fall into one of those categories, this recipe's still for you. AND while we're at it, I found out that the name coffee cake can refer to either a sponge cake made with coffee or a cake served with coffee or dessert, not necessarily containing coffee. This one definitely falls into the latter definition - though I wouldn't wait to eat it just with coffee or as dessert.

So no matter why you'll make this, just do it - it's been a perfect breakfast to have around this Christmas week; and while we do still have a few slices left-over waiting in the fridge, I can guarantee they won't last long.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Coming Clean

I'll cut to the chase - for all the times I've boasted about loving my Deacs, it's high time to admit that while my devotion hasn't waivered, I just may not be the #1 fan 100% of the time that I portend to be.

Now don't get me wrong, this sudden announcement isn't a result of finding out that I really like Duke or something absolutely ludricrous like that... it's just that both of my teams, Wake and Navy, are coming to DC, basically knocking on my back door, to play in the inaugural EagleBank Bowl (lame, I know), and who isn't going?! Me.

Perhaps this is just the wake-up call that I needed to get my life in order and get a handle on everything I need, or is it want... to get done - because honestly, usually a game like this would make it high on the priority list.

Luckily, I know a few folks who are attending the game and am assured that our Deacs are in good hands.

Oh? And that "lame, I know" comment up there?? I might just take that back after reading that this bowl is "Dedicated to our Nation's Most Dedicated" and also that the "focus of this historic event is to honor the sacrifices made by all those who serve our country." Not so bad after all.


Friday, December 19, 2008

A Merry Christmas... at home

*Yes, Christmas is somewhat on the brain these days... visit again in January if you're not "into" it.

Despite the fact that the status of my Christmas card list really hasn't changed since Thanksgiving, I've been having a blast this Christmas... baking, decorating, buying and wrapping presents to put underneath our tree... THIS is Christmas to me. I think I'm starting to like this not-traveling thing!

A couple of my newest ventures have included pulling out some of the beautiful things I'd been given in years past that I can finally use... not the least of which are these gorgeous "frosted fruit" napkin rings and monogrammed napkins. My only regret *sorry, Mom! is that I only have 4 of these napkin rings so for our family Christmas Eve brunch, I'll use some silver napkin rings instead.

As you may have noticed, I'm not very good about experimenting with all-new recipes - I usually get my ideas either from a home-made cookbook of a family friend's favorites or my mom. So when I was trying to think of some fruit-filled sweets for our brunch, I branched out, recalling a quick recipe for Raspberry Crumbles from The Pampered Chef, of all places. Chris being a bigger fan of apricot (and also, since I already had the preserves in the fridge), I adapted the delicious recipe that I remember these being into Apricot Crumble Bars - and you'll see, I added a special twist into the fruit filling.
Apricot Crumble Bars
makes approx 32 bars

3/4 c butter, softened
1 c firmly packed brown sugar
1 1/2 c flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp salt
1 1/2 c oats, uncooked (quick-cooking or old-fashioned)
12 oz. apricot preserves
1 1/2 TBSP orange liqueur

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Beat butter at medium speed until creamy; gradually add sugar, beating well. Combine flour and next 3 ingredients; add to butter mixture, beating well. Press half of crumb mixture into a greased 13x9 pan.

Mix apricot preserves with orange liquor and spread preserve mixture over the crumb crust. Sprinkle remaining half of crumb mixture over preserves. Bake for 20 minutes.

*And still to go... a last cookie or two and other preparations for houseguests... chocolate-covered pretzels, Susan's chili, and a delicious sour cream coffee cake!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Nanino? Nanaimo?

What's in a name anyway!?!

I asked myself that same question as I hunted down this recipe, a true family favorite... (read: even though my mom usually made well over 15 varieties of cookies and 6-7 desserts each year, my brother and I still favored these bars over all the others). In the end, I was so thankful that my mom had the recipe she's always made because not only are there many many versions out there, there are even two spellings of this delicious treat! My head was spinning by the end of what I thought would be an innocuous little search.

I did, however, come across some fun anecdotes about the actual name of these bars - if you're short on time, the punchline is that no one has conclusively determined when or why these were dubbed Nanino/Nanaimo Squares... but I found the iterations that folks have gone through to not make a decision the most interesting.

It seems most likely that this recipe dates back to the 1950s and has been called all sorts of names throughout the years - my favorites being Miracle Bars and Georgia Street Slices.

Nanino Squares

First layer
1/2 c butter
1/4 c sugar
1 oz. unsweetened chocolate
1 tsp vanilla
1 egg, beaten
2 c graham cracker crumbs
1/2 c chopped nuts
1 c flaked coconut

Combine butter, sugar, chocolate, and vanilla in double boiler. Cook over boiling water until well blended. Add beaten egg and cook 5 minutes. Add crumbs, nuts, and coconut. Press with hand into buttered 8x8 inch pan. Chill at least 25 minutes.

Second layer
1/2 c butter, softened
2 TBSP instant vanilla pudding mix powder
3 TBSP milk
2 c powdered sugar

Cream butter until fluffy. Beat in pudding mix and milk. Add powdered sugar gradually and beat until smooth. Spread over first layer. Chill 15 minutes.

Third layer
4 oz. semi-sweet chocolate
2 TBSP butter

Melt over low heat. Spread over second layer. Chill for about 15 minutes and then score the top layer. Cut into squares and keep in refrigerator until ready to serve.

*Can be made ahead of time and frozen!

And of course it wouldn't be another Christmas without Susan of Food Blogga's Eat Christmas Cookies event. So I'm adding these Nanino... er, Nanaimo Squares to her Christmas cookie platter!

So while it may be too late to make many of them this year, bookmark and check out the round-up for ideas for next year!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Christmas Gifts

The human body sure does react in strange ways to emotional upheavals. In the past week, I may have been more productive and managed more goings-ons all at once than ever before.

We've been 'impromptu" hosting my parents and family so we could all be together to celebrate my Granny's life (and Chris will be one of the many to vouch for me and say I do NOT do well hosting/entertaining without advance notice); we purchased, put up and decorated our first tree together; we finished (full disclosure - I do still need to get a wreath-hanger) decorating our house; I've wrapped almost all our presents and am ready to take them to the Post Office; and I added to our Christmas cookie platter! *I'm sure you noticed there was no mention of Christmas cards - don't ask Regardless, it's safe to say this kind of activity has never happened before in the life of this girl.

So without much ado, and since I'll own up to being just a little excited about having a house to decorate for Christmas - with our very own real tree - I just had to share some pictures of our house, all lit up and ready to go for family and friends this Christmas. Having my house feeling warm and welcoming for this beautiful season just might top finding a recipe that you have all the ingredients for, and I'll go there... even better than seeing your favorite grocery item on sale AND having a coupon for it. And these are things that I don't take lightly.

I haven't forgotten my promise to share what little sweet treats I'll be serving up this Christmas (and hope you'll share your Christmas cookie favorites with me, too!), here are some to whet your appetite.

  • I returned to a favorite and started with Chocolate Mint Dessert Brownies

  • Second to the plate was a family favorite, Brandy Walnut Balls

makes approx 3 dozen

1/2 c butter
1/2 c sifted confectioners sugar
1/8 tsp salt
1 TBSP Brandy
1/2 tsp vanilla
1 c flour
1/2 c finely chopped walnuts

Cream together butter, sugar and salt, until fluffy. Stir in Brandy and vanilla. Stir in flour and nuts, mixing well. Shape into 3/4 in (or smaller) balls and place on ungreased cookie sheet. Bake in 325 degree oven for 20 minutes or until lightly browned. Roll in additional confectioners sugar.And having nothing to do with cookies or Christmas, except that these little guys are both amazing gifts... I had to share two recent baby pictures.

One of my adorable little cupcake of a niece... (with her Nana, my mom)And a huge CONGRATULATIONS to one of my best friends and her husband, Lindsay and Ron, on the birth of their son, Elijah Michael!

Thursday, December 11, 2008


So it's been a while since I'd heard this disheartening news about one of our old stand-bys, tilapia, and since that day, I have made every effort to prepare still-healthy meals with less tilapia, and more "other fish" - what better excuse or motivation for venturing out, right?

As part of the effort, salmon has found its way to our plates more than once, of course, with it's heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Admittedly, it's quite a bit more fishy tasting and less flexible with seasonings than good ole' tilapia but salmon is still one of my favorites.

But last night was the official foray into the world of flounder. While flounder is not nearly the omega-3 powerhouse that salmon is, it does still have healthy benefits. We particularly enjoyed the easy preparation that this recipe afforded - and even though we sat down to eat at a very late hour, it was much less because of any complexity of the recipe and moreso thanks to a small painting mishap in the master bathroom... but our meal of broiled flounder, brown rice with diced veggies, and a fresh green salad, did remind me exactly why I love cooking and the ease with which you can prepare healthy flavorful food right in your own kitchen.

Broiled Flounder with Breadcrumb Topping
adapted from Epicurious

1/4 c finely chopped onion
1/4 c chopped pepper
1 garlic clove, minced
2 tsp olive oil
2 TBSP fine dry breadcrumbs
2-3 flounder fillets
2 TBSP mayonnaise

In a heavy skillet cook onion, bell pepper, and garlic in oil over moderately low heat, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are softened and stir in bread crumbs and salt and pepper to taste.

Preheat broiler.

On a work surface arrange flounder skinned sides up and spread top with mayonnaise. Sprinkle flounder with bread crumb mixture and on oiled rack of a broiler pan broil about 6 inches from heat until cooked through, about 6 minutes.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

About Time!

Just in time, the Post has released their annual cookie guide!!

I've already got my eye on the Chocolate Ginger Biscotti (perhaps an addition to my Christmas Eve family brunch menu?) and the Iced Lemon Rings for a little tart-citrus addition to the cookie platter!

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Feels Like Home

With your eyes closed, listen to the song below (only eyes closed because the video that accompanies it is so awful"ly" early 90s).

When reflecting on the events of this weekend, this song just fit perfectly.

I am hopeful to steal some pictures *and update here I took on my mom's camera of our short trip up to Philly for another of our annual Army-Navy weekends as my parents, Chris and I had a grand time celebrating the 12th year (out of the last 13) that someone from the Wallace clan has attended "America's Game".

Sheer happiness at Jim's Steak's - our Friday night tradition.
I think other than watching Navy clobber Army for the past 6 years, the best part about the game is seeing my dad in his element, right 'at home', around all of the other veterans and patriotic attendees. When attending this game, you really can't help but have the feeling that all is right in the world and everyone supports the efforts of our valiant soldiers. *even I can be idealistic sometimes!

The real reason this song brought me to tears was because it was a timely if subtle reminder that our Granny went 'home' this weekend.

It seems the story has been told a million times and yet it is never easy. I just was not prepared; no matter how many times I saw her, hugged her, and told her I loved her, in my heart, after each time - I know I thought "please PLEASE don't go this time - I'm not ready to let go". I should have known after last week's visit - when it was her this time who wouldn't let go of us; she asked us to take her home, or at the least to "drop her off" on our way home - I only wish she'd known that I would have taken her in a heartbeat, if I could have stopped her suffering and been able to ensure she would have enjoyed her last few days, I would have. But it seems she knew and God provided us a few extra minutes with her as we explained over and over again that we couldn't take her this time but we'd be back next week. I have such vivid memories of walking away, looking back and waving, yelling "I love you, Granny" so she'd be sure to hear. I know, I do, that she knew and she heard me but you always want one more moment and of course that'd still never have been enough.

I am ever so thankful for the time I did have with her and the amazing memories I have; forgive me if I start to tell the stories that she did - that will be my way of making sure I never forget them. For a woman known the world-over as "Granny" - may she know that we will always love her.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Sitting Back

The last time I took a picture of food with a by-stander (other than my husband or forgiving friends) around, I got laughed at... and so misunderstood! As such, you get no pictures of our tasty eats from this past Thanksgiving spent with Chris' family down in Wilmington, NC.

The menu, however, I can describe in fond detail:

  • homemade cranberry sauce - tart and gingery!
  • pecan-cornbread stuffing - turns out I like all kinds of stuffing... delicious!
  • sweet potatoes - slightly sweet and caramelized
  • homemade gravy
  • perfectly mashed potatoes
  • green bean casserole - oldie but goodie
  • traditional turkey - if it ain't broke, don't fix it
Let it be known, however, that I had not one hand in the preparation of any of these dishes which took me way out of my comfort zone; usually when there's food being prepared, I'm in the middle of it. But this time, we were told our only job was to eat... so we did just that.

While we did thoroughly enjoy the complete relaxation that being with family afforded us, we also took advantage of being in cute Wilmington and the great weather on the water! One morning, Annabelle and I took a walk out along the Int
racoastal Waterway, just steps from the house and I stopped to admire the absolute peace and calm and breath-taking scenery.

On our way back home, I was trying to be artsy... and here's the outcome.

Friday night, we all headed to Airlie Gardens for the first night of their Christmas celebration, Enchanted Airlie. It was beautiful and a perfect start to the Christmas season. The most incredible part about the gardens is without a doubt the majestic Arlie Oak; my picture is laughable but this towering tree dates back to 1545 and is a truly a sight to behold.

The bottle trees were so festive - it's hard to tell exactly what's going on in this picture but one group of trees in the gardens was decorated with various colored lights gathered in all different glass bottles creating a really cool effect.

I could have spent hours looking at the model train "world" that they created; I particularly liked watching the miniature ski-lifts going up and down the mountain. *yes, it's the little things!

I will admit that I started to get used to merely being an assistant in the kitchen; guess it's good to have a little time off every so often.

Have no fear, though, I've already been baking away for Christmas and should have my submission for Susan's 2nd annual Eat Christmas Cookies ready shortly. I've also been spending a bit of time thinking of a memorable and delicious brunch menu for a festive Christmas Eve brunch that I'm hosting for my family - and I figure there's no better place than here to beg for suggestions!

The only thing left before Christmas really kicks into gear is Army-Navy... and not a moment too soon! We're off to Philly this weekend to hopefully see Navy continue its recent domination of the great rivalry.

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