Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Doing the Polka (Dot)

Over Christmas vacation, the daughter whipped up some crazy polka dot curtains for her apartment bedroom.  We found some great pink upholstery fabric on clearance at Hobby Lobby.  She needed heavy fabric to block out the streetlights at night.  They turned out lovely if a little eye-popping.

Passersby outside get to be wowed by the crazy stripes on the wrong side of the fabric!

Not to be outdone, I made some polka dot curtains for our downstairs bathroom. I'm embarrassed to admit that the old curtains were just that -- old!  They came with the house, and we have lived here seventeen years.  (Hangs head in shame.)  I kept them because I liked the light, white eyelet and the scalloped hem.  They went well with our cutwork shower curtains.  Lately, though, I've noticed that the curtains had become shabby without the chic.  Ok, they were kind of falling apart.

Really hard to see the faint dots, isn't it?
Being too lazy to shop around, I wandered through the local Jo-Ann Fabric debating the merits of eyelet (limited choices, high prices), decorator fabrics (too busy/heavy), and calico (just didn't like 'em).  I finally stumbled on a faint yellow polka dot in the nursery fabrics.  As I said, I was too lazy to go to another store, so even though I didn't love the fabric, I figured, what the heck.

While the finished curtains don't have the charm of the original eyelet, now that they are finished, I do like them.  They are simple and they marry the white walls and woodwork with the yellow tile.
The old and the new.  Not a huge difference, but at least the new ones aren't falling apart.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Versatile Blogger Award

How exciting!  I have been recognized as a Versatile Blogger. "Versatile" is such a kind way to describe my rather unfocused, here-there-and-everywhere blog.  Thank you so much to Becca at CoffeeBreakCorner for giving me this fun award.  CoffeeBreakCorner is a wonderfully versatile blog, with studio tours, DIYs, and other fun posts.

I will be passing this award on to fifteen creative, inspiring bloggers. But first, here are the rules for the award:
1. Thank the person that nominated you, and give a shout out to them on your blog with a link to theirs. 
2. Share 7 random facts about yourself. 
3. Send the blog award to 15 other bloggers whose blogs you love and appreciate, and let them know they won the award.
So now for some random facts about me:

1.  I was born in Germany.
2.  Cheeseburgers and macaroni and cheese are two of my favorite foods.
3.  I have an older brother.
4.  My first dog was a black cocker spaniel (Pepper) with an un-bobbed, long shaggy tail.
5.  I think I must have Gypsy blood because I am always itching to move, even though I haven't for a long time.
6.  Two of my favorite kid books were Double Trouble for Rupert and Triple Trouble for Rupert by Ethelyn Parkinson.
7.  I don't worry too much about things I can't control.

And now -- drumroll -- here are the fifteen bloggers I am awarding the coveted Versatile Blogger Award.  These blogs are all worth a look!

In alphabetical order of blog title:
Pinned Image
Greenie Marie at Greenie Marie
Charlie Louie at Hotly Spiced
Pamela at Mercantile Muse
Cat at Miss Marple Makes
Michelle at Viva Revival
Sedruola at Yarn Obsession

Thanks again to Becca at CoffeeBreakCorner!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Soft Chocolate Chip Cookie Joy

Did you know that the chocolate chip cookie is the official cookie of Massachusetts?  Here in Illinois, we have an official snack food – popcorn – but no state cookie.  And while I do love popcorn, there’s something about a warm chocolate chip cookie with a glass of milk.

Of course, the reason Massachusetts is particularly fond of the cookie is because it was reputedly invented there.  According to Wikipedia, chocolate chip cookies were developed by Ruth Graves Wakefield in 1930.  According to the story, Mrs. Wakefield was making chocolate cookies at her Whitman, Massachusetts inn, the Toll House Inn. When she ran low on baker’s chocolate, she substituted broken bits of semi-sweet chocolate, hoping they would melt and mix into the batter.  I kind of wonder about this; if she really wanted them to melt, wouldn’t she have melted them in a small pot first?  Whatever the truth of the story, a recipe for “Toll House Chocolate Crunch Cookies” appeared in her 1936 cookbook, Toll House Tried and True Recipes.  Mrs. Wakefield then sold the recipe to NestlĂ©, supposedly in exchange for a lifetime supply of chocolate chips. 

For the last several years, I have forsaken the original toll house recipe and made my cookies using Martha Stewart’s “Soft and Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies” recipe which you can find on her website.  I follow her recipe pretty exactly except I used salted butter and reduce the additional salt by half.  I sometimes throw in some chopped nuts, too, but this batch is heading down to the son at school, and he likes his cookies nut-free.  These cookies really are soft, not crispy like many toll house ones.  The trick is to use a generous scoop and slightly undercook.
What’s your favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Hip to Be Square

Here's what I'm working on today: an eight-inch knitted square.  I'm joining my blogging friend Laurie from Kitty's fiber journey in making squares for the KasCare Foundation's Knit a Square program.  I'm starting with a plain garter stitch square.  Maybe I'll get more creative as I go.  The squares are turned into blankets for children in Africa who have been orphaned by AIDS.  You can read more about it on Laurie's blog or the KasCare Foundation website.

Monday, January 23, 2012

How Time Flies!

Today is my wedding anniversary.  January 23, the dead of winter.  "Ah, destination wedding," you may be thinking.  No, no.  No one had destination weddings in those days.  I know, not everyone would consider a January wedding in Chicago of all places.  I had been living in North Carolina for a year and a half, teaching freshman English at NC State. The future husband and I had some big long-distance charges in those days.  Then in October, we met in Boston for Columbus Day weekend.  We decided to get married after my semester ended.  So between late October and the wedding, I resigned from my job, the future husband bought a condo, I packed up my stuff and had it moved to Chicago, and that was that.

over the threshold
The day of our wedding was bitter cold with a dusting of snow on the ground.  We all wore heavy coats and gloves to the wedding.  The wedding was in Bond Chapel, a wonderful small Gothic chapel on the University of Chicago campus.  We had only nine guests, including the best man and matron of honor.  I wore purple.  It was a high-necked, long-sleeved, fitted wool dress (hey, it was January) that I can't even imagine being able to fit into again.  We held our "reception" in our new condo with homemade food, a sweet little cake, and lots of champagne.  It was fun, low-key, and just right.

Yesterday we decided to revisit the old neighborhood.  We went by Bond Chapel.  An Eastern Orthodox service was just ending.  We waited until we saw some people leave, then we sneaked in for a peek.  Whoops, they were having a fellowship lunch in the foyer.  It was a little awkward, but we slipped past the people with their paper plates of food to see the nave and the stained glass windows.  It looked exactly the same.

Bond Chapel

We went past our first home, the condo across from a park.  The park was filled with children sledding down a little hill. There seemed to be more children than when we lived there.  The Lutheran School of Theology two doors down had expanded its parking lot and blocked access to the alley, but otherwise, everything looked almost exactly the same.

third floor walk-up and a stained glass pizza
We also went to lunch at our favorite pizza place, Medici on 57th.  I snapped a phone picture of my husband with a bit of wall and booth background and sent it to our daughter.  "Guess where we are?"  She texted back, "Without me?" Yep.  Just the two of us, back in the neighborhood where our married life began on another cold January day in Chicago, twenty-four years ago.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Easy Fifties Chicken

I am trying to stick to my resolution to eat healthier.  (Pay no attention to that cheeseburger behind the curtain!)  So last night after a busy, snowy day, I fell back on this easy chicken recipe I use on those evenings when I want a healthy entree that doesn't require a lot of hand-holding.  It's quick to whip up, then you just stick it in the oven, put some brown rice on to steam, and come back in about half an hour or so to a tasty dinner.

When you mix it up, it may seem like a lot of extra sauce but, if served over rice, the sauce is absorbed by the rice and helps add flavor.

Fifties Chicken

Adapted from Eater’s Choice: Low Fat Cookbook by Dr. Ron Goor and Nancy Goor

¼ cup unbleached white flour
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
½ cup chopped onion
½ cup chopped green pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil
¾ cup orange-pineapple juice
1-2 large cloves garlic, crushed, or 3-4 small cloves, whole
2-3 shakes of Tabasco sauce
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Saute onion and green pepper in olive oil medium saucepan until tender.  Mix in orange-pineapple juice, garlic, Tabasco sauce, mustard, and soy sauce.  Heat over medium heat while flouring chicken.

Lightly flour chicken, covering both sides.  Place chicken in a single layer in a shallow baking dish.  Cover with sauce.

Bake chicken for 30-45 minutes or until cooked through.  Serve over brown rice.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

My Visit to Downton Abbey

I love costume dramas and I love Masterpiece on PBS, so it's no surprise that I also love Downton Abbey, currently showing on Sunday nights.  What was a surprise was my first glimpse of the exterior of Downton Abbey during season one.

"That looks like Highclere," I said.  There was some general murmuring from the husband, sort of a "yes, dear, whatever you say" kind of thing.  But, sure enough, the series is partially filmed on the grounds of Highclere Castle outside London.

Here we are in 2007 walking toward the house.  We don't look much like the Crawleys/Granthams of Downton Abbey, do we?  Sorry about the quality of this photo.  It was taken with an early, not-very-good digital camera.  Can't find the original file either, so this is a scan of a bad print!

Highclere Castle was our first stop on a trip to England in 2007.  We were in our rental car on our way to Stonehenge when we stumbled upon a sign pointing us to Highclere.  We had never heard of it, but we had no timetable, so why not?  We didn't go in, but we wandered the grounds before continuing on our way.

Sheep on the grounds of the Highclere estate.
It was a lovely first stop on a wonderful journey that took us as far north as Inverness, Scotland.  Seeing Highclere Castle masquerading as Downton Abbey on Sunday nights brings back the memory of that trip.  I understand a third season is in the works.  I'll be watching!

Linking today to Mercantile Muse.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Cake of the Gods

On a down day, there's nothing like playing some loud music and doing some cooking.  Yesterday, to take my mind off things, I cranked up Cary Ann Hearst on the iPod and made this rich and scrumptious almond-saffron cake.  Eating a slice warm from the oven doesn't hurt either!

Can you see the bits of saffron?

the tastes that make it special

I clipped the recipe from the now-defunct Cottage Living magazine years ago, but you can find it on where it was posted by its creator, Kim Sunee.  My daughter and I love this cake so much, we say it is what the gods would eat if they got hungry.  We are absolutely crazy for it but, strangely, my husband and son don't much care for it.  Maybe it's a girl thing.  Saffron, orange zest, almond, butter and sour cream.  I say, what's not to like?  The recipe suggests dusting with powdered sugar or even topping with an orange juice glaze.  I prefer it in its unadorned, straight-from-the-oven state.

batter before and after adding saffron-zest-milk mixture
the luscious, golden finished product

Monday, January 16, 2012

Precious, Fragile, Fleeting

On Sunday, both children headed back downstate to their college town after a month-long winter break.  This morning, no one stumbled out of bed at nine or ten o’clock, no asked what was for breakfast in a hopeful tone.  The driveway is free of extra cars; the house is quiet.  The house is quiet.

While there is a certain peace in getting back into a routine of two old fogies and one young dog, the house seems a little empty today.  I miss the sounds of clomping feet, the offers of help folding laundry, even the video games and the all-too-frequent question, “What can I eat?”  Still, I know that I’ll see those faces again.  Faces that I know as well as my own.

Our neighbors around the corner don’t have that luxury.  Their twenty-three-year-old son died at home Sunday morning after a three-year battle with leukemia.  I know they would give anything to hear his shoes on the stairs or see his smile or hear his laugh just once more.  My heart breaks for them even as I am so grateful to have my own children healthy and safe.

Hold all dear ones close.  Life is so precious, so fragile, so swift.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Pork Marsala

I didn't marry my husband for his cooking skills.  We met when we were both teaching freshman English -- him as an instructor, me as a graduate assistant.  For our first date, he invited me to his apartment for leftover walnut cheddar loaf he had prepared for a department potluck the night before.  I had been at the potluck, too, so I also had the loaf on day one.  It wasn't all that great the first time, so you can imagine that reheated it was no treat.  Who invites a girl over for a first date of mediocre leftovers?  I married him anyway, go figure.

Still, there are a few dishes he really can cook.  This pork marsala is his specialty.  He doesn't cook very often, but when I have boneless pork chops, I sometimes press him into service.  I make the dish, too, but I prefer it when he cooks it.  (Who doesn't need a break sometimes?)  He calls it scallopini, but the meat is not really cut into scallops, we cut it into strips.  Whatever you call it, it's really good.

There was no written recipe for this dish, but last night, we measured as we went.  You can alter the seasonings to suit your own taste.  My husband has even been known to add Mrs. Dash to the flour.  The main thing is to use sweet marsala.  We used dry marsala once and weren't happy with the resulting flavor.

Pork Marsala

4 boneless butterfly pork chops
1 egg
1/2 cup milk
1 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
8 tablespoons butter
1 cup sweet marsala wine

Preheat oven to 200 degrees F. 

Trim fat from pork chops.  Slice chops into 1/2-inch slices. 

Mix salt, pepper, and garlic powder into flour in a medium bowl.  Beat egg and milk together in a small bowl.  Lightly batter the meat by dipping meat into egg mixture, then into flour. 

Melt 3 tablespoons butter in a large, non-stick skillet.  Fry the pork slices in batches until golden and cooked through, adding more butter as needed.  Keep cooked pieces warm in oven until all meat is cooked.

Return all meat to skillet.  Add 1/2 cup wine.  Gently toss the pork slices to coat.  Allow wine to cook down; add remaining wine and allow to cook down again until the sauce is thick.  Serve immediately.

Note: Adjust the seasonings to taste.  You can also add onion powder if desired.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Finally, Winter

Winter finally came to my corner of the Midwest yesterday.  Today, as Dean Martin sang, it's a marshmallow world.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Chicken in Every Pot (Pie)

So I guess Herbert Hoover never really promised a chicken in every pot; at least that's what the Herbert Hoover Library says, but wherever the phrase originated, it hits home with me.  We have had an unusually warm winter so far in northern Illinois -- temperatures in the high 40s and even low 50s.  What?  In January?  Our snow-thrower has been gathering dust in the garage.  Last night, however, was predicted to be the beginning of a real Midwestern winter.  We expected to wake up to at least a couple of inches of snow.  Well, still no snow, but I used that weather forecast as an excuse to warm up and fatten up last night with chicken pot pie.

I make my pot pie using an Ina Garten recipe as the starting point.  But where she adds pearl onions, I add potatoes.  I also add thyme and use less salt and butter.  If you'd like her original recipe, you can find it at the Food Network site.

The filling is ready!
This pot pie is the real-deal comfort food -- warm, creamy, rich, and tasty.  Be warned, though, it is not for a quick dinner.  I started a little late last night (maybe 5:30), and we didn't eat until around 8:30.  I also missed half of the Chicago Bulls game because I was in the kitchen.  Even so, it is always worth the trouble for this delectable pot pie.

Chicken Pot Pie
Adapted from Ina Garten, 2005

4 chicken breasts, boneless, skinless
olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
5 cups chicken broth
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 cup butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 cup diced onion (about 1 onion)
3/4 cup flour
1/4 cup heavy cream
2 cups diced carrots
2 cups diced potatoes
1 1/2 cups frozen peas

For the pastry:
3 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup vegetable shortening
1/2 cup cold butter, diced
1/2 to 2/3 cup ice water
1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon water, for egg wash

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Place the chicken breasts on a baking sheet and rub with olive oil.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.  Roast for 35-40 minutes, or until cooked through.  Set aside until cool enough to handle, then dice into bite-sized pieces.

Put carrots and potatoes in a medium saucepan, cover with water, and simmer for 15-20 minutes, until partially cooked.

Make the pastry.  Sift together the flour, salt, and baking powder.   Add shortening and butter and mix with your fingers until each piece is coated with flour and the pieces of fat are no larger than peas.  Add the ice water one tablespoon at a time, adding only enough to make the dough hold together.  Place dough on lightly floured board and knead a few times into a ball.  Wrap dough in plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator for about 30 minutes.

In a small saucepan, heat the chicken stock with the thyme.  In a large pot, melt the butter and 1 tablespoon olive oil.  Saute onions over medium heat until soft, about 5 minutes.  Add the flour and cook for 1-2 minutes, stirring constantly.  (This will be very thick.)  Add the hot chicken stock to the flour mixtures and whisk until all the flour is incorporated.  Simmer over low-medium heat, stirring, until the mixture is very thick (about the consistency of potato soup).  (If your sauce is not thickening sufficiently, you can whisk in a tablespoon or so of Wondra flour.  Be sure to use Wondra to avoid clumping.)  Add freshly ground pepper to taste and the heavy cream.  Stir well.  Add chicken, carrots, potatoes, and peas.  Heat over very low heat while you roll out the pastry.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

Roll out dough into a rectangle to fit over a 9x13 pan.  Spray pan lightly with vegetable spray (like Pam). 

Spoon filling into pan and place dough on top.  Fold under the edges of the dough for a slightly crimped edge, or press down to allow it to hang over the sides.  Brush dough with egg wash.  Cut three slits in the crust.

Place pan on baking sheet and bake for about 1 hour, or until the top is golden brown and the filling is bubbling hot.  Allow to stand 5-10 minutes before serving.

If you let it set a while before serving, it is less runny.  I can never wait!
Printable recipe

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Food Ornaments

Collections.  What makes a collection?  Lately I’ve noticed on Etsy a number of listings that promise the buyer an “instant collection.”  If it’s instant, is it still a real collection?  Alison from The Polohouse recently got me thinking about the things people collect.  I believe a real collection is one that is amassed over time, preferably with a lot of searching and poking around in all kinds of places.  

We seem to collect a lot of things at our house – books, flow blue china, Fiestaware, nutcrackers, dust, dog hair.  (Whoops!  Getting into undesirable collections!)   My favorite collection, though, is one we began around twenty years ago and continue to expand year after year – blown glass food ornaments.  

one of the originals
It started at an Elder-Beerman department store in Toledo, Ohio.  We had only been married a year or so and were visiting my in-laws.  We stopped in at the local mall and saw the most unusual Christmas ornaments in the shapes of carrots, bell peppers, and onions.  I’d never seen anything like them.  I loved them at first sight, but, as I said, we hadn’t been married too long, so we were on a tight budget.  We left without the ornaments.  I must have rhapsodized about them quite a bit back at my in-laws, however, because after we were back home in Illinois, we received a package from my mother-in-law full of the ornaments.  A collection was born.  

There were many years when we couldn’t find any food ornaments, especially since we kept it strictly to vegetables and fruit for a long time.  Then one day I saw a hamburger.  I had to have it.  I absolutely love a good hamburger, so the ornament was calling my name.  That hamburger opened the floodgates.  It led to another hamburger, a slice of pizza, ice cream, a cupcake, a doughnut, a hot dog, and a fortune cookie.  

hamburger #2: you can also see the first hamburger in the lower right corner

For a long time, the food ornaments went on the regular Christmas tree, but eventually we had enough to decorate a skinny, 6-foot, artificial tree that we put in our dining room.  Many of our ornaments are Old World brand, but we have also gotten ornaments at Sur la Table, outlet kitchen stores, Farm N Fleet, you name it.  If it is blown glass, food, and it looks good, we’ll buy it.  We even have a few that don’t look that good, like an enormous, sickly yellowish green thing that is either a large lemon or a gigantic lime.  Either way, it’s ugly.  Still, I do draw the line sometimes.  In November, I saw a peanut butter and jelly sandwich by Old World.  Great idea, but not much in the looks department.  It looked like a big white square with a little oozing color along the sides.  Nah.

Still, we are always on the lookout.  Our most recent ornament is a gift from our daughter this Christmas, a walnut.  There’s always something new to be found!