Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Spring has Sprung

Spring hasn't really sprung here in northern Illinois, but this crocus opened up today and brought me the first sign of what's to come.  This little sweetie is an escapee that came up in the grass outside the garden.  I'm so glad it did.  It's just what I need to fortify myself for the rain or snow that's predicted for this afternoon.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Earth-Friendly Cleaning

I recently won a giveaway from Melinda at Inspiration Earth.  She runs Backyard Dreams, an Etsy shop that focuses on green and organic products.  Melinda made up a batch of her fabulous lemongrass cleaner and sent it to me.  It smells so good!  And look at the beautiful bottle!  I am enchanted with the gorgeous cobalt blue.  I tried the cleaner on some glass jars and bathroom mirrors.  It worked beautifully.

Melinda also sent me some of her organic lip balm.  I got the fresh lemon.  She also sells peppermint, spearmint, orange and grapefruit.  It's great stuff, too, creamy and smooth.

Check out her shop and also her blog.  She writes fun, thoughtful posts, including a recent one that showed her basement -- the cleanest, most organized basement I've ever seen.  Thanks, Melinda, for the cleaner and lip balm and, especially, for your example of living the green life.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

My Indulgent Weekend

This weekend was one of indulgences.  Not spa treatments or physical pampering; that’s not my kind of indulgence.  Rather, this weekend I decided to treat myself to some things that I have wanted for a long time but put off for one reason or another.  

On Saturday, we headed into the suburbs to pick up some tile for a bathroom repair.  It turned out that I had been misinformed and the tile was NOT in stock at that store after all and, in fact, isn’t even manufactured anymore.  That was not a good start to the weekend of indulgences, but after that everything went smoothly.

We headed back west toward home and stopped in at Ikea.  If you’ve ever been to Ikea, you know that you rarely get in and out quickly, so by the time we left, I was ravenous for lunch.  Where to go?  We decided to try somewhere new.  I had always wanted to try Joe’s Crab Shack, but we just never had.  Oh. My. God.  A bucket of snow crab legs and melted butter.  Can I get any closer to paradise? 

This photo is from the Joe's Crab Shack web page.  I was too eager to dig in to think of taking a picture of my meal.  My bucket of crab legs was not as photogenic as this, but it was awfully tasty.

After the feast we stopped at The Container Store to look for spice jars.  None of the spice jars suited, but I found some fabulous metal scoops.  I’ve wanted substantial metal scoops for a while.  All in anticipation of getting a new set of wide-mouth canisters.  I love these scoops.

So now I had the scoops.  But I still had the same French canning jar canisters that I’ve always had.  Jars which are too narrow for scoops.  These are the only canisters I had ever owned.  For quite some time, though, I’d been coveting straight-sided, lidded glass jars from Crate and Barrel, but always worried about their lack of a rubber seal.  I finally decided, what the heck, I want those jars!  So today, I went and got them.  I’m so happy with them.  Easy to pour into, easy to scoop out of.  Love them!

Old canisters                                                                                        New canisters

The final indulgence was the delivery of a shiny new compost pail from Gardener’s Supply.  We have composted for most of the seventeen years we have lived in this house.  We collected our scraps and peels in old coffee cans.  They worked; they were free; they were green.  They were ugly.   Coffee cans filled with orange peels, coffee grounds, and worse (sometimes much worse) were the first thing we would see when we came from the garage onto our little enclosed back porch.  Yuck.  I know the new pail is not really the environmentally friendly way to go, but it makes me happy to see my charming little pail.  The secure lid will also help keep out the fruit flies as the weather gets warmer.  A winner.

All in all, with my new pail, new canisters, new scoops, and the memory of succulent crab legs, I’m feeling like life around here is pretty luxurious all of a sudden.  As Mae West once said, “I generally avoid temptation unless I can’t resist it.”  This was my weekend for giving into temptation.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Final Snow?

We woke up to a winter wonderland this morning.  There hasn't been much snow this winter, but this one is a beauty.

Poppy Seed Pound Cake

Poppies.  Poppy flowers are so beautiful, so fragile looking with their papery petals.  Yet they are also a little intimidating with their hairy stems and spiky leaves.  Perhaps that's why poppies have so much symbolism attached to them -- remembrance, sleep, and death.

For many of us, our first memory of poppies may be from The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy, Toto, and the Lion fall asleep in a magical poppy field.  In Greek and Roman mythology, poppies were used as offerings to the dead and possibly as symbols of resurrection.  Poppies are sometimes carved on tombstones for the same reasons.

illustration by W. W. Denslow from The Wizard of Oz and poppies on a tombstone in Illinois

Luckily, this lovely cake will not put you to sleep (or worse).  I believe the recipe came from The Nashville Tennessean newspaper years ago.  I seem to remember that it was supposed to be Emmy Lou Harris' recipe.  I have changed it only slightly from the original version.

Lemon Poppy Seed Pound Cake

2 cups sugar
1 cup margarine, softened (can use butter)
3 cups flour (can replace 1/2 cup with whole wheat flour)
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup poppy seeds
1 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1 teaspoon lemon juice
½ teaspoon vanilla

Heat oven to 325 degrees F.  Grease and flour a 10” tube pan.  (Do not use vegetable spray; I tried this and the cake stuck.) 

Cream margarine (or butter) and sugar together.  Sift together dry ingredients.  Add dry ingredients and all remaining ingredients to creamed mixture.  Beat on low speed until moistened.  Beat on medium speed for 2-3 minutes or until mixture lightens and is relatively smooth (there will still be bits of margarine/butter).

Pour in tube pan and bake 45-50 minutes, until golden on top.  Cool in pan 10 minutes.  If desired, top with glaze.  (I always omit the glaze.)

1 cup confectioner’s sugar
2-3 tablespoons lemon juice

Did you know that there are more than 120 species of poppies and that culinary poppy seeds come from the opium poppy?  Poppy seeds contain both morphine and codeine.  (Hmmm, can this be why I love poppy seed cakes and muffins so much?)  I have read that anywhere from two to four poppy seed bagels are enough to cause a positive drug test.  So you might not want to eat this scrumptious poppy-filled cake if you are subject to a drug test within seventy-two hours. Fair warning.

Printable recipe

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Caramelized Pork Salad

Neither a borrower nor a lender be,
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulleth edge of husbandry.
       -- Shakespeare, Hamlet (1.3.75-77)
Shakespeare might not condone borrowing, but I borrowed this recipe from Charlie Louie at Hotly Spiced, and I am very glad I did.  Although "borrowed" might be the wrong word because I plan to keep this recipe and make it again.

Hotly Spiced is a fun blog filled with gorgeous food photos and recipes punctuated by often hilarious stories.  If you check it out, you'll no doubt be hooked.  Thanks, Charlie, for the recipe!  You can find it on Hotly Spiced.

This is a very flavorful dish with ingredients that are maybe not as familiar to American palates, like anise and fish sauce.  Combine these with soy sauce, lime juice, ginger, and mint, and you have a complex flavor that is unique and special.  I tried to follow the recipe as closely as I could, but did have to substitute dried for fresh basil and coriander in the salad, and I used 1/4 teaspoon cayenne powder in place of chopped chilies.  This is because my grocery was out of all three of these and I didn't want to search all over town.  I also used anise seeds rather than ground anise because I had them on hand.  Even with my substitutions, it still turned out fabulous.  Really fabulous.  Thanks, again, Hotly Spiced, for a fantastic new recipe!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Knit a Square Update

About a month ago, I wrote about the KasCare Foundation's Knit a Square Challenge that I am participating in along with Laurie from Kitty's Fiber Journey.  My output has not been phenomenal, but here is what I have knitted so far. Eight squares.

Every time I sit down to knit, within minutes Alfie wants to play.  It's tough to be productive with sad dog eyes staring me down.  You're just going to have to take my word that these squares are not as mis-sized as they appear in the photo.  Are they all perfect eight-inch squares?  Well, no.  But they are closer than they look here.

The KasCare Foundation's Knit a Square Challenge is designed to provide blankets for African AIDS orphans. According to the KasCare web site, there are an estimated 14.8 million orphans in sub-Saharan Africa.  Their 2012 challenge is called the Knit-a-squillion challenge.  Their goal is to  send 1.2 million squares to South Africa by July 10, 2012.  The squares will be sewn into blankets once they are in South Africa.

from the KasCare Foundation Facebook page

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

A Little Taste of Sunshine

My husband returned yesterday from a week-long trip to Florida's east coast.  He brought back my favorite taste of Florida, one which was so welcome this morning when we woke up to gray skies and light snow.  I'm talking about honeybells.  Florida honeybells are only available in January and early February, so he was lucky to find them. Honeybells are a variety of tangelo, a cross of tangerine and grapefruit.  They are the juiciest, most luscious citrus in the world.  Sunshine on a gloomy February day!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Last-Minute Home Alone Pasta

I've been on my own the last few days, and last night I had run out of leftovers, couldn't face a can of soup, let alone a trip to grocery store, and dinner was all up to me.  Here's my last-minute, what's-in-the-larder Home Alone Pasta.

Home Alone Pasta

1 3/4 cup dry rotini
2 tablespoons olive oil
2/3 cup halved grape tomatoes
1/4 cup sliced green olives
1/4 cup diced green bell pepper
1/8 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon dried basil
Fresh ground pepper to taste
1 - 1 1/2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tablespoons pasta water
1/4 - 1/2 cups shredded Parmesan cheese

Heat water for rotini.  While water is heating, chop tomatoes, olives and bell pepper. 

While rotini cooks, heat oil in medium, non-sitck skillet over medium heat.  Cook tomatoes, olives, bell pepper, and seasonings until soft, about 5 minutes. 

Add tomato paste and mix well. 

When pasta is done, before draining, scoop out 2 tablespoons of the water and add to tomato mixture.  Mix well. 

Drain pasta and top with tomato mixture and shredded cheese.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Love Is a Ripped Sweatshirt

You know the old expression, he'd give you the shirt off his back.  Sometimes just the pocket is enough.

Damaged in an act of chivalry
One cold morning back in December, the husband and I were walking Alfie on the bike path along the little river that runs through town.  We were about 15 minutes away from home when I got a sudden nosebleed.  Not a little dab-your-nose-and-it-stops nosebleed, but what I call "a gusher."  Luckily, I had some Kleenexes in my pocket, but they were quickly used up.  I wanted to avoid damage to my coat and leather gloves, so I tried holding a plastic bag to my nose, but that was really no help.  Things were getting messy when the husband unzipped his coat and, in a bold act of chivalry, ripped the kangaroo pocket off his sweatshirt.

2003 on the steps of Old Botany

It was an old sweatshirt, one he'd bought in 2003 at Iowa State.  We had taken a trip over to Ames to show the little kiddies where their parents had met.   In the fall of 1982, I was a graduate student and teaching assistant, and he was one of a large group of instructors hired that year on a yearly contract.  Our department had taken over the Old Botany building, which had been closed for several years, to house the offices of TAs and this sudden boom of instructors.  We met while searching for our offices a few days before the semester began.  So while the sweatshirt itself was not really valuable, it did have a certain sentimental value.

We don't make a big deal out of Valentine's Day, but this year the husband did have a package to open.

I hope everyone has a happy Valentine's Day!

Monday, February 13, 2012

Here a Scone, There a Scone

Our daughter was home for the weekend, so I decided to have a little fun with the menus and try some new things.  Friday evening, I tried a veggie-filled Spanish Tortilla, recipe courtesy of Sweet Fix.  It was really tasty -- eggs and Parmesan studded with spinach, leeks, and red bell peppers.  I'm sorry I didn't get a picture, but Maria at Sweet Fix has one on her blog, and hers turned out prettier than mine anyway!  (I had a little trouble flipping it over.)

Skinny Chocolate Chip Buttermilk Scone
The next morning, I made Skinny Chocolate Chip Buttermilk Scones.  I found that recipe on Frou Frou Britches.  I had made plain scones before, but never anything this jazzy.  Tanya at Frou Frou said they were fabulous, and she was right.  They were so good, even cold, that I began thinking about what else might taste good in a scone.

The answer came to me overnight -- bacon.  This morning, I prepared some savory bacon and cheddar cheese scones to give the daughter the strength to drive back downstate.  I found a recipe on The English Kitchen which I adapted to suit.  These scones certainly don't fit into the "skinny" category, but they do make for a hearty breakfast.

Bacon and Cheese Scones

Bacon and Cheese Scones
Adapted from  

3 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons cold butter, cut into small pieces
10 slices hardwood smoked bacon, cooked and crumbled (about 2/3 cup)
1 1/4 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese
1 large egg
1 2/3 cup buttermilk, plus 1-2 tablespoons if needed
1/2 tablespoon butter, melted

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.  Spray a baking sheet with vegetable spray.

Sift together flour, soda, cayenne and salt into a large butter.  Cut in butter with pastry hook, two knives, or fingertips until mixture resembles bread crumbs.  Stir in bacon and cheese.

Whisk together egg and buttermilk.  Add to dry ingredients.  Mix quickly to incorporate all dry ingredients (add 1 -2 tablespoons extra buttermilk if needed).  Do not overmix.

Place dough on lightly floured board.  With floured hands, knead gently 4-5 times.  Transfer dough to baking sheet.  Shape into circle, about 3/4 inch thick.  Cut dough into 12 wedges.  Brush top with 1/2 tablespoon melted butter.

Bake 12-14 minutes until golden brown.  Serve hot.

Friday, February 10, 2012

What's in a Name? A Little Jail Time Maybe?

Having a unique name can really set you apart.  Both of our children have somewhat unique names, our daughter more so than our son.  They are named after my two grandfathers.  Yep, our daughter is named for my paternal grandfather.  She is, I think, the fifth generation of my family to carry the name.  My father, brother and nephew all have the name as their middle name.  It was my grandfather’s first name, and he was named for an uncle.  After we named our daughter, two other members of the extended family used the name for their girls.  Despite the extensive use of the name in my family, I have never met anyone not related to me with the name.  That's not unexpected, however, since according to one website, fewer than three people per million have this name in the United States.

So imagine my surprise when in 1989 we revealed our newborn’s unique name to a friend.  “Oh, like the character on Dallas.”  What?  Dallas?

Original cast of Dallas, via
Like millions of Americans, I watched Dallas the first season or so.  Back in 1978, the days of three networks and PBS, most of us watched the same television shows.  In addition to the soap opera qualities of Dallas, there was a certain tragedy in seeing Barbara Bel Geddes, who had worked with the likes of Henry Fonda and James Stewart, now working with Larry Hagman.  Just think about that. 

By 1989, though, I had left Dallas far behind.  Who knew that Dallas ran until 1991?  Certainly not me.  And we had unknowingly named our sweet little daughter the same name as some wanton, scheming Dallas character?  Fortunately, Dallas ended soon afterward, and that connection seemed to fade from people’s memories.  Or maybe not.

Time passed and our daughter’s unique name once again seemed like a good choice.  Then in 2009, her name almost earned her a trip to the slammer, just like some character on Dallas.

One October evening, there was a knock at our front door.  I found two policemen, looking very serious, standing on the porch.  They didn’t seem friendly, and they were asking for our daughter.  What?  Why?  By this time, my husband had joined me at the door.  We told them that she was in Ireland (it was her study abroad semester).  “Are you sure?”  “How do you know she’s in Ireland?”  What?  Of course I’m sure.  I flew over there with her and left her at uni.  Further questioning ensued.  “Does she know a man named ‘Mexican Mike’?”  What?  I don’t know; I don’t think so.  We were sternly informed that this is a very serious situation.  Ok, but what the heck is going on?  To say we were confused would be an understatement.   

When the two officers were finally convinced that we (honest-looking souls that we are) were telling the truth, one of them spoke into the walkie-talkie clipped to his shoulder.  “Ok, you can stand down.”  WHAT???  It was about this time that I noticed that the cops were wearing bulletproof vests.  Out there in the dark yard, our house had been surrounded by armed policemen.  Armed policemen who wanted to take our daughter away.  Are you kidding me?  One officer relaxed enough to tell us that something very serious had happened downstate and that they had word that our daughter was involved.  Did someone steal her identity?  What the heck is going on???  The officer promised to call us later.

File:Handcuffs01 2003-06-02.jpg
photo courtesy of WikiMedia Commons
Here is what had happened.  There had been a double homicide in downstate Illinois.  Neighbors of the victims fingered a young couple.  They didn’t know the girl’s last name, but they knew her very unusual first name.  A name given to fewer than three people per million in the United States.  The witnesses were then shown DMV photos of girls with that first name.  The witnesses picked out our daughter’s photo.  We all know DMV photos are notoriously bad, but our daughter did bear a passing resemblance to the girl the police sought.  Based on that erroneous positive ID, the police had come to arrest her, and were clearly prepared for a shoot-out if necessary.  I was incredibly grateful that our daughter was almost 4,000 miles away.  Of course, it would have been straightened out, but not before she had been taken into custody and questioned, perhaps none too gently.  After all, two people were dead, and our girl had been positively identified as one of the murderers.

So what’s in a name?  I don’t know, but I don’t think the same thing would have happened to an Ashley or a Jessica.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Bathroom Renovation Update

Back in August I shared the tale of our bathroom remodel and then in December gave you an update on the status of the space below the bathroom, the butler's pantry, which finally had a ceiling after some six months of going topless. Today I am ready to reveal the finished bathroom.  This tiny little space (only four feet wide) has again become my husband's bathroom.  He picked all the materials and did the tiling himself.  Almost everything is white -- white tile, white walls, white towels.  I think that made his choices easier!  He is coming around to the idea of a colorful rug, though, and he plans to hang some artwork to the left of the sink but hasn't quite gotten around to it yet.  Still, he is so happy with the results.  He now has a real shower in place of the weird half-sized tub shower that used to be next to the window.  It certainly won't make the pages of House Beautiful, but it is way more functional than it used to be and it works for him.  Plus there's a real sense of accomplishment in a DIY.

bare bones in July

finished in January, taken from inside the shower (yeah, it's a small room)

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Slow Cooker Chicken Cacciatore

Winter returned to our corner of the Midwest with a cold blast this week.  Here's a chicken cacciatore recipe to warm you up on chilly nights.

This dish is an Emeril Lagasse recipe that I have slightly modified.  It is not hard to prepare, but does require some time on the front end.  Once it is in the crock pot, though, you are home free.  Lagasse recommends serving this over pasta, but we most often serve it over brown rice at our house.

The recipe calls for bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs.  To save calories, you can substitute chicken breasts or use skinless thighs.  The flavor, however, will not be as rich.  I have tried both, and always come back to bone-in, skin-on thighs.  I do trim off excess skin and fat before cooking.

Crock Pot Chicken Cacciatore

Adapted from Emeril Lagasse

8 chicken thighs, bone-in, skin on
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 1/2 teaspoons Emeril’s Original Essence (recipe follows)
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 large yellow onions, sliced
1/8 – 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
2-3 tablespoons minced garlic (can slice or chop for larger chunks if desired)
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried rosemary
1 tablespoon dried basil
1 large or 2 medium bay leaves
1 (28 ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes, cored and rough chopped, with juices
1/2 cup dry white wine (can omit)
1/4 cup tomato paste

seasoned and ready for dredging

Trim excess skin and fat from chicken thighs.  Season both sides with salt and pepper and Essence blend.  Pat gently to make sure seasonings adhere.  Dredge chicken lightly in 1/4 cup flour.

Heat olive oil in large nonstick skillet.  Brown the chicken thighs until golden on both sides.  Transfer chicken to crock pot.

In same skillet, add onions.  Cook until softened and lightly carmelized.  Add red pepper flakes, garlic, oregano, rosemary, basil, bay leaves and 2 tablespoons flour.  Cook, stirring, for 1 to 2 minutes.

sauce ready to go in crock pot
Add tomatoes, wine, tomato paste and stir to combine and heat through.  Pour tomato mixture over chicken in crock pot.  Cook on low for 6 hours or so, until chicken is cooked through and bones easily pull out.

Remove bones, skin, and cartilage.   Pull meat apart into chunks.  Serve over rice or pasta.

Recipe for Emeril Lagasse Essence

5 parts paprika
4 parts salt
2 parts: garlic powder
ground black pepper
onion powder
cayenne pepper
dried oregano
dried thyme

Printable recipe

Friday, February 3, 2012

Cinnamon Muffins

Here's a simple, quick muffin when you want a treat for breakfast or tea.  Mixes up quickly and bakes in only about twenty minutes.  Now this is certainly not health food, but maybe a bit better for you than a doughnut or store-bought muffin.  You can use skim milk and can even replace 1/2 cup of the flour with whole wheat flour.

These muffins are best hot from the oven, especially split open and spread with a little extra butter (mmmm), but they are also good after they cool.

Cinnamon Muffins
Slightly adapted from A Taste of the Treasure Coast by The Yacht and Country Club of Stuart, Florida

1/3 cup solid vegetable shortening (like Crisco)
1/2 cup sugar
1 egg
1 1/2 cups flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 cup milk
3 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.  In large bowl, beat together shortening, sugar and egg.  Sift dry ingredients together and add to egg/sugar mixture in three parts, alternating with milk.  Mix well after each addition.

Line muffin cups with cupcake liners.  Fill muffin cups 2/3-3/4 full.  Bake at 350 F. for 20-25 minutes until lightly golden brown.   

While muffins are baking, melt butter.  In small bowl, mix together sugar and cinnamon.  When muffins are done, immediately dip tops in melted butter and then in cinnamon/sugar.

Printable recipe

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

What's It All About, Alfie?

Today, Alison at The Polohouse is featuring pets on her Favorites on the First series.  Who doesn’t like to talk about their pets?  Our Alfie has popped his head into one or two blog posts before, but I thought today I would tell his story. (The post title is a lyric from Alfie by Burt Bacharach.)

Alfie is our second golden retriever.  Our first was Ezra, who grew up with our kids and was part of our family for about twelve years.  When we lost Ezra, we were heartbroken.  Me most of all, I think, because I work from home, and Ez and I had spent most days together.  About a year after Ezra died, though, we began to feel ready for another dog.  The house felt empty during the week with the oldest child away at college and the youngest at school.  The husband missed having someone run to greet him when he came home (because after twenty years of marriage, you know it wasn’t going to be me).  I began stopping by the local dog rescue occasionally, but the husband really wanted a puppy.  We tried to track down Ezra’s breeder who was from Iowa, but I couldn’t find him.  So finally one evening we drove forty miles north to Woodstock, Illinois where there were some golden puppies for sale. 

There were only two male puppies, which was what we wanted, and the breeder let them run around the kitchen.  The husband sat down on the floor.  One puppy was shy and quiet; the other was rambunctious and crawled all over him.  You can guess which one he chose.  Two years later, that crazy puppy is beginning to calm down and has turned into a good buddy for the family.

Don’t get me wrong, though.  Alfie is no saint.  He is very “talkative.”  Which means he whines about everything.  If he wants to go upstairs, but is carrying too many toys in his mouth, he whines.  When he wants to play, he whines.  When he can’t reach a toy, you guessed it.  And he is unbelievably destructive with his toys.  Those cute stuffed dog toys?  Forget it.  Five minutes.  We have gotten toys marketed as tough, but he can tear them up too.  Often in as little as fifteen minutes.  He works at it.  He will lie down and peel the felt off a tennis ball like it’s a lemon.  Kongs and Megalast seem to be the only brands he can’t destroy in short order.

Still, he’s good company and, like most dogs, always in a good mood and happy to do anything his people want to do.  And when he looks up at us with his sad, dark-rimmed eyes, we’re pretty much wrapped around his little paw.