Thursday, December 30, 2010

Gifts Galore, Part One: Technology

J and I received an embarrassment of riches from our families for Christmas this year.  I thought I would recap some of the things we can't wait to get our hands on through a series of blog posts, grouped by theme.  As you can see from the blog post title, he first of these is technology.

J's mom Brenda was very generous and got me something I had wanted for a while.  In fact, I added it to this wish list.

What was it, you ask?  Adobe Photoshop Elements 9!

When not spending time with family and friends during this busy season, I have been playing with the software and love it!  

Want to know the best part?  I can cross off number 54 off of my 130 Before I'm Thirty list!  So be sure to stay tuned as there will be fun pictures and graphics heading your way once I figure out the software (also known as crossing off number 53 on my list).

Did anyone else get something they really wanted for Christmas, technology themed or otherwise?  What about tips for using Photoshop?  I'm all ears!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Remember When Wednesdays: When I Was Young, By Woods

Hi!  It's me again, Woods the cat.

My parents are a bit busy this week spending time with family and friends for Christmas and New Years so my mom was nice enough to let me write another blog post for you all.  I've already shared with you what my daily life is like and since today is Wednesday and my mom usually writes a Remember When Wednesdays post today, I thought I would share my childhood (kittenhood if you will) with you.

I was born in Council Bluffs, Iowa.  I'm not sure of the date and not sure how many brothers and sisters I have or even who my litter parents were.  I do know that I liked to hang around this large building and eat their trash when I couldn't catch mice or other food myself.  Mom and Dad call this a bowling alley, so I guess that makes me an alley cat.

Anyway, I was found by my parents on May 4, 2009.  My grandma was outside and heard me crying.  She called for me and to her surprise, I came running across the parking lot.  She brought me inside and my dad made arrangements to keep me.  My mom was still living in California and was not due to come to Omaha for another few weeks.  I spent this time going to the vet (yuck!) and getting to know my dad.

During this time I learned a few things.  One, the little cat you see in the doorplate is actually your reflection, not another cat.  You don't need to puff yourself up to intimidate it.

Two, toys on strings, especially Santa toys, are really fun.  

Three, my grandma's cat Tiger really doesn't like kittens like me.

Finally, it came time to meet my mom.  Dad had been talking about her for days so I was really excited.  With her came my other grandma and my aunt Madi.  It was great to meet more of my family!

I could go on about my adventures under the knife or how we moved from Omaha to St. Louis at the end of that summer, but that is another story for another day.

Thanks for letting me share part of my story, Mom!

Monday, December 27, 2010

A Christmas Tradition

Last week J and I received a wonderful present just in time for Christmas.  I was so excited that I opened it and got it all set up even though we were leaving later that day for Omaha to spend Christmas with J's family.  Here it is:

A Fontanini Nativity scene!  

I almost started crying when I opened the box because growing up my parents had a Fontanini Nativity scene and now J and I have one of our own!  Growing up, my mom would hide the baby Jesus until Christmas day, when he would appear in the manger.  Meanwhile, Joseph, Mary, the shepherds, sheep and angels would wait patiently all of Advent for that little baby Jesus to appear that morning.  

I can't wait to start this tradition with our children some day with our very own set!

Woods of course had to interrupt my photo shoot.  This picture tells you one of two things:
  • Woods is a giant cat
  • The size of Fontanini nativity scenes.

Thanks so much Maureen and Joe!

His and Hers Christmas Gifts

I hope everyone had a peaceful and lovely Christmas.  On this Monday after Christmas, I thought I would share with you what J and I got for each other this Christmas.  Let's just say personalized gifts was the name of the game this year.

First up, my gift to J.  While watching an episode of Modern Family (one of our favorite new shows), J admired a decanter set Marshall drank from.  That got my wheels turning.  J is more of a gin drinker than a whiskey drinker, but I figured any type of alcohol would taste great when poured out of a personalized decanter.  I also picked up two glasses for him to sip from.  

I added a little message to the back of the decanter so that years from now we would remember when and where it came from.  It's a little hard to read in the photos since gin is clear but it says Eat, Drink and Merry Christmas!

J got me a beautiful jewelry box which he personalized with a message inside.  I promised him I wouldn't share the message but here are some pictures.  The top is an etched mirror with two little birdies sitting on a branch.  The mirrored surface made it hard to get a great photo of it but it is beautiful!

It has room for lots of rings, necklaces, earrings and bracelets--just what I need because right now they are all in little boxes on a shelf in my bathroom!  This means I can never find what I'm looking for since I have to open multiple little boxes each time!

I love that it has a second drawer for bigger items too!

So those where our Christmas gifts to each other this year.  I think we did pretty well and it was definitely one to remember since it was our first as a married couple and the first we've spent together in the five (almost six) years of our relationship!

What did you get your honey for Christmas this year?

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas

Image taken from here and here originally
J, Woods and I wish you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! 

We will be spending the holidays with family, friends and friends who are family and hope you are doing the same! 

Friday, December 24, 2010

French Bread, or Woods Finds an Open Window

On Sunday afternoon, I decided to make French bread for our dinner party.  Since I was already baking this dessert, I figured, why not add some fresh baked bread to the meal!  

Here is the recipe, adapted from this source:

KitchenAid Stand Mixer French Bread

2 packages active yeast
2 1/2 cups of hot, but not scalding, water 
1 tablespoon of salt
1 tablespoon of melted butter
7 cups all purpose flour
2 tablespoons of corn meal
Stick of butter

Kitchen Supplies:
Stand mixer--while there are many recipes out there for french bread you make by hand, this recipe is especially designed for stand mixer since it does all the kneeding for you.  I am sure it could be adapted for use without a stand mixer
Glass bowl
Kitchen towel
Rolling pin
Cookie sheet

Rinse mixing bowl with warm water to warm up the sides and bottom of the bowl.  Pat dry.  Add yeast and hot water.  Mix by hand until combined.  Place mixing bowl on Stand mixer.  Add melted butter, flour and salt.  Using the dough hook attachment, mix on speed 2 for 1 minute or until well blended.  Continue on speed 2 for an additional two minutes.  Turn contents of bowl into a glass bowl greased with butter.  Cover with towel and place in a warm place free of draft for one hour.

For a warm, draft-free place (especially in the winter) I usually use my oven.  Turn the oven to 350 for 2 minutes to warm it and then turn it off.  Place the dough mixture inside.  Also take care to lower the oven racks so you don't burn a hole through or set your towel on fire once it's in there!

Once an hour has elapsed, remove from oven (or other warm place) and punch mixture down.  It should have doubled in size over this time.  Remove from bowl and divide into two equal pieces.  With a small amount of flour to prevent sticking, roll out each piece to approximately 12 inches by 16 inches.  Starting from the longest end, roll up tightly into a long baguette roll.  Shape the ends into tapers if desired.  Place on a cookie sheet that has been dusted with the cornmeal.  Repeat with other half.  Cover and return to warmed oven (again warm for 2 minutes) and let rise for an hour.

Remove from oven.  The baguettes should have again risen over the second hour.  Preheat oven to 450 degrees.  Using a sharp knife, cut four slits across the top of the loafs.  

Cook bread for 25 minutes, then remove from oven.  Run a stick of butter over the tops of the bread and return to oven for five more minutes of cooking.  Remove from oven.  Serve hot or cold with your favorite dishes.

There is a lot of down time during this process and this time I used to clean the house and soak our stove's drip plates which had, sadly, lots of caked on food on them from all the cooking we have been doing as of late. While I was baking, it occurred to me I should have cleaned the oven too because it got a little smoky and our very sensitive fire alarms went off.  I opened the kitchen window to stop the incessant beeping and when I turned around, I found this.

Apparently Woods enjoy an open window no matter what the size!

Happy baking and happy Christmas Eve everyone!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

A Christmas Table Setting

Back when I created this table setting, I knew I wanted to create a table setting for Christmas using many, if not all, of the same objects.   I saw this dinner with JY and Ashlee as a great opportunity to create something new!   Here's what I came up with.

First, I placed our white runner across the table.  I laid our silver chargers on top to keep the white table runner white throughout the meal.  For the other two place settings, I pull out our moss green place mats.  

Next I placed our silver and gold mercury votives and the larger candlesticks on each side of the runner.  

I finished the look by stacking gold and silver ornaments, leftover from these pillars, in this glassware.

The shine and sparkle of the ornaments and votives reminded me of hundreds of tiny lights, which gave me an idea.  I went into our living room and light all of the various candles we had on our bookshelves.  Now the theme of the dinner really was a night of many lights!

Alas, the table setting was short-lived as Woods decided the ornaments looked an awful like some of his toys and took to batting them around while we tried to sleep.  Oh well, it was beautiful while it lasted!

Have you done your table setting for Christmas?  Share stories or links below.  I'm always looking for new ideas!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Remember When Wednesdays: Feed the Birds

"All around the cathedral the saints and apostles
Look down as she sells her wares
Although you can't see it,
You know they are smiling
Each time someone shows that he cares

Though her words are simple and few
Listen, listen, she's calling to you
"Feed the birds, tuppence a bag
Tuppence, tuppence, tuppence a bag" --Feed the Birds, Mary Poppins

My sister Madi (pictured below) and I were fortunate enough to spend a week in Paris and then the South of France a few summers ago with my parents.  While we were there we visited the Notre Dame Cathedral and fed some of the birds there.  They would literally eat off of your fingers and the feeling of their little feet and beaks pecking at your hands was a very strange and unusual sensation.  We have a whole roll of film devoted to this bird feeding and our expressions were pretty much the same in all of them! 

Visiting Paris was like a dream.  We went on long walks with a guidebook as our tour guide and took turns reading passages aloud about Parisian history, art and architecture.  We ate fresh salads dressed with little more than olive, vinegar and salt and pepper.  We ate lots of bread and cheese and traveled all over Paris using public transportation.  I can't wait to go back!


Speaking of trips, anyone out there have some exciting getaways planned for 2011?  Let's share travel stories!

Pumpkin Bars recipe, or We Have A Lot of Leftovers

As I mentioned in this post, I made Pumpkin Bars this weekend for our dinner with JY and Ashlee.  I knew I wanted to make a dessert for them and when I thought about all of the dessert recipes in my repertoire and which I would like to make this weekend, Pumpkin Bars immediately came to mind.

You see, when I was growing up my mom would bake us a cake of our choice for our birthday every year.  As I detailed in this post, my mom is not big on baking, so this was a very nice gesture!  While my siblings would choose confetti or chocolate cake, my dad and I always chose Pumpkin Bars for our birthdays.  I loved them so much my mom even figured out how to mail them to me my first year of college!  Even before all that, my grandma (whose recipe this is and of Grandma D's Sugar Cookie fame) used to make these for my dad when he was young and I believe he brought some back from her to college too!

They are delicious and instantly remind me of all the great birthdays I've spent with my family over the years.  I hope you enjoy them as much as we have!

Pumpkin Bars

4 eggs
1 cup vegetable oil
2 cups of sugar
15 ounce can of pumpkin
2 cups of flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
2 teaspoons of cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

4 ounces of cream cheese (usually half of a regular box of cream cheese), softened
3/4 stick of margarine, softened
1 tablespoon milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
4 cups of powdered sugar

Kitchen Supplies:
Handheld mixer or stand mixer
Cookie sheet (my grandma's original recipe calls it a jelly roll pan)
Sieve for sifting
Medium size bowl for dry ingredients

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  In a medium bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, and baking soda.  Add ginger, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg to dry ingredients.  Next, mix eggs, vegetable oil, sugar and pumpkin well.  Slowly add dry ingredients to wet, stirring to combine.  Pour into a 12 x 18 pan (see notes above) and bake for twenty five to thirty minutes until toothpick, when inserted, comes out clean.

Allow to cool.  Combine cream cheese, margarine, milk, vanilla and powdered sugar.  Beat well until creamy and smooth.  Spread over top of cooled bars and serve.

This makes a lot of food.  On Sunday we each had two pieces and J and I have been eating some for dessert for lunch and dinner (and breakfast one day) every day this week and we still have a ton left over, hence the title of this post.

Alas, I didn't get any pictures of the finished product before we dug in, but trust me, it's great. As always, please let me know if you try the pumpkin bars and if you end up loving them as much as I do!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Over the River and Through the Woods

To Grandmother's house we go!

I used to think that song was written about my grandparents' house.  When I was little and we still lived in St. Louis, we would literally drive over the river (a few, but especially the Illinois River as you come into Peoria) and through the woods (my grandparents live in a heavily wooded area, great for exploring!) to get there.

My grandma does Christmas and Christmas decorating better than anyone I know.  Her house just oozes with the holiday spirit!  When I was there two weekends ago, I asked if I could take some pictures and share with you all some of my favorite tableaux she creates and recreates every year and she said yes. I hope one day my home can look and feel like the holidays the way my grandparents' home does and more importantly, I hope you enjoy this Christmas-themed house tour!

First up, the family Christmas tree.  This thin profile tree is crammed full of ornaments collected over the years.  I helped trim it this year and learned that some of the ornaments date back to my great-grandma's tree (my grandpa's mother)!  This tree is in the family room off of the kitchen and is in view whether you are watching a movie (like Citizen Kane) or visiting with friends and family stop by.  Best of all, you can see it from the driveway as you pull in thanks to the large windows that can be seen behind the tree.

Next, the side table in the family room.  This has always been a place to display pictures of family and friends, but at Christmas time my grandma replaces some of the pictures with Christmas cards for that year or the previous year.  I think this is a great way to display photo Christmas cards and has the ability to make any corner, like this one, special and festive.  The photos are guarded with a trusty Nutcracker and flanked by some red and green candles brought out for the season.

Next up, the dining room.  This room is one of my favorites in the home, perhaps because of all the great food, conversation, friendship and love that has been shared there over the years.  The buffet table features a gold nativity scene, lamp shades she switches out just for the holidays, and gold and green accents everywhere.  I especially love the unique gold nativity scene and the star of Bethlehem behind it!  That stack of china plates in the corner was for the Oyster Stew that didn't happen due to snow, but they are Twelve Days of Christmas china, brought out especially for this time of year!

Also in the dining room is her chandelier, ready and trimmed for Christmas with garland, gold beads, and porcelain ornaments.  Also, notice the cheery wreath and snowy painting on the far right wall.  She even puts up holiday art for the season!  By the way, you can see a close-up shot of some of these ornaments in this post.

Here is another example of holiday art that comes out just for Christmas time.  Also, notice the stoic little Santa Claus hiding under the side table in the corner.  There are little touches and details everywhere!

In the front hall between the dining room and formal living room, my grandma has a basket of Christmas books she leaves out for guests and especially her grandchildren.  I recognize some of the titles as Christmas time favorites from when I was growing up and this basket is perfectly positioned for any reader, young or old, who wants to sit by the fire and read a Christmas story.

Speaking of fires, if the weather is cold enough, they almost always have a fire going in the fire place when family and friends come to visit.  My picture came out a bit blurry which makes it harder to see the details on the mantle place but it is trimmed with garland, green lights, gold beads, ornaments and red and green candles.  I love that instead of hanging stockings by the chimney with car, she has hung gold rimmed ornaments that feature Christmas scenes!

Finally, the pièce de résistance: the large Christmas tree.  This tree is trimmed more simply than the one in the family room.  It features gold and red ornaments, gold ribbon and white lights.  That's it.  But when you have a beautiful tree centered in a large bay window for all the neighbors to see, that is all you need!

So there you have it, my grandparents' home come Christmas time.  Thank you Grandma and Papa for sharing your home with me!  

Readers, what was your favorite part of their holiday decor?  Any themes or decor you would love to see in your own home?  Perhaps you too have a grandparent or parent who decorates to the nines for the holidays?  Let's hear it!

Coming Attractions: Movies I Can't Wait to See

On Thursday night Ashlee and I went to the movies and saw Love and Other Drugs.  It was a great movie starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway and one I would definitely recommend!  The film is rated R for a reason (fair amount of nudity) so be sure to leave the kiddos at home!  The best part of the night, other than watching Jake and Anne on screen together, was seeing all the coming attractions.  

A bit of background here:  I am the type of person that looks forward to the previews in the theaters.  J teases me about this but I hate being late to movies and missing the previews.  If a showing has weak previews (only a few or of movies that have been out for a while) I leave a little disappointed.  I know I could watch as many previews as I want online, but there is something about being in a dark theater with my soda and popcorn watching these previews unfold on screen that I just love.

But I digress.  We saw several very good previews while we were at the show, including Black Swan and The Fighter.  The lobby also had posters for several movies I had previously seen previews for: True Grit and The King's Speech.  


Looking at the posters after the film, I realized something.  This might be the year I watch all the films nominated by the Academy Awards for Best Picture because for the first time in a long time, I want to see them all.  Usually there are one or two movies nominated that I have no interest in seeing, but so far all the films being discussed for Oscar nods look amazing!  Oh, and if I can pull this off, I will be able to cross off number127 off my list!

What is on your must-see list this holiday season?

Monday, December 20, 2010

Weekend Wrap-up

This weekend was a busy but productive one.  As I outlined here, we had outings or activities every day this weekend.  I did manage to squeeze in a few extra things that didn't make my to-do list, some of which will make its appearance on the blog this week.  Let's just say I spent a lot of time in the kitchen and the mall this weekend.  I:
  • Watched Braveheart, a new to me film that won best picture in 1995--my first of ten new to me Best Picture films I will be watching before I turn thirty.  See complete list here!
  • Played Rock Band with J on Saturday night
  • Made homemade chicken tenders and steak fries with J and washed them down with a cold brew
  • Went to church on Sunday
  • Baked two loafs of French bread for our dinner with JY and Ashlee--recipe to follow
  • Baked Pumpkin Bars (my favorite dessert ever!) for aforementioned dinner--recipe to follow
  • Shopped for and bought J's Christmas present
  • Wrapped and gave J his Christmas present--pictures and details to follow
  • Peeled and de-veined shrimp for our dinner with the Y's.  Every time I've cooked with already peeled frozen shrimp (and most shrimp you buy that is not frozen was frozen and then thawed at the market, unless you live on the Gulf coast!) the shrimp has come out rubbery and tough.  When I take the time to peel and de-vein them myself, they come out perfect every time.  More work, yes.  Worth the time and effort, absolutely!
  • Made this delicious risotto--well actually J did that while I helped get everything else ready for the dinner.  This time, we added lemon zest this time instead of orange.  It was fantastic!
  • Made these croutons with a simple olive oil and vinegar vinaigrette for our dinner
  • Created our Christmas table setting for our dinner--pictures and details to follow
How was your weekend, friends?

Friday, December 17, 2010

Weekend of Freedom

J is finished with his second to last finals ever (woo!) and this weekend will definitely be a celebration of that new found freedom!  When we are not watching some new (to us) television series and movies on Netflix or shopping for the last of our Christmas presents for family and friends, we will be doing the following:

  • Tonight: having dinner with Ashlee and her husband JY at Pi.  Pi specializes in cornmeal crust deep dish Chicago style pizza. It is so good President Obama had it made for him at the White House, causing quite a stir amongst Chicago pizzeria owners!
  • Saturday: heading to an event at the Rams stadium for some holiday festivities with my little.
  • Sunday:  Ashlee and JY are joining us again for dinner, this time at our house.  We will exchange presents and I am going to decorate our table for the occasion.  Stay tuned next week for details!
How will you be spending your last weekend before Christmas, friends?

Happy weekend!

Wish List: Food

After my technology and home decor wish lists, I realized I should probably do a kitchen/food related one too, especially considering all the cooking J and I do around here on a regular basis.  Here are a few kitchen gadgets and gizmos we would love to take for a spin!

1. Food mill:  I've seen these on Food Network before and they are great for making thicker purees, jellies, and my favorite, Spätzle, or Eastern European egg noodles.

2. Grill pan.  Until we have our dream kitchen with a built in indoor grill next to our gas range (a girl can dream, right?), a good grill pan like this would help us cook everything from steak to paninis with ease without having to venture outdoors which is much appreciated this time of year!

3. Immersion blender: This is a great tool for creating purees or creamy soups.  While a food processor and immersion blender can do a lot of the same things, there is less clean up and more control over consistency when blending soups with one of these hand held guys.

4. Electric wok:  J and I have really gotten into Asian cooking and an electric wok like this one would really help us to cook some of our new recipes with flair!

5. Pasta maker attachment for Kitchen Aid Stand Mixer: In college, my roommate had a pasta maker and it made the most unbelievably tasty pasta.  I would love a set like this so that J and I can make homemade pasta of all shapes and sizes.  Oh, and it would help me with goal number 17 on my 130 Before I'm Thirty list.

So there you have it, a little round-up of items I would love to play around with in our kitchen!  Are there any items on here that would make your wish list too?  Any I left off that you think I should have?  Let's talk!

Birthday Dinner Recap, or Two New Recipes

As I talked about in this post, I had a birthday dinner at my grandparents' house in Peoria on Saturday night.  J unfortunately had to stay in the Lou and study for finals, while keeping an eye on that mischievous Woods.  J and I celebrated together with friends on the night of my actual birthday with pizza.

I was lucky enough to be able to select the menu for the dinner and I knew immediately what I would request:  French Onion Soup, Caesar Salad and Steak--some of my grandpa's best recipes!  In fact, I am pretty sure this is what my mom or any of her seven siblings would have asked for for their birthday dinner too.  The recipes are that good!

I also got to pick out which china pattern we would have dinner on.  My grandma has several sets of beautiful china, including one she received from my grandpa's mother--I picked their wedding china for my birthday dinner!

First is French Onion Soup.  

There aren't a lot of ingredients, but they come together to make a really hearty and delicious soup for the winter or any time!

1/4 cup of butter
1 large onion sliced--use a mandolin if you have one but watch your fingers!
1/2 cup chopped celery
1/3 teaspoon salt
1 can beef broth
1 can beef consumme
1 1/2 cans of water (using the beef broth can)
1/2 cup white wine
splash of Madeira
1/8 teaspoon cayenne (palm's worth)
1/8 teaspoon white pepper
Swiss, gruyere or parmesan cheese, grated
French bread, cut into rounds (twelve if baguette, six if a larger bread)

Kitchen Supplies:
Mandolin, preferred not required
Can opener
Cheese grater
Wine opener
Stock pot
Ovenproof soup bowls

Melt butter in stock pot over medium-low heat.  Add onions, celery and salt and reduce to low.  Cook slowly until onions caramelize and turn golden brown.

Add remaining ingredients through white pepper.  Cover and simmer for thirty minutes.   While simmering, toast bread rounds in a warm oven.  Spoon into ovenproof bowls and top with toasted bread rounds.  Cover with cheese and place under broiler for 2 minutes until cheese is melted and has started to turn golden.

Just to clarify: the soup bowl is a Christmas bowl.  The gold rimmed china is their wedding china.

Serves 6

Next up is my Grandpa's Caesar Salad. 

This time, we had to borrow anchovies from the neighbors because by that point the roads were getting bad and we didn't want to venture very far.  My grandma got the ingredients Papa needed to make the salad and continue getting things ready for dinner.  My aunt and I were sitting by the fire, reading our books, when we heard my Papa cry out "Mary, Mary, Mary!" (my grandma's name)  We all came running, concerned he had fallen, cut himself, or worse only to find she had given him balsamic vinegar instead of red wine vinegar.  At that point he had already poured it in the dressing and we tried to make it work.  After letting it sit for fifteen minutes while we worked on the croutons we finally concluded the balsamic vinegar version was just awful.  We asked Papa to remake it using the red wine vinegar and he did, which we were very thankful for!  The second version came out great, just how we had remembered it!

1 large bunch romaine lettuce, washed and dried
1 can anchovies and juice
1 egg
1/2 lemon
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
2/3 cup olive oil
Couple shakes of Tabasco and Worcestershire sauce
Ground black pepper
Shot of yellow mustard
Parmesan cheese

For croutons:
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 tablespoons of butter, cut into two pats
Olive oil--enough to coat bottom of skillet
French bread (about 8-12 slices) cut into 1 inch squares

Kitchen Supplies:
Salad spinner--not required, but it does make the drying of romaine leaves easier!
Salad bowl

In wooden bowl, mix vinegar, oil, anchovies oil and one crushed anchovie, lemon juice, egg, mustard, Tabasco, Worcestershire sauce and other herbs and spices.  Allow to sit.

In a skillet, heat oil over medium heat.  Add bread cubes, butter and garlic.  Stir frequently until croutons crisp up and turn golden brown.

Remove from heat.  Break up lettuce, add to dressing in the bowl and mix well.  If the dressing has separated while it was sitting there, give it a quick whisk to recombine.  Sprinkle Parmesan cheese and mix well.  Add croutons and if desired, additional anchovies.

I love anchovies so this recipe is a no brainer for me.  However, if you are not an anchovies fan, please at least try the croutons on your favorite salad.  You won't be sorry!

A bowl of the French Onion Soup and Caesar Salad would have been more than enough for dinner, but we also had steak and baked potatoes.  We topped it off with Italian wedding cake that a close friend who shared dinner with us had made and brought for us!

Overall, it was a great birthday dinner with some of my favorite people!

How did you celebrate your birthday this year, friends?

Thursday, December 16, 2010


Last night on my way home I had an idea.  I called J and challenged him to a Chopped style food challenge.  Chopped is one of our favorite shows.  The premise, if you've never seen an episode, is that you have four chefs and three rounds: appetizer, entree and dessert.  Each chef receives a basket of four mystery ingredients that must be incorporated into the dish in some way.  After each round, the dishes are critiqued by a panel of three judges and a chef is eliminated, so that at the end there are two chefs going head to head in cooking their desserts.

Not only is cooking a Chopped style meal one of my 130 Before I'm Thirty goals (number 25), but we happened to have a small turkey breast and some cooked ham that my grandparents had sent home with me (it was for the luncheon that got canceled because of the weather) and a lot of random ingredients laying around.  I thought this would be a fun way to spend a Tuesday night (and it was!) and a great way to use up some of our leftovers.

After J accepted my challenge, I went to the store and picked up a few more ingredients for our "pantry" that all Chopped contestants have access to.  They have all sorts of ingredients--I picked up just a few staples: 2 limes, 2 oranges, 1 Poblano pepper, 1 Anaheim pepper, 2 green bell peppers, one bag of mixed greens, 2 apples, 1 yellow onion, french bread and a bottle of white wine.  I tried to select ingredients that we could use later this week if we didn't use them last night.  For example, I figured we could either cook with the wine or drink it with our meal.

When I got home, I pulled out the ham and a few other ingredients.  We each chose which course we would like to do.  I chose appetizer and J chose entree.  Then we picked the four mystery ingredients for the other person and wrote them down on a piece of paper.  We then exchanged lists and got to work.

My mystery basket contained:
French Onion Laughing Cow Cheese

J's mystery basket contained:
Cannelloni beans
Black olives
Poblano pepper

Woods tried to convince us to let him be our judge but he is never allowed to have human food (as much as he would like to) so he just watched.

Sorry Woods I didn't take a very flattering picture of you.  He's not that huge, I swear!

I made a fresh green salad with warm crisp ham, caramelized red onions, sliced celery, sliced almonds and crumbled laughing cow cheese, tossed with a orange vinaigrette and served in a carved out orange with a side of toasted bread.

J made an Italian-Mexican fusion dish with a ham, Poblano, red onion, provolone cheese and cannelloni bean casserole topped with paprika.  This was served with an Italian side salad of olives, Anaheim peppers (they tasted a lot like peppercinis) and parmesan cheese which was tossed in a garlic olive vinaigrette.

 He created a garnish that married the two cultures: an olive stuffed with garlic on one end and an olive stuffed with a jalapeno on the other.

We didn't really time ourselves like they do on the show (we are not trained chefs after all) but we did try to have our dishes done at the same time so that we could sit down, eat and critique our dishes together.  We each got two burners and were better about sharing ingredients and equipment than they are on the show.  Normally I share recipes on this blog, but because we were making them up as we went along and trying to get the dishes done so we would both finish at the same time, we didn't really have a chance to write them down.

My work station
J's work station and our mutual work station

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised that we both were able to take ingredients and create tasty dishes from scratch without the internet or a cookbook to help us and we both agreed that it was a great way to spend an evening. In fact, we may just have to have another Chopped challenge again soon!

Anyone else tried a Chopped style or another style of food challenge at home?  Inspired to try it yourself?
If you do, please send me pictures/details: ktrefinishingschool[at]gmail[dot]com!


Last night when I got home form work J was watching Iron Chef America.  It was a special holiday episode where the secret ingredient was eggnog.  The challenge had a little twist, however.  Two Iron Chefs faced each other in battle: Iron Chef Bobby Flay and Masaharu Morimoto (usually it's just one challenger and one Iron Chef) and the chefs had to design ice sculptures as part of their dishes.  They had the help of a professional ice-sculpting father-son team to create the ice sculptures, however.  It was a very interesting episode and definitely fun to watch.

I thought little of it until I tried to leave this morning.  You see, St. Louis had been coated in ice over night and while J was able to get out and go to school (he parked on the street), I could not for the life of me make it up our driveway.  J came back from school and tried unsuccessfully as well.  We could make it halfway up the hill before we would stick and our wheels would spin and spin with nowhere to go.  Eventually we gave up, backed the car down the driveway, parked it in the garage and I drove J to school in his car. 

Looks like we are a one car family today--thanks Old Man Winter!  Was the ice challenge we watched last night a foreshadowing of weather to come?  Oh the irony...

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

When Life Gives You Lemons, Watch Citizen Kane

When I woke up the morning of my birthday (Sunday) in Peoria, I wasn't sure I was going to make it home that night.  As I detailed in this post, the weather was pretty nasty.

J had texted me that morning to tell me that he would be making dinner for me for my birthday and wanted to know what time I would be home.  I took a look at the almost white out conditions outside, the IDOT graphic full of angry red squiggly lines for interstates and thought to myself, I might be spending all of my birthday here in Peoria.

While we waited for the weather to either improve or get worse, which would help me determine whether I would be venturing home or staying the night, my grandparents, aunt and I watched Citizen Kane.  At my birthday dinner on Saturday night, I mentioned that one things on my 130 Before I'm Thirty list was to watch Citizen Kane (part one of two for goal number 124 to be exact) and as fate would have it, they had recorded it a few days prior when it was on Turner Classic Movies.  So, when the opportunity came up to ride out the storm with a movie, they all suggested we watch it!

Borrowed from here
We drank bloody Mary's and bundled up on the couch and watched what was voted by many as the greatest American movie of all time.  My initial reaction was that it didn't quite live up to the hype.  Some of the camera angles that were no doubt revolutionary at the time seemed a bit odd today.  One scene involved the camera peering up at a character from almost the feet of the other character who were engaged in a conversation together.

After the movie ended, my aunt and I sat down and pondered it some more.  We reached the conclusion that our initial lukewarm reaction could be explained by the fact that we were modern viewers with little knowledge of film history.  When you compare Citizen Kane with let's say Gone With the Wind, a movie that came out two years before, you begin to see why this movie was so revolutionary.  From the pace and structure of the storyline to the angles of the cameras and the set design, the film was clearly a break from its peers of the day.

The themes it introduces are timeless as well and feature such ideas as: Money doesn't buy happiness and you can never know someone unless you walk a mile in their shoes.  These probably sound a bit stale and cliche now (think of how many movies have come out between 1941 and now!) but at the time they were probably much more fresh and interesting!

In reading up about the movie on Wikipedia, I also realized how many pop culture references I had missed over the years because I had never seen the movie.  Like Rosebud's appearance in Indiana Jones (and The Simpsons).  So, I definitely recommend the movie to anyone who hasn't seen it.  It's a great little history of film lesson and for me, another goal to check off my list!

Anyone out there seen the film and want to compare notes?  I'd love to hear your thoughts on the film!

New Header

As I am sure some of you have noticed if you have been visiting my blog directly as opposed to your Google reader or inbox, I have been playing around with the background, fonts, colors and my header a lot lately.  I tried one version on Friday to celebrate my 100th post, but it was a bit wonky and I couldn't get it to work quite right.

Enter my good friend Ashlee, who has a very creative and fun blog Finely Young that you should definitely check out.  She created a custom header for me and I couldn't be more thrilled!  This will be the final time I ask you this, but if you are reading this in Google Reader or your inbox, go on over to to see it for yourself.  You won't regret it, I promise!

Thanks again Ashlee!  You may have a promising business on your hands :)

Remember When Wednesday: White Christmas

The weather has been so cold the last few days and I've driven through more snow and ice than I care to, so I thought for this edition of Remember When Wednesday, I would take us somewhere warm.  Somewhere where white is just the color of the sand, not the color of snow on the ground.  I'm talking about sunny Southern California where I grew up and my parents still live.

This picture was taken the first year we lived in California (South Pasadena to be exact) when we decided to celebrate Christmas on the beach.  See the little tree in the right hand corner.  This photo was an outtake of our Christmas card photo that year.

Pictured is my sister Madi and my dad.  Now, don't let the ads fool you.  Beaches in December in California are chilly, hence the sweatsuit Madi is wearing (my mom made matching ones for all of us kids) and my dad's jacket.  Still, I'll take 55-60 degree weather any day over the 15 degree weather we've had here!

Anyone else had a white sandy Christmas either recently or when they were a child?  Weren't they the best?!  Here's to warm memories on a cold winter day!