Tuesday, May 21, 2013

My "Here Comes Summer " List

Sometimes when I haven't gotten to talk to a friend for a while and we have lots of things to catch up on, I start a list before we get together of topics I don't want to forget to discuss.  I don't know if you are like me when you start talking with people you love, and one conversation leads to another, and you realize that you have 2 or 3 (or 8) conversations going at once.

Making a list prior to getting together is sometimes helpful for me. My brain is too full to have a mental list so I usually have to have a written down list.  These lists usually include things about which I need to hear an update, or things I want to share with a friend (something I learned, or tasted or cooked that I want to pass along), or sometimes it's advice I need about something.  Most of the time it includes sharing, collaborating and passing along.

I've been thinking about this blogging hobby and there are times that it seems pointless in the midst of the 3,000 other food blogs out there and the little amount of "hobby time" that I have.  But one of the main reasons I do this is to share the things from life (and kitchen) and the tips and pitfalls I'm discovering along the way.  This feels fun and purposeful.  This week as I was thinking about what I wanted to write on the Blog, I kept adding to a list of what has inspired me, or things I enjoyed and wanted to pass along.

So, here are a few of the things that are on my mind this week, as I am preparing for the end of the school year and beginning of summer.  (They range from a book I'm loving, to a beauty product I've found, to a summer parenting tool, to yummy treats).

1.  I love that during summer I have more time to read!  I have been reading a book that has been so centering that I wanted to share with you.  It is called  Here and Now: Living in the Spirit, by  Henri Nouwen. I have quoted him on this blog before.  He was an incredible writer, thinker and man of God.  I am continually blessed by his writing.  I find that no matter what I read of his, it is fresh, relatable, honest, deep, simple and yet profound.  I am sad that I am near the end of this book.  Thankfully, he wrote about 40 books!

One quote from the book about Living in the Present is, "God is always in the moment, be that moment hard or easy, joyful or painful."  I need that reminder.

2. I made Brazilian 
Limonada this week for a Fish Taco Fiesta we had.  Zippy and refreshing! Summer in a glass! I posted about it a couple of years ago, but wanted to mention it again.

3.  Summer refreshment makes me think about a great skin product that  I have recently discovered: Origins VitaZing Cream.  Do you know about it?  It's pretty amazing! It is 15 SPF sunscreen, moisturizer AND it is tinted-by-chemical reaction to your skin.  So, it works with your skin. I don't get it, but it is pretty great. (The employee told me it was what other product companies are calling BB Cream - I trust Origins more, and they have a money back guarantee that drug store brands don't).   It was recommended to my friend Amy, when we went to Origins in January, and then for Mother's Day, Dave bought me an Origins gift card with a couple of samples, one of the VitaZing.  I am sold! It's a great product for this time of year!

4. My friend Sharon has been posting on Instagram this month "Milkshake Mondays" at her house.  Every week they make a different flavor.  How fun is that?? Last week was Lemon Meringue, the week before was Chocolate Peanut Butter, I think.   I love it.  This is a tradition my household would really appreciate.  Sharon told me today that this week might be Strawberry because she went Strawberry Picking and has some berries on hand.

4. (part 2) (see what I mean? one topic leads to another topic)
In our part of the country it's Strawberry Picking Time!  I really hope I get to go this week.  I was supposed to go with a couple of friends last week, but one of the friend's sons got sick and we had to cancel.  If you haven't been picking, I encourage you to do it.  I talk about it HERE.  My sister got some and made some fun recipes this week with her berries: muffins and pop tarts!

5.  Speaking of friends with great ideas,  my friend Laura brought these delicious M & M Cookie Bars to a college lunch we had and they were the winning dessert- hands down! I asked for the recipe and she sent it to me.  It is simple and super delicious!  I made them for the end of the year party for my 5 year old's Preschool class - they look like a celebration and are easy to transport.  I then made them again when a friend came for dinner for my family to enjoy.  They were the "Goody on the Cake Stand" or Featured Dessert at our house this week.

5. (part 2)  By the way, this "Goody on the Cake Stand" is referencing the domed cake stand on the end of my counter that contains whatever the baked good of the day/week is.  It keeps the goody covered, and yet visible to those in the house.  My mother started doing this years ago and I adopted it. There are some people (including my father in law who claims to not be a "dessert person") who after coming into the house and exchanging greetings, make their way over to see what's under the dome.

6.  And one last thing. As summer is on our heels, I needed to get a system in place to help manage the pending chaos, positively motivate the troops to do their tasks (chores sounds so dreadful, I like to call them tasks), and do some brainwork this summer.  Lainey has had a system in her class at school this year that has been very effective that we are adopting.  It's a reward cards system and they get a "punch" with each action that is deemed worthy.  When the card of 20 spots is filled, they can choose a reward. We are calling it Summer Rewards.  I made a list of Punch-Earning Items and Rewards.  We will continue to add to the lists, I'm sure.  I unveiled it to them this weekend and so far they are pretty excited and motivated.

I love that they added "pillow fight" to the list of rewards!
(I got the punch cards at the Parent-Teacher store- 35 for less than $4, though you could absolutely make them from card stock.  I just thought the printed ones might make it seem more "official".)

Oh and another thing I forgot...meal planning strategies! I'll have to wait on that one- too much to say! Maybe next week, I'll write about my plan for getting dinner on the table every night.

I'm thankful for the summer days ahead and the change of pace from the breakneck speed, homework, choir, basketball, lunch packing to; more time to be with my kids, read books, cook tasty food, take lots of walks and hopefully, relax.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Crispy Baked Onion Rings

In 1991, the spring of my freshman year of college, I had a memorable encounter with onion rings and baby back ribs. I was thrilled to be asked out on dates with guys in college, as this dating thing was a new experience for me.  I was invited to dinner by this guy that I had become acquainted with at school.  He was a nice guy and I was happy that he wanted to take me out.  When he picked me up he said he wanted to take me to Tony Roma’s (a Ribs Restaurant) because it was his favorite.  I had never been there and actually I had never had ribs.  I had tasted a bite of my dad’s before, but I had certainly never ordered them at a restaurant.  I'm not really a ribs kinda gal. 

The restaurant is a sit-down, glassware and cloth napkin kind of an establishment. My date said, “You have to order ribs. It’s my treat and I insist!”  As I looked at the menu I became a little overwhelmed with the rib options.  I told him I didn’t know what kind to order and he advised me to order the baby back ribs. I followed his suggestion.  He also said that we must order an onion ring loaf to share.

(Have you ever had an onion ring loaf? It’s amazing! It’s like a pile of skinny crisp onion rings all pressed into a loaf that you pull apart to eat.)  

I agreed. I had experience with onion ring eating.
The onion loaf came as an appetizer and it was delicious.
Crispy and thin, salty and savory.  I dug in!

Then the ribs came.

I realized that this is not the most polite, lovely, feminine food to eat and that I didn’t quite know what I was doing.  So, I just watched him eat his first rib, and I tried to replicate his technique. This went okay.  I certainly was making a mess of my face and hands, but really enjoying the meal. (I am already a pretty messy eater and use a lot of napkins). 

I couldn’t tell you a thing we talked about, for I was too focused on eating the ribs correctly and not embarrassing myself. It began to dawn on me that I better speed up my eating because there was a good chance that he would finish his food before me (as men often do) and then he would WATCH me eat the rest of my ribs.  My parents diligently taught me to not waste food, and therefore I felt like it was appropriate to clean my plate – especially when someone else was paying for it.

So, with this dilemma swirling in my head, I decided to switch it into high gear and pick up the pace.  I ate and ate and discreetly licked my fingers, and piled bones on the “discard stack” until I looked up and realized that I had eaten my entire platter of food and he still had half of his meal yet to be eaten.
Oh no! In my fear of being watched while eating this very messy meal, I had overdone it and had beaten his time on cleaning his plate.  He replied with a jolly and a little surprised reaction, “Wow! I would say you liked your meal!?”  I grinned and said, “Yes! I did. I might have paced myself a little wrong in my attempt to keep up with you! (nervous laughter…awkward smile…)"  

Interestingly (and perhaps not so surprising) he never asked me out again.  I don't think we were each other's type anyway.  And I have actually never ordered ribs again.  
However, I have eaten many, many onion rings since then.  I really, really like them.
I have never, though, made onion rings.  I think I was intimidated by them as I don't have a deep fryer and don't like to make fried food at home, and I couldn't imagine they would be any good baked. But now I know it's possible!

Everyone in my house likes onions. A lot.  Therefore everyone loves onion rings! As far as eating onion rings out at a restaurant, there is quite the variety of onion ring quality. I love an onion ring loaf, though it’s hard to find probably because I like thin and crispy ones, and I like for them to not be so densely breaded. 

I pulled this recipe from Martha Stewart’s Everyday Food  magazine years ago in the "Eat Smart- Healthy Toolbox section" and have had it in my notebook to try.  I saw them the other day and was driven to go buy the ingredients and make them, along with some Turkey Burgers.  They are baked, not fried (healthier and less messy).  They are really, really delicious!

Crispy Baked Onion Rings
borrowed from Everyday Food
(serves 4)

1 large sweet onion (like Vidalia) thinly sliced into circles, separated into rings
1 1/2 cups cornflakes
1/2 cup plain dried breadcrumbs
1 large egg
1/2 cup low-fat buttermilk
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper
coarse salt and pepper
2 Tbsp olive oil

Preheat oven to 450˚. In a food processor, pulse cornflakes and breadcrumbs until fine crumbs form, then transfer to a medium bowl.  In another medium bowl, whisk together egg, buttermilk, flour, and cayenne and season with salt and pepper.

Dip onion rings into egg mixture (letting excess drip off) and dredge in crumb mixture; place on a large plate or tray. 
(I found that the crumb mixture quickly becomes gummy with the egg mixture, so it is wise to split the crumb mixture in half and just use part of the mixture at a time so as to not waste it- I learned this the hard way.)

Pour oil onto a rimmed baking sheet. Place in oven and heat 2 minutes. Remove sheet from oven and tilt to coat evenly with oil.  

Arrange onion rings on sheet.  Bake, turning once, until onion rings are golden brown, about 15 minutes.  Place on a paper towel lined plate and season with salt.

dipped in ketchup – served with a turkey burger

My "take aways" are: don't eat ribs on a first date, do try these onion rings and set aside some of the crumb mixture so it doesn't get all gummy, and accept the reality that messy rib-eating can't make or break a relationship.  If it's not "meant to be" it's not meant to be. 

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Chocolate Peanut Butter Bars

I have been depriving myself the fun of blogging the past few weeks as I have been in the thick of paper grading and semester-ending for school. It has been a discipline to stay away from the BLOG in order that I might focus all of my quiet, productive hours on grading the stacks and stacks of papers that my students have written.  I have missed it!

I have now reached the end of the semester so there is daybreak ahead. I wanted to share a recent recipe that I've made lately.

I have made several things in the past few weeks that I have been wanting to share, but haven't had the time to ponder, write about, and edit.  I've made: crispy onion rings, a raspberry cream cheese coffee cake that is super yummy, cream cheese brownies and almond shortbread cookies from a new cookbook magazine, peanut butter banana frozen sammies (a quick and easy treat),  and more. So...what to write about first?  I think these Reese's-like Chocolate Peanut Butter Bars because they are so good, so easy and I have made them three
 times in the past month.

They are speedy to put together, they are really rich and a crowd pleaser. 

Lainey's teacher loves peanut butter and chocolate, so on her Teacher Appreciation day, I decided this was just the thing to make her.  The report from Lainey was that Ms. Stevens wasn't willing to share with her co-workers, which Lainey took as a good sign.  The peanut butter layer is thick and creamy and then it's topped with semi-sweet chocolate.

When I was making this recipe, I decided to buy a bigger, cheaper, more "regular" kind of peanut butter than the natural-stir-Trader Joe's kind that I normally use.  We bought a big jar of JIF.  I made the bars for Lainey's teacher and then I made another batch a few days later.  So, when Lucy (my new reader, who is currently loving reading every single label she sees) saw it, she said, "can I have the "J-I-F-peanut butter" on my sandwich?  I said, "Oh, the JIF?  This is for the bars I'm making.  Let's use the Trader Joe's kind we normally use."  Dave gave me a hard time for not giving her the JIF, reminding me that, after all, "choosy mothers choose JIF".  (Do you remember this slogan of theirs?)  So, for the next few days, until it was gone, she had "J-I-F and banana sandwiches".  

1 stick butter
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups peanut butter
2 1/2 cups (or a little more) confectioner's sugar
2 cups semisweet chocolate chips

Place all ingredients except the chocolate chips in a large microwave safe bowl.  Microwave until butter and peanut butter are melted, one to two minutes. 

Remove from microwave and use a large spoon to stir all of the ingredients together until they form a ball of dough that leaves the side of the bowl.  (If this doesn't happen, spoon more confectioner's sugar a little at a time until it pulls from the side of the bowl). 

Pat into 9 X 13 pan.

Pour chocolate chips into another microwave safe bowl and microwave at 30 second intervals, stirring after each, until completely melted.  Spoon over top of peanut butter mixture evenly.  

Allow to cool completely until chocolate hardens (place in refrigerator to help with this process). 
Cut into bars with a sharp knife. Serve.

They are best kept in the refrigerator so that the peanut butter layer doesn't get too soft and the chocolate layer doesn't get melty.

(adapted from southernplate.com)  

Dave's "guilty pleasure" when he travels doing music (or should I say ONE of his guilty pleasures, along with Taco Bell, and who knows what else) is eating Reese's cups.   I find the wrappers in the car the next week under the seat sometimes. So, when I made these bars, I said, "Oh Dave you are gonna love these! You are going to wonder why I haven't made these your whole life!" 
After tasting it, he said, "They are good",  in a less than enthusiastic tone.
"GOOD!?!?! It's amazing! It's just like a Reese's."  
To which he replied that the problem was that this bar only has chocolate on the top, and he likes that a Reese's cup is covered in chocolate (top and bottom). In addition, he likes the softness of Reese's filling.  I realized the softer part was because mine were cold from hardening in the refrigerator, and the chocolate on the bottom part I attempted to remedy with this solution:

I made hockey-puck sized peanut butter cups in muffin tins.  

I coated muffin cups with chocolate (covering the bottom and the sides).

I spooned the peanut butter filling into the cup to the top

Then I smoothed a layer of chocolate on top and leveled it.

They worked and met the "Dave/Reese's Test".  I'll stick to the bars. I love them. They are almost too good.  I can't keep my hand out of the pan.  
These are no-bake, fast to put together and highly addictive.