Wednesday, December 16, 2009

If at first you don't succeed...

I never did tell you how my contribution to Thanksgiving dinner went. It certainly wasn't anything to brag about.

As it turned out, we had too many cooks in the kitchen on and I ended up only being in charge of (more like only being allowed to make) the corn. Without any supplies to "doctor it up," I put two bags of frozen corn in the microwave with a bit of water, set it to 5 minutes and hit start.

Actually, I then forgot about it for 15 minutes. When I finally checked the corn, it was already cold – or never warm enough. Sigh... Another 5 minutes and a generous portion of butter later the corn was ready.

At first I was quite pleased to receive a few compliments, but days later when my "famous corn"(as it had been dubbed) was still a hot topic of conversation, it was apparent the fam was mocking my cooking skills (or lack there of).

My Type-A, slightly obsessive, definitely competitive side kicked in and I set a new goal for myself: must get family seal of approval on something I make.

Fast-forward to last Sunday. We had an early Christmas celebration at my aunt and uncle's house. I decided I'd go all out and bring a side dish, a few Christmas cookies and a hostess gift.

For my side dish I made Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Cinnamon Pecan Crunch. And (drum roll, please) they were a big hit! There was suspicion that I bought them or Fiancé made them, but by the end of the night it was all praise (and not mocking kind).

I also made two dozen of my very own cookie surprise. There's no recipe for this, I simply wrap a piece of bite-sized candy in sugar cookie dough and bake for 10-12 minutes. I use a variety, so when you eat a cookie, surprise! It might be a peanut butter cup, butterfingers, crunch bar, chocolate mint, etc.

Now I'm already plotting what I can make for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. As always, suggestions are appreciated!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Dish Dilemma

Help! Which Dishes?

I'm looking for a more casual set of dishes that can be dressed up if necessary. I've narrowed it down to two - both earthenware (which apparently doesn't scratch from silverware as much as porcelain or stoneware), both are microwave and dishwasher safe, and both are the same price. Plus all of the pieces are roughly the same size (including bigger mugs than are shown in the pics).

Which setting do you like better?

Butler's Pantry Gourmet Set by Lenox

Emma Dinnerware from Pottery Barn

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Hello Sweet Success!

After five days heavy on the carbs and fried goodness (as any vacation should be), we were itching for something healthy to eat. So I headed out to the grocery store where I picked up just about every veggie in stock before making my way to the seafood section.

Tilapia was on sale and happens to be one of my favorites. I was ordering my fish when it happened.

Lady at the grocery store: The Tilapia always looks good, but I have no idea what to do with it. How do you cook it?
Me: Actually it’s pretty easy. I just cover both sides with olive oil and a generous portion of fish rub. Then I bake it.

Albeit it isn’t exactly the most difficult recipe, it is still exciting that somebody actually asked me what to do in a grocery store. Even more exciting, I had an answer for her!

Another of my favorite simple white fish recipes:

Put butter on both sides of the fish. Then crush up Ritz crackers in a baggie and sprinkle the crumbs over the top until the fish is completely covered. Season to taste and bake. Couldn’t be easier!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Book Recommendation: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

I read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life for my book club -- though we never did get around to having an official meeting. [Fail!]

If you have any interest in eating foods grown locally, this book is a must-read.

Barbara Kingsolver details how her family not only got by, but thrived only eating food from neighboring farms and their own backyard for an entire year.

While I don’t have the will power to survive off only locally grown foods – the book did influence my eating habits and inspired me to pay more attention to what I ingest.

I was already trying to eat organically whenever possible, but I learned from the book that all organically grown food isn’t necessarily labeled as such. Many small farmers meet and exceed organic standards, but simply can’t afford to get the organic certification from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Already a supporter of small, family businesses, I decided to buy as much produce as possible from farmers markets and local stores, as opposed to buying organic at the grocery store (or worse - processed, packaged food). As winter rapidly approaches, it’s getting harder, but not impossible. Just do a little Internet searching to find local farms in your area.

Another option is trying to grow your own vegetables. For the last two years, the fiancé and I grew as many crops as possible in any corner of a yard our parents would loan us. But now that we have our own house, we’re already planning to clear out some space for our own garden next spring.

For more information, recipes and stories of Kingsolver’s high and low points throughout the 356 days, definitely read the book!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Calling all Thanksgiving Recipes

Thanksgiving is less than a week away. This year we’re breaking tradition and the whole family is headed to Florida for some much needed vitamin D!

Last week during one of our regular big fat Italian family dinners, we started talking about our upcoming trip. If you’ve ever sat in on an Italian family gathering, you know how it goes -- everybody speaks at once and the loudest person with the most extreme hang gestures gets noticed.

Winner: my mom (always). She and my aunt decided that since my cousin, sister and fiancé are all experts in the kitchen, the “kids” could handle preparing Thanksgiving dinner while they go to the beach.

“Wait a minute! I’m sitting right here! (arms fly into the air well above my head) AM I NOT CONSIDERED A KID ANYMORE!?”

(Truthfully I should have thought before I spoke – why would I want to be sentenced to the kitchen when I could have been laying on the beach. But another fact about Italians: we rarely think before each outburst.)

So my aunt took pity on me and decided that I can be in charge of something. She suggested maybe the salad or the corn. Clearly my family has little faith in my ability to cook and I don’t blame them. In this case, my reputation is unfortunately based on their real experiences.

But this year is going to be different. I’ve come to terms with my sacrificed beach hours and am now determined to make the best darn something this family has ever had on Thanksgiving.

Of course I need some help. Please share your best Thanksgiving recipes with me. I’ll give one or two a whirl and report back.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Fail: Fiance’s Laundry

I was home one morning waiting for the cable guy to show up and install my cherished cable, DVR and wireless Internet. With no technology to entertain me, I decided to tackle our piles of laundry.

I should note – I showed my fiancé where I set up our communal laundry basket several times. Each time he said, “ok, thanks” but continued to throw his stuff in his own laundry basket. I just figured he must have a really short term memory. So on laundry day, I brought both baskets down to the laundry room and got to work.

I’m not big on separating colors. My method is simple: all nice clothes in cold water; towels, sheets, gym clothes, socks and undies in hot.

I was nearly finished (and quite proud of myself) when my phone rang.

Fiancé : Hey, what are you up to?
Me: (enthusiastically) Laundry!
Fiancé: Ohhh, ok… Well just leave mine upstairs. You don’t have to do it. I’ll get to it later this week.
Me: (still enthusiastic) Well I was going to surprise you, but I already did yours, too!
Fiancé: (pause) Oh. (pause) You did? You didn’t wash my t-shirts in hot water or dry them on high heat, did you?
Me: Um, no (LIE!), why?

Opps! Apparently men’s undershirts shrink easily in high heat and my fiancé isn’t a fan of too tight, belly baring t-shirts. Who can blame him?

I should have known he doesn’t actually have a short term memory at all. He knew exactly what he was doing when he kept his laundry separate. It was his way of keeping me from ruining his clothes without hurting my feelings.

Guess I missed the memo on that one!

Friday, November 13, 2009


Hey Friends fans, remember the “pivot” episode where Rachel and Chandler tried to help Ross take his new couch up the stairs?

Last weekend we played a round of long distance musical couches and I seriously felt like I was stuck in that episode of Friends – minus the couch cutting catastrophe.

It all started when another fabulous friend/coworker and her husband generously offered us a beautiful, barely used sectional couch and coffee table. All we had to do was drive 2ish hours to pick it up… and find a place for our previous (also nice, but way too small) couch.

Turns out, my mom was ready for a change and wanted our couch for her family room. Check! Now what to do with her previous sleep sofa?

We decided the sleep sofa would be a great addition to my fiance’s family cabin, where the more available sleeping space, the better.

So four houses, three couches, one truck and 250 miles later we completed our weekend of couch swapping. Thank goodness I now have a great new couch to relax on!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

More on De-Cluttering

I didn’t want this link to get lost in my blog comments. If you’re thinking of getting organized at home – don’t skip the “delete” step. Here are a few steps to get you started.

Thanks for sharing!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Signed, Sealed, Delivered, It’s Ours!

I’m officially a home owner! We closed on the house last Friday and then enlisted our family and friends to help us move on Saturday and Sunday.

We had furniture and belongings coming from my house, my fiancé’s house and a storage unit, so it was a lot to coordinate. Nevertheless, we decided movers weren’t necessary since we had access to large vehicles and a crew of helpers.

However, in order for us to pull off a move without movers, several stars had to align.
  1. We couldn’t have done it without the help of family and friends who were willing to contribute their cleaning, organizing & handy-man skills, time, muscle, and large trucks in order to make the move go smoothly.
  2. We also needed time. Since neither of us had to vacate our previous residencies on moving day, we were able to take the biggest and most important things over the weekend and pick up other items through the week.
  3. Finally, the move was local, so making several trips to all three locations where our belongings were stored wasn’t a problem.
Had this not been our situation, I’m not sure we could have managed the move on our own.

The benefit of forgoing professionals? Obviously it saved us a ton of money.

The down side? It’s time consuming and hard work. Every muscle in my body still aches from lifting heavy boxes and furniture.

The new house is perfect for us. It’s no mansion by any means, but we have a garage, a deck, a washing machine & dryer, plenty of closet space, and a bedroom big enough for our king-sized bed.

One of the best additions we’ve made to our house so far is a curved shower rod. We tasked my dad with installing it and I think the entire process took him 10-15 minutes. I highly recommend!

Second pic: Fiance and sister leaving the storage unit in the big truck.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Quick Tip: Scale Back BEFORE Moving

Packing is an opportunity to purge (things, that is). Don’t just throw everything in boxes and think you’ll sort it later. Take the time to sort through your belongings and ask yourself questions like:
  • How often do I use or wear this?
  • What sentimental value does this actually have?
  • Can I live without this?
  • For what purpose am I saving this?

Make two piles: one for trash and one for Goodwill. Keep in mind Goodwill doesn’t need your garbage, but for clothing and household items in good condition or better, you can receive a tax deduction.

Also, you may want to consider a resale shop if you have any gently used clothing that still looks new (and is still in style). I’ve had some success there – especially with brand name items. It’s a good way to make a few extra bucks.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Dinner on the Table in 25 Mins or Less

I’ve received a few cookbooks as gifts from concerned family members over the years. My favorite – Any Blonde Can Cook – illustrates just how little faith they have in my cooking ability.

Personally, I feel like a fish out of water in the kitchen, which is one reason I usually avoid cooking. (The other being my fail-to-success ratio weighing heavily on the fails).

Tackling a new recipe can be a daunting experience. But the truth is, if you can follow directions, you can cook. The catch is understanding what you’re reading.

That’s pretty much the extent of my cooking ability. I can usually follow a recipe without incident, providing I can comprehend the terminology.

I find cookbooks with illustrations or a glossary of foreign cooking terms are helpful. When in doubt (which is usually at least once per recipe), I refer to an online Food Dictionary.

But some of the best meals I’ve ever tasted have been intuitive creations. This is how my fiancé cooks. So many times I’ve seen him open the cabinets, survey possible ingredients and whip up a delicious meal on the spot.

Determined to reach that level of cooking, I started paying closer attention to the meal descriptions on menus when I’m out to eat.

If you’re as clueless as me, reading menus is a great way to get ideas of possible flavor combinations. And it was this technique that inspired one of my only intuitive creations: Naan Pizza.

It’s incredibly easy and pretty quick. It also has the potential to be a relatively healthy meal – compared to ordering a traditional pizza.

All you have to do is put the Naan bread on a cookie sheet or baking stone. Next add your sauce, followed by your choice of toppings and cheese. Finally, put the tray in the oven at 400°F for 10-15 minutes or until the edges look golden brown.

To get you started brainstorming ideas, here are a few of my personal favorites.

Lasagna Pizza
Marinara sauce

Chopped or sliced meat balls (already cooked)

Ricotta cheese

Mozzarella cheese

Chicken Pesto Pizza
Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Fresh garlic

Small pieces of chicken (already cooked)

Fresh mozzarella cheese

Shredded parmesan cheese

Four cheese pizza
Extra virgin olive oil

Fresh mozzarella cheese

Goat cheese
Parmesan cheese

Fontina cheese

Tomato slices

Everything Pizza
Peppers (bell and/or hot)

Tomato slices



Chicken (already cooked)

Feta cheese

Parmesan cheese

Mozzarella cheese

*Consider adding mushrooms – I’m personally not a fan, but have heard they make a nice addition.

Getting Started

Ready to Bake

The Finished Product

Monday, October 26, 2009

Baking Day

Half a dozen hours and dozens of cookies later – I can honestly say the baking experiment was a success.

I did have the help of a more experienced baker – which was great. Not only did I learn a few things, but it also helps keep the whole experience enjoyable when you have some company in the kitchen. Definitely recommend baking with friends.

We made four different recipes: pumpkin chocolate chip cookies, chocolate krinkles, chocolate toffee crunchies and peanut butter cup cookies. You can find all of these recipes in the comments section after “Calling All Cookie Recipes.”

The pumpkin chocolate chip cookies make a delicious seasonal treat and were the clear favorite among our volunteer taste testing crew. But out of 10 taste-testers, each cookie earned at least one first place ranking. And so far everybody has agreed that all four recipes are worth the calories!

For all of you novice bakers considering giving one (or all) of these recipes a shot, the good news is that none of them were difficult to make. If I can do it, anybody can… especially when armed with the right equipment.

Tools of the Trade:

First, I’m definitely registering for a KitchenAid stand mixer. My more experienced counterpart brought one with her and once we got the right attachment on there, it was perfect for mixing the dough. Definitely easier than using a hand mixer or worse – a whisk. (Side note: Can you even mix cookie dough with a whisk?)

Second, have you heard of the push up measuring cup? I was introduced to the Metric Wonder Cup this weekend and discovered it’s awesome for measuring sticky ingredients (the pumpkin and peanut butter in our case). I also heard it’s great for Crisco. And it’s easy to use.

Third, we tried a baking stone, Silpat and greased cookie sheet to see which worked the best.

As it turned out, the pumpkin chocolate chip cookies didn’t stick to any of our baking trays and the chocolate krinkles stuck to all of them. Still, I think a baking stone is a great investment if you’re also going to use it to bake pizzas and other things. The Silpat really works and definitely protects the cookie sheet. You can also probably salvage cookie sheets that have lost their non-stick coating by using a Silpat. But don't count out the good old fashion cookie sheet. A good quality tray with a little Pam also produced quite a tasty cookie.

Hands down the best part of the day? Enjoying the end products of our labor!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Quick Tip: Ironing Sans Iron & Board

I’ll admit, I’ve blamed a wrinkled outfit on riding public transportation several times before. “There’s just no way to avoid wrinkles when you’re crammed into a seat with three bags in your lap!” Actually, it’s kinda true.

But sometimes excuses don’t cut it. That's when I turn to my hair straightener.

You're already removing wrinkles from your hair -- so why not remove them from your clothes while you’re at it.

I find it works best on cotton blends. Lightly clamp the straightener over the wrinkle and move it along the fabric at a consistent pace. Be careful not to pause for too long in one place. Then simply repeat until the wrinkle is gone.

  • It removes wrinkles from linen, but it also removes the color.
  • If you put any products in your hair before you straighten – don’t try this. Your hair product will likely rub off on your clothes.
  • I’ve never tried it on wool – if you have, let me know how it went!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Calling all Cookie Recipes

My friend (& coworker) recently eloped, and we decided to welcome her back to work in style. This involved a fully decorated cube complete with a display of delicious cookies.

As I plopped the pre-made, pre-cut blobs of chocolate chip cookie dough (with caramel in the center) onto the baking stone the night before, I decided the next time there’s an occasion for cookies, I want to actually make them.

Does anybody have any great cookie or other desert recipe they’d be willing to share? If so, please leave the recipe in the comments section below or email it

Next weekend: cookie baking! I’m going to try a few new recipes in preparation for the rapidly approaching holiday season. Maybe I can actually contribute something edible to Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner this year. Stay tuned for a full report on my baking escapade.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Shopping for Domestic Success

I’m in a bit of a tricky situation – we’re moving to our new house in a few weeks, and of course I want to decorate each room, plus get new bedding, bath and kitchen supplies. But we also have a wedding coming up in just under a year, which means gift registration is right around the corner.

What to do? Buy new stuff now? Or get by for a few months and save it for the registry? Anybody else been in this same boat?

I decided to get the towels now – they seemed essential for practicing good hygiene – so I picked them up at a JR Outlet Store in North Carolina.

There was a huge selection of colors and they felt like good quality towels, so I settled on a dark green and gold color combo. I decided we needed a few towels in every size from the extra large bath sheets right down to the washcloths. I even tossed a few decorative towels in for good measure.

I love a good deal, so I was pleased to discover the towels at JR cost less than same sized towels at Walmart, Target and Bed, Bath & Beyond (even if you use the 20% coupons).

Thinking they’re cheaper because they’re lesser quality? You’re not the only one.

When I told my mom about my new towel purchase, she asked if I checked to make sure they were 100% cotton. No, I didn’t check. Does it really matter? They felt nice.

Apparently it does matter. If the towels have rayon or silk in them, they stop absorbing water after the first time through the washing machine. Who knew?

Fortunately, I snuck by with a win this time. Our new towels are 100% cotton!

And for my second success in one week, turns out I’m an expert towel folder.

Anybody ever watch “Step by Step” (the ‘90s version of “The Brady Bunch”)? I kept thinking of this one episode where Carol Lambert (Suzanne Somers) is teaching the kids how to fold the towels so they have all smooth edges. Who knew the cheesy TV I grew up with – and I’ll admit, loved – would actually be useful in my adult life.

Check out the clip – the towel folding scene is about 1 minute into it.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Quick Tip: Dining Etiquette 101

We all know to “start on the outside and work our way in” when we sit down to a multicourse meal.

But it gets a little more complicated when there isn’t much space between table settings.

Is that my water? Which bread dish do I use? For this predicament, I use what I call the “b&d” method.

Hold your hands out over the table setting (or do it in your lap if you’re trying to be discrete) and touch your first fingers and thumbs together, while leaving your other fingers extended.

Your left hand forms a “b” for bread, and your bread dish is conveniently located on your left. Your right hand forms a “d” for drink, which you’ll find to your right.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Square One for the Domestically Deficient

I was born deprived of the domesticity gene – which is really hard to believe considering my genealogy. For as long as I can remember, my mom has played Domestic Goddess at home, while maintaining her full-time career. And so far my younger sister is shaping up to follow in her foot steps. So how can it be that I don’t have an ounce of domestic ability in me?

I’ve learned the basics through trial and error – lots of errors:

If you’re boiling water for Mac & Cheese and the flame disappears, don’t assume the stove is off. Gas is probably leaking into your kitchen, setting the scene for a massive explosion when you relight that burner. [Fail: 8th grade]

No matter how long you beat the egg, water and oil with the mixer, it will never look like cake batter unless you add the cake mix. [Fail: 9th grade]

New sweat pants usually leave a million fuzz balls behind during the first wash. Thus, washing them with your nice “party tops” is not a good idea (unless you want to buy all new clothes). [Fail: sophomore year of college]

Repainting the old retro-colored bathroom tiles to give the room a little face lift works great. But it does require the use of gentle, all-natural cleansers when cleaning. If you spray the heavy-duty stuff and start scrubbing you’ll likely remove a layer or two (or all) of the paint. [Fail: last year]

Trying to iron the bottom of your dress when you're already wearing it is more complicated than it sounds. The probability of removing all of your wrinkles is low, considering it’s impossible to reach the back of the dress. Plus you run the risk of knocking over the whole ironing board with one clumsy movement. [Fail: one month ago]

Given my track record, it’s no wonder my own mother asked me what I was planning to contribute to my household when the news broke that the fiancé and I are buying a house. My reply: “Show up and look good?”

My fiancé – bless him – accepts me despite my domestic deficiency, but I don’t want to be this way forever. So I’m determined to find quick, but quality house keeping techniques and share my trials, tribulations and successes with all of you along the way.

And I hope that you’ll let me in on your secrets, too!