Tuesday, January 24, 2012

52 Week Salad Challenge

I just happened upon a movement that started a few weeks ago.  Despite the late start -- I think it is a wonderful idea and I am going to start it this week.  The 52 Week Salad Challenge was started by Veg Plotting   over in England.  Within the past few weeks, it has spread across "the pond" and others have taken up the challenge, as well.

This week, I am going to stick with traditional salads.  We are shooting for 3 nights a week right now but I hope to increase that to 5 once I have an opportunity to set up the grow light system and my mail order seeds arrive.

Anyone have recipes for dressings or some interesting greens we should try?

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Raspberry Cream Jello

H celebrated her 6th birthday Saturday afternoon with a Pink Hearts party.  All guests were asked to wear pink clothes.  Pink flowers and pink foil wrapped chocolates decorated the table.  The guest of honor wore a pink feather boa.  Her mother made her favorite dinner - Swedish meatballs, mashed potatoes, and glazed carrots.  I brought a raspberry cream jello mold. Of course, we had cake and ice cream for dessert.

The jello turned out a bit thicker than I would have liked but would have been perfect as the filling for a pie.  I've increased the amount of ice so that the mixture will be less stiff and more fluffy.

Raspberry Cream Jello

2 - 3oz boxes of raspberry jello (I used sugar-free)
2 cups of boiling water
1 and 1/2 cups of ice
1 - 8 ounce box of lite cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup + 4 T of sour cream
1 small container of whipped topping (I used fat free)

Dissolve the jello in two cups of boiling water.  Add 1 cup of ice cubes.  Whip the cream cheese in a separate bowl and add the 4 T of sour cream to loosen it up (I used my stand mixer, but a hand mixer would work, too).  Slowly add the dissolved jello to the cream mixture and mix until smooth.  Fold in the whipped topping and chill to set 4 hours or overnight.

Before serving, top with sour cream, fresh raspberries, and mint leaves.

Happy Birthday, Sweetheart!

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Images of Winter Birds

Seagulls, pigeons, and geese are drawn to urban and suburban Chicago parking lots in search of food.  There is a large shopping area with a retention pond, plenty of grassy areas, and unfortunately, lots of fast food establishments.  

The birds were not afraid of people and I suspect that they have many friends who frequently drop off treats for them.  The natural sunlight allowed for some wonderful photographs but I think the first one is my favorite.   

Friday, January 20, 2012

Signs of Winter #2

We had the second major snow fall of the 2011-2012 winter season this afternoon.  Here in the Chicago suburbs we received about 6 inches.  My drive home from work usually takes 40 -50 minutes.  Today the drive was nearly three hours.  Everyone on the road was driving cautiously with the exception of one idiot who was apparently driving "around the world to the left" (turn signal was on for over seven miles).  It made me nervous only because I wasn't sure if he would suddenly stop because he actually wanted to turn.

Here is a picture I found online some time ago (I'm sorry - I can't seem to find the link right now but I will give the creator credit as soon as I find it).  I love it.  It was my hope to "recreate" it (in photographs) when it snowed again.

Here are my photographs - taken at the start of the storm into the forest preserve near my office.  I spend a lot of my lunch hours there relaxing, enjoying nature, and watching the birds.  What do you think?  Was I successful in imitating the style?

There is something so intriguing about the shape of trees.  I feel drawn to the natural state of these massive skeletons, particularly when they are not symmetrical.     

The following pictures were taken on my ride home (from the car window).  This photograph was of an uncleared walkway in Addison, Illinois.  I love the glow of the old fashioned street lights.  I also like the way the trees mimic the pattern of them on the other side of the image.  It seems appropriate to color it like a vintage photograph.

This image turned out amazingly.  New fallen snow just after sunset has a natural glow and this image appears to capture that feeling.  I realize that many would disregard this photograph because it is not a crisp clean image but I think it is perfect!  It is also a quiet, serene image of a lone tree.  

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Korean Pear Butter

Today was like a bonus day - with Monday off for MLK day, I felt like doing something I would enjoy rather than something I should do.  So, with the laundry in piles, the dishwasher waiting to be emptied, and a table full of pantry items to be put away, I decided to make pear butter!

Although I had collected plenty of small jars during the past year, we hadn't finished enough of the watermelon jelly or orange vanilla syrup (a jelly that didn't set up correctly). I needed jars.  I grabbed my keys and headed out to the local Walmart.  Fortunately, it was still early so I was able to find a spot and get inside quickly.  My excitement faded, however, as I stood in the aisle staring at the gaping hole on the shelf.  They were all out!

Walmart number two - laid out differently than my store so I asked the young man unloading Valentine's Day merchandise where the housewares section was.

"The 'what' section?" 
"Dishes and cooking tools." 
"Oh" he replied and pointed to the far corner of the store. 

I walked up and down each aisle.  Where are they?  Another employee walked past.

"Where are your canning supplies?"  
"You mean, Ball canning jars?"  
"Oh, those were on clearance months ago.  Isn't this the wrong time of year for canning?" I rolled my eyes and sighed heavily.
"No, not for jam and jellies."  

My next thought was a thrift shop.  There are a number of them in the area so I went to the farthest one, thinking I could stop at each on the way home and maybe find enough jars to make one batch of pear butter.  The Family Thrift Shop in East Dundee is a huge for-profit shop.  Normally, I would rather go to the non-profit stores but they do purchase items from non-profits like Goodwill and the Salvation Army so I settled. I had found jars there - maybe I would be lucky again.

At thrift shops, you never know exactly where you'll find the canning jars.  Sometimes they are mixed in with the glasses and mugs.  Sometimes they are by the glass bake ware and other times you find them by the vases. I went to the kitchen section first and happened upon a jackpot!  Sitting there were 13 half pint jelly jars and each was marked 22 cents.  It must be fate.

I hurried home and started making my pear butter while the jars ran through the dishwasher. The recipe I worked from was for regular Bartlett pear butter but I thought I would give it a try.

During the 4 hour process (yes, 4 hours), I learned quite a lot.

1.  Asian pear skins are thin and will tear themselves into pieces small enough to pass through the food mill.  (Next time I will peel them ahead of time.)

2.  Asian pear seeds are small, smaller than the holes in my food mill.  (Next time I will seed them, too.)

3.  Asian pears are looser when cooked so they require much more time to reduce (nearly 90 minutes on high).

4.  Asian pears have very little pectin.  A grated apple helps pull it all together.

Well, here is a picture of my final product.  It looks beautiful and tastes amazing. The triangular dish I have it on is a piece from my milk glass collection.  It is from a 1950's or 1960's ladies "snack set" behind the jars is the indent for the coffee cup.  It is called "orange blossom".  Mom had a large set that she divided between my sister and I.  Over the years, we've collected additional pieces and even found the sugar and creamer set.

Friday, January 13, 2012

5 Things I Would Tell My Younger Self

We all have a few things that we would do differently if given the opportunity to go back. Personally, I have hundreds of regrets (it is what I do) but I have narrowed down the list to 5 things I wish I could tell my younger self.

1.  Take care of yourself.

Poor food choices, ignoring pain, and disregarding symptoms - I did it all!  I could have saved myself a ton of pain, worry and money.  If I had gone to the dentist routinely, he might have caught the cavity when it was small and I wouldn't have spent a night in excruciating pain or needed a $700 root canal.

If I had questioned my symptoms earlier, I might have discovered my thyroid condition before it grew to 3 times the normal size.

If I had been paying attention to what I was doing rather than thinking about the upcoming weekend, I wouldn't have hurt my back picking up a child at work.  A bit like the frame of an automobile - once you hurt your back, it is never quite the same.

2.  Nurture high school friendships.

We all went our separate ways and missed out on some of the best parts of each other's lives.  Many of us felt a sense of loss at not having each other there during tough times (divorces, miscarriages, deaths).  Thanks to Facebook, we've reconnected now but I regret not being there.

3.  Finish college right away.

After 20 years, I finally completed my Bachelors degree but it was so much harder than I remember.  Not the classes, exactly, but balancing everything.  20 years ago, my day started at 6:30 a.m. - opening the day care center.  I worked until 8:30 when I would take the bus to college.  I returned around 3:00 and closed the day care.  Then I went next door and worked at a children's play center called Tunnels of Fun until they closed at 9 p.m.  I don't ever remember being tired.

4.  Don't give up on love.  

After two unsuccessful marriages, I found my perfect half.  He is not perfect, per se (don't want him to get a bit head) but perfect for me. Although painful, those relationships shaped who I would become so I wouldn't say to avoid them - just remember that every heart has a match.  Just wait - you'll find him.

5.  Finally, listen to your heart.

So many times I doubted myself and made the wrong choice.  Trust the voice in your head.  I've added up the stats and 99% of the time, it is right.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Book Review

For Christmas, my parents gave me a copy of Jennifer Reese's new cookbook titled Bake the Bread, Buy the Butter.  I heard a radio interview she did and the idea was very intriguing.  My newly found interest in gardening and canning has naturally brought me around to the idea of whole food eating.  I can't honestly say I will never again eat a frozen pizza or crack open a box of Velveeta shells and cheese but I do want most of our food to be more natural - preferably to resemble the main ingredients.  This, of course, means baking and cooking from scratch.

I was so excited about receiving the book that I started reading on the ride home from Christmas dinner.  Not only does Jennifer include her successes, she also shares stories of failed attempts.  The book is the result of her investigations into what one should and shouldn't make from scratch and includes a ton of recipes to get the novice "from scratch" cook started.

One thing that became very clear to me while reading the book and contemplating my own experiences is that regular Americans have somehow lost the true art of cooking and baking from scratch.  In polling my friends, nearly 75% of those asked felt homemade items could begin with a boxed mix.  I was surprised by this total.  Just because one puts something in a pan and bakes it in the oven doesn't mean it is homemade?!?!

If you are looking for a new cookbook, I highly recommend this one.  You won't be disappointed.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Afternoon Tea with H & E

As I shared earlier, I took my nieces to High Tea at the Peninsula Hotel in Chicago as part of their Christmas gifts last year.  Not only do they have a wonderful selection of finger sandwiches and pastries for adults, they offer a special tea just for children.  Both of the girls were so excited.

To make sure each had a special day with Aunt Julie, I took them separately.  H and I started off at the IO Chicago theater in Wrigleyville.  Just a few steps from the famous ball park and the red line stop, we climbed the stairs to a children's interactive play in which the characters, scenery, and entire story line are developed by the actors with input from the children.  Some even had an opportunity to participate in the show.  H was a bit shy at first but quickly found her courage and took to the stage like a fish to water.

After a short ride on the elevated train back to downtown, we headed to Water Tower Place.  A magical building housing not only a Lego store but the American Girl Store.  We arrived just in time to participate in the hula demonstration honoring the newest American Girl doll, Kanani.  H really enjoyed wearing the hula skirt.

Of course, no trip to the Lego store would be complete without a picture.

Our final stop was the Peninsula Hotel.  I had no idea how fond H is of chandeliers.  Here is a picture of the dining room and beautiful crystal ones inside the dining room.  H insisted that she have a picture of them.

The children's tea included a variety of small sandwiches and treats.  H didn't care for the grass fed beef burger but the jello in the shot glass and the french fries were a big hit.  She was a good sister and brought home the gummy bears in a doggy bag for her brothers.   

She is such a wonderfully sweet child and we had such great day.

E and I went the following weekend and started our Saturday with breakfast at Flat Top Grill in Oak Park. It was wonderful to pick and choose our own toppings for pancakes.  Then we headed over to Bead in Hand for a lesson in jewelry making.  E was a natural.  She has quite an eye for symmetry and really enjoyed the creative part.  The store was small but had quite a bit to choose from.  Here she is modeling her new bracelet and necklace.

We boarded the "el" green line and changed over to the red line to get downtown.  E wasn't thrilled with the noise the train made and didn't hesitate to tell me so. Once we got above ground, however, she seemed to enjoy the trip.  But I think I'll drive her down next time.  

E didn't care for the hot chocolate or the ice tea but she loved the ham and cheese finger sandwiches and the  little desserts.  Here are some images of the regular tea sandwiches and desserts.  Everything was almost too pretty to eat!

E and I had such a great time and I must say we never had a lull in the conversation.  She always has something to talk about and I love hearing every word!


Sunday, January 1, 2012

Things to do in 2012

Happy New Year!
On News Year's Eve, a friend made an interesting Facebook post.  He was explaining to his son that simply making resolutions is not enough -- a truly honorable person also takes steps towards achieving them.  As we rang in 2012, I was still thinking about the lesson he was conveying to his son.  Most of us never really do move forward to that planning stage then complain when we don't keep our resolutions.  

During the past month, I have been planning my first 2012 blog post and decided it would be a running list of things I want to do.  I don't expect to accomplish all of them during the next 12 months but to document them for myself and encourage long term planning. 
  1. Finish grad school
  2. Take a Wilton Cake Decorating class
  3. Compile a digital cookbook (complete with my own photographs) and share with family and friends
  4. Organize my photographs
  5. Take a hot air balloon ride
  6. Go to the top of the Sears tower (now the Willis Tower) and step out onto glass Skydeck
  7. See the Jellies exhibit at the aquarium (show ends May 2012)
  8. Write a novel
  9. Go on a photo safari
  10. Learn to change a tire
  11. Have a baby/adopt a child
  12. Remodel the bathroom
  13. Learn Korean (so I can communicate with my in-laws)
  14. Take more photographs 
  15. Volunteer at a food pantry
  16. Organize our closets and donate extra clothing
  17. Develop a "one in - one out" approach to purchasing 
  18. Create an exercise schedule and stick with it for at least 6 months
  19. Build and fly a kite
  20. Take a class to learn how to make stained glass
  21. Go on vacation in Ireland
  22. Visit Ellis Island & contemplate what it must have been like for Grandpa coming from Norway early in the 20th century
  23. Stop dwelling on past failures (this is a big one for me)
  24. Adjust the layout of the storage area and laundry room in the basement.
  25. Replace the front door of the house
  26. Attend a wine tasting
  27. Spend more time nurturing friendships 
  28. Decide what I need to do to be able to look back and say "I made a difference" - then set up a plan to achieve each task.  
  29. Tour the White House
  30. Rent or borrow a caravan and drive "the world's longest yard sale" from Alabama to Michigan.