Tuesday, October 1, 2013

super sides: crock pot apple sauce

After coming home with nearly 18 pounds of apples from a local orchard last Sunday, I certainly had some work to do. I'm hoping to have plenty of apples for pies in the coming months (we were told at the orchard that if you put the apples in a plastic bag in the coldest part of your fridge, they will last 6-9 months...amazing!), but I also wanted to try making apple sauce for the first time.

I found a couple of recipes online, and decided to go with the crock pot version. Making apple sauce in the crock pot is perfect because you can prepare the apples in the evening, then let them cook all night. When you wake up, you have warm apple sauce ready for breakfast. Plan about a half an hour for prep time and 3 hours cooking time if setting your crock pot temperature to high, or overnight for a lower temperature setting. I made quite a few adaptations to the original recipe, which are all noted in the description below.

what you need:
3-4 lbs apples (peeled, sliced and cored)
1 tsp lemon juice
1 tsp cinnamon (or other spices - nutmeg, ginger, cloves, allspice, etc.)
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 cup water
crock pot
hand potato masher (or food processor or blender)
kitchen scale (not necessary, but helpful)

what you do:
1. Rinse, peel, slice and core your apples. I do all of this by hand rather than use and apple coring device.
2. Measure the quantity of apples either by weight or volume. If using a kitchen scale, don't forget to tare the scale with the empty container on it before adding the apple slices. If your scale does not have a tare feature, weigh the empty container first, then subtract its weight from the total weight of the container and apple slices. If measuring by volume, 3 pounds of apples was around 16 cups. The original recipe calls for 4 lbs of apples, but my crock pot got pretty full around 3 lbs.
3. Dump all of the apple slices into the crock pot. Then add the sugar, cinnamon (or other spices), lemon juice and water, stirring all of the ingredients together in the crock pot. I added measurements in the ingredient list as a starting point, but I eyeballed the amount of lemon juice and cinnamon. You can omit the sugar from this recipe completely, adjust the amount, or perhaps try another sweetener like honey or maple syrup. Also, the 1 cup of water is for 4 lbs of apples, but it did not make my apple sauce too thin, even with only 3 lbs of apples.
4. Cover your crock pot and set the temperature. The original recipe calls for 3 hours on high or 6 hours on low. I cooked my apples on high for about 2 hours (stirring the apples a few times), and when I went to bed, I changed the temperature to the "keep warm" setting to continue cooking overnight.
5. After the apples have cooked, turn your crock pot off and use the hand potato masher to mash the apples right in the crock pot. They should be soft enough to mash into a nice consistency sauce with some small chunks. If using a blender or food processor, ladle apple slices (they are still whole) and liquid from the bottom of the crock pot into the blender or food processor in small batches. Use a pulse setting until the apples are just blended. Make sure all of the liquid is used - that's where all the flavor is!  
If you've made a larger batch than you can eat fresh, apple sauce can be canned using the water bath method, and can also be frozen in air-tight containers or freezer/food storage bags.

I'm usually in such a rush in the mornings that I never make time for breakfast. In fact, the same container of oats is still unopened on my counter from when I bought it about 3 weeks ago and haven't had time to make stove top oatmeal for breakfast. It was so nice to wake up to a pot of warm apple sauce and get to enjoy it first thing in the morning.

sunday funday: apple season

We had amazing weather on Sunday, and local apples were ripe for picking, which meant an afternoon spent at the apple orchard - after we stuffed ourselves silly on some amazing wings (priorities, you know). Ashley and I headed to an orchard in one of the city's northern neighboring counties, and it looked like everyone else had the same idea. We got to the orchard and waited in a line of cars until we were directed to a place to park. There were lines of people everywhere - a line to get into the market, a line of people waiting to hop on the wagon for a ride to the orchard and a line of people with full bags of apples waiting to pay. Not one to waste time standing in lines and not wanting to waste such a nice afternoon, I almost suggested we ditch the idea and find something else to do. I'm glad we stuck to our plans, because it ended up being a great afternoon.

I was really hoping to load up on honeycrisp apples, but the biggest part of the orchard open for picking that afternoon was full of piñata apples. We were told they're a newer variety, really sweet and great for baking or eating. We had fun climbing the ladders to get the apples from the tops of the trees and filled our bags up pretty quickly. Ashley ended up with 11.5 pounds of apples and I think I left with somewhere around 18 pounds. He's looking forward to brewing another apple beer, and of course I want mine for baking (first, apple sauce!). And we may or may not have snuck around to one of the unopened rows and picked a few contraband apples.

As we were walking back to the car and stuffing our faces with fresh apple cider donuts (is there anything better than a warm apple cider donut sprinkled with sugar?), we saw two hot air balloons on the horizon. Well, what else are you going to do on a late Sunday afternoon other than chase them down? Off we went! We wound our way through back roads and neighborhoods until we spotted the chase vans and were close to the balloons. It was so cool! You could see the flames at the base of the balloon and make out the shape of a few people in the basket. They must have had an amazing view from all the way up there!

If I keep up the baking frenzy, maybe we'll make it back to the orchard another time or two before the season's over.

Friday, September 27, 2013

crafty home style: an autumn wreath

Autumn's officially here! Since I was a kid, it's been a favorite time of year for me. I loved school (nerd alert). I loved raking leaves in the yard - then jumping in them or running through them with the dogs. We won't mention that time my friend and I drove through the neighborhood late one night, blowing through everyone's leaf piles on the edge of the road. Ooops. My mom's birthday is on Halloween, so that was always a big event, too. There was dinner and birthday dessert at the grandparents' house, then all the cousins getting ready together for trick-or-treating. We'd rake in all the candy we could after making rounds through two neighborhoods...and my loot sat in my trick-or-treat bag all year on my closet floor while I was still developing my sweet tooth (my, how times have changed). Closing out the season, Thanksgiving was always a rowdy event - up in the morning to watch the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade while the day of cooking began. Again, the whole extended brood usually gathered at the grandparents' house where we would sometimes overflow into two dining rooms while we feasted. So you see, it's more than just being about the debut of the pumpkin spice latte, and I'm always excited to welcome the season.

I can't wait until the day when I have my own front porch to decorate with corn stalks and jack-o-lanterns, but for now a few decorations here there will have to work for apartment living. A holiday wreath is perfect for that. 

I found a tutorial for making felt flowers, and wanted to use that idea for a fall wreath. With a $5 grapevine wreath, a spool of ribbon, a few small sheets of felt, silk autumn leaves, straight pins, glue sticks and a hot glue gun, you'll have everything you need for your wreath. 

To make the flowers: Place a circular object like a CD on the sheet of felt. The small sheets in the craft section are big enough for three CD-sized circles. Trace the circular object with permanent marker. First, cut the full circle out of the felt. Then, begin cutting the full circle into a spiral toward the center. If you cut a wavy-line spiral instead of a cutting a smooth edge, when you roll the felt up, your flower edge will look like real petals. Once you've cut the spiral, pinch the inside end of the spiral-cut felt, and begin wrapping the strand counter-clockwise around the outside of the pinched end. Poke a straight pin through the flower from the outside edge to the middle, and you're finished! Super easy. You can also use hot glue to glue down the outside end of the felt strand after wrapping it.  

Make as many flowers as you want in as many colors. I chose a deep red, orange and yellow. The craft store had lots of pretty shades (you know, to avoid looking like you're making a decoration for the front door of your neighborhood McDonald's). Once your flowers are all made and secured, set them aside.

I bought a strand of leaves from the craft store, and cut off individual leaves that I wanted to use for the wreath. I played around with the different sizes, shades and overlap of the leaves. Once I figured out an arrangement I liked, I just wove them, stem first, into the vines of the wreath without any further securing. My wreath will be hanging indoors, but for an outdoor wreath you may want to use hot glue to secure the leaves to the wreath. 

After your leaves are placed and secured, it's time to add the felt flowers. If you finished your flowers with a straight pin, be sure to arrange them so that the head of the pin is not showing. The backside of the flowers should be mostly flat, making it pretty easy to add hot glue and attach them to the wreath. A spiral of glue on the back of the flower and pressing and holding it in place for a few seconds should make it secure. Allow the wreath to remain on a flat surface for a few minutes while the glue dries to be sure everything stays tightly in place.  

With your spool of ribbon, you can make a loop to hang your wreath - measure twice, cut once! Use a solid colored wide ribbon, or get creative by mixing different colored or patterned thinner ribbons and twine.  

Monday, September 2, 2013

awesome appetizers: baked pulled pork wontons

Every so often at my house, we love to pig out on homemade pulled pork. I make it in the crock pot with beer. Dark, delicious, flavorful beer. And a few other ingredients. It's great as leftovers for lunch or dinner (I think the flavor gets better a day or two later) and it freezes well. But the last time we made pulled pork, Ash had an idea to try something new with the leftovers: pulled pork wontons.

The wontons were super easy and quick to make.

what you need:
leftover pulled pork
wonton wrappers
BBQ sauce (if desired - for recipe and for dipping)
small dish of water (a shot glass size is plenty)

what you do:
1. Lay your wonton wrappers flat on a baking sheet.
2. Put a small amount of pulled pork in the center of each wrapper (shred a little finer if needed).
3. If you like, add about 1/2 tsp BBQ sauce on top of the pulled pork (another option is to mix the pulled pork with BBQ sauce before making the wontons)
4. Dip your finger in the water, and lightly wet each corner of the wonton wrapper, then fold all corners up and pinch closed.
5. Space the folded wontons on the ungreased baking sheet about an inch apart.
6. Bake at 275º for about 15 minutes, or until the edges of the folded wonton wrappers become golden brown.

These were a great snack! The pulled pork had really absorbed the flavor of the beer and seasonings, so the wantons certainly held their own in the flavor department with or without the BBQ sauce.


Thursday, August 1, 2013

Sunday Funday...a day early

A couple Saturdays ago, Ash and I made the three-hour drive from Philly to the Hudson Valley area of New York for a family reunion - where relatives of my great grandmother's family (she lived from 1911-2003) gathered to share stories, reminisce, or in my case, meet each other for the very first time. Our family has deep roots in that area of New York - the original farm house still stands amid rolling hills on Cottekill Road just west of the Hudson.

I've visited the area many times, one being several years ago to interview for a job and scope out potential places to live. Truth be told, my heart was set on settling there over Philadelphia. There's something about places you belong, whether you consciously know you belong in them or not, taking you in and making you aware of something you haven't known before. My moment happened on a late night drive down a dark, wooded road during the summer of 2007. I was on my way to an old mansion on the grounds of Bard College, where I would stay the night before my interview. The song I listened to over and over around the time my great grandmother passed had, almost by some play of the universe, come on. It was blasting through my speakers, and as I made my way down this road I'd never driven before, I suddenly felt at home.

As things go, I didn't end up moving to Kingston or Rhinebeck or any of those other beautiful little towns on the Hudson, but I relish every moment I get to spend there because to me, it still feels like home.

After the reunion, we drove across the river to Poets' Walk Park (free!). A couple of years ago I read about the park and have wanted to visit ever since. It's a place that's rumored to have inspired Washington Irving's Rip Van Winkle and to have been a haunt of many other well known authors. Naturally built structures across the landscape invoke feelings of the Transcendentalists, and taking in the majestic views, it's almost impossible to deny nature of the glory she deserves.

We hiked through meadows, through woods, over creeks and to look-outs above the mighty Hudson River. We saw the remnants of the 17 year locust brood emergence. I saw my first bald eagle ever in the wild and coolest of all, it had a fish in its talons and was flying back to the treetops from the river. So cool! And then we saw another, sans fish.      

It was a pretty great day. The bugs were crazy in the woods, but the meadows were gorgeous and the views couldn't be beat. I can't wait to go back for a visit again soon.

Photo by Ash at Poets' Walk Park

Friday, June 28, 2013

Sunday Best

It's no secret that brunch is one of my favorite weekend activities. A lazy morning, lots of food, good coffee...what's not to love?

A friend and I were talking recently and the topic of French toast came up. French toast? Ohhh, French toast...that long forgotten breakfast food that I feel I haven't made in years. And that's when I knew exactly what would be on my table come Sunday morning.

Here's a funny story about French toast: when I was growing up, it always kind of grossed me out. Soggy, eggy bread? Gross. Then my mom started making baked French toast, and let me tell you, that stuff will rock your world. Same prep is involved, just a different cooking method. There's also some flexibility with ingredients, allowing for a tiny bit healthier recipe (such as eggs vs. egg whites or milk vs. half and half/cream). As with many of my recipes, measurements here are eyeballed. Determine the amount of bread you're using first, then measure out the eggs and milk to give yourself enough liquid to dip each side of all the bread slices.

What you need:

Bread of choice (I used fresh Ciabatta from my Saturday Trader Joe's trip)
Eggs (or egg whites)
Milk, half and half or cream
Melted butter (optional - about 1 or 2 tbs)
Spices (I like cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger)

What you do:
-Slice your bread into about 1" thick pieces (I used 5 slices)
-Crack your eggs (or pour eggs whites from a carton) into a dish large enough to dip your bread slices
-Pour in your milk, half and half or cream (this should be maybe 1/3 the amount of egg/egg whites)
-Pour in your melted butter (if using - let cool so it doesn't harden when you pour it into the cold egg/milk mixture)
-Add your spices, then whisk all of the ingredients together
-Prepare a baking dish by greasing it with butter or cooking spray
-Dip each side of each piece of bread into the mixture so that it is saturated, then place it in the baking dish
-Bake uncovered at 350º for about 30 minutes (longer if you want your French toast crispier and less soggy), turning the pieces of bread over once during baking.

Top off your warm, baked French toast with fresh berries, banana slices, syrup, butter, or a dusting a powdered sugar. Or even more fun, if having brunch with family or friends, make a French toast bar laying out all the possible toppings and let your guests create their own perfect French toast. Enjoy!

Saturday, June 22, 2013

delicious desserts: busy day chocolate cake with strawberries and cream

I have to admit something. This is the first time ever that I've made a busy day chocolate cake. In fact, it wasn't until I began Pinteresting (it's a verb now...just go with it) my little heart out that I first even heard of busy day chocolate cake when I stumbled upon this adaptation of the Martha Stewart recipe. Let me take a moment here to go off on a little tangent. I love Pinterest. I love the inspirational spark of motivation Pinterest can light. But man, all I ever want to do is bake deliciously terrible-for-your-jeans desserts. Sigh. But anyway, I had a good reason this time, because it was Ashley's birthday!

To make this cake into a real birthday treat, I decided to double the fun and make a two layer cake. I'm usually pretty terrible at two layer cakes. Why? Because I'm too impatient. Sigh again. No matter how long I wait to add frosting and stack the top layer of cake upon the bottom, it never seems like it was enough time. The frosting gets soft from the heat of the cakes and just melts away. It's really quite a tragedy. So this time I smartened up and made this a two-day process. Night 1: bake the cakes. They can cool overnight and into the next day. Night 2: zip home from work, whip up the frosting, slice up the strawberries and assemble the layers. The finished masterpiece: a two layer chocolate cake with cream cheese/Cool Whip frosting and fresh strawberries.

This cake is super simple to make, so here's how you do it:

what you need (makes 1 cake):

1-1/2 cups flour
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp coarse salt
6 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tbsp distilled white vinegar
1 cup cold water

what you do:
1. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda and coarse salt.
2. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredient mixture. Add the vegetable oil, vanilla, vinegar and water.
3. Stir together until all ingredients are well mixed and there are not any lumps in the batter (the consistency is much like brownie mix).
4. Pour into a round cake pan (mine is non-stick so I did not grease it) and bake at 350 for 35-40 minutes. Poke the center of the cake with a toothpick to be sure it's baked all the way through.
5. Remove cake from the oven and cool it in the pan on a wire rack. Once cooled, tip the pan upside down on a serving dish to gently remove the cake. Frost when completely cooled.

Apparently the idea of the "busy day cake" is that you can mix all of the ingredients right in the cake pan. I tried it, and then I poured the dry ingredient mixture into a large mixing bowl which I used to continue adding and mixing the ingredients. There was no was I was going to mix all of the ingredients in my cake pan without half of the batter ending up on the counter. On the plus side: since this recipe doesn't include eggs, if you use a mixing bowl, you get to lick it clean. Kidding, kidding (yeah...not kidding at all).

This frosting is also a quick and delicious option:

what you need:
8 oz package of cream cheese, softened
16 oz container of Cool Whip (let thaw slightly)
1/2 cup (or less) powdered sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

what you do:
1. Combine all 4 ingredients and whip together with an electric mixer until you have a fluffy frosting.
2. Apply to cooled cake or cupcakes (you can use this frosting in a pastry bag or frost your baked treats with a knife).

To make the completed double-decker cake, I made two separate recipes of the cake batter instead of doubling the recipe. Made one, poured it in the cake pan, then made the second and poured it in another cake pan (and then "cleaned" the bowl). The day after baking the cakes, I turned one cake upside down onto a serving dish. I applied a layer of room temperature frosting (easier to work with), spread it over the cake with the back of a large spoon, and on top of it, a layer of strawberry slices. Next I added the second cake, upside down, on top of the strawberries (enough frosting squeezes through between the strawberry slices to keep the cakes together), another layer of frosting, and a final layer of strawberry slices. I decided a little design of the "edge" pieces of strawberries was prettier than completely covering the top of the cake with slices. The sides of the cake are not frosted, but you could frost them if you choose.

The cake was so good - the cream cheese, the chocolate, the strawberries - perhaps one of the best birthday cakes yet!

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

life lesson: budget it!

Back at the beginning of the year, I set a goal for myself and how much money I wanted to save by the end of the year. Not so much a New Year's Resolution, as I've always made an effort to save money, but more a hard and fast goal that I'd work my hardest to achieve.

I'm sure in one way or another, we've all felt the squeeze of our changing economy, whether it's seeing an increase in prices at the grocery store, higher prices at the gas pump, or simply a decrease in extra spending money. I've tried budgeting in the past, but it wasn't something I was ever able to keep up with. I tried apps I downloaded for my iPhone, followed tips I found online, and even made charts on my computer. But the best way I've found to keep track of my spending and see my progress toward my goal? Good old fashioned paper and pencil.

Before sitting down to plan your budget, there are two categories of spending you should consider: static expenses and variable expenses. Your static expenses are those that are same, whether month to month, or year to year. You may have static expenses such as rent or a mortgage, insurance (auto, home or health), a gym membership, your annual car registration or AAA membership, etc. that are the exact same amount every time they're due. Variable expenses are those that will change maybe daily, weekly or monthly. Utilities are often a variable expense, since the amount of the bill depends on your usage, but groceries and spending money are also variable expenses because you likely won't be spending the exact same amount every month.

Since static and variable expenses are incurred differently, I tend to track them in different ways, too. I've made a budget worksheet with sections for my once a year expenses, once a month expenses, and those expenses that I may even incur daily. After my once a year expenses have been paid, I simply record the month paid on successive monthly budget worksheets. For static monthly expenses (rent, Netflix, my gym membership, etc.), I record the date the payment was made. For all other expenses, I record both the date and the amount paid. For categories like spending money or groceries, this is really helpful since I may spend money from this category every few days.

Finally, at the bottom of my budget worksheet is a section to track my monthly income.

At the end of every month, I total each section of my budget and compare it to the amount I budgeted. If all goes well and there aren't any surprise expenses, I come in under budget. If I'm over in one category but under in another, it's good to total all real expenses versus all budgeted expenses to find out if, overall, I'm still under budget. Give yourself some flexibility the first month or two of using a new budget in order to figure out just how much is the right amount for you or your household for each budget category. Don't get frustrated if you're not on or under budget after the first month. With a little trial and error and adjusting your budgeted amount for various categories of your budget, you'll get there. But don't take this as an excuse to allow yourself an absurd amount of spending money while trying to get by on as little money as possible in another category.  

The goal at the end of every month is to be able to transfer as much money as possible into savings at the end of every month, or whatever time may be convenient for your budget. I include an un-budgeted category for my savings account on my budget worksheet so that I can keep track of how often and how much money I transfer into savings. Maybe you have a "big ticket" item and you're trying to save enough money to pay for that item in cash rather than credit. Perhaps you're saving for the down payment on a car or house, saving up for a vacation or just trying to reach a goal to begin investing your money. Whatever your end result, budgeting is a sure way to hold yourself responsible and see your progress as you reach your goal.

Don't forget to keep yourself organized and track your expenses every day. I like to keep my budget worksheets in a binder at home. At the end of every day, I go through my receipts, mental notes or notes in my phone, and transfer the day's expenses onto the budget worksheet. The key really is to not let yourself get behind. Spare 5 or 10 minutes at night to update your budget worksheet. One of the benefits of this budget plan is that you don't have to organize multiple envelopes of cash just to keep yourself on track. You can still use a debit card for your spending - just write everything down.

Feel free to take advantage of my sample budget worksheet, found here. Note: This file will open as a Google Document. If you choose, you can download it as a Microsoft Word document so that you are able to change the budget categories and amounts to make them applicable to your or your household's monthly budget.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

super sides: sweet potato chips

Sweet potato fries and chips seem to be a big hit now that various "caveman" diets have become so popular (think Paleo and Whole30). While still craving the favorite side to grass-fed beef or free-range turkey burger, dieters are opting for sweet potato over the traditional white potato for fries and chips.

But why? Livestrong.com authors did a little research for a comparison between white and sweet potatoes. While the amount of calories, carbohydrates, fiber, protein and fat were fairly close between the 100 g servings of each potato, the sweet potato was the clear winner when it came to vitamins. The amount of Vitamin C and Vitamin A per serving (compared to a white potato) are a likely reason the sweet potato prevails as the healthier choice. However, the white potato can offer a slightly higher amount of iron and potassium.

Nutritional information aside, the way you prepare your food also has a hand in how healthy it is when you eat it. Common sense tells you that fresh veggies are great, but if you load them up with a fatty dressing or lots of melted butter, you're adding calories and perhaps some ingredients you could better live without.

This week, I planned on a dinner of turkey burgers and sweet potato chips. I read countless recipes online, each with loads of comments from readers and at-home chefs who tried and maybe tweaked the recipes, sharing their results. The bottom line? Everyone had an opinion as to how to make the best and crispiest sweet potato treat.

Make your raw sweet potato slices as thin as possible.
I began by following a set of instructions for baking the sweet potato chips. Why baking? Less oil, less mess and less effort.

what you need:
sweet potatoes
mandolin or a sharp knife and steady hand
olive oil
sea salt or other seasonings of your choice

what you do:
1. Wash your sweet potatoes, peel if desired (I chose not to) and slice as thin as possible.
2. Put the sweet potato slices in a large bowl and drizzle with olive oil, mixing the potato slices with your hands to ensure they all get a light coating of oil.
3. Lay the slices out on a baking sheet (I chose a broiler pan with holes that rests on top of a deeper pan) and sprinkle with sea salt or other seasonings (I used Old Bay).
4. Place the pan on the lower rack of a 400º oven and bake for 20-30 minutes, turning the potato slices over halfway through baking time.

Now, here's where I went wrong. Some recipes and comments suggested turning up the heat partway through the baking process, so I upped the temperature to nearly 450º. After throwing in a load of laundry, I came back to the kitchen to find half of the chips crispy and edible, the rest charred. Perhaps if I baked the sweet potato slices longer and at the lower temperature, they all would have turned out great. The edible ones were pretty fantastic though.

Luckily I had three sweet potatoes, so I tried another method - a combination of oil frying and baking.

what you need:
sweet potatoes
mandolin or a sharp knife and a steady hand
cooking oil
sea salt or other seasonings of your choice

what you do:
1. What your sweet potatoes, peel if desired (again, I did not) and slice as thin as possible.
2. Cover the bottom of a large frying pan with cooking oil (1/4-1/2 inch) and turn the burner on medium heat to begin warming the oil.
3. Using a spatula or large spoon, carefully place sweet potato slices in the frying pan. After a couple of minutes, flip the slices over. Continue frying in the oil until you see the slices shrivel and begin resembling a potato chip.
4. Before the chips get too brown, use the spatula to remove them from the oil, allowing excess oil to drain back into the frying pan. Spread the chips out on a baking sheet and sprinkle with sea salt or other seasonings.
5. Once all sweet potato slices have been fried and are on the baking sheet, place the sheet in the oven at 400º. After about 3-5 minutes, check and flip the chips on the cookie sheet. Salt or season the flipped side of the chips and bake for another 3-5 minutes.
6. When you remove the chips from the oven, place them on a paper towel to absorb excess oil before serving.

Although more labor intensive, the second method produced much better chips. They were crispy (except the ones I got a little impatient with while frying), crunchy and a perfect side to homemade turkey burgers. These were definitely worth the effort to make again.

Friday, June 14, 2013

a sign of the season

It's true, summer hasn't official begun, but it's been a beautiful pre-summer season so far here in the southeastern Pennsylvania. With only about a week of somewhat unpleasant temperatures and more rain than the ground can drink, the backyard garden has been happy, happy, happy.

Peppers growing from seed.
We started our seeds indoors sometime around late March/early April. These included peppers, tomatoes, herbs, broccoli, corn and a few flowers. While the spring weather was still a bit crisp, we planted our pea, bean, lettuce, cabbage, carrot and swiss chard seeds directly into our freshly tilled and compost-rich garden soil. We also planted potatoes and onions, and the garlic from last year was still growing strong. Once the ground was free from the risk of frost, we planted squash, cucumber, sunflower, marigold and other assorted flower seeds, and transplanted a few strawberry plants. The variety of plants growing in the garden this year is unbelievable. I'm certain it's the best year yet. 

We spent a considerable amount of time constructing a taller, sturdier, and dare I say, more visually appealing garden fence this year. So far it's proven a trusty barrier to most of the critters who venture through the backyard. There's an occasional turf war with one very fat groundhog, but overall we seem to be prevailing.  

Our garden, late spring 2013.
I really can't wait until we start collecting the fruits and veggies the garden will be producing this year. And we have big plans for it all, too. There's always an overabundance of produce to share, and while we look forward to continuing to share the products of a season's work with our friends and neighbors, we also are hopefully to save quite a bit. We've never done any preserving or canning, although we have dried some hot peppers and saved them with a vacuum sealer. This year, Ashley is looking forward to making his own tomato sauce. With all of the basil, oregano, garlic, onions and tomatoes sure to come up, that should be a successful project, even if it's done in small batches. I've found a pretty good resource for preserving garlic and I'm excited to try it. And I also want to make my own mozzarella so I can enjoy 100% homegrown and homemade caprese salad - what a perfect summer treat.

Sunday morning reading.
Recently, I've been really interested in brushing up on my homesteading skills. It's my dream to one day have my own small farm - the ideas are varied and who knows, maybe someday a combination of them will become a reality. I have a number of books I flip through from time-to-time to get some tips, and a whole slew more on my Amazon wishlist. If I can manage to read through even half of them, I think I'll have more knowledge and background information than I'll know what to do with.

And as I've found out over the years, and I'm sure many of you have as well, having big ideas is the easy part. Getting excited about them is pretty effortless, too. It's all the hard work and motivation that goes into making them a reality that's sometimes tough. A little self discipline and diligence will hopefully go a long way, and by the end of the season I hope there are plenty of recipes and tips to share!


Friday, May 3, 2013

VB6: One month later

It's been one month since I decided to try the VB6 lifestyle (if you're totally lost, check my previous post for more details), and I have had "veebeesixcess" for three of those four weeks.

Eating vegetarian or vegan meals isn't totally new to me, as I've had periods of vegetarian eating in the past and I prepare vegan meals from time to time as well. I do find it important to do a week's worth of meal planning in advance, to be sure I have the right foods for breakfast, lunch and daytime snacks. Without advanced planning, my fallback option for lunch tends to be leftovers of the previous night's dinner, but for VB6, that doesn't often work.

So what do I eat for breakfast, lunch and snacks without including any animal products or byproducts? There are still a lot of options! Here are some of my favorite:
  • Mixed greens salad with grilled tofu and vinaigrette dressing (prepare the tofu the night before)
  • Hummus with veggies (cucumber, peppers, cauliflower), pita chips or crackers
  • Banana or apple slices with peanut butter
  • Avocado and banana slices (so good together!)
  • Berries
  • Walnuts
  • Grape tomatoes
  • Orange juice, coconut water and a scoop of Amazing Grass 
  • Naked Juice Green Machine or protein smoothies
  • Odwalla Green Smoothie
  • Channa Masala or Alu Gobi with basmati rice (my co-op sells dishes from a great little Indian take-out restaurant nearby - perfect lunch-sized portions) 
I've noticed that in addition to excluding animal products and byproducts, I'm also excluding a lot of processed foods as a result. Eating mostly whole, unprocessed, and many raw foods is a whole different ballgame and it leaves you feeling much differently. I've lost about 3 pounds and my stomach is a little flatter (oh hey bikini season!) It's taught me a lot, too. Working 10-6, I've been finding myself becoming ravenously hungry around 4:30 p.m. If I haven't packed lunch and snacks well that day, I'm looking at stuffing any and everything in my face when I walk in the door after work - good and bad foods. So the lesson learned: it takes more raw and unprocessed foods to fill me up compared to, say, leftovers of last night's chicken parmesan.

I'm still making my way through reading VB6 and I'm learning quite a bit not only about what to and what not to eat, but about what our food actually is. I've realized when it comes to food, no matter if you've learned something once, a refresher is always good not only to help you make the right choices, but to keep you motivated to make those choices. If you're reading VB6 or have been making the transition to a better way of eating, feel free to share your stories below!      

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Awesome Appetizers: Caprese "kabobs"

This appetizer really is awesome - 4 edible ingredients plus toothpicks, a recipe as easy as it gets and they are delicious. I found the inspiration here and adapted it slightly for my needs. I was headed to an afternoon birthday party but had to leave home early in the morning with my potluck contribution already prepared. The number of guests was unknown, and I needed something with little clean-up involved since the party would be outside.

What you need:
Fresh mozzarella (one large ball or mini mozzarella balls)
Cherry or grape tomatoes
Fresh basil
Extra virgin olive oil
Toothpicks or cake pop/kabob sticks

What you do:
-Rinse the tomatoes and cut them in half width-wise (to make two half spheres instead of two half ovals)
-Cut the fresh mozzarella into about 1/2 inch squares, or if using mini mozzarella balls, cut in half
-Rinse the fresh basil and pat dry, then cut into small squares (remember a small piece of fresh basil can have lots of flavor)
-Assemble the "kabob" on the toothpick as follows: tomato first, then basil, then mozzarella (if using mini mozzarella balls, assemble so that the half tomato and half mozzarella ball create a complete sphere like a cake pop)
-Lay the finished kabobs on a trap and drizzle or spray with olive oil

After about 30 minutes of prep and assembly time and less than $8 worth of ingredients, I had a tray of around 40-50 Caprese "kabobs." All I had to do when I got to the party was take the lid off the tray. No plates needed for these awesome appetizers - just enjoy and toss your toothpick in the trash or compost bin!

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Currently Reading: VB6: Eat Vegan Before 6:00 to Lose Weight and Restore Your Health...For Good

"Currently Reading" is a new feature I'll be adding to Part of the Whole. I love stumbling across a good book - even better for me (and you!) when it's a book packed with information useful to my (and probably your) daily life. So, when I do pick up a book I think would be of interest to readers, I'll be sharing my review. Hunker down folks, this one might take awhile.  

In March, I had the opportunity to attend a Mark Bittman lecture (maybe you've read his food-centric NY Times column or have one of his cookbooks). Just a few days before, Bittman tweeted an offer for his followers to respond via tweet or email for a free, pre-publication copy of his latest book, VB6: Eat Vegan Before 6:00 to Lose Weight and Restore Your Health...For Good (see the Kindle version here). This, his latest book, will be released on April 30, 2013. Perfect timing! The lecture was enjoyable and a good reminder of many topics I'd become familiar with through watching loads of food and farming documentaries and reading other literature on the topics. Bittman introduced the VB6 concept, touching on the conversation with his doctor and the condition of his health that led to his decision to eat a vegan diet before 6 p.m.

Finally, a few weeks later, I'm able to spend some time reading VB6. The concept is simple. I should say that I've done my own informal research on the wide array of specialty "diets" out there (I like how Bittman brings to light the way the use of the word "diet" has become warped so that its general connotation is a short term way of eating for quick results, rather than long-term) - paleo, Whole30, raw, vegetarian, vegan, etc. Obviously, for those of us who are considering changing our (long-term) diet, we are starting at Point A and aiming to settle into the eating habits at Point B. Often, this means saying farewell to certain foods - possibly dairy, gluten, sugar or meat. My educated guess tells me that the initial shock of "I have to give up ____?!" is where some people jump ship before even putting in the effort. Others happily accept the challenge and push on. VB6 seems to be a nice little compromise somewhere between Point A and Point B, wavering throughout the day but generally landing you much closer to Point B than Point A.

Here's the premise of VB6: from the time you wake up until the time you eat dinner, you adopt a vegan diet. You exclude all animal products and byproducts (meat, eggs, butter, cheese, etc.) from your meals and snacks - an extra thumbs up for also restricting your intake of highly processed, nutrient-poor and sugary foods (white bread, pasta, candy...you get the idea). But at dinner time and for any evening snacks, feel free to enjoy those foods you excluded earlier in the day (mainly the animal products and byproducts - it would still be wise to limit or restrict your intake of the highly processed, nutrient-poor and sugary foods). Bittman's reason for the dinnertime allowances makes a lot of sense - this is when we tend to eat out, socialize, have large meals and maybe dessert, a glass of wine or a beer. I'd dare to say that this is when people on a typical diet tend to "slip" - not to say that going from vegan back to your typical eating habits at dinnertime is a built-in "cheat," it just allows for flexibility. And as with just about anything, room for flexibility will likely lead to longevity and success. Also, as Bittman explains in his book, there's no required counting of calories, tallying of points or any other such keep-tracks (unless of course you have some other reason that you want to).

As I was getting ready for bed last night (and I was nowhere near finished with the book by that point), I thought about VB6 and how I should just go ahead and do it. It's really not that hard. Sure I like cheese. I like some chocolate now and then, and a beer on a sunny day. Oh yeah and a good pulled pork sandwich. But will waiting until dinner time to enjoy these foods kill me? I highly doubt it. If anything, it might make me savor and appreciate them a bit more. Luckily, I'd just done a quick grocery shopping trip and was planning on eating vegetarian lunches for the rest of the week, so I was pretty much all set.

So, as I dove into my first attempt at a VB6 day, here's what I ate before dinner:

Breakfast: Grapes, walnuts and black coffee with a little sugar in the raw (the black coffee was a fluke - we were out of half-and-half at work...I wasn't going to budge on the half-and-half and was going to adapt VB6 to "VB6 but after my morning cup o' joe")

Lunch: A honeycrisp apple with extra crunchy peanut butter, Wheat Thins with roasted garlic hummus, more walnuts and water

Guess what? I survived.

On Sunday I run in my first ever 5K - and let me tell you - I am not a runner. That being said, I've learned to enjoy the workouts and the training schedule, and I'd like to sign up for another 5K sometime this summer or fall. I'm looking forward to using VB6 to guide me back to better eating choices as I prepare for round two.


Always consult your physician before beginning a new diet or fitness plan.

I received my copy of Mark Bittman's VB6: Vegan Before 6:00 to Lose Weight and Restore Your Health...For Good for free from Clarkson Potterson/Publishers through a promotion by Mark Bittman via his Twitter account. Although I did not purchase this book, the review is my uninfluenced opinion and the choice to try the VB6 diet is my own educated decision.   

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Carrot Cake with Vanilla Buttercream Frosting

We've had beautiful spring-like weather this weekend and my KitchenAide Mixer has been sitting dormant far too long. I had an itch to bake something, and no other baked goods says springtime like a carrot cake. For the cake recipe, I turned to my trusty Better Homes & Gardens cookbook (with a couple adjustments), and for the vanilla buttercream frosting, I found a great recipe via Pinterest.

Carrot Cake

What you need:

4 eggs, beaten
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups sugar
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/8 tsp ground nutmeg
1/8 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
3 cup finely shredded carrot (lightly packed)
3/4 cup (or 1-6 oz container) vanilla flavored Greek yogurt*

What you do:

- Allow the eggs to warm to room temperature for 30 minutes. While the eggs were warming, I peeled and shredded carrots in my food processor. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

- In the bowl for my KitchenAid, I combined the dry ingredients (flour, sugar, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, salt and baking soda).

- In a separate bowl, I combine the shredded carrot, yogurt and eggs.

- Add the shredded carrot, yogurt and egg mixture to the dry ingredient mixture and stir together until thoroughly combined.

- Pour into two greased 9-1/2 inch round cake pans (I used an extra long loaf pan from Ikea that was the perfect size for the amount of batter this recipe produces).

- Bake for 30-40 minutes at 350 degrees. Check that the cake has baked through by inserting a toothpick into the cake. If it comes out clean, the cake is done.

- When the cake is done, cool in the pan(s) on a rack for 10 minutes, then turn onto a cooling rack and cool thoroughly before frosting.

*Using yogurt will create a very dense cake. If you prefer a fluffier, lighter cake, use 3/4 cup oil instead of yogurt.

Vanilla Buttercream Frosting

What you need:

1/2 cup egg whites (I used the pre-separate whites from Egg Beaters)
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 lb (8 oz.) unsalted butter (room temperature, but into slices)
1 tsp vanilla extract (or flavor of your choice)

(the original recipe is double these amounts but this amount was perfect for frosting and filling my cake)

What you do:

- Put a pot of water on the stove and let it simmer. Set your metal mixing bowl (I used the bowl from my KitchenAid) over the pot of water (see original post for photos of the process).

- In the mixing bowl, combine the egg whites and sugar. Whisk continually until the sugar dissolves and the mixture reaches a temperature of 140 degrees. As Gail says in her post, the mixture will be warm to the touch.

- With the whisk attachment of your mixture, begin beating the egg and sugar mixture. Increase the mixer speed as the mixture thickens.

- Once the mixture thickens, change to the paddle attachment and add the butter a couple of pieces at a time. If the buttercream is lumpy, increase the speed on your mixer until the buttercream smooths out.

- Add your flavoring extract and mix in thoroughly. Refrigerate the buttercream frosting until your cake is thoroughly cooled and ready to be frosted.

- Add a layer of frosting between the cake layers and then frost the top and sides. Mine doesn't look pretty, but it sure tastes good!

Monday, January 28, 2013

Freshen Up

I love walking in the door to a fresh smelling home. There are lots of products on the market to give your home a signature scent, but not all of them are products you'd want to use once you do a little research and find out just how harmful they have the potential to be. For example, those scented oil warmers and air freshening sprays? No good, my friends. Based on the Natural Resources Defense Council's (NRDC) research and publications, these products contain harmful levels of phthalates, which have been known to cause a number of scary problems, including birth defects, other reproductive issues and hormonal abnormalities. No thanks. Whether it's to get rid of a definite odor, add some freshness to a house that's had the windows shut all winter, or fill the air with a pleasant scent before company comes over, sometimes you just want to smell something good.

While browsing Pinterest, I've come across three safe alternatives that I now use instead of the commercially produced products.

1. Real Scented Oil - If you have a scented oil plug-in with a glass bulb (like the Bath & Body Works type), you have an easy solution. Unscrew the bulb from the plug-in and pull out the rubber stopper containing the wick. Empty and rinse the bulb, then refill with a pure aromatherapy oil (I really like peppermint oil for the fresh, clean scent and I purchase the oil from my local co-op). You can fill the glass bulb completely with oil for a longer lasting scent, or dilute with water. Plug it in and enjoy the healthier, fresh scent. Traditionally, there are oil warmers which are small dishes that are mounted above tea light candles. You pour a little bit of essential oil in the dish, put a tea light candle in the tray below it and the heat from the candle warms the oil and allows it to diffuse throughout the air. Of course, this type of oil warmer can only be used when you are home to keep an eye on the flame.

2. The Williams-Sonoma Scent - I've seen this one a lot on Pinterest, claiming to be that signature scent that makes you swoon whenever you walk by a Williams-Sonoma store in the mall. And whether it is or it isn't, it sure smells good! I actually had a pot of this boiling on the stove this past weekend. I had a lemon in the fridge, a rosemary plant still going strong in the garden, and vanilla in my baking supplies - those three ingredients plus water is all this recipe takes. I sliced half the lemon, cut about 3 sprigs of rosemary and poured in about a tablespoon of vanilla, then filled a medium sauce pan halfway with water. Turn the burner to low and let the mixture simmer and enjoy the relaxing scent it produces. You can probably even do this in a crockpot, too. As the water boils out, add more. Another variation of this that I love is swapping ground cinnamon or a couple of cinnamon sticks for the rosemary. It's an equally pleasant, warm and room-freshening scent.

3. Scented Soy Candles - I found this recipe for soy candles and it is both incredibly easy and not very time consuming. I purchased the soy flakes and wicks from a craft supply store, heated the soy flakes in a ceramic dish in the microwave until melted, stirred in a few drops of pure aromatherapy oil (peppermint again) placed a wick in a mug I picked up from a thrift store, and poured in the melted soy wax. All that's left to do is let the wax harden and you can start burning your homemade scented candle. When you purchase soy candles at the store, you might notice that they're a little more expensive than regular wax candles. I think this is probably because they typically have a longer burn time compared to a similar sized regular wax candle. Soy is a renewable product and it washes right off a ceramic dish with a little hot water and wiping with a soapy sponge. Hint: These make great gifts, too!         

Not all products are created equally, and if you still prefer the ease of picking up a ready-to-use product at the store rather than making your own, there are a few good options listed in the above-linked NRDC publication.

This is not a sponsored  post. All products and brands mentioned were purchased by my choice with my money. 

Saturday, January 26, 2013

"Egg Pie"

So far in 2013, I've been doing fairly well with my weekly meal planning and grocery shopping. Last week's meal plan took a detour though, because when Wednesday night rolled around and I informed Ash I was making frittatas for dinner, he suggested we go out on a date because he didn't want "egg pie" for dinner (you know, because it tastes like eggs). The plan wasn't a total loss, though, because we made frittatas for brunch on Sunday.

What I like most about frittatas are that they're like making a pizza or going through a salad bar: same base, but you can add just about whatever you want so that you never have eat the same combination twice. That's also what makes a frittata great as a last-minute meal idea. As long as you have eggs, I'd be willing to bet you have a few other things in your pantry or fridge that you can chop up and toss in to make your meal.

Here are some of the ingredients I like to add: cheese (any kind), asparagus, broccoli, black beans, potatoes, onions, peppers, scallions, sausage, bacon...the list goes on.

Ash and I, at times, have very different ideas about what "good" food is. He can go for basic meat and potatoes while I like loads of veggies. Sometimes that makes preparing one large dish difficult because it can leave one person unsatisfied with their meal or forceone to eat what they don't like. The solution? Two adorable Fiesta miniature pie plates. Their 6-3/8 inch diameter makes them perfect for individual servings. (We recently purchased really fun dishes from Terrain...they're blue, red and yellow with designs like dancing cows and roosters and pigs. Since then, I've been picking up pieces in coordinating solid colors to fill out the set.).

What You Need:
Olive oil or cooking spray
Other ingredients (cheese, potatoes, peppers, sausage, etc.)
Seasonings (salt, pepper, Old Bay, paprika, etc.)

What You Do:
1. Give each pie plate a light spray of olive oil or cooking spray.

2. Crack the desired number of eggs into each dish, and beat (3 for Ash, 2 for me).

3. Wash, chop, peel, etc. all of your extra ingredients and add desired amount to each dish with any seasonings, then mix it all up. When using potatoes, I chop into small pieces and cook in a frying pan with olive oil and Old Bay seasoning until soft before adding them to the beaten eggs.

4. Bake uncovered at 350º for about 25 minutes or until the egg is cooked all the way through (you'll notice the frittata will cook from the edges of the plate toward the middle, so when there is no longer a puddle of egg in the middle, it's done).

Over the years I've developed a sort of love-hate relationship with eggs. Some mornings I can't wait to dig into freshly scrambled eggs with cheese. Other mornings, well, the thought of eggs kind of makes me want to vom a little. I realized after making the frittatas that this was one of those no egg mornings for me...sigh. The dogs were pretty happy about that.

This is not a sponsored  post. All products and brands mentioned were purchased by my choice with my money. 

Friday, January 25, 2013

Shepherd's Pie

In elementary school, my cousin and I were in a Girl Scout troop led by her mom. Every year we'd do a "practice" camping trip or two in their back yard and another one or two "real" camping trips at large Girl Scout camps a state away. One meal that always showed up on the menu was shepherd's pie. It's one of those easy to prepare, one-dish meals that packs in your meat, vegetables and carbs.

Those days being distant memories, I haven't had shepherd's pie in about as many years. It wasn't until I was browsing Pinterest one night and found this recipe that I thought about shepherd's pie as a viable, not-eating-dinner-in-the-woods dinner option. I remember our Girl Scout version having peas and corn in the "pie," so I adapted the recipe a bit for my own tastes, and scaled down the ingredients to make just two servings.

How great are these mini bags of frozen veggies?
What You Need:
-Ground meat (my choice: turkey)
-Olive oil
-Lipton Recipe Secrets - Onion
-Frozen peas
-Frozen corn
-Potatoes (my choice: russet baking potatoes)
-Shredded cheese (my choice: Mexican blend)
-Milk (my choice: skim)
-Butter (my choice: Land 'O Lakes spread with Canola Oil)

What You Do:
1. Begin by washing and then boiling the potatoes in water. I used two smallish (about 3 inch) Russet baking potatoes, since that's all that was available at my grocery store. I left the skin on while boiling.

2. Using my Misto oil mister, I sprayed a large frying pan with extra virgin olive oil and began browning the ground turkey. I used about 1/3 of a 1.3 lb package of turkey.

3. Wash, peel and chop the carrots and add them to the meat.

4. After the meat has browned, add the Lipton Recipe Secrets, frozen corn, frozen peas and water to the frying pan. I used half of one pouch of the Lipton Recipe Secrets and about 1/2 cup of water. Turn up the heat and continue to stir until the water has boiled out. Beware - this is when it starts smelling really good.

5. Once the potatoes are soft enough to pierce with a fork, remove them from the water and mash with milk, butter and cheese. My measurements here aren't exact. Just enough milk to get the consistency of somewhat thick mashed potatoes, less than 1 tbs of butter and about a handful of shredded cheese. Stir together until the cheese melts. I mashed the potatoes with the skin on them.

6. In your serving dish(es) - I opted for those great little 6-3/8 inch Fiesta pie plates again - layer the meat and vegetable mixture, then a layer of mashed potatoes on top.

7. Bake uncovered at 400 degrees for about 15 minutes. The potatoes should be a little golden around the edges.

And now the question - to eat it with a fork or a spoon?

Going, going, gone! This was so good, I wanted to eat both plates!
This is not a sponsored  post. All products and brands mentioned were purchased by my choice with my money. 

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Teriyaki salmon, basmati rice and Brussels sprouts

I haven't had salmon in the longest time. So long, in fact, that I almost forgot how much I love it when it's cooked just right. My favorite way to prepare a fresh piece of salmon is with a little Asian culinary inspiration.

What you need:
Teriyaki marinade
Soy sauce
Minced ginger*
Minced garlic*
*I like to cheat and use ginger paste and pre-minced garlic

What you do:
This meal needs adequate time for the salmon to marinate in the sauce mixture - at least two hours is recommended. It's quick enough to prepare though that you can put it together in the morning before work, store it in the fridge, and have a well marinated salmon steak ready to cook when you get home from work.

- In a ziplock bag or a food storage container, mix the soy sauce, teriyaki marinade, minced ginger and minced garlic (the measurements are never exact for me, and vary based on the size of the piece of salmon I have). If you are marinating the salmon in a food storage container, place the fish in the container with the skin side up. Cover the container or seal the bag, and place in the fridge until ready to cook.

- To cook the salmon, I came across a great method in a Pioneer Woman post. She references the cookbook Perfect One-Dish Dinners by Pam Anderson (no, not that Pam Anderson). Place the salmon on a baking sheet (I cover my baking sheet with foil to save the scrubbing later) and put it in the cold oven. Set the temperature to 400 degrees, and then set a timer for 25 minutes. After the timer goes off, you should have perfectly cooked salmon!

Brussels Sprouts: Wash, cut off the stem end and cut in half. Toss with olive oil, sea salt and garlic powder, then spread onto a baking sheet. Roast at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes. Put under the broiler for a minute or two to get extra crispy.

Basmati Rice: Toast dry rice in a pot for about four minutes, watching carefully that the rice doesn't burn (toasting opens the pores in the rice grains). Add water (2:1 water to rice) and boil uncovered for one to two minutes. Cover and lower the heat. Once all the water boils out, fluff with a fork and serve.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Weekend Adventures: The PA Farm Show

This past weekend, Ash and I made a trip out to Harrisburg to visit the Pennsylvania Farm Show. I've never attended until this year, I think partially because it's always baffled me that this event takes place in January. With a full week run of the show, each day has different judging events, demonstrations and activities, so it's hard to choose just one day to attend if you want to see it all.

We arrived just in time to see the judging of Black Angus cows. All of the animals were prepped beautifully for judging - they looked like they were covered in velvet rather than fur. Cows always amaze me. I'm used to working with horses, which can weigh upwards of 1,000 pounds, but some of these cows were approaching 1,500 pounds. Being so much shorter and compact than a horse, and not as well trained to be harnessed and led around, that is not an animal I'd want to hang out with if it was having a bad day. We actually saw two pissed off cows - one that was giving a grown man some trouble, and one that nearly dragging a little boy halfway across the judging ring. The kid had sense enough to let go of the lead rope, and after he did, the cow made a couple of leaps through the crowd of participants and cows waiting to be judged before it was caught by somebody. I think that cow was even the winner of the class - maybe it was just excited to celebrate.

After we had enough of the cows, we made our way to the arena where the horses were. Sadly, we'd just missed the Western riding competition, which I would have loved to see. Thanks to my years riding and training with Jill at Tory Hill Farm, I jump at the chance to watch others ride while I silently judge them (in a harsh British accent, no less "That horse is in no shape to be doing that work with that bloody foolish rider..."). We caught a couple of demonstrations during the last couple of minutes of judging, and I can say that their half passes could have used a little work. Those horses were not "straight." But anyway, what we did see was the feed scurry. Belgians and Percherons were attached to a sled and teams - two at a time - competed while driving the sled through a course of cones and loading/unloading bales of straw in a particular order. The fastest team to complete the course was the winner.

After our fill of events, we wandered around to look at all the different exhibition halls of fruits, veggies and animals that were judged at the show. I love that this is what some families do together - raise animals, grow crops, work hard and then show off what they've put their blood, sweat and tears into. I've always admired farm life. I love the smells, the sounds, the hard work. Given the choice, I'd rather come home covered in dirt and physically tired over clean and mentally tired any day. 

Here are some more fun sights from the show:

You'd think these two were best friends, right? A little horn huggin'.

With a name like "Awesome Whisky Girl" you're guaranteed to be the coolest cow around.

How cute is this little pig taking a drink of water? 

His and hers...what a perfect way to ride off into the sunset!
And finally, a fun fact: Did you know that Pennsylvania is the top state in the U.S. when it comes to the number of farms and acreage of land permanently preserved for farming? [1] Pretty cool!

Friday, January 4, 2013

Awesome Appetizers: Goat Cheese Wantons

Although the biggest party season of the year is now behind us, it's always a good idea to have a list of go-to appetizers that are easy to make. You never know when company might stop by, right? And a good host or hostess always has a treat to offer his or her guests.

I offer you: the goat cheese wantons. I've been making these delicious little bites of goodness since my roommates and I hosted a wine and cheese party during our college days. Warm cheese and a crunchy wanton wrapper in a two-bite snack - what more can you ask for?

What you Need:
Wanton wrappers
Goat cheese
Butter, melted (optional)
Balsamic vinegar (optional)

What you Do:
- Lay out 12 wanton wrappers on a baking sheet
- Spoon about half a teaspoon of goat cheese onto each flat wanton wraper
- Use melted butter (or warm water) and dab a drop onto each corner of the wanton wrapper, then fold the corners up and pinch together so the wrapper closes (see photo)
- Bake in the oven at 325º for 10-12 minutes, or until the wanton wrappers are golden brown. The cheese should be melted by this time.

A package each of wanton wrappers and goat cheese could easily yield 24-30 baked goat cheese wantons. I love using herb goat cheese for a little extra flavor. Since the cheese tends to be a bit dry, try dipping the baked wantons into balsamic vinegar before taking a bite - it's delicious!  

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Love some seitan!

Seitan stir fry - on new dishes! 

Clean plate club!