Sep 29, 2010

Recipe of the Week: Garlic Lime Seasoning for Chicken & Pork

I picked up on this wonderful dish through a post at Dave's Garden, when a Texas member shared her recipe for Garlic Lime Chicken. It is absolutely fabulous as-is, and I've found it also translates to boneless pork cutlets (tenderloin medallions cook quickly and work great.)

I ventured out one step further with the seasonings, and used them as a rub for a pork loin, which I roasted in my beloved Lodge dutch oven, and then used the drippings to create a reduction sauce similar to the original recipe. In a word: Yummy. You could probably use it as a rub on a roasted chicken as well - it's a terrific and easy blend of spices to whip up.

Marylyn's Garlic Lime Chicken 

1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon garlic powder (I use a generous dollop of fresh minced garlic instead)
1/2 teaspoon onion powder
1/2 teaspoon thyme

6 boneless skinless chicken breasts
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup chicken broth
4 tablespoons lime juice

In a bowl, mix together the first seven ingredients.  Sprinkle mixture on both sides of chicken breasts (you may want to pound them to a 1/2-inch thickness first.)

Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat; add butter and olive oil, when butter has melted and begins to froth, add chicken breasts, leaving room to move them around the pan (you may have to cook them in batches, depending on the size of the pan and the breasts.)  Saute until golden brown (about five minutes), turn and saute another 5 minutes or until chicken is no longer pink in the thickest part.

Remove chicken to a plate and keep warm.  Add chicken broth and lime juice to pan, scraping up the brown bits off the bottom into the sauce.  Keep stirring/whisking until sauce has reduced slightly.  Add chicken back to pan to thoroughly coat, then serve.  It's excellent with a rice pilaf or saffron rice, as well as with mashed potatoes.

For the loin roast, I used sea salt (cut the salt in half if you do!) and rubbed the dry ingredients over the washed-and-patted-dry roast in the pan.  Cover and bake at 350 until it reaches an internal temperature of 150; then remove the roast and allow it to stand for a few minutes before slicing. In the meantime, add a tablespoon of butter plus the chicken broth and lime juice to deglaze the pot, simmer until reduced.  Pour the reduced sauce over the loin slices just before serving.

Happy eating!

Sep 27, 2010

Dog + Dyson = Da Big Stinky

I adore my sweet dog.  She is 80 pounds of gentle playfulness - she sings, she sneezes on command and her Samoyed smile melts your heart.  She's also 80 pounds of beautiful white fur.  We keep her coat trimmed because she is an indoor dog, venturing outdoors only for a little R&R or to hang out with us when we're working around the yard.  But even trimmed, she sheds like nobody's business, as does the resident longhaired Mainecoon cat named - appropriately - Luci (short for Lucifer.)  Notice I'm not singing Luci's fact, you can probably hear the crickets chirping in the deafening silence.

Little dog is not so little any more...
Anyhoo, I am the proud owner of a Dyson DC24, which slurps up everything it finds on our hard floors and area rugs.  (With the two resident beasts and the visits from "little dog" Sadie-the-grandpuppy, carpeting would be completely inbearable.)

Before the Dyson, I went through a series of cheap little stick vacs - not as powerful, but lightweight, easy to use and did an admirable job on the hard flooring.  When the most recent one died, and I finally broke over and got the vacuum of my dreams...or so I thought.

Let me preface this by saying I'm no stranger to the concept of cleaning the vacuum; in fact, I think the producers of Friends could have shot this vacuum-the-vacuum scene at my house.

The one major drawback to the Dyson is the difficulty in getting rid of the pet hair smell in between vacuumings - and it goes stale faster than an open bag of Lay's chips at the beach.  I thought it was just me, but after some Googling, I know I'm not alone in having problems with odor in my Dyson.  And when I say odor, I don't mean a little aroma - it's a hold-your-breath-or-you'll-gag kind of stench.  Vacuuming necessitates a second pass through the house with Febreeze or Oust spray, and even then I'm doing the "sniff sniff" test for hours afterward, certain I can still smell the telltale odor of pet hair.

After scouring the web for commiseration, tips and tricks, my next attempt to curb this problem involves a can of pressurized air to clean the cyclone chamber, and then a scented dryer sheet tucked into the dirt canister, after I take it apart and meticulously clean and wash all the filters and the plastic canister of course.    I love my dog, I love my Dyson, I love my dog, I love my Dyson...

Happy vacuuming,

Sep 24, 2010

Clean Desk Mission Week 9: Whaddaya mean, this isn't organized?

So here I was, merrily cruising along, patting myself on the back for maintaining an organized desk (for two months and counting!) Okay, so the last couple of days have been a little less-than-organized, but the chaos was quickly brought back under control before I took this shot today:

And then I read this post from and suddenly I'm second-guessing myself.  Is the desk merely "clean" or is it organized?  Talk about bursting my bubble.  But in my defense, I did clear out all the extra pens, post-it-notes and other detritus back when I first got serious about this project back in late July.

Actually, the Lifehacker post on singletasking  (which included the link to REALLY organizing your workspace) was what first hit home with this dyed-in-the-wool adherent to multitasking.  There are some salient points made in the article, and if I'm honest, my own experience bears witness to how much more effective I am when I don't try to check Facebook, my blog, reply to email and work messages while simultaneously uploading pictures and editing or writing - and scarfing down lunch.  It all gets done, but usually with a certain amount of heartburn, both figurative and literal.

Just don't quibble with my ability to make coffee, bake biscuits, feed the dog, unload the dishwasher, and start dinner in the slow cooker all at once.  Fully caffeinated, I am a force to be reckoned with in the mornings, if only for a few spectacular moments.

Happy tasking (in whatever modality you choose)!

Sep 23, 2010

Why change JUST the bulb?

If you've ever decided to trade cars because your tags were up for renewal, you'll probably relate to this story...

The light over the kitchen sink went out a couple nights ago but the recessed lights take a special long-neck halogen bulb, and I didn't have any spares on hand.  I looked for some at my favorite-discount-store-to-dread (WalMart) yesterday, but they have stopped carrying them, so I figured I'd wait until I was headed to Home Depot or Lowe's to pick up a few.

Lo and behold, this morning I was browsing Thrifty Decor Chick's blog and found this post for a DIY pendant light, using a conversion kit from Lowe's.

My heart skipped a beat:  I had long been toying with the idea of a pendant light above the sink, just to add a little panache to a really ho-hum fixture.  Go ahead, you can agree with me - it was a snoozer.  But I put off even seriously contemplating a pendant until I was ready to tackle all the steps in the process, namely taking out the housing for the recessed light in order to replace it with a new light fixture - which never fits exactly and then drywall repair and painting ensue.  (The spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak.)

This $20 kit was designed for slackers like me.  No killing the breaker (well, the kit says you should--but honestly, who does that if all you're doing is changing a bulb?), no climbing up in the attic, figuring out WHICH light fixture to remove, as you communicate with someone below as they tap, tap, tap their location.  No coming back down covered in fiberglass fibers.  I tend to work solo, and changing light fixtures typically requires some teamwork, and several hours of trial-and-error frustration.

But this...this was no more difficult than changing the bulb.  It took me longer to pick out the pendant light than it did to put this whole thing together, even including the time to adjust the length of the pendant.

One thing I did realize after I got it up is that our recessed "can" is seated a little I guess I will have to go up in the attic one of these days and cinch it up.  For now, the flush-mounted cover is...well...not quite flush.  But I'm in no hurry to scurry up there - it may be the first day of fall but the thermostat is reading 96 F.  Whew.

Instead, I'll whip up some lemon bars and ice down some waters for a summer Bible Vacation debriefing tonight, then get some rice started for dinner.  (Note to self: watch the rice this time...scorched brown rice is not just unpalatable, it's inedible and stinky.)

Hmmm.  You know, my car tags ARE due at the end of this month...

Happy DIY-ing!

Sep 22, 2010

Recipe of the Week: Potatoes Au Gratin

If you've perused my Wednesday recipes, you've probably noticed a steady theme (stream?) of carbohydrates running through my favorites.  What can I say?  I love my breads, sweets and starches.  But in the balance, I run almost daily, keep my weight in the healthy range and my last blood workup revealed perfect scores on my cholesterol and blood-sugar levels.  (Our diet is also rich in beans, which are known to be good guys for those battling diabetes.)

We visited Las Vegas a few years ago on Spring Break.  We ate in the rotating "Top of the World"  restaurant above the Stratosphere.  The view was spectacular, and the food was yummy.  Their signature Potatoes Au Gratin, with gorgonzola, parmesan, provolone and romano cheese, was particularly noteworthy.

I've never found "their" recipe, but I've found a similar recipe that we like a lot and modified it to incorporate a blend of cheeses.  If you've made potatoes au gratin, you've probably discovered it is difficult - if not impossible - to get the potatoes in the middle to cook without overcooking or curdling the sauce.  But this recipe will yield perfectly done potatoes every time, because it cheats:  you parboil the potatoes first, then heat through just enough to get everything bubbling hot.

Potatoes Au Gratin
3 cups diced cooked potatoes (with or without skins); drained
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons flour
1 1/2 cups milk
1/2 cup grated Parmesan or Romano cheese (not the stuff in the plastic shaker jar)
1/2 cup diced or grated soft cheese (soft mild fontina is my favorite, but provolone, Monterey Jack or mozzarella can be substituted)
1/4 cup crumbled feta, blue or gorgonzola cheese
1 cup soft bread crumbs

Grease au gratin pan or 1-quart casserole dish.  Add still-warm potatoes to pan and set aside.   In a heavy saucepan over medium-low heat, melt butter; pour half into a cup or bowl and set aside.  Add flour to the remaining 3 tablespoons and stir well; allow to bubble into a light roux.  Gradually add milk, whisking constantly.  Continue cooking, stirring constantly, until sauce has thickened - make sure there are no lumps.  Add cheeses and stir until they begin to melt.  Pour sauce over potatoes in baking dish; mix gently to coat.  Combine butter with bread crumbs and sprinkle over potatoes.  Bake about 15 minutes to heat through; switch to broil and broil just until golden and bubbly on top.  Serves 4.

This recipe can be doubled for a crowd, and the lineup of cheeses can be changed to suit your preferences (and what you have on hand.) But don't shy away from the blue cheese if you're worried about it overpowering the dish...there's just enough there to add a hint of pungent flavor that even blue-cheese haters will enjoy, without the "bite" they don't.

Happy cooking!

Sep 20, 2010

It's almost time!

A few weeks ago, I received an email from my friends at TPAC, letting me know that Straight No Chaser would be in town for a one-night performance. This male a cappella group is immensely entertaining, even if you're not imbibing.

I wasted no time and ordered tickets.  On Wednesday evening, we'll make our way downtown to see them perform.

And just in case I had forgotten about the concert date, TPAC was kind enough to send an email reminder to me - full of hints and tips for nearby parking, eateries, concessions available, and safety.  What a thoughtful gesture...see, the power of technology can be used for good, and not evil!

Happy Monday!

P.S., I wonder how many Christmas songs they'll do?

Sep 17, 2010

Clean Desk Mission Week 8: A recipe for disaster

Hi, my name is Terry.

I am recipes.

Like most addictions, mine started out innocently - a magazine would have some yummy-looking concoction, so I'd clip out the recipe. It helped justify the expense of the magazine. I'd also scribble ingredients and instructions from television segments onto bits of paper, tear off recipes from the backs of boxes and bags and canned foods.  Bit by bit, my collection of untried recipes grew, and grew...and grew.

I've never limited myself to just one kind of recipe--I'm into main dish, pasta, dessert, breads, cookies, soups, appetizers...if it looks or sounds good, I want that recipe.

Friends unwittingly fueled my addiction by copying their recipes for me when asked. Soon, I was furtively clipping out recipes from magazines in waiting rooms.  Ever wonder who ripped a half-page out of the magazine article you're trying to read in the doctor's office? People like me, that's who.

And then came the Internet. Suddenly I had unfettered access to every recipe in the world. At first I'd try to remember where I saw a particular recipe, but that rarely worked. (In the pre-Google era, retracing my steps was nearly impossible.) I tried bookmarking sites, but that quickly became a tangled mess, too.

So I started printing out recipes whenever I came across one that sounded good.  Print, print, print.  So easy.  A victimless vice (unless you count the trees sacrificed to make all that paper.)  But now I have this bulging file of yet-to-be-tried recipes.  This doesn't include my "keepers" or the hand-scribbled notes and recipe cards from friends that are stashed here and there and everywhere else.

To make matters worse, my trusty accordion folder recently got snagged on a drawer and ripped open; now it barely holds anything.  It's time to make some sense of this chaos.  Armed with some sturdy 3-ring binders and sheet protectors, I will bring order to this mess. 

(Please don't ask me about that teetering stack of family photos in the hall closet, or all the digital images waiting to be printed; they make my present crisis look like child's play.  But they will have to wait until I get the recipe monkey off my back.)

Happy organizing!

Sep 15, 2010

Recipe of the Week: Best Banana Bread Ever (Really)

Everybody says their banana bread recipe is the best. And I'm sure they are all very, very good. But this one truly takes the cake, with the perfect combination of a crunchy crust atop a soft and moist inside.  And it stays that way for several days; no dry banana bread here - assuming it sticks around that long!

National Banana Bread day is February 23. I thought about holding off on posting this until then, but this recipe is just too good to not share. And you'll have plenty of time to mark the date and whip up a loaf in February so you can impress family, friends and co-workers with your knowledge of obscure holidays, served up with a scrumptious slice of delectable sweet bread.

Sour Cream Banana Bread

3/4 cup unsalted butter or margarine, softened
2 1/4 cups sugar
3 eggs
3/4 cup sour cream (you can substitute plain or vanilla yogurt)
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
3 cups flour
3 large ripe bananas, mashed
3/4 cup chopped walnuts (black walnuts are my personal fave for this recipe)

Grease two 5x9 loaf pans; set aside. Preheat oven to 350. Cream butter and sugar in large mixing bowl. Beat in eggs, sour cream, vanilla and soda until creamy. Add flour gradually, mixing well after each addition. Fold in bananas and nuts. Divide among pans and bake 45 to one hour or until toothpick inserted comes out clean. (You may need to cover the top during the last 15-20 minutes to prevent overbrowning.)

As much as I love this recipe, I can't take responsibility for crafting this masterpiece - I clipped it from a newspaper many moons ago (and didn't even note the source - bad me!) I have modified it - this is 50% more than the original recipe.  In its original proportions, it was really too much batter for a single loaf pan, but increasing it by half is just enough to make two nice-sized loaves - make one nut-free if you need to.  You can also  double this recipe and divide among several mini-loaf pans for Christmas goodies. (Drop in some mini chocolate chips with the nuts for an extra-fabulous flavor.)

Happy baking!

Sep 13, 2010

Menu Planning: The basics

Monday...for me, that's menu planning day.

For purposes of this blog post, I'm going to assume everyone knows the virtues of menu planning (bottom line:  saves you time and money, lets you plan a better variety of healthy foods, etc.)  But I know from personal experience and talking to other moms (of all ages) that HOW to menu plan is not always as well-known or understood.  And not to be sexist...but for most guys, menu planning is a foreign concept.  For them, dinner happens.

As most of us have figured out, there are many ways to plan your menu:
  • Ask for suggestions from family members (definitely hit-or-miss)
  • Go to the store for inspiration, buy and fix whatever sounds good today.  Tomorrow, do the same thing.  (Pssst, that's really NOT planning.)
  • Plan a menu around whatever you bought at the farmers market.
  • Plan the menu around weekly store sales and coupons (on your own, or with help from sites such as
  • Select from pre-made items from the freezer (for me that means using up stockpiled raviolis or tamales, or ready-to-assemble entrees from Once-a-Month Cooking or the Dinner A'Fare plans.)
I have used all these approaches at various times, with varying degrees of success.  But generally, I have found a weekly menu is most efficient and economical (both in terms of time and money) for us.  A two-week plan has never been successful for our family because we inevitably run out of milk, juice, sandwich bread, or something I *need* for a recipe in between bi-weekly trips, so I'm still back at the store at least once--or more--during the fortnight.

A weekly trip may occasionally be supplemented by a second store run as well, but usually I can rearrange my menu plans to eek out another day or two until the next scheduled store run when I'm on a weekly schedule.  Weekly shopping also lets me offer more fresh fruits and vegetables; not everything holds up well for 7, 10 or 14 days.

My menu planning takes place on Monday.  This became an established routine a few years ago, when I offered to take Monday night dinners to a nearby friend who was on bedrest for most of her third pregnancy.  It was just what I needed to nail down my own menu for the week.  I'd simply double up on whatever I planned for Monday, and take half to them.  This was a double blessing, since I also wanted to be a little more creative in what I shared with another relying on trusty old spaghetti week after week!  (My family LOVED this arrangement, because they got a dessert each Monday - something that doesn't typically happen around here.)

Even after she successfully delivered her baby and I stopped carrying food in to the family, I kept up the Monday planning routine.  Now it's the day I pull down my list and peruse it, compare it to what what we've recently eaten, what's in the freezer and pantry, and then rotate and balance the main dishes among chicken, fish, beef and pork, with the occasional vegetarian or egg dish thrown in. 

Once I've settled on the meat for each day, I choose a recipe to prepare it; typically something we already love or something new I've been wanting to try (at least one new recipe a week.)  Busy nights (Wednesdays year 'round, and swim practice days during the season) are geared toward super-fast and easy meals or something I can slow cook in the crockpot or my Lodge dutch oven.

Then I choose the side dishes. Confession time:  this is a weak spot in my planning.  Except for "big" meals, I rarely plan for more than one or two basic side dishes - salad and starch, fruit and starch, green vegetable and starch (I think there's a pattern here.)  And sometimes it's just a salad, veggie or other side if the main dish contains pasta or rice.  I'm working on expanding my repertoire of more side dishes, simply because dinner is a lot more interesting if you pair up the entree with something more creative than merely a serving of green beans or potatoes.  (I live in the land of meat 'n threes - you'd think this would have become ingrained by now!)

Other known weaknesses?

Breads.  Arguably, we don't NEED bread each meal, but this fall I do plan to introduce more home-baked breads to weeknight meals.  I've already got several good recipes for savory muffins and biscuits, and my cheese garlic bread is always a hit.  But I'd like to get better at making crusty breads, soft rolls and add more whole wheat and other grains to my yeast breads.  Practice makes perfect, so we a'practicing we will go this fall and winter.

Dessert is almost always an afterthought , too.  Unless I'm just really hankering for something or there's a birthday or other special occasion during the week, dessert rarely happens.  But that may not be such a bad weak spot to have, since all of us are striving for a little more health-conscious diet.

Once the menu is complete, two more steps:  First, I post it on my blog so my children and husband can see at a glance what we're having (because they FAITHFULLY read my blog each week...not!!!), and so I can remember what I planned!  Second, I jot down a grocery list and head to the store, and try to not forget anything.

Happy planning!

P.S.  A shout-out to my "little" brother (he's only a foot taller) who's celebrating his 41st birthday today.  Love ya!!!!!

Sep 11, 2010

Fall comes to Big Orange Country

Indeed, Tennessee is Big Orange Country and it's God's Country. (Why else would He have made sunsets orange?) All half-joking and state pride bragging aside, it is time for fall and football - game two for Dooley and the boys today; the season opener for Jeff Fisher and our own Titans on Sunday. Who cares if the calendar says it's technically fall or not? It's in the air and it's in our hearts. The hot tub is a perfect 100 degrees; the outdoor fireplace is all set with kindling and logs.

Yesterday I switched my blog background and header and now it's time for the orange blitz:  orange jerseys, orange t-shirts, orange blankets, and orange pumpkins - and a new baby blue sweater for Sunday's Code Blue.

The weekend's plans included a Friday evening dinner and catching-up time in Clarksville with some very dear friends from Oklahoma.  Saying prayers for a safe trip home for this sweet family and wishing a special young man godspeed in his travels when he deploys with his unit on Monday.  We'll be counting down the days until he's back.

This morning it was time to drag the fall decorations out of the attic (some years that doesn't happen until late October, but this year, I've got the "bug" early.) Here's the mantel before (this spring) and now: 
And may the Lord have mercy on me if I step foot in Hobby Lobby while I'm in this weakened state - the smell of craft items will surely cause me to swoon and/or deliriously buy everything in sight.  (Must remain strong. Must remain away from craft stores...)

Tonight, us girls will rustle up some chicken wraps and catch the UT-Oregon game on ESPN.  It's a 6:00 kickoff so I encouraged Mr. Official to take our oldest son with him since I need to have my wits about me if I'm going to teach on Sunday morning.

It's also time to keep one ear to the ground for sleigh bells...the first Christmas commercial is undoubtedly on its way.  (Hmmm, if only I watched TV with any regularity these days, I might win our family contest to see who sees/hears the first one of the season.)

Happy fall, y'all!

P.S. I hope we will all take a moment today to meditate on the events of nine years ago:
those who died,
those who survived,
and those who have sacrificed so much to keep us safe ever since.

Sep 10, 2010

Clean Desk Mission: Week 7

Back in the day, photos (and their negatives) were purely physical things.  You had to buy film, use the entire roll, then get the pictures developed, sorted out and stored in albums (keepers) or boxes (rejects and duplicates.)  The ratio of good shots to "meh" shots has always been somewhere around 1:10 (maybe that's just my photography skills) but I have boxes of "also-ran" images to testify as to this phenomenon - I have no idea why we I keep blurry, off-center and just plain bad pictures, but we I did - and do.

In the digital era, the entire photo process is now vastly different.  Bad shots can be instantly retaken, or enhanced, cropped, focused and otherwise electronically corrected.  No more developing an entire roll of film to get a few good pictures - now we cherry pick those that we want or need an actual printed photograph, and print them ourselves or upload them to a photo center for nearly instantaneous printing.

Perhaps because I am a product of the earlier generation, I still have trouble discarding bad or duplicate images, even though I have no monetary or even sentimental investment in them. I'm slowly getting better at culling out the truly bad pictures, just because their sheer volume makes it difficult to sort through my files.  But my computer system is so thoughtful it creates its own filing system (by date) for me.  And so I find myself with a picture file that looks like this:

And as the little "elevator bar" to the right hints, this is just the tip of the ugly photo file iceberg.  Hundreds of folders, some with dozens of photos, some with only one or two, arranged only by date.

Since my desk is still tidy, it seemed like a good time to turn my attention on my electronic filing system and do some major organizing there, too.  A few hours of work, and the files now look like this:

There are two remaining (and important) steps to finish this project. One is to go through the exported file folders and the photos on my flash drive files, and get all the pictures in one central location (and backed up); then go through each folder and cull out the remaining bad shots that I'm never going to need, want, use, or even think about again.

But I'm happy to report I'm at least one step closer to reaching that peak of photo organization nirvana, since I now have a framework of file organization that I can work with.  And I didn't even have to blow the dust off any boxes in the process.  Score one for technology!

Sep 8, 2010

Recipe of the Week: Chicken Spaghetti

I first tasted this dish when our church brought in food for our family; most likely it was after Mr. Official (I think that's what I'll call my husband from now on...) had surgery to repair a ruptured disk after slipping on a basketball.  (Sidenote to all parents whose athletic careers ended more than two decades ago:  be very careful when playing a pickup basketball game with your kids.  You're not as agile as they are, and all those hits you took during games and two-a-day practices took their toll on your skeletal structure.  Just sayin')

I have seen many recipes for King Ranch chicken that are very similar to this, but they typically use corn or flour tortillas instead of spaghetti noodles.  Me?  I'm not so keen on raw tortillas in my casseroles, so this recipe suits me to a "T" - which works out well, since this dish came courtesy of a friend named Tamara. 

Tamara J's Chicken Spaghetti

1 12-ounce package spaghetti noodles
1 medium onion, diced
1 green bell pepper, diced
1 tablespoon butter or olive oil
1 can Rotel (tomatoes and chili peppers), undrained
1 can cream of mushroom soup
8 ounces chicken broth
2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
2 cups cubed chicken (if I don't have diced cooked chicken on hand, I usually boil a few breasts, cool and dice into cubes; you can also used canned chicken in a pinch.)

Break spaghetti noodles into thirds and boil in salted water; cook to al dente, then drain and rinse with cool water.  Lightly grease a 2-3 quart casserole dish (I love my deep "French White" Pyrex casserole for this recipe.)

Saute onion and bell pepper until tender-crisp.  Add Rotel, mushroom soup and broth; stir well and let simmer for a few minutes until bubbling.  Remove from heat.

Layer half the noodles in the bottom of the greased dish; sprinkle half the chicken; pour half of the sauce and sprinkle with half the cheese.  Repeat with remaining noodles, chicken, sauce and cheese on top.  Cover and bake at 375 for about 25 minutes, or until bubbling.  Remove cover and let bake another 5 minutes to lightly brown the top.  Makes 6-8 hearty servings.

This casserole is perfect for potlucks and it also reheats very well.  You can use mild, medium or hot Rotel, depending on your family's preferences; the choice will definitely influence the heat index of the dish.

Sep 7, 2010

Anatomy of an Alpha Apple Pie

For all my nattering on about my culinary adventures, I have a confession to make.  I've never (really, NEVER) made a baked fruit pie.


None of the usual ABCs (you know, apple, blueberry or cherry) have ever come out of my oven.

Truth is, I rarely EAT pie.  A piece or two of pumpkin or mincemeat at Thanksgiving, chased by some chess or pecan at Christmas, and then maybe a sliver of frozen margarita or lemon icebox pie in the summer.   That's about it for me and pies.  (Okay, yeah, I might yearn for a piece of rhubarb custard or Shoney's strawberry pie, but that's a once-a-decade kind of hankering.)

For about a year now, I've been seeing recipes for apple pie with a cornmeal crust, and it was like a siren's call to me, luring me to try my hand at it.  (I do have experience with homemade piecrusts.  Nobody ever told me they were hard to make, so in my early days in the kitchen, I'd make them for quiches and the occasional peanut butter pie for a church potluck, with fairly good success.  Then Pillsbury introduced refrigerated crust, and that was the end of my piecrust making days...until now.)

This recipe bills itself as the "perfect" apple pie.  That remains to be seen, but here's how it went yesterday.

Step 1:   Take a picture while everything still looks picture-perfect.  (I submit People's Exhibit 1: the magazine propped up that reads "Perfect Apple Pie.")

 Step 2: Apples are peeled and tossed in the sugar/flour/spice mixture.  First crust is rolled and ready.

Step 3: Pile the apples in the crust:

Step 5:  Roll and place the other crust on top; cut a few slits on the top.  (Where's my cute little fall maple leaf cookie cutter when I need it??) I was tempted to brush the top with egg white and sprinkle with sugar, but I'm a firm believer in following the recipe the first time through, then modifying it on the second pass, when I have more information.)

Step 6: Bake and cool.  I'm so glad the recipe cautioned to put the pan on a jelly-roll sheet (which I took the added precaution of covering in foil.)  Because indeed it boiled over.  It can still TASTE perfect, even if one side is a little stickier than the other, right?

And finally, the taste test.  Results?  On the upside, I do like the crust.  The inside was a bit runny (and I probably should have stuffed a couple more apples in there..) but overall not bad for a first effort.  But then again, I am admittedly no connoisseur of pies, so it's hard for me to say if this is the "perfect" apple pie.  I might have to make a few more, strictly for comparison purposes.

Sep 6, 2010

A little potty talk

Not that kind, silly.  This is a serious water closet conversation.

I occasionally mention Flylady - in fact, I typically sing her praises.  I think her ideas and routines are awesome.  Wish I followed them all, but I don't.  (My sink is shined every night and those of you who know anything about her system will know what that means.)  I embrace her general principles and salute her passion for helping us all become more organized and in control of our homes and lives.

However, there is one area where Flylady and I aren't on the same page:  the toilet bowl.  She advocates a daily swish-and-swipe of your bowl, using nothing more than a little soap (leftover shampoo or something similar) or just water from the toilet bowl itself.

Not to get too graphic or gory, but errrmmm, that would seem to make your bowl brush a breeding ground for bacteria.  So I don't heed her advice on the daily swish thing, instead preferring a weekly scouring with a disinfecting cleaner, and then a buff job with a soft cloth.  I know my way leaves everything fairly clean from one week to the next, and I can always do a midweek emergency cleaning if need be.  (My desire for a clean toilet has always been driven by the fear of someday coming face-to-face with it in a time of crisis.  Hugging the bowl is most definitely a low point surely want to know the bowl has been recently disenfected, right?)

This came to mind because my bowl brushes are about ready for replacement.  Every time I read her admonition to swish and swipe each day, I wrestle with the desire for a daily tidying vs. getting the heebie jeebies just thinking about a gnarly bowl brush sitting there beside each toilet.  Maybe I'll scout out some new brushes that have a little deeper water-tight compartment, and try the daily thing with a healthy squirt of disinfecting cleaner and water.  (No young children or curious pets to worry about getting in it.) 

And while we're on the delicate subject of uhhh, toilets, I can now say I've bought toilet paper at the strangest place ever: Staples.   They carry the Marcal Small Steps brand of toilet paper, which is 100% post-recycled paper.  (Yeah, recycled toilet paper..there's a joke in there somewhere.)

Kroger's carried this brand for a while, but the last time I needed to stock up, I couldn't find it. When I spotted a 48-roll pack at Staples for $16.99, I snagged it in a heartbeat. But I felt a little self-conscious lugging this ginormous package of TP from an office supply store.  At least it will last us a while...maybe Kroger's will have it in stock when I need to buy more?

Sep 5, 2010

My grandma's portulacas

My grandmother was the best grandmother in the whole world.  (I'm sure yours is/was wonderful too, but really - mine was the best.)  This unflappable, indefatigable woman could turn a bare pantry into a hearty meal for droves of road-weary adult children and their spouses, plus ravenous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.  She did it with a smile because she loved her family and nothing gave her greater joy than to have us all under her roof.  (I suspect she also relished the peace and quiet after shooing us all out after a long holiday, though.)

She had a quick, dry sense of humor, and sometimes you'd have to think about what she said in order to get the joke, but she'd wait for you to catch up to her, always with a twinkle in her blue eyes.

Her life was modest.  She was a wife and mother to seven children, raising them in a two-bedroom house.  She survived the Depression and the infamous Dust Bowl.  She worked as a cook for a while, but most of her life was spent tending her home and family.  She buried two of her sons: her youngest and then her oldest.  Those losses exacted a toll on her, but somehow she endured and found a peace that passes understanding.

She was a gardener.  She grew vegetables out of necessity and flowers for herself;  gladiolas that she carefully dug and stored each year to protect them from the brutal Midwestern winters.  And each year, she planted portulaca, which have the sunniest flowers ever.  This summer I planted an old canning kettle with these pink portulacas and they've cheerfully bloomed all summer, with little care or encouragement from me.  I can't pass by the garden without smiling at these tough, resilient plants that my grandmother had such a fondness for.

My grandmother had a stroke in the summer of 1992, and on September 5 of that year, she went home.  I am so grateful I had an opportunity to see her on her last birthday.  My parents and my family converged on her and my grandpa's house in late March.  I gave her and my dad each an 'Eden' rose bush as birthday gifts, and planted a third one in my garden.

I deeply regret that I let so many opportunities to write, call or visit her pass by.  I was busy being a young wife and mother, but she could have taught me a lot about life and motherhood, had I taken the time to seek her wise counsel.

If you still have your grandmother with you, cherish her.  Ask her to tell you the stories you've heard a hundred times.  Make new memories with her.  If you're like me and your grandmother is gone, I hope you look for her when you see her favorite things.  She'll be there.

Sep 3, 2010

Clean Desk Misson: Week 6

So here's my desk, still clean.  I even updated the blotter to September on the last day of August.  My ever-ready sunglasses and coffee mug are always waiting to jet out with me in the mornings.

....and here's what else showed up on my desk this week: 

 Yep, three new pairs of sunglasses.  They are props for our intrepid FBI (Faithful Bible Investigator) agents, so they can take MIB-esque mugshots for their photo ID badges.  (Which turned out GREAT - it's amazing how sophisticated these 3rd, 4th and 5th graders can look when they put on the shades and strike a serious pose.)  The sunglasses will remain on standby for a few weeks while we get any straggler photos taken.  And then I'll have to find a place to store them.

The desk got a heavy workout this past week.  Once my replacement toner arrived, it became a frenzy of printing:  Kindergarten coloring pages, FBI background check sheets and other paperwork to augment the purchased curriculum, and a few new recipes to try.  But so far, the combination of ruthlessly sorting the mail each day and putting everything away at the end of the day have yielded good results.  Time to move on...I think I can now rely on my newly formed habit to keep the desk maintained.

Sep 1, 2010

Recipe of the Week: Broccoli-Raisin Salad

Our annual recipe booklets - cute, huh?
This recipe is among my very favorite salad recipes, and the dressing is the same one I use for regular coleslaw.  This recipe is made extra-special by the fact it came from one of my past Secret Sisters at Highland Heights.  

Susan usually makes this salad - and many other yummy foods - for us when we converge on her house for an annual paperback book and DVD swap.  It was also the recipe she submitted for our 2008 recipe book, which focused on salads.  (This year's book will be all about brunches, and promises to be full of exceptionally delicious recipes, too!)

Susan's Broccoli-Raisin Salad

2 cups broccoli, chopped
12 strips bacon, cooked crisp and crumbled
1 red onion chopped
1 cup raisins
1 cup sunflower seeds

1 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

Mix broccoli, bacon, onion, raisins and sunflower seeds.  Mix dressing together separately and pour over broccoli mixture; toss to coat.  Serves 8.

I have doubled (and even quintupled) this recipe for large gatherings; in fact, I made it for my mother-in-law's 70th birthday party last summer, and it got rave reviews.  If you're making it ahead, I recommend mixing the dry ingredients together in one bowl and blend the dressing in a separate container. Refrigerate both until ready to serve; combine and toss just before serving.