Monday, February 27, 2012

Backyard Buddies

We've had some new visitors at the birdfeeders this week.

This lady cardinal started showing up just after the snow had melted.

She was moving pretty slowly at the feeder and only flew in short bursts from tree to tree when approaching and leaving. We think she may be getting ready to lay her eggs and is too heavy to more more quickly.

5 days later—if this is the same lady card, she's getting big!

And 2 days after the lady card showed up, her male counterpart started putting in an appearance.

Hard to miss.

King of the feeder.

They're interesting to watch at the feeders. All the other birds seem to defer to the cardinals. The chickadees, titmouse (mice?), and all the other little guys we can't identify yet patiently wait their turn until the cardinals have left.

The day after we moved in back in October, we had a male and female pair of cardinals hanging out in one of the front yard trees. We haven't seen another in our yard since. Until now.

Cardinals are supposed to be monogamous. I like to think this is the same pair that stopped by the welcome us to the neighborhood.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Our New Sweet Potato Classic

This is so good! Every time I've made it, desert has been left untouched.


I've never really gone for the classic sweet potatoes with marshmallow on top at Thanksgiving, but Scoob loves sweet potatoes so I'll usually make sure it gets on the table. This last Thanksgiving, however, I decided to try something different and now we'll never go back to the marshmallow-topped stuff again!

I've been tweaking the recipe and feeling a bit like Goldilocks.

When I made it at Thanksgiving it was too runny and cloyingly sweet, so I added more sweet potatoes; at Christmas the filling was not quite sweet enough, so I cut back on sweet potatoes; and for Valentine's the filling was just right, but the topping seemed a little too sweet still, so I'm cutting back on some brown sugar with this version.

Scoob has requested another turkey dinner for his birthday (Saturday), so I'll give this a go then, but I think it will be just right.

Our very favoritest sweet potato recipe.

New Sweet Potato Classic

Prep time: 20 minutes
Total time: 1 hour 15 minutes

    4–5 medium sweet potatoes
    ¼ tsp salt
    3 Tbsps all-purpose flour
    ¼ cup butter
    2 eggs
    1 tsp vanilla extract
    ½ tsp ground cinnamon
    ½ cup white sugar
    2 Tbsps heavy cream

    ¼ cup butter, softened
    3 Tbsps all-purpose flour
    ½ cup packed light brown sugar
    ½ cup chopped pecans

  1. Preheat oven to 350, line a baking sheet with foil and lightly spray with cooking spray. Cut the sweet potatoes in half lengthwise and place cut-side down on the foil. Bake for about 35 minutes, or until they begin to soften. Remove from oven and allow the potatoes to cool enough so you can handle them.

  2. Peel the potatoes (the skins should slide right off) and place in a large bowl. Add the salt, flour, butter, eggs, vanilla, cinnamon, white sugar, and heavy cream and mash until smooth. Transfer to an 8 x 8 baking dish.

  1. In a medium bowl, combine softened butter, flour, brown sugar, and chopped pecans. Mix with a pastry blender until crumbly. Sprinkle over sweet potato mixture.

  2. Bake for 30 minutes until topping is crisp and slightly browned.

Given how easy this is to make and much we like this recipe, I'll have to try and healthify this up. I think I could substitute 2 Tbsps no-trans margarine and 2 Tbsps applesauce for the ¼ cup of butter in the filling. And I wonder if we would even notice if I left out the heavy cream. The butter for the topping could also go no-trans margarine, but I wouldn't use applesauce here. Might could swap out some sugar for Splenda, too.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Snow Days (Hours)

We had snow Sunday night! I don't really know why this excited me so much, it's not as if I've never seen snow.

But it's our first snow in our home in our new state and Scoob and I were having fun being silly about it.

We had been planning to watch a movie after dinner, but instead turned off all the inside lights, turned on the outside lights, cuddled up by the fire and watched it snow. It was nice and cozy, and lasted all of 15 minutes before Scoob became bored and queued up the movie. *sigh*

It has been so warm the last several days, close to 70, so the ground wasn't cold enough for the snow to stick, but it was still fun.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

These Boots

The wide-calf, knee-high boots I ordered arrived today. I put the right one on. Hallelujah! They fit! I have such large calves I've never been able to wear knee-high boots before.

Then I put on the left one.

WTF? It wouldn't zip over my calf. Such a let down.

So I got out the measuring tape.

How is it possible my left calf is an entire inch larger in circumference than my right? And how did I get to be 40+ without knowing this? I guess I've only ever tried on my left foot first before.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Chocolate Blackout Cake

I saw the recipe for this Chocolate Blackout Cake come across the facebook feed for America's Test Kitchen a couple weeks back and I haven't been able to stop thinking about it.

I've been having insane chocolate cravings nearly every waking moment since. Even while sleeping my mind is on chocolate—I dreamt of an episode from high school days when my bestie miraculously encountered the limits of her seemingly infinite tolerance for chocolate with a hot fudge sundae, extra fudge.

So, since Scoob's only Valentine's request was a turkey dinner, I decided to try the Blackout recipe, in part to mark the day as special, but also to satisfy my own obsession. And once I'd made the decision to try it, all I could think was "Try not. Do or do not! There is no try!"

And boy, oh, boy. Do I did!

I didn't alter a thing in the recipe. Though I did hit a snag with the pudding instructions, which delayed the Valentine's treat until the day after, so I have changed those for clarity.

Chocolate Blackout Cake

    1¼ cups granulated sugar
    ¼ cup cornstarch
    ½ tsp salt
    2 cups half-and-half
    1 cup whole milk
    6 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped
    2 tsps vanilla extract

    8 Tbsps unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing pans
    1½ cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting pans
    2 tsps baking powder
    ½ tsp baking soda
    ½ tsp salt
    ¾ cup Dutch-processed cocoa powder
    1 cup brewed coffee
    1 cup buttermilk
    1 cup packed light brown sugar
    1 cup granulated sugar
    2 large eggs
    1 tsp vanilla extract

For the pudding:
  1. Whisk sugar, cornstarch, salt, half-and-half, and milk in large saucepan. Set pan over medium heat. Add chocolate and whisk constantly until chocolate melts and mixture begins to bubble, 2 to 4 minutes. Stir in vanilla and transfer pudding to large bowl. Place plastic wrap directly on surface of pudding and refrigerate until cold, at least 4 hours or up to 1 day.

I read this and assumed the bubbles they spoke of referred to heat bubbles, but after whisking for 10 minutes without getting heat bubbles I figured they must have been talking about the bubbles from the whisking action, so I went ahead and put it in the fridge. WRONG. When I came back 6 hours later I had some very nicely chilled, delicious chocolate soup.

I put the soup back on the stove and heated it just to boiling, which worked beautifully. I'm happy I rescued it, but was bummed it wouldn't be ready for Valentine's dessert. So, as someone who had never made home-made pudding before, I would change these instructions.

REVISED pudding instructions:
  1. Whisk sugar, cornstarch, salt, half-and-half, and milk in large saucepan. Set pan over medium heat. Add chocolate and whisk constantly until chocolate melts and mixture begins to thicken. Continue whisking until the you feel drag on the whisk and mixture begins to bubble, 6 to 10 minutes. Stir in vanilla and blah, blah, blah.

But that's just me.

For the cake layers:
  1. Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 325 degrees. Butter and flour two 8-inch cake pans. Whisk flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in bowl.

  2. Melt butter in large saucepan over medium heat. Stir in cocoa and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Off heat, whisk in coffee, buttermilk, and sugars until dissolved. Whisk in eggs and vanilla, then slowly whisk in flour mixture.

  3. Divide batter evenly between prepared pans and bake until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, 30 to 35 minutes. Cool layers in pans 15 minutes, then invert onto wire rack. Cool to room temperature, at least 1 hour.

If you're one of those people convinced that chocolate makes you break out, just making this cake is going to have you feeling like your skin is back in high school.

To assemble the cake:
  1. Cut each cake in half horizontally. Crumble one cake layer into medium crumbs and set aside. Place one cake layer on serving platter or cardboard round. Spread 1 cup pudding over cake layer and top with another layer. Repeat with 1 cup pudding and last cake layer. Spread remaining pudding evenly over top and sides of cake. Sprinkle cake crumbs evenly over top and sides of cake, pressing lightly to adhere crumbs. (There's a nice picture tutorial on the website.) Serve. (Cake can be refrigerated for up to 2 days.)

I tell ya' though, assembly is messy. I had cake crumbs every where. And trying to wipe them up from the counter just doubled my work since I ended up getting more on the floor than in my dish towel. I should have just vacuumed the counters.

And then there's the dish clean up. Since we don't have kids and Scoob's such a hard worker and couldn't take a break, I was forced to lick spatulas and bowls myself.

Oh, the sacrifices I make!

It's really not a pretty cake. In fact, it's kinda scary. Looks more like a doorstop. Feels like one, too; it's heavy!

If it didn't already have a name, I'd call it Chocolate Intimidation.

It's much prettier after you slice into it (though not much), which is probably why they chose to use the photo at the top! (And how did they get that photo without all the crumbs that flew everywhere? Some definite staging.)

I'd cut a slice this size for Scoob and one for myself. We couldn't finish it and had the leftovers with lunch today. Also, be ready for some serious chocolate overload. I knew the chocolate kick would be strong, but wholly cow!

I knew that chocolate contains caffeine and triggers the brain to release endorphins, giving us a happy feeling. But the jolt I got after eating half a slice prompted me to look up how else chocolate effects the brain. Turns out that in addition to the caffeine and opioid endorphin reaction, among the 350+ natural chemicals in chocolate three chemicals trigger cannabinoid receptors (the same receptors triggered by tetrahydrocannabinol, or marijuana) and several stimulants, one of which, phenylethylamine, is related to amphetamines.

So, probably not a good apr├Ęs dinner evening treat. Unless, of course, you're planning to stay up into the wee hours and work off some of your energy with your sweetie, in which case it's an excellent choice!

This is a dense, rich, and extra chocolatey cake. The recipe says the cake will serve 10–12, I say, cut smaller slices! And my god, do not serve it to children!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Matters of the Heart...

are almost always connected to matters of the stomach around here.

So it was no surprise when I asked Scoob what he wanted for Valentine's, his only request was a turkey dinner. With all the trimmings.

Easy enough.

I'd made a double batch of baked cranberries with brandy at Christmas and the leftover half was in  the freezer.

I'd picked up a bone-in frozen turkey breast a few weeks ago, as well as some sweet potatoes, and on my last shopping trip I'd put a bag of Brussels sprouts in the cart.

We used to eat roasted Brussels sprouts weekly back in Fremont, but I've only made them once since moving here—they came out tough and chewy, and I figured they just don't grow as well over here as they did in California, or they really toughen up during transport. But I'd run across a new technique and thought I'd give it a go. (It was better, but still a bit tough. I'll try it once more and peel off more outer layers before throwing in the towel.)

I figured since I was only roasting a turkey breast, I wouldn't have enough drippings for gravy, so I nixed the mashed potatoes. I was wrong. I probably made the best scratch-gravy I've ever made.

So Scoob got his turkey dinner

with all the trimmings

He insisted on the serving platter. And he insisted on the photos.

I think I've just about perfected this sweet potato recipe and I keep meaning to post it.
Maybe I'll get to it before I go back to work on Tuesday.

Cranberry goodness!

And I got this clay owl.

I'd seen him before Christmas and just gushed over him, but budgets were being squeezed and I knew money would be even tighter once I went on short-term disability, so I resisted. Scoob didn't. He  went back to get it for a Valentine's gift.

Now I just need to decide where he'll live.

On the rock wall with other pretties...

Maybe cozied up to the fire...

Or on the mantle.

I think I like him up there. I've been spending a lot of time in the chairs next to the fire lately and I like looking up and seeing him there.

Keeping a watchful eye

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Beauty and the Beholder

Scoob turned to me as we were eating lunch today and with total sincerity said, "You look so glamorous today."


Friends of ours are having some marital problems, and as a result I know we've both been more attentive and appreciative toward each other. There have been a lot more thank yous for daily household chores. A lot more hand holding. A lot more random hugs and kisses. And a lot more turning off/putting down everything else to spend just 5 or 10 undistracted minutes together.

Which is all well and good, but still, as I looked at my multi-blue striped Dr. Seuss socks, grey sweatpants, maroon flannel top, and hair barely pulled back in a pony, huh? was the only thing that came to mind.

Followed by, crap, he needs a new contact lens perscription.

Turns out he was referring specifically to my eye make-up, but I rather like the general, all-encompassing compliment better. What gal wouldn't?

The whole episode made me remember a quote I read recently that made me laugh.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and it may be necessary from time to time to give a stupid or misinformed beholder a black eye.
               —Miss Piggy, Miss Piggy's Guide to Life

I'm happy to report, no shiners were given today.

(And, I may have to find a copy of this book!)

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Dude Ranch Stew

This started as a low-carb slow cooker recipe from The Everyday Low-Carb Slow Cooker Cookbook, but I've found I like it better on the cooktop (mostly because I'm not firing on all cylinders in the morning to toss this in a crockpot).

But it is easy-peasey to toss this together and just let it simmer. Even better, I almost always have the ingredients on hand.

The original recipe called for twice as much meat and a cup of cheddar cheese, and had no additional water, corn, or okra. (I've also upped the chili powder and cumin each from 1 tsp to 1 Tbsp because we like it spicier.)

Nutritional values for the original recipe were:

Calories: 398
Protein: 53g
Net Carbs: 11.5g
Fat: 11g
Cholesterol: 125mg
Sodium: 1,024mg

I like to think my changes below lowered the overall fat, cholesterol, sodium, and calories while upping the veg factor without adding too much on the carb side. I've been making this about once a week since the first time we tried it. I hope you enjoy it as much as we do!

Dude Ranch Stew

Prep time: 15 minutes
Total time: 1 hour or more depending on your simmer time

    1 pound round steak, cut into bite-sized pieces
    3 cloves garlic, minced
    1 4-ounce can diced green chilies
    1 Tbsp chili powder
    1 tsp ground black pepper
    1 Tbsp ground cumin
    2 cups beef broth (low-sodium if you can find it)
    1 6-ounce can tomato paste
    1 cube beef bouillon
    2 cups water
    1 15.5-ounce can kidney beans, drained and rinsed
    3 celery stalks, chopped
    2 cups frozen white corn
    2 cups frozen sliced okra

  1. Heat a large soup pot on the stove over med-high heat and brown the steak. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, 2–3 minutes.

  2. Add the diced green chilies, chili powder, black pepper, and cumin and cook another 2–3 minutes.

  3. Add beef broth, tomato paste, beef bouillon, kidney beans, and celery and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to simmer and add the frozen corn and okra about 15 minutes before serving.

The longer this stew simmers, the better it is, but, when pressed for time, I've served it after simmering only 30 minutes Scoob still loves it.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Silence Is Golden

Hey, y'all! I'm alive and kickin' over here, and I've actually got my hands on my computer for more than 10 minutes to pay some bills.

I'm healing very well after surgery. On day 3 I was out taking a stroll in the neighborhood with mom. Day 4 we walked about a mile and I was pretty sore the next day and came down with a miserable cold. The coughing and sneezing was not fun and kind of set me back to square one. Except for the cold I felt ready to go back to work during the first week, although there were some cognitive issues due to pain meds, like constantly called the enchiladas a friend sent over lasagna. Wish I could blame the spelling issues on that too, but that's pretty much a constant.

Oh wait, they're typos not spelling issues. Now that I CAN blame on the percocet. Actually I'd nearly weaned myself off the percocet by the time that cold hit me. I expected a lot more pain and I expected to be pretty helpless the first couple of weeks, but the reality has been very different. I've decided I either have a high tolerance for pain, or the surgeon severed some nerves in there and that I'm actually in more pain than I realize.

I had a follow-up appointment with the surgeon on Jan. 31 and she took the steri-strips off the incision; I've got a great big smiley just below my tummy. And oh. my. god! I guess I didn't really understand where the incision would be, because if I had known they were going to put those super sticky steri-strips on the pubic hairs I so would have made sure to get a wax job before surgery! OOoooowie! Thankfully they only used clippers down there instead of shaving, because the grow back would have been a whole other nightmare.

Anyhow, the follow-up. The surgeon was very pleased with how I am healing and pretty much gave me the green light to do whatever I wanted as long as felt up to it. I didn't ask, but I'm assuming heavy lifting and getting bendy with Scoob are still off limits until the 6 week mark, but I'm clear for everything else. I thought about heading back to work early, but you know what, I've been approved for 4 weeks of short-term disability, and I have the sick time to cover the pay difference, so I'm just going to use it and try to enjoy it.

It's too bad I'll be feeling up to cruising around after mom has gone home. She leaves on Monday. I did get behind the wheel for the first time yesterday, just to drive in the neighborhood and drop off a welcome gift for a new neighbor, but my clutch side wasn't too happy afterwards. I guess it'll be like my walking muscles; I'll have to work my way up. So maybe mom and I will take a little spin around the development today, but I definitely don't feel up to driving into Chapel Hill or Raleigh.

Today I just got fed up with lazing around! Mom is still jumping in to help, but I really just need to do something! So I've busted out the vacuum cleaner (my favorite! ha!), and the dust cloths, and the toilet brush. I must be getting desperate!

And despite all I've been doing, I haven't had to take anything for pain yet today. We'll see if I'm still singing the same song after mom and I take a walk. Which we'd better get to if we're going to keep the sunshine.