Who do you want to be in 2015?

Speaking of New Year’s resolutions…every year I make them, and I’ve generally been really good about keeping them. This past year, I did not do well. Not sure what it was, but I feel like, in a lot of ways, 2013 was the year that got away. I have some accomplishments I’m pretty proud of from the past year, but in general, they weren’t the goals I was thinking of that first week in January.

I’m generally a pretty ambitious person, and I’m good and setting and meeting goals. For resolutions, I always like to have some practical goals mixed in with something more frivolous. For 2014, I’ve been trying to think of what I want to accomplish this year, and how I can actually go about achieving those goals. I’m thinking of four main areas where I want to be in a better place when 2015 roles around.

1. Save more. A lot more.

When I was in Paris, I met this really interesting woman, Louise, who’d been laid off from her job and decided to use her savings and severance package to spend a few months living in France while deciding on her next career move. It got me thinking about what I’d do if I lost my job. Now, I’ve been really responsible this last year and saved up a couple months worth of living expenses (first time I’ve ever been able to sock that much away in a year) and saved up for a nice vacation (again, first time I’d been able to do that in years), but that just means I’d be able to scrape by for a few months in the event of job loss. I really want to get myself into a position where, if I’m faced with a layoff or I find myself miserable at my job, I would actually feel like I have the opportunity to take a breath and think about what I want to do, instead of just jumping into something so I can pay the bills. That means some serious savings put away. But, I also want to buy a house. And I want to continue traveling. So 2014 is going to involve putting a lot more emphasis on being frugal, so I can save as much as possible. (Of course, this is in addition to my retirement savings!)

2. Invest more time in the hobbies I’ve neglected.

After finishing my first marathon in 2012, I barely ran at all in 2013. Part of it was due to injury and fatigue, and part of it was just letting other things get in the way—things so inconsequential I don’t remember what they were. I need to remember basic things, like “I feel better when I make time to run.”

Running isn’t the only thing I’ve neglected either. The blog is another, as you’ve probably noticed. I’ve barely been writing on my own at all this past year. I didn’t do much reading. I don’t think I made a single piece of jewelry. Haven’t touched my knitting needles. Lots of little things, but I feel like I neglect a big part of myself when I don’t make time to do the things that interest me. So in 2014, I’m going to actually pay attention to how much time I’m spending on stuff and commit to actively spending time on things. On Sundays, I’m going to ask myself: What am I going to make time for this week (on the agenda this week: Finish a book, work on a scarf, blog, run before work). I’m also going to watch out for some bad habits I’ve gotten into, like hitting the snooze button instead of getting up to run and binging on Netflix TV shows during the week.

3. Set out to just do a few things at a time, and do them well.

This one is pretty closely tied to Goal 2. At one point in time I had a list of 14 foods I was going to learn to make in 2014. Complicated foods that take time and practice. Now, I might still try to make all of those foods this next year, but instead of rushing through some list, I think I’d rather concentrate on a few things and really master them. Hence, the omelette challenge. Some of the other foods: Baguettes. Macarons (I took a class in Paris). Croissants. Creme Brûlée. Crepes. Yes, there’s a definite French theme. Maybe next year, I’ll vow to learn a few Polish foods or Indian foods. But this year, I just want to learn to get really, really good at making a few recipes that I really enjoy eating.

It’s the same thing with a few other projects. Last year, with the vegetable garden, I had a huge, huge range of vegetables (maybe not compared to Martha Stewart or an actual farmer, but for a first-time gardener, it was giant plot). And while I had some really successful crops, I had a few that were utter failures. So I’d like to learn from that, and concentrate on making this year’s garden better and more reliable, even if that means having less variety.

4. Give more time to other people.

I’m a textbook introvert. It’s not that I don’t like being around other people, but I tend to get very wrapped up in what’s going on in my own head, and I’m really good at spending vast amounts of time alone. I don’t think I need to change my personality (nor should I try), but this year, I’m going to make a more conscious effort to make sure the people in my life don’t feel neglected or like they are putting more effort into our relationship. I’m going to reach out to my friends more. I’m going to do more things with my family. And I’m going to try to branch out and put more effort into meeting new people. One of the ways I’m planning to do this is by volunteering (I’m excited to start – I already did some shadowing with a local literacy program). Another is simply by picking up the phone and asking people how they are, and making less formal plans to see them. Sometimes I think I making being with other people an event, something that needs planning, when the best and most satisfying relationships in my life are always the ones that require the least effort and planning.

So that’s it. Four changes I want to make in 2014. How about you?

Advertisements

Frittata: Easier than an omelette

Here’s a secret—I have really bad luck with a few breakfast dishes, mainly the ones that require flipping. I’m flipping challenged. So my omelettes always end up broken and really turn into a hybrid halfway between scrambled eggs and omelettes. I mean, they generally taste good, but I’ve yet to master the skill of creating a perfect omelette folded around a delicious filling. That should actually be a New Year’s resolution this year: I will conquer the omelette in 2014!

But, anyway, in the meantime, while I’ve been omelette challenged, I’ve gotten really good at a few egg dishes that don’t require flipping, especially frittatas. Chances are, you’ve probably had a frittata, even if it was called something else, like a baked omelette or crustless quiche or torta. It’s basically whatever fillings your heart desires, mixed with eggs, and topped with cheese. You start it on the stove and finish in the oven. I’ve seen recipes that call for six eggs and a little cheese and broccoli and I’ve seen recipes that call for three eggs and a million vegetables—the egg to filling ratio is really based on preference, and in my, case, often what I have on hand.

Here’s the first step of a frittata I made the other day:

Frittata ingredients

I started by preheating the oven to 450 degrees and heating a little bit of olive oil and about a tablespoon of butter in my 8-in. cast iron skillet (Hey, Mary, look – I still use the skillet you gave me when we were in college!). Then I added one small baking potato, thinly sliced, a teeny onion and about 4 oz. sliced mushrooms. Plus some salt, pepper and dried basil. I sautéed over medium heat until the potatoes were soft and the onions were starting to caramelize. Then I added my greens, in this case, some roughly chopped Lacinato kale (the nice thing about kale is that it can stand up to the eat without melting away to mush. More tender greens, like spinach or arugula, are going be much softer).

Then it was time to add the eggs. I used three eggs, whisked together with about a quarter cup of milk. Then I added it to pan. I let it cook stovetop on the pan, while I grated a little cheese (Swiss on this particular day). Then I sprinkled the cheese on top, and, using an oven mitt, moved the skillet to the oven.

I check on it regularly, since the time on the stovetop can vary a bit. I like my frittata nice and golden on top, but I know other people love them soft and barely set. Mine took about 20 minutes in the oven.

Frittata in pan

Gorgeous and delicious! If you are looking to be fancy, you can invert the pan over a platter (after loosening the frittata with a spatula) and it will fall out just like a cake. Since it was just me, I simply cut myself a generous slice right from the pan.

The leftovers are pretty good the next day, but not for much longer after that. Much like a quiche, you’re filling ingredients are only bound by your imagination, and while I mentioned breakfast at the top of the post, there’s no reason this can’t be a nice dinner as well.

Some updates

It’s been a while, hasn’t it? Sorry about that! It turns out that managing three blogs at work means that I’m less inclined to work on my own blog at home (go figure). But that’s going to change in 2014, I swear!

Some exciting changes here. For one, I got a new camera! It’s a Sony Cybershot Mark 100, which is a compact, fixed-lens camera, but with an incredibly powerful lens and sensor. I wanted a small camera for travel, but didn’t want a mediocre point and shoot. So far, I’m really happy with the purchase. I took it with me on my recent vacation (I went to Paris. Everything people say about it is true.) and got some great pictures with it. I do have a few catch-up posts to share, which will still feature less-than-perfect, step-by-step iPhone pictures, but after that you should see a noticeable improvement in photo quality. If anyone is interested in how I went about choosing my camera, leave a comment and I’ll do a post. I did a lot of research ahead of time and went to about 5 stores to look at cameras in person (I research things to death when I make a large purchase). Otherwise, I’ll assume you get your camera advise from a camera expert!

Some other exciting things you missed:

I made this cake for my sister’s birthday. It was ridiculously good and impressed everyone who ate it, even those who ate smooshed leftovers out of a tupperware three days after her birthday.

susan's birthday cake

At one point my vegetable garden was producing crops like this on a daily basis (this is my share, after giving the upstairs neighbors their share):

veggies from garden

I can’t wait to start planning for next year’s garden, and I’m hoping to share some of the stuff I learned having a vegetable garden for the first time.

And at one point, my living room looked like this:

Brown Living room

In an attempt to try something new, I painted the living room a nice cozy brown (Basketry, by Behr). I actually still really like this color. It’s a great mid-tone neutral—not too green or too red, in my opinion. But, with the wood trim and floors it was a lot of brown. Then I bought a brown couch (not what I intended at all—I’ll definitely share my couch saga soon!), and a too low coffee table and the room slid into a horrible state of Not Working At All. So, aside from the couch (which I LOVE), it’s completely different!

Oh, and I bought these insanely girly hooks for $2 each at Anthropologie. Everyone who saw them on my counter said they were really flowery and looked like they belonged in a little girl’s room. Everyone who’s seen them on the wall  (they  in my back hallway next to the door) has complimented them. Girly can totally work in a grown up house.

girly hooks

So that’s what’s been happening here. More to come soon!

Covered lampshade

A few weeks ago, I came home to find a surprise lamp in my living room. A really (hate to say it) ugly surprise lamp.

For years, my mother has said that she disliked the carved milkglass lamp I’ve had in the living room. I like it—it’s classic.  But mom didn’t like it, so she dropped off a surprise lamp. It was beige, with a dirty cylindrical shade. There were chips in the side and it was oddly spongey looking. And I transformed it into a really cute lamp using just a little craft paint, some fabric, and ribbon.

IMG_0603

I used Martha Stewart craft paint in basic black to to paint the base. It took about four light coats with a foam brush to get full coverage. Then, I used a bold indoor/outdoor fabric to cover the shade following these instructions from the blog House of Fifty. It wasn’t too hard, but I really don’t recommend indoor/outdoor fabric for this project—It doesn’t stick well to the glue or the tape, making the project more difficult than it should be.

IMG_0616

I’m really happy with the results. It’s dramatic, and looks a lot more upscale than it really is. Not bad for a free rummage sale lamp and $15 in paint and fabric.

Slow roasted tomatoes – from the garden

I planted a garden this summer. A huge garden. Then I waited.

Gardening is all about patience. And weed control. If you’re trying to reclaim an overgrown patch of yard, there is lots of weed control.

But, back to the patience…I planted five tomato plants in May, and in late July I started to see a few teeny tiny results.

three tomatoes

But then, a month later, I suddenly was seeing results like this

IMG_0613

Every week. For going on 5 weeks now. So in addition to making sauces, caponata, and a bunch of other old favorites, I was looking for new ways to use tomatoes. And I found an awesome and easy recipe with spectacular results: Slow Roasted Tomatoes.

sundriedtomato

 

This is one of the easiest things I’ve ever made. Doesn’t even need a formal recipe.

Set your oven to 250 (225 for smaller tomatoes, like cherry tomatoes). Cut the tomatoes in half. Place on lined baking sheet. Splash with a tiny bit of olive oil and perhaps some balsamic vinegar. Sprinkle with a little salt. Let it slowly roast in the over for three hours or so — till they shrink a bit and start to look a little dry.

They taste fantastic — sweet and intensely flavorful. You can add them to dishes like pasta. I simply stacked them on a piece of french bread with a slice of soft mozzarella. Heavenly.

IMG_0607

Baking with Whole Grains

Over the course of the 100 day challenge I did with my cooking group, I did a lot of experimenting with whole grain baking. I’ve finally reached a point where I feel comfortable doing most of my baking with whole grains, but I learned quite a few things along the way, including:

  • Most whole grain recipes call for a mix of whole grain and refined flour, much like many store bought items that say “with whole grains” are a mix of whole grain and refined flours.
  • A straight substitution of whole grain flour results in a very different texture, which can be much denser, with a thicker crumb.
  • Whole grain pastry flour is a great alternative to heavier whole wheat and it’s worth it to learn when you like using each.
  • If you are going gluten free, buckwheat, oats, rice flour, amaranth, almond and more are there to experiment with! Some give a nuttier flavor and denser feel while others are more cake-like.

As for specific recipes, here’s what I’ve found when making substitutions:

  • Muffins and quick breads are extremely compatible with flour substitutions, especially moister breads (like banana or zucchini). For example, in my usual blueberry muffins, I subbed whole wheat pastry flour and used almond flour for the topping with great results. I had a lot of fun experimenting with banana bread, which might be the most forgiving quick bread of all. First, I used my family’s go-to recipe from The Settlement Cookbook and used half whole wheat and half rolled oats instead of regular flour. Then I tried Smitten Kitchen’s crackly banana bread and used a mix of buckwheat, flax meal and whole wheat flour (instead of millet, which I didn’t have on hand, I used a mix of chia hemp and buckwheat seeds (a cereal mix available at Outpost).
  • Regular pancakes retain much of their texture with whole wheat pastry flour, but experimenting with variations like buckwheat crepes (flatter and nuttier) and oatmeal pancakes (much fluffier) is worth a try.
  • It is a lot harder to blend a smooth pie crust with whole wheat pastry flour. It takes longer to get an even consistency and it cracks more easily when you roll it out and transfer it to the dish.
  • Flour substitutions in cakes require more thought than anything else. I haven’t found a good substitute for cake flour. The good news is that there are plenty of excellent cakes that are designed around special flours, such as almond flour or corn meal. And for denser, richer cakes, like chocolate, using whole wheat pastry flour or another heavier flour might actually help the cake achieve the right texture without freezing (yes, some layer cake recipes suggest freezing the layers to achieve the desired texture).

As I mentioned above, I’ll probably continue to nix the refined flour for a lot of my baking — particularly muffins, scones and quick breads, because I prefer the texture with more natural flours. And, in fact, these are also the recipes that I’ve found to work best with natural sweeteners like maple syrup, honey and various raw sugars like date, coconut palm and sugar cane.

The one area where I might be inclined to “cheat” post-challenge would be with chiffon cakes and some sponge cakes. I haven’t been able to find a less-processed flour that achieves the right texture, and texture is important for these particular types of cake. Beaten egg whites just can’t hold up to the weight of some of these flours as well as others.

So that’s it: My findings on baking with whole grains. Of course, it’s very much based on my personal taste. Have you been baking with whole grains? What results have you seen?

Thanks and Cards

Oh, hi. Still there? Sorry…

Turns out planning a wedding is complicated stuff, along with wrapping up the school year and spending a week in Guatemala. Oh, and my birthday was in there too.

I thought it would be tough to top last year’s Forced-Gifting Party, but this year was pretty awesome too.

DR Birthday Art

…even if all I have to show for it is a rock.

It’s a lava rock, and I got it from the volcano I climbed on my birthday (I know, right?). We climbed Volcan Pacaya in Guatemala and then we roasted marshmallows* in the hot spots and our group sang me Happy Birthday and gave me M & Ms and then we went back to town. Where we wandered around and saw an amazing convent and then went to dinner at a fancy hotel where a mariachi band sang to me too. And then I got a cupcake. Oh yeah, and I should clearly start a travel blog, right? (Maybe not so much).

Back to the point.

My birthday was Saturday and now I need to send some Thank You cards!

Thank You blue flower

So I whipped these up super fast–Just some colored paper, a single pack of embellishments and colored pens.

Thank You pink flower

I used the same basic idea on all of them, with a strip of paper going all the way across and then a little notched pennant, offset (or not) and layered (or not) with an embellishment anchoring it. Quick, easy and cute.

Thank You Green Flower

Do you make your own cards? What’s your favorite one?

*Technically we…warmed them? They got puffy but they didn’t change colors. And marshmallows in Guatemala are oddly technicolor, so that was strange too. But still mostly delicious.

Mary’s Getting Married!

…but I already told you that.

In a terribly surprising turn of events, I’m blogging about it. Visit me at MaryMarryMike.wordpress.com if you want to check it out. I will probably cross post a few things over here, but I’m guessing you don’t want to hear about 7000 different places in Chicago to get married (and how we apparently don’t love ANY of them). Oh, and if you do, you can just come visit me over there.

I’ve got lots to blog about at home too, we’ve just been busy getting all our moved-in-together stuff sorted out.

Any big changes for you? Any advice on how to choose a venue for our reception? This is seriously impossible stuff!

Satisfying a sweet tooth with whole foods

Anyone who has read much of this blog knows that I have quite a baking addiction. And a sweet tooth.

So the first few weeks of this challenge were rough. I missed baking with nice soft fluffy flours and sweet, sweet sugar and lovely chocolate. But, I stuck to it, and I experimented with a few recipes (with some extreme failures) and then I tried a few new ones.

I made these cookies for a family tailgate event a week ago, and they were a hit. Sweet, chewy and nutty, with a nice maple undertone. You can’t even tell that they’re healthy (at least, as healthy as cookies can be) – whole wheat flour, oats, natural sweetener, etc.

I adapted this recipe from Relish (whole grain flour, less sugar, eliminated extract, subbed honey for corn syrup).

Ingredients

3 cups old-fashioned oats
1 cup shredded unsweetened coconut
2 2/3 cups whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 1/4 cups palm or natural sugar
1 cup unsalted butter (2 sticks)
1/2 cup maple syrup
2 tablespoons honey
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/4 cup boiling water
2 cups chopped toasted pecans

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees and line two cookie sheets with parchment paper.
  2. Whisk the first six ingredients together in a large bowl.
  3. Heat the butter, maple syrup and honey on low until it melts.
  4. In a heat-proof bowl (or pyrex measuring cup) combine the boiling water and baking soda, stirring until the baking soda is dissolved. Mix into the melted butter mixture.
  5. Stir the wet ingredients into the dry and then stir the pecans into the mixture.
  6. Use a 1/4 cup measuring cup to scoop the dough, form into balls, and place on the cookie sheet — they’ll spread a little while baking, so leave at least an inch in between.
  7. Bake for 18 to 20 minutes, until golden brown.


Read more: http://relish.com/recipes/vermont-maple-pecan-cookies/#ixzz2RuScXeqc

Breakfast on the go, time two

Breakfast has, by far, been the easiest meal for following the challenge rules. I’m one of those people that MUST have breakfast. My day doesn’t feel like it’s started without it, and I’m pathetically inclined to get cranky a few hours into the day if I skip it. That said, time is at a premium before I head out the door to work, so anything I can prep in advance and grab on the way out the door is wonderful.

I found two great recipes from The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook, that with very slight tweaks (subbing in a whole grain in place of wheat germ or whole grain flour in place of all-purpose), are perfectly challenge-friendly, very tasty and ready to grab on the way out the door.

First up – Almond Date Breakfast Bars

Ingredients

1 1/4 cup rolled oats

1 cup pitted chopped dates

3 tbl whole wheat flour

1/3 cup milled flax seed

1/2 cup sliced almonds

1/2 tsp salt

1/4 tsp cinnamon

1/4 cup almond butter

1/4 cup olive oil

1/4 cup honey

freshly grated orange zest

1/4 tsp almond extract (optional)

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 350 and line an 8×8 square pan with parchment paper, taking care the the paper extends up all the sides.

2. Combine the first seven ingredients in a large bowl and mix together.

2. Combine the remaining ingredients in a separate bowl (I just used my liquid measuring cup so I didn’t have to scrape it out repeatedly).

3. Add the liquid ingredients to the dry and mix until coated.

4. Press the mixture into the pan evenly. Bake for 20 – 25 minutes, until lightly golden.

5. Let the bars cool until they feel more solid than crumbly (putting them in the fridge once they’ve cooled to room temperature might help). Remove from pan and cut into nine squares.

Next – Maple Oat Granola

I like to throw this on top of Greek yogurt (sweetened with a little honey on the bottom of the bowl)

Ingredients

3 cups rolled oats

1 cup unsweetened shredded or flaked coconut

1 cup chopped walnuts

1/4 cup flax seed mill

2 tbl olive oil

1/2 tsp coarse salt

1/2 cup or more maple syrup

1/4 tsp cinnamon

1 large egg white

1 1/2 cups dried fruit (cherries or berries seem to work best)

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 300 F. Line a jelly roll pan or cookie sheet with parchment paper.

2. Mix all the ingredients but the egg white and fruit until well combined.

3. Whisk the egg white until it’s slightly foamy, them add to the mixture, stirring until evenly coated.

4. Spread in an even layer in the pan.

5. Bake for 45-55 minutes. Check 20 minutes in and turn sections of the granola if they appear to be brownings (I’ve never remembered to do this, and they’ve turned out fine.

6. Once light golden brown on top, remove from oven and let cool.

7. Sprinkle with fruit, then remove from pan (breaking it up as much as you want) and transfer to an airtight container for storage.

Even after the challenge is over, I think I’ll be making both of these on a regular basis.