Halloween Only Comes Once A Year

Ok, so I know I am a little late with this post also, but I really wanted to share with you my recent Halloween projects.  This was the first year that J was truly into Halloween. Last year, she was super cute telling everyone that she was going to be a “Baby Bug” aka Lady Bug. However, this year, she went as far to pick out her own costume- Princess Ariel- and was not shy about going door to door to beg for candy.  She is very aware of all the candy she received and asks about it from the time she wakes up in the morning to the time she goes to bed. Daddy could not get away with eating her candy this year. She would notice if a single piece went missing.

J also now goes to daycare, or “school,” several times a week and had a class party. I had been admiring some of the cute snacks folks were pinning on Pinterest, and thought I would like to give it a shot. See my inspiration board here. I did a little googling myself and decided on the following.

Witch’s Hats

These are made with a Keebler Fudge Stripes cookie turned fudge side up. Simply use a little cake frosting (the kind in a tube is fine) to glue an unwrapped Hershey’s kiss in the hole. Add more frosting around the perimeter of the circle to make it look more like a witch’s hat. Sprinkles are optional, and getting them to stick was the hardest part of this treat.

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Witch’s Brooms

Moving along to something a little healthier, I made witch’s brooms out of pretzels and string cheese. I used small stick pretzels and cut each cheese stick into thirds. I used my kitchen shears to make the cheese look like the bottom of a broom and inserted the pretzel in the top. As a finishing touch, many folks tie the broom with either chives or licorice. I initially tied mine with string licorice but didn’t like the cherry licorice-cheese taste combo and did not think my licorice tying skills were at all good.

An important note on this one. If preparing the night before, make all the cheese brooms ahead of time and then insert the pretzels in the morning. The pretzels will become soggy in the fridge. Of course, I brought them to school at 7 in the morning, so I am sure the school refrigerated them, but refrigeration for a few hours is probably better than a whole night and then some. No one likes a soggy pretzel.

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Jack O Lantern Oranges

And while watching the Red Sox win the World Series (Go Boston!), I began to fear that, perhaps, there were not going to be enough healthy snacks at this party. So I got out a sharpie and started drawing faces on cuties to turn them into Jack O Lanterns. I quickly found out that the citrus in the peel kills your sharpie and moved on to a kid friendly dry erase marker. Don’t worry, folks, the marker does not penetrate the peel.  I did take the time to confirm this and also that the marker did not rub off onto little fingers when held. I feel pretty confident that oranges remained 100% safe to eat.

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My Facebook feed was filled with a lot of cute pictures of snacks made by other mommas I know. I can’t wait to try out some more ideas next year. I love when I’m able to pull off a Pinterest project without a hitch as I could probably come up with several blog posts under the heading “Pinterest Gone Wrong.”

Happy Belated Halloween!

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Foreign Exchange Part II

This post was supposed to follow shortly after my Sharing the Thanks post in November. Since it has already been well established what a horribly infrequent blogger I am, I’ll skip the excuses. Instead I’m going to take full advantage of the fact that my daughter is sleeping and husband is out of town to make up for lost time.

The original Foreign Exchange, hereafter known as Part I, remains one of my most popular posts (popular being a relative term when you blog mostly for your sanity and not an audience). I think the majority of visitors are looking to pilfer images via a google images search. However, for this little exercise, I am going to pretend that the real attraction is the content- namely, the excitement of a new experience or new product in a country not your own.

This time the Brits and Dutchies visited us on our home turf. We welcomed them with these three Tex-American gems:

1) Hop Doddy’s, Austin, TX

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Nothing says American food quite like a burger. Hopdoddy’s is no exception. The writing on the wall states, “Hopdoddy was created to express the perfect union of burgers and beer: Handcrafted Beer (Hop) + (Doddy), the nickname given to the native cow in Aberdeen, Scotland.” Burger and beer- double score!  Bonus point for representing the UK in the name. Niels, who has visited quite a few countries, calls this the best burger he has ever had. Whoa. That is quite an endorsement. They should seriously put his picture on their website.

2) The Salt Lick, Driftwood TX

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You cannot visit TX and not have BBQ. That would be sinful. We like to drive our visitors out to the Hill Country to the dry town of Driftwood, where you get to bring your own beer to go with your brisket. You can sip your Shiner’s while you bask in the aroma of mouthwatering ribs, sausage and brisket coming from the open fire pit.  With your belly full, you will think you have just about died and gone to heaven. Then, they break out the peach or blueberry cobbler for dessert. Heck, you might as well try both. Lucky for us, Andy is a cardiologist.

3) The Alamo Drafthouse Cinema

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The Alamo Drafthouse is a cinema pub. I’ll admit, I’ve only been to one other cinema pub prior to moving to Austin, but I think the Drafthouse gets it right. The food is usually delicious- I recommend the green chile mac and cheese and the chocolate peanut butter shake- and you can chow down while you are enjoying your flick. This is quite a time saver, especially when you have a sitter on the clock. In this case, we enjoyed the new James Bond movie.  I  think our friends are plotting European franchises as I type this.

In exchange for our fine hosting abilities, we were bestowed with the following gifts.

1) Nestle Smarties

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At first glance, these look like tiny M&Ms. But they are soooo much better. Seriously, I do not know if I can ever look at an M&M the same way again.  Juliette was immediately hooked and we do not give that child candy but if she’ll go poo poo on the potty, I’ll import a whole bag from the UK for her. They are really that good.

2) Stroopwafel

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A Dutch treat, a stroopwafel is two thin layers of baked batter glued together by a caramel-like filling. I like to pretend that they are a breakfast food rather than a dessert. I often forget about stroopwafel when making my request list for Niels and Minna. Fortunately, they have my back on this one. Totally worth the visit to the Netherlands just to try one.

3) Sinterklaas Candies

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Sinterklaas, who might actually be the precursor for our own Santa Claus, is a jolly old fellow who lives in Spain. In November, he makes his yearly trek to the Netherlands by steamboat rather than by sleigh and stays for three weeks, culminating in a family celebration on December 5. During that time, children leave their shoes and stockings by the fireplace to be filled with treats including chocolate letters and my favorite, kruidnoten and pepernoten (addicting little ginger cookies). I am only sad that Niels did not actually put my candies in my shoe.

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Another successful exchange was had. We have been doing this for a long time and there is always a new (and usually tasty) surprise. Can’t wait for next time. Already planning our trip.

Sharing The Thanks

After a lengthy (and may I add exhausting) break from blogging, I thought it would be appropriate to celebrate my return to this hobby by blogging about our recent Thanksgiving feast.

My childhood memories of Thanksgiving are many: candied yams made special by my Grammy just for my Dad, chocolate cream pie, mountains of mashed potatoes and my all important job of seeing to it that my Grammy did not burn the dinner rolls. Now that I’m an adult, you would think that I would have quite a bit of Thanksgiving experience of my own under my belt. But Dean and I live far from both our families and have been quite happy to be adopted by other people’s families (thank you Allisons and Ardolinos) or participate in a misfits Thanksgiving celebration (those are always quite fun).

This year, we were fortunate to have our friends from the UK and Netherlands visiting during Thanksgiving week. Thanksgiving is obviously an American holiday and this made it even more fun to share our traditions with friends from overseas.

First came the difficult task of menu planning. It was not easy to fit this in amongst all our other sight seeing and foodie expeditions. In case you are wondering how much food it takes to feed all  your guests, Good Housekeeping has a nifty little chart that can be found here. My husband does not believe in such things, however. As hard as I tried to convince him that a 12-14 lb turkey offers 12-14 servings (for 6 adults and 1 toddler with 4 guests leaving to go back to their respective countries on Friday), he thought we might need 20-25 lbs and I think we may have compromised on 18. We had too much food as usual. Fortunately, Dean, Niels and I ran the 5 mile Thundercloud Subs Turkey Trot in the morning to make room for those extra calories. Dean and Niels each sweat off 10 lbs after running in turkey costumes in the 82 degree weather.

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The Brits and Finnish Minna had the bird in the oven and had started on the fixings by the time we arrived home. Our menu ended up looking like this:

Starters a.k.a Lunch:

Mussels and Clams in white wine sauce

Shrimp with cocktail sauce

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The Main Event a.k.a Thanksgiving Dinner

Potato and Leek Soup (this actually became Fri lunch as we couldn’t fathom starting with soup even after several hours to digest the seafood)

Paula Deen’s Broccoli Salad

Turkey (made moist by stuffing with 2 green apples, 1 pear and 1 white onion)

Cranberry Sauce

Cornbread Stuffing

Savory Green Beans

Mashed Potatoes (with Larry’s trick of using truffle salt to make them especially yum)

Candied Sweet Potatoes

Dessert

Peanut Butter Pie (an easy, easy recipe that is sure to be wildly popular with your guests)

Now you know I can’t bear a proper sit down meal without the proper table decor. I had dreams of doing several DIY autumn decor projects. I even started a pinterest board to store my ideas with the best of intentions. Alas, it was about all I could do to get the house clean, in order and somewhat decorated before our house guests arrived. In the end, I recycled some of the decor from our fall 2007 wedding. Dean and I made gorgeous Martha Steward-inspired wheat sheaf centerpieces and I sewed acorns on simple ribbon napkin rings. Paired with our wedding place settings and crystal (I jump at any opportunity to break these out of the china cabinet), we had a festive fall table in a pinch.

By the end of the day, we were all thankful for full bellies and the wonderful friendship we share. Despite the passage of time, many life changes and the miles between us, we have forged a life long bond. Thank you Brits. Thank you Dutchies. Your visit was a good one. We were grateful for the chance to host and introduce you to one of America’s most beloved holidays.

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Green Thumb?: A Veggie Tale

After a slight rain delay, I was finally able to put in my vegetable garden this week.   One of the things I love about my house, is that it came with a detached garage. This created an area of otherwise wasted backyard that has now become the perfect spot for a vegetable garden.  When I say perfect, I mean perfect only in Texas. Typically a vegetable garden requires six hours of full sunlight.  My garden area has the potential for shade from the detached garage on one side, a neighbor’s tree on the other and a newly build shed at the back end.  This would be less than ideal if not for the brutal 100 degree days that Austin has to offer.  The sun still manages to bear down on my little garden but it is more protected than if it was in any other spot in our yard.

My attempts at veggies has been scaled back over the years.  My garden is probably 12 ft x 25 ft, perhaps a tad bit larger.  The first year, I planted mixed greens, zucchini, a variety of green beans, tomatoes, red and green bell peppers, eggplant and cucumbers. The result was very little walking space between rows. Since then, I try to be a little more methodical in planning out my rows, measuring them out so that there are at least 36 inches between rows and each plant.  But when push comes to shove, I always end up squeezing in an extra plant or two, and the garden quickly becomes more overgrown and messy than I anticipated. That is probably the case again this year.

The bulk of the garden is made up of five tomato plants. I usually plant these towards the front, but I needed to rotate out my crops (as much as one can in such a small garden), so they are towards the back of the garden bed this year. I hope they like their new home.  I have experimented with a number of varieties over the years.  This year, I went with three slicing tomatoes: Early Girl, Big Boy and Celebrity. I also planted three small sweet varieties: Sweet 100 Cherry Tomatoes, Juliet Grape and Yellow Pear. Early Girl is a new one for me. I bought it because it sets fruit before all the rest. I’ve had good luck with Big Boy and Celebrity. The Sweet 100 replaces the Mike’s Red Cherry Tomatoes I’ve planted the last few years with varying success. Last year, I planted another variety of grape tomatoes because the Juliet wasn’t available, and it didn’t produce as much. Plus, Juliette would get a real kick out of knowing the tomatoes share her name if she could realize such a thing.

I actually read the Natural Gardener instruction sheet that comes with the tomatoes for the first time and learned that tomatoes like to have their stem buried a little bit. They encourage you to remove some of the lower leaves in order to bury part of the stem.  I have always hilled my tomatoes to give them more stability (they get taller than me and over run their cages), but I planted them more deeply than I normally do at their advice and also made moats around my hills to encourage water to stay near the plant’s root system. This I learned from my Dad.

I planted four hills of straight 8 cucumbers (this basically means you should get fruit that is straight and 8″ long- can’t get any more simple than that) much too close together. I am hoping that I can set some trellises along the fence near the cukes to encourage them to grow vertically. Otherwise, they will grow into a tangled mess and start climbing up my tomato cages, which is their normal M.O.

I also planted one green bell pepper and one eggplant.  I always get nice, tall pepper plants but have yet to yield an edible bell pepper.  I had jalapeños coming out my ears one year, but I am cursed when it comes to bell peppers.  I’m hoping this will be the year that all changes.  Eggplant is also a bit of a challenge.  The problem is that by the time they set fruit, it is 100+ degrees. While you are waiting to pluck a sizable eggplant, they start actually cooking on the vine and the fruit gets all shriveled up.  Still, I am hopeful there is eggplant parm in my future.

Lastly, I planted some lettuce.  Lettuce is better suited as a fall or winter crop in Texas, but I always try to get some out of the beginning of the growing season. After all, lettuce is an essential part of the salad I’m growing.  As you recall, some butter leaf lettuce popped up from the seeds I planted last spring. I also put some seeds down for romaine lettuce and planted one malibar spinach, which is not really spinach at all but very heat resistant and similar tasting when cooked. It is a vining plant, so I placed a trellis near it to encourage it’s vertical growth.

While I was at it, I replaced some more winter casualties in my herb garden.  I managed to lose both  my spearmint and chocolate mint this year.  This is a little ironic because mint is highly invasive, and I spend a lot of time debating whether I wanted to plant it or not.  I eventually decided it was too good to pass up, but I planted it in pots sunk in the ground to discourage the runners from escaping. Alas, both mints took a hard hit this past summer. They would like a little more shade and the plan was for the rosemary to shade one, the oregano, the other. The winter did it in for good. There were no signs of life, so I marched to the Natural Gardener and got two more. A girl’s got to have mojito supplies on hand.

Finally, I replaced my basil.  I normally plant two every summer as my good intentions to overwinter the babies indoors never pans out.  I went a little overboard, planting two sweet basil and one thai basil.  Can’t wait to try the thai basil in a recipe.

Also looking forward to the fruits of my labor, so to speak. Grow baby grow!

Foreign Exchange

We just recently got back from Chatel, France where we went skiing with our travel buddies from the UK and Amsterdam.  Good travel buddies are hard to find.  Being good friends with a person does not automatically make them a good travel companion. In fact, many a good friendships are ruined over vacation incompatibilities. So when you do find that special person or persons with whom you can successfully seek out adventure without too much additional drama, you make sure to nurture that relationship and put it to good use time after time.

We have tested our travel relationship with Andy and Lis (from South of London) and Niels and Minna (from Amsterdam) over the years by exploring multiple cities in the US and Europe.  Dean can be credited with cultivating these relationships after he lived in Amsterdam for 6 months during college.  I always had a bit of the travel bug, but got it full fledged after attending each couple’s wedding in their home countries. Then, we went to Florence, Italy and Javea, Spain. We missed a very good trip to South Africa when we first moved to Austin but enjoyed the couples visiting us as we moved from state to state before settling here. Recently, we have taken two ski trips to the French Alps. The first to Samoens in 2009 and this trip to Chatel.

Over the years, we have become attached to certain things from each other’s countries. In our bag this trip, we packed:

1) Twinkies: always a favorite.  Maybe it’s due to the lore that they have an indefinite shelf life. Maybe it’s the sweet mix of creamy and spongy goodness.  But we can always count on Twinkies to represent the best America has to offer. Wink. Wink.

2)Breakfast Tacos: These were a little harder to pack. Just kidding. But I did have to bring a package of flour tortillas and a can of chiles in order to make the breakfast tacos. Breakfast tacos are unfamiliar to many of my friends outside of Texas no less outside the USA. They were particularly impressive to Niels and Minna so we decided to reinvent them this trip.

3) Green Chile Mac ‘n Cheese: By that same token, we introduced Niels and Minna to Green Chile Mac N Cheese at the Alamo Drafthouse this past fall while they were visiting Austin. They seemed to enjoy it, so I snuck a couple of cans of green chiles and jalapeños into our luggage and Dean recreated the popular dish in France.  Mexican cheeses were impossible to come by as was jalapeño jack, but it was a decent attempt.

4) Baby Ruth: These became a favorite of Lis’ a few years back, and who can blame her what with the peanuts, caramel and chocolate nougat. Mmmm.

5) Goldfish: Now that we have kids in the mix, we have entered a whole new terrority. Andy and Lis’ son Harry calls these golden rockets. Juliette is apt to agree at the rate at which she eats them!

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In exchange, we receive the following:

1) Lion Bars: These are my favorite. The bar consists of a filled wafer, caramel and cereal covered in chocolate. The combination is sweet, crunchy and delicious. I do not know why they do not routinely sell them over here!

2) Frey Chocolate: in our quest to take home some Swiss Chocolate, we came across Frey in the Geneva grocery stores. Not an upscale brand but still yummy, we will be going back for more of these.  The milk chocolate truffles were my favorite.

3) Ice Cube Bags:  I get poked fun at over my obsession with these convenient ice cube bags.  You fill the bag with water and then pop or shake out the ice.  Yes, I have an automatic ice maker. I also have ice cube trays, but these are cute and so very nice for taking on picnics or to the beach. Minna always brings me a supply and I horde them, only bringing them out for special occasions.

4) Tuc crackers: With fun flavors like cheese, paprika and black pepper, these are more of a delicious snack than a plain cracker.

5) Crisps: Chips are so much better outside of the US. Maybe it is because they are referred to as crisps. They are way crunchier and boast of flavors that I can only describe as “lovely” such as parsnip and feta cheese.

6) The Flu: Yes, we came home with the flu. It seems that foreign germs are even harder to fight off as all 3 family members were down and out for a week. Boo! What a way to end a vacation!

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Fortunately, I can relish in the fact that it is a marriage made in heaven, this product exchange we have going on.  I can’t wait for our next trip and our next new foreign product discovery!

Foodies Unite Part II: The Food

After weeks of preparations, it was finally time for our food party.  Our final menu included six courses and five paired wines. Carly also made a cheese platter with cheeses complementary to each of the wines that we could nibble on between courses (just in case we didn’t get enough to eat!) Each couple introduced their course and told us a little about their wine selection.  Some were very serious about this little bit of homework I issued, and we all learned a lot.

Course 1: Christy’s favorite salad featuring feta cheese, caramelized pecans and balsamic vinagrette

This was paired with a Washington Hills 2008 Riesling, which featured key lime, crème brulee and mineral essence. It had a creamy texture with nectarines on the finish. It is suggested as an aperitif, with ham, Asian cuisine or salad with red onions and feta- thus, an excellent choice for this course.


Course 2: Baked Shrimp Scampi

Carly pulled this recipe out of the Barefoot Contessa‘s cookbook.  Any meal of Ina’s is sure to be a winner and this was no exception. I especially loved the use of Panko breadcrumbs, which gave it a good texture.

The dish was paired with a Lockwood 2009 Chardonnay. 2009 was apparently a very good year in Monterrey. This wine boasted aromas of fresh pineapple and orange blossom supported by French oak nuances. Flavors of nectarine and white peach could be tasted on the front palate with citrus tones through the finish.  The chardonnay complements a variety of seafood and chicken dishes and was a perfect choice with shrimp.


Course 3: Penne alla Vodka

This is one of my favorite dishes and served as the perfect pasta primi. Who doesn’t love pasta?

Pasta without chianti is like bread without butter. The two go hand and hand. A DaVinci Chianti was selected for this dish. Forgive me as I do not recall the year. DaVinci Chianti is a well-balanced wine of medium weight with jammy flavors of ripe plums, cherries and red fruit. It has a long, peppery finish and pairs well with all starters, pastas and meat dishes.

Even though I employed a liquor spout to ensure small pours of 2 oz, at this point, we were – quite frankly- getting a little drunk. The bellies were also starting to get full, so we took a break to converse and walk it off before our palette cleanser and main course.

Course 4: Lemon Sorbet

By definition, a palate cleanser is used in the middle of a meal to remove any lingering flavors from the mouth so the next course can be enjoyed with a fresh perspective. The French also swear by them as a digestive to avoid heartburn and indigestion and to stimulate the appetite so you can eat, eat,  and eat some more. As this was our general goal, it seemed appropriate here.

Course 5: Roasted Beef Tenderloin with Pepper Jelly Sauce accompanied by Jen’s famous cheesy potatoes and green bean saute

I was a little skeptical about involving jalapeño jelly with beef tenderloin but the balsamic vinegar took away some of the bite leaving only yumminess.

A cabernet was served with this course. I have searched high and low for a picture of the cabernet we drank and I simply cannot find one. My excuse is that I was probably too buzzed or too full at this point to take any more pictures. Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir are usually good matches for beef tenderloin.

Course 6: Chocolate Tort

This delightful dessert was a Williams Sonoma masterpiece.  Our neighbor Carrie is an expert at desert and she did not disappoint.

With each bite chocolately goodness, we enjoyed sips of Rosa Regale, a semi dry red sparkling wine. This Italian lovely is a bit lighter than champagne and tastes of rose petals, fresh raspberries and strawberries. I cannot imagine a better complement to the sweet, rich velvety chocolate of the tort.

Finally, we were done eating and drinking.  Being much too full to retire, we stayed up chatting until well past my usual bedtime.  Until the next time.  Cheers!