Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Hurry Up, Spring! I'm Dreaming of Hardscaping!!!

Our mild winter has me yearning for Spring's arrival.  Last year at this time, we had snow on the ground for weeks at a time and a blizzard soon approaching!  This year, we have had a few flurries and that's about it.  It's a bit disappointing but I'm ready for Spring.  My creative juices have been flowing and I'm ready to get my hands dirty!

Last Spring, we built a flowerbed in front of our fence and put in 200-plus plants.  It took us the course of  the entire Spring and Summer, but we finally got all 100-yards of our fence stained.  It was mind-numbing work and I was glad to have it behind us!  While I tended to the plants, Justin volunteered to be in charge of the grass.  He was slowly but surely getting rid of the crabgrass and Bermuda grass that came with our house.  His hard work was paying off!

After spending who-knows-how-much on chemical concoctions and grass seed, and hours working in the yard, we have since found out that in order to COMPLETELY get rid of the problem grass, we have to start all over!

 I figure that if we're going to tear up the yard, we might as well put in some hardscaping while we're at it!  And hell, if you haven't noticed, I find projects for us to do that DON'T have to be done!  So why not keep adding to our project list?! lol...

One of my hardscape projects is to build a permanent fire pit...kinda like this one:

After all, we have the perfect spot in our backyard for one.  It would be far enough from any fire hazards and it would be pretty to look at (unlike this picture that was taken in the dead of winter last year)!  I'm kinda thinking down by the patio area??? 

And just between us, our current fire pit scares the daylights out of me.  Justin thinks it is just fine.  When I say we could burn down the neighborhood with it, I'm not kidding!  See what I mean?!

One of my other goals is to tear out the garden from behind our house.  Our garden was HORRIBLE this year and ummm, we could walk the 1-block to our Farmer's Market if we really want fresh produce.  The other thing is that the garden would get big and overgrown--it drove my OCD/neat-freak self nuts!   My idea is to take this space:

And build a raised-flowerbed...either for flowers (gasp!) or herbs.  I'm leaning towards flowers as it will give us some color and something pretty to look at!

And while we're building walls, I want to tear out our existing "retaining wall" by the "patio" and build something more substantial.  Right now, we have crumbling cinder blocks separating the grass and former parking pad.  Not only is it ugly, but grass manages to grow in the little holes of the blocks. It is a pain to either pull by hand or weed-eat! Plus, by having an actual retaining wall, it could double as extra seating space ;-)

The big thing will be getting Justin on board with all my ideas--he's all about making things look better, but he's not so excited about all the manual labor (especially the digging) that comes with doing things ourselves.  But something tells me, once Spring comes around, he'll be excited about working in the yard again!

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Recipe of the Week: Sweet 'N Tangy Meatballs

Are you ready for another delicious recipe that I just discovered?!

I probably shouldn't admit that I just came across the recipe because based on my internet research, it's been around forever.  However, I will admit that I was both curious AND concerned about the recipe.  The recipe only called for 3 ingredients, a slow cooker and almost seemed too easy to be true.

Anyhow, we had a potluck dinner after Church today and I needed something quick and easy to take.  Throughout the week, I thought about making some other dishes that go over well at potlucks but I kept coming back to this recipe.  Almost always, the mention of a slow cooker seals the deal for me!

As we were loading up the crockpot of Sweet 'N Tangy Meatballs into the car this morning, I confided in Justin my worries about serving a recipe that I have never prepared to a bunch of people.  Knowing my luck, the meatballs would turn out to be an epic fail and everyone would see my leaving with my nasty potluck dish!

Thankfully, I was dead wrong.  We came home with an empty crock-pot!  I saw several people go back for more and they had already disappeared.  Being the "helper" that I am, I divulged the recipe--they couldn't believe how easy the meatballs were!  Especially since they were quickly kid-approved by all the young tikes.

The recipe called for 3 very basic ingredients:

All you do is dump a big bag of frozen meatballs in the slow cooker and pour in a 12-oz bottle of grape jelly and a 10-oz bottle of chili sauce.  Cook everything on low for several hours and you're ready to go.  It's really THAT easy!

After reading some reviews,  I decided to play with the recipe a bit.  I added 1 teaspoon of Worchestershire sauce and 1 teaspoon of ground mustard to everything.  I also cooked the meatballs on high for about 1 hour and then turned it down to low until it was time to eat.  By then, the jelly and chili sauce had penetrated the meatballs and they had tons of flavor!  Surprisingly, they weren't really sweet.  So I don't know why the recipe called them Sweet 'N Tangy--if it were up to me, I would call them "Don't-Count-On-Any-Leftovers People Pleasers."

I also read some reviews where they substituted Apricot preserves for the grape jelly--I can't wait to try that version, sometime!  Some people also used an Asian Chili sauce to give it more kick--again, I can't wait to try that as well!  To make a meal out of the meatballs, many people reported serving them over rice. 

Whatever you end up doing, just make sure you decide to try these People Pleasers--you (and all the other mouths) won't be disappointed!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Most Precious Marcella Elizabeth!

On November 22, I became an aunt to a baby for the very first time!

My brother and his wife welcomed to the world their first child, Marcella Elizabeth.

It goes without saying that our entire family was beyond excited to finally meet the bundle of joy.  After all, she is the first grandbaby for my parents and when Justin and I married, I inherited teen-age nieces and nephews (who I happen to think the world of).  But getting to watch my niece grow up will be super special!

Marcella's name is French--just like her mother.  And that's not the only reason why the name is so special--we have a dear family friend named Marcella, it's the feminine version of Mark (my father's name) and it also deviates from Marcene (my father's mother's name).  Marcella's middle name, Elizabeth, happens to be a family name on both my dad and mother's sides...AND it's my middle name, too :-)   But do you know what else the two of us share?  We were both born with a head full of black hair!

It's been almost two months now since Marcella has been born and we have enjoyed every minute spent with her.  Like I said earlier, I can't wait to watch her grow up!

Baby Marcella--just moments after she was born!

We made it back from spending Thanksgiving in Louisiana and went to go meet Marcella.  She was already 5 days old--and it was a LONG 5 days until we got to meet her! 

Look how tiny she was compared to Uncle J!  Everytime we look at this picture, she reminds us of a baby doll.
And she slept away our visit!

Marcella was born 3 weeks early--here she is arriving for her Baptism (also her due date) on December 10.
Nikki is a natural Mommy!  Here Marcella is in her Christening Blanket (made by my mom) with her Mommy and Great-Grandma pat

After Marcella's birth, my brother will finally show his face in pictures!

Marcella slept through her Baptism and the entire Mass!

And here she is on her 4-week birthday! 

If you haven't had enough baby pictures just yet, you HAVE to check out her professional newborn pictures HERE  They are absolutely freakin' adorable and the photographer did an amazing job capturing just how special a newborn baby is!

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Recipe of the Week--Lettuce Wraps and (Baked) Crab Rangoon!

I have to be somewhat honest here--these recipes aren't necessarily "new" to us...however, I came across them not too long ago and we made the Lettuce Wraps and Crab Rangoon just last week so they're fresh in my mind. And I'm already craving them again!

I love a good Lettuce Wrap. PF Chang's are amazing but we rarely ever are near one. I'm telling ya, these wraps are VERY similar to the ones served at PF Chang's! I've tried various recipes over the years and this one is here to stay. Oh, and you HAVE to make the dipping sauce--it's spectacular! And super easy :-) One thing I should mention--don't be intimidated by the length of the ingredient list. Everything comes together super quickly and if you're willing to spend the extra money, you can get most of the produce items in already-prepared forms.

Now--the Crab Rangoon. I'm not trying to brag, but I've been known to make a great Crab Rangoon. In fact, I about burned down our apartment building frying up a bunch of them for the neighbor boys several years ago. But it was totally worth it :-) One of my secrets involves REAL crab...not that imitation kind...or even the kind in a can. I'm talking the fresh crab from the meat section. You can buy a plastic cup of it for about $6 and it will go a really loooooooong ways--trust me. And my other secret--CHIVE cream cheese. Not the regular cream cheese, but the Philadelphia kind with the chives already in it. The recipe I posted below also calls for Sriracha Chile Sauce (aka Rooster sauce) but if you're not one for spice, you can totally skip it and still have a killer Crab Rangoon!

Asian Lettuce Wraps (Recipe by Our Best Bites)
2 t. canola oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 T. minced fresh ginger
1 lb ground chicken
3 oz. mushrooms, finely chopped (about 8 small mushrooms)
1/2 t. kosher salt
4 C bagged coleslaw mix or thinly shredded cabbage
8oz canned sliced water chestnuts, drained, rinsed, and finely minced
1/2 C thinly sliced green onions
4 T. soy sauce
1 t. sesame oil
1 lemon, zested and juiced (about 3-4 Tbs juice)
1/2-1 t. Sriracha or other hot sauce (1 tsp of Sriracha is fairly spicy in my opinion, so if you want less or no kick, just give it a little, or you can leave it out completely)
1/3 C roughly chopped cilantro
1-2 heads iceberg lettuce

Dipping/Drizzling Sauce:
4 T. soy sauce
4 T. rice vinegar
3 T. water
2 t. honey
1-2 t. finely minced fresh ginger

Heat a very large skillet to medium-high heat on the stove top. When hot, add vegetable oil and then garlic and ginger. Saute for about 30 seconds, until fragrant, and then add ground chicken, chopped mushrooms, and kosher salt. Cook for about 5 minutes, stirring often, until chicken is cooked through. (*At this point, sometimes I have some extra liquid in the pan from the chicken. If it’s quite a bit, I tilt the pan and spoon it out so the chicken can cook and not boil.) Add cabbage/coleslaw, water chestnuts, and green onions. Cook for about 2 minutes, until cabbage starts to wilt. Add soy sauce, sesame oil, the zest from the lemon and the lemon juice, and hot sauce to taste. Remove from heat and stir in cilantro.

To prepare dipping sauce, combine all ingredients and whisk to combine.

To serve, carefully remove the individual leaves from the head of lettuce. (The closer you get to the center, the easier it becomes!) Place chicken mixture in the leaves and serve with sauce.  Yield: about 5 C chicken mixture. Makes 14-16 lettuce wraps.

Sriracha Spiked (Baked) Crab Rangoon
1 pkg. Wonton wrappers
4 oz. cream cheese, at room temperature (I prefer to use the Philadelphia Chive variety)
2 - 2 1/2 t. Sriracha chile sauce
1/2 t. soy sauce
3 T. finely chopped green onion (you don't need this if you use the Chive cream cheese)
1/4 t. black pepper
1/4 t. grated lemon zest
4 oz. well-drained lump crab meat (trust me, it's worth it to splurge for the real stuff!)
Salt, to taste

To make the filling , combine the cream cheese and chile sauce (to taste) in a bowl. Add the soy sauce, green onion, pepper, lemon zest, and crab meat. Use a fork to mix well. Taste and add salt, as needed. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside for 30 minutes before using, or refrigerate up to a day in advance.

Fill each wonton skin with about 1 teaspoon of the filling. Center the filling, brush two adjoining sides with water, then fold to create a triangle. Place on a baking sheet coated with non-stick cooking spray. You may also want to spray the wontons with nonstick cooking spray to help brown them.

Bake at 425 °F (210 °C) for 8-10 minutes or until golden brown (you may need to flip them half-way through the baking time so that they brown evenly). Or you can just fry them in hot oil--but baking them makes ya feel a bit more healthy. Serve warm.

*And if you don't like spice at all, feel free to omit the will still have a very yummy, and traditional, crab rangoon!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

How To Make a Jar of Good Luck!

Every year, I struggle with coming up with gifts to give co-workers and friends.  It's always such a conundrum--I don't want to go overboard on the gifts and make people feel bad...some people love sweets, other people would kill me if I gave them more candy or carbohydrates...and I would prefer to give something home-made...but usually, I draw a blank and/or run out of time so I just don't do anything!

This year, however, I finally figured out a gift that EVERYBODY should appreciate.  I bottled up a lil' bit of  good luck and prosperity and put it in a jar!

By this point, you may be asking yourself, "And exactly how does she do that???"

It's easy.  All you need is black-eyed peas!

And how do black-eyed peas equate good luck and prosperity?!

Walk into most any Southern kitchen on New Year’s Day and there’ll be a pot of black-eyed peas on the stove or a dish featuring some form of black-eyed peas on the table. The peas are thought to be African in origin and have been a mainstay of the Southern diet for over 300 years. One popular theory on the marriage of black-eyed peas and good luck dates back to the Civil War, when Union troops stripped the countryside of food, crops, and livestock, and destroyed whatever they couldn’t carry away. At that time, Northerners considered field peas and field corn suitable only for animal fodder, and didn’t steal or destroy these humble foods, thus leaving food for Southerners to eat during the conflicts bleakest days. And that’s good luck.

The jars of good luck are easy to prepare.  All you need is a quart-sized Mason jar, a pound of black-eyed peas, various dried seasonings and a way to attach a recipe.  And then it's time to spread the love!  Errr, luck! 

Most often, black-eyed peas are prepared as Hoppin' John on New Year's Day...but, knowing most of the recipients are true Midwesterners, I changed up the attached recipe some.  I included a recipe for Black Eyed Pea Soup--but whenever we make it, we throw in some pig and then drain off the excess liquid and serve it over white rice...nothing beats a big old bowl of soul food!

In case you're interested in bottling up your own bit of good luck and prosperity, the detailed directions and recipe are below!

3 1/2 cups (1lb) dried black eyed peas

For Seasoning Packet:
1/2 cup dried minced onion
6 T. chicken bouillon granules
2T. dried parsley flakes
1 T. sugar
2 tsp dried minced garlic
1 tsp chili powder 1 tsp onion powder
1/2 tsp pepper
1/2 tsp garlic powder

Add 2 cups of the peas into a wide mouth 1quart canning jar. Mix and place the seasoning in a small plastic bag. Place the packet on top of the peas. Add the remaining peas.

Attach this to the Jar:

Black Eyed Pea Soup
Remove seasoning packet and set aside. Rinse peas and place in microwave safe dish. Cover with water, 1 to 2 inches over the top of the beans. Cover the dish loosely with plastic wrap and microwave on high for 15 minutes, rotating after 7 minutes. Drain and rinse beans. Place beans in a large soup pot. Add 12 cups water, 2 (14oz) can of diced or crushed tomatoes & Seasoning packet. Cover, bring to a boil. Lower heat, cover and simmer 1 1/2 hours or until beans are tender. Stir Occasionally.