Sunday, January 30, 2011

Luscious Lemon Melting Moments

This weekend has been positively Spring-like in Texas!  It has been about 70 degrees with sunny blue skies.  Perfect!

We got together with some friends last night, and I wanted to bring a sweet treat.  With such warm, cheerful weather, I thought that lemon bars would radiate the same sunshiny vibe of the day.  And with a name like "melting moments," I'm sure that those of you in the North could almost forget about the snow after taking a bite of one of these lovelies.

Luscious Lemon Melting Moments
(click here to print)

2 sticks (1 cup) butter, softened (no substitutes)
2/3 cup powdered sugar
2 cups flour
1/8 tsp. salt

Lemon Filling:
6 large eggs, room temperature
2 cups white sugar
2 T. grated lemon zest (4-6 lemons, depending on size)
3/4 cup fresh lemon juice (fresh lemons make a huge difference in flavor)
3/4 cup flour

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and grease a 9x13 inch pan generously.

Cream the butter, then add sugar and beat with an electric mixter until light.  Add flour and salt and mix on low (so you don't get a flour shower!) just until combined.  The dough will be somewhat crumbly.

Empty the dough onto a floured cloth or board and gather into a ball.  Flatten into a disk with hands and  then press it into the pan, building up the edges slightly.  Bake for about 20 minutes or until slightly golden on top and around the edges.

Meanwhile, beat the eggs until light.  Add sugar, zest, lemon juice, and flour.  Mix well.  Pour over the hot crust and return to the oven for an additional 25-30 minutes or until the filling is set.  Let cool to room temperature.

For easier cutting, refrigerate the bars for about an hour, then cut into pieces.  Dust with powdered sugar.  I think these taste best cold, like little lemon pies.  They have a generous amount of the smooth, tart filling. Yum! 

Lemons will yield more juice if you microwave them briefly (about 20 seconds) before you cut them.  You can also roll them on the counter while applying pressure.  This releases the juice from the membranes. 

I'm linking this to Funky Junk Interior's SNS.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

My Porridge is Just Right!

Have you tried McDonald's Fruit & Maple Oatmeal yet?

I had a coupon for a freebie and tried it today.  It's quite good: creamy oatmeal is topped with crispy apple bits, golden and regular raisins, craisins, and maple-flavored goodness.  It's not too bad nutritionally, either: 290 calories and 5 grams of fiber.  There are 32 grams of sugar, though, but some of that is naturally-occurring in the fruit.

I hope this product makes it because I think that whenever a fast-food restaurant offers healthier alternatives, it is a good thing.  One potential drawback could be the price, though.  It is $1.99.  I don't know about you, but that price gave me pause because for $2, I can buy a 42-oz. canister of generic quick oats.

I used to buy Quaker instant oatmeal (the individual packets), either flavored or plain.  Those are tasty but also quite pricey when you consider that there are 10 per box, and you probably need 2 per serving (at least I do!).  Believe it or not, I now make my own "instant" oatmeal with quick oats.

Bring about a cup of water to a rolling boil in the microwave (about 3 minutes).  Then pour some over 2/3 cup of raw quick oats and stir.  Use enough water so it looks "soupy," because the oatmeal will absorb a ton of the water. Let it sit for a few minutes.  Then add whatever toppings you like.

I prefer my oatmeal firm, not mushy, but if you like it creamier, you could use milk instead of water for the liquid.  My kids love oatmeal this way, too.  Porridge my way is just right.

Try it and let me know what you think!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Souper Snappy Tomato Soup

Tomato soup has never one of my favorites until I had the Tomato Basil Soup at la Madeleine.  It was so creamy and flavorful and homemade tasting, very much unlike the red-and-white canned version!  I have made a copycat  of their recipe before and it is very good, but it contains heavy cream.  I'm trying to lose a little weight and wanted to try a tomato soup without cream.  Cooks Illustrated is the source for this version which uses white bread to add body.  Because it comes together in a snap, I classify this as a ch-eat!

Creamless Creamy Tomato Soup
Source:  Cooks Illustrated Magazine
(click here to print recipe)

2T. extra virgin olive oil (original recipe called for 1/4 cup but I cut it back)
1medium onion , chopped (about 1 cup)
3medium garlic cloves , minced or pressed through garlic press (about 1 tablespoon)
pinch hot red pepper flakes (optional--I used 1/4 tsp.)
1bay leaf
228-oz. cans whole tomatoes packed in juice
1T. brown sugar
3large slices good-quality white bread, crusts removed, torn into 1-inch pieces
2cups low-sodium chicken broth
2T. brandy (optional--I omitted)
1/4cup chopped fresh chives or green onion tops

Heat 2 tablespoons oil in Dutch oven over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add onion, garlic, red pepper flakes (if using), and bay leaf.

Cook, stirring frequently, until onion is translucent, 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in tomatoes and their juice. Using potato masher, mash until no pieces bigger than 2 inches remain.

Stir in sugar and bread; bring soup to boil. Reduce heat to medium and cook, stirring occasionally, until bread is completely saturated and starts to break down, about 5 minutes. Remove and discard bay leaf.

Transfer half of soup to blender. Process until soup is smooth and creamy, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer to large bowl and repeat with remaining soup. 

Return soup to pot. Stir in chicken broth and brandy (if using). Return soup to boil and season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve soup in individual bowls. Sprinkle each portion with pepper and chives or green onions, and drizzle with olive oil, if desired.

I estimated that this makes about six 12-oz. servings with about 170 calories per serving.

I don't have an immersion blender, but using it to blend the soup in the pot would be ideal if you own one.  I thought I would give an electric mixer a try instead.  EPIC FAIL.  Take my word for it.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Behind Closed Doors

There's an old country/western song that I was thinking about today: "No one knows what goes on behind closed doors."  Charlie Rich was talking about romance, but I'm grateful no one knows about this mess (until now, that is--EEK!):

This is my master bedroom closet.  It is a space that most people would envy because it is very large--long and narrow (16x7' or so).  Maybe it's too large because it has become a dumping ground for all manners of things.  When company is coming, the clutter gets stashed in here.  When I change out decor, the excess ends up here.  I think I need to follow a simple rule: when something new comes into the house, another thing (or 20) needs to leave.

Anyway, my closet has three large built-in cabinets.  Mine stores shoes.  My Man's is filled with shoes, jeans and t-shirts.  The last one holds a mish-mash of stuff, mostly home decor items that I don't want exposed to the heat of the garage or attic.

I am a very sentimental person and keep many things because they remind me of people or places from the past.  That is a real problem that I need to work on, because some things are worth keeping but many are not.  One keeper is this old laundry bag that my Grandma made probably 80 years ago or so.  Can you imagine having the time to beautify such a utilitarian item as a laundry bag?!

Another keeper from Grandma are these rug beaters.  The red one is dated 1927.   I'm not sure what I'll ever do with them but I love the lines of them.  I know I could hang them on a wall somewhere, but I'm just not sure where.

But I digress.  And because I digress so often, today's project took all day.  I didn't do anything earthshattering, just cleaned up and organized the chaos.  And since I have those built-in storage areas (which are basically closets within the closet), I also cleaned those out.  I had 2 hefty bags of trash and 2 more hefty bags of donations when I was done.

Here's the big reveal:

I have upper shelves that line the perimeter of this closet.  I wish I could afford something better than the see-through plastic bins I'm using, something that would cut the visual clutter.  I would love either covered baskets or canvas storage, but with this many bins, it would cost a small fortune.  Any ideas?

I carved out a place for future scrapbooking with this little area.  I want to try to get some nice photo mementos together for my son's high school graduation in 2 years.

Speaking of photos, I tried to get to that this week, too.  I was only mildly successful and ended up frustrated because I was tackling the project after long, long days at work.  Oh well, maybe later.

Now that I have cleared the floor, My Man will have no excuse not to replace the flourescent tubes that have burned out.  I hope.

I'm linking this to Songbird's Gitter Done linky party.  This on-going party is inspiring me to right my many wrongs!  I'm also linking this to Decor Chic's Real Homes, Real Messes party.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Perked Up Pantry and a Spicy Proposition

Well, we are 2 weeks into 2011.  How are you doing with your resolutions?  I have been spotty but have made some progress on the organization front.

Here is a picture of my pantry right before the New Year. 

This closet of chaos was the result of packaged goods being haphazardly strewn about in the baking, cooking and eating frenzy of the holidays.  My kids also tend to leave almost-empty containers in there.  Really?!  So while my husband was watching Bowl games, I "tackled" this mess.

I went to Dollar Tree and bought about 13 little plastic bins that are almost the same depth as my pantry shelves.  Total cost:  $13. 

Then I made some paper tags using cardstock, cut them into ovals with decorative scissors, and hung them from the bins and baskets.

It makes me feel so much better to have my pantry organized!  It may not be a dramatic change, but I can actually find things again.  Maybe The Family will actually be able to put things back if they're categorized?  It's probably too much to hope for, but we're still looking pretty good on Day 5.

While I was on a kitchen mission, I decided to also tackle my spices.  I have quite a few on the right hand side of the pantry on the above picture, but I also have this spice drawer with fixed wooden dividers next to my cooktop.

 I know that I haven't been using it to its full potential.  It is in a handy location, but it just always looks jumbled because I'm kinda lazy and don't keep it tidy of the different sizes of spice jars.  Today I went to Ikea and bought several packages of these (4 for $3.00).

Rajtan Spice Jar
There are a few things I like about these besides their low price: large capacity, wide mouth, and they either rest on their bottom or lean to the side.  (Hmm, sounds like some couch potatoes I know.)  The downside is that they don't have a shaker top, but I mostly use measuring spoons anyway.  If that is an issue, though, you might prefer these which are a little pricier (4/$5) but still big and sturdy.
Ikea 365+ Spice Jar

I also had a set of spice jar labels from CostPlus World Market that have been laying around for awhile, so I put those to use as well.

Since they are clear, they don't obscure the contents of the jar.  I think they're in the Arial font, so you can always print additional ones if you have an unusual herb or spice that's not on these pre-printed sheets.  I haven't found one that I'm lacking yet, though!

Here is a before and after:

Before:  A Jumbled Mess
After:  Success!

I cannot believe that 23 jars fit in this drawer!  And it only cost me $18 and a little bit of time.

I linked this to Beneath My Heart's and Thrifty Decor Chick linky parties.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Greek is Chic!

Yesterday was one c-r-a-z-y day!  You know the kind:  work, carpooling, after-school activities, more work.  In the accounting world, January is a beating.  But I still wanted to put a healthy dinner on the table for my family.  And I wanted to keep my New Year's resolution (at least for the first week!) to eat healthier.

Enter this Greek Salad with Grilled Chicken, which came together in about 30 minutes.  Take that, Rachel Ray.  It fit the bill: light, healthy, and fast.  Do you hear me, Ellie Krieger?  Sandra Lee calls this kind of dinner "semi-homemade."  I call it a "ch-eat."  (Guess I watch too much of the Food Network.)

Greek Salad with Grilled Chicken
Adapted from
(click here to print recipe)

Greek Salad Dressing and Marinade
1/2 cup olive oil
1 1/4 tsp. garlic powder
1 1/4 tsp. dried oregano
1 1/4 tsp. dried basil
1 tsp. freshly ground pepper
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. onion powder
1 tsp. dijon mustard
2/3 cup red wine vinegar

Combine all ingredients and stir well.  Set aside.

Salad Ingredients
Large bag baby spinach or chopped romaine or some of both
1 large cucumber
1/4 of a large red or sweet onion
Pitted Greek olives and marinated feta cheese from the olive bar at your grocery
    (or buy jarred, pitted Kalamata olives and a block of feta cheese and cut some up)
2 small plum tomatoes
3-4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, pounded to even out the thickness

Use about 1/3 cup of the salad dressing to marinate the chicken breasts at room temperature for about 15 minutes.  Preheat your grill.

In the meantime, wash and spin dry the lettuce and/or spinach.  Peel and slice the cucumber, slice the tomato, and finely chop the onion.  If you're using a block of feta, cut it into small cubes.  Refrigerate the salad ingredients.

Grill the chicken breasts for about 7 minutes per side on medium-high heat.

Cut chicken into pieces.  Remove the salad ingredients from the refrigerator and load onions, greens, olives and feta into a gallon-sized ziptop bag.   Pour in enough dressing to coat the leaves lightly.  Shake it up.  Plate the salad and decoratively arrange the tomatoes, cukes, and chicken on top, dividing evenly into 4 portions.

To minimize the mess and maximize the flavor, toss large salads in ziptop bags.  You will use less salad dressing, and it will be more evenly distributed.  Besides, it's fun to shake it up!  I buy gallon and 2-gallon sized ziptop bags at the Dollar Tree for just this purpose.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Christmas Cleanup and a New Year's Resolution

Today is New Years Day, my traditional day for taking down the Christmas tree and decorations.  I like keeping the seasonal items up for my New Year's Eve party, but once that is over, I yearn to return to normalcy (whatever that is).

Last night I hosted a party and my house was pretty and festive and clean.  There was candlelight and laughter, along with all manner of savory and sweet snacks and the traditional bubbly at midnight.  I snuggled into bed at 2 am.  Y-a-w-n!

Happy New Year 2011!
At 8 am, I gathered up all of the bits and bobs of Christmas

and thoroughly trashed my beautiful, clean house.  Temporarily, I hope.

My dog, Jazz, was wondering what the heck was going on and couldn't resist poking his nose into a few things.

"Whatcha doing, Mommy?"
 I decided that as long as I was going through a lot of my Christmas stuff anyway, I was going to try to consolidate it all in one place.  And then I decided that I need a smallish project like this once a week.  I have a confession to make:  My name is Vicki V., and I'm a Closet Stasher.

Although all looks calm, cool, and collected on the outside, lurking behind (and beneath) are pockets of chaos, like this

Hall armoire=future wrapping station?

And this

Master bedroom closet gives new meaning to "Christmas leftovers"
  And this

Pantry: packaged food on steroids?
So today I resolve to take responsibility, to clean up my act, one baby step at a time.  This week:  Christmas decor.  Next week:  The dreaded pantry.  Can I truly tackle 52 decluttering projects this year (no matter how small?).  Stay tuned!!