Number 30: you guys, I’m domestic

I checked something off of my 101 in 1001 list last week that may be laughable to some, but it’s seriously an accomplishment for me. No, I didn’t run that 5K (it’ll happen someday…). What did I do?

#30. Make dinner at least three nights a week, two weeks in a row

image source; can someone please go back to the 1950s and hunt down that delightful aqua kitchen for me? I’ll take the cake on the cake stand, too.

Nick has always been the chef in our relationship. He enjoys cooking, can throw a meal together in no time without a recipe and with whatever we happen to have on-hand, and has usually planned dinners without me ever asking since we have lived together. Aside from baking, you probably know by now that I’ve always been a bit less comfortable in the kitchen, so we just got in the habit of him being the meal-planner and cook. If he doesn’t have something planned out, it’s always been assumed that we’re “on our own” for dinner, meaning we each fend for ourselves with sandwiches, leftovers or frozen meals.

Since launching Claremont Collection, I have been feeling a bit less frazzled with work and like I need to kick it up a notch in terms of my domesticity. Nick has never pressured me to start taking over the cooking, but he’s busy, too, and I want to feel like I’m contributing when it comes to meal planning and preparation. So, two weeks ago, I did a little online recipe research and planning, picked up what I needed at the grocery store, and planned out our meals for the next few nights. When Nick came home from work the first night to dinner already planned, in the oven, and almost ready to eat, he was shocked.

It was kind of nice to have it all under control.

Now, I am not saying that every meal has been an amazing culinary breakthrough. I am certainly not the next Julia Child. Grilled cheese & canned tomato soup was definitely on the menu one evening — easy peasy — but this goal on my list wasn’t about whipping up some complicated, challenging recipe three nights a week. It was simply about planning something and following through, rather than staring at the inside of the fridge at 6:00pm and wondering what I should eat, or expecting that Nick would figure something out. And, dare I say it — I’m actually enjoying it. Last week, I was looking forward to planning what we were going to have for dinner that week. I’m trying to mix new recipes in with some easy standby meals, and nothing has taken so long that it’s been a major inconvenience in the midst of my day. I am sure I still look like a goober when I’m trying to chop something and I use about 7 more mixing bowls than I need to, but hey, progress is progress.

Since it’s just the two of us, 3-4 home-cooked dinners each week is actually just about the right amount for us. We’ll usually eat out or at my mom’s once a week, and most likely have enough leftovers to take care of the other nights. I’ll still welcome Nick to take the reins in the kitchen if he’s in the mood to cook sometimes (or if I’m too busy), but I think this new habit may stick, and I’m glad that it’s made me actually enjoy cooking a bit more.

How many nights a week do you cook dinner at home? What’s your method of meal planning?

butternut squash soup

I love soups that have a sweet kick to them, and the autumn air inspired me to take a stab at making butternut squash soup for the first time last night. I did some Googling and found this recipe that had lots of positive feedback; after reading the reviews, I decided to modify things a bit, and Nick and I tackled the cooking together (and without killing each other in our small kitchen!). I’m really excited that it came out not only edible, but totally delicious.

image source because I suck at taking pretty pictures of food

Butternut Squash Soup
found via Food Network, modified by me

1 butternut squash (3-4 lbs), peeled and seeded
1 granny smith apple, peeled and seeded
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 Tbsp unsalted butter
1 medium onion, chopped
1 celery stalk, chopped
4 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1 tsp nutmeg
2 Tbsp maple syrup
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup half-and-half
salt and pepper to taste

Cut squash and apple into 1-inch chunks. Spread on greased baking sheet, sprinkle with olive oil and roast for 30 minutes at 400 degrees.

In large pot melt butter. Add onion and celery and cook until translucent, about 8 minutes. Add stock and bring to a simmer. Add roasted squash and apples and purée entire mixture with an immersion blender. Stir in half-and-half and season with nutmeg, syrup, brown sugar, salt and pepper.

Optional: Garnish with a dollop of sour cream. Serve with toasted French bread topped with melted grated Parmesan cheese.

no-bake chocolate eclair cake

Last Friday night, Nick and I had dinner at the home of my oldest friend, Jill (you may remember her from the Cabbage Patch Kid story) and her beautiful family. Jill and her hubby cooked up a delicious dinner for us, and we provided the dessert.

Nick’s aunt passed along this recipe for a no-bake chocolate eclair cake a few years ago, and it’s our favorite go-to dessert that doesn’t involve turning on the oven. (You may have heard that Philadelphia was fracking HOT last week, so the last thing we needed to do was heat up our kitchen any further.) We halved the recipe and used a smaller pan since it was just a small gathering, and there was still plenty to go around.

No-Bake Chocolate Eclair Cake
two 3 oz. boxes instant vanilla pudding
3 Cups milk
8 oz. Cool Whip
1 box whole graham crackers
1 can chocolate frosting

Mix pudding and milk until thick, then add Cool Whip. In a a 9″ x 13″ pan, lay graham crackers evenly on bottom. Spread 1/2 pudding mixture on crackers. Add another layer of graham crackers and remaining pudding. Top with graham crackers and press slightly into pudding. Top with icing. Refrigerate overnight.

Note: sometimes it’s a little difficult putting the icing on the top layer of graham crackers. Nick’s trick is putting the icing in the microwave for a little bit to soften it, dropping several spoonfuls on top of the graham crackers, and then spreading the icing across the top.

Chilling overnight turns the graham crackers into a soft crust. YUM.  Enjoy!

permanent press

You know you’re a grown-up when you start lusting after beautiful laundry rooms.

Have you seen the great DIY transformation of Centsational Girl’s laundry room? It makes me want to sing and dance around with an oversized bottle of Wisk.

I also love the tidy and organized laundry nook of John & Sherry from Young House Love.

Alas, for now, our little washer-dryer combo tucked behind a curtain (in my office, of all places) will have to do. Sigh. At least we have a washer-dryer, right?

yummy (and easy) taco soup

Some fabulous people we know had a beautiful baby girl on Thursday. We had the opportunity to meet her today (she is really cute!) and we packaged up some easily reheat-able dinners that we brought over for the new parents, knowing that they might be a tad too busy to cook in the coming weeks.

One of the meals we made was taco soup — I found the recipe ages ago on sparkpeople.com, and Nick and I really enjoyed it when I made it before, but we had since forgotten about it. I like it because it’s not quite as heavy as chili, but it still has a similar kick to it. It makes 9 servings, so we packed up a few containers for our friends and saved a little for ourselves for dinner tonight. It’s delicious, super easy to make, and doesn’t dirty a lot of dishes. (This feature is of particular importance to my husband, the designated dish washer of our household.)

Taco Soup
found via sparkpeople.com, modified by me

1 lb. lean ground turkey
1 15 oz. can tomato sauce

1 14.5 oz. can diced tomatoes w/green chilies

1 4 oz. can chopped green chilies

2 11 oz. cans corn (not drained)

2 15 oz. cans dark kidney beans (not drained)

1 pkg. taco seasoning

Optional toppings:
Tortilla chips

Shredded Cheese

Sour Cream

In a large pot, brown ground turkey over medium heat. Add tomato sauce, diced tomatoes, green chilies, corn, kidney beans, and taco seasoning. Bring to boil, and then simmer for 15 more minutes, stirring often. Serve and enjoy. Garnish with chips, cheese, and sour cream, if desired.

Serves 9

We added a little shredded cheese but skipped the chips and sour cream — still delicious!

ETA: obviously, this recipe could be made with fresh vegetables as well (which would cut back on the sodium) — but if you’re low on fresh veggies and time, canned items are a great solution.

how to make grocery store flowers look like a million bucks.

Let me begin by saying I greatly admire the work of florists. I do. And I love my mom a lot. But when I’m buying her flowers for Mother’s Day (and living on a budget), I can’t fork over $50 for a pretty bouquet of something that will die in a week. Just. Can’t. Do it.

I have always been a fan of buying grocery store flowers, but of course you don’t get the same beautiful presentation in a Trader Joe’s bouquet as you would with a professional florist’s bouquet. Something about that price tag on plastic secured with a rubber band… just not doin’ it for me. Fortunately, if you’re resourceful, you can make grocery store flowers look like a million bucks in five minutes.

What you’ll need:

  1. grocery store flowers — I bought two bunches of sunflowers from Trader Joe’s ($4.99 per bunch of 5)
  2. brown postal wrap — I’m still working with the 75 square feet ($2.50) I got last Christmas!
  3. scissors — I used pinking shears to add some character with the zigzag effect
  4. ribbon or baker’s twine — I used green and white baker’s twine

Step one:
Remove the store packaging from your flowers and trim the stems (if necessary). Arrange flowers however you’d like and secure your arrangement in place with a piece of twine tied in a bow around the stems.

Step two:
Cut a piece of postal wrap — I cut a piece about the length of the flower stems (from the bottom of the flower buds). Any longer and you won’t be able to see your flowers peeking out when they’re all wrapped up! And, in case you’re like me and can’t cut a straight line, I fold over my paper and crease it where I want to cut it, then follow along that crease with my scissors. Works like a charm.

Step three:
Line your flowers up along one side of your postal wrap (with the cut edge at the top of your bouquet if you used pinking shears). Gently roll your postal wrap with the flowers to the opposite side to create a cone-like shape with the wrap. Make sure the bottom of the wrap is more tapered as you roll it to achieve the desired effect.

Step four:
Wrap a long piece of twine around the middle of your postal wrap a few times and tie a bow.

There you go! Now that looks way better than flowers wrapped in plastic, doesn’t it?

breaking in the Le Creuset

Well hi, friends. Sorry I’ve been a bad blogger this week. I’ve just needed a little bit of a break and I didn’t feel like I had anything interesting to say over the last few days!

Last night, I christened the glorious and lovely Le Creuset Dutch oven that you all talked me into getting a few weeks ago; on the menu were some delicious country ribs drowned in a homemade barbecue sauce. Nick and I barely spoke to each other while chowing down on the yumminess, so I’m pretty sure that implies that they were a success.

Nick got the pork ribs on sale the other day, so when I searched for recipes, I limited my search to ones that included ribs, and wouldn’t require buying lots of other ingredients. I’m looking forward to making different dishes in the future, but I’m sure we’ll try this one again sometime, too, because the result was fabulous.

Below is the recipe I found at Just Dutch Oven Recipes, for which we ended up already having most of the other ingredients.

Country Ribs

1 c Sweet red wine
1/2 c Chili sauce
1/3 c Vinegar
1/4 c Honey
2 tb Soy sauce
1 tb Worcestershire sauce
2 ts Salt
2 ts Dry mustard
1 ts Horseradish
1 ts Red pepper sauce
1/2 ts Ground pepper
1/2 ts Paprika
3 tb Vegetable oil
3 lb Pork country-style ribs

Mix all ingredients except oil and ribs in saucepan. Heat to boiling, stirring constantly. Remove from heat. Heat oven to 350′. Heat oil in Dutch oven over low heat. Brown half of the ribs in hot oil; remove ribs. Repeat with remaining ribs; drain off fat. Return ribs to Dutch oven; pour sauce over ribs. Cover and bake 1 hour. Uncover and bake until done, about 30 minutes. Remove ribs to serving bowl. Strain sauce; skim off fat. Pour sauce over ribs.

Because I’m a nerd, I made Nick take a picture as I was getting ready to put the ribs into the oven. It’s par for the course when you live with me. (Oh, please ignore my terribly messy hair and the mess on the sink. Do you like my apron? It makes me feel fancy.)

The Dutch oven is pretty heavy and I’m a klutz (I could just see myself dropping that thing on the first go-round), so I made Nick take it out of the oven for me when the timer went off. Check out that action shot. Go, Nick, go!

And, the final result. Yummmm.

Mission: Break In Le Creuset Dutch Oven… accomplished! What should we try next?

Number 38: temporary husband substitute

I’ve been working on number 38 on my 101 in 1001 list lately:

38. Have fresh flowers at home for 4 weeks

It is amazing how much fresh flowers can boost my spirit. Nick has been out of town for the last ten days for work training (did I tell you all that he started a new job last month? Changes all around for us!), and I’ve been missing him a lot. He’ll be home Friday and I can’t wait — the schmoopy factor is off the charts and we need to be reunited, already!

Anyhow, I took a walk to Trader Joe’s yesterday to pick up a few things, and I couldn’t resist when I walked in and saw a bunch of ranunculus for $4.99. They’re my favorite flower and they remind me of our wedding day, so they’ll help to tide me over until Nick gets home. Aren’t they pretty?

ultimate chocolate chip cookies

My friend and business partner Terry recently gave me this amazing chocolate chip cookie recipe that may just trump the trusty Nestle Toll House variation. The key seems to be in using cake flour in addition to all-purpose flour, and sprinkling sea salt on top before baking for the perfect salty-sweet combination.

I sent some to my friend Emily, my brother and sister-in-law, and my husband’s parents a few weeks ago, and got rave reviews. Not sure if they were just being nice, but I’m pretty sure they liked them ;-)

Ultimate Chocolate Chip Cookies

Ingredients
2C minus 2Tbs cake flour
1 2/3C all-purpose flour
1 ¼ tsp baking soda
1 ½ tsp baking powder
1 ½ tsp coarse salt (or sea salt)
2 ½ sticks unsalted butter
1 ¼ C light brown sugar
1C plus 2 Tbs sugar
2 Large eggs
2 tsp vanilla
1 ¼ c bittersweet chocolate (or any kind of chocolate chips that you like)*

Directions
Sift flours, baking soda, baking powder and coarse salt into bowl and set aside.
Using mixer, cream butter and sugars until very light (5 min).
Add eggs (1 at a time), mixing well after each addition.
Stir in vanilla. Reduce speed to low and add dry ingredients and mix until just combined.
Drop chocolate pieces in and then press plastic wrap against dough.
Refrigerate 24-36 hours. Dough can be refrigerated for up to 72 hours.**
Preheat oven to 350 degrees, roll into balls and sprinkle lightly with coarse/sea salt.
Bake 15 minutes or until golden brown (or less time if you like them
really chewy).***

Makes about 6 dozen small-ish cookies

* I dump in the full bag of semi-sweet chocolate chips :) Why not?
** refrigerating for a few hours or overnight seems to yield the same results.

*** our oven tends to overcook things, so 12 minutes seems to be the magic number for perfectly golden, chewy cookies.

the power of persuasion

I did it. I convinced Nick that we should spend our $250 Cooking.com gift card on the Le Creuset 5.5 quart Dutch Oven! Well, actually, dear readers, your helpful comments about the Le Creuset are what helped to seal the deal. So, thank you!

In less than one week, she will be all mine:

I had to pinkie swear that I will use it at least twice a month, so please don’t hesitate to share with me your favorite go-to Dutch oven recipes. I’ll be needing lots of ideas and recommendations (and I promise to blog about some of my adventures with my new darling).

At $234.95 with $17.00 shipping, our total came to just over our $250 gift card limit. However, with some super sleuthing, I found a free shipping coupon code, saving us $17.00 and bringing our grand total back down to $234.95. You know I couldn’t let that last $15.05 go to waste, so I added this lovely green turner set from Rachel Ray for $14.95:

… bringing our grand total to: $249.90. A measly TEN CENTS below our limit.

Am I good, or what?

Finding coupon codes is one of my favorite online shopping tricks. I don’t buy anything online without first Googling “[store name] coupon code,” and I’d say I find a usable code about 80% of the time. It takes a little trial and error, but definitely give it a shot if you’re ever ordering online — you can find some great deals!