Thursday, February 26, 2015

My Daughter, My Shadow

Practicing for her upcoming role as the "big sister" of our family. She's going to be awesome at it.

Emma has always been my little shadow. From the time she could barely sit up, she loved to stay near me while I went about the day, performing little tasks here and there. Before she could walk, she would stand, clutching onto the edge of the coffee table with a rag clutched in her tiny fist and dust the surface for me while I tidied up the rest of the room. When I am brushing my hair, she sits at my feet and attacks her own mane with her tiny little brush. While I am taking a shower, she often tries to climb in or just waits outside until I am finished asking me every now and then: "Ok, Mommy? Ok?"

But her favorite activity has always been watching me apply my makeup. I don't wear a lot of makeup - a little fill for my eyebrows (since they fall out when I'm pregnant - lovely), some blush for my cheeks, a touch of eye shadow and mascara, and maybe a bit of lipstick. She's always been fascinated watching me apply it and ever since she was about 9-months old has begged me to give her some lipstick so she can "smack her lips" after application. At first, I found it very cute but then, as she became more mobile and vocal, it became a bit annoying. She would search my room for the makeup bag which I kept stored up high in our bathroom closet. Whenever I brought it out, she would begin to fumble inside, opening containers and trying to take out the applicator brushes so she could apply the color to her face all by herself. If I was in a hurry or just not in the mood to deal with her grabby fingers, I found myself very frustrated with her. Sometimes, I would try to put the makeup on when she was nowhere in sight - quickly and discreetly- often while locked in my closet - so that I wouldn't have to deal with her.

Emma has a fantastic sense of humor. She is always laughing about something.

The other day, I was downstairs cleaning the kitchen and turning over the laundry. Emma and Matthew had been playing puzzles in the living room, but then Emma had wandered upstairs to her playroom. I had heard her up there playing with one of the Little People sets. I went into the laundry room to empty the dryer when I suddenly heard a "thump" from above me. It was pretty loud - and the room right above the laundry room is my bathroom. I put the laundry down and walked upstairs. I found Emma sitting in the middle of our bathroom floor with my makeup bag dumped out, the contents strewn about the floor - most of them already opened. Emma's face had a generous amount of blush applied to her little chunky cheeks, as well as a big blob of blue eye shadow on each eye. She had also opened both bottle of mascara and attempted to apply it to her eye lashes but had missed and instead stained the skin right below her lower lid as well as her eyebrows.

I was enraged. She had climbed the shelving of the bathroom closet to get that makeup bag down. In addition, she had opened every single container and half the powder and brushes were dumped on the floor in a gigantic, colorful mess. I don't have or buy a lot of makeup and she had singlehandedly ruined a good portion of my supply. That was all I could think about. I sternly picked her up and angrily told her she was never to be in Mom's bathroom without permission. I washed the makeup off her face angrily while she sobbed. Then, I put her in her crib while I cleaned the rest of the mess up. Her sobbing could be heard throughout the entire house.

We had the pleasure of babysitting the baby of a dear friend.
Emma would not leave his side. She's such a sweet little girl and loves the babies!

Then, as I was cleaning up the mess, I realized how perfectly endearing the situation had been in all reality. She was only trying to be just like her Mommy. She admired and loved me so much that she wanted to follow the same routine. She had even chosen the color palettes that I gravitate towards the most while applying my makeup even though she had opened every single one (probably while in search for the appropriate color). The whole situation was sweet and innocent and I should not have become so angry with her over it. Granted, she should not have raided my closet or dangerously scaled my closet shelving - that was honestly the more serious issue rather than a bagful of ruined makeup - but I wish I had been more gentle in my handling of the situation. She is my little shadow - and she will watch and imitate everything I do. That in of itself is humbling and makes me want to be better for her sake so that someday she does not grow up to make the same mistakes I commit on a daily basis!

I wish I had captured a photo of her "made up" little face that day. Every time the memory of it floats through my head, I give her an extra squeeze and a kiss. She is so sweet, innocent, and precious and I am so very blessed to be her mother.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Citrus Poppy Seed Muffins

In my post last week about take-in meals for families with new babies, I featured a couple pictures from the meal I brought to a dear friend of mine recently. I received a few emails requesting the recipe for the muffins pictured and have decided to post it. They were simple, delicious citrus poppy seed muffins from Dorie Greenspans's cookbook Baking: From My Home to Yours, one of my favorite cookbooks of all time. I utilized some of the delicious lemons and oranges that my Grandmother sent from California in the recipe and they were fresh, sweet, and tangy. We were pretty sad to bid the majority of the batch farewell as we dropped them off with our friends, but luckily I did make a double batch so we could enjoy a few muffins!

Paul and I ate these for dessert a couple nights in a row, but they would also be a welcomed breakfast addition or afternoon snack. Really, do you need an excuse to eat a delicious muffin? I don't think so.

Matthew, my suspicious eater, was very unsettled by the poppy seeds. In general, he tends to pick out most seeds and nuts that he finds in his salad, cereal, or baked goods but he found the process of removing every single poppy seed from his muffin too laborious and decided to just eat the darn thing. He declared it delicious. I told him he needs to stop thinking his mother is trying to poison him and just eat what is placed in front of him without apprehension.

I could eat these all the time. They are probably my favorite muffin ever - well, maybe tied with blueberry. Do not skip the glaze. I actually prefer adding the glaze while the muffins are warm. I poke holes in the warm muffins with a toothpick and then slowly spoon the glaze over so it seeps into the muffin. Dorie says to frost them after they are cooled, but I love the glaze so much that I really want that sugary flavor to soak into the rest of the cake.

Citrus Poppy Seed Muffins
adapted barely from Baking: From My Home to Yours

Note: You can completely omit the orange zest and just make Lemon Poppy Seed Muffins. Of course, you probably didn't need me to tell you that!

For the Muffins:
2/3 cup white sugar
Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
Grated zest of 1 orange
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup sour cream (full fat only!)
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 stick unsalted butter, melted and cooled
2 tablespoons poppy seeds

For the Citrus Glaze:
1 cup powdered sugar, sifted
2-3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (or a mix of lemon and orange juice)

Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line all 12 molds of a standard muffin pan with muffin cups. Place the muffin pan on a baking sheet.

In a large bowl, rub the sugar and citrus zest together with your fingertips until the sugar becomes moist and you can really smell the citrus oils being released (heavenly!!). Whisk in the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. In a large glass measuring cup or bowl, whisk the sour cream, eggs, vanilla, lemon juice, and melted butter together until well blended. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and pour the wet ingredients into the well. Using a rubber spatula, gently stir everything together just until blended. A few lumps are fine - be careful not to overmix!

Stir in the poppy seeds. Divide the batter evenly among the muffin cups.

Bake for 18-20 minutes or until the tops are barely golden and a toothpick comes out clean with the exception of a few moist crumbs. Transfer the pan to a rack and cool for 5 minutes before carefully removing the muffins from the pan. Let cool completely.

While the muffins cool, whisk together the powdered sugar and lemon juice. Add more powdered sugar if you want a thicker icing; add more juice if you want to thin the icing out. Drizzle over the muffins. Use ALL the glaze!

Friday, February 20, 2015

Our Favorite Dinner Rolls

We have been living in Antartica for the past week. The temperatures have been well below zero and the wind chill was -30 today. Negative thirty degrees! It felt every bit that chilly when I was dragging the kids in and out of the grocery store today because of course neither the fridge nor the pantry was stocked. It felt like my skin was being pelted with little nails as the cruel breeze blew completely through my warm winter coat. Emma would just clutch onto me as tight as she could while screaming: "No blowing! No blowing! AHHHHHH!" But we are about a month away from the first day of spring. March is the month of hope in the promise of warmer months ahead.

In the meantime, soups, stews, and casseroles are still the best thing to be eating when the weather is so brutally chilly. If you are anything like my husband, you cannot finish off a bowl of soup without a generous helping of warm bread slathered with butter for dipping. Paul's favorite meals are probably the same ones he will be served in a nursing home someday - tomato soup and bread, chicken soup and bread, potato soup and bread, clam chowder and bread, and (if he's feeling really crazy) salisbury steak so soft and mushy you can practically get by without chewing guessed it....bread.
I have a million different bread and roll recipes, but I keep coming back to this for both its simplicity and because Paul has declared them the best rolls in the world. Of course, he would dip white sandwich bread in his soup if I did not have a fresh batch of rolls on hand, so maybe that's not the highest praise. But, I agree that these are pretty awesome. They are easy to throw together, fun to shape, and even more fun to eat. The kids are always stealing warm rolls off the tray as the batch cools down which simultaneously irritates and delights me. Maybe it only irritates me when they try to feed one to the cat who sniffs at it fastidiously before sauntering over to his usual spot on the carpet to resume grooming his backside.
We like these served with salted butter or honey butter. They are pretty fantastic plain too!

Lion House Rolls

2 tablespoons active dry yeast or 1 1/2 tablespoons instant yeast
2 cups warm water
1/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup butter, softened
1 egg
2 1/2 teaspoons salt
2/3 cup nonfat dry milk powder
5-6 cups flour (this is never measured - just add enough to form a soft dough)
If using active dry yeast,  combine the yeast and water in a large bowl and let stand 5 minutes to proof. If using instant yeast, there is no need to proof. Simply add the yeast and water together with the other ingredients as detailed below in the bowl of a standing mixer and proceed with the recipe.
Add the sugar, butter, salt, dry milk, 2 cups of flour, and egg. Using the paddle attachment of the stand mixer, beat until well combined - about 1-2 minutes. Add enough flour until the dough starts to pull away from the sides of the dough and "ball up" on the paddle attachment. At this point, stop the mixer and scrape the dough off the paddle and replace it with the dough hook. Continue to knead the dough while adding more flour (about 2 tablespoons at a time) until a soft, slightly tacky dough forms. This might take a while, so be patient. Allow the mixer to knead the dough about 5- 10 minutes or until it feels soft, supple, and springs back when squeezed. Dump the dough onto the counter, knead it briefly into a large, tight ball and then place in a greased bowl. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic and allow to rise in a warm place until doubled in size (about 2 hours).
Once the dough has doubled, separate it into two portions. Working with one portion of dough at a time, roll into an approximate rectangle about 11x14 inches. Brush the top generously with melted butter and then, using a sharp knife, cut the dough in half lengthwise. Then, slice the dough into 5-6 strips across so you end up with 10-12 small rectangles in total. Roll each rectangle up like a snail and then place it on a parchment-lined baking sheet with the roll resting on it's open edge. Repeat with the second portion of dough.
Cover the rolls tightly with plastic and allow to rise until doubled - about another 45-60 minutes. As the rolls are rising, preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
When ready to bake, remove the plastic and bake one pan at a time for 12-14 minutes or until lightly browned. Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly before serving. You could also slather the warm rolls in additional melted butter if you're feeling super indulgent.
Try not to eat the entire batch in one sitting.
Note: If you need help visualizing the shaping process, Mel has a photo tutorial on her website.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Take-In Meals for Families with New Babies

The greatest gifts I received after delivering both Matthew and Emma were the outpouring of meals and snacks from friends and family to help sustain us throughout the first couple weeks as we adjusted to life with a newborn. Every time a meal was brought over, it was such an incredible blessing because it freed us up to completely focus our energy on welcoming the new baby into our family instead of trying to figure out what to make for dinner. It was also fun to try out some yummy recipes that were staples in the households of our friends! Because I appreciated this gesture so much, whenever one of my friends has a new baby I try my best to offer them the same courtesy with a "meal tray" full of goodies.

I have made a take-in meal quite a few times and normally end up doing a variation on the same meal both because it is easy for me to transport and a pretty good crowd-pleaser. I try to pack everything in a tight box so I can simply hand it off to the family once I arrive. I also always use disposable trays and plates so the poor new mother does not have to figure out when to return my plates! That helps a lot. My take-in meals always consist of:

1) A hearty main dish - normally a casserole of some sort. I have been making Baked Spaghetti the last few times because it is both easy and incredibly delicious.

2) A salad of some sort - I have made an Antipasto Salad, Strawberry Spinach Salad, Caesar Salad, etc. depending on the tastes of the individuals receiving the meal.

3) Some type of bread - rolls, French bread, garlic bread, whatever! Everyone loves bread!

4) Some type of dessert - usually something super portable and freezable in case the family would rather save them for later. Brownies, cookies, fruit bars, muffins, quick breads, or slab pie are all great options. Recently, I have been opting more for muffins or a quick bread because of their versatility: they can be used as a dessert, snack, or sweet breakfast treat!

5) A gift for the newborn (optional) - I like to especially throw in a gift for first-time parents or if the newborn is a different sex than the other children in the household.

My suddenly shy little sous chef during the making of our most recent take-in meal.

The best part about bringing a meal to families with new babies? Getting a first peek at the adorable new baby. The photos in this post are from a meal I brought to friends who adopted their second child a couple weeks ago. They had been waiting for that second baby for a long time and they suddenly received a call one morning and brought home their daughter that same evening! And she is the tiniest, most petite, beautiful baby I have ever seen!! She is such a lucky little girl to be part of that family - she will be loved and treasured her entire life by her mommy, daddy, and big brother.

Do you have a favorite meal you like to cook for families with new babies? I'm posting the recipe below for the Baked Spaghetti casserole because it is truly a favorite family recipe and one that I make so often that I really should share it. It's nothing fancy - just really good comfort food! Since I have a sensitivity to lactose, I normally make the casserole with Greek yogurt cream cheese instead of regular and it is every bit as wonderful and doesn't upset my stomach quite as much as the regular cream cheese. I also like to top the casserole with a mixture of mozzarella and Parmesan cheese - but really whatever you have on hand will probably be delicious!

This post is linking up for Tuesday Talk. Head on over to Sweet Little Ones to check out all the other posts!

Baked Creamy Spaghetti
adapted from Plain Chicken

1 pound hot or sweet Italian Sausage
12 ounces spaghetti noodles
1 28-ounce jar pasta sauce (I love using a savory sauce like Parmesan Romano)
1 8-ounce package of cream cheese, room temperature
1-2 garlic cloves
1 tablespoon Italian seasoning
1 cup shredded cheese (Mozzarella, Parmesan, or a mixture) - more if you're into cheese!

Remove the Italian sausage from the casing and cook in a pot over medium heat until done being sure to break the sausage apart into small pieces with a wooden spoon as it cooks. Drain the sausage and then return it to the pot. Add the pasta sauce and stir to combine. Cover and keep warm over medium-low heat.

Meanwhile, bring 4 quarts of water to a boil. Add 1 tablespoon of salt and the spaghetti noodles. Let cook until al dente according to the package directions.

While the noodles cook, place the cream cheese, garlic cloves, and Italian seasoning in a large bowl and mix as best you can to combine. When ready, drain the pasta noodles reserving a bit of the pasta water. Immediately pour the hot noodles over the cream cheese and begin stirring and tossing to completely coat the pasta with the cream cheese mixture. If you need to, add a bit of the pasta cooking liquid to facilitate the process. Just do the best you can to distribute the cream cheese evenly.

In a 13x9 pan, pour a thin layer of the meat sauce, making sure that the bottom is covered. Add the noodles and spread evenly to the edges of the pan. Pour the remainder of the meat sauce over the top and top with the shredded cheese.

Bake for about 30 minutes until bubbly. Remove from the oven and let stand for about 5-10 minutes before serving (we almost never do - Paul is usually picking at it before it even leaves the oven). Serve!

Make Ahead Note: The casserole can be prepared through assembly, allowed to cool, and then refrigerated until ready to bake. Add an extra 15-20 minutes to the baking time if cooking straight from the refrigerator and keep it covered with foil for the first 20 minutes or so.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

My Sweet Valentines

As I detailed in an earlier post, Valentine's Day is a special anniversary for me and Paul. We normally like to spend the evening together with some sort of special date - and we've done everything from a fancy dinner out, takeout and a romantic comedy, to cooking a fun meal together after the kids have been put to bed. Whatever our plans may be - we always enjoy one another's company reminiscing and laughing. Except for perhaps that Valentine's Day two years ago where everyone had the stomach flu. That was gross.

While we reserve the evenings for romance, the morning and day are spent with our other two Valentines - the kids!  The night before, Paul and I decorate the table to make it look all pink and obnoxious in honor of "love day" (as Matthew calls it). We then set out valentines at each place setting - the little Ninja Turtle valentines that Matthew made, a couple small gifts for the kids, a love note from me to Paul, and a love note from Paul to me. Then, I love to cook a special breakfast for the family as soon as we get up. I am crazy and like to personalize the dishes to suit the taste preferences of each member of the family: Cinnamon French Toast for Matthew, Fruit and Yogurt Smoothies for Emma, and Eggs Benedict for Paul. Everyone tries a little of everything and it's a pretty darn delicious meal!

After breakfast, the kids opened their valentine's gifts. Emma received a Winnie-the-Pooh wooden puzzle. She's been starting to get into puzzles because she watches Matthew put them together all the time. She loved it. Pardon the shirtless child in the pictures. She was all sticky and gross after breakfast so we just let her run around half naked.

Matthew received (and I warn you that this sounds very lame) a Ninja Turtle Pez dispenser. Matthew has been eyeing the Pez dispensers at our grocery store for over two months, especially the Michelangelo version. Since he has never had Pez and does not yet realize that Pez is the worst tasting candy on the face of the earth, I figured he would love to receive the desired Michelangelo dispenser and plenty of refills for Valentine's Day. He loved it. We are limiting him to three packs of Pez per day (which is excessive in and of itself) and even after gobbling the candy down, we've found him playing with his dispenser as if it were actually a super-cool, fun, innovative toy. So, I think he's happy!

Other than that, we did some exercise as a family, gave the kids a bath, built a couple puzzles, and watched the blizzard that has been dumping snow on us since the wee hours of this morning. It's really nice to just enjoy spending time together doing nothing really too spectacular except enjoying one another. This holiday is a great reminder to us that we should be showing those close to us how much we care for them on a daily basis and not just one day out of the year.

Paul and I are looking forward to going on a special date tonight and the kids are really, really looking forward to spending time with the babysitter!!

How did you spend YOUR Valentine's Day?

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Roasted Pork Shoulder with Fennel and Oranges

A perfect day according to Emma would be filled with two activities: taking baths and eating. When Emma wakes up in the morning, the first thing she asks for is a bowl of cereal. After she has sufficiently stuffed herself (she normally has a couple bowlfuls and a banana), she then declares her desire to bathe. However, I know better than to stick Miss Bubbles into the tub before 6pm when my husband is not around to reinforce me when it comes time to remove her from the bath water. Emma would stay in the bath all day if I let her. When I have finally had enough of watching her splash, play, drink bathwater, and practice her "swimming", I have to brace myself for the fight that normally ensues when I try to get her out. She screams, she kicks, she wails bloody murder, and her newly cleaned, naked, wet, chunky body is so slippery and difficult to hold onto that I fear dropping her onto the bathroom tile. Not only that, when I do finally wrestle her into the room to dress her, she continues her fight and I practically have to sit on her arms and legs to pin them down so I can put her diaper and clothes back on. It's a nightmare. This is why Emma only bathes when Paul is home. Then, there are two of us to wrestle with her afterwards.

Matthew, on the other hand, normally protests the bath. We practically have to threaten him with promises of "no bedtime story" or "no art supplies for a week" before he finally (and sulkily) will bathe. Once he's in, however, we have a hard time kicking him out too. He's normally easier to evict than Emma - we just drain the bathwater after Emma has been taken out and before long he gets too cold to stay put. The same trick does not work on Emma because, unlike Matthew, she has figured out how to stop the water from draining.

As mentioned above, in addition to her fastidious bathing habits, Emma would also prefer to spend the majority of her waking hours eating. She eats large, prolonged meals where she remains happily in her high chair chewing away on whatever I have placed in front of her. However, it just seems like she never actually gets full! I much prefer her eating habits to Matthew who barely eats enough to sustain a sparrow some days. Lately, he has been refusing breakfast in the mornings. What is wrong with this child?

However, one meal that both the children and the husband will happily eat is roast pork. Pork shoulder is one of the cheapest cuts of meat you can buy nowadays. Normally to get such an awesome deal on it, you have to buy a large amount. I can get pork shoulder for around 1.29/pound if I buy at least 10 pounds of it. I don't mind buying such a large quantity. I normally have the butcher divide it into 3-4 equal portions for me and then I freeze whatever I am not planning on using immediately. It's a great cut to have on hand because it is so darn tasty!

Earlier in the year, we tried a sample of this Roasted Pork Shoulder with Fennel and Oranges at Wegmans. The chefs at Wegmans are fantastic with trying to teach their clientele how to cook in new, exciting ways and experiment with different flavor combinations they might not yet have had the opportunity to experience! On this particular day, they were doing a cooking demo on pork shoulder and trying to showcase various ways it could be prepared other than your typical BBQ pulled pork. We sampled this recipe and LOVED it. So savory from garlic and pork with a mild sweetness from the oranges and fennel. Paul was especially enamored with it! We got the recipe from the chef and have had the pleasure of enjoying it at home for dinner!

This is what the roast typically looks like after coming out of the oven.

When we make it at home, the only thing we do differently is make a gravy out of the drippings. I like my sauces thick, so serving just the "jus" didn't cut it for me. To make the gravy, we defatted the drippings and then made a simple roux using equal parts butter and flour. Once golden and bubbly, we whisk in the defatted pan juices along with a touch of chicken broth and let the gravy bubble for a bit until it is thickened. Off heat, season to taste with salt and pepper. Fabulous.

This is great served with roasted root vegetables (think carrots, sweet potatoes, and parsnips) or a comforting bowls of mashed potatoes with peas! Emma definitely approves of this meal as the perfect ending to a perfect food-filled, bath-laced day!

Then again, watching Curious George is pretty high up there too!

Roasted Pork Shoulder with Fennel and Oranges
from Wegmans Menu Magazine, Winter 2011

3 Yellow Onions, halved, peeled and sliced thinly
2 Naval Oranges, with the peel on, sliced thinly
1 (7-10 pound) Pork Shoulder (mine are always a bit smaller)
1 Tablespoon Fennel Seed
6 large cloves of garlic, minced
Salt and Pepper

The day before you want to serve, combine the onion and orange slices in the bottom of a roasting pan. Score the marbled side of the pork shoulder by cutting 3/4 inch deep marks with a very sharp knife. You should make a "diamond pattern." Do the best you can. The point is to pierce the fat layer so that the rub will penetrate the deeper into the pork.

Season the pork on both sides generously with salt and pepper. Then, rub the fennel seeds and garlic all over the surface of the pork. Place the pork, fat side up, on top of the oranges and onions in the roasting pan. Cover the entire pan tightly with plastic wrap and let it rest overnight in the refrigerator.

When ready to cook, preheat the oven to 275 degrees. Remove the plastic wrap from the roast. Cover the roasting pan tightly with a layer of foil and place in the oven. Roast for 7-8 hours or until very tender.

Remove the roast from the oven, transfer the meat to a cutting board, and cover with foil. Let the meat rest for at least 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, ladle the hot juices that have collected at the bottom of the roasting pan into a fat separator. Reserve the defatted juices (the au jus!) to serve with the pork. You may also reserve the onions for serving alongside the pork. Alternatively, you can make a gravy out of the pan drippings if desired.

Serve pieces of the pork alongside some mashed potatoes, roasted sweet potatoes, or turnips with a generous splash of the au jus (or gravy) over the top!

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

How We Began: Our Love Story

Valentine's Day has always been a special celebration for Paul and I. This is because we officially became a couple on Valentine's Day evening in 2005 during our Freshman year at Notre Dame. We had established a friendship a few months prior, but Valentine's Day 2005 will forever mark the beginning of a courtship that evolved into a marriage and a family! In honor of our upcoming 10-year anniversary (and inspired by Jessica's love story), I am going to write a short history about how Paul and I became "Us".

We first met when we were about 8-years-old while both living in Montana. Nothing monumental happened there. I always thought he and his identical twin brother were absolutely adorable despite the fact that they loved to tease and mock pretty much everyone. Then, my family moved halfway across the country and I never saw them again.

That is, until I began my Freshman year of college. Turns out, those cute little twin boys grew up and decided to apply to Notre Dame as well. I had heard that they would be on campus and looked forward to reconnecting with someone from my childhood past! I was eager to reminisce about Montana and perhaps rekindle a friendship with those two boys. Well, the opportunity presented itself when one of my high school buddies happened to be assigned to the dorm room right next to Peter's (Peter is Paul's twin). So, my friend had met the twins and decided to organize a lunch to have his high school friends meet some of his new college friends. This was before classes had even begun for the year! We all met outside of South Dining Hall and I immediately had a nice, friendly chat with Peter who claimed he remembered me and was eager to talk about Montana and mutual friends back there. Paul was a bit late, but he soon approached and I turned to him and said: "Hi Paul! I'm Monica. We were kids together in Montana! Do you remember me?"

His reply, unemotional, monotone, and completely disinterested, was: "No. I do not remember who you are."

And that was that. He never really made an effort to talk to me or continue a conversation. Peter, on the other hand, was extremely chatty and fun and we soon established a good friendship. Paul remained a bit more aloof and just plain moody, so I concluded that he was kind of a jerk. However, I was still attracted to him and I could not explain why! It bothered me that I wanted him to show me a little attention even though I had no idea why!

Fast forward a couple months to the end of October. Paul got stuck with the task of walking me back to my dorm. My friend Pat had basically ordered him to do so since it was very dark out and it was only gentlemanly for the women to be escorted back. We spoke very little until we got to the Notre Dame grotto. I showed Paul the statue of Thomas Dooley and began to talk to him about who Dr. Dooley was and why his likeness occupied such a prominent spot on campus. In the flickering candlelight, as we began to finally talk and connect a bit, the words "I'm going to marry this guy" floated into my mind and heart. They took me aback but I recorded the date to be remembered just in case my odd little premonition came to fruition. Later on, after we had started dating, I learned that Paul had also gone back to his dorm and committed that moment to memory. He claims that it was the moment he fell in love with me.

After that, we began making plans to hang out more often. Paul would often call or message me about where he was going to be during the weekends and we became pretty inseparable. Most of our activities were done in a group with about six to eight other people, but we always tried to sit together. It was so much fun! We had a great friendship going. One time, Paul invited me over to his dorm for Sunday Mass and one of the guys who lived on his floor referred to us as "Mr. and Mrs. Nistler". I thought it was funny, but it really, really angered Paul. That made me think that maybe he did not have feelings for me and perhaps our relationship would never grow to be more than just a friendship.

Then, Valentine's Day rolled around. A guy that I worked with during the Summer had asked me out on a date over Thanksgiving. I went - and it was the most awkward, uncomfortable experience of my life. He tried to kiss me at the end and I quickly avoided that. Of course, that didn't stop him from continuing to send me notes and other signs of affection. In honor of Valentine's Day, he sent me a card asking me to be "Be His." I threw up a little bit in my mouth and then tossed the card into the trash. However, being the manipulative young woman that I was, I decided to use the love letter to my advantage with Paul. I told him about it and how the guy had asked me out and that I was "debating" what I should answer. As if I would ever have gone steady with him.

Well wouldn't you know, that very evening Paul showed up at my dorm with a bouquet of roses and a hand-written poem. He was also wearing a festively red polo shirt. Perfect for the occasion. I accepted the flowers, read the poem, and told him how much I loved it. He was making me nervous because he wasn't saying much. In fact, he was obviously trying to keep his mouth as shut tight as possible. The reason became obvious a few minutes later: he was wearing his retainer. I didn't even know he had a retainer. Apparently, when he had brushed his teeth before heading over, he had accidentally put his retainer in (ala his normal bedtime routine) and realized it too late. So cute.

Anyway, we talked for a little while longer and then he headed back to his dorm. I received a quick call from him soon after asking: "Ummm...soo....are we going out now?"
I said: "Are you asking me out?"
He said: "Yes."
I said: "Then yes."
He said "Good. Goodnight."

And so we began ten years ago this coming Saturday. In the 10 years since that time, we graduated, began new jobs, got married, had two kids, lost two babies, bought a house, started a business, and currently have a third baby on the way. That's a lot of life we have lived together so far and I have loved (almost) every minute of it!

I love you, Paul. Happy Anniversary and Valentine's Day!

This post is being linked up for #TuesdayTalk! Look at the other great posts here.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Buffalo Chicken Chili

Alright, I know what you all are thinking. You JUST posted a chili recipe and now you're back with another one?!?'s COLD outside, people! The snow has been attacking us over and over again throughout the past few weeks and the plows have collected a mountain of that white, icy, horribleness right next to the mailbox that is about 12 feet tall. I wish I were joking. I've backed my Tahoe into it about four or five times this week, so I can attest to its vast height. My backing up skills really aren't that bad... it's more because Paul only carved out a narrow "hallway" in our driveway instead of shoveling the entire piece of concrete - and just to make things more fun, he forged a curvy passageway! Hence the reason, backing out normally takes me a couple tries. I really dislike winter, snow, and ice.

Bottom's cold. So cold that all I want to eat is soup. And oatmeal. So that's pretty much what we've been eating around here - oatmeal in the mornings and soup in the evenings! It's the perfect winter food. I've also been craving meals with a little extra spice, heat, or some kind of kick to it. We made this Buffalo Chicken Chili for the Super Bowl last Sunday and it made enough to last us a couple meals. It does a great job of capturing the traditional chicken wing flavor without completely singeing your nose hairs. If we added a swirl of sour cream to a bowl full, the kids could definitely eat it.

Paul was obsessed with this chili. He never got sick of the leftovers and looked forward to coming home more for a piping hot bowl of chili than he did to spend time with his loving wife and children. That's probably not true, but the point is that he really, really liked this meal! I'll definitely be making it again. Additional bonus is that it is another super-duper easy slow-cooker recipe. Saute a couple vegetables and then dump everything into the slow-cooker and let it do the rest of the cooking. It's almost like having a personal chef.

As I was sitting here typing out this whiny post about how much I hate the cold, my doorbell rang. I went to answer it and the mailman handed me huge package. I wasn't expecting anything, so I took it inside and immediately opened it to find the vibrant colors of orange and yellow and the sweet smell of citrus jumping out at me. It was a box full of tangelos, oranges, clementines, and lemons - with a note attached written in the familiar handwriting belonging to my Grandmother that read: "Sunshine from California!" These fruits were hand-picked from her orchard in Southern California. I had been feeling so blue about the cold winter weather that this was certainly a sweet little miracle that brightened up my day! As I finish up this post, I am happily snacking on a perfectly sweet, ripe tangelo while dreaming of warmer weather. Thank you, Grandma!

So, make this chili but then follow it up with a piece of citrus for dessert. It'll be a winter meal with a little bit of summer thrown in!

Buffalo Chicken Chili
adapted from Closet Cooking

2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 2-inch pieces
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 onions, diced
1 cup diced celery
1 cup diced carrots
4 large cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 cups chicken broth
2 (15 ounce) cans diced tomatoes
2 (15 ounce) cans cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
2 teaspoons paprika
1 teaspoon oregano
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
1 cup Frank's Buffalo Wing Sauce (or more to taste)
Trim the chicken thighs of any excess skin and place in the bottom of the slow cooker.
In a skillet over medium heat, heat the oil until shimmering. Add the celery and carrrots and cook until tender, about 10-15 minutes. Add the garlic and cumin and cook for and additional 30-45 seconds, or until fragrant.
Add 1 cup of the chicken broth and deglaze the pan. Pour the vegetable mixture over the chicken in the bowl of the slow cooker. Add the rest of the chicken broth, the tomatoes, the beans, the paprika, oregano, cayenne, and wing sauce. Cover and cook on HIGH for 4 hours or LOW for 6-8 hours or until the chicken is cooked through and falling apart.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Let's Snack: Crispy, Chewy, No-Bake Peanut Butter Granola Bars

We've been doing a lot of snacking lately.

We've been eating a little later in the day because Paul has been working late. However, the kids (and this pregnant gal!) are usually starving by 5:30pm and when dinner is not until 7:00, we better have something to chow down on in the meantime. It's a family trait to turn into monsters when hungry. (Paul is the WORST).

Enter these granola bars. The kids love them, they are not the worst things for you - and you can definitely cut down on the sugar in the recipe and I doubt they would notice. You can throw in a variety of "add-ins" like chocolate chips. white chocolate chips, peanut butter chips (hold on - the healthier stuff is coming), sunflower seeds, chopped nuts, and any combination of dried fruit. You can even switch the cereal out if you do not have crispy rice cereal (aka Rice Krispies) on hand - this time, I actually used a knock-off brand of Cinnamon Toast Crunch that I lightly crushed before mixing with the oats. Worked great.

These bars have been a sanity-saver during this crazy week. The kids and I have actually been in a little routine of snacking on these at 5:30 while watching an episode of Home Improvement and cuddling on the couch.

This recipe has been in my files for quite some time, but I haven't broken it out in a while. Now, I'll probably make it the next time I need to bring treats for Matthew's preschool or when I need something on hand for a play-date. I love how portable and relatively non-messy they are. These yummy bars would also be great to bring on a road trip if you have to leave early in the morning and plan on literally transferring the sleeping children from their beds to their car seats (we almost always do this!). You can fight the grumpy protests and sleepy convulsions by offering them one of these to munch on!

Crispy, Chewy No-Bake Peanut Butter Granola Bars
adapted from Cooking Classy who adapted it from Kraft

2 cups quick-cooking oats (NOT instant)
1 1/2 - 2 cups Rice Krispies cereal (or other rice-based cereal of choice that works)
3/4 cup creamy peanut butter (or 1 cup chunky)
1/2 cup honey
1/4 cup dark brown sugar
1/8 tsp salt
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 - 1 cup add-ins of choice (I used 1/2 cup dried cranberries this time)
Line a 8x8 baking pan with aluminum foil, being sure to leave a 2-inch overhang so you can easily remove the bars from the pan.
In a large bowl, toss together the oats and cereal.
In a medium, microwave-safe bowl, combine the peanut butter, honey, sugar, and salt. Microwave on HIGH for 1 minute. Take the bowl out of the microwave, give it a good stir, and then microwave for another minute on HIGH. Remove from the microwave, whisk in the vanilla and make sure that everything is smooth and combined.
Pour the warm peanut butter mixture over the oat mixture and mix until thoroughly combined.  You might have to get your hands in there to ensure that everything is properly coated. Scrape into the prepared pan and press it down as evenly as you can.
Chill the pan in the freezer for 10-15 minutes or until firm. Lift the bars out of the pan using the foil overhang and cut with a knife or a bench scraper into the desired shapes. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Creamy, Smooth, Delicious Hummus

Hummus is one of our favorite condiments. I feel funny even referring to it as a condiment because the kids and I will oftentimes make a meal out of a big bowl of hummus and some cut-up vegetables and pita bread! I certainly would not be doing that with ketchup or mustard. Well, except when I am in the midst of a mad pregnancy craving for mustard - then, I just might be seen eating it by the spoonful along with a fistful of dill pickles. This has been my predominant craving every single pregnancy.Why don't I crave non-gross things like ice cream?

My biggest pet peeve with most store-bought hummus packs is that they are not completely smooth in texture. Some brands have a gritty texture from the chickpeas not being blended entirely or because a lesser amount of tahini/oil was used when processing the hummus. In college, I hated the hummus served in the cafeteria (sorry Notre Dame Food Service!) because it was so salty, chunky, and blech! I never understood why people loved the stuff so much and just assumed it was one of those "health food trends" that people ate because it was good for them and not necessarily because they liked the flavor - like egg white omelets or brown rice. Then, I went to a Middle Eastern restaurant where they served hummus as an appetizer along with warm pita bread and it was so silky, so smooth, so beautifully seasoned, that I fell in love. I have since found that Sabra, a brand of hummus easily found in stores, is acceptably smooth and creamy. The brand produces an entire line of flavored hummus that I love but unfortunately the high price tag is often hard to stomach when it come to our family food budget.

Hummus was part of our Super Bowl appetizers this year.

I told him to "give me a REAL smile". This is definitely NOT it.

Too busy eating to smile.

A couple years ago, after I opened my beautiful food processor for Christmas, I began resorting to making my hummus at home and found a recipe that produces the perfectly smooth, creamy taste that made me fall in love with it in the first place. It is super easy to make - requiring maybe a total of 10 minutes - and is way more delicious than anything you can buy! There is a little bit of upfront cost involved because you do have to buy a jar of Tahini (I can find a 16 ounce jar for around seven dollars), but after that initial purchase you can make about 6 large batches of hummus from a single jar of Tahini. It's much easier on the wallet!

Engrossed with the game. We didn't care who won - and it was a good game to watch!

Fresh, homemade hummus tastes a lot "brighter" than the grocery store varieties. It's great plain, or you can add in a variety of mix-ins to give your hummus a unique flavor. We like chopped fresh cilantro and jalapeno, smoky chipotle, fresh lemon zest and dill, roasted garlic and rosemary, or whatever sounds good to you!

For the batch of hummus I photographed for this post, I kept things simple and just drizzled some chipotle-infused olive oil that I have over the top. It adds a great amount of extra flavor without too much heat, so the kids can still enjoy it right along with us!

Even though I technically published this on a Monday, I'm linking it up with Jessica and Katie and all the rest for #TuesdayTalk.

Creamy, Delicious Hummus
from Cook's Illustrated

3 tablespoons lemon juice (fresh is best, but bottle lemon juice works great!)
1/4 cup water
6 tablespoons tahini
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
14 ounces chickpeas, rinsed and drained
1 large garlic clove, minced
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1 pinch cayenne pepper

Combine lemon juice and water in a small bowl or measuring cup. In another small bowl, whisk together tahini and 2 tablespoons oil.

Process the chickpeas, garlic, salt, cumin, and cayenne in food processor until almost fully ground, about 15 seconds. With machine running, add lemon juice-water mixture in steady stream through feed tube. Scrape down bowl and continue to process for 1 minute.

With machine running, add oil-tahini mixture in steady stream through feed tube and continue to process until hummus is smooth and creamy (about 15 seconds, scraping down bowl as needed).
Transfer hummus to serving bowl and cover with plastic wrap and let stand until the flavors meld, at least 30 minutes. Drizzle with additional olive oil, if desired, and serve with cut-up vegetables, pita bread, or tortilla chips.

This can also be done in a blender, but it takes a lot more scraping and patience. If you have a choice, go with the food processor.