Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Tasty Treats for Christmas Eats

For several years now, this one not to be excluded, I've talked about the making of my fraternal grandmother's Cardamom Bread. What I've neglected to mention is the second part of this annual tradition.

Since my family is Catholic, we always attend Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve to celebrate the real reason for our beautiful Christmas Season. After mass (which at our church ends at midnight) we head home for champagne and ham sandwiches on cardamom bread.

Let me tell you folks. Nothing tastes better than a ham sandwich on soft, fragrantly spiced bread at 1:30am on (technically) Christmas Morning. Well, the only thing that makes it better is a glass of champagne (or four! my father keeps insisting on buying a magnum of champagne for our family of three!) and a side of classic deviled eggs.

Our ham sandwiches may have been traditional, but Christmas dinner was anything but this year. (Praise be to the newborn Baby Jesus! I would gag if we had another slice of roasted turkey in this house. )

For dinner: Rosemary and Sea Salt Sourdough, Shrimp and Spinach Cheddar Grits and a beautiful (but sadly unpictured) salad made of mixed greens from my mother's best friend's garden. And for a simple dessert: "holiday red" grapes topped with Greek yogurt and a sprinkle of brown sugar.

I hope your holiday season is filled with wonderful food, be it traditional or no, but more importantly that you are able to cherish the time you spend with friends and family during your meals.

Love to all,
~the "I'm getting sentimental about meals in my old age" gal, Jess

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Giving is Better than Receiving

See that stylish outfit? No, it's not my sweet rags for Christmas dinner. (heck, it's so warm in Florida right now just the thought of a sweater makes me, well, sweaty) The outfit isn't even mine. It's for the Christmas Angel I chose off the Giving Tree at my church.

For years my family has chosen several Angels, which are essentially wish lists from disadvantaged children and families, after which my mum and I would hit the mall/Target to fulfill the list and have a blast playing in the toys and clothing sections of the stores I had long out grown.

This year as my family was choosing Angels, it hit me. "Um, Jess? You are a grown woman. You have a full time job, you pay your own bills, you tithe to the church independently, isn't it time you stopped mooching off your parent's charitable acts?" Duly noted, inner-monologue, duly noted.

So I chose an angel reading "outfit for a 15-19 year old girl."  Perhaps shopping for toys would have been more fun, but as a high school teacher that is my demographic and I love my kids, so this just felt right. And you know what friends? Clothes shopping for a mystery girl is so fun! Perhaps I went a bit overboard at Forever 21 buying for my angel, because I couldn't stop with just a dress (which is a halter style, so she can wear it all year long) and sweater. I had to add those great shoes, a sweet color popping bracelet and a cute little owl necklace as a cute nod to her giver, me! (I'm an FAU alumni, Go Owls!) Oh and of course I fell for the lip glosses in the bowl by the register, so in the bag it went! (Let's not talk about the final bill, ok?)

I hope my Angel Girl loves her Christmas gift. Giving is so much more fun that receiving in my opinion, mostly because I love to shop! Oh and I love making people happy. Really Christmas is a win-win time for me.

Merry Christmas everyone! I hope you have a joyful and blessed holiday with friends, family and all those you love.

Love to all,
~the little Christmas Elf Gal, Jess

PS. Speaking of giving, I went non-traditional with my co-worker gifts this year, since most of them are all watching their eating I didn't think my usual treats of toffee, cookie dough balls or cheese biscuits would be well received!

I got a steal on oil cruets from a restaurant wholesaler and then filled them with dried chilies and peeled garlic cloves. Instant flavored oil! I also included a recipe card full of suggested uses for the oil with each bottle.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Advent Books and Baking

Advent is one of my favorite times of the year, and as Christmas is a scant 3 days away, that also means the season of advent is drawing to a close.

As child nothing was more exciting that than the weekend I walked in to the church to see the advent wreath hanging from the wooden rafters, gently rotating in the air, made deliciously fragrant with a mixture of evergreen and incense. (I'm a Catholic gal, in case you aren't familiar with the tradition of an Advent Wreath)

The four week "season" of Advent is meant as a time to prepare for Christmas and reflect on scripture in the Catholic faith. Usually though I end up spending Advent like many other Americans: rushing to the mall, holiday parties, baking extra goodies for family and friends, you know the drill.

And while this year I still have the baking down pat, as I spent the entire day working on these beauties.

What you see above is my annual advent labor of love in honor to my fraternal grandmother (and to my tastebuds, of course-this bread is SO incredible), the baking of Cardamom Bread. I chronicled this day long process back in 2009, so everyone could make this wonderful homemade bread.

One thing I have done more of this Advent however is reflection on my relationship with my faith. I've always been proud to be Catholic (although I haven't talked much about it on the blog) and take comfort in the tradition and ritual of attending weekly mass. However, I've always felt like I'm not a very "spiritual" person, in spite of my deep love for my religion. As I've gotten older, that lack of a personal connection with God, or any higher power, has led me to some deep thought, prayer and intense  conversation with many friends who are the opposite of me as they label themselves as "spiritual not religious."

Imagine my surprise then when my most recent read, A Voice in the Wind by Francine Rivers, had a very strong spiritual theme. While reading this beautiful novel set in Rome after the fall of Jerusalem I was so inspired by the quiet strength the heroine Hadassah took in her relationship with the Lord. Hiding her Christianity in a wild, hedonistic city took a deep inner strength that I admired in this fictional character. While I don't know if reading this book will have any long term effects on my personal spirituality, I found it to be the perfect "accidental Advent" read, because it did provide me plenty of opportunity to reflect on religion and it's role in society.

I would recommend this novel to anyone, regardless of your take on religion, as it was full of beautify imagery, action, drama, betrayal and of course, love.

Love to all,
~the gal who is very appreciative of Advent, Jess

Sunday, December 18, 2011

My Holiday Season....

...is here.

And my holiday break starts in 3 days. See you on the flipside!

Love to all,
~the "little Miss Mistletoe Gal," Jess

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Keeping It Real: Holiday Edition

Only during the "holidays" would I be up at 4:30am making cookie dough dip for my school of employment's "3 days of Christmas Cheer"

But let's keep it real here:

Cookie Dough Dip? Get real, Jess! This "snack" is just another excuse to eat cream cheese icing with chocolate chips on gram crackers.

And 4:30am? Don't try to pull the martyr card. This is your fault, princess. Because this gal? She fell asleep on the couch last night, laptop precariously balanced on chest at 9:30pm (after getting home from three hours of elementary science fair judging-be still my heart-not) and didn't wake up again until 1:30am. Who cares if the cream cheese and butter sat out on the counter all night...the recipe said "softened." And trust me, it was real soft this morning.

Health hazard? Goodness no, I'm just keeping it real!

Love to all,
~the, "do I look like a happy holiday elf to you?" gal, Jess

PS. Don't answer that question in my signature. Also, be glad I decided to spare you the picture of myself making said cookie dough dip this morning. I want to keep it real around here, not scar you for life!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Keeping It Real

So, I call myself a "food blogger." Or at least I do when I'm trying to rationalize why I take seemingly random pictures of meals and have started trying to convince my friends and family to go on lunch dates, since the light is so much better in the afternoons.

But let's be honest. I'm not really a very good food snob, and sometimes it seems that you have to consume/design/critique elevated eats to be a "food blogger." That leaves the other option to explain my inclination for food photography; the equally dreaded/famed label of "healthy living blogger."  I mean, who else obsessively documents their "fuel intake" via photograph?

Well, while I do write about vegetables, (because I genuinely like them) and occasionally compete in races (but that is really for the metals and post race beers) I would not consider myself a role model for a healthy lifestyle. Oh and it's very rare that I share my "daily" eats on the blog. (because let's be honest, I don't have that kind of time, and most of the time I eat leftovers all week of the recipes I do post)

As additional supporting evidence to my non-case, let's talk about this week. I didn't workout once. I had take out for dinner twice and bought subs for lunch. I've consumed half a bag of Reese's Trees all on my own. (and plan to take down the second half very soon) Oh and I slept for ~ fours hours a night. Well, six on Thursday, if you count the fact that I fell asleep on my couch with a study guide on my face for two hours.

So, in the theme of keeping it real (and analysis of what "type" of blogger I am) on Saturday I indulged again, with Loaded Veggie Hashbrowns from the 43rd Street Deli. With a side of chiclit and Swiss Chocolate flavored coffee.

Normally this meal wouldn't make it onto the blog. It's nothing too special, or pretty for that matter. But it's tasty. And I'm trying to keep it real here. And normally I'm not in Gville on a Saturday morning at 9:30am, hungry and all by my lonesome after passing another round of teaching certification exams. (I'm finishing the requirements for my professional license, since I was not an education major. Oh the joys of career changes.)

Also in the spirit of keeping it real, here is what my breakfast actually looked like, before I shoved it down my gullet. (because what "food blogger" says "shoved it down my gullet"? Classy, I am.)

Yes, that mess is pre-masticated, I swear. And yes, my observant dear ones, it is drenched in not only ketchup and hot sauce, but also syrup. I know it looks like the aftermath of a frat party, but trust me, hashbrowns of any variety covered with this condiment trinity are truly a gift from the food gods. (and yes, I did once have a fellow university classmate tell me that my breakfast wanted to make her vomit, after I pulled a similar trick in the dining hall one morning)

So, what was the purpose of this post? Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn have a clue. But a lot of my actions in life feel a bit like this post. Unguided, quirky and down right delicious, even if a bit messy and not always picture perfect.

And while I still don't know what "type" of blogger I am, I do know how to keep it real.

Love to all,
~the "I'm really real" gal, Jess

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

How I Celebrate Heart Health-Super Sweet 16 Edition

Sunday, December 4th 2011 was my sweet sixteen.

It has been a very super sweet sixteen years since my life altering open heart surgery and resulting pacemaker implantation. (Please check out my celebrations from 2010 for a slightly more detailed explanation.)

This year I celebrated by running in the OUC 5k in beautiful downtown Orlando.

Followed by blissful indulgence at Ravenous Pig's December Pig Roast.

I personally can't think of a better way to celebrate 16 years of heart heath; a touch of exercise, a touch of indulgence and 100% happy and healthy. Life is good, friends.

Love to all,
~the "heart baby all grown up" gal, Jess

PS. More details coming on both events soon!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Pretty Little Things

As much as I love cooking, my passion for dining out and trying new foods is pretty equal. And you know what else is pretty? The three amazing meals below.   

Spicy Cream Shrimp

Bacon & Bleu Cheeseburger with Parmesan Potato Wedges

Southwestern Falafel "Burger" with Sweet Potato Fries
The Top Restaurant 

Kinda makes up for a dull Thanksgiving fare, eh?
Love to all,
~the "if only my wallet was a deep as the pit in my stomach" gal, Jess

PS. This was also an interesting look at my photography skills. 

Photo one was taken at lunch, sitting by a window, using my DSLR.

Photo two was taken in a dark bar with my point and shoot (post two martinis = shaky hands), I was using the flash, but trying to deflect it with my sticky gin fingers!

Photo three was taken in a smoky dinning room, by the light of a dim on table retro lamp, also with the point and shoot.

Monday, November 28, 2011

A slightly different take on T-Day

Anyone who spends time with this gal (either in real life, or "imaginary") knows I'm not a fan of Thanksgiving. You know the drill: family obligations, boring food "traditions", blah, blah, blah.

But this year, by escaping to my mother's best friend's house we got out of the family bit, and I decided to (slightly) shake up the menu.

For dinner, I contributed the "green" side-dish, which I based on a Catalan recipe for fruited spinach.

I did sub pecans for pine nuts, because that's what I had on hand. (or as the real story goes I forgot to buy pine nuts during my shopping trip)

This was an incredibly easy dish to throw together. Saute the apples and shallots until tender, then add the rehydrated raisins and chopped, toasted, pecans. 

Deglaze the pan with a splash of sherry, plus the juice of 1 lemon, and add 1lb of fresh spinach. Remove from the heat as soon as the greens start to wilt. Garnish with lemon zest and serve immediately!

Pretty, no? Nothing like bringing a touch of Spanish flare to the hum-drum pilgrim feast.

Speaking of hum-drum? Let's talk about the fact that I've been making the same "Libby's Classic" pumpkin pie since I was 9 years old. (and let's NOT do the math on that one, ok?) This year I took a page out of one of my co-worker's books, errr cookbooks, and made Pumpkin Pie Cake instead.

I know, I know, this doesn't sound like that big of a stretch, but trust me, this pie/cake/hybrid is even tastier than the classic and oh so easy to make!

First, make a standard pumpkin pie filling:

1 12oz can pumpkin
1 12oz can evaporated milk
1 cup of sugar
3 eggs
1 tbsp "pumpkin pie spice" (or if you are like me, generous dashes of cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and ginger, because who actually finishes a container of pre-mixed pie spice? Keep the real stuff around, friends)

Add the hand blended pie "filling" to a 9 x 13" baking dish.

Top the filling with 1 box of (dry) yellow cake mix. No really, it sounds weird, but sprinkle-sprinkle to your little inner fairy godmother's contentment.

Then ditch the fairy godmother act and channel your inner southern grandmother this time, by scattering 1 cup of chopped pecans over the cake mix and then drizzling 1 stick of melted butter over the whole mess.

Bake for 60 minutes at 350 degrees F.

The finished product isn't pretty, nor is it healthy per say, but it is damn tasty.

And really, isn't that how all Thanksgiving dinners could be described? Family gatherings and rich foods only come around a few times a year, and while they aren't all that "healthy" I am thankful for every tasty moment.

Love to all,
~the little "turkey bird" gal, Jess

Friday, November 25, 2011

Let's Talk Tofu

Hey you. Yes you. I'm looking at you. The one with the drumstick glued to your hand. Put.it.down. Now focus on the following picture.

Good job. Just take some deep breaths. I know it's easy to get sucked into the turkey leftover rut, but resist. And make the best tofu ever instead.

Need even more convincing? It won't take 10 hours to make, like that slightly disappointing, completely over-rated Thanksgiving Feast you are still trying to digest.

All snarky Thanksgiving comments aside, this is truly the best tofu I've ever made, and possibly the best I've ever eaten as well.

To make it, I basically followed this Cooking Light recipe for Udon Noodle Salad with Broccolini and Spicy Tofu, with a few modifications based on what I had on hand. In spite of the the fact that the tofu is mentioned last in the name of this dish, it is the real star.

Let's make tofu.

After pressing and cubing extra firm tofu, I marinated the cubes for ~15 minutes in a mixture of 2 tablespoons of sesame oil, 2 tablespoons of soy sauce and 1 tablespoon of Sriracha sauce.

After the 15 minutes of soak time, I spread the tofu cubes in a single layer on a cookie sheet (coated with cooking spray as instructed) and roasted them for 10 minutes at 350 degrees F. (again, all per the recipe) When I pulled the tofu out of the oven it wasn't even close to being crispy. And trust me, successful tofu needs to be crispy.

I made the best decision of the day by cranking up a dry skillet to scoring hot and quickly searing all the cubes.

Perfection. I will never make tofu any other way. And neither should you. Yes, I'm bossy, but I'm right.

If you are wondering how the rest of the noodle salad came together, here it is:

Blanch bok choy and broccoli (which isn't scary at all...I'd never actually blanched anything before!) and toss with crisp radishes, crunchy cashews, tender noodles all dressed in the leftover marinade and a generous splash of rice vinegar.

This totally beats a leftover turkey sandwich any day!

Love to all,
~the, "even though an actual tofurkey freaks me out, I love tofu" gal, Jess

PS. If you were wondering how I press my tofu? Well, good ol' Joy comes in handy now and again!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Food Dare Fail

It started off so well.

Cutie little leeks, beautiful romaine and sweet, if frosty, peas. Plus soup. Who doesn't love soup? And this gal loves soup. So, what could be so awful about Lettuce Soup?

But as the greens began to simmer down in chicken stock, with an overly generous portion of mint, I began to have my doubts. (I was following a food dare recipe from Everyday by Rachel Ray) The aromas coming off this (ginormous) pot of green stuff wasn't making my mouth water. It was more of a "dirty socks nose wrinkle" reaction.

I should have known better. I don't "do" dares. When playing truth or dare at slumber parties as a child "truth" was my go to answer. No freezing of my best friend's brother's undies for this gal.

However, while I have no shame in being a cautious wallflower at times, I am very stubborn. So, I pressed on.

The lovely green and white vegetables became a baby vomit green after their trip to the blender...which I then tried to "richen" up with some 1/2 and 1/2 that hand been hanging out in my fridge. Still fooling myself, obviously.

Nope. Not even garlic croutons couldn't turn this whale of a fail around. I knew I should have stuck with my truth safety zone. Because no matter how pretty it all started, even when you blend up dirty socks with cream and mint, it still isn't going to be winner, much less a chicken dinner.

Now, does anyone want to come clean out all the leftover lettuce soup from my fridge? I never was a fan of dirty socks. Or mint. ugh.

Love to all,
~the, "hey, I can embrace a failure now and then" gal, Jess

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Semi-Abnormal Barbequed Salmon

My local grocery store recently had salmon on sale. So, of course I bought a large fillet (~1 lb) and I'm fairly certain I had some fancypants idea for roasting this lovely, sustainable fish, with lemons and rosemary. (which actually isn't fancypants at all, it's my normal take on salmon...it just looks fancy!)

But then as I was driving home on that fateful day, I wasn't longing for lemons. Oh no. I was day dreaming about barbeque sauce. Sweet Baby Ray's Honey BBQ Sauce to be specific, but really, who cares about those details? (oh, you do? have I mentioned lately that I love you?)

So, I went to change-of-plans-town and decided I would grill the salmon and smoother it in bbq sauce. Yum-o.

Except my propane tank was empty. Ergo, no grilling. But I still wanted flaky, rich salmon smothered in sweet and sticky sauce. wahhhhhh.

Join me for plan C:

Poach the damn salmon with some dill. (you can do this in the microwave-just add ~1/2 inch of water to a glass dish and cover with plastic wrap. Yummy, BPA)

Then skin and shred the salmon. 

Mix with a generous amount of sauce.

And serve along side a zingy Asian broccoli slaw and classic mac n' cheese.

And that's just how this gal does barbeque, ya'll.

Love to all,
~the, I love when random cravings actually work gal, Jess

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Superb Saint Petersburg Saturday

Welcome to another edition of why my weekend was totally wonderful. (and I sincerely hope yours was too!)

On Saturday I traveled down to St. Petersburg, Fl to spend some time with the beautiful ladies of Yoga Moves, as they embark on a new journey in their studio: Aerial Yoga.

Denise, myself and Tara- modeling the studio tee shirts

We spent the day exploring the benefits (and flat out fun!) of introducing aerial yoga into your established yoga practice.

I'll be doing a full review on my experience of the aerial yoga workshop soon, but it was an amazing experience I would suggest to any yoga lover.

Since it was Saturday, I was excited to visit the downtown farmer's market, during the break between the workshop's two, 2 hour long sessions. 

The St. Pete Farmer's Market is one of the best I've seen in Florida. It is a mix of farmer's market, art show, and food festival, all set to to tune of live bluegrass.

After drooling over all the wonderful options, and reminding myself I still had 2 more hours of flying ahead of me...

...I ended up choosing a Mixed Vegetable Empanada and a Raspberry Iced Tea, which I enjoyed in the shade of a beautiful oak tree, in a park across from the St. Pete Harbor.

One of the things I miss most about St. Petersburg is all the beautiful parks and green spaces. So relaxing and perfect on a sunny, fall day.

After a second amazing session of freeing "anti-gravity" yoga, Tara, Denise and I, along with a few other attendees of the workshop headed down to Bangkok Thai for dinner.

This was just icing on the cake for me, since Bangkok Thai is one of my favorite Thai restaurants, anywhere.

I happily devoured an order of Nam Sod (a spicy ground chicken "salad"), plus a Yummy Roll (sweet potato and avocado with eel sauce) and the Futomaki Roll (krab, tamago, asparagus, carrot, radish and cucumber) while chatting away about yoga, travel, high schoolers and Facebook, relationships, cruises and fur coats. It was a blast!

A day in St. Pete is always worth the 6 hours of driving in my opinion. A HUGE thanks again to the ladies of Yoga Moves for such a great day!

Love to all,
~the, "flying high" on life gal, Jess