Wednesday, April 27

Easter Weekend Part Two: How to Host an Awesome Easter Lunch

I love Easter. And since it's the one major holiday that we don't spend with family, we've started a tradition of celebrating with our church family. We love our church. And I don't just mean that we know good people there or we're involved in fun activities or we enjoy the services. We are in love with our church. If you asked me what was going right in my life right now I would say 1. my marriage, 2. my church, 3. my job. In that order. God has been so good to us in leading us to a church that teaches sound doctrine, that cares for its members in accordance with scripture, that encourages us in our future plans to go on the mission field, and provides ways for us to grow and serve. It's been exciting to see our little body grow in the past few years and the hardest thing about leaving Augusta next year will be leaving Berea. Okay, I'm not gonna think about that right now. Sigh...

Last year we sent out an email to the whole church asking if anyone would like to come to our house for Easter lunch. As expected, most people already had plans, but two sweet families joined us and we had a great time. This year, however, our church has added a ton of new members, so as much as we would have loved to send out an open invite, our little house just doesn't have the space. We asked around and ended up with three families that have been great friends to us since we started attending Berea.

In case you didn't know this about me, I have a laid-back personality most of the time, with a Martha Stewart alter-ego lurking below the surface. If there is something to be cooked, color-coordinated, or covered in crepe paper I start planning with cheetah-like intensity. Usually I talk myself down from purchasing all new tableware to match a color scheme and hanging decorations from anything that doesn't move. But it takes some effort. In fact, I usually walk a tight-rope between making a big deal out of a special occasion and making guests feel comfortable. My mom and her mom are great at putting together a nice meal, setting a beautiful table, and making any occasion feel special. But in this age, people don't know what to do with a pickle fork. So I try to remind myself that it's not fancy dinnerware that makes an occasion - it's including details that are meaningful to your guests.

Yes - that is a pickle fork.

This picture won't turn around, but they're bunnies and chicks
decorated with fondant and royal icing.

The week before Easter I picked up some springy table cloths, some lemons and limes for an easy centerpiece, coordinating napkins, and sweet little buckets to hold candy for the older kids. I usually hate the look of disposable plates, but these pretty plastic plates feel fancy without needing a run in the dishwasher. Everything came from Target. I was really pleased with the way all of this looked together, but I'm glad I didn't spend any more because once the room was packed with people the decorations kind of got lost.

While we were finishing up preparations for lunch we snacked on deviled eggs, cheese straws, almonds, pickles, sugar cookies, and Easter candy. As much as I prefer to serve food family style, our table would have been way too crowded. Having a buffet table also allowed parents to go through the line and make plates for their children before the adults settled in for our meal. Another thing I'll remember for the future is using big cups for adults and small cups for kids. I hate drinking out of tiny disposable cups. It's a weird peeve of mine. But large cups are way too easy for little hands to spill. The easy solution: buy both.

The necessary components of an Easter lunch for me include: ham, deviled eggs, potatoes, a spring vegetable, and a fruity dessert. So, I planned to take care of those and Emily, Lydia, and Amanda filled in the rest. We ended up with far more food than we could possibly eat and everything was delicious. You can follow the links to get my recipes.

Easter Menu
Orange Glazed Ham
Rosemary Roasted Potatoes
Pineapple Casserole
Spinach and Strawberry Salad
Macaroni and Cheese
Deviled Eggs
Broccoli Casserole
Hummingbird Cake
Banana Pudding
Easter Sugar Cookies
Fresh Lemonade 

That really does look like a ton of food! Even with 15 people we barely made a dent in most of the dishes. If you've ever hosted a large meal you know things are way too busy to stop and take pictures. I'm so glad our guests were thoughtful enough to bring their own yummy dishes. Emily's broccoli casserole and mac and cheese were the ultimate in comfort food. And Lydia's pineapple casserole went so well with the ham that it might have to become part of my standard Easter lineup. Amanda's banana pudding was super rich and fortunately I have the recipe, so I'll definitely be making it in the future.

Before and after lunch the kids entertained themselves outside by hunting Easter eggs and swinging in the hammock. It's so fun to have friends with adorable children!

As always, the best part of lunch was the conversation afterward. We love sharing our home with our friends and look forward to the next time we get to be hosts.

Here's the best sight a wife can see: her wonderful husband doing the dishes! He was so sweet to help me get everything done, from  cleaning and cooking to mowing the lawn. After everyone left he and Fitz indulged in a well-deserved nap.

In case you're wondering, the easiest way to host an awesome Easter lunch is to have fantastic guests! So, Happy Easter everyone! I hope you all had a great weekend!

Monday, April 25

Easter Weekend Part One: 5K and Fun with the Inlaws

I'll start out with my usual warning that I'm behind on blogging. But instead of keeping things chronological I'm skipping ahead to the present day. Because no one wants to read (or write) about a holiday three weeks after it happened. And delaying fresh posts until I've finished ones that are already fuzzily fading into the past tends to exacerbate my procrastination. : ) So, Happy Easter! He is Risen!

We celebrated the resurrection with a very full weekend! We started things out with a visit from Michael's parents and a walk/run at the Arbor Day 5K. Since Michael was on call Friday night through Saturday morning he missed out on the run, but got there just in time to cheer for us at the awards ceremony. It was an early Saturday for me, but Doug and Karen had a three hour drive before picking me up! The race was at Pendleton King Park in Augusta - a big, pretty park that I've driven past dozens of times but never explored. It was the smallest race any of us had participated in, which made it pretty laid-back. There were a few obvious hot-shots, but the rest of us were just there for fun and exercise. Karen, Doug, and I hung pretty close together throughout the race and ran at least two-thirds of it. The last mile was a pretty brutal hill with rough terrain, so we felt good about that. The three of us finished in about 38 minutes, a little sweaty, but feeling great.

I was tempted to pretend that we each placed overall, but we actually just placed for our age groups. : ) This was pretty awesome, though - let's hear it for a small race! Each of the three races I've done in the past have turned out to be harder than I expected, so it was really nice to finish this one feeling confident, comfortable, and ready for my next run. Aside from a short practice jog last Wednesday, it was my first run in months and now I'm contemplating how to fit running into my schedule alongside P90X (which, I'm sad to say, I've barely done this week).

After the race we freshened up and then went to The Boll Weevil Cafe for a satisfying lunch. This place is a local favorite for its eclectic Southern fare and gigantic layer cakes. Michael and I have a policy of always ordering different entrees so we can sample more of the restaurant's menu, but this time we both got our mutual favorite, the Curious George - sweet, chewy bread piled high with turkey and topped with provolone cheese and spinach dip. It was delicious as always. But the real reason we go to Boll Weevil is for dessert. Since we couldn't narrow down to just one choice, we each ordered a different dessert, meaning that several pounds of sweets were delivered to our table at the same time! Our four picks were Seventh Heaven Cake, Carrot Cake, Cinnamon Cheesecake, and Death by Chocolate Cheesecake. Each was delicious, but I still claim my old favorite, Banana Chocolate Chip as the best. We were too busy enjoying our food to take pictures until we were finished, but here's a shot of our leftovers to give you an idea of the portion sizes. The full-size boxes are for single pieces of layer cake!

Next we stopped by The Augusta Market, which was just a block away from our restaurant. If you live in Augusta you really should check this out. It's not big, so you can't count on it for hours of entertainment, but it's a fun way to get outside and feel like part of the community. There are always interesting vendors with local produce, plants, jewelry, pottery, baked goods, and other foods. This time I bought some cilantro, parsley, and mint plants to round out my herb garden. After checking out the River Walk we headed home and took power naps before Karen and Doug headed back to Gainesville. It was so nice to spend the day together and share a little bit of our town with them. Next time hopefully they won't have to get up before 5 am!

After they were on their way we got busy preparing to host a fun Easter lunch for sweet church friends. Come back to see pictures of cute kids hunting eggs and to get the details on my favorite Easter recipes.

Hey Augusta natives - what are your favorite things to do around town? Where do you like to take guests for an afternoon out?

Wednesday, April 13

Old Friends, New Fun (and Food!)

So, I'm a bit behind, but my oldest friend, Katie, came for a visit two weekends ago and we had a blast! If you're in the market for some good recipes scroll down to get the details on what we ate while she was here.

Katie and I have been friends since third grade. We spent our summers together - mostly at her house, because she had a pool, a hammock, and an endless supply of IBC rootbeer. As we grew up we went to church together and saw each other often, but developed different interests and groups of friends. She went to culinary school in Charlotte, I went UGA in Athens, so we only saw each other a few times throughout college. The last time we saw each other was at my wedding. But some friends can just pick up where they left off.

Among other things, Katie brought with her
three packs of IBC rootbeer!

It's interesting that although we have very different jobs, both of our careers revolve around food. She actually considered becoming a dietitian after finishing culinary school and I thought about starting a catering business for a while (she works as a catering manager). So when the two of us are together you know there's going to be some good food.

To give you the Cliffs Notes version of the weekend, we ate at The Rooster's Beak on Friday night and had a mediocre dinner, but fantastic conversation. After Michael went to bed we had a late-night dose of girltalk. In the morning, we sat down to a no-fuss breakfast that I'd made the day before. I planned for us to have scones, biscuits, and homemade applesauce in a continental-style breakfast, but on a plate, along with the yummy cinnamon bread Katie brought, it turned out to be a very brown, very starchy meal. It was great! Haha.

Since it was a rainy day we occupied ourselves indoors by prepping food for dinner (we share a compulsion to prepare for the next meal as soon as we finish the one before it : ) and brainstorming for my brother's wedding cake. Once the rain died down we went to Surrey Center, which is my favorite place to shop in Augusta. We wandered around until the stores were closed and then headed back home to cook dinner.

Even in the yucky drizzle Michael was a great grill master! While he grilled the pork tenderloin Katie cooked up the brussels sprouts, which were fabulous. Honestly, if you think you don't like them try this recipe! We also threw together a spinach and strawberry salad since we've been loving that lately and made the fudge sauce to top the super-easy banana ice cream we'd made after breakfast. Dinner was ready for the table and oh-so fresh. This was a great springtime meal: satisfying without being heavy, healthy without skimping on flavor.

We were sad to see Katie go, but so very glad she came. I just wish I'd gotten a good picture of us! The only one we have doesn't do justice to either of us, so instead I'll post these pictures from the last time we saw each other.

Wedding reception hug!

The middle school sleepover crew.

Platypus face! You just never grow out of some things!

Without further adieu, here are the recipes from our delicious weekend:

Buttermilk Cheddar Biscuits
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more as needed
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons salt (I use a little less)
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, diced
1/2 cup cold buttermilk, shaken
1 cold extra-large egg (I used a large egg)
1 cup grated extra-sharp cheddar cheese
1 egg, beaten with 1 tablespoon water or milk
Coarse sea salt, optional (I highly recommend this)

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.
Place 2 cups of flour, the baking powder, and salt in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. With the mixer on low, add the butter and mix until the butter is the size of peas.
Combine the buttermilk and egg in a small measuring cup and beat lightly with a fork. With the mixer still on low, quickly add the buttermilk mixture to the flour mixture and mix only until moistened. In a small bowl, mix the Cheddar with small handful of flour and, with the mixer still on low, add the cheese to the dough. Mix only until roughly combined.
Dump out onto a well-floured board and knead lightly about 6 times. Roll the dough out to a rectangle 10 by 5 inches. With a sharp, floured knife, cut the dough lengthwise in half and then across in quarters, making 8 rough rectangles. Transfer to a sheet pan lined with parchment paper. Brush the tops with the egg wash, sprinkle with salt, if using, and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until the tops are browned and the biscuits are cooked through. Serve hot or warm.
Dough may be prepped and refrigerated 1-2 days in advance.
Ina Garten - Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics 2008
It was a drab-looking, carb-laden breakfast, but it hit the spot.
Also, I forgot the egg wash on the biscuits, so they weren't
as pretty as usual.

Chunky Cinnamon Applesauce
Yield: 4 cups
10 Winesap, Golden Delicious or other cooking apples
1/2 cup water
3/4 cup sugar, or to taste
1-2 tsp cinnamon
Core, peel, and cut apples into chunks.
Combine all ingredients. After cooking, mash to desired consistency.

Slow cooker: Cook on Low for 5 hours or on High for 3 hours.
Stovetop: Add enough water to cover apples, cover, and cook on medium-low 45 minutes.
This picture just won't turn the right way.
Believe me, it was a beautiful meal!

Herb-Marinated Loin of Pork
1 lemon, zest grated
3/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (4 to 6 lemons)
Good olive oil
2 tablespoons minced garlic (6 cloves)
1 1/2 tablespoons minced fresh rosemary leaves
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme leaves
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
Kosher salt
2-3 pork tenderloins, about 1 pound each
Freshly ground black pepper
Combine the lemon zest, lemon juice, 1/2 cup olive oil, garlic, rosemary, thyme, mustard, and 2 teaspoons salt in a sturdy 1-gallon resealable plastic bag. Add the pork tenderloins and turn to coat with the marinade. Squeeze out the air and seal the bag. Marinate the pork in the refrigerator for at least 3 hours but preferably overnight.
When you’re ready to cook, preheat the grill and brush with oil to prevent the pork from sticking. Remove the tenderloins from the marinade and discard the marinade.  Sprinkle with salt and pepper, then grill, turning a few times to brown on all sides, for 15-20 minutes, or until the meat registers about 137 degrees at the thickest part.  Transfer the tenderloins to a platter and cover tightly with aluminum foil. Let rest for at least ten minutes.  Slice and serve.
Ina Garten - Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics 2008

We were hungry, so we forgot to take a picture before serving!

Browned-Butter Brussels Sprouts with Almonds
Serves 4 to 6
Katie actually just made this dish up in her head, but I found a very similar recipe from a random website in case you'd like to replicate it (it's a keeper!).
1½ lbs Brussels sprouts, trimmed
¼ cup butter
1 tbsp lemon juice
¼ cup chopped almonds, unblanched
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Cook Brussels sprouts for 5 to 8 minutes or until almost tender. Refresh under cold water and drain well. Let cool slightly. Cut sprouts in half and place cut-side down on a paper-towel-lined tray to drain. Cover and refrigerate for up to 1 day. Bring to room temperature before next step.
Melt butter over medium-low heat in a large skillet until it is just starting to turn golden brown and has a nutty aroma. Stir in lemon juice and almonds and cook until butter is browned. Add Brussels sprouts and toss to coat well and heat through. Season with salt and pepper. Transfer to a warmed serving dish.
 Jennifer Mackenzie - LCBO

Banana Fudge Sundaes
 3 very ripe bananas, peeled, each cut crosswise into 4 pieces
1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk, divided
1 cup half and half
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup bittersweet chocolate chips
1 ripe banana, peeled, diced (for garnish)
Puree 3 bananas, 3/4 cup condensed milk, half and half, corn syrup, and lemon juice in processor until smooth. Transfer to ice cream maker; process according to manufacturer's instructions. Transfer to container. Freeze until firm, about 4 hours.
Heat 1/2 cup sweetened condensed milk and 1 tablespoon water in small saucepan over medium heat; add chocolate. Stir until melted and smooth, adding more water by teaspoonfuls if sauce is very thick.
Divide ice cream among bowls. Drizzle sauce over; top with diced banana. (Added step: we bruleed the diced bananas with a little sugar using my food torch!)
Bon Appetit March 2011

Torching the bananas: a fun, but optional step.

Chocolate wafer cookies added a little texture.

Doesn't all that just sound delightful?! What are your favorite springtime meals?

Sunday, April 3

Bring It! The P90X Challenge

Those of you who have been reading from the beginning (once again - thanks, mom :) know that one of my goals for the year is to be in great shape in time for our trip to Brazil at the end of June. Check out that old post here.

In case you're wondering where I stand on this, I have actually made negative progress. Cringe... Working more hours than usual, intermittent sickness, church involvement, and extra things like gardening (post coming soon), cake decorating, oh, and occasionally writing a blog post :) have somehow absorbed my time and left very little for being fit. Also, the gym just hasn't really been calling my name lately. The times that I've had fitness accomplishments that I'm really proud of, like learning to rock-climb, becoming a seriously fast swimmer (no longer true, sadly), or training for a half-marathon have coincided with a time-limited window of opportunity. When I realized about a week ago that I had roughly 90 days left to prepare for our trip I got the kick in the pants that I so desperately needed.

Having heard great things about the at-home fitness program, P90X, Michael bought the DVD's off Ebay about two years ago. For some reason, working out at home has never appealed to me and although I tried out all of the DVD's I had no intention of committing to the program. And I didn't. The workouts were intense, my body ached all over, and even though I saw results in the short time that I tried the workouts, I tired of Tony Horton's repetitive banter. So I moved on to other things. Michael continued for a while after I did, but was soon far too busy with school to stick with it. About a year later I pulled out the DVD's and used them as an occasional supplement to other training or a "rainy day" workout when I didn't feel like running or going to the gym. This was definitely not a successful strategy.

Since then I've known several people who have managed to "get in the best shape of their lives!" and maintain great fitness with a reasonable time commitment (1-1.5 hours a day, 6 days a week) using P90X. Every time I hear one of these stories I think  "I really should give it another shot." Well, here's my chance.

As of Thursday I had 86 days until our departure for Brazil. Instead of following the schedule to a tee, I'll spend the first week or so doing cardio and yoga, which, believe me!, are still enough to work my muscles. I'm also substituting other workouts for Plyometrics (jumping exercises) for now because I'm afraid it would exacerbate the lower back pain I get whenever I up my physical activity, aanndd it makes me so sore that it essentially crushes my spirit... I'm also giving myself the latitude to go for a long walk or jog instead of doing a P90X workout when I reach the inevitable point that I am just too sore to do a DVD without landing in a heap on the floor. I have definitely had that experience and it's what led me to quit.

Check out my super-intense Kenpo moves! :)
Also, since we just have the DVD's I'm not following the nutrition plan or using the suggested supplements. Really the reason is that most of these plans include lots of silly, made-up "science" or legitimate information that's taken out of context. And obviously, I'm not going to pay someone to tell me what to eat - I've invested plenty of my own money in becoming licensed and registered to do just that for other people. I haven't investigated the eating plan fully, so it may be helpful, but as long as you stay in a good calorie range (I'm tracking this using the Livestrong app on my phone) and drink water before and after your workouts, you'll see great results.

So, I'm on day four and I'm going strong, although I'm definitely feeling it right down to my toes (really, my toes are sore!). I've found that playing the DVD's with the "Music and Cues" option is fantastic since Tony's dialogue just is no longer as entertaining as it was the first time. One of the great things about P90X is that in addition to strength and cardiovascular fitness it improves flexibility and balance, so I can feel an immediate difference in my posture. And I'm sure it's just wishful thinking, but I can already see some baby biceps and triceps peeking out through the pudge. :)

I didn't do the recommended fit test because I knew that I was in good enough shape to handle the workouts, but I do wish I'd done it so that I could use it as a baseline comparison. It's definitely too late now because I'm way too sore to do much more than a couple push-ups and sit-ups! I did record a starting weight, which I'll continue to do weekly, and I took "before" pictures, which I'll post next to my 30-, 60-, and 90-day "after" shots.

In case you're wondering if the program really works, I'll trust a guy who looks like this at the age of 52! You can also see some real-life success stories here.

Wish me luck! Any P90X alumni out there with some helpful pointers? Anyone know a good massage therapist for my poor, tired muscles? :)