Friday, July 29, 2011

Like a Good Neighbor...

No, I'm not writing a post about State Farm Insurance. However, on the morning news the other day, they were sharing the results of a recent survey by State Farm on what bugs people about their neighbors. Though I'm sure I could name a few, I feel very blessed to live near the great neighbors we have.

One of the things John and I were looking for when we were house hunting last year, was a house that had a nice neighborhood feel to it. In our old neighborhood, most of the people kept to themselves and it wasn't very friendly. We lived there almost four years and I'm pretty sure I wouldn't recognize most of them if I saw them at the store, let alone be able to tell you their names.

Some people like to be left alone, but I like a neighborhood to feel more like a family. Growing up, I knew all my neighbors and knew that I could go to any of them if I needed help. I want my kids to feel that way too.

Since we are all out more in the nicer weather, I've been seeing more of my neighbors lately and I got to thinking about what makes for good neighbors and all the nice things they've done for us already. Here's what I came up with...

-They care... they ask about things in our lives because they care, not because they're nosy.

-They are generous-with their time, talents, and resources...if they find out we need something and they have it, they are always willing to share and one neighbor regularly shares her baked good with us.

-They are thoughtful...when Lillian was born some of our neighbors decorated the outside of our house with "It's a girl!" decorations and a congratulations sign as well as giving us gifts

-They're helpful...the guys are always willing to help John with projects around the yard and house.

-They're friendly...they always wave, say hello, and take time chat, plus the older neighbor kids love to come and play with Levi, even though he's just a little guy.

-They're there...I know I can turn to them when I need them because I already have.

I know that God knew what He was doing when he put us here in this house. It was not by chance. I'm so thankful for the neighbors I have and I hope that I can be a blessing to them in return.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Just had to share...

I know some of my followers and readers also follow my friend Joanna's blog Questionable Housekeeping. Just in case you don't, I had to share a recent post she did including a poem dedicated to my little lover-boy Levi.

Check it out!

White River Junction

I'm always on the lookout for great new shops. I have my favorites near my hometown in Iowa, but since I've lived in the Chicago area, I've had a harder time finding shops that fit my style. It's not that my style is so unique, but these kind of shops just don't seem to be as common in this area. I love shops that are a mix of new, old, and repurposed things-modern country, if you will.

I was pleased to come across a great little shop that just fit my style while visiting McHenry, IL. The shop is called White River Junction and I knew it was my kind of shop as soon as I stepped through the door.

The shop was full of home decor and gifts with a unique twist to them. There is great painted antique furniture, florals, wall art, handmade jewelry, antiques, and flea market finds. 

Not to mention, their displays and arrangements give you ideas of how to put the items to use in your own home.

While there, I talked with the owners Mary and Karen. They were friendly and helpful and told me more about their business. Many of the items in the store are created by a talented group of local ladies. In addition to the merchandise in the shop, they offer personalized decorating services, as well as custom furniture painting. You can follow them on Facebook and hear about specials, shop happenings, and the latest arrivals.

White River Junction made me feel at home and inspired. I think I'd take at least one of everything in the shop if I could. I will defnitely be heading there on a regular basis and if you're in the area, you should too.

White River Junction
1242 N. Green St.
McHenry, IL  60050

Monday, July 25, 2011

Peach Pie

I love fruit pies, and while a good apple pie is delicious, peach pie is by far my favorite. Pie baking is a skill that takes time to master, but it isn't nearly as hard as most people think. When I was in college, I turned to my grandma to teach me to make pies. She confessed that she wasn't really the best baker, but we always loved her pies so I considered her a worthy choice for a teacher. We made a crumb-top peach pie and a coconut cream pie. I left our lesson with some recipes, some leftover pie, and a beginning knowledge of pie-baking.

In the years since, I've baked many different pies for holidays, birthdays, and just because. My skills have improved and I have a collection of pie recipes that I like to use. I've learned from reading many cooking books and blog posts, that pie crust recipes are highly personal. Everyone has a theory as to which fats are best and which secret ingredients are a must, all in the pursuit of a flavorful and flaky pie crust. I strayed from my grandma's pie crust recipe once and I'll never do it again. I like it and it works for me, so I'm sticking to it.

So, here is my grandma's pie crust recipe and my aunt's peach pie recipe with my notes and tips.

Pie Crust
Makes 2 crusts (enough for one two-crust pie or two single-crust pies)
1 ½ C. flour
½ tsp. Salt
¼ C. lard
¼ C. crisco (I like to use butter flavored and I keep this chilled.)½ tsp. Baking powder
5 to 6 Tbsp. Cold water (you want this very cold-I use ice water.)

 Mix flour and salt in bowl. Cut in lard and crisco with a pastry cutter or crumble it in with your fingers. Add baking powder and continue to combine. Add water, one tablespoon at at time. Stirring just until combined. Mold into two balls of dough, then flatten each into a small disc. Wrap each in saran wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. (If you're only going to use one disc, the other disc can be frozen for use at another time.) Unwrap chilled dough and roll out on a well-floured surface (I love using this mat for rolling out pie crust, biscuits, and cookies, but it's not required). Transfer to a pie pan by rolling crust onto a rolling pin and then unrolling over pan.

Peach Pie Filling:
4-5 ripe peaches
1 C. sugar
1/3 C. flour
2 tsp. Lemon juice
½ tsp. Cinnamon

Crumb Top:
5 Tbsp. Margarine or butter
2/3 C. flour
½ C. sugar

Peel and slice peaches. (For easy peeling put peaches in a pot of boiling water for a minute. Remove and run under cold water. The skin will peel off easily with your fingers.) Combine filling ingredients and mix well. Pour into pie crust. Blend topping and sprinkle on top. Refrigerate pie for ten minutes before baking. Bake 25-30 min at 400 degrees, then 30 min. at 350 degrees.
One last note about pies...I used to worry about my pies looking perfect. However, I've learned that when pies aren't perfect (i.e., bubbled over filling, imperfect crimping on the edges, etc.) it just makes them look homemade. And a homemade pie always tastes wonderful even if they wouldn't win a ribbon at the fair.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Cultivating My Green Thumb

Growing up, my parents always had a garden. Our backyard was ringed with multiple beds that contained flowers and vegetables. Not only did they have a vast knowledge of plants and their care, but they both had great design sense. My parents spent a lot of time taking care of their gardens and always received compliments from the many neighbors who passed our house while out on walks. I sometimes helped with the garden and some years even planted and cared for a section of my own. My mom has created an equally beautiful garden at her new house, receiving rave reviews from passers-by.

When I became a home owner of my little condo, my parents brought over their gardening skills to create a small garden surrounding my patio. I did my part-assisting in the planting, and keeping the plants watered and the flowers dead-headed. After we were married, John and I lived in a house that already had a lot of landscaping done so I planted some flowers in planters and pots, did some watering and dead-heading, and put in a few new plants. Still, my gardening was minimal.

In the fall, we moved into our new house whose landscaping needed a lot of TLC. John has a degree in horticulture with a design minor, so he knows a lot about landscape design. However, he works more with shrubs and trees than flowers. This means that making the flower beds "pretty" is going to fall into my lap. You'd think growing up with parents with such amazing green thumbs, some of it would have rubbed off. On the contrary--the thought of creating my own garden is quite daunting. My mom rattles off names of flowers and perennials like I know exactly what she's talking about. I do know some, but my plant knowledge is limited. On top of that, having had a baby in May, I wasn't really able to do yard work this spring or the beginning of the summer. The landscaping left behind by the previous owners looked sad and very much ignored.

So...Mom to the rescue! My mom (bless her heart) spent weeks splitting and digging up plants at her house as well as visiting plant centers in her area. First, she planted some perennials and annuals around our lamppost when she visited in May. Then she set her sights on the bed along our front walk. She even had me measure the bed so she could draw up a plan! On her latest visit, she brought a vanload of plants (literally) and planted a beautiful perennial garden in front of our house.

Now my mom is back in Iowa, working in her own garden and my fledgling garden is left in my hands. Yikes! I'm starting with the basics-keeping it all alive and thriving by watering it daily and dead-heading it regularly. I'm working on learning the names of the plants I have by studying the plant tags we saved (nerdy, I know, but necessary I think). I'm realizing that just like learning any hobby, it will take time to develop my gardening skills. There will likely be some placement mistakes and dead plants along the way, but that's how I'll learn. As my plants grow, so will my skills and design sense and one day I'll have flower beds that will receive compliments from my neighbors.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Quinoa Salad

We started eating quinoa (FYI-pronounced KEEN-wah) a few years ago after I heard that it was a nutritious substitute for rice. Quinoa is a small grain, actually a seed, that contains all eight amino acids so its a great source of protein. It is also high in fiber and contains B vitamins and iron.

Until now, we had only used it as a substitute for rice. We had eaten it in place of rice with stir fry or just as a side dish. I knew that there were many things you could do with it, but I had never tried any of those recipes. Then, I needed to prepare a gluten-free meal for a friend who just had a baby and to simplify things, we would eat the same meal at our house. Since quinoa is gluten-free, I decided to try making a quinoa salad. There are a lot of recipes out there, but I settled on a simple one from Kraft Foods.
You begin by preparing the quinoa as usual, using chicken broth as your liquid. Once it's cooked, you allow it to cool and then throw in your veggies: black beans, corn, diced green pepper, and green onions, and top with Zesty Italian dressing. The recipe actually calls for chopped ham, but I left that out since it was going to be a side dish. Also, I was supposed to use a red pepper, which would have added nice color, but I used a green pepper since that's what I had on hand. Then you chill it until you're ready to serve it.

The salad turned out to be really good and was very easy to put together. We ate it as a side with grilled chicken breast, but it could be a meal on its own since it is a source of protein. I can imagine that you could add different combinations of veggies and dressings to change things up. You can also make “sweet” varieties by cooking the quinoa in juice and adding fruit and nuts. This will definitely be a recipe we make again since the whole family liked it.

On a side note, I told about Levi cheering when we had breakfast for supper. When we had this meal, he cheered for his supper again. It went like this “Hurray! (Threw fists in the air) Hurray! (Fists in the air) We eat right now! We eat right now!” I don't know that he was excited so much by what we were eating or just the fact that we were eating. This boy likes his food. Either way, it made me smile, both as a former cheerleader and as a mom.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A Day of Remembrance

Sunday was a bittersweet day for me. On July 17th, sixty-one years ago, my dad was born. Sadly, four and a half years ago, he passed away. Though I will never forget the day we lost him, I choose to remember the day he came to this earth. I choose to celebrate his life, not his death.

I wasn't exactly what you'd call a “daddy's girl.” I was always close with both my parents, but I did have special bond with my dad. Maybe all girls do, I don't know, but I do know that my dad and I were kindred spirits. He just “got” me. He always knew what little things would make me smile, probably because they were often the things that made him smile. He might come home with a small gift that he knew I'd enjoy, or take me someplace he'd found that I just had to see. He had this way of looking at me that even when I was “grown-up”, made me feel like he was looking at his little girl.

My dad was a fun-loving, affectionate jokester who had a heart for people. He had the ability to strike up a conversation with anyone and to make that person feel completely at ease and as if they'd known him for years, even if they were just meeting. More importantly though, he had a heart for Christ. He was a strong man of faith who spent a lot of time reading God's word and praying, always seeking to let God work through him. My dad was so full of life that when he was diagnosed with cancer in 2006, we were all stunned. Through it all, his and my mom's unwavering faith was an example to all of us.

I still miss my dad and I don't think that will ever change. I know he was proud of who I had become and who he knew I would be in my future. After he was diagnosed I told him how sad I was that my kids wouldn't get to know him and have him as their grandpa. He told me how sad he was that he wouldn't see me as a mom because that's what I'd been born to do.

The one comfort I have is that I know that I will see him again one day. It won't be the same, but that's OK because instead, it will be perfect. More perfect than any of us could ever imagine. So on his birthday, I celebrate the life of my dad. I was blessed to have him as my father here on earth, but more blessed that he taught me how to have an eternal life after death with my heavenly father.

Photo by Heirloom Photographic Memories

Happy Belated Birthday Daddy! I love you!

I'm back!

I have been virtually disconnected from the cyberworld for a week and a half and it felt like an eternity. Being without the internet, I've had to use old forms of technology, like the telephone book and paper maps. I'm all for a bit of nostalgia, but I miss being connected. I've been itching to put up more posts and to check on the bloggers I follow.

It all started with a very strong thunderstorm that came through our area last Monday. It wiped out power and cable/internet service for a massive amount of people. We were lucky to only lose our electricity for twenty-four hours, unlike some in the area who were without for two, three, or more days. After three days without cable and internet, our cable came back, but we were still not able to connect to the internet.

After days of waiting and employing all my techy tricks (I do have a few), plus two hour-long, and not so helpful, conversations with Comcast I was dying to get my internet back. Finally after a little more work on my part and some tips from a friendly neighbor, I'm happy to report that I can at least connect through our modem, but I still have to sort out what's going on with our wireless router.

So, as long as I can keep my connection, I will be putting up my backlog of posts over the next week. I hope you'll tune in each day to see what I've been up to.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Strawberry Rhubarb Bars

One of my favorite things about the warmer weather is the abundance of fresh ingredients for cooking and baking. One of the first that is ready around here is rhubarb and  not long after, strawberries. I don't yet have a rhubarb plant at our new house, but I am able to get rhubarb from my mom and from the local farmers' market.

In the past I have used rhubarb to make rhubarb bread and strawberry rhubarb jam. This year I wanted to try out some new recipes that would use the two ingredients. They make such a good pair-the tartness of the rhubarb and the sweetness of the strawberries. So, I first made a few strawberry rhubarb pies. I used the recipe from The Farm Chicks in the Kitchen (also available here), except I used my own (actually my grandma's) pie crust recipe (I'll share that in another post sometime). Then, my mom shared the recipe for strawberry rhubarb bars she had had at a picnic.

These bars are similar to other "jam bars". They have a somewhat cookie-like crust, jam filling, and crumb topping. Plus, they have an extra shot of sweet with a thin frosting drizzle. I made them this weekend when we had some of our neighbors over. They were a hit! I'll definitely be making them again next year, hopefully with rhubarb from my own plant.

1 1/2 c. fresh or frozen unsweetened rhubarb, cut into 1 inch pieces
1 1/2 c. sliced fresh strawberries
1 T. lemon juice
1/2 c. sugar
2 T. cornstarch
Crust & Topping:
1.5 c. all-purpose flour
1.5 c. uncooked quick-cooking oats
1 c. firmly packed brown sugar
3/4 c. butter, softened
1/2 t. baking soda
1/4 t. salt
3/4 c. powdered sugar
1-2 T milk
Combine rhubarb, strawberries & lemon juice in 2 qt saucepan. Cover; cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until fruit is tender (8-12 min.) Combine sugar & cornstarch in small bowl. Stir into fruit mixture. Continue cooking, stirring constantly, until mixture comes to a boil (about 1 min.) Continue boiling until thickened (1 min.) Remove from heat. Set aside.
Heat oven to 350ºF  Combine all crust ingredients in large bowl.  Beat at low speed, scraping bowl often, until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Reserve 1 1/2 c. crumb mixture. Press remaining crumb mixture onto bottom of greased 13x9 inch baking pan. Spread filling over crust. Sprinkle with reserved crumb mixture.
Bake for 30-35 min. or until golden brown. Cool completely. Combine all drizzle ingredients in small bowl. Drizzle over cooled bars.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Breakfast for Supper

On nights when I don't feel like cooking a "real meal" we sometimes have breakfast for supper. While it still requires cooking, it somehow seems easier.

Tonight was one of those nights. John scrambled some eggs and cooked some bacon. (I'm lucky to have a husband who will help with fixing meals.) I fixed a double batch of waffles and sliced up some strawberries.

When I make waffles or pancakes I usually make double batches and freeze the extra. Then I can just reheat them for a quick breakfast. This is my favorite waffle recipe.

It was a quick, easy, and delicious meal. Levi cheered as we prepared his plate and had seconds of everything!

Monday, July 4, 2011

Our Holiday Weekend

I love when holidays fall around weekends. Instead of celebrating for one day, the festivities spill over into the two extra days. For us, most holidays involve spending time with family and friends. We don't always have big parties or gatherings, but a lot of times it's the more simple moments that are the best.

We started off our weekend watching our local fireworks display. We met up with friends from my moms' group. The kids ran around and played while we waited for the fireworks to begin. My 2-year-old, Levi, was thoroughly impressed by the fireworks.

The next day our "old" friends, Jacob and Joanna, arrived for the weekend with their girls. Joanna is a friend of mine from high school and Jacob is a friend of my husband John's  from college. (They're also how John and I met.) There's something special about spending time with friends who have known you a long time. Plus, now that we both have little ones, it's fun to see them playing together, beginning their own friendships.

We had a great Mexican-themed evening-fish tacos, chips with pico de gallo and guacamole, margaritas, finished off with a game of Mexican train dominoes.

On Sunday we headed to the beach and met up with my in-laws. This is the same beach my husband grew up going to. I'm glad our kids will now get to enjoy it. Seeing Levi digging in the sand is like getting a glimpse of John as a little boy-it makes me smile.
The weather was beautiful and the beach was relaxing. The kids spent the day playing in the sand, splashing in the water, and fishing with the help of dads and grandpa.

We finished the night back at our house. We grilled up some brats and hot dogs with Jacob and Joanna, along with our friends Mark and Meghan and their two little ones. Today we are taking it easy-breakfast out and now just hanging out around the house. A nice quiet end to a fun-filled weekend.

Reminiscing and chatting with friends, enjoying simple pleasures, and sharing delicious food and few drinks all make for a memorable holiday weekend.

Photo Credit
Happy 4th of July!

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Blogging Begins...

Welcome to my blog! Even as I type this I'm filled with a mix of anxiety and excitement. I only started to read blogs about a year and a half ago, but I quickly became hooked. Not only could I get lots of new ideas for food, crafts, and decorating, but I got a glimpse into the lives of pretty interesting and fun people who I wouldn't have otherwise known.

However, I don't think of myself as particularly techy, so the mechanics of blogging were a little intimidating. Still, I began to think that there were things in my daily life that I could share and maybe someone besides my mom would read it.

So, in my typical super-planner fashion, I began making lists: possible blog names, post ideas, questions to ask, etc. Among others, I consulted my friend Joanna who blogs (check hers out) and she helped me get started today.

And that brings me here, to my first blog post. I'm not sure that I'll be good at this blogging thing or that anyone besides my mom will read it, but nevertheless, here I am. I hope you'll stick with me on this new adventure as I craft my happy life.