Casual Fall Entertaining

autumn-wreath-feature My aunt stopped by last weekend to drop off this gorgeous wreath that she made for our front door. The fall wreath that we bought at Michaels a few years ago -- maybe even going back to the time that I worked there in high school -- needed a refresh, so she promised my mom that she would make us a new one. I love the muted fall colors in this, which I think are subdued enough for the wreath to hang from late-summer though fall and even into the early-winter months. Not be outdone on the creativity scale, and certainly to also show our appreciation and not to leave anyone hungry because snacks are obligatory to have when a guest stops over, here is a picture of the quick table that I put together. I made the table runner for my mom earlier this year. This was one of my first larger sewing projects, albeit just a hemmed rectangle of three cut pieces of fabric pieced together. Steve made the cutting board and the gorgeous tray, both of which I use a lot for entertaining. Oh, and the colors may have also inspired me to grab a few similar tones to freshen up the ol' Fourteenpress theme since, yanno, we established a few years ago that color scheme changes are about the extent of my hand coding new layouts anymore. Blame the timesucks that are work, life, and those sort of things... maybe I'll get back to doing it someday (yes, I keep saying that...) Either way, yay, creativity! ;) fall-entertaining-feature Nobody had lunch that day, so I put out mini lobster cakes that I picked up at Sams Club (like crab cakes, but better), sun dried tomato and cheese strudels, apple-pear chutney with crackers and Dubliner Irish cheddar cheese (triple yum and an excellent use of one of my fall canning projects. Recipe was likely from Food in Jars; if not, I tagged a similar one that I'm sure is also excellent.), and red seedless grapes. Finishing off with something sweet to go with coffee, I made a glazed almond pound cake that featured one of my favorite ingredients -- almond paste -- and tasted fantastic. The strudels were super quick and easy to make, but sadly they didn't make it for the photo opp. I made something very similar for the Oscars party this year, and both times they came out great. See the recipe below, which I hope is an acceptable substitute in lieu of a photo (but, I promise, I'll get one the next time I make these ;), and let me know what you think if you make them.

Sun Dried Tomato and Cheese Strudels

Makes 4 strudels


1 large sweet onion, diced 2 cloves garlic, sliced 1 package (approx. 3oz) sun dried tomatoes, chopped 1 package Alouette garlic and herb cheese spread 1/2 cup mascarpone cheese or cream cheese 1/2 cup mozzarella cheese, shredded 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, grated 1 package fillo dough 1/2 stick butter, melted 1 large egg, beaten and thinned with a little water Olive oil Salt and pepper, to taste


Heat olive oil a large skillet. Add onion and garlic, and cook until caramelized, stirring occasionally. If mixture sticks to the bottom of the pan, deglaze with a little water, broth, or white wine; scrape the pan; and continue cooking until mixture reaches a nice golden brown color. Add diced sun dried tomatoes, Alouette cheese, and mascarpone or cream cheese. Stir until combined and the cheese melts. Add mozzarella and Parmesan; stir. Season with salt and pepper, as desired. Set mixture aside and prepare the fillo sheets. Take one sheet of fillo, spread with melted butter, and add a sheet directly on top. Smooth down with your hand so the sheets are sure to stick together. Repeat layering the fillo and butter until you have four layers. Take approximately 1/4 cup of the cheese mixture and place at the end of the fillo sheet, spreading out in a rectangle shape and leaving 1/4 inch of space from the edges. 1/3 of the fillo should be covered with the mixture and the other 2/3 should be uncovered; we're going to fold the sheet over twice to make a rectangle shape pastry. Brush the edges with the egg. Fold the entire thing over once, pressing the sides down so they adhere together. Brush the edges again with egg, and fold over again. You should have a rectangle shape pastry. Press down the edges so they stick, and make three shallow cuts in the center of the pastry with a knife. Carefully lift with a thin, wide spatula and place on a baking tray lined with a Sil Pat or parchment paper. Repeat until mixture or fillo are used up; you should end up with 3-4 strudels. Bake strudels at 400* F until golden brown and crisp. Can be served cut into smaller pieces as an appetizer, or with a mixed green salad for a light lunch.

Meal Prep Made Easy

In my last post, I mentioned that I have been commuting quite a bit nowadays for a new opportunity. Part of the reason why waking up at 5:30 am is, let’s say, less painful (although, still not my preference) is because of getting back into the good habits of planning in advance. The minutes spent figuring out what to wear in the morning are gone, thanks to hanging up my outfits for the week in a designated spot of my closet (accessories included) so I can grab, wear, and go. Likewise, the scramble to figure out what to put together for dinner at the end of the day, or saying screw it and stopping to eat at a restaurant on the way home, is reduced, thanks to advance meal prep and big-batch cooking on the weekends. There are a lot of meal prep resources available out there, so I'll skip details on any specific processes or recipes for meal plans. The biggest tip that I'll offer is to stick to familiar and easy-to-make recipes. Soups, sauces, and casseroles that can be thawed, heated, and eaten as-is or quickly added to something, like pasta or rice, are my favorites. I generally cook in quantities that can feed 2-4 people so I can feed the family or have leftovers to take for lunch. Also, I typically focus on making dinners, since they tend to be the most time-consuming, rather than planning for every single meal of the day. I hope to get back to that point someday, but for now it has been one thing at a time. ;) My meal prep wouldn’t be as successful if not for a few key supplies which I would highly suggest investing in to make your life a whole lot easier. Plastic Take-out Containers You bring your Aunt Belinda's antique bowl to a potluck dinner party. Everyone is having a good time, but at the end of the party you find that your Aunt's bowl is missing. Little did you know, it was covered with foil and tucked away in the fridge under a mountain of leftovers that could cause an avalanche if moved even a centimeter. Sound familiar? Yeah, we've all been there, but there is a better solution: the humble plastic take-out container. I don't buy a lot of takeout anymore, so I buy these clear, round take-out containers in bulk at the restaurant supply store generally once or twice a year. A sleeve each of these heavyweight plastic quart (32oz) containers, pint (16oz) containers, and matching lids (which can be used for all of the containers) costs in the ballpark of $16 (they could be cheaper online, but I have a restaurant store nearby, so I haven’t bothered looking for an alternative that might involve paying for shipping.) [caption width="300" align="alignright"] Image source: WebstaurantStore[/caption] I always freeze leftover soup, chili, stock when I make it in advance. I write directly on the lid with a Sharpie marker so I can remember what I made, when I made it, and any cooking instructions. These containers store very neatly in the freezer and I try to use them over again when possible, all depending on what I stored in them. If they do crack or get discolored, I just recycle them and start fresh with a new container. FoodSaver Vacuum Sealer System Last Christmas, Steve bought my parents a FoodSaver system with the intention that they would be able to buy meat in bulk, vacuum seal it (“vac it”) into smaller portions, and freeze until needed so it doesn't spoil as fast in the refrigerator. Little did he know that I would be the one to get the most use out of it. This base model FoodSaver system ($80 on the FoodSaver website) is similar to the one that we have, although they have ones that have a stainless steel-like finish and more features or accessories that cost more. Whenever I have leftover produce that is getting to the point where I know that I may not use it before it spoils, I wash, chop, and vac it in individual serving or quart-sized bags so it is ready to go for recipes. I also make whole meal packages that can just be dumped into the crockpot or skillet to cook, or less-complicated meal "starter packs" of vegetables for when I have time to do a few more steps of cooking. I generally ballpark the quantities of the vegetables and shoot to make about quart-sized bags (equivalent of 4 cups). Now that winter is rolling around, my two favorite packs to keep on-hand and use to make soup and chili are:
  • Chopped celery, carrots, onion, and garlic. For a quick chicken noodle soup, sauté vegetables and add 2 quarts of chicken broth, 2 cups of cubed chicken, minced parsley. Simmer. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve with noodles of your choice (I like orzo.) For minestrone, sauté vegetables and add 2 quarts of vegetable or chicken broth, a 16oz can of drained and rinsed cannellini beans, a few handfuls of washed and chopped spinach or swiss chard, and 1 cup chopped diced tomatoes (if desired; I like to omit if I'm not in the mood for tomatoes) Simmer. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve with noodles (I like ditalini) and top with parmesan and pesto (if desired.)
  • Corn kernels, chopped bell peppers, chopped hot peppers, chopped onion, and garlic. For a quick chili, sauté vegetables and add a 32oz can of tomatoes, a 16oz can of black beans, a 16oz can of red kidney beans, and a small package of browned ground beef or vegetarian meat (if you like). Add minced chipotle in adobo and other seasonings to taste (this is a good suggestion for a chili seasoning blend that you can make and store in the pantry). Serve with assorted toppings (the best part), like chopped scallions and shredded cheese.
Digital Scale A must-have for baking, but also an invaluable tool for when I do feel like being a little more precise with my measurements; when I want to know that I have exactly 1 cup of onions in a bag which I'll vacuum seal and use for a recipe later, for example. This Cuisinart scale ($40 at Bed Bath and Beyond) is the one I have. It is no-frills and can weigh up to 11 pounds with the ability to switch between grams, pounds, and ounces by clicking a button. Based on the reviews, I saw that others have questioned the accuracy of very light food, such as one or two strawberries, and have noticed that it shuts off very quick. While I agree that the fast shut off time is annoying, I have not had a problem with accuracy. Overall, it is a good value for how much I use it. Making meals during the week is easy when you do some advance prep on the weekends, and the process is even easier with a few key tools at your disposal. What other time-saving ways have you found to prep meals in advance? What are some of your favorite kitchen tools to make the work easier?

Review: Fifty Shades of Grey

I ranted a while ago on my personal Facebook page about Fifty Shades of Grey. I noted that it wasn't the sex scenes, rape undertones, or flawed nuances of a BDSM relationship that bothered me after becoming aware and attempting (read: struggling and failing) to read the first book in the series. I know that I am probably in the minority on that front, since many have been up-in-arms over those things since the book debuted a few years ago and the discussion has only rekindled with the launch of the film adaptation of the first book. If you aren't angry about the sex, then what is left to be angry about?, you might ask yourself upon hearing what already sounds like the beginning of a rant. Oh, plenty. I am not ashamed to admit that curiosity got the best of me in the same way it did when I read the first book in the Twilight series. I found a free PDF copy of Fifty Shades online a few months back and I thought I would check it out to see if it lived up to the hype of being a sexy, edgy love story. I have not seen the movie, which grossed over $90 million opening weekend and coincided with Valentine's Day (hopefully some follow marketers made some serious bank for that genius timing...), but my hopes are bottom-of-the-barrel low after my brief experience with the book, which I'll gladly hop on the haters train to nopeville to tell you about. Although I am normally eager to support my local libraries and booksellers, I was very glad that I did not waste a trip or burn my hard-earned American currency to purchase something that would arguably be better to burn as kindle for a campfire over which s'mores could be made for more satisfaction. I seriously read the first two or three chapters of the book before I succumbed to the fact that, no, it was not going to improve. Yes, those typos were going to continue to present themselves for another 200-something pages and, no, I was not going to be able to ignore them. I quickly resorted to skimming over the rest of the book in an attempt to be a trooper, follow-through, and finish the damn thing as fast as humanely possible so I could justifiably make fun of how awful it was to read. Enraged from perpetually rolling my eyes so far back in my head and instinctively copy editing along the way, I managed to beat the odds and "finish" the whole story. The book broke me -- and not in a sexy sort-of way. Reserved, wallflower of a girl meets attractive, mysterious boy. Boy is intrigued with girl and also happens to be an extremely wealthy 26-year-old. Looking at the Dot.Com boom of the 90s and the social media era of today (aside: some suggest that we might or might not be seeing a second Dot.Com bubble), I could sort-of buy the concept of a 26-year-old multimillionaire. It would be uncommon but not unrealistic. It was everything that I read on top of that which started my perpetual eye rolling. Successful and sexy despite serious mommy-daddy issues and sociopathic tendencies. A contract approach to an S&M relationship with someone who wasn't sure if she preferred chocolate ice cream over vanilla, let alone being flogged with a leather or silicone strap. Descriptions like that trudged on and on, painful to read even when skimming instead of diving into the gory details. Funny enough, one thing that got to me was this: where does savvy, young millionaire-man shop for his instruments of sexual deviance? Why, at a local mom and pop hardware store, of course. Young, rich, successful Mr. Grey goes out on his own and shops at a mom and pop hardware store for Duct tape and rope to use on his sexual partners. Even my grandma (rest in peace) knew that sex toys could be found in practically every city across America or online, if one could perform a basic Yellow Pages or internet search to find them. Instead, the author develops Mr. Grey in the image of a modern, albeit richer, Ted Bundy. I'll get off of the poor story line and character development to go back to the typos because there is a lot to hate on that subject. Fair notice: I might be a little obsessive compulsive when it comes to spell checking when I am writing emails, research assignments, and other things. It is, after all, a large part of my job to ensure that things are polished and ready to publish to larger audiences to sell a product or service. Just like routinely saving your work, it becomes second nature to periodically spell check, too, when you are writing something. Write a little, hit the key for spell check, repeat, and avoid looking like an imbecile. Not for nothing, but how did the final draft go to press without some copyediting? Seriously. I am not talking about a few issues, either, like a stray character or a missing word in a sentence. Nobody, not once, read this book through in entirety in a Word (or equivalent application) document? Nobody saw little red and green squiggles under words and sentences, indicating misspellings and grammar errors? NOBODY hit F7 in Windows (or the equivalent on a Mac) to spell check before the book went to print?! If you think that I am overreacting on this point, take this food for thought: this book has spent over 76 weeks on the New York Times best sellers list based on combined print and e-Book sales. 76. weeks. The other two books in the series are also on the list, with all three ranking in the top 15 as of this week. I am aware that being a best seller does not automatically mean that the book is considered a prized work of art, but it means something, right? People know about the series and have purchased it, or will as a result of the hype, and the author may call herself a "best seller" from here on out, a tremendous honor to have. The Fifty Shades series currently ranks with three books that were also made into movies -- Still Alice, Wild, and Gone Girl. These three movies were nominated in various Oscars categories this past year, with at least one winning top accolades (Julienne Moore for Best Actress in Still Alice). With that comparison, it now seems criminal to think of these standing in the same Best Sellers category, at least in my eyes... In all seriousness, though, the book might have been perfectly fine if not for the errors that, for me, deteriorated it to the status of a Harlequin Romance novel reject sitting on top of a trash pile. This book could have benefited from some serious polishing on all accounts -- from story line to character development, editing, etc. The fact that this is a best selling novel in a series of best sellers, grossing millions of dollars in sales and standing with other works that were translated into Oscar- nominated or winning movies, makes the lack of polish much more offensive to me. Nevertheless, I think we can all agree that Kanye West will be storming the Oscars next year, no doubt demanding to know why 50 Shades wasn't nominated for "Best Picture" because Beyonce's song was featured in the trailer. I certainly won't continue reading the series and I don't plan on seeing the movie any time soon. Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

Chia Pudding: The Verdict

Has anyone tried chia pudding? It is no more than chia seeds soaked in milk (or vegan-friendly nut milk) overnight with additional flavoring (vanilla, maple syrup...) and toppings (yogurt, granola, nuts...), if desired. After hearing about all of the health benefits and how easy it is to make for a quick breakfast or a healthy snack, it was, of course, high up there on my list of things to try. While browsing Brit + Co, I came across a recipe for apple pie chia pudding and decided to finally try it. The pictures of the recipe looked wonderful, as they generally do on that site, and the mason jar preparation seemed brilliant, since I love using mason jars and have a lot leftover from my summer and fall canning projects. I figured that the addition of the yogurt and fruit later on would make for an interesting texture along with the seed-like consistency of the pudding, but that was exactly what concerned me: the seed-like texture of the pudding... From a previous experience, I already knew that chia or flax seeds, when soaked in liquid for a period of time, soften and become jelly-like. In this case, I imagined that chilling the mixture would cause them to set-up into a firmish mass, just like a pudding. Now. Food and beverage textures generally don't bother me, but something about this made me say to myself, I am going to either tolerate and maybe grow to like this, or this is going to be one of the worst F@#%ing things that I have put in my mouth... Not quite extremes, but not high hopes, either. For those reasons, I stopped after completing the first few steps of the recipe, making the base of the pudding as a starting point. To a half-pint mason jar (half the size of the jar pictured in the Brit + Co pictures), I added 2 tablespoons of mixed chia and flax seeds. I keep them in a shaker containers in my pantry for when I feel like sprinkling them over oatmeal, granola, and yogurt (I am already a fan). I topped the seeds with about a quarter cup of cashew nut milk, covered the jar and shook it lightly, and put it the fridge. It sat for a few days until I got around to trying it, which was fine since there were no ingredients that would cause it to spoil. When I took the jar out of the fridge and unscrewed the lid, things kind of looked the same except a majority of the cashew milk absorbed into the seeds, as expected. I mixed it a little and decided to just go for it. Frankly, I am glad that I trusted my intuition and just made one test jar. After I tasted the pudding on its own, then the pudding with some coconut-flavored Greek yogurt mixed in, I didn't bother to complete the apples portion of the recipe since I determined that chia pudding was just not for me. I like tapioca and rice pudding, both of which can be pleasantly chewy. The texture of this pudding was similar, but different. It was kind of... goopy. Slimy, even. Thin, partially-set Jell-O goopy, but this was far from an artificially-flavored cherry-berry extravaganza in my mouth. Biting into the little blackish-brown seeds suspended in the cream-colored liquid reminded me of when I ate meat on a regular basis -- chicken, specifically -- and would accidentally bite into soft bone, cartilage, or gristle. Yeah, so, needless to say, kind of a gross memory, but that was my immediate frame of reference. The yogurt definitely improved the taste, since the yogurt was sweeter than the cashew nut milk, but it was still not something that I wanted to devour in one sitting. Meh... I'll try again maybe some other time and see if my opinion changes. If you can persuade me with another recipe, then let me know and I might consider it. For now, though, the only newish or revived healthy snack trend that I am fully on-board with is juicing -- yes, including green juices, which I've grown accustomed to drinking.

Review: Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

As always, I will try my best to speak in general terms about the movies that I am reviewing, but there might be some accidental spoilers, so please read with caution. It goes without saying that there was some steep competition for the top accolade of Best Picture at this year's Oscars. Among the nominees were Birdman, American Sniper, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, Selma, The Theory of Everything, and Whiplash. While Birdman took the top honors, I think everyone and their mothers would agree that Boyhood could have won on the pretense of dedication alone. The lead character was actually progressing through his child years to adulthood during the 12 years that it took to film the movie. At least four movies showcased real people and events -- including Dr. Martin Luther King and his march through Alabama during the Civil Rights Movement as shown in Selma, and the accomplishments and struggles of U.S. Navy SEAL Chris Kyle as shown in American Sniper -- all with their respective marks made on the history of the 20th and 21st centuries. The Grand Budapest Hotel, a Wes Anderson comedy about the trials and tribulations of a hotel concierge and a lobby boy set in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka during the early 20th-century, and Whiplash, the fictional story of a driven music student who will stop at nothing to please his teacher, were also among the nominated and certainly could have won based on cinematography. Following the Oscars, Howard Stern took a moment on his live show to critique Birdman's Best Picture win, pointing out that Hollywood loves to see itself featured in movies and give itself accolades. I happen to agree with this assessment. Birdman was a good movie for showcasing, for lack of better words, Hollywood douchebaggery. The way that that characters were portrayed, the fantastical CGI sequences, and the cheeky references at pop culture peppered throughout the movie all made for a satirical tribute to Hollywood that the Academy ate up like snacks at the movie theater**. But anyway, don't get me wrong. Birdman was far from awful. It had great casting with Michael Keaton in the starring role and the familiar faces of Ed Norton, Emma Stone, and Zach Galifinakis in supporting roles. The movie poked fun at the whole industry, with Keaton playing washed-up action star Riggan Thomson. Thomson wanted to become a "serious" actor in the eyes of his colleagues by taking on a pet project on Broadway, an adaptation of Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, and using much of his remaining fortune to guarantee the play's success. Galifinakis played Jake, Thomson's eternally flustered publicist, and Stone played Sam, Thomson's sassy daughter who was brought in as a production assistant after finishing up a stint in rehab. Norton played Mike, a pretentious actor who Thomson and everyone else hoped would save the play after an on-set mishap put one of the original cast members out of commission. By the time the play hit its first previews, things quickly started spiraling back out of control, with Mike's true colors coming out and family drama ensuing between Thomson, his daughter, and his ex-wife. The movie was very much focused on Thomson's trials and tribulations. Relationships with loved ones, colleagues, and the industry at large suffered as Thomson struggled to redeem himself in the eyes of many and make his play a success. Scenes featuring budding relationships between the other characters (e.g., Mike and Sam) were interesting, but disappointingly fleshed out. It was evident that these characters were there just to get caught up in the whirlwind of Thomson's wacky life, but some parts were unnecessarily drawn out or included to seemingly make the movie longer than it needed to be. As the movie progressed, the lines between reality and fantasy blurred, with nonsensical sequences of flying, explosions, and other CGI kicking into overdrive. Now, there are people out there who are going to say that all of this was symbolism, and, yeah, I got that. Birdman is Batman, a clever nod to Keaton's real-life acting history. Keaton's character was trying and failing to leave his past behind, essentially turning into his famous action hero character. All of that was good, if not for the use of special effects that became a little ridiculous to watch as the movie went on. If you are planning on seeing a movie this weekend, Birdman is a fine choice but I would highly recommend seeing Whiplash instead. This movie might as well be mandatory viewing for current or former musicians, students of music, band/ensemble members, and/or music lovers; however, it is also for anyone who can appreciate and relate to the drive and determination that it takes to master a discipline. The intensity of the movie is something that cannot be described in words alone. The movie is technical in terms of its references to music terminology, but not in a way that would cause someone without this knowledge to get completely and totally lost in what is going on. Even if you can't read music to know that the scores shown on the screen are very complex, you can certainly understand what it takes to read, understand, and play them based on what else is shown. The blood, sweat, and tears are graphically shown at parts that left me cringing (in a good way). Overall, I was very, very happy with the movie. ** As an aside, I am convinced that the long previews at the movies are designed in hope that you will lose your self-control and obliterate your popcorn as you are watching them. As preview after preview of tired superhero reboots, romantic comedies, and other movies that you don't care about pass by, the theater hopes that, in boredom or frustration of waiting for the actual movie to finally start, you will eat through your snacks and be forced to take a trip back to the lobby to purchase more snacks for the start of the movie. And never mind the brief anxiety of hoping that nobody is going to think that you are sneaking back into the movie because you forgot to take your ticket with you. The tricky bastards. Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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