Monday, December 19, 2011

Christmas Song : Labor of Love

It hit me this morning that Christmas is now less than a week away. That means the window of opportunity in which to complete preparations is narrowing quickly. Preparations not just related to traditions and festivities, like shopping and wrapping the rest of the presents, addressing and mailing our Christmas cards, and thawing the turkey for Christmas dinner (all of which remain on my To-Do list), but also preparations of the heart--readying my spirit to celebrate once again, at this appointed time of year, the truth that God came to earth, put on flesh, and lived among us.

Some Christmas music is festive and gay, producing the levity of heart that some equate with "the Christmas spirit" (such as Jingle Bell Rock, or We Wish You a Merry Christmas). Other Christmas music is more somber, reminding us that we were totally lost and without hope until Jesus Christ came as our Redeemer (such as one of my favorite carols, O Holy Night, which reminds us that before Christ, and without Christ, the world--and each human heart--lies in sin and error pining).

And then some Christmas music takes you back to that very first Christmas: it pulls aside the curtain and invites you to gaze upon the scene in Bethlehem and wonder at the sight. Andrew Peterson's Labor of Love (sung by Jill Philips) is that kind of song. Take a minute to read the lyrics:
Painting by Simon Dewey
It was not a silent night
There was blood on the ground
You could hear a woman cry
In the alleyways that night
On the streets of David's town

And the stable was not clean

And the cobblestones were cold
And little Mary full of grace
With the tears upon her face
Had no mother's hand to hold

It was a labor of pain

It was a cold sky above
But for the girl on the ground in the dark
With every beat of her beautiful heart
It was a labor of love

Noble Joseph by her side

Callused hands and weary eyes
There were no midwives to be found
On the streets of David's town
In the middle of the night

So he held her and he prayed

Shafts of moonlight on his face
But the baby in her womb
He was the maker of the moon
He was the Author of the faith
That could make the mountains move

It was a labor of pain

It was a cold sky above
But for the girl on the ground in the dark
With every beat of her beautiful heart
It was a labor of love
For little Mary full of grace
With the tears upon her face
It was a labor of love
This song is on AP's Christmas album, Behold the Lamb of God, which is probably my favorite collection of Christmas music ever. This album is unlike any other I've encountered, as it draws upon the sweeping Biblical narrative to tell the story of Christ's coming (and Andrew Peterson is an excellent story teller). I was pleased to discover that you can still listen to the entire album online here, for free. Start with the first song and then move through the rest one by one (you'll need to click on each title to start the next song). Blessings as you prepare your heart for Christmas. 

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Best. Appetizer. Ever.

I don't remember exactly when I fell in love with bacon-wrapped dates, but I do know that from the moment I let that first scrumptious bite melt in my mouth with all of its warm, sweet and savory, fruity and bacony goodness, I have never been the same.

In the early years of my love affair with bacon-wrapped dates, I limited my encounters to infrequent visits to tapas restaurants (such as Cafe Babareeba, the Chicago dining establishment where I met the Hubs for the first time, and where I've been known to polish off an order of BWD all by myself). No more. Now I make them myself. And once you see how incredibly easy it is, you will too. The next time you have people over and need an appetizer, whip up a batch of these. Then stand back and watch with satisfaction as the unsuspecting, uninitiated pop that first bite into their'll see their eyes widen in surprise, then roll back in their head as they release a soft moan of pure satisfaction. Or something like that. If you've never tried one, trust me on this: they're that good.

Bacon-wrapped Dates with Cider Gastrique

What you'll need for the BWD:
A package of dates*
A package of bacon (avoid thick-cut, which is harder to wrap around the date)

*There are several different varieties of dates, which affects their size, color, and degree of sweetness. Medjoul dates are probably the most widely known by name in the U.S., but they can also be the most expensive. Use what you can find at the grocery store. I've found that once you wrap a date in bacon and bake it up in the oven so that the sugars caramelize and turn the date flesh to a soft, melt-in-your-mouth consistency, the variety of date doesn't matter too much. 

Yes, that's all it takes for the BWD themselves. The name pretty much says it all. 

However, you'll also need: 
A large, rimmed baking sheet
Aluminum foil
Oven-safe cooling rack

1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Line the baking sheet with foil (this makes clean-up so easy!). Place the rack in the baking sheet. (You don't have to use a rack, but doing so allows the grease to drain off and helps your bacon get crispier all around.)
2. Cut the package of bacon in thirds. (Since raw bacon is on the slimy side, I find it easiest to use kitchen shears or a sharp knife and cut it up all together, packaging and all.)
3. If your dates didn't come pitted, pit your dates. Use a paring knife to make a slit in the side of the date, pull out the pit, then squish the date back together.
4. Take a date, wrap it in bacon, secure the bacon with a toothpick, and set it on the rack in the baking sheet. Repeat until you run out of dates or you run out of bacon, whichever comes first.
5. Bake for 10 minutes. Flip dates using tongs, rotate pan, and return to oven for another 10 minutes or until bacon is crispy.
6. Allow to cool slightly before serving. (This is where patience is required. The dates will smell AMAZING and you'll want to pop one in your mouth right away, but trust'll burn your mouth and then your taste buds will be ruined for the dates to come.)

Now, you can stop right there and have a truly delectable appetizer. Or, while the dates are in the oven, you can go the extra mile and make a cider gastrique to drizzle over the BWD that will add a subtle complexity to the flavor and make you feel all chef-like because then you can say "I made a gastrique." And then your guests will ask, "What exactly is a gastrique?" and you can tell them:
A gastrique is a classic French reduction sauce made from a base of vinegar and sugar. Gastrique is the French word for “gastric,” pertaining to the stomach, from the Greek word for stomach, “gaster.” While the term first appeared in 1656, the word “gastronomy” wasn’t coined until 1800, when French poet Joseph de Berchoux created it as the title of a poem on good living. 

What you'll need for the Gastrique: 
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon water
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
a small saucepan

1. Dissolve the sugar in 1 tablespoon of water in a small saucepan over medium heat, stirring until sugar dissolves.
2. Increase heat and boil, without stirring (don't even think about it), until amber, about 5 minutes.
3. Add vinegar (mixture will bubble's kind of exciting) and stir until all of the caramel bits dissolve and the sauce thickens slightly.
4. Remove from heat; sauce will continue to thicken as it cools.

Once you've nicely laid out your slightly cooled BWD on a serving platter, drizzle them with your mostly cooled gatrique. Then try not to make a noticeable dent in the platter's contents before your guests arrive.

If you give this a try, have any questions, or simply want to share your love of BWD, please leave a comment!

a new look

If you've been here before, I'm sure you've noticed I've changed the design and spruced things up a bit. What do you think of the new look?

Friday, November 04, 2011

Fall Foto Friday

Okay, you caught me. I am retroactively posting this pic as last week's Fall Foto Friday (on the following Wednesday). Does it cut me any slack that the photo depicts where I happened to be last Friday? Well, anyway, here's a pic from my time down at Taylor last week, recruiting for WV during their World Opportunities Week. Scattered around Taylor's campus were quite a few of these bright red maples--LOVED them. Here the soft morning light shines on the Memorial Prayer Chapel in the background.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Cookies

Ever since my friend and former co-worker Tirzah shared this recipe with me, these cookies have become a MUST every time autumn rolls back around. I was asked to bring a dessert to a church function last night, and I knew these would be perfect. True to form, my plate of cookies was one of the first ones empty. That's just how good these cookies are. Make them and you'll see!

2 cups shortening
2 cups granulated sugar
2 eggs
1 15-oz can pure pumpkin
4 cups AP flour
2 tsp baking soda
2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp salt
2 tsp pumpkin pie spice
1 12-oz pkg semi-sweet chocolate chips

  1. In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, salt, and pumpkin pie spice. Set aside.
  2. In a large bowl, cream together the shortening and sugar until fluffy. With the mixer on medium speed, mix in the eggs, then the pumpkin. 
  3. Add the flour mixture, and mix on low speed until combined. Fold in the chocolate chips. 
  4. This is a fairly wet dough. Chill in the fridge for about 20-30 minutes and it will be a little easier to work with. Meanwhile, preheat your oven to 350.
  5. Drop by tablespoon-full onto cookie sheet. (I use my medium-size cookie scoop for these.)
  6. Bake for 10-12 minutes, or until center of cookies no longer look wet. Let set for 2 minutes on pan, then remove to cooling rack and cool completely. 
A couple notes: 
  1. This recipe makes about 5-6 dozen cookies.You can easily halve the recipe if you don't want that many cookies; I make it this way because if I only use one cup out of a can of pumpkin, I never know what to do with the rest, and don't want it to go to waste.
  2. The final consistency of these cookies is more soft and chewy (cake-like) than crumbly and crunchy (cookie-like). And that's a very good thing.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Fall Foto Friday

Hello, dear readers! Thanks for sticking with me through another unpremeditated blogging drop-off. When I originally proposed Fall Foto Friday, I failed to factor in that my upcoming vacation would mean I'd be unplugged for the following two Fridays. And then after that I was simply busy/lazy. But now I am back, and I intend to make up for those missed Fridays! Because while I wasn't posting, I was taking photos. Here are a few faves that show how I've been favoring fall. (And yes, I did have fun with all of the alliteration in this paragraph.)
Taken on our vacation road trip. Autumn in Georgia means the cotton harvest!
Taken on a hike at Morton Arboretum
Also at Morton Arboretum
Highwood Pumpkin Festival
There were SO MANY jack o' lanterns. This shot captures only a fraction of the scaffolding pull of pumpkins that lined the streets of Highwood.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Fall Foto Friday

As September melts into October, and the leaves are turning in earnest, and there's a new chill in the air, and I find myself with an insatiable appetite for all things pumpkin or apple, I've decided to celebrate the season (and goad myself into using my camera more) by instituting Fall Foto Friday. Enjoy!

Disclosure: Today's photo was taken last fall on an unseasonably warm October afternoon at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Forthcoming Friday photos will be taken in the days and weeks to come.

Friday, September 02, 2011

A Vacation Alphabet - Part 8

V is for Vistas 
Colorado is full of them. But then, I suppose any state is. It's just that in Colorado, you find yourself wanting to just stand there and drink them in with your eyes. Whereas while driving through Nebraska, you find yourself looking out the window and wondering just how many more hours you have of driving through Nebraska. (My apologies to any readers in or from Nebraska.)

W is for Wildlife 
We encountered mountain goats on Mt. Quandary. We also saw a few marmots sunning themselves on the rocks.
X is for eXtreme eXertion 
Which is what hiking 14ers requires. For some more than others. When we finally made it back to the car, I looked and felt like this:

Travis, meanwhile, was still all smiles and high spirits. Which I found both admirable and irritating, to be honest.

Y is for "You’ve Got to Be Kidding Me"
Which is what I was thinking (above) when faced with the prospect of hiking another 14er just a few days later.

Z is for Zany 
Which is what you become towards the end of driving straight through from Denver to Chicago, which is what we did on the way home. Thankfully, the Hubs and I make good traveling buddies. Although anyone forced to listen in on one of our silly sing-a-longs probably wouldn't agree. But then that's the beauty of us: WE think we're hilarious. :)

And that's the end of my Vacation Alphabet! 

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A Vacation Alphabet - Part 7

S is for Street Food
A love a good open air market. The small town of Minturn, not too far from Vail, has a nice market every Saturday morning during the summer. We enjoyed wandering through the aisles of vendors, which offered wares ranging from jewelry, specialty pasta, clothes, accessories, kitchen goods, dog paraphernalia, and even "Dope on a Rope" (soap made from hemp). There were also a good number of food stalls, and picking just one was difficult. Travis and I settled on the crepe tent and shared a savory creation brimming with good things. I don't remember exactly what was in there, but I think turkey, tomatoes, spinach, and cheese were involved.

T is for Treacherous Trail
Descending the exposed ridge after reaching the summit of Mt. Sherman. Yikes.
U is for Unexpected Beauty
Scattered amidst the Rockies' harsh terrain are little patches of color and beauty for those who will notice.

A Vacation Alphabet - Part 6

P is for Pizza
If you ever find yourself near Leadville, Colorado, stop in for a pizza (and some crazy good garlic bread) at High Mountain Pies. Trust me (and Travis, and all the 5-star Yelp reviews) on this one. 
 Travis and I shared "El Hidalgo," which featured a garlic oil base topped with thinly sliced beef sirloin, dried cherries, caramelized onions, blue cheese, and arugula--a delicious combination.
 My parents chose their own toppings: a basil pesto base, topped with roasted chicken, roma tomatoes, and mozzarella--modeled loosely on my homemade version, of which my mom especially is a big fan.

Q is for Quandary 
 quandary (noun): a situation from which extrication is difficult, especially an unpleasant or trying one; a state of uncertainty or perplexity
Yes, Mt. Quandary is aptly named.

R is for Reflection

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A Vacation Alphabet - Part 5

M is for Maroon Bells
At Dave's suggestion, we took a day trip to the Maroon Bells, which are near Aspen. The Maroon Bells are touted to be the most photographed location in Colorado, and a visit there makes it easy to see why. It's absolutely gorgeous. Because we visited in the late afternoon, the sun position unfortunately wasn't the best for photos of the bells themselves. That didn't stop me from snapping away while we were there, and we thoroughly enjoyed exploring the area a bit before the encroaching nightfall compelled us to continue on our way.    
This water rushing down the mountain was so cold it looked icy blue.
The iconic Bells
N is for Nature 
  "I love to think of nature as an unlimited broadcasting station, through which God speaks to us every hour, if we will only tune in."
~George Washington Carver

O is for Organic
At the Boulder Farmers Market, people take their organic produce seriously. I just took pictures of it.

Friday, August 19, 2011

A Vacation Alphabet - Part 4

J is for Journey Companion
A long road trip can be a good test of just how well two people get along. Our drive to Colorado and back was the longest road trip Travis and I have taken together, and I just have to say, there's nothing quite as sweet as having the perfect companion for the journey. Not that either of us are perfect (far from it!), but our vacation this summer was just one more compelling illustration of how we are perfect for each other. Love you, hubs.

K is for Kaleidoscope
That's what this sculpture reminded me of as I gazed up at it, squinting against the strong Colorado sun.

L is for Landmark (and the obligatory photos we take with them)

The alphabet continues on the other side of the weekend!  

Thursday, August 18, 2011

A Vacation Alphabet - Part 3

G is for Grass
On our descent of Mt. Quandary, Travis celebrated when we reached tree line, because it signaled the end of the seemingly endless rocks. On the way down Mt. Sherman, my knees were protesting against the pressure of descending rock after rock after rock. (My feet weren't too happy about it, either.) Therefore, when we reached the grassy Iowa Gulch, I had to do a little celebrating of my own. That grass was beautiful, and it deserved a kiss.

H is for Hiking Gear 
When setting out on a substantial trek, it's important to have the right gear. When we hiked the 23 miles around Lake Geneva on Memorial Day, I learned the hard way that my boots were really too small, and it cost me a toenail. Travis learned that no matter how much cushion his socks might provide, his boots were always going to give him blisters. And so we decided that before our trip this summer we had to invest in some really good hiking boots. After trying on several styles at REI, we both decided on Keens. My new boots carried me up and down two fourteeners, and around the Maroon Bells, without a single blister. Those are some good boots.

When setting out on a day hike, it's also important to have a good pack. If I wasn't convinced before, these two mountains confirmed for me how much better it is for a woman to wear a pack designed and sized for a woman. I have the Sirrus 24 pack by Osprey; the hip belt sits at just the right place, the chest strap is appropriately positioned to not squish the girls, the size perfectly fits my torso, and all of the adjusting straps allow me to hold the load close to my body and get the weight distributed just right. I highly recommend this pack.

I is for Incredible Views
The Rocky Mountains are full of them, of course. Here are a couple of my favorites from this trip.
Mt. of the Holy Cross...can you find the cross of snow?

Amazingly turquoise blue lake down in the valley, as seen from the ridge on Mt. Sherman
The alphabet continues tomorrow!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A Vacation Alphabet - Part 2

D is for Dessert
I rarely need an excuse to order dessert, but "Hey, I'm on vacation!" is a great one if I find myself hesitating. Here's the Triple Berry Chocolate Mousse Torte that Travis and I shared at Dixie Quick's (see E below).  We were half-way through it before I thought to take a picture. Yeah, it was that good.

E is for Eat Like a Local
The hubs and I watch our fair share of Food Network. Inevitably, that affects the way we think about food-- how we prepare it, how we think and talk about it, and where we eat it. There are a number of shows on FN that feature and promote local establishments, especially Guy Fieri's Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, and The Best Thing I Ever Ate. Seeing how many great restaurants and delectable dishes are out there, Travis and I have developed the practice of seeking out local, independent joints when we travel, rather than routinely settling for the safe and familiar chain restaurants by the highway exit. With FN's recommendations as our guide (and also a few shout-outs from friends), on this trip we set out to eat where the locals eat, and were not disappointed.

A few highlights: In Omaha, NE on the way out we stopped for dinner at Dixie Quicks. This is the kind of place an out of towner would probably never drive by in the first place (since it's on an out of the way street in a not-so-pretty part of town), and even if they did, probably wouldn't notice. If not for the GPS announcing our arrival, we might have missed it the first time too, even though we were looking for it. The restaurant has an unassuming facade on a rather industrial street. Inside, however, the decor is surprisingly colorful, elegant, and eclectic. The menu changes daily, and is printed in chalk on a board at one end of the dining room. The chef's creations are influenced by time spent in various regions of the country, especially the south. I ordered the blackened salmon, which came with mashed potatoes and this delicious tomato butter sauce, and Travis ordered the pan-fried catfish with collard greens. (Please note: In case you're thinking about checking this place out, I noticed on Dixie Quicks' website that they'll be moving to Council Bluffs, IA on the other side of the river Fall 2011.) 
In Denver we had lunch with friends (see F below) at The Cherry Cricket, which we'd seen featured on The Best Thing I Ever Ate for having the best burger in Denver (in the opinion of Aaron Sanchez, at least). We weren't terribly impressed with the service here, but the burgers were superb, and the fries as well. 
On our return trip across the Midwest we stopped for dinner at WheatFields in Omaha, which came highly recommended by Chris & Janelle (again, see F below). This is one of those places where you walk in and find yourself mesmerized by the bounty and variety of baked goods on display, and the once seated, completely overwhelmed (in a good way) by the sheer abundance of menu items. The highlight of our meal here: the cinnamon roll that came with Travis's quiche trio as a sort of "first course," the same way a salad might come before lasagna. Giant frosting-covered cinnamon roll as first course? Indulgent. Delicious. Genius.
F is for Friends
The lure of Colorado has called several of my friends out west. While I miss having them nearby, the upside is that trips to Colorado are usually peppered with reconnecting with people I love dearly. This trip was no exception. We got to have lunch with my college roommate Cheryl and her husband Joe, stay with Rachel & Eric (who played an integral role in bringing the hubs and I together), and spend a delightful afternoon dining and visiting with TU friends Chris & Janelle and their daughter, Sophie. Here we are with them at the mall:

Stay tuned for Part 3 tomorrow!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A Vacation Alphabet - Part 1

A couple posts back, I wrote about how preparing for a vacation gets me all stressed out, and how even once I'm actually ON vacation, I have a hard time relaxing. And so because I felt myself an abecedarian when it comes to knowing how to kick back and get away from it all, I charged myself with the task of creating a Vacation Alphabet. The intent was simply to challenge myself to take notice, to reflect along the way. Which is good, because if the intent had really been to learn how to relax (and then practice so doing) I would have failed miserably. A relaxing vacation does not involve getting up at 3:00 on multiple days (or ever). A relaxing vacation does not require a person to be on their feet for 7-12 hours at a time, besieged by sun, wind, rain, and hail. A relaxing vacation generally does not involve riding in a car until stir crazy. And so, I can't exactly say that I had a relaxing vacation. I did, however, have a WONDERFUL time. Made some INCREDIBLE memories with my family. Spent precious face time with friends I love DEARLY. And drank in the tremendous BEAUTY of God's creation. Here are a few of the highlights, ABC-style.

A is for Accomplishment 
EARLY Sunday morning, Travis, my dad, and I abandoned the comfort of our beds and stumbled bleary-eyed out to the car. (As if waking in order to leave the timeshare by 4:00 wasn't bad enough, the fire alarm had gone off in our building at 2:30am, mandating our pajama-clad evacuation, after which we huddled together in the cool of the night for about half an hour before allowed to return to our unit.) We arrived at the trail head for Mt. Quandary as the sun was coming up, and began the 5.9 mile round trip hike to the summit and back. This was my second 14er, Travis' 21st, and my dad's first. As we began hiking through the trees, we had no idea of the EPIC JOURNEY the day would hold for us. It was a LONG day. It was an arduous hike that took its toll on all of us, especially my 69 year-old dad. We encountered sun, wind, hail, and rain during the 11 hours we spent on the mountain that day. We felt our hearts pounding in our chests, our lungs gasping the thin air, our knees protesting the pounding of coming down all those rocks. But WE MADE IT to the summit and back down to the car. And we did it TOGETHER. And that is an ACCOMPLISHMENT, achieved with the two men I love most, that I will remember always.   
at the summit of Mt. Quandary

B is for Baby & Boulder & Bus
After we parted ways with my parents in Vail, we got to spend a few days of quality time near Denver with friends Rachel & Eric and their baby, Ty. On the day Travis & Eric climbed Mt. Princeton, Rachel and I took a trip to Boulder to visit the their farmer's market. Ty gets fussy during long car rides, but singing calms him down. Enter: a long, strange rendition of "The Wheels on the Bus." Rachel and I sang a reprise on the way home from church the next day, causing Eric to exclaim, "What kind of bus is this?!" The kind that provides an outlet for my litany of animal noises. Among other things, the bus had doggies, kitties, cows, chickens, and monkeys. Lots of monkeys. :)
cuteness himself
C is for Cairn
In July 2009 I hiked my first fourteener, Mt. Evans, with Travis by my side. I added a word to my vocabulary that day: cairn. Do you know what a cairn is? A cairn is "a mound of stones piled up as a memorial or to mark a boundary or path." I learned that cairns are essential to finding your way on the mountain, to following the trail you are meant to take. Because the Rocky Mountains are indeed very rocky, a pile of stones off in the distance doesn't necessarily stand out when you scan the horizon. Sometimes you have to really look for them. Likewise, the trail ahead isn't always clear. Hiking Evans, I turned finding cairns into a bit of a game. It was a simple game that consisted of: hike along, and when you find the next cairn, yell "CAIRN!" Really. That's it. But there's something about it that I find amusing and engaging; I become like a kid, excited at finding each successive item in one of those "hidden picture" activities in magazines for kids. (Anybody else out there grow up with Highlights?) So when we hiked Quandary & Sherman on this trip, I played my game. I searched for the cairns, and loudly announced my discoveries. When you've left the trail head behind, but you're still a long way from the summit, focusing on the peak is discouraging (at least to me); focusing instead on reaching the next cairn, and then the next, and then the next, is much less daunting. Each cairn is an indication of where to go, and as you look back, proof that you've made progress, even if it doesn't seem like it. There are a lot of parallels between hiking a trail to the summit, and life. Cairns are important to the journey.
Travis and I with a cairn and the view--OH, the VIEW!--at the summit of Mt. Sherman
Stay tuned for Part 2, coming soon!

Monday, August 01, 2011

If you can't stand the heat...

...bake in your crock pot. Really! Whether you are skeptical or intrigued, read on...

Here's the scenario that confronted me today: Two brown speckled bananas hanging on the banana tree. Ninety-one degrees outside. Eighty-four degrees inside, even after running the (ancient) living room AC unit and 3 fans all morning.

Those bananas were just asking to be mashed and folded into some banana bread (and my stomach thought that sounded like a great idea), but there was no way I was going to turn on the oven today. To the rescue: CrockPot Lady Stephanie O'Dea and my own trusty crock pot. It's so crazy simple you'll be amazed:

1. Follow your favorite banana bread recipe (see link to mine below) and pour the batter into a greased loaf pan. (I used an 8"x4" metal nonstick loaf pan, which fits perfectly into my 6 qt oval crock pot. Stephanie advises that if all you have is a round crock pot, you can use a round baking dish that fits snugly into the stoneware. Be sure to test out the fit before you fill a pan or dish with batter. Learned that one the hard way.)

2. Prop the lid open just a tad to let out some of the steam. (I used a clean ballpoint pen. You could also use a chopstick or anything with similar circumference.)

3. "Bake" on high for 4 hours or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Carefully remove the hot pan from the stoneware. Let cool 5 minutes in pan, and then remove loaf to wire rack and let cool completely.

Full Disclosure: Your bread may not get that nice peaked crown it would get in the oven. But come on, you just baked bread in your crock pot! Cut it some slack. And then cut yourself a slice, 'cause it's gonna be tasty.

That's all there is to it! No sweat. (Yep, pun intended). And as an added bonus, you get to enjoy the scrumptious smell of bread baking for 4 hours instead of just one!

This Mix & Match Quick Bread guide from Food Network Magazine has become my go-to recipe for banana bread (and many other quick bread varieties). Today's loaf was banana chocolate chip.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

The Storm Before the Calm

Tomorrow morning at 8:00 the hubby and I intend to hit the open road in our sporty little black wagon, bound for adventure, grand vistas, and vacation with my parents in Vail. In between hiking to the tops of 14ers and visiting with friends flung across the front range, some relaxation is on the agenda. Yes, I said that relaxing is on the agenda, because that's how I roll. I am an J (for all you Myers-Briggs-ers out there) and I have to plan in order to relax.

I love going on vacation, but the truth is, I often stress myself out in the process of getting there. When packing, I want to think of everything I might possibly need. I have this fear of forgetting something important, and because I'm cheap I'll kick myself for having to purchase something once there that I already had at home. For the past several weeks I've had "things to pack" pop into my head at random times and the shower, at the grocery store, in the middle of dinner, lying in bed at night trying to shut off my list-making brain. I had to start a real list (broken down into major and minor categories, of course) and every time I thought of something else I'd run and add it to the list. I factor in contingency plans. I check weather reports. I MapQuest. I invariably pack more books, music, games, and other forms of entertainment than I will ever get to while away from home (case in point: I just checked out 5 audiobooks from the library). Something about "vacation" triggers this irrationality that being away from home and relieved of the responsibilities of work for a time will somehow multiply my ability (and desire) to do and consume. When really, isn't the purpose of a vacation to slow down and not do, and to sit back and not consume so much?

Yes, when it comes to vacation and relaxing, I am definitely still an abecedarian (as in, a novice still learning the rudiments of a subject). Given this admission, I am charging myself with this assignment: to discover the ABCs of vacation, and to blog about it when I get home. (I'm such a nerd I just gave myself homework for vacation! I'm hopeless!) I'll be taking my trusty Canon along with me, and hope to capture some of the entries to present in photo form.

What about you? Are you an old pro when it comes to getting away and kicking back? Or do you get all worked up about the prospect of not working?

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Good Times in Small Town USA

Did you enjoy the holiday weekend? Hubby and I packed in some great times and made fun memories together and with friends. Saturday morning we headed out to Glen Ellyn, a suburb of Chicago, to play the role of enthralled spectator at the town's annual Cardboard Boat Regatta.

If you're not familiar with the concept of a cardboard boat regatta, here it is in a nutshell: teams of 2-8 people build boats made entirely of cardboard (along with a few other allowed materials, such as glue, tape, and paint) in which they race around a course on a lake competing for the fastest finish. Best things about watching a cardboard boat regatta: Admiring the creativity in the various boats' design. Appreciating the contestants' enthusiasm and spirit (and in some cases, costumes). Cheering with abandon for the winners, for those who fight gallantly just to finish the course, and for those whose boats sink spectacularly somewhere along the way. Here are a few pics I took as we perused the boats before the races began.
Star Wars boat, complete with crew in costume
Mario Karts. On display, the three boats were separate. For competition, they had to be connected. Unfortunately, that didn't last long, and Luigi never did make it to the finish line.
Travis posing with "Made in the USA"
My friend Jim and his buddies have been building boats and competing in this event for over a decade. Each year they pick a theme and go all out. This year their boat was a Harley. Here they are after rounding the second buoy and racing for the finish line. Eight grown men in a cardboard boat -- who would've thought that could work? 

Made in the USA took 1st place in the "Legends" division and also won the judge's award for Best Looking Boat. Congrats to Jim & the Harley crew!

For photos from professional photojournalists with zoom lenses, check this out.