Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A Happy Birthday and Meal Planning

Tonight we celebrated the 8th birthday of my niece, Avery.  Avery turned 8 today, and my sister invited us over for dinner to celebrate.  We had a great time, and looking back through these pictures, I'm still having a hard time believing she's actually 8.








Happiest of birthdays to you, dear Avery.  You are an energetic, thoughtful, and funny little girl!  I'm so proud to be your aunt.  (I'm also so happy you finally got a pair of "high heels" that you've been begging for.....sorry we couldn't get you a bunny, but your mom said no ;))

I blogged a few weeks ago about my work towards eating healthy, and just like the title of the blog then "The Constant Battle of Eating Well," this week has proven to be difficult.  When I got home from the party, I unfortunately had no choice but to get to work on finishing up my meals for the week.  I got home from vacation over a week ago and getting back into the swing of things hasn't been easy.  I've been letting my weekends slip away without getting all my cooking in for the week, which usually proves to equal a bad eating week for me.  I had already done the grocery shopping so I made myself get to work in the kitchen!  I wanted to share the recipes I made:

Asian Chicken

I marinated several chicken breasts in one of my favorite asian sauces (I've found this sauce at Meijer and Walmart) and cooked them on the stove top for a few minutes on each side.  I usually slice my chicken breasts in half horizontally to allow them to cook more quickly without burning.  I also like using this marinade on the chicken breasts because it caramelizes and allows the chicken to sear well.


I combine the chicken with a side of green beans and place in tupperware dishes, so that I can grab them easily for lunches throughout the week.  I also prepared a large salad with romaine lettuce, carrots, diced radishes, shredded red cabbage, and onion.  I eat this salad with a store bought ginger dressing with no preservatives (I find mine in the deli/veggie section of the grocery store).



I like this recipe because it makes a lot of meals and takes very little time.  Feels good to spend 35 minutes in the kitchen and know that I have several lunches and dinners ahead of me for the week.

I also made some summer Gazpacho, which I've always loved ordering in restaurants, but never made before.  I found this recipe from the blog Eat, Live, Run, which added shrimp! I followed the recipe exactly since I've never made it before, and was happy with the results (with the exception of the shrimp....after returning from a week at the beach, frozen shrimp just wasn't cutting it. The shrimp tasted ok, but I missed fresh shrimp for sure).

I chopped all the veggies roughly and then placed them in my food processor.  My food processor is medium sized and all the ingredients except the tomato juice fit.  I just added the tomato juice at the end and stirred really well.







Boo, frozen shrimp.....

One of my favorite parts of cooking recipes like these in bulk is watching my refrigerator's veggie drawer go from bursting to emptied out in just a couple of short hours and used in recipes that I'll eat throughout the week.  It feels good to incorporate so many veggies, but it feels even better to be done cooking, especially late on a Tuesday night.  

Monday, June 16, 2014

The Constant Battle of Eating Well

Over the last few months I've been trying really hard to start eating better.  I'm a girl who loves pasta, red wine, and cheese (you know things that are wonderful for my waistline), but I was tired of having clothes in my closet that no longer fit and I realized that at age 28, it's now or never with regards to feeling good in my own skin.   It seemed like I was always trying some type of different diet (Advocare, vegan, low carb, clean eating, etc.).  I'd stick with something for several weeks and see some results, but eventually I'd just fall off the wagon.
About 6 months ago I read Kris Carr's Crazy Sexy Diet, and my views on food and diets were completely changed.  Something finally clicked in me that eating well wasn't just to lose weight---imagine that!  Instead, I finally learned that I should eat well to feel better, feel stronger, and have more energy.  While I don't follow Kris Carr's plans perfectly (i.e. I'm not vegan and I'll never give up red wine), her book taught me so much, and I incorporate a lot of those lessons into what I eat throughout the week.

In addition to lessons learned from books and food blogs, I've also discovered the following on my own:
- It's Not the Cooking Olympics.   This one probably needs a little explaining.  I used to think that if I was cooking and spending the time to find recipes and go grocery shopping, it needed to be epic.  If not, then what was the point?  Might as well buy a freezer meal.  I also thought that if I was cooking a meal it needed to have a meat, a carb, a veggie, and salad.  My meals ended up taking a lot of time and contained a lot of calories.  I've realized that eating well throughout the week will likely mean a lot of repeats.  I now cook 3 or 4 things per week and eat those for every meal.  Yes, it's semi boring, but when I get to the weekend and want a couple cheat meals, I don't feel so guilty because I've made good choices all week.
-  Plan Ahead.  After realizing that not every meal needed to be Top Chef-worthy, it relieved a lot of pressure and allowed me to work towards planning meals ahead. This was the most important step for me.  If I haven't planned ahead, I'm not eating healthy, that's all there is to it.  If all that's in my pantry is pasta and spaghetti sauce, that's what's for dinner.  It took me a long time, but I'm realizing that a few hours spent on a Sunday afternoon for a week's worth of meals is well worth the effort.  I'm no longer spending 45 minutes after work making dinner, and I'm making better choices throughout the week.  If the meal is in the fridge and already made, that's what's for dinner.  Rocket science, I tell you.
- Gotta Limit the Carbs.   I'm petite, 5'2" on a good day, and I've learned that my small frame and carbs don't mix.  This realization obviously throws me into a deep depression pretty regularly, but I'm learning to do without on most days or limit carbs to one meal per day.  I also only eat whole grains (during the week mind you!!), so if I do eat a carb, it's at least nutritional.
- Eat Breakfast.  I know. I know. Everyone says that.  But it's so true.  It's impossible to make smart choices at lunch if you are starving.  Up until probably only 5-6 months ago, I was a coffee only breakfast girl.  The thought of eating solid food in the morning made me gag, but I've learned that I've got to have something.  I usually do oatmeal (natural, added flaxseed or something) or some type of quiche.

With those lessons in mind I've come up with quite a meal rotation.  Lots of planning and learning, but it feels good to have several go-to recipes to rotate throughout the month. My goals for meal-planning are the following: lots of veggies; add in animal products but not to every dish; low-carb; and minimal dairy, if any.
I hope to put together some posts with a few of my favorites, but I'll start with a tried and true recipe, Bean and Swiss Chard Soup (Adapted from this Annie Eats recipe).



Ingredients:


2  Qts. Unsalted Chicken Stock
2  15 oz. Cannellini Beans
1  Bag Shredded Carrots
28 oz. Petite Diced Tomatoes
1  Large Onion
1  Bunch Swiss Chard
2  Tbsp. Tomato Paste
3  Garlic Cloves, minced
2  Tsp. Herbes de Provence (heaping teaspoons)
Red Pepper Flakes to taste
2  Bay Leaves
1  Tbsp. Salt
Pepper to taste
Parmesan Rind

Here's what you do:


Prep your Swiss Chard.  Separate the stalks from the leafy green parts, the stalks are pretty fibrous and tough, even after sautéing, so I toss them aside.  Stack your chard leaves, roll them like a burrito, chop length wise piece, then chop.


I sauté my the swiss chard for a few minutes in the same pan I'll use for the soup, no need to dirty multiple dishes.  After the chard has softened, I remove from the pan and set aside.  

Next up come the other veggies-- diced onion and shredded carrots.  


I love carrots in soup, but I know they aren't everyone's cup of tea, so you can leave out entirely or only add half the bag depending on your tastes.  Also, the original recipe calls for tortellini (which, hello, yum!), but when I make this during the week I omit that, so I need to bulk up the veggies in order to thicken up the soup.  See? Carrots in lieu of tortellini, this healthy eating is so much fun!  After your carrots and onions soften up (about 10 minutes or so), add your garlic, red pepper flakes to taste, and tomato paste.  

Sauté that mix for 3 minutes or so.  Then pour in your diced tomatoes and cannellini beans (rinsed and drained).  Add in the chicken stock, herbs de provence, bay leaves, salt, pepper, and parmesan rind.  Bring soup to a boil and then reduce heat and allow to cook on medium-low for 30 minutes.  After 30 minutes, add back in the swiss chard, heat for another 10 minutes or so, remove bay leaves and parmesan rind and then enjoy!


While I love a good soup recipe, I have to laugh because I realize that to a lot of people, soup is no meal.  But hey..... if you're eating well, you better start eating soup!    Reminds me of this video-- a man complaining about his wife making soup for dinner  :)


Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Chicago Trip

This past weekend, my friend and I ventured up to Chicago to visit our dear friend who moved there a few months ago.  It was a quick weekend trip, but we had a blast.  (Minus being stuck in traffic forever because of an awful semi fire....luckily I read afterwards that the driver wasn't injured).


On Saturday, we drove up just north of the city to the Chicago Botanic Garden.  All I can say is, wow!  The entire grounds were unreal.  I honestly wish I could go back every other week since there were so many things not yet blooming and we also just missed the tail end of the spring blooms.  If you are near the Chicago area, it is well worth the trip.  


One of my favorite parts of the gardens were the handwritten signs by the staff that contained little "factoids" regarding the layouts and actual plants.  In fact, a lot of areas had signs discussing the damage the gardens suffered because of the horrible winter.  Most of their knockout rose bushes were significantly knocked-out (pun definitely intended).  You could tell the rose bushes were at least a quarter the size as the year before.  It made me feel a lot better about my own knock-outs that are barely little shrubs this year.  





It may be hard to tell from this pic because of the sunlight, but this 
was an adorable water feature.  The water came from the turtle's mouth
and trickled down the stone into the small basin below.  It was just enough
sound to be very tranquil.  I'd love to try to mimic this in my own yard this summer!

The Botanic Garden was divided into different sections based on style of garden.  The English section was my absolute favorite.  The brick walls, trellises, ponds, and punches of royal blue made the entire section feel so cozy.  I got several ideas, including the wooden framed trellises up against the brick.  Our entire house is brick, so I think I can mimic this pretty easily.  I also love the placement of pots and benches throughout the flower beds.  







After the Botanic Garden, we enjoyed a wonderful dinner near Navy Pier and also some famous Garret popcorn while taking in some fireworks.  


Probably a "ya had to be there story," but I'll tell it anyway. While I was 
waiting on the small popcorn I ordered, the cashier called my name and handed
me this baby bag.  I looked at her and proclaimed, "This is the small?!?"  She 
bust up laughing and said, "Ma'am, that's your salt."  My friends then proceeded 
to inform the cashier that I am an attorney.  How embarrassing.  

In addition to taking in the sights, we also met our friend's adorable chocolate Shih Tzu, named Reggie.  He was of course adorable, and it was rather funny to see our friend become a "daddy."  

I'm thankful for a great weekend with wonderful friends!  Don't worry, Chicago, I'll be back.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Seeds:101

As promised, I'm back with some tips and tricks about using seeds not only to enhance the looks of your containers but also your flowerbeds.  A few years ago I was desperate to add some height to some of my flower beds.  The only climbing perennial I was familiar with at the time was the clematis, so I sped off to the local nursery and bought a couple.  After I planted them, I stood by and watched as they thrived barely grew at all.  After one whole summer, they were still so tiny.  The next summer, I anxiously awaited to see how large they would come back.  To my dismay, they were still so piddly!  That's when I started researching and discovered that many perennial vines can take years to establish and grow.
During that research I stumbled across an article about annual vines that can be grown easily from seed and offer fast growth for the season. Since that time, I've used a mix of these seeds on trellises, in flowerbeds for added height, and in my containers.  I've had great luck with several, so I thought I'd share here.
One of my favorite annual vines, the Ruby Hyacinth Vine

One of the easiest annual vines to grow from seed is the Morning Glory.  This plant grows incredibly fast and also comes in a variety of colors.  This seed also does really well using the direct sow method (i.e. placing right into the soil as opposed to starting early indoors).  Be sure to soak the seeds overnight before planting as it aids in germination.  Also, I've found that Morning Glory does best in part sun.  It thrives in the morning/early afternoon sun and enjoys a break from the hot afternoon sun, at least for me.  

This picture is from 2011, and I was trying to cover up an ugly corner 
of our yard so I let the Morning Glory go pretty crazy.  Unfortunately, I think
this pic was taken at the end of the season, so most of the
flowers were gone...boo!  Just imagine this vine covered
in deep purple flowers.

Here's a Morning Glory from the same season as above
but I want to note that I never fertilized this one (see how little it is??).  
I blame the Bar Exam for failing to tend to this flowerbed with 
fertilizer that summer.  This Morning Glory also sat in 
hot afternoon sun, so I don't think he was very happy.  But it still
adds some interest and height against an otherwise drab background.

Another one of my favorite annual vines is the Black Eyed Susan Vine.  This little guy grows incredibly quickly and is literally the cutest.  Literally.  This guy also thrives in hot sun, so it's a nice change from the Morning Glory.  The foliage is also smaller than the Morning Glory, which is nice if you are using the plant on a trellis with some character that you want to show through the leaves.


Here's how I'm using Black Eyed Susan Vine this year:


The negative part about blogging about annual seeds is that the before
pictures leave quite a bit to be desired.

In addition to using annual vines in and around my yard, I also love using zinnia seeds and alyssum.  Both grow incredibly well from seed.  They also provide a nice option to fill in remaining empty areas of your flowerbeds after you've maxed out your flower budget (not that that's ever happened to me....).   Zinnias come in a lot of varieties.  My favorite to use in my flowerbeds is the dwarf variety that grows between 15 and 18 inches.  Other Zinnia varieties can grow upwards of 3 to 4 feet, so you have to be careful with placement.  





I will reiterate that the before pictures here are not the best.  I'll
be sure to update the 'ol blog with some afters--haha.  You know
afters that show the actual flowers.  Novel concept for a gardening post.

I hope this quick blog post gives you some ideas on how seeds can add some cheap flowers to your yard and planters.  I will warn, however, that if you stray from anything on this "expert" list (ha!) be sure to do a little research first.   You know that nice seed display at Lowe's?  Yea, more than half of those are extremely difficult to grow from seed....i.e. require early starting indoors with plant lamps, constant care, etc.  Pretty frustrating, which is why I stick to varieties known to be fool-proof.  Maybe one of these days I'll get brave.  

Best of luck, and happy planting.  

Monday, May 26, 2014

Container Gardening: 101

Happy Summer to all!  (Let's just pretend that the last time I blogged wasn't nearly 1 year ago, shall we?)
Summer time to me always means gardening and landscaping time.  It's the time of year I gladly open my wallet and literally throw dolla billz at the checkout clerks at Lowe's and Home Depot.  Actually, if we're being literal, it's the time of year I look at my bank statement and think, "I spent what?!?!"  (Dear Husband, please don't kill me).
I've always loved using containers in and around my yard for punches of color and interest.  And while I do love a good perennial (AKA, a plant that comes back year after year), they do leave much to be desired when it comes to colors and length of flowering period.  It's for this reason I gladly justify spending money on annuals.  They pack a punch!
Ladies and Gentlemen (man??), I present, Container Gardening: 101.


Let's do this in a 3 step process, shall we:





I've made a lot of rookie mistakes in my life, but probably the most serious has to be not choosing the right containers for my gardening containers.  Life or death, I tell ya.  When I was a gardening noob (newbie), I perused the aisles of Homegoods and Lowe's and happily chose the itt-iest, bitt-iest containers there were.  Seriously, I wish I had photos of some of my first few years.  I'd have probably 10 or 12 small containers filled to their brims with lantana, coleus, impatiens, etc.  The problems with this approach are many.  First, flowers need room to grow and expand.   Second, the overall visual looked pretty messy.  I realized as I walked through nurseries and gardens, that I was drawn to containers with weight (i.e. enormous!).  So with that realization in mind, that last couple years I refuse to buy a container that fits easily into a shopping cart.  If I don't look like an absolute fool getting that thing off the shelf, then it's clearly too small.   I also realized that I didn't need to be so literal with the container itself.  If I came across an interesting shape or form, hey, it has potential to become a flower pot.  All that's usually required is some minor drilling on the bottom for drainage, and possibly lining for leakage purposes.  
Case in point:



I present to you the newest addition to my back porch.... a trash can.  I loved the coloring and knew I could make it work.  I lined it with coco-liner, drilled some holes in the bottom for drainage (apparently, trashcans don't come made that way....haha...), and voila, flower pot!

After you've found your containers, turn your attention to adding some interest to your containers:


Another mistake I made in my former noob-gardening life, was failing to add a little extra visual interest to my planters.  The reason this is step 2 and not 3, is that sometimes adding the interest will actually determine what types of plants you choose.  Don't be afraid to add interesting trellises, stakes, or even name-plates.  You can use annual seeds (blog-post coming soon, I promise), to help add height to your planters and even to add in some cheap filler plants.

Yes, I'm a rusted owl, but see how much interest I'm adding to this planter?


Hello, my name is Basil, please pick me and use me in a yummy 
recipe, I'd be most grateful.

Lastly, and probably most importantly, time to choose your plants.


There is nothing worse than working hard (and spending money!) to fill up a planter, only to realize you've chosen the wrong plants.  Pay attention to the plant labels and the full sun/part shade/part sun notation.  Also, pay attention to where the plant is physically located in the nursery.  If you  pluck the plant from the side of the Lowe's display near the hot pavement, chances are pretty good you'll have success with full sun. And if you find the plant underneath the protective covering, semi-indoors, at the nursery, chances are you are dealing with a shade-lover.  
Also it goes without saying, but all your plants in your planter need to love the same amout of sunlight.  I clearly didn't get this memo last year when I paired a shade/part-sun loving coleus with sweet potato vine.
This is the before.....I will not show you the aftermath.  Poor coleus was fried.  But please do note 
the big a$$ planter.  I was half-way there, people.....so close.....

And as long as we're talking about failures, lots of times, trial and error is all you need.  Last year I tried this combo in my front yard, which is located in full sun (literally, all day, no shade till sun down).

Angelonia and Creeping Jenny, with a Morning Glory Vine planted in the back to grow up the trellis. 
All were advertised as full sun, but half-way through the summer, I realized
there may be a difference between full sun, and full sun containers located against hot 
concrete with literally no break in sun all day.  This container was soon toast.

But no worries, I learned from my mistake and I kept my eye out for annuals that did especially well in full on sun.  I found a couple varieties at friends' houses as well as a gardening expo that seemed to thrive--hotter the better, and this year I'm trying this in the same container:  (Back up to step 1: choosing a container.....a friend of mine was getting rid of this antique copper tub during a move.  I immediately volunteered to take it off her hands with the immediate idea of putting plants in it....what else?)

Mexican Heather in the middle, white Vinca on the outskirts of the planter, and 
Cardinal Climber Vine grown from seed to grow up the back trellis.

Here are some other combos I'm trying out this year:

Annual Salvia and Creeping Jenny.  This planter is located on a part of my 
deck that gets morning sun and afternoon sun until about 1 pm.  
In my experience, Creeping Jenny thrives with this type of light.  Even though it's 
advertised as full-sun (liars!)


Sweet Potato Vine, Lavender Vinca, and Purple Coleus.  In my experience,
most coleus like some type of break from the hot sun during the day, but this type was advertised as 
sun-loving....so we'll see.  This planter is located in a place in my yard that gets
hot sun all day, so here goes nothing.  I know the Vinca can handle it, we'll see about the rest.

Lantana, Coleus, annual Salvia/Lavender

New Guinea Impatiens, Pentas, and Variegated Sweet
Potato Vine, with the purple and chartreuse coloring....I've never seen this 
before, so I'm looking forward to seeing this one grow.

I'll post some progress photos later to show how these fill out.  I'm also excited about some other containers where I'm using some annual climbing vines, which I'll blog about soon.  I never realized how much bang for your buck you get with seeds!