Friday, October 30, 2009

FOODIE: 1st Annual Food Network Cookoff

I was not born a cook. I didn't have a lot of training and was as scared of the kitchen as I was of learning to sew on my stepmom's vintage Singer sewing machine. My husband, Eric, has pretty much taught me the basics over the past ten years, and he is the best chef I know. He has given me the tools to make me brave enough to attempt recipes and the help when I need it. We've been fans of the Food Network for years now, but really got addicted about a year and a half ago. I think I spent my entire five-month maternity leave nursing baby Alice on the couch while watching Sandra Lee creating Tablescapes and Ina Garten throw fabulous little lunch parties. (I also watched WAY too many E! True Hollywood Stories, but I'll save that for another post.) Not only did I sit and watch, however, I learned. And I cooked. And baked. And probably can blame that summer for the 15 (or so) pounds of baby weight I've still to lose. But my husband, Eric, loved having a wife who had yummy new dinners and desserts waiting each night. And I loved doing it. After my maternity leave was over I had to go back to work full-time, which didn't allow me much time for cooking. Although we still watched the Food Network religiously, and drooled. But I soon got laid off and picked up where my cooking frenzy left off. I got so excited, in fact, that this summer I decided to host my first ever Food Network Cookoff. I stole the idea from my sister-in-law and her friends, who have been hosting Food Network Cookoffs for several years now. First, I put out a call to my friends who love to cook and immediately got enthusiastic responses. Each of the four participating ladies picked their favorite Food Network chef to represent. I'm always up for a challenge, and love her idea of semi-homemade cooking, so I chose Sandra Lee.

I immediately hit the Boise Public Library and checked out every Sandra Lee cookbook they had on the shelves. Three of my brave friends chose Alton Brown, Paula Deen, and Guy Fieri. We all met early in August to go over the rules, which are simple. Each chef has to cook an appetizer, entree, and dessert using a recipe by their FN chef, with no substitutions, eliminations or creative changes allowed. Everything is to remain anonymous and top secret; you cannot tell anyone what your recipes are or have any help in making them. Each chef gets to invite five "judges" to dinner at my place to sample and vote on their favorite dishes. That means, enough food to feed 24 people needs to be hot and ready at my place by 6pm on the date we selected in October. Why plan this two months out, you ask? Well, friends, it turns out there was a lot of sampling to be done. I mean, I made so many recipes that just weren't "winners," if you know what I mean. And I was out to win. And so were my three competitors, mind you. We cooked our asses off for two months and when the night in October arrived, we truly brought our game.

These ladies rocked it. Here they are in my kitchen, finally relaxing and having a glass of wine after a long day slaving over the stove. I bought all the chefs vintage aprons to wear along with nametags. The guest judges supplied the beer and wine for the event.

And we all ate our hearts out. Seriously, by 9pm everyone was in a food coma. This is a shot of the entree table before we dug in. As you can see, all the dishes were labeled with letters for voting purposes and during the awards ceremony, we all stated the title of our dishes and handed out copies of the recipes to the guests. Here you also see two of the five Crockpots that took up residence in my kitchen that night. I'm surprised we didn't blow a breaker. The silver Crockpot holds the Entree Grand Prize winner, this lovely pork chop recipe by Alton Brown. At the far end of the table you can see my entrant, these spicy baby back ribs by Sandra Lee. And I seriously recommend both, and not only because they are so easy and made in my beloved Crockpot, but because they are delicious.

After many drinks in the garage-turned-bar, the guests were greeted by the chefs and given the rules. Soon after the eating commenced. And commenced. And commenced again. And by all accounts, everything was wonderful.

After taking our time savoring each bite, and going back for seconds and thirds, we all had to fill out this ballot, voting for our favorite dish in each category. Eric got the privilege of tallying them up and handing out gift baskets I made for the winners of each category. I filled the baskets with cookbooks and kitchen gadgets. So who won, you want to know? I already gave away the Best Entree winner and I'll tell you I (Sandra Lee) tied with my friend Kristyn (Paula Deen) for Best Appetizer, with a crab bisque and a shrimp dip too die for. Paula Deen took the cake (a turtle cheesecake, to be exact) for Best Dessert. Damn her and her buttery buttered butter.

At the end of the night, not much was left but empty reminders of a 5-star meal lovingly slaved over by four women who love food. And I'm not being pretentious by claiming it was a 5-star meal. Seriously, we were all out to impress and that we did. I haven't had a more eclectic, amazing meal in a long time. It was a fun way to try out new recipes I might not have had the time, nor the balls, to try before. I'm pretty proud of how far I've come in the kitchen and am excited by how much further I can go. And let me tell you, I just saw Julie & Julia and Julie Powell's amazing cooking project inspired me. I'm already prone to take on insane, year-long projects, so you never know. I hope this inspires you, too. If anything, I hope it helps you realize that food is fun and with a good recipe and a little practice, anyone can cook.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

CRAFTY: Spooky Squash Ghosts

I've made these cute little ghosts for the past couple of years for our Halloween party and they are cute, easy, and cheap quick decorations. We picked up a couple of butternut squash from the pumpkin patch for 45cents each, and a few came from grandma's garden. First, you thoroughly spray paint them white in the backyard or other well ventilated area:

After they've dried, use a black Sharpie marker to draw or cut black felt to glue the eyes and mouths onto the squash to make ghosts:

The one on the far left is Alice's, so it's a bit more abstract. I think they are darling and they last longer than a carved pumpkin. Lucy and her little friend loved drawing scary faces and they make great party favors for guests to take home rather than a bag of cheap plastic and candy goodies. We love decorating for Halloween and the amount of stuff we have for this holiday rivals the amount we have for Christmas. We also made this little recycled craft my friend Shannon over at came up with and they are so simple and fun for kids, too. Both of these crafts, the squash ghosts and the jar jack-o-lanterns, would be nifty activities to do AT your kids' Halloween party. And, as always, the best thing is that they are very inexpensive, easy, and eco-friendly!

Monday, October 19, 2009

ARTSY: Recycled Girly Skirts

Last fall I took a Sewing for Beginners course through the Boise Schools Community Education program with my sister in law. We loved it, and learned to make great things, like pillows and purses. Most importantly, however, we learned how to use, and feel comfortable with, our machines. This was especially important to me, as I own a 1932 Singer which has simple mechanisms, but initially scared the shit out of me. I mean, this is an ANTIQUE and it was my stepmom's, so I really didn't want to bust it. The class helped alleviate my fears and, in fact, I learned to use it and now feel like a somewhat more advanced amateur seamstress. I've made all sorts of items and gifts and plan on making plenty more for holiday gifts. I have a huge assortment of vintage fabric and rick rack but have been really keen on recycling old clothing into new, funky items.

So I whipped up these cuties as back to school skirts for my girls and two of their friends. I got the idea when I found two pairs of women's pajamas pants made from jersey cotton leftover from my clothing swap last spring. To make Alice's skirt, pictured above, I cut off the bottom portion of one pant leg, made some accordion folds in the top, stitched them to fit her waist, and sewed on a monogrammed wool patch made by Boise artist Grant Olsen. Grant is well-known locally for his eclectic style and being prolific in numerous media. Lately, Grant has taken up sewing and quilting, making "security blankets for adults" out of recycled fabrics. He recently had a show of these sweet miniature patches at the Flying M Coffeehouse downtown Boise and I purchased a few. Alice, as you can see, got an A and Lucy got this one:

She is just beginning to learn all the states in kindergarten, so this shape of Idaho was perfect for her. I also made a matching skirt for Lucy's girlfriend, Vivi, with a darling one of a whale in the ocean because she lives near the beach in southern California.

For these skirts I cut out the middle portion of the pant leg of another pair of women's PJs. They bunch up around the waist and you can fold them over to make them as long or short as you like. Therefore, the only stitching required on this one was the sewing on of the patch. Of course, these skirts are kind of one size fits all, and only if you are a girl under the age of six. These fun skirts were "sew" easy and fun and really cost next to nothing to make, and I loved the collaboration of two artists working with recycled materials!

Monday, October 12, 2009

CULTURE: The Idaho Historical Museum

This little museum sits in Julia Davis Park, right near the Zoo Boise and the Library!. It's a quiet, nondescript building that many of you probably haven't been to since your required fourth grade class visit. I've been there several times in my three years living in Boise, typically for work related events and meetings, but decided one blustery fall day recently to take my girls for a little afternoon out and spend some quality time exploring the exhibits the Idaho Historical Museum has to offer.

We entered the second floor via the elevator since we had the stroller and immediately came upon this display about Lewis and Clark's journey into Idaho territory as we now know it. This hand-carved canoe and larger than life sculpture of Seaman, the dog that accompanied them on their exploratory mission, was carved by Idaho chainsaw artist Dennis Sullivan. He and his wife, Frances, are known best for their incredible Dog Bark Park Inn in Cottonwood, Idaho, where you can stay in the world's largest beagle (you gotta see it to believe it). Anyhow, the casual visitor to the Museum would not know this little detail, as it is not listed anywhere on any sort of signage. But, I digress.

There is also a really nice display of various types of saddles and how they are made, including a highlight on Ray Holes Saddle Co. of Grangeville, Idaho, the oldest western saddle maker in the whole country, I believe.

Here Lucy examines the old 10cent slot machine that, if memory serves me, came out of the last legalized gambling facility in Idaho in the 1950s. You can now put your change in it as a donation. The old machine sits outside the old saloon exhibit where DejaMoo, the infamous two-headed calf resides. And, no, I'm not including any shots of that tiny, sweet thing because you really ought to pay the couple of bucks to see it yourselves if you haven't already. And you certainly ought to have the pleasure of explaining why some baby cows are born with two heads to your children.

Lucy also had a great time stacking these blocks which simulated cargo in an old ship to balance the weight correctly. Other highlights in the Museum included a display of old children's toys, some really shiny minerals, hand-beaded moccasins, a recreated medicine and herb shop from Chinatown in old Boise, and the faux red velvet wallpaper in the Victorian living room that I covet. But, I have to say, the real highlight for my girls at the Historical Museum was finding these in the gift shop:

And, of course, for 50cents a piece, they each got one.

But, for $12 a piece, they did NOT get one of these. Not because I don't want to buy these plushy two-headed calves for every child in my life and every set of parents-to-be I know, but because we are still on The Compact. Truly, the gift shop at the Idaho Historical Museum has really unique books and gifts, a very special one to be featured at a later date on this website. All in all, while the Museum is certainly kid-friendly, it's not extremely kid-fun. They do host several great educational events throughout the year that are more interesting (like the more interactive Museum Comes To Life day each year in September), but all kids under the age of 6 get free admission to the Museum. So, it doesn't cost a fortune, you can all learn a little more about our great state, and it's something unique and warm to do when the weather is cool.
Bribe your kids with a cheap old fashioned candy stick at the end and get a little holiday shopping done in their gift shop and I'd say it's a day well spent.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

DESIGN: Crazy Daisy Corelle Dishes

I gave birth to Lucy in 2004, before anyone knew anything about certain plasticware possibly contaminating us with BPA. Of course, she used Avent's BPA filled bottles at the time, and no one knew better. The big BPA scare came about when I was pregnant with Alice, and my hormonal, mothering instincts were in overdrive. I got rid of all plastics in the house with the wrong numbers on them, including refillable water bottles Eric and I had been using since our undergrad days at the University of Idaho. I was especially concerned with all the plasticware Lucy had been using and that Alice was soon to inherit, so I rid the house of it and made a commitment to these glass bottles, which we L-O-V-E and highly recommend. This also meant ridding our home of all the darling plastic dishes that were so handy for toddlers who like to chuck things on the floor. I began doing some research online on what other paranoid parents were doing in this BPA situation. A lot of parents recommended Corelle dinnerware, as it was affordable and is known for its generations of durability. Plus, you could find it in thrift stores for next to nothing and therefore you wouldn't feel devastated if your kid did break a piece. Or five. I was familiar with Corelle dishes through both my love of Pyrex and my childhood. Of course, my parents and my grandparents all had Corelle dishes for everyday use, and it wasn't until I hit the thrift store that the nostalgia took over and I HAD TO HAVE THESE for my girls:

My Grandma Shoda had this pattern, called Crazy Daisy or sometimes also known as Spring Blossom Green (there seems to be a bit of a controversy amongst Corelle collectors as to its appropriate pattern name). They came out in 1973, just three years after the Corelle company started. I've seen nearly complete sets of these dishes from between $50-$100 in antique stores and on collectors sites. I've also seen them, luckily, in my local thrift shops and at garage sales.

So I began the hunt, and have tracked down quite a few pieces for next to nothing. While I'm not quite near a full set, I have found many of these cup and saucer sets, which are perfect for the girls' tiny portions and we use the cups as bowls. I have to say that Corelle is NOT indestructible, as we have found out over the past few months, but at less than 25cents a piece, I can take it. Also, the color green on the dishes is my favorite and the daisy pattern just makes me happy. I also think the company is great, and if you're not as into vintage items like I am, check out their website, because they've got funky new patterns galore (like this one) to love and I'm sure someday your grandchildren will be collecting them from the the Savers and Goodwills of the future.