Monday, November 29, 2010

Anything but turkey, please

Last week, our friend Korb gave us a basil plant. We've only had it for a little while, but I've already found that there is something really wonderful about growing something that you can eat. It grows and replenishes itself, providing tasty, never-ending enhancements to soups, stews, and pastas, and all it asks for is a bit of care and attention. Every morning, before I start my day, I check its soil to make sure it has enough water, and I open the blinds to let the sun in to kiss its leaves. We've been using it up every chance we get, and it just keeps on giving. I am sort of in love with it.

The green is so pretty and does wonders to brighten up the kitchen counter.

Korb uses his basil to make homemade pesto. He gave us some (friends are the best!) and we used it to make a simple pasta dinner with sauteed mushrooms and spinach on a busy night last week. It was so yummy.

Although we haven't yet worked our way up to making our own pesto, this weekend Alan whipped up a hearty one-pot meal of chicken and dumplings which I elaborately garnished with fresh-picked basil. ;) It was a perfect complement to the rainy weather we were having and was a welcome change from all the turkey and taters we'd been eating.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Buttercream Roses

Still determined to bring pumpkin cupcakes with awe-inspiring roses to Thanksgiving, I couldn't stop piping roses last night until they started to resemble (however loosely) real roses. This time, I tried buttercream frosting instead of the sumptuous cream cheese frosting I tried last time and found that buttercream is for sure much better at holding its stiffness. For a long time the roses I piped looked like blobby, mushy flowers which Alan assured me looked good, but I refused to stop. Finally, after a good few hours, they started to look better. I know they're nowhere near as good as some other buttercream roses out there, but I hope these will knock a sock or two off at the Thanksgiving table this year.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Bring It On: Pumpkin Cupcakes with Cream Cheese Frosting

Every Thanksgiving, my super huge family gets together for turkey, pie and some sort of team sport. Now, although I excel at eating, the idea of playing another game of volleyball or soccer with my family frightens me. Why? Because my family is the definition of competitive and they don't take any prisoners. Everybody arrives in their Under Armour and does war cries. And then there is me. This year, I have a new plan where I will distract everyone from noticing my game absence with these gorgeous pumpkin cupcakes. I did a test run this weekend and was sad when my roses looked nothing like Deb's. Fancy roses aside, they still tasted moist, light and fantastic.

This is what baking/cooking/making anything more complex than a bowl of cereal looks like in my kitchen. Sifting must be done on the edge of counters at dangerously precarious angles. But we are all about danger and living in the fast lane in our kitchen!

To spare you from the sad, whimpering roses, I'll instead show you the compromise I made with the cream cheese frosting (which was really good).

They looked like they needed a little something extra, and just because I haven't perfected the roses doesn't mean I can't sprinkle! A pinch of pretty pearls on top finished them off.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Gap City Flats

When I saw these flats in the Gap last week, I instantly fell in love. They're simple, chic, not too expensive ($39.50), and clever -- they come with a sparkly drawstring pouch so you can fold them up and fit them in your bag. The Gap describes them as fitting "like a glove" and "ridiculously comfortable," which are two statements that I don't take lightly when it comes to footwear (especially since the shoes I own that I really do consider to be ridiculously comfortable are the same shoes my grandma wears). As I read the online reviews for these shoes, the same sentiment that these are the last and only pair of flats you'll ever want to buy seemed to be echoed loud and clear. Could it be true? Could these cute shoes really be that comfortable? There was only one way to find out.

I have been in search of some really comfy everyday flats for a while now, and when I saw these came in red, I was sold. I decided to test out my new shoes in the strenuous conditions of the office (just the other day I must have made at least 50 walking trips to unjam a printer -- just grueling amounts of walking I tell ya!) I planned to test them out during the entire week, but then I forgot to wear them every day (oops) so it turned out to be a 2-day test. Still, a lot of lessons were learned, and here were the results.
On Monday, I paired the flats with this dress that has just been begging for red flat companions ever since I first got it some years ago. Cute as the combo was, by the end of the day, I had to wear Band-Aids on my heels since the elastic backs were really cutting into my skin. I had also hoped that since the leather was so soft and buttery that they would give my wide feet room to splay out, but the shoes stayed pretty tight and narrow across the width of my foot which ended up hurting after a while.

On Thursday, I wore them with a yellow cardigan and my favorite bow shirt. By this second wear, I went the entire day without Band-Aids but found that the right shoe still dug annoyingly into my heel. And I'm sad to say that the narrow width of the show was still cramping my (very wide) style.

Overall, they are super cute, made of soft quality leather, and affordable, but not the perfect everyday flats for me. I think they'd be great for gals with normal width feet (there are at least 100 raving reviews on for these shoes so it must be true!) These shoes will be handy for short jaunts after a long day in heels or for when I need to add a pop of color to my feet, but they've left me continuing my search for those cute, legitimately ridiculously comfortable flats.

Overall Scores (on a 5-star scale)
Style: 5
Functionality: 4
Comfort: 2 (but this is probably just because I have insanely wide feet)
Support: 1 (to be fair, they are ballet flats that fold in half so I wasn't really expecting much support to begin with)
Price: 3 (for genuine leather shoes, I think they are fairly priced)
Additional perks: sparkly storage bag

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Holiday Gift Guide: What to Get Your Best Gal Pals

I cannot believe that Thanksgiving is next week. I just can't make sense of how a whole year has passed by since the last time I woke up for a day of mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie. Which means that Christmas (my favorite time of year) is just around the corner! It'll soon be time to drink all the gingerbread lattes I can, listen to Christmas songs day in and day out until Alan's ears bleed, and put up a pretty little tree! Weee! I can't wait! But, that also means that I've got to get a jump start on my holiday shopping because as much as I love finding the perfect gifts for my lovely friends, the pressure of last minute shopping trips takes all the fun out of it. So this year, I'm starting early. Here are some of my favorite gift ideas for the gals in your life who leave you a sweet present when you're feeling down, who make you laugh, and who always make time to listen.

1. Kate Spade 2011 Calendar $18
2. Anthropologie eternity scarf $78 -- I love the idea of giving cozy + especially enormous scarves as gifts. It's like giving a big warm hug.
3. Anatomy of Love art print $40
4. Kate Spade A Penny For Your Thoughts bangle $48
5. 3191 Quarterly subscription $62 -- Created by two friends, this magazine is chock full of everyday inspiration. And it's a gift that comes four times a year! I've been dying to get my hands on a copy.
6. Gap heart tights $10
7. West Elm washi paper tape + dispenser $29
8. Byrdandbelle grey wool felt Macbook sleeve $76 -- They also make really awesome wallets that hold your iPhone, credit card, and license for when you want to leave your big purse at home.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Mini Thanksgiving Dinner

Alan and I share a Thanksgiving secret: neither of us likes turkey and Stove Top-tasting stuffing as much as everyone else seems to. I've always been drawn to all the other sides, such as the mashed potatoes and veggies and all of the pumpkin desserts. Even though those are a lot of my favorite things, it always felt like I was missing out on the main event. So this year, we decided to make a mini Thanksgiving dinner for just the two of us with a main course we'd enjoy more than a big stuffed bird.

We cleared all our books, mail, and even our coffee machine off our teeny kitchen table so we could have a proper sit down dinner (instead of balancing our plates on our laps in front of the TV). Alan made yummy mushroom stuffed quail, and I fixed roasted baby zucchini, baby Dutch potatoes, and wee lil' loaves of cornbread with honey butter.

My favorite parts of the meal were Alan's stuffing and the potatoes. I used baby Dutch potatoes which are so small and round and cute as buttons.

They were really easy to make and so flavorful. I used this recipe, but dressed 'em up a bit by adding parmesan cheese, fresh crushed garlic and a pinch of paprika.

They ended up perfectly golden and crispy on the outside. Just perfect, substantial, Loaded Baked Potato Bites. I think these would make a great party appetizer.

It was so much fun having a mini early Thanksgiving dinner for two and transforming our kitchen into a very cozy dining room. The quail was a great turkey substitute, and we both fell into a serious food coma afterward -- it definitely felt like Thanksgiving!

Loaded Baked Potato Bites

Adapted from The Pioneer Woman's Crash Hot Potatoes recipe

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

1.25 pounds of baby Dutch potatoes
3 tablespoons olive oil
salt to taste
black pepper to taste
a handful of finely chopped fresh chives
4 to 6 cloves of garlic, crushed
a few pinches of parmesan cheese
a sprinkle of paprika

Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Add in as many potatoes as you wish to make and cook them until they are fork-tender.

On a sheet pan, generously drizzle olive oil. Place tender potatoes on the cookie sheet leaving plenty of room between each potato.

With a potato masher, gently press down each potato until it slightly mashes, rotate the potato masher 90 degrees and mash again. Brush the tops of each crushed potato generously with more olive oil.

Sprinkle potatoes with salt, fresh ground black pepper, fresh chopped chives, parmesan cheese, crushed garlic, and a sprinkle of paprika.

Bake in a 450 degree oven for 20-25 minutes until golden brown.

Mushroom Stuffing
As created by Alan

Yield: 4-6 servings

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 pack white mushrooms, roughly chopped
1/2 cup spinach, roughly chopped
3 tablespoons chives, chopped
1 tablespoon thyme
3-4 slices of sourdough bread, cubed
2 slices bacon, chopped
1 shallot, chopped
3-4 cloves garlic, crushed
salt and pepper to taste

Heat olive oil in a skillet. Add garlic, shallot, mushrooms, spinach, chives, thyme, and salt and pepper to taste. Cook until mushrooms are nearly done. Add chopped bacon and cook 2-3 minutes. Mix bread cubes into the mixture at the end and add salt and pepper to taste. This made enough stuffing for 4 quails and then some. After stuffing the quails, we baked the rest in a lightly oiled pan on 400 degrees for 25 minutes.

Friday, November 12, 2010

8 Simple Steps for Effortless Party Hair

When it comes to my hair, I'm a two-trick pony. I either wear my hair down (naturally frizzy wavy) or in a ponytail. But whenever this time of year rolls around, I always want to do something a bit more special for the season's festivities. I've always loved the look of party curls but am clueless when it comes to using a curling iron. My friend Stacy is a master of big pretty curls, and when I asked her how she does it, she assured me that it's pretty easy. See how you can create the look yourself in just a few minutes.

Step 1: Separate your hair into thirds: a bottom layer, a middle layer and a top layer. Twist the top two-thirds of your hair up into a clip. Split the bottom third in half into a right side and a left side.
Step 2: Spray the bottom layer with a holding spray like this one to help your curls keep their shape and to protect your hair from heat damage. (Repeat this step before curling each layer of hair).

Step 3: With a 1.5" curling iron, curl the bottom layer by rolling sections of hair up. Hold the curling iron parallel to the ground for about 10 seconds and release. Repeat all around your head.

Step 4: Let down the middle section of your hair. Again, split this layer in half into a right side and a left side.

Step 5: To curl this layer, take sections of hair from the left side and curl them by rolling under until the curling iron is close to your head. Then hold the curling iron perpendicular to the floor for 10 seconds. (For the right side, follow the same steps except curl sections of hair by rolling up.) Slowly pump the curling iron to release each section of curled hair.

Step 6: Let down the last top layer of your hair and split into a right and left side. Repeat step 5 -- remember, curl under on the left side (as Stacy's doing above) and curl up on the right side.

Step 7: Hold each curl close to your head for 10 seconds or so. Gently pump to release each curl.

Step 8: Spray curls with hairspray for extra hold.

And here you have it -- pretty party curls for all your holiday parties this year :)

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Wish You Were Here. xoxo, Tropical Paradise

Phuket - August '07-30

Phuket - August '07-36
Work has been nuts lately since I've been working on this big project which seems to get bigger by the day. When things get really hectic, I can't help but think about my long overdue getaway to Hong Kong, Cambodia, and Thailand this coming January. (My last trip out of the country was back in 2008 when I went to London for 3 days!) I have my heart set on making it to the Phi Phi islands which are supposed to be amazing and exactly what I'll need after this work project wraps up. In the meantime, I've been ogling the pictures my friend Thai took from his Thailand visit a few years back. Isn't the color of the water absolutely wild?

Monday, November 8, 2010

Absolutely Ultimate Potato Soup

This weekend, I mostly stayed home trying to kick a really annoying cold. I slept, I moped, and in between I'd crave some really tasty soup. Then something amazing happened. Something that I thought only happened to other girls, the lucky ones with perfect hair and cute sneezes. A beautiful man red Le Creuset dutch oven got down on one knee and asked me if we could be together forever. A few happy tears slid down my cheeks, but of course I said yes--I've had my eye on a Le Creuset dutch oven for forever. They're so pretty, and they cook up some serious magic. I finally decided to make the investment, and while I've only cooked one thing so far, the potato soup I made this weekend made it all worth it. (Although I've had my eye on this recipe for a looong time and can't wait to make it!)

It all started with some good-sized potatoes.

And a mix of tarragon, cilantro, and celery. I've never had tarragon before, I don't like celery, and cilantro in a potato soup sounded odd to me, but in the end everything just came together perfectly.

Now, this recipe is not for the faint of heart, so look away for a second if you're squeamish... (!)

...because a whole lotta bacon lovin' was going on here. But in the bacon's defense, a whole lotta soup was being made.

In the end, this soup was such a satisfying, hearty dish that definitely makes staying home with a cold not quite so bad.

Absolutely Ultimate Potato Soup
Adapted, just a bit, from Karena's recipe here

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

1 pound bacon, chopped
2 stalks celery, diced
1 onion, chopped
6-8 cloves garlic, minced
6-7 large russet potatoes, cubed (The original recipe calls for peeled potatoes, but I left the skins on because I like the texture and the way it makes the soup look so cozy and rustic. But mostly I left them on because I was lazy.)
4 cups chicken stock, or enough to cover potatoes
3 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon dried tarragon
3 teaspoons chopped fresh cilantro
salt and pepper to taste

In a Dutch oven, cook the bacon over medium heat until done. Remove bacon from pan, and set aside. Drain off all but 1/4 cup of the bacon grease.

In the bacon grease remaining in the pan, saute the celery and onion until onion begins to turn clear. Add the garlic, and continue cooking for 1 to 2 minutes. Add the cubed potatoes, and toss to coat. Saute for 3 to 4 minutes. Return the bacon to the pan, and add enough chicken stock to just cover the potatoes. Cover, and simmer (about 25-30 minutes) until potatoes are tender.

In a separate pan, melt the butter over medium heat. Whisk in the flour. Cook stirring constantly, for 1 to 2 minutes. Whisk in the heavy cream, tarragon and cilantro. Bring the cream mixture to a boil, and cook, stirring constantly, until thickened. Stir the cream mixture into the potato mixture. Puree about 1/2 the soup (I just used a potato masher because I'm old-fashioned like that), and return to the pan. Adjust seasonings to taste.

I also added a bit of milk at the end since the consistency was a bit too thick. Then I garnished with parmesan because everything tastes better with it, and some fresh chopped chives. (Chives + Potatoes = So Good)

Friday, November 5, 2010

Pins and Swiss Dots

Like a steaming bowl of hot soup on a cold day, tights are one of my favorite aspects of fall. I recently fell in love with these enormous swiss dot tights from Kate Spade, but because I'm saving up for my trip in January (it's coming up fast!), I decided to save some pennies and looked for a more budget-friendly pair. These ones I found at Target are pretty sweet, and at just $5, I'm definitely saving more than just a few pennies. They have a nice detail to them without being too busy, and I love combining them with other small touches--like this vintage brooch and Emerson Made flower pin--to instantly gussy up my look.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

How to Decorate A Guest Bedroom for Under $450

When my cousin Denise asked me to help her decorate her guest bedroom, I was excited. When it became clear that Denise trusted me to do whatever the heck I wanted, I was beside myself. (But nervous at the same time -- I really wanted her and her hubs to like the room!) I was given a budget of $500, but because I like challenges, I gave myself a self-imposed budget of $450. After weeks of scouring vintage stores, Etsy, big box stores, and designer stores (for inspiration) for all the perfect pieces, I ended up spending a total of just $442! Now, depending on where you stand in life on home decor, that may seem like a lot, but given the fact that I have friends who have spent that much on a single mirror or chair, I think that is pretty darn good. The only thing that's not part of that $442 is the mattress and box spring (they already had those ;).

I created an inspiration board of what I wanted the room to look and feel like. Then I turned my attention to finding and buying similar items at more affordable stores like Target and Ikea. And while buying home decor from big box stores like these are nothing to turn your nose up at, I do think it's important to also add a balance by finishing the room off with some unique pieces to show off your personal style. (I'm not going to lie--buying framed art from Ikea makes me shudder). Here, I got the snowy partridges and yellow leaves photograph from Etsy. And I spent a good while walking back and forth through the used book store searching for the right colored books (I know, I was so shamelessly judging books by their covers--I've never felt so devious!)

I have always wanted to use a tray table as a bedside table -- this one from CB2 works quite lovely. This urn vase is from a vintage store nearby. I love its shape and how it holds flowers.

Can you tell what the color theme is?

A bold red chair adds a pop of unexpected color.

This comforter is from Target and was a fraction of the price of some designer ones I found just like it. It has little buttons where the pleats are gathered, and the detail is really amazing for such an affordable comforter.

Here is how much I spent on everything!
(Not pictured: Red chair from Ikea $34.99; curtains from Ikea $49.99; curtain rod from Ikea $7.99; yellow rug from Target $14.99)

Here are the doppelganger comforters; the set from Anthropologie is nearly as much as my budget for the entire room!

P.s. I'm teaching myself Photoshop -- I hope you like my first attempts at creating layouts! :)
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