Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Wicked Good Mac and Cheese

Happy Leap Day! Do I have any Mitford fans among my readers? (I know at least one is in my sweet friend Ginny.) I could get lost in Mitford any time, day or night. And have ... many times over. I'm a huge Jan Karon fan and have read every single "Father Tim" book available and some of her children's books, too.

So it comes as no surprise that I also have her Mitford Cookbook & Kitchen Reader and flip through the pages often - if for no other reason than to relish a bite of Mitford in my mind for a quick pick-me-up to my mood.

If you are familiar with Mitford, then you also know what a very good cook Puny is. This macaroni and cheese is adapted from Puny's recipe found in the above-mentioned cookbook. I've altered it to fit the needs and tastes of my family. I named it "wicked good" because it's quite wicked with its richness and unbelievably good in its taste. It's not healthy by an stretch of the imagination, but I like to think it's better for you than the old baked mac and cheese version I used to make with Velveeta and other cheeses. Maybe.

The girls had been asking for macaroni and cheese for a while recently - it had been quite a spell since I'd last made any form of it - so I decided to make it for our Valentine's Day entree. Obviously I didn't take the time to make great photos out of this dish - but I wanted you to see the new casserole dish my sister gave me for Christmas. Isn't it sweet?

Projected time, start to finish, a little over an hour
(Printable Recipe)

1/3 cup unsalted butter, plus a little extra
1/3 cup brown rice flour
3 cups milk
1/2 cup sour cream
4 ounces cream cheese, cut into pieces
2 tsp. kosher salt
Pinch ground nutmeg
1 1/2 tsp. dry mustard
Pinch cayenne pepper
1/4 tsp. black pepper
4 cups shredded Colby jack cheese
1 pound gluten-free elbow macaroni or shells, cooked al dente according to package (I used Tinkyada, and always use the energy-saving method. It works best)
2 slices fresh bread (I used Udi's multi-grain), broken into small pieces

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease 3-quart baking dish and set aside.

Cook pasta according to package, drain and set aside when finished (you might want to lightly toss in a little olive oil). You'll want to keep the pasta a little al dente, so check it several minutes earlier than the package says to cook it for.

While pasta is cooking, combine 1/3 cup of butter and brown rice flour in a large saucepan over medium heat.  Whisk until smooth, then slowly add milk. Continue to stir with whisk until mixture is smooth and thickened.

Add sour cream and cream cheese, whisking in until combined and smooth again.

Add salt, nutmeg, mustard, cayenne and black pepper. Whisk lightly until mixed well. Stir in shredded cheese.  Season more to taste if necessary.

Add macaroni to cheese mixture and gently mix together. Pour into baking dish.

In a small bowl, melt a tablespoon or two of butter and toss with bread pieces. Sprinkle over top of macaroni.

Bake for 35-40 minutes, or until bubbling nicely.


On another note, today's photo of beauty is actually from last night. Yesterday's post mentioned how terrible the dust and wind were yesterday. That is true, but sometimes dusty days bring beautiful evenings with the sun. It covers the sun just enough to give the sky an incredible hue.

Go find beauty today!

Why I'm sharing this:

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Finch Faces

It was a horribly nasty, windy day outside today. I had no desire to walk around in the dust and wind but the finches delivered their beauty to my window.

Cherry (or Reddy or Tomato) and Brownie visited the window feeder for a while and then decided to hang around on the branches nearby. They gave me several good photos, but I think this one might be my favorite.

I hope you found beauty in your day today.

Why I'm sharing this:

Monday, February 27, 2012

Super Strawberry Green Smoothie

I came up with this concoction for breakfast this morning and enjoyed it to the last drop. I hope you do, too.

Projected time, start to finish: Under 5 minutes
(Printable Recipe)

 6 oz. unsweetened pineapple juice
1 cup frozen unsweetened strawberries
1 peeled banana
2 large handfuls (about 2 cups) fresh spinach
1/8 cup alfalfa sprouts (optional)
1/2 to 1 tsp. spirulina powder
2 to 3 tbsp. hemp protein powder

Blend all ingredients until smooth.


And for my photo today, I took a walk around the park this morning and mostly looked up. I saw several sparrows twittering around a hole in a branch, nearly at the top of the tree. I zoomed in on my lens to get  a better look, and realized that a mama sparrow was making her nest in the hole. In the photos below, the daddy sparrow is guarding the hole. I didn't get a shot quick enough of the mama flying back into the hole, but I did get a couple of her peeking out. I'm glad I was looking up this morning.

I hope you find beauty today.

Why I'm sharing this:

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Bare Redbud Branches and Hidden Sparrows

I spent some time after lunch this afternoon listening to the tractor as my husband landscapes our drive and walking around the treasures my children were hunting down for their camp. I walked with camera in hand, taking shots of odds and ends and wondering which I would share today.

A few little female sparrows were gossiping loudly among the branches above my head and then angrily flew into the redbud tree nearby. I tried to capture them among the branches, and caught a glimpse of one (see below) but as I tried to get a good focus on her as she moved from branch to branch, twittering at the others, it struck me that I liked the colors of the bare redbud branches against the blue sky. They won't be bare for much longer, and I'd never noticed how beautiful they could be just by themselves.

I hope you found beauty this weekend, and find it in each day of this new week.

Why I'm sharing this:

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Brown Brownie (the bird) and Last Night's Sunset

Little Miss Brownie hasn't let me get a good photo of her yet, but I got a decent one this evening. Just as my daughters have named the male finches, they have named the female finches "Brownie." My youngest says she is "Brown Brownie." No explanation for when more than one Brownie finch is in sight, but there just seems to be one name.

Regardless, I've always found her simple colors to be beautiful, and I love watching her.

We also had a sunset last night that for a time blazed the sky like fire.

I hope you are finding beauty in your weekend.

Why I'm sharing this:

Friday, February 24, 2012

Toffee Bars

I made these chewy-with-enough-crunch bars for an after-school snack recently and they were a hit. They were pretty quick to make, and super-simple to put together. Super-tasty, too. So ... I'm making them again today.

Because I decided at the last minute to prepare them, I had to go ahead and dig into them while they were hot, and place a few slices in the freezer to firm them up for eating. If you're able, make them a few hours in advance of serving so they'll have time to properly cool.

My mother is living in England right now, getting her master's, and she has given me a couple of sweet little recipe books she picked up over there. I adapted this recipe from the "toffee bars" recipe in the Favourite Teatime Recipes book by Carole Gregory, so I guess these are "authentic" English toffee bars. (Except I used pecans instead of walnuts.) Another thing I love about having a kitchen scale is I don't have to fret about converting recipes like this one - I can work straight from the recipe! I'd been wanting to make toffee bars lately, anyway, seeing my friend Ginny's recent toffee bar posts with similar recipes.

These did not disappoint.

Projected prep time: 10 minutes; Projected bake time: 15-20 minutes
(Printable recipe)

4 oz. (whole stick) salted butter
4 oz. dark brown sugar
1 large egg yolk
2 oz. gluten-free flour blend (I used blend of millet & tapioca and a blend of millet & brown rice the other time - both were good)
1 tsp. ground chia seeds (I use Salba brand)
2 oz. certified gluten-free rolled oats

3 oz. semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 oz. butter
2 oz. chopped pecans (or walnuts - I like pecans better)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease 7x11 baking pan.

Cream butter, sugar and egg yolk together until smooth. Mix in flour and oats. Spread mixture in pan, pressing down to even the surface.

Bake about 15 to 20 minutes, depending on oven, or until golden brown. Let cool about 10 minutes.

Add chocolate chips and butter into a small bowl and microwave 30 seconds, stir and then microwave a few more seconds until you can stir it smooth. Alternately, heat over a bowl of hot water until it can be stirred smooth. Gently spread chocolate over bars. Top with pecans (or walnuts).

While warm, cut into bars but leave in pan until cool. Cool completely before serving.


And while I'm at it, Mr. Finch (Tomato, Cherry or Reddy) enjoyed another snack of his own in the window feeder, providing me with a photo of his beauty. He saw me, and craned his neck to determine if he needed to scoot. He decided to finish his snack. 

Why I'm sharing this:

I hope you have a beautiful day and weekend!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Mr. Bee and Me

I have a love-hate relationship with bees. I love that they produce honey, and pollinate our fruits, vegetables and other plants. They are super-important little workers and I love them for that. I recognize the danger they are currently in and it makes me sad. I try to do my part to protect the little guys.

I HATE, however, that they love me. I don't know what it is, but they are attracted to me and "bug" me. Mercilessly. On an average day, I don't wear perfume, I don't have sprays or other other smelly things in my hair, I've used a mild shampoo and conditioner that doesn't have a strong smell that lasts and even my deodorant is supposed to be unscented. But even with all of that, if I'm going to be outside I know I must also consider what colors I wear because of bees. Supposedly, they are more attracted to bright and dark colors than others. I don't know if I buy it because they seem to chase me no matter what colors I'm wearing.

Now, I'll admit that to my knowledge I am not allergic to bees. I've been stung several times in my lifetime, however, and don't want to be the next adult I know who thought they weren't allergic to bees because they'd never had a problem before and then the next sting they swell up. Not to mention bee stings just hurt.

And, there's a possibility at least one of my children may be allergic to bees based on her reactions to other insects, so I don't want them tagging along on our outings.

Actually, if we stop the car in the middle of literal nowhere to use the bathroom on the side of the road where the nearest building was 50 miles back and the next 70 miles ahead and it's in the middle of a drought and there is no moisture around, no flowers or weeds around and no trash can full of food and drinks around AND it's nothing but dirt and dust, a bee will show up in less than two minutes. If I am outside the car. True story. And on many more than one occasion.

This past fall, soccer photos were being taken in the park. The park is full of bees. Nearly every game I was bothered by bees. We drive into the parking lot and I walk around the car to help my youngest get her socks and shoes on. A bee shows up trying to get in the car. I shoo it another direction but it just gets angry and calls its friends (we do have some Africanized bees here, too, so that makes me nervous). I shut the door and run around trying get them to leave.

At this point I must tell you, don't tell me to stand still and they will leave. They don't. They crawl all over me. And don't leave. My father is an entomologist and tells me all the "tricks." They don't work. Not for me.

Finally I grab my daughter and run with her to a picnic table 100 feet away. I get one sock on and the bees arrive. We run 200 feet and get a shoe on. The bees arrive. We run to where people are congregating for photos, finish the dressing and the bees arrive. The bees are not bothering anyone else. Only me. I finally tell my daughters to get away from me so they don't get stung. I spend 30 minutes running from one end of a park section to another, getting only about 45 seconds of a break in between running until the bees arrive again.

One bee, two bees, three bees ... Whee! One man told me to stand still and they'd leave. I knew they wouldn't, but did so to humor him. He saw they weren't leaving so he told me to stand still again and he'd take care of them. He started swatting at them but they just got worse. He told me to run.

At one point I had to stop my running to help a daughter with photo paperwork. She came near me and within 20 seconds a bee had stung her. Thankfully it was barely on the tip of her finger and I was able to scrape the stinger out and she hardly felt anything. Then they wouldn't leave her alone. Her soccer photo shows a bee on her face. Thankfully she didn't get stung again.

So you see what I mean? A literal love-hate relationship with these little creatures. My husband, of course, says it's just because I'm so irresistibly sweet. I'm flattered.

I've noticed on the days it's warm enough to bring the lemon tree outside, the bees find it within minutes. They love lemon flowers. The last few days it just seems to be one little bee dutifully pollinating the beauties. I decided I would watch his work and try to capture him so you can see how amazing he is. I'm sure it won't be the last bee photo I show here, but I can honestly say I found beauty in Mr. Bee. Maybe if I hang around long enough, he'll let the others know I have nothing to offer but friendship if they'll just leave me alone.

I hope you find beauty in your day.

Why I'm sharing this:

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Cheese Baked Eggplant with Warm Red Quinoa (and a sunset)

Yesterday was an incredibly busy and hard day with one thing after another. After another. After another. And a disaster caught before it did too much damage. (Thankfully, but still a headache!) I hadn't thought at all about dinner and didn't want it to be another breakfast-for-supper night because that would mean I was eating more acidic than I wanted to for another meal in a row more than I wanted to.

I scanned the pantry and refrigerator and came up with this incredibly easy meal. It was so easy and quick I didn't even jot down ingredients, and don't have much in the way of measurements for you. I didn't even spend time setting up a photo. What I can tell you is that it was good. The whole family liked it. And I felt good about eating it. Easily make it vegan and dairy-free by switching out the mozzarella with vegan cheese.

And after I got it all prepped and cooking, I ran outside a few times to catch yet another gorgeous sunset in our sky. I'm so thankful to live in a place with beautiful sunsets! If you enjoyed yesterday's post sharing my daughter's sunset photos as well as my own, I don't think the volume of sunset photos in this post will disappoint you. Enjoy the beauty, and find some in your day today!

Projected time start to finish: About 1 hour

2 small to medium eggplant
Kosher salt
Extra virgin olive oil
Approximately 1 1/2 cups shredded mozzarella (use vegan for vegan or dairy-free)
Italian seasoning

Scant 2 cups uncooked red quinoa, rinsed thoroughly
Pinch of kosher salt
Extra virgin olive oil
Half a lemon
Garlic granules or powder

Wash eggplant and chop off ends. Slice lengthwise in 1/4-inch pieces. Place on two baking sheets and sprinkle salt over top of slices. Let sit about 15-20 minutes to draw out some of the moisture.

While eggplant is sitting, rinse red quinoa thoroughly a few times in cold water. In a medium to large saucepan, add quinoa and about 2 1/2 cups water. Add a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat to a simmer, stirring occasionally. Cook for about 15-20 minutes or until almost all the water is absorbed. Turn off heat.

While quinoa is cooking, preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Rinse eggplant and firmly pat dry with paper towels or clean lint-free dish towels to remove excess moisture. Line baking sheets with parchment paper. Brush each side of eggplant with olive oil and place on parchment paper. Bake (top rack for gas oven) for about 15-20 minutes.

While eggplant is baking, toss shredded cheese together with a few dashes of Italian seasoning. Don't overdo it - you want just enough to give a light taste but not overwhelm.

Remove eggplant from oven and turn each slice to the other side. Sprinkle seasoned cheese over each slice and return to oven for about 10-15 minutes.

While eggplant is cooking, return to quinoa and toss with a tablespoon or two of olive oil and the juice of half a lemon. Add a dash or two of garlic granules or powder to taste (start with a small amount). There should already be enough salt in it, but add more if you need to.

Serve eggplant together with quinoa.


Here are some more of the sunset photos from last night, in order of the sunset progression. When I first saw the sun setting last night, I thought it was a beautiful sky but it didn't really indicate that it was going to be a spectacular sky later. Sometimes you can tell, sometimes you can't. I was in awe more and more each time I looked out the window and stepped outside. It was just the kind of beautiful ending I needed to such a crazy day. Thankful!

It was one of those sunsets that just filled the sky, even from the side there were beautiful aqua and pink colors.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Sunsets ...

My daughter's sunset photo from her birthday weekend
I have to brag today in the beauty I found on my 9-year-old daughter's camera. We felt she was old enough to graduation from her kid-safe digital camera and, given the fact that she was constantly borrowing one of mine without asking, she was ready for her own good quality point-and-shoot for her 9th birthday last month.

She has always been artistic - painting and drawing anything and everything - and she's been inspired by my photography in trying to find beauty in every day, and has joined me in this venture. Last night when we got home, she ran inside to grab her camera, yelling that I needed to see the sunset. "It's pure gold!" she exclaimed.

And it was ...

I took the above photo (and I really need to clean my lenses!), but as you can see, she took photos of pure gold, as well ...

My daughter's "pure gold photo"

Another of her photos

Later, I looked out and the pure gold had faded to a lovely graying purple. She was already getting ready for bed so couldn't take her own photos, but I had to sneak out and grab a shot to share ...

But the real beauty that took my breath away in the sky was today. As I looked through her multitude of photos to, for the first time since she got the camera, download them. She noticed the sunset the evening after her birthday party. I was too exhausted to join them on their walk, but she got these amazing sunset photos with her brand-new camera. I haven't enhanced them - she captured those colors ...

My daughter's photos of the sunset on her birthday weekend ...

I hope these have given you a glimpse of the beauty found around us today - and I hope you find beauty in your own world today.

Why I'm sharing this:


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