Saturday, February 26, 2011

Dreaming of Spring

I’m dreaming of spring tonight, so I thought I’d share some of my gardening with you.  Last year was the first year I had really tried my hand at gardening.  Considering that I don’t have that natural green thumb, I think I did okay.  We have a walkway that leads from the back of our garage to our deck behind our house.  On one side of this pathway I have a designated an area for a perennial garden.  On the other side, I’ve carved an area out for a vegetable garden.  Both areas were basically barren when we moved into our house in September 2009.  Last year was a good start, but this year I plan to fill up the space and use it better.

Vegetable Garden progress over time - click to enlarge
I’m planning on doing this year’s vegetable garden much the same way as last year.  I plan to do most of my plants from seeds because it’s less expensive that way, I think you get more options of vegetable varieties to choose from, and it’s just fun!  I will start some seeds indoors in March (tomatoes, bell peppers & hot peppers, and probably some flowers), and will transplant those to my garden area in mid-spring.   
Tomato seedlings growing in my sun room last year
The rest of the seeds I will sow directly into the garden.  My vegetable garden will be expanded this year to make room for some new plants, among them watermelon, green beans, grape tomatoes, spinach and maybe some potatoes.  If everything grows well, it will be a very full space!

Although I’ve only been at it for one year, I’ve already re-arranged my perennials a couple of times.  I think I finally have a layout that will work…but we’ll find out come spring!  This past fall I planted a whole bunch of bulbs – mostly tulips and daffodils—and did my final re-arrangement of my plans.  My hope is to entirely fill up the space with plants, so as to not even be able to see the ground.  I was not even close to that last year, but I still think I made some decent progress:

Perennial Garden progress over time - click to enlarg
The pathway is something I’m still trying to figure out.  Strange as it may sound, I always wanted a house with a stone pathway.  I got one, but it wasn’t very pretty.  I think what I would like to do is to grow creeping thyme throughout the whole pathway so that it covers any ground between the stepping stones.  I started some creeping thyme from seeds last year, and I ended up with a few plants that flourished.  I will need a LOT more this year if I want to begin to try to cover the walkway.


My overall goal with my garden is to create a serene space that I can enjoy, with a variety of plants.  I want flowers that I can cut and put in a vase on my kitchen table, and I want vegetables that I can pick and make for dinner.  Regardless of how it looked last year, I did really enjoy the time I spent out there, and I look forward to trying it all over again this year!  

Here's a few more pictures from last year's garden for your viewing pleasure:

    
My first snow pea
Pretty Lily! One of the few plants to come with the house.
Tomato Blossoms - Quirky Fact: Tomato Leaves are one of my favorite smells.
The biggest tomato of the season!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

White Turkey Chili

I love making and eating chili, especially on a cold or rainy day.  I have several variations that I make, but I think the only one I’ve shared with you so far is the HUGE batch of mild chili that I made for our Halloween Party.  One of my more a-typical chili variations is a “white” chili, made without tomatoes or chili powder.  I know what you die-hard chili fans are thinking right now…BLASPHEMY!  How can it be chili without tomatoes or chili powder?  Well, I’m not exactly sure…but it does have the same general ingredients and incorporates green chiles – so that ought to count for something.  Regardless of the nomenclature, this recipe has become part of my regular dinner rotation and has a truly unique taste.  I adapted this from the White Chili with Ground Turkey recipe I found on Allrecipes.com.  They mentioned there, and I will tell you here…there is a secret ingredient that sounds odd and you may be tempted to leave out: don’t.  The secret ingredient is cinnamon and it combines so well with the cumin and other flavors that, in my opinion, it is an essential part of this dish.  I know it sounds weird, but trust me on this one.  Here’s how I make it:

Ingredients:

1 lb. lean ground turkey
1 medium white onion, chopped
2 cans white beans (great northern / navy beans)
2 small cans diced green chiles
1 can chicken broth (or just water actually works, too)
Garlic powder
Cumin
Ground black pepper
Cinnamon

Directions:

Cook ground turkey in a large pot over medium heat until no longer pink.  Add remaining ingredients to pot.  Season to taste (I like LOTS of flavor, so I tend to put in far more than most people would).  Just a few dashes of cinnamon will do, but don’t forget to put it in!  Bring chili back to a simmer, and then reduce heat slightly.  Allow chili to simmer for 30 minutes before serving.  Garnish with cheese and cilantro, if desired.  Voila!  Simple and delicious.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Joseph: Recognizing God's Hand in All Situations

I decided at the beginning of the year that I wanted to read through the Bible chronologically.  I feel like this will help pull some of the pieces together for me and make some of the continuous story more fluid for me to follow, allowing me to make better connections between people and events.  I’d love to share some thoughts with you as I go through this.  One of the passages of Scripture that really strikes me as powerful is the story of the life of Joseph.

Perhaps you’ve seen Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat?  Well, I’m not sure it was a “technicolor dreamcoat” (my bible says “richly ornamented robe”) – but at any rate, it was one of the factors that spurred on a series of events which seem at first to be tragic, but in the end serve a very specific purpose.

If you don’t know the story, Joseph had 11 brothers (from whom came the 12 tribes of Israel), but he was the favorite son of his father--as evidenced by the coat/robe.  This caused his brothers to hate Joseph.  Some of them plotted to kill him, but they eventually settled on selling him off to some passing merchants who in turn sold him as a slave in Egypt.  The brothers took Joseph’s “dreamcoat” covered in animal blood back to their father, Jacob, who from that point on believed Joseph to have been killed by a wild animal.  Meanwhile, in Egypt, Joseph’s life took on a cyclical pattern of prosperity and devastation.   

Prosperity: Joseph was originally bought by one of Pharaoh’s officials, Potiphar.  God was with Joseph and gave him success in everything he did – to the point that Potiphar put Joseph in charge of his entire household.

Devastation: Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce Joseph, and when Joseph refused her, she made up a story that Joseph had tried to take advantage of her.  After this, Joseph was thrown in prison.

Prosperity: But even in prison, God was with Joseph.  The prison warden favored him and put him in charge of the prison.  Again, Joseph had success in all his work there.  God also helped him to interpret the dreams of Pharaoh’s cup bearer, who in turn Joseph had asked to speak to Pharaoh on his behalf to get him out of prison.

Devastation: The cup bearer forgot about Joseph, and two more years passed with Joseph remaining in prison.

Prosperity: One day, Pharaoh had dreams that nobody was able to interpret.  At this time, the cup bearer remembered Joseph and had him called up to interpret the dreams.  God revealed the meaning of the dreams through Joseph – and Joseph forewarned Pharaoh that there would be coming seven years of abundance in Egypt followed by seven years of famine.  Seeing that God had given Joseph wisdom, Pharaoh put Joseph in charge of his entire palace and the whole land of Egypt.

From slave to second in command, God was with Joseph throughout all that had happened.  What I love about Joseph is that he is able to see God working in his life, and even recognizes that even his abilities are really the power of God working through him.  When Pharaoh asked Joseph to interpret his dreams, this was Joseph’s response:

“I cannot do it, but God will give Pharaoh the answer he desires.” (Genesis 41:16)

It came to pass that there was also a famine in the land of Canaan, where Joseph’s family lived.  Because Joseph warned Pharaoh of the impending famine, Egypt was the only country that was prepared and had food to sell to the surrounding areas.  So, Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt to buy food from none other than Joseph himself!  Although they did not recognize him at first, Joseph recognized his brothers and eventually revealed his identity to them.  Upon learning his identity, Joseph’s brothers were terrified.  But, pay attention to Joseph’s words:

“And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will not be plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.  So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God…” (Genesis 45:5-8)

God had a very specific purpose for allowing Joseph to be sold into slavery in Egypt.  Sometimes, the moment when God appears to be absent is the very moment he is doing some of his most powerful work (consider Christ on the cross).  By sending Joseph to Egypt, his entire family was able to be provided for during the famine.  Pharaoh even allowed Joseph’s family to come and live in some of the best land in Egypt.  Remember, Joseph and his brothers were the literal children of Israel, the chosen people of God, whom he called for a great purpose – and who, as he promised to Abraham, would become a great nation, through whom the whole world would be blessed (Genesis 28:14).

Later on, after their father died, Joseph’s brothers again became afraid that Joseph may try to seek revenge against them.  But Joseph reassured them again, saying:

“You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” (Genesis 50:20)

I find this to be a very powerful example of God’s ability to work all things for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28), and how he can use all things to accomplish his will.  Ephesians 1:11 says that God “works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will.”  Even evil intentions and unjust or devastating life circumstances can be used by God for good.  “Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the LORD’s purpose that prevails (Proverbs 19:21).”

Joseph remained faithful to God, and God remained faithful to him.  Although life was not always easy or fair for Joseph, he was able to recognize God’s work in his life, and in turn was able to extend grace and mercy to others, even to the very people who had wanted to harm him.  I think I have a lot to learn from Joseph and a long ways to go in practicing his level of faith, loyalty, love and mercy.  I hope that remembering Joseph’s story will help me to be more cognizant of God’s hand working in my own life, in ALL circumstances – not just “looking back”, but as life happens.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Fried Rice

My family has always enjoyed eating Chinese food, and it often made up our Sunday lunches.  For special occasions, we enjoyed something a little different: Japanese Steak Houses – Benihana, in particular.  My brother still likes to celebrate his birthday there every year!  One thing that our favorite Chinese restaurant and Benihana have in common is delicious fried rice.  I think I like the fried rice at Benihana best because it’s made right there in front of you on the hibachi grill, and it is served steaming hot.  I have watched them make it many times and have tried to replicate the recipe at home – but it never tastes quite the same.  I’ve come to the conclusion that it must be the hibachi grill that gives Benihana’s rice the extra flavor I can’t seem to get at home!  Nevertheless, I do still enjoy my homemade fried rice, either as a side dish or as a meal.  I like to make a large batch, so I can have leftovers for lunch the next couple days.  Yum! 

Give it a try, and if you figure out Benihana’s secret, let me know :)

Ingredients:
-          2 cups rice, uncooked
-          1 large boneless, skinless chicken breast (optional)
-          ½ cup celery, finely chopped
-          ½ cup carrots, finely chopped
-          ½ cup onion, finely chopped
-          3 eggs
-          2 Tbsp. butter
-          1 Tbsp. vegetable oil
-          1 Tbsp. soy sauce (more or less to taste)
-          Salt
-          Pepper


Directions:

  1. Cook rice according to package directions.  I like to use brown rice for added nutrition!
  2. If you want to make chicken fried rice, cut chicken into very small pieces and fry with a little bit of vegetable oil until fully cooked; set aside.

  1. In a large wok, sauté vegetables in butter until tender; season with salt and pepper to taste.

  1. Scramble eggs and cook in a frying pan until just done; break eggs into small pieces.
  2. Add rice, chicken, eggs, vegetable oil and soy sauce to wok; stir until well combined and stir fry for a few minutes over medium heat.  Add extra salt and pepper if desired.  Sometimes I add a hint of garlic or ginger, too – but go easy: this is the one dish I make that does not taste as good if you add much additional spices or seasonings.


Enjoy!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Making Progress

I suppose it’s time for a real update on our winter house project.  Last weekend, I spent almost the entire day Saturday painting.  It felt really good to make some real progress, though it was a LOT of work!  Here’s an update of what’s done and how things are coming along:

If you’ve been paying attention, you know that I already had most of the lower level done, including the stairwell.  Here’s another look at the lower family room before and after:

We also finished the downstairs bedroom door.  The bathroom door still needs to be finalized.

I started off painting the window frame on Friday and finished up on Saturday.  This took a lot of time and a lot of paint (it’s a huge window), but it just looks so much brighter now!

I also painted the vast majority of the trim on our main level, including the window box in the kitchen, the front door trim, the sliding glass door trim, and all of the floor trim minus a little stretch behind the china cabinet in the dining room (still need to move that so I can paint back there!)

Notice the long pot on the bottom shelf of the window box?  Yes, that's my lettuce that I finally started (See: Getting a Head Start on Spring)!

We finished two of the doors upstairs over the weekend: the linen closet and the guest room.


You can see the progression of what we’ve been working on by looking at the untouched bathroom door; the newly hung, waiting-to-be-finished bedroom door; and the completed doors.


Here’s the transition stage of the stairwell, compared with what it used to look like.  I think I’m going to like the white! 


Now, we just need to get some new railings… I decided big chunky railings don’t really look any better white than they do as stained wood!

We’re making good progress, but there are still a few areas left to do.  I’m really happy about how everything is looking, though.  I feel like it really updates the house and makes it feel brighter and fresher.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Alfredo Lasagna Primavera

I tried a new variation on lasagna today: Alfredo Lasagna Primavera.  The verdict?  Delicious!!  I already shared my classic lasagna recipe with you, along with some variations.  However, this recipe is so different that I decided it deserves its own post.  Here’s what I did.
 
 
Ingredients:
  • 9-12 lasagna noodles, cooked
  • 1 batch of Alfredo sauce (recipe follows)
  • 2 cups shredded Italian cheese blend (mozzarella, provolone, etc.)
  • 3 small zucchinis, sliced into rounds
  • ½ an onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 tomato, diced
  • 1 bell pepper, thinly sliced
  • Olive oil
  • Garlic powder

Directions:

  1. Cook lasagna noodles according to package directions; set aside. 
  2. Make Alfredo sauce (recipe follows); set aside.
  3. Sautee onion, bell pepper and zucchini in a small amount of olive oil, until just tender; remove from heat and add tomatoes.
  4. Spread a thin layer of olive oil in the bottom of a 9x13” glass baking dish.
  5. Layer the lasagna as follows: 3-4 lasagna noodles, thin layer of Alfredo sauce; vegetables; then shredded cheese. Repeat.
  6. After two complete layers, put another layer of lasagna noodles, Alfredo sauce and top with remaining shredded cheese.
  7. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes or until bubbly.

Alfredo Sauce
Ingredients:
1/2 pint heavy whipping cream
¾ cup *real* Parmesan cheese, finely grated
2 Tbsp. butter
1 Tbsp. flour

Directions:
Melt butter in a small sauce pan.  Whisk in flour until well combined.  Add heavy whipping cream and heat over medium low until sauce thickens slightly.  Remove from heat, and add cheese very SLOWLY, stirring constantly.  If you like, you can add some spices.  For this recipe, I added black pepper, red pepper and garlic.

**Note: you can also use this sauce recipe for fettuccine Alfredo – just toss with pasta; add in veggies or grilled chicken if you’d like!

In conclusion, I have to admit that I actually like this Alfredo Lasagna better than my regular lasagna.  Tom seems to like both equally, however…so I’m sure they’ll both remain in my dinner rotation!