This past weekend, my friend Emily and I co-hosted a book release party for our friend Rachel Haas. And somehow I thought my role as co-host meant I would show up early to help out and bring a platter of bacon-wrapped dates. And Emily thought it meant she would host and handle drinks and I would bring all the food. We laughed about it all weekend because for two professional writers, we absolutely failed on the communication front!
I figured out what was going on Thursday afternoon, the day before the party. I was on a conference call and I saw a text message pop up saying something like: We have 20 people coming tomorrow night and I’ve got all the drinks covered — can’t wait to eat your delicious food! (This is a paraphrase. It actually took me a few messages to catch on because (a) sometimes I’m kind of dense and (b) my brain was focused on some awesome spreadsheets.)
If I’d realized what was going on a little earlier, I would have spent a lot of time planning an awesome menu for Rachel’s party — because she wrote an entire book and we are totally psyched for her huge accomplishment — but since I only had from 6 p.m. Thursday to when I went to sleep and from 5:30 p.m. to 6:15 p.m. Friday when I had to leave for the party, we had to focus on easy, fast, tried-and-true favorites to get the party started. Emily created the most beautiful party environment, and I think the food turned out pretty great too.
Here’s what I did:
- Alton Brown’s Baked Macaroni and Cheese. I doubled the version and when it was going into the oven it looked too soupy, but when it came out of the oven it was golden and delicious. Macaroni and Cheese is vegetarian-friendly, super filling, and not too expensive on your party budget, so it’s a go-to for me when I need to feed a crowd. I made and baked this Thursday night, and then reheated in the oven at Emily’s on Friday night.
- Bacon-wrapped Goat Cheese Dates. You just put the tiniest bit of goat cheese inside the dates, wrap them up with raw bacon, skewer with a toothpick and bake at 375 until the bacon is crispy. Super easy. We prepped these on Thursday night and then baked them at Emily’s house while the party was getting started. Bacon smells great while cooking, so it’s a win-win for everyone there.
- Barbecue Meatballs. Grab freezer meatballs and throw them into the your crock pot with barbecue sauce. I used a combination of Sweet Baby Ray’s, peach jam, apple cider vinegar, maybe a little Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, and water. I kept adding stuff until it tasted good to me. Follow your heart here.
- Hummus Platter with Vegetables. I used Sabra hummus but transferred it into a fancy container and topped it with a drizzle of olive oil and freshly cracked black pepper. I hate how raw broccoli feels dry and scratchy in your throat at parties, so I skipped it and went with baby carrots and sliced red and green bell peppers instead. Since the mac-and-cheese and meatballs were a bit heavy, the lighter hummus and vegetables offered a healthier option.
- Peanut Butter Fudge and Chocolate Fudge. Cupcakes, cookies, cakes — I would usually bake something lovely for such a huge moment in a friend’s life, but since time was limited (and honestly, so was our fridge space!) I went with an easy, quick dessert: fudge. I’m sure there are really delicious ways to make fudge that are not easy, but for both of my efforts, it involved pouring things into a bowl, microwaving that bowl, stirring the contents of the bowl, pouring the melted contents into another container, chilling, and chopping. So easy! The small bites are party-friendly. But, since some have peanut allergies I’m really careful to keep the peanut butter fudge separate so if needed, it can be swept away and the party can be allergy-free.
And the reason for the party: Rachel’s New Book!
If you’re interested in fairy-tales, new fiction writers, or just making someone feel awesome, click through here to purchase Rachel L. Haas’s new book, Portals of Water and Wine. I’m so impressed with Rachel’s tenacity to get this book written and out into the world — I think we could all learn a lot from her commitment to her art. Here she is on Friday night, talking about her writing process and reading a selection from her new release!
Tomorrow morning my husband and his brothers are running the Chicago marathon. The guys and my in-laws have been hanging with us all week, in-and-out of the house according to their own schedules since Tuesday afternoon. We’ll be going out a lot to enjoy our city, which means a lot of food and drink that does not come from my kitchen.
Since the only thing I can really control about my diet this week without giving up an awesome time is breakfast, I spent a little extra time making sure I had everything I needed for a quick and nutritious start to the day. I purchased a large container of plain greek yogurt, a few packages of heat-and-serve turkey sausages, a loaf of grainy bread, and threw together a batch of granola.
Store-bought granola is “healthy” food, but has a ton of calories and sometimes preservatives. Also, it’s wicked expensive. A 12 oz bag of Bare Naked granola – which has a great ingredient list for us normal shoppers – will run you more than $5.00. So, I like to make my own. It’s quick, easy, and you can increase the ratio of oats to nuts a little so the calories are a little lower and the cost is a little more economical.
My Homemade Granola Recipe
There are a million and one recipes for homemade granola on the internet, and there’s no reason that mine is any better than anyone else’s. The following recipe is what I actually did this week, which had one huge flaw I’ll describe below, and was based off this recipe from Alton Brown.
Here’s what you need:
3 cups oatmeal
2 cups nuts of your choice (I like walnuts, almonds, and pecans)
¾ cup coconut
¼ cup plus 2 Tbsp. brown sugar
¼ cup olive oil
½ tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. vanilla
¾ tsp salt – you might add a little extra or use a little less to taste
½ to ¾ cup dried fruit of your choice (we like raisins, cranberries, pineapple, apricots, etc. BUT I don’t like them in big chunks, so I cut them up small.
Extra maple syrup and olive oil at the end
Here’s what you do:
Pre-heat your oven to 250 degrees Fahrenheit.
In a huge bowl stir together oats, nuts, coconut, brown sugar, cinnamon, and salt.
Stir together the oil and vanilla, pour over dry ingredients and stir until coated.
Pour the mixture onto a jelly-roll pan (I use two so I can stir without spilling) and pop into the oven. Every fifteen minutes for one hour and fifteen minutes, pull the mixture out of the oven and give it a stir.
When you’ve done the cycle five times, pull the granola out, carefully slide it into another huge bowl (maybe two bowls if you need to), and pour in the dried fruit.
AND HERE’s where it got weird: for my taste, the granola looked a little dry and too light. It tasted great, but the ¼ cup of maple syrup I cut out of Alton’s original recipe to save calories had also cut down on the granola’s stick-togethery-ness. And so I did a fix. Kitchen fixes are things you do in the moment where there is a 50% chance you will ruin everything and a 50% chance it will be awesome. This week, it was awesome.
Turn the oven up to 375. On top of the bowl of granola and dried fruit, drizzle about 1 Tbsp. of olive oil and about 2 Tbsp. of maple syrup, Stir together and pour it back on your pans.
Bake for 8 minutes, stirring at the four minute mark. (I actually went 10 minutes, stirring at the five minute mark, but watch this carefully. There is a thin line between roasty-toasty and burned up nasty.)
When ready, pull out of the oven, stir it up one last time, and let it cool. Store in plastic freezer baggies or a cute glass mason jar.
Do you have a favorite granola recipe? Do you like your granola lightly browned or dark and toasty?
Nearly every time I’ve made cookies or baked a cake or pie or otherwise created something delicious to share since leaving home ten years ago (wow, I’m so old!), I’ve wished for Tupperware. I’ve used gallon-sized Ziploc bags, discounted IKEA cake holders, and a lot of creativity to store and carry the goodies I’ve made, but each time I’ve thought: oh, if only I had Tupperware for this. Because Tupperware is L-E-G-I-T the best brand of storage containers ever.
I’m not sure why I didn’t put Tupperware storage containers on our wedding registry, or order some after we were married, or after I started working, or at any other point over the last ten years. I’ve definitely purchased a lot of other unnecessary kitchen gadgets that I didn’t want or need as much as I wanted Tupperware. I’m looking at you, giant muffin tin, martini glasses, rhinoceros-shaped cookie cutter . . .
Earlier this year, my cousin had a Tupperware party online and I got very (very!!) excited and ordered a cake taker and a pie taker.
The pans are white with turquoise lids and they are perfect and wonderful and I couldn’t be happier. H did not understand why I would be so excited or spend so much money on plastic containers, and he’s been making fun of my purchase for a while. But this weekend, our new cake and pie takers earned their place in our home.
On Saturday, I made a two-layer banana cake (this recipe) and frosted it with peanut butter-butter cream frosting for H’s birthday. I packed that cake into our Cake Taker and slid it onto a shelf in the refrigerator. On Monday, I made this zucchini-potato casserole in my fluted tart pan, which I packed into the pie taker. We grabbed both containers and a six-pack of beer as we headed out to my friend’s Memorial Day barbecue, and I didn’t worry one minute about the tart pan leaking or the cake getting knocked around in the car. Everything was in perfect condition when we arrived, and it was so easy to carry items to and from the car. Nothing spilled, nothing leaked, nothing was dropped. Because Tupperware is the best ever.
Today, I tested the cake taker on the bus during my commute to work. I made it safely onto and off of the bus with my purse, tote, and cake taker without getting yelled at by strangers and without the cake flipping over or spilling. IT WAS AWESOME. My 1/3 cake looked pretty cute (you know, as good as 1/3 of a cake can look) in its blue and white container, and I particularly appreciated the handle while navigating the bus ride, crowded sidewalks, and full elevator.
And so, I have arrived. I am now officially a grown-up lady who has her own cake AND pie/cookie holders and is prepared for any potlucks or parties you’d like to invite me to attend.
Are there any weird tools or gadgets that you’ve always wanted but never made the effort to purchase? Share in the comments or link up on twitter!
This is just me loving my new cake and pie takers, and not a sponsored post. I don’t actually know how to make sponsored posts because what are sponsors? Don’t worry if you hate Tupperware and want to hate on it in the comments. That’s totally fine.
This week has been much too slow and much too fast. I thought that yesterday (Wednesday) was Friday, and was none too pleased to discover the truth. But somehow minutes are also flying by so quickly! I can barely keep up.
This weekend I did some of the things that make my weeks awesome — I put together a rockin’ meal plan (blog post coming soon!) did laundry and cleaned my room. I didn’t pick outfits, so I’m basically wearing different colored versions of dress-cardigan-tights-boots every day, but that’s okay. We can’t win every battle.
My family is driving up today for a last-minute weekend in the city, and while surprises are typically not my jam I’m really excited! The weather is looking great for mid-March (although it did snow for one hour this morning), and since I’m starting to really love this city I’m happy to have them see it too.
So, I’m putting together a new Choose-Your-Own-Adventure plan for the weekend. It’s one of my favorite things to make! I had already put fajitas on the menu, but today Deb at the Smitten Kitchen has a recipe up too. Clearly this weekend is made for fajitas. We’ll try to get seated at Little Goat and might stop by a jazz club.
Any big plans for you this weekend? I’ll still have a Five Things post tomorrow, but I’m excited to take a little break from the usual.
I have a blog post planned, but it will just have to stay in the cooler because there has been no time for writing today! I mentioned that H’s two brothers would be here for the weekend, and entertaining our guests and preparing for tomorrow’s Fake Thanksgiving Dinner has me exhausted. (I took a mini-nap on the L just a while ago!)
We woke up and had poached eggs and cheesy grits for breakfast this morning. I went ahead and made up two pans of cornbread to use for the dressing tomorrow before jumping in the shower. While that was baking, I threw together the cranberry sauce so it would be chilled and ready to go.
We drove northwest of Chicago so the boys could spend the afternoon hitting golf balls at Top Golf. I went along because of an exciting detour involving wildlife that I will share once the photos are edited! I sipped a hot toddy and read a magazine for a few hours while I watched them play from the warmth of the lodge.
It’s freezing out, and I’m wearing my down coat, two sweaters, tights under my jeans, wool socks, and fleece-lined boots. I found the bright green hooded scarf (with pockets) that my mom gave me five years ago for Christmas for my first winter in DC, and today it is the only thing keeping me from giving up and staying inside forever.
We are now at the Bad Dog Tavern, Chicago’s University of Tennessee bar, watching the UT-Vanderbilt game. When UT scores they play rocky top and the food is honestly pretty great. They have nachos with short ribs. AND the whole place is totally decked out for Christmas!
So, how was your Saturday? Have you started holiday shopping yet? I can’t wait to dig into the sales next weekend!
My parents and sister came up for a visit over Columbus Day weekend, and we had a fantastic time! I spent a lot of time online searching for good ideas and options for us to do while they were in town, and I wanted to share those ideas here as a resource for others. Each item on this list meets the following requirements: (1) not too expensive, (2) easy access by car, (3) close to parking/car in case of a health emergency, and (4) family friendly, as well as caters in some way to the personal interests of my family.
Because we needed a plan we could play by ear, I put together a lot of options and then chose from those options based on how everyone was feeling and the weather. We had a few extra hurdles this weekend, as this past Sunday was the Chicago marathon and there were many road closures and lots of extra people in the city.
Planning for Meals
No one has fun when they are hungry all day, so I typically plan days with guests around meals and am sure to include snacks. Before my family arrived, I made sure to cook/purchase lots of healthy and not-so-healthy snacks, based on what my family likes and what I like. I made sure to have carrots and hummus for a healthy snack, meatballs, cooked chicken, and nuts for protein, and some homemade and purchased cookies and candy for sweet snacks and desserts.
Feeding five people requires a lot more food (and effort!) than feeding two, so it’s important to take that into consideration when shopping. I thought I did this well but still ended up running out of eggs before we ran out of mornings! We planned to eat breakfasts at home and to make at least one dinner at home (so we could watch football), but made sure to have other things on hand in case our plans changed and we needed to stay closer to home. And, there’s always takeout.
Instead of making reservations that would put stress on our days to be at certain places at certain times, I made a list of restaurant options that I knew we could go to without making reservations. Here’s what we had on the list:
- Deep Dish Pizza (a Chicago must) at Lou Malnati’s
- Sandwiches from Panazzo’s Italian Sandwiches, a lunch location within walking distance from our apartment and with great Yelp reviews
- Bongo Room, the current winner on my search for the best brunch locations in Chicago — get cheese on your breakfast potatoes. Trust me.
- Pita Heaven, another casual walk-in for lunch that added a little variety to our options
- Uncle Julio’s Mexican Restaurant, with on-site parking and an easy-to-please menu
- Chinese Food in Chinatown, since Chinese food is a favorite in my family — we ended up choosing Go 4 Food which was delicious!
There is a lot to see and do in Chicago, but I know my family and I know they’d rather do a few enjoyable things than rush around the city trying to fit too much into each day. My number-one choice for seeing the city without getting a workout is Shoreline Sightseeing’s Architecture River Cruises. These cruises are fun, informative, and give you a chance to learn Chicago history and really get to know the major elements of the skyline. I’ve been on two now and would absolutely go again — each tour guide gives you a different feel for the city. And if you don’t love architecture, it’s still really fun to be on a boat, and kids love the boat noises, going under bridges, etc. I think it’s a perfect start to the city. After the architecture cruise, no matter where you go in the city you’ll see a building you remember from the cruise and feel like you’ve learned a little about the city.
Other easy options for sightseeing include: the Chicago Tribune Building, which is right along Michigan Avenue’s Magnificent Mile of shopping and has a very interesting construction that includes pieces of famous buildings across the world, the John Hancock Observatory and/or Lounge (locals recommend skipping the typical price of the observation deck and spending that money on a cocktail or espresso in the lounge instead), and a spot along Lake Michigan for beautiful city views. The two options I chose for shoreline views were Promontory Point, a southern-view that would be better for afternoon photo-taking, and North Avenue Beach, to get a feel for what a Chicago summer would feel like. We opted for North Avenue Beach and I think my parents enjoyed seeing the waterfront and the shuttered beach house.
Finally, you will absolutely want to stop in Grant Park and/or Millennium Park and see the Bean. It’s really cool and a great photo-taking opportunity.
While cookie-cutter sightseeing is fun for a while, what really makes a vacation are the fun things you do. I had hoped to take my parents and sister to see the Best of Second City show on Saturday night, but unfortunately it had sold out before I purchased tickets and the Monday night showing did not fit our scheduling needs. Try to get tickets if you can, but we’ll be saving that for their next visit. We made sure to stop over at the Amish Healthy Foods Unique Grocery in the Ukrainian Village, and got delicious unusual flavors of gelato from Black Dog Chicago. Also on the list but not on our final agenda was a Saturday stop at the Green City Farmer’s Market (can you tell we love looking at weird organic food?) and a visit to the Field Museum or the Shedd Aquarium. On our last afternoon in the city, a stop at the nearby Horseshoe Casino was a fun break.
Finally, be sure to plan for quiet time/individual downtime. Everyone needs some time to decompress, and that need can be even greater on vacation. It’s supposed to be fun, so don’t let planning or getting places ruin the fun of it all. Play some cards, people watch, read that book that’s been waiting for you, and enjoy your time together.
So, what did I miss? What are your favorite parts of the city to share with your out-of-town guests?