Welcoming 2013

A vacation is having nothing to do all day and all day to do it in. — Robert Orben

As I wrap up this year, I prepare to spend the beginning of twenty-thirteen in a time of reflection, planning and adventure. In just a few short days I'll be heading off to explore the Panama Canal. Including these specific stops on the cruise:
Half Moon Cay, Bahamas
Oranjestad, Aruba
Willemstad (Curaco), Antilles
Gatun Lake, Panama
Colón, Panama
Puerto Limón, Costa Rica

I am so thankful to start out a new year on an adventure with my mom and her parents. Yes...I am leaving Nick back at home to hold down the fort. I'm looking forward to quality time, lots of r&r, a chance to clear my head and focus on my goals for the next 365 days.

How will you be starting out this upcoming year?

Ringing in 2013

Approach the New Year with resolve to find the opportunities hidden in each new day. — Michael Josephson

The new year is like a fresh journal with pages blank — this is your opportunity, what will you write? For me, a new year means a fresh start, a chance to try everything over again and a chance to try new things. Right now I have a few 2013 list items, but I am trying to cut down my list a focus on just a few.

2012 in a quick overview:
• Hosted my first Christmas.
• Saw Jersey Boys and Le Miserables.
• At work, kept busy, nomintated for the Employee of the Year, received a promotion and accepted nine awards in an Illinois marketing awards conference.
• Celebrated my sister's nursing dedication.
• Transitioned from my old blog to this new space.
• Short summer getaway with friends to Milwaukee Summer Fest.
• Visited Valentino Vineyards with my Mom.
• Vacationed in Cape San Blas.
• Nick ran numerous races, including a relay race from Madison, WI to Chicago (199 miles), an ultra-marathon (50K) in the mountains of Chattanooga, TN, and won for his age division, a 10K race in Indianapolis.
• Celebrated Nick's graduation from grad school and receiving his Illinois license.
• Planted in our first community garden.
• Visited Frank Lloyd Wright's Unity Temple.
• Traveled on a family cruise — saw the Mayan ruins in Mexico, snorkeled the world's second largest barrier reef in Belize and atv-ed the Honduran jungle.

So many things to be thankful for in the year of twenty-twelve.

What were your 2012 highlights? Do you have any 2013 goals, resolutions or ambitions? I would love to hear, share below!

I want 2013 to find me as a better woman. As Oprah once said, "Cheers to a new year and another chance for us to get it right."


An Old-Fashioned Family Christmas

To the American People: Christmas is not a time or a season but a state of mind. To cherish peace and good will, to be plenteous in mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas. If we think on these things, there will be born in us a Savior and over us will shine a star sending its gleam of hope to the world. — Calvin Coolidge, Presidential message (December 25, 1927)

Like I told you before, we were planning on a cozy Christmas in our home. An old-fashioned family Christmas.

Let me set the scene for you:
The best of all gifts around any Christmas tree: the presence of a happy family all wrapped up in each other. — Burton Hillis

A little visitor watching the festivities from our porch.

Sorting out the gifts under the tree.

Adele helping Grandpa Smith unwrap.

Gifts of time and love are surely the basic ingredients to a truly merry Christmas. — Peg Bracken

Once the day turned into dusk, we all bundled up to see the local zoo lights and visit the animals.

All the excitement got the best of little Justin.

The table then was set for a Christmas morning brunch — complete with Nick's grandmother's beautiful china.

{excuse the poor phone picture and quality}

Santa Paws came for a visit.

So that was a quick overview of our holiday cozied up in our humble abode. What were your holiday highlights?

Gift Guide | Stocking Stuffers

Christmas is just a few days away, five to be exact — less if you're family starts to celebrate this weekend. Nick and I are hosting his entire family this weekend. Yes, we will have 11 people in our tiny one bedroom apartment. It's going to be fun, tight, loud and filling — because I am planning on cooking. We cannot wait!

Okay, back to the purpose of this post... As I sit wrapped up in my favorite cozy blanket and holiday music playing, I want to share with you a few excellent stocking suffers for the cook in your life:

1 | 2 | 3
4 | 5 | 6
{click links above to go shopping}

1. Scalloped Cupcake Liners — what baker doesn't smile at a perfectly scalloped, yet simple cupcake liner? Honestly, I keep various liners around my kitchen because you never know when they can be put to use. I believe the simple ones are the best.

2. iPad Kitchen Screen Protector — Man, William Sonoma beat me to the punch. They created an excellent splatter-proof contraption for a well loved and used kitchen iPad. I know that I use my iPad for recipes, listening to music and checking emails while sauces simmer. But with this new screen protector, you can rest assured that pop of oil from the skillet isn't a dive bomber trying to ruin your evening and electronic cookbook.

3. Mini Bottle of Wine or Champagne — Christmas time is a season for family, friends and celebration. Why not sneak in a little bottle of fun?

4. Kitchen Soap — Every cook loves to have a nice soap sitting near the kitchen sink to wash away the various smells and vegetable peels from their hands. A moisturizing component is always a plus! Meyer's Basil is the perfect scent. Sniff, sniff...mmm! Did I mention it is eco-friendly?

5. Bottle Stoppers — These beautiful broach-topped wine bottle stoppers are the perfect little stocking stuffers. These toppers are to wine bottles, as a star is to a Christmas tree. Perfect I tell you!

6. Salt Cellar — This vintage inspired cellar is a star player on every kitchen counter. How do I know? Well, I've had this item on my counter for quite a few years now, and I love it! Easy access for a pinch of salt here and there.

There you have it folks, the best of the best! On a final note, if you haven't seen or haven't voted, please participate on the poll to the right ------>

Gift Guide for Cooks

Just a mere ten days until Christmas. Are you done with your shopping? I'm just waiting for a few items to arrive in the mail, but other than that, most of my gifts are wrapped and nestled under the tree.

1 | 2 | 3 | 4
5 | 6 | 7 
{Click these links to go shopping!}

Do you have a kitchen guru in your life and you are at a loss for what to get him or her? This list is compiled of some of my favorite kitchen items.

1. An excellent apron — To be honest, I don't wear many aprons, but I like the idea of them. Maybe that could be on my new years resolutions/goal list...to wear aprons more often when cooking. Does that count as a resolution? I resolve to wear aprons in 2013.

2. Over-the-sink wooden cutting board — This is a must-have item in my kitchen. Cutting on wood is so much better than any material. Come on people, plastic stinks. But more so, there is a place to clean your fresh fruits and veggies or use the colander as a waste receptacle. And finally, this board saves counter space while resting over an open sink. This is key, especially when you live in a small apartment like me!

3. Citrus squeezer — Look at all your recipes. How many call for freshly squeezed citrus? Um, hello...a lot! This kitchen gadget saves the pain of getting lemon juice in small cuts (gross, sorry) and extracts way more than pure human hands could possibly squeeze.

4. Garlic press — What can I say? Pure genius. Reducing the need to walk around with your hands smelling like you have a fistful of garlic cloves. Not to mention all the time you'll save, not mincing garlic cloves.

5. Adorable kitchen towels — In my kitchen, I always have a cute, decorative tea towel on the handle of my oven. Who wouldn't want this lovely, script-y, ray of sunshine, calendar towel?

6. Stove top espresso maker — This is always out in my kitchen and used frequently. Mmm, this maker quickly brews an extremely rich, full-flavored coffee on the stove top (obviously).

7. Cookbook stand — A stand, similar to this one is another item that is always out on the counter, displaying a delicious recipe along a beautiful photograph. Keep your recipe books propped open as well as free from splatters.

Well that about does it from the essential cooking holiday gift guide.

Do you have a special kitchen gadget you couldn't live without? Share, I am sure other readers would enjoy a few more ideas for their holiday shopping!

Bragging Rights

So I've gotta boast for a minute — on my husband.

Finally, after a long time coming...Nick is licensed in the state of Illinois as a Professional Counselor.

Nicholas Smith, MA, LPC — FANCY!

Dearest Nick,
Congratulations on receiving your license. Doing the hard work has paid off and I know that it took a lot of effort and dedication on your part. Now it is all coming together and making all your efforts worth it. I am so proud that your career will make such a positive difference in so many lives. Well done!
Your happy & proud wife,

One final boasting note, Nick has started his own blog, Run to Well-Being. Go check it out!

Thanksgiving | Dessert

After a long anticipated wait and the suspense is high, I present you with...Nantucket Cranberry Pie!

As you all most likely know by now, I was a vegetarian for a loooong time before becoming a vegan, say 13 years. So, with this being said, I have many recipes I used to adore but do not fit a vegan diet. Anyway, one of them was the Pioneer Woman's Nantucket Cranberry Pie. This woman is genius I tell you, just genius! As Thanksgiving rolled around this year and I threw different thoughts of desserts around in my head, this recipe kept coming to the front. With that, I printed out the recipe and made some adaptions, creating the most delish vegan pie that has ever touched my lips. Absolutely divine.

Vegan Nantucket Cranberry Pie
Earth Balance, for greasing
2 c (heaping) cranberries
3/4 c chopped pecans
2/3 c sugar
1 c flour
1 c sugar
1/2 c Earth Balance, melted
1/2 c unsweetened, plain apple sauce
1 t pure almond extract
1/4 t salt
1 T sugar, for sprinkling

Preheat Oven to 350 degrees.

Generously butter a pie pan. Add cranberries to the bottom of the pan.

Sprinkle on the chopped pecans.

Then, sprinkle on 2/3 c sugar.

In a mixing bowl, combine flour, 1 c sugar, melted Earth Balance, applesauce, almond extract, and salt. Stir gently to combine. Pour batter slowly over the top in large "ribbons" in order to evenly cover the surface. Spread out gently, if necessary. — I got so excited at this point, that I forgot to take a picture of this step — you understand, right? Mmmm...pie....Okay sorry, back to the recipe.

Bake for 45-50 minutes. 5 minutes before removing from the oven, sprinkle surface with 1 T sugar for an extra crunch.

Let cool and cut into wedges to serve.

It is even good for breakfast with a big steaming mug of coffee. How do I know? Yes, I am having that now. Jealous?

What is your favorite pie? Share with me.

Thanksgiving | Salad & Entree

Thanksgiving, after all, is a word of action.
W.J Cameron

Like I promised, next up, Thanksgiving Day main course:

After over indulging in appetizers, we dove head first into many more delicious dishes.

Pistachio-Pomegranate Salad
{an adapted recipe from Rachel Ray}
1 1/2 c apple cider
1 c shelled pistachios
1 T plus 1 1/2 t packed brown sugar
2 shallots, sliced
3 T red wine vinegar
2 t dijon mustard
coarse sea salt
1/3 c extra virgin olive oil
1 head chopped butter lettuce
4 c packed arugula
1 c pomegranate seeds

1. In a large saucepan, boil the apple cider over high heat until reduced to 1/3 c, about 15 minutes. Let cool.

{Don't judge my pans that desperately need a visit from Bar Keepers Friend}

2. Meanwhile, in a large skillet, toast the pistachios over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until fragrant, about 5 minutes. Sprinkle with brown sugar; stir to coat. Transfer to a piece of parchment and let cool.

3. In a food processor, mix the reduced cider, shallots, vinegar, mustard and 1/2 t. salt. With the the processor running, slowly pour the extra virgin olive oil; process until combined.

4. In a large bowl, toss the greens with dressing to taste and topping with the pomegranate seeds and candied pistachios. Any remaining dressing can be kept in the refrigerator. Serve immediately.

{coming soon, a tutorial on how to seed a pomegranate}

Brussels Sprouts with Lemon
extra virgin olive oil
15 large brussels sprouts, trimmed and sliced in half
juice from one lemon, freshly squeezed
sea salt, to taste

1. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add sprouts, cut side down and allow to brown, approximately 5 minutes.

2. Once they have a nice brown-golden color, stir and add in lemon juice.

3. Cover the skillet to allow the brussels sprouts to steam. Steam until the sprouts are softened, but not too soft. They're best enjoyed with still a little fresh crunch. Season with salt and serve.

This recipe is fool-proof for changing the mind of any brussels sprouts hater out there — this is the truth!

Acorn Squash with Wild Mushroom Cranberry Stuffing
{an adapted recipe from Bon Appétit, October 1995}
4 acorn squash, halved lengthwise, seeded
1/3 c dried cranberries
1/4 c hot water
Earth Balance (vegan butter)
24 oz. wild mushrooms, chopped
1 onion, chopped
3. c herbed stuffing bread cubes

1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

2. Place the squash cut side down in a baking dish. Cover dish tightly with plastic wrap. Microwave for 10 minutes. Pierce plastic to let steam escape. Uncover and turn squash halves cut side up. Season cavities with salt and pepper. You may have to do this step twice due to the quantity of squash, or unless you have a gargantuan microwave, in which I do not...Okay sorry, back to the recipe...

3. Combine dried cranberries and hot water in a small bowl.

4. Melt some Earth Balance in a heavy large skillet over medium heat. Add mushrooms, onion and sage and sauté until beginning to soften. Add bread cubes and stir. Mix in cranberries with soaking liquid. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

5. Mound stuffing into squash halves. Dot each half with Earth Balance. Bake until heated through and crisp on top, about 10 minutes.

Up next (and saving the best for last) a vegan Thanksgiving Day dessert!

Thanksgiving | Appetizers

Yesterday, Thanksgiving was very different than our traditional celebration. Usually, we travel to celebrate with my extended family in Ohio. But, this year, travels did not fit within our work schedules and Nick and I stayed home, in our humble abode in the (60-degree) Chicagoland.

Thanksgiving doesn't seem to be the same just sitting around the two of us, so we invited our dear friend Anthony who was here alone as well, to join in the vegan Thanksgiving festivities. We spent the day socializing, eating, watching the Macy's Day Parade, eating, laughing, game playing, eating, cooking...oh, did I mention eating?

The three of us started our day off enjoying Thanksgiving Blend coffee from Starbucks and delicious vegan blueberry muffins from Whole Foods, while watching the parade.

Next course? Appetizers — an antipasti platter.

Marinated Mushrooms
{an adapted recipe from Martha Stewart}
1 package of beech brown mushrooms
2 T freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 T white wine vinegar
1 T dried oregano
6 T extra virgin olive oil
3/4 t sea salt
1/8 t freshly ground black pepper

1. Trim mushroom stems and break apart to separate the mushroom bunch. Put the mushrooms in a jar.

2. Whisk together lemon juice, vinegar and oregano in a bowl. Whisk in oil slowly until fully integrated and emulsified. Whisk in salt and pepper.

3. Pour marinade over the mushrooms and let stand for at least 20 minutes on your counter, stirring or rotating the jar occasionally. If desired, refrigerate mushrooms, with a lid overnight. Serve at room temperature.

These mushrooms had a two-thirds approval rate. Both myself and Anthony liked these lemony mushrooms, Nick was not a fan.

Along with the marinated mushrooms, on the antipasti platter, I included roasted garlic, blanched asparagus and a variety of marinated olives.

Roasted Garlic
4 heads of garlic — or as many as you would like to make!
extra virgin olive oil

1. Cut off just enough of the top, of each garlic head, to expose all the cloves inside.

2. Grab a small, oven-safe pan and drizzle a little evoo in the pan — tilt to cover the bottom thoroughly.

3. Place the garlic heads, cut side up, in the pan.

4. Drizzle the heads of garlic with evoo. This is so they won't burn.

5. Salt and pepper each of the garlic heads.

6. Cover the pan with tinfoil. Pop into a 375 degree oven for about 40-45 minutes.

7. Once removed and cooled slightly, grab the bottom of the head and gently squeeze until each of the clove pop out. They should be mushy.

Enjoy! Roasted garlic is great as a spread on a baguette (that's how we enjoyed it this Thanksgiving) or you could add it into your mashed potatoes, or really into anything that you want a buttery-roasted-yummy-garlicy-deliciousness!

Next up: salad & entree recipes...