July Update: A new streak begins and the garden keeps on growing!

Matt and I are home after spending 10 days in beautiful St. Lucia and a few days in Western Maryland for the DockDogs Regional Championships.  I’ll post honeymoon photos and the dockdogs recap soon, but in the meantime I have some updates!

After 205 consecutive days my mile-a-day streak ended the day before our honeymoon began (June 13th).  I initially thought I would keep on streaking while in St. Lucia but for the first week we were staying in the rainforest on top of a mountain at the end of a precariously washed out dirt road so running a mile a day wasn’t really feasible.  Oh well!  🙂 As of July 1st I have started a new streak.  We’ll see if I can beat 205 days… I’ll reach that goal on January 21, 2014.

In other news, we had record rainfall in June and as a result my vegetable garden has been growing like crazy!  Check out this photo that I took today… a comparison shot from my May 10th gardening post is below.

Garden 7-3-13

Garden (5-10-13)

Quite a difference, right?  When we got home from St. Lucia I was shocked to see how much the parsley, thyme and tomatoes had grown and I was overwhelmed by the enormous zucchini plants!!  (I think my basil was overwhelmed too… it’s now living in the shadow of those large-leafed behemoths!)  Here are some other photos of my garden and back yard flowers from today.

While I was wandering around with my camera this afternoon I was surprised to spot a white-tailed deer in the front yard.  It is quite common for us to see deer in our area (usually in other peoples’ yards or dashing across the road!) but it is very, VERY rare to see a deer in our yard because Bailey has made it her life mission to stalk and chase any and all wildlife that comes within her invisible fence boundary.

I guess the neighborhood deer herd realized that Bailey was not at home for most of June and as a result they are now making themselves comfortable in the front yard.  Luckily Bailey was on her game this afternoon and as soon as this deer made a move Bailey (who must have been stalking it from a different angle as I snapped away with the camera) came blasting over, chased it away, and then proceeded to roll and rub in the deer’s scent for a good 30 seconds.  Good dog, Bailey (even if you do smell now…)

Well, that’s it for tonight’s update.  Happy 4th of July and have a great holiday weekend!!

Related Posts:
• Streaking, Reflections, and Other December Challenges (December 3, 2012)
• Streaking, Day 100 (March 1, 2013)
• Let the 2013 Gardening Season Begin! (May 12, 2013)
• Waiting for Red Tomatoes (July 4, 2012)

Weekly Photo Challenge: Color

I haven’t been very good about doing the WordPress Weekly Photo Challenges every week, but I like this week’s topic so I thought I would jump back in and participate! Here’s my red-hued take on Color:

Looking at all of those beautiful red veggies and flowers is really making me want to plant my vegetable garden! 🙂 Just a few weeks to go…

Smoky Beef Chili

Slow-cooked stew… the perfect winter weeknight meal! Last week after a long day at work and a cold drive home we opened our back door and were greeted by the wonderful smell of simmering Smoky Beef Chili in the crock pot. This chili was easy to make — we actually threw the ingredients together at lunchtime and let them simmer all afternoon — and the resulting dinner was delicious!

Smoky Beef Chili

This Smoky Beef Chili recipe comes from Williams Sonoma’s The New Slow Cooker, a cookbook that my mom got me for Christmas. The chili features tender chunks of beef (so tender that you can cut them with a spoon!), smoky chipotle-induced heat and a fresh corn salsa that contrasts nicely with the intense flavors of the stew. Depending on how much beef stock you opt to add, the chili is either a nice soup consistency (with more stock) or a thick stew that tastes great over rice.

Smoky Beef Chili (from The New Slow Cooker)

Ingredients for the Stew:
4 lbs. Boneless Beef Chuck, trimmed of fat and cut into 3/4″ cubes
Salt and Pepper
1/4 cup Olive Oil
2 Large Yellow Onions, coarsely chopped
2 Chipotle Chiles in Adobo Sauce, finely chopped
2 tablespoons Chipotle Chile Powder
2 teaspoons Ground Cumin
1 teaspoon Dried Mexican Oregano
1/2 teaspoon Red Pepper Flakes
1 cup Tomato Paste
2-3 cups Beef Stock, divided

Ingredients for the Corn Salsa Garnish:
2 tablespoons Olive Oil
1 tablespoon low-sodium Soy Sauce
Juice of 1 Lime
2 teaspoons Sherry (or Sherry Vinegar)
1 teaspoon minced fresh Ginger
1/8 teaspoon Sugar
2-3 drops Hot Sauce (we used Cholula)
2 cups Corn Kernels (if frozen, rinse under water to thaw)
2 cups Cherry Tomatoes, halved
4 Green Onions, thinly sliced

Directions:
Season the beef with salt and pepper. Add half of the oil to a large skillet over medium-heat heat. Add half of the beef and brown evenly (approx. 5 minutes), then set the browned beef aside on a plate and repeat with the remaining meat.

If the skillet is dry, add more of the olive oil or, if the skillet has a lot of fat in it, drain most of the fat away. Bring back to medium heat and saute the onions for about 6 minutes until softened. Add the garlic and cook for another minute, then stir in the next 6 ingredients (chipotles thru tomato paste) and cook for 2 minutes. Add 1 cup of the beef stock and stir well to remove any browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Transfer the mixture to a slow cooker.

Add 1 teaspoon salt along with some ground pepper, and 1-2 cups of stock (depending on how soupy you want the chili to be) to the slow cooker and stir in the browned beef and any accumulated juices. Cover the slow cooker and cook on low for 5 hours.

Before serving the stew make the corn salsa. Start by whisking together the Lime Vinaigrette ingredients (olive oil thru hot sauce) in a small bowl. Combine the remaining ingredients in a large bowl and stir in the vinaigrette. Serve the salsa on top of a steaming bowl of Smoky Beef Chili and enjoy!

Smoky Beef Chili

Cumin-Scented Beef Stir Fry with Vegetables

I love my 14 inch carbon steel wok. Yup, I said it – LOVE!! Matt gave me a wok last year for my birthday and our old 12 inch frying pan has barely touched the stove since. We are constantly using the wok for a variety of culinary tasks such as sautéing peppers and onions, frying bacon, concocting the ideal combination of sausage and pasta, browning taco meat, and, of course, making delicious Asian stir fries.

If you want to learn more about woks and the yummy creations that can be made in them, I recommend that you invest $23 to buy Stir Frying to the Sky’s Edge by Grace Young. In addition to featuring dozens of delicious recipes with full color photos, this book includes several pages of clear, concise instructions that cover techniques like seasoning a wok, slicing fresh ginger, shredding scallions, and properly cutting a variety of meats and poultry.

We’ve spent the last year honing our stir frying skills on several of the recipes in the book including Kung Pao Chicken, Mongolian Lamb, and Hot Pepper Beef. Here’s the recipe for our latest dinner from the cookbook: Cumin-Scented Beef with Cauliflower, Carrots, Tomatoes and Green Onions… yum!!

Cumin-Scented Beef Stir Fry with Vegetables (from Stir Frying to the Sky’s Edge)

You will need…
12 oz. Flank Steak, cut against the grain into ¼ in wide strips
1 tablespoon Corn Starch
1 tablespoon Soy Sauce
2 teaspoons Dry Sherry (or Rice Wine if you have it)
1 tablespoon Peanut Oil
1 ½ cups Canola Oil
1 tablespoon Garlic, Minced
½ teaspoon Red Pepper Flakes
1 cup Cauliflower Florets, cut into bit-sized pieces
½ cup Carrots, thinly sliced
½ cup Cherry Tomatoes, halved
¾ teaspoon Salt, divided
1 teaspoon Cumin
½ cup Green Onions, thinly sliced
10 oz. Cooked White Rice

Directions:
Combine the beef, corn starch, soy sauce, sherry, and peanut oil in a bowl and mix well. Heat the canola oil in a flat-bottomed wok over high heat until the oil is 280°F. (We used our normal meat thermometer to check the oil heat.) Add the beef to the oil and spread it evenly in a single layer on the bottom of the wok. Cook until the outside surface of the beef is just starting to change color, about 15 seconds, and then remove the wok from the heat. Carefully extract the beef from the oil with a kitchen skimmer and place on a paper-towel-lined plate.

Pour the oil into a large cup or bowl and set aside. Clean and thoroughly dry the wok and the return to the stove over high heat. Add 1 tablespoon of the reserved oil along with the garlic and red pepper flakes and stir fry for 20 seconds or until aromatic. Add the cauliflower, carrots, tomatoes, and ¼ teaspoon of the salt and stir fry 2-3 minutes. Add in the cumin and stir fry for 5 seconds. Return the beef to the wok and stir in the remaining ½ teaspoon salt and green onions. Stir fry for 30 seconds to 1 minute until beef is cooked through and ingredients are well combined. Serve with rice and enjoy!

Volunteer Vegetables!

Guess what?  All of these veggies came from “volunteer plants” in my garden.  Volunteers are plants that grow on their own, either from the wind or a bird dropping a seed or, in my case, from compost.  Seeds aren’t normally supposed to sprout out of your compost so, judging by the huge quantity of volunteers that are growing around my house, I think I must be doing something wrong!  (Or very right, depending on how you feel about volunteer mystery plants!)

The squash and pumpkin plants sprouted by our front door and quickly took over our pink cosmo/dahlia flower bed.  By mid-August the crooked-neck gourd vines were completely out of control and could be clearly seen from the street so we picked the mature squash and ripped out the vines.  The pumpkin vines were growing across our front walk so today I finally decided that the pumpkin looked ripe enough to pick it and pull out the plant.

The tomatoes are the most exciting volunteers because we’re actually getting to eat those.  We have about a dozen volunteer tomato plants and the campari-sized tomatoes are just starting to ripen on their vines.  This is perfect timing because my “planned” tomatoes are pretty much done producing.  Can’t wait to each some of them for dinner tonight!

Shh… It’s a Surprise!!!

Last weekend my mom and I threw a surprise birthday party for her fiancé.  I don’t want to get into too many personal details, but suffice it to say that he was VERY surprised to walk into his own kitchen after a day at the golf course to find 20+ of his closest friends and family ready to party!

My mom and I had a blast planning the menu and secretly hiding the food in the days before the party.  By the morning of the party my mom had managed to successfully conceal 2 dozen brining chicken breasts, impressive amounts of peppers, onions and potatoes, and all of the dips, dressings, and glazes in the refrigerator behind little walls of soda and beer cans and a few strategically placed bags of salad greens… good job, Mom!

One of my culinary contributions to the party was a platter of single-serving Caprese Skewers.  Combining each bite of cherry tomato and mozzarella onto skewers allowed our guests to snack on the caprese with just one hand (leaving the other free for a beverage!) which made this a great appetizer for a party.  It’s also an easy dish to make for a party because you can assemble the skewers several hours ahead of time and then simply garnish with some fresh basil right before serving.

Bite-Sized Caprese Skewers with Tomatoes, Mozzarella, Basil & Balsamic Glaze

You will need…
2-3 small handfuls Arugula
25-30 Marinated Mozzarella Balls, approx. 1″ in diameter
2 pints Cherry Tomatoes, cut in half and kept “paired” with their halves
Toothpicks; can use the slightly longer “sandwich picks” for a little extra space
6-8 extra Cherry Tomatoes, cut into quarters
Balsamic Glaze (use a bottled glaze or make your own balsamic reduction)
10-15 Basil Leaves

Directions:
Arrange the arugula along the center of a serving tray.  Slice each mozzarella ball into 4 pieces by slicing off the rounded ends (2 pieces) and cutting the center of the ball in half (2 pieces).  Set the small rounded ends aside.

Skewer the top of a tomato half with the toothpick and slide the tomato onto the stick.  Next, slide one of the center mozzarella pieces onto the toothpick.  Skewer the bottom half of the tomato and slide it into place on the toothpick as shown in the photo.  Repeat with all of your halved tomatoes and mozzarella, arranging the skewers onto the arugula as you go.

Sprinkle the rounded mozzarella ball ends and the quartered tomatoes onto the arugula as a garnish.  Drizzle the balsamic glaze over the entire tray.  If needed, you can refrigerate the tray until party time at this point (that’s what we did!).  Before serving, roll up the basil leaves and use kitchen scissors to cut them into long slices.  Arrange the basil slices over the caprese skewers.  (The basil isn’t shown in my photos since I took them a few hours before the party started.)

Adding Some Pizazz to Weeknight Tortellini

Despite what you might think based on all of the semi-complicated recipes on this blog, there are plenty of nights when Matt and I resort to quick and easy dinners like take-out pizza, frozen dinner entrees, and basic pasta. One of our go-to pasta dinners is tortellini with a sprinkle of garlic powder and Parmesan cheese (healthy, I know!), but last week we decided to add a little pizazz to the dish by incorporating a few simple ingredients.

This entire meal only takes about 15 minutes to make… including the time it takes for your tortellini to cook! The asparagus gets added to the pasta water for the last few minutes and, after straining, all of the ingredients are tossed together in the same pot, making this a simple one-pot meal.

Quick and Easy Pesto Tortellini with Asparagus and Tomatoes (makes 3-4 servings)

You will need…
1 lb. Tortellini (we love Drake’s Frozen Cheese Tortellini)
1 bunch Asparagus, cut into 2″ pieces
2 tablespoons Olive Oil
2-3 tablespoons Pesto (I used 2 “Pesto cubes” that I froze in an ice cube tray last week)
1 cup Cherry Tomatoes

Directions:
Bring a large pot of water to a boil and cook the tortellini according to package instructions. When there are 3-4 minutes left on the cook time, add the cut asparagus to the pasta water and allow the pasta to finish cooking. Drain pasta and asparagus and return the empty pot to the stove over medium-low heat. Add the Olive Oil and drop in your pesto “cubes.” Stir constantly as the pesto thaws. (If using fresh pesto you can skip this step.)

I made this pesto last week using basil and garlic from our garden. For easy storage I spooned the pesto into an ice cube tray and made 10 frozen pesto cubes — perfect for use in quick weeknight meals!

Add the hot pasta and asparagus back to the pot and stir to combine with the pesto (if the pesto wasn’t already completely thawed it will be after a few stirs!). Add in the uncooked tomatoes, stir a few more times, and serve!