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Friday, December 30, 2011

Movies You May Not Have Seen

I love to see movies and I would love to be able to do a year end post of the best movies of 2011 but unfortunately as a working mom of two very busy girls I don't get to see a lot of movies in the theater.  I see almost every PG rated movie that comes out but they are not always the best, probably cannot make a top list based on those alone.  However, I do like to borrow movies from the library and I'm always looking for unique, independent movies to watch.  So instead of telling you what movies I thought were the best of 2011 I thought I might share with you a few of these movies that I've watched in the past few months that I really enjoyed and you might have missed them.

1.  Mao's Last Dancer -- a great, true story of a young man who is trained under the Communist Chinese Regime to be a ballet dancer and comes to the US as part of a cultural exchange and ends up falling in love, with both America and a girl.

2.  Like Dandelion Dust -- starring Mira Sorvino as a woman who is battered by her husband who goes to jail and while he is in jail she has his baby and gives it up for adoption.  Fast forward 5 or 6 years later, he gets out, finds out about the baby and decides they should get it back.  Since he didn't sign the papers they actually have a chance of getting the little boy back.

3.  Win Win -- such a great movie, funny and sad at the same time.  A financially struggling lawyer and volunteer wrestling coach double crosses a confused old man but then ends up doing right by the family.  Starring Amy Ryan who I love.

4.  Cedar Rapids -- this movie is HILARIOUS!!  Starring Ed Helms from The Office and The Hangover as a insurance agent from  a small town who gets to go to the big town of Cedar Rapids, IA for the annual insurance convention.  Also stars John C. Reilly who I adore!  So funny!

5.  Enron:  The Smartest Guys in the Room -- I know this doesn't sound exciting but it is really very good and so interesting.  Plus I swear you'll feel smarter just watching it! It is a documentary about the build up and rapid down fall of a major corporation.  I was afraid it would be very left leaning but the only mention of the Bush family was just that they were friends with Ken Lay.  I was shocked at the things people can do that are dishonest and down right wrong. 

6.  Wild Target -- this movie stars Emily Blunt who I love and is very quirky and clever.  A hit man falls in love with his target and becomes her protector.  It reminds me a lot of A Fish Called Wanda.  I enjoyed it. 

Happy Watching and Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Tortellini Soup

This is a recipe that I tweaked from several other recipes.  It uses the sausages that I mentioned a couple of month's ago -- the low-fat, chicken sausage from Sam's.  Tonight I used the Italian flavor with mozzarella but you could use any of the varieties. 

2 T. olive oil
1/2 red onion, finely chopped
3 carrots, peeled and finely chopped
1 red pepper, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
5 sausage links, casing removed, chopped
1 tsp. dried basil
1 tsp. dried rosemary
1/4 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
5 cups chicken broth
14.5 oz. can diced tomatoes, undrained
15 oz. can Great Northern beans, drained
20 oz. frozen cheese tortellini
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Heat oil in large stock pot over medium high heat.  Saute carrots, onions and red pepper until semi translucent, about 5 minutes.  Add sausage, garlic, basil, rosemary, red pepper flakes.  Season with salt and pepper.  Continue to saute for 3 - 5 more minutes.  Add the broth, tomatoes with juice and beans.  Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low and simmer until the vegetables are tender, about 10 minutes.  Add the tortellini to the soup and simmer until tender, about 10 more minutes.  To serve, top bowls of soup with grated Parmesan cheese.

This soup comes together pretty quickly but in order to speed it up on a work night you could pre-prep your carrots, pepper and onion and put them in an air-tight container in the fridge and pre-cut the sausage and put it in a container or bag.  I also think you could double the recipe right up until you add the pasta and then take out half and freeze it.  Then finish it with the tortellini.  When you are ready to eat the frozen half you could just put the whole frozen block in the crock pot in the morning and then come home and dump in the tortellini for the last 30 minutes. 

I like to serve this soup with a nice loaf of bread.  Hope you love it as much as we do!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Crunchy Peanut Bark

Sunday we spent the day in our jammies doing our holiday baking.  I'm all about easy but yummy recipes.  I've said it before and I'll say it again "I'm not a baker!  I'm a cook."  That means our holiday baking day includes Chex Mix, Seasoned Oyster Crackers, Easy Rolo Turtles, Dipped Pretzels and one of our all time favorites - Crunchy Peanut Bark!

2 lbs. almond bark
1 cup peanut butter
3 cups Rice Krispies cereal
2 cups dry roasted peanuts
2 cups miniature marshmallows

Break the almond bark up and microwave it for 2 minutes or until smooth and completely melted.  Stir the peanut butter in until completely incorporated.  Add cereal, peanuts and marshmallows.  Drop by large spoonful onto wax paper and cool. 

Hope you'll try them.  I think you'll love them and they are too easy. 

Happy Advent!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Christmas Break Rule

Today Christmas Break begins in our house.  My youngest child is out of school for almost 3 entire weeks.  While I really want them to enjoy their time off I also want them to be a little bit productive.  So last night I shared with them a little poem by which they need to structure their days....

Something for your Heart,
Something for your Head,
Something for our Home,
Don't forget to make your Bed!

So basically each day I want them to spend 30 minutes or longer doing something physical like going for a walk, going to sports practice or even playing a really active Wii game.  Each day they need to spend at least 30 minutes stretching their brain -- reading, math quizzes on line, Kansas Assessments exercises online, etc.  They need to pick a task to help our home -- reorganizing the Tupperware cupboard, going through their closet or drawers, making dinner.  Last but not least I like them to make their beds when they don't have school.

I think this is a great way to make sure they are doing something productive with each day.  And it still leaves at least 22 1/2 hours to be lazy!  I love it, not sure they do :-) 

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Chicken Orzo Salad

Made a new salad for book club this week.  I wanted something that would look great in my Christmas serving bowl and be hearty enough to be a main course and this was perfect.  Very yummy and pretty with the red tomatoes and green spinach.

1 box Orzo pasta, cooked according to package instructions
1 pint grape tomatoes, quartered
1 rotisserie chicken, meat removed and chopped
3-4 cups baby spinach leave
1 jar marinated artichoke hearts, chopped
1 jar Classico pesto sauce (or homemade if you have some in your freezer)
juice of one lemon
3 T. white wine vinegar

Combine the cooked COOLED pasta, tomatoes, chicken, spinach and artichoke hearts in large bowl.  In small bowl whisk together the pesto, lemon juice and vinegar.  Pour over pasta mixture and toss well to combine.  Can serve immediately at room temperature or serve cold.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Storage Tip and Eco Friendly too!

A few years ago in order to reduce our "footprint" I decided to stop buying bottled water.  We used to always keep bottled water in the beverage fridge in the garage which was so handy.  Easy to grab on the way out, cold and ready to go but I felt like it was a small thing we could do to be more friendly to our environment.   

For a while we kept old Gatorade and Powerade bottles in the beverage fridge that we had washed and filled with filtered water out of the refrigerator.  These bottles are really sturdy and great for throwing in the dishwasher and re-using.  The bad thing is they seem to disappear.  Of course, no one ever knows where they go but at one time we had a dozen in the fridge and now we have about 3.

The other day I was frantically trying to shove one of our many sports bottles into the drawer in the kitchen when I had a brilliant idea!  We have so many water bottles that we have gotten from school, fund-raiser walks, businesses, etc. and we try to keep them all in a big drawer in the kitchen but they seem to multiply over night and when we go to fill one up we have to dig and dig to find the right matching lid.  So I had Liv fill every one up with filtered water, put the right lid on it and put in the beverage fridge.  Now we once again have bottles of water cold and ready to go in the garage and we have a whole drawer in the kitchen free for some other use!  I'm hoping the fact that they are actual water bottles and not just re-used Gatorade bottles means the kids might do a better job of making sure they make it back into our house.....but that's probably wishful thinking.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Bacon Ranch Mashed Potatoes

Last night I made a meatloaf and put it in the fridge so Jeff could get dinner started before I got home from work.  I also asked him to peel and boil 6 potatoes for mashed potatoes.  He followed directions perfectly but the potatoes ended up being cooked and ready about 25 minutes before the meatloaf.  So I decided to "twice cook" them in a casserole.  I mashed them up with a half an 8 oz. block of low fat cream cheese.  Then I stirred in 2 T. Hidden Valley Ranch powder (Yes, we keep a giant shaker bottle of HVR powder in our spice pantry at all times!  So many potential uses!  That's a whole other Blog post!)  and about 1/3 cup of the Hormel Bacon pieces that we always keep in the fridge.  I put the whole thing into a greased casserole dish and sprinkled the top with about 1/4 cup shredded cheddar cheese and slid it into the oven with the meatloaf which was still cooking at 375 degrees.  25 minutes later they were both ready (along with the roasted broccoli) and a delicious dinner was on the table.

This is definitely a recipe I'll repeat because it was so nice having the meatloaf, potatoes and broccoli all cooking at the same time and at the same temperature which meant they all came together with perfect timing!  You could also do the cooking, mashing, mixing the night or day before and then just bake it a little longer to make sure it get hot all the way through!

Friday, December 9, 2011

Five Books I'm Waiting For

I have a list of favorite authors who I anxiously await their next release, among them Kristin Hannah and Harlan Coben.  Sometimes people fall off the list (i.e. Janet Evanovich who has done a few too many Stephanie Plum novels - I still read them but they cannot compare to the early ones and I certainly don't run to the book store on the release date or pre-order them from Amazon).  Additionally, when I'm looking for release dates of the authors I know I invariably stumble upon some that I don't know but I really want to read.  So here is the list of 5 books I am anxiously awaiting in 2012.

Stay Close by Harlan Coben -- March 20
        Megan is a suburban soccer mom who once upon a time walked on the wild side. Now she's got two kids, a perfect husband, a picket fence, and a growing sense of dissatisfaction. Ray used to be a talented documentary photographer, but at age forty he finds himself in a dead- end job posing as a paparazzo pandering to celebrity-obsessed rich kids. Jack is a detective who can't let go of a cold case-a local husband and father disappeared seventeen years ago, and Jack spends the anniversary every year visiting a house frozen in time, the missing man's family still waiting, his slippers left by the recliner as if he might show up any moment to step into them.
      Three people living lives they never wanted, hiding secrets that even those closest to them would never suspect, will find that the past doesn't recede. Even as the terrible consequences of long-ago events crash together in the present and threaten to ruin lives, they will come to the startling realization that they may not want to forget the past at all. And as each confronts the dark side of the American Dream- the boredom of a nice suburban life, the excitement of temptation, the desperation and hunger that can lurk behind even the prettiest facades- they will discover the hard truth that the line between one kind of life and another can be as whisper-thin as a heartbeat.
      With his trademark combination of page-turning thrills and unrivaled insight into the dark shadows that creep into even the happiest communities, Harlan Coben delivers a thriller that cements his status as the master of domestic suspense.

Home Front by Kristin Hannah -- January 31
       From a distance, Michael and Joleen Zarkades seem to have it all: a solid marriage, two exciting careers, and children they adore.  But after twelve years together, the couple has lost their way; they are unhappy and edging toward divorce.  Then the Iraq war starts.  An unexpected deployment will tear their already fragile family apart, sending one of them deep into harm’s way and leaving the other at home, waiting for news.   When the worst happens, each must face their darkest fear and fight for the future of their family.  An intimate look at the inner landscape of a disintegrating marriage and a dramatic exploration of the price of war on a single American family, HOME FRONT is a provocative and timely portrait of hope, honor, loss, forgiveness, and the elusive nature of love.

Lone Wolf by Jodi Picoult -- February 28
There is no description of this book but I pretty much love everything Jodi writes and she has been "teasing" this one on Facebook for a month or so.

Winter of the World by Ken Follett -- second half of the year
Again, there is no description yet available for this book but it is the second in Ken's Century Trilogy.  The first, Fall of Giants, was released in October 2010 and it was amazing.  A sweeping epic novel in the tradition of his Pillars of the Earth and World Without End.  That being said I have been dying to get my hands on the second book but until just this week there wasn't even a title released.  I'm excited to at least have a title and know that it will be out sometime next year!

A Grown Up Kind of Pretty by Joshilyn Jackson -- January 25
      A Grown Up Kind of Pretty is about three generations of women in Mississippi. Ginny gave birth to Liza when she was 15 and Liza had Mosey when she is 15. Mosey is now 15, and the women are worried about an unplanned pregnancy, but unfortunately the family curse hits in worse ways than that. This is a Southern page turner.

I came across this last one when I was searching for a release date for Ken Follett's book.  I have never heard of this author or read anything by her but the book sounds so good!

Happy Reading!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Christmas Playlist

I love the holidays and I love Christmas music.  I do NOT love Christmas music on November 1st, but by now -- December 8th -- I really wish there were a radio station in KC playing all Christmas music.  I haven't found one since 98.1 became talk radio and 102.1 became Alice.  If you know of one, let me know.  In the mean time I decided to build a play list of my favorite Christmas songs.  So I'm sharing my list with you:

1.  Christmas Canon by Trans-Siberian Orchestra
2.  Carol of the Bells by Mannheim Steamroller
3.  Last Christmas by Wham!
4.  Mary Did You Know by Michael English
5.  God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen/We Three Kings by Barenaked Ladies
6.  I Saw Three Ships by Sting
7.  Christmas Anthem by Landon Smith and the Real Matt Jones (FREE on Amazon!)
8.  Ave Maria by Celtic Woman (FREE on Amazon!)
9.  All I Want For Christmas is You by Mariah Carey
10.  Mistletoe by Justin Beiber
11.  Where Are You Christmas by Faith Hill
12.  O Holy Night by Martina McBride
13.  Oh Come All Ye Faithful by Josh Groban with Mormon Tabernacle Choir
14.  Santa Baby by Ertha Kitt
15.  The Bell Medley by Classic Christmas Singers (FREE on Amazon - more traditional version that the Mannheim Steamroller one)
16.  Blue Christmas by Elvis
17.  Santa Claus is Coming to Town by Bruce Springsteen

There you go!  17 songs, 62 minutes.  Download and Enjoy!

Happy Advent!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Super Easy Spiced Apple Cider

I'm trying to be better about putting pictures in my Blog -- maybe that will be my New Year's Resolution.  In the mean time, I have added a picture to yesterday's post about my gift wrap station and Monday's post with the recipe for Chicken Enchilada Soup.  So scroll down and check them out.

Today I'm sharing a ridiculously easy recipe (I'm not sure I can even call it that) for spiced apple cider.  Are you ready.............

Pour 1 gallon apple cider into crock pot.  Add 1 bag cinnamon red hot candy (you know the little red ones).  Warm it up.   You could also cook it on the stove top a little faster, or heat it up in a coffee urn.

That's it!  Seriously yummy and perfect to serve at any holiday gathering.  I've never spiked mine but the other day at my sorority holiday brunch I thought, I bet you could put a little rum in this... may have to try that.  But its really good without the rum too.  Apple-y, cinnamon-y and the sugar in the candy cuts the tartness!

Happy Advent!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Wrap Your Gifts and Save Your Back

I have a little tip for gift wrapping that you will thank me for.  I set up a gift wrap station in my office but instead of using my regular work table which is standard height I set up a folding table that has multiple height options.  I put it at the highest setting which is about bar height.  This allows me to wrap gifts WITHOUT bending over!  Trust me, you will feel the difference.

I like to set my area up and work on wrapping gifts over a weekend or week (or this year maybe the whole month since I'm feeling rather behind the game!)  I will make sure I have some scissors and a 3M paper cutter for cutting paper and ribbon, plenty of rolls of good sturdy wrap, gift tags, a few pens and lots of scotch tape -- all within easy reaching distance.

I love my 3M paper cutters, if you don't have one splurge the $5 for one and try it out.  It makes cutting paper so much faster and cleaner.

I also have found that Hobby Lobby makes beautiful wrapping paper that is also really sturdy.  I am very loyal to Hallmark but you just can't beat this paper.  It is regularly $7.99 but is almost always 1/2 off and they are BIG rolls.  Some of them aren't very Christmassy so I like to buy a few rolls of the black/white or lime green to use all year long!

Later this week I'll show you the easy way to make your own bows if you choose to go that route.  I love a pretty package.  I think it makes the gift that much more special.  But if you want to slap on a premade sticky back bow or curl cascade you will get no judgment here!

Happy Advent!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Chicken Enchilada Soup

I love making soups in the winter so over the next few months I'll be sharing several soup recipes with you.  Tonight we had chicken enchilada soup.  The soup itself comes together very quickly but I needed cooked chicken breasts to put into it and I was running around all day.  I threw 3 chicken breasts in a crock pot on low for about 4 hours while I was out shopping, when I came home they were cooked through and ready to shred.  Now here's the soup recipe:

2 T. corn starch
2 T. water
2 cups cooked, shredded chicken breast
32 oz. chicken broth
15 oz. can black beans, rinse and drain
14.5 oz can diced tomatoes
11 oz. can mexi-corn
8 oz. bottle mild taco sauce
1 cup chopped red bell pepper
4 oz. can chopped green chilies
2 T. fresh cilantro, chopped

Combine corn starch and water in small bowl.  Stir together in stock pot chicken broth, chicken, beans, tomatoes, corn, taco sauce, pepper, chilies and corn starch mixture.  Bring to boil stirring occasionally.  Reduce to low and simmer until ready to serve.  Before serving stir in cilantro.  Top with shredded cheddar cheese, diced avocado, tortilla chips if you wish. 

I served cheese quesadillas with ours.  It was a great meal to come home to after an afternoon of games and church.

Enjoy!

Friday, December 2, 2011

Holiday Stress

So here it is....December 2nd.  23 days until Christmas.  And I am STRESSED!  Why? you ask.  Because I do not have all my Christmas shopping done.  I know, I know, I'm insane.  But the reality of it is that most years by this time not only is all my shopping done (read Black Friday blog from September :-) but it is all wrapped too.  Now I will say I feel very satisfied knowing that all 3 of my Christmas trees are up and decorated and all my halls are fully decked but this gift thing is killing me for one HUGE reason....

I have NO idea what to buy several people on my list.  My nephew Richie is a 13 year old boy.  Why do I always get his name in the family drawing I have no idea (since I run the drawing I should really start rigging it to work out more in my favor!)  but 13 year old boys are sooooo hard to buy for.  I'm guessing he'll end up with a Wii game (luckily he isn't loyal reader of this blog.)  My sister I have nothing for but I know her so well that won't really be much of a problem.  The real problem here is my 11 year old daughter.  She is hard to buy for because let's be honest, she has everything a girl needs, and the things she puts on her list are NOT going to happen.  She is not getting an Ipod touch.  She is not getting a TV for her room (family rule -- no TVs in kid's bedrooms!)  She is not getting a Kindle Fire.  I thought I was helping myself out and focusing on the real meaning of Christmas when 14 years ago Jeff and I decided 3 gifts from mom and dad would be the limit but I'm struggling to come up with even 3 for her!  Not to mention providing ideas to other family members.

I read a really neat thing on Pinterest this week.  It said something along the lines of rules for Christmas gift giving -- something they want, something they need, something to wear and something to read.  I think that is brilliant!  Too bad I hadn't seen that 14 years ago.

So I guess I'll keep on searching and recognize that this is how most of the world operates, more just in time, and take a deep breath and enjoy the holiday season.

Happy Advent!