Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Butternut Squash Lasagna

I love squash, all kinds.  My husband, not so much, but he's slowly coming around! I especially like butternut squash.  It's good roasted but I really love a good butternut squash soup or ravioli.  I first made this lasagna recipe a number of years ago.  It's a Giada recipe (here) and I watched her make it on a Thanksgiving cooking show.  My family was pleasantly surprised that they liked it and I've made it ever since!

This week we are curing our new wood-fired oven; each day burning to a higher temperature.  As I was assembling this lasagna it dawned on me that I could put it in the wood oven. It cooked perfectly in there and had a mild smoky taste to it, which was quite nice for a fall meal. Like most lasagnas, it's equally good the next day, if not better.  I tend to like lasagna firmer than the just-out-of-the-oven texture.

There are a few steps to making this lasagna so it isn't something you want to do when you come home from a day of work!  The tasks can be spread out so it doesn't feel so burdensome.   I made this on a Sunday, had the football games on TV (I have a TV in the kitchen, too!) and a sewing project in my craft room.  I made the squash puree in the morning and shredded the cheese.  Later on I made the sauce.  After that, assembling the lasagna took no time!
Out of the oven and cooling!

Layers of squash puree, noodles, cheese and a basil-infused sauce.  Yum!
I find it easiest to use a vegetable peeler to peel the tough outer skin.  At larger grocery stores pre-cut squash is available.
Once peeled and cubed, the squash is cooked until tender.

Yes, amaretti cookies are added!  Sounds strange but they give the squash a nice sweetness and a little texture.  They could easily be omitted.

The puree.  Can be used for the lasagna, as a filling for ravioli, or even baby food!
The sauce is heated until thick then pureed with some fresh basil.  The combination of the basil with the squash is quite nice!
Ready for the oven!

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Stitching for Jakey!

Ever since I knew we were getting another grandchild, and that it would be a boy, I've been sewing and cross stitching. Making things for a little boy has been a new adventure for me, we have three granddaughters.  Since their births I've been sewing dresses and ballet bags, using a lot of pink. But I can adapt easily and have managed to do some cute things for our little guy.

My son is a big New England Patriots fan. Now our family has always been into football but we've always been San Francisco Forty-Niners fans. Our Sundays revolve around football. My son fell in love with Drew Bledsoe and the Patriots in the 90's and he hasn't looked back. I can roll with it, at least it's not the Dallas Cowboys! I made Jakey this little blanket out of brown minky material, very soft and cuddly.  The other side has Patriots fabric.
I sewed a few bibs.  My daughter-in-love is a school teacher so a few of the fabrics were a nod to her profession.  The jeans bib was made out of a pair of old jeans I still had hanging in the closet (I hate clothes shopping, as a result I wear my clothes for a long time!) I have a picture of me wearing them, the first weekend I had them, at a race in Canada that my son was also driving at.  He had a very hairy ride on one run, doing a big wheelstand and getting out-of-shape.  It was an anxious moment for his mom. I guess there was a reason I was saving the jeans all these years, now little Jakey has a bib from them!
I first learned to do counted cross stitch when I was pregnant with my son. Over the years, I've stitched at sports and dance practices, racetracks, in the front yard while the kids rode their bikes. I always have a project in process and it always travels with me. This stitched piece didn't take long to do and I hope it's something that Jakey will always have to remember his Nana by.  The buttons used on the piece came from my Grandma's button box, which my Mom has.
There is one more baby shower to honor my daughter-in-love, to be held in two weeks.  Its theme is Mickey Mouse. I'm sure you can imagine the type of fabric that has been flying around in my craft room lately!

Friday, October 24, 2014

Autumn in the Courtyard

We've lived in our home 30 years now. When we moved in, there was a small front courtyard, behind a mid-length wooden fence. The courtyard was filled with grass.  The weekend we moved in I told my Hubbers I wanted a brick courtyard someday. Over the years we replaced the wooden fence with brick and added brick columns to the house. We added brick flower beds to the front lawn area. When we remodeled our home seven years ago we were able to brick the front porch. But the demands of a growing family kept pushing the brick courtyard to the back burner; things like braces, Catholic school tuition, cars, college, law school, weddings, grandchildren, etc. Three years ago it was finally the right time and our courtyard was built. We added some flower bed borders inside the courtyard area and a water fountain in the center. I love, love, love this space!  I spend many an early evening in this special place; reading, stitching, watching the birds in the water or at the feeders, chatting with neighbors out walking their dogs, or sharing a glass of wine with my Hubbers.
I especially enjoy the courtyard in the fall.  The temperatures are cooler, which makes sitting out here more pleasant. I plant fall and winter annuals with their bright colors and the smiling faces of the pansies. I supplement with colorful pumpkins and gourds. All these colors seem to "pop" against the warm red of the brick.

It took a lot of patience as I waited until it was time to get the courtyard bricked but it was well worth it. Besides my kitchen and craft room this is my favorite spot in our home!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Chopped Autumn Salad

I served this salad at the baby shower I hosted last weekend.  I needed something that would easily multiply for a crowd, yet be easy to make and serve.  It needed to look good, too.  The salad scored on all fronts.
Variations of this salad exist all over the Internet and Pinterest.  It's not so much a recipe as it is a mixture of various ingredients.  It is easily adaptable to each person's tastes.  For the shower I used the following ingredients, all chopped in bite-size bits, so we didn't need knives.

Romaine lettuce
Cooked chicken (ours was grilled)
Dried cranberries
Candied pecans (recipe to come, so good!)
Blue cheese crumbles
Pomegranate seeds

The dressing is a mixture of poppy seed dressing and balsamic vinaigrette.  I used a ratio of 2/3 poppy seed to 1/3 balasamic.  For this event I used bottled dressing but homemade would obviously be wonderful! You can also substitute a few tablespoons of quality balsamic vinegar in lieu of the prepared vinaigrette.

The first six ingredients were tossed with the dressing.  Each salad was garnished with candied pecans, the blue cheese crumbles and pomegranate seeds. 
I loved this salad.  There was a combination of sweet and salty in each bite, as well as soft and crunchy.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Drag Racing Baby Shower!

I grew up going to the drag races with my Dad. I went to the races pregnant with my son. Drag racing is in his blood. Last year I retired from the driving seat and turned my race car over to him. When we found out he is having a son I knew the baby shower I hosted would have a drag racing theme! I kept it colorful, incorporating all the colors of a drag racing Christmas tree (yellow, green and red), as well as traditional boy blue.  I added some feminine touches with flowers so that it wasn't all car-related. I hung race banners on the fences, giving the party a somewhat racetrack-like feel.
A highlight, for me, was a display of my son's old cars and toys.  My Hubbers and I have saved many of our children's special toys and memorabilia. I did a presentation where I gave my son his baby book, first Christmas outfit, quilt, stitched birth sampler and his toys. It got pretty emotional!

A local woman made the cake, incorporating car tools and the drag racing Christmas tree into it. It was awesome!  My Hubby made the cake stand out of a tire jack stand.
The table centerpieces were small floral arrangements that I placed in Wix oil filter boxes. I sprinkled the table with tools and spark plugs.  At each place setting was a baby buggy sugar cookie and a "wishes for Jacob" card to fill out. I made various banners in the shape of trophies.

We had a wonderful day with family and friends.  The parents-to-be got many needed baby items.
Two more months and we get to meet our little Jakey!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Drag Racing Baby Buggies!

My son and daughter-in-law are expecting a son in December, our first grandson. The moment I knew it was a boy (I got to be in the room for the sonogram!) I knew my baby shower theme would revolve around drag racing. My Dad is a drag racer, I've driven for 20 years, my son is a third-generation driver.  It's a little too early to know if this baby will be a fourth-generation driver but it's safe to say he will grow up attending a lot of races. Drag racing runs in my family's blood!

I've been planning and crafting for a few months now.  All this week I've had tasks lined up, trying to keep to my schedule so all will be ready on Saturday. I enjoy the process of planning and implementing a party, it satisfies the creative side of me. 

The invitations went out a month ago.
The sugar cookie gifts are ready to go.  We'll be drag racing baby buggies at this shower!
I tried to make the back tires look like racing slicks, not sure I succeeded.  Oh, well!

First to the finish line wins!

"Papa, pop a wheelie" was one of the things my young son would tell my dad!

Waiting for the tree!

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Wood-Fired Oven

My Hubbers rides a Harley as one of his hobbies.  In the biking world there is a saying that goes "it's not the destination, but the journey"; basically don't be so concerned about where you're headed to that you don't enjoy the ride along the way. Shouldn't life be like that, too?  We all know there will be an end to our life here on earth. Our goal in life should be enjoying the journey along the way, to follow our dreams, to dream big. There is something gratifying about working hard and having your dreams come to fruition.

For the last few years I've been dreaming of having a wood-fired outdoor oven. We (especially me) are homebodies, our house is our castle. I love to cook and bake, my Hubbers loves to socialize, so an outdoor oven appealed to me on many levels. After much "hemming and hawing" we bit the bullet and our oven is now finished! At first, this was my dream and my Hubbers just went along with me.  The inner caveman in him has emerged during this process (man + fire equals some sort of mystical combination!) and he is very excited about the oven, too.  I know we have a steep learning curve ahead of us but it will be fun, something that we can learn together.
We opted to have a masonry contractor build the oven, though I know many do it themselves. Our contractor is wonderful, he did our brick courtyard a few years back.  Watching him and his crew work is like watching a symphony, all the parts blending together, truly magical.  After seeing the process I'm glad we didn't attempt it on our own.  It would've taken us forever and our marriage may have taken a hit! It took three highly-qualified men four days to complete this oven! The process began with a concrete pad. A block frame was then constructed on top of the pad. Another layer of concrete was done and the actual oven dome (which is from Forno Bravo) was placed on top of it. Then the dome was insulated and surrounded by more block. Sand was poured between the dome and block walls to further insulate the oven. Finally this was all topped by more blocks to enclose the unit.  Brick was then applied to get the decorative finish we desired. Whew!
The Forno Bravo cooking dome and fire-brick oven floor. Looks rather like an igloo!

The block frame complete and ready for brick. The bottom area is for wood storage.
We have about two more weeks that the mortar needs to cure before we can start using the oven.  The mortar has to totally set so that the high heat the oven gets to won't crack it.  In addition, we have to start with small fires in the actual cooking dome, gradually building up to a full roaring fire over about a week time span. We think we will have our first meal from it the first of November.  In the meantime, I'm devouring cookbooks, website articles and YouTube videos, trying to learn as much as possible. Our first venture will be pizza, that seems to be an easy process, but anything can be cooked in the oven. Our future will hold many nights of various wood-fired meats, vegetables and, even, desserts coming from this oven. I'm anxious to bake bread in it and we plan to do a lot of entertaining.  I can't wait!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Just Suppose...

Just suppose you have been spending a lot of time in the garden lately...pruning perennials, fertilizing, pulling out spent summer plants, tilling up the dirt, planting fall and winter annuals...and everything is looking pretty good and you're feeling pretty proud of yourself that you are on top of things....

...until there is a week of mid-90's and above temperatures. Wilty plants, dead plants, an entire flower bed that has to be replanted.

The temps will finally start dropping this weekend.  Back to the garden center I go for replacement plants!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Shrimp Scampi & Slacking

We have the 2013 tax deadline (for those on extension) looming on October 15 so my part-time hours have amped up some. I'm hosting a baby shower on October 18, lots of prep work involved.  I'm doing end-of-summer, beginning-of-fall gardening. I am busy, busy!  Dinners haven't been high on my priority list. Actually I don't mind cooking dinner, it's the grocery shopping I don't like finding time for! Too many nights we've gone out or eaten things like bacon and eggs. I've been feeling guilty about my dinner-slacking ways. This dish is easy and good.  I don't feel so guilty now!
This is an Ina Garten recipe (here). I deviated from the recipe by putting the shrimp in a baking dish and combining the butter and other ingredients, then topping the shrimp. I then baked in a 425 degree oven for 12 minutes.  Dinner was on the table in less than 30 minutes. There is plenty of buttery goodness to coat the pasta and the shrimp is cooked just right. We had a nice dinner and I had ample time in my craft room. Perfect evening!

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Halloween Gingerbread Houses - 2014 Edition

Cue the Visa commercial...

18 cups of flour
3 cups of butter
4 1/2 cups molasses
3 hours in the kitchen making dough, cutting and baking
2 hours in the kitchen assembling
over $50 in candy
time spent with my three granddaughters....priceless.

This is year five of our Halloween house decorating day. The first year it was just with the oldest granddaughter, last year we added the youngest. Three little girls, royal icing and bags of candy  makes for a crazy time! Last year it took me forever and a day to clean my kitchen after our decorating extravaganza.  Sprinkles, candy, royal icing on the floor, chairs, and every place in between made for a lot of clean-up work.  This year I thought I would be smart so set up the decorating station in our back patio.  I failed to take into account that (1) the morning sun shines directly in there and (2) we were in the beginning of a mid-90's day.  The sun was roasting us, the candy was getting sticky, the icing was sliding off the houses. So we packed everything up and moved back inside! Once again, I had a big mess to clean up but it was all worth it.
Ready to go to the patio.

My assistant supervising the royal icing mixing.

My girls ready to decorate!
I try to come up with new house designs each year to keep things interesting and exciting.  This house has a little Hansel & Gretel vibe to it.  I used mini pumpkin cookie cutters to cut out the door inserts.  Once the gingerbread had baked I filled the inserts with crushed candy and put back in the oven until melted.  Once cool, it makes a cute window effect.  One of these years we'll put some sort of lighting in the houses.

My husband, also know as Papa, was very instrumental in assembling the houses.  I did the cutting and baking, he did the bulk of the assembly. He has much more patience in that department than I do!

Grandchild #4 arrives in a few months.  In a few years we will be adding one more gingerbread house to our assembly process.  It's a lot of work to get the houses ready for the kids to decorate and there are moments I question my sanity in doing this.  That all disappears when the girls get here and they excitedly get to work.  I hope we are doing these houses for many years to come!
The aftermath!
I'm sharing at A Stroll Thru Life.