Friday, May 10, 2013

Dining Alfresco

by Sheila

Okay, by now you know we all love to eat, but then who doesn't?  Coming in a close second to dining in general for me, is dining outside.  In our climate we eat outside as many days (if not more) than we eat in.  My four year-old granddaughter will ask me, "Nana, are we dining alfresco?"  Of course we are!  Love that!

I have an old buffet table that I got at (you guessed it)  the thrift store.  After a coat of paint, it has served me well as an outside serving space.  I keep thinking I am going to mosaic tile the top, but that's another blog post...  I keep extra napkins and a few other serving items there to be ready when I need them.  I use my "indoor" stuff outside also.  My tablecloths, cloth napkins and even crystal candlesticks will find their way outside at my house.  

The table is set for dinner outside...

The only problem with all of this is that my kitchen is on the opposite side of the house from our garden and outdoor seating areas.  This is great if you didn't make it to Jazzercise that morning, but if you don't have time to make 50 trips back and forth for dinner, you need to use a tray.  I load my various trays with everything I need as I am preparing our meal, making me more organized and way more efficient.  I have about six trays of various sizes and materials that I use regularly, from a large rustic oak to a smaller silver tray, and they are indispensable work-horses in my kitchen.  When you are ready to eat, you can have your family or guests grab a tray and off you go to the great outdoors to enjoy your meal!
Dinner with good friends at Gertrude's at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, AZ - A good time was had by all!

I hope you have an opportunity to enjoy dining alfresco soon, with soft breezes, the smell of the garden and the hummingbirds to entertain you!

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Spice Cupboard Clean-out

By Ann

I can’t remember the last time I totally cleaned out the spice cabinet.  Maybe never?  That can’t be…. Or could it?  Regardless, it was long overdue.  I would often find myself purchasing a new container of a spice or herb because I didn't know what I had on hand.  To try to solve this problem, not only did I clean out, but while I was at it, I created an Excel spreadsheet listing the contents of the cupboard, sort-able by “baking, savory, or miscellaneous” categories.  If you’re wondering what ended up in the miscellaneous group, it was all of the ingredients in the cupboard that are not herbs or spices – the corn meal and starch, molasses, bread crumbs….  You get the idea!  When I replaced the items in the cupboard I kept baking spices together and the herbs in one the other side.  Let’s see how long that lasts!
I first pulled everything out and onto a couple of sheet trays

I then organized items alphabetically, which allowed me to catch any duplicates
Herbs and spices lose their potency with age; some more quickly than others.  Ground spices quickly lose flavor, which is why whole peppercorns last longer than ground pepper. To keep your spices fresh longer, store them away from heat, light, and moisture. That will help to preserve flavor and color, and prevent clumping.  When I looked online the guidelines for how long spices can be expected to last from the McCormick herb and spice experts:
  • Seasoning blends: 1-2 years
  • Herbs: 1-3 years
  • Ground spices: – 2-3 years
  • Whole spices (such as cinnamon sticks and peppercorns): 3-4 years
  • Extracts: 4 years (except for pure vanilla, which lasts indefinitely)
I have a hard time sticking to these rules of thumb, and prefer to think that the alternate solution to tossing and replacing is to just use a bit more of whatever ingredient might be past its prime.  If it is discolored or musty smelling, however, it’s time to go.  One of the things that I did toss was a package of paella spice mix that I purchased on a trip to Spain in 2001 (at which we ate paella almost every day).  Since numbers are universal, I could read the expiration year even though the rest the text was in Spanish – 2005, well past its usability even with my version of the rule for when things should be thrown away. I think I was hanging onto it more as a souvenir than an ingredient!   Other “tosses” included empty containers from about six or seven spices/herbs that I combined due to having two of, a box of old cake flour, and a few things that I knew I would never miss if I got rid of them.

Herbs and Spices as souvenirs?  Odd concept, but I've done it many times.

As you can see in the “before” picture below, we keep all of these ingredients in one of our upper kitchen cupboards.  I pine over custom made drawers and organizers for ingredients like these, but this is what I have to work with, and I shouldn't complain because my kitchen has lots of cupboard space.
I admit, the "before" pic looks very similar to the "after", but at least now I know what's in there!

Lessons I learned from my cupboard-clean-out:
  • Quit buying BBQ “rubs” and weird spice blends – I rarely use them!
  • No more hot sauce!  There were three unopened bottles that I put in the fridge and tossed what was open and who knows how old.
  • Donate salt and pepper shakers when I find a new set that I think I’d like better (there were 3 sets in the cupboard).
  • I need to make lots of brownies or other treats with the four packages of unsweetened chocolate squares and powder on hand.
  • Don’t buy bulk spices at stores like Whole Foods and label the bags with the number only.  (I may have an interesting “blend” of chili powder that I added #1156 to!)

Common sense would dictate writing more than just the number on the package of bulk spices....

Questions I still have:
  • Why do I have five varieties of cinnamon?  I smelled each one, and could find subtle differences, but I don’t think I've ever run across a recipe designating Ceylon or Tung Hing cinnamon!
  • Is there a difference between “ground” and “rubbed” sage?  (They don’t look exactly the same.)
  • Can I combine the “lemon spice blend” with the “lemon pepper” to get rid of one more jar?
  • Will it matter that one of the unsweetened chocolate packages has an expiration date of 2009?

In case you were wondering – even after weeding out, my spreadsheet had 77 entries.  I guess I’d better start cooking!

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Kentucky Derby Party at The Phoenician

by Sheila

That's me with Blue - the Guest of Honor

The Run for the Roses is as good an excuse as any to dress up (a little over the top – hats are a must), hang out with your friends, and drink mint juleps in the afternoon.  We celebrated in style this year at the Derby Party at the Phoenician Resort in (where else?) Phoenix, Arizona.  The mint juleps were cold and refreshing, the Hot Browns and Shrimp with Cheesy Grits were delicious and you couldn’t beat the beautiful location at the foot of Camelback Mountain under the shady ficus trees at this magnificent resort. 

Beautiful day, great party!

We were lucky to include our good friends Ann & Pat, Heather & Tom, and two of our kids and their spouses, Alec & Cortney, and Liz & Travis.  We all had fun chatting and checking out all of the great fashion on display.  I got my fabulous hat from Heather at our swap party last week.  It was after I scored this great hat that I invited her to the Derby Party, but I did feel guilty and offered her hat back to her.  She assured me she had several other options (which I didn’t doubt for a minute!), so I got to wear her hat guilt free.  Ann borrowed a perfect bright pink hat and Heather had a beautiful two-toned straw hat.  My daughter Liz, borrowed my cream straw hat and added the “fascinator” that she created for the Royal Wedding party at Heather & Tom’s last year.  She is our creative family milliner, as she also made the hat that my daughter-in-law Cortney wore.  Cortney and Alec won “Best Dressed Derby Couple” and scored a two night stay at the Phoenician Resort! 

Travis & Liz
Pat & Ann
Tom & Heather
Cortney & Alec with Blue...

They weren’t the only lucky ones for the day – Ann’s horse Orb was the big winner, so she was going to cash in on the way home at the local OTB location.  My bookie, Steve, was taking care of this for me, as my horse Golden Soul placed second and we had him to “show”.  Yippee!  Thanks Steve…

The Phoenician - A Great Derby Party Venue!

We went to the Kentucky Derby in Louisville several years ago and it was great fun.  I hope this inspires you to celebrate the first Saturday in May next year and either seek out a party to go to, or create your own and invite your family and friends over.  Have a best hat contest and encourage people to bust out their fancy southern belle and dapper duds for the soirĂ©e.  The Run for the Roses is a fun way to celebrate the oldest continuous sporting event in the country on a beautiful day in the spring.  Go Secretariat!

Checking out the style!

A good time was had by all - until next year...

Food fit for a southern party

by Ann
Kentucky Burgoo Stew seen here with Eggs Derby and a Jalapeno corn muffin
My husband, Patrick grew up in the south.  When we first met I was anxious to try new recipes that reminded him of the foods he loved when he was growing up.  I even bought a smoker to make pulled pork, which was much more of an expense and mess than it was worth.  Among the recipes I experimented with were "real" southern fried chicken, grits, and a Brunswick stew, a favorite of his that is like a thick chicken soup.  I will share the recipe in this post because it was similar to a stew served at the Kentucky Derby party that Sheila's husband was able to get us all admitted to on the day of the race. (Thanks again, David!)
My kind of party -- lots of delicious, beautifully presented food -- and no lines to get at it!  ;-)
Mini Chocolate Pecan Bourbon Pies - Yum!
Peach Cobbler, anyone?  Don't forget the molasses ice cream to put on top!
The party was held on one of the lawns of the Phoenician resort in Phoenix, and although the local temperature was hovering at about 95 degrees, the shade of the trees and umbrellas made it very comfortable.  The party was a very low-pressure charity event to benefit retired race horses, one of which was available for photos.  
Should we be embarrassed that our table looked like this?   Nah.... It's a party -- you're supposed to eat!
There were opportunities to eat, visit, and view everyone's take on "southern fashion" prior to viewing the race on big-screen TVs brought outdoors.  If you missed Heather's Derby Fashion blog post yesterday, go back to it -- she has some great pics!

Included in the menu:
Classic mint juleps
Kenucky Burgoo Stew - see recipe at
Shrimp and grits
Kentucky Hot Browns - open faced sandwiches with turkey, bacon cheese, and sliced tomatoes - see recipe at
BBQ bourbon pork flatbread
ham biscuits
Eggs Derby (looked too runny for my tastes, and had sweetbreads, so I opted out -- call me a chicken!)
Peach cobbler with molasses ice cream
Bourbon pecan pie

 Aunt Ida May's Brunswick Stew 
(very similar to Burgoo Stew - but with chicken as the only protein)


1  frying chicken
3  slices bacon cut into pieces
6  tomatoes (or canned)
2  large onions diced
3  pieces of celery with leaves, cut into small pieces
4 or 5  white potatoes
4  ears of corn (or canned or frozen)
1  qt. lima beans (or canned or frozen)
2   tsp. salt
1/4 c. sugar

Cook chicken, raw bacon, tomatoes, onions, celery, salt, sugar, and pepper in a large ketttle with 2 qts. of water for a couple of hours. (This can be done in the crock pot.)
When the chicken is tender (falling off the bones), take chicken out, cool, bone it, and cut chicken into small pieces and return to kettle that still has the vegetables in it. 
Add diced potatoes and lima beans and cook until thickens. (This will take at least another hour.)
When done, add corn and cook 8 to 10 mins. longer. 

Stew should be thick, but thin enough to eat with spoon.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Derby Fashion

by Heather
Dillard's hat (last year)

This look started with the hat as probably all Derby outfits do.

No, we aren't in Kentucky,
but there are Kentucky Derby parties all over the country to celebrate this traditional event.

I bought three hats last year for a Derby event.
Wore the white and black one which Sheila snagged at our last swap party
and you can see by the pictures below, she looks lovely in it. 
That left two -- the one pictured above and another hat with an animal print band and feathers. 
Then to the closet to see what I had that would go with either one. 
Not much. 
I did find an ancient black and white polka dot sundress that would go reasonably well with the pictured hat as long as I used accessories that coordinated with the hat. 
I thought I was done. 
Then, as I was wandering through Nordstrom's on the way to buy the granddaughter's birthday present the other day, I saw an orange and yellow dress on a mannequin. 
It was the last one and it was calling my name.
(I'm going to change my name so that doesn't keep happening.)
My favorite colors, not too pricey, and just the look I needed for an outdoor Derby party.
Vince Camuto dress from Nordstrom's; Michael Kors purse
What you can't see from this picture is that the dress, even though it is lined, is somewhat transparent. I felt a little like an actress (D-list) that finds out too late that the dress she's wearing on the red carpet is sheer. Oh well, it kept my husband entertained for the afternoon.  And I did have proper undergarments on so there was no Lindsay Lohan, etc., etc.,  moment happening here.
Juicy Couture bracelet 
Juicy Couture earrings
 Sheila and her lovely daughter, Liz
Hubby Tom.  Doesn't he look Southern?
(We're not; total Yankees from Minnesota originally)
 Everybody at the party was happy to pose for a picture.
 A retired thoroughbred race horse ready to pose for pictures
 This lady's hat won for the best hat at the party. Beautiful!
Liz removed the hat she was wearing earlier and used the attached fascinator instead as the afternoon warmed up. Still darling!
Tres amigos: Me, Ann, and Sheila

Sheila will fill you in this week on the details of this delightful Derby charity event and Ann will be focusing on the wonderful food and drinks that were served. 
I think Tom's favorite was the Manhattan popsicle!

Her chambray and peach dress, shoes, jewelry, purse, headband, and sunglasses: Gymboree

 After trying on her new birthday outfit,  Peighton said, "I look like Gigi!"

 So we had to take a picture together. 

Have a wonderful week!