Travel Shoe Bags DIY

I know it has been a really looooooong time since I posted anything. I have a valid excuse. Terry and I went to Cozumel for our second wedding anniversary! “For a whole month (or two)?”, you may ask yourself, incredulously. Well, no, not a whole month (or two), which is about how long it has been since I posted last. And now my valid excuse doesn’t seem so very valid. But honestly, I am hoping that you understand. I have lots and lots of things to share with you, and just because I haven’t been posting, doesn’t mean that I haven’t been doing things. The second wedding anniversary has a traditional wedding gift of cotton. I really wanted to make a nice, manly quilt for Terry, but frankly, I just don’t have the time to work on anything like that right now. Instead, I decided to make Terry some shoe bags. He’s a pilot, as you may know, and he usually uses grocery bags to wrap up his tennis shoes. For the record, please don’t just throw your shoes into your suitcase without putting them in something. Ever. You don’t rub your shoes all over your clothes at home, or at least I hope you don’t. That is basically the same thing. And also for the record, that water on the floor in the aircraft lavatory is NOT water. Trust me on that. The moral of the story is that you should always wrap your shoes in your suitcase. And when you have stylish shoes bags? You’ll get bumped up to first class and drink champagne! Or at least you would if I were in charge!

Terry is a fan of raccoons, and when I saw this fabric at the quilting store, I knew that I had to get it. I got 1 yard of it, and one yard of a coordinating polka dot fabric. I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do with it until I was watching him pack and thought: this man can do better than plastic bags. He needs shoes bags, and I have raccoon fabric, and this is the Cotton Anniversary. LIGHTBULB FLASHES HERE WILDLY.

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I really kind of made these up, but I did look at some other lovely blogs online to get an idea of how I wanted my shoe bag to look. Also, I needed two rather large shoe bags instead of one largish one for a pair of ladies’ flats, if that makes sense. Terry bought a new pair of tennis shoes, so I measured (adding a good 2.5 inches to each measurement) the length and width of the shoe itself and went from there. I made these double-ply, but you can do it single-ply. The single-ply version will be a bit easier to work with. I decided double-ply because Terry travels for a living and these will need to be washed fairly frequently. I also like how the double-ply version looks – when you open the double-ply bag, you get a peek of coordinating fabric. In any case, if you are newer to sewing or have a lower patience threshold, start with the single-ply because the double fabric will be fiddlier to work with, and frustration is a dish best served NEVER.

First, I measured my shoes loosely (17″ by 13″); I added about three inches to make the fabric bags plus an extra inch for a ½-inch seam allowance. My measurements were 21.5″ by 17.5″. I put the fabrics wrong sides together and sewed around each edge with a ¼” seam allowance. It doesn’t have to be perfect. (You can skip this step, as noted below, and fold the long edges under ½” and sew with a ¼-inch seam allowance.) From this photo, you can tell I was not accurate. Whatever your measurement is, give yourself a ½” seam allowance total for the sides of the bag. For extra strength and to prevent fraying on the inside of the bag, you will fold a ¼” seam over into a ½” inch seam (see below). If you are newer to sewing, subtract 1 inch from each measurement that you will instantly ‘lose’ to being sewn into a seam and measure accordingly. I needed a total length of at least 20.5 inches, so that is why my cutting measurement was 21.5″. You basically lose ½” from each side once you sew the sides of the bag. I also made these pretty roomy, so if you are cutting your fabric, remember that you need some extra in there so that you can get the shoe in and out easily!

If you do this with single-ply, you will still follow these instructions, just skip the step where you sew the squares together. Also, if you are better than I am, you can skip step one and just do a ½” seam on each long side of the fabric. I didn’t really know where I was going with this project at first, so bear with me. You can also make one shoe bag, say, for women’s flats, or two shoe bags, which are really nice for men’s shoes or for really nice heels. Or money.

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Now you have your nice rectangle pieces. I had four total, for two shoes. Fold down the sewn long sides of the rectangles by another ¼” and pin in place. That will equal a total of ½”

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I sewed directly on top of the ¼-inch seam I just made. That’s why I said you can skip this step. I’m sure people who are good at sewing are banging their heads on their machines right now in exasperation with my “method”. It’s probably not proper to do this project how I did. Essentially, I was too lazy to pin two pieces of fabric together. Also, I didn’t quite know where I was going with this when I was making them exactly, but I loved the end product and they are really sturdy, and that’s what you want. You want them to last, right? In any case, the inside of the shoe bags I made will withstand lots of shoes being put in and pulled out. Perfect.

Once you have your ½-inch seam on all the long sides, put two pieces together – right sides together – and sew down the long sides with a ¼-inch seam. And yes, I pinned at this point because now things need to be more exact. The next step involves cutting. If you are slightly off, you can still make it work. You can still do things willy-nilly at this point, just make sure both bags are equal in whatever you do so they look the same!

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Now you have two (or one, if you are making just one shoe bag) fabric sleeves. To make a “stand-up” bag (like a brown paper lunch bag), you will cut two equal squares from each corner. I cut a 2-inch square from each corner using a square ruler, but you could certainly use a regular ruler and mark it on the fabric.

shoe bags

Cut out the squares, but leave pinned. Now you will need to sew the bottom of the bag together. Just sew on that bottom strip with a ¼-inch seam allowance. (In my case, I just sewed directly on the seam line I made in the beginning when I sewed the two pieces of fabric together).

Now to make the bag: You will “open” the bag and flatten the bottom, and then sew the bottom of the bag to the sides. Here are some photos to demonstrate. You will sew the pieces together with a ¼-inch seam allowance. Basically you will squish the bottom of the bag together. The bottom seam and the side seam will match up in the center. You will be sewing through some fabric here – especially if you did a two ply bag. It’s ok. Just don’t rush it so you won’t break your needle.

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Flip your bag open et voila! You have a bag!

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Now it’s time to finish the top of the bag. Flip the bag back inside-out. Fold down about 1-inch of fabric (you can go more or very slightly less. You are basically making the tube that the drawstring will go through, so as long as you think you can pass that string through it, go for it – just remember you will lose the seam allowance. I folded it down one inch. Then sew around the entire inside of the bag with a ¼-inch seam allowance. The sides of the bag involve quite a bit of fabric – especially if you have a double-ply bag. I cut out triangles at the two thick seam lines (the base of that triangle being the bottom of the strip I just folded down, cutting up to the center seam. Like this Δ) to make the sewing a bit easier. Not a technical step, but it sure made things much easier and less bulky.

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Once you have sewn around the edges of the bag, you will need to pick one side open. I am sorry that I didn’t get a great picture of this. To explain: you just sewed around the inside of the bag. Leave that seam alone, because that is what forms the tube for the drawstring. You need to open the one side of the bag; just open a couple of the stitches on each side seam between the line just sewn and the top of the bag, as seen below. This sounds really complicated, but it really isn’t once you just do it. That’s not a very exact explanation, but it will be easier to achieve than you think. I was pleasantly surprised myself!

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Now it is time to make the drawstrings. I originally thought I could turn a long drawstring. Nope. You will need two long strips of fabric. I cut two strips along the width of the fabric (selvage to selvage), and then trimmed the strips to an equal length Each strip was 2 inches wide. Now, fold the strip in half and iron it. Then fold the raw edges under to meet up in the center, and iron again. Now sew with a ¼-inch seam allowance on the side that is folded under and you have a perfect drawstring that requires no turning whatsoever. For whatever reason, I didn’t sew these with a ¼-inch seam allowance I just said to do it with. I don’t really remember why. As long as the drawstring is able to fit in the drawstring tube, it doesn’t really matter. I’m not really OCD about any of this. If you are, then just be more careful with it.

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Turn the ends under and sew. I went over that seam a few times for extra strength. You could also tie the ends into knots or put beads on them or whatever you like. Just do something to make them stay together.

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Now, hook a safety pin at the end of one drawstring, and slowly push it through the drawstring  ‘tube’ you sewed. I scrunched up the fabric just a bit, and then would pinch down hard on top of the safety pin and pull it a bit. It takes a bit of time, but it isn’t difficult or particularly tedious work. When you are done, you will have this!

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And now you’re done! This is an afternoon project that you can adapt to suit your loved ones. You can make whatever sized bag you like. I think this is also a cute idea for a pouch for electronic devices or cables or even a makeup bag. There are as many possibilities as there are fabrics. So have fun! I really enjoyed this project and Terry loves his new shoe bags!

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Baked Denver Omelette for Two

We got a beautiful set of Le Creuset® baking dishes for our wedding. One is roughly 10 x 13-inches, and the other two are 10½ x 7-inches and 7 x 5-inches. I have made many casseroles in the large baking dish, and I have made things in the medium-sized baker as well. The small one is so cute, and I have been flummoxed by what recipe is made for that size baking dish. Well, I think I figured it out: a baked omelette for two! I have not yet mastered the art of making beautiful omelettes. Usually what happens is that everything starts out wonderfully. When it comes time to flip it over, all hell breaks loose and usually at that point I turn whatever omelette I was making into a scramble. It all tastes the same. Well, not really. For whatever reason omelettes just taste better. And that includes baked omelettes, which are super easy to master! You are basically making a crustless quiche, and you could certainly substitute any veggies you like for the bell peppers and onions. Terry’s favorite breakfast that I make is scrambled eggs with cheese and onions and bell peppers, which I like to make sound fancy and call a deconstructed Denver omelette. I decided to use that little baking dish and see what happened. I found a recipe for a baked Denver omelette on Taste of Home, and basically split it in half, except for the vegetables. It can hold a lot more vegetables than their recipe, and frankly, if you don’t have enough vegetables, it’s just boring. I also think that the vegetables are much improved by sautéing them before you add them to the omelette. As soon as the center is set, the baked omelet is done. You might have a little runny-ness in the center from the vegetables, and that’s ok. If the omelette is very slightly under-cooked, that is also ok. The eggs are so hot that they will continue to firm up after you take the omelette out of the oven. Here is another also. (I use that word a lot, because apparently I cannot link my thoughts together into one cohesive (and intelligent) thought.) So…also, I like spelling omelette ‘omelette’ and dislike ‘omelet’. Much like catalogue (and therefore dialogue), brunette, and doughnut. I also like the word ‘also’. Much like you will like this baked omelette!

baked denver omelette

Baked Denver Omelette for Two

Adapted from Taste of Home

Double recipe for 4 – 6 servings

4 – 5 eggs, depending on how hungry you are
¼ cup orange or red bell pepper, diced
¼ cup green bell pepper, diced
¼ cup onion (I used a red onion), diced
½ cup shredded cheese of your choice (cheddar blend is delicious)
½ cup diced ham
healthy shot of olive oil
salt and pepper, to taste
¼ cup milk, half-and-half, or cream (the fattier the liquid the richer the omelette)

Preheat oven to 400ºF. Spray a 7 x 5-inch baking dish with nonstick spray and set aside. Sauté onions and bell peppers in that healthy shot of olive oil over medium heat until vegetables are slightly tender, about 4 – 5 minutes. Whisk eggs and milk or cream in a mixing bowl to combine. Stir in remaining ingredients and pour into prepared baking dish. Immediately put into preheated oven and bake until eggs are set and omelette is golden, 23 – 27 minutes. Serve hot with some fresh fruit.

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Christmastide Candy Fruitcake

I hope that you have had a beautiful Christmas season! I know that many people consider Christmas over, and I am sure that many (all) of our neighbors are silently judging us (me) for still having Christmas trees lit in the windows and other decorations still in place, but it is still Christmastide, and will be until January 6. January 5th is Twelfth Night, and it is the last big celebration of Christmastide – otherwise known as the Twelve Days of Christmas. Epiphany (January 6th) marks the manifestation of Jesus as Son of God to the Magi, traditionally known as Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. The little star on the top of your Christmas tree (if you do a star) represents the divine light that they used to find their way to Bethlehem. Taking it down before the end of the season is just sad to me. All of this originally started as a quest to find when Christmas decorations should be taken down. If you are like me (or maybe you are really smart and already knew all this), you probably thought that the Twelve Days of Christmas started before Christmas. I mean, shops start selling Christmas things after Halloween. That’s really just too early. By the time Christmas comes around, people are sick of the whole thing, and you’ll see Christmas trees out on the side of the road as early as the day after Christmas, which is actually the First Day of Christmas. Christmas used to be celebrated for the Twelve Days of Christmas, and I’m not sure exactly why that changed. I tend to agree with an argument that says that Christmas has been turned into a consumer holiday with stores vying for your attention and money earlier and earlier every year. The real holiday has just gotten lost in the shuffle, and to me, that is very sad. By the way, leaving your Christmas decorations up for the entirety of the Twelve Days of Christmas is Church sanctioned. It isn’t bad luck, contrary to some popular belief, and then you don’t start your New Year by taking down all the cheer in your house and being depressed and tired and just not happy at all. I can handle two holidays going on at once. Anyway, if you get your Christmas tree on Thanksgiving, it just isn’t going to last through Christmas. I used to never understand why people waited until so late in December to get their trees. Even close to Christmas Eve. Now I get it. And that reminds me of my first time celebrating Christmas on Christmas Eve, which was one of the nicest Christmases I remember.

My first Christmas away from home, I mean, AWAY from home, like not even being able to get there a few days or weeks later or before, was when I was married to my ex and living in the Czech Republic. We spent about a week before Christmas Eve baking and cleaning the entire house (kind of like a spring clean). We had a small and exceptionally beautiful Christmas tree. (On a sidetone, if you ever get to the Czech Republic, buy crystal, porcelain, and glass. You’ve never seen anything so beautiful in your life anywhere. I got my mom two sets of hand-painted blown glass Christmas ornaments and they are simply stunning. Christmas trees there are the most beautiful I have ever seen, bar none!). Anyway, Christmas preparations also meant going to a local fishery to pick the Christmas carp. For Christmas Eve, the Czechs eat what is basically carp schnitzel (breaded and fried), and potato salad, preceded by some sort of soup, usually a fish soup. We lived in the middle of nowhere, but were surrounded by lakes. Lakes that were stocked with carp just for Christmas (we also lived near a major fishery, so had quite an abundance of fish all the time). Let me tell you something, carp are really actually quite large. If you look at them and the sun hits them just right, they can even be beautiful. Their scales turn rainbow colors and they swish around and you realize that they are larger than your cat. Anyway, I did not go to help select our fish, but we walked down the road (we lived in a village of 70 or so) to a nearby lake and watched some other people pick their carp. I didn’t really think anything else about it. In the meantime, a small hedgehog was holing up in the bathroom right off the courtyard next to the barn of my ex in-law’s house. We fed him milk and some other food I don’t remember because I WAS SCARRED FOR LIFE. I open the door with a little saucer of milk, thinking I’m about to see Svatopluk or whatever old-fashioned (and awesome!) Czech name du jour I had found and bequeathed to said hedgehog, and nearly passed out because there is a MASSIVE carp in the bathtub. What do you even do when you see that? What do you say? I think I stood there like an idiot for about 5 minutes completely speechless. Yes, that was old Karel the Karp. I remember the email I wrote my mom about it. I was horrified. He was butchered in the middle of the courtyard for Christmas Eve dinner. I did not eat him. My ex mother-in-law also made pork schnitzel for me and my squeamish ex-sister-in-law. But in any case, it was a beautiful Christmas and one of my favorites because I enjoyed learning about the traditions so much. You fast all day, and the first meal is Christmas Eve dinner, which everyone dresses up for. If you are lucky, you will see the golden pig (slaté prasátko (one year when my ex was here for Christmas, my mom made a golden pig and put it on a stick and my step-father ran outside and waved it in the window, which was rather marvelous!)) and have good luck. Anyway, we had fried carp, fried pork schnitzel, and very delicious Czech potato salad. We also had a special Christmas bread called vánočka and fabulous Christmas cookies and also a homemade strudel. When dinner was over, it was time for Christmas to start, and a little bell rang (one of the parents rang it), because Ježíšek, Baby Jesus, had delivered the gifts. Thinking back on it now, it was one of my favorite Christmases ever because I loved the traditions so much.

I have loved making my own traditions (some practiced by everyone, some not) for the Christmas season, and I hope that you have had as beautiful a season as we have. Merry Christmas to you and yours! Now, what would you say if I showed up at your house with:

twelve drummers drumming
eleven pipers piping
ten lords a leaping
nine ladies dancing
eight maids a milking
seven swans a swimming
six geese a laying
five golden rings
four calling birds
three french hens
two turtle-doves
and a partridge in a pear tree

And I don’t know if you noticed this, but you cannot just read that. You end up doing the whole slower “fiiiiiive golden rings” in a sing-song voice in your head. You are welcome!

Consider this fabulous and gluten-free cake a Christmastide present to you. There are two different schools of fruitcakes. There are the brandy-laden bombs and then the candied versions. In my experience, the flavors that most people find noxious are either brandy or candied citron or angelica. This cake has neither, but is still a traditional fruitcake. It has pineapple and cherries and dates and nuts and coconut, all held together with sweetened, condensed milk. It is beautiful sliced, and tastes like heaven. I made it last year and it was an extreme hit. And by that I mean that it has become a Christmas staple. That’s pretty major, because we already have so many different things that are a traditional cookie or sweet for us. It is a little fiddly to get out of the pan, but if you grease the cake pan really well (or perhaps think ahead and line it with greased parchment paper), you shouldn’t have any issue. It looks like it is studded with Christmas jewels when it is sliced. It is one of my favorite Christmas sweets, and I have not yet met anyone who didn’t like it. Haven’t you heard for your whole life “but this fruitcake is different!” (and they usually never are!)? Well, this one really is and it is just wonderful. I did an experiment with the one I made last year. I froze it. And guess what? You can freeze it for a year and it still tastes the exact same. I was kind of astounded and also pleased. Since it is only sugar, I guess that is why it works. I don’t question things like this because I don’t understand rudimentary refrigeration and freezing. I just know that you can freeze it and it doesn’t ruin the taste or texture.

Isn’t she just stunning? Yes, it is a she, because she is majestic, like a ship or a continent. And also weighs nearly as much. Seriously, the cake weighs about 83 pounds (now you know where those pounds came from after all). 83 pounds of deliciousness! This fruitcake tastes just like how you wish they all tasted. It is just divine!

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Everyone-loves-it Candy Fruitcake

1 pound pecans, chopped
1 pound walnuts, chopped
1 pound dried, pitted dates, chopped
1 pound sweetened, flaked coconut
1 pound candied pineapple, chopped
1 (8 oz) container candied red cherries, chopped
1 (8 oz) container candied green cherries, chopped
2 (14 oz) cans sweetened, condensed milk

Preheat oven to 225ºF. Yes, 225.

Heavily grease and flour a bundt or tube cake pan. ***You could also line the pan with parchment and save yourself some grief about removing the cake. Or not. Your choice.*** You could also make this in smaller disposable loaf tins to give as gifts to friends.

Mix ingredients with your hands in a large bowl. It will break your spatula right in half. Ask me how I know.

Turn into prepared pan. Bake 1½ hours. Cake is done when no milk oozes out when pressed with finger. Run a knife around the edges and let cool completely. Turn out on foil and wrap snugly. Store in refrigerator or freeze 1 month. (I froze it for a year just to see what would happen and it tasted as good as the fresh. Go figure). Slice thin to serve.

This fruitcake is extremely and mind-bogglingly difficult to remove from the pan. It is ok. I had to freeze the whole thing a bit and work on prying it out without ruining the sides for about 15 minutes. I basically pried it out with two forks and lots of effort. Was it worth it? Yes! What do you think? The great thing is that since there is no flour, there is nothing crumbly. You can pat down or smooth any areas that you mess up. In fact, you can break out a large chunk and press it back in. So really, don’t worry. It will come out of the pan and you will forget the whole experience as soon as you take a bite. It’s fabulous!

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candy fruitcake

Easy Cake Mix Strawberry Waffles with Nutella Sauce

This is such an easy recipe that it almost hurts my feelings to even write anything about it. If you can work a waffle iron and open a box, you can make these. You don’t even have to tell anyone that you actually made it from a box mix. I won’t tell. I can barely operate a waffle iron, but these still tasted great and didn’t look too hideous (I am sure you noticed that mine are round on one side and square on the other). I think my problem is that I put too much mix into the waffle iron, and then I use the wrong temperature, and then things go really wrong and it starts dripping out of the side and making a mess. I have a new waffle iron and this time I wrote down the correct temperature. I also realized about halfway through the waffle-making process that my waffle iron has a red and a green light. When your waffle is done (instead lifting it up too early and making an even bigger mess, ask me how I know), it turns green. How easy is that? OK, let’s say that you have an older waffle iron. I probably shouldn’t be giving you advice, because as long as I have been around I have been making a mess out of waffles, but you can usually see when it is done. It’s like the lid just looks different and kind of pops up a little. These are very tasty waffles, and really easy to make, like I said. Ignore my ramblings about my poor waffle-making abilities. I am not the kind to worry that much about what it looks like. We started pulling them right off the waffle iron and eating them, so it’s lucky I even got this one photograph! These waffles won’t get crispy like your regular ones will, but they are very, very festive, and you have the added benefit that you can basically make whatever flavor you want. These are some of my other ideas:

Strawberry cake mix waffles with macerated strawberries and whipped cream
Chocolate cake mix waffles with Nutella sauce and bananas and mini chocolate chips
Spice cake mix waffles with maple syrup or cream cheese frosting diluted with some milk
Vanilla cake mix waffles with Nutella or chocolate sauce and sprinkles!

Really, I could go on and on. The thing is, you can suit these to your family. They are just so easy. And if you get sick of the whole thing, just pour it into a little pan and then you have a cake.

I made the strawberry ones because Terry loves everything strawberry. And I like the color pink. And I also love Nutella®. If you dilute it with a little milk, you can pour it. It’s magical stuff and I recommend it highly. I used to buy big tubs of it in Germany, and I am so glad that it has become the next big thing here because now I can buy it at my grocery store. I got the giant size at our local warehouse shopping club thingy. Anyway, it is humongous and we are slowly working our way through it. One delicious spoonful at a time. Anyway, I think these would be super cute on Valentine’s Day. You could even get fancy and cut them with heart-shaped cookie cutters and make a little stack of pink hearts. I just love how fun these are! Not healthy, but fun and tasty!

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Strawberry Cake Mix Waffles with Nutella Sauce

1 box cake mix of your choice, prepared per box directions:
3 eggs
1 cup water
⅓ cup vegetable or canola oil

Mix ingredients together. Preheat waffle iron. Follow directions for your waffle iron to cook the waffles. You can keep them warm in the oven, eat them right off the waffle iron, or let them cool slightly. Whatever you prefer. You can also refrigerate leftovers and reheat them. Or eat them cold. Didn’t I tell you how easy these were?

Nutella Sauce

¼ cup Nutella
2 – 3 Tbsp. whole milk (or evaporated milk or probably even water in a pinch)

Whisk together until you have a sauce of the consistency you desire, and drizzle over waffles (and eat a spoonful while nobody is looking).

Adapted Pantry Minestrone

Um…so have you noticed that a lot of my recipes are inauthentic? I am really sorry about that. Here is an authentic recipe, as minestrone has no authentic recipe. And I just love that. Minestrone is basically a soup made with vegetables and beans and sometimes meat. You can make it however you want. Seriously. It is authentic in its inauthenticity! This is a pretty good pantry raid recipe, and I got it from Food Network. I changed it up a little bit, because frankly, I like kidney beans in minestrone, and I also like more color in my soups than what you will find in their version, which I am sure is equally delicious. I think the point is that you can adapt it to your taste. I made okra and tomatoes for Christmas dinner with my dad, and I added my leftovers to the soup. I got a really nice smoky (unauthentic, I am sure) flavor from the bacon, and I therefore also had onions in the soup. I also think it could use some garlic and celery, but again, that is my preference. The thing about adding soy sauce to a pantry soup is that it sounds like it would be really weird. I was wiling to try it because Terry was on a trip and I knew he would hate what is basically bean and vegetable soup anyway, and two, I needed to know. I was pretty impressed! The soy sauce adds that umami flavor you keep hearing about everywhere – if you can’t have soy sauce because of gluten or sodium, just add parmesan cheese directly to the soup. It won’t hurt. It’s kind of like everything but the kitchen sink minestrone. Which is very authentic. Anyway, umami is one of the five basic tastes, the others being sweetness, bitterness, sourness, and saltiness. It is the depth of savory flavor, and you’ll find it in lots of vegetables, fish sauces, soy sauce, etc etc and even ketchup. It makes things taste beautiful, basically. You can leave it out of this soup. but it imparts a flavor that makes it taste deeper and infinitely tastier than just opening cans and tossing them into a pot, which you could also certainly do. Does that make sense? You really cannot taste the soy sauce in this recipe at all, as it only adds a depth of flavor. I was very impressed and will try this trick again!

I don’t really have any Japanese or Italian stories to go along with my discussion of minestrone and umami. I don’t know that serving this soup in a red bowl was the way to go. But it is what it is, and I’m pretty sure you already know how bad my photography is. I can’t even make fun of it anymore. It is that bad. I know. So I suppose now I have another new year’s resolution, and that is to pull that fancy camera that scares me so much out of the closet and learn how to use it. I ordered some sort of accessories kit, and I don’t even know what most of it means. You know, I don’t even know what I don’t know. That’s how far behind I am. I did recently get a library card, so I guess I can go to the library and at least learn a little before I try to take some classes and embarrass myself (mostly embarrass others with my photography ignorance) completely. In the meantime, I like to think that what I am making tastes good, and taste trumps looks every single time. I could make so many tasteless jokes (I’m just killing myself here!) right here, but I won’t. Mostly because I don’t want to possibly offend you any more than I already have. Try this tasty soup and take some lovely photos (which everyone seems to be able to do except for me) and share them with me!

pantry minestrone

Authentic-in-its-inauthenticity Pantry Minestrone

Adapted from Food Network

1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 can whole corn kernels, drained
2 Tbsp. tomato paste
¼ tsp. dried oregano
½ tsp. dried basil
¼ tsp. dried rosemary
4 cups chicken broth
1 (14.5 oz) can diced tomatoes, undrained
¾ cup small pasta
1 (14.5 oz) can kidney beans, drained
1 (14.5 oz) can cannellini beans (or other white bean),  undrained
leftover vegetables of choice (I used okra and tomatoes with bacon)
1 (14.5 oz) can green beans, drained
1 tsp. soy sauce
salt and pepper
grated parmesan cheese
dried or fresh parsley, for topping
*leftover okra and tomatoes, recipe follows, if desired

Heat olive oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the corn and sauté a few minutes until it begins to slightly brown. Add the tomato paste and herbs, and cook, stirring constantly, for about a minute. Whisk in the chicken broth until the tomato paste and herb mixture is well-incorporated. Add the tomatoes and bring to a boil. Add the pasta, beans (and the undrained liquid from the white beans) and the soy sauce. Season with salt and pepper and cook until the pasta is al dente, about 8 minutes or so (depending on what kind of pasta you used. Go by package directions for al dente). Add the green beans during the last 2 minutes. Serve with parmesan cheese and additional olive oil, if desired.

Here is probably my favorite recipe for okra and tomatoes. I didn’t take a picture, but it is a beautiful dish and it tastes just heavenly. I served it with white rice and a pecan praline ham and cornbread for Christmas dinner, and added the leftovers to my unauthentic minestrone with delicious results. I make this recipe for okra and tomatoes fairly often, and I think I said this before, but even Terry will eat it, and he despises okra more than anything except olives. I also found this recipe from Paula Deen’s The Lady and Son’s Restaurant on Food Network, and I slightly adapted it, as I use frozen okra (it’s easier) and I also think you should be careful with the amount of sugar you use. Sometimes the tomatoes aren’t as bitter as they are other times, and 1 Tbsp. of sugar with sweet tomatoes can make this dish too sweet. Start with less (it always needs a little), and add to taste. There are several different ways you can make this dish. I will include instructions for how to use Andouille sausage, if you prefer that. This dish is known all over the South, and lots of people call it Red ‘n’ Green, which is just darling for Christmas. And tasty. And since it has vegetables, you can pretend that it doesn’t have bacon in it and that it is completely healthy. Most recipes for okra and tomatoes look nearly identical to this one; the thing I like about this recipe is the use of chicken base. It packs a ton of flavor and you don’t end up with a watery or soupy mess like you might with using chicken stock. Chicken base is basically a chicken stock that has been reduced to the same consistency as tomato paste. It is great to have on hand, and you’d be surprised at how versatile it is. Imagine adding chicken stock flavor to dishes without having to add the liquid, and that is what you do with chicken base. You can make your own at home, too. Just make your regular chicken stock and let it reduce for a few hours, until it is very thick and the vegetables have disappeared (strain before using, if desired).

What else can you do with this recipe for okra and tomatoes? You can omit the bacon entirely, and use a small amount of vegetable broth and make the dish vegetarian – I would just recommend sautéing the vegetables in some olive oil so you get a little bit of fat. You could also add (to either the original or vegetarian version) some curry powder or garam masala and make it into an Indian-inspired dish. Delicious!

Okra and Tomatoes, or Red ‘n’ Green

Recipe slightly adapted from Paula Deen at Food Network

4 slices of bacon, diced (or 1 andouille sausage, diced)
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 (15 oz) cans petite diced tomatoes, undrained
1 Tbsp. chicken base
1 tsp. – 1 Tbsp. sugar
2 (12 oz) bags frozen okra
salt and pepper to taste
1 (14.5 oz) can whole kernel corn, drained or undrained (see below), totally optional

Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Cook bacon (or andouille) slightly. Add onion, celery, and garlic and sauté with bacon until onions are tender. Add tomatoes with liquid, chicken base, sugar, and about ¼ tsp. black pepper. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for about 20 minutes. Adjust seasonings – you can add more sugar, salt, and pepper to taste. You could also add some creole seasoning if you wish. Add frozen okra to tomato mixture and continue to simmer over medium-low heat for about 10-15 minutes, or until okra is cooked through and hot. You can also add a can of whole-kernel corn, if desired, with or without the juice, depending on how liquid-y you want your mixture to be. The corn will add some natural sweetness, and it stretches the dish.

Unauthentic Hoppin’ John for the New Year!

Happy New Year! Here’s hoping that 2016 sees us all at our best: happy and healthy and wealthy and wise! Here is a traditional southern dish that will make you feel all of those, I think. You will be happy because you will have a tasty dish you can share with family and friends, and you will be fairly healthy because it isn’t too bad for you and it’s full of protein and vitamins, which is also wise, right? As far as the wealth part? Well, come on, most of us are already so wealthy compared to most. I do think that the New Year is a time to reflect on everything we have to be thankful for, and ways that we can pass our blessings forward.

Hoppin’ John is a traditional southern New Year’s dish of peas and rice of African origin. For my peas I used black-eyed peas because that is what I had in my pantry. My favorite of all peas is field peas, which are slightly smaller and not as easy to find in some areas. My Memaw got me hooked on field peas almost as soon as I teethed. They are my absolute favorites of all time, and to me, they taste like home. Black-eyed peas are a very close second favorite, though, and they also look really festive. I think some people might even prefer black-eyed peas, so it’s really a matter of taste. As long as you have peas/beans of some sort – but not green peas or lentils; I think those would both be pretty dismal – you can make this dish. If you cannot find either field peas or black-eyed peas, or if find yourself in a bean conundrum (happens all the time around here), try a mild bean like a white bean (like northern or cannellini beans) that will absorb the flavor of the ham and not impart a distinct flavor of its own. I’ll put is this way: the peas taste like ham. People that usually dislike beans, like my darling husband, will still eat this dish. That’s pretty major in my book! The peas symbolize coins, and that means that if you eat enough of them you should be wallowing in money. And then you can share the wealth with me since I showed you this recipe! Here’s my bank account number…just kidding! Southerners typically eat some sort of green on New Year’s Day as well, as the green-ness of the greens (yeah, I really said that) symbolizes cold, hard cash. And nothing says happy holidays like cash money, yo.

Let me point out all the unauthentic parts of this dish:

It is unauthentic to add carrots, but they add a nice flavor and I recommend them.

It is unauthentic to serve this over rice. It should be mixed with rice.

It is unauthentic to serve the greens mixed in with the peas. But it tastes really good and it saves you having to wash a third pot.

And that, my friends, is why I called it unauthentic Hoppin’ John. And also, for those of you who aren’t southern, it is NEVER called hoppinG John. Ever. Even by people who think they are fancy. Pronouncing it hoppinG John would be like calling a french fry a ‘rench fry. So just don’t do it. Hoppin’ John. And on January 2nd (which is today), it is called Skippin’ Jenny. Again, no ‘g’ sound. And eating it two days in a row means frugality, which means extra prosperity. It’s a win-win dish all around! Ok, I just thought of a few more! Shortenin’ bread and chitlins (which is actually spelled chitterlings. Yes, that is one and the same), among others. Taters? So…I was just talking to Terry about this and told him I was thinking about writing ‘possum. You know, instead of opossum. Which makes me sound like a redneck (which I may well be). And my precious, darling husband rolled his eyes and said “the O is silent”. This is why we married. And now we are both laughing and it is healthy to laugh and makes us happy. It would be wise to save your money and go somewhere where they pronounce the ‘g’ and that pesky silent ‘o’ over the holidays instead of our house. And that’s how you bring an article full circle (for once). Happy New Year 2016!

hoppin john

Slow-Cooker Hoppin’ John with Greens

1 pound dried field peas or black-eyed peas, rinsed
5 carrots, peeled and chopped
1 large chopped onion (or more to taste)
4 slices bacon, chopped
4 cups chicken broth
1 can Ro-Tel®, undrained
1 cup water
½ pound diced ham
1½ tsp. ground cumin
1 or 2 (12 oz) bags frozen turnip greens, collard greens, or kale (more = more greenness)

Soak peas overnight. If you don’t have time for that or forgot, put peas in a large Dutch oven and cover with water by 3 inches. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and let simmer 2 minutes. Cover and remove from heat. Let stand for 1 hour.

Cook carrots, onion, and bacon over medium heat until bacon is crispy and onions are soft. Set aside.

Combine the chicken broth, water, and tomatoes in a large pot and bring to a boil. While you are waiting for this to boil, drain peas and put into a crock pot. Cover with the carrot mixture. Once the chicken broth mixture has come to a boil, pour it over the peas and carrots. Add diced ham and cumin. Cover and cook for 5 – 6 hours on low or 2½ – 3 hours on high. Add greens of choice and stir in. Continue cooking an additional 30 minutes on low. Serve with lots of white rice. This will serve 10-12 people easily as a main course over rice.

The Twelfth Day of Cookies: Easy Piña Colada Macaroons

These cookies are really for coconut fanatics! I love coconut and one of the best things I got for Christmas was finding out that my neighbor across the street is a coconut fanatic, too! That just warms the cockles of my heart. I never knew so many people didn’t like coconut (ahem Terry. Weirdo). How can you not like coconut? It tastes so delicious. Especially with pineapple. And rum. No, seriously, even just plain I just cannot get enough of the taste or of the smell. I once had some of that expensive coconut-scented shampoo and conditioner, but I had to quit using it. I kept finding my hair in my mouth, and that’s just not a cute look for me. Partly because I had started to chew! But I digress. These are really super easy to make, compared to macaroons made with whipped egg whites. That is fine and dandy if you want to make those instead, but for something beautiful and very tasty, this recipe just can’t be beat! I think next time I would put half a red candied (or even green, for that matter…how Christmassy!) on top, because that is just what you do. Even on a piña colada.

Also, for those of you that are interested, did you know that your computer spell-checker will not like the word pina but it will accept piña? Do you even know what that little special ñ is called? I got my bachelor’s degree in Spanish, but didn’t find out (or didn’t pay attention to it) until I started my master’s in Spanish (which I never finished since I switched to German. Which doesn’t have the ñ. But does have the ß, so I feel like that’s a fair trade). I took this amazing class about Spanish linguistics and these are the two things I learned (I took copious amounts of notes about number 2) that I remember most. Just shows you that I can pay attention when it is really, really good!)

  1. That little ñ is called a tilde. You will find it in words we have adopted to be English like piña and jalapeño. They are pronounced ‘peen-ya’ and ‘ha-la-pen-yo’. Not ‘peena’ and most definitely not ‘ha-la-peeno’. Also, if you cut jalapeños, you really shouldn’t forget and touch your eyes under any circumstances. Ask me how I know.
  2. The word in Spanish for avocado is aguacate. It comes from the Nahuatl (the language of the Aztecs) word (roughly) aguacatl. Which basically means testicles. Because that is what avocados look like hanging from trees. Testicles.The more you know, people!

But back to the cookies…

These are really pretty and very tasty! I made them with gluten-free flour this year because I had quite a bit of it leftover from Thanksgiving. I made them for my mom and they tasted pretty good! This recipe makes about 5 dozen, and people that like coconut will love these. I served them at a tea I had and they got eaten more than almost any other cookie. Coconut lovers unite!

pina colada cookies

Piña Colada Macaroons

¾ cup sugar
⅓ cup unsalted butter, softened to nearly room temperature
3 oz cream cheese (slightly less than half a block)
1½ tsp. rum extract
1 egg yolk
1¼ cup all-purpose flour, lightly measured*
2 tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. salt
8 oz. candied pineapple, finely chopped
4 cups sweetened, flaked coconut
red and green candied cherries, if desired, for topping

In a large bowl, beat sugar, butter, and cream cheese until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Add the rum extract and the egg yolk and beat to combine.

In a small bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt. Gradually add flour to the sugar/butter/cream cheese mixture and mix well to combine. Add pineapple and 3 cups of the flaked coconut. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 1 hour. This will make the dough much easier to handle.

Preheat oven to 350º. Put remaining 1 cup coconut onto a large plate or baking dish. Roll the dough into 1-inch balls. Then roll into the coconut. Bake on an un-greased cookie sheet about 2 inches apart. Flatten the cookies slightly with your finger.

Bake at 350º for 10 – 15 minutes, or until light golden brown.

Immediately remove cookies from baking sheet onto a cooling rack to cool completely.

The Eleventh Day of Cookies: Fruitcake Bars

Once upon a time, I really hated anything that had anything to do with fruitcake. I wanted to hide and run away every time someone would say “but this fruitcake is different”. Ugh. Really? Not so much. But now that I am an adult, I just cannot get enough fruitcake. I don’t know when I decided to convert to fruitcake-lover, but I did along the way somewhere. And honestly, that is pretty true. You either love fruitcake or you hate it. But in my experience, I have found that the fruitcake most people hate is the one with angelica and lots of alcohol. The candied versions with just cherries and pineapples pretty much everyone likes – even when they hate fruitcake. And tada, here is a fruitcake recipe that fruitcake lovers and haters will love the same. I used to love these, and I just cannot stress to you enough how much I used to hate fruitcake. These are candy-like and don’t have any sharp tastes that children don’t like. They aren’t cured in a bottle of brandy, either, so those that really dislike that taste can eat these politely (that means not chewing it and spitting it out) and even say “wow, this fruitcake really is different!”

Here is one thing I would suggest: buy the pre-mixed chopped fruit if you can. I pulverized most of mine in the food processor, thinking that would work. It kind of did, but it mostly made a pink goo. The bars still taste the same, but I really had a pretty un-Christmassy time trying to spread that sticky sugary candy over the cookie layer. It’s possible, but I did want to let you know that small children should probably not be in the room (or prudish adults, either, for that matter) while you try to spread it on because some words that start with s (Santa) or f (fruitcake!) may emerge. Just sayin’. If you can sprinkle the fruit on top, that would be the way to go. Also, I think you can use either candied dates or just pitted dates. I used pitted dates because that is all that I had, but you can definitely use candied dates and they will taste fabulous! These are so pretty for Christmas and really, everyone will like them. I am not a fruitcake pusher because I have been on the other side and I remember how much I used to dislike people that pushed their fruitcake on me and expected me to go into raptures about how it was so different. These fruitcake bars are really just candied fruit bars. No alcohol, no raisins, no angelica, no currants, and again, no booze (I actually really enjoy the ‘hard-core’ fruitcakes now, but let’s stick to these for now). Training wheels for fruitcake? Or really just candied fruit bars that taste divine! I like to use a mix of candied pineapple and red and green candied cherries. Then you get the specks of red and green (if you don’t make a candied fruit pulp like I did) and the coconut is like Christmas snow (by the way, it is hot today and the first Christmas I can remember having the air-conditioner on!). I sure hope Santa has on Christmassy skivvies because he will not be able to wear that polar coat!

The fruitcake bars are on the bottom right.

fruitcake bars cokie plate

Fruitcake Bars

2 cups graham cracker crumbs
4 Tbsp. sugar
1 stick melted salted butter
1 can sweetened, condensed milk
2 cups mixed candied fruit (chop it finely or coarsely, your choice)
1 cup chopped dates
1 cup chopped nuts (I like walnuts best)
1½ cups sweetened, flaked coconut

Preheat oven to 350ºF.

Mix crumbs with sugar and melted butter. Press into the bottom of a 9 x 13-inch baking pan. Layer with the candied fruit, dates, nuts, and coconut in that order. Evenly top with the condensed milk.

Bake for 30-35 minutes at 350ºF or until golden brown on top. Let coo and cut into bars.

The Tenth Day of Cookies: 7 Layer Bars

These cookies are so easy to make that I have the recipe memorized. They are called all sorts of different things: seven layer bars, magic bars, hello dollies, just-like-candy-bars etc. Whatever you call them, this is a Christmas cookie that is tasty and pretty. It’s one of those cookies that really make Christmas. Do you have cookies like that in your family? I guess we think of the cookies we had in childhood when we think of what makes Christmas Christmas. I mean, besides the religious aspect of the holiday. And yes, Christmas is a religious holiday, y’all.

I’d just like to reiterate that these are just about the easiest cookies to make, ever. If you can open bags and layer ingredients, you’re golden! Plus they taste like heaven. You layer the ingredients in the order listed. I have made them several times just throwing things together willy nilly, and they still taste great. I do think, however, that layering the ingredients in the stated order makes the prettiest cookie. I just love these. This is one of the top 5 cookies for me at Christmas. Try them and I think you will agree!

Here they are on a plate with candy cane fudge and fruitcake bars. They are on the left.

fruitcake bars cokie plate

Here they are up close and personal:

seven layer bars

Seven-Layer Cookies

1 stick salted butter
2 cups graham cracker crumbs
2½ cups sweetened, flaked coconut
1 cup butterscotch chips
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 (14oz) can sweetened condensed milk
1 cup chopped nuts (I like walnuts in these best!)

Preheat oven to 325ºF. Melt butter. Pour into a 9 x 13-inch baking pan and swirl pan around to coat with butter. Sprinkle with graham cracker crumbs evenly. Layer ingredients in order listed. And yes, the sweetened condensed milk comes before the walnuts. I always think that is a typo.

Bake at 325ºF for 30 minutes. Cool and cut into squares or bars.

Makes 4 – 5 dozen depending on how they are cut.


The Ninth Day of Cookies: Candy Cane Fudge

This is Terry’s favorite fudge, hands down. If you love candy canes and chocolate or chocolate mint, this fudge has your name all over it. I really have nothing else to say. It is fabulously delicious and is one of the best Christmas candies I can think of. You can make it any time of year with peppermints, too. I, personally, prefer to make this fudge with crushed candy canes. The one thing I can recommend about making this fudge (or any fudge for that matter) is to have all your ingredients ready to go. Read through the instructions before you make the fudge, and move the ingredients to where you can put them all together. If you leave one thing in the refrigerator, and another on the counter way over there, and forgot the marshmallows, your fudge is going to get really nearly impossible to work with. That’s my Christmas advice so that you don’t have a meltdown and use un-Christian language on this sacred holiday. Even if you do mess up, this fudge still tastes really good. And, like the maple fudge, it is pretty easy as far as candy-making goes. I suggest you try it and pull out those fat…I mean yoga…pants.

candy cane fugde 2

candy cane fudge

Candy Cane Chocolate Layered Fudge

1 (14 oz) can sweetened, condensed milk
dash salt
3 cups semisweet chocolate chips
2 tsp. peppermint extract
20 – 25 peppermint candies, crushed, or about 12 candy canes or so, crushed
1½ cups granulated sugar
⅔ cup evaporated milk, not low-fat
2 Tbsp. butter
¼ tsp. salt
2 cups miniature marshmallows
2 cups white chocolate chips (about 1 twelve ounce bag)
red food coloring (about 10 drops)

For the chocolate layer:

Line a 9 x 13-inch pan with aluminum foil, letting the foil hang over the edges so you can lift the fudge out of the pan to cut it. Lightly spray with cooking spray and set aside. You can also just lightly grease a 9 x 13-inch pan; I don’t like to cut anything in my pans, but that is my preference. Either will work just fine.

Heat condensed milk in a heavy saucepan until hot, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and add salt and semisweet chips, stirring quickly to melt the chips. Spread immediately into prepared pan. Set aside and prepare the peppermint layer.

For the peppermint layer:

In a heavy saucepan, cook sugar, evaporated milk, butter, and salt over medium-high heat to bring to a full boil. When it reaches a boil that you cannot stir down, time and boil, stirring constantly, for 4½ minutes. Remove from heat and add white chocolate chips, marshmallows, and peppermint extract and stir until marshmallows disappear. Pour over chocolate layer in pan and spread evenly. Dot about 10 drops of red food coloring across the top of the peppermint layer and gently swirl with the blade of a knife. Sprinkle crushed peppermints or candy canes over the top of the white chocolate layer and very lightly press into the fudge. Let cool completely and cut into squares.