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  1. Wednesday, January 12, 2011

    ‘Books I’m Reading’ with Martha Stewart: Cleopatra, A Life

    It’s time for my “book report” on Cleopatra: A Life by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stacy Schiff, the second book for Martha Stewart’s Books I’m Reading club that I’m participating in with Sony and the Martha’s Circle of bloggers. I enjoyed the book, despite the fact it’s non-fiction 😉 and I had a lot of fun writing this post. It took me back to my beloved days in college. Yes, I’m exposing myself as a nerd who likes to read things and analyze them.

    Before I read Cleopatra: A Life, if you had asked me the first two words that come to mind when I hear “Cleopatra,” they probably would have been “Egyptian” and “seductress.” I hazard to guess that I’m not the only person who would think along those lines, and neither word is very accurate in describing who this woman really was. So much of what we know about Cleopatra comes from literature, movies and paintings that base their information more on fiction and myth than reality. Now that I have finished Stacy Schiff’s book, the words “powerful” and “strategic” are what come to mind when I think of the Greek queen of Egypt, Cleopatra.

    Stacy Schiff begins the Notes section of the book with the following: “The dead ends and missing pieces in Cleopatra’s story have worked a paradoxical effect: they have kept us relentlessly coming back for more.” I love this and think it defines beautifully why people have been intrigued by Cleopatra, from her time until now. There is so much we don’t know, and the information we do have is often jaw-dropping and scandalous. She was only married twice, both times to her teenage brothers. Incestuous marriages were common among the Ptolemies, Cleopatra’s family that ruled Egypt for nearly 300 years. In fact, Cleopatra had only four great-grandparents and six great-great-grandparents (normally people have 16!). She had all three of her siblings murdered. As far as we know, she only ever slept with two men, but those two men were Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, who both happened to be the most powerful men in Rome and married men at that. Alexandria, the city that was her home, was the Paris of the ancient world…perhaps even more decadent and lavish in riches than Paris ever was. Her world is one that is intriguing to imagine, filled with fascinating history as well as a good dose of gossip (look out for Cicero!). No wonder Cleopatra’s name was not soon forgotten.

    What struck me about Cleopatra is how witty, smart, powerful, and politically shrewd she was, despite her young age (she became queen at 18 and did not live to see 40). From the book we learn, “She was magistrate, high priest, queen and goddess. She was also – on a day-to-day basis and far more frequently – chief executive officer. She headed both the secular and the religious bureacracies. She was Egypt’s merchant in chief. The crust of state business consumed most of her day.” The image of her lying around eating grapes and being fanned by palm fronds while seducing great Roman rulers is pretty much blown out of the water. Not to say that being the richest person in the Mediterranean didn’t come with its fair share of luxury (it certainly did…the descriptions of the feasts she threw are stunning), but there was more to Cleopatra than that. For example, her relationships with Caesar and Antony were not a result of a young girl’s romantic whims. These relationships were strategic and crucial in securing her role as leader of Egypt, especially since both yielded children (including all-important sons).

    I found fascinating Schiff’s supposition that Cleopatra was most likely not classically beautiful. The only imagery we have of Cleopatra is from coins she had minted herself, images that do not depict her as necessarily beautiful, but certainly strong. Instead, it was her wit and charisma that were truly mesmerizing and, as Plutarch tells us, her irresistible charm and language of flattery gave her the ability to turn people to her will, which proved to be quite a powerful tool.

    True to the drama that was her life, Cleopatra’s death ended in suicide, of which we of course do not know the exact details. If you want to read more about it, you’ll have to pick up Schiff’s book yourself. (It’s good stuff. In fact, when Jon Stewart was talking with Stacy Schiff about Antony and Cleopatra’s deaths, I do believe he pointed at the book with a big grin and said something to the effect of, “It’s #*@%&$@ awesome.”)

    I was impressed with Schiff’s research and writing. I can’t imagine researching this book. It must have been fascinating but also frustrating. First hand accounts are not in abundance, and the historical records that do exist are often written by Romans, who had their own political agendas, often opposed to Cleopatra’s. The story is engaging, the research well-done, and I loved that Schiff is very clear in stating what is known fact and what can only be guessed at based on what we know of the era. I felt like I was in good hands.

    Be sure to catch Stacy Schiff on The Martha Stewart Show next week (date to come soon). I can’t wait to see her interview! There is also a great interview on NPR in addition to her Jon Stewart appearance. I’m glad Martha forced me to learn something new this month. It was good for me and fun at the same time!

  2. Tuesday, January 11, 2011

    Call for Recipes: Walnuts

    Let me begin with a confession. I hate walnuts. Hate them. In fact, I’ve never met a walnut I liked. Which is a shame since they are a superfood and all. I’ll just have to eat extra oats or something.

    Anyway, just because I don’t like walnuts doesn’t mean you don’t. In fact, I’m pretty sure there are a whole bunch of you out there who actually like, maybe even love, walnuts. Go figure.

    We haven’t done a Call for Recipes in a while and I think it’s time. Plus, I found these absolutely gorgeous red walnuts at the store yesterday. Even I, hater of walnuts, couldn’t resist putting them in my shopping cart. They were practically screaming for me to take their picture. I obliged. And luckily Nate likes them, so I promise they won’t go to waste!

    I don’t have a walnut recipe to share. But I’m certain you all have wonderful recipes! Please share your favorite recipes that use walnuts, whether they are the main character or play a supporting role. Maybe you’ll even convince me to open my mind to what walnuts have to offer…although I doubt it! 😉

  3. Sunday, January 9, 2011

    Week 207 Menu

    One of the best things about winter is the abundance of clementines/ cuties/mandarins/whatever-you-want-to-call-them. We’re eating a bag a week…
    at least!

    Last week was awesome. We had a wonderful abundance of menus shared and many of you have made meal planning a new year’s resolution. I love it! Let’s keep the momentum going…

    – Fettucine Alfredo (no recipe link…developing a recipe for a future post!)
    – Salad

    Stuffed Shells (we didn’t make ’em last week, ended up having spaghetti b/c I didn’t have time for the baking part…but I have all the stuff!)

    Easy Peasy Bean Tacos
    – Guacamole and chips

    – Leftovers

    Whole Wheat Pancakes
    – Smoothies

    – Eat out

    Bistro Chicken
    – Mashed potatoes
    – Broccoli

    Bring it on! Let’s see what you have planned for this week!

  4. Thursday, January 6, 2011

    Caprese Paninis, Garlic Basil Mayo and How to Make a Panini without a Panini Maker

    I love paninis. I’ve written about making them before, and I’m going to write about them again, just to prove my love. Paninis are simple to throw together, the variations are endless, and my girls {almost always} eat them. It’s a tasty, simple dinner option that I frequently turn to. Plus, I’m a sucker for any hot sandwich you put in front of me.

    My personal favorite panini is of the caprese variety. On this week’s menu post, Amanda asked if I would share the recipe. So, here we are!

    In addition to my “recipe” for caprese paninis (which, by the way, is not really a recipe nor anything all that original…but certainly tasty!), I have another “recipe” for some pretty darn yummy garlic basil mayonnaise, as well as how I make paninis without a panini maker {it can be done!}. This is a whopper of a post. Get ready.

    First, Caprese Paninis.

    Caprese Paninis, Garlic Basil Mayo and How to Make a Panini without a Panini Maker
    Super tasty!
    Recipe type: Main Dish, Sandwich
    • Panini bread or any delicious sliced bread
    • Fresh mozzarella cheese, sliced
    • Fresh basil, chiffonaded (is that word?)
    • Tomatoes, your favorite variety, sliced
    • Olive Oil and/or Balsamic Vinegar and/or Garlic Basil Mayo (recipe below)
    • Salt & Pepper
    1. Place your sliced mozzarella cheese, basil and tomatoes on a slice of bread. Sprinkle some salt and pepper, then drizzle with a bit of olive oil and/or balsamic vinegar, or spread the bread with Garlic Basil Mayo before putting ingredients on the bread. Top sandwich with second slice of bread and cook in a panini maker or on the stove in a skillet with another skillet on top (see below for my oh-so-fancy technique) over medium heat. When side 1 is lightly browned, flip and cook until side 2 is browned and the cheese is melted.

    Second order of the day – Garlic Basil Mayonnaise. The inspiration for this comes from Cafe Borrone. When tomatoes are in season, they have this to-die-for Basil Melt, which is basically an open-faced caprese panini. They use a flavored mayonnaise that really puts this sandwich over the top. Tonight, I attempted to replicate the mayo. I’m certain it’s different, but it was still awesome and made for the best caprese panini I’ve made yet! (Note as of 10/2011: the menu this year says they use a thyme mayo, so next time I make this I’ll try throwing in some thyme!)

    Garlic Basil Mayo
    • Mayonnaise
    • Salt & Pepper
    • Fresh garlic clove
    • Fresh chopped basil, a few leaves’ worth
    • Thyme (haven’t tried this yet, but see note in the paragraph above)
    1. For three good-sized paninis, I simply scooped out about three spoonfuls of mayonnaise into a bowl. I threw in some basil, two shakes of salt, two shakes of pepper, and ½ of a garlic clove pushed through a garlic press. Mix together and spread on bread for Caprese Paninis.

    Last order of business…what to do if you do not have a panini maker. I’ve thought about buying one. My friend Jen who went to culinary school and is an amazing cook loves her panini maker almost as much as her knives. But, fact is, my non-panini-maker technique works fine, so whatever. Maybe one day I’ll get the real deal, but until then, here is what I do.

    I get two skillets that are the same size. (You could also use two different sized skillets and have the smaller one on top, but I’ll continue explaining the technique assuming you’re using two of the same size and explain why I like it.) I heat the pan over medium heat (my stove runs hot, so I actually do one tick lower than medium), with the second pan resting on top. Once the pan is heated, I place my sandwich in the bottom pan, then place the second pan on top of the sandwich and press down until the pans are resting on one another. This is why I like using the same size pans, the top pan just sort of rests in the right spot. I try to make sure the top pan stays parallel to the one below so my sandwich “squishes” evenly.

    I used to use two medium sized pans flat pans, but last summer I got two 12-inch Calphalon skillets, one of which is a grill pan. Now I can get those fun ridges in the sandwich. And I can cook two paninis at once. Love it!

    There you go, more than you ever wanted to know about how I make paninis. Bon Appétit!

  5. Wednesday, January 5, 2011

    Bread Pudding Experiment

    I love bread pudding. There’s nothing quite like it. Especially when there’s chocolate involved.

    Today I found myself with a loaf of 2-day old pugliese Italian bread that we really had no use for. I’ve only ever used soft breads for bread pudding, you know, brioche, that light fluffy white Italian bread from the grocery store bakery section, croissants, etc. Recipes always called for that kind of bread and some of them even said things like “cut the crust off.” So it comes as no surprise that I was always scared to try making bread pudding with a more rustic, crusty bread. And that fear has been the waste of several decent loaves of stale bread because….

    That crusty, rustic pugliese worked GREAT in bread pudding. That’s right, I took the plunge. And the water felt good, people. Don’t be scared, use that crusty bread!

    I did slice off the pointy crusty top from the loaf, and, after I cut the bread into 1″ – 2″ slices, I cut the bottom crust off each piece. The rest of the crust I left on. I liked having varying textures in the pudding, and the crusty parts absorbed the custard and cooked beautifully.

    I am so glad I experimented with that bread today. Because, turns out, chocolatey bread pudding makes a mighty tasty lunch. Nutritious, too.

    Bread Pudding Experiment
    My creation after reading through a whole bunch of recipes and picking what I liked best.
    Recipe type: Dessert
    • 3 eggs
    • ⅔ cup sugar
    • 1 teaspoon vanilla
    • ½ teaspoon cinnamon (more if you use raisins or fruit as the mix-in)
    • 4 tablespoon butter, melted
    • 3 cup milk
    • ¼ teaspoon salt
    • 16 ounce loaf of white bread (brioche, Italian, whatever you have on hand)
    • Chocolate (chips or chopped) OR raisins, optional. If you don’t add anything at this point, it will be delicious topped with fresh fruit upon serving.
    1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Place a tea towel or cloth flatly in a 9”³ x 13”³ baking pan. Butter an 8”³ x 8”³ baking dish (I actually forgot to butter the dish, and everything was fine). Get a bunch of hot water ready for when the pudding is ready for the oven (I just filled my tea kettle and turned the heat on so it would be hot when I was ready for it).
    2. Cut off the ends of the bread and slice the bread into 1”³ – 3”³ cubes – no need to be exact. Cut off any particularly thick or crusty pieces of crust. Place bread pieces in the 8”³ x 8”³ dish, being sure not to overcrowd.
    3. If you are adding a raisins or chocolate, do so now just by sprinkling over the bread.
    4. Beat eggs, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon and salt with a hand mixer or in your stand mixer until it’s that pretty light yellow color. Stir in the milk and butter then pour the mixture over the bread. Dunk the pieces of bread down into the egg mixture with your fingers so all the pieces have been soaked. Let sit for 10 minutes.
    5. Place dish in the prepared 9”³ x 13”³ pan, laying 8”³ x 8”³ pan on top of the cloth. Place both pans in the oven. Pour hot water into the 9”³ x 13”³ pan until the level is about halfway up the side of the 8”³ x 8”³ dish.
    6. Bake around an hour. Mine was done at exactly 65 minutes. You can tell it’s done when you poke around in the middle and the custard is mostly set. There may be a little bit of liquid left, but not a lot.
    7. Serve cold or warm, with whipped cream or not. I love it a few minutes after baking because the tops are still crispy. YUM! Keeps in the fridge for several days.

    Happy Eating!

  6. Tuesday, January 4, 2011

    My New Year’s Resolution: Join a CSA

    It’s the beginning of the year, which for many of us is a great time to make new (or revive old!) goals. Cate’s Kindergarten class even made resolutions for 2011. Cate came home from school with this completely adorable New Year’s Bell, with the following resolution: “In 2011, I will listen to my parents more.” Needless to say I am excited about her choice! (I love the illustration of her ear actively listening.)

    I’ve been thinking for weeks about what I want my 2011 New Year’s resolution to be. Last year’s resolution Eat Less Meat went really well, which puts a lot of pressure on this year’s resolution. Yesterday it finally hit me what I want to do: join a CSA. I’ve been thinking about doing this for years and am finally going to take the plunge. The great thing about this year’s goal is that it supports last year’s goal very nicely, so I can continue on my theme of eating more plants, less meat and less processed food. CSA stands for community-supported agriculture. Basically, a local farm or group of farms delivers produce weekly to a drop spot near your home. You pay a flat rate and get whatever happens to be in season. It’s a great way to eat seasonally and locally! Click here for more detailed info.

    Perhaps I should give a quick report back on last year’s Eat Less Meat goal, which was not about going vegetarian but about reducing our family’s demand for meat and processed foods. I feel like it was super successful and is something I have been able to incorporate into my daily life. I buy so much less meat than I used to, which has been beneficial to my pocketbook and my health. I am much more thoughtful about how I use meat and I really appreciate it when we do eat it. The resolution definitely has changed how I think when I buy food, and I am constantly aware and thoughtful about where my food comes from. I’m not perfect. Trust me. But I have made changes and I continue to do so in a sustainable and meaningful way.

    And to continue on with that success…CSA here I come! My goal is to not only join a CSA, but really learn how to use all the wonderful fruits and veggies that I will get each week. I’ve been scared to do it in the past because I know there will be produce that I don’t have experience with. But it’s going to be good for me to expand my horizons!

    Time for you to share some thoughts on resolutions. You know I love hearing from you!

    • If you participated with Eat Less Meat, let us know how it went!
    • If you are going to join a CSA like me, let me know – I don’t want to be alone on this journey!
    • If you’ve made any New Year’s resolutions, tell us about them – no matter what they’re about! Declaring a goal publicly definitely helps in keeping it. (The only reason I am so diligent about a weekly meal plan is because I have all of you watching!)

    Happy New Year!

  7. Busy Body Book Giveaway Winners!

    First off, I can’t believe how few of you piped in from the techy side on the paper vs electronic calendar debate! Of course, the sampling may be skewed since people commenting actually wanted to win a paper calendar. 😉 Regardless, it was fun reading all of your comments!

    It is time to announce the three winners for the Busy Body Book Giveaway! Drumroll….how do you type a drumroll anyway….brrrrrrr..wait, I’m not cold…duhduhduhduh…badabadabada…you get the drift…

    • Reynaul, who said: “I love this calendar!!! I have been a devote Franklin Covey planner person for years and I don’t go anywhere without it! I am all for the paper method! This calendar would be great!”
    • ellen patton, who said: “I love a paper calendar. I use one every year. I’d love to win one of these. Happy New Year, Jane!”
    • Susan Mallery, who said: “My assistant gave me a calendar for 2011 that makes me laugh every time I look at it – Goats in Trees! Who knew that goats climb trees to get leaves? I’m introducing a new character in one of my books this year who raises goats, so 2011 will be The Year of the Goat. LOL”

    Congratulations to our winners! If you weren’t lucky enough to win and you are still dying to get your hands on one of these calendars (I know more than a few of you fall into that camp!), you can order a Busy Body Book directly on their website.

    Here’s to an organized 2011!

  8. Sunday, January 2, 2011

    Week 206 Menu

    Happy New Year!

    We ended 2010 on the beach in Monterey and started 2011 snug at home. On New Year’s Day morning, both girls slept in, and then Anna cuddled with me for about 30 minutes before everyone got out of bed. If that is any indication of what the year will be like, then I think 2011 is going to be great.

    It’s the first menu of the year. What shall we eat? Hmmmmm…

    Pulled Pork (I froze last week’s leftovers to use for this week)
    – I made coleslaw to top our sandwiches, but the girls ate tons of it straight up…will have to make twice as much to keep up with them!

    Stuffed Shells

    – Homemade Pizza

    – Leftovers

    – Caprese Paninis

    – Eat out

    – I’m liking my recent “Breakfast for Dinner” theme on Sundays…makes for a nice, relaxing Sunday. I think I’ll keep doing it, at least for the next little while.
    – I’m going to try a yeast waffle recipe, which sits overnight, and see how we like them compared to our usual waffles

    And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for, my annual plea for you to make meal planning one of your new year’s resolutions! Last year I gave you some darn good reasons why this is a good idea, and all those reasons still stand (click here to read them!). And, of course, if you do make meal planning a resolution, be sure to post your menus here each week! We can help keep you accountable, and we love seeing your ideas…no matter how simple or fancy they may be. Can’t wait to see all your menus for the week!