Friday, February 25, 2011

Oscar Party!

Need some ideas for an easy Oscar night get together?  Last summer, some co-workers and I gave a retirement party for a friend of ours who happened to work in the film industry.  We decided to make the retirement party a "Hollywood" theme, and at the time we were planning and getting things together, I thought how great this would be for an Oscar night celebration, as well.  As you'll see, we got a lot of atmosphere with not very many supplies and not very much money!  And keep in mind, all of this stuff would look even better in the warm atmosphere of a home -- our event was held in a conference room so we had the added challenge of trying to make that sterile atmosphere a little softer and a lot more fun.

I was originally going to make cupcakes for dessert and I had the idea of putting little flags in the cupcakes with famous quotes from movies on them.  In the end, I decided on brownies, but I kept the flag idea.  I did a simple Google search for "famous movie quotes" and found several dozen great ones.  I printed them out in two columns on my printer (so each flag would be double-sided), then trimmed them and wrapped each one around a toothpick and glued it in place.  These were the hit of the party, as people tried to remember what movies the quotes were from.  This, of course, got everyone talking about old movies that they loved -- a perfect ice-breaker type of activity.  This could easily be turned into a contest, as well, with the quotes printed out in quiz format on sheets of paper.  I chose a mix of quotes from old as well as newer movies.  Here is a close-up of a few of the flags:

For the main beverage, we served golden punch fit for a Hollywood star.  A friend actually made the punch in this picture, so I don't have her recipe, but I know she used something that had pineapple juice, ginger ale, and orange juice, which together gave the punch that great color.  You could easily find a suitable recipe online (and you could add alcohol if you wanted, as well).  My friend did two other genius things -- she made a "star" ice mold from a simple round foil cake pan (just molding the sides into the shape of a star), and she hand cut some stars from slices of pineapple.  The original idea was to just use slices of star fruit, but for some reason, the store didn't have any, and the pineapple slices turned out to be the perfect touch.  Doesn't this punch look great and totally in keeping with our "Hollywood" theme???

The following photo shows our main food table with the tableware and tablecloths that we used.  To our surprise, we found a TON of inexpensive, movie-related party supplies at the local party store.  We bought plates, napkins, tablecloths and gold plastic cutlery, as well as the cute table sprays featuring reels of film and stars.  We added a few sets of white lights to give the table the right ambiance, and once those were plugged in, the whole table took on a truly elegant feel.

To give the food table and the eating area a real touch of class, we put huge bunches of white hydrangeas in big vases and set them on gold charger plates.  The effect was stunning.  Now, as I mentioned, we held this party in the summer, so the flower were free since they came out of a friend's flower garden.  In February, you're probably going to have to rely on something from the florist, but the important thing is to look for flowers in the right color (white or gold) and to use something with a lot of height.  Tall vases of flowers will really add some impact and interest to your table.

Oh, the gal that provided the flowers also happened to own these fantastic sterling silver candelabras, so of course we used those, as well.  Small candles set around the table, or another string of white lights, would do just as well.

Another thing we did (which I think was pretty clever!) was set all of the clocks to "Hollywood time."  As simple as this little touch was, our guests just loved it, particularly the guest of honor.

We also had the idea of buying gold rimmed sunglasses for everyone to wear at the party, but we had around 25 guests so this turned out to be cost-prohibitive.  Again, though, the perfect sunglasses were available in bags of 12 at the party store!  So, if you're thinking of having friends over to watch the Oscars this year, why not try a few of these simple and inexpensive decorating ideas?  Your guests will truly feel like "A" list celebrities!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Easy Weeknight Meals -- Take One

It seems like everyone is busy during the week, me included, so it's nice to have a small repertoire of easy main dishes that can be put on the table in a minimum of time.  When I plan menus for the upcoming week, I try to keep in mind which weeknights will be particularly busy or time-crunched, and I pull out a couple of ideas from my "quick and easy" file to cover those nights.  Caesar Salmon, one of my favorite easy dinners, is pictured above.

Before I give you the recipe, a word about salmon.  We LOVE salmon in my family.  Love, love, LOVE it.  But I had kind of gotten away from buying it because it has gotten quite expensive and it rarely, if ever, goes on sale at my local grocery store.  It just seemed crazy to me to spend $8.99/lb. for the main ingredient for ONE family dinner.  But then I started to think about it.  Like a lot of families, we have those occasions when there is NO time to make dinner before we have to head off somewhere, so we've been known to stop for fast food on the way home.  Even when my hubby isn't with us, a trip to McDonald's for me and my two boys always ends up around $15.  Looking at that receipt one night got me thinking ... if it's okay to spend $15 at McDonald's every now and again, maybe it's okay to spend $10 on healthy and delicious salmon once every week or two.  So, while I still love those occasional weeks when salmon goes on sale, I am now back to buying it regularly, even at $9 or $10 per pound.  I've just determined that it's worth it.

My favorite salmon recipe is Caesar Salmon.  It's delicious and easy, and the whole thing is done in the oven.  You know, on those Food Network shows, they always tell you to start fleshy fish like salmon on a grill pan on the stovetop, then finish the dish in the oven.  Yeah, great idea, but that's extra time I have to spend watching the salmon while it grills, and an extra pan to wash if my grill pan can't go into the oven.  No thanks.  On weeknights, I'm all about simple, easy, and as few dishes as possible.  So with that introduction, here's the very simple recipe.

Caesar Salmon

1 salmon fillet, about one pound
1 T. creamy Caesar salad dressing
1 T. butter
2-3 T. seasoned bread crumbs

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  Butter a large, shallow baking dish and place salmon fillet in the dish.  (You can cut the fillet up into 4 individual servings if you want to, but I like to cook it in one piece.)  Season the fillet with a little salt and pepper, then brush the fillet with the salad dressing.  Melt the butter either in a small saucepan on the stovetop, or in a small bowl in the microwave.  Toss the bread crumbs with the melted butter.  (If the mixture is too "wet," add a few more bread crumbs.)  Sprinkle the crumbs on top of the salmon.  Bake in the preheated oven about 20 minutes or so, until the salmon is just done the whole way through, and the bread crumbs are browned and toasty.  (The salmon should flake with a fork if it's done.)  Cut into serving pieces and garnish with lemon, if desired.

That's all there is to it, and I promise that it will taste great.  The salad dressing adds a bit of garlicky goodness to the salmon without overwhelming the taste of the fish itself.  And the toasty bread crumbs make this a real kid pleaser.

I like to serve salmon with rice and a steamed vegetable, usually either carrots or broccoli.  I have an electric rice cooker (which I adore), and that baby needs about 30 minutes, so I start my rice just after turning my oven on to preheat.  While the salmon and rice are cooking, I start my vegetables steaming, which takes maybe 15 minutes or so.  Easy-peasy, and a total of about half an hour invested for the payoff of a delicious and healthy dinner.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

"Everyday" Layouts

I created this layout last year when I took Cathy Zielske's "Design Your Life" class, but I'm sharing it today because I think it's a good reminder about scrapping the everyday moments in our lives, and also simply scrapping our feelings about things.  My younger son is very photogenic (he got that from my mom, who never, ever took a bad picture in her whole life!), and I try to make a point of taking photos of him every now and then for no reason at all.  (Just for the record, I try to do that with my older son, too, but being a teen, he mostly isn't having any of that.  At all.)  I love using "everyday" photos like this to illustrate layouts that are primarily about my feelings about my kids.  In this case, I wrote about something every mother (especially, moms of boys) has surely felt -- that pang of love you feel when one of your kids is affectionate with you, and the pang of gratitude that follows it when you suddenly realize that the time is going to come, and sooner than you think, when they won't want to be so affectionate with you.

I also like using photos like this for layouts that are about everyday activities that might not lend themselves very well to being photographed.  They are also great for documenting special or age-related characteristics about your kids or other loved ones.  I've learned to get those things down on paper, because you never know when they're going to change.

Here's another layout I created (also for DYL last year) that's along the same lines.  Here, I wanted to document a little game that, for several months, Brian and I engaged in almost every Sunday morning when he and I first got up, and everyone else was still sleeping.  And, just to cement how fleeting these kinds of things can be, I have to note that just one year later, we don't do this anymore.  Would the world come to an end if I didn't have a record of this little game down on paper, and I forgot all about it?  Of course not.  But looking back, I'm glad that I thought to document it, and every time I look at this page, warm and happy memories of Brian and I sitting on the couch on Sunday mornings come flooding back.  And that's what scrapbooking is all about, right?

Oh, and just a note about design here.  Both of these pages were made following basic templates that CZ provided to us in class.  While I consider myself a "clean lines" kind of scrapper, these pages are more simple and spare than I would normally make.  But you know what?  I love both of them.  Sometimes it can be great to take a minimalist approach, and not worry too much about papers and embellishments, but simply getting the "everyday" story down.


Sunday, February 6, 2011

Gratitude Journal

Last winter, when I took Cathy Zielske's "Design Your Life" class, one of our assignments was to do a page for a gratitude journal.  Cathy provided a template for us to use, but of course we could use the template in a way that reflected our individual style.  Above is the page that I made for the DYL class.  I absolutely loved it once it was finished, but more importantly, I loved the whole idea of a gratitude journal.  A permanent place to record my thoughts about the things in my life that I am thankful for.  What a fantastic idea!  When I finished the class, I had in mind to keep the journal going.  In fact, I asked Cathy if she could possibly "alter" the template for me so that it didn't have journaling lines on it.  Amazingly, she did that and sent me my very own customized template!  (And that kind of attention to her students is only one of the reasons that I am going to recommend to you that if you haven't ever taken a class from Cathy, there is no one better.  She is fantastic.) 

Fast forward to 2011.  Yeah, that gratitude journal never really got off the ground.  Life got in the way and all of that.  But I still love the idea, and I had safely saved that awesome template that Cathy made for me, so I decided that it was better late than never to get my SECOND entry finished for my gratitude journal.  I did the page below yesterday afternoon.

You may spy some VERY OLD patterned papers in this layout -- they are papers from KI Memories from years and years ago.  One of my goals whenever I do a smaller album like this is to use scraps where ever I can.  So I dug into my patterned paper scraps for both of the gratitude journal layouts, and that will be my plan for future layouts, as well.  I also used really old letter stickers for the titles, simply because I had them on hand.  Love using up old stuff from my stash!!!

So, one thing you might notice about both of my gratitude journal pages is that I've not written about the "obvious" things that I am thankful for, such as my husband and kids.  Don't worry, I'll get around to doing pages for them, but I wanted to start out with some subjects that maybe weren't so obvious.  The purple page above is about the sister-owned hair salon that I go to, where I get a friendly smile and fantastic customer service every time I walk through the door.  A key way that I plan to approach my gratitude journal is to let pictures spark my page ideas.  As I scroll through photos on my computer, I may see a photo and think to myself that it would be perfect to illustrate a page about something or someone that I'm grateful for.  The reason I want to approach the project this way is that I don't want to feel like I have to take "special" photographs just for my gratitude journal pages.  I've found that when I take that kind of approach, the photos don't get taken or don't get printed and the project stalls.  I'm determined to move forward with my gratitude journal in 2011, so while I may take some photos with a gratitude journal layout in mind, I'm going to try to use existing photos where I can.

Oh, I should add that even without the benefit of Cathy's template, it would be a simple matter to design a page layout that you could just repeat over and over for a project like this.  You could use or adapt a sketch, or come up with a simple design of your own.  And, although I've left my own pages quite plain, you could embellish yours as much as you want. 

I am typically a 12 x 12 scrapper and, as you can see, my gratitude journal layouts are 8-1/2 x 11.  So, I'm going to try to get myself down to Michael's in the next few days and see if I can find an actual album to house my new journal.  (The "Scouts" page has been sitting in my "Design Your Life" album for all this time.)  Then, my gratitude journal will be a reality, instead of just a great idea.

What do you think?  Do you have a gratitude journal?  Would you like to do one?

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Cook Once, Eat Twice

I love my slow cooker.  I just love coming home after a long day at work, and dinner is (for the most part) already made, because I've got a yummy stew or soup cooking in the slow cooker.  Add a salad or some biscuits, and the meal is done.  But you know what?  As great as a slow cooker can be for those harried weeknights, it's just as great for weekends.  Specifically, Sundays.  Sunday is actually my favorite day to pull out the slow cooker.  Why?  Because I try to make Sunday a day where I get to do a few things that I want to do, whether that's scrapbooking, having lunch with a girlfriend, or doing a little shopping.  With dinner all ready in the slow cooker, I don't have to worry about how long that girlfriend lunch lasts, or whether I have time to look at new blinds at Home Depot.  I just love the freedom that my "Slow Cooker Sundays" (as I've come to think of them) give me.  The concept holds, even if you don't do anything more strenuous on Sunday than rifle through the Sunday newspaper in your pajamas.

So what could be better than a delicious meal from the slow cooker?  Well, how about TWO meals?  Yep, for this great recipe, you only have to cook once, and you end up with two hearty meals that your family will love:  Cola Pot Roast and BBQ Beef Sandwiches.  If I make this pot roast on a Sunday, I've got an easy, quick dinner in hand for a busy, upcoming weeknight.  Oh, that's the Cola Pot Roast in the picture above, ready to be served.  Yum.  It's super easy, too.

Cola Pot Roast

1 (14.5 oz.) can stewed tomatoes
1 cup Coke
1 packet fajita seasoning mix
1 cup chopped onion
1 tsp. minced garlic
3/4 cup chopped celery
1-1/2 tsp. salt
3-4 lbs. beef chuck roast, trimmed of fat
2 T. vegetable oil

In a large bowl, break up tomatoes in their juice.  Stir in Coke, seasoning mix, onion, garlic, celery, and salt.  Stir until seasonings are dissolved.  In a Dutch oven, over medium heat, brown meat in oil about 10 minutes on each side.  Drain off all fat.  Transfer meat to slow cooker.  Pour tomato mixture over meat.  Cover, and cook on low for 8 hours, or until meat is fork tender.

Now.  Because I am my mother's daughter, I always serve a pot roast like this with mashed potatoes and sliced carrots.  I don't know why, but those two side dishes are just perfect with this beefy main dish.  Oh, and, not to worry if your kids won't eat the tomatoes, onions and other goodies that the roast is cooked with.  We'll make good use of those in our follow-up recipe.

One other thing.  This recipe, which I adapted just a bit from, originally called for an envelope of "spaghetti sauce mix."  Now, I don't know exactly what that is, because I couldn't find it at my store.  When I Googled it, what I found sounded pretty much like seasoning mixtures that you'd use in spaghetti sauce.  I decided to substitute an envelope of fajita seasoning, and the roast came out great.  So, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that you can use fajita seasoning, spaghetti sauce mix if you can find it, or any other seasoning mix that strikes your fancy.

After your family has eaten their fill, put the remainder of the pot roast in a large fridge-safe container.  Fish out all of goodies that the roast was cooked in (the yummy bits of tomato, celery and onion) and place them in the container with the roast.  Then, add a few ladle-fulls of the cooking liquid.  Cover and pop the whole thing in your refrigerator for a few days.  Then, when you need a quick weeknight meal, you're all set to make BBQ Beef Sandwiches.  That's the picture right below.  


BBQ Beef Sandwiches

Take the leftover pot roast out of the fridge.  Any fat remaining from the sauce will have congealed, and you'll easily be able to spoon it out.  With the roast on a cutting board, pull the meat apart with two forks.  Place into a saucepan or a small slow cooker (such as a two quart size).  Chop up any large chunks of tomato or other vegetables that you saved along with the pot roast, then add all of the vegetables and sauce into the saucepan or slow cooker with the beef.  (Note:  the broth or sauce may be somewhat thick.  Don't worry -- all will be well once everything heats up.)  Now add about half a bottle of your favorite BBQ sauce, or more, depending on how much beef you have left, and how saucy you like your sandwiches.  Stir everything together and heat over medium low heat on the stovetop until heated through (this will probably take 20 minutes or so, and you'll need to stir it a few times).  Alternatively, you can heat everything up in your small slow cooker for a few hours on the low setting.  When it's ready, stir a few times and serve on hearty buns or hoagie rolls.  I like to make skilled fried potatoes and a simple vegetable with these sandwiches, but coleslaw from the deli is another great option when you're really pressed for time.

That's it.  One recipe, two hearty, delicious dinners.  Why not make this coming Sunday "Slow Cooker Sunday" at your house, too?