Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Top-5 Tuesday: Recipes

As you all know, I LOVE to try new recipes. In fact, Darby jokes that he can't get too attached to any recipe I make because I'll probably never make it again. :) However, I do have a few "tried-and-true" recipes that I go back to over and over. The common denominator (except for the red velvet cake) is that they are all quick and easy (and taste great, of course!). So, here are my current 5 favorite recipes:

1. Cheesy Stuffed Shells

20 jumbo pasta shells, cooked, drained, and rinsed with cold water
1 26 oz. jar spaghetti sauce
16 oz. cottage cheese
10 oz. frozen spinach, thawed and drained
1 c. grated mozzarella, divided
1/4 c. grated Parmesan
1 tsp. oregano

Spoon thin layer of spaghetti sauce into 9x13 pan. Mix cottage cheese, spinach, 1/2 c. mozzarella, Parmesan, and oregano. Spoon filling into jumbo pasta shells and place in pan. Top with remaining sauce. Cover with foil and bake 25 mins. at 400 degrees. Uncover. Top with remaining mozzarella. Bake 5-10 mins. more until cheese is melted and bubbly.

2. Crockpot Chicken Tortilla Soup
I usually add 4 oz. cubed Velveeta during the last 30 minutes of cooking instead of topping with cheddar cheese before serving.

3. Cottage Cheese Bread
This sounds weird, I know, but it's so good.

1 pkg. yeast (regular or rapid-rise)
1/4 c. warm water
1 c. cottage cheese
1 tbsp. sugar
1-1/2 tsp. salt
1 egg
2-1/4 c. flour
1 c. grated cheddar cheese

Sprinkle yeast over water. Let stand 5 mins. and stir gently. In mixer, blend yeast, cottage cheese, sugar, salt, and egg. Add flour, 1/2 c. at a time, until stiff dough forms. (I use the dough hook on my KitchenAid mixer, and I only mix until the dough pulls away from the bottom of the bowl. I'm sure you could knead by hand as well.) Cover dough and let rise 1 hour (mine never rises very much, but it always turns out fine). Press down dough and mix in cheddar cheese with your hands. Transfer to greased 1-1/2 quart round casserole dish. Bake about 40-50 minutes at 350 (until golden brown on top). Brush with melted butter.

4. Big, Soft Chocolate Chip Cookies
You can make these cookies smaller, but they're not nearly as soft and good. If you do make them smaller, be sure to reduce the baking time.

2 c. plus 2 tbsp. flour
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1-1/2 sticks butter, melted and cooled slightly
1 c. brown sugar
1 egg plus 1 egg yolk
2 tsp. vanilla
1-1/2 c. chocolate chips (milk or semisweet)

Mix together dry ingredients and set aside. Beat butter and brown sugar until well combined. Beat in eggs and vanilla. Add dry ingredients and mix just until combined. Stir in chocolate chips. Spoon dough by 1/4 cupfuls onto baking sheets. (Make sure to leave 2-3 inches between cookies. They will be very big!) Bake 15-18 mins. at 325.

5. Red Velvet Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting
This cake is a little fussy but so worth it. I've switched to using cake mixes for almost all cakes, but I still do this one from scratch. Note that the original recipe calls for 3 oz. red food coloring. That is A LOT. I use just 1 oz., and it's plenty red. Also, I make my cream cheese frosting a little differently. I like it really tangy, so I start with 16 oz. cream cheese and 1 stick butter. Then, I just add powdered sugar and vanilla until it tastes right. I don't like it to be super sweet. Whatever you do, do NOT overbake this cake. Check it early and often.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Good News Brownies

I've just started reading Here If You Need Me, the memoir of a woman (Kate Braestrup) who went to seminary and became a chaplain for search-and-rescue workers after her husband died unexpectedly in a car crash. I'm not too far into it, but so far it's a very good read and an interesting look into a life of somewhat unconventional faith.

One passage in particular really touched me. Just after the author learned of her husband's death, a person came to her door with a religious tract, asking "Have you heard the Good News?" The authors neighbor, who had answered the door, slammed it in the young man's face. Then, Kate writes:
A few minutes later, the doorbell rang again. This time, I answered it. It was my neighbor, an elderly woman I had exchanged no more than a dozen words with in the ten years I'd lived in Thomaston. She had pot holders on her hands, which held a pan of brownies still hot from the oven, and tears were rolling down her cheeks. "I just heard," she said.
That pan of brownies was, it later turned out, the leading edge of a tsunami of food that came to my children and me, a wave that did not recede for many months after Drew's death. I didn't know that my family and I would be fed three meals a day for weeks and weeks.... All I knew was that my neighbor was standing on the front stoop with her brownies and her tears: she was the Good News.
This is exactly what I think Christianity should be: loving our neighbors. But it's so easy to let those opportunities to show love pass us by. Or, in my case, to make up excuses for not doing things. For example, if I were the old woman I'd probably say to myself: "Oh I hardly know her. She doesn't want me coming over with my brownies." But that one small gesture stayed with Kate for years. It's worth it to make that effort. And the worst thing that could happen is that my brownies might be rejected and I'd have to eat them all myself. I think I can live with that. ;)

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Top-5 Tuesday: Summer Memories

This summer went by way too fast, but that was mostly due to it being full of fun trips and time with family and friends. So I guess I can't complain too much. As I begin the semester, I'm looking back on some of my favorite moments from this semester.

1. Our trip to Texas, of course. Loved every minute of it: spending time with our families, Fat Tuesday reunion, holding Finn and Samuel.
2. Mini-trips to Madison, St. Louis, and Chicago. (I had to cheat and include all of these as one. I realized I have way more than 5 favorite memories!)
3. Anniversary lunch at Timpone's. Darby and I accidentally made other plans for the evening of our anniversary, so we decided to meet on campus for a lunch date. It was so fun to do something different. Having a little celebration in the middle of the day actually made it seem more special.
4. Swimming in Memphis. I know this is kind of lame, but I love swimming, and I never get to do it anymore. We stayed in a hotel in Memphis that had a nice pool, and we had it almost to ourselves. I loved it!
5. 4th of July weekend. The other 2 summers we've lived here, we've been out of town for the 4th. This year, it was great to relax at home and spend time with friends here. Plus, we got to see 2 fireworks shows!

What were the highlights of your summer?

Monday, August 22, 2011

Back to the grind

Despite my best efforts to keep it from happening, I guess summer had to end. Although I'm not looking forward to homework, I am excited about getting back into the semester routine. I'm still very much a nerd who loves getting my textbooks and writing all of my assignments in my planner. :) And I am both excited and nervous about the class I'll be teaching this semester. I can't wait to meet all of the students tomorrow. I don't have classes until the afternoon today, so I'm enjoying my final few hours of freedom at home.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Top-5 Tuesday: Local Restaurants

One thing that I really love about Champaign-Urbana is the number of great, non-chain restaurants we have. For the size of the town, it's really amazing. Here are my 5 favorites:

1. Sun Singer - This is mine and Darby's go-to date place. It's technically a wine bar and store, but their food is excellent, too. And, unlike most restaurants, the portions are reasonable, so you don't leave feeling overstuffed.
2. Jim Gould - This is definitely a splurge, but it's worth it. We've been there twice for special occasions, and both times have been wonderful.
3. The Bread Company - This is a charming little on-campus bakery that also has great, upscale dinner food. Darby and I love the chocolate fondue.
4. Papa Del's - Another on-campus gem. This is my favorite pizza ever (including several famous Chicago pizzerias). And Papa Del's will always have a special place in my heart as the first meal Darby and I ate in C-U.
5. Custard Cup - So I don't know if this technically counts as a restaurant, but it's my list, so I'm saying it does. :) 4 words: Heath Bar Cheesecake Snowstorm.

What are your favorite restaurants? I'd love to hear, even if you don't live in Champaign. Darby and I always enjoy visiting local restaurants when we travel.

Sunday, August 14, 2011


On Friday, I was administering an oral test for incoming international students. I would take students individually into a classroom, give them the test, and then they would leave while I stayed in the room to mark their score sheet. I had been working for several hours without a problem. Then, a student left and shut the door behind him. When I went to leave the room, I realized the door was locked. I was a little bit panicked, as I wasn't sure how I was going to get anyone's attention. The classroom was a little far from where everyone was congregated, and there was construction going on in the building, so it was very noisy. I started banging on the door. I was reluctant to yell "Help!" because it seemed a bit melodramatic. I was afraid I was going to have to call Darby to get him to come over to the building and tell someone that I was trapped in one of the classrooms. But, after a couple of minutes, the test coordinator heard my banging. She tried the door, but it was locked from the outside as well. So, she went to go get someone who had a key. They tried one key, but it didn't work, so they went to get another key. The whole ordeal lasted maybe 7 or 8 minutes. When they opened the door, there was a whole crowd of international students clustered around, and they started clapping and asking if I was OK. I felt like one of the Chilean miners. It was quite embarrassing. And made even more embarrassing by the fact that several of the students I was about to test had seen the whole thing. I bet they were wondering about the reliability of their scores, what with their test proctor being such a dummy. ;) I won't be using that classroom again, that's for sure!

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Recipe Round-Up

My friend Mary Kay requested the recipe for the corn salad I posted a picture of last week. It's from a cookbook my brother gave me for my birthday, called Bless Your Heart: Saving the World One Covered Dish at a Time. It's a very cute book and has all of the traditional Southern potluck, funeral, and new baby recipes.

Corn and Black Bean Salad
1/2 c. apple cider vinegar
1/4 c. sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. black pepper

In a small bowl, whisk all ingredients together until the sugar dissolves.

2 (15-oz) cans whole kernel corn, drained
1 (15-oz) can black beans, drained and rinsed
1/2 cup diced red bell pepper
1 cup diced green bell pepper
1 cup diced red onion
2 cups diced (fresh) tomatoes
1 medium cucumber, peeled, seeded, and diced

In a large bowl, combine all ingredients. Add dressing. Cover and chill at least 4 hours.

Obviously, I like quintupled the recipe. :)

Along with the corn salad, I made these French Dip sandwiches from my favorite cooking blog, Our Best Bites. They were very yummy.

And, of course, I've been trying out new dessert recipes like crazy. My favorites that I've made recently are these candy fudge bars and this Heath bar cake.


Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Top-5 Tuesday: TV Shows

I've been wanting to start some kind of weekly series on my blog for a while now. That way, I'll at least have a guaranteed post once a week. I've decided to call it Top-5 Tuesday, and each Tuesday (hopefully), I'll share 5 of my favorite things.

This week, it's TV shows. I was never much of a TV watcher until the past two years or so. It was just too much trouble to follow more than a couple of shows each season. Now, though, with the popularity of TV on DVD and streaming Netflix, we've become much bigger TV watchers. I'm not sure whether this is a completely good thing, but I have enjoyed getting into series, and it's nice to have a way to unwind and relax with Darby. So, as of now, here are my 5 all-time favorite TV shows.
  1. Psych - This is a light-hearted comedy/detective show about the very observant, but somewhat aimless Shawn, who pretends he's a psychic in order to work with the police. The snappy dialogue and likable characters keep the formulaic storylines from becoming tired. I think the show really hit its stride in the third season when they started developing each of the characters a little more. And, of course, the friendship between Shawn and his partner and childhood buddy, Gus, is very sweet. The sixth season came out on DVD in May, and Darby and I are very impatiently waiting for it to become available on Nextflix.
  2. Friday Night Lights - We started watching this show after Kalyn and BJ recommended it. Although the show features a lot of football, it is truly about relationships of all kinds. The depiction of the relationship between Coach Eric Taylor and his wife, Tammy, is one of the most realistic portrayals of marriage I've ever seen on TV. The show occasionally veers into melodramatic, teen soap territory, but always finds its way back. We watched the first four seasons on Netflix, and the fifth and final season just aired on NBC. The series finale was one of the best I've ever seen, providing closure without seeming trite (take note, LOST!).
  3. Friends - An oldie but a goodie. I own all 10 seasons and have watched them straight through twice. And yet, I still tune in almost every afternoon I'm home to watch the reruns on TBS. Now, that's the sign of a good show. It is immensely quotable. Almost every time Darby and I leave the house, we say "Got the keeeeeyys?" And we never tire of watching and quoting "The One with Russ" and "The One with the Screamer [Ben Stiller]." I still cry every time I see the episode where Chandler convinces Erica to choose him and Monica as adoptive parents. Great show.
  4. The Office - I've been a little disappointed in the past three seasons, and I'm very skeptical of how the show will continue without Steve Carrell. But the first four seasons were good enough to overcome any shortcomings. Like Friends, I've watched episodes over and over and never get tired of them. And Jim and Pam are my absolute favorite TV couple. The episode where they find out they're having a baby gets me every time. And who can even count the hours of entertainment "That's what she said" has provided?
  5. Mad Men - A co-worker introduced me to this show, and Darby and I were immediately hooked. It's set in a New York advertising firm in the '60s and centers on Don Draper, the mysterious, womanizing creative director. I can't reveal much about the show, as there are a lot of surprises in the first season, but it has it all: excellent writing, acting, and cinematography. And although I would hate to be treated like the women on the show, I would sure love to wear their dresses. Be forewarned, though: This is not a feel-good show. You might want to follow each episode with an episode of Friends or something. :)
What are your favorite TV shows?

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Memphis wedding

How can it be August already? The summer has gone by too fast. :( I'm trying not to think about the semester starting too much and just enjoy the few weeks of relative freedom I have left.

We had a great time in Memphis last weekend at Darby's cousin's wedding. It was great to see all of Darby's family, and we actually had quite a bit of free time to relax, swim in the hotel pool, and enjoy some great Memphis restaurants.

The cousins and cousins-in-law (minus the Dillard crew, who somehow escaped the picture-taking)

The beautiful couple (Todd and Rachel) at the reception

I forgot to take a picture of Darby and me until late in the night. Excuse our somewhat disheveled appearance. We didn't hold up too well sitting outdoors in the Memphis heat and humidity at the reception. :)

On a different subject, I made dinner for our weekly Wednesday night dinner at church last night. We had French dip sandwiches, chips, and corn salad. After I loaded the GIANT corn salad in the car, I just had to take a picture. It took up a whole car seat!