Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Texas Place Mats

Several years ago when Elin headed off to college, she found the perfect place mats to remind her of home:

When I visited her recently, we used them for dinner. They are still magical but, unfortunately, they are also beginning to show their age. So (Christmas spoiler alert, Elin) I decided to make her some new ones.

I rummaged through my fabrics and found red, white and blue pieces that I thought would work well together:

Using Elin's old place mat as a guide, I created a pattern:
Cut each blue piece 6 x 10 1/2"
Cut each white piece 5 1/2 x 9"
Cut each red piece 5 1/2 x 9"
Use a 1/4" seam allowance on all pieces.

Sew the white and red pieces together. Press the seam flat toward the red fabric (so that it doesn't show through the white on the right side):

Sew the blue rectangle in place so that when you turn your place mat to the right side, the blue is on the left, the white is on the top and the red is on the bottom. Iron the seam flat toward the blue rectangle.

I needed a pattern for a five-point star, so I googled it and was able to find one just the right size. Trace the star onto fusible webbing--like Wonder Under--and, following the directions that come with the webbing, iron it onto the blue fabric. (Fusible webbing allows you to glue one piece of fabric on top of another using an iron.)

Because the place mats will be used and washed frequently, take time to zigzag around the star as well:

Elin's old place mats had blue borders, but I couldn't find a solid blue that matched my star fabric, so I chose red instead. Cut the borders 2" wide and sew them in place. Stitch the top and bottom borders first, iron the seam flats, stitch the side borders on, and iron those seams:

Using the front as a pattern, cut a back from one of the coordinating fabrics. Place right sides together, pin front and back in place, and stitch around the outside edge leaving about a four inch opening in the middle of one side to turn it right side out. Before turning, cut the corners on the diagonal, being careful not to cut through the stitching, so that it will be easier to square the corners:

Turn the place mat right side out. Using the point of a pair of scissors, gently push the corners out. Iron the place mats flat making sure that the raw edges of the turning gap are tucked inside:

If I were a perfectionist, I would have blind-stitched the gap closed by hand. But I am not a perfectionist, and I also felt that it would be less likely to come undone if I used the sewing machine. So I simply top-stitched the gap closed as close to the edge of the place mat as I could, making sure that the stitching caught both the top and the bottom. Using a decorative stitch, I sewed over the seam that connects the border to the flag. It adds a little extra pizzazz as well as providing added stability to the piece. (You can also decorate the other seams before you sew on the borders. I wish I had thought to do that):

Here you go, Elin:

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Sugar. Oh. Honey. Honey: Sugar Fast Anyone?

 Anyone else love sugar? I sure do. I love Skittles and Sour Patch Watermelons for the straight-up sugar cravings and chocolate chip cookies and cinnamon rolls for my lots of sugar + lots of lard cravings. Luckily, while I was in college, my lovely sister-in-law Rachell started doing sugar fasts and I jumped on that wagon. We basically didn't eat any sugar (that didn't occur naturally in fruits and honey and the like) 6 days of the week, but were allowed 1 sugar day where we could have some legitimate delicious treats that came our way. We could choose to have our "sugar day" for the week, any day. That way if someone brought you a chocolate milk from the creamery (that literally tasted like liquid chocolate ice cream) and set it right in front of your desk at work-- you could take your sugar day and drink that baby.

For me, the great thing about doing the "sugar fast" thing for several months is that I stopped craving sugar. In fact, things started tasting too sweet and my body didn't want the amounts of sugar it used to want.

Fast forward several years and here I am now: a breastfeeding, busy mom. These days, when I  make my favorite orange-glazed poppyseed bread (or cake if you want to call things by their proper name), I basically want to eat the entire loaf . On top of that, my 3-year-old asks for candy all the time. I don't give it to her very often, so I'm not sure why she constantly asks...but what is it about us that wants sugar from the time we are 2 years old? 2 YEARS OLD! Sheesh.

This is the birthday cake I made for my 3-year old this year. It is based around a Daniel Tiger episode where two of the characters play on Jungle Beach. My little girl requested a pink cake- so it is a strawberry cake on the inside with tons of frosting on the outside--and only 3 people to eat it. Let's just say I tossed most of it in the garbage after the big day.

So I have been working really hard at satisfying my sweet tooth by using healthier, happier methods than chocolate milk and colored candies and entire loaves of cake. I know there are wonderful natural sugar substitutes out there. But most of the time I just want something very simple and easy that I can grab out of a bag or whip up in a blender in 3 minutes. So here are my go-tos:
1. Fresh Pineapple

This stuff tastes better than candy to me.

2. Chocolate Banana Peanut Butter Shake

You must try this.

3. These Pretend Chocolate Chip Cookies from Chelsea's Messy Apron. They have a tiny bit of brown sugar and are actually gluten and dairy-free as well. I call them "pretend" cookies because there is just no real substitute for chocolate chip cookies made with 2 sticks of butter. mmmmmm....good.

4. Guittard Extra Dark Chocolate Chips

These babies are rich, non-dairy, non-soy, and low sugar. Just a few of them will satisfy the chocolate cravings.

5. Fruit Smoothies: I really, really like Walmart's Great Value Mixed Frozen Fruit. We stick a cup and a half of that in a blender with a ripe banana and some orange juice and spinach: Voila! You get sugar but you also get a bunch of nutrients.

Or try this deliciousness:  Blend 1/2 cup frozen pineapple, 6 frozen strawberries, 1 ripe peach, & 1 ripe banana. Add some orange juice until it is your preferred consistency. If you want to go a step farther, add a cup of fresh spinach to pack in some extra nutrients.

6. Marilyn's Homemade Granola

When I don't eat this granola for breakfast,  I've started making a muesli of sorts. You soak a cup of whole oats in unsweetened, vanilla almond milk (just pour in enough to barely cover the oats), sprinkle a bit of salt and drizzle a bit of honey over it. Then cover and refrigerate it overnight. In the morning, add some fresh berries and chopped almonds or walnuts, or just cut in a ripe banana. It is the perfect oatmeal for hot summer months, because you don't have to cook it!

7. Hot Cocoa

1 cup milk (or almond milk)
1 Tbl cocoa
1 Tbl honey

Heat milk in microwave for a minute and a half. Stir cocoa and honey into milk until combined.

8. Happy Munchies Apple Rice Cakes 

I like the idea of rice cakes but I hate all the added sugar and salt in the stuff you find in the snack aisle. And I don't love the plain jane rice cakes either. So I got these for my 8-month old to try. When I nibbled on one myself, I found it was the perfect rice cake! And they seem to only make them for babies. That doesn't stop me though. I just ordered myself a huge box of them. They are rice cakes with a hint of apple juice and no added salt or sugar. A perfect snack that is just the right amount of sweet.

p.s. Here's some nutritionist jargon about sugar that I read recently:

"Don't get the idea that because the sugar composition is the same in fruit and cake, they're interchangeable. (Seriously, they're not.) For one thing, fruit offers good stuff like vitamins, antioxidants and water, while candy and desserts are nutritionally void. Fruit also tends to have less sugar by volume. Half a cup of strawberries: 3.5 grams of sugar. Half a cup of strawberry ice cream: 15 grams.

Plus, whole fruit has a lot of fiber, which actually slows down your body's digestion of glucose, so you don't get the crazy insulin spike (and subsequent crash) that candy causes. That also means your body has more time to use up glucose as fuel before storing it -- as fat. Even dried fruit, a notoriously sugary treat, has all the fiber and nutrients of its plump forbear. But do watch out for dried fruits with added sugar(check the nutrition label), and don't eat a ton just because they're smaller. Picture how many pieces are in a handful of raisins compared with a handful of grapes. See what we mean?
On average, Americans don't eat enough fruit, so don't cut it out of your diet in an attempt to limit your sugar intake! Sugar itself isn't toxic. But getting too much of it from cookies and cake is." ("Is Sugar From Fruit Better For You Than White Sugar", The Huffington Post, Posted Online 6/29/2013)

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Lemon Angel Hair Pasta with Chicken and Spinach

I've been in a bit of a new recipe dearth. Does that happen to anyone else? Sometimes, I'm all about trying new recipes, and I love the fun and variety that brings! Yet lately, I've pretty much stuck to the usual fifteen or so recipes we have most frequently.

Luckily, that has some advantages, too. There's something comforting about making an old favorite, and it is usually prepped in half the time. So without further ado, here is one of our staples:

I'm kind of obsessed with lemon: lemon bars, lemonade, lemon cookies, lemon cake, lemon pie, and even lemon pasta. I feel like this is a light, summery recipe: the sauce isn't overwhelming but has a little kick, and the chicken is delicious.

Lemon Angel Hair Pasta with Chicken and Spinach

Recipe adapted from the Crayon Recipe Box

"Perfect chicken" (2-3 boneless chicken breasts, cooked with this seasoning and cut into bite-sized pieces)
1/2 lbs angel hair pasta (Note: this is only half a box. Sneaky, right? But feel free to double everything, because this recipe is delicious.)
3 Tbs olive oil
4 cloves of garlic, minced
1/2 tsp crushed red pepper
6 tbs lemon juice (or the juice of 2 medium lemons)
3/4 cup half-and-half
1 cup Parmesan cheese, divided
2-4 cups of baby spinach

Ahead of time, bake 2-3 chicken breasts in Perfect Chicken Seasoning. Cut into bite-size pieces and set aside.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil and cook the pasta according to package directions (typically 3 minutes in boiling water).

While the water is heating up, heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add garlic and crushed red pepper. Cook until the oil sizzles and the garlic is fragrant, stirring frequently. Stir in the lemon juice and half-and-half, heating the sauce until it just begins to bubble.

By now, the pasta should be finished! Go ahead and drain it. Next, add the chicken, spinach, pasta, and 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese to the cream sauce.

Toss and cover for a few minutes, allowing the spinach to wilt. Toss again and top with remaining cheese right before serving.