Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Here We Go Again

Didn’t we just do this? You know what I’m talking about. The “H” word is heading straight towards us like a giant galactic iron meteoroid. Yep, the end is near. The holidays are around that hairpin turn and I’m feeling the need to blast Eminem.  Don’t get me wrong, unlike Halloween, I love the holiday season, it’s the shopping that kills me. Maybe I just have this self-inflicted pressure to present my friends and family with creative, unique gifts—otherwise known as gifts that require time, thought and effort. This is not easy.
We don’t really have a choice here since the holidays keep coming back like a bad headache, but I say, get a head start before your Halloween buzz wears off. Strap on your high-interest credit cards, we’ve got some shopping to do. Now, honestly, I’m not a mall shopper. My mall visits consist of me dropping my teenage daughter and friends at the Macy’s entrance, them bolting out of my vision within 5 seconds, me heading straight upstairs to drool in the Apple Store and then next door to dream in the Anthropologie store and then I leave and grocery shop at Trader Joe’s.
I guess I’m too sensitive for the mall. The air doesn’t seem to agree with me. I tend to break out into a sweat before the lady at the cosmetic’s counter blinds me with the newest sickly fragrance. I feel like the laws of order are too disregarded. People walk the wrong way—stay to your right—it’s easy. The Yankee Candle shop gives me a headache. Abercrombie gives me a worse headache. I want to enjoy Starbucks, but I’m too hot and thirsty, and the clothing, I just don’t get most of it. I really regret not saving my hideous ‘80s sweaters and leggings, but I will not be buying new ones. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not opposed to fashion and would never resort to “mom” jeans, but the clothing choices out there right now are dismal.
Ikea is on to something with its new MĂ„NLAND concept. Basically it’s a husband-sitting service that provides mancave-like entertainment for the husbands such as video games and foosball, while their wives shop. The wives are even given a beeper in case they need to be reached. This is brilliantly wrong on so many levels and, unfortunately, not offered yet at the White Marsh Ikea. Actually, Ikea is on to something, but they aren’t the ones that need it. I think we should get rid of the mini play land for kids at the mall and put a manland in its place. Instead, maybe it could be “adultland” and feature a martini bar. Surely, mall sales would sky rocket. I may have just solved the recession.
Ok, enough complaining. Here’s the plan.
  1. Hit the Starbucks in Towson and get your teacher, coach, mail carrier gift cards. They all need caffeine. Get yourself a cup too, since you won't be overheated yet.
  2. Skip the mall—already established
  3. Visit my friends at With Gratitude for unique hostess gifts and locally produced holiday gifts.
  4. Check out Urban Outfitters' tchotchkes section. They have some really unique, funny books and things.
  5. Try shopping online on Etsy. Basically, this is massive site for all things hand made. Think of it as Ebay for crafters. Beware, it’s highly addictive.

    By the way, don’t give me a bottle of wine as a hostess gift. I feel uncomfortable keeping it to drink at my leisure. There’s too much pressure to serve it at the dinner party or cocktail party. If I don’t serve it, you might think I don’t like it and if I do serve it, then it’s not really a gift any more.
    Happy shopping!

    Wednesday, November 2, 2011

    Grocery Shopping is Fun at Trader Joe’s

    Who doesn’t love a store that thinks “sale” is a four-letter word and has happy employees who ring bells and wear funny hats with Hawaiian shirts?
    I am well known at the Towson Trader Joe’s for my recipe binder and frequency of visits. After slipping into my secret parking spot, I can be found sipping, and sometimes spilling, my mini cup of free coffee while holding my free food sample (aka,lunch), several days a week due to incredibly poor time management.
    I love my TJs visits. Socially, I always run into a neighbor and sometimes an old friend. The overly-caffeinated employees are always smiling and very eager to help with what ever you need, even if it’s just a little conversation. Like a good bartender, they have the perfect ability to stay productive, yet make you feel like every word you’re saying is fascinating.
    Philosophically, I love a grocery store that says no to trans fats, artificial flavors, colors or preservatives, MSG and GMOs and provides the shopper with handy, quick-read product labels such as vegan, gluten free and vegetarian, all packaged together with constant low prices.
    Shopper cards make me crazy. My key chain is so cluttered with those barcoded trinkets that I recently found myself trying to scan my Preferred Shopper Card at the gym. As a recovering Whole Paycheck, I mean Whole Foods shopper, I’ve found that you can get nearly twice as much food at TJs versus Whole Foods.
    The TJs Fearless Flyer keeps you updated with helpful product information while providing some witty comic relief along the way. They admit that eating cheese makes them want to “start singing Dickensian show tunes.” Would that be a song that starts with “There is nothing better than a friend, unless it is a friend with chocolate?”  There’s even a cartoon section. It ranks up there with the New York Times in our house.
    I do have some product favorites right now too.
    The Dark Chocolate Bar with Caramel and Black Sea Salt
    Beware, once you try this sweet and salty block of umami, you’ll never be able to resist grabbing one at checkout again. It’s even better in the freezer.
    Chocolate Cake Mix
    I admit I’m wary of cake mixes, but with two fall birthdays in our house, I was forced to venture there. Pillsbury, with its artificial everything was not an option. This cake mix, with a homemade cream cheese frosting, is decadent. Truly, it has the depth and moistness of a homemade cake.
    On the slightly healthier side:
    The Sesame Seed Bagel Spinoza
    1 gram of fat, 9 grams of protein and it boasts to “bagel the mind.” How can you resist?
    Trek Mix Granola Cereal
    This is my late-night snack and works great when you’re having cereal for dinner too. Put some blueberries on top and you have a meal.
    My only criticism, this hip, progressive company has the equivalent of snail mail for communication. Come on Trader Joe’s, get a Facebook and Twitter page so I can banter with you. You could have shared this with your loyal customers.

    Now I get to eat that chocolate bar I just photographed.

    Wednesday, October 26, 2011

    A Seasonal Autumn Rant

    I’m feeling grumpy and my Twitter followers don’t even care. I’ve had a headache for a week and a half from a stupidity-related concussion. My fuzziness has lead to confusion between their and there and a serious lack of production in my well-oiled business and household. Well, that might be an over-exaggeration, which is a redundancy. I’m doomed.

    Halloween is right around the bend. My least favorite holiday. There’s always a last minute wardrobe malfunction on a costume that cost way too much money. Pumpkin carving is overrated and dangerous and pumpkins cost too much anyway. I buy the candy because I don’t want to be the crazy lady who hands out apples, but the food dye, chemical, preservative content is enough to mummify my entire family. Halloween is a Hallmark holiday. Please tell me why it can’t be the last Saturday of October. Really, what kind of sick torture is Halloween on a Monday. And no, I don’t want to be scared. I can do that on my own when I look in the mirror in the morning.

    Sorry, I don’t want any partially hydrogenated, artificially flavored Girl Scout cookies. What a miserable message that sends. Pandora is really getting on my nerves. The Music Genome Project seems to be in a rut and if I have to hear that Geico commercial one more time I might even stop listening to the free radio station. Netflix wants to me use two websites to purchase movies. Maybe I’ll drop them. Now they are back to one. I might drop them anyway.

    I’m not impressed that your kid is an honor student because it’s only October and they haven’t even received report cards, so it’s not current. All of your bumper stickers annoy me. I don’t care what college your kid is going to because undergrad college degrees are overrated. Save some money, send them to community college and save the money that you don’t have for grad school.

    Speeders on Regester Avenue, it’s not a freeway. I barely have enough room to avoid hitting the parked car’s side mirrors. Slow the crap down. I know you’re in a hurry to get to the light at Regester and York because it’s nice and extra long, but I don’t need another head injury.

    Feeling better already…

    Tuesday, October 18, 2011

    The Science of Smell

    Fall is a time for brilliant colors and savory smells of comfort. Just thinking about the sweet aroma of caramelized onions or pumpkin muffins makes me salivate.  Those smells are what make a house a home, but they can also affect our mood and performance.
    I’m intrigued by the effects that smell has on our brains. Did you know that if you inhale the scent of orange or peppermint while exercising you can increase your performance? On the other hand, the exotic, floral smell of jasmine has a stronger relaxing effect on the body than lavender.
    Some companies even take our sense of smell to the bank by pumping out aromas of chocolate, vanilla or floral notes that increase our urge to buy — brilliant. That explains the sickly, sweet smell permeating out of Abercrombie or that Cinnabon aroma that brings out our most primitive weaknesses.
    Rose is a powerful, multitasking scent. In one study, volunteers were divided into two rooms with identical sneakers in them. One room was infused with the scent of rose, while the other was odorless. 84% preferred the sneakers in the floral-scented room and were willing to pay $10 more for them. Realtors, get your rose room spray out. 
    Even better, when you combine the visual of real roses with the smell, you can evoke a mood more powerful than a pill. Harvard researchers suggest that a vase of roses can induce a strong sense of joy due to that winning combination. Why not try it? Keep a vase of roses on your desk at work and see if you’re just a little nicer.
    Aside from joy, the scent of rose is also known to help improve memory. I’m thinking I need to get myself a vat of roses. I have to admit, every time I walk in the Dutch Floral Garden (formally called The Dutch Connection) at Belvedere Square, I find myself mesmerized by the stunning collection of roses and their intoxicating smell. I always leave with a little pep in my step.
    Citrus oils really pack a puckering punch. They are known for increasing oxygen to the brain, boosting energy and immune function. Crisp, clean lemon also acts as a mood enhancer and grapefruit essential oil can improve hand-eye coordination.
    I know you’re ready to buy gallons of these oils.  Fortunately, you don’t have to. Essential oils are highly concentrated, steam distilled oils from flowers and plants. It takes about 10,000 pounds of flowers to make one pound of rose oil. Due to their intensity, they must be used with care. Of course, if you’re pregnant or nursing, you should talk to your doctor, who will know nothing about this, so just stick to a few drops of lavender essential oil blended with olive oil.
    Just make sure that you use pure essential oils. Those fragrance oils in candles and room fresheners are nasty little pillars of wax. I admit, some of them do smell good. It's hard to get a natural candle that smells like fresh baked cookies. There's a price, though.  Did you know that fragrance oils consist of hundreds of synthetic chemicals. 95% of the chemicals found in these oils are synthetic compounds derived from petroleum, and include chemicals such as benzene derivatives, aldehydes, and others capable of causing cancer, birth defects, central nervous system disorders and allergic reactions.
    You can find these essential oils at The Health Concern in Towson, MD or at most local health food stores. Make sure that you never use essential oils undiluted on your skin. A few drops added to a carrier oil such as olive oil will go a long way. My favorite is a few drops of peppermint oil on a plug-in aromatherapy gadget called a Scentball by Aura Cacia. Within minutes my head feels clearer and the room smells crisp and spicy.

    Saturday, September 24, 2011

    Green Guilt

    Don't you feel guilty when you throw things away? I feel awful. Except, of course when I get the contractor grade trash bags out while my kids are at school and throw away all of those useless, plastic trinkets that seem to multiply.

    Their rooms sometimes remind me of a nightmare version of "Toy Story" where the toys and animals start to multiply into genetically modified playthings. That's what happens when Buzz Light Year gets together with a Build-a-Bear.
    We're down to three trash cans under our sink now since recycling has gone single stream. There's one ominous black trash can, the blue recycling can and the white compost bucket. Keep reading, this gets better. I'm feeling good about all that recycling, but I do question how much of it really ends up being used for something else. I'm feeling a little bit of guilt about this.
    I have a stinky compost bucket that fills up really fast. I feel great putting all of those potato shavings and coffee grounds back into the ground. Unfortunately, sometimes I'm too lazy to take the bucket all the way around back to the compost pile. I don't seem to have a problem dropping it on the side step for a few days. The racoons love it. Feeling a little guilty about this.
    I admit I am a bit of a crazy cat lady. We have four cats, and to quote my husband when I mentioned our four cats to some friends at a dinner party, he said, "we have four cats?" We do and apparently they have an insatiable thirst that can only be quenched by cool, dripping water from a faucet. You guessed it, I'm feeling guilty about that too.
    With three girls and one husband in the house (luckily the cats don't wear clothes), I do a lot of laundry and, yes, I use the dryer. Could I hang my clothes to dry? I should, but I don't think my neighbor needs to see my teenage daughter's colorful push-up bras. Feeling guilty, though.
    Summer in Baltimore is really, really hot. I can't sleep when it's hot. When I'm at home, I don't want to feel like I'm camping. I want comfort and since I never go to spas, I want spa-like comfort. Sugar scrubs in my bathroom, children massaging my feet and a cool house.
    When does this end? Well, sadly, I could go on about gas law mowers and cars and lawn watering, but we need to cut ourselves a little slack in this crazy world. I say, do what you can do. Nothing is too small and let the rest go because life's too busy and short to carry the burden of global warming on your shoulders (it's real, by the way, in case you weren't sure). 
    Take baby steps--in moss green, of course. Join a Freecycle group. This is a great way to find a home for unwanted things from furniture to clothing. I moderate the Towson group and I'll let you in as long as you aren't a spammer and you follow the rules.
    Help your child's school become a Maryland Green School. It's a lot of work up front, but once teachers and administrators are on board the green education will take roots in the classroom.
    It's fall and the acorns are already pelting us. There's still time to get a scout troop involved with the Nut Buddy Program through Growing Native. This is such a great, hands-on project for collecting native acorns. Although it's funded by the Potomac Conservancy, the forestry service in Baltimore County has a huge need for native acorns. 
    These are just a few suggestions. What are you doing to ease your green guilt?

    Tuesday, August 2, 2011

    Cooking Light is Easy

    Well, you do still have to cook, but it really helps to have "light" recipes at your fingertips.  One of the best things I ever did in our household was create a recipe book.  Fortunately, I had stacks of un-recycled Cooking Light magazines and a hungry family to inspire my creation. A friend once asked me, "are you a page marker or a tearer?" I quickly replied, "a page marker, of course." Who would tear pages out of a magazine--doesn't that ruin it? After thinking about it, I realized that I needed to be a "tearer", and right away! How liberating it is to read my Cooking Light magazine from start to finish as soon as it lands on my countertop and tear out recipes as they catch my eye. I know what I like when it comes to food and it makes gathering recipes quick and easy. 

    Once I was liberated as a "tearer", I gathered a three ring notebook, some clear plastic sleeves and began to create my coveted recipe book. I threw a few dollars to my 13 year old and she actually placed tabbed dividers in the book to organize the recipes by type. Of course, we had to dedicate an entire binder to sweets. So, in the amount of time it takes to boil some pasta, I had my recipe "bible." 

    A few times a week I browse through my book, choose a few recipes, put post-it notes on the front of each with the ingredients I need and head to Trader Joes. Usually, my super-friendly, over-educated friends at TJs approach me to find out what I'm making this week. So make cooking light one step easier; make a recipe binder for yourself and maybe even create one for a friend. They make unique gifts and you could even splurge on a fancy binder cover from Watermelon Wishes on Etsy.
    Here are some of my all-time favorite Cooking Light recipes to get you started:

    Cavatappi with Bacon and Summer Vegetables

    Thursday, June 16, 2011

    The Hot Topic of Sunscreen

    Since summer is in full force here in Baltimore, it's time to talk sunscreen. The safety of sunscreen has been swirling in the news lately.  There is definitely a delicate balance between getting your daily dose of vitamin D, not getting burned and avoiding unnecessary chemicals.  This is where I insert my disclaimer--I'm not a doctor, I just play one on TV.  Please take my advice with a grain of salt. I will say that I have had my fair share of sun over the years, if that counts for anything. I have vivid memories of Coppertone oil and sun lamps.  I even started my own bath & beauty company to help ward off future wrinkles.

    So, here are some don'ts &
    dos when it comes to the sun:

    • (don't) Use the spray sunscreens.  I know, they're so convenient, but so is lung cancer. The nano-aerosols in these sunscreens are nasty for your lungs and could cause cancer.
    • (don't) Use sunscreen with a synthetic vitamin A called retinyl palmitate. New government data shows that tumors and lesions develop sooner on skin coated with this type of vitamin A.
    • (don't) Use sunscreens with the chemical oxybenzone. It is a synthetic estrogen that penetrates the skin and contaminates the body.
    • (don't) Use a bug spray/sunscreen combo. If you need bug spray, apply it first.
    • (don't) Use sunscreen higher than 50. In a recent NY Times articleDr. Warwick L. Morison, a professor of dermatology at Johns Hopkins University and chairman of the photobiology committee for the Skin Cancer Foundation, said "he was disappointed that the F.D.A. failed to ban SPF numbers higher than 50 because such products expose people to more irritating sunscreen ingredients without meaningful added protection."
    • Look for active ingredients zinc, titanium, avobenzone or Mexoryl SX. These substances protect skin from harmful UVA radiation and remain on the skin, with little, if any, penetrating into the body.
    • Get a little sun. It's recommended that you get at least 15 minutes of unprotected sun a day on your skin and eyes--yes, eyes. Sunlight helps prevent many eye diseases. Most people have low vitamin D levels that can affect immune function.  In the winter, I take 2000 mg of vitamin D a day to compensate for my lack of sun. That's what my doc recommends.
    • Check the EWG Sunscreen Report to see how your sunscreen ranks. I love Alba Botanica. It was ranked one of the least toxic and it's quite easy to find at Whole Foods or Wegman's.
    • Check out EWG's Hall of Shame and make sure your sunscreen isn't listed.
    Remember, 80% of what you put on your skin ends up inside your body. Choose your products carefully!

      Wednesday, April 6, 2011

      French Food Makes Me Happy

      Some of my favorite meals are French. You might be wondering how French food equates to healthy living, but it makes me happy and happiness is definitely congruent with health. Now I'm certainly no Julia Child or even Julie the blogger, but I can appreciate the simple, yet bold flavors of French cooking. The French have mastered the art of finishing an indulgent meal with a fresh, crispy green salad and a creamy bite of cheese so you're divinely full, yet you don't feel like you've overeaten.

      One of my household staples is a classic French vinaigrette that I learned to make 1,000 years ago while "studying" in France. My daughter won't even eat salad without this dressing. The key is to make it in your wooden salad spoon, whisk it together in the bottom of the salad bowl, place the fresh greens on top and have the man in the house toss it when you're ready to eat it. This is always the man's job in France.

      Classic French Vinaigrette
      Place a small dollop of Dijon mustard 
      on your wooden salad spoon. 
      Add a pinch of kosher salt and red wine 
      vinegar to fill 3/4 of the spoon. 
      Whisk together with a fork. 
      Pour mixture into a salad bowl. 
      Add one finely chopped shallot.
      Add 3 spoonfuls of vegetable oil 
      (fill the wooden spoon 3/4 full just like the vinegar)
      and whisk with a fork.
      Toss with greens when ready to eat.
      Basically, the dressing is 3 parts oil, 1 part vinegar

      Another classic dish in my house is chicken and wine. I might like this one so much because you have to open a bottle of good red wine and I hate to let any go to waste.  This is my simple version of coq au vin.

      Chicken & Wine
      1 1/2 lbs of bone-in chicken breasts
      1 onion chopped
      1 cup of baby carrots sliced lengthwise
      1 cup of chopped celery
      3 cups of chicken broth
      1 cup of good red wine
      1 piece of apple wood smoked bacon
      1 tbsp olive oil
      kosher salt, pepper
      bunch of thyme/rosemary sprigs tied together

      Rub chicken with salt & pepper on both sides. Brown the chicken breasts in olive oil in a large, heavy bottomed pot on medium, high heat with the piece of bacon (approx. 5 min. on each side). Remove chicken and discard bacon. Add onion, celery and carrots. Cook for 5-10 minutes on medium heat.  Add chicken back to pot, red wine, chicken broth, herbs, salt & pepper.  Bring to a simmer and cover for 1 1/2 hours.  Shred chicken and add it back to the pot. Add salt to taste. Serve over rice.

      I absolutely love the flavors of a savory raclette. I prefer using Gruyere cheese and making a sort-of fondue for spreading on the bread. The cheese works best if you can keep it warm.

      Simple Raclette Recipe
      6-8 baby potatoes
      8 oz. gruyere cheese
      1 jar of cornichon pickles
      4 slices of thick cut ham cut into 
      2 inch squares
      1/4 cup white wine
      2 garlic cloves chopped
      1 shallot chopped
      1 tbsp butter
      loaf of french bread sliced on an angle

      Boil potatoes (don't over-cook), quarter. While potatoes are cooking, melt butter in cast iron skillet and cook shallots for 1-2 minutes on medium heat, add chopped garlic, cook for 1 minute.  Add shredded cheese, cook until it melts stirring constantly. Whisk in white wine and cook for 1-2 minutes. Keep cheese mixture warm on very low heat, stirring often.  Make your own raclette by spreading cheese on bread, top with a piece of ham, potato and pickle. Yum!

      What's your favorite French meal?
      Bon Appetit!