My Sister is the free spirit I wish I could be.

As much as some of you dear readers may comment on my hippie tendencies and my non-traditional ideas of fun (darn you, composting is fun!), I don't hold a candle to My Sister.

I am organized. A planner. Focused. Career-oriented, even when I'm not sure what my career is. An overachiever. An over-committer. A list maker. A doer. (But yes, also a dreamer and an idea person.)

She is an adventurer. A risk taker. The sort of person who lives in Alaska doing odd jobs for the summer. Who travels to the Pacific Northwest for culinary training. Who spends a month camping in the snowy wilds of Canada on a glacier. Who packs up and moves all the way to Boston to work in a funky bar and a hardware store and a yoga clothing store and to enroll in a yoga teacher training course. And then who packs up again (although there's minimal packing; she travels and lives light) to head to Washington D.C.

In Washington, My Sister became relatively settled. She purchased a big farmhouse kitchen table and only lived in two different apartments--a record, I think. She worked at a stellar job and motivated her employees and sold black stretchy pants that people swooned over and taught yoga. Her life became much more sane, even though she still wasn't too great at calling her mother or her sister.

But, as is bound to happen with a free spirit, she got an itch, an itch that random trips to tropical locales and weekend adventures couldn't solve. And so she and her honey did what any sane person would do in such a situation.

They quit their jobs, packed only what they could check on the plane, and left D.C. for a cross-country road-trip (in My Parents' old convertible) so they could settle out West.

In California.

Unless they found a cooler place to stop along the way.

I'm not actually certain where they are today. I did get a text message this weekend that said they'd made it to California, which was the most I'd heard in a week or two.

They've been doing all sorts of exciting things in places with questionable cell phone service, like snowshoeing in Wyoming and visiting Cousin B in Colorado (that's his sweet pooch above) and going to Spring Training games in Arizona. But most importantly, they've been going days on end without showers or civilization, camping in the Grand Canyon and Arches and a million places I'm dying to visit, hiking and getting lost and finding their way again.

Fortunately, My Sister has been posting infrequent updates on a new blog she started. That's where the pics you're seeing here came from. I may or may not have stolen them without her permission, because they're lovely photos and I knew you didn't just want to see text.

You should go check out her blog to read about her adventures and live vicariously through them, as I have been doing. And stop by occasionally in the future, should the mood strike. I'm sure she'll update us soon--or at least within the next month.

Just don't blame me for her spelling. She got the free-spiritedness. I got the spelling and grammar skills.


A Sneak Peek

Yesterday started out rainy and dreary and rather glum. Our fridge needed replenished and there was a whole list of to-dos to tackle.

But then in the afternoon the sun came out. The birds chirped. Butter lazed around on the back step in the sun.

And I went grocery shopping. And cleaned. And homeworked. And made up words like homeworked.

And baked a tasty little chocolate ganache-topped treat.

And made dinner.

And life was good.


Yard Work

Finally ... a weekend day warm enough for some yard work. And boy did our yard ever need it.

In front, it was attack of the sweet gum balls and dead leaves. In back, let's just say Butter left me a lot of little presents over the past couple of months I needed to clear out.

Yes, that was my discreet way of saying out backyard has been overrun with dog poop. (Sorry, people, but sometimes I just have to spell these things out.)

So Conservative Hubby got out the rake and set to work, while I handled the delicate work of clearing leaves and sweet gum balls from around the perennials starting to sprout up in my front-yard garden. (That's what you're seeing here, in case you were wondering.)

Then we bagged all the leaves and debris and I headed to the back for some more yard pick-up. And no, I will not share a photo of the little presents. I'm going to trust that you've seen that sort of thing before, although I hope for your sake you've never stepped in any of it. Because that's gross. I speak from experience, many times over.

I really hope my talk about dog poo isn't distracting you from these lovely green things. I'm ecstatic to see so many plantings making an appearance already.

Most of these were planted in the perennial garden last spring, so this is the first time I've witnessed them peeking up from the wet earth, slowly stretching out toward the warmth and sun and promise of spring.

Of course, there are the regulars that I've met a few years now getting ready to bloom too. Not many of the daffodils are to this point yet, but a few little buds are teasing me.

By Monday, I think this little one will be ready for its full-fledged greeting.

What do you think?


Toffee Bars

Well hello there. I'm glad I didn't scare you away with my recent posts on chemicals in cosmetics and the problems with bottled water. I didn't mean to alarm you in the least bit. I just figured you were getting to the point where you were thinking, "No! Not another food post, Julie."

So I thought I'd startle you out of the rut with a few random posts, so then you'd be saying, "OK, bring back those darn food posts already."

Sneaky, aren't I?

Today's recipe isn't fancy or complicated or time-consuming. In fact, it's one of the first recipes I ever made in my life.

You see, when I was little, My Mom used to make these toffee bars for a quick treat when there wasn't time for full-fledged cookie-baking.

And as soon as I was old enough, I helped her make them.

Then I took over toffee bar making and claimed the recipe as my own. It was even my contribution to the Collins family cookbook compiled for one of our reunions when I was in elementary school.

I don't make these babies nearly as often as I did back then, but the recipe is still an old standby. So when I was poking around in the cupboard and spotted a half-used bag of chocolate kisses the other day, I said, "Aha!"

(Really, I did. Then Butter gave me a rather puzzled look.)

And this is what happened next.

I thoroughly mixed 1 cup butter (softened), 1 egg yolk, 1 cup brown sugar, and 1 teaspoon vanilla.

Then I blended in 2 cups all-purpose flour and 1/4 teaspoon salt.

I pressed this mixture evenly in the bottom of a greased 13x9-inch baking pan.

Then I baked it in a 350-degree oven for 25 to 30 minutes, until the crust was very light brown and still soft.

While the crust was still warm, I removed it from the oven and littered the top with all those Hershey's kisses.

I will warn you, though, that the recipe actually calls for 1 bar of milk chocolate candy, which you break into pieces. The little chocolate squares are much easier to spread than the chocolate kisses, which ended up being a big pain in the rear end.

But, alas, the result was still delicious.

(One last note: It's best to cut—and eat—the bars while they're still warm. Although they're tasty cool too.)

The end.

Now I must go wash my hands, as I may or may not have eaten one of these babies while typing.



A Water Story

Almost two years ago (ack! have I been blogging that long?), I suggested you check out The Story of Stuff by Annie Leonard. It's a quick, 20-minute video about—yep, you guessed it—stuff.

Now, just in time for World Water Day (which was yesterday), Ms. Leonard is back with another video. This one: The Story of Bottled Water. It's only 7 minutes—the perfect length for an afternoon procrastination session.

I find these videos delightfully entertaining and informative, which is a good thing considering I'm in charge of discussing The Story of Stuff in my night class tonight. (By the way, Leonard just released a book on the same subject. I'm hoping to get my hands on a copy soon.)

In other news, L-Town had a boil order yesterday. Few things generate appreciation of World Water Day quite like having to boil any water you use for drinking, hand-washing, and tooth-brushing.

Fortunately, the order was lifted this morning so we can go back to using water from our faucets with regular abandon. Perhaps it served as a reminder to some of us that water is an incredibly precious resource we should work to protect.

Or perhaps not.


A Close Look at My Cosmetics

I don't wear much makeup or use many beauty products on a daily basis. I never have, except on rare and special occasions like my wedding, when I called in a pro to do my hair and makeup for me.

But when I look in my drawers and cupboards and medicine cabinet, I don't feel like the beauty product minimalist I think I am.

And when I start to think about the ingredients in those beauty products, I realize it's quite a contradiction that I'm a proponent of natural cleaning products and growing your own food and buying local and battling to make our air and water cleaner when I slather my body and cover my face in some really nasty chemicals every single day.

And a whole lot of those products have been linked to health threats from cancer and infertility to birth defects, according to the World Health Organization and the CDC.

I'm not saying all of this to make you panic or convince you to throw everything in your medicine cabinet and beauty bag away. Cosmetics and beauty products are generally safe, but they could be better, particularly because they usually aren't regulated much, if at all.

Rather, I'm saying all of this because I am trying to sort out what is in my beauty products to identify any dangerous offenders I should get rid of.

Perhaps you'll be motivated to do the same. Perhaps you won't. Either way, I think it's worth thinking about, no matter your age or sex.

So the other day I bopped on over to the Cosmetic Safety Database created by the Environmental Working Group to get an idea of what's in my beauty products. Skin Deep, the name of the EWG's online safety guide for cosmetics and personal care products, integrates personal care product listings with toxicity and regulatory databases to give you an idea of just how safe or unsafe thousands of products are. 

I wouldn't say it should be the only source of information on which you base your beauty supply purchases, because I'm not so sure their methods are 100 percent on target, but it is a good starting place if you're interested in learning more about what’s in products before you make purchases.

It's super easy to navigate—all you do is type in a product name to search for it. Instantly, you'll know the product hazard score and can click a link for more detailed info about what hazards the ingredients have been linked to.

If you were to take a peek at my beauty supplies, you’d see quite a few things that are fragrance-free (like the good ol’ Aveeno Moisturizing Lotion I’ve been using for years), a lot of things that are touted as natural or better-for-you alternatives (like Burt’s Bees and Jason), and then some standard brands that are pretty common in any drug store.

(And yes, I know, and you should too, that terms like "natural" aren't regulated and so can be a whole lot of hooey. But still, I'm a sucker for the occasional green marketing ploy just like the next person.)

Here’s the rundown on where the things I use daily or almost daily stand:

Burt's Bees Radiance Night Cream - 5 (moderate hazard)

Burt's Bees Lip Shimmer - 3 (moderate hazard)

Burt's Bees Beeswax Lip Balm - 2 (low hazard)

Burt's Bees Body Wash - 3 (moderate hazard)

Burt's Bees Herbal Blemish Stick - 1 (low hazard)

Jason Natural Cosmetics Tea Tree Normalizing Shampoo - 7 (high hazard)

Jason Natural Cosmetics Aloe Vera Conditioner - 5 (moderate hazard)

Aveeno Positively Smooth Shower & Shave Cream - 4 (moderate hazard)

Almay Intense i-Color Eye Shadow for Brown - 8 (high hazard)

Maybelline Full 'N Soft Mascara - 7 (high hazard)

Physicians Formula Mineral Wear Loose Talc-Free Powder - 5 (moderate hazard)

Crystal Body Deodorant Stick - 0!

Mentadent Advanced Whitening Flouride Toothpaste with Baking Soda & Peroxide – 6 (moderate hazard)

Petroleum Jelly – 3 (moderate hazard)

So there you have it. My Burt's Bees Radiance face wash wasn't included on the site, but given the other Radiance ratings it's probably a 5 or 6—not as low as I’d like. I thought Burt's ratings would be lower. Still, it's better than my old Cetaphil facial cleanser I got rid of recently, which was an 8.

I thought the Jason hair products would have lower ratings as well, but then when I randomly searched for other hair products I used in the past I realized the Jason products are quite a bit lower than the alternatives.

Now what? Switching to products that aren’t high-hazard is a top priority for me. I’m not tossing anything right now, but as I run out of products with ratings that are too high for my taste, I’ll shop around for alternatives that are low-risk—or, perhaps at the very least, 5 or below.

In general, with most things in life, simple is better—fewer products, fewer ingredients listed on those products I do buy. For that reason, I’ll read labels more closely. In particular, I plan to keep an eye out for parabens, petrochemicals and their byproducts, mercury, lead, dioxane, and phthalates. Those are some of the nastiest culprits I’d rather do without.

OK, now let the hippie comments begin.


Salted Chocolate Tart

How about a little slice of heaven?

This particular slice happens to be called a salted chocolate tart. It's a July 2008 Sunset recipe I tried out last Sunday for Conservative Family Dinner.

I know some people might resist the notion of salt atop a lovely chocolate tart, but trust me on this. Those little grains of sodium-loaded goodness are key to the tart's flavor. Even Kid Sister, who'd rather do without the salt atop my favorite Smitten Kitchen Chocolate Toffee Cookies, agreed the salt was necessary for this creation.

(In case you're saying well, heck, I can't make this if it has salt, I'd like to bring you this public service announcement: Salt is OK in moderation if you're in good health, eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, and keep active. Limit sodium intake in processed foods, and you can indulge in a few flakes atop your chocolate tart. That is all.)

Making this tart requires some time, and based on the length of the recipe I thought it might be a bit ambitious. But Conservative Hubby requested it, and you know I'm a sucker for chocolate, so I decided to give it a try. In case you're so inclined to attempt it yourself, here are the details.

For the Crust
In a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat 6 tablespoons unsalted butter (softened) and 3/4 cup powdered sugar until smooth.

In a separate bowl, sift together 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour and 1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder, then add to butter mixture and mix until combined. Add 5 large egg yolks.

Mix on low speed just until dough comes together. If small pieces remain, knead dough to blend them in. Form dough into a disk and wrap in plastic wrap. Chill for at least 1 hour and up to 3 days.

Unwrap the dough and set it on a lightly floured work surface. With short strokes from the center outward, roll the dough into a 12-inch circle.

Transfer the dough to a 9 1/2-inch tart pan and, using your thumb, press the dough into the sides and bottom corner. Trim dough flush with top edge.

Line shell with parchment paper and completely fill it with dried beans, pie weights, or a mix of dried beans and rice if you're short on beans and must improvise. Chill at least 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Bake the dough 10 minutes, then remove the parchment and beans and return to the oven until dough looks dry, about 5 minutes. Set on a rack to cool slightly.

For the Filling
Put 8 ounces extra-bittersweet top-quality chocolate (chopped) in a medium-size heatproof bowl.

In a medium saucepan, combine 3/4 cup unsalted butter, 1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar, and 1/4 cup brewed coffee and bring to boil over medium heat.

Pour hot liquid over chocolate and let sit 3 to 4 minutes, then gently stir until smooth.

Break 4 large eggs in a large bowl and slowly pour in warm chocolate mixture, whisking constantly until incorporated.

Pour warm filling into still-warm tart shell.

Bake until filling has risen slightly, appears dry on the surface, and seems firm when shaken slightly, about 10 minutes. Set on a rack and let cool completely.

For the Glaze
Put 4 ounces extra-bittersweet top-quality chocolate (chopped) and 2 tablespoons light corn syrup in a medium bowl.

In a microwave-safe container, heat 1/3 cup heavy whipping cream to boiling; pour over chocolate. Add 2 tablespoons unsalted butter (softened) and stir slowly until smooth, working in one direction to prevent air bubbles from forming (if butter doesn't melt completely, which mine didn't, microwave in 5-second intervals to warm slightly).

Pour glaze onto center of tart and use a small spatula to push glaze to edges. Let sit at least 15 minutes to set up before slicing. Serve with Maldon salt for sprinkling.

(You can refrigerate the tart for up to 8 hours ahead of time, but you'll want to bring it to room temperature before serving. Trust me, it's much tastier when it's not too chilled.)

Now enjoy, you salt and chocolate lovers you.


Cardio Kickboxing

I have a new addiction. Unlike my addiction to baking and cooking and baking and cooking, this one actually helps me burn calories. It's cardio kickboxing.

This new addiction hasn't replaced my love for yoga, but it is adding a nice new component to my fitness regimen.

Aside from yoga classes (which I adore), I've never been really big on fitness classes. I took one aerobics class as an undergrad and entertained the notion of teaching aerobics myself to make extra money for about five minutes, until I realized I am not peppy enough to be an aerobics instructor. Seriously, can you see me doing that? I don't think so. I'm more of an introvert when it comes to working out. It's my thinking time, my decompression time.

But I had talked about trying out some of the classes at the L-Town rec center a few times. Then Kid Sister and Conservative Mom started going to cardio kickboxing. And they loved it (even though it made them so sore they could hardly move for days after).

So I decided to tag along and give it a try a few weeks ago.

Lest you males in the crowd roll your eyes and think that's sissy work (ahem ... Conservative Hubby), I would like to tell you that there are a number of men who attend each class—some of whom are rather burly and probably could bench press two of me at one time if they so desired. And certain men have come to one class and never made it back again because it was too intense. Just so you know.

Each class is totally different, so it's hard to give you an exact description of what each one entails.

Basically, we start out by getting our heart rates up and our muscles loose. This may involve running around the room holding weights or running suicides or any other form of intense cardio for short bursts of time. There are plenty of different types of squats and lunges and jumps and kicks. Lots of push ups. Plenty of core work. Most of the class, we carry around weights and use them for myriad forms of personal torture. Then there's always a boxing portion, where we're kicking and punching at boxing bags with an intensity that undoubtedly makes people cower.

(Until now, my boxing has been rather weak as I've been doing it bare-handed. But today, I found a lovely pair of (pink!) boxing gloves on eBay. They're on their way, so boxing bags, you better watch out.)

I'm pretty dedicated about working out on my own—between yoga, cardio, and lifting weights, I stay relatively fit. But one of the things I like most about the cardio kickboxing class is there's someone there to push me. The instructor yells at us to get going, that we only have to do three more. And then she says just kidding, five more. And five more. And somehow, we groan and grunt and power through it.

The voice yelling at me in my own head to do one more set when I'm lifting or to run one more mile when I'm on the treadmill isn't nearly as loud and persuasive. Although I've noticed, since I started attending a cardio kickboxing class once or twice a week, that I've kicked up my own workouts a notch. Even when I'm not in the class, I'm motivated to work harder, to push my body to the limits.

That makes it worth it.

Photo: KWDesigns via Flickr


Crab and Shrimp Lasagna

Last Friday, I decided it was time to dig into another Colorado Classique recipe. The entree du jour, as you may have guessed from the title of this post, was Crab and Shrimp Lasagna.

Ooh la la.

Talk about a nice twist on the traditional lasagna (which happens to be one of my favorite meals, by the way). With crab, shrimp, white wine, milk, and four kinds of cheese (feta, cottage, mozzarella, and Parmesan), this dish is rich. Really rich. And incredibly tasty.

Wanna make it yourself? Yeah, I thought you might. So here goes, with one caveat. The recipe I'm going to walk you through serves 8. I halved it for Conservative Hubby and I, but I'll give you the full measurements rather than the amounts I used.

Begin by heating 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add 1 pound chopped mushrooms, 1 cup chopped onions, and 2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme. (Oops, forgot that, so I used dried.) Cook until the onions are translucent and the mushrooms soft.

Now add 2 cloves garlic and cook for one minute. Then add 1/4 cup white wine and bring to a boil. Cook for 1 1/2 minutes or until the liquid is almost evaporated.

Stir in 2 - 6 1/2-ounce cans lump crabmeat and set the pan aside.

Now it's time to peel and devein 1 pound raw large shrimp, reserving the shells. (Oops, failure number two: I thought I purchased raw shell-on shrimp but when I got home realized mine didn't have any shells. This led to some improvisation a bit later.)

Cut the shrimp in half lengthwise, cover, and refrigerate them.

Now combine the reserved shrimp shells, 2 cups water, 1 1/2 teaspoons celery salt, and 1 teaspoon fennel seeds in a small saucepan. (Since I had no shells, I tossed in a piece of shrimp. I figured that at least would infuse the mixture with a bit of shrimpiness.)

Bring to a boil and cook 15 minutes or until reduced to 1 1/2 cups.

Strain shrimp stock through a sieve and set aside. (Don't have a sieve? Neither did I. So I strained mine through the pan cover I have to keep bacon from splattering grease all over the place—don't worry, it was clean. And it worked.)

Now combine 4 ounces crumbled feta cheese, 1 cup reduced-fat cottage cheese, 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, and 1 garlic clove. Set aside.

Place 1/4 cup flour in a small saucepan. Gradually whisk in 1 cup 2 percent milk.

Stir in shrimp stock and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until thickened. Remove from heat and stir in 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese.

Spread 1/2 cup sauce on the bottom of a 13x9x2-inch baking dish coated with cooking spray. (Remember, I halved the recipe, so you're seeing a much smaller pink Pyrex dish instead.)

Arrange 4 noodles over sauce. Top with one-third goat cheese mixture, one-third crabmeat mixture, one-third of shrimp, 2/3 cup sauce, and 2/3 cup mozzarella.

Repeat layers twice, ending with mozzarella.

Bake for 40 minutes or until golden. Let stand 15 minutes. (I know it's hard, but it's much better if you let it set up first.)

Sprinkle with parsley and serve. According to the wine pairing advice in the cookbook, "the lush ripe pear and apple flavors of Chardonnay would be well-suited to the fullness of crab and shrimp."

Or just, you know, pour some Merlot from the box in the cupboard. That works too.


Letting Butter Talk

Julie, can you please help me?

I'd really like to chew on my bone for a while. It's so delicious. I could chew on it all day. But it's too far away.

I just ... can't ... reach ... it.

I've had a rough day. I had to get up at 7 a.m. and get groomed and eat and wait for the mailman to come and take a noon walk with Conservative Boy and eat again and it's so exhausting being me. Won't you please help?

GAH. I give up. I don't want the stinkin' bone anyw—

—wait a second. What is that? An intruder?

Nope, false alarm. But don't worry, Julie. I got your back, babe.