Monday, January 31, 2011

Holiday Hits: Brandy Alexander

Since today is National Brandy Alexander Day, I thought I would post a recipe for this creamy cocktail, courtesy of CHOW:

Brandy Alexander

1 oz. brandy
1 oz. dark crème de cacao
1 oz. heavy cream
freshly grated nutmeg

Shake brandy, crème de cacao, and cream with ice.  Strain into chilled cocktail glass.  Garnish with a dusting of grated nutmeg.  Serves 1.


Mystery Mondays: M.C. Beaton's Agatha Raisin Mystery Series

Anyone who has not yet discovered M.C. Beaton's Agatha Raisin mystery series is in for a treat!  Agatha is a "woman of a certain age" who survived a rough upbringing to become a great success in her chosen profession of public relations.  Feeling the need for a change, she decides to sell the business and retire to a cottage in the Cotswolds village of Carsely.  Never at her best in social situations, Agatha finds it hard to adjust to village life and begins to wonder if her decision was a mistake.  A faux pas on her part leads to involvement in a murder investigation, and suddenly she finds herself embarking on a second calling -- as a detective!  Agatha Raisin is a delightfully imperfect character -- socially awkward, rather belligerent at times, sometimes vain, and occasionally mendacious -- but in spite of her foibles you will find yourself rooting for her anyway. Success in her new endeavor is not always as smooth as she would like, but it is a lot less rocky than her road to romance.  You come to realize that all Agatha really wants is to be loved and accepted by others, and life has not always been fair to her in this regard.  The prolific author has written twenty-one Agatha Raisin novels to date.  I recommend that you start with the first of the series, Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death, and work your way chronologically to the last one, Agatha Raisin and the Busy Body, so that you come to understand Agatha's insecurities and outrageous personality.  M.C. Beaton has also written The Agatha Raisin Companion, which is a celebration of all things Agatha!  Once you start reading this series you will not be able to stop, and will eagerly await the next installment of Agatha's exploits.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Weekend Wonders: Pangolin (Manis spp.)

When I was an undergraduate biology major, I took an introductory Mammology class and found out that there are a number of fascinating mammals few people even know exist.  One of my favorites is the pangolin (Manis spp.).  This odd-looking creature is found in parts of tropical Africa and Asia.  It is the only mammal covered in large, sharp-edged, protective keratin scales.  When threatened or sleeping, the pangolin curls into a tight ball, a highly effective predator deterrent.  Pangolins have no teeth and cannot chew.  Instead, they have a long, sticky tongue for scooping up ants and termites, which they find with their acute sense of smell.  Pangolin claws, used for tearing open ant and termite mounds, are so long and sharp that pangolins must walk with their front feet turned under, effectively walking on their wrists!  They can also emit a noxious-smelling substance, much like a skunk.  Some species are arboreal, while others are fossorial ground-dwellers.

Although pangolins look like a cross between an armadillo and an anteater, they are not related to either.  In fact, their closest living relatives are the carnivores.  Not surprisingly, the biggest threat to the pangolin is man.  Pangolins are considered a delicacy in some cultures, and are also used for medicinal purposes.  Illegal hunting and deforestation are taking a toll on Asian pangolin populations in particular.  These unique animals help to control insect pest populations, and to lose them would be a detriment to their environment.  Hopefully something can be done to prevent this from happening.

Periodically I will post more information about interesting mammal species in future Weekend Wonders comments.  It is time for everyone to learn about the existence of these fellow dwellers on our planet before they disappear forever!

Friday, January 28, 2011

Foodie Fridays: White Chip Orange Dream Cookies


Since I introduced cookie baker extraordinaire Hannah Swensen in my Mystery Mondays comment this week, I decided to post one of my favorite cookie recipes today.  I am a cookie addict and citrus is one of my favorite flavors, so for me this recipe is perfect.  There are chocolate connoisseurs who look down on white chocolate as not being the real thing -- I am not one of them.  I love white chocolate and don't care who knows it!  I did not come up with the name, but these cookies really are a dream, and I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.

White Chip Orange Dream Cookies

2 1/4 C. flour
3/4 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1 C. butter, softened
1/2 C. sugar
1/2 C. brown sugar
1 egg
2-3 tsp. grated orange peel
2 C. white chocolate chips

Combine first 3 ingredients.  In large bowl, cream butter and sugars.  Beat in egg and peel.  Stir in flour mixture.  Add chips.  Drop dough by rounded teaspoonfuls onto ungreased baking sheets.  Bake at 350 degrees 8-10 minutes until edges are light brown.  Let stand 2 minutes, then remove from sheets and cool on racks.  Makes 3 dozen.

Note: This recipe can be found in the Hannah Swensen novel called Plum Pudding Murder under the name of "Orange Julius Cookies"!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

This 'n That Thursdays: An Extravagance of Donkeys by Janet Baker-Carr

Anyone who loves animals will be charmed by Janet Baker-Carr's little book, An Extravagance of Donkeys.  The author describes a time in her life when she moves from the city to a farm in New England and proceeds to provide a sanctuary for a number of unwanted donkeys.  Her love for these sturdy little creatures began in childhood with a donkey she owned while growing up in rural England.  She describes each animal with fondness, acknowledging all of their quirks and celebrating the uniqueness of each.  She also recalls the other animals who inhabit the property, day to day life as she cares for her menagerie, the people she meets in connection with the donkeys, and the history of the area and especially of the farm, which had once belonged to her husband's family and which she and her husband were able to buy back.  Although she no longer lives on the farm, her time there was obviously very special to her, and you will find yourself wishing that you too could experience such a life, if only for a day.  The book is short and an easy read, so there is no excuse for not reading it.  Find yourself a copy and enjoy!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Wish List Wednesdays: HGTV Dream Home 2011 Giveaway Sweepstakes

Who wouldn't want to win a free house?  Anyone who is not familiar with the HGTV Dream Home 2011 Giveaway Sweepstakes should waste no time in checking it out.  This year's Dream Home is a rustic contemporary lodge-style house located in Stowe, Vermont, with magnificent views of Mount Mansfield, Vermont's highest peak and a well-known ski destination.  The prize package includes the fully landscaped and furnished Dream Home, a new car (GMC's Acadia Denali), and $500,000 in cash, for a total prize value of about two million dollars!  A cash option for the home of $650,000 is also available if the winner is not able to accept the house (furnishings, vehicle, and the $500,000 cash prize still come with this option).

Anyone who is eligible can enter twice a day (once on the HGTV site and once on the sister FrontDoor site), as well as by mail as often as desired.  Entries will be accepted through February 18th, and the winner will be revealed around mid-March.  No purchase is necessary, so have fun entering and imagining life in this wonderful Dream Home -- who knows, the dream may just come true!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Terrifying Tuesdays: Dead of Night (1945)

The 1945 British film "Dead of Night" is actually a series of stories within a story.  The main plot centers around an architect, played by Mervyn Johns, who visits a country house to discuss a potential job.  When he arrives, he is struck by how similar the scene is to a recurring dream he has.  He mentions this to the owner and several guests at the house, who proceed to relate unusual tales of their own.  As the main story progresses, the architect realizes that events are unfolding exactly as they do in his dream, and he becomes ever more fearful as the dream does not end well.  The movie concludes with an unexpected twist.  All of the tales related by the other characters are very well done, but the most famous is the one told by Michael Redgrave and concerns a ventriloquist's dummy.  I think my personal favorite is about a ghost at a children's Christmas party, which seems to be based on the short story "Smee" by A.M. Burrage, a story I have always liked.  Many consider this to be one of the best, if not the best, horror compendium ever made, and it is another movie I highly recommend.

Interesting fact: Actress Googie Withers, who narrates one of the tales, had a supporting role in the 1938 Alfred Hitchcock film "The Lady Vanishes", which also starred Michael Redgrave.

Gore Guide (0=none to 5=extreme): 0

Monday, January 24, 2011

Mystery Mondays: Joanne Fluke's Hannah Swensen Mystery Series

I have an undeniable sweet tooth, and cookies are my favorite baked treat.  This being the case, how could I not like Joanne Fluke's Hannah Swensen mystery series about a down-to-earth young woman who runs a bakery in Minnesota called The Cookie Jar?  Between coming up with new cookie recipes and dating two of Lake Eden's most eligible bachelors, Hannah barely has time to investigate the murders that just seem to keep popping up, but she never lets this busy schedule prevent her from attempting to solve each one!  I do wish she would finally make up her mind about which of the two doting suitors she will choose, but as long as the author keeps supplying us with new cookie recipes I am inclined to let Hannah dither on.  There are thirteen novels in the series so far, plus another on the way and a few short stories in anthologies.  This series is fun reading, but be forewarned -- have plenty of milk handy to quench the inevitable cookie consumption thirst that will ensue!

Friday, January 21, 2011

Foodie Fridays: Deconstructed Stuffed Cabbage


My husband loves stuffed cabbage, but I can't be bothered with the tedious process of boiling the cabbage leaves, rolling them around a filling and securing them with toothpicks, and then baking them -- all of that is just too much trouble and takes too long!  When a friend gave us a head of cabbage from his garden, however, I decided that I would try to create a dish with the same flavors but which required a lot less work.  This is what I came up with -- all of the same ingredients but made with shredded cabbage, cooked together with everything else on the stovetop.  We think it is just as tasty as the stuffed version, and so much quicker and easier to make.  It is also another recipe that tastes even better when cooled and reheated.  Now this is a dish we can both love!

Deconstructed Stuffed Cabbage

12 oz. ground sirloin
1/2 C. diced celery
1 medium onion, diced
1/2 head cabbage, sliced
1 1/2 C. cooked rice
1 tsp. salt
dash pepper
1 tsp. sugar
1/2 tsp. basil
1/2 C. catsup
1 can (8 oz.) tomato sauce
1 can (15 oz.) diced tomatoes
1 C. shredded cheese

Brown sirloin in large skillet (add a little oil if needed).  Stir in celery and onion and cook until soft.  Add cabbage and continue cooking until cabbage is soft.  Stir in remaining ingredients except cheese and heat through.  Serve topped with cheese.  Serves 4.

Note:  I've tried using bagged shredded coleslaw mix and it just doesn't taste as good (plus the texture is too fine), so I recommend slicing your own from a fresh head of cabbage.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

This 'n That Thursdays: Whatever Happened to the Triple Decker?

Vintage magazine ad available from Attic Paper

Several months ago, just after Halloween, my sister and I got to talking about candy bars we remembered from our childhood days.  Some of my favorites, such as Reese's Peanut Butter Cups and Snickers Bars, are still around and remain popular.  Others are harder to find, but with a little effort they can be had.  Being a native of the Pittsburgh area, I have always loved Clark and Zagnut bars, and was fond of Bun Bars (both vanilla and maple) as well.  I found them all at The Vermont Country Store, a company that specializes in providing access to nostalgic items.  One of my sister's loves, the Mallo Cup, is also available.  All of these as well as two other favorites of mine, the Planters Peanut Bar and the Smoothie Candy Bar, can also be purchased from both Blair Candy and The Timeless Candy Source, two great suppliers for candies of all sorts.

Sadly, there is one favorite we both remembered that can no longer be found.  This is the Triple Decker Bar, a Nestlé product consisting of three chocolate layers -- dark, white, and milk.  We both hope that this one will be revived, and apparently we are not the only ones.  Come on, Nestlé, make our day and bring this one back!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Wish List Wednesdays: From Classy, Colorful Club Chair to Kaleidoscope-of-Color Bedroom

I saw these "pool"-colored club chairs recently in a CB2 catalog, and now I just can't stop thinking about them!  The color is spectacular, and the style is simple and elegant but comfortable.  I am not usually attracted to blue, but I could definitely see having a pair of these in my home!  In fact, this club chair inspired me to create a design board for a veritable kaleidoscope-of-color bedroom:

Clockwise from top left: Pointillism quilt and Dots embroidered bedding from Company C; 3 over 4 night stand from E4 Architects; Brushstroke Multi rug, Squiggle pillow, Checkerboard Sunflower pillow, and Jubilee Stripe Periwinkle pillow from Company C; Copper Kettledrum table from Gump's; 3 over 4 dresser from E4 Architects; "Autumn Leaves Bed" by Brian Reid from Artful Home

With all of the colorful accessories chosen, I have a decision to make -- should I play it safe and go with creamy white walls?  Or should I go bold?  If I decide to go bold, I would paint the wall behind the bed in a blue shade similar to that of the chairs, while the other three walls would get a vivid orange:

From left: Benjamin Moore Simply White; Sherwin Williams Hyper Blue from Coastal Living; Sydney Harbour Paint Company Blood Orange from House Beautiful
Weathermate Stripe Thermalogic Room
Darkening Grommet Panels

Decisions, decisions -- luckily, in the virtual world I can have fun imagining both!  In any case, these insulated curtain panels in a subtle blue stripe from Touch of Class would be the perfect window treatment, and provide a little relief from all of the saturated color.

Add some beautiful lamps and artwork and this bedroom would be complete.  Who would have thought that a blue club chair could be so inspirational!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Terrifying Tuesdays: The Uninvited (1944)

One of my favorite scary movies is a ghost story from 1944 called "The Uninvited", starring Ray Milland as the protagonist and Gail Russell as the love interest.  Ray Milland's character and his sister (Ruth Hussey) buy an old seaside home on the English coast, only to find that it is haunted.  The haunting is somehow tied to the former owner's (Donald Crisp) granddaughter (Russell) and a mysterious woman (Cornelia Otis Skinner) who was the best friend of the granddaughter's mother.  With help from a local doctor (Alan Napier), Milland, Hussey, and Russell are able to clear up the mystery of the ghost, although not without some peril.  The excellent actors, wonderful settings, and well-told story all make this a delightful movie for anyone who loves a good ghost story, and I highly recommend it.

Interesting fact: Alan Napier later went on to play the role of Alfred the butler in the 1960s Batman television series.

Gore Guide (0=none to 5=extreme): 0

Monday, January 17, 2011

Mystery Mondays: Elaine Vliets' "Dead-End Job" Mystery Series

I just finished reading Killer Cuts, the eighth "Dead-End Job" mystery by Elaine Vliets.  This series follows the exploits of Helen Hawthorne, a former professional woman who decides to flee a court-ordered decree to pay alimony to her deadbeat philandering ex-husband.  Ending up in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, she takes a series of jobs that pay cash and do not check into her background too carefully, so that she can avoid recognition and discovery.  While the jobs may be menial, she finds that her new life is not so bad.  Helen rents a room at the quirky Coronado Hotel and becomes quite fond of her colorful landlady as well as the hotel's other tenants, including a good-looking private detective named Phil.  Now if only she could stop encountering so many murders!  This series is funny, engaging, and well written, and you will come to appreciate Helen's new life and friends as much as she does.  I highly recommend that you read all nine books in the series and hope that the author has several more in the works!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Foodie Fridays: Italian Black Bean Chili

By PaulaG

As the cold weather continues, I thought I would share another favorite comfort food recipe, this time for chili.  I found this easy recipe many years ago and have modified it somewhat to suit my taste.  I increased the amount of carrots and onions for a healthier level of vegetables and added a can of sliced black olives for flavor enhancement.  This can be served topped with shredded cheese or a dollop of sour cream or plain yogurt, but none of these are necessary.  The recipe calls for hot sausage, but mild or a mixture of the two may be used instead -- just make sure the sausage is highly seasoned as most of the flavor comes from this ingredient.  If you cannot find bulk sausage, buy links and remove the casing by slitting it along the length of the sausage and peeling it off.  I use no salt added tomatoes and tomato sauce.  Corn muffins or cheese toast are the perfect accompaniment to this chili.

Italian Black Bean Chili

16 oz. bulk hot Italian sausage
8 oz. peeled baby carrots, sliced or chopped
1 large onion, chopped
2 cans (15 oz. each) black beans, undrained
1 can (10.5 oz.) condensed beef broth, plus 1/2 can water
1 can (8 oz.) tomato sauce
1 can (15 oz.) diced tomatoes
2 bay leaves
1 can (4 oz.) sliced black olives

Brown sausage in large skillet until barely pink.  Stir in carrots and onions and brown completely (if you use a nonstick skillet you should not need extra fat, but if you do add some olive oil).  Add remaining ingredients except olives.  Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer, covered, for 20 minutes.  Uncover and simmer one hour.  Stir in olives and remove bay leaves.  Serves 6.

Note: This is even better when cooled and reheated.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

This 'n That Thursdays: Adopt a Shelter Animal!

Meet the elusive Miss R, who grudgingly consented to hold still just long enough for me to get her picture!  This active little girl was a stray in our home town who decided that we needed to be adopted.  Weather permitting, I take our dogs for a 40-minute predawn walk every day.  The morning that she spotted the Dal girls and me out for our stroll, this terrier mix decided she had to be a part of our little pack.  Despite fierce protest from the two Dals, Miss R followed us home, camped out on our front door mat, and politely refused to leave.  Miss G accepted her right away, but it took about a week before Miss D and my husband were willing to admit that she was staying.  This sick, skinny, parasite-infested young dog has grown into a sleek, healthy, and happy sweetheart, loved by both of her sisters and now my husband's favorite!  There are so many dogs and cats out there with similar stories, who would make wonderful pets if only given the chance.  If you are thinking about getting a pet, please consider adopting a shelter animal -- give them a chance and you could reap huge rewards!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Wish List Wednesdays: Modern Garden Shed

I literally could not believe my eyes when I saw this modern garden shed by Archipod.  What a fabulous design, even if it does look like a cross between a UFO and a coconut!  I am really wanting one of these for my yard, and not just for looks, since we could use the extra storage space as well.  I think my lawn mower would be quite happy living in this chic abode!  Okay, not really -- this shed is meant to be used as extra living space, such as a garden office or retreat.  It would be a fun and inspiring space for work, play, or relaxation, not to mention the fact that you would become the talk of the town once your neighbors got a glimpse!

Update:  For a mere $40,000, the delightful Archipod garden shed is now available from Hammacher Schlemmer.  As soon as I win the lottery, I will be placing my order!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Terrifying Tuesdays: Why I Like Scary Movies

Growing up in a suburb of Pittsburgh, I became a devoted follower of a Saturday late night movie double feature called "Chiller Theater", hosted by Pittsburgh's own Bill Cardille, or "Chilly Billy" as his fans liked to call him.  I'm not sure how I convinced my parents to let me stay up so late watching scary movies, but many was the Sunday morning I could barely drag myself out of bed for church services at 9 AM!  Anyway, thanks to Chilly Billy I became a huge fan of those movies.  Back then, while scary, these films rarely contained much gore, so I hesitate to call them horror movies.  I still prefer as little gore as possible -- I would rather be scared by my imagination than disgusted by graphically violent scenes.  For this reason, when I discuss movies here I will provide my own personal Gore Guide, which only applies to movies I like.  If I do not mention a movie on this site it may be too gory for me and therefore off the scale of my guide!

Next week I will begin reviewing my favorite scary movies.  "Be afraid, be very afraid", because "they're here!"

Monday, January 10, 2011

Mystery Mondays: My Favorite Mystery Genre

I have been reading mystery novels since I was a teen.  After being introduced to Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories (a favorite of my mother when she was a girl), I was hooked.  I grew up on these as well as Dorothy Sayers' Peter Wimsey novels, almost everything by Agatha Christie (but especially the Miss Marple tales), and later Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe series.  These days I am a big fan of the mystery novel subgenre called the "cozy".  While there is no hard and fast definition of the term, to me these stories revolve around an average person, often female, who leads an ordinary, everyday life until fate forces them to investigate a crime.  From then on this person cannot stop running into murders wherever they go, and their detection skills keep improving as they continue to investigate.  The protagonist usually either works from home, for example as a writer, or runs a small business, often revolving around some domestic art such as cooking, gardening, or interior design.  For a much better description of the cozy mystery, and a very detailed list of the works of authors publishing in this genre, visit Cozy Mystery.  This amazing site tracks a number of works by many authors -- I use it to keep up to date on what my favorites have published recently.  Movie and TV mysteries are also covered, and a blog has been added as well.

Next week I will start to introduce some of my favorite authors.  "The game is afoot", my friends, so keep reading those mysteries and use those "little gray cells"!

Friday, January 7, 2011

Foodie Fridays: Macaroni & Cheese with Brussels Sprouts & Ham


It looks like we are in for a cold, wintry weekend -- just the kind of weather to make me think a good comfort food is needed.  And what better comfort food than macaroni and cheese!  I have added one of my favorite vegetables to up the nutritional value -- this allowed me to decrease the amount of pasta by half, and the sprouts are barely noticeable to those who don't care for them.  Buttermilk adds some tang and reduces the fat, while ham adds a bit of flavor enhancement, but leave the ham out if you want.  Armed with this dish, I say bring on the winter cold!

Macaroni & Cheese with Brussels Sprouts & Ham

1/4 C. butter
3 T. flour
1 C. each milk and buttermilk, at room temperature
1 C. each shredded Cheddar and mozzarella cheeses
1/4 C. grated Parmesan
8 oz. elbow macaroni, cooked and drained
4 oz. diced ham
8 oz. Brussels sprouts (fresh or frozen), cooked and quartered
1 T. butter, melted
1/2 C. panko bread crumbs

Melt butter in large pot over medium heat, stir in flour, and cook about one minute.  Gradually add milks, stirring constantly, until mixture thickens and boils.  Reduce heat and simmer one minute, stirring constantly.  Stir in cheeses over very low heat until melted and smooth.  Add pasta, ham, and Brussels sprouts.  Pour into two-quart casserole dish.  Combine melted butter and panko.  Sprinkle over top.  Bake at 350 degrees 25 minutes.  Serves 5.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

This 'n That Thursdays: Help Shelter Animals for Free!

Meet two of our dogs, a Dalmatian (Miss G on the right) and a Dalmatian mix (Miss D on the left) who were adopted from a Dalmatian Rescue foster home.  As an animal lover, I try to help any organization that helps animals.  One of the easiest ways I have found to do that is by clicking on two sites, The Animal Rescue Site and Freekibble.  It costs nothing but a few seconds of my time, and I click every day.  I encourage everyone who loves animals to do the same!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011


This is my first attempt at blogging, and I decided the best way to learn was to just jump right in! I am still working on the layout, but will eventually try to have several topic categories once I figure out how to organize them. My new blog is just for fun right now, although I may actually decide to get serious one of these days and choose a subject to emphasize. Until then, I will chat about whatever happens to interest me at the moment.

I am going to start off by organizing my posts under different days of the week.  The categories I have chosen are listed under About This Blog.  Later I may create subsections for each category, but for now this level of organization will probably do.  I might also create pages for specific topics, such as interior design, recipes, links, etc., once I am a little more sure about how that works.  I am learning a bit more every day, and should begin posting comments in earnest soon.