Birthday Ditch Day!

March 19th, 2014

Birthday ditch day was born four years ago when I was having lunch at one of my favorite CenPho spots – Postino – with some co-workers. It was a beautiful spring day and we were sitting on the patio, eating and lamenting how we wished we had the day off, so that we could drink some wine and just enjoy the weather. That’s right. Birthday ditch day was spawned so that we could day drink on a work day. That first ditch day, two of my girlfriends took the day off with me and we hiked, got manis and pedis, and drank wine.

We had our very own “Treat Yo Self” day ala Donna and Tom from “Parks & Recreation.”

Ditch day technically doesn’t have to be a weekday or an expensive endeavor. My friends, Adele and Chris, spend a weekend day for Chris’ birthday each year together as a family, and end the day with a trip to Whole Foods to buy ingredients to make dinner. If you want to keep it even more simple, there are a lot of free items you can get on your birthday, so you can use your ditch day to take part in Rachael’s favorite tradition – the birthday freebie scavenger hunt!

Ditch day for me has evolved into taking a Friday off with my husband Bryan, and spending the day together. Although each year the agenda is different, the idea of spending some weekday quality time with my best friend has become a birthday tradition that makes my teenage self green with envy.

This year we had donuts and coffee on the couch, then I headed out for some morning pampering at my favorite mani/pedi spot. Pink glitter nails? Yes, please!

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After a relaxing morning, we headed to the Phoenix Art Museum to see two exhibits I have been really excited about – “Read My Pins!” (a selection of broaches from the collection of former Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright) and “Lifelike” (an exhibit where the art is not necessarily created in the medium that it appears to be – I will be writing a future post on this).

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The rest of the day involved food (lunch at Short Leash Hot Dog’s brick & mortar store – Sit…Stay! and dinner at my favorite Phoenix occasion restaurant, The Gladly) and a movie.

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We had such a good time that we are already planning out what we might do on Bryan’s birthday ditch day.

Just because we aren’t kids anymore, doesn’t mean that we can’t take time to relax and enjoy getting to be another year older. What will you do this year on your own ditch day?

I <3 PHX: Desert Botanical Garden

March 17th, 2014

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When I say “Phoenix”, what comes to mind? Most people would likely respond with something about our intense heat or the vast Sonoran Desert that stretches through Arizona. If you’ve never traveled to Phoenix you probably underestimate the amount of delicious food, art and history our great city has to offer. The Desert Botanical Garden is one of my most favorite places in Phoenix to visit. Each trip to the garden is a new experience, an opportunity to witness nature’s lifecycle. A Phoenix Point of Pride, the DBG opened in 1939 and boasts over 55,000 plant displays stretching across 140 acres of land. It’s a sprawling oasis in the middle of the city. Acres of cacti are flanked by lush gardens filled with shade trees and wildflowers. Native wildlife is all around too, from butterflies and hummingbirds to rabbits, lizards and squirrels.

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Over the weekend, Rob and I went to the DBG to see the Chihuly in the Garden exhibition. Dale Chihuly is a world renowned artist, best known for his brightly colored glass sculptures which are massive and extravagant. The exhibition was like nothing I’ve ever seen. In Chihuly in the Garden, Chihuly has created colorful pieces of glass that mimic the native desert plants. The pieces appear to have been planted and many seem to have grown since the exhibit opened, they stretch out and curl around the plants they share space with. At times it felt like a wonderful Easter egg hunt, walking along the meandering trails we’d spot a splash of color, and walk just a little bit faster, anxious to see what was up ahead.

The DBG is open daily from 8:00am-8:00p. General admission tickets for Chihuly in the Garden are $22.00 (adults), $20.00 (seniors), $12.00 (students) and $10.00 (children ages 3-12). Note: ticket prices vary based on current events and featured exhibition.

Have you been to the Desert Botanical Garden? What’s your favorite place to visit in Phoenix? Be sure to let us know in the comment section below.

Christina’s Project Life Album

March 14th, 2014

I’m a total pack rat. Throughout my thirty years on this planet I’ve compulsively collected postcards, tickets stubs and dried flowers, expired IDs, sea shells and playbills. Tiny bits that combine to form a mosaic of memories. Scrapbooking has always been a big part of my life. I used to save my lunch money to buy craft supplies. Back then scrapbooking was a humble hobby – within the pages of my early albums created during Jr. High and High School years are lots of photos, stubs, stamps and other little scraps.

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Rob & I honeymooned in Mexico several months after our wedding, it was a dreamy vacation filled with street tacos and cold beer, walks along cobble stone streets and lazy days on the sand. The photos and mementos from our trip have been sitting in a box waiting to be scrapbooked for nearly four years. One of my 2014 goals is to capture more memories – what better way to start than to create an album as special as our trip?

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I’d wanted to try Project Life for a few years now, but was always intimidated by the thought of creating an album that would document a year of my life. I didn’t know if I had the crafty attention span to make it a whole year! After perusing Pinterest, Google images and lots of Project Life-focused blogs I decided to test the waters with a mini album. I put an album, core kit and a few other supplies on my Christmas list – Santa spoiled me and brought everything I needed to get started.

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It took me a few months to unpack all of my goodies and dive in, but for the last few weeks, I’ve had so much fun working on my mini album. I’m using the Project Life Sunshine Core Kit designed by Elsie & Emma from A Beautiful Mess. The cards from this kit feature bright, cheery colors and imperfect, quirky patterns. They remind me of Mexico! I love the pocket pages because I can work on more than one page layout at a time, which is ideal for crafters like me with a short attention span.

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I’ve corralled all of my supplies into a small basket, partially so that I can work on my album in my art room or move out to the back patio when the weather’s nice and partially to keep me from hoarding too many supplies. Aside from the Sunshine Core Kit, so far my favorite supplies have been SN@P! Studio Pocket Pages, my Dymo Embossing Label Maker and the Dear Lizzy 5th & Frolic Stamp from American Crafts.

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I think I love scrapbooking so much because every time you sit down to work on a page layout, you get to relive lovely memories!

Have you tried Project Life before? What are your favorite supplies?

Eat More Veggies: Smart Shopping

March 13th, 2014

Earlier this week, I wrote a post highlighting the amount of food – especially produce – that we waste, despite both good intentions and the fact that we are healthier when we eat more plant-based foods. In Monday’s post, Eat More Veggies: Waste Not Want Not, I shared my top tips for reducing waste: First In First Out, Don’t Throw Away Good Stuff and Shop Smart. Today is all about how to put the Shop Smart part into action.

Shopping Smart means looking beyond the traditional grocery store for ways to buy fresh, healthy food. The grocery store is not a bad option and you can score good deals if you shop the sales, but it is important to have some alternatives. More Choices = More Savings. My favorite ways to save on produce are farmer’s markets, food rescue and co-op buying. To learn more about the treasures you might find at the farmer’s market, check out my post, The Downtown Phoenix Farmer’s Market.

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Food Rescue: Market on the Move
There are groups in some communities that rescue surplus produce that would otherwise get wasted and provide that produce at a low cost to families. In Phoenix and Tucson, Market on the Move is a weekly event where surplus produce from farming communities is trucked into the city. Generally there are 8-12 varieties of produce and with a $10 donation participants can take all the food they want. That’s right – there’s no limit. Some families fill reusable shopping bags and others come with wagons or rolling coolers. The idea is that you take what you can use and a little extra to share with friends and neighbors because the food would have otherwise been wasted.

The first time I participated in Market on the Move, I was a little weirded out. I wasn’t sure if the program was more like a food bank than a co-op and I didn’t want to take food that was meant for people with fewer resources than I have. On top of that, I wasn’t sure about “rescued” food. Sounds kind of dubious, right? Was it going to be all rotten or go bad in a day? Was it going to be oddball stuff nobody would want?

I decided to see for myself and I was pleasantly surprised. One Saturday morning I showed up at a church near my home to find a huge line of (really friendly) people. I was pretty far back so I had about 40 minutes to wait and used the time to get to know my “line neighbors.” There were people from all walks of life and they had various reasons for participating. Some of the folks I chatted with were looking to add healthy veggies to their diets, some were participating because it stretched their food budget, and others were excited to participate in a program that prevents waste. My concern that I was taking food from others who might need it more was unfounded because there is more than enough to go around and the process only works if there are enough participants contributing. Another important thing is to note is that Market on the Move is not year-round. The service is suspended during the hottest months of summer so it’s always a good idea to double check the website before you head out.

So, what do you get? Most of the food is conventionally grown, but I have seen a few organics mixed it. The selection varies every week and you never know until you arrive and read the whiteboard, but last time I went there were eggplants, red bell peppers, tomatoes, four varieties of squash, green beans and cucumbers. I took some of everything except eggplant (yuck!). I used some food right away because grilled squash is a big hit at my house. I made a few loaves of zucchini quickbread which were devoured in a flash. Homemade tomato sauce? You can bet your baked ziti I made a batch! Cucumber sandwich with dill and cream cheese? Don’t mind if I do. After the first wave of my cooking frenzy quieted, I sliced and shredded portions for the freezer so I have quick side dishes for future dinners and ingredients ready for more quickbread. My daughter’s day care provider was thrilled to have a bounty of grape tomatoes for the kiddos and my coworkers were not shy about taking the rest. Not a single veg was wasted and many, many mouths were fed with a single $10 bill. Granted, I had to put in some effort and it’s not something I have time for every weekend, but it made a big difference and it was well worth my investment.

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Food Co-Op: Bountiful Baskets
I remember back in 2008 when a colleague at work told me about her friend who got a big laundry basket full of fresh produce from Bountiful Baskets for only fifteen dollars. I remember thinking she was probably messing with me or there had to be some kind of a catch. We gathered around the website reading every detail and trying to figure out how to do it and whether there were strings attached. It sounded too good to be true. In the end we decided to gamble the fifteen bucks and give it a try. Fortunately for us it was NOT a scam and I was so pleasantly surprised that I began participating every other week. For a while, I even volunteered and helped to establish a new pick-up site in a local park. Now, I’m very fortunate to work for a company that participates in Bountiful Baskets Corporate Sites so my veggies and fruits get delivered right to work every other Thursday.

Bountiful Baskets is a food co-op, which means that people from all over the community contribute money online to the bulk-purchase of hundreds of pallets of food direct from the distributor. The organizers work with the produce house to get the best deals possible and arrange for trucks to deliver the produce to local parks, churches or other pre-designated meeting places. From there, neighborhood volunteers work together to distribute the produce into equal shares. Volunteer Site Coordinators then check participants off of the list as they come to pick up their shares of the bulk purchase. Over the years, the process has become much smoother. In the past, food always had to be distributed into baskets onsite but now some sites enjoy pre-packed boxes. The organization has grown significantly, too. There used to only be sites in Maricopa County, AZ but now several states have Bountiful Baskets.

The online contribution form has the choice of conventionally grown produce for $15 or a slightly smaller box of organically grown fruits and vegetables for $25. Participants can add extras like breads, tortillas, granola, cookies or specialty packs of extra veggies for a small additional fee.

My experience with Bountiful Baskets has always been more good than bad. I’ve found mixed reviews online and generally those fall into two groups: people who don’t like not being able to pick out their own veggies and concerns about the quality of the food. I see not being able to choose my own veggies as an adventure and I like that it pushes me to try new stuff or share something I don’t want with others (for example, eggplant lovers) who will use it. Occasionally I’ll get a box that’s kind of boring to me, but I feel like more often than not I get a good variety. For Arizonans, the things you find in your basket usually correspond pretty closely to what’s on the front of the Sprouts sale flyer. As for the quality complaints, sometimes I get a few items that are over or underripe but I just use them in the order they’re going to ripen and I chalk it up to being a natural part of the co-operative buying thing.

What’s your experience with alternative food buying? Have you ever participated in a co-op or food rescue operation? Do you think you might like to try it? Continue the conversation in the comments below. We always love to hear what you think!

Booze Infusions: How To & Recipes

March 12th, 2014

If you read yesterday’s post, you know that a few weeks ago Rachael and I visited the home of my friends Chris and Adele to learn how to infuse booze. Booze infusion is a pretty simple concept – you take alcohol, add ingredients to flavor it, and let it sit until you like the taste.

Since Rachael and I were new to infusions, the first recipes Chris taught us are simple. In fact, you are going to be shocked how simple these are and may be inspired to start today!

Here are some basic steps for doing most infusions:

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Step 1: Buy the supplies. You will need mason jars, the alcohol of your choice, and the ingredients that will flavor your drink.

TIP: If you are using fruit, buy organic. The alcohol is going to absorb all of the flavors, good and bad. Be sure you are using good quality produce grown without pesticides (the perfect excuse to hit up your local farmer’s market) and don’t forget to wash it when you get home.

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Step 2: Sterilize the jars. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Carefully place your jars and lids into the boiling water for a couple of minutes. Using tongs, remove the jars and lids, and carefully dry off with a clean towel.

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Step 3: Place the ingredients that will flavor your drink into the jar.

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Step 4: Pour the alcohol of choice into the jar until the jar is full. When buying your alcohol, buy what you like to drink, not necessarily what’s on sale. Although the ingredients will give the liquor some flavor, a bad vodka will still taste like a bad vodka, no matter what you put in it.

TIP: For our tutorial, Chris recommended Svedka Vodka (as it is both good quality and not crazy expensive) and Makers Mark Whiskey or better. That will give you a sense of the price/quality level you should look for when making your purchase.

Step 5: Secure the lid on your mason jar, shake the jar, and play the waiting game. There is no set amount of time that works for all infusions. This is where it becomes more of an experiment. Each week, take a small taste and see if you like the flavor. Infusions that are too “young” will often have a bite to them, so giving them more time will help to mellow out the flavors.

TIP: Use a sharpie or a label maker to put the date you created your drink on the jar. This will help you to determine how many weeks it has been infusing.

Step 6. Tweak where needed, and be patient. Don’t be afraid to add something if you need to after your first taste. Even with the harsh edge, you will be able to tell if the end result is going to have a good flavor. Also, good things come to those who wait. Some of the infusions at Chris and Adele’s home had been sitting for a year or more, so don’t give up – what your drink may need is simply more time.

The great thing about infusions, as you can tell, is that the possibilities are endless. Like art, you must start by selecting your medium (alcohol) and what you will add. I found a great site that lays out some tips on choosing both elements here.

If you are like me though, you just clicked on that site, got intimidated, and almost closed this post. Wait! Don’t leave! I’ve got you covered. Check out three very quick and simple starter recipes below:

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Raspberry Infused Vodka

Ingredients: 1 pint organic raspberries, vodka, everclear and simple syrup (when serving)
Time it will need to sit: 3-6 weeks, depending on how often you change out the berries
Instructions: Add raspberries to a sterilized jar and fill with ½ vodka and ½ everclear. Seal and date your jar and let sit in the refrigerator for 1-2 weeks. Shake the jar every once in a while when you think about it. Strain out the raspberries (they will have turned white, or as I called them “zombie raspberries”), and reserve the liquid. Add a fresh pint, pour the liquid over the raspberries, seal and let sit in your fridge for another 1-2 weeks. You will repeat the raspberry replacement step once more. Once they are fully infused, use a coffee filter or unbleached paper towel to strain the final alcohol into a bowl. You will want to strain the liquid three times. You can store this in a bottle or mason jar, and when you serve it, just add simple syrup to taste.

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Ginger Infused Vodka

Ingredients: Candied ginger (handful) and vodka
Time it will need to sit: 1 week
Instructions: Add ginger to a sterilized jar and fill with vodka. Seal and date your jar. You can store the ginger vodka on a shelf, and shake it occasionally. This drink should be ready in about a week, but taste it and let it sit longer if you need it to. This one does a cool magic trick in that a day after you put the candied ginger into the liquid, it expands and looks like slices of fresh ginger. If your ginger stays intact, you won’t need to strain this one. If you notice that it disintegrates, strain through a coffee filter or unbleached paper towel until the liquid is clear (2-3 times).

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Cin-Van-Sky (Cinnamon/Vanilla/Star Anise Infused Whiskey)

Ingredients: Cinnamon stick, vanilla bean, 2-3 star anise pods, whiskey/bourbon and brandy
Time it will need to sit: 4-6 weeks
Instructions: Split the vanilla bean and add it, the cinnamon stick and the star anise pods to a sterilized jar and fill with whiskey/bourbon and top with a shot of brandy. Seal and date your jar. Store the jar on a shelf, shake occasionally, and test 4-6 weeks after you infused it.

Last year for Christmas, I gave away homemade vanilla extract as gifts to my friends. From my friend Adele (who hosted our infusion lessons), I received a bottle of her limoncello. Homemade gifts are fantastic to give and receive, no matter what time of year it is. So, pin this post, and come back to it the next time you need to make a bulk gift, but want to do something unique.

The possibilities with this are endless, so be bold, be creative, and run to your local liquor store right now to get started.

Cheers!

Come for the drinks, stay for the life lesson.

March 11th, 2014

A few weeks ago, Rachael and I were fortunate to be invited to the home of my friends Adele and Chris for a lesson on creating booze infusions. My plan was to write a single post, with recipes and tips on the process. Once we arrived, and started taste testing, I realized there was so much more to share, as the experience itself was a great reminder that sometimes it’s good to slow down. So, today I will tell you about our experience, and in a follow-up post, I will provide you with the recipes we made and some basic tips on infusion so you can create an experience like this for yourself and your friends.

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Adele, Chris and their daughter are the kind of people you cannot believe you have the privilege to know. They are all incredibly creative, thoughtful and gracious people. They share my passion for food, and we have had a lot of fun over the years trying out new restaurants in Phoenix, or experimenting with cooking (like the time a group of us went to Adele’s house to make ricotta and goat cheese).

Over the past few years Chris has experimented with infusing different flavors into alcohol to create flavored liqueurs. Booze infusion is simple in nature – you soak a variety of ingredients in the liquor of your choice, and then let it sit until you like the taste. One of the most basic infusions that a lot of people are familiar with is limoncello — lemon zest soaked in vodka for a few weeks and then mixed equal parts with simple syrup.

Before we got started our lesson, we viewed Chris’ entire collection of infusions – contained in dozens of bottles and mason jars covering an entire wall in their pantry. Chris jokes that he is sort of a “mad scientist” when it comes to trying out new combinations but he’s an artist, too. He takes risks, imagines outcomes and tries new things just to see what happens.

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We grabbed a dozen bottles of varying flavors and sat down at their kitchen table to sample Chris’ creations. Some of our favorites were limoncello, vin-de-orange (red wine, rum, bitter & sweet oranges, grapefruit and spices – a combo Rachel described as tasting like “a library, tobacco and Christmas.”), chai liquor, and tequila that was infused with lime and salt (a margarita in a shot).

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As we sipped, Chris explained that many medicines actually started out as infusions. Some of the first forms of aspirin were actually the bark of a willow tree infused in alcohol. Another early infusion purpose was preserving fruit. People would combine fruit, sugar and alcohol in order to keep fruit fresh throughout the year.

We asked Chris how they normally drank the infusions – did they have them as after dinner drinks? Did they enjoy them with friends as we were doing that very day? Or did they use them in recipes?

Chris explained that his favorite thing to do was what we got to experience – having a group of friends around a table, and sampling a variety of his creations. “These infusions take such time to make,” Chris explained “But they arrest the moment. What I mean by that is that it helps to stop time. By taking time to enjoy these, you will remember this moment. You will remember the laughter and conversation that you had because we all sat down at a table together and enjoyed the experience, and each other.”

We went there to learn how to make delicious infusions, and as often happens when I get together with Adele and Chris, I came away with a life lesson. We live in a society where speed is king – we have fast food, overnight shipping, movies on demand – and because of this, we often forget to slow down and enjoy life.

I challenge all of you to have an “arresting moment” experience. Get together with friends for dinner at home, make something beautiful for the people you care about, turn off the technology, and enjoy time with the people you love.

Don’t forget to check out my follow-up post on basic tips for booze infusion, as well as the recipes for our three creations – Ginger Vodka, Raspberry Vodka and Cin-Van-Sky (a cinnamon/vanilla/star anise infused whiskey).

Cheers!

Eat More Veggies: Waste Not, Want Not

March 10th, 2014

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Most people know there are health benefits to be gained from eating more fruits and veggies, but sometimes life gets in the way – we don’t feel like shopping, we’re too tired to cook after work or, for millions of Americans, tight household budgets mean a struggle to afford healthy food. How we feel, how we look, and most importantly, how well our bodies work depends on the kind of fuel we consume. Even though we know we should eat more plant-based food, there are a great many factors that go into the decisions we make about food each day. Sometimes we have noble intentions but lack follow-through. It happens to everyone – you stock up on Sunday for a week of healthy eating but you decide to have leftovers Monday night, the kids beg for pizza Tuesday night, Wednesday you work late and eat Cheerios for dinner, so by Thursday the crisper drawer is still chock-full. Except now there’s nothing “crisp” about the contents. The drawer in your fridge has become the place where produce goes to die.

The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that Americans threw more than 36 million tons of food into landfills in 2011. In fact, food waste has increased dramatically over the last three decades and that disturbing trend isn’t slowing. Meanwhile, food prices continue to rise and we can expect another 2.5% – 3.5% price increase in 2014 according to the US Department of Agriculture.

We have tremendous power to improve the way we eat, reduce the amount of food we waste, and save a significant portion of our grocery budget with a small investment of time and energy. These are my top tips for making the most of the food you buy:

FIFO – First In, First Out
When you bring home groceries, be sure to put them away so that you see the oldest stuff first. This way you rotate your stock and perfectly good food doesn’t language on your pantry shelf or in your crisper drawer. For many families it helps to put ripe or close-dated food at the front and center of the fridge so it’s easy to grab and doesn’t get wasted.

Don’t Throw Away Good Stuff
Sometimes I don’t follow my own FIFO advice and I’ll find a bit of something that’s been hanging around beyond its “Sell By” date. I used to automatically hit the trash can with that food, but now I take a moment and sniff then taste first. Dates on products can mean lots of things: “sell by”, “use by”, “expires”, “freshness guaranteed by”, or even “we have to put a date on this package but it doesn’t mean anything but here’s our best guess”. Much of the food we buy is safe beyond the package date. Of course, I am not advocating eating rotten food, but am saying to use common sense and trust yourself. If the food smells OK, looks OK and you’re comfortable doing so, give it a taste and you may be pleasantly surprised. When in doubt, throw it out.

Shop Smart
There are several smart ways to get more fresh, high-quality food at affordable prices if you search a bit. I started with a Google search “find cheap veggies in Phoenix” and sure enough, most of my favorite spots were listed in the results. You can tailor the search to your community and find similar results. Nationwide there are some good leads on LocalHarvest.org, but they’re not always the most up-to-date so you’ll want to do some additional recon before heading out to a market listed there. Fellow Arizonans, be sure to check out FillYourPlate.org, and ArizonaFarmersMarkets.com for even more options.

Later this week I will share some ways to shop smart to get more high-quality fruits and veggies without blowing your food budget. I look forward to hearing your ideas, too. Do you have any clever tips for reducing food waste? Ideas for what to do with leftover veggies? Delectable veggie recipes or suggestions for meatless meals? Keep the conversation going by commenting below!

Women Who Rock: Mother Teresa of Calcutta

March 7th, 2014

Tomorrow is International Women’s Day, a day for honoring the achievements and highlighting the struggles of women around the world, so it’s a perfect time for another installment the Women Who Rock series. This month we selected Mother Teresa of Calcutta because of the kindness and love she poured into the people she served.

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Photo: Túrelio (via Wikimedia-Commons); CC-BY-SA

Name: Mother Teresa of Calcutta (1910-1997), born Gonxha Agnes Bojaxhiu

Why She Rocks: Mother Teresa was a Roman Catholic nun who founded the Missionaries of Charities in 1950 to serve those who suffered sickness and poverty in Calcutta, India. Eventually chapters of the order she founded were opened on every continent to continue her mission of loving and caring. Mother Teresa cared for orphans, the sick, the poor, and the dying as though they were her own and she loved those whom everyone else forgot. She also broke down barriers for those with Hansen’s disease (leprosy) and provided medical care and basic necessities. Mother Teresa rocks because she cared deeply for those who were forgotten by many on Earth but were loved by God.

Famous Quote: Spread love everywhere you go. Let no one ever come to you without leaving happier.

Additional Information: In researching this blog post, I found valuable information at Vatican.va, Wikipedia.com, MotherTeresa.org and Nobelprize.org. All of these are great resources for more information and I was really fascinated by the page on MotherTeresa.org that calls out quotes that are often falsely attributed to her.

Did you learn something new? Is there a woman who inspires you? Maybe you would like to learn more about another Woman Who Rocks. Let us know in the comments below – we love to hear from you!

I Pinned It, I Did It: Guinness, Whiskey & Irish Cream Cupcakes

March 3rd, 2014

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At my company, there is a girl named Heidi, who makes the most anticipated food item of our entire year – the sausage roll. Every year, we all await the glorious day in December when we receive an e-mail announcing that the sausage-filled pastry has arrived, then we run as fast as we can to the art table to get a slice of our very own. It’s an incredibly fun tradition, and my mouth is watering just thinking about it.

I decided that I wanted to start a tradition of my own – something that I could bake and bring in each year as a thank you to my amazing co-workers. Two years ago, I found a recipe combining two of our favorite things – cake and booze – and my first ever “I Pinned It, I Did It” began with these Guinness, Whiskey & Irish Cream Cupcakes from the Brown Eyed Baker.

This recipe is based on the drink with the not-so-PC name, the Irish Car Bomb. An Irish Car Bomb is a cocktail where whiskey is floated on top of Irish Cream in a shot glass, and the shot glass is then dropped into a pub glass of Guinness. For the cupcake, you start with a Guinness and chocolate cake, fill it with whiskey and chocolate ganache, and then top the whole boozy concoction with an Irish Cream buttercream.

This recipe is incredibly simple, but just requires a bit of extra time to put all the elements together. And the end result is amazing – the cake is moist and the overall booze content is not overpowering.

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The three spirits you will need to have on hand are Guinness (and note that the only thing I could find in a six-pack was the Extra Stout – any type of Guinness works great in this recipe, so don’t worry if you don’t have the original), Baileys and the Irish whiskey of your choice (I prefer Jameson). Since Baileys and whiskey are good staple items to have in your bar anyway, this recipe becomes a winner yet again, because you don’t have to buy some obscure liquor that you may not ever use again.

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I only have a few tips on this recipe.

If you don’t have a cookie cutter or piping tip to carve out the cupcakes, I find a small spoon works just fine. Same with the ganache. If you don’t feel like dealing with the mess that can come from piping it, just use a teaspoon to drop it into the cupcake divot.

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For the ganache, she calls for cutting up chocolate, but I say why not use chocolate chips? It saves you the hassle of having to chop up a chocolate bar. Both times I have made these, I have used chips, and they work great.

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For the icing, you can either use a knife to smoothly apply it, or you can pipe it. One of the greatest tricks I have learned to make filling the bag easier is to stand up the bag with the tip on the bottom of a glass. This keeps the bag standing, and makes it easier to spoon dollops of icing into it with a spatula. As a side-note, if you don’t have piping bags, a freezer bag with the corner cut off works brilliantly.

I prefer to use St. Patrick’s Day cupcake holders, or plain white cups for this, and I top them with simple green sugar that you can find in the baking aisle of most grocery stores.

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The cupcakes were a huge hit when I took them in two years ago, and I already have co-workers claiming dibs on them this year. Have a happy and safe St. Patrick’s Day, and enjoy!

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Organize It: Medicine Cabinet Must-Haves

February 24th, 2014

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I have been extremely klutzy in the kitchen lately. Bryan hears me exclaim at least once a week “B! It happened again! Get Band-Aids!” Last week I made a doozy of a cut in my index finger, and made a mad dash for the medicine cabinet for a Band-Aid. What I found was a messy jumble of bottles and boxes (some empty and expired) and no Band-Aids. I am guessing I am not alone in this state of medicine cabinet disarray.

I decided to revamp my medicine cabinet, get rid of the emptied and expired meds, inventory what was left, and replenish what was missing. But what should a medicine cabinet have on a basic level?

Below is your very own list of must-have medicine cabinet items:

* Aspirin/Ibuprofen
* Decongestant
* Cough Medicine (Get both a suppressant and an expectorant.)
* Digestive Medicine (i.e. Tums, Maalox, Prilosec)
* Calamine Lotion or Antihistamine Cream
* Box of Assorted Band-Aids
* Medical Tape
* Hydrogen Peroxide or Antibiotic Ointment
* Thermometer
* Magnifying Glass and Tweezers
* Dental Painkiller (i.e. Anbesol or Orajel)

You can supplement the above items with things that are specific to you and your family. Have allergies? Add your favorite over-the-counter allergy med to the list. Have glasses? Get a glasses repair kit.

If you are like me and don’t have a traditional “medicine cabinet,” buy some of the small bins that they carry at Target, organize your boxes and bottles in them, and then put them in a cabinet or drawer.

Make sure you are reviewing your expire dates at least twice a year (make it part of your routine cleaning plan) and purging and replacing anything that is expired. If you find you run out of something, add it to your grocery list when you notice it. I have a running list that I keep in a drawer in the kitchen so that I can add things I run out of as I notice them.

Now all I need is a cooking class on knife skills.