Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Seashell Pearl Cookies

My daughter was in charge of snack for her preschool class.  This week the theme was "the ocean" and we have this really fun teacher that will let you bring creative snacks that go with the theme.  I was all geared up to do what I did a few years back with my middle child and bring clear cups full of blue jello with Swedish fish swimming inside.  But alas, the day before our turn at snack we show up, and there on the table, were some blue jello cups with gummy octopi in them. (Darn you pinterest, now everyone can be as creative as me).  So with only 24 hours to spare I searched the interwebs and found a wonderful ocean snack alternative. They turned out so cute I thought I'd share them with you.  Behold the very adorable seashell pearl cookies.

Seashell Pearl Cookies
These were fun and easy to make, and only used a few ingredients:  Vanilla wafers, pink frosting, and a yogurt covered raisin.

You can make your own homemade frosting or just dye some store bought frosting a nice shade of "inner oyster pink".  Spread smoothly over one vanilla wafer, careful to leave a bit of a frosting lump on one side.  I found scrapping my spreading knife off on one end left just the right amount of lump

Next spread frosting on another vanilla wafer

 Place the "pearl" aka the yogurt covered raisin right in front of your frosting "lump"

My daughter had the most fun putting the pearls in place
Then simply sandwich the cookies together at an angle, right where the frosting lump meets at the back.

Your seashell pearl cookie is almost complete
Repeat the process a few mores times and soon you will have a shiny row of happy clams looking up at you.

These would be so cute not only as an ocean-themed snack for preschool, but would be lovely sitting on a big platter at an under the sea party, a mermaid party, or even a pirate party.  Either that or give the kids a bowl of cookies and yogurt covered raisins and let them make their own seashell pearl cookies as the craft at the party.

After that we just lined them up in a 9x13 pan for safe travel and off we went to preschool.  Right before we walked out the door I had a moment of brilliance and dyed our accompanying milk a beautiful shade of aqua blue.

So that's it.  The teacher raved about the pearl cookies and especially the blue milk.  I was excited it was a snack they had never seen before. I was especially proud we made it into the weekly newsletter home.  Nice.

My girls loved the look of these cookies so much they had fun making their own after school snacks with all the leftovers for two days in a row.  

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Chicken Lettuce Wraps

Do you ever order a dish at a restaurant, and it is so delicious you want to try and recreate it at home?  Well that happens to me every time I try lettuce wraps.  I'm not sure exactly why I love them so much.  Is it the Asian flavors, the crunchy yet light and airy bean noodles, or the fun "play with your food factor" plus dipping sauce?  Put them all together and you have one fabulous tasty meal.

Asian chicken lettuce wraps are the bomb diggity!
I made these for the first time a few years back during our 31 nights of different dinners and they quickly became one of our regular staples.  I went looking for an easy, mom-friendly version and ended up making my own easy version with only a few ingredients.  You will need:  (full printable recipe at the end of the post)

4 partially defrosted Costco-sized chicken breasts
Yoshida's Original Gourmet Sauce
1 can water chestnuts
vegetable oil (for cooking meat and deep frying noodles)
dry bean threads
1 head bib or iceberg lettuce
Plum sauce for dipping

The trick to cutting the chicken into small cubes so that will fit nicely in a lettuce wrap comes from the fact they should not be all the way defrosted.  I found out if I wait until they are fully defrosted, they become mushy and it's really hard to cut nice small pieces. They just smoosh.  I usually put frozen chicken breasts in a 1-gallon zip lock bag and put it in some shallow water in the sink.  When they are no longer rock hard but still mostly frozen in the middle I will start slicing them.

mostly frozen chicken gives you very precise cuts and the ability to cube the meat easily.

This is also a great time to remove any fat or other undesirables.  Put the small cubed chicken in a bowl and set aside.  Next you want to drain a can of water chestnuts and chop them into a small dice as well.  This will add fabulous crunch and texture to your wraps.

Add these to the chopped up chicken cubes

Now you can go ahead and make your own time consuming sauce here, with onions, ginger, soy sauce, brown sugar, garlic, herbs, etc... OR you can just use my favorite sauce of all time because it's already got it all IN there.  That's right it's Yoshida's Original Gourmet Sauce.

The best cooking sauce for meat ever

Pour around 1/2 cup (at least) of the sauce into the bowl with your chicken and water chestnuts.  

You can eyeball it here, just make sure there is enough sauce to coat everything in the bowl.  Put everything into the fridge now and let it marinate for at least a half an hour (I've done up to a few hours before too, no problem)

While that is chilling out you can prepare your lettuce.  Pick which ever style of lettuce you like, but bib and iceberg lettuce makes nice "cups" in which to create wraps from.  Cut the head in half, then cut one of the halves into two quarters.  From here it is easy to peel off each outer layer (working in) to make a nice pile of lettuce cups. Rinse if needed and shake dry.

The other thing you can do while the meat is marinating is to make the fluffy crunchy bean threads.  Now don't get frightened off, but these are the things where you put them in hot oil and they poof up eight times their size in a millisecond, sounding like a fireball erupting in a sizzling blaze of glory.  Be ye not afraid.  They are really fun.  This is what the package looks like:

You will find these in the Asian aisle of your super market.  They come in a three-pack
The little loaves of bean threads are as hard as a rock.  You can not cut them in half or break them apart.  They are sharp too.

a hard little unyielding loaf of bean threads
Normally these take a lot of oil to create but I have found a way to make them without wasting a ton of oil.  First get a medium sauce pan and fill it with a little over an inch of oil.  You want to make sure that however deep your pot is, that the oil will come up to a little over half of your bean thread brick

Next, turn the burner on to medium high to high. My dial was up past 8, close to 9 on the settings.   After a few minutes you want to see the liquid moving under the surface and you will smell hot oil.  You need to do a few tests to see if the oil is hot enough to poof the noodles.  I will usually drop a small broken piece in to see what happens.

oil for the bean threads not hot enough in this picture
If it does nothing exciting and sinks to the bottom then the oil is not hot enough.  If it makes a loud crackling sound and poofs up and floats on the top, it's ready.  Now comes the fun part, and you will need metal tongs.  Do not use a plastic spoon or spatula because it will melt (don't ask me how I know this...). Drop in your load of bean threads...

taking a picture with one hand and dropping bean threads in hot oil at the same time - how much do I love you to get the shot?!
They will expand immediately with a resounding "whoosh" and sizzle.  After only a few seconds you are now ready to turn the entire loaf over very carefully (using metal tongs) and do the same to the second side.  

Flipping them over so both sides get cooked is what saves a lot of oil.  I recommend turning on your overhead vent or fan as the hot oil smell can permeate your house.  Turn the noodles out on a paper towel-covered plate and let them cool.  You can easily break them apart after that and you will be surprised how fragile and light they are compared to before.

By the way, it is fortunate they give you three bean thread loaves to work with.  Here is an example of being overzealous.  I thought the oil was hot enough the first time, but it actually wasn't.  The one on the left is my first attempt and some of the noodles still were hard, especially in the middle.  

          left side, the oil was not hot enough               the right side the hotter oil poofed the bean threads much higher

I waited a few minutes more for the oil to get hotter, and the one on the right (above) is the second attempt and the one that poofed up the most and turned out the best .

Now it is time to cook the meat.  Bring the marinated chicken out and let it lose a little bit of it's chill sitting on the counter (coming up to room temp).  Normally you would cook something like this in a wok, but I do not have one, so we are going to imitate that technique by using very high heat and cooking it in small batches.

Place 1-2 Tablespoons of oil in the bottom of a pan and turn your stove top up to 8 or 9.  Once the pan is very hot, put in a couple of scoops of your chicken water chestnut marinade.  The hot pan will cook the chicken in only a few minutes.  Move the meat around rapidly turning it over with your spatula to cook the chicken on all sides.  When it loses it's pink color and turns all white it is done.  Pour the batch into a waiting (new) bowl.  Keep cooking the meat in small batches until it is done.  After that, you are ready to assemble your plates.

Simply place a pile of lettuce cups, a handful of puffy bean threads, and the chicken onto each plate.

Mmmm I wish you could smell and taste these lettuce wraps.  One of my all time favorite dinners!
For an added bonus I highly recommend plum sauce for dipping.

Pour some into a small microwave safe bowl for 20 seconds at a time until heated through.  Serve on the side of the plates for people to drizzle the plum sauce over their lettuce wraps at will.

pure deliciousness I tell you.
To assemble a lettuce wrap (for the novice) grab a lettuce "cup", place a spoonful of chicken mixture, some bean threads, and drizzle some plum sauce on top.  Wrap the lettuce around the filling (like a taco) and eat.  It's messy fun, so be sure to have a lot of extra napkins on hand.

I tend to make extra when I make this recipe and freeze half the meat mixture (it freezes very well).  Then, some night down the road when I am not in the mood to cook but craving them, I just defrost them earlier in the day, bring home a head of lettuce, fry up some bean threads, re heat the meat, and bam, dinner is ready. I hope you enjoy these, we absolutely love them.  Full printable recipe found here.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Retro Kid Art Fun

If you are anything like me, I am always on the lookout for fun yet easy crafts the kids can do, especially on those chilly winter weekends where it's too cold or wet to go out and play for long periods of time.  Well thanks to some prompting from my oldest daughter we found a pretty cheap, but very FUN retro-style craft that I had no idea they would love so much.

fuzzy velvet kid art

We cleaned out a few closets last week and came across something from my husband's teen years.  It was a large poster you could intricately color that came with pens in a long tube. He and his friends back in the day had worked on it together.   My oldest was intrigued by this and wanted to do one of her own.  We were not even sure they still make something like that any more, so we went to Fred Meyer (the last place he remembers buying them) and lo and behold they had some!  Ha.  The trouble was the only pictures available to color in the tubes were very randomly weird... like a giant ugly pirate with a treasure or frogs in a swamp.  Get this, the only other one available was a picture of wine glasses in a vineyard background.  I wondered sarcastically, WHO is their target market?  Ten-year-old boys and 50+ women?  Interesting.  Totally cracked me up.

Next to the posters were some fuzzy black coloring posters.  I think I've passed these by a million times without giving them a second thought.  Most of them were quite ugly, train station, hippie unicorns, etc.  I DID however find some cool Celtic knots which reminded me of stained glass, so I bought a pack for $4 and was surprised to find out when we got home that there were actually two posters to color.  Sweet.  The girls were very excited to get started!

A fun way to pass a cold Saturday afternoon with some "stained glass" artwork
My youngest just turned five, and I thought the lines might be too hard for her but luckily these were wider, kid-friendly lines and she went to town.  She was having a blast!  She was even changing the colors mid-line, something I as a perfectionist would have never done... but it was turning out cute anyway.

The packaging claims it is "goof proof" because the fuzzy velvet part keeps colors in line.

The older two picked a corner and started working into the middle.  They knew we were "sharing" the two pictures so they would flit back and forth between the two pictures adding the colors where they thought they should go.  They probably worked on it for a good 45 minutes before taking a break.  They went back a little later to finish it up.  We were all rather pleased with the results. 

This turned out pretty cool.  We decided to hang these on our pantry door in the kitchen
So if you have some kids (or grandkids) that need a little something to do one afternoon or on a dreary winter weekend, I think we have found a pretty fun diversion that can turn into some awesome little works of art.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Waffle Cone Slouchy Hat

Well I'm going to just up and admit it.  I'm in love with soft bulky yarn and giant crochet hooks.  I just love how fast you can whip out a project in no time flat, and the finished results have been turning out so cute.  First it was the soft and fluffy 2-hour bulky scarf (which makes for fabulous gifts) and now I have gone and found the most adorable (and incredibly trendy) slouchy hat - with a free pattern to boot!  I have to thank one Ms. Julie King over at her Gleeful Things blog for not only giving out this free crochet pattern to her readers, but making it look so easy to make and fun to wear.  

How cute is this waffle cone slouchy hat?!  (photo used with permission from Julie's blog)
I think my favorite part of this hat is that she has formulated the pattern to use exactly one skein of  Lion Brand Hometown USA yarn (about 80 yards).  This is wonderful because it comes in a ton of beautiful colors and they can easily be found in most Walmart stores for around $3.50 a skein.  I love when companies get creative with the yarn names.  Each color (I believe there are 50 of them available) is named after a city in America.  Colors such as Portland Wine, Seattle Denim, Cleveland Brown, Las Vegas Gold, and Honolulu Pink, to name a few. 

The back of the hat slouches down, hence the name. (photo use with permission from Julie)
Celebrities, musicians, teen reality shows, college towns, Gap ads, it seems every where I look people are sporting the slouch.  I've seen slouchy hats for sale in stores and in trendy online stores for as much as $49 a pop.  Ouch.  Or you can just take a little extra time and make your own with a big "N" crochet hook and one skein of your favorite color of yarn.  The easiest way to get this free pattern is to go to her site here where she has step by step instructions.  I went through the steps myself and took pictures of the play by play process, so feel free to follow along if you are new to crochet.

Okay, so first you will need 1 skein of the Lion Brand Hometown USA yarn.

Along with your yarn, you will need an over-sized "N" (9mm) crochet hook

I picked a creamy neutral color for my first attempt, it was called "Los Angeles Tan"  The first part of the directions say chain 4.  This counts as the first DC plus a Ch 1 stitch.  Then you will DC in the 4th chain from the hook and chain one.  Do this 6 more times until you have a ring of 8 DC with a chain between each.  She has a play by play explanation in pictures if you need it here for the beginning steps.  Join each round together when you are finished.

Round 2 starts with a Ch 4 and 1 DC in the same stitch followed by a chain one.  Basically you are going to put 2 DC in each of the 8 original DC of the first row, with a Ch 1 between each.  You are increasing that first round from 8 to 16 DC stitches for round two.  It will look like this:

This is round 1 and round 2 completed of the waffle cone slouchy hat
Look carefully above.  Round 1 has 8 DC stitches (with ch 1's in between) and Round 2 has a total of 16 DC stitches (with ch 1's in between).  If you want to check gauge here, Julie says rounds one and two should measure 5 inches across.  Mine was a little less but pretty close.

Round 3 I think was the most confusing round for me at first. I decided to scan through all of the reader comments and a few other people had trouble with the wording of the pattern but if you have ever watched the crochet geek on you tube (aka Teresa) it is a simple increase row, of every other one.  If you were to double every DC like you did in round two, you would go from 16 stitches around to 32.  For round three you only want to end up with 24 stitches around, which means that one time you will do 1 DC and a ch 1 in the next stitch, and the next time will be 2 DC with chain 1's in between in the following stitch.  Every other time you will either do 1DC and the next time 2 DC.  This way you will end up with 24 stitches around.  Here's what it looks like.

Round three increases 1 DC then 2 DC every other stitch for a total of 24.
If you make it through round 3 then you are done with increases, and the rest of the hat is a piece of cake!  After that rows 4-11 are going to be exactly the same.  You are just going to put 1 DC (+ a Ch 1 stitch) for each stitch around.  Here's what it looks like after round 4, it will start to slightly curve up like a bowl.

Round 4 completed of the waffle cone slouchy hat
Be sure to count off, or check off each row as you go.  Here is what it will look like after a few more rows.

Getting very curvy now
Here is a shot of what it is starting to look like from the side view.  That Ch 1 space between all the DC stitches you've been doing is what gives this a "waffle" look.

Waffle cone hat after 7 completed rounds.
By the way, I wanted to point out how to join the last stitch to the first stitch.  Remember each new round you start will begin with a chain 4.  This counts as a DC and a chain one.  It will pull very flat along your work so when you come back around it's almost hard to find it.  See the pink numbers below?  That is your starting Ch 4.  The blue arrow is pointing at your last stitch of the round and now you need to slip stitch them together.

This might help some newbies out there join the last stitch in a round to the first chain of the round
Count up and put your hook through the Ch 3 spot to make your joining slip stitch.  You leave the 4th chain alone because it acts as the Ch 1 space between each DC around.  When you join the last stitch of the round with the first chain, it will pull the stitch up straight and make it look like the other stitches in the round with the correct space between each one.

Connect your slip stitch to join the round in the Ch 3 space.
Just a few more rounds to go now. I am almost ready to finish the hat!

The last two rounds are very easy.  After round 11 is completed you are going to simply do a nice SC around every stitch you've made for a total of 48 stitches.

SC around each stitch for row 12
This gives the hat a nice finished edge.  But I love the very last row, because it really makes the edge pop.  You are still going to SC around for round 13, only you are going to do that in the back loop only (BLO).  When you do this it give the final row some dimension that I think looks really nice.

Back loops only give the edge a wonderful finished look.
After that you just want to finish it off and tie up the loose ends.  By just looking at this hat it doesn't look like it's going to become a slouchy hat.  It almost looks like an elongated bowl of sorts.

My original attempt in cream and my second attempt was a gift for a teenage friend of the family for Christmas
The real slouchy "art" comes from how you put the hat on.  You want to put it on more like where you would place a headband, and let the back part of the hat flop down behind you.  Like this.  Cute low side ponies and some bangs peeking out really help make this look fashionable!

Julie models her own hat.  I love the purple color and the matching ribbons. (Picture used with permission).
That second yellow hat I made was in a color called "Pittsburgh Yellow" because I asked the teen's mom what was her favorite color, so I tailored the hat to her tastes.  I couldn't blog about this before Christmas because it was a surprise, but she did send some pictures via text yesterday and I am told she loves her new slouchy hat!

As for me I thought slouchy hats might only be for the younger set. But after I tried on the first cream one I made I thought it was pretty cute, even on me.  So there you have it, another fun, quick pattern with bulky yarn and a big ol' "N" hook that made a pretty trendy gift.  I'm sure my 13 year old niece will be begging for one in green (her favorite color) very soon.  :)

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