Friday, May 27, 2011

Off Topic But On My Mind: Zenni Optical

Periodically I have *important* thoughts on subjects other than food.  (Shocking!)  Thus this – and probably future – posts.

I recently ordered two new pairs of eyeglasses from a website.  That statement alone is nothing short of miraculous.  I do not buy items online very often.  I am loathe to buy shoes online due to the wide-ranging variance in manufacture’s shoe sizes.  Same for most clothing items.  Another great drawback is the return/refund issue.  Thus, Target is almost my lone purveyor of online goods due to the ease of return in-store, if necessary.  Oh, and I don’t like to pay more for shipping.  There’s that too.

However, a few months back there was a post on a blog I follow (Money Saving Mom: about how she had discovered Zenni Optical and had a good experience with it.  Basically Zenni has a wide range of frames to choose from, starting at about $6.95.  You can digitally upload a glasses-free, front-facing picture of yourself so that you can “try on” the frames.  (It’s pretty technical and specific so that made me feel pretty good, actually.)

I was in the market for some new eyeglasses & I’m always game for a good deal.  The last time I bought glasses I went to America’s Best because they had a deal for 2 pairs of glasses & an eye exam for $69.99.  HOWEVER, that included basic plastic lenses and this near-sighted gal needs a higher quality lens to avoid the bottle-cap mishap just waiting to happen.  So I ended up paying over $200.  Which was still a pretty good deal for 2 pairs of new glasses.  But then I only ended up ever wearing one pair. 

I learned my lesson and only sought out plastic frames for my new pairs, knowing that though I like the look of metal frames, I will not wear them in the end.  And I limited my frame search to those in the lower price ranges.  If I was waffling between two similar choices, I just went with the cheaper option.  I loaded my “cart” with several choices and then involved my optician sister in the process.  (She would not normally recommend such things, probably, but she knows my cheapskate ways & lack of funds for such frivolous items such as EYEWARE.  Please note the heavily dripping sarcasm.)

She helped me select two good options.  Then I went to a brand new eye place offering an eye exam for $29.99 (glasses prescription only).  I graciously skirted the sales people there & went home to enter my prescription online, selected my lenses (again, with my sister’s help – I found this step to be more challenging, again because of my prescription strength & not knowing if one lens width would be worth the price difference, etc), breathed deeply and hit “submit order”.  It took a couple weeks for manufacturing and delivery, but the magical day arrived.

I received two complete pairs of eyeglasses, along with a specific clip-on set of sunglass lenses for each pair (at just $3.95 each), all for under $110 shipped.  And I like them.  They’re definitely worth the price I paid.  I could probably go to Walmart and get them “fitted” for free (or take a trip to see Sis) but since I go with plastic frames, sometimes that just makes them sit more askew anyway.  (My sister will probably have a fit when she sees how they sit on my face, but I never see what she sees.) 

If you have a relatively easy prescription, I would definitely give Zenni Optical a try!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

What kind of cook are you?

I honestly can’t remember if I’ve talked about this subject before, but I think I’ve at least dropped a mention a time or two about it.  Nevertheless, recently I was thinking again about what kind of cook I am.  I have always been the kind of cook that measures things out, sticks to a recipe, etc.  I have to master a recipe by making it literally hundreds of times before I dare to deter from it even a little.  And whenever I would ask my dear mother for a recipe of hers and she would say something like “a little mustard” I would interrogate her about how much EXACTLY “a little mustard” was to her.  Because “a little mustard” to her might be very different from “a little mustard” to me!

And yet.  The other day I had thawed some tilapia for lunch.  And I didn’t really have an exact plan for it at all.  (In fact, I usually make an exact meal list – with exact recipes – and then make my grocery shopping list from that, but this time I just wrote in meals like “chicken” or “tilapia” on my calendar instead of “Garlic Chicken Stir-Fry” or “Crockpot Mandarin Tilapia”.  We’re going off the map here!)  So I found myself drizzling olive oil over the tilapia, then some Dijon mustard, then some honey.  Those were the basic ingredients for another recipe I’d done before and I thought they’d be good with the tilapia and that those flavors would mix well with the side dishes I’d decided on as well.  But I was just pouring & spreading, friends!  No measuring.  No recipe.  WILD!

I confess that there is another dish I make that I have mastered enough not to measure things out.  Chicken salad – like the mayonnaise kind.  I usually shortcut it & use canned chicken breast, add in something for crunch like chopped jicama or water chestnuts  & then just add spoonfuls of mayo until I get it to the right consistency.  I also normally add in Tastefully Simple’s Bacon Bacon seasoning and/or garlic salt or powder for flavor.  (Sadly, Bacon Bacon is not on our gluten-free friendly list.  Boo!  It is vegetarian, however.  Ironic?) 

Recently a friend asked me for my chicken salad recipe for a party she was hosting & I gave her the gist.  And she said she “should have known I was that kind of cook”, the kind that doesn’t measure & just adds “a little of this & a little of that”.  You know the kind.  I have several friends & relatives that are that kind.  Maybe you’re that kind!  I’m NOT that kind normally, so that’s the real kicker!! 

But it seems I’m more & more able to venture beyond a recipe and discover ingredients that naturally compliment each other.  To be honest, that’s one of the main attractions to culinary school: learning the art of complimentary flavors.  Some day I might even BE that kind of cook on a normal basis.  Today is not that day.  But maybe some day…

Monday, May 23, 2011

Book Study (Repost)

Stef blogs at about all life’s issues, but this particular post, originally published on May 17th, fits my blog’s intentions so well that I requested a repost here.

I am embarking on a book study with some wonderful ladies-- "God's Girls" so we've come to call ourselves-- at work.  We are studying through the book "Made to Crave: Satisfying your deepest desire with God, not food" by Lysa Terkeurst.  My initial thought was that this would be interesting at best, but it has hit home much closer than I anticipated.  How often do I run to food for comfort, as a reward, when I feel joy or experience stress, when I am sad, happy or bored?  Painfully, more often than I'd like.  The issue at hand isn't my pant size, but my heart condition.  And one is growing and the other isn't, if you get my drift.

God never intended we love anything more than we love him.

Interesting!  I particularly related to the story in Matthew 19, where a rich young man comes to see Jesus and explains that he is following all the rules but recognizes something is missing.  "All of these (rules) I have kept", he says to Jesus.  "What do I still lack?"  Jesus responds by telling him to sell all his possessions to the poor.  And the man goes away... sad... because he doesn't want to give up the ONE thing that consumes him. 

In other words-- Jesus wants us to give up the one thing we crave more than Him.

What is it for you?  What do you crave more than God?  Is it food?  Appreciation?  Comfort?  Money?  Pleasing others?   Clothes?  Home decor?  Well behaved kids?  A well taken care of house?  Exercise?  Being well respected at work?  Approval from peers? Appearance?

As I prepare for our book study, does anyone have an idea about how we can "reward" ourselves without food?  This might show you how far gone I am.  I can't imagine rewarding myself with a pedicure or new shirt, because then aren't I trading one craving for another?  Is the answer here that I should pray to be content celebrating with God and not "rewarding" myself on this green Earth?  Can I reward myself with a new iTunes download if it's Christian music?  This is me, calling out for help :)  Would love to hear from you on this one.

The other thing I have been thinking honestly about is all my excuses for not eating more healthy and maintaining an overall healthy lifestyle.  Things like:
* It's not that bad the way it is.
* I should learn to love myself the way I am
* It's my age
* It's my metabolism
* It's my genetics
* Surely it's not Runza, hamburgers and fries and chips!
* This is a bad time to start a new healthy lifestyle-- I'm pregnant.
* This is a bad time to start a new healthy lifestyle-- I have small kids.
* I have the rest of my life to be healthy
* I should focus more on Dekker/raising kids for this season of life

I am putting together that the most important thing I can do to be the Mom, friend, wife, daughter, employee, that I can be is to love God more.  And to love God more, I need to surrender the things that I crave more than Him.

I hate to write this publicly.  Next time you see me saddled up to the salsa at La Mesa just know I'm a work in progress, okay.

Bless you all.

On the journey,

Friday, May 20, 2011

Alpine Inn

The first time I ever experienced the joy that is Alpine Inn was almost 5 years ago on a trip my husband and I took out to visit some friends in the Black Hills of South Dakota.  They took us to the tiny, tiny town of Hill City, SD, which is just a great tourist trap kind of place.  The main street is littered with small shops made just for people who have to waste some time while they wait for a table at Alpine Inn.  And wait you will!  I think we waited over an hour and a half that time & there were just 4 of us.

So when Leslie, my co-leader for our Week of Ministry trip, suggested that we go to Alpine Inn with the group on Friday night – after a fun “free” day spent seeing the sights – I lept at the chance.  It had been too, too long.

The great thing about Alpine Inn is that you have two evening meal menu options: big steak or little steak.  Both are fillets wrapped in bacon and grilled to your own preference of perfection (mine = medium).  Either comes with a lettuce wedge drowned in homemade ranch, a baked potato with butter & sour cream (on the side, so you can choose) and Texas toast (bleh – I gave mine away).  And these menu items are delish.  A perfect American meal concoction.  I love the sheer simplicity of ordering from this evening menu.  (And it’s possible that a full day of hiking around in the Black Hills promoted a healthier appetite which in turn made the food taste even better.  I highly recommend that routine!  Hike, eat steak.)

But then.  Oh, after you eat your heart’s content of this wonderful kind of comfort food, they top it off with a 15-item homemade dessert menu.  Heavens, this is a hard decision!  5 years ago I went with the Tiramisu.  It was good, but not my absolute fave.  (It is the only item on the menu that warns you of the alcohol content since the pound cake is drenched in a couple kinds of liquor.  So that’s fun!)  So this time I wanted to try a different option, but which one?!  I vacillated between several options for awhile: the Napolean (a local-recommended filled French pastry), the bread pudding (yes, I do love bread in THIS form – especially when it says right on the menu that raisins & nuts are absent!), the German white chocolate mousse and the German chocolate Belgian waffle.  Go to the website & read the dessert menu and you’ll see what a hard choice was before me.

Eventually I chose the bread pudding and when the kind waitress asked if I wanted it a la mode, who says no to that?!  So, yes, please cover my homemade-caramel-sauce-drenched dessert in ice cream to cut the sweetness!!

And it was good.  So, so good.

But I think I’ll have to go back and try some of those other options soon.  Very soon.  It’s worth the 9 hour trip it’ll take me!

Oh, and by the way: they let our group of 18 bypass that hours-long-wait when we called ahead and were told that either we should arrive by 5:00pm when it opened (the lounge opens at 4:00pm so you can start lining up) or we could come at their next available opening for a group that large – 7:30pm.  We were there bright & early!  But otherwise, no reservations.  So come early or shop around while you wait!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Firehouse

One of the recommended places to eat in Rapid City, SD, is The Firehouse.  It’s a local place in downtown Rapid and it offers a wide variety of menu choices.  We blessed The Firehouse with our presence one noontime day when we wanted to be a blessing to the family whose house we’d worked on all week.  Us girls took the chicks in the family to The Firehouse while the boys took the boys to Sanford’s, which is apparently all meat-based and thus, very manly.  Ha!  Anyway, there were about 7 of us females, including a very mature 6 year old who was alternately shy & entertaining.

I think everyone ordered something different.  The menu had burgers, salads, fish & chips, country fried steak, shepherd’s pie, pasta and more.  I was feeling fairly loaded down from all the meat & potatoes I’d consumed that week so I ordered an oriental chicken salad, the lunch-size.  Man.  When it came I had trouble keeping it all in the bowl.  It was overflowing.  And it was just what I needed.  Lots of yummy chicken (REAL chicken, not the weird chicken-like bits you sometimes find in salads & wraps), veggies, crisp light rice noodles for a crunch, all topped with a light oriental vinaigrette.  Perfect.

Others enjoyed their fried meat goodness, pizza rolls and French fries.  We all got what we wanted. 

And to top it off we ordered a couple desserts to share.  Two girls specifically wanted cheesecake, which I think they guarded with their lives when it came.  Which was fine with the rest of us since we all had a HUGE piece of chocolate cake to consume.  It was called the “Stop Drop and Roll”.  It was like a massive slice of an industrial-size Swiss Cake Roll.  And it was AMAZING.  No one was disappointed.  The whipped cream filling was light and creamy, not too heavy at all.  And the cake was rich & chocolatey but not too dense.  Perfection.  

Can you see the sheer joy that I guarantee was reflected on all our faces?!

The prices were about average for the sit-down type venues like Applebees.  All right around $10.  Some over, some under. 

But I’d definitely recommend saving room for dessert.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Blessed By Black Hills Hospitality

So now is the first chance I’ve gotten (or taken) to write a bit about the trip I took to Rapid City with 10 college students and one other wonderful sponsor.  I wrote once before - quite awhile ago - about how I see hospitality as an actual ministry and spiritual gift.  Our trip is a great example of that.

We’d originally planned out the trip: lodging, transportation, food, etc and then figured out what to charge each student based on those costs.  The students anteed up and we took off.  Upon arrival we found that our host families were prepared to offer us meals throughout the week.  Add to that our amazement when the woman whose basement we helped finish (aka drywall, mud & tape) provided lunch for us two days in a row!  I mean, you know my lack of love for bread & we were going to be having the most basic of deli sandwiches for 4 days in a row and instead we had sloppy joes and massive hamburgers (minus the bun for me). 

Because our basic needs were provided for in truly abundant ways, we were able to bless others more than we’d even planned for.  It was truly a wonderful experience.  And instead of coming back after a long day of manual labor and having to prepare food for 20 we were able to really relax and enjoy ourselves since someone else tapped into their God-given love of cooking for us.  Win-win, people!

Here’s a big, ‘ole shout-out to Mary & Larry & Kelly & Jessica & Sandee & Bruce for your amazing show of hospitality as well as delicious food!  (These people can COOK!)

More on our trip's food offerings to come.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Guest Post: Amy’s Black Bean Brownies

Amy is a fellow gluten-free friend and food aficionado as well as all around amazing person.  She has guest posted before & I plan to have her continue that tradition as much as humanly possible.

Late last year I noticed one of my friends posted on Facebook that she had just made black bean brownies. 


Black beans and chocolate? What’s next? Turnips and cupcakes? 

Hot pink and magenta? 
Liz Lemon and sandals? 

I quickly buried my encounter with the notion of vegetables parading around as dessert and moved on with my life. 

However, a few weeks ago, the “Vegetables for a Sweeter Tomorrow” coalition found me.

I was scouring the internet for flourless dessert possibilities and I came across a recipe for black bean brownies. I reluctantly opened the webpage and after reading a few reviews for the recipe I decided to jump headfirst into this batcrap craziness that will now be know as “dessertable”. Maybe that’s not the best word mash-up…but “vegetessert” doesn’t sound much better. Should I just use the first syllable of the word…I digress. 

I stirred up all the ingredients in a bowl and just as I was about to pour the batter into the pan I decided to taste this wild concoction. To my surprise the batter was not too much different from “normal” brownie batter. And the finished product was pretty amazing. I’m a big fan of fudgy brownies and these are some of the best ones I’ve ever had. 

A few days later I decided to try a variation on the recipe; I added a coconut topping. 

Uh-mazing. Yes, I did just say that. 

I have had a really fun time “tricking” my friends with these brownies. I usually wait until they’ve eaten at least one and then I stand up with my megaphone and proudly announce they were made with black beans. 

I will say that every now and then you do notice a bit of the black bean texture; however, I usually don’t notice it with the coconut topping added. 

Without further babble, I present the brownie recipe—the original and my variation. 


Flourless Brownies
* 1- 15 ounce can of black beans, rinsed and drained
* 3 eggs
* 1/3 cup butter, melted
* 1/4 cup cocoa
* 2 teaspoons vanilla
* 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
* 1 cup chocolate chips 

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
In a food processor or blender puree the black beans, eggs, butter, cocoa, vanilla, and sugar until smooth.
Stir chocolate chips into the batter and spread into a greased 8×8 pan.
Bake for 30-33 minutes. 

Flourless Brownies with Coconut Frosting
I took out a little bit of the butter and used 2 eggs and 1 egg white in this variation. I couldn’t tell a difference in the recipe. Any nutritional value that was increased was quickly depleted after I added the coconut topping.
* 1- 15 ounce can of black beans, rinsed and drained
* 2 eggs + 1 egg white
* 3 tablespoons butter
* 1/4 cup cocoa (4 tablespoons)
* 2.5 teaspoons vanilla
* 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar (10 Table spoons)
* 1 cup chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
In a food processor or blender puree the black beans, eggs, butter, cocoa, vanilla, and sugar until smooth.
Stir chocolate chips into the batter and spread into a greased 8×8 or 11x7 pan.
Bake for 30-33 minutes. 

Coconut Frosting
(taken from
2 cups flaked coconut
1 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup butter or margarine, melted
1/4 cup NESTLÉ® CARNATION® Evaporated Milk

COMBINE coconut, brown sugar, butter and evaporated milk in medium bowl. Spread over cooled brownies. Broil 4 inches from heat for 3 to 4 minutes or until golden brown.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Campaigning for Restaurants

Recently I’ve had a couple conversations with different friends that have sparked an idea in my noggin.  What restaurant are you so intent on having in your area that you would consider opening a franchise?  Is there an eatery on your list that lights up your life enough to the point you would research the possibility of opening a franchise in your town? 

Some background: my first conversation was with a friend who also used to call the great city of Cincinnati home at one time.  (I’m not sure he would attest to it’s “greatness”, though, but since this is MY blog & I deem it great, then great it is!)  While there, he also was blessed to discover Penn Station. 

I believe I’ve paraded the fine attributes of Penn Station to you, my loyal readers, but if not, then let me do so now.  It’s a philly cheesesteak kind of place, but they do so much more than that.  My fave was the Chicken Teriyaki sandwich (yes, on bread!) in the form of a kids meal: great portion-perfect size sandwich with chicken, mushrooms, onions, cheese & teriyaki sauce all fresh & chopped up together on the grill & laden onto chewy grilled bread with a side of freshly made real potato fries, topped off with homemade lemonade.  A-Mazing! 

Anyway, my friend moved to the great wild west and wanted to bring those flavors with.  Unfortunately, Penn Station has no desire to branch out that far.  How does he know?  He called the home office, just to see.  Incredible.

The second conversation was with a co-worker who is an avid lover of Chic-Fil-A.  As anyone who regularly reads this blog knows, we’re fans of poultry, so you know I’d be all for establishing a Chic-Fil-A venue in my hometown.  That’s tasty stuff, y’all.  It just so happens that there IS such a venue afterall, though it’s not available to the public.  Just to the good people of Mutual of Omaha.  Seriously.  It’s in their company’s foodcourt.  But even when you call the number of the branch inside their foodcourt, you simply get a recording that puts an end to any hope you, NOT a Mutual of Omaha employee, had of somehow coercing the kind person on the other end to give up some of that greasy poultry goodness.  Anyway, my co-worker has lived in areas where Chic-Fil-A is readily available and thus knows what is missing when it’s not (available, that is).  He’s checked it out, but apparently Chic-Fil-A’s priority for establishing franchises does not include our area right now.  Bummer. 

I love that people I know are so invested in their favorite places that they’ll take the steps to check out the possibility of getting one in their area.  I really do love that.  I’m pretty sure I never, ever want to get into the restaurant business so there’s no place I’d take that step for.  But if any of you out there are wanting to open a Cosi, McAlister’s Deli, or Souplantation / Sweet Tomatoes, I’d totally back you.  I’ll be your campaign manager and first/best customer!!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Mediterranean Flavor

I'm back!  More on trip food later but now to finish up my Mediterranean theme of late. I promise this is the last one (for awhile).  Just thought I’d wrap up with this quick note about the unique blend of flavors that go into Mediterranean fare. 

I think the biggest identifier of Mediterranean tastes is “tang”.  I would say the mixture of a vinegar or citrus bite and the smooth lightness of olive oil is probably the key to Mediterranean food.  That’s usually present in salads, of course.  But “Greek” potatoes have that flare.  And chicken dishes are usually accompanied by that as well. 

Our favorite homemade Mediterranean dish is “Mediterranean Chicken”.  Partially because it’s so dang easy.  And partially because it just WORKS.  The first time I made it I was really surprised at how tasty it was because there were no other seasonings besides salt & pepper.  But I think everything just comes together well.  I usually serve this dish with a rice pilaf of some kind, but potatoes would be good as an accompaniment too.

Mediterranean Chicken
2-4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1 small can sliced olives, drained
1 small jar capers, drained
1 pint grape tomatoes
Salt & pepper
3 T olive oil

Sprinkle chicken with salt & pepper.  Cook chicken in olive oil in skillet on medium heat for 2-3 minutes on each side.  Add olives, capers & tomatoes.  Transfer to preheated oven (425 degrees) for 10-14 minutes or til juices run clear.  (If skillet is not oven-safe, transfer food to a baking pan.)

I usually don’t enjoy cooked tomatoes like this at all, but these are just roasted til warm & juicy inside.  Jake doesn’t care as much for the tomatoes but he loves the flavor they add and raves about this dish for the rest of it.