Monday, December 14, 2015

Do-Good Gifts

Let's ignore the months-long absence and jump right in. Is there anything better than finding the PERFECT gift for someone and surprising them with it? Some years, though, the inspiration just doesn't come. Last Christmas was that year for me. I was having a hard time finding the perfect thing to round out my mom's Christmas list, so I started looking for donations that I could make in her name, and finally inspiration struck!

We donated the gift of several animals (or "shares" of animals) in our mom's name to Heifer International. While we could have just wrapped the certificate that was sent to acknowledge our donation, I had a little bit more fun coming up with 5 creative packages for the animals we selected.
Our family has a bit of a perverse sense of humor...I think this gift might have been the one I was most excited about. Chocolate covered raisins = goat poo.

These make great stocking stuffers, and extend your giving past the holidays. Since you can typically print an acknowledgement of your gift or send an e-card, these gifts are perfect last minute gifts if you're still struggling to come up with something after guaranteed holiday shipping windows close.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Travelogue: Driving the Overseas Highway and Day 1 in Key West

Last time I filled you in on Key Largo. Now, the drive. Many travel sites call the Overseas Highway one of the "must do" drives in America. Parts of it were very beautiful...but overall I wasn't blown away. It took a few hours to get out of the areas that felt kind of industrial. Once you reach the Lower Keys, it's beautiful. The Seven Mile Bridge is an experience in and of itself, but shortly thereafter I found myself ready to be at our final destination. There are plenty of places you can stop along the way for beautiful photo ops or to visit interesting shops, but at this point we drove on through.

We drove straight to the Casa Marina where we would spend the next two nights, dropped off our luggage to be stored until the room was ready and then headed to return the rental car. After that we took a taxi into downtown Key West and wandered around. Our first stop was the Ernest Hemingway house. We paid the admission and wandered the grounds until a guided tour began.

After our tour, and my many failed attempts to pet the polydactyl cats, we walked in search of lunch, ending up at the Southernmost Beach Cafe. There was a wait, but we pulled up to the bar and got a few drinks to pass the time. We arrived on the last day of the annual Key West Songwriters Festival, so there was a huge crowd and live music going on at the Southernmost beach that day.

After lunch we were exhausted, so we made our way to the hotel to check in and cool off.

We had checked in and picked our room the day before with a new-ish (or new to me) Hilton feature that allows you to check in 24 hours beforehand. We picked a room with a balcony overlooking the ocean, and were really pleased with our choice when we arrived. After a few minutes blasting the air conditioning, we headed down to the beach for a bit. Like Key Largo, the beach was rocky, with big pieces of sand (not fine like lots of other tropical destinations)

After an hour or so on the beach, we got dressed and ready for our sunset sail. There are plenty of companies in Key West who offer sunset sails, but we opted for convenience and booked through the Casa Marina's on-site water sports company. The group met at the bottom of the staircase closest to our room. Also, there were only 16 or so people on our cruise, whereas some of the other boats we passed were packed to the gills and more of a party atmosphere. Once we were aboard, were treated to unlimited drinks (limited beer, wine, and a passion fruit mimosa) as well as peel and eat shrimp, smoked fish dip, cheese and crackers and fruit. It was a cloudy evening, but it was still pretty. I love the pictures of the schooner ships with the sun behind them, much more dramatic than the catamaran that we were aboard. I learned the hard way that white pants and riding at the front of the boat was not a good plan - I got soaked!

When we arrived back at the Casa Marina, we decided to cash in the free conch fritter appetizer voucher at the beach bar. We'd received the voucher as a thank you for A's Hilton Honors Diamond status. We decided once and for all that we just don't like conch fritters. We ordered a few drinks and the paella dish off the bar menu, which was fantastic. After a while we headed up to the room and to bed...ready for a day of relaxing the next day.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Travelogue: Florida Keys - Part 1. Key Largo

This year I have this fascination with traveling to beautiful places in America. We started the year in Puerto Rico, and ever since I'd been dreaming of Key West. I plan a lot of trips that never come to fruition, but I was bound and determined to make this one happen, just ask my husband! The original plan had been to fly in and out of Key West. It wasn't until I was watching Married At First Sight on A&E one week, and one of the couples honeymooned in Key Largo, that I started to seriously consider flying to Miami and making the drive on the Overseas Highway and then flying back from Key West. Funny enough, this ended up being cheaper for us than a round-trip Key West OR Miami flight. We also got an amazing deal on a one-way Mustang rental from Miami to Key West, which was perfect because we dropped the car off as soon as we got to Key West and didn't need it anymore.

So, early one Saturday in May we flew into Miami, making one stop in Atlanta which was just long enough to get breakfast and a much-needed second cup of coffee. We picked up our rental car at the Miami Airport and we were off! Turned out we were lucky that we were only going as far as Key Largo that night, the traffic was terrible. We started baking in the sun sitting on the Overseas Highway with the top down. When we arrived in Key Largo, we stopped off for lunch at the Key Largo Fisheries Backyard, which is a counter service restaurant serving fresh fish right off the boats that dock behind the restaurant. I'd wanted stone crab, but didn't see it on the menu...later I figured out that you order it in the actual fish market, not the restaurant. We split our first order of conch fritters (when in the Keys...) and I had a chipotle shrimp wrap. There was live music and it was fun to watch the boats go by - including a huge 30+ foot tall houseboat that went by.

After our late lunch we headed to the Hilton Key Largo Resort to check in. The property is right off the Overseas Highway, but the noise is blocked by the thick canopy of trees. We checked in, brought our luggage up to our room, and then headed straight to the beach. The water was very calm, but the beach was kind of rocky (this ended up being true in Key West, too.) The Hilton Key Largo Resort has on-site water sports, ping pong and cornhole, a permanent food truck/shed, bar, and live music and s'mores around the campfire on Saturday evenings, all on the beach. The pool is separate from the beach area, at the front end of the resort. We checked it out briefly, but stayed at the beach. There was a wedding going on on one secluded part of the beach, but we lucked out because we could hear the steel drums for the hour leading up, which set the tropical/beach mood.
View of the canopy and water from our room.
After showering we wandered around the grounds for a little bit, including out on the dock because I wanted to see a manatee. We didn't see a manatee, but we did meet a friendly pelican who chased us down the dock, and some tropical looking fish near the mangroves.

We watched the sun start to set and made a s'more then headed to our dinner reservation.

We had a late dinner reservation at Sundowners in Key Largo. We'd read good reviews and were pleased with our meal. There was added entertainment because two people in LED suits and jetpacks were out on the water. I got the Key West Seafood which was rice with a key lime butter with shrimp, crab, lobster. We finished the meal with Key Lime Pie (obviously) and rolled ourselves back to the hotel.

The next morning we got up early and headed to the brunch buffet at the resort. It was Mother's Day, so for a small upcharge you could take part in the full buffet including mimosa, hot breakfast buffet, carving station, omelet station, fruit bar, cheese/meat plates, and chocolate covered strawberries. After breakfast we packed up and got on the road.

The Hilton Key Largo Resort is a beautiful property, our room and many of the main areas have been recently updated, and it doesn't feel stuffy or pretentious. We enjoyed our stay. We aren't sure how much there really is to do in Key Largo, if we'd had more time we had planned to snorkel at John Pennenkamp State Park, which is home to the largest living reef in the United States, but if you're not a snorkeler/diver, you may want to use Key Largo as a pass through on the way to Key West, like we did.

Next time I'll recap our drive from Key Largo to Key West and our first day in the Southernmost city in the U.S.

I loved this whimsical little guy, and the lizard isn't half bad, either. I think they used to be lights or tiki torches, but we never saw them on while we were there.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Puerto Rico: Where We Ate

I'm really late to the game with this post, but we're planning a long weekend trip to Florida in May and I've been perusing blogs to plan our itinerary and find these posts really helpful. We spent a long weekend in Puerto Rico in January (which I already blogged about.) I plan vacation using meals as the building blocks and then filling in other activities around them...priorities, people!

We stayed in the Condado Beach area at the Condado Plaza (Hilton), and there was no shortage of restaurants within walking distance. The "best" beach in Condado is the small triangular beach on the grounds of the hotel, because the beach is in a cove, protected from high surf by large rocks.

Dinner #1
Beachfront, creative, local seafood

We arrived in the late afternoon on Saturday, and had a late reservation at Oceano, about a 3/4 mile walk from the hotel each way. The ambiance is very trendy and modern; a white building with a whole side open to the beach, with blue uplighting. Food Network has dubbed Oceano as "Puerto Rican paradise" and we definitely agreed that night. We were seated on the outdoor balcony, and it was kind of dark, but A. was wearing shorts and a button-down, and I was in a maxi dress, and it was January - so we weren't going to ask to be moved.

We ordered a pitcher of the white wine Sangria, and the Yuca Crusted Calamari appetizer to start. The calamari came in thick strips of calamari "steak" battered in powdered yuca - it was perfectly crisp. The appetizer came with two dipping sauces - a cilantro aioli and a sweet chili sauce.

For dinner I ordered the Colossal Shrimp Mofongo, and it was the best mofongo I had on the trip - there were huge pieces of bacon/lardons worked into the yuca. The shrimp were easily the largest and meatiest I've ever had.

A. ordered the King Snapper, which he devoured.

For dessert, we somehow found room for the Quatro Leches, which was fantastic. I'm pretty sure I only managed to take a picture of the dessert...seems typical:
We were glad to have the 3/4 mile walk back to the hotel to work off some of the richness of the meal.

Breakfast #1
For breakfast on Sunday morning we grabbed a quick breakfast in the hotel restaurant, using the vouchers we'd gotten at check in. We had big plans for explore the El Yunque rain forest that morning, so I ordered a chorizo and egg breakfast burrito and A. got pancakes. We ate quickly and headed off to the on-site Enterprise to pick up our rental car for the day.

A hike in El Yunque will make anyone hungry!
Lunch #1
Luquillo Kiosks - Ceviche Hut
After our hike in El Yunque, we headed a few minutes down the road to Luquillo for an afternoon on the beach. But first we stopped at the Luquillo Kiosks, which has easily 50 small restaurants one after the other. We wandered up and down a few times before deciding what to eat. We ended up at the Ceviche Hut. We didn't order ceviche. I got a whole steamed fish with rice and vegetables and A. got something close to a Peruvian chicken fried rice/stir fry.
The fish was seasoned perfectly and cooked really well. The vegetables weren't too impressive, it seemed like they were poured out of a frozen bag. Either way, there was more than enough fish to fill me up and then we were off to the beach nearby. I was glad that I hadn't totally gorged myself at lunch, because there were drinks to be had on the beach.
Life if full of tough choices.

Dinner #2
Ropa Vieja Grill
After a long day in the jungle and sun, we headed back to the hotel and decided to find something nearby for dinner. With the help of Yelp, we settled on Ropa Vieja Grill, which was just down the block from the hotel and supposed to have great authentic Puerto Rican food. We arrived right at the same time as about 20 other people, and the host was very overwhelmed. It took about 15 minutes just for him to straighten out getting everyone's name on a list, and find out who had reservations. After we were seated the service really never got any better, and our waiter eventually completely forgot about us at the end of the night, meaning we had to flag down another server to bring us the check. But, the food was really, really good, and the portions were huge so we had some to enjoy the next day during a marathon pool/beach sitting session. We started with the marinated flank steak appetizer, it was marinated in ginger and soy sauce which seemed like an interesting choice for an authentic Puerto Rican restaurant, but it was delicious and tender. For entrees we ordered arroz con pollo and their famous mofongo. Both were very good - but nothing would live up to the mofongo at Oceano our first night.

Breakfast #2
Pinky's Condado (there's an East location and a West location, both along the Condado Avenue strip)
For breakfast on Monday we walked a few blocks to Pinky's - the newer location. Pinky's is known for their smoothies, and lots of people came in post-workout to grab a healthy breakfast or smoothie to go. We did the opposite. We grabbed a table on the curb, ordered cafe au lait and a full breakfast. I got the Mallorca breakfast sandwich, a plate sized sandwich with grilled sliced ham, fried egg, cheese on a sweet roll topped with powdered sugar. I peeled off almost all of the cheese and then really enjoyed as much of the sandwich as I could finish before surrendering because it was just too big.

We spent most of the rest of Monday alternating between the pool or the beach a few steps away. We ate our leftovers for lunch because we were saving room for a big dinner in Old San Juan that evening.

Happy Hour
Barrachina Restaurant
There were many happy hours on our trip but we went to Old San Juan to wander around for a few hours before our dinner reservation and ended up at the original home of the Pina Colada. This is somewhat controversial, because there are a few places claiming to be the home of the original - we tried both, and they tasted totally different, so someone has changed the "original" recipe. Barrachina seemed like a nice place to eat, too, but we just had a few drinks and got on our way.
A. takes pictures with his thumb in front of the lens.

Dinner #3
Aguaviva hip& refreshing local seafood in Old San Juan
My brother and his girlfriend were in Puerto Rico the whole time we were, but we didn't get together until our third day, for dinner. I picked Aguaviva after searching for a nice dinner in Old San Juan. The reviews were almost all great, and the ambiance (from pictures) looked great. We had a very friendly waitress who made great conversation and made recommendations based on what we like. To drink we ordered a pitcher of watermelon sangria and my brother got rum punch because he declared that he was on a mission to find the best rum punch in Puerto Rico. We started with a ceviche sampler and lobster & shrimp yuca gnocchi. We also shared entrees including an orzo paella and a fried whole snapper with lobster mofongo (which was delicious but STILL didn't live up to the Oceano mofongo.) Everything was delicious - we left feeling full but not overly stuffed. We can't remember if we got dessert...

Breakfast #3
Ben & Jerry's Condado
For our last breakfast we headed to Ben & Jerry's...yes, the ice cream shoppe. In Condado (and maybe other places??) Ben & Jerry's has a cafe menu, which includes breakfast items. We started (again) with cafe au laits. I ordered banana pancakes, a side of bacon, and a sauteed banana (sensing a theme?), A. most likely got chocolate chip pancakes because that's his go to breakfast order anywhere on Earth. The patio looks out over a public park and you can steal glimpses of the beachfront at the La Concha Resort next door. We enjoyed sitting outside on a quiet Tuesday morning, just taking in the sights and soaking up a few last rays and sea breeze.

Lunch #3
Pina Colada Club - El Caribe Hilton
This was probably the most "meh" meal we had on our trip. We decided to walk across the bridge to the El Caribe, another Hilton property near Condado Beach. We ate lunch at the Pina Colada Club - the El Caribe also claims to be the home of the Pina Colada, so we thought it was important to try theirs, too. It was delicious. The Pina Colada club is described as a tropical diner and sports bar. The decor is bright, loud, and there are super heroes painted on the walls. We had an appetizer sampler and I ordered the fish tacos and we can't remember what A. got but we both think the meal was just okay. It was pretty expensive for what it was. think I might have been getting to that crabby part of vacation where you know that it is winding down which kind of tainted the whole experience a bit. We brought the leftovers to my brother and his girlfriend on the beach at our hotel and then headed to the airport.

In general, the food in Puerto Rico isn't exactly what you might expect. A lot of it is fried and kind of heavy. We found grilled fish options, but had to seek them out, and I'd read some blogs warning of this beforehand so I was able to do some research before we arrived. Fresh, tropical fruit wasn't as readily available as I would have expected of an island in the Caribbean. All in all we had some fabulous meals, and drank our weight in pina coladas - so we at least drank fresh fruit on a daily (or more often) basis.
Our last sunrise.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

And She's Off to the Altar! Derby-themed Bridal Shower Inspiration

A couple of weeks ago I shared my at-home bridesmaid dress shopping experience. Today I'm excited to share some of the inspiration for my best friend's bridal shower/bachelorette weekend. She doesn't read the blog, so it's safe to share my ideas here!

You see, my best friend is a vet. She's dreamt of being a vet since kindergarten and she made it a reality a couple of years ago. She's not your household vet, she's an equine vet, working mostly in reproduction, but she's well versed in about every horse emergency that can happen...which means that I am too. I kid, I kid. She's getting married this summer, and when the bridesmaids started emailing about her bachelorette weekend, I knew that we had to work some sort of horse theme into the weekend. I pinned and searched and finally decided on a Kentucky Derby themed shower - classy but you can have a lot of tongue-in-cheek fun with the sayings like I did on these little cut outs I created:

Once they're printed, cut out, and put on dowels, I'm planning to attach some mini red roses to the signs to keep with the Derby theme.

Here are some other ideas I'm currently working with:

via - Polka Dot Chair
Precious horse necklaces - with red roses instead of pink and yellow flowers.

I'll probably also pick one of the sayings above and try my hand at a bridal sash...again with red roses.

I love a good decor challenge. I've already coordinated with the bride's sister that I'll make as much decor myself as I can and then mail her a big box of things I can't fly with before the bachelorette weekend. I did the same thing for our wedding and everything made it from Texas to my parents' house in Philadelphia relatively unscathed.

As for food, these horse cake pops are beyond darling...but probably not practical for a gathering I have to fly to. Instead I'll probably do the perfectly logical thing and make mini bourbon pecan pies.
via SparklingSweetShop on Etsy

Finger foods like miniature Kentucky Hot Browns, watermelon cubes with feta, and more are filling my secret Pinterest boards.

I've found some plastic mint julep cups that look enough like the real thing and easy on the budget.

The bachelorette weekend will be here before we know it - we've rented a huge house on a lake, with a suit of armor, and sits on the property where the potato chip was invented. Can't wait!

Monday, April 13, 2015

Bridesmaid Dress Shopping from the couch

I'm as big a fan of Amazon Prime as anyone. Recently I've started taking advantage of their free no-rush shipping which gets me a $1 credit towards Amazon Prime rentals, ebooks, mp3s etc. Enough about that, my point is, I love online shopping. So when I first heard about Kennedy Blue, a new-ish bridal and bridesmaid dress company, and their at-home try on program, my interest was piqued. Let me also add that this is NOT a sponsored post, I just thought I'd pass the word about this company because I've had a good experience so far. My best friend is getting married this summer and she's asked the bridesmaids to find a blush dress of our choosing...easy right? Not necessarily. Enter Kennedy Blue - they have tons of choices, a huge selection of colors, and you can have samples sent to your house to try on at home.

I ordered 3 to try on and about 10 days later they showed up in a box with a huge return envelope, information card, and complimentary measuring tape, as well as a few sample fabric swatches in blush to help me better picture what they would really look like. I have about 45 minutes to kill before we had to finish packing the car and heading to the airport for a quick weekend trip, so I got right to work. Once you're finished you just stick them back in the return envelope and drop them off at a post office, or in my case I put them with the outgoing mail at work.

The first dress was "Charlotte," a sleeveless, V-neck lace dress with a satin sash. The dress was beautiful and well made but was too heavy for an August outdoor wedding.

Next was "Lucy," a short chiffon sweetheart halter. Plus, this dress has side pockets. The crisscross on the bodice made for a nice, cinched waistline.

Finally was "Camilla," almost a happy medium in that the bodice is lace and the slightly above knee-length skirt is chiffon. There's a removable chiffon sash at the natural waistline.

I think I've made my choice, but I'm going to post all three to see what the general public thinks...remember, it's an outdoor wedding in August. I think I have a favorite, but it's one of those things where an outside opinion would be helpful! In the meantime I'm off to get a tan so I don't look naked in whichever dress I pick!

Monday, March 30, 2015

Easter Audition

Last weekend we had an Easter meal audition. We're hosting my in-laws for a long weekend over Easter and I've been busy pinning and dog-earing recipes both on screen and in print. We knew we'd serving ham as the protein, but the rest was kind of up in the air.

I stumbled across a bourbon-peach ham glaze that we tested on a ham steak to try the flavor. This recipe only has three main ingredients: bourbon, peach preserves, and maple syrup, plus salt and pepper to taste. It was thick and delicious on the salty ham. This passed the test with flying colors.

I was perusing magazines while getting a pedicure a few weeks back (from a woman with the sharpest finger nails ever!) I found a recipe for Carrot Orzotto which intrigued me. It cuts down on some of the work of a traditional risotto by using orzo pasta, and incorporates spring flavors in the carrot juice and grated carrots and the goat cheese and mint garnish. This one didn't pass the test, it had potential, but we're looking for stars.

My grandmother made a killer au gratin potato casserole, but it was labor intensive, so we tried out this genius version that halves the time. We needed a little bit more liquid, so we'll adjust accordingly this weekend.

We also made a small batch of pineapple stuffing, which tasted like bread pudding and will be great with the ham.

Feeling weighed down by the carbs, yet? We'll probably fall back on green beans, as I feel like asparagus can go wrong too easily. We might do a side of coleslaw too, but this meal is starting to seem ridiculous for four people.

I'm planning to take the easy way out and buy dessert, like we did at Thanksgiving. Thinking it'll be carrot cake, but I'm having a hard time imagining where we'll find room for all of this food.

Are you hosting Easter dinner? What is your favorite holiday food?