Nacho Mama Challenge

Since Gemma could stand on a step-stool, she has been my handy, little sous chef. She loves helping me (and her grandmothers) in the kitchen, and I’m fortunate this experience has made her a great eater. For the most part, she’ll try anything, especially if she’s had a hand in selecting or preparing it. Here’s one of my favorite videos of Gemma (a month after her 2nd birthday) making herself a Nutella sandwich…

We were so inspired by the Durham Farmer’s Market Chef Challenge, we decided to have a challenge of our own. You see, our favorite family show is Chopped. We love learning about new foods and how to prepare them and critiquing the styles and creativity of the chefs…and of course, trying to guess which chef will be crowned chopped champion. On any given night, if Gemma likes what we’re eating for dinner, I’m declared chopped champion…it’s her sweet gesture which inspires me to create more home-cooked meals for our family.

After watching Chef Katie compete on Saturday, Gemma and I discussed what type of meal we could both make our own. It had to be something she could manage without using a knife or the stove/oven on her own (she is only 4), and we were craving Mexican food. Hence, the Nacho Mama Challenge was born! Daddy was immediately declared the sole judge (good luck with that, Ben!).

With the major details decided, we set off to shop the farmer’s market for ingredients. We left with tomatoes, red peppers, a jalapeno and an onion and headed to the grocery store for a few more items before settling in the kitchen to prep for our big night. We already planned to use our leftover short rib meat and fresh cilantro at home, so we grabbed some avocado, mascarpone and black olives at the grocery. We also each selected our own bag of nacho chips to use in our individual dishes.

I did most of the prep work…slicing, dicing and mincing veggies while Gemma helped “manage the personality of the kitchen” with stories and instructions on how to do what I was already doing. Four-year-olds are quite funny, very talkative and love telling others what to do…not sure where she gets those qualities?!

nachomamatoppings

The grocery didn’t have queso blanco so the cheese specialist recommended mascarpone as a substitute which turned out to be a wonderful base to unleash my creativity. I concocted two dressings, a spicy Jalapeno and Sriracha Mascarpone dressing and a mild Avocado and Cilantro Mascarpone dressing, which I warmed slightly before drizzling over my nacho creation.

nachomamachefs

It was quite a fun event…Gemma and I each with our pie plates, stacking chips and meat and veggies and cheese. We were very competitive, of course. I being told “Stop looking at my nachos!” by Gemma, and I telling Gemma “Why don’t you use toppings besides lettuce and cilantro?“. Gemma created a short-rib, lettuce and cilantro salad with tomato and avocado garnish on traditional restaurant-style tortilla chips. I threw together my “everything but the kitchen sink” blue corn nachos with several dollops of both homemade mascarpone dressings and garnished with sliced jalapeno and diced tomato. We proudly placed our nacho dishes under the broiler to melt to perfection!

nachomamadishes

At this point, Ben was likely considering his options. He had his two best girls competing for his affections with their culinary skills. His was not a position I wanted to be in, for sure, but he handled his judging like a pro! And, honestly, both nacho dishes were incredible! It was the best tasting and most fun dinner we’d made all week!

nachomamajudging

As expected, we were both declared chopped champions in our first (annual???) Nacho Mama Challenge! Woo-hoo!

Oh, and for those interested in the dressing recipes, here you go!

dressings

Jalapeno and Sriracha Mascarpone Dressing

1 cup mascarpone cheese

1-2 T Sriracha (depending on desired spiciness)

1-2 T finely diced (or minced) jalapeno (depending on desired spiciness)

Mix all ingredients together. Melt together in microwave safe dish for 20 seconds. Serve over nachos, spread on tacos or burritos, or use for dipping tortilla chips.

Avocado and Cilantro Mascarpone Dressing

1 cup mascarpone cheese

1/8 cup smashed avocado

2 T finely chopped fresh cilantro

Using a fork, blend the avocado into the cheese and mix in the cilantro. Melt together in microwave safe dish for 20 seconds. Serve over nachos, spread on tacos or burritos, or use for dipping tortilla chips.

*This is a naturally mild dressing, great for kids. If you want some heat, add a tablespoon or two of your preferred hot sauce or jalapeno.

nachoswithdressing

Saturday at the Farmer’s Market

Is it Tuesday already? What a fun weekend we had…so much so I’m still recovering! I love those days when we sleep in (well, as much as a 4-year old will let us) and don’t really have a plan. It can lead to the most memorable events…and this past Saturday was just that sort of day.

Perusing the local event calendar over breakfast Saturday morning, I noticed our favorite local chef, Katie Coleman, was competing in the Durham Farmer’s Market Chef Challenge. So we packed up and headed downtown to cheer her on! The chefs were given a mystery ingredient, in this case eggplant, and the opportunity to shop the farmer’s market for the remaining ingredients they would use to make their dishes.

dfmchefchallengeeggplant

Katie made an eggplant burger topped with goat cheese and veggie caponata on a homemade biscuit accompanied with fried eggplant chips and an eggplant pickle.

katieeggplantdish

Her dishes were the best, in our opinion, however the chef from The Salted Pig, with his eggplant soup dish, was crowned victor by the panel of judges, and the chef from Pie Pushers won People’s Choice (for the life of me I can’t recall his dish…oh well).

We first met Katie, proprietor of Durham Spirits Co., last Valentine’s Day when a group of husband’s surprised their wives by cooking us dinner at Katie’s historic home/business. We had so much fun, we booked Katie again last month, and she came to one of our homes for a cooking class and dinner. Katie offers cooking and mixology classes and also teaches classes at A Southern Season. Come to think of it, Ben also hosted a team-building cooking event for his leadership team at Katie’s place earlier this year, as well. Yes, we love her dearly, can you tell??! Here are some shots from our couples cooking nights…

February 2013

mattchopping

catjill

boyscooking

cbfrying

catscrepes

August 2013

donnabencbchopping

bencbchopping

benmichellechopping

Anyhow, I digress…back to the farmer’s market. Once the cooking competition came to an end, we ventured over to the line of food trucks adjacent to the farmer’s market and grabbed a slice of pizza from the Pie Pushers truck.

bengfoodtrucks

foodtruckrodeo

We needed fuel for a challenge of our own which was brewing for later in the day. Tune in tomorrow to find out how Gemma and I fared in our own Chef Challenge!

Art of Preservation

Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” ~ Pablo Picasso

We, mothers, in particular, become increasingly nostalgic and sentimental once children enter our world. We start to save everything in hopes our child will grow up and desire that curl from her first haircut, the unused preemie diaper (just to prove how small she was), her first holiday dresses, a stack of graded reports or test scores, and so on.

The feeling gets stronger once said child enters school – be it preschool or kindergarten – and starts proudly pulling glued, finger-painted and glittered artwork from her backpack each day. You marvel at her talent, compliment her creativity, and toss each masterpiece into a folder or envelope; over time, these items tear, yellow or become otherwise less incredible as the years eat away at them.

I was incredibly lucky to have a cedar “hope” chest, handmade by my Grandpa Black, in which my parents stashed years of childhood mementos. It held everything from my christening gown to my high school diploma. It housed swimming medals; brochures from vacations; annual school and prom photos; blankets and jewelry; summer camp and school art projects; reports and stories I’d penned; and local newspaper clippings from awards and other accomplishments. While I loved to see much of those items as an adult, I wasn’t committed to saving each piece, thus I tossed most of the swimming medals, tourist brochures, and half-destroyed macaroni ornaments, keeping only the most treasured items to accompany me on my life journey.

cedarchest

It’s my goal to give Gemma a similar treasure trove from which to recall her favorite school and family experiences; and while I’ll still keep her lock of hair and that preemie diaper, I hope to take advantage of some modern technologies along the way to best preserve and organize her school-year memories. This summer I started the annual “look book” project (with help from Shutterfly), in which I’ll compile Gemma’s previous year school projects (art, stories, photographs) into a special book to commemorate her life journey. (And, while I would love to keep all of the original works of art, I plan to save only a handful of items from each year in case she wants to use them as art for her own home or children’s playroom someday.) Preschool has proven a great time to start because there are so many colorful art pieces to create beautiful coffee table books to share with family and friends. 

Here is a peek at the two books I created for Gemma’s 2- and 3-year old preschool years…

kidartbookcover

kidartbookintro

kidartbookfirstday

kidartbookart1

kidartbookart2

kidartbookart3

kidartbookart4

kidartbookclasspic

I love the ability to document her growth (physically, intellectually and artistically) and preserve her childhood experiences in this colorful and creative medium.

Special Notes:

  • There are so many companies offering photobooks these days; you can use any one of them to create your own “look book”. I find Shutterfly easy to use and high quality (and they regularly offer great coupons for big discounts on photobooks).
  • To get the artwork in digital form, I set or taped each piece to an art easel, took a photo of it, then cropped and adjusted the exposure and/or other elements to get the best rendition before uploading to my photobook folder online. I would estimate it took me 5-6 hours (in total) to photograph, edit photos and layout the book.
  • This is also a great way to create special gifts for grandparents or other family members. I used one particular art series in which Gemma used her handprints to create a themed art print each month during her 2-year old preschool year…each month became the artwork for a calendar we gave to her grandparents this year in honor of Grandparents Day.
  • FYI…Gemma does not have aliens in her class. I blurred the faces of her fellow classmates out of respect of their privacy.

Chair Affair

A few years ago I claimed ownership of an antique captain’s chair from the basement of my grandparent’s home in North Dakota. The chair sat in their basement for well over 50 years. I remembered it from my visits as a child, and my mother recalls the chair being there for as long as she can remember. Needless to say, it has sentimental value, and aside from that, it’s got a comfy round back which hugs you in all the right ways.

I knew from the start this project would be a labor of love. It was clear from all the chippage, the chair had been painted at least a hundred times over (okay, maybe only 5-6 coats), and I had to assume at least one of those coats was lead paint. Although I planned to use Annie Sloan Chalk Paint (ASCP), I knew it needed to be stripped and sanded prior to painting. (One of the biggest perks of ASCP is the lack of prep work required for the paint to adhere and transform almost ANY material. I’ve seen folks use it on wood, veneer, plastic, concrete, ceramic, metal, leather and the list goes on…)

It took a few weeks to fully strip the paint and sand it down (by machine and hand), and then another week to paint and wax for the look I desired – a modern color with a well-worn finish.

Before…

before chair

before chair spindle

During…

duringchair

duringchair2

during chair3

After…

afterchair2

afterchair1

afterchair3

afterchair4

Technique: I chose Aubusson Blue for the base coat, followed by a top coat of Provence + Old White (approx. 5 to 1 ratio with a dash of water to thin it out). I gave it a quick coat of clear wax and buffed, then distressed in “natural” areas (where you might expect wear…as opposed to random distressing which looks too contrived). I finished it up with a dark wax layer, followed by a final layer of clear wax to seal it all in. I’m happy with the chair as-is…it works with the color scheme in our living room, and can easily move from our main living area to a bedroom, if need be. Should we move or change the decor in the house, I’d be inclined to repaint this chair (knowing I don’t need to relive the tiresome and tedious prep-work stage).

Special Notes:

  • ASCP is truly easy to use and requires little to no prep work. However, it is wise to do a little research to understand the various techniques you can get from very simple tweaks or “in-between-coats-of-paint” steps. You can thin the paint with water, mix colors easily, sand between steps, wipe down or rub while the paint is still wet, distress before OR after waxing (though it’s less messy if you distress post-waxing), use a coarse brush on damp paint to create strokes, and so on…the paint is so versatile. I’ve read so many folks say they hated the paint because it left brush strokes (which can be avoided by thinning the paint prior to application AND a light sanding between coats). Basic tip: just do a little homework before you use this fab product.
  • If you want the darker, antique look using dark wax, be sure to ALWAYS APPLY CLEAR WAX FIRST.  So many folks slather the dark wax directly onto the top coat of paint and find it is streaky and difficult to apply. Applying the clear wax first, seals the paint and provides a smooth base over which to blend in the dark wax.

Favorite chalk paint project blogs:

My Mom Has Breast Cancer

And I hope she’s not upset I’m writing about it. We aren’t the type of family to brag about the good or broadcast the bad. So when cancer struck my mom this past June, I was unsure how to react. I was scared, curious, angry and motivated. I was comforted by asking a lot of questions, defining her type of cancer and learning its causes, treatment options and survival rates.

Earlier this year, my mom went to her doctor to examine a lump in her breast. While the doctor was not concerned with that particular tissue, he did find another area of concern and within a few days, she was diagnosed with invasive lobular carcinoma, a rare, but treatable, form of breast cancer. Luckily, she caught the cancer early, before it had a chance to spread to the lymph nodes or other parts of her body. Specialists at a nearby breast cancer center have already removed the cancerous tissue (via lumpectomy) and will administer chemotherapy and radiation over the coming months to destroy any remaining cancer cells in her body and (hopefully) ensure the cancer doesn’t reoccur.

rainbowgemmagranny

(Gemma and Rainbow Bear cuddle with Granny after her first of two lumpectomies, Danville, IL, July 2013)

Debbie and Jill

(My mom and I the day before my wedding, Beaufort, SC, October 2005)

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. It is only fitting I just confirmed my appointment later this month with an oncologist at UNC to get a baseline mammogram, discuss my risk factors and determine whether I am a valid candidate for genetic testing to determine if I have abnormalities in my BRCA 1 or BRCA 2 genes. With my mom’s recent breast cancer diagnosis, combined with an aunt who died of breast cancer around 40 years of age, I’m taking steps to be proactive about my breast health.

The statistics are scary. One in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime. It’s a nasty disease but there are things we can all do to lower our risk of breast cancer.

  • Touch yourself every now and then. (Perform a self breast exam to check for lumps or unusual changes in your breast tissue.)
  • Get intimate with your doctor. (Don’t be shy to communicate if you’ve noticed changes in your breast tissue, have unusual weight fluctuations or changes in your energy levels; your doctor can perform a clinical breast exam to thoroughly examine breast tissue.)
  • Get a baseline mammogram. (This can provide medical staff with a picture of your current/healthy breasts so they can evaluate changes or abnormalities over time.)
  • Get active. (Exercise is good for your body. Period.)
  • Eat smart. (Healthy foods fuel your body and raise your immune system; researchers are finding diet to be responsible for 30-40% of cancers.)
  • Lay off the bottle. (Aside from the benefits your child receives, breastfeeding may lower your risk of breast cancer.)
  • Lay off the booze. (Alcohol may increase your risk of breast cancer by damaging DNA cells.)

I hope you’ll join me in praying for those who haven’t yet been diagnosed, honoring the women and men who have lost the battle with breast cancer, and celebrating the survivors who inspire us! Visit http://www.breastcancer.org/ to learn more about breast cancer symptoms, treatments and how to lower your risk.