Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Three Essentials for Cinco de Mayo

I always look forward to Cinco de Mayo.  I love any excuse to enjoy the flavors of Mexican food.  This year Cinco de Mayo is on a Thursday.  That means you may find yourself facing your Cinco de Mayo celebration at the end of a long day of work near the end of an even longer week of work.  With a little preparation ahead of time, you will be able to celebrate at home without a lot of fuss and trouble.  There are three essentials for any Cinco de Mayo celebration in my opinion. You can easily have the preparation work done ahead of time for each of these three easy Cinco de Mayo recipes.  That way you can enjoy Cinco de Mayo without a lot of muss or fuss.

First, you'll want to plan for your celebratory cocktail.  Of course, it must be a margarita.  For me, it will be a classic margarita, on the rocks with salt on the rim.

A Classic Margarita
Donna's Classic Margarita
Print Recipe

Makes two cocktails

  • 4 ounces Tequila
  • 2 ounce Grand Marnier or Triple Sec
  • 1-ounce simple syrup
  • 3 ounces freshly squeezed lime juice

First, make your simple syrup by heating equal parts water and sugar together in a small pot over medium heat.  Bring the mixture to a boil, stir to combine the sugar and water and remove from the heat to cool.

Squeeze limes to get the amount of lime juice you will need to make your drinks.  Prepare your margarita glasses with salt on the rim, if desired.  I run a wedge of lime along the rim and then dip the rim in kosher salt.  If you want to be a little fancier, mix the zest of one lime with the salt and then dip the rim of your glass in the mixture.  Set aside to dry.

Add the ice to a Boston Shaker.  Then add Tequila, Grand Marnier or Triple Sec, simple syrup and lime juice and shake until the shaker frosts.  Pour the margarita and ice into the prepared glass.  Serve and enjoy!

Next, you'll want some snacks to eat with your margarita.  What is more classic than salsa and guacamole?  My recipes for both salsa and guacamole are the best!  I've tried others, but I keep going back to these.  This salsa tastes more flavorful if you make it ahead of time.  Make it on the weekend and it will be perfect for Thursday.  Are you having a crowd of friends at your party?  You'll love that this recipe makes enough addictive salsa to feed a crowd.

My Favorite Salsa
Print Recipe
Makes more than 1 quart
My Favorite Salsa

  • 1-28 ounce can diced tomatoes
  • 2-14.5 ounce cans petite diced tomatoes with jalapenos
  • 1 can chopped green chilies
  • 1 fresh jalapeno pepper, seeded and chopped fine
  • 1/2 medium onion, diced
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1 Tablespoon salt
  • 1 Tablespoon cumin
  • 1 Tablespoon chili powder
  • 1/2 Tablespoon garlic powder

Add all of the ingredients to a large bowl and stir to combine. Transfer half of the ingredients to a blender. Blend for a couple of seconds to reduce the chunks.  Add the blended salsa back to the original bowl and stir to combine.  Go ahead and taste it to be sure it has the level of spice and heat you like.  You can add more of whatever you like.  Serve with your favorite tortilla chips.

No self-respecting Cinco de Mayo celebration can happen without some guacamole to go with your tortilla chips.  My guacamole recipe will produce a chunky, flavorful addition to your Cinco de Mayo celebration.

My Slammin' Guacamole
Printable Recipe
My Slammin' Guacamole
  • 2 ripe avocados, mashed
  • 2 Roma tomatoes, diced
  • 1 4-1/2 oz.+ can mild chopped green chilies, undrained
  • 1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and chopped fine
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 red onion, diced
  • 1/4 c chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1/2 lime, juiced
  • Tabasco, a couple of dashes, or more to taste
  • Salt and pepper to taste
Slice the avocados in half and remove the pits.  Scoop the avocado flesh from the shell and mash.  In a bowl, combine the mashed avocado with the lime juice to keep the avocado a lovely, bright green.    Remove the seeds from the jalapeño and chop fine.  You won't want big pieces of jalapeño in your dip.  Add the diced tomatoes, garlic, onion, jalapeño, chopped cilantro, and chilies to the avocado mixture.  If you don't like cilantro, you can substitute fresh parsley, but you really need one or the other.   It's all about the flavor!  Stir to combine. 

Add a couple dashes of tabasco, salt, and pepper.  Taste and adjust the seasonings.  Refrigerate your guacamole for a couple of hours before serving.  The heat will intensify and the flavor only gets better as it chills in your refrigerator.  Serve with your favorite tortilla chips and watch your guacamole disappear.


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Monday, April 25, 2016

How to Take Control Over Your Mail Clutter

Paper Clutter
Is it time to tackle your paper clutter?  Do you fight a daily battle with the paper that comes into your home via the mail?  Are there piles of paper everywhere you look around your home? I've been fighting the paper fight for a long time and have developed an attack plan that works for me.

First, deal with your mail right away.  One of the first things I do is quickly flip through my daily mail on the walk from the mailbox to my door.  I stop at the recycle bin and toss the junk mail into the recycle bin before I enter the house. That easily takes care of half of the paper clutter.

Designate a home for mail.  You'll want a handy place to drop your mail once you get in the door.  Let's face it.  Life gets in the way.  You may not be able to sort through your mail the second you get in the door so your mail needs a place to hang out while it waits for you.  A decorative basket on your kitchen counter or your hall table will work nicely.

Touch each piece of paper as little as possible. We've all heard organization gurus tell us to only touch a piece of paper once.  While that is a great goal, it only works for me about 60% of the time.  For the pieces of mail that actually make it through my door the first touch is to open and discard all superfluous inserts from each envelope, sorting the contents into one of three piles: "bills", "to be filed" and "read later".  The bills are placed on my laptop to schedule for payment. The filing pile moves to my "filing" basket, which I file once a week and the reading pile moves to the table next to my favorite chair.

Replace paper with digital communication.  You may want to replace paper bills and statements with their digital forms.  I choose not to do this, but it may be a great time saver for you.

Create a paper organizing system.  The complexity of your organizing system should fit your needs and personal preference.  Do you want a separate file folder for every type of paper?  Will creating a file for each month of the year work for you?  I do have file folders for a few categories, but if you are like me you'll use a shoebox for all non-tax related and non-financial pieces of mail.  The items that go into the box are in chronological order starting with the January.  Easy peasy, and it works for me.

Establish a paper decluttering/organizing schedule.  Perhaps the most important decluttering tip I have learned over time is you need a decluttering schedule and you need to stick to it.  The clutter won't take care of itself.  As little as five minutes a day can save you loads of grief later on.  My recommendation is to take a few minutes a day to discard items and then set aside a bit more time once a week for filing and organizing.

Curate newspapers, catalogs and magazines. 
Are you still receiving paper versions of your newspapers, magazines and catalogs?  You may want to think about moving to online versions.  I've actually done that for many of the catalogs and magazines that were previously delivered in my mailbox.  It does help with the paper clutter.  My newspapers go into the recycle bin every day even if they haven't been read. Catalogs go into the recycle bin immediately after a quick review or when I do my weekly decluttering.  My smartphone has become a big help in my organizing efforts.  If there is something I want to remember in a catalog, I take a picture of it with my phone.  The same is true of magazines. When there is a recipe I want to remember, I take a picture of it with my phone.  If there is a fashion or home decor picture I like for inspiration, I'll take a picture of it with my phone as well.  As for all the magazines and catalogs you never get around to reading, it's time to cancel them.

You don't have to let mail clutter get the best of you. These few simple steps will help you to feel in control and keep your home clutter free.

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Linked to Between Naps on the Porch.
Good luck and happy decluttering!


Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Your April Garden To Do List

During the month of April, garden activities begin in earnest in the Northeast.  If you are thinking about starting a garden you'll want to have that project well underway by now.  My post, Five Steps to Starting a Garden will help you get started. Some other gardening activities to think about adding to your to-do list this month in the Northeast garden are:

Check that your garden tools are in working order: Check the handles on your spades, hoes, and rakes. Can you find your pruners?  Checked your hoses and nozzles to ensure there are no leaks and the water flows freely through the nozzle.  The spray nozzle on my hose gives me a shower every time I use it.  I really need to replace the nozzle that worked fine last year.

Clean up debris from your garden beds: You probably have some accumulation of debris from the winter. Remove all fallen leaves, sticks and any remains from last year’s garden.  Now is a good time to re-edge your garden beds and for a nice, tidy look.

It's Time to Clean Up Perennial Beds
Prune and plant trees and shrubs:  Check for winter damage on your trees and shrubs and prune as necessary.  We had a relatively mild winter this year and have been doing this periodically the past couple of months.  Prune shrubs that flower in the summer, shaping them and removing any dead wood. Prune your spring flowering shrubs after the blooms go by.

Fertilize your spring-blooming bulbs:  You'll want to fertilize your tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths after they finish blooming. The daffodils are in bloom in my garden right now.  Cut away the green foliage only after it dries and turns yellow. This allows the bulb to store energy to ensure good bulb growth the following year.   To help keep the garden tidy while I wait for the right time to cut back the daffodils I use elastic bands to tie the leaves of the withering foliage together.  The bands deteriorate pretty quickly in the garden and are easy to apply to the plants.

Elastic Bands Keep My Garden Neat
Stop Weeds.  Spread a pre-emergent herbicide to prevent weed seeds from germinating in your garden beds.  I do this every year in my perennial flower beds and it helps me keep those pesky weeds in check.

Plant cool-season vegetables.  Amend your vegetable garden soil about a week before planting. Your cool-season vegetable crops such as peas, broccoli, carrots, spinach, and lettuce can go in the ground now. These are easy to grow from seeds or transplants and you still have a little time to get them going.  You'll be so happy when you can make a salad from all the delicious vegetables and greens you have grown.

Plant Now to Have This In May
Add color with cool-season annual flowers. Pansies, snapdragons and pot marigolds planted in containers near your front door, along walkways or around mailboxes will brighten your days. I especially like the brightly colored yellow and purple pansies and their blooms will last through the early summer.

April is a great month for getting out into the fresh air  in your garden.  What activities have you planned for your garden this April?  I'd love to know what you are planting this year.

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Happy gardening!


Monday, April 18, 2016

Dark Chocolate Mousse Cake

Chocolate Mousse Cake
I made this dark chocolate mousse cake for Hubby's birthday last week.  As my son tells it, cakes in the Just One Donna household follow a hierarchy.   Hierarchy actually refers to the cake's level of complication and overall decadence.  Lowest in the cake hierarchy are the boys' birthday cakes. Those cakes were usually a store bought ice cream cake, which was always what they asked for. Next comes holiday cakes, which are usually selected from the list of family favorites.  At the top of the hierarchy is Hubby's birthday cake.  He has quite a sweet tooth and the cakes are usually carefully selected to surprise and delight his taste buds.

This dark chocolate mousse cake has been hanging out on my Let Me Eat Cake Pinterest Board.  It is a Bon Appetit recipe from 2001 which I think qualifies it for an oldie, but goody label.  Oldie, but goody, or not, this one decadent chocolate cake.  It is made in multiple steps and takes a few hours, but it really isn't hard to make.  The result is impressive, delicious and worth the effort.  Hubby said it was better than a very similar chocolate mousse cake he had had in a fancy, high-priced restaurant.  That was very nice and much appreciated praise.  As is usually the case, I made a few changes to the original mocha layer cake with chocolate rum cream filling recipe.  Make either recipe and you're sure to be delighted.

Before making this chocolate cake I read through many of the comments in the original recipe.  There were two repeated complaints about the cake.  The first was that there was far too much cream filling for the cake. The second was that there was too little cake.  It was suggested that two layers of cake needed to be baked instead of the one layer as per the recipe.  I wasn't at all concerned if there was too much filling, but I did go ahead and make two cake layers, just in case one was not enough.  In my opinion, after making this cake, both complaints are unjustified.  Only one layer of cake is required and the amount of cream filling is generous, but not too much.

Chocolate Mousse Cake
Chocolate Mousse Cake
Print Recipe
Makes one 9" round cake
Make the following changes to the original recipe:

  • Use a 9" round cake pan
  • Use Ghirardelli 60% cacao bittersweet chocolate chips
  • Flavor the cake with 1-1/2 teaspoons with Kahlua instead of the vanilla and coffee mixture

Follow the original recipe as written keeping in mind these tips for success:

  • Start at least one day in advance of serving.
  • Make the filling first.  You want the filling to cool for at least six hours.  It should be very thick when you take it from the refrigerator.
  • Use parchment paper instead of waxed paper to line your cake pan.  The cake will loosen from the pan with greater ease.
  • Only make one layer of cake as the recipe suggests.
  • It does take only about 30 seconds to whip the filling into a mousse consistency.  Don't over beat it.
  • Be generous with the filling.  It will be an inch thick when you spread the filling over the cake.  Take your time to make it flat and level.  I used an offset spatula to make the edges flat.
  • Warm your topping for about 20 seconds at 50% power in your microwave before spreading it on the cake.  You want the topping to pour, but not be so thin that it will drip down the sides of the cake.
  • You want your cake to chill in the refrigerator for at least six hours or more.  This allows the layers to meld together.  
This is a lovely dark chocolate mousse cake for a birthday or any special occasion.  It takes a little effort to make but is well worth the effort.  Your family and friends will be impressed and enjoy every bite.

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Wednesday, April 13, 2016

How to Make a Fruit and Vegetable Smoothie

Fruit and Vegetable Smoothie
The best thing about a smoothie for lunch is that when you mix fruits and vegetables together to make your smoothie you optimize your vitamin and minerals consumption in one healthy drink. A smoothie like this is just packed with all things good for you.

This is one of my favorite fruit and vegetable combos for a healthy lunch smoothie.  Isn't the color beautiful?  That deep color comes from the addition of a medium-sized, red beet. Without the beet, this smoothie is a muddy green color.  It tastes good but doesn't look as pretty.  The beet does add some earthiness to the taste but the earthiness is mild. Leave the beet out if you don't like earthiness.

If you have never tried smoothies as a meal replacement I suggest you give it a try.  I especially enjoy a smoothie in the spring and summer. By using frozen fruit you can get a frosty smoothie that you eat with a spoon.  That's really nice on a hot and steamy summer day.  Did I mention this smoothie is only 235 calories?  Check out the other nutrition facts below.  Do you want this smoothie to be under 200 calories?  Leave out the banana for 196 calories and 39 grams of carbs.

I use a single serving blender by Cuisinart for my smoothies. Having a tool like this makes smoothie making a breeze.  It is easy to use and gives me great smoothie consistency in twenty to thirty seconds.  The cleanup is quick and easy, too!
Recipe Calculator

My Fruit and Vegetable Smoothie
Print Recipe
One serving

  • 1 cup frozen mixed fruit
  • 1/2 small banana, frozen
  • 1/2 medium cooked red beet
  • 1 handful spinach and kale mixture
  • 1/4 cup 100% pomegranate juice 
  • 1 Tablespoon ground flaxseed meal
  • Unsweetened almond milk, to fill container

Place the ingredients in your single serving blender container in the order listed.  If desired, partially thaw the frozen fruit in a microwave before adding the remaining ingredients.  I thawed the fruit for one minute for this smoothie. Blend for 20-30 seconds, until smooth.

Here are some other healthy smoothies you might like:
A Strawberry Banana Lunch Smoothie
A Green Smoothie for Lunch 
A Raspberry Banana Smoothie

Do you have other fruit and vegetable combinations that you think I should try?  I'm stuck on this one and would love to hear your suggestions.  I should mix it up a bit!

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Monday, April 11, 2016

Roasted Cauliflower with Garlic and Herbs

A Head of Roasted Cauliflower
Cauliflower is a vegetable I don't make very often. That's because I am very picky about the quality of any head of cauliflower I buy.  I want my cauliflower to be pristine white, with no hint of dark spots anywhere on the head.  It's not very often I find heads fresh enough for me to buy.  This week I did find a beautiful little head.  It weighed just over a pound.  It was so pretty that the cashier at the grocery store commented on it.  We began talking about roasting cauliflower.  That conversation spurred me to think of how I might roast my beautiful cauliflower.

A Perfect Head of Cauliflower

This roasted cauliflower with garlic and herbs recipe is the result.  It is delicious.  I ate about a third of the head and wanted to eat more.  Roasted cauliflower with garlic and herbs is easy to make and uses a few common ingredients.  The most important ingredient is a gorgeous head of cauliflower.

Cauliflower Dressed with Herbs and Oil

Roasted Cauliflower with Garlic and Herbs

Print Recipe

Serves four as a side dish

  • one small head of cauliflower
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 large clove of garlic, finely minced
  • 1 teaspoon dried Italian herbs mix
  • Kosher salt and  fresh ground pepper, to taste

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.  Prepare the cauliflower by removing the leaves from the base and carefully cutting out the core. Set aside.  Heat the oil in a small pan over medium heat, until hot.  Add the garlic and cook for about one minute, until the garlic aroma is released.  Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the dried herbs.  Set aside to cool.

Place the head of cauliflower into a heavy Dutch oven with a lid.  When the oil mixture is cool enough for you to handle, pour it over the head of cauliflower massaging it in with your hands.  Make sure the mixture covers the entire head, including the underside. Season with salt and pepper.

Set the Dutch oven on the middle rack of your oven, uncovered.  Roast for 30 minutes, until the cauliflower is beginning to brown.  Cover the pan and continue roasting.  After 20 minutes check to see if the cauliflower is done by inserting a knife.  If the knife inserts easily the cauliflower is ready.

Place the head of cauliflower on your serving dish and pour any oil from the roasting pan over it.  Let it sit for about five minutes before serving.  You may either slice the head or pull the florets apart to serve.

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Wednesday, April 6, 2016

How to Start a Garden

Starting a vegetable garden in your backyard can be good for both your mind and your body.  I've had my own backyard vegetable garden for a few years. There's nothing better than going out my back door in the morning to pick my vegetables for dinner.
Don't start your backyard garden thinking it will save you a lot of money.  It's best to view your garden project as a hobby that will help you to:

Salad Greens from My Garden
  • Make better choices about the food you eat.
  • Control the chemicals and potential contaminants you might ingest from your fresh vegetables.
  • Get more regular exercise.
  • Relax and de-stress in a natural setting.
  • Feel a sense of accomplishment and pride in your results.
  • Boost your mood.

If this will be your first vegetable garden you'll want to keep a few tips in mind.

Tips For Starting Your Garden

  • Start small.  You may want to start with a few pots on your deck or patio.  You can have great success planting herbs, lettuce, tomatoes and peppers in pots.  Raised beds will give you a little more space and allow you to control the quality of the soil you use.
  • Talk to other backyard gardeners in your neighborhood.  Find out what vegetables they are growing successfully.
  • Plan how you will control the impact of backyard critters and pests.  How will you keep rabbits and woodchucks out of your garden?  How will you control insects?  You'll want to avoid the disappointment of seeing your hard work destroyed by these garden pests.
  • Choose a good location with at least six hours of direct sunlight.  Shade is not good for your garden.
  • Be ready for both success and failure.  I have found my gardening to be a trial and error activity that varies in success from year to year.  Keep a gardening journal so you can refer to it from year to year and adjust your plans based on your gardening experience.
My Vegetable Garden

Four Steps To Starting A Vegetable Garden

Once you decide that a backyard garden is right for you can get started by following these four steps.

Step 1.  Decide how big your garden will be.  Will you have an in-ground garden, raised beds, or patio containers?  I started with three 4x4-foot garden boxes and have since expanded to six 4x4-foot boxes.   If you choose to start with patio containers you'll want to be sure you select large pots with good drainage.

My Raised Garden Beds
Step 2.  Decide where you will plant.  Where will the garden have the best light and water access?
I had to give careful consideration as to where to place the garden in my tree-lined backyard.   A sunny location is most important.  If you don't have enough sun your results will be less than ideal.

Step 3.  Decide what you will plant?
Gardening catalogs and online sites have been great resources in helping me choose which vegetables I will plant in my garden.  You'll also want to consider which vegetables you and your family like best.  Keep your space limitations in mind.  Some plants need a lot of space to grow and won't work in a small garden.

A Seed Catalog Can Help You Choose
The vegetables on my planting list include green beans, eggplant, leaf lettuce, peas, bell peppers, jalapeno peppers, radishes, zucchini, spinach, and tomatoes. It seems like the selection of seeds is limitless.  It's fun to peruse the many seed options and make your choices.

Seed Packet Display
Step 4.  Decide when you will plant.
A planting guide that is local to your area can be a great help.  This is a sample planting guide for my area. Talk to other backyard gardeners. You'll need to get started sooner when planting seeds.

Whether you decide pots or a raised bed garden is best for you, you'll want to get the wheels in motion.  Start with a plan and go from there.

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Happy gardening!



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