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April 17, 2018

Lasagna-stuffed Acorn Squash

I wanted to do something a little special for our family's Easter dinner, but wasn't cooking in my own house.  I didn't want to leave a lot of extra groceries leftover, since it wasn't my house or fridge.  So it had to be something simple yet decadent, and made with common ingredients, but with a special flavor profile.  

I improvised, creating something with individual servings that was quite easy to make but presented well on the table:  Lasagna-stuffed Acorn Squash.  It felt elegant serving the individual portions.  It was so nice to have the colorful squash on each plate as we sat down.  And it was tasty!  The squash paired well with the cheese souffle and other sides on the table. 

What do you serve for spring holiday meals?

Lasagna-Stuffed Acorn Squash

2 Acorn Squash
Handful fresh Spinach Leaves
1 sm can Diced Tomato
1 cup Shredded Italian Mix Cheese


Slice the squash in half, scooping out the seeds with a serving spoon.  Invert the squash halves in a baking pan with about 1/4 inch of water in the bottom.  Bake at 325 degrees for about 1 hour 15 mins.  Remove from the water bath and dump out the water.  Place open side up in the same pan.  Layer spinach leaves in the hole to cover two or three layers.  Spoon out diced tomato into the hole to fill, about a tablespoon in each.  My diced tomato had oregano and basil in the can, so I did not flavor the filling - optionally you can mix Italian spices into the tomatos before filling.  Lastly, top with shredded Italian Cheeses such as Parm, Asiago, and Romano, using about a quarter cup for each half.  Broil the Squash until filling is warm and cheese melted and toasted, 10-15 minutes.

March 3, 2018

Beer Cheese Potato Soup

I was hungry for beer cheese soup, and too impatient to look at a recipe.  Luckily, I had a package of Melissa's Parisienne Potatoes, so I could throw something together quickly.

Beer Cheese Soup

1 14 oz pkg Melissa's Pre-Cooked Parisienne Potatoes
1 12 oz can beer (such as Coors Light)
1 32 fl oz box Trader Joes Low Sodium Vegetable Broth
1/4 tsp minced Garlic
1/2 tsp dried mustard
1/4 tsp turmeric
1 Tbsp minced fresh Garlic Chives
2 c shredded Sharp Cheddar Cheese

Heat all ingredients except chives and cheddar cheese in crock pot on high till simmering, about two hours.  Use immersion blender to puree, then mix in cheddar cheese, and finish with minced chives. 

March 2, 2018

Melissa's Beet and Bean Salad with Mozzarella

I love the convenience of ready-made ingredients.  When a friend made a wonderful pasta lunch for me, I offered to bring a salad.  It was effortless to toss Melissa's Steamed Golden Beets, Steamed Baby (red) Beets, and Steamed Blackeyed Peas with baby mozzarella, a touch of olive oil and splash of balsamic vinegar.  The flavor contrasts in the salad were refreshing and the side dish went nicely with the tortellini.  I think the group of ladies will be lunching often! 

January 31, 2018

"Old Zoo" Griffith Park Hike & Picnic Area

Caitie and I had fun exploring the "Old Zoo" area of Griffith Park this last week, just before sunset.  This area was literally part of the zoo back in the eighties, and animals were housed in the caves that still remain.  The zoo was redesigned to its present state, and now this area is a frequent picnic area and photography backdrop.  There are trails above the caves that go up into the park, and a green area that is used in the summer for free Shakespeare plays. 

The view of Burbank from the trail is stunning.  The park can be tactile when immersed in the foliage of the trails, yet suburban life is so close.  It's a great way to get out of your own head.  Somedays getting physical in the outdoors is just what I need, and Caitie is glad to be my companion!

January 24, 2018

Family Puzzle Solving

I got to spend some time with my friend's six-year-old son while he was off school for holiday break.  His hobbies include sports, sports, sports, and puzzles.  The family does a lot of difficult puzzles together, so we were able to finish this 500 piece one in a single morning.  We're teaching him problem solving and dealing with difficulty.  When he gets tired, we walk away for a bit, and come back to the puzzle later.  But it's a great way to keep older minds sharp too! 

I've started searching out new puzzles for him.  We scored at Dollar Tree and 99 Cents Only, but I've been watching Craigslist and thrift shops for used as well.  I found eleven puzzles for about thirty bucks at one thrift store, most thousand piece ones, so we're now set for a while.

Taking the used puzzles home, I cleaned up the thrift shop grime on the boxes with a paper towel and a bit of windex, then made sure the pieces from each open box were in a ziploc bag, so they didn't go flying out before we were ready to use them.  My final touch was to add a sticker to the back of the box -- do you remember bookplates?  When you'd leave a book at an airport or doctor's office, but put a sticker in the front of the book so each reader could leave their name and hometown.  It lead to a great trail of traffic as the book made its' way around the world.  I added a record to the back of each box so that as the puzzles were used and passed on we could see how far they have traveled.  I hope to see names, ages, and cities listed on other used puzzles I pick up.  Besides passing the puzzles along to my little one's friends, I'm considering donating them to senior facilities as well.

January 22, 2018

Spiralized Zucchini and Meatballs

the finished dish
A friend made a lovely lunch for the two of us.  It was so tasty (and easy to prepare!) that I thought I would share. She browned a package of Trader Joe's Meatless Meatballs in a skillet, then added them to a jar of vegetable pasta sauce, which she sweetened up by adding mushrooms and julienned broccoli stems.  After dumping everything in a crockpot, we went for a two hour hike.  Upon our return, she spiralized two zucchini into long curls, and sauted them until tender.  Using the zucchini as base, she spooned the meatball sauce over them like a pasta dish.  Topped with grated Parmesean and home-grown basil, the dish was appetizing to both the eye and the palate.  Bon Appetite!

Julienned zucchini on the stovetop to saute

Westridge-Canyonback Wilderness Park Hike

I don't do gyms.  As a kid, I was a figure skater, but it's been many years since I've done that regularly.  Left to my own devices I'll spend all day at a movie theater, but I know that's not healthy.  So I have dogs.  My senior pup has back issues that prevent her from much physical activity, but my "baby" is my hiking buddy.  A neighbor recently introduced us to an awesome trail that is largely flat and mainly consist of a fire road.  Called Westridge-Canyonback Wilderness Park, it's a beautiful two hour(ish) hike above the Skirball that roughly follows the 405 freeway.  This hike offers great views where on a clear day one can see from downtown LA all the way to the ocean and coast. Part of the Santa Monica Mountains, this area is a gem of Southern California. 


My neighbor's two medium sized dogs go off leash, but I keep five-pound Caitie on a tether at all times when out in nature.  Besides the coyotes that have been rampant due to the destruction of their habitat by forest fire in the last few years, there are also hawks and other predatory birds that could snatch her up, so it's best to be safe.  But while I'm always aware of possibilities, it's not a likelihood, and Caitie bounds along in stride with the other pups.

Caitie pulls me up a hill with our friends waiting at the top
I have asthma, so I love this hike because it is largely flat and therefore easier on my lungs.  But there are hills alongside the fire road with paths if you choose to challenge yourself.  A few have cairns where folks have built artful piles of rocks to mark the way.

Looking back to see why I'm so slow

Caitie's low enough to the ground to get quite dirty, so at the top of the hill she shimmied to shake off the dust.  I was at a lower angle still climbing, so I was able to get some great shots. 

The first day we went, a little more overcast, looking east towards Burbank

An ultra-clear day:  Zoomed in, this panorama shows downtown LA and the ocean and coast
Downtown Los Angeles in the left third of the frame

January 9, 2018

"Sand-Sational Helpers" ~ Burbank Tournament of Roses Float 2018

This was a special year for me to be working on the Burbank Tournament of Roses float for 2018, "Sand-Sational Helpers," for several reasons:  you may remember I wrote about entering the design contest for the float, and nearly being chosen.  But this year I also got to decorate with my mom!   And in the end, I was up on the float itself, placing pale pink roses in the bricks of the sandcastle. 

The theme of the 2018 Rose Parade was "Making a Difference," and the Burbank float exemplified this by our team of sea creatures mindfully cooperating on a beach cleanup.   

Our first day volunteering, Day 3 of Deco Week, sorting seed.
My family celebrated Christmas together for the first time in many years at my sister's house in Arizona.  Though it takes the full year to design and build the framing, apply coating and paint, Deco Week is the period between Christmas and New Years Day, when the majority of the float is decorated and live flowers are applied.  After driving from Phoenix to Los Angeles with my parents, we were able to visit the float site on day 3 of Deco Week.  The float was largely formed, but many details were being created off the float.  My folks were able to get a scale of the endeavor and how many volunteers are involved, the way the organization is structured, and what sort of tasks are required to cover all the details.  My dad brought a book and "supervised" my mom and I on our first visit.  Since it was my mom's first volunteer day, we were given a menial task of sorting a collection of seed into its components, to be reused.  We quickly learned the feel of flax seed vs fenugreek seed, picking one out from the other using tweezers for a couple hours.  We chatted for a good bit with the supervisor in charge of the "waves," not realizing what an intricate and delicate set of flowers were involved in that one detail.

Our Octopus friend on Day 3 of Deco Week
My mom and I returned the next day for some more volunteer time.  We had to wait a bit for an assignment as there were quite a few volunteers.  While waiting, I latched my mom onto a tour being given by one of the supervisors, who happened to be one of the drivers of the float.  He gave further insight into the inner workings of the float, and the four men who ride inside, telling how he is in charge of communications, the live feed, animations, and the audio soundtrack during the parade. 

Day 4 of Deco Week -- Adding Glue to Mumms for the Heron
My mom and I were "upgraded" that day, from the menial tasks of the day before, to actually working on a piece of the float.  We spent three hours applying an industrial glue to trays of mumm blossoms and handing the trays to a decorator on a ladder, who was applying the blooms to the body and neck of an oversize Heron.  Time passed so quickly it escaped us, and we were late leaving the barn for a movie.  We had fun working together as a team, assembly-line style!

Heron Day 4 of Deco Week, as we were working on it.

Day 5 of Deco Week -- Adding Roses to the bricks of the Castle
On Saturday, my folks left town for their next destination, and I again visited the float, alone.  I came by for judging in the afternoon, and got to see the float pulled out of the barn into the sunlight of the neighboring parking lot.  Just the movement of the float is a big production - it had to be backed into the parking lot.  I was taking picture after picture, admiring our work.  All of a sudden the turrets of the sand castle began to emerge and I realized the float had another layer of height!  Throwing away my photos, I started documenting all over.  After judging I went home for a bit, coming back around six to check on the decorator's progress.

In the evening again the politics of float building came into play, this time in my favor, as only two volunteers were needed to climb onto the float, and one slot was already taken.  The person supervising manpower chose me because I had been there the last three days, signified by the dots on my volunteer tag, while the other available person had only been there for two days.  Since I had given more volunteer days, I was chosen to fill the last spot.  So I was put directly onto the float, taking palettes of pale pink roses pre-fitted into water vials and stuffing the vials into holes drilled into the "bricks" of the sand castle.  The drilled holes were tightly fitted, so much so that it was difficult to get the last half-dozen roses into the rectangular spaces. 

After two hours I and a partner had finished the front of the castle.  The floor of the float was covered with the same "sand" dried mixture, and I left the float barn thinking my job was done.  When I showed up for judging the next afternoon, I was surprised to find that the entire floor of the float had been covered in a river of roses! 

Busily reading the float to pull out for judging Day 5 of Deco Week -- New Years Eve
Final judging on New Years Eve always draws a large audience.  It's the first time seeing the fully decorated float, with animation and soundtrack playing.  I had fun playing with the panorama camera function on my phone while the float was being prepped to move out.  The crowd is shushed and encouraged to be silent as soon as the judges' van pulls up.  The judges encircle the float with their clipboards in hand, making silent notations.  A bell rings, signaling the end of the judging, and VIPs converge for group photos of all combinations. 

The detail on the float was amazing, from a crab throwing refuse into a trash can to the angel fish next to the Burbank sign.  Besides the octopus and heron, there were seals, pelican, seahorses, walrus, turtles, seagull, crabs, and all manner of sea friends.  My friend Joann spent an afternoon working on all the "trash" pieces on the float.

Our little Heron was on the not-camera side of the float.
My friend Wendy, who first got me involved as a volunteer five years ago.

I took a few fun selfies while waiting for the judges to arrive.


There are only six community funded and volunteer built entries, referred to as "Self-built," in the entire Rose Parade.  Those six groups compete for one special trophy, the Founders Trophy.   This year we took the trophy over our competitors!  It was so much fun to see our float onscreen, and know all of the hard work that had been contributed to get it there.  I can't wait for next year as my holiday tradition continues!

December 30, 2017

Newport & Balboa Holiday Lights Cruise

For their present this year, I took my folks on a holiday lights boat tour given by Davey's Locker which toured Newport and Balboa.  Though it's my tradition to watch the Marina Del Rey Holiday Boat Parade from the shore each year, I'd never seen holiday lights like this - homes decked out on the shore, seen from a boat.  It was really something and a memory I won't soon forget.  

The tour was after dark, so I expected it to be especially cold out on the water.  We prepared by bringing blankets, hats, and scarves as well as mugs of soup, crackers and wine.  As it turned out, it worked well to have brought a light dinner with us, and we found a spot to sit inside, below deck, where we had a beautiful view but stayed nice and toasty.  Still, I was glad we had brought what we'd needed.  We took turns stepping up top to take some pictures, and enjoyed each other's company.  

I bought our tickets in a Groupon deal, then had to go to the company's website to make a reservation with my coupon code.  My parent's visit was actually after the holiday, so the event was not too competitive because of our timing so it was not hard to get the date and time we wanted; while the boat was full, it wasn't overly crowded.  The ride itself lasted about an hour, but you had to be there a bit early to check in and wait in line.  The boat company's staff was efficient and professional, but kind.  We needed to pre-board as my folks have some joint issues, and they had a place for us to sit and wait.  They let us take our time getting on and off as well.

Waiting for the boat to board.  That's our boat, the "Western Pride," behind my dad. 

Since the boat was rocking gently, most of my pictures were blurry.  I think that says more about my lack of professional equipment than my skills, or perhaps both.  I focused mostly on enjoying the moment, but thought I'd share a few shots with you to encourage you to add this to your calendar next year.   It was a great way to end our holiday season!

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