January 27, 2015

Cowboy Casserole

So here are the reasons I'm sharing this recipe:

1. It's pretty easy.
2. It tastes good.
3. It's great for feeding a group.
4. It reheats well, making it also great for cooking once for a smaller group and then having yummy leftovers for lunches or subsequent nights off from cooking.
5. It has pretty broad palette appeal.
6. You can easily customize it a bit to your tastes (add sautéed mushrooms, top with siracha or sour cream or ketchup, etc.) .

I have made it 3 or 4 times now, and it always goes over well. And I thought that such a long of a list of pluses made it worth sharing. So, thank you to thecuttingedgeofordinary.blogspot.com for sharing it. And here you go:

Cowboy Casserole (photo from thecuttingedgeofordinary.blogspot.com)

Cowboy Casserole (adapted from Taste of Home)
1 to 1.5 lb ground beef (depending on your preference, I used 1 lb)
1 medium onion, chopped
3 gloves garlic, chopped
1 can (15oz) whole kernel corn, drained
1 can condensed cream of mushroom soup
1.5 to 2 c. shredded cheddar cheese (depending on how much you want to top it with)
1/2 c. milk
4 tbsp sour cream
1 bag (30oz) frozen crispy crowns (the flattened tater tots; you could use regular tots too...or even sweet potato tots!), slightly thawed

A quick side note: I use as many organic ingredients as I can when I cook, and this recipe is no exception. I used organic grass-fed beef, organic garlic, corn, cheese, milk, sour cream and even organic cream of mushroom soup! I am a big believer in organic and use it whenever and wherever I can. But, when it comes to beef I think being grass-fed makes a HUGE difference. Not only is it better for you and for the planet and for the cow, it also tastes way better. Give it a try when you cook with beef. I know it's more expensive, but I really believe that it is worth it.

About an hour before you're ready to make the casserole, pull your crispy crowns out of the freezer and let them sit on the counter to thaw a bit...they cook better/faster and get crispier if they thaw some in advance.

Preheat oven to 350. Spray a large skillet with cooking spray and cook the onion over medium heat until tender and translucent. Add the chopped garlic and cook for one minute more. Add the beef and cook over medium heat until no longer pink. Drain any standing grease from the mixture.

In a large bowl combine the soup, milk and sour cream. Whisk until smooth. Add the ground beef mixture and stir to combine. Add corn and 1 cup of shredded cheddar cheese. Mix to combine.

Grease a 9x13 baking dish. Layer half of the crispy crowns on the bottom of the dish. Pour the beef mixture over the top, then layer the remaining crispy crowns on top of that. Sprinkle another 1/2 to 1 cup of shredded cheese over the top and bake at 350 degrees for 25-30 minutes or until golden and crunchy.

Note: You can make this in advance (earlier in the day or even the night before) and just refrigerate it. About an hour before your ready to put it in the oven, sit it on the counter to come to room temperature a bit, then bake as directed.

Until next time, happy cooking!

January 22, 2015

A Quick Reco: Jackie Warner Workout DVDs

Well, folks, in case you hadn't noticed, it's winter. Winter brings shorter, colder days and it brings my workouts inside. So, instead of walking and running outside, I'm all about the workout dvds in my basement. Right now I'm working from my existing stash, but each year I add a few to the mix so that I don't get bored, so I'm gearing up to buy a new one or two.

In the meantime, I thought I'd share a couple of dvds that I have in the rotation right now that I think are worth a try. As I type this my entire body is sore from this week's round of workouts, thanks to Jackie Warner. That seems a good sign, so here are a few thoughts on the two workout dvds I've been sweating to...

First, a few words about Jackie. She's famous for her Bravo TV series Workout. Which I have watched a few times a long while back. She has an incredible, muscular physique. Watching her makes you want to try harder so you can look like her. (Even though I'm not actually delusional enough to think I'll ever look like her. Doesn't matter.) I actually think she's mildly awkward on screen but I let that go for two reasons: 1. I think her workouts feel very close to an actual personal training session with a trainer. And 2. She does a good job of pointing out form and gives good info on what muscles you're working and why (like a personal trainer often does). Now, on to the workouts...

Jackie Warner: Xtreme Timesaver Training
Here's what I like about this dvd: 1. It's 30 minutes. I typically can only give over 30-40 minutes to working out each day. So this works for me. 2. It works upper body, lower body and core. 3. It works them all at once. Which means each exercise is efficient. It also means you get cardio while you're doing weights because you're working multiple muscle groups at once. 4. It makes me sweat. And there are times when I'm actually panting because I'm working so hard. (It also could be that I'm a bit out of shape right now.) But it leaves you feeling like you had a good workout. 5. She offers modifications to make each exercise easier or harder, so it can grow with you. 6. It reminds me of workouts I've done in the past with an actual live personal trainer. Which I like. The only real negative, as I see it, is that Jackie lacks the onscreen charisma of a Tony Horton or Chalene Johnson making it not quite as "fun". But I can forgive her that. (I kind of feel the same way about Jillian Michaels...sometimes she can be so awkward.)

Jackie Warner: One-on-One Training
This dvd is broken down into three, 20 minute workouts: 20 minute lower body focus, 20 minute upper body focus, and 20 minute ab focus. As I mentioned, 60 minutes ain't gonna happen for me, so I recently did the upper and lower body workouts one day, and then the ab workout along with a 20 minute Turbo Jam workout the next day. On this dvd Jackie works out with some of the trainers from her SkyLab training gym in California. (Note: They all have bodies that make you want to train harder...but they also all have perfect form because they're all actual trainers, so it's great for making sure you're doing the moves correctly.) As with the other dvd, I really felt like these workouts were similar to workouts a personal trainer would put you through. And they left me SORE. I couldn't even keep up on the ab workout. It was seriously tough. (Full disclosure: My abs are also seriously out of shape right now.) All in all: good stuff.

Okay, folks, that's all I have to say about that. Remember, a lot of times you can try checking these out from your local library to try them out before you buy. Though I'm pretty sure that you can get Xtreme Timesaver Training for about 5 or 6 bucks from Amazon at the moment. Now, if you have any favorite workout dvds, please share! I'm hoping to pick up some new ones soon, so I'd love any recommendations you have.

Until next time, happy sweating!

January 20, 2015

A Quick Book Reco: Unwind by Neal Shusterman

As a quick update, I have finished two books off of my 2015 Reading List. First was Nights of Rain and Stars by Maeve Binchy, which was okay. It took a little bit to get into it, but once I did it was a fast and pleasant enough read. But I think Binchy wrote better novels, so if you want to try one of her books, pick a different one (like Circle of Friends). The second was Unwind by Neal Shusterman. And that's why I'm here today.

If you're a fan of dystopian future novels, I definitely recommend checking this one out. I really enjoyed this book and plan to pick up the next one in the Unwind Dystology (which I don't always do...or always recommend). Unwind was fast-paced, engaging and a new twist in the land of dystopian future book scenarios.

The basic premise of the book is this: There is a Second Civil War in the US. This time it's not the North vs the South but Pro-Choice vs Pro-Life. The war comes to an end when the armies agree to The Bill of Life, which states that human life may not be touched from the moment of conception until the child reaches thirteen years old. But, between the ages of 13-18 a parent or guardian may choose to retroactively "abort" a child through a process called "unwinding." Unwinding does not technically kill the child because it allows for all of his or her organs and body parts to be transplanted to various recipients in need, thereby allowing the child to "live on" in others. (Can you say, Super Creepy?!)

The story follows three different teens marked for unwinding who all come from very different backgrounds with very different stories but are brought together when they become AWOL Unwinds and go on the run.

Sound interesting? Sound bizarre? It is both. And while it is a fun, fast read, it also gets you thinking about a lot of things...much deeper things than you might expect to be pondering while reading YA fiction.

So there you have it. My first book recommendation for 2015. Check it out.

And, as always, I bid you good reading!

January 13, 2015

Guilt, sadness today. Grief, loss on the horizon.

Cooper, when we first adopted him

Three and a half months ago I took my dog, Cooper, to the vet for some tests because he was behaving strangely. At the end of that visit we discovered that he had a tumor in his bladder and an enlarged spleen. But they felt it was operable. So, three months ago my dog had surgery to remove his spleen and a large portion of his bladder. The surgery went well. He recovered quickly. And was doing well. Until about a month ago, when he started acting strangely once again. I talked to the vet, they did a urinalysis, and everything came back normal. So she gave him some extra pain meds to get him through the holidays and we decided to just go ahead with our already scheduled 3 month follow-up ultrasound in January.

Which was yesterday.

It did not go well.

The cancer is back. Another tumor in his bladder. It's pressing on his prostate and colon. One of his nearby lymph nodes is very enlarged, likely the cancer has spread there. Some levels in his kidneys are elevated...not in a good way. The cancer is an aggressive one. The prognosis is grim. So, medication to help keep him comfortable. One month, maybe two before it gets really bad.

Flash back five years and one month ago. My dog, Jack,...my first baby, who I'd gotten right out of college and was my constant companion for twelve years and who had been very sick for a very long time...had gotten really, really bad. I had to make the decision that his quality of life had gotten so poor and that he was in so much pain, that it was time to help him cross over.

Fast forward five years and one month to last Sunday when I sat on the steps to our basement cleaning dog pee from the carpet and crying because even before yesterday's vet visit, I knew things were bad. I am crying because my dog is sick and dying. And I'm crying because I still carry guilt for Jack's death. I was crushed when he left and I never felt right with the decision I made to help him go. He was my sun and moon before my kids came along. For almost ten years he was my only companion and confidante. And he was a amazing soul.

And now there's another sweet companion staring up into my eyes waiting for another scratch on the head, likely not knowing what lies ahead for both of us. But I have a pretty good idea. Because I've been there before. And if you've had a beloved pet, then you've been there before too. And I just don't know how I'm going to do it again. Make the decision. Say goodbye. Carry the guilt.

I have a lot of thoughts swimming through my head right now... I really thought I'd have a lot more than five years before I had to go through this again. I really thought I'd have more than five years with Cooper, even though he was already about five when we rescued him. I feel terrible for Cooper. I feel terrible for me. I feel terrible for the kids who will be losing their first pet. (I have very vivid, painful, sad memories of losing my first dog, Susie, when I was eleven.) I feel guilt for not always being the best caretaker for Cooper. I feel guilt for it taking so long for me to really bond with him because he joined our family at a time of babies and small children (my own fault, of course). I am already mourning the loss of our evening walks in the warmer months...who will I walk with under star-filled skies this Spring and Summer?? Who will keep me company at night when my husband is traveling for work??

But I know it's not time to go there yet. He is still here. He is still constantly by my side, usually with some part of his body touching some part of mine...his back leaning against my leg, his butt on my foot. He is still begging for food and needing to go out (a lot) and always, always waiting for attention and love.

And so, instead of mourning the loss that is to come, I have resolved to give him the life of a doggie prince in his remaining days. A life filled with pets and scratches and cuddles. A life filled with treats and food and ham bombs (I wraps meds in ham to make them treats...he now freaks out with doggie joy whenever I open the meat drawer in our fridge.). A life filled with unhurried walks with lots of time for sniffing. A life filled with as much time being close to his people-pack as possible. Because that's all he really wants.

It's so simple.

How could I ever have gotten it wrong?

Like so many things in life.

Until next time, friends, go give someone who needs it a cuddle or scratch or pet. It's so simple. Don't get it wrong.

Me and Coop at his obedience school graduation

January 8, 2015

2015 Goals: My Reading List for 2015

Hello friends! As I mentioned in my new year's resolutions post last week, I've decided to create a reading list for this year. I want to read at least 12 Young Adult/Middle Grade novels, and I want to read at least 15 of the books off of my To Read bookcase in my bedroom (books that I've bought or been given (or won in a charity auction) but haven't gotten around to reading for whatever reason).

So, last night after a 100 page reading marathon to finish Champion by Marie Lu, I stood in front of my bookcase and made a list. Then I went on my Goodreads To Read list and chose 12 YA/MG books and added those to my list. I now have a rather long list...but it's a wonderful guide for 2015.

So I thought I'd share my list with you. Maybe there's something here you'd like to read. Let me know if you've read any of these books (and what you thought of them). And let me know if you have any books that you think should be on my reading list for this year. This is only 27 books. I typically read more than that in a year, so I purposely left room to add other books that I discover or people tell me about. I love a good book recommendation!! And I'll let you know throughout the year when I read a particularly good one.

So here you go, my reading list for 2015...

Amy's YA/MG Reading List*
From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg
Lulu Walks the Dogs by Judith Viorst
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Inkheart by Cornelia Funke
Independent Study: The Testing Book 2 by Joelle Charbonneau
Unwind by Neal Shusterman
Wonder by RJ Palacio
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz
The Selection by Kiera Cass
Counting By 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan
Graceling by Kristin Cashore
The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton
A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Amy's "From My Bookcase" Reading List
Non Fiction
On Writing by Stephen King
It's Ok Not To Share by Heather Shucker
The Artist's Way for Parents by Julia Cameron
Wonderbook by Jeff VanderMeer
Page After Page by Heather Sellers

Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
The Red Tent by Anita Diamond (rereading)
Nights of Rain and Stars, and Scarlet Feather, both by Maeve Binchy
The Women by TC Boyle
Voyager by Diana Gabaldon
The Hostage (The Chicago Fire Trilogy, book 1) by Susan Wiggs
The Typewriter Girl by Alison Atlee
The Book Lover by Maryann McFadden
The Girl You Left Behind by JoJo Moyes
Before You Know Kindness by Chris Bohjalian

A Few Other Titles That I'd Like To Get To...
The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien
Wild by Cheryl Strayed
Signature of All Things By Elizabeth Gilbert
Landline by Rainbow Rowell

That's it!! I can't wait to get started on it tonight. I'm starting with Maeve Binchy...and old favorite who's books I haven't read in a long, long time.

Until next time, happy reading!!

* I know there are 14 books on the YA/MG list. But at least two of those books are super short, so I thought I should have a couple of extras. :-)

January 3, 2015

Here's your clean slate, folks. What are you going to write on it this year?

Happy New Year, friends! Welcome 2015!

I love the New Year. (New Year's Eve...not so much. But New Year's Day? The month of January? The month of fresh starts, of clean slates, of new beginnings? Love!) At the beginning of every year I give a lot of thought to what worked and what didn't in the last year...what I liked and what I didn't like...what I want to change, as well as what goals I want to accomplish. There's a lot of trying to kick old habits and start new ones, but I also try to set some real, measurable goals for myself.

I tried not to wait until the New Year to start my resolutions. I thought that this was a good plan. Because I think, when you've allowed yourself to get so far off track that you can't even see the track anymore, you need to start hiking toward the track sooner rather than later. Why wait for an arbitrary date to get that ball rolling, I thought.

As it turns out, old habits die hard. Which means that the really quite terrible habits that I had gotten into over the last month or so did not want to go gently into that good night. And, as it turns out, my mental conditioning toward New Year's Day as a refresh button was a little stronger than I had anticipated. So, instead of actually starting my resolutions around December 21st when I first had the urge or the 27th when all of our holiday guests had left, I am following more of a rolling introduction of new habits and beginning of work toward new goals over the course of the month of January.

Which is okay too.

I feel like I'm going into a tough battle this year. It's January 2nd and I'm staring at my brainstormed list of changes and goals, knowing that they are all things I want in my life. Knowing that they are all things that will make me feel good physically and mentally and emotionally, and will bring greater joy into my daily life. Knowing that I feel like crap right now because of the bad habits that have taken hold. And yet...and yet...sigh. The way I feel at the thought of actually implementing these new habits begs the question: Why are bad habits so much harder to break than good habits?

In November I had the awesome habit of writing every day. In the month of December, I did not write a word. All summer long I walked our dog every night after the kids went to bed. Once the weather turned and the temps dropped and sunset came earlier, well, let's just say that both the dog and I are worse off for the loss of our nightly walks. At one point last year I was getting up early three mornings a week to run before my husband left for work. Um, yeah, not doing that anymore. All of these awesome habits so easily fallen by the wayside.

But the habits of snacking at night and randomly grabbing candy or a cookie during the day? The habit of sleeping until the kids wake me up and pull me out of bed? The habit of staying up too late? The habits of not walking the dog and not working out and not writing? So. Hard. To. Break.

But I will. Some of them I broke yesterday. Some of them I will break today. Some of them I will break tomorrow and next week and the week after and so on and so on throughout the month of January until I have a whole new set of wonderful habits, and all of those nasty ones have fallen away.

And this time I'm getting the kids and my husband involved in some of these. Yesterday afternoon we all took the dog for a walk. Now, this walk was a shorter, slower walk than I was doing with him all summer. But it was still a walk. And after the walk the kids and I did sun salutations. My daughter has declared that everyday after lunch we will all walk the dog and do yoga. Awesome new habit, sweetheart! I love it!

I have ideas for what some of the other new habits will be...like starting a new morning routine that gets me up before the kids...and getting to bed earlier so I can get more sleep; like reestablishing a daily writing routine, getting back to my 10,000 steps a day, and adding in a new workout regiment; like making sure to take a probiotic every day, getting more fruit in my diet and getting back into the habit of afternoon quiet-time for me and the kids.

All of these things are habits I believe will make me feel better physically, mentally and emotionally. And they are things that I believe will help me get back on the track from which I have wandered oh so far. Back to feeling good and calm and contented. What is it about the holidays that gets me so off track? It's like there's some unwritten rule that says that at holiday time I will throw my strong routine and good habits and all common sense out the window. I will stop taking good care of myself and instead I will become a crazed, stressed, overwhelmed, overindulging mass of holiday "cheer."

Well, I fell for it yet again this year, my friends...hook, line and sinker. So here I sit on January 2nd feeling not so great. But I walked the dog yesterday and I'll do it again today. And my daughter is next to me as I type this telling me it's time to go change out of our pjs so we can workout together. And, well, the fact that I am hitting the keys on my laptop and putting these words on the screen means I'm writing again.

Step one. Step two. Step three. It's baby steps, people. Baby steps. But as long as I keep putting one foot in front of the other I'll get back to my happy place in no time.

And next year, I'm going to try to actually, truly enjoy the holidays...I'm talking real enjoyment, not the picture of enjoyment that somebody sold me once upon a time. Not the overindulging, hyped up, crazed, crazy, picture perfect on the surface but chaos behind the scenes, stressed out, over spent media hype. So I guess one of my resolutions should be to come up with a better approach to the holidays!

In addition to all my new habit resolutions, I also have set some new, measurable goals for 2015. I have goals in lots of different areas that are important to me, like reading, writing, parenting, health, and creativity. And they include things like trying at least one new thing every month, running another family 5k this year, and reading at least 15 books off of my to-read bookshelf (as opposed to constantly impulse grabbing books from the library that catch my fancy that day), as well as reading 12 middle grade and young adult books. And, the biggest goal, to finish, edit and self-publish for my daughter the three middle grade chapter books I wrote during 2014 NaNoWriMo (I also have the goal to participate in and win again 2015 NaNoWriMo).

Now, one final thought for this New Year's post. I've mentioned that I have new habit resolutions and goal around health and fitness. And I do...big ones! But, for the first time in my life, these goals mean something different to me. As many of you may know, I struggled a bit with turning 40 last year. I have struggled with the physical changes that have come with aging, and I have struggled with some weight gain in the last year and a half. This stuff has weighed on my psyche more than ever before in my adult life and I really haven't liked it.

Well, something happened recently for me. I don't know how or why. I am not sure what prompted the change exactly (though it could be linked to binge watching episodes of Oprah's Super Soul Sunday), but I know it has happened and I hope the change is permanent. For the first time, none of my resolutions are focused on losing weight or inches or dropping pant sizes. None of them are focused at all on how I look. They are focused on how I feel. I resolve to do the things that will help me feel great in 2015. I want to feel good, be healthy, have energy, be calm and contented, and be a good role model for my kids. That is what I'm focused on. Let the other crap fall where it may.

I have checked and rechecked in with myself to see if this is really, truly my new attitude or if it's just a projection of the attitude I want to have (as it has been in the past). And I'll tell you something, it really feels real. So maybe there's something good to this whole 40 thing.

Until next time, my friends, enjoy the fresh start. Find some good new habits, set some goals for 2015, and go get 'em!

Peace and joy be with you in this glorious new year.

(Update: My daughter and I did do that workout. And it felt great. And it was fun. And I am a teeny bit sore today. But guess what? We picked out yet another workout dvd today and it all again. :-) Oh, and we made it out for our family dog walk again too.)