What I Learned on My Summer Vacation

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In honor of the 100th anniversary of our National Park Service, my husband and I decided to rent an RV and take our three dogs on a road trip to Yellowstone, stopping at several sites along the way. Needless to say, there was never a dull moment. However, despite all the craziness inherent in first-time RV travel, I had many personal epiphanies, as I ventured into the “wilderness” (we stayed at campgrounds, omg!) and I thought I would share some of my insights with you.

Here are just a few:

Go Naked. Well, not literally.  As the saying goes, “the ability to accessorize is what separates us from animals.”  To me, going naked means wearing no make-up, jewelry, or cute shoes. Okay, I admit, I couldn’t go cold turkey. I did use mascara and lip gloss. But that was HUGE for me. Even stranger still, I wore no jewelry. My ears went completely unadorned for 9 days. I had no watch. My watch is as ubiquitous to me as Wonder Woman’s gold cuffs are to her. I FEEL naked without it. I applaud all of you lovely ladies au natural, who face each day fresh-faced and free of bangles and baubles. I wish I were one of you. Who knows, maybe there’s hope for me yet. I’m a firm believer in the theory that it’s NEVER too late to change.

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Tune Out Social Media. It’s a blessing in disguise, for die-hards such as me if I can’t get service at my destination. Facebook is a hard habit to break. I not only work in social media, but I’m a devoted Instagrammer personally. It killed me not to be able to post photos of all the beautiful, interesting things I saw. But guess what? I not only survived, I truly lived in the moment.

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Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park

Stay Active or Atrophy. As I climbed the wooden steps to the top of Mammoth Springs, I literally fell over when I stopped to tie my shoe. I got dizzy looking at the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. I was winded and my heart pounded as I climbed the slightest incline. I absolutely swear, an older lady with an oxygen tank kept pace with me on the path to Devil’s Tower. No lie. This was a huge eye-opener for me that sitting at a desk all day, gardening on the weekends, and walking my dogs every night were not going to cut it as I age. Now that I’m home, I need to develop a serious exercise regimen that pushes me harder.

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Sacred Smoke Sculpture at Devil’s Tower

Take Notes. I have kept a journal almost every day since the first grade, when I learned to write. But on vacations, much to my horror, I get home and find blank pages where all the interesting people, places and adventures should be. It’s the little, odd, unexpected things that spontaneously happen to you on vacation, that really make the trip. So take a notebook. A simple wide-lined, spiral-bound will do. I kept mine handy so any time I had a spare moment I would jot down a couple of key phrases, just enough to jog my memory once the trip was over. It also came in handy to take notes from our vet back home when one of my dogs had an emergency, and to keep track of how much we spent on gas. I’m not an artist by any means, but I doodled a sketch of the creek beside one of our campgrounds, and as primitive as it is, the drawing is at least representative of what I wanted to capture.  So now I can go back and reconstruct my trip with the small details that mattered and fill in those blank pages. Those are the memories that take you back to a specific time, and risk being crowded out by day-to-day minutiae.

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The kayak trip…I’m the little yellow dot on the far shore

Spend Time Alone. Explore. Be still. Reflect. Be grateful. Notice the little things. Despite this being an anniversary trip, with apologies to my husband, some of my best memories of this trip were when I ventured off alone. I’d sneak in an hour or so each day to walk through the woods alone to a creek. Or I’d use walking one of the dogs as an excuse to venture down to the beach to watch the sunset over the water. My favorite alone time was renting a kayak early one morning on Jackson Lake, before the wind kicked up. I had the whole lake to myself. The water was perfectly still, and there, spread out in front of me, was not only the majesty of the Grand Tetons themselves, but a mirror reflection of them on the water. It was breathtaking and awe-inspiring. I felt reverence. I know that this moment of calm was something I will carry with me and pull out when the stress of everyday life begins to wear me down.

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Contemplating life at Jackson Lake, The Grand Tetons

Finally, as author Susan Jeffers famously said, “Feel the fear, but do it anyway.” I don’t climb around on mountain boulders, ranging in age from 250 to 600 million years, every day. Or ever, in fact. Nor do I get the chance to venture off into the woods (bear spray in hand) exploring, searching for the source of the rushing water sounds, when I’m comfortable in my suburban home. But vacation is the time when you can be whomever you want to be. Do the things your home self, your 9-to-5 self, your mom self would NEVER do. Be bold and wander.

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Smart Perks blogger, Melanie Bisson, gets up close and personal with the wildlife.

 

How We Celebrate the USA…

Fourth of July Dachshund Dog

On July 2, 1776 the Continental Congress of the United Colonies decided to declare independence from Great Britain. The declaration was formally adopted on July 4th. The actual signing did not take place until August 2, but I digress.

In a letter to Abigail Adams dated July 3, 1776, John Adams wrote that “the declaration of independence should be celebrated with shews, games, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of the continent to the other, from this time forever more.”

I’m fairly certain that not ONCE did he mention hot dog eating contests.

And yet, Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Stand has been staging the world’s MOST famous hot dog eating competition in Coney Island, New York, every July 4th since 1916. Nothing says God Bless America like polishing off 62 hot dogs in ten minutes. That feat was accomplished last year when competitive-eating maverick Matt Stonie unseated former Nathan’s Famous champ, Joey Chestnut, who chowed down on a mere 60 dogs in the sunny Coney Island heat.

Nathan's Famous July 4 Hot Dog Eating Contest 2015

Legend has it that the contest’s roots date back to 1916, when four immigrants held a hot dog eating contest at Nathan’s Famous stand to settle an argument about who was most patriotic. My country tis of thee, indeed!

Waving-The-Flag-Fourth-Of-July-Celebrations

The fourth of July is steeped in a lot of tradition. It’s the holiday that’s synonymous with red, white, and blue festooned everything, burning your finger tips on the spent end of a sparkler, Lee Greenwood singing “Proud to be an American,” and lots of artistically-rendered desserts featuring strawberries, blueberries and Cool Whip.

But I bet a good old-fashioned marathon up the side of an Alaskan mountain isn’t the first thing that springs to mind when you think of American independence, is it?

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Just two hours south of Anchorage, the party in Seward, Alaska begins at 12:01 a.m. on July 4th with fireworks. The biggest bang comes later that morning with the town’s famed race, Mount Marathon. The course is straightforward, but far from easy: start downtown, run to the top of the 3,022-foot mountain, then run back to the finish.

It’s rumored the race originated as a bet between locals that the mountain could not be tackled in less than an hour. Runners get schooled by steep slopes and gravity, inertia and loose shale, and are introduced to oxygen debt and lung capacity. The winners are usually locals who can practice on the mountain, or Alaska Olympians who can turn oxygen into speed. Happy birthday, Uncle Sam. Pass the oxygen canister.

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In keeping with the hot dog theme, in recent years it seems like Independence Day has really gone to the dogs, the wiener dogs. Those sleek and stealthy stubby-leggers can fly. Race fans flock to Canterbury Park in Minnesota to see the Doxies compete. Get-a-long little doggie!

Maybe it’s got something to do with America the beautiful’s “amber waves of grain” but tractor parades are particularly popular on the 4th of July from sea to shining sea. Living in the midwest, we’re especially proud of John Deere tractors, made in the heart of the heartland.

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And speaking of the sea, patriotic boat parades are an annual tradition from sunrise to sunset on July 4th.  It’s amazing to watch fireworks bursting over the water, their mirror images glittering on the surface, hearts swelling as kids sing The Star Spangled Banner – way off-key. We claim our spot in Excelsior Bay at dusk every year on the 4th of July.

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America’s 4th of July celebrations are as wildly vibrant, spirited and diverse as its citizens. It’s a beautiful thing to see us all continue to keep John Adams’ dream alive, over two hundred years later, with as much pomp and circumstance as he’d imagined. I hope you do your part to make Adams proud. Eat a bomb pop. Light a sparkler. Don’t forget the sunscreen or the bug spray. And enjoy a spectacular 4th of July!

For more ideas on celebrating the 4th of July and other holidays, be sure to visit the Smart Perks Pinterest page.

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Must read!!!

 

 

Smart Perks Blogger Melanie Bisson has her dog’s red, white and blue ensemble all picked out and ready to go for the big day.

 

The Perfect Mother’s Day Meal

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Was your mother always begging you to “Eat your vegetables!” like mine was? As a kid, I had no interest. Boiled Brussels sprouts and canned green beans? Blegh, no thank you. But between growing up and developing a more nuanced palate and finding new ways to cook vegetables in the current veggie-centric food world, I’ve become a veggie (and fruit!) fiend.

So mama, this one’s for you – here’s your Mother’s Day menu chockfull of those greens and things that abound in spring.

Though technically spring started in March, let’s get real: if you live anywhere in the northern or eastern states, you’re only now getting to really experience this awesome season. The beautiful greenery, fresh flowers, spring vacations, those warm but not hot days, and my favorite part of spring – the produce!

Asparagus, apricots, artichokes, fava beans, leeks, radishes, rhubarb, peas, carrots…  it truly is the best time of year for a fruit and veggie lover like me.

There are so many different options for how to use the spring crop bounty, but where to begin? It feels like for every time I see a new recipe I’m dying to try, the next day I find three new ones, and then they all just get lost in the bookmarks and I never end up making them!

But fear not. You don’t have to suffer the same sad fate as me, where I’ve followed the instructions to a t only to be left with starchy asparagus or smushy peas. Here is a menu collection of my favorite spring recipes – starting with an appetizer, ending with a dessert – that are as tried and true as can be. You won’t be wasting your precious spring veggies and fruits on disastrous recipes…just the absolute best ones.

Appetizer: Cauliflower-Leek Soup

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Photo from AllRecipes.com

I like this recipe for two reasons: 1) it switches out starchy potatoes for cauliflower, lowering the carb count, and 2) it’s pretty much as simple as sautéing a few ingredients and tossing them in the blender. Although this recipe calls for a warm soup, I actually have preferred serving it chilled, but both work.

Ingredients:

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 3 leeks, cut into 1 inch pieces
  • 1 large head cauliflower, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 8 cups vegetable broth
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 1 cup heavy cream (optional)

Directions:

Heat the olive oil and butter in a large pot over medium heat, and saute the leeks, cauliflower, and garlic for about 10 minutes. Stir in the vegetable broth, and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer 45 minutes.

Remove the soup from heat. Blend the soup with an immersion blender or hand mixer. Season with salt and pepper. Mix in the heavy cream, and continue blending until smooth.

 

Entrée: Crispy Catfish Sandwiches with Quick Cabbage Slaw, Plus Simple Spring Salad

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Yes, there is a bite taken out of the sandwich. Don’t judge me!

This is a personal recipe I based on a dish I had at a restaurant, and I’ve tweaked it over and over just to my liking. What’s great about it is you could totally substitute another flaky fish if you’d like, or even thin chicken cutlets, and although it is fried, the batter is so light it feels just indulgent enough without being heavy.

Plus, the salad is more than flexible – I’ve swapped radicchio for romaine, fresh French beans for radish, and tried a variety of dressings, though I’m partial to this vinaigrette.

Ingredients:

  • 1-3 whole French baguettes, or individual sub rolls per person depending on size of party
  • 1 catfish fillet per person
  • 1 cup shredded red cabbage
  • 1 lime
  • 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon creamy Dijon mustard
  • ½ cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon each cayenne, garlic powder, onion salt, paprika, and cumin
  • 2 hearts of Romaine (or lettuce of your choice)
  • 4-5 thinly sliced radishes
  • Handful of multicolored halved cherry tomatoes
  • Simple lemon vinaigrette dressing
  • Note: will use extra mayonnaise from side dish in this dish

Directions:

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. In a large bowl, mix the flour, 5 tablespoons of water, and half of the spice mixture, plus salt and pepper. In another bowl, mix shredded cabbage, the juice of the lime, the apple cider vinegar and the mustard, stirring well. Then place in fridge. On a dry plate pat the catfish dry. In a nonstick skillet, add just enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan on medium heat. Test the temp of the oil by adding a tiny drop of water; if it sizzles, you’re good to go.

Dredge the catfish in the flour mixture, then add to the nonstick skillet. Cook the catfish 4-7 minutes on each side, checking that it’s not burning or sticking but just turning golden brown and crispy. Once cooked, place on clean, paper towel-lined plate, and season with salt and pepper again.

Cut the bread of your choice, and toast in preheated oven gently, just until edges are turning a warm brown. Add the cleaned romaine (or other lettuce), thinly sliced radishes, and the tomatoes to the plate. Drizzle vinaigrette on top; add a grind or two of fresh black pepper. I like to garnish with finely chopped herbs, such as oregano, chives, or basil, but feel free to leave out.

Spread mayonnaise on toasted bread, add catfish fillet, topping with the quick cabbage slaw and serve warm with the side salad.

Side Dish: A Cozy Kitchen’s Roasted Asparagus

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Photo from A Cozy Kitchen.

This is an easy to make side that truly stuns (if you like asparagus, that is). Here, we’re doubling the recipe for the hazelnut mayo, adding half to the catfish sandwich. Trust me, it works, but if you have nut allergy concerns, just omit the hazelnuts. Also note: she calls for white asparagus, but I made it with only green and it works wonderfully; though she uses an immersion blender, I’ve used a regular blender and everything turned out fine.

Ingredients:

  • 2 whole large eggs
  • *1 cup sunflower or grape seed oil (a clean, mild-tasting oil)
  • *1/4 cup hazelnut oil (optional – if not using, then add 3/4 cup sunflower or grape seed oil)
  • Juice from 1 lemon
  • 4 teaspoon whole grain mustard
  • Salt
  • 3/4 pound green asparagus, washed and ends trimmed
  • 1/4 pound white asparagus, washed, ends trimmed and peeled
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Juice from 1/2 lemon

Directions:

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Place hazelnuts on a parchment-lined baking sheet and transfer to the oven to toast for 10 to 15 minutes. Immediately transfer warm hazelnuts to the center of a clean kitchen towel. Wrap the kitchen towel around the hazelnuts and rub them vigorously until all of the skins have fallen off. (A little bit of skin staying on is normal and totally fine.) Set nuts aside to cool.

Meanwhile, add the large eggs, sunflower or grape seed oil, hazelnut oil (if using), juice from lemon, mustard and a few pinches of salt to a tall plastic cylinder (note: most hand immersion blenders come with a tall plastic cylinder for blending). Allow the egg yolk to settle to the bottom. Using a hand immersion blender, stick the blade to the very bottom and blend on high for about 30 seconds; you’ll immediately see the mayonnaise begin to form. Slowly raise the immersion blender near the surface to incorporate all of the oil and until very thick. Salt to taste. In a food processor or using a knife, pulse the hazelnuts until they resemble a coarse meal, about 30 seconds. Add the aioli to the food processor and blend until completely incorporated and smooth(ish).

Preheat the broiler. On a baking sheet (you can use the same one you toasted the hazelnuts on), add the green asparagus in an even layer. Rub the asparagus with the olive oil, lemon juice and a few pinches of salt. Place the baking sheet under the broiler and roast for 5 minutes. At the 5-minute mark, add the white asparagus to the baking sheet. Place the baking sheet back under the broiler and roast for an additional 10 minutes. Serve the asparagus alongside the hazelnut mayonnaise.

Dessert: Smitten Kitchen’s Strawberry Rhubarb Pie

rhubarb pie

Photo from Smitten Kitchen.

You just have to end your meal on a sweet note. I tend to like more delicate little bits and pieces of treats, but my mom is a pie fanatic. This one perfectly walks the line between sweet and tart. Plus, it can be made up to 3 days in advance and left at room temperature, so you don’t have to worry about dessert the day of.

Ingredients:

  • 1 recipe All Butter, Really Flaky Pie Dough or double-crust pie dough of your choice
  • 3 1/2 cups (about 1 1/2 pounds, untrimmed) rhubarb, in 1/2-inch thick slices
  • 3 1/2 cups (about 1 pound) strawberries, hulled and sliced if big, halved if tiny
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/4 cup light brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 cup quick-cooking tapioca
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
  • 1 large egg yolk beaten to blend with 1 teaspoon water (for glaze)

Directions:

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. On a well-floured counter, roll half of pie dough into a 12-inch circle and carefully transfer to a 9-inch pie plate. (I like to fold my gently into quarters, to transfer it more easily, then unfold it in the pie plate.)

Stir together rhubarb, strawberries, sugars, lemon, salt and tapioca in a large bowl. Mound filling inside bottom pie crust and dot with bits of unsalted butter. Roll second half of pie dough into an 11-inch circle and cut decorative slits in it. Transfer it to center over the pie filling. Trim top and bottom pie dough so that their overhang beyond the pie plate lip is only 1/2-inch. Tuck rim of dough underneath itself and crimp it decoratively.

Transfer pie to a baking sheet and brush egg yolk mixture over dough. Bake for 20 minutes then reduce temperature to 350 degrees and bake for an additional 25 to 30 minutes, until the pie is golden and the juices bubble visibly.

Transfer pie to wire rack to cool. When full cool (several hours later) the juices gel.

So, just to recap: This menu has cauliflower, leek, cabbage, lettuce, radish, tomatoes, asparagus, lemon, strawberries AND rhubarb. Is that enough veggies (and two fruits!) for you, Mom?

Whether you make this full meal or just some of the recipes, you’re sure to host a home-run Mother’s Day luncheon. Just don’t forget the wine and spritzers!

wine and flowers

Katie U., a Smart Perks employee, wishes all mothers a wonderful Mother’s Day.

 

Meal Kits for Inspiration in the Kitchen

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I think we can all agree that simplifying weeknight meals is a top priority. Whether you’re a busy working parent or a retired Baby Boomer, trying to cook homemade dinners can be a real pain.

As a result, a lot of different meal  delivery kits have become popular in the past couple of years, such as Plated and Hello Fresh, but my go-to (and the most popular of the bunch) is called Blue Apron.

So what is it, you may ask?

Each week, you get mailed all of the ingredients (less salt, pepper and cooking oil) you will need to make a well-portioned meal, along with step-by-step recipe instructions with pictures. The services vary slightly, but in general, the meals are truly delicious while being reasonably priced (Blue Apron’s costs, for example, are $60 for 3 meals for 2 people, or 2 family style meals for 4 for $70).

Whereas some people who are new to cooking enjoy learning new techniques they never thought of before, I like trying ingredients I never would have purchased myself (chicken demi glace or the nut-spice mix dukkah, for instance).

Hello Fresh recipe

A recipe from Hello Fresh.

The team of Smart Perks is all about giving you the best bang for your buck, which is why I started meal delivery services in the first place. Shipping is free and you can cancel or skip weeks, but this way I’m not spending time driving to the grocery store, waiting in line behind the person writing a check while trying to calm their crying baby, and then ultimately making a meal that leaves leftover ingredients I won’t use.

Seriously, who among us finishes a whole head of cabbage in one meal, or the rest of the bag of arugula before it goes bad? It’s an awful feeling to throw away perfectly edible food because you didn’t use it before it spoils, and that’s a huge advantage to the carefully packaged individual portions of ingredients in meal delivery kits.

Now, on to the fun part: the meals themselves!

Since I already order Blue Apron, I chose to highlight one of their meals here, but I’m also including two sample recipes from the other major meal kit services. Hey, whatever floats your boat!

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Doesn’t this motivate you to try this dish?!

 

Blue Apron’s Trinidadian Chicken Curry with Coconut Grits and Collard Greens:

See what I mean about the recipes being exciting and different? I for one would never think to cook this meal on a Thursday night after a long day of working, exercising and volunteering, but here we are! Just cooking away at a fragrant Caribbean curry with toasted coconut and fresh lime and cilantro accents. Not exactly the type of meal I think of, but totally a dish I am happy to have in my repertoire. Warm, filling, and just the right amount of spice!

Ingredients:

  • 4 Boneless, Skinless Chicken Thighs
  • ¾ Cup Yellow Grits
  • 1¾ Cups Light Coconut Milk
  • 3 Cloves Garlic
  • 1 Bunch Collard Greens
  • 1 Lime
  • 1 Bunch Cilantro
  • 2 Tablespoons Dried Coconut Flakes
  • 1 Tablespoon Butter
  • 2 Teaspoons Trinidadian Curry Spice Blend (Curry Powder, Ground Nutmeg, Smoked Paprika, Dried Thyme, Ground Cumin & Ground White Pepper)
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The ingredients laid out for easy cooking.

Although I linked to the recipe, here are the basics:

Step 1 – Prepare all of your produce by washing and drying it. Combine the coconut milk, salt and 1.5 cups water in a medium pot and bring to a boil. Zest the lime, mince the rind, and quarter it. Pick the leaves off the collard greens and the cilantro, discarding stems. Peel and mince the garlic cloves. Dry off chicken and sprinkle on salt, pepper, and spice blend.

Step 2 – Cook the grits by slowly adding them to the boiling coconut milk mixture, then reducing the heat and whisking occasionally, cooking for 12 minutes. Turn the heat off, and add half of the butter and the lime zest, and salt and pepper. Keep covered.

Step 3 – As your grits cook, heat a nonstick pan until just hot. Add the coconut flakes and toast by stirring frequently for about 3 minutes. You’ll know they’re done when they’re golden brown. Then transfer to a plate.

Step 4 – Also while the grits are cooking, add 2 teaspoons of olive oil in the (now-empty) pan, adding the garlic and collard greens when it’s hot and seasoning with salt and pepper. Cook 2-4 minutes, and then transfer to a plate.

Step 5 – In the same pan used to cook the coconut and the collard greens, heat 2 teaspoons of olive oil until hot. Add the chicken and cook for 5-7 minutes, making sure to cook through. Turn off the heat, and then add: the rest of the butter, the juice of 2 of the lime wedges, 1 tablespoon of water, and salt and pepper to taste, stirring until combined (and mixing up the yummy brown bits from the bottom of the pan).

Step 6 –Divide coconut grits between two bowls, topping with the collard greens and pieces of chicken. Garnish with the coconut, cilantro and 2 leftover lime wedges.

Still not your thing? Try one of these recipes from Plated or Hello Fresh.

smoresS’mores Fondue – Can you say ‘yum?’ This Plated dish takes all of the elements of a delicious s’more and turns it into a one-pan delectable dessert in under 10 minutes. Crunchy toasted marshmallows sit atop chocolate ganache, just waiting for your graham crackers to dip themselves into the sticky treat. No campfire required.

Jamie’s Incredible Sicilian Eggplant Stew – This dish was created by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, a frequent Hello Fresh contributor. Combining rich eggplant with salty baby capers and olives, tart tomatoes and crunchy almond slivers all atop warm couscous certainly sounds like a brilliant idea.

For more recipe inspiration, check out the Smart Perks Pinterest page. Juicy Lucy cheese-stuffed meatballs, anyone? Be still my beating heart!

In the words of Julia Child, “No one is born a great cook, one learns by doing.” So try!

Blogger Katie U., a Smart Perks employee, can’t wait for her chicken curry leftovers for lunch.

Simple Heartastic Valentine’s Crafts

ValentinesFromTheHeart

Have you ever heard the saying, “Valentine’s day is a Hallmark holiday?”

Humbug!

With winter raging outside, what could be sweeter than a day spent in the craft room, making pretty things, and reveling in all things heartastical? That’s a word, right? Well, it should be.

Some people dream of warm, sun-drenched escapes. I dream of a dining room table covered with pretty papers, colorful ribbons, rubber stamps, felted wool, and lots and lots of glitter.

There’s something incredibly decadent and rejuvenating about taking some time for yourself to go off-the-grid. Turn off the tech, and tune-out the noise. Make stuff. Make meaningful stuff, that you put a little bit of yourself into, to share with your Valentines.

Here are a few ideas to get you started.

ValentineGiftWraps

Gift wrap from Cavallini Papers. Available at http://www.papersource.com.

Gift Wrap Valentines and Garlands

I found some really fun vintage and Victorian gift wrap at a local boutique and fell in love immediately. The texture and thick stock were fabulous. Too pretty to just wrap a package and have it torn up and thrown away. These Italian wraps can be found in 20 x 28″ sheets online at Paper Source.

ValentineGiftWrapGlueSissors

The first thing I did was use glue stick, thoroughly covering the back of  the wrapping paper and applying it to large sheets of tag board or thick card stock, to make it extra durable. Smooth, smooth, smooth with your hand and then set a couple books on top to make sure the paper is firmly adhered and your card stock doesn’t curl.

After just a few minutes of dry-time, it’s time to put your preschool construction paper cutting skills to work. I find this part remarkably relaxing.

ValentineGiftWrapCards

At this point, you can finish off individual Valentines with some additional flourishes such as red or pink glitter glue, fabric or Washi tape around the edges, or use a hole punch and adorn with tulle or grosgrain ribbon.

ValentineGiftWrapGarland

I decided to make a garland, and it couldn’t have been easier. I just used a hole punch and about 4 feet of red and white baker’s twine, and voila! Now I have a darling vintage garland greeting my guests, along the length of a shelf, when they come in my front door.

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Printables from Brit & Company. Find them on the Smart Perks’ Pinterest Board.

 

Valentine’s Printables

Given my affinity for cutting and pasting, my own personal Zen, I go crazy for free printables. You can find a zillion of them on the Smart Perks Pinterest boards. Here are two projects I completed this weekend.

The first are some sweet treats, Hershey’s Miniatures candy bars, wrapped in fun 90’s pop wrappers (see above). Too cute. Love to surprise my coworkers with a little something unexpected to make them smile.

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My second Free Printable Project was inspired by fellow blogger, Super Mom. This is an awesome and hilarious idea for a non-candy related Valentine that kids with allergies can enjoy. And it won’t be forgotten any time soon.  I simply glued the printed designs onto cardstock, cut them out, and I’ll use red and white baker’s twine to affix the darling Valentine’s Whoopee Cushions that I found online at Oriental Trading to the cards. I think you might want to save these for an in-home party though. Can you imagine a classroom full of third-graders with Whoopee Cushions? OH. HECK. NO.

 

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Fun With Felt

I love felt. Needle-felting is one of my favorite hobbies. It’s extremely satisfying to take a mound of raw, dyed wool and shape it into something completely new. There are many YouTube tutorials on needle-felting. All you need is clean wool, a felting needle and a piece of felting foam. Careful, those needles are sharp. I recommend Dream Felt on Etsy for all needle-felting supplies. Their wool colors are fabulous. I used their wool roving to make the felted wool hearts and ball garland shown in the main photo.

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But if you want to do something a little simpler, you can buy sheets of regular felt at Michaels or your local craft store, along with various Valentine shades of DMC embroidery floss, and create some one-of-a-kind Valentine’s coasters with a personal touch. I used some of my favorite song titles and lyrics, such as Tainted Love, You Sexy Thing, and Love is a Battlefield, to create unique Valentines that won’t be thrown away on February 15th.

You only need to know two basic stitches to complete these simple hearts – a running stitch for the word or design, and a blanket stitch to sew the two hearts together. Just cut two heart shapes from your felt, approximately 4 inches in diameter. Stitch designs on front (and back if you want), add buttons or other embellishments. Then blanket stitch the two hearts together, design-side facing out. Easy Peasy!

Obviously I had a busy weekend, working non-stop on my crafty fun times. But with 3 weekends left until Valentine’s Day, you still have plenty of time to try one of these projects, or one of the many, many others you’ll find on our Smart Perks Pinterest board. I love shopping! But handmade Valentine’s are good for the heart, and the soul! Enjoy.

Blogger Mel B., a Smart Perks employee, has pinholes in her pointer finger and a scissor blister on her knuckle.

 

 

 

 

BYOL: Bring Your Own Lunch

 

dual salads

I called this salad two ways. Because there’s nothing worse than a boring salad lunch.

Was one of your New Year’s resolutions to eat healthier? Or to save money? Well, I might not know how to curb your appetite or shopping habit, but I do know that bringing your own lunch to work every day can help you cut calories and cash flow.

I bring my lunch to work every day. Mostly, it’s leftovers from the dinner the night before; sometimes, it’s just a mishmash of ingredients I have in my fridge. Though I genuinely love everything about cooking – from the grocery shopping (I often say a well-stocked grocery store is my happy place) to the time I plate a nice, warm meal for my boyfriend and me, I enjoy every step in between. But even if you don’t love cooking, there are many different ways to make yourself a lunch that take less than 10 minutes…5 minutes, even! One really easy way to have a nice balanced lunch is to cut up a bunch of different fruits and veggies you have lying around, and then add some protein and a treat or two. Here, I had strawberries, blueberries, pineapple and oranges, white cheddar cheese slices and peanut butter on the celery, plus some treats (in this case, a slice of prosciutto and 2 squares of dark chocolate!)

fruit plate

Healthy lunch options

As many people are quick to point out, all too often prepackaged meals contain weird ingredients you don’t necessarily want to eat. Even if not, they also may be way too high in sodium or sugar. Because I like to know every bit of what’s going into my own body, I’m not a big fan.

 

I wasn’t always this way, though. One Friday night a month when I was a kid, my parents would go out on a special dinner date, leaving my younger sister and me behind with our babysitter Stephanie. I looked forward to it the whole month. Steph would paint my nails, do my hair in funny styles, and let me stay up late reading, warning me just before my parents got home so I could pretend to be asleep. The best part, though, was that I was allowed to choose my own dinner, and almost without fail I chose Stouffer’s frozen mac and cheese.

Mac and cheese

The stuff of my childhood dreams.

In my now six years of cooking post-childhood, I have become very resourceful, learning to create meals with my limited stash of groceries and even more limited amounts of free time. Typically, they’re fairly healthy, utilizing fresh ingredients and with a good macronutrient ratio. That said, it still cracks me up that it wasn’t my mom’s amazing meatloaf or chicken parmesan that I most looked forward to, but a dinky black box of frosted-over cheesy carbs.

Nothing sounds worse to me nowadays. Don’t get me wrong – I love a good mac and cheese meal, and I totally understand the convenience of transferring one item from freezer to microwave to mouth in under five minutes. However, those frozen meals come at a pretty big price, on both your budget and your waistline. There are so many delicious options you can make yourself using mostly fresh ingredients that are more filling, with feel-good vitamins and more texture than mush.

Again, I recognize that sometimes throwing a frozen meal into your bag or heading out for a $5 bowl of soup is easy and can be cheaper. But let me help make your meal decision-making easier: there are 3 kinds of perfect make-your-own lunch options, made simpler by making some ingredients ahead. For example, on Sundays, I like to roast a big batch of vegetables (my favorites are bell pepper, any kind of squash, potatoes, turnips and red onion) and make a large pot of soup, typically lentil or curry. That way, throughout the week, there is far less planning you have to do. You can blend the roasted vegetables with a bit of chicken stock and some spices, and have an easy and delicious soup, or the curry over rice for a filling but nutritious meal.

The Sturdy Salad, Super Soups and The Bold Bowl

1) The Sturdy Salad

Ever heard of this thing called kale? No? Hmm, that’s weird, because it’s everywhere these days! I truly love it, finding its fibrous bite much more satisfying than the wateriness of iceberg or limp romaine. Plus, it’s considered a superfood, with 134% of your daily Vitamin A and C requirements. It also has the added benefit of being able to stay dressed for hours without getting soggy, making it an amazing candidate for the make-ahead lunch.

One of my favorites is the Kale Caesar, with added veggies and a lighter dressing to keep the health factor high.

Greek Yogurt Caesar Salad Dressing

This dressing is so delicious, you truly won’t miss the oil, cream and egg-laden original. Promise!

  • ½ cup plain Greek yogurt (Note: you can use nonfat here if you want)
  • ½ cup Parmesan cheese, grated
  • 3 tablespoons milk
  • 2 tablespoons EVOO (extra virgin olive oil)
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 2-3 teaspoons anchovy paste or 5-6 rinsed and dried tinned anchovies
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 1-2 garlic cloves, minced
  • Pinch of freshly grated black pepper
  • ¼ teaspoon sea salt

Combine all ingredients but the lemon juice, either in a blender on low setting or in a mixing bowl with a whisk. Once smooth, slowly add in lemon juice, mixing it in, until you’re happy with the flavor.

Of course, you could make a regular Caesar with romaine, cherry tomatoes, croutons and extra parm, reserving the salad dressing for right before you eat lunch, and call it a day. Or you could try my version: toss torn kale leaves with some dressing, add cherry tomatoes, freshly trimmed green beans, radish slices, grilled squash, and any roasted veggies, like carrots or squash, I have lying around. Instead of croutons, I opt for toasted chickpeas for added protein and more flavor, but still the satisfying crunch.

tuna salad

This updated tuna salad from Eating Well is incredibly light but filling. Just wish I had that plate, too!

Other ideas for the perfect lunchtime salad include Tuna and White Bean Salad on top of mixed greens, BBQ Chicken Chopped Salad (I use this Avocado Greek Yogurt Ranch instead) and Greek Salad with Grilled Chicken. There are so many varieties of salad (have you heard of the Italian bread salad panzanella, or its Middle Eastern counterpart fattoush?) that you should never settle for something dull. When it comes to salad – especially during these harsh winter months! – you want something hearty enough that you don’t feel hungry after an hour, so look for protein add-ons (cheese, beans, tofu, lean meats like turkey and chicken, or fish) to spice things up.

2) Super Soups

I can think of only three things I like more than soup: cats, dogs, and soup. Wait a second…

Point is, I really like soup. Cold and spicy, hot and creamy, vegetable- or meat-based, I’ll never say no to a bowl of soup. The best part? It makes an incredibly easy (and often healthy) lunch, it can keep for up to 5 days in the fridge and 5 months in the freezer, and if you’re the one making it, you can size up or down depending on how many people are in your family.

Turkey ramen

Leftover turkey ramen, with a substantial portion of chili paste.

They’re also a great use of leftover meat; after Thanksgiving, I made ramen with the turkey carcass and topped with chopped up pieces of dark meat.

There are so many different soups to choose from, but right now, in the middle of winter, the height of cold season, and post-holiday excess recovery, nothing sounds better to me than a nice, bracing bowl of chicken soup. There’s a reason they say chicken soup is for the soul, and it’s an amazing mid-day pick-me-up during the workday.

Spicy Mexican Chicken Soup

This is not an authentic Mexican soup, but rather my interpretation of a Latin American classic. You could make your own stock (fresh, with a chicken carcass), but here I used ground chicken and previously made chicken stock (though store-bought would work, too!) Also, this recipe is all made in one pot, saving you dishes and time.

  • 1 lb ground chicken
  • 4 cups unsalted chicken stock
  • ½ yellow onion, diced
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 bell peppers, diced (I used one red and one green)
  • 2 carrots, diced or sliced
  • 2 stalks of celery, sliced thin
  • 1 28 oz. can of tomatoes (really, any would work; I used diced with oregano)
  • 1 15 oz. can of black beans, drained and rinsed
  • 8 oz. of corn, fresh, frozen or canned
  • 2 minced garlic cloves (I used 2 tablespoons minced garlic from a jar for ease)
  • A pinch each paprika, cumin, chili powder, dried oregano, black pepper, salt
  • For garnishes: cilantro, tortilla strips, cheddar or cotija cheese, scallions, avocado, sour cream or Greek yogurt

In large, heavy-bottom pot, heat 1 tablespoon oil on medium heat, adding in ground chicken and spices. Once cooked halfway through (about 4 minutes), add in all of the vegetables, stirring until combined and meat is cooked throughout and the vegetables have softened (in total, about 10 minutes). Add tomatoes, black beans, and stock, bringing the heat up to a rolling boil. Turn heat down to low and simmer for 20-30 minutes (or up until 1 hour). Serve hot, with an assortment of the garnishes.

Mexican Chicken Soup

The finished product, topped with grated white cheddar.

When I make this ahead of time for work lunches, I let the soup cool down, portion it out in individual Tupperware containers, and use these awesome little containers for the garnishes. Even if you don’t have a microwave at work, this soup is surprisingly delicious cold during summer.

3) The Bold Bowl

Arguably the simplest of the three, the “bowl” has really picked up steam in the past year or so. The concept is easy as pie: grains + greens + veggies + proteins. Add-ons are plentiful, such as different sauces, cheese, nuts and seeds, and combinations are endless.

Although you can certainly plan out the bowl ahead of time, like this fancy brisket bowl or Latin vegan bowl, but an even easier way of going about it is to make a big batch of grains (I prefer quinoa, for the protein content, or brown rice, for the heft) on Sunday and then add leftovers on top of it.

For example, are you making spaghetti and meatballs with roasted broccoli on the side for dinner? Make a couple extra meatballs and pieces of broccoli, reserve some of the tomato sauce, and get out your grains (brown rice would work really well here). Layer rice, meatballs, sauce, broccoli, add some grated parmesan and a pinch of red pepper flakes, and boom! Tomorrow’s lunch in no time at all.

Another favorite is to make a chimichurri sauce by putting different herbs, like cilantro and parsley, in a food processor with olive oil, red wine vinegar, a clove of garlic with salt, pepper and red pepper flakes and pulse until it’s fairly smooth. Then all you need to do is take some of the quinoa and roasted veggies from Sunday, and you’ve got a lunch bowl. Add beans or leftover meat such as chicken to really make it well-rounded, but it’s plenty tasty on its own.

I know in the short term it might just seem easier to run out and buy a sandwich at lunchtime, but that is costly in both time and money. With just a little planning, you can save so much in the long term. Plus, you’re showing yourself you’re worth more than an unsatisfying, premade egg salad sandwich. Trust me, it’s worth it.

Katie U., a Smart Perks employee, really does care this much about BYOL and hopes you will, too.

 

How-To: DIY Home Renovation Project

 

couple-decorating-interior (2)

“Your home should tell the story of who you are and be a collection of what you love.”
Nate Berkus

When my husband and I moved into our big two-story farm house in 1993, we knew it would take a lot of time, effort and money to update it. Besides having the wiring and plumbing redone to bring it up to code, the interior of the house needed a serious makeover. It was obvious the previous owners didn’t have any decorating sense whatsoever.

terrible interior

Though it wasn’t quite this bad, it was still pretty bad.

The walls in the dining room and living room were painted light green (the color of pond scum), the windows were hidden under heavy full-length drapes (the kind you’d find in a funeral home or the Munster’s house) and the floors were covered with filthy shag carpeting (I’m sure it harbored all kinds of nasty microscopic critters). The downstairs bathroom looked like it was straight out of a 1970’s flop house – big gold sunflowers against an olive green background, a grungy mustard-colored linoleum floor and a bathtub they probably hauled out of a junk yard. The bathroom upstairs had a long closet decorated with goofy duck stickers instead of a bathtub or shower. I kid you not. It was ridiculous!

Our realtor referred to this 1917 fixer-upper as the “Bates Motel”, but beneath all the unsightly trappings we could see that this place had a lot of character and loads of potential.

Bates_Motel

Not exactly welcoming…

For starters, beautifully carved woodwork, plate rails and beveled mirrors in the spacious dining room, bay windows in the dining room, living room and master bedroom, and underneath that hideous shag carpeting we discovered a magnificent oak floor with mahogany inlay. We were also impressed with the size of the kitchen – 17 ft. x 17 ft. with high 10 ft. ceilings – and the charming built-in cabinet, not to mention the transoms above the bedroom doors (something you’d usually find in grand hotels, not private homes.) Suffice it to say this house was a diamond in the rough.

Cathy's house.jpg

This is the detailing I’m talking about. Beautiful, huh?

After buying the house for a song, we decided we could save a lot of money if we tackled minor renovations ourselves. It’s taken quite a few years (and muscle) to do some of the improvements and, as with most old houses, there’s still plenty to do. But, anyone who has seen the before and after pictures will agree this place looks ten times better than it did when we first moved in.

If you’re thinking of remodeling your home, I have some ideas for easy and affordable upgrades you can do yourself.

guy painting

Look at that technique!

Red Walls

An example of a burgundy dining room.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Give walls a fresh coat of paint. Probably the easiest and least expensive way to change the look of any room is to repaint it. Think beyond the usual shades of beige and go with colors that reflect the mood or purpose of the room or your personal decorating style. For example, try bright yellow or tangerine in the kitchen, rich burgundy or hunter green in the dining room, and fresh lilac or jade green in the bathroom.

  • Need help selecting the right colors? Check out the interior paint guide at bhg.com
  • Learn how to paint like a pro with help from diynetwork.com

Restore or replace your flooring. If you’re lucky enough to have hardwood floors underneath your worn carpet (like we did) and they’re in relatively good condition, you may just need to spruce them up with a floor sander/polisher from a rental place or buy this handy Floor Scrubber/Polisher. You can always get an area rug if you want to add some color and warmth.

hand painting oil color on wood floor  use for home decorated ,house renovation and housing construction theme

It looks harder than it is, we promise!

On the other hand, if your floors are in bad shape, you’ll want to hide them under new carpeting or flooring. Look for special deals from Empire Today, one of the featured offers in Smart Perks.

Refinish cabinets, shelves and furniture. Instead of investing in new kitchen cabinets, consider refinishing your existing ones with paint or stain. Why not dress them up with different knobs or handles too?

Go to hgtv.com for a simple tutorial on refinishing kitchen cabinets.

Cabinet redo

Photo Courtesy of Pinterest User One Good Thing…

Replace faucets and sinks. Make an outdated bathroom look like new instantly by replacing your faucets and sink with more modern designs. You don’t even need a plumber to do it!

 

Re-tile the floor or backsplash. Tiling is relatively easy. All you need is a little know-how and the right supplies, like tiles (standard subway-style tiles are the most common and the easiest to install), a v-notched trowel, tile mastic (adhesive), a tile cutter, and grout. You can find most of these things at home improvement stores. Go to diynetwork.com for step-by-step instructions on tiling floors, backsplashes, showers and more.

Update window treatments. Get rid of those heavy drapes or dated curtains and put up some sleek new blinds, Roman shades or sheers. Or, you could create your own custom curtains, drapes, shades & more out of materials you already have on hand. Check out the amazing (and easy) DIY Window Treatment ideas from hgtv.com!

shades-products-roman-400

Just one of many options from one of our partners, 3 Day Blinds. Check out Smart Perks for a coupon!

You’ll also find some cool ideas in Melanie’s March 2nd blog post!

For supplies and products, look no further than Smart Perks! You’ll find some great offers from Build.com, Lowe’s, 3 Day Blinds, and more in our Home & Garden section.

Final Note: Before you invest in an older home, have it inspected by a professional to make sure it’s structurally sound. It’s easy to correct cosmetic flaws, but if the foundation is fragile you’ll have a nightmare on your hands. If you don’t believe me, rent the Tom Hanks’ movie The Money Pit!

Good luck and remember, it’s worth all of the effort once you see the fruits of your labor! Have any of you renovated your home yourself and have pics to send? Include them in the comment section!

Catherine B., a Smart Perks employee, may not be handy with a hammer, but she does know how to create an awesome honey-do list.