Friday, October 31, 2014

Spooky Friday!

It's Friday, it's Friday!

Cat-in-a-hat-o-lantern 2013
When I was a kid, the weekend was the Holy Grail, what we endured a whole week of school to get to (although I secretly enjoyed the lessons, if not the social dynamics, of school). As a young adult just starting out in my career, it was a chance to cut loose and relax - no shoes, no alarm clock, no responsibilities other than to clean my house.

Now, however, my weekends look very much like my week days. That is to say, chaotic! Because of early rehearsals and church services (at which I have to sing), there have to be shoes and alarm clocks and responsibilities. There are schedules to follow, work to be done, and bills to pay.

Being grown up isn't all it's cracked up to be!

For the third year in a row, I won't be passing out Halloween candy in my neighborhood. Now, before you break out the egg cartons, let me explain. For the last 2 years, I've had tech week during everyone's favorite spook fest. For those of you new to theater speak, this is also known as "Hell Week." It's a week of dress rehearsals that includes a lot of starting and stopping thanks to the addition of the "tech" - lights, sound, sets, props, orchestra, etc. But we're still in costume - that counts, right?

Darn skippy, it does.

This year, I'm blissfully free from Tech for another 5 weeks, but am going to see friends performing in The Rocky Horror Show. Quite appropriate, n'est pas? And this is not one of those movie screenings where people dress up and get super inappropriate. My college had a few of those, until they got so obscene that the administration had to ban it. No, this is the stage show, where ACTORS dress up and get super inappropriate. Totally different!

Side note - a few years ago, I auditioned for a production of Rocky Horror and was called back (i.e. shortlisted) for the role of Janet. I didn't get the part, and ended up not doing the show. This ended up being a blessing in disguise, since the guy they cast as Brad was one of my former students from my year of teaching. Talk about narrow misses of awkward situations!

So, to the 300+ kids who come through my neighborhood each year, my light will be off, there will be no candy, and stay the hell out of my flower beds! That goes double for you parents who cut through yards because you're too lazy to walk down to the sidewalk!

As I prepare for a weekend of costume parties, rehearsals and voice lessons, I'll leave you with sage words that my aunt shares with me as often as she can: Have fun, be safe, and don't pee on the slide (or on the sidewalk).

From l-r: Wicked Witch, Carmen Sandiego (not a German
Olympian, as one co-worker guessed!), Disco Bling King,
Orioles center fielder Adam Jones, Peacock
 All content and images are ©The Casual Diva, except where otherwise noted. Content may not be republished without prior consent of the author.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Mom's Potato Soup

We're only 4 days away from Halloween and the end of October, and it's finally starting to cool off outside. Not to say that it's been hot here, but the mild weather has definitely confused everything - including my crepe myrtle bushes in front of the house. They never decided if they wanted to bloom or not (usually they explode in a profusion of fuschia in early September), and now they can't decide if they want to go dormant. All of this is throwing off my winter garden prep schedule!

I'm too busy these days to deal with yard work anyway. Or cooking. Or dusting, vacuuming, mopping, or the eight million other chores that need to be done around the house. I really need that T-shirt that says, "I can't, I have rehearsal"! In addition to my normal round of church rehearsals and services, I have rehearsals for my current production, which goes up in December, a showcase performance for said production, a weekend of CD recording sessions, 3-4 auditions, a couple of concert performances as a featured soloist, a 5K, hosting Thanksgiving...and I know I'm forgetting a few things. That gets me through mid-December. Some days, I think it would be nice to be married, just to have someone else to help me with life's necessities. Like laundry. Or medicating the cat. Or winterizing the house.

One of the best things about the weather starting to turn cooler is that I can break out the soup section of my cookbook! One of my favorite go-to cold weather recipes is my mom's potato soup. She made up the recipe when I was a teenager, and it quickly became a family favorite (for once, a meal that we could all agree on!). I even made it in bulk in college when cooking for my starving friends.

I have no idea what the caloric content is for this soup, but it's not for acolytes of the carb-free craze. This is comfort food at it's finest, and it's one of my favorite things to make when I'm snowed in or just feel like I need to be warmed from the inside out! Even better - it's pretty easy to make!

Mom's Potato Soup
Serves 6


  • 6 large baking potatoes
  • 2 stalks celery, diced
  • 1 stick margarine or butter
  • 1/2 c all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 Tbsp instant onions
  • 4 c milk
  • Pepper
  • 1 ham slice (about 1 lb)

  1. Peel and quarter potatoes and place in a large dutch oven. Cover with water. Add celery. Bring to a boil and boil until potatoes are tender. Drain and cool.

  2. In the same dutch oven, melt butter. Add flour, salt, onions, milk, and a couple of dashes of pepper. Over medium high heat, whisk until smooth. Continue stirring until mixture thickens and comes to a boil. Lower heat to low or warm.

  3. Cube cooked potatoes and ham slice. Add potatoes, celery, and ham to the dutch oven and stir until thoroughly heated.

  4. Remove from heat and serve!

All content and images are ©The Casual Diva, except where otherwise noted. Content may not be republished without prior consent of the author.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Wine, Sushi, and the best thing I've ever put in my mouth

Birthday week continued over the weekend. Of course it did! What's birthday week without weekend festivities?

Friday, my friend and co-worker Eva insisted on taking me out to dinner. We settled on sushi (since we both love it and don't eat nearly enough of it), then going to Black Ankle Vineyards to listen to music, taste wine, and chill in front of the fire.

Black Ankle is one of the few estate wineries in Maryland - meaning that the grapes for their wines come entirely from their own vineyard (many wineries will import grapes from other areas, like California or Argentina, so that they can incorporate varietals that don't grow particularly well in their region). Usually, in Maryland, this means sweeter wines, with the cooler and wetter climate here causing increased sugar levels in the grapes. (Yes, I am slightly a wine nerd. In fairness, I worked for a winery for a while, and went from knowing pretty much nothing about wine, to knowing slightly more than nothing but able to talk like I know what's what!)

Eva and Kelly after a bottle of wine,
too much sushi, and lots of laughs.
But the wines we tried at Black Ankle were lovely dry reds (they are sold out of whites for the season). We bought a bottle of their Slate II, which is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot. I think my favorite, though, was the Passeggiata VI, which was the first wine we tasted. Dry but not heavy, with a bit of spice - this is my ideal type of wine!

Once our bottle had been uncorked, we settled inside (it was crowded around the fire pits outside, and we kind of wanted to see the sushi we were eating) with our food, our wine, and conversation, of which there is never a shortage with us!

Before we knew it, it was closing time, but we still had dessert to enjoy. Eva had insisted that we get the Tempura Cheesecake, and even though they were cooled, OMG. Seriously, the most incredibly awesome thing that has ever entered my mouth. Okay, that didn't sound right, but I don't care. I'm asking Tempura Cheesecake out on a date, because it seriously doesn't get better than that!

The next day, I reluctantly got out of bed to go to rehearsal (I don't get hangovers, but it had been a late night, and Saturdays used to be my only day not to wake up with an alarm. But that's not the case as long as this show is happening). But then it was time for Family Birthday time!

My brother offered to host, which is new, so Mom brought food, we all brought presents, and we settled in to be spoiled rotten. Since my brother is recently single, he has many practical needs. Believe me when I say I've never seen a man so excited to receive silverware as he was! I wish I had gotten a picture of him hugging his new Crockpot!

I was also pretty proud of the "creative" gift I had made for him. In keeping with the dining theme, I made a binder of some of his favorite recipes, and added dividers and page protectors so that he can continue to build his own personal cookbook. I had forgotten to make a cover page on the computer, so I had hand-drawn (with old Crayola markers I found in basement that, surprisingly, hadn't dried up) a cover declaring the book to be "Shawn's BIG Binder of Good Eating". Cheese-tastic, I know, but that's just how we roll in our family.

My family was entirely too generous to me, but I love that they care that much. One of my favorite gifts was the soundtrack to "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder". When I saw this cast perform at the Tony Awards in June (and they most deservedly won the Best Musical award), I fell instantly in love with the show. I'd love to go to New York to see it. I'd love to DO the show. But I have a feeling it's going to keep running on Broadway for quite a while yet, because it's amazing. More operetta than musical, it's the story of a poor man who starts bumping off the members of the family standing between him and an aristocratic title (all of whom are played by the same actor). It's witty, well-written, and undoubtedly unique.

I promise that next week I'll get back to DIY awesomeness, but the last week has been too busy and full of distractions to focus on creating. Plus, my kitchen is a mess, the piano tuner is coming tomorrow, and Georgia keeps insisting on knocking over my plants (I'm starting to think it's deliberate).

All content and images are ©The Casual Diva, except where otherwise noted. Content may not be republished without prior consent of the author.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Five Things I Love About Birthday Week

So, I had a birthday this week.

No matter how old (or rather, closer to middle-aged) I get, I still look forward to my birthday every year. In so many ways, I've been the serious, responsible girl since I was a young girl. But when it comes to my birthday, I'm downright giddy and as excited as a little kid!

It doesn't hurt that since I was six years old, we've kind of treated birthdays as a multi-day or week-long event. With my brother's birthday landing the day before my own, it would have made sense for my parents to combine the celebration into a single party, but they never wanted us to feel shortchanged. So instead of a joint party, we'd have massive sleepover parties that lasted for an entire weekend and were packed with outings, games, entirely too much sugary food, and lots of friends. Mom ate it up - she loved having a houseful of kids running around having fun. I'm pretty sure Dad hid outside and did yard work to escape most of the chaos!

Now that we're older and busier, birthdays have extended to full weeks (mostly due to scheduling demands). For the last two years, I've even had show rehearsals on my birthday. This year, it was a choir rehearsal. So the fun gets strung out in drips and drabs, but that just makes the celebration last!

Here are my favorite things about Birthday Week:
  1. The baked goods. In case you haven't figured it out from previous posts, I love baked goods. Pretty much all baked goods work for me, although I'm rather partial to pie. This year, one of my young castmates baked me cookies, my co-worker Stacy made Chocolate Peanut Butter Oat Bars for the office, and Mom is providing a pie for our birthday dinner tomorrow. And undoubtedly, Mari, who is an expert baker, will come up with some amazing surprise when I celebrate with her and Dave next week. Not to mention the fact that years ago, I traded in birthday cake for something much more delicious and season-appropriate -  Apple Dumplings. I have a feeling I'm going to be treating myself sometime very soon!

  2. The greetings. I've never been a big one for greeting cards for any occasion - I think it's an unnecessary gimmick that we're now guilted into spending money on. But every year, I love hearing from people on my birthday. Say what you will about Facebook, but the flood of posts and private messages on my birthday (and in the new version of Facebook, there is fireworks animation!) always gives me a warm buzz. (And I can always count on the immensely talented and truly delightful Anna Campbell to be the first "Happy Birthday" I get, since Australia is well ahead of us in time zones!) Add to that the texts, phone calls, in-person well wishes, emails, and endless renditions of "Happy Birthday", and I am well-reminded that I am loved by a group of truly wonderful individuals!
  3. The disturbing picture that my Aunt created and posted on Facebook.
    She's a little bit warped, but I adore her anyway.

  4. My brother. What? Yes, I mean it. My brother and I have pretty much always been close, and I think part of that stems from the fact that we very nearly share a birthday. I actually have a very clear recollection of the first time I ever laid eyes on my kid brother - after dropping the neighborhood kids off following my McDonalds birthday party (remember when that was a thing?), my dad and grandparents drove me to the hospital to see my mom. Dad pointed through the window into the nursery and said, "That's your brother." At just over 24 hours old, he wasn't that impressive to look at, at least, not to a six year old. But since then, I've definitely come to realize he was the best birthday present I ever got.

  5. The season. Really, October is a grand time to have a birthday. Sure, it's not pool party weather, but I've never had a pool, and I don't like to be hot. There's just this incredible crispness to the air that screams fall. The leaves are changing colors. Apples and pumpkins are in season. Christmas is still far enough away that it hasn't stolen the show yet. It's really the best month there is.

  6. The food freebies. I am officially signed up for so many birthday freebies that my inbox is flooded every October. From free burgers at Red Robin to free ice cream from Cold Stone Creamery, it's definitely a glut-fest. Every year, I get more coupons than I can possibly use in the 2-4 weeks that they're valid, and not end up looking like Jabba the Hutt. Thank goodness my free pastry at Panera Bread is available until December...
What are your favorite birthday traditions?

All content and images are ©The Casual Diva, except where otherwise noted. Content may not be republished without prior consent of the author.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Soft Pretzel Bites

Last weekend, it was sunny and gorgeous outside, and I stayed holed up on the couch, coughing until I had no voice (amongst other lovely side effects).

This weekend, the weather was gray, drizzly, and just generally unpleasant. My two favorite baseball teams squared off in the ALCS championship here in Baltimore, and my Orioles just couldn't pull it off (seriously, what was up with our pitching?), but my extended family out in KC are all doing the happy dance. And I was off-the-wall busy this weekend! After cooking dinner for my brother, who has the flu, and watching the O's lose on Friday, I dashed off to the homestead on Saturday for a sewing day with my mother followed by watching a family friend make his stage debut at the theater I got my start in. I've known the kid since I was taller than him, and now he's playing Lurch in "The Addams Family"!

But on Sunday, I got down to business. October business, that is.

Georgia played dead.

All around the web, people have been posting pumpkin spiced this, and apple caramel that. And that's all well and good. But to me, October is about all kinds of baking. Whether it's apple dumplings for my birthday (I'm so looking forward to these this week!) or Mexican cornbread or peanut butter oatmeal muffins, I am inevitably bitten by the baking bug as soon as the crisp autumn air swoops through the region.

This year, I decided to try something new. As a kid, I was fascinated by soft pretzels and always wanted to learn how to make them. My mom insisted that they were too much work. Now I have my own kitchen, so I thought I'd (finally) give it a try. They are a bit of work, but so incredibly worth it!

I found quite a few recipes online, each varying just a tiny bit. A work colleague suggested using this recipe, and since Alton Brown is The Man, this was the recipe I went with (you just have to appreciate a man who understands the science behind his art!). Boy was it the right choice! These soft pretzels were amazing! I made them into bites - cutting each of the 24-inch dough ropes into 1-inch pieces instead of the the traditional pretzel shape. I wanted to be able to ration them out a bit more than for just 8 pretzels, which is what the recipe makes. But they're so delicious that they may not last as long as I hoped!

One of the things that surprised me as I was teaching myself how to do this is that the dough, once shaped, has to be briefly boiled in water and baking soda. This struck me as a bit strange, but as I was doing that step, I noticed that it visibly changes the consistency of the dough, which is pretty nifty. Science at work!

Tonight, I'm hoping to mix up a beer-cheese sauce to dip them in, but they're so delicious, they don't really need any embellishment. Last night, I was popping them into my mouth without any extras, and they were mouth-wateringly wonderful!

All content and images are ©The Casual Diva, except where otherwise noted. Content may not be republished without prior consent of the author.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Egg Drop Soup

October has always been my favorite month. It's not just that it's my birthday month, although I'm sure that was a contributing factor when I was a kid. It's because this is when autumn, my favorite season, really kicks into full gear.

Growing up on the East Coast, in the woods, fall always meant raking leaves and then jumping into the leaf mountains (we had so many trees in the yard that there were no mere leaf piles for us!). It meant Dad wheeling us around the yard in the wheelbarrow. It meant that special crispness in the air that you can almost taste.

October was also the month that meant great things on the food front. We learned to make apple cider from apples we had picked ourselves. Mom taught me how to make apple dumplings (which I still make in lieu of birthday cake) with pastry crust so thick and flaky you just can't get enough of it. We toasted the pumpkin seeds we scraped out before making jack-o-lanterns, then ate them like popcorn. Hayrides and bonfires and marshmallows toasted in the great outdoors - this is the legacy of growing up in the country.

This October, I looked forward to all of this and more. Unfortunately, I started the month off with the head cold from hell. I'm a big snotty, coughing mess right now, so I can't even enjoy the smell of fall in the air.

When I was a kid, my mom always made me chicken broth to drink out of a cup by straining the noodles and chicken out of Campbell's Chicken Noodle Soup (don't ask me why, but it worked). As an adult, the sheer saltiness of condensed soup actually has the opposite effect on me. I vastly prefer to go buy a jug (aka, a quart) of egg drop soup from my neighbor's restaurant. Yesterday, that's all I could think about - drowning myself in the smooth egg-y splendor (and breathing, but that wasn't going to happen).

Except, I'm not eating out these days. Darn those New Year's resolutions!

So, the dilemma: violate my principles and just buy the stupid soup, or come up with an alternate solution.

The answer: You know, I bet I could make my own egg drop soup.

Even when sick, I'm determined to have a little adventure...

Egg Drop Soup

4 cups chicken broth
1/4 tsp salt
1/8 tsp ginger
2 Tbsp green onions, chopped (about 2-3)
2 eggs
3 tsp cornstarch
  1. In a medium saucepot, combine 3 1/4 cups of the broth, salt, and ginger. Bring to a rolling boil. Add the onions.
  2. In a small bowl, combine the remaining 3/4 cup broth and the cornstarch. Pour into the boiling soup mixture.
  3. In a separate bowl, whisk eggs til thoroughly beaten. Using the whisk or a fork, drizzle the egg mixture into the boiling soup mixture. Eggs should cook instantly.
  4. Spoon into bowls and serve while hot.
**Lessons learned: I added the cornstarch mixture last, because that's what the recipe I was using as a guide called for. However, this left the texture a bit chunky, rather than smooth like I'm used to in restaurants. After doing a bit more research, many people suggested adding the cornstarch BEFORE the eggs, so I've altered this recipe accordingly. Let me know how yours turns out!

All content and images are ©The Casual Diva, except where otherwise noted. Content may not be republished without prior consent of the author.