Archive for September, 2010

One of my favorite places to start decorating for the holidays is the fireplace mantel.  I think mantels make great backdrops (or canvases) for holiday decorating.

In general, I tend to prefer the more natural look and in most cases, the “less is more” look.  With fall decor in particular, I like garlands and leaves that look as real as possible.

Here’s a step-by-step process that I used this year for our fall fireplace mantel in our living room.  You can click on any of the pictures and they will enlarge.

First, I generally start with a cleared off mantel.  This time, I did keep my candles and amaryllis topiary, as I was pretty sure I would include them.

Then I took two identical garlands and placed them on both sides of my mantel, weaving the branches between the candles, hiding the bare ends behind the topiary (in the center of the mantel).

Next, I added some branches with sprigs of fall leaves, tucking them in the garland.

I have saved a few painted wood crafts (from my days of hand-crafting, years ago).  I tucked in a couple of pumpkins, behind the garland.

Last, I added several artificial pomegranates, resting them in hollows between the garland and fall leaves.

I ended up using an urn (that matches the topiary base), as I liked the depth and height it provides on the mantel.  It’s often more visually interesting if you vary heights of decorations on your mantel.


In our family room, I added a couple of Halloween decorations, along with a few sprigs of fall leaves and berries.

Here was part of our mantel, before adding fall decor.

I changed out the red candles with orange candles (tied with orange plaid ribbon).  Then I added a couple of branches of leaves and berries.

Next, I added a couple of Halloween woodcrafts (again, from the good ole crafting days).  Just adding simple touches of fall and Halloween.


It’s also nice to add a bit of the holidays to ledges on built-in cabinets and/or furniture.  This is the ledge above our family room built-ins.  Here, I added a Halloween woodcraft (that I bought) with a few branches of fall leaves.

And here, I added some calico fabric-stuffed pumpkins with some fall branches and berries.

Have fun decorating for fall!


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Oh how I wish I didn’t love bread!  If I let myself, I could eat bread for every meal.  That is … really good bread like fresh Ciabatta, Rosemary Olive Oil, Challah, Focaccia. You get the idea.

With that being said, a great use for bread is Panzanella Salad. Panzanella is a salad that was created to use day-old or leftover bread.  It’s combined with tomatoes, red onion, cucumber, basil and a balsamic, olive oil dressing.  It’s a great salad to make at the end of summer and into early fall when tomatoes are at their best.  If heirloom tomatoes are ripe, they are my preference for this salad.

I have two favorite recipes for Panzanella — one with Ciabatta bread and the other made with cornbread and avocado. In this post, I will share the ciabatta bread salad.

This recipe is from the Nordstrom’s Cookbook (Entertaining at Home).  My sister introduced me to this recipe when we made 6 BATCHES for my parent’s 50th anniversary party last year. (The recipe makes 12 to 14 servings).  Needless to say, we had a LOT of panzanella salad!!!

It’s a great salad to make for a party or when having guests for dinner. It’s colorful and fresh although it is usually a salad preferred by adults.

Panzanella Salad

Serves 12 – 14

For Croutons:

1 lb. ciabatta

1/3 cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Coarse Salt & Fresh Ground Pepper

For Salad and Dressing:

1 Cucumber

1/2 Small Red Onion

1 Large Red Bell Pepper

1 Large Green Bell Pepper

3 Large Tomatoes *

1/2 cup Fresh Basil, finely sliced

1 lb. Mozzarella Balls (Bocconcini, small 1 inch in diameter)

2 tsp. Coarse Salt

1 tsp. fresh Ground Pepper

2/3 cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil

1/3 cup Balsamic Vinegar

1 Tbs. Lemon Juice

1/2 tsp. Garlic Powder


1.  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

2.  Cut the bread into 3/4 inch cubes and drizzle with olive oil, salt and pepper.  Bake for about 15 minutes until lightly browned.  Croutons should be slightly crunchy, yet soft.  Allow to cool while assembling the salad.

3.  Cut cucumber, red onion, bell peppers, and tomatoes into 3/4 inch pieces.  Place in a large bowl.

4.  Drain and halve the mozzarella balls.  Add to the vegetables.

5.  Add salt, pepper, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, lemon juice and garlic powder into a small bowl.  Mix well.

6.  Add bread cubes to the large bowl of vegetables.  Toss.  Drizzle dressing and toss again.  Serve immediately.


  • This is another one of those recipes that you can buy all the ingredients at Trader Joe’s, although I usually buy the Ciabatta at Costco (package of two loaves).
  • * As mentioned above, I love to use ripe, heirloom tomatoes.  I usually add an additional tomato (or two) – depending on the size of the tomatoes I buy.  I pick the most flavorful and colorful of my options.
  • Personally, I don’t care for green bell pepper.  I usually substitute an orange bell pepper.
  • Chopped avocado is a nice addition.

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I promised Natalie that when she graduated from elementary school, we would redecorate her room during the summer before middle school.  That would be our “graduation gift” to her.

Natalie started looking through magazines (and the PBTeen catalog) well over a year ago.  She kept all pictures and ideas in a file folder, so when it came to decision time, she had all her ideas in one place.  She went back and forth between turquoise, black & silver and purple, black & white.  The purple room won.

Here are the “before pictures” of Natalie’s room.

She had a pale pink room with PB Kids bedding of flowers & butterflies. Perfect for a little girl. But, now she’s 11 and wants a more grown up and sophisticated room.

So, this summer we started the bedroom makeover project.

First, Natalie selected bed linens (from PB Teen — a white background with a black and purple floral print). Next, Natalie selected a shade of purple that she liked.  She picked 3 sample purples (from about 12) and painted swatches on her walls to help make the “purple decision”.

We found some cute black & white fashion prints at HomeGoods, along with a big black wire Eiffel Tower.  (Natalie LOVES the Eiffel Tower – since seeing it this summer.)

Her “mimi” (Jeff’s mom) painted a beautiful picture of white and lavender tulips on a black background.  And, we found some cute mirrored inspirational words and flowers that we put on her walls above her closet.   Dream … Imagine … Inspire.

Natalie has a bay window in her bedroom.  We talked about building a window seat. It would have been cute, but it didn’t seem very realistic that she would use it (except to pile up junk), because she wouldn’t have any walls to lean up against (it’s all windows).  She wanted seating of some kind … for when her friends come over.

We had an overstuffed chair in the kids’ family room that wasn’t being used much.  I found a cute black slipcover (Bed, Bath & Beyond) that fits the chair like a glove.  I found a fun black lamp (Lamps Plus) to hang above the chair and a black side table and now she has a very cool, teen lounge area in her room.

The biggest challenge was to find curtains.  I thought it would be easy to find a simple black and white curtain (without spending a fortune).  Target has some adorable curtains in black & white — zebra print and chandeliers, but they didn’t coordinate with Natalie’s bedding.  So, we went with basic white curtains with a black sheer netting.

There are a few finishing touches left (like putting pictures in the new frames).  As I’ve told Natalie, “a room is never complete … you always keep updating it and finding things to enhance it.”  The most important thing is that Natalie loves her new room.

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I love making chili in the fall and winter.  It’s one of those great meals to have on hand for busy school weeks.  I often make a double batch and freeze some.  It’s one of those meals you can leave on the stove and feed the family in shifts — when schedules don’t allow us to all eat together.

This recipe is from Cooking Light (with just a couple of changes).  It was featured on the January/February cover earlier this year.

While I like my chili spicier than this version, this is a great “family” chili.  And, since my family loves steak, this has become one of our family’s favorite chilis.

Beef & Pinto Bean Chili


1 lb. Boneless Chuck Roast, trimmed and cut into 1 inch pieces

3/4 tsp. Salt, divided

2 Tbs. Olive Oil

4 cups Onion, chopped (about 2 medium)

1/4 cup Jalapeno Peppers, minced (2 large)

10 Garlic cloves, minced

1  12 oz. bottle of Beer

1 Tbs. Paprika (Smoked, preferred)

1 Tbs. Ground Cumin

2 Tbs. Tomato Paste

3 cups Fat-Free Beef Broth

1  28 oz. can of Chopped Tomatoes

1  15 oz. can of Pinto Beans, rinsed and drained

Garnish Options:

1 Avocado, peeled and chopped

6 Tbs. Cilantro leaves, chopped

Sour Cream

Grated cheese

6 Lime Wedges


1.  Coat dutch oven with cooking spray and heat over high heat.  Sprinkle beef evenly with 1/4 tsp. salt.  Add beef to pan and saute 5 minutes, turning to brown on all sides.  Remove from pan.

2.  Add olive oil to pan, swirling to coat bottom.  Add onion and jalapeno.  Saute 8 minutes or until lightly browned, stirring occasionally.  Add garlic and saute 1 minute, stirring constantly.

3.  Stir in beer, scraping pan to loosen browned bits.  Bring to a boil and cook until liquid almost evaporates (about 10 minutes), stirring occasionally.  Stir in paprika, cumin and tomato paste.  Cook 1 minute, stirring frequently.

4.  Add broth, tomatoes, beans and beef.  Bring to a boil.  Reduce heat and simmer for 1  1/2 hours or until mixture is thick and beef is very tender, stirring occasionally.  Stir in remaining 1/2 tsp. of salt.

5.  Ladle chili into serving bowls.  Garnish with avocado, cilantro, sour cream, grated cheese and lime wedges.

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Welcoming Fall …

Goodbye to summer. Summer is officially over as of today – September 21st. Are you ready for fall?

This is my favorite time of year … from late September through December. While we don’t have a change of seasons in Southern California, we do start to get cooler, crisper mornings and evenings.


I love the holidays during this season – Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years. They are my favorites! They are such wonderful holidays to share with family and friends. And it’s a great time to bring the holidays into your home through decorations, fall/holiday recipes and family traditions.

I’ll start putting away my sea shells this weekend and pulling out my fall decorations. Stay tuned …

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I wanted to make a “fall” dessert the other night, so I experimented with several recipes.  The end result was a pumpkin bread cupcake with a maple, cream cheese frosting and a dusting of crushed toffee.

I started with TJ’s Pumpkin Bread & Muffin mix and followed the box directions for muffins.   I frosted them with Barefoot Contessa’s Maple Frosting recipe (lightened with whipped, light cream cheese) and then dusted them with crushed English Toffee.  The combination was fantastic.

As my mom would say, “What cupcake wouldn’t taste great with crushed English Toffee?”

Pumpkin Cupcakes

Makes 12 cupcakes

Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Bread & Muffin Mix

2 Large Eggs

1/2 cup Vegetable Oil

1 Cup Water

1/2 cup coarsely chopped English Toffee

Maple Frosting:

3 oz. light Cream Cheese, room temperature

1  1/2 Tbs. Unsalted Butter, room temperature

1/8 tsp. Natural Maple Flavor *

1/4 tsp. Vanilla

1 cup Confectioners’ (Powdered) Sugar


1.   Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Spray muffin tin with cooking spray.

2.  Combine eggs, oil and water in medium bowl. Add bread mix. Stir together until batter is smooth (1 to 2 minutes).

3.  Fill muffin tin 2/3 full.  Bake at 400 degrees for 18 to 20 minutes.  Let muffins cool completely before frosting them.

4.  To make the frosting, cream the cream cheese and butter on low in a medium-sized bowl.  Add the maple flavoring and vanilla extract.  With the mixer on low, slowly add the confectioner’s sugar and mix until smooth.

* If you don’t have maple flavoring, you may substitute with 4 or 5 teaspoons of real Maple Syrup (depending on the strength of maple flavor you wish).  You will need to add an extra 1/3 to 1/2 cup more powdered sugar to get desired consistency with frosting.

5.  Frost the cupcakes.  Sprinkle with chopped English Toffee.


  • I bought all the ingredients at Trader Joe’s (since I needed to get the pumpkin bread mix).  The Pumpkin Bread & Muffin Mix is a seasonal item at TJ’s (usually late September through winter).
  • I used TJ’s English Toffee bars.  It took almost 3 of the bars for a dozen cupcakes.
  • I used light cream cheese, but the original recipe calls for regular cream cheese.

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Bruschetta is one of the easiest appetizers to make.  In Italian, bruschetta simply means “grilled bread”.  There are many variations of bruschetta (depending on the topping), but it usually starts with sliced bread rubbed with garlic and topped with olive oil.

Bruschetta al Pomodoro (or tomato bruschetta) is one of my favorites.  It’s always a crowd pleaser.  You can certainly make the tomato topping from scratch (tomatoes, garlic, olive oil and basil), but I think the Trader Joe’s Fresh Bruschetta Sauce in the cold deli section is great.  I just add some cut up cherry tomatoes and fresh basil and it’s done.

Bruschetta al Pomodoro

14.5 oz. fresh Bruschetta Sauce (from TJ’s)

1 Baguette

1/3 c. chopped Cherry Tomatoes

Fresh Basil (~8 medium leaves)

Olive Oil


1.  Preheat oven to broil.

2.  Slice bread into 1/2 inch slices and arrange on a baking sheet.  Brush top sides of bread with olive oil.  (I omit rubbing garlic on the bread, as the bruschetta sauce already has quite a bit of garlic). Broil for a couple of minutes until edges of bread turn golden brown.  (Watch closely, so not to burn).

3.  Add chopped tomatoes and fresh basil to the purchased bruschetta sauce and stir.

4.  Serve grilled bread with tomato topping on the side.

I usually serve the tomato topping in a bowl and let guests add the topping to the bread themselves.  The bread can get soggy if you pre-assemble.

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