the usual bliss

today is the happiest day

Flashback: Glacier National Park

We hop a plane to the paradise of Kauai this weekend, and I’m eagerly anticipating the change of scenery- to be immersed in all of the things that are different than home. The local food and drink. The warm climate. Vibrant color everywhere. Sun on my skin and the sea in my hair. The lush tropical vistas, opposite of the ones I’m used to. I love traveling because I get to experience another way of life- and come home appreciating my own a little bit more.

Until I return with Kauai stories, I thought I’d share a magical, too-short portion of our incredible 5-week road trip in the summer of 2011. It wasn’t our first jaunt with Betty, our 13-foot cottage-on-wheels; we’d spent a couple of weeks getting to know each other earlier in the season. Our vague yet ambitious plan for this second trip was to head north from Utah, turn left before we entered Canada, spend time in Seattle with my brother, and head south on Highway 1 until we reached San Francisco. If I tried to describe the countless wonders and adventures we encountered on that trip, I’d fill a book… so I’ll simply share a snippet.

By the time we reached Montana’s stunning Flathead Lake, we’d already been on the road for a week. We’d revisited site #13 at Warm River in Idaho, right on the water. Our favorite hippie couple had made us delectable sandwiches at the Mountain Market and Deli in Island Park. We camped at the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River, where we almost kidnapped two adorable baby pit bulls (pre-Cholula!). We tried out our brand-new paddle board on Henry’s Lake and John fished at sunset. We’d stopped for a picnic in Yellowstone and hiked Sage Creek Trail before landing in Bozeman for a few days of fun with our dear friends.

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We’d resumed our comfortable routine with Betty; we could unhitch and have camp set up before we’d even finished our first happy hour cocktail. As was our habit that summer, we made no campground reservations. We simply wandered until we found the perfect spot to call home for the night- and our luck had been spectacular.

Now there we were, ready to park Betty and explore. Not surprisingly, there was not a camp spot to be found anywhere on the east side of Flathead Lake in mid-August. We drove past numerous summertime cherry stands and “campground FULL” signs before stopping in charming Bigfork to regroup. Pointing at the little tent insignia on the map, we headed for Hungry Horse Reservoir. A long, bumpy drive down a dirt road was worth it and we found a beautiful, secluded campsite overlooking the lake. The best part: it was not far from Glacier National Park.

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We drove along Lake McDonald, stopping for photos and soaking in the views. It felt like we had stepped inside a painting. The glacial water was every shade of aqua and the clouds were spaced perfectly in the big Montana sky. I’ve spent a lot of time in the mountains, but I’d never seen anything like this.

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We headed for Logan Pass, driving up the harrowing Going to the Sun Road. The views from every side were breathtaking. We bypassed the crowd at the visitor’s center and headed toward the trail to Hidden Lake. Even in August, we donned our thermal shirts and slogged through slushy snow.

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We were turned away from the trail by a park ranger who told us a stubborn mountain goat was blocking the way. We spied on the goat for a while, watching him amble down toward the lake. What a happy beast he must be to live here.

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We wanted to get back to camp before sundown, so we turned back toward the truck, watching another little goat family munching appetizers in a meadow full of flowers. The light on the peaks as we headed down the hill was warm and glorious.

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We stopped to admire my dream cabin before grilling up another one of our fabulous camp meals. Afterward, John serenaded me on his guitar by firelight while I sipped wine. During that trip, so many days were as ideal as this. We knew then, in that brief time of life between jobs and before babies, that we were living a dream. 

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The next day, after an early morning paddle on the lake, we packed up and left the reservoir. Our one and only time commitment required that we get to Seattle in two days. My one regret about that portion of the trip is how little time we spent exploring the park. We pointed west near the Canadian border, toward the Methow River Valley and Northern Cascades National Park. There, we’d hike through hundreds of wildflowers and John would trick me into a much longer trek than I’d wanted. My reward was what has to be one of the most incredible views in America (see the masthead above!).

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But that’s another travel story for another day. I’ve got plenty of them.

Have a good week!

Need an escape? Dive into the Travel Bliss page!

One year ago: I took a look back on my trips back to California over the last few years.

 

Lemony Greek Pasta Salad.

One of the wonderful things about living in a mountain town is that I get to experience all four seasons. As a native Southern Californian, I grew up in the sun. It wasn’t until I’d lived in Colorado for a few years that I began to eagerly anticipate the transitions that happen year-round. The joy of watching the leaves redden in autumn. The delight of the first snow. The relief of sliding your feet into flip flops for the first time. How spectacular- and fleeting- those perfect summer days truly are. I’ve made no secret that I’m ready to bid adieu to winter; I’ve joyfully been watching the last snowdrift on the back patio melt away. The reason springtime is so magical is because it feels like it takes so long to arrive.

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The other day, I shared many of the things I’m looking forward to this season. A major thing that I left out is the FOOD. Gardens are beginning to wake up; there’s an abundance of asparagus and artichokes and peas. As the days get warmer, I crave the lighter dishes full of bright, fresh flavors, like this Greek-inspired pasta salad.

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To get started, I boiled some gluten-free pasta. I chopped up tasty veggies and herbs: cucumber, tomato, red onion, basil, mint, and parsley. Fresh herbs lighten any dish, don’t they?

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I also chopped up some jarred artichoke hearts and drained some canned garbanzo beans. Yummy!

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The dressing is a key part of this recipe. I took notes from Joy the Baker’s dressing and combined olive oil, honey, Dijon mustard, lemon juice, and salt and pepper. It’s the perfect combination of tart, sweet, and savory.

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I drained the cooked pasta and added the veggies and herbs. Over the top, I added the zest of a lemon before adding the dressing. Last came a healthy handful of crumbled feta cheese.

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This pasta salad is colorful and delicious, and was a cinch to make. You could add shredded chicken or grilled shrimp for a more substantial meal. I found it to be just right for lunch, straight from the fridge- it’s best served chilled to keep the cucumbers crisp! It would be ideal as a side dish, perfect for a picnic: happily devoured in the spring sunshine, feet in the grass, dog at your side. Ahhhhh.

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What are your favorite seasonal recipes? Share with me!

Lemony Greek Pasta Salad (adapted from Joy the Baker)

You’ll need:

  • A pound of cooked pasta, cooled
  • Half a cup chopped cucumber
  • Half a cup chopped tomato
  • ¼ cup chopped red onion
  • Half a cup chopped artichoke hearts (jarred)
  • Half a can garbanzo beans, drained
  • ¼ cup each chopped mint, basil, Italian parsley
  • 1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese
  • Zest of one lemon
  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
  • 2 teaspoons honey
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Whisk together olive oil, lemon juice, Dijon mustard, honey, salt and pepper. In a large bowl, mix the pasta with the veggies, beans, herbs, cheese, and lemon zest. Pour the dressing over the pasta salad and stir to combine. Adjust seasonings as needed and enjoy sitting on a sunny patio with bare feet. Yum!

Hungry for more? Check out the recipe collection on the FOOD BLISS page!

One year ago: I was honored to be featured on a blog that shares my belief that living a happy life is a choice

Bliss Bits 4/9/2014.

There’s a particular feeling when you’re nearing the end of a trying time and you begin to feel like yourself again. It’s as if a veil has been lifted and the beautiful things in life are re-revealed. It feels natural to smile at the little happy things in every day, to feel gratitude often. Breathe in, breathe out… and see all of the good around us. Here is this week’s “good”….

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I’m beyond eager to begin our Kauai get-away this weekend.

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A gorgeous flower arrangement sent from two dear, far-off friends.

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Date night out: sushi and sake!

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The trees in Salt Lake City are blossoming like crazy!

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Nancy was in town. We had a fabulous, long wine lunch like the old days!

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Sometimes this is far more appealing than homemade anything.

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Miraculously, we didn’t get rained on during this hike!

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I often bring home rocks from our explorations. I love this color.

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First outdoor grilling of the season! #hallelujah

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Sweet puppy paws.

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So much fruit lately!

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Tulips, blue sky, plump birdies.

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I love the rock formations on this trail.

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Desert flowers.

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My view while doing sit-ups during commercials.

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Happy blogiversary to me! I made rum punch.

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Heart.

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Big blue sky.

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This cocktail was made with apple puree and dill. Yummy!

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Two weeks later, I’m still finding feathers!

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One year ago, it dumped snow.

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Two years ago, I met Miss Macy for the first time. She was just four days old!

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Three years ago, I was on the beach on the Big Island!

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And here’s the in-bed scene from this morning.

You know. Just the usual bliss.

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One year ago: I shared my dear friend Liz’s Italian Sausage Soup recipe. Delish!

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Sweet anticipation.

Last week, I wandered over to the snowy side of our valley for a hike under the pines.

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In addition to the familiar muted crunch of my footsteps in the fresh snow, I heard something glorious: the chitter-chatter of happy birds in the canopy above me. Their song reminded me that while Old Man Winter continues to make surprise appearances, the sweetness of warm spring days is coming. Here are a few things that I’m eagerly anticipating for the season.

Al fresco dining. Green trails and daily hikes in the sun. The yard coming back to life. The first appearance of the ground squirrels that torture Cholula.

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Flowers everywhere- in my home, on the hillside, in my garden. Pedicured toes, warm weather shoes, and a happy reunion with my dresses. Dog diving!

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The first road trip of the season. Camping in Betty!

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Simply, more of life lived outdoors.

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What are you anticipating for springtime? Share with me!

One year ago: The finale from last year’s springtime escape to Southern Utah and Colorado.

Two!

Two years ago, I thought it would be fun to start a blog.

Once I’d decided to dive into this project and had an overall vibe in mind, I spent days trying to figure out the best name for it. Everyday Joy? Ordinary Happiness? I had a clear intention and so much to say- I giggle now at the fact that sometimes, I posted twice in a day. I calmed down over time, settling into a comfortable pace and excitedly sharing bits of my life. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but that’s ok- what started off as a project that made me happy remains just that. I enjoy my time here in Blog Land.

Obviously, in two years, every day can’t be blissful sunshine and butterflies. We’ve experienced our fair share of heartbreak and struggle in all sorts of areas (Dear 2014: No more, please.) While this blog does reveal quite a bit of my real life, I don’t always write about difficult times. They’re private, and that’s not really what The Usual Bliss is about. As I wrote in my very first post, it’s about recognizing and celebrating the little smiles as well as the big joys…and perhaps inspiring some of you to do the same.

With 558 posts, 16,520 photos (eep!), and twice as many readers as last year, two years feels good. I’ve moved beyond analyzing blog stats, but feel humbled when I take a look at them. I love a good party- and what better way to celebrate a milestone than to clink a glass?

With a tropical vacation creeping up on us next week (yay!), I’ve been craving fruity sunshine drinks. I first tasted the perfect Rum Punch at a bar on the island of Vieques, just off of Puerto Rico. It was made from fresh local fruit juice, local rums, and I sipped it on a patio with a view. The aquamarine sea, the vibrant flowers, the kindness of the people, the Puerto Rican rum… you could taste it all in one sip.

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Miguel, the bartender, would not reveal his method- but over the years, I’ve had fun trying to mimic the flavors in his masterpiece. I vary the combination of juices based on what I have, but there are a couple of necessary ingredients to make this cocktail special: light AND dark rum, and nutmeg. The nutmeg might have you raising an eyebrow, but trust me on this. When combined with the flavor of the dark rum, it changes everything.

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Mix up a shaker of Miguel’s Rum Punch, daydream about warm days ahead, and cheers to another year of bliss. As I said last year, thank you for making this project worthwhile and rewarding for me.

To another year! **Clink**

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Miguel’s Rum Punch

Makes one stiff drink.

You’ll need:

  • A generous shot of light rum
  • 1 ounce cranberry or pomegranate juice
  • 1 ounce orange juice (freshly squeezed, if possible)
  • 1 ounce pineapple juice
  • Juice of half of a lime
  • Generous splash of dark rum to float
  • Grated nutmeg to taste (fresh is best)

In a shaker, combine a shot of light rum and the fruit juices. Shake to mix and pour over ice. Float some dark rum on the surface of the cocktail and give it a few shakes of nutmeg. Garnish with pineapple.  Leisurely stir with a straw while sipping in the sunshine, celebrating a milestone- or nothing at all. That’s the Usual Bliss way.

Still thirsty? Here are more drink recipes!

Check out my first blogiversary post.

Bliss Bits 4/2/2014.

Happy April! This is it- the transitional month where spring really SPRINGS! What a week- highs and lows and everything in between. Here’s a look back at what made me smile over the last seven days.

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Sometimes only pizza will do.

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Always nearby. 

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Amanda’s hibiscus in California.

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New snow in Utah.

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My little trailblazer.

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Much-needed girl time at High West.

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Such a tidy bar!

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Everything.

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We had a sleepover Park City. We ate at Grappa.

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There was a cookie plate involved.

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Ever hopeful.

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Funky sink!

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It’s not over.

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A pre-dawn bubblebath.

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After a storm.

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Store-bought and scrumptious.

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Hot tub contemplation time.

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Stalker.

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I spy the first flower in the yard! It was covered in snow within the hour.

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This tiny beaver toy is more fun than your magazine.

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Turkey burger with cheddar, sprouts, and avocado. Yum!

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Yellow is my favorite color.

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A year ago, we had spring quiche and carrot cupcakes with cinnamon frosting for Easter.

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Two years ago, my work space looked like this…

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And my view looked like this.

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Three years ago, Zamboni was freaking out about tennis balls and snow. Sheps!

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And this morning, I caught the sunrise.

You know. Just the usual bliss.

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One year ago: Sunshine, reggae, and cinnamon.

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Spring-ish Sundried Tomato Lasagna

It’s almost time to phase out the heavy winter comfort food for the lighter, fresher dishes of spring. ALMOST. In Park City, March can be fickle: sunshine and a sunburn on Friday followed by a snowstorm through the weekend (which is what just happened).

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This twist on a traditional lasagna fits right in between the seasons, a mix of comfort food and spring flavors. The most interesting thing about this lasagna is the sauce, using sundried tomatoes instead of a marinara. To make it, I drained some jarred sundried tomatoes and pulsed them in a food processor with lots of basil and some fresh parmesan cheese. I transferred it to a bowl and added heavy cream to make a thick sauce. Yum!

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For the filling, I used lots of tasty, fresh veggies: asparagus, mushrooms, and roasted corn. I also chopped up onion and plenty of garlic.

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To get started, I browned a bunch of salty pancetta, then set it aside on a paper towel-lined plate. I got the onion started in the drippings, followed by the asparagus and mushrooms. Next came the roasted corn kernels, the garlic, and some crushed red pepper for a little heat. Beautiful veggies!

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When the veggies were tender (but still had a bite), I transferred them to a bowl. I added the pancetta and some big scoops of ricotta cheese. The filling is done!

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To assemble the lasagna, I started by spreading some of the thick sundried tomato sauce on the bottom of the baking dish. Next came a layer of halfway boiled no-boil lasagna noodles. (I was worried that the sauce didn’t have enough liquid in it to cook the noodles!)

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Next came half of the veggie-ricotta mixture, then a generous sprinkling of shredded mozzarella cheese. I repeated the process, then added one last layer of noodles, sauce, and cheese. Let’s bake it!

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There’s something magical about a lasagna fresh from the oven. The browned, bubbling, cheesy topping hides what’s inside and makes you want to dive in. So we did.

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This dish tasted like no lasagna I’d ever had. The strongest flavor is the sundried tomato sauce, sweet and savory at the same time. Each bite included a jumble of yummy vegetables, with a salty pancetta surprise every now and then. The creaminess of a cheesy one-pot casserole satiates the comfort food cravings of chilly months, while the fresh veggies and unique sauce are hints of springtime- perfect for this crazy, in-between season in Utah.

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What’s your favorite recipe for not-quite-springtime? Share with me!

Spring-ish Sundried Tomato Lasagna (adapted from Giada de Laurentiis)

You’ll need:

  • 9 lasagna sheets, cooked to less than al dente
  • Olive oil
  • 10 ounces jarred sundried tomatoes, drained
  • 1 cup basil leaves
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • ½ cup shredded Parmesan cheese for sauce
  • ¾ cup shredded Parmesan cheese for layers
  • 1 bunch of asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 8 ounces Italian brown mushrooms, sliced
  • Kernels from two charred corn cobs (or 1 cup frozen corn, thawed)
  • 8 ounces (or more) of diced pancetta
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 2-3 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1 15 ounce container ricotta cheese
  • 2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
  • Salt, pepper, crushed red pepper

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

In a food processor, combine the sun-dried tomatoes and basil. Pulse until the mixture is combined. Transfer to a small bowl. Stir in 1/2 cup Parmesan and the heavy cream. Set aside.

In a large skillet, brown the pancetta until crisp. Remove from the pan using a slotted spoon. Add 1 tablespoon olive oil and add the onion. After a couple of minutes, add the asparagus and mushrooms. After a few more minutes, add the roasted corn, garlic, and some crushed red pepper. Cook until all of the veggies are crisp-tender. Transfer the mixture to a large bowl. Add the ricotta, pancetta, a little salt, and some pepper. Stir to combine.

Spread some of the sun-dried tomato sauce on the bottom of a 9×12 casserole dish. Place three lasagna sheets over the sauce, then half of the veggie/ricotta mixture. Next sprinkle some mozzarella cheese and some of the remaining 3/4 cup Parmesan. Continue for 1 more layer. Top with lasagna sheets, some sun-dried tomato mixture, mozzarella, and Parmesan. Bake until the ingredients are warm and the cheese is melted, about a half hour. YUM!

Hungry for more? Check out the collection of recipes on the FOOD BLISS link above. 

One year ago: Easter nostalgia, deviled eggs, and a handful of Tums.

Happy “Something on a Stick” Day!

Confession: I’m a sucker for a corn dog.

I just LOVE them. Even a not-so-great corn dog is still pretty fabulous- and while I think they are delicious, I know there’s more to my love affair than that. I’ve tried the little stick-less corn dog nuggets- it’s just not the same. There’s something about the stick- easy to hold, fun to eat. My favorite part is that almost-burned batter bit that you have to nibble right off of the stick. All of a sudden, I’m a kid again.

When I was growing up, special occasions called for a batch of my grandmother’s City Chicken. I’m pretty sure there was no chicken involved (I think it was veal)- a simple seasoned flour coating, pan-fried on the stove. My memories are less about the flavor (yum!) and more about the experience of choosing the perfect piece and munching it right off of the skewer. It was fun and special at the same time- and I loved it.

I’ve experimented a tad with food on a stick, with an Asian chicken satay or a caprese salad skewer. But I had no idea there was an entire day set aside to celebrate stick food until a reader named Shaye contacted me. Shaye is a single mother, blogging from Milwaukee, who clearly loves food as much as I do (and has an adorable dog named Sheba). When she approached me about contributing a piece about “Something on a Stick” Day, I was delighted. Read on to see the creative ideas she presents!

***

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Unique Foods you can Serve on a Stick

Lately, I’ve been brainstorming new types of recipes to try. When I discovered that March 28th is “Something on a Stick” Day, my creative gears started turning. I’m excited to try some innovate foods that are served on a stick – it’s a fun and easy way to present a meal. My first thought was an old staple: the corn dog. There’s nothing like some classic fair food, but I want to try something more unique and daring. In my search, I’ve uncovered some truly fantastic recipes.

Snack on a Stick

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Snacking gets way more fun and inventive when you add a stick. You can do something as simple as skewering a bunch of your favorite fruits to make fruit salad on a stick. Alternatively, you can add convenience to a more complicated snack by serving it on a stick. I found this really neat recipe for Panini pops that looks like a winner. I love how versatile it is, since you can add almost anything to the Panini filling. It could be a great option for vegetarians, or for any kind of meat lover. Plus, it looks super quick and easy, which makes it a good choice for snack time or a quick lunch.

Hearty Meal

With classics like the corn dog, it’s easy to assume that only snack foods can be served on a stick. However, I’ve found a lot of recipes for hearty, substantial meals that are prepared on skewers. If you like to grill, you can thread almost any meat or vegetable onto a skewer and grill it to perfection. It’s a great low-maintenance way to prepare a fancy dinner. For example, I found this spicy recipe for flank steak on a stick. There’s nothing like a juicy steak, and I particularly love the herbal flavor of basil. Put those things on a stick, and voila – perfection.

Satisfy your Sweet Tooth

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After eating a delicious meal of flank steak on a stick, it’s nice to have an equally marvelous dessert. When it comes to satisfying the stick theme, popsicles are definitely not the only option. So far, my favorite sweet stick recipe is the classic cake pop. I love the texture of cake, especially the individuality of a cupcake – without the mess of eating one. I think the best thing about cake pops is how easy they are to serve. You can go crazy with themes for your cake pops, which make them great for parties of all types. For example, I found these mega-cute looking pops on the Shari’s Berries website.  I wouldn’t classify myself as a baker so these could help me get around that issue. The zoo animal pops are just so cute!

Comfort Food

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Serving food on a stick makes a meal easy and lighthearted. With that sort of atmosphere, it’s a great idea to prepare comfort foods. Although there are many exotic options for skewered food, consider trying something a little closer to home. For instance, I came across this recipe for fried chicken on a stick. I like this one, since it can be served as an appetizer or a main course. Plus, it cuts down on the mess of eating fried chicken, so you can enjoy an old favorite with less cleanup.

If I learned anything from researching recipes on a stick, it’s that you can adapt almost any food into a fantastic skewered meal. The stick theme is a great opportunity to exercise your cooking creativity. In the end, you’ll have delicious, inventive, and easy-to-eat delights.

***

Thank you for these fun ideas, Shaye! I’ve got an idea for a skewered dessert that I’ll share soon. In the meantime, have you experimented with fun food on a stick? Today’s the day to share it!

Hungry? Check out the FOOD BLISS link above!

Interested in contributing to The Usual Bliss? Contact me at amber@theusualbliss.com.

*images in this post were pulled from the recipe links referenced.

 

Bliss Bits 3/27/2014.

There’s no denying that some days are so crummy that they just need to be deleted. While I try to live in a manner that embraces the bright side, at times it’s nearly impossible to find. Luckily, I’ve stashed a pile of little things from the last seven days that give a glimmer of a smile during dark times. There is always something to be thankful for.

What made you smile this week?

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Today is my brother‘s birthday! I hope he knows how proud I am to be his sister. 

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My favorite way to start my day: a smoothie made by John.

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This is what happens when someone sneezes. She hates it!

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Nest/rest.

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Yummy smoked salmon breakfast!

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I spotted the first flowers of the year along the trail this week. Yay!

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Antler in tree.

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Springtime = clean car.

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The flavorful fire!

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We had spicy tofu lettuce wraps and potstickers for dinner. #srirachaforever

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Come on. Come on. Feel it. Feel it.

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Homemade gnocchi.

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Charming detail: John can braid.

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Do not underestimate the power of flowers.

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Reminder!

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Piglets. I love the curly tail.

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A year ago, I made shrimp tostadas!

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Two years ago, I spent some Q. T. in The Wok.

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And Cholula‘s ears were growing faster than the rest of her.

Three years ago, I had post-Mexico pneumonia and took zero photos. Blah!

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Four years ago, Nancy was here for pond-skimming! De ja vu.

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And this was my chilly coffee view this morning. Brrr.

You know. Just the usual bliss.

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See what blissful bits I was enjoying last year!

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Welcoming Spring.

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Full guest rooms and homemade coffee cake. A balancing egg we named Greg Jacobs. Pedicures with the ladies (including the little one). Homemade gnocchi and braised leeks and roasted beets. An over-full dining room table. Late night bumper pool games. A meal filled with laughter at our favorite restaurant. Silly costumes, sunshine, and ski runs. A man named “Rayon” with a braid, courtesy of my husband. A pink disco ball ski helmet. Pond-skimming shenanigans and music by Willie Nelson’s son. An early morning fishing expedition. Greasy spoon brunch. Ceramics painting with an 8-year old. Biscuits, shaz-animals, and a theme for the weekend, thanks to Dexys Midnight Runners. Memories made with friends who are really family.

Welcome, Spring.

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