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Thursday
Nov172011

DIY Winter Pine Cone Wreath

As a gardener, I enjoy inviting a bit of nature indoors for the holidays. A tousled mop of dried hydrangea or the wispy elegance of Japanese silver grass plumes add special warmth to the table.

One easy way to bring in the great outdoors is decorating with pine cones. They can be piled in a decorative bowl, scattered across a table, or tucked into arrangements. Here’s a fun and easy project for a winter day:

Do It Yourself Cone Wreath

This elegant wreath highlights the natural beauty of the cones. You can collect cones from the outdoors, or purchase at craft stores.

A few caveats on collecting:
1) Ask permission if it isn’t your property.
2) Do not collect from forest preserves, arboreta, or botanic gardens without express permission. These institutions may allow you to collect, but talk to them first. No one likes to get questioned by security.
3) Exhaust all resources. Check public parks, as well as asking family and friends.
4) Make it an outing with the kids! Collecting cones can turn into a great counting game.
5) Choose only the cones in the best shape, and include nuts if you like.

If you collect your own cones and nuts, make sure to pre-treat them before you start working. You want to make sure that they are dry and pest-free. This treatment allows the sap to melt a bit so the cones are much less sticky. Always make sure to treat nuts - especially acorns - as they often have larvae inside. Do not be surprised if the tops of the acorns pop off. That’s what the glue gun is for!

To pre-treat the cones:
1) Line a cookie sheet with foil and spread the cones and/or nuts evenly.
2) Bake at 200 degrees for 30 to 45 minutes with the oven door cracked open. This is flammable stuff, so make sure to keep an eye on it.
3) Allow cones to cool before using.

To assemble:
You will need...
Wire cutters
Floral wire
Zip ties
Glue gun
Newspaper or other dropcloth material
Acrylic spray
Needle nose pliers (optional)

I chose to use spruce cones, Austrian pine, dwarf white pine, Douglas fir, and hemlock. These can all be found in many neighborhoods. The spruce cones are the papery ones, and the pine cones have bigger, woodier scales.

 

To get started, I did a loose layout of the base layer.

 

Then, I wired up the cones. You want to tuck the floral wire way up under the scales of the cone, while leaving plenty of extra to maneuver with. You can always trim it later. You may want to use needle nose pliers to get a super tight twist on the wire.

For this wreath, I interspersed groupings of Austrian pine cones in with the spruce, with a dash of white pine for contrast...but after thinking about it, I decided I didn’t care for the white pine cones breaking up the rhythm. The nice part of wiring in the cones is that it’s very easy to change your mind and rearrange. I also found that after attaching a group or a row, that they could be anchored if you wrap all their wires together.

So now with a base layer complete, I added a bit of flourish on the top, with long white pine cones, a trio of Douglas fir, and topped it off with an open hemlock cone. Since the wire base was showing through in places, I went back and glued in several small spruce and hemlock cones. This gave it a subtle depth of texture without losing the monochromatic color scheme.

 

After determining the center of the wreath, I slipped a zip tie through the wire base and tugged it through just enough to close the loop.

 

As you can see from the back, I have several bundles of wire twisted together.

 

After hanging on the wall, I adjusted the zip tie to make sure it wouldn’t show and then trimmed the end to form a nice, tidy loop. To make it permanent, I took it outside and gave it a good spray of clear acrylic to seal. I prefer the natural colors of the cones, but you can also add glitter, ribbon, and other ornaments.

One final note on cleanup – expect to get a little dirty and sticky. Two tricks of the trade:
1) Use hand lotion and lots of it before you handle the materials. You can sometimes just rub the sap off your fingers.
2) Crabtree & Evelyn’s Gardeners Scrub Cleanser – by far the best microbead cleanser I’ve tried that not only works, but moisturizes and smells nice. Lava Soap works too, but it’s very very abrasive.

 

Gardening by Heather Prince

Part of the Second City Soiree Contributor Series. Heather is on Twitter @FearlessGarden. Read her full bio here.

Wednesday
Nov162011

Junior League Cookbook Giveaway (and Chicken with Gnocchi recipe)

I love looking at community cookbooks. Whether it's a slim pamphlet cranked out at the local print shop or an elegantly designed hardcover volume, nearly all offer a "slice of life" perspective while contributing to a fundraising goal. Win-win!

Among the most prized are Junior League Cookbooks. So when a fellow Junior League of Chicago member asked if I'd share our urban chic cookbook, Peeling the Wild Onion, of course I said YES! Peeling features recipes from top Chicago restaurants and chefs, and is organized by season. And...

I'm giving away three copies!

What a marvelous Christmas gift this would be! Perfect for a gourmand, a cookbook collector, or someone who loves our fair foodie city. 

 

How to enter:
1) Visit the JLC web site and take a look at our community projects. Leave a comment on this post (include your email address) telling me which one resonates with you.
2) You can also tweet the following: Calling all cooks: @SecndCitySoiree is giving away a beautiful @JuniorLeagueChi cookbook! http://su.pr/27Z7aZ
3) Contest ends Friday, Nov 18 2011, at 10pm Central. The winners will be randomly selected and announced by the following Monday.
4) Rules: one comment and one tweet per person. Must be US citizen 18+

This contest is closed. Congratulations to readers Dante, Eulalia and Heidi, who are now owners of this lovely cookbook. A very big thanks to all who entered and took the time to look over the JLC's many wonderful projects!


And now, an elegant recipe from the book. I made this last weekend, and it was delicious...

Whole Roasted Baby Chicken with Potato Gnocchi, Honey-Glazed Parsnips and Young Beets

From the Junior League of Chicago's Peeling the Wild Onion
This recipe was provided by the Executive Chef of Naha.

Ingredients
1 small organic chicken
Salt and cracked black pepper to taste
Several sprigs fresh thyme

1 pound beets
2 to 4 parsnips
2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound ready-to-cook gnocchi
6 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons extra-virgin
1 1/4 cups white wine

Season the chicken with salt and pepper, Stuff the thyme into the chicken. Truss the chicken with clean cotton string or kitchen twine. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a heavy sauté pan. Add the chicken and cook until browned all over, turning occasionally. Remove to a roasting pan. Dot with l tablespoon of the butter. Roast in a preheated 350-degree oven for about 1 hour. Remove the chicken and let stand until cool. Pour the wine into the roasting pan and reserve the juices. Cut the chicken into smaller pieces, discarding the bones.

Cook the beets in cold water to cover in a large pot over medium-high heat until tender. Cool and peel the beets under running water, gently pulling off the skins by hand. (Wear plastic gloves to avoid stains.) Trim the bottom and top of the beets and cut them into halves or Wedges, depending on the size.

Peel the parsnips and cut them into desired shapes. Saute the parsnips in 2 tablespoons of the butter in a skillet. Remove to a roasting pan and roast in a preheated 350-degree oven for about 10 minutes or until tender. Drizzle with the honey. Roast for 10 minutes or until glazed and caramelized.

Boil the gnocchi in water using the package directions. Melt the remaining 3 tablespoons butter in a large saute pan and saute the gnocchi for 15 minutes.

To assemble, place the chicken on an ovenproof serving plate. Surround the chicken with the sauteed gnocchi. Top with the glazed parsnips and beets. Reheat in the oven, Drizzle vvith the extra-virgin olive oil or with the reserved pan juices.

Yield: 4 servings

Monday
Nov072011

How to host THANKSGIVING in a SMALL space

Today's post is part of the #HolidayHQ Blog Hop. See the links below for more posts from the best party and entertaining experts!

Dinner a la coffee table.
This recipe is from the Junior League of Chicago cookbook. I'll share the recipe and do a book giveaway next Wednesday!

There's no doubt about it - small houses are the trend! Whether it's due to the economy or eco-consciousness, Americans are settling into cozier nests. For all the pluses of small-space living (easier to maintain, often close to more shopping, culture, restaurants, etc.), entertaining can be a challenge. Thanksgiving is a particularly tricky holiday, what with all the expectations of recreating that Normal Rockwell moment around the turkey. How to do it in your petite pied-à-terre? Let's address the issue of table space and kitchen space...

 

Table Space

No table? Remove the doorknob and hinges from a closet door and place it over two sawhorses (sometimes available for rent at a home improvement store). Cover with a festive tablecloth and no one's the wiser. OR arrange tray tables in a tight circle. Cover each with solid-colored fabric in different autumn hues for a pretty "fall leaves" effect.

Tiny table? Cover your dinette set with a protective piece of fabric. Put a large piece of plywood over that, and then a decorative tablecloth over the plywood. Voilà...bigger table!

 

Kitchen Space

Want to keep beverage-seekers out of the kitchen? Set up soda, wine, and craft beer in a cooler in the living area. I know, plastic coolers are not chic. So keep the cooler open and nicely arrange the bottles within. Cover the outside of the cooler and the open lid with festive fabric. You might have to replenish the ice once, but no one will mistake your Thanksgiving soiree for a tailgate BBQ.

Itty-bitty oven? Use your crockpot, darling! You can cook multiple Thanksgiving menu items in a slow cooker, including a turkey breast.

Not enough stovetop burners? Supplement with a hot plate or portable induction cooktop. Induction cooktops do not get hot to the touch, although you do need a clad pot in order to make the induction magic happen.

 

Housewife Bliss  |  Maple Whipped Sweet Potatoes
Celebrations at Home  | How to Host a Fall Pizza Party
The TomKat Studio | Delicious Pumpkin Whoopie Pies
Tatertots & Jello |  DIY Thanksgiving Place Cards
Second City Soiree  | How to Host Thanksgiving in a Small Space
With Style and Grace | Small Bites for a Thankful Crowd
Party BluPrints  |  The Thanksgiving Kids' Table
The Daily Basics  |  Fall Door Decorating and the Best Recipe for Pumpkin Pie
The Gracious Girl  |  The Gift of Gratitude

Join us on Twitter this Thursday, November 10th 8pm EST for another #HolidayHQ chat. Get Thanksgiving ideas, recipes & tips from top crafting, foodie & entertaining experts

Wednesday
Nov022011

Behind the SCENES with Bertolli & TODAYSHOW.COM

Many months ago, my friends at Bertolli asked me to participate in a sponsored spot for the Today Show's "Cooking School" web site on MSN! On a hot morning in September, we drove from our hotel in Manhattan to the location in New Jersey and filmed "Becoming Soup Savvy". I shared soup etiquette and serving tips, in conjunction with the launch of their Meal Soup line. Check out some behind-the-scenes photos and the finished product:

Lights, camera...

 

We were filming at a private house rather than a set, so our crew had to do some creative maneuvering with their equipment. Lots to trip over!

 

Setting Scene 3, where I discussed the dos and don'ts of soup. (Tip: it is not ok to faceplant into the bowl, no matter how good it smells.)

 

Hamming it up while waiting for the scene to roll. Next to me is Maria and then Margaret (you can just barely see her pretty curly hair) of ItalianAmericanGirl.com

 

And here's Paula of Bellalimento.com, filming her segment. After being Twitter pals for ages (ok, since we both got on Twitter...I guess 2008 is "ages ago" on the internet),  we FINALLY got to meet in person! She demonstrated how to make a fabulous pomegranate panna cotta in ten minutes.

 

Watch the video at MSN/Today Show Cooking School!

Saturday
Oct292011

Six FRIGHTENING (but not gory) Halloween FILMS

A lot of people don't like scary movies, and I think that often, what they mean is they don't like gory movies. I totally agree. Films that twist your world and make you think are more my speed - The Sixth Sense, for instance. I've put together a short list of psychological thrillers you might not have seen before, some of which you can get on iTunes (links included). Pass the truffled popcorn!

The Others (2001)
Ah, my favorite scary movie! This period film takes place in the the 1940s and is loosely based on the novela The Turn of the Screw. Life is lonely for Nicole Kidman and her two children at their isolated house on the isle of Jersey. Just when she needs help the most, a group of servants appear and offer their services...
The Innocents (1961)
This BAFTA-nominated British film is also based on The Turn of the Screw, but interprets it from a much different angle. It stars Deborah Kerr and Michael Redgrave, with Truman Capote as a screenplay co-writer.
Stir of Echoes (1999)
When Kevin Bacon's character undergoes hypnosis, it opens his mind to a host of unwanted activity. Lots of Chicago shots, for my fellow Windy City dwellers.
The Presitge (2006)
Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale are rival stage magicians in 1890s London. Their stage shows turn into a deadly competitive game, with one constantly striving to out-do the other.
The Machinist (2004)
Another film staring Christian Bale, this time as a disturbed factory work with a repressed memory. As the memory bubbles to the surface, his concept of reality quickly becomes unhinged.
Momento (2000)
This Oscar winning film tells the tale of a man suffering from amnesia, struggling to uncover his wife's murderer. Two story sequences - one in color and the other in black and white - are seemingly separate until they come together at the end.
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