I currently live in Charlotte, NC and after spending 7 years as a personal chef and caterer, I am now happy to share my love of cooking with friends and family. My heart is in the kitchen, but my soul is in the stars!

Will you marinate me?

The marriage of a fired up grill on a warm summer day with a piece of chicken equals nothing short of a match made in heaven.  The relationship gets even better when the chicken is marinated with the simplest of ingredients that you probably already have on hand in your pantry and turns out tender and juicy every single time. 

This combination of ingredients is my go-to marinade for grilled chicken every single time.  I always let it sit overnight but it would probably be just as good only after a few hours.  Try it and see if it doesn't become your summer grilling favorite!

Marinade for Chicken
source:  Food Network Kitchens

2 tablespoons vinegar (cider, balsamic, red or white wine)
3 teaspoons dried Italian seasoning
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
2 teaspoons garlic powder or onion powder
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts

Put the vinegar, Italian seasoning, mustard, garlic (or onion) powder and oil in a large re-sealable plastic bag.  Close the bag and shake to combine all ingredients.  Open the bag and drop in the chicken breasts.  Close and shake the bag to coat the chicken evenly.

Marinate overnight in the refrigerator.  If using previously unfrozen chicken breasts, you may freeze the chicken in the marinade for up to 2 weeks.  Thaw overnight in the refrigerator and prepare as desired.  

Heat a grill or grill pan.  When the grill is hot, place the chicken on the grill and cook for about 4 minutes per side, or until cooked through.  You can also bake the chicken in a 375 degree oven for about 15 minutes, or until cooked through. 

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Early Bird Gets the Worm

Aren't these the most adorable cupcakes EVER??

I have been in love with these baby bluebird cupcakes ever since I first saw them a few years ago on Ali's original blog, Something So Clever, and thankfully she reminded me of them again when she reposted them last year on her newest blog creation, Jam Hands.  They're perfect for Easter or just to celebrate Spring and I knew they would be the perfect thing to take along to an Easter egg hunt that I was invited to last week.  I was meeting some special people at this egg hunt and it was a very big deal to me as this was something that I have secretly wished for for a very long time and I wanted to make sure I showed up with a totally tricked out "Pleased to meet you" offering.  The cupcakes were a hit and the holiday festivities were fabulous. 

These cutie cupcakes may look complicated but they really aren't (despite this being a Martha Stewart recipe).  And honestly, there is no harm in using a box cake mix if you'd like ~ no one would know and it's really all about the presentation anyway.  I made the buttercream with half butter and half shortening as it tends to hold up better at room temperature.  Practice piping your birds and beaks on wax paper before assembling the cupcakes and then it won't take long to get these babies hatched on their nests!

Baby Bluebird Cupcakes

Vanilla Cupcakes

Makes 1 dozen
Recipes courtesy of Martha Stewart

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup sugar
3 large eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
3/4 cup milk

1. Preheat the oven to 350°. Line a cupcake pan with paper liners; set aside.
2. In a medium bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, and salt. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time; scrape down bowl, and beat in vanilla.
3. Add flour mixture and milk alternatively, beginning and ending with flour mixture.
4. Divide batter evenly among liners, about three-quarters full each. Bake until golden and tops spring back to touch, about 20 minutes, rotating pan once if needed. Transfer pans to wire rack; cool completely.

Chocolate Buttercream
Makes 2-1/2 cups

Martha says, "If you live in a warm climate or you want to display your cupcakes for an extended period of time, use half solid vegetable shortening and half butter, which will result in a more stable frosting."

When preparing the chocolate buttercream frosting, reserve 1-1/2 cups buttercream prior to adding the melted chocolate and 1 teaspoon melted chocolate for the bird eyes.

3/4 cup sugar
3 large egg whites
1 cup (2 sticks) plus 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
3 ounces semisweet chocolate, melted and cooled

1. Combine sugar and egg whites in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Place over a pot of simmering water; whisk until hot and sugar is completely dissolved, about 3 minutes. Transfer bowl to mixer stand, and beat on high speed until cooled, 7 to 10 minutes.

2. Replace whisk with paddle attachment, and set mixer on medium-high speed; add butter, 1 to 2 tablespoons at a time, until incorporated. Beat in chocolate. If not using immediately, refrigerate buttercream in an airtight container for up to a week. Bring to room temperature, and re-beat or stir vigorously before using.

To Assemble the Cupcakes:
Makes 1 dozen

1-1/2 cups shredded coconut(about 5 ounces)
Vanilla Cupcakes
Chocolate Buttercream
Yellow and light-blue food coloring

1. Preheat the oven to 350°. Spread coconut on a rimmed baking sheet; bake until light brown, 8 to 10 minutes, rotating pan once. Set aside to cool.

2. Lightly frost cupcakes with 1 cup chocolate buttercream and top with toasted coconut; set aside. Tint 2 tablespoons reserved buttercream pale yellow; place in a pastry bag fitted with a #349 Ateco leaf tip; set aside. Tint remaining buttercream light blue; place in a pastry bag fitted with a #11 Ateco plain round tip, and pipe three bluebird heads, 3/4 inch in diameter, onto each cupcake. Using leaf tip, pipe yellow beaks. With a toothpick, add melted-chocolate eyes.


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Composting III: Feeding Your Worms

Now that you've built your composting bin and introduced your worms to the bin and allowed them to adjust to their new surroundings, it's time to make them fat and happy.  They will start turning their bedding and food scraps into compost immediately and after several months you will be able to harvest some compost for your flower and vegetable garden.  It won't take long before you notice the increased growth and vigor of plants treated with your homemade vermicompost. 

Your worms will eat most anything that was once growing.  I've included a list of items below that are compostable but it's in no way a complete list.  You will soon learn what your little buddies like to eat best and how quickly they can process the amount you are giving them.  I keep a one gallon resealable container in my refrigerator that I add my food scraps to as I'm preparing dinner and I'm honestly amazed at how much stuff I collect in a week that would normally go straight into the trash. 

A few tips to keep in mind when feeding the worms: 

You don't need to feed your worms every day.  I've started out feeding once a week and will adjust accordingly as I see how quickly the worms process.  If you have a foul odor or notice flies, gnats, or maggots in your bin, that is a sign that you are feeding too much/too often and your worms cannot keep up.  You will notice other insects in your bin and that's totally fine.  The more the merrier when it comes to breaking down the items into compost.  Do make sure your lid stays on tight (consider a bungee strap if there is a chance it could easily be removed) to prevent intruders such as raccoons, opossums, etc. 

When collecting your vegetable/fruit scraps, chop them into smaller bits so it's easier and quicker for the worms to work through them.  When adding the food to the bin, don't just scatter it all over the top of the bedding as worms will migrate to the source of food so the idea is to get them all to migrate to one area of the bin at the same time and have them all working together.  If the food is scattered, your worms will be scattered and it will take longer.  Work your way around the bin by feeding in each of the four corners and then in the middle of the bin each time you add food.  Raise the bedding just a bit and place the food just under the shredded paper and cover it back over.  Worms like to burrow into darkness and won't be too happy to have to rise to the surface for food.  Remember to check the bedding for moisture and use a spray bottle to wet it if it's drying out.

Compostable Items

Office paper
Coffee grounds
Tea leaves/bags
Paper towels/napkins
Grass clippings (avoid if you have your lawn chemically treated for weeds)
Sawdust (non-treated, non-aromatic woods only)

Do not include items such as meat, dairy products, oily foods, spicy or salty foods.  Some citrus is okay, but don't add alot at one time.  I read that it can have the same effect on the worms as the feeling of getting lemon juice into a cut on your skin.  OUCH! 

The easiest and best way to use your compost is to top dress the soil around your plants with a thin layer of the castings.  A 1/4" deep layer on top of the soil has been proven to increase plant growth by as much as 25%.  The castings can also be added to water and used as foliage spray and has been shown to drastically reduce plant pests, including aphids.  To make the worm "tea," add about a cup of castings to a gallon of water and allow to steep for 24 hours.  It can then be sprayed on the leaves or used to feed/water the plants.  You should see results in about 3 days. 

When I first started this project, I was afraid that the thought of hundreds of worms in my backyard would freak me out.  But if I had to be honest, I now worry about my worms almost like I do my dog.  Are they too hot or cold outside?  Are they happy and well fed?  I check on them daily and will continue to sporadically report their progress as my project moves along.  If you are also vermicomposting, please leave me a comment and let me know how it's working for you!

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Composting II: Introducing Worms to Your Bin

Last week I shared details on building a compost bin to be used for vermicomposting. Now we're ready for the next step of making the bedding for the worms and introducing them to the bin. 

It was suggested by the instructor of the free library workshop that I attended that Red Wigglers are the best type of worms to be used for vermicomposting and he recommended starting with a pound of worms.  These can be purchased online from various sources or from any place that sells fishing bait.  My container is a bit larger than the one our instructor demonstrated in the workshop, but I've decided to stick with using a pound of worms because after reading the literature given to us, I found out there are at least 500 worms in a pound and that, if happy in their conditions, they can multiply really quickly and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little creeped out thinking about potentially having hundreds of worms in my back yard.  It is undecided at this point if I will ever sleep well again knowing that.  I purchased my worms online from Worms, Etc., located in Greer, SC.  My worms arrived alive and well the day after they were shipped. 

Shredded newspaper and cardboard are used for the worm bedding.  You can rip the paper into shreds yourself or if you have access to a paper shredder, that does the trick too.  I used two daily editions and a Sunday edition of my local newspaper to start with.  Once the papers are shredded, soak them in water until they are thoroughly wet and then squeeze the water out before adding it to the bin (pull the paper apart just a bit and fluff it so it's not one big wet clump).  You will need to make sure your bedding always stays moist (but not dripping wet) in the bin so keep a spray bottle handy in case you need to add moisture.  The worms prefer dark and moist conditions and will not survive long if their bedding dries out. As you are adding the shredded wet paper, also toss in a couple of handsful of dirt here and there.  The worms require this to help process and digest the food scraps.  The bedding will eventually be broken down and become part of the composting process so you'll need to add more bedding as needed.  Think about shredding and saving your junk mail, napkins, and paper towels. 

When the bedding is done, it's time to add the worms.  Worms prefer to live and work in darkness, so after you put them into their new home, leave the lid off for a bit to force them to burrow into the bedding.  It will take a little while for them to get used to their new surroundings so you'll want to wait a day before feeding them.  In the meantime, save some of your vegetable and fruit scraps from the kitchen for a couple of days prior to adding your worms so you'll have something for the first feeding.  The next post will discuss in more detail what you can feed your worms and how often you should feed them.

My bin is now situated in the far corner of my yard, next to my garden and under a shade tree. 

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