Monday, September 26, 2011

Chicken with Mushroom Gravy

One of my favorite things when I was pregnant with my son, Graham, besides fried cabbage with bacon (crazy pregnancy craving) was chicken with mushroom gravy. I love making one pot/pan dishes. I love earthy ingredients for Fall menu planning. Here are the ingredients:
{2-3 cups chicken broth}
 1/2 a large onion
 3 monster portabella mushrooms
 morel mushrooms

Two to four quite large chicken breasts.  Oh, and butter. Please don't ever forget the butter. It would be a crime. The first step here is to pour a bowl full of chicken stock and reconstitute the morels. While they are soaking in that lovely liquid, chop your onion.

In a large saute pan, please pour 2 tablespoons of olive oil and 2 tablespoons of unsalted butter in the pan on medium heat. Once they melt together, dump in your onion slices and a sprinkle of salt. Cook them until they are translucent. Chop your mushrooms while the onion is cooking. You CAN use other mushrooms {buttons work just fine} but I love the texture and earthy flavor in portabellas so much. 
Add the portabellas and 2 tablespoons of butter to the onions. It's okay. It really is. Also, sprinkle a layer of salt and pepper on the mushrooms. Let them cook until they absorb the moisture and brown a bit. {It should take about 3-5 minutes.} Next we'll add the bowl of chicken stock and morel mushrooms. Your pan will be nearly full at this point. Don't worry. We have plans for that.
before reconstitution
after reconstitution
Intriguing process. They look like tiny sponges. They also turn the chicken stock quite brown. Don't be afraid of that. There's a flavor explosion awaiting.
 Turn your heat up to medium high and let the mushrooms and stock simmer for 5-10 minutes. If you like, add a splash {up to about a 1/4 cup} of white wine. You want the liquid to reduce.
It's time for the chicken to join the party. Let it simmer for 5 minutes on one side.
See the cooking magic happening? The pink turns to white and creeps up the sides of the chicken. Time to flip the meat and let it be smothered in mushrooms.
If you hate mushrooms, you pretty much will want to run screaming from the room at this point. This dish clearly wouldn't be for you. However, if you adore mushrooms, the smell at this point in the recipe is just phenomenal. Let this simmer for another 5 minutes.
Hubba hubba!  At this juncture, pop the whole pan into your 350 degree oven for 15 minutes JUST TO BE SAFE. Thick chicken breasts very seldom cook through on a simmer without becoming tough. There's a place for toughness, but it's definitely not supposed to be found on a plate. Remove the chicken from the pan after it comes out of the oven and prepare the gravy. Ready for the secret ingredient? It's super fancy.
Okay. So, it's not fancy. But it's easy. Open that bad boy up and dump the soup into the mushrooms.
Stir until it's all blended very well.
This is the part where you hear the Hallelujah Chorus. Serve this over mashed potatoes and your men folk will kiss your feet and call you a goddess. Maybe they won't, but they will moan and tell you how much they enjoyed this dish. Unless they hate mushrooms. In which case, I've got nothin' for ya'.

*There is an alternative choice in this recipe if you're not so much about gravy.  One of my OTHER very favorite ways to serve these ingredients is to omit the soup step and serve the chicken with sauteed mushrooms {You'll have to drain the stock for this version after the chicken and mushrooms come out of the oven.} and caramelized onions. THAT will set ya' free, now.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Simple vs. Layered Scrapbook Layouts

There is something very calming and mechanical about the scrap book process for me. I'm drawn to pages that are simple as much as I'm drawn to highly stylized pages. There's room for both in my world.

Documenting memories artfully can be a challenge. A lot of times, we have so much information, that we don't know what to focus on.  If you sift through a stack of photos, look for one that pulls memories out of you and journal on a scrap piece of paper what you feel and think as a result. Look for a photo to use with that memory that is a captivating image. Good photography happens more in my house when I switch the digital camera to black and white or sepia. I'm not sure why this is true, but it is. Interestingly, a lot of the photos that pull out memories are snap shots that aren't necessarily "good quality" photos. Still, sometimes, they can be turned into art on a scrapbook page.  Here are a few that have made it into my scrapbooks.
Sometimes, the paper is fancy enough. Restraint is as important as the ability to embellish. Restraint is a good trait to practice in life as well as artwork. One can never retrieve words spoken in anger. They become a permanent record, playing in the mind of the hearers. When scrapping, it's good to keep in mind that one can always add to pages, but it's much more difficult to delete or take elements away.
With children this beautiful, and photos this incredible, it seems to make more sense to let the photography show off a little... On this sheet, I wanted to show an age progression from infancy to boyhood. It's remarkable how much of their original essence carries through as they grow.
Here's a more layered layout, but overall, it's still simple to pull off with the right tools.  {paper, Zig & Micron pens, photo adhesive, stickers, paper cutter} 
This photo is just one of countless first hugs every morning shared between mother and son. This particular photo is a pretty grainy snapshot from an instamatic camera, but it still has a magic that's captured. It has been cropped to keep the theme of the photo front and center. It is rare for me use a photo in it's original size in scrap art, as most need to be simplified so the eye rests on the subject of the photo.

I like to play with my papers by color groups and decide which patterns to use based solely on what looks best with the photo. Since this paper was the back side of the glittery post card paper in the first photo, it seemed fitting to carry the mat color through. Once I decided to pull the blue, orange and green through with the accent papers, the layout just evolved via playing with the puzzle pieces of paper.  After adhering each piece down, I rubbed Stazon inks on the paper to tie the color scheme together. {Stazon inks: cactus green, royal purple, timber brown}

Hug your children every chance you get. They need it. You need it.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Creating A Silver Leafed Chalkboard

Recycling and reuse are not only green living concepts, but they can be pragmatic and stylish additions to your home or office. This project is so easy, it almost doesn't need a tutorial. I could use this in my kitchen as a grocery list or recipe board. I could use this for schoolwork. But, I had to share with you because this is hanging in my office and I will use it to keep track of genealogy research and art projects. For now, looking at it as I type posts for Domestic Empress just makes me happy.

Here's how it's done. I had several large wall hangings that just weren't my style, but the frames were sealed and I can't imagine ever replacing the print inside because this particular piece is 32 inches square. It's large!
 Grab the window cleaner and wipe the entire thing down, frame and all, then dry it very well. Next, use these products. In applying the first coat of chalkboard paint, don't worry that it's a streaky, see-through mess. Just apply strokes in one direction. If you dribble bits of paint on the frame, don't sweat it. Paint the frame after you put the first coat on the glass. It looks really great! Go slowly and be patient and the coverage will be even. After you paint the frame, layer another coat on the chalkboard surface. Try not to leave bubbles by using one directional strokes with plenty of paint on your foam brush. Walk away and let it dry for several minutes. You may or may not want to put another coat on, depending on how well your coverage was with the first two coats. If you've gotten complete coverage and you're happy with how smooth the surface is, let this completely dry while you move to the silver leaf step. If you need another coat, go right for it.

$4.30 & $8.99
When the frame is completely dry, pull out your clean, small, flat headed paint brush and crack open your Adhesive Size. [It's a special glue for applying silver, copper & gold leaf.] I got a 2 ounce bottle from the craft store for less than $5. Spread the glue evenly along one side of your frame. If you want a spotty coverage or designs on your frame apply the glue in those patterns. (Polka dots or stripes would be really cute!) The leaf only adheres to adhesive prepared surfaces. If you want complete coverage, make sure you apply the glue very thoroughly. When you apply it, it should look milky. When it is ready for leaf application, it will be clear and tacky to the touch. After you paint the entire frame, pull a sheet of leaf out and lay it on the frame, shiny side down. Rub the sheet with firm pressure. Gently pull away and you'll see the design you intended your frame to have. Repeat this process until you get the coverage you like. Reuse the leaf sheets until they are empty. My frame used 12 leaf sheets. It certainly doesn't look like a $30 project, but that's the entire point! Have fun trying this one and use your creativity! I have plenty of products left over to do a few other projects, and I intend to find another creative use!

Friday, September 9, 2011

Basic Design 101: Lessons in Scale & Placement

A lot of people love to redecorate their homes. Some even have really exquisite taste. Even those with great taste can make simple mistakes, though.

When you begin a decorating project, think of all of the things the room has to do to function. In a bedroom, we rest, we dress, and sometimes we play or read. The room needs to function accordingly. The first cardinal rule of function is scaling appropriately. If you must have a king sized bed, make sure that your accompanying room is big enough to pull it off. There's nothing more uncomfortable than a bedroom with no room to move. Also, make sure that you don't have dressers or night stands that are too short or small for the bed. Some people read and unwind with a beverage in their rooms before they doze off. If your night table or night stand is more than a couple of inches shorter than the height of the bed, you'd find yourself getting up and UN-relaxing to put a book or glass down.

Scale! Scale! Scale!
Here's an example of scale gone awry in two rooms with great elements...
 Julia Child is a GREAT element in any room. Notice how the scale of these kitchen counters and stove just don't really work. It's kind of obvious, right? She was a trooper, wasn't she? Love her. Next is a photo used in Southern Living magazine with more subtle scale errors.

There was a professional designer involved. It's a beautiful room. Lovely headboard. The color scheme is monochromatic gold. GREAT concept. The night stand nearest the window: perfect size. The drapes: perfect length. The bed is scaled appropriately to the room size. GREAT! Just a few things miss the mark with scale, but it is enough to make the eye a bit unfocused or uncomfortable. The chair by the window? First of all, it doesn't allow for the night stand to open if there's a drawer or be seen and it looks like a nice piece of furniture with nice lines. Secondly, the chair, though it is lovely, is too short and looks dwarfed by the bed.  Placing it even in a pair somewhere else in the room wouldn't work because the scale of the chair, it's height and width, are just not right in a room with THIS large of a bed and ceiling height. Putting a bench at the foot of the bed would work better in this space, or putting a chaise or settee or couch elsewhere. The skirted table has a really awesome potential. It's height is right, but it's scale RIGHT next to the bed is off-putting. It should be a bit more substantial next to this magnificent headboard. There are other things wrong with this design, but we'll revisit that later.  Let's visit a room that is right as rain.
Here is a room found in Cottage Living. This is not a huge room. The designer paid attention to where the traffic patterns were in the room and left an appropriate space for paths. (Which is cardinal rule #2. The official rule is to leave 36 inches -3 feet- for walkways that lead to or away from doors and 18 inches between furniture pieces to pass through like a couch and coffee table.) The bed is sized and placed appropriately and there is space for the room to function as a dressing area and a reading haven. There's even storage in the wicker trunk at the foot of the bed. The major functions of the room are addressed perfectly. The scale of every single lamp, chair, accessory in this room are spot on. This is why, even if you don't like wicker or white rooms, even though there are a lot of things out, you'll be able to look at this photo and feel somewhat relaxed. It's all about scale. 

Let's look at another room and see what we can learn from it.
Veranda magazine published this gorgeous room. It is a fairly large room with high ceilings. Normally two twin beds could be easily dwarfed in a room this large. The designer was brilliant and chose to extend the bed with benches the perfect width of each bed. Drawing the eye further outward and upward with the benches and the cornice canopy over each was the crowning achievement for making this room successful.  There are lessons we can and will learn from this room about light and color and contrast another time.

Coastal Living published this photo, and the room is successful for a variety of reasons. Look at the furniture pieces in the room and note how appropriate their size is to one another. Can you see it? Even for a girl who really doesn't enjoy white as a predominant color choice, this room makes me happy.

Have you ever struggled with scale and not realized it? Tell me about your successes with scale and placement. I want to hear from you about this topic!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Embrace Southern Chicken & Dumplins And They'll Hug You Back!

My name is Deborah and I love to cook. I've been blessed to have a few dear friends and family members who were patient enough to teach me how to cook. Let me preface that by saying that when I was 20 years old and a brand new wife, I could read recipes and feed myself and my husband with a minimum degree of success about 50% of the time. {That means, we ate, but it wasn't really good most of the time. Unless I baked. One can live on cookies and cake, right?} I could make breakfast and anything a la box food, and whatever I had a simple recipe for. We ate tuna casserole so much that I vowed never to cook that again.  {Not that there's anything WRONG with that, per se.} Nineteen years, four kids, a divorce and remarriage later--not necessarily in that order, I finally have accrued a nice bit of skill in the kitchen, for which cooking television and very patient friends are at least 80% responsible.

Anyhow, Monday, I had a date with destiny. I prayed to the cooking gods, begging for the guidance of my sweet grandma and my dearest departed friend, and held my breath {but only for a few minutes--passing out is no fun} and attempted for the very first time an old Southern standard: chicken and dumplins. {That's how we say it in the South. Yes, I know most people say dumpLING. Bless their hearts.} I am almost 40 years old. I have missed my grandmother's chicken and dumplins for 27 years. Twenty-seven years is far too long to fear a recipe, of all things. Truly, in my mind, it wasn't just a recipe. It was the nostalgia of the woman who has inspired me for most of my life, who could cook Southern comfort food in her sleep if she'd wanted to do so. It was my intense desire to honor her and do due diligence to her legacy. It was time for me to be a Brave Girl about it all. Thank you, Grandma. I love you!

We just endured our first hurricane watch as a family recently, and the weather has been rainy and cool since. After a surprisingly strong, but not epic, earthquake followed by a hurricane {which, for us, was really a tropical storm}, I made the executive decision to make comfort food instead of traditional Labor Day picnic fare. I dove right in and began my lessons in the art of making dumplins, but I was completely intimidated.  "It's just flour and milk!" you say, "What's so difficult about that?" You must understand that NO one messes with the hallowed favorite recipes from their grandmother's kitchen. I just didn't want to mess it up. Also, I never actually was given her recipe. So, I went about an internet search and found a photo that looked like hers did and tweaked the basic instructions attached. It took me at least 10 years to learn how to make my own chicken stock. Well, in truth, it didn't take me that long to learn it, but it certainly took me that long to WANT to learn. I feel as if a rite of passage has just transpired in my life. It's exhilarating and humbling all at once.

 Here's how I went about the process. I probably should've begun with a few minutes of Yoga, because I was so ridiculously nervous about it all. But my first move was to gather my ingredients for the stock. Those who aren't new to cooking already know that when you cook with incredibly fresh and unprocessed ingredients, your food is like magic. It took me years to figure this out. Trust me on this one, it's true.

Stock isn't difficult, really. Making good stock is really all about how well you season the ingredients before you cook them and making sure that your heat is never higher than medium [a low simmer]. My not so secret weapon is that I never just use water to cover the meat and veggies. I always, always use a pre-made broth. It just makes life easier and the recipe that much more flavorful.

antibiotic free organic chicken
Alright, now that we've gathered the ingredients, grab a really large stock pot and add 4 roughly chopped large carrots and celery stalks. I cut them in thirds. Typically, this amount of vegetables nearly covers the bottom layer of the pot. Sprinkle the veggies evenly with salt and pepper. Add your cut chicken pieces to the pan after you've salted and peppered both sides of each piece generously. Your chicken should look like you evenly sprinkled every surface. You can buy a whole bird and cut it yourself, or ask the butcher to cut it for you. OR if you don't have a real butcher in your grocery store (sad reality, but true in many places), you can find a pre-cut whole bird and just skip right out to your car. Just be careful not to drop your chicken. That would be bad. **This is the part of the story where my brain remembers hearing stories of my grandmother wringing the neck and decapitating her chickens before she plucked and butchered them herself. I'm so proud of her for having that level of ferocious skill, but I'm so glad I do not have to go to those lengths today.

This is the point that most stock recipes will tell you to cover with water. This is where I use three 32 ounce organic boxes of broth and cover the pot with its lid.  It is okay to walk away for a couple of hours while your chicken stock simmers. The chicken is beginning to fall off the bone when you fork test [fork test- poke with fork. very technical term.] between an hour and a half to two hours of cooking. (If you're cooking on a gas stove, it may not take quite that long.)

When you see particularly the breast bone gently pulling away from the meat, it is time to turn off the burner and use a colander and large bowl to strain the broth from the meat and veggies.  Once you strain the broth out, put it back in the pot and adjust your heat to low while you mix the dumplin batter. Taste the broth to check for seasoning. It should be a bit saltier than the end product. If it isn't salty enough, add more by 1/2 a teaspoon until it tastes like you want it. During this time, your chicken needs to cool so that you can handle it later to discard the skin and bones.

For the dumplins, my ingredients were flour and milk. That's all. No leavening was used this time. I've seen recipes with salt. I've seen recipes with baking soda. Not this one. Not this time. Two cups of all-purpose flour (I feel really sorry for you gluten-free folks. I don't know if there is a way to make this recipe without gluten.) along with 2/3 of a cup of milk and just a splash more. Mix these together until a single ball forms. It will be sticky, so as you remove the dough, make sure you have sprinkled a bit of flour on your hands and on the dough. I like to roll the dough about in the mixing bowl coating it with a bit of flour before I take it out.

I have no idea why I use Gold Medal flour, but I always have, except for one time I tried another brand and just twitched the entire time. Use your favorite. Whatever helps you relax, really.  Also, I'm particular about milk. Some milk just ain't good, y'all. This stuff, however, rocks my world. I've accepted the fact that I'm a little discriminating about food products.
Your dough should look like this. I typically lay out wax paper or parchment (whatever I have on hand) and sprinkle some flour on that before I plop the dough down to roll it out. It's a good idea to walk away for about 5 minutes and let the gluten in the dough relax so your dumplins will be tender. Turn the heat of your stock up to medium and get a small rolling boil working. Knead the dough a couple of times to loosen it up. Then put it back into a ball and get ready to roll it out. Don't forget to rub flour on your rolling pin so it doesn't stick. Once your dough is rolled out, it should be 1/8 inch. How many people measure dough thickness with a ruler? Not me, but it can be done if you feel particularly precise. It should look like THIN pizza dough when it's ready to cut. Use a pizza cutter or sharp knife to cut 1/4 inch wide strips. Dumplins should be no longer than your index finger. If they're too long or wide, they take much longer to cook and become tender. Cook time will depend entirely on how many dumplins you cook. I did a double batch and it took them about 30-40 minutes. When they are done, the ends should be slightly translucent. Mine weren't translucent because I didn't quite roll them thin enough, but they were still really delicious. When you determine your dumplins are finished cooking, sprinkle a tablespoon of flour and 1/3 cup of milk into the pot and stir. You'll see your stock turn into more of a gravy or light sauce.

While your dumplins cook, you should begin to remove the bone and skin and connective tissue from the chicken. Take your time doing this step so the texture of the chicken remains moist and not mushy. A lot of people nowadays don't know how to debone a bird. It's time consuming, but the more you practice, the faster it will go. Be sure that the meat you separate out is just that and tear it apart into just larger than bite-sized chunks. When your noodles are almost ready, put the chicken back in the pot and stir gently. Here's how mine looked. The dumplins should be fairly limp and lazy looking. Mine are just a tad too thick for that, but Oh. My. Heavens. So very good. I challenge you all to make this dish. Some of you will probably do it FAR better than I did, but for a first attempt, I was quite pleased. What a great way to kick off Autumn! Good luck and be brave!

**EDIT: I totally forgot to mention something sorta pivotal. I used a Kitchenaid Stand Mixer to make the dough. It can be done with a wooden spoon and your arm, but it takes a lot longer. Anyway. I'm a thorough girl and hate leaving out steps. Recipes with missing steps can result in disaster. Also, I'm trying to figure out how to put a link thingy in here with just the measurements and boring ol' recipe for printing. It'll be available ASAP.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Inaugural Thoughts

A few years ago, [and by a few, I mean 14] I developed an idea for designing products and providing design services, ultimately to franchise out.  It's a brilliant idea. I won't divulge it all here, but suffice it to say that life got in the way and I never completely sold myself on the idea.

I got an autoimmune disease and was distracted for a bit. I had some personal difficulties and decided it wasn't the right time. Over the next six months, I will test the blog-o-sphere world that is still booming and see how things go.

I'm as excited today as I was 14 years ago when the first seedling of inspiration was given to me. Today, I can see a path to succeeding in this business project of mine. Today, I'm convinced that wonderful things can happen because of this thing that began as a tiny idea.

Here are a few inspiring images that sort of define Domestic Empress style. Enjoy!

There's the grand:
Garden Gate at Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Townhome in Amsterdam

Cathedrale Saint Sauveur d'Aix Aix-en-Provence
Chambord Castle, Paris

Amsterdam architecture

Fontevraud Abbey, France
Tarascon Castle, Provence, France

 There's the humble barn and farm:

...and then there are words that can inspire and also BE art itself.  Let's do something creative today, shall we?