Wednesday, August 22, 2012

How I Built My Own Outdoor Flagstone Fire Pit

Well, sometimes you have to wait good and long enough to finally have enough incentive to do what you have to do to get what you want.  And that is how I got 'a hair up my butt' as my husband, Rich, said and built myself a fire pit.  I had only been dreaming and planning to do so for about the past four years.  Really, pretty much ever since we built our home.  I knew exactly where I wanted it, what I wanted it to look like and what I wanted it to be.  And that was nothing less than what I had already imagined.  So, I talked about it.  I emphasized how much I wanted one.  And that my friends, got me absolutely no where closer to getting it built.  My husband never did bite at that bait and never did build it for me.  And when I want something bad enough, I cannot get it out of my mind.  Not at all.  And then I find a way to make it happen.  With or without any help, come hell or high water, I will get what I want.  Even if I have to do it all by my little old self ;)
I got my flagstone from 2 different people, so that made it a bit difficult since the stuff from my neighbors was more like small boulders and the stuff from my brother was more ideal cause it was nice and flat. I would suggest, if you can choose what type you would want, the nice flat pieces of flagstone to do this project with. First I removed the grass like it were sod (not too hard since the drought killed it at that time). Once I had a perfect circle (did it all with just a regular shovel), I used a garden rake and worked clockwise from the center out like a pinwheel to drag it, removing any left behind root systems and rocks. I tried to level it the best I could with this process. Next I used one of those things that you pound the ground down with, it is like a shovel handle with a flat square on the bottom. Then I poured in 10 bags of crushed rock (for doing patios and such) followed by a few bags of crushed pea gravel to top it off with-this filled in the spaces around the crushed rock making it more tight and solid. Then I used that ground pounder thing again to flatten it out (I was really afraid that down the road it would sink and crack my cement so I tried my best to give it a solid foundation). Next I started to lay out my rock for the down splash part or the patio part that wraps around and under the ring (to support the fire ring from sinking). I used my largest pieces inter mixed with some medium and small pieces to make it flow, leaving about 2-3" of negative space in between the best I could. I left the center open and placed a large square concrete patio block in the center (for the main floor of the fire pit). I built my center fire ring starting on top of the patio ring, like right on the very edge of where it was left open and built it up 4 rows, then I took them down the same way I had them and made 4 rings in the grass so I knew how to lay them as I cemented them in later on when it was time. I then used a fine ground (no rocks in it) mortar cement for stone mixed with a small amount of concrete strengthener and water to for the 'grout'. You want it wet, but still able to hold it's shape.   I just used a trowel to fill it in between the rocks, then with my rubber gloved hands I just kind of lightly patted it to smooth it (like patting on a babies butt) ;) Once I had the whole patio ring part cemented, I lightly sprayed it with the hose. (it was starting to lightly crack as it began to dry- this is why you spray it with water to slow down the drying process and it will fill in the fix the cracks).  Since it rained for the rest of that night I didn't have to do it again, but if it didn't I probably would have sprayed it again periodically as it was setting. In the morning there were no cracks at all. Concrete likes to set in this cool rainy weather that we had last week. Once the bottom was good and set a few days later I came back with my first bottom ring that I had to the side in the grass, laid it down again on the edge of the cemented patio part. And started to fill in the negative space between the rocks with the cement.  Then next lay the cement on the top of these rocks, lay down the 2nd ring that is set to the side in the grass, fill in any open gaps with more cement, cement the top of the 2nd ring, lay the last 3rd ring on top and again fill in any open gaps with the rest of the cement and follow suite with the last ring to finish it off.  That way the fire ring it solid all the way up with rocks and cement like a well.  Lastly just spray it down with the hose again and periodically until it is set in about the first 2 days if it does not rain. It should not retain water since there is a gravel base (the patio block that I placed in it is in the center and does not take up all the space, leaving gravel around the edges) and hopefully not crack too bad although cement will eventually crack. And that is that I guess :)

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Slow-Cooker Creamy Italian Chicken over Rotini Pasta

I am always and forever looking for more ways to incorporate some fresh spinach into our meals.  I don't know exactly why or really when I became so obsessed with it, but I sure am lately.  Maybe it has a bit of something to do with the fact that some sort of cream usually accompanies it.  And if any of you have noticed any kind of a trend with my cooking and recipes, it would be that I am a lover of all things creamy.  Need it be cream cheese, cheese of any kind really, buttermilk, sour cream, cream soups and, well, I'll stop here cause I can ramble it on til' the cows come home on how much I love creamy stuff.  So, with that being said, here's a great quick and ridiculously easy meal that is simply a toss in and go meal. 

1 1/2- 2 lbs. of boneless/ skinless chicken breast filet's
1 packet of zesty Italian dressing seasonings
2 cans of cream of chicken soup
1 medium tomato (diced)
a big fistful of fresh baby spinach leaves
1 lb. of un-cooked rotini pasta
freshly grated Romano cheese for garnish

-Place the first five ingredients above into your slow-cooker in the order as they appear (that way the seasoning is directly on the chicken).  Set your slow-cooker to go Low and slow for 8 hours.  When you are just about ready to eat, go ahead and set a large stockpot of water for a boil.  Once the water has begun to boil rapidly, add in about a tsp. or so of extra virgin olive oil and a bit of sea salt (this will not only flavor your pasta, but also keep it from sticking together).  Add in your pasta and boil for 9 minutes for au dente.  Strain and rinse the pasta.  Serve the chicken and sauce over a heaping pile of pasta and top it off with a blanket of freshly grated Romano cheese.  Serves 6.  Enjoy!

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Caprese Salad

Not too long back, we went to our beach with an old friend of mine from high school and her adorable little girl.  And amongst the many things that we still have in common with each other, is our mutual love affair with food.  It engulfs both of our thoughts endlessly throughout each day.  And she is always going above and out of her way to make something special every time we get together with our children.  That particular day she introduced me to the Caprese salad, having whipped one up for our beach picnic.  And I loved everything about it and could not wait for a reason to whip one up on my own.  Thank you Stephanie for another great inspiration.

1 pint of grape tomatoes (rinsed and quartered)
1 large slicing tomato (rinsed and chopped)
4 cloves of garlic (minced)
5 oz. of fresh mozzarella (cubed)
a handful of fresh basil leaves (snipped)
a healthy amount of sea salt and lots of fresh cracked pepper
3 T. of extra virgin olive oil
2-3 T. of balsamic vinaigrette

-Combine all of the ingredients in a medium mixing bowl and toss well.  Transfer into a smaller clean bowl, cover and refrigerate at least an hour or so prior to serving (to get the garlic and basil to meld in).  Serve chilled.  Serves 4-5.  Enjoy!

Monday, August 6, 2012

S'mores Brownies

I have a houseful of s'mores lovers here at home.  My husband and my kids are obsessed with them to be frank.  Anything with marshmallows really.  From ridiculous s'mores flavored pop tarts to rocky road ice cream, which is basically s'mores ice cream to me. So, that led me to coming up with this dandy of a treat to please my family.  I figured that this way I could meet every one's craving at once and be summerish at the same time.  Cause when I think of s'mores, I think of hot summer days ending in cool summer nights sitting around a campfire waiting in anticipation as the marshmallow at the end of my stick catches on fire.  That's summer to me.

5 honey graham crackers (left whole)
1 Family Size box of brownie mix (prepared as directed on box-I used Betty Crocker cause it was on sale)
8-10 standard-sized marshmallows (cut into 4's)
a handful of white chocolate chips
a handful of mini semi-sweet chocolate chips

-Preheat your oven to 350*.  Spray the inside of a 9x9" baking dish well with cooking spray.  Line the bottom of the dish with your crackers (they fit really well).  Slowly pour in your prepared brownie batter.  Bake it according to the directions on the back of your box according to the size of the baking dish you are using (using the lowest time for the range, mine said 38-40 minutes, so I just went for 38).  Remove it from the oven when it has finished baking and dot the top of it with the marshmallow pieces and sprinkle on all of the chocolate chips.  Return it back to the oven for about 4 minutes or until your marshmallows just begin to tinge light brown.  Allow for it to cool completely before cutting.  Serves 9-12.  Enjoy!

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Romano Cheese Pasta Salad

I love a good pasta salad with dinner in the summer.  It's a great way to lighten up a grilled dinner of sausages or chicken, instead of weighing it down even more with potatoes.  And it's also a great way to make use of your odds and ends leftovers in the fridge.  Like the addition of the peas in here, well we had peas a few nights back and there was a small serving left behind in the fridge.  And if there's one thing that I have been raised not to be, that is a waster.  No food goes uneaten around here just like no food went uneaten back when I was little.  We just don't waste a thing.

1- 1lb box of tri-color rotelle pasta (uncooked)
extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup of zesty Italian salad dressing
1 medium slicing tomato (diced)
1 small can of sliced black olives (drained)
1/4 cup of green onion (sliced thinly)
1/2 cup of frozen green sweet peas (steamed and cooled)
1/4 cup of Romano cheese (freshly grated)
lots of freshly cracked pepper and a bit of sea salt
1/2 tsp. of dried parsley

-Bring a large stockpot of water up to a good boil, pour in a little bit of the e.v.o. and a pinch of sea salt (this will not only flavor your pasta, but also keep it from being sticky).  Add in your pasta and boil it for only 6 minutes (for Au Dente- you don't want your pasta mushy and falling apart).  Remove it from heat and pour it into a colander inside of your kitchen sink.  Rinse the hot pasta with cold water while gently tossing it to make sure to cool all of it down (so it doesn't continue to cook itself); allow to stand and drain for a minutes or so.  Once your pasta is dry and cool, transfer it into a large mixing bowl with the remaining ingredients; toss gently, but well.  Cover and refrigerate for at least an hour before serving (to meld all the flavors).  Serves 6-8.  Enjoy!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Blackened Salmon with Blue Cheese Dressing

Me, myself, I am a connoisseur of salmon.  I love each and every way that I have had it so far.  And I am not picky at all on how it can be prepared.  Give it to me broiled with lemon and basil, barbecued on the grill, smoked and served with crackers and cream cheese or give it to me like this.  Blackened with an over abundance of spices, taking it just about to too much, but not at the same time.  Complimented and cooled down by some creamy blue cheese dressing and I may have just died and gone to heaven.  Now, on the other hand, way to the left, you have my husband.  He, who eats whatever I serve and never ever complains.  But, when I make salmon.  And as close as he has ever come to 'complaining' about it has merely said that he does not prefer salmon.  That is until tonight.  Until he tried it blackened.  I knew I'd make a salmon lover out of him at some point, just surprised it's taken this many years.

1 T. of Italian seasoning
1 1/2 T. of paprika
1 T. of cayenne pepper
1 1/2 T. of salt
1 tsp. of black pepper
2 T. of un-salted butter
2 T. of extra virgin olive oil
4 skinless/ boneless salmon fillets
1/2 cup or so of blue cheese salad dressing (trust me it works awesome with the spices and the fish)

-In a small dish, mix together the Italian seasoning, paprika, cayenne pepper, salt and pepper.  Pour this out onto the center of a dinner plate.  Heat your butter and your e.v.o. in a large frying pan.  Dredge your fish through your blackening spices, making sure to get both sides evenly covered.  Once your butter and oil are good and hot (butter is melted down), go ahead and carefully place the fish in all at the same time, making sure that they are face-side down and not overlapping (if you have a grease screen, place it over the top of the pan to avoid splatter).  Cook for 4 minutes, carefully flip it over for another 4 more minutes on the last side.  Serve with some blue cheese salad dressing for dipping.  Serves 4.  Enjoy!