Thursday, September 18, 2014

5 Amazing Fall Soup Recipes

If there's one thing I love about fall, it's the cooler weather. Cooler weather means boots, leggings, hot chocolate, fires in the fire place, soups, and snuggling - just to name a few things I love about fall. If you're looking for some ideas for you and your significant other (and/or family!), wander on over to my post "5 Things To Do During the Fall" and see what else I love about fall! One of my favorite parts about fall is the fact that it is no longer "too hot" for soup. I love soup. It's so comforting and warm. Soups are truly my comfort foods. (yes, you read that right - other comfort foods include macaroni and cheese, buffalo chicken dip, and cookie cake with LOTS of icing). Back to the soups. In the spirit of my little blog miniseries "The 5's of Fall," I've included my top 5 favorite soups (with recipes!) for you to peruse, possibly make, and enjoy! I can't promise that they are all low-calorie or super healthy, but they are super yummy!
Original Recipe from The Pioneer Woman

1. Broccoli Cheese Soup (With Ham!) 
4 heads broccoli, cut into 1-inch florets
Olive oil
Salt, Freshly Ground Black Pepper
1 stick unsalted butter
1 whole onion, diced (we substituted 3 cloves of garlic due to onion allergies)
1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour (I use gluten-free flour)
4 cups whole milk (we used 2%)
2 cups half-and-half
Nutmeg (just a pinch)
1/2 pound of ham (optional), cubed into 1/2 inch pieces
3 cups grated cheese (we used sharp cheddar)
1 cup chicken broth (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 375 F. Take the broccoli florets, cut in half, and drizzle with olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place the florets on a baking sheet with the cut-side down on the sheet. Bake for about 20 minutes or until the florets crisp and become slightly brown.
2. While the florets are cooking, melt the butter in a fairly large pot over medium heat. If you would like, add 1 whole onion, diced, and cook about 3-4 minutes until they are softened. If not, sprinkle flour on top of the butter and stir to combine. Cook until the flour is absorbed (about 1 minute). Add the milk and half-and-half. Add a dash of nutmeg, then the broccoli florets, a small dash of salt, plenty of pepper, and the ham. Cover the pot, reduce heat to low, and simmer until broccoli is tender (about 20-30 minutes). Stir in the cheest. Allow it to melt completely.
3. Taste. Add salt and pepper to season to your taste. Using a hand blender, break up the broccoli until the soup is more of a puree consistency. If you have a food processor, you can use this instead. Make sure you break up the soup into 2 batches if you use to the food processor. If needed, pour a smidge of chicken broth in to thin the mixture out.
4. Serve, garnished with grated cheese.

2. Vegetable Beef Stew on Mashed Potatoes
1 Tbsp cooking oil
1 lb stew beef, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 cup red wine (that you are willing to sacrifice. We generally use Bordeaux, but the dryer the wine the better the flavor!)
Salt & Pepper
4 small potatoes, or 2 sweet potatoes (optional, particularly if serving on mashed potatoes)
1 cup green beans
4-6 small carrots (4 doesn't seem to be enough to me sometimes)
1 cup tomatoes

6 russet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch cubes
8 cloves garlic, cut into quarters
1/2 c heavy cream

1. Heat pressure cooker, add oil and brown the meat slightly.
2. Place vegetables over the meat, and pour in 1 cup red wine.
3. Place pressure regulator on vent pipe and cook 10 minutes with pressure regulator rocking slowly.
4. While the soup is cooking, place the cubed potatoes in a large saucepan. Cover with cold water and salt. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Boil for 10-15 minutes, or until potatoes are easily pierced with a fork. Make sure you skim the starch foam off the top occasionally. Drain potatoes and place in a blender/food processor (or use a hand mixer!).
5. Return saucepan to stovetop, and place on low heat. Add garlic and heavy cream to saucepan. Heat until cream begins to simmer. then add to blender (or place potatoes in saucepan and use hand mixer). Blend until potatoes are totally smooth puree. Add skim milk, as necessary, to thin to taste.
6. Scoop one ladle-full of mashed potatoes into a large soup bowl. Using the bottom of the ladle, form a bowl-like shape out of the mashed potatoes by pressing a "crater" into the mashed potatoes.
7. Ladle a healthy serving of beef stew on top.
8. Enjoy!

3. Copycat Olive Garden Chicken and Gnocchi Soup

1 Cup chicken breasts cooked and diced (we just shredded a rotisserie chicken instead)
4 Tbsp butter
4 Tbsp flour
1 quart half-and-half
15 oz can chicken broth
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup carrots, finely shredded
1 cup fresh spinach, coarsely chopped
1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1/2 tsp thyme
1/2 tsp parsley
Freshly grated parmesan cheese
1 lb. potato gnocchi (You can buy this, but we made our own. It's super simple, and recipes are ALL over the internet!)

1. In the bottom of a medium-to-large pot, saute the butter, garlic, and olive oil on medium heat. When the garlic becomes translucent, add in the flour a little at a time, creating a roux. Let this cook for about 1 minute. Then add in the half-and-half.
2. Cook gnocchi according to package directions (we just made our own right before starting step 1. Super easy. I have not heard good things about the store-bought gnocchi. What I have gathered is that you need to buy the gnocchi in the refrigerated section, not the dry gnocchi on the shelves).
3. Into the roux, dump the carrots and chicken pieces. Once the mixture thickens, add the chicken broth.
4. Once everything has thickened back up, add in the cooked gnocchi, spinach, and seasonings. Simmer on medium heat until the soup is heated through.

4. Chicken and Dumplings
1 Rotisserie chicken
32 oz. chicken broth
11 oz. can Cream of Chicken soup
1 can Pillsbury biscuits
1 cup flour
Salt & Pepper

1. Shred the meat off the rotisserie chicken. (This is J's job. I hate getting my hands dirty.)
2. In a large pot, bring the chicken broth to a boil.
3. Pour in the cream of chicken soup and shredded chicken pieces. Stir well. Splash in salt and pepper to taste.
4. While this is heating through, taking the biscuits and pull them apart, making sure to separate the top of the biscuit from the bottom. You should have 2 thinner sections for each biscuit. Cut each piece into quarters. Dip the pieces into the flour. Place the biscuit pieces gently on top of the soup.
5. Gently poke the bread down, randomly, while cooking for about 10 minutes. Don't stir too much or the dumplings will break apart. Once the dumplings are cooked, you're done!
6. Serve. Enjoy!

**Side note, we sometimes add peas and carrots so it's like a chicken pot pie soup! Amazing! :)

5. Brunswick Stew
1.5 pounds of BBQ pork from your local BBQ place
1 Cup BBQ Sauce
2-16 oz cans tomatoes
1 can cream of corn
1 can reg whole kernel corn
1 Tbsp sugar

1. Squish up tomates with clean hands and break up the BBQ really well.
2. With clean hands, mix up all the parts with some TLC.
3. Place in crockpot and cook overnight (or all day) on low.
4. Enjoy!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

How I Planned My Wedding On a Budget: The Break Down

When I started planning my wedding, I took a look at the Pinterest board. (Yes, if you're a man, every woman has the "obligatory wedding Pinterest board." Moving on.) Using my Pinterest board, I was able to do several things: (1) Prioritize, (2) Determine WHAT I wanted in my wedding, (3) Read how other couples planned their wedding on a budget. All that out of Pinterest - and men say it's a worthless app. ;)

(1) By prioritizing what was important to me, I could prioritize where my money went. A DJ wasn't hugely important to me, so an iPod and outdoor speaker worked perfectly (and cost me no money). Flowers were more important to me, as I felt flowers could set the tone a little better for the wedding (colors, theme, etc.). That's where part of my main focus was.

(2) Determining what you want in your wedding is also important. How do you convey to your vendors what you want if you don't know what you want? Consider it an act of kindness for everyone involved. It means that when you meet with your vendors, your time with them is more productive, cutting down on the time they spend talking and increasing the time they spending DOING.

(3) Research it! No one said you had to plan on a budget on your own! Throw away those bridal magazines (unless your budget is $20K) and start searching - online, google, Pinterest, etc. Use other people and their successes as your inspiration! You are NOT alone in planning this wedding on a budget, and there are some GREAT resources out there for you to utilize!

So you've got your Pinterest board FULL of ideas, themes, decor, THE DRESS ideas, floral arrangements, centerpieces, etc. Now what do you do? You've prioritized what's important (Nod your head yes - if you're shaking your head, go back up to the top and start again). We did not break down our budget PER category, we had a total budget in mind. You may prefer to specifically itemize the cost of each category, but we are "free spirits" as Dave Ramsey says.

Wedding Attire:
Photo Credits: Ashleigh Mallard Photography
FIRST (and to me, most important), I found my dress. $500 off the rack. Yes, you read that right. Many bridal stores have huge clearance sales in July and August as they try to clear out inventory from the past year to make room for the new fall styles coming in. Many stores also offer a discount if you purchase the dress off the rack. Ask if you can pay with cash/check (and if so, will they offer a discount), or if you pay in full if they will give you a discount. What's the worst they can say? No. So ask - they might say yes! I bought my dress in July (a year before my wedding) off the rack for $500. It was strapless and I wanted straps for the ceremony (cost me $15 at the bridal store). I had to have it hemmed, and some minor alterations (plus the straps added) for $125. You don't have to use the bridal shop's alterations lady. Sometimes it is safer as they alter gowns all the time. However, I knew a lady that I used for tons of alterations (pants, formal dresses, etc.), and I knew that she would do a great job for a reasonable cost. Ask around! You aren't the only one who's getting married, and you might be able to find someone less expensive than the bridal store!. So, total cost of my dress (dress, straps, alterations): $640. We bought J's suit as it was actually less expensive than renting (and he gets to keep it!). We found a great sale going on at Men's Warehouse. Normally, I wouldn't recommend them as they are fairly expensive, but we got a great deal! J's Suit (tie and shirt!): $250.
Total Wedding Attire for Bride & Groom: $890

Florist: My first piece of advice when it comes to finding the perfect vendor: shop around. I knew for the most part what I wanted for my flowers. I initially called the florist from my first wedding, but he was unavailable. He recommended the florist that had done his wedding (La Petit Fleur). I was a little bummed, but once I met her, I was so happy I had chosen to use her. She was flexible in her pricing, willing to work on a tight budget, and talked me through some ways to cut down on cost. Be honest with your vendors. If they know you're on a tight budget, they won't do an outrageous set up for centerpieces, your bouquets, etc. (That way you can avoid a $4K quote!). I told Corrine what I was looking for, that I was on a tight budget, and asked what she recommended. Many times if you use flowers in season, it will cut down on imports/costs/etc. I wanted Peacock feathers (which cut down on some flowers in the arrangments) and purple/teal Dendrobium Orchids. I wanted to use hydrangeas, which are a little more expensive. BUT Corrine pointed out to me that while they cost a little more, you get more flowers for the dollar. She worked extensively with me to make sure that I got exactly what I wanted on a budget I could afford.
She did: 2 bouquets (mine was a cascade), 4 corsages, 7 boutonnieres, and a throw away bouquet for a total of $500.

Food: For my cake, I wanted one cake (not 2: classic Bridal & Groom cakes). But I wanted to have half the cake iced in white with a lace-like design and the other half to be chocolate with ganache drizzled down the layers. I also needed a gluten-free cake, which really limited my options, as 4 members of my family (including me) are gluten intolerant. However, we were able to find a vendor that was willing to do a gluten free cake within our budget. Total Cost of Cake: $225.

For our dinner, we utilized J's dad (remember in Blog 1 we talked about using family or friends as a resource). He owns a Barbecue restaurant, which is exactly what we wanted for our reception dinner. He was willing to do this for us, at cost (meaning we only reimbursed him what it cost for the food - he made no profit). Total Cost to feed 65 people: $200.

Photography: When looking for photographers, I immediately asked friends for their recommendations. Ashleigh Mallard Photography. I knew Ashleigh as we group up going to church together, and J knew Ashleigh as she had photographed his son's newborn pictures. I contacted her and was upfront about our limited budget. She was willing to cut her wedding package cost IMMENSELY. While it may have temporarily cost her a little money, she has gained loyal customers in us. She didn't skimp on anything with us, despite we did pay her less than she normally would have been paid. We have 2 family photography sessions coming up in the next 2-3 months - with Ashleigh! Total Cost of FULL DAY Photography: $1000.
Unfortunately, this led to photographers that had a base price (for their wedding packages) of around $2500-3000. Not in my price range. So I started researching photographers that I knew personally. While I was a little afraid of mixing business and personal relationships, I figured I would be able to communicate what I was looking for (and be heard) and that I would be able to set up a payment plan (even if it extended a little past the wedding) that would be acceptable. J & I finally discussed it and agreed on using

Hair & Make-Up: I am terrible at doing my own hair. It's just a simple fact of life. I have 3 main hairstyles for work that simply don't cut it for my wedding. While I was willing (and able) to travel to an outside location for hair and make-up, having my hair & make-up done on location took a load of stress off my mind. We utilized Trio Makeup & Hair Designs. I had utilized this group for my first wedding and loved the results. So when I contacted them 4 years later for this wedding, I asked if they gave repeat customers a discount. Fortunately, they were willing to honor their pricing from 2010, when my first wedding took place. That was actually a HUGE discount. For my mom's make-up, my hair & make-up, and my sister's hair & make-up, it cost us a total of $400. While that is more costly than you may be willing to pay, it was a load of my back that they were willing to travel to me on the day of the wedding.

Ceremony: The church I grew up in (and was till a member of at the time), provided the facilities for a nominal fee for members. While we did pay for a nursery for children under 5, we still saved a substantial amount of money by utilizing a facility that provided us the same services as other locations with nominal cost. We simply had to cover custodial fees ($150), wedding coordinator fee ($250), sound/microphone fees ($100), candle fees ($60), and nursery cost ($150). While that seems like a lot of nickel-and-diming (and it certainly seemed like it at the time!), it was still less than renting a facility outside of our church. All the fees added up to a ceremony venue cost of: $710. Some churches we looked at started their sanctuary rental fee at $1000!!!

Reception Venue: We decided (after much discussion between J & I, as well as my parents) to utilize my parents' home as our reception venue. While we still had to rent tables and chairs, but it cut down significantly on the rental fee for the facility! While we still paid $1000 for rental fees for tables, chairs, tablecloths, etc., we didn't have to pay for the facility (and we could keep the party going as late as we wanted!).

Total Cost for My Wedding: $4925. (Paid over the course of 13 months)

Monday, September 1, 2014

How I Planned My Wedding On a Budget (And Got Everything I Wanted)

Photos Courtesy of Ashleigh Mallard Photography
Weddings aren't cheap anymore. Whatever happened to the good ole days of having a ceremony with some cake and punch in the Church's gathering hall afterwards? Gone. Now, it's not a reception without an open bar (no judgement - there was an open bar at my first wedding). So when round 2 started (cue boxing bell rings), I knew I was planning a wedding on my own dime. And open bar was NOT the first thing on my mind. So what's a girl to do with a budget of $5000 and LOTS on her wishlist?!

1. Start a Pinterest board. No, seriously. The first few months after J and I got engaged, I started a Pinterest board. It let me see what I was drawn to, looking for, not even paying attention to etc.. It helped me see where my priorities were before I even realized it!

2. Involve your family and friends! Got an aunt who's a whiz at flower arrangements? See if she's willing to help you (for a small price of course!) for the cost of the flowers/vases/etc. Maybe even a little on top to compensate for her time. Your mom has an amazing jewelry collection? See if she'll let you raid it for your special day. Your sister's the bomb at making burlap wreaths and bows? Include her! You get the picture. I'm sure that you are surrounded by talent, so ask if those people are willing to put their talent to use for you!

3. Find hidden resources. The church that J and I got married in has an option for members to purchase flowers for the altar on Sundays. 1 arrangement is $35 (vs. the florist's arrangements at $200 a pop!), so we bought both of the arrangements (only 2 are available). We requested some extra peacock feathers/orchids to match our bouquets/corsages/boutonnieres (and additional $30/vase) for altar arrangements totaling at $130 (for both arrangements!). While we couldn't take the arrangements home with us, as they had to remain in the church for the Sunday morning services, it was a nice price break!
One of our altar arrangements.
4. Shop around. Who says you have to use the first vendor you find? Shop around! If you don't take the time to look and see what is available for what price, you might miss out on a huge budget saver!

5. Give yourself plenty of time. J and I got engaged 13 months before we got married. Why? Well, 2 reasons. (1) So that we could get married the same week as our parents and my grandparents, but (2) so that we could spread out the cost of our wedding without living above our means. We paid a few vendors in smaller amounts for several months, paid them off, then moved on to other vendors! It took more time, BUT it gave us plenty of time to pay every one without struggling to eat, pay the bills, etc.

Next up on the agenda for planning your wedding on a budget: prioritizing, opportune times to book/shop, and finding vendors that work within YOUR means!