Cilantro Citrus Chicken and Rice

Last weekend I went through my cookbook and made a list of recipes to make this month, with an accompanying list of ingredients that became my shopping list. When I make lunch each day, I remind myself to get meat out of the freezer to thaw for dinner at the same time. After picking which meat I’m in the mood for, choosing from a handful of recipes makes dinner less overwhelming. Planning makes dinner prep much easier, and leads to much more cohesive meals, like this one: Cilantro Citrus Chicken with Cilantro Citrus Rice and Spicy Chili Cooked Carrots.

Cilantro Citrus Chicken with Cilantro Citrus Rice and Spicy Chili Carrots

Today I chose chicken, and my fiance chose Cilantro Citrus Chicken from the list of chicken recipes. I originally clipped this recipe from Cooking Light, and it called for 12 8-oz bone-in chicken breasts. I cut the rest of the recipe in half for nearly 1 pound of boneless skinless chicken breasts, and it ended up being nearly perfect. I’d say these amounts I used are spot-on for about a pound of chicken.

Cilantro Citrus Chicken Recipe

  • 1/4 cup chopped onion
  • 2 Tbsp + 2 tsp fresh chopped cilantro
  • 2 Tbsp fresh chopped parsley
  • 2 Tbsp orange juice
  • 2 Tbsp lime juice
  • 1 1/2 tsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 lb chicken
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp cumin
  • 1/4 tsp fresh ground black pepper

The original recipe calls for the first 7 ingredients to be mixed in a food processor before adding with the chicken to marinade for an hour. I just add the ingredients straight into a marinading dish with the chicken, adding a few tablespoons of pineapple juice I had on hand and subbing fresh parsley for dried because that’s what I had. I’d say that blending in a processor is optional.

At this point, I notice a similar recipe on the opposite page in my cookbook, a recipe for Swanson Citrus Chicken & Rice. I decided to incorporate this rice recipe, featuring similar flavors, to serve with my Cilantro Citrus Chicken.

So, after about 45 minutes of marinating the chicken, I began preparing the liquid for the rice. (Keep reading for the rest of the chicken recipe!)

Swanson Citrus Rice

  • 1 can (14 1/2 oz)(1 3/4 cups) Swanson chicken broth
  • 1/2 cup orange juice
  • 1 cup uncooked long-grain white rice
  • 3 Tbsp fresh chopped parsley

For once in my life, I didn’t have any chicken broth on hand (sorry, Swanson). So after adding 1/2 cup orange juice, I filled a 1-cup measure with the rest of the OJ (a few tablespoons), plus the rest of the pineapple juice (a few tablespoons), a few drops of lime juice, and about half a cup of white wine to fill the remainder of the cup. To this I added 3/4 cup of water (so this creative concoction equaled the 1 3/4 cups broth originally called for).

Bring this to a boil, then add one cup of white rice. Reduce heat to simmering, cover, and stir often while cooking for about 18-20 minutes. I add about 3 Tbsp of fresh cilantro instead of parsley to the cooked rice, mimicking the flavors of the chicken to make Cilantro Citrus Rice.

At the same time I start the rice, I heat olive oil in two separate skillets – one for the chicken and one for my mom’s Spicy Chili Cooked Carrots. This one is simple: a few small handfuls of organic baby carrots, enough to cover the bottom of the skillet (makes just enough for 2 servings). Cover and cook a few minutes on med-high until they start sizzling. Add a pad of butter then sprinkle generously with chili powder, cayenne pepper, garlic and black pepper. Cover and cook till soft.

Meanwhile, add the salt, cumin and pepper to the chicken. The original recipe called for grilling, but it is January in Cleveland after all, so I pan-fry instead. Add the chicken and some juice to the heated, oiled pan, and cook till browned outside and no longer pink inside. The juices from the marinade brown into a nice sauce, so this alternative to grilling works well.

We both really liked this meal of Cilantro Citrus Chicken with Cilantro Citrus Rice and Spicy Chili Carrots. We’ll definitely make it again! 

Homemade Sausage Gravy and Biscuits

20160101_101027_Brooke-baking-biscuitsOne of my New Year’s Resolutions is to try a new recipe at least once a week, and what better time to start than New Year’s Day?

My newly engaged fiance and I stopped at the grocery store yesterday, on New Year’s Eve, which actually wasn’t as bad as you’d imagine. We needed horseradish and ketchup to make cocktail sauce for shrimp, as well as milk and bacon for breakfast. In the breakfast meat section of the store, he spotted some ground sausage, and offered to make sausage gravy for brunch on New Year’s Day. With the addition of orange juice and champagne for mimosas, and Lucky Charms (‘just this once’) for good luck, we had the ingredients for a proper New Year’s Brunch.

Our first engaged New Year’s Eve was memorable without being rowdy. After a few shopping errands together, we grabbed burgers before heading to 16 Bit Bar+Arcade for some video games, where we drove virtual race cars, shot virtual moose and bear, rescued the princess from Donkey Kong, and smashed some mushrooms as Mario.

With one hour left in the night – and the year – we hailed an Uber and headed to a party bar on the west end of town. Multiple bars indoors and out, live bands and DJs, plus no cover charge meant the place was packed with lots of young, drunk, insufficiently-clad hoards. We made one full loop through the grounds (which consisted of elbowing our way through the aforementioned drunk, loud crowd) and quickly decided this was not our scene. We Ubered back home and rang in the New Year together on the couch sipping champagne…Much better.

For brunch the next morning, he kept his promise to make sausage gravy. Then I realized I didn’t have any quick biscuits in a tube, and to be honest, I kind of suspected that when we were at the grocery store yesterday, but I have always wanted to make my own. What better time than today, I thought, to make biscuits from scratch, and to start working toward one of my resolutions. I knew I could trust Paula Deen for my first time, so I found her basic biscuit recipe here. We ate a small bowl of Lucky Charms to christen 2016 with good luck, and to hold our stomachs over while I started baked biscuits for our New Year’s Brunch of Biscuits and Gravy.

Homemade Biscuit Recipehomemade biscuits from scratch

  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter, cubed
  • 3/4 cup milk

Combine dry ingredients. (Some would recommend sifting here, but I don’t have time or tools for such things when brunch is waiting.) Cut in cubed butter until the mixture resembles cornmeal (which takes a few minutes, a little elbow grease, and a handheld pastry blender). Make a well in the middle of the mixture and slowly add milk, stirring often and kneading lightly at the end to combine dough into one ball.
Roll out dough on a lightly floured surface. Her recipe doesn’t say how thick to roll the dough, so I had to experiment to learn that you want to roll it at least an inch thick, and even thicker, almost like the biscuits that come in a can. I used the top rim of a glass to cut out biscuits, or you can use a round cookie cutter or, ideally, a biscuit cutter.
She bakes them in a skillet; I used my trusty baking stone from Pampered Chef. Her recipe didn’t include baking time or temperature for a conventional oven. I heated my oven to about 375, and it ended up closer to 400 because it tends to run hot. Bake for 12-14 minutes. These biscuits don’t really brown; they are lighter than the golden brown color that come from the can, so watch them closely. When the bottoms are brown and you can’t leave ‘thumbprints’ when you press on the tops, remove from the heat.

20160101_111616_Sausage-Gravy-Biscuits-and-MimosasHomemade Maple Sausage Gravy 

While I made these, my fiance made maple sausage gravy. He browned a pound of maple sausage in the skillet on med-high, adding seasoning salt and fresh ground black pepper. Then he sprinkled approximately 1/2 cup of flour over the meat, which absorbs to make a crumbly meat mixture. He slowly added approximately 1-1 1/2 cups milk, stirring, adding up to 1/3 cup more flour as needed to desired consistency. I emphasize “approximately” because he doesn’t really measure anything, he just adds until it’s right (which is one of the reasons I love him – a man who can cook!) You do want to make it thinner because it will thicken as it continues to cook (which was about another 12-15 minutes, as I baked a second, thicker batch of biscuits). He added some red pepper flakes to spice it up a little more. The maple sausage does make it taste sweeter and richer, which makes it delicious!

Maple Sausage Gravy and Biscuits

To put it all together, he cracked the biscuits in half and spooned the sausage gravy over them. Enjoy with mimosas, as we did for our New Year’s Brunch.

The gravy freezes really well, so we put all the leftovers (which was a quart-size container full) directly into the freezer for the future. This is good for us because we only allow ourselves to this indulgent breakfast splurge a few times a year. I’ll admit that, while this recipe helped my resolution of trying new recipes, it may have violated another resolution of mine: to fit into a single-digit wedding dress, and look damn good in it….but at least this tasted damn good as an indulgent way to celebrate a New Year and a new life together with my man!

P.S. Mimosas

We found this dry sparkling wine, the Blanc de Blancs from Anna de Codorniu, a blend of 70% Chardonnay, 15% Parellada and 15% Xarel-Lo, Macabeu. I don’t know what most of those words mean but we were enchanted by the classy white label covering the bottle, and the contents didn’t disappoint. This cava was delicious alone, and even better paired with OJ for mimosas. Highly recommend!

Cheers to making 2016 the best year ever! 

Vision Board Ideas, Big and Small

Last May, my friend Melanie at Dose of Creativity hosted a Visioning Party where we created visual collages called vision boards. Equipped with stacks of old magazines, scissors to cut them up, and glue sticks to construct, we began with a brief meditation to center ourselves on the goals, aspirations and dreams we wanted to clarify with our creations.

I had been collecting clip-outs for months in advance, snipping any images, phrases or colors that stuck out to me when flipping through catalogs. The party was a great ‘excuse’ to finally carve out time to put the project down on paper, and organize my thoughts into a tangible reminder of what I want.

From friends and family to faith, farms, and far-off destinations, with plenty of random traits, achievements and indulgences sprinkled between, I created this vision board to visualize my dreams:

vision board

I used a large, poster-sized board to give myself a big canvas, but Melanie had some great vision board ideas for smaller projects that don’t take up as much time or space. She suggested using:

  • Plain manila folders, to give your vision a beginning, middle and end.
  • Small cardboard jewelry boxes, to create a ‘wish box’ where you can write dreams on small slips of paper and tuck them away.
  • Index cards, to make a ‘character card’ focusing on a certain trait or single aspiration.
  • Cardboard children’s books from the Dollar Store (some come in funky shapes like flowers), with the glossy pages sanded down, to make an album of collages.
  • Or any size of card or paper in between!

I stole her idea for my next visioning project, and decided to create a business vision folder. I browsed through my leftover cut-outs and extra magazines to find words, illustrations and images related to my freelance writing and digital marketing business, BantaMedia. I decided that the front of the folder would represent what I want my business to be known for. Inside, the left flap would represent my work flow, tools and tasks, while the right flap would represent my work-life balance. The back of the folder would depict the results and achievements of mastering the two collages inside.

The front of my business vision folder: to be known for bold content built on bright ideas, creativity, connecting dots, kicking butt and rejecting status quo.

vision board business vision folder

The work flow (inside left) of my business vision folder: to crush to-do lists, bring motion where there was obstruction, keep the content machine running and do more in less time. And the work-life balance (inside right) of my vision folder: to stress less, master multi-tasking, find more time and energy in each day, destroy distractions, and live, work and play happily.

vision board business vision folder

The desired results of my business vision folder: to achieve a standard of grace not perfection, excellence in journalism, balance, stability, and freelance success.

vision board business vision folder

One image worth explaining is the impossible “blue” rose in the bottom right corner. Literature and art often portray blue roses as a symbol of love and prosperity, but roses lack the gene responsible for producing blue naturally. There’s literally no such thing as a blue rose. So for centuries, people have been dying white roses artificially. It took two companies more than a dozen years of collaborative research to genetically engineer a white rose with blue pigments, and named the flower Applause. However, the genetic modifications don’t entirely block the flower from producing some of its own natural color, so the resulting “blue” rose is more of a lilac or lavender.

The point? Don’t let anything stop your true colors from showing.

Happy visioning!


My Essential First Aid Kit Supplies

One of the most important (and yet, least frequently used) pieces of My Master Camping Checklist is a thorough First Aid Kit stocked with the essential medical supplies I might need on a road trip or a camping excursion.

Contents of first aid kit for camping survival preparedness

My First Aid Kit is stored on the top of my Big Blue Camping Bin so it’s easy to access. Here is the list of essential First Aid Kit supplies I keep with my camping gear:

  • First Aid Manualessential first aid kit supplies for camping preparedness
  • Adhesive tape (waterproof)
  • Sanitary pads & tampons
  • Instant cold packs
  • Sterile gauze pads
  • Elastic bandages
  • Call Police flag
  • Bug spray
  • Calamine lotion
  • Sunscreen
  • Ethyl alcohol
  • Hydrogen peroxide
  • Road flares
  • Hand warmers
  • Antibiotic ointment
  • Epi pen
  • Eye drops
  • Cotton balls/pads, Q-tips
  • Waterproof matches
  • Razor blades
  • Whistle
  • Sewing kit (needle & thread)
  • CPR shield
  • Scissors
  • Tweezers
  • Safety pins
  • Water purification tablets
  • Ammonia inhalants
  • Plastic doggie bags
  • Antiseptic wipes
  • Band-aids, butterfly bandages
  • Burn gel
  • Sterile eye pad
  • Ibuprofen
  • Plastic gloves (latex-free)
  • Compass

 What else do you keep in your First Aid Kit?

essential first aid kit supplies for camping

Read more about Fresh Domestic camping here.

Cleveland’s Hessler Street Fair

You know summer has kicked off in Cleveland, not because of the weather (which has a mind of its own), but because of the festivals. Last weekend, with unseasonably warm 80 degree weather beckoning, we loaded the car full of friends and headed to the Hessler Street Fair.

Cleveland Ohio Hessler Street Fair summer festival hippie Case Western Reserve University

This was my first time down Hessler Street, which is nestled in Cleveland’s University Circle between the museums (like the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland Botanical Garden, and The Children’s Museum of Cleveland) and the esteemed Case Western Reserve University. The Street Fair has been running annually since 1969, when the Hessler Neighborhood Association was founded as a nonprofit to “enhance the social and architectural quality of the neighborhood.” Because people came together to preserve and maintain the neighborhood, Hessler Road and Hessler Court were dedicated as Cleveland’s first local Landmark District in 1975.

Last weekend, the street welcomed artists, painters, jewelers, bakers, soapmakers, woodcarvers, food vendors, face painters, drummers, and free spirits of all sorts decked in dreadlocks and tie-dye. In other words, Hessler Street Fair is Cleveland’s Hippie Festival, complete with drum circles and hippie vans and reggae music, mon.

Cleveland Ohio Hessler Street Fair drum circle

Cleveland Ohio Hessler Street Fair hippie Love Bus


Here is a very small sampling of the art and artists at Hessler Street Fair:

Cleveland Ohio Hessler Street Fair Van Gogh Starry night painting art vendor summer festival Cleveland Ohio Hessler Street Fair woodcarving woodworking art vendor summer festival

Cleveland Ohio Hessler Street Fair bean sugar skull art vendor summer festival Cleveland Ohio Hessler Street Fair mandala art vendor summer festival


leveland Ohio Hessler Street Fair handmade jewelry Kimberly Monaco leveland Ohio Hessler Street Fair hippie Love Bus painted detail dove

And for dinner, among the array of classic fair food and local Cleveland vendors, we chose the finest organic grass-fed beef hamburgers – that is, both the cow and the grass are certified organic. My boyfriend said it tasted “like the meat you get in Indiana,” which is the home-raised, all-natural, grass-fed beef I buy from my mom’s butcher…and I take that as a sign of good, down-home, wholesome freshness! We followed that up with the requisite funnel cake for dessert.

Cleveland Ohio Hessler Street Fair organic grass-fed hamburger cheeseburger

We went on Saturday night to hear roots reggae from Cleveland’s own Carlos Jones. The music was great, the message was positive, the vibe was electric, and the people-watching was interesting, to say the least.

leveland Ohio Hessler Street Fair Carlos Jones reggae music concert

Cleveland Ohio Hessler Street Fair Carlos Jones reggae music concert summer festival

Cleveland Ohio Hessler Street Fair Carlos Jones reggae music concert summer festival

Coming up next weekend: The Tremont Greek Fest, one of my favorites, to officially kick off summer over Memorial Day Weekend.

What are your favorite summer festivals?


Blue Jays and Spring Flowers After the Rain

Cleveland’s latest rain prompted the last reluctant flowers into bloom, opening their blossoms to the drink up the spring showers. The dew-kissed petals beckoned for a photo shoot afterward, so I headed outside with my Canon Rebel T3i when the skies cleared, and shot some pictures of the purple vinca minor periwinkle flowers and pink tulips in the back yard.

raindrops on a pink and white tulip flower in springVinca Minor Periwinkle Purple Flowered Ground Cover after a Spring Rain













Now that the weather is warmer, I’ve been noticing two regal blue jays hanging out in the yard nearly every day, and I managed to snap a few shots from my office window like a creepy bird stalker.

Blue Jay bird watching

These visual spring inspirations call for some words of reflection, and this excerpt from William Wordsworth’s “Lines Written in Early Spring” happens to be a perfect match.

vinca minor periwinkle purple flowers after the rain


“Through primrose tufts, in that green bower,
The periwinkle trailed its wreaths;
And ’tis my faith that every flower
Enjoys the air it breathes.
raindrops on pink and white tulip spring flower
“The birds around me hopped and played,
Their thoughts I cannot measure:—
But the least motion which they made
It seemed a thrill of pleasure.

Blue Jays playing in the grass birds

“The budding twigs spread out their fan,
To catch the breezy air;
And I must think, do all I can,
That there was pleasure there.”
pink tree blossoms on blue sky spring bloom


What to Pack in a Camping Bin

When I decide to go camping, it’s usually a spontaneous, last-minute idea. To make it easier to take off on an outdoorsy trek as soon as nature calls – without forgetting any essentials – I keep a big plastic storage container packed with most of my camping supplies ready to grab and go.

What to pack in a camping bin? Here are the contents of my Big Blue Camping Bin:

Contents of my Big Blue Camping Bin packing to prepare for camping

Here is the list of supplies inside my Big Blue Camping Bin (starting in the upper left-hand corner and going clockwise):

  • Plastic tarp
  • Tools: ax, 10-inch folding saw, 6-inch survival knife, pocket knife
  • Rope: 100-foot paracord, extra rope, extra tent stakes
  • Light: lantern, flashlights, extra batteries, fireproof matches, flint, citronella candle
  • Cooking: aluminum foil, spatula, cooking spray, oven mitts, hot pads, cutting board, teapot, cast iron skillet (*utensils stored separately in small container – see below)
  • Eating: plates, cups (*utensils stored separately in small container – see below)
  • Washing: collapsible sink, eco-friendly dish soap, dish rag, hand sanitizer
  • Tape: electrical and duct tape
  • Toiletries: sunscreen, bug spray, hand sanitizer, toilet paper, soap, shampoo, towels, washcloths, lotion
    • TIP: Store bottles of liquid in Ziplock bags! I learned this the hard way after camping in higher altitudes.
      • I use a gallon-sized Ziplock bag to store the “liquid” half of my First Aid Kit (click to read my full list of First Aid supplies), and a sandwich bag for travel-size bottles of shampoo, conditioner, body wash and lotion for showering.
  • Entertainment: playing cards, Left Center Right dice game, books, crossword puzzles, trivia cards, drawstring backpack for hiking
  • Solar/battery/crank-powered portable radio with USB chargers
  • Air mattress pump

To keep smaller items easily accessible so they don’t get lost in the bottom of the bin, I added a small, plastic, shoe box-sized container that stays near the top of the big bin.

Here’s a better look at everything packed into the small bin:

contents of small camping preparedness bin

And a list of contents:

  • Coffee: ground coffee, filters, rubber bands, teabags, packets of sugar/cream/stirrers
    • TIP: How to make camping coffee: Spoon coffee grounds into a heap in the center of a coffee filter, then secure it shut with a rubber band. Throw the bag in teapot full of water, place on grill over fire until water boils, periodically stirring and squeezing the bag to assist brewing.
    • TIP: Hotels often have convenient single-serving packets of coffee, sugar, creamer, etc., often packaged together.
  • Cleaning: paper towels, dish rag, dish soap, hand sanitizer, plastic doggie bags
  • Utensils: can opener, tongs, spatula, chef’s knife
    • TIP: Store sharp kitchen knives inside a roll of paper towels.
  • Silverware: forks, spoons, knives (stored in Ziplock bag)
  • Light: small LED flashlight, fireproof matches
  • Spices: salt, pepper, garlic powder, seasoned salt (I use Coleman’s set of two 2-sided spice containers)
  • Fun: water balloons, playing cards, glow sticks

Of course, the Big Blue Camping Bin is just one part of my packing list for camping preparedness. Here is the Master Camping Checklist I use to make sure I pack everything I need before I hit the road.

Happy Camping! What survival essentials do you keep in your camping bin?

what to pack in a camping bin

Read more about Fresh Domestic camping here.

My Master Camping Checklist

Here is my Master Camping Checklist I use when packing for a camping trip.


  • Tent
  • Tarp and rug
  • Sleeping bags, blankets, pillows
  • Air mattress and pump


  • I bring a Big Blue Camping Bin, which contains most of my survival gear (tools, rope, knives, cooking and eating supplies) already packed, ready to grab and go. Click here to see a full list of supplies in my Big Blue Camping Bin.
  • A First Aid Kit is essential! Click here to see a full list of supplies in my First Aid Kit.

Bathroom:Contents of my Big Blue Camping Bin packing to prepare for camping

  • Toilet paper
  • Towels and washcloths
  • Shower toiletries (shampoo, soap)
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Baby wipes


  • Collapsible “sink” for washing dishes
  • Eco-friendly dish soap and dish rag
  • Roasting sticks / Pudgie pie irons
  • Paper towels
  • Oven mitts and hot pads
  • Cooking utensils: tongs/spatulas/knives
  • Plates/cups/silverware
  • Cast iron skillet

    portable collapsible plastic kitchen sink for camping washing dishes

    A makeshift kitchen in the woods

  • Pot with lid
  • Coffee pot
  • Firewood
  • Matches
  • Trash bags


  • Picnic blanket
  • Bug spray
  • Sunscreen
  • Chairs
  • Flashlights/lanterns
  • Rope
  • Radio
  • Hammock
  • Playing cards, games, books


  • Food and treats
  • Dishes for food and water
  • Toys (bright colors that won’t get lost in the woods)
  • Leashes

What else is on your list of essential camping gear to pack?

dogs camping in the woods with a tent

 Read more about Fresh Domestic camping here.

The First Camping Trip of the Season

This weekend, the warm weather forecast won out over the writing deadlines that begged me to stay indoors. Nature called, so in response we started packing our supplies and invited friends to come out for the first camping trip of the year.

riding in cars with dogs

Headed on our first camping trip of the year with my backseat drivers

Suki dog sitting on a log in the woods campingOur camping trips are usually somewhat spontaneous; during the week we decide that the weekend weather looks nice enough, giving us a couple days to prepare. Because of this, I keep most of my camping supplies and First Aid Kit stored in a big Rubbermaid bin (dubbed The Big Blue Camping Bin), ready to grab and go. I make a separate Camp Cooking Prep List for groceries, food, and commonly used items to pack from the kitchen. Then I check it all against my Master Camping Checklist.

I start by taking inventory of the food on stock to see what I already have on hand, and what I still need to buy. It helps to plan a menu for the weekend, to make sure you have everything for each meal. We were leaving on Friday afternoon after lunch, so our camping menu looked like this:

Friday Night: brats & beans
Saturday Morning: eggs, bacon & berries
Saturday Noon: burgers
Saturday Night: pork chops & sweet corn
Sunday Morning: eggs & bacon

After we pack my car with the blue bin, cooler, dry food storage, chairs, tent and tarps, we layer sleeping bags, blankets and pillows on top of everything to make a soft, comfy layer of bedding for the dogs during the car trip – maximizing limited space and giving them booster seats to gaze out the window (or the windshield, as in the picture above.)

Phoebe and Suki dogs on logs in the woods campingOnce we arrive at Findley State Park in Wellington, Ohio, the dogs are ready to run around and explore. They secure the perimeter of our campsite, chasing critters and marking territories while we set up camp, pitch the tent and start a fire.

pup tent dogs camping in a tentBy the time the tent is up, mattress inflated, and bed made, these spoiled house dogs are ready to relax in the comforts of home – or rather, of a “Pup Tent.”

You can see that we lay a tarp underneath the tent, giving us a “doorstep” where we can kick off our shoes before entering. This is also where we set up the dog food and water.

Little did we know that the zipper on the tent would break later in the evening, leaving us without a way to close the tent. Fortunately, bugs haven’t come out yet for the season, the dogs didn’t sneak out, and no other critters sneaked in. A few safety pins, plus a couple of camping chairs propping the flap shut from the inside, were all that separated us from the great outdoors.

Settled in, now it’s my turn to explore the surroundings. Our site is set back off of the road, giving us plenty of peace and privacy from the few neighboring campers around us. Although camping season hasn’t officially started yet, the campgrounds start to fill up as more neighboring campers filter in throughout the afternoon.

Findley State Park Wellington Ohio campgrounds campsite camping

This is my quiet time, before the rest of our friends arrive at the campgrounds. I slip into the woods with my trusty watchdogs, looking for interesting plants, flowers, trees and treasures. I find a fern uncurling like a waking plant stretching her spring limbs after spending the winter tucked up tight. I find two yellow, plastic Easter eggs left over from a family’s celebration a few weeks ago – one still hiding a Tootsie Roll inside – which, my boyfriend feels the need to remind me, I should not eat.

fern unfurling in the woods nature green plants

canopy of trees nature woods

















As our friends start to arrive and set up camp, we kick back and relax. Our work is done for now, so it’s time to lounge in the hammock and meditate, with nothing but tree-filtered sunlight, chirping birds and nature surrounding me.

bare feet on hammock in the woods summer relaxation

 Oh, and this guy, too. He’s great camping company, not to mention a smart, skilled survivalist.

20150501_182159 (1)

sunset in the woods through the screen window of a tent camping in natureAs the sun starts to set behind the trees, we shift into dinner mode. We stoke up the fire then let it burn to cooking strength.

Brats and beans go on the grill, and after a few rotations and a lot of ravenous looks, the first night’s camping dinner is served. As simple as the meal is, the smokey campfire flavor and the woodsy setting make it taste like a well-earned forest feast.

And then, of course, it’s followed by the best part about camping: the gooey, sticky, gluttonously sweet s’mores. If summer itself had a signature flavor, it would be that glorious trifecta of roasted marshmallow, crumbly graham cracker and melted milk chocolate.

With daylight dying, we huddle closer together around the fire, entertained merely by the dancing flames casting their orange glow across our faces. The dogs, done exploring for the day, are collapsed in sleepy, cuddly heaps on our laps, basking in the warmth of the fire. A few friends who couldn’t camp for the night swing by to share a few drinks and laughs – neither of which are entirely kid-friendly. (But to the park rangers reading, I will go on record that we drank only lemonade, coke and juice, of course.)

canopy of trees silhouetted in dusk sky

campfire flames dancing on logs

Fell asleep gazing up through the tent ceiling to the view of a canopy of trees silhouetted by the nearly full moon. Woke early to birds singing and sunlight streaming through the windows.

Suki dog sunning on a tree stump in the woods

Nacho dog in the woods with his toy

















J starts up the fire while I take the dogs on a morning walk, before most of the other campsites around us have risen. With the fire blazing and coffee brewing, we impatiently urge our friends back to life so we can start making breakfast. Breakfast is usually my favorite meal of the day anyway, and campfire food is preferentially better than home-cooked food, which makes camping breakfast the best meal of the weekend. Between J’s legendary scrambled eggs, heaps of bacon and fresh blueberries, it was quite a way to start the day.

camping breakfast scrambled eggs bacon blackberries and coffee on a picnic table20150502_094728 (1)

















Suki is back to her watchdog log, where she has good perspective on all approaching squirrels. In the background behind her, you can see my makeshift kitchen sink – a collapsible plastic bin where I wash our dishes from breakfast while J lounges on the hammock with his Nacho dog and a cup of camping coffee mocha. (To our campfire-brewed coffee, we added cream and sugar and chocolate.)

lounging on a hammock by a tent camping


It’s already turning into a beautiful day. I explore around the campsite one more time, in full daylight, and snap a few more nature-inspired pictures before my phone battery dies.

tree blossoms against blue sky
dogs camping in the woods with a tent

trees silhouetted against cloudy blue sky

woods forest campsite camping nature trees

Fueled by our fantastic breakfast, we headed out for a game on the campground’s disc golf course. Starving by the time we get back to our campsite, we fix a late lunch of burgers and sweet corn on the cob on the grill. Our friends take off, leaving us alone for night two of camping. We lounge around for a while, placing a blanket in a shady spot where we can relax. Later in the afternoon, we take a nice hike around the lake. Still stuffed from lunch and exhausted from walking, we opt for a “light” dinner of s’mores instead of cooking up more food. We retreat to bed a little earlier this time; wake up and repeat another yummy camping breakfast before we break down camp and head back home – where it will take me several days of gazing out my office window, wishing I could be lounging in a hammock, gazing up at the trees instead of being confined to my desk, before I adjust to the real world again.

 Read more about Fresh Domestic camping here.

Blackberry Cabernet Cupcakes

My friends are hosting a Valenwine’s Party tonight to celebrate Valentine’s Day with wine tasting. Most people think of cheese and crackers and other charcuteries, but I go straight to the cupcakes. When I found this recipe for Blackberry Cabernet Cupcakes, I knew what I’d be taking to the party.

The first bottle of wine I picked up for this recipe was Cupcake Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon. How appropriate, I thought. But then I saw this bottle of Cupcake Vineyards Red Velvet that made me swap.

Cupcake Vineyards Red Velvet Red Wine 2012 CaliforniaAccording to the description on the label, “This wine shows a heady nose of chocolate, deep rich blackberries, red fruits, and a creamy mocha finish that is unmistakable in its intensity and length. It’s reminiscent of a blackberry chocolate cupcake with a mocha coulis.” Sounds perfect for making blackberry chocolate cupcakes, right?

Of course, we had to taste the wine first as a safety precaution. The cocoa and mocha flavors were unmistakable, with dark hints of berry. I had to pour a cup aside to save for the recipe to make sure we didn’t drink it all!

ingredients to make chocolate cabernet cupcakes from scratch

Chocolate Cabernet Cupcakes:

1 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
4 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
½ cup cabernet sauvignon
2 tablespoons cocoa powder

Cream butter and sugar till smooth. Add eggs and vanilla and mix well. Combine flour and baking powder separately, and add to batter. Pour in red wine and mix well, being careful not to overmix. Add cocoa powder. Scoop batter into cupcake tins lined with papers, and bake 15-20 minutes in an oven preheated to 350 degrees. Cupcakes are done when a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. When cupcakes are cool, brush tops with additional cabernet sauvignon (uses about 2 tablespoons.)

blackberry cabernet sauce for frosting

Blackberry Cabernet Frosting:

1 cup blackberries
½ cup cabernet sauvignon
½ cup unsalted butter, softened
3 cups powdered sugar
2 tablespoons milk

Bring blackberries and cabernet to a simmer in a small saucepan. Reduce until wine thickens to syrup and berries mash easily. Strain out seeds. Remaining liquid should total about ¼ cup.

Beat butter with mixer till creamy. Alternately add powdered sugar and milk (may need slightly more or less of each) to reach thick consistency. Add blackberry cabernet sauce and mix well. I added more powdered sugar at this point, but the frosting was still runny. It’s easier to spread with a knife than to try to pipe on.

Press a blackberry into the center of each frosted cupcake and serve. Happy Valenwine’s Day!

chocolate blackberry cabernet cupcakes for Valentine's Day

chocolate blackberry cabernet cupcakes for Valentine's Day


Oh, and this is what my recipe notebook looked like after baking (so you can imagine what the rest of my kitchen looked like):

messy recipe notebook after baking blackberry cabernet cupcakes