Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Chicken Cordon Bleu Casserole

Okay, so I love things that I can put all together in one dish, bake, and serve. Which is sort of weird, because I don't like to let my food touch. Why, yes, I am like an eight-year-old when it comes to food. Ha!

But I do love casseroles. And I love the flavors of chicken cordon bleu. But who has time for all that pounding and rolling and tying?

Not this girl.

So when I found this recipe, it immediately became one of my family's favorites. The secret is in the spice in the white sauce. Delicious!

Chicken Cordon Bleu Casserole:
4 c. cubed, cooked chicken (I use a rotisserie chicken, or I've even bought a high-quality chicken from the deli in my grocery store. I ask them to cut it about 1/4-inch thick. Same with the ham. Then I cube it. Easy, peasy.)
2. c. ham, cubed
1 c. swiss cheese, grated

½ onion
⅓ c. butter
⅓ c. flour
⅛ tsp. nutmeg
⅛ tsp. ground mustard
1 ¾ c. milk

¼ c. butter
1 ½ c. soft breadcrumbs (I use panko. They're my favorite.)

Brown the ham in a saute pan for about 5 minutes, or until it has some color. Set on paper towels to drain. Layer the chicken in the bottom of a 9x9 pan. Top with the shredded swiss cheese, and then the ham.

In a pan, melt the butter and add the onion. Cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the flour, nutmeg and ground mustard, stirring to make a soft paste. Add the milk a little at a time, stirring constantly until incorporated. Bring to a boil and cook for 2 minutes to thicken sauce.

Pour the sauce over the ham. Combine all topping ingredients until well blended, and sprinkle over sauce.

Bake at 350 for 25 - 30 minutes, or until bubbly. (I usually turn the broiler on for a minute or two to make sure the bread crumbs are browned. Because as Anne Burrell would say, "Brown food tastes good!")

10 servings = 220 calories/serving.

And as an added bonus, this dish is spectacular reheated for lunch the next day -- and we all know not everything is like that...


Thursday, March 26, 2015

30 Minute Meal: Sloppy Joes

Okay, so I'm a huge fan of getting in the kitchen and getting out. With our schedules getting busier and busier, I think everyone is! Sure, there are days when I'll slow down and bake or enjoy making something that takes 31 minutes, but mid-week dinners are not one of those times.

One of my go-to recipes is the sloppy joe. I have several different recipes I use, and this one is my favorite. I think I got it from my husband's mom at some point. A bonus to this recipe is it only has 6 ingredients. 7 if you use the onion. 

Fast, easy, and delicious!

Sloppy joes:
1 1/2 pounds ground beef (You can also use ground turkey or ground chicken, especially if you don't eat red meat or want to cut the calories. I calculated the calories below using 85/15 ground beef.)

1 onion (I leave the onion out. I don't know why, but I am not a fan of having onion chunks in my meat. I know some people love it, and I eat onions in other things. Just not this... Don't ask me why! I don't know!)

1 can tomato soup
2 T. brown sugar
2 T. mustard
¼ c. ketchup
1 T. cider vinegar
salt and pepper to taste

1. Brown the ground beef.
2. Add everything else, combine well, and simmer for 5 minutes.
3. Serve with buns, fruit, veggies, or whatever you like!

Nutritional Information:
10 servings -- 128 calories for the meat mixture.

I eat half a sandwich -- and I buy the 100 calorie “thin” whole grain hamburger buns, so my sandwich is 178 calories. I normally slice apples to eat with this meal, or fruit that is in season like strawberries or pineapple. A small gala is 71 calories, so my whole meal is about 250 calories.


Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Cover Reveal for THE BODY INSTITUTE by Carol Riggs!

Okay, so I've known Carol for years. We've been friends on the blogosphere for a long time. I am very excited for her book, THE BODY INSTITUTE, to hit shelves! September 1 is SO FAR AWAY. I can't wait to read the book, and today I get to help reveal her cover.

First, let's learn a little bit about the book: Meet Morgan Dey, one of the top teen Reducers at The Body Institute.

Thanks to cutting-edge technology, Morgan can temporarily take over another girl’s body, get her in shape, and then return to her own body—leaving her client slimmer, more toned, and feeling great. Only there are a few catches…

For one, Morgan won’t remember what happens in her “Loaner” body. Once she’s done, she won’t recall walks with her new friend Matt, conversations with the super-cute Reducer she’s been text-flirting with, or the uneasy feeling she has that the director of The Body Institute is hiding something. Still, it’s all worth it in the name of science. Until the glitches start…

Suddenly, residual memories from her Loaner are cropping up in Morgan’s mind. She’s feeling less like herself and more like someone else. And when protests from an anti–Body Institute organization threaten her safety, she’ll have to decide if being a Reducer is worth the cost of her body and soul…

Add to Goodreads.

Pre-order on Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Kobo

Ahhh! I love it! I think Entangled Teen did a SUPER-fabulous job with this cover. It's intriguing, with the almost-sepia-like (that's a technical term, yo) quality of it. The city in the background, the blue font. It's gorgeous!!

About Carol: I'm a YA writer represented by Kelly Sonnack of Andrea Brown Literary. My sci-fi novel THE BODY INSTITUTE explores the themes of society, identity, and body image. I live in the beautiful, green state of Oregon and have a Studio Arts degree; I'm an SCBWI member. 

You'll usually find me in my writing cave, surrounded by my dragon collection and the characters in my head. I also enjoy reading--mostly young adult novels--as well as drawing, painting, and quilting. I also attend writing conferences, walk with my husband, and enjoy music and dance of all kinds.

Find Carol on her website | Twitter | Facebook | Goodreads

Thanks to YA Bound Book Tours for including me on this awesome cover reveal!

Monday, March 23, 2015

What I Learned from Big Hero 6

Okay, so I know I may be the last person on the planet to watch Big Hero 6. I'll own that. But we watched it a couple of weeks ago, and I really enjoyed it. I liked the humor of the movie, and the heart, but what I really liked was what spoke to my creative soul.

At the beginning of the movie, Hiro is inspired to try to get into his brother's school. He's been working on his projects, and can't come up with anything. He's frustrated and complains to his brother, Tadashi.

Tadashi grabs Hiro and shakes him around. Literally. Tells him to get a new perspective. It's when Hiro is hanging upside down that he gets the idea that changes the world. Again, literally.

I know it's a small part of the movie that many people probably don't even think about. But I really liked it. It reminded me that when things aren't going my way -- in writing, in my job, in everything -- that I can shake things up. I can look at things with a new perspective. Or a different one. And try something different.

So I've been doing that. It's helped me reach beyond what I know in writing (YA) and pursue another genre. I'm shaking it up!

Have you found this to be true? Have you tried looking at problems, your writing, or other things in a different way and been able to see the solutions?

Friday, March 20, 2015

The Many Uses of Wordle

Okay, so as an author, I've known about Wordle for quite some time. I think I've even blogged about it oh, six years ago. Holy cow! I've been blogging for a long time. (The images aren't coming up on the post, but you can see my Wordle art for one of my books here. From 2008!!)

Anyway, there are many and varied uses for Wordle. Authors can take passages of their work and create art. I've heard of some people running their entire manuscript through Wordle to see which words are overused. The word that appears the most is the biggest, so this is a very visual tool to see if you overuse "just" or "so" or "because."

Not that I overuse those words or anything... Ha!

Here's one of mine, for an adult romance I'm writing right now.

Another idea I had was to create teacher gifts. I mean, it is getting near the end of the year (only 9 weeks left for me! NINE WEEKS!), and it's nice to give your child's teacher something at the end of the year.

Here's one I whipped up for my daughter's fourth grade teacher. It's not hard to get a class list of names and use your copy and paste feature. Type once, copy as many times as you want!

Yet another idea was to create an art print for your child's room. You can enter in the words you want to be the biggest, so it's super-fun to put in your child's name and all the things they like to do and create something visually. You can download your art and have it printed, framed, and hang it in their bedroom.

Here's one I did for my daughter.

The gift ideas are endless. New couple getting married. Grandparents. Family reunion. Retirement gift. Graduation gift. And on and on.

Wordle. It's a great tool -- and great fun!

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

It's A Book

Okay, so this little charming picture book was brought to my attention by my husband. He works in the district office, and he has the opportunity to be out in a lot of different schools (he serves 55 elementary schools!). He was out in a school somewhere, and the librarian showed him this book.

IT'S A BOOK by Lane Smith.

I'd never heard of it, but he came home and said he needed to buy it, stat. So we did. And it is a fantastic book for this digital age!

It has things like these:

Charming, right? And there's so much more, and a totally laugh-out-loud moment. I absolutely loved it! I hope you'll get your copy too, as much for yourself as to let your kids know that there are REAL BOOKS out there. :) 

Monday, March 16, 2015

Going Batman

Okay, so my husband is a huge Batman fan. He even wrapped his car in purple vinyl and took off the regular Dodge ornaments and put on Batman ones. No lie.

So it was a milestone birthday for him a few weeks ago, and I'm nothing if not all over birthdays. I think they're super-fun, because it means you made it through another year, alive. That might sound morbid or depressing or whatever, but let's face it. As adults, we don't have as many reasons to celebrate as kids -- and we should! You made it through another year! And I'm sure that year was hard in ways, and YOU DID IT.

Thus, adults get birthday parties too.

For my husband's, I decided to have a cupcake open house. I mean, cupcakes are all the rage, right? And we're sort of hermits, so the open house is the best way to go. Definitive beginning and ending time, no lame party games. It was perfect.

Here are some pictures of the 85 (EIGHTY-FIVE) cupcakes I made for the party.

I made two kinds of cupcakes. These chocolate cupcakes from All Recipes (one of my favorite websites!) were delicious, moist, and absolutely perfect. I baked them the night before. I don't use liners when I make cupcakes and muffins, so these silver ones were just for ease in handling the cupcakes -- and they're pretty! I got them at my local grocery store.

These blonde cupcakes are actually sugar cookie cupcakes. They are THE BEST cupcake on the planet! And it's a recipe from Ina Garten (the Barefoot Contessa) that is actually a cake. I took the cake and frosting recipe and made it into cupcakes. I know raspberries taste AMAZING with this cake and icing, and hey. If I eat fruit with my cupcake, I feel like I'm doing something healthy. Ha!

For cupcakes, make the same recipe, but bake at 350 for 20 minutes. I use a Demarle flexipan. It makes the cupcakes crispy and delicious!

My daughter and I made the text toppers. I found a free Batman font and experimented in Word to make them the right size. Text boxes became my best friend! Easy to move without messing everything else up. 

We cut and glued the paper to yellow poster board, then added decorative ribbons and sticks to be able to put them in the cupcakes. A great kid's project to get them involved in helping for the party! They love it -- because they love their moms and dads!

These are frosted with a basic chocolate cream cheese frosting. I also made German chocolate frosting from scratch! They were both a bit hit!

Black table covers and yellow tableware. Easy and inexpensive. Who says partying has to be loads of work and cost a lot? Not Batman!! (I just got these at my local grocery store. They have party supplies like this for 4 packages/$4. Cheap!)

And I love using a cup for my silverware. I don't know when I started doing that, but I think it looks so much better than just lying there on the table. Dimension or something. 

The whole spread. If you don't have one of those tiered serving things, you should get one. I bought mine on a whim at Costco years ago. I can't even tell you how many times I've used it! A LOT.

This is the cake topper. My husband wanted a sugar cookie cupcake with raspberries, so we staked this one as his. 

I bought the Batman cupcake cake toppers/rings and this cake topper from Amazon. Nothing beats Prime shipping -- not even sure Batman could deliver faster! 

We knew we'd be having a lot of kids to the party (because our friends have kids!), so these ring toppers were perfect. It was like a decoration AND a party favor! Double win.

And there you have it. A themed party that was a mega-POW!

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Future is NOW!

Okay, so I am participating with dozens of other Young Adult Science Fiction authors in a newsletter campaign that starts tomorrow!

We are banding together to talk to fans of YA sci-fi, and we're doing it through our newsletters. Most of us -- me included! -- will be offering our YA sci-fi novels for FREE or a REDUCED PRICE tomorrow, Friday, March 13!

Not only can you get some amazing YA sci-fi novels for very little money, but we're giving away 2 Kindles and a load of cash in gift cards.

The ONLY way you can get access to the free and reduced price books and enter our giveaways is through one of our newsletters. You can sign up for mine here.

I don't send a newsletter very often. Once a quarter, or a little more often if I have news. Never more than once a month.

So sign up today, because this HUGE celebration of YA science fiction is happening tomorrow!!

Oh, and you can join us in our public Facebook group to talk about YA sci-fi and stay connected with your favorite YA sci-fi authors!

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Top Five Logic Games for Kids

Okay, so in one compartment of my life, I teach technology to elementary students. It's a lot of teaching typing, especially to my older students. But for my younger kids -- I'm talking grades 1-4 -- I spend a lot of time trying to get them to think.

Because thinking is a hard skill to learn. It requires practice. We want our kids to grow up learning how to solve problems, not just follow formulas (though those skills are needed too!).

So with my younger grades, all my focus is on math enrichment. I do some skill-building games, fact practice, and the like.

But my favorite games -- and my students' favorite games -- are the logic games. I tell the kids they have to THINK about each problem and then find a way to solve it. Sometimes we fail. That's okay! We persevere in solving the problem until we find the solution. And there's always more than one way to do that in each level.

These are our top 5 logic games. You can find these, and many more (MANY MORE) on Math Playground, Hooda Math, or Cool Math Games.

If your kids are going to play on the computer anyway, why not have them thinking while they do it?

1. Snail Bob 2: In this game, Snail Bob is trying to navigate his way through a dangerous forest to get to his Grandpa's birthday party. Every level has different difficulties the students must figure out. My students cheer when they get to the birthday party!

2. Cover Orange 2: In this game, you must save the orange (and sometimes the apple) from getting juiced by the evil Ninja Cloud! He throws ninja stars, which of course we all know pierces fruit and kills them! Each level has unique tools (barrels, wheels, wooden blocks, etc.) to use in a variety of ways.

3. Cat Around the World: In this game, you need to feed the hungry cat as he makes his way around the world to various famous locations. Level 1 starts in New York City at the Statue of Liberty. Each level has a variety of challenges, and kids must think about how things move in order to feed the cat. Also check out Cat Around Asia and Cat Around Europe.

4. Factory Balls: This is our all-time favorite! I have students who play this game every day they love it so much. In Factory Balls, you need to recreate a ball using various tools like paint, belts, hats, glasses, covers, seeds, and more. Warning: highly addictive! Also check out Factory Balls 2, 3, 4, and Christmas.

5. Rhinos Vs. Hippos: This is a new discovery for me. In this game, you need to drop the evil rhinos out of the game, but keep the nice hippos. They both roll for an added challenge, and they're sometimes attached to each other, or balanced precariously. It's great fun!

Check some of these out -- you might just like them yourself!

Monday, March 9, 2015

A Pork Paradise

Okay, so I eat a lot of chicken, because it's the lowest calorie protein. As I've worked to lose weight and still provide my body with the nutrients and energy I need, I've turned to other meats. Specifically, the Other White Meat: Pork.

I took a recipe I got from Cook's Country (I love watching their shows on Saturday afternoons!) that used bone-in pork chops and took 1.5 hours in the oven. One and a half hours?!

I don't have time for that. I like to be in and out of the kitchen in less than a half hour. Sometimes that includes cooking time and sometimes it doesn't. But I definitely don't have time to let my chops cook for 1.5 hours.

So I did some modifying for my busy lifestyle. I came up with these breaded pork chops with an onion pan sauce. It's a pork paradise!

Depending on what's on sale at my grocery store, I sometimes use thin-cut, boneless pork chops and do all four (I have four people to feed every night). But if I get a thicker chop like what you see here, I'll only do two.

The trick to eating less is making sure every bite has a ton of flavor. So everything is seasoned, every step of the way.

First, the pork. Get your pan on the stove over medium-high heat with 2 T. olive oil. It needs to be H-O-T before you put in your meat. That's the trick to cooking protein. A hot pan.

While the pan is heating, mix together:
1 T. garlic powder
1 T. onion powder
2 t. celery salt
1 t. salt
1 t. pepper (I always back off on the pepper. It's not my favorite flavor. If you like it, add a bit more.)
1/2 c. panko breadcrumbs

Coat your chops in the seasoning mixture. I use my hands to pack it on, because the bigger breadcrumbs can keep the finer seasonings from adhering.

When the pan is hot, put the chops in. Don't touch them. Don't move them. Let the pan do it's work.

These are quick-cooking, depending on the thickness. For the thin ones, I literally time them for 2 minutes, and then flip them. For these thicker chops, I gave them 4 minutes on the first side, and 3 on the second. 

See what happens when you start with a hot pan and let it do it's work? Golden brown! And brown is delicious.

Remove the chops from the pan. Add 1 T. butter and another splash of oil.

Then add:
1 onion, chopped (I like a smaller onion when I'm eating it, so the size of the chop here is small)
2 cloves garlic, chopped
Season veg with salt and pepper

Cook for a couple of minutes.

Be sure to stir! You don't want the garlic to burn.

Add 1 c. of beef broth and scrape up all the delicious bits from the onions and pork chops. Mix together 1 T. cornstarch with 1 T. water and add to the pan. 

Add pork back to pan (along with any juices that have come out), and cover. Cook for a couple of minutes, or until chops are cooked through.

Slice and serve with your favorite side! This is the broccoli slaw I love.

Deliciousness in less than a half hour!

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Life Lessons from College Basketball

Okay, so we watch our fair share of sports here in the Johnson household. I mean, gotta have a mix with all the reality TV and Food Network, not to mention the HGTV remodels.

Football, baseball, basketball. All of the above. And we like college basketball, namely the BYU Cougars. This past weekend, BYU was playing Gonzaga on their home court. They had a 22-game winning streak at home, and were ranked #3 in the nation.

BYU won 73-70.

Now, I don't really care who wins as much as my husband. I mean, I'm glad if they do, but I won't die if they don't. It's not like Survivor or anything. *wink*

But BYU won, and the interview afterward I found some inspiration for writing, and for pretty much anything in life.

Here's one article in Sports Illustrated. And one in The Deseret News.

BYU's Kyle Collinsworth, left, and Gonzaga's Kyle Wiltjer go after a loose ball during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Feb. 28, 2015, in Spokane, Wash. (AP Photo/Young Kwak)

Kyle Collinsworth is a junior guard, and scored 20 points in Saturday's game. In his interview, he said, "We didn’t play that well offensively. We missed a lot of shots and had key turnovers... But we just stuck with it and battled all 40 minutes."

I think that's AWESOME.

Even if we're doing very well in something, we can stick with it and battle through until the end. Sometimes that's 40 minutes, and sometimes that's 4 months, or 4 years, or longer.

He went on to say, "I tried to do everything I could to get that ball and put it back in."


He isn't a magician. And he doesn't have a magic formula for success. He works hard. Obviously, the team practices, and he practices, and he puts in the time to be in good physical shape, etc.

But he's not a wizard. All he does is do everything he can to get the ball and put it in the basket.

I think that's great advice for anyone who's working toward a goal, be it a weight-loss goal, a writing goal, or increasing your ACT score. It works for almost anything in life!

Do everything you can to get better and take the next shot.

Seen or read anything inspirational lately?

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Guest Post: Setting in YA Novels

So today I'm welcoming Jason Mosberg to the blog! He's here talking about setting in YA novels. Let's let him take it away, shall we?


Writers tend to put a ton of thought into their concept, genre, characters, and storylines, but I think sometimes not enough analysis goes into choosing the right location. What’s the absolute best place for a story to take place?

Setting was very important to me in writing my first novel Grift.

Grift follows a crew of orphaned teenage con artists. Piper, the main character, masquerades as a prostitute to con rich men. Unlike the others, she must split her time between hustling and raising her younger sister Sophie. Disaster strikes when Sophie gets kidnapped by the mafia, and the crew must rally to piece together the ransom money before the clock runs out.

Where does this story take place?

In Las Vegas…

Piper and the crew of con artists live with their mentor Max in the penthouse of a major hotel & casino. The lavish suite is modeled after the deck of a cruise ship with a pool, hot tub, and various rooms.

While the characters are relatable through their emotions, relationships, and conflicts, the setting really helps give the novel a larger-than-life element. These young adults live the high life in this amazing penthouse in a city nicknamed “America’s Playground.” Relative to other young adults, they’re flush with cash. They get to experience the greatest shows on the planet: bands, comedians, plays, circuses, magicians, sporting events.They meet other teens in the young Vegas social scene (which mostly consists of UNLV students). They basically inhabit some 21st century teenage version of Neverland.

From a logistical standpoint, Las Vegas is the perfect setting for this particular novel. It’s the ideal city for a con artist to operate. The easiest people to con are those looking to get rich quick. Take Mars, the pool shark. At any given pool hall in America, it’s fairly difficult to get in a game for money with strangers. In Vegas? It’s hard to go to a pool hall and not play for money. Plus, most of the people in Vegas are tourists. There are 40 million people who visit the city each year with the average person staying a mere three and a half days. Tourists make the best marks.

Setting the show in Las Vegas also facilitates making the con artists more sympathetic. They’re not conning soccer moms in Boston. They’re taking money from gamblers and men paying prostitutes.

At the beginning, I considered setting Grift in another city like Los Angeles or New York. But now, having written it, I can’t imagine the story taking place in any other city than Las Vegas.

And that’s the way it should be.

Jason Mosberg lives in Los Angeles where he works as a screenwriter. His debut novel Grift is available at Amazon and iBooks. You can follow him on Twitter @ThreeStoryJason.


Time for me to get working on my setting!

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Spectacular Sides: Broccoli Slaw

Okay, remember how I said I take all the help I can get from the grocery store? Well, it's really true. Some of my favorite sides require little more than opening things and mixing them together. Since I'm not eating many potatoes, rice, or other grains during meal times, I need my sides to be flavorful and fresh.

But that doesn't mean you can't take the help from some prepared products.

One of my favorite vegetables is broccoli. But not the heads. The stems. When I was growing up, my mom would peel them like you'd peel a carrot. And then she'd cut them like sticks, and we'd eat the broccoli stems with ranch dressing.

I don't do that. I don't know why. Probably because anything that requires peeling takes too much time! Ha!

But I've discovered that my local grocer carries broccoli slaw. It's all broccoli stems, carrots and red cabbage. Mmm. Some of my favorite things.

And there's nothing I like more than Lighthouse dressings. We've had most of them, and they make a coleslaw dressing that has celery seeds in it. I *love* me some celery seeds! So I take two products from the grocery store, mix them, and viola! A spectacular side.

Broccoli Slaw:
1 bag broccoli slaw mix
1 jar Lighthouse coleslaw mix

1. Open the bag. 

2.Spoon in about 1/3 of the jar of Lighthouse coleslaw mix. 

See? This makes 3 batches! That's good for the palate and the wallet. 

3. Mix well, and refrigerate about 20 minutes. 

Since my philosophy is dinner on the table in less than 30 minutes, I make this up front and then continue cooking my main dish while this marinates. And it doesn't need to. Only if you have time.


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