Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Take Me Home

"And if you believe in love, that will be more than enough
for peace to last throughout the coming year."
John Denver and Kermit, singing "The Christmas Wish"


Well, gang, this will be my last entry until 2008. I know, I know. Dry your eyes. I’ll be back in January. See, I’m leaving on a (jet) plane tonight and heading back home to Chicago for Christmas. And despite the fact that it’s going to be cold and snowy, I couldn’t be happier about the trip. It’s the first time in almost a year that I’ve been back, so it will be a busy 12 days trying to catch up with family and friends and visiting all the old stomping grounds.

So this is my official “Happy holidays!” post. And on that note, I wanted to talk about my favorite Christmas album of all time: "A Christmas Together" by John Denver and the Muppets. No, I’m not joking. When I discovered someone had downloaded clips from the 1979 TV special onto YouTube last week, it was literally like receiving an early Christmas gift. (Thank you, whoever you are.)

Here’s the thing...no matter how old I get, the Muppets never fail to crack me up and warm the cockles of my heart. I still howl with laughter when I see Beaker "meeping" at Dr. Bunsen Honeydew or Statler & Waldorf heckling the performers. I also get a wee bit misty-eyed whenever I hear The Rainbow Connection. Like many in my age bracket, I grew up faithfully watching The Muppet Show, Sesame Street and Fraggle Rock. To date, I don’t think any other children’s show has ever been able to resurrect the same whimsical message of love and friendship that Jim Henson and Frank Oz brought us kiddies in those early days of programming.

That very message highlights "A Christmas Together," creating the perfect tribute to the holiday season. My family owns dozens of Christmas albums, including favorites such as Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby, yet the Muppets remains at the top of my holiday listening list every year. I don't know - it could be the nostalgia factor - but listening to the music transports me back to a simpler time, when I wore pigtails, adored a non-creepy Michael Jackson, made popsicle stick ornaments in class and pedaled my bike with the flowered banana seat around the neighborhood with friends. But I digress.

Not only is the Muppets-John Denver collaboration funny (I KNOW you did not get through "Little St. Nick" and "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" without snickering!) but it's also heartfelt, thanks to gems like "Where the River Meets the Sea" and "A Baby Just like You." Check out these two clips - one humorous and the other more touching - as confirmation.





All in all, "A Christmas Together" expresses what I feel is the true sentiment of the season – peace on earth, goodwill to mankind and love of family and friends. As you can probably tell, I adore it as much now as I did when I was a kid. Now, if only Santa could grease the wheels a bit and get the powers-that-be to release this treasure on DVD. Please?

Either way, I’m hoping Jim Henson and John Denver are hanging out somewhere together right now, entertaining all the celestial revelers with festive carols. Guys, we miss you! Thanks for making this world a better place.

Happy holidays y'all. Be safe and I'll talk to you again in 2008!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Ending world hunger, one word at a time


Guess what I did this afternoon? I donated 1,420 grains of rice to help feed the world's hungry. And it only cost me a few minutes of my time.

In recent weeks, I've been hooked on www.freerice.com, an amazing Web site that tests your word skills with philanthropic results. Set up as a multiple-choice vocabulary test, 20 grains of rice are donated to the UN's World Food Program for every correctly answered question. In addition, each correct answer increases the difficulty of the following question. It almost reminds me of the SAT test - or the Scripps National Spelling Bee - where you try to guess the meaning (or spelling) of the word based on it's root or language of origin. For example, did you know that aphasia means speechlessness? Any thoughts on the meaning of oleaginous? If you guessed oily, you just supplied a starving person with 20 grains of rice. Bravo!

When I first heard about it a few weeks ago, I thought for sure it was a scam. But research shows it's legit. The site is the brainchild of John Breen, a 50-year-old computer programmer who also created both www.thehungersite.com and www.poverty.com to help raise funds to combat international poverty and hunger.

The game relies on ad revenue, with all of the donated rice paid for by the very same companies whose advertisements appear on the bottom of the screen when you play the game. What this means is that you essentially help generate the money that pays for the rice

On October 7, the day the site launched, a mere 830 grains of rice were donated. But those numbers have since grown exponentially. As of this posting, more than 9,123,269,430 grains have been donated.

Either way, this is one game that doesn't make me feel I'm wasting my time and brain cells by playing. So check it out! You'll expand your mind and help feed the poor. How can you lose?

In honor of the free rice program, here is a yummy ride pudding recipe that utilizes Splenda and only costs you 180 calories per serving. Not too shabby.

SAUCEPAN RICE PUDDING

3 cups whole milk
1/4 cup SPLENDA® No Calorie Sweetener, Granulated
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cinnamon stick
1/3 cup uncooked long grain rice
1 pinch salt
1/4 cup raisins or mixed dried fruit
2 tablespoons rum or orange juice
1 pinch nutmeg

1. Pour milk, SPLENDA® Granulated Sweetener, and vanilla into a medium saucepan. Add cinnamon stick. Bring to a boil. Add rice and salt. Cover and cook over low heat 30 minutes or until most of the milk is absorbed. Stir occasionally. Remove saucepan from heat. Set aside.
2. Place raisins (or mixed dried fruit) and orange juice (or rum) in small microwaveable bowl. Warm in a microwave briefly to plump the raisins. Add plumped raisins (or mixed fruit) to rice pudding.
3. Spoon into dessert dishes. Sprinkle with nutmeg. Serve warm or chilled.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Fondue. It's what's for dinner...and dessert


Merry Christmas to me! I had a "white elephant" gift exchange with friends the other day - and unlike most of the others that I'd previously participated in - this one actually featured nice gifts instead of fugly ceramic bowls, cheesy holiday socks, bottles of cheap liquor and Santa Claus ornaments.
So guess what I got? A fondue pot! I'm so excited. If you've never experienced a fondue meal before, it's a Swiss communal dish that often features groups of people, a metal or ceramic pot and a small burner. Most often, cheese or chocolate is melted in the pot and used to coat various bits of food - such as bread, fruit or pastries. It's delicious.
Back in college, a trek out to the local fondue restaurant often constituted date night. It was big bucks for us poor kids. And even last summer, I got all excited when I discovered the chocolate fondue fountain at a friend's wedding reception. So finally having a pot to call my own is pretty sweet.
Anyhoo, I just did a quick search of the Internet and have already found a handful of tasty-looking sugar-free fondue recipes. I can't wait to give it a whirl. Hmmmmm....maybe I'll have to throw an impromptu holiday get-together this weekend to show-off my budding fondue cooking skills.

Sugar-free Chocolate Fondue

2/3 cup dry unsweetened cocoa
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1 cup skim milk
1/2 tsp vanilla or almond extract
1/2 cup Splenda granular

In a heavy saucepan, combine cocoa, cinnamon and milk; stir or whisk until there are no dry lumps of cocoa. Stir and cook over medium heat until mixture comes to a boil. Reduce heat; boil gently, stirring often for 5 minutes or until mixture is thick and smooth. Cool slightly. Stir in vanilla and Splenda. Pour into a small enameled fondue pot or heat-proof ceramic bowl.
Yield: 8 servings (1/4 cup each)


Hershey's Fudgey Chocolate Fondue

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter or margarine
1/2 cup HERSHEY'S Cocoa
1/3 cup Splenda Sugar Blend for Baking
1/2 cup evaporated milk or light cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Melt butter in small saucepan over low heat. Remove from heat; immediately stir in cocoa. Add Splenda and evaporated milk.
2. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until mixture is smooth and hot. Remove from heat; stir in vanilla. Fondue will thicken slightly as it cools. Serve warm with Assorted Fondue Dippers. About 1-1/2 cups fondue.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

I'd like an edible house to call my own

In recent weeks, I have seen some fabulous-looking gingerbread houses decorating various store windows. As I've made clear in a previous post, I love me some gingerbread...whether it's in the form of flavored coffee or the tasty ginger snap cookies gracing the shelves of the local Trader Joes. Gingerbread is definitely one of my favorite sweet treats -- and of course, it goes hand-in-hand with the holiday season.
Fortunately for all you calorie counters out there, a number of sugar-free gingerbread recipes are now available. Here are two, courtesy of www.Splenda.com.

Merry Gingerbread Cookies

Gingerbread Cake

And if you're worried about adding gingerbread to the list of other holiday treats, you can take comfort in the fact that ginger provides a number of health benefits. For one, it has a long tradition of effectively alleviating symptoms of "gastrointestinal distress" - i.e., it's a nice cure for that belly-ache. Modern scientific research has also revealed it has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-tumor effects...all good news!
Another fun fact. According to the Guiness Book of Records, the world’s largest gingerbread man weighed more than 372 pounds and was made by the chefs at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Vancouver back in 2003. It was also nearly 14 feet tall and two inches deep. And while today's youth might not be familiar with the old Gingerbread Man fairy-tale -- remember? "Run, run, run as fast you can! You can't catch me, I'm The Gingerbread Man!"? -- they surely know Gingy from the Shrek movies.
Moving on, here's a pretty sweet video I found - utilizing a time-lapse camera - that compiles all the work done on the 16-foot gingerbread house built annually in the lobby of the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa. Created by Walt Disney World, it's apparently made using 1,050 pounds of honey, 140 pints of egg whites, 600 pounds of powdered sugar, 700 pounds of chocolate, 800 pounds of flour, 35 pounds of spices, tons of creativity, Disney magic and pixie dust. Woof-dee.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Creative Classes...




Just the other day, I was brainstorming with friends about new ways to keep physically active in 2008. Yes, sadly I'm already talking about my New Year's resolutions - which hopefully I'll actually stick with this time around. Anyway, although I was thinking more along the lines of joining a master's swimming program -or taking up tennis or golf lessons - one buddy suggested trapeze classes at the Circus Arts Institute in Atlanta. Say what? Well, according to the institute's Web site, weekly sessions utilize equipment such as the trapeze, Spanish web (soft rope climbing with tricks), circus rings, balance boards and juggling, to name a few. And a little bit of online research shows that "circus arts" is one of the newer fads in fitness - with gyms like Crunch dedicating classes in its honor.

Remember when group fitness consisted of weight training, step aerobics and spin classes? Just a couple years ago, I was thrilled to take belly dancing, along with my first "urban rebounding" class - i.e. aerobics on a mini-trampoline - at Bally Total Fitness in Chicago. Now, those classes are virtually old-school. From mock Japanese sword fighting workouts to burning calories on a pogo-stick, gyms today are offering all sorts of imaginative classes to lure in new members and maintain existing ones.

Here are a few of the more unorthodox classes I saw offered up at gyms around the country.

Stiletto Strength. B.Y.O.H. – Bring Your Own Heels and strut your stuff runway style in this calf-boosting, posture-building, cat-walking diva class.

Ruff Yoga. This free yoga class will bring you and your pup closer as you do traditional and non-traditional yoga poses on the same mat. Mats will be provided. Class takes place outdoors, weather permitting.

Dodgeball. Get ready to duck. Dodgeball is back and this time it's not just for the schoolyard. This class includes a gym style warm-up, 3-5 rounds of the game, abs and final stretch.

Yoqua. A yoga class in water.

WarriorSati. A fast-paced flow of martial arts movements designed to increase precision, strength, courage and power.

Pogo Bootcamp. This fun, high-intensity interval workout using the Flybar 800 is a class that’s sure to have you jumping through the roof. Pretend you’re back on the playground while burning calories bouncing on these “ultra pogo-sticks."

Air Band. Rock your way to a rockin’ body with this head-banging cardio dance class. Get pumped up as you air guitar to the grungy sounds of Classic Rock and new Indie Pop.

Pole Dancing. The dancer’s pole isn’t just for professionals anymore. This challenging and sexy class combines intense upper body and core strength, coordination, and balance to turn even the shyest performers into toned and sultry vixens.

Hula Hoop Pilates. The class incorporates traditional Pilates movements and techniques with the addition of core routines using hoops, bands, foam tubing and 7-inch fitness balls.

Indo-Row Strength. A circuit class incorporating 30 minutes of rowing with 30 minutes of weights.

I'm digging the sound of some of these classes. Who knows? 2008 just might be the year I finally stick to that pesky "exercise more" New Year's resolution.

If you know of any more fun and fascinating classes, holler! I'd love to hear about them.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Diet soda delusions...

Back in college, I wrote a paper for a journalism class on the misconceptions of Pop Rocks, those fruit-flavored nuggets that fizzled in your mouth. Turns out that even though the urban legend had been proven false years before, a number of people (classmates included) still thought that mixing the candy with soda could cause your stomach to explode. According to legend, this deadly mixture even claimed the life of Mikey – the little boy from the old Life cereal commercials. Obviously, all of these rumors are false. And little Mikey is alive and well, working as an advertising-account manager at a New York radio station.
I bring this up because it seems the old "diet soda makes you fat " fallacy just keeps popping up. Although it's less dramatic than the Pop Rocks/Mikey misconception, it's a recurring food myth nonetheless.

Here are the facts, for those who are interested. Numerous studies over the years have shown that products - like diet soda - that are sweetened with low-calorie sweeteners like sucralose, saccharin and aspartame can help with weight management. For example, drinking a diet soda instead of the regular version can save 150 calories a day. Over the course of a year, that daily calorie savings could result in a 15-pound weight loss. In fact, the vast majority of scientific literature confirms the safety and benefits of using low-calorie sweeteners and low-calorie products for weight control and weight loss.

For example, a team of researchers from Harvard spent two years investigating how the addition of aspartame to a multidisciplinary weight control program would affect obese women. They found the low-calorie sweetener not only helped with weight loss, but also with long-term weight loss maintenance. Another study – published in a recent issue of "Pediatrics" – discovered that overweight children could prevent further weight gain simply by walking another 2,000 steps a day and reducing their calorie intake by 100. This was done by replacing sugar with Splenda and consuming beverages sweetened with sucralose. Low-calorie sweeteners can help combat obesity because they reduce the energy density of foods while maintaining the palatability.

However, they are not a magic bullet. A person who drinks 12 diet sodas a day or regularly consumes a gallon of sucralose-sweetened ice cream should not expect to lose weight. Instead, low-calorie sweeteners are another tool to incorporate into an overall healthy lifestyle that includes exercise and a balanced diet. The American Diabetes Association, as well as the American Heart Association, agree that diet beverages are a good option for those who want to control their weight and maintain a better lifestyle. A healthy weight can reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes and other obesity-related illnesses.

So enjoy your diet pop. It will do your body - and your waistline - good.

For any old-schoolers out there, here is the Life cereal commercial featuring Mikey.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

I'll drink to that!


As someone who attended one of the top party (i.e. lots of boozing) schools in the nation, this report comes as welcome news. After years of back-and-forth on the benefits of alcohol consumption, it appears research is finally pointing in alcohol's favor.

Now, that's not to say you should go get blotto tonight in an effort to avoid heart disease. You can, however, take comfort in the fact that an alcoholic drink a day just might keep the doctor away - or at least provide some quality health benefits. Granted, my liver still hates me for a college-era involving beer bongs of warm Bush Light, drinking Franzia from a box and doing shots of Goldschlager and SoCo...but I'm proud to say my tastes have improved significantly in recent years and moderation has become the name of the game. Sadly, though, I now officially have a champagne taste on a beer budget. Sigh.

Here are some happy alcohol-related health tidbits.

* Moderate drinking raises good cholesterol, helping reduce the risk for heart disease and possibly stroke.
* A drink a day may help regulate insulin (and blood sugar) levels, lowering your risk for Type 2 Diabetes.
* Indulging in three-plus cocktails a week can protect against rheumatoid arthritis
* Women who imbibe alcohol are twice as likely to report good health than women who don't drink.

To top off this sundae of sweet news with a cherry, here are a few Splenda-licious martini recipes for all you sugar-free dieters out there. The first one comes courtesy of my bartender gal pal, Jen, while the other two are from Hungry Girl.

Yes, I know. Thank me later. Cheers!

Berry Mojito
Combine a handful of rasberries, blueberries, blackberries and sliced strawberries with mint, Splenda, white rum, cranberry juice, pineapple juice, lime juice and club soda.
Shake well and serve.

Cherry Vanilla Thrilla'
(70 calories, no fat - 2 points)
1/2 cup Diet Cherry Vanilla Dr. Pepper
1 oz. Vodka
1 oz. Sugar Free Black Cherry Torani Syrup
Lots of ice
Pour ingredients into a shaker. Shake. Pour. Garnish with a Maraschino Cherry.

Hittin' The Peach!
(80 calories, no fat - 2 points)
4 oz. Diet Sprite
2 oz. Hansen's Natural Juice Cocktail, Low Calorie Peach Mango (or Minute Maid Light Mango Tropical)
1 oz. Sugar Free Peach Torani Syrup
1 oz. Vodka
Shake with ice and enjoy this tropical treat!

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Fashion Faux Pas


"I know nothing about football except it's the one time on television that spandex is acceptable." - Steven
"Does he like hot pants?" - Chris

Despite the fact that my idea of "designer" brands basically ranges from Old Navy to Gap, I love me some Project Runway. Now in it's fourth season, the deliciously snippy (pun intended!) reality show rounds out my relatively short list of must-see TV, which includes Lost (I miss you, please come back!), Pushing Daisies, The Office and 30 Rock...And I'm particularly grateful to have it around now that it appears the writers strike will stamp an early season ending on all of our favorite shows.

Anyhoo, I missed last week's episode but finally caught the re-run this weekend - and it was fantastic. No, the designers did not have to create a couture gown out of shrubs or recycled newspaper and aluminum. And on paper, the plot actually sounded boring. Basically, our motley crew of contestants had to work round-the-clock to create an on-air outfit for uber-hottie Tiki Barber, the former New York Giants running back turned Today Show correspondent. However, just the idea of creating menswear stirred fear among these folks. And based on some of the designs I saw later, I'd say they were right to feel very, very afraid. Despite Tim Gunn's advice, many of them just weren't able to "make it work" - and panic, chaos and hilariousness ensued.

I nearly busted a gut watching some of the judges' reactions during the runway show, which featured a level of fugly never before encountered on the show. First off, Ricky's train wreck of an outfit was literally held together with safety pins, while in addition to creating horribly ill-fitting pants, Carmen tried to hide her model's lack of a shirt by draping a piece of blue fabric around his neck. And then there was Sweet P, who crafted a shirt so horrendous, that all I could think was "Gordon Gartrelle." Anyone else know what I'm talking about? During an infamous Cosby Show episode way back in the first season, Denise tried to make a copy of a designer "Gordon Gartrelle" shirt for Theo to wear out on a date. Of course, it turns out to be a hot mess and Theo is humiliated... until his date raves about it, finding it completely original. They just don't make 'em like they used to!

I'll be back later this week with more sugar-free diet tips.