Tuesday, April 14, 2015

I Dig In

Ever since Avery was born, it seems like life had thrown Hubs and I one curve ball after another, as if a new baby wasn't enough on it's own.  There have been times where it feels like the stress is insurmountable, and like so many important decisions are lying in front of us.

We've managed to work through a number of these challenges, knocking them out one by one.   As the old saying goes, "How do you eat an elephant?  One bite at a time."

Well, last week felt like the week from Hell.

It was one of those weeks where I was running late to work every single morning, dealt with two contagious illness outbreaks at work (as an HR and safety manager for a healthcare company, these things tend to come up from time to time), one of my assistants resigned to go back to school full-time, and lots of other stuff (mostly work-related).  I have more work than I can even begin to do, and now I have two positions to fill.

On top of that, Avery had a HUGE week of firsts.  After sitting up completely on her own the week before, last week she decided to pull out all the stops by crawling, saying mama and dada AND cutting her first two teeth.  Yes, ALL IN THE SAME WEEK.  Hubs and I went from a relatively peaceful time with Avery to times where she's on the move every single second.  It's freaking exhausting.

Damn, that's a lot for one week.  Unfortunately, I don't see that the upcoming weeks will be much better, considering workload, things with the kiddo and other personal commitments.

On my way home from work on Friday, I was listening to some Bob Marley on the Margaritaville SiriusXM station, which sometimes helps to clear my brain after a stressful week.  While listening, I realized that when things get stressful, there are two kinds of people in this world:  The kind who throw their hands up in defeat and the kind who dig in and plow through the shit in their lives, solving problems and getting stuff done.

I'm the kind that digs in.

Stress sucks, but getting through tough times and coming out the other side with a smile and a sense of accomplishment is what makes me who I am.  I work hard and I don't give up.  I only start things that I intend to finish, and I always finish them.  Always.

So I'm going to continue to get through the workload and stress and projects, and work on being the best wife, mom, pet parent, sister, daughter, employee, boss, and friend I can be along the way.   While things aren't easy right now, the struggle is just part of life and I look forward to celebrating every victory, completion, and ending along the way.

I did get some nice kudos from my VP the other day, and I know my employees appreciate my work as their leader.  My husband appreciates my hard work and my baby lights up whenever we're together.  Hearing her say Mama when I picked her up the other day washed away the entire day's worries and stress.

My family is my center, my constant, and their appreciation means the world to me.  The validation from those at work and my family tells me that I'm on the right track, and I'm listening to my gut tell me when to forge ahead and when to take a step back.  My instincts and support from my personal and work families are what have to drive me when I feel like the unknown is just too much to bear.

But I dig in, and it will all get done in time.

Monday, April 13, 2015

A Lovely Easter

This year we celebrate our first Easter as a family of 3, and had the wonderful opportunity to spend the weekend with my family at my parents' new house.  My sister, brother-in-law and niece joined us, and we had a fantastic time.

In preparation for the festivities, Avery had a wonderful meet-and-greet with the Easter Bunny...

The was so good, and she didn't lose her cool in the least.  Except when dealing with her shoes.  She fussed and refused to wear her shoes, so off they went and she was happy as a daisy from then on.

For Easter, Avery got a small Easter basket tailored just to her...

Avery received baby snacks, a stuffed bunny, three new bibs, a Mam teether, an awesome bunny-ear headband and a great Easter book.  She did quite well for her first Easter!

After we got dressed in our adorable Easter outfit and donned our bunny ears, Avery spent some time with her grandpa before the rest of the family came over.

Avery also got to try swimming for the first time over Easter weekend, to break in my parents' new swimming pool.  She took to it like a natural!  She absolutely loves the water, and now we're looking into enrolling her in infant swimming lessons.

It was a fantastic weekend.  My family was all wonderful, and Avery was such a happy baby.  We even put her in the Exersaucer out on the patio while we ate dinner and hung out, and she happily played while donning her shades.  She really is a great baby!

I hope you all had a lovely Easter!  We're now welcoming Spring and Summer with open arms!  Heck, it's already summer here in Florida, with it being in the 80s and 90s every day!

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Avery is 7 Months Old!

So Avery Jane turned 7 months old a couple of weeks go, and I completely forgot about sharing her pictures with everyone!  Even my family wondered what was up.  Normally we stay right on top of that, but this occurred while we were wrapping up our kitchen remodel, doing our taxes, and trying to get some other things taken care of.  We were just crazy busy, ya'll.

But here is Miss Avery, in all of her 7 month glory...

This is Avery's RBF

She's so stinking cute!  She definitely had her daddy and I wrapped around her little fingers.

Happy 7-Months, Miss Avery!

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Create Your Taste at McDonald's

For awhile now, it's been business as usual with McDonald's.  I occasionally purchased food from McDonald's when I needed a quick and predictable meal on my lunch break or a road trip, or when I was craving a delicious Southwest Salad (still my favorite menu item!).

Recently, I was offered an opportunity to visit a local Tampa Bay area McDonald's restaurant in Wesley Chapel, north of the city, where the owners and McDonald's chain are testing a new concept called Create Your Taste.

The Create Your Taste concept is unique on today's fast food scene, allowing consumers to place their orders for custom-created hamburgers using a touch-screen human-sized tablet in the restaurant's lobby.  The restaurants focus on the freshest, highest quality ingredients, and seek to give the customer an affordable hamburger that would cost double at any other sit-down restaurant.  The restaurant's Create Your Taste menu has dozens of different topping options, and even different bread (or non-bread!) options, offering a wide array of choices for those with dietary restrictions or seriously Type-A people who like to control everything.  Admittedly, I can relate to the second more than the first.

Custom burgers are only available for dine-in customers, but that may change someday and expand to the drive-through.  Eating in the restaurant was actually quite a treat, though, as the interior was newly remodeled and beautiful!

The modern, fun interior was surprising to me in the best possible way.
Then it's time to place your order.  I, of course, opted for a customer hamburger to see how this concept worked.  Here's how a custom burger is created...

Pick your meat...

Pick your wrap (Artisan Roll, Ciabatta Roll or Lettuce Wrap)

Pick your cheese (American, White Cheddar or Pepper Jack)

Pick your toppings....

Pick your sauce...

Review your order.

Voila!  Your custom burger has been created.  From here you can pick your sides and drink.  Burgers are all the same price (right around $5.00 each), and the only up-charges are for extra patties of meat ($1.00 each) or bacon ($1 for 2 strips).  In the value meal, medium fries are standard with a small up-charge for large fries or large/specialty drinks.  In addition, you can add standard menu items like Chicken McNuggets and Happy Meals to your order.

After choosing your menu items, you pick up a locator and enter the code onto the touch screen.

Grab a locator...

Type in your locator number so the server can find you when your custom creation is ready for delivery to your table.

Afterward, you then pay using the the credit card machine beneath the touch screen.

There is actually a special prep area for custom burgers in this McDonald's, run by it's own specially trained team of employees.  They have their own grill, they have their own bun toaster, their own refrigerators for cheese... everything.  And the staff truly own their roles, and take pride in creating great products.  When an order is completed, they ring a bell and put the basket in the window for pick-up by a staff member.

The staff brings your custom sandwich to you and their training is evident:  They serve from the right, just like at a fine dining restaurant!  My Ritz-Carlton brethren would be so,so proud.

Notice how the fries come in a tiny, little fry basket?  Awesome touch!
Here's my custom creation up close.  It's a burger on a Ciabatta bun with guacamole, chili-lime tortilla strips, lettuce, tomato and white cheddar cheese.  It was absolutely scrumptious!  The texture and flavors were outstanding.  I really do love a spicy burger!

During my tour of the restaurant by one of the franchise owners (who was absolutely delightful!), I sense great enthusiasm for his newly remodeled store, the Create Your Taste concept, and even the assembly area, where the Create Your Taste sandwiches are brought to life.  It was quite impressive and nothing like my former image of McDonald's, and that's just how he wanted it to be.  I saw the evolution of a pop culture icon, and it's only getting better.

They've even upped the ante with professional new uniforms and increased staff training, giving team members the opportunity to remake sandwiches or discard ingredients that don't meet their standards.  I found this so, so refreshing, and could see how engaged the staff members were with one another.  They were communicating well, smiling and seemed to be having fun on the job, which I LOVE to see.  I can tell that their empowerment of their staff members was making a big difference culturally, too.

Here was one of those attractive new uniforms on a smiley, happy team member...

Cute apron, right?  I was totally smitten, so they gave me my own!  No cook can have too many aprons.

Overall, I was excited to see that McDonald's is taking a step toward the new trend in custom, complex offerings for a more discriminating customer.  This concept is being tested in 20 restaurants across the country, and this is the only location in Florida.  If you have a chance, drive up I-75 to Wesley Chapel and check it out.  This concept will surely be a hit!

Monday, April 6, 2015

Give & Grub Food Truck - Stick it to hunger!

I love hearing about new corporate and charitable partnerships that benefit my local community.  So many organizations give back in big ways, and that warms my heart.  I've been an active volunteer on and off since I was a teenager, and feel that the community can help those in need through even the smallest of efforts.

I was contacted by a local marketing team that is promoting one such corporate charitable giving concept called Give & Grub Food Truck.  This is a partnership between The Laser Spine Institute and The Tampa Bay Lightning (our local professional hockey team), and the concept is quite unique.  The truck sells great quality meals around the local area and for each meal served and #GiveandGrub hashtag used, the organization gives away a meal to a child in need.  Pretty amazing, right?!

I was invited to an individual tasting, so I attended a truck stop event near my office after work one day.  The menu features gourmet takes on the players and coaches' favorite foods, and everything I tried was amazingly delicious! 

The food truck itself was decked out and had all of the bells and whistles--even beer taps, a built in cooler case and some huge, amazing skylights.  Never mind using it for food.  I'll just live in it.

Booo.... "Out of Order" :(

I sampled the Tacos, Mac and Cheese and a burger, and took everything home to share with my husband, who was on baby duty that evening.  I adored the freshness and authentic flavor of the tacos, and Hubs and I agreed that the food was far better than the vast majority food truck meals we've eaten.  All fresh, all well-cooked, all well-seasoned, and all made me want more!

Hedman's Steak Tacos
Coach Cooper's Candied Burger
Callahan's Mac Slam
Did I mention that they bake their own bread daily?  They do, and it's delicious!  Who doesn't love soft, warm brown bread?  (Think Outback Steakhouse bread used for a burger... yum!)

I met the chef, who was also a total delight.  You can really tell that this man loves his job and ability to partner with other organizations to serve a vital need in our community. 

I later attended an event that Give & Grub was hosting for the local blogging group, and was also able to try two new dishes:  A steak sandwich and sweet potato waffle fries drizzled with maple syrup and marshmallow cream.  The sweet potato fries were like dessert--so yummy and comforting.  The steak sandwich was also quite tasty and had the most tender steak, something I look for in any good steak sandwich.  Tough meat is a no-go for me, and this was divine!

Steak Sandwich and Sweet Potato Waffle Fries
(It's okay if your mouth is watering right now.)

My box of food to try, featuring a 1/2 Steak Sandwich, Sweet Potato Waffle Fries, a Steak Taco,
a cup of Callahan's  Mac Slam and 1/2 a Chicken Parmkos Sandwich.
We had a lot of fun at the blogger event as well, and I finally met some local bloggers who I just hadn't managed to bump into yet!

Thunderbug loves to show off Give & Grub meals

At the time of the event, purchased meals and hashtags used had generated 25,000 meals donated to needy children in Tampa Bay.  As of this past weekend, the purchased meals and hashtags had already generated 15,000 more meals for children, for a total 40,000 meals given away.  How impressive is that??

In case you're wondering, meals are given away to children at low-income schools where the vast majority of children are receiving free or reduced price school lunches.  Every Friday, schools are chosen and all children at those schools receive a backpack filled with 5 meals.  I'm astounded at the generosity of the Laser Spine Institute and the Tampa Bay Lightning Hockey Club.  It's wonderful to see two amazing organizations giving back in such a significant way.

Overall, you cannot miss out on trying the Give & Grub Food Truck if you live in the Tampa Bay area or you're here in April or May on vacation.  Seriously, I will never lead you wrong when it comes to good eats!

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Avery is 6 months old!

We love half-birthdays in this house (says the lady with the Christmas-time birthday), we had a great time celebrating Avery's 1/2 birthday not long ago.

It's hard to believe she's really 6 months old already.  I feel like I just had her a month ago.  She's developing so much personality and we're starting to see more of what's to come as she grows up.  At her 6 month doctor's appointment, Avery weighed 17 lbs 8 oz (80th percentile) and was a whopping 28.5" long (over the 100th percentile).   She's so long that she's already growing out of her 9 month pajamas!  I am going to sob when I have to put her in 12 month pjs with grippy bottoms on the feet, like a big girl.

On her half-birthday, we started by having her professional photos taken.  We go to a local Picture People studio for quarterly pictures since they're reasonably priced and a stone's throw from where we live.  Avery started out fairly grumpy because we woke her up early from her nap and she was starting to get hungry.  We took some mediocre photos, then we fed her, changed her diaper and put on a different outfit.  She was like a new baby!  Much, much happier and willing to play along for the camera.  At one point, she angrily kicked off her shoes, so we decided just to take the pictures we could without them since she seemed to be pretty happy barefooted.  That's called picking your battles, folks.

Then we had a nice lunch out while Avery had a much needed nap, and then we went home to rest. Baby photo days really exhaust all of us, because Avery becomes super high maintenance and needs constant handling, cheering up, snuggling, funny faces, bouncing, kisses, etc.  I sense that we have a future supermodel on our hands!

Here are some of her latest likes, dislikes and milestones:

  • Likes getting a bath
  • Likes Daddy's silly voices
  • Likes fruit and veggie purees
  • Likes barrel-rolling across the living room
  • Likes her BFF/dog, Bella (particularly her licks)
  • Likes sleeping
  • Likes when mommy and daddy read her books before bed
  • Likes riding in the car (when it's moving)
  • Likes her jumperoo
  • Dislikes getting towel dried after her bath
  • Dislikes certain faces made by Daddy (causing her to spontaneously burst into tears)
  • Dislikes diaper changes
  • Dislikes bedtime (she's got FOMO on weeknights)
  • Dislikes when the car stops moving for any reason
  • Dislikes wet diapers (and oddly, she's indifferent about poopy diapers)
  • Now eats 3 containers of purees per day (1 fruit, 2 veggie) and smaller volumes of formula
  • Mimics sounds she hears from her family
  • Prefers standing with help from mommy and daddy to sitting
  • Losing interest in her pacifier; More interested in chewing on her pacifier strap
  • Eating and sleeping schedules are now more consistent
  • Holds her own bottle (when she feels like it)
  • Giggles up a storm and loves to smile
We're still working on sitting up unassisted (this has been very inconsistent, since she'd prefer to stand up or roll around rather than sit up), getting up on all fours, and coordinating her lanky limbs to do any type of crawling.  Also, we're going to be graduating from the infant car seat to the convertible car seat.  We bought a convertible seat recently and will be giving that a try soon.  If we like it, we'll buy a second for our other car.

That's it for us!  We're loving Avery and seeing her grow is so, so much fun.  She's just getting cuter by the day, and her personality is adorable.  We're lucky, lucky people.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

One Night at Ulele

Not long ago, I had the pleasure of joining a group of Tampa Bay bloggers to experience a wonderful new Tampa restaurant and brewery called Ulele. 

Ulele was named one of the Top 100 Restaurants in the U.S. by Open Table, one of the Best New Restaurants in Florida by Florida Trend, and Best Overall Restaurant by Yelp Tampa Bay.  Its most recent achievement was the #7 spot for Top 50 Restaurants in Tampa Bay as scored by Laura Reiley of the Tampa Bay Times.

As a working mom, it takes something very special to keep me away from my husband and kiddo on a weeknight.  After hearing some wonderful things about Ulele from friends, I knew I couldn't pass up the opportunity to experience Ulele for myself, especially with such a fun group as the Tampa Bay Bloggers.

Upon arriving to Ulele, I was greeted by not only fellow bloggers, but the restaurant's manager and the restaurant group's Chief Marketing Officer.  These gentlemen were welcoming and gracious, and quite enthusiastic about introducing us to their fantastically restored building and gastropub-style menu.  They were so happy to educate us on their philosophies and food that I was riveted--this is exactly the kind of thing I love!

Ulele serves approximately 1,000 guests per day, and is acutely focused on having nearly every element of the restaurant experience reference Florida and the Tampa Bay area.  This includes nods to local history, ingredients, and materials on most surfaces.  Our table?  The base was made at a metal workshop 5 miles away, and the wood top was made locally from the reclaimed wood of a hundred year old barn in North Florida.  Those benches in the entry way?  They're from the old federal courthouse downtown.  It's really something to see, and it's refreshing to see such a business supporting other local businesses in more than just words.  Another cool fact was that the building itself is a rehabilitated 1903 water pump station, though you'd never guess it based on the sleek and industrial-modern exterior.

One area of the restaurant that was not highly influenced by the local area was the Biergarten (big ups to Germany!), hops and yeast from Europe and New Zealand for brewing their signature craft beers, and brewing equipment that was handmade in Portland, OR.  Since Tampa residents love their beer, I find nothing foreign about any of them.

I also learned an intriguing story about how the restaurant got it's name.  Ulele is named after the Native American Princess Ulele, who lived in the region in the 1500's.  Local legend says that she saved a teenage Spanish explorer and prisoner of her tribe, Juan Ortiz, from being burned at the stake by her father.  Many people say that she was the influence for Disney's Pocohontas, but that's just a cool-sounding rumor.  The owners and people of Tampa love a good legend (Gasparilla is the basis for another popular one), and to celebrate Princess Ulele, the owners are installing a statue in her honor outside of their restaurant.  I was lucky enough to get a sneak peek...

Princess Ulele in her Tocobaga tribe attire with seashell accessories

The brewery is another interesting facet of this establishment, as it has a solid "tap-to-table" concept tying freshness and locality throughout the entire experience.  The brewer is a self-described minimalist, and his brews have 6 ingredients or fewer to preserve the flavors from tried and true ingredients and brewing techniques.  I've got to respect a professional who sticks to his guns and lets the ingredients and techniques speak for themselves.  The food was made under the exact same philosophy.

We had four main parts of our menu tasting, which I'll refer to as Comforting Starters, Indulgent Appetizers, Enticing Entrees, and 'Diet? What diet?' Encores.  

Comforting Starters

Clockwise from top left:  Craft Beers, Ulele Salad, Mac & Cheese, Chili and fruit-infused water to cleanse the palate
The starters were simply delicious, and I could have made a meal out of those items alone.  The chili was quickly my favorite.  I loved that it had large chunks of pulled meat, beans and a moderate heat that kept me going back for more.  It really put my own homemade chili to shame.  The macaroni and cheese was also great, especially with the additional toppings like scallions, crab meat and bacon.  The salad also had beans on it, as well as a light but flavorful dressing.  

Indulgent Appetizers

Raw Louisiana Oysters, Chargrilled Louisiana Oysers, Squash Gratin, and Alligator Hushpuppies
Okay, friends.  This was my first foray into the world of oysters.  To say I was scared and skeptical would be an understatement.  However, I set that fear of slimy mollusks aside and made the brave decision to try them.  I'm pleased to report that they were better than I ever expected!  The chargrilled oysters were delicious and I could have eaten the whole try... but I would have had to fight off 4 other hungry bloggers who also feel in love with them!  The squash gratin was very tasty and a hit with the vegetarians at the table.  The gator hushpuppies were also new to me, but I found them very tasty.  Gator can be a bit chewy, but that texture didn't bother me at all in this preparation.

Enticing Entrees

Clockwise from upper left:  Filet Mignon, Florida Pompano, Ulele Burger, and Native Saute

The entrees began flowing,and I could already sense that I may need to be rolled out of Ulele Veruca Salt-style, on my side and being pushed by a group of enthusiastic Ulele staffers.  The traditional filet mignon was impressive and cooked to perfection.  I loved the mashed potatoes and asparagus, as well as the unexpected popcorn garnish, paying homage to the local Native American traditions.  The Florida Pompano was an utterly delicious fish dish that would delight even the most discriminating pescetarian.  The fish filet was lightly sauteed and topped with a scrumptious tomato shallot cream sauce and crispy shaved carrots.  If you haven't had fried carrot shavings before, you must.  Trust me on this.  I need to learn how to make these at home!

Next up was the Ulele Burger, which was insane.  I ate a quarter of it and had to eat it in stages due to it's thickness piles of toppings.  The beef patty was made using a blend of ground short rib, chuck and brisket, and its depth of flavor and juiciness was unparalleled.  The toppings on this lunchtime favorite included roasted red peppers, fried leeks, cheddar cheese, and portabella mushrooms.  This was followed by the Native Saute, a vegetarian entree featuring seasonal vegetables on a bed of flavorful wild rice.

 'Diet? What diet?' Encores

Clockwise from top left:  Kilo Porterhouse Steak, Candied Duck Bacon Fried Ice Cream, and 5-Ice Cream Sampler

The final entree I had the opportunity to try was the Kilo Porterhouse steak.  I put this in my "Encores" section because anyone would be stuffed after eating this baby.  The more you eat, the more you want because this cut and the preparation was so, so full of flavor.  It was the fireworks finale of this amazing celebration of meat food.  I even tweeted that this experience should have been called "Bloggers vs. Food" because it required a professional eater's stomach to sample everything, and it was my most liked and re-tweeted message in ages.  (For the record, bloggers would win every time.)  The Kilo Porterhouse is aged 28 days and like all other beef products, comes from a local cattle ranch just south of the Tampa Bay area.  The grains used to make the restaurant's beer are then fed to the cattle, since spent grain is an excellent source of natural protein.

The desserts were absolutely delicious, but I admit that my sweet tooth wasn't in high gear after having such an amazing sampling of appetizers and entrees.  However, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to try their version of Fried Ice Cream.  Built on a base of creamy house-made ice cream swirled with pieces of candied duck bacon, this cornflake-coated scoop was swimming in a pool of creme anglaise and Knob Creek whiskey, and was garnished with a strip of candied duck bacon and a pizzelle.  These great new flavors and textures made this a winner for me.  The other house-made strawberry, espresso, vanilla, chocolate and coconut ice creams were also delicious and sweetly served in coconut shell halves.

Following this food extravaganza, we took a tour of the brewery and met the brewer himself, a nice guy with a lot of knowledge and storytelling experience.  The walk helped my stomach settle and hearing him speak so passionately about his craft was awesome and inspiring.  He shared that the beer uses local spring water and minimal ingredients to create fresh and uncomplicated brews.   And folks, these brews were delicious.  They aren't currently available anywhere except the restaurant, but the owners are considering offering them at other area restaurants they own.  One can only hope this comes to fruition!

My opportunity to meet the Chef, Chief Marketing Officer and other wonderful staffers at Ulele was fantastic, and I know this will be a restaurant that is not only part of my regular dining rotation, but a place for special events and out of town guests as well.  

Check out Ulele for yourself!  It's located at 1810 N. Highlands Ave. in Tampa, FL, right along the riverfront.  I hope you enjoy your drinking and dining experience as much as I did!

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Tampa, Florida, United States
I'm a wife, daughter and amazing twin sister. I'm a mom to my adorable dog, Bella. Loves: Shopping, cooking, baking, good grammar and Dave Matthews Band. I'm also a Bath and Body Works addict, a Michigan State Spartans fanatic, and an iPhone aficionado. I see beauty in simple things and little things make me ever-so-happy. Welcome to my world!

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