happy food: panzanella salad recipe

Last week one of my girlfriends came over for lunch and it was so sunny and beautiful that we decided to enjoy a salad with some peach sangria out on the deck. Neither of us wanted a heavy meal so I turned to one of my favorite go-to summer meals--this easy Panzanella Salad that feels rustic and light.  This is also one of those salads that would be great to take to work in a mason jar. Just add the dressing to the bottom of the jar, then add the salad. When you're ready to eat, just turn the jar upside down to dress the salad.

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Happygirl Panzanella Salad
An easy summer salad that will make you feel like you're eating al fresco at a sun-dappled Italian restaurant
  • 1/2 a large French baguette cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 2 medium tomatoes cut into 1-inch cubes (heirloom is best)
  • 1/2 a large English cucumber, seeded and cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 1/2 a large red or orange bell pepper cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 1/2 purple onion cut into thin slices
  • 1/2 cup feta cheese crumbles
  • 10 basil leaves finely shredded
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons Champagne vinegar (or white balsamic)
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
Toss bread cubes with 2 tablespoons of olive oil and place in a single layer in oven to toast until golden brown or place in saute pan on stovetop until cubes are golden brown. Set aside in bowl. In a large bowl, combine tomatoes, cucumber, pepper, onion, feta and basil. Set aside. For dressing: Whisk together olive oil, vinegar, salt, pepper and mustard until incorporated. Add toasted cubes to vegetables and drizzle dressing over the salad. lightly toss until the dressing uniformly covers the salad.Serve with a white wine or sparkling water.Notes: You can omit the croutons if you're gluten-free or the feta if you're dairy-free.
Prep time: Cook time: Total time: Yield: 2 dinner servings

happy things: ladybugs (AKA God's little cows)

The other day I was sitting on the deck with our dog when I watched a ladybug land on her little white sleeping snout. She twitched for a moment in her sleep but otherwise she was oblivious to this little bug taking a pause in her day.

I tried to stealthily reach for my phone but the ladybug caught on and flew away (So much for the Instagram moment.) I started thinking about ladybugs and why they are so much more charming that say, spiders or centipedes.

Five things I learned as I Googled ladybugs:
  1. Ladybugs aren't bugs at all, but beetles
  2. They can eat 50-100 aphids a day (they're great little pest killers)
  3. They are named Ladybugs after the Virgin Mary
  4. In Russia, they are called "Bozhya korovka" or God's little cow (in reference to their spots)
  5. Many people believe that a ladybug landing on you heralds a time of good fortune or happiness
If you think of a ladybug landing on you as a little bit of good luck, you'll enjoy this article.

(If you need happiness or a little luck in your life right now, increase your chances of a ladybug landing on you by finding some rosebushes. Ladybugs have a thing for them.)

happy video: i'm such a happy chewbacca

"I'm such a happy Chewbacca!" followed by ROARING HILARIOUS LAUGHTER won the internet last week. Why? Because it was a moment of sheer, pure joy shared by a mom (Candace Payne) who bought herself a birthday present - a Chewbacca mask. She puts it on in the car, sees herself and breaks down laughing. Last week, I saw the hype online and thought "So, she laughs. OK, fine. We all do." Then I watched the video and as soon as she does the head tilt (like a dog who is trying to understand what you are saying) when she sees herself on her phone (as she records a live Facebook video) that's when I lost it too. I watched the video at my desk. I watched it while waiting in line at Ikea. I watched it in bed right before I fell asleep. I watched it and I felt happy.  I realized that it's rare that we see an adult in a moment of such pure happiness. Maybe that's why we like watching puppy and baby videos. They're not afraid to be in the moment of joy.

I'm not the only one who likes this video. Over 100 million people have watched "Happy Chewbacca Lady." I read the comments on reddit and Facebook and with every comment criticizing her crazy laugh, there were hundreds defending her with comments like "You only wish you could be as happy as her / Is it weird that I'm jealous of her family? I wish I had a relative who is this awesome / Her absolute joy from the moment the video started really made me feel like I should be a slightly less cynical bastard as I go about my life."

Watching this made me realize three things:

1. Being around happy people makes you happy.  It's impossible not to laugh along with Candace. She's just do darn happy that it's catchy. It's like being with someone who yawns. Hang out with people like Candace and you're bound to be happier.

2. Own it. You want to fly your freak flag? Do it. Own that thing. Candace didn't care what people thought about her laughing alone in her car wearing a mask and talking to herself. Yes, she refers to other people in the parking lot but she is owning that moment of joy and nothing was going to distract her from the fact that this Chewbacca mask was the best thing she ever bought.  I've had moments in life when I have wanted to be free and be silly but I was afraid of what people around me would think. Next time I want to laugh out loud or enjoy a moment, I hope I remember Candace and own it.

3.  "Y'all have an incredible day. It's the simple joys." This line hit me right in my heart. Since I started this blog, I've come to believe that simple things, simple joys are what make you happy. Rarely are we hit with those HUGE moments of life-changing joy, but every day we could have a moment like this. How extraordinary would life be if we got excited about simple things? What is the people around us, saw these moments of joy. I would love to live in a world like that.

You rock on with your bad self, Candace Payne. Thank you for the joy you brought to 100 million people and counting. I'm going to go play with my dog now and watch her lose it and give me that awesome dog smile when she discovers which hand the cookie is hiding in. Simple joys.

Inspiration # 184: carpe diem

Sometimes an opportunity comes along and you don't know whether to take it.

Take it.

why Disney's Animal Kingdom is your happy place this summer

Where is your happy place? 

I love posing this question because the moment you ask someone you can see the smile spread across his or her face as he or she remembers the place that make them feel happy/content/loved.  If your happy place (like many, many others) is Walt Disney World, then you're about to get very, very happy this summer. 

Over the past several years (behind the scenes), the creative Disney imagineers have been sprinkling their visionary innovations across the Walt Disney World Resort. This summer, the magic is revealed. Recently at the Awaken Summer Media Event, we had a preview of what's new around the world. With each reveal I thought "This is my new favorite thing at Walt Disney World. Wait. THIS is my new favorite thing as Walt Disney World. . ." 

Oh, wait until you see what's new! Come with me! Let me take you to your new happy place -- Disney's Animal Kingdom at night! Take a seat in the new Discovery River waterside theatre. It is moments before Disney's new Rivers of Light Show begins. The lights slowly dim to darkness, the audience quiets and then--then the music and the lights begin to swell. It is ethereal. It is better than anything your childhood mind could dream up.

Celebrating the beauty and the magic of nature, Disney's Rivers of Light is an immersive storytelling experience with live performers, floating lanterns and imagery projected onto giant water screens. I was spellbound. I imagine you could see this show every night for a year and not see it in the exact same way. I thought this was my new favorite thing at Disney's Animal Kingdom. I was wrong. There was more. 

If you have explored Disney's Animal Kingdom in the past, you may have started first thing in the morning with the Kilimanjaro Safari. Boarding your open air safari vehicle and riding through the savanna watching the animals as they wake up is an invigorating way to start the day.  Next, visit the gorillas. Chances are there will be some new babies frolicking with their moms. In the afternoon,  hit the thrill rides (Expedition Everest and Kali River Rapids). When it's hot in Orlando, the cool air in Expedition Everest and the whitewater adventure of the Chakranadi River are the best ways to cool off in the park. (On those blistering hot days, I wish you could just ride Kali River Rapids on an endless loop until you are thoroughly soaked and content.) Perhaps in the past (because Disney's Animal Kingdom closed earlier that the other parks), you may have chosen this night to dine at the Animal Kingdom Lodge after freshening up at your resort hotel. (L and I love Boma.) 

With the new extended hours at the Animal Kingdom, however,  the evenings have become the optimal time to explore this park. Even something as simple as walking under all the foliage takes on an otherworldy feel at night. During the preview, I rode the Kilimanjaro Safari several times (once at dusk, and once after sunset). After dark, it feels like an entirely different expedition than during the day. As the sun sets, board your vehicle for an adventure into the wild. Keep an eye out for hippos and lions, rhinos and zebras, elephants and warthogs. You'll see the new African painted dogs or hyenas gathering together in their nesting place. (On the later trek, we saw the painted dogs huddled together sleeping.) We turned a corner and found the lionesses outlined against the sky as they rested on their rocky perches. It was a magnificent moment. I wondered if our headlights or the noise would disturb them but none of the animals seemed at all concerned about us, except for the young giraffe who wandered over to our vehicle. The driver paused as the giraffe decided which path she wanted to take. We all watched her in quiet awe before she decided on her next adventure that night.

Later, hop on Expedition Everest again. This thrill ride takes on a whole new level of excitement at night. Is it just me or does it feel faster at night? (Be sure to ride before you head over to the next spot!)

Make reservations at Tiffin's, a restaurant featuring global cuisine (located on Discovery Island). Are you adventurous? Try the grilled octopus or lobster-popcorn Thai curry soup. At the preview,  everything I sampled was delicious. I recommend the sustainable fish or Wagnu strip loin and the creme brûlée. (While you're waiting for your dinner, admiring the waterfront views, you can show off your world knowledge by saying "Did you know that tiffin is an Indian English word for a mid-day meal or a type of container to carry food while traveling?")

Harambe Wildlife Parti

If your kids are with you, they will love the Harambe Wildlife Parti, a street festival featuring Afro-Pop musicians and acrobats as well as other performances including The Harambe Soccer Meerkats.

After dinner, walk towards The Tree of Life, the symbol of Disney's Animal Kingdom park. You can't  miss it. It's the enormous tree that's 145 feet tall and 50 feet wide.  During the day you may have strolled along the Discovery Island Trail to see if you could discover all of the 300 animal carvings in the tree (Did you find the famous mouse?)

At night, however, The Tree of Life takes on a fantastical feel. As you stand admiring the changing colors of the tree, you'll see the flickering enchanted fireflies awaken the creatures on the tree. Watch the story unfold on the trunk and in the leaves. Animals that seemed like static carvings begin bounding across the tree. A young doe explores her world and you become immersed in hers.  As you watch this magical celebration of life, don't be surprised to hear people around you whisper things like "Did you just see that?" and "I've never seen anything like this." Trying to describe how incredible this is is like trying to describe the color green. You have to experience it for yourself.

It's your new happy place.

That night at my hotel, I sat on a bench by the water at the Boardwalk and tried to describe all of this to L who was back in Seattle. "There was a giraffe thisclose to our vehicle," I said "And the wild dogs sleep together in one big pile. Did you know that? The Rivers of Light was so Technicolor. It was so overwhelmingly beautiful I think I cried at one point. And you're going to love The Kali River Rapids at night. And this tree just comes alive. I have no idea how they do it but I can't even describe it. It's just so magical. I don't even know. . ."

All L said was "I can't wait to go back with you."

To experience all of the new nighttime attractions at your happy place, visit Walt Disney World and Disney's Animal Kingdom beginning Memorial Day Weekend.  

  •  The Disney imagineers are brilliant in their design of audience spaces. For Rivers of Light, there doesn't seem to be a bad seat in the stadium-style space. However, we sat towards the back and we were able to get a great overall view of Rivers of Light.
  • Before your trip, install the My Disney Experience app on your mobile device. From this app, you can see wait times for your favorite attractions, make dining reservations, manage and book your FastPass+ experiences, preview your Disney PhotoPass photos and videos and more.  I can't even count how many times I used this app during the trip. I don't know how we ever visited the Parks without this app in the past. 
  • If you can, try to experience  the Kilimanjaro Safari just before dusk as well as after sunset. It's incredible how much the wildlife changes as nighttime begins.

the epic Pinterest fail

This is NOT chicken, gravy and biscuits

Last night I failed. I wanted to be a model of Pinterest creativity and what I made was so bad that L and I went all the way past thinking it was awful to laughing/crying (while eating it!) because it was so terrible. Awful. Disgusting. Truly.

This is the story of when a potential Pinterest cooking victory goes bad.

I had strawberries. As it turns out a lot of strawberries. Typically I would be happy to run a handful of these bursting red berries under water and sit outside with my head tilted up to the sun while thinking "Eating strawberries in the sunshine is pretty much the perfect moment."

But I had strawberries and shortbread biscuits and it was sunny and warm. I decided to make strawberry shortbread. I washed and macerated the berries. Being early May, they weren't very sweet so I added some confectioner's sugar. It needed some liquid and I knew that orange juice brightens the flavor of strawberries but I had pineapple juice and that seemed like it could bring a bright tropical flavor to this dessert.

I didn't have dairy cream but I did have a can of Trader Joe's coconut cream. I remembered reading that coconut cream (different than coconut milk) could be whipped into a whipped cream topping. So I started to make that. Unfortunately, for some reason I could only find one hand blender blade. That was OK, though. How hard could it be to whisk it into topping? It turns out hard.

I used a whisk and tried to whip the thick cream into whipping cream. Nope. It was just thick coconut cream which is not sweetened so I added a 1/4 cup of confectioner's sugar. Terrible. Then another 1/4 cup and another until it tasted sweet and coconutty. I blended it into the strawberry mash and whisked it all together vigorously for five minutes then placed it in the refrigerator to cool while we ate dinner. I had envisioned it thickening up into a fluffy strawberry mousse.

After dinner, I cleared the table, warmed a biscuit, sliced it in half and added the strawberry mixture which poured like pale pink chunky milk. It looked so disgusting right then that I started laughing. L looked up from his phone at me from across the kitchen.

"What is it?" he asked. "This can't be good."

"It looks disgusting but I think you'll like it."

"Well that's comforting," L said.

I added some dried coconut chips as a crunchy topping and placed it on the kitchen table in front of L. I sat down across from him, smiled and handed him a fork.

"What is it exactly?" he asked as he leaned in closer to get a better look.

"Well," I said. "It's macerated strawberries with coconut cream on a biscuit."

L asked "What are those things on top?"

"Coconut chips. Try it." I smiled at him and looked down at the plate and then back at him.

L was staring intently at the dessert, then he looked up at me and said in barely above a whisper "Is it safe?"

"Yes! It's safe. I think it works if you don't look at it." I dug my fork in. "Look, I'm eating it."

He picked up his phone and took a picture of it.

I said "Of all the meals I make, THIS is what you want to take a picture of?"

L "Well, look at it." He was right.

L dug in with his fork and brought the fork towards his nose and took a whiff. "It smells OK." We both tried it at the same time.  Both of us winced. "This is awful," I said while I started laughing. "No, this is really really awful," L said as he took another bite. I was now crying and laughing because I had failed so epically, because it looked like sorority girl coagulated vomit, and because he was gamely taking another bite.

"No!" I said. "Don't eat it!"

"I have to," L replied as he took his third bite. "This tastes like something. Like cereal."

I took another small bite and he was right.

"It's like Fruity Pebbles but with a taste of coconut," I suggested.

Musing, L said "Maybe you should have added some sugar. It isn't sweet and it doesn't taste like strawberries. It's just kind of like soggy cereal milk. The texture is kind of weird. It's sort of like cold, chunky, liquidy pudding." I explained why it tasted like this, about the coconut cream and the pineapple and the lack of a blender. He gingerly tried scraping the strawberry topping off the biscuit. Then he stopped and asked "Would it be OK if we didn't have this again? Ever?" He looked at me. He had that worried/scared/unsure look that guys get when they've said something to their girls and they weren't sure if they would get into trouble for it.

I started laughing again. "This is truly the worst dessert I have ever made. I promise I will never make this again. Please stop eating it. Seriously. I'm getting sick watching you eat that.  Thanks for trying to eat it though. You're sweet but please. Stop."

"Yow know what I love about you?" L asked.


"You tried something new. Things went wrong and you powered through, sure that you could make something good out of it. That's what's cool about you."

And that is the story of the epic dessert fail turned into an epic marriage win. A strawberry-coconut-pineapple flavored marriage win.

happy video: gwen stefani carpool with George and Julia

If you ever need a third for a carpool, George Clooney's your man (His pal, Julia Roberts makes a great fourth.) Plus, he isn't afraid to go all in if you have the undeniable urge to sing along to "We Are the Champions."

This was by far the happiest video of the week.

when it all changed

Today, Cinco de Mayo, is a day that my life changed. 7 years ago today my job was eliminated at Microsoft. I loved my job, working with some of the smartest people in technology who blew me away with their brilliance. I loved working with the studio publicists who were so good at their jobs. I loved seeing them every weekend in LA and watching them manage what must have been massive undertakings at junkets (done with style and cool). I loved my fellow journalists and reporters from around the world and the junket teams that worked like a well oiled machine. So many adventures. I still miss them all to this day. Covering entertainment and interviewing celebrities was the coolest job I could have ever imagined.

That morning of 5/5/09 when I was part of the Cinco de Mayo layoffs and told it was over (and it was AWFUL), it felt like the end of the world. I was decimated. It was humiliating. It turns out, however, that it was exactly what I needed to happen. After about a million miles in the air (and trying to start a family while doing that) I was able to spend more time with Larry and Emma. Feeling sick of being depressed and feeling sorry for myself, I started a company called The Happygirl, a guide to getting your happy back.

Later, I had the unexpected PROFOUND experience to work as the Director of Advancement at my high school alma mater in my hometown 2800 miles away. Seeing my Senior English teacher, Sr. Marlene, every day was one of the coolest things I've ever had the chance to do. We got an interesting loft in an historic sword forge building in my hometown and I reconnected with family (and the most fun nieces EVER!) and friends I love that I've known since I was in first grade. I made new friends who I came to love. It's hard to imagine my life without them now. For a girl without parents in her life or any siblings, this was more wonderful that I can put into words.

On May 5, 2009, I felt destroyed, leveled, humiliated and embarrassed. I learned though, that every experience brings you to where you are now. I learned that a loss, a tragedy, an unexpected pause in your life can be the best thing that ever happened to you. My relationship with God became more meaningful to me. I learned to be grateful for what I have and to honor the experiences I had--the magical, incredible ones as well as the tragic losses and the ones that hurt and humbled me to my core.

No, things didn't turn out as I had planned. It was better. Wildly, unimaginably better.