Countdown to Giving: Day 5

Canopy: Your Second Family During the Holidays, and Year Round

“You have cancer.” Three words that will forever change your life and thrust you into a world of shock, confusion and fear. We hope the next three words you hear will change this, allow you to exhale, and feel a sense of hope and comfort: “Welcome to Canopy.”

Canopy Cancer Survivorship Center is a caring community of optimism, healing and empowerment, nestled on the campus of Memorial Hermann The Woodlands Medical Center. A first-of-its-kind cancer survivorship center in the greater Houston area, Canopy enhances the quality of life for individuals affected by cancer and for those who support them during their journey. When you walk through the doors of Canopy, you are no longer fighting cancer alone. You are greeted with warmth, and the wisdom and compassion of so many who have battled cancer before you.

Every visitor to Canopy is referred to as a guest. Regardless of where a person is in their cancer journey, or where they may be receiving medical treatment – a patient, a long-time survivor, a friend, a relative, or a care provider – everyone is a guest at Canopy and welcome to receive support and services.

Canopy offers an average of over 50 programs every month to hundreds of the guests, and at no cost to the individuals receiving the services. Cancer treatment is costly, complex and time-consuming. Canopy eliminates barriers by providing all services free of cost, in one location, and by professionals who are knowledgeable about the cancer treatment spectrum. The unique variety of programming and services seamlessly work together to fulfill the wellness needs of the guests – emotionally, physically and socially.

Canopy operates solely on philanthropic funds. Community support is critical for Canopy to ensure that services and programs continue to be provided to the guests that need them the most.

Certainly, 2020 has been a year where we have all been encouraged to keep our distance. It’s become easy to feel disconnected and isolated, especially during the holiday season. This year, more than ever, we hope that people seek and find comfort at Canopy. We have some fun holiday activities planned for guests and their families virtually, and guests are always welcome to come by and visit us to see the Canopy Christmas tree and decorations, and to pick up their annual Christmas ornament that brings comfort to so many during the season.

Teresa Jarbor, a guest at Canopy, has used several of the programs and services, and thinks of it as a safe haven and second family, especially during the holidays. “During the holidays, it’s the chance to be with people that understand how you feel and celebrate another year. I’ve met so many people during this process,” she shared. “I’m going to miss the festivities and getting together. It was the support of being around other survivors that gave me so much encouragement – some of these women are 20-year survivors! I knew I was not alone, that’s what I love about Canopy. We are all survivors and fighters, together.”

Want to learn more about Canopy Cancer Survivorship Center? Interested in making a donation to help make programs and classes possible for community guests and cancer survivors? Simply visit or call 713.897.5939 to get started.


*All photos taken prior to the Covid-19 pandemic.


Countdown to Giving: Day 6

Safe Air Travel for the Holidays (and beyond!)

Commercial air travel has become more cumbersome and challenging in recent years due to additional safety measures, space constraints and shrinking amenities. The added complexities caused by the novel COVID-19 Pandemic have made private air travel all the more appealing this holiday season and beyond.

Wing Aviation mid-size cabin Citation Latitude taking off from the Conroe North Houston Regional Airport, with the Galaxy FBO facilities in the background.

A few of the notable advantages of flying Private vs Commercial are (and will always be):

  • Ability to fly directly to over five thousand public-use and private airports in United States, which may be closer to your departure point. There are over ten times more airport options to choose from compared to commercial airports. In addition, all airlines have modified their schedules, offering less direct flights out of Houston.
  • Fly on your own schedule; depart whenever you want and manage any delays or itinerary changes more efficiently.
  • You can select the right aircraft for the right mission; Wing Aviation features the largest Texas based Jet Charter Fleet; offering light-jet, mid-size cabin to large cabin options. Depending on your passenger size and destination, we can find the aircraft for your travel needs.
  • Spend less time at the airport – no check-ins, no baggage claims, no TSA security checkpoints – be in the air in minutes! Wing Aviation utilizes fixed base operations, such as the Galaxy FBO at the Conroe North Houston Regional Airport (CXO). As a result, you can be up in air, from your home in The Woodlands to the clear skies within 30 minutes. U.S. Customs at the CXO Airport make international arrivals seamless.

    Wing Aviation’s Embraer Legacy 600 Large Cabin Private jet offers ample seating for 13 passengers, with a transcontinental range.

    Perhaps most enticingly, flying private allows you to have the entire aircraft to yourself! A Washington Post article outlined how the airlines lack space, comparing a Boeing 737 fuselage to a typical New York apartment. While the Boeing 737 has been around since the 1960s, and has now adapted many next generation technical capabilities, this popular single aisle domestic airliner confines passengers to less than seven square feet of space.

    Wing Aviation offers the largest Gulfstream Jet Fleet for charter in Texas. These ultra-long range private jets are capable of going anywhere in North America or Europe non-stop.

Overall, chartering a private jet (or owning one), provides the optimal peace of mind and flexibility for your travel needs; for the holidays, 2021 and beyond!

Visit to learn more about our Houston area private jet charter offerings.


Countdown to Giving: Day 7

Make Your Home A Showstopper for the Holidays

The holidays are all about bringing joy and warmth to the home. We strive to create an environment filled with gratitude and wonder that invites loved ones to feel at home.

Making your home a showstopper isn’t all about the tree. Adorn your mantles by arranging fresh cedar and plush roses. Not only will your home be filled with a warm festive scent of the holidays, it will also make a fresh and natural statement throughout the New Year.

Drape your stairways in cedar and magnolia garlands, bringing in that deep red or snowy white from roses that make you long for a cozy fire and warm hot chocolate.

Veer from the usual and enhance your décor with the fresh earthy tones of pine and evergreen around a white candle or clear hurricane. The glow will seem much cozier with fresh scents in the air and warm light illuminating every corner of your home.

From the living room to the powder bath, all spaces can feel natural and beautiful, creating scenes that you can enjoy throughout the entire winter season. Friends and family will sense and feel the warmth and love of your hospitable touch.

We wish you a warm and bright Holiday Season and the happiest of New Years and hope that all of your family and friends will feel the true warmth of your love and gratitude.

Donna’s Home Furnishings, 2 beautiful showrooms of collected finds for your home, and GIFTS for you and yours.
Donna’s Home Furnishings
Conroe Location: 5629 W. Davis St. Conroe, TX 77304
The Woodlands Location: 27702 I-45 N. The Woodlands, TX 77385


Countdown to Giving: Day 12

Staying Safe on the Road this Holiday Season &
The Top 10 Most Asked for Safety Features in an Automobile Today

Safety is top of mind now more than ever. When you and your family head out to your car for a road trip this holiday season, make sure to grab your mask, hand sanitizer and do a Road Ready Safety Check.

Safety Check:

  • Tires: Proper tire pressure equals better fuel economy, longer lasting tires and a safer, more comfortable ride. You can usually find the proper tire pressure for your vehicle in the Owner’s Manual or on the sticker located inside the driver’s door. If you’re driving to a cooler climate, keep in mind that dips in temperature can trigger a tire pressure warning light, because the air molecules inside the tire shrink in cold temperatures. A Tire Pressure Monitor Display can even tell you which tire is too low, making for a quicker maintenance stop.
  • Windshield wipers: Clean wipers give you a clean windshield. Old wiper blades can become dry and develop ragged edges, leaving behind streaks and blocking your view of the road, other vehicles and potential obstacles. Make sure to have them serviced at regular intervals, typically every six months and checked or replaced before a long trip.
  • Top off all fluids: Head to your dealership to make sure your vehicle is up to date on its oil change and maintenance program. If you are due for service soon, you may want to get it taken care of before you add too many more miles on your trip.

Be Road Ready:

  • Don’t forget to fill up with the correct fuel for your vehicle the night before your trip. Then you can rise and shine and hit the road!
  • Make sure you have any phone or tablet chargers and cords that you may need for connectivity on your journey.
  • Organize your music, playlists and audio books before you depart. Practice the voice commands that operate your infotainment system so you can easily “tune to” a radio station or say things like “launch Spotify” with your eyes on the road and hands on the wheel.
  • Have hand-wipes, napkins and tissues at the ready for any road trip snacks that you might not be able to resist.
  • For more tips on traveling during the pandemic we like this Consumer Reports article:

If you’re shopping for a new vehicle before your big trip check out these Top 10 Most Asked for Safety Features:

  1. Backup Camera: A must have on any vehicle for better visibility.
  2. 360 Camera Monitor System: Taking visibility to the next level, this advanced camera system lets you see all around the vehicle. This type of system uses cameras at the front and rear of the vehicle, but also under each side mirror for a birds-eye view. Very handy at high curbs, parking in tight spots or coming up behind another vehicle in heavy traffic.
  3. Parking Sensors with Auto Braking: Get notified by the system when you are too close to a solid object in range of the sensors, then get additional braking support to try to avoid the object.
  4. Blind Spot Monitor: Looks into the blind spot on both sides of the vehicle.
  5. Rear Cross Traffic Alert: Notifies the driver of rear crossing traffic when you are in reverse.
  6. Lane Keep Assist: Helps keep you in your lane and notify you if you have an unintended lane departure.
  7. Pre Collision System: Using cameras and sensors to engage advanced safety systems to mitigate a potential accident.
  8. Dynamic Radar Cruise Control: Set your speed and a following distance to have a more peaceful drive, even in Houston traffic.
  9. Apple Car Play*/Android Auto*: Connect popular apps and features like Siri or Google Assistant for calls, texting, entertainment and even navigation apps like Apple Maps, Google Maps and Waze right on your car’s multimedia display. (Phone and operating system specific).
  10. Easy to Use Voice Commands: Tune to radio stations, make calls, send texts, launch apps, set the temperature in your vehicle and even navigate to your next destination all with simple voice commands.

And don’t forget that BIG RED bow!

At Northside Lexus we have a wide range of new and pre-owned vehicles with some or all of these in-demand features and advanced technologies. Our state-of-the-art facility, located at 24222 Interstate 45 North in Spring, feels more like a resort or high end hotel than a car dealership. Shop with us in person or online from the comfort of your home. We will tailor the experience to your needs and take exceptional care of you and your family. Come experience AMAZING at Northside Lexus.

2422 Interstate 45 North
Spring, TX 77386

Fair Trade Market

Think of a product you purchased recently. Do you know where it was made, or by whom? Did you know everyday purchases can have a positive impact on the world? When we buy fair trade products, we are profoundly benefiting the lives of artisans and farmers around the globe who operate under fair trade principles while making their wares.

Fair trade products are handmade by artisans and farmers who are producing beautiful, high-quality goods including bags, jewelry, home goods, candles, scarves, ornaments, olive oil, coffee, chocolate, spices and a variety of items. Every product is unique and not mass produced. The purchase of a fair trade item allows one to form a link with the person who made it. The goods usually feature a handwritten nametag and sometimes even a picture of the artisan themselves. The Fair Trade Federation regulates the fair trade movement in North America; it creates opportunities intended to alleviate poverty by strengthening and promoting only organizations that are fully committed to complying with fair trade principles. The Federation ensures that farmers and artisans are compensated promptly and fairly for their hard work; it also safeguards the rights of children, respects their cultural identity, and promotes environmental stewardship.

Kristen Welch is a blogger and published author who has been a fair trade pioneer in our community. Ten years ago, she founded Mercy House, which funds a maternity home in Kenya, which rescues pregnant girls from extreme poverty through partnerships, teaching them sustainable, fair trade practices. Later, she opened Mercy House Global Market, a nonprofit fair trade retail store with two locations in The Woodlands. Here she is educating people about the differences between a fair trade product and something they purchase from a big box store.

“We see fair trade as a way to come alongside people without giving them a handout, it is more of a hand up, giving them an opportunity, by providing them jobs so they can solve their own problems,” commented Welch. When we purchase products that are made according to fair trade principles, we are empowering women and minorities, by purchasing affordable, high‑quality products. We are cutting out exploitative intermediaries who hold an unfair advantage over the vendors, thereby increasing the margins earned by these social enterprises, supporting their families and the wider community.

“Everything has a special story,” said Lisa Rose while describing some of the beautiful quilling crafts inside Hands of Faith, a nonprofit fair trade store located in the Lord of Life Lutheran Church. Rose is the Chair of the Hands of Faith Committee, and she leads the volunteer-only store that works with crafters and producers in over 30 countries. “Fair trade is a way of helping people in a way that is sustainable, giving them a skill and a sense of pride in being able to create something that someone would like to buy, not just because it is supporting a good ministry but because it’s an item people actually want to purchase,” she added.

Another store in The Woodlands is The Trading Co., a fair trade shop operated by The Woodlands Church. Caroline Shook, a store representative and active member of the congregation, emphasized the importance and honor they feel being able to serve the community locally and internationally through their store. “We want to make sure that the fair trade vendors we work with have the core beliefs that we share, that they are faith-based, that our missions align. We want to love the artisans even if we don’t have direct contact with them,” Shook remarked.

These local options allow one to buy with purpose, to give back, by shopping for gifts or themselves. “I think people primarily are compassionate; they want to be a part of making a difference when purchasing things that help people. They just don’t necessarily know how to find them or source them,” mentioned Welch. Every purchase makes a difference because, through the collective efforts, it fuels entrepreneurship and provides stability and well-being to entire families and their surrounding communities. Every time one picks a fair trade item, it is a step towards the eradication of global poverty, and we contribute to increased global equality.

Article by: Ana Beatriz Priego

Staying Safe in the Texas Sun

Staying Safe in the Texas Sun


Sunscreen Tips to Stay “Sun Safe”

Sunlight is a part of our everyday summer, spring & fall life here in Texas, and I always recommend protective clothing and sunscreen on a daily basis. Here are some tips for this important skincare step that can help prevent brown spots, sun damage, deeper wrinkles and skin cancer.


What level of SPF should I use?

Make sure that your sunscreen is broad spectrum with transparent zinc oxide. This ensures that you protect against ultraviolet radiation from the sun (which includes ultraviolet A and ultraviolet B.) The American Academy of Dermatology recommends a minimum of SPF 30 for daily use. SPF 30 blocks 97% of ultraviolet rays (UVB) and SPF 50% blocks 98%, so SPF 30 is sufficient.

SPF stands for sun protection factor. It tells you how long the sun’s UV radiation would take to redden your skin when using the product exactly as directed versus the amount of time without any sunscreen. So ideally, with SPF 30 it would take you 30 minutes longer to burn than if you were not wearing sunscreen.


How much sunscreen should I use and how often to reapply? 

To get the full broad spectrum of protection of your sunscreen, it is recommended that you apply one ounce of sunscreen (about a shot glass full) all over your body. Reapplication every 2 hours is recommended, especially if you are outside all day.


Who needs to use sunscreen?

Everyone! Men, women and children over 6 months of age should use sunscreen every day. This includes people who tan easily and those who do not; your skin is damaged by sun exposure over your lifetime, whether you burn or not.


What is the difference between chemical and physical sunscreens?

Chemical sunscreens work like a sponge, absorbing the sun’s rays. They contain one or more of the following active ingredients: oxybenzone, avobenzone, oxtisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and octinoxate.  Physical sunscreens work like a shield, sitting on the surface of your skin and deflecting the sun’s rays. They contain the active ingredients zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide.  I generally recommend the physical sunscreens as they are safer for the environment, better for sensitive skin and provide a great barrier to the harmful UV rays.

When should I apply sunscreen?

Every day! The best practice is to apply 30 minutes before going outside to allow the sunscreen to adhere to your skin. Reapply after every 2 hours of sun exposure and immediately after swimming or excessive sweating.  Even when it is cloudy, up to 80 percent of the sun’s UV radiation reaches earth. Thus, going unprotected on an overcast day can lead to skin damage.


How can I protect my baby from the sun? 

Ideally, parents should avoid exposing babies younger than 6 months to UV rays. The best way to protect infants is to keep them in the shade as much as possible, and by wearing sun protective clothing. However, if sunscreen needs to be used, physical sunscreens containing zinc oxide formulated for infants will cause less irritation.


What type of sunscreen should I use?

The one that you will use! But, to further answer that question, make sure it offers broad spectrum protection and is at least SPF 30. If you are swimming, opt for one that is water-resistant (but you still need to reapply after 2 hours).

Available sunscreen options include lotions, creams, gels, ointments, wax sticks, and sprays.  If you use a spray, make sure that the product is widely used and recommended to ensure they are safe and effective. Current FDA regulations on testing do not apply to spray sunscreens.


What is UPF?

Ultraviolet protection factor is UPF, a label for clothing, hats, and fabrics that offer protection against UV rays. A shirt labeled UPF 50 allows 1/50th of the UV radiation to reach your skin.  There are many new fabrics that offer high tech protection and breathability, too.  Also, wearing UV blocking sunglasses to protect your eyes and the skin around them help as well.

Vitamin D and Sun Protection

While a small amount of Vitamin D can be obtained from exposure to the sun’s UV radiation, the health risks of UV exposure, including skin cancer are great. The Skin Cancer Foundation advises for one to get their Vitamin D from items such as fish, fortified dairy products and cereals, and supplements.


Do not forget to live a “Sun Safe” life and use sunscreen, sun protective clothing and seek shade, but still enjoy this Texas summer!


Content provided by Dr. Anita Gill, The Gill Center for Plastic Surgery and Dermatology. Dr. Anita Gill is certified by the American Board of Dermatology and earned her medical degree from Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in New Orleans, LA, which is linked to the world-famous Charity Hospital. She earned a prestigious dermatology residency at the Texas Medical Center at the University of Texas at Houston and the world-renowned MD Anderson Cancer Center. She served as a chief resident in her final year of training. Before her residency, Dr. Anita Gill authored numerous publications during her research year in Dermatology. Together, with her husband, Dr. Paul Gill, a board certified plastic surgeon, they own The Gill Center for Plastic Surgery and Dermatology where they focus on quality and comprehensive cosmetic plastic surgery and dermatology.

Crew in The Woodlands

Long known as the domain of male Ivy Leaguers, the sport of rowing has enjoyed a surge in popularity in recent years as training programs and facilities have become more widely accessible. You’ve probably seen the boats gliding across Lake Woodlands: long, skinny things with two, four, sometimes eight rowers pulling lengthy oars in unison so gracefully, it looks easy.

It is not easy. Rowing at the competitive level is described as a footrace that begins with a 500-meter sprint, settles into running as fast as you possibly can for 1,500 meters, and finishes with another 500-meter sprint.

Enthusiasts praise rowing for the full-body benefits. Back, glutes, hamstrings, quads, shoulders, biceps, lungs—they all get a workout. Balance, core stability, body strength and cardio endurance are the much-desired benefits. Not to mention the camaraderie of a team, Saturday regattas, and the possibility of a lifelong pursuit.

The Woodlands Rowing Club was first on the scene in 1989. Jim and Dee Hotop took over as directors after moving to The Woodlands in 2011. Dee suggests the only true requirement for potential rowers is the ability to swim. Though rowers are trained to stay in the boat, on occasion swimming is necessitated.

“We’re proud of our all-ages, all-levels program. There’s a place for everyone at The Woodlands Rowing Club,” Dee Hotop says. They should be proud! The club is 29-years-strong and still growing its recreational, competitive, and masters programs. Rosters for TWRC off-campus PE programs for CISD students and summer camps are also increasing. For rowers wanting to compete, Hotop stresses, “We don’t turn anyone away. We’re always looking for new talent. Always looking to grow our teams.”

It’s a commitment, for sure. Junior teams practice year-round, five days a week, with regattas some Saturdays. The results, however, cannot be ignored. TWRC has produced collegiate rowers for the likes of University of Texas, University of Massachusetts and West Point.

“Still, we’re very careful with our athletes. We want them happy and healthy,” she stresses. “It’s how we help them reach their goals. That’s our purpose. If we win races and acquire scholarships in the process, that’s great, but we help our members and students in so many other ways, too.” Ways like tenacity, confidence, teamwork—and fun.

Parati Competitive Rowing is the newest rowing club in The Woodlands. Mike and Jan Rosman established Parati in 2012 as a highly competitive, juniors-only club. In just six years, this club has qualified a staggering 39 boats to compete at the US Rowing Youth National Championship, including two bronze medal wins in 2018. After all, their motto is “paratus enin vitae,” which is Greek for ‘prepared for life.”

Students (grades 8–12) interested in rowing may take advantage of a free learn to row session at Parati. If hooked and ready to excel, they are invited to join a first-year novice team. JV and Varsity teams follow.

Jan doesn’t sugarcoat the commitment. “The training is rigorous: six days a week, forty-eight weeks a year; but that’s what it takes to develop world-class athletes.” Balance, however, is also key. “We’re together a lot, so we make it fun with lots of social activities and community service. Hard work is easier when you’re in the company of friends,” Jan stresses. “The whole development of our kids is our passion, our calling, our heart.”

That dedication is the bedrock on which collegiate rowers are built. Parati athletes have gone on to crew for the University of Texas, Duke, MIT, Boston University, Dartmouth, Villanova, Berkley and the Naval Academy, to name a few.

Both clubs gush over the contribution Woodforest Bank has made to their success. In 2017, Woodforest funded a boathouse at Northshore Park to be shared by The Woodlands Township, The Woodlands Rowing Club and Parati to store their equipment inside.

Rowing is a fulfilling sport that offers a full-body workout. Whether you’re looking to join a team or just do it on your own time, The Woodlands is a great place to discover a new passion.

One Lucky Mom

When I was asked to write about my career and life as a “working mom”, I realized it would be the first time I had ever really reflected on the past 14 years working as a dentist, and the past 11 years being a mom!

I was raised by a working mom who had a career in nursing for over 25 years. Being married to a pilot, she also had to balance taking care of my brother and me while working full time. She was the perfect example of a mom who dedicated so much of her time helping children as a nurse while also being an attentive and present mom. I know I fall WAY short of balancing life the way she did, but I am so grateful to have her to lean on when I have struggled with the balance.

People ask me all the time why I chose to be a dentist, and for me, I was fortunate to know dentistry was the career path I wanted to pursue as I entered Texas A&M. Always excelled at science, dentistry seemed to combine both science and art, by improving one’s smile. It also wasn’t a coincidence that I chose a career where you could work part time or full time quite easily. I knew at some point I wanted to have a family, but I also never envisioned myself not having a career.

Following graduation from dental school, I was an associate dentist for many years. I was blessed to get to work in two different offices for two amazing women who also had established successful practices while both raising children. Dr. Huet and Dr. Andersen were amazing mentors to me in the first few years out of school, and they still are! This was also when my husband Victor and I started our family. Working with other dentists for over 8 years allowed me the flexibility to spend more quality time with my kids without the added pressures of running a business as well as managing a large team. It is definitely a choice I don’t regret.

Working all day, coming home to two small kids, finally getting them to sleep, and only seeming to have 5 quiet minutes before bed was definitely an adventure! Looking back on those years, I do sometimes wonder how I balanced it all! I know it was a team effort.

Even in the past few years, I have made a conscious effort to better prioritize my obligations at work. I am blessed to have a husband who is off the Richter scale, in my opinion, for being a strong support for me. Since Victor is able to help manage our business, it allows me the flexibility now to only work 3 days a week and gain more quality time with our kids.

Sometimes in life, God throws you curveballs and you are given opportunities to really reflect on your choices and re-calibrate your priorities to make those hard decisions. For me, that came about through the tragedy of losing our best friend, Dr. Vance LeCrone, almost 4 years ago from a sudden heart attack. Vance lived here in The Woodlands and had established a very successful orthodontic practice through the years. We often would meet together after work with our families over a margarita and compare work stresses of managing our patients or office that day. After his passing, I know many of our friends’ reflected on their work/life balance. It was a tragic reminder that LIFE IS SHORT, and our loved ones could be gone in a moment.

Living in a successful community, it can be easy to get caught up trying to excel in your career. I can promise you Vance would not wish he had done a few more orthodontic cases, but he would value every moment he had with his wife and kids – that is something I reflect on often.

I know I do not have it all figured out and probably never will! However, I do have an encouraging family, best friends who stand by me, and a career I truly love – I would say I am one lucky mom.

Dr. Carrie Muzny DDS, FAGD, graduated from Texas A&M University with a degree in Biology and received her DDS degree from the University of Texas- Houston Dental School in 2004. Dr. Muzny has a passion for learning and was awarded the Fellowship in the Academy of General Dentistry (FAGD), recognizing her dedication to completing over 500 hours of extensive continuing education courses. She is the owner of Carrie Muzny DDS & Associates located in the center of Market Street, where they focus on advanced dental techniques and comprehensive dental care for the whole family. In her spare time, she enjoys traveling and spending time with her husband and two children.

Valentine’s Date Night In

A Homemade Recipe for Romance

I love to dress up and enjoy a delicious restaurant meal just as much as almost anyone I know and a decadent date night out is a treat my husband and I enjoy whenever we can. But, over the years, I’ve come to really value the intimacy and sincerity that a thoughtful, homemade meal at home by candlelight alone with your sweetheart can offer, especially on Valentine’s Day! Fewer distractions, no one is watching, time for actual conversation, and you can even eat in your PJs if you want! Cooking and entertaining is definitely a love language of mine as well as a way to unwind at the end of a long day. But even if you aren’t ready for your debut on “Top Chef,” a date night in doesn’t have to be daunting and can actually be a lot of fun! Our dining room table is my favorite restaurant in town, and yours can be too! All it takes is a little planning and creativity, so get your aprons ready and let’s get cooking!
When thinking about what makes a great romantic dinner at one of my favorite restaurants, a few things come to mind:

1. The company you are keeping (duh!),
2. A meal filled with a variety of tastes and flavors to tickle your taste buds
3. Nice ambiance
4. A pretty presentation for the food

For me, an appealing and satisfying meal is just as much about what is not on the plate as it is about what is. Somehow, if the “feel” of the night is on par, the food tastes better to me. A meal can be so much more than a quick nutrition fill up and if you are going to take the time to make it, take the time to savor each bite! Use this date night in as an excuse to slow down the rapid pace and live a little. For extra touches, I’m adding a nice linen table cloth, flowers, candles and some Valentine’s Day decorations to make my table extra festive! You don’t need to spend a lot of money to do this—grocery store flowers, a vase from home and some arts and crafts décor that even your kiddos can make provides some ambiance and a family activity for your kids. Cut out paper hearts on origami or wrapping paper that can be spread around the table with love notes on the back to brighten your day! If you want to go all out, whip out your best china, silver and crystal that all good Southern girls registered for but are often hesitant to use because it’s work to clean and heaven forbid anything breaks! Fine china was made to be used for special occasions just like this! Don’t have fancy china? Skip it and just use your everyday tableware. (Just no Chinet and Solo cups, please!).

Now let’s talk menu! When I think Valentine’s Day, I think of a steak dinner with a few courses finished with a decadent chocolate dessert served with some good wine or your favorite cocktail and that’s amore, folks!
Multiple courses might seem overwhelming to the average cook, especially when you are talking about just cooking for two. So, what I want to do is give you a few “jump starters” to mix in with your main recipes to create maximum flair without a lot of effort. The rest is just a little prep work that can be done ahead of time to make sure everything runs smoothly—called mise en place–a French word phrase that means “everything in its place. This means having all your ingredients measured, cut, peeled, sliced, and grated before you start cooking. Pots and pans are out and ready. Mixing bowls and tools you need are at arms’ length and the oven is pre-heated. It is a technique top restaurant chefs use to assemble meals quickly and effortlessly in the restaurant, and it works! Most of the meals I make, even the ones my husband thinks are really “fancy,” only take 20-30 minutes to cook—max. If the longest part of the meal prep is pre-heating the oven, it’s on my go-to list. Have your honey help you set everything out to lighten the load. Pre-heat your oven to the desired temp to get it ready before you prep the first course and you’ll be ready to go!

On the Menu Tonight

First Course

Amuse-Bouche, this French word literally means “mouth amuser” and is meant to be just a bite or sip of something to tease your taste buds for the rest of the meal without filling you up too much …it’s really a fancy word for a one-bite appetizer, but way more fun to say!

Carrot Ginger Soup Shot and Mini Grapefruit Mint Salad served with Champagne
Lots of flavors with hints of spice, citrus and a little sweetness—and time to pop the bubbly, of course.
Here comes my first “jump starter”—
Carrot Ginger Soup
Ingredients and Tools:
Small container of Carrot Ginger Soup from Hubbell and Hudson Kitchen
Two shot glasses
Microwave or a small pot to warm it on the stove
Find a store-bought/restaurant soup you love and get a small container to go the night before. Right before you serve the course, Heat it in a small pan on the stove or heat up the soup in the microwave. Watch it to make sure it doesn’t bubble over. Pour a shot of soup into a shot glass and serve.

Mini Grapefruit Mint Salad
Tools and Supplies:
A small ramekin or bowls for salad
A sharp knife for grapefruit and mint chiffonade
Cutting board
Spoon for honey
A few fresh sprigs of mint, chiffonade
Half of a juicy ruby red grapefruit
A spoonful of honey

Cut grapefruit in half. Wrap up and save one half for breakfast the next morning and then peel the second half with a knife, cutting off most of the white pith so that you have the juicy part exposed. Cutting in between the skin on each segment, cut out about 4-5 segments for each person and then squeeze the remaining shell to get about a ¼ cup of juice in a bowl. Add a tablespoon of honey and stir to combine. Take two sprigs of mint and pull off the leaves. Stack the leaves on top of each other and roll together tightly like a little cigar. Using a sharp knife, cut along the length of the mint roll to make tiny ribbons of mint—this is called “chiffonade”. Mise en place time–The grapefruit sections and grapefruit honey dressing can be made ahead of time and kept in fridge over night to cut down on prep time but cut the mint fresh within an hour of the meal and keep it in a small container in the fridge so that it stays a nice bright green for sprinkling on top.

Second Course

Roasted Beet and Goat Cheese Ravioli with a Sage Walnut Brown Butter Sauce
Delicious purply pink pillow of cheese filled pasta served with a fast, but elegant sage walnut brown butter sauce—Heaven on a plate! Don’t like beets or goat cheese? No problem. Find another pre-made ravioli flavor you like. The sauce will taste just as good, I promise!

Tools and Supplies:
Small/medium pot for ravioli
Small skillet
Cheese grater

Jump starter #2: Roasted beet and goat cheese ravioli (find them at Whole Foods in the refrigerated cheese case—they have lots of options and there are even some gluten free versions)
Fresh sage—5-6 leaves
Handful of walnut halves
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter (don’t think about it, just do it)
Freshly grated parmesan Instructions:
Place walnuts in a small dry skillet. Turn heat to medium low and roast, moving around about 5-7 minutes. Be careful not to burn them. Once 7 minutes is up, remove walnuts to a paper towel. Make sure your pot of water for raviolis is filled and on the stove—you just need a small pot and about 2 cups of water—just enough to cover the raviolis. Bring water to a bowl. Turn skillet up to medium heat and add butter. Butter may start to bubble after a few minutes. Once it does, turn the heat down just a bit so it won’t burn, but just turns a little brown—“brown butter”. Toss the walnuts back in and then pluck a few leaves of sage off the stems and toss them whole into the melted butter—they will sizzle like they are frying. Turn heat off and remove from stove immediately. When water starts to boil, prepare the raviolis according to instructions making sure not to leave them in too long. They are done when they start to puff up and float to the top—usually about 4-5 minutes. Use a slotted spoon or strainer to drain off excess water. Transfer them to individual plates for serving—it’s ok if a little of the pasta water gets in there; it will just add to the sauce. When sauce is finished, divide brown butter sauce between the two plates, making sure to get some of the toasted walnuts and fried sage on each serving. Top with a light sprinkling of freshly grated parmesan, add salt and pepper to taste and voila!

Main Course

Filet Mignon and Roasted Balsamic Asparagus topped with Truffle Butter
This is your splurge and will likely be where the bulk of your grocery bill will come from. You may think it sounds like a lot at the store, but just remember that it would be at least twice as much at a restaurant and this tastes just as good—if not better!
Tips for buying meat—I always look for organic grass-fed beef whenever possible. The price tag is higher, but you will taste the difference and it’s better for you. Meat should be red—if it looks a little brown, skip it—that means it’s been sitting out a while.
Tools and Supplies:
Heavy cast-iron skillet or a heavy bottom oven safe skillet with sides.
Mini-steak buttons from Sur La Table (in store at Market Street or available online; $19.95 for a set of 4); these will be your new best friends for beef
Knife for trimming asparagus
Cutting board (you can use the same one you used for mint chiffonade)
Small cookie sheet with foil for asparagus
Tongs to flip and serve filets
Steak knives

2 filets (I usually get an 8-12 oz. for hubby depending on how hungry he is and a 6-8 oz. for me)
Truffle Butter—I get mine from HEB but you can find it online
Kosher Salt and Freshly cracked black pepper
Bundle of asparagus, trimmed
Good Olive Oil and Balsamic Vinegar—about 1 Tbsp of each

While your pasta course is cooking, place your cast-iron skillet on the stove and turn on to medium high heat. The purpose of starting the filets on the stove is to sear each side to give it a crust and then they are finished off in the pre-heated oven. (425degrees) Take your filets out of the fridge and season both sides with salt and pepper and place on a plate before you start your first course. It’s not long enough to hurt it, but it’s best to cook meat when it is not straight out of the fridge. You can actually also trim your asparagus ahead of time when you are prepping your herbs.
Once skillet is hot, gently place filets in with tongs and then let them sizzle. Resist the urge to try to move them around. In order to get that crust, they need to stay in one place. They are ready when you can easily lift it with the tongs without it sticking—usually about 4-5 minutes. Flip and sear the other side. While steaks are cooking, place asparagus spears on a small lined cookie sheet. Lightly drizzle with olive oil and balsamic vinegar (don’t go too crazy—you just need a little) and add salt and pepper. Use your tongs to toss asparagus so they are coated. Place them in pre-heated oven on middle rack. When other side of filets is ready (about another 5 minutes), remove from heat and insert steak buttons in each filet. They need to go through to the middle—bottom middle of the steak to accurately read the temp, but not all the way through. Transfer the steaks to the oven and set the timer for 7 minutes on top rack. Now, how long the steaks cook after the 7 minutes is up to you—the steak buttons will tell you when they are medium rare, medium, medium well, so just watch carefully until the desired temp is achieved. Want yours medium rare and your sweetie wants medium well—just remove the rare steak when the button reads medium rare (in the middle of the temp range) and then place it on a plate wrapped in foil until the other is almost ready. Watch asparagus while steaks are cooking. When spears start to wither a little, they are ready to come out. Using the foil, wrap around the spears to keep them warm until steaks are ready. When steaks are at desired temp, remove them from the oven. Use tongs to help you remove the steak buttons from steaks. Have your truffle butter ready and top each filet with a small pat. Transfer steaks and asparagus to your dinner plates and serve.

Final course

Dessert – Hope you saved some room!
Some Like it Hot Carmel Brownies served a la mode with Vanilla Bean Ice Cream
This is another jump starter—I’m a big fan of taking good pre-made items and “zhushing it up” to make it a little more special.
Now, if you can stand to make these the day before and NOT eat them or have anyone else in your house eat them, that is your best bet here!
Tools and Supplies:
Glass baker 8×8 or disposable aluminum brownie baker with lid
Non-stick cooking spray (baking kind or coconut oil is best)
Knife to cut brownies into squares or a large heart shaped cookie cutter to stay in theme
Pre-packaged brownie mix–My favorite is the Ghiradelli Double Chocolate Brownie mix
My zhushers:
1 Tbsp. vanilla extract
2 tsp. cayenne pepper
1 Tbsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. kosher salt

Chocolate covered caramel candies—I use Ghiradelli Chocolate covered caramels.
Prepare brownie mix according to instructions. Before pouring into baking container, add in zhushers (minus caramel candies) and mix well. Pour batter into a non-stick sprayed container reserving a little to pour on top. Add in caramels spacing them throughout container pushing them down into batter as much as you can. Pour remaining batter on top and spread evenly. Place brownies in pre-heated oven and bake for designated time (according to mix). Remove and let cool slightly before cutting. Serve with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. If you make these the day before, leave them covered with foil on your kitchen countertop so that they stay at room temperature. You can pop them in the oven (turn oven off) after you remove the steaks to warm them back up a little before serving.

I hope you enjoyed these recipes and test them out with your sweetheart soon! Remember, it’s not about everything being perfect. It’s about enjoying a night with someone you love and making memories!
Stay tuned for more entertaining and cooking tips coming soon!