Thursday, December 31, 2009

New Years Eve Dinner: French Onion Soup and Bacon-Gruyere Panini


Tonight's dinner turned out so yummy that the dishes aren't even cleared from the table yet, and I'm already writing it up.

For the soup:
Ingredients
  • 2 Tbsp salted butter*

  • 5 medium yellow onions, thinly sliced

  • 1/2 tsp dried thyme

  • 1 cup baby bella mushrooms, coarsely sliced (optional)

  • 3 Tbsp balsamic vinegar

  • 4 cups low sodium beef broth

  • 1 bay leaf

  • salt and pepper

*If using unsalted butter, add 1/4 tsp salt with the onions in step 1.

Directions
  1. In a medium stockpot, melt the butter over medium heat.

  2. Add the onions and thyme, and cook, stirring occasionally, until carmelized. This will take about 20-30 minutes. The onions should be much smaller and a dark brown color (but not burned.

  3. Add mushrooms, if using, towards the end of the carmelization.

  4. Deglaze the stockpot with the balsamic vinegar, scraping to loosen as much of the fond on the bottom of the pan as possible. Cook until it no longer smells vinegary (3-4 minutes).

  5. Add beef broth and bay leaf. Simmer 20-30 minutes until hot. Adjust salt and pepper to taste.

  6. Serve hot, with the panini on the side. Serves 4.


For the panini:
Ingredients
  • 6 slices thick-cut bacon

  • 10 slices thin sandwich bread (I used a multigrain)

  • 8 ounces Gruyere cheese, grated

  • 2/3 cup mayonnaise

  • 1/2 cup sliced green onions

  • 2 tsp Old Bay Seasoning

Directions
  1. Heat panini press according to directions. If you don't have a panini press or a stove-top grill pan, then heat a non-stick frying pan over medium heat, and consider buttering the bread (for the panini, I did NOT use butter)

  2. Cook bacon till crispy (in a frying pan, oven, however you normally cook bacon). Drain on paper towels.

  3. In a medium mixing bowl, combine the grated cheese, mayonnaise, onions, and seasoning.

  4. For each sandwich, add about 1/2 cup of cheese mixture and top with bacon. With my bread, I ended up with 5 sandwiches. Your mileage may vary.

  5. Toast panini on the press until the cheese is melted and the bread is toasted, about 5-6 minutes.

  6. Serve hot with french onion soup. Makes 5 sandwiches, but only serves 4 people. :)


--
Notes: Yes, I got a new toy. A panini maker. Technically, a griddle/grill/waffle maker/panini maker. And in the spirit of my new things from this year, tonight's dinner counted twice. This was my first ever attempt at making French Onion Soup (it was easy!!), and first time making a panini. So far, we've used the new toy 4 times this week: grilled porkchops, grilled steaks, waffles, and now Bacon Gruyere Panini. I have yet to break in the griddle plates.

Oh yes, and if you were counting bacon slices in that panini recipe and wonder where I learned to count, congratulations. You get to eat the extra slice of bacon next time around. It was yummy too.

---
Credit where credit is due: I based the panini recipe from a Deluxe Grilled Cheese Sandwiches recipe from our local grocery store for the panini recipe. Their version called for thick cut sourdough bread and lots more butter. My way was sufficiently rich.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The House

Saturday the four of us made a gingerbread house together. Cute, huh?

Charlotte had been asking to make one of these for a few weeks, so I picked up a kit. I have a wonderful gingerbread cookie recipe, but it makes deliciously soft cookies. Definitely not structural. And by the time we would have bought half a dozen kinds of candy, we were better off with a kit.

Doing this with a 5-year old and 2-year old was fun and frustrating. Trystan insisted on doing everything himself. Charlotte wanted half of the decorating done by us grownups, but to her specifications. And my husband spent about twenty minutes perfecting all of the wall and roof edges with a plastic knife so that we would be able to put the pieces together (a habit from days of assembling model kits when he was a kid, I suppose).

In the end, the house went up, got decorated. Half of the decorations are annoyingly precise and detailed, thanks to my husband (I say 'annoyingly' because I don't have the patience for that kind of work, not because I don't appreciate the end result. The mound of gumdrops by the front door are actually 4 hand-carved gumdrop people--2 tall, 2 short, all clasping their gumdrop hands in a joyful circle. I'd have just bought gummy bears.). The other half of the decorations are stuck on with thick layers of icing and little sense of proportion, pattern, or continuity, thanks to Charlotte and Trystan. I think I was mainly in charge of squeezing icing glue onto gumdrops and peppermint circles, and distributing sprinkles evenly amongst the children's workspaces.

Actually, Trystan mainly worked on the 6 "bonus" ornaments. 4 were snowmen and are hanging on our tree. The other two were tree-shaped, and the hanging holes got filled in with icing and candy. So they're now landscaping for the house.

As we were working on this project, I had a bit of foreshadowing, given the intensity with which we all worked on our parts. I bet that in 3 or 4 years, I'll be buying (or making) 4 separate gingerbread house kits so that each person may decorate and build his/her own house to his/her own specifications.

Maybe I need to find a new, structural, gingerbread recipe after all.

Monday, December 21, 2009

A Christmas Movie, or not

Saturday night I watched a movie that ended up being oh-so-timely for Christmas: Confessions of a Shopaholic.

Based on a series of books, the main character, Rebecca, is a young journalist in New York City, where she quickly learns the joys of shopping. And even more quickly shops herself into credit card debt. Her addiction nearly costs her a budding relationship with a man, her job (as a columnist for a money magazine), and her best friend.
You know that thing when you see someone cute and he smiles and your heart kind of goes like warm butter sliding down hot toast? Well that's what it's like when I see a store. Only it's better. --Rebecca Bloomfield in Confessions of a Shopaholic

The movie was cute. I have not read the Shopaholic books, though I suspect they are fun reads. I didn't expect it to make me think.

I'm not a shopaholic. No, that's not denial talking :) But like a lot of people, I think I could easily fall into that habit.

Its way too easy to attempt to buy yourself picture-perfect happiness with a little plastic card. Stores are designed to draw you in and to make the merchandise look appealing. And to make you feel you desperately need something you never knew you wanted.

I fully admit that when I get unhappy about something going on in my life, I frequently go shopping. My husband and I laugh about the time when he bought a new car (his Bonneville). At the time, we had some miscommunication about whether and how and why we were saving money, and I was not happy that he had decided that he needed a new car. So I bought new living room furniture. Makes perfect sense, no?

Saturday afternoon, after a particularly annoying hunt for a specific gift for Charlotte that had me chasing from store to store to see who had it in stock, I was in a particularly strange mindset about shopping and money. On one hand, I've been feeling unable to stop myself from buying some things that we by no means need (a Christmas-y rug for the front door, a gingerbread house kit...). And on the other, I was resenting spending so much money and dreading paying it off this next month. I don't do credit card debt. Don't think I've intentionally needed pay interest on a credit card in years and years. Maybe a decade or more. Its a statement I hope to still be able to make in January, 2010.

So, during this season of economy stimulation, I watched with amusement, horror, and way too much familiarity as Rebecca gives herself up to clearance sales, designer sample sales, shuffling credit cards like a Vegas blackjack dealer. And Sunday, when we took the kids to the mall to see Santa (at Charlotte's request), it made it a little easier to ignore all of the cute clothes and 40% off sales tempting me form all sides. A little easier. And we won't discuss whether or not our kids left with a new Build-a-Bear each. (There was a coupon! Evil, evil Santa.)

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Easier than pie

I think I start most of my posts with a reaffirmation of my insanity. Why stop now?

Today is my office’s holiday potluck, and I’d signed up to bring a pie. I had planned to bake my chocolate pecan recipe last night, but then my evening plans changed suddenly and I wouldn’t have enough time for 20 minutes of stovetop time plus an hour in the oven (plus sleep).

My cupboards are perennially stocked with all manner of baking goods. If you have a dessert emergency, I am prepared. So, changing my dessert plan didn’t require a trip to any store. I quickly decided on a basic, from-the-box chocolate cake. And the absolutely easiest way to prepare a cake for a crowd is to do a sheet-cake. Served in the pan, with icing on top. Nothing fancy.

I tried. I really tried. I even began extracting my 9x13 pan from the stack of casserole dishes. But I just couldn’t. No, the dish was not stuck. The problem was me, not my cabinet organization.

When I have a cupboard full of fancier pans—-choo choo trains, snowmen, cupcakes (mini, normal, and "Texas-sized"), round, square, heart--I can’t make just a big plain rectangle. Even for work.

Insanity.

I used my bundt pan, which is almost as easy as a big plain rectangle, but looks fancier. And it isn’t a layer cake, so doesn’t require as much work to ice it. I also had some leftover homemade peppermint white chocolate icing (what, you don’t just keep this stuff around?). By "leftover", I mean that I used about 3/4 of the batch on cookies about twenty minutes earlier, in preparation for a cookie exchange (also at the office today), to make Peppermint Sandwich Cookies*.

So, once the cake was cool, I warmed the peppermint icing up just enough to make it runny and poured it over the cake. Then crushed 2 candy canes and sprinkled them on top. Perfect. Fancy looking, but a total of about 10 minutes of active work (the stand mixer does most of the hard part, and there’s practically no measuring since it’s from a mix).

Maybe I'm not entirely insane. Just obsessive. Or is there a difference?



*Note on the cookies: I added about 1/2 cup powdered sugar to the filling recipe because mine just would not thicken even after spending the night in the fridge. With the sugar and about 2 minutes with the whisk in the stand mixer, I had a fluffier, icing-like filling for my cookies. And since I used salted butter in the cookie part (and had added the full amount of salt called for in the recipe), I think the extra sweetness was a good thing.

Monday, December 14, 2009

11 days

The Christmas tree is up. The dining room table looks like a dining room table and not an oversized junk drawer. The carpets have been vacuumed. It was a productive weekend.

I hope that the crazy-busy part of our holiday season is over. After a week-long vacation, followed by an additional weekend away, then a dance recital and a grownup holiday party and a school Christmas program, I feel like the rest of the lead-up to New Years is smooth sailing. Maybe that’s because I don’t yet know what all is going on over the next two weeks.

Maybe I’m speaking too soon, since I have cookies and a pie to make before our office Christmas party tomorrow, and Char’s classroom Christmas party to attend on Thursday. And we have 50 cards to address and mail. And buy stamps for. And do any of those 50 people really want a letter? Or will a nice photo card do?

But after all that’s done, what is left? Char wants to go see Santa Claus, so I guess a trip to the mall is in store. And Christmas shopping? Well, we’re in better shape than most years. It’s just that for some reason, I see toys everywhere that would be perfect for Trystan. And I have no idea what to get Charlotte. I’m sure she’ll give Santa some good ideas, though. Instead of selling overpriced photos with the man in red, they should sell soundbytes of the kids’ conversations.

Anyway, I think that I should be a lot less hurried the next two weeks than I felt the last two. I don’t know why, since my to-do list seems as long as ever. Maybe waking up to a glowing Christmas tree helps (I love light timers…ours is set to turn on in the evenings, and come back on at 6 in the morning to cheer us at breakfast).

What about you? Will you be sliding into Christmas Day or coasting?

Friday, December 11, 2009

Why does this room look lopsided?

It is entirely possible that I am insane. Or that I own too much furniture.

That would be an inclusive "or".

I think part of the reason that I get grumpy about Christmas decorations is that they require so darned much work. I have to practically remodel the house every December, and then put it all back again come January.

All I want is to put up the Christmas tree. I'm not attempting to display the 3-foot wide Santa sleigh, or the thigh-high wooden Rudolph with the lights, or the Santa bear that still stands several inches taller than my youngest child. Just the tree.

And yes, we probably own too much furniture for our space. There was a short period of time when we owned just the right amount. That period ended abruptly in August of 2004 when our perfect space had to re-arrange to fit a baby swing, cradle, pack-n-play, and other assorted baby items. Our family room has never been the same since.

Of course, if you look at the room these days, it is full of the echoes of laughter and tickle-fests, of boo-boos and tantrums and chase games. And toys. It's worth having to give up my perfectly-proportioned glass-inlaid coffee table so that Thomas the Train can chug along in front of the couch. And it's worth having to roll up the rug--the one that compliments our sofas and drapes so beautifully--to make room for the Disney Dance Dance Revolution. And Rock Band--with Trystan on drums and Charlotte belting out eighties metal ballads.

All of the fun makes it harder every year to re-arrange things to make room for the tree. And if you've ever seen just how hard a two-year-old can throw small objects, you'd understand why the decorative knick knacks stay safely stowed in their boxes. Its for the safety of all--human, furniture, and knick knack alike.

Tonight, I have to thank my husband for patiently moving couches, chairs, ottomans, tables, the sub-woofer, the rug, and the children back and forth across the family room, into and through the dining room, and back again so that we can make space. I think everything fits.

Maybe tomorrow we'll actually bring or Christmas tree out of hiding, er, storage.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Why I'm grumpy today

Why I'm grumpy today

I was the first to wake up yesterday, early enough yesterday to pack Charlotte a lunch and start dinner in the crockpot. Doing all that made me late for work.

Charlotte started yesterday by complaining about the white dress that I made her. I think it's cute. She thinks it's scratchy and hard to run in. I think I don't have time to either shop for or sew another one, so she's stuck with it for dress uniform days for now.

After work yesterday, I picked up Charlotte, went grocery shopping in the rain (with Char), picked up Trystan, unloaded groceries amidst whiny kids, finished making dinner, and tried to prepare Charlotte for Santa's possible arrival via fire department (she had to change out of the accursed white dress and into something that could go outside).

Last night, my husband came home much later than I expected, and would have been later still except I yelled at him. He thought I said I didn't have any reading to do for my critique group meeting. I thought I said I hadn't had time yet to do it. In either case, I needed him home before I left, and we snapped at each other.

Santa never showed. Too rainy I guess.

I was last to bed yesterday, and first up this morning.

I packed Charlotte a lunch, only to find out that she wanted the school lunch today. I was supposed to know this because there were tiny, black checkmarks on the printout of the lunch schedule next to the lunches she wanted. I couldn't find her lunch box either, but it didn't matter in the end.

Trystan was good and picked out his own clothes. But he picked out overalls that don't work well with his chosen sweatshirt, and aren't recommended for daycare because of potty training (he can't work the buckles on his own). So I had to fight him into sweatpants instead. He's scrappy.

Although I was up early, I still left the house fifteen minutes later than I intended, thereby arriving at work fifteen minutes later than I intended. Again.

Trystan made an extremely sad face as I was leaving this morning.

Tonight, after working all day and rushing to pick up Charlotte on time, I have to make dinner, put the kids to bed myself, and bake 4 dozen total cookies for two separate events the next two days. My husband gets an evening--and dinner--out with grown-up friends.

My workout time tomorrow is cancelled due to Char's dance recital. And I'll probably have to work late to make up time from the past couple of late mornings.

The moment I publish this post, my husband will be annoyed at me for venting about him. And we'll end up snapping at each other again.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Indianapolis

We had barely caught up with the laundry from our Thanksgiving trip when it was time to leave again.

We spent this past weekend in Indianapolis with my family, enjoying a family tradition: the Nutcracker. For the past five or so years, my youngest sister has danced in the Gregory Hancock Dance Theater’s Nutcracker. And if you expand that poster image, and think you notice a coincidental resemblance between yours truly (or at least my children) and the waif in the photo. Yep, that's my sister. Katie was Clara this year.

We are all so proud of her. My baby sis is a superb dancer, and could probably pursue a career in it if she chooses. If you're in Indy next year, check them out. The show every year is top-notch--this is NOT a kids dance recital, but a very professional, high-quality, tear-jerking show. Yes, tear-jerking. It's a contemporary Nutcracker that reinvents Clara as a street urchin, Drosselmeier as a homeless man, and the Nutcracker and Sugar Plum Fairy as parental figures in the end. Not the traditional music either, and honestly, you won't miss it.

This weekend was a big deal for the family. All of my sisters were in town (I'm one of 5, and we are spread across 4 states). My grandmother also flew out from Nebraska with one of my aunts and one of my cousins. There was a lot of blonde hair and a lot of blue eyes staying in the hotel just down the street from the theater. I had a great time seeing all my sisters--it's been almost two years since I've seen my Texas sister in person, and about a year since I've seen my Chicago sister.

We (adult sisters + cousin) went out Saturday night to a bar/blues club in downtown Indy called the Slippery Noodle Inn. Smoky, but fun. I was amused at the looks that we girls got--Imagine 5 20-30-something women, all blonde haired, blue eyed, blue jeans and black jackets walking through a bar together.

The bar itself was fun. The building is an old brownstone with a rich history (longest continually operating bar in the state of Indiana), and as recently as the 1950's operated as a brothel (yes, that was "19" and not "18"). I left for college at 17, so never actually experienced any of Indy's grown-up nightlife (trips home are usually full of visiting and kid-friendly activities). I had no idea this place even existed.

Now, time to relax and unpack for good. And catch up on laundry (again). And buy groceries. And take my black jacket to the cleaners to get rid of that stale cigarette smoke smell.

P.S.
I am almost ashamed that I didn't advertise the Nutcracker performances beforehand, but I have a now-ingrained aversion to sharing travel plans online. And showing off that my sister was starring in a dance in another state amounts to painting "Out of Town, Be Back Monday" on our front door. No, I don't think you are some crackpot who's going to break into my house while I'm gone. But you just never know.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Family Vacation: Side Trips

One of the worst parts of this year's vacation was the drive. It was also one of the best parts.

Fourteen hours plus in the car with whiny little ones grates on your nerves. You can pacify them with movies, but then the movies grate on your nerves instead. And the kids don't always agree on the movies (soon we shall enter the era of individual movies with headphones...soon...). Luckily, there are stops along the way.

This was the first trip in a long time where we've had the luxury of making stops. Not just quickie bathroom breaks, but actual visits to places. Its nice not to have a set schedule all the time.

On the way to Florida, we took our first major stop in Sikeston, MO at Lambert's Cafe. Its a kooky country restaurant where they serve enormous portions of food, throw the rolls, and servers walk around with extra freebies. My husband and I had been there a few times in college on roadtrips, but its been years. The place hasn't changed. That's a good thing, btw.

That evening, we had a second stop in Memphis. In search of a bathroom, I ended up driving us to the riverfront park just a few blocks from Beale Street. It was just before sunset and about 70 degrees. We used the port-o-potties (the park bathrooms were closed), and then spent about 45 minutes running and playing with each other in the wide-open grassy areas. Trystan counted boats on the river, and we watched a gorgeous sunset.

We stayed the night in Columbus, Mississippi, and took a wrong turn leaving town the next morning. Instead of cutting a diagonal across Mississippi, we ended up back on I-55, and cut through Jackson and Hattiesburg then to Mobile, and Pensacola. I enjoyed the changing scenery along the route, from cotton fields up in Alabama, to the pine tree forests through Mississipi, to the gulf views in Mobile and Pensacola.

On the way home, we started with a long, planned stop at the National Naval Aviation Museum. We did not get lucky enough to visit on a day when the Blue Angels were flying. But we had a blast walking through and touching hundreds of planes and helicopters, dating back to WWI and before. They also had a lovely aircraft-carrier-themed indoor playground for the kids, with slides and climbing.

Before we left the naval base, we stopped at a gazebo along the water to eat our lunch (pb&j sandwiches, made with the remains of the loaf of bread that we'd bought in Destin).

That night, we drove all the way back to Memphis, and stayed in the Days Inn at Graceland. It was actually one of the cheaper hotels along the route, and it was a fun stop. The rooms were nice, and they had free 24/7 Elvis movies, which the kids enjoyed in the morning before we left. The lobby was full of Elvis memorabilia, and there was an actress there who had co-starred with Elvis in one of the movies, offering to sign photos or posters. Actually, that part was kind of sad, because few people were talking to her, and it made me wonder how desperate a person has to be to bank on a 40-year old job to make a few bucks. We were also some of the only American-English speakers in the breakfast area--apparently Brits like to visit Elvis over Thanksgiving?

Alas, we did not stop at Graceland itself. We had too much laundry and unpacking to do at home so we could all get back to our normal lives. Maybe when the kids are bigger. Think I'll try to DVR a few Elvis movies to watch over Christmas, though--Char was fascinated.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Family Vacation: Turkey Day



Yes it is possible to cook a full Thanksgiving Dinner in a hotel. Ok, so the hotel room had a kitchen. No oven, but the place had a dishwasher and three times the counter space of our first apartment (not that that's saying much...). I thought I had a photo of the kitchen, but can't find it. From peeks at some of the other rooms, I gather that ours had one of the larger kitchens for a one-bedroom suite (the 2-bedrooms got ovens).

This was the most pre-packaged Thanksgiving meal I've cooked in over a decade. Stuffing from a box, cranberry sauce from a can, powdered mashed potatoes, and gravy from a jar. It turned out really well. I am a total food snob.

There are things I don't like about our countertop oven. One, it takes up counter space. Two, its not a toaster oven (it takes like 20 minutes to toast bread). And three, it is not a full-sized oven. But it is a convection oven that heats up some foods (like leftovers or frozen chicken nuggets) really fast, and it has a built-in rotisserie.


You guessed it. We rotisseried our turkey. With some basic spices, plus butter under the skin. It was good. Very good.


Ok, so I also burned a pumpkin pie in our nifty little oven. In my defense, the oven
was still heating up, and I know that the temperature is flaky when it starts going. And putting in two pies (it has two racks and can hold two full-size frozen pizzas at once) puts the top one really close to the heating element. We caught the charring crust early and wrapped the edges of both pies in foil. And the insides were tasty, even if the top was blackened.

I also had a small adjustment period in making pancakes. On the stove top. On a burner that heats super-fast, with a not non-stick pan that heats unevenly. With pancakes from a mix. Luckily, the box of mix was plenty big, so we could afford to throw away about the first 5 or 6 blackened flapjacks. The very first one actually smoked. Oops.

Besides the oven, we did bring a few things from home. Grill tools (which we didn't need--no grills on the property). Silicone oven mitts (I was thankful for those--the two tiny potholders provided were not sufficient). Oatmeal and brown sugar (breakfast basics that could also be part of an apple pie crumb top). Cinnamon, "poultry spice" (a freebie from my last trip to Penzeys, and we used it on the poultry!), kosher salt, pepper grinder. Two jars of home-canned apple pie filling, that we didn't end up using (the pumpkin pie took two crusts so we skipped the apple). A couple of knives and a sharpener, though the room turned out to have OK knives. Dishwasher safe kitchen shears (invaluable).

Once we got there, we bought nonstick foil, which was also invaluable in the kitchen all week, and a set of flexible plastic cutting mats. They provided a cutting board about the size of a greeting card, and I didn't think we could carve even a turkey breast on one of the dinner plates. And our set at home was getting kind of beaten up, so we brought them home with us.

I wish I'd packed a small bottle of olive oil--I sauteed shrimp in butter one night. It worked, but not as well as a real oil might have. And I wish I'd brought nutmeg and ginger for the pumpkin pie. Since I didn't have the right spices, I bought "pumpkin pie mix" which was pumpkin + spices + sugar and was a total rip-off over just pumpkin. Otherwise, we ate just fine with the convenience foods I avoid at home: jarred stir-fry sauce, boil-in-bag rice, "complete" pancake mix, etc.

But cooking-wise, it was a fun trip. I felt like I was camping every time I cooked a meal. No, I don't camp. Though hubby reminded me that we could run the mini-oven through the power adapter on the car, should we feel like trying it. I can see me now, baking a birthday cake from scratch to eat with our grilled steaks and fire-bake sweet potatoes. Maybe I should take up camping after all.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Family Vacation: The Beach in Fall


Average high temperature in Destin in late November: 67.
Average advertised beachwear shop discount: about the same.

You might wonder what there is to do in a beach town this time of the year. Actually, a lot. As long as you don't have your heart set on sweating at the beach all week.

There was very little sweat involved in our trip last week. Too little, actually. I am ashamed to admit that my workout clothes stayed neatly packed in my suitcase the entire time. Too busy sleeping, I guess.

I was wary at first of the weather. Last Monday, our first full day in Florida, was overcast and about 56 degrees. We had chosen a hotel with an indoor pool, though, which helped. We are also a family of sun-fearing ghostly people who blister at the slightest hint of ultra violet light. So the lack of hot beach weather was good for all of us, dermatologically speaking.

In addition to the indoor pool, we visited a handful of local parks (with play equipment), got personal service at an amusement park, colored lots of pictures, and built sandcastles. And went to Walmart. No family vacation is complete without one (usually multiple) trips to Wally World. Sad, I know. But where else can you buy size 4T jeans, laundry soap, a Thanksgiving turkey, a cutting board, and a 3-DVD set of The Santa Claus movies? Walmart has all the essentials covered for a happening vacation.


About that "personal service at an amusement park" thing. The place was so deserted last Wednesday that two of the attendants basically followed us around the kids area, turning each ride on for Trystan and/or Charlotte. There were more people playing mini-golf and a handful riding the go-karts (activities a little too advanced for us still), but we were the only schmucks lugging our kids on rides. No lines! It was heaven for the kids (and kind of peaceful for the adults!).

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Family Vacation: Packing


When preparing for our vacation, we didn’t pack the kitchen sink. Just the oven.

You might think I’m kidding, but when planning to make Thanksgiving dinner in a hotel room, it helps to have a little cooking power.

The room had a kitchenette, including a dishwasher, small fridge, a stove top, and a microwave. But it had no oven. So we packed ours. No, not the big one. The counter-top one that is just big enough for a pie or two, a pizza, a tray of chicken nuggets, or, hopefully, a turkey breast.

When we bought our new car, I was thrilled with the hauling capacity. But with suitcases for four for a week, plus a mini-oven, we had to forgo the cooler. The possibility of roast turkey was far more important than cold sodas.

The drive to Destin takes about 13 hours, so we planned to do it in two days each way. Maybe in a few years we could power through it all in one. Once everyone's potty trained and learns to sleep in the car instead of throw tantrums in it.

We made a smart decision on the way down to pack a single overnight bag of clothes for all 4 of us that we could bring in to the hotel, along with a toiletry bag, diaper bag, and any assorted electronics we didn't trust to leave in a parked car overnight. That definitely made check in and out simpler.

The kids also helped pack their own suitcases. For Charlotte, I gave her one item at a time ("3 short sleeved shirts") and let her choose from her closet and pile the things in her bag. That worked really well, except that I was sure I asked her to pack jeans and she didn't. Mid-week when the temperature was low and she had run out of long pants to wear, we ended up at Walmart buying a $10 pair of jeans and laundry detergent. For Trystan, I packed, and he added assorted clothes and socks from his closet. He had more long pants than the rest of us by the time we were done.

I am looking forward to the day I can hand each kid a bag, tell them to pack, and get back to my own checklist.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Miss me?

Sorry for the lack of posts recently. How was your Thanksgiving? Ours was great. We were on vacation.

Not visiting relatives, but an actual vacation. The first one since Trystan was born. The second since Char was born (though that last one involved a lot of relative-visiting, so it almost doesn't count).

Strange thing to do over Thanksgiving? Maybe. But it was nice :)

My husband and I took the kids to Destin, FL for the week. We stayed "at the beach" (in quotes for reasons I'll explain later). It is not beach season down there--the daily highs ranged from 60-72 the whole week. The place we stayed had an indoor pool, so we could still take the kids swimming. And our room had enough of a kitchen that (along with a few items from home), we could still have a home-cooked Thanksgiving dinner. (More on that adventure later, too)

We played in the sand (70 degrees is perfect sandcastle weather), played at various playgrounds, did a little Christmas shopping, and slept a lot. We also had a little fun on the drive down and back. We broke each way into two days, and made a few side stops.

I will try to post a few snippets of my thoughts from the trip here this week, and maybe photos. Hopefully photos. I'm sure my husband also has a few things to post. He was also writing up observations and a travel log as we went.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Black Friday

Its 6am on Black Friday. Why aren't you out shopping?

Me? Lots of reasons. Some best left to next week's blog-a-palooza (which may or may not happen). In other words, I've got tons to say, but not necessarily much time to say it.

Most years I'm more of an after-Christmas sale person, rather than a Black Friday sale person. Usually the things that are on super-duper-special the day after Thanksgiving are things like TV's that we either don't need or can't afford to buy ourselves while we're planning Christmas gifts. Sorry, families, we've never bought anyone a TV for Christmas.

Its 6am on Black Friday. Why am I awake and blogging? Uh, fell asleep by 9 last night, and everyone else is still asleep. So I'm catching up on email and blogs in the quiet pink light of dawn. Darned internal clock that hasn't learned to sleep in, even after nearly a week of being off work (did I mention that Char gets an entire week off over Thanksgiving?)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The day the tomato plants die.

The first frost date in my area is typically around mid-October. That is the end of the growing season. The day the tomato plants die.

Here we are in mid-November, and I don't think we've actually had a true freeze. I'm not complaining. But boy are all the plants confused. Some of the trees that lost their leaves early are now budding. I saw one near our church that was about to sprout new spring leaves. I cut fresh roses the other day, and have a few more I could bring in. We have a bumper crop of cherry tomatoes that are ripening in the garden. And several peppers-one bell, lots of poblanos. Yes, poblano peppers in November. In St. Louis.

I am afraid that we'll pay a heavy price for all the mild weather once winter finally arrives.

Monday, November 16, 2009

fundraisers

I hate school fundraisers. Why do schools expect kids to become door-to-door junk salesmen?  Wait, that would be unsafe for the kids.  No, they expect parents to be the hawkers.  Even better.

 

I think my biggest complaint is that the stuff that they want the kids to sell is overpriced crap.  Crap that no one needs, and no one wants. Face it, we buy the stuff out of pity for the kids, not because we want it.

 

There are a few fundraisers that make money, and aren’t outright consumer rip-offs.  Girl Scout cookies.  Granted, by only selling them once a year, the girl scouts create scarcity and increase the cookie-buying public’s anticipation.  And their prices are a bit on the high side compared to grocery store cookies, but not outrageously so.  Last year they were what, $3.50 a box?  Not Walmart prices, but not bad either. 

 

The best fundraising item I ever sold as a kid was trash bags.  Laugh all you want, but everyone needs trash bags, and the rolls were enormous, lasted the buyers forever, and were good quality.  I still get the occasional comment from some of my mom’s friends about that trash bag fundraiser.  That was almost 25 years ago.

 

And then there is the pizza and cookie dough that Trystan’s preschool encouraged us to sell this fall.  Last year, out of pity, we bought both a box of cookie dough and a pizza for ourselves.  Yuck.  The pizzas were the equivalent of the cheapest discount store cardboard crap. And cost almost $10 apiece.  I can buy a 3-pack of leading-brand, rising-crust pizzas at Sam’s for $10.  The cookie dough was just plain scary.  First off, it was marked “no refrigeration required.”  How do you make cookies without perishable ingredients?  Like butter? And eggs?  What was in this stuff anyway?  As you might guess, the cookies themselves baked up badly, tasted oily, and were just plain unpleasant.  And unlike the grocery-store kind, it wasn’t even tasty to eat raw.  We declined to order this year, and didn’t bother attempting to guilt our friends into buying either.  It amused me that the school had a “tasting” day to kick off the fundraiser where they baked up some of the cookies and pizzas for the parents to sample.  I laughed with my husband that they were more likely to turn parents off the fundraiser than on to it.

 

Charlotte’s school sold a mix of cookie dough (different brand), pretzel kits, wrapping paper, magazines, and knick-knacks.  Also overpriced.  I did take that order form to work, and a couple of co-workers bought wrapping paper.  I bought some flower bulbs (we’ll see in the spring how well they worked), and a magazine subscription that was a couple of bucks more expensive than I could get online.  For my efforts, Charlotte was rewarded with a pencil topper.  Ya hoo.

 

I totally understand why schools do fundraisers.  My daughter goes to a private school.  It’s a catholic school, but not one supported by the local diocese.  Every dime that we help fundraise is one that won’t be on our tuition bill.  And public schools can’t simply raise tuition to pay for new equipment or raises for their teachers.  If a kid comes to my door with a fundraiser, I almost always order something.

 

I think the problem is that the products our kids are supposed to sell come from commercial companies.  The company has to make a profit before the school can.  So they lower the quality and jack the prices.  Although I have also donated my time to my daughter’s school, I can’t spare enough to replace the labor of the commercial cookie-dough manufacturer. 

 

The problem is us, the parents.  If we had more free time, we could invest our labor into creating products or services worth selling.  But we can’t.  We don’t.  So we’re foisting $10 buckets of sugar-and-shortening off on our neighbors and coworkers.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Question of the day

Why is it so much harder to fry a bigger fish? Or perhaps the question is: Why is it that the fryers of the aforementioned superior-sized fish are afforded higher status?

It seems to me that little fish are more difficult. They would burn faster, have to be watched and timed closely. A large fish just needs a bigger pot and more oil.

Perhaps we place more emphasis on frying large fish so as to reduce crowding amongst small ponds. Perhaps the fryer of the big fish has been lobbied by all of the medium-sized fish, who then vie for the position of largest fish. That goal is extremely short-sighted, however, as once one achieves big fish status, one must be always on the lookout for status-seeking chefs bearing large pots.

I guess the moral of the story is that frying is inherently unhealthy for all involved (except, possibly, for the fryer), and we should instead grill all of our seafood.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Its time for my semi-annual rant

I've said it before. Daylight savings time. Totally sucks.

Ya’ll realize that no one gained anything in the wee hours of Sunday, right? Same hours, same sunlight, the Earth still spins exactly the same as it did on Saturday. All we did was re-label everything and waste an hour re-programming every clock in the house (and car). Every clock except for those few that auto-adjust and have been displaying the wrong time for like 3 weeks, because Congress decided to muck with the dates long after electronics designers began making devices more convenient.

Seriously folks, pick a number, and stick to it.

I’m still curious to see if there is any hard data that supports the idea that daylight savings time somehow saves energy. I have yet to see a company who actually changes how many hours a day they turn the lights (and computers) on, no matter how sunny or dark it is.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Twitter

So, did I mention I was tweeting? With a couple of the sick days last week with the kids, I actually got a little bit of web surfing time.

Now, don't laugh too hard. I signed up for a twitter account. I'm elitsirk, same crazy jibberish name as my blog :) And I'm tweeting about once a day (maybe), about many of the same things you'll read right here. Things the kids are doing. Random tidbits about writing (because talking about writing fiction is just as productive as actually doing it, right? right?)

So, yeah. Twitter. I'm sure you're all a-twitt...nevermind. Feel free to follow me. I promise I won't be the one filling your screen

Friday, October 30, 2009

The price of cleanliness

With flu season in full swing, my son's daycare decided to be proactive and encourange frequent handwashing and hand sanitizing among the kids.

I found this out the hard way. Last week, Trystan had a false-sick day. He threw up at school on Tuesday, so had to stay home all day Wednesday. Of course, by Tuesday dinner time, he was fine, eating, and happy. Wednesday was a play at home with mommy day. That's very very aggravating for a working parent who has (had) a total of 20 sick hours to spend. (Note, after this week's strep/flu/ear combinations, I think I'm down to about 4, and I had to re-arrange my days to keep from hitting 0).

So, I was aggravated. I'm still no convinced that Trystan didn't just eat something he wasn't supposed to at school. But I have no idea what it would have been. Yep, this is all backstory, so we're all caught up.

Thursday, at work, my phone rings. One of the daycare workers tells me that Trystan has a rash. Mainly on his hands, a little on his bottom, and a small spot on his tummy. They're wondering if we were worried about strep, given the puke two days before. Um, no. He was eating and completely fever-free. Not strep.

I ask if there's anything he could have gotten his hands into (playing outside? Dirt? Flowers? Cleaning supplies?) No, they say. But we did start using hand sanitizer on the kids. "Its really nice stuff. It smells good."

Ok, big red flag. "Smells good" equals allergic reaction for probably 1/3 or more of the beauty products on the market, for me and the kids. "Smells good" usually means "we added bits of plants". Plants make us itch. There is a short list of scented products that I can use. Very, very short. And I'm not interested in adding to it. I buy fragrance free or hypoallergenic or "baby" everything. Though even "baby" products can cause problems--I went to one postpartum checkup after Charlotte was born, and I was covered from head to toe in hives from scented baby wipes I was using on *her*.

This afternoon, at Trystan's school Halloween party, the teachers sat all the kids down and squirted all but Trystan with their hand sanitizer before their snack. One teacher showed me the bottle. "See, its good stuff. Spa originals". Nowhere on this bottle are the words "hypoallergenic" or "fragrance free". It smells flowery. And no, I didn't care to try it on myself, just in case.

I got the impression that the teacher was still doubtful about the cause of his rash. By the way, they quit using that stuff on him on Thursday when I asked them to, and by the time he came home that night, the hives were all but gone, and haven't returned.

I think I'm buying them a new bottle of sanitizer for next week.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Aftermath

I spent today cleaning the house. I figure that with 2 confirmed cases of flu plus two bacterial infections, and a week of sick people, that we could use a little freshening.

I cleaned all of the bathrooms, including wiping down the faucets, light switches, and door knobs. The kids each got new toothbrushes. I had done a mini-clean of sorts on Monday night (after the strep diagnosis, before Char had taken enough antibiotics to be considered non-contagious), soaking them in Listerine and then rinsing well. Honestly, I don't know if that did anything, but figured it couldn't hurt.

I then washed all of the sheets and blankets on all of our beds (we were due anyway). We have those zippered covers on most of our pillows, so I removed and washed those as well. Then I bought my husband a new pillow.

When I removed the cover from that feather pillow, the pillow was brown. Yuck. Double-yuck to me, as I really don't like feathers (animal materials in general tend to act up various allergies...). But that pillow used to be white. And it was NOT.

That got me thinking: How often do people really replace their pillows? I've read that you're supposed to do it yearly, or to wash them every 6 months, and a million other variations.

How about you?

I'm attempting to embed a poll in this post. Vote and let me know if it worked!

H1N1 update

Charlotte is back at school. Yesterday was basically a play day for her. Amoxycillin is a miracle drug. No, it wasn't prescribed to treat the flu--it was for the strep throat. I think the flu was on its way out, and the tamiflu finished kicking the virus out.

Trystan is home today, for the second day. He got both the flu and an ear infection. Probably the same buggies that infected Char's throat, and he has the same amoxycillin to fight it. Plus the tamiflu. Plus, he has asthma that only acts up when he's sick. So we have instructions to give him breathing treatments and an oral steroid just in case. He's fever-free this morning and playing well, so I'm sure he'll be back at school tomorrow.

Now that Char's back to classes, its time for her fall break. School's out Friday and Monday. Just what we need after expending so much sick time with the two of them the past week. I remember the days of earning more sick days at work than I could possibly use, and taking "mental health" days just so I didn't have to give away my paid time off. These days, as soon as I accumulate 8 hours, it's spent.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Two-fer

Charlotte has H1N1. Joy joy. Actually, think I might have gotten it as well, but mine wasn't accompanied by an actual fever. More like four hours of almost-fever followed by a week of coughing.

Char didn't get hit that hard at first either. She ran a fever last Thursday, and had two distincting vomitting sessions. By Friday mid-morning she was fever-free and by Saturday was in great spirits.

Then came Sunday. The fever was back, but lower, and she began coughing, sneezing, and sleeping for long stretches.

Today I took her to the pediatrician, and they confirmed the H1N1. And strep. Two for one. Tamiflu plus amoxycillin.

So far, Trystan has no symptoms for either plague. I'm knocking on every piece of wood that I can find, though, because he's been clingy and fussy tonight, glueing himself to whichever adult is closest.

Friday, October 23, 2009

I might have done a bad thing...

I showed Charlotte how to work the TV remote.

 

She can read, just enough, to do some of the basic functions.  Like choose the “Watch TV” button, and remember that “ch+ and ch-“ change the channel.


Char is sick with the flu, and today is day #2 of laying around the couch watching TV.  My husband is working from home, and I thought I’d spare him the trouble of frequently starting up shows for Char, so he can stay productive. 

 

Maybe it was a bad idea.  My husband is reporting that she refuses to relinquish control of the controller.

 

Oops.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

White Dress 1.0





Char was really cute yesterday, if I do say so myself. I am quite proud of the dress that I made. The construction of it was pretty easy, but I did have to re-draft the sleeves. Unfortunately, I am calling this dress 1.0, because I expect that there will be a 2.0. Much as I like the dress, the design has a few drawbacks.

The pre-gathered fabric that I used was not as full as I think the pattern expected, and I didn't notice until I had it sewn together.. So Char's dress is kind of narrow and long. Hard to run in. It would be fine for just going to church, but even on white-dress days at school, she gets to play and possibly have gym class.

If/when I get around to another dress, it'll be shorter, with a fuller skirt and a better lining (or I'll buy extra fabric to make a slip out of). In the mean time, she does have a beautiful dress, and I have a pattern that could be used for a different color of pre-smocked fabric.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Whites

Today's post is about underwear. Not mine. Charlotte's. Actually, its about underwear she doesn't have. Because no one sells it.

Tomorrow she wears her new (made by me) white dress to school. When she tried it on last night, I realized that the skirt is a little bit see-through. It has two layers already, so I hadn't really checked for that, nor had I bought fabric for an additional liner (and I'd have to engineer a solution to add one).

I thought I'd go today and buy her a slip. Um, I guess I'm about 3 decades too late. No one sells little girls' slips. Actually, there aren't a lot of grown-up sized slips to be had either--a small handful of grannie ones (I briefly considered buying one and using it as yardage), and some tummy shapers. That's it. Apparently no one wears a slip anymore.

My backup plan (I'd guessed before the mini-shopping trip that I'd have trouble finding a slip) was to buy Char a camisole and some white panties. Now, the kid has probably 2 dozen pairs of underwear. And not one of them is plain white. There's Tinkerbell, hearts, stripes, bright purple, and probably a few princesses. But no white. In fact, across two different stores, I found exactly one pair of plain white undies in her size. Not one kind or one brand. One pair. In a package with a bunch of purple and green striped ones. And when I opened the package at home, I found that the top of the elastic is actually purple and green striped. But at least there isn't a magenta fairy on her rear.

I'm sure if I checked online, I could find several places that sell slips, or at least plain white underthings. And there might be stores in town that do. And I can certainly make a slip, assuming I have time to drive to a fabric store (because they keep moving farther and farther away, and lord knows Wally World doesn't stock something as basic as slip fabric). But I didn't have all day to devote to this--I had about 30 minutes, and one stretch of commercial road with a Walmart, Target, Kmart, and Kohls. You'd think that would be enough options...

So, kids clothing manufacturers and large discount retailers: stock basic basics! White whites! Yes, even 5-year olds sometimes need granny panties and slips. Please!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Fun News

I found out today that I won a bake-off, and I'm tickled pink. Ok, so my skin tone is basically pink normally. But you get the idea.

This is not really a big deal--it was through Charlotte's school fair last weekend. And there might not have been many entries in the adult category (I really have no idea). Hopefully there were at least 2 :)

It wasn't listed as a "recipe" contest, so I can't claim that the recipe itself (Triple Chocolate Pecan Pie) is originally mine. But it is yummy and tends to disappear every time I make it. And I do diverge subtley from the recipe and directions, so its fair game for a bakeoff.

Charlotte did enter the kids' division (with rice-crispy-like-bars made of Fruity Cheerios with white chocolate...she did all the stirring and pan spraying and decorating herself...and chose the ingredients!). Too bad she didn't place, but I'm guessing she was the youngest (or one of the youngest) entrants, and she had fun licking the bowl.

Of course, we had to leave the school's fair before the prizes were announced, so I have no idea what (if anything) I actually won, besides my name in the newsletter.

Quote of the Day

This morning while I was driving her to school, Charlotte told me:
 
God gave me the idea to be a rock star, but I dont even know how to get to the stage!
 
I, being the supportive and loving mother that I am, laughed. 
 
And then I suggested that she keep singing in church, and pay attention in music class (its one of a few “specials” that they rotate through at school), and we can look into piano lessons after Christmas.  We also have Rock Band for the Wii, and she’s quite the enthusiastic singer (its hilarious to hear a 5-year old girl belting out 80’s heavy metal…). 
 
With the immense popularity of Hannah Montana, I predict that Char will have lots of competition from other budding rock stars as she grows.  But a girl’s entitled to a dream, and as a parent, I can definitely support one that involves education (I’m thinking music lessons, either now or in a few years, won’t do her any harm!)
 

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Sew nice

Last night, I did something I haven't done for a really long time. I got to spend about an hour and a half sewing. Well, most of it was cutting and pinning, not actually sewing. But I did thread my sewing machine and do a little basting before I had to close up shop for the kiddos' bedtime.

I'm not sure I've spent more than an hour or two since Trystan was born with my sewing machine. Its really sad, to me, because I enjoy sewing. But when Char was born and we converted my craft room into her bedroom, I moved my stuff into the office that had previously been my husband's alone. Between adjustments in sharing the space (adjustments we're still making, LOL--we both have a LOT of stuff and our own preferred environment), general schedule constraints, and the fact that the office shares a wall with Char's bedroom (thereby restricting after-bedtime sewing because it affects her sleep), I haven't had much time to sew.

Charlotte attends a Catholic school, and they have a certain number of special masses throughout the year where all of the girls must wear an all-white dress to school. The first one's coming up next week. I could buy her a dress, but outside of Easter season, the only stores that carry all-white dresses for little girls are bridal stores and fancy heirloom shops, both of which are expen$ive. And I can sew. Sew I am.

I bought the fabric and the pattern from Walmart over a month ago, but since the date is coming fast, I have to actually work on it (or go shopping). The style is pretty simple--the fabric is a pre-smocked and pre-hemmed, with two layers (a satin underneath with an embroidered organza on top). The body of the dress is all one piece, with the stretcy smocking at the top. The sleeves will be kind of 3/4, leg-o-mutton style with the smocking part toward the cuff and a puffy cap. I modified the original pattern for these, as it wanted short sleeves with 3 separate pieces, and I thought their design would be a pin in the a$$ with the 2 layers of fabric. Of course, it might have taken me longer to draft a different sleeve than to just do the extra basting and sewing, but whatever.

I'm a little worried that it will be a bit fancier than they prefer (it sounds like they want all-white, but not mini-bride), but I'll take the chance for now. Because it will be cute, and it has sleeves (sleeveless dresses are not allowed, which rules out one already in Char's closet), and because Walmart had no other all-white fabric and I had no time to go to a real fabric store. If I have to sew another because this one is too fancy, I'll do that later.

So, I got kid-free time to sew while my husband took the kids for a playdate. AND I got to watch a couple of episodes of Project Runway as inspirational background noise while I did it. Come to think of it, there's a strong chance that watching Project Runway inspired the whole sleeve-redesign....

Friday, October 09, 2009

New thing: Scotchguard

I had one of my blonde moments recently, where I realized something kind of obvious. 

 

For years, I’ve gotten annoyed at getting new shoes dirty.  I am wary of fabric shoes because they look awful after the first wearing.  And with kids, I’m always getting food and drinks spilled on my clothes and shoes.  I have a pair of lavender canvas flip flops that got coffee spilled on them on their second wearing, which immediately moved them to the “bum around” pile and out of the “cute shoes” pile.

 

Revelation:  you can buy scotchguard at the grocery store.  This morning I sprayed a pair of beige colored mostly-fabric shoes that I’ve been really careful with all summer.  They already have a spot or two, but maybe, just maybe, I’ll have prevented a few more.

 

Now, I guess there’s no guarantee that it’ll work perfectly.  But its got to be better than splashing through a muddy parking lot and hoping for the best, right?  And I might check out the kids’ shoe collections and see if there are any likely-looking targets for my spray can.

 

 

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

New Thing: Blood

I gave blood today.  First time ever.
 
I’ve just never gotten around to it before.  I remember volunteering to help with a blood drive in my high school, but I was too young to donate.  And they frequently have them at work, but in the last 2 years that my group has been located in a building near one of the cafeterias, every blood drive has been when I’m out of work or on antibiotics for strep.
 
I think it took longer to fill out all the paperwork than for the blood to actually flow.  Or rather, to wait while my information was typed into the computer. And it’s funny that I was nervous beforehand.  After 2 pregnancies (they take like half a dozen vials of blood early on…right when I had morning sickness) and 2 c-sections (With IV’s and spinals), this was nothing. 
 
And they give you cookies and juice when its over. J
 

Monday, October 05, 2009

I want to spend someone else's money for a while...

I spent about two hours on Friday shopping for clothes. Mainly for myself. In the mall. And I've decided two things:

1) I want more money to spend on clothes. Trying to keep total purchases down to, say, well under $100 doesn't go too anymore far when you're in the mall (not that it ever did). As usual, when I have little or no money allocated to spend on clothing, I find bucketloads of things that I'd like.
2) I want a lifestyle that allows me to wear more of those cute clothes that I didn't buy.

No, the self-imposed $100 limit wasn't my only issue with clothes shopping. It never is. I have a love/hate relationship with clothes.

Growing up, as the second kid in a larger family, I didn't get as many new clothes. Until I grew taller (and larger in general) than my older sister, I received many of her hand-me-downs. And by the time that happened, I started being able to earn my own money (through babysitting, and later, a fast-food job), and ended up funding most of my own wardrobe. Alas, I was always the responsible kid, and saved a lot of my money for college expenses instead of blowing it all on the latest fads.

In college I had zero money for clothes. I'm not talking zero money for new clubbing clothes or for designer clothes, I mean zero money for something-relatively-clean-to-wear-to-class. The staples of my wardrobe were free t-shirts, clearance rack flannel shirts, and about 2 pairs of jeans a year. I hated going to any event that called for "dressing nice" because I never had "nice". I barely had "presentable". Yes, in the mid-90's, grunge was in, but I was quite a bit more grungy than was probably fashionable.

At the same time, I have always loved fashion magazines, and fabrics, and learned to sew and do a bit of pattern drafting with the idea of dressing better. It never worked that well because "better" involved better fabrics than I could afford on my shoestring budget, and the freedom to make mistakes. In college, I had no money to waste on "wadders", and these days I have no time.

Anywho, you get the idea. Poor me, yada yada. These day, I have more of a clothing budget, when I choose to spend it on myself. I just have mommy guilt that drives me to buy the kiddos more stuff than I buy myself.

Which brings me back to Friday. I'm still down that 10 pounds that I worked off this summer, and in mostly single-digit sizes for the first time since I can remember (I think I passed right through them in the free-t-shirt days). My closet is full of tops that are a bit too baggy and pants that will fall off of my hips without a belt. The 60-pound rollercoaster ride of pregnancies and breastfeeding didn't help much either (actually from now to my heaviest is closer to 70 pounds).

And suddenly, I can put on an expensive (to me) outfit and like how I look in it. But then I read the care labels and tags, and feel like I have to put things back on the rack for practicality. "Eveningwear" in my lifestyle is sweats or jeans (when your kids use your shoulder as a Kleenex, you don't wear dry-clean-only clothing). And I could dress up a tad more at work. Suits would be out of place as are many skirts and dresses, but I could definitely trend away from jeans more.

But, I have to allow myself to spend more money on clothes. That's a toughie for someone who's a cheapskate, who doesn't believe in credit card debt, and who has way more things on her wish list than just clothes (like kitchen appliances...). Too bad fairy godmothers are hard to come by these day :)

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Dinner: Beef and and Mushrooms

Beef and Mushroom Noodles
Serves 4
Total time: about 30 minutes

Ingredients:

  • Olive oil (about 4 tbsp, divided)
  • 1 lb round steak, sliced into 1/8" thick slices
  • 1 small yellow onion, chopped
  • 1 cup fresh mushrooms (or a combination of fresh and re-constituted dried--I used some white button mushrooms plus some dried shitakes)
  • 1 can low-fat cream of mushroom soup
  • 3/4 cup (1/2 can) skim milk
  • 1/2 pound wide egg noodles (4 servings)
  • salt and pepper


Directions:

  1. Boil noodles according to package directions. Drain and set aside.
  2. Sprinkle thinly sliced steak with salt and pepper. Heat 2 Tbsp oil in a large skillet over medium to medium-high heat until shimmering.
  3. Cook steak in skillet until browned on all sides. Remove to a bowl and cover loosely.
  4. Add another tbsp of oil to the pan, and heat. Cook the onion, stirring frequently, until translucent.
  5. Add the mushrooms and remaining oil (the mushrooms soak it up very fast) and cook about 1 more minute.
  6. Pour about 3/4 cup of water into the hot pan, and stir, scraping the bottom to deglaze (Note, if you're using a non-stick pan, you might be able to skip this step).
  7. Turn the heat down to medium-low, and add the cream soup and milk. Mix well.
  8. Add the meat and any accumulated juices to the mushroom soup mixture, and add salt and pepper to taste.
  9. Toss with the egg noodles, and serve warm.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The dog ate my homework

Actually, her brother colored all over it.

Charlotte has homework most weeknights. Usually it's a math worksheet, or sometimes writing or vocabulary words to work on. Last night's had two dot-to-dot pictures to help her work on sequencing numbers 1 to 20. She dutifully connected the dots (though she did get caught up in the pattern at the end instead of paying attention to the numbers).

Instead of putting her homework back into the red folder that all the kids use to carry papers back and forth to school, she left her worksheet on the kitchen table, next to her pencil. That's where Trystan found it. And decided to try his hand at dot-to-dots. Except he ignored the dots and just drew lines all over the paper.

My husband and I didn't catch it until this morning when we were rounding up backpacks and lunchboxes for school. There was no time (and no eraser in the house big enough) to clean it off and have her start it over. My husband wrote a note, and sent it along to school as it was--you could at least see Charlotte's work underneath Trystan's scribbles.

Charlotte wasn't concerned in the least about the problem, so I had to gently explain that it was her responsibility to make sure her homework went back into her red folder every night. Mommy and Daddy would help, but it was her job to ensure that Trystan didn't ruin her homework.

For good measure, I told Trystan not to color on his sister's homework. I'm not sure that message will sink in for another two or three years. He flashed me what I call his cherub smile at me--that innocent-looking, wide-eyed baby smile that gets him out of so much trouble. The one that means he understands exactly what I'm telling him and just how much mischief he's causing.

Monday, September 28, 2009

On Sports

Despite the best efforts of a plethora of coaches and gym teachers, I actually like exercise.

 

Seeing me during one of my many round phases—where the shape of my cheeks and the number of chins was indicative of my lifestyle at the time—you might never have guessed that.

 

I don’t get sports.  I can’t say I tried a huge variety of them as a kid—mainly softball and tennis, with a brief foray into basketball one year.  My hands never seemed quite large enough to grasp and throw a softball with any measure of skill, and I was too easily distracted by dandylions and my own thoughts in the outfield.  Basketball player need to run fast, and to jump.  And shoot under pressure.  Guess playing P-I-G in my neighbor’s driveway wasn’t enough training.

 

I loved tennis, and still do.  But I had both the misfortune of having a coach who I didn’t like, and the undiagnosed need for glasses during my freshman and sophomore years of high school.  Not being able to see a ball can negatively impact your ability to hit it.  I’ve tried once or twice as an adult to join some sort of tennis group, but I need actual lessons and practice time.  Ideally, practice against other players of my ability level so I don’t just stand dumbly as balls whiz by my head at warp speed.

 

I think my biggest problem with sports is the competitive aspect.  Don’t laugh.  As a kid on a basketball floor, once the clock is running, it’s every woman for herself.  Throw the game plans, the positions, the practice sessions out the window and just play to WIN.  Now, I realize that as athletes and teams mature, that isn’t correct.  Entirely.  But it was really frustrating for me.  I’d be told what position to play, and what my duties were, and I’d expect those things to remain true during a game.  Which meant that the hotshot player (there was always at least one) was always in my space, butting me out of the way, and preventing me from having any contact with the ball, or from contributing in any way.  I never learned the rules for being a “hotshot”, apparently.

 

I’m not aggressive, and I’m not that kind of competitive.  If someone shoves me out of the way once, then I just step aside the next time they come through.  I don’t shove back.  And someone who totally outclasses me doesn’t inspire me to try harder—she inspires me to find a different activity, one with room for me to excel as well.  Because there can only be one hotshot on the team, and I never felt the need to butt my way into someone else’s stinky shoes.

 

The “sports” that I’ve always enjoyed the most involve either a team of 1, or a non-competitive way of working together.  Like color guard. There are no breakaways or one-on-one’s in a marching band show.  I always had an assigned spot, and no one had any business taking it from me, or else the entire performance would suffer.  In tennis, I’m either playing well or I’m not.  I had one lone doubles partner with whom I ever played well, and she couldn’t play after our freshman year because of a health concern.

 

These past few weeks, I feel amazed and totally outclasses by Charlotte’s soccer league.  The other 5- and 6- year olds know as much as I do (probably more) about the game at this point.  Char is excited to play, and has been volunteering to play goalie and asking for coaching from my husband on what to do, and how.  I’m glad he’s around because I’m so totally clueless.  Um, stop the ball?  There’s more to it than that, I hear.

 

At this point in my life, I’m content with step aerobics, bike riding, and a little weight lifting (wouldn’t my high school gym teacher be amazed).  But I am enjoying watching my daughter try out sports.  So far, I think she has a slightly better grasp of them than I ever did.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

500

I just realized that I recently passed my 500th post. 500! Wow. I sure jabber a lot. I posted for the first time in February, 2006, though I'd had the blog address for about a year before that, but never wrote anything I felt like sharing with the world.

Since then, I've gone from regular life of working and being the mom of a then 1.5-year-old girl to the regular life of working and being the mom of a 2.5-year-old boy and http://elitsirk.blogspot.com/search/label/Charlotte. I've had a high-risk pregnancy, dealt with all of Trystan's myriad surgeries, doctors, and health problems, and written 1 novel plus 1/4-3/4 of three additional ones (not published, just written..baby steps and lots of learning along the way).

I think this is the part where I'm supposed to say something pithy and wise. Er, I've always been better at wisecracks than wisdom.

So, thanks for listening! See you at 1000.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Hello-Goodbye

Last Friday, they brought our new fridge. This Wednesday, they’re taking it back again.

I will be sad to see it go, but we just can’t keep it. Out hot deal turned a bit chilly (or is it lukewarm?) when the floor of the freezer compartment cracked Friday afternoon. Not just a little crack. A crack that extends from the back of the freezer all the way to the front, with a spread of a quarter inch. The crack wasn’t there when the fridge was first delivered, but appeared after being turned on and cooling the better part of the day.

Saturday, after some bad directions from the warranty department on the 1-800 number that sent me to the local regular Sears store, I drove back to the outlet. The manager there was very helpful, and had me look at the other fridges on the floor.

There was one identical model to the one sitting in our kitchen, but slightly more battered looking. I might have taken it, but I looked in the freezer compartment. It had a repaired crack of the exact same size, shape, and placement on the floor. The repair involved some kind of caulk, and it was obvious that the crack closed up a little after the caulk was repaired. Looks to me like the crack widens when the freezer compartment is cold.

The other fridges on the floor were not acceptable—all the wrong size or configuration or color. They are refunding the entire cost, and picking the fridge up. Luckily, I hadn’t quite sold the old one yet, though I did have a buyer lined up to come Sunday morning. My husband then did a little research on Consumer Reports and found that the Kenmore Elites were rated fairly low.

Back to square one, and a fridge that’s a little too small, whose fridge door doesn’t quite open because of the wall, and that may require the occasional blowout (thankfully minus the hairspray). Until we decide on something else. We’re still not ruling out replacing all kitchen appliances in one fell swoop, but wont’ be getting a fridge from an outlet store. Now that I’ve had a taste of the storage space and accessibility of a bigger, different style fridge, its going to be that much harder to wait.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Mother Nature's Bounty

We went apple picking a couple of weeks ago at Eckerts in Belleville. Honey Crisps. I think its my new favorite apple variety. We picked about 40 pounds of apples. Oops.

Believe it or not, in less than two weeks we have used each and every one of those apples. Many, many were eaten.

The rest have given me a chance to practice one of my hobbies. Canning. If you've never done it, its not really hard, and apples are an easy way to start. You need canning jars, of course. Around here, grocery stores and Walmart carry them. Treat them like an investment--the jars and the lid rims are re-usable. You only need to buy new seals for the tops of the jars.


Several years ago, I bought an "Apple Kit" by Ball that had jars, a funnel, a "bubble freer" (a plastic stick), a magnetic lid wand (for fishing metal lids out of boiling water), and a jar lifter. Plus recipes. All I had to add on my own was a boiling watter canner (a really big stock pot with a rack...you could use any stockpot large enough to hold your jars and enough water to cover them), and food.


Applesauce is about the easiest to make. Apples plus water. Sugar is optional (and with honeycrisps which are sweet enough, I didn't use any). I pulled the ugliest apples out of our collection for the sauce, since no one would see bruises after they were cooked.


Peel, chop, cover with water, cook, and mash. Really, that's it.


You don't want your food to spoil, so follow a recipe and canning directions closely. Its not difficult, but it is kind of time consuming. Personally, I love the process, but some people might find it tedious (for some reason, I enjoy tedious kitchen tasks...I know, I'm strange). I used the applesauce directions in The Ball (Blue Book of Canning), Canning for Dummies, and a few other pamphlets and recipes from Sure Gel and the Ball Apple Kit, etc.


Apple butter isn't much harder than applesauce. It is apples, water, sugar, spices, and a LOT more time. But its sooo yummy.


That Apple Kit came with "apple pie gel" which is a canning-friendly food starch. Homemade, canned apple pie. Great for a quick pie (its already cooked), or to use as a topping in a coffee cake, for ice cream, etc. I do need to figure out if I can buy that kind of food starch separate from the kit so I don't have to buy another one (though the kit isn't much more expensive than buying more jars..)

Friday, September 11, 2009

Friday Photo

Believe it or not, his sister didn't put him up to it.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Dinner Last Night

Blackbean Chili Casserole
Serves 6-8
Total time: about an hour, depending on how long your rice takes

    Ingredients
  • 1/2 cup uncooked brown rice
  • 1 tsp beef soup base (or 1 beef bouillon cube or chicken or skip it)
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 small white onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 pound 90% lean ground beef
  • 1 can (the normal size) black beans, drained
  • 1 can diced tomatoes
  • 1 Tbsp chili powder
  • 1 tsp Mexican oregano
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • 3 red/orange/yellow bell peppers, rough chopped
  • 1 cup shredded cheese (I used a Mexican blend)
  • Salt and pepper


    Directions
  1. Cook rice according to package directions, adding the beef soup base to the cooking liquid as you first bring it to a boil.
  2. Heat oven to 425.
  3. In a large (10-12" minimum) skillet over medium-high heat, heat olive oil until it shimmers. Add onion and cook until translucent. Add garlic, and cook about 1 more minute.
  4. Add ground beef to the onion and garlic, and brown.
  5. Add chili powder, oregano, and cumin to the beef mixture and heat for 1-2 minutes to help bring out the flavors
  6. Stir in black beans, canned tomatoes, and rice. Cook just until warmed, 1-5 minutes. Taste and add salt & pepper if needed
  7. Pour beef mixture into a 9x13 pan. Top with chopped bell peppers, and sprinkle with cheese.
  8. Cover the pan with foil, and bake about 20 minute until heated through.
  9. Remove the foil and cook 5-10 minutes longer until the cheese is hot and bubbly.
  10. Cool, and enjoy!



Feel free to play with seasonings, adding more heat with red pepper flakes, chipotle, hot sauce, etc. Or try ground turkey instead of the beef, or use leftover rice instead of making it fresh to cut the time down by 20-30 minutes. This could also be made ahead and refridgerated or frozen, just adjust your baking time accordingly.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Out with the old fridge

We bought a fridge. I blame the salsa.

A week or so ago, my husband participated in the monthly ritualistic cleansing of the coils on our refrigerator. The ritual involves first emptying every item in the freezer, and dismantling a panel inside. Then he applies heat from a hairdryer, thus manually performing the “defrosting” step that our auto-defrosting unit can’t be bothered with. After re-assembling the freezer, we check the contents of the fridge for spoilage. That day, I threw out a huge bowl of homemade salsa, only about 3-4 days old, that had fuzz on the top.

And, if you want to get ice or water from the filtered in-door dispenser, make sure you have an extra empty cup and a towel on hand. Because our fridge is overly generous with ice and water. Kind of like me and chocolate, it just doesn’t know when to quit. I mop up the (new, laminate, non-water-proof) floor in front of the fridge on average twice a day.

Yes, I’ve spent quite a lot of time hemming and hawing over the decision. And, despite my earlier resolve that we don’t need a French-door fridge, that is exactly what we bought. There isn’t an ideal option in our kitchen, unless we could live with less food-storage space, and thus, a smaller fridge. We can’t. The fridge hole has plenty of room for a large refrigerator, if you don’t care about opening the doors. A right-opening door will never open fully thanks to a wall, and a full-width door that opens to the left could smack the corner of the island.

The French-door is a compromise. It’s one of the larger ones on the market at 25 cubic feet. We pack that thing full with milk, fruit, and veggies every week. I just can’t justify a smaller one. And I ought to be able to one of the top doors all the way, so I ought to have enough access to store wide plates or even cake boxes, unlike our side-by-side.

We bought a stainless steel one. And, if hubby and I weren’t about to be late picking Char up from school, we *might* have purchased a new stove and dishwasher to match. I was apparently in a money-spending mood that day. We got a bargain, though, I hope. We’re buying a scratch-n-dent model, saving 50% off of the list price. I don’t mind dings. We have a 2-year old. We’re going to scratch-n-dent whatever we buy anyway. We’ve had mixed luck in the past with scratch-n-dent appliances—we bought a lemon of a washing machine and a gem of a dryer that way when we moved into the house. But the brand-new-unblemished fridge was also a lemon that we’ve been squeezing for the past 6 or 7 years. So, I’m willing to take the chance, and on a brand (Kenmore) that we’ve had better luck with than our lemons (Maytags, both of them).

Maybe towards Christmas we'll go back after that stove and dishwasher. We'll talk about some minor cabinet changes and possible refacing and countertops after the new year :)