Wednesday, December 31, 2008

End of Year Meme

Thanks to Linda at All & Sundry.

1. What did you do in 2008 that you’d never done before?
Transitioned between jobs. Learned how to evaluate graduate applications. Took a Spanish class, albeit with my kids. Went to a World Series Champions parade!

2. Did you keep your new year’s resolutions, and will you make more for next year?
Sort of. My resolution was to see a new-to-us movie a month with my husband. We made it to June and then sort of lost track. I think maybe we saw 9 movies by the end of the year. I want to go back to our new-restaurant-per-month resolution. And get to the gym more. I made a good start in December.

3. Did anyone close to you give birth?
Lots of friends had babies. Two cousins had kids. And my sister and brother in law adopted a newborn! But I'm falling out of the demographic, I'm afraid--it's nothing like the baby booms of 5-10 years ago.

4. Did anyone close to you die?
No, for the first time in a long time.

5. What countries did you visit?
In books? Lots. But my passport, alas, expired while sadly underused.

6. What would you like to have in 2009 that you lacked in 2008?
Less stuff in my house. Better accounting for my own work time. More muscles built at the gym.

7. What dates from 2008 will remain etched upon your memory, and why?
The day our (adopted) niece was born. Her c-section was moved from July 2 to July 10. But she had her own ideas and came on June 27, the day after my mother's birthday, and therefore allowing my son to win the baby lottery since he was closest to the due date!

8. What was your biggest achievement of the year?
Completing my term in my dream job and immediately landing a new part time job with more time at home and a 40% raise.

9. What was your biggest failure?
I fear I was tone-deaf to issues my older son was having.

10. Did you suffer illness or injury?
Thank God, no. But my dog tore her ACL today and will need surgery in the new year.

11. What was the best thing you bought?
Old Navy socks for my kids; the treads on the bottoms help keep them upright when running around inside.

12. Whose behavior merited celebration?
My younger son until he turned 3, and Girlfriend.

13. Whose behavior made you appalled and depressed?
Other than elected officials, I don't really want to get in to that on my blog.

14. Where did most of your money go?
Childcare. Gasoline. Food. Vacations. Not necessarily in that order.

15. What did you get really, really, really excited about?
The jobs. Visits to and from friends I hadn't seen in a long time. The beach. The surprise trip to the Madonna concert.

16. What song will always remind you of 2008?
The Spanish language music from the classes I took with my sons.

17. Compared to this time last year, are you: a) happier or sadder? b) thinner or fatter? c) richer or poorer?
Hmm. Maybe I need to revisit my resolutions this year.

18. What do you wish you’d done more of?
Gone to the gym; things that both sons and I all think are fun

19. What do you wish you’d done less of?
Yelling at my kids

20. How did you spend Christmas?
It was great this year--less running around than ever. Christmas Eve mass, day at home, dinner with extended family, and Boxing Day dinner with my husband's family. We also visited my family over the weekend.

21. Did you fall in love in 2008?
Only if it counts in an "all over again" sense.

22. What was your favorite TV program?
Our beloved babysitter (who is so so much more to us) got me hooked on The Biggest Loser.

23. Do you hate anyone now that you didn’t hate this time last year?
Thank God, no.

24. What was the best book you read?
The Ten Year Nap by Meg Wollitzer

25. What was your greatest musical discovery?
They Might Be Giants Here Come the 1 2 3s

26. What did you want and get?
An immersion blender

27. What did you want and not get?
Skinny.

28. What was your favorite film of this year?
Well, that I saw this year: Walk the Line.

29. What did you do on your birthday, and how old were you?
I was 40. My husband surprised me with tickets to the Madonna concert the week before, and that night, we went out to a fabulous dinner.

30. What one thing would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying?
Going to the theater. More dates.

31. How would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2008?
Turtlenecks and jeans! I suppose now that my kids are out of spit-up stage I should think about expanding my options. My other theme was "rediscovering the professional wardrobe." It's been a trip shopping in my closet.

32. What kept you sane?
I don't know. Girlfriend. My husband's complete support of me getting out a few nights a month.

33. Which celebrity/public figure did you fancy the most?
Did I fancy? I don't know. I was happy Britney seemed to get her act together and Samantha Ronson seems to make Lindsay Lohan a better citizen. Oh-never mind--hello, 2008 Phillies! WOOOOOOOOOO!

34. What political issue stirred you the most?
Obama-Hillary. I was thrilled to take the kids to see both and help them plug in to the wider world.

35. Who did you miss?
My mom. Of course. Aunt Jo. Uncle George. Friends from work. Kelly, Anya, Anjali.

36. Who was the best new person you met?
Some of the new Mothers & More members. My advisees.

37. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2008.
I still only have 24 hours in a day.

38. Quote a song lyric that sums up your year.
Mommies are people/People with children
Busy with children/and things that they do...
But there's a lot of things/a lot of mommies can do.
(I know my Gen X readers know this one!)

Happy new year! I won't tag anyone but if you want to play along, be my guest.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

My New Favorite Site

Need a Snow Day?

MPM--Ho Ho Ho

Happy post-holiday daze, everyone! I hope your holidays were lovely. And while on the one hand I am not looking forward to cooking dinners again this week, it's broken up by still more happy family occasions and a few more opportunities to create food for small gatherings of 32 family members so I really have another week's reprieve!

Last week went well, though my seven fishes fell to five, and I think will disappear entirely next year. Too much hassle for too little interest from everyone else in the family! The carrot mousse was well-received and the macaroni and cheese was gone before people went back for seconds. Boxing Day was mostly spaghetti and gravy (red sauce) with sausage and the traditional KFC.

And my presents had a theme this year: the new version of my favorite cookbook ever, How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman, and The Splendid Table's How to Eat Supper, which already has a bunch of things bookmarked. And, to go with them, an immersion blender! I'm very excited. Now i just need to get the kids to eat soup and I'm golden.

This week:

Monday: Tacos (yep, again), rice and beans on the side.

Tuesday: Forever Family Day! Yes, our delightful niece's adoption will be finalized today, and we are all going to go celebrate with her and her parents. Cheesesteaks and stromboli all around. I'll probably bring the hot pizza dip or maybe a salad.

Wednesday: We're ringing out 2008 with dear friends who have had a tough year and are hosting a party with a countdown to 7 for the kids. We're all over it. Have to figure out what to bring...probably dessert as my husband will be working and we won't get there for most of the food.

Thursday: Happy New Year! It's my father-in-law's birthday, so One! More! Time! with the whole family to celebrate (and we'll wrap in the nephew's 16th birthday too). I'll bring macaroni and cheese again for that and maybe a crockpot pork roast since the sister in law who is hosting loathes any pig product, but you have to have pork for luck for the new year.

Friday: The one fish we never got to was the salmon, which went funky in the fridge, alas. But since I have all I need to make my favorite salmon sauce, so we'll probably go for that on Friday. But of course, my youngest is begging to go to our favorite pizza place so that might win instead. We'll see how it goes. If we stay home, I'm definitely making the scallion and asparagus dish from the Splendid Table cookbook. I'll keep you posted.

Have a great week, everyone, and happy 2009! Make yourself some happy, inspirational resolutions! Ours is to return to a new restaurant a month in 2009! If I get inspired by any dishes there, I'll let you know.

Friday, December 26, 2008

FFOF 61

#1. Do you prefer cooking with electric or gas?

I grew up with electric and was very afraid of my gas burners in the house we bought. (I have real issues with fire of any kind--candles, grills, you name it.) Despite this, I'm almost sold on the gas stovetop but I do find it's hard to get it low enough. But I very much miss my electric oven with the broiler on top instead of under. I haven't been able to broil much of anything since moving here in 2000 if it doesn't fit in my toaster oven.

#2. How many times a month do you order out?

Oh, not nearly as many as I would like. I have tried to cure myself of the habit but we do eat out once a week (pizza usually). The kids help with this by not liking any ethnic food (yet).

#3. How do you like your ice - cubed or crushed?

I never once thought about this but if I had to make a call, I'd say crushed. Really, I prefer my drinks at room temperature for the most part, or cold without ice.

#4. Share a Christmas recipe.

I don't think I've ever shared the recipe for our favorite Mousse de Carrottes. So here it is, straight from the Le Bec-Fin cookbook by the indispensable Georges Perrier. Please note, we do not use the food mill or the pastry pipe method, though it is elegant. We find the teenagers (and some adults!) in the family prefer to just shovel it on their plates with the largest serving spoon they can find. I will also add that it works just fine with salted butter and less rich milk product (though anything less than whole milk does compromise the creaminess). The best calorie-reducing results we've had have been with some cream, some milk, or of course light cream. But we usually just splurge. It's worth it.

Mousse de Carrottes (Carrot Mousse)

Lovely carrots are transformed in to a most elegant mousse here. At Le Bec-Fin we pipe this mousse through a pastry bag into decorative swirls on the plate. My customers love this dish, but most can't figure out the "secret" ingredient: it's the honey.

Service for four (note: he has got to be kidding here or else the pastry bag affects this immensely. We used this exact recipe for a 32 person Christmas dinner. There were no leftovers, but everyone got some.)

The Carrot Mousse

3 lbs large carrots, peeled and coarsely chopped
2 1/2 Cups heavy cream
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1/4 cup honey
Salt and white pepper

Cooking the Carrots

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees F.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the carrots and cook over medium heat until tender, about 5 minutes. Drain, then place on a baking pan and bake in the oven for 30 minutes to dry. Heat the heavy cream to scalding. Remove the carrots from the oven, then puree in a food processor until very smooth. With the machine running, add the scalded heavy cream, butter, and honey. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Chef's Truc
Piping Carrot Mousse: To pipe the mousse, you will first need to force the finished mousse through a food mill. This will ensure that no larger bits clog the pastry tip. Pipe through a medium -sized star tip. Be sure to wrap the bag in a towel while piping so you don't burn your hands.

And a few last notes from me on this: I don't remember the last time I used large carrots for this. I just buy the baby carrots in a bag and go from there. The white pepper does make a difference, both in flavor (more subtle) and visually. Rather than draining, we usually use a slotted spoon or the Chinese drainer thing to move the carrots to the jellyroll pan, and I usually put a cloth dishtowel on the sheet first to help soak up extra water too. The longer the carrots dry, the fluffier the mousse. And heating the cream really does make a difference.

Lastly, we laughed at the "patrons can't guess the secret ingredient" part--we couldn't even guess they were carrots when we had them at Le Bec-Fin the first time! With ours, though, you can tell.

Wanna play along? Go here and enjoy!

Monday, December 22, 2008

MPM--Closing In

Ho ho ho! We're in full swing here. Fabu parties, including an amazing one today, which seemed like it was catered except all the amazing and different appetizers were made by the hosts!, fun times for kids, wrapping again left to the last minute...yup, it's Christmastime in MemeGRL's world.

This week:

Monday: leftovers. We have pork or chicken from last week. (The pork was my usual crockpot recipe; the chicken was with apricot and dried plums--formerly known as prunes--from the Dave Lieberman recipe and was super, especially for how easy and quick it was. And it made a lot of chicken!)

Tuesday: Sloppy Joes (with ground turkey--not my favorite but it's what we have and the boys can't tell the difference so I might as well be healthier), applesauce, quinoa pesto (which the boys LOVE)

Wednesday: Seven fishes! Which is really an indulgence for me as no one else in my family likes the fishes as much as I do. And I cheat on the seven: tuna salad on crackers, oysters from a tin on crackers, shrimp cocktail, angels on horseback (scallops with bacon wrapped around, stuck under the broiler), crabcakes (which my five year old adores), lobster tails, and salmon. Or, if I'm running out of time and interest, I'll make Rachael Ray's cioppino, which is amazing and super easy and gets four fishes in one dish (scallops, cod, shrimp, and mussels--but no one here really enjoys mussels, which makes it less appealing). To be really authentic, I'll get a small pizza in the afternoon for the kids to eat while my husband and I have the fish!

Thursday: who knows? I'm in charge of macaroni and cheese (using something based on this recipe but with all sharp cheddar to save fussiness) and the carrot mousse. There are a few other things I might try but those are the biggies. Warning on the mac and cheese: I didn't say it was healthy, and my own children won't touch it. But every teenager in the house has asked me to bring this since, oh, June.

Friday: The Boxing Day event! My husband's family gets together on Boxing Day for gift exchanges, etc., with a casual dinner of "anything from a box." That includes but is not limited to boxes of wine, crackers, KFC, and pizza. I will probably bring some of my world-class collection of frozen hors d'oeuvres from Trader Joe's, the artichoke dip from the same place, chocolate truffles, and some nifty boxed wine I found. It's sad how I stockpile the frozen appetizers as though I live a life of impromptu cocktail parties that would merit such space for a stash in my freezer. But I'm trying to be realistic and whittle it down.

Saturday and Sunday have no plans yet so we'll play it by ear. With people coming in town I'm trying to keep things open; already one of my little groups of friends since elementary school will all be in town this weekend for the first time since the 1990s so I'm thrilled about that. And the rest we'll see.

Most exciting: my husband's sister and her husband got what they really wanted for Christmas: the court date to make their adoption final! Forever Family Day is December 30. Party to follow. The theme for the New Year's Party they were hosting anyway is, of course, "Baby" Food--little hot dogs, mini soft pretzels...you get the idea. Any creative thoughts for mini-food is appreciated!

Wishing everyone the happiest of holidays. And know that if your holidays aren't particularly merry this year, my thoughts are with you especially. I've been there, and it stinks when the world is ready to be cheery and you are not. But a family's gotta eat, right? So here we all are. Thank you for menu planning with me this year--with one more to go, it's been fun!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Christmas Meme

Lifted shamelessly in turn from Please Pass the Salt.

1. Wrapping paper or gift bags? Both. I am addicted to wrapping papers and have tons of them downstairs. I think I only bought one roll this year under duress when Borders shamefully stopped wrapping at their stores leaving me in the lurch on the way to a birthday party. But I digress. I use both depending on circumstances.

2. Real tree or artificial? Both. Real goes outside on the porch with plastic ornaments. Artificial goes in the living room.

3. When do you put up the tree? When we get around to it. This year, that was Dec. 5. Last year, that was Dec. 24 at 4:30pm when the vigil masses were all underway.

4. When do you take the tree down? After Epiphany.

5. Do you like eggnog? Way, way too much.

6. Favorite gift received as a child? I was so blessed (spoiled) I can't pick just one. My dollhouse. My other dollhouse. The Barbie plane. Books.

7. Hardest person to buy for? My younger son, who isn't particularly attached to any "things." May he stay that way, lucky boy.

8. Easiest person to buy for? Me! Also my husband, who doesn't want to let another thing in the house. I'm all about the experiences and home improvements.

9. Do you have a nativity scene? Several. This is the year of the Fisher-Price version.

10. Mail or email Christmas cards? Wow, I hope mail. We have the cards, really we do, and if I knew Excel at all, we'd have them addressed. I have the stamps and everything.

11. Worst Christmas gift you ever received? I feel guilty even typing this since my parents were so bummed out that they guessed wrong. When I was about 12 I got a makeup mirror from them. Bonne Bell Vanilla lip gloss was about all I really used at that point and my parents were just ahead of me on this one. It was a great gift that I eventually used for years to come but it was a bit early for me at that point. I still feel bad remembering my parents looking at each other ruefully at my lack of thrilledness with the "big gift" that year.

12. Favorite Christmas Movie? It's A Wonderful Life.

13. When do you start shopping for Christmas? Too early--year round, really, and then I forget what I have and get extra.

14. Have you ever recycled a Christmas present? No. I'm lousy at repurposing.

15. Favorite thing to eat at Christmas? My aunt's pizelles, and (if she makes them) chicken tenders. I like doing the seven fishes on Christmas Eve, though alas, I'm the only one in my family who does.

16. Lights on the tree? Yup. White and multicolor, usually.

17. Favorite Christmas song? Oh Holy Night, I think. Used to be Angels We Have Heard On High but the melodramatic tone of Oh Holy Night speaks to me more now for some reason.

18. Travel at Christmas or stay home? Stay home. My parents loved to travel over Christmas and now I love to stay at home for Christmas!

19. Can you name all of Santa’s reindeer? Of course!

20. Angel on the treetop or a star? Outside, a star; inside, an angel.

21. Open the presents Christmas Eve or morning? One each on Christmas Eve. The rest on Christmas morning.

22. Most annoying thing about this time of the year? Thinking of a theme present for my inlaws; ridiculous ridiculous traffic on Baltimore Pike.

23. Favorite ornament theme or color? Theme? Really? My life has no theme, let alone my Christmas ornaments. I suppose I lean to the red & green but not in any coordinated way.

24. Favorite for Christmas dinner? Colin Cowie's beef tenderloin with pink peppercorns.

25. What do you want for Christmas this year? My younger son keeps asking this same question. I want an immersion blender, but more than anything, I want my sons to like their presents and be happy and play pleasantly together this holiday. That's hard to order, though I keep hoping if I say it enough, it might sink in.

Friday, December 19, 2008

FFOF 60

#1. What’s your favorite crunchy food?

Oh, man, where do I start? I wish I could be my son and answer truthfully, Apple fries from Burger King. But alas, that's not it. I think it's Utz Super-Dark pretzels.

#2. How often do you try new recipes?

Pretty often. I'm a crummy cook and so I'm in search of the recipe that will be easy, healthy, taste fabulous, and my kids will eat. No luck so far.

#3. Name a food that you almost always have in the house.

Besides milk and Life cereal for the boys? There is always some shape of noodle.

#4. What kind of food do you leave out for Santa on Christmas Eve?

We're pretty traditional; cookies and milk and some carrots for the reindeer. Santa likes them a lot but I think he'd love the beer suggestion from Kathleen's blog! (Though since in our town, Santa actually shows up at the door with bells a-jingling, I'm not sure he would take a beer.)

Wanna play along? Go here and link up!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

WFMW--Best Stocking Stuffer List Ever


Sorry for the repost, but if Shannon can do it, I can too, right? And a holiday kindness this big deserves to be commemorated. Some of them are getting dated already (film? Ack! Substitute "memory cards") but most are still great ideas, and Heather is still a great friend and inspiration to me.

Original Post: Heather's List of Stocking Stuffers

This list was given to me one Christmas by my friend Heather. I ran a quick errand for Heather one December, and in return, she brainstormed stocking stuffers for me, with assistance from our other friend Melinda. The original is complete with illustrations for things like "firestarter" and "ear cover band" and the list itself is one of my most treasured gifts! So as a pre-Christmas gift to Blogworld, I share it with all of you. This list isn't that old but already some things are outdated (see #4); I'm leaving them there, however, as part of the tribute to them but also in case they spark some creative idea for you. With continued thanks to my friends Heather and Melinda.

Heather's Stocking Stuffer List
1. Migraine Mask
2. neck support for travel
3. Film
4. Video film for video camera
5. Blockbuster gift certificates
6. razors
7. trial size toiletries
8. McDonald's gift certifiates
9. teas/specialty coffees
10. candies
11. nail file
12. gum/breath mints
13. hair accessories (barrettes, headbands)
14. pocket calendar
15. Christmas ornament
16. socks
17. undershirts
18. Advil/Tylenol
19. cough drops
20. notecards/stationery
21. gloves
22. ear cover band
23. costume jewelry
24. lapel pins
25. magazine subscription (or just one magazine)
26. cologne/perfume
27. photo album page inserts
28. business card holders
29. magnets for fridge
30. coasters
31. scented candles
32. massage oils/lotions
33. backscratcher
34. deck of cards
35. small picture frames
36. key chain
37. small picket knife/key chain--very useful!!
38. pens
39. batteries
40. penlight
41. nightlight
42. shoe polish
43. seeds/garden bulbs
44. jewelry cleaner for rings
45. ice cream scooper
46. tights
47. bagel slicer
48. bottle opener
49. potholder
50. pocket size tissues
51. letter opener
52. cookie cutters
53. mail sorter that sits on desk to hold bills
54. small sewing emergency kit
55. lip gloss/chapstick
56. car ice scraper for windshield
57. blank audio cassette tapes
58. car games (mini backgamon, etc.)
59. Far Side desk calendar
60. prepaid phone card (buy 10 free minutes)
61. stamps
62. scented sachets for drawers
63. scented drawer paper liners
64. boxers
65. scarf
66. car wash gift certificate
67. contact lens solution
68. nail polish & remover
69. coffee travel mug
70. coffee warmer electric plates for desk
71. big chip clip (to keep chips fresh)
72. travel laundry bag
73. mini tote umbrella
74. firestarter
75. golf balls!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

MPM--Momentum

Aaaand...we're off! There's no getting around the holidays now. We've had three cookie swaps, two poinsettia fundraisers, and a party (in a pear tree...no, not really, but couldn't resist) this week. The upcoming week is just as whirlwind. It's so hard striking the balance between full-on holiday mode and enough time to let the family recharge. But we're trying...meal planning is part of it.

Things went well last week, for the most part. We flipped around a little and added tacos for my son, who obliged by eating FOUR of them. The experiment of the week was the crockpot Dijon-maple chicken. I'm lousy about remembering amounts of what I need at the supermarket so I had 2 lbs of chicken and doubled the recipe. (Besides, with my 6-quart slow cooker, it makes more sense anyway.) The flavor was good but I would have liked a thicker sauce and would double all but 3 bay leaves and only one cup of chicken stock. I also would have submerged the sweet potatoes as mine discolored. They tasted fine but looked unappetizing.

But the cookies...well, the cranberry blondies were awesome, and The Best Babysitter in the World's add-ins (recipe below) were a huge hit as usual. We enjoyed several other cookies (the chocolate chip gingerbread and the thumbprints come to mind) from the cookie swaps. And now we're just about out so I might bake another batch this week. But the kitchen is finally recovering and it makes it hard to want to get in to another round.

So, this week, another round of strangeness but we're looking forward to it. And I'm trying to be good to myself: I made a big pot of "Zero Point Soup" (courtesy of my Weight Watchers friends); it's pretty good and will make a good, nourishing lunch for me for the week.

Sunday: Apricot Glazed Chicken (remember Dave Lieberman?), made with boneless skinless breasts and still good; sauteed spinach; basmati rice. This is a really good chicken-for-a-crowd recipe and I usually have everything in it in my kitchen already.

Monday: Crock pot pork roast; mashed potatoes; salad; roasted broccoli (trying a new recipe from the paper, will let you know if it goes well)

Tuesday: I'm out at a potluck. I'm bringing most of the chicken, but leaving some at home for my husband and boys. I'll also make a ton of rice for both to go with it, and the boys will probably have applesauce or some other fruit or leftover broccoli.

Wednesday: Pulled pork sandwiches; salad; crockpot roasted vegetables or curried veggies (another recipe I'll post if it goes well).

Thursday: Leftovers or (probably) noodles for the boys. I'm out again at a mutual 40th birthday celebration with a friend (mine was 2 weeks ago, hers is two weeks from this night).

Friday: Out for pizza, I hope.

The bonus to this week? I needed to buy only things like broth, a zucchini or two (for the soup) and the meat and otherwise everything was in my fridge.

Other recipes I'm hoping to make this week: rosemary flatbread for the party since I love it and no one else in my family does, the cookies above, and if the pork goes fast, I might make Garlic Roast Chicken With Rosemary and Lemon for the weekend.

The Best Babysitter in the World's "Add-In" Cookies

Dough
1 stick very soft butter or margarine
1/2 c brown sugar
1/2 c white sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp salt
1 Tbsp baking powder
1 egg (beaten)
1 cup flour
1/2-3/4 C Old Fashioned Oatmeal (rolled oats--*not instant or quick oats*)
~1/2 bag chocolate chips
~1 1/4 cup raisins (with this combo add 1 tsp cinnamon to dough)

Heat oven to 350.
Mix butter, sugar, salt, and vanilla. Mix to creamy; add in egg.
Slowly add in flour and baking powder (dough will be sticky).
Fold in oatmeal and add-in of choice; drop on to lightly greased cookie sheet. Bake 8-10 minutes.

The add-ins I use almost exclusively with this recipe are dried cranberries and white chocolate chips. Especially at holiday time, they are festive and look nice on the table.

And this is yet another reason we are eternally grateful that The Best Babysitter in the World is a part of our lives! We think of her (and how much better she is at baking these cookies) every time we make them!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Christmas Prep Updates

Momentum takes over at this point in December. I haven't been following the blog prep necessarily but every day brings something holiday-related. This week, there were two cookie swaps, two poinsettia fundraisers, a nursery school holiday show (for which I had plenty of cookies!), and lots of finishing touches. The St. Nicholas Tree and Adopt-A-Family projects were due this week, so that took lots of time and work. I think I might not adopt-a-family next year. I get too stressed shopping and praying for them. I know that sounds so dorky but I just ache for the family and feel way, way too responsible. The St. Nicholas Trees are easier; at least there we get a little more direction on what the people want. (The St. Nicholas Trees are faux trees in our church decorated with needs/wants from local service organizations [diapers, LeapFrog toy] and a senior home [our people wanted towels, gas cards, and grocery store gift certificates]).

Today, the boys in the family did a semi-Christmas related thing: they went to the big train show. They had a fabulous time (though one deemed it a disaster since they "didn't buy anything." Oy) checking out all the train layouts. We didn't carol to the homebound yesterday, but we did have quite a sing at the nursery school event. I am continuing the Gift Check; I'm a little fretful about the gift situation; there's no one big thing that either of the kids want so unlike last year, I'm not really confident I have a "knock it out of the park" present for them. Of course I'm also picky at this point and not really thrilled to bring any big things (literally) in to the house so there are some things I've dismissed out of hand. And other things that common sense has just plain removed from the table (example: my one son's request for "a car that I can drive in the street by myself without a helmet." Um, you're five, the answer is NO).

The post about the grocery list and meal planning was helpful in kicking me in to gear for planning what we're bringing to the two major family celebrations and thinking about what we're going to do for the immediate family celebrations here. That was useful as the idea that we would actually need to eat something for breakfast hadn't quite dawned on me. It still might be Life cereal like every other morning but at least it will have been a thoughtful decision! The traditional carrot mousse and macaroni and cheese are without question. The others are a little tougher. I usually try to do some version of seven fishes on Christmas Eve but my husband doesn't love seafood and until this year, due to allergy fears, I tended to keep my kids away from them. (Although my older one has discovered he loves crabcakes. It's a good starting point.) I have a frozen beef tenderloin from the amazing sale earlier this year so I might do the amazing pink peppercorn recipe. And we got boxes of "green" wine (recommended by the picky local critic, and that we found quite good ourselves) and Whole Foods Organic Truffles as gifts for party hosts. Babysitters are set for the parties. I need to figure out what I'm bringing to the potluck on Tuesday, but otherwise am done for food obligations.

I am frustrated we didn't get to the Jesse Tree this year. I might jump in even with 12 days to go. Our tree isn't decorated yet, which is also annoying, but it's been hard to find daylight hours when we are all home. (We keep our live tree on the back porch--no needles in the house, and when the kids were little, less aggravation for mommy.) And just having it, we're way ahead of last year! Oh, and to be fair to ourselves, we got it last Friday night, and Saturday and Sunday we had very high winds, so we quite deliberately chose to wait. Good choice, as despite shoring it up, the tree went horizontal twice. I was also sorry the kids didn't help more with the St. Nicholas Tree shopping more but maybe it's unrealistic to expect that every year.

On the plus side, I stuck to my resolution to not buy anything new for Christmas decor (except the live wreath) since I have more than I can use in the house already. I found the Santa hats and the kids love wearing them (and I love seeing them in the hats!). We've had Christmas music on non-stop. We snuggled in to watch the Christmas specials together and at least one (The Polar Express) went well. (My oldest takes it to heart when Charlie Brown or Rudolf are ostracized by their "friends.") And we have loved using the lights since we put them up over the Thanksgiving weekend--and, to be fair, that's the one thing I bought that is decor related: I couldn't resist the remote control power switch for the lights. It was really for my husband, since he was usually the one traipsing through the garage to get to the plug, and he has loved using it every day so I'm not sorry. And I did finally order my Christmas cards; they'll be delivered to CVS this week. My goal for tomorrow is to do the labels, which I bought today.

If you are looking for inspiration, don't miss BooMama's tour of houses on the 15th. It's adorable and I'm always blown away by how coordinated people are. Ours is not, which is why you won't see pictures here.

And again, my thanks to this site for support both tangible (I'm still loving and using my WrapSack! And I ordered them as part of my theme gift for the family) and intangible (reminders and the sense of not being alone since I don't have family to kibbitz with about holiday prep--I have lots of family but no one left who cares about the minutiae of my days). GIven the closeness of the holiday I don't know where I'll be with posting but I did want to say thanks for the path I could actually follow, with timely, not-overwhelming tasks to keep me on track. I'm looking forward to being able to follow along again!

Friday, December 12, 2008

FFOF 59

Wow, I should have done last week! (I was on deadline and not really up for it. But I do have a super easy crockpot chili I should post next time..)

#1. What’s your favorite kind of roll?

Lately I'm in to ciabattas. But there is a local roll here, made by the family of someone my mom went to elementary school with, and I'm very loyal to them. Their Italian rolls define the genre for me.

#2. Got a tip for keeping your cabinets or pantry organized?

Um, no. My tip? Call City Mouse-Country Mouse!

#3. What’s your favorite kind of pastry?

I really like a cherry turnover or danish.

#4.Share any original recipe. (Why not submit it into my contest too?)

I have no original recipes. I'm lucky I can follow a recipe. Sorry!

Wanna play? Go here--there's a fun recipe contest for you too, if you are someone who makes them up!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

WFMW--vertical tree lights

Sorry for the repeat to my "regular" readers. But last WFMW I was bounced off Mr. Linky (that sounds nasty but it's not) and this treat was such a marriage and sanity saver it deserves to run again!

Wow. This one is more of a paybacks--in a great, slobberingly grateful kind of way--to whoever it was who posted about this last year.

Stringing and unstringing the lights was enough to unhinge my husband, last year and every year we have been together. We would put off buying the tree and once it was purchased, it would usually sit, naked, on our porch while my husband glowered at it, just dreading the Ordeal of the Lights.

I got some of those light storage wheels (for way less than $50, let the record show) a few years ago at the dearly departed and sorely missed Organized Living, and that helped. But we were really to the point of just saying, let's buy the cheapie lights and throw them away with the tree every year. This from a woman who has trouble throwing away a grocery list and is a compulsive recycler. It was that bad.

But last year, when we had really put it off to the last minute (Christmas Eve at 4pm, anyone? Yes, church bells were ringing as we were pulling out of the lot). The kids were excited and so were we, but my husband's jaw was tighter and tighter...and then I remembered.

"Honey, I read online someone who said they strung their lights vertically and it made it much easier to get them off, at least."

Pause. Pause. And then, from my husband, "That might work. And it can't be worse. Let's try."

It took a little bit of fooling around to get the depth we wanted and to figure out how to secure them without gravity's assistance. But eventually it worked out, and with one minor exception of a little bunch of lights falling off at the bottom of one branch, it looked good--or at least remarkably similar to other years. The drop hadn't happened yet when this picture was taken. (And please note the sincere decorating of the tree, which was mostly accomplished by our then 4 and 2 year old sons. With a few "high branch" exceptions, we just put the hooks on the ornaments and they did the whole thing, giddy with excitement and enthusiasm as dusk settled on our porch on Christmas Eve. I will treasure that part of the memory forever, too.)

But the proof was in the pudding when the time came to take them down. I got all the ornaments off, then took the box to the basement as there was a threat of rain. (Which might have, you know, damaged the cardboard box we keep the unbreakable plastic ornaments in.) By the time I got back to the porch, he had all the lights off the tree. All of them. 10 strings. In the time it took to get to and from the basement of a split level. And he said, "We will never do this another way again."

So thank you, whoever you were. You truly saved us many unpleasant hours last Christmas and many in to the future. And if you need to string and unstring lights on your tree--think about it for this year!

So thank you, whoever you are who posted that. For more good ideas, go see Shannon at Rocks in my Dryer!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

MPM--Holiday Swing

Greetings, menu planners!

One recipe that wasn't on my MPM last week was our Sunday dinner. I don't usually include weekend meals because they are often leftovers or at the grandparents' or some other thing that isn't necessarily interesting or useful. But every once in a while, I have Sunday afternoon to try something new, and last week was one of these. It was a busy weekend, with family and turkey and all, but there was this recipe for chicken with onions and garlic hanging around and it seemed like a good thing for a fall weekend. It was easy and delicious and so I put the recipe at the bottom of this post.

Another recipe I tried this week was the Asian Turkey Burgers. They were ok. I made two changes to the recipe, which I am sure made a difference: 1) I didn't have cilantro, so skipped it, and 2) used chicken instead of turkey. They were fine but I have other chicken burgers I prefer so I don't know that I'll be making them again. Still, other than the cilantro, I had everything in the house already (I think some Rachael Ray recipe called for hoisin?) so they did score a bonus point for that. Also, I used my iron skillet again, which I am still mastering. Mine is not really non-stick for food yet, though it's a pretty easy cleanup. The burgers came out pretty uneven (caramelized-to-burned on one half of one side, barely cooked on the other half of the same side). I used Pam for the first set and olive oil for the second...didn't make much difference except in the amount of smoke and particulates in the kitchen. Anyway. I'll post the recipe under the other chicken recipe, but it wasn't a major winner. Though it should be noted, my kids ate them up in a hurry. And, by definition, if it's from DBD, it can be made to point of cooking and frozen for future use--a huge plus in my house.

I know a ton of you from MPM have been following the Year of Crockpotting blog already but if you aren't there yet, she's really innovative. (And better late than never, right?) My first meal of the week is from her, and I think I'll be trying some others--the roasted spiced nuts and roasted veggies come to mind instantly since I have a ton of sweet potatoes and some parsnips from a misguided Delicious Living inspired moment.

And my last blog-inspired recipe for the week: though the mushroom casserole looks ideal to me, I don't think another creature in the house would touch it (sigh). So I'm going to try this feta salsa instead; we have everything for this, too, I think, with the possible (probable) exception of the sun dried tomatoes. (Sun dried tomato pesto, yes; actual tomatoes, we'll have to see.) The other thing this week: cookies. The younger one has his holiday program at preschool on Friday (and then it's break already! Aack! They are going to kill me with all this time off. At least my last work deadline for the year is on Thursday.) I tried these banana chip cookies (finally); they were ok. I'm still not sold on whole wheat flour (even the pastry version) or wheat germ, but I'm trying hard to stretch my kids' palates that direction. Still, for the requisite dozen cookies to the holiday program, I'll be bringing something else. Maybe these Cranberry Blondies from Two Fat Als, though I add more white chocolate and sprinkle some turbinado sugar on top to more closely approximate the piece of heaven these are based on from Starbucks. And, they are an outstanding use of my leftover cranberries.

Oh, and the birthday dinner? Amazing. We went here (for the locals). Standouts were the baby beets with skordalia (which I'd never heard of; it was described, correctly, as like hummus but--as I learned later--made with potatoes, usually, instead of chickpeas) and, the real star, the butternut squash soup with cinnamon marshmallow smeared on the side of the bowl and quick-torched to a toasted consistency. So good I have trouble describing it.

Are you still here? This week's menus, and last Sunday's dinner recipe, below.

Monday: This recipe for maple-Dijon chicken that kept floating around the web. Just need the chicken for this one. Rice, salad, something with carrots.

Tuesday: Spaghetti and sausage sauce.

Wednesday: Autumn Pork Roast, mashed potatoes, salad.

Thursday: Leftovers or freezer meal (all those gnocchi and ravioli are still hanging around).

Friday: We're out to a party. Will probably order pizza/cheesesteak for the kids. (Mother of the year!)
************************
Last Sunday's Dinner

I got this recipe some time ago from the food section of my city paper. I haven't tried the cookbook itself but if this recipe is indicative, it would be a good one. My notes follow recipe.

Chicken Breasts with Caramelized Sweet Onions and Garlic
makes 4 servings

4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, 4-6 oz each, pounded to uniform thickness
2 large sweet onions, sliced stem to root (not rings)
20 garlic cloves, peeled and slightly smashed to flatten
1 C dry white wine or reduced-sodium chicken broth
1/2 cup nicoise or other small olives

In a large, well-oiled skillet on high heat, cook chicken until browned, about 2 minutes per side. Transfer to plate.
In the same skillet, stir-fry the onions and garlic until lightly browned, 3-5 minutes.
Add the wine; bring to a boil, stirring often and scraping up any browned bits in the pan. Reduce heat to medium, cover and cook, stirring often to prevent burning. Cook until softened and browned, about 15 minutes.
Return the chicken and juices to the pan. Stir in olives. Cover. Cook until chicken is done, 3-5 minutes.

-from The 5:30 Challenge by Jeanne Besser and Susan Puckett

Anyone who knows me knows that I used the "Italian Style Chicken Cutlets" from my butcher for this rather than pounding raw meat.
For the garlic, I wasn't sure how many cloves came in a head so I got two. One was fine but some of the cloves were huge. Still delicious.
We used sweet white and kalamatas and still enjoyed quite a bit. Really recommended. The kids ate it, too. (Well, the little one ate the chicken. The older one ate the chicken and the olives and eventually some of the onions too.)


Dinner by Design's Asian Turkey Burgers
Ingredients
1/2 cup panko bread crumbs
1/3 cup sliced green onion
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
2 Tbl soy sauce
2 Tbl rice wine vinegar
1 egg, lightly beaten
2 Tbl hoisin sauce
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 lbs lean ground turkey
6 hamburger buns

In a bowl, stir together the panko, green onion, cilantro, soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, egg, hoisin, and garlic. Crumble ground turkey over the seasoning ingredients and mix well. Form into six patties, about 4 inches in diameter.

To grill or broil burgers, preheat grill/broiler to medium-high heat. Grill, covered, or broil 4 inches from heat source for 15-20 minutes, turning once until a meat thermometer reads 165. Alternately, burgers can be cooked in a lightly oiled skillet over medium-low heat for 15-20 minutes, turning once or until thermometer reads 165. Serve on buns.

As noted above, I used 1 lb of chicken instead and still got 7 burgers out of it. We didn't use buns. Like most chicken burgers, this would have benefited from sauce of some kind. I wished I'd had Bittersweet Herb Farm's Wasabi Ginger but we were out. And I found it took way longer than 15 minutes on medium low, but again, it might be me trying to get used to the iron skillet.

Until next week!

Friday, December 5, 2008

All For You

No, really, it's for me. Thanks to the Twitter tweet from Shannon of Rocks in my Dryer with a link to this invaluable holiday resource: a list of all the Christmas specials and the times they will be shown on TV.

I'm posting it here to share, yes, but also so I know where to find it. Pathetic, but there it is. I know most browsers have "Favorites" lists for things like this but mine are so overcrowded it's easier to just find it here on my blog.

Already it has been valuable to me to learn that the Grinch on tonight is not the one I have been looking forward to all year.

It's a bit hard figuring out what to show my kids. "Blockhead" has only recently been re-erased from the vocabulary after the Charlie Brown Halloween. And The Polar Express scared the daylights out of them in different spots, and neither particularly enjoyed Santa Claus is Coming to Town with the BurgerMeister, whose anti-toy legislation made no sense to them. And despite my completely unreasonable joy at Heat and Cold Miser, my one son is so frightened by them that he flatly refuses to watch. This leads to harumphing by the parent exiled with the boy.

This would also be a good time to update on 100 Days to Christmas but to be honest, between my 40th birthday (hello, I hated answering my age on the survey I took tonight) and a crush of reading, I haven't done a thing since last Saturday when I wrapped 15 presents (which you might think would be enough, but no, there are many more) and put up the outside lights. Inside, it might as well be June with the amount of holiday stuff. But reading marathon #2 ends Dec. 10 and I'll get back in the swing then. No, really, you watch. I will. Oh, wait, we did bake cookies. But then it was back to the grind, and they are not especially holiday-themed cookies (banana/chocolate chip; a worthy experiment with wheat germ and whole wheat but meh, not really a winner unless you are out of other desserts, which we are). But I'm sure they'll be excellent with some cocoa and some Christmas specials.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Sign of the Times II

Anyone seen any acorns lately? Check here for a somewhat bizarre article. I have certainly seen oak leaves but not so many acorns this year. Our round-bally tree continues to produce but with somewhat strange droppings this year (unusual color, smaller size). I remember last year there were plenty of acorns to collect, and two years ago, humongous ones, almost golf-ball sized, that were of tremendous interest to the older boy. The squirrels here look plenty well-fed but that could be from our pumpkins and defeated attempts at composting.

This is the stuff of creepy sci-fi stories of my adolescence (or, I suppose, M. Night Shayamalan's latest movie): the trees all decide to shut down at once at wait for better times. Or something. I just know if the squirrels get any more aggressive, the dog will have a nervous breakdown. And it would explain the very unusual pillaging of our plastic/glass recycling by the squirrels. A peanut butter jar was in the tree outside our front window for two days after recycling was collected, and then, once chewed to a pulp, was discarded on our front lawn. When even the squirrels feel like they can trash my yard, the neighborhood is really going downhill. Next thing you know, they'll be ringing our doorbell and running away laughing. I'd better keep them away from my toilet paper.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Sign of the Times

My two kids were at a nearby playground, running around with a lovely little girl they'd just met.

Older one hops on a red swing. "I'm McCain!" he crows.

Younger one hops on a blue swing. "I'm Obama!" he says happily.

Little girl, age 5, not to be outdone, eyes the swings, hops on a blue one, and says, "I'm Hillary!"

There is hope.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

MPM--Birthday Edition!

Greetings, fellow MPMers. Hope all of you from the states had a beautiful Thanksgiving.

To follow up on ours: I was in charge of carrot mousse, yum, and another veggie. I tried the brussels sprouts from 101 Kitchens that I mentioned last week. They were easily the best brussels sprouts I'd ever had, which was probably partially because they were fresh from the farmers' market, and partially because how can you go wrong cooking anything in olive oil and sprinkling with cheese when done? I enjoyed them but no one else seemed to, and I concurred that they would be best right out of the pan. So that wasn't a good thing to bring to Thanksgiving.

Then, voila! Along comes the amazing Smitten Kitchen with the cauliflower gratin recipe. And how kind of my CSA to provide me with the cauliflower! So all I needed was the cheese and there it was. Alas, purple cauliflower is hard to find around here but it was fun hunting for it with the boys. They were fascinated by the idea of a blue vegetable. And, it reminded me of the BooMama recipe for two-cheese squash casserole, in case I needed that too. I ran out of time on that one, but the purple cauliflower and the gratin in general were mega hits.

My other job was my husband's birthday cake. He wanted a chocolate chip cake with miniature chips, so like a good wife, I tracked down his mother's recipe and made it for him. Recipe is at the end of the post, and my word, do I ever recommend this. Not surprisingly for a recipe from someone who had five kids, it's easy for kids to help with this, an extra bonus in my book. And it was very, very fun to have made the thing that made my sisters-in-law flutter around like moths to a flame, saying things like, "This really is the best birthday cake ever, isn't it?"

This week:

Monday: Chicken roll ups (really, I'm not kidding this time), salad, onion/rice thing from How to Cook Everything Vegetarian before it goes back to the library.

Tuesday: Leftovers or freezer meal. I have a world class collection of Trader Joe's gnocchi in my freezer. I also was horrified and thrilled to discover a ton of frozen filets mignons in there. So to say goodbye to my 30s, I think we'll do filets with baked potatoes and creamed spinach. Easy, decadent, delicious, and definitely not turkey!

Wednesday: Totally going out to dinner. You only turn 40 once so I hope it's somewhere good! :-)

Thursday: Would you believe I still never made those Asian Turkey Burgers? This is definitely their night. But with chicken. Carrots and salad on the side, and either mashed potatoes or leftover rice thing.

Friday: Either some of those gnocchi from the freezer or out to dinner (yes, again, but it would be pizza night this time).

And--ta-dah!--here we are at the end of another NaBloPoMo. Aren't you glad I can take a break now? I am! And I'm sure my employer is too. Happy December!

Recipe for my Mother-in-law's Chocolate Chip Cake

"So you can bake a cake just like his mother's!!" she wrote.

1 box yellow cake mix
1 package instant vanilla pudding (I used the four-serving one)
4 eggs
1 cup water
1/2 cup Wesson oil (which I had to buy for this recipe)

Put all ingredients in large mixer bowl, beat 5-7 minutes.

Grate 1 bar German chocolate. Put half of this plus
1 Cup chocolate chips and fold in to batter.

Bake at 350 for 40-50 minutes in greased 9 X 13 pan.

Cool cake.
Sprinkle 1 Cup powdered sugar mixed with other half of shaved German chocolate bar on top of cake.

Notes: I had no idea what German chocolate was; I was ready to head to Trader Joe's and get something that looked Germanic. But it's actually over by the bakers' chocolate and comes in a bar not unlike that. You could probably substitute a Special Dark or similar, but this was awesome.
And, my husband likes mini chocolate chips and about 3/4 of the bag in this. Um, yum.
Finally, a whole cup of powdered sugar was way, way too much for me. I'd go for 1/4 to 1/2 next time. But it sure makes a fun "poof" on the candle blowing!

Saturday, November 29, 2008

SHS--What? Almost Christmas?

Ok, I know I have a Christmas countdown widget on my sidebar, but really. When did Christmas get to be flippin' four weeks away!? (That would be this week, as Advent starts tonight, obviously. But still.)

I had one bad off-the-wagon night on bedtime this week but otherwise did well. And the late night was when my husband and I started watching the Colbert Christmas Special which was utterly hilarious. I regret nothing.

Moving 30 minutes a day was harder as it was freezing, a short school week for kids but not a short work week for Dad, and my cold lingered. But I did get out four days, which is three more than I usually do. So that was mixed success.

This week, I hope to continue with both to some extent, but the focus must be on the house. We got the new TV, but haven't had time to rearrange and build the furniture that goes around and with it. A (family) crew is coming to the house to help--cousins to run the boys, beefy nephews to move heavy pieces, patient readers of Ikea directions to help put things together. And the house is such a mess, there's nowhere to put the stuff that needs to come off the shelves temporarily, let alone decorate for Christmas.

So, fifteen minutes a day this week has to go in to decluttering. It's not enough, but it will be enough of a start, I hope, to do more of the decorating I want to do by next week, and to take advantage of the family work crew. And meanwhile, the Advent wreath and calendars are ready, which is the most critical, and...my house isn't cluttered outside! And it's in the 50s here so this is as good as outside decorating weather gets. Wish us luck!

Friday, November 28, 2008

FFOF 57

Wanna play? Go here!

#1. What’s your favorite carbonated beverage?

Oh, easy. Coca-Cola Classic decaffeinated. Which is really tied with the regular CocaCola classic. I don't drink aspartame so most diet sodas don't work for me. Also high on the list: Orangina and the Peach Pear Italian Soda from Archer Farms (Target's house brand). I know soda is so, so bad for me but I cannot deal without the bubbles for long. It is the hardest Lenten sacrifice I do (and I do a bunch!).

#2. What’s your favorite spicy food?

It's funny, I crave really complex, layered flavors, but not necessarily spicy ones. I love palak paneer and some other Indian dishes, which I suppose is the closest to spicy that I get. Even then, though, I'm putting raita all over everything to tone it down.

#3. How do you handle hot dishes? Oven mitt, pot holder, towel?

Oven mitt. I am too uncoordinated to try anything else. Or rather, to succeed at anything else. I have, in fact, tried.

#4. Ice cream. How do you like yours?

Straight in a bowl, after resting on the counter for 10 minutes, unless it's from my favorite parlor in the mountains, in which case, a sugar cone please. Favorite flavors are many. I love pumpkin ice cream and peach ice cream from Bassett's. My old-time favorite is mint chocolate chip. My new favorite is Moosetracks. My favorite of the 31 flavors is pecan praline. And I adore Ben & Jerry's Cherry Garcia frozen yogurt. And I cannot buy Haagen Dazs Dolce de Leche.

Still in a food mood from Thanksgiving? Try your own!

Thursday, November 27, 2008

For Thee, I Am Thankful

Not much today, except to focus on two things for which I am grateful.

First, I filled my tank yesterday--for $25. Gas dropped to $1.89 at my favorite station. It's still at $2.04 at most places around here. Nerd that I am, I figured out that the gas price differential is enough to offset the further drive to this station. On the way to my favorite place, there's a former gas station that went out of business before my three year old was born. The old prices are still up there, with regular starting at $1.67.

I remember that it was before the little one was born because his birth came at the time of a gas price spike. He was a week late, and as my husband and I drove to the hospital for the checkup that became my induction, I noted that gas at the station we passed on the way was at $2.65, a good price for that month, with a wry smile as we passed the $1.67 sign too.

While my second son was born, Hurricane Katrina happened. (Nothing like thinking of women laboring in hellish conditions to make you feel like a complete wuss.) But when we came home, it was hard to believe it was only three days later; gas at the station was now $3.65.

It kept climbing from there, and eventually settled back down, of course. And even then, I took real pride in price hunting, and rarely paid over $3/gallon for gas. Of course, this year, it spiked to around $4/gallon and the hits couldn't be avoided. I was frustrated; while milk and coke and moisturizer were way, way more than $4/gallon, I felt like if I were paying that much for gas, I wanted at least $1 of that to be a tax for something useful, like rebuilding social security, or, you know, roads. Instead, I was making the richest company and richest country in the history of the world even richer, and that didn't feel good at all.

I never thought I'd see sub-$2 gas again. And now that it's here, I am thankful. I can only imagine how thankful people are who drive more than I do, or are paid less than I am. And while I still feel the same about a gas tax, and pray that this doesn't make people forget about hybrids and other alternative fuel technologies, I'm going to enjoy this little respite where, for the first time in a long time, that defunct sign just doesn't look quite as crazy.

************

I know. I'm a mom and a wife and I have a house with a mortgage that's current and a family with an all out feast coming up later today and I'm grateful for gas prices?! How...cold.

Of course I'm grateful for my kids. I loved Emily's post at Mothers of Brothers, where she wrote about being grateful for the luxury of having small things to gripe about, and feel the same way. The boys know I'm thankful for them (I tell them every night as part of our good-night ritual). And my husband ought to know I'm grateful for him too. But today is his birthday, and it makes me extra grateful for the amazing opportunity I had: to spend another year of his life with him.

For the two of you who may not know, I was in love with my husband for ten years before we got engaged. I noticed him by the lockers one day when I was a sophomore and he was a junior and thought he was totally cute. I joined the newspaper to be near him. (Of course, we never really talked at all. I couldn't breathe when he was near me, let alone form sentences.) After many letters (remember them?) back and forth when he was at college, we became friends. And a mere seven years after that, we got engaged.

There was no end to my joy. I had studied everything about him before he knew how to spell my name. I knew in my heart I could never get married until he was married because I didn't think I could truly commit to someone else if there were even a tiny hope of his availability.

Today, he still makes me swoon. Watching him do anything with the kids takes my breath away. Even a trip to the recycling center becomes a multi-modal learning opportunity and chance for fun. He is the only one the dog will come to. He thinks I'm crazy when I tell him things like that I still wake up in the middle of the night just to look at him and marvel that we are together.

Not everyone gets this. Not everyone gets this for as long as we have had. He is still my dream come true, but now in ways even bigger and better than I could have dreamed--and I have quite an imagination.

For who he is, and for being lucky enough to be his wife, and getting to spend every day with one of my favorite people in the world, I am thankful. Happy birthday, honey. (If you ever read this!)

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

WFMW--vertical tree lights

Wow. This one is more of a paybacks--in a great, slobberingly grateful kind of way--to whoever it was who posted about this last year.

Stringing and unstringing the lights was enough to unhinge my husband, last year and every year we have been together. We would put off buying the tree and once it was purchased, it would usually sit, naked, on our porch while my husband glowered at it, just dreading the Ordeal of the Lights.

I got some of those light storage wheels (for way less than $50, let the record show) a few years ago at the dearly departed and sorely missed Organized Living, and that helped. But we were really to the point of just saying, let's buy the cheapie lights and throw them away with the tree every year. This from a woman who has trouble throwing away a grocery list and is a compulsive recycler. It was that bad.

But last year, when we had really put it off to the last minute (Christmas Eve at 4pm, anyone? Yes, church bells were ringing as we were pulling out of the lot). The kids were excited and so were we, but my husband's jaw was tighter and tighter...and then I remembered.

"Honey, I read online someone who said they strung their lights vertically and it made it much easier to get them off, at least."

Pause. Pause. And then, from my husband, "That might work. And it can't be worse. Let's try."

It took a little bit of fooling around to get the depth we wanted and to figure out how to secure them without gravity's assistance. But eventually it worked out, and with one minor exception of a little bunch of lights falling off at the bottom of one branch, it looked good--or at least remarkably similar to other years. The drop hadn't happened yet when this picture was taken. (And please note the sincere decorating of the tree, which was mostly accomplished by our then 4 and 2 year old sons. With a few "high branch" exceptions, we just put the hooks on the ornaments and they did the whole thing, giddy with excitement and enthusiasm as dusk settled on our porch on Christmas Eve. I will treasure that part of the memory forever, too.)

But the proof was in the pudding when the time came to take them down. I got all the ornaments off, then took the box to the basement as there was a threat of rain. (Which might have, you know, damaged the cardboard box we keep the unbreakable plastic ornaments in.) By the time I got back to the porch, he had all the lights off the tree. All of them. 10 strings. In the time it took to get to and from the basement of a split level. And he said, "We will never do this another way again."

So thank you, whoever you were. You truly saved us many unpleasant hours last Christmas and many in to the future. And if you need to string and unstring lights on your tree--think about it for this year!

So thank you, whoever you are who posted that. For more good ideas, go see Shannon at Rocks in my Dryer!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Update: Cauliflower Found!

Gold star to the commenter who guessed the veggie stand that needed police yesterday!

And many thanks to the indispensable Janssen's. Had to cross state lines to get it, but have you ever seen your kids jump up and down with excitement over cauliflower? Check me off as someone who never thought she'd see it, but there it was.

And look at that--it matches my blog!

The Hunt for the Blue Cauliflower

Oh, Blogville, you torment me so. My boys saw this recipe for cauliflower gratin, right when I was looking for that next veggie to bring to Thanksgiving. And they were hooked. A blue vegetable?! Really? No, seriously?

Our CSA and beloved little town market had the orange. But blue? Nowhere to be found outside New York City, I'm afraid. But we did have a ball at all the little fruit and veggie places I know.

My all time favorite, which is EVERYBODY's all time favorite, was packed. It is, after all, just about Thanksgiving. Have you ever seen a policeman doing traffic duty in a veggie stand's parking lot? Welcome to our world yesterday. Alas, this awesome place did me no good in the blue cauliflower department. But the 79 cent avocados practically made me weep with joy. And the Del Monte Gold pineapples! They really are the best. And the blackberries were consumed practically before we got home. So the trip certainly wasn't wasted. But the search for the blue cauliflower continues.

Whole Foods didn't have it. Wegmans let me down, though one did have green cauliflower, which might be an interesting counterpoint to the orange. The little health food store didn't have it. And my cheap butcher? Ha! I'm lucky he has anything that isn't bread or meat.

The silver lining? My boys were actually excited about trying to find a vegetable. They were all about the thrill of the hunt, and trying the other produce we found along the way. Neither liked egg nog, but both tried it. (Favorite was the older one: "It tastes pretty good, but I don't like the way it smells.") And the older one was snarfing berries from me left and right. The younger one continues on his no-plant-based-foods-except-rolls strike. If he eats any more cheese, mice will start sniffing him out. He's even eliminated the once-reliable hummus and avocado (not together) and strawberries from his food repetoire. He'll help me make anything; he loves to be in the kitchen. The actual eating, though, is a bit of an issue.

But they were fun company yesterday and handled the disappointment well when we didn't find any. (And there really was disappointment! Over cauliflower!) The search continues...

Meanwhile, do check out 100 Days to Christmas today. They are in pre-Thanksgiving mode today, which is great for the timing impaired like me. It was a help to me in realizing that despite the fun chase yesterday, I still don't have some crucial ingredients for things I am bringing to the feast, and some good tips on how to get ready (pre-chop veggies, etc.). And, if you leave a comment over there, you'll be eligible to win a WrapSack--and I have to tell you, I am loving mine! It's a strong, light, full-sized tote that zips up smaller than my wallet (which, ok, isn't hard...it's a big wallet), and since it fits in my purse, I see it when I check out and actually remember to use it.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Glamour Gift of the Year

Well. For those of you who have been following 100 Days to Christmas, you are well aware last week was Clean the House Week. While not nearly as involved as the Grand Plan crew would have you do, it was more than I could take--and not just because of my small boys and aversion to housecleaning.

We got a new sewer line last week. The gift that keeps on giving!

Understand something here. We've been in this house for about eight years now. Part of why we bought it was that it was in great shape--newish roof, sound appliances and systems, etc. There were things we wanted to do, but little we *had* to do.

Until the first baby was born.

And really, even before that. The summer I was pregnant with my first child, I was living in the only room with air conditioning--out bedroom. All The Time. I would make dinner and take it upstairs. I would really leave only for work and critical household maintenance (laundry, throwing dishes at the dishwasher, etc.). So, we got central air. That was good.

The next project was also baby-related; all the relatives came, which was great; but a sizable number are over 80 years old. At the time, our front lawn was covered in the horrible little spiky balls that fall from our tree, and had a few amateurishly placed flagstones as steps up to our front door. I was petrified watching everyone come in, thinking I'd need to call an ambulance because the geriatric set wanted to see my baby. It took lots of the joy out of the visits for me. So we hardscaped. We put in new steps, with lighting; a new landing at the base of the steps; a new retaining wall, and, soon after, a new driveway. These were all great quality of life improvements for us and all who visit.

A continuing problem, though, was our sewer line. Our powder room always seemed like an afterthought. The sewer line was built with no trap or access spout, so to clean out the sewer, the toilet had to be pulled from the floor. By the time we moved in, the wax seal wasn't even there anymore, and the top of the tank was mismatched, probably because the original crashed in one of the pulls.

The sewer line needed snaking about once or twice a year for the first few years. Then it was three times a year. Then quarterly. And something had to give.

We had several companies come by and give estimates; all included displacing some of the hardscaping, which gave me tremendous agita. But one--our plumber, of all people--said he knew a way to do it with minimal excavation. We crossed our fingers and took a chance.

Well. Thank goodness we did. The long story short is that a job that was supposed to take one hour one afternoon and part of the next day ballooned in to a three-day song and dance. It turned out our sewer line doesn't go straight from the house to the street. It meanders under our driveway and takes some odd turns until it spills out essentially under our next door neighbor's house. The usual depth of a sewer line is 7 feet. Ha! Try 11. They thought they'd need 40 feet of pipe. They used 78. Did I mention it snowed? (Fortunately not the fabu little 4-inch surprise, but heavy flurries that couldn't have been fun in a squishy 11 foot hole.) The cheery demeanor of the digging crew turned grim, and our usually chatty plumber made himself scarce. As it turned out, we had chunks of the sewer pipe that were completely enclosed by tree roots, none of which the camera had captured.

But, all was well that ended well. There were a few little snafus, but the end of the story is that we have a sewer line that actively drains water. I've never seen a utility sink drain this fast in a house where I live. It's kind of thrilling.

And, all in one post, that's what I'm getting for Christmas. It's also what my husband is getting for Christmas. And I thought it was my birthday gift, but then I got surprised with Madonna tickets! It was an awesome concert--she is unbelievable live.

So that's why I didn't clean up last week. I might have made an effort, but with the dirt and mud being tracked in, it didn't make much sense. On the plus side, I got food prep for the holiday done (things in the freezer, ready to go for that day), and only have one more thing to buy for the family presents. In looking for the boots and snowpants, I also got to see what holiday wear we have for the boys (critical point: none in size five or six, so off to a sale for me, to find something for PickyBoy that we can both live with). (And don't get me wrong, I admire him for sticking to his own fashion sense but it can make some things tricky.) And--finally--we got the Christmas card designed and ready to go, in time to use the coupon even!

So, I feel pretty well back on track, though there's lots of re-placing to do. (Bookshelves needed moving, etc.) Hope your holiday prep is on target and leaving you cheery about the upcoming times instead of stressed!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

MPM--Healthy by Mistake Edition

Despite my cold, I actually got a lot of cooking done last week. I had borrowed How to Cook Everything Vegetarian from the library, Mark Bittman's followup to the book that taught me to cook.

I also did my pre-Thanksgiving-dinner (turkey breast, stuffing, cranberry sauce, etc.) for the church (and us). In a moment of inspiration and meat on sale (unlike the turkey--see below), I got the stuff for my favorite crock pot stroganoff, which replaced the chicken roll-ups. Since it can't be easier, I included the recipe below.

Rachael Ray's turkey shepherd's pie was a hit again, which was somewhat of a surprise, since I was sick and not paying attention. I only bought 1 lb of ground turkey (just as well, it was expensive) instead of the 2 the recipe calls for. So I thought I'd do some extra carrots and onions. I chopped them in the food processor (I was sick and looking for shortcuts). They were so little, they didn't look like enough, so I added more. Because they were chopped, my boys couldn't pick them out of the main dish, as they have sometimes been known to do. But they still enjoyed the flavor, and ate enough for dessert. (Well, one did, anyway. The little one is on a real strike here.) I also have a stuffy nose and added more pepper and Worcestershire than usual. Still a huge hit overall, and even healthier with the extra veggies. Bonus.

Meals for this week:

Monday: Asian Turkey Burgers that I never got to last week (recipe from Dinners By Design; I'll post it if they are good), salad, rice, carrots of unknown recipe (I have some cool rainbow ones from the CSA that I'm trying to do justice to), salad

Tuesday: freezer meal. Probably Trader Joe's flatbread, salad, and maybe the little veggie dumplings. Yum.

Wednesday: Pre-Thanksgiving fast. Kidding! Leftovers, though, as I'll be getting ready for the next day.

Thursday: Thanksgiving. I'm in charge of carrot mousse and a veggie TBD...and a birthday cake for my husband! He wants a chocolate chip cake. Any suggestions for recipes would be appreciated. For the TBD veggie, I'm toying with creamed spinach...though I seem to recall that wasn't a hit last time someone brought it. I'm also considering these brussels sprouts from 101 Cookbooks, or possibly her pumpkin salad recipe since I have a spare pumpkin from my CSA hanging around here, or maybe even her green beans with leeks since I love leeks, and who is eating the vegetables anyway, and don't the brussels sprouts serve you right for dissing the creamed spinach?! I digress.

Friday: Not-leftover leftovers from Thanksgiving. And really, pizza for the boys and something yummy for us as I'll be taking my husband out for dinner for his birthday to an undisclosed location.

Crockpot recipe below. Have a good week and a happy Thanksgiving! For more meal planning ideas and inspiration, head over to OrgJunkie's!

************************************************
Easy Beef Stroganoff (adapted from Fix It and Forget It for Entertaining)

1 can Campbell's Cream of Mushroom (lowfat works fine too)
1 can Campbell's Beef Broth
2 lbs stew meat (beef chunks)
1 container mushrooms, sliced (optional) (or get the container of presliced mushrooms, that works too)
1 cup sour cream (lowfat works fine too)
1 bag egg noodles

Combine soups in crockpot. Add meat.
Cook on high for 3-4 hours. Add mushrooms.
Cook on low for 3-4 more hours.
When you are getting ready for dinner, cook the noodles according to package directions.
When you put the water on, stir in 1 cup of sour cream to crockpot.
When noodles are done, drain well and add to crockpot. (Note: if crockpot is small, start with half a package of noodles.)
Stir to mix, and serve.
Variation: the original recipe calls for only 1 lb of meat, but that always feels chintzy to me.
There might be healthier noodles you can use but I haven't found any that work well yet. If someone else has success let me know! Meanwhile, egg noodles were on a big sale this week so that was inspirational.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Smart Habit Saturday--update

So, here's what I learned about myself this week.

1) I do better on memes when I'm not the only one doing them.

2) When I have a nasty cold, I am more likely to go to bed at a decent hour anyway.

3) If I turn off the computer, I am more likely to go to bed at a decent hour.

I would not necessarily call this week a huge success; one night, I collapsed on the sofa next to my husband, watching the 10 o'clock news, and didn't wake up again until almost 1am, but the cuddles were worth it. I didn't consider that night a failure.

So. This week, I'm going to try to continue with the decent bedtime hours. I'm also going to add "move 30 extra minutes a day." I had tried to get that started right when my cold hit and between exhaustion and stuffy head, the poor dog was lucky to get around the block once a day. But I'm getting back there. We'll see how it goes.

Friday, November 21, 2008

FFOF 56

Here we are again! Wanna play? Go here.

#1. What’s the worst tasting food you’ve ever eaten?

Hmm...a tie, between my beloved aunt's mincemeat pie (I was 10 and it had so much alcohol in it my mouth was burning!) or the hamloaf my mother used to make. I have no idea why I was so grossed out by it...it should have been a total winner. But I just found it nasty.

Texture is another whole issue...and so are looks. (On the first night of our Italian honeymoon on a teeny isle on Lago Maggiore, an appetizer was "fish of the lake," prepared breaded. I was imagining a filet. But no, it was, in fact, the fish of the lake, small feeder-goldfish sized, tossed in some breadcrumbs and flash fried whole. Might have been delicious but I'll never know.)

#2. Share a funny or embarassing story about a meal you’re made.

Oh, good Lord, where to begin? The time I found wheat germ cookie recipes to use up the wheat germ in my cabinet only to learn my wheat germ had gone rancid when it was time to add it to the batter? The time we made a pound cake for dessert for my husband's family for Mother's Day and it would have been better suited to being a brick for the house? The list goes on. I am not an accomplished cook...there is a reason we always are in charge of bringing beer to family events!

#3. What food do you burn or have problems cooking most often?

Well, I finally mastered fried eggs (new non-stick pan helped a lot with that); currently it's anything in my slow cooker, which (ironically) cooks faster than my old one. I had to chuck an entire pork roast last week. That hurt. I'm also paranoid about undercooking meat in any form and have gone through three different meat thermometers this year alone. It's amazing we're not vegetarian yet with my meat issues, really.

#4. Name two foods you’ll be eating on this Thanksgiving.

Carrot mousse and the gooey sweet potato thing my sister in law Kathy makes. As she likes to point out, in a bowl, it's a vegetable. In a pie shell, it's dessert!

Happy Thanksgiving to all, and no whammies in the kitchen!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Bloggy Updates #2

I am often curious about people's blogrolls. Are these people they know? How did their paths cross? How did they find the blogs? So I'm using some of these days to continue highlighting some of my friends with blogs on the side of my page.

Before the word "blog" had even entered my vocabulary as anything permanent, as opposed to a little computer gibbit that might or might not be a flash in the pan, my excellent early-adopter friend, Shelley, started one as a way to keep people posted on her job hunt. She and her partner are excellent savers and had stored up cash in their dual-salary years to allow Shelley to stay home for the first three years of their baby's life. Then, it was time to head back to work, and Shelley kept us all up to date on how the search was going through her blog. It was a great way to let people check in when they had time and yet not have to keep re-typing over and over and not having to say, "Where did we leave off?" I thought it was genius--par for the course for Shelley, though. We originally met off the web years ago when she was one of my first admissions mentors. She was always honest, true to herself, positive, and looking for ways to improve systems. I was crushed when she announced she was leaving, but even there, she blazed a trail for those beyond her to follow as she was the first long-timer in memory to leave not only without incurring the boss's wrath, but actually getting a positive recommendation and pledge of support from him. I am fortunate to have had several excellent mentors in my field, but none taught me more than Shelley did. These days, she's probably blogging about her family (job stuff tends to go on a different site), or showing off excellent photos, or sharing poetry (mostly haiku). You can check her out at But Wait, There's More!

One blog on my blogroll that bears little resemblance in content to the others is Whispers in the Loggia. Like But Wait, it was started before I really even understood what a blog was all about. The reason it is on my blogroll is because it's actually the labor of love of one of my former workstudy students. He was always one of my favorites; a hard worker who never forgot a face (or, unlike me, the name that went with it). He has had a lifelong love of the Catholic church, which, in classic Catholic fashion, has been repaid alternately with rich blessings and deep acceptance, or cold shoulders and cutting cruelty. When the church finally decides priests can marry, he'll be an excellent pastor. Until then, Whispers is his love letter to the church--gossip without meanness, and a way to get the news of the upper Catholic echelons without the filters of the other ways church news comes to the people. He has been accused of being a "front" for disgruntled priests, and a front for the church itself--a good measure of his even-handedness. He even gets hits from Vatican City, which doesn't surprise me in the least. I consider myself a pretty devout Catholic, but lots of his topics are too arcane for me and get me thinking of angels on pins. But just when I'm in too deep to church stuff, he reminds me that his other love is one of mine: the city of Philadelphia. He texted me from third base when the Phils won the Series, and introduced us to one of our favorite holiday events, the Mummers' Mass in Philadelphia. My boys adore him, and even thought they might only see him once a year, they are instantly comfortable with him and chatting as though they saw him last week. Like Shelley, he was one of the great blessings from my former job, and I'm delighted his blog helps us stay in touch.

One final blog associated with my last job isn't even "written" by the person I worked with; it's Tails of Bella, a Therapy Dog. Written from the perspective of an adorable and supremely well-trained Havanese, Bella has quite a career in pet therapy going. Her human companion/typist is also someone I used to work with who eventually left to pursue her EdD--and, as it turns out, a great life working with her therapy dog. Bella has gained some notoriety already, and is going to be on TV this Saturday! My DVR is set and ready to go (since I hope to not be up at 7am). And, since I always wanted a therapy dog but never have had one with the right temperament, it's fun to live vicariously through her blog.

More to come in a further installment!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

WFMW--The Elf on the Shelf

Readers of a certain age, you will remember the little kewpie-esque elves, who were all over Christmases in the late 1960s and early '70s. Usually hugging their little knees, they smiled merrily, in a rainbow of era-appropriate colors (my favorite was teal).

Well, that little elf has come back in the stroke of genius of one mom, who wrote a book called The Elf on the Shelf. The story is, this is YOUR family's elf. He can't talk to you, but he's here to watch the kids and report back to Santa on activities both naughty AND nice. You get to name him, and then he hides somewhere different every day to observe. At night he flies back to the North Pole. And in the morning, he's somewhere new. (Usually. Sometimes, he--ahem--really liked the place he was yesterday and wants to stay in that spot an extra day.)

My husband and I laughed that it should be called The Snitch in the House instead of The Elf on the Shelf, but wow, oh, wow, that was the elf who saved Christmas for us last year. My oldest was in a bit of a defiant stage at the time, but when reminded of our elf, he would self-correct as fast as a four-year-old knows how. It was quite a sight to see. My only regret was that he had to go back to the North Pole with Santa, and I think he's eager to see Halloween this year. It's a fun family tradition for those who "do" Santa, as (aside from the behavior reminders) it was fun every day for the boys to come downstairs and look for him, wondering just where that elf went.

Oh, and our elf? He was named Howie. Howie was short for the "real" name our older son gave him: "How are we ever going to find that elf in the house?" Hey, it's like a dog show, right? Where the big long names boil down to "Fluffy." Same here.

The best part: right after Halloween this year, the older one, who was the one who needed the long arm of Santa, started asking about Howie and when he was coming! We just wrote to Santa this week to ask for Howie. Now if I can just find him ASAP...it feels like rushing the season a bit to me but if he wants the elf, I'm on it!

What works for you in the holidays? Go to Shannon's blog and find out what's working for others!