Friday, October 31, 2008

Happy Halloween!

Check out the amazing costumes from Girlfriend! We are totally indebted to her. Over the summer, when going through pictures for her son's graduation party, we came across pictures of a Thomas costume she made for him long before commercial ones were available. My boys became enthralled and wanted to be Thomas and Gordon (the big blue express engine). And miracle of miracles, she made it happen. Check out her ingenuity. These are regular boxes, covered with wrapping paper, decorated with electrical and duct tape, some handles from flyswatters, the tops of two Wet Ones containers, spray-painted G@torade bottles, some black paper and plastic plates, and face artwork courtesy of my husband. Wow! The boys are over the moon with excitement. (They just saw them this morning....I wanted to be sure they had some chance of making it to trick-or-treating!)

Of course, this is one of the most unusual Halloweens we may ever experience as we are going to the PARADE!!!! Yes, my husband's beloved Phils came through for him and he has a 28 year old wrong to right, so we're joining the other million crazies running around the city today. And this also gave Gordon a new look he's never had before.

So it's a little crazy around here this morning. In another joyous twist of the day, my mother-in-law's knee is sufficiently recovered that they are continuing their Halloween tradition of coming to give out candy at our house so we can both take the boys. I'm really excited and so grateful for their willingness (our house isn't the easiest for someone with knee issues) and her recovery.

Our candy and pretzel bowl is ready, our UNICEF boxes folded, our piggy banks raided for the UNICEFers who come our way, the camera batteries charged, the memory card cleared, our costumes ready to go. Happy Halloween to all!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Best Crockpot Pork Roast Ever


I'm not sure I ever posted the best crock pot pork roast ever here, which is shocking, since I make it so often.

The irony of this is that my friend Jody, who gave me this recipe, can no longer make it herself as her husband is now vegan! Sorry, Jody, but I make it enough for both of us.

Two-Night Pork Roast

For the first night, take a 3-4 pound pork roast. Put it under the broiler for about 15-20 minutes, with a little pepper and kosher salt. (I add some poultry seasoning as well but it's not necessary.) Then it goes in the crock pot on high for 5-6 hours with:
a sliced onion (I often use several as they taste so good)
1 clove garlic, pressed (I sometimes use the stuff from a jar)
1 bay leaf
1/2 cup water, and
1 to 2 Tablespoons soy sauce.

After it cooks, remove the meat and most of the onions (and bay leaf), and whisk in flour and a little butter to make gravy from the drippings. Serve over mashed potatoes.

For the second day, make homemade BBQ sauce (or use bottled):
3 cups ketchup
2 cups water
dash Worcestershire
dash olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1-2 teaspoons chili powder

Then, shred leftover pork with a fork. Add to BBQ sauce. Cook on low all day.
Serve on kaiser rolls with cole slaw.

But I'll be honest with you: the stuff from the first night is so popular with my family, we rarely get to the BBQ stage! Even the extras are good as pulled pork sandwiches. Enjoy!

The Agony and the Ecstasy

This would be The Shrine. My husband lit nine candles every game of the playoffs. For last night, he pulled out all his 1980 memorabilia as well to add to the intensity. The flash ruins the effect but without it, it was too dim to appreciate.

And they won! Cole Hamels was robbed of Baseball Immortality and all, but wow, we are psyched for the parade.

Except, of course, that our younger son, the one who loves the Phillies, developed a 102 degree fever and spent the entire game slumped against us. Poor little guy. Who had better be better by tomorrow!

Many thanks to all the good wishes sent our way during the exciting postseason. And Go Phillies, everyone!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

WFMW--HOW Many Days Until Christmas?

Howdy to those who celebrate Christmas! Welcome all others as well, but this post won't be as relevant to you.

You could have knocked me over with a feather back in September when I realized we were 100 days out from Christmas. Of course it's less than that now.

For the last few years, I've been trying to follow the Holiday Grand Plan, which is an amazing whole-house, multi-holiday plan. I start with it in August with the very best of intentions, and figuring it will really take me that long to get ready. And, to its credit, one of the very first things it tells you to do is list all the house projects you want done before the holidays (painting, renovating, landscaping, whatever). Then cross off all but the three smallest. This seems more realistic.

Also more realistic, so far, for me: the 100 Days Til Christmas blog. This was started in September and breaks things down in to baby steps to plan for the holidays. I can't say I've been perfectly following every day but it has at least gotten me going on Christmas card planning so I might get them out this year. Last year...well, maybe that's another post.

Meanwhile, right after Halloween, I'll pop my favorite Christmas Countdown widget back up there. (I have a faux blog where I "save" codes and buttons since I don't know any official ways to do it. There's your second works-for-me of the day.)

But thinking about the holidays early is working for me! Watch for the next few weeks as I post other things that have worked for me for the holidays as we get closer. And definitely check out Shannon's blog for more ideas.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

What He Said.

Go here to read my thoughts exactly on the Phillies game situation last night, but minus all the expletives and name calling I would have used.

Thanks and Must See Funny Post (from someone else of course)

First, many thanks for all of you who are also pulling for the Phillies. We are now pretty convinced that the universe will end if a Philly team wins and last night was just a preview. But it would be worth Armageddon for my poor husband, so please continue your good thoughts.

Second, you must click here, especially if you are at all critical of the last eight years. The original "inspiration" was one of the most annoying ads of its time but it leads to a funny-but-don't-watch-with-your-kids update that cracked me up. Enjoy. WFMW tomorrow, I hope. (Getting in gear for next month!)

Sunday, October 26, 2008

MPM--Feeling Like Fall

Happy Monday!

We are in full baseball mode here. Please pray for me that there is not the biggest collapse in World Series History Since 2004 or I truly fear we will have a long, hard winter.

Looking forward to this week. We are going for as many excuses to wear Halloween costumes as possible. Depending on the occasion, we end up bringing two Buzz Lightyears or two giraffes, and we are about to make a Thomas and Gordon costume from scratch. (Hold me. These crafty things are not my strength--to the point where the boys say to me flat out, "Don't YOU make the costumes, Mom, we want Girlfriend to make them." True story, though they used a more appropriate name for Girlfriend.) Top that off with three days of work and being behind from night meetings, and NaBloPoMo is looking unlikely. And hence the uninspired menu.

Monday: Broiled salmon, rice, broccoli, fried green tomatoes

Tuesday: Crock pot pork roast, mashed potatoes, salad

Wednesday: Hot dogs for the boys, turkey salad for me, carrots, possibly noodles

Thursday: My last Super Suppers meal (sniff): panko pecan chicken, peas, rice, salad

Friday: Happy Halloween! Probably crock pot: Pork tenderloin over cranberries, sweet potatoes, beets.

Also cooking for friends who had babies, and friends who are in distress. Am totally excited that The Best Babysitter Ever found dried pears, which are on their way so I can try the Bon Appetit recipe I've been jonesing for since the October issue arrived in September.

Happy week, everyone. And Go Phillies! Please, please, please....Go Phillies.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Four Foods on Friday on Saturday Meme

Ok, I've been off this one a while but can't resist cream cheese. I'm a Philly girl, after all!

Want to play along? Go here.

#1. Name something you use cream cheese in/on.

Obviously bagels, which is, in my mind, the highest and best use of cream cheese ever. My mother used to put a slab on canned pears and call it a salad. My, the culinary wonders of the 1970s never fail to boggle the mind. But my two favorite non-bagel uses for cream cheese will be in #4.

#2. Do you use yogurt in any recipes?

I wish I used it in more but I'm still learning to work with it. Greek yogurt has been a boon. I love tzatziki and raita, and wish I knew how to make either or both but the recipes I've tried haven't quite done it for me.

#3. Macaroni salad. What do you like/put in yours?

I'm a purist. Creamettes noodles, mayo with red vinegar as dressing, celery chopped small, salt, pepper, celery seed if I have it.

#4. Share a recipe that you use sour cream in.

The hands-down favorite of the 21&under generation in our house: Hot Pizza Dip.

1 package (8 ounces) cream cheese, softened
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
1 cup (4 ounces) shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese
3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 can (8 ounces) pizza sauce
2 tablespoons chopped green pepper (optional)
2 tablespoons thinly sliced green onion (optional)
Breadsticks or tortilla chips or corn chips

In a mixing bowl, beat cream cheese and Italian seasoning. Spread in an ungreased 9-in. microwave-safe pie plate.
Combine mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses; sprinkle half over the cream cheese. Top with the pizza sauce, remaining cheese mixture, green pepper and onion if using.
Microwave, uncovered, on high for 2-3 minutes or until cheese is almost melted, rotating a half turn several times. Let stand for 1-2 minutes; or bake, uncovered, for 15-30 minutes at 350 until cheese is bubbly.
Serve with breadsticks or tortilla chips. Yield: about 3 cups.

And one of my mother's favorites:

Preheat oven to 375. Take four chicken breasts and pound thin (or be me and start with the Italian style cutlets). Smear cream cheese over chicken. Roll up each breast individually with cream cheese inside. Wrap with slice of bacon and secure with toothpick if needed. Place in baking dish and bake 40-50 minutes until chicken is cooked. Broil last five minutes to crisp bacon if desired.

This might be one reason my mother is no longer with us, but every once in a while, this satisfies as something my mother used to make for me that I can replicate.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Holiday Countdowns

Thank goodness for the 100 Days to Christmas site. I have totally fallen off the Grand Plan wagon. I don't even know what I'm supposed to be doing this week house-wise but I know I'm way, way, way behind. (In fact, when I get off the computer--soon--I will be going through the toys that are taking over the playroom as birthdays are past and it's time to rotate again.)

But I've used the inspiration from the 100 Days Countdown to keep me on track for both Halloween and Christmas. The Buzz Lightyear costumes arrived in time for the Lions Club parade tonight. (The dinosaur and giraffe were great for last week's party.) I got the candy on sale and with my 10% off coupon at Target AND enough to survive my husband's pilfering (ok, and mine too). Belatedly for the countdown but just in time for our squirrels, we went to Pumpkinland at our local commercial farm, and for the first time since our younger son was born, it was a total triumph. (Last year, the four year old was so cranky he was downright evil; the year before, the weather was horrible every time we tried; the year before, the baby was so little it was hard to get around.) But this year, both boys loved it, and cracked me up by trying to pull out huge pumpkins from the bottom of the pile. The little one fell in love with the teeny-weeny pumpkins and got three of those; the older one picked one he could carry himself, and I got one for carving, in case I feel bold. Our front window is decked out with our light-up pumpkins, and we're feeling pretty ready. I do think I need to get at least one more pumpkin candy holder. We have one big and one little, but this year the younger one won't take kindly to having a teeny pumpkin.

As to Christmas...I used last Tuesday to finish shopping. I can't believe I'm writing that. But there were great coupons and the boys were in school. We knew what they were getting, so why wait? I'm sure I will augment with books and clothes with trains on them and a few other items at Strasburg Railroad when we go. But otherwise, we're pretty well set.

The theme is chosen for the in-laws' gifts and I've started in on that. I have a way to go but I'm pretty excited about it. I don't think any of them read here but just in case...more on that after Christmas.

And, of course, the 40th birthday is coming, sooner than I think. (Is it 40 days? I think so! Thanks to Emily for pointing that little milestone out.) Still trying to figure out how to celebrate short, nothing. That's tempting--I have grown to hate birthdays without my mother, I'm sad to say--but it seems too pathetic and that's not how I want to be. I loved my one friend who hosted a "bring a special dish" potluck for her women friends. My husband and I have traditionally gone out to dinner. I'll figure out something. I felt bad that my big plans for my husband's 40th last year fell through, so I made it up to him by getting him a flat screen TV to watch the Phillies in the World Series since our kids are likely to be in college next time they get there. So maybe that'll be my special 40th present too. Because I must say, I lurve it. Since I don't usually get to just sit and watch it, but am catching it from the kitchen or dining room, the picture is awesome. Of course, it's like our cars; this TV has been in our house first got cable, which was when I was a freshman in college, so...pre-1986? We were due. (And it was broken since summer and my husband did not complain even as his beloved team got closer and closer to the postseason.)

Anyway. New posts coming on my Parallel LIves Bloggers. And I suppose on lots of things as NaBloPoMo is coming. I haven't been as in to blogging this year but I do love a challenge. And what can be more challenging than trying to get ready for the holidays, doing two for-pay jobs, spending time with my kids and husband, and writing every day? Yikes. I'd better get to the playroom, stat. But the countdown was worth it if only for motivating me to finally get to Pumpkinland this year. We did our first hayride, which was a huge hit, and since it was Friday, their teeny train was running. Of course, this cost me an arm and a leg--exactly their intention--but the boys adored it, and the picnic I brought didn't cost us anything (and have I mentioned how lucky I am that my kids eat what I bring and don't whine about what craptastic food is available at the places we visit?), and next to the hayride, the kids liked feeding the ducks our stale bread the best. Add to that our romping on the football field down the street from our house, and I was pretty happy with what we were able to do outside today. Add to that making the apple cake from Smitten Kitchen for the bake sale tomorrow, cleaning up the kitchen from that and other issues, and answering work emails, and I feel great about today. Tonight is the last football game of the year and the Lions Club parade, making this the quintessential fall day here. Hope your Octobers are winding up well too.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

WFMW--Boxing Day

I know, Halloween is right around the corner and I should be focused on that. But with two Buzz Lightyear costumes winging their way to our house via eBay right now, and a humongous hoarde of Candy I Like in the closet on a shelf where I can't reach it, I'm feeling under control in that department.

Which brings us to Christmas.

I know. Shoot me now. But our extended family has started the (mostly) good natured bickering about who celebrates what where. ("Ok, you can have Thanksgiving, but then I get Easter.")

Traditionally, my mother in law would host a huge Christmas brunch, everyone in church clothes, followed by the collected family shredding in to gifts from each other.

But as time went on, and we were going to different churches and enfolding other families' traditions with our own, that got tougher to do. Add to that my mother-in-law's knee issues, three people who work in hospitals who don't get time off automatically, and a partridge in a pear tree, and something had to give.

So last year, on Christmas night, we got together with the extended families and all celebrated together in the traditional style. But my husband's immediate family still wanted to do something with "just" them and their kids. (You know, an intimate celebration for 20.)

Enter Boxing Day.

In Britain and Canada, December 26 is Boxing Day, which has modern connotations of underlings being the boss for the day and other silliness. But the tradition started with servants in the grand houses in England being given the day after Christmas to celebrate with their families. (After all, who would prepare serve Christmas dinner without them?) So, when the festivities were over, the servants would box up leftovers for themselves (and presumably their employers) to enjoy the next day.

So, in homage to the original idea, we have adopted Boxing Day as our family celebration day.

We still have stockings and the piles of presents to plow through. But we come far more casually dressed. And most important, the rule on food is: It has to come out of a box.

Boxed wine. Pizza. KFC. Trader Joe's hors d'oeuvres and spinach-artichoke dip. Triscuits. And so on. And, also in keeping with the original, leftovers from dinner the night before.

The shift workers came after work. The bargain hunters met early and did frantic post-Christmas shopping. The kids played with the trains in Grandfather's basement without worrying about their party clothes. (OK, without their parents worrying about their party clothes.) It made it a wonderful, lower-key holiday, and I put it out there now for any of you struggling with planning for the holidays, or even looking for a fun post-holiday party theme.

Boxing Day with a twist--it Works for Me! Wanna see what works for other people? Go to Shannon's blog. But I bet you knew that already.

Monday, October 13, 2008

MPM--100 Days to Go Edition

On NPR this morning they were talking about these being the final 100 days of the Bush administration and contrasted them with the first 100 days. But I couldn't even pay attention, realizing that it's that close. I am praying for a toning down of rhetoric and praying for good leadership in the next administration.

But this week looms. While some folks are stockpiling for seven lean years, I'm trying hard to get to a point where I can look in my cabinets and find things. So there are lots of repeats this week.

But I must tell you, THIS autumn pork roast, while not my friend's original one, was spectacular and easy. I used my mom's orange Le Creuset (spelling?) enameled pot, which always makes me instantly settled and homey feeling. But oh, wow. I am not usually a big fan of butternut squash and could. not. get. enough of it from this recipe.

This week is a strange one. It started tonight with tacos for 17 people (ok, 16, one was a baby) for my son's 5th birthday party. His choice, but a good one; as it turns out, tacos for 16 are not much more difficult than tacos for 4 (or 3, since the little one won't eat anything but the shredded cheddar). So that was fun. This week brings three different jobs (eek!), soccer, meetings, and other fun for all, so we're staying with the leftovers. And, of course, the happy birthday afterglow. It was so fun being with him today with the huge "I'm 5 today!" sticker his dad found, and he was so proud and happy it carried over to everything else. And with that:

Monday: Leftover Sunday Roast Chicken (the veggies are all gone, they were awesome), salad (arugula from the CSA with parmesan and walnuts with balsamic dressing), baby carrots with honey, leftover Giada orzo salad

Tuesday: Leftover Tacos (we had turkey, beef, and plain no-spice beef), rice

Wednesday: Poppyseed chicken casserole, salad, squash with parmesan

Thursday: Unclear. Another 9th grade football game in our figurative backyard, so I might end up doing hot dogs and kraut in the crockpot to take to the game. Otherwise, I will probably do the ravioli with shallots and peas from Real Simple this month.

Friday: Football game. (I know, you are shocked! by this but it's at least got a twist in that we will probably go to Virginia to see the niece's game instead of one of the nephews.)

Saturday, I'm hoping to go to a friend's Milestone Birthday party where everyone needs to bring a "special" dish. I am making the Mousse de Carrottes from Le Bec-Fin. Easy, but time consuming, but oh-so-worth it. I can't wait to see what people bring.

My other off-the-map things I'm making this week: the bacon cheddar quickbread from Bon Appetit (yes, finally; I gave up on finding dried pears anywhere and am going with apples instead); more apple cake to take to VA; sandwiches to freeze to take advantage of the lunchmeat in the house and help me be ready for Lunch Bunch days.

Off to walk the dog, who is sulking since I fixed the spot where she could climb the fence. Happy week!

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

78 Days and Counting....

I've been remiss in the Christmas Countdown catchup. I wish I weren't; I've been doing lots better there than I have in the Grand Plan. The grand plan is awesome but a little (ok, a lot) intimidating, especially in weeks like this where I'm supposed to "focus on the bedroom" and in reality haven't put away laundry in over a week, instead just pulling from the basket.

But the countdown, while frightening in its relentless march to the holiday, has been helpful on several fronts.

1) On October 1, we were encouraged to get the Halloween stuff out since it was now October and officially permissible. I literally ran right downstairs and got Mr. Bones, our beloved skeleton from Girlfriend, and hung him from his spot on the mailbox, to the tremendous delight of both boys. And by Sunday, it was all out--the pumpkin plates and bathroom cups, the spiders from the chandelier, the faux jack-o-lanterns in the window. Of course, I just remembered I have the soft stuff (pumpkins, placemats, fingertip towels) still upstairs but I can do that tonight. Right after I put away the laundry.

2) The costume planning was also helpful. In my mind, we were settled; the boys were going as the blue engines, Thomas and Gordon. I had the right color blue paper for covering boxes and everything. Suddenly, they want to be Buzz Lightyear. Ummm...back to ebay.

3) I almost had a panic attack in late September when she suggested working on Christmas cards. I have, as Gwyneth Paltrow might say, a very first-world problem with this issue. I always have too many people on my list. Which I don't mean in a "poor me I'm so popular" way but in a "geez, I really like that person even though I'm not sure s/he knows I had a second child" kind of way. So when I write and order the cards, I do so thinking of not only the 86 family members (that's both sides, and yes, I'm in touch with almost all of them more than once a year--we are blessed) who need to get them, but also about 250 friends and colleagues and former colleagues and long lost friends and people I know on Facebook and people I met in my moms' groups and neighbors and moms of kids in my childrens' classes and my parents' friends and I think you can see my problem right here. You can guess the rest. I get the family done and then am totally out of steam for friends and others. So I currently have 150 of last year's cards downstairs. I was going to recycle them and then thought, hey, if they haven't seen my kids in two years, it'll still be new to them. And I PROMISE myself...if they are not out by 2009, they are leaving in the recycling bin. Really.

So you see why I almost had a panic attack there. Luckily, starting to think about it in September has yielded a few good things: more requests to others for pictures of the whole family so we can get a good one for the card. A resolution to write less on this one (happily, there is less to write; no big vacations, small job changes, one started school...that's it).

4) Today's post was on stocking stuffers and thinking about them now. It gives me a chance to point you here, to my friend Heather's amazing list of stocking stuffers that I pull out with love and gratitude every year. And when I go to Target tonight, it will give me some inspiration to get some little things for the boys and get started on that.

5) We don't handmake anything for the holidays (I am so un-crafty it's a kindness to all involved that I don't). But I did start working on the "big" family gift. And I didn't make the apple crisp yet but with three full bags of apples still hanging on from the CSA, I'm getting there!

Enough holiday prep for now. So far, it seems sane and sustainable. I'll skimp on the Grand Plan stuff I've been doing (much as I'm skimping on the plan itself!) except to say that I've spruced up the entryway (finally got flip flops upstairs, eliminated outgrown boots and jackets) and--yeehah--am working on the biggest completable house projects this week. Those being the glamorous new sewer line (um...yay?) and the new TV. (um...YAY!) It occurs to me that my husband has been very, very patient watching his favorite team play in the postseason for the first time in 15 years on a set with the color tubes going with nary a complaint. My hope is to have him come home on Friday to a newly installed flatscreen. Don't tell! And that will be Christmas enough for him. Really! (And I really stiffed him on his 40th. So it's all good.)

Mortgage Thoughts

Ever since Well Read Hostess turned me on to the Living Oprah blog, I've been hooked and she's been in my Google Reader feed. She's been exceptionally helpful in pointing me to and away from shows of interest since she lives in Chicago and gets to see the shows hours earlier than everyone else. And while I think she was nuts to do this for an entire year, it's a fun place to obsess over someone that I have found few friends with whom to obsess over. (My friends either work and don't TiVo her or aren't interested, for the most part, or we catch her on different days.) I tend to prefer her fluff shows; having watched since way, way, way before she was Who She Is Now it's hard not to feel a bit responsible for her success. (Actually, it was my dad, who called her "Ofra," who came home every day and turned on the TV to see her. He was the NAACP liaison for the school district where he worked, and when she went national, her show was all the rage. My dad was never one to miss a trend, so he tuned in as well and got hooked, pulling in my mother and me as well.) So while some people don't like her now that she's got more money than God, I feel like I was part of that and am entitled to share in the fun stuff she's found to do with her kajillions. She has brought me hours and years of entertainment. I begrudge her nothing. But I don't feel like I have to do everything she says, either.

So, for those of you who haven't been sucked in to LO by WRH, or NPR, or the New York Times, all of whom have highlighted her blog, LO is watching the show every (blessed) day, reading the magazine, and following all orders of Oprah--so every time she says "You MUST do this"--LO does it, at whatever financial or personal expense. (It may not surprise you that one of her jobs is as a performance artist, if my understanding is correct.)

Last Friday, Oprah had on two financial experts--Suze Orman, who is her go-to gal, and also a guy from CNN, I think, Ali Velshi, who does a "Financial Crisis 101" powerpoint. His presentation was good--very simple, and very comprehensive, and filled in a couple of gaps for me. Though he did the clearest job I've heard yet of explaining how we got here, he still left me wondering where the $700B is coming from and what exactly it will be able to solve. But I'm not sure that was his point.

One of his points, though, was starting with "Annie" American (get it? Any American? Yeah, whatever.) Annie started the mess, in his view, by taking out a mortgage she couldn't pay back. Might have been a balloon, might have been some other risky scheme, but the point is, she's defaulting, and she's not alone; there are millions of Annies out there. (Who, by the way, were brilliantly spoofed in the SNL skit on Saturday with the brilliant Kristen Wiig playing Nancy Pelosi introducing "victims" of the mortgage crisis on C-SPAN.)

Then Suze came out and she took personal offense at his characterization of Annie as the problem. Suze squarely places the blame on the banks, who told people they could take out bigger loans than were prudent, based purely on greed. If she were a lion, she would have been roaring and munching on his gazelle leg by the time she was done, even while she took pains to say she agreed 100% with everything else he'd said.

Of course the audience agreed. And while SNL and CNN dude are right; there were lots of predatory borrowers out there too, I tend to land on the side of Suze.

When we bought our house in 2000, there was no mortgage crisis yet. Some of the tricky things were starting to come in but hadn't reached the proportions of the last few years. We knew what we wanted: four bedrooms, in this town, in this school district. A fireplace would have been nice. A deck would have been terrific. A basement where my husband didn't bang his forehead trying to get to the washing machine was important. And while we were pulling in two salaries at the time, we wanted a mortgage we could swing on one mortgage if we had kids.

Happily, there is a great real estate market in our town and two absolutely trustworthy real estate agencies in town. (Again, locals, this was 2000.) And the agent we picked steered us to a local bank--really local, as in only seven branches--for our mortgage. We had a certain amount to put down, which was fraught with emotion--it was the account from all my life events--my first communion money, confirmation money, graduation money--and my husband's legacy from his grandfather--that were comprising our down payment. And we were very honest about our intentions for our house and our future. And, really, we were nervous that we wouldn't qualify for enough for the house we wanted.

When we sat down with the mortgage broker, she told us that in running the numbers, we were not only qualified for the mortgage we wanted, but for one over $200,000 more than that. Let that settle in a minute: TWO HUNDRED THOUSAND MORE. Good credit and clean living made us look good to the banks I guess. And I know I looked like a cartoon when she said that--I could feel my eyes bulging out as she gave us that number.

She quickly reassured us that she would never, ever, at this stage of our lives, encourage us to take a mortgage that large. She explained that she told us that only because we had been so nervous about qualifying for what we needed, and to reassure us that with closing costs or anything else, another $2000 or $5000 or even $10000 in the mortgage wouldn't scuttle the deal on the bank's end. And she wrote us a mortgage for exactly what we wanted.

And we were reassured, and relieved, and really, almost giddy that it would work. But even with our very conservative money positions, and well-thought-out and multiple calculations on what we could spend, and what we wanted to spend, hearing that there was all that "extra" money out there makes your brain take crazy leaps. Like "maybe we could afford one of those gorgeous Victorians instead of our split level." Or "Cool! Let's get a bigger mortgage and do the $80,000 of upgrades that would make it PERFECT!" Or "Wow, real estate is such a good investment--maybe we should really get a place with a bigger plot."

But we didn't do any of those things.

And I know we were lucky to not be Annie. That our bank was as conservative as we were (they still hold our mortgage, for example) and did NOT encourage us to go crazy. That we had thought through so many things (this could be a starter home, if we discovered we really loved DIY projects and lovingly tending a lawn, or a long-term home, if we discovered we did not; that it was comfortable for us two, or up to three kids joining us). And that we had loving and sensible parents advising us through all our thinking.

Lots of people were missing one or more of those things. They got a bank eager to see a huge mortgage as a win-win. Who, as Suze said, heard the bank say they were approved for $X and felt like that was what they should take--or even feel stupid for taking anything less than $X. And as the real estate market took off almost 10 minutes after we bought our house (we joked--though not incorrectly--that we got the last house under a big break point in our town), it was hard not to wonder if maybe we shouldn't have stretched just a little bit more. But instead we put our stretch in to an every-two-weeks payment schedule, so our thirty year mortgage will be done in 23 years. We've put little bits here and there towards the principal (which our bank encourages, by way of not having any penalties for doing so). And while the times are still scary out there, we're feeling comfortable with what we've done.

Have we managed this perfectly? Absolutely not. I'm totally sure we should have renegotiated our mortgage when rates were rock bottom. But at the time, due to complicated circumstances I don't feel like discussing here, we needed the tax discount for the interest payments, and by the time we didn't need that anymore, the rates were on their way back up. And we still have only done one of the major upgrades we wanted to; the list from when we moved in looks almost the same as it did in 2000, though we would have done lots with more money in the mortgage or in a home equity loan.

But overall, when I hear stories of families who didn't read fine print carefully, or didn't have family members who are lawyers to look out for them, or who ran in to a predatory lender they thought was someone they could trust, or borrowed from a bank that didn't want them to take out as much as they did but knew they'd lose the mortgage sale otherwise, I'm grateful again for the ethical and wonderful people we worked with. And I wish there were more of them out there.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Rare Financial Thoughts

Yeah, I know, leaving the kitchen to write about the economy is really leaving one area where I stumble blindly to another.

But two things lately have seemed worth sharing. I'll save one for later this week to boost my posting numbers, but here's the first.

Like most people I know, I have been unwilling to bring myself to check my IRA statements to see where my savings are. In a nice twist of irony, my major savings were in a 503(b) (??? I think that's what they are called when it's a 401K from a non-profit) from my 11 years working at a college. In a good move, I opened the account the second I was eligible (I think the day I was off probation, so six months in to the job). In another good move, I continued to maximize my contributions, well beyond what I needed for full matching funds, for as long as I could (ie, before we had kids). In a dumb move, I had all that money in essentially a glorified money market account, because I was overwhelmed by the sheer voloume of choices of other funds.

This summer, the company that manages my 503(b) said (and I paraphrase), Enough, people. This is your retirement account, not your rainy day fund. We are no longer offering money markets; you NEED to be investing smarter than that. But, you lazy or petrified people, fear not: we've done the work for you. We have a new category of accounts based on the year you intend to retire. So, based on your age, we're putting you in the Retirement 2035 pile, unless we hear from you. We have created that Retirement 2035 fund with the "right" mix of risky and safe investments (I kept thinking of people "banking" money on The We@kest Link as I saw the percentage of bonds, metals, and cash holdings going up as the retirement years got closer). I was relieved they'd done the work for me and let it roll. What else was I going to do? They were eliminating my uber-safe account. So, here I am, with 80% of the money I banked for 11 years, suddenly exposed to stock market volatility for the first time EVER...last month. Sigh.

So. I haven't exactly been rushing to see what the last few weeks did to my holdings (ha! I could retire for, oh, approximately six months right now, so to call them "holdings" seems a little grand). Besides, I knew the quarterly statements would start rolling in at some point.

Here they come. The first came in this weekend, from a teeny-weeny account I opened when I was 22 and too young to participate in my then-employer's program. I looked at the September 27 number and it didn't seem too awful... so I looked across to the June 27 quote. It was conspicuously absent. I kid you not. There was absolutely nothing there at all, just little dashes where numbers should be.

What a brilliant plan! Let's face it; anyone who really, truly wants to know how much they lost will go to the bother of finding that June statement. For the rest of us, why not just be ostriches. Here's what you still have. Look, the account didn't zero out. There's still something. Let's focus on that, and move on, mmmkay? We'll get back to you at the end of the year. Kthxbai.

And you know what? Shameful as this is, I'm almost grateful. Even though I know this money isn't anything I should touch for at least thirty more years, I loathe watching it go up and down. And I do have faith that in 30 years, either it will be up, or I will have figured out that my mattress really was a safer spot for it and pulled it out after all. But it really did seem to fit in the "You know it's bad when..." pile. When the bank is afraid to show you what you used to have? And it's (by the way) a bank that doesn't even technically exist anymore? Suddenly I understand why my aunt and uncle just used 12 different banks for their money. It's too scary in this up and down market. Especially this morning, when we're way down under 10000, whatever that means besides the fact that they don't even want to show me how much I lost.

More on money later.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

MPM--Working Down What's Here

Greetings, my foodie readers. I'm almost done my October Bon Appetit spree. I even did a bonus last week and put the rib eye steak in the rotation--yum!

This week, I am determined to use what I have. I have some buying to do--mostly meats--but otherwise, it's time to clear the fridge and freezer, to fill them again. Chicken breasts are on major sale this week and I am stocking up; it's casserole season, and we have some older relatives I really need to cook for these days.

My job is winding down, though there will be one more flurry as I train the new guy in a few weeks. And another flurry as the reading season for the MBA applications gets started. Apparently, there's nothing like a meltdown on Wall Street to make MBAs look really, really desirable, so hopefully I've found the ideal recessionproof part time job.

And, of course, my mother in law had her knee surgery. It appears it went well, which is a blessing. But she is still immobile, of course. And I couldn't even go visit because my car died--and I mean dead-cold-died--on Thursday. (I paid to resurrect it. It was the starter. But hello, starter, goodbye, new dishwasher.)

So, here's this week...

Sunday: Sunday Roast Chicken from Guideposts. New for me. I'll let you know how it goes. Veggies are baked with it; I'm also adding a salad with pears and goat cheese, since I have some magnificent pears I'm eager to use.

Monday: Leftover chicken (I hope), plus the Bon Appetit butternut squash risotto

Tuesday: Asian Chicken Burgers (based on the Dinner By Design Asian Turkey Burger recipe, but chicken is what's in the freezer); potatoes or rice (we'll see how many I potatoes I use with the chicken); salad; broiled tomatoes

Wednesday: Mostly leftovers, but also the Giada orzo salad for my Mothers & More meeting. (It's Giada diLaurentiis night; everyone brings their favorite Giada recipe.) I feel terrible I didn't realize it was the start of Yom Kippur when we made the schedule.

Thursday: Autumn Pork Roast, sweet potatoes, broccoli (sweet potatoes will probably just be baked, but maybe mashed if I feel bold)

Friday: Unclear. Our nephews' band/football team is playing an away game very close to us so we might do that; or, if we can score a babysitter, a friend is hosting an awesome-sounding fundraiser at our local Co-Op. Either way, I'm probably not cooking.

Saturday: Unclear. Mark Bittman has a great turkey breast with cabbage two ways that I'd like to make with the humongous cabbage head I have here. But it's also almost our son's birthday, so we might swoop him away to some train-related event or attraction.

Sunday: My son's 5th birthday, so his favorite--tacos, of course--for 20! All family. Yikes.

Happy week everyone!

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Favorite Soup of the Summer and Some New Finds

In a fit of magazine withdrawal, I bought Vegetarian Times over the summer. I keep thinking of Michael Pollan's dictum (Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.) but I'm having a hard time letting go of my animal protein. I was hoping the magazine would inspire but what I really need is 30 Minute Vegetarian Meals Without Tofu or Seitan.

I tried a few things in the magazine. We made two kinds of popsicles, which were ok; the best part for the boys was using the blender; for me it was using the coconut milk, which I kept forgetting I had and buying more of until I had five cans of five different brands. I'm still not crazy about homemade popsicles since they always freeze too hard. But it was fun.

The big winner of the issue, though, was the Creamy Carrot Ginger Bisque. This became my go-to lunch of the summer. It was adapted by Two Fat Als here; I liked their version too, but honestly really enjoyed the one straight from the magazine.

Since it is carrot, I suppose it could go on in to the fall, though cold soups just seem like August food to me. And I couldn't get the boys to touch it, except for the blender part. Maybe next summer they will overcome their fear of soup. But here it is, in all its simple glory.

Creamy Carrot Ginger Bisque
from Vegetarian Times, summer 08

4 C fresh carrot juice (I of course used fresh bottled)
3/4 C pine nuts (toasted or raw work)
1 clove garlic
1/4 tsp cumin
1 avocado, sliced
2 tsp grated ginger

Puree all in blender. (Note: I found that doing the pine nuts first with a little bit of the juice when it started turning to nut butter helped the texture.) Season with salt and pepper.

My kind of recipe!

My other find of the summer was the light multigrain English muffins. (Thank you, Aunt Barbara.) While I still love the traditional white flour version too, these were an absolutely reasonable substitute. And my favorite summer topping for them (when I could find an avocado sale) was the Nigella Lawson avocado bruschetta. As a savory breakfast, it was awesome. Essentially, while the muffin toasts, I mash an avocado with the juice of a lime, then pile it on the muffin. Yum. Her original "recipe" is here.

And just like that we're in to fall. Last night I tried a "new" pork recipe. (I'm on a tear to try to use all the "hey, that looks good" recipes I've torn out or copied down to see if I like them before letting them hang around my house for much longer.) I call it "new" because I never made it but it came with a "very best baby" label. Ahem. The last "very best baby" stuff I got was when my first son was born. You know, the one who will be five in a couple of weeks. I tossed the other recipe cards but this one looked good--and boy, was it ever.

Pork Tenderloin with Creamy Mustard Sauce

1 lb. pork tenderloin
salt & ground black pepper
1 tsp vegetable oil (I used olive of course)
1/2 cup evaporated fat free milk (they bolded Ne*stle C@rnation so I suppose they sponsored this recipe)
2 Tbs Dijon mustard (I used the rustic kind with the seeds still visible since that's what I had)
2 to 3 green onions, sliced

Cut pork in to 1-inch thick slices. Place pork between two pieces of plastic wrap. Flatten to 1/4 inch thickness using meat mallet or rolling pin. (They almost lost me right here. I do not flatten meat. I just sliced mine really thin.) Season with salt and pepper.

Heat oil in large skillet over medium-high heat. Add half of pork; cook on each side for 2 mnutes or until browned and cooked through. Remove from skillet. Set aside and keep warm. Repeat with remaining pork.

Reduce heat to low. Add evaporated milk. Stir to loosen browned bits from bottom of skillet. Stir in mustard and green onions. Return pork to skillet. Cook for 1-2 minutes or until sauce is slightly thickened, turning pork to coat with sauce.

Since they gave the nutritional info, I will too: Makes 4 servings. 192 cal, 7g total fat (2g saturated); 72 mg cholesterol, 268 mg sodium, 5 g total carb, 0 fiber, 0 sugar, 25 g protein. (That's 4 WW points for anyone keeping track at home.)

A few notes: this was AMAZING. The hardest part was slicing the pork. If you don't have my raw meat issues, this is a breeze. If, like my butcher, you can only get 2 lbs of tenderloin at a time, this easily doubles. Since there are 1.5 cups of milk in a can, I made extra sauce with it and am freezing it. It would also be awesome on chicken.

And a final "new" find: please remind me, the next time The Best Babysitter Ever recommends something, I need to run, do not walk, to make it. This is such an awesome use of leftover rice, I am mourning the times I ever threw it away because I cannot reheat rice for some absurd reason. We didn't have plum tomatoes so I just halved a pint of grape tomatoes I had. And I predict this will go right in the rotation with my corn and zucchini thing next summer. Yeah, it's that good. It was a little complex, with the chopping and the preroasting, but for some heavenly reason last night the boys played together nicely for almost 45 minutes in a row, making this possible. Wonders may never cease.

And speaking of wonders that never cease, the addition of peanut butter to my younger son's routine has simplified my life in amazing ways. I am literally thanking God every day when I make lunch for not giving him food allergies. With my father being deathly allergic to fish (among other less deadly but more annoying allergies--dust, perfume, pollen) and my mother's near-fatal bee allergy, I was pretty paranoid about him. But happy day! He's now three and while he hasn't had too much seafood yet (I'm out of practice) all else seems to be going well. So the nut recipes are pouring back out of my shelves. Expect more in upcoming days.

And with that, it's time to shower for the day. It's my son's first day of school! The end of the longest summer ever! Woohoo!