Aug 30, 2010

Everything old is new again?

Recently, my mother-in-law regaled us with stories about a rolling store, a peddler in a converted bus that traveled through rural areas, bringing staples and what-nots to those living in remote areas.  With a twinkle in her eye she sheepishly bragged that she was a little miserly  with the gum she was able to buy from that rolling store, only giving half a piece to classmates who asked her to share.  Times were tough and money was scarce; I'm sure she didn't get "gum money" very often, so it was a precious commodity on the playground.

Back when personal transportation was extremely limited, mail order was another way to obtain things you needed or wanted but couldn't get locally.  My grandparents' generation treasured the Sears-Roebuck catalogs (and recycled them when rolled toilet paper was a luxury few could indulge in.)
1966: Bet I had this dogeared
As a child, I remember anxiously awaiting the arrival of the Sears Wishbook catalog each fall, poring over it to make a list for Santa.  It mattered little if I got any of the specific items I picked was indeed a book for inspiring wishes and dreams.

With our first home, I fearlessly forayed into gardening.  But I quickly realized the local stores' selection of plants and seeds was pretty limited.  So I visited the Tulsa Garden Center Library and jotted down addresses to send away for catalogs.  Ever since, I have been rewarded with a steady stream of gardening catalogs in my mailbox. Like the old wish books, they're filled with photos and tantalizing descriptions that inspire hopes and dreams, especially in the dead of winter.

When we prepared to move into this home, one of the first to-do's involved removing old carpet and replacing it with hard flooring.  I had researched hard wood vs. laminate, and given our budget and age of kids, I opted for laminate flooring.

The only sources of laminate available were flooring showrooms and big box stores with a limited selection of pricey laminate.  And...I had the Internet.  My husband's family thought I was crazy, but I happily hopped online and ordered hundreds of square feet of discount flooring, going on nothing more than a description and a website picture.  I'm happy to report that ten years later, the floors have withstood traffic from skidding kids, cats, dogs and daily living, and look great.   If you think that my purchase was crazy, let me introduce you to my better half, who has bought BMWs and a hot tub on eBay!

Ten years later, I still love ordering stuff, and it keeps getting easier.  Boxes with books, plants, dishes, purses, pots and pans show up on my doorstep.  The mail carrier might wonder what I do with all that stuff from Oriental Trading.   (I teach 3rd grade Bible class - do you really need more explanation than that?)  This method of buying is really nothing new; the concept is at least as old as those old mail order catalogs and peddling buses.  It's just a little easier nowadays to search to the ends of the earth for what your heart desires and have it delivered right to your door.

Aug 28, 2010

My favorite part of throwing a party

I should preface this by saying I think I'm a fairly typical housekeeper...there's a little clutter that accumulates, but the house is reasonably clean underneath the daily stuff.  But when I throw a party, my otherwise latent OCD tendencies kick into high gear and I feel compelled to do things like arrange my socks by color, artfully organize the pantry contents, or repaint the laundry room or garage.  You know, things that are highly unlikely to be seen--let alone appreciated--by guests.

A party is also a good impetus for thoroughly cleaning and organizing anything that's been bugging me. Rarely do I just stow something away unsorted, and for the record, I can say I have NEVER been tempted to use my oven, clothes dryer or dishwasher as temporary storage.  (I know a lot of people who confess to having done that, so if you're one of them and you were smirking at my OCD-ness, just remember we all have our little quirks.)

And sometimes it's a good excuse to "spruce things up a bit," like my last-minute notion to  display my great-grandmother's vintage aprons.

I guess it's fair to say that my parties tend to come with a bit of self-imposed stress.   But I love entertaining, so it's the price I'm willing to pay. So what is my favorite part of throwing a party?

Well, it's not tidying up, although a looming red-letter day on the calendar does tend to get me in the cleaning spirit.

The cooking is fun (but it also makes another mess AND there is the risk of a "dud"), so it's really not my favorite thing about entertaining either.

Having a great time with our guests?  That's certainly a high point.

But my very favorite part of having a party?  Don't tell the guests, but sometimes it's the after-the-party.  We don't throw "swing from the chandelier with a lampshade on your head" type parties, so cleanup is usually a breeze - pop a few serving pieces in the dishwasher, toss or refrigerate any leftovers, and take out a bag of trash, and it's done.

After the guests are gone, the house looks great, my little clutter piles have been dealt with, my decor has been snapped into focus, and some area of our house might even sport a new paint job.  I can kick back, smile, and enjoy the memories of a fun time with family or friends, and not have to worry about mopping or organizing my closet, at least for a few days.

Today's Secret Sister brunch was wonderful - I am blessed to have so many caring and fun Christian women in my life.  And judging from the food we enjoyed today, our 2010 cookbook is going to be chock-full of extra-yummy brunch recipes.

Next weekend, we just might get to see some old, err longtime friends from Oklahoma who are coming through.  Wonder what I might accomplish before they arrive?

Aug 27, 2010

Clean Desk Mission: Week 5

It looks like I have passed the one-month milestone for a clean desk.  How is it looking?  Well, here it is today.

Yes, the inbox is getting a little full.  Thanks for pointing that out.  One of today's missions is to tackle it and get it back under control before it gets any messier, then dust the desk.

And so you know the "rest of the story" (with apologies to the late Paul Harvey), here's the stack of stuff that is currently piled on the floor next to my desk.

I don't count it as part of the desk, because it is not allowed ON the desk.  But it needs to be dealt with ASAP.  What is it?  Well, it's the leftover kindergarten curriculum printouts from a project I'm wrapping up this week; new curriculum for our 3rd-5th graders (classes start next Wednesday - woohoo!); a binder full of youth ministry forms that I need to sort and organize and give to our youth minister next Tuesday; a box of plastic sheet protectors for a recipe project I've got goin' on; and unsorted mail from yesterday.  (Oooh, is that a new Better Homes & Gardens issue peeking out? I guess that will be my reward for culling through the pile today.)

My little green orphan doodad has not been tossed out, as threatened.  It's been joined by a compression fitting.  Like the green thingamajig, I have no clue what it goes to or who put it here, (but at least know what  it is.)  Wonder what cute little offspring these two might morph up?  If I leave them alone overnight, I might find out...

I can't brag about my stupendous photo file organizing efforts; too many other urgent things took priority this week.  But there's always next week, right?

Aug 26, 2010

Misfortune: uninvited but never unescorted

You know that old superstition:  bad things come in threes, misfortunes never occur singly.   Or the inverse: third time is the charm.

This week I'm gearing up for a yummy brunch with my Highland Heights secret sisters.  I've been eagerly looking forward to this for a long time - it's a new event for this year and will kick off the 4th annual cookbook, which is - of course - brunch recipes.  We're also doing something special for our members heading off to college.  (Shhhh, it's a secret.)  The morning promises to be a lot of fun.

And the summer months have seen me backslide on my New Year's resolution to show more hospitality, so this will help make up for lost ground.  (If you have 15 or 20 people over at once, that's the equivalent of least 4 or 5 small dinner parties, right?)

As I work on getting everything just perfect for my guests, I've already had two mini-catastrophes occur:

1) The light switch in the hall bathroom shorted out a few nights ago.  As in smoke drifting from the switch.  Eeek!  Fortunately we caught it before it caught anything else on fire.   (Sidebar to dad:  Yes, I checked the wiring and insulation in the attic before going to bed.)  Back when this house was built, they still used real metal boxes for switches and plugs.  Made of real steel, probably forged right here in the  good old US of A.  We'll pull new wiring and replace the switch, but the box is intact and I don't think I'll have to do any touch-up painting or drywall patching.

 2) I've managed to severely injure my right foot this week.  I'm gimping around, unable to put full weight on it.  Some day I will learn to listen to my body - the foot was tender after Monday's run, but I was determined to get in a good run on Tuesday, too.  And now I'll pay the price for my stubbornness by hobbling for a few more days and gobbling naproxen caplets like they're candy.  And the weeds are NOT going to get pulled like I had planned.

But my real concern is, when will the other proverbial shoe drop?  Does the printer running out of toner count as a bona fide third catastrophe?  (New cartridge won't arrive until next week.)  These things come in threes, or so *they* say.  (Then again, *they* say a lot of stuff that isn't based on fact.)  But just to be safe, keep your fingers crossed for me, and maybe toss a little salt over your shoulder if you get a chance, okay?

August 30 Postscript: My third mishap was indeed technology related, but in other (better) news, my foot is nearly 100% again , the electrical connections in our house are good to go, the brunch went swimmingly and the toner cartridges arrived courtesy of good ol' UPS today.

Aug 25, 2010

Claim me!

To submit one's blog to Technorati, you have to have a post that contains the claim code they assign to you.  Kind of like a prize claim code, but without a prize, unless you count being included Technorati as a prize in and of itself.

So here's my claim code RRPPP8CZKU4F which apparently I can show to the whole world because it won't do anything for you. Sorry.

We now return you back to your regularly scheduled programming.

Recipe of the Week: Miss JoAnn's Parker House Rolls

A family from the Carolinas moved to town the same year we did.  Their daughter was in my 4th grade class, and our families were involved in many of the same social activities over the years.  At some point, Miss JoAnn graciously shared her recipe for these rolls with my mother, along with a recipe for lemon squares, which have become another family favorite.

I think Parker House Rolls were the very first yeast dough recipe I attempted to make.  I do know my first effort was a disastrous non-starter, but thanks to my mother's encouragement and help, I didn't give up.

These instructions are faithful to the original recipe. Historically, these rolls are formed by rolling your dough flat and cutting into circles, then creasing each roll and folding it over on itself.  But to be honest, I only do that sometimes; the rest of the time I simply form them into balls, let them rise and bake.  Either way, they turn out delicious, soft, dinner rolls that are a mainstay at holiday meals.

These rolls later became known in our family as "Gregory's Wo-Wos" because a cute young family friend couldn't quite say his R's and L's when he was a tyke.  He was our ringbearer when we got married, and now it's his turn to get married later this year.  Best wishes to him and his bride-to-be!

JoAnn's Parker House Rolls

1 package yeast (I use approximately 1 tablespoon instant yeast)
1/4 cup warm water
1 cup scalded milk, cooled
1/4 cup shortening (I substitute half unsalted butter), softened
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 egg, well-beaten
3 cups sifted flour

Dissolve yeast in water; let proof, then place in large mixing bowl.  Add milk, shortening or butter, sugar and salt.  Mix together and add beaten egg.  Stir in flour, one cup at a time, until a soft dough forms.  Knead well, until smooth and elastic.  Cover and let rise until double.  On lightly floured surface, roll out to 1/2 inch thickness.  (Lift dough from surface and lay back down will ensure it doesn't shrink after being cut.)  Cut into 2.5-inch diameter rounds a dough or biscuit cutter.  Brush each with a little melted butter and make a crease down the center of each roll with the back of a knife; fold over and place on greased baking sheet.  Let rise and bake at 375 for 10-15 minutes or until brown.  Brush rolls with butter while hot.  Yield:  2-3 dozen dinner rolls.

A trick I learned from a friend is to brush the tops of soft rolls with milk or cream as they come out of the oven, then butter them if needed.  This added step ensures the tops of the rolls are soft and tender.

Aug 23, 2010

Shifting gears

I love a car with a stickshift.  I learned to drive with a stick in Colorado, which meant not only learning how to get a standard transmission in gear, but I had to be able to pop the clutch without a) killing the engine, and b) rolling too far when trying to get started on an incline.  Not easy for those of us with limited hand-eye-foot coordination.  But I did master the art and science of driving a stick.

My "baby" (a 1979 baby-blue Mustang) had four on the floor.  So did my next car, a white 4-door Oldsmobile: my first mom-mobile.  It was so small it was almost cute for hauling around the first baby ("Thing 1"), and then Thing 2, too.  My 315i Ultimate Driving Machine was a graduation gift from my husband, along with the thick payment book.  It was a blast to gear down and zip around curves and maneuver through traffic on my way to pick up Things 1 and 2 from the sitter's.

But then I hit my third decade of life and had Things 1, 2 and 3 to convey and chauffeur, so it was time for a sensible car: a full-size sedan.  Yawn.  With an automatic transmission. Double yawn. Fast forward a decade.  My next vehicle was the next-most-sensible choice for a 21st century carpooling mom:  an SUV with a 3rd-row seat.  Also with automatic transmission, of course.  It's totally boring, according to Thing 3, who is now a driver-in-training.

But this post isn't really about cars.  I was coming up with the title "shifting gears" and that made me think how much fun it is to actually SHIFT the gears when you're driving.  Unless you're trying to juggle a drink, a phone and the steering wheel.  (Only moms can do this, or at least do it well.  Often we're also reaching behind us to swat at mini-miscreants in the backseat.  Thank goodness for eyes in the back of our heads.)

But back to the subject at hand: shifting mental gears.  Namely, dinner routines and menu choices.  This time of year, I really have to shift my mental gears to adjust for my favorite football official's schedule.  And swim practice will begin in a few weeks.  And "Thing 2" starts back to MTSU, so his schedule will become even more hectic with job and work.  It won't be cool enough for crockpot meals like roasts and soups and stews, not for a few more months.

But I need dinner menu plans that are either extremely quick to put together, or hold well.  Or reheat well.  Or - ideally - all three.  Stay tuned:  I'll be sharing some of my favorite weeknight meal ideas and recipes.  Because we could all use a few more tried-and-true recipes to rescue family dinnertime from the doldrums and over-scheduling, right?

Aug 21, 2010

We haven't had a rain like that since...

...well, since at least 2,600 hours ago. (And no, of course I didn't expend valuable mental energy calculating that when there are websites that will do it for me.)

Two fronts rolled through here this afternoon, bringing rain, and then a much longer and harder rain shower with a lot of thunder and lightning to accompany it.  At 6 pm, we had as much (or more) water running in front of our house as we did during the floody weekend of May 1.

No complaints, mind you.  We had a couple weeks of 100+ degree days and zilch for rain those days.  Made me wonder if we had been transported back to Oklahoma just in time for the annual August heat wave.  So I'm grateful for today's deluge, even though it comes too little and too late for poor Alberta Spruce (aka Victim #4) which has indeed bit the dust and looks like a Charlie Brown Christmas tree.

Speaking of Christmas, it'll soon be time for our friendly family competition:  we all start listening to commercials to see who hears the first Christmas commercial of the season.  The Rockettes have historically been first out of the gate, but with Opryland's flooding problems last May, who knows if they'll be in town this year?  We will be going to see Straight No Chaser at TPAC next month; wonder if they will do their Twelve Days of Christmas?

Aug 20, 2010

Clean Desk Mission: Day 28

Twenty-eight days.  Four full weeks...almost a full month.   I haven't dusted it in a month, though - ewww.

And in the interest of full disclosure, I did have a slip-up this week.  As I laid my weary head on my pillow Tuesday night, I realized I had left piles o'stuff.  The horror!  My eyes flew open and I very nearly crawled out of bed to go straighten everything up, but it was midnight and I figured it could wait six hours.  To be honest, I was a little pouty when I faced a less-than-crisp and clean surface the next morning; I've grown accustomed to having a clean desk greet me each and every morning.

But my workspace was bound for more messiness anyway, with lots of writing and editing to do this week.  And that means lots of piles of this 'n' that scattered here and there and everywhere, all day long.  However, since the desk is staying relatively clean, it seems rather pointless to continue to dwell on its cleanliness (or even its dustiness) each week.

So let's talk virtual file organization.  How 'bout them computer files?   Okay, let's take baby steps, and start with photo files. I downloaded the new Picasa 3.8 and I'd like to say I'm having fun playing with the new embedded Picnik photo editing, but I haven't gotten it to open yet.  (Something tells me my browser settings are at fault.)

I'm also feeling sucked into the Picasa photo-storage vortex, swirling closer and faster to the drain.  The Luddite in me is leery of online photo storage, even though I've been using WalMart's photo center and even SnapFish for more years than I can count.  Part of me just likes having my photos on my hard drive or flash drive (yeah, where they can get sizzled in the flash of a lightning bolt, or accidentally washed and dried to oblivion.  I know, I know.

But I am working hard to get my photos in some semblance of order.  I keep my text files pretty orderly but PIcasa's folder-naming gizmo does some hinky things now and again, so my photo files are a bit unkempt.  And the bigger they get, the worse they are.  Time to get cracking on them.  Keep your fingers crossed that next Friday's update allows me to brag on some new, impressive photo filing system I've got going on.   Then we can take a road trip to a totally foreign destination:  the land of external hard drive backups.  (Yes, I have one.  And no, I'm not sure exactly how to use it.)

What can I say, except I work without a net.  And sometimes I jump off cliffs. (Don't tell mom and dad.)
Yes, that was actually a leap, not a fall.  No, despite how it looks, I did not do a face plant in the water but went in feet-first, just like the Navy SEALS say you should.  And yes, I know it is foolish and dangerous to jump 20 feet into a gorge on a mountain stream with barely-submerged rocks only a few feet away.

But in my defense, I wasn't as crazy as this guy who climbed about 40 feet up a tree to jump into the same area.
However, I guess I have proven that my answer to the age-old question, "If all the other kids were jumping off a cliff, would you?" is yes.  And with that sanity-defying leap of mine, I have had all the summer fun I can possibly stand.  Bring on fall and football! (15 days and counting....)

Aug 18, 2010

Recipe of the Week: Texas Sheet Cake

One of my aunts gave this recipe to my mom many years ago, and it was among the recipes I made sure I snagged before I departed for Tennessee as a new bride.

It has two big things going for it in my book:  1) it is fast and easy, and 2) it turns out consistently good results - a cake-like brownie (or is it a brownie-like cake?)  It's perfect for taking to potlucks or picnics or anywhere you're serving a crowd.  The boiled chocolate icing is delicious, but I'm also providing an alternative caramel frosting that is also wonderful on this cake.

 Dianna's Texas Sheet Cake

2 cups flour
2 cups sugar
1 cup water
4 tablespoons powdered cocoa
1/2 cup butter or margarine
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup buttermilk or sour cream
1 teaspoon soda
2 eggs, beaten
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla

Grease a jelly roll pan or cookie sheet with sides (roughly 12 x 18).  Preheat oven to 375.  Sift together flour and sugar in large bowl and set aside.  In heavy saucepan, combine water, cocoa, butter and oil.  Bring to a boil and immediately pour over sifted ingredients.  Add remaining ingredients; stir well and pour into prepared pan; bake for 15-20 minutes or until top is springy to touch.

While cake is baking, prepare the frosting.

Aunt Dianna's Frosting
3/4 stick butter (6 tablespoons)
4 tablespoons cocoa
1 tablespoon milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
3/4 pound powdered sugar
1 cup coarsely chopped pecans, walnuts or black walnuts* (optional)

Combine all ingredients except nuts in heavy medium saucepan and heat to boiling.  Stir in nuts, if desired, and pour over cake as soon as it comes out of the oven.  Allow to cool before cutting into squares.

Quick Caramel Frosting 
(from Southern Living September 2005 issue)
An optional frosting that is exceptionally good on chocolate cake, apple muffins, or anything else you want to smother with a rich caramel glaze...

2 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1/2 cup butter
1 teaspoon vanilla

Combine all ingredients in heavy saucepan; bring to a boil stirring constantly, over medium-low heat.  Cook for 3-5 minutes or until mixture reaches a pudding-like consistency.  remove from heat and pour over cake as it comes out of the oven.  (You can also stir in a cup or two of chopped pecans as you remove from heat, if desired.)

*My grandma harvested black walnuts every fall and she used them in many baked goods and in confections such as divinity.  I was never sure if she really liked black walnuts, or if she used them because they were plentiful and free for the taking.  We have a black walnut tree on our property, and I now appreciate what is involved in getting just a few black walnut meats.  Whatever her reasons were, shelling and storing the black walnuts was truly a labor of love on her part.  

Anytime I bite into anything with black walnuts in it, my memories are immediately taken back to seeing my grandma in her  kitchen, where she produced countless great meals for her family, and served us with much love and humor.

Aug 16, 2010

Housecleaning 101: Fight fire with fire

When I dashed out the door Friday afternoon to scoop up a car load of girls and haul them to the mountains, the house wasn't in shambles, but it wasn't really clean, either. Laundry was done, but not put away.  Bed was made, but I didn't have time to change the sheets.  Dishes were done, but left to dry next to the sink.  You get the picture.

Our return was heralded with suitcases full of dirty laundry, shopping bags of new acquisitions, and quite a few leftover groceries, which I frugally refused to throw away when we packed up our belongings yesterday.  The house-sitting son worked most of the weekend (that's his excuse and he's sticking to it), so tidying up behind us or himself was not high on his list of to-do's either.

So here I am with a clean desk: a peaceful island in a churning sea of wreckage.  (Kind of makes me just want to hang out at the desk all day, but I guess that's not really an option.)

How do I clean a ravaged house?

Conventional wisdom says, "dig in and clean."  Phooey on that.  I figure I should first make a BIGGER mess, THEN I can really clean up.  (Otherwise, I would be cleaning up, only to mess it up again.  Two birds, one stone, all that.)  So instead of launching an assault on the mess, I grabbed some buckets, headed outside and picked grapes.  I should have picked them last week, but I knew there was no way I could squeeze juice- and jelly- making into that schedule, so I took my chances the birds and insects would leave a few for me and indeed they did.  I enjoyed our "cold snap" (those weather forecasters have a zany sense of humor) and sweated and swatted long enough to pick about ten pounds of grapes.  They're smaller than last year, probably due to the dry weather while they were ripening.

As expected, the grape juicing process made a mess - bright purple splotches and stains on the counters and several sticky pans and a Foley food mill to wash up.  Much better to do this all at once, eh?

Good news:  the kitchen is now much more respectable.  Now on to tackle the laundry and get fresh linens on the bed before bedtime!

Aug 15, 2010

Impeccable timing

I bought my 2004 Toyota Highlander six years next month. Practically every day for those six years, this vehicle has been started at least twice a day - some days many more times than that.  Conservatively speaking, I have inserted the key, turned it over and had it roar to life without so much as a cough, hiccup, burp or sputter at least 4,000-5,000 times.

We took the girl and four of her closest friends to a weekend getaway in Pigeon Forge to celebrate her 15th birthday.  So all weekend we piled (stuffed is more like it) seven adult-sized people in my trusty little SUV and scooted around Pigeon Forge, up to the The Sinks (yes, pictures coming) to jump and swim; we visited restaurants, shopping, and everywhere else we decided we wanted to go.

This morning, we gathered all five teenagers up for one last excursion:  to one of the local pancake places for breakfast before heading home.  We packed in our bags and ourselves, and I put the key in the ignition and turned it, just like always.

And it went "click, click, click."

Long story short, the battery had conked out.  But it couldn't have happened at a better time - we still had access to the cabin, had a second car to go get a new battery, and I have an awesome husband who comes prepared with tools and the automotive skills to get the battery out, find an auto supply store, and replace the battery lickety split.  We still had time for the obligatory pancake breakfast (it's a Smoky Mountain thing) and made it home by mid-afternoon.

I'm thankful it didn't happen when we were all out and about (it would have been especially inconvenient if it had died while we were swimming yesterday afternoon); and I'm extra-thankful my husband was willing to risk his sanity to help me chaperon five teenage girls this weekend.  He's my hero!

Aug 13, 2010

Clean Desk Mission: Day 21

I'm probably going to jinx myself here (it is Friday the 13th after all), but the clean desk thing seems to be getting easier over time.  I discovered one of my biggest sources of desk-clogging detritus is the mail.  So if I sort through it immediately and ruthlessly, and deal with the one or two pieces that are keepers, it's pretty easy.  (Yeah, I know, that's no big revelation; organization experts have been saying that for years.  Sometimes you gotta discover things for yourself.)

What else takes over and clogs my desk?


That's right. UFOs.  Unidentified Found Objects.  You know, little bits and pieces of things that no one knows where they came from, where they go, what they belong to, or what to do with them.

What do you do with those things?  Give them to mom.  She'll know.  She knows everything. She knows where the extra jar of mayonnaise is (pantry, third shelf, to the left.)  She knows if your blue tshirt got washed this week.  (Yes; it's folded and stacked with your shorts.)  And she knows what every particle in this house IS and what it belongs to.

I submit to you a piece of evidence.  This little doohickey has been lying on my desk for a week now.  I have no idea what it is, besides the obvious - it's a plastic button from something. We own nothing this shade of green; at least nothing that I am aware of.  It appeared on my desk one day; unclaimed, here it sets. No one knows what it is, where it came from, or who put it here.

I would dust for fingerprints, but I've handled it, so the crime scene has been contaminated.  It's safe as long as it remains solitary, but if it is joined by any other trinket, they will begin to multiply, and then overnight my desk will have a half-dozen baby doodads scattered around.  But as sure as I throw it away, someone will ask me if I've seen a little green plastic button.

Last night we had Chicken Cordon Bleu. I had chicken thighs on the menu, but a) I could not find the recipe I planned to use and b) I had lots of breasts and no thighs on hand.  Of course I test drove some of my new pans.  I was a little nervous about the chicken, but I heated and oiled the saute pan just like the cooking video said...and it worked - the chicken did not stick and the brown bits came up as soon as I hit them with chicken stock.  Having a 3-quart saucepan to boil pasta is simply marvelous.  I have no idea how I got by without it for so many years.

I would have to say the chicken recipe fell a little short of my expectations:  the sauce was too thick and the chicken got dried out after the recommended 25 minutes in the oven.  Live and learn:  next time we'll make more sauce (using a creamier, melt-ier cheese in the sauce, saving the Gruyere to lay on top of the ham) and stick the whole thing under the broiler just long enough to brown and bubble the sauce and cheese.

Aug 12, 2010

Words we love to hear

On this side of "Well done, good and faithful servant," there are some phrases that are guaranteed to bring joy to our hearts and a smile to our faces.  A few come to mind, arranged in no particular order:

"Happy birthday!"
"Breakfast is ready!"
"Can I have your phone number?"
"You have a new text message."
"Congratulations, graduate!"
"You're hired!"
"I'm going to let you off with a warning instead of writing you a ticket."
"Your table is ready."
"I love you."
"I do."
"Sure we can bump you to first class for this flight."
"Your loan was approved."
"It's a healthy baby [girl] or [boy]."
"Nothing serious - no sign of concussion" (or "no broken bones," or "it was only a baby tooth.")
"We're home!"
"You're in luck:  it's the last one in stock and it's your size."
"Let's meet for lunch - my treat!" 
"Can I have your recipe?"
"Happy anniversary!" 

"Your order has shipped."

If anybody is looking for me today, I'll be busy washing and putting away my new favorite cooking things and whipping up some cinnamon roll dough for a special breakfast this weekend.

But I do have time for a photo update of the pooches.  Here's little dog in one of her calmer moments. 

And here's big dog, sweet as always.

Aug 11, 2010

Recipe of the Week: Slow Cooker Brisket

When I was trying to fill up the hollow legs of three hungry children (without spending all our money on food), my menus centered around simple, hearty, tummy-filling foods.  This brisket recipe was among those in the Once-a-Month Cooking method I latched on to back in the mid-90s.  It has always yielded tasty, juicy, tender meat.  That's no mean feat with brisket - as most of us can attest, it can be a little fickle to prepare.

I found I could make a lot of inexpensive meals from a single brisket if I watched for the big untrimmed briskets to go on sale.  When they did, I hauled home one or two, cut them in portions that would fit in my slow cooker and wrapped and froze the rest until I was ready to cook another batch.  The cooked brisket can be frozen with enough gravy to cover, making quick meals on busy days.

No matter how I fixed it, the brisket was always a smash hit with our family.  Today, if I want to ensure a big crowd for dinner, all I have to do is tell everyone I'm fixing brisket and they will come a'running.  The recipe itself is caveman simple.
 (I wonder how long this pop culture reference will be relevant?)
How you serve the brisket is limited only by your imagination and your family's preferences.  I listed four suggestions below to help you get started.

Mrs. Ringle's* Brisket

1 brisket (5-7 pounds)
1 package onion soup mix
2 tablespoons prepared mustard (spicy brown or yellow, it won't matter much)

I also recommend adding a dash or two of liquid smoke (don't go overboard until you figure out the amount that suits your family's tastebuds.)

Place brisket fat side up in slow cooker.  Sprinkle with soup mix and squeeze on a little mustard and sprinkle with a few drops of liquid smoke.  Cover and cook on low for 8-10 hours, depending on the size of the brisket.  It can be cooked overnight (the OAMC cookbook recommends starting it the night before your cooking day.)

When the brisket shreds easily with a fork, it's done.  Scrape off the seasoning crust and mix with the juices that formed.  Place meat on on a cutting board and let it cool, then pull/shred it.  The juice can be run through a fat separator and used as a base for gravy or au jus.  If you're not serving the brisket immediately, place in freezer bags, squeezing out all the air.  Or divide among freezer containers and cover with meat juices or brown gravy to freeze for a few weeks.

My Favorite Ways to Serve This Brisket:
  1. A meal of shredded brisket, mashed potatoes, vegetables and bread is simple and good. 
  2. It also makes great sandwiches (we like to use sliced french bread, buttered and griddled on one or both sides.)
  3. Beef hash is a family favorite that stretches a little meat a long way:  In a large hot skillet, pour a tablespoon or two of olive oil and brown a 32-ounce package of southern-style hash browns and a diced onion, stirring to keep from sticking together.  When the potatoes are nearly done add 1-2 cups of shredded brisket and a cup of brown gravy.  Let heat through completely.  Serve with a corn pudding and green beans, stand back and watch your hungry eaters tuck in.  I've had to negotiate treaties over who gets the last little scoop out of the pan.
  4. Mix with good barbecue sauce and serve on crusty rolls, or place a portion on a warm flour tortilla, top with coleslaw, roll up and smother with some ranch beans.  (That's probably a recipe for another day...) 
*In case you're curious, no I don't know who Mrs. Ringle is, either.  The cookbook didn't give any hint as to her identity.  But God bless this woman, whoever she is, for giving us this simple, surefire recipe.

Aug 9, 2010

Me and Mmes. Myers and Briggs

I have taken a handful of professionally administered Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) assessments in my adult life. If you've taken one, you probably realized it would be pretty easy to  "game" the results.  (But that would only prove that you can deliberately fool yourself.)

What is harder to discern is when you are unwittingly kidding yourself: when you convince yourself that you WANT to be a certain way, whether you really are like that or not.  I learned early on that MBTI doesn't esteem one personality type above another, so it's not like you get gold stars for being one type over another. That takes a lot of the pressure off and you can just do your best to answer the questions honestly and let the proverbial chips fall where they may.

For most of my career, my MBTI profiles typically indicated I was an ENTJ or an ESTJ.  If you're not familiar with MBTI, you answer a series of questions and wind up with one of 16 possible "types" based on the four areas of assessment:
  1. Favorite world.  Or as I put it, are you an outie or an innie? Extraversion=E; Introversion=I.
  2. Information. If you prefer to focus on the basic information you take in, you're an S (for Sensing); if you prefer to interpret and add meaning, you're an "N" (for Intuition)
  3. Decisions. When making decisions, are you all about logic?  Then you're a Thinker (T).  If you tend to first take people and circumstances into consideration, you're a Feeler (F).
  4. Structure. In dealing with the outside world, us Judging (J) folks cut to the chase and git 'er done, while Perceiving (P) people like to keep their options open.
My results weren't surprising, considering that my education was in the accounting and finance fields.  With some conscious effort and personal development, I managed to flip all the way over to to an ESFJ at one point in my corporate career, but my bookends were always E and J.  That is/was me, or so I thought.

Fast forward a decade; the other day I ran my blog through a site called "" and...well, see for yourself:

What?  When did I morph into an ESFP?  The only thing more surprising would have been learning I had become introverted.  My guess is that isn't even an option for this software; is there such a thing as an introverted blogger?  My money is on "no" on that one. 

And in fairness to Typealyzer, they offer a caution against drawing too many conclusions about your personality type based on your blogger's profile.  But, an ESFP?  Have I:
a) really changed that much since I hopped off the corporate gerbil wheel?or
b) just used this blog as a creative outlet, and my business-like game face is still ready and waiting in the wings? or
c) finally found proof of my alter-ego? (I've always joked about having an "evil twin."  Who knew she was a Martha-Stewart type!)

So, I went in search of some down-and-dirty MBTI-esque assessment tools online.  Took a couple and reassured myself I'm still an ENTJ...MAYbe an ENFJ if we stretch it a bit.  But E and J are intact.  Whew.  Nothing against Perceivers. Y'all are great.  I'm just not one of you, even if my blog says otherwise.

Want to take a free MBTI-type test? Here's one.  And then run your blog through the Typealyzer site.  The results are interesting; as you can see, your mileage may vary.

Aug 7, 2010

A few of my favorite things

"Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens
Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens
Brown paper packages tied up with strings
These are a few of my favorite things"

Ahhh yes.  Bright copper kettles and brown paper packages...a few of my favorite things, too.

I have been officially in the market for a few new pieces of cookware for a while now.  My current set is almost 15 years old and I've had to toss a few pieces along the way. The remaining pieces consist of a large saute pan (it's held up well to constant use, but the non-stick coating is starting to get scruffy) and a couple of saucepans and stockpot, also starting to show their age.  My favorite stockpot is a hand-me-down stainless number; it has lost one of its handles.  My lone skillet (a gift from younger son a few years ago) is also starting to show signs of wear and tear.  I think it's time.  And I'm ready to graduate to stainless.

Yesterday, I spotted and began immediately coveting a big All-Clad saute pan at Williams-Sonoma.  (Okay, yes. To be honest, I heart almost everything W-S sells.  Doesn't everybody?)   Fortunately I had the girl along and she dragged me out of the store before I did anything rash and foolish.

Here's where my current infatuation with beautiful cookware meets reality:  just how many saute pans and skillets do I really need, and how big do they really need to be?  It's one thing to lust after a full cadre of skillets and saute pans, but let's be serious.  I've managed to cook for my crew with just 2 or 3 skillets, a handful of saucepans and one big saute pan over the years.  Does it really make sense to expand my ensemble when I'm scaling back the quantity of food I'm serving?  Will my cooking improve if I use these pans?  Quite frankly, that single All-Clad saute pan retails for more than I've spent on skillets and saucepans our entire married life.

Practicality took over: I've read reviews and compared several high-end cookware lines against each other.  I scoped out eBay and several cooking sites to figure out the going rate for All-Clad, Caphalon, and Cuisinart.   

And...then I marched over to Amazon and placed an order for this Cuisinart 5.5 quart saute pan.  I've had a Cuisinart saucepan for a couple years, and it is my favorite saucepan ever.  The Multiclad line got good reviews, even when stacked up against All-Clad.

But then Amazon did what Amazon does best:  it immediately began showing me additional items I "might" like, including a set of Cuisinart Multiclad skillets, saucepans and a new stockpot with steamer insert, plus lids.  All for a very low price - about 60% off list.  (About the same price as one full-price All-Clad from Williams-Sonoma.)  AND free shipping.

Soooo...of course I caved into temptation.  There is more than a little irony here:  I will have the best and biggest set of cookware I have ever possessed, and use it to cook for an ever-dwindling crowd of regular diners.

I can rationalize this purchase in two ways:  one, today is our "when we met" anniversary.  Exactly 28 years ago, I laid my eyes on the cutest boy I had ever seen.  He made my heart go pitter-pat, and my pitter-pat go booga-wooga.  (He still does.)  I figure my well-timed purchase lets him off the hook for a gift - I couldn't be more delighted with my gift and he didn't have to worry about what to get me.  I'll be giddy with excitement (if not surprise) when the UPS guy drops it off next week. 

And since I had a gob of Amazon rewards points, it cost me $6 and change.  I think I'll be humming "Favorite Things" until my brown paper packages show up next week.

P.S. To a couple of my favorite people in the whole world: I hope the cruise was wonderful and you have a safe trip home! Can't wait to see the pictures!!!
Seattle:  60 and rainy.  KC 94 and dry.

Aug 6, 2010

Clean Desk Mission: Day 14

It's still clean.  (It's no wonder it's rained the past couple of days - I am pretty sure I've shifted some cosmic force in the universe.  Watch out Miami, you may get snowed in this fall if I keep this up.) 

All joking aside, it has been really nice to sit down each morning to a fresh start each day for the past two weeks.  My active notebooks are always within arm's reach (and a few new ones are stowed away for future projects.)

I have to admit that during the course of any given day, the desk can still get cluttered up, but I am disciplining myself to clean it up each night, filing away bills, coupons, and stowing my notebooks back in their place.  As a direct result of keeping my desk clean, I have:
  • paid the household bills ahead of schedule this month (usually I'm scrambling to get them paid in the nick of time to avoid late fees);
  • gathered my receipts, summarized them in a spreadsheet so we know what we spent on SBV this year - and for what area. (AND I turned it in and received my reimbursement check - woohoo!); 
  • compiled all the school supply giveaway notes and emails so we can put THAT project to rest until next year;
  • remembered to grab coupons and saved quite a few $$$ this week;
  • kept up with all my printouts of new recipes and shopping lists for the past two weeks, which in turn meant we tried several new dishes, some of which were keepers.
For those of you who don't struggle with maintaining control of your desk (and the everyday tasks that flow across it), all I can say is "good for you!"  For me, these accomplishments represent a huge step forward in staying on top of things and balancing my time and energy among all the ongoing projects and daily activities that tug and pull me in dozens of directions each day.

Still white-knuckling my way through this...

Aug 4, 2010

Recipe of the Week: Black-Eyed Pea Salad

I admit I have not always been a fan of black-eyed peas and other field peas.  Before they "grew" on me, I turned up my nose at them, because I just didn't care for the taste.  That is, until I experienced this wonderful salad at a friend's home when we were living in Oklahoma. Our families both moved away ten years ago - in fact, they're 13 timezones and half a world from us, at least for a little while longer.

I'm not sure my proportions are exactly in line with hers, but we love this salad and miss those meals with very dear friends.  (I wonder if they can get these ingredients in Malaysia?)

This salad is a very versatile side dish; when tomatoes are in season, it's particularly tasty and holds its own against the bold flavors of barbecued ribs and other meats.  I've also served this on New Year's Day, as our mandatory black-eyed pea dish.  (For good luck, of course.)

Pam's Black-eyed Pea Salad

1 can black-eyed peas, drained
2 large ripe tomatoes, diced (or substitute 2-3 cups of halved cherry or grape tomatoes)
1 sweet onion, diced
1 avocado, sliced
1 cup Catalina or other sweet French dressing
Frito corn chips, coarsely crushed

Drain peas (you can also rinse them if you wish).  Dice tomatoes and onion.  Mix peas, onion, tomato and dressing together, and allow to marinate for a few hours or overnight (you can hold off on adding the tomatoes if you are refrigerating it overnight.)

Just before serving, peel and dice avocado; add to marinated ingredients along with a handful or two of crushed Frito corn chips.  Gently toss to coat and serve.  Makes 6-8 small side servings.  Can be doubled for a larger crowd.

Note:  While this recipe can and should be started ahead of time, it is definitely a "serve immediately" kind of dish - the avocado and crushed corn chips don't make for good leftovers.  Make enough to enjoy, and then make it again when you get a hankering for it.  And Pam, if you ever make it to our place for a visit, I'll be happy to make this or any other dish to serve y'all!