Mar 31, 2011

Moving: From house hunter to home buyer

It's like Andy Rooney's quip about life and toilet paper:  the closer to the end you get, the faster they both seem to go.  Tomorrow may be April Fools' Day, but this is no joke.

The first week of our adventure as bona fide home buyers (rather than house hunters) has flown by in a whirlwind of to-do's:  looking through the house as future owners, rather than contemplative buyers, a flurry of emails and calls between the mortgage company, our Realtor, the sellers and their Realtor and us; signing, scanning and sending paperwork hither and yon, calling the utility companies, scheduling the home inspection (this afternoon), and then getting an appraisal.  (Fingers and toes and everything crossed that the inspection and appraisal processes go smoothly...those are the two biggest hurdles.)

When we signed off on the bank's counter offer, we agreed to move up the closing by a weekend, so instead of having four full weeks (and weekends) before we close, we have just 21 days and counting. It's quickly becoming decision time on some things:
  • Are we going to re-tile the master shower before we move in, or wait?  I vote for sooner than later.
  • Are we going to paint the dining room and bedrooms ourselves, or have someone else do it?  (Am I even ready to pick out paint colors?) 
  • Can we match the paint color in the den and hallways, and simply touch up the smudges?  
  • Who can we get to stretch the carpets?
  • If we clean the carpets after the painting is finished, how long do we need to let them dry before we move in? (Can I reasonably expect them to remain clean after we schlep through the house with umpteen boxes?)
  • On moving day, will we need to rent a U-Haul, or will we move a little at a time, with my SUV and our trusty old Chevy pickup (aka "Big Red")?  
  • Can we find someone willing to move just the super heavy stuff like the piano and credenza?
  • What type of internet service is available at the new place?  Working from home means we're moving my office as well as our personal belongings. And moving out to the country means no more Comcast until they decide to remedy the dead zone we're moving into.

And that's just the tip of my iceberg.  I realize these are all VERY good problems to have to solve, and there's no real rush - we don't have to be out of our home by a set date.  But seeing the closing date get closer and closer tends bring out the list-maker and worrier in me. I don't want to drag out the move longer than necessary, so there is some pressure to quickly plan out what needs to happen, and in what order.

Once we get the home inspection report and the appraisal finished, then I can start scheduling painting and tiling and carpet cleaning...oh my!

Happy countdown!

Mar 30, 2011

Recipe of the Week: Goulash (?)

When my foodie side joins forces with my word-geek side, you just never know where we will wind up.

Growing up, I think I remember us eating something we called "goulash."  My mother would never serve (or at least never admit to serving) Hamburger Helper, so I'm not sure why I gravitated to the boxed "Chili Macaroni" mix.  But as a young bride, I found my wonderful husband liked it as long as I added a can of diced tomatoes and we called it "goulash."  I really don't even know why we thought it should be called that - truth be told, I wasn't sure exactly what goulash really was.  (But I was pretty sure a boxed mix of something called "chili macaroni" probably wasn't going to be mistaken for authentic Hungarian cuisine, either. So I always felt a twinge of guilt when I called it that.)

A few months ago, I tried out a "Mexican Pasta Skillet" recipe from that wasn't bad for a Wednesday night one-dish-fits-all meal.  A side of crispy carrot sticks and celery, some bread and we had dinner ready before Bible study.  Score one for mom and e-mealz.  In fact, I'm probably going to repeat it tonight.

Of course, it tasted a whole lot guessed it: chili macaroni, aka "goulash."  There are some good things about this version, like
  • no MSG;
  • I can control the sodium content;
  • no mystery packet of seasoning, thank-you-very-much; and
  • it's easy and pretty cheap. 
No wonder he looks confused
As I was serving it, it got me thinking:  what is goulash really?  Am I insulting Hungarian heritage by appropriating this name for a very Americanized quick-food?  So I went looking, and was relieved to find I wasn't too far off.  Or at least not alone in calling my dish "goulash."  True classic Goulash is a braised meat (beef, lamb, venison, etc.) stew/soup.  Its ingredients vary depending on region, but it involves onions, paprika, and even tomatoes and pasta.  It is generally accepted that the American and Australian versions are made similar to good old "chili macaroni." So there we have it.

But wait!  Wikipedia (and they're always right, aren't they?) also says in the South, "goulash" describes a mishmash of foods. Wow - that seems kind of insulting.  And I discovered this Americanized version of goulash (typically made with tomatoes and elbow macaroni) is also called American Chop Suey in New England.  Say what?  Now we've dragged the Chinese into this multi-national culinary debacle, with a food that involves dried chili powder, tomatoes and pasta, and that all-American classic, ground beef?  No wonder the pudgy little helper guy always looked perplexed.  I figured it was the missing finger, but maybe it's something deeper than that.

So there you have it - the scoop on goulash.  Or chili macaroni, aka American Chop Suey, or now, Mexican Pasta Skillet.

Mexican Pasta Skillet 
(with some gentle revisions)

1 pound ground beef
16 ounces salsa*
1 1/2 cups water
1 cup canned corn, drained (I used frozen and would again)
2 cups elbow macaroni or other pasta
1 cup shredded cheddar
coarsely crushed Frito chips (optional)
sour cream (optional)

*Next time I'll use mild salsa or reduce this to half a jar of medium salsa and add a 15-ounce can diced tomatoes, undrained.  A full jar of medium-hot was a little too hot for us.

Brown ground beef and drain.  Add water, salsa and tomatoes; bring to boil.  Add pasta and corn; mix well and cover, reduce heat to simmer and cook for 12-14 minutes or until pasta is tender.  Before serving, sprinkle with cheese.

The original recipe didn't call for it, but knowing my family's preferences, next time I'll serve it with crushed corn chips and/or a dollop of sour cream on top of each serving. 

Hmmm....ever wonder why it's called it a dollop?  Maybe we'll figure that one out, too.

Happy cooking,

Mar 28, 2011

My tips for easy vacations

Spring break is over, and now there's 60-some days until summer vacations begin in earnest.   For those of you who --like us--don't always stay in condos or cabins, I hope this information is helpful if you're planning a summer or fall trip.  I'll probably be printing it out as a checklist when I start planning our fall break.

After a few years of renting beach homes and mountain cabins instead of hotel rooms, I think we're finally getting the hang of vacationing in a home-away-from-home. I love having the extra space to sprawl out, and the ability to prepare some of our meals, which is better for our waist line and bottom line, versus eating out every meal.

With each trip, I realize (too late) there are some key things that can really add to our comfort and convenience.   Here's my list of most important hints and tips I wish I had known from the very first trip to the beach:

1. Plan your meals. You probably won't eat out every meal, so it's helpful to decide ahead of time how many breakfasts, lunches and dinners you will eat in and plan something for each meal.  It doesn't matter if you precisely determine each day's menu, just jot down enough meal ideas to cover all your bases.  I print out a flexible menu and put it in a plastic protective sleeve to lay somewhere in the kitchen (note to self: a refrigerator magnet would be a good thing to bring along.) Not only does it help everyone see what they can choose from, it helps the cook remember what to fix with what!

The menu also helps me create a grocery list, which I divide into things to bring and things to buy when we arrive.  (It makes that first-day grocery run MUCH faster and cheaper to have a list of everything we need for the stay.)

2. Bring or buy?  I've learned that just like packing my clothes and personal items, some items are worth bringing, others are not. My SUV does not have huge storage capacity, especially once Mr. Official's golf clubs are loaded and our bags are packed in.

For that reason, I'm pretty judicious about what I tote along for the kitchen, versus what I will pick up when we get to our destination.  But I've found that bringing the following items saves at least $100 on our weekly bill, and makes the vacation a lot more pleasant for everyone. If things go according to plan, I usually bring back far less than I took.  Here's my baker's dozen of must-takes that I fit into two insulated grocery bags (also a good thing to have along):
  • Seasonings.  After lugging home the umpteenth pair of S&P shakers, I started leaving them behind, usually along with other abandoned pairs left by former occupants.  I now bring small jars of coarse pepper and Kosher or sea salt, which we prefer anyway.  Depending on the menu, I also pre-measure spices and seasonings. (For example, this garlic lime recipe makes an easy dinner, especially if I premix the spices and put them in a small bag.)
  • Oil.  A half-cup of olive oil in a small container makes baked potato skins crispy and yummy, seasons pans for sauteing, etc.  A small container of canola or vegetable oil is good for baked sweets (e.g., brownies, cookies and breakfast muffins and coffee cakes.)
  • Ziplock quart and gallon bags and aluminum foil.  They take up very little space and are handier than a pocket on a shirt for marinating stuff, storing leftovers and having a foil-lined pan makes cleanup a breeze.
  • Pasta.  Whether for a salad or side dish, I can tuck in a small box and know it's fresher and cheaper than what I can buy locally.
  • Sugar. White and brown.  Easy to carry a small amount in heavy-duty bags or containers, and take just enough for sweet tea, bacon seasoning, etc.
  • Mixes. Muffin, brownie and cookie mixes are easier to transport than refrigerated dough, way cheaper (and tastier) than packaged sweets, and a cinch to mix up for breakfasts and desserts or snacks.  Along with a 3-pack of microwave popcorn and we've got nighttime snackage for the week.
  • Tea bags, coffee and filters.  Depending on how many are in our group, 1-2 tea bags per dinner are usually sufficient.  Coffee and filters are usually much cheaper to buy and take than to pick up locally.  (Extra filters are also good for disposable "bowls" for popcorn, chips, etc.)
  • Silicon.  As in hot pads and muffin cups.  Six muffin cups nest together and take up almost no room (not every condo has a muffin tin, I've discovered.)  Most condos only provide only one hot pad, but a couple silicon hot pads take up little room and protect both fingers and counters.
  • Lighter and a few votive or citronella candles.  Most of our vacations are to warm-weather destinations and we have a screened porch or balcony with dining table and chairs.  Sunset dinners are much nicer if you have a candle on the table.   Charcoal (and even some gas) grills require a lighter.  I don't know how many cheap (but expensive) lighters I've bought and carried home over the years, but it's a bunch.  Yes, we eventually use them up, but why keep buying them when you have a handful at home?
  • Flashlight and batteries (from AAA to D) will make beachcombing or just walking in a dark place a little easier.  Buying batteries in a local store is not only expensive, but--depending on how far off the beaten path you are--their batteries could be older than your kids.  And be sure to tuck in converters and chargers for every electronic device: cell phones, cameras, e-readers and computers.
  • Soap.  Dish, dishwasher and laundry all require detergent or soap.  Unless you don't cook (much or at all) during your stay and you do only one load of clothes, the courtesy packages are not near enough for a full week of clean-ups.  A few tablets of detergent and a small container of my favorite dish soap makes these chores much easier. (And with my family's eczema, using our usual fragrance-free laundry detergent can prevent a sudden outbreak.)
  • Kitchen trash bags.  Condos never provide enough, and they take up very little room to tuck in with your bring-alongs.  Count on at least one per day for every 6 people.
  • Sanitizer.  A can of Lysol, Oust, Neutra-Air or Febreeze can eliminate any musty odors on arrival and keeps things much more pleasant during the week.   Just sayin'.
3. First aid kit, plus.  As most moms know, it pays to bring plenty of bandages, Neosporin, over-the-counter pain relievers and allergy meds along.  Anti-nausea/diarrhea and a few doses of severe cold meds can be a lifesaver.  Having a child prone to carsickness, I keep a tube of Dramamine chewables in my car at all times, but if you don't - let's just say it can come in handy.  Other items we usually wind up buying at a local drugstore (read;  I really should bring them along):  feminine products, Q-tips, and a bottle of after-sun lotion (stick it in the fridge.)

4. Get the deals the locals get.  This year we used Groupon and LivingSocial to check out local deals for several weeks before heading out.  (Love them at home, they work great for most of the areas we travel to as well and provide better deals than the coupon books you can pick up locally.)  It can be worth it to sign up for at least one of the local grocery store loyalty cards, too - I carry one I use once or twice a year when we're in the mountains, and it saves a big chunk of our grocery bill when I do.

Happy vacationing!

Mar 27, 2011

Moving: Out of my comfort zone

Moving, or--to be more specific--the process of buying and selling homes, induces high anxiety in me. Like most people, I've always taken home ownership seriously - it's a big commitment, and shouldn't be entered into lightly. But beyond that, my view of real estate transactions was warped by an unusual and thoroughly unnerving situation about two decades ago.

Two of our volunteer fence builders
Our first home was beginner's luck, and we stumbled happily through the process.  We built a 1,200 square-foot house and it felt huge compared to the apartments and rentals we called home before it.  We were blessed by family and friends who pitched in to help us paint it, clean it and move in.   We sodded and fenced the yard ourselves.   (Well, the "boys" did the fencing, but I planted sod, too.)

All in all, it was truly a great starter home. Our oldest son was about two when we moved in; his baby brother came along the next year.

After a few years we felt we were quickly outgrowing the space, so we listed our sweet little home for sale. We fell hard for a two-story Tudor-style home on a wooded acre lot. With a contract on our home, we put in a contingency offer on this house and confidently assumed we would close on both homes on the same day in late February, moving out of one and into the other with minimal fuss.  What could possibly go wrong?

The nightmare began when we were midway through closing on our home.  The routine survey was complicated by unexpected flood zone issues as the Corps of Engineers maps had been updated since we built. The buyers bolted, the second home closing was canceled, and we had to turn back on the utilities and move back into our home.   Blindsided doesn't begin to describe how we felt as we reeled through the days and weeks and months that followed.  We finally obtained a letter from the Corps of Engineers confirming our property was not in a flood zone.  By then, we had lived in the house for 9 years, and I was scared witless at the mere suggestion of selling and moving.

In the meantime, the baby (swimmer girl) came along and we were truly squeezed for space.  Shortly after baby girl's first birthday, at the urging of a very conscientious and calming real estate agent (and friend), we successfully sold our little house after a single showing she arranged.  She made it easy, but I couldn't assume it would be successful.  In fact, I refused to breathe a sigh of relief until we handed over the keys.  Fortunately our agent had located a house for us to rent after closing, or we might have been temporarily homeless.   Yes, I was really that fatalistic.

We built and moved into our second home six months later, but in less than three years, we found ourselves moving again, this time back to Tennessee. I house-hunted for two weeks and settled on the house we're in now.  We successfully transitioned everyone and everything from one state to another just before school started, but the entire process was nerve-wracking.  Even though no missteps or mishaps occurred, I still couldn't relax until the ink was dry.

And so here we've stayed ever since - in part because of my fear of moving (and buying and selling) again.  This house is our home, but it is my least-favorite house we've ever owned.  For whatever reason, seeing our old house for sale was the catalyst that overcame my paranoia and propelled me down the path of house hunting.

The house we first fell for has suddenly fallen into our laps.  It's big, but not too big, and it has almost every feature on my wishlist.  Big kitchen with pantry, open floor plan, lots of closets, walk-in attic storage, soaring ceilings, lots of windows and a wraparound porch.   The backyard needs a fence, but has a nice big deck, storage shed, and room for my greenhouse and "outhouse"shed - I bet my neighbor will be so sad to see it--and us--disappear from his daily view, as we will him.

The "outhouse" shed in my garden.
The garage on the new house will hold our vehicles and the boat, and I can introduce my Louisiana iris and pond plants to the natural pond in the front yard to greet visitors and passers-by.  Truth be told, the place is a gardener's delight, with rose bushes around the porch, and hints of perennials greening up among the spring bulbs already flowering.  We will be surrounded by horses, cattle, sheep, poultry, and even emus.  A few strategically placed trees will screen the few neighboring houses from view.

I want this house bad enough to steel myself for a month of emotional ups and downs as we run the steeplechase course of paperwork, inspections and appraisals.  Please hang with me during this process.  I'll try to skip the boring details and share only the fun and instructive highlights of our experience as the journey progresses.

And maybe this time around, I will be finally be able to relax and enjoy the move.

Happy moving on,

P.S. A shout-out happy birthday to my dad.  May he blow out all the candles on his German chocolate cake and all his wishes come true!

Mar 25, 2011

Time's up

Today we pack it up and head northwest.  I'll be shaking sand out of everything for a while. 

College of Charleston
I think beach time goes faster than real-world time.  Where has the week gone?  Once again South Carolina has captured my heart and captivated me.  (Swimmer Girl should think hard about College of Charleston - Southwest now has nonstop flights to this charmed city, and her mother would love an excuse to come up for long weekends occasionally. Make that frequently.  Okay, all the time.)

Next week is back to the usual routine: working, working out, cleaning, laundry, cooking (and cooking out), and scouting out a new abode.

Come to think of it, life is really good--no matter where I am.

Sunset on the marsh walk
But every time I visit this part of the country, I think I leave a tiny bit of my heart behind.  One of these days, we might just have to figure out a way to make this home, especially if my heart insists on staying here piece by piece.  One of the employees at one of Mr. Official's new favorite golf course was putting his golf bag in my car and remarked on the Tennessee tags and "Carolina Girl" window sticker.  I told him a girl can hope, even if it might take another 15 years or so before we can think about retiring somewhere.  (I'm pretty sure I could stand a few more spring breaks in South Carolina while we count down the years.)

Happy spring,

Mar 23, 2011

Recipe of the Week: Crab Wedges

Since we're enjoying spring break in the "Fishing and Seafood Capital of the East Coast" this week, here's a recipe for an appetizer that showcases my personal favorite seafood, crab. (And finally puts something in the "appetizers" section of my recipe box page!)

I first encountered these hors d'oeuvre at a college professor's home when he invited a group of students and spouses/significant others over for a get-together, and it was our host who produced them. I immediately requested the recipe, which he graciously shared.

Crab Wedges

1 3-ounce package cream cheese,  softened
1 stick (1/2 cup) butter (unsalted; do not substitute margarine), room temperature
1/8 cup finely chopped green onion
1/4 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon minced garlic (or to taste)
1/8 teaspoon dry mustard
1/2 cup Cracker Barrel or other sharp cheddar, finely grated
1 6.5-ounce can crabmeat, drained or 1/2 pound cooked meat from crab claws
3-4 English muffins, split open

Mix together cream cheese and butter.  Add onion, Worcestershire sauce, garlic dry mustard and cheese; mix well.  Fold in crab meat. Spread on English muffin halves.  Bake at 350 for 20 minutes or until bubbly.  Use a pizza cutter to slice each English muffin into sixths.  Serve warm.  Makes 36-48 wedges.

Happy eating!

Mar 21, 2011

They say...

"A watched pot never boils."
Literally speaking, it of course does boil, in exactly the same amount of time it would have boiled unmonitored.  It just seems to take longer if you stare at it.

Time always seems to creep by slowly when you're waiting for something to happen.   I remember how slowly the hours seemed to creep by on Christmas Eve when I was a child. (As an adult, I've watched the same pre-Christmas hours fly by at alarming speed.)

All the indications are that this is a buyer's market when it comes to real estate:
  • There's a housing glut and housing prices are depressed due to foreclosures and short sales. 
  • No one is buying, for a myriad of reasons: economic worries, personal financial woes, and the need to sell one house before buying another one. 
So that should mean we can take our sweet time and move at our own pace.  Like shopping in a near-empty store - laid back, casual and calm.  No crowds, no frenzy, no lines, and no reason to get in a hurry.  My agent regularly emails me lists of homes that meet our criteria - if nothing suits my fancy, I should channel Scarlett O'Hara and promise to think about it tomorrow, biding my time until the next list comes out.

There's no need to hover over RealTracs and, prepared to pounce on the newest listing as soon as it hits the market, right?


However, the day we put in an offer on a short sale property (back in early January), two other offers came in almost simultaneously with ours. Out of all the houses on the market, a house that had set empty and overpriced for months was suddenly the desired object of three buyers.  We still haven't heard from the bank, so we have no idea if our offer is on the top of the heap, working its way from one pile to the next, or languishing at the bottom of some asset manager's teetering list of things to ignore until they go away.

And just four days after going on the market, the second house we fell hard for already had an offer in on it when we submitted ours.  In real estate, the early bird usually gets the worm.  The second mouse does not always get the cheese.

After that debacle, I found myself remaining in a state of heightened alert. I don't wait for those periodic reports to hit my email so I can scan them at my leisure. Instead, every day, twice a day, early morning and in the evening, I run searches through both databases, looking for any new listings that have come up.  Even on vacation, I'm trawling for new possibilities, and I've got my agent on speed dial.

And of course, almost no new homes have come on the market since I started this routine.

Because a watched pot never boils.

Going through the list of recently sold homes in the area is a lesson in and of itself: we missed some great opportunities because we weren't paying close attention.  Before we left for spring break, I toured a couple homes that are high potential, and all I can do is hope that they are still available when we get back.

So I add my own caveat to that proverb:  watching the pot won't make the water boil any faster, but neglecting a pot of boiling water isn't advisable, either.

Happy Monday,

Mar 18, 2011

Bowled over again.

My prized utensils
Just when I thought I was safe from the eBay collecting bug, it seems I may have been bit again.  I recently discovered (have I been living in a cave????) that Homer Laughlin Company made not only Fiesta, Riviera, Harlequin and Kitchen Kraft, but they launched a line of Kitchen Kraft called "Oven Serve" back in the late '30s.

Actually that part I already knew - one of my Kitchen Kraft bowls along with my serving spoon, salad fork and cake server are part of this line (whether they are Kitchen Kraft or Oven Serve, I'm not sure.)  But what I didn't know was that this line featured so many pieces with raised embossed designs.

Designs like apple trees.

On mixing bowls.

In five graduated sizes, from 5 inches to 9 inches.

Each with gorgeous glazing and texture.

In yummy hues of turquoise and creamy ivory and green and melon yellow.

Original advertisement - wish I could get them for $2.50 now!
Do you see where this is going?

If you guessed it's going to result in a quest for another set of bowls, that's my guess, too.  I just need to figure out where I can lay my hands on some without paying a king's ransom for them.  They are occasionally offered on eBay and, but not nearly as plentifully as my Kitchen Kraft and Fiesta bowls.  But I will wait and watch, until I snag a set, all at once, or one-at-a-time.

When I was researching these, I found the official name for this design is/was "Appletree."  Somewhere along the line, collectors began referring to them as "orange tree" or "orangetree" as well as Appletree.  To further confuse things, a very similar pattern from Japan was also available during the time period when these were sold new.  But who copied whom is apparently up for debate.

We ARE going to need a bigger house, just so I'll have enough cabinet space to show off all my bowls.  Not that that's a reason to move or anything.
Happy bowl-ing,

P.S., My fondness for Homer Laughlin and violets converged recently.  I specifically sought out violet-strewn pieces of their "Debutante," "French (or Pink) Violets," and "American Beauty" dishes to include in my new violet-themed dish collection...which continues to grow, although at a sedate pace, now that the initial efforts are over. Now to find some of their "Eggshell Georgian" violet pieces...a few teacups or a serving bowl; that would be the bees' knees.

Given the number of violet china patterns they produced, apparently the fine folks and HLCO love violets almost as much as I do - another reason I ♥ them.

Mar 17, 2011

How long does it take?

This morning, I took an armful of odds and ends and placed them in a USPS Priority box, sealed it shut, and mailed it.

How long do you suppose it takes to pack a small box?

Conservatively, my guess is it took approximately 5 minutes to get it ready to mail. (It wouldn't have taken that long but I had to climb in the attic to fetch a new box.)

Post Office AND soda shoppe!
And then it took about 2 minutes to drop it off at Reeves Sain, my favorite U.S. Post Office in all of Murfreesboro.  (They have an old-fashioned soda fountain that serves lunch and handmade shakes and malts.  And a store with all kinds of fun gifts, greeting cards.  And a full-service compounding pharmacy. But I digress.)

All-told It took seven minutes.

And 80 days.

You see, the contents of the box consisted of Christmas stocking stuffer gifts left behind by family, who realized immediately what they had done.  Their items have been sitting beside my desk, waiting on me to do what I finally got around to doing today.

Now we know that a 7-minute process can take almost 3 months if left in the hands of a procrastinator. Hopefully the USPS delivers the box a little faster than I packed it.

Happy procrastinating,

Mar 16, 2011

Recipe of the Week: Open-Faced Reubens

In honor of St. Patrick's Day tomorrow, here's our family's favorite take on the classic corned beef sandwich. (We're not big fans of the traditional corned beef and cabbage dishes that are often associated with the day.)  Since it is made with Italian or French bread, it should probably be referred to as "Reuben-esque."  Just don't confuse it with Rubenesque paintings, although the sandwich, much like many of Peter Paul Rubens' subjects, is unabashedly large and nekkid (errr, open-faced.)

Rubens definitely didn't believe
in airbrushing his models
The original recipe uses a full-size loaf of bread. It is big enough to feed 4-6 or more, but you can scale it back by using a smaller loaf. It lacks the characteristic flavor of rye bread, but the trade-off is a softer sandwich, since rye is typically a little dry and chewy.  Our family prefers Italian or French, and a little caraway can give it that Reuben flavor without overpowering the rest of the sandwich ingredients.

Open-Faced Reuben Sandwich

1 loaf French bread, sliced horizontally
Thousand Island or Russian dressing (or mayonnaise and Dijon mustard to taste)
1 pound deli corned beef, sliced thin
1/2 pound Swiss cheese, sliced
1 small can sauerkraut, drained
caraway seeds (optional)

Start broiler. Thinly spread both halves of the bread with dressing, or substitute mayonnaise and Dijon mustard. Place bread under broiler and allow the dressing to bubble and outside edges to toast slightly.

Remove from oven. Divide corned beef between the two halves and layer it evenly on the bread. Spread half of sauerkraut on each half and sprinkle with a little caraway if desired; top with cheese slices to cover.

Place under broiler and broil for 5-7 minutes or until bubbly hot all the way through. Slice into 2-inch thick wedges and enjoy with some garlicky pickle wedges, potato or pasta salad, or thin and crispy chips.

Ever wonder where the classic grilled Reuben got its name?  Apparently it was an early 1900s creation of Arnold Reuben, who owned a deli near Broadway in New York City.

Happy wearin' o' the green!

Mar 14, 2011

This time next week...

...we will be firmly ensconced in our condo at Murrells Inlet, South Carolina.  Hopefully we will be basking in the first warm rays of the season, enjoying the beaches and salt marsh and rediscovering the fun activities of the area, and planning our day trip into Charleston.  And eating our weight in seafood.

For once, I overcame my natural procrastinator tendencies, and got a good head start this past weekend: the house has been cleaned from one end to the other, and will only need a bit of touching up as the week wears on.  And like our fall trip, my week is now a countdown of to-do's, worked in and squeezed in around my workday priorities:

Monday:  Menu planning, shopping list, check the weather, double-check worship time and address for next Sunday.
Tuesday: Getting my hair did.  And getting the dog her puppy Prozac.  (No kidding.)
Wednesday: Car oil change, wheel rotation and wash/vacuum
Thursday: Laundry and packing, grocery store run
Friday:  Final pass through the house with clean linens, pack everything in the car and plan to depart as soon as everyone is ready to go.

If all goes according to plan, we should hit Atlanta in time to grab a late dinner and settle in for the night, then arrive in Murrells Inlet by noon on Saturday.

Happy (and safe) travels!

Mar 13, 2011

My favorite afternoon of the year

I confess: I absolutely, positively adore Daylight Saving Time. I wish we stayed on it year-round and just made it the new norm. But since we don't, each year I get to welcome my old friend when DST comes back. It's kind of like the first M&M out of the bag - for some reason, it's just a little more enjoyable than all the others - although the rest of them are plenty delightful too.

Georges Seurat's "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte"
It's true that I do not necessarily care so much for the first couple of mornings of DST, but I will take the trade-off of having the extra hour of light that extends the afternoon into early evening. It makes the day seem longer.  Yes, I know the day isn't any longer, and yes, I know we don't even really get an "extra hour" of daylight. but it sure is an extra hour of daylight that I'm awake and able to fully enjoy, and somehow the days seem longer when you stay outside later.

Happy spring-ing forward!

Mar 11, 2011

Am I Goldilocks? Or Captain Ahab?

I guess my conscience and sub-conscious are double-teaming me: these two stories keep coming to mind.  Neither provides a particularly positive role model to emulate.

Some days I feel like Goldilocks as I snub one house after another:  that subdivision is too big, this home's property is too small. This house needs too much work, that one doesn't have a vaulted ceiling or a spot for the piano (and other random things that can make an otherwise lovely home untenable.)  

I don't think I am being hopelessly picky.  In fact, I found the "just right" house back before Christmas.  Unfortunately a short sale is anything but short-lived, and we are still waiting on the bank to move forward on our offer.   After waiting around for several weeks, I finally began looking again.  I found another "just right" house a few weeks ago - but so did someone else, and their offer went in first.  We thought we might have a second shot at it when the seller and buyer found themselves at odds, but alas, it just wasn't meant to be ours.

Thus far I've encountered no growling bears, but a few more disappointments like that could cause me to pack it in. 

More chilling is the whale of a tale known as Moby Dick.  If you haven't read Melville's literary classic in a while, the long (almost 2,000 pages) story short is, it's a tale of a man who is determined--arguably  obsessed--to find and kill a specific whale that destroyed his boat and took his leg.

I suspect that I, in my house hunting might be likened to Captain Ahab, roaming the dangerous high seas of real estate, relentlessly pursuing an elusive quarry known as THE house.

Like Ahab, I bear the scars of a previous encounter with THE house. Several years ago, an attempt to move into a house (THE house at the time) ended disastrously. No lives or limbs were lost, but it was an epic failure nonetheless, and we suffered financial and emotional loss. Sloppy real estate agent, negligent surveyor, passive-aggressive buyers, attorneys and an ill-informed judge rounded out the cast of characters in that cautionary tale of how-not-to-buy-and-sell-houses.

That disastrous encounter with THE house definitely left a distinct impression on my psyche. It took time for the wounds to heal, and the scars are still present, if healed. I'm wondering how much of that experience is driving my current quest to find THE house. I guess I should take a lesson from the story, considering that in the end, Ahab harpooned the whale but then went down with his ship.

Happy(?) hunting,

Mar 9, 2011

Recipe of the Week: Peanut Butter Butterscotch Chip Cookies

Not as well-rounded as Betty, but a good 'un
It's chocolate chip cookie week, not that I ever need an excuse to bake cookies.  The Cookbook Junkie posted this classic chocolate chip cookie recipe from King Arthur flour and we will be trying it out soon, no doubt.

Since I've already shared my favorite chocolate chip cookie recipes,  I thought I'd share another favorite in honor of the week.  I discovered this one in my trusty Pillsbury Complete Book of Baking when I was trying to find a good way to use up a stray bag of butterscotch chips without resorting to "oatmeal scotchies."   Even though I'm not a fan of butterscotch chips, the recipe was surprisingly good, and these cookies will appear occasionally when I'm in a mood to bake something different.  And I have been known to mix half chocolate and half butterscotch chips in this recipe, with good results.

Butterscotch Chip Peanut Butter Cookies

1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup margarine or butter, softened (I use butter)
1/2 cup chunky peanut butter (smooth works okay too)
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 egg
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup butterscotch chips (or half butterscotch, half semi-sweet chocolate)

Heat oven to 375.  In large bowl, combine sugars, butter and peanut butter.  Cream at low speed until light and fluffy.  Add vanilla and egg; blend well.  Stir in flour, baking soda and salt, mix well but don't over-mix.  Stir in chips.  Spoon onto cookie sheets, roughly 1-inch balls, roughly two inches apart.  Slightly flatten with a fork if desired (I don't, but you can :-)

Bake at 375 for 6-10 minutes or until golden brown.  Remove from cookie sheets and cool completely.  Makes 4-5 dozen.  These hold up well for a day or two, if they last that long.

Happy baking!

Mar 7, 2011

The breakfast evolution

Most weeks, there is one morning I find myself in the kitchen in the early hours, often before the sun comes up, creating a batch of sausage and biscuits. I make up a week's worth and freeze them for my hungry crew to heat up on their way out the door.  It's my way of helping them prepare to face the world fortified by some protein and carbs, made with love.  Since this time involves just me, my coffee and the stove, I recently found myself contemplating how different this process is from a few generations ago.

Can you imagine cooking in this kitchen?
In our great-grandmother's day, putting sausage and biscuits on the breakfast table meant year-round hard work; she had to continuously raise and butcher hogs, grind and season and stuff the sausage into casings.  In some cases, it also meant growing her own wheat, having it ground into flour, and milking a cow to make the biscuits.  And before she could think about starting breakfast, the wood stove would need to be fired up.  It makes me tired just to think about how her day began.

In our grandmother's day, the process became slightly easier, at least for some women.  She could make patties from her own sausage or buy bulk sausage from the butcher, and make biscuits from scratch using store-bought flour (unless your grandmother was really progressive and used that new-fangled Bisquick) and milk delivered by the milkman. Stoves were still temperamental but at least they didn't require firewood for heat.

The ultra-modern mom!
Our mother's generation took convenience to a whole new level; she could buy rolled sausage from the grocery store, slice it neatly into patties, then sandwich the cooked sausage between fresh-baked biscuits from a can.  Suddenly it was possible to make breakfast on the spur of the moment, as long as biscuits and sausage were in the refrigerator.  (Arguably, a fair amount of taste and wholesomeness was sacrificed for the sake of this convenience.)

Our generation has two more choices:  pre-made frozen sausage and biscuits that only need to be microwaved for a  few seconds to heat up.  (Some are better than others.  Some are downright nasty.)

For those of us who yearn for something a little closer to homemade, we can bake up some frozen biscuits (they are much better than canned, and almost better than my from-scratch biscuits) while pre-formed frozen sausage patties are sizzling away on the stove.

It makes me wonder, what will the next generation of sausage and biscuits look like?

Happy Monday,

Mar 4, 2011

If you think it's hard to say "no," think again.

A thought for all the super-busy superwomen and supermen out there.  The adage, "if you want something done, give it to the busiest person you know" is true...those of us who manage to juggle a lot of things can usually manage to juggle a few more when we are asked to, or feel we need to.

But the truth is, our days are finite and they can only be filled to capacity - the laws of time and space dictate how much we can do in a given day.  And at some point, saying yes to one more thing - no matter how worthy the cause or how potentially wonderful the outcome - we are saying no to something (or someone) else.
  • We are saying "no" to a few precious minutes with one of our children, our spouse or to family time.  
  • We are saying "no" to some alone time, to meditate, pray, or study as most of us say we want to.  
  • We are saying "no" to our health and missing sleep or exercise time.
  • We are saying "no" to some uninterrupted quiet time to be contemplative and give our minds time to rest.
If we want to our children to have high self-esteem, we must esteem them enough to give them regular doses of our undivided time and attention.   (If we don't make time for them when they are young, they won't make time for us when they are older.)  If we want to cultivate a deeper relationship with our spouse, it will consume time and energy - no amount of candy or flowers or gifts can substitute for it.  If we want to be more spiritual and draw closer to God, He demands (and is worthy of) of our time and attention. If we want to be physically and emotionally stronger, we must set aside time to build a strong body and healthy perspective on life.

So every time you tell yourself that you can't say "no" to requests for your help, remember when you say yes, you ARE saying no to something or someone else.  Knowing that can make it a lot easier to learn to say "no" to that next project or task that we really DON'T have time for.

Happy prioritizing,

Mar 2, 2011

Recipe of the Week: Bakin' Bacon

We are a bacon-loving family. We enjoy it on summertime BLTs, wrapped around holiday  green beans and crumbled in our potato soup and salads, and of course as a favorite breakfast meat, accompanying pancakes, eggs, muffins, or just about anything else I put on the table.

I could probably convince my children (and Mr. Official) to do just about anything by waving a strip of perfectly cooked bacon under their nose.  Getting bacon to that perfectly cooked state got a lot easier when I discovered this method of preparing it in the oven.   I wish I could say I came up with it on my own, but I can't.  You'll find scads of recipes and directions floating around cyberspace, so if you haven't tried baking your bacon, you really should. 

Sweet and Peppery Bacon

Sliced bacon (we prefer thick-sliced but you can use thin - check after 5-6 minutes on each side)
Coarse-ground pepper
Brown sugar

Heat oven to 400 F.  Line a heavy baking sheet or broiler pan with foil.  (Use at least two layers and maybe three - you'll thank me later.)

Place bacon strips on foil and sprinkle lightly with pepper and brown sugar - roughly 1/8 teaspoon pepper and 1 teaspoon brown sugar per 6 slices of bacon.  Turn the strips over and sprinkle the other side now, or midway through with another sprinkle of pepper and brown sugar.

Place in oven and bake for 8-10 minutes.  Turn and finish cooking to desired crispness, usually another 5-7 minutes (more or less depending on thickness of bacon strips.)  Drain on paper towels.

In case you're wondering, no this doesn't splatter up the oven - the only cleanup is to throw away the foil.  (I told you it was a perfect recipe.)  At last, I can concentrate on creating perfect pancakes instead of dividing my attention between flipping the hotcakes and bacon sizzling in a skillet or in the microwave!  The addition of a little pepper and brown sugar adds a scrumptious layer of flavor.

Happy cooking,