Sep 30, 2011

Home improvement is harder than it looks

The following is a true story.  I haven't changed any names or details to protect the innocent. It happened earlier this week when I decided I would knock out two trouble spots before fall break.

The first hot mess was this plasticware storage cabinet in the kitchen.  It started out fairly neat when we moved in, but every time we pulled something out or put something away, it got a little messier.

Fetching a plastic tub for leftovers was a form of torture.
The second wreck was this under-sink cabinet area on my side of the bathroom.  Like the other one, it started out neater when we moved in but daily use took its toll.
This is the mess I faced each morning and night.

So I asked myself, just how hard could it be to bring some organization to bear?  I mean, reality TV shows can make over entire rooms in half an hour.  Surely this wouldn't take more than a few minutes, maybe an hour of my time, right?

(Insert hysterical laughter here.  Hahahahahahahahahahahaha.......)

A little background:  when we bought the house, someone had installed a wire two-tier pull-out thing in my bathroom cabinet, seen in the picture above.  (Curses to the builder who skimped on drawer space in the master bath to begin with. I know a base cabinet with only two tiny drawers is cheaper than one with a tower of drawers, but really?  You couldn't figure out how to squeeze a few more bucks out of the budget and upgrade the cabinetry to a reasonable amount of drawer space when the bathroom is bigger than most bedrooms and some apartments we've lived in?)

Ahem. Deep, cleansing breath.  In case you didn't pick up on it, a lack of drawers is a pet peeve of mine.  Well, really it's the disorganized chaos that stems from lack of drawer space that is the thorn in my side.

But anyhoo.  This cheesy little wire thing just wasn't cutting it - my jewelry was a slippery tangled hodgepodge, the hair dryer cord was always flopping over the edge and preventing the cabinet drawer from shutting.  And it looked a mess, no matter how neatly I arranged the bottles and containers of stuff.  Painfully messy.

For several months, I searched the stores and the internet for some decent shelving or drawer unit to insert in there, to no avail.

I finally resigned myself to plastic stacking drawers and tubs.  Gritting my teeth the whole time because I really, really dislike the plastic stuff:  it's flimsy, wobbly and otherwise prone to rapid failure.

But the wire pull-out thing would work great to corral the kitchen mess, and I needed to find something to organize my bathroom mess in order to free up the pull outs for the kitchen - it's a process.  Here is what I mentally sketched out beforehand:

1. Take all the stuff out of the wire unit, dump it in a laundry basket to temporarily hold it
2.  Move everything back in, using the plastic drawers and a bin or two.
3. Install the wire pull-out drawers and organize the plastic-ware.

1,2,3, easy as do-rey-me, right?  Errrm, not really.  I quickly realized why these two items had gone undone for so long.  For starters, the laundry basket was full of unfolded clothes.  For shame. No problem - dump them on the bed and fold them when I was done, right? Sure. Except the bed wasn't made either.  (WHERE are the laundry and cleaning fairies in my hour of need????)  This is how it really went:

Day 1:
1. Make the bed and dump the clothes out of the laundry basket.
2. Fill the basket with bathroom stuff and remove the wire pull-out unit.
3. Install the plastic containers.
4. Cringe and groan because I still hated how it looks - see what I mean?
This was the "after" picture.  Ugh.
5. Move on to the kitchen and install the wire drawers and organize the plastic ware.
6. Move the unfolded clothes back to the basket for the night.

Day 2:
1. Make the bed, dump the clothes back on the bed.
2. March into the bathroom in the cold light of day and take measurements.
3. Visit Target and find a shelf unit that could be cut down and re-tooled to work, plus baskets to optimize the storage space.
4. Pull out the plastic drawers and bins, and fit the new shelf unit around the plumbing (this involved screwing, unscrewing, sawing, re-screwing and installing. And a little glue.)
5. Return to Target to exchange the original baskets for others, because "optimize" does not always mean "biggest size they make."
6. Move everything from the plastic drawers to the new baskets.
7.  Move the unfolded clothes back to the basket.

Day 3:
1. Make the bed.
2. Fold the now seriously wrinkled clothes and put them away.
3. Return the plastic drawers to the store for a refund.

So instead of a few minutes, this became a project that spanned three days.   All of that, just to organize the contents of two cabinets. But on the bright side, I can now say:

The plastic ware is now neatly organized and accessible.

The bathroom cabinet is organized and functional - I make a happy sigh every time I open the cabinet doors now.  

My makeup and jewelry are in the shallow larger basket on top, easily accessible.  And my everyday jewelry is no longer in imminent danger of dangling or tangling.

The hair dryer has its own bin that is deep enough for the cord to stay neatly inside; cotton balls and swabs and other items have their own little cubby, too.  The other two cubbies hold everything else - lotion, contact lens solution, sunblock, razors, jewelry cleaner, and on and on - it's a lot of stuff stowed out of sight but within reach.

The clothes are folded and put away.

The bed is made.

An investment of about four hours over three days, including two trips to town, one $10 shelf and five $15 baskets equals peace of mind.  Which is priceless.

The end.

Happy organizing,

P.S. Please tell your home improvement efforts go the same way mine do? Even if they don't, just tell me they do.
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Sep 28, 2011

Recipe of the Week: Beef Pepper Steak

Pepper steak is one of those Americanized "Asian-style" foods, kind of like chop suey.  Its origins are murky, but it is tasty.

When I was growing up, we occasionally enjoyed a canned version of pepper steak.  I remember being impressed that it was actually two cans in one; a smaller can on top held the beef and gravy, while the larger can on the bottom contained the vegetables.  There were no Chinese restaurants in my childhood, so we didn't eat a lot of Asian cuisine.  Pepper steak was an exotic culinary adventure, bean sprouts and all.

As the cook in my own family, I've also purchased the two-can pack and fixed it with some rice for a fast meal every now and then. But setting aside the convenience factor, there are some downsides to it:

1.  It is somewhat expensive to feed to a family (especially with two hungry boys);
2.  It is full of preservatives and the meat is of questionable quality; and
3.  It is more than a little soggy.

Many years ago, I came across this recipe in one of my books of recipes contributed by a civic group in the town where I grew up.   It works well and is nearly as convenient as the canned version. (The rice is going to take a while to cook, no matter what, so I prepare this while the rice is simmering in the pan.)  I have added more vegetables to it than the original called for, and I prefer at least one red pepper when they're available - it lends a sweetness the green peppers lack.  A plain white onion can be substituted for the scallions in a pinch, but the green onions are recommended.

Green Pepper Steak and Rice

1 pound sirloin steak, cut into strips (I often use flat iron or flank steak instead)
1 tablespoon (or more) paprika
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 tablespoons butter or oil
1 cup diced green onions, including tops
2 green (or red) peppers, cut in strips
1 can bean sprouts, drained (or half a package fresh sprouts)
1 can sliced water chestnuts, drained
1 can sliced mushrooms, drained (or 4 ounces mushrooms, sliced)
2 large fresh tomatoes, diced
1 cup beef broth
1/4 cup water
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon soy sauce
3-4 cups hot cooked rice

Sprinkle paprika on beef slices and allow to stand while preparing other ingredients.  Heat large skillet and quickly saute beef strips and garlic in butter or oil.  Add peppers, onions, sprouts, water chestnuts and mushrooms; cover and continue cooking until vegetables are wilted - about 5 minutes.  Add tomatoes and broth, cover and simmer 15 minutes.  Blend water with cornstarch and soy sauce. Stir into steak and cook until thickened. Serve on a bed of hot rice.  Makes 6 servings.

Happy cooking!

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Sep 27, 2011

Fiesta: Bowl Games

Not the Tostitos brand of Fiesta Bowl game. That's not for another 98 days.  (Not that I'm counting, or anything.)

No, this is about my fascination with mixing bowls, namely Fiesta.  We might characterize it as a preoccupation, perhaps.  I don't think it's an obsession; not yet, anyway.  (Others might have a different opinion.)

The bowl that started it all.
It all started innocently enough.  On one of my many antique/junk store forays (back before eBay dragged everything right to the virtual doorstep of my metaphorical "cave"), I was looking for Fiesta pieces and came across a small turquoise mixing bowl.  I had no idea of its significance, I just knew I liked it.  It--like many pieces of Fiesta you might find gathering dust in the back of an antique store--was not in perfect condition - it had a a few chips and dings. But I thought it would look nice with the rest of my pieces and it was just a few bucks.

For several years, it remained my only bowl.

Until I came across another one.

With the second bowl came the realization they came in various sizes and colors.  (This was still in the pre-Google and eBay era, before everything you could possibly want to know - or buy - could be hunted down with a few keystrokes.)

It was an epiphany of sorts.

And it started me on an odyssey that has spanned more than a decade.   Piece by piece, bowl by bowl, I've slowly accumulated bowls along with an appreciation and familiarity with the shapes and sizes in the Fiesta and Kitchen Kraft line.

In case you're curious, the Kitchen Kraft line has a trio of bowls, and there are seven bowls in the Fiesta set.  The bowl prices range from $10-$25 for smaller or banged-up bowls with chipped rims or large cracks, to several hundred  for bowls in good to perfect condition.   A set of seven nesting bowls commands a price of $1000 on eBay these days.  (That's what they ask for them; I have no idea who buys them for that price.)  If you find bowls with lids, the price goes into the stratosphere - a single bowl with matching lid can go for $1000 or more.  Crazy, huh?

For the past few years, I have enjoyed displaying a full set of three Kitchen Kraft bowls, and all but the largest Fiesta bowl proudly in my kitchen.  That bowl (known as #7) is relatively rare and therefore relatively expensive.

Kitchen Kraft bowls on the left; Fiesta on the right.  Yes I have 8 of them; 2 are duplicates.
I limited myself to paying no more than $50 for any single bowl, which placed most of the large bowls firmly out of range. And so you can  imagine my surprise and delight when I saw this red #7 bowl for $50 a few days ago.
Lucky #7, I can't wait to see you in person!

I had to go up to $56 to win it, but it's on its way to me and will complete my set.

Of course, there ARE other Fiesta and Homer Laughlin bowls to collect...stay tuned!

Happy collecting,

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Sep 26, 2011

Day of Rest, Week 3: A close call

Once again, I managed to keep us out of restaurants and stores on Sunday, but it took some mental gymnastics.

I had planned roast beef for Sunday's meal, but I didn't think to check my stockpile of ingredients I typically pour over a roast when it goes in the slower cooker.

Early yesterday morning, I pulled the beef from the refrigerator and set up the crockpot. All the while, I was mentally congratulating myself for having planned ahead.

I then reached in the pantry for a can of cream of mushroom soup and pulled out...nothing.


In my head, I heard my own big lecture about making foods from scratch, as my hands groped vainly for a can of soup in the empty spot where it wasn't.  To be honest, it had been a while (a long while) since I made a roast without relying on the tried-and-true canned mushroom soup and powdered onion soup mix blend to smother it and keep it moist while cooking.

In my near-panic, I remembered I had ordered some roast beef seasoning from Penzys.  And my mind began a quick inventory.  Onions, check.  Celery, check.  Carrots, check.  Garlic, check.  Mushrooms, check. But I was still at a loss for a liquid. Until I reached in the refrigerator for the vegetables, and remembered I had a large tub of beef base just sitting in there, waiting to be mixed with some water and used.

I seared the roast, sprinkled it with seasoning, piled the vegetables in the bottom of the crockpot, placed the roast on top, then covered it with mushrooms and some minced garlic, then poured a cup of beef stock over the top.  Mission accomplished, and a lesson learned about keeping fresh ingredients on hand.  Maybe I can even "can the can" and stop relying on condensed soup, one recipe at a time. (Canned cream soups are a handy "binder" in a lot of recipes, but as yesterday's exercise proved, they aren't necessary - especially if I keep stock and vegetables on hand.)

I didn't have any green vegetables (gasp), so we carbed our way through lunch with sides of Dijon-crusted roast potatoes and macaroni and cheese (made with  a different shape guessed it, we were out of elbow mac.)

Just three weeks into this experiment, it is already becoming easier and more natural to plan ahead for Sunday, so we're not left at loose ends when we leave church.  It takes effort to be creative and flexible when something isn't on hand, and it will take some convincing for our children to completely warm up to this idea.  Years of routinely eating out for lunch (and often dinner) on Sundays is deeply etched into our family's instincts.

But I think we'll succeed.  And on another positive note, I managed to get us through a full 7 days with only one trip to the store.  This week's shopping trip will be a doozy, but it was nice to make it an entire week without an emergency raid on the grocery store.

Happy Monday,

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Sep 23, 2011

The fall dining room: proud as a peacock

It all started with a Pier 1 fall catalog that arrived in the mail a few days ago.  I should have known better than to open it (sometimes I do toss 'em sight unseen.)

They might as well dangle a pork chop in front of a starving dog (I would be the starving dog in the metaphor.)  I think I may have actually drooled on one of the pages.  Companies like Homer Laughlin, Crate & Barrel, World Market and Pier 1 know where my weak spot is:  brightly colored pottery and dishes.   Of every shape, size, texture and color imaginable.  I would need (yes, N.E.E.D!!!!) a dish pantry if I bought all the dishes I have seen and intensely coveted.  

But this time I stiffened my resolve and flipped past the dishes to find...this.

Peacock blue, arrayed so artistically I practically swooned.

Well, okay, it wasn't really a swoon.  More like a squeaky little squeal of delight.

Because I had been mentally struggling to see my blue drapes and cocoa brown walls of my dining room mixing it up with traditional fall colors - it just wasn't happening, at least in my mind's eye.

But this.

This was the answer to all those niggling questions and pesky doubts.

It was a sign. I could practically hear Handel's Messiah (you know, the "Hallelujah Chorus?") playing.

I showed great restraint and waited a whole week before I allowed myself to even start down this path. My heart was still going pitter-pat when I hit the circuit:  Stein Mart, Hobby Lobby, Old Time Pottery, revisit to Hobby Lobby.  By the time I got to Pier 1, I was steady and steeled...until I found out they no longer had the owl-shaped pumpkin I had my heart set on - he's in this photo to the right  Isn't he cute?

I'm still on the prowl for the owl, so if you spot one at your Pier 1, give me a hooty-hoot, please?

I can count on both hands (with some fingers left over) the items that transformed the dining room from its cool-as-a-cucumber summer look here:
view from the foyer

to this new look, just in time for fall:
Same doorway view.  And yes, those are new seat cushions.  Thanks for noticing!

In terms of cash outlay, it was a modest transformation:

1. Three glass candle holders on the table ($3.50 each - they were half-off at Hobby Lobby)
2. Two ceramic pumpkins (one white, one blue, also half-price from HobLob - $30 total)
3. Two peacock blue candles (on clearance for $3.50 each from Pier 1)
4. A new wood tray on the buffet (under $10 at Old Time Pottery)
5. A glass vase (well, two - the first one cracked, but Hobby Lobby graciously replaced it - $15)
6. A handful of foliage and peacock stems for about $12, also half-off at Hobby Lobby) and
7. One little woodland owl from Pier1 ($9 - he's my consolation stand-in for the one I wanted.  Sniff.)

Seriously, that's it.  If my math is correct, total damage was just under $100 with tax.  Everything else I pulled out of my attic tubs of autumn stuff or from other places in the house   Not bad, eh?

Oh wait...there is one more item; check out the new painting below.  Does it count?  It wasn't a deliberate acquisition, but the product of girls' night out last Saturday at Faithful Strokes.  (And here I was giving my friends a hard time that I didn't know where I would hang this painting if I painted it.  I'm glad they guilted me into going!)

See the little owl?  He's cute - just not as big as the one I had my eye and heart set on

I know we're barely one day into the official fall season, but I'm already envisioning these deeper blues paired with shimmery silver when it's time to decorate for the winter holidays.  For the next several weeks, the peacock blue and orange theme will reign--all the way through Thanksgiving.  It's always exciting to see the seasons unfold outdoors, and fall is definitely the season for colors to unfurl both indoors and out...much like a peacock proudly fanning out his iridescent plumage.

Happy fall!

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Sep 21, 2011

Recipe of the Week: Cottage Cheese Muffins

Here's yet another quick bread...I confess I have a quite a stash of savory muffin and biscuit recipes. (I feel like Jekyll and Hyde when it comes to carbs and gluten. I promise myself I will abstain, but some meals just call out for something warm and soft and chewy.  Like bread, biscuits or muffins.  It's so hard to resist that temptation.)

The recipe is an old standard from my childhood and with the delicate lemon flavoring, they would make a great brunch dish.  I usually leave out the lemon peel if I'm making them for dinner.  My family isn't foolish about cottage cheese, so I keep mum when I make these muffins and just serve them with a smile.    You know what they say...
"Ignorance is bliss where knowledge is folly."

I have to be pretty sneaky these days, since my food prep area is now out in the open.  I get the butter and sugar creamed, swoop into the fridge for the cottage cheese, toss it in and dispose of the incriminating empty carton before anyone strolls by and catches me in the act.

Cottage Cheese Muffins

1/3 cup sugar
3 tablespoons butter or margarine, softened
1/2 cup cream-style cottage cheese*
1 teaspoon grated lemon peel (optional)
1 egg
1 3/4 cup biscuit mix (Bisquick or other brand)
1/2 cup milk

Preheat oven to 375.  Grease 12 regular-size muffin tins (18 if you want smaller, tea-size muffins)

Cream together butter and sugar.  Add cottage cheese and lemon peel.  Add egg; beat well.  Stir in biscuit mix just until moistened.  Divide among muffin tins and bake for 20 minutes or until tops are lightly golden and a toothpick inserted comes out clean. Don't overbake.

*I have two copies of this recipe; one calls for 1/2 cup and the other specifies a full cup of cottage cheese.  I use somewhere in between. I haven't seen cream-style cottage cheese for a long while, but ricotta makes a good substitute if you don't like the texture of the curds in the baked muffins.  I purchase small curd lowfat cottage cheese to make lasagna (we prefer it to ricotta), and any remaining cottage cheese typically winds up in a batch of these muffins. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Happy eating,

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Sep 19, 2011

Day of Rest: Week 2

We successfully avoided another Sunday of consumer-driven activities.  It was a close shave:  Mr. Official made tentative plans to attend the Titan's game, but he changed his mind at the last minute.

Would I have counted that as a consumer activity?  I guess so, but I can't muster much sympathy for professional athletes working nights and weekends, all things considered. They do refer to what they do as "playing" a game, right?

I also had to make sure I had everything on hand to feed 30 +/- teenagers Sunday night.  I thought I had all my bases covered on Saturday, but I failed to check my inventory of disposable dinner plates.  So some of the guys (who were polite enough to make up the end of the line) had to use smaller plates.  Sorry, fellas! )

In other news, I managed to whittle down my weekly grocery dashes from the average of five (or more) trips per week. (I's embarrassing to admit I am that disorganized most weeks, but it's the truth.)

The ultimate goal is to make just one trip per week, but that's going to take some serious behavior modification for me.  Last week was a three-trip week, and each trip was very focused:

1. Monday morning to get that all-important cream for my coffee, plus the bulk of the weekly groceries.
2. Thursday to snag some mushrooms for soup (really thought I had a can on hand, but I didn't, and the soup definitely needed them.)
3. Saturday's trip to stock up for Sunday night.

This week, I'm vowing to not let my shadow darken the grocer's doorstep more than twice. Gulp. I think I can, I think I can, I think I can...

So what did we eat on Sunday since we didn't eat out? Sunday lunch was humble tunafish sandwiches; Sunday supper for the group was pulled pork sandwiches, potato salad, chips, topped off with apples and caramel dip and molten brownie cakes (recipe forthcoming), with lemonade and sweet tea to drink.

Are you contemplating a weekly "day of rest" for your family and wallet yet?  I'll keep posting our progress - whether we succeed or stumble - in the hopes it offers some encouragement to others.

Happy resting!

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Sep 17, 2011

The recipe collector: one year later

A year ago, I expressed angst over the decrepit state of my recipes here.


I gathered notebook, sheet protectors and everything I needed to finally get them organized and usable without worrying about more spatters and drips defacing them.

I gathered up everything I needed.  Except the resolve to actually follow through.

Yes, it's true. I moaned and groaned and then put them away. And kept tugging them in and out of a shelf in my kitchen hutch...loosely stacked, in that miserable, torn folder, for almost a year.

Finally one day last month, I decided it was the last time I was going to gently coax the slippery stack of papers and slips of paper out, plop them on a flat surface and frantically look for the proverbial recipe-in-the-haystack.

No more.




I started out slow. (Don't want to pull a muscle or anything.) My first act was to go through the stack and pull out the recipes I use the most. Those were tucked into their own sheet protectors and loosely organized according to cookbook etiquette: appetizers, soups and stews, main course, side dishes, yeast breads, quick breads, desserts, cookies, candies and miscellaneous. (Who decided that was the proper sequencing of cookbooks, anyway?)

After the heady rush of success at my minor accomplishment, I took a Sunday afternoon and spent a  few hours going through my somewhat organized (but very dated and floppy) binders, pulling out favorites from there. And rediscovering some recipes I forgot I have - many of them I have tried, others I still want to. (Chantilly Carrot Cake, coming up!)

I would definitely say this is a "work in process" - I still have a folder (much smaller) of loose recipes.  They are untried (but high potential) recipes, grouped together by subject; you can see them at the top of this photo. Yes, they fit in this slim and trim holder, with room to spare!

And -tucked away out of sight are my old notebooks, which I think of as a "bone pile" - I will continue to pick over them until everything is either test-driven or passed over so many times I finally have to accept they are rejects.

I know I could organize my "keeper" recipes electronically, and that would probably be better, considering that the entire world is slowly migrating to to e-reading.

But there is something very appealing about touching and seeing paper recipes, especially when they are hand-written or original clippings from newspapers, magazines and food labels. I'm not quite ready to give up that sensory experience, even for the sake of efficiency.  Having them encased in sheet protectors means it is very easy to keep this notebook handy and if splatters or spills happen, it only takes a swipe with a damp cloth to clean them up.

So how's your recipe collection?  Organized, or not?  Online, or not?  Do tell.  Inquiring minds want to know!

Happy organizing,

Sep 16, 2011

There is no such thing as a free lunch, or free time.

I never knew where this expression came from, but apparently there was a time in America when saloons offered "free" lunch as long as the gun-slinging patrons were buying drinks.  (Back when bars were called saloons, and patrons carried sidearms, I guess.)  But then as now, the expression rings true:  there's a price to be paid for everything.

There's also no such thing as "free" time, even though we've brought the full force of technology to bear in our attempts to create more discretionary time in our 86,400 seconds of every day.  Cooking and cleaning time has been drastically reduced by the introduction of appliances and "convenience" foods, and I love my washer and dryer, as well as my refrigerator, freezer and stove.  It's common that they are all going simultaneously, in fact.

But sadly it seems whatever free time we created has been sucked up by other activities: longer office hours, longer commutes, more activities for ourselves and/or our children and more hours spent in front of an electronic screen, whether it's a computer or television.  (Or for those of us who are multi-taskers, both.  Simultaneously.)

I fear we have made some poor trades in our relentless pursuit of "free" time, starting with cooking.  Or the dearth thereof.  Our grandmothers (and for some of us, our mothers) thought nothing of taking fresh, raw ingredients every day and preparing them into delicious, nourishing food for their family - there were no other options.  Eating out was a rare treat.  Food was never fast, except maybe the occasional grilled cheese sandwich.

Yes, it took time to cook beans or a roast, or to make cornbread or biscuits from scratch.  But whether they recognized it or not, they had the advantage of knowing - and controlling- exactly what they fed their families.  Now many families rely on purchased meals for more dinners than not.  (Let's face facts: there is nothing happy or healthy about a drive-thru dinner.)  For many families, a home-cooked dinner consists of heating up frozen, canned or boxed prepared "food" full of unpronounceable chemicals and laden with salt and sugar to preserve them.

Time and again, economists have pointed out that foods made from basic staples (dried beans, pasta and rice) and plain vegetables and meats are the most economical food choices, bar none.  It makes sense there's a price to be paid for the convenience of someone else cleaning, dicing and cooking, even if that "someone" is an assembly line of robots and minimum-wage workers.

The hidden cost is even more insidious - our backsides are bloating and our arteries are clogging, even as our wallets are shrinking.

What is our family's health worth to us?
I know (I do!!!!) that it's not easy to choose to spend any of our "free" time preparing food, especially if you view it as a drudgery or chore.  That choice may be harder if you lack confidence and experience.  And even your best efforts may be met with resistance if your family's palates are hardened through repeated exposure to high doses of fat, salt and sugar, courtesy of processed foods.  That's a lot of negatives to overcome.

But look at the positives: a gradual shift toward real food is healthier and eases your family's cash outlay.  Whether they realize or appreciate it now, your children will one day be glad you established a tradition of weeknight family dinners, prepared and eaten at home.  It's worth it when you find recipes your family likes and their eyes light up when they hear (or smell) a favorite is on the nightly menu.   That seems like more than a fair trade for the investment of some time and effort in the kitchen most evenings.  And who knows, you might find yourself enjoying it more than when you spent that time in other pursuits.

I hope the recipes and ideas I post will help others to take control of their family's nutrition and finances.  It may not seem natural or easy at first, but anyone can choose to invest some time into weaning their family off convenience foods and introducing real food to their table.  One of my favorite Facebook feeds is LifeHacker, and they recently gave a list of foods that everyone should know how to cook.  It's a decent list, and if you start with basics like spaghetti sauce and chicken soup, you can slowly fill in with other favorites you and your family like.  Once you've established a repertoire of "thumbs-up" recipes, you can look for make/freeze adaptations like once-a-month cooking.  A few hours of prepping and freezing once every few weeks can mean a month of hot, delicious dinners on your table faster than the pizza guy can deliver. Not to mention way cheaper.

Since there's really no such thing as a free lunch, or free time, let's choose wisely how we spend our family's time and money.

Happy cooking,

Sep 14, 2011

Recipe of the Week: Apple Dumplings

This recipe is definitely numbered among my "most bizarre ingredients in a recipe" recipes.  I can think of only a few dishes that I would use carbonated beverages to create.

Let's see...there's Coca-cola in its namesake cake and Dr. Pepper to marinate ribs.

And that's it.

It's a real short list.

But then there is this third recipe, which uses Mountain Dew, of all things.  (Sidenote:  Mountain Dew was originally created by a couple of East Tennesseans as a mixer for their moonshine.  Hence its name and the shotgun-toting hillbilly on the label.  Just in case you ever wanted to know that...well, now you do.)

Stay with me.  The recipe goes beyond bizarre and straight into stuff your face goodness, I promise.  Since apple season is *almost* here, this is a wonderful way to usher in fall.

Dew-licious Apple Dumplings

1 can crescent rolls (8 rolls)
1 large Granny Smith apple, peeled and cored, sliced into 8 wedges
1/2 cup butter
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon (or more to taste)
6 ounces (1/2 can) of Mountain Dew

Heat oven to 350 degrees.  Butter a 9x9 glass baking dish

Separate crescent dough and roll each apple wedge, starting at the small end.  Crimp edges to seal apple wedges and place in pan.  In a small saucepan, melt the butter, add the sugar and cinnamon; whisk together just until blended (the sugar will not be melted).  Pour over dumplings, then pour mountain dew over them. Bake for 30-35 minutes or until golden brown. Serve with whipped cream or ice cream.

Note:  The recipe can be doubled, using a 9x12 pan.  Allow a slightly longer cooking time so all the dumplings get baked, around 40-50 minutes.

If you want to "skinny down" this recipe, you can substitute low-fat crescent rolls,  diet Mountain Dew, and half Splenda for the sugar.

So what is your most twisted recipe?  Please share!

Happy eating!

Sep 12, 2011

Day of Rest: Week 1

A week ago, I encouraged us all to try to give up one day of commercialism each week.

For our family, that target day of giving our local merchants a rest is Sunday.

So how'd we do?

Bottom line:  we did great.  But it wasn't without some angst.

On Saturday morning, we were getting ready to head to Knoxville for the big game. "I need to run to the grocery store before we go," I announced. Mr. Official replied, "For what?" (In the south, we don't just ask "why?"  We ask "for what?" which means the same thing as "what for?" but avoids that pesky dangling preposition.)

I said that I needed some items for the next day's menu. He assured me we would be back in time to hit the grocery store before bedtime. As luck would have it, he was overly optimistic - it was 10 pm before we rolled back into town.

I confess my first thought was I could slip to the store at the crack of dawn. Ugh.

Or I could go after lunch. Or we could just break down and eat out. More ugh.

Then I began to consider what I thought I "needed" from the store, and if I could rearrange our menu plans a little and avoid the trip.

I could and we did.

We'll have yesterday's pork chops tonight. And the chicken that was waiting to be cooked has been cooked and eaten in the form of chicken chile verde and cornmeal dumplings. (Recipe is coming soon, but I won't recommend cooking it in the crockpot.)

So what did we do instead of eating out? For starters, we had leftovers for lunch, which was a nice way to use up a lot of odds and ends hanging out in the fridge. And then - since I was feeling so virtuous (downright smug even), I plunged into multi-tasking: laundry, cooking, and floor maintenance.  You know - vacuuming and mopping. All the things I didn't get done on Saturday. For some strange reason, the laundry and cleaning fairies don't show up unless I'm around to make sure they get their jobs done.

I then put dinner in the crockpot before we headed off to evening services.

And so we get to start the work week with a rotated and flipped mattress, fresh linens, and a fairly clean house.  And a clear conscience, since I successfully dodged the clutches of consumerism for the day.  Mission accomplished, plus some lagniappe.
I did have to hit up the grocery store bright and early, right after this morning's run. Because I don't do mornings without coffee, and I don't do coffee without cream. Hopefully I also got everything else I need for this week (I am also working on cutting down on multiple trips to the store during the week, since a quick dash for a few items often turns into a bigger and more-expensive trip than I planned.)

Happy Monday!

Sep 11, 2011

Days that live in infamy

I'm too young to remember Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

Or Lexington, Massachusetts on April 19, 1775.

Or Fort Sumter, South Carolina on January 9, 1861.

But I do remember my generation's day that "lives in infamy," as President Roosevelt famously put it so many years ago.

It started out a typical Wednesday morning on September 11, 2001, when our nation was suddenly under deadly attack.  I remember returning home from carpool and watching in disbelief and horror as one, then two towers crumbled and fell.

I remember the horrific sight of a plane slammed into the Pentagon.  And another plane crash-landing in a Pennsylvania field.

All my life I've heard people say, "freedom isn't free."  But on that fateful day, I saw first-hand the awful price of freedom.  It was exacted in the blood of my fellow countrymen and women who happened to be on the wrong plane or in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Since that day, freedom's price has continued to be bought through brave men and women who choose to stand in harm's way to keep us safe.

On that September day, all I wanted to was drive to back to the schools and grab my kids out of their classes and hold them tight.  But I wasn't sure the teachers or students were aware of what had happened, and I didn't want to panic them.  So I watched and waited, paced and bit my nails until it was time to pick them up.  And then I hugged and held them.  And told them I didn't know why this happened anymore than they did.

As the days and weeks, months and years have passed, the details of that day are no longer as achingly sharp as they were ten years ago. But every time I see a soldier, or hear our national anthem, or see my country's flag flying, I remember.  Vividly.  When we visited NYC in December 2007, I peeked past the construction fence at Ground Zero.  And I remembered.

Every day I thank God for this country--for the freedoms we have and hold, and often take for granted. May God continue to patiently protect us, and may we and our leaders turn to Him to seek wisdom and His favor in the decisions that affect us all.

And I am thankful - this day and every day - for the sacrifice paid by so many men and women on that day and in the days that have followed.  I don't know what makes someone a true hero, but I am convinced each of these men and women deserves our respect, our thoughts, our prayers, and our gratitude.

In remembrance,

Sep 9, 2011

Doing a slow boil

I love my husband for many reasons, among them his ability to spot interesting foods and eateries.

Which is pretty remarkable given his upbringing. He was raised in a very traditional southern family and his mama's fried chicken, pork chops, squash casserole and macaroni and cheese outshines Paula Deen's any day of the week. But her recipe repertoire is pretty limited - I suspect that is due in large part to the picky palates of her family and the tight budget she had to work with when her children were young. 

Case in point: when we married, my husband had never tasted broccoli.


However, he was more than willing to try new foods, and has been our longtime intrepid food scout, always looking for new and unusual foods and venues.  (Like ordering barnacles in Portugal.  But that's another story, for another timezone.) 

We moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1985. At some point soon after we arrived on the scene, Mr. Official spotted a hole-in-the-wall place called "The Cajun Boiling Pot" and suggested we try it.
Just as I remember it
 The interior was quintessential strip-mall diner: worn linoleum floor, heavily varnished (and slightly greasy) pine paneled booths with ripped vinyl padded seats and formica-plated tabletops.  A little dark, a little dingy but filled with contented diners.

The menu choices were unlike any we had ever seen, so we plunged in and ordered a family-style boiled dinner.   We had no idea what we were doing but the zydeco music was playing and the smell was intoxicating.

The waiter spread newspaper on our table, and dumped steaming hot food on it: spicy boiled crawfish, shrimp, corn on the cob, new potatoes, and sausage, much like this photo.

A wood mallet and small forks were our only utensils.  We looked around at the other diners, looked at each other, shrugged and dove in, and didn't stop eating until it was gone.


We went back several times while we lived in the area.  I hear it has since closed.  But it has never left our memories.  We've never found anything quite like it around here, but I did some research and discovered a bit of the history and background on seafood boils.  What we experienced was pretty authentic to the Louisiana-style boiling pots.  In South Carolina, the name and ingredients change slightly: Frogmore Stew, Beaufort Boil, or Low-country Boil.  They all refer to a similar dish, with no crawfish or hot sauce, and emphasis on the shrimp.

I brought home the ingredients for a seafood boil the other day.  Not as good as just-caught shrimp and fresh Andouille sausage, but tasty, nonetheless.   A boil is easy; the following is enough for 4-6 generous servings.

4 quarts water
juice from one lemon (you can also add the remaining rinds if you like)
4 teaspoons Old Bay seasoning (more to taste)
1-2 teaspoons hot sauce (more or less to taste)
1/2 pound small new red potatoes
1 pound Andouille or kielbasa sausage
2 ears fresh sweet corn, broken into 2-3 pieces each
1 pound (or more to taste) raw shrimp in the shell
1/2-1 pound crab legs (optional)

additional lemon wedges, cocktail sauce, sour cream, hot sauce, butter

Bring water, lemon juice, and seasoning to a boil in a large stockpot (we have also used our turkey fryer outdoors and doubled the when we're cooking for a crowd.)  Taste and adjust seasonings before adding other ingredients (you want it to be fairly spicy or the food will be bland - trust me on this.)

Add the potatoes, corn and sausage and cook until done (10-15 minutes.)  Add shrimp and crab legs; boil for a couple minutes (do not overcook), then strain and place on clean newspaper or waxed paper.  Hand out plates and napkins; serve with chunks of warm crusty bread and butter.  Lemon wedges, cocktail sauce, butter and sour cream are definitely nice-to-have on hand, too.

Happy adventuring,

(Photo of The Cajun Boiling Pot courtesy of

Sep 7, 2011

Recipe of the Week: Artichoke and Spinach Dip

There are as many recipes and variations on this dip as there are mid-price eateries that serve it as an appetizer. That said, everybody's got a slightly different version and this is my personal favorite. It started out as artichoke dip and then spinach got introduced a while back. I don't care for frozen spinach but you can substitute it - just be sure to thaw and squeeze the moisture out first. 

I've continued to modify and tweak this over the years, and it's a far cry from its humble 3-ingredient beginnings: 1 jar artichoke hearts, 1 cup mayonnaise, 1 cup Parmesan cheese. (Don't worry - the first time I made it, I was taken aback by what looked like too much mayonnaise, too.) But I bravely plunged ahead and was rewarded by an appetizer that met with my family's admiration and approval. Well, most of my family. There's always one of our offspring that is likely to turn his or her cute little nose up at a new dish, because they don't care for one (or more...or ANY) of the ingredients. That's okay - it just leaves more for the rest of us. 

Hot Artichoke and Spinach Dip 

2 handfuls of fresh spinach, stemmed, washed, dried and coarsely chopped
1 jar (14-15 ounces) marinated artichokes (Trader Joe's are my favorite), drained and coarsely chopped
1 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup sour cream
3/4 cup grated Parmesan (you can use the stuff in a jar, or up the ante with fresh-grated from the deli)
1/2 cup grated mozarella or provolone cheese (optional)
1 teaspoon diced/minced garlic (1 clove, minced or smashed)
Salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup grated Parmesan for topping

Preheat oven to 350. In a mixing bowl, combine all ingredients except final 1/4 cup of Parmesan. Mix well and place in a shallow glass or ceramic baking dish (I have a 10-inch white ceramic quiche dish that is just the right size.) It does not need to be greased - the mayonnaise will prevent any sticking. Sprinkle with Parmesan and place in hot oven for 25-30 minutes or until the dish slightly puffs and gets golden brown on top. Serve with plain pita chips or bagel toasted rounds.

Makes 8-10 appetizer-size servings.

Note: If you have a sizable amount left over, refrigerate promptly. Scoop it into smaller dish and reheat for 15 minutes or until bubbly hot. Take it to work for your co-workers, and they'll never know it's leftovers - they'll just wish you had brought more! 
Happy eating!

Sep 5, 2011

Let's give it a rest

Labor Day seems a fitting holiday to talk about this subject.

Later this week, I'm getting a free spicy chicken biscuit from Chick-Fil-A.  Yummmm.  That could become a very very bad habit, so I limit myself to visiting them just a few times a year.  But in addition to addictive chicken sandwiches, I really appreciate this eatery for being closed on Sundays. Ditto for Hobby Lobby, another favorite place of mine.  I am very loyal to stores that give their employees one day a week off, and to the stores that close on holidays.

An idea has been rolling around my head for some time now:  what if all of America rolled back the clock a bit, and carved out a "day of rest" each week and holidays? I've started planning meals for Sunday so we can eat at home more often than not.  Occasionally we still eat out at lunch or dinner; it takes time to change a very ingrained habit but I'm working on it. I predict the crockpot will become my BFF on Sundays.

Apparently I'm not alone in my longing to simplify and slow down our life, at least one day a week.   I even found a blog post that advocates bringing back blue laws.
It would be nice to see this more often

I don't think we necessarily need any laws to make this happen - as consumers we have tremendous clout. Just say no to shopping on one day a week. Traditionally that day has been Sunday. If we all did it every week, there would be no need for stores, restaurants and movie theaters to be open that day.  Without any sales, they'd soon find it in their best interest to close their doors and give their staff a day off.

Yes, hourly employees need to work in order to get paid, but somehow hourly employees managed to get in their hours back when stores were only open six days a week. If we did it before, I'm pretty sure we could do it again.

Think of the good things that could happen if all retail establishments closed on Sundays and holidays:

1. More time for us to relax and rest. Whether we choose to spend our time worshiping or in quiet contemplation, or socializing with friends and family, the possibilities are endless. Enjoying a leisurely Sunday meal, whether it's breakfast, brunch, lunch or supper. Hanging out in our own or someone else' living room or backyard, going for a walk, picnicking in a public park or enjoying a public beach. In this frenetic life we live, time is far more scarce and precious than money What a stress reliever to have 24 hours each week to just BE instead of scurrying around and spending money to amuse ourselves.

2. Less traffic and reduced emissions. I don't think people would ramp up their driving the other six days of the week - I think we'd all simply drive less if we didn't have anyplace to go on that one day a week when everything is shut down. Think of all the gas we'd save, plus wear and tear on our roads and highways, AND we'd give the atmosphere a much-needed break from emissions.

3. Learning the discipline of delayed gratification and how to "make do or do without" - at least temporarily. We have come to rely on having everything at our disposal 24/7. Necessity is the mother of invention and it's character building to learn that if you didn't get what you needed the day before, you'll have to improvise or wait.

4. Spending time, not money.  Gasp. I know; that's crazy talk in this nation of consumerism. Our leaders tell us the economy needs us to buy more stuff.  That's bunk, and we don't have to buy what they're selling.  Less time to shop means less shopping.  And more time to spend appreciating the things we already have and learning to esteem what's really important - like people and simple pursuits:  take a walk, toss a hook in the water, fly a kite, make a picnic, read a book, take a nap.  Be honest:  don't those sound like a lot more fun than acquiring more stuff we don't really need, or standing in line with a bunch of other restless souls to see a movie or get on an amusement park ride?

So who's with me? Are you willing to give up patronizing all retail establishments one day each week? Can we stand to stay away from the stores on Thanksgiving Day?  If so, be sure to make your voice heard: tell the store managers WHY you will not be patronizing them on those days. Encourage them to close their doors and give their employees time off to enjoy with family and friends. Encourage your friends and family to join in with you. Together we can take back control of our schedules and have time to rest our minds, our wallets, and our planet.

Happy resting,

Photo copyrighted to bluecinderella @

Sep 2, 2011

There's never a good time to be a curious dog

After replanting a container the grandpuppy recently mistreated, I thought I could breathe easy.

Not so fast.

Last Thursday, "big dog" was out doing her nightly business and spotted an animal moving in the shadows.  She - being the nosy Nellie type - decided to check it out.  The animal was a pole cat, of course.  You would think that white stripe and odor would tickle a memory somewhere in her dog brain, but apparently dogs have little recall and even less discretion.  So she got skunked for the second time in as many years.

I distinctly recall her first encounter with a skunk.  It was on my birthday two years ago. The spray caught her full in the face.  Happy birthday to me.

That time, I followed conventional wisdom and trotted to the store and bought gallons of tomato juice and doused her.  Then I tried hosing her down outside, followed by a warm bath inside. By the time I called the groomer, the bathroom was a wreckage of water and wet towels, and we were both cold, wet, traumatized and we stunk to high heavens.

At least this time around, I knew better.  (Note to the uninitiated:  tomato juice might work on humans or on a pet with dark fur.  But not on a white dog.  It stains their fur and makes them look like a pink punk-rocker dog.  And it did nothing for her "aura.")

Fast forward to last week.  After she spent the night outside (there was a lot of whimpering and whining out there), the groomers gamely took her on first thing in the morning.  God bless 'em - that is a thankless task.  I had them go ahead and clip her down while she was there...might as well get off most of the stinky fur while we're at it.

So now her head  appears about three times too big for her body, and she looks a little alien-esque. But the smell is dissipating quicker this time and neither of us is suffering any long-lasting trauma from another bathing ordeal.

Let's hope there isn't a "Close Encounters of the Third Kind Time" in her future.

Happy tales & tails,