Thursday Simple

It’s late on Thursday afternoon and I just put chicken in the oven. Because it’s late and the kids just want to play outside, it’s not the time for fancy. But then again, when is it ever? So chicken breasts, a schmere of cream cheese and salsa. The oven is on at 350 degrees and in a little over half an hour, supper will be waiting. Which is good because I’m craving a simple routine.

I realized this week, while I was sitting on the beach at Lake Erie watching the kids play that I’d run out of scheduled posts. And I honestly had the thought that I should whip out my phone and write something. No. See I feel like everything and everyone is over connected and I’m desiring a little bit of space from the interwebs. So instead of posting about my weekly workout schedule for Mighty Mommy Monday, I went and played in the water with the kids. On the drive home, I decided that I’d be shutting my computer off during the day, deleting Facebook from my phone and take a free-day from all the connections once a week. I’m kind of drastic when I make decisions.

And then, there was a meeting Tuesday morning that gave me more copy work than I realized was coming and the reality is that my computer can’t be turned off as much as I want. Yesterday, I spent my afternoon working on our homeschool year prep. I plan to start our school days on August 18th. I’ve got about 3 weeks to get organized and of course, yesterday I started to second guess my reading program plans. So instead of letting myself go all Type-A on my calendar, I slept on it. And called my mother-in-law in the morning. Wisdom, people, wisdom.

Looking forward at my calendar, I see that it’s gonna be full for the next several weeks… well into October, actually. I officially start training for the 1/2 marathon on Monday so no more will I be able to choose laundry over running. You laugh, but it’s true. When I’m procrastinating, my laundry skills are amazing. But here I am, one foot out the door of these preschool days, and looking ahead into life with no naps, homework and lots of opportunities to be busy.

The church we go to is currently undergoing a transition to a new senior pastor. In doing so, we’ve also transitioned to a new worship pastor and are currently transitioning to a new children’s pastor. During this transition, there have been a few changes, but none that really impacted our family directly. Last Sunday, our new senior pastor interrupted his sermon to talk about some of the structural changes coming to the church’s calendar. To be quite honest, I expected the calendar to grow.

Instead, it was announced that they were going to combine events, cut out extra days of programs and in general, work toward us being more close-knit and family based. I sat there, tears welling up in my eyes, so excited for the future. Why? My parents always were heavily involved in the churches we went to. Head usher, deacon board, worship coordinator, I was even the sundar school director as a high school sophomore in one church that we attended! Very involved and as a result, bitterly burnt out. As an adult, I’m super careful about where I spend my time volunteering. At this point, I feel my plate is full. I’m content with my involvement and Matt and I don’t see the need to add more.

Except that I wanted to add the Wednesday night services for the sake of our kids. Our church has an amazing children’s ministry, but I didn’t want to add another night of volunteering, or just drop the kids off and leave. For two years, I’ve bemoaned the absence of a Wednesday night program I felt like I could really sink my teeth into. The new pastors, though… they rearranged things so that the studies I wanted to attend during the week, but couldn’t justify the time for are now on Wednesday night. And we can finally attend, at our own pace and how it works for our family.

Like I said, I have lots of opportunities to be busy. But this is also a great time for me {and Matt} to work to teach our children about healthy boundaries and embracing a simple calendar. This isn’t to say that we haven’t always worked to keep it simple around here, it’s that with this new season in our own life, we have to once again sit down and assess how to keep it simple. I realized this afternoon what a blessing it has been to have a little boy with colic who grew up to be a little boy who doesn’t handle busy very well. In learning to take care of him, I’ve learned how to take care of myself! And in doing that, I’ve really learned to embrace simple and not feel guilty when I take of myself and my family. After all, isn’t that all that really matters?

How to train a sous chef

A few years ago, I gave advice to a frustrated mother in my office.  She was concerned that her young son would never catch up to his peers with  his small motor control.  He could barely grasp a pencil comfortably, let alone write his name.  The mother was a newly minted American citizen and her English was labored and unsure.  She had not been able to communicate her concern to their family doctor and she felt helpless in her desire for her son to succeed in school.  As we talked, I suggested that she bring him into the kitchen with her while she cooked.  To teach him how to measure out spices, to use a cookie cutter, to shape the bread.  It sounded odd, but she did what I suggested and within weeks, she saw improvement.  I am a firm believer in getting your kids involved in the kitchen from a very early age, if not to simply familiarize them with good food, but to teach them skills and build relationships.  

When your kids are little, you can settle them into a sling or perhaps a Bumbo while you work, keeping them close and involved in their own little way.  When they are toddlers, you can give them little tasks to do and by the time they are in elementary school, you could have your own little sous chef.  Magazines and blogs and websites are filled with ideas on how to get your kids involved in the kitchen.  Grow a garden, take them to the grocery, let them help you with your menu plan, teach them simple knife skills; these are all fantastic ideas, but what about that age where they are no longer content to sit and babble while you cook but are too young to get you the onions out of the bin?  I know, there’s nothing out there about that age.  Of course, that age is where we are now.  

As I type this, my little guy is motoring around the upstairs of our home.  He is busy every second of his waking moments.  He’s curious and intense.  And sitting quietly in the kitchen watching me cook is not top priority to him.  There’s been a battle of balance in our home because I’m not willing to give up cooking a nice dinner just because I have a toddler, but I also need to eat something other than pasta and broccoli (although, I’m fairly certain Liam wouldn’t mind).  I don’t like the dinner prep to be stressful, so in the last few weeks, I’ve gotten dinner down to a science.  I hope this post is helpful to those readers who are coming up on this stage of life with your little ones!

 

  • Be prepared!!!  This tip I cannot stress enough.  I generally take a few moments the night before and look at what’s in my fridge so I’m not blindsided the next afternoon at 4.  If meat needs to be thawed, it’s taken care of then, not in a panic with a hungry child in the background.  Being prepared keeps you from running to the drive-through.
  • If you have the luxury of a good nap on the weekend from your child, use it.  Ask your husband (wife, partner, etc.) to be on baby duty so you can gather your supplies for your week of meals and prep as far as you can in advance.  I try to spend a few hours once a month and get meats in marinades, frozen and labeled for quicker dinners.
  • If you’re making a meal, make 2.  Often, I plan my menu around leftovers.  This way, we are all fed well throughout the week and Matt isn’t digging around in the morning looking for a meal before work.  If I can, I make enough to freeze additional portions for use later.
  • Use that crockpot!  Making your meat in the crockpot and then fixing a side later means that even if there is a total meltdown and you aren’t able to get the side done, you at least have a filling meal to eat.
  • Serve a snack while you prep dinner.  I do this almost every day.  Liam eats an afternoon snack around 4 so he sits in his chair and munches while I do all the work that would require a knife or a hot pan.  If I time things right, I can usually get dinner into the oven before Liam is done with his snack and then we are free to play until Daddy comes home.
  • Make one cabinet safe so your child can pull out the pans, bowls, spoons, etc. and play with them while you cook.  My pasta press plates are stored in a case that when shaken makes noise.  Liam loves it.  We turn on music and he shakes the case to the music and we dance while I make dinner.  He also loves to wave wooden spoons around or play peek-a-boo with the onions under the kitchen sink.
  • On a few occasions, we have stripped Liam down to his cute little diaper and let him play in the ingredients.  I’ve shredded cheese onto the tray of his chair and let him feel the differences between flour and oats.  

If I get the time, I like to make as much of the dinner as I can while Liam takes his afternoon nap.  I’ve made a deal with myself to not work the whole way through his nap, though.  I need that time as much as anyone else to sit back and breathe because as soon as he wakes up, we’ve got stairs to climb, dogs to chase and toys to vroom vroom.  I do try to make sure that Liam gets to spend the time with me in the kitchen as much as possible.  He already does most of my grocery shopping with me and enjoys the dirt garden.  It’s taken me a while, but I’ve finally gotten to the point where dinner prep isn’t so challenging, but I must admit that I am looking forward to being able to engage Liam a little more fully as I bake and cook.  It will be so much fun to do things together!

My favorite things

I have a little guy who is teething right now, our house isn’t really all that fun.  All the tears from today and last night were ironic given that I have a post to finish that talks about cooking with a baby in the house.  I’ve been working on myself and my “mama zen” levels and coming to terms with the simple fact that my life is no longer organized and predictable.  I love, love, love my life, but it’s a daily adjustment.  

Every morning though, I wake up in eager anticipation of my homemade iced mochas.  My nifty reuseable cup is bright enough to perk up even the toothiest of mornings!

My hydrangeas are the absolute best they have ever been this summer.  I wasn’t too sure about them when we bought the house, but every year, I am blown away by their blooms and variety of colors.  The colors range from a magenta pink to a sweet blue.  The smallest one is a deep purple and was a gift from my mother’s funeral.  I think she’d be amazed with my plants.

My absolute favorite thing of today was seeing the pile of neatly folded diapers on my freshly made bed this morning.  

And Vito… faithfully following me everywhere so I’m never alone in whatever I have to do.  He tollerates all the poking and smacking and drooling from Liam just so he’s sure that he’s endeared himself enough to get an extra treat or two.  Given that he finally got Liam to laugh today just by sniffing him… he can have the whole box of treats!

 

Profiteroles

I am more than relieved to announce that I can wipe this one off my list.  Making the profiterole (also known as a cream puff here in the States) is really a very simple task; the baking of it requires a bit of attention.  Oh.  And you absolutely, certainly, should not open the oven to “peek”.  Be patient and back away from the oven.  I’m saying this because it was humid yesterday while I was baking, so we were already at a tenuous balance between the puffs puffing or not and I couldn’t control my anxiety and peeked.  Several times.  I might have been able to overcome the humidity issue if I had only been more patient.  Of the 4 dozen I baked, only about 16 turned out nicely puffed.  That should teach me.  Thankfully, I have made these several times so I know what my error was and am only telling you this so you don’t also make the same mistake.

 How beautiful your profiteroles can be if you don’t bother them while they bake!
The official name for the dough is Pâte à choux.  A choux dough doesn’t have any sort of a leavening agent in it; instead it relies on the moisture in the dough to create steam while it cooks and puff up the dough.  This type of dough what one would use to make profiteroles, croquembouches, eclairs, beignets,and gougères. I am anxious to keep trying this dough and working with it so I that I can become comfortable.  I have decided though that I should invest in a larger piping bag and tip so that I’m not covered in the dough by the time I’m done piping out my little puffs.  I’m also anxious to try these as a gougère in the winter with a hearty stew.
Basic Pâte à choux dough:
  • 10 Tbsp. butter, cut into small pieces
  • 1 1/2 tsp. sugar
  • 1 1/2 cup water
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1 1/2 cup flour
  • 6 large eggs

Preheat your oven to 450 degrees.  In a medium saucepan, bring the water, butter, sugar and salt to a simmer so that the butter is able to melt.  Remove the pan from the heat and using a wooden spoon, stir in the flour to make a paste.  Return to the heat and cook, stirring constantly until the paste is shiny and easily pulls away from the pan (about 7 minutes).  Cool slightly.  Either transfer the paste to the bowl of a stand mixer or use a hand mixer fitted with beaters and then beat it for about 2 minutes on low-medium speed to cool the paste further.  Then, add in the eggs one a time.  Scrape the bowl as needed.  Once all the eggs are incorporated thoroughly, transfer the dough to a large pastry bag fitted with a 1/2 inch tip.  Have 2 baking sheets lined with parchment paper ready.  Pipe the dough out until it is about the size of a golf ball – you should have 4 dozen.  Wet your finger and smooth down the peaks of dough that will form from being piped.  Bake until they are puffed, about 15-20 minutes, and then lower the heat of the oven to 350 degrees to finish until the puffs are golden.  You can then turn off the oven and leave the puffs inside for up to 10 minutes to dry them out.  Once they are cooled, you can fill them with pastry cream.

The 16 winners for the baby shower… ignore the florescent icing on the cupcakes, please.  Due to a sick child throughout the week, I had to sacrifice some of my baking.  What suffered was the thing I hate the most: cake icing.

Pizza crust I actually want to eat

I’m not too much of a crust eater.  I generally tear mine up and give it to the dogs.  Sometimes, I dunk it in ranch dressing.  I don’t really care how thick and beautiful a pizza parlor claims to make their crust or if you can read newspaper through it.  I’m really here for the cheese.  And green peppers.  Matt had been a bachelor for some time when we met.  I never ate so much pizza as when we started dating.  Once we got married, it was his joke that when he “cooked” it came to the door in a box.  We always order Besta Fasta pizza.  I like that they make theirs fresh daily, so much so that sometimes, their sauce is super mild and other times, it’s so spicy that we are both sent searching for an antiacid!  

As much as I like the option to order pizza out, I still like to have the confidence to be able to whip up a batch at home whenever I like.  I keep pepperoni in the freezer, pizza sauce in the canning cellar and provolone in my fridge.  I like having provolone on my pizza.  If you ask, you’re going to find that many pizza places use a mixture of provolone and mozzerella on their pizzas.  I don’t know how I got started asking, but I did and was thrilled when I realized that that is why their cheese is so mouth-wateringly good!  I make this dough in my bread machine (on the dough setting) because it’s contained in there and I don’t have to worry about getting distracted by a diaper my increasingly dare-devilish child.  If you want to make this by hand, you only need to mix all the ingredients together gently, knead it well and let it rise for about 30-45 minutes in a warm place.  Nothing else needs to change.  Top it with your favorite sauce, toppings and cheese before baking it in a 450 degree oven for 20 minutes.  You can get 2 12-inch pizzas with a medium/thin crust out of this recipe or one giant, fluffy crusted one.

  • 2 1/2 tsp yeast
  • 4 1/4 cups plus 2 Tablespoons flour
  • 1 cup plus 2 Tablespoons warm water
  • 1 Tbsp. sugar
  • 2 tsp. salt
  • 2 Tbsp. olive oil

**This dough is wonderful baked in the oven on a pizza stone or baking sheet.  It’s also sturdy enough to be prepared and grilled.  I also like this recipe because you don’t need to prebake it.  Just form it, top it and throw it in the oven.  The oven that is heated to 450 degrees.  This is my warning: a pizza stone coming from that oven is going to be hotBe careful.  I barely tapped my arm with fresh-from-the-oven stone 2 months ago and still have a nasty looking burn mark on my arm.  It’s embarrassing to have to explain that you were trying to go from the kitchen to the dining room and ducking around a Johnny Jump-up in the doorway when you burnt your arm.  Just so you know.

Grocery Day! (Part 2 of the Dinner Series)

On grocery day, I pack up my bags and egg cartons.  Depending on the weather, I lay out my route.  Right now, I call ahead and place my meat order at Mary Anne’s and pick that up first.  The meat stays cold in the car and then I’ve gone to the furthest away store.  Next up is Wayne’s.  This is designed in case we have a pre-nap meltdown and I have to stop and go home, I’ve gotten the essentials, right?  I can go to Kroger’s any time of day or night, so I’m never too worried about that store.  Today, I left my little guy at my Aunt’s and headed out.  I made it through everything except for the meat market since the roads that way weren’t too promising.  (Grocery shopping in February can be tricky.)  When I shop, I hit the produce section first.  It gets me in mood so to speak.  If Wayne’s hasn’t had what I was looking for, I’m most likely to find it at Kroger’s.   By shopping at a separate meat market, I don’t have too much in my cart and can by-pass the “butcher shop” in the back of the store.  I do always check the fish counter to see if there’s anything good, though.  

As  general rule, I avoid the middle-most aisles.  The ones that contain your rice-a-roni dinners and spam.  Now that I am out of my frozen garden produce, I am making trips to the freezer cases for green beans and peas.  I can’t go more than a day without them.  The last place I stop at in the store is the dairy case for heavy cream or sour cream if I need it.  I don’t typically buy my milk in the store since I buy Hartzler’s and I call ahead and order that from Trinity.  I recently discovered some sour cream cultures in my freezer and so my days of purchasing that may be coming to a close!  

Now here’s the hard part: check out.  I bring my own bags and am often greeted with looks of distain from the teenage baggers.   The reason why this is the most challenging part of my trip is because I have to explain how to pack a bag.  Since any explanation as to which bags are insulated has fallen on very deaf ears, I lay anything that should be kept cold out first with the insulated bags and once they are packed, I let them have the rest.  Once I came home to discover my eggs at the bottom of a bag containing dog food.  Needless to say, I lost those eggs.  Some stores will give you money off for bringing your own bags.  Target, for example, gives 5 cents a bag, I believe.  Be aware, though.  If you want your 5 cents, you may just have to ask for it.  Unless you are lucky enough to do all your shopping at a mecca like Whole Foods that is!

Once I’ve arrived home, I put away my goodies.  If the meat is going to be used within the next 2 days, I put it in the fridge.  If it’s scheduled for a meal by the next weekend, it goes in the upstairs freezer.  The rest goes in the basement in my deep freezer.  I try to plan my arrival home around a nap so that I get things done right away.  While Liam sleeps, I wash all the fruits/vegetables and put them away.  Greens are also washed.  I blot them dry on a towel and then store them in the fridge wrapped in a damp cloth.  This way they last far longer and they are cleaned and ready for whenever the mood for a kale salad strikes me.  

Any extra staples go in the basement in my (currently rather bare) canning cellar.  For instance, I once was at the store and they had dried pasta on sale for 50 cents a box.  I bought a few and had some as back up for a while.  I will be writing another post on the staples you should always have for a versatile kitchen.  Flour, sugar, oats and rice all go in old pretzel jars from my grandmother.  I must admit that as much as I love to grocery shop, I am really looking forward to the days when I can just walk out back to my garden and get the carrots I need for dinner.  That beats even the best produce department!

Dinner – Drama or Delight? Part 1

It happens to every one of us.  It’s been a hectic day, maybe even one like those Laughing Cow commercials, you arrive home exhausted only to find that you have nothing for dinner.  The solution?  Typically, you order out, Right?  I grew up in a home where this did not happen.  My mother stayed home and had dinners on the strict schedule.  In fact, we ate at 530.  Every.  Single.  Night.  I was never the sole organizer of the dinner plans until I went to college where the cafeteria took care of things for me.  As long as I was there during the open hours, I was ok.  Even if I didn’t like what was on the main menu, I could make a salad or an ice cream sundae.  Fast forward a few years and I was a new bride.  I realized that not only did I not actually know how to cook, I was clueless about grocery shopping, menu planning and there were buckets of tears to be had when my darling new husband didn’t get why we had to eat at 530.  

By this time, however, my mother had had a stroke and was unable to teach me how to do this simple task.  My whole life, I had these dreams of someday being a cute little wife who greets her husband with a tastefully ruffled apron and a 3 course meal on the table when he gets home from work.  My mother planted this dream in my head and it stuck.  It was a very idyllic version of what actually happened.  I worked 8-10 hours everyday, plus a commute.  Most nights, I was far too tired to make much more than a frozen pizza.  My parents are instinctual cooks and most of the meals that were on the weekly menu were ones that no recipes with quantitative measurements were to be had.  My husband made it clear that tofu was not an option, so I went in search of cookbooks.  I had a few, but over the following months, I set aside money from each paycheck to purchase a new book.  By the time, the summer rolled around, I had amassed a collection and some experience.  Now, if I could only not waste so much time and money in the grocery.

At that time, I had quit my job with the commute and was now in town.  For the first time ever, I could go to the farmer’s markets, pick up produce and take it straight home.  It was then I discovered coupons and comparison shopping.  These days, I pretty much have the prices memorized at my bi-weekly haunts.  I know if using that coupon is worth it or if I’d be better off just buying the store brand.  This is a muti-part series on menu planning, grocery shopping and kitchen organization.  I wish someone had be able to share this with me, so I am hoping to help another new housekeeper and maybe give some new tips to an experienced one.

Grocery day is set up around my pay days.  I start the menu planning on Wednesday or Thursday and shop Friday mornings.  The main reason why I do it this way is because that’s how my parents did it.  The only difference is that we don’t come home to a weekly meal of tofu cottage cheese and yam chips (although I would very much like to).  I live in my Blackberry.  My calendar, recipes I’d like to try, notes and grocery list are all in there.  But I do keep a calendar on the fridge so that the hubs knows what’s going on.  Menu planning for me isn’t so much about a rotational list or a specific diet, it’s about my schedule and what I want to try.  I have an ongoing pile of recipe clippings in my recipe binder to try and I do try to use at least one new one every 2 weeks.  Also in my binder is a copy of the Ohio produce availability.  This way I am ready for when the crops start rolling in and I don’t miss something; like fresh asparagus.  On Tuesdays and Thursdays I work until 7 at night.  Therefore, I have either a crockpot meal ready when I get home or a freezer meal thawing.  Monday, Wednesday and Friday I only plan for dinner because we either have leftovers or sandwiches for lunches.  The weekend menus revolve around what we are doing and usually include a dinner out.  I do try to be realistic in my planning because now that I have a little guy motoring around the house, I can’t get too involved in my meal prep in case he needs something.

Once the meals are chosen and allocated to their days, I make out a grocery list.  I go through every recipe and make sure I have the ingredients (because nothing is worse than trying to make Carbonara only to discover you don’t have any heavy cream).  Then, I make a quick trip through the pantry shelves and my freezers to see what I already have.  I have a running list in my BB of items that we need as I notice it and I add my grocery items to that list.  Finally, I go through my coupons and mark the items where one is applicable with an uppercase “C”.  I don’t often check the store fliers since we only shop at Kroger for items that I can’t get at Wayne’s or the meat market.  If I am going to a bulk foods store, I have a separate list for those purchases so that I don’t get confused.  

Thus ends the tale of my menu planning.  Up next, grocery shopping!  Grocery shopping is my all-time favorite kind of shopping, so I can’t wait to share with you these tips!