Fresh strawberry pie

Enough of this cleaning and organizing. (I cleaned out two more kitchen drawers yesterday. Yawn.) You want to see some food, am I right? It’s time for dessert!

I certainly haven’t been baking up a storm here, even being home for the summer. But after spending $10 on farmer’s market strawberries, I felt the need to respect the investment.

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It’s Cook’s Illustrated’s Fresh Strawberry Pie, a recipe that has you make fresh strawberry jam to glaze the berries. I even (mostly) followed their recipe for the pie crust. Between the two, I spent four or five hours on this pie. It was wonderful, but I confess I found myself thinking I would have been just as happy with my grandma’s version of strawberry shortcake: pie crust baked flat on a cookie sheet, then broken into pieces in your bowl,topped with juicy sugared strawberries, and a generous glug of half and half. No worrying about trying to serve the pie in the short window between “chilled” and “so juicy the crust is getting soggy.” Am I trying to dissuade you from making this pie? I don’t know. It was really, really good. There is no better strawberry pie. Except maybe a deconstructed one.

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People licked their plates clean. Literally.

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One drawer at a time

One of my goals this summer was to reorganize the kitchen office area. DONE.

20140629_115436On Friday I got the ball rolling by sorting and filing (and a lot of recycling) the horrible pile of paper that had accumulated in the corner. On Saturday the Hub decided to push on and finish the job.

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He pulled everything off the shelves (something I couldn’t do myself: heavy books and magazine files + recovering spine = NO) and wiped all the dust. We took a few minutes to sort through the cookbooks. We agreed on a couple to donate and loosely categorized the rest before putting them back on the shelves. Nearly all the cooking magazines got relocated to the basement. I spent a couple hours sorting through the kids’ school file boxes, mostly tossing stuff, but saving a few things for posterity. I dedicated one shelf to their summer schoolwork and one shelf for my files and some office supplies. I put away (or threw away) all the other bits and pieces that had piled up on my desk and shelves. I even cleaned off my memo board. Finally, I hung the new organizer that I got for my birthday.

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Since that project took the better part of a day and a half, I’m not really motivated to take on another big thing right away. I’d like to reorganize and clean all the kitchen cabinets, but that sounds huge. Instead, I decided to clean out just one kitchen drawer. That much I can handle.

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It doesn’t look that bad. But there are a bunch of lids without containers, and containers without lids. I also wanted to make room for some plastic mixing bowls in a spot where the kids can reach them without help when they’re cooking.

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Everything out.

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All the matching containers and lids put together. Anything without a mate got recycled.

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Everything back in. There are a bunch of containers still in the refrigerator, but all those have their matching lids, and I’m certain they’ll all fit back into the drawer.

I only kept a few yogurt containers with lids, and put them in a bin in the pantry. I use these for freezing homemade chicken stock, but don’t need them every day.

Boring but satisfying. Kind of like cleaning out your purse or the trunk of your car. I think the utensil drawers will be next.

Summertime

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Summer vacation. It’s been nearly two weeks, and we’re getting into a bit of a routine.

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So far, the best thing I did was to make a list for the kids of five things that must be accomplished each weekday before spending time with tv/computer/iPod/video games (I borrowed the idea from another blog and adapted it for our own needs–thanks for the link, Lina!). It’s working well for the two older kids, especially, because their screen time is limited only by how long it takes them to finish the list (and how much we’re at home–it’s the rare day that doesn’t have a scheduled activity or three).

Little Six needs some guidance to get through the list, but he is doing it. I’m happier because I’m not nagging them to help out, and they seem to like choosing what daily chore they do (though I’m happy to make suggestions if they consult me). They are practicing their instruments daily and doing their summer math packets without my intervention. (Usually. Today Mr. Eleven reached a section where he needs some guidance, and I am proving unequal to 7th grade math. With the help of Google, we are learning it together.)

Also, the required one hour of “something else” has spurred them to practice soldering, bake cupcakes, make a menagerie of origami animals, ride bikes and of course, more Rainbow Loom. Miss Eight made layered frozen fruit pops one day, and today Mr. Eleven attempted to teach his siblings how to play chess.

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I’ve got some projects of my own to tackle, the most immediate being The Office Corner of Doom in the kitchen. I need to remove everything and just start over. Some of our vast collection of food magazines will be relocated, and some kind of simple filing system needs to happen. I also have another stack of artwork to be framed and hung in the family room. Unfortunately, my energy level is not quite back to normal after surgery, and I don’t yet have full strength in my right arm. There is definite progress, but apparently this healing process can’t be rushed. I’m trying to accept that this will not be the summer of big projects. It’s enough to get through the day with clean laundry and food on the table.

Speaking of food, last week I grilled turkey burgers for dinner one evening. Mr. Eleven declared them “the best burgers ever,” and told me to make them this way always. Since I didn’t follow any particular recipe, I’m writing it down so I can recreate them. They were moist and juicy, and because I didn’t get distracted and leave the grill unattended, they weren’t overcooked. I can’t promise that you’ll get such lavish compliments if you make these, but at least you’ll have dinner on the table.

Best Turkey Burgers Ever

2 lbs. ground turkey

2 eggs, beaten

3/4 cup bread crumbs

1/2 cup milk

1 Tbsp. Worcestershire sauce

1 tsp. onion powder

salt and pepper

In a large bowl, beat the eggs with a fork. Stir in bread crumbs, milk, Worcestershire, onion powder and salt and pepper. Add ground turkey and mix thoroughly. Form into patties slightly larger than the buns, and press down in the middle of the patty so it’s thinner than the sides (see why here). Oil the grates of the grill and cook on med-high heat. Serve on toasted buns with all the trimmings.

 

 

 

Washi tape Ikea RAST makeover

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Lest you think I have abandoned this blog, I assure you, I have not! Unfortunately, I have not yet figured out how to make time for both blogging and an almost-full-time job. Just when I had a few posts in mind, and photos to go with them, some nagging back and neck pain exploded into constant agony from a pinched nerve (on Easter Sunday, no less), and within a few days, my right arm was fairly useless. A couple visits to the doctor and an MRI later, I was diagnosed with two ruptured discs in my neck and scheduled for surgery.

Now I’m two weeks post-surgery, and feeling much better. The pain from the the pinched nerve is gone, and I’d say my arm is about 50% better (some physical therapy is probably in my future). Recovery from the surgery itself is going well. Though I’m restricted from lifting anything heavier than a gallon of milk and not allowed to drive yet, I think I’ll be back to most of my usual activities very soon. If the rest of the family has to carry the laundry baskets and groceries and run the vacuum for a while longer, so be it.

Before all this spine surgery nonsense distracted me, at the end of spring break I finally finished Miss Eight’s nightstand project. She had a wobbly three-legged decorator’s table for a nightstand, which wasn’t big enough for her lamp, alarm clock, books, and the dozens of hair accessories and tubes of lip gloss a girl needs. We decided the little Ikea RAST dresser would be the best storage for the money. It gives her a little more surface area on top, plus three drawers to hide the clutter.

After wading through a ton of Ikea hack ideas on Pinterest, we decided that a rainbow of stripes on a white background would complement the colorful polka dots on Miss Eight’s bedding. The first coat was bright white semi-gloss paint & primer (the same can that I use on baseboards and trim), applied with a brush. Then I sprayed several thin coats of glossy white spray paint that I bought on clearance when our local hardware store went out of business. I let the paint dry and cure for a week, and then used a level and a pencil to mark where our randomly spaced washi tape stripes would go on the drawer fronts. The tape was so easy to apply–much faster than paint would have been–and should be easy to remove if we redecorate in the future. Miss Eight picked the colors as we went along, so she was pleased with the final result.

219Now I have a bag of washi tape left over, and I’m eager to find other uses for it. First up will probably be to hang up all the posters and pictures that keep falling off the walls in Little Six’s room.

Spring break

Spring break. We haven’t jetted off to warmer climes. We’ve enjoyed a visit from the grandparents, gone to the zoo, the library and the swimming pool at the Y. We’ve stayed in our jammies until noon (or later). I finished one book and started another, and slept until 8:30 a.m. two days in a row.

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In an attempt to be productive, I got so far as making a list of possible projects. It’s Friday, and I’ve only crossed two items off the list, one simply because the weather isn’t cooperating. (Can’t rake leaves when the yard is under several inches of water. April showers bring May flowers…) This morning I cleaned the kitchen, not because it was on the list, but because I couldn’t take the smudges on the new dishwasher anymore. One thing led to another, and pretty soon I was scrubbing the sticky coating of dust off the knife block.

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Miss Eight has busied herself all week with duct tape crafts. Mr. Eleven has clocked too many hours on his iPod, watching YouTube videos and texting his friends. Today he was finally able to ride his scooter over to a friend’s house. Little Six has polished his piano recital piece (I never saw a kid so fond of the metronome), played a lot of sword fighting on the Wii, and finally unearthed his marble run.

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Since I won’t be doing any laundry today (when the ejector pumps are working so hard to keep the rainwater out of our basement, I don’t like to overtax them), I should probably make good on my promise to Miss Eight to get the first coat of paint on her nightstand. I did finish one other project: cleaning out the hall closet.

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It’s probably tempting fate, but I put away the snow gear and got out the rain gear. (Tip of the day: You can shine your plastic rain boots with Armor All!) If I don’t accomplish anything else, that at least will make Monday morning’s return to school a little easier.

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You might think that these lazy days at home would lead to more exciting cooking. Though we did cook quite a lot while the in-laws were here (see the nice birthday cake the Hub baked for his mother?), the Hub is working a regular schedule this week and I am not very motivated. I’ve resorted to easy fall-back meals: pasta pesto, hamburgers and roasted potatoes, pizza (the dough was in the freezer), and leftovers.

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Recognizing that we’ll be back to the routine in a few short days, I did make next week’s menu and baked some extra pancake batter into these Pancake Mini-Muffins for school morning breakfasts. Now it’s time to roll out that pizza dough…

Change

Did you all think I had dropped off the face of the blogosphere?

Nope. I got a job.

As jobs go, the hours couldn’t be more ideal–I’m working only during the school day as an elementary school instructional assistant–so I’m home in time to shuttle my own children around to their activities, help with homework, and get dinner on the table. I’m free most of the same days as my children (including summer vacation).

Ideal.

Still, Little Six now has to go to before and after-school care, because I have to leave for work nearly an hour before he starts school, and I don’t return in time for his dismissal. We now pack lunches and set out backpacks the night before, and we grocery shop on the weekends like every other family with two working parents.

It’s a big change.

No more sleeping in, soap operas and bonbons. No more volunteering at school, running errands at 10 a.m., or taking a shower at 2 p.m. The dirty dishes sit in the sink a little longer. My desk looks like a bomb exploded somewhere in the vicinity.

I am physically wiped out by the end of the day–I’m certain none of you teachers is surprised–and I can only hope that I build up some stamina after a few more weeks. I blame it on those little chairs in the first grade classrooms and the challenge of learning a couple hundred new names. Not to mention fourth grade math.

A few things that have made this transition go more smoothly:

  • Ye Olde Crockpot. Slow Cooker Salsa Chicken saved us on my first day back to work. I took one minute in the morning to dump a package of chicken breasts, a jar of mild salsa (Aldi’s organic), and a good shake of cumin (instead of taco seasoning) in the the slow cooker. After eight hours on low, it was juicy and took a minute to shred for tacos. There was enough left over for Chicken Taquitos later in the week, and still more to put in the freezer for another taco night.
  • Weekend meal planning and batch cooking. If we can prepare at least one meal for the week ahead, we feel so much more relaxed. The Hub has been great about making this happen. Continuing our dinner swap arrangement has also been a lifesaver.

  • Taking advantage of after-school care. I could pick Little Six up within the first half hour, but we pay a flat rate no matter how long he stays, so he can stay until 6 p.m. if necessary. I’ve been picking him up around 4:30, which gives me a little extra time with the big kids and their homework. Little Six is a social kid who enjoys the play time–including art projects, games, and time outdoors–which is better than being at home playing Super Mario Bros. by himself while I make dinner and drill spelling words. The big kids seem more cooperative, too, when I can give them my undivided attention to hear about their day.
  • Keeping up with the (almost) daily laundry routine. Saving it all up for the weekend just sounds soul crushing. I managed a load three out of five days last week, and still had four loads on Saturday.
  • A shared family calendar. I put everything on Google Calendar, from all the kids’ activities (and what time I need to pick them up) to social events to school and work deadlines. I even add reminders for errands I need to run and when library books are due (we’ve been burned one too many times with late fees). Having a record of all our commitments in one place works for us. We can check it from work and generally rely on its accuracy. At least, I can’t remember the last time we double-booked something!

What are your best tips for juggling your work schedule and your home schedule?

Closet clean sweep

In the spirit of Chinese New Year, I cleaned out my closet yesterday.

I tried to be ruthless–if I hadn’t worn something in the past year, into the donate bag it went. A few things went into the rag pile. I pulled all the summer clothes out and stashed them in a box under the bed so that I can actually open, close, and see what is inside my dresser drawers. Obviously, I should have done that in October, but since I won’t need them until May, better late than never. I refolded all my sweaters, and put my to-be-ironed clothes on hangers in the closet so that I don’t keep forgetting I own them. I even sorted through my shoes.

The donation truck is coming by next week, and I’m happy to have a few bags to contribute.

Today we have to trek out in the snow to sell band candy for a couple of hours. (We’ll be indoors, thankfully.) I’d rather be cleaning the house.

How often do you clean out your closet?

Recycled t-shirt animal pillows

These little pillow pets are the latest addition to Miss Eight’s room. They began life as adorable t-shirts from Mini Boden that I bought for $.50 each at a consignment sale. Miss Eight loved and wore them until she outgrew them, and we saved them for this little project. To beat boredom on the fourth day this month that school has been cancelled due to weather, it was nice to work on this activity with Miss Eight.

At first we thought we’d make little square pillows, but then I saw these cute examples from H&M and Etsy, and we changed our plan.hmbunnypillow

Because Miss Eight wanted to vary the colors on the backs of the pillows, I cut the t-shirts apart at the side seams. Then I paired a pink front with a green back, and vice versa. I cut around each image, leaving a good inch border all the way around.

I pinned them right sides together, and stitched all around, leaving an opening at the bottom. We turned them right side out, Miss Eight got busy stuffing the pillows with fiberfill, and then I hand stitched the pillows closed. The entire project took 30 minutes, tops, and cost us absolutely nothing.

Aren’t they cute? I can say that without reservation, since these pets don’t need to be walked or have their smelly cage cleaned out.

 

Family room

The family room might be my favorite room in the house now. I was chatting with a friend last week about how long it can take to figure out how to make your house work for your particular family, the way you live. Not only how it looks, but how it functions.

In six and half years, this is the first time this room has felt like us. It helps that we’ve moved beyond big baby and toddler toys, and we don’t need to baby proof anything. Finally getting the scale of the furniture right has made a huge difference. Our old sofa and loveseat–which we bought for the enormous basement family room in our last house–just overwhelmed this room. Our new chairs arrived and we (the grownups) each have a perfectly comfortable spot to relax, with a good view of the television and a light for reading. I wasn’t sure what to hang over the fireplace, but I dug out this old poster, and I really like the punch of yellow and the clean, graphic lines of the Matisse sketch. I’ve since hung it a little higher (I had to add some picture wire to the back) so the hardware doesn’t show.

I assembled the two new bookcases and found space for all of the board games, the overflow of books, and some baskets of toys. In the future, I might be more thoughtful about which books to keep in the family room and which in the living room, but for the moment I am just happy that there is space for all the books. And now that the games are on open shelves in plain sight, the kids have been playing them more often. (Miss Eight and I really love Set these days.) I also finally framed and hung the series of favorite director prints that I gave the Hub for Christmas 2012.

We moved the big coffee table from the middle of the room to one end. Little Six’s art projects (and accompanying mess) tend to take over the table so that we weren’t getting any other use out of it anyway. Now the table (and the occasional paint spill) is off the carpet and there is floor space to spread out a game, practice headstands, or play the Wii.

This arrangement with our big old tv isn’t permanent, but we streamlined things by putting it on a smaller stand and tucking it into the corner. Someday we’ll get a flat screen and figure out a good layout for this wall, but this television is still going strong. I tacked up the colorful woven wall hanging from Ecuador to relieve some of the blank white space.

The little armchair adds just enough seating for the whole family to watch a movie together. It’s light enough to swing around and face the tv when we need it. I also sewed up this floor pouf from three little cotton rugs to act as a footstool or extra seating. I loosely followed these directions (minus the zipper–I just hand stitched the opening). My pouf is stuffed with rags and a few pieces of foam. I might raid the rag bag and fill it just a little bit more. Hmmm…I probably should have ironed out the creases before sewing.

We’re still on the hunt for a couple of new side tables so that every chair has a spot for a cup of tea and a lamp. In the meantime, I’m happy that there is finally space for the whole family in our family room.

How have your rooms evolved? What changes have made the most difference in how you use and enjoy the space?

A little tarty

 

Pretty fancy, no? From concept to table, this dessert was made by Little Six. I still have no idea what inspired him, but for a couple of weeks he couldn’t stop talking about a mysterious dessert called a “tarty.” He proposed a few variations (some of which involved several layers of chocolate cake topped with pudding, frosting, fruit and sprinkles), but he seemed very happy with the streamlined version we settled on. We, the taste testers, were happy, too. As promised, here is the recipe.

Tarties

Makes 5-6 individual tarts

For the crust: Put 20 chocolate sandwich cookies (Oreos) and 1/4 cup melted butter in the food processor. Process on high until finely ground. Divide the crumbs evenly among the tart pans and press evenly around the base and sides. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

For the filling: Follow this recipe for Pastry Cream (don’t leave out the whipped cream at the end). When thoroughly chilled, fill each tart crust with pastry cream and smooth with a small spatula.

Just before serving, top each tart with fresh berries, sliced bananas, and toasted almonds.