Adjustments

I’m some three weeks into this new gig as stay-at-home-mom with all three kids in school all day. It’s a weird transition. I’m discovering that, as much as I enjoy puttering around the house, I don’t really want to be doing it all day. I’d like to be a flexible-work-at-home mom, but paid work isn’t exactly a faucet you can just turn on and off. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and I suppose neither is my resumé.

What have I been doing between the hours of 8:30 and 3:00? I’ve learned how to update the website for a non-profit organization, written several blog posts, scanned some job listings, filled out an application, volunteered at school, and still tried to keep up with the regular stuff at home–laundry, dishes, meals, and the occasional bit of tidying and cleaning. I finally got my hair cut. I’ve only eaten one or two bonbons (stolen from the practice treat jar) and I’m decades behind on my soaps. I did watch an episode of North and South while I hemmed Mr. Ten’s band uniform pants up a good six inches (by hand, without cutting anything off–the uniforms have to be returned at the end of the year).

Kids in uniforms are so cute!

I have a host of projects I could work on–in the family room alone are three big projects: paint the fireplace, refinish the coffee table, and repaint the walls–but I confess, I haven’t gotten excited about tackling any one of them. I’m blaming this lethargy on the cold virus I’ve been lugging around for the past ten days. (Knock on wood, it may finally be on its way out. I slept through the night without coughing.) Yesterday I looked at the garage and thought, Ugh. I have to get started on this.

Since Dad cut off the concrete shelves that so annoyed me, I can now prime, paint, and shop around for a nice big mantel shelf.

In a minor effort to begin on the garage clutter and raise a little cash, I took photos and listed a couple items for sale on Craigslist. I spray painted a curtain rod (thanks, Freecycle!)–the one that has been propped up next to the refrigerator for the past month–for my bedroom. I even put the curtains in the wash.

The old rod is now in Mr. Ten’s room. While I was installing the curtain rod today, I was reminded that I still haven’t hung up the artwork or created a new headboard for his room. The trouble is, all these chores and projects at home expand to quite neatly fill whatever time I have to give them. There will always be more yard work, more piles in the basement to sort, and God knows, more laundry.

Part of me wants to whip through all the dark pockets of crazy in the house in some kind of organizational frenzy. Part of me thinks I should have done it all last week. Instead, I have tried to spend a little more time each day writing and researching a couple magazine articles. At this stage, with no paycheck in sight, it feels a little illicit, not-quite-real-work, so I assigned myself some deadlines. I even put them on the calendar. I know that if I ever want to earn money writing, I’m going to have to ignore the house for a couple hours. Think of it as a real job, worth the time and discipline.

When the kids are home during the day, a routine seems to evolve naturally, as the little tyrants continue to demand food and attention. Now that they’re at school, I’m going to have to create my own priorities. Be my own boss. At least until 3 p.m.

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The Evolution of the Waldorf Salad

Remember Waldorf Salad? Apples, nuts, grapes, celery, mayonnaise? So retro! (Apparently the Waldorf Astoria still serves it, fancied up with black truffles.)

I grew up eating this salad on a regular basis, but over the years, it evolved into something else. First, you have to understand that we ate this as dessert, not as a salad. We skipped the celery. For a long time, a few maraschino cherries (and a splash of juice from the jar) dressed it up. Eventually, sour cream or yogurt replaced the mayonnaise. Raisins got traded for diced prunes (too mushy, in my opinion) or dried cranberries. The maraschino cherries became passé, replaced by a little lime zest.

I haven’t managed to convince my children that apple salad = dessert (perhaps I should bring back the cherry on top), but it still makes an appearance on our table, especially in the fall. I’ve been known to eat the leftovers for breakfast. Whatever you call it, it’s good.

Apple Salad

4 medium apples, cored and diced (no need to peel)

1 cup of grapes, halved

1/2 cup raisins or dried cranberries, or both

1/2 cup walnuts or pecans, chopped (toasted is extra nice)

1 cup plain yogurt

1 Tbsp. honey

a couple squeezes of lemon juice

Toss all the ingredients together in a bowl. Serve.

Monday Menu and Recipe Review

Suddenly it’s fall.

It’s been pleasantly gloomy in the house all day, an intermittent drizzle falling gently outside. Squirrels are everywhere, always with a fat acorn crammed into their mouths. I’ve been puttering around, doing Sunday things like reorganizing my sweaters, scrubbing burnt sugar off the bottom of my stockpots (one down, one to go), more laundry, more dishes. The kids have been gorging themselves on old iCarly episodes and running out to play in the rain. I started looking around for banana cake recipes, but I think I’ll just bake muffins instead.

This week

Last week

  • Sausage, Potato and Apple Bake. I have to scale this recipe up a little, and I used fresh brats instead of Italian sausage. Always good.
  • Chicken Milanese, cherry tomato and arugula salad. Four fat chicken breasts, pounded flat, made enough chicken cutlets for two families.
  • Cherry Tomato Cobbler, roasted beets with vinaigrette, (mac-n-cheese from the freezer for the tomato haters). Incredible, from the jammy tomato and basil filling to the tender cobbler topping. No, the kids didn’t eat it, but then there was more for breakfast for the adults. I used a scrap of hard sheep’s milk cheese instead of ricotta salata–I’m certain you can substitute any flavorful cheese you like. Try this for brunch, maybe with a runny egg on top.

Toys that aren’t clutter: A gift guide

Last night as I was making dinner and Mr. Ten sat at the counter finishing his homework, Little Five dragged the giant canister of Tinker Toys into the kitchen so he could play and hang out with us. We have a small rug in front of the bay window where he can play without being in the way of the other kitchen action. I’ve given away a lot of toys that nobody plays with in the past year, but the Tinker Toys have never been on the list. I find them scattered around the house and yard nearly every day. More often than not, the kids are constructing something that shoots invisible lasers, but I have also seen guitars, buildings, magic wands and roller coasters.It made me stop and think about what toys have proved timeless in our house over the past 10 years. Some toys that seemed like a good idea at the time turned out to be duds (the dollhouse–not a bad toy, just not suited to its recipient). Others just didn’t mesh with my particular children’s particular personalities or they’ve simply been outgrown. I’ve learned that having fewer toys encourages a child to be more creative with the ones he has.

In the spirit of William Morris, here’s my guide to toys that stand a chance of not becoming clutter. If you’re a parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, godparent, or are ever called upon to find a birthday gift for a child you don’t really know, this is the list for you. These are the toys that my kids still play with, even though they spend most of their days in school and gravitate toward electronic games like proverbial moths. Obviously, toys geared for babies and younger children have their place, but if I had to start over, I would focus more on toys that can grow up with a child.

  • Tinker Toys. Preschoolers can begin with these–most of the pieces are big enough for them to handle as they are still developing fine motor skills. But there is enough of a variety of parts that older children can continue to invent new constructions. We began with a small canister of wooden pieces and a few years later received a large one of plastic pieces. Together there are enough pieces for several kids to play together. The sets have evolved somewhat, but my kids and their friends keep on playing.
  • Lego. Wooden blocks are nice, but you won’t be able to pick up your newly built portal gun to see if it will shoot you into another dimension. There are lots of different building toy brands, but pick a couple and stick with them, or you’ll end up with a bunch of incompatible sets. Begin with a Duplo set for younger kids (but don’t invest in too many–they will outgrow them) and move on to the regular Legos around age 5 or 6. Kids can practice following a sequence of directions if they want to build the specific model in the kit, and later they can use the pieces to make their own creations. And as blocks go, they don’t take up that much space. I like to start with a box of basic bricks instead of the themed sets.

  • Musical instruments. Consider your sanity. A toy is no good if you’re constantly telling your child not to play with it. Don’t bother getting a recorder until your 3rd grader needs one for music class–it will just become a shrill instrument of torture to your ears. Try a harmonica instead. We loved this nice wooden drum, and still get many miles out of this percussion set. Electronic instruments are easy to break and always need batteries; instead of a keyboard, get a sturdy xylophone. Another winner was an older version of this guitar. No, it’s not a real instrument, but it’s an excellent toy for pretending to be a rock star. We’ve had it for over five years and I’ve yet to change the batteries.
  • Vehicles. Matchbox and Hotwheels cars, a train set. If you have a hardcore train fanatic in your family, you might decide to invest in some nice wooden trains. We never moved beyond a small set with a handful of extra parts. Little Five seems to prefer cheap little cars or any vehicle he builds himself out of Legos.
  • Outdoor toys and gear. Balls, scooters, bikes, sidewalk chalk, jump ropes.
  • Art supplies. Nothing fancy, just a stash of paper, a box of crayons and markers, and the occasional paint set or play dough. For older children (8+), craft kits, beads, or whatever the latest collectible bracelet craze is. (We’re drowning in teeny tiny rubber bands over here.)

  • Pretend play props. Some dress up clothes and accessories, old Halloween costumes, a doctor kit, some play food. Toy cell phones and laptops get pulled out daily.

In case you were wondering, these are the toys I avoid buying unless specifically requested.

  • Stuffed animals or dolls. Not that kids don’t play with them, but it’s a very personal choice. We have bins and baskets full of adorable stuffed animals that never get any love.
  • Noisy toys. Need I say more?
  • Coloring or activity books. These have always been immediate clutter. My kids will always ignore coloring inside the lines in favor of a blank pad of paper.
  • Anything tied to a movie or television character. Though all three kids loved Dora the Explorer when they were preschoolers, only the 10-year-old will now admit that he ever played with Dora toys way back when he was practically a baby. My daughter categorically rejects anything princess-themed, so that box of Disney dresses? Her little brother tried them on more often.

If you’re still having trouble choosing a gift, give a child a book. But that’s a topic for another day!

2012-12-22

What toys have become perennial favorites at your house? Do you have a go-to birthday party gift?

Monday Menu and Recipe Review

A day late again. Yesterday I went grocery shopping before making a menu, and then by the time I scribbled something down, our internet connection had fizzled and Comcast wouldn’t answer my calls. Also, I was making jam with a friend all afternoon. We peeled, cored and chopped two grocery bags of pears, and now I have two pots of jam to reheat and can today. I’m not a fan of pears–the grainy texture on my teeth might as well be fingernails on a blackboard–but in jam form, the graininess has all cooked down, leaving sweet pear and cinnamon deliciousness. Next on the agenda: processing those eight bags of apples sitting in the basement. Applesauce, apple butter, and maybe some frozen sliced apples for baking throughout the fall.

This week

Sausage, Potato and Apple Bake

Chicken Milanese, Roasted beet salad

Cherry Tomato Cobbler, green salad (mac-n-cheese from the freezer for the tomato haters)

Last week

Pizza on the grill, salad, apple crumble and ice cream

Felt like the perfect Labor Day menu. I made the apple crumble early in the day, and assembled the pizzas while catching up with friends over drinks.

Salsa chicken and black bean soup, tortilla chips

A slow cooker winner! The kids called it “chicken chili.” Minimal effort, good flavor. I was afraid the chicken breasts would dry out, but the two large fresh breasts stayed moist, and I shredded them into the soup just before serving.

Mote pillo and salad

One skillet comfort food. I ate the leftovers for breakfast.

Homemade macaroni and cheese, tomato salad

More comfort food easy for the babysitter to reheat and serve. I cooked 2 pounds of macaroni–enough for dinner swap and the freezer.

Thai-style ground pork, rice, salad

A regular in our dinner rotation. I have to double the recipe for our family, and I made it with meatloaf mix (a mix of ground beef and pork). When I’m out of fresh ginger and jalapeños, I use ground ginger and a squirt of Sriracha.

Plum Küchen

A week or so ago, I saw prune plums on sale at the market. They have a short season, so if you can still find a few, grab a bag and make this German plum cake. The recipe is from an obscure cookbook (that is, you can’t find it on Amazon) with a collection of recipes from New England Inns, so I don’t mind reproducing it here. It’s all my favorite things in a dessert. The pastry is barely sweet, and the plums and sugar bake into a jammy layer that seeps into the crust. We finished the cake in two days, but just yesterday Little Five asked me if we still had some plum cake. Alas, he had eaten the last piece (the one I was hoping to save for myself). I might have to swing by and see if a few plums still linger in the produce aisles.

Self portrait on the 2nd day of kindergarten.

Self portrait on the 2nd day of kindergarten.

Plum Küchen

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 T. sugar

1 tsp. baking powder

3/4 cup butter, softened

2 T. water

1 egg

1 tsp. vanilla

 

2 1/2 pounds Italian prune plums, washed, pitted and cut in half

4 T. butter

2/3 cup sugar

2 tsp. cinnamon

1 tsp. cornstarch

 

Heat the oven to 425 degrees.

Whisk together the flour, sugar and baking powder. With your fingers, rub the softened butter into the flour mixture until well incorporated. Beat the water, egg and vanilla together in a small bowl and add it to the mixture. Knead the dough together and press it into a 10-inch tart pan (if it’s too sticky to work with, chill it briefly).

Press the plum halves, cut side up, into the pastry dough. Slice the butter into thin pats and dot it over the plums. Stir together the sugar, cinnamon and cornstarch, and sprinkle thickly over the tart.

Bake for 20-30 minutes, or until the pastry is golden brown and the plums are tender.

Monday Menu and Recipe Review

I was going to post this yesterday–I had the menu all ready on Saturday–but abandoned the computer in favor of laboring a little in the yard in the morning and relaxing a little with friends in the afternoon. Today we are off and running, in a week filled with overlapping meetings, lessons, parties and back-to-school events.

With Little Five in kindergarten all day (he’s doing fine), I’ve yet to establish some kind of routine to my day, but it’s nothing short of miraculous how many errands I can accomplish all by myself in a single hour. I have soup in the slow cooker and am now ready to tackle some more of today’s list. I feel slightly guilty having so many hours in the day (six and a half!) to call my own. Fortunately (?), I have several bushels of apples and pears to preserve, a long list of house projects, and some freelance writing goals, too. Time to get off the couch!

This week

Monday: Pizza on the grill, salad, apple crumble and ice cream

Tuesday: Salsa chicken and black bean soup, tortilla chips

Wednesday: Mote pillo and salad

Thursday: Homemade macaroni and cheese, tomato salad

Friday: Thai-style ground pork, rice, edamame

Last week

Green Chicken EnchiladasComfort food! We liked it just as much the second time. Not too much work if you use a rotisserie chicken.

Baked Falafel, tzatziki, tomato salad, pita. Tasty! I made nearly a triple batch, so we have some in the freezer for a quick lunch or dinner. Drier patties than recipes I’ve tried with canned chickpeas, but a great vehicle for a big bowl of tzatziki, and so much easier than frying.

Spaghetti with Zucchini and GarlicTwo kids out of three ate it (one even said, “It’s not so bad.”) Pasta, garlic, zucchini. I liked it!

Monday Menu and Recipe Review

Today is the last day I will have to take all my children grocery shopping with me this year. Hallelujah.

This week

Green Chicken EnchiladasI make these mild, with canned green chiles. First day of school dinner!

Baked Falafel, tzatziki, tomato salad. The kids love falafel, but I don’t love frying it. Hope we like this one just as well!

Grilled Steak, Parsley/Garlic/Olive Oil sauce, grilled potatoes, salad. Time to use a bunch of the parsley I’ve been growing.

Hamburgers, Hawaiian Macaroni Salad. We all love this creamy macaroni salad, and I can put some in lunch boxes this week.

Spaghetti with Zucchini and GarlicWill the kids eat this? I don’t know. I’ll probably set some plain pasta aside just in case. Their dislike of squash (pumpkin pie is the exception) is completely unreasonable.

 

Last week


Blueberry MuffinsI got a bag of fresh blueberries from my neighbors’ Michigan vacation, so it was time for these perfect muffins. Don’t waste your blueberries on anything else. The recipe calls for cream or half and half, but you can absolutely use milk.

Slow Cooker RibsI didn’t follow the recipe for the rub or the sauce here, but the method worked great! I used a rub of brown sugar, smoked paprika, cumin, garlic powder, onion powder, chili powder, salt and cayenne, and bottled BBQ sauce (not too much!). The ribs came out incredibly tender and moist, but with a nice caramelized crust. Exceeded expectations!

Creamed Corn with BaconThis is a bit of a production for a side dish, but it was really delicious. I didn’t wait for the corn broth to reduce as much as it called for, so I had some extra to freeze. Maybe I’ll use it in corn chowder or something.

Filipino Grilled Chicken. Mmmmm. I’ll be freezing chicken in this marinade to pull out for an easy weeknight dinner.

Garlic-Toasted Tomato Sandwiches. As usual, I didn’t follow the recipe exactly (I used soft goat cheese instead of feta/mayonnaise), but there’s no better way to enjoy summer tomatoes.

Spaghetti with Mint-Pea Pesto. Fast, yummy, no planning necessary (peas from the freezer, mint from the garden). Even Miss Eight, who has developed a recent disdain for pesto, ate her entire portion.

 

Monday Menu and Recipe Review

Last week of summer vacation. Haircuts, new shoes, a few more trips to the pool. Stock the pantry for school lunches. Band uniforms. Last minute playdates. Clean out the fridge? Probably not.

The Hub made this week’s menu, pretty much straight from the last couple issues of Food and Wine. The veggie-centric August issue is especially full of treasures (eggplant-porcini meatballs again, please). Here’s what we’re planning to cook this week.

This week

Garlic-toasted tomato sandwiches (a fitting use for the only two gorgeous tomatoes on my heirloom plant)

Carrots with caraway yogurt and wheat berries (with our colorful carrots from the garden)

Filipino Grilled Chicken (doubled for dinner swap!)

Chicken soft tacos

Slow Cooker Ribs, Creamed corn with bacon

Roasted beet salad with sherry-shallot vinaigrette

 

Last week

Tomato Scallion Shortcakes with Whipped Goat CheeseThese were just as good as they looked. I can’t think of a meal or time of day when they wouldn’t be welcome. The shortcakes are tender and light, and would be a beautiful biscuit alongside any meal. The tomatoes came straight from the garden (I have two varieties: Mountain Magic and Violet Jasper).

Kids’ rooms progress report

School starts in less than two weeks (cue the singing angels), and my summer goal was to have the kids’ room makeovers mostly completed. The big jobs should be finished in that time, and the smaller jobs easier to complete while my “helpers” are busy at school.

Over the weekend I painted Mr. Ten’s room. I bought Behr Paint and Primer All-in-One from Home Depot for two reasons: I prefer low-VOC paint, especially in a bedroom, and I hoped to avoid using more than two coats to cover the bright green walls. The coverage was wonderful, and I only needed one gallon to give the room two coats.

We are all pleased with new color. I even touched up the baseboards, which had suffered during my earlier paint jobs. Painting over the vinyl rocket and stars decal worked as I had hoped. As soon as the second coat was dry to the touch, I peeled off the vinyl and was left with a clean stenciled outline. The room feels calmer without two bright colors fighting for attention.

Next on the list: assemble the tall Billy bookcase (which will provide more space to consolidate books and collections in one place) and upholster a headboard.

I also scored Miss Eight’s new bed for half price. Hello, random Happy Hour sale in the Ikea As-Is department! I bought an assembled floor model of the Leirvik bed for $43. Often the floor models show some wear and tear, but this one (probably because it’s metal, not wood) didn’t have a scratch. They put it on a flat-bed cart, handed me a wrench, and helped me wheel it out to an area where the kids and I disassembled the bed so we could fit it into the car.

I also hung some artwork, but still have a couple more things to hang: the cork board and a mirror and shelf that we’re going to turn into a little vanity area.

I’m pretty sure there were other things on my summer to-do list, but I’m choosing to ignore them. Any progress is cause for celebration!