Summer round up

wpid-20140724_124951.jpgHalfway through summer. I feel I’ve struck a good balance between Tiger Mother and Lazy Mom. The lists are still working amazingly well with Mr. Eleven and Miss Nine. Five out of seven days their beds are made, they’ve done a chore, worked on some math review, practiced their instruments. Their rooms are pretty clean. We’ve clocked two or three hours a week at the library, just hanging out. Miss Nine has become good friends with a girl down the street, so most days she has someone to play with.

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The past two weeks, the boys were in enrichment classes every morning. The ride home after dropping them off was peaceful. Miss Nine is not a child who needs to chatter constantly (unlike her brothers). We’d go home, do our chores, maybe run an errand. A couple weeks ago, she baked this cake for our anniversary, adding chopped up Snickers bars between the layers (half the recipe, baked in two 9-inch cake pans, made enough dessert for three nights. Next time, though, I wouldn’t halve the ganache.)

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We discovered that she doesn’t have the strength yet to use the pastry bag, but she scratched the letters in the frosting with a toothpick, and I traced them with the icing.

This week Miss Nine is at Farm Camp, riding horses and feeding the animals, while the boys are home. Little Six spends his days either playing with Legos, hooking bracelets on his Rainbow Loom, or careening down the sidewalk on his bike, feet in the air. From training wheels to trick rider in 10 short days. When he gets bored with those, he plays the piano. The same two songs, for nearly an hour. Mr. Eleven is playing Minecraft, of course.

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Since I haven’t taken on any big projects, I’ve had time to do a few more little ones. I sorted and filed the ragged pile of recipes that had collected in my recipe binder. I washed the cushions on the kitchen barstools. Next week I might start in on the family room slipcovers. Over the weekend, the Hub started cleaning out the fridge, and I finished with the freezer.

I’ve even had the urge to bake a little. Our favorite banana bread, Dutch Baby pancakes for breakfast (soooo much easier than flipping several dozen individual pancakes), a quiche for tonight’s dinner.

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I made a batch of sesame noodles for dinner the other night. They make the perfect cold summer lunch. I also tried this cold Avocado Cucumber Soup for the first time–definitely a keeper. And as soon as I get my hands on some more blueberries, I’ll be baking these Blueberry Crumb Bars again, too. The best of summer squished into a buttery baked good. What more do you want?

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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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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.

 

 

 

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…

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.

Happy New Year!

If it’s above zero, we play outside.

Though the Polar Vortex has come and gone, we’re still surrounded by drifts of slushy snow, and the laundry room is strung with banners of damp Smartwool socks. We had a lovely Christmas and New Year, with a good balance of celebrating and relaxing with family and friends. The kids were home from school two extra days because of the aforementioned weather, but now we are clawing our way back into some semblance of a routine.

Girl shovels driveway while boys push each other down in the snow.

Anyway, I thought I’d share a few of the home-related things that have been on my radar lately.

Home

  • Thanks to Mom and Dad’s Christmas generosity (and a very good sale), we will soon be snoozing in front of Netflix while reclining in a pair of these stressless recliners. My aching back is so excited!
  • Possibly my favorite Christmas present was a lavender-filled microwaveable shoulder wrap. That, a cozy new throw, hot tea, and The Goldfinch have kept me warm lately. Turns out the space heater we borrowed does a mighty fine job of heating the family room–until it blows the fuse.
  • Sewing project I finished over the weekend for the family room: this DIY floor pouf made from Ikea cotton rugs. I made something similar a couple of years ago, but the dimensions were wrong and the burlap I chose was not durable. Super easy project (I skipped the zipper and stuffed it with rags)!
  • Miss Eight and I have settled on a nightstand for her room (that wobbly three-legged decorator table isn’t cutting it). Inspired by the millions of Ikea RAST dresser hacks, we are planning to paint it white and then apply a rainbow of washi tape stripes to the drawer fronts (possibly sealed with Mod Podge).
  • Home Depot purchase I’m most looking forward to: Grout Renew (for the kids’ bathroom floor tiles)
  • Next make-do-with-what-we-have DIY: Restain (darker) the orangey oak corner media cupboard that we moved from the family room to the foyer. New hardware, too. Former game cupboard to backpack/library book/karate gear storage–that’s the plan, anyway. Our cubbies in the hall closet just aren’t big enough anymore for three kids and their school & activity gear.

Food

  • Successful meal of the week (that cooks itself while you are out of the house): Crockpot rotisserie chicken and baked potatoes (using the “delay start” feature on the oven). Cross my heart, it only takes five minutes to prep the chicken, and one minute to stab some potatoes and program the oven (400 degrees, to start 45 minutes before we got home). First person home makes a salad and microwaves a veggie. (If it makes you feel better, there was somebody home while the oven was on.)
  • Little Six has become obsessed with a recipe he invented called a “Tarty.” No joke–he has brought it up at least half a dozen times a day for the past week. Some kind of cake/tart hybrid, it includes chocolate, pudding, “any fruit you like,” and possibly sprinkles and/or frosting. We finally tested this recipe over the weekend, and it was a winner. Recipe coming later this week!

Kid stuff

  • MacGyver couldn’t have done it better: We made a ping-pong table out of half an armoire, two closet doors, and a portable ping-pong net. When it’s too cold to play outside and the batteries are all dead in the Wii remotes, there’s always the basement.

I hope the New Year brings you all the time, money and energy you need to accomplish all your goals. Or at least a few of them!

Monday Menu and Recipe Review

Thankfully, yesterday’s storms passed over us without any damage to speak of–just some chairs and garbage bins toppled over. For a time, I worried that the heavy wind and rain would prevent some of the musicians and audience from making it to our concert, but things had settled down by show time and there was a good crowd in the church. Today I’m determined not to get sidelined by post-performance depression (it’s totally a thing, at least according to Google), so I’m catching up on the laundry and trying to get myself organized for the week. I even started my Christmas shopping (online, naturally)!

This week

 

Last week

  • Sausage, Potato and Apple Bake (a classic busy-night, no-mess meal)
  • Fish sticksAsian Winter Slaw (swap with Jen). The fish sticks were fabulous, but I’ve had better slaw. 
  • Spaghetti with cherry tomatoes (quick pan sauce), salad. A great way to use up cherry or grape tomatoes. While the pasta cooks, heat olive oil and several cloves of sliced garlic for a couple minutes, then add halved tomatoes, salt and pepper. Cook gently until the tomatoes wrinkle and start to burst. Stir in some chopped fresh basil or parsley. Toss hot, drained pasta with the tomato mixture, adding more olive oil if necessary. Pass the Parmesan.
  • Slow Cooker Sloppy Joes. I didn’t really follow a single recipe. I used lean ground beef (break it up really well at some point during the cooking), onions, garlic, diced tomatoes, a chopped roasted red pepper, a little brown sugar, a few squirts of mustard and ketchup, a bit of cider vinegar, oregano, chili powder. Cook on low for 6-8 hours. Serve on toasted buns with cheese.
  • Cincinnati Skyline Chili (from Jen). I’d never tried this version of chili before, but now I’m a fan! The kids loved it, too.

Homemade Fish Sticks

I wasn’t sure homemade fish sticks were going to be worth the trouble, or the $8.99 a pound for fresh fish, but happily, my reservations were unfounded. They were absolutely worth the minimal effort. You know how frozen fish sticks out of a box become shriveled, dry and…stick-like if you leave them in the oven a little too long? Now imagine the exact opposite: tender morsels of snow-white cod, a light and crispy panko crust–succulent flaky fish goodness.

Here’s some more good news: if you invest the time (and let’s face it, money) in preparing a bigger batch, you can freeze half of it now to whip out and fry another day. (Also, an 8-year-old may volunteer to mop the greasy kitchen floor if you pay her in quarters so she can buy lollipops at school to support shelter dogs. Just so you know.)

Homemade Fish Sticks

adapted slightly from Bon Appétit

2 pounds fresh, wild-caught cod fillets

1/2 cup flour

2 eggs

2 Tbsp. water

2-3 cups panko bread crumbs

a neutral oil for frying

Set up your breading station: Put flour, eggs whisked with water, and panko each in its own shallow pan or dish. Slice cod fillets horizontally into strips about 1-inch wide. Toss the cod into the flour pan and coat each strip thoroughly. Dip them into the egg mixture, again making sure to coat all sides. Finally, toss them into the panko, pressing extra crumbs into the sides if necessary. (If you are freezing a portion, lay the breaded fish sticks out on a baking sheet, cover with foil, and freeze for a couple hours, or until they are solid. Then transfer the frozen fish sticks to an airtight freezer bag or container.)

Heat 1/4 inch of oil on medium-high in a non-stick skillet. Fry the fish sticks in small batches until golden (about 3 minutes per side). Drain them on a paper-towel lined platter or a wire rack set over a baking sheet. If necessary, keep the fish sticks warm in a 300-degree oven until ready to serve.

Quick Tartar Sauce

Stir together in a small bowl: 1/2 cup sour cream, 1/4 cup mayonnaise, 2-3 Tbsp. sweet pickle relish, and 1 tsp. Dijon mustard.

Monday Menu and Recipe Review

Apparently the only blogging I can keep up with these days is my weekly menu plan. Getting through November is not for the faint of heart. Am I experimenting in the kitchen? No. Am I whipping though exciting DIY projects? I am not. I have gotten everyone to the dentist (last one today!), plus new tires for one car and a new fuel pressure sensor something-or-other for the other car. This week revolves around multiple chorus rehearsals and all the kids’ regular music and sports activities, flu vaccines, and a dinner party. I’m some 15,000 words behind on my crazy writing project (or in a glass-half-full view, I’m 3,500 words further along than I was last month). There are rumors of impending snow tonight and we haven’t raked a single leaf yet this fall. I just put “Rake leaves: 1:30-2:30” on my calendar for today. No kidding.

But enough about my calendar–you have your own busy week to consider. We ate out several times this weekend as we traveled to Indianapolis for the 100th birthday celebration of our favorite great-aunt, so I’m ready to return to cheap eats at home this week. I will have to run to the grocery this morning, but I might be able to get through the “10 Items or Less” line (we’ll ignore the grammar issues in grocery signage for now).

This week

Last week

  • Cevapi (we buy them ready to grill at our local market), pita, tzatziki, salad. I need to learn to cook the cevapi at a lower temperature so they don’t dry out. 
  • Peas and ham, cornbread, fruit salad. The peas and ham dish was not a huge success at our table as a main course. “I’m not saying it’s bad, but it would make a better side dish at Thanksgiving,” is how Mr. Ten put it. Miss Eight said, “I like split pea soup better.” I’m willing to try it again–as a side dish–and leave out the cinnamon.
  • Pasta with Guiltless Alfredo Sauce, chicken and vegetables (swap with Jen). Though I have no trouble with butter and heavy cream once in a while, this is a flavorful but lower fat alternative–it must be the garlic! No complaints about the zucchini, sugar snap peas and carrots that I added, either.

Monday Menu and Recipe Review

Once again, it’s one of those weeks when there are too many activities each day to fit in the squares on the calendar. This morning I’m sitting at the car dealership getting that “check engine” light checked out and hoping the car will be ready in time for me to pick up Little Five for his dentist appointment. At least they have free wifi and comfortable chairs in the waiting room!

Anyway, this week is all about quick or make-ahead dinners–anything I can cook early in the day and reheat in between karate class and choir practice. And though we’re not going completely meatless, we’re not making meat the centerpiece of most meals, either. I know it’s healthier, but honestly, I’m mostly motivated by cost. It’s a good thing, because I’ll be sitting here again for car repairs later this week!

This week

Last week

  • Spaghetti al Tonno (quick uncooked tuna sauce in the food processor). Another cheap, quick meal to have in your repertoire. In the food processor: Can of good tuna in olive oil, handful of walnuts, lemon juice, 1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce, parsley, olive oil. Stir into hot spaghetti and thin with a little pasta water.
  • Tex-Mex Meatloafoven fries, salad. I didn’t have any chorizo this time, and I missed it. The sauce is fabulous, though. I only glaze the meatloaf with a little of the sauce, and then heat up the rest and serve it on the side–it’s too spicy for the kids, even though I only used one chipotle pepper.
  • BBQ Pulled Pork PizzaOne last meal out of that bag of pulled pork! 
  • Green Bean, rice and almond salad, Bread and Garlic Soup (from The Family Meal by Ferran Adrià) (swap with Jen). The salad was yummy–makes a great filling lunch, too. We loved the soup…I’ll have to post the recipe soon. In the meantime, you should make some homemade chicken stock and put it in the freezer!
  • Chorizo Sweet Potato Chili (from Jen). I liked the chorizo in the chili, but it was a little too spicy for the kids–we had hotdogs, too. 
  • Peanut Butter and Hot Fudge Pudding CakeMr. Ten mixed up this cake, which is designed to be baked in the slow cooker. If you’re hesitant about letting your kids use the oven on their own, this is a great recipe to give them some independence in the kitchen. We used natural peanut butter and it was plenty sweet. In a 6-qt. Crock Pot, it took 2 hours–he made it right after school and it was ready to eat in time for dessert.