Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Embracing the Muffin Top

I realized sometime over the weekend that it was MY turn to host Pie's playgroup.  Normally, we like to have a little something for the moms and kids to snack on.  But I was a solo parent this weekend and was not about to take two children grocery shopping.  What did I have in my pantry and refrigerator that I could put together quickly?  Not much.  Bisquick.  At least two eggs.  Some oil.  Lots of jambalaya mix (it was on sale).  No milk, but my mom helped me out there (thanks, Mom!)  I went to Bisquick's website to see what I could dig up.

The ironic thing is that I collect cookbooks.  I own so many that I've weeded them out and sold them at yard sales on occasion.  Do I consult these books when I need to try something new?  No!  I go to the internet!   I especially love product sites because the ideas are simple with ingredients already on hand.  I "like" these companies on Facebook and get yummy recipes posted on my wall daily (see Betty Crocker, Taste of Home, Pillsbury, Southern Living).  My favorite cookbook is my 3 ring binder stuffed with print outs, hand written family recipes, and magazine clippings - contained in plastic sheet protectors, one of the best ideas I've ever had.  Perhaps that's not saying much.  Anyway, I bet you a dollar that I already have the recipe I printed out online in my Bisquick cookbook.

Here's the thing: It's really not much more effort to find a simple recipe rather than opening up a box of muffin mix from the store, and the results are SO MUCH BETTER.  Don't be afraid.  Give it a try!  It doesn't take long - chopping up one apple took the most time here.

Apple Cheddar Muffins
1 egg
2 cups Original Bisquick® mix
3/4 cup coarsely chopped peeled cooking apple (1 med. apple, I used Braeburn)
2/3 cup shredded Cheddar cheese
1/3 cup sugar
2/3 cup milk
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon 
Heat oven to 400°F. Grease bottoms only of 12 regular-size muffin cups with shortening, or line with paper baking cups. 
In medium bowl, beat egg slightly. Stir in remaining ingredients just until moistened. Divide batter evenly among cups. 
Bake 17 to 19 minutes or until golden brown. Serve warm.

Everyone seemed to like the muffins, but the most important thing is that I didn't need to make a special trip to the grocery store or spend hours in the kitchen to put something warm and delicious on the table.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

I'm Lovin' It!

"Virginia is for Lovers" linked to a CNN article on its Facebook page highlighting 15 places kids should see by age 15. Big news for Virginia, because two locations are mentioned along with Washington, D.C., which is just in our backyard.

I've been to 7 of the hot spots, thanks to a trip out West when I was a teenager and a recent trek out to San Francisco with my husband.

Monticello and Williamsburg are included as must-see visits, and I gotta say, I have a certain amount of expertise in these areas. As a grad of "Mr. Jefferson's University," I've had more than one trip to his home at Monticello. And I grew up in a family of Williamsburg freaks. Of course, you have to see Monticello and Williamsburg themselves, but there's so much more to see than just that. So here's a look at what the natives do:


Bobby and I visited Monticello recently after the U2 concert in Charlottesville. So much fun! The visitors' center up there is relatively new and a welcome addition. What's more, the cafe inside is really pretty good. On the way to Monticello, you might see signs for Michie Tavern. My mom loves the place, but I say keep on going. The tavern promises and authentic colonial experience, but from what I can remember, you're really only paying for plain old fried chicken on a pewter plate. Go for the gourmet fare further up the hill at the visitors' center.

On your way back down the mountain, stop at Jefferson Vineyards. Winemaking was an interest of Jefferson's, and the vineyards today grow in the same location as the originals. I'm a big fan of the Vin Blanc.

Speaking of wineries, if you have extra time, head out Rt 29 to Barboursville Vineyards. This winery is one of the best in the state. We have a bottle of its prize-winning Octagon, waiting for a super special occasion. There are ruins of the original home nearby, and an acclaimed restaurant on site.

If you resisted Michie Tavern and the cafe at Monticello and still find yourself hungry, head to UVA and hang out on the Corner. You can try a legendary Gusburger at The White Spot (it's the fried egg that makes it special). We were always fans of littlejohns and Take It Away (try the house dressing). Other friends would argue that you have to trek out to Crozet and have a slice at Crozet Pizza. Also a great recommendation, and that brings me to the final suggestion for your C'ville road trip:

If you're traveling in the summer, check out Chiles Peach Orchard, not far from Crozet. If it's fall, go to Carter Mountain Orchard. Picking peaches or apples couldn't be easier, and the kids had a blast. The shop is stocked full of baked goods, and at Chiles you can order a peach milkshake.

Obviously, some of these activities are geared more toward adults. And Monticello tours might be tough for younger kids, although the older ones will probably find Jefferson's gadgets and other inventions fascinating. But taking the kids down to the University or out for pizza and peach picking is a great way to spend a weekend afternoon.


I can't count how often I've been to Colonial Williamsburg. We even had Thanksgiving dinner in a tavern there one year (lots of fun, but not an all-you-can-eat affair). I grew up going there, and we love taking our kids there today.

For a full day, you can always go to Busch Gardens or Great Wolf Lodge. Busch Gardens offers a preschool pass to Virginia residents, with free admission for kids 5 and under. You do have to go online to register. We've never been to the Lodge, but hear great things about it from friends, so I feel safe recommending it.

If you don't want to spend major cash at the amusement parks, try some of these other options:

I can't say enough good things about Jamestown. A few years ago, Bobby and I spent our anniversary in Williamsburg and decided to check out Jamestown for something different. The visitors' center is incredible - we spent HOURS wandering through exhibits that start with pre-historic Virginia. I took the girls this past fall, and although I was worried about their attention span, they loved it. There are short film strips and some interactive displays along the way, and if that gets too tough for them, there are replicas of Powhatan villages where they can play Native American games and grind their own corn. A short trip down the path, you'll find the colonial fort with costumed interpreters, and beyond that, they can board three replica ships docked nearby. We've brought our own picnic and enjoyed lunch out front while looking at flags for every state in the nation. Really, if you head down to Williamsburg, a trip to Jamestown is a must-see.

After you have your fill of history, check out Prime Outlets on Rt 60. They've expanded in recent years and feature shops for all interests. You can find our family here right before school starts, taking advantage of Tax Free deals (first weekend in August)! Also on Rt 60 is the Yankee Candle flagship store. I love going here to find my favorite, rare scents. There's also a Christmas village, a performing clock tower, and kids' shop. Last time we were there, Bug created her own candle.

If you're hungry, you may decide you want to eat in the Colonial area. That's fine, but I warn you that I think the taverns have gone downhill in recent years. I'd recommend The Cheese Shop in Merchant's Square (gourmet sandwiches), Christiana Campbell's Tavern for dinner, and a new favorite, Food For Thought, on Rt 60 (yummy crab cakes). For dessert, go to the Peanut Shop and buy a tin of Chocolate Covered Peanut Brittle. It's addictive.

Honestly, we haven't paid for admission to Williamsburg exhibits in years. I think Jamestown is much more informative. However, there are a few Williamsburg things we don't ever miss: Soap from the gift shop, gingerbread cakes from the bakery, root beer and ginger ale! And if we're feeling festive, we'll do the Sunday brunch at the Williamsburg Lodge. It's pricey, but well worth it.

Last time, we ended our trip with a visit to Williamsburg Winery. Note: Although not impossible, this is best done without kids!

So, my friends that are from Williamsburg or Charlottesville, or attended W&M or UVA, what are your suggestions?

For the rest of you out there, hit the road and let me know how it goes!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Hey! I Want My Hour Back!

Normally I disregard most e-mails I receive from Baby Center. It's not a bad resource, especially if you're a first-time mom. I remember eagerly checking out what my baby looked like at 8 weeks (a shrimp), then 20 weeks (an alien), etc. I loved lurking on the Girls' Names message board because so many of the ladies there shared my taste, and there was always the occasional laugh at someone who was floating something outrageous by for review. But as I became more confident in my parenting ability, I stopped looking up when to introduce what foods and just went with what worked.

Landing in my in-box this week, though: How to Get an Hour Back Everyday. Yes! Sign me up! What would I do with that hour? Read a book? Indulge in a home-made spa remedy? Paint my nails? Eh, more likely waste it on Facebook or feeling guilty for not channeling it into work.

So here's what I find particularly helpful:
  • Make sandwiches for the week on Sunday and take them out each morning (or the night before).
  • Keep a freezer inventory taped to your refrigerator door, with all of the items currently living in your freezer. Check them off as you use them. I might have to try this as I think we still have a bag of scallops that expired last year lurking in the back, out of sight.
And helpful ... at first glance:
  • Keep a clothes box handy for outgrown clothes. I actually do this, as I downgrade from Bug's closet to Pie's. The problem is that I'm too lazy to take it up to the attic so it has a permanent place on the floor in Bug's room. And it often collects laundry that I fail to put away. So if you have easily accessible storage space and the willpower to stick the tub there, go for it.
  • Keep a "to-do" bag that you take with you. This seemed like a brilliant idea until I tried to think of what to put in a to-do bag. Everything is done electronically these days, so wouldn't this just be your iPhone or a laptop?
Thanks, but I think I'll skip:
  • Bagging up my kids' clothes by outfit to make clothing selections easy in the morning
  • Assigning each kid a color so that all of their belongings are easily identifiable
  • Just not putting away the laundry at all
Yeah, no kidding:
  • Take a nap
  • Make your spouse pull his weight
  • Get up early
Here's my contribution:

I create a weekly menu on Sundays, and sync it with a weekly calendar. Both of these are magnetized and hang on the refrigerator door. When I go to the grocery store on Sunday or Monday, I make sure I have all the ingredients for the meals. Don't be too impressed, though. If I didn't do this, I'd forget to take my kids to school and we'd never have anything to eat. And we still sometimes chuck it all for kids' night at Chick Fil A.

Finally, love your crock pot/slow cooker. There's always enough for a second meal. And sometimes, if dinner isn't on by 9 am, it's not getting made.

Any other ideas out there? I could use a few extra minutes to dry my hair in the morning...

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

My Favorite Fruit is a Maraschino Cherry

We discovered Whole Foods Half-Pint Kids Club last summer, when I was desperate for free kid-focused activities. Somehow, going to Whole Foods is a lot cooler than an activity at, say, Food Lion. I really can't imagine taking the kids to the Lion for fun. Yet both are grocery stores. Go figure.

So the Half-Pint kids club goes something like this: There's an activity (we've made planters, bird puppets, window hangings), sometimes a story, and ALWAYS a snack. Normally some organic juice or milk and store brand snacks. A lot of times, though, the nice lady who runs the show can't help bringing out a hunk of gingerbread from the bakery. Everybody wins.

After unsuccessfully attempting to parallel park the mini-van and mostly successfully dodging hipsters, I found a space in the lot and took the kids inside for today's activity: Playing with Yummy Food. The girls each received a "cutting board" (parchment paper), a plastic knife, a generous slice of pound cake, half a banana and a pile of strawberries and blueberries. After slicing them up, ("Hey! It's like Iron Chef!") they decorated the cake with a dollop of whipped cream, and then chowed down.

Slicin' and Dicin'

Composting the Scraps (this IS Whole Foods, after all)

Creating a Masterpiece


Oh, and about the maraschino cherry...one of the helpers asked the kids about their favorite fruits, after explaining how wonderful fresh, healthy fruit is for you. And how there's no need for adding sugar to sweet strawberries, etc. MY daughter says cherries are her favorite fruit. Which is puzzling because we don't eat cherries much. And when the helper asks her about the pits, Bug looks confused. Then I realize that her favorite fruit is that which tops her ice cream sundae. Why I explained to the all-natural, organic helper, I don't know. I fielded a disapproving stare, and I should have just kept my mouth shut.

Go to your local Whole Foods page and check the calendar. If you're lucky, they do this free event in your town. There are also fun grown-up activities, too, like beer and wine tastings and tours of the store that come with swag.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Here We Are

The past year or two I've cluttered up a Facebook page with recipes, subjecting friends to my virtual cookbook, plans for road trips, some fun kid craft that I never get around to doing, or a random tidbit I've reposted from the History Channel. Oh, I'll probably continue to do that, but I thought it would be fun to expand on some of those topics. So here goes...my second foray into the blogosphere.

That's right. I've blogged before. Way back in 2006, when I chronicled the pattering footsteps of my first child for friends and relatives. This blog is more practical, though, and available to everyone. Yes, there will be some random rantings of a mom reaching her wits' end (usually about 2 pm on a Tuesday). Most likely, you'll find some interesting baked goodie that the kids and I have made, or our review of a new activity around town, a recent road trip that we've planned, or some craft that we've managed not to screw up. Who am I kidding? I'll include our disasters, too, because that's way more fun.

We're not perfect. Mostly we're impatient, kinda whiny, somewhat messy, and spend our days in jeans and Myrtle Beach t-shirts. But people seem to think that's fun. So enjoy!