Thursday, April 21, 2011

Woo-hoo! Wild & Crazy Spring Break '11

The girls and I were fortunate to spend Spring Break with my sister in law and her family at the beach.  There are a couple of places that we always have to hit here in Myrtle - the buffet, the pizza arcade, the burger joint right on the beach.  We try to cook dinner at the house a couple of times since it's better for the waist line and the wallet.  But I don't like to put too much effort into it, because who wants to spend their time in the kitchen on vacation?

Our solution is the slow cooker.  Luckily, the condo here has one.  But I think it might be worthwhile to stick one in the car if you don't think your vacation home has one.  It's a little effort to pack, but gives you more time at the beach.  And isn't that why you're there in the first place?

So here's what we made this week:

Crock Pot Shredded BBQ Chicken

4-5 Chicken breasts (fresh or frozen are fine)
12 oz BBQ sauce
1/2 c. Italian dressing
1/4 c. brown sugar
2 Tbsp Worcestershire
2-3 Tbsp dried minced onions
dash of Liquid Smoke--optional

Spray Crock Pot with Pam. Put chicken in and top with other ingredients. Cook 3-4 hours on high (6-8 on low). Shred chicken and return to pot. Sauce appears watery until you put the shredded chicken back in and then it thickens up.

My friend Meg sent this to me and I make it regularly.  My husband is a BBQ snob and prefers to spend all weekend smoking a pig out in the driveway.  But popping this in at 9 am for a quick meal at 5 has a LOT of value.  And it's really tasty, too.  We're cooking up some mac & cheese and slicing up a cantaloupe to go with it.  I use this for "helping hands" meals, too.

1 to 2 tablespoons chipotle chili pepper powder
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 teaspoon salt
1 boneless pork loin roast (2 1/2 lb), trimmed of fat
1 poblano chile, chopped
1 jar (16 oz) Old El Paso® Thick 'n Chunky green chile salsa (I use 2 cans of salsa verde, which is cheaper)
Spray 4- to 5-quart slow cooker with cooking spray. In small bowl, mix chili pepper powder, oil and salt. Rub mixture over pork; place in cooker. Sprinkle with poblano chile. Pour salsa over top.
Cover; cook on Low heat setting 8 to 10 hours.
Remove pork from cooker; place on cutting board. Shred pork with 2 forks; return to cooker and mix well.  (I shred it directly in the cooker).
Use regular chili powder in place of chipotle chili pepper powder for less heat.
The poblano chile is triangle- or heart-shaped, about 2 1/2 to 3 inches across at its widest part and 4 to 5 inches long. It's dark green in color—sometimes almost black—and ranges from mild to hot in flavor.
We LOVE LOVE LOVE this recipe.  Serve it with chips and salsa.
I omitted a few ingredients for ease of packing.  For the chicken, I skipped the Worcestershire sauce because it wasn't easy to pack and I didn't need a lot.  For the tacos, I didn't have a pepper so I skipped that.  For both recipes, I brought a bottle of dressing, BBQ sauce, 2 cans of salsa verde, brown sugar (in a plastic bag) and the spices with me.  

Cook it up in a plastic slow cooker liner and the clean up is a non-factor, giving you plenty of time to hit the beach after dinner!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Hoppin' Down the Bunny Trail...

I'm the room mom for Bug's class, and I find the craft portion of the holiday parties sometimes perplexing.  I want to do something that is fun for the kids, somewhat lasting, but easy to prepare, which was especially important after a painfully long pre-assembly process for the Christmas craft (the party was postponed until January because of snow, but after DAYS of pre-assembling the Holy Family, we were doing that Nativity craft come heck or high water).

After some searching, I found a kit online but decided that the shipping cost and delivery time were a bit outrageous.  Armed with a Michael's coupon, I was able to buy the supplies cheaply and found it pretty easy to recreate!

The kids made a cute Easter Bunny magnet.  It's made of craft foam, and several "daisies" stack together to create a fluffy white bunny.  You could also use yellow foam and an orange foam triangle to construct a chick.  These look adorable on the refrigerator, and are easy for the kids to make themselves!

Easter Bunny Magnet

1 sheet white craft foam
1 sheet pink craft foam
2 googly eyes
1 pink pom pom
1 pink pipe cleaner
magnet tape

To start, you will need to trace and cut out:
2 small daisies
1 large daisy
1 white bunny ear set
2 pink bunny ear "liners"

Cut 2 pieces of pipe cleaner approximately 2 inches long each.
Cut 1 piece of magnet tape approximately 1 inch long.

The supplies (magnet tape not shown)

Start by gluing the googly eyes on the smaller daisy.

Next, glue on the pipe cleaner whiskers.  Use lots of glue!  Pipe cleaners require a lot of persuasion to stick properly.

Pom pom nose comes next.

Glue the pink portion of the ears to the larger white ears.

Glue one small daisy to the top of another small daisy, stacked so that the bottom daisy peeks through.  Glue the two small daisies to the large daisy the same way. 

Glue the bunny's face to the ears

After the bunny is assembled, peel the backing from the magnet strip and stick to the back of the bunny ears.  Wait a few hours until the bunny is completely dry, and then hang it proudly on the refrigerator!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

From the Files of Mrs. Clean

Someone recently asked me how I keep my house clean.  First of all, "clean" is a relative word.  When I think "clean," I'm thinking of the scent of almond Endust on the furniture and orange Mr. Clean on the floor in addition to putting most things (because really, most is all we can hope for) in their places.  Other people in this house have different ideas about clean.  Very different ideas.  We'll get to that later.

I'll freely admit we have too much stuff.  Toys are just the latest addition, joining the love affair that we have with books, music, and movies.  We just can't throw that stuff out, and at this point we could compete with the local library.  We already have patrons (you know who you are).  Our house isn't that big, which makes the disinfecting part of cleaning easy.  However, it's kind of tough to find a place for everything when there aren't that many places to be had.

At some point, I hope my kids note my efforts to maintain a clean environment.  Instead, when we should all merrily be singing "the clean up song," they whine, "I didn't make that mess!"  Which is my cue to stand in the middle of the room and bellow, "Well, I didn't make ANY of this mess, yet I clean up after ALL of you people ALL THE TIME!!"  I know the parenting books recommend starting the kids in on household chores.  Trust me, they'll get there.  We're just not ready to play with chemicals yet.

So while everyone in our house appreciates a fresh-smelling, dust-free home, the main issue is what to do with our extraneous stuff.  I try to put away; Bobby arranges in neat piles (neat = clean).  These theories are sometimes at odds.  I remember an article I saw posted from Family Circle, 18 Things You Can Get Rid of Today.  We are in violation of everything on this list - EVERYTHING! - except vases.  And that's only because my husband stopped buying me flowers, ever since I yelled at him for not realizing that "cut" flowers are DIY and don't come pre-arranged (a big deal when you're a week overdue with your first kid and are trimming 3 dozen roses at the kitchen sink). 

AFTER I tossed out the old magazines

Anyway, our biggest violation on the list is MAIL.  We have a mail basket on our kitchen island that functions as our junk drawer, containing: spare keys to unknown places, library cards, list of neighborhood home sales from 2002, old Christmas cards, pictures without frames, pens, tape, car title, old bills, new bills...the list goes on.  Basically, it's stuff that doesn't have a logical home and it drives Bobby absolutely nuts. 

In a nutshell, here's what the article tells you to do:
  • Don't sit down.  STAND with your mail in hand by the trash can.
  • Put bills in a pretty basket.
  • Take magazines to where you read them.
  • Scan and toss newspapers and newsletters.

I'm not sure how I feel about this.  Here's why:
  • What do you do with the bills when you've paid them?  Toss them out?  Keep them in the basket until they breed more bills? (And sadly, doesn't that always seem to happen?)
  • What about those items that you don't know how to handle?  The coupon that you may or may not use?  That letter from somewhere semi-important addressed to your husband that doesn't require immediate attention, yet can't be thrown away, and still never gets read?
  • And isn't moving magazines to where you read them just creating a pile somewhere else?  We're a literate family.  We get something like 10 magazines a month.
  • Where do you put the stuff when the basket gets full?  We've been down that road before, and it's not a vacation destination, believe me.
As I said, this mail basket drove Bobby bonkers, so he came up with a solution.  One day, he brings in a clear plastic file box and spends an hour or two furiously sorting mail in the kitchen (possibly the first and only time).  I eyed him suspiciously, but kept quiet.  When he was finished, he brought me in to show me his handiwork.

You know something is not going to go well when you hear, "Now, admittedly, it's going to be up to you to make sure this system works."

He showed me the carefully marked folders for coupons and bills (paid and unpaid).  Even one for memories!  I protested that I didn't want that ugly thing sitting in my kitchen, and that I wanted to hide it away somewhere, which in his mind, completely negated the "Stand and Scan" principle that Family Circle recommends.

So where does this leave us, about a month later?

All of the junk that had a quasi-home in the mail basket, but was not welcome in the file box, is now sitting on the dining room table.

All of the mail that has a special file folder in the file box is sitting in a pile just outside the file box.  Actually, two piles.  Old stuff and new stuff.  It transitions from one pile to another.

The file box is still in place on the island.

The mail basket is on the dining room table.

The other day, I got sick of it and dramatically reduced one of the piles on the island, and filed some of the mail in the file box.  No one noticed. 

The File Box

When I first read the Family Circle article, I was skeptical.  But noticing in review that we hang on to all of this stuff, I have to take a serious second look, books and movies aside.  Why do I need to keep all that kitchen stuff?  Why do we need so many tools and so much gardening equipment in the garage?  Why does EVERY old t-shirt end up in the linen closet as a dust rag?  Why can't we all realize that not everything is going to be of use "someday?"

I'm inspired to look again and give some of the tips a try.  The file box is not a bad idea.  But it's not up to one person to make it work, and we've got to work out a few of the aesthetic kinks. I'll let you know if we have any success.

In the meantime, does anyone have any good ideas on how to organize my mail?!

Disclaimer:  I have the best husband in the world.  We share the load.  He spent the day cleaning up the yard, including the presents left by the dog.  If I appear a little critical of his role in housekeeping, it's for comedic effect, I SWEAR :)

How Much Mayhem Can a Toddler Cause in 5 Minutes?

A Breathe-Right Nasal Strip commercial last night immediately brought to mind the most creative, destructive, and hysterical mayhem we've seen from our children yet.  In under 5 minutes, no less.

This story goes back a few years, and it involves our older child, Bug.  I'm firmly convinced a mother can sense the personality of her child in the womb.  Pie is our sunshine girl who rarely upsets the apple cart.  She curled up peacefully in a little ball for nine months and arrive a few days early with little commotion.  Bug stretched and kicked and punched and resisted every step of the way, until the doctor had to yank her out.  She still goes through life fighting.

So when Pie was a few months old, my mom came over to watch the girls so that Bobby and I could get out for awhile.  When we returned home, Mom told us that she put the baby down first, so that she could spend a little time with Bug.

"Um, what was Bug doing while you were rocking the baby to sleep?"

"Oh, I told her to play quietly."

"You mean you didn't find something for her to do?  Turn the TV on?"

"Oh, no.  It only took about 5 minutes.  But she did say that she needed a Band-aid, so she got one for herself."

Bobby and I looked at each other.  We keep the Band-aids on the top shelf of the linen closet.  Something wasn't right.  We thanked mom, and sent her home.

Upstairs, we found a trail of nose strip wrappers leading to Bug's room.  We checked her leg, which reportedly had the boo-boo.  It was covered, and I mean COVERED, in nose strips.  Now remember, these things are supposed to be strong enough to hold your nasal passages open.  And at that moment, there were about 10 of them gripping the soft, fine, hair on a 2 year old's leg.

So we headed back to our bathroom to check out the vanity, where we were pretty sure she obtained the "Band-Aids."  There was something odd...

She had applied foaming facial cleansing cream to the door jamb, and in each spot, stuck an emery board, so that it jutted out into the bedroom.  And a tube of pink Orajel was opened on the floor.

I think we collapsed in tears at that point.

But the fun didn't stop there.  You see, (and this might be too much information), Bug had some problems when she was little that required the use of suppositories.  Not a pleasant production.  She was not a fan of the "poopy cream."  While we were examining her leg, we noticed her stuffed animals were suspiciously tousled.

She had applied "poopy cream" - in this case, the pink Orajel - to all of her stuff animals in the derierre region, and covered each spot with a Breathe-Right nasal strip.

Bobby said Cookie Monster never looked the same after that.

And THAT'S how much mayhem a toddler can create in 5 minutes.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Registering for Kindergarten, or: Three Years of Indecision Put to Rest

Today was a big day.  We registered Bug for kindergarten!  I'm not completely falling apart, although I did take it kind of hard when Pie, having newly reached the ripe old age of 3, told me this morning that she was going to be a grown-up soon, and that (with hands thrown up in the air) she wouldn't be living here anymore.  After careful consideration, she did promise to visit.

Back to my kindergartner, and why I'm not falling apart (yet).  Bug turned 5 in the fall, 2 weeks before this year's registration cut-off.  That means she could be in kindergarten now, and we'd be preparing for first grade next year.  Now that I'm a mom, I hear of other moms planning births so that their kids have a leg up in school.  The thought never entered my mind with either of my kids, but I soon figured out that with my oldest, we had some decisions to make.

Had I sent her this year, she'd be the youngest in the class.  We had constant communication with her preschool teacher last year on Bug's progress.  In the beginning of the year, her fine motor skills were behind.  Toward the middle of the year, she was having some socialization issues with kids that were up to 10 months older.  At the end of the year, the prognosis changed and her teacher suggested that she might be ready by fall after all.

We researched.  A lot.  We heard the cliche, "You never regret holding them back, but sometimes regret sending them ahead."  Bobby read Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell, and had visions of Bug playing pro hockey (not really, but most pro hockey players were born in January because those players were the oldest - and often biggest - in their youth leagues).  I talked to a trusted friend, a former kindergarten teacher, who told me she thought kids should be at least 5 before getting on that bus.  And that we'd see the difference in the middle and high school years. 

But while we can hope for more maturity in middle and high school, she's likely to be taller than everyone else for quite some time (her mother certainly was).  That's tough.  And she IS ready academically.  So we considered the other side of the story.  We heard success stories from friends that sent their kids ahead early.  I listened to other moms who were contemplating the same issue, except a year behind us.  I often heard, "Well, my kid is READY,"  and felt a little put out, because I wasn't really considering holding Bug back for academic reasons.  She started reading when she was 4, without any help from us.  Comments like those made me feel that my kid was inferior somehow, when I knew she wasn't.  I had to put those feelings aside and try to figure out what was the best option for her.

Finally, after a long and arduous decision-making process, we decided to keep her back.  It's not because we want to give her an advantage academically.  What tipped the scales in favor of her being the oldest?  I looked at her set of friends that are in kindergarten this year, and those that will go next year, and determined that although she adores both sets, ultimately, she's more of a confident leader among those a few months younger versus a few months older.  And perhaps promoting that confidence is the best thing we can do for her.

So today we filled out our forms, and then toured the school, checking out the art room, the cafeteria, and the kindergarten classrooms.  We looked for her friends' names on the wall, those that started kindergarten this year, and talked about all the kids she knows that will be going to school with her next year.  She's sad about leaving her preschool, but I explained that her preschool doesn't have a class that will teach all she needs to learn next year, and that her teachers have worked hard to get her ready to learn more and more.

I couldn't imagine putting her on the bus at 4 years old last year, and having her away from me all day.  But the separation isn't going to be as difficult this fall, I think.  She's truly ready now - her teachers say she's a different kid this year - and I couldn't be more proud of her.

Some points for those of you struggling with the same question:

The metro area's kindergarten registration information brochure lists the following milestones for kindergarten readiness:

  • A variety of quality learning experiences
  • Comfortable with children their own age and get along with them
  • Able to communicate and interact effectively with adults
  • Have basic life needs met so they can put their energy into learning
I remember reading recently that most parents expect kids to know letters and numbers before kindergarten, while most teachers just want the kids to be able to behave socially, sit quietly, pay attention and have an interest in learning.

An article from Richmond Magazine presents different angles, too.

So there are lots of advantages and disadvantages to the debate.  I guess I'm seeing the advantages of waiting, but really, it's an individual choice for each individual kid.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Basketball is my favorite sport...

I love the way they dribble up and down the court.

Remember that gem?  I seem to recall it playing on a bus during a field trip, probably in 5th or 6th grade.  I guess some things are best left in the '80's.

We support a few teams here in our household.  (Go Hoos! We're still waiting for that breakout season!)  This year we've had a thrill with the University of Richmond Spiders reaching the Sweet 16, and the VCU Rams playing in the Final Four.  We're planning on watching the VCU game tomorrow night with our extended family, many of whom received advanced degrees from the university.  As usual, this means fantastic snacks are in order.  I have a few favorites that meet a few important criteria:  fast, cheap and delicious.

Warm and Creamy Bacon Dip is so easy to put together!  Just throw some dairy in a bowl, mix it up, and put it in the oven.  I serve it with crackers, veggies, and Beer Bread.

I love Beer Bread.  I was introduced to it at a Tastefully Simple party, and then discovered that Target sold the mix for considerably less.  It was a sad day when I found that my Target no longer carried the mix.  A simple search turned up a recipe that contains only flour, sugar and beer.  Are you kidding?  After paying $6 for a package of Tastefully Simple mix, you mean I could pay $2 for a bag of flour that would give me 3 or 4 loaves?  And thanks to my father in law, there is always a case of Miller Lite in the garage fridge.  I prefer the lighter beer, Bobby likes it darker.  The bread does seem heavier with a darker beer.

The final recipe, Artichoke and Spinach Dip, is a little more expensive to make.  But you throw it all in the crock pot!  You need one of those cute little slow cookers meant for dips.  Cut up your ingredients, throw them in, and let them cook for a few hours.

We love watching big sporting events for the food as much as the athletics.  If you all are watching some basketball this weekend and want to nibble on something tasty, try one of these out.  And if you have a suggestion of your own, please share!  GO RAMS!

Warm and Creamy Bacon Dip

8 ounces cream cheese, softened
2 cups Daisy Brand Sour Cream
3 ounces bacon bits
2 cups Cheddar cheese, shredded
1 cup green onion, chopped

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. In a bowl, combine all ingredients. Place the mixture in a 1-quart baking dish. Cover. Heat the dip for 25-30 minutes or until hot. Serve with assorted fresh vegetables, crackers and/or chips. *Serving option: Dip may also be placed in hollowed round sourdough loaf, wrapped in foil and heated in 400 degree oven for 30 minutes.

Note: I use 2% cheese, low fat sour cream, and neufchatel cheese (light cream cheese) and it turns out great.

Serve with veggies, crackers and Beer Bread

Beer Bread
1 (12 fluid ounce) can or bottle beer
3 cups self-rising flour
3 tablespoons white sugar
In a large bowl, mix together the sugar and flour. Add beer and continue to mix, first using a wooden spoon, then your hands. Batter will be sticky. Pour into a 9 x 5 inch greased loaf pan.  Bake at 350 degrees F (175 degrees ) for 50 for 60 minutes. The top will be crunchy, and the insides will be soft. Serve topped with butter or cheese spread. 
Note: I add 1/4 stick melted butter to the top of the bread BEFORE baking.

With this recipe, the finished bread actually has a slight beer flavor


Cube it up for spreading and dipping

Slow Cooker Southwest Artichoke and Spinach Dip
1  can (14 oz) artichoke hearts, drained, coarsely chopped
1  box (9 oz) Green Giant® frozen spinach, thawed, squeezed to drain
1  package (8 oz) cream cheese, cubed, softened
1  can (4.5 oz) Old El Paso® chopped green chiles, undrained
1/2  medium red bell pepper, chopped (about 1/2 cup)
1/2  cup shredded pepper Jack cheese (2 oz)
1  bag (14 oz) round tortilla chips

Spray 1- to 1 1/2-quart slow cooker with cooking spray. In medium bowl, mix all ingredients except pepper Jack cheese and tortilla chips; spoon into cooker.
Cover; cook on Low heat setting 2 to 3 hours.
Stir pepper Jack cheese into artichoke mixture. Cover; cook on Low heat setting about 5 minutes longer or until cheese is melted. Serve with tortilla chips.

Remember, share your favorites, too!  I'm always looking for a great new recipe!