Thursday, August 22, 2013

Summer Recap

According to the calendar, summer doesn't officially end for another month, and according to the typical weather around here, it could actually continue through mid-October.  But, since we are teachers, our summer really ended Tuesday.  It is back to school time. So here is a look back at Summer 2013.

Where I Went:

Tryon Palace, New Bern North Carolina.  At the end of June, Jordan and I took a quick weekend getaway.  Our first stop was New Bern, to visit the first Governor's palace in NC.  Beautiful, and, funnily enough, very British.  It was, of course, a British government building before the Revolutionary War.

We went next to Fort Macon State Park, near Atlantic Beach.  We had visited Fort Caswell, but Macon is in much better condition.  They were doing artillery demonstrations, so we saw two types of cannons fired, which was very cool and very loud.

Our last day was spend in Wilmington, NC.  We visited the USS North Carolina in the morning, and then drove to Carolina Beach State Park.  Our intention was to see Venus Fly Traps, which are native only in a 70 mile radius of Wilmington, but, despite walking the entire trail twice, we failed to find any.  It was a nice hike, though, all boggy and swampy and quite different from our typical mountain hikes.  You'll notice the recurring state park theme--we have a goal of visiting every state park in North Carolina.  Of the 35 parks (one is currently under construction), we have visited 14, so getting close to halfway there!

What I Ate:

This was my favorite breakfast this summer: Grape Nuts Fit cereal + blueberries + honey + kefir.  Kefir is something new for me--it is a fermented milk, kind of like yogurt, but with even more probiotics (which are bacteria!  but they are good for you!).  It is tangy, a bit like buttermilk or Greek yogurt.  With a bit of honey, it is delicious.

Kale and White Bean Stew.  The recipe is from the now obsolete Whole Living Magazine, although their online contents have been archived and are still accessible.  Kale is also something new for me.  In the stew, it wilts, though still a bit crunchy, and goes nicely with the tomatoes and beans.  We also had a kale slaw at a church dinner that was delicious and apparently came in a bagged kit from Costco--who knew!

Apple-Plum Skillet Cake.  This was a bit of an experiment.  We watched The American Baking Competition on CBS this summer (hosted by Jeff Foxworthy) and drooled every week over the amazing recipes.  There was one challenge that involved making a Tarte Tatin, which is baked in a skillet, but has a pie crust.  This is not tarte tatin (it's cake, not pie), but it was pretty tasty, nevertheless.  I adapted the recipe quite a bit from a Pioneer Woman recipe, and it came out pretty delicious, although it was a bit stressful--my only skillet is a tiny six-incher that I've had since undergrad (because you must be able to make cornbread in your college apartment!)  I really need to upgrade to a bigger skillet--maybe then I wouldn't have such as issue with batter run-over.

Here is a combo "What I Made" and "What I Ate."  Except I actually didn't get to eat any of this!  It is Banana Bread, using my mom's recipe.  We were asked over for dinner by several lovely friends this summer, and since I don't like going empty-handed, I made Banana Bread.  This recipe is very easy and simple, but it makes the moistest, tastiest bread.  I prefer it with walnuts or pecans, but I usually leave them out when baking for others.

The quilt top is for Baby Womick.  I have, by this point, moved on to actually quilting.  I am quilting by hand around the perimeter of the strips, and boy, does it take a while!  This is my first quilt, and it is not perfect (you can definitely see that the corners don't match up), but it will definitely be cozy and warm.

Other summer stuff has involved lots of reading: I finished the Chronicles of Prydain series (which I started in 6th grade, but somehow never got around to the last two books!), as well as lots of books on parenting, childbirth, baby sleep, nursing, and raising boys.  But, like the doctor said, most babies haven't read the books, so he may not behave just like we expect.  He'll be his own person, and I just can't wait to see what that means!

We've also spent lots of time with the family, going to church and choir practice, running (including a 5k on Tuesday), and, of course, working--even in summer, there are classes to be taught, lesson plans to be made.  But, I do enjoy summer's laid-back pace.  However, I'm also excited for a brisk and busy fall--good things ahead!

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Simple Autumn Wreath

I don't know why I never made a wreath before--it was very simple!  

Grapevine wreaths can be found in many stores, including Wal-Mart.  I got this one many years ago, and cannot remember how much I paid for it, but I saw someone recently say that they found one for $3.  The fall mums were from Big Lots for $5, and the roses were from Wal-Mart for $0.97.  I looked high and low for a small chalkboard--I had seen a wreath featuring one on Pinterest and loved it.  There was not a single chalkboard of the right size to be had anywhere, so I decided to just paint it instead.

I started by clipping the flowers, leaving the stems pretty long.  Those things are surprisingly hard to cut, and took some twisting as well.  I then sorted the colors.

I arranged things on the wreath, making sure to leave enough room for the board.  My initial thought was to wire each of the flowers, but actually, I ended up just curving the stem a bit to match the curve of the wreath and threading them in.  If any felt a bit loose, I would then reinforce with the floral wire, but, for the most part, they seemed quite secure.  I began with the mums and then filled in with the roses.

To make my faux chalkboard, I measured a 1/2 inch border, and then blocked it with painters tape.

Then, I covered the board with black acrylic craft paint.  It took two layers to get it nice and opaque.

I had planned to create a stencil for the monogram by printing a letter on printer paper, and then cutting it out.  However, half way through this project, I remembered my printer wasn't working.  I took an hour break while doing far too much unproductive research and experimentation with downloading drivers and compatibility mode and so on.  I gave up and carefully free-handed the "W"  in pencil while looking at the font I liked from Word.  I then used the white craft paint to outline and then fill in the monogram.

I used floral wire to make a hanger on the back, securing it with super-glue, and then covering with tiny squares of painters tape for good measure.  I then attached it to the wreath with a bit more floral wire, giving it a bread-tie-twist to keep it secure.

Done!  I am displaying the wreath on a wreath stand my mom bought be from a gift shop in Meadows of Dan, Virginia.  No one uses our front door, and the side door, which everyone does use, would not be nice on a wreath (storm door would squish it).  I am happy with the arrangement, and I am already planning a new Christmas/winter wreath.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Packing Cubes

I mentioned in a previous post that I had abandoned the "stack-fold-roll" method of packing in favor of using packing cubes.  Here's a closer look at what they are and why they work.

First, here are the clothes I packed for a week at the beach: not really a ton of stuff, but not hyper-minimalist either.  Normally, I would have rolled these up to go in my bag.  While this can be a good use of space, it has a few problems: first, it is hard to keep them nicely rolled/folded in the bottom of a bag.  When you get where you are going, you have to dig around for what you need, and things inevitably come undone, and I end up with basically a pile of laundry in my bag.

Here are the clothes folded and placed in a packing cube.  Note: it is not actually cube-shaped; more of a rectangular prism, really.  (I didn't come up with the name.)  They are soft-sided nylon, with mesh panels on top, and a double-zipper on three sides.  The more you put in them, the better, because things slide around less and they hold their shape.

Here are all the clothes packed into the cubes.  These are made by ebags, and I ordered my set of small, medium, and large off Amazon when they were on sale.

The thing I really like is that they make my bag so neat.  For my valise bag, they are especially useful because I turn them on their sides and file them.  They have handles, which makes pulling out the one you need even easier.

For the beach trip, I packed everything in a large duffel bag.  When we got to the condo, I took out the cubes, unzipped them, flipped the top under, and placed them directly into the drawers in my room.  Unpacking: done.

I am thinking that these have several further applications: keeping gym clothes organized, separating diaper bag essentials, etc.  We shall see!

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Vacation Meal Planning: Making the Most of Your Vacation Rental's Kitchen

Last week, I spent a week at the beach with my family.  We stayed in an ocean-front condo with a kitchen.  Since the group included 10 people, including a toddler and an infant, eating out every night would have been nightmarish.  So, my sister and I planned meals for five nights and divvied up the grocery-buying and equipment-packing.  The results were pretty great, and we were greeted each evening with exclamations of "oh, yeah!" from my teenage cousin and his buddy.  It's nice to have an appreciative audience!

The backbone of our meal plan was the crock-pot.  My sister and I each brought one, and one night we actually ended up also using the one that came in the kitchen.  Only two nights were non-crock-pot meals.  Here's what we made:

Night One: Taco Salad

This is a family favorite and very easy: ground beef browned with taco seasoning, served on tortilla chips with lettuce, tomato, sour cream, salsa, cheese, onions, olives.  Doesn't get more simple than that.

Night Two: Barbecue

I think many people are surprised to find that you can make barbecue in a crock-pot, and I am sometimes hesitant to release that detail.  We come from a barbecue-cooking state, and regional lines are thickly drawn--everyone has an opinion on how barbecue should taste and how it should be prepared, and I am sure that many would be horrified at the thought of calling something that came out of a crock-pot "barbecue," but my family sure enjoys it!

It is ridiculously easy: pork tenderloin in the crock with about a cup of water and a drizzle of barbecue sauce (there's not much point in using a lot at this point).  Cook on low for about 8 hours or high for 4-6 hours, depending on the size.  Once it's done, it shreds easily with a fork, and then I pour the sauce on.  We like Sweet Baby Ray's, but again, to each their own!

We eat it on a bun with slaw: homemade also, and we like it simple--chopped cabbage, maybe a bit of carrot, mayonnaise (Duke's, if you please!) and salt and pepper.  We ate it that night with corn that my parents had picked up at a produce stand on their way down to the beach.

Night Three: Hawaiian Chicken with Fried Rice

This was a bit of a mash-up: I brought the Hawaiian Chicken recipe; my sister brought the fried rice recipe.  Both originally came from Pinterest.  The Hawaiian Chicken is a fantastic crock-pot recipe, and the only one that I prepped before we left home--it involves combining the ingredients (chicken breasts, pineapple chunks and juice, vinegar, sugar, soy sauce, and garlic) in a ziploc bag and freezing.  I doubled the recipe, dividing into two gallon-size bags, and freezing--the next morning they went into the bottom of the cooler.  The whole frozen thing is dumped out of the bag and into the crock-pot, and then shredded, similar to the barbecue.  My sister made the fried rice, a recipe that I hadn't tried before, but it was particularly tasty, and went well with the Hawaiian Chicken, despite the regional differences (not that either are particularly authentic to begin with!)

Recipe for Hawaiian Chicken
Recipe for Fried Rice

Night Four: Ham and Sweet Potatoes

This was my sister's recipe: sweet potatoes are placed in the bottom of the crock pot, topped with sliced ham, and covered with a brown sugar/ dry mustard mix.  We finished the meal off with squash from the produce stand.

Night Five: Spaghetti and Salad

Simple, easy, everyone can make spaghetti--noodles, sauce, and ground beef.  However, this one didn't actually work out for us.  We found out that the meat had been recalled, so we decided to forgo the meal and eat up the leftovers instead.

Although we enjoyed the nights we ate out, cooking in was pretty special.  My sister and I live several hours apart, so it was great getting to do something like cooking together.  We are very much in sync and the whole process of preparing meals in that little kitchen flowed seamlessly, and almost without the need to discuss it--we just did it.  There aren't many people with which that can happen!

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Orange Peanut Chicken Stirfry

I have finally finished reading Michael Pollan's newest book Cooked: A History of Transformation.  It has an interesting premise: he examines the development of the four basic methods of cooking by matching them with a classical element--fire for roasting meat, in which he shadows a North Carolina barbecue pit master; water, for cooking in pots, the foundation of most home cooking; air for bread baking; and earth for the work of fermentation, in which he learns the making of sauerkraut and pickles, cheese, and beer from die hard "fermentos."

The funny thing about the book is that among the several interesting things that I learned, one was that I had been doing many things in the kitchen without knowing why or that the same techniques and ingredients had been used in basically every culture since the invention of cooking.  For example, almost every home-cooked dish begins with what the French call mirepoix--a combination of onions, carrots, and celery that is sauteed in butter or oil.  Almost every culture has their own mirepoix, with the base vegetable varying slightly depending on region--an Italian dish is more likely to feature tomatoes and onions, an Asian dish might have onions and ginger.  Pollan was struck, as am I, by the ubiquity of the onion.

I have been making mirepoix all this time without thinking about it.  A friend once remarked that I put onions in everything, and, really, it is true.  Spaghetti?--saute onions, bell peppers, and mushrooms.  Pizza?--the same.  Frittata? Quiche?  Both onions, peppers, and mushrooms, although I might add something else, like asparagus, for fun.  Even meat loaf begins with sauteed onions, as does chili and most soups that I make.

So, in honor of the unconscious mirepoix, I bring you a little recipe that I developed a while back.  Although I call it a stirfry, it is in no way an authentic Asian dish.  But it is tasty.  And it does start with my favorite mirepoix

Orange Peanut Chicken Stir Fry

1 lb thin chicken breasts
1/2 box thin spaghetti noodles
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
2-3 bell peppers, cut into strips
1/2 box mushrooms
1 small onion, roughly chopped

for the sauce:
1 tbsp peanut butter
2 tbsp orange juice
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 tsp brown sugar
1/2 tsp powdered ginger

Prepare your chicken however you like--grill it or cut into small strips and brown in a bit of oil in a pan.

In a saucepan, add the red pepper flakes to a bit of olive oil, and then saute the onion, peppers, and mushrooms until tender.  In the meantime, boil noodles until they reach your preferred level of doneness.

In a small bowl, whisk the remaining ingredients together until it reaches a smooth consistency.

Add the chicken and noodles to the sauce pan with the vegetables, then top with the sauce.  Use tongs to distribute evenly.  If you like, add crushed peanuts for extra peanut flavor and a bit of crunch.