Wednesday, March 30, 2011

What's Cooking Wednesday - Do What You Do Best

I've heard a lot of people talk about ways to make hospitality easier, and one of the best suggestions I have heard is to pick out one or two menus and stick to them for a while.  Pick out a main dish, some sides, a bread, a few appetizers (or just little munchies), and a dessert that your family likes to eat and you know how (and can afford) to make.  Then just make that every time you have guests. 

We like to have lots of different people in our home over a period of time, and they probably do not realize that we served the same thing at our house last Sunday after church, too.  Even if they do (I am sort of letting the cat out of the bag here!), does it really matter?  The main point is that being hospitable does not have to be stressful.  It can be fun for the guests and the cook, if the cook is relaxed and knows she can manage this meal for a crowd.  It gets easier every time you put it together.

I do not always stick to this plan.  I have gotten more and more used to cooking ahead for a crowd over time, so I now have quite a few of these options available to me when I need them.  It seems they go by season: in the summer I like to (have Edwin) grill hamburgers or kebabs, with some cold side dishes; in winter we lean towards heavier things like roast beef, brisket, or lasagna.  As long as your family likes it they will not care if they see it over and over again.  And you will know just what to buy at the grocery store.

Here's what I've been cooking lately:
  • Beef brisket, with a semi-homemade BBQ sauce (Sam's sells them big & cheap.)
  • Hash brown potato casserole: 32 ounce bag of frozen hashbrowns mixed with 16 ounces of sour cream, 2 cups of shredded cheese, chopped onions, 1 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp pepper, 1 stick melted butter, & yes, the dreaded cream-o-chicken soup.  Top it with crushed crackers, cornflakes, or whatever you like and bake at 350 degrees for 30-45 minutes.  Edwin's mom made this famous for us and I will not mess with the recipe, though you could do a homemade substitute for the soup if you want.
  • Baked beans: Have I mentioned we do most of our entertaining on Sundays?  This is the day we can really enjoy feasting and forget most of our dietary requirements of the week.  This is why we have things like potato casserole and baked beans. Yum.  I learned the baked bean thing from my mom, watching her dump in lots of stuff along with good-ole canned pork-n-beans.  It's impossible to measure; I just know what it is supposed to look like (color).  I pick out the disgusting pork blobs but leave the juice in the beans, then add ketchup, brown sugar, chopped onions, a little mustard, and sometimes BBQ sauce.  If you top it with a few bacon slices you get many extra bonus points!  Cook it in the oven with the potatoes, till it is thickened and bubbling.
  • A big green salad, or cut up raw veggies: This helps with the guilt feelings associated with the above combination of food!
  • Rolls or buns in case people want sandwiches, or just to be eaten on the side.
This menu really lends itself to making ahead; though as long as the meat is cooked on Saturday I can whip up the rest on Sunday morning before church.  Even though it is ready to eat, it is still nice to have some munchies sitting around while the guests arrive and get settled.  I usually cut up some peppers or carrots and have hummus, along with some crackers.  We might add some chips & dip or salsa to that or some popcorn.  Just something easy so we (this is really my issue) do not starve before the food gets on the table.  When we grill food in the summer it is even more important to have something substantial to eat as it takes a while to cook 15-20 burgers!

Most of my entertaining is casual, because we are just casual people.  But you could also come up with a meal that is fancy that you pull out on special occasions.  (My Christmas Eve feast is getting easier to do now that I have stuck to mainly the same dishes for a few years.)  Having a plan, like in most areas of life, will make entertaining easier no matter what the occasion.

Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.  Show hospitality to one another without grumbling.  As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace...
I  Peter 4:8-10

Monday, March 28, 2011

Yes, I Stink at That

Ever have one of those weeks when you begin to recognize all the things you kind of stink at?  Well, that was last week for me.  But, thankfully, this week, instead of being depressed, I feel like starting to do something about some of it, at least. 

The house needs to be organized, the laundry is behind, the kids are in need of attention in many ways (and some are still sick - ugh), the snow took away my running path, waah, waah, waah.  Quit whining and do something about it, or at least about what I can fix.

So if I am going to eat the elephant I will do it one bite at a time, and hopefully without too much complaining.  I made some goals for the week and I will try to get them done.  Then do some more next week.  We'll see.  God's strength is made perfect in my weakness.  Wow - that takes a load off!

This week's plan is to get the kitchen in order and deep cleaned.  I cleaned the oven this morning, which is a good start.  The refrigerator, the pantry, the drawers, and the cabinets are going to be dealt with too.  And just maybe I will get a clue about what is lost in the freezer and the basement cabinets, so I can quit buying groceries and just eat what's already here for a bit.

If I can tackle the kitchen this week I may find the strength to hit the office next week...

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
2 Corinthians 12:9

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

What's Cooking Wednesday - Breakfast for Dinner

Wow!  Wednesday again already!  Last Wednesday I took James to the doctor for pneumonia.  Since then I've gone back with four out of five kids and I may need to take one of them back today.  So I have been in the high-maintenance parenting mode that involves lots of medicine and TLC while dealing with children that are less-than-content and really pretty miserable. 

Enter Breakfast for Dinner.  Who can be too sad when there are waffles for dinner?  I do know that food can not fix everything, but it is a good tool a mom can use to give comfort and cheer now and then.  So last night we had blueberry waffles, bacon, sausage, scrambled eggs, and fruit salad for dinner.  The sickies ate and were merry.  They forgot for a moment that today we will be stuck inside at home again, with no ballet or piano, no trip to the library.  The highlight of the day may be looking out the window and watching it snow (but it's the wrong time of year for that to be too exciting).

Another good use for Breakfast For Dinner is when I have a grocery crisis, since these ingredients are usually on-hand.  I always have eggs, and breakfast meats have nice, long expiration dates so they are easy to keep on hand.  Waffles, pancakes, or biscuits can be made out of pantry items, and if I have some fresh fruit, that's a bonus.

My sweet children gave me a very nice waffle iron for my birthday recently, so we have been experimenting with waffles a lot lately.  Last night's blueberry waffles came from a mix, and though they were indeed blueberry, they were not nearly as tasty as the plain waffles I have been making with the Bisquick recipe.  (Watch out for trans fat in Bisquick!  Look at the label.  I buy the Heart Smart version, or the grocery store or ALDI brand which do not have trans fat.)  But I would rather leave the Bisquick behind and use only ingredients I can pronounce.  So here are some healthier (?) waffle recipes I will try in the near future.
  • Pumpkin Pancakes, from the Raising Homemakers blog - I made these tasty pancakes and they were a huge hit.  I love the idea of adding vegetables to a pancake or waffle and getting away with it!  I need to research exactly how to change a pancake recipe to a waffle recipe.  I am fairly sure it involves using a bit less liquid (milk) and adding some vegetable oil.  The oil may not be needed since this recipe already has melted butter in it.  (If you double the recipe you can just use a can of packed pumpkin.)
  • Blueberry Waffles - without the mix.  I will try this next time we want blueberry waffles.  This recipe has blueberries and blueberry yogurt.
  • Whole Grain Waffles - Some version of this, with whole wheat flour, will most-likely become my basic waffle recipe.  We are used to the taste of whole wheat and really have no business eating too much white flour.
Another food-related thought for today: I just discovered a web-site called E-mealz.  It is a service that plans a seven meal menu that feeds four to six people based on the specials and sales at a specific grocery store.  It seems to be a southern thing, based on the grocery stores they use, but they have Wal-Mart and ALDI on the list, so I may give it a try.  I don't know if I am the kind of person who can stick to a plan like that, but I think it would be nice to go on auto-pilot for dinner plans for a while.  I'll definitely write about it later if I try it!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The 100th Post - Why Life Is Different Here, Still

Well, this is the 100th post on Life Is Different Here, but I just can't see the necessity for a lot of fanfare.  Maybe I'll save that for the 1000th post! ;)  Still, a short(-ish) but somewhat random list has been floating around in my head for a little while, so I thought I could use this as an opportunity to share it.
  • Something one of my children said that I know no one in Alabama would say: "There are always frozen raccoons in the drains."  This statement was met with no surprise and general agreement among the siblings.
  • Here is what the first day of spring looked like; though, admittedly, it could have been worse.
  • We had about 80 inches of snow this year (with more forecasted for tonight and tomorrow), making it the Twin Cities' seventh snowiest winter ever.  That made it our family's snowiest winter ever.
  • There has been snow on the ground for the last 130 days.  The picture above shows the least amount of snow that has been on the ground during the last 129 days.
  • My first blog post was published on November 11, 2009.  Since then the blog has been viewed 3510 times, most of them by Edwin (my views do not count) or my sweet mother-in-law, I am guessing!
  • Shockingly, this blog has been viewed by people in 10 different countries!  I think it may be due to random clicking on the "Next Blog" button at the top of the page. 
  • My favorite blog posts so far would have to be the ones in the "metamorphosis" category.  I mean, if you have a whole category for metamorphosis that is saying something!  If you have time, start at the bottom of the category and read your way up.
  • I would love it if everyone who reads this 100th post would say hi in the comments.  You can introduce yourself or remain anonymous if you'd rather.  I would be pleased to meet you!  Thank you for reading!

Friday, March 18, 2011

Friday - House Cleaning Day

I used to be pretty sporadic about house-cleaning, doing whatever needed to be done whenever it needed it.  Or maybe not doing it at all for a good while.  Or really cleaning before someone came to visit.  Our home usually looked presentable, especially if you did not look too closely.  I could get away with that when there were only two of us!  

Now things have changed drastically with seven of us here.  Have I mentioned that most of us are ALWAYS home?  The house never gets a breather: three meals a day for 6 or 7 people (at least), every day; five different grades of school, five days a week; six sets of sheets and seven towels used every day, not counting the hand towels which really should be changed every hour or two!  Which brings us to the bathrooms, four of them (I am very thankful for that number!), two of which are very heavily used by five children (Have I mentioned that four of them are boys?) who are still learning to see the messes they make!

At some point in the last 15 years of having children, I accepted the fact that the house needed to be cleaned every week at some level, just to keep the place from becoming unsanitary.  Also, though Edwin and I are generally in favor of neatness and sparsity over clutter, a lot of things can get out of place in a week, so that needs to be dealt with.  Over time that has evolved into a Friday house cleaning plan.

I did not just wake up one Friday morning and decide to put this plan into place.  As my household became harder to manage I began to seek advice from many places, from relatives and friends with children and well-cared-for homes to blogs such as Large Family Logistics and the Fly Lady (You know: Shine your sink! Tie Your Shoes!).  I read cleaning books like Speed Cleaning by Jeff Campbell and Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House by Cheryl Mendelson.  Over time I figured out what needed to be done daily and weekly, and that still changes occasionally.

The first thing that is helpful is to decide which day of the week you will spend cleaning more thoroughly than the others.  We still have daily chores: room cleaning/bed making/toy pick-up, sweeping, dishes, trash/recycling, bathroom wipe-up/towel changing, and some high-traffic area vacuuming.  This is because there are so many of us always home; a smaller or more absent family could get away with less on a daily basis.  But on Fridays we concentrate on really getting things pretty clean, and all at the same time, which I really enjoy for the half-hour it lasts.

My mother-in-law, who is a much better cleaner than I am, likes to clean on Monday.  For her, cleaning up after the weekend and starting the work week with a clean house is the plan.  I can understand that logic, but Mondays are not great for us - starting the school week with a two hour cleaning break is not good for us right now.  So for me, Friday is the day.  We clean up from the week and start the weekend, when we are more likely to have guests, with a clean house.  Maybe you need your husband home to help with the cleaning so Saturday is the right day - we were there for a lot of years, too.  Anyway, pick a day and stick with it until your needs change.  The point is to stick with it.  So-so cleaning every week is better than great cleaning only now and then.  I've tried them both.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

What's Cooking Wednesday - Better Than Fast Food Chicken "Fajitas"

Monday night Edwin was out of town, so I felt a bit "off the hook" as far as dinner went.  Still, there were six people who needed to eat, so I wasn't really off the hook.  I considered fast food for a few minutes, but had plenty of reasons to think better of it.  I needed to go to the grocery store anyway, so I hatched the plan for the super-easy chicken "fajitas."

I bought a rotisserie chicken, which is what caused me to put the word fajitas in quotes; real fajitas involve some grilled meat.  The key to this plan working for me is that without my husband (and with a Pi Day dessert) I decided we could survive with only one chicken.  We have grown into a 2 or 3 chicken family, which makes the grocery store rotisserie chickens quite pricey!  But if you are a smaller crew or your budget allows, the rotisserie chicken can save a meal now & then.

Here's how to do it:  Heat some olive oil in a skillet or stir fry pan (I like to do this on medium-high heat as long as I am there to pay attention to it.) while slicing up a large onion.  Add the onion to the hot oil once it is ready and stir it around a bit while you slice up a bell pepper or two.  Throw those in and stir them often. 

Remove the skin from the chicken (Do not eat the skin of the rotisserie chicken, especially if you are just standing there picking at it.  Throw it away. It is not worth the fat and calories.  If you want to roast your own chicken and do something to the skin that is worth it, then eat the skin.  But for this, forget it!).  Pull off the meat from the chicken any way you can - I usually just use my clean hands or two forks - and cut/rip/pull it into reasonably-sized pieces.  Throw it into the pan with the veggies, but sprinkle it pretty heavily with cumin before stirring it.  Let it heat up, and you're done.  If it seems dry (mine did), pour in some apple juice, chicken broth (if you have an open container of that in the fridge), or white wine (ditto the open container).  Really you could just add some water, but the apple juice made me feel so much more chef-ish, so I went with that.

Heat some tortillas, grate some cheese (better yet, have the kids do this while you are doing the rest), and serve with avocado slices, salsa, sour cream, and whatever else you can find that sounds good.  Yum!  If I were a real food blogger I would have taken a photo.  Maybe next time!

Here's a more real-looking ingredients list, for those of you who work that way...

Better Than Fast Food Chicken "Fajitas"  (Served 4 big and 2 little hungry people, with not a bite left over)

1 Rotisserie Chicken (or enough left-over cooked chicken for your family)
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
1-2 large onions
1-2 bell peppers, any color
Cumin, about 1/2-1 tablespoon, or more to taste
Tortillas, cheese, salsa, avocados, sour cream, etc. for toppings

Sunday, March 13, 2011

What's Coming Up...

My old friend Jill (who is not old since she is as old as me, but is a friend from long ago) has a blog called Jumpin' In, and each Wednesday she shares a recipe in a post she calls "What's Cooking Wednesday."  This week I plan to join her and begin to post a recipe or two each Wednesday.  I hope this will encourage me to post something here at least once a week, so my blog will not be lonely as it sometimes is.  Time will tell!

Also, last week I thought that my 100th blog post was coming up so I began to feel pressure about what to write for such a monumental occasion!  Then I noticed that several posts that were being counted were drafts and revisions, making the 100th post a little further removed.  But it's coming.  No clues as to if it will be worth reading!  But I am planning a little report from my statistics page, which I only very recently realized I had.

Lastly, what's coming up is a perfectly normal school week, for which I am thankful.  Decent weather, in the form of 30's, 40's, and maybe even 50 degrees (!) is in the forecast.  I am hoping to take my first four mile run this week; I have never run farther than 3.5 miles, so we'll see.  I am amazed once again at the blessings God has given us, especially in the wake of the great devastation in Japan, and the hard things going on even in the lives of our friends.  There is much to pray for, as always.

Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
and do not lean on your own understanding.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths.
Be not wise in your own eyes;
fear the Lord, and turn away from evil.
It will be healing to your flesh
and refreshment to your bones.

Proverbs 3:5-8

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Running Along

The treadmill broke again.  Well, it's not exactly broken; it will run, but if you run on it the belt slips and randomly tries to stop.  If you have ever spent any time on an untrustworthy treadmill, you know that this is a very bad thing. Ugh.  Edwin already replaced the belt, so we have determined not to spend any more money on the really cheap, used treadmill we bought through Craig's List.  Now I just hope we can get it hauled away without having to pay someone.  Do you think anyone would want an unreliable treadmill if I listed it on Craig's List for free?

My sweet husband intends to buy a new treadmill for me, and I know I will be very glad to have it next winter.  I have accepted the fact that I may be able to run in cold temperatures but I can not really run on snow.  I am not going to be able to run outside all year.  And sitting on the couch all winter has not worked out very well for me in the past!  But right now I have just about exhausted my patience for running in the basement, going nowhere.

My relationship with the treadmill was always a bit of a love-hate kind of thing anyway, so fine.  It's March now and time to run outside.  (You do not want me to whine now about how March is very wintry here, especially this year, do you? I did not think so.)

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Not Much Different From Them

I have to admit that March is usually better than February here in Minnesota.  Yet, that doesn't take away the sting of waking to a temperature of negative 7 degrees.  I had a little trouble getting out of bed, and it was partly because March is supposed to be better than this.  It should not be below zero in March. Ugh.  And even the encouraging but noisy tweety birds have not returned like they usually do this time of year.  And while being a whiner I managed to lie in bed long enough to watch the temperature drop to negative 8.  It gets worse before it gets better.

Less than twelve hours earlier our family had gathered around the computer to listen to a sermon most of us had missed last Sunday, a sermon about how God is sovereign over every little thing.  I believe it in my heart, I know it in my mind, and it has gotten me through many trials.  Yet I forget it every day.  I whine and complain against God and the plan He has chosen for me, a plan for my good.  I forget that He has not wound me up for His own amusement, but that He loves me enough to die for my transgressions.

In the sermon, which I highly recommend you take 30 minutes to listen to, our pastor Joshua Moon quotes the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism.  We have not been very familiar with it, as we have always worked on the Westminster Catechism in our family, but I now know from the first question (Not to mention its long history of recommendation from many godly, more educated people before me!) that it is something we should spend time memorizing.  Here is the first question and answer: