Friday, November 28, 2014

Chicken (or turkey) enchilada soup

In my quest for crock pot meals, this soup is reigning supreme so far. I made it three times in one month, which is pretty heavy rotation even for me.

chicken enchilada soup
{chicken enchilada soup}

The recipe is right here and it works perfectly as is. I have a few small tweaks - I use bone in chicken pieces and just pull the bones out and roughly chop the meat before serving. Bone in is less expensive and it really isn't that much work. I also use the frozen fire roasted corn from Trader Joe's instead of the canned stuff. If you want the soup to be a bit thicker, you can cut a few corn tortillas into strips and toss them in at the beginning. They'll disappear but provide a little more body to the soup.

This is also how I used up the leftover turkey from Friendsgiving. I always make turkey stock from the bones, so I had that on hand. Since the cooked turkey didn't require a long cooking time, I modified it to be a stove top meal by sauteing the onion and garlic in a large pot and then adding all the ingredients except the turkey and simmering for about 30 minutes. I tossed the chopped, cooked turkey in during the last 10 minutes.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Bourbon cranberry shrub

I was just going to make my cranberry margaritas again this year, but then I saw this recipe in the January Martha Stewart Living (I wanted the Thanksgiving edition, but I waited too long and January was all they had!). I've been a little leary of the shrub craze, because vinegar in cocktails sounds off putting, frankly. But it was so easy I had to try it.

bourbon cranberry shrub

And guess what, I'm converted.

From what I can gather, a shrub is just an old fashioned method of preserving fresh fruit. You use vinegar and sugar and boil the fruit, then it lasts indefinitely in the fridge. The tangy syrup makes a surprisingly refreshing (and not mouth puckering) cocktail.

Another advantage is that it's so dang easy. You can whip up this shrub in less than 10 minutes and all you have to do for the actual cocktail is stir and combine. No shaking, no finicky measuring or complicated ingredients. Just a 1:3 ratio of shrub to bourbon, topped with a bit of sparkling water.

cranberry shrub

Bourbon cranberry shrub (original recipe isn't posted yet - I've tweaked the instructions to make them more clear and converted the measurements to ounces)

Cranberry shrub -
1 cup white wine vinegar*
1 cup sugar
1 cup cranberries

Combine in a pot and bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve all the sugar. MS doesn't specify, but I cook until the cranberries are split but not turning to mush. The cranberries will usually start popping shortly after the liquid comes to a boil and that's when I turn off the heat. I like them to hold their shape a bit.

 Remove from heat and let cool completely. Refrigerate for up to three weeks.

For each cocktail - 
3 oz bourbon
1 oz shrub
1 oz seltzer
+ some of the soaked cranberries

5 oz is a pretty big cocktail in my opinion, so if I'm making them individually I'd split a single cocktail between two glasses. This does make the serving tiny bit small, but better than knocking everyone out before dinner. 

But there's no need to worry about that! This makes a perfect pitcher cocktail as well. I just combined the bourbon and shrub ahead of time at a 3:1 ratio. Three cups of bourbon + 1 cup of shrub worked well for pre-dinner cocktails for 10 adults. I set out a flip top bottle of sparkling water on the cocktail tray and poured the first round for everyone, just doing about 3/4 of the bourbon/shrub mixture and 1/4 water. Then it's easy enough for people to pour their own to their liking. If you want to make it a bit fancy, you can spear the shrub cranberries ahead of time and just use them as the stir stick in each cocktail. Of course, you can also just set out a bowl of the cranberries and a small spoon and scoop them into each drink. 


* You do need to use white wine vinegar. In a fit of impatience, I tested this out first with white balsamic vinegar and it was way sweeter and more syrupy. I'm guessing that straight white vinegar would be too acidic. 

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The best vegetarian gravy

I make this gravy every year because my sister is a vegetarian, but at some point I realized that many of the omnivores preferred it to the turkey gravy. I usually still make both, but if you just want to do one, I think you can rest assured that none of the meat eaters will complain. Bonus - you don't need drippings, so you can make it a day or two ahead of time and just reheat to serve.

pile of veggies

rouxing it

You need to make the stock to start with. You can do this up to a week ahead and just keep it refrigerated. You'll have enough stock to make a double batch of gravy if you need it. If you don't, just freeze the leftovers for later use.

Roasted vegetable stock (7 - 8 cups, original recipe here)
1/2 lb portabella mushrooms, cut into 1" pieces
1 lb shallots, left unpeeled, quartered
1 lb carrots, cut into 2" pieces
2 red bell peppers, cut into 1" pieces
6 fresh flat-leaf parsley sprigs (including stems)
5 fresh thyme sprigs
4 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup dry white wine
1 cup canned crushed tomatoes
2 quarts water
:: Preheat oven to 425 F.

:: Toss together all vegetables and herbs along with the olive oil. I use a giant bowl and a spatula to coat everything evenly. Dump everything onto a roasting pan (I find that two half sheet pans give you the best distribution but you can just use one) and roast for 30 - 40 minutes, until everything is tender and golden. Turn occasionally during the cooking process and if you're using two pans, switch positions half way through.

:: Transfer everything to a 6 quart stockpot. Set the roasting pan across two burners. Add wine and deglaze the pan by boiling over medium heat briefly, stirring and scraping up brown bits. Since I use two pans I deglaze each with half a cup of the wine. Pour the wine off into the stockpot and add the tomatoes and the water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, 45 minutes. Pour through a large fine sieve into a large bowl, pressing on and discarding solids. The original recipe has you season with salt and pepper but I prefer to leave it unsalted and just salt the gravy. Refrigerate and skim off fat if you have any, which I rarely do.

- Stock keeps, covered and chilled, one week, or frozen three months. You'll get 7 - 8 cups out of this. If you're making a single batch of gravy, pour the leftover stock into large ziploc bags and freeze on a cookie sheet so they're flat and easy to store. I also use some of the stock to moisten the dressing, so I keep about a cup out.

Best vegetarian gravy (makes 3.5 cups, original recipe here)
1/2 stick (1/4 cup) unsalted butter
1/3 cup all purpose flour
3 cups roasted vegetable stock, heated
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
:: If your stock has been chilled, heat it in a saucepan on the back burner and leave it at a low simmer.

:: Melt butter in a saucepan over moderate heat, then whisk in flour and cook roux, whisking constantly, until a nutty brown color, about 5 - 10 minutes. The darker your roux, the better your flavor, so wait until it smells toasted but don't let it tip over into burned. (The picture above the recipe was about halfway through the process)

:: Add hot stock in a fast stream, whisking constantly to prevent lumps. This will produce a big gust of hot steam at first, so be careful! I usually whisk in half, whisk for a bit to ensure that it's nice and smooth and then add the rest at a slower pace to incorporate it.

:: Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, whisking frequently, until thickened to desired consistency, about 6 - 8 minutes. Turn off the heat, stir in the cream, salt and pepper.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Thanksgiving scheduling

I know a lot of you are preparing for the best holiday of the year next week. I love, love, love Thanksgiving and the planning is 2/3 of the battle here. A solid schedule will make things go pretty smoothly (although having an arsenal of recipes you trust is also helpful).

I approach every big project in life the same way. Identify the goals, figure out the steps to achieve them, decide what needs to happen when. Remember that you can't do everything at once, so you have to figure out what tasks must be completed at the last minute and which can be done ahead. Thanksgiving is no different.

the table, set

I save my schedules and notes each year and then just modify them accordingly. But somehow I completely lost all those papers when we moved the week after Thanksgiving last year. It's pretty heartbreaking, because setting up a new schedule feels intimidating. But it's not really that bad!

Assuming you've decided which dishes you're making and have the recipes handy, you can set up a schedule pretty quickly. Here is my earlier post about how I prep for this. Get your recipes ready, break them down into steps and make sure you include any baking times and temperatures. Now you're ready to schedule. Fill out a piece of paper with the time on one side, in half hour increments. The end time should be when you want to start eating, which I usually set for 30 minutes after I ask guests to arrive if it's family, an hour if it's friends and we're doing cocktails.

Oven space is at a premium. Start with the turkey and work backwards. I only ever use the Alton Brown roasting method, which is pretty quick. I set aside a total of 3 hours for roasting a 14 lb turkey and it often doesn't take that long. I aim to have the turkey coming out of the oven either when guests are scheduled to arrive or a half hour after, so I can tent it and just let it rest until we're ready to serve.

Everything else will need to get worked around the turkey. Rolls are usually best cooked last minute and they're quick, so I plan to do those while the turkey rests. If oven space permits, you can reheat a couple other dishes at the same time, or right after the rolls come out. I try to bake the dressing earlier in the morning and then just set it aside to get reheated right before serving. Ditto on the sweet potatoes except I usually do them the day before.

Do as much ahead of time as possible. That breakdown of steps you made? Go over it and figure out which recipes (or parts of recipes) can be done earlier in the week. I try to choose a few recipes that can be fully made ahead of time to ease up the crunch. Things that can be made a day ahead - these horseradish mashed potatoes, any cranberry sauce or relish, vegetarian gravy (I'll share my recipe tomorrow), sweet potatoes (I don't have a recipe but I roast them, chop them and then top them with a pecan crumble and bake it at 375 for about an hour - it can just get reheated later). I always, always, always make the pies a day or two before. Pumpkin pie in particular benefits from having a day for the flavors to meld, so it's win-win.

There are also pieces of recipes that can be done earlier. If you want freshly mashed potatoes, that's great. Wednesday night you can peel and chop the potatoes, cover them with water and leave them in their pot all ready to go on the counter. They'll be fine sitting like that at room temp for 24 hours, I promise, and then you just have to pop them on the stove when you're ready to boil them. I cube the bread for the dressing and dry it out in a low oven a few days before. I also sometimes wash and chop all the veg for the dressing so it's ready to saute. If you're planning on making gravy you can even just measure out your ingredients and have them waiting by the stove for you. I don't want to be hauling down the bin of flour in that last minute crunch time.

Build in a little more time than you think you need. I mean yes, I'm a huge advocate of scheduling but I want to enjoy the cooking, which means I don't expect myself to crank out dishes at warp speed. This is easier after you've hosted at least once and have an idea of how long things take. I wash my pots and pans as I go along, and then dry them and put them away. Along those lines, take the time to get yourself ready. People would rather show up and be greeted by a clean and pleasant host, even if it means waiting another 30 minutes to start eating, I'm almost positive.

Delegate specific dishes. I always ask people to bring veggie sides while I focus on the core dishes. But you can also delegate desserts, which can be a huge help. Whatever you do, make sure you let people know what to bring. Also, there is no shame in going store bought for things that are just cluttering up your schedule. Those brown and serve rolls will make everyone happy if you don't want to mess with yeasted dough along with everything else.

Remember that you are not a caterer! I have never managed to get everything piping hot and served at the same time. And that's fine. Your guests aren't there for a restaurant experience and you shouldn't feel pressured to provide one. Sure, I make every attempt to make the most delicious meal possible, but if things go wonky just open another bottle of champagne and take a deep breath.

This is just a theoretical example, because everyone will have a different schedule based on the recipes you're using and your start time, but this is an example of what my schedule usually looks like. This is for a late arrival time, so if we're doing a 2 pm dinner I bump it up by 2 hours.

TG schedule

The last half hour tends to be a bit of a flurry, especially if you're making gravy. There isn't really any way around this that I've discovered. You'll be pulling stuff out of the oven, whisking the gravy, hopefully delegating someone to carve the turkey. I just try to work quickly and stay relaxed.

Oddly enough, this is the first year in forever that I'm not doing Thanksgiving. We had some scheduling issues that were going to make it really difficult so I cried uncle. We had some friends over on Saturday so I got my hosting fix and I'm going to relax this year (but also look forward to next year!). I'll share a couple recipes tomorrow and Wednesday and live vicariously through you.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Coming soon!

I really, really wanted to get a breakdown on Thanksgiving scheduling up today, but it's taking longer than anticipated to write it. I'm going to get it up early next week, promise. Hopefully it will be helpful.

persimmons and crocheted lace

In the meantime, there are lots of other Thanksgiving posts. I think it's obvious that it's my favorite holiday.

My Thanksgiving planning process
Thanksgiving 2013
Friendsgiving 2013
Thanksgiving 2012
Friendsgiving 2012
2011 prep + recap
2010 prep + recap (the one where we got engaged)
Thanksgiving 2009

Printable napkin rings
Leaf garland template

Cranberry margaritas

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Afternoon snack

Every single day for the last several weeks. 

afternoon snack

1 oz cheese + 5 crackers + 1/2 apple. Although it's usually packed in a to go container. 

I used to convince myself that my afternoon snack should be super healthy, like carrot sticks, even though all I really want in the afternoon (always, really) is cheese and crackers. 

I try to avoid eating wheat on a daily basis because too much of it makes my joints swell like crazy. If we have pasta and bread for dinner, I'm resigned to the fact that I'll wake up with "pasta knuckles" the next morning. I choose to work around this because I'm not interested in giving up gluten. So we don't keep bread in the house on a regular basis anymore and I try to keep my pasta intake low(ish) even though I'm in no way gluten-free.

But I've decided that 5 little crackers a day aren't going to kill me and it's been lovely. I'll admit that the first time I brought home a box I ended up eating half of it on the bus, but I blame that on terrible traffic combined with post work hunger. Now that I have them around all the time I don't have an issue sticking to my small serving each day and my joints seem fine, knock on wood.

Speaking of cheese (we were, weren't we?) - am I the only one who gets excited for the holidays in large part because of the cheese platters? Trader Joe's caramelized onion cheddar, I am coming for you. 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Black bean burgers revisited

I'm still using my standard recipe for black bean burgers but I've gotten a little better about making them so I'm jotting down my notes.

peppers and onions

black beans

burger mix

I use the pastry cutter for mashing the beans. The original recipe called for a fork, but mashing things with a fork is not a lot of fun. I used to use the food processor, but it does TOO good a job and can make it smoother than you want. The pastry cutter is perfect. (I also use it for guacamole and for egg salad, but not for pastry, oddly enough).

The dough (batter?) is still really soft, and shaping it was always a pain. I now treat these like pancakes and just use my largest scoop (it's a #12 which is 1/3 cup) to put the batter directly on the griddle. I flatten out the mounds a bit with a spatula. They're delicate, so you have to be careful on the first flip, but they'll firm up a bit as they cook. I don't use a non-stick skillet anymore, just my cast iron griddle with some oil on it.

In addition to the cumin and the coriander (about 1 - 2 teaspoons of each), I also add in a bit of chili powder.

I've also tested out a couple of variations that were good. Sometimes I'll finely dice sweet potatoes and saute them with the onion mixture to get them tender. If you happen to have leftover caramelized onions on hand, those are a great addition. I'm planning to do a version with diced jalapenos for some extra heat. It's a good recipe to play around with.

** I have a lot of information about the kitchen equipment I use the most in this post, if you're ever wondering. **

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Pitcher palomas

I love margaritas as much as the next person (okay, maybe more) but there are times when all I want is a paloma. Palomas are sort of like stripped down margaritas, consisting mainly of grapefruit and tequila. You can make them in various ways, the least fancy of which is just silver tequila and Squirt.

On Saturday we were going to a party so I wanted something relatively quick that I could pack up and take as a pitcher cocktail. I started with this Rick Bayless recipe but because we were using fresh grapefruit juice (I get it from the Trader Joe's refrigerated section) that has basically no sweetness, I knew we'd need to play with it. I swapped in a little bit of tangerine juice to balance out the grapefruit juice and then made a basil simple syrup instead of just using regular sugar, which I find never dissolves well.

pitcher palomas
{pitcher palomas}

This cocktail will take a bit of adjusting because so much depends on your juice. Have a tasting glass nearby and take tiny sips as you go along so you can get it where you want it.

Pitcher palomas (makes enough for a crowd, about 15 large drinks)
1 1/2 cups lime juice
3 cups fresh grapefruit juice
1 cup tangerine juice (or OJ, or just more grapefruit juice)
4 cups silver tequila (basically a full 750 ml bottle)
~ 1/3 cup basil simple syrup, or regular simple syrup
~ 24 oz sparkling water (I used Le Croix grapefruit flavored water)
Ice, for serving
:: Mix the juice and the tequila together. Add simple syrup to taste. I think I ended up using about 1/3 cup, just enough to take the edge off the grapefruit. If you are using bottled grapefruit juice, which is sweeter, you might not need any syrup at all. If you prefer a sweeter drink, you may need quite a bit more.

:: You can either top with the sparkling water or have it available for people to add to their liking. How much water you add will mostly be determined by the setting. If I were pouring a round of cocktails pre-dinner at home, I might add just a splash of water. But when I make pitcher drinks for parties I tend to use more. People drink more at a party and they drink faster so I find it's better to make the drinks a little lighter so they can sip longer. If you taste as you mix and stick with flavored water, you'll ensure that it doesn't end up tasting watered down, just refreshing.

Basil simple syrup (makes about 3/4 cup)
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
Large handful of basil leaves
:: Bring the water and sugar to a gentle boil, stirring to make sure the sugar dissolves. Toss in the basil leaves, stir, and turn off the heat. Allow to cool before straining.

You can keep the leftovers in the fridge for a week or two. If you don't have basil, leave it out and just make regular simple syrup.

I always use my flip top bottles when I bring drinks to a party. I write on them with a black sharpie, including a short description of the drink so that people hunting through the cooler can decide if it appeals to them The sharpie will come off with soap and water when you're ready to wash it.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Fall meal planning update

I'm still mostly using my meal planning system, although the actual cooking definitely fell by the wayside for most of the summer due to the heat. Instead I tried to plan as many fast, preferably oven-less, meals as possible.

meal planning tweaks

Now that it's starting to cool down I tweaked our meal planning a bit. Soup is sounding more appealing, so I'm subbing out our usual large salad meal for a hearty soup meal. I've also reduced the total servings I aim for each week from 16 to 12. This is because I've been cooking my lunches separately so I don't need to factor them into our planning. When my cooking was sporadic during the summer I couldn't rely on leftovers (quesadillas aren't great the next day) and I kept purchasing lunch, which I hate to do. So much money, so little enjoyment. If I could actually go out to eat I might see it differently but I don't like paying $7 for a lackluster sandwich to eat at my desk.

So, new lunch plan: brown rice + frozen stir fry veg + protein (usually tofu a few times a week and fish or meat a couple times) + stir fry sauce. It's a fake stir fry. And yes, the microwaved frozen vegetables are not nearly as good as fresh would be but this is the fastest, most consistent lunch I've been able to come up with. It takes virtually no effort and hits all the key nutritional groups I need to feel good. All I really have to do is remember to cook a batch of brown rice on Sunday evening and purchase some tofu. I don't even bother pre-cooking the tofu most of the time. This is where it really comes in handy that I can eat the same lunch every day and not get bored.

And my new meal planning structure looks like this:
Soup - 1x per week, 4 - 6 servings
Meat/lentils/pasta - 1x per week, 4 - 6 servings
Easy meal - 1x per week, 2 - 4 servings

I just need to round up some hearty soup recipes, preferably including a few that can be done in the crockpot. I've been searching around and hopefully I can share some as I try them. I love the crockpot, but the most common recipes you find are usually meat based and we try not to eat meat all the time. I'm hunting for vegetarian recipes as well and there are some that look pretty awesome.

More meal planning posts here.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The weekend

If I had realized it was going to be 90 degrees on Saturday I probably wouldn't have committed myself to spending all day in the kitchen.

kitchen saturday
{kitchen saturday}

sundried tomato pesto
{sundried tomato pesto}

pumpkin ginger bread
{pumpkin ginger bread}



It was still nice to get back in there so I won't complain. We had a family birthday party on Sunday (not pictured, because it was a whirlwind) so I was prepping for that by making carrot cake cupcakes and my favorite picnic food, pressed sandwiches (grilled veg + pesto and prosciutto + mozzarella + sundried tomato pesto). Since I was already in there I tested out a pumpkin bread recipe I hadn't tried before. It had a lot of pumpkin flavor but not nearly enough spice for me. I'll hunt out a new one.

Saturday evening we were veritable social butterflies, at least compared to our usual standards. We went to Brendan Ravenhill's new studio opening and ogled over light fixtures. Then we headed to Lily's gallery opening and ogled over her gorgeous paintings. Then we went to a party at our friends' house and hung out until midnight at which point I cried uncle. My stamina has gone way down, guys.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Care package

Way back in August we took that last minute trip up to the bay area to help my sister and her husband move into their new place. What I didn't share at the time is that the reason we ended up going up with them was because my poor sister was suffering through the most miserable morning (and noon, and night) sickness I've ever seen and we didn't want her to make the long drive.

I also wanted to put together a little care package for them, since moves are the worst, even when you aren't feeling terrible. We might be completely grown up, but I'll still never get over the impulse to be an overprotective older sister.

care package

I am far from an expert but I dug around on the internet and then just winged it. All the ginger goodies I could pick up (chews, cookies and tea from Trader Joe's) plus some lemonheads in case the sweet-sour thing could help. Ritz crackers, which I don't think she ended up being able to eat, but hey, you have to try everything! Pretty sure the ginger thins ended up being the biggest success.

I wanted them to have a couple meals in the fridge so I put together my favorite orzo salad, then panicked because I realized it has a lot of garlic which might be super unappealing to a pregnant lady so I added a giant tub of baked mac and cheese. Brownies and candles for her husband, since his birthday was the day after we left and I knew there was no way they'd have a functional kitchen yet (seriously, the timing of this move was rough in all kinds of ways). I packaged everything in a set of the glass snaptop containers that I'm completely obsessed with. Seriously, they are the best and Macy's puts them on sale regularly, so keep an eye out.

I'm happy to report that she's feeling much better now and I'm over the moon with excitement to meet the new baby in March! Expect to see a lot of weekend Oakland trips in the spring.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Year six

I didn't want to write this year either. I actually thought I had a draft where I'd been typing my notes, but no, just this blank page that I need to somehow wrangle my thoughts onto. I thought maybe I'd just skip it, but I can't quite do it. I'm grateful to have posts from each year to look back on even though writing them is hard - years one, two, three, four and five here.

Today marks the sixth year anniversary of Dave's bicycle accident. Last year I had just finished dealing with a crisis and was so, so angry. This year I feel pretty defeated. Nothing is getting better and I'm starting to realize that I have to let go of it a little if my life is ever going to move forward. I've been trying to take steps towards letting go, but it's a terrifying, guilt ridden process. Looking back, I realize that I said I was going to do this last year and I've only been partially successful.

Here's the thing - my default mode is to be a "fixer" in all situations. I can google like a pro, I can make lists of action items and resources and steps to take. But I can't fix this and not only have I exhausted myself trying, I've ended up in a position where all my energy and resources over the last few years have gone towards trying. I just haven't had anything left to invest in myself or my career or my relationships with people I care about, including my parents, which seems ironic, since I spend so much time thinking about them. But a relationship based solely on problem-solving isn't really a relationship, and I'm starting to feel it.

Fixing is comforting. It keeps me busy and distracted. I don't have time to feel sad often because I'm constantly going over a to do list in my head. Appointments and phone calls I should make (when the hell do people who work full time make phone calls when most offices are only open during the hours you are also working? it's a dilemma), places I should check out, strategies we maybe haven't tried yet. My mind is always going and it numbs me out a bit. Sure, I feel frantic and stressed and angry that I have to do all this. But sad? I haven't let myself feel sad in a while. Sad is depressing. Sad is admitting defeat. Sad is something that you can't just fix and I have a hard time accepting that.

So this summer I decided to try just letting myself feel sad. Or angry, or whatever. I would sometimes come home and just lie on the floor in the dark for 30 minutes and listen to music and actually let myself think about my feelings. It was a little bit like being 13 again, but with fewer zits. And yes, it was sad. I was essentially throwing myself a long overdue pity party and not even attempting to distract myself from it. It was uncomfortable and awkward. I am not a lie on the floor and cry type of person but eventually I needed to stop banging against a wall and actually lean into it. Honor the sadness and hope that I could start to move on from there.

I wish I could tell you that I had an amazing breakthrough and am now totally in touch with my emotions and also magically found a solution to this situation. I didn't. I still backslide a lot, and catch myself putting up walls because it's so much easier, this habit, even if it leaves me cut off and angry. I still feel responsible for fixing my parents' lives or at least finding solutions to make them more livable. I'm still terrified because I know that at some point in the near future the burden of taking care of Dave 24/7 is going to break my mom down completely and we should be coming up with a solution in advance of that and we haven't. I don't have the energy. I need to spend a bit of that energy on myself, because I've been paddling in place for the last six years, barely able to get myself to move into a new apartment, let alone contemplate my own future. I keep telling myself that I'll pick up the pieces of my own life later, once I've resolved everything. But this isn't going to resolve. It might only get worse. And I don't know how many years the rest of my life can wait on hold.

I don't know how to get over the crippling guilt I feel when I make the decision to cut back on family time in order to have more time with Dustin, or with our friends, or just by myself. I've tried to do it this year because it's the only way forward I know. The first Saturday I woke up and realized I was going to spend the entire weekend in my own apartment, without any trips down to my parents or any major events, I actually felt at loose ends. What do people do with free time? And had I really had so little of it that I couldn't remember how it felt? The enormous, unbelievable luxury of waking up slowly and doing normal things, cleaning the house and drinking tea and walking the dog and reading a book and doing laundry. The lingering anxiety that surely I was forgetting something because not following a complicated schedule of obligations seemed unbelievable. I'm trying to make sure we keep at least two weekends a month free. It's harder than you'd expect and it's still never really enough time, but it's something.

So this is where I am, moving forward in starts and stutters, trying to rebuild my relationships as best I can, trying to honor the sadness without letting it consume me. I need to spend a little time fixing myself before I can keep on with fixing anyone else. I can't really see my way forward right now but I'm trying to believe that there's a path somewhere. I have to start taking some steps in the fog and just hope that I find it.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Mops, and other exciting things (just kidding! it's only about mops)

I already waxed ecstatic about my Roomba on here, so this post probably won't surprise anyone. Blogs are tough because whenever I get excited I want to share something with you, but I think I'm supposed to be getting excited about wall weavings and fancy new candle scents. And I do like some of those things! But I really, really like gadgets that make my chores easier.

I grew up cleaning floors on hands and knees and while I've tried to make a transition to a Bona type system (which is basically an upscale Swedish Swiffer, in case you don't spend your spare time thinking about cleaning products) I always reverted back. Especially after I bent the handle of our Bona by trying to scrub too hard. I really like to put my back into it, I guess. I needed another solution.

new friend
{new friend}

I've had this Bissell floor steam cleaner for a month and it is a game changer. Our floors have never felt so good. It doesn't use any cleaning products, just distilled water. It comes with two pads and they're machine washable (but they have to be air dried, so don't toss them in the dryer. I have no idea what will happen if you do, but I'm not taking any chances).

Basically, you fill it with water, plug it in, wait for it to warm up and then select your steam level. I use level three on my tile floors and level two on the wood. Then you just run it over the floor, not too fast. The contact time matters since you aren't physically scrubbing and you want the steam to have a chance to work. I just run the cleaner along the floor at a slow pace. If you have a stubborn spot, you just hold the steamer in place for 10 seconds or so and it usually steams it right off. The head swivels well so getting into corners and under furniture is easy. The floors feel amazing when I'm done and because it's so quick I end up cleaning them once or twice a week.* I won't tell you how often I was cleaning them before because then you'll be horrified.

The only thing that drives me a little nuts is that there is no on/off switch. You have to physically unplug it to turn it off. This is incomprehensible to me. Every other appliance I own has an on/off switch so it can't be super advanced technology. Backtracking over freshly steamed floors in order to unplug the machine, while the machine itself is still spitting out steam, is a bit of a pain. EDIT - This is my fault for not reading the instructions. You can turn the mop off by pressing the steam level button a few times. It will rotate through each level and then turn off.

One note - some of the reviews are annoyed because you have to sweep the floors first. Um, duh. A steam cleaner is not a vacuum. This is exactly the same process as mopping your floors. Of course it would be nicer if the steamer also sucked up all your hair for you (I'm half convinced that I'm going bald, based on the amount of hair I vacuum up regularly) but that isn't how it works.

* As I write this I realize it 100% sounds like a glowing sponsored post. It is not. To date, I have never run a sponsored post and while I don't anticipate doing so, I would certainly give you a heads up if I did. There are a ton of steam cleaners on the market. We checked out the reviews and the prices and finally ordered this one, which is the most basic model available. Bissell has no idea that I exist, let alone that I'm in love with their glorified mop.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Lemon bar quest

About those lemon bars ...

I love lemon bars but I don't make them often enough to be loyal to a particular recipe. I've had a couple of flops where the lemon custard didn't set up well and I was left pretty disappointed, considering the number of wasted lemons, not to mention the butter.

This time around I went with an Ina Garten recipe and I think I can say it was foolproof and pretty delicious. The lemon custard is fairly firm, probably because it has a bit more flour in it than I'd expect. The shortbread crust is tender but sturdy enough not to fall apart too much. Maybe I've found my one and only? Although I still want to try the Smitten Kitchen whole lemon version. I was afraid to make it this time because I've had a couple of mixed results with the whole lemon tart and I knew I wouldn't have time to make a second batch if the first one failed.

Since these were for a baby shower I wanted them to look as profesh as possible. My lemon bars usually aren't pretty. It's hard to get clean edges or even sizes when you're cutting through a layer of custard. This time I decided I was going for it and tried to be really careful.

Lemon bar grid
{lemon bar grid}

First I chilled the lemon bars overnight. The next morning I cut squares that were approximately 3 inches, with the help of the measuring tape. Then I made two diagonal cuts on each square to get four triangles. I ended up rejecting some of the edge pieces but everything else looked nice and even. You'll have to take my word for it because after I'd spent 40 minutes cutting up lemon bars it was kind of a frantic rush to get out the door on time.

Monday, November 3, 2014


Whew. It's been a while.

morning light
{morning light}


lemon bars
{lemon bars}

bowtie cookies
{bow tie cookies}


I wish I had something exciting to share but I've got nothing. Just run of the mill life stuff like spending most of my energy on work and distributing whatever I have left as best I can. It hasn't been very picturesque, let me tell you.

A few little things ...

:: I know people claim that we don't have seasons here but I think they're just (much) more subtle. I'm enjoying the fall light, even if the fall weather is slow to catch up. I'm normally loathe to give up summer, but that last heat wave nearly killed me and now I'm grasping at any hint of chill in the air even if it means I won't see daylight for several months. It was cold enough this weekend that I'm looking forward to ending my nearly uninterrupted summer kitchen boycott.

:: Okay, I have spent a little time in the kitchen. I've been basing our cooking nights on the weather report, so I manage to get in there occasionally. Things I have cooked in the past three weeks: one enormous pot of linguine, lemon bars, a double batch of sugar cookies, countless quesadillas. The baked goods were for a dear friend's baby shower and I managed to frost the sugar cookies on my own. Sugar cookie decor is not my forte, but Emily's tips saved me. I think the key is the long, slow mixing. I always beat the hell out of my royal icing, which works perfectly for gingerbread houses but is terrible for sugar cookies. I think I erred on the too-soft side and the icing sort of bled together, but I'm improving!

:: Circe always helps with the vacuuming by lying on the floor directly in your path and then nonchalantly moving out of the way at the last second. I think she's just trying to prove how un-intimidated she is by the whole process.

Not pictured - we had a beloved out of town friend visiting last week and used it as an excuse to eat all the things. I kind of wish we hadn't finally tried Pine and Crane because it was as good as everyone said and so affordable and now all I want to do is pick up their dan dan noodles every night.