Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Pantry Challenge: Great Cake Edition

Last weekend, our family celebrated my son's 25th. As in, the Christmastime baby's finally getting his due, a month after the fact...

And that can only mean one thing: Cake.

As my oldest is very much into the birthday thing, she'd prod her brother daily as to what kind of cake he'd want. "Do you want a Thomas cake? Do you want a dinosaur cake?"

And, being two, he'd say yes.

Which led me to a minor panic. I've never been one to shell out for a store-bought cake, but I struggled to find any kind of cake decoration that would work. Apparently the sugared decorations you'd buy in the store when I was a child no longer existed. I gave up after several stores. I half-heartedly looked for a train or dinosaur pan at resale shops. I flirted with how I could make a train that wrapped around a round cake.

But Friday came, and I had to do something.

And I stared at the cake aisle at Target, eyes glazed over as I glanced over the different types of decorating options (yes, even a can that comes with its own decorating tops you can toss), and I realized, I can do this myself. I'm a big girl. I can mix eggs and oil and a box mix. At that point, why not bake it myself?

So I grabbed some eggs, some powdered sugar, butter, ice cream and a small tube of icing and decorator tops (no sense buying them more than once). It cost less than the mix, frosting and assorted items to add in the baking process. And Saturday morning, I went to work.

And strangely enough, my homemade (hand-drawn, even) dinosaur cake turned out ok.

Lest you think it's a fluke, it's amazingly simple to bake your own cake and mix your own frosting. Most of the ingredients are likely in your pantry.

In fact, I think the frosting is better and easier to spread than anything bought off the shelf!

Here's our success story, adapted from an old Better Homes & Gardens cookbook:

Giradelli Chocolate Chip Cake

2 cups flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup butter, softened

1 1/2 cups sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla

1 cup milk

5 egg whites

12-oz. package Giradelli chocolate chips (how these survived a stay in my pantry past the holidays, one only knows...)

Grease and flour two 9" cake pans.

Combine flour, baking powder and salt.

In mixer, beat butter, sugar and vanilla until fluffly.

Add dry ingredients and milk alternatly to beaten mixture, keeping on low speed.

Wash beaters.

In small bowl, beat egg whites until stiff peaks form. Gently fold into flour mixture with the chocolate chips. Pour into pans.

Bake at 375 for 20 minutes or until cake tests done. Cool at least 10 minutes before removing from pans.

White frosting

1 cup butter, softened

1 1/2 teaspoons venilla

4 1/2 (ish) cups powdered sugar

3 to 4 tablespoons milk.

Beat butter and vanilla on medium spead for 30 seconds. Gradually add half of the powdered sugar, beating well, then half of the milk. Blend in rest of the powdered sugar then enough milk to make it spreading consistency.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Awesome mushroom pasta

Cleaning out the fridge today was a quicker process than I thought. Only a handful of leftovers were left (a sign of better planning around here!)

So I was stumped for lunch. I had one portobello mushroom cap, bought on a whim - I have a difficulty telling my children no if they're interested in fresh produce at the store. I also had a package of fresh button mushrooms. Here's the result....

Two-mushroom pasta
8 cloves fresh garlic, chopped
2 T. olive oil
1 large portobello mushroom, cut into 1" chunks
1 8-oz. package sliced button mushrooms
1/2 package (approx. 8 oz.) egg noodles
1 T. sherry (optional)
Cracked pepper

Prepare noodles according to package directions.

In large frying pan, heat olive oil, and sautee' garlic until light brown. Add all mushrooms and cook until browned. Add 1 T. sherry to deglaze pan (could add water as alternate); cook until liquid is gone.

Toss pasta with mushrooms, add cracked black pepper and salt to taste.

Lest you think it's a mom-only recipe, my 4 year old declared it "the best pasta ever." Here's hoping I can recreate the magic!

At the GPB: Green as a matter of faith?

Today I'm preaching what I'm practicing over at the Green Phone Booth. Join the discussion: What does being green have to do with faith?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Step up! Clean your closets and make a difference

Step up and help your neighbor: Your older, unloved shoes could find a new home with someone who needs help most.

I've always struggled with what to do with well-worn shoes or those my children outgrow in a matter of weeks, it seems. If they're in good shape, there's the option of donating them or selling to a resale shop, but those with scuffs or scrapes just don't make the cut for willing buyers and all too often end up in the trash.

While you can participate in shoe recycling programs such as the one through Nike, which turns old tennis shoes into new track, I'd like to argue that helping our neighbors, near and far, is more important than ever. Whether it's helping our local communities facing double-digit unemployment (and fewer resources for the basics) or giving a step-up to those in the most impoverished countries, a donation of your child's outgrown tennies or your outdated styles could make a difference for those in need. And all it costs you is the time of cleaning out your closet and dropping them off to a collection site or at the post office.

Here's just a sampling of the organizations that regularly accept donations of used but still usable shoes. Details on these groups came from their Web sites; please confirm drop-off locations with the organization before shipping or dropping off shoes.

Heart and Sole
A project run through the Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine, Heart and Sole provides new and gently used shoes to the poorest of the world’s people. More than 7,000 pairs of shoes have been shipped around the world.

One World Running
Since 1986, a group of runners in Boulder, Colorado, has collected, washed and sent to Third World countries new and "near-new" athletic shoes, T-shirts and shorts, along with medicine and school and art supplies. Drop-off locations include locations in Alabama, California, Colorado, Florida, and Ottawa.

Soles4Souls is a Nashville-based charity that collects shoes from the warehouses of footwear companies and the closets of people like you. The charity distributes these shoes free of charge to people in need, regardless of race, religion, class, or any other criteria. Since 2005, Soles4Souls has given away over 5.5 million pairs of new and gently worn shoes (currently donating one pair every 9 seconds.) The shoes have been distributed to people in over 125 countries, including Kenya, Thailand, Nepal and the United States. I became aware of this as they are partnering with many stores in Indiana for drop-off sites, as they are working, like many groups, to assist those in Haiti. Find drop-off locations and a mailing address (if no drop-off spots are nearby).

The Shoe Bank had just one goal when it was founded in 1989 – to put comfortable shoes on a few hundred homeless men living on the streets in downtown Dallas. The program today provides shoes for 20,000 people every year – primarily children, both here and abroad.
Find drop-off locations in Texas here.

Whether you're wanting to help others on a limited budget or simply want to start on your spring cleaning, take those few extra minutes to make sure your castoffs go to a good cause. It's more important than ever!

Monday, January 25, 2010

A (non-) sticky mess

Non-stick skillets and pans have graced my cabinets for as long as I can remember. While we've been phasing our admittedly cheaper pans from our college days out as they wear, we still have one pan that still gets use in our home on a regular basis.

So imagine my surprise when I read this weekend that the ease of that non-stick coating could carry a hefty price. The Globe and Mail reports that:

People with higher residues in their blood of a chemical used to make non-stick
coatings for frying pans and water-repellent clothing have a far greater
likelihood of reporting thyroid diseases, according to a new study released

...The study, published in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Health Perspectives, found that in a group of nearly 4,000 people in the United States, those with elevated PFOA levels were more than twice as likely to report being on medication to treat thyroid conditions as those with lower concentrations of the chemical.

What's worse is what was buried in the story:
Once people ingest a quantity of PFOA, it takes about four years for half of the
chemical to be cleared from the body by the kidneys.

While this isn't the first time I've read about chemicals from everyday products taking harbor in your body, the research study certainly gives me pause. While I'll be the first to admit I'm annoyed when my husband leaves the cast-iron skillet on the stove uncleaned overnight, it may be a small price to pay to help ensure my child has a smaller chance of getting a disease that will require medical management for the rest of his or her life.

The greater question, of course, is where do all the tossed non-stick pans go...and what happens with the chemicals as they decompose. But that is a worry for another day.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Feeling the pressure to party

After getting past the commercial craziness that marks the Christmas season, I figured January would be a saner month. No such luck. So far, we’ve had two birthday parties for other kids to attend, and this weekend we are marking my son’s “25th” (month), as his birthday is just before the holidays.

For his “real” birthday, we celebrated simply. Instead of a huge celebration, the four of us munched on red velvet cupcakes (of which I bought a four-pack from the store; no sense having two dozen of them at home) and opened a small gift from his sister and presents from a grandparent.

But I got the pressure to party. His other grandparents and his godparents were wondering when the “big” celebration is, and I finally conceded and scheduled a small affair this weekend.

When I say small, I mean it. He’s two. He’s getting a cake and playing with friends.

There’s no meal involved – though I love to cook. There’s no goodie bags for guests. There’s no Thomas the Train dishware or cups.

Heck, his present – a personalized ABC photo album like I made his sister – hasn’t even been started yet, though I think I’ve figured out what will go for each letter of the alphabet.

Nope. It’s just a sugared-up kid or four and a few presents, and God willing, some space for them to run around.

I’m wondering when parties became the big affairs that they were. Maybe my family just kept it simpler. I don’t recall any large celebrations when I was young, and only a few birthdays with friends stand out in my rusty memory.

But today, it’s an ordeal. And I am not just talking about “My Sweet 16” and other birthday blow-out-type expectations. Five-year-olds are renting out entire gymnasiums to celebrate. Even lower-key celebrations with our neighbors require the preparation of entire meals, scrambling for sets of tables and chairs and, frankly, a lot of stress. Either way, it amounts to cranky parents and pressure on the kids to have the most memorable, happiest day ever.

So this weekend, pardon our simplicity with our l0w-key affair. It’s not that we’re trying to be cheap. Or bad hosts. It’s just there’s a time to go big, and there’s a time to just be with one another and enjoying – not orchestrating - the moment.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Bloomington Winter Market opens this weekend

The Bloomington Winter Farmers Market opens this Saturday and runs through March 26. Hours are 9 a.m. to noon Saturdays. It's being held at the Harmony School Gymnasium located at 909 E. 2nd Street in Bloomington.

The site promises a wide variety of meats and produce - including onions, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, lettuce, arugula, kale, chard, spinach, mustard greens, watercress, potatoes, winter squash, sweet potatoes, apples and herbs. In other words, don't think that just because it's January you're doomed to eat canned or frozen veggies.

I'd love to hear from anyone who's checked out this market in the past. Is it worth the drive?

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Rice pilaf recipe

Still in the midst of my pantry and fridge purging, I had to come up with a dish Friday for a pitch-in at work. I stumbled across this recipe over at Kid Appeal for a Shitake Mushroom Rice Pilaf.

I did sub white rice for brown, omitted the onion and added lots of cracked black pepper as that was what was on hand, but it got rave reviews!

And, I should say, it was easy!

Helping out by doing without

Want to save the world? Save your wallet? Take those challenges you're turned on to and turn them into something more. Read more today over at the Green Phone Booth...

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Frozen finds: Dishing up dinner from the deep freezer

Inspired by a blogger's challenge to eat a week just out of the pantry (with a little extra inspiration from a tire purchase, tuition and my unplanned dryer repair), I declared to my husband that my goal was to spend the next week cleaning out. The fridge. The pantry. The deep freezer. Particularly the freezer - that frozen tundra where food goes to die. (I think of those "mystery meat" meals my mother would make in the crock-pot as a kid...)

And no matter how crazy the menu, we were going to do it.

This is a true story...No sugar-coated posts about how wonderful it was to clean things out and how much money we'll save. It's all about, at the end of the day, getting those kids (and their dad) to eat a meal.

Day 1

I confess to cheating: I open it up to the kids' desires. Hot dogs and tater tots it is. (My husband really shouldn't be eating those anyway!) I munch on a rogue bag of microwave popcorn from the pantry. DH does his own thing.

Day 2

We plan to stick to a staple - baked chicken and rice. I'd gotten the chicken out of the freezer the day before. DH forgets to start it until about 10 minutes before we're home. We bake it; the kids dine on leftover soft taco fixings, homemade low mein and veggies. At least the random dishes are gone.

Day 3

The pressure's off - the entree is done! I whip up a batch of green beans sauteed with basil, oregano, onions, mushrooms garlic and water chestnuts no less - a loose takeoff from a recipe the Princess & The Frog cookbook my daughter received for Christmas. Her interest in playing tsou chef tonight lasts about 2 minutes, though she pops in periodically to mooch off a water chestnut while I'm cooking.

The kids go to bed, and I take stock of the freezer - it's a lot emptier than I thought. Lots of leftover berries and other fruits frozen when in season; not much for meats. Realize I actually have no more greeen beans in the house - surprising considering how much we froze from our garden this summer. Will have to get a little more creative as the week progresses.

Grab from the freezer a loaf of French bread (gotten from Sam's some time ago), some chopped apples (that never did make it for streudel) and cranberries (which sadly, were from last season)and use up my eggs prepping baked French toast.

DH casually goes into the freezer and pulls out a new bag of blueberries for a fruit smoothie the next morning. I stare at him. Did you check the garage, I ask? We bought a ton this summer when it was in season - and only have about three gallons of blueberries left. Hence the reason for our purge!

Day 4

A cold Saturday day is perfect for soup, I reason, and I'd finally gotten a recipe for carrot soup from the caterer from our commercial shoot. I'm anxious to try it and mention it to my husband. My husband gives me that look that he's about to throw up, then practically runs to the kitchen. The next thing I hear is, "Do you want macaroni and cheese too?"

After lunch, I start clipping coupons, and stumble across a recipe, which I don't normally read in the coupon section. I get excited as I realize I have every single ingredient...then find out we actually have no ground beef in the house. I truly think it's a first.

For dinner we'd planned on our one big splurge - our small roast that I'd picked up for our holiday celebration and then tossed in the freezer when we found out we were visiting the in-laws. Except it's still frozen on the bottom shelf of the fridge. The family has chicken fried rice instead.

Day 5

Sunday tends to be a free-for-all for us. With church times and nap times, we're often cramming a lunch whenever and however we can. Still bent on my soup kick, I heat up a bowl of leftover corn chowder that I'd frozen from last month. I offer it to my 2 year old, who flat refuses and asks for crackers. He is offered crackers and asks for chicken. (There are no chicken nuggets in the house.) He throws his sippy cup in protest. He is banished to nap time.

We hear from down the hall: "Daddy...hungry...chicken..."

Thankfully, he thinks the roast is chicken and eats three servings at dinner.

Day 6

Am driving to pick up the kids and have a panic moment: My planned dinner is still in the deep freezer. Whoops.

Determined not to have another meal from the big blue box, I spring the idea of pasta and ricotta on the kids when I arrive at daycare. They love it. We run to the store to grab some ricotta and walk out $20 poorer. (To my defense, soups were on sale for $.79, and they're a cooking staple in several of our family's dishes.)

Wind up cooking 1/2 package of pasta and tossing 1 cup of ricotta, 1 tablespoon butter, and some sauteed garlic (a large spoonful from the bulk jar) and 1/2 pound spinach in my pasta. More leftover spinach stays raw and is hidden by Mandarin oranges and some raisins, dressed with the leftover juice from the can. Little fingers keep picking off the spinach as I prepare the dish.

I offer the hungry natives the salad -- they're ready to meltdown over who ate the last of the dried okra -- while I finish prepping the pasta. My daughter eats the salad. My son makes it clear no spinach will cross his lips as he tosses the raw leaves aside. But then, he did ask for thirds on the pasta dish....

Day 7

The great thing about cooking at home is the ease of making extra. I whipped up the whole box of pasta and used half last night. Coupled with the leftovers still in the fridge, some fruit and the green pepper I picked up last night at the store, we're good to go for dinner. Not high cuisine, but happy kids.

Day 8

Today, I'm blessed to have an unexpected day off and am home with the kids. We make use of more leftovers - polishing off the rest of the spinach, pasta and ricotta for another batch of the dish for lunch. Of course, what was eagerly gobbled two days ago earns me the look of "Whatever!" today. At least I have tomorrow's lunch packed.

The end results

Total cost for the week: $30-$40, including the groceries (chicken nuggets) that mysteriously showed up in my home while I was at work.

Was it worth it? Absolutely. While my deep freezer has probably more ice and leftover Christmas cookies than anything at this point, it's good to rotate stock to prevent freezer burn. And while I didn't use as many canned goods as I thought I would, that's a task for another week.

Moving forward: I'm trying to be smarter about what I shop for and do a better job of menu planning and writing my grocery lists as opposed to my "grab on the way home" mentality of cooking. Too often, I remember that I need to pick up a few ingredients for a dish, and that wastes money, time and many times food, as I tend to overbuy in those instances.

As I'm watching the news, I'm acutely aware of the devastation in Haiti. The latest is that water and electrical systems are failing, adding to the crisis. While we're not rich people by any means, my plan is to do this again this week and send our grocery savings to Catholic Relief Services for the Haitian relief efforts.

How are you doing on your pantry challenges?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Beyond the Hallmark moments

"Merry freakin' Christmas. I get tires."

Yes, that was my post on my Facebook page just days before the birth of Christ. But the funny thing is, it was done with a lot of love and caring. My tires were worn, in fact - something I hadn't checked seeing I had a relatively new vehicle.

I saw dollars at a time we didn't have much. And yet, that simple act - ensuring our safety on the roads - is one of true kindness and compassion.

I think back to the story my mother tells of when she and my dad were dating or were newlyweds, I can't remember which, when he bought her tires for Valentine's Day so she would be safe when she drove on wintery Wisconsin roads.

But acts of love don't have to be costly or conventional, and they don't have to come shrink-wrapped in a box of chocolates, fuzzed-up in a teddy bear or trimmed down in a tiny nightie. Everyday moments can show the love for one another.

Like the wool socks my now-husband bought for me in college, because I'd complain about my feet freezing in the mile-ish hike to one of my classes (OK, or any other time).

Or the fact that my daughter wants to give her toys to her brother or a good friend, not because she doesn't want it, but because she thinks others will get the same enjoyment.

Or in the simplicity of a hug after a bad day.

This Valentine's Day, I challenge you to think outside the norms and find your own way to share your love for someone else dear to you. Maybe it's snuggling under a fuzzy blanket and watching a movie after the kids go to sleep. Or a stroll by starlight. Or a phone call or handwritten note. Or even doing a chore for someone who usually takes on that task. Because it's those little moments that mean the most.

This is my contribution for the January APLS Carnival on Greening Your Valentine's Day, hosted by Retro Housewife Goes Green on Jan. 19. Join us by sending your posts to love_cats05(at)yahoo(dot)com by Jan. 17. If you're interested in hosting a future month, post below how we can reach you.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Over at the Green Phone Booth...

My mother-in-law gave me a notepad for Christmas. On it, it said, "Stop me before I volunteer again." Yea, well, you know me...I signed up for another thing to add to my to-do list!

You can now find me Saturdays blogging at the Green Phone Booth, a blogging cooperative focusing on green lifestyles. It's a great group of women, and well worth the reads.

This week, I'm writing about the recent New York Times piece on how two companies were caught destroying bags and bags of unsold clothing in light of these economic times. At one store alone, 20 bags of destroyed clothing was found in one night - and the chain has more than 2,000 stores across the globe. Scary thought. So many people could be helped...

Count your many blessings this weekend - particularly if you're inside where it's warm.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Greener giving and the preschooler: Is it possible?

This weekend marks the first of a series of birthday parties my oldest is invited to. And each party, while an excuse for a play date, brings the problem of present shopping.

In our family, smart shopping is the way we do things. We watch prices. We watch the plastic and the pieces. We pay attention to our kids' likes and dislikes. We try to buy responsibly. I confess that even Santa shopped a few times at the kids resale shop this year. But what happens when your kid is presenting the present? Do the rules change?

What do you do when your child, with all the love in her heart, announces she wants to wrap up her Care Bear for her friend because "she just loves blue"? Tell her no, that some people don't want hand-me-down gifts? Present the gift, but quietly explain to the mom the reason why her daughter's getting a used toy? Steer her to something different, like a nice book?

I'll leave it to you all: What would you do? I'm open to any ideas on how to approach this.

Seasonal shopping still in full swing

Winters markets are hot, even when it's brutally cold outdoors.

We hit the first farmers market of 2010 last weekend, and remained pleasantly surprised by what we found at the Indianapolis Winter Market. The building was packed with vendors and shoppers alike, even as the shopping hours came to a close. (So busy, in fact, the Star reported Sunday that the market's averaging 1,500 visitors in its second season!)

We came home with a bagful of apples, a huge glass jar of honey, seed packets (for those dreams of warmer weather someday) and more. We checked out apalca yarn, tasted freshly toasted marshmellows and would have lingered longer had the little guy hadn't had an unfortunate event outside.

Winter markets are definitely worth checking out. It's a great alternative for seasonal shopping, and one small way to beat the winter blues. If you're living around Indy, you have quite a few options--and they're growing every year:

Indiana Living Green this month lists other markets outside of the Indianapolis metropolitan area. Check out its list here.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

About those resolutions...

Chatting in the car this morning, I announce that my resolution for the year was to help my family eat and be healthier.

My 4 year old pipes up: "My resolution is eat dessert after dinner."

Green on the cheap - Diapers, dishwashers and more

Shockingly I went to Babies 'R Us yesterday, and stumbled on a few finds worth sharing:

Despite my efforts to make major headways on the potty training front, I still need disposables for day care. Earths Best diapers are on sale for $5 a package, limit 3. (And just so you don't think they're in smaller packages, a size-4 package had 30 diapers inside).

Also, somewhat unmarked were their cleaning products. There's a clearance tag but no actual price marked on them at our store. I checked at the register and was able to score 20-packs of Method dishwasher tablets (which are phosphate-free) for less than $3.50 each. There were also Seventh Generation cleaning products, including laundry detergent, marked clearance, but I either didn't have a need anything they had at the time, so I don't have a price on those.

I believe the sales are this weekend only, but it may be worth stocking up while you had the opportunity!

Friday, January 1, 2010

Blessings of a year gone by

Having been through one of the most personally and professionally challenging years of my life, I'm not sad at all to see 2009 go.

Yet while walking through my silent home, staring at the faces of my sleeping angels - yes, even my husband looks sweet at night - I'm reminded that I have much to be grateful from the past 365 days.

This year, I've watched my oldest blossom and my youngest develop his own personality (even if it's a fiesty 2-year-old one). And, with the exception of more ear infections than I care to recall, both of them are healthy and (usually) happy.

This year, I've watched my husband, whose industry was one of the first hit in the recession, re-develop confidence and succeed as a born-again college student. To say I'm proud of all he's done under the obstacles we've faced is an understatement. College is a challenge in itself. To do it as a parent who's trying to pay a mortgage is a whole new ballgame.

This year, we've had to rethink our priorities in life, and we've realized we can live with far, far less than we thought we once could. Not that we're perfect, mind you, but we're take things a bit easier than perhaps we would a few years' back.

And I've been blessed to realize that, despite our challenges, we've had help along the way. Where fair-weather friends faltered, others came to be. Where budgets on paper may not have seemed to work out, we've amazingly accrued very little extra credit card debt as a result of this journey. And I'm happy to report that two days ago my husband accepted a permanent part-time job that will work around his classes. So, yes, a little bit of faith - and a heck of a lot of patience! - never hurts.

Hopeful that 2010 will bring more blessings to your lives as well! Happy New Year!