Tuesday, November 20, 2012

I'm only posting today because

writing makes me feel better.  I'm in quite a bad mood otherwise, but still need to carry on with the day, you know?

I am sort of proud of myself lately for a few things anyway. 

1.  I'm glad that I put the garden to bed properly this year.  In the past, I was lazy and then it was too late/too cold, etc.  I got them weeded and mulched.  I planted the garlic.  And I already have my plan set up for seed ordering in late winter and what I'm planting where in the spring. 

2.  I'm glad that I've done enough Thanksgiving meals before that it doesn't stress me out anymore.  Although, every time I go to buy all of the food, I feel like I am playing house. It doesn't seem like I should be old enough to be doing a Thanksgiving meal, but yet, here I am. 

3.  I am glad that we are caught up on our bills.  Money can be so stressful, and I am approaching the end of my latest contract and I have nothing yet lined up for December, and that is REALLY stressing me out, but if we were behind on bills, that would be even worse.  We have enough in reserves that we can probably make it through December too, so it buys a little time. 

Well, not much on my plate besides work today.  I slept in today because of that bad mood, but I'm up now and as soon as I'm done writing this post, I'll start in on my "real" work.  Jelly Bean needs to go to swim team practice, and I need to make a schedule for cooking for tomorrow.  I don't want to leave all the cooking for Thursday.  I'll probably do the potatoes and a couple of the pies tomorrow. 

Monday, November 19, 2012

Daybook: November 19, 2012

I am thankful for… Well, it is THE month to be thankful, right? And I'm going to go for the easy, cheesy answer, but it is true.  I'm thankful for my family.  I still remember that night, years and years ago, when I was thought "You know, I don't think I'm ever going to get married and have a family."  I was so saddened by that thought.  I had other dreams besides getting married and having children, but having a family was always one of the bigger dreams too.  And I didn't get married soon after that.  It was years afterwards.  Almost 10 years after that sad night.  But yet, here I am, getting ready to celebrate my 17th Thanksgiving as a family. 

I also heard someone say that you can't be thankful and unhappy.  And I probably spend too much time being unhappy and not enough time being thankful. 

At work… Well, I was up for a full-time job recently and didn't get it, but I'm up for another one now, and it is a much better match.  I'm trying to be hopeful.  It is hard, but I'm trying.

From the kitchen… Well, I'm not cooking anything right now, but I did clean the fridge and cabinets this weekend, and went shopping for all the Thanksgiving food.  I have a 20 pound turkey defrosting in the refrigerator.

I am wearing… I could lie, but I won't.  I'm still wearing my pajamas.  To be fair, it IS only 8:46 am.  One of the benefits from working from home though is that you can stay in your pajamas all day if you want!

I am creating… well, I'm trying anyway.  I'm trying to create more peace in our home.  Sometimes it is hard with 5 people and one is a teenager girl, one is a pre-teen girl, and one is a very active 8 year old boy.

I am going… to try and run some errands today.  I have been slacking on those lately.  Sometimes, I get sucked into my work, and I look up and it is 4:30 pm already and time to start shuttling the kids to all their activities. 

I am reading…The Kitchen House.  Still.  I need to get going on the November book though. 

I am hoping… that 2013 is a good year for our family.  It would be nice to have a full year of goodness.

I am hearing… the dryer running. I swear, I do so much laundry, it feels like there are 10 people, at least, who live here.

Around the house… I still have quite a bit of cleaning to do before Thursday, but the kids are off starting on Wednesday, so I'll enlist their help in at least cleaning up the downstairs.

One of my favorite things… laughing.  I don't do enough of it, but it is one of my favorite things to do. 

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Simple Guide to the Holiday Kitchen

It's that time of year.

Not Christmas.  Well, sort of.  It is that time of year when I do a lot of baking - baking for Thanksgiving, baking for parties, baking for gifts, baking for Solstice, baking for Christmas, baking for New Years.  In addition to the general increase of cooking and baking in the fall and winter.  Oh, and I also try and do more make-ahead-and-freeze meals during the fall and winter because there is just more of those nights when some people will be gone, or we will need to eat earlier before a concert, or it will be a vacation day, and I just don't feel like spending the whole day in the kitchen. So I've put together a guide for the holidays.  I call it -

The Simple Guide to the Holiday Kitchen:

(inspired by some of the holiday lists on Simple Bites)

Menu Planning

I beat this horse a lot, but it is SO true.  My life, all year round, runs better when I meal plan, and certainly, it is only MORE important to do it around the holidays.  Decide what meals that you want to serve for the big holidays, how many dozen cookies you need to bake, what meals are your favorite make & freeze meals, etc. 

People do menu planning in different ways - fancy holiday meal planning notebooks/checklists, 3 x 5 cards, on the computer, etc.  I am mostly lazy old fashioned about it.  I just write a list in a notebook. I usually make categories - Breads and Cookies, Holiday Meals, Freezer Meals or whatever and the name of the recipe in the category. I'll write the name of the recipe book it is from, and then put a corresponding post-it note in the recipe book on the page that has the recipe.   

Organizing Your Kitchen

I've said it before, and I'll keep mentioning it, probably until the day that we move.  I have a small kitchen and it is important to make sure that my kitchen is organized.  I try and keep it well organized during the year, and then I also add some organizing touches during the holiday season too.

1.  Clean the cabinets, inside and out. And clean the counters, the stove, the oven, the microwave, and the fridge. And the floor. There will probably be other people in your kitchen during the holidays, so not only is it nice to have a clean kitchen for yourself, but it is always nice to have a clean kitchen for other people. 

2.  You will probably need to make room in your fridge and freezer for the upcoming holiday food.  So as your cleaning, make sure that you dispose of anything expired, and make a plan for using up some of the things so that you can have as much room as possible for your holiday food. 

3.  You will also need to make room for your holiday items.  You can put up anything that you don't need for cooking/baking in the fall and winter time.  You can make things like platters and specialty tools more accessible.  If you use holiday dishes or china during the holidays and you store them during the rest of the year, you will want to decide where you will keep it during the next few weeks.

4.  Check your holiday linens.  You will want to make sure that you have the type of tablecloths and cloth napkins, etc. for all of your holiday events and in the sizes needed.  You will also want to decide if you are going to use disposable items for any of those events and purchase those ahead of time. 

Stocking Your Pantry

If you haven't been keeping this up during the rest of the year, it is essential to do in the holiday season.  There is nothing so aggravating but to need to make something and you go to get the ingredient and you have run out.  And it is late.  Or it is blizzarding.  Or something like that.  You'll want to, of course, stock your pantry with the type of ingredients that you (and your family) use often.  Look at the type of ingredients that come up over and over in the recipes that your family uses, and make sure and keep those stocked in your pantry. 

But here are some general pantry staples:

Flours – unbleached white, wheat, rice, cake, bread
Sugars – brown, cane  powdered
Dry Pastas – a few different shapes and sizes
Sweeteners – honey, maple syrup, agave
Grains – couscous, rice, barley, quinoa, oats, flax, cornmeal
Oils – olive oil, canola oil, coconut oil, peanut oil, sesame oil
Leavens and Stabilizers - Yeast, Baking Soda, Cream of Tartar, Meringue Powder
Vegetables – onions, potatoes, garlic
Canned/Jarred Tomatoes – sauce, diced, paste
Spreads – peanut butter, jam, jelly
Vinegars – balsamic, white, red wine, apple cider
Specialty Sauces – hot sauce, Tabasco, soy sauce
Nuts – peanuts, cashews, almonds, walnuts, pecans, pine nuts
Dried Fruit – raisins, apricots, dates, cherries, cranberries
Dried or Canned Beans- black, navy, pinto, kidney
Canned fish/seafood - tuna
Herbs and Spices – oregano, basil, parsley, rosemary, cumin, peppers and many more
Salts – kosher, sea salt, pickling salt
Baking Ingredients – baking powder, baking soda, yeast, cream of tartar, chocolate
Extracts – vanilla, almond, lemon, peppermint
Beverages – tea, cocoa

And here are some things to add for the Holiday Pantry:

Canned and Jarred Items - Pumpkin Puree, Sour Cherries, Applesauce, Maraschino Cherries, Mincemeat
Candies and Confections - Peppermints, Candy Cane, Marshmallows, Mini-Marshmallows, Caramel Squares, Marshmallow Fluff
Chocolate and Chips - Cocoa, White, Dark, Milk, Chocolate Chips, Sprinkles, Butterscotch Chips, Toffee Bits
Crackers and Crumbs - Graham Cracker Crumbs, Oreo Crumbs, Graham Crackers, Ritz Crackers, Pretzels
Dairy - Evaporated Milk, Sweetened Condensed Milk, Soy Milk, Powdered Milk, Powdered Buttermilk, Malted Milk Powder
Dried and Candied Fruit - Raisins, Currants, Apricots, Dates, Cherries, Cranberries, Prunes, Candied Citrus Peel, Figs, Candied Ginger, Apples,
Dried Herbs - Fennel, Rosemary, Coriander, Mint, Lavender
Extracts and Flavorings - Almond, Lemon, Peppermint, Anise, Rum
Grains and Cereals - Rolled Oats, Quick Oats, Wheat Germ, Bran, Rice Crispies, Puffed Wheat, Shredded Wheat
Nuts - Hazelnuts, Brazil Nuts, Pistachios,
Oils and Shortenings - Lard, Shortening
Seeds - Sesame, Pumpkin, Poppy, Sunflower
Specialty Items - Food Coloring
Spices, whole and ground - Cinnamon, Nutmeg, Cloves, Allspice, Cardamom, Ginger, Anise

But again, go through the recipes YOU use and pick out the items that you will need. No use spending money on items that you don't need!

Kitchen Supplies, Utensils, etc.

There are certain things that I ONLY use during the holidays.  My trifle bowl is one that doesn't make too many appearances during the rest of the year.  Also, I have special holiday cookie cutters.  Make sure to locate them ahead of time and make sure that they are washed and ready to go. 

There may also be certain tools that you only need to prepare Holiday Foods.  Locate them too.  You also make want to read through your recipes and make sure that you have all the necessary tools to prepare all of the things on your list.  If not, you can see if you have something that could work as a substitute, perhaps you could borrow it, or get yourself an early Holiday present! LOL Or at the very least, borrow for now, but put on your gift list!

And while you are looking at the tools that you'll need for the holidays, look at your other kitchen supplies.  I always have a few things on my gift list - whether that it is cookware, silverware, gadgets, knives, etc.  I find it is best to be very specific on what you want (brand, style, store where to get it) or to ask for a gift card with an explanation of what you are planning on getting with the card.

Freezer Meals

I usually first do freezer meals.  It is, in someways, seems like the lowest priority during the holidays, but it truly does make my life easier because things get so chaotic during the 6 weeks of fall/winter holidays, and if I know that all I have to do is defrost something and cook it up an hour before we need to eat? Priceless, I tell you.  From a financial standpoint, it is also easier for me to go ahead and spend the money to prepare a month-ish amount of freezer meals in early November than trying to squeeze money out of the budget during Mid-November - early January for "just" everyday food. 

Of course, this means clearing out some space in the freezer, so do that before you start the actual cooking! LOL

Holiday Baking

I do most of the ACTUAL baking right before the event, but there is no reason that you can't make some cookie dough up ahead of time and freeze it. 

I generally keep some gingerbread, sugar, and chocolate chip cookie dough in the freezer for those moments when I need to make a quick couple dozen for something.  Or to get a head start on making cookies for a cookie exchange, etc. 

You can also have some bread dough frozen and pie crusts. 

Holiday Cooking

I plan what the meals are going to be for the big events and then I try and make a rough schedule of the 24-48 hours before the event and what order I need to cook/bake things.  Anything fresh, etc. I put on a list to buy a day or so ahead of time.  I check the pantry a week or so before (and I also make sure and do a guest check about a week out too, so that I'm sure I have enough of all necessary ingredients.) I have a VERY small kitchen and only one stove, so I need to be pretty organized about the order of things or I end up having to reheat practically everything.  But mostly, it helps me feel less overwhelmed about the amount of food that needs to be cooked.  Sometimes, when I just look at the list of items, I feel like I don't even know where to start.  This way, I have a path. 

Edible Gifts

I often make teacher gifts and neighbor gifts around the holidays.  However, with these types of gifts, you also need to plan what type of container you will putting the items in.  Many of these you can pick up during the year - a tin or a basket doesn't have to use holiday colors.  You can then pretty it up with some holiday ribbons instead.  Paper bags are an easy choice.  Holiday plates, cellophane, and tissue paper are also options. 

Monday, November 12, 2012

Fall Cleaning

Well, Fall Cleaning around the Simple House mostly consists of cleaning up Outside instead of Inside.  Because, you know, pretty soon, we will have plenty of time cooped up inside when we could clean :)  In theory, of course.  :)

So this weekend, while it was still quite warm (in the 70s!) we did what is supposed to be our annual Fall garage clean up, but it has been at least two years since we had done it.  At least.  And boy, did it show.  We took everything off all the shelves and emptied every container.  And made sure that we were actually using the things that we were storing in the garage. And that like things were stored by each other, for the most part anyway.  We tossed LOTS of things that should have been tossed long ago.  And we finally took out the broken freezer.  Hopefully, it will be replaced by a new(ish) freezer in the spring, but I think we will keep it inside instead of the garage. 

And we put things up for the season - we hung up the bikes and put away the canopy/chairs/cooler from summer swim season.  We took the swings off the playset. We put the lawn tools away. 

Speaking of lawns, we also did some other outdoor work besides cleaning the garage.  Mr. Simple cut the grass one last time, and I weeded and cleared the beds and put mulch down, so they will be all ready come next spring. 

It was actually supposed to snow last night, but it didn't.  Still, it got down to the 20s, and I fear that most of the temperatures for the rest of the fall will now be considered "cool." 

But I'm glad that we "made hay while the sun shone", as Laura Ingalls Winder might say. 

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Well, when it is cold, I cook

And when it is hot, I don't! LOL

But yes, one thing that I do love about cold weather is the FOOD.  (Is it any wonder that I emerge every spring a little heavier than I was at the beginning of fall? I'm trying to avoid that this year with my daily gym work outs - cold or not - but we will see!) 

Anyway, I was sitting down today with a bunch of recipe books, and I made up a list of 50 fall/winter dinners.  Maybe some cold evening I'll type them up on my recipe blog and link them up, but until then, here is the list -

1.  Sweet Potato Gnocchi
2. Grilled Polenta with Vegetable Ragout
3. Autumn Wild Rice Salad with Chicken
4. Smoky Yukon Gold Potato Chowder
5. Asian Vegetable Spring Rolls
6. Warm Two Potato Salad
7. Roasted Root Vegetables with Creamy Polenta
8. Farmer's Market Pot Pie
9. Spinach Fettuccine with Gorgonzola Sauce
10. Sweet Potato Enchiladas
11. Garden fresh Pizza Primavera
12. Corn Chowder
13. Squash Lasagna
14. Roast Chicken
15. Baked Parmesan Risotto
16. Chicken Broccoli Ring
17. Inside Out Lasagna
18. BBQ Beef Brisket
19. BBQ Beef Stew
20. Harvest Cream Soup
21. Lemon Greek Chicken
22. Pasta Roll Ups
23. Chili Bread Bowls
24. Cheesy Chicken Tortellini Bake
25. Polenta Lasagna
26. Cheesy Chicken Chilaquiles
27. Apricot Chicken and Couscous
28. Grilled Fish Tacos
29. Pulled Pork Sandwiches
30. Homemade Mac & Cheese
31. Zesty Meatball Chili
32. Lentil Stew
33. Chicken Tortilla Chili
34. Butternut Squash Soup
35. BBQ Pork Chili
36. BBQ Bacon Meat Loaf
37. Easy Chicken Pot Pie
38. Cider Braised Pork Loin
39. Burrito Bake
40. Sweet & Sour Shrimp
41. 3 Cheese Mac & Cheese
42. Pasta Primavera
43. Potato Leek Soup
44. Glazed Korean Short Ribs
45. Maple Pork Chops
46. Grilled Bacon Meat Loaf
47. Cherry Chipotle Ribs
48. Asian Glazed Chicken
49. Jamaican Jerk Drumsticks
50. Chicken and Potato Wedges

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

OK, I'm trying really hard to find some November Love

It is hard though - November is usually one long month of grey.  And grey is DEFINITELY NOT one of my favorite colors.  And then the greyness just lingers for months after November too.  Until April at least.  So when I see it on the first few mornings of November, I know that it means all the loveliness of Fall that I love is over.  And now all the leaves will fall off, it will get dark so early, and it will be cold.  And grey.

Thankfully, I've got fall vegetables to cheer me up! LOL I love roasted vegetables like nobody's business.  And soups.  Love all kinds of fall soups.  Love the taste of the fall vegetables in the soup plus I love how soup just warms you up from head to toe.  My personal fave is probably potato leek soup, but I love squash soup, broccoli and cheese soup, cream of celery soup, cream of chicken.  YUM.  I'm getting hungry, just talking about it.

We did our annual trying on of winter clothes early this year, so I already knew that the girls needed new winter coats.  I'd been really trying to get something decent at a thrift store, but happened on a sale, and managed to get them some very nice NEW coats.  We rarely do new clothes around here, so it was a special treat.  The girls both picked two different styles of black coats, but I know that we will have some trouble with them figuring out which one is theirs.  I had been encouraging them to get a different color than each other, but they didn't like the other ones.  So black it is.  And then, we get home and I'm hanging them up in the coat closet, and I started giggling.  I had bought myself a new winter coat last year at the end of season.  I had picked up, what we call around here, a "sleeping bag" coat for only $10! I forgot about it until I went to go hang up the girls' coats and guess what color it is? BLACK! LOL

Year round swimming continues for Super (8) and Jelly Bean (10).  We just finished a swim meet this past weekend.  They both did great! I joked to Mr. Simple that it is much more fun to sit at a swim meet for 5 hours when the kids are swimming well than when they aren't! And Flower (13) is still enjoying all of her activities - drama club, scholastic bowl, piano lessons, youth choir.  She is having some 7th grade "drama" of her own (not her, but some situations at school.) Junior high is certainly something that you couldn't pay me to go through again, but I'm trying to help her navigate her way through it without being too imposing.  A bit of a tough line to walk. 

My job situation is still complicated.  I'll elaborate on another day.  I'm feeling a bit defeated about it all today.  On the other hand, I am still working on a short-term contract until the end of November, so that is a blessing.

Back to November.  I am trying to remind myself that one thing that I do like about the cold evenings is that we spend more time together - playing games, doing art, reading, handwork.  That almost makes up for the grey.  Almost.