Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Day of Doing

It' the day after a long weekend and I decided to dive right in to my list of 'to do's'. Normally I would gently ease myself into it, but since I've got quite the busy week... month... okay, year ahead of me, I opted to be responsible.
Today's tasks included some highly responsible ones - like finishing off T4s for the company I do bookkeeping for - and some less responsible but still highly important ones - like building a cardboard box car for my little man.
Funnily enough, I'd never made a cardboard box car before today. At least, not the kind that involved any sort of cutting and reshaping. Today's model most closely resembles a jeep. I've actually dubbed it the "chef mobile" due to the unintentional placement of the Pampered Chef name and logo on the box I used to make the car with.
The biggest thing I learned from my first time box-building is that I need better cardboard-cutting knives. My 'Housewife Tool Kit' does not include utility knives, which I'm finally seeing as a shortcoming. Real homemakers need real tools; the very name 'homemaker' implies some form of construction, and using the right tool for the job certainly makes life easier. I was actually fondly recalling It's a Wonderful Life the other day, where Donna Reed's Mary is single handedly repairing her wreck of a home to make it into a gorgeous dream-home of sorts. That's a real homemaker. So again, I state, real homemakers need real tools, even if said tools are not always used for home repairs. Kid's crafts, seasonal decorating, organization and home decor projects can all require tools. For example, the other day I was setting up a mini home office in our basement by hanging mail organizers and white boards - power drill, hammer, screws, wall anchors and level all required. And during today's cardboard building exercise, I would have greatly benefitted from some utility knives for sure!
Another big thing I accomplished today was a huge portion of my seed starting! For three years running I have vowed to get my seeds started in good time so that I could have actual vegetables in my garden. And for three years running, I have failed. But this year I finally did it! Granted, I didn't get everything done today; it's still a touch early to plant some things, but I did get some peas started, some herbs and some force-start bulbs I received last year.
One other motivating factor for finally doing my seed starting, besides shame at my lack of doing so prior to this year, was the need for a Sunday School object lesson a few weeks off. I've recently taken over the role of Sunday School coordinator at our church and was asked to make up a curriculum. Since I wasn't sure where to start, I decided to start at the beginning - literally. So our Sunday School class will be doing a study off Creation. Each week of Sunday School will feature a new day of Creation. This past week was Day 1 - "Let there be Light". We had fun with a light box that I made and we used up all of those under-used white crayons while we drew on black paper. Next week is the separation of waters to create sky, which will feature some fun little experiments with water, and the week after that is land and vegetation. That week is the one I'm most looking forward to! I'm planning on bringing in an array of herbs for the kids to smell, some fruit and veggies for them to taste, a soft cactus to touch and perhaps even some succulents to show variety. I also plan to give each child a seedling to take home. Since I started late (I ought to have planted a couple of weeks ago already!) I bought some dill seeds (dill seems to be the only thing I can't kill... and lettuce, my husband cheekily pointed out, but that's a different story...) and hopefully they'll pop up soon enough. They don't need to be big - just there.
In planning this curriculum my biggest resource has been (drum roll please...) Pinterest! With so many smart and creative people sharing things they've made themselves or stumbled upon in their browsing, it makes my job as easy as typing in "Star activity" or "animal craft" and picking an activity! Granted, I do a bit more than that, but I never would have thought to make cardboard elephants on my own for Day 6 of Creation, or to make a Starry Cave for Day 4 of Creation.
And my lucky little boys get to be my guinea pigs as I test out all of these activities at home before showing them off in front of a group of inpatient two to five year olds. The cardboard car today was actually practice for the next portion of my curriculum: the flood. I hope to make a cardboard ark for the kids to play with! I'll have to make sure I get my utility knife before then!

Mrs. VanderLeek ;)

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Valentines 2012

Why have I gotten so incredibly bad at blogging???
This makes two posts in one evening, simply because I had assumed I had already done this post, but looking back, I 'remembered' doing 3 other posts since the last one I actually wrote!!
Well, Valentines Day has now come and gone, and this year we were intending to keep it fairly low key. If you've read my last post you know that I had Matt's surprise party this weekend, so in order to keep my budget as big as possible for that event, I planned for my Valentine's budget to be as small as possible.
While I wanted my spending to be small, I still wanted to make a big deal about the day. So, I went all-out on my crafty expressions of love that day and made sure Matt knew that he was my Valentine :)
I actually started prep for this roughly a month ago. While purging my scrapbooking materials (let's face it, I'm not a scrapbooker), there was some paper that was too pretty to do nothing with. I started cutting out hearts and made about 15 little valentines for Matt. Closer to the day I started making crepe-paper rose kissing balls. (I told Matt I needed them for my upcoming fundraiser, when really, it was all about him!)

On the actual day of I got up bright and early to make breakfast and pack a lunch for Matt. Oh, and I began to hide the valentines! Wallet, lunch bag, medicine cabinet, breakfast plate, door, work binder and work van... check. He found 4 before he even kissed me good morning as I served him pancakes! I also set an alarm in his phone (an 'I love you' alarm) and turned on the calendar notification for Valentines Day in his phone as well. While he was at work I really started going! I made paper-heart chains, hung streamers, made more kissing balls and hid even more valentines! Gabriel made him a valentine and did a couple fun things himself ('Mommy! My milk is pink!'). As a final touch, I made a gigantic banner that read, "The World's Best Husband Lives HERE" and hung it across our front window!
I made a yummy dessert for Matt (are you surprised?). I was planning on making a full chocolate cake with a blackberry buttercream, but I didn't want that much cake kicking around all week, so instead I decided to use up some chocolate wafers I had in my cupboard. I heated some blackberry jam slightly and strained it, then used it to flavor some whipping cream. I also made a red wine ganache (1/3 c. cream, 1/2 c. chocolate and a double-shot of red wine), and then I layered the chocolate wafers with both the cream and the ganache. After a few hours in the fridge, the wafers softened up into a wonderful cake! And by the way, blackberry whipping cream? FABULOUS!

Matt came home to Indian food (ordered in - I've yet to try making tikka masala) and a load more valentines (glasses case, cup cupboard, shower, pockets, pillow...) We counted 24 valentines at the end of the day (not including virtual ones).
And just when he thought he had found them all, he pulled back the blankets to climb into bed and found 2 dozen paper hearts of all sizes strewn across his side of the bed!
So while it might have seemed a low-key Valentines if you looked at our bank statement, if you looked at the paper explosion in our house, you would have been able to tell otherwise.

Mrs. VanderLeek ;)


I did it! I successfully executed a surprise party for my husband!!!
If I sound overly excited about this, you need to understand how hard it is to surprise my hubby. Every year at Christmas I think I'm being sooo sneaky and that he'll never guess what I got him. And every year, if he hadn't guessed outright, he had a pretty good idea of what was coming.
This party was probably one of the hardest ones to plan - not because there were so many details to sort out, but rather because there were so few!
My party style is the over-the-top, fancy-pants, mimosas-in-rented-champagne-flutes style. This, this was a man party.
The menu: Walk-around tacos; individual dorito chip bags filled with taco fillings. And that was basically it. A friend brought a pie, we had some pop and chips, and later we ordered pizza.

No appetizers. No verrines. No brulees or souffles or otherwise elegant-sounding dishes.

Just tacos. And why serve them in the bag? Because what's more manly that not having to do any dishes?
They were a hit, by the way, with guys having up to 4 bags just so they could figure out the ideal way to open and fill them.
But when I say the planning was hard - I mean it. I felt negligent. I felt lazy. I had a melt-down in the middle of our local Costco when I realized they weren't currently carrying any individual baggies of doritos (Thank goodness for Walmart).
I wanted to be baking and making and doing, but it would not only have been impossible to keep petit fours hidden in my house, but it would have entirely missed the theme for this party: manly. I didn't want the party to be about me or my 'legendary' meals (total modesty right there, I tell you) - I wanted it to be about my hubby and his birthday. I wanted his friends to feel comfortable and not intimidated, I wanted it to be a fun-feeling gathering and I wanted, above all, for it to not be about me, but about him. This is not to say that you can't have fun when you have petit fours, but it sets a different tone for the whole party when you whip out the fancy. I wanted the guys to feel free to break out the poker chips and hit up the Guitar Hero downstairs, and if they had to eat pretentious foods with overly small utensils, they wouldn't have been as prone to rocking out to Metallica I think.
As a pat-on-the-back for me: I even refrained from putting the chips into bowls! (Hardcore, I know.)
One of the other hard parts about this party was trying to not act strange. Matt came home a week ago with the idea that we could rip out all of our flooring upstairs and lay in new stuff over the long weekend! He planned to move all of our bedroom furniture into the basement (where Guitar Hero was set up) and to paint baseboards in our living room (where the rest of the party happened). While normally I would have been just as excited as he was to get these jobs done, I vetoed his suggestion citing personal stress levels. I was worried about seeming unreasonable in the week leading up; I wanted to keep the secret but not at the cost of frustrating my husband. Fortunately for me, if you have surprise parties too often, they are no longer surprising, so I've got probably another 5 years before he gets another one!
After working so hard to 'tone down the Martha' this past week, this coming week will be a full 180. I'm helping to run a Daddy-Daughter Dance this weekend and am somewhat responsible for card making, decorating, and general prettiness! Thank goodness for Pinterest to give me lots of ideas!

Mrs. VanderLeek ;)

Sunday, February 5, 2012


I seem to have come full circle from my last blog post, "Duck Night", in which I chronicled my ever-fascinating dealings with having company over for dinner (I know, what would you all do without my riveting monologues?)((All, what, 3 of you?))
Well, Duck Night is a distant memory and now, less than one week afterward I am met with the query of what to serve to our next dinner guest who is coming Tuesday evening. And right now, I am drawing a complete blank.
Decisions are so much harder when you don't have a duck in the freezer, beckoning you to roast it to a turn (Pride and Prejudice reference anyone?).
I do have an elk heart in my freezer, but that doesn't beckon. It looms.
One way or another, I am not serving my guest elk heart. However, nearly everything else that I can find in my local grocery store is still on the hypothetical table. Chicken? Steak? Stuffed Manicotti? Homemade perogies? Barbqued Salmon?
I think I can narrow down my indecision to two main reasons: first, Duck Night planned itself, what with the duck being the reason for the company, the risotto going so well with the entree and the dessert being a fantastically easy make-ahead dish that never fails to wow. Second, this particular dinner guest knows all my tricks. He was privy to the original Duck Night two years back, and while it has been over a year since he has dined with us, I believe I have fed him steak, seafood, homemade bread and my finest goat cheese (mmmmm goat cheese...)
I love to treat my guests when they come over. Sure, I like to take pride in my cooking and to experiment and branch out, but ultimately, it's all about them. When I go to a restaurant, I rate my experience based on whether or not I could have made the same dish better at home. If no, then it was a good meal. I've gone to restaurants, ordered the White Wine sauce on pasta with shrimp and found to my dismay that it was all flavor with no subtlety and none of said flavor was 'wine'. I make better sauce at home.
In the same way, when people come to my house, I want to treat them to something that they wouldn't get at home - and not to say that I want to make something better than they would, but I would always hope to make something that they wouldn't try making on their own. Like, for example, duck. Honestly, who makes duck? (Really, you ought to try it. It's delightful.)
Anyway, perhaps what I need to do with this dinner is to reverse engineer it. Instead of starting with the main course and meal planning towards dessert, I'm going to pick a dessert and work backward. I know this guy likes creme brulee, and I've got a couple versions I've been dying to try. So, what goes good with creme brulee?
I'll let you know when I've figured that out!

Mrs. VanderLeek ;)

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Duck Night!

I am thrilled to announce that our third-annual Duck Night took place last night! And I have decided that duck is far too wonderful to only eat once a year.
A couple of our friends had never had duck before so I took care to invite them over for the meal. I had 2 ducks and there were 5 of us in total so I figured we'd have just enough meat. Since there were some newbies as far as their experience with duck goes, I opted to roast one duck, and to debone the other and cook the breasts from the second duck separately. I believe I've said it before, but there is no harm in reiterating it: I love working with duck. It is worlds easier than working with chicken. I think the main difference lies in the general shape of the bird. Deboning a nice, round chicken involves a more downward cut, while deboning a nice, flattened duck involves a more horizontal cut. In actuality, the technique in both is the same - lay the blade on either side of the breast bone and allow the blade to slide down the bone all the way to the wishbone and down to the legs. But for some reason, the angle of the breast bone on a duck makes this task much easier.
Anyway, I had the first duck pricked and scored and cleaned and seasoned, and the second one deboned and all but the breasts of the second in my huge roaster, when I decided that I would make gravy. I had not planned on it since (huge confession coming...) I had never made gravy from scratch before, but I thought now was as good a time to learn as any. So, inspite of using an actual roasting pan with rack, instead of construction a roasting rack out of veggies like I normally would, I still opted to put some celery, onion and garlic in the bottom of the roasting pan. I also poured some red wine over the ducks just to give it some moisture.
While those were in the oven I took care of the rest of dinner: Asparagus, green beans, parmesan-carrot risotto, a french loaf with cranberry-cinnamon goat cheese, and for dessert Chocolate pots de creme with earl grey infused whipping cream and almond tuilles.
I had actually made the pots de creme the night before (I love make-ahead desserts!) and I made the almond tuilles and infused the cream in the morning. The green beans I blanched in the afternoon and reheated on the stove top with a bit of duck fat (mmmm duck fat.) The risotto, as is the case with risotto, was some work. I almost shied away from it because of how hands-on and time-consuming it is, but really, what better to serve with duck?? The goat cheese had a two-fold reason for making it onto the menu. First, I had been craving it for about 7 months, and second, I almost always find myself running late when company comes over and instead of stressing about it, I serve them good bread, cheese and wine and nobody minds that it's now 6:27 and I said dinner would be served at 6. It keeps me sane.
For the last touch on the menu, I cooked up those duck breasts on the stove top and made up a pomegranate-balsamic reduction. I scored the skin and cooked it skin-side-down on high for 5 minutes first so the fat melted away and the skin crisped up to extraordinary levels. So yummy!

In the last five minutes of cooking the duck breast (which took longer than I had planned because I forgot to bring it to room temperature before cooking it...) I made an effort on the duck gravy. And my goodness, my effort was repaid a hundred-fold! Having never made gravy without a packet (but I had made plenty of pan sauces and reductions) I knew that I needed drippings to start and it needed to get thick and that it needed to taste good, and that was about where my knowledge ended. Fortunately, I had emptied out the roasting pan after the first hour of cooking the ducks and repoured some liquid in at that point. So most of the fat was already separated and I had lots of drippings to work with. I put the drippings in a pot and brought it to a boil while I whisked in a slurry of flour and water. (I eyeballed the flour and the water - and the drippings. So, sorry, no measurements). Once the gravy was semi-thickened I tasted it and was utterly, wonderfully surprised to find that it was already amazing. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn't that. I added a touch of pepper for bite and a bit of salt to round it out, and I defy any packaged gravy to taste that good.
Oh, and one more fantastic part about the meal - Matt surprised me by coming home with a bottle of wine. A very, very, VERY good bottle of wine. Chateauneuf du Pape from Southern France (check your region when buying; the Northern vineyards don't put out as good of a wine and while you pay only $30 for the mediocre and $40 for the better, I'd rather spring the extra $10 and drink a great bottle than $30 for one I could do without).

All in all, it was a fantabulous meal. My company loved it; I converted the newbies to duck-lovers and the one guy who had eaten duck previously was in love with the risotto, which was a newer dish to him. Dessert went over perfectly and the only leftovers I had of anything were two, tiny, little duck wing halves. So, since I didn't carve all of the hard-to-reach meat off the carcasses, I will be making duck stock today with the carcasses and wings!

Yay for Duck Night!

Mrs. VanderLeek ;)