Monday, May 27, 2013

A Totally Normal Monday

I very often write about my exciting and productive days. People get to hear about when I make fancy meals, and finish quilts, and manage to get my whole house cleaned. But what does a totally normal Monday look like for me? Observe:

8:30 a.m. - Obviously I stayed up too late last night watching Arrested Development... Besides the 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. feeds, this is my wakeup time today. What woke me up? Oh yah, a child that woke up crying. I guess my day officially starts now.
8:45 a.m. - One kiddo is still asleep, but the rest of us are dressed and downstairs, getting ready for breakfast (cold cereal today). I sit down to send out a few quick emails before child #3 wakes up: one to book a meeting about Sunday School, one about scheduling for Sunday School, one about repairs for my guitar so I can use it to lead worship in church on Sunday and I throw in a quick phone call to book a play date for this week.
9:30 a.m. - Little Dude finally wakes up. Man, he didn't even stay up for Arrested Development last night! While he eats breakfast I get the baby settled and list some household items on Kijiji, because I really don't need to hold onto a spare china tea set or a dress I'll never wear again. And I guess I should probably organize some of the pictures I put on my computer when I uploaded the pictures for Kijiji.
10:00 a.m. - Time to get these kids outside. What's that? The baby decides to wake up right as we're walking out the door? After committing all the time to getting sunscreen all over the other boys, I'm definitely going outside at this point. Let's see how long the little guy can stay happy while I plant my garden... Yellow beans, carrots, beets, peas, green beans, spaghetti squash..
10:45 a.m. - Done! And not a minute too soon... that little baby sure sounds grumpy now. And the older boys are done playing outside. Apparently 'outside' isn't that much fun when they know they're not allowed to dig through Mommy's garden. Well, maybe they can come inside now and we'll head out again later. They get a show inside, and I get to try to do more work. This time, going over the Sunday School budget, researching a curriculum and contacting our sales rep regarding a few questions.
11:30 a.m. - The rep is out of her office. I guess that means I have to put that on the back burner now? That's okay, I need to send out emails to my family regarding our vacation next month. Who is bringing what? Well, I guess we all know now that I sent out a comprehensive list!
12:15 p.m. - Little Dude is crying. Man, he's tired today! Good thing it's nap time. Oops - the kiddos got a bit more 'screen time' than I meant to give them today! I'd better get my eldest fed some lunch. Maybe some pasta? And maybe I should clean that kitchen while I'm at it. Clean dishes away, dishwasher emptied, dirty dishes put in... I figure I'll whip up a salad for myself for lunch. Drat. It's big enough that I opt to save it for supper. I guess I'll have pasta too.
1:00 p.m. - Oh yah. Laundry. Totally forgot! I'll throw the load that got washed last night into the dryer now and throw in another load in a bit. The baby is fussing again.
1:30 p.m. - A good time to check on my flyers and see what's on sale at the grocery stores this week. I glanced briefly when the flyers came on Thursday, but now I can't even remember what I circled. And I got an email saying Ricki's has a sale on dresses this week - a good thing too since I need one for my sister-in-laws wedding next month. Oh, and we might get a cargo box to go on top of our van... time to do a little comparison shopping online I guess.
2:00 p.m. - Suppertime is getting closer and I still don't have meat pulled. What goes well with that Santa Fe salad I made? Oooh - ribs! I've got a huge rack of them in my freezer and I bet it would fit in my stock pot. I love boiling ribs before I cook them - it makes them more tender. But given that little sun shower we're experiencing right now, I might be baking them instead of BBQing, so I'd best get them boiling now. Maybe when I'm in the kitchen this time I'll remember to put away that clean cake platter I've got on the counter...
2:45 p.m. - Baby's fussing again. Growth spurt or sore tummy? Not sure yet. Well, since I'm sitting down, I might as well go on Pinterest. There were a couple activities for the kids to do in the mountains on our vacation that I want to print off. And since I'm on the computer (and just remembered we'll be celebrating Father's Day in the mountains) I'd better make up a card for my husband and my dad from me. I'll read a sermon by Spurgeon about Fathers and find excerpts that depict both of them. That'll be nice :) Oh, and I managed to sit down with a coffee this time - lucky me!
3:15 p.m. - Little Dude is still asleep and the baby just spit up all over me. Like, record amounts. Time to throw in that other load of laundry apparently. That silly cake platter is still on the counter.
3:25 p.m. - Ah yes, I finally hear my boy waking up from his nap. Time to get him some food. And, incidentally, I started writing this.
3:45 p.m. - Round 3 of food fetching for my boy. And I'd better get that rib rack cut up and in a baking dish so I can get it in the oven for supper. Good thing I have some BBQ sauce in the fridge - totally forgot about needing that! And in between I'm going to help the older kid fetch toys, finish going potty and search for food himself. Oh, and I just remembered a work-related message I was sent today that I forgot to deal with - I'd best respond ASAP. And since I'm back on the computer I should check out what time the music store is open until tonight so I can drop my guitar off.
4:00 p.m. - I'm back to the kitchen attempting to clean. Why is this stupid cake platter still here??? I'll deal with that, but first I have to finish with the ribs and fill the sink so I can wash dishes. And I should put away the clean dishes. I just found the other two cake platters that go with the one that's taking up residence on the counter. Now they can all go away together... except the baby started screaming again. The older boys are drawing now so at least they seem happy.
4:20 p.m. - Okay! The baby is asleep! Let's get those dishes washed and FINALLY put those cake platters away. And clear the table while we're at it!
4:30 p.m. - Sigh. The baby is awake again. Not screaming yet though. But Little Dude has a dirty diaper. And I still have to plan the rest of supper. Good thing I've got another hour before Matt gets home - the boys are starting to make a mess and it's going to take some time to get all this put back together!

That brings me back up to present time (notice I started writing this at 3:25? Yah, there were lots of other little distractions I forgot about before I even sat down to write again...). I still have to research phone plans to help me decide what changes need to be made to our account before I phone the company over a billing error, I have to fold a couple loads of laundry that should have been folded over the weekend, I'll need to finish supper, eat supper, and then clean up from supper, and hopefully I'll get out tonight to drop my guitar off for repairs, drop my ring off for refinishing, take back a quilt to HomeSense that we've decided not to keep, and maybe try on some dresses at Ricki's.
Granted, every day has different tasks I need to take care of (Monday's housecleaning tends to be more about playing catch-up from the weekend than embarking on any huge tasks), but this is a pretty fair portrait of how a normal, tiny-bit frustrating and mostly scatter-brained day goes for me. I'd say out of a 5 day work-week, at least 3 of my days go like this.

And now you know how a totally normal Monday goes in our household.

Mrs. VanderLeek ;)

Friday, May 24, 2013

Broccoli Cheese Soup

A quick tip for when you're making cream soups for supper: plan what else you're making for supper in advance so that you don't leave your soup cooking too long and let it curdle!


I chose last night to make up some Broccoli Cheese soup from scratch, and was so excited to make my first cream soup in a few years, that I forgot to think about what else I would serve with it! So the soup turned out a little less than perfect as I ran around the kitchen frantically trying to throw together a balanced meal. (the gouda is what did me in...)

But, just because it didn't look pretty doesn't mean it wasn't incredible!

I used the recipe for Sketch-Free Broccoli and Cheese soup over at Peas and Crayons as my starting base. And while I intended to follow the recipe... well, you know how that goes. So I wanted to share the recipe that I ended up using! I made a couple basic changes, like upping the amount of liquid, cutting out the carrots and switching up some of the flavors, just simply because that suited my tastes better. The end product was a great, filling soup that caused my husband to say, "That smells great!" as soon as he walked into the house, and that my toddler INHALED. Seriously, he ate as much as I did in half the time I did. The recipe makes 4 moderate servings.

Broccoli Cheese Soup (adapted from Peas and Carrots):

3 c. chicken broth
1 large bundle broccoli (2/3 finely diced florets, 1/3 larger chunks)
1 small onion, diced
2 cloves crushed garlic
1 bay leaf
3 tbsp butter
3 tbsp flour
1 c. half and half
1/8 tsp chili powder
1/8 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp basil
1 c. grated cheddar
1 c. grated gouda
Fresh cracked pepper
Fresh snipped parsley

In a small pot, bring chicken broth to a boil. Add broccoli, onion, garlic and bay leaf. Simmer, covered, until large broccoli pieces are just fork-tender. Remove from heat and set aside.
In a larger pot, melt butter over medium heat and then whisk in flour. Cook for an additional minute. Next, whisk in broth that you cooked the veggies in. Once incorporated, stir in veggies. Slowly stir in half and half and spices. Bring up to heat again, and, when hot, whisk in cheese until fully melted. Add parsley and pepper and serve promptly.

This is a quick recipe, especially if you work mise en place. Heat some buns in the oven while it's cooking and serve it with a salad, and supper will be on the table in 30 minutes!

But remember to plan the rest of supper before the soup is done cooking, or you'll be serving curdled-cheese soup... just like I did.

Mrs. VanderLeek ;)

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Long Gardening Weekend

It was a long weekend here this past weekend, and while our church went away for a group campout, we opted to stay home for the sake of health and sanity. Which meant that we unexpectedly had a free weekend! What should we do with our newly discovered freedom?? Sleep? Go on a trip to the mountains? Call up all our friends and have a party? (the post title kind of takes away any anticipation, does it not?) We gardened!
For 4 summers we have tried to get a vegetable garden put into our yard! Our biggest holdup was the number of mature trees on our lot... and their roots. It would have been horrific trying to dig down deep enough for a garden, fighting all those roots the whole way. So we opted for a raised bed. But that meant we had to build it.
Year after year we'd plan to do it, then lose track of time and next thing we knew it was August and we didn't have so much as a bean in our yard because we just never got around to building the garden. Well, at the end of last season we finally wised up and we bought all the supplies we would need to construct the raised bed this year. By having everything on hand, we really had no reason not to put in the garden this year! We already had the landscaping ties and a load of dirt that we had picked up for free last year, so the last part of the puzzle was getting the time to do it, which this weekend finally affording us.
Now, I'm using the words "we" and "us" a lot, but the reality is, my husband did it all. He cut and laid the ties. He moved the daylillies that were growing in that spot to a new place by the side of the house. He dug out the sod. He went over and above and dug down 5 additional inches across the whole area so that we could have even more depth. He moved that whole load of dirt to the back, one garbage bin at a time, and he stirred in the 1/4 bail of peat moss that my mom gave to us to help enrich our soil. You see, my husband is quite protective of me. He relishes his role of being responsible for me, for my safety and my health. So after I got too much sun the other week, he laid down some expectations for me: I will not work too hard. I will not do too much. No heavy lifting until I get clearance from my doctor. No taking on rigorous chores - I must delegate to him. So I really wasn't allowed to do anything - he wouldn't let me! But, while I couldn't dig out sod, move ties, and haul dirt, I could putter around and tend to the rest of the yard.
While hubby was making me a garden, I planted some lettuce and tended to my herbs, I raked out the front flower bed (we live across from a big park with huge trees and the leaves settle in our front yard - continually), and I attempted to deal with our ant issues (first cornmeal, then chili powder). I managed to get out this weekend and pick up some more plants. I bought Coral Bells and Sweet Woodruff for a raised bed we have around the base of a tree in the backyard. That bed has my strawberries, some delphiniums, a hosta that surprised me and is coming back from last year, and something that my neighbour gave me that I can't remember (I'm such a good gardener, aren't I?) The bed is also designed with some ornamental aspects, so there is a wheelbarrow upended and half-planted at the top of the bed, and rocks and broken clay pots edging it. It requires a fair bit of upkeep because grass grows up between the rocks, but it really is my best soil in the yard and I'm excited to see how it looks once that woodruff gets established.
I'm anticipating redoing my front bed at the end of the season. Right now it houses a gazillion tulip bulbs - not all of which are producing currently. The soil isn't well mixed, so essentially it is sand, sitting on top of clay, so this fall I'll stir it well and replant everything in a better layout. In anticipation of that, I didn't put any annuals in it this year. I want everything in there to be placed permanently so that I can better visualize it at the end of the season. So we picked up some yarrow and a hollyhock to back our bed, and I put in a double-flowering clematis variety to climb our awning post which is sunk at the edge of our bed. That bed won't get much done to it now, but it'll take up a lot of my time come Fall.
I couldn't go a whole season without any annuals; most of my favorite flowers are annuals, or not hardy in my zone. Since I wasn't going to put them in their usual spot, I decided to try container gardening. I've planted things in containers before, but only really herbs. This was going to be my first tempt at aesthetic value. I bought some Euphorbia (how could I not - it's adorable!) and decided to plan my container around that. My ideas ranged from the dramatic (tall, red flax surrounded by those dainty white flowers in the euphorbia) to the more gradual levels (tall salvia spears, ornamental grass, the euphorbia, then some trailing plant), but when I got to the greenhouse I was sad to find a lack of plants that I was looking specifically for. No flax. No blue fescue. No salvia. This greenhouse was huge! And it didn't have any of those right now. Sigh. So I had to start from nearly scratch in the middle of the store. I opted for a couple osteospermum (I love these - especially the white varieties), some pink crawling thyme and a trailing maidenhair vine. In the end it came together quite well, and the layered foliage still looks nice before everything starts blooming. Oh, and since I was using such a large, deep container, I opted to tear up some cardboard drink trays and put them in the very bottom of my planter. They'll maintain good drainage, and ensure I don't need as much soil in there. And at end of the season I can just dump them into my composter along with my planter contents and they'll break down fine.
Everything went over great! So of course we needed one hiccup to come along: Our tree has a fungus called Black Knot. My neighbour just pointed it out to us this weekend and I wish we had noticed sooner; we've got at least 10 branches infected. Hopefully we can head it off and it won't take out the tree! Sure, I was okay cutting down two bulky spruce trees from our front yard a few weeks ago, but I don't want to lose my pretty mayday!
Anyway, I'm glad we got so much done, even though we've still got a few things to do. Over the next few days I'm going to seed my garden (carrots, and beets, and beans, oh my!), move a peony that's never really thrived, and plant a rose bush my hubby decided we needed to buy (I love him). But that's one of the fun things about gardening - there's always something more you can do!

Mrs. VanderLeek ;)

Friday, May 17, 2013

Lasagna Apocalypse

I have made, to date, 2 full lasagnas in my life. 2. What a horribly disappointing figure.

I have made plenty other varieties of pastas with meat sauces - some topped, some stuffed, even some that were rolled - but the ancient art of layering meat sauce, cheese and flat noodles is not something I have experimented with excessively.

I came to this realization yesterday as I was in the middle of layering my second lasagna, and it occurred to me that I was unsure of the appropriate way to layer! Was it noodles first, or sauce? And should the ricotta have its own layer, or go directly on top of the meat? And where did the grated cheese come in? Just on the very top? And if so, should it sit atop a last layer of meat, or of noodles?

Maybe I think too hard.

BUT, just in case these musings do have some catastrophic consequences down the road, I decided I needed to figure out the answers. (Seriously, what if there's a lasagna apocalypse, and the only thing that can save the earth is the creation of the perfect lasagna? We need to know these answers!) (Okay, I really do think too hard.)

Of course, the way to answer any question regarding appropriate method is to try all the methods and, using a panel of experts, decide the winning approach. That sounds like it would take up a lot of time. And money - cheese ain't cheap. So I took the next best road: Facebook polls. I asked my friends, "What's the best order for assembling a lasagna?" And how did my friends help?? First with cheeky comments actually ("I like the imperative: 'Assemble the lasagna now!'" - Plus some wise cracks about Ikea...), but once they got that all (mostly) out of their systems, I heard the masses weigh in on their long-tested, family-favorite methods. And the verdict? It doesn't really matter.

WHAT?!?! That's like telling me that there is no spoon!! There MUST be a perfect way!

But the reality is, preference plays a heavy role, and so do ingredients.

There were references to putting your spinach on your ricotta - Spinach? Cooked? No thanks. We'll just skip that part.
Noodles on the bottom help the general structure - but you should never put noodles on the bottom if you're not pre-cooking your noodles... unless of course you're doing the hot water assemble method. Then definitely noodles on the bottom.
And you should definitely have noodles as your top layer. Unless, again, if you're doing the no-boil method. Or if you want extra sauciness.
And the type of cheese you use is very important - but you can use any type you like.


Turns out, whatever I did wouldn't really ruin my lasagna, within reason. So what does one do when the doors are left so wide open? Wing it.
Which is good, cause I probably would have ended up doing that anyway...

So here's the layering method I used last night (bottom-up): Sauce, ricotta, noodles, cheese, sauce, ricotta, noodles, cheese, sauce, noodles, cheese - and more cheese. 3 layers of noodles, 3 of sauce, 2 of ricotta, 3 of cheese. What changes would I make? Mostly, I'd just keep one layer of ricotta for a more concentrated cheesiness. But otherwise I found it held together well, and it tasted fine.

What ingredients should one use? This I have a bit stronger of an opinion on... but so does everyone else (and their grandmas, too). The best lasagnas in my opinion have a bit of a sweetness to them. I found out a couple years ago that the meat plays a big role in this. For my two lasagnas, both times I've used 1 kg ground beef and 1/2 kg ground pork. The pork adds a lot of the sweetness. But after eating my lasagna last night I decided that while I was headed in the right direction, I hadn't quite nailed it. It needed more meaty-sweetness. How do you get sweeter than pork? Pork sausage. The high fat content actually really increases the sweet factor of a dish - however, you don't want too much fat in an assembled pasta dish; sauces would separate, things wouldn't hold together, it would be a mess (literally). So, my plan of attack for next time is 1 kg ground beef, 1/2 kg ground pork and 1/4 kg pork sausage - you can opt for a spicy sausage, but I'll likely go mild. Oh, and for all you non-Canadians reading, that works out to roughly 2 lbs ground beef, 1 lbs ground pork and 1/2 lbs pork sausage.
What should go in the sauce? I always make my own for lasagna or stuffed pasta. Start with some olive oil, heat up some chopped sweet onion and add some crushed garlic - about 3 cloves and heat it just long enough to release the flavor. Add the meat at this point and cook it up well. Next, add in the sauciness. I use 1 large can of crushed tomatoes, plus one can of tomato paste - however, I like my sauce quite thick (makes for a tidier lasagna). Some people however prefer much more sauce, in which case you could get away with even another full can of crushed tomatoes, or mix it up with a can of diced tomatoes. Crushed tomatoes make for a thicker sauce, Diced make for a chunkier, but thinner sauce in general. The tomato paste helps to thicken even more while adding more tomato flavor. After my tomatoes I add any vegetables and then the spices and herbs. I always add at least a bit of chili powder to my tomato sauces. Honestly, I usually add more than 'a bit' - I'd say closer to a tsp than not. Oh, and did I mention I never measure herbs and spices? So this next bit will all be estimates. Next I throw in some dried oregano and basil - I used fresh basil yesterday but the flavor doesn't carry through as well. If you want to use fresh herbs, throw them in your ricotta mix. I also add a bay leaf and about a 1/2 tbsp brown sugar. Then cover and cook to let the flavors marry. Make sure you take out that bay leaf before you layer though!
What about veggies? Well, as I indicated above, I am not a fan of cooked spinach. But I love the ease of 'hiding' veggies in lasagna. My preferred way is with grated carrot. I typically add a whole carrot, grated on a fine grater, directly into the meat sauce. This adds more texture, can be used as a substitute or filler for meat, and no one will ever notice. Finely diced pepper works well in the same way, however it does alter the taste more. Zucchini is another popular veggie add-in, but not one I am inclined towards.
And Cheese? What of that? Traditionally people make their lasagna with mozzarella, but that isn't the only thing you are allowed to use. Last night I made mine with cheddar, and while it would have been nice to have some mozzarella too, I actually prefer a top layer of cheddar at least. Layers of ricotta or cottage cheese are also popular; last night I used ricotta, into which I mixed an egg, pepper and grated parmesan. The egg helps bind, the pepper flavor carries better in the cheese than the sauce, and parmesan makes it more melty and stringy. And remember: throw fresh herbs into this layer. While it is nice to use ricotta, I'm considering going back to cottage cheese - it costs about half as much (sometimes less) and actually has a nicer presentation at the end (the ricotta tends to look more grainy), but remember the additional whey in cottage cheese will add more moisture to the layers. And moisture = messy. I also like to throw more parmesan on top for a nice, crisp finish. Look for cheeses that melt well, and mix it up depending on the flavours you like - you can even finish it with a blue cheese crumble if you are so inclined.
And lastly, what about the noodles? Well, I opted to go the traditional, pre-boiled route. Why? Because that's the type of noodle I had in my house. Typically if you are not pre-cooking your noodles, you ought to buy the specific noodles made for that purpose. I've heard tell of a method using normal noodles where you don't need to pre-cook, but I'm not clear on the details and I have not tried it myself. Attempt at your own risk. In any event, if you are not pre-cooking, sauce must be on every side of every noodle. That means sauce on bottom and sauce on top. And if you like a more saucy lasagna, that means it will be messier.

As a finishing note, bake covered at 350 for an hour and remove the foil for another half hour to help crisp the top. And for goodness sake, let the stupid thing sit at least 5 minutes before you serve it! It will set up more and be easier to serve.

So what's the resounding message of this post? There isn't really one perfect lasagna recipe. Someone may claim to have the world's best chocolate chip cookie recipe, or the world's best hamburger patty, but it seems like everyone's favorite lasagna is often the old family recipe, and how can you compete with tradition? What I've posted above is what I like in a lasagna, but heaven help us if there ever is a lasagna apocalypse and we become reliant on the world's best lasagna recipe - it'd be the global cook-off to end all cook-offs.

Mrs. VanderLeek ;)

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Menu Plan Catchup + Investments

This week has been an absolute jumble. I took it upon myself to sort all of the clothes in the house - which means I pulled out 4 years worth of little boy clothes that had been in storage in the crawl space, dumped out all the boxes, and sorted through everything, making sure they got put back arranged by size, and pulling out lots to donate. We also got a new-to-us dresser for our bedroom, so hubby and I both had to go through all of our clothes to make sure everything would fit (we went from 2 tall dressers to 1 long dresser). That's a whole lot of clothes. And I'm a bit ashamed to admit that even before hubby goes through his stack of nearly 50 t-shirts, we already have 3 garbage bags full of items that we'll be donating. And I go through our clothes quite regularly! I'm not actually sure how we manage to accumulate so much so quickly, but it happens. Anyway, after spending most of Monday doing that I was struck by a brutal headache from 5:30 - 9:30 that night, which meant I didn't get to finish up that chore and it carried on to Tuesday.
Yesterday afternoon we had a scheduled appointment with our financial advisor, who we had not been to see in at least 3 years! Whoops! In any event, the last time we saw him, we had one child. Now we have three. And still only one RESP.
After our first boy was born we discovered that the government pays out every parent $100/month through the Child Care Tax Benefit until your kid turns 6. At the time we didn't need that money, so we opted to put it directly into an RESP for Gabe and it's been tallying up ever since. Well, since we started that RESP, some other options have come to our attention. RESPs are wonderful things to get into, particularly since the government will put in 20% of the total value of your annual contribution, up to $500. So assuming you start one on their birth year, and keeping it going with a maximum contribution until they graduate, by the time your kids turn 18, the government could have contributed $9000 of grant money. Not bad. However, the 'new' thing we're also looking into is life insurance for our kids.
Let's face it - the more you age, the harder it is to get an ideal rate for life insurance. Not only do you experience more medical setbacks, but so does your extended family, which affects the rates you'll pay as well. If you choose to wait until you're 30 to get life insurance, you'll most likely pay a chunk more money than if you had opted in when you were 20. Now let's say that your kids grow up to develop diabetes when they're 14. They now are uninsurable and will never have the option to purchase life insurance for themselves in the future - but that's not to say that can't retain a policy that's already been started for them! And even if they are insurable, but say, develop asthma or have 3 grandparents and 2 uncles that suffer from heart disease, when you start the policy for them at a young age, you can add on to the value of that policy later in life, without requiring another medical assessment to be done, meaning that whatever they may be vexed with later in life, they'll still be viewed as having the same risk as they did during their first childhood assessment. Life insurance = a good thing to have. I've heard people make the argument for investments over insurance, but the reality is, if you are a young parent with limited assets, whatever investments you make will likely not be enough to provide for your family if anything should happen to you. And for your children, locking them in to a policy will help ensure that their kids can be taken care of too. At the end of an hour long meeting I felt more secure about our future than I have in a long time!

And then we went to Wendy's for dinner.

Did I mention my meal plan for the week went out the window? Turns out that meal planning based on the grocery flier only works if you get groceries. Saturday we were out of town, Sunday was so full I barely got to do my Mother's Day shopping trip that was the one thing that was going to happen for me that day, Monday I had my headache and yesterday - well, we had Wendy's. So that nice little post I did up a few days ago about my wonderful meal plan? Yeah, scrap that. Instead, I had to make another Mid Week Meal plan. I wanted a noodle dish for tonight since that's one thing my oldest will always eat (he's off supper in general right now, unless there are noodles or pizza... or broccoli) so I skimmed my Pinterest boards and found a recipe I've been meaning to make for a long, long time: Pancit Bihon. In the church I grew up in, we had monthly Fellowship Lunches and the lone Filipino lady in our congregation would make pancit every time. And it's a good thing too, since everyone loved it so much we would've been quite upset if she skipped a month! Well, more of her family came over to Canada and there were a lot more Filipino families, and all of them made this amazing noodle dish. Traditionally I believe it has salted fish as the primary meat, but I like chicken or pork. The recipe I'll be using tonight is one that I found on Pinterest by gauging whether the picture looked 'right' or not. My mom has the beloved recipe from our old Filipino friend, but I have yet to get my hands on it. Once I do though, I'll post that version of the recipe. Anyway, I have everything I need to make pancit in my house - except cabbage. So this afternoon I'll be heading to the store and cabbage is on my list. I happened to notice a couple days ago that I have a kg pack of ground beef in my freezer, and another kg of ground pork in there too. You know what that means? Lasagna! It's been a long time since I've done a lasagna and I'm really looking forward to it. I use two meats for added flavor, grated carrots in the sauce for more texture and veggie servings, ricotta and parmesan layers and lots of good cheddar on top. I have everything I need but ricotta, so that's on my shopping list too. However, I only will use up half of my ground pork tomorrow, plus I'll have half a head of cabbage left. What to do, what to do? Pot stickers!! I've had a stash of wonton wrappers in my freezer for a while now, begging me to finally try pot stickers, and now is my chance! I'll be using the Budget Bytes recipe since, well, everything she does on there is incredible. I'll likely make up some fried rice to go with that and all I need to buy from the store for that meal will be a chunk of fresh ginger. And last on my menu for this week, I'll be using up whatever leftover wanton wrappers and ricotta that I have by making Lemon Ricotta Ravioli in a pesto cream sauce! I've been keeping pesto stocked in my house lately (my boys adore it), and I always try to have light cream and lemons on hand, so I don't think I actually need to get anything extra for those!

Since I'm going shopping today before the sales change, I'm still going to buy all the ingredients for my original meal plan, so maybe I'll just bump my visions of Shrimp Scampi and Cream of Broccoli soup over to next week. ...if I can wait that long!

Mrs. VanderLeek ;)

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The World of "Make Your Own"

One of the things I absolutely adore about Pinterest is the sheer number of Make Your Own tutorials and recipes. Everything from makeup to Magic Shell can be made in your own household. May of these things can be fun to make to give as gifts, and some of the homemade recipes may even replace your habit of purchasing those products from a store. But some of the ideas are more economical/efficient than others.

For example, have you ever tried to make your own ciabatta buns? Don't. Not as a strict rule, but honestly, the taste of the store bought is comparable, the time needed to make them is extensive (between mixing, kneading, shaping, misting, etc - I think it worked out to 2 hours hands on, and 5 hours strapped to the kitchen for overseeing), and by the end I decided that in the future I'd just pay the $4 for a bag of beautiful and yummy buns from a bakery.

But have you ever made your own tortillas? I have not, yet, but my sister-in-law does and has assured me it's actually pretty simple, but the biggest draw for me would be the cost. When you make your own, the cost breaks down to about 5 cents a tortilla. Store bought in our region right now works out to about 47 cents a tortilla. That's right - I pay nearly $5 for 10 tortillas from the store. And you know what? They don't taste that great. Sure they can make for convenient meals, but since freezing homemade is a totally viable option, why shouldn't I spend an afternoon making a huge batch of them, spend $5 making 100 tortillas, and keep them store in my freezer between layers of parchment paper? Oh, and they'd still taste better out of the freezer than the store bought ones taste 'fresh'. That sounds worth it to me!

Pasta sauce is one that I typically make fresh, simply out of habit. It's not hard, and it tastes fantastic using fresh ingredients, which easily store in your pantry or fridge for extended periods, so really, why not? But, that doesn't stop me from picking up jarred sauce when it goes on sale 5/$5 at my local grocery store. When you realize it's cheaper than homemade at that price, can be tweaked to taste better (add a bit of brown sugar, some chili powder and a bay leaf), and you get a mason jar out of the deal when you finish the sauce, it is nice to go between fresh and store bought as the opportunity dictates.

Many home beauty products are better to make at home I find. Things like beach mist for your hair (water, gel, Epsom salt, coconut oil, and a touch of essential oil if you like), foot soak (skim milk powder, a couple tea bags - preferably chamomile, Epsom salt), and foaming soap (about a 5:1 ratio of water to liquid soap in a foaming dispenser. My favorite use for this hack is with baby soap - it sure makes washing a newborn easier when the soap is a one-handed pump away!) are all much cheaper and work just as well. That being said, when Bath & Body Works puts their hand soaps on for 7/$25, I'm still going to go load up on their yummy scents! A new one I am eager to try is making liquid hand soap from a bar of soap. I found the tutorial here and instantly thought of a few bars of gorgeously scented French Mulled Soap that I got on clearance from HomeSense a couple years ago. Since it is bar soap I rarely use it, but it smells so fresh and pretty... I'm going to give this one a whirl, but first I have to get my hands on some glycerin.

I rarely buy store bought mixes: pancake, muffin, scone, brownie - they don't enter my house. The only exceptions are Bisquick, since it's the secret to my Mom's yummy bannock, and Cake Mix - but I never use them to make a cake unless my Mom specifically requests the Company's Coming Almost-a-Scratch cake (boxed mix, pudding, eggs, oil, water). Boxed cake mix makes great cookies! Lately I've been adding oats and coconut to them, plus an egg and some butter or coconut oil, and it turns out a yummy little treat that comes together super quick. But when it comes to making a real cake, you can't compete with scratch. Even though I may be tempted to pick up the mixes when they're on sale a buck a box, I'm never really tempted to make a cake out of them!

Spice blends are another thing that I don't often buy. To make your own seasonings is so simple, and very often you'd have all the spices in your cupboard already, why pay more for something that's loaded with preservatives and that you can whip up in a minute on your own? Same for salad dressings - I may keep a bottle of ranch on hand through the winter, but when summer rolls around and salads take over our meal plans, it's not unreasonable to think we'll use up a batch of homemade dressing before it expires in the fridge!

Here are a few other Make Your Own items that I've tried and had success with:
Pita bread - King Arthur Flour
Chalkboard paint - Martha Stewart
S'mores Granola Bars - Mrs. VanderLeek!
Ricotta - Smitten Kitchen

And, here are some that I have yet to try, but hope to get around to soon:
Vanilla Honey Bubble Bath - Real Simple
Disinfectant Wipes - DIY Home Sweet Home
Honey Lemon Lip Scrub - Pink Pistachio
Febreeze - Curbly

What do you make at home instead of buying?

Mrs. VanderLeek ;)

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Day the World Turned 4

Don't judge me by the title, please. I am not some nut job that sincerely thinks the world was formed 4 years ago. This is not going to be some post musing over what the world may have been like when it did, in fact, turn 4. I am not proposing a theorem revolving on the concept of 4 parallel worlds which we are constantly pulled between. I'm merely referring to my world - the world in which I'm a mother.

A few weeks ago, my eldest boy Gabe turned 4. A joyous occasion, is it not? My biggest little boy is growing up! He's nearing the next stage in his life! Soon he'll be old enough to go to school! ... I can feel a panic attack setting in even now.

4 years old??? Are you sure????? Didn't I just give birth to him a little while ago? And I'm sure he just started walking not that long ago. And sometimes he still gets a sippy cup even so I can be sure he doesn't spill on the couch! How can he be 4?!?

But it's true, and scary. And before you start thinking, "What's the big deal? It's not like he's moving off to college," - hear me out. I grew up in a day home, but the wonderful things was, it was my own mother's day home. Not content to leave her kids, she did everything she could think of to ensure she could afford to stay home with us, which meant providing a safe and happy place where other parents could drop off their kids. My mom was fantastic at running a day home. We had ample time playing outside, individual play time with special toys, fun trips to water parks and the like, special lunches once a week and lots of creative activities, like a playdough "Dinosaur Land" which was decorated with twigs from the yard, plastic dinos and chicken bones that we could dig up. It was an awesome childhood, and when the kids went home every day at 5:00, I was always left feeling like I got an awesome day playing with my mom during an extended playdate. We did so many fun things that I resolved when I was pregnant with Gabe to repeat many of them with my kids. But it's funny how in the past 4 years I never managed to get around to so many of those little things that were day-to-day treats in my own childhood.

Sure, Gabe has gone to the Drumheller dinosaur museum, and has been to the mountains numerous times, and ridden horses, and gone fishing, and even gone to a show jumping exhibition at Spruce Meadows in Calgary, but those were all outings. I've been great about big outings - I try to make sure we get to do lots of those things with the kids. But for one reason or another, the special daily things have been much harder for me.

In part, I think I'm scared to let the kids make too big of a mess. Painting is a pretty rare occurrence in our house. Glitter is banned. If we bake together I'm the one who cracks the eggs, and the boys have no knowledge of anything called "bath paints". Another reason is that I often feel like some things may be too advanced for my boys. Gabe is just getting to start using scissors and glue this year while many other kids have been using safety scissors for a couple years by now. And sadly, another reason may be that I just haven't made the time and I've often opted for the easy route.

A week ago we were getting into the car after our weekly church playdate and the two older boys were picking up rocks in the parking lot while I was getting the baby in the car, and stashing the rocks in our wagon. When it was time for the big boys to get into the car Gabe instructed me to keep his rocks so he could start a rock collection and I almost said, "No". Why? Because it would have been easy to say no. Order and schedule and routine is easy. Bringing more things into our house and getting down and dirty is not easy. But it struck me that by the time I was Gabe's age, I certainly had my own collection of rocks (which were all very plain and boring, except to my excitable eyes). Why did I have a rock collection like that? Because my mom was more inclined to say "yes" than to say "no". I can't think of a better explanation. Where I have been prone to say no, decline requests to play, shut down the chance for a craft, my mother would comply, have a craft at the ready and get down on her knees to push those toy cars around. And it hit me, very hard in that moment, that I needed to change what I was doing, or by the time Gabe was 5 and went to school, I'd have regrets. These first few years where I get my kids all to myself through the day and we have endless opportunities for play, exploration, learning and fun are only worth as much as we make of them. And in some ways I've been squandering this time. Sure, we've done outings, and projects and "bucket lists" of seasonal activities, but our day-to-day fun has been lacking.

I suppose another reason for this is the fact that I have easy-going boys. Yes, they play like boys in that they love tools, they roll all over each other rough housing and everything seems to make engine noises, but they have looooooong attention spans (one bucket of cars = 2 hours of fun), they like to play quietly and neatly for the most part, and they play really well together. If I did not interrupt their play from time to time, I could easily let the two older boys carry on for the whole day. Not bad for a 4 year old an a little guy that's not even 2 yet... But I have taken advantage of their ease for far too long. I have accomplished far too many other things, of far less importance, in the past few years. If my kids were my high-maintenance and needed more assistance to feel entertained, I'm sure I'd not be having these concerns right now, but just because they don't need me doesn't mean they shouldn't get me.

So what do I do whenever I resolve on something? I make a list. In this case, it was a rather large, multi-faceted list, of things I wanted to do with Gabe before he turned 5. But not in the way one would do a bucket list, but more so a standing list of things that should be recurring. For example, growing up with the dayhome, about once a month we would get Face Sandwiches - we'd each get a piece of bread with CheezWhiz or peanut butter and put various toppings on them (celery, carrots, raisins, dry ichiban noodles, mini marshmallows, chocolate chips) to make faces. I want to do that! And we will make a dino land, and I'll finally break down and get some glitter! But these won't be the sort of things that I need to schedule out and plan extensively; these are things that we'll get to in our day, maybe when the baby is sleeping, or maybe when the cars get cleaned up and we need something else to play with before lunch time. Really, it's more about how I approach their playtime, rather than what I plan for them. I'm sure that if I involved myself more in their active play that we'd have got around to all these things and more by now.

SO I tried to do things differently this week. I earnestly tried to say "yes" (almost) every time I was asked for something. Less, "Not now," and more, "Let's do it!" How did that change the look of our week? For starters, excepting one day where Gabe had soccer in the evening, we played outside every day - which is a record for us! Getting them outside was too close to getting them dirty before and often seemed like more effort than it was worth, but this week they went outside to wash the rocks from their collection (which I let them bring home), they helped me rake leaves left from the melt, they painted the fence with water and they played with the dog and dug in the flower beds. We made muffins together and when we had eggs for lunch, Gabe cracked them all for me (one went right onto the floor, but hey, what can you do?). We painted - Gabe painted his rocks and Nathaniel did a number of pictures. We made coffee filter flowers as gifts for the Grandma's on Mother's Day, played with playdough and did lots of coloring together. We watched far less TV than we have in a long time, and we played ALOT of Spiderman and "Pet Store". We even had a bath with colored bath soap similar to playdough... you can shape it, then lather it for shampoo or soap... long story short, it temporarily dyes everything blue until thoroughly rinsed. Now, some moms may read this list and think, "That's all? Didn't you have an organized craft time every day where you work with mixed media, or sessions of intentional sensory play to aid in development?" But this is a step forward for me in this area, and I'm happy with how it went. And most importantly, the boys were happy too. And that really is the point to all of this.

Mrs. VanderLeek ;)

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Meal Planning May 13 - 18

I didn't meal plan for this week (WHAT?!) thanks to a weekend of migraines, and an unwillingness to go to the grocery store and, you know, spend money. But NOT meal planning does not actually help you save money. This week I was saved by a very generous friend who rode over on her motorbike on Monday and pulled out a pot pie and a lasagna from her backpack for me (a neat party trick, I think). Anyway, I sat down tonight intent on making up my meal plan before the weekend starts so that whenever I get a chance to grab groceries this weekend, I can with my list prepared and my head full of yummy meals.
So here are my meals for this week, based on what's on sale this week:
Oven Fried Chicken
Shrimp Scampi
Homemade Cream of Broccoli soup with Salad
Stuffed Pork Tenderloin with roasted apples

The best part? The most expensive meal is, I believe, $5, to feed my whole family. I don't buy meat over $3/lbs as a general rule.

I'm excited!

Mrs. VanderLeek ;)

Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Ups and Downs of Meal Planning

If you have ever at all been given to reading organizational blogs, or have read books on how to simplify your life, you'll likely have encountered at least a few pages of reasons why you should meal plan. Meal planning is a fantastic way to save time, money, and frustration. By planning a shopping list in advance that works along with your menu for the week, you can limit waste, by having a schedule made up you can begin meal prep earlier in the day and pull meat from your freezer the night before, and a little bit of thinking ahead will save you from staring at your Pinterest Recipes board at 4:30 on a weekday until you finally throw in the towel and order pizza. And while I know all of these wonderful advantages to meal planning, I must confess that I am a hot-and-cold meal planner myself. Some seasons it is an essential part of my household management and others it just seems like one more thing that would be thrown into my schedule, and something I just really don't have time for. In those latter seasons I invariable eat more fast food. But still I manage to convince myself for chunks of time that I don't really need to meal plan.
I think a large issue I have with meal planning is that repetition in your menu is glaringly obvious when it's written down on paper. I always love variety with my menus, and can't seem to bring myself to list the same menu item on a written schedule twice in one month. However, that mindset is ridiculous when I look at how many times in a month we resort to having spaghetti because I can't think of what else I should make. It's no wonder though that I should find meal planning to be a burden sometimes when I set such ridiculous standards for myself. To never repeat a meal in a month is fine, but not necessary. The reality is, if we enjoy it, why shouldn't we eat it every other week?
I started meal planning when I was living with a roommate in another city, just after high school. We had different schedules, her with school and myself with an office job, so when I cooked, I was cooking for one. I couldn't stand the thought of wasting large amounts of food, which would unquestionably happen if I weren't thoughtful about using up the produce I bought at the beginning of the week, so I started meal planning, often concocting new dishes just to use up what was already on my grocery list. When I sat down to make my meal plan, I'd pick three or four meals I wanted to have that week, and then I'd go over my ingredient list, anticipate what ingredients I'd have left in my fridge by Thursday, and dream up some way to use them. For example, I loved to make rice noodle bowls with marinated honey garlic pork and steamed peppers, but what would I do with the leftover red pepper after I'd had that meal once in the week? But since I always had canned peaches on hand, and I'd have some lychee nuts for snacking too, I'd plan to make Peach Pepper Chicken with sautéed lychee nuts. Peppers were gone, any lychee nuts that were getting old were gone, and the remaining canned peaches were taken for lunch the next day. Some ingredients were at a higher risk of sitting unused and eventually spoiling if I didn't plan in advance, like fresh ginger, or avocados. But as I learned that reusing ingredients didn't necessarily mean all my dishes would taste the same (Ginger Beef vs. Lime Ginger Pork) I felt like meal planning during that season was really an outlet of creativity, rather than an inhibitor.
But after I moved home to go to college, the next time I was the primary person responsible for grocery shopping and meal planning was as a newlywed. But there was no real advanced planning beyond the night before in that case. Running to a grocery store every night was a novelty - a way to enjoy the simple pleasures of being newly married - and since I was working I would decide the night before what we'd be eating the next day, but trying new, fancy recipes was far higher on my priority list than staying within a set grocery budget. For a few months a typical week's meals would look like this: Monday - T-bone steak with crab topping, Tuesday - homemade perogies and loaded nachos, Wednesday - pulled pork with a root beer sauce, Thursday - salmon steaks with stuffed potatoes, Friday - Deep dish pizzas with homemade sauce and fresh Italian sausage. Variety, experimentation and 'Wow factor' were my goal, and thanks to the addition of a KitchenAid mixer to our household, and the resulting fresh dessert baked every night, my poor husband gained 15 pounds in 6 weeks, and we were spending around $800/month on groceries, for two of us! And that's before we factored in dinner's out! Fortunately we couldn't carry on like that for long, and by the time I went on Mat leave with my first boy, I realized that we needed to have a real budget, and less rich food on such a regular basis. I recalled my old meal planning ways and set out in that direction again.
Now, as I mentioned before, I've since yo-yoed back and forth with my meal planning tendencies, but while reading a e-book on simplifying life the other day I was reminded of just how much pizza and spaghetti we've eaten in the last few months, and I decided I was fed up with it. Something had to give. I've maintained a tight grocery budget of $300 a month for the past 4 years, but just in the past two months my ravenous toddler has helped bump up that number. And while pasta is a cheap meal, I felt like if I meal planned I could manage to save money still, while increasing our variety.
The trick I'm faced with this time is 'how'. How long do I plan for? One week at a time? A month at a time? Do I keep it a rigid schedule? Do I dare repeat meals in a month?
Some tips I'd heard ranged from using Google Calendar to plan a rigid schedule that would email you reminders daily about what you were to prepare that day, and planning two weeks of meals and then just repeating the same two weeks until you decide to change the whole menu again.
Neither of those really rang true for me.
First off, part of the reason I'm so successful at being cheap with groceries (you may choose to call it 'cost conscious' but really, it's just cheap) is that I shop the flyers every Thursday. I can't bring myself to set foot in a grocery store without having first checked to see what's on sale, and where. So my maximum planning time will be one week at a time, and that way I can determine if we'll be having turkey meatloaf or not, depending on whether ground turkey's on sale.
Secondly, sometimes it just doesn't work to put in the time you had anticipated spending on making supper. Maybe the baby is super fussy and you just plain won't have a chance to stand over the stove making crepes for half an hour straight. Or maybe the kids made an epic mess and you just need to throw something in the oven so you can deal with the rest of the house before hubby gets home. One friend on Facebook offered up a brilliant suggestion: make your list, but don't be rigid with the days those meals will fall on necessarily. Write all of the menus on a chalkboard, maybe in a loose schedule, but if the day is crazy, take a glance at the chalkboard and choose the meal that will be most do-able that day. You'll already have all the ingredients on hand, so changing up the meal midday won't throw you through any serious loops.
Lastly, while I may be able to bring myself to occasionally repeating a meal in a month, I can't limit our household to 14 meals in one 30-day period. So as I plan week by week, I'll make sure I feel free to choose repeat meals, but I won't just hit the 'repeat' button en masse and play through the same meals we just had two weeks ago. That's not enough variety for me.

Once I had resolved to meal plan, it was already a couple days into the week and I had no intention of going grocery shopping until the end of the week, so I simply planned based on what I had in the house. And what did we eat? Balsamic Chicken the first night, then homemade chili and cornbread, tonight is Chicken Souvlaki Crepes and tomorrow will be Barbequed ribs. And while making crepes for supper might seem labour intensive, I had enough of a heads up that I prepped all the veggies and fixings while I was waiting for eggs to cook for the boys at lunch time, and the chicken is thawed, marinating, and waiting to go on the grill, so having to ONLY make crepes for my supper preparation at 4:30? Not a bad deal.

Meal planning is worth it - very much so. It makes complicated meals seem much more doable on a regular weekday, it makes for less waste, less frantic Pinterest searches at 4:30 in the afternoon, and will certainly make for less spaghetti in our household. And after the last few months, that last point is reason enough for me to recommit myself to meal planning.

Mrs. VanderLeek ;)