Last night at dinner, I told the kids about a blog post I’d read concerning the holidays; a woman had written an open letter to her husband talking about all of the things that she does to make their holidays enjoyable. And to me, it sounds kind of normal; budgeting and planning, researching and shopping for gifts, planning meals, baking, wrapping, making time to go see Christmas lights, etc. It’s exhausting, both mentally and physically.

It got me thinking.

What Christmas traditions do we have that don’t make that much of a difference to the kids?

Growing up, my family didn’t celebrate holidays, so I don’t have memories connected to Christmas or New Years.  As a family, we’ve built our own, and they’ve changed over the years; The first year that George and I were dating, we bought a live Christmas tree from the YMCA lot in Lakewood, brought it home, drank wine, and he shared the stories of his ornaments as we decorated the tree together. He bought me my very first ornament that year; a handmade metal and glass angel from a local artist. She still holds pride of place on the tree every year.

Now, we pull out the artificial tree, Lefty helps me put it together, Ethan and Stella help straighten out the branches. I take out the ornaments, one by one, telling the stories behind each of them. There’s usually some arguing and moving of ornaments and Christmas cookie consumption, and then we watch a movie together. Another tradition we have is that George spends all day on Christmas Eve baking the cookies I’ve made while I wrap presents and watch Christmas movies. We also try to drive around at least once to see the Christmas light displays in our city.

So at dinner, we talked about our family traditions; what they like, what they don’t care about, and what they’d like to do in future. Surprisingly, there wasn’t much that they don’t like (“Cleaning. I don’t think we should clean as much as we do.” — Ethan), but the things that they enjoy surprised me a little.

“I like going to Aunt Mary’s for Christmas Eve” — Ethan

“I like Christmas dinner” — Lefty

“I like watching movies and putting the ornaments on the tree.” — Stella

“I wish I had more help baking the cookies, like each one of you would help do one kind of cookie.” — George

“I wish we put more icing on the cookies, and that we made more of them.” — Lefty

“I like watching you open the presents that you pick out for each other.” — Me

In this time of craziness, of baking and listmaking, it made me happy to see that the little things don’t go unappreciated. It’s also nice that if we need to change things up, or reorient the plan (my personal kryptonite) or just plain let something go and not do it at all, It’s OK. Yeah, we might miss goofing around with the Elf Microphone, or driving around looking at lights, or wish we had the sweet bread that takes me 5 1/2 hours to make, but you know what? We’re good.  We can always do it next year.


George’s Summer String Camp

To say that George is musical is to say that the sun is slightly warm. From morning to night, he is  humming, singing, drumming, and making noise at every opportunity. He hears a song on the radio and attempts to play it by ear on his piano or cello. In fact, he learned the intro of the Game of Thrones theme for cello after his cousin shared the Break of Reality cover version on YouTube.

After taking piano lessons for several years, he asked to switch instruments. This year he joined his elementary school orchestra and has been playing cello.


George performing at his elementary Christmas concert, Dec 2014

George has an opportunity to participate in String Camp at Baldwin Wallace University this summer, June 13-18.

George’s orchestra teacher has recommended him for this camp:

 “I cannot tell you how immensely talented [George] is on cello. He learns and memorizes music so fast, it is truly remarkable. On top of that he has great technique (how he holds his bow, puts his fingers down). He should be in private lessons on cello, but I know that can be expensive.”

Fortunately we are able to borrow an instrument from the school, and we may be able to qualify for a $100 scholarship from the Fairview Music Association. However, the cost of camp is $450. We’re reaching out to friends and family in hopes that you would consider donating to help defray the cost of this camp and contributing to this great opportunity for George.

If you are able to contribute, please click here. Even if you can’t, please consider sharing on social media. Any money raised over the camp cost will be donated to the Fairview Music Association to contribute toward future scholarship efforts.

Just how dumb is a dumb phone?

I was online today, updating our cell phone account payment information, and got a little pop up message that we are eligible to upgrade our cell phones in one week.

Hubs and I have what are called ‘basic’ phones by cell companies, and ‘dumb phones’ by virtually everyone else. We’ve resisted the smart phone push largely because we can’t justify the investment… also known as, “We don’t need them.” They simply aren’t necessary to our lives, and we choose not to have them.

This is harder for me than it appears on the surface. In my former life, I was a geek. Guys at work called me “Gadget Girl” because I was the one who begged to test out new hardware, install the newest operating system, develop a white paper for the new drive imaging software. I had one of the first Palm Pilots, one of the first iPods, knew what mp3s well before Napster made life difficult for Madonna and Metallica. I played the first Duke Nukem and the original Warcraft on an ad hoc network for hours on end. I used to correspond with Desmond Crisis on an old BBS.

I was a geek. Still am, actually; I just hide it better nowadays.

So the opportunity to upgrade to an iPhone for free (“with new activation and two-year agreement!”) gives me pause.

I can justify it, if I try hard enough. It’s only ten or twenty bucks more a month than what we’re currently paying; I can have plenty of room for my audiobooks and music; I can use RunKeeper to track my runs; I can give the iPod to the kids for their apps and games.

But what does it truly cost?

A few months ago, Stella didn’t have school, so after we dropped the boys off, we went to Panera for a ‘Panera Date.’ I saw a mother and her two teenaged daughters sitting at a table near us. As Stella and I ate and chatted, not a word was spoken by the three; they were each engrossed in their iPhones. A perfect opportunity to talk about their day, or their friends, or the football game they were going to on Friday… squandered, usurped by technology.

I’m not judging this mother or her daughters, because as a mother with three of my own, I honestly appreciate the value of a quiet moment. (And, who knows? Maybe they talked themselves hoarse in the car on the way there.) I have no problem with handing over the iPad when we’re waiting at the dentist’s office, just to keep a child (or three) occupied. But when we are so addicted to technology that we feel sick to our stomach or irritable when we leave our phones at home? To have so great a need to post something to facebook, or tweet constantly, so that it’s virtually impossible to disconnect and take a break?

What about when we pick our kids up from school, or they get off the bus, and we’re on the phone? They don’t get the message that we love and miss them and are interested in how their day was; in this way, we tell them, ‘you are not as important as this phone call.’

You are not important.

When our phones ring, and our kids run to get them for us. Because even at two years of age, they know that the phone is important. It gets answered every time it rings.

What about the last time your kid asked you to play Uno or build LEGOs? Did you answer that call? (Being honest here: I didn’t.)

Completely separate is the ‘new every two’ mentality that has cropped up as a result of cell phone upgrades. In our disposable society, phones are tossed out without thought. Some are recycled, but most are thrown into landfills. The attitude of buying, taking care of, fixing when broken, and then using until it’s beyond repair has sadly gone by the wayside.

I’ve been following a really great blog for about a year now, called The Hands-Free Revolution. She talks about how important it is to consciously unplug, or we risk missing our kids’ childhoods. It’s caused me to think carefully about how much technology we have in our home. We live in an ‘entertain me’ age, and if I don’t want my kids to fall prey to the impatience and ‘gimme now’ mentality that is so pervasive nowadays, I need to model patience and ‘good things come to those who wait’ behaviors. For me, a recovering geek who could very easily become addicted to the convenience and cool-factor of  the iPhone, it’s especially imperative.

I guess the dumb phone isn’t so dumb after all.

Split-Pea Soup

Ah, Christmas. A time of food and family. And Honeybaked Ham.

I buy a Honeybaked twice a year; once at Christmas, once at Easter. I buy a large ham, at least eight pounds, and use every single piece of it — Christmas dinner, leftovers, diced ham for cabbage and noodles, breakfast ham scramble. And, of course, the ham bone for soup.

HB ham bones are usually $2.99/lb. I make sure to use everything at that price.

Here’s a basic recipe. I tend to make my stock in my countertop roaster, then cook the soup in the Crock Pot (I double or triple this batch for freezing). If you have a large ham bone, you’ll want a large pot.

1 ham bone with whatever stray meat still attached
2 cups diced ham, reserved for serving
1 lb dry split peas
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 large onion, diced
several tablespoons (each) butter and olive oil
2-3 bay leaves
1 lb baby carrots, chopped
3-4 large potatoes, peeled and diced
1 cup light or heavy cream
salt and pepper to taste

Rinse split peas in colander, sorting to remove any stones or bad peas. Place in bowl with two cups of water and soak for two hours.
To large stock pot, add ham bone, water that the peas were soaking in (reserve the peas to add later), an extra two quarts of water, and bay leaves. Bring to a boil for about a minute; reduce heat, cover and simmer for two hours. Remove ham bone to a large bowl. Strain ham stock through a fine sieve into clean soup pot. Add reserved split peas and process gently with a stick blender if you prefer a pureed consistency.

In a small skillet, saute minced garlic and onion in mixture of 1 tablespoon olive oil and 1 tablespoon butter. Saute until golden but not brown. Add garlic/onion mixture, potatoes and baby carrots to stock and simmer until vegetables have desired softness (at least 30 minutes). Taste and and adjust for salt and pepper if needed.

Fifteen minutes before serving, add heavy cream and reserved diced ham, stirring to heat through.

NOTE: Soup thickens considerably after refrigeration. Thin with leftover stock, water or milk if needed. Soup freezes well.

Black Friday

A long time ago, back before children and remodeling houses, when Thanksgiving was at my mother-in-law’s and I had time to make leaf crusts on my pumpkin pie, I used to venture out early on Black Friday. I’d scan the ads after overindulging on food and make a list of things to look for the next morning.

The first television we bought together (which is still surviving nicely at my mother-in-laws fifteen years later) was a Black Friday 6-AM purchase at Sears. Blankets, sheets and scarves that I look at and think, “$5 doorbuster at Old Navy” or “Over 50% off on those” that are still in use.

A few years ago, I started getting the Black Friday ads online a few weeks before Thanksgiving. Since some stores offer price matching or receipt adjustments, I could plan surgical attacks instead of spraying birdshot. I started shopping Target on Tuesday or Wednesday before Thanksgiving, hunting down the exact items that I wanted, buying them, then returning on Friday morning before the sales ended and having my receipt adjusted. Easy-peasy.

This past Tuesday I spent about an hour and a half at Target, searching for the sheets and blankets and iPod dock/radio that I want. And when I made my way to the checkout, I saw a sign taped down next to the credit card reader:


So I handed the cashier everything that I had selected and walked out with a few purchases. And I was irritated, not just because they’d changed their policy, but because I’d wasted time that could have been better spent studying for my upcoming Chemistry final. It’s not like I’m hoarding stuff that I don’t need; I can only afford the nice 600 thread-count sheet sets and fuzzy blankets on Black Friday because they’re almost 60% off. And the fleece pajama sets for the kids are almost 50% off. But is it enough to make me forsake my warm bed, tea and monkey bread with my kids on Friday morning? To throw elbows to chase down a deal, when we’ve just gotten done telling our kids how thankful we are for what we have?

Last week, someone posted this little graphic on facebook:

Um…  yeah. Irony at its height.

Every year we say we’re going to keep Christmas small, and for the most part, we do. One big gift for the kids, and then smaller things that they need (socks, fleece pajamas, long underwear) or want (new video games, dollhouse accessories, LEGOs). They have more board games, books and toys than I ever had at their ages, and yet we’re going to give them more? Simply because it’s expected?

For me, this is a much-needed reminder that we need to appreciate what we have and think carefully before buying something — ANYTHING — because we see a quota on stocking fulfillment. I’d rather give each child $100 and go to WalMart or KMart and let them be “Layaway Angels,” paying down on someone’s layaway just because, letting them feel the joy of giving. Or take them shopping and let them choose baby items, clothing and toys off of the Providence House (a crisis nursery in Cleveland) wish list, then let them help us deliver those gifts.

We all want our children to develop attitudes of gratitude and service towards their fellowman. But how do we achieve the balance of giving them good things… but not too much?

So I’m boycotting Black Friday. I’m staying in my pajamas, having tea and brioche cinnamon bread for breakfast and playing cards with my kids, paring down my list and (because I’m being honest) maybe doing a little online shopping later.


Slow Cooker Two-Beer Chili

Two-Beer Chili
3 lbs ground chuck
2 lbs stew beef
2 large onions, either red or yellow, diced
4 large cloves garlic, minced
Olive oil
Chili seasoning (at least 4 T, but can adjust for taste)
1 tsp garlic powder
1 can diced tomatoes with jalapenos
1 can black beans, rinsed
1 red bell pepper, seeded and chopped
1 12-oz bottles Amber lager (e.g., Killian’s Irish Red, Sam Adam’s Oktoberfest)
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Brown stew meat in cast iron skillet in batches. Cut into bite-sized pieces and add to stoneware of large (at least 5.5 quart) slow cooker. Brown ground chuck, drain, and add to stoneware. Soften onions, red pepper and garlic in a bit of olive oil, then add to stoneware.  Add canned tomatoes and rinsed beans, followed by seasonings and beer. Stir to combine, cover and cook on LOW for eight hours.
Serve with whatever toppings you like; we prefer shredded sharp cheddar cheese, sour cream and Fritos.

Le Creuset Reconditioned!

The other day I made a double-batch of chicken & dumplings in my big ol’ Le Creuset French oven. Day 2, when I reheated the leftovers, I realized that there wasn’t a high enough dumpling-to-chicken ratio.

Making more dumplings meant that some of the chicken filling got burned. I mean, BIG TIME burned. After boiling water in it, then soaking the pot overnight, I scrubbed it for at least ten minutes with a mixture of Barkeeper’s Friend and baking soda. Most of it came up, but I still had some nasty blackish spots.

I searched the Internets for a solution, and found TheKitchen blog. Their suggestion was to use Bon Ami or Barkeeper’s Friend or to try Le Creuset’s cleaner.

Really, the blog stood out because the burned-on bottom looks very similar to my poor pot’s condition.

In the comments section, I found a suggestion from someone to fill the pot with water, add a little bleach and let it sit for 24 hours. I figured I had nothing to lose, so I let it sit in my utility tub all day.

Last night, I went to check, and WHOA. Seriously?

It’s not perfect, of course. There’s still some darkness on the bottom. But altogether it looks amazing in comparison.

The person who suggested using bleach also suggested filling the water all the way to the top so as not to have a ring. Good idea, I’d say.

Crock Pot-ifications

The end of August means the beginning of the school year for our entire family here in northeastern Ohio. The boys are in first and third grades; the girl starts Kindergarten, and I’m taking Chemistry this fall. This means I’ll be gone one evening a week, which in turn means planning a meal that is simple for my husband to serve the kids. If his prep instructions are more involved than “ladle into bowls,” there is likely to be much grumbling and perhaps a Chick-Fil-A run.

Enter the Crock Pot. Most of you know, I’m obsessed with my Crock Pot(s). Fall means soup around here, and I have an array of five or six different Crock Pot-friendly soups that I make regularly. Sometimes I run into a traditionally-prepared soup recipe that I enjoy but requires extensive prep time and babysitting on the stove. Which means it gets saved for Sundays, when I can watch a Browns game while cooking. My preference, of course, is converting ‘normal’ recipes for use in the slow cooker, since it’s OMG SO MUCH EASIER and 95% of them only require the husband to ladle into bowls.

Last fall, I found The Pioneer Woman’s Italian Chicken Soup recipe. The Pioneer Woman says that this was “very loosely based on a classic soup from a chain Italian restaurant.” Since our family never eats out, I have no idea what restaurant chain or soup she’s talking about. As for the recipe, it is delicious, no question, but there are a few things that make this a nearly impossible weeknight soup:

  1. It’s very ‘pot-heavy’ (meaning OMG WHO IS WASHING ALL THESE DISHES FOR ME?!); and 
  2. Whoever helped her calculate her prep time is on drugs. Like, heavy psychedelics for major delusions.

I’ve found that I need to double (or even triple) the prep times, cook times, ingredient amounts, etc. that I find in TWP recipes. Which is fine; once a month or so I experiment with one of her recipes, tweak it to fit normal human standards, and either add it to my repertoire or discard it entirely. Keeper recipes are usually doubled (or tripled) because I tend to freeze half for future use, and we have leftovers for a second meal.

Slow Cooker Italian Chicken Soup


1 box Ditalini pasta (very short macaroni-type pasta noodles)
2-3 Tablespoons olive oil 
2 packages frozen boneless, skinless chicken thighs (see notes)
8 cups low-sodium chicken stock
1 medium onion, diced
2 red bell peppers, diced
4 cloves minced garlic (or equivalent prepared jarred minced garlic)
2 stalks celery, diced
2 14-oz cans diced tomatoes with green chilis (see notes)
2 14-oz cans diced tomatoes 
2 cups heavy cream
4 Tablespoons minced fresh oregano
Salt & freshly ground pepper, to taste
Shredded Parmesan cheese for serving
Use a 6.5-quart (or larger) slow cooker.
Defrost chicken in microwave for a minute or two, just enough to make it easier to remove packaging.  Place frozen chicken into slow cooker.
In a large skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil over low heat. Add oregano and cook for one minute, just to release flavors. Scrape oregano into crock pot with a spatula.
Add the second tablespoon of olive oil to the same pan and place over medium heat. Add onion and garlic and sauté until onion is softened, about 3-4 min. Add celery and bell peppers and continue to cook until vegetables soften, about 10 minutes total. Add onion/pepper mixture, chicken stock and canned tomatoes to crock.  
Cook on LOW for 6-8 hours.
One half-hour before serving, bring several quarts of water in a stock pot to a boil. Cook ditalini pasta according to package directions. Drain pasta and toss with a bit of olive oil to keep it from sticking.
Using a slotted spoon, remove the chicken pieces to a bowl and shred with two forks before returning chicken to crock pot. (Skip this step if you’re using cooked, already-shredded chicken). Stir in heavy cream. Cover and continue cooking for remaining time.
Ladle cooked pasta into bowl, top with soup, sprinkle with Parmesan cheese. Serve with salad and Italian bread for a meal.
I get the large perforated packages of fresh Perdue boneless, skinless chicken thighs from Costco and freeze them. You can tear off two perforated packages and thaw for use in this recipe, or substitute about 1.5 pounds of whatever chicken you prefer. Or, substitute 4 cups of cooked, shredded rotisserie chicken and cut your cook time by half.
I use my mini food processor to mince the garlic and vegetables. It cuts down substantially on the prep time.
I like to add a couple cups of frozen chopped vegetables to the crock pot when I add the stock. I’ve also added 2 cups of chopped fresh baby spinach when I add the heavy cream for the last half-hour or hour of cooking.
If you prefer a slightly less-spicy soup, replace one of the 14-oz cans of diced tomatoes with green chilis with a 14-oz can of regular diced tomatoes.
If you plan on serving all of the soup immediately, save yourself a step and stir the ditalini pasta into the crock. Remember it will absorb a LOT of the liquid, so plan to thin it with stock the next day. Otherwise, store the leftover pasta separately in a zip-top gallon bag. You can always freeze the soup for a future meal if it doesn’t have the pasta added.
Four out of five people loved this soup. (The middlest kid has a fairly bland palate, so he prefers me to use less of the tomatoes with chilis. I used two cans, so he complained. Which is completely normal.) The husband and I had the leftovers for lunch and dinner for a few days.
The prep time is still kind of heavy for a slow-cooker soup; it took me just under 20 minutes to get everything into the crock from running the packages of chicken under warm water, to pushing the ON button. I cooked for six hours on LOW and the chicken thighs were nicely done. I also added shredded spinach. That said, it’s much easier than the original recipe, and when I polled my family, they all agreed that it tasted virtually the same.

Book Review: Death Penalty by William J. Coughlin

Death Penalty (A Charley Sloan Courtroom Thriller)Death Penalty by William J. Coughlin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked this up from the clearance rack at Half Price Books, and this is a definite winner.

Charley Sloan is arguably the nicest defense attorney you’d ever want to meet. Recovering alcoholic and thrice-divorced, Charley made it big before losing everything and almost getting disbarred. Climbing back from the brink, selling shoes and real estate to make ends meet, he rebuilds a small one-man practice by handling divorces, real estate transactions,representing petty criminals and the occasional high-profile murderer.

Charley finds himself in a tough situation when an old down-and-out attorney friend asks him to handle the appeal on a big liability case. When he hears whispers that one of the appellate panel judges may be on the take, Charley has to decide how to proceed. If he refuses to go along, he will lose the judgement and his percentage, but more importantly, his client — rendered quadriplegic by an accident — will never receive proper care.

Charley is likable, honest and truly concerned about the best interests of his clients. I found myself hoping that this wasn’t the only Charley Sloan book written, and I’m looking forward to reading more.

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