Tuesday, December 29, 2009

January: Use-Up Month

As 2009 comes to a close, I thought I'd share a little plan I'm cooking up for January.

It seems like my cupboards and freezer always get over-stocked during the holiday season with all of the cooking and baking that goes on. And of course in January, we are all pinching our pennies trying to make up for all that spending that we did in December. So... this January I'm going to kill two birds with one stone... or should we say "love-tap" two birds with one stone (I don't really want to kill them). Anyway, in order to get a fresh start in 2010 and save some buckaroos, I'm designating January as "Use-Up Month." The goal of this month, as the name implies, is to buy as little food as possible and use up all the food in my freezer and pantry. Then come February, we will have saved a good chunk o' change, and we will have freed up some space in the pantry and freezer too!


Obviously, I will need to buy some groceries, such as milk, fruit and other fresh items to keep my family healthy. But my goal is to buy as few ingredients as possible and work around what I already have.


To make "Use-Up" month a success, it's going to require a little creativity on my part and a big shift in the way I cook and plan meals. See, usually I go through my recipes and cookbooks, decide which meals I want to make and then purchase the ingredients. This month, everything will be backwards... I'll look at the foods I already have and try to come up with recipes that use those ingredients. I am excited for this fun cooking challenge. I feel like an Iron Chef! Just call me Mario Batali, everyone. I plan on getting a lot of inspiration from web sites like allrecipes.com, where you can type in the ingredients you have on hand and find loads of recipes that use those things.


For instance, I have several cans of mandarin oranges in my pantry, along with tons of rice... so I'm thinking of trying out this delish orange chicken recipe. I also have some evaporated milk and some boxed stuffing mix in my pantry, so I might try this recipe for chicken and stuffing casserole.


Even though it'll be use-up month, there's just NO WAY I can forgo baking for an entire month. These jam bars are a great use-up for the 12 gajillion jars of jam I have accumulated over the last 6 months. The recipe calls for apricot jam, but any old jam will do. (P.S. If you use blueberry jam, they taste exactly like Blueberry Oat Bars from Starbucks! My fave!)

Another item I have loads of is canned pumpkin. I have at least three large cans that I can see, probably more buried in back of the canned goods. I'd like to try this zucchini pumpkin bread, since I also want to make things healthier this month AND I have a whole bag of oat bran I need to use up! Also with pumpkin, I love making the pumpkin oatmeal and pumpkin coffee cake from from Deceptively Delicious by Jessica Seinfeld (love this book!). These pumpkin cookies sound divine, and I have all the ingredients on hand already.


I have a few cans of white (cannellini) beans to use up, so I was thinking of making this soup recommended by my friend Gina.



Hopefully by the end of the month, I'll have a few new recipes in my repertoire. And all month long, I'll be updating my extensive readership with the ups and downs of "Use-Up Month," so stay tuned!


For now, I leave you with a "before" pic of my busting-at-the-seams pantry, hopefully to be followed by a much-less-cluttered "after" pic about a month from now!


It's embarrassing to show the extreme messiness of my pantry to the droves of you reading this... but I just gots ta keep it real, yo!

Finally, my dear friends and patriots, I invite you to join me on this adventure! Let's trek across this uncharted territory together.


Happy New Year from my embarrassingly messy pantry to yours!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Bennett: A Lesson in Empathy

I decided to start a new Christmas tradition this year... a tradition of giving to the less fortunate. I wanted to give Bennett a little perspective in the midst of all the toys, goodies and train rides. I wanted him to realize how very blessed he is. I wanted to him to understand what it means to have a giving heart.

So last week, Bennett and I collected some of his toys. I explained that we were going to give some of our toys to little boys and girls who didn't have any. His first response was, "not my dinosaurs, right Mama?" I told him that he could keep his dinosaurs and encouraged him to find some other toys that we could give to "the boys and girls." At first he was hesitant, but after we found a few toys to give, he began to get more excited about it. He even took a few of his cars, (his most prized possessions) and cheerfully put them in the donation bag.

A few days later, McPreachy and I piled the kiddos in the car and drove to the Orange County Rescue Mission to drop off the toys. When we arrived, we let Bennett carry the toys to the donation drop-off and turn them in himself. He was very proud.

Then, as we were driving away, Bennett asked, "Why don't those boys and girls have toys, Mama?"

"Well, because they don't have any money to buy them, buddy," I answered.

"So what do they have in their house?" This was his way of verbalizing the fact that he couldn't comprehend a house that didn't have toys in it. I decided to take this opportunity to open his eyes to the world around him, sad as it may sometimes be. I know he's young, and it's a lot of information for a 3-year-old to digest. But Bennett is an "old soul," and I knew he could handle it. Besides, this was one of the reasons we were giving our toys away... to teach Bennett empathy.

So I said, "You know what, bud? Some people don't even have houses. They have to sleep on the street."

His first response to this world-rocking information was denial. "Mama," he said with a chuckle. "They don't sleep on the street."

"Yes, Bennett," I said in a gentle voice. "They do sleep on the street. Isn't that sad?"

He nodded, his eyes wide. "Do they have blankets?" he asked.

"No, buddy. Some people don't even have blankets or pillows or beds or food." I answered. "That's why we need to help them. That's why we are giving them our toys."

"Do they have drinks?" he asked, as if it was unfathomable that they might not... as if this was the final straw.

"No sweetie, not even drinks."

He was silent for a moment. And then he asked me, "Mama, can Jesus go buy blankets and pillows and binkys and food and drinks for all the boys and girls and give it to them? Then they will be happy and not have to sleep on the street?"

But I didn't answer him. Because I was so overcome with emotion that I couldn't speak. The empathetic, giving heart that I saw my son express just overwhelmed me. As I sat quietly in the front seat weeping, my sweet husband took over for me, answering Bennett's questions and affirming him.

I cannot remember a time in my life that I have felt prouder than listening to my sweet, precious boy trying desperately to figure out a way for all the children in the world to have blankets and pillows and binkys and food. And drinks.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

For the Love of Joe: Product Spotlight

As you have heard time and time again, I LOOOOOOOVVVEE Trader Joe's. If I'm having a bad day, I just step through their hula-inspired doors, and everything seems right with the world.

Maybe it's the wonderful selection of unique and gourmet items. It might be the friendly staff, the clever packaging, the out-of-this-world prices or the stuffed lemur they hide around the store to keep my kids entertained while I shop. Perhaps it's because of the free samples they are always giving out or the quaint, neighborhood-grocery-store vibe of the whole place. Whatever the reason, TJ's just makes me happy when I'm feeling blue. What can I say? I'm easy to please.

Yet, unbelievably, I have several friends who don't shop at TJ's because they say they feel intimidated when they go in and don't know what to buy. They know that Trader Joe's is an absolute treasure trove of delectable delights, just waiting to be unearthed. But they just don't know where to start diggin'. So... I've decided to do weekly TJ's product spotlights of some of my TJ's favorites and how I use them. Consider it a little piece of foodie-aloha from me to you!

Today's product spotlight hails from the bread section on TJ's. She's a seasonal gal who loves butter, jam and leisurely dips in egg batter. That's right, folks... please welcome bachelorhood number one... It's TJ's Sliced Panetone Bread!



Panetone is an Italian fruitcake-inspired bread that is big around the holidays (Giada is a big fan, of course). It is a sweet, dense bread loaded with candied orange peel, almonds, cranberries and raisins (I'm usually not a fan of raisins, but they are good in this). YUM!

I spotted this beauty at TJ's yesterday, while looking for sandwich rolls, feeding small bits of grape to Mallory to keep her from screaming and telling Bennett for the ump-teenth time to please stop standing up in the cart.

I brought her home, and this morning we used her to make a batch of festive, holiday French Toast!

Here's what you do:

Crack a few eggs in a shallow dish. Add a splasheroo of milk, a shakeroo of cinnamon, another splasheroo of vanilla extract and a zesteroo of half an orange. These measurements must be exact.


Whisk it all together and dredge (that's a fancy way of saying "dip.") the bread slices in the egg mixture.




Now slap those dredged puppies on a hot skillet and cook both sides until golden brown.



Serve up your fancy-schmancy Panetone French Toast with butter and warm maple syrup!




Enjoy!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Cookie Day: All That and a Bag of Chocolate Chips!


Today was Cookie Day! As previously mentioned, My Mom and I have Cookie Day every December, and as the name suggests, it is a day where we make loads and loads and LOADS of cookies to give to our friends and neighbors (and of course, devour ourselves).


Here I am with some of our delicious, delectable creations. Please forgive my makeup-less, sweatshirt-clad appearance. Just keepin' it real. We don't dress up much around these parts when it's cookie day.



Here is my rediculously messy kitchen, in the throws of Cookie Day. Again, just keepin' it real...



This year we made several different types o' cookie goodness. We made:

These Snickerdoodles were actually made for our annual church bake-off last night, and they won in the cookie category! The were really good!!! Here's the recipe:

Ingredients:

  • 3/4 c. chopped almonds, toasted
  • 3 c. flour
  • 1/2 tsp. cream of tartar
  • 1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 1/2 c. sugar + 1/4 c sugar for the topping
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 tsp. almond extract
  • 3/4 c. dried apricots, chopped
  • 1 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp ground cloves

Directions:

  1. Whisk together flour, cream of tartar, baking soda and salt. Set aside.
  2. Using a hand mixer on medium speed, cream together butter and sugar in a large bowl until light and fluffy (5 minutes).
  3. Add eggs and almond extract to butter mixture and blend until incorporated.
  4. Add half of the flour mixture, beating on low until combined. Add remaining flour, beating only until just incorporated.
  5. Fold almonds and apricots into the dough until evenly distributed.
  6. Mix together 1/4 c. of sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves in a shallow bowl or plate.
  7. Shape dough into 1.5 inch balls. Roll the dough into sugar/spice mixture.
  8. Transfer cookies to greased cookie sheets and bake at 350 degrees for 10-12 minutes, until cookies are lightly browned. Cool completely and enjoy!

Another part of this year's cookie day fun was making a gingerbread house with Bennett. My dad and McPreachy did this fun project with Benny while my Mom and I were in the kitchen baking away!


We used a gingerbread house of the pre-baked variety, and it worked great. Why go to all that trouble baking the house, when decorating is really the fun part? At least that's the way I see it!





Here are the fun and delicious candy decorations.




Here's Benny-boy overseeing the construction of the house.

In all honesty, Bennett was much more excited about trying to eat all the candy decorations than he was about actually decorating the house. But he did have a lot of fun. After he got bored with it, McPreachy finished decorating it himself.



Here are a few shots of the finished product. Come along, kiddie-winkies... I'll give you the tour.

Here's the side of the house, where little graham cracker bunnies just love to frolic and play amongst the gumdrop tulips.
Here's the other side of the house. Question: What in the world is that little white swirly-swoop on top o' the lollipop? It scares me a little, as do the frosting "wigs" our gingerbread poeple are wearing. Methinks McPreachy got a little craaaazy with the frosting.

Here's the front door of our Casa de Gingerbread. Notice the very Sistine-Chapel-esque rose window above the front door (McPreachy is very cultured).
Merry Christmas, Cookie Lovers!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

December: Christ, Crafts, Cookies and CRAZINESS!


To My Faithful Blog Readers (All 4 of you):

Thank you for your polite, little nudges reminding me to get this blog a-rollin' for the holidays... to trim my cyber tree, if you will. The kick in the patootey was just what I needed to drag myself away from my mile-long to-do list and give a little shout out to Christmas.

I LOVE Christmas... Very few things get me as excited as pulling out my Christmas decorations and getting things decked for the holidays. But each year, things seem to be getting crazier and CRAZIER and CRAZIER! I think my problem is that I want to do it ALL! The baking, the homemade gifts, the fun family traditions, the caroling, the decorating... I could go on forever baby (name that Christmas movie). A few days ago, only mere hours into December, I was already on the verge of a nervous breakdown. There are simply not enough hours in December to do it all, and I need to come to grips with that if I'm going to enjoy my Christmas and make it meaningful for my family. So I am *trying* to remember to slow down amidst all the things I want to do. I am *trying* to pace myself and just take time to sit on the couch with the ones I love, looking at our tree and drinking cocoa!
It's not easy to say no to some things that I really want to do, but I'm *trying.* (somehow, putting asterisks on the word *trying* softens the meaning of the word and gives me a little more grace in the event that I fail horribly.)

But seriously, this year my goal is to remember God's Son and His birth each time I do something Christmasy... to do things that point to Jesus and bring joy to my family, myself and others instead of just doing task after task out of obligation.

I know, I know... who ever thought Casey Crocker had all these deep thoughts just swimming around in that bleached-blonde head of hers. Not me... that's for sure!

That being said, here are a few things I am really looking forward to this month:

  • Taking Bennett on the Santa Claus Train at Irvine Park. This is a fun tradition, and I love seeing my son's face light up with joy when he sees the train all decorated and lit up for Christmas.
  • Baking Cookies with my Mom. Every year we have "Cookie Day" where we bake, bake bake until we just can't bake no more!
  • Making a Gingerbread House with Bennett. He was too young for this last year, so I'm excited to start this tradition this year.
  • Watching some of my favorite Christmas Movies... It's a Wonderful Life, The Grinch, Home Alone 1 and 2, The Santa Clause Movies... I pack them away all year, and they are ONLY to be watched in the month of December. Those are the rules of Christmas Movies and they are unflinchingly rigid.
  • Making and baking some cute, homemade gifts. Sorry I can't divulge my secrets yet, as a few of my blog readers will be the recipients of said gifts.
  • Making some fun crafts with Bennett. I know a few of you have asked me about our school-time theme this month. December (like November) is proving to be a difficult month to pick a theme because anything I pick ends up being limiting. There are just so many Christmas symbols to choose from. So I'm just going to title it "Christmas Month" and call it a day. Don't worry... we will be resuming more specificly-themed months come January. Snowflake month, anyone?
  • Taking the kids to go see Christmas lights. I LOVE bundling everyone up in the car and taking along some thermos' of hot chocolate and coffee. Last year we found an online list of the best local light displays. They were amazing!

  • The food, food, food! You can expect to find some festive recipes on my blog in the coming weeks. Christmas cooking (and eating) is the BEST!

  • The music! I LOVE Christmas music and only listen to it in the month of December (*see Christmas Movie Rules, above). Here is our precious man singing "Good Christian Men, Rejoice." And yes, I bribed him with a candy cane so I could catch it on film. Don't judge me. I'm only human.


video

And with that precious display of holiday spirit, I will bring this holiday shout out to a close.

Merry Christmas!