Monday, May 9, 2016

Old MacDonald Had Some Puppets

About a year ago I was posting photos of a felt puppet project I'd started. Old MacDonald and all of his farm animals transformed that felt into sweet hand puppets. I made three sets, one for us and two for gifts. They were such fun to watch come together and we all enjoy playing with them.

The patterns and instructions came from Just Another Day in Paradise. (They are hand drawn patterns, so obviously a lot of work went into them. Thanks so much to Larissa for sharing.) These were not difficult to make, but there were tons of little pieces to keep track of.

I started by cutting the mitts, one pair for each animal. Then I tried to sew by color of felt - all of the orange pieces, all of the grey, all of the pink, etc. Then I did as many eyes as I could at once, and the hooves were on several, so I tried to do all of those at the same time. It didn't always work out, so there was a lot of changing of thread colors, but it did go quickly when I was able to spend some time working at the table. When we began work on the new flooring, the puppet project was put away and ended up staying put away until the summer was over and we were into Fall. I had to finish them, though, since they were birthday gifts for nephew. My Alex and Kale had been waiting since May for their birthday gift, and Connor's second birthday was quickly approaching in October. I probably sewed on them for between 10 and 12 hours altogether, but I was making three sets, so if you just want to make one set, cut that time by 2/3. A full set of puppets in one afternoon is awesome. A full set of puppets in one day is awesome. A full set of puppets after four months? Well... nope, they're still awesome. A couple of hours on a Saturday morning was all it took to put the final stripes on the kitties and the curly-q tails on the pigs. Somehow I ended up with extra stray pieces like eyes and hooves. I did finally just say no to hooves. They didn't fit anyway, and what little one was going to care about it. None. So I cut myself some slack and called them good. And they are so good! They're so CUTE.

I did, of course, change a few things as I put them together. I gave the old farmer guy overalls instead of jeans and shirt - my nod to Grandpa Adams, I guess. None of my three farmers have a hat yet, and that needs to be rectified. I think some of one of the kitties' stripes are different, I left off the blue on the bottom of the ducks, and of course, those evil hooves.

The felt came from the marts of Wal for the most part, but some was from I've always had great service and fast shipping from them, and can get a variety of colors not offered at the local box store. If you have to go out and purchase all of the felt for these, it would be a little bit of investment, but you get nine puppets. I had most of what I needed already.

As for play value, well, besides being fun to look at, there is the song. Songs build vocabulary. Did you know that often times children will sing words that they don't say yet? Plus, you've got the bonus of the song teaching children all of the animal sounds. I don't know why knowing animal sounds is important, but don't we all test young children on this all the time? "What sound does a cow make?" "moo."  Yeah! and we clap wildly. Okay.

There is also the dramatic play value. Kids can create scenarios between animals and/or the Old Mac guy. They have the power to control the puppets, to lead and construct the story. Plus, these guys are just fun to look at.

If you decide to sew up a set, I'd love to see them.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Delicious Nutritious

It is one of my highest priorities to serve nutritious food to these grands of mine. They eat many of their meals here, so there are definitely tons of opportunities for me to amp up the nutrition in what is served to them. They are mostly good eaters, especially good vegetable and fruit eaters, so this is a fairly easy task for me. 
A few weeks ago I was watching a replay of a Periscope presentation about healthier meal planning strategies. One of the four or five points made was to offer a veggie tray every day. That one struck me as such a simple way to have snacks, an appetizer, or even a side to your meal. Usually we only make up veggie trays or cruditè for special occasions. Why not make every day a veggie tray day? So one morning last week, I dug out the sectioned server that has a lid, and spent a few minutes cleaning and cutting up several kinds of vegetables. I had to go to work that evening, but made sure Greg and Jess knew the veg tray was in the frig for them. 
It was decimated when I got home. 
They'd had a busy evening with a parent meeting at school and wrestling practice, both at supper time, so the kids snacked on it beforehand and the grown-ups after. 
On Sunday I was getting food from the frig, and Brad asked, "Are you getting out the veggie tray? I love the veggie tray!" I didn't have one prepared, but quickly pulled out a few containers and he made his own. 
This morning it took only five minutes to pull this one together. There is the requisite broccoli and carrots, cauliflower, green bell peppers, orange and red baby peppers, cucumber, and celery sticks. Black olives fill the center spot.
I'd prefer a bit more color, but we ate up all of the "flavor bomb" cherry tomatoes (those were SO GOOD - from Sam's Club - I hope they still have them next time I go). They will inhale those black olives and the broccoli. Last week we had pea pods from our Bountiful Basket, but they didn't care so much for them. These trays are good for at least a few days, maybe a week, though the cucumbers won't last that long.
If they want, they can have some homemade Ranch or bleu cheese dressing to dip the veggies in, but lately they've been eating them plain. I would prefer they eat the veg with the dip than not eat them at all. 
With Bountiful Baskets and garden season coming up, I look forward to putting together a veggie tray each week for snacks and to serve with meals for as long as they enjoy it. I'm thinking this will be a great way to introduce new or very seasonal vegetables to try. What are your favorite veggie tray components? I'd love to hear if you have a dip suggestion or what your family enjoys for crudite. 

Friday, April 1, 2016

Instant Pot, Semi-Instant Food

For the past few months I've seen many a blog post about this thing called "Instant Pot" and how it revolutionized food prep in many a kitchen. We have a small pressure canner, and Greg thinks I could cook in it, but I don't. I don't even use it for canning much of anything, but my mother instilled in me a deep and permanent fear of the pressure canner, even though I know in my head that what I have is many times safer than what she used. 
So, I have three crockpots, and Jess has hers here, too. That's a lot of real estate taken up by four different sizes of the same appliance. Yet, I use all four, sometimes two or three at the same time. I appreciate being able to cook a meal or make a big pot of sauce or beans to portion for the freezer, all while not having to tend to it much. But, it did take hours and hours, then there was a big, heavy, hot, dirty ceramic crock to deal with. 
No one had to twist my arm when I had a few Amazon gift cards and could pay for half the cost of this new one-pot-stop that not only pressure cooks beans in a tiny fraction of the time the crockpot can, but it also cooks pasta with sauce, makes hard-cooked eggs perfectly, and cooked potatoes for our Easter potato salad in, you guessed it, a fraction of the time it normally takes.
Steamed asparagus was the first food in the pot. It needed just a another half minute or so, but that was my error. I was more worried about over-cooking it. Next up was supper - pasta with meat sauce. The meat and some onion were sauteed in the pot, then I drained the meat before pouring in the full box of penne. I poured the sauce over the top and added a touch of water so the liquid covered the pasta. The timer gets set for half the number of minutes the box says to cook. It takes a few minutes for the pot to come to pressure, then six minutes later, Presto! A big pot of deliciousness.

Later, I cooked five pounds of potatoes for potato salad in 20 minutes. I made the mistake of using high pressure instead of steaming, so some of the potatoes "popped" out of their skins, but they still worked for the salad. I just cooled the potatoes on a rack, then refrigerated overnight.

On Sunday morning, we ran out of boiled eggs before finishing our Easter lunch salads, so I popped seven of them in the IP and 18 minutes later they were cooled and peeled. It was exciting to cut the first one open and see a beautiful yellow yolk with no gray ring. Then to have them peel perfectly even though I'd just purchased the eggs the day before, made me giggle a little.

On Monday I tried frozen chicken breasts and salsa. In about 40 minutes I had tender shreddable Mexican chicken for quesadillas. In the crockpot this would have taken a few hours and the texture would have been drier.  

On Tuesday, I had to try the beans. Dry beans, rinsed well, covered in water in the IP. In less than an hour they were cooked and mashed for refried beans. LESS THAN AN HOUR.

I didn't use it on Wednesday. Yesterday I had to work over the supper hour, Jess and Scott had a Kindergarten meeting for Silas, and Bradley had wrestling practice. I could foresee chaos reigning the evening. While cleaning out the refrigerator to get ready for the weekend, I popped some leftover roast beef and a package of pasta in the pot with some beef stock. In 10 minutes their supper was cooling on the counter. All they did was reheat and serve with the veggie tray I left for them. It worked out great. Greg could have made the meal himself, but he's not used the IP yet, and was reluctant to try it while he was watching the boys. After he plays with it awhile, he'll be happy to whip up quick meals when I'm at work.

Why did we invest in this new appliance? First, because of the time saved while cooking. Typically you cut cooking time in half, sometimes even more. Second, space. I can now put my four crock pots  and the steamer in storage and that will free up quite a lot of room on the shelf, allowing for better organization in that space. Cooking with pressure keeps more nutrients and color in the food, and I've found the meat to be moist and not mealy like it gets in the crock pot sometimes. It also saves on dirty dishes when you can toss everything into one easy to clean pot.

Why did we choose Instant Pot over the other electric pressure cookers? Greg did some research before we decided to buy, and the IP is the only one with a stainless steel pot. The others have a non-stick lining and we didn't want that. We purchased from Amazon.

There are many tips I'm picking up as I peruse online recipes for the Instant Pot. There are also many recipes we want to try. I'm putting together a list of blogs with good pressure cooker recipes and will post those in the near future. Right now I need to go read about how to make the chicken stock.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Pizza Rolls for Lunch

Since my eldest grandson started school last Fall, we've packed his lunch most days. He is very easy going about what we pack for him, but I feel bad when he gets peanut butter and jelly sandwiches several days in a row because we need to get groceries. 
This morning I made up some pizza crust dough and used the last of a jar of pizza sauce from the frig to make these homemade pizza rolls.

I didn't take step-by-step pics, but it's simple. I divided the dough in two and then rolled each half into a rectangle. Shredded cheese was sprinkled all over each piece of dough. I mixed the pizza sauce with a pound of browned ground beef and divided that between the two pieces of dough, spreading it out evenly and trying to get it clear to the ends of the rectangle. Then roll it up on the long side and slice into rounds about an inch or a little more than that wide. 

They were placed on a baking sheet lined with a silicone mat, then I sprinkled a tiny bit of grated Parmesan cheese on top of each one and baked them at 400° for almost 25 minutes. 

It was my intention when I started these that I would use some turkey pepperoni left from the package they used to make pizzas for supper on Saturday, but there was no leftover pepperoni. Next time. The hamburger worked okay and didn't fall out of the rolls because I mixed it with the sauce before putting it on the dough. Obviously, any topping you like on a pizza could be used for these. We have some garlic cream sauce left from Saturday's pizza-thon, and I think I may make some more using that and some cooked mushrooms and onions. Yum!

These little things are pretty tasty on their own or dipped in some Ranch, which is how I ate two of them for my lunch. I put a couple in the cupboard for school lunch tomorrow, put a dozen in the freezer (in bags of two), and left several in a container on the counter for after-school snack today. 
You can just bake the roll without making slices, and the kids like that, too. I just don't think the center gets done enough without really drying out the outside. 

These aren't necessarily a quick think to make, if you factor in the one hour rise time for the dough, but they are easy. They'll be fine to eat at room temperature for school lunch, too. I'll thaw the frozen ones overnight in the frig, then by the time he's ready to eat them, they'll be perfect. 


Thursday, February 25, 2016

...and God Gave Back

This is a little bit different post than usual, but I feel led to write about what I experienced over the past two weeks. I had some surgery last month, and all went well. My recovery was quick and easy and I was slowly returning to normal life. Then a phone call from the medical clinic. There was concern over something on my chest x-ray from my pre-op physical done 10 days before surgery. I had a couple of choices, either wait 3 months and do another x-ray or have a CT done to see if any further investigation was warranted. Since my mother died of lung cancer, there was no question but to have the CT. I was mildly alarmed, but not overly so. I didn't tell my husband or children about the CT, since there was no sense worrying them when it was going to come out that it was a faulty x-ray. 

The CT was on a Thursday and by Tuesday morning when I hadn't heard from the clinic, I figured I was getting a letter that put any unease to rest. No. That afternoon the phone call came; the spot was "suspicious". I won't go into the specifics of the results, but it was enough to scare me. Yet, it wasn't horrible. I was told I needed a CT-guided needle biopsy of my lung, and they scheduled that for me. The thing was, this was a Tuesday, and they couldn't get my biopsy done until Monday. A week was a very long time for my mind to embrace those dark places that come with losing my mother 19 years ago to lung cancer, three months after her diagnosis. Dark, dark places. 

So. I had to to tell my family. Greg was wonderful - he understood why I didn't tell him about the CT, and was extremely supportive the entire week. The kids were great, agreeing not to worry until worry was warranted. We agreed not to share with family beyond the kids. No way could I tell my sister and brothers, and no reason to worry everyone until we had answers. In fact, most of them still don't know and will be finding out now, while reading this. Sorry. Yet, I knew I needed to be enveloped in prayer. So I turned to a couple of cousins, some dear friends/former co-workers, and my internet friends. I have a long-time group of friends from email lists who I've "known" for 16 or 17 years now. I asked them to pray for me, for peace and strength and positive results. They stepped up and wrapped me in prayer and good thoughts and support. They sent encouraging messages and texts and I felt very loved. I was also praying and I started to meditate to help relax.

Back to those dark places. When a person cannot eat or sleep and their blood pressure is through the roof because they are so stressed, the mind goes to those worst-case scenarios and makes up all kinds of sad and scary drama. I had a particularly rough evening on Friday when I'd only had 3 hours of sleep the night before. I was losing it when I knew I needed to be calm. So I messaged a friend, one who has gone through the fire of cancer and chemotherapy and come out on the other side. I want to share some of what she wrote to me (with her permission):

" God gave me life and he would decide when he would stop it, not me. It was then I was humbled before God and realized I had no control, it was Him. I gave up control and let each day just be because my fate was decided, it just wasn't the way I thought it would be."

You guys, this is just what I needed to be reminded of. Whatever it was or wasn't was already decided and I needed to give my fear to God. Every time the panic engulfed, I needed to give it to God. Every time those dark places tried to steal my thoughts and fill my head with dread, I needed to give those to God.

So I did. When the fear and darkness and overwhelming sadness threatened, I closed my eyes, took a deep cleansing breath, and chanted in my head, "Give it to God. Give it to God. Give it to God." And He took it. He took the fear. He calmed my heart. He wrapped me in peace. Every time I needed it. And I needed it a lot.

Now I don't usually go around professing my faith to everyone. My faith journey has always been pretty private. I believe some people are called to minister and preach and share publicly about faith and salvation and all of that. Then there are those who live their faith privately, doing good works and showing God's grace through their actions without pointing out that's what is happening. Both ways are okay. I tend to be one of the quiet ones, but like I said in the beginning, I felt led to write this to you today.

So, on Monday I spent the day at the hospital and had the biopsy done. It was unpleasant but afterwards I felt a lifting of the ominous black cloud I'd been shrouded in for a week. There was no more fear, no more panic. I slept all night without waking once. Yesterday morning I awoke feeling healthy and energetic and ready to take on whatever came. By late afternoon, I had test results and am happy to report that they were good. I am fine. Two weeks of stress, but all is well. 

I am happy to say that I gave it to God, and He gave back to me. 

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

It Was Worth It

Last weekend we had a big family event and had company all weekend, as well as went to a wedding and reception for 7 hours. Overdid it big time. I slept for 3 hours on Sunday afternoon after everyone left, but was not much better on Monday, so the past couple of days have been spent resting and getting my strength back. I feel much better now, thank you.

So getting ready for weekend guests was merely a matter of cleaning off the kitchen counters and sweeping the floors. Greg and Jess took out some Christmas totes that had been conveniently tucked in a corner and ignored. I dusted a little and bought paper plates. Jess did the bathroom. Every other room had a door that closed and they stayed that way...

Food was simple and easy. Greg grilled steaks for supper on Friday night. I made roasted potatoes and a green salad. Prep for those was easy and I did it in increments throughout the day on Friday. 
Silas was snapping pics over the counter. He loves Stephanie.
Saturday's breakfast was bacon and scrambled eggs with toasted English muffin bread. Greg did the eggs and I cooked the bacon in the oven. 
Lunch was deli meat and cheese for sandwiches, chips, and some fresh veggies.
Supper was prime rib at the wedding reception. Mmmm. Jess and the kids made pizza.
Sunday morning I threw together a ham/broccoli/goat cheese breakfast casserole and we had a couple of kinds of bagels. 
Lunch was the rest of the deli meat and the leftover pizza. 

The wedding was lovely, and we had a chance to visit with Uncle Bill for a minute before we were seated. It's been 10 or 12 years since we last saw him. He's more frail now, but still his flirty and sassy self. Before he left the reception he wrapped his arms around me and said, "I love you so much, girl." I love that man as well. He was so supportive when my mom was sick, never judging any decisions we made, just offering love and a strong arm to lean on, for me and for Mom.

Of course, there were cousins. Lots of cousins! I got to at least get a hug and kiss from each one, and was able to have conversations with most. They've nominated me to organize a family reunion in the near future, and now are calling me the "family matriarch". I doubt I can replace Elsie (Grandma), nor could any of us, and I won't even try. 
Me with Aunt Take. She's 86 years old and still hilarious.

Me and Steph - Silas says, "She's like, your sister, right?" 

Steph, Me, Toni (she nominated me to be matriarch)

Lisa, Me, Jesse, Alan, Toni

Jesse and Randy (Leslie in front)

Dawn and Me (it's been 30 years since we'd seen each other)

Danny (the groom), Bobby, Uncle Bill, Jesse, Alan, and Randy
I know there are more and better pics than I got. A few of us posted family pics on FB, but the bride and groom had requested we not post wedding pics, so we didn't. 

The kids had just piled every blanket and pillow from the bedrooms on the living room floor when we arrived home. Bradley fell asleep for the night right in the middle of them all, while watching the motocross race Uncle Alan turned on so he could check the results. They were all exhausted, but had a great afternoon and evening with Jessica and Scott.

More visiting the next morning, then everyone headed home after lunch. I was spent, but wouldn't change it for anything. These times are so precious. Our kids don't know how it was to have forty or fifty of us crammed into Grandma's and Grandpa's little one bedroom/one bathroom house for family gatherings, but we all remember that as being "the good old days". We're strung all over the country now, but through Facebook, we all can keep in touch. 

So, by the time I see my doctor next week, I should be back to normal and ready to get back to life "BS" (before surgery). I may tell him about my big weekend, I may not. He'd not be happy, but I think not surprised, either. No matter what, it was worth it...

Monday, February 1, 2016

The Bounty is Back

Saturday was Bountiful Baskets day here in our prairie corner. We haven't contributed for BB since before Thanksgiving, and it was good to get back to it. We ordered just one conventional basket and a stew pack add-on:

Here's what we got for vegetables: potatoes (a bag of small and several large russets), a bunch of kale, a bunch of broccoli, a head of lettuce, three bunches of radishes, several large and lovely carrots, a bag of fresh green beans, a bunch of fresh asparagus, two onions, orange bell peppers, several very unripe Roma tomatoes, and a very large head of cauliflower.
Fruits included: apples, clementines, lemons, and a small pineapple. 
There is also a bag of lentils and a packet with fresh bay leaves and a head of garlic.
Here's what we've done with it so far: for lunch yesterday we had a lovely green salad using some lettuce we had in the frig as well as part of this head and some of the kale. I sliced a radish and grated a carrot. 
I cooked the apples with a little cinnamon and some raisins to make a chunky applesauce that Layla and the boys are going to enjoy with their breakfast oatmeal. 
Here are the plans we have so far for the rest: Beef stew on Tuesday (potatoes, onion, carrots, green beans), which is supposed be a blizzard day here on the plains, mashed cauliflower (faux-tatoes) and cauliflower bites, broccoli/cheese soup, fajitas with the peppers and an onion, twice-baked potatoes from the large russets (they'll go in the freezer). The asparagus will be used in a breakfast casserole, and the pineapple and tomatoes will hopefully be ripe enough by next week to serve in a fruit salad to some company. I have found that if I don't make specific plans, some of our bounty gets lost in the frig and forgotten. 
We also just made our first trip to an Aldi grocery store on Thursday when we were in Lincoln. We picked up some nice produce there. I was taking a chance that the zucchinis and jalapenos wouldn't be doubled up with our BB, and they weren't. The zucchini are huge and beautiful and will make some delicious bread. I got two packages of fresh jalapenos to make sauce
We are blessed to be able to stock up on so much fresh lovely produce during the long winter season. It's true that you don't know what you're getting when you contribute for a basket, but you do know it will be half fruit, half veg, and whatever the specifics, you can make some deliciousness from it.