Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Inadvertent Dentist

 Let's take a good look at the state of Clara Anne's teeth.  Look at the above picture, taken on Valentine's Day.  Notice anything unusual?

Yes, did you see it?  Her upper right permanent tooth was moving in on her baby tooth, but the baby tooth wasn't willing to relinquish that territory quite yet.  At first I was a bit concerned about this--in the absence of dental care, what should I do?  Let it be?  "Help" it?  Encourage Clara Anne to wiggle it a lot?  I was concerned that I might be the source of future orthodontist's bills by not being more proactive in the situation!  But, I asked around, and many of my friends assured me that only old school dentists insist on pulling baby teeth; now the thinking is that the baby teeth (actually called "deciduous teeth") will come out when they're ready, and the permanent teeth behind will move into their positions afterwards, so not to worry. 

Well, bathtime with Chloe the other day changed that.  It was February 17, if you must know.  The girls were having a play bath, and I had already gotten Christin out and was getting her out when suddenly there was a loud cry from the bathroom and calls for help.  I ran to see what was wrong, and found Clara Anne with a mouthful of blood.  I quickly helped her spit, spit, rinse and spit, rinse and spit again and again and STILL there was blood.  I dabbed it with a tissue and found that not 1, not 2, not 3 but 4 of her teeth were GONE!  Oh my!

After the initial drama was over, I learned the story.  For some very odd reason, as the girls were playing, Clara Anne had taken a fuzzy hairband and put it in her mouth, and Chloe, for some equally unknown reason, pulled on it.  Pop!  Out went four teeth in one fell swoop.  One we found in the tissue I had used to blot her mouth, and three small, white teeth were found in the bottom of the bathtub.  After I exclaimed and laughed and threw up my hands, I ran for the camera.  Here's what I saw:

(Yes, she is wearing her swimsuit in the bathtub.  More fun that way, you know!)  Wowza, look at that huge hole!
Sister Chloe. . . the inadvertent dentist.  She didn't know that she was about to pull 4 of Clara Anne's teeth out!  They certainly would NOT have planned that if they'd known!
Bathtime obviously had been going on for some time--I love the wrinkled fingers and tiny teeth!  Silly Clara Anne!

Clara Anne couldn't be more tickled, though.  She's got an adorable lisp now and seems like such a big girl with her teeth out!  The funny part was that the bottom ones had not looked or felt loose.  But they were obviously ready to come out; when a bit of pressure was applied, out they came!

I'm telling you, parenting is always an adventure.  I couldn't make this stuff up if I tried!  Thankfully it all turned out fine and our big girl now just took another step to being bigger.  In the meantime, Clara Anne can most often be seen sporting this face:

Big smiles all around!  

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Mexican Food Round-Up

I love Mexican food.  Well, I should say I love Tex-Mex.  I don't really know what true Mexican cuisine is like, but boy do I love the American version of it!  One of our favorite fast food restaurants in the States is Qdoba.  Their big soft tortillas, yummy seasoned meat, fresh fresh ingredients, and wonderful queso with those delightful salty-lime chips are just. . . mmmm, words fail me.  I know, I know, if you're from Texas like my friend Amy, you scorn Qdoba, since you've got more authentic offerings.  But hey, to this Iowa girl, Qdoba is pretty great!

So one of my challenges when moving to Asia (you know, right up there with learning the language, figuring out how to pay our electric bill and finding out how not to be cheated when buying things on the side of the road) was learning how to cook Mexican food here.  There are no cans of Ro-tel, no blocks of Velveeta.  (I once heard another American friend describe Velveeta as "gold"!)  No salsa in a jar, no chips in a bag, for that matter!  Bummer!

But, over the years I have figured out some recipes that work great here, and use mostly local ingredients.  Yes, it takes more time, and is a bit of a hassle, but the end result is worth it.  And, your husband will rise up and call you blessed when you set a Mexican feast before him!

Here's some recipes to get you started.  First, Flour Tortillas for Chips.  We use this recipe to make regular tortillas, but we also use the same dough to make chips by rolling very thinly, cooking in a dry frypan, then brushing with lime juice and sprinkling with salt and baking for 7-8 minutes or until crispy.  They are wonderful!  Give this recipe a try!

Flour Tortillas for Chips
2 cups flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
3/4 cup warm milk
2 tsp oil
1 tsp salt

Mix the flour and baking powder in a bowl.  After warming the milk, stir in salt and oil.  Add wet mixture to the flour and mix well--the dough will be sticky.  On a floured surface knead the dough for 2 minutes.  Then return the dough to the bowl and allow to rest, covered with a damp cloth, for 15 minutes.  Divide into 10 balls, cover again and rest another 20 minutes.  Then roll out thinly  (thin for tortillas, as thin as possible for chips) and cook in a dry frypan.  If you want to make them into chips, brush cooked tortillas with lime juice, sprinkle with salt, and cut into wedges or chip-sized shapes.  Bake in a single layer for 7-8 minutes at 350 or until they start to brown and are crispy.  They're great!

For salsa, I usually use the Pioneer Woman's recipe; you can find it here.  Since I don't have the canned goods she calls for, though, I substitute 4 fresh tomatoes and 2 long, green hot peppers that are common here.  It works great.  My only advice...don't overdo the onion.  Once we got a bit generous with it and the finished salsa tasted spicier because of the onion's bite.  Otherwise, it's perfect!

Then there's Red Rice.  John really loves this dish, and other than the bacon, everything is easily available here.  Love it!
Red Rice
9 slices bacon
1 small onion, chopped
1 12-oz can tomato paste (I can get this, I use 1 and a half of the small cans sold here)
3 1/2 cups chicken broth (3 1/2 cups water, 3 1/2 Tbsp jijing or chicken buillion)
2 tsp sugar
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
2 cups uncooked long-grain rice

Cook bacon in a large skillet (I use my wok) over med-high heat until crisp.  Remove and drain on paper towels, reserving 2 Tbsp drippings.  Crumble bacon and set aside.  Saute onion in bacon drippings over medium high heat 3 minutes or until tender.  Add the tomato paste to the skillet, stirring until smooth.  Gradually stir in chicken broth, stirring to loosen particles from bottom of the skillet.  Stir in sugar, salt and pepper.  Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer, stirring occasionally, 10 minutes.  Stir the rice into the skillet and bring to a boil.  Add bacon pieces.  Pour mixture into a lightly-greased oven proof casserole dish, cover with foil and bake at 350 for one hour or until rice is tender.

Next on the list:  Our most favorite southwest marinade for chicken.  This recipe came from the Top Secret Restaurant Recipes 2 by Todd Wilbur, and it's super yummy.  It's a knock-off of Applebee's Santa Fe chicken salad, and so very delicious.  I feel like it's a lot of liquid, though, so I usually halve it for four chicken breasts.  And, it does require Liquid Smoke which has to come from out of this country.  The recipe is just fine without it, too though!  Here's how to make it:

Marinade:  (this is the original, full size)
2 cups water
1/3 cup soy sauce
3 Tbsp granulated sugar
2 Tbsp salt
2 Tbsp apple cider vinegar
1 Tbsp ground chipotle pepper or 1 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
2 tsp hickory smoke flavoring
2 tsp paprika
2 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp onion powder
1 tsp black pepper
4 chicken breasts

You can leave the chicken whole, cut into chunks, or as we did recently, cut into a fine dice.  Marinate in a covered container in the frig for several hours.  Then, either bake your whole chicken breasts or quickly stir-fry the diced pieces in a bit of oil.  It works great!

Finally, the last Hurrah, our most favorite, addictive, delicious Mexican sauce recipe, also from Top Secret Recipes, the Applebee's Mexi-Ranch dressing.  This is wonderful as a salad dressing, spooned onto a tortilla, even used as a dip for chips.  Just watch out--we made this dressing three times last week and enjoyed it every time!  (Ok, once was for company, and there is still some left in the frig. . . but, still.  It's truly addictive!)  Don't be put off by the long ingredient list--it comes together quickly and all the various flavors really combine to make a great, great dressing.

Mexi-Ranch dressing
1/2 cup mayonnaise
2 Tbsp minced fresh onion
2 Tbsp diced tomato
1 Tbsp milk
1 Tbsp white vinegar
2 tsp (or more) fresh cilantro
1 tsp canned chopped mild green chilis (we use a kind of xiancai which is a pickled hot pepper)
3/4 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp white sugar
1/4 tsp salt
pinch dried dill
pinch dried cumin (a hearty shake--I love cumin)
pinch cayenne pepper

Mix all of the ingredients to form a smooth dressing.  Refrigerate for a few hours before serving to let the flavors mingle.  Enjoy!

I also love to add a grilled peppers/onions mix to our Mexican meals.  This is simple--just cut a few bell peppers and a purple onion into strips and stir fry in a bit of olive oil.  Season with salt and cumin, or as you like.  Wonderful!

So, the possibilities are endless.  Use the marinade on chicken, sprinkle the chicken and some corn and beans over a bed of lettuce, top with the dressing and you've got a Santa Fe salad.  Or, cook up some ground beef, spread it in a soft taco with some grilled peppers, red rice, and use the dressing as a dip. if you really want to make my girls happy, break out the Velveeta you've been hoarding for the last year and melt it with some milk for a quick, yummy queso.  Make the chips and salsa just for fun.  Be creative!  It'll be delicious.

There you have it--a super Tex-Mex meal.  Hope you found a recipe or two worth trying!  Enjoy!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Valentine's Day with the ones I love

Valentine's Day happily fell on a Monday this year...our family day.  We had planned to go out as a family, perhaps to Starbucks, perhaps to make a trip to the flower market or buy some Dove chocolate (yes we can get Dove here!), but it snowed on Sunday and so we ended up staying in.  We all enjoyed a more leisurely day at home.  Plus, then I had the time to put together (with some help from Lou, of course,) this wonderful Tex-Mex Valentine's dinner.  It was yummy!  Recipes to come soon!

It cannot be denied, however, that the girls were most excited about this cake.  How do you like this "keepin' it real" photo?  Christin's hair looks like she was electrocuted (actually just braided and then she pulled out the braids, leaving behind frizz), Clara Anne has a very strange fake smile and Chloe looks a little fuzzy about it all.  The cake was called "Love Cake"--a recipe from the Cake Mix Doctor.  It had melted white chocolate and extra butter in the white cake mix, and then the frosting was a strawberry buttercream.  Yum-O!
Clara Anne actually took this picture of me with my sweetheart, married 14 plus years now!  This is definitely another keepin' it real photo.  No makeup, no shower that day, not even a smidge of lipstick!  That's when you know you're truly loved. . . John could have cared less.  Or maybe he was just happy about the cake.  :)
A little sister-love to close the evening.  We enjoyed our relaxed, no pressure Valentine's Day celebration.  I enjoyed being with the ones I love!  We ended the evening as we usually do. . .around the piano, worshipping the One who Loved us first and Loved us best.  Happy Valentine's Day!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Toy-free Experiment, part 2

Whew!  We made it to the end of toy-free week!

Actually, it wasn't too difficult.  It was probably hardest for Christin, who is only 2.5, since toys are a huge part of her day.  However, other than once early in the week when she tried to sneak some Polly Pocket dolls out of the bin, she didn't complain, didn't ask for toys, and generally did great!  She and I had some special reading sessions and she was the first one to volunteer to help me with the dishes.  (I wash, I rinse, and she stacks.  Today she even dried some that were safe for her to handle!) 

Chloe also did fine.  At 4.5, she LOVES to color, so that was an easy and fun solution for her.  She will gladly spend a very long time meticulously coloring numerous pictures.  She also was happy to sit in on some extra reading time with Mommy and do other fun things, too--dancing, taking a play-bath, helping in the kitchen. 

Clara Anne seemed to do fine with the no-toys rule (found plenty to do to occupy herself and usually roped her sisters into it too) but I sensed that her heart was still having some struggles submitting, and she was just "putting up with it" until the required time period was over.  I think my interactions with her this week showed me again that I cannot neglect the heart issues behind the toy disputes and bad attitudes.  The attitudes may still be there even if the toys are taken away.

In general I thought we all had a good week.  We had fun reading more books, the girls were more involved in the things I was doing, they had the chance to be "bored" for a bit and use some extra creativity to think of something to do, and I only had to enforce a punishment for getting toys out twice. I do feel like the girls generally are very creative in their play, and that's a blessing which helped this week.  I am thankful for the break from toys--though I did find that my girls found other ways to make messes that also needed to eventually be cleaned up.  (You know, forts with blankets, changing clothes 10 times in one day, things like that!)  So goes life!  It's all part of it.

Thanks to those of you who commented...I thought everyone had something valuable to contribute!  In light of how this week went and as I've been thinking and praying through this, here's my plan (which is going to be a multifaceted approach and draw a lot from you all, too):

1. Limit the number of toys in our home.  I actually did some purging of toys this week that made me feel a lot better, but I think we could reduce more.  I think we WILL reduce more as we anticipate our upcoming move, too.  But it just makes sense: the less toys there are, the less we have to organize, clean up, store, etc.  And I'm NOT worried about the girls not having enough educational toys or some such silly nonsense, we all know that children can be entertained for hours with their a cardboard box and their own imaginations!  So reducing the number of our toys is going to be key.

2. Continue to enforce the family rule that when you're done with something, you are responsible to put it away.  There may need to be a more severe consequence for this since it seems it's awfully easy to leave out 17 different things.  I am trying to train Clara Anne to take the lead in this, since she's the oldest and could potentially do the majority of clean-up time by herself.  Unfortunately sometimes it seems she is the one with the most resistant attitude.  (The other day when I told her it was time to clean up, she actually claimed an injury to her leg which would prevent her from bending down to get things off the floor!  Puh-leeze!)  Chloe and Christin, though they need more instruction, usually think it's pretty fun to clean up.  We may do a sort of "beat the timer" kind of race with some points given on their charts occasionally to help this process. 

3.  Do not allow bad attitudes at clean up time.  Period.

4.  Utilize what we call "stations"--we've done this before where I set up each child with something fun to play with in an area, and then after a certain amount of time has gone by (30 minutes on the timer or something like that), then the children leave the toy or activity where it is and rotate to the next child's station.  This is similar to what Rebecca mentioned in her comment about blanket time with a toy.  I think it's a good option, especially when there's been some of what I call "low-level bickering."  It gives the girls some time to play by themselves and everybody still gets something fun to do.  I may even schedule one morning a week as "station" morning.

5.  Be willing to put away (or take away forever) certain toys if there continues to be issues over them.

6.  Finally, pray, pray, pray!  Oh that the Lord would grant wisdom in teaching and training my children in these areas!  I know that I desperately feel my need for His wisdom; I'm aware (at least partially) of the impact I'm making on their lives, and I earnestly desire to be a good example, to help them to grow, and to seek to have our home be a place of harmony, peace, joy, and full of the other fruits of the Spirit.  It's certain that only HE can produce those things in us or in our home!  But thankfully, His promises are sure and His word is faithful, so I can trust that help is there for me when I need it.  I want to keep asking for that help and wisdom in prayer!

I think this toy experiment has also helped me to examine my own heart more clearly, and to perhaps adjust my expectations a bit.  The truth of the matter is, I have three young children who are home all the time.  No one goes off to school, no one is gone from the house on a regular basis, we are all living in this space constantly.  Do I unreasonably expect that the house will always be picked up and clean and tidy?  I tell myself that I am fine with the mess as long as children also clean up happily at the appropriate time, but am I being honest with myself?  Or do I have some unrealistic expectation of being home all day, every day, with four other humans living in this space and everything always in order?

Homes are meant to be lived in.  The last thing I want is for my family to feel like they can't live life in our home because life makes a mess.  But on the other hand, there is a beauty and order and peace to a well-organized, tidy home.  We all feel more comfortable when we aren't crunching on yesterday's toast crumbs when we sit down for breakfast.  Or more likely at our house, stepping on cooked rice as we try to walk through the dining area.  (Have you ever tried to get sticky rice out of socks?  It's a true sticky mess!)  So there has to be a balance.  The more I think of it, the more I feel that balance is simply enjoying our activities, enjoying our toys, and then with an equally cheerful heart, disciplining ourselves to clean them up. 

Thanks for your input, friends, and thanks for going along with me in the toy-free experiment!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Toy-free Experiment

There's been a lot of talk around our house for a long (VERY long) time about cleaning up toys.  Ever since Clara Anne was beginning to be mobile, our principle regarding toys was this: whatever you get out to play with, when you are done playing with it, you put it away.  It's that simple.  We live in a small space.  We don't have a toyroom, we need to use every bit of our house for multiple purposes and can't function well with a mess.  However, lately there's been lots of this kind of talk around my house:

"I'm done playing with it, but Chloe (or Christin or Clara) isn't done, so we can't clean it up yet."

"But I didn't get it out!  Shouldn't she have to put it away?"

"Noooo, Clara!  (Or Chloe or Christin)  I still want to play with that!"

"I had it first!"  "No you didn't!  It's mine!"  "Is not, you know we're supposed to share!  Mo-om!  She's not sharing!"

And on and on.

I have tried various tactics to solve this problem.  First of all, on a most basic heart level, the girls' attitudes towards toys are frequently sinful.  Why do they fight over them, balk at putting them away, or whine when a sister grabs the thing they wanted?  Sin.  Selfishness, greed, not loving or thinking kindly of the other person but wanting it all for themselves, unwilling to relinquish the silly bit of wood or plastic or whatever it is that has suddenly become central to their existence and they cannot bear to think of living without it!

So I usually talk to them about the sin problem first.  But then there are a host of other issues that come out of that.  There's responsibility, learning to do what they know is right without having to be asked/reminded 2,849 times, as well as respect for the family rules and guidelines that simply help the house run smoother.  There are character issues that have to do with being generous, thoughtful, and kind, as well as keeping neat, caring for things, and staying organized.  I am also big on teaching the girls initiative. . . can they look at a messy room, see what needs to be done, and do it?  Or do they need me to delineate every little thing?  "Put the marker back in the marker bin.  That bowl needs to go back to the kitchen.  Please throw away the scraps of paper."  To me, learning initiative is part of learning to think--a very important skill!  In that light, dealing with toys can be a real teacher!

In my opinion, we have a lot of toys.  Many of them are very educational and are part of a "set."  For example, a magnetic doll that has many different outfits that can be put on her, and all fit in the same wooden box when playtime is done.  But then we have a fair amount of junky toys.  Too many stuffed animals, cheap plastic bits of this and that, and then things that the girls have found and repurposed as toys.  So I know that one of my big tasks as we look ahead to moving in June is to sort, give away, and purge those toys which seem to multiply overnight. 

But in the meantime, by the end of last week, I had had enough.  There had been several days of the girls not doing a good job with cleaning up toys, and I was frustrated.  I have tried to find a balance of teaching them to clean up toys themselves, and helping them so that it doesn't take forever, and at the end of last week it seemed that fights were erupting as clean up was supposed to be happening, and both older girls ended up in time outs for other attitude problems, which meant I ended up doing the clean up.  (Sorry to be so frank and air the "dirty laundry", so to speak, but that's what happened.)  I wasn't pleased with that and neither was John when he came home and heard me (of course very calmly and graciously, ha!) tell him that toys had been a problem.  Earlier in the week we had had a pretty serious sit-down talk with the girls, so by the end of the week when I was still. . . ahem. . . calmly and graciously "reporting" on the problem to him, we took a drastic measure. 

Simply this:  No toys this week. 

Yep, no toys.  No playing with Polly Pockets, Dominoes, blocks, and jenga pieces all in the construction of some grand structure for the Polly Pockets to live in.  No getting out the lacing game and using the string to tie around stuffed animals as a leash, a sister's ankles as ballet ribbons, or tying toys together to make a "train."  No scattering of crayons, markers, scissors, stickers, pens, colored pencils, construction paper, glue, and tape all over the floor, which happened one morning when I had seemingly only left the room for a few minutes.  No more twice-daily struggles to get everyone to pitch in cheerfully when it was time for the more thorough clean up.

No toys.

The girls absorbed the news just fine, but weren't sure what it would mean for them.  I knew, and hoped it wouldn't turn out to be more of a punishment for me than them!

So, in the new-no-toys environment, what were they to do?  I had several suggestions:  Read books.  We have a well-stocked bookshelf and it's been underappreciated lately.  Crayons and coloring books were another suggestion.  Also, play games like hide and seek, pretend,  dancing to music, all of those are good options.  As well, I reserved the right to pull out a toy and sit someone down with it for a period of time if I wanted to.  And, we had plenty of school scheduled for this week, so I figured we'd get through it somehow.

But what I didn't anticipate was that the girls would hardly seem to miss their toys at all!  The effect over the last three days has been very minimal, isn't that surprising?  They've had fun!  They went out and played in the snow with John yesterday.  We've listened to the Chronicles of Narnia (Focus on the Family radio theatre), made it through the first two books already.  We've colored pictures.  They played an elaborate pretend game yesterday that involved orphans and cloaks in the snow and--no toys.
They've been more available and willing to help me in the kitchen.  Best of all, there haven't been any fights over toys, messes from toys, disputes about toys, reluctance to clean up toys, or time wasted doing any of the above!  It's been wonderful!

So, while our no-toys week is obviously not a permanent solution, I am enjoying a much needed break.  I would love to hear from you other, more experienced moms if you have had the same battles and what you've done about it.  Any advice is appreciated!  Do you simply limit the number of toys in your home?  Do you find you are always teaching/correcting over toys?  Do you "assign" certain toys to certain days?  I've read of moms doing this; I've done it on occasion but it seems to structured for me to use all the time, but maybe it would be a good solution?  Chime in with your ideas, I'm all ears!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Dreaming of Sand and Sun

There was a bit of a snowfall yesterday.  The morning came on rather quietly, with a heavy gray sky, and by 10:30 it was snowing lightly.  It continued into the afternoon, and I left early for Clara Anne's ballet class since yesterday was a first for me...riding bike in the snow!  I made it fine on the way there; the streets were still only wet.  But on the way home the wind was in my face and I absolutely could not see because of the snow driving into my eyes!  Clara Anne had taken along a small pink umbrella (she was obviously smarter than me) and I had to swipe it from her in order to see properly.  Yikes!  I was thankful when we were home safely again.

At this moment, the girls and John are out playing in the fast-melting snow and I am dreaming of sandy, sunny, warm places.  Places like this:

And this:
Where I can do this:

And the girls can do this:

Unfortunately, that's not going to happen anytime soon.  What IS happening soon, though, is that Clara Anne and I get to attend a home schooling conference in sunny, warm, delightful, lime-and-coconut-scented Thailand.  We will leave on Sunday the 20th and come back (already!) on Friday the 25th.  We won't be in a beach location, but the place where the conference is being held is at a resort where there is lots of fresh air, sunshine, a pool, and areas for kids to play.  Best yet, the conference has free time scheduled from 3-5 each afternoon (then with a session in the evening) so that we can take full advantage of that pool!  We are very excited! 

[Side note...we were warned that the resort "has hot water for showers...sometimes" so I think we'll have another good reason to hit the pool everyday!  Some pools in Thailand also have an outdoor shower, so if necessary we can always bring a bit of shampoo with us to shower up after our swim time.  It's best to be prepared for anything!]

So, though John has to stay home with Chloe and Christin, he is glad for me that I get to go.  Clara Anne has been talking about our trip and asking questions non-stop.  It'll be lovely!  There won't be any sand this time, but I'm ready for a few days in the sunny south!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Let's Talk Salads!

Salads, wonderful though they are, were not first on my list of foods I wanted to enjoy when we moved to Asia.  I was skeptical of my ability to get the greens clean and was afraid that eating raw vegetables would make us sick.  I was also nervous about "night soil" fertilizer, which I heard was pretty common here.  And after a bout with giardia in our first year, I didn't trust the water used to wash the vegetables either!  Finally, though,  I developed a three step process:  clean my greens in water with a bit of soap, rinse off that water, and then do another rinse with bottled water.  At that point I felt they were safe and was willing to eat them, so salads became part of our life again.  (That is, if I was willing to put the work into that process!)

Since salad dressing wasn't available, I found ways to make my own.  Here are two of my favorite recipes:  strawberry vinaigarette and the one I'll share today for Mandarin Almond Salad.  It does require almond extract in the dressing for the full effect, but it is worth asking for in a care package or buying out of the country.  The dressing is obviously different without the almond extract, but still delicious.  I served this salad with our Christmas Dinner meal and it was wonderful!  Even my friend who is usually an "Italian dressing only" salad eater enjoyed it!

Mandarin Almond Salad
1/4 cup sliced almonds (I didn't have any, so I used chopped pecans, which were delightful also)
2 T sugar
2 tsp minced parsley (I used cilantro)
1-2 bunches leaf lettuce
1 cup sliced raw celery
1 c. drained mandarin oranges (I used about 10 xiao jin ju, clementines)

2 Tbsp vinegar
2 Tbsp sugar
1/4 cup oil (I used corn oil)
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp almond extract

First, carmelize the almonds (pecans).  Combine the nuts with the sugar in a dry frypan.  Cook over low heat, stirring until sugar melts to coat the nuts.  Spread on greased foil to cool.  To make the salad, add to the lettuce the celery, parsley (cilantro) and oranges.  Pour on the dressing and toss to coat.  Sprinkle with carmelized almonds (pecans).  Serve immediately.  Yummy!

Homemade Croutons are also a favorite on salads at our house.  Crouton's final flavor really depends a lot on what kind of bread you start with, so I'd use homemade bread if at all possible.  I usually have a bag in my freezer of those leftover ends and crusts, I use those for breadcrumbs but make croutons out of the "good stuff"--the middle of the loaf!  (Sorry, crust lovers!)

Here's what I do:  Lay out on cookie sheets slices of bread.  In a small bowl, pour some olive oil and crush in lots of fresh garlic.  Brush the oil mixture generously over the bread and sprinkle with your choice of dried spices (I often use an italian mix--basil and oregano, but thyme or dill would be good too) and plenty of salt  (garlic salt is yummy!).  A sprinkle of parmesan cheese wouldn't hurt either.  Then, turn the bread slices over and repeat.   Finally, dice the bread into cubes on the tray, stir around briefly, and bake in a 250 oven for approximately an hour, stirring occasionally.  Get them nice and crispy and they're done.  Mmmm...delicious!  Try to refrain from popping them in your mouth like candy!

Happy salad eating, everyone!

Monday, February 07, 2011

Reflecting on Cooking Overseas...and Recipes!

Living in this country for 7 plus years has really developed my cooking skills.  In many ways, I feel like I "learned to cook" after moving here.  Actually, my mom started me young as 10 I was preparing meals for my family.  I could use the oven, the stovetop, and often my mom would start a meal and have me finish it after I came home from school, while she was teaching piano lessons.  Thankfully she was always in the next room in case I had questions!  There were a few disasters, including a time where the butter for grilled cheese sandwiches got too hot in the skillet and filled the kitchen with smoke.  My brother Dan came in and shouted, "Hit the deck!"  We all did--me including!--until I realized it was up to me to do something and prevent a fire!  That story has become a part of our family lore and still gets brought up occasionally!  However, most meals worked out fine.

Since I had had so much experience in the kitchen, Advanced Cooking in high school was a breeze for me; I was fascinated by the art and science of cooking.  There I learned more about the wonder of the process of baking, why the baking powder or soda were needed for leavening, the amazing properties of eggs, and other such information.  It was fun, though certainly still a long way from "from-scratch" cooking.

After John and I were married, I had lots of cooking questions.  John was easy to please (still is!) but I had higher standards for myself.  I remember some of our early days, trying to find just the right way to cook pot roast.  I even called my mom and asked her how her pot roast turned out so well.  Was it the cut of beef?  No, she just bought whatever was on sale.  Was it the cooking time?  No, she just "put it in before church and it was done when we got home."  Was it the liquid added, or lack of liquid?  She usually didn't add much liquid, just "a little bit."  Was it necessary to sear the roast first?  So many questions!  I had lots of trial and error and we certainly ate well, but that was also in the days where I could go to the grocery store and not have to watch the budget too much, so some convenience and prepared foods were perfectly fine.

Then we went through a time where we were both in school again and our budget was drastically reduced.  As well, my brother was in the midst of a cancer battle and our whole family was trying to eat more healthy foods.  John and I settled on a good (if extremely simple) pattern:  oatmeal for breakfast, salad for lunch, and then a simple supper.  We did have little "luxuries" within that pattern: our favorite golden raisins on the oatmeal, the salad with tons of fresh veggies, homemade dressing (so much better than the bottled stuff!) and homemade croutons made from homemade bread with olive oil, crushed garlic, and salt.  YUM!  We had to make a pact not to eat the croutons unless we were eating salad also; they were so very tasty!  We made a lot of fresh bread, ate a lot of tuna or egg sandwiches, and ate a lot of pasta (we got pretty choosy about the sauce and loved the Bertolli brand).  As well, at that time we were working at Starbucks so I got my fill of caramel macchiatos, vanilla lattes, and americanos.  But I still did very little cooking from scratch.

Before we moved here, however, I made a very significant purchase:  The Joy of Cooking.  This one book fascinated, educated, and inspired me.  The chapters were comprehensive, understandable, and gave the history behind foods as well as detailed instructions.  Suddenly, with the absence of lots of prepared foods (you know, like diced tomatoes in a can or tortillas in a bag), I had to learn how to cook all over again.  And actually, it wasn't very sudden.  When we first arrived, we had no kitchen so we ate all our meals at the student cafeteria, restaurants, or from street vendors.  (I've mentioned before how a toaster greatly improved my quality of life at that time.)  Then we moved to our own apartment, and I still greatly depended on "convenience" food--you know, fresh noodles from the vendor, ordering delivery from the restaurant down the street, things like that.  But as culture stress lessened, I bought some pots and pans and a tiny oven, began to figure out where to buy essentials like baking soda and butter, and began to try out some recipes we used to love as well as adapt ones for cooking here.  I pored over the Joy of Cooking many a night to learn new techniques and find do-able recipes.

There were certainly some major flops. . . bread that didn't rise, a lasagne that I made with tofu instead of ricotta cheese (I must have bought the wrong type of tofu, it overpowered everything else), cookies and cakes with too many substitutions that didn't quite turn out, my first Thanksgiving turkey and gravy, the turkey was ok but the gravy congealed to the point where it was a solid mass!  And once I completely cracked a glass bowl trying to make peanut brittle in my microwave.  Oops.

But, trial and error, bit by bit, I began to learn and get a sense of making things from scratch.  My skills increased exponentially when my friends Rachel and Amy came to town.  We started to trade recipes and techniques and still do, actually!

During all that time, I wish I had known about this site.  SB, cook extraordinaire, has a wonderful site jam-packed with all sorts of tips, tricks, and recipes for making the foods we love from scratch where certain ingredients may not be available.  Need your own sour cream?  Want to try making cream cheese?  Or preparing pumpkin puree?  Or making authentic mexican food?  Or any of a hundred other things. . .she's really done a great job here.  If you are an expat mom, you MUST look at her site, I'd bet that even if you've been cooking overseas for years like I have, you will find something new to make! 

I tried SB's homemade cream cheese last weekend and was SO pleased with how it turned out.  I added a bit of jam and some sugar to it at the very end so that we could use it for bagels, and it is very yummy!  It is a bit softer than "real" cream cheese and lacked a bit of the tanginess, but otherwise was amazingly good, better than I expected and easier to make, too. 

I've posted a few recipes occasionally myself, and one of my goals is to go through them and tag them as recipes so that they can be found more easily.  But for tonight, here's some links to a few of my favorites.  Baked oatmeal, breadmaker bagels, Creamy Christmas eggnog, homemade pizza crust, golden honey pan rolls, our favorite cinnamon rolls, Swedish Roll-ups, pumpkin bread, and chai lattes in a crock-pot.  There may be more recipes hiding here somewhere, but give these a look-see for now!

Enjoy the recipes!  I hope to post recipes on a more regular basis in the future.  It's fun and hopefully helpful to some of you as well.  And don't forget to check out SB's site!

Sunday, February 06, 2011

A Survey

Tonight as we were sitting down for family devotions, John started randomly asking Chloe some questions. I thought they were fun questions and interesting responses, so then we asked all the girls the same questions. Just for fun, here they are!

First up to be "interviewed": Chloe, four and a half years old.

What is your name? Chloe Rachelle

What is your favorite thing to wear? My ballet dress.

Where is your favorite place to go? McDonald's.

What is your favorite story to read? Adventures in Odessey (technically not a reading story, but, anyway...)

Ok, great! Next up: Clara Anne, six years old.

What is your name? Clara Anne Danielle.

What is your favorite thing to wear? The pink skirt and bunny shirt she had on at the moment. Not sure I believe it with all the dresses in her closet!

Where is your favorite place to go? Starbucks! (we were just there this morning, sharing a hot cocoa and playing Memory! I won with 9 matches but Clara Anne came in a close second with 8!!)

What is your favorite story to read? The Hiding Place. (I think this was also influenced by the fact that we've been reading it lately for family read aloud time and talking a lot about it. Some hard themes there, but such an encouraging book!)

And Christin, two and a half years old:
What's your name? I am Christin!

What is your favorite thing to wear? My Christmas dress from Grandma.

Where is your favorite place to go? McDonald's!

What is your favorite story to read? Farmer Boy. (We recently finished that one in family read aloud time. We all enjoyed it!)

At this point as we had finished our questions, Christin sensed she was done getting to speak and turned to me in the sweetest, funny way and said, "Mama, can we talk? Let's talk!" I guess she didn't feel her moment of "holding the floor" was long enough!

After we had finished our devotions and reading aloud, the girls were getting ready for bed and Clara Anne kept going on and on to me about how she is so surprised that she is growing up so fast. "Mommy, only three more years, 7, 8, and 9 and then I'll be 10! I can hardly believe it, it seems like I was just born! I just can't believe I am growing so quickly!" I chuckled a bit but also told her not to hurry up; she's got plenty of time to grow up and I'm not in a rush! She has seemed so mature lately though--she loves to use big words and speak like a little lady, "Mommy, I'm dreadfully hungry, I think I shall perish!" and "It's frightfully cold outside, Mommy! We must make sure to dress properly." She makes me smile, that Clara Anne! Chloe is picking up some of her habits too; just yesterday told me that a snowflake craft we had done would be "glistening" in their room after they hung their snowflakes from the ceiling. She meant "glittering" but I got her meaning. I love to see the girls expanding their vocabulary!

So, there's the thrilling results of our survey this evening. You never know what might come up in conversation at our house. These random conversations are moments I cherish, though, because I see them as opportunities to influence and teach my daughters. Plus, it's just plain fun--truly one of the joys of parenting!

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Once in a Lifetime

We had a guest last week. Actually, she can't be considered a guest, she's more like family. How did my friend Rachel and her new baby Silas end up on our side of the world, just for a visit? A few words: her VERY generous and thoughtful husband + frequent flier miles. Yes, her husband stayed with their other three so that Rachel could take about 10 days for a mom's only vacation! Hallelujah!!!

Oh, the joy of being reunited! It seemed surreal, amazing, unbelievable, and. . . perfect, all that the same time. And it goes without saying that my girls were ga-ga around this new little handsome man!

Rachel got the joy of sleeping on Dora sheets while these 3 munchkins got the joy of a "sleepover" in the school room.
A snapshot of a typical bedtime routine moment: A last drink of water, a last story that must be told to Daddy, and a sleepyhead ready for lights out.

Rachel used her time here fully. I would have liked to use it even more fully, keeping her up chatting til all hours, every night, but unfortunately I caught a nasty bug JUST as she arrived at my house. I had a terribly high fever and a deep cough, and was so afraid of spreading it to her or baby Silas! Thankfully they stayed well, but each member of my family got it, one by one. We all recovered fairly quickly, thankful for over the counter meds in a time like that! On the first day Rach was with us, I had to be a party pooper and take a nap. When I got up, this is what I saw:

What a friend! You know you've got a good friend when she is so happy to be with you that she willingly reads the Berenstain bears to your kids! (I personally don't enjoy the B. bears all that much.) But this next photo shows the true depth of her love:

She did my dishes. Yes, she did. That weekend was a perfect storm: my house helper had been sick, I got sick, Rachel arrived and I wanted to make nice meals for her, but what to do?! I stacked lots of dishes hoping my helper would come back to work on Monday but in fact a phone call Sunday night confirmed that she still felt terrible. I was feeling pretty lousy myself so Rach said she wanted me to save my energy and SHE would do MY dishes. There were tons, and also tons of plastic cups which I know Rach hates to wash, and she washed That's sacrificial love, my friends! I sat on a chair outside the kitchen door and joined in the conversation while I waited for my current round of tylenol to kick in. What a friend! Thanks, Rach! I felt so loved. And, the next morning I could get up and actually function in the kitchen since everything was. . . clean! I think she got a few jewels in her crown for that one!

Silas bear regularly stunned us all with his cuteness. Who knew boys could be so cute! We needed another dose of masculinity around here!

The girls did not cease their adoration. There may have been a request or two for our family to have a baby brother as they saw how great it was to have Silas around. Hmmm, well, we'll have to think about that one!

The next night I couldn't get warm since my fever was up again, so I dressed in multiple layers including my white fuzzy robe that makes me look like a woolly mammoth. Fever didn't stop us, though: we used my gas stove to toast a few marshmallows for a little evening snack. Fun times, fun memories!

I guess the tension was running a little high in the above photo! :) Nah, just being totally silly.

Sweetness and light. Would you look at that smile?

The ladies enjoyed a day out together...laughing, talking, drinking hot cocoa, playing "Ticket to Ride" and generally having a great time. What a blessing!

And just like that, we were preparing to say goodbye.

Clara Anne was sad to see Silas go. I was sad to see Rachel go. But I was thankful, so thankful, for the time we had, and so joyful to have had this once in a lifetime opportunity. For her to travel alone with the baby, so far, just to be together, was such an amazing thing. She came and brought us joy and fun and laughter and tons of GIFTS and a wonderful, refreshing spirit with her. I love this dear friend!

I'll cherish the memories forever...and look forward to the next time the Lord brings us back together! We had to say goodbye for now, but as C. S. Lewis so rightly shouted in his booming voice, "Christians NEVER say goodbye!" Not for real, not forever. The hope of heaven and life together with Jesus awaits us!
Love you, Rach--my sister, my friend. So thankful for you!