Friday, September 13, 2013

Girls and their flip-flops: A reading project

I posted a do-it-yourself flip-flop project on my guest teaching blog, showing alphabet-beaded flip-flops we made with my nieces during a series of fun "Cousin Camp" days to work on reading skills.



The project turned out pretty well, although I also learned what NOT to do in the process. Click here for directions and more info.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

David's tostadas: Awesome and economical



David made the most amazing tostadas last night.

He's a fantastic cook, but I have to admit I wasn't super excited when he proposed a dinner of corn tortillas, refried beans and eggs. Trust me, it's light years better than it sounds!

David also grilled some scrumptious lemon chicken. The table was a virtual smorgasbord of savory taste bites and south-of-the-border condiments, but when all was said and done, the tostadas were best exactly how he prepared them, without any chicken, bells or whistles.




Here's the recipe:
  • 1 large medium-hot pepper
  • 1 package prepared corn tostadas or corn tortillas
  • 1 can organic refried black beans with jalapenos
  • 1 batch Spanish rice, homemade or combine mix with one can diced tomatoes and chiles/jalapenos/habaneros
  • Cheese (colby/jack/cheddar if you want to melt it, or queso fresco)
  • 1 avocado, pitted, peeled and sliced (buy one that's slightly soft, cutting/pitting demo here)
  • Eggs
  • Water
  • Fresh cilantro, washed and lightly chopped

These are prepared individually; the number of tortillas and eggs needed will be based on the number of people served. Two per person would be very filling, especially if you have side dishes. Hint: The easiest way to make these is to roast the peppers when the grill's already fired up for another meal, and cook the Spanish rice ahead of time.

Tortilla/tostada: If using corn tortillas, pan fry in hot oil until crisp and drain on paper towels; set aside.

Rice: Prepare the Spanish rice. If using a bagged or boxed mix, reduce the amount of water and add the can of tomatoes. Set aside.

Hot pepper (David used Cubanelles): Split the hot pepper lengthwise, and remove stem and seeds. Grill on hot grill until blackened
and slightly soft inside. You could probably also blacken it in a hot cast iron pan with a very small amount of oil. Cool and slice, leaving the skin intact.

Poached egg: In your smallest pan, bring water to a rapid boil. Crack an egg into the water and boil for a minute. Remove from heat, cover and let set about 3 minutes; it should be bright white outside, and the bright yellow of the yolk should fade until it's barely yellow. Personally I think it's better if the yolk is a little runny.

Assembly: 
  • During the 2-3 minute egg wait, quickly stir up the refried black beans and spread on the tostadas/tortillas. 
  • Top with Spanish rice and cheese; microwave if desired. 
  • Top with the chopped blackened pepper. 
  • Remove poached egg from water with a slotted spoon; let any water run back into the pan, then place egg on the tostado.
  • Surround egg with avocado slices.
  • Top with fresh cilantro. 
  • That's it--enjoy!

Monday, July 1, 2013

A gift that rocks: Michigan State trivet

To say that David is a Michigan State fan would be a gross understatement. He's not merely a fan; the guy bleeds green. 

While I graduated from the University of Michigan, I certainly understand his loyalty. After all, David is a State alum, just like his father before him, who graduated from MSU when it was still Michigan State College. His kids are dyed-in-the-wool Spartans; both recently graduated from State.


Since David frequently cooks, I knew he would love this river rock trivet in his favorite MSU theme, the block S. Turns out his kids were wowed by it too, so much so that I think I'll need to make more for them someday.

The river rock trivet is an adaptation of several projects I saw on Pinterest. It turned out better than I expected, although it was challenging to keep the rocks the same height. This is important so a hot dish doesn't slide off the stones!

To make the project, you'll need:

  • A pattern: I found the block S pattern online and pasted the picture into a Word file to print out.
  • Felt: I used forest green for the S, with sheets of heather gray for the backing.
  • Good fabric scissors.
  • Other scissors for the cardboard and pattern.
  • Cardboard: Use thin sheets, the kind that gives some stability to packaged items such as curtains. I glued two together to get the desired thickness.
  • Hot glue gun and glue sticks: For gluing the felt together.
  • River rocks: I used several bags from Dollar Tree, plus ones David and I have collected over the years (you'll need lots, since you have to sort through them to find flatter ones of similar height).
  • E-6000 glue: For gluing rocks to the felt.
  • Cotton swabs: I used these for the E-6000 glue.
  • Rubber gloves to wear while applying the glue.
  • A large foil tray or something to hold the project (be sure it's something sturdy you won't regret getting glue on!).


1. Gather the materials and wash the rocks in a sink of soapy water, allowing them to dry on an old dish towel.
2. Cut out pattern. It should be big enough to work as a trivet to hold a pan out of the oven.
3. The cardboard serves as a stiffener for the bottom layers of felt. Cut out cardboard sheets in the desired shape. You may want to create a pattern for this too.
4. Hot-glue cardboard sheets together to create a thin, sturdy surface.
5. The felt background sheets need to be about 1/4-inch bigger on all sides than the cardboard sheets they'll be hot-glued to. You can either cut the felt pieces using the same pattern as the cardboard, or hot-glue the sheets of felt to the cardboard and carefully trim felt (either way, cut the felt 1/4 inch bigger on all sides).
6. Cut out the top layer of felt in the block S or your design pattern. Center it on the background felt. You may want to make a chalk line on all sides.
7. Hot-glue the top felt shape onto the background felt.
8. Place the felt layers onto the foil tray. Grab all of your river rocks and get comfortable.
9. Sort through the rocks, finding pieces that fit the shape of your pattern. You probably want to vary the colors, sizes, and angles a bit for interest. Frequently check that the rocks are level by setting a casserole dish on top. If it teeters, you'll need to replace a rock or two. Expect this to take a while. I kept my project on the coffee table for a couple of days and kept returning to it.
10. Once you're happy with the rock placement and are sure they're level enough to support pots, pans, and casserole dishes, you're ready to glue. Before you get started, read the E-6000 glue label and take any  necessary precautions. 
11. Carefully move the foil tray with the felt, rocks, glue, gloves and cotton swabs to a well-ventilated spot (preferably outside!) and open up your tube of glue.
12. With gloves on, put a little glue on a swab, carefully pick up one rock at a time and glue it to the felt shape.
13. When all the rocks are attached, allow them to dry in a well-ventilated spot.
14. Check that all the rocks are firmly attached. Start by tipping the trivet slightly. If they stay stuck, tip it upside down and shake it a bit, re-gluing any rocks which come undone.
15. If you notice any visible glue, try to carefully scrape it off with a knife.
16. If you like, you can glue a few cork tabs on the bottom, although I didn't find this necessary.
17. Let it dry indoors for a few more days before using.


Note: Be sure to read the E-6000 glue label.This glue worked very well for the project, but gave off strong fumes! Avoid getting it on your skin. If I had it to do over, I would have done this project on a nice summer day, when I could work outdoors. Since I was making this in Michigan shortly before Christmas, I worked inside but waited until a day when it wasn't snowing, went as fast as I could, then took it outside to air out and dry a bit. 

Saturday, June 22, 2013

My dad, he's a character...

At 94, my dad is probably the biggest character you'll ever meet. People 'round here know him as Tex, the sassy, rarin' to go guy with a coffee takeout cup in hand.

Age has barely slow him down, which isn't always a good thing. He's fairly fearless, which means within the past decade, he's been way up on the roof of their tall old barn. I've seen him at 2 in the morning on a tractor, farming the fields behind my house. Scares the skittles out of me at times.

He's still a skilled driver, although people don't realize when he "takes his half out of the middle" of the road, that's just an eccentricity he picked up when his family had early-model cars with wooden spokes, on trails through the sagebrush so primitive you had to stop in the middle of the road to open gates.

My grandfather, a German-Russian immigrant who died before I was born, was one of the first farmers in Texas to use tractors. My dad grew up learning mechanical skills from the hired men who were around.

He's been a cowboy ─ could rope and tie a calf in 5-and-a-half seconds ─ and his family still owns a rodeo supply company in Texas, which supplied the equipment in the 1994 movie "8 Seconds."

Over the years, I've learned hundreds of his stories. How he flew a plane over a nudist camp, how he was named for the banker in town who sponsored education for the immigrants in the area, how the Dust Bowl made him want to move north, how he ran from the women people wanted to fix him up with ─ until he finally settled down in his 40s and married my mom, 16 years his junior.

My dad is a major extrovert who craves social contact. And boy, is he a talker. For Father's Day this year, my brother, mom and kids put our heads together to remember some of his choicest phrases, such as "under the haystack, fast asleep," "meaner than a barrel of snakes," "straighten up and fly right," "son of a Bisquick eater," and "squealin' like a pig under a gate."

Names of some of his favorite things were added: Grand Ole Opry, Paul Harvey, cowboy boots, the panhandle of Texas, a "spot of Sanka," cornbread without any sugar. We also took phrases from his history he's shared and songs we've all heard him sing, as well as the German prayer we grew up hearing, "Komm Herr Jesus…Heilig Gott alle zeit, Amen," and his German counting rhyme, "Eins, zwei, drei, vier, the papa drinks the buttermilch, the mama drinks the bier." The toughest part was figuring out the correct spelling for the German words.

The more we talked, texted and messaged, the more we started remembering all the funny things my dad has said over the years. It actually turned out to be a lot of fun. Interested in doing a similar project? Here are the steps I followed:
  1. I put together a Word file of his sayings, found a picture I wanted to use, got rid of distracting background features, sharpened the picture, then found a website that would convert the words to a picture. This was a bit challenging to find; since I'd seen similar projects all over Pinterest I figured it was no big deal, but turns out that site no longer worked.
  2. I finally found a good site to use: http://www.text-image.com/convert/. After uploading the photo, I pasted the text from my Word file into the "Character" line and chose "sequence." I chose the largest font size, indicated I wanted it to be in color, and selected my browser. Finding the right background color took some work, I tried lots of different color codes from this chart, but you can Google "color code chart" to find one in a different format (it worked better for me if I typed in the color code without the space in the middle). Play around with the "extra contrast" setting to see which you prefer.
  3. I took a screenshot, saved it as a .jpg and pasted it into a Word file to tinker with it some more. For my PC, I just use my keyboard (control + print screen) and paste it into my Paint program. When I used to use a Mac, it was a different process; if you're not familiar with how to do this, just Google "how to take a screenshot" plus either PC, Mac, or the name of any other device you're using.
  4. Once you save it as a photo and have pasted it into Word, try the different options under "Format" to add a border. If you like, you can add the original photo like I did, formatting it to complement the picture. With my photo, the original picture also served to cover the dark silhouette of my niece, which looked odd in the text picture.
  5. I saved this in both Word and XPS versions (click on the .pdf option to do this), loaded it onto my flash drive and took it to Staples to have it printed on glossy paper. Staples was able to open the XPS file and print it on 11-x-17-inch pape. I cut off the bottom 3 inches to fit an 11-by-14-inch photo frame. They will cut it for you, but it costs an extra dollar. Because I cut off the bottom 3 inches myself, I spent only $2. For older eyes that don't work so well, it's a little challenging to read the text on the printout. Along with framing the print as a gift, I also e-mailed it to family members so they could zoom in and see the words better. Note: My copy is better than the one here, since I intentionally reduced the size for this blog.
I'd encourage you to try this project. Until we started putting our heads together to think of my dad's choice sayings, we had no idea how many of them were based on historical events associated with his childhood. When I started comparing notes with others, I found some of his sayings were similar to those of their parents (or grandparents). Some things he said were based on popular songs of my dad's era, or were common among immigrants who came from the same region.

Although this projects took only a few days to complete ─ including the brainstorming ─ we learned more about my dad's history and grew a little closer in the process. I hope you have as much fun as we did!







Saturday, April 6, 2013

Fruits & veggies: Why say 'healthy' instead of 'delicious' ?

         
I've started Pinning every delicious fruit and vegetable recipe I can get my hands on.  Got a yummy, healthy recipe to share? 
Why does it feel so challenging to eat more fruits and vegetables, especially since I enjoy this kind of food? Or maybe I should say I enjoy it if it doesn't involve mushy, oversalted canned vegetables, recipes with a dozen ingredients or ones which cook away all the flavor. And why do I refer to fruit and veggie recipes as healthy instead of delicious, as if eating good food is a chore?
       
I've long loved to cook but learned a lot from my beau David, who has a knack for whipping up fresh, healthy food that's savory and succulent. It doesn't cost an arm and a leg to fix either.It's amazing to watch him breeze through a grocery store, spend about 25 bucks, and come out with a week's worth of groceries plus a mental menu for the week. Granted, he's usually cooking for just 1 or 2 people, but still...
       
This time of year, for example, David cooks 1 or 2 whole artichokes in an old Pyrex casserole dish, adds a tiny bit of water, covers them with plastic wrap that gets poked with a few holes, and microwaves them. He cooks them 3-4 minutes at a time, lets them steam a couple minutes, then repeats the process if the leaves aren't yet tender enough to scrape (you draw the leaves between your teeth and discard the rest). Sometimes you need to repeat the microwave/rest cycle once or twice.When they're tender and the little water left in the pan is slightly green, they're done. He melts a little butter, adds olive oil, lemon juice and a little garlic salt for dipping. Soooooo fantastically good. His daughter ─ now 20-something and a skinny little thing ─ can eat two by herself. For six people at Easter, he cooked four.
     
Another favorite is grilled baby zucchini, split lengthwise, brushed with olive oil and garlic salt (or a little minced garlic). It's amazing that something so simple can taste so delicious. He pan-fries halved Brussels sprouts in a small amount of olive oil and fresh garlic, until they're caramelized. Before eating them this way, I'd only tried the boiled-and-buttered Brussels sprouts and didn't care for them, but I could eat a whole cast iron panful of the caramelized sprouts. This recipe works pretty well with the frozen ones too.
     
We all know there are lots of good reasons to eat healthy fruits and vegetables (and exercise too). These foods shrink our waistlines, help us feel better and ward off colds as well as more serious diseases. Research published by the National Institutes of Health even suggests benefits for people with asthma Personally I have extra motivation to live a more healthy lifestyle. My mother, who has diabetes and neuropathy, has had a wound on her foot for several years that just won't heal. Her poor feet have been so gigantic she hasn't been able to walk well and can't find shoes which fit. As a formerly independent lady who once traveled the country, being homebound was unbelievably difficult for her. After all the help she has required from the family, none of us want to follow the same path and are working to be healthier.
   
So my springtime resolution (since I skipped the traditional New Year's vows) is to enjoy more fruits and vegetables. No, I'm not measuring out daily portions or anything, but I'm roughly aiming for yummy fruits and veggies to make up about 1/2 to 2/3 of my food; the rest of my diet ideally is meat, eggs, dairy, grains and starches such as potatoes and rice. OK, plus maybe a little chocolate.
   
I'm putting together a Pinterest board with mostly quick, simple recipes using primarily fresh, frozen or fermented produce, nuts, legumes, herbs, olives and olive oil, and sometimes grains such as quinoa. (While I love cheese and pasta, those recipes are going on my Summer Eats board). This fruit and veggie board is my go-to inspiration when I'm trying to figure out something sumptuous that's worth eating!
     
If you have a few favorite healthy and delicious recipes, please add a comment and a link. It doesn't have to be a long recipe ─ even flavor combinations are fine, since we're more likely to eat good stuff if we actually get around to preparing it. Let's share the inspiration!




Friday, March 29, 2013

More pie-baking tips plus David's birthday dinner menu

The nice thing about writing a blog is you can refer back to your old posts.

Today I'm baking another cherry pie for David's birthday dinner. I don't bake pies often ─ in fact, it's been two years. Lucky for me, my recipe and tips were all archived in one handy post, complete with my friend Kimmer's advice for preventing sogginess in the bottom crust.

Today's pie-baking attempt was a big success, since I finally figured out how to keep the crust edges from burning. I own a couple of different kinds of pie shields, but it seemed they always weighed down the fluted edge. The aluminum one also seemed to make the browning worse, since it never fit my pans correctly and directed more heat to the edge.

While mulling this problem it occurred to me to use an old sheet of foil with a smaller hole cut in the middle, and place it flat on the pie.


I've read before to use foil around the edge, but had always cut it into strips and tried to wrap the fluted edges, which never worked. Maybe this is what I was supposed to do in the first place!


It worked beautifully. I removed it the last 15 minutes and brushed on an egg white that was beaten with a little lemon juice, then sprinkled a tiny bit of sugar around the edges and on the middle, just enough to add a little sparkle.


From now on, this will be my go-to method for pie crusts. And should it be a few more years before I bake a pie again, I'll have this blog post to refer to.

David's Birthday Menu

Bacon Bloody Marys and Bell's Oberon Ale
Lava (chopped jalapeno peppers, green olives and olive oil) with a bread baguette, pistachios
Strawberry-feta salad with strawberry-balsamic reduction
Hazelnut crusted salmon with wild rice pilaf
Carrots with lemon and walnuts
Cherry pie and vanilla ice cream