Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Potato Leek Soup

Well if it doesn't quite feel like fall outside yet, I can at least cook like it's fall: soup! I bought two gigantic leeks; one went into a frittata and the other languished in the fridge. I finally killed two birds by using up the last of some potatoes and the beautiful giant leek. The preparation took me a little longer than I expected, but I liked the extra veggies in it.

Potato Leek Soup
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
2 stalks celery, with leaves, cut into 1/4-inch dice
1 - 2 leeks, white and light green parts
2 shallots, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 pounds potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
8 cups Chicken Stock
2 dried bay leaves
1 sprig fresh rosemary (left whole - not chopped)
2 sprigs fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 cup milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Sharp cheddar and chopped scallions, for garnish

1. Bring potatoes and herbs in chicken stock to a boil in a large saucepan. Reduce to a low simmer.
2. Saute celery, leeks, shallots, and garlic in olive oil and butter in a large skillet. Cook on medium-low heat until very soft but not brown, about 20 minutes.
2. Add leek mixture to potatoes. Cook until potatoes are very tender, about 20 more minutes. Remove bay leaves and rosemary and discard.
3. Puree half of the soup and add back to the pot. Slowly stir in milk and cream. Season with salt and pepper. Serve hot garnished with cheese and scallions.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Monday, September 28, 2009

Local Review: Extreme Fun

For the day of Zack's birthday, James stayed home from work and we chose "something fun" to do. Zack got to choose between Enchanted Rock, the Austin Zoo, the San Antonio Zoo and a bouncy place. He chose the bouncy place. The last time we were at the closer one, Goin' Bananas, I noticed signs saying the parents had to stay off the bouncers. I'm not sure if that's something they enforce, but James wanted to play with Zack, so we decided to go check out another place, Extreme Fun, in northwest Austin, near 183 and Anderson Mill.

We had a great time. There were lots of big bouncers and a foam pit, which is always great fun. By way of review, I'll say that I like the other bounce places a little better. The bouncers here were all lined up one next to one another, which seems not as interesting and fun as running through the connected rooms. Also, the toddler area is very small and empty - really just three or four toy items. At Goin' Bananas, Sammy had been enchanted with all the play kitchens and tables, but there wasn't anything like that. The price at Extreme Fun is similar to the other places. It was also quite clean - even after running around in our socks, they were clean afterward (except for the bits of foam from the foam pit). It may have been due to the timing (a weekday morning), but it was not at all crowded; in fact for a little while we were the only ones there. That makes it really easy to keep track of our kids, but Zack would have preferred kids to play with.

I think we'll be at Goin' Bananas next time, but we did have a lot of fun!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Turns out it's the tenth time...

...that's the charm. Or, at least I'm hoping so.

Thinking it would be the fifth service call that would fix my new range from Sears was laughably optimistic.

After the parts problems - both incorrect and damaged - I made a series of phone calls, with much waiting on hold and being shuffled about and sent to other numbers. I requested that, since no solution was in sight for the parts issues, my range be just replaced with a new one. They agreed pretty easily, which was nice.

We scheduled the delivery. This requires you to choose a day in which you can be home all day, because they won't give you a two hour window until 7pm the night before the delivery. Thus, I couldn't choose any days in which I had any plans that couldn't be changed. Once they give you the automated call for your two hour window, they will not - no matter how much you beg - pick a different two hour window: "It's all automated, ma'am, we don't have any access to make those kinds of changes. Would you like to reschedule for another day?"

However nice and cooperative everyone was, I can't really give them much credit for it. The first range arrived damaged - bashed in at the back corner where the gas connection is. This was not discovered until my current range, which was working (with the gas manifold held together inside with twist-ties), was disconnected and moved out to the street. The delivery people wanted to know if I wanted to just accept the damaged one and see. Uuuuhhhhh, NO. A bashed in gas-line corner does not sound like a good bet. So they brought the old one back in and reinstalled it.

I then had to set a new (home all day) delivery date. They assured me the range would be pre-inspected to make absolutely sure it was undamaged. But, when it arrived, it was damaged in the exact same way. I was quite suspicious of the similarities but they assured me it couldn't be the same range because all the packaging was factory-sealed. Of course, that means no one pre-inspected it. The delivery people told me they never open them until they get to the customer and won't ever open them until they get to the customer. They also said "Oh, yeah, it's always damaged in that spot - they pick them up wrong in the warehouse." *Sigh* At least I made them open it before they disconnected mine again and set it out in the street.

So I set another delivery date. If you are getting bored of this story, there's some variety here: they never came. When they missed their delivery window, I called and was told I wasn't going to be able to get a new range because I hadn't had enough service calls. "Five? Five isn't enough service calls?", I shrieked. He "did some checking" and came back to say that "since only two service calls were recorded..." I had to interrupt and say that this had all been approved, I had the two hour delivery window, I just wanted to know why they hadn't shown up. In that case, he'd check with delivery. He came back and said they were running late but would definitely be there. An hour later, an operator called me. She had the delivery man on the line saying that he would be late and would I like to reschedule? I declined to reschedule. They then proceeded to have an entire conversation with one another in Spanish with me still on the line. Is it just me? Because I think that's appallingly rude. It was along the lines of "Ella esta segura, porque.... muy tarde, muy muy tarde...", or "Is she really sure because really, we're going to be really late". I was sure. An hour later, this entire scene was repeated, including the conversation excluding me in Spanish, but they couldn't argue me into canceling so they canceled themselves.

So, another delivery date. They assured me the range would be pre-inspected, even when I told them the delivery guys said they wouldn't do it even if there was a note in the file to do so. I had to rush home from an appointment and have James get Zack from school but guess what?
At least so far. Those leeks above were part of its christening meal.

I believe I'm obliged to tell you: Thanks for listening.

And if anyone knows someone in upper management at Sears, I'd like their contact information.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Makin' Stuff

I was in such a funk the other night. It had been a long, long day with the children and dinner wasn't coming together and James was late coming home... one of those overwhelming days. When the kids were finally in bed, I had no energy to do anything.

I've had my scrapbooking supplies out, consuming my entire dining room table, since the last time I did some good scrapbooking work - which unfortunately was quite some time ago. I knew I should put it all away but I wanted to make something first and I hadn't been able to summon up any creativity to do so. James agreed to sit with me and look at ideas from the Stampin' Up catalog - above and beyond a hubbie's call of duty, yes? I finally saw an idea I wanted to try right then.

There is something refreshing about making something. I heard a guy speak recently, someone about my age but really wise, about the desire to create something good being an innate part of the human nature, an aspect of how we were ourselves created that is at the deepest level of what we all want for our lives. Everyone wants to leave a positive legacy. What's amazing to me is what a tiny bit of creativity it takes to tap into that. Just this little card, made with James keeping me company and with the name of a recipient in mind, and I felt like myself again, or at least like a version of me I'd want to be with.

Technical Details: The frame shape is a scrap leftover from the die cut shape we used on this card at the card-making class I went to.

I stamped the butterflies and then tried to emboss them, but my ink isn't sticky enough - I can't wait to get some really great ink at my upcoming Stampin' Up party (if you are local and want to come, let me know!). James helped me cut out the butterflies (again - above and beyond the hubbie's call of duty).

The background is stamped lightly in gold metallic ink with flourish stamps. Love those flourish stamps!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Living History

When we were reading Little House in the Big Woods, Zack started asking questions about life at that time - what they had and didn't have, how they did things, etc. James quickly looked up a local living history farm. They were making molasses that day and we had just barely enough time to visit, so we piled right into the car as quickly as possible and headed out there.

The Sauer-Beckmann Farmstead is part of the LBJ historical tour in Johnson City. They have a setup for what life was like in the early 1900's. Although Little House in the Big Woods begins in 1871, there were a lot of things that were similar. There was a food storage area at the farm with braided dried onions and garlic and smoked meats hanging from the ceiling, just as Laura and her family had in their loft. Seeing them in person and smelling the onions made what we had just read seem all the more real. We chased the chickens (sorry, chickens!), saw a day-old calf and petted the mamma cow, climbed on a wagon like they use in the book, watched the horse-powered sorghum press, felt the heat from boiling down the molasses, tasted the sweet sorgham syrup, and quizzed the period-dressed volunteers about their cooking and milk clabbering. There was a tray of homemade lye soap out and examples of clothes and toys children would have had in those times. The small workshop with all the tools reminded me of my grandad's tool shop attached to the barn at their farm in New Mexico.

It was inspiring to me to watch what was being made by hand and the kids enjoyed just running around the farmyard.

If you live in or near Austin, it's worth the drive. Check out this post from a volunteer at the farm for more information and pictures - it's a fun activity, and just enough to see with little ones without being overwhelming.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Little House

It's been such a busy time at our house, but we've been having lots of fun! Now that Zack's birthday is finished I'm anxious to write about a few things that have been going on here.

I've been discussing book recommendations for Zack with a lot of the thoughtful and well-read people around me (aren't I lucky that there are so many of those people!). A friend recommended Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I was wondering if this series would be a bit beyond him, or how interesting it would be. I remember loving it as a kid, but I also remember some fairly sober moments late in the series. My friend is reading it to her kindergarten-aged son and made the good point that they were reading it now, since a female heroine might not appeal later.

Not too long after that, Zack went to pick out his prize from the library's summer reading program. It was quite late in the program and none of the picture books that remained were in English. Most of the chapter books were well beyond him, so he picked Little House on the Prairie. [Confession: I had a really hard time letting him get the second in the series when he hadn't read the first. Yeah. Silly Mommy.] We promptly picked up Little House in the Big Woods.

The other weekend we started reading it aloud. It is so entertaining and adorable! I had forgotten how very slice-of-life it is. Zack is finding it really fascinating. He loves the stories that the father tells most of all. There is no central crisis in the book, really, just a very sweet description of life in that time and place. He doesn't follow a few little subtleties, like Laura's feelings of comparison with the blond and ladylike older sister Mary, but overall it's really perfect for Zack's age. There is so much wonder in the special moments of life for a five year old.

Where do you find great book recommendations for kids? I bet some of you have great ideas and resources! I finally bought my own copy of The Read Aloud Handbook, by Jim Trelease (extended summary of what I learned from this book here), so I have some good recommendations in it, but I find I'm always on the lookout for more! What have your kids been reading?

Thursday, September 10, 2009


I just finished The Time Traveler's Wife and I really enjoyed it. I found it evocative without being depressing ("depressing" is at the top of my list of things I don't want in entertainment, which, unfortunately, rules out a lot of high-quality literature). It was touching and puzzling and well-written. It's funny to me that I spent half the book tensed up and not enjoying it for fear of a bad ending because, well, there is a lot of that theme woven into the book.

I don't usually review fiction books here. But maybe that's because I haven't been reading a lot of fiction books lately. Fiction books are kind of a problem for me at this point in life. Once I start reading something, my mind is forcibly partitioned into reality and More Than Reality. As long as I'm reading the book it's hard to fully think of anything without also thinking of the book in the peripheral vision of my mind. In some ways, my life is more real to me by comparison but in other ways I'm on the outside, looking in, narrating my own life in my head in the style of whatever author has currently trapped my attention. When the style is funny, my life is a Seinfeld episode with breaks for me to step in and point out the crazy bits. When it's literary, the moments suddenly look sweeping and poignant. The running commentary in my head is self-involved and yet not involved in the present. And the characters are almost more real than the people around me, maybe because thanks to the author I have more insight into what they are thinking. I keep trying to function like a normal person but I'm obsessed to get more Story. Even my physical, literal eyes feel like they don't want to focus on anything but a page (making it difficult to supervise small children). I want to do nothing but read and I have to know what happens but then when it's over I feel terrible that there's no more and I'm cranky and a little self-pitying for some reason I can't pin down.

I just re-read the above paragraph and am proclaiming myself a crazy person.

But you get the idea. Fiction is a little too consuming to be practical.

Nevertheless, I'm attending a book club next week and the book choice was The Time Traveler's Wife. I would never have chosen this book on my own; there was too much chance of it being sad. But I am excited about the book club (and hoping we actually talk about the book!) so I went for it. It was so enjoyable. The characters were intense and compelling, shaping themselves and each other in the paradox of what they knew and didn't know. It was powerful without being moralizing. I liked how the plot fit itself together like a puzzle. I definitely recommend it, though I am not sure if it's something other people will like (but they must or it wouldn't be becoming a movie, right?). My friend who loaned it to me didn't care for it (which surprised me at first though I get it a little now), so I guess I have a copy to loan if you are interested!

Disclaimer: the language and content are not PG-13. And some would say it did end depressing, though I didn't think so. Just so you know!

p.s. My bread was nowhere near as good at the mix. It was fine, just not special. I am ready to try again but I guess I should wait until we finish eating this loaf. Harrumph.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Gazpacho Salad

I love gazpacho, the Spanish cold tomato and cucumber soup. It's tasty and refreshing and really, I just love anything that seems like I might be eating salsa with a spoon. My family finds it too acidic, though, to really enjoy. I modified a recipe to cut out the extra acids (such as vinegar or citrus juice), but it's still not a favorite to anyone but me.

Today I tried a new modification that is a salad rather than a soup and it was a big hit. There were beautiful, bright yellow, vine-ripe tomatoes at the market that I just had to put into something that would showcase them properly. I also had some beautiful, fragrant fresh green chiles to use. I roast them individually over the flame on my gas stove. The scent takes me back to the chile roasting we had as a kid - in Tucson when green chiles are in season, the grocery stores run their big barrel roasters over gas fires in the parking lots. The smell permeates the streets for weeks and you can get a giant burlap bag of roasted chiles for a great price. We always got chiles and Mom peeled and froze them in small pachages for chile all year round. She still brings me some and they're delicious.

But back to the Gazpacho Salad! For this I wanted a fresh, raw chile taste so I roasted it individually (although you can do multiples in the oven) to keep the flesh uncooked. Check out how the skin blackens and bubbles up. Then it can be peeled off easily.

Gazpacho Salad
1 clove garlic, finely minced
small wedge yellow onion, finely minced
1 yellow tomato, seeded and diced
1 red tomato, seeded and diced
1 green chile, peeled, seeded and diced
1/2 small cucumber, seeded and diced
3 oz mozerella, diced
1 avocado
salt and pepper

Put the garlic and onion in the bottom of the bowl and add the tomatoes on top of it so the acids from the tomatoes can soften the garlic and onion flavors. Add the other items except the avocado. When ready to serve, dice the avocado, drain the juice off the salad and toss it with the avocado. Add the avocado (but not the juice) and toss. Serve over romaine or other hearty lettuce.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

I'm On a Mission

This week I made up a bread mix I bought at a tasting party. It was through a direct marketing company and we tasted their regular bread mix at the party; I bought the wheat version and rushed to design a dinner around it so I could try the mix.

WOW. So, so, delicious. Seriously, we could eat this stuff daily. The children were trembling with joy at the yummy goodness. Here's a direct quote from Zack: "I wish I could eat all this, all the time, for ever and EVER!" Sammy broke out his first two-word phrase to beg "more bread" around his full-to-bursting mouthful.

I have a vision of a big stack of these mixes filling up a shelf of my pantry. Unfortunately, whether you call me "cheap" or "frugal" (or if you think that for good or for bad, those are really the same thing), the price tag for the mix is not going to fit the bill, so to speak, on a daily basis.

So here's the question of the day: Can I recreate this mix?

And if I can, will my children eat anything else ever again?

Monday, September 07, 2009

New Routines

Last week was a week of new routines here. It's exciting really, the start of the semester. It's taxing my brain (or maybe my heart) a little bit, but that's ok. We've got a lot of little changes to adjust to.

Zack is starting a new pre-school. It's closer, but on a different route. It's more days but fewer hours per day. The hours encroach on my one standing weekly appointment. The food-sending requirements are different. The atmosphere in his classroom is different.

Sammy has hit Eighteen Months. I'm not sure what Eighteen Months means to other families but for Sammy it seems to mean the same thing it did with Zack: successfully using gentle redirection is over. That boy is into everything and determined about it!

I'm trying to get my own stuff back in the groove. I have been sick the last two weeks. I really needed get past the mental blank about meal-planning. I've got a long list of parenting, household, church, and social commitments coming up and I cannot function (or apparently get well) continuing on our to-bed-at-1am roll.

So this past week it was the new plan: On Sunday, get ready for the week. Each night, get all the lunches made, the coffee set up to make on a timer, the kitchen cleaned, the details for tomorrow's chores set, and the clothes picked out before we do some relaxing. Head upstairs to bed at 11pm. It went pretty well.

I will be taking Zack to and from school, except for one day a week when James is going to pick him up for a bowling date (see his first bowling date, above? Zack loves bowling, for some unknown reason), which will give me time to get back across town that day.

I set up a meal plan for the week and suddenly, the cooking looked easy again (temporarily, I'm sure). I have a sweet friend, a newly home stay-at-home-mom who is shopping the grocery ads like crazy - I think I stared at her with my mouth open thinking, "Well, duh, I guess I could do that too." So, I headed out to a new grocery with my sales flyer in hand and scored some super produce and meat. I even had to call her and make sure she was proud of me, ha.

We're really working with Sammy to expect him to mind. He's so ready for it. The first day was really difficult; I may write about that later in the week. It helps that now I can see the improvement - even just over a few days - and it's making my life a little more sane. It's especially helping during the dinner making hour, which is our hardest time of day.

I like the new routine. I feel like I might be able to enjoy the busy time ahead instead of just survive it.

Now don't I sound like I'm going to get it together? There are two kinks in the plan: First, we threw it all out the window to go go go! the whole Labor Day weekend. And second, I started a fiction book. Uh-oh. Who can possibly get it together when the fate of fictional characters hangs in the unknown?