Sunday, October 31, 2010

Fall Decorating

Sometimes decorating just baffles me. Not because of the difficulty in creating a nice look or theme, but due to the high cost of decorations. When you begin to add up the price of wall art, vases, throw pillows, curtains, and everything else that goes into making a home look beautiful, it can be staggering. It is especially frustrating if you are on a fairly tight budget.

Wouldn't it just be easier if decorations were inexpensive and readily available in nature? That is the beauty of Fall decorating.

Many flowers bloom in wonderful fall colors, adding beauty inside or out. Chrysanthemums, like the ones pictured above on my front porch, are currently one of my favorites. They are one of the easiest perennials to grown, meaning you will have beautiful fall color year after year! Another great fall flower is the asters, which is also a perennial. Both of these flowers have long lasting blooms and look great for a long time!

More fall decorations are easily picked up at the grocery store or, my favorite, at the pumpkin patch. Planning a trip to the pumpkin patch or local farm is fun for the whole family. We have a few great pumpkin patches in our area that provide many fun activities for the kiddos and generally some yummy fall snacks that are irresistible! While visiting the pumpkin patch, look around at all the beautiful squash and gourds. These are fairly inexpensive and great for decorating! In fact, gourds can be dried and used year after year. (I have only successfully dried 3, but I will try again this year.) And when you are done using the squash as decorations, they can be cooked and eaten or turned into yummy pies. Most squash varieties make delicious pumpkin pies!

Fall is one of my favorite decorating seasons. A little splash of bright Fall beauty goes a long way in creating a look that is simple, beautiful and provided by nature. Happy Fall!

Friday, October 29, 2010

Conquering Static Naturally

One of the most annoying things about doing laundry is the static. It is frustrating (and sometimes painful) to fold a load of laundry that is snapping and popping like some Rice Krispies cereal in milk! For years, my solution to this problem was fabric softener or dryer sheets. Even then, I still had some static.

The only time my clothes seemed to be static free was during the summer when I hung the clothes out on the line to dry. Wonderful! Not only did my family's clothes smell amazing, but there was no static at all. Sadly, the number of days I can hang my clothes to dry on the line are few here in the Pacific Northwest.

One day I read an article about the how many chemicals are in dryer sheets. Not only was I drying these chemicals into my family's clothes, but the chemicals are designed to stay on the clothes for a long period of time. Yuck! At that point, I switched over to a more natural dryer sheet to avoid the overload of chemicals. This seemed like at least a step in the right direction.

As I was going through my e-mail, I stumbled across one of those forwards warning about the dangers of dryer sheets. Only this email wasn't talking about the chemicals in dryer sheets, but the effect dryer sheets have on the dryer's lint filter. This email claimed that dryer sheets coat the lint filter, reducing air flow and can eventually clog the filter. We all know how important it is to remove the lint, but what if that isn't good enough? I don't want my dyer to catch fire! (This email was verified here.) It seems like dryer sheets and dryers are a bad combination.

So what could I do? How could I dry clothes and avoid the static?

After some more reading, I learned that vinegar is a natural fabric softener. I started dumping some vinegar into my washing machine's fabric softener dispenser. That didn't seem to help much all by itself.

Then I started to notice that the clothes producing the most static were my kids' footie pajamas. What were they made out of? 100% polyester! I thought, well, that would be easy to just hang those up to dry.

So I turned my shower curtain rod into an indoor clothes line. I started reading labels and noticing when clothes were made out of synthetic materials. If the clothes had 50% or more synthetic materials (polyester, acrylic, spandex or nylon) I hung them on my indoor line to dry.

Now, I use vinegar in every load. It is a natural fabric softener and a natural deodorizer. (The vinegar smell is always gone by the time the clothes are dry.) For our synthetics, I either hang them to dry or lay them flat to dry. The result? No more static in our clothes!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Overnight Pumpkin Coffee Cake

When making a coffee cake for a women's brunch, does it make more sense to use a reliable recipe or be creative and hope it turns out? I am sure you are thinking, "Use the reliable recipe!" Although that is the logical assumption, that is not what I did.

My husband frequently gives me a hard time for this. When do I decide to be creative? My creativity typically perks up when I am cooking or baking for company or bringing a dish to a potluck. In other words, I take culinary risks when it really matters.

It all generally works out logically in my mind. Here was my thought process last night: I really wanted to bring a pumpkin coffee cake to the brunch. It would be ideal to make it the night before so I didn't need to wake up so early in the morning. (Have I mentioned that I am a night owl, not an early bird?) I found pumpkin coffee cake recipes online, but none specifying that they could be made the night before. I have an overnight coffee cake recipe. I should be able to modify it to be a pumpkin coffee cake, right? So that is what I attempted.

The only problem with modifying a recipe is that you never really know how it will turn out. Will this be the dud recipe? Will I be embarrassed that I brought the gooey, bland coffee cake? Will I be asked to purchase bagels to bring to the next brunch?

Thankfully, these fears were unnecessary. The pumpkin coffee cake turned out delicious! It was perfectly moist with a wonderful texture. In fact, one woman asked if she could bring a portion of the leftovers home with her. I think I would call it successful creativity.

Here is my recipe:

Overnight Pumpkin Coffee Cake

1/2 cup butter (1 cube), softened
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 eggs
2 cups flour (I used 1 cup whole wheat and 1 cup all purpose)
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
1 - 15 oz. can pumpkin (I tried to use the whole can, but I think I ended up with 1/4 cup on my kitchen counter - oops!)

1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg

1. Cream butter and sugar. Add eggs; mix well.

2. Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda and pumpkin pie spice; add to creamed mixture alternately with pumpkin. Beat well.

3. Spread into a greased 9x13 baking pan.

4. Combine topping ingredients; sprinkle over batter.

5. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

6. Bake uncovered at 350 degrees for about 1 hour, or until cake tests done.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Loving My Cast Iron

As a wedding gift, my husband and I received a really nice set of Belgique cookware. This set included stainless steel pots, nonstick pans and the corresponding lids. I was thrilled to own such a nice set of cookware. What a blessing!

Over the years I used these pots and pans constantly. Slowly, the nonstick coating on my pans started to deteriorate. Eventually, it began to flake off. The thought of feeding Teflon flakes along with dinner, or should I say in dinner, rather disgusted me. In response I tossed the pans and replaced them with new nonstick pans.

After repeating this process a few times, I became rather frustrated. Would this define my cooking life? Would I always purchase nice nonstick pans only to replace them in a couple of years? It just didn't seem right that my pots continued to last while my pans appeared to be a disposable item.

So my search began. Could I find pans that would be a one time investment? Stainless steel pans last, but they are not nonstick at all. Finally, my search ended with cast iron pans.

My cast iron adventures started at Costco with the purchase of a set of 2 Lodge cast iron skillets. Through trial and error I learned many things about cast iron pans. I realized that liquid cannot sit in them. (They rust.) I realized that they need to be cleaned relatively soon after a meal. (Again, they rust.) I realized that rust is removable and the pans can be reseasoned. (Thank you, my husband.) I realized that the pans do not start out very non-stick. (They need to be used and seasoned.) And I realized that the pans improve with age and use.

Today, my collection has expanded to the set pictured above. My pans are not rusty (um, other than some small spots on the bottoms of a couple of pans), but well used and seasoned. These pans can perfectly cook in a nonstick sort of way hash browns, eggs, vegetables, and meat. These pans are not nonstick, they are even better. They will continue to stand the test of time and be a valuable investment.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Chicken Tetrazzini

My husband is not a picky eater. In fact, he is generally perfectly happy to eat most anything for dinner after work.Very rarely has he ever criticized or complained about my cooking. This is quite a blessing to me except that it can make me rather lazy. Why attempt culinary excellence if my husband is completely content with culinary mediocrity?

At the same time, though, I go through stages of boredom, feeling like I am repeating the same old dinners over and over again. During one of these stages, desperate for a new recipe, I paged through my Betty Crocker's Cookbook. I stumbled across the recipe for Chicken Tetrazzini and it quickly became one of our family's favorites.

This recipe turned into one of my "go to" recipes. I have served this dish to many people and it has always received incredibly high ratings (indicated by the cleaned plates and returns for seconds or even thirds). Even kids love it!

So what is the recipe? Here is my version modified from Betty Crocker's Cookbook.

Chicken Tetrazzini

1 package (7 ounces) spaghetti, broken into thirds
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon garlic salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 cup chicken broth
1 cup whole milk (recipe calls for whipping cream, but I don't normally have that on hand)
2 cups cubed cooked chicken (I normally guesstimate and sometimes use yummy rotisserie chicken)
3/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1. Heat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Cook spaghetti as directed on package.

3. While spaghetti is cooking, melt butter in 2-quart saucepan over low heat. Stir in flour, garlic salt and pepper. Cook, stirring constantly, until mixture is smooth and bubbly; remove from heat. Stir in broth and whole milk. Heat to boiling, stirring constantly. Boil and stir 1 minute.

4. Drain spaghetti. Stir spaghetti and chicken into sauce. Pour spaghetti mixture into ungreased 2-quart casserole (I like to use an 11 x 7 Pyrex baking dish, except when making a double batch like tonight. Hence the larger pan pictured above).

5. Sprinkle with cheese. (This is key! The more cheese the yummier. The cheese makes a delicious crunchy layer on the top. Don't try and skimp on calories by skipping the cheese!)

6. Bake uncovered about 30 minutes or until bubbly in center.

Enjoy!!! This makes a perfect meal with bread and a salad. Yum!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Making the Bed

For years I thought the notion of making the bed every day was pointless, even a waste of time. The bed is used everyday and therefore must be made every day. Besides, why make the bed when the rest of the room is such a mess? My husband and I both have our piles of clothes that are "clean enough to wear again". There are toys and stuffed animals that have somehow migrated to our bedroom. Shoes that didn't quite make it to the shoe rack are also strewn across the floor. In the midst of that mess, what is the point of making the bed?

Not that I didn't ever make the bed. Of course everyone knows you make your bed when you are expecting company, especially the kind of company that might want to see your bedroom. If the company wouldn't mind the master bedroom door staying firmly closed, then the bed could remain in its usual state of messiness. I also made my bed when I was inspired yet again to have a clean and beautiful master bedroom, but that rarely lasted very long.

Then I read an article regarding making the bed. The article mentioned that the bed is the single largest object in the room. By making the bed, the master bedroom would appear to be 75% clean without picking up the rest of the mess. Amazing! Even if most of my house is in chaos and disorder, I could have one room that looked 75% clean. By spending 1 minute making the bed, one part of my house could feel clean.

So today, our master bedroom is a mess. We currently have our piles of "still wearable" clothes, there are shoes on the floor and of course the constant littering of toys. The bedroom could desperately use a dusting and vacuuming. But the bed is made. My room looks 75% clean and I feel pretty good about that!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Confessions of Laziness

"Hello, my name is Tanya and I am a lazy homemaker." No, I have never attended "Lazy Homemakers Anonymous" or any similar such support group. At times, though, it seems like it might be appropriate to introduce myself this way.

Webster's defines a homemaker as "one who manages a home." What I generally do in my home could rarely be defined as managing. Chaos restraint, damage control or disaster clean-up might be better definitions. But manager? No.

Not that I don't have aspirations for the perfect, organized, neat and tidy home. I enjoy a "Good Housekeeping" magazine and imagine myself bringing my home to a state of beauty. Flipping through the pages, I see story after story where people conquer their homes and come out victorious. Then I put the magazine down and look at my house. Reality sets in yet again. My 4 year old and 6 year old girls do not seem to have the same aspirations. In fact, one might think they have concocted this evil plan to keep me from ever achieving this goal. 

So what do I do? Get up and determine to fight my way to the top of the list of best homemakers? No. I decide that instead of dejectedly observing the mess that we should just leave. Sanity will be maintained through avoiding the problem. As a family, we will go over to my parents' house and enjoy an evening in a nice clean house. The mess will still be here tomorrow. Right?