Monday, September 15, 2014

Crockpot Cooking Without a Recipe

I've said it before, I'll say it again - my crockpot is one of my most used and favorite kitchen appliances.  Between running around with the kids and scattering to my own community and personal activities, we barely have time to eat - even less time to cook a decent meal.  So getting dinner cooked while I'm not even home is a masterful idea.

The wonderful part about crockpot cooking is that - although there are plenty plenty recipes and cookbooks out there - you really don't need a cookbook or a recipe, if you understand some basic requirements.
  • Liquid - there's got to be some liquid in the crockpot. It could be stock, juice, water, sauce, the fat cooking off the meat - but there has to be some liquid to keep the food from drying out.
  • Seasoning - the food is being slow-cooked, so there's time for the seasoning to melt into the food. Season generously, but not too heavy-handed.
  • Time - obviously, the whole point is cooking for the hours and hours you will be away.  There are times, too, when you will want to use it to keep food and beverages warm for serving, like for hot chocolate for a cookie party!
From there - be creative.

Meats of course are favorites for the crockpot.  Whatever you cook will become so tender and juicy. You can serve as is, straight from the pot, or continue to prepare the meat once cooked.  Chicken, whole or in pieces, is an easy meat to cook. Roast beef or pork is also easy; you can eat as is, or chop it after cooking for sandwich or taco filling.  I like to cook pork loin and then chop it up for bar-be-que.  A very convenient fact? It doesn't even have to be defrosted! Yes, you can throw frozen meat into the crockpot, turn it on low and come back hours later to a fork tender meal.

Grains, beans, and pastas can be cooked on their own or with your meat choice. These especially need enough liquid since they require a lot to cook to tender. Spaghetti is easier than you think and lasagna works well in the crockpot, too - the tomato sauce is your liquid. I've yet to cook overnight oatmeal, but have tasted it and that's really good.  I need a smaller crockpot, since my son and I are the only ones who like oatmeal.

Vegetables can also be cooked alone or thrown in with everything else. I've made some very tender collard greens in the crockpot.  You probably should reserve this for veggies that can withstand the long hours of cooking, nothing too tender.

You can cook all of these separately or throw everything in the pot together for an easy clean-up, easy serve one-pot meal.  A can or two of diced tomatoes or stock and you've got the base for a good stew. Pick up a loaf of Italian bread and a salad on your way home and voila! Dinner is served.

For the chicken meal pictured above: a pack of drumsticks (frozen!); salt, pepper, basil, paprika to season; 2 cans diced tomatoes in sauce + 6 hours in the crockpot while we were at church, a science fair, sorority meeting, and a basketball game.

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Friday, September 12, 2014

Run, walk, skip in the Miracle Marathon for Children

The Miracle Marathon is a unique charity event to benefit a Children's Miracle Network hospital.  For my participation, I've selected the Children's Hospital in Washington DC.  I've been blessed to have not needed the services of Children's yet, with my 4 children, but have heard of the good work that they do.  I've also participated in other events that have benefited the hospital, including Ben's Run in memory of a young boy who was treated there before he passed away from an infection related to his leukemia.

Aside from the charitable aspect, this is probably going to be pretty much my one shot at doing a marathon. I've worked up to 5ks, a mere 3.1 miles, and that's a fair challenge. I even have a sprint triathlon and a swim/run duathlon in my race record. But marathon?  26 miles all at once? I've established my "marathon a month" as an exercise milestone, with the goal of running 26 miles over the course of a month, every month. It generally takes me 12-13 days, all totaled, and I admit, I don't always complete it.  So this is a great push for my own personal goals. Win, win for everybody.

So, what is it? Twenty-seven days to finish a marathon - plus an extra mile for all the kids that it benefits. Walk, run, skip, hop, swim, somersault a mile each, whatever works for you, and then on the last day, Oct. 12 , join with everybody else participating for the final mile, finishing at 2:27 pm (EST).

Join me in supporting this cause to benefit children all over the country. You can join my team, Piddlin' for Miles, or make a donation. I've set a fundraising goal at $270, so I'd appreciate - and so would the hospitals - your support.  Thank you!

My Miracle Marathon kit!  Including a pedometer to track my miles

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Wednesday, September 10, 2014

What's the Closet-Life of a Dress?

As we start heading towards fall, it’s about that time to start moving sundresses and tank tops aside and pulling the sleeved-shirts and pants to the front of the closet.  This transition time is also the perfect time to do some closet purging, as you notice, but maybe don’t really want to admit, that you did not wear that linen skirt all summer. Nor last summer either. And truth be told, you’re not sure you even really like the color so much anymore.  So you fold it up, put it aside with everything else, just in case you might like it next summer.

Let’s admit it – cleaning out the closet isn’t just a physical process of taking clothes out that have exhausted their usefulness.  There’s a couple mental obstacles in the way of moving clothes into piles so that they can live another life in someone else’s closet.

When has a dress has passed it’s useful closet-life and it’s time to let it go?

It is not flattering, now or ever will be again.  I really like empire waist dresses, you know, the ones where the waistband hits the bottom of your bra. Its comfortable and breezy in the summer, and yes, hides all those scoops of ice cream.  Or so I thought!  Someone took a picture of me in one of my favorite dresses and I realized that I look like I’m in my second trimester!  But I thought it was a fluke (bad lighting, camera phone, bad angle) and kept wearing them. Until I took another picture in another dress and surprise – same thing, me and my second trimester self.  I’ve piled all my empire waist dresses aside.  Some are destined for some woman who needs the flowy-ness, the rest are now restricted to wearing around the house or walking to the busstop when there is no danger of being photographed.  (Sorry, I couldn’t truly truly give them all up.)

There was a different President in office when you purchased the dress.  You know that dress that you recall the exact event you bought it for?  And that event was long time ago?  I have a few dresses that I did the math and calculated five, six – or more - years ago.  I’ve kept it because, on a good day, it still fits. But even when it does – it was six years ago.  I can get away with a classic fit dress, a black skirt, a navy dress, but anything else – it either looks too young for me or dated by style.  Even the color is wrong.

It never fit right anyway.  You buy the dress, maybe it was on sale, maybe it looked great on the mannequin and you are sure that once it shakes out, once you put on some Spanks, lose a couple pounds, wear a different bra, its going to fit perfectly.  But it just never does.  Let it go.  That goes for those shoes, too.  Even the cute ones. They always did hurt your feet, anyway.

You have no idea where you will ever wear it to.  I have tops and dresses that require a much more active night-life than I have, which right now is pretty much dominated by PTA meetings and kids sporting events.  I have a really cute one-shoulder zebra print silk blouse.  Perhaps someone else has the right party to go to.

Shorts that have lasted through more than one summer.  Don’t take this as a disposable clothes idea, it’s just that regardless of whether I actually still wear that size or not, shorts never seem to fit right after one summer.  Maybe the ice cream reshapes my behind and thighs, same weight, different shaping. Like sand.

Anything two sizes too big or two sizes too small.  I’m letting a larger or smaller woman enjoy my shopping.  I don’t want to return to the too-big size and by the time I get back to the too-small size, the clothes will be out of style.  Okay, even that skirt I really like, it looks crazy slipping down my hips.  And the other one, well, who knows when was the last time it fit to know how it looks.

And to top off the pile?  Anything you just don’t like anymore. The why the heck did I buy this, the what was I thinking, the it used to be cute outfits. Why are these so hard to let go?

Now, when all those are gone…. Hey – I need to go shopping, I haven’t got anything to wear!  

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Monday, September 8, 2014

Study Shows Home-Cooked Meals Cause Mother Stress

A new study suggests that cooking meals is a stress factor for mothers, particularly in the list of things good mothers do.

It took a team of researchers a 1 ½ years to figure that out.  They could’ve spent a week in my house and went on to use the rest of the 77 weeks making ground-breaking discoveries such as getting children out of the house for school in the morning is stressful, transporting kids to after-school activities requires a lot of family time juggling, and getting curly-haired girls to sit down to get their hair down is the cause for many many adult and child-sized tears.  But back to this study.

Some of the mothers they talked to were working poor, trying to prepare home-cooked meals in a cockroach-infested hotel bathroom or a trailer being taken over by ants, or without reliable transportation to the grocery store to buy fresh fruit.  Yes, I would believe that a home-cooked meal is a source of worry for these moms. But the bigger stressor seems to be having a decent home.  I’m sure a lot of things cause you gray hairs when you are in such financial dire straits.

The middle-class mothers also reported that this notion of feeding the family is a burden because they have to plan meals that meet each family’s members personal tastes. Really?  Where is that written in the mom-handbook?  Catering to each person’s preference is a (modern) mom-made stressor, myself included. Even making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches requires referring to my mental notes of preferences – one PB & strawberry jelly, one PB & grape jelly, one PB only, on strawberry jelly only. Sheesh!  But when it comes to the more complicated stuff, like dinner? It’s pretty much take it or get yourself a bowl of cereal.  We do our kids some kind of disservice letting them think that the home kitchen is their own personal restaurant.  Sure, they may hide the peas under the mashed potatoes every now and then, but isn’t that better (for the mom) than making a serving of peas, another serving of broccoli, a spinach salad, and a pot of collard greens just to make everybody happy?  Kids need to learn that they don’t get their way all the time and figure out solutions to deal with that reality, even if it does mean sneaking a brussel sprout into a napkin every now and then.

Additionally, our busy lives makes the idea of going grocery shopping, bringing it all home, cooking something delicious, and serving it on one table to the entire family at one time an exercise in breaking the time continuum.  (How many researchers did this take to figure that out?)  In fact, my latest mom-freak out was looking at my son’s swim schedule this season and realizing that swim practice is at 6 o’clock pm (the proper dinner time) four days a week.  This, after I loaded to our calendar the girls’ tennis and basketball schedules.  And my PTA and sorority meetings. And dad’s work travel schedule.  We’re never going to eat dinner at the table as a family for the next year.

The researchers of the study gave some recommendations for solutions that have yet to be available (to-go dinners provided by the schools) or that seem financially unfeasible, like eating from food trucks (because surely someone who is living in a buggy hotel has the funds to eat out every night - not).

In my research, which has taken about 15 years and involved my circle of friends, here’s a few solutions that the busy mom might find helpful to relieve some of the stress of feeding the household.  I don’t do them all, all the time, but when I have, I found they help.
  • Plan meals for the week in relation to the family schedule. Include breakfast, lunch, and a plan to make use of leftovers.
  • Make a grocery list to support the meal plan and use coupons.  I’m not the super-couponer, but saving even a few dollars each trip helps.
  • Make use of the crockpot. This is a busy family’s magic food cooker – put a bunch of stuff in it in the morning, with a little liquid of some sort, turn it on and voila – dinner.  I’ve posted my Crockpot Spaghetti and Asian Chicken recipes, to give you a few ideas.
  • Use some pre-cooked or pre-prepared ingredients. Pick up a bag of salad, a rotisserie chicken, and make some pasta when you get home.
  • Teach the children to cook.  You can be doing laundry or something if you let the kids boil the spaghetti or batter the chicken. Do not, however, feel compelled to cook with your children because this can cause even greater stress.
  • Cook for tomorrow.  After everyone’s gone to bed and you’re piddlin’ around the house, put a chicken or a roast in the oven, cook the pasta for tomorrow’s dinner.  Nothing says you have to cook at 5 pm.
  • Do plan every now and then for the meal out. Because sometimes you just are not home to even cook the home-cooked meal.

And moms, one thing to really relieve some stress?  
Realize that everything does not have to be ready for Cooking Channel and Pinterest. You do not have to have garnish and a perfectly plated meal. You do not have to cut all your vegetables to look like a beautiful sunrise to entice the kids to eat it. The real point of the family meal is the gathering of family to break bread together. Yes, you hovering over the hot stove all day is a nice, housewife-y touch, but isn’t really a requirement.  Make it healthy, make it something at least some of the people like, and be proud of yourself that you made it through another day.

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Thursday, September 4, 2014

Everybody's Favorite Macaroni & Cheese

Busy days and hungry people result in the frantic question, “What’s for dinner?!”

When we were on our northeastern roadtrip, our stop in Boston landed us to Quincy Market with its rows of food stalls.  Think of any city food market – the options are endless. Sandwiches, pasta, pizza, then throw in the New England spin – fried oysters, fried clams, lobster rolls.  One of those stands was MMMac N' Cheese – a make to order macaroni and cheese shop.  They individually made servings of macaroni and cheese, with all kinds of meats and veggies added in, yes, like an omelet stand.  While the kids ordered their lunch, I watched to see how to make macaroni and cheese on the spot, to individual specifications.

Back at home, I tried it out. It’s so easy, it’s so fast, the kids loved it and declared that mine turned out just as good as the place in Boston. Now, any mom knows the “it takes just like the restaurant” is quite the compliment.  So here’s how to make what will be Everybody’s Favorite Macaroni & Cheese.

  • Macaroni noodles (cooked)
  • Shredded cheddar cheese plus a variety of your family’s other favorite (meltable) cheeses, shredded
  • American cheeses, slices
  • Half-and-half or milk (your preference, or whichever is in the fridge)
  • Butter 
  • Salt, pepper, Italian seasoning to taste

Fix-ins (all cooked)
Use whatever you’re family likes, it should be cooked and cut into small pieces.  You can cook it, buy it cooked, use last night’s leftovers, whatever works in your schedule.
  • Meat suggestions: Ground beef, chopped chicken, chopped/cubed steak, chopped ham, chopped rotisseries chicken, crumbled bacon, shrimp, crabmeat, lobster
  • Veggies suggestions: broccoli, spinach, chopped carrots, chopped tomatoes

To make it the quick, just ran in from work and after-school activities dinner, the key is to prep everything the night before, the morning of, or, if you work at home, on your lunch break.  On the other hand, if you’ve got time, you can prep it all just before you’re ready to cook.

You will be making single servings, so each person can choose their own cheeses and fix-ins.  Offer as many or as few options as you’d like.  Serve along with a salad and everyone can enjoy their salad while their macaroni and cheese to be cooked – no waiting.

Line all your ingredients up at the stove, ready to go, this moves fast like when making stir-fry.
  1. Melt a pat of butter in a large frying pan.
  2. Add 1 slice of American cheese.  Add ¼ cup cheddar cheese, plus ¼ cup of any other favorite cheese.  Add more shredded cheese, to taste.
  3. Add about 1/8 c cream/milk.
  4. Stir to keep cheese from burning, and add milk, if needed, until smooth and creamy.
  5. Add Fix-ins (meat and veggies) to each person’s preference.  Season, to taste, if desired.  (If the meat is already seasoned, you may not need additional seasoning. But if you're doing an all veggie option, it might need a few shakes of something. Try a dash of Old Bay if going with a seafood option.)
  6. Add ½ cup macaroni noodles and mix until noodles are fully covered in cheese and fix-ins.
  7. Serve.
  8. Start the next person’s dish.


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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Where Does My African-American Child See Herself in Books?

Over the weekend, I went to the National Book Festival with two of my daughters. Elle, a high schooler, is the voracious reader of the family.  Often times, before any of the rest of us can finish reading – or even begin to read – a book that we’ve checked out of the library or bought at the bookstore, she has “borrowed” and finished the book, then handed it back with a quick review.  No book is safe in her arm’s reach (and she has long arms.)  Nat came along, too; still in elementary school, she reads when and if she feels like it.

We came away from the day with two children/teen books.  One was Zero Degree Zombie Zone, a fun, adventure story about an African-American boy and his friends, written by Patrik Henry Bass and illustrated by Jerry Craft.  Since African-American boy adventure books are hard to find, I even willingly paid the hardback price for a copy for my son.  The other book was Sisters by Raina Telgemeier; a graphic novel about the trials and quibbles of sisterly love. The line drawing characters are presumably not African-American, but no matter; Nat connects to the sisters, plus really likes this author’s previous novel, Smile.

What did Elle get? Nothing. My reader child, the one who was anticipating the Book Festival, came away empty handed.  Although, she did read the zombie book on the Metro ride home before handing it over to her brother.  But for her – my African-American, teen girl, who does not like vampires, witches, demons, and spooky stuff, but does like some sci-fi, adventure, and a little teen angst drama – nothing.  And she came away with the conclusion, as she often does when we attend big book events, that there are no books about teenage Black girls.  She can and does read plenty of books about White teens who travel through time, run from crazy parents, fight against scientific experiments, chase and are being chased by other kids, fall apart from their best friends, and fall in love. But kids who look like her? Not so much.

So where are the books for and about Black teens? Ones where they are not the minor character or the jovial sidekick friend.  When does the Black boy get to be the hero of the story for his own strength, not the illiterate downtrodden athlete that will be saved by the loving White family?  When does the Black girl get to be the heroine who shoots the bow and arrow and gets the boy, instead of the runaway slave?  How long before the Black girl meets the great guy and goes on a once-in-a-lifetime vacation before he dies and we all cry uncontrollably over their teen love?

Do a quick search of the top teen books, even Young Adult, as the line seems to blur sometimes.  Go to Barnes and Noble or Amazon, and take a look. Aside from most of the books being about a dystopian society (a popular theme, apparently in teen books) you may notice that all the people on the cover of the books are White.  Even the vampire and ghost children.  I recently read a list of the “20 most anticipated” books for young adults.  A quick tally showed that of the 20 books:
  • There were no Black main characters (based on description, cover photo, and/or assumption based on the author’s race)
  • There were two Asian characters (the author/co-author of both books were also Asian)
  • Thirteen were about someone who has died, is dying, or will die.  More than thirteen people, however, will die in these books as a few were about the dying of multiple and many people.  Happy reading.

I do have some concern that so many of the current books for teens and young adults are about kids trying to kill other kids or scary, demonic beings trying to kill kids, but that’s a whole ‘nother book discussion for another day. For now, let’s get back to the lack of Black characters.

Why does it matter?  As an illustration, let me pose this activity. Think of a classic or contemporary teen book. Let’s say, Charlotte’s Web.  Would it have been a different story if Fern was African-American?  (Feel free to also imagine Fern as any other race, not often found in American teen fiction, such as Asian and Latino.) Wilbur would still have been destined as bacon, Charlotte would still spin words in her web, and they all would still make the journey to the fair. But perhaps it would’ve attracted the attention of a Black child, perhaps it would’ve spurred a love of reading in a little Black girl to see herself as Fern and remember her grandparents’ farm in North Carolina.  Like The Wiz as the African-American version of The Wizard of Oz, there perhaps would’ve been a different spin on the story.  A different child would see people who look like her.

And that’s what diversity in children’s and young people’s books is about. Stories that allow our young people to imagine themselves as the heroes, as the crusaders, as the girl who meets the boy, as the boy who stands up to bullies, as the kid who survives middle school, as the regular ole kid who somehow makes it past all the hurdles of the teen-years and makes it to adulthood.

So I encourage the writers who want to write these stories – write.  That’s how I finally came to write my first novel (an adult novel, not for teens) because, paraphrasing Toni Morrison, we have to write the stories we want to read.  And let’s support those authors who write (good) books about diverse characters.

Final question. Does it matter that there are African-American characters, as well as Asian and Latino?  Answer this first – would it matter if there were no White characters?

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