Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Pretty as a Porch

We love our house, but we'll be the first to admit that it is lacking some curb appeal. Case in point, take a look at the photo below.

Rest assured, we do not typically keep a ladder leaning against the house. Keith was checking out the roof, trying to pinpoint where a leak might have originated. At any rate, the porch looks really drab. Granted, this photo was taken in March before anything started to green up but I can't say that had typically looked any better the rest of the year.

Back just before Easter, I took a drive out to Goodwill one weekend afternoon while Keith stayed home with Bert. I had decided I wanted a wicker rocker for the porch, and was casually hunting for one. Imagine my delight when I stumbled across a wicker chair and love seat for, get this, $15. That's $15 for the pair. I just wish I hadn't been shopping by myself so that I could have shared my giddy delight with someone else. I grabbed those tags and practically skipped up to the counter to pay for them. The girl asked if I would be taking them home that day or picking them up later and I told her I thought I could fit them in my car. A very nice (and patient) man working at Goodwill helped me finagle them in, and off I went. I really should have taken a picture of them crammed in my car. 

The furniture was white, and I initially thought I wanted to paint it a bright, funky color to really liven things up out front. But after living with it for several weeks and finding some cushions we liked, Keith and I both decided that they should stay white. But they were a little chipped up and worn looking, so we decided to put a fresh coat of paint on them. Keith got to work hosing them off and scrubbing them down, just to get rid of any loose paint and dust.

After they dried in the sun for a few hours, we moved them to the garage, setting them on some old cardboard. When Bert went down for his nap, we each grabbed a can of spray paint and started painting.

Four cans of paint and two coats later, they looked fresh and new. Well, almost new. You can find a few places where the wicker is broken off but they don't look dingy anymore.

While Keith was scrubbing, Bert and I were working on some hanging baskets. We had found three metal hanging baskets at a yard sale for $5, then picked up the coconut fiber liners and some flowers at a local garden center.

We put some petunias and portulaca in the hanging baskets, and some marigolds, begonias, and some sort of "spike" in large pots for the top and bottom of the steps. Bert was a big help, as always. Now the trick will be for me to keep things watered because that's where I usually come up short on potted plants.


With the hanging baskets, pots, new furniture. and a fun outdoor rug made out of recycled plastic we found last fall, and the cushions we came across at Big Lots, things are looking brighter and more inviting.

We are spending a lot more time sitting out front in the evenings, when it is the shadiest, coolest place to relax, and Bert likes to play out there in the afternoons. The minnow bucket from the flea market a few months ago sits next to the love seat and holds a few toys that can stay outside.

I would still like to find a new welcome mat and a little table to have a place to set drinks and such, and I am considering painting the mailbox a bright color. We also have an old metal milk can to the right of the door (you can see it in the very first picture) that I might paint too, though Keith is grumbling about that because when it came to us from a relative he spent a long time sanding it down and painting it tan, per my request. Those things might still happen this summer, but in the long range, we would like to put in different posts and railings, something a little more architectural. We are also tossing around ideas about what to plant in the grassy patch to the left and front of the porch to add more color. Things may change down the road but at least now our porch is saying, "Hello! How are you today?" instead of, "Does anybody live here?"

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Small Town, USA

One of the perks of living in a small town is enjoying the occasional parade, like this one yesterday morning. Bert liked the bands and fire trucks. It was a short parade, but it was just right for Bert's attention span.

All the excitement must have worn him out, because he pulled his hat down over his face and fell asleep on the walk home.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Fresh or Frozen

The spinach is starting to grow in the garden, and I'm still scrambling to use up what we froze last year. I've been slipping it in all manner of dishes, from potatoes and eggs to meatloaf and enchiladas. I'm patting myself on the back a little for eating more vegetables than ever.

When I saw this recipe in Real Simple (I think maybe it was the March 2012 issue), my first thought was that I should cut it out and save it for when we had fresh spinach. Then I thought, why not give it a try with our frozen spinach? Which is exactly what I did. Maybe it will be utterly fabulous with fresh spinach, but it was a hands-down, plates-clean winner even with the frozen stuff.

Chicken, Spinach, and Noodle Casserole
Real Simple, 2012

6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
4 cups whole milk
1 cup sour cream
Kosher salt and black pepper
12 ounces egg noodles
4 slices sandwich bread (I just used about a 1/2 cup of plain breadcrumbs)
2 cups shredded cooked chicken or rotisserie chicken
5 ounces baby spinach, chopped (if using frozen, thaw and drain)
2 teaspoons dried thyme

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Melt 4 tablespoons of the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the flour and cook, stirring, until foamy, 1 to 2 minutes (do not let the mixture darken). Slowly whisk in the milk. Bring to a simmer and cook, whisking often, until thickened, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove from heat and whisk in the sour cream, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper.

Meanwhile, cook the noodles according to the package directions; drain and return to the pot. Pulse the bread in a food processor until course crumbs form. Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter in a microwave safe bowl.

Add the milk mixture, chicken, spinach, and thyme to the noodles and toss to combine. Transfer to a 9 x13-inch or other 3-quart baking dish (I coated mine with cooking spray first), sprinkle with the bread crumbs, and drizzle with the melted butter.

Bake until the bread crumbs are golden and the filling is bubbling, 8 to 10 minutes. Let cool for 5 minutes before serving.

Make-ahead Tip: The casserole can be assembled and refrigerated up to one day in advance (but don't top with the bread crumbs). Sprinkle with the bread crumbs just before baking. Cover with foil and bake for 20 minutes. Uncover and bake for 8 to 10 minutes more.

I love it when I find a recipe that has a simple and short ingredient list, comprised of things we usually have on hand. I have made a habit recently of buying a whole chicken at the farmers' market every couple of months, cooking and shredding it, and freezing it in 2-cup portions just for casseroles like this and it helps to make meal planning and prepping easier.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Oh Baby, It's a Wild World

Yesterday we embarked on an adventure, racking up a first not just for Bert, but for Keith too: a trip to the zoo! Now Keith can cross that off his bucket list. A couple months ago, we penciled ourselves into my Mom-mom and Grandpop's calendar for a trip to the Philadelphia Zoo. Keith scheduled a vacation day, figuring a week day might be less crowded and more stroller-friendly than a weekend, and we crossed our fingers for good weather. 

Zoo day dawned overcast and misty, but we packed up and headed out anyway, figuring even if it poured, a day of visiting certainly wouldn't be a lost day. Besides, the zoo has extensive indoors exhibits so it wouldn't be a total wash if it rained while we were there. We hit a little rain on our way to Mom-mom's house, but that was all we saw until we were headed back home. The sun even peeked out a little bit, but we all agreed that the overcast day actually made for a great zoo visit because we didn't get hot and sweaty walking around and were spared worrying about slathering Bert with sunscreen every hour.

Mom-mom and Grandpop are zoo members, so we had the VIP treatment, complete with free parking and breezing through the ticket line since members are allowed two guests with each visit (and Bert would be free anyway since he is under 2). We decided to concentrate on the outdoor exhibits first, saving indoor ones in case it rained but it never did so we just did the buildings towards the end of our visit.

The zoo thrilled us at every turn. Keith was especially taken with the bald eagles and the reptile house. I couldn't get over the primates, and Bert loved the flamingos. I think a combination of factors led to his fascination with big pink birds: he was well-fed and well-rested, after having eaten lunch and napping in his stroller, the flamingos were really noisy, and they were the brightest colored animal at the zoo so they were easy for him to see. It was hard to get a family shot because he was so busy pointing at them.

The avian building was really neat, with birds from all over the world and even an area where they fly and walk around you. One nearly took off Grandpop's head as it flew screeching across the room. Look how close Keith got to this little exotic duck.

Keith remarked that he expected the giraffes to be bigger, but we were all awed by how massive and tank-like the rhinoceros was.

When we got to the primate exhibit, there were swarms of kids around this gorilla backed up to the glass. He ignored everybody until the kids wandered off and this little girl came up and started making monkey noises behind him.

Bert and Keith got up close and personal with a peacock (there were a number of them roaming freely about the zoo.)

And Bert liked watching this pacing bear. Must have been getting close to dinner time because he was one antsy bear.

We saw a lot of what the zoo had to offer, and Bert held up really well for what turned out to be a pretty long day, having spent about five hours at the zoo. We were really pleased with how accessible everything was (there were a few spots where they asked patrons to leave strollers outside because of limited viewing areas), how clean and well-kept the grounds were, and of course, the variety of animals. Next time we would probably pack lunch, but there are a number of concession stands and they give you plenty of food. We were a little sad that the Philadelphia Zoo no longer has elephants, but they are turning the elephant house into a large children's zoo area with lots of animals that can be touched and educational exhibits so we are excited to go back and see that when it opens sometime next year.

I think Bert was just happy to see some real animals for a change, instead of me waddling like a penguin or making monkey noises while scratching my armpits. 

Thanks to Mom-mom and Grandpop for a wonderful day!

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Just Don't Lose a Finger

They say you should have your lawn mower serviced annually.  So, small engine service was recently placed on our list of DIY projects.  Many people, including myself until recently, never give it much thought beyond scheduling an appointment with a professional.  But that can get expensive, and expensive isn’t our thing.

I had never worked on an engine of any kind; not a car, not a lawn mower, nothing.  Growing up, if something needed to be fixed, we hired a professional.  That’s not a bad thing, just the way it was.  We lived in a small home in the city without room for many tools and no garage for a work space (it was converted into a bedroom because we needed the space).  So, we hired professionals.

I’m not going to lie, servicing a lawn mower was a little intimidating since I had never done it before and didn’t really know what I was getting myself into.  But, I decided to try my luck anyway.

First problem: no operator's manual.  Since we bought our mower used it didn’t come with a manual.  No worries, I was able to find it online and print a copy. 

Next, I needed to learn what, exactly, needed to be serviced on a lawn mower.  I mean, I had an idea; new air filter and an oil change.  But, what else? 

I started by watching YouTube videos on “How to service a lawn mower”.  There is an endless supply out there but I tried to find ones from reputable sources.  Of course, it was impossible to find one on the exact brand and model of mower we have but I figured they couldn’t be all that different.  The videos were great because they gave some details and helpful tips that the operations manual didn’t provide; things that you would know if you had already done this a hundred times.  I think the operator's manual assumes you have done this a hundred times and if you haven’t, it basically tells you not to touch a damn thing except your phone as you call to make an appointment with your local dealer.  Well, not me.

So once I had an idea of what I needed to do, I stopped at our local hardware store to pick up parts and supplies.  I picked up some SAE 30 oil, a spark plug, a fuel filter and some fuel stabilizer (not needed for servicing but I was out).  They didn’t have an air filter but everything I watched and read said it could be cleaned and reused. 

I searched for parts by part number according to the operator's manual.  I found the right brand of fuel filter but wasn’t able to find the spark plug.  But, there was a book at the store that listed all the different engine brands and models and what spark plug was suitable for each.  So, I followed that and felt pretty good about my choice until I tried to put in the new spark plug.  Turns out, the book was wrong.  How do I know?  Because the brand of spark plug already in the mower is the same brand I bought yet the part number is completely different.  Maybe I looked at the book wrong but, knowing I was unsure, I checked the book about a dozen times.  I’m fairly certain I read it correctly.

Anyway, once home, I got to work.  I started by running the mower for a minute to warm up the oil.  After removing the spark plug cable, I drained the remaining fuel from the tank.  I also drained and replaced the oil.  

Next, I cleaned the air filter and left it out to dry.  The next step was replacing the fuel filter.  I checked the lines for cracks and they were in good shape.  

Once I had the fuel lines and new filter put back together I flipped the mower on its side and removed the blade.  Using a bench grinder that I found for $3 at a yard sale years ago, I sharpened the blade.  ($3 for a bench grinder that was in great condition?  I couldn’t pass that up even if I didn’t have a place or a reason to use it at the time). 

While I had the blade off I scraped off all the grass that was caked on the underside of the mower deck.  I noticed some of the paint was peeling and it was getting just slightly rusty so I wire brushed the underside and painted it.  That should keep the deck in good shape long after the motor goes.  

Once I had the blade and air filter back on I filled it with fuel and… it was time for dinner, shoot.  It was killing me too because I wanted to see if my little project was a success or a complete failure. 

After dinner I headed right back out to the garage, primed it a few times and… it started on the first pull of the cord.  Success!  My only mishap was spilling some of the used oil after a neighborhood kid came up and started playing 20 questions with me like Dennis the Menace.  I got distracted.  Oh well, it was on the cardboard I put down anyway so no big deal.  The only thing left to replace is the spark plug once I find the right size.  And, I can set the gap using a feeler gauge that I found in Maine a few years ago and thought I would never have a use for.  I’ll tell you more about the tool store in Maine later this summer.  It’s every man’s dream – even this city boy.

I should say that I was surprised at how easy it was to complete this project.  It’s just nuts and bolts and a few rubber fuel lines.  Pretty simple really.  That’s not to say that I could completely deconstruct the motor and do tune up work.  Baby steps.  And, to that point, the operations manual was very clear about NOT TOUCHING THE CARBURETOR.  So, I left that alone.

So, the service project was a success as measured by the fact that the mower still works.  Awesome.  But, did it actually save money?  Well, Tara and I were curious about that as well so I called the local dealer where we bought the mower to find out.  They charge $38 for labor, plus parts.  Also, their service doesn’t include changing the fuel filter, sharpening/replacing the blade or painting the underside of the deck to help it last longer.  To have all that done, plus parts, would bring the price to around $100 - $120.  Considering I spent $15 on parts and supplies, I’d say we made out pretty well.  Especially if you throw in the fact that we had $15 worth of coupons for the hardware store which brought our total project cost to FREE.  Besides my time – which some might say is worth very little though I tend to disagree.  Not bad for a novice.  Oh, and I still have both my hands and all nine fingers.  Wait, nine?  Oh man!  Just kidding.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

For My Peeps

Earlier this spring, my mom showed me a picture she had saved from a magazine of a sunflower cake using Peeps for the petals. (Here are the original instructions from Taste of Home.) I thought it was really cute and when my mom decided she was coming down to visit for Mother's Day, it was the perfect opportunity to make it. I had picked up a couple boxes of Peeps on deep discount a couple of days after Easter and instructed Keith not to eat them, so I was ready to go.

On Friday morning I baked our favorite chocolate cake (the instructions use a box cake but there is just nothing like a homemade cake, right?) and once it cooled, I iced it with peanut butter icing. Because let's face it, chocolate and peanut butter just belong together. And this is where the problems started. I always have some trouble icing this particular cake because it is super-moist (which is why we love it) so I made the icing a little thinner by adding more milk. Now it looked like a Dr. Seuss cake, all lopsided, wonky, and runny.

I wasn't too bothered by the state of my cake, and figured making the sunflower on top would distract from all manner of frosting fiascos. So I went about putting the Peeps around the top of the cake, leaving them connected as instructed. But I found my icing was too runny, and the Peeps were ready to take a backslide off the edge of the cake, dragging peanut butter icing with them.

I implored them to stay put, but they refused to listen, leaving me no choice but to impale them with toothpicks.

Now all the Peeps were lined up around my cake, looking oddly like synchronized swimmers about to do a backflip.

I was ready to start adding the "seeds" to my sunflower, in the form of chocolate chips. If you looked at the magazine photo, you would notice that the chocolate chips are placed in a meticulous, Fibonacci-approved spiral. If you are looking at my cake, it is pretty evident that any pretense of perfection is long gone and the Cake Boss would have already sent my resume through the shredder, so I simply poured my mini chocolate chips on the top and spread them out.

Then, fearing my backsliding Peeps would be rock hard if left in the open air, I put the cake cover on, only to find that it smashed all those Peep beaks back into their poor little faces. But at least they weren't going to fall off the cake or dry up.

While it certainly isn't the prettiest cake ever made, I didn't hear any complaints in the taste department.

Here's the chocolate cake recipe I used, which is a family favorite from Keith's aunt and mom, along with the peanut butter icing recipe.

Hershey's Chocolate Cake

2 cups sugar
1 3/4 cups flour
3/4 cup Hershey's cocoa
1 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 eggs
1 cup milk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup boiling coffee or water

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour two 9-inch baking pans or a 9 x 13 pan (or this recipe can make 25-30 cupcakes). Combine dry ingredients in large bowl. Add eggs, milk, oil, and vanilla and beat on medium speed for 2 minutes. Stir in boiling coffee or water. Batter will be thin. Bake 30-35 minutes for cake pans, 18-22 minutes for cupcakes. Cake will be very moist and freezes well.

(My brother and niece report that if you leave out the hot coffee or water, the batter works well in a cake pop maker.)

Peanut Butter Icing

1/3 cup peanut butter
3 cups powdered sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1/4-1/3 cup milk

Beat together, adding milk slowly to achieve desired consistency.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Salad, Anyone?

Looks good doesn’t it?  It’s a little different than your normal garden salad though.  It’s got apples, carrots, squash, sweet potatoes, bananas and grapes.  It’s very colorful.

But, to be fair, I wouldn’t recommend eating this salad.  Why?  Well, I should probably list the rest of the ingredients.  Dandelions, meal worms, shrimp, crickets, white fish and chicken.  To be clear, Tara and I don’t eat this salad and no, we don’t feed it to Bert.  It’s for Cash, our turtle.  You can take that sigh of relieve now.

If you’ve never met our red-eared slider, here’s a little background.  We bought Cash at a local fair about five years ago.  He cost 15 bucks and was about the size of a quarter.  When we brought him home he was in a tiny tank and ate only store bought turtle food.  We figured he would only make it a week or so but I have a thing about taking care of pets.  I figure, I’ve made a commitment and it’s only fair to the animal. 

As Cash grew, he continued to need larger tanks.  First a five gallon, then a ten, then a twenty.  Now, he’s in a 65 gallon tank and he could just about swallow a quarter whole.  All that growth took more than just store bought food.

About a month after we bought him I started researching about how to best care for a red-eared slider.  I know what you’re thinking but better late than never right?!  I discovered that turtles need more than just the store bought pellets.  They need real food.  So, I decided I would make meals for Cash.  But, I certainly wasn’t going to make meals for him twice a day, that’s crazy talk.  Once or twice a year sounded more like it.  Fast forward to the present.

I spent a recent weekend making food for Cash.  I cooked the fish and chicken and the meal worms, crickets and shrimp were bought at the pet store (canned).  The fruits and veggies came from our local farmers market and got steamed to soften them up.  The dandelions came from our very own yard – a benefit of not spraying our yard with weed killer. 

I mixed all of the ingredients together, sprinkled the not-so-appetizing mixture with a powdered calcium supplement and packed a few freezer containers.  Last year’s mixture, according to the dated label I put on the package, was made on May 8, 2011 – just shy of a year.  I made a bit less this time but I think it should easily last six months.


They say red-eared sliders can live 20 years or more in captivity.  Cash is five now.  That’s a lot more food!  Tara’s a great cook so I can’t even make the joke that the turtle eats better than I do, but you have to admit, he does eat well for a turtle.  And, to be honest, the money we spend on making real food for Cash amounts to much less than it would cost if he ate only store bought food.  Real food; better for Cash, better for our cash flow.

I should note that we learned our lesson and did extensive research on caring for children before Bert came along.  Eh, he didn’t eat real food for months anyway. 

Speaking of real food, want to stop over for dinner some night?  I promise we’ll skip the crickets.  I can’t promise anything about the shrimp though.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Blog-worthy Breakfast

My mom came down to visit for the Mother's Day weekend, and Keith treated us to a delicious and beautiful breakfast Sunday morning. The menu: french toast, bacon, scrambled eggs with cheese, and hash browns, with grapes and parsley for garnishes. Keith's years working in kitchens certainly paid off as far as I am concerned.

Bert enjoyed his french toast, egg yolks, and grapes too.

Keith said the deal was that he would cook and Bert would do the dishes, but Bert didn't hold up his end of the bargain. So Keith did the dishes too while my mom and I took a walk with Bert. What a lovely way to start Mother's Day!
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