Friday, July 22, 2011

Decluttering Paper in 3 Steps

I have to confess that I've been taking a lengthy break from decluttering projects this year. I was really on top of decluttering last year, but since then I got distracted and off track, and I'm only now (in July!) returning to the project, which for now is to just attack the piles of paper and miscellaneous items that have accumulated in my house. I'm decided to approach The Piles with a 3-Step approach:

1. Consolidate

First I went around the house and collected all the various paper piles in a laundry basket. (Confession: I filled the laundry basket twice!)

I cleared the dining table so that I would have plenty of space--and also for motivation to get the project done before dinnertime.

2. Sort

I set up an empty paper grocery bag for recycling paper, and sorted everything into piles. It occurred to me that this is really challenging work, because you have to make a decision about every piece of paper: keep? recycle?

I ran into a bunch of papers from an unfinished project that I need to refocus on, and also a few photographs and a recipe that triggered some memories. The biggest bulk of paper were the things that my son brought home from first grade at the end of the year. It takes a lot of energy to decide to recycle your child's artwork! I did save a few things that stood out.

Whenever I started feeling overwhelmed or unable to make a decision about something, I walked away and worked on something else for a while, then came back later. It helped that I needed to shuttle the kids around, and my mom stopped by for a little while. Sometimes I would just go switch the laundry to clear my head so that I could return and continue to make decision after decision...

3. Distribute

After all the piles were sorted, I found a place for each set of items. Some things were easy--obviously the two full bags of discarded papers went to the recycling bin, and the saved artwork went to a box in the basement designated for that pupose. Other things were more challenging to put away, and I admit that a small pile of those random items are sitting in a pile on my desk right now, still to be housed. Similar to the sorting, I did a few piles at a time in between other activities.

The good news is: I finished! I think that focusing very specifically on Paper Only helped me to avoid distraction, and setting a specific space and steps helped as well. I even got the dining table set for dinner, hours in advance. I think I will use this technique again on the disturbing number of Random Items scattered around the house--you know, the what-is-this-and-why-are-we-keeping-it stuff (I hope I'm not the only person with this problem!)

Find more declutter and organizing inspiration with 52 Weeks of Organizing at orgjunkie.com!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Peach Berry Crisp (Topping)


What I should do is follow The Vegetarian Mother's Cookbook and make a lightly sweetened, healthier topping for my Peach Berry Crisp Filling. But, I don't.

Here is what I do instead--based on this Summer Fruit Crisp Recipe:

For an 8 x 8 size pan:
  • 3/4 cups flour (I use winter white whole wheat)
  • 1/4 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
  • 3 Tablespoons sugar (or sweetener of choice)
  • pinch of salt
  • 5 Tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into chunks
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup chopped walnuts or pecans or more to taste
Combine flour, sugars, and salt. Add cold butter chunks and blend into the mixture with a pastry blender, add vanilla extract and nuts. After adding the nuts, I just use my hand to further blend the mixture, which will be sandy and chunky.

After blending for about 30 seconds (it will still be not fully mixed) sprinkle handfuls of the mixture over your Peach Berry Crisp Filling, breaking up the larger buttery lumps. (If you are freezing the crisp topping, put the mixture in a quart-size freezer bag and freeze.) Empty the remaining flour and sugar over top of filling, covering fruit mixture evenly.

I tripled this recipe so that I could freeze two portions of topping to use on future fresh fruit crisps. I'm hoping for some nice peaches and raspberries at the produce stands on the way to the beach in a few days!

Bake at 375 degrees for 30-45 minutes. Serve warm over ice cream OR a healthier choice would be fat-free plain or vanilla yogurt. I've been enjoying Trader Joe's fat-free vanilla Greek yogurt with it for breakfast. You could dust the top with powdered sugar, but I consider that to be overkill. :)

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

10 Reasons and Strategies to Avoid Grocery Shopping At the Beach


We are heading to the beach next week for our annual extended family vacation! I am trying to get some things ready in advance so that I can avoid going to the grocery store the entire 8 days that we are there, yet still enjoy lots of delicious food! Here's why:

1. My kids are particular. I've learned that my kids are happy to eat nutritious foods so long as we stick with certain brands they like. My son is especially sensitive and notices when the bread or yogurt is different from the brand he prefers. Rather than take the risk of the beach grocery stores not carrying his favorites, I'll just bring along what I know he likes.

2. The stores at the beach are expensive! I don't even need to explain this.

3. Grocery shopping takes time away from vacation. At our family beach, the grocery store is always crowded, day and night. On top of that, the beach house we rented last year was over 20 minutes away from the nearest grocery store. Just needing a few items meant at least an hour trip. I would rather be relaxing!

4. You often end up buying more than you need. I prefer to avoid wasting food, even condiments and/or bread, and it seems that we always have so much stuff left over at the end of a week at the beach house. I really hate to see it thrown away and wasted! By bringing just what we need from home, I'm hoping to eliminate at least some of the excess stuff left over at the end of the week.

5. You'll end up cooking less at the beach by using food from your freezer cooking stash rather than groceries from the store. I'm going to bring a variety of items from my freezer cooking stash, including Marinated Salmon to serve for dinner one night, banana bread for breakfast, and a few other items, possibly even ingredients for cocktails. My mom is bringing a lasagna and a ham. (I hope she'll give me the hambone to bring home and make into soup!)

Here are my strategies for staying away from the grocery store next week:

6. Make a Meal Plan. By the end of this week, I'll have a clear idea of what we're planning to eat and on which day, therefore I'll have a clear picture (and a list) of what foods to bring, and how much to bring.

7. Pack a cooler and some grocery bags with your favorite foods and ingredients. After making a list, you'll know what you would like to bring.

8. Bring Open Condiments. There's no rule that you need to bring a brand new bottle of ketchup to the beach house each year. Try bringing the open bottle from your fridge/pantry. If you time it just right, you can use it up at the beach house and avoid the need to bring it back home!

9. Shop at the local produce and seafood stands. Not only will you find the freshest ingredients for your seafood meals and your fruit and vegetable salads, you will also support local small businesses in your beach community. I'm hoping we find some fresh okra to fry up, and also some nice ripe juicy peaches.

10. Take it all back home with you. By bringing a cooler, you'll also have a place to stow left over perishables on the way home. Cleaning out the fridge on the last day will be easy!

The Exception: I (or somebody) will need to make an ice-cream/popsicle run late at night one night. Those items don't travel well in the cooler.

Linked to Top Ten Tuesday!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Vegetarian Freezer Cooking Report: Using up Produce

Pictured: 2 servings Summer Squash Frittata, one 8x8 Fruit Crisp, 3 meals of Kale White Bean Soup, 3 meals of Eggplant Stew. Also pictured are 5 servings of Quinoa Vegetable Soup that I made several weeks ago.

In addition to the produce I already had, I received a vegetable box from a local delivery service, so I had even MORE produce to work with! This meant a few revisions to the freezer plan, as well as a cheat recipe--I added Kale White Bean Soup to the plan--it's non-vegetarian, but uses a large quantity of kale.

Thursday Evening (2 Thursdays ago!): quickly cut and peeled peaches for Peach Berry Crisp (filling) while dinner was cooking, added the extra ingredients, and froze it in the freezer. I place the freezer bag inside the pan that I will use to bake the crisp so that the mixture froze in the shape of the pan. I still need to make a few batches of Crisp Topping...

Friday Morning: Started making White Bean and Kale Soup in the crock pot. (If you used a replacement for the ground sausage, it would still be vegetarian... but mine includes hot Italian sausage. :)

I also whipped up the Summer Squash Frittata, topped it with tomato and basil from the garden, and ate a piece for (second) breakfast. I put several pieces in the freezer to test and see how well it freezes (not too well. It gets very watery when I go to reheat it) The rest we ate for breakfasts the next few days.

Monday: I made the Eggplant Stew and doubled the recipe to use up all of the eggplant! It was wonderful as usual, despite the fact that I quadrupled the tomato sauce rather than doubling it. Rather than add cannded diced tomatoes, I used fresh (skins and all). I also left the skin on the eggplant even though the recipe said to peel it (I never peel it). I ended up with three meals left over for the freezer.

 I also made and served Sesame Baby Bok Choy with leftover Baked Chicken Tenders--not cooking for the freezer, but fitting in with my need to use up produce.

Now it's a new week and I just need to use up this by Friday:
Today's Harvest

Ack!

Peach Berry Crisp (filling)

Peaches and Blueberries, defrosting before adding Crisp Topping
I have an amazing recipe for Summer Fruit Crisp that makes a 13 x 9 pan of pure heavenly delight... except it sure has a lot of sugar in it! To cut down on the sugar, I revised the filling portion of the recipe to follow the crisp recipe from the cookbook The Vegetarian Mother's Cookbook: Whole Foods To Nourish Pregnant And Breastfeeding Women - And Their Families. The result is tart fruit with a sweet crisp topping that goes well over vanilla ice cream. (I only make this a few times each summer for obvious reasons--calorie counters beware!)

I also reduced the size of the recipe to fit an 8 x 8 pan because my husband and I have very little self control around this dessert. Just double the quantities to make enough for a 13 x 9 pan.

Ingredients:
  • 7-8 fresh peaches, quartered, pitted, and peeled
  • 1 cup berries (I like fresh raspberries, or frozen blueberries if I don't have anything else on hand, or just add a couple more peaches)
  • 2 Tablespoons lemon juice (or juice of 1 lemon)
  • 1 Tablespoon maple syrup
  • 1 Tablespoon water
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon (optional: better for apples and pears)
Combine all ingredients in a mixing bowl, stir gently to combine. To freeze, dump the fruit and all the juices in a gallon size freezer bag and freeze until needed. To bake immediately, place the mixture in an 8 x 8 pan and top with Peach Berry Crisp topping. Bake at 375 degrees for 35-45 minutes. Serve warm over vanilla ice cream. Try not to eat the entire pan in one sitting!

Menu Plan Monday July 18th: Clearing out the Fridge


Eggplant Stew over Whole Wheat Couscous--part of my vegetarian freezer cooking last week

I'll be using many of my tips for using up perishables before we travel to the beach this weekend. Every time I turn around there is more produce to harvest from my vegetable garden!
  • Monday: Roast Turkey Breast, whole wheat couscous with zucchini and cherry tomatoes (both from the garden)
  • Tuesday: Pasta with Marinated Tomatoes, based on a Martha Stewart recipe from the newest issue of Martha Stewart Living, which apparently hasn't been posted online yet, so I can't link to the recipe...  
  • Wednesday: Creamy Enchilada Casserole, hopefully sneaking some fresh produce in there somewhere, with shallot green beans
  • Thursday: Turkey Avocado Wraps (hopefully there will be enough turkey left over from Monday for this! I'll also use the turkey for lunches.)
  • Friday: Leftovers--eating whatever is left!
  • Saturday: Lasagna, garlic bread, salad (at the beach)
  • Sunday: Ham dinner (at the beach)
  • Monday: Marinated Salmon, Lime Cilantro Soba, steamed broccoli
I'll be freezer cooking with a friend on Wednesday, to make the salmon marinade and a few treats for the beach. I also want to find time to make Basil Pesto (to bring to the beach) and the crisp topping and lavender sugar that I didn't find time for last week.

I'll also be making another Summer Squash Frittata and eat it for breakfast each day this week, as I am swimming in zucchini and summer squash. I haven't figured out any good freezer cooking recipes for the squash yet (other than soups and sauces), so I made fried zucchini last week and I'll probably make it again this week, too.

Find more meal planning ideas at a special location this week!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Acknowledging the Unexpected

What happened here? Not what was expected...

Once upon a time, long ago, I worked for a boss who struggled with time management. She took a class and worked with a time-management coach, and he advised that each person in the office keep a daily list of unexpected events. My coworkers and I started doing this right away, because we were stressed out and eager to work on the time-management challenges we were having.


We were really surprised to discover exactly how many unexpected things just 'popped up' during each day. A client would call with a problem, a salesperson would stop by unexpectedly with a new product line, our boss would suddenly remember a project that she needed finished ASAP, or the copier would jam.

Writing down these unexpected events on our To Do lists seemed to give us more power over the situation. We could compare the tasks that we had planned to do with the new task that was now staring at us in the face, and decide which task took higher priority.

Often the unexpected event took precedence over what we had been working on before (our office certainly wouldn't have been able to function if we didn't take the time to fix the jammed copier!) Instead of feeling discouraged at the end of the day because of ruined plans, we could read our lists and count the unexpected events towards our productivity for the day: I helped a client, learned about a new product, finished my boss's project, and fixed the paper jam in the copier.

I'm finding that this same strategy can be applied to homemaking: if I take the time to acknowledge the time I spend each day on unexpected events, and count them towards my productivity for the day, I feel more empowered and in control of how I spend my time each day. I cleaned up the broken glass before someone got hurt, I rescheduled our plans so that I could care for my sick child, I got the car inspected on the last day before the sticker expired and avoided a ticket.

I also apply this strategy to larger periods of time. For instance, I haven't spent much time and effort on keeping up with clutter in my house this year. I think it is important to acknowledge the events (some expected, some unexpected) that have required additional focus and that have shifted my priorities away from this project.

My sister-in-law died in December. My close friend died in January. I'm still helping to go through my close friend's home and possessions and cooking meals for her college-age son.

I completed three large projects for my volunteer work in February, April and May--and I'm working on several new projects now.

By the end of this month, we'll have taken 9 separate trips since December--4 of them unexpected to some degree, but all worthwhile time spent connecting with family, friends, and each other.

By acknowledging that all of these events are important and realizing that I don't regret the time or effort spent on any of them, I realize that I have good reasons for not focusing on the projects I hoped to focus on so far this year. I can release feeling of guilt and powerlessness, and refocus on my goals with a fresh, positive attitude.

With all that said, I am off to finish prepping my new consignment pile, and a nice large Goodwill donation is on the horizon, too.

This plan works for me. What unexpected events have occurred in your life that you need to acknowledge and release?

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Fried Zucchini


I made our eggplant stew today, and I used the huge zucchini I had from my grandparents' garden. I decided to use the remaining amount to make fried zucchini, with thoughts that my kids might eat it.

Ingredients:
  • Large Zucchini, thinly sliced (1/4 inch thick)
  • salt and pepper
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • butter and/or olive oil 1-2 Tablespoons
Sprinkle both sides of zucchini slices with salt and pepper to taste. Heat oil and/or butter (I use both) in skillet over medium heat. Place flour in shallow dish, add zucchini, turning to coat with a thin layer of flour. Add zucchini slices to skillet and fry for several minutes. Turn and fry for 2-3 more minutes, then place cooked zucchini on paper towels to absorb excess oil.

Try not to eat all of them at once. Offer them to your children, then eat the ones you served to them after they turn up their noses. 

This would also work well with a large eggplant. Delicious, and barely a recipe!



Monday, July 11, 2011

Menu Plan Monday: July 11th, 2011

Baked Chicken Tenders, Sesame Bok Choy, and Baked Redskin Potato
I'm still working through my Vegetarian Freezer Cooking Plan, so we will be eating a few of those recipes as we work through the week, while working our way through the second week of dinnertime swim lessons. The strategy that appears to be working for us is to eat protein-rich snacks before lessons to help the kids survive until a later dinnertime.
Preparing separate meals for the kids isn't ideal, but the goal is to use our fresh produce while it is still at its best and freeze the prepared potions. I'll reserve and heat up a few portions for us to eat, and make the kid-version meals quickly.

Find more meal planning ideas at orgjunkie.com!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Vegetarian Freezer Cooking: Coping with Summer Garden Excess


We are swimming in produce, so I think I will need to do a quick session of vegetarian freezer cooking this week!

I have a bunch of eggplant(s?) from my grandparents' garden which will go well with a zucchini from my garden in an Eggplant Stew over Couscous recipe, which is basically ratatouille. I'll make and freeze the stew, then make fresh couscous as needed. I'll also freeze 3/4 cup portions to eat for breakfast.

My grandparents also gave me a ginormous zucchini which I'll make into a Summer Squash Frittata, which I'll freeze in indidividual servings (makes 8) for quick breakfasts. I haven't tried to freeze a frittata before, so this is an experiment!

I also have a bunch of peaches that I'm not going to be able to eat in time, so I think I'll make up the fruit filling for my favorite Peach Blueberry Crisp--recipe to come. I'll also make up multiple batches of Crisp Topping--one for this fruit, and several more for Future Fruit.

Lastly I need to make a point to cure some Lavender Sugar so that I have enough to make a big batch of Lemon Lavender Cookies--a recipe from Fix, Freeze, Feast: The Delicious, Money-Saving Way to Feed Your Family. I'll post about that recipe soon, too.

Flowers From My Cutting Garden

I'm excited that the zinnias and cosmos flowers that I planted are finally starting to bloom! I took the remains of a bouquet from last week, removed the spent irises and Gerber daisies, then added the orange and salmon zinnias, as well as two cosmos flowers that bloomed (the white and hot pink at the bottom).

I planted these (and some sunflowers) in a small space next to my out-of-control vegetable garden. I planted 4 different colors (as suggested here... beautiful post!) and I hope to see some of the other colors blooming soon.
I don't think that I planted enough variety to make full bouquets for the house, but I am liking the option of adding some fresh pops of color and enlarging my store-bought bouquets (which usually come from Trader Joe's). I'm hopeful that I will figure out what/how to plant more things each year.

There's nothing like a fresh bouquet of flowers! What works for you?

Monday, July 4, 2011

Menu Plan Monday: July 4th, 2011

Martha Stewart's Firework Icing--I couldn't resist trying this out!
Happy Fourth of July!

This week will be a challenge mealwise as my kids have swim lessons from 5:30-7 PM three nights this week. If I feed them dinner at 4:30, my son in particular will feel like he 'missed' dinner and he'll ask for more to eat at 8 PM. If I wait to feed them until 7:30 PM, both kids will get cranky and hungry at the pool. If anyone has any advice, please let me know!

In the mean time, this is what I'm thinking of doing:
  • Monday: Family Get-together (I'm bringing the cookies that I made with my preferred recipe. Icing recipe and instructions for Fireworks design are courtesy of Martha Stewart, who always makes is look easier than it really is, but they were doable...)
  • Tuesday: Marinated Salmon (from the freezer--I'll broil it), baked redskin potatoes, steamed vegetables, fresh cantalope (served before swim lessons)
  • Wednesday: Baked Chicken Tenders, corn on the cob, steamed broccoli (served after lessons: the chicken tenders are even better leftover, so I'll bake them in advance and reheat them in the oven while boiling/steaming the vegetables)
  • Thursday: Grilled Steak (from the freezer), salad, brown rice pilaf (served after lessons)
  • Friday: Junk Food at the Ball Game :)
  • Saturday: Cashew Chicken Curry (from the freezer), brown rice pilaf
  • Sunday: Leftovers
  • Monday: More Lessons! I'll wait to see what worked this week before planning meals around next week's lessons.
 Find more meal planning ideas at orgjunkie.com!

Friday, July 1, 2011

Discounts on Potted Annuals, Vegetables, and Herbs

One reason I love this time of year is because it's when I start seeing the 50% OFF signs at the parking lot nursery near my house.

I devoted a lot of time and energy towards installing my vegetable garden this year (which is growing like crazy!) so I didn't plant my usual containers with annuals. As a result, my back deck (The Wooden Box, I like to call it) was looking pretty dreary.


When I saw the 50% off sign, I stopped by to see what was available. I picked up two beautiful, huge hanging baskets for half-off! Each basket is extra large, approximately 14 inches across, made of metal with a coco liner. This was perfect timing, because the plastic hanging baskets that I've been replanting over and over each year finally gave out and shattered into pieces last winter.



Each of these huge baskets cost $40 full price. (See? Now you know why I didn't even LOOK at this nursery until everything went on sale! I live in an expensive area.) The 50% off sale made each basket $20. That still sounds like a lot, but when you consider that there are nine healthy plants in each basket, and each basket is reusable, I consider it to be a good deal. If you have purchased annuals for bed or container planting before, you know that the costs can add up quickly.

I also picked up 2 parsley plants for $1.50 apiece since the parsley I tried to grow from seed wasn't very interested in growing.


If you have extra space in your garden, something died, or if you're looking for an extra pop of color in your life, it's a great time to pick up some plants. Heading for a roadside nursery that is only open for certain seasons of the year can result in sellers who are anxious to move as many annuals as possible before the date that they are scheduled to close. I find that the quality of the plants is often better than I find at big box stores, too.

Of course, I would have saved 100% if I hadn't stopped at the nursery in the first place, as my husband reminds me, but nature and beautiful things add joy and relaxation to my life! We I am enjoying the baskets especially when we eat outside, at least several nights a week.



you can see my empty weedy containers...
 Now I'm wondering if they will reduce prices to 75% off... I'll have to restrain myself! Find more money-saving ideas at Lifeasmom.com!