Friday, September 30, 2011

Organization Project: Craft Supplies

I have a major organization project that has been hanging over my head the past few weeks while I've been doing other things, such as preparing for our yard sale.

My daughter loves to make crafts, and loves to make a mess doing it. When she asks if she can paint and I say no, she'll go ask her dad, and he'll say, "Sure," and she'll go and do it herself. Same with playdough, glueing, cutting, you name it. Fortunately, she's reasonably neat:

We've been storing our craft supplies in the buffet cabinet in the dining room, and all crafts are supposed to be done in the dining room (we don't have a separate breakfast table, our house is on the smaller side). Since my daughter's birthday in August, the crafting situation has gotten a little out of control. Not everything is fitting in the cabinets, and what's worse, all the fun new craft supplies are mixing in with the broken crayons, dry markers, and empty glue sticks. My procrastination on the project has just given it time to get worse and worse!

Today, time was running out before I host a family get-together tomorrow. I just didn't have time to go through all the supplies, sort them, and get rid of the dried yucky playdough and the markers that don't work anymore.

My friend recently gave us gifts inside two reusable shopping bags from Ikea:

The best thing about these bags is that one of them zips closed. I decided to use the zipping bag to store all the nice fresh craft supplies that aren't fitting in the cabinet. The black and white bag would hold the completed projects (mostly paintings, but a few 3-dimensional endeavors as well. (The interior of the cabinet will have to wait for another day, as well as a plan for storing completed works, which are in several locations throughout the house currently...) The rest of the items were either put away, recycled, or trashed.

My other organization tool was a basket that I originally bought to store items on top of our refrigerator. It was just a bit too tall to fit between the fridge and the cabinet, so I had to put it aside. I decided to use it to store my daughter's current craft project: a princess storybook.

It fits underneath the buffet, and now I have a place to quickly pitch all the supplies and bits of paper that she is using for the project when it is time for dinner and I want to clear the table. There's even extra space for all the new things she thinks of to add to the book next time she works on it!

Now I have a functional dining room, just in time for tomorrow's gathering, and I have all of the craft supplies corralled in two bags so that when I do have time I can get everything sorted and restocked.

Narrowing this project down to the very simple step of clearing the area helped me overcome my procrastination and make some small progress on the project. I handled the mess while still giving my daughter access to her current project!

Linked to 52 Weeks of Organizing at!

Monday, September 26, 2011

Menu Plan Monday: September 26th, 2011

The Best Chocolate Chip Cookies Ever

Last week did not work out much as planned, thanks to yard sale preparation and other distractions. I did manage to do some of my freezer cooking while making dinner (see last's weeks results here), and I hope to slide a number of last week's entrees to this week.
Find more meal planning inspiration at!

Menu Plan for October Birthday Get-together

We have 3 family members with birthdays in the first 4 days of October, and I am hosting a family get-together to celebrate this Saturday! Here's what I'm planning to serve:


This Week: make pesto and freeze, make dressing and refrigerate, grocery shop

The Day Before: Cut chicken breasts, bake and frost cupcakes, make green salad, cut fruit for fruit salad

The Day of: Cook Chicken and Carrot Orzo beforehand, and keep warm in chafing dishes. I'll triple the chicken recipe and double the orzo recipe as we are expecting 13-15 people total. Set up extra table, serve meal buffet-style.

I'm hoping that by keeping the menu simple and doing as much as possible before the get-together we'll have a relaxing gathering!

Freezer Cooking While Making Dinner: Ziti Sauce and Meatballs

I didn't get to the store for the chicken, but I managed to double the sauce and meatballs for Baked Ziti with Mini Meatballs and added it to my freezer stash. Now all I have to do is boil the pasta and combine with the sauce and cheeses! These meatballs are extra-special because I added cooked, finely chopped, unpeeled eggplant to the ground beef mixture. The meatballs aren't as sturdy as usually (some of them dissolved into the sauce) but my kids liked them just the same so I was pleased.

Freezing just the sauce saves space in the freezer. I have also frozen my lasagna sauce in the past successfully. Something to consider if your freezer space is limited.

We won't eat them for dinner, but I did manage to freeze 16 balls of cookie dough for The Best Chocolate Chip Cookies Ever.

I also started experimenting with freezing sandwiches for school lunches; I was inspired by this post on bulk lunch prep from Sara's Deals. I had some leftover whole wheat potato rolls that I combined with ham slices (no condiments) to make 7 little sandwiches for the week. Now we can pull them out as needed to expedite the lunch process a bit. I'll also be loading up little containers with cottage cheese, peas and corn, and cantalope chunks this week.

In addition I hope to get the Molasses Glazed Chicken Thighs marinating finally this week, as well as preparing Bean and Cheese Quesadillas for a potluck dinner, and make up Whole Wheat Banana Bread into mini muffins to send to school for kindergarten snack.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Best Chocolate Chip Cookies Ever

With a few simple tips, techniques, and secret ingredients, you can make the most amazing chocolate chip cookies ever created. They will ruin your taste for store bought cookies, and your friend will request them from her deathbed when no other food is appealing to her (true story!).

This recipe is based on the standard Nestle chocolate chip recipe (on the back of the bag), but I've made a few modifications and included techniques to make the cookies turn out extra-delicious, for instance, using different chocolate chips!

  • 1 1/2 cups white flour
  • 3/4 cup white whole wheat flour (or whole wheat pastry flour)
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp sea salt
  • 1 cup butter (2 sticks)
  • 3/4 cup sugar (or less)
  • 3/4 cup light brown sugar (packed)
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1 12 oz bag of Guitard semi-sweet chocolate chips
Several hours before you begin, pull your butter and eggs out of the refrigerator to allow them to get closer to room temperature. Your butter should still be firm, but malleable. The eggs should be as close to room temperature as possible. You'll have to experiment and see how far in advance to set these items out in your kitchen depending on the temperature of your home.

In a small bowl or measuring cup, combine flours, baking soda and salt. I measure the flours precisely by leveling my measuring cup with a knife, and use the knife to combine the ingredients before adding them to the cookie batter. The whole wheat flour is the first secret ingredient--not only does it add a nice texture to the cookies, but is also adds the illusion of these cookies being 'nutritious'. (They're not.)

Preheat your oven to 365 degrees. (Most recipes call for 375 degrees, but I find that is too high a temperature for my oven. Your oven may be different.)

In your stand mixer, combine the butter, sugar, and brown sugar until well blended. Next, break one egg in a separate bowl, remove any shells and beat lightly. Add the egg to the butter mixture and (very important) beat until the egg is very well blended. Add the second egg the same way and beat thoroughly until blended. The batter should have a 'fluffy' look at this point if a) the ingredients were at room temperature and b) the eggs were sufficiently beaten. These techniques will give your cookies a light, airy texture. Add the vanilla.

Next it is time to add the flour mixture. The goal is to combine the flour mixture thoroughly without overmixing the cookie batter, as that will make the texture of the cookies tougher. I use a 1/4 cup scoop to add flour steadly to the mixer, then tip the bowl over the mixer to add the final amount. As soon as the flour is almost blended, turn the mixer off. Don't overmix!

It's time for the second secret ingredient, which is the bag of semi-sweet chocolate chips. You could use other brands, but none of them will be as wonderful as the Guitard semi-sweet chocolate chips. After many years of research, I have concluded that these are the best tasting chocolate chips on Earth. They're not very impressive when eaten raw, but when added to baked goods such as these cookies, or
Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Muffins, they are wonderful.

Add the semi-sweet chocolate chips to the batter, mixing until they are barely distributed in the cookie batter, then turn the mixer off right away--don't overmix!

It's time to spoon the cookie dough onto cookie sheets. I use my Pampered Chef medium (?) scoop for this task. I treat the dough very carefully and avoid packing it into the scoop to conserve the air bubbles I've made in the batter. Pressing the dough tightly into the scoop will result in dense, tough cookies. If you don't have a handy scoop, you can use two spoons (one to scoop, one to scrape). Place the dough on an ungreased cookie sheet 2-3 inches apart.

Bake for 6 minutes, then rotate your cookie sheets for even baking (rotate one sheet 180 degrees, and if you are baking two sheets at once, rotate them both and then switch their locations top to bottom). Bake an additional 3-5 minutes. I like to pull mine out when they look like they are almost done in the middle.

While you are waiting for the cookies to bake, scoop out 12-16 on a separate cookie sheet to freeze for another day. It doesn't matter how far apart these are on the sheet, because they aren't going to spread out in the freezer. I like to freeze 16 cookies because that is how many fit on my cookie sheet. After they are frozen on the cookie sheet (in this case, my toaster oven tray), I'll transfer them to a plastic storage container. In the future when I'm ready to bake them, I'll simply place them on a cookie sheet and pop them in the oven. They may take a few extra minutes to bake when they are frozen. This also reduces the amount of cookies available for inhalation on the day you bake the main batch.

Let the cookies cool for several minutes, then transfer them to a cooling rack with a spatula. The recipe makes 5 dozen cookies total.

Try not to moan while eating them. It's a bad example for the kids!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Organizing Project: Yard Sale Prep

There's nothing like a neighborhood garage sale to bring my organizing projects to the forefront! I know that if I can get myself together and put in a little effort, I'll be rewarded with a less-cluttered house come next week, which will make it easier to find a place for all the items that we decide to keep. Items that we don't need anymore will be connected with people who need them enough to pay for them (hopefully), and items that no one wants will be donated, where it will be put to good use--if a use can be found.

And hopefully none of the sale items will reappear inside the house somewhere. Oh, and hopefully none of the stuff from my neighbor's sales will end up at our house, lovely items that they are. (Gee, I wonder who might be the culprit of such activities? If it isn't me, it must be one of my dear family members. I might have to lock the house and subject everyone to a search before they are allowed back inside!)

Here is my plan to get ready for the Big Day:

In the week leading up to the sale:

1. Designate a Yard Sale Spot. For me, this will be the table in the basement. It could be any area in your home or garage where you can put all of the items that you are planning on selling in the sale. This is where I will collect everything together for the sale so that I can price items and get things organized by category, etc.

2. Purge. I'll grab some boxes and then move through the house collecting items for the sale. I'm going to use last year's checklist to be sure and hit all the hotspots in my house:
    • My closet and drawers
    • Daughter's closet and drawers
    • Son's closet and drawers
    • Linen Closet
    • Large kitchen cabinet 
    • Pantry
    • Buffet in dining room (aka Craft Storage)
    • Toy Cabinets, DVD Cabinet
    • Basement Play Room
    • Garage
    • Storage Room
3. Get the family involved. I'll do most of the purging, but I'll encourage the kids to pick some items from the sale (and promise them the money) and I'll beg my husband to find a few things to part with. (I already have a few things in mind!) Another project for the family may be to make signs for the big day.

4. Sort. Before I start pricing items, I want to get things sorted into categories so that I can get a better idea of what I have and what is the best way to price things. If I have a lot of smaller items, I might put them all in a box with a sign that says '25 cents' or similar. Sorting before pricing avoids the situation of pricing two like items the same, or pricing a higher quality item lower than a lower quality item.

5. Price. I use stickers, some of which are blank, some have pre-printed prices on them. Many people like to haggle at yard sales in our area, so I think of prices as a starting point. If I have a lot of small, low price items, I might pile them in a box and put a sign on it that says '$1 each' or similar.

6. Get Change. I'll make a point to go to the bank and get a roll of quarters and a large number of $1 bills, probably about $50 worth of change total.

The day before the sale:

7. Advertise. This is a neighborhood yard sale, so several neighbors are taking care of this step for me. Ordinarily I would post an advertisement on Craigslist.

8. Set-up and Transfer. The day before the sale I'll start set up tables in the garage and transfer everything to that location. (I don't want to do this until the day before the sale because it's rainy here this week and I would rather park my car in the garage as long as possible!)

9. Extension Cord and 'Broken' signs. It's a good idea to have an extension cord set up for the sale so that people can test items with electrical components. For items that don't work well (such as my old Oster stand mixer) or that no longer work, I include a sign stating that fact. You would be surprised at what people are willing to buy even when it doesn't work! I guess they might fix the item, or use it for parts for another item.

The day of the sale:

10. Open Early. Be prepared for the first shoppers to arrive even before your advertised opening time. I typically have shoppers looking at items while we carefully carry tables out of the garage to the driveway (which is why I like to set everything up the day before!)

11.Hang Signs. Post signs at nearby intersections to direct local drivers to your sale. I typically end up doing this after the Early Bird rush is over.

Linked to Top 10 Tuesday and WFMW!

Monday, September 19, 2011

Menu Plan Monday: September 19th, 2011

Last week's Marinated Flank Steak, Shallot Green Beans, and brown rice pilaf
I'm really looking forward to fall weather, which has come a little early in our area this year! Fall weather means fall recipes! I'm also looking forward to working in a bit more freezer cooking while making dinner, which went well last week.
I also hope to use up some frozen bananas by making Whole Wheat Banana Bread in muffin form, which I'll freeze and use for snack for my daughter's classroom.

Find more meal planning inspiration at!

    Freezer Cooking While Making Dinner: This Week's Report

    It looks meager, but this photo shows preparation for 4 meals: two Marinated Flank Steaks as well as the toppings for two meals worth of Baked Chicken Tenders. I also made a double batch of Sweet Potato Biscuits this week, and added ham to them, but none of them actually made it into the photo OR the freezer. They were eaten for breakfast, lunch, and snack throughout the week.

    It was so easy to just double or triple the recipes that I was already making for dinner, and then freeze the extras. This week I am planning to do the same thing by doubling the sauce and meatballs for Baked Ziti (baking one, freezing the other ingredients) and tripling the Molasses Glazed Chicken Thighs this weekend.

    Thursday, September 15, 2011

    It's Barely a Recipe: Shallot Green Beans

    My grandmother served Green Beans with Shallots and Hazelnuts for Easter dinner earlier this year, and they were delicious! I adjusted the recipe to make it into an easy weeknight side dish. I make it in small amounts because my kids will only eat green beans with nothing on them. :)

    • Steamed Green Beans (1/2 pound)
    • 1 Tbsp Olive Oil
    • 1 shallot, sliced thinly
    • optional: raw or toasted nuts, such as sliced almonds
    Cook or steam your green beans as you normally would--I typically use frozen Hericot Verts from Trader Joe's.

    While the green beans are cooking, heat olive oil over medium heat in a small skillet. Add sliced shallots, stirring often to separate pieces. Watch them carefully, as they get brown and crisp up quickly.

    Add warm green beans to pan, stir to combine. Add salt and pepper to taste.
    Marinated Flank Steak, Shallot Green Beans, Brown Rice Pilaf

    Linked to URS!

    Wednesday, September 14, 2011

    How to Slice a Shallot

    When I first came across a recipe containing shallots, I found myself feeling particularly gourmet. Dicing the darn things took forever, and as far as I can tell, taking forever is the main criteria for a gourmet recipe. It seemed like I spent forever peeling and dicing them!

    But they're delicious; they add a garlicky onion-type flavor to dishes, so I'm glad that I've found a faster way to deal with them, which leads me to use them more often, such as in my Shallot Green Bean recipe.

    First, slice the root end off the shallot.

    Peel the dry layers off the outside of the shallot.

    Hold the shallot at the top end, and use a very sharp knife to very thinly slice the shallot into discs.

    Optional: place the discs in a pile and quickly chop the pile into smaller pieces.

    I tend to leave mine as discs, and let them separate while sauteing them in olive oil. Be careful; they brown and crisp up quickly! They're delicious!

    Linked to WFMW.

    Monday, September 12, 2011

    Menu Plan Monday: September 12th, 2011

    I'm hoping to mix in a little freezer cooking when I make dinner meals this week:
    • Monday: Baked Chicken Tenders (Make 3x the topping and freeze 2 servings in quart-size bags) with mashed sweet potatoes (reserve 3/4 for Sweet Potato Biscuits for lunches), leftover whole wheat couscous, and steamed broccoli.

    • Tuesday: Marinated Flank Steak (Make 3x marinade for 3 steaks, freeze two) with brown rice pilaf, Shallot Green Beans (recipe to come), and sliced pears.
    • Wednesday: Shrimp Curry (from the freezer, adding in steamed asparagus) with leftover brown rice pilaf and salad (and if the kids won't eat it, they can eat leftovers from Monday or Tuesday!)
    • Thursday: Pizza Night (with fresh fruit, carrots, and spinach leaves)
    • Friday: Back to School BBQ, bringing Salt & Pepper Potatoes (it's easy and picky kids scarf it up)
    • Saturday: Day Trip-out to dinner
    • Sunday: Roasted Pork Tenderloin, mashed potatoes, steamed broccoli, and salad
    • Monday: Baked Ziti, hopefully with some Eggplant Meatballs that I'm experimenting with this week (freezing half of sauce and meatballs for future Ziti), fresh fruit and salad.

    By doubling or tripling a few recipes, I'll end up with 2 packages of Baked Chicken Tender Topping, 2 Marinated Flank Steaks, and the sauce and meatballs for one additional Baked Ziti all stored in the freezer even after cooking only 5 nights this week! This is on top of the Pineapple Zucchini Bread (6 mini loaves, 1 dozen muffins) and 5 large servings of Minestrone soup I added last week. I really need to look into purchasing a second freezer...

    Find more meal planning ideas at!

    Wednesday, September 7, 2011

    Can This Be Washed? Results

    The results are in: I threw my experimental items into the washing machine (all together!) and turned it on (Gentle Cycle with cold water). Would the items shrink? Fall apart? Bleed? Here are the results:

    The Handbag

    I treated the stains before washing, and pulled out the lining to help the bag dry, and I'm happy to report that the bag is ready for Summer 2012, no need for a purse funeral! It is now in storage, I just set it on a closet shelf packed with inflated shipping bags to keep the shape.

    Next I think I will wash some of our resusable canvas shopping bags, which are getting quite dirty.

    Lunch Bags

    The lunch bags turned out okay. I don't recommend them for machine washing because for some reason... they float. At least they are cleaner now than they were. I ony picture one because the other one is currently holding someone's lunch at school. :) Maybe I will try washing them in the dishwasher next, that would get around the floating problem.

    The Ball Cap

    Stains came clean! Still has it's shape! No longer stinks! My son is pleased.


    The shearling inside doesn't look any cleaner, but they didn't shrink, bleed, or do anything else alarming, so I will call it a success!

    Linked to WFMW!

    Broccoli Salad

    This is one of my husband's favorite dishes--it's great for picnics or family get-togethers.

    • 2 heads fresh broccoli, washed and sliced/cut into small pieces (We like pieces the size of small grapes)
    • 1 large red onion, finely diced
    • 8 pieces bacon, cooked and crumbled or cut into small pieces (pre-cooked bacon works fine, and I cut it with scissors to speed up the process)
    • 4 oz cheddar cheese, finely grated
    • 1/2 cup raisins (or more if you like raisins)
    • 2/3 cup mayonnaise (or plain greek yogurt)
    • 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
    • 1 tsp lemon juice (or juice of 1 lemon)
    • 2 tsp pepper
    • 1 tsp salt
    Combine chopped broccoli, diced onion, crumbled/cut bacon, grated cheese, and raisin in a large mixing bowl or container. Stir to combine.

    In a measuring cup, whisk mayonnaise, vinegar, lemon juice, pepper, and salt. Pour over broccoli mixture, stirring well. Serve immediately or regfrigerate--I think it tastes best the first day.

    Tuesday, September 6, 2011

    10 Steps to Start the Day off Right

    There are a number of things that I'm trying to do each morning to jump-start my daily productivity. I don't do everything every day, but I find that if I do as many things as possible (time and schedule permitting) it becomes much more difficult for my day to become derailed.

    1. Work out. I always hate getting up early to work out, yet it has never failed to get my day off to a good start, even when the workout itself hasn't been the best. I try to keep this in mind when I drag myself out of bed: I'll feel great as soon as I finish waking up... just need to get through the next hour...

    2. Shower/Dress. I am not one of those people who can work out and then carry on with the day without a shower, I wish I were. I find there is a correlation between my productivity and being fully dressed--appropriately for the day's weather and activities.

    3. Floss. It's probably better to floss at the end of the day, but I do a better job--and remember to do it--if I floss first thing in the morning.

    4. Apply Sunscreen. I haven't yet remembered to apply sunscreen to my face and hands before going outside, so it needs to be done first thing.

    5. Make the Bed. Just as soon as everyone has finished sleeping in it (daughter, dolls, stuffed animals, etc.)

    6. Start a load of Laundry. Some mornings I can get this going before my eyes have fully opened.

    7. Start Making Dinner. This is more often a mental exercise than a physical one: I confirm what we are planning to eat for dinner, making sure I have all the ingredients (perhaps getting them out of the pantry, or moving frozen items to the fridge or counter), and making sure any leftovers we are planning to eat haven't been eaten already. I'd rather realize that something is needed from the store on the earlier side of the day.

    8. Clean Kitchen Sink, Stove and Counters. Usually while the coffee or tea are brewing, everything gets wiped down in preparation for the day, which also usually involves putting things away, washing up items left over from the night before, etc.

    9. Have a Gourmet Breakfast. Usually after the kids are fed/delivered to school I sit down to eat a proper breakfast. This can be as simple as a bowl of cold cereal and sliced fruit (today) or something hot, such as a slice of fritatta or some leftover Eggplant Stew on top of scrambled eggs. It takes about 5 minutes to make a nice breakfast out of leftovers, frozen breads or muffins, and fresh fruit. If there is enough protein in the meal, it will last me well into the afternoon. (Note: if I work out, I eat a granola bar beforehand, and this eating becomes Second Breakfast.)

    10. Review Email and Today's Schedule. If I'm really organized, I already have a list of Things to Do. If not, it's time to make one.

    Recently I timed myself, and doing this full routine on top of helping my kids to start their day took over two hours (1 hour workout, 30 minutes shower/dress, etc.), but it means that by 9 AM I've been incredibly productive and my day is off to a good start!

    Can This Be Washed?

    I have a number some things that need to be cleaned, and I thought, why not? I'll just throw them all in the washing machine together and see how things turn out. (Results are here!)

    Fossil Handbag

    My summer handbag (for the past 2 years) was the victim of a ketchup explosion at a sporting event this summer. There was also an incident with some sort of red molding clay in the side pocket.

    Fortunately, the bag is made of canvas and leather, and I already know from experience that the bag washes up beautifully on a cold gentle cycle in the washing machine.

    Lunch Bags

    All year I've been periodically scrubbing out the insides of the kids' lunch bags, but the cloth-like exteriors have been growing grundgier by the month. I thought I would throw them in the wash (unzipped) and see if their looks improve.

    Baseball Cap

    My son's favorite cap is coated with sweat, dirt, and several unidentifiable stains. It's just a promotional cap that was handed out at the beginning of a baseball game, so I am not sure how durable it is. We'll find out...


    Cool weather is coming, and I would like to freshen up my shearling LL Bean slippers. I have been hesitating to clean them because I like them so much--I don't want to shrink them or somehow mess them up! I'm just going to throw them in the wash and see what happens...

    See the results here...

    Linked to WFMW!