Back to School

It’s here…the much-longed-for/dreaded first day of school. The Gymnast is now a 3rd grader! In another week, the Little Ballerina will start preschool. For three days out of the week, I will be home alone with only my thoughts for company. OK, not true – I will fill those few hours with all the projects I’ve been putting off all summer, primarily housework. Exciting, right?!?

But for the Gymnast (and to some degree the Little Ballerina as well), back to school means back to growing up too fast. I remember being in 3rd grade. That was the year I fell in love with reading, but it was also the year I learned half a dozen bad words and how to use them. I remember my best friends, my first sleepover parties, and the tragedy of losing a classmate to a house fire. I remember the presidential election – it was 1988, and George Bush made his famous “no new taxes” promise. Third grade was, for me, the year I became aware of the world outside my home and family. And what a big world it is.

Funny thing is, my Gymnast is way ahead of where I was in 3rd grade. As a military kid, she’s spent 30 months of her life wondering if her deployed daddy will make it home alive. She’s seen war on the news, and she’s seen the reality of war in the friends whose dads didn’t make it home alive. She’s learned through gymnastics how to stay calm under pressure  – something I still struggle with. She knows the difference between Republicans and Democrats and between capitalism and communism. She even knows all the bad words (thanks, General). Her world is so much bigger than mine was at her age, and she seems to be handling it just fine.

My prayer for my girls is always that they grow up healthy, happy, and strong, and God is certainly answering those prayers. I don’t have to worry. That leaves me free to, say, make some chocolate chip oatmeal cookies while I wait for my 3rd grader to come home and tell me about her day.

Back to the kitchen I go!

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The Queen’s Day

Friends, today is (or at least ought to be) a national holiday. My sister friend, The Queen, celebrates her birthday today. Like every year, I wish I could spend this most special of days with her. Alas, the Army has not seen fit to station the General close enough to her royal kingdom for that to happen. Maybe next move!

I met my Queen when I was a brand new Army bride. I had just finished college, married my General, and moved to Germany – all in the span of about 2 weeks. I didn’t meet her Highness right away, but soon enough. She served her people as the Lending Closet Queen – she supplied the newest families on post with basic necessities while they waited for their household goods to make it across the ocean. I volunteered with a different program, but we worked right next door to each other, and our friendship grew over sack lunches. Also, the Queen had the most adorable little girl. At 4 years old, Buttercup could charm her way into anyone’s heart. She charmed her way onto a real General’s helicopter, but that’s another story…

After a few months, the Queen invited the General and me to accompany her family on a visit to the Mosel wine region. The General and the Queen’s husband, Pirate Redbeard, had not yet met, but we hoped they might get along. At the very least, they would both enjoy the wine, if not the company.

Travel day arrived, and we all piled into the Queen’s royal red Volvo and headed out. The girls took the backseat, and the guys rode up front – in silence. Yes, silence. I don’t recall how long the drive was, but I don’t think they said more than a couple of words to each other the whole time. The Queen and I were a little worried.

The Queen may remember better what happened next, but as I recall, we started tasting wine. And suddenly, the General and Pirate Redbeard found something to talk about! Many somethings, in fact. The Queen and I sighed in relief, filled our wineglasses, and had a marvelous time. That trip was the beginning of a wonderful friendship.

Of all the aspects of military life we enjoy, meeting new friends is one of my favorites. I hate that we part from great friends so often, but my heart is happier for knowing them. Some, like the Queen, become bound to our hearts for life, regardless of how far apart we may be. The ties that bind our friendship must be like super rubber bands – they stretch across the country (sometimes across oceans) without breaking and bring us back together again and again.

Happy Birthday, your Highness. Enjoy your day – and don’t forget the wine:)

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Balanced breakfast?

Two mothers recently took the makers of Nutella (a super yummy chocolate hazelnut spread) to court over the advertising campaign that claims Nutella is a wholesome, healthy product. In the ads, Nutella is portrayed as a great breakfast spread, made with simple, natural ingredients. Served on a slice of whole grain bread, it’s the perfect breakfast! In reality, it’s full of fat and sugar and lacks any real nutritive value. The moms won the lawsuit, and the makers of Nutella are now paying out $3.5 miliion to anyone who purchased the product since 2008.

I’m not lining up for my $4 share of the payout. Really, if we consider how many tubs of Nutella we’ve bought over the last 4 years, my share is probably a lot greater than $4. But I don’t feel like I was fooled by the ads, so I don’t really feel the need to be compensated.

I make a point to know exactly what I’m feeding my family. I read labels and try to balance their desires with their nutrition needs. That said, I’ve never pretended Nutella (or many other products marketed as healthy breakfast options) is more than a sweet treat. But the ad campaign in question is about as silly as if one were to suggest a Snickers bar is a sensible breakfast. Wrapping a piece of whole grain bread around a Snickers bar doesn’t make it any healthier.

Well, what is a healthy, balanced breakfast? According to the cereal commercials, it’s a bowl of fortified cereal, a piece of buttered toast, and a glass of orange juice. The Pop Tart people would substitute Pop Tarts for the cereal. Sugar, fat, and sugar. Sorry, the cereal is made with whole grains and has added fiber. So sugar, fat, sugar, and a little fiber. Something’s not right here…

I agree that the ad campaign was misleading, but why don’t we take responsibility for educating ourselves and our families? My 8 -year-old knows that eating a cruddy breakfast leaves her feeling cruddy. But when she has a bowl of oatmeal and a hard-boiled egg, she feels pretty good. She also knows that if there’s a box of sugary cereal in the pantry, it’s a sweet treat, not a breakfast, so don’t even bother asking. She’s learned about healthy eating and exercise at school and at home and that commercials are made to make people want to buy things and are often misleading. Smart kid.

So, what might a truly healthy breakfast be? In my humble opinion, breakfast should have protein and a little fat for satisfying hunger, some complex carbohydrates for long-lasting energy, and a little fruit to satisfy the sweet tooth and give quick energy. Oatmeal is a favorite in our house. We also like eggs, turkey bacon, whole grain toast and bagels, yogurt, and fruit smoothies. I don’t outlaw simple sugars – the girls like jelly on their toast and honey in their yogurt – but I try to balance the sugar throughout the day. Jelly on toast means I’ll probably say no to candy later. Probably.

End of rant. My final thought: a little common sense goes a long way in the kitchen and in life. If it looks like chocolate and tastes like chocolate, it’s probably chocolate. And it’s probably not the best choice for a meal. But it’s an excellent choice for a sweet treat!

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Things

Things I will miss when my girls are grown and gone:

1. Glitter in the dryer vent.
2. “Mooooommmmmyyyyy!”
3. Reading the same book over and over and over (or watching the same movie).
4. Random cuddling.
5. Watching the General walk around with a kid on each foot. Or trying to, anyway.

Things I will not miss:

Yeah, I really can’t think of anything.

I hear music

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I studied music. And then life happened. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t regret a single decision I’ve made along the way, but between moving around and having children, I have not been able to be as involved in music as I used to be. But things change.

I love Mondays. Mondays are my day to recover from the weekend – I straighten up the house, do the grocery shopping, sometimes even work on the laundry. The General and the Gymnast are back to their weekday activities, and the Little Ballerina and I get to enjoy some time together, just the two of us. But to top off an already wonderful day, I end my Mondays with my Sweet Adeline sisters, singing 4-part a capella harmony. It’s my “me” time, and I love it. I need it. My family needs it.

Our Mondays evenings go something like this: we eat an early dinner, and I get in the car for my 75 minute drive to rehearsal. The General and the girls clean up the dinner things and have a party until bedtime. Literally – they have pillow fights and eat ice cream and popcorn and just have a fantastic time with each other. Daddy-daughter bonding time. I love it! While they party, I drive. I’m that crazy women singing in the car next to you at the stoplight. I get to the rehearsal, and I spend 2 1/2 hours singing, dancing, and chatting with women from different walks of life who share my passion for music. Then I drive home, still singing. In 6 hours, I’ve recharged my batteries and am ready for another week of adventures with my family.

Please don’t misunderstand…I love my husband and children dearly, but in order to maintain some sense of individuality (and sanity), a girl needs to take some time just for herself. Why? Well, in not too many years, my girls will be grown and gone, and my job title will change from stay-at-home-mom to stay-at-home-person-who-used-to-have-something-to-do. It just doesn’t have the same ring. So I choose to nurture a passion and be involved in something that reminds me weekly that I have value as an individual. Sweet Adelines will never replace what I do with my family, but it does help me be a better wife and mother. Leo Tolstoy said, “If you want to be happy, be.” I think that’s pretty brilliant.

So, dear reader, here’s my advice to you: be. Get out of the kitchen for a while and go sing or play a sport or volunteer or act in a play. And then see how much better it is to get back in the kitchen and back to life.

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Mush

“In the great, green room…”

There’s something magical about that phrase. If you have ever been a child or a parent, you will probably recognize this as the opening line of Goodnight, Moon by Margaret Wise Brown. We love that book around here. Oddly, I don’t remember it from my own childhood, but I hit my head a lot as a kid.

Lately, this book has been the Little Ballerina’s favorite bedtime book. She loves books, and (like most preschoolers) she asks for certain books to be read again and again. She likes to ask questions about each page, and she expects the same answers every time – don’t dare try to change an answer from one day to the next. She will correct you. The old lady is always whispering hush because the kittens are playing too loudly. Mush is like oatmeal, and no other description is acceptable. And be sure to ask her to find the mouse on every page. Like most preschoolers, she is organizing her mind and anticipating what comes next, and she loves to see her expectations met. We also watch the same movies and ask the same questions over and over and over. This bugs the Gymnast, but she did the same thing as a 3-year-old.

At any rate, the Little Ballerina has been very interested in the mush. You know, there’s a comb and a brush and a bowlful of mush on the bedside table. We tell them all “goodnight” in turn. For the past few days, LB has been asking for mush at various points in the day, and I always tell her I can make it for breakfast sometime. Well, that sometime was today. Surprisingly, it was the Gymnast who woke up and asked for mush this morning. The curiosity surround this oatmeal-like dish has obviously spread. So I made mush for breakfast. Cornmeal mush. The recipe follows:

4 cups water
1 cup cornmeal
1 tsp salt

Bring 3 cups of water to a boil. Combine remaining water, cornmeal, and salt. Add cornmeal mixture to boiling water and stir until thickened. Cover and cook on low for about 5 minutes.

I served the Gymnast this mush with milk, butter, and brown sugar. I had mine with honey and buttermilk since cornmeal mush is basically wet cornbread. The Little Ballerina had hers plain. It was…ok. No one loved it, and I doubt anyone will ask for it again. But we have experienced it, and that was the point. We took a small idea from the page and made it real, and I love that. Now, when we read Goodnight, Moon, the Little Ballerina will know exactly what mush is. She will probably still ask me to tell her what it is, and she’ll very likely correct me if I say anything other than “it’s like oatmeal”.

Heaven help me when we get hooked onGreen Eggs and Ham!

So, time to clean up before our next cooking adventure. Back to the kitchen:)

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Slow Cooker Haiku

As I dumped stuff into the slow cooker this morning, I felt inspired. Here goes:

on my countertop
dinner made before breakfast
simple perfection

I’m no poet, that’s for sure. But I do love my slow cooker. I have collected some great recipes over the years, and I will share two of them here. The first is a stew that I make almost weekly. The second is a favorite of the General’s – oatmeal. I’m not a big fan of oatmeal in general, but I like this one. Enjoy!

Black Bean and Beef  (or Chicken) Stew

1 pound flank steak (or chicken), cut into 1 inch cubes
1 medium onion, diced
2 cups salsa of your choice
1 cup frozen corn
1 can black beans, drained and rinsed
1 can garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed
1 cup water
1 Tbsp ground cumin
2 Tbsp chopped cilantro

Combine all ingredients in the crock. Cook on low for 8-10 hours or on high for 4-5. We serve this with sour cream or Greek yogurt, shredded cheese, and sliced green onions. And cornbread, if the General doesn’t have a PT test anytime soon.

Overnight Steel-Cut Oatmeal

1 cup steel-cut oats
1 cup milk
3 cups water
1 or 2 Tbsp butter
1/2 tsp salt

Spray crock with non-stick spray. Combine all ingredients in crock, and cook on low for 8 hours. I sometimes get up to stir in the middle of the night, but it’s not necessary. This makes 4 servings, but it’s pretty easily doubled. Just make sure you’re using a big enough crock – the ingredients will bubble and rise a little while it’s cooking, so I don’t fill the crock past halfway, just in case. I dish this up plain, but I offer lots of add-ins: berries, nuts, raisins, brown sugar, maple syrup, etc. Great weekend breakfast.

Disclaimer: These recipes are in my head, but I don’t remember how they got there. No copyright infringement is intended.

I hope you enjoy these recipes as much as we do. At the moment, our dinner of pork chile verde (http://recipes.prevention.com/Recipe/pork-chile-verde.aspx) is simmering away in the slow cooker. And I don’t have to go back to the kitchen for several hours.

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From the Gymnast, with love

I saw this picture on the Queen’s blog yesterday. At first, I couldn’t decide if it was a headlock or a hug. But it reminded me a little of my Gymnast.

Anyone who’s ever tried to hug the Gymnast will understand. She hugs like Hello Kitty. The other party is Darth Vader, whether they like it or not. Say someone comes to visit – the Queen, herself, for example. The generous Queen opens her arms to the Gymnast, and the Gymnast sidles forward, shyly, to accept the proffered embrace. At the last second, the little stinker turns her shoulder, and the Queen ends up hugging the Gymnast’s backside. Sweet, huh?

Last night, however, I tucked the Gymnast into bed and gave her kisses. As I was leaving the room, she opened her arms wide and asked for a hug. Surprised but pleased, I went back and gave her an honest-to-goodness hug, and she hugged back, burying her face into my shoulder. I wished her good night and headed off to my bathroom to brush my teeth on a cloud of contentment.

As I smiled into the mirror, I noticed something odd on my shoulder. It was a booger.

I know she didn’t intentionally use me as a tissue. Sometimes she does, but I think her desire for a hug was genuine and without ulterior motive. Still, the serene moment of mutual affection ended a little abruptly when reality hit me in the shoulder, in this case. It’s ok, though. I’ll take a hug, with or without boogers, anytime.

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Mandatory Fun

If you have ever been in or around the military, the idea of “mandatory fun” is probably familiar. It’s what we call social functions involving the military unit. Attendance is required for the service member and highly encouraged for the spouses. The boss is there, typically hosting the event, and everyone is usually standing around, trying to decide what’s the earliest acceptable time to leave the “fun” and head to the bar. I didn’t know all this when I married the General, but he briefed me when the time came, and I went to my first mandatory fun event with some hesitation.

And it wasn’t too bad, after all. We’ve attended many of these over the past 10 years, and, in general, they really are fun, or at least entertaining in some way. I get to meet the spouses and children, and there’s almost always good food. This past week, we’ve had two work events. The first was a reception with the commanding general for my hubby’s current assignment. That one was a bit of a snooze, but the coconut macaroons were excellent. And last night we had a winter barbecue (a potluck…my favorite!) with my husband’s immediate boss. This guy has a fabulous house and a really sweet wife. There were lots of other kids for our girls to play with, and I met several of the wives who will be going through the same things I’ll be going through. And there was a so much good food. The General consented to me making two desserts – chocolate cheesecake and bread pudding. Thirteen hours later I am still full.

Over the years, these events – monthly hails & farewells, deployment-related cookouts, etc. – have been an opportunity for me to see my spouse in a different light. Sure, I know the guy pretty well, but I don’t often visit his place of work and see him interacting with the other green-suiters. Turns out he’s not only a wonderful husband and father, but also an outstanding officer who is well-respected and esteemed by his peers. In a room full of intelligent, successful leaders who, by nature, must have deservedly enlarged egos, my General shines. He’s the leaders’ leader, not necessarily in title but in practice. His experiences on the battlefield – and there are many of them – along with his ability to make quick, wise decisions have earned the respect of both his commanders and his peers. And he’s all mine!

I’m not sure when the next mandatory event will be, but I look forward to it. I hope it’s potluck…

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My most favorite kitchen item…

There they are – aren’t they lovely? This is my favorite good knife and my chunky bamboo cutting board. They are the center of my mise en place, which is a fancy French phrase meaning “set in place” or “everything in place”. When I get ready to make something, I gather my ingredients, garbage bowl, and knife, and I arrange my station at the cutting board. I keep everything I need – board, knives, aromatics basket, and spices – right next to the stove. That was the General’s idea – streamlined efficiency. Gotta love that man. Of course, my current government quarters kitchen is small enough that just about everything is right next to the stove. But that’s beside the point. This duo is the beginning of every meal and many snacks, and that makes it #1.

Individually, the knife and board are just decent. I like the shape and weight of my knife, and I try to take good care of it – it NEVER goes in the dishwasher. My less favored knives sometimes get thrown in the dishwasher out of laziness, but not this particular one. The board isn’t one of the fancy, pricey ones you see on the cooking shows. We just happened to find it at the local hardware store. It’s big enough to chop and pile up lots of veggies, and it’s very heavy and stable. There are little rubber feet on the underside that keep the board from sliding around. I have one big rule for my cutting board – no meat, either raw or cooked, gets cut directly on the board. It’s a bacteria thing. I have a set of color coded plastic mats that I can disinfect with a lot less effort.

Together, my knife and board are the most important tools in my kitchen. The board lives on the counter and is a constant reminder to me to use more fresh ingredients. If the girls want a snack, I can offer them sliced apples and cheese, knowing that I don’t have to drag out the cutting board. It’s similar to the logic of cutting up all the fresh produce on grocery shopping day – make it easy to make good choices. Would it take a lot of time or effort to drag out a cutting board to cut up an apple? No, but it’s a barrier, just the same.

I have learned so much about myself over the last 2 weeks, just from contemplating my favorite kitchen tools. I see how I’ve adapted to my own quirks and self-imposed limitations. I’ve renewed my determination that my family will eat well and that the kids will learn to love being in the kitchen as much as I do. And I’ve learned to take a step back and think about why things are the way they are, and whether I need to obsess over little things, like having exactly equally sized meatballs. I do, by the way, need my meatballs to be uniform.

Thank you, friends, for going on this journey with me. It’s been fun! But now it’s back to work. There’s a chocolate cheesecake in the oven, so I’d better get back to the kitchen.

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