Thursday, January 26, 2012

Use it Up, Wear it Out, Make it Do or Do Without

The title for today's post is an important one. I've tried for the past couple of years to make this saying my motto, hewing closer to it when money gets really tight, and maybe veering away a little in the interest of convenience when times are better. This week has definitely been a "make it do or do without" week. I spent the grocery money this month on birthday supplies and stocking up on meat, and while both of those were good things to do, it left us short in this last week of the month. We've been out of bread all week, and the fresh produce and milk were gone on Tuesday or so. It's just for a few days, tomorrow we're going shopping to get staples and February is coming soon. Since we're all still getting calcium, protein and fiber, I count it as less a crisis and more an exercise in innovation.

You learn things when you're cooking without the stuff you used to have. This week I learned that it's possible to sub in things like cream cheese or sour cream for milk in recipes and boxed dinners. Tuesday for lunch we had macaroni and cheese (and cheese) with diced hot dogs and frozen corn that was actually pretty good. Monday night I put the last few spoonfuls of sour cream in the microwave and used them to make an enchilada topping that was actually much better than if I'd used milk. Tortillas are easy to make with ingredients around the house, and you can use them instead of bread in lots of ways. I've been able to use quite a few of my stockpiled cans now that the pantry is organized and I can see everything I've got. Tonight I used a cheddar broccoli soup mix and added potatoes and ham to make it a full (and delicious) meal. Not too bad for the end of the month!

My motto serves me well in weeks like this, and things that I've done recently, like making a rag bag of one of M's destroyed pairs of pants and filling it with old clothes scraps, have worked out very well. Being able to repurpose and reuse things makes me feel good and thrifty. At the same time, though, I find that the motto can be my enemy when it comes to getting organized. Like many chronically disorganized (that's what they call it when you're not a hoarder quite yet) people, I like to hold on to things that are just a little bit broken or torn or expired, hoping that I can fix them or find a new use for them. Sometimes it's true. Robert had a good time using my old pans for drums, and I have replaced plenty of buttons and even repaired some small tears or ripped hems in our clothes. But much of the time, I find that I am unrealistic in my thinking, wanting to keep a broken lamp I have no skill in repairing, or thinking of a great use for some weird empty container that is so time and labor intensive I'm never going to get around to it.

At some point, you just have to say enough is enough and get out the trash bag, even if you're not 100% sure that you can't use a thing anymore. I have to be realistic about my own time and capability and even enthusiasm for reusing or repairing an item. Using Freecycle to get rid of these things is a good idea, but I have to be realistic about that, too. Is someone going to drive all the way to my house to collect this item from me? Am I going to find the time and make the effort to put it online? Or will I and my family be better off if I just put it in the trash and get on with my cleaning? It's the antithesis of using up and wearing out, but it's keeping house.

As with many housekeeping-related tasks, I use my Grandma J as the gold standard. She was both an excellent housekeeper and a frugal person, so I know it can be done. When I get up to my neck in items I can't decide whether to keep or toss, I ask myself what Grandma would do. Most of the time my imaginary Grandma-guide tells me to throw things out, and as a result, things are starting to get a little cleaner. We're still far from "a place for everything and everything in its place" the way she advocated, but it's a worthy goal.

I guess it's a matter of striking a balance between getting the most possible out of our things and not letting our things overwhelm us. For now, I'm trying to cultivate an attitude that lets me feel good when I find a new purpose for something that would've been waste, but at the same time lets me not feel guilt when I don't. Sometimes you just have to let go, and let that be okay.

Thursday, January 12, 2012


Back a way long time ago when I was just a little girl, there was a grocery store across from the Lincoln Mall in Freeport. Is it where the Eagles Club is now? I can't remember, I was very small. I think it was a Logli's, maybe. Lee's? BRB, Googling.
Google is not helping! Gah. My mom reads this blog, she'll know. Anyway, there are only two things I remember about that store. They had a big ol' Brach's candy display with the honor-system box where you could put in a nickel and take a piece. When I went shopping with my grandma, she'd give me a quarter and I would get five little pieces of candy and that was awesome. The other thing I remember was the Fun Chicken.

Now the Fun Chicken was a vending machine at the front of the store, right by the exit doors. It was a big box with clear walls, and inside was a plastic hen in a nest of plastic eggs. If you put your money in, the hen would move around and cluck, and one of the plastic eggs would pop out of the machine with a toy inside. Good times. Waiting in the endless checkout lines was not so bad if you had the promise of Fun Chicken waiting. I'm sure the 2010s version of the Fun Chicken awaits us soon, whenever Robert catches on to the fact that the machines whose levers and doors he loves to manipulate actually produce something if money is put in.

Anyway, I'm only thinking of that tonight because I had to deal with whatever the opposite of a Fun Chicken is tonight. It was too bad, too, because I was really excited about the recipe I had. I've been experimenting with my new cast-iron Dutch Oven, and tonight I tried roasting a whole chicken in it, French Style. I put it on the stove and put a little olive oil in, salted and peppered my chicken, and set it in the pot to brown. I added onions, celery, garlic and bay leaf, flipped the chicken to get a little brown on the other side, then put foil over the pot, put the lid on over that, and put it in the oven on 250 to let the magic happen. Since it was a small chicken, only about 3.5 pounds, it wasn't supposed to take more than an hour or so, so I gave it 70 minutes.

When I went to take it out, it leaked red juices everywhere! Gross! I put it back in, twice, and finally had to put it on the cast iron skillet and just let it sit in the oven for ages till it would come to temp. 250 is stupidly low for cooking a chicken. The jus that was supposed to happen was nasty and oily, lacking in flavor. And when the chicken was finally done, the skin was gross and flabby and undelicious. The chicken meat was okay, but I've done far better with a simple beer can. Bummer! Anyway, my lovely chicken meal was ruined, since Robert was in bed by then (he got an alternative supper) and we'd already eaten the side dish, which was fried corn and quite tasty.

What do you do with an entire mediocre cooked chicken? In our house, that's easy. Buffalo chicken wraps are one of M's favorites, and we have lots of whole wheat tortilla shells in the house lately. The problem I've always had is that it's a pain in the butt to shred all that chicken into the proper consistency, and after wrestling with the chicken for two hours already, I was in no mood. Then genius struck! I mentioned the other day that in my organizing, I found all the parts to the food processor and put them in one place, right? Now was the perfect time to break it out. I put on the basic blade and stripped the chicken, tossing white and dark meat in there alike, leaving out the nasty skin. When it was all in there, I buzzed it in the processor for about five seconds, and voila! Shredded chicken! It was almost chicken salad consistency, actually, but that's fine with me.

I dumped the chicken into a bowl and mixed in Frank's Red Hot Sauce and ranch dressing. (If I wasn't cooking for M, I'd have added celery or lettuce, but he's not a fan.) I spread the mix onto tortillas, rolled them up, and cut them into pieces about an inch thick. Delicious and fun, and a nice way to save a disappointing dinner. I guess nobody always has good luck with new recipes, and I've done really well lately, so I was due for a stinker. But I really do want to find a nice Dutch Oven chicken recipe. I'm sure there's one out there!

Since I'm already talking about kitchens, I should mention that Robert's birthday present of a wonderful play kitchen and accessories has arrived! We assembled it yesterday and stocked it today, and man is it a hit. He loves all the things he can do, and he'll love it even more when we get all the batteries, I'm sure. 12 batteries, sheesh. It's so entertaining to watch his little brain working, and to see him do things like put a piece of lettuce and an orange in a skillet on the burner, or shove all the utensils in the microwave at once. He's a funny guy!

Monday, January 9, 2012

It's Gonna Be A Happy New Year

We're back from our winter trip and getting back into the swing of things, after spending half of November, half of November and the first little chunk of January away from home. This is probably the only year we'll ever have the freedom of schedule to make such long trips, so I figured, why not take advantage of it? M scheduled research mini-trips both times, so it's not like we didn't get anything done. And Robert had such a good time spending big chunks of quality time with all the people who love him. He came down with Strep on New Year's Eve, which was a terrible bummer, and ended up in the emergency room for an antibiotic shot on New Year's Day when he couldn't swallow the oral ammoxicillin. I suspect that is a billing battle we are going to be tussling over in the future, but for now I'm just happy that it worked and he is so much better. He got a haircut today, but I haven't pinned him down for a picture yet.

One thing about the traveling is that I got totally spoiled over our Christmas time away. My mother in law, Melissa, is a wonderful person and keeps a beautiful house. I really enjoyed the time we spent there, for a lot of reasons, but partly because it's just so nice. It's neat and it's organized, tastefully decorated, always smells pretty. Even with Robert around (not to mention M and I!), nothing ever got too crazy messed-up, and she did it all while still seeming pretty relaxed about it. I aspire to that, seriously! Anyway, when we got home, after all that time away, things were pretty much how we left them, and that was a real letdown for me. I am a shabby housekeeper and our apartment is too small for all our stuff. That is the way it has always been.

But I can change! I've decided to start with small steps. The kitchen was already my project, so I did more in there. I finished more of the cleaning I hadn't yet gotten to, including the really icky places like that spot between the stove and the desk-counter where things fall down and are lost forever, and I swept and mopped and scrubbed the counters and the stove until everything looks great. (Melissa and I did our usual pre-homecoming shopping trip, but instead of the usual grocery staples, this time I got new cleaning supplies. They really help!)

Buoyed by my success in the kitchen, I moved on to a persistent filth-trap in the apartment, the master bathroom. Since the master bathroom, in this case, is a closet off the walk-in closet with a cloth curtain strung from a tension rod as a door, it has historically not gotten a lot of use, especially since the walk-in closet itself is overfull and often littered with dirty clothes waiting for laundry day. It was not only dirty and dusty, it was cluttered with stuff that didn't belong in a bathroom, and really the reason I never used it, even at night, was that it was unpleasant. Simply going in and getting all the trash out, all the empty containers and expired things, the books, the laundry, and everything that didn't belong, right there made a huge difference. The bathroom is so small there's hardly room to turn around, but when it's empty it seems considerably larger. I took my Glass Plus and my 409 and gave all the surfaces a scrub, then did the same to the toilet and swept the floor. Finally, I rearranged the plants I keep in there (the one redeeming virtue of that bathroom has been a counter with a sink underneath four powerful light bulbs, making it ideal for plants), and made sure the handwashing essentials were all in place for a homey look. Just a couple of hours of work, really, and it looks amazing, like new. I like going in there now!

As luck would have it, barely had I finished one bathroom than the other one caught my attention. Robert rubbed a surprising amount of jelly in his hair at breakfast, so M gave him a bath while I did my cleaning and other chores. Robert had been in the bath just a minute or two when I went down the hall to the neighbor to thank her for taking in our papers and to chat for a few minutes. I was surprised when M showed up at the door with a wet, pajamaed Robert and a harried expression. Robert, who had been constipated for several days after being sick, had solved that problem in a big way in the bathtub. Yuck!

Once the worst of the mess was dealt with, I realized that as long as I was scrubbing and disinfecting the bathtub, I might as well take care of the whole bathroom. This bathroom is the one we use, so it has all kinds of stuff in it, and though it gets a lot more of my fickle cleaning attention, it's hard to keep clean. The next morning, while supervising Robert in another bath in the newly cleaned tub, I wiped and scrubbed and tossed trash and put things away. Again, a couple hours of work got me a very nice bathroom. Riding the wave, I cleaned half the living room and vacuumed as well, getting up birdseed and remnants of Robert's past meals before breaking my momentum upon the shoal of a mountain of toys. That's okay, there are more days coming. I will get this place looking better!

The nicest thing about having a clean kitchen is how easy it is to cook. Yesterday I made a giant pot of chili that used three cans of tomatoes, two cans of beans, and a can of tomato sauce. You've seen my pantry in pictures, so you know this is a good thing. Served over potatoes, it was supper last night and tonight, with another full meal's worth in the freezer. Since dinner was taken care of tonight, I looked ahead and defrosted a (rather sad looking, honestly) pot roast from the deep freeze. It was freezer burned, but not so much that it couldn't be saved. I cut off a chunk and chopped it into little pieces, then put it into a marinade of rice wine vinegar and soy sauce. Beef stir fry this week! The rest of it I put into the crock pot for Grandma J's famous pot roast, along with plenty of carrots and potatoes. The resulting deliciousness wasn't done till midnight, but filled two big containers. With the liquid leftover in the pot, I rehydrated two cups of TVP for M's meatloaf sandwiches this week. I shouldn't have to make another serious cooking effort for days, and that's a really nice feeling. I like to give my family good things, whether it's good food or just a nice place to sit on the potty. I just need to keep reminding myself that the pleasure of the results is worth the hard work.