Monday, November 29, 2010

Recipe tip: Shrimp with white beans and bacon

In the spirit of healthy weeknight eating, I thought I would share with you our attempt at making up for the starch-heavy Thanksgiving Round 1 and Round 2 we observed over the weekend.

As is the case with many of our recipes, we cannot take credit for this genius combination, but we did make a couple modifications, some of which involve making the recipe easier. The original recipe in Men's Health called for seared scallops, but because I'm not much of a scallop eater, we substituted in shrimp instead. Additionally, as often as possible, we try to use dried beans as opposed to canned beans to cut down on sodium and BPA, but tonight's meal included canned beans because apparently everyone cooked dried white beans as part of their Thanksgiving meals, or something, so the store was out.

Matt further simplified the recipe by turning a two-pan recipe into a one-pan recipe that makes for easy weeknight clean up.

Shrimp with white beans and bacon
Slightly adapted from Men's Health

2 strips bacon, cut into small pieces
1/2 red onion, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
A couple shakes of crushed red pepper
14 ounces white beans (1 can or equivalent of dried beans)
4 cups baby spinach
1 lb. shrimp
Salt and pepper
Juice of one lemon

1. Cook bacon in saute pan.

2. Pour off half of bacon fat and add onion and garlic to saute until onion is translucent, about 2-3 minutes. Add a couple shakes of crushed red pepper.

3. Add white beans and spinach; cook until beans are warm and spinach is wilted, about 2 minutes.

4. Add shrimp and cook shrimp a couple minutes until they turn pink. Season with lemon juice and salt and pepper.

Eat this while crying during the conclusion of Toy Story 3. Youth is, indeed, fleeting.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Experiments in stainless steel cleaning, take 1

Last month when Matt and I made the decision to splurge on some stainless steel appliances, I did have one concern: How would we keep them clean? I've heard plenty of stories of people complaining about how stainless steel shows every little imperfection (which, of course, sounds like a White Whine).

Fortunately, I have a husband who is more cleanliness obsessed than me, and before I even had a chance to bring up the topic, Matt had already purchased these Method Steel for Real Wipes.

The verdict? I'm pretty satisfied.

We've only used them a few times, thanks to the fact that we have a relatively low-traffic fridge, with just two clean adults in our household. Still, our fridge does show fingerprints and sticky food residue, so I've found myself reaching for these once, maybe twice, every two weeks.

The trick to using these wipes appropriately is to move your hand in the direction of the grain. Our stainless grain is horizontal, and vertical swipes clearly show. Additionally, another trick is patience. The first time I used these wipes, I was a bit dismayed because I could see the residue the wipes left behind. Give the wipes about 30 seconds to do their magic, and any leftover residue should disappear.

Streak-free and ready to party

Overall, I like Method products, though I do recognize that despite the company's best environmental efforts, disposable wipes, like paper towels, can only be so green. So, I will continue to experiment with other options, but I'm pretty happy with this product.

In the meantime, do you have any stainless steel secrets to share?

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thank goodness for Thanksgiving

Of course I love the opportunity Thanksgiving affords us to catch up with friends and family, and I'm looking forward to all the social events scheduled over the next few days. But this year, what I'm perhaps just as thankful for is the opportunity to catch up on sleep.

Ever since taking a bus load of students to Kansas City, I've been exhausted. I guess midnight curfew checks will do that to you when you're used to being in bed around 9 p.m. Then add to that all the work I fell behind on while away plus newspaper deadline week, and you can imagine I've been craving some sleep.

So, I'm thankful that yesterday afternoon work ended early, and I could take a two-hour nap when I got home. And I'm thankful for the fact that after I fell asleep last night in the middle of Toy Story 3 I got 10 hours of sleep.

As for our actual Thanksgiving day plans, this afternoon and evening will be a laid-back affair with Matt's parents and Matt's brother and his wife. No one has to travel now that everyone lives in the same 15-mile radius. Lovely. And thanks to my friend Lindsay, I now have a new recipe to try out as an appetizer -- the Miraculous Blue Cheese Ball with Walnuts that she brought to our November book club. It truly was a book club miracle, and you know how much I love blue cheese.

Have a happy and restful day, wherever you may be!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Eye cream: don't get too attached

I already alluded to my brief mall excursion on Saturday (you know, when I got cut off by the Baby on Board guy). One of the two main reasons for my trip was to finally replenish my totally used up supply of eye cream (or eye depuffer, as I more affectionately call it).

The good news is that my new-found favorite Korres Sugar Crystal Antioxidant Collection Regimen Kit lasted me about ten months. The bad news is that Sephora no longer carries this product because it was, of course, a limited edition. Add this one to the list of products I fall in love with only to discover they've been discontinued (insert many curly-hair products of the past here, though thankfully at this point I can still get my hands on these).

Thanks to my success with this Korres product, though, I figured I would give another Korres product a shot and settled on Evening Primrose Against Fine Lines and Dark Circles Eye Cream. I like a descriptive product, and this sounds like exactly what I'm looking for. At $35 for a tube that looks like it should last me many months, this seems like a reasonable solution.

After I've had more time to experiment, I'll let you know how this new product is working out for me. In the meantime, does anyone have a favorite eye cream? Or a favorite product that got discontinued?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Good to know: homemade laundry detergent lasts!

Back in May I wrote to you about my DIY laundry detergent experiments. After making a huge batch of laundry detergent, I predicted I might have enough to make it through February. Well, that was hyperbole, but it turns out that this DIY detergent managed to last for over six months! And, it is getting our clothes just as clean as the chemical-laden store-bought stuff. Victory!

One of Matt's colleagues laughed at him when he found out we make our own laundry detergent. He said, "This is how I know you all don't have any children." All I have to say is that spending 10-15 minutes every six months doesn't seem like a big time commitment, kids or no kids.

Now that I've made my second successful batch of laundry detergent this weekend, it's time to find a better storage solution. The aluminum foil lid is not working out too well, but at least the detergent is pretty great.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Moment of irony: Baby on Board sign

You know that I love useful signs and labels, but I loathe the Baby on Board sign. It might as well read, "I've been fortunate enough to procreate (even though the jury's out on whether that was a good idea); therefore, you need to be extra cautious when driving around me." As if I should try harder not to hit you. In other words, I kind of want to punch these people in the face.

Today, after a quick jaunt to the mall to pick up some necessities (read: nothing glamorous here) I got cut off while entering the Beltway by -- you guessed it! -- some jerk sporting a Baby on Board sign.

I'll keep this in mind for next September when I introduce a new crop of freshmen to the concept of irony.

Monday, November 15, 2010

We're not in Kansas anymore

Literally. We have left Kansas (City, Missouri), and we are back in the good ole VA.

After four nights and four days, we managed to bring 29 journalism students and three teachers half way across the country, safe and sound. This officially makes this my most successful overnight field trip with students.

On top of this, I think my kids actually had fun. I actually had fun. Yes, we took them to the College Basketball Experience at the Sprint Center and ice skating at the Crown Center and we ate BBQ dinner at Gates and Mexican at Los Corrals, but I think they had legitimate fun through the journalism activities during the trip too. They traveled to Kansas City, but city and activities aside, it's there that they really bonded with each other, fulfilling Dorothy's mantra "there's no place like home."

And while most teachers might find their students' gift of a magnet reading "If I only had a brain" mildly offensive, this teacher appreciates the fact that her students tied her souvenir into her Halloween costume. Thanks, guys!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Forcing ourselves to save

Money has been on my mind a lot in the last few months, so I figured it was about time to blog about it. Way back in January I blogged about my semi-obsession with and its budget tools. Now that I've been using Mint for almost a year and a half to track our household spending and set realistic monthly budgets, I am happy to report the way in which this site has fundamentally changed our habits. We are saving more than ever before.

Before I get ahead of myself, let me clarify one huge point: Matt and I are saving more than ever before, even though we are currently making the same salaries we've been making for the past three years. Our district has frozen pay increases for teachers. Determined, though, to not let this dampen our financial futures, I decided to give us a "raise" by saving more each year than we did the year before.

A quick diversion...look how well our plant on the deck is doing in November! Talk about longevity.

So, in the last few months, I have been over our budget on Mint with a fine-tooth comb. I've looked at our spending trends and found areas where we were spending too much. This is where I really examined our budget dollar by dollar and decided, for example, to cut down our Netflix account from two movies at a time plus unlimited streaming (for about $14/month) to one movie at a time plus unlimited streaming (for about $9/month). Five dollars a month is only $60 per year, which obviously isn't going to change our lifestyle, but by examining and adjusting each budget accordingly, I have been able to triple the amount of money we save each month between 2008 and today. That's right -- right now, we're saving three times what we saved two years ago, and we didn't get raises or even cost-of-living adjustments.

It's also important to note that we would not be doing such a stellar job of saving if we did not have an automatic savings plan in place, so that almost as soon as our paychecks clear our checking account we whisk away a big chunk of money into our savings account, never to be touched.

Here's what our monthly budget looks like:

Monthly spending:
  • Mortgage -- high (in an effort to keep some things personal, I'll keep the dollar amount out here)
  • Savings -- second highest "expense," which I have automatically direct deposited into our savings account each month
  • Groceries -- $600 allocated, though we've never spent that much. In October, we spent $500.
  • Bills and utilities -- $450 allocated, average cost is around $400 for Internet, cable, cell phones, gas, electric
  • Restaurants -- $250 allocated, and we always spend this much. This is one of the main areas where we've cut down in the last year or two. Any prepared food we buy goes into this category, whether it's a sit-down meal at a nice restaurant or grabbing a sandwich from Potbelly.
  • Gas -- $175 allocated, which is almost always what we spend.
  • Homeowners Association dues -- $101, never changes.
  • Auto/home insurance -- $95, never changes.
  • Home furnishings/supplies -- $75 allocated, and I have this budget carry over from one month to the next to account for months when I spend a lot versus months when I spend little to no money on our home.
  • Clothing -- $75 allocated, and this is another budget that carries over from month to month to account for the fact that I usually buy several items of clothing at once. Take, for instance, today: I had only bought one clothing item in three months until I bought six items this afternoon!
  • Health and fitness -- $60 allocated, which includes gym memberships, pharmacy purchases, doctor's visits.
  • Pet food and supplies -- $50 allocated
  • Cosmetics/toiletries -- $25 allocated, another carry-over budget. I formed this one out of shear curiosity, not because we spend much money in this area. It's a way for me to see if I can continue to justify more expensive hair product purchases. I think I can.
  • Education -- $15 allocated for classroom supplies/books we might buy for ourselves. We try not to do this, though sometimes it's inevitable.
  • Newspapers/magazines -- $15 allocated. Matt reads a lot.
  • Movies -- $10 allocated, Netflix.
  • Coffee shops -- $10 allocated, for those times when we haven't been gifted with a Starbucks card.
Infrequent spending:
We also have budgets in place for those items we pay every other month, every three months or even  once a year. Mint calculates these items as budgets we're saving for a little every month so we don't have to tempt ourselves to draw from our savings for infrequent expenses.
  • Auto maintenance/repair -- $33/month (spend ~$100 every three months between our two cars)
  • Pet medication -- $25/month (spend $50 every other month)
  • Veterinary -- $50/month (because we spend a ridiculous amount each year that I don't even want to think about)
  • Water -- $26/month (billed every three months)
  • Heating/AC maintenance -- $23/month paid once a year to fulfill a yearly contract to service our HVAC
  • AAA membership -- $7/month, paid once a year
This exercise in meticulous budgeting has helped me maintain my sanity when I get worried about the lack of raises in our foreseeable future. Rather than feeling overwhelmed, I've taken control of our finances, our savings and therefore some of our happiness as well. If you haven't tried this out with your family's budget, now would be a great time to look at your trends to get you off to a fresh start as the new year approaches!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

An organized costume pair

After Saturday afternoon's disorganized rally we attended a highly organized Halloween party. Before I go any further, let me clarify: About 10 of our friends dressed up as characters from the Wizard of Oz. For this plan I can take absolutely no credit, although I will say that when the group settled on the Wizard of Oz theme I was thrilled because it is my favorite childhood movie. I can only take credit for the costumes Matt and I showed up in Saturday night -- he was Tin Man, I was Scarecrow.

I'm a real believer in home-made costumes. I think they can be even more ridiculous than store-bought costumes, as our costumes this year demonstrated. It always takes some extra planning, but I think it paid off.

As the Scarecrow, my costume was inherently less exciting than Matt's, but I made the most of it. I attached patches (actually pieces of old rag) to one of Matt's olive green sweaters; stole straw from the watershed behind our neighborhood; bought some rope at Home Depot to attach as my belt and around my legs; purchased a pirate-like hat at a Halloween costume store; attached two creepy black birds I found on clearance at Pottery Barn to the hat; made myself a Bachelor of Knowledge diploma; and painted my nose and cheeks brown. In summary, I looked not at all attractive, which of course sets me apart from every other female on Halloween, when everyone else is trying to look her sexiest.

Matt's costume involved almost all hand-made items. We bought a large red funnel at Home Depot that I spray-painted gray; I made a heart, bowtie and ax out of cardboard; I painted Matt's entire face using silver face paint; and, oh yes, we wrapped him in tin foil. In retrospect, we could have bought him a gray sweat suit, but where's the fun in that? As I was wrapping Matt in foil initially, I had to stop every 30 seconds because I was laughing so hard I was crying. Then, as the night continued, particularly as we were walking around the streets of D.C., Matt's foil kept falling off or apart, requiring me to repair him many times. Everywhere our group walked, people would look at us, no doubt trying to figure out what we all were, and then someone would shout, "TIN MAN!" I guess it's hard to miss a man covered in foil.

Monday, November 1, 2010

A disorganized rally

This weekend involved a series of organized activities. Saturday in particular was packed with events, first at Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert's Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear and then celebrating Halloween with some friends from college.

First off: the rally -- a fun, disorganized mess
Here's the rally in a nutshell:
The good:
  • good weather
  • hilarious signs

The bad:
  • bad job on the part of the organizers underestimating crowds
  • bad sound
  • transportation issues
  • rally-goers who don't understand subtle irony and instead created signs bashing Republicans (not the point of the rally)
Matt and I made our own moderate, rational sign
Of course, while there were strangers who enjoyed the sign and asked me to pose for a photo, there were some who came up and asked, "So, are you a Republican?" Work with me, people!

In case you haven't heard, the rally on Saturday afternoon was not exactly what it was cracked up to be. Specifically, the good people at Comedy Central underestimated the crowds they would draw by a long shot, planning for about 60,000 when figures suggest that approximately 215,000-250,000 people flooded the National Mall.

Matt and I made plans to attend the rally with his brother and our sister-in-law, who live much closer to the city than we do. We were not determined to get up early or be on the front row, both of which seemed to be in keeping with the spirit of sanity the rally was trying to promote.

Once we got on 66 eastbound heading for D.C., though, we could tell immediately that our chances of Metroing into the city from Arlington were highly unlikely. Traffic on 66 was at a stand-still as people with license plates from all kinds of east-coast and mid-western states tried to get in the line for the Metro exits. When we made it past the Fairfax County traffic into Arlington, though, there was basically no traffic, but there was no chance we were going to get on the Metro either. Most people who managed to squeeze into the packed cars on the train had gotten on the Metro at the end of the line in Vienna and/or rode the Metro west-bound from Arlington to Vienna, where they then changed trains and headed back into the city. I wasn't shocked this morning when I heard on the radio that Metro ridership set a new 19-year record.

So, we went with plan B: we walked from Arlington.

And then, after walking for about 15 minutes, we found a cab (plan C).

We got to the National Mall around 12:35, just in time to hear The Roots finishing their set to open the rally. (I kept calling them Rusted Root, though, which seemed like an even more appropriate band for Saturday's festivities.) The crowds kept pushing us all closer to the stage, but no one could hear anything. All speakers and jumbotrons were way out of sight. The only thing we could hear was everyone near us chanting, "Louder, louder, louder" and then people started chanting, "Yes you can" to other rally-goers who started climbing trees to get a better view. (I do not endorse climbing the trees on the National Mall.)

After a little more than one hour we decided this wasn't going to work out, so we started heading back home. The crowds were really thinning out, too. A bunch of our friends were at the rally independent of us, and it turns out all of us had virtually the same experience. Everyone had trouble getting there, no one could hear, no one stayed very long, but everyone enjoyed looking at the fun signs in the nice weather.
You can check out more user-uploaded photos of signs here through the Washington Post.

The day before Obama's inauguration Matt and I attended the free concert at the Lincoln Memorial -- "We Are All One." That was impressive and overall well organized with lots of jumbotrons and great sound quality. The "We Are All One" concert put the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear to shame with its skillful organization. As our friend Courtney, who also attempted to attend this Saturday's rally, pointed out, Saturday's Stewart/Colbert failed rally in light of the "We Are All One" concert was, if nothing else, an example of big government trumping private industry.

Next up...our organized Halloween.