Monday, August 29, 2011

Urban visitors

We had friends over for the weekend and they happen to live in a much bigger city than we do. Which is because they moved there for their jobs and we moved to the middle of nowhere because, well, because we thought it was nice here. We still think that.

So everytime they come over, we seem to end up at a farm nearby where kids can play, or to be precise, where the guys race around on pedal go-karts and the girls ride ponies and pet small animals. Don't you just love these stereotypes? Anyway. Last time we were there was Easter, and this time we were actually determined to go see something different, namely a hot air ballon show nearby, but the weather has been temperamental. Nothing like Irene here but an unpredictable mix of sun and thunderstorms. Oh well. So we ended up at the farm again and had lots of fun.

Dad and Max racing Henry.

On more than one occasion Henry won.

The go-karts had dinosaurs on their stirring wheels!

Uh-oh, looks like the next thunderstorm is coming in. So quickly inside, for more racing and some cute little furry friends.

I told you I live in the middle of nowhere. Every two years, there is a tractor-pulling event. If you told me a couple of years ago that I'd be going to one of these, let alone looking forward to it, I would have thought you're out of your mind. But I guess small towns do that to you. Not being out of your mind - but sometimes enjoying strange things. Especially when you live with three guys. Tractors! What could be better?

Lots of smoke...

More smoke and more pulling...

And a small one bringing beverages around. 

My dad also came along, so make that four guys plus me. 

We had a blast. Where did our friends go, you ask? Well, I told you this is a guy thing. So the girls did what any sane woman would do: head home right after breakfast. We're still glad they were here! So what did you do on the weekend? Guy things or girl things? Or is that the same where you live?

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Fishy birthday party - part 2: water bottles

This is only my second time throwing a real kids' birthday party. And already have strong opinions about favors. I like them. But I think they should be at least somewhat useful, unless they're candy of course. Last year we had a construction theme and favors included a tiny dump truck, which was great, and some plastic digger-shaped toy that was quickly tossed. Also, it was way too much. So I vowed to do better. Well, it's still too much this year. I just love picking up little things that match the theme. Got to work on that.

Anyway, weeks ago I found tiny little aluminum bottles in red and blue on sale for a Euro each, so I bought a couple of them thinking they would be perfect with the outdoor/fishing theme and also guests could take them home and use long after the party is over. With the weather here being temperamental, I have no idea yet if the party will be indoors our outdoors, but I thought we'd still use them for the party. So I made labels for the bottles so guests (or parents) could tell them apart.

I used the same fish stamp I used on the invites and cut out around the fish, then used letter stamps on the back for the names. The letter stamps are from a simple set and I'm not particulary good at this so they didn't come out perfectly but I still like the look.

I also laminated them since they're pretty sure to get wet and then tied them with red-and-blue baking twine (don't you just love baking twine? I wish I could get all the colors, but for now red/white, beige/white and this one will have to do) to the neck of the bottle and to the cap so that won't get lost.

A few lessons learned:
  • don't multi-task - even if it's trying to get the ink off your fingers while waiting for the laminated sheet to come out. It could get stuck and you won't even notice until the fish are all crumply. Not that that ever happend to me.
  • tie the tag on first. Might seem obvious, but I did actually tie the string around the bottle the first time and then tried to get that tiny end into a knot around the tag. Telling you I'm no good at this.
  • try to do this after you have your coffee or at a time when you're somewhat focused. For some, crafting comes naturally. Not for me. I managed to misspell my son's name with those stamps. I did two bottles before I realized that there was a tiny hole in the cap where I could thread the twine through. Oh well.

Still, for me they're great and I can't wait for the party! Except that there are a few more things to do:
  • make a garland using red, light blue, dark blue, yellow and white paper and of course the fish stamp
  • find a cake recipe. Plan is to do a round cake, maybe something chocolate and cover parts of it in something blue (marzipan with food coloring? Blue royal icing?) and the other part with melted chocolate and chocolate crumbs (or oreo crumbs) so it looks like dirt. Then I'm going to put a Lego fishing trip set on top. So far for my plans. Need to work on the details. Maybe I should just do cupcakes...
  • make goodie bags. First attempt with white lunch bags failed, the ink doesn't really dry. Maybe I need to be more patient. 
  • make some sort of decoration for the door. Ideas, anyone?
  • order and pick up balloons. They usually last a while so this and the garland will go up for his actual birthday, which is a week before the party. Means I got to do this next week. Yikes!
  • prepare the fishing rods. We have one of those cheap plastic bath toys, but it comes with a reel and the kids love it so much they fight over it. I got more of them on sale but I need to get them out of their plastic wrapping and put names on them, maybe add some gummy bears to the plastic fish so we can have a fishing came with some real catches
  • cook and bake for his actual birthday
  • pick a destination to go to based on the weather
  • pick up his birthday gift (a giant pedal go-kart)
  • think about some more games (pin-the-lure-on-the-fishmouth, maybe?)
  • make a plan for food for the fish party. I'm thinking simple, non-messy stuff like fish-shaped sandwiches (ordered a large fish cookie cutter), goldfish crackers, fruit & veggies (I have some smaller cookie cutters that can be used to cut out carrot or cucumber fish). No fancy dessert table planned. I can't seem to find gummy worms or fish, only those horrible neon-colored sour worms, ugh. If I find them maybe I'll put them in homemade jello or ice cubes.
  • and a lot of other ideas that I'm not going to post because frankly, the above is enough and I'll be happy when I get that done...

So any birthday party advice and ideas for more decorations even someone like me can do?


Friday, August 26, 2011

Pasta Salad with Arugula Pesto

I'm not good at following recipes. Which makes me a not so good baker when it comes to anything more complicated than a muffin. For one I just can't memorize recipes very well (and by memorizing I mean remembering the tiny bit of information I read two second ago on the printed recipe that's on my counter), maybe because I'm frequently distracted by two kids who seem to be constantly talking, maybe because my short-term memory is simply really, really bad.

Also, I just don't like following directions. Sometimes I'm too lazy and try to take a shortcut. Or I don't like a particular ingredient and just substitute for something else. Now, I know I should try the recipe as written first and then make my changes to it, but often I just improvise as I go. 

The recipe below for a pasta salad with arugula pesto is a good combination of all of that. It started with one of those recipe newsletters in my inbox. The recipe sounded good, so I copied it to my Evernote file where I keep all inspiration I come across. I even managed to print it, mainly because I find it annoying to always tap the iPhone screen again to prevent it from going black just as I wanted to read the next step. Anyway, I had briefly scanned over the ingredients and instructions and decided it sounded good. I mean, it's a pasta salad with pesto and contains such things as almonds and bell peppers - that sounds good, right? And arugula! I have tons of that stuff growing outside my kitchen window (well, three plants actually. But it's more than I can eat). So this was the point where I sort of stopped reading because I thought I had figured it all out.

Couple of days later I pulled the recipe out and was actually going to make the salad. I had soaked the almonds ahead of time to loosen the skins and as the pasta boiled I was ready to make my pesto. Then I read the recipe again, this time all the way. Oops. The "pesto" consisted of arugula, pasta cooking water, lemon juice and olive oil being pureed together while the almonds got sauteed together with diced bell peppers, onion and garlic.

What?! Excuse me?! What kind of a pesto is that? And why do you need to sautee peppers and onions for a salad? I took one look at my arugula and almonds and quickly decided to change the recipe. So the almonds went into the blender (actually I use a tall mixing bowl and an immersion blender since I don't own a food processor) together with the garlic, lemon juice, arugula, some parmesan (doesn't hurt, right?) and olive oil, while the onions were left out (sorry guys) and the red pepper got diced and added straight to the salad without sauteeing since that a) gave some crunch and freshness to the salad and b) meant no pan to clean. Personally I liked the result so much that I never tried making the original recipe, but if you care to try, you can find it here. This, however, is my version:

Pasta Salad with Arugula Pesto (adapted from essen&trinken)

1 package (500g) short pasta, my favorite for salads is Barilla's piccolini line: miniature versions of penne rigate or farfalle, the tend to mix better with the other ingredients

1 bunch of arugula
1 large red bell pepper, diced
1 cup almonds, skinned
1/3 cup parmesan, broken into small chunks
1 lemon
Salt, pepper to taste (with the arugula being quite peppery you won't need a lot of pepper)
Olive oil
1-2 cups small mozzarella balls

Cook pasta until al dente, reserve some of cooking water before draining. Rinse to stop cooking process and transfer to large bowl.

Meanwhile, puree almonds, some lemon juice, parmesan and chopped arugula using a blender or food processor. Taste and add salt and pepper as necessary. Puree, slowly adding olive oil, until you reach a consistency you like, thinning with pasta cooking water as necessary. Remember you're making a salad dressing here, so you want a thinner consistency than you would for a regular pesto.

Add to pasta along with diced pepper and drained mozzarella balls. Let sit for a few minutes and adjust seasoning.

Now, you could also add some of the chopped arugula directly to the salad and also diced tomatoes would work here. Adding some basil to the pesto is also nice. And the small mozarella balls can just as easily be replaced by regular mozzarella, diced.

Anyone else out there who has a hard time following recipes or remembering the correct amount of flour to sift even though you just read it?

Thursday, August 25, 2011

10 years ago

on a very hot day we were standing in front of the church, listening to the bells ringing, sourrounded by friends and family. We were a little nervous. We were getting married.

As you can tell, this is going to be a somewhat cheesy post. If you're just looking for a recipe, come back another day. Because today is our 10-year anniversary.

A few years before that, in 1997, I was taking a class in political science. It was the beginning of the semester and I didn't really expect anything exciting to happen. I was sitting there, looking around the room at all the students who were with me in class. Again, nothing exciting. My major was communications and this class was just going to be something I needed to do, something so unbelievably boring. Or so I thought. Weeks later we were divided into groups and assigned topics to work on. Oh great, study groups with people you needed to explain the basics to. Then this guy showed up, saying he was in my study group and willing to actually do part of the work.

The rest, they say, is history. We keep joking that I didn't see him that first day of class because that was before he cut his hair - it was shoulder length at he time (mind if I share a picture, honey? Just kidding).

I absolutely didn't want to admit it and was fighting it as hard as I could, but it was love at first sight. So cheesy, I know. But true. He didn't give up. He walked with me to the subway station although his car was parked at the other end of the campus, saying that he needed to pick up a book for his brother at the bookstore near the station. Yeah right.

We missed a lot of classes that year. Ahh, the good old days!

These days our lifes are a lot more chaotic, but they're still filled with a lot of love. Five years ago we went to the same restaurant where we celebrated on the day we got married. I was very, very pregnant and hoping the little guy would stay in there at least for my wedding anniversary and my birthday a few days later. He did. I remember sitting there having a nice, quiet dinner together (the last nice and quiet one for quite a while obviously) and making plans to go back for the 10 year anniversary with our then soon to be five-year-old boy.

So today we'll go there again, with our almost five-year-old plus his little brother. 10 years ago, standing in front of the church, I never thought life could be even better or be this good. But it is, every day. Thank you my darling for making it so good.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Really, there IS a kitchen under all that stuff

Saturday was a gorgeous day. Blue skies, warm, sunny. I was going to go to the montly flea market early, then hit the playgound with the kids later while my husband was planning to finish the floor tile in one of the basement rooms. Then Max didn't really sleep well, so that was the part about getting up early and leaving for the flea market before everyone else woke up. Oh well. Then we decided we'd quickly fix that issue with the door one of the kitchen cabinets. I didn't even take a before picture because I figured it wouldn't be a big deal. Couple hours later the kids were off to the playground with my mother (thanks, Mom!) and the kitchen looked like this:

What happened? Well, same thing that always happens when you try to do something real quick: you either run into some unexpected difficulty or it just spirals out of control. Or both. What we discovered was what I've been saying for two years now, ever since we moved: the oven is not level. Therefore, the door above doesn't really close. And now in the last few days, adjacent doors and our pantry pull-out cabinet didn't close right.

You see, when we moved two years ago, Max was just three months old, my husband couldn't take much time off at work and I had just started to work 2 days a week shortly before. And those of you who have moved with small kids now what it means. Before you have kids, moving is stressful, but basically it's just yourself or the two of you and all you really need is a mattress on the floor, a coffee maker and a functioning bathroom (my husband would probably add a cold beer to that list). You can work until dark unpacking boxes and setting up kitchen cabinets, you can go out for dinner if you're hungry or have a sandwhich on the dining room floor. With kids, two things change:

a) you don't really have more than 30 minutes uninterrupted time to do anything, at least if you're the mommy
b) everything kid-related such as their rooms, the kitchen, dining room and some sort of play area need to be ready asap.

Now, of course these things don't go very well together. So we really tried to enlist help everywhere we could, we had my mother-in-law help with the kids. She used to take walks with Max when he didn't need to be nursed (which felt like every 20 minutes at the time) and play with Henry in the dirt piles surrounding the house. We had a the movers pack all of our stuff and move it within 1 1/2 days (still meant that I had to unpack every single of those 156 boxes myself). And we had help setting up the kitchen because the kitchen moved with us so it had to be moved and re-assembled the same day. And of course I had to add to the existing kitchen - it's an Ikea kitchen so that was easy from a planning perspective, but it still meant that old and new cabinets had to be put together in a new kitchen plan and with new countertops. Nice plan. Except that our kitchen help was obviously not all as familiar with building Ikea kitchens as we've become over time.

So what does that have to do with these pictures of total chaos? Well, reason the doors weren't closing and the oven was not level was that the cabinets weren't level either and reason for that was that the cabinet feet had been put up completely wrong, putting all the weight on the bottom of the cabinets and not on the sides, and also the feet under that pull-out cabinet left from the fridge were screwed so high that they actually pushed the bottom of the cabinet up so much that it broke. So what we discovered Saturday was that the cabinet was about to break and had only not fallen down yet because it was leaning on the fridge. Oh great, just great.

That's how a sunny day at the playground (and, oh yeah, a not so sunny day down in the basement putting down tiles...) turned into a giant kitchen mess. Anyway, we (ok, make that my husband) fixed it and I cleaned it and put everything back in. So by around 4:30 in the afternoon it looked like this again:

Still not as clean or organized or clutter-free as I'd like, but hey, there was sunshine outside! So that's where I went. Finally. Have you had any surprises years after moving? Any kitchen stories to share? Hope you had a great weekend!


Sunday, August 21, 2011

Summer salad

Although the summer over here felt more like fall for a while, we did have our fair share of pasta and potato salads this season. We do lots of different versions and try new recipes each summer. My favorites are an Italian pasta salad with a honey-mustard vinaigrette, a version with tomatoes, olives, capers and feta inspired by a recipe from Emeril I found at Martha Stewart last summer and a potato salad with joghurt, cucumber, dill, apples (and some diced eggs for creaminess).

But sometimes (ok, often) I’m just too tired and lazy to deal with potatoes. I mean, you have to cook them, cool them and peel them. Pasta on the other hand just needs to be cooked and you can prep all the other ingredients while it cooks, then just drain, rinse, toss and you’re done. Still, I didn’t feel like yet another pasta salad. As the weather started to improve this week, I really wanted something different, and I’ve been wanting to try and add some couscous salads to the rotation. As none of the recipes I looked at felt quite right, I decided to make my own version using a lemon dressing and lots of veggies.

I think we’ll do this more often now. The kids liked it – to be honest not as much as they love their favorite pasta salad, and Max did make quite a mess trying to eat the couscous, but hey, they ate it. I’ll also try a few more variations if the weather holds up, I’ve seen one with apricots and almonds. Yum. In terms of prep time and amount of dirty bowls, this is great though. Call me lazy, but it’s something I do consider on weeknights. Especially now that we’re trying to move the kids’ bedtime to more like 7pm than 8pm. Anyway, here’s the recipe, see below for my notes.

Summer couscous salad

2 cups couscous

juice from 2 lemons
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar or cider vinegar
1 teaspoon dijon mustard
1 tablespoon sugar
3 tablespoons olive oil
Salt, pepper

3 medium tomatoes
2 yellow bell peppers
½ large cucumber
1 small red onion

Cook couscous according to package directions using either water or broth. Fluff with a fork.

Whisk together lemon juice, vinegar, mustard and sugar, add salt and pepper to taste. Slowly whisk in olive oil. Adjust seasoning and add parsley. Add dressing to couscous while still warm.

Chop tomatoes, peppers and cucumber and slice red onion. Add to couscous once cooled to room temperature and adjust seasoning as the veggies might require a little more salt, pepper and lemon juice.

Notes: I didn’t bother seeding the tomatoes, but I did peel and seed the cucumber before chopping. You might also want to add fresh corn or cooked carrots, spinach or zuccini would also work. I used those tiny thin cucumbers from a Turkish market, they have much more flavor than the regular ones.

Edit: Greta from Picnics in the Park posted a great Asian Inspired Noodle Salad the other day. I really need to try this and I think you should, too. I really, really like her blog!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A very fishy birthday party

My older son's birthday is in September and being my usual self, I have been planning this for months now. Yeah, I know, I'm crazy. At least I'm learning that I can't possibly do ALL those great ideas I come across. And I'm learning not to mentally always compare what I end up with to what I planned in those initial stages months ago. Not only would that sometimes be frustrating, it would also keep me from enjoying the things I did make happen.

Anyway. Ever since I came across blogs like Ohdeedoh, I have been saving ideas and images to my Evernote file. I also have a list (of course) of birthday party themes. From this my son chose the fishing party this year - originally inspired by this post on A Little Outdoorsman Party by Hostess with the Mostess. It's fitting because he went on his first fishing trip to Bavaria with his dad this year. All by himself, no moms or little brothers allowed. They had a blast. And caught fish. So, a fishing party it was. I was surprised by all the ideas a little search on the Internet brought up.

Now, I don't have the time, ressources or even patience and ability to ever throw a party like those you see around blogland, especially the American ones with their huge dessert tables. And personally I do believe that little boys don't really mind. Some nice decorations, a great cake and some activities they enjoy should be all that you need to make the day special.

We don't do birthday parties on the day of their actual birthday. That one is reserved for a special family outing somewhere nice, followed by dinner and cake with the grandparents. I like that tradition, although it's just the second year we're doing it. So I'm planning his party for the week after, and what's the first thing to get done? Invitations. Take a look:

I think they're cute. You have to understand that I am horrible at anything crafty. Really, really bad. I can't cut a straight line (as you can no doubt see in the picture). But still, I think they're great. I got the stamp from Dawanda shop Andiva, she does the most gorgeous handmade stamps. I'm planning on also using it for a party garland as well as labels and goodie bags. In fact I liked my invites so much that I made one extra to keep. After all, who knows if I ever manage to make something like it again?

More details on the birthday as we get closer and I hopefully finish more things off the list. So tell me, what are your birthday party plans and is there anyone out there as challenged in the craft department as I am?

Monday, August 15, 2011


So, how does one start a blog? I managed to set something up in blogger. I played around with the settings and layout, even uploaded a header. Now what? What's a first post supposed to be about? I have a lot of ideas about posts, but they all don't feel good enough for the first post. So maybe I'll start by saying something about myself.

I'm a mother of two very cute and mischievous little boys, ages 2 1/2 and soon-to-turn 5. They drive me crazy. I love them. They keep me busy. I take a million pictures of them.

Soon I'll be married for 10 years. 10! Years! Can't believe how time flies.

I like lists. To-do lists, birthday present lists, shopping lists, any list really. And I constantly drive my fellow human beings crazy with that. More on that some other time (told you I had ideas. On a list, of course).

I love to cook. I don't always have the energy to do it. I have way too many cookbooks. And read way too many food blogs (note to self: add favorite food blogs to list of topics to blog about). And I like to bake. I'm not good with the precision required for baking, but I love something sweet. So the kids and I mostly stick to simple cakes, muffins and cupcakes.

We build a house two years ago. And there are many projects still to do (yeah, of course there is a list for that!). Priority number one this year is the basement. It's one big giant mess. For two years now. But that's a different story. Funny thing is, I actually like organizing and cleaning out closets and such. Ahhh, the calming feeling when you open the door to a kitchen cabinet you just organized. It's only through blogland that I discovered I'm actually not the only one like that.

I like taking pictures. I'm by no means good at it, but I'm willing to learn. I want to do one of those photo projects like the 365 one or 12 on the 12th or so. Well, one thing at a time. (did I mention I'm horribly impatient?). I do a photo book twice a year that the grandparents get as gifts, but mostly I do this to remember what our little family was up to that year. I try to do this every other week or so or at least once a month, and I have gotten much better at keeping up with it. It just makes it easier to remember the stories that come with the pictures.

I'm really bad at anything crafty. I love all those DIY ideas out there and I clip quite a few. I guess I'm not as realistic as I'd like to think.

I get migraines. Bad ones. And right now, too many. Oh well. My husband says my to do lists have something to do with that. I refuse to believe him.

And oh, yeah, I have a job. Two days a week I live in this completely different universe, where people wait until you finish a sentence, you can have your coffee while it's still hot and nobody screams "MOMMY!!!". I like my job. But I don't like getting up at 4:30 on workdays to beat traffic and sneak out of the house while the kids are still sleeping.

Something like a year ago I discovered first Apartment Therapy and then more and more blogs full of ideas and inspiration. I still my favorite (and way too many) blogs almost every day and clip all sorts of things to my Evernote file. Way too many ideas get added to my to do list. But maybe, as the kids are getting a little older, I'll find some time here and there to do some of the things on my list and show you some of it. Or show you the ones I know I'll never get to, but maybe you will. And can tell me all about it. I'm starting this blog because through reading blogs I found out that there are other people out there who like making cake from scratch, refuse to buy a premade set for a child's birthday, keep a million lists and actually enjoy decluttering their house. And I just wanted to be part of that. I have no idea how often I will manage to update this, but hey, with that list of topics to blog about I should be covered, right? So come on, join me.