Discolor Online

Weblog of the sweetest person you never want to piss off.


One Month to Alaska

We've passed the one month mark! On May 9th my mother, Kate, and I will be heading off on a class trip with her school. We're taking about 80 people (kids and chaperons) on an Alaskan cruise, organized through an outfit called Educator Cruises. As I understand it, this is the first time Holland America has had one of these educational cruises and we're kind of a pilot program that could really blossom into something with them.

Last week I met with Kate's teacher and went over the basic schedule and what kind of curriculum we're going to have for the kids. Since it's an educational cruise there will be lectures, reading, writing in journals. The field trips and outings are meant to be educational. In one stop our school will be hosted by the local 8th grade class who are intimately involved in the salmon hatchery and wildlife center, echoing some of the environmental curriculum (like hatching salmon eggs) that the ORCA students have done over the years. There's a lot we can cover in lessons and I feel really good about that aspect of the trip.

Of course, we can't spend all seven days doing nothing but school work and field trips. There will be chances for the kids to go shopping and buy souvenirs when we're off the ship but there's a lot for the kids to do on the ship, too. Apparently teens on cruise ships are well taken care of. There will be a couple of receptions/parties for the group on the ship plus the teachers plan to have a fitness "club", a walking "club", swimming groups. The ship itself has a Teen Center with a teen's only arcade and a dance club. There's also a basketball court that I know some of our boys will be eager to visit. There will be two formal dinners where the kids will get to dress up and try foods they have probably never seen before. Can't wait to see that, heh.

Anyway, the cruise isn't for another few weeks so in the meantime I've been puttering away at my to do list, knocking off minor things here and there as I have the opportunity. I put some spring flowers in the planters on the front porch, ordered some garden supplies and seedlings, replaced the cheap plastic handle on the powder room toilet with something in brushed nickel (which matches the toilet seat I replaced last year), put a medicine chest in the guest bathroom, bought a proper display shelf for some figurines I received as birthday gifts when I was a girl. Nothing important (except maybe the gardening order) but small things that let me feel like I'm accomplishing something. I have a few wish list items that I'm hoping to find, like a fire pit or a chiminea to add to the patio, and a new fixture for the kitchen that has a pull out faucet.

My parents are coming out for a visit at the end of May, when my brother graduates from medical school at OHSU. Kate and I will be back from the cruise for about two weeks before they come but I'm trying to get some cleaning, organizing, and rearranging done before the cruise so I don't feel too much pressure about the state of our affairs before they arrive.

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When a night out turns into a night in...

Today was a day that really did not go as planned. It started in the wee hours of the morning when I was unable to sleep and gave up after four hours of restless dozing. The wind howled and threw sheets of pelting rain against the house, punctuating the mess with rumbles of thunder. It kept up with this weather all day occasionally letting up so a momentary patch of sun or blue sky could peek through just long enough to be remarked upon... then back to the windy and spluttering.

I was pretty crushed with fatigue before my day even started. I drove south this morning to drop Pramas at Norwescon for his panels then turned right around and went pick Kate up to take her to drop her off with her dad. Our usual selection of Zipcars were unavailable. I had to go out of my way to pick up the Zipcar and took a wrong turn, got lost, and wasted about 45 minutes with that whole mess. Even so, I was only about 30 minutes late arriving at the meeting spot but then Kate's dad let me know that there was a huge back-up at the border crossing. He arrived three hours later. I was very lucky to be able to extend the Zipcar rental as long as I needed it I ran up against another's reservation and couldn't have extended it any further.

The weather made for difficult driving conditions, I could really feel the wind buffeting the car around on the wet freeway. I felt utterly drained when I got home and realized the day was gone. As I had plans to go out I got myself cleaned up and changed but with the rain and wind still beating down I touched base with my friend, who was of the same mind: it would be nice to see each other but the thought of venturing out again was, well, daunting. Being in agreement, we called it off and stayed in. Off came the "going out clothes" and on came the pajama pants. I had a little lie down and accidentally had a three hour nap. Leftovers for dinner and what remained of the day I spent with Netflix and my sweetie.

Not exactly what I thought the day would be. I think tomorrow is going to be low key.



The Recipe Project

In the interest of saving space, I've embarked upon a project. The first step of this new project has been to sit down with years worth of cooking magazines and cut out individual pages of recipes that I like or still want to try. I currently have a four-inch pile of these pages and I've only gone through about half of the Cooking Light issues (with the issues of Gourmet, Bon Appetit, Saveur, Eating Well, Vegetarian Times, or any of the other half dozen titles I've bought over the years).

My next step is a little ways off yet but eventually I'll have to DO something with all these sheets or they'll be no use to me. Originally I thought I might just put the sheets in binders but I'm going to have inches and inches (feet?) of these recipes from magazines and I can't even begin to think of how to organize them all. One of the big problems with saving recipes out of magazines is that there are often recipes that run for more than one page, or recipes on opposite sides of the page that don't go together organizationally (main dish on one side, dessert on the other, frex).

Now I'm reconsidering this plan I'm a bit at sea about what to do. I've been pondering several options for a re-design of Nikchick.com for a year or so. I could try to put all these recipes into a format where they could be saved and searched-for on my recipes page. My feeling is that would be a LOT of manual data entry but I'd probably be happy in the end. I could just put them into some sort of recipe organization program for use on my computer but not as part of my webpage. I have at least three of those programs (each with their own benefits and drawbacks).

I still have a while to go on step one so I have a while to figure out step two. Pasting all these recipes to note cards like I did in high school is not among the options I'm considering.

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Improving the home

I've always loved a good project. I like to credit my Grandpa Lindroos for that as he was always willing to have me hanging around in his workshop when I was a youngster. He was genius at figuring out ways to keep me busy, like the time he let me look through a pile of wood chips and shavings for pieces that looked like animals, then handed me glue, a board, and a black chisel-tip permanent marker and let me build a "farm scene", or the times he let me "help" him create No Hunting signs for his property (the "Please don't shoot the bunnies" signs went over well with the neighbors). In the same way

For the longest time my projects had to be limited to things like putting together shelves. When we first moved into our house, I was thrilled to be able to do a few projects like putting in our garage door opener, staining the porch, hanging a pot rack, replacing our garbage disposal or putting our attic ladder in. I don't actually have a garage workshop but boy would I love one, with power tools.

Last spring I hired a company to put in a patio for us and that was a GREAT idea. We got a grill, I found a fantastic table and chairs on Craigslist, I built some raised beds and had a successful summer of gardening. It was all quite invigorating.

Of course, this just makes me want to do more. Now's not exactly the best time to be laying out for home improvements. We've already had some unfortunate expenses, like putting in the fix for the defecting heating system this winter and with Green Ronin as our sole income our means are decidedly more modest than when Chris was working in the computer game industry. Still, it's hard to tamp down on my brain and all the ideas that keep popping up.

We've made incredible strides in clearing out the garage and my primary fantasy is to finish the garage. It's only a one-car garage but in my mind there's still enough space to put in a craft table for Chris, where he can work on minis; set it up with a drum set for Kate, so she can practice and play to her heart's content; and where I can organize my tools, my gardening equipment, perhaps even my own little crafting corner where I could set up a sewing machine. Insulate that mother, put in a ladder to the rafters where we could have our storage, add a heater, extra lights, put in a router with an old TiVo, our old Xbox, and a cheap TV and our "livable space" is suddenly SO much bigger. *sigh* Long term dream, we'll get there sometime.

I'm also keen to pull out our ten-year-old carpet and replace it with flooring (which I've been told would be better for my allergies), finally paint a few rooms something other than the original "putty grey" the house came with, and put in some different window treatments instead of the rather ugly cheapo blinds that came with the house. These sorts of things are largely cosmetic. They'd make me feel happier about the house but it's not like my blinds aren't functional. Part of me feels a little queasy about wanting to make chances that aren't strictly necessary. I mean, it's not like I'm living in a mud hut and part of me feels I should just be happy that I have what I have. On the other hand, I work from home (and have for the last *mumble mumble* years) and my world is often distressingly small. Changing up my environment to feel more open, more creative, brighter... well, it's appealing. Very appealing.

I do feel like I could make many of these changes on my own and even enjoy it. On the third tentacle, after my experience both with having the patio put in by professionals and having my heating system/water heater issue handled by professionals I'm finding myself really leaning toward getting someone in to do a lot of the work.

Anyway, I've got a list of things that I'd like to accomplish eventually. I'd like to finish the landscaping in the back yard (tilling and planting the borders around the yard, put in about 400 sq. ft of new sod, put in stone cover in the side yard around the raised beds). I really need to re-paint/re-stain the porches before the HOA gets on my case. I want to do some painting, some window treatments, figure out some better options for storing our books and games. My next project is expanding the garden for this year but I should be done with that in the next few weeks. What's next is the question.

I'm not sure what's next but it will be SOMETHING.



Life Marches On

Although I've been up to a few things since my last update I find that I've been having a hard time putting my brain in gear to do any writing of substance. I've been popping off a few updates via Twitter or on Facebook but I've really got to make a change if I'm going to get back to any blogging of substance.

Even though blog-wise things have been a bit dead, I have still been up to a few things. I've managed to reconnect with a few friends, get out of the house with my husband for a little adult-time, still trying to figure out what we're going to do with Kate for high school, preparing to chaperon Kate's class on their Alaskan cruise in May. Since I'm still procrastinating on diving back into "real" blogging, I thought I'd do a little recap. Here's what I've been up to in the last couple of weeks:

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo
OK Go / Notre Dame marching band - This Too Shall Pass
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Chickpeas with Broccoli Rabe and Bacon
Szechuan-Style Tofu with Peanuts
Tuna Noodle Casserole with Leeks and Fresh Dill
Lamb Köfte with Yogurt Sauce and Muhammara
Pasta with Asparagus, Pancetta, and Pine Nuts
Brown Soda Bread
Beef and Guinness Stew
Turkey Sloppy Joes on Cheddar Buttermilk Biscuits
Overnight Blueberry Muffins
Crockpot Butter Chicken

A Morning for Flamingos
Escaping the Endless Adolescence
True Compass: A Memoir
Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking
The Enchantment of Lily Dahl
Summer Knight
Death Masks
The City & The City
Child 44

Protesting Health Reform, GOP Attempts To Bring Senate Hearings To A Standstill By Blocking All Proceedings
Tea Partiers Call Lewis 'N****r', Frank 'F****t', At Capitol Hill Protest
Health bill protesters jeer at man with Parkinson’s disease
Dennis Hopper dying of prostate cancer
Alex Chilton dead in New Orleans

Planning my garden
Haircut and color
Baking up electronic files
Planning another Freezer Cooking Party
Playing Dragon Age: Origins
Playing Dragon Age: Awakenings
Playing Mass Effect
Playing Mass Effect 2
Roasting coffee

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CHiPs 1, Nikchick 0

Though I've been active on Twitter and doing a little linking at Facebook, I realized I haven't yet blogged about what's been going on in the last few weeks. Time to rectify this.

At the beginning of February my grandmother was scheduled for a biopsy for a suspicious breast lump. This surgery had been put off last fall because of an infection in her leg and considering all of her other health problems we were a little anxious for her. It turns out that they've postponed the surgery yet again for reasons I'm not exactly clear on because by the time word came in I was already off and focused on my mom, who was scheduled for surgery herself.

Mom's surgery had the potential to be fairly serious and was anticipated to need six weeks or more of recovery, which itself made me nervous just because of her home environment and support network (or lack thereof). Thankfully, everything went even better than we could have hoped and they had to do far less surgery than they'd thought. Mom was out of the hospital several days early and a week later was doing great. Very happy and greatly relieved by that!

Because of the timing of DunDraCon and Kate's mid-winter break I was able to schedule the drive so I could be in Portland on my way down (in time for mom's surgery) and on the way back was able to stop in and check on her again. I'm so grateful that everything worked out so well in that regard.

In fact, the entire trip was unbelievably excellent. I got to see my brother and spend time with my family, the convention was a great time to reconnect with fans, associates, and friends, and I got to spend time with my daughter in my off hours to boot. A couple of mom friends of mine met up with me and we toured the Berkeley campus with Kate and enjoyed decadent desserts and a gorgeous view from my friend Susanne's house that just stunned me. I wish we lived closer so these meet-ups didn't have to be every couple of years. Even the weather cooperated and gave us several beautiful, sunny days.

The one downer of the whole trip is there in the subject of this post: I was stopped by the California Highway Patrol and earned a speeding ticket of unknown cost. I'll admit right off the bat that I was speeding along I-5, because EVERYONE was speeding. I'm not kidding, every single car on the freeway was clipping along 10 to 15 miles over the posted speed limit and I was driving along doing the same. We were 10 hours into our trip and we were laughing together and generally feeling pretty good, anticipating being close to our destination. Next thing I know the red lights are blinking behind me. I'll admit, I was confused at first because the lights were not the kind I'm used to seeing on police vehicles. I thought it might be an ambulance behind me. Despite my bad girl reputation I'm really kind of a goody two-shoes and I haven't had a traffic ticket since Kate was an infant. My first thought was "get out of the way! but since I was in the far left lane, it was dark, and there was traffic for three lanes to my right, I pulled off into the left median. It was quite wide and there was plenty of space. The red lights followed, so clearly it was no ambulance and yes, they were after me. I put the car in park, turned off the engine, and started to pull out my license like a good girl.

Next thing I know a woman's voice is barking over a loud speaker: "MOVE TO THE RIGHT, NOW! NOW, GO, GO, MOVE!" Flustered, I fumbled to restart our rental car and get it back in gear. The officer is getting more agitated, "I SAID MOVE TO THE RIGHT. DO IT. MOVE!" I coax the car back into the freeway trying to get to the right, while the voice yells, "DON'T CUT ANYONE OFF! GET TO THE RIGHT!" Finally on the right hand side of the freeway, I'm beside myself, thinking what the hell did I do? The officer comes to the passenger window (substantially more dour and aggressive than those portrayals of Ponch and Jon from my youth) and orders me to get out of the car. By this point I'm seriously thinking I'm going to be told to get down on the ground. It was like an episode of COPS or something. "What did I do?" I asked. "You were speeding..."

Holy crap, I've never been treated that way by the police in my life. The closest thing to this experience I can think of is the infamous incident I had with that out of control airline attendant on our way to GenCon SoCal many years ago. For a speeding ticket? On a freeway where literally every single car was speeding? After the cop let me go I did a little experiment and set my cruise control to exactly the speed limit for the remainder of the drive (40 minutes or so, I guess). Every single car on the freeway blew past us. Kate and I counted them: 112 cars, some overtaking me from very far behind.

In my conspicuous red rental van, with its conspicuous out of state plates, I guess I was an easy target. My local friends believe that the budget in CA is so bad at the moment that hitting out of state speeders has been an easy way to get some cash in the coffers. The worst part is I don't even know how much the ticket will be but one friend sadly informed me that it could be up over $500 because they've jacked up the fines lately (see aforementioned budget crisis). This is very, very bad news. I even looked up to see if I could plead not guilty or extenuating circumstances or hardship or anything because a $500 would be dire and all I saw at the county traffic fine website was something about having to post BAIL if you plead not guilty or appeal your ticket, even by mail. I've never seen anything like this. Definitely the downer on an otherwise successful and pleasant trip.

Back in Seattle, it seems we've brought the nice weather we had in Cali home with us. It's been 60s and sunshine. The mountain has been out every day and flowers are blooming. I know this is Seattle's tricky "fake spring" that happens every February but on the heels of an historically mild January any further wintery weather seems distant and my mood (but for the worry about the ticket) is remarkably cheery.

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You Need Food to Live

With the pantry reorganized and the Hunger Awareness Week behind me, I decided to go ahead and do an inventory of the freezers, then cleaned and restocked the fridge. After not shopping during the hunger challenge my produce was in a pretty sorry state and I also rid myself of a few things that had gotten lost in our cheese drawer round about last summer sometime (I need a bigger cheese drawer so things don't get buried or pushed into back corners!) but the waste from the fridge wasn't nearly as bad as I'd feared. My kitchen stores are in such a state that if Gordon Elliott were to pop round for an episode of Doorknock Dinners he and his chefs would be fixing me quite the meal indeed. HA!

One handy little habit I'm cultivating is to use a magnetic notepad on the fridge to write down pantry items as they get used up. No longer will I end up with three jars of cumin because I remembered that I used it but can't remember that I bought a replacement, or conversely forget time and time again that I've used the last of an ingredient but keep forgetting to buy a replacement. I've used the notepad technique on and off for a few years and encourage Chris and Kate to leave their requests on the list as well but under the current, reorganized pantry the notepad system seems to be working much more smoothly than in the past.

I'm pleased to say that I've replicated my success with the "Old Reliable" French Bread recipe and have produced yet more edible bread for the family. This may become a regular routine, at least as long as the price of flour and yeast remains a fraction of the price of "artisan" breads at the grocery store. I started buying bakery bread when I was doing my research into high fructose corn syrup and discovered it was in everything, including our grocery store bread.

I've tried three new recipes this week with good results. Two I pulled from my copy of the Cooking Light Annual 2010, one I pulled up from Southern Living, which is about as far from Cooking Light as you can get (and has the cup and a half of half-and-half, four large eggs and ten strips of bacon to prove it). All three are online through MyRecipes.com so I'll just go ahead and link to them there. I was able to make all of these with ingredients that I already had around the house, still cooking from the freezer and the pantry with what I have on hand.

Spinach and Bacon Quiche
Penne with Sage and Mushrooms
Singapore-Style Noodles

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French Bread

French bread
Originally uploaded by Nikchick.
This is Hunger Action Week in King County. In 2007 I shared my thoughts on the Oregon governor's Food Stamp Challenge. Everything I said then is true now. If anything I feel even more strongly , considering the way the country has changed in the last three years.

In theory I'm up for this challenge but having felt plenty of food insecurity not only do I have no desire to relive the experience but keeping my pantry stocked "just in case" is, hmm, obsession is too strong but let's say it's a high priority. So instead of tracking my spending and trying to cook from only what I bought for the week I've been trying to honor the spirit of the challenge by using what I have on hand in my newly reorganized pantry and my freezer. In a case of handy timing, our "junk food" cupboard is bare so there are no chips, pretzels, sodas or other prepackaged snacks in the house at the moment.

Despite all of my food-loving ways I've never had good luck with breads. I can whip up a quick bread, muffins, cakes, cookies, or bars with good results. Yeast breads, dinner rolls, even biscuits have been another story though. Even using a bread maker has been 50% disappointment. Seattle has many lovely local bakeries supplying the local markets with an array of fresh breads but at $3.00 to $4.50 per loaf (and with a daughter who loves bread just slightly less than potatoes and slightly more than rice in her largely white food diet) that can get spendy, especially when I know full well how inexpensive the base ingredients for bread are in comparison.

With the Hunger Awareness Challenge in mind and bread in the house running low, I decided to try again yesterday. I decided to shy away from the bread machine and try going with the Kitchen Aid and my plain ol' oven. I couldn't find my Kitchen Aid recipe booklet I had to rely on the handy Internet. Google helpfully turned up an entry from someone else who didn't want to misplace their Kitchen Aid recipe again and so put it up on RecipeZaar under the name "Old Reliable" French Bread (for Kitchen Aid Mixers). How could I resist a recipe called "Old Reliable"? I couldn't!

What do you know, it worked, too. To my shock and my family's delight, I have successfully made two good loaves of French bread for about $1 in flour. Not quite as excellent as the $4.00 loaves from our local bakery but certainly at least as good as if not better than the $2.00 loaves from the grocery store. If not spurred on by the Hunger Awareness Challenge I wouldn't have made this breakthrough.

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More Small Steps

I feel like I've been doing a reasonable job harnessing my enthusiasm to get things in order since Christmas.

We had a productive family meeting last week where we divided up household chores and established something of a schedule, which makes me very happy. Of course, we haven't begun the schedule yet and we know that saying about plans and contact with the enemy, but just having something (a plan) where there used to be nothing (chaos) counts a progress. I'm also slowly crossing small, irregular jobs off my list.

One thing that I did this weekend was a small chore that I've been meaning to take care of for years. Literally for years! It took less than five minutes. Home security experts advise homeowners to replace 1/2" screws in your deadbolt strike plates with screws 3" or longer so the strike plates are secured to the house's frame instead of the doorjamb. You can also replace the whole deadbolt, replace the wimpy two-screw plate with a four-screw style but even just changing out the screws in the existing hardware makes your deadbolt lock a ton more effective. I had some 3" wood screws left over from last year's planter box project. Zip, zip, DONE. Improved security.

Lest I seem like I'm patting myself on the back excessively, I'm not expecting anyone to be thrilled to read that I've replaced some screws, remembered to clean the oven, changed some light bulbs. I'm just pleased to be checking off a number off little things that had been piling up. Even small forward progress is satisfying.

I've also been trying out a bunch of new recipes since Christmas. I've had some decent luck with some recipes out of a slow cooker book I got for Christmas, from the author of the blog http://crockpot365.blogspot.com/ and the current issue of Bon Appetit as well as my tried and true go-to Cooking Light. Here's what we've been eating around here: Spaghetti and meatballs all'Amatriciana, Breakfast Risotto, Crockpot Lamb, Morning Glory Muffins, Spaghetti with Fennel, Ham and Lentil Soup, Turkey Orzo Soup, Cooks Illustrated's Turkey Tetrazzini, Three-Cheese Baked Penne, Red Pepper and Goat Cheese Fritatta from Eating Well, and Alton Brown's Cheesy Grits. Not a bad start to the new year!

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Kitchen Re-org 2010

Kitchen Re-org 2010
Originally uploaded by Nikchick.
I wasn't lying when I said I was thinking organization. Ha!

I did the same thing in January 2009, but things had slowly grown out of hand again, so I decided to build on my successes and do another reorg. Putting the booze into its own cabinet freed up an entire shelf in the pantry, which inspired me to get another couple of organizational do-dads (like tiers for the canned goods). Half-used bags of rice or beans or other "bulk" items were combined (like with like) and put into new clear, air-tight containers. I'd previously bought a bunch of metal canisters but I could never tell what was in them or how much and often bought things I already had because I couldn't be bothered to dig to a back shelf and open canisters to check. The new set-up is definitely an improvement.

Kitchen Re-org 2010

I also put an additional rack in the laundry room (where I'd added two wire storage shelves last year) which nicely hold other dry goods. One of the problems I had with my previous storge "solution" was things in bags (like pasta or beans) were getting lost in the bin system that I'd tried to set up. I moved all the bagged beans and rices to clear jars or plastic storage containers and put bags and boxes of pasta as well as jars and bottles (maple syrup, pasta sauce, various nut butters) on the new laundry room rack. Eventually I expect that will become even more of a true dry goods area.

I only uncovered a few things that had gone past their expiration dates due to being pushed back in the pantry (a couple of shelf-stable tofu boxes and some nuts) but I did uncover a surplus of cornmeal, grits, and dried beans. I'll be working to get those supplies down to a reasonable amount now that they've been rediscovered.

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Nikchick's Thinking Organization

...must be January.

I'm not sure what it is about January that drives me into a re-org frenzy. Nothing to do with it being a new year or resolutions, I think it's more that the holiday season (my birthday, Thanksgiving, Kate's birthday, Christmas, the New Year) brings a bunch of new stuff into the house. Gifts come in, food and drink and other holiday entertaining essentials spring up, decorations are dragged out from the nooks and crannies where they've been stashed all year... and as I look at the new untidiness in the calm after the storm it's organization time.

A major relief has been getting the plumber in to finish the work of closing off our heating system from our potable water system. Our super nice plumbers came in and replaced all the piping in the water closet with lovely copper pipes and fittings, stuck a heat exchanged and pressure gauge on the heating side and replaced our ten-year-old water heater with a nice new tankless system. When they pulled out the old expansion tank it was rusted inside and full of water, a sure sign of impending failure, and I was glad to have them take away the water heater while they were at it rather than keep the thing and have to revisit this whole issue again in another few months or a year. The heating system, now that it's closed off and held at a lower pressure, only holds about three gallons of water. In the future, should any leaks spring up they'll be easily discovered because of the pressure gauge and with only a few gallons of water in the system the risk of catastrophic damage is removed.

A bonus to having the water heater out of the tiny water closet is that I have a tiny amount of extra storage! It's not much but it's enough to have a place for my brooms, mops, buckets and other small cleaning items, which were previously crowding my already crowded laundry room. (As I discovered when I had to replace my washing machine, the room is just barely big enough to hold a modern washer and dryer and still have room to open the door.)

Anyway, despite our decluttering and organizing efforts in 2009, the bottom line is that we still just have too darn much stuff! I've also reached my limit on how much cleaning and organizing I can take on myself. I'm allergic to dust and shirk dusting duties, but that just means the dusting doesn't get done. I spend several months in 2009 nursing a shoulder injury that made things like even drying my hair with a towel, chopping vegetables, or scrubbing pots a painful experience. I got the thumbs up from my physical therapist to go back to normal routine at the end of the year but my first foray into vacuuming the house and scrubbing the bathtubs left me hurting. My loving family does what I ask (most of the time) but we have very few regular, assigned chores and absolutely no schedule. Instead of continuing to try to be supermom who either does it all myself or takes the blame when things don't get done, I've been looking over options for assigning chores and creating a schedule. I have a pile of organizing books and home upkeep books beside the bed. Now that Kate's back from her dad's a family meeting is in our future. I haven't decided exactly how the chores will be divided but we're going to build on the organizational successes of 2009. Here we go!

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Christmas Baking 2009, Round 1

Christmas Baking 2009, Round 1
Originally uploaded by Nikchick.
I did my first round of Christmas baking today.

Today's dishes: ginger-wasabi popcorn, fudge sauce, barbecue spice rub, sugarplums, chocolate-filled croissants, apricot rugelach, and chocolate gingerbread bundt cake.

Only one of my planned recipes met with disaster, because my oven was running a little hot. Two cookie sheets of mixed spiced nuts ended up burning. They weren't uniformly burned, just enough so that they tasted gross. After sampling I decided to toss them.

Oh, I also made some cheddar and chive scones today. Don't like the recipe I used as much as the Cooking Light and America's Test Kitchen recipes for scones I've used in the past but they were satisfying enough with a couple of cups of coffee.

I've got cranberries marinating in a simple syrup for tomorrow's two-fer recipe: sugared cranberries, with the bonus of leftover cranberry-infused simple syrup! Must mix up some cocktails with that this holiday.

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Sweet Dreams and Flying Machines

Tomorrow may just be the day when I finally get the plumber into the house to install the heat exchanger and pressure gauge for our defective heating system. We got our settlement in October and have been talking with this plumber for weeks trying to schedule him to come in. I can't imagine how frustrated I'd be if we'd actually had to go with the full-on "rip out all the walls and pipes" plan at this point, with the cold weather upon us and scheduling conflicts abounding. Fingers crossed for good news and an effective solution this week!

Kate celebrated her 14th birthday this weekend, with a girly sleepover on Friday that dragged well into Saturday afternoon. Red velvet cake was made. I used Pinch My Salt's recipe and dirtied about every bowl in the house in the process but managed not to ruin anything in the kitchen with red food coloring. The girls were gleefully using the Domino's online pizza creation tool to create concoctions but Chris talked them into getting their actual pizzas from Stellar Pizza so they'd be, you know, edible. One Beanie and one Fidalgo Four Cheese later and the girls settled down to watch Star Trek together. One of the girls couldn't stay the night so I drove her home a little after midnight and, aside from having to put a stop to some rough-housing at 1am, the whole thing went off well and Kate was happy.

It was poignant for me because I'm all too aware of the changes looming in the future for these girls. Not bad changes at all, just that they're on the road to becoming lovely young adults. The girl who left early had to do so because she needed to spend the weekend working on her high school applications! Some of these girls have known each other since kindergarten but with Seattle's new school boundaries they're all most likely going to different schools by next year. Some are applying to private schools or magnet schools or out-of-district schools because the choices we're presented are difficult or dubious.

Kate's got three options under the new school plan. One is a small alternative school that had historically been good but last year was merged into a building with another orphaned program and an existing middle school. Parents complained that the new building didn't have proper science labs for high school science requirements, the building has several million in needed building upgrades that haven't been addressed because of the Seattle budget crisis, etc. There's not even a Nova school webpage anymore, so I don't know what to expect from that program, though it is a natural transition for kids from a school like Orca (250 or so kids, alternative education curriculum).

The second option is a new math and science magnet school. This is currently a regular high school in a recently upgraded building. It's the closest HS to our house and currently one of the worst programs in the city (lowest WASL scores... frex, less than 7% of students passing
the state's science requirement, highest dropout rate, highest suspension rate, lowest SATs). The new superintendent has decided to remake this school into a School of Science, Technology, Engineering & Math (STEM). The school will have accelerated math and science "academies" and an extra-long school day to add an additional full period. High focus on math and science with few to no options for electives and extra-curriculars and a school population of 1600 students. Kate is good at math and science and is currently on track to be able to enter HS having completed freshman math but that's all a huge switch from her educational experience up to this point. No idea if it would be a welcome change or a complete disaster for her.

The last option is the default high school: a failing high school with about 1500 students where 1/4 of freshman fail to earn the 5 credits necessary to advance, where only 28% meet standard in math and 18% meet standard in science. And, of course, there's also the issue of gang problems in the big Seattle high schools. Not exactly high on my list of places to send my child.

Of course all of this is what I see through my mom glasses. The kids are only vaguely aware of what lies ahead for them, nervous but excited about high school's opportunities. Four years of high school seems like a long way off and long time to get through when you're 14. When you're 40 and looking back at how fast those 14 years have flown by, being one high school career away from adulthood is more akin to a race car hurtling into the final lap, checkered flag in sight.

Speaking of mothers, my mom called Kate for her birthday and then talked to me for a while. She shared the results of some of her recent medical tests and will be needing more surgery in 2010, this time it'll be removing a section of her colon and will be a much bigger deal than the relatively minor sinus surgery. She hasn't talked to the surgeon yet so I don't know what the timeline is. She seems to think that she can put it off until the summer but I told her to let me know what the surgeon actually says. I suppose there's a chance that this will spoil the cruise we're supposed to take with Kate's class in May and, of course, if our experience with her sinus surgery is any indication she's going to need a lot of outside help with her recovery whenever this surgery takes place. I'm steeling myself, as I will inevitably be called up for duty.

Nothing to be done about it now, so I'm setting my sights on Christmas and chugging ahead towards the new year. Must decide on a holiday menu since it will be just the three of us for the first time in years.

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November Food Recap

It all started around my birthday. I got a great response to my call for birthday recipes and my head was swimming with the possibilities. Chris threw me a delightful brunch with a dozen friends, rich with food and cocktails. In fact, it was Serafina's first day with their new seasonal menu and everything but two Serafina standards was new to me.

A few days into my 41st year, I was assaulted by yet another food extravaganza! I choose the word assaulted on purpose because I've never had an experience quite like it. Ray and I went out to Elemental @Gasworks which I hadn't even heard of before let alone been to (I'm a bit out of the loop on the hot new high end places these days) but Ray had and thought I would enjoy. I'm glad Ray had been to the restaurant before and warned me a bit about it because it apparently has a bit of a negative reputation with some foodies and I could easily have been put off by the experience if I hadn't been warned in advance. Here's the deal: if you're going to go to Elemental, you'd best be prepared to have the experience wash over you and be willing to go with it. Host and owner Phred Westfall said approximately five sentences to us through the entire multi-course dinner. He offered us a table, asked us if we were ready for a cocktail, asked if we had any food allergies, and um, pretty much nothing else. There was no pretense, no gushing over how the greens were locally sourced or this vintage of wine came from the Yakima region. Nothing. No explanation whatsoever. When a small poultry dish of some sort was set in front of us I actually tried to ask Phred if it was quail or something else... but he dropped the plate and was off again without a word of acknowledgement. Another time I had fallen behind on the wine pairings, to the point that I hadn't even tasted the glass in front of me when he was ready to serve the next course... and there went the wine glass, bye-bye, I don't even get to taste it because it no longer goes with the food in front of me. the lighting was also very dark, so honestly it was hard to see what we were eating! I can really see how this would rub some food-lovers the wrong way!

That said, I had a fabulous dinner. The food was EXQUISITE. Yes, many times I was forced to stick my finger in a sauce and say "I think it's mustard... and hazelnut..." or "Yes, there's some sort of fish with this salad... I'm not sure what it is... it's GOOD though." I had the best lamb chops I've ever had in my life, that had me unashamedly gnawing the bones to get every scrap of meat right in a public restaurant. Each course was served with a generous pour of a paired wine and wow, by the time we finished dinner I was a little woozy. I wish I could even remember (or knew to begin with) what I'd eaten! It was lovely and they're clearly very talented, kind of the anti-Herbfarm (where they give you a little menu of what you've eaten as a keepsake).

The following week I took advantage of another birthday gift, this one from John and Jenny, who gave me a gift certificate to Theo Chocolate. Wednesday night I attended one of their Chocolate University classes, "Chocolate: Exotic and Erotic" where I learned how to make simple chocolate scrubs, lotions, and lip balms in the first half and then listened to a lecturer from Babeland (NSFW) who delved into the erotic and sensual (chocolate lotion, chocolate candles, chocolate body paint, and ahem, more) and was a great presenter, lots of humor. I passed on picking up a "better then chocolate vibrator" but did gluttonously spend the rest of my gift certificate plus some picking up assortments of chocolates (including their collection of scotch-infused chocolates, using great single malts like Oban and Talisker!) and several seasonal varieties plus a couple of body scrubs and lotions from our earlier presenter, whose products I was familiar with already.

Rounding out November was Thanksgiving. We spent this Thanksgiving with John and Jenny and their extended family, which was a great deal more fun than staying home just the three of us let me tell you! We participated in the potluck dinner by contributing Kate's favorite Pumpkin Pie (which she made herself) plus some Wild Rice Stuffing, a cranberry-pear-ginger cobbler (recipe I'll post later) and a cranberry-vanilla bean sorbet that didn't set up properly in the ice cream maker but was really yummy anyway. We ate SO MUCH, sampling everything we brought, plus turkey, gravy, bread stuffing, brussels sprouts, grean beans, and more. So good, a really nice night.

I've bene doing a little more cooking again after a bit of a hiatus where Dragon Age consumed me and pizza, beer, and xbox sounded like the best thing in the world. I'm better now. A couple of the recipes I've been particularly pleased with include Ancho Pork and Hominy Stew and this Corn, Clam and Mussel Chowder, without the mussels.

I've been tinkering again with my website, hoping to find a better way of displaying my recipes for people who want to browse or print them but I'm still unhappy with the way things are so I'll keep limping along with the current format for now, I suppose.

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