Wednesday, January 29, 2014

How Not to Cut an Avocado

As I held my (very sharp) chef's knife over the pit of a halved avocado, the silky green flesh winking up at me, I had a thought: You know, one of these days I'm probably going to cut myself as I whack a knife into the pit to remove it.
I can't remember whether I physically shrugged that little pearl of wisdom off, but I know I did a mental shrug and a wink to boot. Nah, I'm not going to cut myself. How silly is that.
Then, with a wickedly sharp swish, I dropped the knife and a jolt of pain spun through my body.
Here are three things you should know right now:
1. Clint is very keen on keeping our knives sharpened.
2. I was holding the avocado in the stupidest possible fashion--cupping it as I should have been--but with my thumb sticking up at least an inch above the edge of the avocado.
3. I have awful aim.
I must have cried out. I'm pretty sure I tossed the knife across the counter (thankfully injuring nothing else). And I looked down at the rush of blood--far too red, far too bright--welling from the cut in my thumb.
I dashed to the sink, turning on the water, squeezing my thumb and watching my blood drip down the drain. That's when Clint and the kids rushed into the kitchen. Now, if you don't know Clint well, you need to know this: he is a man who knows about bodily injury. He once got a fish hook stuck in his back while cleaning the shed--and he tried to make me remove it  by pushing it the rest of the way through. He almost chainsawed his leg off and then walked up to the house holding his leg together to calmly ask for a ride to the hospital. His hands have had many intimate encounters with power tools, and once, as the doctor was stitching him up, he said, "Huh, I've never seen anyone with skin this tough on his hands. The needle (tug tug) doesn't even want (tug tug) to go through it at all." And Clint just sat there. I am not saying my husband is clumsy or foolhardy! No, when a guy works with dangerous tools as often as my husband does, the likelihood of injurious encounters grows exponentially.
So, back to me: as I wailed at the blood flowing into the sink, he took charge of the situation. He stood beside me and bent over the wound. "Let me see how deep it is," he said. He pulled the edges of the cut apart gently, and that is when I remembered that I had felt something Very Wrong when the knife hit my thumb. As in, I thought that maybe the blade hit my bone. Suddenly, I could feel my heart battering against my ribs and tingles shot up and down my skin.
"I think I'm going to pass out," I breathed.
"What?" he asked, still staring down at the skin he was pulling apart. "You only lost a tiny bit of blood."
"No," I said. "I feel sick. I think I'm going to..." And then the tingling got worse and my scalp started to buzz. I was going down.
So, like any veteran fainter, I did the smart thing. I crouched down beside the sink, getting as close to a prone position as I could, while Clint continued to fiddle around with my thumb. I'm pretty sure he just sighed at me at this point.
That's when Jonah showed up with the bandaging stuff. Clint wrapped my thumb in several layers of intricate bandages and then released me.
I sat on the floor, holding my injured hand to my heart. I could feel it throbbing in a separate rhythm of agony, but I didn't dare to look at it for a long time. When I finally did, I saw that my bright blood had already stained the bandage. "Don't you think I need stitches?" I asked, my voice charmingly tremulous.
"You're fine," he said. "It's not really that bad."
Not that bad! It was awful! I almost fainted. He has no sympathy.
I had to lie down on the couch while Clint and the kids finished making dinner, and afterward, they pressed me back toward the couch to lie down while they cleaned up. I felt faint for the rest of the evening, suffering from heart palpitations and flashbacks of that awful knife descending toward my innocent thumb. (Oh, and I also hosted the first meeting of the Boozy Girls' Craft Night, which was going to be a blog post but I'm not even really sure what happened once everyone showed up. That's what ibuprofen + wine can do.)
The next evening, Jared wandered into the kitchen as I was chopping carrots for dinner. "You should be careful with that knife, Mom," he said. "You might cut yourself again."
Yeah. Thanks, smartie. Momma already thought about that.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Science Fair Project: How Much Help to Give

When Jared brought home a note from his teacher last month about the upcoming science fair, I sighed a motherly sigh. Because you know what I thought: Oh great, a project for ME to do. One more thing on MY list. 
But then as Jared and I spent time talking about the project, I began to reshape my thinking. This was HIS project, not mine. It did not need to become a big chore for me; instead, it should be a learning experience for him. 
I think many of us parents have fallen victim to this issue: we want our children to do well in all things, and if the project is going to be publicly displayed, we REALLY want our children to do well. So, we help them study for tests and we help them with their homework and we help them with  their science fair projects. But when does helping become doing? Where do we draw the line? When does it become the parent's project instead of the child's project? 
Clint and I usually gave Lauren and Jonah broad strokes sorts of help when they did their science fair projects in grade school, but neither of them had to do one when they were this young. Second's a young age to tackle something this large.
So finally, after much discussion and a false start (you can't wait till the week before to plant your seeds if you want to measure whether a seed can grow in a sideways or upside down pot), Jared settled on his project: Which Brand of Bubble Gum Has the Longest-lasting Flavor? A project perfectly suited to a seven year old.
Jonah generously volunteered to be Jared's "fact checker|" by chewing a piece of gum too while Jared performed each of his gum trials --to ensure complete scientific accuracy--and helping Jared with the timer. After a two days of assiduous chewing (they took lots of breaks to rest their tongues and jaws), the results were tallied and it was time to start on the display board.
To save on printing costs, I drew block letters for the categories, and we had Jared color them. Then, he had to write out his explanations (with a bit of coaching). 

When we got done writing all the important information, Jared thought the board looked a little boring. So, he decided to add bubbles made of colorful paper. I suggested using my circle punch and handed him a pile of gum-colored scrap paper. He added a little touch with marker to each one to make it look like a true bubble.

We talked about how he should make his chart to show the data. (He noticed how much data sounds like dada and repeated the word over and over as he worked on this section.) He decided a bar graph would be best, so I drew the lines and labelled it. He filled in the information.

He did a great job on much of the poster, but the "Conclusion" portion of the project was difficult for him: WHY did some gum flavors last longer--and why were all of the longer-lasting gum brands packaged in such "boring" packages? We broke it down on a table like this and talked for a long time. He got frustrated. He looked off into space. I asked leading questions. I called in reinforcements (Clint). Finally, Jared was able to state this:

Which basically sums it all up, doesn't it?
And here's the finished poster. I will be the first to admit it will probably not be the most beautiful poster at the science fair, but you know what? Jared did most of the work, and because of that, I think it's pretty close to perfect. When I asked him what he learned from this experience, he said these wise words: "I learned about gum." Exactly.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Homemade Granola

When you have to get out the door in a hurry, cold cereal is an easy choice for breakfast, but so many of the choices are high in sugar and low in health benefits. A few years ago, Clint and I started eating a bowl of bran flakes with a sliced banana and a sprinkle of granola on top for breakfast each mornin. It's hearty and nutritious, and the bran flakes complement the granola well. We found a yummy and inexpensive brand of granola at Aldi, and we stocked up on it. Then, a few months ago, I went in to resupply, and it was gone! Completely gone. I bought a different kind and when I was at the register checking out, I asked the cashier where my favorite granola was. She said Aldi was discontinuing it. Bad choice. Very bad choice.
I complained to Clint, and he said, Why don't we just make our own granola? I had thought about it before, but it seemed like it would be more expensive than store-bought once we added all the nuts and dried fruit and stuff. But he reminded me: the kind we liked best just had coconut and almonds, aside from the oats and stuff. 
We decided to try it. After testing several recipes, we found our favorite on Martha Stewart's website (here). We tweaked it a bit, though, using the ingredients we already had. Here's how I made my granola this time:

Boil together:
1/3 cup canola oil
1/4 cup syrup (we've used honey too--it makes the granola taste better, I think, but we didn't have any)
1/2 cup brown sugar

Mix together:
4 cups rolled oats
1 cup shredded coconut
1/2 cup flax seeds
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
1 cup chopped pecans
1 cup chopped almonds 
(NOTE: You don't need to use all of these nuts. You can use any kind you want--just make sure the total nut + coconut quantity is about 2-3 cups)
(SECOND NOTE: Do NOT add dried fruit at this point! It will burn in the oven and taste awful. Wait till your granola is done baking and then add it in. Learn from our mistake.)

Pour melted "syrup" over the dry ingredients and mix well.
Spread on a greased, rimmed cookie sheet and bake in a preheated (325 degrees) oven for 25-30 minutes, stirring every ten minutes of so.

Here's the granola before it's can see how pale the oats look.

When it's done, the oats will look golden brown and the nuts will be fragrant. Let the granola cool on the baking sheet, and then crumble it into small pieces. Store in an airtight container. It keeps for a few weeks--if it lasts that long!
And of course, an extra bonus: your house will smell delightful as it bakes.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Snow Day Project

When I got the call yesterday afternoon that we had another snow day, I rejoiced. Another day to spend at home--another day to sleep in--another day to snuggle with my kiddos--another day to make stuff. Sigh. Life is most definitely good around here, even if it is blasted cold. 
So, Jared and I decided a snow day was a great day to make some snowflakes to decorate my branch. I cut a plethora of small squares of printer paper (4 inches square) and we began cutting.

Jared is very serious about his business. He stuck with me for a good long time, making maybe ten snowflakes. Lauren and Jonah popped in for a bit and contributed a few snowflakes apiece, but Bubs was in for the long haul. And of course, I took the best scissors for the task, so he even had to deal with the frustration of cutting thickly folded paper with those scissors they make for preschoolers. (I didn't tell him his scissors were awful, though, so he probably didn't even realize what he was missing out on...)

Soon, we had a snowstorm on the counter top...

And then, after we had made them all, I had a moment of near-panic, for I realized I had lent out my spool of baker's twine to a friend so she could truss up her roast beast for Christmas dinner--and I didn't have it back yet. But, never fear: plain old thread worked just fine. And soon, I had a little snow storm hanging over my favorite reading chair.
The birds don't seem to mind the cold up there either...

Saturday, January 4, 2014

A Glimpse into the Process: Handmade Cards--The Watercolor Collection

For several years now, I have sent handmade birthday cards to our family members--and our list has grown significantly in those years. (I'm up to 70 cards per year) I usually carve out several days (like Christmas break) to work on a large batch at a time.
First, I start by thinking. I think about the past year, and what pops into my head when I consider my family members. For some, it's easy. Some of them do ridiculous things--or have outlandish hobbies that just beg to be immortalized in a birthday card. For others, I am more kind and heartwarming and create a card that might (if I'm lucky) bring a tear of liquefied love into their eyes. For others, it's a toss up. They might laugh or they might have to smother irritation with me when they open the card.
But I figure if I enjoy making it, hopefully they will enjoy opening it and receiving it. Nobody has complained so far.
I haven't always sketched the cards out ahead of time, but I started doing it last year, and it's nice to have a catalogue of what I've done. I am not very diligent about keeping records of cards I've made, so this is a way I can look back and congratulate myself on my creative genius. (So, these are sketches for the fall 2013 birthdays.)

After I've completed the preliminary sketches, I start making the individual cards. Last fall, I had a moment of what I now recognize to be stunning brilliance in which I tried reversing my process. It has saved me precious hours (which I have employed doing my other favorite thing: reading) and wasted watercolor paper. I had always started by sketching on the watercolor paper in pencil, then painting, and then outlining in pen. Last fall, I (get ready: here it is) REVERSED the last two steps. Yes, that's right. I outlined first and then I painted. I know what you're thinking because I've already thought it myself So Many Times: this girl is a revolutionary artistic genius.
Yeah, so anyway, after I ink them all in, I start painting.

Those of you who have gratefully received my cards in the past, don't be put off by these next pictures. Although what you see may look like a Henry Ford induced assembly line, it is not. Nope, not at all. I am simply cutting a few (very unnecessary) corners in the boring part so that I can devote MORE quality time to reading making your cards more amazing. Plus, it saves me the hassle of mixing the colors so precisely for skin tones. Urg. That part's a little annoying, I'll admit.

Of course, after filling in all the fleshy parts, I get to do the fun stuff: details of hair and clothing and shoes and backgrounds. This is what makes the painting part so fun. This year, I splurged and bought myself a really nice detail brush, and it made painting the really tiny parts a work of great joy.

I'm not sure whether I like the final stage best or whether it's tied with sketching and drawing and painting, but I do like crafting the lines for the bottom. I really love tiny things: babies, robins' eggs, espressos, truffles, stuff like that. When I think about it, I realize that's why I like this last step so much: each card tells a really tiny story. Some of them are hands down hilarious (ask my dad to see his Father's Day card from last year--or Micah's birthday card--those two still make me laugh till my belly hurts) and some of them are so heartwarming you can shed your sweater (you know, 'cause your heart's hot). But all of them capture (I hope) a tiny piece of the recipient's life as I see it.

My family gets involved in the last stage because I make them sit down in a row next to me and we all sign the cards. Then, I carefully slide them into envelopes, address each one, and seal them with fun tape ('cause I hate licking envelopes). I organize them by the date they need to be mailed and put them in a basket. Today, I finished up the first 20 for this year. I'm set through April. Only 50 more cards to make! 
You know, my family is a blessed family--blessed with the gift of giving. Birth. (Remember when you said that, Dad? In Bible study at church when we were studying I Corinthians 12?) And I'm blessed to be a part of such a wonderful collection of people.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Dinner at Home: Day One

Today has been a chilly day, and when I'm cold, I crave soup. Chicken noodle sounded just about right. I used two whole chicken breasts (bone in, skins removed), a handful of chopped potatoes and carrots (about 5-7 of each of them), 3 or so cloves of chopped garlic, and a chopped onion. I sauteed the veggies in a little olive oil and then added the chicken breasts. Then I covered all of the ingredients with water, allowing about 3 inches of extra water on top. Jonah seasoned the soup for me. I know he added salt and pepper, and I think I saw him add oregano, basil, rosemary, and garlic salt too. I set it on the wood burner to boil for an hour.

Then I mixed up the noodles. If you've never made noodles from scratch, you should try it! They're easy and much more satisfying than pre-made noodles. 
Here's the recipe:
2 cups flour
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp black pepper (optional)
2 eggs
1/4 cup water
Stir together the dry ingredients, stir in eggs, and then incorporate the water. All of this can be done by hand in a mixing bowl, although the dough will be dry. Usually, I take it out of the bowl and knead it a bit on a floured counter top. Then, roll out the dough so it's about 1/8-1/4" thick.

After I have rolled out my dough, I use this handy board scraper to cut my noodles into long strips. You could also use a butter knife. After I've cut the strips, I cut each strip into 4-5 pieces so we all get plenty of noodles in our soup--and cutting them into shorter pieces makes them easier to slurp up.

This is the pile of noodles once I got them all cut up. I let them rest on the counter top with a little extra flour mixed in so they wouldn't clump together. Once the chicken was cooked through and the whole house smelled like soup, I pulled out the chicken so I could cut it up and then put the noodles in to cook.

And then I added the chicken back into the soup, and there you go! Simple and satisfying.

My lovely husband added some fresh whole wheat rolls that he just happened to whip up this afternoon, and it was a perfect supper.

Sweater Cowl

This year, I found a great tutorial on this blog for upcycled sweater cowls. I made one for each of Clint's sisters (the ones we saw at Christmas) and our niece, who is in college. What a lovely way to stay warm in winter. I began by finding a whole pile of sweaters at our local thrift store (checking each one to make sure it can be machine washed) and washing them all. For each cowl, you will need two sweaters, so I also had to make sure I had two complementary colors for each cowl. Once they were clean, I had to remember which colors I had intended for mates. Once that onerous task was complete, it was time to hack away.

On the tutorial I read, Steph suggests cutting off each sweater beneath the arm holes which I did, but she also suggests cutting off the hem. I sat and stared at her directions for awhile, thinking. Some of my sweaters had really interesting bottoms, and I didn't want to waste the length either. So, I left the bottoms uncut. I figured I'd sew up one cowl with the bottom hem intact and see how things went. I could always fix my error, and there was no sense cutting all the bottoms until I knew I had to.

NOTE FOR THRIFTY PEOPLE: after I cut all the tops of the sweaters off, I looked at that pile and thought one thing: all those sweater sleeves, those could become leg warmers! Yes, that's right. Leg Warmers. No longer should they be solely for children or aerobic dancers of the 80s. Now, they're mine too, and I love them.

After making my cuts AROUND the sweaters, I cut each sweater along one side seam so I had one long rectangle from each sweater. I pinned two sweater rectangles RIGHT SIDES together along the two long edges and sewed along the two long edges. 

Then, I turned the tube right side in. Next, I matched up my top and bottom for the two open ends, started just before the top seam, and sewed the two ends together, RST. I got almost all the way around my seam, with a bit of sweating and manipulating of the fabric, and then I had to hand stitch about 3" of what I couldn't sew by machine. And then...

Voila! One sweater cowl was done. And as you may be able to see, I was able to use the pretty edge at the bottom of the sweater without having to cut it off. I tried the first sweater cowl on, and it was So Warm, So Soft, and So Cozy. I hated to take it off, but I knew I must because it wasn't mine. It was a present. And some people get a little testy when you wear their presents for awhile before you give said presents to them (which is a little selfish, in my opinion). (No offense, dear reader, if you are a recipient of one of these sweater cowls. Of course, I am not saying YOU are selfish. It's all the other people; not you.)

After that, it was pretty quick work to sew up the rest. I think each one is lovely, and I hope they get plenty of use. I learned a few things in my sewing experience:

1) Sweater sleeves make lovely leg warmers--and they don't even need to be hemmed at the cut edge! I just folded it down to make an upper cuff. Perfecto!
2) My sewing machine got angry with me when I tried to sew together two thick and bulky sweaters to make one of the cowls. I think it would have made a very cozy cowl, but I don't want to kill my machine. I ended up setting that one aside...I'm thinking I might pick it apart and try using a t-shirt I don't wear anymore as the lining.
3) A tight-fitting narrow waisted sweater makes a perfectly fitting cowl, I think. It fits very well around the neck without being droopy or bulky. If you use a larger sweater, you might want to cut off some of the extra width to make your sweater cowl more snug around the neck.

And here's the whole batch of them, reading for wrapping. Merry Christmas to some lovely ladies!

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Little Things for Little Girls

I have three young nieces who love to draw and create. Each of them is a talented artist, and whenever we visit, I catch them drawing. This year for Christmas, I made each of them a little notebook to keep track of her drawings. Each one is small enough to tuck into a little purse or backpack and take along on car rides or other ventures when a time for drawing might present itself.

I used a modified (read: smaller and simpler) version of the technique I used in this project, and I used an upcycled cracker box for each notebook's cover. This will make the notebooks much more sturdy--a must for young artists (and older artists too!). I lined the inside of each notebook with a sheet of colorful paper (sorry, no pictures) and then decorated each notebook with a simple line drawing.

The girls loved their notebooks and began drawing in them right away. I love being able to create and give simple, thoughtful gifts, and these certainly fit the bill.