31 December 2011

Ten Top Lessons from Restaurant Kitchens

Dear Lissy,
Dad and I have spent a good bit of our working years in professional kitchens, both restaurant and institutional.  That experience has changed how I manage my home kitchen.  Here are the top 10 lessons I've learned from the pros in food service.

One:  Quality equipment pays for itself.  
Your daddy made sure I had the best he could afford from Day One. Literally.  My wedding present was a Kitchenaid Professional mixer, and we used my first paycheck to purchase the set of Calphalon I still use almost 20 years later.  Even when I wasn't a very good cook, and I would rather have spent the money decorating, he insisted on top quality tools and equipment.  Now that I am a good cook, I appreciate his wisdom in purchasing things once.  I'm currently employed in a restaurant where the owner/manager likes to bring equipment from home or pick it up at Wal-Mart.  Major frustration.  The performance levels of home kitchen smallware is light years away from Vollrath and Cambro.

Good knives are an important part of any kitchen.  I like and use Sani-safe knives that were a gift to us when we left the college. They're not terribly expensive, but they have carbon steel blades that re-sharpen easily and are weighted well.

Just recently I've learned how comfortable -- and functional -- chef's jackets (or baker's whites) are compared to an apron.  I'm in the process of switching over to that restaurant standard this year at home.  I love my "muffin hat" that I wear to cover my hair while I bake at the restaurant, but I probably won't be wearing it at home unless I'm cooking gifts.

Two:  Stocking a pantry, fridge, & freezer to pre-determined build levels is more economical than shopping to a menu. 
 I buy almost everything on sale, and keep as much in my cabinets, fridge, and freezer as will fit.  I usually have whole flats of canned foods under our bed, too.  Although I write a general set of menus, my shopping is simply to replace what I've used up in the last week, much like a restaurant "build list".  Very occasionally I will make a special dish that requires a particular ingredient, but most of my recipes can be made without additional purchases.  Most people think buying in bulk is cheaper, but I've found it's about 50/50.  I like having the "food in the bank" so to speak, but often smaller sizes also have smaller unit prices.

Three:  There is a difference between clean & sanitary.  
Clean:  The absence of dirt and foreign particles.  
Sanitary:  The absence of microorganisms that cause disease.  

As a general rule:

  • Every pot, pan, prep board, and utensil needs to be washed clean and sanitized with either very hot water or a solution that includes a quarternary cleaner (like bleach), air dried, and stored in a clean and sanitary location.  
  • Every surface should be sanitized before prepping food, and cleaned thoroughly after every service (meal).  Dishtowels and rags shouldn't be left out to be re-used. Launder them after every service.  Sponges need to be sanitized daily.  Run them through the dishwasher in the top rack, or store in a quat solution in a sealed container overnight.
  • Hair should be tied back or covered.  Hands need to be scrupulously clean or gloved.  If you have a head cold or cough, tie on a mask.  Wear a clean chef's coat or apron when preparing food, too.
  • Unheated foods (lettuce, fruits, etc.) tend to be the cause of foodborne illness.  Once you've handled raw meat or eggs, clean and sanitize your work surface and your hands.  Don't store salads below raw meats in your fridge.
  • Clean the fridge and pantry out weekly, the freezer and storage areas monthly, and pull out your equipment a couple of times a year. 

Four:  Technique is king.

A good cook, or chef, relies heavily on technique and basic ratios. There is a proper way to dice an onion, bone a chicken, or clarify stock.  It is an absolute joy to put together a meal when you aren't glancing at a cookbook every 5 seconds.
One classic example is the basic steak.  When I was a noob in the kitchen, I served steak hot off the grill (or broiler).  After a stint in a professional kitchen, I learned the meat needed to rest, and allowed it to stand under a foil tent in a warm oven for 15 - 20 minutes.  While talking with Uncle Pat, a chef at a 4 star restaurant, I learned that they immediately immerse their steaks in a bath of hot melted butter to temper. While I probably won't be melting down $5.00 worth of butter to make four star steaks, a quick brush with melted butter while they stand makes a big difference.
Once you master about two dozen basic techniques, you hit a zone cooking that rivals any joggers' high.  Baking, while still based on ratios, is much more precise.  Even a baker relies heavily on good technique, though.
Another technique near and dear to my heart is bread making.  Until you've made bread with an experienced baker, the recipe seems rather vague and complex.  Once you know how each step of the process should progress, bread making is incredibly satisfying physically and emotionally.

Five:  Good chefs use all 5 senses, good meals appeal to all 5 senses.
Grammy Bea used to tell me to "make it till it looks right, and cook until it's done".  Very frustrating for a new wife, to say the least!  In reality, after cooking for thousands of hours, you will find yourself relying on cues from sight, smell, sound, taste, and feel rather than recipes, timers, and thermometers.  Give yourself a head start by thinking about how your recipe looks, feels, smells, sounds, and tastes while you're learning.  Nine times out of ten I pull items out of the oven within seconds of the timer just because I can smell when they're done.   I make bread entirely by sight, smell and feel.  Steaks and hamburgers rely on touch (beef progresses from soft to springy as it cooks) and sight (juice color rising to the surface) to determine doneness.
For the loved ones eating your cooking, make sure your meals not only taste and smell good, but look appealing and incorporate a variety of textures (feel).  For us, sound has a lot to do with good manners.  Whining, bickering, slurping, scraping, and banging are trained out very early on.  We enjoy laughing and talking about our day or a favorite topic while we eat.  Eating meals together as a family influences children's behavior and school performance more than any other variable -- it's vitally important to make that time count.

Six:  Label leftovers.
In restaurants and institutions, every leftover, prepped, or opened item in the fridge and pantry is labeled and dated.  I don't date every box, can, and jar I open, but I do take a few seconds to label & date leftovers on the side facing the fridge door.  If a family member sees:  Upside down chicken pot pie, 12/30/11 they're a lot more likely to reheat it for lunch than if they're faced with a container full of unidentifiable bits.  I'll also know when I clean the fridge on Monday that it needs to be tossed if it's more than a couple of days old.

Seven:  Fresh is better than fancy.
Get in the habit early on of making as many things as possible from scratch.  It takes very little time, is incredibly economical, promotes better health, and just tastes better.  Avoid processed pre-prepared foods like the plague, and buy as fresh as you can afford.  Grow the herbs you use most.  Pick up a couple of fresh lemons each week.  Keep good quality olive oil on hand.  We would rather have a simple baked chicken, barley pilaf, garden salad with homemade dressing, and crusty loaf of bread than an elaborate meal requiring boxes, bottles, and cans.  When money is super-tight, a fresh salad, homemade soup, and piping hot bread sticks can be served for about the same cost as hamburger helper and canned biscuits.  Which would you rather have?
Food has fashions, too.  Your menus should reflect the weather and keep up with current trends.  Part of keeping a restaurant or institution vibrant is rotating menus, introducing new items, and featuring seasonal foods.  While your family will always have favorite recipes, keep your menus fresh and new.  When you sense  your family is bored of a recipe, retire it for at least a few months and replace it with something new.

Eight:  Consistency is crucial
In the restaurant world, chefs are accused of "overmenuing" themselves.  Overmenuing means they've got more ambition than skill or time.  It's more important that you have consistently good meals on the table day in, day out than that you can cook a dazzling meal once a week or for company.  Almost anyone would rather have a juicy pulled pork sandwich, coleslaw, and crispy oven baked fries than a pork roast that could double as sawdust, a barely ripe fruit salad, and watery potatoes au gratin.

Nine:  Insist on top quality spices and condiments.
Only the top restaurants in the world are able to afford to buy in every single item at the same quality.  When you're faced with a budget, choose spices and condiments that are the best you can afford, even if you have to buy store brand pasta, compromise on a cut of meat, or substitute a fruit or veggie for one that's in season.
Quality condiments instantly upgrade a meal.  
Baked goods move up a notch when you buy the cinnamon from Penzey's or another quality spice vendor.  A good mustard makes a statement with Kielbasa and cabbage.  Freshly grated nutmeg is outstanding in any white sauce based dish.  We're particularly fond of a certain brand of sweet red pepper relish with everything from cream cheese and crackers to fajitas.  I'm nuts about pomegranate jelly from Trappist Preserves.  It's not particularly expensive, but it's not store brand apple jelly either.  Many store brands are identical to national brands if you take the time to look online.  It's my hope to get to the point where I'm able to grow and make a good number of our herbs and condiments, but right now, I'm just too busy to make that a reality.

Ten:  Details make the difference.
Heat the plates.  Drop a lemon slice in the iced water.  Use cloth napkins.  Grate fresh Parmesan for the spaghetti and meatballs.  Serve an appetizer when the meal is running late, or a special dessert on a night you're serving soup as the main course.  Nice restaurants pay attention to every detail from the moment you walk in the door until you leave.  The details raise meal prep from a duty to an art.  They speak volumes about your creativity and character, too.  I can remember being incredibly disappointed at the lack of attention to detail at Ruth's Chris Steakhouse years ago:  missing  lightbulbs, a chilly draft, crumby carpets, and barely lukewarm vegetables ruined what should have been a top notch dining experience.  On the other hand, we loved a little hole-in-the-wall Greek restaurant that delighted in the details right down to the homemade rose petal jam.

Working in restaurants has allowed me to streamline and excel at meal prep.  I'm still waiting for a six star range, 45 second dishwasher, and weekly delivery truck (I hate grocery shopping!), but by and large cooking is an area of my God-given duties that brings a great deal of joy.

Wishing for one of your "professional hugs",

15 December 2011

Cookie Swap: White Chocolate Dipped Gingerbread

Dear Lissy,

I'm visiting over at Miss Andrea's today sharing one of our favorite family recipes, White Chocolate Dipped Gingersnaps.
Cookies made & styled by Andrea, photo by Travis Sharkey
I love how she styled the cookies, and she has a wonderful idea for plated cookies, too!

Love to cook, cook to love!


14 December 2011

Party Noshes: Cheese Gougeres

Dear Lissy,
I've been baking off cheese gougeres all evening for an upcoming party, and you insisted that I write the recipe for you on your blog.  These simple little pate-a-choux bites are crunchy and cheesy on the outside, soft on the inside, and nearly irresistible.  I like them piping hot from the oven, Dad likes them room temperature, and your brothers will eat anything that doesn't move, so they don't count.  Gougeres (pronounced Goo-Zhays) are notoriously snobby party fare for something that is basically a spherical Cheez-It.  They're traditionally served as finger food at parties, but they're also a nice change from crackers or rolls along with soup or salad.

02 December 2011

Light My Fire, Baby!

Dear Lissy,
There are few things in this life that I enjoy more than a good fire.  Whether it's a mesmerizing flicker under a starry August sky, or a stove with it's belly full heating up my home, count me in.  Despite what you see in movies, you can't light a log with a match.  After nearly 20 years watching and learning from Dad, here's what does work.

Finding a spot. . .
If you're in a park, there are most likely designated fire rings or fireplaces where you can build.  Clear all the old ash and wood so that the air will flow freely both under and around the fire.  
If you are on someone's land, including your own, you need a fire permit.  Clear a 3 foot diameter circle right down to the dirt.  Set the duff, needles, and other detritus carefully aside so that it can be placed back over the fire pit when you leave.  Don't try to ring the circle with rocks:  rocks can explode when heated beside a fire, especially if they've gotten wet recently.

Laying a fire. . .
There are three things you need to build a fire:  air, fuel, and ignition.  The fuel is further broken down into tinder, kindling, and wood.

Tinder is dry, combustible material that easily takes a spark.
Matchstick sized dry twigs, pine cones, paper, and even Fritos will easily light with a match. In an emergency, I've even used shredded birchbark from a fallen log.  I prefer to carry a tin of large cotton balls that have been coated in antibiotic ointment.  When turned inside out and "fluffed" they light easily and burn for up to 5 minutes.  
A baseball cap's worth of matchstick sized twigs and pine cones is more than sufficient to get a fire going.  

Kindling is wood that is between pencil and finger width around.  It ignites easily when held to a flame, but will not light reliably with just a spark or match.
Kindling can be harvested from the land around the fire, but dry kindling is worth bringing if the weather has been rainy or wet.  We pick up kindling at a local furniture factory that has a dumpster free for the picking.  It is kiln dried hardwood, so it lights easily and burns hot.  In a pinch, you can shave small pieces off of kindling to make tinder for your fire.  Don't harvest kindling directly off the ground.  Choose sticks that are sticking up in the air on fallen logs or branches.  Break kindling into about 16" pieces.  You will need up to a couple of dozen kindling sticks varying in width from pencil size right up to finger width.

Firewood is wood that has been cut, dried, and split for use in a campfire or wood stove.
Look for firewood that is 18-24" long, very dry, and split.  Bark is a natural fire retardant, so the more interior wood that's exposed, the better it will catch and burn.  Pine doesn't burn clean or hot:  choose hardwoods for the best fire.  An ax or hatchet can be used to split larger pieces, too.  We generally either use very large pieces of kindling or chop a piece of firewood down to wrist-sized pieces to place on the newly started fire.  It is unpleasant to have to get up from a fire to collect or chop more wood.  Have your wood collected/purchased, split, and stacked before lighting the fire.

I prefer the shed or lean-to style fire lay as it's easy to build, light, and maintain.
  • Place a large piece of firewood directly on the ground.
  • Place a pile of tinder directly in front of the log. (1)
  • Form a lean-to over the tinder with the kindling. (2)
  • Slide the Vaseline soaked cotton ball, potato chip, or other firestarter into the side of the tinder pile.
  • Light the firestarter with a match, lighter, or flint.
  • If necessary, blow gently to help the kindling ignite from the burning tinder.
  • Lay smaller pieces of firewood the same way as you laid the kindling once the kindling has caught. (3)
  • Adding wood that is too big, too quickly creates LOTS of smoke.
  • Once the fire is well established, continue adding increasingly larger pieces of wood, always seeking to maintain an airspace.
A few notes. . .
  • Build fires lays up, not out.  As a general rule, the fire lay should be about knee high on an adult.
  • ALWAYS have three ways to light a fire on your person:  matches, lighter, firesteel, etc.
  • Collect tinder, kindling, and fuel before you start your fire.  Campfires and cooking fires should never be doused with liquid fuel to accelerate ignition.
  • A cooking fire is quite small or the cook gets cooked.
  • Fry over fire, cook over coals.  In order to use a frying pan, you need flames.  Almost any other cooking requires a bed of coals.  To make a good bed of coals for roasting/cooking, add a lot of dry firewood all at once to an established fire, and then let it burn down to coals.
  • A camping fire meant to provide light, a little heat, and deter bugs/critters should be fed just one log at a time.
  • If wood is damp or wet, stand it up beside the fire to dry out.  
  • Put fires COLD OUT with water, and then shovel the ashes into the dirt below.  You should be able to set your hand into the fire ring before you leave.
The same rules hold true for a wood stove or fireplace.  Start with a good bed of tinder (crumpled paper and twigs work fine) and small kindling.  Make sure the flue and dampers are wide open. Light the paper in several places. Add large kindling/small firewood at first, and gradually increase the size of the fuel until full sized logs catch and burn easily.  Once the fire is well established, shut down the air supply to throw more heat out into the room.  Don't try to use the "movie method" and place full sized logs on a bed of newspaper or you'll just fill the house with smoke.

I hope you'll have many happy hours in front of a fire.  It's immensely satisfying to start a fire quickly and keep it going. As you gain skill you'll learn tricks for starting wet wood, starting a fire in the rain, and even which wood burns well green (ash, around here).  I've heard that a wood burning fireplace or stove and a screened in porch are the two "must have" items to make a house feel like a home -- I definitely agree!


30 November 2011

Weeknight Supper: Chapel Hill Chicken

Dear Lissy,

I love how recipes bring to mind the person who shared them!  Every time I make Chapel Hill Chicken,  I think of and pray for my high school piano teacher.  I wish I had this recipe in her handwriting, but it's still special in my heart.  I particularly like this dish for casual entertaining because it looks like a simple, non-threatening crumb-coated chicken breast, but has a savory, cheesy flavor and a nice crunch.  It can be sliced and fanned for presentation on the plate, or just left whole to pass family style.

24 November 2011

Family Traditions: Thanksgiving

Dear Lissy,
Our family Thanksgiving tradition is so tied to Auntie Nancy's house that you call her place "Thanksgiving."  We've been making the pilgrimage to New York for 15 years, and we all eagerly anticipate the time together with Dad's side of the family.

09 November 2011

A Home-sewn Christmas

Dear Lissy,
As you know, I love making home-sewn or baked gifts for Christmas.  This year I'm in tote bag mode: almost anyone can find a use for one more!  I toyed with the idea of plain canvas shopping totes, but settled instead on a book bag sized tote that could double as a purse in a pinch.  I found a simple pattern that would be easy to cut and sew "assembly line" style.
Esther's Tote from Ooh! Pretty Colors

18 October 2011

Staying Out of (Time) Debt

Dear Lissy,
Last week we cleaned out your little girl room and we've been working on switching you over to a young lady's room.  I was so pleased at 4:30 check yesterday afternoon to find fresh flowers, classical music, the lamp turned on, and both your brothers hanging out in your room.  You're already learning how to create a welcoming space and extend hospitality.  I also had more fun than one momma can handle sneaking up and replacing your comforter and curtains with new ones after dinner.  Your shrieks of happiness were worth every minute of trouble.  But part of last week's work was paying back a debt we'd spent a year accumulating.  A time debt, if you will.

01 October 2011

French Onion Cider Soup

Dear Lissy,
Ooh-la-la, how I love my French Onion Soup!  This fall variation is a fusion of the original recipe from Springledge Farm and the Cook's Illustrated French Onion Soup.  I like the onions soft, sweet, and carmelized with a punch of flavor...they should almost melt into the soup. This recipe takes about 4 hours start to finish, but is SO worth it!

30 September 2011

Apple Strudel Cheese Pie

Dear Lissy,
Autumn has long been my favorite season.  I dive back into baking with a passion as soon as the weather turns cool.  Apple Strudel Cheese Pie is one of our family's most beloved desserts.  The bottom is a classic cheesecake, the top is an apple crumb pie.  Perfection.

21 September 2011

Are You Ready to Reign?

Dear Lissy,
There are seasons you will grow "weary in well-doing" or lose sight of eternity.  I keep this question stuck in Proverbs so I run across it once a month or so:

13 September 2011

Cheat Sheet: Dealing with Impatience, Irritability & Frustration

Dear Lissy,

Impatient?  Irritable?  Frustrated? Angry?  Those emotions are "idiot lights" on the dashboard of life indicating a need for heart action.

09 September 2011

Free Sewing E-book

This is not a letter, but a too-good-not-to-pass-on treat for those of you who read along as I write Fliss.

A free e-book with Ten Essential Sewing Techniques from Sew Daily!   If you're not already signed up with Interweave you may have to create an account in order to download the book.

Free Sewing E-Book Link

Happy Sewing!

07 September 2011

Home Management Cheat Sheet: Everyday Essentials

Dear Lissy,
There is a universal management principle called the "80/20 law".  It has many applications, but for our particular case we want to focus on "20% of our time produces 80% of the results".  There will be many times throughout life that you have a limited amount of time or energy for home management, and it's important to know how to best spend that time.  I've already written you a letter about the 5 Most Important Household Tasks, so this cheat sheet will be based on that letter.  My intent is not to encourage you to neglect the remaining 20% -- that is often what makes a house into a home -- but to give you a "sanity preserver."

06 September 2011

Home Management Cheat Sheet: Mornings

Dear Lissy,
The blog is starting to get big, so for my 100th letter I'm starting a series of "Cheat Sheets".  I want to have the important information in one easy to use spot.  Today's "cheat sheet" is for mornings.  I've included two different types of mornings, but in truth I often have a combination of both as a home schooling mom.  I hope these "cheat sheets" will be a blessing to you in the years to come.
Start the day out right...play footsies with your hubby under the table!

27 August 2011

Why I Don't Use Homemade Cleaners

Dear Lissy,
From Tang in the toilet to 101 Uses for White Vinegar, books, articles, and posts on "making your own cleaning supplies" abound.  There is a perception that homemade cleaners are the most economical, safest, and simplest methods of cleaning your home.  

19 August 2011

Cash for the Merchandise!

Dear Lissy,
I have a degree in Secondary Mathematics Education.  I grew up in the home of a CPA and financial counselor.  You would think that making and adhering to a budget would be as natural as breathing.  It isn't.  I have a fatal flaw in my brain wiring that doesn't allow me to comprehend electronic debits and credits.  If I'm not dealing in cold hard cash, I fall flat.
Here are a few basic principles for keeping on a cash budget.

28 July 2011

Popping the Question

Dear Lissy,
Good morning, Lovebug!  It's taken me many years to learn the lesson I want to teach you today, and I'm still working on it.  
"Hi!  How are you?" is probably the most familiar greeting in our society.  We expect a positive reply in response, and almost always get a "fine" or "can't complain" even if we find out later the person has recently undergone amputation because of third degree burns sustained trying to get their dying mother out of their flaming home.
But there's a better question to ask, and learning how - and when - to ask that question is an art that takes a lifetime to master.

26 July 2011

(Neat) Sloppy Joes

Dear Lissy,
I've been cooking with ground beef for 20 years when WHAMMO! a new cut of beef shows up at our grocer that's rocking my recipes to a very happy place.  I am quite smitten with Carne Picada, a shredded beef product that gives the flavor and feel of steak but is less expensive than either steak or hamburger.  I've used it in spaghetti sauce, Philly cheese steaks, loaded nachos, chili, beef stroganoff and now (drumroll, please) Sloppy Joes.  "Neat Joes" are a kid favorite because of their mild, pepper-free flavor.  I like them because the thick sauce makes less of a mess (notice I didn't say no mess).  If you can find Carne Picada where you live it's worth a spin in this recipe; but regular ol' ground beef is almost as good.

23 July 2011

My Favorite Apron Modification

Dear Lissy,
We love our aprons around here!  The cotton duck cleaning apron that holds our tools, the baker's aprons (white, no pockets!) and even the gardening apron that keeps tools close at hand. But in order for an apron to be functional, you often have to modify it a bit.  Sometimes it's as simple as adding a seam to make a narrow pocket for a pen or pencil, other times it's moving or removing a piece that catches or gets in the way.  But my favorite apron hack makes my aprons twice as useful and costs less than $1.
Love it?  Buy it at flirtyaprons.com!

20 July 2011

Mennonite Grilled Chicken

Dear Lissy,
I have long admired the spirit of the women in the Mennonite community.  This recipe is from the Mennonite Girls Can Cook! blog, one of my web "hot spots" for both inspiration and education. MGCC is one of the few sites devoted to feeding larger families with men who physically work hard all day long and has an entire section of recipes for feeding a crowd of thirty thrown in for good measure.

 Mennonite Grilled Chicken is a deceptively simple recipe:  
all of the ingredients develop complex flavors when exposed to heat.
The whole is definitely greater than the sum of its parts!

16 July 2011

Finish the Job, Finish the Job, Get It DONE!

Dear Lissy,
We worked hard today!  The boys and I trimmed all of the grass and pulled weeds on the narrow strip outside the fence, and then we reworked the area where they pulled out the sidewalk last year.  Moving rocks is good exercise!  We spent a little time in the garden weeding and harvesting, too.  You and I banked over 60 cinnamon rolls for the freezer, and pushed through Saturday housework.  I'll touch up our Sunday clothes and pack totes for the trip north before I turn in this evening.  As we worked and cleaned, I thought about this simple principle I learned when I was first trying to keep house.

11 July 2011

Plan B

Dear Lissy,
Well, I've done it!  Daddy's convinced me to take a few hours a week to bake artisan bread for a new restaurant opening up in the historic district.  I'm excited and nervous all at once.  I  know it will be easy to take my focus off our home as I start something brand new (bread) and return to our schoolwork in a little over six weeks. Time for Plan B.

15 June 2011

Giving Your Children the Gift of Music

Dear Lissy,

Today I am posting a letter for you from my friend, Mrs. Rachel S.  She has educated her four children at home for many years.  I greatly admire her dedication to excellence in both academics and the arts.  Her two oldest children have placed at the state level numerous times in piano performance.  I asked her to share her heart for music education as well as her methods.  Enjoy!

“The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.” 
~ Johann Sebastian Bach

09 June 2011

Awesome Possum

Dear Lissy,
It's been triple-H weather here for the last few days, and I've been enjoying the gas grill God provided for our family this spring.  Awesome Possum is one of our all-time favorite summer grill recipes. The combination of orange & lime juice along with the spices gives the chicken a light Mexican flavor that works as well in fajitas as it does on a salad.  The chicken is also tasty rolled up in a naan or other warm flatbread with a little tzatziki sauce.

25 May 2011

5 Things That NEVER Go on Vacation

Dear Lissy,
School's completed for another year, the state paperwork has been filed, and our curriculum for 2011-2012 is on its way. Summer is fun, busy, and all-too-brief here, so this will be my last letter for a while. I've got mondo work to do in the flower and vegetable gardens and we're doing a major overhaul of the house, too, so we can get ALL of the walls and attic fully insulated before winter.

22 May 2011

Free PDF Download: Weekly Planning Overview

Dear Lissy,
I wrote to you some time ago about my weekly plan, but I have just put it out in a document sharing folder to make it accessible to the dear ladies who read along with me as I write these letters.  I'm going to explain each part of the template here as clearly as I can, but if you have questions, please feel free to ask me.
This beautiful oil-on-canvas is available from

18 May 2011

20 Minute Bible Word Study Method

Dear Lissy,
We had a wonderful visit with Aunt Tori from Zambia yesterday, and as we left to go home, Grammy gave me a teacup for my collection that had been given to her by  missionary friends from Africa, Jim & Judy Camp.  They stayed with us when I was a little girl living on Old Loudon Road, and they used to leave the word "Thank You" written in pennies on my dresser when they left.  It's funny what you remember, isn't it?

There will be many, many times that the Holy Spirit illuminates a verse and you want to study it further.  As you meditate upon it, you will find that one or two words rise to the surface like cream.  Studying those words in depth unlock important truths about God's character and ways.

15 May 2011

Camping Recipe: Breakfast Bobadilla

Dear Lissy,
We finally celebrated Mother's Day yesterday, and it was worth the wait!  I slept in until 10 (with you snuggled in beside me) while Dad & the boys went to Men's breakfast at church. After lingering over our breakfast we went for a long walk in the wooded trails behind the cemetery and came home to a big surprise:  Dad got me a Jetboil Zip!!!  Dad's not long on cards, or gift wrapping for that matter, but when the gift comes in an L.L. Bean bag, I'm not going to quibble over details.
The Jetboil in use. The parts pack
into the mug for travel.

13 May 2011

Sharpening A Pencil with A Knife

Dear Lissy,
A deliciously warm day, and you've spent hours looking inside flowers with a magnifying glass and making dandelion curls. I'm planning to go on a geocache for our afternoon exercise, but I need to find a few baubles to leave behind in place of the ones we take.  It's the time of year I love to sketch all the beautiful little details God has hidden.  I find it much more practical to sharpen drawing pencils with a knife than with a sharpener, a skill that's simple to master to keep your pencils in good nick.

11 May 2011

Secret of The Believer's Gratitude

Dear Lissy,
Your daddy has had a number of opportunities to preach lately, and he's been hitting hard on his favorite topic: the believer's response to trials.  We've been hearing stories of Jehosophat and Hannah, Paul and David, Abraham and Joseph.  All of them have a common thread, what I would call the secret of the believer's gratitude.

06 May 2011

Emotional Stability in Seasons of Change

Dear Lissy,
There will be many times in your life when you're faced with new responsibilities.  College, marriage, a new job, a new baby are just a few of the changes you may face.  It was in God's plan for me to work under a man who was not only a godly example, but also had great wisdom.  One day he found me overwhelmed and in tears and gave me this "pep talk".  Mr. C's wise words have grown through other godly counsel and saved me from a world of emotional turmoil many times over the years.

05 May 2011

Light & Chewy Whole Grain Loaves

Dear Lissy,
Bread-making has long been a hobby of mine. When we were newlyweds I collected recipes hand over fist, looking for perfect loaves. I quickly learned that great technique plus high quality ingredients make the best bread.  Given flour, water, yeast, and salt I can make beautiful and delicious loaves with no recipe at all.
Photo available for purchase at allposters.com

02 May 2011

Simple, Powerful Quiet Time Plan

Dear Lissy,
There will be many times in life when you have a friend who is struggling with a daily quiet time, or you are at loose ends yourself.  When that time comes, reach for this book!

01 May 2011

Skyline Chili: Hospitality for Picky Eaters Solved!

Dear Lissy,
Nature's first green is gold once again.  The newly emerging leaves have left the hills around the house a riot of chartreuse, gold, mint, and pink that rival fall in my opinion. Daffodils and forsythias are in full bloom in our front flower beds.  All the lettuces showed up today, and the peas are a little over an inch tall. The neighbors took down all but one tree in their backyard, so we have a whole new world of possibilities for the three back garden beds.
About a year ago a friend of mine from the Midwest posted a recipe for Cincinnati Skyline Chili.  It has quickly become a favorite of our family, but that's not why I'm including it in this letter.
Skyline Chili is quite possibly the perfect food to serve young families (especially those with picky eaters!) when they come for dinner.

29 April 2011

The #1 Tip for Keeping Your Marriage Marvelous

Dear Lissy,
You rose early with me this morning to watch the royal wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton.  Your girlish heart -- and mine! -- delighted in all the beautiful hats and the exquisite lace gown worn by the bride. We enjoyed a four course British breakfast (Orange Juice & Tea, Porridge, "Fry-Up", and Toast & Jam) as the pomp and circumstance played out before us.  It seemed like we waited an hour for the iconic "Balcony Kiss", and you wriggled in excitement the entire time.
When the time for your own wedding comes you will have several weeks of counseling with your pastor or a trusted friend to prepare your heart and mind for your biblical role as a wife.  It's vitally important to build your marriage according to God's Word on the foundation of your faith in Christ.  But there are also some simple, practical truths that help a marriage function well.  Today's letter is going to focus on the single most important advice we ever received:

28 April 2011

4 Garden Helpers

Dear Lissy,
I had a proud mommy moment yesterday while we were planting all of our spring crops. It was very warm, and you requested lemonade. Instead of just making yourself a cup,  you made an entire pitcher and brought out cups for all of us. Way to go, girlie!
I have two simple garden hints today that make a big difference in the amount of work and money I spend in my garden.

Take a worm census.
Worms are good indicators not just of soil health but also pH.  If you have a good worm population, the soil will be suitable for growing vegetables as well.
On a warm spring day when the soil has reached 60 degrees but isn't over 65, dig up a one foot by one foot by seven inch deep square of your garden and place it on a tarp or board.  Count the number of worms (size doesn't matter).  You should have at least 10 and it's not uncommon to have 50 or more.  The soil needs to be very moist to get an accurate count.  If it hasn't rained in the last 24 hours, use a sprinkler over the area before taking your census.  Worms head down into their burrows with very little provocation.  Walk lightly and dig quickly!

Use solar power to remove weeds.
If you have a garden bed that was especially weedy or you're expanding your plot, cover it with heavy mil black plastic for at least two weeks before planting.  You will need several days of direct, hot sun to kill all of the weed seeds in the soil.  The plastic is available at most hardware stores and home centers at a fraction of the cost of landscaping fabric.  You can plant through "x" shaped holes cut into black plastic, but it makes watering tricky.  I prefer to use the plastic just long enough to bake the weeds and then remove it.

Use a board to sprout carrots.
Carrots need constantly moist soil to sprout. After you plant the seeds and (gently) water the plot, cover the rows with 1 x 2's or other scrap lumber.  Check under the boards occasionally and remove them as soon as you see sprouts.

Straw makes an ideal lightweight mulch.

Veggies prefer their feet cool and moist.  Place a 4-6" layer of straw around the base of plants to provide optimum growing conditions and suppress weeds.  Be careful not to purchase hay which has thousands of seeds.  Learned that lesson the hard way....

Lovin' you!

These pictures are all from the gardens of those who love to share their growing tips and tricks.  

27 April 2011

What are YOUR magic numbers?

Dear Lissy,
You have had a fascination with all things Chinese since you were an itty-bitty.  We've had Chinese themed birthday parties twice, the most memorable when your birthday fell on Chinese New Year's. You almost always choose the Chinese restaurant for dates with Daddy.  We've checked books out of the library so you could learn Mandarin, and your dress up trunk as a little girl held all manner of Chinese clothes and embroidered silk "flats".  Your dreams right now involve nursing school in China, too.
Fortune cookies, although not technically from China, are a particular favorite.  You read your "fortune" in a mysterious voice and wiggle your eyebrows in pleasure.  The slim strip is then flipped over and you slowly read your lucky numbers.  You are well aware that neither side holds any real significance, but you still thrill every time you crack open the crisp lemon-scented cookie.
My "magic numbers" are far more mundane.

26 April 2011

6 Outstanding Resources for Committed Parenting

Dear Lissy,
April showers....and not much else!  All of you are stir crazy enough to be spending time outdoors in the rain.  The neighbor donated several tons of dirt from his yard project yesterday, and you and Matt played "Battleship" on it all afternoon.  I'm almost sad we have to level it.  The rest of our spring veggies will be going in this week with hoop houses up to keep them protected.  We've let the coal stove burn out, too.  Cross my fingers, I think spring has finally arrived.
I won't be writing a great deal about our child rearing philosophy or practices in these letters because the vast majority is contained in our library, and I'd prefer to leave you an annotated bibliography.
An Eric Guiomar creation. 

25 April 2011

Corralling King-sized Lego Collections

Dear Lissy,
We've got a full week ahead of us, so my letters this week will focus on those "aha!" tips that make a huge difference for me.  You and your brothers received umpty-bazillion Legos as gifts and hand-me-downs during your childhood.  None of you had the desire to build a set more than once, so we had a Rubbermaid flip-top trunk that all the Legos lived in.
For more of Sawaya's art, go to www.brickartist.com

22 April 2011

Block Parties & Frankenrecipes

Dear Lissy,
We had an impromptu block party this afternoon!  Sometimes those drop-ins double or triple up on you.  I didn't do as well as I would have liked in the beverage department.  I haven't stocked up on lemonade yet this season, and I didn't brew an afternoon pot of coffee because the first friend to drop by was Mormon. You kids were hot and tired and filthy after a couple of hours and could have used something more than iced water.  Uncle Rich was disappointed not to get his Friday cuppa, too.  On the bright side, I was able to begin to share the gospel with my Mormon friend for the first time.  Living water is far more important than lemonade and cookies!

After having company all afternoon, I needed a quick dinner.  We had roast beef earlier in the week, so I opted for Beef Cobbler.  Warm, hearty, and filling, this is Matt's favorite dinner and makes the house smell awesome, too!

21 April 2011

Summer Fun Trunk Tote

Dear Lissy,
Trunk Tote!  Get it?
Sunny weather is fast approaching, and we like to be OUTDOORS!  If I take just an hour or so to pack a small tote we keep in the trunk, it frees us up to be much more spontaneous as a family.  This isn't the emergency kit I always keep in the back, it's more of a "fun emergency" assistant.

19 April 2011

Coffee, Tea, or Verizon?

Dear Lissy,
Many people don't know that My Utmost for His Highest by Oswald Chambers was compiled by his wife after his untimely death. Biddy's lifelong passion for putting into print the thousands of his sermons and lessons she had recorded verbatim in shorthand resulted in a library of his works that still instructs and blesses millions of Christians every year.

Fewer still know that her ministry while here on earth focused primarily on what she lovingly called "The Ministry of the Teapot".  When she saw a precious soul headed down the lane, she'd put away her typing and brew a pot of tea.  People from all over England poured out their hearts and troubles to this dear widow.

18 April 2011

Slow-Cooker "Ugly Duckling"

Dear Lissy,
I've been busy this morning getting the house back together after Sunday. Yesterday was a little taste of Heaven -- wonderful singing and preaching, a Junior Church pizza party, and then a drop in visit from the W's before we returned to church for more singing and preaching -- my heart is full!
I often use either a Crock-Pot or a low oven to have dinner ready as soon as we get home from church. As a bonus, most of the clean up is done ahead of time, too. Ugly Duckling  is one of our favorite meals.  The sauce is reminiscent of the duck sauce served de rigeur with chicken fingers from Chinese restaurants in New England, and everything in this casserole is kid friendly:  chicken chunks, pineapple, cherries, and water chestnuts.  It does live up to it's name, though...keep this recipe for family or close friends!
Yes, it is that ugly...the slow cooker is much more photogenic!

16 April 2011

Home Management Un-Binder

Dear Lissy,
Many moms in their pursuit of organizational nirvana create The Household Binder.  It goes by a variety of names -- Control Journal, Home Management Binder, Family Notebook-- but has a single purpose:  a centralized location to store information, menus, schedules, and lists.
Every time I saw one, I wanted one.  I could spend days on a project this compelling.

Most homemakers considered it the end of their struggles with keeping all the details of life contained, but I encountered some fundamental weaknesses of this notebook system every time I tried to use it :

15 April 2011

Chocolate Toffee "Crack"

Dear Lissy,
The beauty of early spring is upon us, and we are spending hours outdoors in the gardens and on the trails.  We still love a sweet treat, but I don't want to spend too much time in the kitchen.  Enter "crack", a nut bedecked chocolate and toffee candy on a cracker base.  The whole recipe goes together in 20 minutes and makes 35 - 40 treats.
This luscious photo is from Once Upon A Chef
She makes her "crack" on Matzo bread