Taking the House by Storm

The trials and tribulations of the average gal trying to navigate through life, love and the pursuit of domestic bliss.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Shortcuts, Tips & Tricks

Hey, campers. Here are some more household gems – and one beauty tip – for you.

One of my favorite shortcuts for baking is cooking spray with flour. Instead of laboriously greasing a pan with butter then sprinkling with flour or a little reserved cake mix, you can simply shake a bottle and push a nozzle. I've used both Pam and Baker's Joy with great results. The only thing I don't like about it is the fumes. My lungs feel like a sticky mess afterwards, so try to be like Clinton and don't inhale.

As my regular readers will know (thanks, you two), I am a How Clean Is Your House? fiend. Disgusting as episodes can be, it's like a train wreck I can't take my eyes off. And it usually pays off. Kim and Aggie generally have some tips even we Americans can put to good use. I'm highlighting two today.

The first is a trick for cleaning out a vase that has gross water and particles dried into the bottom. Fill the vase with vinegar (use your judgment on how much you need), toss in a handful of rice and shake. The rice loosens all the yuck and the vinegar cleans the scum. Dump out the offending concoction and rinse.

The second is an interesting way to clean your silver jewelry if you don't own any of those stinky cleaner jars. Put a piece of foil in the bottom of a plastic kitchen container, like Rubbermaid or Tupperware, and put your dirty jewelry on top.

Cover with a tea cup full of warm water and sprinkle in some baking soda. It shouldn't take long for the dirt to lift off. I haven't tried this yet, but I'm going to see if this method will clean my stainless napkin ring holders. I'll keep you posted.

Thanks to The Tyra Banks Show, an episode about cheapness and a beauty tip from Sarah Jessica Parker, I will no longer purchase those expensive blotting papers from The Body Shop. Now, I'll just excuse myself to the ladies room, grab a potty protector, tear off a piece and blot the grease off my face. I guess Hollywood isn't always glamorous, but it can be practical!

A follow up to my article on the Sugar Bear brown sugar softeners. I tried to purchase 4 each of the adorable little sugar bears and the lobster (designed to keep pots from over boiling) only to be informed when trying to check out that I hadn't met the purchase minimum. Of course, there was no indication of what that was.

Annoyed, I called the non-toll-free number. The woman who answered was very nice and apologetic; apparently, this is a glitch with the programming. What a relief. For a second there, I thought this was some sort of warehouse situation catering to retailers that required purchases of huge quantities. She graciously took my order and I expect to receive the little critters any day now. I'll let you know how it goes.

A Word On Window Washing

Ian's baptism is this Sunday and we're having people over to the house for a cookout after the festivities. Our house really is in no shape inside or out for visitors, so this week has been a scramble to make it presentable. And believe me, it will be down to the wire as usual.

One thing I definitely wanted to do was wash the exterior windows along our driveway, particularly those belonging to the dining room as a pterodactyl must have taken a dump on one of them that has been drying in the sun for weeks.

As I do before tackling most new cleaning projects, I consulted my handy dandy book Talking Dirty with the Queen of Clean. Believe me, this book still looks practically new after 5 years of ownership. But I did want to share what I learned, even if I didn't follow her instructions exactly.

According to the Queen, in order to clean your windows like a pro, you have to arm yourself like one. She suggests:
• good squeegee, 12-14 inches
• good scrubber - it's like a squeegee but with a 'fluffy coat' (I picked up a cute little squeegee/scrubber combo at Lowe's made by Ettore; I think it was about $13. You can watch a video on proper window cleaning on their web site)
• rag or chamois
• scraper (which i didn't use)
• extension pole (didn't need this, either, but I didn't attempt any second story windows so a ladder was sufficient)
• bucket
• TSP (trisodium phosphate) or dishwashing liquid (I happened to have some TSP I purchased at a specialty paint store to clean our kitchen cabinets prior to painting them - a project that has yet to be started)

Once you assemble all the tools, fill your bucket with water, then add the TSP or detergent. Wet your scrubber and wash the window. Try to avoid direct sunlight which can cause streaking and spotting.

The Queen then says to tilt the squeegee at an angle so that only 2 inches of the blade is on the glass. I wasn't sure what that meant, but it is clearly illustrated in the Ettore video. Starting at the top corner, draw the squeegee along the top edge of the window, then wipe the blade on your rag. Then start on the the now dry surface at the top, drawing the squeegee vertically down the window to about 3 inches from the bottom.

Repeat until you've gotten all the glass, taking care to overlap each stroke and wipe the blade after each one. Then finish by tilting the squeegee at an angle at the bottom and finishing the final 3 inches.

Voila! You should have a nice, clean window. Unless, like me, you have old windows and you learned, after the fact, that the window wasn't properly closed so now you have streaks down the inside.

Note: The Queen frowns upon using newspaper to clean windows, a tip I've suggested before. And as much as I respect and admire the Queen, I have to disagree with her. I've seen it work not only in my own home, but it's a practice employed on commercial shoots I've attended, so it's endorsed by professionals as well. Though I do agree it could wind up being messy on your sills if you're not careful, so – be careful.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Giant Victories

Today is an historic day. I actually accomplished everything I set out to accomplish. This has never happened to me before. Seriously.

Usually, it's because I get overzealous and unrealistic about what is actually physically possible for a mere mortal like myself. I'll start out with a short, achievable list. But, as often happens in this house, there is so much to be done that my daily to-do list becomes a list of everything that needs to be done. And no way is there ever enough time in a scant 24 hours for all that.

So today, my goals included: going to Home Depot to pick up Bruce's hardwood floor cleaner and squeegee materials, weeding our front flower bed, cleaning up our back flower beds, getting all the weed vines off our back fence and cleaning the exterior windows alongside our driveway.

Despite the fact I had to go to Lowe's to actually get the Bruce's, I did everything I wanted to do. Yeah for me! And a big thanks to my mother-in-law for coming over and keeping an eye on our little man. She even started addressing our birth announcements for me, something I've had to put off while getting ready to have guests over for Ian's baptism.

So as far as feel-good days go, this was a rare 5-star-er. Let's hope the trend continues tomorrow...

Friday, August 10, 2007

My Procrastination Knows No Bounds

It’s amazing how long I let things go. All tied to what I consider my deep-seated fear of success/fear of failure.

There was the 50th anniversary gift I didn’t send for two years (just packed it up and sent it before I had Ian earlier this summer). Then there was the baby gift I had for over a year so it was too late to send it.

And now the coup de grace: I finally mailed off my hair to donate it today. I had it cut on December 30, 2006. How’s that for putting something off? Thank goodness it doesn’t go bad.

In my defense, my hair stylist tells me he knows of someone who still hasn’t mailed their hair in after year. Of course, it would help if he did the mailing as a lot of salons do, but alas, that’s not my salon’s bag, baby.

If you’ve been thinking about donating your hair but, like me, really can’t manage to grow the 10 extra inches Locks of Love requires, do what I did and go through Pantene’s Beautiful Lengths program. It only requires 8 inches and they send you a nice little package to get you started.

Just don’t wait 8 months to send it in.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Cute, Cuddly & Practical

I like to bake. But as with most of my endeavors, I get overzealous, thinking I'll have time to make dozens and dozens of cookies only to squeeze out just one lone batch, if that. As a result, those giant bags of brown sugar I get at the local warehouse club tend to get a little hard.

You guys probably know this already, but if you put a piece of bread or a hot dog bun in the bag, your brown sugar will soften right back up. And being the smart people that you are, you probably also figured out you shouldn't forget about that bread and leave it in there more than overnight lest it get disgustingly moldy, as I found out one day when I actually went to bake something. Yuck!

Thanks to an iVillage "Our Favorite Things" email, I'm going to be the proud owner of a Sugar Bear, the cutest little terracotta wonder that you simply moisten and put in the brown sugar bag to soften. The best part is, you can forget about it and it won't get moldy, unlike that bread. They come in different designs, but in my humble opinion, the bear is the only way to go.

And they'd make great little gifts/package ornaments at the holidays when you give your friends and family homemade goods. Just something to think about...

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Shortcuts, Tips & Tricks

Here are a few more gems that may or may not make domestic goddessliness easier to achieve.

Ever tried to slice a fresh tomato from your garden or, in my case, one fresh picked out of the produce section, only to have your knife slide right off without making nary a cut? May I be so bold as to suggest you’re using the wrong knife. Try one with a serrated edge. It works like a charm.

Those old-school peelers may not work that well when used for their intended purpose but they’re great for seeding. I think I learned this trick at one of the cooking classes I took down at the Party Source. If you’re like me and traded your old peeler in for a nice OXO version, just pick one up at the dollar store.

To seed jalapeños, just cut off the stem top, insert the blade of the peeler into the jalapeño cavity and run it around the inside. To seed a cucumber, cut it length-wise and use the handle of the peeler to scoop out the seeds.

While watching an episode of How Clean Is Your House yesterday, I learned you can use the inside of a banana peel to dust plant leaves. I haven’t tried it yet myself, but looked like it worked on the telly. I would stick to larger-leaved plants, though; it would probably get pretty tedius trying to dust a ficus in this manner.

One final suggestion that doesn’t relate to food one way or another: when cleaning windows, use newspaper instead of paper towels. It prevents streaking. Why or how this works will always remain a mystery to me as it stands to reason the ink would get all over the place, much like it does on your fingers,but I’ve seen it first-hand when my parents were here. It’s amazing.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Christmas Fiasco In July

Yeah, yeah. I know. It’s August. But what I’m about to share actually transpired in July, so there. It’s just taken me a while to a) find my digital camera to download the pix and b) find the time to put this down on ‘paper.’

In keeping with my Jean theme of the week, she gave us a ‘kit’ for making Chocolate Chip Banana Bread for Christmas. It included all the dry ingredients, a recipe and a pan to cook it in. All I had to do was add some eggs, mashed bananas, oil and milk.

Sounds simple enough, so what took me so long to make the bread? Somewhere between December and last week, I misplaced the directions. Shocker, I know. But what really amazes me is it took me that long to ask Jean for a refresher.

Suffice it to say, I got the directions and whipped up the bread. Jean mentioned that her batch created enough batter to make almost two loaves, so after I’d filled the provided pan to what I considered the appropriate level, I got out my own pan and poured in the rest of the batter. It really wasn’t enough to make another loaf.

At this point, a normal, thinking person would have just equalized the batter in two pans or cut their losses and thrown out the overage. My post-delivery pea brain decided to just put the extra batter back in the original pan. It fit, though it was filled to the brim.

What filled my nose next was the smell of burning batter as the pan completely overflowed. What a disaster – and what a stench! The oven and the bread looked like crap, but it still tasted good. Thanks for the recipe, Jean. Hopefully next year, I’ll get my Christmas shit together.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Good Food, Good Friends, Good Times

You don’t realize how many good friends (and relatives) you have – and what a crappy one you’ve been – til you have your first baby. It’s amazing how many people want to come over and bring you food (and do your laundry if they’re related). Tonight was another fine example.

Our friends Jean and Andy came over. Jean and I both married card-carrying geeks, so the boys wanted to play one of their new war games, Crusader Rex, and Jean was kind enough to want to cook us dinner.

They arrived mid-afternoon with bags full of groceries, a 12-pack of beer, a 2-liter of caffeine free Coke and a bottle of Jack Daniels, my sorely missed personal favorite elixir. Jean fired up some appetizers and provided Elvis-inspired peanut butter & banana Reese’s cups. Very thoughtful.

For dinner, she made a delicious but simple pork chop dinner that will be added to my repertoire. While I don’t know the name of it, I’ll try and remember how to make it so you, too, can enjoy this tasty, easy, healthy meal. Jean, please correct me if I’m wrong.

Start with a 9 x 13 inch pan or something similar. Add a cup of rice, an envelope of Lipton’s Onion Soup Mix (practically as versatile as cream of mushroom soup) and 3 cups of water. Mix slightly, then place 6-8 boneless pork chops on top and cover the pan with foil.

Bake at 350˚ for 40 minutes, then remove foil and finish cooking for an additional 20 minutes. Jean also nuked some Birds Eye Steamfresh veggies of the asparagus, gold & white corn, and baby carrots variety – only 5 minutes to perfection.

The meal was delicious and couldn’t have been simpler, not to downplay Jean’s efforts. It’s definitely a keeper, right up there with the Sweet & Sour Chicken recipe I make which also utilizes Lipton’s Onion Soup Mix.

And to cap off the evening, Jean made a diet soda cake for dessert. I can’t remember if I mentioned this delicious, low-fat wonder before. I first read about it on the WMAG (Working Mothers Against Guilt) blog.

Basically, you take any cake mix and add a can of diet soda. That’s it. No eggs. No oil. No extra fat. You simply mix the two ingredients together and bake according to the box instructions based on your pan. Then you add a dollop (or more, if you’re like me) of Lite Cool Whip to ‘ice’ the individual slices. I made it for the first time for Jean and Andy using a dark chocolate cake mix and a can of diet Dr. Pepper, though I believe I may have baked it longer. Just use the old toothpick test.

Anyway, back to tonight’s dessert. Jean used a yellow cake mix and a can of diet Sunkist to give it that orange creamcicle flavor (you can experiment with your own flavors). And she took the Cool Whip one step further by adding a teaspoon of vanilla to the 8 oz. container, a trick she picked up from Sandra Lee. Yummy! I could eat the whole thing.

Thanks, Jean and Andy, for taking such good care of us today. And thanks to everyone who has helped us out one way or the other since our son was born 5 ½ weeks ago. Thanks to your fine example, I’ll be a better person next time one of my friends has a baby.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Watermelon Fizzle

As I think I’ve mentioned before (or at least I’ve thought about mentioning it), I’m not a huge fan of Food Network’s show Semi-Homemade with Sandra Lee. Unlike some other viewers, I have nothing against Sandra Lee personally, I’m just not generally impressed with her recipes.

But every now and again, I’ll catch an episode and something will strike my fancy. For instance, a week or so ago, I was watching when she was putting on a Fairy Princess Party for one of her underage friends or relatives, I can’t be sure. Anyway, a featured recipe was the Watermelon Spritzy.

I like watermelon. It seemed like it would be tasty. I filed the recipe away for future consideration.

Fast forward to yesterday afternoon when I was shopping at Meijer with my sister, Sharon and her daughter, Kristen. They were in town for a week visiting with me, Rick and our little bambino.

As we tooled around the produce department, I saw something I’d never seen before: a personal watermelon. How cute and how cool was that? A mini replica of the refreshing fruit I love so much in a convenient single-serving size. It was a mere $2.50. I had to have it. Until I saw full-sized watermelons were the same price.

Suffice it to say, we brought home the big one. My sis and niece headed back home this afternoon and since Rick and I are incapable of eating that much watermelon before it goes bad, I thought I’d fire up the blender and give the old Watermelon Spritzy a try.

Since I didn’t think blending soda was a good idea, I just put the 2 cups of watermelon the recipe calls for into the blender. Apparently, I needed some liquid in there to get the process going. So I added a little Sprite, blended up the fruit and poured it into a glass along with some more, fresh Sprite.

Eh. It was okay. I had high hopes for this to be a fun little refreshing drink but it turned out to be mostly a bust. I’d have to say Rick was less than impressed as he’s headed up to bed and most of the drink remains in the glass. Granted, I forgot to add in the grenadine and I didn’t bother to strain out the pulp, but somehow, I don’t think it would have helped.


If anyone else has a good idea of mixing up some watermelon, I’d love to give it a try.