Sunday, January 24, 2016

10 Ways to Embrace a Winter Storm

Are you ready for a snow day? I remember the last big snow storm on the east coast that closed school for a week and the arctic conditions that descended on my family's neighborhood. Here are ten ways to turn the grocery store panic into a meaningful and fun family experience together:

1 Enjoy hot cocoa, marshmallows, and muffins anytime.

2 Place winter gear ready by the door: non-cotton long underwear and socks, hats, mittens, snow jacket and pants. If the kids sleep in flannel pj's they can just put on their snow clothes in the morning!

3 Have towels on the floor to place wet gear on when the kids come in. Also, each child can place their gear in a reusable grocery bag, which makes for easier trips to the dryer to dry out clothes in between play.

4 Create bird feeders to help the birds. Take stale bread or bagels by spreading shortening or peanut butter and chop up nuts or dip in birdseed. Cheerios strung on pipe cleaners work too.

5 Watch water freeze outside by making ice cubes. Add food coloring to ice cube trays before freezing and when the ice melts, you have water colors for painting when you come back inside.

6 Get the kids to shovel. It will last a few minutes before they start playing and stay outside longer!

7 Make snow sculptures. The children can use their waterproof gloves or mittens and plastic cooking spoons to carve their masterpiece of their favorite animal or build a whole town of buildings just like they do inside with Legos.

8 Look for animal tracks. What normally may be hidden can now be seen! Guess what animals may have made them. Follow the animal tracks together for an even greater adventure to see where they lead.

9 Make s'mores in the microwave for snack when the kids come back in: one marshmallow and piece of chocolate between two graham crackers in the microwave for a few seconds. Delish!

10 Get outside too! Build a snowman, carve luge runs together, pretend to be arctic explorers, pull their sled around the neighborhood or go sledding; see if you can roll the biggest snowball ever with your kids.

The memories you make together during this snowstorm are sure to last a lifetime.

Rebecca P. Cohen is our guest on 15 Minutes Outside, a show all about why and how to get outside, even if it's just for 15 minutes, every day!  She is the author of PJ's Backyard Adventures and Fifteen Minutes Outside: 365 Ways to Get Out of the House and Connect with Your Kids and the creator of Rebecca Plants Curiosity Cards.

Free resources for teachers and parents are available on her website BeOutsideAndGrow.com.


Contact Rebecca to visit your school.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Katie Workman's Chicken in Orange Sauce

WARNING: Katie's recipes are highly adaptable! 

Chicken in Orange Sauce 
Photo: Todd Coleman
The Fork in the Road
Chicken or tofu, or both, get a slick of delicious tangy-sweet glaze.

This is one of those dishes that makes you feel quite pleased with yourself. Fast, easy, with fairly universally appealing flavors, and healthier and more delicious than its Chinese takeout inspiration. There’s plenty of sauce, too, to spoon over hot rice or quinoa. Serve with broccoli, broccoli rabe, or another hearty green to balance flavor, color, and texture.

When you’re feeding a group that includes one or more vegetarians, this kind of recipe makes life so much easier. Essentially, you sauté some chicken in one pan, some tofu in another pan, then divide up a simple sauce between the two. 

Serves 6 

What the Kids Can Do:
Zest the orange and juice it (if you are using fresh juice). Kids of the right age can cut up the chicken (younger ones can tackle the tofu) with an age-appropriate knife.

Make Ahead:
The chicken or tofu can be cut up a couple of days ahead of time, and the sauce can be combined a couple of days ahead, and refrigerated, too.

Ingredients:
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons honey
1 teaspoon finely grated orange zest
3/4 cup orange juice, preferably fresh but not necessary
1/3 cup reduced-sodium soy sauce, or ¼ cup regular soy sauce plus 2 tablespoon water
3 tablespoons rice vinegar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon finely minced peeled fresh ginger
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 pounds skinless, boneless chicken breasts or thighs, cut into 3/4-inch pieces,  or see the Vegetarian Fork in the Road for a tofu alternative
Kosher or coarse salt 
2 tablespoons canola or vegetable oil
4 scallions, white and light green parts, sliced
Hot cooked rice (brown or white) or quinoa, for serving
Toasted sesame seeds (see page 286), for serving (optional)

Directions:
1. Whisk together the garlic, honey, orange zest and juice, soy sauce, rice vinegar, cornstarch, ginger, and pepper in a small bowl. Set the sauce aside.
2. Season the chicken lightly with salt and pepper. Heat the oil in a very large skillet or a wok over high heat. Add the chicken and sauté until it starts to turn white, 3 minutes. Add the sauce and scallions and cook until
the sauce thickens and the chicken is cooked through, 3 to 4 minutes more.
3. Serve over hot rice or quinoa, with the sesame seeds sprinkled over if desired.

Tofu in Orange Sauce
Replace the chicken with 2 pounds extra-firm tofu, blotted dry and cut into ¾-inch cubes. To get the tofu nicely browned, in Step 2, heat the oil in the skillet over high heat, and when very hot, add the cubes, which should sizzle and sear (watch for splattering). Cook the tofu, not moving it for at least 3 minutes, so it has a chance to brown on the bottom. Flip the cubes using a thin metal spatula (and knowing some cubes will break) and continue to cook to brown the bottoms, 3 minutes more. Add the sauce and scallions and continue with the recipe.

If you want to make the dish half chicken and half tofu, use a pound of each, sauté them separately in two large skillets with a tablespoon of oil in each, and divide the sauce and scallions evenly between the pans. The cooking times are the same.

LISTEN TO: Ask-a-Chef: Dinner Solved! with Katie Workman

Friday, November 13, 2015

The Oven Light: Jalapeño Popper Dip

Here on our "Oven Light" feature we share mom-tested, simple, family recipes... some from us, some from guest bloggers.  We hope they help simplify the mealtime aspect of your busy life!

Jalapeño Popper Dip

A long, long time ago, Katie from The Little Thing Blog turned me onto this one.  Since then I've made it a billion times!  Katie and I like to think we are “Appetizer Queens” because we make them all the time and constantly swap recipes.  We both prefer appetizers over a regular meal anytime! This dip tastes just like the creamy center of a jalapeño popper.

Ingredients:
2 (8-ounce) packages of cream cheese, softened
1 cup mayonnaise
1 (4-ounce) can chopped green chilies, drained
1 (2-ounce) can diced jalapeno peppers, drained
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Directions:
Mix together the cream cheese and mayonnaise in a large bowl until smooth.  Stir in green chilies, Parmesan cheese and jalapeno peppers.  Pour mixture into a microwave safe serving dish.  Microwave until hot, about 3 minutes.  Serve with tortilla chips or Fritos Scoops.  (Note: I prefer to bake it at 350º for 20 minutes instead of microwaving.)

Monday, November 2, 2015

You Can STOP "Over-Organizing" Now!

On a recent episode of The Big O: Organization, (called Stop Over-Organizing!) Monica Ricci gives us permission to do "just enough" to get the job done.  No, we're not slackers.  We're just learning how to maintain effective, simple and manageable organizational systems that REALLY work!

In her many years of helping clients lead joyful and productive lives, she's seen over-organizing (and stress) often in the areas of paperwork, books and entertainment, clothing and spices in particular.  It's always interesting how organizing tools can be such a personal matter and there isn't a "one size fits all" answer.  Spices are the perfect example and each of us have a different solution for organizing those.  Listen HERE for the details!  In the show we said we'd share photos, so here you go:

Jen's many not-lazy-at-all Susan's.
Vicky's wooden step shelf organizer. 
Monica's SpiceStack®.
As discussed on the show, and on a non-spice note, Jen shows us how her clothes are stacked and sorted.  And Vicky shows how her hats rest on thumbtacks.

 


The "Big O" question that came up was: How long should I keep tax documents and related papers, bills, and receipts?  We found a great resource directly from the IRS with the answer!  (Monica was right... 3 years in most cases, but there are reasons some people may need to keep them longer.)  Here you go: https://www.irs.gov/Businesses/Small-Businesses-&-Self-Employed/How-long-should-I-keep-records 

Friday, October 23, 2015

Tasty (and safe) Lunches



No one likes a soggy sandwich or warm-ish yogurt...  Thanks to the Institute of Food Technologies for these tips to maximize the taste of our lunch while minimizing the chances of contamination.

Containers and Cleaning

The first step to good food safety is to wash your hands with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds. Wash cutting boards, dishes, and utensils with hot, soapy water after preparing each food item, and be sure to sanitize countertops after making lunch. 
Rinse fresh fruits and vegetables under running water before eating and packing them in a lunch container.
To avoid cross-contamination, don’t reuse packaging materials such as paper or plastic bags, food wraps and aluminum foil.
Use an insulated container for foods like chili, soups and stews. Fill the container with boiling water, let it stand for a few minutes, empty, and then add hot food. Keep the container closed until lunchtime to help minimize bacterial contamination and growth. 
Rinse out soft lunch boxes with water (for food debris), spray with a store-bought chlorine sanitizer or soap, rinse, and let dry.
Throw away soft lunch boxes if the liner is cracked or broken.

Temperature Control
·     
Insulated, soft-sided lunch boxes or bags are best for keeping food cold, but metal or plastic lunch boxes and paper bags can also be used. If using paper lunch bags, create layers by double bagging to help insulate the food.
Harmful bacteria can multiply rapidly if the temperatures are between 40 and 140 °F. Be sure to transport food with an ice source and refrigerate upon destination.
Studies show that bacteria growth begins after about four hours at room temperature, and shorter (around an hour) if above 90 degrees.
Perishable foods that won’t be kept refrigerated should be kept cold by using freezer gel packs or a frozen juice carton.

Leftovers and storing food

Pack only the amount of perishable food that will be eaten at lunch. With no extra food to carry home, you’ll avoid the inconvenience of keeping leftovers at the correct temperature on the commute home.
Preparing the food the night before and storing it in the refrigerator will help keep the food cold longer.
Discard of all used food packaging and paper bags after eating. Throw away perishable leftovers, unless they can be safely chilled immediately after lunch and upon returning home.
Pack all beverages and perishable foods in separate containers/coolers.
When storing leftover food in the refrigerator, use smaller containers for hot food. A storage container two inches deep or less is ideal for chilling food quickly.
Label storage containers with the date you packed the container, so you know when it is time to either eat or dispose.
When using the microwave oven to reheat lunches, cover food to hold in moisture and promote safe, even heating. Reheat leftovers to at least 165 °F, ensuring that they are steaming hot. Cook frozen convenience meals according to package instructions.



Sources: http://www.ift.org/Knowledge-Center/Learn-About-Food-Science/Food-Facts/lunchboxes.aspx  Ben Chapman, PhD, IFT Spokesperson, North Carolina State University Assistant Professor ; Don Schaffner, PhD, IFT Spokesperson, Rutgers University Professor

Monday, October 5, 2015

Gooooood Morning ... Ninja Coffee Bar™!

Good Morning!
It's been absolutely java-rrific reviewing the new Ninja Coffee Bar™!  It's always a "perk" to get our hands on new stuff over here at VickyandJen.com but this review is right up my alley.  I am a coffee freak all the way around - I've always claimed my Keurig is my favorite kitchen appliance at home and I do love my specialty coffeehouse drinks when I'm out and about.  Plus, Jen and I are Ninja fans anyway - we love our blenders.

I've played and experimented ... 36 coffees in 15 days, so I'm ready to report.  I can go on and on (and I will), but I want to give you the skinny right now!  Here it is:

The Ninja Coffee Bar™ ... makes a really, really, really dang good cup o' joe.  Really good!  And it's a keeper.  Here's more of what I think:

(good things)

• It brews a nice, big full cup of coffee, size-wise.  A Keurig k-cup fills my mug only half-full.

• It comes with an awesome frother that is very easy to use and works extremely well.
Not bad for my first time frothing!

• It has the best assorted settings / options for a house of mixed-coffee preferences in a household such as over-ice-brew; specialty brew (concentrated); and rich brew that creates coffee that holds up to ice and milk.  Hubby loves rich brew.  I prefer classic.  Something for everyone.

• The coffee is the perfect temperature ... and I like mine hot, hot, hot.

• I thought I would have to buy a lot of additional ingredients to make coffeehouse-style drinks.  Come to find out, the Ninja recipes call for ingredients I already have on hand.  (For example, skim milk makes perfectly great froth!)

• Less waste, right? ... fewer k-cups in the landfill.

My 1st Caramel Macchiato
• Cheaper, right? ... my three 12-ounce bags of Panera Coffee, McDonald's Coffee, and Elvis Coffee (yeah, you read that right) ... together all cost almost 50% less than a box of 96 k-cups from Amazon.

• The coffeehouse-style drinks are spot on.  I made the Creme De Caramel Coffee, Cappuccinos, Caramel Macchiatos, and a Frozen Ninjaccino.  YUM!

• Back to the skinny ... The Ninja makes a better tasting cup of coffee than any other coffee machine I've used.

(okay things)

By the way, The Rosie Project and
The Rosie Effect are GREAT reads
with your morning coffee!
• It takes approximately 4-minutes to brew a cup of coffee - and possibly longer if you are making a specialty coffee house drink.  It only takes seconds in the Keurig. This is because the Ninja uses this fancy-pants "thermal flavor extraction™" technology (a pre-infusion and saturation thing).  However it works - I love it!  And good things come to those that wait, right?

• It requires a little clean-up.  Whoa! I haven't had to empty and wash a filter basket in years (not to mention a coffee scooper and frother), but it's worth the few extra steps.  (See above, less waste.)

• If you don't add enough water to the reservoir before you start, it ends your brew cycle mid-brew.  I've done this twice and my coffee stops brewing and I have to start over.  In the Keurig, you add more water and the cycle continues on from where it left off.

(final review)

I just love it! Happy.



Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Eat Well on $4/Day: Good and Cheap!


I'm a cookbook geek!  Even with billions of recipes at my fingertips via my laptop, I still love collecting and browsing my cookbooks ... all the time.  Recently, Jen and I were sent a copy of Good and Cheap: Eat Well on $4/Day by Leanne Brown.  The first thing that caught our eye was the author's promise "You Buy. We Give."  For every book she sells, Leanne will donate a copy to someone who really needs it.  LOVE!
Vicky's Cookbook Collection 

There's even more to love about this cookbook .... mouth-watering photos of the recipes (a plus!), proof that eating healthy doesn't have to cost a fortune, and most importantly, simple and delicious meal ideas that are family-friendly.  You'll love the supermarket strategies, tips for eating well, and the seasonal produce chart (I've always needed one of those) too.

Stuff on Hotdogs



My favorite feature of all ... Leanne provides several ideas for turning basic kitchen staples into something new and interesting.  For example, things to do with toast (avocado lime to apple cheddar to salty broccoli), stuff on hot dogs (Teriyaki carrots to Mexican street corn to sweet or savory pineapple salad) and ideas for popcorn (minced scallion and cilantro to brown sugar and orange zest to parmesan and black pepper).

Since we have permission to reprint a recipe, I'll share ideas for oatmeal.  I'm always tempted by the pre-packaged oatmeal since it's easy and very flavorful, and I rarely use my canister of instant oats or my fancy steel-cut oats outside of using them for oatmeal raisin cookies (my hubby's fave) or these best granola bars ever.  Plain oatmeal never hits the spot in my house because, obviously, it needs a revamp!  Leanne has a few unique ideas for that:

Ideas for Oatmeal
Basic Oatmeal (serves 2)
1 cup rolled oats
2 cups water
1/4 teaspoon salt

1.  Add the oats, water, and salt to a small pot and bring to a boil over medium heat.  Immediately turn the heat to low and place a lid on the pot.  2.  Cook for 5 minutes, until the oats are soft and tender and most of the water has evaporated.  You can add more water if you like your oatmeal smooth and thin, or use slightly less to make it thick and creamy.

Pumpkin ($0.75 serving / $1.50 total)
1/2 cup canned pumpkin
3/4 cup milk (or almond milk or soy milk)
2 tablespoons brown sugar, plus more to taste
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
additions: 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger, 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves, drizzling of maple syrup

Whisk the pumpkin, milk and 1 1/4 cups water (not the full 2 cups in the basic recipe) in a pot.  Add the oats, salt, brown sugar, and spices.  Cook over medium-low heat until the mixture just comes to a boil, 2 to 5 minutes.  Turn to low for 5 more minutes.  Add maple syrup or more sugar to taste.

Savory ($0.75 serving / $1.50 total)
2 or 3 scallions, white and green parts, finely chopped
1/4 cup grated sharp Cheddar cheese
1 teaspoon butter
2 eggs

Cook the oatmeal as directed in Basic Oatmeal (above), adding scallions in Step 1.  Just before it's done, stir in cheese.  While the oatmeal cooks, melt the butter in a pan over medium heat.  Crack in the eggs, then cover the pan and fry until the yolks are runny but the whites are cooked, 2-3 minutes.  Top each bowl of oats with one fried egg.

Baklava  ($0.75 serving / $1.50 total)
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon finely grated orange zest
4 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons chopped almonds or pistachios

Add the cinnamon, orange zest, and 2 tablespoons of the honey before cooking the oatmeal as directed in Basic Oatmeal (above).  Once it's done, top each bowl with another tablespoon of honey and a tablespoon of nuts.

In the book, there's more ... a recipe for Chocolate Oatmeal, Fruity (any favorite fruit like berries), Apple Cinnamon, and Coconut Lime.

You have to agree that almost always - homemade is better!  Those oatmeal recipes are so much healthier and tastier than the store-bought packets my family was accustomed to.  Not to mention, cheaper.  The ultimate example of "homemade is better" lies with homemade ricotta!  We have made our own homemade ricotta for YEARS.  It's actually pretty easy, it can cost 1/2 the amount of store-bought and of course there's nothing that taste like homemade (night and day difference).  There's a recipe for homemade ricotta in the book!

See ... cheap certainly doesn't mean blah!  These "good and cheap" recipes can get you out of a rut (if you find yourself in one frequently like I do), help you use up those ingredients in your pantry or fridge that you don't know what to do with (like plain rice, chili sauce, or dried beans).  Best yet, they  will open up your meal planning to fresh recipes that are healthy, affordable and kid-friendly.

Jen and I will have to figure out how to share this book since there are so many recipes we both want to try!  It's a good thing Leanne provides free recipes on her site.  Check it out and let us know what your favorite "Good and Cheap" recipe is!  And thanks Leanne Brown for creating a cookbook our families can enjoy!


Thursday, September 10, 2015

Mmmmmm ... Crispy Fruit Snacks


Looking for a healthy, easy-to-pack snack for the lunchbox, or anytime?  We have a solution because we sampled Crispy Fruit from Crispy Green®!  Apple was the favorite in the Rehberger household and Banana in the Thornton home, but there are a variety of flavors including Tangerine, Asian Pear, Cantaloupe, Mango and Pineapple.

They're a nutritious, mess-free, and non-refrigerated snack that scores high with kids, parents and nutritionists. The tasty, 100% natural, Non-GMO Project Verified snack is ideal for extracurricular activities and kids constantly on the go.

Now is the time to give them a try since Crispy Green is very passionate about kids’ health and nutrition, they’re proud to be a sponsor of the Power Your Lunchbox Campaign from Produce for Kids®! Now through September 18, parents can take the "Power Your Lunchbox Pledge" to pack healthier lunchboxes and get access to lunchbox ideas, tips and coupons. For every pledge taken, $1 will be donated to Feeding America to support children’s hunger programs. Take the pledge at poweryourlunchbox.com.
  
Crispy Fruit is available online and in retailers such as The Fresh Market, Harris Teeter, ShopRite, Giant Eagle Market District, Earth Fare, Ahold, Schnucks, Dierbergs, King Kullen, Safeway, Weis Markets and selected Whole Foods Markets. To find a retailer in your area that carries Crispy Fruit, go to www.crispygreen.com/where-to-buy.html. For more information, visit www.crispygreen.com.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Find YOUR Park

A park can be many different things to many different people. Everyone finds their park in a different place and in a different way.  These stories just might inspire you to find yours. Visit findyourpark.com to watch inspiring and beautiful videos.  




On August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Organic Act creating the National Park Service (NPS), a new federal bureau in the Department of the Interior responsible for protecting the 35 national parks and monuments then managed by the department and those yet to be established (now there are 408 national parks!).

To celebrate the upcoming centennial of NPS in 2016, the National Park Foundation (NPF) launched their FIND YOUR PARK campaign to encourage everyone to get up, get out there and #FindYourPark - no matter your interest.

Click here for 99 ways to find YOUR park, so let's all celebrate NPS’ 99th birthday today, August 25, 2015 - Free Entry to ALL National Parks.

Get ready for NPS’ big 100th birthday next year.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Kids Can Do: Five Pounds of Macaroni

What is Kids Can Do? We know that children get the most joy from simple things such as playing with empty cereal boxes or used wrapping paper.  That's why we share our "kid ideas" that are simple, educational, practical and easy. They are made with common household materials that you probably already have on hand and they don’t require much preparation or expense.  
This "Kids Can Do" activity is about sensory play using Vicky's Macaroni Bin!

At least 10 years old and still going strong ... our 5 pound macaroni bucket o' fun!  Aidan played with it and now Ellie, even at 4 years old!  We may be down to 4 3/4 pounds since the dog ate a few and I sucked up a few in the vacuum cleaner.  This is absolutely my favorite homemade toy ever!  I even gifted one to my nephew once.  The most expensive part is the type of bin you store it in.  Other than that - it's so cheap and long-lasting.  Find your macaroni on sale at it's lowest or buy in bulk at your local wholesale club, then venture to the dollar store for the props.  Now it's time to sift, pour, scoop, dig and stir for hours.  The key to success is a mat or thick table cloth to play on so when it's time to clean up, you curl up the mat and pour the spilled macaroni directly into the bin.  My kids love(d) it and I bet yours will too!

Possible containers:  

dishwashing pan, cookie sheet, cake pan, rubbermaid containers, shoe box, small bucket, shallow but large cardboard box

Items to fill bin with: 
rice, macaroni, packing peanuts, shredded paper, snow, oatmeal, instant mashed potatoes, sand (recipe below), sudsy water, shaving cream, dry beans*, indian corn (the kids pick off the kernels), colored water, fall leaves.  
*Note: our dry pinto beans smelled like cat litter after one year! Ewww!

Recipe for Homemade Sand: Ingredients - 4 cups dried and used coffee grounds; 2 cups cornmeal; 1 cup flour; 1/2 cup salt.  Directions -  Dry the grounds in the sun or in your oven on low heat.  Make sure the grounds are extremely dry - otherwise they’ll mold.  Stir all ingredients together. 

Ways to minimize the mess: 

shower curtain liner, large bath towels, bed sheet, infant drop cloth, or a plastic blow up pool

Props to play with include:
funnels, bowls, cups, sieves, measuring spoons, measuring cups, spoons, ladles, combs, small rakes, scissors, kitchen gadgets, squirt bottles, magnify glasses, toy cars, objects to find in the material such as marbles or small animals, items that sink and float in water