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Archive for the ‘Entertaining’ Category

We have a security system in our house and two of the sensors have low batteries. Which I know because the keypad at which we control the alarm beeps to alert me of the danger. And living with low batteries is really dangerous, according to the keypad, because even though I key in a code that should let it know, “I hear you, I get it, I will call the security company right away,” it feels the need to remind me every two hours on the button. Irritating during the day, but MUCH WORSE in the middle of the night.

And of course the security company can’t send someone out right away. I mean, I GET IT. It’s just low batteries! But they can’t come until THURSDAY and that means THREE NIGHTS of getting up every two hours to key in my code and reassure the system that I AM AWARE OF THE BATTERY SITUATION AND MY IMMINENT DEMISE.

The keypad is in our bedroom. Of course, it does not bother my husband one little bit; he doesn’t even stir when it beeps.

Anyway, I am here to update you on one of my goals/aspirations for the New Year. I have ALREADY had friends over for dinner!

This is a big deal to me. You see, I like having people over to our house. I mean, in theory. I enjoy cooking, I enjoy being friendly. But man, in practiceI find it SUPER difficult.

First, even though I KNOW that it really doesn’t matter, I get all panicky about the state of my house. Is it clean enough? Is it tidy enough? Does our house smell funny? These worries send me into a cleaning frenzy prior to having someone over, which stresses me out. And I start thinking about all the projects that I want to complete – what about our horrible, mostly-destroyed ottoman? and our not-painted baseboards? and the missing kick panels on our kitchen cabinets? – and wondering if I should try to paint the fireplace before people come over and it’s ridiculous and makes me feel out of breath and frazzled.

And then there’s the food. I dither over the meal plan for weeks. (In this most recent case, we only invited people over a few days in advance, so I didn’t have to dither long.) Have I considered all their food restrictions/likes/dislikes? Have I come up with a balanced meal? No one ever seems to EAT salad if I make one, but does it need to be there to give the impression that I care about vegetables? Am I making enoughfood? (This is probably one of my biggest concerns.) Do I have a good variety of drink options?

It’s all ridiculous. When I go to someone else’s house for dinner, all I think about is whether there will be a tomato-free option. I don’t care whether they have Diet Coke or gin or a freaking salad. But for some reason, I am incapable of applying the same standards to myself. I am incapable of seeing my guests (whom I probably like! and likely think are good, easy-going, non-judgmental people!) as people who are more interested in hanging out with me and my husband than in eating a gourmet meal in an immaculate, newly-updated home.

I KNOW it is ridiculous.

And yet.

So we had this family over to dinner. We have wanted to invite them over for a long time; they’ve had us over twice, once for a playdate, once for a meal slash playdate, and it’s high time we reciprocated. And this past weekend, we were all free. I dithered only slightly over even inviting them, but I pressed forward.

I decided I would make chili, which is an easy, make-ahead type of meal (I don’t like having to cook while guests are here; it detracts from the socializing, plus people [nicely! thoughtfully!] want to help and I do not like that). But then almost immediately, I decided to make twokinds of chili – a spicy ground beef chili with a tomato base and a mild white chicken chili– both for sake of variety and in case our guests had differing spice tolerances and meat preferences. I cajoled my husband into making chocolate chip cookies. And then, to make life even more difficult on myself, I made guacamole and salsa, so we could have them (with chips) as appetizers. Before our guests arrives, I prepared a bunch of toppings for the chili (diced onions, diced tomatoes, cilantro, sour cream, shredded cheese, sliced jalapeno). The white chili was a crockpot option, so I started that early in the day. And the red chili tastes better the longer it cooks, so I started that a couple of hours before our guests arrived.

One of my biggest detractions from having people over is that my husband does not share my same level of preparation anxiety. You might think this would be a good thing, but so far in our marriage, it is not. This is not only because he does not understand how I feel in the days/hours leading up to having people over. It is because we clash on executing the actual preparations, and I end up doing (or at least feeling like I am doing) the bulk of the prep. And that makes me feel overwhelmed, overworked, misunderstood, frazzled, stressed, and put-upon. And frustrated and grouchy with my husband. Which is not really the mindset you want to have a fun, effervescent evening with friends.

I feel like I am being unfair, here, because my husband does not get a say on this blog. He cannot represent for you his own feelings, or catalog for you all the things he does to prepare. So please understand that you are getting a one-sided view of things.

On this particular day, I made a list of the things we needed to do before our guests arrived at four. We’d gone out the night before, and ended up sleeping in until NINE. Which put me immediately into a panic. My husband started out by saying that we had PLENTY of time, and so I tried to adopt that mindset and chill out a little. I gave him two projects: making the cookies (he’d made the dough the day before, so he just needed to bake the cookies) and making the white chili. And he had to get himself showered/dressed. He also wanted, separately, to go to a store and get something; I forget what, but it was on sale or something and he had to get it that day.

I unloaded the dishwasher while he made himself coffee. I made Carla’s breakfast while he made himself breakfast. I tidied up the kitchen table, which had become cluttered with Stuff. I asked him if he wanted me to dice the vegetables for the white chili and he said yes. I did that. I rinsed Carla’s breakfast dishes and put them in the dishwasher. I looked at the clock. The chili was supposed to be cooking for 6 hours, and we were nearing 11:00, so I just made the white chili myself. My husband went upstairs to do… I don’t know. Probably something very important and useful, like paying bills. (This sounds snarky but it is not meant to be; I am honestly trying very hard to give him the benefit of the doubt.)I got Carla dressed. I had made the guacamole and salsa the previous day, so I started dicing and chopping the toppings for the chili while my husband made lunch. I made lunch for Carla and coaxed her into eating it. I cleaned up lunch. I went and took a shower. I came downstairs and noted that I was supposed to make a roux for the white chili, to thicken it. My husband said it wasn’t necessary. I looked at the clock and told my husband he needed to get going. (He and I have VERY different understandings of time.) He went and took a shower. I made the red chili. He left for his errand, which I extended because I wanted him to grab me some flowers for the dinner table. It was an hour and a half until four, when our guests were to arrive. I encouraged Carla to move her toys from the living room to her bedroom. I chopped more things. I realized that we didn’t have enough spoons for dinner, so I ran the dishwasher through a quick cycle. I dried my hair and put on makeup. I cleaned up the kitchen. I ran a load of dish towels. The white chili was very watery. My husband was still gone, so I texted him asking if I should do the roux. Carla was running around asking, every five minutes, when her friend would arrive. I worried about drinks; I didn’t know if this couple drinks alcohol, so I had brought home a six-pack of unobjectionable beer and I had a bottle of wine in the fridge just in case. I worried about the kids – Carla won’t eat chili, but my friend said her kids eat anything… but what if they don’t? I washed some berries and some cherry tomatoes. I texted my husband to also grab some La Croix and a box of macaroni and cheese at the store. I unloaded the dishwasher. My husband texted me pictures of flowers and I picked a bouquet for him to bring home. I put out the salsa, chips, and guacamole. I cleaned out the sink. I fretted over whether I needed to cut some vegetables to put out with the chips. I decided against it. My husband got home with about fifteen minutes to spare. I asked him to choose some music for people to listen to. He said he wanted to put the football game on. I asked him to put music on the Amazon Echo while the game was on mute. I cut and arranged the flowers. I asked about the roux again. My husband looked at the chili and agreed it was watery. He started the roux. I cleaned off the counter. This is the most boring catalog of menial tasks ever. I realized I had failed to brush my teeth at all that day, so I ran upstairs to brush them. Carla shrieked that her friend was here. I snapped at my husband to put some music on like I’d already asked him to. He whisked the roux while Carla and I opened the door and invited our friends in.

I felt like I was busy every single second. (Is this a NORMAL level of busy? Are other people this busy in the day leading up to their dinner for guests?) (I don’t think so. Sometimes we go to dinner at the house of friends who were out at the zoo all day or had a birthday party just prior to having us over or who just said goodbye to week-long houseguests the night before. I COULD NEVER DO THOSE THINGS. I need to have plenty of space between guests, first of all. And then I also need the WHOLE DAY to complete my anxious preparations.)

These most recent dinner guests are newish friends, so we don’t know them super well. So while I was chatting with them and munching on chips, I was worrying about whether they’d like the food, and whether it was weird that I’d planned for us to all sit down at the table together. And I was fretting about timing – I’d planned for the kids to play for an hour or two, and then we’d sit down to eat; but was that making them wait too long? How long would they want to stay? Should we set up Guitar Hero for them to play? Should I try to herd everyone into the living room?

Carla was at Excitement Level 8 Billion, which translated into lots of running and shrieking and leaping off furniture. So I was also fretting about whether I was being too restrictive of the kids or not restrictive enough. Was it okay that we kind of shuttled the kids into the basement and all the grown ups stayed upstairs? Would they have preferred if we interacted with the kids more?

They left fairly early (seven thirty?), which of course made me worry that they weren’t having fun. But… it also seems like a reasonable amount of time for people to stay? I don’t know.

And the wife helped me clean everything up which makes me very uncomfortable. But she was very swift and practiced at it, so I didn’t even really have a chance to protest.

I think the dinner went okay? We had plenty to talk about, people ate the food, the kids had a raucous time which I think likely translates into fun. But man.

I really need to find some way to make it less stressful.

Some people think the way to make it less stressful is to not stress about it  but that is really terrible advice coming, I suspect, from people like my husband who are naturally low-stress people. I cannot help it. My mind begins whirring and if I don’t address the whirring it grows louder until it drowns out all other functions.

Some people might think I should just do it more often. But the anxiety around hosting happens even with people who come over ALL THE TIME – like my parents and in-laws, who come over several times a year between them, and with family friends that we have over for dinner four or five times a year or so (we swap houses every couple of months, so they are hosting us just as often). I am telling you, IT DOES NOT GET EASIER WITH PRACTICE. (The only thing that gets easier is that I worry less about the state of my home with frequent guests, because they have already seen it.)

The techniques I’ve tried, with, as you see, little success are:

  • Make things as simple as possible. (I need to work on keepingthem as simple as possible.)
  • Do as many things in advance as possible.
  • Enlist family members to help – and assign them specific tasks. (Possibly I need to also assign specific times, too.)
  • Try to only address things that are reasonable to address (i.e. NOT painting my fireplace).
  • Remind myself over and over that as a guest at other people’s homes, I don’t care about half the things I worry about people caring about.

We met a new couple a few weeks ago and I promptly asked the wife for her number so I could ask them to dinner and then actually followed up. They are coming for dinner in a few weeks. Which gives me AMPLE TIME to stress…. Or to come up with some real techniques for NOT stressing.

What do you do, to ensure that you are low-stress when you have guests over? What are your techniques for keeping things simple and fun? Should I just never invite people over again? That last one seems good, except for the dinner that’s already on the books. And I might as well TRY to overcome this Preparation Anxiety, because I inevitably start wishing I could throw a dinner party or something. WHY DOES MY BRAIN HAVE TO BE THE WAY THAT IT IS?

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Merry Christmas to all who celebrate!

This is the first year that we’ll have Christmas just the three of us. I am rather enjoying the quiet coziness of it all. We are all still in pajamas. There is lots of lounging going on. I tried to win Carla over to the joys of Home Alone, but it turns out it’s a bit old for her yet. Elf is on the agenda for later. My only job today – aside from copious cuddling, and perhaps finishing my book – is to make some rolls for dinner Friday; I will freeze them after I make them.

Family arrives on the 26th. We are not doing a special dinner because we will all have already had a big Christmas supper the night before. Thursday we go out to celebrate a birthday. And Saturday half of the family leaves, so the rest of us will either get take out or munch on leftovers. Sunday, the rest of the family leaves, which means that I will probably head to the store or scrape together some sort of Franken-meal from what we have on hand.

Still! There are meals to plan and make, so the post will go up!

Dinners (and Assorted Other Meals) for the Week of December 24-December 29

Christmas Eve: Avgolemono from America’s Test Kitchen (paywall)

Note: We have never eaten this before, much less tried to make it. I admit that I am deeply suspicious of a soup with egg in it, as I am no fan of eggs. But neither of us much wanted to make Mulligatawny soup, which was my Christmas Eve tradition growing up, and it would be fun to have our own soup tradition. We’ll see. It may end up that my husband eats it and Carla and I eat bagels or chicken nuggets. I mean, Carla has never once eaten soup as it is, so I’m not holding out much hope that tonight will be the night.

Follow up: This was NOT good. I can’t pinpoint why; maybe because it tasted heavily of chicken? Maybe because the lemony egg mixture you add to the soup gave the whole thing an unpleasant lemon-curd-with-chicken taste? In any case, I am not a fan. Even my husband, who eats pretty much anything, could not give this a thumbs up. I made a few of the rolls I prepared and ended up turning one into an impromptu pepperoni sandwich for my Christmas Eve meal.

Christmas Day:

Note: Neither of us has ever made a frittata. And, let’s be honest, it’s really for my breakfast-loving husband’s benefit. I don’t really like breakfast food, so I tend to defer to him. Usually for Christmas Day breakfast we make the Pioneer Woman’s overnight French toast. Last year we also made a savory strata. But that’s when there are more people at the breakfast table than the three of us. Carla will eat the sweet stuff, but nothing savory. So probably we’ll end up making her pancakes as per usual and my husband will end up eating most of the frittata and we’ll come up with something else for next year.

Follow up: This was delicious! I don’t normally like eggs, but this was very egg-light, with plenty of other tasty things. Our only complaint was that it seemed very salty. My husband and I agreed that next time we make it, we’ll add an extra potato, reduce the salt by at least 2/3s, and decrease the amount of bacon.

Note: Carla sometimes eats steak, so we are hoping that she’ll at least have a few bites of this Christmas dinner. When I grew up, our family tradition for Christmas dinner was a porterhouse spice roast, homemade Caesar salad, and lemony steamed broccoli. I LOVE that dinner. But a porterhouse roast seems overly ambitious for a group of three. Also, no one makes Caesar dressing like my dad, so I don’t really even want to try. Instead, we got a baby tenderloin and some mushrooms and we’ll be trying a new recipe. Who knows? Maybe it will become a family favorite!

Follow up: The beef tenderloin was wonderful — and super easy! You just smear it with some mustard and herbs and throw it in the oven. It cooks low and slow for a long time and then it is perfectly cooked and butter tender. We will definitely do this again. My mom’s mashed potatoes were, of course, amazing. And we ended up skipping anything green because we couldn’t agree on how to cook the beans.

Note: My husband loves dessert, and he is always super interested in the desserts featured on the Great British Baking Show. So we are trying a British-style dessert this year, just for fun.

Follow up: THIS WAS SO GOOD.

Wednesday:

  • Brunch: Bagels & Lox

Note: With cream cheese, capers, lemons, and onions. And fruit for the kiddos.

Note: Someone at my husband’s office has brought in this cranberry salsa a few times, and my husband is in love with it. I am deeply suspicious but I’m willing to try it.

Follow up: This was actually quite delicious! It’s super weird — a combo of flavors that don’t seem like they would work. But they DO and I found myself unable to stop. We ate this with Stacy’s pita chips, which are delicious in and of themselves.

  • Dinner: Tacos

Note: Easy and delicious. So what if it’s not typical Christmas fare? (For us. I don’t know your magical taco-eating life.) If my mother-in-law and husband hadn’t insisted on simplicity over fanciness, I would have made this pork roast from Food & Wine and possibly Ina Garten’s chocolate creme brûlée. Well, there’s always next time.

Thursday:

  • Breakfast: Pancakes, scrambled eggs, bacon, leftover frittata – whatever we can scrape together.
  • Lunch: Cold cuts and leftover smoked salmon
  • Dinner: Out

Friday:

Note: The BBQ pork is one of my all-time favorite SUPER EASY recipes. I throw a pork tenderloin, a roughly chopped white onion, and a minced garlic clove or two in the crockpot, then douse with my favorite BBQ sauce and a few healthy squeezes of Sriracha. Cook for 4 hours, shred, and eat. I eat my pork with a potato (which I liberally drench in sauce), but my husband prefers making little sandwiches, hence the rolls and coleslaw.

Follow up: The dinner rolls were easy to make and froze nicely. But they are NOT Parker House rolls, which is kind of what I was expecting. They are denser and… squishier than I anticipated. Still good though. Would definitely make these again.

Saturday:

  • This is where I completely give up on the pretense of cooking, not that I’ve been doing much of it. I can promise I’ll have been doing a lot of dishes anyway.

Follow up: Three loads of dishes EVERY DAY our guests were here. How is that even possible…?

Sunday:

  • Takeout????

If you’re bored this Christmas week, let me know what your traditional Holiday Meals include.

It’s beginning to snow – hooray! Happiest Christmas, Internet!

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Because I firmly believe that my mother and I cannot possibly be the only two people in the world who are the way we are, I am going to make a Vast Generalization about appetizer serving.

There are two kinds of people: The people who put out the entire bag of chips, and the people who put out half of the bag and then refill as necessary.

The people who put out the whole wedge of cheese, and the people who cut a wedge of Brie in half, and put out half and put the other half in the fridge.

The people who put out the whole jar of salsa, and the people who scoop half the jar of salsa into a smaller dish and put the rest in the fridge, adding more salsa from the fridge as the dish gets low.

And on and on.

The reason I am a Refill Person is twofold:

1.) I am germ-averse, and so I don’t like the idea of saving something that other people have been nibbling on. If it’s chips, I don’t want to re-bag a bunch of chips that people’s hands have been in contact with. If it’s dip, I don’t want to put away and then eat something that other people have been dipping (and possibly double-dipping) into.

2.) I don’t want to waste food. If I put the whole container of hummus out on the table and people nibble at it for a couple of hours, I am not going to want to put the rest of it back in the fridge for future consumption. First of all, see item 1 in this list. Secondly, it’s been out in the air, gathering bacteria and getting warm. Yuck. Extra yuck if it’s a mayonnaise/cream based dip. Or guacamole. Or cheese. If I put out only part of what I have to offer, I can always add more without the risk of having to throw away a large portion.

I acknowledge that there’s a disadvantage to being a Refill Person, which is that you need to be constantly vigilant that the chip bowl isn’t getting too empty. And you have to be keenly aware of the Eating Enthusiasm level of your guests – if it’s waning, you either let the bowl empty out, or you only put in a handful of new chips. If it’s still high, you can fill the bowl up to the tippety top again.

Okay, there’s a second disadvantage. In addition to the vigilance, you might end up spending a decent amount of time going back and forth to the kitchen/fridge to refill, which detracts not only from conversation with your guests (potentially a plus, I suppose, depending on the type of people you are entertaining) but (more importantly) from your own snacking.

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Perhaps you are looking for some last-minute Christmas gifts? Or maybe you just like reading about what other people enjoy. In either case, here are some things that I am loving lately (and just to be clear, I am not getting ANYTHING in return for recommending any of these; I either bought them myself or received them as gifts):

Chef’n ZipStrip Herb Zipper

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Photo from surlatable.com

Okay, I didn’t realize this had such a ridiculous name. But it’s awesome. I got a bunch for people as stocking stuffers last year – including myself – and I use it ALL the time. It’s on sale for $6.36 at Sur La Table, if you have any people who like to cook on your Christmas list. 

Anthurium Plant

 

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Photo from homedepot.com

This summer, I was looking for a red lamp to add to my new office and I could not for the life of me find one I liked. But I DID find a really pretty plant with red leaf-like flowers (in a red ceramic pot) at my local Home Depot. I know, a plant does not have the same functionality as a lamp. But if you think of the lamp as more of an accessory, you will see how the plant fit the bill. ANYWAY. It is an anthurium plant, which seems to be a type of orchid. And it’s super easy to care for: I just put a few ice cubes in it each Monday and it remains lovely and shiny all week long. If you have someone in your life who isn’t great at caring for plants but who loves them AND has easy access to ice cubes, this could be the perfect gift. Okay, I am giving the Home Depot site the side-eye because I did NOT pay $32.99 for my anthurium. I can’t imagine paying any more than $15 for it. Maybe $20. I kind of want to dig through my old receipts just to prove it. Perhaps it is seasonally more expensive. If so, it would make an excellent Christmas in July gift.

Kung Fu Girl Riesling

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Photo from kvintners.com

Riesling is my favorite type of white wine. My mantra used to be, the sweeter, the better. But my palate might be changing or maturing or something (unlikely) and I have gravitated to drier wines of late. Kung Fu Girl is my current go-to. It’s probably what I would call semi-dry, so there is a hint of sweetness there. But it’s crisp and clean and also, bonus, I can usually find it for $10.99 at my local grocery store. I’ve also seen it at World Market, if you have one near you.

Lands’ End Shimmer Down Long Coat

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Photo from landsend.com

We live in an area of the country whose winters include snow and cold temperatures. And I happen to possess the variety of child who loves snow more than anything in life. So last year, my husband bought me a down coat from Lands’ End.  It was longer than I wanted it to be – it came all the way down to the tops of my boots (also from Lands’ End). And I felt like a marshmallow. BUT. It is AMAZING. I can be wearing a t-shirt-weight shirt and jeans, and as long as I have that coat on, I feel NOTHING. I can play in the snow with Carla for hours (or until her face is red and I have to drag her inside). I can even lie down in the snow and make snow angels and feel NOTHING. It’s truly the best. And Lands’ End has really good sales on a regular basis. It’s a bit pricy at $199, but if you get a code for 40% off, you’re looking at a much more reasonable $119 for a really great, really warm coat. Oh. I just now “got” why it’s called “Shimmer Down.” I say “got” because you CAN make a pun on “simmer down” just because the coat is made of down doesn’t mean you SHOULD.

UGG Tasman Genuine Shearling Gloves

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Photo from amazon.com

Speaking of warm, these gloves are the softest, fuzziest, warmest gloves ever. Obviously, you can’t text with them on or anything. But I find they are perfect for driving before your car’s heater has kicked in. Or for, you know, being outside in general. They are pricey, at $140, but I looooooove mine so I think they might be worth it.

Bedford Cottage Eskimo Throw

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Photo from bedfordcottage.com

Perhaps you can tell that it is only 15 degrees here, based on these last three items. Well, I am in love with this faux fur throw, which is currently draped over my legs. It’s super soft and warm, but I also love it because it looks like it belongs on a chaise longue in some fancy catalog and makes me feel like the type of person you might refer to as “stylish” and “put together” and less like the type of person whose living room has seventy five Amazon boxes stacked in one corner and a bright blue toddler-height table with red, green, and yellow chairs in another corner and a giant bear from Costco behind the couch and the detritus of a Doc McStuffins vet station scattered across the hearth and pieces of a menorah puzzle strewn like tiny land mines about the carpet. You can buy it via the link above for $149, which I did not; I got it as a gift. But it’s possibly that you could find it elsewhere for less.

Cuisinart CPK-17 PerfecTemp 1.7-Liter Stainless Steel Cordless Electric Kettle

 

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Photo from amazon.com

I drink tea every day, and this water boiler has made it very very very simple. Just fill and press a button. And there are all sorts of temperature variations, so you can set it to the proper temperature for green tea… or black tea… or oolong… or whatever.  My husband – a coffee drinker – uses it too; on weekend for pour-over coffee. I really like that it maintains a specific temperature, too – just in case a toddler suddenly urgently needs you to come help her find proper socks. It cost $73?!?! Sheesh. That seems… excessive. Although it DOES do a nice job. And I really have no concept for how much these things do/should cost. 

Carole Hochman Ladies’ 3 Pair Ribbed Lounge Sock

 

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Photo from costco.com

I grabbed a three-pack of these socks at Costco the last time we were there (what’s a trip to Costco without grabbing something that you simultaneously NEED URGENTLY and also had no idea you needed/didn’t need at all?) and they are sooooo soft and warm and cozy. They don’t look like much from the picture, but they are cushy and plush and I love them. Also: $5.99.

Laura Mercier Hand Crème Sampler

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Photo from amazon.com

Well, crud. I see this is either $51 through Amazon or not available. My husband got it for me last Christmas, and it was a PERFECT stocking stuffer. I wash my hands a bajillion times a day, so they get very dry. And there’s nothing less appealing than that powdery feeling of dry skin – well, I suppose cracked and bleeding finger webs are less appealing. I think it was, at one point, around $30 at Nordstrom. (And, keeping in mind that each of us is comfortable paying certain amounts for certain things and not for others, I find that $30 seems just on the high side of reasonable while $51 has me shaking my head emphatically NO.) I have just in the past month squeezed the very last glob of lotion from the very last sample and I would enjoy getting this again and again each year. Also, if you don’t want to gift someone ALL of the little lotions, you could certainly open up the box and give one sample to multiple people. Including, perhaps, yourself. Of course, all this is MOOT because it No Longer Exists. But I’m sure there are many other good hand lotion sets in the world.

Scrivener

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Photo from literatureandlatte.com

This may be a bit of a niche idea, but as a (would-be/trying-to-be/hopes-to-be) writer, I use this every single day. I never thought that I would like a writing platform more than I do plain old Microsoft Word. But I LOVE Scrivener. It’s very intuitive and user friendly AND it has a very simple tutorial on how to use it, just in case. It makes putting together your novel (or screenplay, I imagine) very simple. No more scrolling down in a long document, or opening multiple documents. You just create a new chapter or chapter-part inside an outline, and then you can move parts and pieces around with the flick of your mouse, OR read your entire manuscript in one flowing document. Plus, it allows you to assign (and customize) keywords to each bit of text, from which characters show up to things you need to research to plot points and dates – which you can then use to help you organize the manuscript in different ways, like, you can see at one glance every chapter featuring your villain. It’s fabulous and it’s only $45 and I love it so. If only it could do the writing for me…

Matymats Grippy Yoga Socks and Stargoods Yoga Gloves 

Photos from amazon.com

I have newly taken on yoga as part of my at-home exercise routine. Which means I have newly discovered that my feet and palms sweat when I do yoga. What can I say. The body is a mysterious wonderland. These socks and gloves help A LOT. No more sliding around while I’m trying to do downward facing dog or a triangle pose or other horrific contortion of limbs that my body is clearly not meant to perform. Both are about $15, but both come with multiple pairs of socks/gloves, which means I can match them to my sports bra. (No.)

 

Good luck with any last-minute shopping you are doing!

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Join me, won’t you, in aggressively discussing something frivolous and distractible and wholly unrelated to The End of Life As We Know It?

First, thank you for your comments and commiseration and suggestions on my post about What to Do About All the Toys. VERY helpful, and I feel more equipped to face it as a thing to be got through rather than something I can try to control in advance.

Today, we are going Full On Holiday! Carla and I are decorating, and then she and her father and I are all going to a kids’ Christmas concert, and then tomorrow we are going Christmas shopping for our Adopt-a-Family family. Woo!

I bought some peppermint body lotion at Bath & Body Works awhile back, just because I like to smell like vaguely Christmas scented candy during the holidays. A few days ago, I decided I needed a little olfactory boost of holiday spirit and – as is my custom – I slathered my entire self in the lotion. Only to discover that it had some sort of cooling element (the mint, I’m assuming) that made my body feel like it was about to pop ice cubes out through my skin. I’m not recommending it, is what I’m saying. Unless you are uninjured but missing the cold sensation of Icy Hot or perhaps are stranded nude on a ninety-degree island. One with a Bath & Body Works store, or an internet connection.

(Today, if you must know, I went for a years-old bottle of Jingle Bellini which is faintly peachy and not in the least reminiscent of the holidays.)

(We are still talking about lotion.)

My husband and I have idly been discussing the menu for the upcoming holidays, and I am wondering something very important:

What do YOU eat on Christmas Eve? And on Christmas Day – for breakfast and dinner? And on Hanukkah, because that’s relevant too and because it’s the holiday with which I have the least food experience!

My family’s Christmas tradition, as far back as I can remember, has been to eat curried chicken and rice soup on Christmas Eve and then to eat a porterhouse spice roast for Christmas Day. My mom would make the soup, and my father and brother and I would go out delivering our homemade chocolates on Christmas Eve. Then on Christmas Day, after the presents were opened, my dad would make pancakes and bacon for brunch. (I have a vague recollection of having had coffee cake some years, but you haven’t yet lived if you haven’t eaten my father’s pancakes.) For dinner, my dad made the spice roast, accompanied by his homemade Caesar salad and lemony steamed broccoli and my mom’s goat cheese and garlic mashed potatoes. YUM. There is nothing that smells like Christmas the way his spice roast does.

My husband’s family tradition was to go to their country club for Christmas Eve dinner, and then, on Christmas Day, his mom would make a beef tenderloin. A couple of times, in the years since my husband and I have been together, his mom tried to change the Christmas Eve tradition to fondue, but I think we all felt so disgusting afterwards it didn’t really take.

But this year will be the first Christmas we’ve hosted that my FATHER isn’t here to make his spice roast. Why yes, I did make my dad cook Christmas dinner the past three years IN MY HOUSE for MY GUESTS why do you ask?

So my husband and I are dithering over what to serve. Join us, won’t you?

Christmas Eve Dinner:

My parents – for whom the Christmas Eve tradition is soup – won’t be here. So… do we go out? We don’t belong to a country club, so that’s not an option. But I don’t know what I’d cook. Roast chicken?

I don’t know that the soup has sufficiently become OUR family Christmas tradition, though maybe my husband feels differently; I should probably ask him rather than rambling on to YOU. But here we are.

Christmas Day Breakfast:

My husband has made a French toast casserole for Christmas breakfast the past few years. That’s probably what we’ll do again. It’s easy to assemble, and you do it the night before and just shove it in the oven when everyone begins to open presents.

(My husband, who loves anything and anything British, tried for a couple of years to make a Christmas bread for Christmas Day… but no one else ate it.) (I tried it; it was so dense and full of things that I just couldn’t enjoy it.)

Christmas Dinner:

Christmas dinner remains a mystery! Do we try a beef tenderloin? It sounds delicious, but I’ve never attempted it. And what if it’s a big failure? (The idea of making a failed version of my mother-in-law’s traditional Christmas meal gives me the shudders.) Same goes for the spice roast; and I am even less inclined to try that, I think, because I associate it so strongly with my dad. (Although I admit to a strong leaning toward nostalgia, and would love to have it become OUR family tradition as well.)

I do not like turkey, and have already made my one turkey for the year, so that’s out. No one in my husband’s family particularly likes ham, so that’s not a good idea. A pork roast seems… less special somehow. So I guess I am leaning toward beef. But… WHAT?

Hanukkah Food:

And do I need to think about something different and special for Hanukkah? Since the first night of Hanukkah falls on Christmas Eve this year, I’m guessing I might have to switch up the soup plans for something else. Not that I have any idea WHAT. And I have zero clue how to make latkes. And zero desire for anyone else to make latkes in my kitchen. The last time my mother-in-law made latkes – which were delicious – her house was wrapped in a skein of grease and Fried Smell that was very unappetizing. Can you BAKE latkes?

All this talk about food is now making me think about what else I’m to feed our guests while they’re here. My in laws will be here for eight days. My sister and niece will be here for an unspecified amount of time.

Desserty Things:

I tend to forget about dessert, but I suppose that’s important too. Usually, my father and I make chocolates. But… this year I am not going to do so. I will miss it, but I just can’t handle the stress of hosting all these people and also trying to make artisan chocolates in my kitchen. No thank you.

My husband and I are watching The Great American Baking Competition and one of the challenges was all about cookies and bars. So he has been delightedly scrolling through Christmas bar and cookie recipes.

I think I’d be happy with these faux-Twix bars, which are easy and delicious.  But I’m wondering a) what kind of holiday sweets YOU make and b) what you serve for dessert on Christmas/Hanukkah/etc.

Meals Surrounding Christmas:

Breakfast will be… I don’t know. Yogurt? I guess I’ll get some eggs and bacon and milk just in case… I don’t really do breakfast. My child does, of course, but it’s usually frozen pancakes or waffles or cereal or toast and yogurt. I have lots of THOSE THINGS on hand.

Lunches are not my forte, so I suppose I will do what I always do when we have guests: Get a bunch of cold cuts and fancy cheese and crackers and olives and encourage people to help themselves. There will be bread and PB&J and grilled cheese ingredients. (Side note: I am terrible about estimating what we need, and inevitably wind up with WAY too much food. Bleh. I am not looking forward to that part of things, the part where I throw away a bunch of perfectly good food [and money]. And idea how to get more appropriate amounts – without having to go to the grocery store every day?)

Dinners, I can do. I have already purchased the ingredients for this mushroom and spinach lasagna. I’m making one for a friend, and I thought I might as well make TWO and freeze one to eat while my in laws are here. I’ve made it before and it is, as the website implies, damn delicious. So that’s one night taken care of.

Another night is my father-in-law’s birthday, and we’ll go out. So we’re down to needing meals for six days – two of which I addressed at length above.

I’ll probably do boeuf bourgignon one night – or, maybe, instead, I’ll do a coq au vin (which is really the same thing, but with chicken instead).

And maybe tacos another night, since Carla LOVES tacos. Bonus: they are super easy. Double bonus: They are my favorite.

Aaaannnndddd…. Maybe this pork loin with wine and herb gravy? I’ve done it once before, and it was easy and pretty tasty. Maybe with a salad and some… roasted potatoes?

That leaves one more night. I think we will go out. Two nights out in the course of an eight-day visit doesn’t seem excessive, does it? I hope not, because I may have just blacked out a little thinking about all the dishes I will be doing. Or! I passed a local restaurant the other day that had a sign out front with two irresistible words: ORDER PIZZA. Maybe that’s what we’ll do!

What do YOU like to serve when you have company? Extra points for easy.

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It is really too late to fret about this now, because it’s HAPPENING THIS WEEKEND, but that means I’m in Prime Fretting Headspace.

We are having Carla’s birthday party this weekend, and TWENTY PEOPLE will be here. Okay, eighteen. But that’s VERY CLOSE TO TWENTY. I have never had so many people at my house before.

Things that I am fretting over:

1. The Food: Because my husband has kindly and gently pointed out that one of the reasons I find entertaining so stressful, we are outsourcing the food. We are getting a big sandwich tray, along with some pasta salad, and some chips. I am TRYING to resist the urge to make homemade guacamole and salsa. We’ll see if I succeed.

I also really REALLY wanted to make macarons, but my husband gently and kindly persuaded me not to. And he’s right: they are time intensive and also finicky and I can imagine the feet not setting correctly and feeling frustrated and panicked. So. No macarons. Instead, we are ordering an ice cream cake.

Will we have enough food? Will people like it?

And what about alcohol? How much beer and wine do you need to buy for twelve adults? We don’t have anything resembling a cooler, so I bought two big plastic tubs from Target for $5.99 apiece that I’m planning to fill with ice and drinks.

Besides beer and wine, what’s appropriate to offer as drinks? I got some bottled water (although Target didn’t have EITHER Dasani or Aquafina – my preferred brands – and I had to buy Ice Mountain instead) and a box of fun-sounding La Croix. We have tons of diet soda already, but we don’t drink non-diet soda. Do we need to buy any?

2. The Décor: This is supposed to be a birthday party, so I want it to be somewhat festive. But I also don’t want to go too overboard. My ORIGINAL idea was to match the decorations to Carla’s dress, which is orange and blue and white.

 

Birthday dress

It’s from Gymboree and it looks like I’m going to have to IRON the hem.

So I got some navy blue plates and cups and napkins and tablecloth and balloons and a “Happy Birthday” banner from Target. And some of those little poof things you hang from the ceiling. And a little banner for the cake. Man, Target really knows how to get you to spend a LOT of money on single-use stuff.

Blue party supplies

Image from Target.com

But I cannot find coordinating ORANGE decorations anywhere! Even my local Party Place only had about five orange balloons. I guess that will have to be enough.

Okay, that’s not entirely true. I did find the following from Amazon. But they are asking $12.95 for eight settings. Target charges $2.00 for 10 9-inch plates, $3.00 for 10 cups, $2.00 for 20 napkins.

Orange plates

Image from Amazon.com

Dammit, now I see that Target has orange party supplies ONLINE, so I could have ordered them! But now I am out of time! ACK.

And I was going to do blue macarons and orange macarons. But THAT’S not happening. So now I’m feeling like the décor will be half-assed.

3. The State of My House, Indoors and Outdoors: My house is my house, right? But whenever actual PEOPLE are going to spend time here, I start worrying about whether it is too shabby or too dirty or too cramped. Do we have enough chairs? No, no we don’t. Is there enough room in the living room? Nope, not at all.

Hopefully the weather will cooperate, and we can divide our time between inside and being in the backyard. I mean, I am REALLY counting on being able to throw all six of the kids into the yard so they can play.

But the deck is… well, if we are being charitable, it is “distressed” at best. And the latticework that ostensibly keeps creatures from setting up apartments under the deck is very beat up. The long side that faces the yard has fallen in completely, and it looks terrible. But THAT’S not going to be different by this weekend.

And I have been spending ALL SUMMER searching for cushions for our rag-tag collection of seating on the deck with NO LUCK. So finally this past weekend, in a panic, I ordered some things that might (fingers crossed) work, and those are going to arrive tomorrow HOPEFULLY.

What if it RAINS? What in heaven’s name will I do with six toddlers? I suppose I could spend a couple of hours making the basement more child-friendly, and just toss them all down there.

4. Entertainment for the Kids: I think here is one area where I am allowing COMPARISONS to freak me out. We recently went to a birthday party where the kids were all playing outside while the adults were eating and drinking. And somehow THAT party has become The Benchmark, and I know – I KNOW – Carla’s party won’t measure up.

It was her best friend’s party. And they have different circumstances than we do. A much larger house and yard, for one thing. And a nanny-share situation that means they have a TON of toys. But the party included: a massive trampoline, a bounce house, a mini-swimming pool, and a sprinkler.

We just don’t have those things, and nor would I want ANY of them, really. But since we DON’T have any of those things, I am fretting about what the kids will DO outside.

My mother-in-law has apparently bought us some sort of sprinkling apparatus. We have a small water table. Carla has a little tiny play structure with a small slide and a little hidey-hole underneath. She has a table with benches and an umbrella. She has a mini-trampoline that one person can use. There are various balls and bats and a little lawnmower. I think the kids will have things to play with. No one is going to be standing in the middle of the yard, staring in boredom at the grass.

I didn’t feel like doing gift bags (is this the wrong way to go?), but I did get every child a bubble wand. So they can play with bubbles.

Is this enough?

I am fighting the urge to hire a magician or that guy who comes equipped with turtles and armadillos and an alligator.

5. The Mix of People: We have invited:

  • Family A: One of our closest friend families. One of our family friend families. A family of close friends.
  • Family B: Another family that we’ve known for years but don’t see as often.
  • Family C: Another family that we’ve known for years, and frankly I would LOVE to get to know them better, but until now we have only seen them when our parents and their parents get together.
  • Family D: My husband’s parents.
  • Family E: The parents of Family C.

So… Family A and Family B have met once or twice. Family C obviously knows Family D and Family E. We know everyone. But will they all find things to talk about? Will Family C feel awkward/left out? Will the Families of Parents feel like they are just there as add-ons? Will all our kids get along?

I am trying very hard to remember that MANY people are not as socially anxious as I am. And that Family A and Family B – at least – are super friendly and outgoing and can talk to anyone. And Family C is super nice and friendly, although I can’t speak to whether they are introverts or not.

The other thing I am trying to remember is that if I were the guest at a similar party, I would soothe my own anxiety by knowing I could just talk to my husband or play with my kid if it felt too awkward with the other adults. People DO this kind of thing all the time. They all said “yes!” when I invited them; they are grown ups; they know what they are getting into; EVERYTHING WILL BE FINE.

Once I have made it through this list, I loop back to whether the house is clean enough. We are having a cleaning person come Friday to clean, and that will take care of surface things like vacuuming and toilets and such. But then I think about things like, Oh no! Our baseboards are still green! And, The grout in our tile is horrendous! And, Why haven’t we hung up those six paintings on the wall yet? But am I going to paint the baseboards or clean the grout or magically hang a gallery wall of paintings in the next two days? No, no I am not.

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It was so much fun thinking about and planning for dinner with our friends who have some dietary restrictions. You had so many helpful suggestions on my post about it, and I now have a stuffed-to-the-brim folder of delicious-sounding meals. Okay, it’s a digital folder, so I don’t know that it CAN be stuffed-to-the-brim, which is a little unsettling. Suffice it to say that I have a LOT.

One of the most useful suggestions was to simply TALK to my friend. NGS noted that she wouldn’t feel comfortable having me cook for her gluten-free family member, because the allergy is so severe. So that really spurred me to find out about my friend’s comfort level.

Over coffee, I said, “I really want to be able to cook for your family. What would you be comfortable with?” Even though I was a little anxious about the conversation, it was perfectly fine. The vegetarian family member eats fish, which was a huge relief, and everyone else eats chicken. And she was fine with me using the grill for everything – and if there was a concern about gluten being on the grill itself, we could put one piece of chicken in aluminum foil to protect it.

What we ended up with was:

  • Grilled swordfish with mango salsa
  • Green bean and jicama salad
  • Green salad with assorted dressings
  • Gluten-free macaroni and cheese (Annie’s brand)
  • Gluten-free chocolate chip cookies (Immaculate brand)

The mango salsa is my own “recipe.” I dice four mangoes, two red bell peppers, a quarter of a red onion, and douse the whole thing with lime juice. I also add jalapeno – which would of course vary based on your heat tolerance – and a handful of rough-chopped cilantro.

The green bean and jicama salad is super delicious. It’s adapted from a recipe in Thrill of the Grill, which makes little sense to me because NONE of it is grilled.

Jicama salad 1

It’s the perfect dairy-free, gluten-free salad. And it’s also perfect for hot summer days, because it’s cool and crunchy and tangy. If you, like I am, are always looking for mayonnaise-free salads to bring to picnics and barbecues, this is an excellent choice.

Here is the recipe:

Jicama salad 2

As you can see, my “adaptation” consists of leaving out the horrid, horrid tomatoes.

Three important things:

  1. In my opinion, it’s critical to make this the day that you are going to serve it. The blanching step helps keep the green beans their beautiful fresh green. But by the next day, they turn the brownish-green of canned green beans. They are still crisp and delicious, but they don’t LOOK it.
  2. It is really, really important to salt and pepper this salad. It helps tremendously with the flavor.
  3. This makes a TON of salad. Since we didn’t use any tomatoes, I used a pound and a half of green beans, and one largish jicama. The recipe says it serves 4 to 6 people. I think it would safely serve about 10 people.

Of course, I fret and fret about an evening with friends after the fact. I did have a momentary panic when I realized that two of the food items had cilantro. But what can you do AFTER the food is already made?

Jicama salad 3

I looooooooooove cilantro.

Everyone SEEMED to enjoy the food. At least, they ATE it. (Well, Carla didn’t eat anything except one of the cookies. But I anticipated that. As soon as our guests left, we fed her a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.) So I’m hopeful that it went well.

And I feel much more confident about inviting this family over in the future. PHEW!

Next time, I think I will make this mushroom-and-pea-risotto (h/t Sistomax!) (whoops! Sistomax was directing me to this one, with artichokes, that ALSO sounds delicious!) and maybe these salmon kebabs (we could do chicken kebabs for the non-fish eaters). We have made the salmon kebabs in the past, and they are so pretty and delicious.

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