Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Blissdom 2012 Recap: Why Less Is More When It Comes To Your Writing

As I mentioned yesterday - did you see the yummy Cherry Bliss Bites I made? - I have been at Blissdom for the past several days. This is by far one of my favorite conferences because it is so content heavy and has such great information. In fact, I actually saw very few of the sponsors because I spent all my time in sessions and didn't have time to get around to most of the booths and suites, which made me a little sad.

The good news is that I tried to take really good notes so that I could absorb the information being shared and then pass it along to you. I'm sure I missed some pieces, but hopefully not much. I'd love to hear your thoughts about the sessions and what we learned.

The first session I attended was Cut to the Chase: Learn Why Less is More When it Comes to Your Writing with Scott Adler and Amy Graff from BabyCenter.com.

A couple notes before I get to the session: the irony of the long title for this session given the topics we discussed was not lost on me. It still makes me giggle.

I also disagreed somewhat with the extreme focus on cutting out words. At some point, the words - even the seemingly superfluous ones - are what make the story and bring us into the moment. The winning story in our group exercise at the end of the session was 31 words - cut from over 200. In my opinion, it left out so many details that made the story real and relatable. We do need to strike a balance, and this was left out of our discussion.

My notes:

Top tips for writing irresistible headlines:
Be clear, not clever

Keep it short and tight (5-7 words)

Use strong keywords and trending terms

Force the click

Use numbers (but not too large)

Ask a question

Promise something

Winning words for effective headlines: free, new, easy, best, worst, secret, top, how to


4 habits of successful headline writers
1) Pay attention to your own behavior – what headlines do you click on? What types of headlines elsewhere appeal to you?

2) Seek headline feedback – ask your friends, find a good support group

3) Ask yourself: What part of this story would I tell a friend?

4) Make time for headline writing. Don’t wait until the last minute to slap a headline on your post. This should be most thoughtful part of your post – spend at least 10 minutes working on it.


Using the Gizmodo example – why would anyone take on the story of taking on the ownership of the Iranian nuclear threat? This was their headline: “Two supercarriers side by side look awesome, but it’s very bad news” This was placed next to the image showing the two carriers, demonstrating the power of an image with a headline. What image extends the power of the headline? This was a post that spoke in our language and even those who aren’t politically inclined, that draws you in, proving you can do this for any topic.


Part 1: Nailing a headline
Write a winning headline for this topic – with prizes! Someone from the table will win….

“Teens across America are wearing their pajamas to school. It’s the latest fashion trend. But while teens think PJs are comfortable and cute, many school administrators find this fad sloppy. Some schools are forbidding students from wearing pajamas to class.”

Our two ideas: Pajamas Get an F? and The Schoolroom Isn’t Their Bedroom
Winner: School Administrators Tell Victoria to Leave Her Secret At Home
Real headline: Wear Your Pajamas All Day?


Part 2 Editing yourself – the power of economy

With newspapers, you have a group of editors and readers, there are anywhere from 5-10 people who all are going in and reworking sentences and they are omitting needless words, making things more concise and sharp. In blogging, the blogger is both the writer and editor. We’re guilty all the time of not editing and just trying to get it up quickly. We just want to post it and get it up there. It’s so important to take the time to edit it. Have you ever said, “it’s a little wordy, but it’s good enough. No one will ever notice.” If you notice, someone else will!


Why it’s important to write concisely:
One of best ways to improve your blog post is to edit it down. Your message will come across more clearly and powerfully when your writing is clear and strong. Readers are more likely to come back. They are more likely to share posts that are well-written and post them on Facebook and Twitter. You never know where it will be picked up.

If it’s well edited, you’ll become well respected in your field. It’s incredibly powerful to have good writing. If Babycenter.com is going to link to someone, they want to make it something that’s a worthwhile destination. When you link out to someone, it’s extending your relationship with others. You want to be sure to offer them something they can give to others.

The key is to give yourself the time to write. “Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short.” – Henry David Thoreau. To write something short and witty that still tells the tale, that’s what takes the most time, but it’s well worth it. Try to write a show description in 25 words (an upcoming concert or movie). It’s a great training field to have you start thinking about not just what adjectives you could use but instead what three words can make a real impression on who the artist is.

How you can trim that fat:
Go back to high school English. Get rid of the intensifiers and qualifiers. They’re the needless words that modify an adjective “rather quickly” becomes “quickly.” There are many frequently used modifiers – very , really, rather, too, so ,quite, extremely, definitely – we want that casual conversational style, which is why we use them. Sometimes it’s ok because it fits the flow and makes the story write, but try to cut 50-75% of them out of your writing.

There are also redundant expressions in our language that we use regularly: advance reservations, absolutely essential, ATM machine, crystal clear, mutual agreement, whether or not, reconsider again, 12 noon, best ever, both of them – read the list of top 200 redundancies on about.com. Don’t be redundant.

We can also reduce inflated formulaic phrases to one word:
Due to the fact that – because
At this point in time – now
With regard to – about
In the near future – soon
In my opinion – I think
In the event that – If
Prior to – because
Regardless of the fact that – although
In all cases – always

Don’t overuse who, which and that. Relative pronouns bog down sentences. It’s so easy to get carried away with them. You don’t ever want to have more than one “that” in a sentence. Break it into two sentences if you need to.

It was my mother who said – My mother said
The diapers, which were pull-ups – the pull-up diapers
The pediatrician would never recommend that a parent but a used carseat – The pediatriction recommends against buying used car seats.

Refer to Strunk & White – The Elements of Style. It’s great to use and refer. Best description of when to use who and whom. The New York Times Style Guide is another great resource, but thicker and more expensive.

We also get wordy with verbs when we add in extra things.
Don’t use “would” just use past tense. She would change diapers daily – she changed diapers daily

Use the active voice instead of passive voice. It is recommended – Pediatricians recommend

Avoid unnecessary use of “to be” and “being.” Time outs are considered to be effective – Time outs are effective

The passive voice is so common, but it’s second nature. Really work to avoid this. Grammar checker on computer can help us avoid passive voice. It does point out the passive voice the majority of the time and can help you find it. Their recommendations for reworking sentences aren’t the best, but it gives you an alert.


Part 3 Editing yourself – Listening to your writing

8 ways to improve your blog posts
1 Show, don’t tell (exchange vague modifiers for specifics). You’ve probably heard this before, but when you give the details, then you don’t end up with these vacuous adjectives. “The meal was fabulous” v “I had the tangy salmon with spicy cilantro salsa.” You have to describe the taste and the mood. Check out the James Beard food writing award winners – they are the experts in this field and you can learn from them.

2 Opt for simple words rather than fancy, intellectual ones: If you don’t think the readers are going to know what a word means, then don’t use it.

3 Uses contractions – don’t v do not

4 Avoid expletive constructions: “it is” and “there are” – can you rework the sentence to avoid these?

5 Start sentences with “And” or “But” – not formal words like “however” that are formal and sound stuffy. You can break up long sentences and start the second one with a but or and.

6 Skip clich├ęs – “dead” not “dead as a doornail.” Go back and fix those.

7 Avoid using the same words again and again in a blog post – adjectives (like fantastic). Look for different words that tell the story.

8 If what you’re writing is important, let it sit overnight and then read it the next day before you publish. We don’t always have the luxury of waiting overnight, but give yourself some distance – go look out the window, go to the bathroom, take a bread. You will catch something when you go back to look at it. Take a breather and create this awareness before you publish rather than when you’re scrolling through comments. You can be so eager to get a post up and then make a mistake that you could otherwise have avoided.


How to be clear and concise every time – top 10 tips for cutting to the chase
1) Keep your headline to 5-7 words

2) Research and use the write words - google adwords, google trends are good sources. Go by the numbers. It’s an incredible free tool that allows you to see how often a particular key word or phrase is searched every month. This is a great way to set keywords in your post, headlines, even content for your post. BabyCenter changed every mention of toilet training to potty training because searches were exponentially higher. Try different permutations of phrases when searching to find the best one. Google trends does matter because “Valentine’s Day” is a trending phrase in the days around Valentine’s Day, so put it in your headlines. Creatively bring trending topics into your posts where it fits and you can make it work. There may be things on there that are applicable to you and that you can use to create content.

3) Write crisp, clear, uncomplicated sentences

4) Keep verb construction simple Use an active voice

5) Omit needless words and phrases that add nothing to the meaning of a sentence

6) Don’t get overly creative with punctuation

7) Use a conversational voice

8) Say something new in a photo caption – put in information that isn’t included elsewhere. This is a great opportunity to capture readers

9) End your posts with a concisely written question – don’t just slap on a question, so many of us do. Put a good elegant question at the end that makes your readers want to comment. Narrow it down to one question so you’re driving the conversation where you want it to go. They’re going to make a commitment to making a comment, so make it something that is where you want it to go. These are not yes/no questions but ones that make your readers think and share. It’s an opportunity to say something new, not something you already said in a post. Since all your real estate on the page is important, use it well.

10) Read your posts out loud because that is what allows you to catch those typos, grammatical errors, extra words, etc.


Some more tips:
Yes, you can write in a fun, conversational style. That’s what blogging is about. We want to be fun and conversational. Editing down a post doesn’t mean we’re getting rid of this style. Some common mistakes are long rambling reeds. If you need to explain what the story is about in the third or fourth paragraph, you need to rewrite that first paragraph. Go ahead and write it the long rambling way first. Let it out, but recognize that it’s a long rambling need and that you’ll need to kill it. Let it be part of the process if you need.

Avoid cluttered sentences that are packed with so many words we don’t need.

Be careful of words in all caps for emphasis – it’s a big part of rage and anger. You lose the effect if you use it more than just once or twice. It really expresses the emotion when you use it rarely. When you’re putting the caps in, people aren’t used to reading them in all caps, so it stops the reader.

Be careful with overly creative punctuation. We don’t have to follow all the grammar rules in blogging, but no sentence needs five exclamation points. One exclamation point is sufficient. You really only need one, and use them sparingly so that they remain effective. It’s like swearing – when you do it rarely and then swear, people listen and know it’s a big deal.

Don’t use too many words. So often you can cut a blog post in half. She often tells writers that 350 words is a sweet spot and don’t go over 500. If you’ve done a ton of research to share or you’ve got a huge story to tell, there are exceptions, but aim for that sweet spot. Most of the time, editors will tell her to cut a story in half when they look at it. You let go of information and sentences that you’ve fallen in love with, but you still need to let them go. You can save favorite sentences and phrases to use in another sentence. Put them into a “junk” document – the sentences are still there, so it helps you through the letting go process.

It isn’t just about going out and buying a red pen. Or fifty. If you have time, they say rewriting from scratch is best, but that isn’t always feasible. You don’t have to do whole cloth rewrite, but read it out loud and see where you catch yourself. When you do it, your readers will, too. You are your own best critic, so use your power. Read it to someone else if you can.

There is one silver bullet – if a gun is to your head and you had to cut 100 words, what would you cut? That puts the passion into the piece, but it’s about moving it forward and making it more powerful.

Faster doesn’t mean dumber. There are long pieces that are popular, but they earn their length. The pieces that don’t earn their length are considered boring – quote from someone, oops, I missed who.

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell” – William Strunk Jr – Elements of Style

You can use your keywords in the caption and also in the photo file name, which is also a great way to get SEO leverage. Putting up the IMG35235 is a huge waste of SEO potential energy.

Writing better, writing more quickly, writing focused on your message really pays dividends.

David Ogilvie (the original ad man) sent a memo in 1982 to his entire staff entitled how to write:

The better you write, the higher you will go at Ogilvie. People who think well, write well. Woolly minded people write wooly memos, woolly letters and wooly speeches. Good writing is not a natural gift. You have to learn to write well.

Here are 10 hints:
Read the Roman-Raphaelson book on writing. Read it three times
Write the way you talk. Naturally.
Use short words, short sentences, and short paragraphs.
Never use jargon words like reconceptualize, demassification, altitudinally, judgementally. They are the hallmarks of a pretentious ass.
Never write more than 2 pages on any subject.
Check your quotations.
Never send a letter or memo on the day you write it. Read it aloud the next morning – and then edit it.

***

So yeah, this post may have broken a few of the rules. It's just a touch over that 350 word sweet spot. That said, I felt like it was worth it to share all the information I took down, even if you read it in more than one sitting. Who doesn't want to improve their writing? Which of these tips are you most likely to utilize?

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Tasty Tuesday - Cherry Bliss Bites

So you may have noticed that my blog has been quiet for a few days. If you didn't know, I've been at Blissdom in Nashville, and I have a ton to say about it, but I'm still recovering. You don't want to see the laundry pile I have yet to complete. Before I left, however, I made a special treat to share while I was at Blissdom.

This is a recipe I received from a friend a few years ago and made regularly for awhile but haven't made in at least two years and probably longer. Shame on me. Or good for me - because they are awfully good. I think I still have two or three left right now, but not for long! These little brownie bites with a secret cherry in the center are awesome - and super easy to make!

Cherry Bliss Bites

Ingredients:
2 c flour
2/3 c cocoa
1/4 t baking powder
1/4 t baking soda
1/2 c butter
1 c sugar
2 eggs
1 1/2 t vanilla
1 jar maraschino cherries
12 oz chopped chocolate (or chocolate chips)
1 can sweetened condensed milk (not evaporated milk)
10 T maraschino cherry juice, reserved from the jar

Directions:
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

Cream the butter and sugar. Add the eggs and vanilla and mix until well combined. Add the baking powder, baking soda, and cocoa and stir until well combined. Add the flour and stir until just mixed.


Scoop out about a tablespoon or a little more of the dough (I use my small cookie dough scoop for this one) into an ungreased small muffin tin. Trust me, for some reason, these release far better from ungreased pans than from greased, and I've tried both ways.


From there, you need to form it into little tarts. I have a cool little wooden tool I picked up somewhere that is designed for this, but you can also use your thumbs, which is what I did before I had this tool. Whether it's your thumbs or a special tool, simply dip into a little flour, shake off the excess, then press down to make a hole in the center. Dip and repeat until you've created all your crusts.


At this point, remove your cherries from the jar, but save the juice! If you have lots of cherries (e.g., my Costco sized jar), start placing a cherry into each crust. If you have a smaller jar, cut each cherry in half or go buy another jar. Yes, I did call my husband at his basketball game and ask him to pick me up a new jar.


Now you're ready for the last step, which is making the fudgy center. Yum. Melt your chocolate with the evaporated milk in a heavy saucepan on low heat. It won't take much to melt, and you don't want to burn it. I usually start this step after I've dropped my crusts into the pan, and the timing works out well. Once the chocolate is completely melted together - stir it occasionally while it's melting - add 10 T of the cherry juice and stir gently until it's incorporated. At first, the cherry juice will resist, but it will come together if you give it a minute or two.



Using a spoon, pour enough of the fudgy mixture over each of the cherry bites to cover the cherry. I always have extra left over when I make these, so don't feel like you have to hold back and skimp on the fudgy goodness for each bliss bite.


Place the tins into a 350 degree oven for 12-14 minutes. Let them cool completely before removing them from the muffin tins. I find that freezing brownies makes them extra chewy, so I usually freeze mine - outside in the winter - then pop them from the tins. These will keep for up to a week in a sealed container on your shelf. If they last that long, that is...


Enjoy this and more with Blessed With Grace and Tempt My Tummy Tuesday. Also posting now with A Southern Fairytale and her Mouthwatering Monday.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

BlogHer Book Club Review: The Rules Of Inheritance

When I picked up the book Rules of Inheritance, I knew that it was going to be a heavy one, focused on author Claire Bidwell Smith's journey to and through her parents' deaths. I was expecting to cry - and I did at points - but I was also expecting to feel a certain level of distance from it. I haven't experienced the loss of either of my parents, thankfully, and this isn't the first time I've read a book by a blogger turned author. Rarely do bloggers translate well to book format, even when it's an enjoyable blog, in my experience.

This one actually worked well. It wasn't a compilation of her blog writing, walking us through the story one day and month at a time. That is the story we're used to hearing, but Claire Bidwell Smith uses a different tack altogether, one that makes her story far more unique and more powerful. Her story is broken into five stages of grief and walks through her experience. It isn't written chronologically, but her grief and pain are etched painfully on the pages as she shares her parents' diagnoses and subsequent deaths and her handling - or not handling - of them, sometimes in not the healthiest of ways.

As she moves into acceptance, you can really see how these events have shaped her as a person. It's how the events - from her helping her father track his WWII background to moving to NYC with a boyfriend - have turned her into the person she is today. Her grief isn't over, nor will it probably ever be. The novel moves powerfully through this.

Over at BlogHer Book Club, we'll be talking about this book for the next several weeks. Whether you've read the book or not, come join the conversation. This week, we're discussing the events in our lives that have defined us. What have been your defining moments?


In the interest of full disclosure, I received a copy of "The Rules of Inheritance" as part of the BlogHer Book Club. I was compensated for participating in this campaign, but as always, all opinions remain my own.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Wordless Wednesday: These People Make Me Look Bad

So I finally got around to going through the wee ones' Valentine's bags from school. We don't keep or eat the candy or the valentines themselves, but tons of people are now sending in pencils or notepads or other actually semi-useful goodies that I do want to keep. Thus I spent this weekend making a garbage and a keep pile from each of the wee ones' bags.

Then I got to this.


Seriously, people? You're making me look bad. I had Mister Man slap on a piece of chocolate to each of his valentines I got half price at Wal-M@rt the day before in the car on the way to school. And this is what you create. An iP*d valentine. From scratch. It even has an appropriate playlist. I hear this was customized for each child.


I may have to step it up a notch next year.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Tasty Tuesday - Asparagus Goat Cheese Pizza

I tweeted last week about what I was making for dinner, and I got some interested responses. Then I posted a picture of what I made, and people wanted the recipe. Who am I to deny anyone? And yes, I've made this again since that time. It's so good and light and fresh and just flat out yummy.


Goat Cheese Asparagus Pizza

Ingredients:
Dough for 1-2 pizzas (or more)
10 stalks asparagus
2 T olive oil
2 oz goat cheese
1 oz mozzarella
salt and pepper to taste
Cornmeal for dusting

Directions:
Prepare your pizza dough. I actually am making not my normal pizza dough anymore but the pizza dough from Artisan Bread in Five Minutes A Day - my favorite bread bible now. Any pizza dough will work, but I like making mine with a bit of olive oil in place of some of the water to give it a bit of extra spring and chewiness for this pizza.

Preheat your oven to 450 degrees (cooler than my usual 500 degrees, by the way).

Get your asparagus ready by breaking off the ends and washing them. Heat a saute pan with a little olive oil, and break the asparagus stalks into the pan. Lightly salt and pepper the asparagus in the pan, and saute on medium heat until the asparagus is just starting to turn a brighter green. You do not want to overcook it, as it will cook more in the oven, but cooking it just a touch before it goes into the pizza means it isn't crunchy and undercooked in your pizza.



Do you see how the color changed to a brighter green? That's all you want. No mushy asparagus for our pizzas!

Roll out your pizza dough to a nice circle, about a quarter inch thick or so. Place it on your pizza peel (or onto a pan if you aren't sliding it onto a stone) coated in cornmeal to keep it from sticking. Lightly brush it with olive oil to the edges of the crust.


Sprinkle the mozzarella over the olive oil, just a little bit. Add the asparagus and arrange so that it's evenly distributed over the dough. Crumble the goat cheese atop the pizza, and you're ready for the oven. (Do you see truly how little cheese is on this pizza?)


Bake at 450 degrees for 8 minutes, until the goat cheese is a beautiful golden brown. Cut and serve immediately. I don't know how long it lasts after this, as we haven't had leftovers yet. Go fig.


Enjoy this and more with Blessed With Grace and Tempt My Tummy Tuesday. Also posting now with A Southern Fairytale and her Mouthwatering Monday.

Monday, February 20, 2012

You Are What You Eat

I firmly believe that what I feed myself and the wee ones has bearing on both our long term health and on our current moods and functioning. I know that when I feed Mister Man junk food or too much sugar or not enough protein - or just let him go too long without eating - he doesn't do well. We all get crabby, our brains don't work as well as they normally do, and our focus is gone. For him, especially, that's critical.

Add in all the things we hear all the time about pesticides and how animals are raised and the like, and it's enough to give me (more) grey hair. I started awhile ago buying organic fruits and veggies from the "dirty dozen" for our house. And I've definitely cut down on the meat we buy, although I still haven't gone fully organic on that. Chicken pretty much is, but oh the beef is so expensive.

Milk was my other area of concern, especially with all the added hormones. I can see puberty coming earlier and earlier to children around me, and I want to ensure that the wee ones have that pushed back as long as possible, especially for Mister Man - I want to ensure he's developed as much maturity as possible before those hormones wreak havoc on him.

Every time I looked at the price of organic milk, however, I flinched. I was buying a gallon of milk for $1.17 most of the time. A half gallon of organic milk was far more than that. I kept pushing it off, shuddering at the price differential. One day, I took a closer look at what I was buying for Little Miss. Because of her dairy allergy, she drinks rice milk (we don't do soy milk for a variety of reasons), and she gets organic rice milk because it's what's available. And I buy it because I have to. A gallon's worth of rice milk costs far more than the $1.17 I was paying for regular milk at the time and I wasn't flinching there. In fact, each 32 ounce container is only a quarter gallon. And it cost me $1.32 per container.

Suddenly the light went on. I'm not flinching at the price because in my mind, I have to do it for Little Miss's health. I have to do it for her. And really, it's the same for Mister Man. I do have to do it for him. And for us. I haven't bought conventional milk since that day.

I'm still struggling with many of the other purchases. I love that so many products are now readily available in organic versions, especially my frozen corn - thank you Costco. I buy organic for a lot of reasons, and GMOs are a big reason for me. (Yeah yeah, I would do better just moving to Europe, I know.) I'm pretty comfortable with most of what I'm doing right now, although I'm sure that will change over the years.

The one thing I really want to switch but haven't remains meat. What I really want to do is to find a local farmer and buy my half cow or pig from him. You would think that living near Chicago, it would be easy to find somewhere to do this, but I've found that it's surprisingly difficult. I still haven't found a good source that's a reasonable drive from me. It just isn't out there - or at least not well-publicized.

But I'm still searching. I have a friend who does cows from Indiana, and I'm hoping to go with her the next time she buys. When I go to a restaurant that talks in their menus about their locally sourced meats, I ask them if the farm sells to individuals or only commercially. Finally, I started reading the From Left to Write book for this month, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver. There are some really uncomfortable bits of information about food, but at the same time, it's really empowering - and motivating - for me.

And I found the coolest website. Eat Wild is a site devoted to sharing information on pasture based farms across the US. When I searched Illinois, I was shocked by how many farms there were relatively near me. I hadn't been able to find these on my own, but it's truly inspiring. Most of those that provide the quarter cow (probably all we need) don't "harvest" until July, which was a bit of a downer. The options are out there, however, and I'm feeling good. I'm debating a drive out to Jo Daviess County in a couple weeks to spend the day with my family there and pick up some frozen beef from a farm while I'm at it.

It still isn't cheap. But I know where my meat is coming from this way. And it's less than the $13 per pound for organic ground beef I fainted over the last time I was at Trader Joe's. In fact, many were $4 per pound for the organic ground beef. As little as we're using red meat now, I can handle that.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go investigate CSAs. I haven't belonged to one since Mister Man was a baby, but I'm feeling inspired. A little freaked out and overwhelmed, but I'm oddly ok with that. I know I can't do everything, and I don't expect that of myself. On that note, not everyone has the same opinions and beliefs about their food, and that's ok, too. Where do you fall on the organic train?


In the interest of full disclosure, this post was inspired by the February From Left To Write book club selection "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" by Barbara Kingsolver. I received a copy of this book for review purposes, but unlike other book clubs, we write a post inspired by the book rather than a review of the book. All opinions are my own, as always, and I received no compensation.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Don't Try This At Home

I wrote last week about how I knew I needed more sleep because I was doing stupid things. While I've been making a concerted effort to get to sleep earlier, I apparently have not yet caught up on my sleep. Today? Definitely one of the stupider things I've ever done, and I'm beyond lucky that there were no lasting repercussions.

I'm on a productivity roll today. I dropped off my husband's lunch. I picked up my driver's license that I forgot at speech therapy yesterday. I returned the book on CD that was due. I got a load of darks in the laundry. I put away the dirty dishes. I updated my expenses spreadsheet. I even finished a few more solicitations for Mister Man's gala.

My mind is sort of running a million miles an hour, as there's a lot more I need to do today before I leave at 1:30. I won't be home again until almost 6:30 when I walk in the door with two very tired and hungry wee ones. Dinner needs to be ready, and I'm not quite ready to stoop to fast food. This is where the crock pot comes in handy. I have nothing thawed, but the awesome part about a crock pot is that you can put meat in still frozen. Yay, I have a roast left from the last time I made pot roast (yay Costco for selling meat in large quantities). And I have carrots and celery and onion and all the other ingredients on hand. Phew. I'm making my easy pot roast.

I placed my large cast iron pan onto the stove and began heating it while I got out the rest of the ingredients. After all, I want the pores of my pan to open before I put in the oil to sear my meat. As I tried to get the meat out of its glass container, I realized I had a little problem. It was frozen to the glass and was not coming out. The oil was now heating in the pan, and I didn't want it to burn. Warm water to the rescue - after a minute or so of warm water flowing over the container and meat, the container released the meat. Phew. Utterly paranoid now about my soon to be smoking oil, I immediately placed the meat into the pan.

My wet meat.

My frozen wet meat.

Into a very hot pan.

Into a very hot pan that contains oil.

Annnnnd I watched the flames flare. Can you say grease fire? Yep, that's what those ingredients get you. I pushed the pan to the center of my stove after turning off the stove (always step one!), as the flames showed no signs of dying down anytime soon, but the pan was too heavy and my sink too full to place it there - plus grease fires should never ever have water added to them.

I held my breath, and the flames died down with no damage to anything, aside from grease spattered everywhere. Oh, and the smoke alarms blaring throughout my house. Even with the vent fan running on high - because I of course forgot to turn it on until after the fire had died out - the smoke wasn't dissipating quickly.

I was lucky. I was very very lucky. This is why you always dry your meat before putting it into oil to sear. And probably why searing frozen meat isn't a good idea, for that matter. Learn from my stupidity - please! It's my public service announcement for the week.


Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Wordless Wednesday - Calgon, Take Me Away

I'm so proud of Mister Man for making it to his white belt in tae kwon do - especially after the initial issues we had in class. He's pretty proud, too. After his first official class, he was presented with his uniform. He tried it on, and despite the suggestions from both me and the owner of the dojo that he take off his uniform after trying it on, he chose to wear it home.

When I took a look at it that night, it looked like this:


Why yes, he is actually that talented. No worries, though. That's what Oxyclean and Tide Stain Release are for, right? No, apparently this is some super fabric that absorbs stains like a sponge then refuses to let them go. Uh-oh.

I washed the uniform again on Monday - five classes into him wearing it - and again, not all the stains came out.


And this one? I don't even know what he was around that is that shade of yellow. And this is on the back, too. How does he do it?!


And in case you're wondering, this is one of the main reasons we wear white as little as possible. I have another Mass uniform shirt that I've given up on getting clean that's going into the trash today, too.

Calgon, take me away!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Tasty Tuesday - Perfect Pot Roast

It's cold. Have I mentioned this lately? And it's cloudy and damp and ... I so live in the wrong climate. Unfortunately, I live here, which means that I need to cook with the seasons, and right now... it's comfort food season. I'm doing a lot of soups and stews and other hearty dishes. The best ones come in the crock pot where I can put everything in first thing in the morning and come home to a comforting and warm meal.

This week? We did pot roast. It's one of my favorites because I can quite easily grab what I have on hand and toss it in without measuring too much. If I'm a little short on something, that's fine. If I want some more of another flavor, that works, too. So the measurements here? Totally an estimate. Do what works for you.


Pot Roast

Ingredients:
2-3 lb roast
4 carrots
2 ribs of celery
5-6 medium red potatoes
1 parsnip
1 onion
1/2 c chicken or beef stock
2 T parsley
salt and pepper, to taste
2 T oil

Directions:
Heat up a heavy pan. I use my cast iron skillet because I know it will heat evenly and retain its heat. Once the pan is hot - medium high heat - add the oil. You want to wait until this point to add the oil. When the metal gets hot, it opens its pores, so the oil goes into them and helps to make essentially a nonstick surface. Trust me.

Salt and pepper all sides of the roast, then add it to the pan. You want to sear it on each side. Don't move it until it has a nice crust on it or it will stick to the pan. And yes, I do actually sear all six sides.


While the roast is searing, cut up your veggies (except your potatoes, which are a starch and not a veggie - those come later!). You want everything to be bite size - nothing so big that you have to cut it once it's cooked and nothing so small that it won't stay on your fork with the rest of your meal. I'll also wash my organic carrots really well and not peel those - but that's me. I slice my onions and leave them that big. They are then easy to fish out for the wee one who won't eat them but manageable for me to put on my fork. I don't want it diced. Layer all your veggies into the bottom of your crock post.


Once your pot roast is seared, add it to the crock pot atop the veggies. Sprinkle the parsley atop this mixture, and add the stock for a cooking liquid. You truly need just a little bit because the meat and veggies will release a lot of juices.


Cook on low for 2-3 hours. At that point, cut up your red potatoes. I leave the skin on my red potatoes because I like it - and there's lots of good vitamins and minerals there. Add those around the meat at this point. If you add them earlier, I find they get too cooked and mushy for my taste, so I hold off on adding them until this point. If you'll be gone all day, go ahead and add them at the beginning.


Cook on low for another 2-3 hours or longer. When it's ready, the meat will literally fall apart as you pick it up with a fork. That's perfection in my eyes. You can also pull out the juice after you remove your veggies and meat and potatoes and make a thicker gravy, but my family doesn't like that. To do this, put the juices into a small pan and heat it until it's boiling. Slowly add gravy flour, a tablespoon at a time (it will vary depending on how much juice you have, but usually it's about a quarter cup for me) and reduce it for about five minutes. Check to see if it needs and more salt and pepper, then serve it atop your pot roast. Or be like us and skip this step and just serve it as is with the juice as more of a soup/stew kind of thing.


Enjoy this and more with Blessed With Grace and Tempt My Tummy Tuesday. Also posting now with A Southern Fairytale and her Mouthwatering Monday.

Monday, February 13, 2012

How To Keep Your Kids Organized

I'm trying to decide if I'm a mean mom because of all the rules and strategies I put into place for the wee ones or if I'm just lazy. I have this thing about keeping my house somewhat neat and the wee ones helping me do so. Thus, the fining system that I recently implemented (which is working amazingly well by the way).

One of our other challenges is the afternoons when the wee ones get home from school. There is a lot they have to do, and we sometimes struggle to get it done without ... issues. Either the wee ones can't figure out what they're supposed to do. Or they whine that everything will take forever. Or they claim that they've done something but really forgot. Or they simply don't want to do it at all.

I've finally come upon a solution that's working for us. The wee ones are happy, we're getting things done, and I don't have fifty kajillion questions about what they need to do now. Remember the homework room I created? I'm using the whiteboard I painted for more than practice work. It's now where I create a list each afternoon - before they get home - of everything the wee ones need to do.


I'm a list maker, so I love the idea of a list. And the wee ones love having things crossed off. We learned very quickly that one rule must be that only Mommy may erase anything from the board. I will take it off only when the item has been done to my satisfaction - clean clothes put away means that the laundry basket has to be put away, too, and math homework means the problems have to be all correct, for example.

The wee ones love it because they get to choose what order to complete the tasks. They have control over it, and it makes them feel good. So long as nothing is mission critical (e.g., today, they have to change for gymnastics before they finished all their homework), I have no problem with that. And it's nice for them to learn to prioritize their tasks, too. Eventually, I'll require that they write down what they need to do instead of me doing it, but we're not quite there yet.

And best of all? It's the board that's telling them what to do. It isn't a battle of me versus them telling them what to do. When I see Mister Man starting to play with Legos or read a book when he still has tasks to do, I can simply ask him to check out the board, and he knows he has to wait. I'm amazed by how smoothly this is going for us - and here's hoping I didn't just jinx it!

The hardest part is me remembering everything they have to do each day. On Tuesdays, Little Miss goes to the school library and needs to return her books. I have to remember to write that on the Monday tasks.

But oh how it warms my heart to hear, "Mom. Mom, I just completed Task X. Can you erase it from the board?"

What works for you to keep your children organized?

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Proof That I Need More Sleep

I get into a really bad habit where I have a ton that needs to be done so I stay up late working on it. Then the alarm goes off in the morning, and I'm still tired. I manage to get through the day, but I'm slightly less productive, so that's more work to do after the wee ones go to bed. Generally, this works out alright, even though I'm one of those people who really does best with more than eight hours of sleep.

Every once in awhile, this habit catches up with me and my body - or maybe my brain - screams at me that I need to get some more sleep. This week? Yeah... I need some more sleep.

When I woke up Wednesday, I wanted to go back to bed, but I didn't. Instead I got up and got the wee ones ready for school. I fixed their breakfast, got out their vitamins, packed their lunches, and we headed out the door.

After dropping the wee ones at their respective schools, I headed to the gym as I do most days. Even when I'm tired and can't do my full workout, I can at least do something, I decided awhile ago. I popped into the locker room and started grabbing my clothes to change. I had just done wash and was happy that - tired as I was - I remembered to grab my workout gear before I left the house. So of the two items that were in my clean laundry, which do you suppose made it into my gym bag?



If you guessed the black cami that I also happened to have washed that day, you'd be right. The only good thing is that I always have an extra of each item in my bag at all times just in case - why yes, I do know myself well. They aren't my favorites, but they'll do. After my workout, I reached into my bag to get my towel so I could shower. Ummm, no towel. Why? Because my oh so responsible self had folded it up and put it away instead of placing it into my gym bag where I needed it. Oops.

And when I picked up Mister Man from school? Well, I got a little bit of an earful from him - well-deserved, too. I had sent him Little Miss's lunch instead of his own. And that's a problem. She has to have a dairy free lunch, and he won't do sauces or hummus or the like because of textural issues. Instead of sending them nearly identical lunches that day, I'd sent her dairy free pizza, heavy on the sauce, and celery sticks with red pepper hummus. Interestingly, I'd checked the containers before I slipped it into their lunchboxes to be sure I gave them the right ones, but I didn't open the containers to check to see that I'd put the right food into the right containers. Oops.

I didn't listen, in case you're wondering. My gym issues? I forgot the towel. Again. And worse? When I did remember the towel, I closed my locker and locked it. It wasn't until after my shower when I was standing there in my towel trying to unlock it that I realized I hadn't changed the combination before locking it, so I had no way to get in. My gym nightmare finally came true.

Tonight? I'm going to bed as soon as the wee ones do!

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Wordless Wednesday: White Belt

I wrote last month about how Mister Man was struggling with his behavior associated with his autism. I was having a really bad day, but much of it was exemplified by his attempt to move up to the "big kid" class at Tae Kwon Do.

It turns out that we got a chance to try it out for the remainder of January to see how he did once he got more used to it - as he told me later that he was very excited and nervous. On February 1, the owner of the studio asked him if he wanted to have a white uniform, and he about passed out from happiness.

I officially have a white belt in the big kid class. Even better? At last night's class he earned his first white belt stripe (they do it only for white belts to help them know where and when they are progressing, with four stripes required before promotion is even a consideration).



Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Tasty Tuesday - Dulce de Leche Cheerios Bars

Little Miss has a bake sale at her school on Friday. I love that they still are able to do bake sales of homebaked goods. I am, of course, baking for it, and I finally figured out yesterday what I'm going to make for it. I was sent some Dulce de Leche Cheerios and decided to bake with them because there are some pretty awesome looking recipes out there.

Of course, I had to adapt the original recipe because that's what I do. I was happy that I had all the ingredients for it in my pantry. Well, mostly. And as I made it, I didn't like the proportions they used (to be honest, I think the recipe is off a little bit as written on the site). And yeah... they turned out pretty well. They were super easy and quick to make and are one of those recipes where you can change it up to fit your needs and what you have in your pantry without worrying a ton about measurements.


Dulce de Leche Cheerios Bars

Ingredients:
1 sleeve graham crackers, plus 2 extra - crushed (a little over 2 cups)
1/2 c butter, melted
2 c Dulce de Leche Cheerios
1 1/2 c pretzels, crushed
1 1/2 c milk chocolate chips
1 1/2 c semi-sweet chocolate chips (or white chocolate, yum!)
3/4 c shredded coconut
1 can (14 oz) sweetened condensed milk

Directions:
Crush the graham crackers into large crumbles. I love using my food processor because it's fast and easy. Just make sure you pulse it and don't simply turn it on, or the crumbs will be way too fine. I break them into quarters before starting the food processor to help break them up quickly and evenly. You could also put them in a bag and just smash them there. Add the crumbs and the melted butter into a 13x9 pan and mix together until it's all incorporated, then press into the bottom of the pan. (Seriously, why dirty another bowl? <- my motto in life)



Crush the pretzels in the same manner. Add half the pretzels to the top of the crust. Add half of each type of chocolate chip and the Cheerios, then add the remainder of the Cheerios, pretzels, and chocolate chips before dusting with the coconut. The good news is that the exact amounts aren't particular. In fact, it's possible that I didn't measure at all but just estimated. And it totally worked.


Pour the can of sweetened condensed milk over the pan, covering it equally. You won't be stirring it at all, so do your best to spread it out by pouring it evenly across the top.


Bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes until golden brown. Let it cool fully, then cut into squares. Make sure you've run a knife or thin spatula around the edge of the pan to help release the squares before you try to remove them. Yum.


I have several giveaways going on now at Honest and Truly Reviews. The one I'd most love love love you to enter? A $25 American Express gift card giveaway. Pretty please go enter?

In the interest of full disclosure, the original recipe appeared on the Betty Crocker website, with significant alterations from me. The Cheerios were part of a sample I received courtesy Cheerios and General Mills via MyBlogSpark.

Enjoy this and more with Blessed With Grace and Tempt My Tummy Tuesday. Also posting now with A Southern Fairytale and her Mouthwatering Monday.

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