Monday, April 29

Menu Idea Monday: Panda Express Chow Mein

Photo and recipe from Favorite Family Recipes
Neither of us have ever eaten at a Panda Express, so I can't tell you whether this is even remotely close to the dish it is named after, but I can tell you it was awesome!

This recipe for Panda Express Chow Mein was fast, easy, cheap, healthy and delicious - that's a lot of great things in one dish!

I skipped the celery because I didn't have any, but otherwise made to spec. I used dry noodles from the "ethnic" isle at the grocery store, and they turned out great. I expect this to be a go-to dish this summer: as a one-dish skillet meal there is no piles of dishes to wash and no turning on the oven on hot days. There's also no rare, hard to find or expensive ingredients - yay!

I added diced pork when I made it for a full, slightly heartier dinner, but it would be great without any meat for a light lunch and would pair equally well with chicken or beef. Add in whatever you've got on hand and enjoy!

Monday, April 22

Menu Idea Monday: Crock Pot Cabbage Rolls

A couple years ago we lived near a butcher shop that made it's own cabbage rolls. They were very good, but not cheap. I didn't know much about cabbage at that point, so I never attempted to make my own.

Recipe and photo from
When I ran across this recipe for Crockpot Cabbage Rolls, I figured it was worth a try. I put everything together the day before, dropped it in the crock pot insert and stuck it in the fridge. In the morning, I dropped it in the crock pot and crossed my fingers.

The verdict? Pretty good!

They taste a lot like the runza recipe I have and love, which is essentially all the same ingredients except that you dice the cabbage and wrap everything in pizza dough for a Hot Pocket effect. Eric and I both agreed that it needed something, though. I used twice as much onion as I was supposed to and it still came out somewhat bland. I also found a few not-quite-done pieces of rice, despite having it cooked it for 13 hours.

Next time I think I'll ladle the sauce across the bottom and between layers in the pot to ensure more even cooking for the rice. I'll also throw in some extra spices to give it more kick. Supposedly these freeze well, so I look forward to pre-making a bunch and throwing meal-sized batches in the freezer. Busy summer days of working outside ARE coming (despite the ridiculously lingering cold and wet of April), and I'll be greatful for cheap, healthy meals that go from freezer to crockpot without fuss.

Thursday, April 18

It's Not Rocket Surgery

I ran across a blog post over at Teach for America by accident this past week while looking for something else. While I understood the writer's lamentations over the lack of veteran teachers in charter schools (and similar frustrations on the part of school districts and policy wonks over the lack of experienced, high quality teachers in Persistently Lowest Achieving Schools, high-poverty schools and high-minority schools), I can't help but shake my head.

There are perfectly logical reasons why we have a deficit of high-quality teachers where they're most desperately needed, and it's not exactly rocket surgery to understand them:

1. We're abusing our teachers. Having been a manager, I can tell you that very little sucks more than being assigned responsibility without authority. Every re-write of the educational paradigm makes teachers more and more responsible for student outcomes while giving them less and less to work with. This is particularly true in the three aforementioned types of school, which routinely suffer from low parental involvement and are burdened with principals and administrators who are so tied up in political correctness and legalese that they can't provide any kind of functional discipline, backup or authority. We expect teachers to work miracles with troubled kids and deny them the very tools that have been document-ably proven to make the difference between success and failure. Of course they're not going to freaking stay! They're going to survive a couple years - just long enough to get a solid resume, and then either transfer to a better district or move into a different career field where they can use their skills to actually get somewhere.

2. Teachers care about quality of life, too. Despite the pleas and coaxing of Fair Housing advocates, the reality is that people naturally gravitate towards the best neighborhoods they can afford to live in - the kind that make them feel safe and give them a return on investment. Teachers holding down solid jobs want to live in safe, pleasant communities just like everyone else - and they districts they are being begged to work in rarely fit the bill. Who wants to have to worry about their safety and the safety of their family 24/7 - you pissed off a kid on Thursday and he might come vandalize your house on Saturday. But because he's a minority or because the cops are already overwhelmed or whatever, nothing will happen to him and it will be your loss - physically, mentally, emotionally and financially.. not a real great motivator, guys.

3. Teachers have financial responsibilities. If you've ever looked at the tenure track system, it quickly becomes clear that it's not designed to promote flexibility. Every time you leave a position or a district, you start over at the bottom of the barrel, with no security. You can be the best teacher in the school, but if you're the newest hired, you're the first to go when budgets get tight. Charter schools don't even count in that system! Considering that teachers are required to get their Masters, very few come out of school without significant student loan debt. Add that to rising costs of living across the board and the fact that many teachers are married and/or have families to provide for, and it shouldn't be surprising that so many of them choose to stay where they are even if it isn't great. In today's unstable economic times, they can't afford to toss what little financial security they may have to wind and go off on a jaunt to teach troubled kids for a few years.

4. Have you looked at the rules lately? At least two of the four options provided to Persistently Lowest Achieving Schools who have been legally mandated to overhaul their programming include firing at least 50% of the staff. Who exactly wants to sign up to work somewhere that has such an incredibly high probability of tossing you out the door without reason or appeal when they inevitably are required to pick an overhaul method?! (See #3)

So yes, I hear and understand the lament that new teachers struggle to thrive without the wisdom, guidance and stabilizing influence of their more experienced peers. I acknowledge the research demonstrating that experienced teachers play key roles in troubled districts among struggling kids. But with all due respect, the modern educational system engineered this problem.

They also have the means at their disposal to fix it. So don't go online and gripe about how unfair it all is. Own up to your errors, and hold your system accountable. It won't be pretty, certainly not at first, but it CAN be changed. Not by throwing money at the problem, or by guilt tripping people, but by systematically changing the factors that keep a strangle-hold on mobility and by working with municipalities to create Walk to Work and other intentional, safe neighborhoods in which teachers can live while serving troubled districts. Practical solutions to specific problems will go a lot further than whining.

Tuesday, April 16

High Efficiency Washers & Dryers: Things to Know

We've had our new washer & dryer for a several months now, and I've been thinking I should review them here. We did a ton of research before picking our new set, and there wasn't quite as much practical info as I would have liked. So in hopes of helping other people decide, here are some facts and pointers for anyone considering purchasing a high efficiency, energy-star washer/dryer.

1. Buy them on sale. We were able to snag ours on sale the week before Christmas, and it was great! We also got them at Lowe's, where there's a military discount. If you have a friend/family member in the military and have the cash to do it, consider asking them to purchase your machines for you and just give them the money. You can save 10%, which adds up to a lot when you're talking about two items as pricy as these.

2. Get them installed. We pretty much do everything we can ourselves, including carting stuff home and installing it. These were the exception, and I'm so glad! In addition to being heavy (and needing to fit in an awkward space), these needed serious attention and patience to calibrate. When completely properly leveled, they are rock solid and nearly silent. If they are even the teeniest bit off, they rock and make a lot more noise. (Nothing obnoxious, but noticeable.) It is absolutely worth what it costs to have someone come install it for you. The guys from Lowes who did ours were amazing from start to finish. When the left, the machines were all but silent... then we had to move the washer a smidge to fix a wiring issue and it hasn't been the same since.

3. Check your cords. Washers and dryers apparently do not come with cords; they must be ordered separately. So know exactly what kind of hookups you have before you head for the store so you can ensure you have the right one. (Ditto for the vent pipe on your dryer.) Furthermore, some places will not install without a new cord - make sure you check and know the policy wherever you buy yours.

4. They take a lot longer. I am completely happy with our machines, and they definitely use a lot less energy. But as a trade off, every cycle on the washer is decidedly longer than the corresponding cycle in a standard machine. That's not an issue for me, but if you're like Jen Hatmaker (author of 7) and in the habit of throwing clothing in the washer an hour before you're supposed to be somewhere you're going to find yourself consistently screwed. I don't always agree with the dryer on what "done" looks like, so I sometimes run a manual cycle after whatever standard cycle I've chosen (permanent press, dedicates, etc) just to finish things off.

5. They can be stubborn. Cycles and their features (water temp, spin level) are set, and some won't let you adjust them. So if you have clothing that doesn't quite fit a given cycle, you may have to use the manual cycle and just come close to your ideal wash setting.  The washer also chooses the water setting it considers appropriate to the volume of a load; I have heard that some people manually add a few cups of water because they don't feel it's enough, but I've been quite satisfied with ours and haven't seen the need to intervene that way.

6. They sing. Again, not a huge deal around here - I just don't leave the dryer running when we're on our way to bed or it will wake us up singing when it's done. I imagine, however, that if you had a baby napping close enough to hear the chiming it could be crazy annoying. So if you're in that kind of situation, make sure you select a model that has the option to turn the chiming off - because not all of them do.

All things considered, our new machines are awesome and I'm so glad we have them. They keep up with the puppy fur, renovating dust and spring mud without complaint and I am no longer concerned about the housing burning down because I tried to do laundry.

If you're considering a new washer/dryer, do you homework! There are a lot of options out there, and considering the expense of even the cheaper models, it's well worth getting something that fits your needs and lifestyle.

Monday, April 15

Menu Idea Monday: Spring Cleaning... In Your Pantry

Spring hasn't been in any hurry to show up around here, and what little spring weather we've seen has been the blustery, wet and unwelcoming kind. So until we can (finally!) throw open the windows and start scrubbing things down and airing things out, I'm focusing on smaller inside projects.

One of the first that I tackled was cleaning out the pantry.
In the long, cold days of winter its easy to hoard your canned goods for peace of mind or to stock up on whatever went on sale for a great price. Things don't get rotated, a miscellaneous jar gets lost behind other things, and before you know it you have six year old food clogging up your cupboards and nothing to eat. 

The easiest solution to this is to take a week this spring and declare it "clean out" week. Sort through your cabinets and check expiration dates. Anything that's close to expiration gets pulled out and put in the "use promptly" pile. Expired items get tossed (don't forget your spices - they do go bad and can actually be very bad for you once they've gone rancid, even if you don't taste the difference). Things that are still good can go back on the shelf.

You may have some funny looking meals for a few days while you use up random things, but you'll cut down on waste and clutter. You might even be inspired to try some new things just to use up what you've got! This is also a great time to make a few notes for yourself about what you bought/canned and never used. Sale brand turned out to be nasty? That jam recipe didn't appeal? Make a note somewhere so you don't waste more money on it again in the future!

It's not the most glamorous of projects, but it will go a long way towards keeping you healthy, keeping your kitchen functional, and making the most of your budget.

Thursday, April 11


Allow me to introduce you to my new favorite organizing tool - Evernote!

Being a visual/kinesthetic learner, I'm terrible at keeping information in my head. It all has to be written down if I want to find it/remember it again. Pinterest has been a God-send for me, because it lets me organize huge chunks of my life via pictures - quick and easy to reference and keep straight.

But Pinterest has its limits. Being image based means that it won't sort, track or help with anything not image-based. It also won't differentiate between parts of a page. So if you only want a portion of a given webpage, trying to copy it into a pin can be messy and inconvenient.

Evernote is to words what Pinterest is to images. Users can create "notes" (the equivalent of a pin on Pinterest) containing everything from a few words to an entire document. You title the note whatever makes sense to you and save it to a "notebook" (the equivalent of a Pinterest board). It is then accessible from anywhere you have internet, and fully searchable. This has been a God-send to me in tracking information and resources related to grants I'm working on; now I can keep those highly polished "blurbs" that can be reused/recycled from app to app in one central location and find them in seconds! 
Although I haven't used it yet, Evernote also has a people-tracking option that looks like it would be amazing for anyone whose job requires a lot of networking or people management. You can keep all your info on your contacts in one place (accessible from your laptop or smartphone) for quick reference. Business cards can be scanned in, meetings/calls can be tracked - all kinds of neat options!

Evernote is free, and versatile. It's proving to be a great tool for me. If you're a visual learner or need to handle extensive amounts of documents or word-based information, I recommend checking it out. 

What online tools have you found most helpful?

Wednesday, April 10

Picking a French Press

The week before Easter was apparently "drop things" week, and I just hadn't gotten the memo. In the course of a few days I managed to drop and break not only a bowl (which had successfully survived at least five moves) but our French press.

It was the second or third I've managed to break since we made the switch away from Mr. Coffee and into the world of amazing French press coffee a few years ago. Being a repeat buyer has given me a new perspective on the topic, and I thought I'd share some pointers for people who might be new to French presses (or just considering one) on how to pick the right press for you.

Tip 1: Avoid the plastic framed presses.

They say they're shatter-proof but they're not. (I just shattered one.) And once they're broken, you're out of luck. Also, I found that the bottom of this style can be a bit prone to seepage. Not a lot, just enough to be annoying.

Tip 2: Buy a Backup Carafe.

Buying a metal framed press allows you to monitor the shade of whatever you're steeping (very helpful if you like your tea lighter or darker than the standard steep time produces). You can also buy replacement carafes to keep on hand, so if you do crack or shatter one it's a simple swap and you're back in business without delay.

 Tip 3: Consider insulation.

I'm not a fan of stainless steel, particularly in the kitchen, but our newest French press is this insulated thermos model and I'm very happy with it. Not only will it not shatter, but I no longer have to wrap the press in a towel on cold mornings to keep the coffee hot during the steep time. This keeps my coffee or tea hot long enough to come back for a warm-up or second helping - a nice bonus!

Tip 4: Watch the sizing.

The first two presses we bought were just the right size for two generous mugs of coffee/tea, which worked out well since they were uninsulated and anything left in the carafe quickly got cold. Our newest is larger and holds extra, which also works out fine since it's insulated. If you shop in a store, your size options may be limited. Hop over to Amazon, however, and you'll find a range of sizes. Think about what you need most often and buy accordingly. Keep in mind the number of ounces is more important than the listed number of servings - the servings are based on an outdated 4 oz per cup measurement, where as most people these days start with an 8 or 12 oz mug!

We love using a French press, and if you're not using one I strongly recommend checking them out. Just be sure to spend a few minutes doing your homework before you buy to make sure you get the right fit for you!

Monday, April 8

The Value of Consequences

I didn't follow the Steubenville rape trial, but it was the first thing that came to mind recently when I read that the Federal government has a brilliant new idea - it's going to offer Face Forward grants to fund municipalities and programming that "expunge" juvenile criminal records and provide "diversions" that keep juvenile offenders out of the official criminal justice system. Ostensibly, their goal is to show compassion; criminal records can make it hard for juvenile offenders to integrate into college and career options, and expunging their records gives them a clean slate and a second chance.

Good intentions or not, I can't help but think their decision is fundamentally flawed. Consequences are healthy.

Certainly there's a place for second chances - but that place is among repentant, remorseful
individuals who are looking for a second chance and willing to work hard to make the most of it. Not amongst arrogant, rebellious teenagers who got into their current situation through an unhealthy lack of respect for valid consequences in the first place.

As the Steubenville trial made abundantly clear (as if it wasn't already painted across the news every day), an alarming number of modern youth lack any appreciation of the reality the actions have consequences - sometimes very unpleasant ones. This is not entirely their fault; we've all but erased the possibility of serious failure and life-impacting choices for children. It's practically impossible to fail a grade in school, and behavioral standards have been adjusted down so far that many students graduate completely unemployable - they simply don't have the basic functioning skills needed to get hired or last in a work environment. (Don't believe me?  Check out the rise in "soft skills" courses at colleges and employment centers nationwide.)

Juvenile courts and sentences give youth offenders their last chance (and in some cases their first) to get slapped with a reality check sharp enough to change their direction in life. It may be ugly, and they will certainly have to work twice as hard to succeed in college or the work world, but it is nothing compared to what will happen if they are let off soft and don't get that reality check until they're deep in the adult criminal world and serious prison time (if they even live that long).

Moreover, brain science has proved that letting offenders off at this stage makes them more likely to continue offending! (More on that in another post.)

So congratulations Uncle Sam. You're spending money you don't have (sequestration anyone?) on programs that are fundamentally flawed and only make things worse for everyone. I wish I could say I was surprised.

Menu Idea Monday: Cheesy Broccoli Quinoa

Photo from All Recipes
It occurred to me last weekend that I have fallen into a bit of a rut in my menu writing. The last few weeks have been busy at work, and with long days and not much time I've leaned heavily on older, tried-and-true recipes I can whip off with little time or thought.

Since I had a few spare minutes this weekend, I thought I'd try to break out of the rut and get a few different things on the menu for the next couple weeks. I started with Cheesy Broccoli Quinoa.

Some people market this as a mac-and-cheese replacement. I don't personally believe you can replace mac-and-cheese with anything, but this quick, healthy and delicious recipe makes a great and simple side dish. Toss in some chicken or scrambled eggs and it would be a 20 minute one-dish meal!

I made this as directed, except that I used a combination of cheddar and Parmesan cheeses. It turned out great, and I will definitely be making it again.

Tuesday, April 2

Two Videos, Just for Fun

Somehow the month of March blew past. Projects, long days at work and bad weather combined to keep me from spending much time keeping up with blogging. But I'm back! Hopefully I'll get caught up on life the next couple days and get back to a semi-regular posting schedule. My brain's been busy, so there's lots to post about!

While I'm getting my ramblings cleaned up enough to be coherently post-able, I thought I'd share two videos I ran across last month that made me laugh out loud. 

First, a funny but touching speech by a father of the bride that I saw over at Holy Experience, Ann Voskamp's beautiful blog. 

Next, something for the geeks of the world. I'm not actually a fan of the Gangnam style video, but this parody done by NASA is hysterical!

Enjoy!  :)