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Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Make-Ahead Recipes

I made a couple of new dishes this week that were marvelously easy because I was able to prep them ahead of time. The first was Cooking Light's Pesto Lasagna with Spinach and Mushrooms, which is a slow-cooker recipe. The night before I wanted to make it, I prepared all of the ingredients and layered them in the crock, then refrigerated it overnight. I started the cooking about six hours before I wanted to eat and the dish turned out beautifully. Marc said it was my best lasagna ever, and he was especially happy that it didn't become liquidy when heated for lunch the next day.

The second recipe I made this past week was Cooking Light's Bacon, Gruyere and Ham Strata. The recipe itself calls for the strata mixture to soak overnight, so two nights before I wanted to serve it for dinner, I cooked the bacon, shredded the cheese, diced the ham, and toasted the bread. Then, the night before, I combined the ingredients according to the recipe, omitting the green onions (which I hate), shredded a bag of baby spinach to add the next day, and soaked the mixture in a bowl instead of the baking dish so I could more easily add the spinach. On the day I served the dish, I added the spinach to the bread mixture, then spread it a 13x9x2 dish (instead of an 8x8, which was too small) and baked the dish according to the directions. It came out quite well and Alex ate some of it.

Note: The April CookingLight.com access code is CHEESECAKE and the May code is MINT.

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Wednesday, April 19, 2006

More Cooking Light Recipes

For our informal family Passover dinner, I prepared several Cooking Light recipes for the first time and they were all good:
  • Date-Nut Haroset (dried fruit and nut mixture that represents the mortar used by the Jews when they were slaves in Egypt): I think everyone commented on the mini-marshmallows, but this was a favorite even among those who aren't that fond of haroset. For the sweet wine, I used a Baron Herzog merlot.
  • Pommes Anna: You know my in-laws are very Reform Jews since I used butter in this dish. I didn't bother measuring out the butter because I made a pie that was about 1 1/2 times bigger than the recipe makes (I used a 12-inch pan). This was a huge hit also.
  • Fallen Chocolate Cake with Cherry Red Wine Sauce: The cake came together beautifully, although there were a few lumps of egg whites that didn't incorporate completely and baked into a chewy meringue instead. The finished product was a bit on the dry side, and I wasn't that crazy about the sauce. But as flourless cakes go, this one was pretty good.

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Monday, April 17, 2006

Managing Bank Accounts

A conversation with my brother-in-law the other day made me realize that we bank very differently, so I thought I'd share my general methods in the hope that someone may find them helpful.

For starters, we have three main accounts - a checking account, a savings account, and a money market account. The money market account is our emergency savings, though I am in the process of increasing our interest earnings by putting some of it into a 6-month CD ladder. For purposes of this discussion, we'll mainly focus on the checking and savings accounts. Here's what an average month looks like:

Our paychecks are deposited into the savings account. We have five fixed monthly payments deducted from the savings account each month. I figure out how much we will need in our checking account to pay the rest of the bills that month, then transfer that amount to our checking account. My thinking behind this is that our checking account doesn't earn interest (and interest on checking accounts tend to be low anyway), so it doesn't make sense to leave "extra" money in the account. I do, however, generally overestimate the month's expenses so that there is always a cushion for unexpected or unpredictable bills, like using our home protection plan. I am also one of those annoying people who balances her checkbook to the penny, so this system works well for me.

In addition to the amount transferred to our checking account, I transfer a fixed amount to our money market account. This is in keeping with the "pay yourself first" philosophy that is so important to growing our net worth.

I have managed to reduce the number of checks I write each month by paying as many bills as possible with a credit card, either on the phone or online, since the card earns us miles (that trip to Hawaii last month was free and Alex even had his own seat). I also just signed up for online banking and bill pay, which should further reduce, if not practically eliminate, the number of checks I write each month. I like the idea of saving money on stamps and checks, and once I've gone through a cycle of bills, it should only take me a few minutes to pay a bunch of bills at once.

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Friday, April 14, 2006

Disney DVD Players Recalled

Some models of Disney Personal DVD Players have been recalled because the battery packs can overheat and burst. Click here for the press release and info on how to obtain a replacement battery pack.

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Britax Marathon vs. Graco ComfortSport

When Alex was outgrew his Graco Snugride infant carseat late last summer, I settled on the Britax Marathon as his new carseat for two major reasons: safety and the high weight limit. In retrospect, the high weight limit wasn't that important, because the pace of Alex's weight gain has slowed considerably. I have no regrets, though, because of the Marathon's high safety rating and ease of use.

The Marathon is a convertible carseat, meaning it can be used rear-facing and forward-facing. It can be used rear-facing until the child is 33 pounds and forward-facing until 65 pounds. Even without the LATCH system, it was easy to install. The padding is cushy, particularly compared to the SnugRide and ComfortSport, and the straps are wide. There are two pads on the shoulder straps to prevent the straps from cutting into your child's neck. When you do undo the straps, you can velcro them to the sides so they don't fall into the middle of the seat and end up under your child when you try to buckle him in. It wasn't as easy to tighten the straps with the Marathon as it was with the SnugRide, but I've gotten used to it and can get it quite tight.

We bought the ComfortSport for the trip to Hawaii because it was more portable than the Marathon since it's smaller and lighter. Compared to the Marathon, however, the ComfortSport has narrow straps, no protective padding on the straps, and is darn difficult to tighten. In fact, although it is a convertible, when I tried to install it rear-facing, it was all but impossible to tighten the straps so we had to install it forward-facing. Because of the narrow straps, I think Alex simply wasn't as comfortable in the ComfortSport as he is in the Marathon. Although not as cushy as the Marathon, there is a decent amount of seat padding on the ComfortSport. The LATCH was a little difficult to work with because it was hard to get it to loosen, a problem I don't remember having when we installed the Marathon. However, the ComfortSport was incredibly easy to install on the airplane.

The bottom line: We will continue to use the ComfortSport for traveling but are very happy that it's the Marathon we use daily. It was $270 that was well spent.

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Wednesday, April 12, 2006

More Cooking Light Recipes

As I mentioned on Monday, I am cooking more but am busier because of it, so it’s been easier to prepare new Cooking Light recipes than create my own. Here are a few that I’ve tried lately:
  • Lemon Blueberry Coffee Cake - The almond paste made this a bit pricy but the result was tasty.
  • Walnut Coffee Cake - This was also good, although the walnut-cinnamon sugar mixture all ended up at the top so that I didn't have the center streak described at the beginning of the recipe.
  • Four Cheese Stuffed Shells with Smoky Marinara - Last year, a month or two before Alex was born, Cooking Light featured recipes that froze well, so I made this and we ate it for dinner a couple of times in the month after Alex arrived. I made it again just this past weekend, and we ate one portion and I froze the other. It was better than I had remembered and Alex enjoyed it, too.
  • Apple Brown Betty - I may have posted this one before, but I'm not sure. It's delicious and most importantly for me, Alex will eat it.
  • Fettucine Alfredo - I added some leftover salmon and thawed frozen peas to increase the nutritional value and boost flavor.
  • Farfalle with Zucchini and Prosciutto - I was skeptical of the dressing, but this was surprisingly good and turned out to be a keeper.
I'll be trying some recipes from the April issue of Cooking Light for a Passover dinner I'm hosting this weekend, so I'll let you know how those turned out next week.

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Monday, April 10, 2006

The Value of Your Time

I've been extremely busy, but it really hasn't been one major project, just everything combined. A big part of it is that I have chosen to do certain things myself rather than pay for them, most notably cook healthy meals and clean my house. It's made me ponder the value of my time, particularly since I work full time.

I've decided that at least for the moment, I am willing to spend the time cooking and cleaning for my family - we eat much healthier than we would if we paid for take-out, and our house is a lot cleaner now that I'm doing it myself instead of paying someone. However, I can't emphasize enough how important it is to have Marc's full support, understanding and encouragement. It helps tremendously to keep the marital peace when we agree on how to spend our money.

For my part, I am working hard to streamline my tasks. I have become more diligent about my menu planning and am making more meals that can go into the freezer to free up time on weeknights. I have also learned to clean my house by breaking up jobs that I used to think needed to be done at once - for example, instead of vacuuming the whole house, I now vacuum only the top or bottom floor, and sometimes I only vaccum half of a level if I'm really pressed for time or just too tired. In a few months, I may decide these tasks are not worth my time after all. But for now, they are.

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Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Hanalei Plantation Banana Bread Light

I finally lightened my family's banana bread recipe with success. This version contains half the butter, less than 1/2 the sugar, 1 less egg yolk, more banana, and whole wheat pastry flour instead of all purpose flour. Most importantly, it was delicious - I couldn't stop eating it!

Hanalei Plantation Banana Bread Light
Makes 1 loaf

1/4 cup butter, softened
3/4 cup sugar
1 egg
2 egg whites
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 ripe bananas, mashed
1 1/2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Coat the inside of a nonstick loaf pan with cooking spray.
2. Cream butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl until soft and fluffy. Scrape down the sides. Gradually add the egg and egg whites until throughly combined. Mix in the vanilla extract and bananas.
3. In a separate bowl, combine the flour, baking powder and salt. Stir with a fork. Add to the banana mixture and mix until just moistened.
4. Bake for 50 to 60 minutes, until top is golden and toothpick comes out clean.

Note: I omitted the nuts only because I wanted to share the bread with Alex, but next time I might add 1/2 to 3/4 cup of chopped walnuts.

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