Friday, July 29, 2011

What the Smurf?

For Phoebe's last Friday before starting school we went to see the Smurf movie. Although she thought it was "smurf-larious" and Chloe loved Hank Azaria's Gargamel, I found myself wondering, "What the Smurf?!" Why did the smurfs have to leave their village? I grew up watching the cartoon on Saturday mornings so I can tell you that there's enough in the Smurf Village to entertain children. Jokey smurf alone is good for a couple of laughs.

After the first twenty minutes, Gargamel chases six smurfs (Papa, Smurfette, Brainy, Grouchy, Clumsy, and Gutsy--who's Gutsy? why couldn't they bring Jokey or Handy?) into a portal that takes them to New York City. Why NYC? Perhaps, the filmmakers were influenced by the success of "Enchanted"? The only reason I can think of for bringing the smurfs to NYC is for the sake of the grownups who have to accompany the children to the movie. Too bad once we get to NYC, the thin story line disappoints. Even t.v. favorites Neil Patrick Harris, Jayma Mays, and Sofia Vergara can't save the movie. Other than admiring Harris and Mays' cute apartment, I found the story too dumbed down to appeal to any adult.

The poor kids probably felt ripped off, too, because they expected to see a movie about just smurfs. Because it's a PG movie, we can assume the audience is young children. However, because they introduced grownups into the movie, Neil Patrick Harris's character has to undergo some sort of change. (He learns to appreciate the "blue-moon" moments in life, that he's ready to become a father, and to stop playing it safe professionally.) Although Clumsy smurf learns not to be defined by his clumsiness, the movie could have delivered more sophisticated messages if it focused its audience to children under the age of thirteen.

Pros: Very wholesome for young children--swear words replaced with smurf!
Cons: Smurfs leave the village.
The verdict: Wait for the rental.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Dining Chair Makeover

Before we were married my husband and I managed without a dining table. We ate off card tables and coffee tables. At one point we even had a muddy wooden picnic table that we covered up with a red-and-white checkered table cloth. Shortly after we bought our first townhouse, we finally decided to invest in a grown-up dining room set. I was only in my early twenties and hadn't developed my decorating style yet. So when a modern Swedish expandable model caught my husband's eye, who was I to protest? It had a hidden compartment that not only stored the leaves but also had a mechanism that allowed the leaves to be lifted and unfolded. It was a transformer table! How could he resist?! Of course we bought the six matching blonde-wood chairs with black-velvet seats.

Fast forward a decade later and I was ready for a change. But each chair had cost $200 and they were really comfortable. I couldn't justify giving the chairs away and buying new ones. I tried slipcovers but they looked messy and just plain suspicious--what were we hiding under those skirts? I decided to break up the dining set and give the chairs a makeover so I could reuse them with a round kitchen table.

Once you master this method, you can update dining chairs you find at garage sales or on eBay. If you can use a screw driver and a staple gun, you can tackle this project.

Materials
Fine-grade (220 grain) sand paper
Dust rag
Spray paint (12-oz can)
Spray paint attachment (optional)
Fabric (1/2 yard)
Staple gun and staples

Step 1. Remove chair seat from chair frame. If you turn the chair upside down, you will find that this is just a matter of removing some screws.

Step 2. Sand the chair frame with a fine-grade sand paper. Dust with a rag or old sock.


Step 3. Because my chair has a ladder back, I decided to spray paint with a matte finish to ensure uniform coverage. I used Rust-oleum satin in heirloom white from Home Depot. The paint only cost about $4/can. I ended up using about a can for each chair but a more experienced painter may be able to get by with less. Spray in a steady back and forth motion to prevent clogging the spray attachment. Let the first coat dry. Then spray a second coat and let that dry. If you want a slightly weathered look, you can go back and sand a few spots around the corners of the chair.


Step 4. Cut a piece of fabric roughly the size of your chair seat, leaving a two-inch overhang. I only needed 2 yards of cotton material from JoAnn Fabric and Craft to cover four chairs (plus extra in case I ever need to redo one) but you should bring your chair seat in to measure. My fabric cost less than $10! Using a staple gun, attach the fabric to the chair seat with one staple in the center. Then go back and add staples along the entire edge of the chair seat, pulling the material taut. Leave the corner for later. Do the same thing with all four sides.


Step 5. When you get to the corners, pull the material taut and staple neatly with a series of pleats. 


Step 6. Screw the chair seat back to the chair frame.

Voila!

I've been enjoying these chairs for the past two years and have received many compliments from guests. Best part: I don't have to feel guilty about giving away good furniture.

Before

After

Thursday, July 21, 2011

"Healthy" Peanut-Butter Blondies

This recipe uses only peanut butter and olive oil as its fat. You can substitute almond butter or soy butter if you have a peanut allergy. Not only is it Phoebe friendly but it's also become a family favorite. Note to other moms: teach your kids to bake. It's an "activity" for them and one less thing for you to do. Chloe's been making these once a week this summer. Phoebe knows how to make coffee. I'm set.



Peanut-Butter Blondies
Adapted from Cooking Light magazine


Ingredients:
1 cup flour
1 t baking powder
1/8 t salt
1/4 c old-fashioned creamy peanut butter
1 T extra light olive oil
1/2 c granulated sugar
1/4 c brown sugar
2 eggs
1 T vanilla
1/2 c chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Whisk dry ingredients (flour, baking powder, salt) in a small bowl. Whisk wet ingredients in a medium bowl. Fold dry ingredients into wet ingredients until just combined. Add chocolate chips. Spread thick batter into a 8-inch square pan that has been lined with foil. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until a wooden pick comes out clean.

Monday, July 18, 2011

San Diego Zoo: Go Before Your Kids Get Any Older!

We arrived at the San Diego Zoo at around 9:30 am. It was only a five-minute drive from our hotel in the Gaslamp quarter (if you're looking for a place to stay, see my review of Hotel Solamar: http://niftynest.blogspot.com/2011/07/hotel-solamar-in-san-diego.html) and the concierge even gave us a coupon for $5 off each admission ticket. The admissions price is expensive ($40 for adults; $30 for children, ages 3 to 11) but you're really paying to support the wonderful conditions at the zoo. Compared to the San Francisco Zoo, where the polar bear paces with boredom, the San Diego Zoo is paradise. The animals seem active, the habitats look beautiful, and the grounds are extremely well-kempt. Our goal was to see the pandas but we spent a good half hour marveling over the koalas.

So cute!

Polar bear--not pacing!

Caribou (a.k.a. reindeer!)

When we got to the panda exhibit, we discovered that the twenty-three-month-old Yun Zi had just woken up and was searching for food. We were only a few yards away from him. It felt like we could reach out and touch him. After visiting the panda at the Atlanta zoo, we had expected a glass partition. We thought we would have to stand in line and brave a hoard of visitors, but we had a very peaceful experience. (Allen's coworker said he stood in a long line to see the pandas, so visit them in the morning.) While we were observing Yun Zi, the educator guide told us interesting facts about pandas. For example, once a baby panda reaches maturity, he must be separated from his mother, as they will fight each other for food. Also, they are carnivores. They don't hunt but if a small animal fell in their lap, they would eat it. What are the chances of that happening?!

Yun Zi searching for food

Yun Zi having breakfast

Yun Zi's dad still snoozing


The one-day pass includes rides on the sky tram and the buses. There is a bus that takes you on a guided tour of the exhibits as well as buses that give you rides from one bus stop to another so you can cover more territory instead of wasting time walking up and down the hills.


Baby giraffe spotted from tour bus


Before we left, Phoebe stopped by the petting zoo. As with the pandas, we lucked out again. A zoo keeper plopped down a pile of hay just as we walked in.


Phoebe feeding goat
Although the zoo closes at 9 pm, we were pretty satisfied with our experience by 2:30. We had only seen about a third of the zoo but even Phoebe had had enough. You should go!

Hotel Solamar in San Diego Review

A couple of weeks ago we took the children to Disneyland and San Diego. We had only been to San Diego once to visit Legoland and I had booked a mysterious hotel through Hotwire, which turned out to be near the marina and not really within walking distance of any restaurants or shops. Somewhere along the way, I got food poisoning. Other than realizing that my husband loves me enough to clean up my throw up, it was a trip I'd rather forget.

This time we booked a standard room with two queen beds at Hotel Solamar, a boutique hotel in the Gaslamp quarter near Petco Park. I was a little worried because we were coming from three days in Disneyland where we had a kids suite at the Hyatt Anaheim. Although Allen missed having our own t.v., he admitted the Solamar was nicer than the Hyatt. Because it's a downtown hotel, you have to use the valet parking, which costs $35 but we had 20 percent off when we booked our room with a AAA special. You don't have direct access to our car but you can call the valet anytime if you need them to retrieve something from the car. The valet, Angelo, turned out to be friendly and efficient. We were a little worried about him bringing up everything from our trunk, but by the time we finished checking in and went up to our room, he had moved all our things with the stealth of a ninja. If anything, we should have told him we didn't need him to bring up our whole case of water! There's no need for a coffee maker in the room, because they have a coffee and tea bar in the lobby every morning, as well as a juice bar in the afternoon, and a wine bar in the evening. The small bathroom had a wall-mounted dispenser for body wash, shampoo, and conditioner. Phoebe said, "This is the first time I'm looking forward to a shower!"

Guzzling our free coffee and tea

The location of the hotel meant all we had to was walk up 5th Avenue to stumble upon restaurants--lots of pubs and tacquerias. We found a nice Thai place that was open at 330 pm. Afterward, we walked around and found a mall where the girls played a game of giant checkers.

Phoebe finishes Chloe off. Chloe blames her loss on "summer slide."

We couldn't find a movie time that worked at the mall theater so we headed back to the hotel. On the way back, Chloe spotted a Ghiradelli ice cream parlor so I took her there while Allen took Phoebe to the hotel pool for a swim.

Phoebe takes a dip.

The lounge/pool area is really more a swanky place for adults to hang out than for kids to swim but by the time we got there, Phoebe had the pool to herself. Unless you are extremely thick skinned, you pretty much have to order drinks, but Phoebe had a great time so it was all good. Afterward, we had a nice leisurely evening playing Apples to Apples and watching t.v.--so relaxing after braving the crowds and lines at Disneyland!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

How to Make Ribs in the Oven

A few weeks ago at the Target check-out, I noticed that the beefy man behind me had only two things in his cart: about ten cartons of eggs and a pile of ribs. I thought, Hmmm, are ribs cheap here? Yesterday I found that they were on sale for $2.50/lb. These are St. Louis-cut ribs  (the longer ribs, not baby back; go to http://www.amazingribs.com/recipes/porknography/pork_cuts.html for all you'll ever want to know about pork). Each slab is about 3 or 4 lbs, just the right size for my family of four.

This was really a cooking triumph for me, and so easy! I've never made ribs before. I'm really not a big meat person. If it weren't for my meat-loving husband, who craves it, and my children, who need protein, I would not bother. Before, having ribs would involve asking the husband to make them. He would have to get them from Costco (which sells them in a package of three slabs) and fire up his charcoal barbecue. The whole production could take hours considering the wind in Foster City. Usually by the time he produces the ribs, I've filled up on potato salad and am over the whole rib thing. No more. Ladies, take the husband out of the equation and make the ribs yourself!


Oven-Baked Ribs

Ingredients:
3 lbs of ribs
salt and pepper
1T olive oil
1/2 t garlic powder
1/2 t cumin
1/2 t celery salt
3/4 c ketchup
2T apple cider vinegar
2T soy sauce
2T molasses
1/3 c orange juice

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Split slab of ribs in half. Rinse and pat dry with a paper towel. Lay the ribs fat side up on a foiled-lined sheet pan. Season with salt and pepper. Roast in the oven for 45 minutes.

Prepare the barbecue sauce: Heat olive oil in a saucepan. Add garlic powder, cumin, and celery salt. Heat for about 30 seconds. Add other ingredients and whisk over medium heat for about 5 minutes. Let sauce cool and thicken.

After the initial 45 minutes, transfer ribs to a large (9" x 13") casserole dish. Arrange ribs in a single layer (you may need to cut one of the half slabs in half again) and pour sauce over the whole thing. Cover tightly with aluminum foil and bake for 1 hour. Baste the ribs with sauce twice during the hour. Then remove foil and bake another 15 - 30 mins.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Got Leftover Plums?

It's hard to believe that just a week ago I was immobilized by the heat wave, afraid to turn on the stove for fear of raising the temperature in our little cave. We dined on no-cook summer suppers: smoked salmon on bagels, chopped salad with supermarket rotisserie chicken, watermelon, peaches, plums. This week Phoebe's been freezing her little buns off at swim lessons in 59-degree weather! Time to fire up the oven. I adapted an upside-down apple cake from Martha Stewart's Everyday Food magazine to use up some of our leftover plums that had gotten too ripe. Mine is Phoebe friendly but you can of course substitute butter and milk for the buttery spread and almond milk.

Ta-da!

Upside-Down Plum Cake

Ingredients:
4 plums (halved, pitted, and cut into about eight slices)
2T Earth Balance buttery spread (or 2T butter)
1/2 c light brown sugar
1/2 t cinnamon
1 c flour
1/2 c whole-wheat pastry flour
1-1/2 t baking soda
1/2 t salt
1/3 c toasted, chopped walnuts
2 eggs
1/2 c granulated sugar
1 t vanilla
1/4 c + 2T extra light olive oil (or 1/2 c butter)
1/2 c almond milk (or 1/2 c low-fat milk)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease the bottom and sides of an 8-inch round cake pan with the buttery spread. Sprinkle brown sugar and cinnamon over the buttery spread. Arrange the sliced plums in two concentric circles. Set pan aside.

Prepare batter: Whisk together dry ingredients (flour, baking soda, salt) in a small bowl. Whisk together wet ingredients (eggs, granulated sugar, vanilla, oil, almond milk) in a medium-size bowl. Fold dry ingredients into wet.

Pour batter over the sliced plums. Bake for 40 - 45 minutes or until a wooden pick comes out clean. Let cool in the pan for at least 30 minutes. Run a knife around the edges of the cake and invert onto a plate.


 . . . And then there were two.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

J.Crew 5" Chino Shorts in Modern Red: Best Shorts Ever!

I almost never wear red because, it seems too dramatic and shouts, Look at me! Look at me! This red complex probably has something to do with my mom who insisted on dressing me in red, because she thought it looked good against fair skin. As a reaction to being forced to wear red as a child, I favor muted tones: charcoal, taupe, mustard. In any case, if you're shy about wearing red, an easy way to add it to your wardrobe is in small doses: red shoes, red tank top, red lipstick. And now red shorts!


If you're skeptical about the versatility of red shorts, yesterday morning my daughter looked at me and said, "Mama, that's like the third day you've worn those shorts."

In my defense, I'd like to point out that it is my daily goal to NOT sweat so I'm sure they're clean. More important, I love these shorts. They look so fresh and, as the name of the color indicates, modern. Modern red is a bright orangy red. I like it more than classic red with its blue undertone, which feels more conservative. This red has a yellow undertone that is much easier to wear, because most of us have some yellow in our skin, and feels sporty. Also, let's face it, shorts are for summertime so save the classic red for your holiday sweaters and scarves. Even if you think this is too bright for your taste, remember you're not wearing it next to your face. Besides, these are shorts so you're not committing to a lot of fabric.

OK, now that I've talked you into the red, these shorts were not dirt cheap. Their regular price is $45 but I got them on sale for $35. I probably could have waited for them to go down even more but I saw so many possible outfits that I decided it was worth the splurge. I have to confess that in the good ol' days I wouldn't have batted an eye at paying full price for something I loved. Now that I'm older and wiser with a closetful of clothes, two kids, and a mortgage, I have to justify each purchase I make. If I can't off the top of my head imagine three ways to wear the new item, it goes back on the rack. No matter how much the store slashed the price, if it sits in my closet, it's a waste. So off the top of my head, I thought, "White t-shirt, blue tank top, black + white striped boat neck. Sold!"

I've found that modern red plays well with many colors: red + white (no-brainer), red + navy (very Parisienne), red + muted pink (girly):

with a navy tank top

with a muted-pink blouse

As for patterns, stripes (black + white), florals (blue + white), and gingham (gray + white) in a neutral are easy.




Another foolproof way to wear these shorts is with a pattern that has some orange or red in it.


Whether you're someone who loves color or someone who favors neutrals, a shot of modern red will inject new life into your wardrobe.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Roomba Review: Get It!

"Does that work?" friends often ask. Here's a long-overdue review. 

I don't get those people who clean because it's therapeutic. Maybe because I have bad memories of dusting my mom's floor-to-ceiling shelf of knicknacks (where does this crystal bear go again? next to the school portrait of me with the bad perm? no, next to the miniature basket of candied almonds from a 1979 wedding). After inhaling all the Pledge fumes, I still had to vacuum up all the dust that had fallen onto the shag carpet.

So you'll understand why, other than an occasional need to suck up broken glass or an especially scary spider, I haven't used an upright vacuum in about a decade. No need, because the Roomba really works! It's even slim enough to fit under the couch, dresser, and bed (places I would be too lazy to reach).


Roomba fits under the couch.

Roomba even returns to its own charging station.


Caveats:
For best results, you can only clean one room at a time. Roomba comes with a virtual wall so if you have an open floor plan, you can section off the dining room from the living room. Depending on the level of dirt in your house, you will most likely have to recharge the battery after cleaning each room.


Roomba's virtual wall allows you to divide up a big room.

Clear the floor of all little legos, hairpins, doll clothes, curtains, and cords, as these things can impede the Roomba's performance. There's nothing worse than coming home, expecting to find a freshly vacuumed room, only to discover that Roomba was caught on the curtain the whole time you were gone!

Make sure you empty out the dustbin and clean the brushes of all hair, feathers, and dust bunnies before every use. Otherwise, you'll get an obnoxious error sound and a message indicating that you need to clean Roomba's brushes.

Empty debris from bagless dustbin.

Empty debris from filter.

Clear hair and debris from removable brushes.

Some critics have cited cost as a con for the Roomba, but at about $300, I would say it's a great value considering you are saving yourself back-breaking work not to mention valuable time. We bought this Roomba in 2007, so it's lasted four years. (Our original Roomba from 2001 went to e-waste when the rechargeable battery finally gave out.) 

Caution:
Young children may find the Roomba noisy and scary. When Phoebe was about fourteen months old, she would freak out and run away whenever the Roomba came in.


See? Roomba's not scary. It's giving Baby Kate a ride.

The Verdict:
Unless you are severely challenged when it comes to mechanical parts (that is, you cannot be trusted to put Roomba's brushes back properly), get it!