Saturday, December 29, 2012

Last Christmas Cookie

... has been eaten and I'm just now getting around to updating the blog with all the Christmas related stuff. Yep, we celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas. What's more, we also celebrate my most favoritest holiday of all, the New Year (so stay tuned for that one). And yes, there are gifts for M for each of these holidays. So we try to keep it very low-key in terms of gifts - 1-2 gifts for each holiday and nothing over the top. More about gifts later.

This year we had the most elaborate run-up to Christmas ever. Last year everything was very low key because, with Chris deployed, I just didn't feel like it. Nor did I have much time for things other than a tree and a gingerbread house. But this year, oh my!

First, we made the gingerbread house with the lovely kit from Trader Joe. This is my favorite gingerbread house to date and I do hope they sell it next year too. It didn't have weird ingredients, was super-easy to put together, looked very nice and cost only about $7.

Once the gingerbread was up, it was time to go get the tree. A couple of years ago, when we had a very snowy winter (yep, we do get those in the Piedmont area once in a while), we went to a nearby tree farm and cut down our own tree. Which was fun. But this year we waited until like three days before Christmas to get the tree and knew that all the good ones at the farm were already claimed. So instead we bought ours at the farmers' market.

Next, it was time to bake Christmas cookies. I had very ambitious plans for baking sugar cookies, gingersnaps, and making chocolate almond bark. Except I also planned on cleaning the house. So in the end I had no energy for the big production. Chris and M did the sugar cookies and I put together gingersnaps. BTW, both were Alton Brown's recipes and turned out delicious!

A couple of days before Christmas we already had gifts for M, but not for each other. Since our car required some expensive repairs just before Christmas, we didn't feel like getting anything pricey. Instead, we all went to my favorite thrift shop. And, much like Alton Brown, this thrift shop never fails. We bought a couple of nice ornaments for our tree, a Rumertopf unglazed clay bread baker for Chris (he said he always wanted one) and a hand-carved wooden chips and dip tray for me. All for like $7.

The day before Christmas we went to our good friends. M had a lot of fun, as usual, playing with the boys. And the adults were able to have an almost uninterrupted conversation punctuated with good wine. Which sounds idyllic except I had to leave the party 'cause of the most horrendous headache ever.

Ah, so what did M get for Christmas? He got three gifts. Two were Lego Education kits - Simple Machines and WeDo robotics. These are not cheap, but we got them free as part of the grant (for M's participation in the JrFLL Lego club earlier this year). And the third gift was the Angry Birds: Star Wars game I finally downloaded to the iPad.

So the Christmas day was spent building with Legos. The first thing M built with Chris's help was a crane. But he got bored with that quickly and insisted we built and programmed an alligator with a light sensor. The gator turned out to be the Rebel gator and bravely fought against several Imperial troops and Lord Vader himself.

P.S. I was also busy putting together a 72-hour emergency food supply as part of my Challenge on M got totally into this (he loves anything that has to do with stockpiling for difficult times ahead) and built this "emergency surprise tower" of food. Notice, he remembered the tea tin (so you can make tea, Mama), fruits (so that we can make fresh juice) and a kitchen timer (so we know what time it is).

Tuesday, December 18, 2012


With all the excitement of yard mega-projects and Lego League, Hanukkah just about flew by. The coolest thing was that my parents came to visit us. They arrived on the first evening of Hanukkah and stayed for 4 days, just about the record (except for when M was born and when I had surgery).

We had great time too. My Dad is not big on going places and doing things. He loves spending time with M as long as it's in or around the house. Which explains why we have like no pictures of him (oh, and he doesn't like being photographed either). My Mom is just the opposite. She loves going places as long as we don't have to drive after dark (she gets motion sickness) and she doesn't mind being in a picture.

We didn't have an overwhelming "program" for the visit. We had a nice first evening of Hanukkah. The next day Grandpa took M to the store and got him the one toy M's been dreaming about (and asking for) now that he's all about Lego Hero Factory once again. Of course, he asked for Stormer XL (saw the darn thing on the LEGO YouTube channel). At first M was puzzled over what XL stood for. After repeating it several times though he realized that sounded just like "excel". And once he put Stormer together, he also saw that it was quite big, bigger than all the other Heroes, so XL was also extra-large. Which reminds me...

a few days after getting his new Stormer XL, after clearing up the mystery of what XL stands for, M was telling me something about his new Stormer and I said something along the lines "well, in this regard he's a bit like you, isn't he". A little while later, I overheard M's conversation with Papa:

M: "Papa, you know, Mama said that I'm kind of like Stormer XL."
Papa: "Oh, yeah? How so?"
M (totally serious): "Well, maybe it's because I'm kind of large for my age"
(the kid is at the bottom of the weight chart for his age and just around the middle of the height chart).
Grandma got to go to M's Lego League showcase and also to the Life and Science Museum. That plus our regular phys therapy appointments and homeschool took up a large chunk of our time.

Then the evenings were spent cooking (unlike me, my Mom can cook just about anything out of just about anything without cookbooks and it will be delicious), baking (my hubby, who's rightfully famous in my family for his bread-baking was doing a master class for my Mom), and listening to my Mom's lectures on alternative medicine, food additives and healthy lifestyle (sorry, Mom, you're right, you're right, but sometimes it gets to be too much of a good thing).

All in all, it was great. I just wish they stayed for longer than 4 days!

The rest of Hanukkah was hectic and we didn't get to play dreidel until the last day of the holiday. This year M learned to spin it pretty well and, when we added chocolate coins to the game, quickly remembered all the rules. He would get all dramatic about it too, exclaiming "Gimmel for me!" and "Oh, I got Shin again!" But he was pretty lucky. I, on the other hand, kept spinning one "Shin" after another. It was ridiculous, I'm telling you. That dreidel must'd been loaded. Even M eventually exclaimed (again, with great drama): "Why does Mama always get shin?!" Which was, if you think about it, a hilarious question.

So after a while M ended up winning all the chocolate coins. But he did share his wealth with us and then with all his friends who come over to our place. This new generous and very polite (says "please" and "thank you" all the time) M is really a joy!

Monday, December 17, 2012

Lego Stuff

Last week M had his first real Junior First Lego League showcase. The JrFLL team he was on, The Lego Bat Panthers, presented their solution for the Super Seniors challenge.

From the description of the challenge on the JrFLL page:
Can Junior FIRST® LEGO® League teams improve the quality of life for seniors by learning about the obstacles some people face as they get older? 
M's team of 6, most of them - under 6, had a tough time choosing just one quality of life aspect. Instead, they decided to create a solution for ALL the potential problems faced by seniors. As a result, they created a robot-butler (M keeps calling it "robot-bocaler").

Essentially, it's a motorized contraption that does just about anything a person might want or need to do daily. It has attachments for cooking, cleaning, vacuuming, dusting, bringing groceries from cars, digging garden beds, and blasting off door handles. Yep, that's, they all agreed, was the coolest way to solve the problem of door knobs (since, as they learned, seniors develop arthritis that makes it painful and difficult to twist door knobs). Unwittingly, they recreated the awesome SIMON, Lara Croft's robot from the Tomb Raider movie.

As part of the showcase, the team had to come up with the name, the T-shirt design, and put together a poster about their work. The name, Lego Bat Panthers, might seem strange unless you have experience negotiating a team name with a group of boys, each of whom has just the greatest idea for it. So then you take one word from each terrific idea and string it all together and voila, they miraculously agree on it.

Now, the T-shirts were largely designed by moms, but kids did vote on the color, the font and the idea of having flames. The bat panther iron-ons were added to the sleeves. And the poster... well, we took the easy way out. Each child chose photos he liked from a pile of photos taken during the JrFLL meetings. They cut them out and also colored the words in the team's name. Then they drew the pictures of other awesome robot-butlers. None of the kids wanted to deal with the messy and sticky glue, so the gluing down part was done mostly by the moms.

Then it was the showcase time. During the showcase, the kids have to be able to answer questions from the panel of judges and tell a bit about their team and their project. I wasn't there to see it, so not sure how it went. M really dislikes this part. He just wants to build, not talk about it with strangers, lol.

Back home, M  built his own, smaller and non-motorized, version of the robot-butler. So that was really cool. He also discovered the Lego YouTube channel. First, he kept watching Lego Star Wars episodes which are hilarious, I must admit. Inspired, he started building Lego scenes. The latest (I don't have a picture) is called "Imperial troopers are having lunch break while building a new base on the planet Hoth".

But then he wanted to watch all the Hero Factory episodes which are not at all funny 'cause they are basically just commercials for the Hero Factory stuff. So now he's spends all his spare time playing with his Heroes. He even built them their own Hero Factory. It has the production floor where Heroes are assembled and their quaza cores are inserted (I did help a bit with some of the machines here). There's also the control room for Zib and Quaddle. This room has lots of computers and important buttons, but also a solar panel and some garbage and recycling cans. Heroes also have a spacecraft.

But the masterpiece of the setup is the high security jail. It has 4 cells for villains and has detection and alarm lasers. It's very strong and well-guarded. Unfortunately, villains escape from it on average 10 times an hour. So the Heroes are always busy chasing them and/or improving the jail.

M doesn't know yet, but he's getting more Legos for the holidays, including lots of gears, a motor and a battery pack. Hooray!

Our Giant Deck and Other Projects

I usually don't write much about Chris. Mostly it's because he spent the entire year deployed. But now that he's back, he's catching up on a whole lot of different house projects. Ah, home, sweet home!

The two major things going on are the yard and the deck. First, I'm going to show you the yard project. Basically, I  we decided to move the veggie garden from the front yard into the side yard. A couple of years ago we (and now I do mean "we") cleared the area of all the overgrown bushes and ivy and covered with black plastic (big mistake). So all we needed to do now was to get rid of weeds torn plastic, break the heavy clay soil and clear it off as many roots and rocks as possible. 

Oh, and also, we Chris needed to tear down the old rusted through metal shed (see what's left of it laying on the ground?). Which meant he had to drag all the rotten and rusty junk out of it first. Only after all this prep could he start building new raised beds.

But after the first two beds were built, we had to hit the pause button on this project. That's because we decided to cut down a maple tree (shucks, wish it was pine). It was a good tree, but it was shading a large part of the garden and, more importantly, leaning over the fence into the neighbor's yard. So we decided to be nice and neighborly and take care of this issue. 

Since the tree cutting company had a 2-week lead time, Chris decided to start on the mega project of refinishing the deck. This project has been at least 5 years overdue. But you see, we have a huge deck - 3 levels (used to be 4, but we tore one down 'cause it was built right on the ground and rotted through by the time we bought the house). The lowest quote we ever got for refinishing the deck was $2500 + materials. 
Actually, the deck looked so ugly that I thought there was not a chance it'd ever look good again. I thought we'd need a new deck altogether. Good thing I have my hubby who's not as panicky about things. When faced with a challenge, he usually reaches for the nearest instrument of destruction - a hammer, a chainsaw, a power washer - and gets right to work.

And that's exactly what he did this time around. First, he removed the horrible lattice and sanded the railing all around. We figured, trying to sand all those 2x2s was too much of a pain in the neck. It was easier (and saner) to just replace them with the new ones. Luckily, whoever built our deck, had no idea about building codes. So they spaced those 2x2s too far apart and, as we were told, not safe for children. Now that our child is old enough to know better, we had a lot fewer 2x2s to replace. Hooray for incompetent builders!

The belt sander did a terrific job on the railings. But we needed something bigger and better for the deck floors. Turns out, you can't use regular big floor sander on a deck. Something about the nails or whatever. Instead, we had to rent a power washer. Which was a bit of an issue 'cause you know how little our car is. There was no way a power washer could fit in the trunk. Since the rental place is within walking distance from us, Chris considered walking the washer to the house or, better yet, I'd drive and he'd pull the washer alongside the car. For some reason the rental place folks didn't like this plan. Instead, they decided to deliver the washer themselves. Whatever... 

Power washing must be a whole lot of fun... for guys. I mean, I don't care for it one way or another. But both Chris and M were thrilled. What's the big attraction? Beats me. But it was pretty cool to watch them work. Especially Chris since M left after just a few minutes and went back to his toys.

Anywho, the washer was excellent. Turns out, our deck wasn't rotten after all. It was just incredibly dirty. Once all that grime was taken care of, we had a very nice red oak deck. Who knew?! 

Then we had to wait for the deck to dry so Chris could put stain on it. So we spent a lot of time looking at different stains. Unlike paints, stains don't have attractive names. So I chose the one that sounded the prettiest, Cinnamon. Makes you think of all the wonderfully delicious breakfasts, lunches and dinners out on the finished deck. And the picture in the brochure looked nice too.

But stains are trickier than paints. Turns out, they look different on different wood. So this one had a whole lot of red in it to M's delight. I'm ok with it 'cause you know, it's still a ton better than the old look. 

It took Chris more than a week to finish staining the deck. Mostly because all of a sudden the weather turned rainy. And the local weather forecast tends to predict just the opposite of what the weather is really like. But eventually the deck was finished with two coats of stain. And it looks wonderful and amazing and unrecognizable! It better, I say, 'cause it took 5 gallons of stain. We had to go to Lowe's for more stain like 3 times. The guy at the paint counter must've thought we have no idea how to calculate the area; we do, but our deck soaks it all up. 

But again, it looks amazing! Come check it out if you're in the area. Oh, and if you have an old crummy deck, Chris says he'll help you get it in tip-top shape... at a competitive price. 

Except right now he's a bit busy with the veg garden again. The tree cutting company came out and cut down the maple. We are keeping the logs for yet another project (more on this when it actually happens, but it'll be very handsome!) The final raised bed should be finished in a day or two. Then - the new compost bin and a gravel path along the veg garden. I'll post pictures as soon as that's done.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Osso Bucco? Osso "Bleh"-cco!!!

I already mentioned that I picked up Tim Ferriss' new book, The 4-Hour Chef, with a hope to finally learn how to cook without recipes. Well, this is the end of Week 1 of actual cooking and here's my update.

This week I was supposed to make two dishes - lamb "osso bucco" and scrambled eggs.

Osso Bucco was a definite FAIL. I did follow the recipe. And I did buy all the right (namely, fresh and/or organic) ingredients. I even used the same brand of canned tomatoes. Yet the end result was disappointing. It looked good, but tasted fatty and flat. Not a good combination. Then again, I never tried lamb before and, in general, I don't like meat all that much.

There was also a WHOLE LOT of braising liquid left. I felt it would be too wasteful to just get rid of it. And from my previous experience (mostly reading "Stone Soup" and the part in "Three in a Boat Not Counting the Dog" where Jerome K Jerome talks about Irish ragu), I knew that just about anything can be turned into a delicious soup.

I kept the broth and the day after I boiled it with the remaining carrots, some orzo, canned tomatoes, and leftover chopped lamb meat. Oh, and more salt and pepper. Now it tasted much better, but still it was missing something. Luckily, I remembered a jar of аджика (Georgian chili paste) in my fridge and added some to the soup. That did it! Now it tasted just right and somewhat like харчо. Must'd been хмели-сунели spice blend that was one of the ingredients in the chili paste (the rest were just various chilies, garlic and salt).

Scrambled eggs - I did not have fried parsley for the Middle Eastern version and I didn't feel like eating eggs with mint (the Northeast African version). Instead, I added scallions, fresh ginger and some soy sauce for an Asian take on scrambled eggs. I totally eyeballed the spices too. But the eggs turned out great. I don't know why I never considered adding herbs and spices to the scrambled eggs at the end, instead of at the beginning of cooking them.

Lessons learned:

1. Lamb - not for me
2. There are no shortcuts to building layers of flavor in a dish
3. If it doesn't turn out all that great, make a soup out of it
4. Scrambled eggs with soy sauce - delicious!

Monday, November 26, 2012

Still Learning to Cook

You'd think that after about 10 years of marriage, I'd learn how to cook. Nope, not even close! I mean, I've come a long way since Chris and I first moved in together. Back then my specialty was salads and pasta (plain or with a sauce out of a jar). Now I can get an entire Thanksgiving dinner ready without much flipping out. And it'll be delicious as long as I have a good recipe to go by (yeah, I'm shacking my finger at you, Paula "One-Stick-of-Butter" Dean; your cornbread stuffing was a #fail).

And that's exactly the problem - the recipes. I can make just about anything given a recipe. But without one, I can't even make a Russian staple, fried potatoes with mushrooms. Ok, maybe I'm exaggerating a bit, but just a bit. The bottom line is I CAN'T COOK WITHOUT RECIPES.

But this is about to change, I'm telling you! I'm working my way (very slowly) through Tim Ferriss' new book "The 4-Hour Chef". So far I'm loving it. I've just started reading about specific dishes and am yet to try the first one, but my cooking seems to have improved already. Like, we're still dealing with the left-over turkey. So last night I made spaghetti with turkey marinara (what would be a fancy name for this dish?). It was absolutely delicious, both Chris and M requested seconds and thirds.

Today I turned even more leftover turkey into a shepherd's pie. Again, delicious, and I almost didn't need a recipe for this one (I did use Alton Brown's recipe, but only as an inspiration and to know the proper oven temperature).

The nice thing is that so far, not counting the cost of the 4-Hour Chef book itself, it hasn't cost me a penny more to cook better food. But things are about to change as I'm approaching the first how-to of the book - Osso Bucco.

Sunday, November 25, 2012


Lately M's been very busy building islands. I forgot how it all started, but next thing I knew he build the first island - just a few stones with a couple of angry birds stranded on top of one.

Then shortly after Chris got back, M decided to build a Family Island. So he got out all the stones he collected during our list trip to NY, added some tree rounds, pine cones, tree bark to the mix, and put up a lighthouse and a windmill and populated the island with as many toy animals that would fit on it.

Almost immediately he decided to build a larger island for more animals and with plenty of room for the boats to dock. He also decided that his two collectible angry birds will swim to the island in a shell boat. 

Then came the island of Every Kind of Animal and Astronauts and Aliens Island.

After the flamboyancy of the Every Kind of Animal island came the minimalist and uninhabited Three Bridges Island...

... which didn't stay uninhabited for too long .

 Check out the awesome bat on top of the lighthouse! And the penguin isn't bad either.
 Then a TIE-fighter landed...
 And the island became deserted once again.
 LEGO mini-figs were the late-comers, but they quickly got rid of all the non-essentials, installed a lawn for sunbathing and running around...
 ... and built a rocket launch pad.
Last I've heard, the TIE-fighter left the Dark Side and instead joined the mini-figs in their space exploration quest.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Homeschool Catch-up Post

Yes, we are still homeschooling. And no, we aren't planning to change it just yet. So lots of things are going on in our little school and lots of new stuff. The big news is that I'm now teaching M English reading. Phonics sounded too crazy for me, so instead I settled on a book called "Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons" and I absolutely love it (so far).

We've done just over 30 lessons and M reads! He reads words, sentences and even short stories. And he understands what he reads without relying on a picture. Besides, his reading is very smooth and he blends the sounds well (better than he does in Russian, actually). This book is so simple to use! It provides very clear step-by-step instructions for parents and there's like no prep time for the lessons.

I'm also greatly relieved that with the DISTAR method used in the book we don't need to worry about sight words. One of the reasons I wanted to homeschool was to avoid just this type of rote learning ever-present in alphabet songs, rote counting to ten and back and sight words.

I was a bit worried that starting English with him would interfere with his Russian reading especially since his progress was so uncertain. So far it doesn't look as if it does. There were a few times that he mixed up Russian and English sounds. But I realized that if I teach English first, then - math, then a longish (an hour or so) break before teaching Russian, it helped. Another thing that helped was reminding M which language we were practicing reading.

One of the totally unexpected things about introducing English reading was that it actually helped M blend sounds better when reading Russian. Now he almost never reads individual letters, but instead the entire syllables which makes for much faster reading and better comprehension.

Last time I was in NY, I picked up this reading workbook at the Russian store. It's for kids ages 5-6 and M is finding it pretty easy (we end up skipping some of the easier exercises). But the book cover says that it's for "gifted children". Hmm... maybe they are playing to the parents' vanity. I don't let this get to my head. For now we practice lots of two- and three-syllable words and play games that work on fluency and actually reading a word vs guessing it.

And, of course, we also do math. I set aside the RightStart book for now. He was doing very well with geometry, but not so good with number facts past 7. So I decided to back up a bit, work on very basic stuff, like adding by 1, number facts to 5, etc. It's a bit frustrating for sure. Especially since if I replace numbers with any other symbols, he gets it and adds and subtracts without any difficulty.

At the same time, M's been intensely interested in very big numbers - a million, a billion and a trillion. He keeps asking me to re-read the "How Much Is a Million" to him. But more about this one some other time.

Apart from the homeschool, he's been busy at his Jr First Lego League and also at home building vehicles and Star Wars scenes with Legos, making islands, helping Chris in the yard and playing with friends.