Monthly Archives: April 2012

Chambana Bound!

I’m going to be a temporary Chambana Mom. The boys and I are heading to the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana for the State Science Olympiad Competition. The boys have been working and learning about their events since last fall and I’m coaching an event myself (food science, FTW!). Cumulatively, we’ve learned about food molecules, food poisoning, aquifers, CSI-type crime solving, testing for proteins, building small scale vehicles, technical writing and more. Will this weekend be the culmination of our hard work or the gateway to another month of prep for the national event? The competition is stiff and only the top two teams move to the next level.

Unfortunately, with the exception of a handful of events like bottle rockets and the one where they show off their trebuchet skillz, it’s not the most exciting competition to witness. There’s a lot of simply escorting kids around campus to take event tests and then waiting for the results. But there are usually enough witty t-shirts to rival a Think Geek catalog. And it’s generally a good time. Plus the team get’s a hero’s send off at school.

Let’s hear it for the science geeks!

DH is sitting this one out so he can stay home and slide down the banister in his new undies care for his garden (possibly also in the aforementioned undies). He likens his seedlings to young children who don’t talk back to him. No wonder he finds gardening so enjoyable.

Have a great weekend whatever your plans!

The Blind Guy

The blind guy was here and, though I’m not proud to admit it, I did place stumbling blocks before him. Of course if he had called to let me know he was on his way, I could have done a little cleaning first.

Nearly four months of living here and we’re ready to get rid of those temporary blinds. You know those cheap paper things? We’ve got them everywhere. Well, not everywhere, in our bedroom, we draped a dropcloth one of our workmen left behind.

Yes, I washed it before hanging it. (And it was brand new, FWIW.)

I realize we’ve taken shabby chic to a new low, but that’s how I roll.

We’re ordering most of our window treatments from a Big Box store. For less than $120 they will provide the measuring and installation for all of the window treatments. Given that we’re covering nearly 20 windows, it’s a worthwhile expense.

Now that the measurements are done, we’ll be able to place our order next week. Or the week after. We’re not great at making decorating choices, so I tend to drag my feet on them. Eventually DH gets fed up with my procrastination and I wind up making some random choice just be be done with the process. Wow, seeing that on the screen makes me realize just how dysfunctional the process is.

Is there a home decorating version of Garanimals? I need that.

I Got Carried Away in the Shower

Our Passover Seder was wonderful and now it’s time to get back to business–the business of renovation that is. We’ve got two bathrooms, the classic pink 1950s one and the kids’ one, that need more than facelifts. We’ve got to rip out walls, enhance wiring, add insulation, replace pipes and maybe relocate a few. Oh, and there’s a bit of HVAC work to be done, too.

On the bright side, the windows and tubs will stay.

We’ll be hiring out for the work, but Hubs thought we should take on some of the demo. It could save us a few bucks. More importantly, he feels that potential contractors will provide more accurate estimates if they can see what’s going on behind the walls.

Makes sense.

I started peeling off the plastic pink tiles on Sunday. They came off easily enough, but the adhesive behind them did not and apparently the stuff has a half-life on more than 50 years because it was off-gassing some nasty fumes. I’m sure whatever volatile chemicals were used in the old glue were banned in the 1980s because they cause brain cancer or something.

So on Monday I decided I had to move beyond tile peeling to full-out knocking down walls.

I gave myself about 90 minutes to do some work, but once I started taking down chunks of wall, I couldn’t stop.

By the time I stopped, I was so filthy that I didn’t dare rinse down in my precious shower. Instead, I cleaned up in the boys’ bathroom. It’s the first shower I’ve taken in there and now I understand why they are eager for a renovation. The shower spray is pitiful and deeply unsatisfying.

As far as what’s going on behind the walls, thankfully, there was nothing (not even a secret stash of cash) behind the soffit in the shower. However, there are two ducts running up the shower wall and another three (!) running up the wall next to it. Glad I didn’t bang full force into any of them.

Yesterday I chaperoned a school band and field trip and now I’m grabbing my safety glasses, work gloves, hat and dust mask and jumping back in.

More Passover Prep. Or, How Not to Make Horseradish

Passover brisket

There's a brisket under all those mushrooms and onions.

The Passover Prep continues. One brisket, dozens of hard boiled eggs, 8 roasted beets, 120 turkey meatballs and a giant bowl of quinoa later, I’m here to tell about it.

Oh, I also made my own horseradish, the condiment of choice for the seder’s requisite “bitter herb.” I first did this a few years ago, but I was a bit confused this time around because when making the first batch with the white root, I didn’t experience the strong odor that practically burns the hair from your nostrils. In fact, even chopped up it barely had any flavor. I brushed it off as no big deal since batch one was to be the Mild batch.

I asked hubs to pick up another horseradish root for me, so I could make a second batch, the Hot one. This time the root came wrapped it plastic. As soon as I unwrapped it, the familiar scent wafted up to my nose. I must have had a dud of a root the last time.

And then it dawned on me that my original root was not a dud, it was

(wait for it)

parsnip. D’oh!

Batch number two is guaranteed to make old men and young boys cry when it hits their tongue. (My middle-aged husband will love it!).

I blended a small spoonful from the Hot batch into the Mild one and giving it just enough of an authentic horseradish taste. Like substituting Folgers for a fine coffee, no one would be the wiser. I mean, the consistency and color were right on and so was the smell.

But within an hour of my little taste test, my kishkes started rumbling and I had a revelation every bit as eye-opening as God speaking to Moses in the form of a burning bush: Do not serve raw parsnip to your 26 dinner guests unless you want them to be rushing for the bathroom (whose door, by the way, does not lock because we still bask in the room’s original pink 1950s splendor).

So, like the burning bush, batch one of the horseradish will not be consumed.

In addition to cooking and cleaning, I’m also putting together our Passover haggadah, the guidebook for the ritual meal. Next year, I need to check out Haggadot, a site that helps people DIY their Haggadahs (or haggadot).

Today’s agenda: finish the haggadah, cook another brisket, prep salads and make my boys work so hard to clean the house that they understand the bitterness of tyranny and can enjoy the Festival of Freedom.



Making Schmaltz: Getting Ready for Our First Seder

rendered chicken fatIt’s hard to believe I made it into my 40s without hosting a Passover Seder, but it’s true. Sometimes it’s good to live near so many family members. Also, our previous house couldn’t handle a crowd of more than about 10 without feeling cramped, so we were voted Most Uncomfortable Place to Host Family Gathering. That label was not without its perks, but honestly, we’re excited to cook clean and host this special dinner.

We are doing it and doing it big. We’re expecting¬† about 20 22 25 27 folks.

(No, the house is not that big.)

(Yes, we only own 12 chairs at the moment.)

I’ve been busy preparing a haggadah, the booklet that guides the seder, as well as doing a lot of cooking.

Thanks to a gentle nudge from Ciaran at Momfluential, I rendered my own chicken fat, or schmaltz in the vernacular. After reading her post on the topic, I was grossed out, but intrigued.

I told my husband I was considering making schmaltz.

“That sounds like a messy and ridiculous waste of time,” he replied.

And then I knew I had to do it.

I needed chicken thighs for a dinner recipe, so I bought ones with skin and ripped that off for rendering. I couldn’t find skinned, Kosher chicken thighs (the schmaltz factory beat me to it?), so I got the next best thing. Maybe. Halal chicken.

Does this mean I’ve made the world’s first Muslim matzah balls?

Regardless, here’s a quick tutorial.

Skin the chicken. I used 3 pounds of chicken thighs, give or take.

chicken skin to make schmaltz

Add some chopped onion and water to a pan.

making schmaltz, chicken fat

Add the chicken skin and heat it all over a medium/high flame.

rendering chicken fat

Continue heating for a good 20 minutes or so.

rendering chicken fat

If time allows (i.e. you do not look at the clock and realize you need to pick up your child from school in three minutes) continue cooking the skin until it crisps for a delicious, high-calorie snack laden with saturated fat.

If you’re in a rush, remove the skin and drain on a paper towels and then quickly strain the rendered fat into a jar. Refrigerate when cooled.

strain rendered chicken fat

I was was concerned the rendering chicken fat would stink up my kitchen a la Chanukah latkes, but it actually left a pleasant scent that felt like home, something along the lines of simmering chicken soup.

Speaking of which, after mixing up a couple of batches of matzah balls, pictured below cooling in the Chicago Fridge, I’d realized our crowd had grown too large for the tricky logistics of serving soup. So much for planning ahead.

matzah balls chilling in the chicago fridge

The Chicago Fridge

Food cooling on porch

Steaming hot chili cools off in the Chicago Fridge.

Like many of Chicago’s mid-century homes, we have an enclosed porch (AKA 3-season room, bonus room or Florida room) off of the kitchen at the rear of the house. Ours is in need of an overhaul, but when we asked our general contractor to jack up a corner of it, he cautioned us that what we thought might be a $400 job, could turn into an expensive rebuild.

We decided to live with the ramshackle look a bit longer. It’s vintage chic, right?

Even in its rundown condition, the room has its uses. Even, nay, especially, in the 4th season. The uninsulated room is like a second, giant refrigerator. But it wasn’t until Jen saw me place a setaming bowl of chili on the porch to cool that I heard the room referred to as the Chicago Fridge.

We often place hot items out there to cool rather than overwork our fridge. In the dead of winter, we can freeze things, too.

Now that it’s warming up and we can use the room as more than an extension of our refrigerator (and garage and mudroom), I’m dusting, scrubbing and organizing it. I’ll be back soon with pictures.

Do you have one of these fab little bonus rooms?