First Snow

It’s a week before Thanksgiving, and suddenly, we’ve got six inches on the ground and counting. It started just after dinnertime, and it’s supposed to keep right on snowing through most of the weekend. But with a cozy blanket, hot cup of tea, and a good book, I don’t mind at all.

Planning For Charitable Giving

I try not to post about Christmas-related things until after Thanksgiving, as a firm believer that there is an appropriate season for everything. But I do make an exception when it comes to talking about charitable giving, as that takes a little planning. I hate to shock you, but most of us have only three or four paychecks in between now and Christmas, so making sure we’re able to fit charitable giving into the holiday plan is something to be thought of now.

I personally like to make three contributions every year – two local and one international. And I also like to make sure at least one of the three is food. We donate to our local food pantry throughout the year, but donating during the holidays is important too, since struggling families have so many more expenses to cover during the cold months and holiday season.

Our giving this year is falling into pretty much the same pattern as it did last year. These are the three organizations that we’ll be contributing to again this year –

Check Out Hunger – hosted by Woodman’s Markets (a Wisconsin/Northern Illinois grocery chain) I love this program because it’s so easy – you simply add a pre-packed paper sack loaded with groceries to your own shopping order, and pay $6.00. The baggers then run the grocery sack to the donation bin for you. If you’re not in the area, lots of other towns run similar programs, and of course you can always donate directly to your local food pantry as well.

Woodstock Christmas Clearinghouse – run by the Woodstock Rotary Club, Christmas Clearinghouse is a toy donation program for local children in need. (Note that the dates on the link are 2014; they haven’t updated the page yet for 2015). There are donation boxes for new toys all around town at local businesses; Jewel-Osco usually hosts one right by the check out lanes. I pick up toys all year long on clearance and sales and tuck them away to donate during the holidays – I’ve got some Little People, puzzles, books, coloring rolls, Lego Duplo, Hot Wheels and other things for the barrel this year.

Operation Christmas Child – run by Samaritan’s Purse, this is my international donation choice every year. National collection week is this week from 11/16 – 11/23 to drop off your box locally – you can use the location finder to see if there is a drop off location in your community. If not, or if you are putting your box together after next week, you can also mail it directly to their headquarters in Boone, NC. My son and I put together a box every year for another boy in his age group – we include some necessities like a toothbrush, comb and socks, and small toys, coloring supplies, books, and soft toy to snuggle. We like to use a reusable plastic shoe box so the child receiving it has a little “toy box” to keep. A box can be put together with quality items at a good price by choosing careful at dollar stores and Target’s One Spot (or Bulleye’s Playground – whatever they’re calling it now).

Two other organizations that are reputable and beneficial to donate to, in case you’d like other options, are Toys for Tots and Heifer International. Do plan for charitable giving this year if you are fortunate enough to have your needs met – there are so many children that desperately need a warm meal in their bellies and a little joy in their lives on Christmas morning.

Preserving From the Discount Bin

Think you can only fill your freezer and take out the canning pot at the height of the late summer harvest season? If your local grocery store has a discount bin, think again – you can stock the larder whenever you find a fantastic deal.

One of my favorite local grocery stores has a discount bin where their put produce that is just at, or a day or two past, it’s peak freshness. Lettuce that is ever so slightly starting the wilt, cauliflower with a touch of brown, things like that. Sometimes they just let go of overstock at bargain basement prices, and that is always an incredible deal. Use your best judgement when pawing through the bargain bin, and know that you’ve got to act fast – this isn’t stuff that’s going to keep for a week in the fridge.

Here’s an example of some of the stuff I’ve found recently, and what you can do with it to get some serious bang for your grocery buck –

Lemons – a few weeks ago I found a couple of bags of organic lemons for  just $1 each – they normally sold for $5. There was just a little bit of brown on the stem ends, otherwise they were perfect. I snapped up two bags and used them to make a home made lemonade concentrate to store in the freezer. If I had been smart, I also would’ve zested them and dried the peel to have lemon zest or candied lemon peels for cooking and baking, but I honestly didn’t think of it at the time. You can easily do this with any type of citrus you might find.

Mushrooms – my store had 4 boxes for $1 – usually they’re $3 each so this was a super deal. They looked perfect too, so just overstock. I didn’t get them at the time, but I should’ve – dried mushrooms are about the easiest thing in the world to make, and are great to have on hand to add to soups or skillet dinners.

Peppers – I got two bags of organic sweet peppers for $1, and diced them and froze them. They’ll be great in chili and stir fry. You could also dehydrate them or pickle them too.

Bananas – my store has incredible deals on overstock bananas pretty frequently – you can usually get a paper grocery sack full for $1! After you’re done gorging yourself on fresh ones for a few days, you can roast the rest in their skins (until they turn black – it intensifies their flavor), mash them up and then freeze them for use in banana bread or other baked goods.

Greens – they’re a little bit harder to deal with unless you want to have a big salad for dinner the very day you buy them, but some preserve better than others. Spinach and kale can frozen fairly well, especially if you use them in soups or sauces and freeze the finished dish for a quick meal – one of my favorite easy ones to throw together is a bean and sausage soup, with chopped greens mixed in.

 Cauliflower/Broccoli – freezing is the best way to go for these. Just cut away any darker spots, chop it into bite-sized pieces and freeze – it’s great in stir-fry, roasted in the oven or simply steamed as a side dish.

So don’t turn up your nose at the discount cart – you might find some great produce to tuck away for future meals at a rock bottom price. Just be smart about the quality of the items you choose, and make the commitment to put it up as soon as you get it home.

Thanksgiving Recipe Round Up

Even though I plan to make an exceedingly simple and classic Thanksgiving dinner this year, there are so many wonderful recipes out there I thought I would share a round up.

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Turkey Recipes

Slow Cooker Herbed Turkey Breast

Cider Brined & Glazed Turkey

Apple Cider Brined & Smoked Turkey

Honey Riesling Turkey (okay, chicken – but the same with turkey)

Side Dishes

Stuffing Muffins

Sage Onion & Bacon Stuffing

Cauliflower with Garlic Thyme Vinaigrette

Corn with Bacon Vinaigrette

Rosemary & Balsamic Baked Mushrooms

Stuffed Mushrooms

Smokey Roasted Cauliflower

Pan-Fried Brussels Sprouts with Bacon Mustard & Garlic

Stuffed Sweet Potatoes

Kale with Roasted Peppers & Olives

Grilled Brussels Sprouts

Home Made Cranberry Sauce

Desserts

Rustic Apple Galette

Pumpkin Pie (allergy friendly)

Flour-less Chocolate Lava Cake

A Cozy Thanksgiving For Three

It looks like this year will be just the three of us for Thanksgiving, so I think a simple dinner is in order. I debated doing a small turkey breast in the crock pot, but I do still have a frozen full sized turkey in the freezer, so I figure I may as well cook that. And plus, having the leftovers will be great – making stock and having turkey soup and turkey noodle casserole are some of my favorite ways to eat turkey leftovers.

I think I’ll do a cider brined and glazed turkey this year, and keep the sides really simple – mashed potatoes  with gravy, corn bread stuffing, steamed broccoli, home made cranberry sauce and a pumpkin pie. And we’ll have a nice bottle of beaujolais nouveau to go with it. So, a simple and classic meal. I’m really looking forward to a low-stress relaxing day at home with the menfolk.

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Happy Halloween!

The Quest For Health – Finding Time for Yoga

It seems like it was a century ago – every Wednesday night after work I’d go to yoga class. It was 45 minutes of time just for me, where I could breath. I wasn’t a Manager, I wasn’t on mom duty and I wasn’t worried about the bills. I was breathing. It was great.

But that was before a role change at work and a major move over an hour away from where we had been living. And then the four hour round trip commute became a reality… there wasn’t any time left in the day for the luxury of a 45 minute yoga class, and though I love our new town, the park district classes leave a lot to be desired anyway.

As these things usually happen, the lack of yoga, longer commute, poor eating habits and some nasty genetics all lined up into the perfect storm of just being in a really bad spot health-wise. I’ll not go all out about it, but the long and short of it is I really needed to take better care of myself. So we cleaned up the food situation at home and that’s helped everyone. It’s really hard to eat healthy when you’re stressed and tired, and even harder to plan ahead in order to do it when you feel that way. But an hour or two of prep on the weekends pays off and are back to being a part of the regular routine.

There’s not much I can do about the commute, so with better food habits back in play, that just left the question of exercise. I really did miss the yoga. And then I had a light bulb moment, because the answer was literally staring me right in face, sitting on a bookshelf in the living room I walk right by every day – the Yoga Sequencing Deck by Jillian Bobowicz. I’d received it months ago for review from Ulysses Press, and then all that life stuff happened and I lost sight of yoga. I wake up before 5:30 in the morning for work, long before anyone else in the house. And with a four hour round trip commute (yeah, did I mention that?), I had ten minutes tops to make yoga fit back into my life. Hey, it was better than nothing.

The cards are great for making it fit. At the crack of dawn, I can lay out a set of three cards, and take ten minutes to go through the poses in the bathroom when I get ready for work. I like simple, easy poses to wake up with – I usually do Mountain, Warrior II and a High Lunge, and then do them in reverse. It’s a quick way to stretch and wake up gently to start the day. Between yoga and walking a few miles to and from the train each day, exercise is happening once again. And every little bit helps on the quest to stay healthy!