Saturday, December 30, 2017

2017 in Review: The Good Stuff

My first blog entry of 2017 was a review of some of the positive events (both public and personal) of 2016 (you can read it here). If 2016 was a tough year for a lot of us, 2017 was even tougher, in many ways. So I thought I would again look back over the year and highlight some of the positive bits of public news that many of us either missed or have forgotten.

Incan Code of Knots Deciphered
Harvard undergrad Manny Medrano spent spring break of his freshman year studying a system of knots called "khipus" that were used by the Incan people as a form of recordkeeping, one that had not been previously deciphered. His "translation" of a number of khipus in a museum in Lima, Peru was able to be correlated with a Spanish census document from 1670.

Invention of "Self-Healing" Glass
Japanese researcher Yu Yanigasawa, working with a substance called polyether thioureas, discovered that if pieces of the broken glass are held together, they will re-bond. The glass is more similar to acrylic than "standard" or mineral glass. The advantage of the glass is not so much that complete breaks can "heal," but that small micro-breaks inside the glass will continually re-seal, leading to more longer-lasting and durable items with double or triple their current lifespans.

Lasers in Shoes Aid Parkinson's Patients
One of the common problems suffered by Parkinson's patients is "gait freezing," in which the person is unable to force their legs to take the next step, which can result in overbalancing and falling. However, the presence of a "marker," such as a crack in the sidewalk or between floorboards, seems to help break the freeze. These shoes have a laser pointer on the toe that projects such a marker about 18 inches away just as each foot is poised to take a step. A preliminary study of 19 patients showed a 46% reduction in freezing cases when using the shoes.

Astronaut Peggy Whitson Sets (Another) Record
NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, who already has the distinction of being the first science commander of the International Space Station, the first female commander of the station, the first female to command the station twice, and the female NASA astronaut who holds the record for most spacewalks, added to her records this year. At the conclusion of Expedition 52, which was extended by three months in April 2017, Whitson also earned the title as the NASA astronaut (and the female astronaut worldwide) who has spent the most time in space.

Dutch Electric Trains Powered 100% By Wind
In 2015, Dutch railway companies set a goal for all their electric trains to be 100% powered by renewable energy by 2018, but they have met that goal a year ahead of schedule, due to the construction of new wind farms in Finland, Belgium, and the Netherlands. As of January 1, 2017, all electric trains in the Netherlands have been powered purely by clean, renewable wind energy.

Adaptive Clothing Line
Fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger launched a line of "adaptive clothing" designed for adults with various disabilities, including prosthetic limbs, braces, and use of a wheelchair. (Hilfiger released a line of similar children's clothing two years ago.) Adaptations include one-handed zippers, magnetic clasps, velcro straps, and adjustable hems. Both the adult and the children's clothing lines were developed in conjunction with the nonprofit group Runway of Dreams.

Fetal Lambs Complete Development in Artificial Uterus
Researchers at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia successfully transferred 8 lamb embryos at 105 to 120 days gestation (the equivalent of a 22- to 24-week-old human embryo) into artificial wombs called "BioBags," where they lived for 4 weeks before being transferred to a ventilator, much like a somewhat premature human baby. Their organs appeared to have developed the same way they would have inside their mother's body. There is much more research and experimentation to be done before the bags can be used for human infants, but the success of this project bodes well for the future survival options of extremely premature human infants.

Muslim Hackers Unite to Drive ISIS Off the Internet
A coalition of Muslim hackers worked to take down multiple ISIS-associated websites and installed a virus to disrupt the group's news agency, Amaq. In addition, they created a fake version of Amaq's mobile site, allowing them to track extremist activity.

Coral Restoration at the Great Barrier Reef
The not-for-profit group, Reef Restoration Foundation, is growing coral and replanting it on the Great Barrier Reef to repair damaged sections of the reef. The project is modeled after similar successful programs in Florida and the Caribbean.

Solar Highway in China
China opened a 1km stretch of highway that is made of photovoltaic panels covered with transparent concrete and underlain with insulation. In one year, the road is expected to generate 1 million kWH of electricity, enough to power street lights and a snow-melting system. It will also be able to power electric car charging stations, which may be added in the future. A similar (but narrower) road was opened in France in 2016, and a bike path embedded with solar panels was built in the Netherlands in 2014.

I don't know about you, but reminding myself of these wonderful bits of news makes me feel much more positive about the year ahead. It's an amazing world we live in, and there's so much more to discover about it - and about ourselves. Happy New Year!

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Friday, December 29, 2017

Glamorous (But Easy) Recipes for New Year's Eve

If you love going out on the town for the holiday, you can order any number of magnificent meals from your favorite restaurant. But if you prefer staying in, there's no reason you can't have equally magnificent food - and you don't have to be a master chef or spend hours in the kitchen, either. Here are some of my favorite recipes that are easy but impressive for a special occasion.

Wild Mushroom Risotto
Risotto takes a bit of time to make, but most of it is just sitting and stirring - and since you've got a bottle of wine on hand for the recipe, you can sit and stir and sip. Chef Ann Burrell's Wild Mushroom Risotto is one of my favorite variations, but don't feel you have to follow the recipe to the letter. Dried porcini mushrooms are hard to find, so I just leave them out and use a little extra of some other kind of mushroom. I also skip the chives, and occasionally add a cup or so of green peas. You can also easily halve this recipe for a romantic dinner for two.

Olive oil
2 cloves garlic, smashed with the heel of your hand or the side of a knife
1 1/2 pounds assorted fresh mushrooms, such as shiitake, oyster or cremini, cleaned and sliced
Kosher salt
1 cup dried porcini mushrooms, soaking in 3 cups hot water
1 onion, chopped (about 1 1/2 cups)
2 cups Arborio rice
2 cups dry white wine
6 to 7 cups hot chicken stock
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano
1/2 cup chopped chives

Coat a large saute pan generously with olive oil and add the smashed garlic cloves. Bring to a medium-high heat. When the garlic cloves have begun to brown and are very aromatic, remove and discard  Add the fresh mushrooms to the pan and season generously with salt. Saute until soft and pliable. Turn off the heat and set aside.

Using your hand or a slotted spoon, carefully scoop the porcini mushrooms out of the hot water. Pour the top 2/3 of the mushroom water into another container and reserve. Discard the bottom third. Puree the rehydrated mushrooms with a little of the reserved water to make a smooth paste and set aside.

Coat a large saucepan with olive oil. Add the onions and season generously with salt. Bring the pot to a medium-high heat. Cook the onions, stirring frequently, until very soft and aromatic. Add the rice and stir to coat. Cook 2 to 3 minutes, stirring frequently. Add wine to cover the surface of the rice and stir frequently until it has completely absorbed. Add the reserved mushroom water and then add chicken stock until the liquid has covered the surface of the rice. Stir frequently until the stock has absorbed into the rice. Repeat this process 2 more times. Taste and add salt if needed.

During the third addition of stock, add the reserved sauteed mushrooms and 2 tablespoons of the pureed porcini mushrooms. When the stock has absorbed into the rice and the rice is cooked but still "al dente", remove the pot from the heat. Add the butter and cheese and whip until well combined. Serve immediately garnished with chives.

Lobster Mac and Cheese
If you have a favorite recipe for baked macaroni and cheese, you can always modify that recipe to add lobster. But Ina Garten's recipe is rich without being too heavy, the nutmeg doesn't overpower the delicate flavor of the lobster, and the deliciously crispy golden crumb topping is a taste of heaven. Most groceries will steam your lobster for free, or use canned lobster (but fresh really does taste better).

Kosher salt
Vegetable oil
1 pound cavatappi or elbow macaroni, uncooked
1 quart milk
8 tablespoons butter, divided
1/2 cup flour
12 ounces Gruyere cheese, grated (4 cups)
8 ounces extra-sharp Cheddar, grated (2 cups)
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1 1/2 pounds cooked lobster meat

1 1/2 cups fresh white bread crumbs (5 slices, crusts removed)

Cook pasta according to the directions on the package and drain. Meanwhile, heat the milk in a small saucepan to not quite boiling. In a large pot, melt 6 tablespoons of butter and add the flour. Cook over low heat for 2 minutes, stirring with a whisk. Still whisking, add the hot milk and cook for a minute or two more, until thickened and smooth. Remove from heat and add the Gruyere, Cheddar, 1 tablespoon salt, the pepper, and nutmeg. Add the cooked pasta and lobster and stir well. Place the mixture in 6 to 8 individual large ramekins or gratin dishes.

Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter, combine them with the fresh bread crumbs, and sprinkle on top. Bake at 375 degrees for 30 to 35 minutes, or until the sauce is bubbly and the pasta is browned on the top.

Garlic Shrimp
There's something innately elegant about shrimp, whether they're draped artistically over the edge of a martini glass of cocktail sauce or whether they're drowning in a sea of fragrant garlic butter. Serve this recipe as-is as a spectacular appetizer, or toss it over a pile of angel hair pasta with a side of salad for an elegant dinner.

2 pounds extra large or jumbo shrimp, peeled and deveined
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
2 large cloves garlic, minced
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
Pinch freshly chopped parsley, for garnish (optional)
Lemon wedges, for serving (optional)

Place the shrimp on a rimmed baking sheet and toss with the olive oil, salt, pepper and garlic. Roast in a 350-degree oven for 6-8 minutes, or until the shrimp are pink and just cooked through. Immediately add the butter directly on the hot baking sheet and stir until melted. Transfer the shrimp and butter sauce to a serving dish and sprinkle with a bit of fresh parsley, if desired. Serve with lemon wedges.

Chicken Satay with Peanut Sauce
I've always made my chicken satay by marinating the chicken in yogurt flavored with ginger, garlic, and curry. Chef Tyler Florence's recipe is a great one to use, and his peanut sauce is fantastic. Feel free to adjust the amount of chili paste for your desired level of heat. Fresh ginger works best. It's best to cook these on the grill, but if you're willing to scrub your frypan a few times mid-cooking, you can make them on the stovetop without skewers.

1 cup plain yogurt
1 teaspoon freshly grated ginger
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon curry powder
1 1/2 pounds skinless, boneless chicken breasts, cut into strips
vegetable oil
1 cup smooth peanut butter
1/4 cup low-sodium soy sauce
2 teaspoons red chili paste, such as sambal
2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
2 limes, juiced
1/2 cup hot water
1/4 cup chopped peanuts, for garnish

Combine the yogurt, ginger, garlic, and curry powder in a shallow mixing bowl. Place the chicken strips in the yogurt marinade and gently toss until well coated. Cover and let the chicken marinate in the refrigerator for at up to 2 hours.

While the chicken is marinading, make the peanut sauce by combining the peanut butter, soy sauce, chili paste, brown sugar, and lime juice in a food processor or blender. Puree to combine. While the motor is running, drizzle in the hot water to thin out the sauce (you may not need all of it). Pour the sauce into a nice serving bowl and garnish with the chopped peanuts.

Thread the chicken pieces onto the soaked skewers, working the skewer in and out of the meat, down the middle of the piece, so that it stays in place during grilling. Place a grill pan over medium heat and brush it with oil to prevent the meat from sticking. Grill the chicken satays for 3 to 5 minutes on each side, until nicely seared and cooked through. Alternatively, fry the chicken strips in a well-greased frypan on medium heat, turning to cook through and brown on all sides. Serve with peanut sauce.

Duck Breast with Cherry and Cranberry Sauce
I was intimidated by the thought of cooking duck until I tried it for the first time. Since duck is best when it's fairly rare, it's easy to see when it reaches the right doneness, plus it cooks very quickly. Duck has a very rich flavor that pairs beautifully with the tart acidity of cherries and cranberries in this recipe from Chef Jamie Oliver. Don't forget to save the rendered fat to use in other dishes.

2 duck breasts
1 cup of cherries
1/2 cup of cranberries
1 cup of red wine
2 tsps of orange marmelade
1 tsp brown sugar
1/2 cup orange juice

Season the duck breasts with salt and pepper and place in a hot frying pan, skin side down. Cook for about five or six minutes, then turn over and drain off the excess fat. Roast in a 400 degree oven for about another 6 mins (longer if you prefer closer to medium than rare). While the duck is in the oven, make the sauce. Heat up a medium sized frying pan and add all of the sauce ingredients. Cook over a high heat till the sauce reduces to about half the original amount. Serve the duck breast sliced, with some of the sauce.

Beef Wellington
Delicious and visually impressive, Beef Wellington is the ultimate gorgeous but easy to make dish to impress a guest. It is a bit time-consuming, but not at all difficult. You can also make it ahead and finish the baking right before serving. There are many options that require you to make your own pastry from scratch, but this version of Chef Gordon Ramsey's recipe uses frozen puff pastry. You can get as artistic as you like making designs on the pastry, but the golden-brown finish looks elegant and fancy without any additional adornments.

1 filet of beef, 2-3 pounds
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup mushrooms (any kind)
3 1⁄2 tablespoons butter
1 large sprig fresh thyme
3 1⁄2 ounces dry white wine (scant 1/2 cup)
12 slices prosciutto, bacon, or parma ham
1 lb puff pastry, thawed
Flour, for dusting
2 egg yolks beaten with 1 tsp water

Place the beef on a roasting tray, brush with 1 tbsp olive oil and season with pepper, then roast at 400 degrees for 15 mins for medium-rare or 20 mins for medium. When the beef is cooked to your liking, remove from the oven to cool, then chill in the fridge for about 20 minutes. While the beef is cooling, chop the mushrooms as finely as possible so they have the texture of coarse breadcrumbs. Heat 2 tbsp of oil and all the butter in a large pan and fry the mushrooms and the thyme sprig on a medium heat for about 10 mins, stirring often, until softened. Season the mushroom mixture with salt, pour over the wine, and cook for about 10 mins until all the wine has been absorbed. The mixture should hold its shape when stirred. Remove from the pan to cool and discard the thyme.

Overlap two pieces of plastic wrap over a large chopping board. Lay the prosciutto on the plastic wrap, slightly overlapping, in a double row. Spread half the mushroom mixture over the prosciutto, then sit the fillet on it and spread the remaining mushroom mixture over it. Use the plastic wrap edges to draw the prosciutto around the fillet, then roll it into a sausage shape, twisting the ends of plastic wrap to tighten it as you go. Chill the fillet while you roll out the pastry.

Roll out a third of the pastry to a 7 x 12in strip and place on a non-stick baking sheet. Roll out the remaining pastry to about 11 x 14in. Unravel the fillet from the plastic wrap and place it in the center of the smaller strip of pastry and brush the pastry's edges, and the top and sides of the wrapped fillet, with beaten egg yolk. Using a rolling pin, carefully lift and drape the larger piece of pastry over the fillet, pressing well into the sides. Trim the edges to about a 1.5-in rim. Seal the rim with the edge of a fork or spoon handle. Glaze all over with more egg yolk and, using the back of a knife, mark the beef Wellington with long diagonal lines taking care not to cut into the pastry. Chill for at least 30 mins and up to 24 hours.

Brush the Wellington with a little more egg yolk and cook in a 40-degree oven until golden and crisp - 20-25 mins for medium-rare beef, 30 mins for medium. Allow to stand for 10 mins before serving in thick slices.

Crab Cake Stuffed Portobellos
Crabcakes and stuffed mushrooms are among my favorite appetizers, but when you combine the two, you get a delicious light entree that's beautiful on the table and delectable on the palate. Another dish that's easy to make ahead and then throw in the oven right as your guests arrive.

6 large portobello mushrooms
3/4 cup finely chopped sweet onion
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 package (8 ounces) cream cheese, softened
1 egg
1/2 cup seasoned bread crumbs
1/2 cup plus 1 teaspoon grated Parmesan cheese, divided
1 teaspoon seafood seasoning (such as Old Bay)
2 cans (6-1/2 ounces each) lump crabmeat, drained
1/4 teaspoon paprika

Remove stems from mushrooms (discard or save for another use); set caps aside. In a small skillet, saute onion in 1 tablespoon oil until tender. In a small mixing bowl, combine the cream cheese, egg, bread crumbs, 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese and seafood seasoning. Gently stir in crab. Spoon 1/2 cup crab mixture into each mushroom cap; drizzle with remaining oil. (If preparing ahead, wrap well and refrigerate for several hours to overnight.) Sprinkle with paprika and remaining Parmesan cheese.  Place in a greased 15-in. x 10-in. x 1-in. baking pan. Bake, uncovered, at 400 for 15-20 minutes or until mushrooms are tender.

Happy New Year and Bon Appetit!

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Thursday, December 28, 2017

Recipes Without a Lot of Ingredients

I recently posted a list of easy crockpot recipes that don't require a lot of ingredients. But this afternoon, as I was searching for something interesting and different to do with the pork chops in my fridge, I found a terrific non-crockpot recipe that only calls for a few ingredients, and I was inspired to put together a collection of recipes that don't require many ingredients. Dishes don't have to be complicated to be delicious! Here are some of my favorite recipes that don't require 20 different ingredients to make.

Creamy Cider Dijon Pork Chops
4 small boneless pork chops (or 2 thick chops, butterflied)
Salt and pepper
2 teaspoons olive oil
2 teaspoons minced garlic
1/2 cup apple cider (or apple juice)
1 tablespoon whole grain Dijon mustard
1/3 cup heavy cream (or half and half)

Season chops generously on both sides with salt and pepper. Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat for a minute or two, then saute garlic, stirring frequently, for about 1 minute. Add the chops and cook about 5-7 minutes on each side, or until cooked through. Set aside on a platter and keep warm. Pour the cider into the pan (still on medium-high) and scrape up any bits of meat. Simmer for about 1 minute, then stir in mustard and cream. Cook for a few more minutes, then pour over chops and serve.

Sheet Pan Lemon Chicken 
1 pound baby potatoes, washed and halved
1 pound Brussels sprouts, washed and halved (or substitute green beans)
4 chicken breasts
2 tablespoons lemon juice, divided
1 tablespoon coarse ground mustard (or Dijon)
2 teaspoons minced garlic
1 teaspoon honey
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
salt and pepper

In a small bowl, combine 1 tablespoon lemon juice, mustard, garlic, honey, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and 2 tablespoons olive oil and set aside. Lightly coat a jelly roll pan or rimmed cookie sheet with nonstick spray and lay out the potatoes and Brussels sprouts (or green beans) in an even layer. Drizzle with 2 tablespoons olive oil and then with about half of the lemon mixture and toss to coat. Season generously with salt and pepper and spread out again in a single layer. Season each chicken breast with salt and pepper and lay them on the pan, then drizzle with the remaining lemon mixture.

Bake at 400 degrees for 25 minutes or until potatoes are tender and chicken is cooked through. Drizzle with a tablespoon of lemon juice and serve immediately.

Sesame Beef and Broccoli
1/4 cup Asian sesame dressing (Ken's Steak House brand is good)
3 teaspoons soy sauce, divided
4 cups broccoli florets (fresh or frozen and thawed)
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1-1/4 lb boneless beef sirloin steak, cut into 2-inch pieces
2 teaspoons sesame seed (optional)

In a large bowl, mix together dressing and 1 TEASPOON soy sauce. Add broccoli and toss to coat. Spray a jelly roll pan or rimmed cookie sheet with non-stick spray and spread broccoli in pan. In the same bowl, combine brown sugar, salt, and 2 teaspoons soy sauce. Add beef and stir to coat. Roast in 450-degree oven for 10-14 minutes, until beef is cooked to desired doneness and broccoli is fork-tender. Sprinkle with sesame seeds and serve over rice.

Salsa Chicken
4 chicken breast halves
4 teaspoons taco seasoning mix
1 cup salsa (your preferred hotness)
1 cup shredded cheddar (or pizza cheese mix)
2 tablespoons sour cream (optional)

Place chicken breasts in a lightly greased 9x13" baking dish. Sprinkle taco seasoning on both sides of chicken breasts, and pour salsa over all. Bake at 375 degrees for 25 to 35 minutes, or until chicken is tender and juicy and its juices run clear. Sprinkle chicken evenly with cheese, and continue baking for an additional 3 to 5 minutes, or until cheese is melted and bubbly. Top with sour cream if desired, and serve.

Chicken Cordon Bleu
4 chicken breast halves
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
6 slices Swiss cheese
4 sliced deli ham
1/2 cup seasoned bread crumbs

Pound chicken breasts to 1/4 inch thickness. Sprinkle each piece of chicken on both sides with salt and pepper. Place 1 cheese slice and 1 ham slice on top of each breast. Roll up each breast, and secure with a toothpick. Place in 11x7" baking dish sprayed with nonstick spray, and sprinkle chicken evenly with bread crumbs. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 to 35 minutes, or until chicken is no longer pink.  Remove from oven and place 1/2 cheese slice on top of each breast. Return to oven for 3 to 5 minutes, or until cheese has melted. Remove toothpicks and serve immediately.

Mushroom Pork Chops
4 pork chops
salt and pepper
pinch garlic salt
1 onion, chopped (or 1/2 cup frozen chopped onion)
1/2 pound fresh mushrooms, sliced
1 (10.75-oz) can condensed cream of mushroom soup

Season chops with salt pepper, and garlic salt to taste. In a large skillet, brown the chops over medium-high heat. Add the onion and mushrooms and saute for for one minute. Pour soup over chops. Cover and reduce heat to medium-low. Simmer for 20-30 minutes, or until chops are cooked through.

Parmesan Crusted Tilapia
3/4 cup grated Parmesan
2 teaspoons paprika
1 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
salt and pepper to taste
4 tilapia fillets (or other white fish, such as haddock or cod)
olive oil

Whisk Parmesan, paprika, parsley, salt, and pepper together in a shallow dish. Coat tilapia fillets with olive oil and press into the Parmesan cheese mixture. Arrange coated fillets on a baking sheet lined with foil. Bake at 400 degrees until the fish flakes easily with a fork, 10 to 12 minutes (thicker fillets may take a bit longer).

Chili Mac
1 pound ground beef
2 teaspoons chili powder
1-1/2 cups water
1 (15-oz) can kidney beans, rinsed
1 (15-oz) can tomato sauce
1 cup chunky salsa
3/4 cup elbow macaroni, uncooked
1 cup shredded pepper jack cheese

Brown meat with chili powder in a large saucepan. Drain fat. Add all remaining ingredients except cheese and mix well. Bring to a boil. Cover and simmer over low heat for 15 minutes, stirring halfway through. Serve topped with cheese.

Salmon Baked in Foil
2 teaspoons minced garlic
6 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoons dried basil
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon fresh parsley, chopped
2 salmon fillets (~6 oz each)

In a medium bowl, combine all ingredients except salmon. Place fillets in a glass baking dish and cover with the marinade. Marinade in the refrigerator for about an hour, turning occasionally. Place fillets on aluminum foil, cover with marinade, and seal. Return to the glass dish and bake at 375 degrees for 35-45 minutes, until fish flakes easily with a fork.

Pizza Pasta
8 oz uncooked rotini pasta
1 pound lean ground beef
1 small onion, diced (or 1/2 cup frozen chopped onion)
1 (28 oz) jar spaghetti or pizza sauce
4 oz sliced pepperoni (and/or your preferred pizza toppings: olives, peppers, artichokes, etc.)
2 cups shredded mozzarella

Cook pasta as directed on package and drain. In a medium skillet over medium-high heat, cook the ground beef and onion until meat is browned, then drain fat. Combine with sauce, pepperoni, and pasta and pour into a 9x13" baking dish. Top with mozzarella. Bake (uncovered) at 350 degrees for 30 minutes, until cheese is melted and golden.

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Wednesday, December 27, 2017

What to Do, What to Do: Winter Break 2017 Edition

Remember that line from the song "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas" that says, "...and Mom and Dad can hardly wait for school to start again"? Well, if your kids' school vacation is anything like mine, this is the beginning of a full week of no school. For the next couple of days, they'll probably keep busy with their new Christmas toys, but once that novelty wears off, you might be searching for ways to keep them busy. Here are a few suggestions!

Get Them Out of the House

Trampoline Park
Trampoline parks are springing up all over, including chains such as Launch, Sky Zone, Rockin' Jump, and Rush Universe, and various independent parks. Most include a large trampoline floor as well as speciality areas such as a foam pit, basketball hoops, volleyball and dodgeball courts, Many also have arcade areas and even special bouncing areas for littler jumpers. Parents can opt to join in or not, and most have observation decks and refreshment stands so you can enjoy a cup of coffee while watching your kids burn off all their pent-up energy. Great for all ages, from preschool through adults.

Laser Tag Arena
Although laser tag is especially fun with a group of friends, you can certainly just drop in and play with whatever other kids (or adults!) are there. It's a bit noisy and intense for really small kids, but most kids from elementary school up will enjoy the chance to run, dodge, and hide in the fog-filled, black-lighted rooms, shooting at targets and opposing players.

Escape Room
Escape rooms do require a team, but that could be anything from your two kids with their two best buddies, to your immediate family, to extended family members. Both physical and mental challenges must be mastered, and most locations offer multiple themed rooms so you're sure to find something for everyone in the family to enjoy. Options usually include a set time (e.g., 2-hours) or unlimited play, but be sure to call for a reservation first, particularly if you want unlimited play.

Ice Skating
If you have your own skates and don't mind clearing a bit of snow, go ahead and find a local pond. But if you prefer a more controlled atmosphere and want to rent skates, check out local rinks for public skating hours. Evening hours tend to be middle school age and up; younger kids are likely to do better during daytime hours. This is also a great time for beginning skaters (of any age) to pick up a lesson or two.

Movie Theater
Christmas is a great time to see newly-released, family-oriented movies in the theater, and this year seems to have an exceptionally good crop. Currently-running movies that will appeal to families include CocoFerdinandThe Greatest ShowmanStar Wars: The Last JediWonderThe Star, Pitch Perfect 3, Justice League, and Thor: Ragnorak. If your kids are a little older, send them to see one of those movies while you check out Molly's GameAll the Money in the WorldPhantom ThreadDownsizing, or The Post.

Projects To Do At Home

Cook Something
Depending on your kids' ages and levels of experience in the kitchen, this could be anything from frosting and decorating apple slices to pancake art to pizza bites to bean soup to lasagna. It teaches them practical skills like following directions, measuring, nutrition, and chemistry, but it also makes one less thing that YOU have to cook. Win-win!

Board/Card Games
Depending on how many kids you have (in your family or your neighborhood), you may or may not to be personally be involved in playing these games. Chances are you already have a shelf of board and card games somewhere. You might even have received a couple of new ones for Christmas. If you don't, do a quick run to Target or WalMart or even CVS and grab a couple - no doubt they're already on clearance. Some good board games for multiple ages include (click on each title for a video showing how to play each game): HedBanzWatch Ya' MouthDouble DittoMonkeys Up, and Apples to Apples (or Apples to Apples Junior). If your kids are a little older, try them with Settlers of Catan. Watch Wil Wheaton's explanation of how to play here.

If card games are more your thing, pick up UnoSkip-Bo, or Dutch Blitz, or grab a book of card games rules from the library and teach everyone to play Crazy Eights, I Doubt It, Spoons, or Snap. For older kids, try more complex, strategic games like Rummy, Pinochle, Euchre, or even Bridge.

Art Projects
Did you know that you can carve ivory soap using a plastic knife and toothpicks? Or make elegant thank-you cards using leftover bits of wrapping paper? Or make snow globes from small glass jars? Just google "craft projects for kids" and you'll come up with more ideas than you'll know what to do with. And most of them call for items you already have around the house.

Read Aloud
Kids of all ages love being read to, and there's something special about the whole family gathering around to listen to a story. Depending on the ages (and range of ages) of your kids, choose a shorter story that you can finish in a single evening, or a long book that will take the whole vacation's worth of bedtimes - or even longer - to finish. Try a classic like The Secret GardenThe Velveteen RabbitBlack Beauty, or Julie of the Wolves, or go with a newer book like Because of Winn-DixieThe Tale of Despereaux, or Wonder. If one or more of your kids reads well, take turns reading chapters. Be sure to use different voices and lots of drama to make it interesting. You can even assign one of your little ones to provide sound effects!

Watch a Movie
Mom and Dad have been watching movies for years, so no doubt you have some favorites that the kids haven't seen. Pull out a favorite from your childhood, such as the original Willie Wonka and the Chocolate FactoryE.T.: The Extra-TerrestrialThe Neverending Story, or Home Alone, or maybe a lesser-known one that none of you have seen, such as Hugo, Wallace and Gromit in the Curse of the Were-RabbitThe Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, or My Neighbor Totoro. Or revisit a family favorite like FrozenInside OutThe Wizard of Oz, or Pirates of the Caribbean.

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Monday, December 25, 2017

Christmas Debriefing

I am writing this at around 8pm on Christmas night. Our plans to drive to visit family in the afternoon were postponed by icy snow and dicey road conditions, so this is pretty much how our day went:

At 6:30am, I awoke to the sound of little voices obediently chattering to themselves in their bedrooms, along with the sound of my husband snoring gently beside me. At about 6:48am, they couldn't stand it any longer and there was a knock at the door, which roused us both (although I insisted they wait until the grandfather clock actually chimed 7:00). This was the scene that greeted us when we opened the bedroom door (the note reads in part, "Remember: Don't go downstairs until we go with you. Stay in your room until 7:00am.").

The stockings were too heavy to still be hanging from the mantel, but instead had been moved to the couch and the armchair, full to bursting with candy, toys, toothbrushes, underwear, and all kinds of random fun things. Santa had also left some gifts by the fire, including SWORDS!!! (My son's response whenever I - or Santa - had asked what he most wanted for Christmas was "weapons," so needless to say he was delighted.)

My kids' older sister had also sent them a fabulous stuffed shark and giant Shopkin, respecitvely. Happy kiddos!

There were even more gifts under the tree, not only from Mom & Dad, but from uncles and aunts all over the world.

Very generous uncles and aunts.

Santa was wise enough to provide both children with swords. Because one-sided swordplay just isn't fair. 

My daughter had spent the past two weeks talking about the Minnie Mouse phone with the dial and the cord (so retro! Ouch!) that she was hoping Santa would bring her, so she was thrilled to death when it appeared under the tree. 

And my son was thrilled - surprise of surprises - to receive a kids' cookbook. I fully intend on getting him to test it out numerous times while he's on break from school.

My husband was just as thrilled and excited as the kids to receive a fabulous coloring-changing LED bulb that he could control from his phone. Techno-gadgets are always a hit in this house, no matter who the recipient is.

Christmas isn't Christmas without Legos: A Snow White set for my daughter, and a bunch of sports cars - including a Bugatti - for my son. And did I mention there was a Nerf gun with a target? Yeah.

As for me, I was beyond thrilled with my Harry Potter Marauder's Map travel mug. Two of my favorite things just happen to be coffee and Harry Potter.

Both kids have taken up chess lately, so the gorgeous magnetic chess set promises quiet in the back seat of the car on our next long trip. (Hey, a girl can hope, right?!??)
My daughter was exceptionally proud of the gifts she had purchased for us at the school store, as well as the special picture frame she had decorated herself at school for us.

 After all the gifts were opened, everyone abandoned their loot in favor of breakfast.

But as the morning wore on, the snow got heavier and icier, so we made the call to postpone driving to visit family until next weekend.

So instead, Dad spent the late morning setting up the kids' new computer table (and old computer) in the playroom.
He also found some time to prepare the Monopoly game that Santa brought for the whole family (I suspect he's going to go Full Tycoon on us).

He  did also find time to go outside and play in the snow with the kids. It wasn't great snowman or snowball snow, but it was just perfect for making snow angels!!

More importantly, he found time for a late afternoon nap while the kids played with their toys and I watched cheesy Christmas TV. We ended the day with a round of Clue (the girls won, yay! But just by a hair) and then a phone call to far away family.

I'd call it a successful Christmas. Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night. And God bless us, every one!

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