Nov 182014
 
My son, proving Phyllis Diller's famous quote true: "“Cleaning your house while your kids are still growing is like shoveling the sidewalk before it stops snowing.”  He sabotaged my efforts first with baking soda and then maple syrup!

My son, proving Phyllis Diller’s famous quote true: ““Cleaning your house while your kids are still growing is like shoveling the sidewalk before it stops snowing.” He sabotaged my efforts first with baking soda and then maple syrup!

As the holiday season approaches, one of the most dreaded tasks is cleaning your house for hosting guests. There is enough to do with all the cooking and decorating but the cleaning obligations can take over your life!

I have been immersed in a fall deep clean of the house lately to get ready for entertaining. Our home always needs a twice yearly scrub-down, including shampooing carpets, cleaning upholstery, dusting, etc. It could probably use it more often but I can only summon the energy twice a year!

There is no secret to making all this scrubbing for company a bit easier. The current popular aesthetic is not only for things to look clean but also to look brand new. If you have an older house, that is tougher to pull off and requires more scrubbing effort. It is hard, back-breaking work but it does look great when it is done and guests love it.

Through a long process of trial and error cleaning my own home, I have come up with a few cleaning tips that are making a big difference in my house.

A Salad Dressing for Leather Furniture

Olive oil and vinegar for cleaning leather.  Who would have thought?

Olive oil and vinegar for cleaning leather. Who would have thought?

My leather dining chairs were crying out for a good clean. After getting rid of all the crumbs and trinkets that our children have managed to stuff into the crevices in the seats, I needed a nice, moisturizing cleaner to reinvigorate the leather. We didn’t have any leather cleaners in the house so I looked online for a homemade solution. I found this one and tried it out. It smells like salad dressing but the vinegar smell does fade within a few hours. The olive oil absorbs into the leather within about a day or so. My husband even noticed how much better the chairs looked after this treatment!

Sandpaper for Deep Cleaning

Sanding sponges, an essential part of my cleaning arsenal now.

Sanding sponges, an essential part of my cleaning arsenal now.

After I discovered that sandpaper does an amazing job reinvigorating toilet bowls, I wondered if sanding sponges could work in other tough situations. I bought a box of them at Home Depot and keep them in the cleaning supplies cabinet. They are terrific for scrubbing crusted on stains off of laminate counters and (when used with very gentle pressure) on hardwood floors. They removed baked on grit from a glass baking dish. They scrub tubs and countertops in the bathroom beautifully too. This is also the miracle cleaner for my oven. It gets rid of grease and burnt food with just water and some scrubbing. No harsh chemicals needed.

One caution with this method, however. You need to test each surface first as the sandpaper can scratch and ruin certain things. Don’t use it on chrome bathroom fixtures as it will scratch.

My "sanded," sparkling oven.

My “sanded,” sparkling oven.

My Miracle Carpet Cleaning Formula

My new favorite "recipe" for carpet cleaning.

My new favorite “recipe” for carpet cleaning.

When you have older rugs and carpets to clean, it can be tricky. Sometimes when the carpet gets wet from the cleaning it can release smells from all the old stains that have ever penetrated the carpeting. The smells don’t go away until the carpet has dried for several days. I have tried all kinds of carpet soaps, laundry detergents and even bleach and had this same problem.

This year, I really wanted to avoid the smells so I tried a new concoction and it worked beautifully! First, I thoroughly vacuumed the carpeting. If there were any stains on the carpeting, I sprayed some Tuff Stuff cleaner on them. I then put some diluted Lysol cleaner in a spray bottle and sprayed the entire carpet. I then sprayed the carpet with a light coat of Febreeze. In the carpet cleaning machine, I put more diluted Lysol in the soap dispenser and no other soaps or detergents. I tried to rinse each area of the carpet twice with clear water as I went. The carpets came out beautifully clean and didn’t really smell of anything. They dried nicely and quickly as well. I used this on both colored and light colored carpeting and didn’t have any discoloration but, of course, if you are going to try this yourself, test a small patch first.

Hope these tips might help anyone else out there scrubbing away! My sympathies!

 Posted by on November 18, 2014 General Tagged with: , , ,
Jul 062014
 
Thai-inspired lettuce wraps with peanut dipping sauce.

Thai-inspired lettuce wraps with peanut dipping sauce.

I was tasked with brining a “side or salad” for a recent party and needed an idea. Virginia summers are hot and humid and food does not tend to keep well. I needed something that would not spoil in the heat. I also wanted to see if there was something I could make that was both delicious and healthy.

A few days before, we went shopping at IKEA and had lunch in their bistro. One of their menu items was a Thai lettuce wrap. It came out deconstructed but it was delicious nonetheless.

IKEA's lettuce wrap platter

IKEA’s lettuce wrap platter

I thought I would try to make summer rolls, which are kind of like lettuce wraps but with rice paper exteriors. I couldn’t find any rice paper at the grocery store so my only option was to use the lettuce for the rolls.

Ingredients for the lettuce wraps.

Ingredients for the lettuce wraps.

SHOPPING LIST

  • 1 package Asian salad mix
  • 1 head iceberg lettuce
  • 1 English cucumber
  • 1 bunch cilantro
  • 1 jar dry roasted peanuts
  • 1 package Mai Fun rice noodles
  • 1 jar Thai Kitchen peanut dipping sauce

DIRECTIONS

  1. Wash the iceberg lettuce and separate the leaves.
  2. Wash, peel and dice the cucumber into quarter-size pieces.
  3. Soak the rice noodles in hot water for 10 minutes and drain.
  4. Take a lettuce leaf and fill with the ingredients. Carefully roll and secure with a toothpick. You may also need a piece of cucumber at the top to prevent the toothpick from slipping out.
  5. Serve with peanut dipping sauce. The sauce was a bit thick so I thinned it with a little water to be more user-friendly.
Ready to roll!

Ready to roll!

Rolling the lettuce wraps is kind of an art. The longer lettuce leaves seem to work the best. Sometimes the leaves will crack and break while you are rolling. Sometimes the toothpick won’t hold them together. You just have to adjust as you go along.

Assembling the lettuce rolls.  This part can be a little tricky.

Assembling the lettuce rolls. This part can be a little tricky.

If you try this and it just doesn’t work out for you, you can always go with Plan B, tear the iceberg lettuce into small pieces and toss it in a large salad bowl. I did this with all the leftover pieces. It still looks beautiful.

Plan B: Thai lettuce wrap salad!

Plan B: Thai lettuce wrap salad!

Since I was attending an outdoor party, I also filled up two gallon-size zippered bags with ice and set the tray on top of them to keep the rolls from wilting in the heat. It worked well! The leftovers were still crisp by the end of the party.

Lettuce rolls on an ice pillow to keep them fresh.

Lettuce rolls on an ice pillow to keep them fresh.

It was then time to go shopping in our closets for red, white and blue outfits. Here is what we came up with:

Showing some national pride in our red, white and blue!

Showing some national pride in our red, white and blue!

Then it was time to eat and party!

2014-07-06-fireworks1

2014-07-06-fireworks3

2014-07-06-fireworks2

As to the ultimate test: did people eat the lettuce wraps? Yes and no. I took home about half of my tray. The salad section in general, however, was not as well eaten as the desserts (which were completely gone by the end of the night!). It’s hard to crave vegetables and fruits. Those that did eat my wraps said they were delicious and my husband and I thought they were perfect for a warm summer night–cool and crisp with a little bit of spice from the peanut sauce. It was a fun twist on salad and we will keep trying to make more cravable vegetable dishes.

Hope you had a wonderful 4th! Eat anything marvelous? Please share in the comments.

 Posted by on July 6, 2014 General Tagged with: , , ,
Feb 282014
 
A cookie to celebrate black history month.

A cookie to celebrate black history month.

Our dance performance tonight is part of a black history month celebration. My volunteer assignment was to bring cookies for the performers. To celebrate all the hard work that has been put into this performance, I wanted to try to make my cookies a little special but without putting in too much work.

My first idea was to make chocolate cut-out cookies in the shape of dancers. There is a surprising lack of dancer cookie cutters out there. There are many wonderful dancer silhouette shapes, however. I printed out several and cut them out. I used this recipe and read some tips online about freezing the dough before cutting out the shapes as well as just before baking to keep the crispness of the shapes.

Cutting out the dancer silhouettes.

Cutting out the dancer silhouettes.

Freezing the cutouts before baking.

Freezing the cutouts before baking.

Dancer cookies before baking.

Dancer cookies before baking.

Dancer cookies after baking.  They held their shape!  The heartbreaking part after this, however, was that most of them broke when I took them off the baking sheet!  next time, I would bake them on parchment paper.

Dancer cookies after baking. They held their shape! The heartbreaking part after this, however, was that most of them broke when I took them off the baking sheet! next time, I would bake them on parchment paper.

This idea was working but was going to take way too much time for all the cookies. So, I decided at this point to just use a few of the dancer cookies for the display and using one of my no-fail drop cookie recipes for the rest.

With all the other things we had to keep track of during the performance, I didn’t want to have to remember to take home my cookie display. So, I had my husband pick up a tray from the dollar store on his way home from work. I knew I needed the cutout cookies to be able to stand up on this tray. After some thought, here is the method I came up with.

The display supplies needed: plastic tray from the dollar store, candle and matches, plastic spoons.

The display supplies needed: plastic tray from the dollar store, candle and matches, plastic spoons.

I carefully held each spoon over the flame until the plastic began to soften.  I then bent the spoon handle to a 90 degree angle and then melted the base of the spoon just enough so that it would adhere to the plastic tray. Be careful handling the hot spoons!

I carefully held each spoon over the flame until the plastic began to soften. I then bent the spoon handle to a 90 degree angle and then melted the base of the spoon just enough so that it would adhere to the plastic tray. Be careful handling the hot spoons!

Shaping the melted spoons.

Shaping the melted spoons.

The finished tray with built-in cookie stands.

The finished tray with built-in cookie stands.

Decorating the cookies with melted chocolate and sprinkles.

Decorating the cookies with melted chocolate and sprinkles.

After decorating the cookies, I painted each spoon stand with melted chocolate and attached the cookies to them.

After decorating the cookies, I painted each spoon stand with melted chocolate and attached the cookies to them.

The last step was to layer on the cookies!  Yum!

The last step was to layer on the cookies! Yum!

You could obviously adapt this display technique for a number of different occasions. The next time I am at the dollar store, I will stock up on a few of these disposable trays to have on hand for potlucks, summer cookouts or future cookie-making assignments!

 Posted by on February 28, 2014 General Tagged with: , , ,
Jun 282012
 

Ruly entertaining: a drink wagon!

The economy is still terrible. And people more than ever long to congregate over great food. Luckily the two are not mutually exclusive. I wrote last year’s Ruly Ruth on what’s hot food-wise to share. So I think it’s a must that I update this annually!

6 Cookout Food Trends for 2012

1.  A Main Course

People are being asked to bring not just an “extra” food item, as in years past–but often parts of the main course. A friend recently brought a beautiful sausage roll baked in a puffed pastry and sliced for easy serving–lovely! We brought a sliced pork tenderloin marinated and cooked in an Asian sauce over rice with mixed veggies and a teriyaki sauce over the entire dish. You get the picture. Bring foods that are hearty, and can stand alone. These are huge hits these days.

2.  Ethnic Food

A beautiful Korean-style buffet

Ethnic food is HUGE HUGE HUGE! Follow your roots or your favorite cooking style! I LOVE Creole food–although we have zero Creole roots. I can make a mean gumbo (and now that I know a quick microwave roux I can cut the crazy cooking time in half) and blackened anything is fabulous! A Green Thai Curry stir-fry is always fabulous–I have to go to the Asian market to buy my favorite paste to fry up in coconut milk before adding the rest of the ingredients. Greek food/Mediterranean food is as always super desirable–lovely humus dips, fresh tomato and cucumber salads with feta cheese–loving it! Fondues are back in…I had a fondue party recently with cheese as the main course and of course the chocolates–both white and milk melted for dessert dipping. A friend from Nigeria made a mad noodle dish with a lovely sweet-potato and meat topping. Bring it on! I think what’s great about this food is that most of us love to try new things…so this is a way to contribute to a party and have a new tasting sensation at the same time. And also, if you love cooking it–you know it will taste fabulous!

3.  Homestyle Food

Some of North Carolina's best barbecue! You don't have to make it yourself. Take out from a great restaurant is wonderful too!

Homestyle food is back in also. Last year I categorized this as “old fashioned”–times have changed–I swear if I threw a party and had everyone bring their own version of mac ‘n cheese right now it would be a huge hit! (There were years this concept wouldn’t have flown at all!) Truffle oil in mac ‘n cheese is very popular right now–so consider that as a deluxe addition. And the cheeses–white cheeses are making their appearance in this dish with huge avail. Some add meats to it, others keep it plain. Even Kraft’s deluxe version with the breaded topping is fabulously rich. Go figure! Fried chicken, if you’re here in the south, hush puppies–yum! And barbecue–with shows like “Pit Masters” that we can’t take our eyes off of–you know it’s going down! Once you’re in the south you learn of regional specialties with barbecue. In MD and VA you have a more tomato-sauced based barbecue sauce flavored with amazing things. Here in North Carolina, they use a vinegar-based sauce. Which was very interesting, but I’ve grown to love it! And sweet tea–when McDonald’s launched it you know the nation loves it!

4.  Cocktails, Mocktails and Punch

Drinks are still popular to bring along…especially cocktails that have taken time and special ingredients–or mocktails for those teetotalers out there. One friend made a martini with her own homemade blackberry syrup reduction. A lovely treat for all of us! And punches are huge again–you’d think the ’60s and ’70s had maxed those out–but they are back in a big way, both alcoholic and nonalcoholic alike. Presentation is everything–from dry ice to fancy glasses (yes, even guests who want it to look a certain way will bring their own glassware for serving).

5.  Kids

An adorable kids' table starring Ruly Ruth's daughter.

Here’s the deal–family-friendly is THE ONLY way to go nowadays. Even if you don’t have kids! Babysitters are expensive items most of us save for only once-in-a-whiles right now. And we are in an era where kids are to be kept involved and with us…that’s why we had them, after all. A cute little table set apart for kids food is a huge hit. Extra bonus points if you can make even a make-shift table at child-height! Chicken nuggets, the original Kraft Mac ‘N Cheese, carrots and dip and cut-up fruit (apple slices or orange slices or melon) and juice boxes is all you need—relatively inexpensive items that make picky eaters or little eaters very comfortable.

A surefire hit: Chik-Fil-A's chicken nugget tray.

6.  Diet Foods

Trifles are everywhere! Not sure this one is diet-friendly but it was delicious!

Diet is IN! Yes, even with homestyle, we love our “Skinny Girl Margaritas”–which taste even better thanks to my friend Martha’s discovery to mix half of that mix with Crystal Light Lemonade! Light whipping cream in desserts, please! (And trifles are back too–angel food cake, berries and light whipping cream and also light vanilla pudding layered is the first to go.) The ONLY caveat is make sure it tastes good. Life is short, and if it doesn’t taste good, believe it or not, we won’t eat it!

7.  Cake Balls

Desserts have a super popular theme this year: cake balls! Everyone is doing cake balls. It used to be a once-in-a-while thing, now it’s mandatory. I’m not a great decorator, so I am usually the trifle-bringer. But the friends that are make these look amazing! Doctored baked cake usually mixed with cream cheese rolled into balls and put individually on a lollipop stick, hardened in the fridge and then either spread with icing or dipped and often with toppings. Yum!

Another fresh dessert idea a friend brought was so delicious and beautiful in presentation–she bought waffle cones, filled them with mixed berries, arranged them in a circular pattern and put a bowl of whipped cream with a serving spoon in the middle. The first thing to go, that’s for sure! Lovely!

Note from Anne: One of my neighbors brought this gorgeous strawberry roll to a party and it was devoured in seconds. She claimed it was easy to make too.

I hope these ideas are helpful as we approach the 4th of July cookout season! Enjoy, be safe, and bon appetit!

Note from Anne: It has been interesting for me to see how many of Ruth’s trends from last year showed up on party tables throughout the year.  The only trend that may have changed is Ruth’s placing “Store-bought veggie trays” at the top of the “Do Not Bring” list.  Ruly Ruth herself served some Sam’s Club veggie trays at a recent party (below) and they were fantastic.  I served some Wal-Mart ones recently and they were fantastic too.  So, maybe we need to alter that warning to be “Un-fresh-looking store-bought veggie trays.” The one trend I am seeing at Fredericksburg parties is an increased emphasis on healthy, sugar-free food.  Store-bought fruit and vegetable trays are wonderful quick and easy things to bring!

Ruly Ruth's Sam's Club Veggie Tray. It was delicious!

 

A Sam's Club Fruit tray with cheese, apples and caramel dipping sauce. Lovely!

What food trends are showing up at your local cookouts? Please share in the comments.

 Posted by on June 28, 2012 General, Ruly Ruth Tagged with: , , ,
Jun 302011
 

A blue hydrangea. . . one of the best June treasures in my garden!

This month we have been discussing ways to organize your yard and garden, primarily focusing on a lot of ideas that have nothing to do with the actual growing of plants! If there is one thing I have learned about gardening, it is that you have to learn to cede control to nature on every decision. You can plant the best plants in the best soil according to perfect instructions and there is always something (bugs, animals, bad weather, plant diseases) that will foil your plans. It has been comforting to me (and hopefully to you too!) to know that there are other ways to add beauty, charm and personality to your garden that are more in your control.

Below is the quick version of this month’s posts.

Theme Posts

We started off the month with 8 quick and easy landscaping ideas that don’t take a lot of time or money to implement.

Next, I improved on last year’s post about inexpensively updating your old patio furniture to give it a new look. First, I told you how I made a set of 20 custom chair cushions for a grand total of less than $20. Next, I showed you a way to transform a tired vinyl strap chair into a hammock chair using nylon rope.

Inevitably with every organization project, there is some aspect involving paperwork and the same is true for gardening projects. I shared with you various ideas for creating a garden journal and/or plant markers to “file” the plants in your garden.

Ruth commented:

“We for the past 4 years have lived in 3 different houses on 2 different military bases. This home we have now has the first real garden to speak of, with lovely flowering roses and tubal roses and rosemary–and a hummingbird complete with nest and 2 babies–but not sure that goes in the gardening journal. But the 2 gals that lived immediately prior–that would have been a really neat thing to pass on to us–a gardening journal! LOVE it!! Otherwise we kind of guess at what we have and do maintenance on a guesswork only basis.”

I finished off the month with 3 garden art projects to try using inexpensive, durable materials: rock creatures, metallic flowers, and a product test of the Make Your Own Poetry Stones kit.

Lou commented:

“Adorable! We have our own hand-made molds that the grandkids put in their hand print, with their name and the date. 15 years later, they’re as fun as ever!”

FYI, my test poetry stones are still on their second day of drying time but even in just one day (despite adding too much water to the mix and having high humidity) they are hardening quite nicely. The color is changing as they dry and I will update later with a picture of the final test stones.

Social Commentary

June is the kick-off of the summer cookout season and Ruly Ruth shared a popular list of the 10 best and 10 worst foods to bring to a potluck cookout, an organizational challenge frequently faced this social season.

Ben commented:

“I agree with all of the worsts, with the caveat that a GOOD potato salad is definitely worth bringing. I have recently been making a potato salad that has a bit of white wine or champagne vinegar in it to give it a good tart finish, and (don’t tell my mother in law) [my wife] says it’s better than her mom’s.”

Ruth received several comments on her Facebook page including a complaint that spinach artichoke dip should be removed from the list of worsts and an inquiry from a bachelor wondering what to bring/buy if you don’t cook. As you grocery shop this summer, please keep an eye out for delicious store-bought goodies that would work for these social situations and feel free to comment with your findings. We recently found the new heart-shaped shortbread cookies half-dipped in chocolate at our local Costco. They are fantastic! I wanted to share a picture but they were all eaten before I could take one!

Fun Posts

June is a big gift-giving month and I provided you with some gift-giving ideas for:

My incredible uncle wrote a post in his newspaper column about Father’s Day gift giving that was both funny and very touching.  I encourage you to give it a read.

I hope you enjoyed this month’s posts and wish you many hours of relaxation this summer outdoors in your own garden oasis.

For my U.S. readers, Happy 4th of July! A few safety reminders for this long weekend . . .

Have a wonderful weekend! Please check back next week when we start a new month (and the second half of 2011 if you can believe it!) and a new organizing theme.

 Posted by on June 30, 2011 Monthly Recap Tagged with: , , ,