Sunday, August 30, 2009

Arlington County Fair

So if you do something twice can you call it a tradition? I think the Arlington County Fair has become one of ours. It's a small fair - no animals besides pony rides and a small petting zoo - but Arlington is a small county. Doesn't mean we can't have a decent fair.

We went over two Saturday mornings ago. Hit the petting zoo, bought some tickets, did the obligatory kiddie rides. Both girls have really matured since last year and actually thought the rides were fun. Nice to not feel like we wasted our money (even though the whole thing is a rip-off, it's relative.)
Got some lunch - it's never as good as it looks or smells or costs, but again, all part of the experience. Got some ice cream for the girls and let them play on the playground while Ed went in the big hall to look at the booths and exhibits.
I had already been in the big hall earlier that week to check on my baked entries. Did I mention I entered some things in the fair? I have a friend who's won a few ribbons, and encouraged me to try it. She said some categories only get a few entries so it can be easy to win. CAN BE, not IS. But I did OK:

Chocolate Chip Cookies -
Honorable Mention, Chocolate Chip Cookies

Chocolate Chip Crunch Cake - 3rd Place, Exhibitor's Choice Cake
Curry Chocolate Chip Banana Bread - 2nd Place, Banana Bread

Not bad for my first try. My friend Rebecca won 1st place in Coffee Cakes with her Key Lime Bread with Coconut Pecan Glaze. (Don't worry, I got the recipe.) I'm already critically thinking about what to enter next year.

Ed came out of the Hall with an armful of brochures, and having entered us in several drawings (which have led to several sales calls.) We caught an impressive performance by a local clogging troupe before heading home for naps. Though it was warm and super humid, it was an awesome day at the fair.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Friday, August 21, 2009

PR - It's Back!

Finally! After 10 months of deprivation, uncertainty of its future, and barely being able to sit through a few horrible episodes of "Fashion Show", the real thing is back. Unfortunately Lifetime's website is still clunky and doesn't have ready-to-go photos of all the looks from last night. Hopefully they can get that off the ground...preferably before next week.

I had a little premier party. Granted, it was 10pm on a weeknight, but a few loyalists showed up - my friends Meghan and Christi. I made Rice Krispy treats accessorized with red hots for the occasion. After years of watching it by myself, it's way more fun with other people.

The only major difference this season seems to be that it's in L.A. instead of N.Y. Don't know if that's a Lifetime thing or just something to change it up. I think it will definitely bring some new variety to the pool of guest judges and possibly influence some of the challenges. This week, a perfect example. The challenge was to create a red carpet look for something like the Emmy's, Grammy's, etc. And the guest judge? Lindsay Lohan. Who shouldn't be judging anyone or anything. Christi observed her publicist must have pulled in all her favors for that one.

The Challenge: Create a red carpet look. Pretty straightforward.
The Winner: Christian
The Loser: Ari
Disco Mom's pick: Irina
  • As is always the case for the first 5 or 6 episodes, there are just too many designers to get a good feel for everyone, much less learn their names. It will take awhile to weed some out. Ari was a good one to start with.
  • I'm glad to see a designer on the show who designs for large women (Qrystal with a Q.) I hope they have a plus size challenge so she can have an advantage. Unfortunately her red carpet look was in the kind of poor taste you often find in plus size stores - not a good start for her.
  • Ari is definitely a free spirit kind of designer, like that girl a few seasons ago that spit on fabric instead of marking. I figured they'd keep her around for the entertainment value, and oust Mitchell (who really did also deserve it.) Glad to see they're not afraid to get rid of crazy people.
  • I liked Christian's dress OK, but thought Irina's was a better red carpet look. I also really liked that first dress, the aqua blue with the 3-D geometric bodice. I think it was done by the Yugoslavian woman. I thought it was very cool.
  • Don't know if I'll be staying up every week to watch, but will definitely record it and watch soon thereafter, and of course post.
  • Bravo has made a smart move by premiering Top Chef the same week, but that means a very busy DVR in my house.
  • And speaking of Bravo, one of the best things about the move to Lifetime is no longer having to stomach all those ads for Real Housewives and Millionaire Matchmaker or whatever it is. So obnoxious.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Friday, August 14, 2009

Disco Mom Takes on Meal Planning

A couple months ago I posted my shopping list m.o. and my friend Kat made the key comment - she said, "What I want to know is the secret to actually planning out meals ahead of time!" MOST EXCELLENT point. Meal planning makes grocery shopping faster, more concise and often cheaper but it's confusing, time-consuming and a pain in the butt. I'm sorry, there's no way around it - this is going to be a long post.

My meal planning success varies from week to week but for the most part I've got a rhythm. I usually sit down Sunday or Monday night (I shop early Tuesday morning), write out 6 meals - main dish, any sides, etc. - plus one night is always left open for leftovers, eating out or mac & cheese from a box. I also write next to everything where the recipe is found, if necessary - magazine or cookbook and page number, so I can find everything again easily. Then I look at my calendar, especially what's going on in the afternoons and evenings, and assign days to each meal according to prep and cook time needed and what will work for each day. I go back through the meal plan and recipes and make my shopping list. Then I put the meal plan on the side of the fridge where I can see it easily that week. When the week is over I put the paper in a file folder I keep; sometimes I look back through to get meal ideas.But how the heck to come up with six good meals every week that aren't always the same thing and don't break the bank or hurt my brain? There are several ways I go about it, depending on what is the strongest motivator that week.

Circulars - When keeping the grocery bill minimal is priority (like the week before payday), I decide where I'm going shopping, look through the circular that comes in the paper (most are online, too), and base meals off what is on special that week. I also buy extra of things, especially meat and canned goods, that are on special so I can use them another time.

Cookbooks - I've got so many awesome cookbooks, most of which I have under-used. When I really want to delve into a cookbook I like, I go flipping through to find things that 1) look good; 2) sound good; 3) use in-season or on-special foods; 4) are easy; 5) I think my kids might like; 6) you get the idea. This is one of my favorite ways to meal plan but it takes the most time.

Clean Out the Kitchen - Like I mentioned, when things go on sale I sometimes stock up. But I don't have an extra fridge/freezer, and cupboard/storage space is limited too so at least once a month I need to clean out. I go through the fridge, freezer and cupboards and list things I have or want to use up, and base meals off that. This is another one that keeps the grocery bill smaller.

Old Standbys - At least once a week we have a meal that requires no recipe at all: spaghetti and salad, homemade pizza, casserole, Trader Joe's frozen orange chicken and rice, BBQ chicken and roasted potatoes, etc. Cuts out 1/6 of the work every meal planning session!

"Programs" - This refers to set plans that you repeat each week, like eating fish once a week. Or like I try to do one slow cooker meal each week (or I did before my slow cooker broke and it threw me off my game.) A few other "programs" I do or have done in the past:
  1. Print off a Month of Menus from Woman's Day (they are awesome!) and highlight a few that look good. Make one a week.

  2. Choose a great cookbook, like Rachael Ray's 365: No Repeats and make one meal a week out of that book. I have a new cookbook called 52 Weeks of Proven Recipes for Picky Eaters. I make one meal a week out of it, on Friday nights, so that's another night I don't have to think about, just look up what the next menu is. I'm going to do a separate post about this book once I've done it for awhile and know whether it's a success or flop. We're on week 4.

  3. Robin Miller of Food Network has a program called Quick Fix Meals. It is ideal for people who can't stand meal planning because she usually gets two or three meals out of one major prep. For example, in her Thai One On episode, you make a peanut sauce and do some extra ingredient chopping on the first night that you also use later in the week for meals #2 and #3. You can find all the recipes online, along with the week's gameplan and shopping list for each menu. She's done half the work for you!

  4. Choose a dish or appliance. I mentioned one slow cooker recipe a week - it's awesome. I keep a binder of slow cooker recipes to try and although over half of them are not worth repeating or recommending, I keep at it in the hopes of finding the needles in the haystack. Or plan to use your breadmaker once a week and have sandwiches with fresh bread. Or your rice cooker, and have fried rice or burritos or rice and beans once a week. Weekly waffles anyone? (Grilled cheese sandwiches in the waffle maker are popular with my girls, though a bit messy to clean up...)
I usually do a combination of the above, depending on the week. But right now I always have 1) an open/easy/whatever day, 2) Fridays come from 52 Weeks, and 3) Sundays are often slow cooker or leftover days because we have church from 1 to 4. So that only leaves four meals a week to plan. Robin Miller could take care of three of those.

Or I could do 1) one from a Month of Menus, 2) one standby night like grilled burgers, 3) something from the circular (like chicken thighs are on sale so I put garlic & rosemary under the skin, brush with lemon curd - no joke, it's DELICIOUS - and roast until they're so golden I want to cry), and 4) one from that cool vegetarian cookbook I don't open enough.

Or (ok, I promise this is the last example!) 1) a pasta bake to use up half a box of bowties in the cupboard and a jar of sauce in the fridge getting old, 2) a zucchini-rice frittata to use those three zucchinis from my friend's garden, 3) something from Rachael Ray's 365, and 4) BLT's because bacon is BOGO at Safeway.

Voila! Another week of dinners is done!

Have other suggestions or things that work for you? Please share!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Back(pack) to School

I just thought this was cool.

Today I got the Lands' End Kids "Back to School" catalog. If you're not familiar with Lands' End, it sells high-quality, reasonably-priced basic and fairly conservative clothes and winter gear for the whole family. It's your place for solid and striped T's, jeans and khakis that won't show your crack, and fleeces galore. I'm oversimplifying - they have more than that - but you get the idea. GREAT place for swimsuits that cover and support. And their Overstocks is the place for out-of-season deals.

So I was flipping through the catalog. It's got the basic jersey dresses and leggings, turtlenecks and tights, etc. Then I came to this guide-to-backpacks page and was so impressed I had to post it. My kids are not school age yet and don't really need backpacks. But I've got friends with kids starting kindergarten this year - they must have a backpack big enough to hold a folder and a lunch. Other friends have older kids who have to bring home folders, books for homework, lunch and maybe a change of shoes for P.E. How do you know it will all fit?Look what they did. Lands' End took each backpack they sell and figured out what you can fit in it, plus the cubic inches if you need to do your own figuring. Awesome. So, for example, if I have a kindergartener, instead of flipping through all the backpack pages, I can see that the first one, the ClassMate TinyTake, is probably the one for me. Here, I zoomed it for you (I'm technologically savvy like that):
You can kind of see the same thing online here.

And of course don't forget the coordinating lunchboxes, which clip onto the backpacks via a D-ring designed for that purpose! Plus everything is personalizable with a name, initials, number, embroidery symbol or heat transfer patch (similar to the little pictures you could pick out for your class ring...I know mine's around here somewhere...)

Fyi, the current promo is $5 off selected backpacks and lunchboxes, free shipping through August 18 (code HOODIE, pin 1723), and a free "pack pal" (caribeener or similar clip-on decoration) with backpack purchase through August 22.

It's just good design and good marketing. Excellent marketing.

I'd buy one.

Friday, August 07, 2009

DM's Gift Guide: Men

Everyone's got a dad, brother, boyfriend, boss, husband, uncle or friend that you have to get a gift for at some point, and in most cases, more than once a year. And unless they have a couple of easy-to-shop-for hobbies, like music or cooking, you run out of ideas pretty fast. Take Ed for example. He has two hobbies: fly fishing and elk hunting. Both of which require special, expensive, very specific and sometimes custom equipment. He pretty much has to get everything himself.

Then there are people like my Dad, who has a number of interests - he likes books, movies, eating out, cooking, drawing, photography, and jewelry-making. But he doesn't ever have a wish list because whenever he wants something he just goes out and gets it for himself.

In both cases you have to perceive a need or want before they do, and find the item to fill it. Sometimes it's not so hard - their socks have holes, or they stained their favorite tie. Awesome. But usually I have to sit and stare at the wall and think and think and think. This list is hardly the final word in gifts for men, but, like with the women's list, maybe it will spark your imagination.

1. Open X, $10 - One Father's Day I got this for my dad, Ed and Ed's dad. It was a great year. And we use this thing all the time as long as the last person to use it put it back in the toolbox so we can find it again. It's been great for plastic packaging as well as opening and breaking down boxes when moving. Every household needs one of these.
2. Food - I know this seems like almost a cop-out gift, but there's a lot of good food out there, and consumables are a great way to go for the guy that has everything. Does he have 14 flavors of popcorn? Didn't think so. Does he have the Mega Salsa Lovers Gift Basket? How about the 5-Way House of Almonds tin? And I can assure you his life will not be complete until he has tasted Blenheim Red Hot Ginger Ale. Ed would probably be thrilled with a tub of chocolate chip cookie dough and a root beer float kit. Just think of what he likes or might like, and go shopping!

3. Personalized golf balls - I was desperate enough one year to get these for Ed, and he actually liked them and used them, evidence of a gift well-chosen. This was before New York when he still had time to golf. They said, "Former property of Ed Hickman" and they're all gone now.

4. Hand-painted pottery - This is a nice go-to for any occasion. Take your kid(s) to a paint-your-own-pottery place and have them paint a personalized mug/ice cream bowl/picture frame. No man can resist something useful made just for him, or he should at least act like he can't. Another handmade gift the kids can make: hand decorated notepad.5. Entertainment - Sometimes DVD box sets are too expensive for someone to justify buying for themselves, but he would love Band of Brothers, Blue Planet, The Godfather, X-Files, Lord of the Rings or The Seinfeld Complete Series. Or get him a season of something on iTunes - Lost, Psych, Dancing with the Stars (I won't tell), whatever he likes.

6. Jeeves books + "Good Morning Sir" Alarm Clock, $69.99 - For the man who has (or needs) culture and a sense of humor. My sister-in-law gave my brother this alarm clock last Christmas and when we visited him in England we got to use it. I also happened to be reading The Inimitable Jeeves at the time and both deepened my cultural experience and my love for this impeccably sarcastic butler.
7. Something Gadgety - Men love toys! But I had fun, too, finding just a few examples. I give you:
The Moo Mixer

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

DM's Gift Guide: Women

OK so I was going to post the last two gift guides on Monday and Tuesday but then Ed whisked me off for a romantic weekend away for our anniversary and I didn't get them done in time. I know, he is KING.

So besides romantic weekends away in the Blue Ridge Mountains, what are some good gifts for women? This is trickier than I at first thought. There are some standards, never to be discounted - a great book, lotion/bath salts, fancy chocolates, and flowers are always winners. But you want to give something thoughtful, something personal, something you didn't give last year. I guarantee nothing, but maybe something here will spark your imagination.

1. Spa - This is kind of a no-brainer. Everyone likes to be pampered, and if they don't, all the more reason they should be. But in talking to some friends I was amazed that not everyone thinks a massage is the end-all be-all of spa treatments, like I do. Some go crazy for facials. Others don't like to be touched so much, and prefer a nice manicure. Which is why, like with newlyweds' linens, you shouldn't pick out other people's spa treatments for them; go with a gift certificate. And if you live far away and don't know what spa to get one from, go with something like SpaFinder.com. That way they can pick where and when to go.

2. Girls' Night Out - Get your friend and a few others together for a night without diapers or testosterone. I'm always a fan of surprises, so tell her when to be ready, and what to wear or bring, but not what you're doing. This could be anything from dinner and a movie to something a little...less traditional. For example:
  • Learn to Dance: gather in someone's basement with a DVD (and of course snacks) and learn some hip-hop, belly dancing or Latin moves.
  • Poetry Reading: find one at the local coffee shop, university or library, or host one at someone's house.
  • Book Swap: everyone bring your 3 favorites, new or used, and leave with 3 new reads.
  • Spa Night: stick some washcloths in the slow cooker (on warm), break out all your salt scrubs, pumice stones, and facial products and take turns pampering each other with some new age or disco music in the background.
  • Jewelry-making
  • Bowling (some alleys do glow-in-the-dark or other theme nights on weekends)
  • Live entertainment - research a where a local band will be playing, or go see a play by a local theater group
  • Game night: play something fun and mindless so you can chat and eat while you play.
3. Twilight book/movie/soundtrack, depending on where she is in the addiction process - Roll your eyes if you want, but the whole thing just turns you back into a teenager, in a really fun escape kind of way.

4. Magazine subscription - A great gift that keeps on giving. Everyone's got those magazines they'd like to receive but have never bothered or justifying getting for themselves. My personal favs: Cooking Light, Real Simple, Cook's Country, Cook's Illustrated, Martha Stewart Living. Most subscriptions take 6 to 8 weeks to begin so if you're really on it, plan ahead so the first issue will arrive close to the occasion.

5. Something from Etsy - Oh my gosh, Etsy is the Bermuda triangle of online shopping. Hours on end can be lost browsing all the cool wares! But if you stick to it long enough you are SURE to find the one-and-only perfect one-of-a-kind vintage alabaster owl bookends she's always needed!
6. Class - Did you know that most school districts offer adult education courses? You can take anything from home repair to cooking to writing classes, usually at very reasonable cost. One year my brother gave his wife Michelle two cooking classes for her birthday, and part of the gift was that I was going with her to one of them! It was an awesome evening in a high school home ec kitchen, learning to make and eat Indian tapas - and taking the leftovers home! Another time, when I graduated from grad school, my friend Kat gave me a six-week stained glass course that we took together. Talk about so much fun! There are classes out there for every interest and every budget, and if your school district doesn't offer them, check the county, local art shops, community centers, etc.

7. Do-Something Kit - Sometimes we women like to do projects. It feels good to begin something, end something, and have something to show for it. But sometimes the researching, planning and supply-gathering for these projects is effort-prohibitive. So give your friend the gift of a kit. It could be pre-assembled or you could make one for her. For example, I love this Aromatherapy Garden and Year of Seeds from Red Envelope. Maybe an ice cream sundae or caramel popcorn kit with a great DVD. Or how about insure getting yourself invited to a party by giving a Dinner and a Murder Mystery party kit! I'd love one of those.

I know this barely scratches the surface, so let's hear it - what are the greatest gifts you've ever given to or received as women?


Monday, August 03, 2009

Snapshot

Today, 2:33 pm. Hazel and I have just made a cake for Ed & my anniversary. Hazel is licking the beaters and I'm cleaning up. Hazel finds a stray chocolate chip on the counter and eats it. She ponders.

"Mom, I wish I was the SWEETEST girl ever!"

"Mhm, you are sweet." Only half-listening.

"Mom, do you know what sweet girls eat?"

"What?"

"Well, they eat chocolate chips for breakfast. And for dinner they eat icing. And for lunch they eat candy."

Yum! She's got my attention now. "Oh. Anything else?"

"What they make their bed is some candy sprinkles and candy picture frames and icing, that's what they use for their beds. And for their lights they use candy strings and light bulbs that look like candy. And different kinds of sweet things they use for just everything. Sweet girls just love sweet things!"
My options:
1) Lecture on the importance of moderating sugar intake.
2) Offer to play Candyland.
3) Admit that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree...not far at all.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

DM's Gift Guide: Teacher

(Happy Half-Birthday to Me...)

I know we just did this, so this is really just a recap of everyone's great ideas, plus a few new ones. If you have more than one teacher to give to, you probably want to keep the cost modest, but that's easy to do and still make it awesome.

1. Ex Libris Custom Bookplate Stamp, $38 - Is this beautiful or what??? Custom initial notecards are also cool but I can't get over the perfection of this stamp for a gift. (That's HICKMAN, or DISCOMOM, for those of you with spelling problems.) Round out the gift with a copy of Anne Fadiman's Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader.2. Custom Alphabet Print, $15-25 - Speaking of custom, who says alphabet signs have to be cartoon-ish, or in primary colors? Sing the ABC's for the 1-millionth time in style.3. Book & bookmark - Just choose your latest favorite read; if you liked it, a teacher probably will, too. Have your kid make a personalized bookmark as a thank-you, and laminate it at Kinko's or at home with contact paper.

4. Gift card - mani/pedi, restaurant, bookstore, carwash, craft store, anything teachers may not have time or money to treat themselves to during the school year.

5. Bath & Body Works stuff (lotion, soap, bath salts) - I load up at their semi-annual sale every January and June - handsoap, lotion, shower gel, lip gloss, etc. It's easy to just plan ahead and have a reserve of these. Then pick up a cute basket somewhere and you've got an awesome gift.

6. Awesome water bottle/travel mug/insulated lunch bag filled with fruit, candy or something homemade. I saw a boatload of these last time I was at Marshall's - very cool lunch bags that look like little purses, funky water bottles, etc. Leave them empty with a ribbon tied on or fill with anything you can think of - hot chocolate, sunglasses, new socks, whatever!

7. Movie tickets - What a great idea my friend Kristin suggested! At our Costco you can buy Regal Cinemas movie passes, 2 for $15 (tickets at the theater are $10.50 each.) So every time I go I pick some up and keep them in my wallet. Just pick up a few more and they make the perfect teacher gift!

BONUS: Feeling crafty? Make a cool decoupaged clipboard with the kids, instructions courtesy of Martha!

Saturday, August 01, 2009

DM's Gift Guide: Housewarming

Having just gone through this, and receiving some lovely and thoughtful gifts, and wishing for even more, I have a word or two to say about housewarming. If you know the person well, and what they need or want, go there. A drill or tool kit, new dishes, a big can of primer. Personally I would like a new slow cooker, an electric griddle and a set of nonstick brioche molds. (You can always check my Amazon wishlist.) But you don't always know exactly what a person needs, so here are some safe and always welcome housewarming gifts:
1. Yankee or other scented candle, $5-25 - They just smell so good. And there are so many great scents. Choose something seasonal, like Sun & Sand, Orchard Pear, Eucalyptus, or Clean Cotton.
2. Pretty dish towels and/or oven mitts - If a household doesn't have these, they need them. If they do have them, they are stained and old and need new ones. People rarely buy these for themselves, yet it feels so good to have clean towels in your kitchen! Need inspiration? Try Quelobjet, Funktion, or Etsy.
3. Bamboo cutting board, $10-20 - Bamboo is hard, lightweight, and a self-replenishing renewable resource. Plus it's pretty and everyone could use a new cutting board.
4. Serving platter/pitcher/cake stand - A friend brought a long narrow platter to our housewarming party and filled it with strawberries and champagne grapes. I love it. A few years ago another friend gave me a Marimekko pitcher filled with lemons. Love that, too. And cake stands can be so cool and pretty, like this one and these.
5. Destination Dinners, $25-30+ - It takes awhile before new homeowners are cooking full meals in their new place, so here's a twist on bringing someone a frozen casserole. Each international food kit "beautifully displays the pre-measured hard to find spices, sauces and dried items as well as step-by-step instructions, a shopping list for fresh ingredients and fun facts and trivia about the destination you are 'traveling' to." And the gift sets include dishes and utensils, too. So cool! Please feel free to get me the Ayutthaya Green Curry or Jerk BBQ sets anytime.6. The Popcorn Factory - Live far away? Want to send something awesome and inexpensive? Our family has given and received many gifts from the Popcorn Factory and everything is excellent - and it's so fun to look through the options! Got a health nut friend? You can never go wrong with great fruit. 7. Home Depot gift card and/or Dare to Repair: A D0-it-Herself Guide to Fixing (Almost) Anything in the Home, $12 - These don't require much explanation. A new homeowner needs stuff and is usually clueless. I can speak from experience. These will be used faster than you can exclaim, "What broken pipe?!"
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