Big Life Changes

I have been holding on to a piece of information for over 2 weeks. While some suspect the secret, or even sort of know what it is, only some people are in on the details of this secret. These people are so close to me. They have been a constant support during both good and bad times. These people are not fair weather friends. These people are hard core “walk through the hurricane holding our hands” kind of friends. They have our trust and know our secret. The time has come for me to let the rest of the world in on this news.

So what is this information that I hold? It involves my entire family but mostly it is about my husband.
**Drum roll**

Mark accepted a new position with a different company! I will not give details about who he will be working for because I feel that would not be beneficial to him. I will say that it is a better job. It doesn’t bring us back to where we were, not really even close, but it is a very positive step forward and upward with potential for growth and a future. It is a new career path that will use past skills in a new way. He will be challenged; something he is very excited about. He is a very smart guy so the challenge is welcome.

A tid bit from his letter accepting his new job.

A tid bit from his letter accepting his new job.

I am very excited. I am also cautiously optimistic. I have been burned too many times over the past year and a half to be full fledged optimistic. What makes me most excited is this run down:

~In all the years I have known Mark he has always worked an unusual schedule. It was unpredictable and ever changing.
This job is a 5 day a week job without constant changes. I know what to expect.
~In all the years I have known Mark 40 hours a week was a pipe dream. 60 was the norm and often more than that. Even now he works 45 so that we can pay bills (minimum wage is NOT livable income for a family).
This is a 40 hour a week job. Period.
~He has never had weekends off.
He will have weekends off, except every other Saturday will be a half day, but those weeks he gets a half day during the week. This is huge for us and really exciting as we have swim meets, martial arts tournaments, boy scout events, volunteer hours, and church on the weekends. He can finally be a part of it all.
~He has always had to sacrifice family time for his job.
He no longer has to sacrifice family time for his job.

We are so excited but I would be lying if I said there wasn’t some fear. I so desperately want this to be everything we are hoping for it to be. On paper it sounds and looks perfect. Will the reality be the same? I sure hope so. I really feel like Mark deserves it. He is a hard worker. He is a fast learner. He is a likable guy. He is loyal. If hard work alone indicated wealth he would be a millionaire easily. Too bad that isn’t always the case.

So we are embarking on a new journey. Pray and hope for us please, especially for Mark! Thank you to everyone who has been there for us. Most of you don’t know us, but you have helped us. Kind words, support, love, and friendships. You have let me see glimmers of who you are. One kind word has meant a thousand to us. You are not forgotten to us. We pray for all of you and value your lives. Thank you for sticking by us. We are not out of the woods but we can see the sun. The darkest depths seem to be behind us. I hope you stick around and watch all of this unfold.

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Peace and love
~Andrea

**Mark is into his first week. He is learning a lot and very busy. YAY!

Swim Life

The smell of chlorine never completely washes away when you are a swimmer. I have 3 children on the local YMCA swim team and one who takes swim lessons. We are at the pool at least 5 days a week. We have swim meets once a month until summer when it changes to once a week for 6 weeks.
The kids shower at the YMCA immediately following swim practice. It doesn’t matter. The smell of pool follows us home. This has become our lives. We are a swim family. We talk about seed times and strokes. The terms dry land practice, pool deck, drag, and flip turns are common words for us. We say things like “Fly fast” and “Breast is best.” Speedo and TYR are favorite brands.
Ask me what I think about goggles and I will immediately tell you to order bungees. They are by far worth every last cent. I will tell you what brands to avoid and to not let price scare you. Sometimes they cost more for a very good reason; they are better. I have had moms whose children are in swim lessons come up to me and asked me to help get goggles on their child. I have fixed more goggles than I can remember. Goggles are our “go to” accessory, or so it seems.
Each child has a preference for swim cap material; latex, rubber, silicone. I know the tricks of getting each strand of hair under the cap. I can whip a cap onto a head so fast it is a blur of motion.
Swim suits litter our bathroom. Towel bars are for jammers and hooks are for suits. Towels get slug over the shower bar. We have backpacks for swim only. They are each filled with extra goggles, caps, suits, swim team shirts, water bottles, and all the shower items needed. Yes, I bought 4 of every shower item so each bag would always be stocked.
We miss events because “Sorry but we have swim.” We have been late because “Sorry, swim went over.” Dinner is often after 8 because, well, we were at the pool. I do not think we can manage a conversation without some version of the word “swim.”

We love it though. The kids jabber about practice and what was hard and what was easy and what number they were during practice (first to go is always fastest so this is important) and what their goals are.
I am a fixture on the sidelines and I talk with other parents. Our conversations are diverse, but swim always trickles back in; “Are you going to this month’s meet?” “Did you see the video Coach made?” “Did your kid get a qualifying area time?” We are a swim family. We cheer for each other’s kids, we know when people are sick, we know who is struggling with what, and we know who has beaten their best. We support each other. It doesn’t matter that I want my kid to be faster than your kid, in the end we are a team.

This is our life, swim life, and we wouldn’t change it for anything.

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Bug, C-Dog, Elf waiting for swim practice to start.

~Andrea

Chicken with Black Beans, Tomato, and Spinach including Bonus Fajitas Seasoning Recipes

My kids can be seriously amazing for my self-esteem. At the same time they can be a bit too blunt. After trying yet another “mom creation” I got “There isn’t anything you have ever made I haven’t liked!”
Aw! Thanks guys!
“Wait, don’t forget about that one recipe. That one was gross.”
Then they go on to discuss said gross recipe until I have to remind them 99% of the time I succeed. Hahaha. It is all well meaning and I love that they are honest.

That all said here is what we ate last night. I very literally opened my cabinets and thought “Hm….I think I will try this” and proceeded to pull things out.
I am sharing this because it was wonderfully simple and everyone liked it. I was able to make it ahead and so the boys just popped it in the oven for me while I ran to pick Mark up from work. Make ahead meals are vital to us since we have swim team 5 nights a week and we are never home before 7:30. Some nights it is even later. OK, enough chatter, here you go!

Baked Chicken with Black Beans, Tomato, and Spinach (served 7)

Ingredients:

3 chicken breasts cut into tender-sized pieces
Fajita seasoning**
1 can diced tomato (use fresh if you have it, but I had canned at this time)
2 cans black beans (don’t forget to rinse these!)
2 packages fresh baby spinach
Red pepper flakes (optional)
Sea salt and pepper

  1. Place chicken in a baking dish and coat pieces with fajita seasoning. Add just a bit of water (1/2 cup at most). Bake at 350 degrees for about 20-25 minutes or until done.
  2. Put tomato, black beans, and spinach into a large skillet, cover. Cook on medium until spinach is wilted. (I literally covered and walked away as it cooked. I only stirred once).
  3. When the bean mixture is done add salt and pepper and red pepper flakes to taste.
  4. Place the bean mixture into a clean baking dish and add the cooked chicken to the top. Cover and place in fridge for later.
    OR
    Place bean mixture in a serving dish and add cooked chicken. Enjoy!
  5. When you are ready to re-heat the dish, place in a cold oven (this prevents the glass dish from cracking), turn oven to 350 degrees and heat for about 20 minutes or until hot.

    Chicken with Black Beans,  Tomato, and Spinach

    Chicken with Black Beans, Tomato, and Spinach

I served this with brown rice and grits (for Elf who is allergic to rice). I used 2 cups of dry rice for our family of 7. This meal was just the right size. There was enough for everyone. There were not leftovers, but we do not like left overs so this is perfect for us.

**I make my own fajita seasoning. It is so good. I store it in a small mason jar. Here is the recipe:

  • 2 ½ Tbs. Paprika
  • 2 Tbs. Pink Himalayan Salt
  • 2 Tbs. Garlic Powder
  • 1 Tbs. Pepper
  • 1 Tbs. Onion Powder
  • 1 Tbs. Cayenne
  • 1 Tbs. Dried Oregano
  • 1 Tbs. Dried Thyme
  • 1 Tbs. Cumin

    *I imagine you could make this vegetarian with tofu or some other substitute. If you do so please let me know how it turned out! We cannot do tofu (Elf is allergic), but I have friends who can and do and this would be helpful knowledge.

    ~Andrea

Refried Bean Casserole

I have way too many dried pinto beans; several jars full. I have never cooked with pinto beans. I have never even bought canned refried beans before. My only encounter with this food is at restaurants.

As the end of our budgeted month was coming to an end I decided we needed  to use what we had and pretend there was no money at all to buy any food. Since we have actually been in this position not too long ago it was not very hard to convince everyone, even my husband, that we were down and out.

He got a little perturbed at me a few days later when he realized I did in fact have more cash than I had let on. He couldn’t decided if he was amazed at my frugality or annoyed that I made everyone “suffer” because I wouldn’t cave to cravings and made them eat what we had.

Anyway, this is how I ended up in front of the computer trying to figure out what the heck to do with pinto beans. Apparently there isn’t much other than refriend beans or soup. Hmph. People are so unimaginative. We are all sick of soup since we have soup about 3-4 times a week since it is a cheap, healthy, and filling meal for a large family. I was determined I was making something different and good.

I did decided that I needed to play it slightly safe for our first meal. Remember I have never worked with pinto beans before. I also acknowledged that making a new meal can be as easy as taking a tried and true dish and just adjusting it and taking it up a notch.

I made homemade refried beans for the first time ever, knowing that I was going to make a delicious meal out of it. I was determined. I found a recipe online and decided it was my best bet, although I did change it slightly. I added our leftover peppers and onions from the previous night’s meal; fajitas. I also used coconut sugar instead of brown sugar. I use coconut sugar as a brown sugar replacement because it is healthier and full of flavor. Other than those small changes this recipe was a win. This girl perfected refried beans and I am not going to mess with perfection.

refried beans

I used my stick blender on the beans, but I was careful as I wanted a chunkier bean since I was making a casserole. If I was making dip or burritos I would have made it smoother.

refried beans 2

A good recipe does not need to be complicated in order for it to be amazing. I chopped a tomato and added a jar of salsa to the refried beans. Boom. That is all. The refriend beans already had some amazing flavor and I didn’t want to lose that by adding to much “stuff.”
I used a mild salsa since Princess claims she hates spicy foods. It was still really good because the refried beans have red pepper flakes in them.

I put the mixture into a casserole dish and added cheese. I made a small casserole for Elf that was cheese-less as she has a dairy allergy.

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I can assure you that the cheese-less casserole was just as tasty as the one with cheese. When I took it out of the oven I served it on Romaine lettuce that I had sliced up and warm tortillas that were leftover from the fajitas. I cut our tortillas into triangles and used them like a dinner roll. We didn’t put the casserole on the tortillas.  I used what we had and it was warm, good, and filling. Everyone enthusiastically agreed this was a “keeper” recipe. We ended up with leftovers; enough for TWO lunches!

casserole

Refried Bean Casserole:
One batch of homemade refried beans
One tomato; diced
One jar of salsa
Shredded cheese (optional or use a dairy-free alternative)
Lettuce
Tortillas (homemade is really best)

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees

2. Mix the refried beans, tomato, and salsa. Put in a casserole dish and add the cheese. I did “grease” the casserole dishes with coconut oil. Partly for flavor and partly because I had no clue if this would stick to the pan.

3. Bake for 20-25 minutes

4. Serve on shredded lettuce with warm tortilla.

I am now determined to create amazing pinto bean recipes and give new life to this under-appreciated bean.

~Andrea

This Week in Pictures January 9-15 2015

Here is a look at random moments from our lives this past week. It was a bit crazy, but full of fun. Enjoy!

Mark and C-Dog playing air hockey at the YMCA before swim practice

Mark and C-Dog playing air hockey at the YMCA before swim practice.

Elf decided that her bed was a cozier place to do school work than at the desk or table.

Elf decided that her bed was a cozier place to do school work than at the desk or table.

Bug after swim team practice. We were waiting for C-Dog to get out of the shower.

Bug after swim team practice. We were waiting for C-Dog to get out of the shower.

I decided to pull out some old costumes. C-Dog was loving Mark's cloak but Sunny was a bit leery.

I decided to pull out some old costumes. C-Dog was loving Mark’s cloak but Sunny was a bit leery.

Family breakfast. Recipe to follow soon! Be on the look-out for it.

Family breakfast. Recipe to follow soon! Be on the look-out for it.

Elf decided to help Princess with her school. Sisters and friends. Princess is learning to spell her color words.

Elf decided to help Princess with her school. Sisters and friends. Princess is learning to spell her color words.

Old-Fashioned Dairy-Free Butter Mints

I am not a huge candy person. I rarely eat it or buy it for my kids. I much prefer ice cream. Candy, to me, is more of a treat meant for holidays.
Due to the fact we have food restrictions I usually make our candy. There is an online shop I can buy some candy at, but it adds up fast. Besides, there is a joy in making treats that are special for those you love.

I have a few tried and true recipes. For example, every Christmas I make pomegranate clusters (recipe found here). This is a favorite and I only make it for Christmas in order to keep it special.

This year I really wanted to try something new. I found a recipe for butter mints and I wondered if I could make it safe for my kids. I managed to successfully change the recipe! Yay! So without further ado here is my recipe. I hope you enjoy it as much as we have.

Old-Fashioned Dairy-Free Butter Mints

INGREDIENTS:

  1. 1 1/4 cup butter substitute (I use Earth Balance Soy-Free Buttery Spread)
  2. 3 1/4 cups confectioners’ sugar plus 1/4 cup+, if needed**
  3. 1/3 cup Cream of Coconut (this is NOT coconut milk! Make sure you are getting cream of coconut)
  4. 1/2 teaspoon peppermint extract*
  5. food coloring, optional (I use natural food coloring)

    **Due to the fact that store bought confectioner’s sugar has corn in it I make my own. All you have to do is put sugar, 1 cup at a time or 2 if you have a high-powered one like Vitamix, in a blender or food processor and make it into powder. Some people will tell you to add a starch but I do not feel it is necessary unless you want to make enough to keep on your pantry shelf. If that is the case here is a good recipe for you.

DIRECTIONS:

Using a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, beat butter until smooth; about 1 minute-ish on medium-high.  Add 3 1/4 cups confectioners’ sugar, cream of coconut, and peppermint. Beat on medium-low speed until a dough forms. If the dough seems wet add additional confectioners’ sugar until dough combines; being careful not to add too much. The dough will be crumbly but will come together when squeezed into a ball.

Taste the batter. If needed, add additional mint extract.*Be very, VERY careful how much mint you add; you cannot undo this!!*

This is what the dough looks like pre-color.

This is what the dough looks like pre-color.

If you want multiple colors remove dough from the mixer and separate into smaller balls. I opted for red and green (Christmas colors). Add the food coloring (I started with 8 drops) of your choice to the ball and mix on low speed until the color is well blended. Add more color as needed to achieve the desired look.

Red and Green mints for Christmas! Yes, I realize the red is more pink than red, but I use natural food colors and I think this is more retro looking; very cool.

Red and Green mints for Christmas! Yes, I realize the red is more pink than red, but I use natural food colors and I think this is more retro looking; very cool.

Wash the mixing bowl and the paddle in between each color change and repeat until all the balls are colored. Make sure these are completely dry or they will mess up your dough consistency!

Place a golf ball sized amount of dough in your hands and roll dough into long, thin ropes. I found it easiest to roll all of the dough of one color and place each rope next to each other on the counter. I then used a pizza cutter and cut through all the ropes, creating bite sized pieces. I did have to add a bit of powered sugar to my counters as my house was a bit warm and the dough was getting slightly sticky, but be careful not to add too much!

I cut the mints about 1-1.5 cm long.

I cut the mints about 1-1.5 cm long.

Store mints in an airtight container in the refrigerator. They they will keep for several weeks.

These mints are seriously good. I had to cut my children off or they would have just sat and ate them all! I think 4 at a time is more than enough. I am guessing we got about 200 mints out of this batch.

These mints are seriously good. I had to cut my children off or they would have just sat and ate them all! I think 4 at a time is more than enough. I am guessing we got about 200 mints out of this batch.

*Please note that mint extracts are far more intensely flavored and potent than vanilla extract; You will NOT use a 1:1 ratio! It is more like 1/8 teaspoon of mint extract to 1 teaspoon of vanilla. It is best to add very little and add more as needed since you cannot undo the flavor.
There are different kinds of mint extracts available. You will find mint, peppermint, spearmint, etc.  I used what I had on hand; Watkins Pure Peppermint Extract. Next time I will use Frontier Mint, which has a more spearmint smell to it. Use what sounds, smells, tastes best for you.
I do think I will try other extracts for different holidays. I am thinking that for Easter I will try lemon or orange. I imagine cinnamon, rum, coffee, etc could also work. If you try any of these let me know how they turn out!

If you want to make the dough and walk away for a bit you can store it in the fridge. Wrap it with plastic wrap and place it in an airtight container until you are ready to roll it out.

Enjoy!
~Andrea