Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Our 2013 Christmas Letter

Dear friends, enemies, and borderline apathetic observers,

It's Christmas time again, so let's take a look at the past year.  Be prepared for loads of humble bragging and inappropriately intimate confessions, especially concerning our digestive health.

First, I'd like to let you in on a free secret, mainly because I read that offering something free will someday lead to you paying me and I only do things on here for money.  Next time you make meatloaf, consider eliminating the ketchup and putting in parmesan cheese and finely chopped nuts (I've use walnuts, pecans, or almonds).  Damn, it's good.

We're starting to like jewelry around here.
But let's get to the meaty stuff, none of which you've heard before, I promise.  Ryan started a new job as well as grad school, Katie began kindergarten at the "poor, scary school", Winslow has begun indoctrination at preschool, Drew still hates school, and I took a chemistry class for no good reason.  We got new windows and siding thanks to a HUD program, gave the girls our big bedroom, made the bathroom better than terrible, painted the kitchen cabinets, resurfaced our driveway, and upgraded our electrical panel for the second time in 2 years. The basement flooded, the pipes froze, the main breaker overheated several times, and a big branch dented our van's hood.  Speaking of trees, we cut down five more trees and harvested 6 whole Rainier cherries.

Look, I got paper for Christmas!
We binge-viewed The West Wing, Fringe, Sherlock, House of Cards, and Orange is the New Black, among other shows, and Ryan's netbook finally gave up.  The kids spent over 4 weeks in Georgia, some with me, some without, we all made it down to New Orleans, and Ryan and I had a great vacation to the Caribbean. We grew loads of tomatoes and even a few watermelons.  And to top that off, the cat did his job and recently caught a mouse.

We're still pretty broke (see: tree removal), I still have a book I wrote sitting in a drawer (possibly for eternity), and Ryan still doesn't trim his beard often enough, but I'd say it's been a pretty good year.  Low expectations, people, make all the difference!

Merry Christmas and everything else so you're not offended,

The Kiefers

P.S. And here's a bonus!  Because I love you!

Have you always wanted to know how to eat Brussels sprouts with gagging?  Well, have I got a recipe for you.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  Slice the sprouts in half and toss in olive oil and lots of salt.  Roast for 15-20 minutes depending on your taste for brown goodness.  If you really want a religious experience, brown some butter on the stove, add a little balsamic, and then pour the mixture over the roasted sprouts.  Eat them all.

Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 6, 2013

Cold Remedies

It's cold around here these days. Unseasonably cold, actually.  And I don't know about you, but my insides are screaming two things: 1) Warm me up and 2) Please feed me vegetable matter. No, not that ice cream, which is a vegetable in your little fantasy world, but real, fiber-laden vegetables.

So I gathered all the vegetables in the house and got to work.

I had three shades of bell pepper (although not green, thankfully), onions, carrots, and kale.  I sauteed them with salt and pepper until soft. I threw in some leftover homemade salsa and some canned tomato sauce (crushed tomatoes would've been great, as would fresh).  Lots of chili powder and some paprika.  This whole process took 45 minutes, although most of that was unsupervised time while I cracked open a bottle of sparkling wine.

I poured the mixture into a 9x13 casserole and made 6 divots in the sauce with a spoon.  I cracked an egg into each divot, sprinkled Parmesan as well as cheddar cheese over the eggs, and popped the dish into a 400 degree oven for 15 minutes.  You could do more or less depending on your oven and your taste for runny yolks.

Served with Kansas City's Farm to Market Sesame Seed Bread (that's slathered in butter), this dish is delicious and soul-satisfying.

Other variations: 1) use Cumin, skip the peppers, and serve with feta 2) plop dollops of ricotta into each divot before cracking the eggs* 3) Eat your fiber rich cereal and regret it later with some serious toots

That dinner gave us the energy to put up the tree.  All three chirrens helped this year, so the ornament placement is...interesting, but I prefer interesting to uniform and boring!

Hope y'all are staying warm.

*If you want a more precise recipe, start with this one from Bon Appetit.  Or this Middle Eastern version.  We love both.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Food, Family, and more Food

Last week was a whirlwind of travel as we drove down to New Orleans (14.5 hours in the car), stuffed our faces, did a little sightseeing, and then drove back home (16 hours due to traffic).   

We started Tuesday with a giant popover that is easy and delicious.

Then Wednesday we got in the van for the long trek to New Orleans.  No changing table at one stop combined with very cold conditions led to this hilarious situation along the way.

Thanksgiving day, we enjoyed Turducken (which is apparently spelled "Turduchen" by many) with shrimp, mirliton, and ham dressing.  Y'all know how I feel about turkey (read: I hate it), but this was delicious.  They're a local treat in New Orleans, so you can get them fresh.

We served the bird(s) with the finest side dish known to man: Le Sueur peas straight out the can.  With super buttery mashed potatoes and Sister Schubert rolls, we had a meal meant for kings.

Sparkling wine to make everyone cheery.

Ending with Brocato's Spumoni, which is my favoritest ice cream in the whole wide world.

We pulled a tourist maneuver at Peche and photographed our beautiful oysters.

The whole red snapper was delightful. If you go to this new restaurant, which I highly recommend, order the whole fish, which changes daily.  You might think, "What the hell do I do with the head?".  My friend, you dig around to search for the meat. You don't have to stick the whole head in your mouth, I promise.  We picked that baby clean.  Anyway, don't go to a seafood restaurant and order the only beef dish on the menu.  Pretty please with butter on top.

Ryan finally got to see the French Quarter, and we got pralines at Southern Candymakers.  The store ain't the prettiest around, but we love the candy.  Try the sweet potato variety--it's really spectacular.

We ended the trip with Ryan looking for PBS.  This was his main workout for the trip.

And this is what we've watched happen over the last 24 hours.  Our house is getting there, minute by minute!

I hope y'all are enjoying the holiday season and avoiding the stampedes at the local Walmarts.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Our curb might be more appealing soon

First, I'd like you to close your eyes. Picture criminally beautiful children wearing faux boho clothing with just the right amount of gray-toned reds and greens.  They're doing ironic things like admiring themselves in the mirror or petting chickens (despite the fact their dresses cost at least $200 each).  I've taken gorgeous photos of them and posted them for all to see.  And tens of thousands of people come to see them.

Okay, you can open your eyes now.  I'm not sure I could build up a huge fan base solely with photos of my chirrens, even though I've seen it done.  I would need to lose some weight, dye my hair a brighter color, and wear chic vintage housewifey dresses.  And find the beauty in simple things.  Of course, I do find beauty in butter, which isn't that complicated, but that genre is filled, too, with pioneering ladies in Oklahoma.

So what're you left with?  Something else awesome!  But not quite beautiful...yet.

Here's some more progress, this time on the back porch.  We removed a window and put a coat of paint on the door (with more to come, fyi. You can tell it's not done).

The door is Sherwin Williams "Refuge".

Here's how it looked before.  We had 29 windows in this house, and this north facing one wasn't actually adding much light, so we eliminated it.

And remember that living room window?  

The awning is now gone, the windows are shiny and wrapped, and the siding...well, it ain't the same either.

And a little bonus view of the south side of the house.  The icy weather has slowed the installation.  But I'm loving the new look.  Such an improvement!  I've had a couple of neighbors thank me.  One reminded me they'd been looking at the flaking beige paint on our house for over 20 years.

I have more to tell you, specifically about what's being done and why (like, why new siding rather than a coat of paint?), but that's for another post.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Magical Transformations

Remember how I said change is a-comin' to The Kiefer Cottage?  Well, it's finally underway.  Take a look at the wondrous work that's been taking place here.  You'll be more amazed if you look at the photos and read along. Out loud. At your desk at high volume.


We now have a 200 amp, totally up to snuff electrical box.  There are no frightening illegal fixtures or junctions anymore.  I have been sleeping a lot better since this was done, especially after two electricians who don't know each other told us our box was the worst they had ever seen.  These guys aren't 20 year old apprentices, either, so I assume it really was that bad.


We have a new front stoop that isn't falling down!


Shiny new windows that operate correctly and actually lock.


A lovely new garage door that isn't rotting!


The awnings are on their way out.  The light has been amazing.  See how our living room is no longer a cave.

The only sad thing about this is our pumpkin who just couldn't keep his head up any longer.  He'll soon be getting warm in the compost pile and his soul will live on in the garden.

This is where we started.  The siding is getting a face lift in the next week, so more to come!

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Bathroom Update

We finished this work awhile back, but I kept saying to myself, "Wesley, I'll most likely kill you in the morning" and then the blog post wouldn't get done.

Our bathroom, when this house was built, was probably quaint and had colored tile midway up the wall.  That all changed in the 80s when an oversized jacuzzi tub was put in along with brown flooring, brown 4x4 tiles on the wall, and a vanity that only allowed tiny hineys past it.

Last year, we switched the vanity out for a small sink, and that worked for awhile.  But there was limited storage.  We knew we'd be moving the master bedroom downstairs and turning upstairs into a grand bedroom/playroom for the girls eventually...and that time came more quickly than expected.  So we needed a tad more storage in the bathroom, just enough to hold my limited toiletries and hairdryer.  That meant figuring out a solution right now that wouldn't break the bank of Kiefer.


There are few vanities small enough for our bathroom, at least in the affordable non-custom price range.  It was pretty much this one or another pedestal sink with a shelf.  I like hidden storage, so this vanity was it. We bought a darker one and painted it, mainly because I like painted surfaces, the irregularity, the character.

Dollhouse toilet adds a great touch, dontcha think?

We tore out the tub doors and hid everything behind a tall shower curtain.

It's still kind of stuck in the 80s in this bathroom, but everything's lighter and fresher feeling, I get a little storage, and I don't have to look at those awful tub doors anymore.  In a few years, we'll hopefully be able to remodel. This'll do for now.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Rules of Cooking

It's finally cooler, so I can get back into the kitchen and actually use heat without roasting the family.  The past few weeks I've been bored and unmotivated, and I figured out that part of my problem was that I hadn't been cooking anything.  Too many crockpot meals, cold salads, and tomato sandwiches (what a problem to have, though...everything was delicious).  I was missing those hours of simmering, stirring, watching.  I even miss the achy back that comes from hours of standing in front of a stove.

My father has recently become more interested in cooking, and I sent him a copy of one of my favorite cookbooks, Bride and Groom: First and Forever Cookbook.  It's basic, has quite a few useful shortcuts, and everything I've made has been delicious.  But I've also been thinking about what it takes to become comfortable in the kitchen.  How does someone become a good cook?  So here are some rules I've devised.

1) There are very few difficult recipes out there. Souffles and other items that demand a certain texture, maybe. But most dishes, even ones that require lots of time, are just a combination of simple steps.  Don't be afraid to try a complex dish.

2) The first time you make something, it might take double the time estimate.  Or triple.  Or all day and night.

3) If you cut the fat, you have to figure out how to make up for it.  Apple sauce is just another demon in the form of fructose, so choose your substitutions wisely. On the other hand, most recipes can handle changes, so don't be afraid to try one where you don't have all the ingredients.

4) If you want your food to taste like a restaurant's, expect to use more seasoning and possibly more fat than usual.

5) Expect to taste your food so much that you're eating a second dinner during preparation.  You can lay off the tasting later, when you're more sure of yourself.

6) Be prepared for major failures.  Always have a backup plan for dinner.  Like takeout.

7) Have a partner in crime, if possible.  Chopping onions is the worst for me, so I ask Ryan to do it for me. Because he loves me, he does it, even though it makes him cry, too.  A partner is also good for holding heavy pots, stirring risotto, and dishwashing.

8) Speaking of dishes, try to clean while you cook. This gets easier as you get more experienced.  The alternative is to make sure there is always someone else to clean up after you.

9) Have a few dishes up your sleeve for potlucks or parties.  Memorize a couple of recipes for things like chocolate chip cookies or banana bread.

10) Share recipes.  It's a crying shame when someone dies and their recipes die with them.  And it's honestly kind of dumb--it's unlikely that the person you share with is going to become world famous for making that chocolate cream pie of yours.  Don't hoard joy, y'all.

11) Realize that the only person you need to please is yourself.  There will be people who hate your cooking, no matter how good you think it is. They might even tell you they love it and then run to the bathroom to spit out that last bite while throwing the rest of the dish out the window. Think that's not true? I've seen it happen to other cooks**, so I'm sure it's happened to me.  But that's okay.  Also expect people to develop sudden allergies and aversions two seconds before you serve them something, and don't be surprised when you see those same people later order a dish similar to what you made before and the aversion has disappeared (this has nothing to do with people who suffer from real allergies, so don't be offended).

12) Forget the rules. There are none. Except for #11. Anyone who says otherwise is full of malarkey.

13) One more: Champagne makes almost anything taste better.  Oh, bother, I could go on with the rules all day.  Guess I'm full of malarkey, too.

**I'll never forget watching one of my favorite people politely declare a cupcake was the best ever made and then toss the rest of it in the trash ten seconds later.  And that cupcake was made by someone who prided herself on excellent baking skills.  In all honesty, that cupcake was terrible.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Kitchen Backsplash

You know how we took out our old kitchen hood and ended up with a hole in the wall?  And you know how it's been like that for nigh unto 18 months?

We've finally remedied that.

Here's a little progression of our stove area:

The original Kenmore range circa 1983.

Post new range installation.

Finally! The hole is covered!
We have spent two years debating what to do about this laminate backsplash.  And by we, I mean that *I* have been arguing with myself.  Should I demolish it? Should I paint? Tile? 

All three options were problematic.  Taking the laminate down would result in having to redo the wall behind it.  Our budget doesn't allow for that right now. Painting it would present other challenges, and tile might not stick that well. Plus, I didn't want to labor that hard over this small project, mainly because there shall come a day when we renovate the entire kitchen. 

I had seen this faux tin tile at Home Depot and fixated on it.  It's glued onto the wall and costs $20 a sheet.  I looked into vintage (and real) tin, but the cost was often exorbitant, and the pieces looked difficult to work with. So faux we went.  And I'm very pleased.

Our biggest challenge was that nothing was square about this space (really? our house is kind of out of whack? who knew??), so there's a bit of stretching and fussing with the trim on the right side of the stove to make up for it.  From most angles, though, it looks perfect.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Strawberry Sherbet or The Best Thing I've Made All Year

Earlier this year, we bought the ice cream maker attachment for our KitchenAid Mixer.*  I had read that many of the cold desserts sold at the grocery store don't qualify as ice cream anymore; they are now labeled "frozen dairy desserts" or something like that.  So I decided we could just make our own to avoid additives and weird stuff (FYI: the extra ingredients make it all creamier...ice cream tends to be kind of icy--ironic, huh?--and apparently, the American public demanded a creamy product, so Breyer's and other ice cream makers changed many of their recipes).

Bon Appetit magazine had this delightful recipe this summer. It tastes like the season, aided by tart buttermilk.

Roasted Strawberry Sherbet

4 cups strawberries (about 1 lb), cut into pieces
1 cup sugar
A dash of vanilla
1.5 cups buttermilk (the secret ingredient)
1/3 cup sour cream
Pinch of salt

Heat oven to 425 degrees.  Combine strawberries and sugar in a baking pan (13x9--make sure it has a lip or there'll be a mess).  Roast for 20 minutes, until bubbly.**

Put the strawberry mixture, and the remaining ingredients into a blender, and blend blend blend.  Chill the mixture until cold.

Process the mixture in the ice cream maker according to the directions for your machine.  Freeze it afterward to harden it up a bit more.  Or eat it soft! It's fabulous.

*Worth the money. We bought ours on ebay as a refurb.
**One note: Because of all the sugar, the roasted mixture will be ultra juicy, not dry like many other roasted foods.  Just want to warn you!

  • Sunday, August 18, 2013

    That's Enough 'Sketti {Homemade Salsa}

    It's August. That means we have tomatoes that need pickin' every day.  It takes me about 10 minutes to dig through all the vines to make sure I didn't miss any hidden fruit, but other than that, the only work this month in the garden requires is figuring out how to actually consume all this tasty goodness.  The first few tomatoes of the summer are savored; those picked in the midst of bounty build up in a huge pile until I start giving them away because there is only so much red sauce a family can consume, only so many salads we can enjoy.

    Mr. Stripey slicing tomatoes

    Last year, I froze about six months worth of tomato sauce.  This year, I vowed to try something new.  So I ventured into a world of mystery, a rarely trodden path, the previously unknown glory of...salsa. I know, you're shocked, worried, and confused about this.  WHY WOULD I MAKE SUCH A THING AS SALSA, which is only good on just about everything, including chips, Americanized Mexican cuisine, breakfast quiche, and almost anything else you can think of (although chocolate pie might be an exception)?

    Eat me, they called.
     Ryan had tried some homemade salsa at his mother's house this past spring, so we asked for the recipe.  We made a few changes.  So you don't sue me or hold me responsible for some problem: Make changes at your own risk. If you're doing this for shelf-stable canning, process this recipe appropriately (with enough acid, for instance).  Botulism is dangerous and real, so everything should be immaculate and carefully handled.

    Okay, that said, we didn't make this for canning.  I figured we'd eat a hell of a whole lot of it and freeze some, too.  If freezing changes the texture for the worse, we can always throw the sauce into soup or chili or something.

    We calculated that it cost us $5 to make ten cups or so of salsa. A bargain for deliciousness!

    I'm sure there's a great way to photograph salsa, but this'll have to do.
    Wonderful Salsa
    8 cups tomatoes, peeled, chopped, and drained (peeling optional. I didn't do this)
    2.5 cups chopped onions
    1.5 cups green peppers
    1 cup chopped jalapeno
    6 chopped garlic cloves
    2 tsp cumin
    2 tsp pepper
    1/8 cup sugar
    1/3 c vinegar 
    1 15oz can tomato sauce
    1 12oz can tomato paste
    Cilantro (optional)
    Juice of 1 lime (optional)
    Salt to taste

    1. Mix all the ingredients in the pot (wait on the salt, cilantro, and lime juice if you like).  Bring to a slow boil and cook for 20 minutes.

    2. Season to taste. This is where I added the salt, cilantro, and lime juice until I was happy.  You can stop here if you like chunky salsa.

    3. Let the salsa cool a little and then puree in the blender.  Be careful if it's hot--it could make a serious mess!  I put a towel over the lid of the blender and held it down.

    4. Eat it. Share it.  Enjoy it.  Refrigerate leftovers. I'm freezing some, too.

    The recipe reminds me very much of restaurant salsa--fresh tasting, but heavier and, to me, more flavorful than raw salsa.  Tastes a lot like Ponak's (the home of the glorious Sonoran Taco and the best margarita ever made), which is one of my favorites.

    Next year, I might try drying tomatoes or making tomato leather or poaching them in oil!  But that's a bit too adventurous for 2013. Salsa'll do.

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