Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Mystery Tracks

This morning we awoke to a dusting of snow on the ground.  We left the house at our usual time of 8:15 for the girls to catch the school bus.  At that time, the only tracks in our front yard came from us.  When I returned home 20 minutes later, I found these tracks all along the front of our house.  They were different than the raccoon tracks we saw a couple of days ago.  After doing a bit of research, I am quite certain these tracks were left by a possum - their back feet are larger than their front feet, and the possum's tail leaves a thin line between the footprints.  The girls couldn't believe the possum just happened to walk through our front yard right after they left the house this morning - they wanted to see the critter, too!

Monday, January 27, 2014

Light Sleeper

When I call Julia a "light sleeper," I don't mean she wakes up easily.  I mean she prefers going to sleep with the light on.  I would say nine out of ten times I check on her at night, her nightstand light is on.  We can't imagine why she wants to sleep with her room so bright, but it's definitely a trend right now.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Creative Julia

When Christmas candy was on sale in December, we bought a couple of bags of M&Ms, intending to use them in February and March.  My mom gave me this idea - split the candies up into Valentine's Day and St. Patrick's Day colors.  Today Julia wanted to bake cookies with the red M&Ms.  I know it's a little early for Valentine's Day, but why not?
 All throughout the day Julia was setting up a store in the living room.  She labeled her goods with prices, she set up her cash register and she had her doll, Emily, be her assistant.  She couldn't wait for Troy, Evelyn and me to buy things from her store.
 As you might guess, Troy was an ornery customer, questioning the prices in Julia's store.  He finally settled on buying the saxophone, and then serenading all of us with music.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Allergen-Free Cupcakes

Julia's school will celebrate their 20th birthday tomorrow, and the students are going to enjoy cupcakes at the party.  As one of the room parents for Julia's Kindergarten class, I am in charge of coordinating cupcakes for the class.  Even though neither of my girls has food allergies, it is important to me that the children with allergies are offered the same sweets as the kids without allergies.  Over the years, we have catered to the dietary needs of friends; the kids enjoy not being singled out, and the parents take comfort in knowing their kids will enjoy safe foods.

The food allergies I had to work with for Julia's class were - peanut, nut, milk/dairy and egg.  My egg-free chocolate cake recipe meets all of those allergen requirements (just bake cupcakes for about 19 minutes).  As for non-chocolate cupcakes, I cheated...I made yellow cupcakes using a Cherrybrook Kitchen cake mix and Earth Balance "butter."
 What about frosting?  Since I already had the Earth Balance spread, I substituted that for the butter in my homemade frosting recipes.  Instead of using one ounce of melted unsweetened chocolate in the chocolate frosting (which sometimes contains milk), I used 3 tablespoons of cocoa powder and 1 tablespoon vegetable oil.  Most frosting recipes call for milk to thin the frosting; I just used water.  Using the tips mentioned above, you can turn any regular frosting recipe into dairy-free frosting.

Anyone concerned about taste needn't be.  Our family has made and eaten both the chocolate and yellow nut/peanut/milk/egg-free cupcakes before...and they're delicious!

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Wednesday Snow Day

This morning we woke up to 6 1/2 inches of powdery snow (and temperatures hovering around 0 degrees).  The girls got a snow day...but they had to wait until after lunch to go out and play.  That's when the winds died down enough to bring the wind chill around 0 degrees.
 Evelyn and Julia had fun sledding down the hill in our backyard...and I had fun watching them from inside the window room.  ;)

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Quick Turkey Chili

I have been making this turkey chili recipe for about six years - that's how long I have had the Pampered Chef deep covered baker.  I make this chili in the microwave, and it turns out delish!  It's Troy's favorite chili, and Julia usually eats it without complaining.  That makes it a winner in our family, for sure.

Below is the recipe for my turkey chili.  If you don't have a large (12-cup) stoneware vessel like I do, you can certainly make this chili on the stove-top, adding/cooking the ingredients in the order they are listed.

Quick Turkey Chili

1 cup chopped onion
1 cup diced green bell pepper
1 pound lean ground turkey
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 garlic cloves, pressed
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons Southwestern Seasoning Mix (a Pampered Chef product)
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 can (28 ounces) petite diced tomatoes, undrained
1 can (15 ounces) black beans, drained and rinsed
1 can (16 ounces) chili beans in sauce, undrained
1/2 cup hot water
Place onion and green pepper in deep covered baker; microwave, uncovered, on high 4-5 minutes or until tender.

Add turkey, oil, garlic and salt; mix well.  Microwave, uncovered, an additional 6 minutes, stirring halfway through and breaking turkey mixture into crumbles.

Add seasoning mix and flour; mix well to coat.  Stir in tomatoes, beans and water.  Microwave, uncovered, an additional 14 minutes or until slightly thickened, stirring once halfway through cooking.

Voila!  Yummy chili for a chilly winter day.

Julia's Gymnastics Progress

Today marks the end of the first semester of Julia's Little Gym class, and we parents were invited inside the gym to watch, up close and personal, our little darlings show off their gymnastics skills.  Julia has grown by leaps and bounds over the past couple of months, doing all sort of new tricks.  Her forward and backward rolls are easier to do.
 She can do all sorts of tricks on the bars.  Even though she still needs help with her pullover, she's getting closer to doing that independently.
 Today, for the first time, Julia let the teacher help her do a cartwheel on the balance beam.  I'm sure it took a lot of courage for her to do that, so we're very proud of her taking that risk.  Julia really enjoys her gymnastics class, and she will continue to attend the Tuesday afternoon class for the rest of the school year (one of the bonuses of her going to half-day Kindergarten).  I can't wait to see what new and exciting things she will learn and do in the months to come!

Monday, January 20, 2014

January Bird Watching

We have had the usual songbirds and woodpeckers visiting our backyard feeders lately, but we have had some new birds recently.  Last Friday afternoon, while Julia and I were eating lunch, we saw a lot of splashing in the brush around the creek.  Julia thought it was ducks (there were ducks in the creek, but not in the area of all the splashing).  I was quite certain it was a predatory bird, catching its lunch.  Turns out I was right.  After catching and eating its prey, the large bird flew up into one of the trees.  I was waiting and ready with my camera, and the only picture I got was the one below.  After looking it up in the bird book, Julia and I came to the conclusion that we had seen a Northern Goshawk, which is a 21-inch bird that prefers to eat medium-sized birds and mammals.  It's anyone's guess what this goshawk caught and ate, but it sure made for an entertaining afternoon for us humans.
This afternoon I was able to take a good picture of a brown creeper.  We saw these quite a bit toward the end of last summer.  But it's hard for me to get a good picture of one because they are constantly on the move (and they are incredibly timid).  For some reason, this one was sitting still as a statue on the tree bark, giving me the perfect opportunity to snap a picture.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Snowman Snow!

We have had a couple of snows so far this winter, but we couldn't make a snowman with any of them.  The snow was either too dry or too wet.  This afternoon, we got about two inches of snow, which isn't much.  However, it was the right kind of snow to make snowmen!
The girls had to work fast - they tried to build as much as they could before the sun went down.  They made three different snow creatures...
 Julia made a little snow kid...
 ...and Evelyn made both a snowman and a snow dog/reindeer.
 It was so fun for the girls to make cute little snow creatures!

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Julia's Illness Timeline

Monday, when Julia came home from school, she was complaining of a headache.  She turned down lunch.  And the next thing I knew, she and Rosie were sleeping on the couch.  If Rosie is curled up with Julia, that makes it legit - Julia was definitely sick.  By the time she went to bed, she said her body was heavy, and she had a fever.  She didn't even want a bed-time story, poor girl.
On Tuesday morning, Julia woke up with a mild fever, and she was still very lethargic.  We drove Evelyn to the bus stop, and then Julia and I came home to rest.  By about mid-morning (after reading books and watching TV with her Emily doll and her teddy bear), she was feeling better.  By Tuesday evening, she was back to her normal self.  Whatever Julia had was intense, but short-lived.
What happened when Julia came home from school today?  She had a HUGE load of schoolwork to catch up on from missing school yesterday.  How did Julia feel about completing her extra work?  I think this picture says it all...

Monday, January 13, 2014

Lemon Greek Chicken

The first time I made this recipe several years ago, I thought to myself, "Now that was a fancy meal for our small family on a weeknight!"  Well, here we are, a Monday night in the Luster house, and I whipped up this super-delicious meal for dinner.  It does take a bit of preparation with chopping all the veggies and lemons, but the 40 minutes of work was well worth it.
Lemon Greek Chicken
serves 4

3 lemons
1/4 cup olive oil
4 garlic cloves, pressed
1 tablespoon dried oregano leaves
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts (about 3 pounds)
8-10 petite red potatoes (about 12 ounces), cut in half
1 medium red bell pepper, cut into 1/2-inch strips
1 medium red onion, cut into 1-inch wedges
16 ounces whole crimini mushrooms

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.  Zest two of the lemons.  Juice one of the zested lemons.  In a large mixing bowl (I used an 8-quart mixing bowl), combine lemon zest, lemon juice, olive oil, pressed garlic, oregano, salt and black pepper; mix well.  Place chicken in center of large, rectangular stoneware pan.  Brush chicken with about 2 tablespoons of the lemon juice mixture.

Thinly slice remaining lemons.  Combine potatoes, bell pepper, onion, lemon slices and mushrooms with remaining lemon juice mixture in mixing bowl; toss to coat.

Arrange vegetables around chicken on pan.  Bake 1 hour.  Enjoy!

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Fun Fabrics

Warm towels fresh out of the dryer = instant cat bed.  Naturally.
 Julia's Grandma Luster got her this tutu for Christmas.  She loves wearing it around the house, complete with a tank top, ballet tights and ballet shoes.  Julia is a ballerina every day with her fun skirt!

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Girls' Activities Today

Next week Julia is the "Student of the Week" in her Kindergarten class.  That means she will share pictures and cute little details about herself with the class.  Which means we needed to print some pictures at Walgreens...which we picked up this afternoon.  Julia found a lucky penny in the parking lot.  But it wasn't just any lucky penny - it was from the year her Uncle Eric was born.  "An extra lucky penny!" she said.
 Evelyn out-grew her ballet shoes last month.  Today was the first day back at ballet since the Christmas break, and it was the perfect time to buy new ballet shoes at her dance school's store.  Up till now - for six years - Evelyn has been wearing leather Bloch ballet shoes.  Her new studio requires canvas Capezio shoes - we've gotten away with her old leather shoes because they still fit when she started at this school last fall.  She was very excited to get canvas shoes today; she says they help her feel the floor better.  Oh, and one more bonus to buying shoes in the dance school's store this afternoon (and me forgetting her after-school snack)?  Nutella and bread sticks.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Frog and Toad

What to do while Evelyn was trying out a gymnastics class this evening?  Read some Frog and Toad stories...on her own.  :)

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Gingerbread Carousel

Once upon a time, we girls tried really hard to land a Trader Joe's gingerbread house kit.  I had first seen it advertised in their flyer on a Thursday evening.  I went to the closest Trader Joe's on Friday...and they were sold out.  Over the weekend, I called other Trader Joe's stores in the area, but they were also sold out.  We girls were so bummed that we all but forgot about making a gingerbread anything.

Then, the week before Christmas, I came across a gingerbread carousel on clearance.  I bought it and tucked it away, intending for the girls to build their creation over Christmas break.  Christmas break came and went...and we never got around to building the carousel.

Today was the day.  After a (second) fun afternoon of playing in the snow, and after warming up with another round of hot chocolate, we got to work building the gingerbread carousel.  The girls nominated me to pipe the icing while they made the structure and decorated it.
 We assembled and decorated the center, then we put on the top on, and then added the carousel poles and reindeer.
 Lots of frosting and candy later, and voila!  A masterpiece (almost) too good to eat!

Friday, January 3, 2014

First Sledding of the Season!

7 inches of snow + 15 degrees = perfect sledding powder snow!
The girls didn't mind that the wind chill was hovering around 0 degrees.  All they wanted to do was sled down the hill in our backyard.
 And kudos, again, to Troy for finding this gem of a house in Massachusetts.  The girls carved a good trail in the snow and had a ton of fun zipping down the hill.
 All smiles!
 Julia took a break to make a snow angel.
 After playing outside for over an hour in the frigid weather, the girls more than deserved hot chocolate.

Snowy Critters

Last night it snowed seven inches.  The squirrels and birds were out in full force this morning, chowing down in our backyard.  I know squirrels have extra fat and fur to keep them warm, but it makes me cold looking at this snowy guy!
 Julia's favorite bird - the Carolina wren - is on the left side of the suet feeder, and on the right is a red-bellied woodpecker (we don't know why it's called that since it has a red head).  There were also juncos, cardinals and chickadees galore.  The birds know where the Luster smorgasbord is!

Wednesday, January 1, 2014


We girls went to the mall today to spend Christmas gift cards.  I chose to treat the girls to PF Chang's for lunch.  When given the option of eating with chopsticks, Evelyn took on the challenge wholeheartedly.  And guess what?  She was able to use them so well that she ate about three-fourths of her chicken fried rice with chopsticks.  Woo hoo!