Pittsburgh!

Who wants to go to Florida when you have Pittsburgh for spring break?

We again failed to plan a week-long spring break adventure with the kids. We were so on the ball when the kids were little and didn’t even know that they had a spring break – we went to Florida several years in a row. Now that they’re older and want to go places, Jon and I continue to drop the break ball and procrastinate. I did give them the DC trip for fall break though, so I don’t feel as bad.

We decided we’d hit Pittsburgh to visit sweet Elena and hang out with my sister and brother-in-law for a few days. Patty had invited the kids to Marietta at the end of the week to be with their cousins and celebrate Easter so Pittsburgh provided the perfect getaway spot for a few days. Maria wanted to leave at 6 AM on Sunday morning in order to get there by 9 AM. Mario and I talked get into leaving at 8:30 am. Mario told her he needed to play a little bit of his fortnight game before we left since he’d have no access to Xbox in Pittsburgh. I needed to walk the pup a couple of miles since I knew he would be staying inside with Jon while we were gone (although he loves it because he gets truck rides and pupucinos). We ended up out of the door by 9 AM, which I thought was pretty good.

I allowed the kids to stop at Starbucks and buy their pink drinks and a sandwich treat for the road. They had their blankets and phones, and were all snuggled in for the trek. Little did they know that I remembered to bring their books so that they could read a bit in the car. We had amazing driving weather – no clouds in the sky and a soft sun pressing on the windows. It made for a quick jaunt to Pittsburgh. We called Sarah when we were about an hour away to let her know we were close. She announced that there was an egg hunt at the Aviary. We told her we would head straight there and take Elena on the hunt.

The kids were excited at the thought of an Easter egg. They knew that they were going to miss out on the Grandview one we do every year since they would be with Patty during that time. We scooped up Elena from Sarah a few minutes after we arrived at the Aviary. We walked through the entranceway to find the Easter egg hunt. The kids were cracking up because it was just a small five foot patch of grass with a few eggs interspersed. Kids were told what type of egg to find (robin’s egg, bluebird’s egg, etc.). When a kid found the egg, he picked a plastic egg out of a big basket and opened it up to see what color ticket you got. A blue ticket got you a starburst; a green ticket got you a snickers bar. A bit different than what the kids had imagined. But they hung in there and made it fun. Elena thought it was awesome. We ended up planting ourselves there for a good two hours.

The kids got to fly a simulated flying machine. They were scared when they dipped down between tall buildings. It was hilarious to watch. They played in the penguin area with Elena. We went to storytime, which cracked us up due to the very animated older lady who read the book to us. We fed chickens after the book (the kids were pros due to MamaMeg and Peepaw’s house). We walked around to see the different birds, which Elena helped us identify. We ate lunch; the start of our fabulous eating routine. Here is Sarah and Jorge with all of their organics and granola, and here we are getting carry out pizza and chicken nuggets everywhere we go.

After the aviary, we unloaded all of our bags for a quick stop at Sarah and Jorge’s house. The quick stop included painting Easter eggs. Yet another activity that we typically do at the house before Easter but have been too busy to fit it in. I was happy that Sarah had went out and bought some supplies. After the egg coloring, we hopped back in the car and headed to Frick park. This did not go over as well as planned because we had worn sweet Elena out at the aviary. She proceeded to bawl her eyes out when Mario and I decided to play a little basketball together. But sweet Mario stopped playing in order to hold Elena on his lap and calm her down. Throughout this trip, I was amazed at his nurturing skills. Maria has always amazed me with her empathy and nurturing skills but those skills were not at the top of Mario’s list in the past so it was good to see him be able to go nurture his skills. We obeyed Sarah’s directive to have Elena back by 7 pm to put her to bed.

Maria and Mario got the joy of reading her a couple of books and trying to get her to sleep. About 30 minutes later, Mario quietly descended the stairs and proclaimed that he gives up. “She just won’t go to sleep.” He left the job to Maria. And don’t you know, she eventually got the job done. Of course, she ended up falling asleep as well. But she did rise an hour later in order to chat with us and devour some pizza we bought. She knows she’s got to get to bed at a decent hour because the little one will be up at 6:30 am ready to go. And sure enough, you could hear her asking where Meemaw and Mario were before the sun rose. We got up, brushed teeth, put on some clothes, and got E in the stroller to head to Starbucks. We ate our sandwiches and headed off to Frick with the hopes it brought more joy after a full night of sleep. The slide was still a bit wet from the earlier rain but the kids still enjoyed it. We hung on the jungle gym and Elena loved having Meemaw and Mario sweep under her arms and glide her across the playground like she was a bird.

Monday with the only nice day predicted for the week so we decided to hit the Pittsburgh zoo. The joke while we were there was how many times we went by an animal habitat and there was no animal present. The kids had wanted to hit IKEA on Monday but I refused because it was going to be nice out, and I wanted us to get outside at least one day in Pittsburgh. Hence, they loved to find no animals in their habitats and rib me about it. Although there were less than the optimal number of animals out, the most important one was out: the monkey. That is the only animal Elena wanted to see. We also got to see a giraffe, elephants, and lots of pretty fish. I don’t know what Lanae enjoyed more – the monkeys or eating animal crackers at lunch. Of course Meemaw would not let Elena eat the crackers until she finished her grapes and peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Mario enjoyed laying down the rules as well. I think the lack of rules that Jon and I have instilled has made the kids want to enforce some (but only on others)! Heaven help their children…. Mario was dead tired by the time we left, which cracks me up, because the boy can play basketball for hours or wrestle for days. But you have him walking around the zoo and he complains that his thighs are killing him.

After the zoo, we headed to Whole Foods to get ingredients for dinner. Earlier that morning, Sarah had told us that we were on our own for the day and evening because she had to work and Jorge was in Philadelphia. Maria loved that. She was so excited about “playing house.”

I could not believe the prices at Whole Foods. We bought three zucchinis and they cost nine dollars – outrageous! As I was lamenting the cost, Mario grabbed a little chocolate pretzel out of one of the bulk bins. Elena caught him. She begged for him to get one with her. They both thoroughly enjoyed engaging in some sneaky maneuvers in order to get Elena a pretzel.

As soon as we arrived home and walked in the door, Maria was ready to cook. She told me to leave and take a walk – she had the house, and kids, handled (as if she was 20 years old). And sure enough, she and Mario handled everything perfectly. She made some kick butt zucchini muffins and started dinner while Mario played with Elena. I got to unwind with a walk in the park. Maria made a yummy pasta and spinach dinner for us, which warranted her a trip to Millie’s – her favorite Pittsburgh ice cream spot. It did not disappoint.

When we returned home, I had to jump on a call. When I walked into the living room, this is what I found….

To their credit, this only lasted for about 10 minutes, and then they were up and running around and playing “pioneers” together.

Mario called it quits for trying to put Elena to bed. However, Maria stood strong and succeeded in putting her to sleep a second night in a row. Rock star. The kids played Gin Rummy while I gave Sarah a massage. The next morning, it poured rain. I tried my hardest to get us to walk to Starbucks but I could not convince the kids. Once we started driving there, I was glad that they won. Rain was coming down in buckets. We sat in Starbucks and ate blueberry muffins and oatmeal.

The kids could not wait for our Tuesday adventure. We were finally heading to IKEA! You would think that Ikea was an amusement park the way they were acting. I had read on-line that they were hosting spring break activities at the store but that ended up being a coloring table for toddlers. But that was OK; the store itself provided entertainment. Besides, Maria and Elena really just came for the Swedish meatballs.

After IKEA, we hit to the Children’s Museum because it’s not a Menkedick trip unless you go non-stop for ten hours straight. I had debated on bringing bathing suits for the kids because I knew Elena would want to play in the water play area. But, alas, I had forgotten them. I figured Elena could still splash around in the area without getting too wet. Wrong. She wanted to go fill on under the sprinklers. You know Ri was right there with her caring less that her clothes were soaked. The surprise was with Mario who typically cannot stand getting one inch of his clothing wet. He not only ran under the sprinklers but he allowed Maria and Elena to dump water on his head (but not hear his shoes). to see him because you need to pack everything and it’s tight as possible! He did it all for Elena.

Mario also ended up enjoying the art area. He pooh-poohed it at first when Ri tried to get him to sit with her. He and I and Elena ended up at a table playing blocks for a while. But then he saw kids running their artwork through a drying machine and that intrigued him. I showed him one of Maria’s creations where she traced her initials and that sealed the deal. He ended up in the area for 45 minutes making three separate creations – one with his initials, one with the word “HI”, and one in tribute to his favorite basketball player, James Harden. It warmed my heart watching him and Ri. Elena was simply concerned about getting to the ice cream store. We had promised her ice cream after the museum.

The sendoff was bittersweet, as always. We bounced the ball with Elena out back for a while – she’s got some mad basketball dribbling skills. When we went inside to gather our belongings, she found a birthday invitation from her friend. It was the cutest thing ever. She danced around proclaiming that she’d been invited to a birthday party and then she asked all of us if we wanted to go with her. Darling girl. We did several group hugs and then took off squeezed in the Volvo. The ride home was long; we were all tired, It didn’t help that we filled our bellies with gas station food.

Once we got home, we felt a mixture of relief in being in our own beds but also sadness in missing our little munch. It’s like a tornado ripped through our lives for three days but it was a tornado filled with stardust and glitter and ballerina twirls.

Twice-baked potato

Our girl hooked us up for Super Bowl night. She was planning out the snacks and appetizers long before the Super Bowl occurred. What did she want most of all? 

Twice-baked potatoes! 

She had eaten them at grandma Meg’s farm and loved them. She asked Meg for the recipe and was set on making them for us. This was in addition to nachos, wings, chips and dip, and 7-Up. Yeah, there is no-holds-barred on Super Bowl evening.

I bought Maria a 5 pound sack of potatoes, a block of Velveeta cheese (the only cheese Jon wanted on his twice-baked potatoes because that’s what his mom uses), onion, and sour cream. She came running in from her basketball game ready to start the potatoes. She baked them for the requisite 45 minutes, and then cut them “in the shape of a canoe.” She begged me to help her so that she could mix the butter and sour cream and potato together. 

“We need to get these in the oven within 10 minutes so that they are ready for the kick off!”

She is a little kitchen dictator. She watched over me as I scooped out the potato to make sure that I was getting all of the potato and there was only skin remaining. I was actually quite nervous.

But the little dictator can be nice when you follow her directions; she she told me that I did a good job in my scooping duties. She loaded the potato skins with the potato combination and we put them back in the oven with the cheese laid on top of each. And, ta-da, 15 minutes later, look at this beauty (Ri added some crumbled bacon on top for added flavor).


Thank goodness we have one chef in the house, and a beauty at that.

Fried ham and pancakes and joy

If only every night could be as delightful as last Wednesday evening. I came home from work and both kids had finished their homework. They asked if we could make pancakes and eggs for dinner. Ri wanted to make the eggs and Mario, the pancakes. Right out of the bat, no fighting over who makes what. Yes!

Ri found some ham in the refrigerator drawer and asked if we could fry up some ham with her eggs. She started frying the ham, and the smell emanated throughout the kitchen. Mario looked over at her as he poured the pancake mix and said “that ham smells great Maria!”

She thanked him and brought a slice over for him to eat. “You need your protein”, she said. He laughed and gobbled it down.   Ri asked how he wanted his eggs cooked. They debated on which would be better – sunny side up or over medium. Mario left it to Maria to decide. Maria then asked if he wanted cheese on his eggs and he replied “whatever you want to give me Maria!” Was I dropped in a fantasy world?!

Mario continued to stir his pancake batter, and was anxious to put the batter on the skillet.  We got the chocolate chips, the cornflakes, and the bananas. Maria likes corn flakes, Mario likes chocolate chips, and I like bananas. Mario asked me to pour the batter on the skillet but he wanted to flip the pancakes. It took a while for them to cook. He kept placing his spatula under a pancake trying to flip it but it was still not cooked enough to flip over. I turned away to wash a dish in the sink and I heard a yell of “Mom!” Mario flipped the pancake when it was still raw and the batter fell halfway off the skillet onto the stove. He was mad at himself. Maria quickly jumped in and provided her pancake war story. 

“Mario,  the first time I made pancakes I flipped the pancakes so hard the batter hit the top of the ceiling and then some came back down and landed all over the floor. So you are doing so much better than I did my first time, little brother!”

He smiled, shook his head in comraderie with Ri, and continued on with his next pancake.    

 The next batch he made were flipped perfectly. He got a plate for Ri and asked her to try one he made for her with a bold combination of chocolate chips and corn flakes. 

“This is superb! It’s ten times better than mom’s pancakes!”

Yes, she gave me a huge grin right after she muttered those words. Then she blurted out a back-handed compliment to me: “It’s ok mom, you are much better with food that’s cooked in the microwave.” Obnoxious… but I couldn’t argue with that observation.  

Mario finished up his pancakes and Ri scraped out her final egg from the skillet. We sat at the table and talked about school work, teachers, and spring break.   Then, to top off the fabulous meal, Mario found the last episode of blackish on demand. He’d been checking every night for me since I had mentioned wanting to see it after hearing how great it was on the topic of race in America. We all sat down in the family room and watched the show together. And to make Mario’s night complete, we  wrestled during the commercials. 

Cupcake war

Maria obsesses over the show Cupcake Wars. Absolutely loves it. 

Yesterday, we had some down time between having friends over. Ri was shuffling through the boxes in the pantry and found a box of chocolate cake mix and icing (because we are the family that never is without sugar). She looked at me with her Maria smile and sweetly asked “can I do a cupcake war in the kitchen?”

Yes, it was her against herself. She retrieved all the ingredients and cupcake pans, and placed them on the counter. She wrote down the names of all the neighbors she’d give the cupcakes to and totaled the numbers. She needed 26 cupcakes. I stood at the oven and calibrated the timer to one hour and thirty minutes. 

She yelled “go” and I started the timer. She whipped over my way and preheated the oven. Then she poured her batter and mixed her eggs, water and oil. She was in a mad frenzy from the start. And she loved the thrill. I acted as assistant reacting to commands she belted out.

“Open the icing and put it in the plastic dispenser! Make sure the silver decorating tip is all the way down!”

As I did that, she poured the mix in the cupcake cups. She only had enough mix for 20. 

“Assistant, you need to run to the store and get another box of mix! And I need a topper. How about cherries or bananas?” I darted out of the house to Kroger’s. I had 18 minutes.

I grabbed a bunch of bananas and a box of mix. I also grabbed a can of frosting, in case (smart move in the end). Then I saw some decorative colored balls of chocolate so I grabbed a green and blue package. I thought Ri would love them. 

I arrived home to a daughter who was flying around the kitchen.

“Thank goodness you are home! We need more mix made into batter! Did you get the bananas?”

I gave her the bananas and then brought the two packs of chocolate balls from behind my back to surprise her.

“What are these?” She made a scrunched-up disgusted face.

“I thought you’d like them for your cupcakes.”

“Ahh, mom, they do not at all go with my theme. Thanks though.”

Theme?!

She proceeded to sprinkle crushed graham cracker on her cupcakes. She sliced four bananas out of the six because she calculated 7 slices per banana. Glad her math is up to par.    

   
She kept on me about the mix until I had stirred it up enough to bring it over to her. She poured it quickly (chocolate everywhere) and threw the pans into the oven. She dictated my next task: put the icing into the plastic decorating tube. 

There was 6 minutes left when Ri took out the cupcakes. Some were finished but some were not. This led to a scolding from Ri about how I needed to buy the same kind of mix. My mix required a 25 minute bake time and Ri’s required 20. This meant they needed 5 more minutes – that would only leave one minute to decorate! Agh!

I took the fully cooked cupcakes out to decorate and Ri threw the remaining cupcakes into the oven. At two minutes, she made an executive decision and took the cupcakes out of the oven – ready they were fully done or not!

She topped the cupcakes with icing and I moved them over to the table to sprinkle with crushed graham cracker. She finished and put the bananas on top. We had 1 minute … she placed the last banana on the last cupcake and we were done! We high-fived each other and breathed a sigh of relief.   

I could have eaten this girl up from head to toe as we stood there looking at her creations. She amazes me with her independence and strong will. She has a gift for design and a love of food. A pathway to executive pastry chef is beginning to be carved out….

Now, if she can just learn how to CLEAN UP!

Chili contest 

Last Friday, one of my colleagues announced that we needed more people to enter the chili cook-off the following Monday. I have never participated in the cook-off. Why? Real simple. I don’t cook.

As Maria and Mario attest “dad is a good cook with the grill and mom is a good cook with the microwave.”

I agreed that I’d submit a chili because I figured I could make extra to feed the family for a couple of days. On Sunday, I dropped Ri off at basketball. Mario and I hopped in the car to head to Kroger’s to purchase a gift card for Mario’s friend’s birthday. 

“I volunteered to make chili for a cook-off at work, Mario. We need to get some ingredients when we are at Kroger’s.”

“What’s a cook off, mom?”

I explained to him that three OSU football players come in and taste all the chilis and choose a winner. The winner gets a football (I embellished the story a bit – it’s two former players and an athletics outreach director and the football stays in the office, but hey, I had to capture his attention). 

“Mom, we have to win!”

He asked for my phone and typed in “world’s greatest chili recipe ever.” He handed me my phone with the first recipe that came up. I made him help me get all the ingredients, which he merrily did. 

“We are gonna win, mom.”

I made the chili later in the evening while Mario was at his party. He came home and saw the skillet and smelled the goodness. I gave him a bite and he smiled. “That’s gonna win.”

And sure enough, Stan Jefferson and the two young men he brought with him chose our chili as the winner. I squealed when they called out my chili as the winner like I had won a trip to the Bahamas. I was so excited to tell Mario (it had to be the salsa addition to the chili mix). 

  
I walked in the door with the football in my book bag. Mario was looking at his iPad. I whipped out the football and broke the news. Mario jumped up and fist bumped me. I knew we’d win, mom!”

It helped that I used two pounds of ground beef – double the amount called for – knowing my audience would appreciate that call. But I believe it was Mario’s optimism that ultimately pushed us to victory. He tasted victory all along.

  

Cooking with Ri

My junior chef and I produced another wonderful creation this week. Ri loves to cook; she definitely takes after her Aunt Sarah. And she loves to cook healthy, which cracks me up since all I wanted at age 9 were hot dogs and potato chips.
But here we were cutting up cauliflower and broccoli and brussel sprouts to add to pasta. We tossed the veggies in olive oil and sea salt and placed them on a cookie sheet to roast in the oven for 20 minutes. We boiled some pasta (fiber plus white pasta since Ri hates wheat – just like her dad) and saved one cup of the water we used to boil the pasta. Then it was as simple as mixing the veggies and the pasta with the water and olive oil and feta cheese. Sprinkle a bit more sea salt and pepper and thyme and it was ready!

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Ri and I sat down at the table together and toasted to another successful dinner creation, that included three veggies even! She’s carried me a long way from my hot dog and chips’ days.
Bon A Petit!

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Homemade pizza with my girl

I picked up my girl last night from her friend’s house at 6 pm. We were both starving. I asked her what she wanted for dinner and she responded “let’s go buy some healthy stuff at the store and cook.”
Pretty sad when your nine year old daughter needs to endorse such an idea.
We walked into Kroger’s as we goggled “healthy chicken recipes”. We were coming up with too healthy of recipes – salads and fruit – and we didn’t want to quite go to that extreme…. Then I saw Naan sitting on the shelf near the donuts.
Ahh, donuts….
But no, we need healthy.
I remembered my girlfriend heating up a homemade pizza with naan bread at work a couple of weeks ago.
“How about homemade pizza?” I asked Ri.
She was all in. And God love her – she agreed to broccoli and peppers and mushrooms on her pizza.
We gathered all of our ingredients and snagged a Luna bar on the way out to tide us over. Maria spread the pizza sauce and pesto on our naan. Then cheese. Then chicken and the veggies. Ri got out her mittens and slid the baking sheet into the oven. Ten minutes later, ta-da!

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They tasted heavenly. Ri made a video as we ate about how good the pizza tasted. She wanted to send it to all her family to let them know how to make it (little does she know all her family knows; its her mom that is behind the eight ball a bit…!).

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We finished our pizzas and walked upstairs to get in our pjs. I was darn proud of myself for cranking out a healthy, wholesome meal with my girl. Yea, Ri only had to wait nine and half years but it was worth it, baby!