Good manners: gifts for your care team

Upfront, let me just say that this is in no way a “must do.” Everyone has different care experiences, and some believe this is going too far. This is intended to share what I did without turning it into a “should” for you, dear reader. Unless you think it doesn’t go far enough. I’m not even talking to you if that’s what you think.

The first time I was preparing to welcome a baby into the world, I heard murmurs and whispers about doing “a little something” for the staff who would care for you at the hospital.

This was news to me – and so I polled, quizzed and queried my way into understanding this practice. I learned that some mom-friends of mine showed up at their place of birthin’ with a cookie tray they had ordered from their nearby bakery, or had a plan in place for their partners to dash out and buy bagels (or pizzas, depending on the time of day) for the nurses’ station once their baby was born and all were well. Other sources I read showed that some people believed it would be offensive to the care team, that the services rendered were just part of the job, and giving them treats doesn’t buy you any favors.

That made me pause.

Whether paid or not, all of us work. All of us have jobs that we’re just supposed to do. Does that mean we don’t want to be recognized or thanked for doing that job?

No. And as our firstborn’s due date came and went, and an induction date was scheduled, I had the luxury of cleaning the hell out of my house one last time, preordering an arrangement of flowers to be delivered to my OBGYN after the baby was born and pulling together some treats to bring with us and share with the hospital staff. I ruthlessly took advantage of the fact that some members of my family are healthcare professionals, and asked for their feedback on what would be most appreciated/useful/desired in a treat basket. Here’s what I learned:

  • Portability is key. Many of the hospital staff are on their feet and on the go for the bulk of their shifts – in some cases skipping breaks and cutting meals short to do what needs doing. Tempting as it may be, if the item isn’t something that can be grabbed and tucked away in a pocket or eaten while walking down the hall, it may just be passed over.
  • Balance the sinful with the healthful. Treats are nice, but depending on either the time of the year or a staff member’s personal health goals, there’s a real risk of sugar overload. Consider adding fresh produce in with the treats and offer a choice.
  • No refrigeration required. This should be a no-brainer, but any treat will most likely be sitting out on a counter in a break room, so make sure whatever is brought in can tolerate at least a single shift out in fluorescent lighting with nowhere to hide.

Using that information all those years ago, I arrived with a basket brimming with oranges, apples, grapes…and some chocolate oat bars, cut and individually wrapped. The one glitch I encountered was when my labor stalled, an emergency c-section was called for, and as the on-call anesthesiology team was congratulating us on our healthy baby boy, I offered up the information that we brought some bars. “No one told us there were treats!” was the outcry. And in the blink of an eye, the surgical suite was emptied, save for myself and the recovery nurse.

For our latest baby, I intended to do it all again – flowers for the OBGYN, and treats for the hospital staff. But, being older and wiser, I also took the minute-and-a-half needed to inquire with my doctor on what staffing numbers typically run at our Women’s Center, as well as the size of the anesthesiology team. To make sure whatever I prepared and brought in would cover at least a shift.

Considering the autumnal air, I then took time to plan out some goodies that felt seasonally appropriate — honeycrisp apples for the healthy, some Lawry’s seasoned popcorn , and for the real treat: brown butter salted caramel snickerdoodles. The day before our scheduled caesarean was spent cooking and packaging.

IMG_3836IMG_3837IMG_3838IMG_3839Some craft paper labels and a trip to Dollar Tree gave me all I needed to dress up the tray and add the personal touch we wanted. But the cookie recipe is what really stole the show. Here’s the recipe, which I found at another blog:

Brown Butter Salted Caramel Snickerdoodles

(from Two Peas and Their Pod)

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2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons cream of tartar
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup unsalted butter, sliced
1 1/4 cup dark brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 egg yolk
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon plain Greek yogurt
1 cup caramel squares, cut into 1/4’s

For Rolling the Cookies:
1/4 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

Sea salt, for sprinkling on top of cookies

Directions

IMG_3828In a medium bowl, Whisk together the flour, baking soda, cream of tartar, cinnamon, and salt. Set aside.

IMG_3827To brown the butter, heat a thick-bottomed skillet on medium heat. Add the sliced butter, whisking frequently. Continue to cook the butter until melted. The butter will start to foam and browned specks will begin to form at the bottom of the pan. The butter should have a nutty aroma. Watch the butter carefully because it can go from brown to burnt quickly. Remove butter from the heat and let cool to room temperature.

IMG_3830In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the brown butter and sugars. Mix until blended and smooth. Beat in the egg, yolk, vanilla, and yogurt and mix until combined. Slowly add in the dry ingredients and mix until just combined.

Form the dough in a ball and cover with plastic wrap. Chill in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes. You can chill the dough overnight.

IMG_3829(While the dough chilled, I took time to quarter the caramels.)

IMG_3831When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Measure about 2 tablespoons of dough and roll into balls.

IMG_3832Flatten the ball with the palm of your hand and place a piece of caramel in the center of the dough. Wrap the cookie dough around the caramel, making sure the caramel is completely covered with dough.

IMG_3833 In a small bowl, combine the cinnamon and sugar. Roll the balls in the cinnamon-sugar mixture.

IMG_3834Place dough balls on a large baking sheet that has been lined with parchment paper. Make sure the cookies are about 2 inches apart. Sprinkle the cookie tops with sea salt.

IMG_3835Bake the cookies 8-10 minutes or until the edges of the cookies begin to turn golden brown. The centers will still be soft. Cool the cookies on the baking sheet for 2-3 minutes, or until set. Transfer cookies to a wire cooling rack and cool completely.

Lost Two Weeks

A wise friend offered me a little advice back when I was waiting for our firstborn to arrive: treat the first two weeks as a chance for unscheduled time to get to know your newborn and for your newborn to get to know you.

Which is exactly how we have spent the past two weeks: welcoming a daughter, feeling how love grows along with your family and marveling over life’s tiniest miracles.

There’s plenty more to share about our final preparations for her arrival, and a doubly-special birthday. But as I only have one hand free at the moment (the other is holding a snuggly little bundle), let’s use the rest of this post to recap via photo our lost two weeks:

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photo

Moving on from Square One

You know something? That baby’s room won’t be so empty again for a long, long time. And that’s why, before we filled it up with stuff, we wanted to do a little something that we tried out in the Big Boy Room. Crown moulding:

Walking into the room, here's what you see.

Don’t tell Fred the Moose, but the moulding was the true crowning touch in this room.

We liked the finished product so much, we went right across the hallway and put some in our own bedroom.

Then I took a pregnancy test and the list of home improvement priorities shifted dramatically…

Now, back when we were preparing for our firstborn, I did that typical first-time-parent overboard thing when it came to getting a bedroom ready. Scaffolding was involved, and the pregnant person was the one hopping up on the scaffolding. So, the fact that there was just a small platform ladder and a little spackle involved this time around felt really restrained.

Looking side-by-side, the difference is noticeable:

BR4 BR3 BR2

It’s a small finishing touch, and not absolutely necessary to any infant gestating in my belly, but as noted at the start, this is the least occupied the room will be for quite a few years. And not having to shuffle around furniture and keep expletives at a kid-friendly level was kind of nice.

So, where was all of the stuff that had been sitting in the room? Loitering out in the hallway:

IMG_3467And, there were a few boxes of baby things waiting in the attic to be put to good use. We brought those back in, too:

IMG_3506It was one of those times when I was secretly glad that I obsessed enough to make little labels for each box of baby things we stashed.

IMG_3507We were ready to settle this room for our newest family member.

Square One

Back when we prepared for the arrival of our firstborn, we didn’t know if we were having a boy or girl until the baby was out, screaming to be put back in, and the doctor was shouting “it’s a boy!”

We heard plenty from people who thought that would make decorating a baby’s room next to impossible. It is nice to know that — if you really want to know — the technology exists to tell you. Our reasoning, though, was that centuries of parents were able to bring babies into the world without that key bit of information…so we had half a chance of not screwing up.

Then we had our baby. And were glad we didn’t try, based solely on gender, to decorate a room. There’s no way we would have known our son loved the color purple. Or that the outdoors would be so fascinating. Or trains. Or bridges.

You get the idea.

With a spare room just waiting to be put to use, that’s where our firstborn’s first expression of his taste and style was made earlier this year. And a lot of the stuff that just “lands” in a spare room was transferred to the former baby’s room. With a little less than a month to go until a baby takes that room over again, let’s take a little time to study our progress back to square one in this space:

IMG_3355No new paint colors. The carpet was still in decent shape.

IMG_3354No new window treatments, either. Just hung up the old set that I had made half a decade ago.

IMG_3356The closet was hiding a bunch of “not ready for the attic” stuff that would need to be relocated.

IMG_3357A few nail holes to be filled and painted over, a few scuffs and wear and tear to be washed off. That’s all that we needed to do to the walls.

Reaching this empty space still took some work. On the to-do list was:

  1. Clean out closet, deciding what items should stay for the new baby, and what needed to move to other closets or storage areas in the house.
  2. Move furniture out; go through drawers to make sure they’re empty and find new homes for any items not for a baby.
  3. Relocate “big kid” furniture to the attic. Set aside all other furniture to be used again in the room in temporary spaces.
  4. Wash spare room bedding and store on top closet shelf.
  5. Remove piles of old magazines and move to alternate storage.
  6. Go through leftover stuffed animals with our firstborn, have him decide if there are any he wants to give to the baby.
  7. Sort through framed art; decide what to use in the room, and what will need to be stored elsewhere.
  8. Decide which books from the bookshelf should stay in the room, and which books should move to other bookshelves in the house.

And there we were: square one. Before we brought in all the baby things we had stowed away, though, there was one small project we decided to tackle first.

 

First the meat, then the cheese.

So, we’ve been enjoying the summer around here. And not blogging as much, evidently. But with August more than half-gone, let’s take a moment to share one more recipe. Then we’re going to take a break from our getting-ready-for-another-baby groove and spend the week anticipating another important September event: the Minnesota Cheese Festival.

(Consider that a hint of this week’s posts to come.)

But for now, let’s share another recipe that’s been tucked away in the chest freezer for a night off in the kitchen: meatloaf!

In the interest of full disclosure, I have made this recipe before while on maternity leave – our oldest was about 10 or 11 weeks old at the time, and unfortunately not quite ready for solid foods yet. But in the years since, it’s a constant favorite whenever we make it. But, as with all these other recipes, we wind up freezing half of what we make to eat at a later time. So this time, I decided to experiment with dividing up the recipe into two smaller free-form loaves to freeze for individual meals.

All-American Meatloaf

(From the America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook)

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  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 onion, chopped fine
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1/2 cup ketchup
  • 1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
  • 4 teaspoons cider vinegar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup milk, plus extra as needed
  • 2 teaspoons dijon mustard
  • 2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon pepper
  • 2 pounds meatloaf mix (equal parts ground beef, pork, and veal; or you can use a pound of ground beef and a pound of ground pork)
  • 2/3 cup crushed saltine crackers, or breadcrumbs
  • 1/3 cup minced parsley

Adjust the oven rack to the middle position, and preheat to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil, and set aside. Heat the oil in an 8-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add the onion and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Stir in the garlic and thyme and cook until fragrant, about 15 seconds. Set aside to cool for 5 minutes.IMG_1786Meanwhile, mix together the ketchup, brown sugar, and vinegar and set aside.

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In a separate bowl, mix the eggs, milk, mustard, Worcestershire, salt, pepper and tabasco together.

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Mix the meatloaf mix, crackers, parsley, sautéed onion mixture, and egg mixture until evenly blended and the mixture doesn’t stick to the bowl (if the mixture sticks, add additional milk, a tbls at a time, until it no longer sticks).

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Turn the meat mixture onto the foil-lined baking sheet and shape into a 9 by 5-inch loaf. Brush with half of the ketchup mixture. Bake the loaf for 45 minutes. Freezer-friendly variation: I divided the mixture into two smaller loaves, and brushed each loaf with about one-fourth of the ketchup mixture instead.

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Brush the loaf with the remaining ketchup mixture and continue to bake until the center of the loaf measures 160 degrees on an instant-read thermometer, about 15 minutes. Let cool for 20 minutes before slicing and serving.

IMG_1793Because these were smaller in size, I started checking the temperatures about 30 minutes into cooking to make sure they didn’t dry out. I’d definitely recommend doing this if you wish to break down the recipe into smaller serving sizes. Then, it was simply a matter of sealing them up in freezer bags and off they went to cool their heels until a crisp autumn evening calls for a rib-sticking meal involving meatloaf.

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We’ve still got a couple more recipes to share, but we’re going to break from that for a little bit and let our talk here turn literally cheesy.

Freezer Nesting: The Mother-in-Law’s Stroganoff Recipe

Aromatic cues are some of the sweetest nostalgic reminders out there, if you ask me. And this recipe is one that trips up aromatic cues for both my husband and son.

Coming to you from my husband’s childhood comfort food repertoire – while it is called “Beef Stroganoff” on the recipe card, it’s probably more of a stroganoff-inspired casserole. But it’s one that he loves, and when he went to the trouble of calling his mother a few years back and writing down the recipe on a couple of index cards for our household, I felt morally obligated to make it according to directions.

Even steeling myself and gritting my teeth through some of the steps that went against all cooking logic for me. It was a good lesson in just following the directions as they’re given. Because the results were exactly what he remembered and loved.

It’s still a dish that is loved across generations, which I learned as I made this batch for our freezer and our son drifted into the kitchen, using his most hopeful voice to ask if that was what we were having for dinner that evening. He was a little bummed that it wouldn’t be dinner that night, but was also looking forward to reheating a package sometime this winter for a comfort food evening.

Beef Stroganoff (casserole)

(From my Mother-in-Law. Don’t know what her original recipe resource may have been.)

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  • 1/2 cup chopped onion
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 1/4 cup butter
  • 1 pound ground beef (the notes my husband wrote said “the good stuff.” When asked for clarification, he said lean; aim for 93% if you can get it.)
  • 1 tablespoon flour
  • 2 teaspoons salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper
  • 2 4-ounce cans sliced mushrooms, with juice
  • 2 cans cream of chicken soup
  • 1 pound or 4 cups wide egg noodles (can decrease to 12 ounces of noodles for a creamier casserole.)
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 2 tablespoons chopped parsley (optional)

Brown the onion, garlic, and ground beef with the butter in a 12-inch skillet. Sprinkle the flour over the browned mixture, stir together, adding salt, pepper, and mushrooms. Simmer for 5 minutes.

Add the cans of soup, mix, and simmer for 10 minutes.

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Meanwhile, prepare egg noodles according to package directions. Drain and place in large mixing bowl.

IMG_2987At this point, methodologies diverge. The instructions show to blend the sour cream with parsley, incorporate into the simmering meat mixture, and then pour over and combine with the noodles.

IMG_2988My preference is to mix the sour cream with the cooling noodles, so the risk of curdling is diminished, and then mixing in the meat concoction.

IMG_2989In the end, we arrive at the same place: a completely mixed casserole.

IMG_2990There’s an oven-bake option here as well, where you grease a casserole dish and bake. But that was all the notes said, so I called my mother-in-law to ask about baking temperature and time. It turns out that you could heat the dish further at 350 degrees, but in all honesty, this recipe is as cooked as it’s going to get by the time everything is mixed in the bowl. So while I’ve never done the baking aspect, just know it’s an option available to you.

IMG_2991To prepare this for the freezer, I let the bowl sit on the counter for about 30 minutes before dividing it into three pouches to seal and freeze. With the vacuum seal, I’m not too worried about ice crystals forming to dry out the thawed blend. The good thing is that this dish can be thawed in the microwave directly from the freezer, so when the impulse strikes, it’s easy to put this on the table in a snap.

Freezer Nesting: Easy Chicken Enchiladas

This dish is not elaborate. It’s a quick and simple sort of go-to dish that we turn to probably once a month in our household. Everyone loves them, and making them at the end of a workday is no real chore.

Why freeze ahead? Because while everyone in our house loves them, the full recipe is too much for a one-night meal, so we usually halve the recipe for a weeknight meal. Using the full recipe gives us two in one prep session.

Before we dive into the recipe, I want to share one really cool tip I learned after making this batch: fastest way to shred a chicken breast. It’s no trouble to thaw a package of boneless skinless breasts to poach on the stovetop, but the one “chore” element of this recipe is shredding the chicken. I’d grab a couple of forks and rip each breast apart. It got the job done, but more often than not my hands would be cramping up from the death grip I’d have on the forks to tear through the meat. Then I read on another food blog – and this one shows a photo, so you know it’s no lie – that shares how to shred those chicken breasts using a stand mixer with a paddle attachment. I’ve tried it several times since then, and darn it all if it doesn’t work beautifully. Give it a go if you try out this recipe.

Easy Chicken Enchiladas

(From “The America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook”)

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(You’ll notice the chiles are missing in this photo. And the cilantro. Household palates have pared down the heat of this recipe, but the original full recipe is shared below.)

  • 3 cups shredded cooked chicken (1 1/2 pounds)
  • 12 ounces cheddar cheese, shredded – use sharp or mild, according to your preference
  • 2 1/2 cups enchilada sauce (make your own, or just purchase it premade)
  • 1 to 2 (4-ounce cans chopped green chiles, drained
  • 1/2 cup minced fresh cilantro
  • Salt and pepper
  • 12 (6-inch) soft corn tortillas

IMG_1760Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 400 degrees. Combine the chicken, 2 cups of the cheddar, 12/ cup of the enchilada sauce, the chiles, and cilantro. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

IMG_1761Stack the tortillas on a microwave-safe plate, cover with plastic wrap, and microwave on high until warm and pliable, 40 to 60 seconds. Spread the warm tortillas out over a clean counter.

IMG_1764Place 1/3 cup of the chicken mixture evenly down the center of each tortilla.

IMG_1765Tightly roll the tortilla around the filling, then lay seam-side down in a 9-by-13-inch baking dish lightly coated with cooking spray.

IMG_1767Lightly spray the enchiladas with cooking spray. Pour 1 cup of the remaining sauce over the enchiladas to coat thoroughly. Sprinkle the remaining 1 cup cheddar down the center of the enchiladas. Cover the baking dish with foil and bake until the enchiladas are heated through, 20 to 25 minutes.

Remove the foil and continue to bake until the cheddar browns, about 5 minutes longer.

IMG_1768Since we weren’t going to be cooking these right away, I used 8-inch square foil pans to divvy up the recipe. Then, I added the layer of foil that would be needed for baking, plus a top sheet of foil with the thawing and baking instructions written on top. Then it was off to the freezer to wait for the right evening to pull one of these pans and have a quick, satisfying meal that everyone on solid foods just loves.

IMG_1770Still a few more recipes to go until we’re all caught up, folks.