Starting the “Year” Off Right

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apple popcorn brittle

If you go by the Gregorian calendar, the year begins in January. But ask any mom of school-aged children and she’ll tell you differently. With all apologies to Pope Gregory, my “year” begins in September. Possibly August.

After a relatively loose summer, I find myself buried under an avalanche of schedules outlining every practice, game, concert, conference and school event from now until next June for my three kids. Not to mention all the travel sports, music ensembles, religious education and whatever else crops up on the fly.

Fortunately, I have a passion for organizing. I think in outline form, make folders for every stray piece of paper in my house, and keep files on my kids that would make an FBI agent jealous. Even so, I’m challenged keeping track of it all. Some weeks we’re so booked up that I’m lucky if I don’t forget and leave a kid somewhere. I just hope when it does happen (and it will) that it’s one of my own because I can ill afford to get kicked out of any carpools.

Last year, I made some inroads using digital calendars and the “cloud” to manage our schedules. I’m not really a techie person, but I gave it a whirl. There were definite upsides, including the automatic merging of my kids’ team calendars into mine, along with real-time updates when schedules changed. I also enjoyed printing out a daily agenda like a cruise director.

That being said, cloud-based calendars have two big limitations as far as I’m concerned. (more…)

Turn Up the Heat: Sriracha Lime Popcorn

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sriracha

I come from a long line of pepper lovers…and the hotter the better.

In our family, hot peppers were treated as a quasi-medicine. As a child, my grandfather schooled me on the benefits of hot peppers to the metabolism and, to clogged sinuses. But what my grandfather loved first and foremost was the taste and, of course, the kick. When you were wiping your eyes and guzzling water, you knew the pepper was good.

His brother-in-law, Woody, shared his passion. Woody was a prolific gardener, and every summer his tiny patch of green yielded up a bounty of red and green hots that were the envy of his South Jersey Italian neighborhood. After siphoning off a cooking supply for my grandmother and aunt, he and my grandfather would retreat to the second kitchen in the basement. They’d sequester themselves for days, pressure cooking and preparing their secret recipe “hot pepper butter,” which they meticulously canned and preserved. Chemists by trade, they had this annual production down to a science; every year we were treated to dozens of jars of bright orange fire ambrosia. It was not for the faint of heart or stomach; in fact, being invited to partake of it was a rite of passage in our family, a sign that we had reached a certain level of maturity. It breaks my heart to say that the recipe died with them.

What lives on, however, is my craving for hot spreads and sauces. The truth is, I can’t handle the actual peppers very well. But hook me up with any kind of hot sauce, and I’m in heaven. I’m an opportunistic hot sauce user. I’ll toss it on everything from scrambled eggs to chicken soup to plain brown rice in near indiscriminate amounts. Sometimes I even use it as a dip.

I love that hot sauce has gone mainstream. My local Mexican restaurant has at least four varieties right on the table, and my grocery store seems to expand their line every time I go in. My new favorite sauce is sriracha, an Asian blend some California friends introduced me to a few years back. Although it’s been around for nearly three decades, sriracha has recently gained a huge following, with lots of specialty stores and smaller manufacturers producing their own versions.

So yes, I’m in hot sauce heaven, with no shortage of sauce or ways to use it. This tasty recipe for Sriracha Lime Popcorn is easy to make, and a great way to turn up the heat on one of my favorite snacks.

Sriracha Lime Popcorn
Yield: About 12 cups

Ingredients
• 3 quarts popped popcorn
• 1/2 teaspoon minced lime zest
• 2 tablespoons butter or margarine, melted
• 1 tablespoon hot chili sriracha sauce
• 2 teaspoons fresh lime juice
• 1/4 teaspoon salt

Directions
1. Place popcorn in a large bowl. Sprinkle popcorn with lime zest.
2. Mix butter, sriracha sauce and lime juice. Drizzle over popcorn and toss. Sprinkle with salt; toss again and serve immediately.

Family Chores: Sweetening the Deal with Cherry-Almond Popcorn Clusters

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By my early teens, I was convinced the only reason my parents had children was for the free labor.

It seems to be a mark of aging that we reminisce on how rough our childhoods were in contrast to the coddled generation being raised today. Even correcting for distance and memory, I still say my sisters and I did more than our fair share. With a dad who worked at night, and a mother who kept his night owl schedule, we girls made breakfast, packed lunches and got ourselves to school daily. Also, my mother just isn’t the type to voluntarily run the vacuum, pick up a dust cloth or wash the dishes. My dad did what he could, but mostly we took over.

And it wasn’t just my immediate family. My aunt and uncle bought a dilapidated “historic home” built in 1740 and renovated it themselves. My cousins and I spent entire summers demolishing barns, installing walls and staining floors. I’m sure there were legitimate contractors involved somewhere along the line but I never met one. In fact, my cousin did his final job for his parents–renovating two ancient bathrooms–15 years after they moved in. Then he left for medical school, which probably felt like a huge break in comparison.

Fast forward 25 years — and, despite vowing that I’d never enslave my children as I had been, I’m a staunch advocate of my kids’ pitching in around the house and yard. It’s good for them. (more…)

Backyard Fun at Camp Mom

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I missed the boat on registering my 12 year-old-son for camp this summer.

Back in early spring I devoted all my energies to filling up my other two kids’ summer schedules. The oldest is suffering through a two-week intense computer course that will knock off a high-school requirement followed by a rollicking good time at sleepaway band camp. The youngest is socializing her days away at town rec camp with her girlfriends, then will be shooting hoops and taking pictures at the local Boys’ and Girls’ Club camp.

But the 12-year-old? Nothing. I know…way to give the boy middle-child syndrome, right?

In my own defense, we devote a ton of time and resources to our 12-year-old’s summer Little League season. My husband coaches and the rest of the gang make it to nearly every game. In fact, our family’s summer schedule revolves around baseball, including when and even whether we go away on vacation. This is why I made such an effort to get the other two kids happily situated. Plus, with practices and games in the late-afternoon heat, the boy is tired. (more…)

Revamping a Child’s Diet: Whole-Grain Popcorn fills the Snack Gap

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Stovetop Popcorn

I count myself lucky that my family has been spared food allergies.

We’re friendly with at least a dozen families whose children have peanut or tree nut allergies ranging from mild to extreme; a few of the kids can enjoy some types of nuts, while others are so sensitive they break out in hives simply by touching anything with nut residue on it. These parents and kids alike have my admiration, since staying safe depends on diligent reading of food labels and self advocacy. I feel the same toward folks who are managing other allergies like wheat gluten or food additives. It’s a lot of work.

My kids are fairly picky eaters. Our lack of allergies is a blessing here in the House of Fussy Palates. Still, I’ve always offered a variety of foods; strived for well-balanced meals; and encouraged good food choices. I buy organic when I can, and we sit down to meals together at least five nights a week. My kids are active –everybody does at least one sport at all times—and in great shape. So I wasn’t worried about their food intake in the slightest.

Until, that is, my daughter’s 10-year-old physical, when a blood test showed high cholesterol, specifically borderline high LDL, the low-density lipids that are the so-called “bad cholesterol.” Honestly, I was shocked. (more…)

Feeding Kids’ Imaginations: Sidewalk Chalk and Super, No Fail Caramel Corn

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no fail caramel corn

Like a lot of moms, I get a little wistful cleaning out the toy bins and shelves. I’m probably at least as attached to my kids’ old playthings as they are.

Not that the toys haven’t vexed me plenty over the years. Any parent can relate to the woes of frustrating packaging (“clamshell” plastic that’s impossible to get through without drawing blood and those annoying plastic ties that lash the toy to the cardboard in fifteen spots); hieroglyphic assembly instructions (I am genetically incapable of interpreting drawings); missing pieces (thank goodness for customer service departments); and downright elusiveness (yup, I actually sat outside a toy store in the dark one day waiting for a shipment of the “hot toy” a few holiday seasons back).

No matter how many tiny pieces I’ve sucked up into the vacuum cleaner, these touchstones of my kids’ play will always hold special places in my heart. (more…)

Popcorn: Tooth-Friendly Alternative to Sugary Snacks

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Last week, Number One Son and I braved a storm to drive him to a very important dentist appointment. He needed four fillings. Yup, the boy had four cavities. All of which developed over the past six months.

The miserable weather mirrored our moods. There was the physical pain (him), the financial pain (me), the insurance company rigmarole (again, me) and our shared sense that his good dental luck had finally run out.

Sure he brushed and flossed, but often under protest and halfheartedly. Show me a teenage boy who’s diligent about oral hygiene and I’ll show you a kid whose parents are dentists or hygienists. After all, it takes a lot to resist the siren songs of sleep and food when you’re an exhausted teenager in a growth spurt. Those extra ten minutes in the bathroom easily slip to the bottom of the priority list.

I think my son had been coasting on genetics: the hard, strong teeth that run in my side of the family. I know the power of heredity well from personal experience. Despite being taken to the dentist regularly as a child, I developed a huge dental phobia in my 20s and stopped going—even though I had a fantastic dental plan from my job at the time. It was silly. (more…)

Beyond Brownies: Double Chocolate Popcorn Balls for the Bake Sale

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double chocolate popcorn balls

Warm weather is upon us, and along with the typical natural risks—bees, ticks, aggressive raccoons—I’ve cataloged a man-made danger that’s cropped up in my path: bake sales.

I’m only half-kidding about bake sales’ being dangerous … but let’s just say that these babies pose a serious threat to my waistline, just in time for swimsuit season. And I can’t escape them. It seems every time I go to a shopping center, library or flea market, I’m running a gauntlet of gooey baked deliciousness, all at irresistible prices. If I have a kid or two with me, we are definitely sold. (more…)

Pop Up the Perfect Summer Snack

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edible popcorn bowl

In most parts of the U.S., summertime is the perfect time to gather with friends and family and celebrate the glorious offerings of the season. Summer parties are often casual affairs that let you revel in the garden, lounge around the pool, perfect grilling techniques, or polish up badminton skills.

Whether you host a potluck dinner, pool-side gathering, casual family picnic, or barbeque bash it’s important to have plenty of healthful family-friendly fare on hand. Popcorn is the perfect summer snack. It’s a whole grain that satisfies hunger without spoiling the appetite and gives you the fuel you need for an afternoon of fun in the sun.

Popcorn is also naturally low in calories–air-popped popcorn contains only 30 calories per cup and when oil-popped, only 55calories. And three cups of popcorn count as a whole grain serving. You can feel good about eating popcorn.

Add a splash of excitement to your summertime table with these creative popcorn treats. (more…)

Citrus Adds a Pop of Flavor!

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key lime clusters

Citrus fruits seem to radiate happiness with their eye-popping colors and mouth-watering flavors. Whether incredibly sweet or pucker producing tangy, these juicy fruits don’t shy away from making their presence known. Thankfully! So many of the foods we love incorporate citrus flavors and the world would be duller without them. Case in point: the Key Lime Pie.

Coconut cream is luscious, apple pies comfort, and pumpkin pie makes a timely treat, but if you’re looking for a blast of flavor at your holiday dessert table you’ll opt for key lime pie. The refreshing and light taste is welcomed even after eating a rich meal. A few bites ease your fullness and snaps you out of the dull state you were drifting into, making you feel a bit more energized.

Key limes are a treat for the senses.If you’re unfamiliar with them, key limes differ from the more common Persian lime. Key limes are smaller—about the size of a golf ball—and have a distinctive aroma and unique flavor compared to the Persian Lime. Key limes have more acid, which makes them more tart and aromatic.

And yes, Key Lime Pie is named after the Florida Keys where the pie originated. Whether you’re making a snack, meal, or dessert, the next time you want to make something vibrant, look to citrus fruits to liven up your menu. Try this recipe for Key Lime Popcorn Clusters courtesy of the Popcorn Board.

Key Lime Popcorn Clusters
Makes: about 32 clusters

Ingredients:
8 cups popped popcorn
4 whole graham crackers, #nely chopped
1 jar (7 ½ ounces) marshmallow crème
¼ cup butter or margarine
2 tablespoon grated lime peel
1 tablespoon key lime (or traditional lime) juice

Directions:
1. Line 9-inch square pan with foil.
2. Combine popcorn and all but 2 tablespoon of graham cracker pieces in large bowl.
3. Microwave marshmallow crème and butter in large glass bowl on HIGH for 1 minute. Stir until butter is melted. Stir in lime peel and lime juice.
4. Pour marshmallow mixture over popcorn, mixing thoroughly.
5. Using damp hand, firmly press mixture into prepared pan. Sprinkle with reserved 2 tablespoons graham cracker pieces. Refrigerate 2 hours until firm.
6. Lift foil from pan. Break popcorn mixture into clusters